Wand'ring
by Ashley Cope
GlassShard@hotmail.com


        Ashley was nervous.
        They wouldn't leave him alone. Why in the hell was every guard in the Graylands so on edge tonight!? Bah. Amusing how it always took a drowning before a dangerous well might be sealed, or a fire that roasted an entire family before a backdoor was ever installed in their home. It took catastrophe to prove weakness, disaster to find flaws. Last week, John Hardin had ferreted out every weakness in the defenses of Duke Bardorba's Manor, opening the very doors up to Müllenkamp's dark purposes. What an embarrassment that little event had been to Bardorba and his city. It had been so easy for the cultists to infiltrate the ducal home and take exactly what they'd wanted.
        The city's forces were trying to correct their own flawed defenses now. A shame it was a week too late.
        Dressed in civilian clothes, Ashley tread the shadowed streets around Bardorba's secondary residence, occasionally casting an eye through the rain and up towards the few lit windows of the estate. The rain was light and silvery but it was a nuisance, sticking his cloak to his shoulders and his hair to his forehead. He was nervous. He was terribly nervous. He was waiting for Sydney to emerge from the manor and he was terribly terribly nervous.
        He hated this. He hadn't been nervous in years, not even on the most excruciatingly pain-staking, life-threatening assignments for the VKP. If he'd died then, he'd deserved to die. If he lived, he was lucky. Nothing had mattered and his mind had been dark with guilt. Now that guilt was gone and his soul been reborn into something he still didn't truly understand. Sydney was the only one who understood it and he'd spent the last week with him, trying to learn all he could.
        He'd gone from planning to kill the cult leader to depending on him for his very sanity and any semblance of direction he was ever going to have in his life. He trusted Sydney. He even admired him. He sensed that the admiration was mutual and it filled him with a strange, unsettling pleasure. Knowing that his new mentor had been planning to kill his father tonight... alone... had filled Ashley Riot with more unease than every monster he'd seen in Leá Monde last week ever had. How was he going to get past the guards? The servants? Sydney was weak from his ordeal in the City, he could barely walk, and here he was, going to tackle Bardorba's entire household.
        Yet Ashley almost had to smile. That was just so like him.
        Having allowed his thoughts to drift from reality, Ashley whispered a silent curse to now hear a pair of guards approaching from behind. He was supposed to stay unseen, out of sight tonight. Sydney had said their days in the Graylands were numbered, that Ashley should leave the city and find sanctuary somewhere else. He'd never reported back with LeSait. For all the VKP knew, he'd died in Leá Monde with the countless cultists and Knights of the Cross. Pulling the collar of his cloak up close around his jaw, Ashley waited until the sentinels had come a bit closer to where he stood beneath the awning of a blacksmith's, then concentrated on moving his body as quick as it would to across the street, feeling himself dissolving into the very shadows of an alley as though he were no more substantial than the darkness itself. He reappeared where he wanted, shaken and breathing a little too hard, but he hadn't been seen. The guards passed his refuge without speaking a word and the former Riskbreaker breathed a barely audible sigh of relief.
        He did not like using his new abilities. He felt less than human when he did so, or, or... more than human. Monstrous, whichever it was. No longer did he feel like he owned his own body, it had become more like some vessel for the Dark, like a plaything or a conduit for foreign energies and manifestations. The change was frightening. But the way the Dark blew through him when he summoned it... the way the voice of that woman played in his mind and played through his memories... how she came to him in his dreams... and the burning of the bright red Blood-Sin on his back, especially in the eventide...
        Ashley did not like any of it. Sydney insisted he would become acclimated to the sensations and the control but Ashley saw the incomprehension in the cultist's eyes when he tried to explain his unease. Sydney had always known the ways of the Dark. He liked the damn stuff and the power it gave him over people. He couldn't understand why it wasn't the same with Müllenkamp's new successor.
        Bah.
        Loneliness and other people's misunderstanding of his emotions wasn't exactly anything Ashley wasn't used to. He would overcome this though. Sydney insisted he would lose more and more of himself to Müllenkamp and the Dark that had claimed his soul but the warrior wouldn't dare believe that. He would master this new magick as he had always mastered the challenges in his life.
        Rebelliously flicking his head, Riot leaned against the warm wet brick of his shadowy alley and peered up through the rain. The Dark blew through him, excited over something, and he shivered at the sensation. It made him more anxious than he already was, ready to jump up and scream and he had to control himself or be driven completely from his skull. Somewhat weary, he looked again towards the Manor and wondered when in the hell his new tutor would return.

