0.09: Across the Universe.

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They stood staring out the vaulting apartment window down at the ruins of the Riftworks. They waited impatiently for some sign of what was happening inside. Daniel couldn’t help but reach for Jeron’s hand. He was afraid. They both were. And then… the message came.

“That’s our cue, Dan,” Jeron grabbed his guitar and took the boy by the shoulders, rushing him toward the stairs. “You, too, Dog,” he nodded to Quip.

A brilliant violet light burst through the window followed by the sound of mad howling.

“Dad…”

“It’s okay, Dan, he made it. He’s on the other side, now we have to take care of ourselves until he gets back and deals with Henley,” Jeron took him by the hand and lead him through the kitchen.

He ran his fingers across the back wall until he found a small indent. Pressing into it, the sound of something unlocking filled the dim of the room. With a grunt, he slid a section of concrete wall aside. A narrow tunnel greeted them.

“You first,” Jeron motioned to the darkness.

“I, uh… Uh…”

“Dan, we don’t have time. Henley’s gonna come for us. You know that. What’s on the other side is safe. Trust me. I’ll turn the light on once I’m there with you.”

Daniel nodded slowly as he crawled into the passageway.

The howling was growing louder. The sound of something slamming into the earth grew closer and closer.

“Now you, Dog,” he motioned for Quip to enter the tunnel.

The Voidspawn cowered away from him. It’s stump of a tail tucked between its legs. The points of its head drooping at their tips.

“Dog…” Jeron was growing impatient as the sound of the coming rampage grew louder and louder.

“Come here, Quip!” Daniel called from the far end of the entrance. “Come here, boy!”

With a slight wag in his tail, Quip timidly approached the narrow passage. Jeron lifted him up and slid him in.

“Come here, Quip!”

The voidspawn devolved into a puddle of tendrils as it dragged itself down the tunnel. Daniel stepped aside as it slid out onto the floor and reformed into the damaged gaunt he recognized.

Sliding his guitar ahead of him, Jeron entered the tunnel. As he did, the tools that hung around the kitchen wall began to clatter and shake. Sliding the hidden door shut, he joined Daniel in the shelter.

“One second,” he grunted as he felt his way around the room. He knew exactly where the lamp was, but he still moved slowly in the pitch darkness.

They could still hear roaring coming from outside.

“Jeron…” Daniel was nearly in tears.

“It’s okay, Dan. He won’t find us here…”

“But Dad said…”

“Bluffing.”

Light filled the room as Jeron finally found the knob for the gas lamp hanging on the far side.

“That bastard was just bluffing hoping one of us would be stupid enough to tell him where the shelter was.”

“You didn’t… did you?”

Jeron paused a moment, “I-it’s all a bit of a blur, but… I’m pretty sure neither of us said anything.”

The shelter was a small, yet cozy place. A pair of comfy-looking leather chairs and a beanbag seat sat at the center around a small wooden table. A round rug surrounded them. The walls were lined with years of canned rations and MREs. There were dusty boxes of games under the food pantries and a small radio on one of the higher shelves. In the lantern light, it resembled something right out of the bomb shelters of yore. Had the threat of death not been looming above them, it would have been a nice place to be.

Jeron hung the lantern from a hook in the center of the room and leaned his guitar against the side of the leather chair. Sitting down with a sigh, he invited Daniel to join him on the accompanying beanbag chair. Quip curled up on the rug with the slightest hint of a whimper.

They sat in silence listening to things clamoring in the distance. The wailing screams and loud banging were at times enough to shake the dust from the every surface in the room.

Daniel held his phone close waiting for the message he knew would never come.

“Do you really think Dad made it?” the boy’s meek voice filled the silence.

“If I had to be honest, I have no idea, but I hope so. I do…”

“L-let’s say… H-he doesn’t…”

“Dan…”

“What’s the plan?”

Jeron thought a moment.

“He asked me to keep an eye on you. So I will, but first things first we’re getting the hell out of this place. No more Mist. No more Void. We’ll live our lives someplace far away where we can afford to not care just like everyone else,” Jeron slumped in his high back chair.

“Y-you’re okay with… keeping me around?”

Jeron looked the boy over. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I-I’m not… Y-your kid…” Daniel clutched his phone even tighter.

Jeron sighed, “Unless you have somewhere you’d rather be, I’m happy to keep you around. You’re a good kid, Dan.”

