Chapter 6: Dead (Part 6)

Eden tugged at the sides of the outfit and a cloud of dust fell to the ground. “I’m surprised these are still intact. You sure I have to wear this?”

Through the dirty helmet, she could almost make out Jade rolling her eyes. “Well, you’ve got two options,” said Jade. “Either you could wear the outfit and stop complaining, or you could risk being psychically influenced by an unstoppable semi-demonic force, the results of which would probably turn you into a raving, flesh eating giant monster. You choice.”

Eden pulled the rest of the suit on. “I’ll wear it, but I reserve the right to keep complaining.”

“Remember whose house you’re standing in.”

“Oh I’m so scared,” said Eden. “What are you going to do, forget to clean me?”

Jade pulled back the curtain on a window, revealing pure black. “Or I could just toss you out into the infinite void of nothingness.”

“Thus dooming the entire fabric of reality.”

“Eh, no one’s perfect.” Jade turned from the window. “Speaking of which, it’s time to see my wonderful son.”

The house only seemed to get more disheveled as they walked up the steps towards the top floor. Along the side of the wall, empty rectangles could be seen where framed photos used to hang. Eden felt slightly relieved, she couldn’t really imagine seeing Jade with a happy family. Speaking of which…

“So, I don’t mean to be rude,” said Eden, “But when you say, ‘your son’…”

“Uh huh,” said Jade.

“Well, it’s just…you’re a relatively normal person. Kind of.”

“This is you not being rude?”

Eden swallowed and tried to compose her thoughts. “No, I just mean…you are human, right?

“At the time my son was born, yes.”

Eden blinked. What did that mean? One mystery at a time. Don’t get sidetracked. “…Ok, so, what’s the deal with your son? Last I checked normal people don’t have children that are so dangerous they require psychic hazmat suits and need to be locked away in a cosmic quasi-prison.”

“What can I say,” Jade shrugged. “I went through a weird time in my life.”

“A weird time? Weird as in a ‘died your hair purple’ weird or weird as in ‘got knocked up by Satan and accidentally give birth to the antichrist’ weird? Because there’s a difference, you know.” Eden couldn’t remember completely, but she really hoped she had never died her hair purple. At least she was definitely sure she hadn’t done anything like the latter.

“Is now really the time to talk about this?” said Jade. “In case you didn’t notice the missing photos, or the general shit condition of the house, I don’t really like remembering this time of my life.”

“And in case you didn’t notice, I’ve spent the last day or so being dragged around a distorted logic-defying death dimension with no memory and an overtly cryptic guide who knows way more than she’s letting on. So, if you want me to save the world, or kill your son – which is totally messed up, by the way – then I’d say it’s time to clue me in a bit. You said yourself that I’m not going to remember you the next time we meet, so what’s the harm?”

Jade sighed. She had been doing a lot of sighing lately. Eden tended to have that effect on her. “Ok, let’s make a deal. For every order you follow without snarky comments, you get one question. I don’t have time to narrate my whole life.”

Eden considered it. “Fine. But we start with a question. You threw me down a pit, so I think that’s fair.”

They reached a door at the end of the hall. Unlike the rest of the doors, which were mainly wood (old and rotten, but still), this one was a high-security metal door, like something from a bank vault.

“One question,” said Jade. “One question, and then we’re going inside.”

Eden thought over the questions she had, which was…a lot. But considering what they were about to do… “Ok, fine. Here’s a good question. If your son is so deadly and awful and all that, why are we purposefully opening the door he’s locked behind? Cause, if you were thinking I could take him on now, I hate to tell you, but I’m not exactly in prime condition. And from everything you’ve told me, we should be getting as far away from this place as humanly possible.”

Jade placed her hand on the door. “We’re following Scoria’s trail. They dug too deep, they came here, and they found my son. And after, from what I’ve heard, they found themselves lying naked in a gigantic cave system with no memory.”

“And that’s good because?”

“It means they managed to escape death and return to the little messed up fantasy dimension that you died in. The one we need to get you back to. They succeeded…to a point.”

“To a point?”

“Well, they ripped opened up an unstable portal and let my son loose on the multiverse, which has been problematic, to say the least. Kind of had to spend my whole life mopping up after them, so I’d like to see if I can mend the tear, so to speak. Think of this as ground zero for everything that’s happened so far, and if I’m lucky, we can send you through the portal so you can grow big and strong and eventually meet me again and save the universe. But first, we need to get past my son at the height of his power.”

“You know, that didn’t clear things up anyway whatsoever,” said Eden. “I’d say this is the most confused I’ve been yet.”

“You asked. Let’s go.”

Eden tensed as the door swung open. She prepared to run, to avoid any horrible monster that lurked inside. She knew she was dead, but she had a feeling that even that wouldn’t protect her.

But inside, it was just a normal boy’s room. There was a small bed in the shape of a racecar and a few toys strewn across the floor. Whatever Eden had been expecting, this was as far from it as she could imagine.

“I must be missing something here,” said Eden. “There’s nothing-“ She turned to look at Jade, who had suddenly gone very still and very quiet.

“Eden,” said Jade. “I know that technically it’s your turn to ask a question, but I would prefer if you follow my next order without thinking about it.”

Eden felt a cold dread run down her body. “What’s the order?”

“Run.”

