Sydney can be remarkably patient when he so chooses. To a certain extent, it is to be expected in death, but Sydney's ability to withstand time is exceptional even by that standard. It comes with playing the game, he supposes; with immortality and the fates of souls human and divine in the balance, missteps cannot be afforded. He knows, and so he waits.
His patience is fast abating.
Certainly, exploring his container had been a fascinating way to begin what he thought to be a temporary reprieve from earthly constraints. Somewhere in the recesses of Riot's soul, eldritch etchings demarcate him as the eternal property of Sydney Losstarot; that had been entertaining enough, for a time. But as weeks stretch to months and the glossy visions of snow-blanketed towns and the lively people within them begin to dim at the edges, Sydney senses a quietness descending, and it leaves him restless. He cannot call it desperation, nor is it despair; but as he drinks the knowledge of the Dark coursing through the man, the foreboding that plagues him latches itself to forgotten and pulls at him from there. It teases, this forgotten; it shows him powerlessness and comfort and the ache of moments stolen under a lone tree in the grass, and just as swiftly it transforms the scene to a view through Ashley's eyes, watchfully cataloguing and categorizing all that is not him.
Most souls come to the Vessel and meld with the Dark, a formless flowing of spirit into energy. Ashley shall remember, when he sees them again, but they shall not know him. The newly made Grissom or Faendos or even John Hardin will have another face, another name, another life shaped by separate circumstances and wholly unburdened by the sins of Leá Monde. Not Sydney, though. Bardorba or Losstarot or any other, such appellations are meaningless to him in the wake of his realization, and Sydney is always Sydney – Sydney is.
Sydney has been a perennial favorite of the Dark, and he spares no time in taking advantage of its powers.
"Remember," he whispers to his captor, his charge. "Overcome."
The names filter into Ashley's consciousness as he traverses the well-worn steps from behind closed eyes – across the Tircolas Flow, there, and through the Glacialdra Kirk Ruins – there is Rue Sant D'alsa just ahead, and Dinas Walk via the exit to the west...In truth, the hand-carved signposts are a bed of rubble now, and ossified beyond legibility before that, but it matters not. The Dark knows the names of Leá Monde's sacred streets as deeply as it knows her spellsongs, woven among the walls and pillars and worn into the soul of the city with the passage of years. "The Dark always remembers," it observes airily. It is cold comfort for Ashley, who now wears two Roods on the sturdy leather strap about his neck – one oriented heavenward, in the direction of St. Iocus, and one inverted, an eldritch-metal memorial to the life that lay behind him in the days before.
Uncertainty gnaws at the back of Ashley's mind like a hellhound upon a new meaty bone, and the Dark is swift to chastise him for it. "Remember," it admonishes. "Overcome."
"Easy enough for you to say," Ashley mutters in reply. "Harder still for me to do." Power he has in abundance, he thinks with a snort, but his memory fares no better with the Dark to guide it than it had in the days when the VKP filleted and served it up to him as a delicacy of their own making. Language, too, has not come easily to Ashley. He recalls his first subtle questioning of the Dark – what was he to do with all of this responsibility and no direction? He has the presence of mind not to color at the recollection, but he remains chagrined all the same – a mental shouting match over a simple misunderstanding had claimed the lives of two trees and a swath of grass, and only a span of seconds had left the livestock unscathed. In the end, Ashley was made to understand that his lot was to travel and collect lost souls – collect, the Dark had hissed; not reave, and certainly not create from whole cloth.
Not that it stops him from trying, the few times his mind's eye captures and holds a crystalline image of blond locks shifting as a body turned or the dull reflection of foxfire light off supple metallic limbs.
The first time, it had been the fires. Ashley had sworn he had seen a figure dancing, willowy limbs undulating with the flames and finger-cymbals clacking out the beats, but when he rushes to the pyre only a coin tumbles down, unburnt. He leaves the townspeople to squabble over the coin and stalks into the night, angry and unsettled.
On the second occasion, he had been supping in what could scarce be called an inn – it was an outpost, really, three days' hard march from Valnain – and Ashley had been shaken from reverie by the unmistakable sound of leather sighing against leather. He looks up to find slate-grey eyes staring back at him from a seat near the bar and the whisper of remember on soft, light lips. Stunned into open-mouthed silence, he only narrowly dodges a pint glass thrown bodily at his head; the choice and entirely unfavorable intimations of the ruddy-faced patron who catches him staring, however, are not so easy to avoid. Ashley hastily deposits twice the payment for his dinner on his table and hurries out, not wishing to remain long where attention had been called to him.