Daniel shook his head repeatedly before closing his eyes, silently begging the noises outside to stop.

With one loud, ear pierce scream, silent stillness finally fell upon La Sombra.

“D-do you think he went after Dad?” Daniel whispered.

“I doubt it. I’m sure he’s either lurking in the Riftworks or on his way here…”

Glass shattering across linoleum ricocheted across the floor above them.

“Not so subtle…” Jeron breathed as he turned down the lamp.

A mixture of heavy footsteps and slithering could be heard coming from the dining room.

“Fucker couldn’t even wait…” Jeron turned the light out completely.

Things fell to the ground. Machinery was slammed into and shattered. Utensils thrown to the floor with as much noise as possible. The slithering, stomping sound came into the kitchen.

“I KNOW YOU’RE HERE, MORTALS! HE’S DEAD YOU KNOW! DEAD AND GONE!”

Something up in the apartment hit the floor. With a horrifying shriek, the creature clamored up the stairs.

Daniel reached for Jeron in the darkness. The man reached down and lifted the boy into his arms, holding him tightly, silently pray for the threat to pass. At least for now.

The soft pitter patter of something settling beside his chair pierced the momentary silence.

Every door in the apartment was torn from its hinges. Every table and bed turned over.

“WHERE ARE YOU!?” The creature bellowed, slamming itself into the floor as hard as it could.

Daniel stifled a sob.

“YOU KNOW IF HE COMES BACK,” it slammed into every appliance in the kitchen, “HE’LL JUST DEVOUR YOU LIKE THE PATHETIC MORSELS YOU ARE! QAITAX DOESN’T CARE ABOUT LIFE! ONLY WHAT FILLS HIS MAW! YOU’RE DOOMED TO A DEATH UNLIKE ANY HORROR YOU COULD EVER IMAGINE! ALL BEHIND THE FACE OF YOUR PRECIOUS FATHER AND LOVER!”

Something outside hit the side of the building. With a shrieking roar, the creature stormed after the source sound.

“J-Jeron…”

“I-It’s okay, Dan… I promise… It’s gonna be…”

A heavy thud hit the wall just above their heads. It was right there. Right above them, railing on the meager concrete barrier that stood between them. Jeron lifted Daniel into his arms and moved away from the back wall. The boy was all but sobbing now.

“LET ME END YOUR SUFFERING! I OFFER YOU FREEDOM FROM THAT MALICIOUS FATE! SPARING YOU THE REVELATION OF QAITAX’S DECEPTION! I WILL MAKE IT QUICK! QAITAX WOULD NOT BE SO KIND!” It sounded as though the creature had begun scaling the side of the building. “SLOW AND PAINFUL! EVERY WAKING MOMENT KNOWING YOU’RE DYING TO FEED THE DEVOURER OF WORLDS!” It broke into a window upstairs, once more clamoring across the floor.

“Maybe if he didn’t have to yell so much, he could’ve gotten the drop on us, but for fuck’s sake he won’t shut up…” Jeron freed a hand to turn up the lantern a bit. Looking around the room, he found what he was searching for behind a shelf full of canned food. “I’m gonna put you down a second, Dan..”

“No no no no no… Please, Jeron… No…” the boy immediately reached for his pet. Quip was more than happy to oblige, leaning into his embrace. The creature shook ever so slightly.

Parting the cans, Jeron reached back to retrieve an old shotgun.

“Jeron!” Daniel hissed, “What the hell is that gonna do to a Voidlord!”

“Language,” Jeron muttered as he checked the barrel of the gun. Two shells were already loaded. “It might be enough to send him away. He’s just crawling around us now…”

“Yeah, but… Maybe he’ll think we’re not here?”

Just as Jeron snapped the barrel shut, silence fell across the Diner.

“D-d’ya think h-he’s really gone?” Daniel whispered.

“No…” Jeron replied in a slowly cautious tone.

The dimly lit lantern cast long shadows around the room. They slowly grew longer and longer, writhing as if they’d taken on lives of their own. Rather than fire his weapon, Jeron reached for a can of corn and slammed it against one of the shadow tendrils. Yellow liquid burst from the wall as a chunk of tentacle fell to the floor. A horrifying shriek came from above. The sound of the very roof caving in sent the contents of the shelves to the floor.

Yellow man no… Quip’s small voice passed through their minds.

“Get rid of it, Jeron!”