Chapter 6: Dead (Part 5)

“Whoa, hold up a minute,” said Eden. “Your son? Your son is the destroyer of all worlds?”

“That’s why we need to get you out of here,” said Jade.

“To kill him.”

Jade nodded. “It’s unfortunate, yes, but I truely thought I had locked him away from reality for good.”

“Yikes. You couldn’t have just gave him a spanking and sent him to his room?”

For a moment, Jade’s face clouded over but she soon recovered. “On a metaphysical scale, that’s kind of what happned. Although he almost took out five dimensions in the process.”

“Not to be rude,” said Eden. “But your son does not sound normal. Who was the dad, Cthulhu?”

Either Jade didn’t care or didn’t feel like responding. “The odds of someone tapping into the portal were astronomical. Right dimension, right location, and a depth normal people would be insane to dig to.”

“Plus I’m sure the whole freaky upside sky thing didn’t help.”

Jade shot Eden a sideways glance. “If I didn’t know better I’d think your memories were returning. Your personality is at least.”

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” said Eden.

“Depends,” said Jade. “Right now, when we’re dealing with the worst mistake I’ve ever made, the snark isn’t helping.”

Eden looked down at her feet. “Sorry.”

Jade shook her head. “No, I’m just on edge. Hearing your voice again after everything that happened. It’s good.”

Eden laughed. “You make it sound like I’m dead.”

“You are dead.”

“Yeah, but you said I saved everything in your timeline, so I’m assuming I make made it out of here. If I didn’t, then you wouldn’t be here to make sure it happens again.”

Jade thought for a moment. “You might be over simplifying it, but yes, in my timeline you’re alive”

“That’s a relief.”

Jade frowned but didn’t say anything more.

“So what’s the next step?” said Eden.

Instead of responding, Jade reached out and pushed Eden down the nearest hole. She stood, listening to Eden’s slowly diminishing screams, and then jumped in after.

Eden had fallen before, at least, she had a vague memory of a dark descent deep below the ground, but the hole she was traveling through now was another story entirely. After 10 minutes, she was scared. After 30 minutes, she was confused. After two hours of falling she was just kind of bored. She tried shouting something out to Jade but the air rushing past her head made it impossible for her to even hear herself.

And still the hole kept going.

Whoever made this dimension sure has a penchant for the infinity, she thought. It was the road all over again but this time she had a emerging personality to deal with. She had to admit, life was easier when you lacked emotions.

She cursed the fact that dead people didn’t need sleep. Eventfully she managed to just zone out, which made it all the more surprising when she slammed face first into the ground. A few seconds later, Jade touched down, landing cleanly on her feet.

“You look like a cartoon character,” said Jade, as Eden picked herself up out of small dent her body had made.

“What the hell?!” yelled Eden. “You could give me a warning next time you want to shove me into a giant pit.”

“And wait while you stand around trying to build up the courage to jump? Besides, you’re fine. It’s not like a fall is going to kill you. Did that even hurt?”

“No…” said Eden grumpily. “But I’m not a fan of this sudden rise in physical comedy. Whose idea was it to…” She looked around her. “Wait, where are we?”

They were standing, bizarrely enough, in the kitchen of what would have been a relatively normal looking house, although time had not been kind to it. Weeds had broken their way through the ceramic tile, and the painted walls were chipped and peeling. It looked like it had been abandoned for years, and nature had done the rest. Eden looked up; there wasn’t anything to indicate they had just fallen through the ceiling.

“Believe it or not, i used to live here. Haven’t been back in a while,” said Jade. “Was hoping I wouldn’t have to.”

Eden walked into the living room, which was just as abandoned. It wasn’t messy, there wasn’t any signs of struggle or disarray; it just seemed as if the owners had gotten up and left one day and never returned. “I…uh, love with you’ve done with the place.”

“Sealing it off as a sub-dimension, disconnected and hidden from all of realty… kinda doesn’t help the property value. Here.” Jade handed Eden a white robe, along with a light-bulb shaped helmet. “Put this on.”

Eden stared at the strange outfit. “I’ve seen this before. What is it?”

“It’s kind of like a hazmat suit, but for a specific type of psychic presence.”

“And we need it because…?”

Jade placed one of the helmets on her head. “We’re about to go see my son.”.

Chapter 6: Dead (Part 4)

“Scoria…Peter…he made all of this?” asked Eden as they walked through the desolate alleyways of the box city. “It’s so huge, I can’t even imagine how long it would have taken.”

“Thousands of years, more,” said Jade. “Good thing about being dead, time isn’t as much of a concern anymore. Not that “time” is even really a factor in a place like this. Heck, from your point of view he had already been dead for centuries here before you even met him in your world. Plus, he had help. Lots of help. Offer people a way to get a second chance and they’ll do just about anything.”

Eden ran her hand against the cold grey material of a building. From far away she had thought it was metal, but now she realized it had an almost elastic consistency, like slightly melted rubber. She pulled away and the material briefly came with, stuck to her hand, until it snapped back into place. “What exactly are these?” she asked.

“Dunno.”

Eden glanced at Jade in mock surprise. “I thought you knew everything.”

Jade shrugged. “I know as much as I’m told, plus some educated guesses. Remember, I am a detective. As for these, I’d say they were buildings, but it’s not like any of these people needed to sleep or eat.”

Eden hesitantly touched another building. “So what were they doing?”

“Digging. A lot of it.”

