Corvo is sitting on a beach. The sky is overcast; the sea is rough. He twists around to see the beginnings of a city, thatch-roofed buildings huddling together, but one look at the skyline tells him this is not any place he knows.
“Hello,” says a voice, and he looks down to see a boy next to him, gangly legs crossed, hands digging into the sand. “What’s your name?”
Corvo taps his throat with one finger, and the boy nods. “Sorry,” he says, and looks around until he finds a piece of driftwood, which he hands to Corvo. “Can you write it?”
Corvo, says the sand, in a language he's not sure he knows, and the boy repeats it. “Corvo? Oh, like the bird? My name’s --”
The waves crash suddenly, drowning out all other sound, and it seems like too much trouble to try to get the boy to repeat himself.
“How long are you here? Do you have a place to stay?” The boy stands, swiping sand from his trousers. Corvo shakes his head. “Well, neither do I.”
Corvo shadows the boy up from the beach onto the packed dirt road that leads into town, nose wrinkling at the smell that becomes almost intolerable. They wander the streets during the day, and sleep down by the docks at night.
The boy carves charms for the few who are kind to him, sells them cheaper than the hawkers in the market, or trades them for more whalebone or leftover rations. He is quick with a whittling knife, smoothing out splintered bone into even lengths and tying the pieces together with twine. Sailors and fishermen are a superstitious lot, and those that care to listen to the boy take him seriously.
“There’ll be a bad storm in about a week,” he murmurs as he trades a charm for a few pieces of something that might be jerky. The sailor tips her hat as she heads into town.
There are plenty who see the boy as an easy mark, and they come calling every few days for whatever coin he’s managed to scrounge together. They are sitting down by the docks the first time Corvo witnesses it, their feet dangling above the sea.
“Hello, boy,” comes a voice, and the boy freezes, shoulders seizing up. “How’s business been?” Corvo listens to the footsteps against creaking wood but doesn’t look up, not yet.
“I don’t have anything,” the boy replies, staring out at the water. Corvo watches his trembling fingers reach for his knife, and decides it’s time to stand up.
“And who’s this?” The voice belongs to a young man who, from the looks of him, can’t be that much older than the boy and is probably just as desperate.
The young man sizes Corvo up with uneasy eyes, shifting from one foot to the other. “That so. We’ll talk later, then.” He turns, and Corvo watches him walk to the end of the dock before sitting back down.
“Sorry,” the boy says, hands bunched into fists. “And thanks.”
“Is it a tattoo?” The boy asks, and Corvo stares down at his hand, almost surprised to see the mark there, barely visible under the night sky. Corvo shakes his head. “The design is curious,” the boy’s voice fades off, eyes losing their focus. “I don’t think it would fit on a charm, but…”
When he's done, the boy gives what he’s made to Corvo to inspect, and Corvo stares down at the smooth circle of bone, finger tracing the ink-stained grooves in that spiral out from the center. It should be… powerful, he thinks, surely, carved by this boy’s hands, but finds it to be nothing more than a piece of a dead whale.
“You can keep that one, if you want,” the boy says, and watches as Corvo tucks it into the inner pocket of his coat. Corvo reaches out to rustle the boy’s hair, but he is pushed away with a bashful laugh.
“Three whales will beach themselves today,” the boy says one morning, and they go down to the water to see. The boy pesters the sailors that soon gather there enough to earn himself part of a rib, once they’ve stripped the beasts of their fat and oil and meat.
Corvo meets the gaze of one of the creatures; walks up close enough to run his hand over the ancient skin around its massive eye. There is an endless dark there, like the fathomless sea, or spilled ink, or—
“It knows it’s dying,” the boy says next to him. The whale sighs, its great body heaving and letting out a cry that rattles in Corvo’s teeth. The boy hums back the same two notes, then reaches out to place his hand just below Corvo’s.
It happens, again and again. “It will be dogfish, tonight,” the boy will say, or “have you ever seen a swordfish, Corvo?” And the sea will be a graveyard, Corvo and the boy the only mourners.
It is night and Corvo searches the streets – he cannot remember when he lost the boy, only knows that it has been some time since he last saw him. The sailors down by the docks had taken one look at Corvo and shrugged, palms spread.
He is in front of a cave off the beach, but how he found himself there he could not say.
