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The Protector

Chapter Text

Corvo would like one thing to be very clear: he did not mean to start a revolution.

***

It was an average day in the court of Empress Emily Kaldwin at Dunwall Tower. The new High Overseer, Wilhelm Aleander, was rambling on about the usual heresies and blasphemies and such, to the abject boredom of his captive audience. “—and in this very city there are still many who dare to worship the Outsider! His hand brings only chaos, and his evil knows no bounds!”

One of those statements was true; the Outsider was chaos incarnate. The other seemed to simply push Corvo straight over the edge. “He is not an evil god,” Corvo said flatly.

The whole room stopped. Every eye in the room turned to him; jaws dropped; High Overseer Aleander looked like he was going to have an aneurysm. Emily, normally so good at ignoring Corvo where he stood at her right hand, twisted around on the throne to stare at him.

“What did you say?” she said, eyes wide. Of course Emily was aware of Corvo’s particular relationship to the Outsider, hence her visible panic. Hopefully, Corvo thought distantly, the assembled court would consider her alarm to be alarm at his heresy, not at the fact that her father had just accidentally revealed the secret of the family to the High Overseer. Perhaps, as Empress, she ought to have said something right then, but open heresy was always a shock to everyone.

“I said,” Corvo said, voice shockingly steady, “he is not an evil god. Look to your own scriptures, High Overseer. I’m no theologian, but I have read the Litany on the White Cliff. As I understand it, the Outsider tempts us with doubt and strangeness, but he is not proven to be truly evil. I think it wrong to conflate the actions of his heretical worshippers with the actions of the god himself—who, I may remind you, has not been seen by anyone who is not one of his powerless fanatics in centuries.”

Anyone who knew Corvo Attano knew that he hated speaking in public, and that he was almost universally terrible at it. He was not sure how he got through that speech without a single stammer, or what inspired him to something that lofty. He also wasn’t sure how he didn’t stumble over that lie.

Aleander blinked at him, a scowl spreading across his face. “You have misunderstood the Litany, Lord Protector. It would do you well to engage in further study, lest you fall victim to other heresies. This was, I trust, a mistake…?”

Corvo inclined his head. “Only a mistake,” he said.

***

“You’re going senile!” Emily raged at him later, when they were well out of earshot. “I should appoint a new Royal Protector and have you sent to live on a deserted island!”

“I’d deserve it,” Corvo said. He rubbed his face with both hands. “I don’t know what possessed me, saying something like that.”

Emily flopped into the chair behind her desk. “At least you’re protected. The Abbey won’t dare level accusations of heresy at you straight out, not when you’re…you.”

“Still, better tithe generously this month, to make up for my stupidity,” Corvo said.

A huff was his only response. Emily stared at the top of her desk for a while; Corvo watched absently out the window. Finally, Emily murmured, “I miss Yul Khulan.”

“He was a good man.”

Emily folded her arms on her desk and rested her head on them. “Aleander is useless.” Corvo had absolutely nothing to say to that, because it was true. He knew they agreed on that much, and more, considering that in the hidden room (which once belonged to Jessamine) there was now a shrine for the Outsider, built with Emily’s own hands.

They both thought this was the end of the incident.

***

It was not the end of the incident.

***

Corvo woke up in the Void, sprawled on a stone in the windswept eerie blue void, whale song ringing in his head. The Outsider sat cross-legged in the air, looking down at him. Corvo sat up. “What do you want?”

“I must say, my dear Corvo,” the Outsider said, a delighted smile tugging at his lips, “I didn’t expect this kind of drama, even from you.”

Instantly he knew what the Outsider was talking about. “I retracted my statement.”

The Outsider shrugged slightly. “Words have power. And yours, particularly, tend to…fascinate.”

***

Somehow, word got out about the fact that the Royal Protector, the Hero of the Empire, had decided to take personal offense to the Abbey’s doctrines. Someone in that room had been recording, and a pamphlet with a copy of Corvo’s brief speech appeared a week later. It was distributed throughout the city, and though copies were confiscated, not all of them could be found.

Less than a fortnight after Corvo spoke up, violence broke out. The riot at Holger Square, started by some firebrand angrily shouting about “freedom to worship”, killed three Overseers and landed a solid twenty men in prison. The riot was contained successfully, but the streets still simmered with barely-suppressed violence.