“You’d think there would be, you know, a giant hole or something.”

Jade stared at one of the buildings, then looked to the next. “Yes…or lots of smaller ones.” She reached an arm out and stuck it through the semi-solid wall. Then she stepped through completely, leaving Eden alone in the alley.

“I’m sensing a recurring theme here,” said Eden. “One that involves me blindly following you into places I really don’t want to go.”

She paused.

“And you can’t hear me anymore, can you?” Reluctantly, she closed her eyes and stepped through the wall.

The whole world flipped. Eden’s stomach lurched as if she was falling from a great height, even though she could feel the ground beneath her feet. She hunched over and gagged.

“Oh come on,” came Jade’s voice beside her. “You’re dead, it’s not like you can vomit or anything. You’d think the savior of all worlds could deal with a little vertigo.”

Future savior,” said Eden. “Supposedly.” She opened her eyes and almost had to close them again. The world had flipped. Or maybe it was just them. They were standing on the sky, while the ground loomed overhead. The buildings, though, had vanished and in their place were long hollow silver holes extending down into the sky, as if the “city” was suspended beneath them, while they stood at the top. Or the bottom, depending on your perspective.

“I don’t think I like this dimension,” said Eden as she tried not to look too long at the impossible sight.

“There’s a reason that an army of strangers spent thousands of years trying to get out. Good news is we found their tunnels.”

Eden peered over the edge of one of the holes, but it didn’t have any ending she could see, or way of getting down. “So, what’s down there?”

“Another portal between worlds. One that wasn’t supposed to be found.”

“And I’m assuming by your tone that it was.”

Jade grimaced. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“Well what’s so bad about that? ” asked Eden. “A bunch of dead people manage to come back to life, good for them.”

Jade whirled around to face Eden, and for the first time actually seemed concerned. “They didn’t just come back to life. The portal they found wasn’t hidden to keep people from leaving. It was hidden to lock something away. But they opened it, and in the process, they became corrupted and what they found back into reality.”

Eden realized she had goosebumps, and had a brief moment where she almost laughed at the absurdity of being dead and still having to deal with something like that. She composed herself. “What did they find?”

Jade frowned and stared down one of the holes. “The thing that almost destroyed all worlds. The thing that will destroy all worlds…my son.”

Chapter 6: Dead (Part 3)

“Are you sure we’re allowed to go this way?”

After following Jade out of the Sallawalla Diner, they had gone off along the road the way Eden had previously come, and something in Eden’s mind was sending off warning signals.

Jade stopped and looked around. “I don’t see anyone saying otherwise, do you?”

“But, I just feel-“

“Relax. It’s a false sense of danger, meant to keep you moving forward. This place is like a funnel, so it has to take precautions to make sure everything flows smoothly. Everyone’s gotta get to the end of the road at some point.”

Eden rubbed her forehead. “So what’s at the end of the road? For that matter, where are we?”

Jade knelt to the ground, as if looking for something. “For simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it purgatory, although technically, it’s just a sub-dimension of the religious fiction genre, like “Paradise Lost” or “The Divine Comedy”. Apparently, a bit on the lighter side, cause, you know…the Sallawalla Diner. That name’s just stupid.” Jade picked up some dirt and let it fall from her hand into a small pile. “This spot should work.”

“Genre?

“Yeah, you know…” said Jade. “Horror, Romance, Action. Turns out that across multiple dimensions, reality tends to adhere to fairly strict literary tropes; it was this big revelation in some of the techno-thriller dimensions a while back. They were the genres that broke through, initially. Figured out a way to open up portals between genres, and the next thing you know, you’ve got your 19th-Century period dramas intermingling with young adult post-apocalyptic dystopian romance, and everything’s gone to shit. Anyways, this place is just one of the infinite amount of afterlife representations out there, but that doesn’t make us any less dead. Speaking of which, let’s go.”

Jade turned and began to walk off the side of the road, but Eden grabbed her arm. “Don’t!” she said. “The area off the road isn’t safe. I walked off by mistake, and I thought I was going to…” Eden trailed off, realizing what she was about to say. “Am I…are we really dead?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” asked Jade, pulling her sleeve free.

“But you said I was going to save the world from being destroyed.”

All worlds,” said Jade. “Worlds are destroyed all the time, no big deal there. But if every dimension ceased to exist at the exact same moment…that would be bad. Which is why I need to make sure you’re ready when you need to be. Got it?”

“But…I’m dead.”

“That didn’t stop me when I was a kid.” With that, Jade walked off the side of the road and disappeared.

Eden stood there for a moment, waiting at the side of the road, but nothing happened. Wherever Jade had gone, she wasn’t coming back. Eden looked down the road, and realized that the Sallawalla Diner was again just a tiny speck on the horizon. “Dammit,” she muttered, and walked off the road. But this time, instead of the terrible pressure from before, the landscape around her became clearer and a thin winding path emerged from the fog, leading off perpendicular to the road. Jade stood on the path, hands on her hips.

“If you’re going to be this slow for everything, I’m leaving you behind, savior of the universe or otherwise.”

They walked along the smaller path mostly in silence. Eden felt that Jade was looking more tired than she had been at the start, but mentioning it to her seemed like the most dangerous option yet. After some time, the grey void around them began to take shape, and Eden could see a ground and sky forming, although lightly, like a faded TV screen coming into focus.

