“He’s not coming back, you know. That thing… Your… father,” the words dripped with venom from her lips.
“Dad’ll come home… he always does…” the words barely escaped between sobbing tears.
She shook her head, “Not this time, kiddo.”
The child recoiled as she used a word his father used in love as a tool of malice.
“He’s going to die this time. They promised. Five times the fool,” she scoffed, “And good riddance! You need a real man in your life…”
“I’M NOT GOING WITH YOU AND HIM!”
“Yes you are. You’re going with us when we get the fuck out of this hell hole. You have nowhere else to go. You’re MY child…”
“NO I’M DAD’S!”
She laughed again, “You keep using that word. You’re so cute when you’re stupid.”
“I’m not stupid…”
“Yes you are. How old are you? Five? Six? Hell I don’t even know… or care!” she spat, “You’re too stupid for your own good, but hey, so’s your father and look where that got him? I bet some monster ate him already!”
“NO! STOP!” the boy cried out in screaming pain, “HE’LL COME BACK!”
“No,” she leaned in, wrapping her clawed fingers around his neck. Her breath reeked of a bouquet of cigarettes, alcohol and something sickeningly sweet. “He won’t.”
A man walked into the room behind her. Tall and thin, he held something black in his hands. He smiled down at the weeping child.
She dug her nails into his neck until she could feel the warm trickle of blood. With a cruel smile she released him and leaned away. Standing up, she turned to the man behind her.
“Have fun,” she put a hand against his chest, “Make sure he sleeps tonight. I’m tired of hearing him crying all the time. Oh, but don’t forget! We have dinner with your parents tonight. So try not to make a mess, hm? I really don’t feel like riding his ass to clean up tomorrow…”
The man chuckled as she stepped out of the room.
“You know,” he began as the boy’s mother closed the door behind her, “Someday you’re going to have to call me Dad.”
The boy shook his head vigorously.
“You won’t have much of a choice, unlike right now,” the man shrugged as he turned to the closet just inside the room, “Pick what you want,” he opened the closet door, “And if you don’t call me ‘daddy’ this won’t end well for you. That I can promise.”
The boy’s heart sank. All he could do was fall into the motion. Do as he was told. He knew he shouldn’t have talked back, but he hated her. He hated her so much. He picked what he wanted from the closet. It was the thing that hurt the least. The man sighed.
“No fun today, huh, Danny?”
The boy started crying again.
“Listen to your mother, boy. That thing you call your father isn’t coming back. And besides,” the man knelt down to run his fingers through the boy’s hair. He pulled away, “She’s right. You need a real man in your life. And I’m a real man,” he smiled as he kissed the top of Daniel’s head, “Mommy knows best,” he whispered.
Breakfast continued on uneventfully. Saari watched as Sylus and the children played with their food. It was both endearing and annoying to watch a grown man act so childlike, but she knew it was what Daniel and Cassidy both needed. Sylus would wince from time to time and Saari would be quick to take notice. Small finching movements kept appearing that she chose to ignore. She had to weigh Qaitax’s and Sylus’ wishes against each other. Qaitax commanded her to remove Sylus from the diner should he start acting strangely. Sylus wouldn’t want intervention until he was in a state of severe crisis. Even then she knew he’d fight her. She simply had to do her best to gauge what behaviors were truly abnormal and what were just signs of mild discomfort.
Saari was honestly happy to see Daniel and Cassidy acting like children. The purple boy and the fiery girl playing with their food. Sylus beaming with pride. Saari sighed heavily as she looked down at her plate. They barely knew Cassidy, but she knew… She knew Sylus had already taken a liking to her. He had a bad habit of wanting to save everyone. Especially children. She knew why. She understood entirely, but Sylus was no longer just a mere human with good intentions. He was something more and she worried that he was wasting his powers focusing on his small scope of human interaction over the fate of his planet. While the Mist was stalled in it’s spread to the east, it was spreading westward just fine. He never really thought about that. He thought about Daniel. School, homework, food, clothes… On one hand she admired his love for his son, but on the other, she saw it as a distraction from the greater goal.