        The Duke's winter home was luxurious and fortified, becoming another world all of its own. It was nothing like his manor of course, there was no sprawling chapel nor sweeping, echoing ballroom, but this second home of his spared no expense and managed to make even a visitor like Sydney Losstarot feel unquestionably welcome and warm despite the silver sheen of the heavy rains outside.
        They winked at him in all their cold brilliance, those rains. Pensive, Sydney had situated himself stiffly before a thick leaded glass window in a little alcove, his lean body folded into the space, his cool grey eyes staring out at the quiet beauty. He let his forehead touch the glass and his weighty iron-worked right hand tap a few delicate fingers against the panes. Both of his claws were buried somewhere in Leá Monde, most likely smashed to ruin beneath fallen blocks or collapsed masonry and it was just as well, he hadn't needed them this past week. He'd had no more enemies to fight nor any further trickery to pull. He'd needed neither their protection nor the quality of intimidation they leant him.
        What a figure he'd cut a week ago in Leá Monde. He had to grin now to remember it because memories were all that was left of the leader of Müllenkamp's cult. What a figure that leader always had been, ever since the night of his ascension nearly thirteen years before. He was horrible, a monster of a man and yet in that very horror there was amazing haughtiness and the potential for him to strike awe in every one he ever encountered. ‘Charismatic'. It was a word he'd heard to describe himself a thousand times over by those he baffled. It was an easy word but it was not quite accurate. Sydney knew he was hypnotizing, beautiful, terrible, and strong. Even now with his immortality seceded and his power halved he could take on any man alive. The cultist smiled out at the rain, far more pleased with himself than sad. He'd been sad all day and still was sad now, with the night newly fallen and the rain coming in buckets from the heavens.
        But he had only to think upon Ashley and the sadness lifted like a morning fog struck by the sun. Ashley was his legacy, his salvation, his pupil, and his comfort. Sydney latched onto the image of his face desperately now, for the sadness was threatening to return and he couldn't bear it. Ashley Riot... Dark brown eyes, clever and quick though whatever went on behind them was seldom expressed through words; wild hair forever in his face, caught by the winds off the ruins of Leá Monde and trailing at his back; his face itself, handsome and frank, terrible when angry and terrible when anguished. Sydney would never forget the tears that had stood out on those ruddy cheeks as he'd thrust those visions of Tia and Marco's murders before him. How callous he'd been... curious about the Riskbreaker hounding him, he'd let his own delving into his soul become too visible, images strung from both their minds making the past as real as a painting or a stage play. He hadn't cared that he'd made the VKP bastard cry. Let him cry and let him crumble. He could wail his lamentations up to the very ceilings of the catacombs. Another babbling soul lost in the labyrinthine corridors of the city of hell.
        Those were ignorant thoughts now though. Sydney was much too fond of Ashley to go wishing eternal damnation upon him anymore. Oh, no. They'd come to understand each other far too well since that initial encounter in the manor.
        The rain beat against the roof. This hallway with its alcoves and windows was long and fitfully lit, sconces on the walls throwing meager warm light onto the thickly-masoned stones and plush velvet carpeting. There was such warmth and elegance here that Sydney wanted to stay forever, become lost in comfort and perhaps believe he was the little boy again who used to run through these halls summoning the dead to play with. He'd called upon the damned to be his friends while the Duke was away at Parliament and the servants all were too terrified to dare approach a little boy flocked by pale shades and embittered ghosts. He'd sit in this very hallway, crouched low with his bony knees sunk into the carpeting, listening enraptured to the tales they told him. Or sometimes he'd tell the tales, pulling pasts from minds too long dead to remember them anymore. They'd love him for that, pet him, coo over him and call him grand. A little boy never minded praise and love, especially a little boy as love-starved as Sydney Bardorba. He'd made best friends of boys who'd been dead for centuries. Spirits became his comforts on stormy nights where lightening was frightening and the thunder roared. Servants too cold or ignorant could be ignored so long as the other voices kept him company. And then... then there had been that one remarkable spirit, that one divine and grand spectre with the dark eyes and full red lips who would come to call and tell him the most delicious secrets...
        ...Müllenkamp
        Sydney jerked about suddenly as though struck in the back, looking quickly out into the hallway. But Müllenkamp wasn't there. Of course not. She never came to him anymore, not since he'd lost his arms. Perhaps because she'd become a part of him that night, he honestly wasn't sure. The dead rarely came to him at all now actually. He would sometimes see the occasional wand'ring spirit but most were too scared to approach him anymore in all his blinding glory and power. His soul glowed like a god's and was too splendid a thing to be attractive to the meek and frightened dead. It was almost sad that he'd lost that. But Müllenkamp's successor couldn't let those things occupy his thoughts, regrets were useless, especially such childish ones.
        For a moment though, he almost saw the little boy he'd been. Such a lovely creature, very far removed from what he'd become. Seeing him made into such a real-seeming spectre in Leá Monde had hurt. Wretched city. It cared nothing for the human heart nor the power and pain of memories. It had tossed its power around regardless of who it hurt and they all had suffered--
        Something tickled Sydney's right ear, something cold and gentle. He snapped his gaze away from the window and saw again nothing but the empty hallway with the flickering wall sconces and richly red carpet. Servants circled like hawks but he was only a Riskbreaker to them, only Ashley Riot, representative of the VKP awaiting an audience with their Lord Duke Bardorba. They would not disturb the most feared Riskbreaker out of the batch. Still, that presence remained and when the cult leader tried to turn back to staring out at the rain, it tickled his ear again, running what felt like a single chilly forefinger down the side of his neck.
        "Hardin..." he growled lowly, "Be calm, be patient, and be not so envious that I am yet alive. I assure you, this shan't last long. It may not be allowed to."
        Perhaps that appeased him for Sydney sensed a set of eyes suddenly remove themselves from his own countenance. He smiled down at the window sill, narrowing his gaze out through the rain again. The sadness creeped at his edges like spilled ink over parchment and he pressed a little harder into the pane with his hard and heavy right hand. A hairline crack appeared in the glass but he caught himself, pulling the hand back and letting the sleeve of his robe fall over it before he could break the window entirely. He was trembling all over suddenly and through the fabric of his robe he felt a hand on his shoulder, a comforting hand but a hand that was no longer of the physical world, a hand made a hand only out of pure will and power of thought. "Thank you, Hardin, "he whispered, leaning his head back against one side of the little alcove. The warmth of the Duke's home was creeping away from him and this rain was settling over his body and bones in a wash of cold that let the sadness overwhelm. He couldn't see Ashley through this rain, though he knew he wandered the Graylands tonight, watching and waiting for the news he knew would come. But he couldn't see him and no longer had he the strength of mind to conjure up pictures of the man he knew was to be his saviour in all of this. It was just too unfair to bear or think too carefully upon. All of it.
        "Hardin..." he called, not turning from the rain, "Is it very cold? So very dark? I think of it now and I lose my nerve." The hand tightened on his shoulder. "Perhaps I never should have gone with Müllenkamp. If I hadn't, I could have lived a long life like the Duke and died an old man in my bed. It all must end so violently and yet it does not really end. Is this 'incomplete death' truly a boon and a blessing? Or will it merely make us into two more of those wand'ring damned wretches we saw in such abundance last week? In the end, good Hardin, despite everything I know, I fear I've only become another living man who harbours a million questions for the dead. And you, what have you to say but 'Wait and see'?"
        Sydney thought he heard the chuckles of his friend but with the steady rhythm of the rain, nothing was really discernible. Are you laughing at me? he wanted to ask. Or are you perhaps simply thrilled to finally be just a little more sure of things than Sydney Losstarot? "Buffoon, "was all he finally whispered, the comforting hand upon his shoulder lifting for a moment and punching him playfully in the back.
        What would I have done without Hardin...? It isn't a pleasant thought to think upon.
        "Agent Riot?"
        Startled, Sydney looked up from the rain and down the hall. An impatient, bearded man stood respectfully waiting half in/half out of the shadows of a barely opened door, his posture as starched and unyielding as money could buy. The Duke insisted upon luxury, insisted upon absolute loyalty and devotion in all of those around him. He'd passed that onto his son. Straightening carefully, keeping the grimace from his face, Sydney stepped from the tiny alcove. The slightest brush of his robe's fabric against his back was complete agony. He'd endured a week of sleepless nights trying to find peace despite his body's shuddering with pain. The galling wound on his back was torture, plain and simple, and Ashley hadn't allowed him to bandage the wound, insisting that could only make it worse. Amusing, that. The Riskbreaker didn't know that his new tutor intended to die, he hadn't been told. But by all rights Sydney should have been dead already. After Guildenstern's butchering he'd lost enough blood to kill a normal man yet... well, he was hardly a normal man. And Ashley's magick was very strong. The Riskbreaker had truly been blessed by the Dark.
        Assuming Riot's swaggering gait, pushing the pain of his wounds away, Sydney took a few experimental paces down the hallway. He thought he heard Hardin's ghostly chuckling again. He was probably quite a spectacle to the dead man. Hardin could see past this simple illusion and easily make out the sight of a robed and de-clawed Sydney Losstarot, swaggering down the hallway as though he had the bulk of a titan. This was a difficult appearance to maintain, his actual iron limbs were heavy and dragged at his sides, they always gave Sydney's natural gait a strange rocking motion and his narrow torso swung heavily from right to left with his strides. Ashley had a more natural and graceful way of walking, every muscle trained and every step sure. Sydney had stood hidden in the shadows of the cellars and watched him making his way, mutely marvelling at every nuance of his appearance. The cult leader had been struck by the Riskbreaker from that first moment in the manor. Perhaps Cupid's arrow had pierced his heart the same instant Riot's arrow had. But what a foolish thought...
        The sound of every footfall was lost amidst this sea of velvet red. The flickering of the sconces became somewhat sinister. Sydney's brief distraction dissipated and the sadness was eating at his mind again so that it felt as though a ball of hot lead sat in his throat. He slowed his strides, glad that the manservant at the end of the hall had turned away and re-entered the Duke's personal chambers. They watched the old man morning and evening now, he hadn't many days left to him. "I have heard it called consumption, "he said to Hardin beneath his breath, "But I believe his troubled spirit eats away at his health. He frets over the comings and goings of Valendia far too much. Parliamentary duties strain his mind and that strains his body. The Duke never truly allowed himself a moment's peace, not since the war's end. And the Cardinal dogs him."
        There could be no answer from Hardin but Sydney knew his friend was there. He listened.
        The door was black and relentless here at the end of the hall. Fear stood out cold in the pit of the cult leader's stomach and his steps faltered, something Riot's would never do. He took a deep breath and stopped for a moment, listening to the rain. He let himself imagine the entire world out beyond the walls of this warm ducal home. A thousand children sleeping in their beds; warm breaths blowing against soft pillows as mothers watched them dreaming; hands fluttering to smooth silken hair behind ears, careful not to shatter the peace of a world turned beautiful in the eventide. He'd never known a mother's love but the images were calming and he accredited them to Müllenkamp's care. Beyond and far away from this sombre mansion, all of Valendia was quiet beneath silvery rain. It slumbered unaware of sacrifices or promises made and even behind the storm clouds, the stars shone down. They would shine there always and would never falter in their light. They were constancy and comfort. They would be there whether Sydney was or not. They would be there in a thousand years and so would the breaths of children, their mothers' hands, the dreams that spun in innocent minds.
        His own breaths, his own dreams... they had only been a few of many of the world's. And the world was a little better, a little brighter... because of them.
        What more could any man ask of his life?
        This hallway was silent and still yet the sinister air remained. Sydney was at the doorway now, careful to keep his hard metal hands from brushing the door frame, knowing it might give away his identity. The manservant seemed none the wiser, standing like a living statue and waiting for the Riskbreaker to pass. Sydney's bitter fear would not leave. He embraced his life now so desperately that he almost couldn't imagine it leaving him. Ashley and Hardin and the gentle souls of the cultists, the gentle soul of the Duke who'd loved him the best way he'd ever known how, who'd given him all he could to ease his own sins; countless faces tickled his memories and consumed his thoughts yet there was no way he could retract what had happened nor stop what now HAD to happen. The Duke had quietly offered options but Sydney had shot them all down. It was best now that they both end it. Still this trembling, still this fear. Still this silent horror of being so unanchored and cold in a world he did not know. How he loved his life, even his life as the monster he imagined himself to be. Life was grand and beautiful, warm and full of love, if you allowed it to be so. It was the greatest gift that the gods bestowed...
        Yet Sydney found himself assuming Ashley's strides again. Almost casually, he gestured for Hardin to remain outside and set his own face in stone, moving smoothly into his father's chambers. The servant bowed and stepped away, walking far enough into the hall to be out of earshot of a conversation that he had no right to hear.
        It was pleasant inside and the scent of the Duke filled the room: cloves, spice, pipe smoke. Old familiar smells that spoke of quiet evenings in the den with the fire roaring and father and son sitting opposite each other over a chessboard. Heavy velvet curtains had been drawn over the windows and an air of oppressiveness hung in the room. Still, a narrow sliver of window peeped from between the drapings and the flash of rain was there. You could hear it against the roof even now, defying the home's thick stone walls. Sydney found the noise beautiful and suiting. He certainly could have asked for no better requiem.
        A lavish island in a sea of carpeting and priceless furniture, the Duke's bed sat imposing and tall against the far wall. Sydney approached it unflinchingly, suddenly so glad to see the old man propped against the pillows that he could barely remember his fears or sadness. He moved quickly to stand by him, to smell him, to be close to him, even if it could only be for so short a while. He wanted to cry out a thousand things yet as always their relationship was restricted by mutual self-control. It had always been thus, it could never be different because too much emotion would prove too painful and make their separation and sacrifices nearly unbearable to endure. The Duke greeted him warmly but simply though the light in his dying eyes spoke volumes. Sydney pushed tears away to answer him.
        "Time passed much too quickly for my tastes, "the younger one said.
        Words were halted on Duke Bardorba's lips. His chin tilted a few degrees down and suddenly his face was in the candlelight so that the man before him saw the age there and the sickness. His heart broke but still he kept restrained, doing nothing but laying a hand on the bedclothes. "You do not look well, Father," Sydney said, desperate to see the pain pass from the Duke's weakened eyes, "I'm sorry to make you wait this week but I needed the time..."
        "No!" Bardorba interrupted passionately, then calmed himself, "It is I who am sorry. Never apologize again to me, Sydney, I can't bear it. I would give you the world, this week was nothing. You've suffered much and what have I endured? A few months sickness and a lifetime of power... you... you're just barely in your twenty-eighth year... you haven't lived at all and that life you've experienced has been one shaped by the designs of a woman long dead and a destiny you could never escape..."
        "I chose this destiny, Father, "Sydney reprimanded gently, "I do not regret it."
        "Nay, I chose it for you..." The Duke looked away, thoughtful. "To bring a child into the world and then bind him in a cage, leave him with those monsters... of course you would choose the path they taught you. You did as you were raised to do and when the time arrived, you gladly became what they wanted."
        Sydney shook his head. "I only did what I knew in my heart was right. But Father, there's no need for you to flay yourself over decisions made ages ago. It's all in the past. You did as you felt was necessary and perhaps it was... a harsh decision... even if that's so, with Leá Monde's destruction, you've redeemed yourself."
        "Nay." Bardorba seemed feeble suddenly, grasping for words and gasping for breath. Sydney thought to offer him water but the Duke had always scorned aid. His son knew that if he truly wanted a drink, he'd find the strength and presence of mind to reach for it himself. So he waited until that control was clenched again and he continued. "Nay. All that could redeem me is your forgiveness. You've done so much for me and never has there been a dram of bitterness in your soul. How did you escape that, Sydney? Even I was bitter upon being forced to surrender you. You've such a pure soul, such light amid the Darkness you worship. I want to know, Sydney, why you've given up everything for me. I'm naught save a tired old man who could have suffered hell if you'd not listened. I curse myself for ever asking, for being so weak."
        "I'd have heard even if you'd never said a word, Milord, "Sydney replied with a smile, absently smoothing the soft satin quilt beneath his iron hands, "And I'd have acted no matter the costs. Be at peace, Father, please. I ask for no thing more. All is well and everything that caused you worry is dealt with. Even the Cardinal. Valendia sleeps peacefully tonight, can you not hear the breaths of a thousand slumbering babes in their cradles?"
        "You are still a babe in his cradle... "Bardorba whispered, slowly reaching a hand down to grasp his son's, ignoring its icy chill, "Neither touched nor tainted by a cold world. Must I put you to sleep now?"
        "I'll do it myself, "Sydney growled, disgusted at the fear creeping over him anew. There was a shimmer on the bedclothes. A dagger, as bejewelled and splendid as the Duke had ever owned. Sydney reached a trembling hand towards it but Bardorba halted his action with a single glance.
        "Let me do this for you..." he said, "I know not what awaits you, only that I shall not be at your side. Do not hold on to your life, let it go..."
        "The Dark makes that hard, "Sydney answered quietly, "I think upon that man Grissom and wonder if I am not just as desperate to live..." It was true and he hated to say it but Sydney had no desire to die. He put on bravery for his Father but that was only a mask with very sharp corners. Behind it he wanted his life so deeply he could taste it. Just as Hardin had wanted to live, just as Grissom... such desires were far from absurd and dangerous to say the least for any man who'd ever embraced the Dark.
        "Tell me that you won't hold onto it, "Bardorba pleaded, moving his hand and arm over the dagger as though he could hide it and its intent from his son, "This world is full of the bitter dead. I simply cannot do what must be done if I know that you'll become one of them. Please, Sydney... perhaps there is a Heaven for sinners such as we. Or better yet, I think there is oblivion. I wish to sleep with you at my side for I have no more use for my soul and neither have you. Your mother is there, wherever it is that ‘there' may be. Leave this world to the wretched living."
        "I shall, "Sydney said, his voice quavering because he knew he was lying. He could hear Hardin's protests but he would not heed them. "I leave it to Ashley."
        "Aye, " Bardorba whispered brokenly, nodding, "Aye, leave it to him. And forgive me, Sydney... for being so selfish... for stealing this from you... for not being the father that I should have been..."
        Hardin still was protesting, begging for reassurance. Sydney could feel his loneliness and the loneliness of countless souls. He was drenched suddenly in the ice of death and he could smell decay, lick the taste of it from his lips. He thought upon Ashley as he'd found himself doing often that week and suddenly even that couldn't push his sadness away. The sadness of his wasted life passed through him like a breath of air, leaving him hollow and weeping inside. He was just another stepping stone in a cursed line of people and now, with his burden passed on, he had to die to protect that very line. This body with its tainted blood was cursed. His very soul with its sacrosanct secrets could not be suffered to continue. The Duke was wrong. Sydney was suddenly terribly bitter about the entire situation.
        And yet...
        To look down at his Father now, Sydney didn't taste regret for helping him. The old man's eyes were full of a sort of fathomless love and understanding that no gold could buy. A man could live his entire life and never see that kind of love directed towards him. Perhaps just these few brief moments could be worth an entire lifetime. Sydney felt a tightening in his chest that sparked a memory of a little boy standing crying in a doorway, looking out desperately to see a retreating hooded figure making his way down a tunnel, disappearing finally when the light grew too dim to see. How that little boy had beat his fists into the walls and screamed for his papa, even when papa became little more than fragmented memories that were hard to grasp: chess games, pipe smoke, tender kisses, and bedtime stories of knights and dragons... Sydney had always wanted to be the dragon in those tales...
        In desperation, Hardin called his name but was ignored now for the warmth of the living. Sydney pressed against his Father's bed, his robe rustling to touch the silk. He could embrace him now, couldn't he? What need had they for fronts and control anymore... there would be no tomorrow and regret had no more meaning for either of them. Sydney felt the damp standing out in his eyes, blurring the Duke's time-worn features until he was the very man of his youth, the father who'd sacrificed his son. The son had come home at last and the little boy buried himself in his father's chest, wetting his robe with tears of relief.
        He barely felt the dagger when it came. It was just a bit of icy cold interrupting the warmth of their embrace. Still, Sydney drew away with a sharp hiss. He felt another chill, two chilly hands grabbing for his shoulders to steady him and he heard Hardin crying his pleas again. Sydney knew fear then but he only smiled, his attention engrossed with Father's face. The Duke watched as though from a great distance, and his son thought he saw the shine of tears in his tired eyes. Tears... in twenty-eight years he'd never seen him cry. Men did not cry, especially members of Parliament and war-heroes. Sydney wanted to stay those tears yet his tongue was heavy and thoughts were scattered. He thought once more of Ashley and that face was on his mind even as he died.
        Words, pictures, ideas assaulted him, a great weight lifted away and he felt himself drawn along until whatever force had pulled at him suddenly lost its hold, as though he were too broken and insubstantial a thing to maintain a grip of. He heard Hardin only whatever he was saying made no sense. The whole world was suddenly nothing but light and then nothing but dark, each coming and going in a haphazard fashion that would have made him dizzy if he could actually see any of it. He heard voices and then something moved past him yet there was nothing to discern. His father's voice, was that it? He sounded unfettered and free like a very young men just unloosed into the world. Usually he seemed so very tired and sad, frustrated too. A pang of anguish struck Sydney, accompanied by pain so real that memories exploded in his consciousness before he could tame them and put them away, as he so often did. Memories were useless things and he *hated* regret, found it utterly pointless. Perhaps it was a fitting tool to tame others with but Sydney Losstarot had no need for it.
        Regret, regret, regret, what had the Duke so regretted that had turned him into the very sad and very sorry man that his son had always known? Sydney remembered the tears and thought he felt his own but really he felt nothing save the pain of a million memories and unanchored voices all clawing at his mind. Where were his boundaries? Where were the measures of control and repression he always kept erected in order to FEND OFF these blasted memories? Where was Hardin, where was his father? Where in the hell was Ashley and why had it become so suddenly difficult to even recall him?
        There was the walkway, the tunnel to the chapel. Bright orange torchlight thrown up on cracked stone walls. The ceiling rose and arched up into black obscurity, both ends receding into nothingness. But there wasn't nothingness. On the contrary, there was something very definite. Sydney knew exactly where both ends came out to. One lead to the street. It would be cobblestone and the moonlight would be shining down as horses click-clacked along its length pulling carriages while men and women walked arm in arm together alongside a beautiful white fountain of marble. Water flowed over the sculpture in the centre... a sculpture of St. Iocus blessing the oppressed people of Valendia. The Saint was a figure of supreme benevolence and the poor were ragged scarecrows at His knees, looking up into His face. The entire fountain was beautiful and white as snow, a gift given to the Graylands by the Church itself when it had built three new places of worship within the city's limits. But Father always scoffed at it and gave Sydney the most severe look whenever he said how pretty it was. Any mention of the Church at all, or of the Cardinal, of even Blessed St. Iocus... it always set off the deepest rage in Duke Bardorba. Sydney didn't understand it and yet he knew better than to question Father.
        They walked often by the fountain. It stood in one of the city's most prominent thoroughfares and that in itself seemed to aggravate the Duke more than anything else. He cursed the Church's upper hand. How tightly their fist closed around Valendia. Religious freedom was a mockery of a phrase intended to quell the rabble's feeble cries and the bloody Inquisition was a not too distant memory--
        The tunnel... orange light... it flickered from torches and the shadows cast there were bright blue, like the sky at dawn. Sydney shook his head to rid it of memories and he wondered where his father was and where Hardin had gone. He suddenly feared for Hardin and that was something else sharp and cold to hurt his heart. He thought of a day in the rain that seemed not that long ago when he'd returned to his rooms from a gathering and found a strange man there with very serious, angry eyes. He'd said his name was John Hardin and that he hated the Church and the law it enforced... Sydney had read his heart quickly and welcomed him to Müllenkamp without hesitation. Damn the Church. Damn them all to hell... yet even memories of that old rage couldn't last. It flared up and then died out again and still there was that orange tunnel. Mold had eaten into the cracks of the walls, wet lichen licking its way up the stone weakening the mortar. Sydney knew where the other end led out to. The entrance to that street with the pretty fountain beneath a sky full of stars. It was always barred by a heavy wrought-iron gate that sat between two great brown stone buildings and bore no sign. Sydney thought it a terrible thing, that entryway into something without even a name to tame it. Father would look so sadly at the gate sometimes as they passed. He'd hold Sydney's hand a little tighter as they made their way to the Parliament building or to city hall or to his grandparent's home but the little boy only ever had eyes for the fountain and the pretty way the water slid over the marble like satin. But he was never allowed to sit in its shade like the other children! He'd get so cross sometimes when Father slapped his arm and led him off to a bench or a tree to take their rests. Father hated the fountain and the fact that the Church had built it. But how could he hate that selfless generosity?
        Father always had so few answers for him when he asked. "If you love an idea only because it's beautiful, Sydney, you'll soon be very disappointed to discovered there is absolutely nothing behind the beauty. A person's soul should not look for beauty but for truth. There is truth in the sky, in your heart, and in the spirits who walk the earth and tell you tales. That fountain and the Church who built it are a facade covering a greater Evil. Perhaps Iocus was a wonderful Man. But this religion that's come about because of Him is more evil than it's worth. More men have been slaughtered in the worship of His name than ever died from any plague or war. Always remember that. The gravest sin in the world is to kill a man in the name of a God. There can be nothing more meaningless."
        Long, big words with a lot of import to them yet they never told Sydney why he couldn't play in the fountain.