“From what I’ve gathered, this area was never supposed to be here,” said Jade. “I guess no one had expected that people would actually try to step off the main road, and once someone did, the dimension tried to compensate, and something broke.”

“You say that as if the dimension was alive,” said Eden.

Jade shook her head. “Nah, to be honest I have no idea how this stuff actually works. I’ve just been around long enough to know the general rules, and I do my best from there. All I know is, these genres are fairly flexible, but everything has its limits. Think about it this way. Let’s say you have a sports themed book series. Ten books, each of them is a realistic drama about baseball. Now, on the eleventh book, a new author takes over and decides to add aliens. What happens?”

“Well, the story completely falls apart.”

“Exactly. That’s my theory for what happened here. You have a dimension made for a specific purpose: act as a rest stop between life and whatever lies beyond. For years, eons maybe, that’s what it does.  And then some fool decides that’s not what he wants to do, and mucks about with the fiction. Well, the show must go on, as they say, so the world basically pulls something out of its ass and plops it down. In this case, it just so happened to be…well, this.”

Eden had been so caught up in the weird metaphor that she hadn’t noticed where the path had led them. They were standing in on a plateau looking over a chasm filled with an odd assortment of large metal boxes that rose multiple stories into the air, like skyscrapers with no windows.”

“Hundreds of years ago, a group of people lived here and tried to find a way to return back home, to escape death essentially,” said Jade. “All because one man took a step in the wrong direction.”

“Who was he?” asked Eden.

“You actually knew him before his death…and after. When he came here, he had forgotten almost everything about his past life, just like you. So he took a new name.”

Eden felt something, a memory, pushing to the surface. “Peter?”

Jade nodded. “Peter Braunwald before he died. Scoria, after.”

Chapter 6: Dead (Part 2)

From the outside, the Sallawalla Diner looked like it might fall apart at any second. It certainly wasn’t a place that could sustain any form of human life, let alone serve food. And yet, the melody coming from within meant that someone had to be there, so Eden decided to head over. The “off-road” experience a few minutes ago had drained her newfound enthusiasm, and so she approached cautiously, as if the pressure and choking gloom could return at any moment.

A single wooden door stood as the only entrance to the building, and as Eden pulled it open, she had a momentary flash of confusion. She looked at her arms gripping the handle. Something was off about them, but she couldn’t tell what was making her so uncomfortable. They looked normal…but she had a feeling she was forgetting an important memory about them.  No, she was being ridiculous. They were just her normal arms…

As she stepped inside, the music became clearer. A woman was standing in the corner of the room; singing in a language Eden couldn’t place. Despite the foreign lyrics, the song resonated with Eden and drew her further into the diner, a haunting melody that was almost ethereal. It sounded as if it contained an assortment of instruments, a string quartet in perfect harmony, but the woman stood alone.

The Sallawalla itself was more dive bar than diner, dimly lit and squalid, as if a thin layer of grime had settled across every surface, including the patrons. Besides for the singer, it was surprisingly quiet considering how crowded it was. Almost every table was filled, yet the people shared evidently nothing in common besides for their unwillingness to talk. They just sat in their chairs, staring at their drinks, or a wall, looking off into space.The only person remotely active was the bartender, an old grizzled man with a thick white beard. Noticing Eden, he waved her over and began pouring a beer. As she sat down, he paused and looked her over.

“Now hold on a minute. You sure you’re old enough to drink?”

Eden began to answer, but stopped. Was she old enough to drink? How old was she anyway?

The bartender slapped the bar and laughed, his voice echoing through the quiet room. “I’m just messin’ with ya,” he said. “I pull that on everyone who comes around. If you’re here, a beer’s the least of your worries.”

He offered her the glass and she hesitantly took a sip. Clearly the look on her face said enough; the bartender laughed again and switched it out for a soda. Before he turned away, Eden grabbed his sleeve.

“Excuse me,” she said. “But, I don’t really remember…well, anything.”

The bartender gestured to the rest of the patrons. “Welcome to the club.”

“Is that why they’re so quiet?”

He shook his head and put his finger to his lips. “No, tonight is a special occasion. Well, it will be. Everyone can feel it, and…they’re scared.”

“Why?”

The bartender took her empty glass and nodded to the front door, where someone was entering. “Because the girl is back.”

The woman who entered the Sallawalla had thick red and gray hair, wild and tangled, to the point where it almost covered her face. It was lucky then, because her head and arms were covered in scars. The ones on her face were jagged and brutal, but the ones on her limbs twisted in spirals like a full-body tribal tattoo. She wore what looked like a trenchcoat, but modified into a battle uniform; heavily armored with an uncomfortable amount of holsters, although most were empty.

The woman looked directly at Eden. “Shit. When he said you’d be here I kind of expected you to be a bit…older. Figures.”

Did the woman know her? Eden gave up trying to understand what was going on, and just stared at the woman.

“Well, you’ll have to do, I guess,” said the woman. “Still got your tree powers or whatever?”

Eden felt something stir in her hands, pushing to get out. But…the woman wasn’t making any sense. “I’m sorry,” said Eden. “I don’t think I’m the person you’re looking for.”

The woman smirked. “Yes and no. But I can explain along the way. You coming?” The woman turned to leave, and looked back expectantly. Eden realized that everyone in the diner was looking at them; even the singer had paused to see what happened.

