Ashley Riot grew weary, and with weariness came the voices.
Leá Monde spoke. It spoke with a hundred voices, subtle and harsh; whisper of wind across battered stone walls, trickle of secret waterfalls, shifting of earth, moans and grunts and hideous screams of the things that crept and crawled and shuffled through its ruins. And most of all, the nearly inaudible whisper of the Dark itself. The Dark that ruled over the cursed city and stretched creeping tentacles into those who entered its realm, waking things best left sleeping.
Those things had voices of their own. As did his doubts, his memories, his soul. It seemed to Ashley that he had absorbed the voices of the Dark and the city through his very pores. He had been swallowed by the Dark, baptized in its murky waters, twisted and broken and reshaped until he no longer recognized his own face. He did not know what he was, anymore, could no longer tell if the voices that spoke to him came from Leá Monde or himself, and he no longer cared. He only wished that they would stop.
Ashley made his way down the narrow flight of stone steps, Sylph gripped tight in hand. The sword was new and sharp, reforged only a short time ago in the workshop above. Part of him had chafed at the delay, but it had been both necessary and welcome - his weapons had been pitted and scarred, splattered with bone and blood and gore, and the sound of hammer on steel had for a time driven the voices into silence. Yet now they were back, louder than ever, drifting to him up the stone throat of the staircase, borne on winds of Dark. A part of him was afraid to go down there, afraid to hear their words more clearly.
With a handful of sentences Sydney and that jackal Rosencrantz had torn away everything he believed, killed his happy memories of his family like a clumsy butcher slaughtering a pig. How much worse, then, the words of the Dark? What would they tell him about himself? What would they destroy?
He could mend his weapons, but not himself. Perhaps he should descend and let the Dark embrace him. Perhaps he had belonged there all along.
Lies, all, something cold and calm within assured. You could not. You would not. You loved them.
But his memories of the past, his family, were blurry and fractured, a thousand broken shards he had no hope of piecing together. Flashes came to him, bursts and fragments of memory with nothing to connect them. Marco, hanging from the apple tree behind the house by just his legs, swaying back and forth like a monkey and laughing. And Tia, sweet Tia, her hands in his hair, her mouth warm and supplicating, her hips rising to meet him as she cried his name. Ashley, Ashley.
Those memories could not be false. They meant too much.
Yet were there not also other memories? Ones that flitted barely out of reach, passing in and out of shadow and showing him only glimpses. The wet tearing sound his sword made as it took her through the back. Feeling her quiver through his blade as she died, the air around them heavy with the scent of perfume and blood, life and death intermingled. Releasing her, watching her body fall limp and dead in the grass, flopping so loosely that it seemed she had no bones at all.
They were in this together, Sydney and Rosencrantz. He knew from the moment he saw Rosencrantz that he was not a man to be trusted, and Sydney was mad and tainted by the Dark. He had forced these lies, these false images into Ashley's mind with his powers, tried to make him believe them, tried to throw him off. They were the desperate flailings of a doomed man. He did not believe them. He did not want to believe them.
(you wanted them to burn your guilt away)
He could not have hurt them. He was
(the hand of justice Parliament's hatchet man)
a Riskbreaker. His task was to protect the innocent, not to kill them. Even if he could slay a man with a flick of his wrist or send a dozen screaming ghouls to hell, he could not kill a wife and child, much less his own wife and child. It simply was not possible.
You are too old to be afraid of the dark, he told himself, and pressed on down the narrow stair. He cared not for whispered lies, whether they were Sydney's or Rosencrantz's or the city's. They meant nothing.
He saw the ethereal blue glow that spilled around the edges of the battered wooden door well before he reached the foot of the staircase. He knew all too well what it meant; he would have to move through the Undercity again, and of all the places in this cursed city, it was the worst. The streets of Leá Monde were almost pleasant when the sun was out and the birds called to each other, and while the mines were dark and dank, their inhabitants, at least, were alive. The Undercity was all death and decay, full of dark-skinned ghouls, shuffling skeletons and vaporous phantoms that darted and jumped in the eerie light of the ghostflames. It was not a place for the living.
Ashley paused before he reached the door, readying his sword before he so much as touched the aged wood. The first time he had stumbled upon the Undercity, a charging ghoul with a maul had nearly taken his head off the moment he had stepped into the room. Best not to take that chance again. Even a Riskbreaker's luck
(ill luck is all a few sacrifices good of the realm)
had to run out sometime. He braced himself, then kicked the door open and dove into the room, rolling, snapping into a crouch, raising Sylph into a guard position as he scoured the room for threats.
