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the dead as witness

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Leá Monde was a city caught in a dying dream, and the Snowfly Forest its shroud. In the space between life and undeath, it was easy to become turned around, lost in your memories, until that comforting lie was stripped from you all at once and you were forced to face the truth of the world. It reminded Ashley of nothing more than the moment of surrender before a person lost consciousness. He’d seen that look in men’s eyes as he had throttled them into submission, felt their surrender in his hands the moment before they went slack, and stepped over their bodies towards his greater goal once they ceased struggling. At the time it had seemed necessary to kill Valendia’s enemies. He had told himself that Valendia’s peace was fragile and needed constant guarding against those who would shatter it; each death a necessary evil so that good people could sleep soundly in their beds. With each person he killed, Ashley was creating a better world in the memory of Tia and Marco. Or, at least that had been what he had told himself. At the heart of the Snowfly Forest, he found his own horror and saw that it bore his face.

Ashley was relieved to be inside the city walls once more. It showed its truths honestly in its rotting wrecks of buildings. No sweet, soporific peace to be found here, only the brutality of murder and the stench of death. There was truth to be found in this necrohol, assuming anyone survived the bloodbath. On one side, Sydney’s cultists, and on the other the Church. And perhaps, a third side of Rosencrantz betraying everyone?

As if cued by his musing, he heard an unearthly shriek behind him. Ashley turned around. His knife was already in his hand, and he did not remember drawing it. It felt like it had drawn itself, using him as a tool rather than the other way around. That was something to think about later, once he was free of Leá Monde and all of its damnable mysteries. For now, he had a problem with a simple solution.

His assailant was a porcelain doll, once well loved, with red ribbons in its curled hair and dressed in a red and white tunic. Now, its hands were chipped and muddy, dirt ground into the once finely woven fabric, and it wielded a wickedly sharp knife as if a natural-born assassin. It skittered towards him, terribly agile, and Ashley stepped aside barely in time to avoid its knife thrust. He parried the blade and struck back, unsurprised when the doll side-stepped nimbly. He took another step forward, feinted a blow, and then another, driving the doll into an alleyway in which he had been he’d been ambushed not so long ago. The doll’s glass eyes gave nothing away, not even when he stepped forward and drove his knife into one of them. The glass shattered. He felt the truth of his strike by the way the doll shuddered into a secondary death. It managed one last dying shriek before its body dissipated into the Dark.

Ashley could taste dissolution now. Each monster’s death coated his tongue in ash and blood, leaving a bitter aftertaste. He spat into the watercourse that was visible through the broken stone, but the taste remained. He spat again with little hope it would achieve anything but held off a third time.

When nothing jumped out at him to attack again, he sheathed his knife. He didn’t bother cleaning the blade, because there was no need to do so. Every time he used a weapon within the paling of Leá Monde, it consumed the essence of what it had killed, leaving the viscera to fall away in desiccated flakes. Each death attuned the weapon further and made it hungry for more. Ashley tried not to dwell on why this was so. That was easier to do in daylight, free of crumbling walls and forgotten cellars—easier to do when he was striking down men of the cloth, and not a doll.

He wasn’t sure what it said about him that he found killing men easier than killing dolls. There might be something in Rosencrantz’s words: the cold dispassion as he dispatched another foe, his indifference as monsters faded away, suggested many things. Ashley had believed himself a good man once. A doting father, a loving husband, an honorable Knight of the Peace. Now … well, it didn’t matter. For now, he had quarry to track. Sydney had disappeared, taunting him to find him, and so he would be found.

The streets of Leá Monde were treacherous underfoot, but after the misery of the Snowfly Forest, Ashley appreciated the simplicity of walking, searching, and striking. Another monster, another kill. This time with the great mace, a blow to the throat to stop its magick, and then two more to stop it dead in its tracks. This one was the unsettlingly intact corpse of a dead man, a hand span taller than Ashley himself and dressed in what was once sturdy linen and leather. Decades of fighting had left its clothing torn and shredded, caked in gore and dirt, but once it would have been made and worn with pride. Ashley retrieved his arrows from its body, wiped the arrowheads clean, and stepped over the abandoned corpse. He peered inside dusty windows into an abandoned home, saw no movement, and moved on.

Or, rather, he tried to. He found himself thinking about the strange doll. He’d seen all manner of uncanny things since descending into the base of Leá Monde, including possessed children’s toys, but this one was more intelligent than the others he’d fought and killed. It stuck in his head, and he kept catching himself thinking about the doll’s dying scream even while defending himself from more familiar foes.

A harpy jumped him after that. He didn’t know what it had been before it had died, but it fell to his crossbow, showering him and the ground with half-rotted feathers in its death throes. The feathers stuck to his hair, and he swiped them away with his hand as he ducked into an alleyway to explore its depths. There weren’t may depths to explore, as the alleyway was more of a stub. Its sole redeeming feature was that crates were stacked in such a way that Ashley could use them to reach the terraced roof, and then a small roof space. He could feel the sting of a broken ward as he dropped in from above, like pushing his tongue against a broken tooth. That, more than the absence of dust on the floorboards, confirmed to him that someone had been here recently.

Once, the room may have been a storage facility. Now it was mostly full of detritus. Ashley searched through the wreckage of old cupboards and files for some clue as to which faction had occupied this space. From the absence of religious icons, he assumed the Church, given that they carried their religious iconography on their persons, though usually they left someone to patrol their areas. However, Ashley had been cutting a path through the Church’s soldiers, so perhaps he had killed this room’s sentinel. Unfortunately, whomever was there had left nothing useful, and the only thing that was not rubbish was a book written in a script that hadn’t been fashionable for as long as Ashley had been alive. He thumbed through the pages, but all they told was the daily toil of a mundane life: a day’s hard labor in a quarry, paying tithes to the church, the joy of a child’s birthday. The child had received a doll for her birthday.

