A panicked knock came to the barricaded make-shift door. Nine perked up from his corner.
The two humans inside quickly fell silent as they listened cautiously for more sounds.
When another round of knocking came, Jeron slowly stood up, gun in hand. The rapid knocking continued.
“Please! I need help! Please!”
Jeron turned to the boy beside him, butchering the body of a void spawn.
“Sounds like a person…” Daniel looked up at him.
“They all sound like people when they want to,” Jeron checked his rifle before slowly approaching the door. “Who are you?” he bellowed.
“I am Saari qel’Qax. Please let me in. Lord Sylus sent me. Please!”
“L-Lord…?” Jeron slid open a slat in the door.
There stood a young woman in tattered clothes, clinging to some kind of staff, with horns coming out of her eyes shaking in fear.
“I tried to help him… I tried… I swear…” She was sobbing, “But I was too weak… After everything… I was too weak to help him… I am so sorry…”
“Did you say Sylus?” Jeron glared out the slat.
Daniel slowly stood to his feet. “I-is Dad back?”
Nine stood up, back bristling in anticipation.
Jeron motioned for the boy and his spawn to stay back.
“How do you know Sylus?”
“He came to Q’taxia. Became one with my Lord. He is there,” she pointed to the Riftworks, “Fighting the Deceiver.”
Jeron slammed the slat shut and began dismantling the barricade. Throwing the door open, he found himself standing face to face with the void witch.
“Please…” she gasped, “He said you could help me. I do not know where I am. I do not know what to do… If My Lord dies… I have nothing… I beg of you…”
“Sylus is fighting Henley?” was all Jeron could reply.
“H-Hen-ly? Haurex? Yes. Yes.”
“Does… Does he stand a chance?”
“I-I do not…” Saari wrang her hands together, “I do not know…”
“We have to help him, Jeron!” Daniel appeared beside him, “We can’t let Dad fight him alone!” Nine yelped in agreement.
“What can we do, Dan? Other than get in the way? Become casualties? We’ve scraped by this long and I’m not about to throw it all away. You know how strong that thing is, he’d destroy us before we could ever take aim,” it pained Jeron to say it, but it was the truth. There was nothing they could do to help Sylus.
“Use your head, boy! We would do nothing but make things worse.” Jeron looked Saari over, “Come in,” he stepped aside, “But know that if you show any threatening signs, I’ll blow your goddamned head off.”
Nodding slowly, Saari entered the Diner.
Jeron slammed the door shut behind her and replaced the barricade.
Daniel stared at her as she stood aimlessly in the center of the room.
“You can sit if you want.” Jeron motioned to one of the many tattered booths that littered the room. Saari did as she was told. She sat rigidly upright, hands folded on her lap.
Nine began snarling, his face tendrils unweaving as if he was about to attack her. Saari turned to the creature.
“He’s our spawn,” Daniel spoke up. “He helps us hunt. He’s a good boy. Right, Nine?”
Immediately the creature stood down and returned to his goofy, tongue lolling self.
“You cold?” Jeron nodded to her.
“I-I do not…” she bit her lip, choking back a sob, “I do not know… I do not know this place…”
Jeron turned to Daniel.
“Are you from Q’taxia?” the boy spoke up.
Saari nodded slowly.
“Where are your eyes? Do you have any?”
“Th-these horns… They are my eyes.”
Daniel shot Jeron an inquisitive glance.
“You look red around your sockets. Is that normal?” Jeron chimed in.
Saari shook her head, “No. I am in pain.”
“I’ll go get the first aid kit and a blanket,” Jeron handed Daniel his rifle, “You know what to do if she does anything that seems sketchy.”
Daniel nodded stiffly as Jeron wandered away.
“Dad didn’t mention bringing anyone back with him…”
Saari shook her head again, “Lord Qaitax hid me from him.”
“Ah… Why though?”
“He was concerned I would ruin their arrangement.”
“Oh…” Daniel looked around the room, “Do you know how to butcher void spawns? Jeron and I have been trying to get it right for a while now, but it always ends up just coming apart and liquifying. We can cook it, but its more like jello than meat.”
“Hmm,” Daniel thought a moment, “Firm but wiggly stuff? Uh… Hmm…”
“You wish to cleave meat from a spawn?”