The chamber was long and narrow, the walls on both sides lined with ancient buildings, their doors boarded up or falling apart. Between them was a boulevard of cobblestones, well-wrought and in much better shape than the ones ravaged by the elements on the streets above. A dancing blue ghostflame hummed, snapped and burned in the light post in the center of the street. In its flickering blue glow, the piles of rubble strewn on the cobblestones cast weird, distorted shadows, and the windows of the buildings in the walls loomed dark and empty, a dozen lifeless eyesockets. Nothing moved, nothing stirred. Nothing lived.
Ashley stood up, glaring into the phosphorescent haze as if the empty room itself were going to come to life and attack him. Which would not, he reflected, be that unlikely - he'd already cut his way through several suits of living armor, a horde of creatures disguised as treasure chests, and a giant beast made out of stone. In Leá Monde, one quickly learned that nothing was impossible, and everything wanted you dead.
Still mulling over that pleasant notion, he moved farther into the room, looking around him with every step. Just because nothing had happened yet, it didn't mean he was safe. Far from it; there were few rooms in this city that were not dangerous, and the silence only made his flesh creep. Soon, a blow was bound to fall, and it would be more severe and shocking for the calm that preceeded it.
He heard them when he reached the base of the light post. Voices, different from the usual ones in Leá Monde. These were clear, soft, and at least somewhat human. They came from all around him, high and tremulous and afraid.
Leá Monde spoke.
(it burns please mother please it burns)
(thirsty, please, sir, I'm so thirsty)
(can't see I can't see, father why am I so sick you said God would-)
(why do they want to hurt us)
(only wanted to go for a swim I didn't know)
(soldiers don't kill little boys, they never, they don't-)
The voices of a hundred children, a thousand, drifted out of the walls around him. Some could not speak; they coughed or gasped or wept with tinkling silvery sobs. They spoke in languages familiar and foreign, but their words and their screams and their cries and their choking gasps all spoke of the same things: war, illness, death.
Dead children, his mind informed him, and he repressed a shudder of dread. Leá Monde has sent me dead children. He would not think of his son, of Marco. He would not-
They came out of the empty windows in droves, falling to the street, bouncing on the stones, and righting themselves as if nothing had happened. They were tiny things, their skin pale and fragile-looking in the ghostlight. They were not children, not really, he could see that despite his growing disgust and dread. Their limbs were too stiff, their eyes too glassy. From their arms and legs wisps of string stretched upwards and moved as they did. They were but puppets, held in the grip of an invisible fist. In the grip of the Dark.
They converged on him, gliding effortlessly across the room, and for the first time Ashley saw the razor sharp knives they wielded. This could go bad. Very bad. Already they had cut off all avenues of escape; he was completely surrounded. The only thing he could do now was fight. They appeared small, and if he was forced he could bull through them and make his way back up to the streets. He did not think these things could long endure daylight. The Blades would still be there to deal with, of course, but they were preferable to these things, these not-children and their terrible sobbing voices.
They continued to speak, though their lips did not move and there was no sound except in his head. Their voices were soft and sweet with sorrow.
(breakbone fever I caught breakbone fever) From a boy in brown breeches and a blue shirt. Dead glass eyes stared from his porcelain face. In one small, chubby hand, a Scramasax glimmered.
(poison berries poison berries sweet as death) A girl. She was barefoot and wore a homespun apron, but the sword she held in both hands was well-forged and razor sharp.
(soldiers raped me and broke my head) Another girl, in a pink dress of fine dusty silk, her hair in flaxen ponytails. She narrated her fate in almost merry singsong, shaking the blade of her weapon along in time. (bled and bled and now I'm dead)
Mad, Ashley thought. You have gone completely and utterly mad. But he knew he had not.
In Leá Monde, anything was possible.
Ashley put his back to the lightpost and held his sword before him, shouting. "Away, you dark things! Back to whatever hell you came from!" A part of him wanted nothing more to tear into these hideous creatures, slashing and stabbing until nothing remained, but Sydney's lie perched heavy on his chest. The thought of killing a child, any sort of child, was most distasteful.
They drew nearer, until he could make out the colors of their dead eyes. Their footsteps made no sound, but their voices were plaintive now.
(help us, sir, oh please won't you help us)
(we're so lonely, in the dark)
(won't you stay and play with us)
(stay and play forever and ever and ever and)
(it's fun to play in the dark)
(ever and ever and ever and ever)
"No," Ashley said, stepping forward and slashing at the ones nearest him. The singing girl reeled back, her head sliding sideways off her shoulders, tumbling over and over, still smiling. Before the body could even hit the floor, the creature had vanished with a flare of dark energy, and with it, its blood.
Its disappearance reassured him. These things might wear the form and use the voices of children, but they were Dark through and through. Evil. They had to be destroyed. There was no other way.
He spun, avoiding a clumsy stab from a boy in yellow woolen trousers and striking out with Sylph again. The girl in the homespun gave a terrible shriek as the blade sheared through both her wrists, sending her weapon and the hands that held it to the floor. A second slash bit halfway through her head and silenced her forever. The backslash took the boy right above the belt of his colorful pants, splitting him completely in two.