“If I go with you…what happens?”

“Well, apparently I train you to be a badass and then you’ll forget about me like the ungrateful punk you are. But first I was thinking we break out of here through the portal your boyfriend made and…Wow, none of this is ringing a bell, is it?”

Eden shook her head. “I don’t really remember anything.”

The woman sighed. “No, it’s not that. All this time travel alternate dimension bullshit makes it really hard to keep a story straight.  All right then. Let’s start at the beginning and try to clear things up. The name’s Jade, and two hundred years ago, my death started a chain reaction that almost destroyed all worlds. Now you’re the only one who can make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Eden held up her hand. “Wait. None of what you just said made any sense.”

“Eden baby,” said Jade. “I’m just getting started.”

Chapter 6: Dead (Part 1)

Eden had been walking for…days? It seemed like days. Maybe longer. There wasn’t much she could use to keep track of the time. The sky remained a constant black, casting dim starlight down upon the old country road that stretched out before her. The road itself was relatively barren, a sprawling line of paved dirt and gravel with the occasional streetlamp along the side. That was it, really. She hadn’t passed any other landmarks, and it was too dark to see that far off the sides of the road anyway, as if the area around the road was faded and blurred by the everlasting night.

It occurred to her that she hadn’t slept, hadn’t felt the need to sleep, which was part of why she had so much trouble counting the hours. She wasn’t exactly a fountain of energy, per say, but the idea of sleeping just didn’t seem all that important. Not when there was such a long way to go.

Go where?

There was something at the end of the road, although she knew she wouldn’t reach it for quite some time. It made sense though…who would make a road with no destination? The road had been placed here for a reason, pieced together into an arrow that stretched for miles and miles into the distance, a line that would end in a single point. The only thing to do was go forward.

She tried thinking back to when she first started her journey, but the memories slipped away like the indistinguishable swirl of dusk that pressed up against the sides of the path. There were brief glimpses: a young savage boy covered in white, odd people wearing domed masks, a torn black abyss, spewing darkness that surrounded her and…then nothing. These were the islands of lamppost light that occasionally fell upon her mind, but outside, all was shadow.

It wasn’t worth worrying about it now. She took a step, then another.

At first she thought it was a hallucination, or an illusion, but the closer she got, the more she was certain that the tiny speck on the horizon was real. It was the first and only change of scenery she had witnessed along the road, and although it was just a small dot, she knew it had great importance. Was this the destination she had been heading towards? She quickened her pace, suddenly anxious and unwilling to wait even a second longer.

Hours later, the speck was more or less the same. It had grown, slightly…but at a rate that was almost disheartening. She closed her eyes as she continued to walk, hoping that when she opened them the speck would miraculously appear before her, revealing its true nature. After a moment, she risked taking a glance and was surprised to see that the speck had indeed gotten considerably closer in a much shorter amount of time. Fueled by this revelation, she shut her eyes again and took off running.

With her eyes closed, she had a greater sense of the ground beneath her feet, a patchwork of material. Thousands of rocks, millions of tiny bits of gravel, a billion grains of sand and dust…each individual and minuscule element flew by as she ran, her soles only touching a fraction of the whole.

And then there was nothing.

She stumbled lightly and her eyes shot open, although for a second it was as if she still had them closed. The air around her was murky, almost too thick to see the lamp light in the distance, the road so far away.

In her rush to get to the speck, her direction had shifted just a few fractions of an angle off, but that was enough to send her astray over a long distance. How had she not realized sooner? The pressure around her grew and her body began to convulse under the strain, as if the air was suffocating her. She pushed forward towards the dimming light from the road but there was something on top of her, pressing down, clawing at her, tearing her apart as she gagged and lurched ahead and fell and-

She was back on the road. The pressure evaporated immediately, but she lay still, expecting it to return at any moment. For the first time she could remember, she was aware of her breath, quick gasps, her heart beating against her chest, fast but getting slower…

And then silence.

But no, there was another noise nearby, something new. It was faint, but noticeable.

Someone was singing.

She lifted her head up in the direction of the music and saw that a building had appeared just a little ways down the road. It was an ugly assortment of wood and brick, with thick, dirty windows that lined the front and a garish neon sign above the doorway that was clear even in the distance:

“Welcome to the Sallawalla Diner.”

Intermission: More Strange Stories From The Sallawalla Diner

Down at the Ol’ Sallawalla Diner, people don’t tend to look each other in the eye. It ain’t no place for socializing; the folks there are too busy dealin’ with their own worries, let alone those of others. Some would call it the last true refuge of the scarred and lonely. But I got another way of thinkin’ about it.

The Sallawalla Diner ain’t no form of bastion. It ain’t no sanctuary. You can look in all the cold corners, peek under the rotting, wooden floorboards, take apart the whole dang place, but all you’ll find is the illusion of safety. It’s a fake fireplace in the dead of night, a bug zapper bringing in the transient souls who aren’t ready, or aren’t willing, to acknowledge the truth: that the Ol’ Sallawalla is just a pit stop, and everyone needs to leave at some point.

Some folks take longer than others.

Some don’t want to move on, too afraid of what’s waiting just down the road. But they will, in the end. Nobody wants to wind up like the Diggers.