        Mother was a painting on the wall; a portrait of a lovely lady with large grey eyes and soft blonde hair. Supposedly Sydney looked more like his father save his hair and eyes but he couldn't truly judge, the woman had died giving birth to him and sometimes the servants whispered that the Duke's sadness was because of that. He'd wanted a family, been blessed with a wife he'd loved more than life itself and when it was discovered she'd give birth soon, no one could quell his joy. No one but a cruel Fate who'd killed her before she could ever pick her son up, giving her just enough time to name him before slipping away like a small delicate bud who'd been granted but a single day to flower. Sydney never thought upon her, she was an uninteresting notion, dead and uninteresting. Quite ignorant and selfish too. Spirits came to him to talk but where was Mother? If she didn't care enough to find him, he didn't care enough to grant her a single moment's contemplation.
        Father missed her dreadfully and only shrugged and sighed when asked why she wouldn't come when Sydney called. She had died a "complete death", the Duke said and left it at that. More mysteries. The little blonde-headed boy would simply scowl at his secrets and head back to his room to exchange stories with ghosts or frighten the maids by moving too fast for them to see. A very convenient way to get cookies before dinner, was that little trick. Displacing himself and other things was as easy as speaking with the dead; by the time he was five, Sydney was quite adept at it. Still, he was never anything more than mortal when Father was around. Bardorba frowned too deeply if Sydney ever showed his... prowess... in front of him, yet sometimes the boy saw his father shadow-fencing in the studies and thought it odd how quickly he could move. And sometimes... actually, only once on a very dark night when Sydney was supposed to be in bed, had he creeped into his Father's study and seen him conversing cheerily with a dead man dressed in armour. The conversation had been about the war and the good old days and it was strange that the Duke had never seemed happier or more at ease than he had when in conversation with that spirit.
        Father was so often ill at ease. He'd spend all day at Parliament, staying until late into the night trying to secure Valendia's independence from the iron-fisted Church. The Cardinal wanted to oversee all facets of government. He wanted all cults and lesser divisions of the Iocus Religion to be ferreted out and assimilated into the main branch of worship. Any who would not comply he insisted be labelled heretics and denied their freedom. The days of branding men with Blood-Sins were done but the Duke knew that fact was not something the Cardinal relished. He thirsted for utmost power and gold and for something else... the Duke knew exactly what that ‘something else' was and dreaded the day when he would grab for it. He still remembered the trembling of Leá Monde... he still remembered hiding in the wine cellars with those precious few survivors, running his sword through the stomachs of the Crimson Blades who'd branded everyone worshipping in Müllenkamp's temples as blasphemers and threats to the State. The Inquisition had come unexpected and without warning into Leá Monde. Knights of the Cross, acting under the orders of the Cardinal, had stormed the city and killed hundreds, slashing inverted Roods into the backs of every "sinner", marking them for the gates of hell. Or so they'd said. Most were simply slaughtered and the branded leaders sent to Valendia's capital for hearings and public execution. Others were put through the most horrendous forms of torture imaginable until they confessed their sins and renounced their religion. Afterwards, swift death was their reward. Examples had to be made of the Church's power afterall. It must seem as though the Church was blessed by God Himself.
        When the quake came and swallowed Leá Monde, it seemed to be a Sign. After that, the Cardinal could not be disputed, he was seen as the very hand of God.
        Bardorba and his household had been some of the last to be arrested. The Duke was a war hero after all and greatly respected, it had taken much threatening on the Cardinal's behalf and much brainwashing of the people to ever bring the Blades to his door. In Leá Monde, in front of the judgement of heartless Inquisitors, the Duke's power granted him nothing save the tattoos they marked he, his three year old son, and the Duke's major-domo with before sending them off to court. The travelling party had only just left the city when the quakes began taking it all. The very earth seemed to open up without warning and buildings toppled as though made of paper, entire streets collapsing underground while waters rose to flood the alleyways and separate the city from the mainland. The dying screamed without end and Bardorba had collapsed to his knees, holding a sobbing little boy in his arms as the Blades had kicked him fiercely, demanding he cooperate and move as told lest they "cleave the sin-soiled flesh from his bones".
        Leá Monde was destroyed as though by God. It had been the devil's own city and redemption was an impossibility for it. So the Church had preached afterwards. God's Judgement was swift and without mercy. Repent, repent, repent.
        Places of worship had been flooded with the newly converted for months after the terrible death of Leá Monde's citizenry. They simpered for divinity and forgiveness and the priests spoon-fed both to them. After such earth-shattering miracles and irrefutable judgements upon sinners from almighty God Himself, the Church had come very close to gaining complete power. Using his money, his connections and his sway, Bardorba kept that from happening. He paid for his own freedom with money he'd hoarded in the banks of Valendia, narrowly escaping being burned at the stake as a heretic by paying a priest to plead for his soul. Afterwards, he publicly converted his faith and took a Parliamentary position offered to him years ago but that he'd always declined. He became a public figure. He was granted his title, moving into lavish apartments in the Graylands where the entire city could watch him and find a figure besides the Church to come to for aid. Bardorba kept Parliament unbiased and secured religious freedom at the cost of his own soul. He used his gifts of persuasion to stymie the Cardinal's invasion. He convinced the former General of Valendia's army, LeSait, to found the VKP and begin training an offensive power that could act in the Parliament's name.
        Never, not once, did anyone see the Blood-Sin burned into his back. But all knew it was there and all knew that Bardorba would never allow such a thing to be done to another man. He would say that loudly and with great sincerity whenever people questioned his motives. No one defied Duke Aldous Byron Bardorba. Not even the Cardinal dared to publicly denounce him.
        While life went on and the Church and Parliament fought silent battles with each other, Leá Monde festered over the sea like a sore growing gangrenous with rot. Thousands upon thousand had died there yet Sydney had no memories of it really; just dim recollections of much shouting and crying. He remembered his Father grabbing a hold of him and then other hands, less loving, pulling him away and doing horrible things as Father yelled. He remembered pain but not really. Mainly he remembered Father yelling and the mumbling of clerics from the Church. "Hairy-tick, hairy-tick, hairy-tick, "they'd all cried. What nonsense it had seemed to him at the time.
        All of that was so distant now. Sydney lived in a beautiful Mansion with a beautiful beautiful fountain outside and a lot of things to do and see and listen to everyday. The only dark part of his life were the occasional frowns from his father and uneasy glances whenever they would pass that gate and the glowing orange tunnel behind it. Even being denied playing in the fountain was a trivial matter that rarely stayed on his mind.
        Hardin was calling... wasn't he? What words were it that he spoke? Stay... with me...? No, what foolishness, where was Ashley? Sydney's vision was filled with lights and darks and faces with names he knew and loved and hated. Then there was the orange tunnel with the blue shadows and suddenly he heard the souls crying in Leá Monde; the little sobs of spectre children who couldn't find their mothers buried beneath the rubble... but Valendia was safe, wasn't it? Hadn't the Duke said that all little children were sleeping and dreaming ever so peacefully in their beds tonight? Or perhaps he'd said it himself... either way it had been said and so it was most likely true. Ach... where was Hardin and where was Sydney?
        The orange tunnel with the mouldy bricks and crumbling mortar... it was all he could see. It was only a week before he was to turn six years old and he and Father were walking past the fountain on a beautiful blue spring day with bulbous white clouds moving so swiftly in the sky that they seemed only just out of reach. Sydney had grabbed for them and asked, "Papa, get me a cloud, I want one!" only Father was in bad spirits today. But today was supposed to be grand! Father'd been away at the Capitol for almost a month and Sydney had been heartsick with loneliness. This was the first day they'd been together, the first they'd seen of each other. And yet Father would not turn his sad blue eyes down to look at his son. Deep heavy lines were gouged into his face and he looked older than he ever had before. The harsh white sun revealed his pale pale features, the sickly lines around his eyes, and then Sydney turned to hug them away and lighten his spirits.
        Father had struck him firmly on the cheek and pushed him off.
        "Tell me your name, "he hissed, pulling them both out of the street away from prying eyes, into an alley only a few blocks down from the Manor. Sydney was too shocked to cry and too shocked to even raise his fingers to soothe his stinging cheek. He didn't know what to say until the Duke struck him again with the back of his hand and repeated his words.
        "S-sydney, Papa!" the little boy cried out, "Did you forget?"
        "You're Sydney Bardorba, aren't you?" the Duke whispered, his composure breaking and his stern frown creeping away. He dropped to his knees and scooped his son up in a hug, crushing his slender frame into his own massive chest. "I am sorry... I am so so sorry, Sydney... I want to forget who you are. I've left you this past month to try and forget that you exist but I cannot. I cannot forget you anymore than I could ever forget your mother. Cruel this is, too cruel, too cruel. A year with her and only six with you. I lose you both and my hands are tied to try and stop it."
        "Papa, papa, it's okay. I'm here, it's okay." It was mid-afternoon and much too hot out for hugs. Sydney tried to squirm out of his father's arms but found himself trapped between him and the alleywall. Sweat ran down the back of his tunic and the little boy tugged uncomfortably at his collar. The Duke grabbed a hold of his right hand and kissed it.
        "You have to leave me, Sydney, "he whispered fervently, "You have to leave today forever. I took you from the Manor this afternoon because I knew they'd come to the very front door to steal you and it would be better if we go to them ourselves, of our own will. Because we must always be brave about confronting fate and destiny and things we cannot change. Don't let fate come to you, you march to fate. 'Tis the way our family has always been. The Bardorba line has never cowered nor ran away. Remember that and remember that you are always Sydney Bardorba. No matter what happens nor whomever it is you become."
        "Papa, I don't understand..." Tears were welling up in his eyes and the Duke wiped them from the little boy's cheeks. "Can't we go home?"
        "We can never go home."
        Bardorba examined Sydney's face. He ran his hands up and down his arms, clasping him by the wrists. He let his fingers move upwards and find the soft locks of blonde that framed the boy's brow, entwining themselves in the downy tresses. He watched his son as though memorizing him; his tear-filled grey eyes, his little round mouth and bright pink lips; the sandy freckles brushed over his nose. "I love you so much, "he whispered, then grabbed him by the hand and led him from the alley.
        The street around the fountain of St. Iocus was one of the most beautiful and lively in the city. Vendors came to sell their wares here, sitting out on blankets spread on the courtyard with goods of all sorts surrounding them. There were all kinds of things to smell and buy and eat. The air here was always full of exotic scents and the mist thrown from the fountain itself kept everything damp and cool. It was a lovely little oasis and there were always children about taking advantage of that. Sydney had few friends among them. His position as the ducal heir kept him buried in the walls of the Manor, and so he could find no friendly faces in the crowd of people he and his Father now walked through. Men and women jostled them both and children ran underfoot with their dogs, nabbing things from the vendors when their backs were turned. The air was full of colour and sound; laughter, chatter, market cries, and dogs barking. Such fun it usually was to walk through it. But Sydney's cheek still stung and the Duke wouldn't look at him. And today, they were making their way past the fountain in a way they never had before.
        "Papa, you're hurting me--!" Bardorba's grip on his wrist was unrelenting and harsh. Sydney found himself practically dragged through the crowd and it was all he could do to keep on his feet. He doubled his paces, almost running, trying to walk at his father's side. A drunkard blocked his path suddenly but the boy couldn't dodge in time, receiving a hard knock from his elbow into his jaw. He saw stars for a moment but shook them off, too confused to cry about it. There was the glare of orange behind iron from ahead and panic welled in his heart.
        It was the barred gate. Never did the Duke want to approach that gate, it often stole his cheer and planted a frown on his face to even pass it. Why did they now walk so firmly towards it? "Papa..." Sydney whimpered, clawing at the grip of iron around his wrist, "Papa, where are we going?" Bardorba wouldn't answer and he seemed to lack the courage to even turn to face him. The crowds ignored the pair and life spun on in a way that was almost sinister, relentlessly disregarding the small drama in its midst. Sydney wanted to scream out for someone to help him, he could feel black claws, invisible but there nonetheless, suddenly reaching for his throat. The gate and the orange tunnel behind it were things that often woke him up in the middle of the night and now Father wanted to take them both there?! "I want to go home..." Why couldn't they both go home? Or perhaps go to Parliament and Sydney could sit in the cool front galleries while Father talked with the Statesmen? Such fun was that, to sit in the velvet-cushioned chairs and watch the people come and go, sometimes picking out thoughts from their very open minds and amusing himself with things he should not have been able to see. There was nothing good in that tunnel.
        But suddenly they were there. Bardorba kept one hand on his son and tucked the other into his greatcoat, drawing out a large black key. The key was ornate and almost pretty. Customarily, Sydney might have asked to hold it. "Papa! Papa!!" Why wouldn't he listen?? The little boy clawed at the iron grip about his wrist, scratching with his fingernails and even drawing blood, fully expecting to be struck for his disrespect. Yet nothing came, not even a glance. Why was he suddenly such a pariah to Father? Wasn't he now who he'd always been? Nothing had changed and yet suddenly he was a ghost! He was a ghost to the living and a ghost to Father, just like the ghosts who came to wail at his feet because no one would acknowledge them and they could barely believe they were dead. The Duke seemed to think so, having eyes only for the bit of pretty key in his hand. He squeezed Sydney's delicate wrist so tightly that the bones grated together and nothing could ease that hold. With the crowd jostling the two and a thousand impatient peasants all scrabbling to get past, Bardorba fought his way through some wordless struggle and held the key to his lips, searching for the strength to continue. Sydney saw him win his battle, the key suddenly raised to be fit into a small shiny lock on the heavy iron gate. It turned and opened an entryway for them, the wrought-iron swinging backwards with a screech.
        "I don't want to..." Sydney whimpered, clawing again at the Duke's hand. He was pulled through and nearly blinded as the dim tunnel veritably sucked the bright glow of the afternoon street from his eyes. The gate slammed shut in the pair's wake and the echo bounced down the entire length of the flickering orange tunnel.
        Father! Hardin--!
        What was this terrible place that haunted him?! The ground was such filth, such mold-covered stone, unevenly paved with mud and sewage puddled in the cracks and water dripped from above, thick and warm, striking the top of Sydney's blonde head and running down the back of his neck like blood. He wanted to wipe it away yet all he could do was beat at Father's hand and try to think of what he'd done wrong that he must now be punished like this. He looked about desperately but the walls were unfriendly and ugly; large blocks of rock lit by flickering orange torchlight. Pools of shadows lay in intervals where they receded back into alcoves with statues of Saints he'd never seen before erected in them. The torches threw up ghastly black darkness into the figures' faces and made monsters of them while the sconces themselves were in the shape of holy Roods cast of bronze so that they glowed wicked and sharp in the firelight. Rats skittered from the shadows and their red eyes glowed, fangs leering and yellow beneath glistening wet whiskers. There were bats too but they hid in the cracks between the stones, chirping in their restless sleeps. The sombreness of the air hushed Sydney's panic and he walked at his Father's side wordless now, his free hand wrapped up in the Duke's robe and his face pressed close into his hip. His eyes were wide in fear and yet Father could bring no comfort. Father was his captor.
        They walked for what seemed like forever, both silent, the sounds of their footfalls splashing beneath them all that let their presence be known to the rats and other crawly things. Sydney saw the tunnel slope very gradually downwards and yet the horror of the place never receded. If anything it only intensified as his imagination picked out monsters in the shadows and the sound of distant running water grew loud, like something roaring. Street noises died away and he couldn't even see the glow of the gate any longer. He and Father had lost themselves in some place set apart from time. Blackness before them, blackness behind, and the torches burned on, making everything cruel and cut out in shades of dark and orange. But that could not last forever. And as horrible as the possibility was that they would be stranded in this Netherworld till the apocalypse came, it was doubly horrible when a faint white light began to glow from up ahead and Bardorba quickened his paces, dragging Sydney along with him. After a few hundred feet, the tunnel opened up dramatically into an echoing chamber, a chapel actually. It was high ceilinged and wide, stretching to a huge double-doorway with a painted wooden Rood strung above it. The room stank of grandeur-turned-decay. Carved statues lined the walls that had been splendid ages ago, bright with gilt and paint yet it all had cracked and flaked away. The marble tiled floor was uneven and broken, the original mosaic design lost beneath years of grime. Pillars lay broken and crumbling, an alter was little more than an iron shell, and many of the statues were missing limbs or laying in pieces on the floor. Shafts of daylight from high above filtered in through shuttered vents near the ceiling. Sydney held his breath to behold the destruction they illuminated, still hanging on dearly to the Duke. There were no spirits in this place and yet he was sure he heard cries; the wails of the dead echoed in his ears.
        After a bit of an inspection of the chapel, Bardorba sighed and led them both to the great doors at the end. These were massive and solid still, seemingly unmoveable. Yet they slid silently open with just a touch from the Duke's hand. The room beyond was immediately more humble. A small antechamber, lit by tall tapers, lined in books and full of tables. Three men in robes were seated at one of them and paid no heed to the sudden visitors. Sydney stared, pushing so tightly into the Duke's side that it seemed he wanted to simply sink into him. "Where is Valk?" Father roared suddenly, stepping boldly into the room. There were various doors leading from this new place off into strange dark hallways and Sydney was frightened of what people might emerge. No one came however, and no answer was granted to the Duke until one of the robed men at the table stood and approached very slowly, as though he couldn't be bothered with any of this at all.
        "Are you Aldous?" he asked in a bored tone of voice, not glancing once towards the child. The Duke curled a lip up and sneered his reply.
        "I'll speak to no one but Valk. Is he yet here?"
        "He went to your Manor."
        "Has he returned?"
        The robed man smiled softly. "We thought that you'd fled, Aldous."
        "I would never flee, "the Duke growled in a very horrible, very low tone of voice. Sydney rarely heard that voice, it was Bardorba's most deadly. By nature he grew quieter the more agitated he got and by the sound of it, he was now approaching the seventh level of fury. "His sixth year. Do you think I would forget? I would not flee and neither would he."
        "You must understand why Valk is concerned. You are the Parliament's lamb. You renounce your brethren and side with our murderers in the name of a freedom you have yet to truly--"
        "Still your tongue!" The interruption came not from the Duke but a new voice that called from one of the halls. Sydney turned to see the entrance of a very tall man with broad shoulders and a well-built form. Dressed only in a sleeveless robe hanging to the middle of his calves, he had long hair tied into a single thin braid and very thick black brows. Heavy gold earrings rattled as he moved. "Aldous, you've come, "he greeted, approaching quickly and laying a hand on the Duke's shoulder, "I never had doubts."
        "Truly?" Bardorba asked, ire in his tone. "Your acolyte here told a different tale. Valk, I'll ask once more if there may be a reprieve. You do not know what it is for me to do this. This is like dying. This is like having him die."
        "There can be no reprieve nor alternative. But fear not, Aldous, this is nothing so horrible."
        "Papa...?"
        Sydney clutched at the Duke's robes, the material oozing from between his fingers. Suddenly all eyes were upon him and he buried his face away. Valk grabbed him roughly by the collar.
        "Who are you, boy?" he asked, shaking him once and forcing his head to jerk back so he'd have to look up. Bardorba flinched and ground his teeth together but said nothing.
        "Leave me alone!" Sydney demanded, pulling at the fist clenching his tunic. Valk frowned and shoved him away, moving to stand between the little boy and his Father. When he tried to run back to the Duke, the well-built man grabbed his shoulder roughly and then motioned for Bardorba to leave.
        "N-no... wait, I have gold for you, "the Duke said, fumbling for the little purse hanging from his belt, "He'll not go without. You must treat him well, Valk, and if anything happens to him... if anything happens to him I do not care who it is that you are, I will come and cleave you navel to neck. I'll cut you open like a trout from the river, do you hear me?"
        "Papa!! No, don't leave me here!"
        Valk grimaced and Sydney saw on his face what he would see there afterwards many times: anger. He found himself shoved backwards to the floor so hard that his head knocked against a table leg and bright lights went off before his eyes. He heard Father cursing and then Valk was insisting that he leave. Sydney did nothing but call for the Duke and beg to be taken home, speaking as well as he could through the sobs now tearing through him. He tried to rise, still calling out, and then Valk hissed, "He is not your Father any more, little boy!" and that one sentence tore the Duke in twain. His face collapsed inwards in anguish and he almost fell backwards out into the chapel, clutching at the front of his robes. He threw his pouch of gold to the floor and then turned to flee. Sydney jumped to his feet and started to give chase but Valk's fist came at him without a moment's warning. He slammed a hand into the boy's jaw and sent him sprawling. He tried to get up again but the whole room was spinning. All he could do was push up on his elbows and watch the muted glimmer of the gold trim on Father's robe as he rushed through the chapel and back out into that horrible tunnel. Father's head was bowed and he wouldn't turn to look no matter how loud Sydney screamed. Then Valk shut the heavy doors and it would be almost fourteen years until Sydney saw him again.
        He was left with a bleeding lip and a ringing head. He was far from used to such rough treatment and so he could do nothing save sit on the dirty floor and cry into his sleeves for Papa to come back. Valk did not allow such a thing to continue for very long. With the three robed men from before looking on smugly, he grabbed Sydney by the waist and marched off with him back into one of the dark hallways. Sydney struggled against his hold, fighting with his fists and then with his teeth, but the man gave him such a sound blow to his head that he was dazed for a moment and the next thing he knew, they'd passed through a dark corridor and come out into a hallway full of heavy wooden doors. Valk shoved one open and entered, dropping his whimpering hostage onto the bed inside.
        Cold and stale, the little room smelled of mold and Sydney sat up on the bed with a tear-streaked face and a frown of distaste. He drew his knees up close and moved away from Valk, who'd seated himself nearby, watching intently. "What is your name?" he was asked after a moment.
        "S-sydney Bardorba of the Graylands...."
        "Wrong." Valk drew his hand back and the little boy cowered, expecting another blow. But all he received was a less vicious slap across his right wrist. "You are not the son of the Duke any longer. You are a student here and you are simply Sydney. If any of the others ask, you must tell them only that. You are a student named Sydney. You may pick a surname when you're older but for now you are nothing more than another tree in the forest. Understand?"
        "But Papa..."
        Another slap. "It may not be known that Bardorba has any connection with us. And so, what is your name, boy?"
        Sydney's lower lip quivered and his mind turned over in confusion. The streets were outside, weren't they? Wasn't the beautiful white fountain where St. Iocus blessed the poor still surrounded by vendors and children and people walking beneath a smiling sun? Why was he in this horrible place? It was dark and dirty down here and there wasn't a single window, he could not see the sky! "P-please may I go home, sir?"
        Valk slapped him again, then rose from the stool he'd seated himself upon and approached the door. "When you can tell me your proper name, you may eat and then begin to study with the others. Until then, sit in this room and become familiar with it. It is yours."
        "Where has my Father gone?"
        "He's gone someplace you may not follow. You will come to know this refuge as your home and you will love it for it is the one place in Valendia aside from Leá Monde herself where you may find peace. You are a student of Müllenkamp now, boy." Valk stared at him for a long moment, his lips pursed into an expression of appraisal, but whether he found his new guest lacking or not, the man turned and quickly stepped from the room. It was with a very baleful sound that the heavy door closed behind him and then Sydney was alone.
        His mind spun.
        He sat in silence for hours, shocked, pressed into the corner of the tiny cell and listening to the distant noise of what seemed like chanting. It was a pretty song, whatever it was that was being sung, and it sparked memories that he could not quite grasp. Frightening images danced in his head and he wondered if there might not be some wand'ring spirit to lend a sympathetic ear to his plight. Yet there was none here. Even the beautiful woman who sometimes came to him would not appear. He felt so utterly alone. After he could stand his own silence no longer, Sydney started to cry, laying facefirst into the sheets of the little bed there wailing confusion out into a pillow. He wanted Papa to come and sweep him up in his arms and take him home to the big beautiful Manor where everyone smiled at him and he was the young Master, the heir to it all. When he'd cried himself dry, Sydney slept for a while and did not know whether it was night or day when he awoke, only that he was horribly hungry and thirsty. He pushed the discomforts away, approaching the door and laying his head close upon it, listening for sounds. There was more singing coming at him from a great distance and then the sound of bells chiming. Voices chittered back and forth, came nearer, then faded and were gone.
        It seemed like ages until Valk came again. He was asleep when the door creaked open and Sydney was awakened by the man ripping the fine shirt from his back. Kicking and pleading, he was stripped of his clothes and dressed in dull brown hose and tunic, feet and head left bare. "Who are you, boy?" Valk asked as he worked, playfully sweeping his right hand back through the child's locks.
        "S-sydney..."
        "Really!" Valk lifted him from the bed and set him on his feet. "There is not much to you, is there, Sydney? Yet you are Aldous' son, the wretched mark is on your back, surely enough. Very well. Tomorrow morning you begin lessons with the other children. Yet Sydney, you are not like the other children here. More is expected of you. Understand?"
        "...no..." he muttered miserably, hiding his hands in the sleeves of his too-big tunic and eyeing the floor. Valk chuckled.
        "You will soon enough. Now I have brought you lunch and you'll eat it because you need your strength. My name is Henry Valk. You shall call me Master Valk."
        Sydney looked up and for the first time there was anger in his large grey eyes. "I shall call you knave, "he whispered, tugging at his collar, "I want my Father."
        "You'll watch your young tongue, boy, "Valk warned pleasantly, patting his head, "I am your friend here yet I can be your enemy. You have nine years to prepare for the Trial. I recommend you use them well. The longer you persist in defiance, the harder it will be for you." Sydney looked as though he'd break into tears again and this time Valk was a touch more sympathetic. The man laid a hand on one of his little shoulders and squeezed. "Do not cry, young Sydney. 'Tis a greater destiny you've been thrust into than what you've been plucked from."

