The cell was stark and bare.
With little room to stretch out on the floor, Ben curled up in a corner, his head pressed back against the cold, metal walls. A few faint shafts of light poured in through a grated window in the thick door locking him in. It left the tiny cell almost entirely bathed in blackness.
Ben was almost certain if it was brighter, he could have made out black paint coating the walls. Anything to intimidate or weaken the spirits of the Dark Lordess' prisoners.
If only she realized none of that was needed with Ben right now.
The despair after their capture had fermented and intensified over the last few hours. Or days. Or however long Ben had lain in this godforsaken place. Left alone with his bitter thoughts, time stretched on endlessly. It left him with an all too clear picture of how far he had fallen.
Things had seemed so certain before. Armed with weapons from this world, Ben had felt in control. Felt powerful enough to complete this journey. But that cold focus and certainty was a farce. Ben knew he was no soldier. Could he have ever been? The question seemed irrelevant now. Even if he could have, it probably would have done little against the Dark Lordess. No alien weapons could help him here; he wasn't meant to fight as a soldier.
If forces of military might couldn't have saved Kyyra, what could have? Maybe the others might have had more of a chance—they came from worlds of magic. But Ben should have known any wild belief he held about this journey was false. Ben was no Lord; he held no magic. He was a pathetic mortal lost in a world far more powerful than his hopes or desires. The hope to rescue a lost friend had failed him.
Now he was going to die alone on a distant planet. No one from home would ever know what happened to him. Benjamin Sotiros was forever lost, with barely a hint left to a friend on Earth where he might be lost out amongst the cosmos. But with that depressing thought, Ben knew his demise wasn't the worst thing bringing him as low as he felt.
He had failed Kyyra.
Silent tears streamed down his dusty cheeks. Ben sucked in a trembling breath, then coughed it back out violently as the dust in the air reacted violently with his parched throat.
Oh, Kyyra. He could barely imagine what monstrous things had happened to her. Maybe she sat huddled in a similar cell somewhere, but Ben doubted it. He had been thrown here as a nuisance. Whatever Kyyra had been personally chosen for was somewhere else. Something far worse.
And he had failed to save her from it. Whatever eternal torment or torture awaited her was all Ben's fault.
Ben wasn't certain how long he lay in his cell, wallowing in the weight of his failure. Part of him wanted to die and have it over with. At least then he would be free of his personal torment. Maybe some real, physical pain would erase the guilt of conscience.
Except, he realized there was some kind of physical pain.
That made him sit up a little straighter in the darkness. He could feel it now; a bitter iciness that came to exposed skin out too long on a harsh winter's day. Ben remembered such a feeling from long ago; barely in elementary school, playing in a snowball war against his older sister, Vivian. Despite losing his gloves and hat, the two had pelted each other mercilessly until they were numb from the cold. He remembered how painful it was after the fact, sitting back inside bundled up and sore from the cold.
That was as close a comparison as he could make to the feeling now, almost radiating outward from deep within. It wasn't a physical cold; the chill of his cell was barely enough to be uncomfortable at most. No, this was something almost emotional in nature, gripping at his center.
Ben suddenly found a strange grin crossing his face.
So it was still a battle, then. Was it the Dark Lordess doing this to him? Or maybe one of her lessers, relegated to menial labor demoralizing the prisoners? Either way, Ben realized the fight wasn't over.
This was Shadow—a world of death and peril. It was supposed to be a world where few brave souls survived. And yet here he was; alive and apparently being prepared for an end not yet seen. They needed him at his lowest, whatever could bring him there. Up till now, his own guilt and failings had been enough.
But not anymore. He couldn't make it too easy for them.
Granted, he could still feel the inky blackness prodding at him. As he resisted, it was there leaving a frigid burn in his chest. It would be too easy to fall back on his earlier wallowing. No, he needed something stronger. Something more than pure will to resist this emotional assault.
A new image began to slowly creep into Ben's mind. One of the last times he had seen Kyyra properly before she was abducted. Back at his house; months ago now, during her sixteenth birthday party.
The memory seeped into his mind like the rising sun, bringing with it all of the imagery and emotions of the moment. He could see her handling the special bracelet he had given her; feel her as she hugged him. Feel his own joy at that simple touch. For a moment, he almost thought she would give him that affectionate magic, the Glows. He even remembered feeling disappointed when she hadn't.
But that was okay. Simply holding her in his arms at the time had been enough, even before he had admitted to himself how much he felt about her.
The new memory flowed into him with such force that for a moment Ben thought he had the Glows. But no, it was simply the force of the Darkness retreating around him. It left his mind starkly clear and alert, as well as abuzz with the warmth of that happy memory. He hadn't realized how deeply the Dark magic had engulfed him until now.