That he has even less interest in remaining where imperfect visions of a blond ex-cultist cloud his perceptions goes without comment, but the Dark that envelops him notes and processes the truth all the same.
Now, Ashley's skin prickles, and he intentionally tenses and releases his muscles, willing the unease to dissipate. He finds it distracting, this palpable energy that skitters across his skin, papery like autumn leaves as it swells and then recedes from his presence. You're growing soft, he chides himself; careless, the Dark agrees, and he turns neatly to pursue the illusionist through a small alleyway branching southward off the port town's main road. No one here should be able to draw from the Wellspring; certainly no one who knows that face well enough to borrow it. Ashley's footsteps ring on the cobblestones and in his blood, dark energy coursing through his veins as he reaches out from the precipice of comprehension and catches hold of a slender wrist.
A woman spins around at his touch; one well-trained at that, judging by the swiftness of her movements and her strong defensive stance. Ashley releases her and takes a single step backward, but he remains within sword reach nonetheless.
"Who goes there?" she demands, blazing eyes trained on Ashley's hands. The match is true enough, save the absence of the perpetual smirk – no hidden plan, no secret insight tugs at the corner of these lips – and the lilt of his voice is off. Too high; too mellow; too –
Why Sydney flavors his words with a dialect some hundreds of years dead, Ashley neither knows nor cares. He frowns at the woman with the impossibly elegant features. How did he escape? The Dark will not grant him sound sleep this night, he is certain. "Begone," he warns, repelling an instinct toward hysteria. This is not the time, not the place, not the way – Ashley is yet unsure of many, many aspects of his role as heir to the Dark, but this he understands. He steels his resolve, and the beginnings of Banish pool around his frame. "Leave the bodies to the living."
Sydney cocks his – her – borrowed head, considering. He adopts a plaintive expression as he gazes back, spilling over with resignation and sorrow and the faintest hint of promises long-buried, of your wife and child and the weight of those Ashley couldn't save. The weight of the unspoken question – would Sydney number among them?
With dignified and measured steps, Ashley flees. Some minutes later, an attractive brunette crumples unconscious to the ground under a lamplight at the head of the alleyway, one more thoughtless crime to be laid at the feet of a passing vagrant.
Ashley retreats to his room at the more respectable of the town's two inns. It overlooks the placid sea, icy-gray and smooth in the calm, chill air, contrasting sharply with Ashley's churning thoughts. He will find no peace across the water, he knows now, no respite from the fractured memories that ache to be brought forth whole, to receive new life.
Ashley buries his face in hands still warm and tingling from the evening's confrontation. He could start with the voice, he supposes. The air is still and silent, as is the Dark within him; enshrouded in darkness, Ashley recalls himself to the bowels of Leá Monde. With his eyes pressed closed, he freely observes the dirt-packed floor and the steep earthen wall atop which, he knows, must stand a prophet whose wind-chime voice will peal in earnestness – "Show me your soul!"
And he does.
The floodgates of memory crack and part, and Ashley shudders at the onslaught of sensation and presence that plays before him:
the trickle of cold sweat down his back as he hurries through the Undercity, polar blue light guiding him through the groans and bone-rattles of the undead that echo off the walls;
the dull ache in his forehead that he struggles to ignore as he destroys each weapon-arm of the savage goddess statue that had damned Rosencrantz to his care;
and none so potent as the broken and flayed prophet, arm outstretched to direct him to his destiny, or the incomprehensible warmth of Sydney's shoulder when he lingers in that space a moment too long. He supposes Samantha would never forgive him that; he supposes he would not either, were he in her place, yet he accepts the certainty that ten times out of ten he would stay, all the same.
He is not surprised in the least when at last he struggles to his feet and turns to find Sydney, firm and supple, perched effortlessly on the divan. His perfect feline eyes and matching smile read: I am found, I am whole. Some detached part of Ashley's mind registers the soft porcelain skin, the long-worn leather breeches threatening to fall open, the length and shine of his hair and the proportions of waist to shoulder and chest to leg and checks them against his memories of the cursed city, filling the gaps where needed. The lost prophet elongates one arm, testing the suspension device and flexing the claws daintily in turn toward the floor. "Ah, Ashley," he sighs, "just the precision and detail I'd expect from a Riskbreaker."