 

        ...who knew? Perhaps Valk's words were true. Sydney thrashed wildly amid nothingness and was haunted by the face of the little boy in that cell. The image twisted about in his mind until he thought he'd scream and then he saw Joshua and was disgusted at what levels of envy that child could bring him to. Had he kidnapped Joshua out of spite? Had he been so blasted jealous? Joshua had been spared all of it, he had not been the first-born. He had been conceived outside the walls of Leá Monde and escaped its sorcery while Sydney... Sydney had been born damned.
        What horrible, useless, degrading thoughts were these! Why did they rise to the surface now? This was a hell of speculation and regret and Sydney could not get his head above the water to find a breath of reason. But it had not been so terrible, never quite so bad as at first. No, there had been good times at that place and he'd had good times with the acolytes of Müllenkamp. He had to embrace those and not be fooled by this false bitterness.
        Yet it had been so bad at first. Lessons were everyday, beginning at dawn. Sydney had never had anything beyond a few private tutors and he was still young. The people of Müllenkamp taught him to read and write English, Latin, French, and Kildean, all at once, relentlessly. Mathematics and the arcane sciences were his studies in the afternoon and when he turned ten, they forced alchemy and astrology onto his palette. But ten, ten, ten took so long to reach. In the four years between his arrival at a place called simply 'The Barracks' and his tenth birthday, Sydney attempted to escape at least once a week. Most of the time he never made it past Valk's bedroom near the chapel doors but a few times he would find himself standing where that heavy iron gate had once stood and he'd looked through it so many times when he'd still been of the Bardorba name and the flickering orange tunnel beyond had been the object of his speculative terror. That gate was not there anymore though. They had bricked it off and it was only a blank wall. He could not even see out onto the streets and gaze upon St. Iocus' lovely fountain. He could not see the children running after each other through the endlessly busy thoroughfare.
        Sydney knew there must surely be some other entrance into the Barracks but he was never allowed to explore the massive underground complex enough to stumble upon it. There were no windows in the place and air was vented in through grates set high in the ceilings. Every room was dingy and candle-lit, shelved roughly and lined with books. There were books of all sorts there, tomes older than Valendia itself, full of mysterious entries and inscrutable passages. Sydney and most of the other students there, pale faced boys and girls who were mainly the orphaned children of heretics killed during the Inquisition, were forbidden from opening them or even entering some of the libraries where they were kept. All day long and all night too, men and women in robes would shuffle by with books in hands, muttering things amongst themselves and trying to translate them. These were usually Grimoires, arcane books of magick salvaged from Leá Monde, and whenever Sydney wasn't contemplating his next escape attempt, he was preoccupied with thinking about those books and how he might get his hands on one. Most of the students didn't care one way or the other for them but Sydney knew that some grand secret lay in the writings of the Ancients and he wanted in on it.
        By the time he was eleven, Sydney had mastered the languages required of him. Doing as Valk had recommended, he devoted his free time to studies and was easily the most advanced of the students in the Barracks. He still thought of that brightly lit mansion and the warm friendly man whom he'd once known as Father yet those memories were uncomfortably distant. Sometimes it was easiest to forget the past and concentrate on how things were now. There was a certain luscious power in knowing as much as he did. These were glorious things that the men and women teachers of the Barracks taught him and the others; the very makings of the universe. It was completely contradictory to what the preachers had always shouted from their podiums in the marketplace. Sydney could remember those wild-eyed lunatics and how they'd make the people in the crowds tremble with their prophecies and condemnations. Yet the world was not so evil and neither was God.
        God. Really, there was no God. That's what the teachers of the Barracks taught.
        Rather there was the soul. It was swayed by Dark and swayed by Light and swayed by the very real force of the human heart. The Light was a formless thing without power and it shaped men's destinies and swallowed men's souls, gaining its strength through Life. It was peace and apathy. Then there was the Dark. The Dark was all powerful and difficult. It existed in all things yet could not always manifest. It was the only force that could truly change destinies, gaining its strength through Death. Both it and the Light were controlled by the heart and they were the only forces of Divinity in existence. Other Divine figures carved themselves from those powers but a human was not Divine by their doing. They were either strong-hearted and able to control the forces or the forces favoured them and used them as tools.
        That was the basic dogma preached in the Barracks. Though Sydney didn't always quite believe it, he found it fascinating nonetheless.
        The goal, it seemed, of the people in the place Sydney found himself so suddenly a part of, was to control the Divine elements. They did not want to worship a God, they wanted to control the forces behind him. Rather than deify the long-dead priestess they called Müllenkamp, they idolized her and the control she had had over the Dark. Once he was older, Sydney found this fascinating as well.
        "I wonder why it is that we hide like rats here, "he commented belligerently to Valk one day as they'd sat across from each other at the evening meal. Dinner at the Barracks was a noisy affair, the one time of day where propriety and respect were thrown from the windows and the students could act their ages. Sydney had started to learn of the history of Müllenkamp that day in his classes and had spent the night before talking to the priestess herself. He wondered sometimes if Valk knew that he talked to their idol. Did he know that Müllenkamp would not die? For two thousand years she'd walked the earth and even after all of that time she still found too much to enjoy to allow her soul to dissipate into the Light. The Light itself had no desire for her either, her own spirit was too imbued with the Dark, it would only be rejected. The Light and the Dark could not be combined, they slipped past each other, like oil and water. A human soul could absorb either and their destiny lay in that split. "Why do we hide, Master Valk? Is it from the Church that we shut ourselves away? Or do we hide out of greed, because we would not share our knowledge? Why does my Father not come? Does he disagree with we heretics?"
        Valk had looked up in an eternally patient way. He had acquired a method of dealing with the boy that was indescribably irritating. It consisted of never growing angry and never seeming to care. "He fights our battles on a different field. There is much honour in what he does because he has shunned the Dark to do it."
        "Nonsense," Sydney had said lightly. He was nearly twelve and uncannily bright. He had a habit of wearing his long blonde hair in a braid as his Master did and he seldom wore a shirt. He liked the stares that the teachers and other students gave him. He liked that they feared the Blood-Sin on his back. He liked that he was such an object of reverence, hatred, fear, and joy though he didn't understand the source of any of it. "The only power in the world lies in the power of the Dark. When do I learn the Grimoires, Master Valk?"
        "When you stop asking me, "the man had answered disdainfully. He sipped at a goblet of wine near his plate, picking over what was left of a potato. Twenty or so girls and boys shouted to each other around him, singing songs and telling tales. "You are not strong enough to control the Dark yet, boy."
        "Ha, that's a lie, "Sydney laughed, "Master Mallierde says I'm the strongest warlock in the Barracks."
        "Master Mallierde needs to watch his addlepated tongue, "Valk muttered, looking darkly down the table towards where the adults sat soberly smoking. Valk always sat with Sydney though, he preferred his sparring with the boy over the zealotry of his peers.
        "I wish to learn all it is that you want me to learn, "he answered bitterly, "So that I may leave this accursed place all the sooner and return to my Father. Languages, science, mathematics and your religion of the Dark. Almost six years of it and it's still bloody nonsense to me."
        "Yet you're a smart boy and you humour us, "Valk cut in, "Because you know there is nothing else to do. You learn and you listen so that you may be free some day."
        "Oh, bugger off, Master Valk, "Sydney sighed, picking at his carrots with a petulant fork, "'Tis no wonder Father never comes for me. I wouldn't come either if I had to endure your logicking."
        "Thou art such a sweetheart, Sydney, "Valk smiled, "Eat your vegetables."
        "Father never made me eat my vegetables."
        "Come off it, "Valk snapped, suddenly losing his patience, "You barely remember your Father. What is he at all but a face to you? Something you conjure up to make you feel superior. Little boy, you are nothing. If you don't learn that soon, I fear the Trial will swallow you whole."
        There was no answer to give, nor any kind of clever, cutting reply. The words were true, though they had been cruel for Valk to say. Sydney rested his chin on a hand and dove relentlessly into his supper. He tried to prove Master Valk wrong, he tried to remember certain things about the Duke but... but he couldn't remember the colour of his eyes, nor even how the Mansion had looked. He could not recall his own bedroom nor the view from his window. All he knew for certain was there was a white marble fountain of St. Iocus on the other side of the walled-in exit from the orange tunnel past the chapel. Beyond that... beyond that was a grand mansion and he'd used to live there with a wonderful man he'd called Father.
        Now he spent most of his days studying or chatting with the other students. He played chess with the Masters or drew pictures in the journals Master Valk brought him. Sometimes a spirit would wander into the Barracks but not often. They seemed unwilling to speak with him when they did. Only Müllenkamp would talk at length. She told wonderful stories of Leá Monde and of the carving of the glyphs and of the sorcerers who'd wandered the streets two-thousand years before, conjuring storms from a clear sky. Sydney would lay in his tiny room across his hard bed and she would sit on the end; wavering, beautiful, enchanting. She was so alive despite the chill about her form that Sydney sometimes wanted to rest his head in her lap and see if she would stroke his hair. Yet their conversations were not like that. They were fun and friendly yet there was always a certain distance to the womanly spectre. It was almost like she secretly despised him and the boy hoped that hunch was not true. Perhaps it was the natural disdain that all the dead held for the living.
        Yet it was more than that. Sydney knew it.
        Valk was still picking at his dinner. His student watched his every action through hooded grey eyes. There were so many secrets in this place. The Masters revealed little yet there was a grand design to everything, there had to be. Perhaps Master Valk knew more than any of them, Sydney wasn't sure. Valk was not head of the place, no, that was false by far, yet he was superior to all of the teachers. The Trial... those words had such meaning to them and whenever Sydney was lax in his studies or fell behind in anything, Valk reminded him of The Trial. Yet there was no telling just what exactly that was. It was something awful and important though, there could be no mistaking that.
        Staring at his Master, the boy's mind started to wander. He saw things in Valk's head: surface level things, the man hid his secrets too well and Sydney had never been able to read his mind to an extent enough to discover anything he truly wanted to know. He saw now simple absent thoughts of how empty the goblet in his hand had become and of how loud Morgan, the little boy next to him, was. But then Valk turned to look at the ring on his hand and there appeared the flash of a man crying and the man was Valk himself, only ten years younger with short wild hair. Sydney narrowed his eyes, then closed them entirely, listening. Valk cried a name and another voice answered it, answered, "Brother!" Then Valk's voice again, he shouted, "Tell them for God's sake!"
        "Sydney!"
        The boy opened his eyes suddenly, startled, and Valk was staring down at him furiously, his teeth grinding together. Confused, Sydney saw something moving to his left and turned to look. A ghostly man stood just behind him, his face smeared in blood. He looked like Valk in a way and after a moment it was obvious that he had been the brother he'd been calling for in his memories. Yet... yet his face was slick with red and he wasn't wearing clothes. Round scorchmarks covered his torso, steam rising from them and Sydney thought he could smell the stink of burning flesh before Valk punched him in the jaw and the image faded entirely.
        The room hushed and he could feel every set of eyes there trained upon him. "I'm-- I'm sorry, "he stuttered, rising to his feet. He rubbed his jaw and there was a little indentation there: Master Valk's ring. He wanted to laugh at the irony but then he wanted to cry, turning slowly to walk to his room.
        He felt them staring even as he left. He felt Valk's stare and was surprised it didn't burn through him. He felt Müllenkamp nearby and he heard her laughing in a very cruel manner. If he closed his eyes, that bloody-faced man was there, and Valk was shouting, "Tell them for God's sake!"

 

        A year later, Sydney and four other students were taken further back into the Barracks than any of them had ever been allowed to venture. The front of the place, between the ruined chapel and the single dark hallway they now were walking through, was a maze of book-lined corridors and classrooms and the students were always given free access to all of that. Beyond the familiarity of their home though, the Barracks grew dark and archaic. A single bolted door, black with grime, marked the edge of their freedom. Valk had led the five youngsters through it and locked it tight behind them. Now they made their way through a lightless tunnel with only a single torch to guide their way. Master Valk walked in the lead and Sydney was right at his back, less nervous then the others since he could sense the minds of living things and therefore know if anything was approaching long before his eyes could actually see it. He now knew that even though there were bats and phantoms in these underground passages, the light was frightening to them and they fled long before Müllenkamp's acolytes arrived.
        By the light of their lone torch, they saw high vaulted ceilings and cobweb-covered portals leading into lightless galleries and crumbled alcoves. Ancient statues lay in ruins everywhere and always there were Roods; wooden, iron, marble, or gold, they adorned the walls and were designed into the very floors.
        Here, as in the chapel past the orange tunnel, were the wails of the dead. Yet there were no dead here. It was simply the very walls recalling their cries and Sydney heard those memories, shuddering at the sound. Hardin had always feared the sounds of the dead. Of course, he had not been raised in ruins, he was not so accustomed to the damned.
        Hardin. Who was Hardin?
        ~...forgive me, Sydney... for being so selfish... for stealing this from you... for not being the father that I should have been...~
        Father?!
        Sydney shook his head quickly, grabbing onto the back of Master Valk's robe to steady himself. What wretched things this place whispered.
        ~...await the chapel. It shall end there, you know....~
        What voice was that?!
        They walked for a long time through the dark place and the torch had nearly burnt itself away before Valk opened a door with a key he pulled from his pocket and ushered the group through. Immediate cheery yellow light greeted them all and Sydney found himself in a large airy room of white bricks, very different from the gloomy underground passages they'd travelled. "What is this?" one of the students asked, stepping forward and gesturing to the glyphs marked all over the walls. Valk looked bored and set his torch down.
        "This is where you'll begin to use Grimoires. This room is bound by a Ward and so it is safe for the rest of the Barracks should you make some disastrous mistake. You may still, however, die because of your own foolishness. The Dark is dangerous and cannot be controlled by the weak. You've been chosen by your Masters to begin true training yet that doesn't necessarily make you worthy. All that gives you any right to be in this room at all is the fact that you hail from Leá Monde and thusly were born into the Dark. You are the blessed of Müllenkamp and may wield the Dark to whatever degree your own soul allows. Now, Sydney, make fire and light the braziers."
        "Master Valk..." he began in surprise but was cut off.
        "Save it. I know that you've gone against your teachers' wishes and already devised your own magicks. Make fire, scamp."
        How did he know that? Had Valk read through his very journals? The snake! Sydney scowled towards his Master but complied with the command, setting the brass braziers on either side of the entrance to blazing and eliciting a few gasps from the four less experienced students. He wanted to yawn but kept himself from it. Amateurs. Valk looked his way for a moment, thoughtful, then turned to the others.
        "The Dark... is as it sounds, "he said after a moment of contemplation, "It is not evil as the Iocus zealots would have you believe yet it is very negative and detrimental to the integrity of the soul. That is why only the strong may wield it, others are either killed by it or become controlled by it. 'Tis naught to desire. In fact, those who crave the Dark oft times cannot bear it when it comes."
        "If it is so horrible, "Sydney interrupted in what was his usual cocky attitude, "Why bother with it at all?"
        Valk frowned. "Because it is the only true source of power any man may ever have. There is Light but Light is intangible and utterly uncontrollable. The Dark will bend to us, it can be chosen whereas Light is a sort of... default. Dark is power. It is as simple as that. It is extremely hard, however, to gather and manipulate. Due to the actions of an evil tyrant within the Iocus Church, there is now a wellspring called Leá Monde which festers oversea like a sore. One day you may go there and you will find Dark in abundance, as well as utter horror, Death, and the anguish of the souls of your ancestors. Until that day, you use the Dark in your own hearts and the gift that Müllenkamp's city gave you at birth."
        Valk looked each of his students in the eye and Sydney realized then that he was in fact a teacher. He was most likely a great teacher, yet Sydney found most of his spiel to be nonsense. He'd heard of what happened to Leá Monde ages ago from the others there and found nothing mystic about it at all. Yes, it was a great catastrophe but it was impossible that the Church could have caused destruction that massive on her own. Even with the grandest Grimoire in existence, it would take a warlock as great as Müllenkamp to summon demons on a scale large enough to crush the entire city. The Church knew nothing of the Dark, much less knew of a way to turn the ancient city into a source of it. Sydney wondered if Müllenkamp's tribe here wasn't just as bad as St. Iocus'. The Church used the catastrophe of Leá Monde to prove its own righteousness and now so was Müllenkamp, turning the religion that oppressed them into scapegoats. Foolishness. All of it.
        Yet Sydney never took his eyes nor ears from Valk that day. He memorized his first official spell in minutes and whined when he wasn't given a new book to read from. Not that he needed them. "You must not conjure on your own, "Valk hissed at him as they were leaving the Ward-protected space and heading back towards the front of the Barracks, "Use the Grimoires. They've been in existence for thousands of years and are tested, true, safe. You would kill yourself with incantations you know naught of, fairy tales you've pulled out of your head. Be wise, Sydney."
        Be wise, be wise, he would not be wise. He would master everything and then he would leave this wretched place where no one spoke to him save Master Valk. He'd leave and he'd never come back and the Duke would welcome him home at once!
        Müllenkamp spoke complete foolishness to him that night in his room. She said that he could never go home, not even after he'd finished at the Barracks. She said that after the Trial, he would not want to. She said that she loved him and she wanted him forever at her side. This had surprised Sydney and he'd sat up in bad, the breath catching in his throat. "Why would you say that, Milady?"
        ~Because you are one of my people, my love. A descendant. My blood flows in your veins and so I love you as I might love a son. Once you've proven yourself, the Dark will love you as I love you and you shall live forever.~
        "Live forever?"
        ~Aye. You will be my tongue in this backward era of clerics and condemnations. You will be my losst'arot, my priest, my prophet. You will be so happy.~
        "Losst'arot...?" She always spoke to him in Kildean, she spoke it now, yet those two words stood out. 'Losst'arot'... Kildean for... 'beloved of God'... Two-thousand years ago, it was a term used to describe those who served the Temples of the Gods and lived a life of sacrifice, abandoning their souls for total devotion to the Divine. They'd been zealots, madmen. Fools, in Sydney's opinion. "Milady, "he said somewhat condescendingly, "I am a nobody, and you are dead. Even this religion that's come about because of you is a small one, a dying one."
        ~Not so small, losst'arot, and not so dead. You will see soon enough.~
        They went to the back sections of the Barracks with the protected rooms but four times a week, every other day. It was a welcome change from a stale schedule and Sydney even started talking to the four other students learning magick with him. It seemed easier to deal with social pleasantries in that smaller group than in the larger classes and there was a girl among them, Maria, who took to calling him Syd and braiding and unbraiding his hair during meal times. She was a tiny thing, thin as wire and a head shorter than he. It was most likely that delicacy of form that had made her such easy prey for the Dark. She'd been trying to tame fire one day when her spell overwhelmed her and burned her alive. They found the girl curled into a back corner of the Ward room, on her side with her head in her arms as though she'd lain down to go to sleep. Burned to nothing but ash and bones and Sydney had had flashes of her death when he'd looked at her corpse. He didn't understand how he could read the charred brain of the dead until he realized it was the air itself that held the memory of her screams. That was what he heard.
        Maria's death came and passed as surely as anything did. After a few months, no one really thought on her at all. Sydney waited eagerly to see her spirit, as he'd learned about the various kinds of deaths by then, yet she never appeared and he wondered if perhaps she truly had died as was proper. Master Valk was certain she had. He said that most people did unless they'd lived their entire lives with the Dark and were contaminated with it. Valk said he would surely die a complete death, he had no reason to live on as a wandering ghost. Sydney didn't understand that. Even if it meant an eternity of purposelessness and confusion, he'd take an incomplete death over the other easily. Life in any form was still life and who had need for oblivion? What could be done, learned, or achieved in oblivion? Nothing!
        After nearly three years, Sydney had mastered every Grimoire in the Barracks. The teachers all marvelled, saying such a thing had never before been done, no one could possibly work the highest, most intricate magicks at the age of fifteen. Yet he could and he could do so quite well and there wasn't a single person in the entire place who could rival him. Müllenkamp cooed over his strength and taught him even more, showing him how to shift in and out of visibility like a spectre, something no one in the Barracks had heard of and when he did it, they nearly supposed him a demonic phantom and exorcised him right out of the classroom. He was truly feared by everyone there, teacher and student, and Sydney could not understand that. He'd never done a single thing to hurt anyone and yet they treated him like a threat. They cringed when he chanted his spells, when he wove the Dark in a way that seemed deviously natural to him. The Masters were completely terrified of his strength, all save Valk who would simply smile and nod at Sydney's repeated successes, unsurprised by them, as though nothing else in the world would have made any sense.
        Sometimes Sydney feared himself though. He didn't understand why everything came so naturally and why every Grimoire seemed like something he'd already mastered a long long time ago and had now only to recall. Sometimes he feared Müllenkamp and the way she roared with laughter in the dead of night when only he could hear. He feared she'd developed the lunacy that many spirits suffered from. Really, he wanted her to leave him alone and stop saying she loved him. Sydney didn't want the love of a dead, maddened woman.
        There were many in the Barracks that offered their love to him though. At the beginning of his sixteenth year, Sydney was a fine specimen of a young man and his habit of keeping his hair long and his shirt off inspired a lot of attention. Affairs bloomed and died, nothing lasting. He loved them and left them and not because he found them unworthy, uninteresting, or unbeautiful but because he would sometimes, purely unintentionally, see such dark and horrible things in their minds. All the students and Masters in the Barracks were like that. So many dark secrets, hidden hatreds, dirty mysteries. It was disgusting. They would come and they would beg to be with him or maybe Sydney would approach them on his own. Either way, past that initial attraction, the day would inevitably come when thoughts turned too loud and too dark for him to bear. He cursed his own powers then and wished them away for it seemed they grew stronger every day, changing men and women to monsters. Such evil tapestries were woven in most of their heads that the very air seemed ranker when they were in the same room as he or laying in the same bed. The awful realizations failed to inspire any sort of real bitterness or misanthropy in him though. It would only make him sad, make him wonder if there might be a soul somewhere that didn't harbour such dark desires and hidden truths. Or at least maybe there was someone somewhere who didn't immediately drop their mental guards when Sydney undid their clothes and laid beside them in a bed.
        Everyday he grew just a little more lonesome and a little more adept at conjuring the Dark. Sometimes he thought those two were linked. Perhaps he paid for his strength with his heart.
        Sydney had a horrible thought one day that the Duke had left him in this place because he'd known that his son would become a monster utterly separated from the people around him. So he'd decided he no longer wanted aught to do with the child and left him in the care of heretic sorcerers. That was when Sydney first started thinking of himself as a monster. It made sense, did it not? His own powers kept him from being too close to others. Better to watch from afar, as though the people were monkeys in an oriental cage and he was amused by them; don't let them know that you wish you were in that cage too.
        Sydney lost himself in the Dark then. He read every book in the Barracks and travelled alone to the Ward rooms. He ignored Müllenkamp and any other wand'ring spirits and took to conjuring monsters of his own, nearly getting himself killed a few times in the process. It was on a Wednesday evening that he tried to summon a demon and woke up in a pool of blood. How Valk cursed him for that, coming after him when the entire underground structure of classrooms and libraries began shaking and a horrible sound came quickly and then died away from Sydney's bedroom. "Are you after your own death, boy?" he demanded, storming into the room and seeing his charge collapsed on the floor, fighting to breathe, a paper of words crushed in his hand. Valk ground his teeth together at the sight, kneeling at Sydney's side and then carrying him to his bed, wiping the bloody froth away from his mouth, "You cannot summon here! You cannot summon in a place like this! Unless you have the power of Müllenkamp herself, you must be at a wellspring or the Dark tears at your own flesh, looking for strength!"
        "I want to leave this place, "Sydney answered listlessly, uninterested in the lecture or even in his own wounds. He coughed blood but spoke through it, impatient with the pain. "Duke Bardorba no longer cares for me. Fine, I'll accept that. But I must leave this place, Master Valk. There's nothing for me here."
        "Soon, "Valk had answered with surprising tenderness, "Too soon, actually. Soon enough you'll not have to fear for yourself when you summon, for nothing will be able to hurt you."
        "That's ridiculous, "Sydney scoffed half-heartedly, "You sound like that daft woman spirit."
        "Müllenkamp?" Valk clarified, stiffening slightly. "Aye, perhaps I do. That should be a compliment then, I suppose, for she is wise."
        "She is daft!" Sydney disagreed, not caring that she could probably hear and not caring that Valk now knew he conversed with her, "She's as daft as any ghost would be who's walked the earth alone for two millennia. She babbles in my ears about immortality and the apocalypse and I say it's all nonsense. When may I leave this hell, Master?!"
        His countenance a mask of trembling rage, Valk raised a hand over Sydney and slapped him strongly across the face. "She is not daft!" he hissed, "Take care, Sydney! You never take care! You dash around and you play with fire, you swallow swords and sip poison! Müllenkamp could hang your soul from her arm like a bangle, she could send you to hell for she forges hells with mere thought! You unthinking, ungrateful brat! You'll leave too soon, too soon for my liking, and Müllenkamp will be all there is to keep you from going insane. You'll come to have faith in her and she'll be your God, Sydney."
        "Why am I here?" the young man asked softly, rubbing his sore cheek and watching his Master with daggers for eyes, "Why did the Duke leave me here when I was six? Because of Leá Monde?"
        Valk looked away from his charge, gazing at his own right hand as though suddenly sorry for the blow he'd given. His eyes flicked over his ring and Sydney heard, "Tell them for God's sake!"; a faraway memory full of pain, screaming through the air. "Because of Leá Monde, aye. Because of Müllenkamp. Because of the Duke himself. Did you know that your father was an Elder of the Temple of Biere Masse in the city before it fell? And your mother was a Priestess of the Grand Cathedral, a very skilled weaver of the Dark before she died. All the Elders and all the people of the Cathedral were killed either by the quakes or during the Inquisition. All save Bardorba and you, you who were baptized into the ways of Müllenkamp before Leá Monde crumbled.
        "Sydney, the Cardinal's inquisitors didn't brand you with the Blood-Sin on your back. The priests of Müllenkamp did. You are of her line."
        "What?"
        He sat up on the bed and heard ghostly laughter in his ears. Sydney narrowed his eyes. "But I don't understand. The Church branded heretics during the Inquisition. The Blood-Sin was a way for the Cardinal to spit in our mouths and grind his boot-heels into our wounds. It's known in all circles that Müllenkamp had an inverted Rood carved into her flesh as a way to show her mockery towards the very powers of the Dark. She did not fear the Dark, she controlled it utterly and at will and so she took its symbol, the Holy Rood, and turned it upside-down. The Cardinal knew how that very fact was so respected by her followers and as a way to hurt them, to make them look foolish, to show his complete disdain for them and to mark them forever as pariahs and blasphemers, he burned that very same mark onto their backs."
        "Bastardly, was it not?" Valk seemed to catch himself suddenly, rising from Sydney's side and making for the door. "I'll fetch you water, you're ill from your own foolishness, any other child would be dead."
        "But I am not a child! Stay! Finish telling me what you began!"
        Sydney spit blood from his tongue. The Dark had turned on him a moment ago and he didn't care. He'd never had that happen but already it was pushed from his mind with his Master's few teasing words. Valk paused and closed his eyes, fists clenched at his sides. "The Cardinal did not know there was more to the inverted Rood than its involvement with Müllenkamp's legend, "he said quickly, knowing he'd stop his explanation if he let himself realize he was giving it at all, "No one outside of the inner circle of the Priesthood know the true secrets. Before she died, Müllenkamp declared that all of her successors, those strong as she'd been strong, those great as she'd been great, would bear her mark and live to defy the Dark. You are one of those successors, Sydney, and with that comes great responsibility, danger, and reward. To claim the rewards, you must offer sacrifice to the Dark. 'Tis a simple spellsong really, the reading of Kildean glyphs penned by Müllenkamp herself, but there are... the sacrifices. Your mother was the first. She died giving you unto Müllenkamp."
        Sydney shook his head. This was all too much at once. "Did... did she know?"
        "Your mother? Yes, she did. I was friends with her. Lily was quite taken with it all actually, she considered it a privilege. Your mother loved Müllenkamp, she was very devout in her practices. That is why you must never speak ill of her again, boy. You mother gave her life to Müllenkamp.
        "F-father knew?"
        Valk shrugged and stood from the stool he'd fallen onto. He paced absently about the tiny bedroom. "I don't know what he knew. I know he was devastated when she died and that he hasn't taken a wife since. He must at some point though, he'll have to have an heir."
        Barely breathing out of pure disbelief, Sydney frowned deeply, trying to keep from collapsing back onto his bed. The mysticism of it all meant nothing. Power, rewards, to hell with all of that. "Father thinks of me as though I'm dead, "he whispered, heart-broken, "What heir... what heir could I be to him? If it's found out that he's given his son to heretics, the Cardinal will have his head and take his seat in Parliament. The Duke is so pious, so respected within the Church... if it were discovered that he is a backer of Müllenkamp, it would all be over for him."
        "You see that, don't you then?" Valk asked, "Bardorba is our only real voice in Parliament. He must keep up his facade or all is lost. Already... already the Cardinal is waiting to seal our fate and permanently crown himself true ruler of Valendia. He panders to the King like a puppy."
        "Why didn't you tell me any of this before?"
        "You were too young, "Valk answered wearily, "And you probably still are. Yet it won't be long until the day comes when you are our protector from the Church. Our religion has always been a hunted one and we have too many martyrs listed in our Book of Names. The Bardorba line and the lines before it, reaching back to Müllenkamp herself, have shielded us with their power from those who would destroy us completely. Müllenkamp's legacy is the blood that she left behind and the spells she wove during her final days to protect it."
        "I've no choice in this, do I?"
        "There's always a choice, "the Master corrected, suddenly putting a hand atop Sydney's blonde head, "I've heard the wisest men of the Barracks say that the Trial is in three months for you. In three months, you may leave if you decide you do not want to become our leader. No one will try to stop you. The Blood-Sin does not damn you, it only gives you... another destiny. If you so choose to take it. The past ten years have solely been to prepare you for that destiny."
        "Her successor...? What- what exactly does that mean?"
        Turning again for the door suddenly, Valk answered, "I do not know. I... I only know that as privileged as she felt to be your Mother, Lily cried for weeks when Bardorba revealed his lineage to her. She cried for you, Sydney. She was sad for you. None of us knew that she would die in childbirth but I think Lily knew and I think it pained her to realize she could not be here for you. Does it make you weep to hear this?"
        Sydney didn't answer, his face turned to the wall. Valk left the room to give him his privacy, shaking himself after revealing his story. He'd never meant to speak a word and yet he'd always known he'd have to tell the tale sometime. Sometime had just come too soon. After the door closed softly, Sydney lay on his side and stared at the dusty, smooth bricks of the room that had been his for ten years. He wasn't crying as Master Valk had supposed though. He was simply thinking how desperately the Duke must despise him for killing his own mother. It was no wonder that he'd left him here, given him away.
        After a while, Sydney was himself again and he sat up on the edge of his bed, letting his legs dangle over the side. He waited for Valk to return with water but his Master never did. Perhaps he could not face the boy for a while, those few truths had had much meaning and obviously been difficult to say. Sydney waited for Müllenkamp to come; he anticipated it actually, he had a few choice words for the phantom. He'd speak his mind, tell her that he had no intention of becoming her little puppet and saving her idiot followers. He was Sydney Bardorba, damn it all to hell, not Sydney Losstarot. If the Duke would not have him, he'd head far away from these confining, prison walls and he'd make a new life for himself. A new destiny, his own destiny. Suddenly he hated the mark on his back. He'd thought it mocking and mysterious before, he'd flaunted it, but now he hated it and what it seemed to mean and how it was the very symbol of why these zealots had kept him caged like a dog his entire life.
        Sydney sat against the wall and started scraping his back lightly against it. He wanted to peel the very skin off and be rid of this mark. Father had it too. He remembered that now. Yet Father had no power and so perhaps he'd not chosen the destiny of successorship. He'd fought in the wars without relying on magick or trickery and suddenly Sydney felt a great surge of admiration and pride for him. He wished the Duke were here so he could ask him the million questions on his mind. Only Father would truly understand all this and be able to properly explain it.
        Why had he left him alone in this place?!
        Sydney didn't leave his room again that night. He cleaned his blood from the floor and threw away the summon spell he'd written, scrubbing his chalking from the wall. Perhaps if he asked Müllenkamp she would pen a spell for him yet he didn't want her help anymore. He despised her. She'd lied to him all these years. Besides, Sydney had wanted the spell in order to break free from this place. He'd been trying to call a Lich who might sneak through the walls and find the exit from the Barracks for him. Most likely Müllenkamp didn't want her little beloved songbird to escape his cage and wouldn't be so keen on aiding him.
        "Where are the true Masters of the Barracks?" Sydney asked Valk the moment he saw him the next day. They were in the Ward room with three other students and Valk shot the boy a stern warning glance that was immediately ignored.
        "They will not see you."
        "But they must, "Sydney answered quickly, laughing through his words, "For I only want to save them a bit of bother. Must I truly wait three months till I'm allowed to spit in their faces? Master Valk, I have no intention of going through with any of this. Let me leave now, don't make me wait. I curse Müllenkamp, her fool followers, the Masters, the students, the Barracks, I curse it all to hell. I have no interest in any of it. I must be allowed to go to my Father."
        Valk's eyes flickered towards the three students practicing diligently with their Grimoires. Sydney knew what he was thinking. "Master, I'll run screaming through the halls and do you know what words I'll be chanting?" The boy approached his teacher and moved his lips close to his ears. He whispered, "Lord Sydney Bardorba... Lord Sydney Bardorba... tell me prithee, how the Masters of the Barracks will like that? The secret will be out. All will be exposed."
        "You would reveal your Father?" Valk asked, eyes wide. Sydney knew he wanted to leap forward and punch him, Valk wasn't good at hiding his anger. But then the older man smiled a most sickening smile and shoved the boy away. "No, child, you wouldn't do that, you love him too much. You are too faithful and loyal a son."
        Sydney frowned, letting his back teeth grind together behind his lips. "Perhaps you're right, "he relented, "But there are other things I might do. I might summon a wyvern into my room."
        "You would die in the attempt, you mean," Valk said mockingly.
        A dark smile crossed the boy's face. "Exactly. I would rather give my soul to the Dark than to the foolishness of that dead harlot Müllenkamp and you lot of bleating sheep." Valk paled though the words set off a spark of anger in his breast. One of the other students was calling for his help and he barely seemed to hear it, too absorbed in anger. He paced a few steps away from Sydney, searching for a reply.
        In the end, all he could say was, "You are setting yourself up for tragedy, child."
        "Master Valk! This third verse, how do you pronounce it? I think it's a variation from what's in the other!"
        It was a little boy calling, an eleven year old prodigy of the school who'd been taken to the Ward room early. He stood in the corner with an older friend and the both of them were peering over a Grimoire, their blunt little fingers tracing the words as they whispered them. Valk growled a curse at Sydney then turned to help. Bardorba's son glared at his back, grey eyes glinting from beneath lowered brows. How he hated all of them and their secrets, their spells, their nonsense. He saw the greed in that little boy's mind and how he lusted after Sydney's mastery of the Dark and how his friend was so wickedly jealous of the other boy's own talent, secretly hating him for it. He heard Valk cursing mentally and he could feel the anger there as hot as a burning coal and it stung him. He wanted someone to confide in, someone he could trust and yet there was no one like that here, there never had been. "Master, the ice is so much harder than the fire, you have to concentrate on water first then freeze that, it's doubly hard!" The little boy sounded so frustrated and in his mind, he was damning the fact that they wouldn't let him move onto more interesting, less tedious things.
        "This is ice, "Sydney muttered darkly, whispering the beginnings of a chant that was as natural to him as breathing. He fled the Ward room as he felt the air freezing at his back. The braziers blew out and the light vanished, rendering it pitch black and terrifying. Ice formed in huge crystals raining from above and the boys hollered in fright as Master Valk swore lustily but Sydney didn't hear any of it, having already said words that would send him back to his bedroom.

