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For the first few years of his life, or at least from the moment he could talk, the boy questioned everything. Pennine smiled weakly at her son, Sweetheart. His mother was strong-willed but even she found his constant questioning of everything difficult to handle. In Time Lord society, questions were not the norm.
“We’ve talked about this, Sweetheart. Your name is a secret, you can’t tell anyone.”
“But why’s it secret?”
How to explain to a child, that his name–the Bringer of Destruction–could one day be his own destruction? “It’s dangerous, baby.”
“Why? Tapper told me his. Nothing bad happened.”
“He didn’t!” Pennine was taken aback. Tapper was an odd kid, almost as unusual as her own son, who had according to Sweetheart earned his nickname from the fact that he tapped his fingers a lot. But she hadn’t seen that one coming. She would have to have a word with the other boy’s mother.
Pennine dreaded to think what the other kids called her son.
“Well, that was wrong of Tapper. You can’t tell him yours.”
Pennine regretted the day she had first uttered the name. If she had thought about the trouble her family knowing it would bring, she would have taken it, and her visions, with her to the grave.
Ascalon Hole was a shadowy place near the southern border of Gallifrey, and widely regarded as the most dangerous place on the planet. On the surface, it looked like a small mound with an opening in the rock. Although the existence of a cavern underneath was well known, as far back as anyone could remember no Time Lord who had set foot inside had ever returned. Tales of a passageway to the core of the planet, myths of a fearsome beast living deep under the crust, were improvable.
If Time Lords had ever been naturally curious folk, millennia of time energies influencing their genetics had all but wiped it out. Nobody had tried to enter the Hole for centuries. Nobody wanted to. Nobody was curious enough to put aside their fear of what lay beneath.
The Abomination had always wanted to venture inside, not seeming to feel the unnatural shiver that ran down everyone else’s spines at the mere sight of the cave opening. His untempered curiosity would get the better of him, Epsilon was sure. Every time the boy walked past with himself and Pennine, he would ask, “Mummy, can I go in?”
Pennine would reply, “No, Sweetheart, certainly not.” Her husband would mumble an agreement. Today, however, for the first time in five years, he and Epsilon were passing alone.
“Daddy, can I go in?”
“Of course you can, boy.”
Epsilon smiled as the Abomination pulled away from him, running right up to the entrance and peering inside. “Hello!” the boy yelled, then giggled at the echo.
“Go on then.” Epsilon encouraged him further.
The Abomination didn’t need telling again; his small form was quickly swallowed by the blackness as he ventured further in, the sound of his chatter getting fainter.
It took Sweetheart’s eyes a little while to get used to the darkness, but once they did he saw he was in a fairly small cave with a rough doorway the other end. The walls faintly glowed, from tiny crystals embedded in the rock. He’d seen it before, Mummy had once taken him to a beach with cliffs like it.
He poked the pretty crystals a few times, then turned his attention to the doorway. As he drew nearer he saw there were steps inside, leading down into darkness.
“Daddy, come and see!” he called, turning around. “Daddy?”
He couldn’t see daylight anymore. “Daddy!”
No reply. He looked back at the steps, and started descending. They were uneven and he kept stumbling, only the dim light of the walls stopping him from tumbling all the way down. He kept going, determined to get to the end. They seemed to go down forever.
Eventually he tripped fully, and cried out, for the first time afraid, but didn’t fall far; he had reached the bottom of the staircase. His hands and knees were grazed, but he barely whimpered, looking back up where he had come. He could no longer see the top.
“Wow,” he said, then giggled again as the walls echoed, “Wow, wow, wow”. The cavern was so huge he couldn’t see the ceiling or the opposite wall.
A deep rumble made him jump almost out of his skin, and the first twinge of uncertainty hit him. He didn’t like being alone, he wanted Daddy to be with him down here.