It was years ago, far more than most people here can even remember. A few of the stubborn ones sitting in the back of the Sallawalla might claim they were there, that they managed to get away, but don’t you listen to a word of what they say. No one who was part of that doomed group made it back to tell the tale. It’s all just rumors and heresy now, passed on as a warning to others. But rumors or not, it’s a warning people ain’t gonna try to confirm anytime soon.

Story goes that a young man showed up in the Sallawalla Diner, panting and heaving, sweat and tears pouring down his face. Something awful had happened, but he wasn’t exactly sure what. Didn’t really know who he was, for that matter. That tends to happen to some folks when they first arrive. Names and such from before just don’t seem to hold as much weight here as they used to. People still got feelings though, remnants of the past that haven’t quite slipped away. The more you got, the harder it is to leave, at least from my experience. This kid, well, he was on a whole other level.

He begged, pleaded for someone to help him find his way home, but like I said, the patrons of the Ol’ Sallawalla have enough of their own worries as it is. They stared at their drinks; eyes glazed, mouths silent, and only shook their head. They knew there wasn’t much he could do. There’s only one road away from the Sallawalla, and it only goes forward.

But the kid wasn’t having any of that. He walked right out those doors, stepped off the road, and struck out across the bleak desert of nothingness that stretched on for eternity. Even this didn’t surprise people much. Every so often someone thinks they’re different, that they can stop fate as long as they try hard enough; really push up those sleeves, hunker down, and will it to happen. But even they come back after a little bit. Hard to rebel against infinity.

Until then, that is.

Now, no one around here ever actually saw the kid again, but that don’t mean his influence wasn’t felt. You’d hear stories, how he was building something out there in the nothingness, a workshop of sorts. Looking for volunteers.

It happened slowly, over decades, but once in a while you’d see someone walk right out of the Sallawalla dinner, step off the road, and just keep on going in the wrong direction, out the way the kid had gone, never to return. Maybe his actions had given them hope, a glimmer of a chance that things could be different. Maybe they were just curious. Either way, hundreds of folks left to work for him out there, disappearing off into the abyss. They were betting their fate on an unknown hand, but the kid had given them something they hadn’t had for years: a choice.

The stories continued, and evolved. Whatever they had been building had long since been finished, and now, after centuries of work, the next stage was ready. The digging had begun.

Even those at the Sallawalla felt it, small tremors below the ground, faint aftershocks that extended from out in the vast ether, like the ripples from a rock thrown into the ocean. No one seemed to mind. At least it was something different.

Then one day, there was a scream, from off in the distance. It was the sound of thousands of voices crying out in terror, and then immediately silenced in one sweeping rush.

We didn’t get any more tremors after that.

What had happened to the Diggers? There wasn’t any way of knowing, and people didn’t particularly feel like trying to check. But there wasn’t a single person from that group that ever returned.

Soon after, things went back to normal. No one strayed from the road, or went the wrong way. The Sallawalla grew full again. Fate reclaimed its rightful place, and that’s the way it’s been to this day.

What were the Diggers looking for? I wouldn’t be able to tell you for sure, but everyone’s got an opinion. Whatever it was, they hoped it would save them; that it could take them back to the home they had long since abandoned, the world that had passed them by.

But you know what? I don’t think they found something out there, deep beyond the outer crusts of stars and hopelessness. Not exactly.

They didn’t find something…but something found them.

 

 

Chapter 5: Deep (Part 6)

Here’s a joke for you: Where do you let an 800-pound flesh monster fight an all powerful janitor wizard? Anywhere he wants to.

But that didn’t mean I was planning on sticking around.

I managed to lift myself up from the ground just in time to avoid being slammed as the Janitor was sent flying in my direction by a surprisingly agile punch from “Minotaur 2”. Despite their differences in physique, “Minotaur 2” had a similar fighting style to the original Minotaur, namely, rampage forward and smash your opposition to little tiny bits. But whereas the Minotaur was a hulking brute, this new one was relatively light on its feet, though no less powerful.

By contrast, the Janitor wasn’t going to be winning any strength contests, and he knew it. He was playing defensively, jumping back and forth out of the monster’s reach as he tried to get a solid hold. Every time the Janitor managed to touch “Minotaur 2”s skin, he left a small white patch. Occasionally, he was able to get a hit in with his broom, which erased any affected areas, but there was only more and more meat underneath. It looked like whatever these creatures were made out of had a natural defense against the Janitor’s power. Was there some kind of connection between the two?

It hit me harder than ever that I just didn’t know anything about what was going on. What were these weird Minotaur things? Where did this one come from and why was it attacking the Janitor? Was Scoria still alive? What had happened to Harold when…

Wait. What had happened to Harold?

A white flash in the corner of my eye caught my attention as it darted through the large archway in the back of the chamber. Had Harold decided he was outclassed and ran away?

Actually, that’s a really, really, smart idea.

I took one last look back at the battling duo behind me and decided I’d rather take my chances with anything that wasn’t the single most dangerous area I had ever been in. And so I ran, back the way I came from. Back to the portal.

Harold was waiting for me in the hallway outside the portal room. Now that I could finally get a good glimpse of him, I was relieved to see he was still alive, although something was…different (besides the fact he had been completely drained of color). Even without pupils, I could tell he wasn’t focusing on things normally. His body faced me, but his head was turned to the side, as if he was looking right next to me. I worried that he might be blind, but there was more to it than that. His fingers moved at his side, as if he believed he was playing with some invisible device, and he swayed slowly back and forth in place. I thought back to a few days ago, when I had mistaken him for a ghost in the upper window.