 

        That night, Sydney dreamt.
        He was always a little boy in his dreams. He thought that cruel. When he awoke, he was the trapped and frustrated young man and reality seemed false, as though only his dreams and the boy in them were real.
        The wind was blowing hot and dry. It was the sort of wind that seemed to hold the potential to whither the world, turn it all into a brittle desert. It rattled shop signs, caught up the dust and threw it against hot brick walls, tore leaves from trees and slammed shutters on their hinges. The streets it blew through were empty, barren. They were empty in an unnatural way as it was now the middle of the afternoon and it seemed they should be teeming with life; knights with their swords, apprentices with their errands, fishwives with their laundry, merchants with their wares, children scampering at every corner, calling names and chasing dogs as the dry wind blew on and got dust in their eyes. Yet the people were missing and the streets were bare. There was only little Sydney, tip-toeing his way over the dusty cobblestones in fine cotton clothes and cobbled leather shoes with the sweat sticking his hair to the back of his neck in a most uncomfortable manner.
        Leá Monde seemed open to him. Sydney knew it was Leá Monde though he had no distinct memories of the city nor remembrance of the grand home he'd lived in there once. The place seemed friendly, welcoming. The hot wind was almost a comfort as the little boy seemed to recall a horrible coldness; a sort of chill settled over his bones or his soul; yes, his flesh felt as ice. This wind melted that and sent a shiver up his back. Quiet and thoughtful, he tread the empty street, peering into absent windows and carelessly ducking his head through open doorways. Corpses greeted his eyes only they were not repulsive at all. A man sat up at a table, fallen against the tools of his trade which had been set there to be oiled: pliers, tongs, hammer, chisel. A smith, surely. His wife lay on the floor behind him and the empty laundry basket was still in her hands though its contents spread outwards from her body in waves of white linen and fresh tunics. Fallen feathers, they seemed to be. A little girl snuggled into the clean washing, her face buried in the white. She looked asleep, they all did, though Sydney never doubted that they were dead as stones, the lot of them.
        He left that one house behind and moved on through the sombre city, meeting family after family of the quiet dead with every room he dared enter. After long enough, he began to feel very strange, as though he were in fact an intruder here and not a returning son. Was he the only living mortal in this entire expanse of homes and streets? Sydney felt alone and very frightened. Not frightened of the dead, for he'd never feared them, but frightened of himself and of the very life he possessed, as though that spark of life were in itself unnatural and wrong. In this world of death where life was fragile and precious, his own beating heart was the anomaly. Who was to say that dying was more terrifying than living? Just as many facets of it were mysteries, it was just as unknown, just as horrible, just as unexplainable. What made the heart beat? The lungs breathe? Those things in themselves made less sense than what it was that caused it all to stop! Sydney halted in his tracks, the thoughts zipping like crossbow bolts back and forth through his mind and he began to panic because there weren't any answers.
        "God... God..." he whispered, not in supplication but as a response to his own questions. God was the cause and the catalyst. God had started his heart's beating. God had made all the people who'd built Leá Monde and God had made all the people who'd killed its citizens and razed the city to the ground.
        But Master Valk said that God was dead. If there'd ever been one to begin with.
        Sydney sighed and stopped his wandering, plopping himself down on a set of stairs and resting his little chin in his hands. Moving only his eyes, he surveyed the bit of city around him, wondering if building this place had made the people feel more like Gods. He saw the tall dome of the Great Cathedral looming in the distance and wondered what had been so horrible about the religion of Leá Monde that the Iocus Church had decided it had to die. Had Father truly been such a holy man in his time? Or had he simply assumed that position because it was expected of him, hailing from a long line of worshippers and having fallen in love with a priestess of the Temple of Kiltia? What did that make Sydney? He had no idea and it suddenly struck him how anonymous he was, completely without identity. There were options opened to him and doorways he could pass through yet he wanted none of it.
        He'd never wanted to leave his Father's side. He'd never wanted to leave Leá Monde really.
        With a little jolt of surprise, Sydney realized he could remember Leá Monde. It had been a grand place of fountains and green spots, built of warm white stone that seemed to glow as brightly as the sun above. He remembered a grand mansion and many people, pretty clothes resplendent with colour and gold. He remembered sombre Father in his robes and the servants of their Manse.
        ~Do you remember me, Sydney?~
        The little boy turned with a start and saw her standing in the street. How unspectacular her entrance, how humble her stance, and yet there was nothing either unspectacular nor humble about Müllenkamp. She watched him through a veil and yet her eyes pierced past the gauze, her heart beat past the ringing of the coins gilding her garments and the lines of her body burned through the teasing folds of her wrappings. For all of her splendid raiment she seemed naked and vulnerable, her very flesh too much for the meagre cloth to conceal or mute. The eyes though... the eyes were black and merciless, trained on Sydney and reading his heart. He could not answer her suddenly, his tongue heavy in his mouth.
        ~I was there when you were conceived in a dark bedroom and your mother wept to know how alone you'd someday be. Lily prayed to me for your soul. She knew your cursed Father's secrets and though she loved him, she despised how he ran from his responsibilities to me and my blood.~
        "...papa is a great man..." Sydney whispered, staring at the woman's dark red lips as they formed words surprisingly interpretable, uncharacteristically un-cryptic. She smiled.
        ~Perhaps that is true. It is irrelevant. I have you to be great for me. You will be great, won't you?~
        "I- I know not what you want of me."
        Müllenkamp approached quickly and caressed his cheek with feathery fingers, separating the fine blonde strands of his hair into golden threads that waved in the hot wind. ~You wonder what Life is, what Death is. Why there is a difference between the two, how the Dark has aught to do with it all and what is Evil, what is Good. There is a war now, Sydney. There has always been a war. Men do not know their hearts and so they fight against themselves. Men are evil creatures with the capacity to be good. It is not the other way around. I love all men, all women, and I love all Life simply because it is fleeting and delicate. I ask naught of you but to share my feelings. Embrace the wild of the Dark and tame it as it should be tamed: by human hands, the same that forged it. We must not allow the Evil of men to be used by men to forge new evil. It is fragile, a cycle, a repeating series of life and pain and death with the possibility for joy. That is existence, Sydney, and it is a rare man who accepts it at that.~
        The little boy turned away and remembered Father suddenly, standing in the chapel as he would sometimes do, mouthing silent prayers to Gods that Sydney did not know. Then there was the marble-white Iocus, blessing the poor in the streets, waters rushing past him from the fountain and sparkling in the sun. "I know nothing of your dogma," he finally answered. Müllenkamp shook her head, still rubbing a hand against the smoothness of his cheek.
        ~You know nearly all of my dogma but you've yet to accept it. Do not lie to me out of fright, child, nor think I'll leave you be if you feign ignorance. God... God... I heard you whispering it moments ago. You'd have been your Father if you'd been allowed. You never would have questioned aught, I think. Now you question it all, the very workings of Life. And you hate it. You just want your little room in the Mansion and your friendly ghosts. You'd be a child forever and go to your grave a doddering, laughing, ignorant old man.~
        Truly curious, Sydney glanced up into her eyes, adoring her touch yet fearing her words. "What would have been wrong with that, Milady?" Müllenkamp smiled her same mysterious, sourceless smile without end or beginning and then she was gone, the softness of her touch vanished with her. Sydney stood up in fear, knowing what that smile meant. It said, "Wait and see, wait and see."
        He hated her, he hated her, he hated her! Sudden hatred was bright and hot like a burning bud in his chest, flowing into his limbs and eyes like a river of molten gold. It had not long to smoulder though, there were distracting voices coming from a building down the street. How foreign they seemed in this dead city, like the whispers of the spirits when they used to call to him in the mansion on nights when only he and the servants were there, the Duke away at the capitol and the grounds quiet. As he always had been then drawn to the sound, so he was now, moving quickly down the streets and stepping over the corpses wedged between the buildings and road. Müllenkamp reappeared to walk at his side for a moment, touching the cold faces of the dead reverently, smoothing hair and closing eyes. She fawned over these bodies like playthings and Sydney walked faster until she'd fallen behind. He turned quickly to look and found her gone again.
        He started to run, terrified. Perhaps it would stop. It would all stop and he would die. Perhaps life itself was nothing more than an accident, a pendulum set in motion by a careless finger and gravity kept it swinging. Consider it too much, contemplate the meaning too much and mayhaps it would all stop! A stray thought jammed into the pendulum's path that would halt it and extinguish that unexplained spark of life.
        The voices from before grew louder as Sydney tore down the street, just waiting for Death to grab him like a big black bird and carry him into the sky or down to hell or wherever it was that Mother must be now. Perhaps he would become a wand'ring ghost like the others he'd seen. He did not want that. The dead always looked so sad.
        A chimney billowed smoke from ahead and he distractedly realized it was a sign of life. Sydney ran faster and the voices were like singers calling to him, comforting and familiar. He stopped in front of an open airy veranda where half a dozen figures were lounging in chairs, taking advantage of the warm afternoon.
        Father was one of them and he was a young man here, energetic, swinging a sword through the empty air and bantering to a pale-faced woman seated on an iron worked chair, fanning herself. Sydney peeked his face through the bars surrounding the veranda. Corpses were scattered everywhere yet the people didn't seem to notice them. Father kicked one away as he danced and sparred with some imaginary opponent. "They have threatened it... for years, for centuries!" he panted to the five others, "Batistum is the zealot, the real threat now. He... imagines himself king and we heretics... the only enemies he can find to battle!" Father stopped his swordplay and smeared sweat from his brow. He was not wearing a shirt and the Blood-Sin on his back glared like an eye. He approached the pale woman and sat down beside her. "Power, "he said, "Is his only want. He'll make scapegoats of us. We must go to the Elders and insist upon a militia."
        "They will not comply, Aldous, "the woman reminded gently, smiling at him in a fond way and smoothing his damp hair back away from his temples, "It is not their way."
        Father scowled but the ire wasn't aimed at her. He rose impatiently to his feet again and addressed two other young men lounging against the railing of the veranda. "What say you, Farkin, Nardier? Will you tell me too that it all is for naught? We will be run out of our own homes because of the whim of a man gone mad with ambition and his own ideals of divinity? I will not have it!"
        "We'll fight at your side, should it come to it, "Nardier said with a shrug, eyeing the sword in his friend's hand, "But I don't believe it will. The Iocus have always preached much and done little. It is all words with no power behind them. They treat their Writings like rubies and yet what power do they possess? They are not Grimoires, they are not precious because of secrets they hold or gifts they bestow. They are like wine; maddening and sweet but gone in the morning. Words, words, words." Nardier smiled but Aldous would not have it. He swept the opinion from the air with a brush of his hand.
        "If I thought such things might happen because of simple religious fervour, I might not be so concerned, "he said, pacing, "Yet there is no God in Batistum, only ambition. He even dabbles in the Dark! Our own priests have gone to him for a bit of gold and permission to travel freely through Valendia, unrestricted by the Codes. He buys our very heritage, does that hypocritical titan. I fear what he may do with the knowledge."
        "That fool?" Farkin sneered, "Heh. You make mountains of mole-hills, Aldous. Too long away at the wars, I fear. Look to your wife and leave thoughts of Iocus to the Elders. Lily, should you not get out of this damned heat? I'm sure your child is fairly cooking in that oven." Farkin chuckled to himself, gesturing to the pale woman's swollen stomach and Lily laughed as well, rising quickly and taking Aldous by the arm.
        "It is cool inside, "she whispered in his ear, leading him through an arch and into the great Bardorba estate. "Come sit in the parlour with me, listen to my songs on the harp for a spell, my love." Aldous was uneasy yet he did as she wished, leaving their friends on the veranda to cavort as they would. His hospitality was legendary and there were always young men and women gallivanting freely about his estate, sampling wine, playing in his gardens, or making trips into the Forest for honeycombs and flowers. His home had a romantic, wild atmosphere to it though its Master and Mistress were quite often found inside its walls or away at the Cathedral.
        Forgetting to breathe, Sydney's wide grey eyes followed the pair until they'd disappeared through the dark arch. The look on Father's face was one he'd never seen before. So young, so unburdened. And that woman... had she not been the painting come to life? Mmm... he could smell the wildflowers in her hair and feel the softness of the lace round her bosom. His trembling fingers clenched the iron bars of the fence in agony. It was so horrible that she seemed so far away, cut off from him by these bars and by the knowledge that she would not be real should he go to her.
        ~Yet you would not want to go to her, Sydney.~
        The little boy glanced up and wasn't surprised to see Müllenkamp. She stood just at his elbow, gazing at the same sight as he. She seemed fresh and lovely, despite the heat. ~It is cold where she is now. It is cold where I am now.~
        "No, "he argued softly, "Mother does not wander, Mother rests. Father always told me so." Sydney liked that thought and liked the words. He smiled. Müllenkamp played with his hair.
        ~I want you, Sydney.~
        His smile became quiet laughter. "I do not want you, "he answered, "I love life and I want naught to do with the dead, Milady. I'll listen to your stories as much as you like, they amuse me and I know it comforts you to speak. It is that way with all of the dead. But ask nothing else of me. You are mad. As all the wanderers must become after too long walking an earth that no longer wants them. Go back to your Leá Monde. Go back to your Dark."
        Müllenkamp moved to embrace him and Sydney did not fight her. She smelled too good and her touch was like fire that did not hurt. She folded her arms about him, bending her head to rest it upon the top of his. She whispered in his ear. ~I AM the Dark, foolish boy. It wraps about me, flows through me, as I wrap about you now. It is my lover as you are my lover.~
        "You are dead, "Sydney said slowly, finding the words hard to say. Afterall she seemed so solid and warm and living. Her scent made him dizzy; incense from the temple, nutmeg, and honey and her lips were maddening, playing over the side of his face now with neither trepidation nor mercy. He turned his head and leaned into her kiss, forcing his own lips under hers. She overpowered him easily and pressed him back into the gate so that the iron rattled, conquering his mouth with a passion and strength that was nearly painful. As though through a fog he heard the continued conversation from the veranda of the two men and their two female companions.
        But it seemed strange. The words had gone all wrong.
        "...do you mean to tell me, Valk, that after ten years you have not been able to make him see his destiny?"
        The voice was old and very very wrong but Sydney couldn't concentrate on it. Müllenkamp was on her knees now, better able to reach his face from there. Her lips had left his and now suckled the soft skin of his neck and jaw, her teeth nibbling the little space between his throat and shoulder in a way that turned his legs to jelly and he wanted to collapse. Even in a child's body, he wanted her badly. He forced her face up to his again and brushed his lips over her closed eyes, savouring the scent of her perfume and hair. The conversation continued but it meant nothing to him.
        "He is not the man we need... he has no love of power and the rewards seem like unnecessary baubles to him. He simply wants his freedom. Grandmaster, you told me years ago that we would force no one. We are not the tyrants of Iocus and we do not... we do not burn a poker into a man's stomach until he confesses his desires. We take words as words."
        "You have no say, Valk. True or no, you can be too easily swayed by your heart. It is understandable, we do not blame you..."
        "Fool, I do not say this to save my life. I have no love of my life."
        "Do you have love for the boy then? That is very sad for you."