His mind kept going back to the doll he’d killed earlier. It was uncanny, he would readily agree, but everything in Leá Monde was unnatural. He cracked his knuckles, one at a time, until it finally came to him. As a Riskbreaker he had watched children die. The doll had cried like they did, broken-hearted and grievously betrayed by the world. The doll had died as they did, killed at his hands for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He may not be able to ask Marco and Tia who had killed them, but Leá Monde was different. The city was haunted by the ghosts of murdered innocents, killed twice over while men fought over the wellspring created by their deaths. He could ask Leá Monde’s dead what had happened. He could. Sydney had told him the dead could speak their secrets to him if he asked, and his words had the ring of truth to them.

Ashley sighed, and wondered why he was giving Sydney’s suggestion so much thought. A trail twenty-five years cold would be an insurmountable hurdle. Even with the dead as eyewitnesses, it would be impossible. They were risks to be eliminated for the good for Valendia, not to justify to himself that he remained human after everything he had done. So too Sydney, but why Ashley was fascinated by Sydney was an easier question to answer even if the answer sat uncomfortably with him. Sydney was all sharp edges, from his tongue to his cheekbones to his hands, and Ashley had ever been drawn to a blade. The same desires that made him a good Riskbreaker were the same desires that made him want to split his skin against Sydney’s fingers, mark those cheekbones with his blood, and silence Sydney’s silver tongue with his own. These couldn’t be the desires of a good family man and husband who had eyes only for his wife, but they also could not be the desires of a murderous hound who killed on his master’s command. Perhaps his desire to mark Sydney as his own was the real Ashley, if such a thing existed. Maybe that was Sydney’s true power: the ability to see a person for who they really were.

His head ached suddenly, pulsing in time with his rapid heartbeat. His breath came quick and ragged, and for a time all he could do was exist and breathe. He could almost make out words, something important to him, but they were just out of hearing. Then the moment passed, and he was able to rise to his feet once more and wipe the blood from his nose with the back of his hand. The voices troubled him, because he knew them even as he did not remember what they had told him or who they were. These moments came less frequently now than he first arrived in Leá Monde, and he was still not sure what triggered them.

It didn’t matter, because it had not changed what he had resolved to do. He had a duty to the dead. He would see it through. Then he would find Sydney and demand answers of him. And then … well, that would depend on what answers Sydney gave.

Ashley put the diary back where he found it, checked his weapons and supplies, and was satisfied. Everything seemed to be, if not in good condition, good enough until he found a workshop to repair the damage and restock his supplies from the storage chest. If he was to conduct an experiment in speaking with the dead, he didn’t want to be killed later for being ill-prepared.

“Right,” he said aloud. His voice was rusty and hoarse with disuse. It had been so long since he had spoken to another person that he found himself needing to speak aloud if only to assure himself that he was alive. Normally silence did not worry him--nother way that Leá Monde was affecting him and not for the better. “Let’s begin.”

If not for the broken ward, he could start here, and perhaps speak to the writer of the diary. If he knew more, he might have repaired the ward. He didn’t, and when he tried to refashion it into another ward. The magick would not take but instead ran up his arm in painful spasms. Still, there would be other places, steeped in the Dark and untouched by either Sydney’s cultists or Guildenstern’s soldiers. He knew enough about magick now to cast wards and sigils to protect and shield himself. The rest was a matter of resonance. If there was something Ashley understood, it was the grief associated with death.

He opened a window to the street below, took aim, and shot the monsters who gathered around the building. They clawed at one another to get closer to him, tearing down any that managed to climb above the rabble. There was no rational thought or cunning in their actions, but instead the frantic actions of rabid animals. He felt them fade away, watching their earthly shells turn to dust and ash, and he found himself wondering why anyone would want the power that rested inside Leá Monde.

Once the street below was clear, he swung out from the window and let himself drop three storeys to the ground below. He landed in a crouch that stung, but it didn’t break his ankles. It should have. The Dark was refashioning Ashley as a weapon much like it honed a knife to kill the undead. It poured its power into him, reworking him to hold it and wield it for some purpose, and Ashley could do nothing but passively receive it. Perhaps not a weapon then, he mused, but a vessel. A weapon was a tool to be used; a vessel merely existed. Ashley preferred the weapon analogy. For now, he rose from his crouch and stalked down the street, searching for a place he could make safe from intruders.

***

As it turned out, the safest place to set up was also the same place to replenish his supplies. Workshops were always well-fortified against casual invasion, and the one near the Keep was no different. Ashley took a moment to repair his weapons. It hadn’t been that long since he last checked them, but one of the gems was misaligned and so the weapon felt off-balance in his hand. There was something soothing about aligning hilts to blades, inlaying gemstones, and repairing bindings. Ashley had liked it for as long as he could remember because it was simple, straightforward, and predictable. Even in Leá Monde, where weapons took on a life of their own and hungered for more death, the process of keeping weapons maintained was the same.

Then he cut his arm and let himself bleed into a bowl. The cut was neither deep nor long, but bled like it was both. The bowl filled quickly, and Ashley sealed up the cut with a cantrip. He then looked to the door and window to decide which one would be sealed first. The door rattled as something outside tried to get in. That made his decision simple.

The door was barred with metal, and Ashley used the top bar, located at eye height, as the starting point. He dipped his fingers into the bowl and sketched out the curves and lines that made up a glyph he’d read in a grimoire. He could feel the potential humming as he lifted his hand away, the magick trapped inside making the hairs on his arm stand up, but it wouldn’t activate yet. He needed the second glyph on the window before anything would happen, and so he moved onto the window.

The glass seemed more malleable as Ashley daubed it with his blood, which subtly clung to his fingers. He pulled his hand away after finishing the last sinuous curve of this sigil, expecting his fingers to either be clean or thinly glazed. They were, instead, merely stained with his blood. He waited a moment and then breathed on the window, feeling foolish as he did so. There was no rational explanation as to how he could feel the protection embedded in the crude drawing come to life — or perhaps drawn from his life. Ashley caught himself on the wall against a wave of dizziness. It quickly passed, but the prickling feeling emanating from the sigils on the door and window remained.