“Y-yeah… We thought we could just eat the tentacles, but they get weird when they die. Like… They start rotting immediately…”
Saari nodded slowly, “It has been a long time since I have consumed a spawn, but I remember my people’s method of distilling solid meat from their flesh.”
Jeron returned to the front of the Diner with everything he left to obtain.
“Jeron! Saari says she knows how to make void spawn steaks!”
“Does she now?” Jeron slowly approached her. He unfolded the blanket and draped it over her shoulders. “I’m going to place a cotton ball with antibiotics on it against your skin. If it hurts, that means its working. If it hurts a lot, then I can wash it off, understand?” Saari nodded slowly in reply. “Good.”
Jeron slowly leaned in. The red around her protrusions was very raw and it spidered out over calloused flesh. He gently placed the cotton ball against the swelling redness. Saari hissed but remained steadily in place.
“A-a bit…” she breathed through clenched teeth.
“Should I stop?”
“Please do not… This hurts less than all the dirt caught in the wounds…”
“Alright then, brace yourself.”
Daniel watched intensely as Jeron wiped clean and treated the raw flesh on Saari’s face. She flinched and hissed, but never really pulled away. When he was done, Jeron unfolded a gauze pad and made a small slit up the center. He placed it on top of her horns, against her face, so it would cover the openings. He tugged on it slightly until it was securely around her horns.
“How’s that feel?” he grumbled as he stepped away.
“M-much better. Th-thank you. I do not know how to repay you…”
Jeron shrugged, “It was nothing.”
“This material is so soft…”
“Cotton. Versatile stuff.”
“I-I believe we had a substance like this once… A very long time ago, though…” her voice began to tremble again. “S-Sylus said his family was kind. You truly are. I did not think you would be so receptive to… m-my… appearance…” she sighed deeply, “Even my own people see me as a monstrosity. Still, in the few moments I have known you, you have shown me more kindness than generations of my people ever had. Thank you,” she bowed her head. “I am forever in your debt.”
“Nah,” Jeron put the first aid kit back together, “We don’t do debts around here. Pay it forward. That’s all I ask.”
“You are much too kind…”
“Perhaps,” Jeron sighed, “But these are dark times. A little bit of kindness goes a long way.”
“So,” Jeron slammed the box shut, “You said you knew how to butcher these things,” he pointed to the carcass on the floor, “Can we salvage this mess?”
Saari could barely see the corpse. Her vision was dimmer than it had ever been. “I… I cannot tell… It would probably be best if we could start fresh. I would be able to see your quarry better.”
Jeron sighed, “I knew we botched it.”
“I tried…” Daniel sighed.
“Dan, don’t worry about it. We did our best. We’ll get another one once we know what happens over in the gateway to hell,” Jeron nodded toward the Riftworks.
“I hope Dad makes it… I miss him so much…” Daniel’s voice was shaking. “Imagine him coming this close to home only to get killed by Henley…”
Jeron rubbed the back of his neck, “It’s a distinct possibility, Dan. We can’t deny that.”
Saari choked out a sob.
“You’d lose someone important to you, too, huh?” Daniel sat on the booth next to her.
“M-my father… Lord Qaitax…” she struggled to speak.
“Guess we’d both become orphans then…” Daniel kicked the bottom of his chair with his heels.
Jeron stood staring at both of them. “Whether or not Sylus survives, we have to press on. We’ve fought this long and this hard that I’ll be damned if we give up now.”
“Yeah, but we did all that hoping Dad would come back… If he dies… Then… What do we do?” Daniel met his gaze.
“We press on,” Jeron picked his rifle up off the floor, “That’s what he’d want us to do. And you,” he pointed the barrel of his gun casually at Saari, “You’re welcome to stay. Just don’t do anything weird and we’ll be set.”
“Th-thank you…” she sighed deeply, her head tilted downwards.
“Mind cleaning this up, Nine? Looks like it’s beans again toni-“
A blast of energy blew from the Riftworks. It shattered what remained of the windows and tore all the stools and booths from their remaining bolts. Jeron threw himself over Daniel as Saari ducked under the table. A violet, blinding light bathed the room before vanishing as quickly as it had come.