I approached him slowly. “Harold…are you okay?”

His mouth moved, but no sound came out.

“I don’t know if you can hear me, but we have to get out of here. There’s a portal in that room, just like the one that took us here. It could lead anywhere but…I think it’s our only choice. I’m going to go through and I want you to follow me. Even if we don’t make it home, maybe we can find someone to help you…”

Harold reached out his hand, but I didn’t take it. I had already lost one arm to the white; I wasn’t going to risk a second.

“Just follow right behind me,” I whispered.

I ducked into the room, and luckily, he trailed along, his hand leaving a faint, slowly spreading white trail on the wall as he passed through. Behind us, I could hear the roars of the Minotaur echoing through the chamber. Ahead of us, the portal was waiting.

Except it wasn’t showing anything.

Rather, it was showing something, but wherever it was happened to be a pitch black void of nothingness.

My body froze, and the tingling feeling increased tenfold, spreading out like electricity across my fingers, even the ones that had disappeared.

Something appeared in the darkness. I had seen it before.

A central curved body, with millions of small feelers, each one reaching out towards me. The two times I had seen it in my head, when I came through the portal and when I received my powers, it had been black and gray, like an x-ray cross-section, but now, in person, I realized it was more red than anything else. But still, I knew that I had seen it before, multiple times over the course of my life. I was on the cusp of remembering…

Then the image changed, and we were looking at a small attic room with a TV.

No way.

It had happened. The portal was showing us home. And in any second it would disappear.

“Harold, run!” I yelled, but when I turned around, I saw he was facing the way we had come.  And the Janitor was standing in the entrance.

I grabbed Harold by the hand and dragged him along with me, feeling the numb whiteness spread down my only arm and up over my chest and head. We were only a few feet away…

But the Janitor was faster.

I felt my feet go out from under me and panicked, but they hadn’t been erased. Harold had grabbed me and fallen down, bring me with him.

The broom passed directly overhead and cut through the edges of my hair. Harold had managed to dodge it too, from the looks of it. For the moment, we were safe.

It was a short moment.

Although the broom arc has sailed harmlessly over us, it had accidentally crossed through another target, the portal in front of us. Except two things had changed in the few seconds since the Janitor had entered. First, the white trail Harold had left behind on the wall when he entered had been spreading, and it had reached the edges of the portal. Second, the portal had switched viewpoints. Our attic had been replaced by the same inky black hole of nothingness from before. Except now it had a bright white gash cutting through the center.

Blackness exploded out of the portal in a thick stream, engulfing Harold, the Janitor, and everything else in sight. Searing pain shot through me and I watched my hand disintegrate into the air. In my last moments before I died, I tried reaching out to Harold, only to realize that I had nothing left to reach out with.

Only darkness.

And that too, was fleeting.

END CHAPTER 5

Chapter 5: Deep (Part 5)

When you have a homicidal magical janitor walking toward you, you don’t really take the time to think of the best possible course of action. Then again, it’s not like I had that many options. I could have waited to see what he would do, but the answer to that probably involved me being wiped from the face of reality with a giant broom. I could have tried to run around him and take my chances in the giant maze of caverns, but even if I made it out of the city alive, I would have spent the next who knows how many hours being stalked in the dark by someone who seemed to have an uncanny knack for finding me.  I could have ran back the way I came, jumped into the portal and hoped for the best, but that…just seemed stupid, for obvious reasons.

Looking back, it wouldn’t have mattered in the end. No one could have stopped what happened next.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Scoria had managed to avoid being annihilated by the broom of doom. He may he lived his whole existence underground, but he knew when a fight was unwinnable. Instead, he had taken a hidden side passageway that led around the main chamber and out into the surrounding tunnel system. It was a path that only he knew, one that he had carved himself over time, slowly and quietly. It led to a small enclosure, far away from any form of civilization. Scoria had made sure of that.

Years ago, Scoria had visited God by himself and came across a bizarre sight. Rather than a normal landscape like God usually showed, the night it was just a large black void, spread out across the whole room. But, although the void looked empty, Scoria could tell that there was something deep inside, invisible and out of reach. He had stared, transfixed, as something began to emerge from the blackness, pushing its way through as if submerged in a thick sludge. Then, with a pop, it fell to the cave floor. The object rolled to Scoria’s feet and left a faint smoldering trail on the ground. It was small and hard, like a pill, but it was jet black with a faint swirl of red.

God had given Scoria a gift.

Back in Scoria’s hideaway, the gift had grown slightly over time. Not by much…but enough for Scoria to know that it wasn’t just a normal object. He had never truly understood what God intended him to do with it though. Was he supposed to eat it? Protect it? Was it an egg? A capsule? A lucky talisman?

So far from God’s protection, Scoria had always been careful to keep his head covering on and his mouth closed.  Most people of the city simply followed God’s orders without question, even though no one could trace their origin. Scoria didn’t need to know the reason; he just obeyed.

But now, with his people slaughtered and two strangers loose in the city, he knew that the time had come to bring forth the hidden nature of God’s gift, whatever it was.

Scoria removed his helmet, and the tiny, pitch-black item, kept in secret for so long, began to vibrate.

