01. Motion (#01)
Sydney Losstarot is elegance in motion, even at the height of agony; as Ashley unquestioningly dips into a bend-scoop-drape to arrange the bleeding man about his shoulders, the image Sydney provides is less 'albatross' and more 'swan'.
02. Cool (#02)
Ashley's memory of the escape is predictably riddled with holes, and privately he wonders if it'll ever really function properly again; but among the glimpses of the dust and sparks of the collapsing cathedral, he is certain he will never forget the solid weight of cool metal against his neck.
03. Young (#03)
'Just a little farther, there's the stairwell now, come on we're too young to die in a place like this' Ashley murmurs to himself, and he will later spend whole evenings haunted by what Sydney might have thought? felt? said? in response had he not fallen unconscious one hour previous.
04. Soul (#19)
Having cleared the last wine cellar by daybreak, the men begin to pick their way into the forest, untold numbers of lost souls following their exodus from Lea Monde and pooling around Ashley like so many autumn breezes.
05. Shadow (#32)
Ashley's newfound energies as a Wellspring are largely directed toward creating wards to strengthen and protect, with the occasional healing spell aimed at Sydney; Sydney, for his part, spends most of his own energies delicately trailing blood into the shadows behind them as if marking a macabre road map back to his lost city.
06. Stop (#36)
Some hours later, safe under a coverlet of foliage, they rest - which is to say that Ashley hunts, and Sydney sleeps; Ashley casts healing spells, and Sydney sleeps; and Ashley hammers his equipment into something approximating its original shape, while still, Sydney sleeps.
07. Hide (#27)
When Ashley finally hoists up his charge and sets out again in the evening, hoping for safer passage under the cover of nightfall, he dutifully pretends not to notice as Sydney purrs and stretches against him.
08. Hold (#15)
Even after the tattered remains of his back heal and he could well support himself under his own power, Sydney continues to drape himself perioidically across the Riskbreaker's back, claws crossing cheerfully across his chest.
09. Need (#16)
Whether it is a misguided sign of affection or some unspoken need for proximity to that which was once his, Ashley is never certain; whatever the reason, the mark on his back throbs as Sydney presses close to him, as though the Dark coursing through it still recognizes its former master.
10. Gentle (#06)
The first time, the gesture catches Ashley by surprise; shifting as if to turn and question the unexpected weight draped over his shoulders, Ashley is stilled by the razor-sharp edge of a metal fingertip pressed gently to his lips.
11. Safe (#29)
For all that Sydney's claws could have reduced Ashley's skin to shreds with ease in a single over-eager heartbeat, they never once break through the surface.
12. Sudden (#35)
Slowly, Ashley leans back from the extended claw-tip, whipping around for his answers at last only to find Sydney's lips swiftly replacing the metal appendage.
13. Blur (#11)
The kiss is chaste but no less powerful for it; need and desire, friend and foe, morality and practicality blur and all Ashley can see is Sydney.
14. Learn (#10)
Touch is the purest form of communication that Sydney can offer: the man's livelihood rested on riddles and manipulation, and in their short time together Ashley learns to unravel truths wrought from Sydney's body that were impossible knowledge any other way.
15. Mad (#22)
They do not make love, and Ashley would have laughed himself senseless had such a characterization of their coupling occurred to him at the time.
16. Now (#24)
Agent Riot is not laughing now.
17. Goodbye (#26)
Early afternoon on the fourth day, Sydney lets slip his plans (and he does let slip; Sydney Losstarot is not the sort of man to trifle with mistakes or accidents or colossal fuckups) so that the end will not come fully as a surprise; Sydney believes it is the least and the most he can do.
18. Command (#14)
Ashley freezes, and for a single crazed moment wonders whether the Rood Inverse will someday afford him that smoothness of manner that Sydney possesses, his artistry so carefully and yet effortlessly orchestrated that the very universe could be falling down around him and still he would look for all the world as though he'd planned it to the last second.
19. Wrong (#05)
Then the universe does come crashing down, and Ashley, not yet a complete master of the Dark, falls back on what he knows best - and gracefully backhands Sydney into a tree, the smaller man encountering their supply packs along the way and sliding down against them with a sickening thud.
20. Attention (#18)
It will be a full week yet before Ashley notices that Sydney does not so much as attempt to defend himself from the Riskbreaker's powerful strike, and another six hours before the full import of that fact overwhelms him in a sudden rush; by that time, of course, it will have been much too late.
21. King (#09)
In this sad parody of battle, the thought comes to him, unbidden: Sydney lives like Ashley fights, regal and poised and perfect.
22. Fortune (#28)
Though he will not surrender for three days hence, it is here that Ashley knows he has lost.
23. Fool (#21)
The hallmark of being a Riskbreaker, however, is charging ahead into an impossible situation with the utter conviction that one will succeed or die trying, and thus this is precisely the course of action Ashley chooses.
24. Wall (#44)
"I should have left you there to die," Ashley fumes, "broken and haunted like the crumbling walls of your damned city."
25. Wait (#12)
Sydney watches Ashley coolly as he waits out the tirade and its aftershocks; when all that remains is a faltering glare and blissful silence, he softly rejoins, "I have said before, there is no meaning in an incomplete death."
