The room wasn't there anymore, completely engulfed by the blackness. He took a step forward and immediately felt himself plunging into a bottomless void. While he was falling, he heard ghostly voices whispering inarticulately. He felt the entity's hunger deep inside himself, as if he were the one starving to death. Steel had never felt hunger in his whole life, so this painful urge deeply unsettled him. He forced himself to concentrate and to convince his body that he wasn't really falling. He pictured a floor in his mind, and after a while his feet were touching it, and he was standing on solid ground again.
He looked around: shapes were starting to form, but they were all indistinguishable. All except one: Sapphire. She was sitting on a chair in front of a table, and Steel recognized the furniture of the abandoned railway station where they fought the darkness for the first time. The same empty chair was waiting for him. He sat, and Sapphire smiled at him.
"You've abandoned me again, Steel. Abandoned me with the darkness."
"No, Sapphire. You are not really here. Your body is outside this room, and it's safe."
"But my subconscious isn't. And what use is a body without a subconscious?"
"Why is your subconscious here? We had no séance, you didn't fall into a trance."
"How would I know? I just know that the darkness tore it away from my physical body, and now it's using it to communicate with you. Just like before. But this time it won't let me come back. It will keep me here forever."
"Because you've tried to trick it again. It knew you were untrustworthy, so it did exactly what it said it would do: take me instead of the source of resentment you promised it."
"We gave it one. What happened to him?"
Sapphire's beautiful face twisted with rage. "He was not a suitable source of feeding, and you know it! It doesn't know why, but the resentment he's giving out is not substantial. You deceived the darkness again, and now it's taking its revenge on me. Are you proud of what you've done, Steel? You lost me to the darkness."
Steel made a small wicked smile. He stood, leaning his hands on the table, and said: "I don't think so. Sorry, but your deception isn't fooling me. I know you're not Sapphire's subconscious, you're just an after-image, created by the darkness. You see, the real Sapphire perfectly knows why Silver's resentment isn't feeding it. You probably are the darkness, and you're trying to play your last ace. I know that you're starved, and you have no more energies to spare. You cannot hurt Sapphire, who is out of your reach, and cannot even hurt me, although I'm right here. You are powerless."
"Sapphire is not waiting for you. She has already left with Silver. She doesn't really care about your fate, you know?"
"Spare me this pathetic attempt at raising resentment in me. It won't work. Don't you understand? Sapphire and I could never resent or hate each other: the only feelings we share would never feed you. You don't thrive on involvement, trust, respect… and love."
He concentrated hard on his feelings for his partner, trying to repel the darkness.
Sapphire's mouth opened wide into a soundless cry, and her face started to morph. First it turned into Silver's face, then into Tully's. And then it turned into a dozen different, unknown faces. Steel knew he was watching the appearances of all the sources of resentment the darkness fed on during its entire life. He knew the entity was dying, but he didn't know how to avoid being dragged along with it and go back where he belonged. He was about to follow the darkness into its last voyage to wherever it was that these entities went when they died.
He felt himself being dragged away, but not physically. It felt like someone, or something, was trying to wrench his very soul from his body. He opposed the pull with all his willpower, but he knew it wasn't enough: he was slowly slipping away, consciousness fading, and he instinctively sent out a mental cry to Sapphire.
Unexpectedly, he heard her voice answering his desperate call. "Steel! I hear you. Where are you?"
The sound of her voice in his mind gave him the strength to fight the overwhelming power that was taking him away. "Sapphire! The darkness is dying, and it's taking me with it. I cannot oppose it."
Her voice grew anxious. "Of course you can. You always ask me to push myself beyond my limits, now it's your turn to practice what you preach. Follow my voice, Steel, and come back to me."
Despite her words, Steel was feeling his strength fading. "I'm so tired, Sapphire. I can't do it."
Now Sapphire's voice boomed in his mind: "YOU MUST! If you surrender now, I will lose you forever. Don't you care about me?"
Steel's mental voice sounded dishearteningly weak. "You know I do. More than anything else."
"Then prove it."
He didn't answer, and after a few moments of silence another familiar voice resounded in his mind. "Don't worry, Steel, I will take good care of Sapphire. You're leaving her in good hands."
Silver. The thought of Silver taking care of Sapphire triggered something inside him. He suddenly realized that he would never see her again, never touch her again, never share thoughts with her again. Never kiss her again. Silver would enjoy all that.
He would not allow that to happen. Sapphire was HIS partner, as she was meant to be.
He clung to her mental link and followed it as a thread. Slowly, painfully, he felt himself climbing up a steep mountain of pain, despair and anguish. He couldn't tell what the source was: himself, the darkness, or its countless victims. He stumbled and fell many times, but he always picked himself up and resumed his struggle. He needed to show Sapphire that she was worth every effort.
His fingers were bleeding from clinging to the razor-sharp edges of that steep barrier, but he felt that he was nearing the peak. Sapphire kept broadcasting encouragement and support, and he took the energy he needed from that.
Suddenly he realized he was not climbing anymore. He was sliding down a smooth, grassy slope, and eventually he landed softly on even ground. He let his body relax and rest on that comfortable embrace, and felt the previous weakness fading away, slowly replaced by his usual strength.
The grassy ground supporting him was turning into something different, and he realized that his limp body was being held by welcome and familiar arms.
He forced his eyes open, and as soon as they adjusted to the offending light, he could distinguish Sapphire's face, looking worriedly at him.
He weakly smiled at her, and her concerned expression melted into relief.
"Welcome back. I thought I'd lost you."
He slowly raised his hand, and let it linger on her cheek. "Never."
She could not resist and bent down to kiss him softly on his lips.
They heard a discreet cough coming from behind them.
Silver's voice said: "Excuse my interrupting you, but we should really leave this place now. Also, I'm sure you'd rather celebrate you reunion somewhere more private."
Steel reluctantly stood up and looked suspiciously at the technician. "Silver. You gave me a very motivating reason to come back. You know, sometimes you're cleverer than you look."
Unperturbed, Silver replied: "Better than looking cleverer than you are."
Sapphire smiled and said: "No need to test his self-control. He's the real Silver, I already checked."
Satisfied, Steel smiled almost – but not quite – shyly, and said: "Thank you for bringing me back. Both of you."
Silver feigned a horrified look and commented: "Oh no, now we have another clone to handle. The real Steel would never have thanked us!"
Sapphire chuckled and Steel, of course, just scowled at his friend.
As soon as the three agents teleported away, the house gradually disappeared from the real world, replaced by a weedy ground. In the middle of that ground, a tiny black spot lingered, refusing to fade from existence.
THE END (?)