It was quiet now. It was never quiet in Leá Monde, and this silence had the same tense quality of the immediate aftermath to an accident. The door didn’t rattle, there was no sound of an arrow firing or magick being thrown at the door. He could sense, in the same eldritch way that he could sense the sigil, that just outside the radius of his spell, the undead had gathered. Waiting for him.

“I see that was popular,” Ashley observed drily.

That done, he set about trying to resurrect the dead and see their memories through their eyes. Unfortunately, none of the grimoires he had found told him how to use his ability to see through another’s eyes, or the limits of this ability. He did know what he could do, and he disliked that. A tool was only as useful as the use it could be put to.

Finally, he did nothing, and that was the hardest thing of all for someone who was always in motion. He sat on the floor, closed his eyes, and forced himself to breathe in time with Leá Monde’s heartbeat. He let himself drift with each breath, until he thought of little at all. That was when he felt something catch at him, latching on and leeching energy from him. He opened his eyes to see a shade of a man. His form was indistinct at first, but with each breath he became more solid and defined: a big, stocky man marked with the burn scars of the workshop and wearing the heavy apron and gloves of a blacksmith. Death had drained all color from him, save for the wrinkles and other signs of age. He looked like a middle-aged man: someone who had laughed a lot in his time.

They stared at each other for a moment, but Ashley recovered first. He rose to his feet and leaned against the wall, left foot propped against the skirting panel and the right on the floor. He folded his arms loosely and looked levelly at the man. The threat was in the contrast of how he was standing and the tension that always existed inside a Riskbreaker. Most people recognized the contrast and subconsciously reacted to it. The blacksmith was no different, moving behind his forge to put some distance between them.

“Peace, friend,” Ashley said. “I’m a Riskbreaker.”

The blacksmith’s eyes went wide, and he put his hands up in surrender. That too was a common response to meeting a Riskbreaker. Part of their effectiveness was the fear others had of them.

“I’m investigating a murder,” he continued, because it was true. “Do you remember the day of the earthquake?”

“Aye,” the man said warily, still keeping his hands where Ashley could see them, “but I never saw a murder.”

“Can you tell me about that day?”

The blacksmith was silent for a moment. His face was a pane of glass, and Ashley could see him wondering whether Ashley was mocking him. Self-preservation triumphed over questioning Ashley—always ill-advised, especially as Ashley would answer his questions—and the blacksmith spoke.

“I worked. The earthquake came. It was a big one, bigger than anything I’ve seen. The sky went dark and then—” The man stopped. It didn’t look natural. Ashley had seen enough people deliberately choose to not answer, and this was different. It was not him choosing, but instead something external stilling his tongue. He frowned, shuddered, and said, “A strange turn came over me.”

“A strange turn?”

“Aye. That’s it.” The man regained his composure by this point, and he folded his arms in turn. He was already a big man, and by folding his arms he seemed even larger than before. Most people would have been threatened. Ashley merely tilted his head in query: what are you doing?

“What murder do you speak of?” the blacksmith asked. “As you see, I saw nothing.”

“The murder was yours,” Ashley said, and heard Sydney’s mocking cadences in his own voice. Perhaps Sydney knowing the mysteries that were the engine agitating the wellspring underfoot was why he always sounded languidly amused by the events unfolding in front of him. Ashley cleared his throat, and reminded himself he was Ashley Riot, Riskbreaker. He sounded like himself again when he asked, “Do you not recall your own death?”

He had expected a reaction. Most people would react badly upon being told of their murder, though he had no real frame of reference as usually the dead stayed dead. He watched in mild concern as the thin layer of civilized manners was stripped away. The man’s countenance was wild and feral, and while there was intelligence in his shadow-dark eyes, it was not a human one. The Dark looked back at Ashley, and he would not blink first. Then, like blood into a bruise, civility seeped into the blacksmith’s expression once more. He shuddered, and Ashley wondered if he even remembered the moment where the Dark took him over. Probably not.

“Is that a jape?” the man asked, half-wondering and half-indignant, “for you are no jester.”

“No, I speak truth.”

The blacksmith shook his head.

“Dead? Me? You must be mistaken. Do I not stand before you?”

“For a time,” Ashley allowed, “but only a time.”

It seemed cruel to leave the spell in place or to ask forgiveness before killing the man again, so Ashley did neither. He reached out with his hand and choked the lifeline between himself and the blacksmith. He then watched as the murder occurred anew, this time at his hand. The man’s reason was the first thing to leave, and he snarled impotently as the energy that held him out of the Dark drained from him like liquid from a broken vessel. The man slipped through Ashley’s fingers like water, like smoke, like ash and blood, and left the same residue on his tongue as when he slaughtered a monster. He supposed it was the same thing.

Except—

—the workshop has changed. It is bright and hot with the heated forge and the sun. Ashley stands, arms folded and leg propped against the wall, as the man he had questioned reaches into the forge with his tongs to remove a red-hot blade for the anvil. Sweat pours down the man’s face, but he does not flinch from his task. Once the sword is in place, the blacksmith reaches for his hammer, and Ashley feels each impact as if it were him striking the blade.

He draws closer to the man, unseen and unheard, only to have to step out of the way as the blacksmith moves backward to examine his work. His expression is intent, satisfied, alive in the way that his shade could never emulate. He lives, and so Ashley waits for his inevitable murder. It comes quickly.

The first sign is at the window, as the sky goes dark. The man looks outside, searching for answers, but there are no explanations to be found. The second sign is a song under his feet that he feels rather than hears. The melody is unfamiliar to Ashley and the blacksmith both. The blacksmith looks puzzled, Ashley grimly resigned for what he must witness. The earth moves terribly, as Ashley knows it must, and the anvil is lifted from the ground. It strikes the man in the chest, and his death is mercifully quick if not painless —

— and Ashley found himself on his hands and knees. The murmur of the Dark was a scream in his ears and almost as loud as his breathing. His fingers hurt, and it took him a moment to understand it was because they had been scraped raw against the stone floor. He must have seized during his vision. No matter. He had obtained a lead to chase down.