        Sydney was breathless from her kisses and weak with desire. Müllenkamp had torn the clothes from his body and forced him down. He stared not at her but high above at the blue skies of Leá Monde. There were no corpses in the sky, just blue, just white, just the sun. The city was dead but the sky lived on and she shone her light down on the damned just as freely as the blessed.
        Müllenkamp whispered his name and behind that, he heard Master Valk's angry voice.
        "You must not do this!"
        "He could go to Batistum if he leaves now. He could return to the Duke and expose us. He could go mad and use his gifts to kill us all."
        "He would not do that. You know nothing of the boy."

        A crowd of voices then.
        "...He's too strong..."
        "... aye, too strong..."
        "It must be done now. He'll see, Valk. Have faith in him. He'll see."
        "But he does not want to see!"

        The hot wind blew Sydney's hair into his eyes and, gladly conquered, he lay limp on the ground, tired and panting. Müllenkamp had gone just as suddenly as she'd come. She'd had her way, finished with him, and left him in the dirt. He could not rise, entranced with her touch as though she still lay atop him, whispering those words that had made no sense, calling him her love. He realized he was slumped like one of the corpses in the road and suddenly wondered if he was dead. When he sat up he saw that wasn't the case. But the bodies all had fled. The quiet corpses. Leá Monde was gone. It was gone as was the sky and he was sitting on his bed in his tiny room in the Barracks, blinking sleepily, coming to realize that someone was rattling the door trying to get in.
        "A moment! A moment!" he mumbled reaching for clothes, pausing briefly upon seeing the strange bruises and red splotches on his bare chest. His lips were sore as were... other things. But the dream had already abandoned him and he remembered nothing.
        He saw Müllenkamp for a moment, seated daintily on the foot of his bed, then she laughed and was gone and Sydney threw open his bedroom door. Master Valk nearly knocked him to the ground.
        "Proper clothes and shoes!" he demanded, immediately grabbing Sydney by the shoulder and pushing him backwards, closing the door quickly in his wake. A strange mix of fear and anger played over his face and when he looked towards his charge, it seemed he might strike him, especially when Sydney did not move fast enough for his liking. "We fly, boy, we fly tonight and forever. Does it make you happy to hear it? Shoes! Shoes I say!"
        Sydney shook his head, taking a step backwards. "I don't understand."
        "Have you changed your mind then? Perhaps come to your senses?" For a moment, hope blossomed in Valk and his expression changed entirely. "Do you remember that thing we spoke of two days past? Do you still persist in your childish refusal? Still want to play the part of a wretch, damning the country to tyranny out of spite?"
        "Rrrr... I know naught of this!" Sydney burst out in frustration, his back pressed against the wall, "I know only that I want out of this prison and away from the likes of you and your brethren. I want to see the sky, Master Valk! Do you realize it's been years since I've seen the sky!? Let me go to my Father! He will have me!"
        Valk growled a curse but kept his fists at his sides. His shoulders slumped forward in defeat yet there was a sort of determination about his person that would not die. "There is no time to waste then. Dress and take what you will, boy. We fly this place."
        Sydney did not understand yet he didn't need to be given the order again. With a single disbelieving glance to his Master, he went for his clothes and a few small trinkets, shoving them in his pockets. He took a dagger too, and a book that Maria had given him a few days before she'd died. Valk seemed ready to crawl from his skin, so anxious was he to get away from that room. He called for haste a dozen times and upon throwing him a bothered glare, Sydney saw that he was wearing travelling clothes too. A pouch at his belt clinked with gold. Giving his room of ten years a quick final once-over, Sydney was veritably pulled from it by his teacher. He shut the door and then they were off, creeping stealthily through the labyrinthine corridors of the Barracks.
        It was late and it was quiet. The students all slept in their little cells like monks in their cloisters, and a great sense of rage welled up in Sydney's breast. But that softened quickly and was replaced by pity. Perhaps these people simply knew no better. They didn't seem to. Their's was a world of struggle for control over something they should by rights have no power over. Sydney didn't want that world. He did not share their beliefs and Müllenkamp... these fools worshipped a ghost gone mad.
        Yet... yet there was a comfort in the Dark. It cradled you and offered oblivion. Sydney felt it inside him even now, calling, loving, wanting. It became pliable in his hands, like soft clay, and what beautiful things he could make of it.
        But it mattered not. Sydney had to leave this place and find the Duke. He had to know with whom he stood for: Iocus, Müllenkamp, the Dark, or himself. He had to know why Mother died and what the Blood-Sin meant, what the Cardinal had to do with it all, and how Parliament meant to oppose the Church's tightening grip. But above all else, he had to ask the Duke why he'd left a six year old little boy alone in a dark place. Had... had he ever cared for him at all?
        Valk led the way, he seemed to know it well, and Sydney followed close, the both of them silent as grave robbers. They went through the Ward rooms and a long way past them into places that the younger man had never seen before. It was dark as pitch and yet neither lit a torch. Valk guided them effortlessly and commanded the boy to hang on to his robe, leading them through tiny hallways and huge echoing chambers where their very breaths bounced back loud as roars.
        "Why so secretive?" Sydney whispered a dozen times in their journey, tugging at his Master's robe and receiving no answer, "Why do we leave this place like mice through the walls? Master Valk, what has happened?"
        "Hold your tongue, "was the only thing said in response. Sydney eventually did just that, realizing that some great peril hung over their heads. He could taste the danger on the tip of his tongue and it was almost intriguing. An invisible net was ready to drop down upon them and yet what dark pleasure might be gleaned from a fight for the very freedom he'd been so long denied. He stayed close to Valk's side now, sensing the exit, the surface, the light. He remembered the white fountain and the streets full of children. He remembered how beautiful the Greylands were in wintertime; sparkling with snow until there was no difference between earth and sky; it all was a gleaming heaven. Sydney got sudden flashes of minds, of pasts, of the souls of the living. People were nearby. The outside! It wouldn't be long until he was free again and he'd be with Father. Answers at last.
        With the Duke's face fresh in his mind, Sydney did not see the heavy club that came upon him from behind and knocked him flat. There was a great commotion suddenly and he tried to rise and make sense of it. The room was dark, no, they'd just entered a hall, a twisting hall littered with rubble and Valk had nearly been to the end of it. He turned now in absolute shock to see ten or so torches appear with garish, angular faces behind each blaze. "Your mind is like an open book, "one said, stepping ahead of the rest, "You think you could hide your intentions from us, Henry..."
        Sydney rubbed the back of his head and felt blood in his hair. He tried to see the faces behind the torches but they were orange and shadowed. Their eyes were sharply chiselled shapes of dark. He saw Valk's tall silhouette rise against them, his fist shaking into the air. "You have grown mad with fear, "he hissed, "I wonder if I'm not the only lamb left in what's become a herd of wolves!"
        The same man as before shook his head, gesturing to the others to come forth. They'd entered from a side passage and the group now filled the narrow hallway, clustering around Sydney's fallen form. "Bring him, "he commanded and he saw the man was ancient, bent with age and gnarled like an old tree. He seemed little more than a shrunken skeleton wrapped in putrid skin and yet Sydney knew him immediately to be the GrandMaster of the Barracks. He'd never seen him before but no other conclusion could be drawn, not with the aura of power he exuded and the way the others treated him with such reverence now. All save Valk, who seemed ready to grab the torch from his withered hand and set him ablaze with it. "You're blinded by fear, "the man said and Sydney saw into his mind briefly, long enough to know that his name was Ossard and that he'd been a priest in the Cathedral back when Leá Monde had still known life. "Henry, you point fingers to avoid ! blame rightly cast upon you. It was a mistake... a mistake ever allowing you to be his mentor. You are only human, you do not want to die."
        "I say you are a fool!" Valk returned, gnashing his teeth and Sydney, through a wave of dizziness and the flashing of the torches, saw such rage in his face that he seemed suddenly something more than mortal, "A terrified fool just as Batistum longs to find. How happy it will make him to discover your idiocy. You are a pawn and you play into his hands. You're nothing, Ossard!"
        "Keep talking, "the GrandMaster dared, "And see what will become of you."
        "I do not fear you," Valk snarled, "No. I'm to die irregardless it seems and you need me to die. So there's nothing you can do to me nor threaten me with anymore."
        By the torchlight, Sydney watched Ossard smile. There were no teeth left in his mouth, only gums that gleamed pink in the flames. He wore a black hooded robe that cast a sharp long shadow over his face and wild wisps of white hair stuck out of the concealment, along with the hooked pale beak of his nose. He was a monster of a man and a stab of fear passed through Sydney to gaze upon him. He sensed malice and... hope... in the GrandMaster's mind. Strange... nothing made sense. The world spun and the back of his head was wet with blood. It trickled ticklishly down his neck and Sydney moaned when he tried to speak, finding himself pinned by the group of men -and women- who had appeared to halt he and his Master's escape. They grabbed a hold of his arms and pulled him to his feet so quickly that he thought he might be ill he was so dizzy. He couldn't keep his head up and it hurt his eyes to have them open. What was there to see? Torchlight, blackness, these strange figures with their hooded features and frightened glances. There was definite danger and ire coming from the lot of them yet he could not truly know fear! Why? He sensed the naiveté of children. A feeling of inevitability emanated from them all. They did not wish him harm, not truly.
        Sydney thought he heard Müllenkamp's laughter from nearby, the tinkling of silvery bells, soft, subdued, but easily discernible from the rest of the scattered arguments and confused cries. Valk and Ossard continued to argue but their words became harder and harder to distinguish even as the hurt in Sydney's head began to throb away. The dark of the hall was growing darker and he barely realized he was losing hold of his reason. Ossard drew close and Sydney felt his cold ancient hand on his shoulder. He thought he saw Master Valk flinch but then he thought nothing at all, dizzying waves of blackness stealing the light.
        The next few hours were nothing but flashes of orange and clipped sorts of voices saying things to people around him. He heard Valk's voice through it occasionally yet he couldn't speak nor see him. There was only blackness punctuated by occasional grey and the splotches of orange he knew to be torches and then a great melancholy filled his soul for he realized they were back in the Barracks. Gentle hands touched him, supported him, led him to a dark space and left him there. Silence for a while then until suddenly Ossard was speaking to him.
        "... yours alone of course. I cannot force it upon you, no one can...." the ancient, cracked, and weary voice explained. The words were like little pick-axes picking away at Sydney's skull and he felt his own face work into a grimace of pain. "...we are a hunted people. The others think perhaps that has made us stronger but it's only made us afraid..."
        Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. Zealotry and ignorance.
        The Dark did not care for the petty problems of these people. The Dark cared for naught. The Dark was destruction and power and Sydney knew he could control it as none other could and that was why these people wanted him. But why did Müllenkamp want him so? Surely she wasn't concerned with these fools.
        ~A stepping stone, Sydney. You are another stone.~
        Her voice whispered in his ear and he painfully opened his eyes. She was not there. Ossard was turning to leave, upset that the boy would not heed his words. Sydney watched the old man's back, too late realizing that it was a heavy lock he heard being bolted. A door slammed shut and he found himself alone in a very small empty room. Imprisoned.
        He could not use the Dark to move his body for he knew not where he was nor which direction to send himself nor could he pass through walls. He saw chains bound his ankles to the floor as well. Summoning fire or a blast of power would result in a messy death as this space was too confined. He might blow the door from its hinges but he'd blow himself to pieces in the process. A wyvern... he knew the words to summon a monster yet it would kill him, he hadn't the strength to call beasts. Yet the option to die was there.
        Utter foolishness, that. He did not want to die, that was the entire point!
        Sydney laid back down on the small bench they'd left him on. He carefully moved his fingers over the gash in his head, shutting his eyes and breathing deeply to fight off the dizziness and nausea the action brought with it. He wasn't one to panic or start demanding like an idiot to be let out of there. They'd release him when they saw fit and his yelling would do nothing save grate the nerves of whatever unfortunate bastard they'd left to watch the door. He closed his eyes and drifted instead.
        If he allowed it, the Dark would cradle his soul and let it wander in the invisible river of Dark that flowed through the world. He could hear much in this state and see things he could never have seen in his body yet he could not control the direction of the flow and so it was useless really. He knew that it might be possible to rein in the Dark in such a manner that he could go to where he wished and see whatever it was he needed to see, much like Hardin did--
        Hardin... again that name I do not know...
        It shall end in the chapel, my boy...

