DepthsMature

Dead silence met my words. Finally, Engle broke it. "What...did you just say?"

"The darkness is dangerous," I replied. "If Salleem goes alone, he will lose himself for sure. If I go with him, I can provide limited protection."

"Limited?" Engle's face was not the most reassuring thing to be looking at.

"Only a high level Dark Knight can freely traverse the Dark Realm," I explained. "I left before my training took me that far. Because of that, my protection will not be as strong as that of the Knight's."

"You're sure about this?" Engle looked apprehensive. "Will Lyric be able to make it back safely?"

"Don't worry," I reassured him, feeling a surge of guilt as I did so. What I was about to say wasn't entirely true. "I'm strong enough to protect all three of us."

"And you expect me to just sit here and do nothing?"

"Yes, I do," I replied, putting a bit of steel in my voice. "Your darkness will only attract the denizens of the dark to us, and that will put us all in danger. Besides, I'm worried about what would happen if TIME found you. They were going to call you back to kill you, remember?"

"...All right," Engle said quietly. "Bring my daughter back to me. Please."

"He must either be more desperate than I thought, or he's starting to trust me," I thought. "I'm gonna go with desperate."

"All right, then." I knelt next to Salleem. "Are you ready?"

He nodded and shakily stood up. He swayed, and I put my hand on his shoulder to steady him. He shot me a grateful glance, then stood tall on his own. "Come on, then, Lance. Let's go."

With a wave of my hand, I created a Dark Corridor around the two of us and allowed it to collapse.

                                                                      *****

"I'd hoped never to see this place again," I murmured as the darkness began to close in.

"I can see why," Salleem replied.

I sighed. "Perhaps I should warn you...the second time is always far worse than the first."

"What?" Salleem shot me an angry glare. "And you're just mentioning this now because...?"

"If I said it in front of Engle, would he have let you go?"

"Perhaps not...why is the second time worse, then?"

I smiled bitterly. "The first time you step into it, the darkness simply learns how to unsettle you. The second time, it does its worst to unhinge you."

Suddenly, Salleem paled, and started frantically clawing at himself. "No, no, this can't be happening..." he mumbled, panicked.

"What is it? What's wrong?" I demanded.

"I'm fading away!" Salleem wailed.

"No, you're not. Look at me!" I harshly gripped his wrists, forcing him to turn his attention to me. "No matter what it might feel like, it's just an illusion.Tthe darkness is trying to take you. Are you going to let it?"

Slowly, the fear drained out of his eyes. "No, I'm not," he replied.

"Good. Now, do you know where we need to go?"

Salleem hesitated, then pointed off to his right. "That way."

"Let's go, then." I started walking in the direction he indicated, keeping a firm grasp on Salleem's wrist.

We walked for a time, too tense to speak. there was nothing but pitch blackness around us, though I expected the worst things to come out of it. In a way, it did.

I heard screams in the distance, and I froze. Glancing around, I found the source: a village was burning, a small one, just like one that I had been to before...and had been unable to save.

I wouldn't fail them again.

"Lance?!" Salleem exclaimed, startled. "Where are you going?"

"To save them. Wait here, if you want."

"Save who? Lance, get back here!"

"You don't hear them?" I turned on Salleem, feeling the beginnings of rage stirring. "You don't see them burning in their homes?"

Comprehension dawned in Salleem's face. "Lance...it's an illusion."

I shook my head. "It can't be. Illusions don't get that real. It has to be real."

"Remember where we are! You said it yourself, the darkness is trying to unhinge you! Just walk away."

I glanced back at the village, and saw the truth of Salleem's words. The darkness was preying on my guilt. "Damn it," I groaned as I tore myself away from the dying screams of what were doubtlessly lesser beings of the darkness, being tortured by those stronger than them. Illusions produce images; no illusion can produce sound.

Shuddering at that thought, I hurried back in the direction Salleem had originally indicated.

We had a long way to go.

The End

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