There is no moon in the sky, the stars are bright, and Corvo plunges himself into darkness. The water is up to his ankles, and he keeps one hand on the cave wall to guide him. The echoes of voices spur him onward, and blindness gives way to torchlight, gives way to a circle of figures around a bizarre altar –
There is something strange in the air, a mix of fog and soot that makes the cave far too dark and far too deep and sends Corvo’s mind reeling.
“Corvo,” the boy whispers, terror pitching his voice high, and Corvo cannot remember if he is the man who slaughters his enemies or the one who designs for them a fate worse than death.
He reaches to his belt before remembering no weapon sits there, and decides his hands will have to do. He slams his elbow into a neck, the heel of his hand up against a nose, and scoffs when they all turn out to be cowards. As they scramble past him, hands gripped around their hooded cloaks to hide their faces, water sloshing everywhere, Corvo moves forward.
He unties the rope that binds the boy’s wrists, helps him sit up. He has been stripped down to his smallclothes, so Corvo gives him his coat. The boy tries to take off the rings on his fingers, but his hands are shaking so badly that he simply holds them out instead. Corvo slips the jewelry off as gently as he can, and drops each piece into the water before removing another. The boy’s hair is plastered to his forehead; his breath hangs above him every time he exhales.
There is a tattered piece of paper at the foot of the altar, held in place by a knife: On offering a Vessel to the Voide, including Signes and Portents for chusing a Sacrifice. He offers the page to the boy, whose eyes scramble over the words, then dart back to the dagger. “I don’t understand,” he says, biting his bottom lip.
Corvo puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder and he collapses into the touch, hiding his face in Corvo’s shirt. The paper falls into the water. “Sorry,” he mumbles, and Corvo watches his shoulders tremble.
It all slots together suddenly, like clockwork twitching to life, like the ending of a story.
Oh, Corvo realizes. Outsider.
“Corvo?” The boy sniffs and stares up at him. “Did you say something?”
The boy’s eyes are an unremarkable gray. Corvo wakes up.
It takes some coaxing for Corvo to find the Outsider, nights of sitting at shrines and hearing nothing but the wind and waves. When he is finally pulled into the Void in a rush of dark and damp, he’s almost relieved.
“I have nothing to say to you,” the Outsider announces, far more interested in his nails. He smirks as he looks up. “And I know you have nothing to say to me, Corvo.”
Corvo sets his jaw and gives the Outsider his best now you see here face, the one that still works on Emily some of the time. The Outsider shifts slightly, vanishing then reappearing just a bit closer.
“I was feeling a little self-indulgent,” is his explanation. He tilts his head to watch Corvo’s reaction and there it is, the jagged raised line of white that runs along the Outsider’s throat. The Void has not changed him much – a few years older, maybe, and darker eyes to see more clearly with. But there is little difference between the boy he met on the beach and the Outsider before him the Void.
“Do you think I didn't know what you would do?” The Outsider says, suddenly right in front of him. “I knew. But I wanted to see, Lord Protector.”
Corvo has nightmares: climbing an endless staircase only to find Jessamine’s broken body at the top; opening a door to nothing but red-eyed rats; Emily falling from the lighthouse but he cannot make his body move; a shivering heart in his hands asking is there anything they did not take from me? He knows Emily does too; there are mornings where the circles under her eyes are a little darker, her face a little paler, and those are the days they spend a little more time in each other’s company. He cannot begrudge the Outsider for wanting one small, happy dream.
Feeling bold, Corvo reaches out to put his hand on the Outsider’s shoulder, making sure to mask his surprise when he makes contact. Something crumbles in the Outsider’s expression, some ancient lock being filled, and Corvo finds the Outsider’s face pressed into his shoulder, fingers twisted in his coat.
“Leave me,” he says, but neither pulls away.
Corvo moves his hand around to circle slowly against the Outsider’s back, over and over. He feels the Outsider shudder, hears a low cry that hitches up and then chokes off in surprise.
If time is strange in the Void, spending it comforting the Outsider makes it even stranger – whether it has been five minutes or five years, he cannot say.
When he is returned to Dunwall, something heavy sits against Corvo’s chest. He pulls the rune from his coat pocket and runs his fingers along the grooves that echo the brand he bears. It should powerful, surely, carved by the Outsider’s own hands.