Which brings us back to me. As I said before, I had no idea that any of that other stuff was going on. I just wanted to get the hell away from the creepy old guy with the magic powers. Unfortunately, he moved faster that I would have ever imagined.

He grabbed my wrist.

I took a step back.

And all hell broke loose.

Multiple things happened simultaneously, so I couldn’t really tell you exactly what happened first, but I’ll try to work it out. First of all, a white blur slammed into the Janitor, shoving him away while knocking me to the ground in the process. I almost didn’t get a good look, but the size and shape of the blur was familiar enough. Harold has returned.

Second, but simultaneously, a nearby wall practically exploded, and a giant hulking beast emerged, growling with rage. It was tall and skinny, with long claws that dragged across the ground, but the red, meaty exterior was just as familiar a sight as Harold. Whatever this thing was, it had some close family ties to the Minotaur. It too went straight for the Janitor.

Meanwhile, I attempted to catch myself before I hit the ground, which was harder than it seemed due to the fact that my left arm was gone.

That can’t be right.

But as I fell face first into the dirt, the numbness on the side of my body confirmed it. From my elbow onwards…there was nothing. No blood, no gore, just…nothing, as if I had never had a lower arm in the first place.

Inches from my head, Harold, the Janitor and Minotaur 2 had entered a three-way battle royal.

Then it got worse.

Chapter 5: Deep (Part 4)

“Your God isn’t being very helpful,” I said.

We had been watching the portal for the past hour as it cycled through a variety of locations, seemingly at random.  Sometimes it would show alien landscapes, bizarre vistas that I had trouble even comprehending, like something out of a surrealist painting. Other places were more normal: a grassy field, a beach at sunset, an ocean, and yet even these always had something off. Maybe the color of the sky was wrong, or the plants just too exotic and foreign. Occasionally we even saw living creatures, although nothing I could identify, never any humans. And even if the portal showed us something that could possibly be home, what then? I’d have less than a minute to jump through, and even then there was no way to be sure it was the right Earth. And Harold was still out there…somewhere. I couldn’t leave without making sure he was okay.

Plus, I would need to deal with Scoria. Ever since I had realized what “God” was, Scoria had been acting strangely towards me. He had seemed relatively carefree compared to the other underground people, but now he was looking at me as if I was about to stab him in the back.

“What?” I asked, trying not to sound too accusatory.

He shook his head. “It’s nothing.”

“Okay…Cause if you’re going to go freaky cult on me, I’d like to know”

“I’m just trying to understand everything you’ve told me so far. You want to go inside God?”

“I, er, guess that’s one way to put it. Look…” I picked up some of the sand that had come through the portal. “You said God has ‘given’ you your material and tools. Well, it goes both ways. This sand came from an actual physical location by basically falling through a giant hole. Your clothes…well, I have no idea where they came from. Some weird 80s planet maybe.”

Scoria tilted his head, like a dog that doesn’t understand what its master is saying.

I waved my hand in the air. “Nevermind. Look, the point is, it’s a two way street. We can go through the portal and appear in the places it shows us. Heck, we already have.

Something I said must have struck a nerve, because Scoria turned bright red. “I’ve never done anything like that!”

“You have, though!” I said. “You all woke up here, right? With a portal this big, it’s completely possible that you all just happened to get sucked up from…wherever you came from. Maybe even a dimension similar to mine, considering you look like-“

Scoria didn’t let me finish. “I came from here. We were born from God, he’s cared for us, and I have no reason to leave. And now you fall from above and think that you can just change everything.” He walked over and placed himself between the portal and me.

“Okay, but I do have a reason to leave!” I said. “This might be my only way home, and trust me, I’m not going to spend the rest of my life living in a cave.” I took a step forward. He was larger than me, and I was close to the point of exhaustion, but I wasn’t going to let someone block my one escape route (even if I wasn’t sure myself whether it would be a good idea to even use it).

But Scoria seemed to be distracted by something outside. I stopped and listened; it was distant but unmistakable. People outside were screaming. A lot.

Scoria glanced at me for a second and then put on his helmet and dashed out of the room…leaving me alone with the portal. For a brief second, I considered jumping in and hoping for the best. I had seen enough of this world to know that I wanted no part in whatever new nightmare was out there.

As if it’s going to be any better somewhere else.

 

Outside, Scoria had disappeared. In fact, everyone was gone. But the screams were coming from further back, closer to the main living quarters.

I’m really going to regret this, aren’t I?

 

As I headed back through the central archway, I could feel the tingling presence of the portal fade away. So that was the “holy ground” Scoria had talked about. But why did they feel the need to cover themselves when they were outside the portal’s influence? Was it just superstition?

Good questions, but I’d have to deal with them later. The screams had gotten louder and it didn’t take long to see the cause.

Across the city, people had been…drained. The collective stark whiteness of their discolored bodies almost hurt, but that wasn’t why I looked away. Across the floor, half-alive people crawled forward, sections of their body simply erased, as if vanished completely.

And in the middle of the chaos, the Janitor never stopped moving. With one hand he would drain the color from anyone he touched. The other hand, the one with the broom, finished the job, wiping them away like they were wet ink on a page.

Even if Scoria was still there, I wouldn’t have been able to tell him apart from the others. Everyone was still wearing those damn helmets…except for me.

I looked over at the Janitor and we locked eyes.

Then he began walking in my direction.