It was a miracle he had recognized it in time to fight back.
A simple Earthling without a drop of magic to my name, and yet I just beat you back, Dark Lordess.
The thought was suddenly punctuated by a stab. At first, Ben assumed it was the Darkness coming back in force, and he quickly rallied other memories of his time with Kyyra to marshal a defense. But no, it wasn't deviant magic. In fact, it almost had the familiarity of a Summoning about it. As if someone were trying to send one directly into his mind…
Ben blinked. That sounded an awful lot like Siessem.
"Ben! Can you hear me?"
That was Siessem. Not his voice calling out in the dungeons; more like a mental projection. It was so strange and voiceless that Ben wasn't sure what to make of it. He had often wondered what telepathic communication was like, but actually experiencing it for the first time was not at all what he had expected. It was more of a single idea or notion. The more he focused on it, the more he could attribute actual sound as though Siessem was speaking to him.
"Ben! Now is not the time for such wonderment! I know you can hear me. Please respond!"
Ben shook his head. What was Siessem doing?
"I am trying to communicate with you, Earthling. You don't need magic to respond; I can sense your outward projections. They got quite loud when you broke the aura of Darkness surrounding you."
Ben paused, brief memory washing over him. Kyyra had explained the concept to him once; how telepathic communication was possible beyond the simple concept of 'reading someone's mind.' Thoughts and emotions could be projected outward, like signals that others could receive. Only when someone violently penetrated another's mind did they go beyond simply listening in.
"Yes, you seem to grasp the concept," Siessem continued. "But I can actually project messages into your mind. So please respond as if we were actually talking."
Ben blinked silently in his cell. He had never heard Siessem act so poignant before. The kid was always so mild and quiet. Then again, this was Ben's mind, and Siessem was probably hearing everything he was thinking at this moment, so it was best not to keep him waiting.
"Sorry," Ben thought to himself, trying to make the word into a coherent conversation…without actually opening his mouth. "This is all new to me."
"It is quite all right," Siessem replied, sounding more like himself. "I have tried to reach you now for some time. The Darkness around you was quite strong. When I heard you…well, I was relieved. Jillayr thought you might be dead."
Ben straightened up further. "The others are all right?"
"Jillayr and Cyasa, at least. We must be close together in the same dungeon; otherwise this would be very difficult. Telepathic communication is not something I practice regularly, unfortunately—"
"And Jesk?" Ben pressed, his own questions drowning out Siessem. "Taren? Kyyra? Please tell me you can hear them, too."
Siessem hesitated; probably fearful Ben would walk over his mental projections again. Ben took a calming breath, making sure not to let his mind become so frenzied the Darkness overtook him again. He thought back to Kyyra, running over their best memories.
"Unfortunately, it is just us four," Siessem finally responded. "I do not think they keep Taren and Kyyra in the same dungeon as us."
"No," Ben admitted. "I guessed the same thing. They wanted them; we just happened to be in the way."
"I don't know where Jesk got to, and Jillayr doesn't remember much of your battle upstairs."
Ben thought about that for a moment. He figured a response wouldn't be necessary, since Siessem probably heard his musings. But he was beginning to suspect Jesk had gotten away. Where he was now and what he could do was beyond Ben, but he had a feeling the Izikian was not out of the running.
Maybe they had some hope after all.
"I agree," Siessem replied. "Jesk has always had some interesting magic about him. I think he's put it into practice now, which means we have a specific avenue for our success."
Ben tried not to let his doubt show too strongly in his thoughts. Because if Jesk was in the running, they only had a slim chance of success at this point.
"We will succeed," Siessem projected back. "I have foreseen it."
That made Ben blink. "Foresee it? Siessem, just what kind of magic are you using?"
"We must be quiet now," the he retorted sharply. "I don't want to say too much. In case the Dark Lordess is listening in."
Ben nodded to himself. He wanted to smack himself for not having thought of that sooner. "We should keep a low profile for now."
"Agreed. I sense stirrings above. Whatever is happening will transpire soon. We need only wait in silence."
Bide our time, Ben didn't say, but then realized Siessem would hear anyway. Or sense. However telepathy worked precisely. Ben was about to ask the guy how thoughts were sorted between private musings and projected emotions when he felt the familiar presence retreat.
Apparently this conversation was over for now.
Ben exhaled, pulling his knees up close to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. He was alone again, but that was okay. He could wait for whatever their next move would be.
Because this wasn't over yet. He hadn't failed.
That thought gave him another burst of powerful emotion to withstand the Darkness. So Ben pursued it further.
He hadn't come out here to play soldier. That mindset was entirely false. It had landed him where he was now. Ben had come out here to rescue someone he loved dearly.
Someone who had loved him enough once to save his life.