Ashley was slipping into the rhythm of battle now, letting himself harness his Riskbreaker training and focus his fear, his rage, his doubt into the struggle. He dropped another with a sweeping cut that left it legless and screaming, and still another with a stab that shattered one glass eye and sent the tip of the sword out of the back of its head. He fought on, a whirling dervish of steel and muscle that nothing could touch, dispatching one horrible notchild after another.
They screamed as he destroyed them, filling his head with their tiny voices until he thought it would burst. They begged for mercy and apologized and sobbed and choked, and he felt his gorge beginning to rise. Could they be children, after all? Warped and twisted to the Dark like all the others?
There was no time to think of that. Not now, not with all of them trying their hardest to carve him apart.
Ashley hacked the head from a sloe-eyed girl, spun and stabbed a blonde boy in the chest, smashed the flat of the blade against a ginger-headed child so hard her forehead caved in and her eyes rolled to the floor like two brown glass marbles. Her screams echoed in his head long after her body vanished. His nausea faded, replaced by savage joy. He was winning. They were falling back before him, broken, defeated.
Are you enjoying this? a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Sydney asked. It was not the young prophet. He would have been able to sense the contact. Yet it hardly mattered if it were actually Sydney or not. The fact that he heard his voice at all merely spoke of the other's victory over his thoughts. I believe you are. Can you deny your killing urge now, Riskbreaker? Leá Monde has shown you what you are. A killer of children. A butcher.
Ashley pushed the voices aside as the creatures surrounded him. A fat boy charged at him, pallid and bloated like some grotesque albino toad, moving with a grace that belied his massive bulk. This time, Ashley was not quite fast enough; the creature's dirk scraped along his calf and opened a shallow, bloody cut before the Riskbreaker could smash his head in with the hilt of Sylph. The boy stumbled away, his face a shattered crater, his howls gurgling and terrible.
One of the things had scaled the light post so quietly that he had not noticed. The light of the ghostflame dimmed, and he turned just in time to see it silhouetted against the dancing blue flame. With its features obscured so, it could have been any child, if not for the hatchet-bladed knife it held. Then it jumped, cat quick, its weapon flashing downward at his neck.
If Ashley's breastplate had been less fine, or he had been less quick, that would have been the end of him, but he managed to move to the side just enough that the blade missed his throat and plowed into the armor above his chest with a shower of sparks . Ashley staggered back from the force of the impact, tripping over another of the things, and then he was down and they were swarming over him.
He slashed even as he fell onto his back, scoring a lucky hit and lopping off the head of the one that had jumped at him. A half dozen more were almost on top of him now, though, and the sword was of limited use in such close quarters. He ran the closest one through and reluctantly released the blade, drawing the silver Kris stuck in his belt. The dagger's small serrated blade flashed in the pale light as he drove it into the chest of one that tried to cut his throat, tore it free, and slashed another's head off. The weapon darted and stabbed at the small pale forms that threatened to smother him, a brief silver blur too fast for the eye to follow.
The demons fell back, weeping brokenly and dragging shattered limbs. Ashley tore free of the press and staggered to his feet, knocking the last few aside. One particularly tenacious child leapt on him from behind and locked slim, pale arms around his neck. Razor sharp silver brushed his chin, cool porcelain pressed against the side of his face. Her pleading, tinkling child's voice lanced through his mind like a surgical scalpel.
(play with me play with me play with me PLAY WITH ME PLAY WI-)
Ashley slammed the Kris back into her face, burying it up to the hilt in her forehead. Her pleas spiked into panicked screams, and then the arms around his throat and the ponderous weight on his back were gone. He snapped his arm forward, sending the dagger flying end over end to lodge itself in the eye of a wiry boy across the room. He wailed and fell to the floor, convulsing.
Then, somehow, Sylph was back in Ashley's hand and he was driving the last few into the shadows, hacking them into ragged shreds. Still they pleaded-
(don't don't don't)
(please I'll be good)
(I'm just a little boy)
but he was no longer listening. They were nothing, they were demons, and they would see him dead. They should be destroyed, they should be-
The last one had Marco's eyes. The face was different, but the eyes were the same, wide and brown and trusting. Ashley looked deep into them in the last instant and found only the fear and confusion of betrayed trust. Then the blade sheared through the boy's face, splitting his head down the middle and ruining his perfectly shaped features. As the tiny body swayed and toppled, Ashley heard it call out, its voice quivering.
And then it was gone in a burst of dark flame.
The shock hit Ashley like a sharp blow from a war mace, driving the breath from his lungs and compressing his stomach into a tight ball. He fell to his knees amid a sea of discarded weapons, his heart hammering in his chest. The boy was gone, vanished with the rest of them, but nothing could remove the memory of his eyes, those pleading brown eyes-
(can I have some wine, papa?)