It took them all a moment to gather their wits. A large hole was punched through the Diner wall.
“Fuck it all,” Jeron spat, “I was just getting around to fixing that up.”
“D-do you think… That was Dad?”
Saari spat dirt and soot, “It was certainly something of Lord Qaitax. That energy…” she coughed, “It is unmistakable.”
“Dad…” Daniel breathed.
“Was that a good blast or a bad one?” Jeron brushed himself off.
“I cannot say. But it was a very large one. I hope it achieved what he wanted because, after something like that, I sorely doubt he has much strength left to fight.”
All eyes turned to Saari. She stood tall, staring out the gaping hole in the wall.
“C-can you see him?” Daniel ran to her side.
“I… I cannot…”
“Give it a few minutes,” Jeron sighed, “I’m sure we’ll find out who won soon enough.”
Saari became completely rigid.
“There is something else with them…”
“Something else?” Jeron stepped forward.
“Something… Oh… Oh no…”
“What is it, Saari?!”
“I-I do not know what it is, but it is far more powerful than even Haurex…”
Jeron stared out at the Riftworks, “Something worse than Haurex?”
“Oh no…” she breathed.
“Saari?” Daniel turned to her, “Saari! What happened?!”
“Oh…” she stifled a sob, “Oh no…”
As ready as Jeron was for the worst to come, his heart still sank in his chest. Behind his stern front, he wanted nothing more than to see his partner again. “H-he didn’t make it?”
Saari shook her head wildly, “I… I do not…”
“You don’t know?” Jeron sighed.
“I cannot say. All I know is that I can no longer sense my lord. Either he is dead, or severely wounded. I cannot say.”
“L-let’s go with wounded,” Daniel nodded, “That way… We can try to help him.”
“The wound would be fatal,” Saari replied.
“W-wait…” Daniel looked back out at the Riftworks, “Then… Dad… He… He’s…”
Jeron stepped forward, wrapping his arms around the young man Daniel had grown into. “It’s okay, Dan. We’ll find a way.”
“N-no… H-he can’t… He can’t be dead… Not now… Not like this…” Daniel pulled away from Jeron’s grasp, darting out the hole in the wall, Nine fast on his heels.
“DANIEL!” Jeron bellowed after him.
Saari lifted her staff and froze them both in place.
“I do not want to believe it either,” her voice shook, “but you must not be foolish enough to sacrifice yourself when it is you that he died for.” She lowered her staff and Daniel collapsed to the ground. Sobbing.
“Thanks,” Jeron muttered to her as he ran past collecting Daniel into his arms. “Looks like we’re bunker bound for a while again.” he sighed, “Come on, I’ll show you around,” he nodded to Saari, “Think we have a spare sleeping bag down there somewhere…”
As the blinding light faded and the dust and debris settled, Sylus was left standing with his arms outstretched, and the wind thoroughly knocked from his lungs. He gasped uncontrollably as he struggled to catch his breath.
We do not need to breathe, Sylus. Be at peace.
“E-easy for you to say…”
Once the air had cleared, Sylus found a mangled pile of yellow tendrils lying across the arena from him. They began gathering themselves as Haurex stood up as if he were stiff as a plank. His face was torn apart and his body was riddled with tears. Yellow blood seeped from every inch of his body. His tendrils slowly rose to surround him each of them bearing severe damage from the blast.
“Impressive.” Haurex poised himself to retaliate, but instead, he collapsed to the ground, clutching the sides of his head. “It’s almost over…” he sobbed “I have him. I promise… Please… Please! I-I can…” Haurex’s head rattled back and forth on his shoulders, “Please! I can do this! I beg of you! I will finish what I started! Please!” A scream unlike anything else burst from Haurex’s tattered form before he collapsed completely.
Sylus stood fast, watching Haurex carefully. “What just happened…”
I do not know…
“Never send a fool to perform the duties of a god,” Haurex’s spoke as he slowly stood up. His voice… It was different… “You failed me once, Herald. You will not fail me again. Even if I have to be the one to do your job.” His eyes met Sylus’. They were no longer yellow, but a startling shade of pink.
“Who are you?!” Sylus bellowed.
“Far more than a mere Lord.”