"Former Riskbreaker," Ashley corrects, folding his arms. He studiously ignores the relief flooding through him and the childish laughter of the Dark that follows.
"Indeed," Sydney agrees, raising an eyebrow at the interruption. "A bit lacking in imagination, though."
Ashley fights the urge to massage his temples, the beginnings of an ache already taking hold. "I never knew you to be overly concerned with appearances, Sydney. You'd prefer I embellish, and risk getting it all wrong?"
Sydney smirks and rises, crossing the floor in a few quick strides. "Hardly," he offers dryly. "'Tis only that – " and here he pauses for effect, draping an arm casually around Ashley's shoulders as though either could pretend Sydney's claws were not balanced a hair's width away from Ashley's neck – "you might have restored my natural person, had you liked."
The week between Leá Monde and the Graylands had cured Ashley of any sensitivity to Sydney's presence; if Sydney had worn the Dark like a second skin, Ashley had worn Sydney like one. He neither flinches nor makes to move away from the metal limb, which has the constant weight and smoothness of truth behind its support. He regards Sydney coolly, though he breathes a touch more deeply before replying, even-voiced, "I did not mind the claws."
Sydney's grin grows wider still and takes on a feral edge. He moves the flat of his other hand downward, lingering momentarily on Ashley's hip before folding inward at the wrist to rest precariously close to the juncture of his thigh. The Dark buzzes lightly around them both, approving of the touch. "I see," Sydney answers thoughtfully, and begins to tap one fingertip rat-a-tat against Ashley's shoulder. He hums in time to the echo of Ashley's pulse, the heir's Dark-saturated blood quickening in response. "You are still painfully easy to read, Riskbreaker. You might take care to do something about that before some Blade or king's man arrests you where you stand and brings an end to both our fun."
Ashley's eyes narrow. "Former Riskbreaker," he mutters, "and I never knew you to doubt my skill in battle either." It is as Sydney said: at times it had seemed the prophet knew him better than he himself, and death has not weakened his powers any; indeed, if anything, his time immersed fully in the Dark has strengthened his hold on the flow of Ashley's thoughts. There being no reason to counterattack, Ashley instead leans in, breathing in the young mage's presence as though to reinforce the memory, to lend it permanence.
Sydney laughs, but it is the light, satisfied laugh of the hunter who has already captured his prey. "There is much you do not know about me, Ashley Riot," he acknowledges, conceding a light kiss that blooms into something that leaves him desirous and short of breath. His eyes gleam in the fading light of day, reflecting a sunset as ancient and beautiful as the goddess he had served, that they would now serve, together. "Shall I teach you?"
Ashley is not entirely unmoved, but the pragmatist survives within him, and he secures what little distance he can between them. "Forgive my saying it so plainly," he starts, "but you were – "
"Dead?" Sydney finishes, dropping his arms from about his successor. The first edges of petulance creep into his expression. "Yes, I was, and I stayed that way far longer than I'd have liked courtesy of you. Really, if this is the best the government has to offer – " Ashley opens his mouth to interject, but Sydney cuts him off with a sharp fingertip outstretched in warning. "They did teach you about the foundations of human life in that Academy of yours, did they not? The natural materials from which we are all carved?" Ashley nods carefully, guarded. Sydney continues: "There it is, then. The source of the body is all around us; you know as well as I the source of the soul. Why should you not have the power to combine them, as you would a weapon?"
Sydney looks at him expectantly, and though a part of Ashley wants to argue the point, in the lateness of the hour Ashley is willing to take the easy path, to lay aside the event as but one more oddity in the grand phenomenon of Sydney's existence. He visibly slackens his stance, and Sydney capitalizes on the opening. "Satisfied, then?" he queries, a careful claw twist dispatching Ashley's cutaway to the floor.
Ashley shakes his head, a smirk of his own materializing at Sydney's ever-obvious intentions. "I will be," he parries, and Sydney responds by dropping the palm of his hand down Ashley's chest, ever mindful of the claws, and calling the Dark through him. The exquisite sensation of hot-and-cold follows Sydney's hand, and numbly Ashley wonders just how much dark power Sydney can yet awaken in him. It is the last thought he registers before Sydney's mouth joins lower and all that remains is heat and contact and Sydney Sydney Sydney; he closes his eyes and leans into Sydney's touch, overcome.
Sydney, too, closes his eyes, and lives.