“A song…?” he said aloud. The briefing he’d received from LaSait had mentioned that the cultists occasionally sang at the conclusion of Sydney’s sermons, but the briefing had not included details of the song. Ashley had dismissed the reference to singing at the time as irrelevant. Now he wondered he had been too quick to judge. It depended, ultimately, on who was responsible for the mass murder of Leá Monde.

Ashley forced himself to his feet, grimacing as stiffened muscles protested against the movement. He’d have to be more careful. He had used himself hard these last few hours, and there were no reinforcements coming for him. He broke the spell keeping the workshop safe by running his raw and bloody fingers across the markings on the door. The spell broke with a painful snap that resonated down his bones, and Ashley blinked against a responding stab in his mind.

The monsters were still there, no longer held at bay by the ward. He could feel them gathering, greater in number than before. He pushed the door open, stepped outside, and lobbed a ball of fire overhead and down onto the monsters who were starting to creep towards the door. They died, as they should, and dissipated into the Dark, as they should, but with each death Ashley experienced the earthquake, the sky going dark, and the song coming from the ground below. With each death, Ashley saw who they were in life. They died, and their memories poured into Ashley.

Unfortunately, none of them knew what had happened to them, and their memories after their deaths were of no use at all. He needed to find someone who had held power when Leá Monde fell. He stepped over the burned vessels of the murdered dead of Leá Monde, and wondered if he should say a prayer for them. He was not religious, and if the undead were they were beyond the reach of Saint Iocus, so he decided not to waste his breath. Leave religion for those of the cloth; Ashley would deal with the truths of this world. He reached up to catch Tia’s rood necklace in his hand. The carving dug into his hand.

***

Once, all roads led to the Leá Monde Cathedral. That was by design. The briefing Ashley had received about Leá Monde was that once it was a pious city, with worship the centre of each person’s lives. He had known it to be a lie. Even before he had learned that thousands had died to fuel the wellspring of power under their feet, Ashley knew the power of town planning. It was not that worship was the centre of their lives, but instead a hope it would be. For what purpose, he did not know. Nor was it really his mission to find out.

He dropped from the roof of a low-lying house to the alley below, landing in a squat. His hand grazed the ground before him for balance as he scanned his surroundings, ready to rise to his feet to fight if he must. He was, however, alone in this alleyway. As he looked around, his eye caught on the Kildean runes carved onto the outside of a nearby house. The runes ran from ground to knee height, and though worn away by the passage of time, he could still make out their form. Not that he could read them, but he didn’t need to know what they said to understand why they were hidden away from view. Leá Monde was a God-fearing city, and the Church would not suffer cultists in its breast.

Ashley rose from his squat and took a step towards the Main Street, shielding his eyes with his hand against the early-afternoon sun. All roads may have once led to the Cathedral, but now it seemed none of them did. This street was no exception. He could see the cathedral looming overhead, but the road was broken. The gaps in the ground were almost too large to leap over, and Ashley did not trust that his footing would be good on the other side. He’d dropped a rock down one of the fissures on one of the earlier streets and counted how long it took for the rock to reach the bottom. It didn’t. He wasn’t sure where it went.

If he had felt more himself he might have tried to leap across the broken road to the other side. He didn’t trust his own body at the moment. He felt … strange, for lack of a better word, though perhaps “disconnected” might be a better choice. Though his body moved as he willed, and his combat reflexes remained as sharp as they always were, he felt both himself and not himself. He remembered earlier being driven by something other than the act of seeking out the dead to kill them. He reached up to touch the carved wooden necklace he wore on a leather thong. The movement was habitual, but ultimately meaningless. He didn’t remember which corpse he took the rood necklace from, and thought it didn’t matter.

Then he remembered — the necklace was Tia’s. How could he have forgotten her?

He shuddered, bit his lip to remind himself of his here and now, and made his way towards the alleyway across the street. There had been a bakery here, and he had woken up every morning to the smell of baking bread and spun sugar wafting down the street. He would pick up a croissant and eat it on his way to the docks, the buttery pastry melting in his mouth as he nodded at the widow of one of his fellow workers. Ashley remembered this so vividly that he could almost taste the croissant and sea-salt air, except that Leá Monde had fallen when he was very young. He had never been a dockworker. He was a Riskbreaker, and he would not unravel mid-investigation. He would finish his mission, no matter what.

He checked out the alleyway, and was about to move on when he was ambushed from behind by two monsters: a skittering spider-like being and a Dullahan. The two of them working together was unexpected. He took a step backward, foot slipping on loose gravel and he caught himself on a nearby window before the spider was on him. His glaive was in his hand without a thought, and he tore it through the spider before reaching for his crossbow to shoot the Dullahan through the gap in its visor.

They died again, as they should. And then, memory fell onto him like a deluge—

—The sky is beautiful overhead, a clear cerulean blue with only a hint of cloud on the horizon. The sun is gentle against his skin, with a light breeze bringing with it the scent of the forest. He is observing a woman, dark hair tucked under a scarf and wearing the apron of a baker over a dress stained with flour. She is smiling up at the sky, the open easy smile of someone thinking nothing more complicated than pleasure in being in this moment.

As Ashley watches the sky, it changes from one moment to the next from blue to black. The sky is not the bruised color of a coming storm. It’s like nothing he’s ever seen before, and the woman stares in baffled horror at the sky, and how everyone else freezes in place, looking intently at nothing. Ashley cannot hear what they hear, because this baker whose memory he has borrowed cannot hear it.

The first warning she has of the pending catastrophe is the ground rumbling under her feet, but she can’t do anything with that knowledge before the earthquake strikes. She crouches to the ground and covers her head, which is all she can do as the earth roils beneath her like the sea. The earthquake stretches for an eternity, and she must ride it out.

Finally it stops.

She rises to her feet and looks at the wreckage of what was once the main thoroughfare. It is eerily still, as if she is the only person left alive in the world, and she decides to go to the Cathedral. She’s not pious, but thinks that she was only alive due to the shelter of Saint Iocus’ hand. It’s still unnaturally dark, and she thinks she can see lights glimmering in the sky’s depths; they’re not stars but they’re about as remote and unknowable.

