Ashley gets some questions answered and tries to work out what to do next, now that Sydney's elaborate game is over. Set immediately after the fall of Lea Monde, so spoilers for the whole game. One...
Into The Dark
The pale man drew in a sharp breath and shifted uncomfortably where he lay on his stomach. "You waste your time, Riskbreaker."
Ashley ignored him, turning away to rinse the blood soaked cloth and wring it dry. Sydney's eyes ran over his back, tracing every line of the rood inverse, the blood sin, that was carved on the Riskbreaker's back. He wondered idly if Ashley even knew it was there. He hadn't mentioned it once in the short time since the fall of LeÃ¡ Monde. They were still on the edges of it now, in a house long since abandoned. Villages this close to the wellspring had been quickly deserted once the dark creatures of LeÃ¡ Monde had awoken.
"You will not die here. You survived a crossbow bolt through the chest well enough. I doubt this will trouble you overmuch." Ashley lay the cloth on the torn flesh of his companion's back, ignoring the hiss that accompanied it and the dark chuckle at what he had said. "Mayhap, if you live long enough, I'll get an answer from you. And you called me Ashley when you thought you lay at death's door. Am I 'Riskbreaker' again now that you're well enough to spout your riddles once more?"
Sydney started to laugh until it pulled at the muscles in his back. "Damn Guildenstern to hell," he muttered.
"Why me? And let's have no more 'the lost sheep finds it's way back into the fold'."
"Why not you? Why do you think I chose you?"
"Sydney..." He paused in his work, exasperated by yet another cryptic response.
"Answer me, Ashley Riot," Sydney commanded, his voice suddenly filled with the power that Ashley had witnessed. He sounded a little more like the leader of the cult of Mullenkamp again, he who had caused the cardinal so much strife. "I will compell you."
For a moment, the faintest edge of fear was born in Ashley, at least until he stopped listening to Sydney's voice and looked at the man instead. It was hard to be afraid of him when he was sprawled so uncomfortably on his stomach, his fingers tapping the wooden bench beneath him in an endless tattoo of frustration. The red square of flesh where Guildenstern had cut away his skin was raw and white edges of his spine showed through. Some parts of the body were not ever supposed to see daylight. That was probably true for some people, too, Ashley mused, wondering if he were thinking more of Sydney or himself.
"You could try. We will see if it will work on your successor," Ashley replied coolly. "I think you needed one who did not want the Dark. It seems this rules out most of the Blades. Maybe you thought you could use me, control me. Or at least compell me to follow you through the city."
"Enough. I can't stand it. It was painful enough to watch you fumble your way through LeÃ¡ Monde, without listening to this as well. True enough, the cardinal and the Blades have always thought they could harness the Dark for the good of their church. Their desire for it makes them unable to do so. What manner of man must the cardinal be to look at the Dark, see it as evil and /still want it for himself/? I chose you for two reasons, Ashley. First, I had to chose someone who would be strong enough to make it through LeÃ¡ Monde and the traps I set for our friends, the Blades. You had to be strong enough to take care of Rosencrantz or Guildenstern should your paths cross. But the blood sin was not the only thing needed for the ritual. Guildenstern mistakenly used the woman, Samantha. The phantom soul is not that easily obtained, or that simple."
"And I had it? This phantom soul?"
"There are many different manifestations of it. You had one of them. You had the false memories the VKP had given you. You had a whole false life embedded in you, overlaying you. A phantom soul. I never told you anything but the truth in LeÃ¡ Monde, Ashley. However much you wanted to pretend otherwise. The Dark is about balance, not evil. You were open to the concept. It was enough."
"This is what I have now... This mastery over the Dark..." Ashley said quietly, removing the blood soaked cloth from Sydney's back once more.
There was nothing to say after that and the sounds of the crumbling house seemed to fill up the air around them. There was a gentle creaking of old wood and faint scratching noises from the cupboards that Ashley assumed were mice. Then another sound filtered into his consciousness. A quiet metallic clicking... His gaze was drawn to Sydney's hand where it lay close to his head, the fingers moving slowly up and down as they tapped on the wood. He had thought they were just a strange covering, an exotic form of armour, when they first met. It was only later, when he had more time to study them properly, that he realised they were elaborate prosthetics.
"The Dark made flesh." Sydney flexed the hand again.
"You... We can do that much with it?"
"You know we can. You've seen more than this. Use it however you desire. You could bring your illusory family back."
"You said they were not mine."
"No. Their given names were probably not even the names you call them by. But the Dark could make even dreams flesh... if that's what you think you want."
"What comfort would I get from ghosts? I would know they were not real. I would know they were not mine. No, I wouldn't ask for that." He seemed lost in thought for a moment, then collected himself and lifted a bottle from the floor. "Brace yourself," he said, and liberally poured half the contents over the wounded flesh, ignoring the pale man's writhing and cursing.
"This is an old Valendian red. You should try to appreciate it more. Merlose wanted me to bring a bottle back, if I found one. She said she'd make her fortune."
"Save it for her, then. I've already told you this is a wasted effort."
"Why are you so certain of your death? You've survived everything the Cardinal and the VKP have thrown at you. I'm not convinced you can die. Even if you could, you've thrust this burden upon me and you can't die without showing me how to use it!"
"I can die," Sydney murmured, quietened by such an unexpected outburst. "Conditions must be met but I can die. You have the rood inverse. You already know how to use the Dark. There's nothing I can show you."
Ashley opened his mouth to argue, but froze. The knowledge of what he was capable of and exactly how to implement his will was there in his head. He simply hadn't bothered to look for it since escaping LeÃ¡ Monde. Slowly, he held his hand up to his face and built a little wall of illusion around it until it looked precisely like one of Sydney's black prosthetics. The ease of it all unnerved him.
"Don't. I admired them at first but now I'm tired of looking at them."
The illusion dropped as his attention was turned away from it. "Is that why you want to die?"
"Don't be ridiculous. I sacrificed my limbs to the gods when I was a boy and I was duly rewarded for the strength of my faith. I was not some poor lame child who suffered. Spare me your pity. You are my successor. There would be little need of you if I were around. The one thing that none of them - Guildenstern, the Crimson Blades or the Cardinal - could ever understand was that you have to give it up. LeÃ¡ Monde is no more. I have helped my father. My task is complete. Now it's time to go beyond the pale." Sydney's voice was earnest and he lifted himself up a little to twist and look at Ashley. "You borrow the power for a while and give it back when you are done. You have to be able to give it back. The Dark doesn't change people into monsters. You do that yourself when you think you can hold onto it without paying for what is given to you. Remember that when your time comes, Ashley Riot."
"Where does this game of yours lead me now?"
"Wherever you wish. But first, travel with me to my father's house. It's time for me to settle my debts."
Ashley paused, watching Sydney lift himself awkwardly to his feet. He couldn't refuse a request from a man walking to his death and one who, despite everything, he had grown strangely fond of. And yet that same part of him fought against it, seeking to prevent or at least delay it for a time.
"One last question, then. Why did you take the child? If your intent was to use me from the start, why did you need your brother?"
"Joshua? I would have thought it was obvious. Misdirection, Ashley. How could I possibly be connected with the Duke if I had kidnapped his son? It kept my father safe from association with my actions. Besides, I needed them to send you. There's nothing like a small child to make Parliament call in a Riskbreaker - if the child is wealthy enough and the family have enough influence." He turned and his eyes mapped his successor's face, taking in the conflict and the concern written there. "Let's go and finish what I started in the dark city," he said, not unkindly. "It's over, Ashley."