Flustered and looking for a way to dispose of the severed tendril, Jeron’s fearful gaze landed on the lantern.

“By fire be purged…” he muttered as he picked up the severed appendage and jammed it into the lantern’s flame.

The creature above them roared in unholy pain.

The flame in the lantern flared, breaking the glass that contained it. Jeron was certain he’d doomed them both, but at least the Voidlord wouldn’t get to them.

Burning bits of flesh fell from the tendril, going out just before hitting the floor as flakes of ash. The warmth of the flame had turned a brilliant, vibrant shade of gold lighting everything in the room.

Quip pressed into Daniel’s embrace, terrified of the burning flesh.

“Y-you bastards…” Henley’s familiar voice stumbled down the stairs, “You don’t understand… He’s going to end you…” A strange sob punctuated his words, “Sylus is dead. Even if he made it there alive… he won’t come back… Qaitax… H-he…” Henley scoffed, “Oh who am I even talking to. Are you even here? I’m certain you are… If you decide you’re done hiding like vermin, you know where to find me. I can offer you a clean, painless death or the means to destroy the treacherous Qaitax yourselves. Your choice. You know where to find me, mortals. Just remember,” the sound of his voice grew further away, “Inaction is the enemy of impermanence. And you, my dear mortals, are impermanent.”

With that, true silence fell on whatever remained of the family-owned diner. The finest eatery along the coast. Well, the most affordable anyway. Jeron sat back into his chair, not dreading another rampage from Henley, but the state of the building he’d grown up in.

“My dad built this place,” he muttered as Daniel slowly perched himself on the beanbag beside him. “We were east coast folks, like you and your dad, but Dad… Man he hated it there. Right down to the ocean water and the dirt… Hated it. Said everyone was always rude. I doubt that, but that was his impression. So he took my mom to honeymoon out west, fell in love, bought a plot of land in a tiny town no one had ever heard of, built this damn place, had me, mom died… dad died…” Jeron shrank back into his chair, “I never really had a choice in my place here… ” An awkward silence filled the room, “Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking. I loved this little town. I even love this building,” Jeron sighed, “I just never had a choice.” He turned to Daniel, “You ever feel that way?”

Daniel thought a moment. Long had he told his father that he was content with their ragged life style. They had a nice house, but he’d go days without seeing a hint of his father in that place. Sylus would disappear for days on end working at the ‘Works for meager pay and sub-par overtime. All to pay off the witch who’d terrorized them both for ten long years. Did he ever consider the idea of choices and decisions?

“Dad and I, we… We kinda come from the same mind set. We were trapped for a long time. Most of my life, tbh,” Daniel laughed.

“Tbh?”

“Oh, crap I said that out loud didn’t I?”

“Um, yes, you did, but what is it?”

“You and Dad both haven’t a clue about online culture do you?”

“I-I run a restaurant. A 24 hour Diner. Alone. I don’t have time for… maemaes or whatever you kids are doing these days…”

“How old are you?!”

“I’d rather not comment.”

Daniel sighed heavily, “You two are made for each other.”

Jeron felt his face heating up.

“A-anyway, it’s an abbreviation for ‘to be honest’. Sometimes you have to shorten things to communicate online. That’s one of them.”

“Tbh, huh?”

“Y-yeah…”

“I suppose that makes sense. Language is always evolving. Can’t fault the kids for their language today even if I can’t understand it.”

“Dad says something like that a lot,” Daniel’s chuckle died back into a sigh, “I really hope he’s okay…

“But you asked about choice or whatever. Jeron, I’m 13. I still have a lot of time. I can still make choices and so can you. I guess the big difference is my dad isn’t like yours. He…” Daniel sank into his beanbag, Quip settling at his feet, “He just wants to be a good dad…”

“Is he?”

Daniel slowly turned to the man sitting beside him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” A strong hint of malice in his tone.

“Dan, look I’m… I’m sorry I’m gonna say this, but I have to…”

“You really don’t, Jeron…”

“On a grand scheme you’re right, but… I mean… Growing up, did he ever… confuse you? Or anything?”

“Confuse me?”

“Yeah like…”

“Oh…” Daniel stared ahead blankly, “Well… Before Izzy took me out of school, no one really cared when I’d call him dad. We were little, but the older I got the weirder people were about it. I never had a problem. Dad was Dad.”