“H-hello?” he said, much less eagerly now. The rumble grew louder, and he looked around, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
Maybe he should go and get Daddy. Sweetheart placed a foot on the bottom step, but something came whooshing towards him before he could jump out of the way, something very long and very large! It hit him with tremendous force and sent him flying; he hit the floor with a crack and pain exploded in his left wrist.
He screamed as he fell to the ground, curling up instinctively and looking back to see what had hit him.
A tail lay across the foot of the stairs; as thick as he was tall and longer than his house. Before Sweetheart could follow it to its owner, a huge spiked face was thrust into his field of vision, a single brilliant red eye sizing him up.
Sweetheart wanted Daddy now more than he ever had in the whole of his short life, but was too terrified to shout for him, frozen as he was before the monster. The beast opened its mouth wide, revealing teeth bigger than him, and he finally fled.
He couldn’t reach the steps, the monster was blocking his way, so he ran in the opposite direction. The tail fell in front of him, chasing him up against the wall. Trapped, he cowered back against it, and nearly fell inside.
A crack! It reached almost up to his head and almost as wide, and he dived inside. The whole place shook as the creature roared, annoyed at its prey’s disappearance. Sweetheart turned round to see the entrance, just as the great eye was lowered to it. He fell on his hands and knees and backed up further, just out of reach as a talon was inserted, swiping around for him. Sweetheart jammed himself as far back as he could, and took a deep breath.
“DADDY!” he screamed, even at his young age knowing he was too far away. “DADDY HELP ME! DADDY!”
No help came, and the one-eyed monster stopped swiping but stayed where it was. Sweetheart screamed until his throat hurt, afterwards falling into silence, cradling his aching wrist while watching the beast guard his only way out.
Daddy would come. Of course he would. He just had to wait.
The creature outside never budged an inch. Sweetheart was tired and hungry and he hurt all over and he wanted to go home. He’d dozed at one point, but his guard had remained wide awake, eye still fixed on him unwaveringly.
His time senses weren’t developed enough yet to know how much time had passed, but he guessed it was a lot. It felt like a lot. And still there was no sign of the beast letting up. And still there was no sign of Daddy.
Why wouldn’t Daddy come for him?
Sweetheart sniffed, wiping his eyes with his good arm and annoyed that he was crying. Big boys didn’t cry, if Daddy came now he’d be angry at him.
If Daddy came.
Daddy wasn’t coming, was he?
Sweetheart let out a half-stifled sob, and the beast outside twitched, but otherwise didn’t move.
He couldn’t stay in the wall crack forever, Sweetheart reasoned. Everyone always commented on how fast he was growing; if he got any taller he wouldn’t fit anymore. He had to get out. But how, without the monster eating him?
Maybe if he had some other food to offer it, but he didn’t. Besides, the thing looked really hungry, probably even eating Sweetheart–clothes and all–wouldn’t fill it up. So what could he do?
He could fight it, but the monster was bigger even than the playground bullies Sweetheart had lost to before. It would win, and then eat him. It would probably hurt a lot.
But as the creature continued its staring, an idea crept into his head. He looked in his pockets, but they were empty. How useless. He vowed to never have empty pockets again, and instead looked round the hole, careful not to draw too near to the opening. The floor wasn’t smooth, it had lumps and bumps, some of them loose. Sweetheart found the biggest loose lump he could and worked it free. The creature, not seeming to realise what he was up to, continued watching him.
Here goes, he thought, and lobbed the stone towards the big red eye.
It worked! The stone hit its target and the creature flinched backwards with a howl. Sweetheart pulled himself free, scrambled out of the hole and ran as fast as he could around the beast, aiming for the steps. A claw connected with his back and he screamed as he fell down again, his shoulder stinging, but he jumped to his feet again and continued, looking over his shoulder–the creature was thrashing around, half-blinded, trying to find him. Sweetheart managed to dodge the other blows and reached the steps, ascending them much faster than his journey down.
