He had been traveling for days, and it was time to stop. There was nothing for another half-day but wide stretches of meadow and farm, and though Ashley Riot could push himself, he refused to force his mount beyond endurance. The creature knew nothing of Cardinals or Kings, only the fatigue that brought sweat to its sides.
The Dark shifted around him. /There is a ruin./ The voice was a familiar one.
"I know," Ashley replied with a frown. There was something else too, like a prick upon his senses. The Dark was tugging him on, even as the horse stumbled its way to the crumbling outline of a building overshadowed by trees.
Beyond the buckled shape of the ruin, a low stable remained. The thatch had fallen in at several places. It would serve for a night.
/And consider yourself lucky e'en a stable remains./
Ashley lifted his head, fixing the stable with a piercing look. "Do you know aught of what happened here?"
Silence was his reply.
"Sydney," he prodded.
The Dark whispered a pensive note in his ear, but the voice of the former prophet was gone.
He took care of the horse's needs first, seeing it stabled in what remained of a stall. Lacking any other means of restraint, he hobbled the gray gelding. He did not fear it would stray while he searched the grounds, but when it was not tired it was a spirited mount, and there was no sense risking its loss. He could not flee on foot.
The ruins he approached were riddled with shadows. Ashley frowned as he skirted fallen rubble, then climbed into the shell of what had been a house. There was no taint of the Dark in these shadows, nor presence of what might have been man. Why the call? Then he felt it, like a breeze on his cheek.
/At the farthest point of the ruins, there lies a glade./
He could sense it. Rather, he could feel something there exerting a pull, not urgent but like fingers tugging faintly at the veil of Dark about him. A curious sensation.
As he came round a collapsed wall, his eyes were dazzled for a moment. The brilliance of stars poured down into the glade beyond the ruin, pushing back the night. So it seemed for a moment, until Ashley could focus. He made out the details of hundreds, perhaps thousands of snowflies swirling on air, enough to cast a circle of illumination all 'round.
/Do you like it?/
"You've done this?" The Dark was flickering, and now in the stead of a faint pull he sensed it threading through the subtle progression of the snowflies. They swirled in thick eddies of star-points, forming patterns too complex for chance.
/Smile,/ Sydney commanded. /The snowflies are dancing./
"I have no reason to smile," Ashley told him, setting his palm against rough stone. He did not feel tired so much as empty. Tia, Marco, Callo... "You are gone. Everyone is gone to me now, and I am the vagabond who wanders the earth with this burden of Dark you've bequeathed." The stone was cool to the touch, simple and stable. It was only stone, unlike the buildings of Lea Monde that had been so steeped magic, Kildean glyphs carved on every surface, that the stones had hummed their own tune of power.
The city was destroyed and there was no returning.
/I am still here./ Sydney sounded rueful, as if knowing the comfort he offered would never be tangible.
Likewise, Sydney was dead and all around him, but never there for the touch.
The tone, in anyone else, would have been derisive. Yet Ashley felt the bite of affection behind it; there was nothing of Sydney that was not double-edged.
"What use have I for regret?" Ashley said in response. "You could not have done differently. Nor I."
The snowflies were thick here, in the glade behind the ruins. Ashley could sense no trace of the Dark in what had once been a building, but the glade itself had been used at one time.
/It was a circle of light./
"But the snowflies..." Ashley started, fixing a look on the luminous insects that drifted in the air, forming whorls of light. Rosencrantz had told him once that the snowflies ran thickest where the Dark lay.
/It's full of shadows now,/ Sydney told him, and would say no more. Even dead, the former prophet could scry the past in a way Ashley could not.
No regrets, but...
"You were the strongest, Sydney. You had the key to the Gran Grimoire on your shoulders all the while. Why did you have to die?"
Sydney was quiet for a moment. /Was it as bad as all that, Riskbreaker?/
Of course, he would not know. The Sydney he carried with him was culled from the final moments and before, when he had borne the Blood Sin upon his own back. Ashley kept his eyes on the dance of snowflies and tried not to let the answer well up in response. In his nightmares, not every night but on the worst, he could see the red ruin of Sydney's back and hear the soft, smothered rattle of his breath. Sydney had not lived long past Bardorba Manor.
"You can't tell me you meant to die that way."
/...no. I had every intention of living, up until.../
Silence settled thickly on him again.
"I know you've more to say, Sydney. Don't play reluctant now."
/Perhaps your lovely Merlose was right after all./
"She was never my Merlose," Ashley responded, though not without a pang. "She said something to you?"
The Dark purled about him. He saw Callo's face tight with surprise. *He intends to die.* /But not that way,/ Sydney added, an aside to the past. /Guildenstern flayed me and left me behind like scraps. I would have preferred a cleaner death. A knife between the shoulderblades perhaps./
"Guildenstern is more practical than that," Ashley told him in dry tones. "It would have ruined the Blood Sin."
/True./ Sydney was not too bitter to laugh, though it was more a growl.
A snowfly lit on Ashley's cloak. He lifted a hand to brush it aside, and thought better of it. It flared with an instant of light, and fell dark once more.
"Why are you the only shade I 'hear,' Sydney?" Ashley had been curious for days. He knew by theory he could tap the power of any who had borne the Blood-Sin upon their shoulders. None of the unbroken line could ever quite die. Yet only Sydney spoke.
/You hear what you want, Riskbreaker./
At that, his lips curved into the smile Sydney had tried to coax from him. He wanted now what had never been possible at any point, whilst Sydney lived. While alive, he had been the threat that a Riskbreaker hunted without remorse. Now with Sydney dead, but not gone, Ashley questioned and re-examined what had happened in the wellspring. He was gaining another view of the subtle dance Sydney had led him.
"I see you everywhere. Even in the snowflies."
They swirled up around him. For a moment, he could feel the touch. For just one instant, lips on his. Then it fell dark again.
/I will always be here./
But never intersecting.