Once more, Sylus was thrown to the ground. Tendrils slammed into his body with far more ferocity than before.
“I will devour you, child. Like I should have done all eons ago.”
Tendrils wrapped themselves around Sylus, slowly pulling him apart. They stretched and tugged until he was pulled taught. Haurex placed a finger on Sylus’ exposed abdomen. As he dragged it across him, his flesh tore open. Sylus screamed in agony.
“Yes… I do so love the sound of mortal suffering. You should have listened to us, child. Death in the Void would have been far a far greater mercy.”
Haurex thrust his fist into Sylus’ body. He took hold of the tendrils that made up his innards and tore them out. As he held Sylus’ entrails in his hands, a glimpse of yellow shot through his eyes.
“Go away, Haurex, you petulant beast. Know your place! AH!” Haurex recoiled, dropping Sylus’ guts to the round. “HOW DARE YOU! HOW DARE YOU FIGHT ME YOU UNGRATEFUL-“
The familiar yellow of Haurex’s presence returned to his eyes. He stood in fear, staring at the damage he had done. His head began to shake. With a look of sheer terror in his eyes, he vanished.
Sylus laid on his back, blood seeping from his mouth and stomach.
“Th-this is it, huh?” he forced a laugh, “Couldn’t even take him down with me…” He groaned as he struggled to sit upright. “Look at me… I’m all over the place…” he laughed once more, “What a goddamned mess… On the bright side,” he coughed up a fragment of tendril, “At least I don’t have to clean myself up… Heheh…”
Somehow he managed to stand up. He could feel his innards sloshing about loosely within him. He gathered as much of himself up as he could and shoved it back inside.
“F-for what i-it’s worth…” he could barely think.
Slowly, he dragged himself out of the Riftworks, wary that at any moment, Haurex could return to finish him off. He stood out on the road looking back up at the Diner. It was a wreck, but Saari was nowhere to be found. Hopefully, she was okay and didn’t get caught in the blast. If she was okay, then that meant his family was still alive. He could go to them. Ask them for help. Maybe he’d get better. Maybe he could heal up. It was then that an intense wave of shame washed over him.
“I-I can’t go to them like this… I-I was supposed t-to come back… S-save the day… But…” he squeezed his own entrails, “I-I failed them… D-didn’t I… I-I was… I was supposed to protect them…” he looked down at his blood-stained hand holding his tendrils in his body, “I couldn’t even protect myself…” he looked up at the Mist-stained night sky, “What good am I?” He shook his head as he found himself mindlessly wandering toward his old home. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this… I w-was s-supposed to…” his mind shut down.
Through what little he could perceive of reality, he found himself wandering towards his home. What would he do there? Die in his bed? He could hardly form a cohesive thought, instead, he just let his body do whatever it was doing.
Slowly entering the building, he found it much like he had left it. Little had been disturbed, but a decent coating of dust covered everything. Of course, it was then that he had to belch up a severed tendril. It splattered a thick coating of blood all over the carpet. He stared a moment at the once pristine flooring. He’d ruined it. Just like he’d ruined everything else.
He shuffled toward the hallway that lead back to his room. He stumbled up the short flight of stairs. As he slogged down the hall, he caught sight of something in one of the open doors. Pausing, he stepped back. It was a mirror. He turned the light on in the bathroom only to find himself staring into his own haggard face.
“Jesus Christ look at you…” he spat blood into the sink, “The spitting image of everything you ever dreamed of and yet…” he looked down at his belly, “Heh. At least you’ll die this way. Not too bad.”
He opened the cabinet up searching for some pain killers. He had no idea what would work on this new body, but he was willing to try anything just to ease the agony. There he found a single needle and a thought occurred to him. If he could fix himself, he could still protect his family! Pulling at the tattered hem of his shirt, he managed to pull a long bit of string from it. Taking the needle, he struggled to thread it with his large, shaking hands.
“Oh come on!” he sobbed
After numerous attempts, he finally managed to thread the needle. Sitting down on the closed toilet, he held the needle firmly in his hand, but he could do no more. He felt his mind slipping away from his body.
“Not like this…” he gasped, “Please… Not like this…”
One last fleeting thought crossed his mind before everything went black and the world ceased to be.