She senses something behind her and turns around, only to be cut down by a creature of legend that wields its slab of metal like a sword—

—Ashley gasped like a man drowning—

—He salutes the training dummy before his first strike with his broadsword, an odd affectation but something his knight-master had instilled in him when he was a squire. His blade belongs to the Lord, and to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and he must be respectful of his opponents for they too are children of God. He inclines his head in recognition of the salute that ordinarily he would receive in return, and then moves in for his first devastating strike.

There is no second, because he hears the song of the devil and freezes in place. He reaches for his rosary, a prayer on his lips, before the earth moves beneath him. The weapons of the armory go flying, and he doesn’t have time to react as a mace moves towards him.

There’s a sensation of heat against his skull, and then nothing. No pain, no light or sound, just existence in a void, before he opens his eyes again to agony and wretchedness. His soul is torn, bereft of the protection of flesh, and though he has found himself a new cage of enormous metal armor, it does little to shield him from the chill of death.

His sword is broader now, more a sheet of metal than a sword, and it’s almost too heavy to lift. He drags it across the ground; the terrible shrill grinding of metal against stone is not enough to distract him from the agony of his existence. He needs the protective shroud of flesh and blood to nurture and nourish his soul, and his body has been stolen from him.

But he can take it back. He sees the thief standing in the middle of the street, shielding her eyes as she stares into the abyss of the sky. He will take back what is his. He brings the sword up and strikes her down where she stands—

— and Ashley came back to himself, on his knees, with a death grip on his sword, and needing to kill who had stolen his body. He sagged under the weight of memory—his own and that of everyone who had died—and asked himself which of his recollections were real. They all felt real, and it was only when he bit through his lip that the bright stinging pain reminded him that he was Ashley Riot, and he was not dead. He was not the man who had killed the baker, even if his arms remembered the heft of the blade and the way it swung in the air toward her.

He allowed himself another moment on his knees, recognizing that his investigation had taken an unconventional turn and that he needed time to recollect his wits. He stayed there until the discomfort of the stone against his knees overcame his disorientation, and then he forced himself to stand. He swallowed against nausea and dizziness, wavering on his feet until he caught himself against the window sill once more. Once he felt more steady, he looked to the sky and gauged the time by the movement of the sun.

“Oh,” he breathed, because it was later in the day than it should be. He’d been in a reverie for an hour or so, and he had no recollection of time passing. With each death, it became harder and harder for him to return. Even now, he felt uncomfortable inside his own body. He moved his fingers in sequence, pressed his hands to his face, and felt like he was a mannequin or a clay golem. Or, worse, that he was the thief who had stolen someone else’s body. The back of his neck itched in anticipation of the blade to claim it back. There was nothing there. He checked anyway.

“Enough,” he said, a little louder than necessary. The dead were not capable of speech, not without him as medium. He could still turn away. He could still abandon this quest for answers, follow after Sydney and learn the truth of what had happened at the Bardorba Manor last night. All he would have to do was walk away, and ignore the cries of the dead. It would be easy. Men had done that to Leá Monde for over twenty years, and Ashley’s small betrayal was nothing in the face of that. He could even come back after he found Sydney, and seek witness from the dead then. It was not as if they would become any less dead in that time.

And yet … he was reminded of the doll he killed earlier that day. The one that had cried like Marco had had. Leá Monde was filled with people like Tia and Marco, good people in the wrong place at the wrong time and who had died for it. He owed it to them to find the answers here.

“Very well,” he said to no one but himself. The dead could not speak. Only the living could speak without aid. Ashley could speak, and therefore he was alive.

He turned back the way he came, stepping into the open street only to step back into the alley at the shriek of a harpy. Several monsters had regrouped on the main street, all clustered around the entrance to the side street that sheltered Ashley. Four were harpies, two dervishes and one a hound. The combination was enlightening as much as it was disturbing, because it showed that they could think to overcome each other’s weaknesses to defeat one foe. It was not enough to take Ashley down, but it would certainly have been enough to take down any of the militia or the cultists.

Instinct drove him to throw his arm up and debilitate them with magick, blind and bind them, before destroying them with a strike of magick. He could feel the moment of their deaths, almost simultaneous under the fury of his magick. It was dust and desolation in his mouth, so much that he choked on it. It was the falling of a building onto his mind, crushing any resistance he might have put up against the onslaught of their last memories. They had died together before as well, when the roof to the shop fell on them, and that was a small mercy to them.

Not so Ashley. Their shared deaths were devastating because they had weight and tangibility. He could not see or interpret what he saw, but instead he stood helplessly as it tore down his identity. He was too fragile to withstand the onslaught. The weight of their deaths tore through his mind as if it were lace, and the man known as Ashley Riot was lost inside their grief and anger.

***

Ashley blinked and did not recognize where he was at first. Then he did. It was not a comfort.

His last memory was of winding side streets, the mid-afternoon sun uncomfortably warm against his skin, and a breeze that smelled of the Snowfly Forest. He remembered the sky: the blue he saw and the black of his memories. He remembered the monsters, and striking them though with a foolish, instinctual use of force. Now he was in the sewer, the damp air a stagnant cloth against his skin and a wide open space bisected by water flowing to the sea. It would take an hour or two to reach the sewer from the Keep, and he had no memory of the missing time. He could, however, interpolate it by the evidence left on him.

Ashley checked his weapons and found them battered and damaged. The shaft of his pike was broken completely in half, tied together with rawhide, and there were teeth marks in the wood. Whatever had tried to snap the pike in two with its teeth had a mouth bigger than both of his splayed hands, with many sharp teeth. A dragon? Surely not. Surely he would remember that. Maybe not, given that there were teeth marks on his wrist guards and acid burns on his arms. He ached all over as if he had been fighting for his life, more than just fighting a dragon. His weapons supported that too, as they were clean, but he could feel their increased power like a broken bone. They hungered for blood and death. The rapier was particularly painful to touch, as it wanted to kill another human and would turn on Ashley given the chance. He thought about tossing it aside, then decided against it. The dead were the dead, but his true opponents were human.