Saari always felt disgusting when the thought of Daniel being a burden would cross her mind, because it wasn’t Daniel himself she was frustrated with. It was the whole situation. She knew it wasn’t Daniel’s fault his father had been chosen to serve this purpose. Just as it wasn’t Sylus’ fault that he had a son he loved and wanted to protect, but his view on what it meant to save the world had become so myopic, Saari worried that he’d forgotten that if he did nothing, Daniel would come to live in a world much like Q’taxia. One on the brink of destruction and beyond salvation. She didn’t know how to convince him to be more proactive. His heart bled for people like Jer, Nico, and Cassidy. But they were just individuals. Three people out of billions…
Even with those concerns, Saari knew she was lucky. She was born into a station she had no choice in. Her role for her people was one of feared reverence. She didn’t have family or friends from Q’taxia. Sylus was her first friend and he wasn’t even Q’taxian. As much reverence as she held for Qaitax, she knew it was Sylus’ decision to save her from the Halls. She knew Qaitax had no use for her once he had a body and voice of his own. It was Sylus and his narrow view of things that mattered that truly saved her. She just didn’t realize how severe that narrow view truly was. She did know, however, that much like her, his world had viewed him as an aberration and an outsider. Where she at least had reverence, he was looked down upon with disgust. Once more, she understood why. That was something they shared very closely in common.
After the violent nature of their homecoming in La Sombra, Sylus and Daniel were both quick to bring her into their family. She was honestly surprised how quickly Sylus had trusted her so implicitly with his son so soon after their return. Daniel had never once been afraid of her. Even with her unusual build and horns-for-eyes. He never once looked at her like the alien she was. He was such a trusting child even after everything he had been through. She didn’t know all of it, but she did know that had a child been treated the way they had found him on Q’taxia, the parents would have been removed from society.
Once the children had finished their meals they began to grow impatient with lingering in the diner.
Sylus sat back and pushed his rather still brimming plate of cooked cured meat toward the kids.
“Wanna take that outside to Quip?”
“CAN WE!?” Daniel yelled with joy.
“But that’s your breakfast…” Cassidy’s voice trailed off.
“Don’t worry,” he smiled “I’m not hungry. I’m sure Quip is, though. Off you go!”
Daniel slid out of the booth, took the plate, and ran outside.
“Go with him, love,” Sylus nodded to her before she slid out of the booth to join him.
Sylus and Saari both watched her leave. The second she stepped out of the diner, the room filled with the Mist. Sylus groaned in relief.
“I know you want to keep her, Sylus, but I have two concerns…” Saari began as she sat back in the booth, “One, she is a human child. She is someone’s daughter. You cannot simply collect her because you care about her.”
“Honestly? If they came for her, they’d leave empty handed. Or not even leave at all,” he flashed her a jagged-toothed grin.
She shook her head, “She is their child.”
“Who do you think she’d be safer with? Hm? Parents who leave her alone in that McMansion? Or with a Voidlord who could fend off any monstrosity the Void could throw at her?” Sylus sat upright and puffed out his chest.
“Yes, but alone in that mansion… She has never had to face beings of the Void… Would that not that make her… Safer?” Saari knew what she was saying wasn’t what Sylus wanted to hear, “And besides,” she tried to move the conversation ahead, “We cannot take her home. Not so long as she can part the Mist as she does. It clearly affects you.”
“What? I’ll be fine! I can live for a while outside La Sombra, so why can’t I just leave the house for fresh Mist when I need it? Sure it’s a minor inconvenience, but it’s not like it makes life unlivable. And besides it won’t be forever. We’ll figure it out and fix her up!”
“I am not certain it will be that simple…”
“Maybe not, but I’d be willing to take on the challenge,” his voice grew dark and stern as he folded his arms across his chest.
“And I will assist however I can, my lord,” she nodded to him.
“Got cold in here again!” Jer called from kitchen. He leaned out to look into the dining room, “Oh… I see the creeping crud has returned,” he turned to Sylus, “Is it weird if I say I missed it?”
Sylus gave a dry laugh before sliding out of the booth.
“You never ate, my lord,” Saari stared forlornly at the table.
“I wasn’t exactly hungry, but,” he could feel his body waking up from some kind of sedated state, “I might be soon.” He thought a moment, “I might put that gaunt to work…”
“You promised you would not eat that one…” Saari sighed as she slid out of the booth beside him, “The children will be disappointed.”
“Eat him? Ha! No. Send him to fetch me something. Besides myself and, godforbid, another Voidlord, gaunts are pretty high up there on the predator scale. Surely he can go hunting for something if I tell him to.”
“I am certain he could, but have you seen the state of his body? Something has nearly unraveled him…”
Sylus sighed, “So we have the one cowardly gaunt?” He groaned, “That would figure.”
“Where else would he belong if not with us?” Saari smiled at him gently.
“My stomach,” he said flatly as he made his way to the counter.
“Are you what assaulted him?” Saari was taken aback.
“Assaulted him?” he scoffed as turned to her in disappointment, “My prey don’t get away, love. Not a single one to date. No. Those marks aren’t consistent with how I attack anyway.”