26. Ghost (#30)
Sydney has spent twenty-five years wearing Lea Monde as a second skin; he has no interest in an eternity of it as his only corporeal presence, although that is the inevitable consequence of having a body as drenched in the powers of the Dark as his has been.
27. Time (#37)
Seconds tick past and die as the pieces slowly click together for Ashley, and then they stop their advance completely in the moment he comprehends.
28. Sing (#34)
Ashley is to learn prophecy as Sydney once had, and his introduction comes all in a rush as the Dark sings to him of the souls he will marshal to it and one he will allow to go free.
29. Book (#31)
"What's this," Ashley whispers, still dazed with the knowledge and his newfound means of acquiring it, "have you unearthed some ancient Grimoire that truly raises a spirit, not sacrificing it as a Cold One?"
30. Eye (#32)
Sydney stares back at him - Ashley is chagrined for a moment, recalling that Sydney has - already had - the Gran Grimoire and every magick that came with it - and a flash of something unreadable graces his slate-grey eyes before he blinks it away.
31. God (#43)
"Of course not," Sydney sighs; "I have you."
32. Thousand (#08)
"But how?" Ashley wants to cry out, or possibly "I haven't yet the control," or "'Tis tempting fate worse than death even to think on it" or a thousand other protests, but in the end he manages only to eke out a sound that might have been "Ah" before turning on his heel and leaving the small clearing of their makeshift campsite for the forested area to the northwest.
33. Bother (#42)
"That could have gone better," Sydney muses, and thinks of colorful Kildean expressions for precisely how useful his gift of prophecy is not.
34. Picture (#20)
Ashley scans the forest for visual cues of wildlife, cataloguing nests, tracks, anything to tie him to this moment and distract him from a picturesque image long since seared into his memory by forces he cannot name.
35. Vision (#17)
There is a picnic lovingly laid out underneath a lone tree in a clearing, a fine wine ("like sweet ambrosia," he whispers brokenly) waiting to be tasted, and Ashley squeezes his eyes tightly against the vision, swearing not to return until he has forced it from his mind.
36. One (#07)
If he can only wrench that scene from his mind's eye, Ashley will not have to see who awaits him underneath that tree with a soft smile on thin lips and a wineglass elegantly balanced between two unnaturally elongated fingers.
37. Last (#04)
It is long past dusk when Ashley's footfalls temporarily disrupt the quiet solitude of Sydney staring thoughtfully up at the stars, though he offers no response to the Riskbreaker's return.
38. History (#40)
Ashley settles onto his pallet, and a few carefully placed moments later Sydney follows suit; they do not converse again this night, but the morning finds Sydney's eldritch-metal arms draped once again across Ashley's chest, and this time he makes no move to dislodge them.
39. Never (#33)
The remainder of the journey to the Graylands is uneventful; every so often, Ashley moves as if to turn around - could we not just stay here, forget the very world branding a rhythmic chant into his brain - but the words die unspoken on his lips, and he presses on.
40. Torn (#39)
So entrenched in remaining focused forward, Ashley does not see Sydney half extend a claw to him and then retract it, extend, retract, keeping pace with his footsteps even as he wonders whether fate's price may be too dear this time.
41. Naked (#45)
The seventh day finds them on the outskirts of the Graylands estate, Duke Bardorba's secondary residence just barely visible through the thin veneer of fog, and Ashley feels the weight of its presence before he sees it - feels his soul and future laid bare before him before he can put the masks back in place.
42. Child (#23)
Ashley stops abruptly, silently opening and closing his mouth a few times before turning sharply, squaring his stance against the trailing Sydney, and crossing his arms defiantly over his chest like a very large and well-muscled child one pout away from throwing a noisy tantrum.
43. Drive (#46)
Sydney's sad half-smile holds no anger, but there is reproach in his eyes: 'this drive is part and parcel of what drew you to me,' they say, 'you would forgive me a change of heart now?' and Ashley, for all his strength, is rendered helpless in the face of that conviction.
44. Power (#41)
The majority of Sydney's powers have already waned, but one hardly needed to be a heart-seer to read the anguish seeping unwittingly through Ashley's carefully schooled countenance.
45. Change (#13)
Softly, Sydney begins, "Ashley, I..." and just as quickly, Ashley replies "I know"; the meaning is different this time, but they understand it all the same, and that is almost too much to bear.
46. Harm (#47)
The irony of it all sickens Ashley, how much harm he would have joyfully caused the young mage to forestall him from bringing harm upon himself in this way, so he clenches his teeth and balls his hands into fists and says nothing else as his lover saunters off to die.
47. Wash (#38)
"He is the one you have chosen," the Duke concludes in quiet wonder, and Sydney closes his eyes against the surge of emotion that washes over him at those words, awed by the sudden and powerful temptation to flee destiny.
48. Precious (#48)
The knife pierces Sydney's chest, but Ashley senses it first, a hundredfold over any feeling for which his flickering memories of Tia's and Marco's murder had prepared him: this is what it is to lose something precious.
49. Hunger (#49)
Despite the restless whispers of the Dark confirming the spirit's safe passage, a profound and yawning hunger awakens in Ashley's consciousness at that moment, and he knows without question that no meat or wine or pretty little thing that still walked the earth would slake it.
50. Believe (#50)
Former VKP agent Ashley Riot closes his eyes and murmurs 'I will find you again,' the still night air his only witness as he turns toward the rising moon and leaves Valendia for the last time.