        Sydney shook his head of the voices and thoughts and was even more determined to drift in the Dark currents. He needed to think and that was the best way, unfettered by flesh, to concentrate.
        But it would not work, he could not think. Müllenkamp was saying things and behind her lilting voice was the noise of a hundred pounding feet and the smell of incense and burning... burning flesh? Something horrible, whatever it was, drifting in from beneath the door of his prison. He smelled musk and spice and myrrh and candlewax. Hundreds, maybe thousands of voices buzzing and their feet all moving towards a determined destination.
        ~You love the Dark, do you not?~
        Müllenkamp. She stood half-formed in the shadows and Sydney thought she looked sad and almost sane. She certainly looked gorgeous and his head spun with a desire that he now fought against. "I do, "he said softly, turning away to stare at the door.
        ~You love Life, do you not?~
        "Quite a lot."
        ~The Dark wants you, Sydney. In anticipation, it licks its tongue over your soul even now.~
        "Does it?" Sydney asked with a little chuckle, "I hope its mouth is clean."
        ~Your rhythm is remarkable and the Dark would be yours if you would only open your arms. Your will is strong, it would not conquer you. You are truly my own son, my own brother, my own husband. Sydney, give what you must to the Dark so that it will fill you and bind your soul to your flesh. Awaken the Blood-Sin and be the link between the Dark and the Light. Be a child no longer.~
        Sydney sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "I am not a child. That is why I refuse to be led along like one. Tell me, Milady, just exactly what it is you speak of. Master Valk gave a cryptic explanation, hoping to dazzle me with words of great import, I assume, and catch my fancy that way. He spoke of... sacrifices, something to be cast, rewards to be granted. The people here want all of that from me as do you, I take it, and as does the Dark. I feel a... a pull...." Sydney shook his head, adjusting his position on the bench and glaring towards Müllenkamp who only smiled. "Please tell me what all of this means, Milady."
        ~You carry my blood and you carry my power. So I said it would be in the glyphs I had carved on my flesh as I lay dying. The glyphs circling the inverted Rood on your back begin a spellsong that must be finished by speech and sealed in blood. Others have sang the song before you, do not fear. You want to help your Father, Sydney?~
        "...aye, "he answered hesitantly.
        ~Parliament needs a man of might to fight their battles with the Church. Become a conduit for the Dark and gain that might. Bind your soul to your flesh so that no sword may kill you nor arrow still your heart. Your soul will become strong and fast, able to power your body when your body has lost all strength so that you will never die.~
        Suspicious though he was, Sydney was somewhat intrigued by the words. He sat up a little straighter on the bench, eyes gleaming. "Those are the rewards, I take it, "he began, "But what of the sacrifices? Will the Dark control me? Will it swallow my soul? You, Milady, will I become your little puppet? I won't be a fool."
        ~Nay... nay, never a fool, little boy.~ Müllenkamp approached quickly and ran a hand tenderly across his brow. Sydney tilted his head up and kissed her fingertips, shivering at the wretched cold of her essence.
        "You are beautiful, Lady, "he whispered, "With every visit have I thought so. I imagined you an angel when I was small." The spectre smiled at those words, obviously pleased. She moved closer but her chill was disconcerting and unwelcome. Sydney flinched away. Saddened by that gesture, Müllenkamp did not try further advances. With a supernatural grace, she stepped backwards and vanished just as Valk entered, doing so in even more panic and fear than he had hours ago when he'd come into Sydney's bedroom. Surprising himself with his own calmness, the Duke's son sat erect on the bench and eyed Valk evenly. His vision was still blurred from the blow to his head and he blinked hard to banish it.
        "What is it, Master?" he asked, rubbing his brow. Valk shook his head and wouldn't meet the boy's gaze.
        "They've all gone mad, "he muttered, "And there is nothing for it now. I tried to get you away from this place, boy, I tried, I did everything I could."
        "I know, "Sydney said, smiling a little to ease him, "It's fine. I will do this."
        As though flashed with ice water, Valk shivered and jumped at the casual announcement. He moved closer to him quickly, clasping his shoulder in excitement. "A miracle surely, "he breathed, "The Gods themselves have opened your eyes. Have you grown up in an hour's time?"
        "Perhaps. Mainly I've grown quite desperate." Sydney smiled again, trying not to laugh at himself. "Though I would be lying if I said I was not intrigued by all of this."
        "Are you... are you ready to become a prophet? The Dark, it will show things to you. You must interpret those things for others."
        "I am no one's tool, "Sydney warned, a rough edge entering his voice, "Now let me do this and be done with it. I want to see things for myself, Master. I am not afraid." Valk's enthusiasm withered quickly to a deep frown that added twenty years age to his face. He was no more than forty and yet he'd always looked older to Sydney, a weight chained to his soul that he constantly felt and toiled under. He was very old now, the wrinkles stretching like skeletal hands from each corner of his black eyes, two deep chasms reaching from the sides of his nose to the sides of his mouth and his brow was split horizontal by worrisome lines. He sighed through his nostrils and sat beside his charge on the bench, resting his hands on his thighs. Sydney saw the ring on his finger glinting through the low light and again he heard those same words he'd heard almost four years before screaming from the man's mind: "Tell them for God's sake!"
        "You see, don't you?" Valk asked softly, looking for a moment at him then turning away, unable to maintain the contact, "You've always seen, scamp."
        Sydney shrugged, leaning back against the wall and making the chains round his ankles rattle accusingly. "I hear more than I see, Master. You hold your past close, you do not think upon it often and it stays buried, away from the surface. But it hurts you still, slowly kills you, like a consumption you cannot see."
        Valk laughed bitterly. "Already you scrye deeply, scamp."
        "Perhaps I can tell you more after I've become... better attuned to the Dark... or whatever bunk this is."
        "I thank the Gods then that I will not be here for that, "Valk said, forcing levity into his tone. He rose quickly and made for the door. Sydney pursed his lips in confusion.
        "You leave this place then? I suppose it was inevitable, you've gone against the orders of that old monkey Ossard." Sydney smiled and looked for Valk to return it yet the man gave nothing. "I thank you for that, Master. If I am... if I am the reason you leave now... I can talk to that old man, I can make him allow you to stay. Surely he owes me something." Valk had his hand on the doorlatch and he seemed hesitant to leave, still somewhat shocked at Sydney's decision. His features were uncommonly white and it seemed he might be ill.
        "They come for you soon, "he said, the words barely leaving his lips, "Promise me that you'll do what I say."
        Sydney frowned and answered, "I'll do what I can." Whether that was enough for Valk or not, he nodded and pushed the heavy door open, letting sharp yellow light into the dark interior of the room. Sydney caught a quick glimpse outside of a bright brick-walled hallway adorned with empty iron candelabras. The smells from before forced their way to his nose and made him dizzy they were so strong. Incense in bushelfuls and he knew precisely why they had lit it: to cover the stench of burning flesh. It was almost overpowering regardless of the other smells and Sydney's stomach rolled over in nausea. Sounds too, briefly strengthened through the open doorway and the roar of distant voices was ominous. Valk stepped outside, shutting the door quickly and halting the noise.
        What madness was this?
        Sydney swallowed back unease, looking longingly towards the closed door. He waited for Müllenkamp to reappear and was somewhat disappointed when she didn't. He had questions for her. A long time passed. Smells grew stronger, the far-away sounds grew louder. He thought he heard the noise of a grindstone turning and the horrible screech of steel against it but it did not last long. Mainly it was voices, a large number of voices as though in a great crowd. Rather like the noise in the marketplace on a busy Monday morning only there was not the laughter of children nor barking of dogs nor the half-maddened cries of the mud-caked zealots just crawled in from the desert. Sydney's head still ached and he was somewhat feverish so he leaned his cheek against the cool stone wall at his back, closing his eyes and trying again to let his soul drift with the Dark.
        He would go to Father and he would enter again into the Graylands, all the stronger for growing up in these tombs. He would be Bardorba's son, his heir, he'd have it all and if that was not possible, he could live in the shadows and help Father as Müllenkamp had hinted at. Sydney wondered if the Duke had sent him here for that very purpose, to become a useful tool to him.
        No, that was simply too horrible to contemplate.
        He pushed the idea away and remembered instead that ten years ago, Father had never said good-bye. It was because he'd known they'd meet again. How soon that would be, just as Sydney sometimes imagined it. Smiling to himself, he let his thoughts take him past his worry over the smells and sounds now filling the Barracks. He was enshrouded in the embrace of the Dark and it took him past these walls into a blue night sky full of stars and grey clouds that seemed like smoke against the moon. Trees murmured and their black leaves spoke and the waters of St. Iocus' fountains danced as Müllenkamp danced, its waters glimmering as the doubloons glimmered against the shimmering gauze of the priestess' robes. Sydney smelled her scent and it was the heady smell of the Dark. He felt himself grow drunk with it and he was walking the streets of the Graylands again, heading home towards the Mansion. The orange light from the tunnel that had always hidden behind that gate had died and it was only a black mouth that he needn't fear anymore. Master Valk and the students of the Barracks walked under the moon with him and he was showing them the fountain, watching them play in the waters.
        The sharp noise of nearby footsteps awoke Sydney from his half-dreams and he sat up, consciousness snapping back into his brain almost painfully. The very walls were pounding with voices and it was strange to hear so much sound all at once in the Barracks, a place usually silent and still save for the whispers of chants or the laughter of students. Immediately, a sort of muted terror set into Sydney's heart but he wouldn't let it get the better of him. Instead, he quickly set to work grooming himself as best he could. He smoothed the tussled hair back away from his face, bright blonde hair that hung to the middle of his back. He was somewhat proud of it, wished it was braided but he'd not had time to with Valk waking him in the dead of night and insisting they hurry towards an escape that never had come. Almost feverishly, Sydney straightened his locks and swept it all back behind his shoulders, tying it off with a bit of string. He smoothed the front of his tunic and retied his sandals, lacing them all the way up his calves. He didn't want to be found a complete wretched wreck in this room. It felt horrible enough to be chained as he was, he wouldn't let them see him a pathetic waste as well as a helpless prisoner. GrandMaster Ossard... Sydney didn't know the man really but he already had cause to despise him. He wanted to look good for him. That seemed like a sort of defiance.
        It was not Ossard that opened the door though, rather it was two pairs of brutish men and a woman with short red hair dressed in brown leather. "We will take you now, "she greeted, stepping into the room and Sydney rose from his seat to meet her.
        "May I ask what exactly is happening?" he said, stopping sharply as the chains caught his ankles. The woman gestured for one of her companions to free him and then turned back towards the door.
        "You may ask but I've naught to tell you. I am not supposed to talk to you."
        "Ah. Gods forbid."
        His head was still bothering him. Sydney had to grab one of the men by the arm suddenly, afraid he'd fall over. He caught himself quickly and followed the woman from the room once he'd been freed of the fetters, casting suspicious glances all the while. In the hallway, the stink from before grew nauseating and almost tangible in its thickness. It beat a savage fist into his face and sent him reeling backwards, desperate for a fresh breath. He thought he'd never smelled anything so horrid. Burnt flesh covered by myrrh, it was the scent of hell, surely. The woman plowed ahead of him through the fog of smell and he followed closely behind, escorted by the four silent, brutish men who seemed quite hesitant to lay a finger upon him. Sydney almost laughed. Perhaps he was getting himself into something quite spectacular.
        They were a long way from the bedrooms and classrooms in a part of the Barrack's he'd only visited maybe twice or thrice in his entire stay. He knew this was where the Masters slept and where the politics of the place were played out and controlled, rather like the very hub of the underground structure. They were leaving it though, passing through familiar hallways back out into the students' space. The stink was everywhere. It had wormed its way through every corridor like waste through the sewers and Sydney's heart beat faster as it worsened the farther they travelled. The very walls too, shook now with the noises he'd heard before and the voices were so near he could actually make out words and conversations.
        It began to get uncomfortably warm. Fires could be heard. Flames and the heat of a crowd were cooking the air and Sydney licked salty sweat from his upper lip, wiping more from his brow. He asked the woman where they were going and received no answer. They were passing groups of people in the halls now, people Sydney didn't know and he looked for Master Valk or Ossard among them. He looked for Müllenkamp, he even called to her in his mind, something he rarely did, and yet there was nothing. He nearly cried out when he realized they were making their way into the chapel.
        Sydney never came this far to the front of the Barracks. The memories were too awful. He'd been abandoned here, he'd been lost here, the heir of Duke Bardorba had cried and beat his fists into the floor here. And the chapel... the lofty, ruined chapel... it had been the last place he and Father had ever been in together.
        The room before the chapel was bizarrely crammed with people. They all stood staring through the double doorway, trying to squeeze past each other, speaking loudly, speculating, cursing, praying, and Sydney didn't know a single one of them. But there were hundreds, maybe thousands, and they spilled over into the chapel itself, standing half-in/half-out of the doors. There were people of all sorts; men, women, and children in a variety of clothes and from a variety of backgrounds and their only unifying trait seemed to be some connection with the Dark or with these Barracks or... or something... Sydney couldn't quite put his finger on it and he hadn't much time to consider it. He attempted reading a mind or two but couldn't build up the concentration nor really hear anything beyond anticipation or impatience. The crowd was too thick to move through and suddenly Sydney realized the purpose of the strong men who accompanied the woman. They stepped forward now and ordered the people to make way, shoving rudely and knocking more than one person to the floor. A fight nearly broke out but he wasn't given a chance to watch, the woman who'd been guiding them grabbing a hold of his wrist and pulling him through the large double-doorway. Sydney turned his head to watch the scuffle anyway, anonymous hands shoving at him, the crowd jostling him mercilessly, and when he looked back around, he was rendered nearly speechless to see what had happened to the Barracks' chapel.
        The people here were shoved together like slaves packed in a ship. They filled the massive room from wall to wall to wall and everyone seemed trying to see what was happening at the front, a thousand heads craned back and chins tilted up. Words and curses flowed between them all, almost as jarring as the continued stink of incense and burnt flesh and Sydney was dragged along by the woman's insistent hand, bruised relentlessly by elbows and knees. This was a mob, a veritable mob, but it was exciting too, and mysterious. He'd never seen so many people in these underground rooms and the chapel now looked positively brilliant with their presence. Every taper in the space had been lit and there was a light in every sconce. The floor had been cleared and the rubble taken away. Even the slitted windows just beneath the high ceilings had been cleared of debris and moonlight shone through white and pure as snow. Sydney couldn't take his eyes away from the ight, not caring that he was being knocked into people right and left as he was led along. There was a platform, just a bit of floor raised two feet above the rest. The chapel's alter was built upon it. He found himself being pulled there and suddenly he heard GrandMaster Ossard; cracked and wavering yet strong amidst the sea of voices. He saw a large group of the Elders huddled together on the platform and they were what the people all seemed so eager to glimpse. Not far from them, two huge brass braziers held a pair of roaring blazes that threw out enough heat to cook them all to ash and the old men strayed far from it, the very air dancing and swimming around the fires. The source of the smell was obvious now. They'd sacrificed slaves, throwing them alive into those infernos. It was a typical way to begin a ritual as the presence of Death and pain customarily drew the Dark's attention.
        After a lenghtly battle with the crowd, Sydney arrived at the base of the platform and the woman directed him to ascend, bowing once to Ossard and the rest before dissolving backwards into the throng. He looked for Valk and saw him nearby immediately, his features flat and unreadable. A tremor of fear passed through him but he went up to meet the older men despite it, keeping his steps even and shrugging off the pain in his head.
        With his appearance on the platform, the crowd's roaring dulled somewhat. Sydney turned and looked out at them, speechless. An old man, some old priest he didn't know and had never seen before, grabbed his shoulder from behind. Sydney looked up into his eyes and saw a frightened gleam there that unnerved him more than danger might have. "You will embrace the Dark?" he asked, toneless and quiet. Valk was staring and so were the other men on the platform. Much of the crowd seemed disinterested. Sydney's mouth had gone dry and he looked around for Müllenkamp yet she refused to show herself. The tremendous heat from the twin fires was making him sweat and already his clothes were damp. Breathing was nearly impossible through the stench of incense.
        "I do," he finally answered. Suddenly he understood the finer nuances of his discomfort: there was something... wrong with him. It had been soft, unnoticeable nearly but in this chapel it grew. It was the Dark. It was hungry for some reason and he could feel it thirsting for him as Müllenkamp had said it would be. The sensation was strange and hard to grasp. When he manipulated the Dark to suit his needs, binding it with words and his own will, there was a certain... discomfort involved. It was like a cold wind blowing through his soul, as though the Dark flowed through him to manifest. It wasn't painful but it was unnerving, at least it had been in his earlier years before it became routine. Now that old feeling intensified and Sydney felt horribly vulnerable suddenly, as though his clothes and even the skin of his body had been razed away, leaving him bare-boned and bloody to be blasted by the winds. He tried not to panic.
        "The Priestess Müllenkamp showed respect and reverence for the Dark energies, "the priest said, half to him and half to the gathered crowd in the chapel, "As our people have done since time immemorial. She gave sacrifice to the Dark, she suffered in exchange for control, beyond the petty fear of the worshippers of the Dark. Our people do not worship, we control. Just as she did not worship. She controlled. The Great Lady discovered a way to give her very soul over to the Dark and as will happen with every sacrifice, there is a Gift received. An exchange. The Bearer of the Rood Inverse carries the blood of the ancient goddess and with that blood, carries her Gift. Body and spirit are one until the next Bearer is born. With that bond comes unity with the Dark. You will wield it, it will wield you. You will see with its eyes as it will see with yours, as it will hear with your ears, so shall you hear with the ears of the Dark. As Our Lady Müllenkamp lived, so shall you live, as her successor, as her son. Do you embrace this?"
        It was pulling at him. Sydney could feel something like a hundred hot iron hooks dug into his flesh only the sensation was more strange than painful. Valk was approaching with slow, measured steps but Sydney had a hard time looking at him, too preoccupied with the exhilaration creeping into his bones. He felt so suddenly alive. Every hair on his skin seemed like a tiny wire of electricity and when he breathed, he could feel the air filling his lungs with astonishing clarity; he could feel it seeping through the soft walls of tissue, into his blood, and that blood pumping through each of the vast network of veins and arteries in his body and when he followed the trail to his brain, his vision exploded in white then went black before it all returned and he saw the crowd before him and the priest he didn't know and Master Valk and the great burning double fires. But then there were the hooks again, needle-like and relentless. Sydney felt a great wave of exhaustion hit him and he reeled on his feet, the priest catching him and pushing him up. He asked again, "Do you embrace this?"
        Did he?
        This power was sweet, he could already taste it. Whatever spell this was, if they wanted to give it to him, why should he deny them it? He suddenly wanted power when he'd never cared at all for it before. He'd have the power to leave the Barracks and go to Father and see for himself why it was that Leá Monde had fallen. He could get answers.
        The Dark was so sweet, like honey on his lips. It blew cold through his soul. If Master Valk had told him that what was wanted of him was such ecstasy, he would never have had reason to try and flee with him as he had. This delicious familiarity was nothing to run from.
        Sydney barely heard his own response.
        "I embrace it as it does me."
        The priest continued. "All men are made of the Light. All men are made of the Dark. We are dirty with them both and no man is ever clean. Clear the rough from your soul and be as silk. Wash your hands with blood."
        Cool metal, unexpected. Sydney looked down and saw that one of the Elders had placed a dagger in his hands. When he looked up again, there was Master Valk, his eyes tired and his features taut. The older man reached his fingers out and tightened Sydney's grip on the weapon, cupping both hands around his own and around the dagger hilt. Valk leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
        "You scrye deeply, scamp, "he began, "What do you see now?"
        Before a plea of misunderstanding could escape his lips, Sydney was thrust into a vision.
        This was Leá Monde but an ugly Leá Monde. Underground, wet, thick with the stench of death. People were screaming and Sydney was there to hear it. He saw himself, faded and transparent and obviously not a part of this place yet he smelled the smells, he heard the sounds, he saw the sights as though he were there and it was all fresh to him. Never had he had a vision like this. He was frightened suddenly and tried to call his own body back yet that did no good and when a voice began speaking over his shoulder, he felt compelled to turn and listen.
        "You've been seen working the Dark magicks, boy..." The voice was young but ancient with authority and self-presence. Sydney saw a black-haired man dressed in the robes of an Iocus Inquisitor standing before another man, bound hand and foot to a wall in chains. The latter was filthy, barely clothed, but what was strange was that the ruins of his clothes had once been grand expensive garments, the kind a noblemen would wear. But now the gold trimmings and silver buttons had been confiscated. The white silk was dyed in dirt and blood. He spit in the face of his accuser.
        "Dark magicks?" he coughed, "Aye, what of it? I'm a warlock, fool, I weave the Dark as my people have for thousands of years. Thousand and thousands of years, long before your fool Saint was born to a whore and a cobbler. I give worship to no thing."
        The Inquisitor frowned as though the words pained him. "We purge these evils in the name of God. You use the Demon's powers and the Demon sips at your soul like wine. Cast off his favour and ask God for His Divine forgiveness, my son."
        The other man turned his face away. The prison was dark and roughly made of bricks, little more than old caverns long since abandoned by the temple's monks. There were small cells in the walls, blocked off by iron bars, and through them Sydney saw the man looking at another figure and that other figure was looking back, eyes wide in terror. There was pleading in those eyes too, desperate pleading. The chained man stared at the face of the other, not turning away even as he spoke to the Inquisitor hounding him. "I know no one God, "he finally answered, "And I've never met this Demon you speak of. I know the power of the Dark and the power of my will. I know her Blessed Lady Müllenkamp and the Saints, the Weavers, the Warlocks and Sorcerers of the Temple of Kiltia. But I know no one God. Only the many gods of the Dark. They do not grant forgiveness, they only grant peace and power."
        "This is blasphemy you speak," the Inquisitor intoned gravely. Sydney watched him pace away a few steps and the silent man behind bars cringed when he raised a hand and three knights of the cross entered, helmets off, barechested, leering. They unchained the prisoner roughly and dragged him forward. It was obvious he'd been beaten already, the side of his face was slick with blood and when he managed to raise his head, the breath caught in Sydney's throat for he realized it was the man he'd seen four years ago, the phantom figure he'd seen in Master Valk's memories. Brother... Valk had called him brother... and really now, the resemblance was obvious. Even if it hadn't been, this man wore Valk's ring on his right hand.
        "We come to cleanse, "the Inquisitor said, his voice somewhat weary, his speech somewhat old from repetition. The knights drew rope around the heretic's ankles, the three of them heaving it up and over a pulley suspended from the ceiling. In seconds, the man was swinging upside down, the top of his head nearly two feet from the ground. They bound his hands behind his back. "What we do is for the benefit of your soul and for the benefit of the purity of Valendia. Renounce your evil magick, the Demon that inspires you to conjure, and call out for forgiveness from God." As the man spun and his bare back came into view, Sydney saw the Blood-Sin carved there and cringed in sympathy. That mark wasn't like his. It was a true Blood-Sin; four deep bloody lines carved with a sword in the shape of an inverted Rood. It was nothing so innocent as a tattoo.
        " I am Killian Valk of the Temple of Kiltia and I work the Dark to do good for the people of Leá Monde. I worked the Dark to halt the wars. I worked it to learn from it and strengthen my soul, to learn the nature of men that would make such a force exist." The Inquisitor didn't look surprised to hear those words. There were coals roasting in a nearby hearth and he gestured for a knight to grab one of many pokers that had been left to heat there. The holy man pulled a vial of ink and a brush from the interior of his robe and he drew a small cross on the prisoner's flesh, at a soft spot right below his left collarbone. Sydney turned away, unable to watch them press the poker there and hold it. He heard the ear-piercing scream though. And he smelled the awful smell.
        "Stop it!!" he cried at the same moment Master Valk did from the cage they'd bound him into. He was filthy and hurt with his face pressed against the bars. Sydney tried to go to him but was halted by a hand. He turned and saw the Valk he knew, his teacher and sometimes friend, standing there, watching as he watched, a spectator to his own memories. "Brother!!"
        The Inquisitor spoke again. "Repent, warlock. There is Light for you to cleanse the Dark from your soul if you only embrace it. There can be a seat for you at the Table of God. Only ask for His forgiveness!"
        "I- I am Killian... Valk of... the Temple of K-Kiltia..." The holy man drew a pair of crosses this time and the poker came again, jabbing and burning like a raptor's beak. From his cell, Valk shouted out.
        "Brother!! Tell them for God's sake!!"
        "Yes, Killian, listen to him, "the Inquisitor cooed, brush in hand, "Say the Name of the Lord and we shall kill you quickly and send you to His Judgement. Cling to evil and we must work at your soul like a knot. That is our duty."
        "...I.... I'm Killian...."
        "Tell them!!"
        Crosses, heat, screams and steam. Sydney thought he might be ill. He backed as far as he could from the sight and Master Valk backed away with him, though he kept both eyes on his brother as he was tortured. Killian's screams were a backdrop to his words now. "For hours..." he said softly, "For hours they did this. I do not think there is... there is a worse way to die, do you, boy?"
        Sydney couldn't bear to watch and he felt wretched because of it. He wanted out of this hell. "Master Valk..."
        "This world is full of monsters and they are men, all of them. They grasp an idea and make it infallible. Nothing is infallible, not even the Dark. Sydney, I am ready to leave this hell of memories..."
        Valk's mind closed and Sydney was never so grateful in his life. He looked up and saw Killian, inverted himself, the tears squeezing from his eyes as the Knights burnt into his flesh, his chest already dotted with sizzling blood-red welts. Valk watched from the prison, younger, perhaps more innocent in a way but he could see the very innocence dying in his face as he watched his brother's slow murder. Sydney wished for it all to vanish and it did, and suddenly he was back on the platform and the crowd was buzzing and the heat of the twin fires at his back was huge and wretched. Master Valk stood before him and his hands were still wrapped around Sydney's hands and the dagger they held. His lips were still pressed to his ear and his words were still whispers.
        "Years ago, when it was announced that you would come here to learn of the heritage you were denied, I stepped forward and said I would be your tutor. That tutor, however, was destined to die by your hands. You must wash your hands in blood you cherish. I've tried to make you cherish me, boy, but I'm not a patient man and I miss my brother." Valk sounded tired. Sydney thought he must be dreaming and yet he knew the words were all true.
        "I cherish you..." he said, barely realizing the words were his, "You are all I have. I- I can't... I can't do this..."
        "You can and you will, "Valk whispered, "You said you'd do as I bid. I have been dead a long time. I give my blood now because Killian and I served your mother. My brother died for her. I die for you. This is ordained."
        "No!" Sydney shook his head, looking right and left towards the Elders and the crowd, anywhere but towards Valk's deadened face, "This is foolishness! You don't have to die!"
        The old priest, the one who'd read the rites, gripped Sydney's shoulder tightly, his impatience obvious. "All men are made of the Light, "he repeated, "All men are made of the Dark. We are dirty with them both and no man is clean. Clear the rough from your soul and be as silk. Wash your hands with blood." Valk tightened his grip about his hands and the dagger.
        "Do it if you would be strong, "were his words and suddenly the boy saw the fatality in all of this. Valk had been born to die in this very chapel so that Sydney could be born to the Dark. His brother Killian had been born to die during the torture of the Inquisition so that Valk would lose his will to live and Father had been born to have a son who'd one day claim his rights as Successor by murdering that very man. Fates, fates, the world was dirty with fates. It would be wrong of him to deny this piece of fate from falling into place. It would be cruel of him to not kill his Master and let him find his brother. It would be cruel of him to deny the Dark of his soul and flesh for he knew how hungry it was for him. He could feel its pull, its impatience.
        Oh how the Dark loved Death. Bedfellows they were, no question. It was strange that Sydney felt such fondness and such a connection with a force like that with his own love of Life. Perhaps loving Life though, brought with it an appreciation, perhaps even a respect, for the very thing that was Life's undoing.
        Müllenkamp laughed at his silent logicking. She could hear his thoughts and she laughed and laughed and laughed. At him.
        Trembling in horror, Sydney gripped the dagger as tight as he could in his right hand. With his left, he pressed forward and found the muffled beating of Valk's heart through his robe. How warm and steady, what a friend that beating was beneath his palm. It was human and so very understandable, very familiar and very unlike the thirsting Dark. Yet it could not comfort him nor give him the control he needed like the Dark could... Eyes filling with tears, Sydney plunged the dagger into that beating as hard as he could and his teacher cried out, folding forward over the blade and into the boy's embrace.
        Blood gushed freely from the awkward wound, running down Sydney's hands and arms. Valk spoke words without meaning, unable to tame his tongue as death spasms rocked him and after a few horrifying moments, he died in the way that all those of the Dark died: his body dissolving as his soul separated from it and faded into another destiny, leaving a dagger, his precious ring, and puddles of bright red blood behind. Sydney stood shivering, staring, trying not to collapse as the Dark filled him like wine. Ice, ice, ice in his soul and yet the blood was so warm on his hands, running ticklishly to his elbows and soaking the short sleeves of his tunic. The old priest, shaken, still spoke. Sydney knew his eyes and the eyes of everyone in that cursed place were on him and yet he could not look up from the little silver ring laying alone and bloody on the platform floor. Master was gone. He himself had killed the only person in this place that had ever cared for him.
        "Wretches are we. We are born in blood and no man knows perfection. Your hands are bloodstained as be all the hands of sinning men. See the blood. Remove the sins from your flesh and be beloved of the gods and the Dark, receive their love and be as one, body and soul, for all time. Let body be as air and spirit corporeal as a stone. Let them be as one, bound by the Dark as you become Seer of the Dark; Prophet, Magus, Servant, Lord. Your hands are bloodstained and red with sin, remove the sins from your flesh and be beloved of the Dark."
        The words were Kildean, ancient Kildean. A spellsong. The priest wasn't the only one who spoke it. Sydney heard Müllenkamp's voice, strong as a church bell. He looked up and she was there, dancing in the fires of the braziers as though she were a flame herself. The words, her words, came from her tongue. They echoed the priest's chanting and Sydney found himself saying the words too. He read them from a worn tablet thrust before his face by GrandMaster Ossard, who then backed quickly away, making some gesture with his withered old hands.
        What happened next happened quickly. That was the only thing about it Sydney ever found to be grateful for.
        A swarm of robed men descended on him. Not the Elders for they were feeble and ancient mainly, but strong students and Masters of the Barracks, some he knew, some he didn't. At first, too shocked to make a move against them, he only looked on as they grabbed his arms and legs, his elbows and knees, and forced him back upon the crumbling stone altar of the chapel. This had been a chapel of the Worship of the Dark Gods This altar he now lay upon had been an altar of sacrifice. The distant thought was like a knife in his brain. Suddenly Sydney kicked out violently against their holds, hating the sudden sense of helplessness, yet he was overpowered and pinioned down to the cold flat rock. Two men grabbed a strong hold of each of his bloodied arms, straightening them roughly, and a third ripped the thin cotton garment from his chest, flinging it away. The fires were raging in the braziers and the priest was still chanting. Müllenkamp kept perfect unity with his words, the spell she sang as beautiful as an aria, yet Sydney had no time to genuflect on beauty. He pulled against his captors with all of his strength even as the Dark squeezed his heart like a great granite fist, and he rolled about on the alter top, panicked.
        "What madness is this!? Release me!!"
        "Let body be as air and spirit corporeal as a stone. Let them be as one, bound by the Dark as you become Seer of the Dark; Prophet, Magus, Servant, Lord. Your hands are bloodstained and red with sin, remove the sins from your flesh and be beloved of the Dark."
        Sydney looked desperately out onto the crowd. They were eager to watch but had no intention of interfering. He heard a great scraping sound suddenly, metal against metal, and turned his eyes to the brass brazier behind him. A big man wearing dark brown robes drew a wickedly curved sword, heavy and heated, from the fiery coals and Sydney remembered the Inquisitor's poker from Master Valk's memories. Panic exploded before his eyes and he threw his entire body to the right, trying to break the grips of the ten brutes holding him down. They were pulling his bloodied arms nearly out of the sockets to keep them straight and Sydney's curses became strangled shouts without meaning as the man drew closer with his heated sword, ash and bits of bright red burning embers still clinging to the blade. He pleaded to the crowd, begged, somehow knowing what was going to happen and then--
        And then he saw a single certain figure out of the thousands in the chapel. A man. His face was covered by a hood and the eyes gleamed sad and blue from the shadows cast. Aloof and alone, he stood nearly at the foot of the platform, both big-knuckled hands clenching the stage tightly as though to dash it all to pieces. Sydney knew this face. It was Duke Bardorba.
        Duke Bardorba. Here. And all he did was stare with the same sad eyes he'd had when he'd left that little boy here alone. All he did was stare. All he did was absolutely NOTHING.
        Suddenly Sydney hated him. He hated him so fiercely he thought the emotion might rip from his chest. Poor Duke Bardorba living in the stagelights while the heretics and the damned crawled like rats through the orchestra pit. Poor Bardorba fighting against the Church yet seeing the sky through the Parliament building's windows every morning, going home to a beautiful mansion at night, eating fine meals and drinking fine wines, consoled daily by friends over the drowning of his only son at the age of six. Poor, wretched, miserable Duke Bardorba with his eternal frown and his sober blue eyes!
        Damn your eyes!!
        Look out through my eyes, Father!! See what I see!!