“They would be far more erratic and on more than just his front end. You are an inefficient hunter, Sylus Synclaire,” Qaitax felt compelled to add his own two cents.
“And you had to say that out loud, didn’t you?” Sylus replied with a heavy sigh.
“Lest anyone mistake you for a paragon of predation,” Qaitax replied with an air of sarcasm in his voice.
“Harsh and uncalled for,” Sylus muttered. “Jer?” he called into the kitchen as he opened his wallet.
“Hm?” Jer popped out, “Oh shit, nah. You can just go. Feel better aight?”
“You sure?” Sylus slowly closed his wallet.
“I’ll catch ya some other time. Don’t worry,” Jer leaned out of the kitchen and winked, “I’m keeping tab.”
Sylus cringed a bit. Tabs scared him. The day Jer decided to collect would be the day even his infinite funds would end up running dry.
“OH!” Jer stepped out of the kitchen, “I have a shipment of beef coming in and I have the opportunity to procure some almost-out-of-date pre-butchered chunks. Would you be interested?”
“Only if you let me pay…”
“The distribution company just wants it gone. They say there’s nothing wrong with it, just that it was left in a freezer somewhere and forgotten for too long to be butchered for resale. I told them I had a means of disposing of copious amounts of unwanted meat. They didn’t ask. Would you want it?”
“This sounds a bit too convenient…” Sylus replied warily.
“It does, but I figure you’re a Voidlord and if there’s a problem you can just… I don’t know… Use your magic powers to not be sick?” Jer waved his hands around his head.
“I’m still human by design… If it’s tainted I’ll still get sick. I just won’t die…”
“Jeron we will take the meat. We are both poor hunters and would appreciate the donation,” Qaitax chimed in with a grotesquely toothy smile.
“You got it, big guy,” Jer pointed gun fingers at him before returning to the kitchen, “I’ll let you know when the shipment comes in!”
Why are you so hellbent on making me look like a fool?
I did not lie. We are both terrible hunters. You do not know how, and I do not know how in this form. We are both at a disadvantage and it would behoove us to take willing offerings.
Like all those Q’taxians?
For a moment, Sylus mind was completely devoid of thought. Neither mind replied. Saari noticed his body grow tense. She looked around his face to find his gaze completely empty and glazed over.
“M-my lord?” she waved a hand in front of him.
“Hm? Yes?” it was Sylus.
“Are you alright?”
“What? Yes of course. I’m fine. Shall we?” he smiled as he offered her his elbow.
She took it slowly before they made their way out of the diner.
Outside they found Daniel and Cassidy standing together in a mistless bubble. A bit away from them was Quip who was eating his breakfast.
“I didn’t know they could eat like that…” Cassidy muttered as Sylus approached them.
The tendrils that wound together to make Quips head had come apart revealing a large gaping maw at the top of his neck. The tendrils were pushing the breakfast meats into his mouth.
“Yeah, that’s how they eat,” Sylus sighed.
“But… I’ve fed him before… His head never came apart like that…”
“I think he was trying to impress you,” Sylus smiled down at her.
“So that’s… Normal?” she looked up at him. He was standing just outside her bubble.
“Yup,” Sylus grunted, “Gaunts are made up of several tendrils raveled together. They have no skeletal structure. The core of the tendris houses their internal organ. That includes their brains.”
“You mean organs… With an S… Right?”
Sylus shook his head, “No. Just one. Gaunts only have one body part that qualifies as an organ. It does everything, though. It thinks, digests, reasons… Watch this…”
Sylus approached Quip slowly.
“Unravel,” he said to the creature.
It looked up at him momentarily before doing as told. The tall, four-legged, lythe, winged being slowly unwound into four balls of tendrils that seemed to be connected to each other by a secondary, smaller bundle that wasn’t writhing like the rest of him was.
“If you’re interested, that’s where his brain-stomach is,” Sylus pointed to the knobbly bit of tendris.
Cassidy slowly approached the writhing form. Daniel followed, trying to stay in her bubble. She stopped just short of Sylus so her bubble wouldn’t surround him.
“Does that hurt him?”
“Nah. That’s how they look in the Void.”
“What do you look like?” she looked up at him.
“Me? I don’t look like anything. Humans can’t exist in the Void. No mortals can..”
“I mean Qaitax. What does he look like?”
Sylus thought a moment. As he did, Quip returned to his normal form and finished his plate of meat.
“Qaitax is a writhing ball of tendrils, ala all things of the void, with one giant mouth in the middle. Pretty simple really,” Sylus shrugged.
He shook his head, “No eyes.”
“How can he see?”