“You never…”

“Called him mom?” Daniel laughed a little, “No. I never even thought that. He’s my dad. And he’s the best dad I could ask for.”

“C-can I confess something?” Jeron’s grip tightened on his chair, his own gaze drifting off into nothingness, “I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of?”

“Dan, I really do hope your dad makes it back. I really do hope your family comes back together, but… I’m afraid he’ll change too much.”

“Oh…”

“Like… I… I’m afraid that what I’m attracted to…”

“Is what he doesn’t about himself? Hm, yeah I could see that being a problem… But Jer, its more than his looks right? You like him as a person, too, right?”

“I…” Jeron’s cheeks were heating up again, “I love him as a person. For two years I was trying to get to know him because he made me smile and laugh and feel things I’ve never felt before. He was always so damn tired, but he still put a smile on my face. He…” as smile crossed his lips, “He’d help me shake the shame of my father scolding me, his adult son, in public. He somehow knew how to take a bad situation and turn it around.”

“And that has nothing to do with his face or body, right?”

Jeron thought a moment, “No. It doesn’t. Not at all. You’re right.”

“I guess it must be weird to genuinely love my dad. Izzy never loved him. She never loved me either. Just… Be open about it, okay? Dad would rather you said something than kept it buried.”

“Say something?”

“Like if you need to back up on the relationship or something. I have no idea what he’s gonna look like when he comes back. Might be scary for both of us. Who knows if he’ll even look human. All I know is that he’s gonna be different and its gonna be sudden.”

“Glad I’m not alone worrying about that…”

“Nah, I’m worried, too. I mean, I’ll know he’s my dad no matter what, but… it’ll take some getting used to, no matter how he turns out.”

Jeron smiled softly.

“Just don’t cut him off, okay? You’re his best friend. His ONLY friend, if we’re being honest. He needs you, Jer. Romantically or not. Please try to be his friend. Unless he comes back an asshole, then I’ll totally understand if you ban him from the Diner. Just don’t ban me. I love your waffles.”

Jeron laughed.

“You don’t think he’ll actually come back an asshole, do you?”

“Jeron, I know exactly as much as you do. Which is nothing. So we’ll both just find out together, okay?”

Jeron sighed with a smile as he shook his head. “How can we be sure what comes back is actually him?”

Daniel thought a moment, “He said watch for the small things. Somehow I think we’ll know if it’s not Dad.”

“You don’t think that Qaitax thing could just imitate him?”

“Well… I don’t know, but I guess he could? I really don’t know. But let’s say he does try to be like Dad. He comes back, new face, new body, neither of us recognize him… Seems like a good in to take over another planet or something…”

“You’re not boosting my confidence, Dan…”

“I just think we’ll know. Something about the way he acts wouldn’t be right. Like, hm… I can’t think of anything, but I think we’d notice if he acted weird.”

“I really hope you’re right…”

The sound of pattering creatures filled the kitchen. They wandered up and down the stairs, creaking as they went.

“Guess the Diner’s overrun…” Jeron sighed deeply, “God I’m afraid of even thinking about the damage Henley caused…”

Daniel shrugged, “We can rebuild it. Dad said, when we ran away, that things can be replaced. People can’t be.”

Jeron sat in the dimly lit silence staring at the hatch they’d entered through.

“There’s another entrance,” he turned to the back wall. There was a much more obvious break in the stonework. “It’s from the outside. Near where Mom and Dad are buried. Your dad knows where it is.”

“Isn’t that something Qaitax could learn from him though?”

Jeron smiled gently, “I suppose. But if Qaitax knows about that, he’d know about the shelter and how to get in normally. Bet he’d just come crashing through. My money’s on your dad coming in from there.”

“Huh… Well, I hope you’re right. Would make figuring out who he is a lot easier.”

Jeron chuckled, “You do know I’m bullshitting and making this shit up as I go, right?”

Daniel laughed, “I’ve heard bullshitting is a good way to pass the time.”

“So it is,” Jeron smiled as he leaned back in his chair.

“How long should we wait?” Daniel broke the silence once more.

Jeron’s eyes shot open. He stared up at the stone ceiling drawing a complete blank. How long should they wait? It couldn’t be forever. They’d have to move on eventually. How long was too long? How long wasn’t long enough?

“I really don’t know, Dan… I’m not sure I know anything anymore…”

“Yeah…” the boy took a deep breath, “I know…”

“We’ll be okay, Dan, I promise.”

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