He could still hear the angry roars as he reached the top, but he had to stop running then. The entrance to the Hole was blocked up.
“Daddy! Daddy?” Sweetheart thumped desperately on the solid rock. “DADDY! Where are you?”
There was no answer. He jumped a mile as a claw was forced into the entrance cave, almost filling it, and one of the talons missed him by a few inches.
“DADDY HELP ME!”
Sweetheart pressed himself into a corner as far as he could and closed his eyes, shaking from head to foot. “Daddy,” he whispered. “Please …”
A crash made him open them. The creature had got its talons stuck in the cave roof, dislodging a rock. Sweetheart’s breath caught as he glimpsed a sliver of daylight.
As the beast tugged fruitlessly, Sweetheart dodged the free talon and climbed onto the claw. It jerked violently as the creature felt him, but he hung on and just about missed being squished onto the ceiling, before making his way up towards the hole.
There was a gap. He jumped, and just about caught on, grasping a fistful of whatever plant was on the surface, and used it to pull himself up. The hole was pretty small, and at one point he was scared he wouldn’t make it through and he was going to be stuck there forever, his shoulders above ground and his bottom below with the monster clawing blindly at his legs. But he made it, and collapsed on the grass, gasping for breath, listening to the beast’s angry howls.
“Did you sleep?” Pennine asked her husband as he came downstairs.
He nodded. “A little. You?”
“No.” She continued rearranging the breakfast items, needing to keep her hands busy. Epsilon came over and drew her into a gentle hug. He didn’t say anything. What could be said?
Her son was dead.
There was a knock on the door, and they both jumped. “Who in the universe …?”
“Could be a sympathy caller,” Pennine said, wiping her eyes quickly on her sleeve. “Though I didn’t realise word had got out yet.”
“No, I’ll do it.”
Pennine opened the door.
“Mummy, I’m home!”
Epsilon caught hold of her as if he thought she might faint, but she pulled away from him and dropped to her knees in front of her son. “S-Sweetheart?”
He was grazed and bruised, cradling one arm, his eyes exhausted and his clothes were ripped and dirty, but he was smiling. “Mummy!”
She wanted to clutch him close, and did her best, but was afraid of hurting him; he was obviously injured. “My baby,” she whispered, tears dripping into his hair. “Y-you’re alive?”
“’Course I am. But I nearly got eaten.”
Pennine almost choked and pulled him closer still, forgetting about his arm.
She didn’t meet Epsilon’s eye as she fussed over her son, cleaning up his wounds and helping into clean clothes. Only once he was soundly unconscious in his room did she even look at her husband.
He hadn’t even moved from the hall, staring into space in shock. She stood in his line of vision, and saw what she had feared. The expression in his eyes told the whole story.
“Slow down, Sweetheart, you’ll choke.”
It was three days later. Sweetheart had woken ravenous from his healing coma mid-morning, and was now working his way through his second helping of breakfast. The sleep had done him more than physical good; the shock had all but worn off and instead he was eagerly filling his mother in on all the details of his adventure.
“… And then I ran home!” he finished triumphantly and shovelled another mouthful in. After swallowing, he looked around for the first time. “Where’s Daddy?”
“He’s gone away for a while,” Pennine answered, not daring to look her five-year-old in the eye. Not that he would be able to read her expression, but unable to look at him nonetheless.
“When will he be back?”
Pennine took a deep breath. “He won’t be coming back, Sweetheart.”
“What … not ever?” He sounded more curious than upset. Good.
“No,” she said firmly. “Not ever.” Pennine turned round, and couldn’t help but smile at her son, at that look of innocent curiosity that was right back on his young face. Would he ever learn? Probably not.
He would, probably, eventually realise what had taken place under their roof the day before. But at the moment, he didn’t look any worse off for his near brush with death.
“I came back,” Sweetheart reasoned.
“Daddy’s gone a bit further than you did.” Pennine kissed the top of his head. “Now finish your breakfast.”