Lea Monde came down in great crashes and groans when the earthquake hit, but the magic didn’t. It was haunted ruins, piled and jumbled grimoire stones, and it still held the Wellspring. Invisible to the unbranded living, the Dark was gathering around the city, stronger with every passing week.
Slowly, the city called eldritch things in from the Dark. The dead walked, and slowly, slowly, the city pulled in dead who were not its own. Graves too shallow to hold the Dark peeled back and Lea Monde swelled its ranks.
Quietly, steadily, the Dark rose. The broken grimoire no longer held it to Lea Monde; the Wellspring free of its containment within the ancient walls. Snowflies thickened the air, drifting in purposeful trails and swarming at the Dark’s whims. The Dark crept further and further from Lea Monde, seeking an avatar.
In a family graveyard, snowflies whirled and coalesced, slowly forming a figure. Sydney stepped out of the Dark and looked around, stretching his silver arms out wide. He listened to the Dark, smiled, and stepped into nothingness.
Far from Lea Monde, Ashley Riot hunched over a mediocre tankard of ale, his eye on the door and his back to the wall out of long habit. The Dark whispered to him, showing him the thousand thousand things he could do from where he sat. Glamour the doors and call forth a Dullahan, and we will have their souls, their souls, their souls. Scry and see all of their thoughts, petty and not. Teleport away and cloud their minds so they still see your body there. Cast Drain Mind and grow stronger, stronger, stronger. Call a Spirit Surge and shake the inn to is foundations. Call a dragon and fly down at them, burn it down, burn it down, burn it down. Be glorious, glorious, glorious.
Ashley listened and learned and once in a long while took a suggestion that the Dark made. It called to him night and day, sometimes with its own sliding whisper, sometimes with Sydney’s cutting, silky voice. The Rood burned on his skin and ached with pleasure when he pulled the Dark to him to do his will.
He walked cloaked through the roads and wore the face that suited him best at any moment. His weapons were light on his back, and he could call anything he needed out of the Dark. He’d not spoken to another soul with his own face and voice since Sydney had set the Rood on him and they’d left Lea Monde. He dreamed of Sydney, bleeding there in the ruins, walking away raw and unhealed to the Duke’s estate.
This longing for him, it wasn’t missing Sydney, not really. But Sydney knew more of him than any other, perhaps since Ashley had left his mother’s house. Sydney called himself hart to Ashley’s hunter, and Ashley found he wanted to continue the hunt. The Dark whispered and whispered, Sydney’s voice in his head. Call me back, call me back, call me back. The Dark loves me and I will come back for you. I’m lost without you, Riot, call me back. It’s so cold, Ashley, call me back. I have so much to show you, Rood Bearer. Call me back. Call me back. Call me back.
Ashley shivered under the whispers and tossed at night, rolled in his blankets. In the morning he’d wake with the feeling of silver claws soft on his skin and the creeping idea of never being alone, not at all ever again.
The Dark was louder and more capricious with every passing week. Its demands for glory and fire call the Shriekers call the Lich Lords call the Minotaur were constant, and it whispered of Lea Monde’s secrets still undiscovered. I didn’t find them all, Riot, whispered Sydney’s voice. Call me back. Call me back. I can tell you things that would change your world. Call me back.
Ashley stayed more and more to the wild places, away from towns and people. The Dark’s whispers were more insistent with men’s souls and magic where it could reach them. Fight them, Rood Bearer, fight them all and we will glory in Raging Ache, and we will have their souls, Riot, their souls. Ashley kept the Dark locked in corner of him mind when it whispered of souls, but it didn’t stop the Sydney-dreams, and perhaps those weren’t the Dark’s doing but his own.
One morning, one of the mornings charged with the memory of ghost-claws on his naked chest though he’d slept wrapped tight in his blankets, Ashley saw how a spell as massive as what would be needed to call Sydney would quiet the Dark. And if Sydney came back like Grissom, Ashley could certainly kill him. If he came back as himself, perhaps Ashley could learn to quiet the Dark’s whisper.
The circle he drew was precise and intricate, cut into the forest’s earth with a damascus dagger, and woken with a word in Kildean. The Dark surged in joy, the Rood pulsed pleasure in his skin, and Sydney's voice rose in a cry of triumph in his mind. Ashley held his breath and called Holy Win to his hand.
Sydney appeared, not in the circle and contained as he ought to be, but forming rapidly of snowflies across the clearing. He was as Ashley remembered him, whole and beautiful, his sharp face and silver-clawed hands more familiar than the Lea Monde mission alone had made them. Certainly the mocking smile was fixed in Ashley’s memory, and the prowling walk he had as he approached Ashley.
“Well done, Riot,” he said, and his voice was the voice of the Dark and something more, something just himself that had been missing from the whispers in Ashley’s dreams.
Ashley stepped back and raised Holy Win between them. “Are you truly Sydney? Or a vehicle of the Dark?”
Sydney did not slow his approach, bothered not at all by the sword. “I am something a little more than the Sydney you knew, but only for the better. Tell me, Ashley Riot, how is it to be free of lies and illusions? Show me your soul, Riskbreaker.”
This time when Sydney froze time around him, Ashley knew he could have stopped him. But he’d called Sydney, and if he wanted to know if Losstarot was himself, this view into his own heart would not hurt his cause.
The world slowed into greys and his heartbeat sounded as if from a drum around them. As before, Ashley saw himself from a distance, the Rood bright on the skin of his back. This Ashley was locked in an embrace with Sydney, Sydney’s claws drawing blood on Ashley’s back and shoulders and Ashley’s hands tangled in Sydney’s hair. As Ashley watched, his other self kissed Sydney fiercely. He drew in a breath and looked at his version of Sydney.
Losstarot smiled slowly at him. “Well, Riot. Your motives for calling me back aren’t so pure, are they? You tell yourself you need to control the Dark, and what you really want is my tail.”
Ashley broke Sydney’s spell with a minor effort and faced him in the real world. His face felt hot, and as always Sydney’s vision staggered him.
“It’s all right, Riot,” purred Sydney, still advancing toward Ashley and Holy Win. “I have no objection at all. And the Dark does need a firmer hand.” He walked right through the sword, snowflies whirling, and run his silver claws down Ashley’s face. The touch was cold and firmer than the ghostly touches in the night, but definitely there.
Ashley banished the sword, useless as it appeared to be. Hesitant, he reached out to touch Sydney’s cheek and encountered smooth skin, buzzing with the Dark and colder than it ought to be, but solid and real.
“Lea Monde is breaking its bounds, Riot,” Sydney murmured. “We need to bind its borders. I’ll show you how, and so much more. I can show you everything, Ashley Riot.”
And the Dark was fierce and joyful but quiet, blessedly quiet in his mind. Sydney, Sydney, Sydney, it whispered. Be glorious, glorious, glorious.