He checked the room again to make sure nothing would come out at him. The door on his side of the chasm was closed and bolted on his side. The little alcoves and nooks littered around the room at shoulder height were occupied but only by the discarded shells of the dead, feathered by Ashley’s arrows. The roof above looked solid, and the water flowing below was moving too fast for anything to pull itself out. It looked as though the room was as secure as Ashley could hope for under the circumstances, so he sat down on a raised block of stone and made makeshift repairs to his weapons.

He started with his most potent weapon: himself. He healed his injuries with magick, and was unsettled by how much he required to be made whole once more. After that, he checked his supplies, and could not account for half of them. There was no pattern in what was missing or what was left. Curative plants were half-chewed, the reagents were untouched and, bizarrely, all of his Eyes of Argon were used. Whatever had possessed him clearly had some sense of self-preservation, or it just wanted to see his death coming.

His brief, black mirth dissipated quickly.

Ashley had thought of his ability to see through the eyes of another as a lens by which he could see the world. Perhaps even a scrying pool of legend — to look into the past and learn its secrets. He had thought it a tool to use, and that was a grievous mistake. It was not the tool, and nor was he a tool. Ashley was a vessel, and the past was filling him to overflowing. He was a drowning man with no hope for rescue unless he swam himself to shore. He needed to take action, and there was only one course of action available to him: if he could not disengage from this quest, he needed to find his answer to what had happened to Leá Monde, return to sanctuary, and resume his mission to find the truth behind Sydney’s actions.

He pushed himself to his feet, grimacing at how his muscles had stiffened in that short respite. The chasm looked too large to leap across from a distance, but it narrowed at a pinch point between two jutting slabs of stone. He’d have to jump high and brace himself to scrabble up the other side, but Ashley thought he could manage it. He took several steps backward, took a breath to steady himself, and then ran and leaped over the chasm.

His clean landing on the other side left him breathless and pleasantly surprised. His little jaunt into insanity had made him stronger, if nothing else. He straightened from his crouch, confirmed all of his possessions had made it across with him, and unlocked the door.

There were monsters on the other side. But Ashley had his second wind now and could sense something great and terrible near the end of the passageway. He didn’t have time to waste with this, so he didn’t. He evaded magickal attacks from floating spirits, dodged weapon strikes from armed undead knights, and simply ran through the rooms. He was faster than he remembered himself being. Leá Monde’s changes to him were not all bad. He stood and fought in one room because he could feel the monstrous presence was just ahead and he wanted time to prepare.

The next room was occupied by Quicksilvers, and Ashley cut them down. Then he froze, because it was a room full of the spirits of children, who saw and knew nothing of their deaths. He swiped his forearm across his face, dashing away angry tears, and grimly resigned himself to the necessity of continuing to kill children to escape. They were necessary deaths, he told himself, so that all of Leá Monde’s citizens could finally rest easily. He believed it then as much as he believed that Tia and Marco’s deaths were necessary.

Once he had composed himself once more, Ashley took a moment to check his weapons one last time. His hands were steady, despite the bone-crushing fatigue that had set in. He may not be ready for the fight on the other side, but he would have to fight it in order to escape to the surface. That was how things had played out since his arrival, after all.

He opened the door and saw a monster, seven feet tall and heartbreakingly beautiful with long, delicate gossamer wings that held it in the air. It was humanoid, built along attenuated lines that looked unsettlingly like a person stretched almost to breaking. It was wrapped in a sheet of flame; its long hair flowed like a river and was the color of a wintery sea; and its skin a burnished bronze. It was the kind of beauty that would lure men to sail into the heart of a storm, and devoted followers to die at their pleasure. It was alien, it was terrifying, and it was as mirror-bright and sharp as a well-cared for blade. It was Sydney made inhumanly perfect, from the way it was lit up like the the sun to the eyes that saw far too much. He wanted to prostate himself under that gaze, beg on his knees as it carded its hand through his hair like he was a dog, and in that way it was nothing like Sydney at all. If Sydney had made anything clear, it was he relished the challenge that Ashley posed to him.

In this dark place, it seemed strange to draw comfort from the fey leader of the Müllenkamp cult. And yet, Ashley was able to raise his chin in silent defiance. He forced himself to look as he marred the once-Bishop’s perfection with the edge of his sword. He cut open the creature’s cheek, and though it healed quickly, it also left a mark from cheekbone to jaw. That imperfection gave Ashley something to focus on as he side-stepped its lightning strike.

From its appearance, it looked like it was a sorcerer, and Ashley knew how to deal with sorcerers: silence them, still their hands, and overwhelm them physically before they could heal their injuries. So he set about doing that.

It was a battle of attrition. The creature was more robust than any magickal creature Ashley had fought before, and fast as well. Ashley did not come to this battle prepared or rested. He was exhausted and hollow, moving like a cracked vessel rather than the trained warrior he was. He ducked a cutting slice of wind, blocked a stream of flame, and barely stepped out of range for its debilitating spells. He took shelter behind a broken stone, and the monster teleported behind him to resume the attack. Obviously, the sorcerer was intelligent enough to know that giving Ashley space was a death sentence. It was always nice to be recognised as the threat you were.

Finally, he was able to buy himself enough time to conjure magick to still the monster’s tongue. With that out of the way, their roles were reversed: Ashley pressed the attack while the monster ducked and weaved. It was less of a battle and more a slaughter by the time he slipped his blade between the creature’s ribs. When he withdrew his sword it was stained with the creature’s heart blood. It shuddered, whimpered, and died.