“Seeing isn’t really a thing. If it makes any sense, he sees things like Saari does. Vaguely and more of an impression than what the thing actually is. Which is fine since there aren’t many things worth looking at in the Void,” Sylus explained rather flatly.
“Besides the husks of countless dead worlds,” Qaitax added in an attempt to be ominous.
“Is that what’s going to happen to earth?” Cassidy asked timidly.
“Perhaps,” was all Qaitax said in reply before Sylus returned to control.
“No. Not it isn’t,” Sylus corrected sternly, “Earth is going to be okay. I promise.”
Do not make promises you cannot keep…
Cassidy shrugged, “Didn’t it take Q’taxia like a million years to fall apart?”
Saari nodded slowly.
“Then we have time,” Cassidy smiled.
Together they made their way back to the Synclaire’s house. Sylus and Quip were the only two not in Cassidy’s bubble. They walked together a bit away from the rest. Cassidy would glance at them both from time to time as the kept pace with her. She sighed.
Sylus got ahead when they could see their house across the street. He motioned for Quip to stay outside on the porch. Quip wagged his tail as he sat on one of the rocking chairs. Sylus patted him on the head before opening the door for the others. Daniel and Saari went inside while Cassidy remained at the bottom of the porch stairs.
“You can come in, love,” Sylus smiled.
“I don’t think I can…”
“And why not?” he turned to face her, his foot holding the door open.
“Because if I do all the Mist will go away and you won’t be able to stay in your own house…”
“I’ll be fine, Cassidy. I’m an adult. I can take care of myself. Don’t worry!” he smiled again as he cleared the entrance for her.
She looked up at him with concern as she slowly made her way inside.
It was just as she said. The second she entered the building, the entire house emptied of the Mist. Sylus slowly stepped in, he was already sweating.
Saari was in the kitchen filling a glass of water. Daniel was nowhere in sight. He burst around the corner of the short stairwell to the bedrooms with a rather resigned black and white cat in his hands.
“LOOK CASSIDY!” he called out, “This is Mr. Skitzel! He’s the protector cat I told you about!”
“Oh he’s so cute!” Cassidy ran up to Daniel, “Can I pet him?”
Daniel nodded as he put Mr. Sketzle down on the armrest of the couch.
Saari handed Sylus a glass of water as she approached him, “You are already turning red, my lord.”
“I’m fine,” his breathing seemed laboured.
He drank the water before handing her back the glass.
“Sit down,” she motioned to the couch.
With a nod, he did as he was told. Mr. Skitzel immediately hissed and ran off into Daniel’s room.
“That damn animal hates me, but I’m the one who feeds it,” he sighed.
“I believe he sees your tendrils,” Saari mused as she returned with a larger water bottle, “I know felines have very acute vision.”
“Say whatever you want, that thing just hates me,” Sylus took the water bottle from her as she sat down beside him.
“How about you two go play in Daniel’s room?” Saari smiled at them.
“YEAH!” Daniel shouted as he took Cassidy by the hand and dragged her to his room.
“She can’t stay here all night, Sylus. You know that…”
He shrugged after finishing the water bottle, “So what if I have some bad dreams? Nothing new…”
Saari cringed slightly. She reached up to untie the leather straps that held her horns over her eyes. Sylus leaned over and did it for her.
“Thank you,” she breathed as she pulled them away from her face. She was so used to the feeling, but at the same time, they were heavy on her slender form.
“So what are we doing today?” she leaned her head on his shoulder.
Sylus shrugged, “Nothing, I hope.”
“Not even going to the Works?”
Sylus laughed, “Maybe later if I feel so inclined.”
Saari put an arm around his chest, “If you feel unwell, please tell me.”
Sylus nodded as he ran his fingers through her light blonde hair.
He nodded again with a smile she couldn’t see, “I promise.”
Do not make promises you have no intentions of keeping…
I’ll be fine.
Why do I doubt your ability to consider your own well-being?
Have I given you reason to doubt me?
Yes. You have.
Sylus cringed as he rested his head on Saari’s. He heard the children laughing and playing and then it hit him.
“The closet!” he sat upright with a start.
“Daniel knows to stay out of there,” Saari mumbled, “he knows it will be dealt with.”
“What kind of father leaves that shit around…” he tried to stand up, but Saari pushed him back down.
“Not now. When he goes to school. You and I will both take care of it. Understand?” Saari’s tone was firm yet caring.
He nodded slowly before settling back into the couch. He knew that if he could fall asleep, his mind wouldn’t be kind to him. So he sat up and alert while the children played and Saari rested. The lack of mist was getting to him. He’d be okay though. It wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. He smiled as he leaned his head back and gasped for air.