Marco's eyes. He had seen him die in his head a hundred times already, and that had been bad enough. But to kill him again, to kill anything that even looked like him, filled him with grief and doubt so acute that he could scarcely comprehend it.
He had- he had-
Nothing. His mind insisted It could not be otherwise. There was no other possibility. A trick of the Dark and nothing more. Nothing more. It wasn't- there is no way it could have been-
Indeed? Another voice invaded his head this time, but it was equally familiar and equally counterfeit. Rosencrantz. Does it matter? The man asked. Would you have hesitated, could you have, if it had been the boy? I think not. And you- you dare to pass judgement upon me? To call me a jackal? We are the same.
No, Ashley told the voice. In another time, another place, arguing with himself would have left him feeling absurd and foolish. But this was Leá Monde, where doubts and fears and madness spoke with all the strength and clarity of men. They were demons. Fiends. They would see me slain, or worse.
That is your defence? Rosencrantz pressed. Even in Ashley's head, his tone was oily, self-satisfied and mocking. They are but the spirits of poor dead children, killed by sickness or war, trapped into service by the Dark. They kill because they can do nothing else. You kill because you enjoy it, because it is your very nature. Look how you destroyed them, effortlessly, guiltlessly, all to save yourself. They screamed and wept like the children they are, and still you did not hesitate. You deemed your life more important than theirs.
Not my life. Ashley gazed at the floor, but beyond that, he could almost see the raven-haired Inquisitor. More than that, he could eel her through his Dark-forged mental bond. Her fear and wonder and anger hummed in the Dark around him like the strings of a well-tuned violin, sending ghostly vibrations of emotions across his mind. He knew that if it was in his power, he could not allow her to die, any more than he he could stop chasing Sydney. Merlose's life, the boy's- Sydney must be caught. I must not fail.
His mind was filled with the sound of muted applause. Ever the one to finish the mission, eh, Ashley? That's why you were the best. No matter what, you always got the job done. Even on the day you and I murdered that family. Your guilt only came after the deed was done, as a last desperate defense to cover your sin. Then, there was only concern for the mission, for the glory of Valendia. And even afterwards, you could have fought your superiors, chosen death over your miserable half-life. But you sought absolution. You sought to survive, and so you sold what was left of your soul for the sweet bliss of forgetfullness.
Never! Ashley insisted. I would not. I could not-
You did. And you have not changed. Cold death, parceled out dispassionately. That is what you are, Riskbreaker. It is what you have always been, and no matter how hard you try, Leá Monde will rip away your foolish mantle of nobility. The Dark will show you a mirror that you cannot look away from.. The Dark will take you for its own. It is where you belong.
A great sea of doubt and confusion rose up in Ashley's mind, surging, pounding him with dark, roiling waves. He flailed for a purchase, for anything that could stabilize him against the despair that threatened to pull him under. He felt himself being yanked into a whirlpool of memories false and real, old and new, sweet and terrifying.
Marco rolled in the grass with the dog, laughing as he buried his head in the soft fur of its stomach and his dead eyes gazed at the sun, empty and unblinking and someone shade his face for the love of God you're not supposed to stare at the sun or your sight will burning mansion the flames making lunatic shadows the air filled with screams of the wounded and the dying and the laughter of Sydney as he tore the bloodstained crossbow bolt from his chest and spoke softly in his ear as he felt her shuddering beneath him in her release and he allowed himself to join her blood was sticky and warm on his hands as she fell to the earth groaned and quaked around him and no matter what she said he could see Merlose's eyes were full of fear and she should not die here, there was no reason to take her clothes were old and ratty and clotted with her blood the axe cleaved through her head and she screamed and sobbing echoed and reverberated around him as the puppet children moved in and one had eyes like his son and he killed it without even knowing what he did not make sense he could not he would not never not them but there is still the memory of his son's eyes and the blade shearing through and he wonders if he could have killed Marco rolled in the grass with the dog...
What am I? The question tore at him, taunted him, its answer as elusive and ephermeal as a darting snowfly. WHAT AM I?
Somewhere behind the yawning, dark windows, he could hear the steady drip of water. The ghostflame snapped and hummed atop the post. In the distant reaches of the Undercity, something gave a sharp, piercing cry and then fell silent. The earth shifted by small degrees, its groans almost painful. And through it all wound the Dark, slick and slithering, whispering with the sweet, evil voices of the dead and the damned.
Leá Monde spoke, but its voices gave him no answer.
Hope you enjoyed this. Just felt like writing it because those little demon doll things are kick-ass. Yeah. Definitely. This is the first thing under ten pages I've written in like a year. How special.
Usual round of thanks goes to Zachere, for looking over this and finding my tardmistakes. Woot.
And to Square, for making this in the first place. Though assless pants make me cry.
Till next time,