Ashley steeled himself for the inevitable assault of memory and loss—

—he is standing in front of his followers. It is time for the daily sermon at Leá Monde Cathedral, and as bishop of this flock he is responsible for their spiritual wellbeing. He takes this charge seriously and from the sheer number of people within the nave the people of Leá Monde appreciate his devotion. Today is a day for comfort, and he gives it freely. He assures them that Saint Iocus listens to all of their prayers and intercedes with God for them and that their patience and acceptance of heathens and heretics in their midst would one day be rewarded in heaven. He counsels them to embody kindness and gentle concern towards their neighbors, even those who have not yet seen the glory of their Lord, and to walk righteously down the path created for them. He says it and is heartened by how his followers listen intently to his words.

He says all of this knowing that today will be the day that those who have turned their back on God will be cast down into hell where they belong and only the penitent will be saved. He has ensured that his flock are counted as the elect, praying ever since the person who masked their face with a spell came to him and said that Leá Monde was about to be cast aside. Wait for the signs, he’d been assured by that person, you will know your salvation by His silencing of the devil’s song.

And so, when the sky turns black and plunges the Cathedral, previously soaked in stained-glass light, into darkness, he knows what is to come. He tells his flock that all will be well. They live in the shadow of the Lord’s hand and He will not permit them to be harmed. When the song comes, he tells them that God knew of this and would protect them. He grins in triumph as the earthquake comes and silences the song, because today all who believe will be saved.

Then one of his parishioners falls to the ground. Then another. Then pew after pew, they fall lifeless to the ground. Within moments, the nave is occupied only by the dead. He is the only one left alive, and he knows who betrayed him. Leá Monde has been cast aside, and in that the spell that shrouded the messenger’s identity falls aside. And now, at the moment of his death, he is able to pierce the diabolerie that has stilled his tongue and say aloud his murderer’s name—

— and Ashley returned to himself with a horrible, agonizing start. For a stunned moment, all he could do was stare down at the arrow shaft that pierced his chest. He could hear the sound of beating wings, and he managed to lift his sword enough to impale the harpy as it descended towards him. Its outstretched claws grazed his throat but didn’t pierce the skin. A small comfort that, with an arrow resting next to his heart.

His sword fell from nerveless fingers. He hadn’t consciously let it go. He blinked, and when he opened his eyes again, he was lying in his own blood on the floor. He tried to move against the hideous pain that seized him, but he only managed to move his head so that he did not drown. He was dying, and that knowledge should have driven him to rise to his knees or drag himself across the floor to safety. Instead, he just waited, because he could do nothing else, until finally, he didn’t do anything at all.

***

The Dark knew all of Leá Monde. It was Leá Monde and had been its shadow ever since the first crude hut was built near the river. It knew everyone who had lived within Leá Monde, and it touched all that existed within it. All that lived or died within Leá Monde rested within the Dark, and it could see all that would rest within the Dark as well. Here, a lamb to the slaughter blithely followed the butcher, thinking that he loved her. He did, but he had hardened himself against the pain he would inflict on himself when he drew his blade against her throat. They were making their way to the Cathedral roof, where their tragedy would finally play itself out. Now here, a loyal dog whose loyalty was questioned but not questionable, leading his captives to safety even knowing he will die of it. With him, the innocent heir to the Dark who will not speak of what he has seen, and the querent who who cannot help but question what she has seen. There, throughout its city, the smaller sacrifices of the faiths who live and die at the hands of the forgotten dead. The Dark knows all of them, and hungers for them.

And here was the Dark’s prophet. He was always the light in the dark, a spindle around which the Dark wound itself. He had always been a beautiful creature, fine bones barely containing the fire in his soul, fair hair, and deceptively attractive eyes that made him look more fragile than he was. He looked ethereal but burned with conviction and purpose and that had attracted the Dark’s eye more than any physical beauty. Or, at least part of the Dark. The part of the Dark that Sydney had laid claim to earlier that day. If he were anyone else, the Dark would have crushed him for his arrogance. But no one had the temerity that Sydney had, and he was charming and beautiful with it.

He was no less beautiful on his hands and knees as he panted and choked wetly around a plea for aid. He coughed, and his metal wrought arms were splattered with his blood.

In front of their prophet was a carefully drawn circle, marked out with Sydney’s claws. Arcane words were carved around the circle, to tempt and lure a part of the Dark in. It was an invitation rather than invocation. The centre of the circle was occupied by the discarded body of a man lying on his side, whose copper hair was slipping out of its knot to fan around his head like a halo. Where Sydney was deceptively delicate, this man was muscular without being heavy-set, an assassin rather than a soldier. His shirt was bloody, but there are no visible injuries. His expression was slack and peaceful.

“I will finish what I started,” the man—Sydney—rasped. “Whatever the gods demand of me for this, I will give without question, without hesitation. But bring him back, for he is the vessel we have longed for all these years.”

The thing that was once Ashley Riot was intrigued by this scene. Sydney did not plead or beg the gods for gifts. Every time Sydney cast one of his spells, it was a demand of what was owed, with Sydney as a contractor rather than a supplicant. That was what drew Ashley’s eye—a man who knew the weapon in his hands and what he would cut with it. In this way, Ashley was different to the rest of Leá Monde, who did not care for Sydney’s promises merely because his magick circle protected a body from entry of all but one specific soul.

They knew nothing of Sydney.

Ashley did.

Sydney raised his head and stared at the swirl of the Dark in front. He smiled, and his teeth were stained with his blood.

“I see you,” he said. He sounded exhausted, pained, and delighted all at once. “We have little enough time. Return to me and finish what you have started, Ashley Riot.”

Curiosity and devotion: they always were the foundation to Ashley’s existence, and this was no different. His soul stayed while the rest of the Dark left to find new hosts, and with each of Sydney’s heartbeats, let himself be drawn into the circle. It was a sweet, awful pain done in increments, and Ashley embraced it. It was a pain that was echoed in Sydney’s face as he bled onto the floor, except Sydney gazed on him with exultant possessiveness. Ashley could feel Sydney’s triumph resonate in his soul, and that was new as well.