        Sydney screamed something that meant nothing and then the sword fell once. Then again.
        He lost them both, both arms, just below his shoulders. He knew nothing and saw nothing. Only pain, searing and shooting through his arms and chest, ripping the air away. He tried to fight his way through it, his body reeling and rolling about on the table clumsily, his legs thrashing and kicking the faces of the men still trying to keep him still. Blood spattered everywhere, the blade had been heated, the wounds nearly cauterized, but the more he thrashed, the more the gaping stumps of his forearms opened and blood oozed from them, flung into the air by his convulsions. It wet the alter beneath his back so that he slid atop its surface and his hair became matted with red, sticking to his face and turning him horrid to look at. They grabbed him by the neck and head, trying to still his struggling and yet he fought, too tortured to care if he broke his own spine with his spasms.
        From the floor, Sydney saw them take his arms, his own two beautiful, flawless, dripping arms, steam rising from their severed ends, and toss them away into the braziers. He saw them sticking out of the coals and over the edge as the fire licked along the flesh. His fingers were curled so innocently, the palms of his hands seemed so soft and pale against the flickering orange and black. Sydney screamed while they burned as though he could feel the heat and they turned his head so that he had to watch them dissolve into nothing; skin flaking away, muscle burning to charcoal, bones cooked to black sticks without form. Müllenkamp was still in the fires and she watched the limbs, played with the fingers before they became too brittle to bend. Sydney screamed for her but already she was becoming harder to see or hear. Everything was.
        Father stared, as white as death.
        Sydney could not make himself form words or he would have screamed condemnations on the Duke's bowed head. I'm dying for you, old man! I'm dying in your place!! Do you see those arms!? Did you see the man I killed!? You left me here to die and NOW I DIE!! Now I die, Bardorba!! And you're dead too! What a waste it all was, all the agony, yours and mine!!
        Why, Father? Why did you leave me? If you'd loved me enough, you could have taken me far from the Graylands, the Barracks, far from Valendia itself. I did not become damned along with Leá Monde, Father. You damned me yourself.
        Yet I die for you. I die because you said you loved me before you left me in that dark place; because when I walked into Parliament fourteen years later, a monster with two iron claws instead of two human arms, because when I returned to you as Sydney Losstarot, you still smiled at me. I could have exposed you then but you still smiled at me in that room full of idiots. You smiled and asked me so politely if I wanted some brandy because the day had been so hot. I took your brandy. The leader of the Cult of Müllenkamp took Bardorba's generosity. And I took your money. I took Leá Monde when you offered it to me as a refuge. And I kept it from the Cardinal, I gave it to Ashley.
        Ashley... Ashley, where are you?
        Hardin!!
        They took my arms, Hardin!! I killed my Master and I swear by the life I no longer possess that I do not understand why I did it!! Was I so scared of death? The dream... the dream that I remember now... Müllenkamp, she gave that dream to me and I remember how I thirsted for God in that dream. I was so scared my heart would stop beating... I love life, Father... I loved it all, even the life I lived with those people whose care you left me in. I continued to love life even after I became a monster who could never go home to you. You knew... you knew that it would happen to me!!
        But I chose it. I killed Master Valk. I chose to say the words and do as Müllenkamp wanted. I let the Dark in. I sold my black soul. I watched my arms burning in that fire...
        Days later, they brought the metal limbs to me and I wore them and used the strength of my new soul to breathe life into them. Before I left the Barracks, after having Ossard killed and the entire place burned to cinders and sealed, I had the claws made. I wanted to look as aloof, as dangerous, as inhuman as I felt. I WAS the Dark, Father. There was not a moment of my life after I lost my arms that I was not aware of that. At night I dreamed of Müllenkamp and it was as Valk said. She became my God and kept me sane. Never again was she cold. In my dreams she was luscious and warm and I was always a little boy. Why...!? Leá Monde mocked me! I'm not innocent as I was before, I'm ruined! I'm not Joshua...

        The blood wouldn't stop coming... Sydney felt himself dying but the realization was distant. The pain still burned too much for an excess of coherent thought. They all watched him, they all stared. And the Dark would not soothe his pain nor cool his burning soul. His arms burned... the flesh stank as it cooked...
        He was bleeding to death. Not red blood. His soul was bleeding away and the Dark forged something new to fill his heart. Sydney closed his eyes, still trembling with pain, still feeling his arms though they were no longer there. He could hear the drip of his blood and his soul and knew that Father would not step forward to comfort him.
        Father... you do not answer...
        Hardin does not answer.
        Father does not wander, Father rests. There is no meaning in an incomplete death, is there?
        But I still love life, Father. Even now. I never wanted to die. Why did you create me only to kill me? I was a stepping-stone... only a stepping-stone...
        I remember the very first time I saw you after those long fourteen years. In the Parliament building. You were at the head of the table and the VKP were swarming throughout the room because they all knew how dangerous I was. But you, Father, you never batted an eyelash. You waited till I had made my speech and they all had left and then you gave me that gold and clasped my shoulder and said I would find refuge in Leá Monde. Why did you do that? You did not practice as I nor the people I came to call family practiced. You worshipped the Rood and prayed to your small gods. I was a heretic to you.
        But I was still your son. And that's why I died for you tonight, Father. You sinned and so did I. But I mended your sin. You don't wander, you rest. I hope you sleep in heaven tonight as the babes of the Valendia you always fought for sleep in their cradles. I love you, Milord. I think I forgive you.
        Hardin...
        Hardin!! You said you would stay! Where are you!?

        There was nothing left. The memories burned his soul and Sydney tried to die. He didn't know what he was grasping for and yet he reached his hands out anyway, hoping he'd be fortunate enough to find it. There was no meaning in an incomplete death.
        Yet the memories came and wouldn't stop. Absolution had arrived for he and Father and Father was gone, Sydney knew that to be utterly true. Why couldn't he be gone to? To sleep in the bosom of oblivion...
        The Dark wouldn't allow it. There was Light everywhere and he passed through it like water through a screen, rejected. Rejected... So he truly would burn in Hell. It figured.
        Ach, ach, memories again... flashes of hell, scorching flames of the past. He felt his arms cut away again and again and the hot blood and the blank madness of complete pain and he remembered feeling love for people he could never embrace because the Dark had branded him a monster. He remembered dozens of meetings with the Duke; brief, cold exchanges. He hated him for years. Then he pined for him, the hatred turning to longing gradually until the hatred itself seemed a dream. He remembered it all. He remembered Guildenstern cutting away the evil from his back and the horrible sensation of his power leaving. The Dark abandoning him for another. Leá Monde screaming with souls.
        He was a screaming soul now. He heard nothing but he felt himself screaming.
        He'd be mad soon.

 


 

        Mmm, not *too* happy, eh?
        Much thought went into this story (probably a little too much thought actually) and I believe, as er, "creative" as I got with Sydney's past, it's all still within the realm of very real possibility. I didn't haphazardly come to my conclusions. I really tried to take the facts presented in the game and make some bloody sense outta them. From talking with other people though, I'm already aware that some of my interpretations go against what's becoming popular opinion. Let me defend my main ones briefly right now.
        Bardorba HAD to have some sort of power or connection with the dark. Sydney's blood did not come from his mother. A few things lead me to believe this. For starters, the chapel in Bardorba's mansion is decorated with Roods and statues of saints holding onto Roods. Roods are the symbol of the religion of Lea Monde, whatever the belief that religion entailed, as shown by the Roods scattered throughout the city and the Great Cathedral. The statues in Bardorba's mansion strongly resemble ones seen in the Cathedral. The Duke was a worshipper of Lea Monde's religion. Perhaps that was why he shunned Mullenkamp and her power. The very inverted Rood on Mullenkamp's back shows that she scorned the Religion or was scorned by it. Bardorba was a pious man and so wanted nothing to do with her. Period. Also, Bardorba held the key to Lea monde. He was the previous successor. That was why he killed himself (or Sydney killed him, not sure) at the end of the game. Those last two bearers of Mullenkamp's knowledge and blood had to die to complete Ashley's inheritance of the Dark. Bardorba would not just randomly kill himself, especially not knowing how much trouble it would cause for Ashley. Bardorba held the same latent powers (whether they were awakened/used or not) as Sydney.
        I also strongly believe that Sydney was not an illegitimate child as I've seen people speculate. When Hardin is stabbed by Guildenstern, he has a vision (or Sydney has a vision since he's shown in the scene afterwards) of whom I believe is a very young Sydney, in his Father's home, dressed in his finery, and embracing the Duke. This would not be so with a child who was a secret shame, ne? I'm not saying it isn't possible, I'm just saying it makes more sense to me that he was legitimately conceived.
        It's obvious that Sydney went through some kind of ordeal to obtain his powers (I gave my limbs to the gods),and that his powers are great and strange even outside of Lea Monde. Not only is he immortal but he summons the dragon D'tok at the Manor and manages to magick his way past Ashley, moving quicker than he can follow. The Dark CAN be used outside of the wellspring. Also somewhat obvious is that the ordeal and the powers he recieved from it were a CHOICE. The Duke, being of mullenkamp's line, had the opportunity to make the choice to take the powers of Mullenkamp but did not. He wouldn't be dying in a bed if he had. Sydney however, decided to take them and with that very decision, seperated himself morally, politically, and spiritually from his father forever. It is of course, possible that he made this decision later in life and did in fact grow up with the Duke but I find that unlikely for a couple of reasons. Reason 1 being that his true intentions seem to manifest themselves in the form of a little boy which just seems quite significant to me, Reason 2 being that it would have been very hard for Bardorba to hide Sydney's identity when he was older and the public was more aware of his presence. People would really start to ask questions if his son just up and vanished.
        All right, just had to say those few things, maybe it will save me some flames/harsh words later on. Speaking of which, feel free to email me with your thoughts on the fic, I'd love it ^_^ This is only chapter one of a much longer story but I thought it stood on its own quite well. Thanks for readin'! ^_^