Between one breath and the next, Ashley was drawn into his body once more. It felt wrong, limited. Once he had been the Dark, and now he was limited to his six senses. He could not move. He could not see. He could breathe, and did so in time with Sydney’s rapid, ragged gasps. He knew, without checking, that his heart was beating in time with Sydney’s as well. He knew, because Sydney did, and Ashley managed a choked, questioning noise at this.

Sydney did not offer an answer.

Finally, Ashley had returned to himself enough to roll onto his back to look at the ceiling. It was as far as he could move. Now he could see, and the roof was familiar. He had stared at it while dying, knowing that there was no salvation to hand. It was the room where he had found out what had happened in Leá Monde from the betrayed bishop. The dead man’s memories lingered, the bitter fury of a man who had tried to buy salvation and instead received nothing but dissolution. If only he could remember what the bishop had, but it seemed death had knocked out of him the name of who had betrayed Leá Monde.

“Have you learned what you sought?” Sydney asked. His voice was a ruin.

“Yes,” Ashley said, though he did not yet understand what he had learned. He understood why the sky went black, because that was the Dark waiting in eager anticipation for what was to come. Now that he had been part of the Dark he understood the hunger that drove it on. The earthquake had been the altar and knife, and the people the sacrifice.

“Why did the earth sing?” he asked, because that was the thing he did not understand. “All who heard it died.”

“How should I know?” Sydney asked archly, shrugging as he did so. “Recall for a moment that I was but a child when Leá Monde fell.”

Ashley hummed the melody. He’d heard it often enough to memorize it. The tune was unlovely in his voice, as death had scraped away beauty in his voice. Sydney did not visibly react, kneeling easily on the floor as if he had chosen to do so rather than could not stand a moment longer. Ashley could feel the recognition however, as well as the bone-tired exhaustion that mirrored Ashley’s own. It had been a long day, and it was not yet done. Maybe he was hallucinating.

“You think it mine?” Sydney raised his eyebrow in inquiry. “Tell me, Ashley. When have I ever sung to you?”

“That does not mean you do not sing to others,” Ashley responded. “Simply that you have not done it to me.”

Sydney acknowledged the point by angling his head.

“The song fell out of favor a long time ago,” Sydney said, in a surprising concession. “Little wonder no one recognizes it for a hymn.”

“Whose is it, Sydney?” Ashley said, pushing himself up on one elbow. It trembled under his weight, but ultimately held. Sydney was being unusually cooperative and so Ashley had to push the advantage. He needed to know. “Who is it for?”

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters,” Ashley pressed. “How can it not? It is the trigger, is it not, for everything?”

Sydney did not answer, but instead looked at him. Or, perhaps, looked into him and saw his heart’s desire. LaSait had told Ashley that that Sydney’s uncanny ability to see into the hearts of his followers was why they would die for him. Ashley had thought that to be so known would be a violation, not benediction. Now he could see why Sydney’s followers went where he led. He was beautiful and also captivating, made all the more potent because he knew these things was so.

“You’ll remember more when you are stronger,” Sydney said finally, seemingly satisfied by what he had observed. “There is a difference between calling them as witness and being them, and you have decided to be the latter.”

He smiled, fleeting and inexplicable. Ashley did not know what he found amusing or how he knew that Sydney was genuinely amused rather than mocking him. Now that he was more himself, he knew that he was more than himself.

“Speak plainly,” he said. “What have you done?”

“You know what I have done,” Sydney said, his voice light and mocking. He pushed his hair out of his face with a blood-stained hand. “I have brought cultists into Leá Monde, and we now spar with the church over the dark magick that rests in the heart of this city. I have incited insurrection and heresy, and I should burn at the stake once I am caught.”

Ashley doubted that it was possible to kill Sydney. He had struck Sydney down with an arrow the moment they met, and he had tossed it aside with a desultory gesture. If anything, he would assume Sydney would command the fire not to burn him, and it would be forced to obey.

“Can you burn?” Ashley asked.

“Anything can burn.” Sydney smiled, wide and mirthless. “Though I imagine you would join me in the bonfire. You have fashioned yourself a vessel for their memories. A vessel for the Dark. Given time, it will open to you like a flower, and then you will understand the bargain you have struck.”

He didn’t speak aloud. Ashley stared at him, stunned, because Sydney had spoken into his mind. Sydney’s expression was a blade, and Ashley had ever been drawn to a blade. Sydney knew this as well, and deliberately wiped his hand against his cheek, staining it with his blood. He grinned at Ashley’s heartbeat quickening in response, the shame and desire that transfixed him. Shame, because he was meant to be a good man, and desire, because he wasn’t.

“You see,” Sydney said, aloud this time to Ashley’s profound relief. “You will understand, because I understand. We are now bound, you and I. Curious, isn’t it? The hart and hound, forever entwined.”

As Ashley lay on the floor, breathing in time with Sydney, he knew it to be true.

“Why did you do it?” he said again and Sydney did not answer.

“Sydney!” Ashley demanded, and then started to cough. This wasn’t echoed by Sydney, who rose to his feet gracefully. It was a marvelous feat, not the least because Ashley could feel the control Sydney had over the Dark to lift him. In comparison, Ashley was like a sledgehammer. He admired that, and told himself that he would admire anyone who was a master of their craft. He could tell from Sydney’s emotions that he was fooling no one.

“Come to me, Riskbreaker!” Sydney said, arms stretched wide. Ashley had long suspected that Sydney enjoyed the theatrics; now he knew with certainty it was so. “Find your answers, find me, and put an end to what others have set in motion. You owe it to the dead to whom you have promised witness.”

Before Ashley could respond, Sydney teleported away. Now that they were bound together, Ashley could follow what he did, and thought he might even understand a little of how it was done. Given time, he might be able to do it himself. He smiled wryly at that thought—if there was something he lacked at the moment, it was time. His priority had to be to recover, and then seek out Sydney’s truth. Seeing a man’s soul did not reveal his future goals, or at least not yet to Ashley’s eyes. He forced himself to his knees, and then to his feet.

He’d rested enough. Time to return to his mission of finding the truth behind Sydney’s actions. What he would do after, was yet to be determined.