A week and a half later, a fight broke out on Tyndale Street, with one faction led by men and women wearing purple hoods.

Two weeks after that, there were reports of a riot in Karnaca.

***

Caspar Sturm came from Samara, and Corvo first heard his name when the man publicly set a torch to a pyre on which burned an Overseer.

***

“It’s a war in Samara,” Emily said, massaging her temples. The audiograph bearing the news lay accusatorily on the desk. “I don’t…what do we do?”

Corvo didn’t know where to begin.

Still, he may have been responsible for this mess. “Let me go to Samara,” he said. “This Sturm is at the head of things. If I can take him down, quelling the violence should be easy.”

“I don’t want you to go alone,” Emily said, looking at him with a furrowed brow. She folded her arms tight over her chest. “I’m afraid for you.”

“I’ll be fine,” Corvo said, and slightly raised his Marked hand.

Emily shook her head. “Corvo,” she said, impatient, exasperated.

“The faster we control the situation in Samara, the easier it will be to control what’s happening in Dunwall and Karnaca,” Corvo said.

He was right, of course, and so, undercover, Corvo set out for Samara. It was an ocean-going hop to Bastillian, a long sea voyage north to Dabokva, and finally an overland trip to Samara. A hell of a journey, but one that he had to make.

***

“The Abbey is impatient with your daughter,” the Outsider informed Corvo, when the ship was halfway between Bastillian and Dabokva. “She has not yet publicly denounced the heretics.”

“She’s the Empress. They won’t touch her.”

The Outsider cocked his head. “Empresses have been assassinated before.”

A dull pang rang under Corvo’s ribs. “I trust Emily’s talents,” he said. “She’s twice as fast as I am and six times as wise.”

“Yes,” the Outsider said. “Only a fool contradicts an Overseer where he can be heard. Why did you stand up for me, Corvo?”

There was no good answer for that, not when Corvo’s only answer would be something dissatisfying to the Outsider, and so Corvo made none that night.

For a long while, as the ship plunged on toward Dabokva, they sat in silence together in the Void.

***

There were notices nailed to doors in Dabokva, dirty white paper fluttering in the breeze.

Corvo took one and stepped out of sight to read it.

Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, Caspar Sturm, an ordinary man of letters of Samara, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in the public square of that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.

  1. The Litany on the White Cliff was born, not from a desire to edify and save mankind, but from a desire to dictate their behavior.
  2. This dictation represses the natural birthright of men.
  3. The natural birthright of men is the freedom of action.
  4. Freedom of action is the choice of the world and of the Void.
  5. Freedom of action is embodied in the Outsider.
  6. The wrongful declaration that the Outsider is an evil, therefore, declares the freedom of men to be an evil.
  7. Such a declaration is one which must be resisted, for the claim to the birthright of men is superior to any virtue found through its denial.
  8. The Abbey of the Everyman claims to find virtue through denial of freedom of action.
  9. This claim is plainly false, as the Overseers themselves exhibit constantly their determination to use freedom of action to achieve their goals.
  10. If this corruption is true, then there is no virtue to be found in blinded obedience to the Seven Strictures.
  11. If no virtue is to be found in obedience to the Seven Strictures, then virtue must be found in the freedom of choice that is the birthright of men.
  12. Therefore, the most virtuous among us are those chosen by the Outsider, the embodiment of that freedom.

Sturm’s theses went on and on, denouncing the Seven Strictures, arguing against them all, but the theme repeated over and over. The Abbey of the Everyman, through its mere existence, prevented mankind from achieving its full potential. Sturm was convinced that the doctrine of the Outsider—a doctrine invented whole-cloth from yearnings by four thousand years of fanaticism—was the way to fight back.

Corvo wasn’t quite sure what to do with that.

***

“Do you think he’s wrong?” the Outsider asked.

“Is he Marked?” Corvo asked in reply. He wasn’t sure what he thought of Sturm’s theses. “Did you decide that he’s an agent of change?”

The Outsider, sprawled at full length on the bed that Corvo wanted to occupy in the inn where he was staying in a tiny town halfway across Tyvia, shook his head minutely. “Caspar Sturm is not that interesting,” he said. “I see clearly where his path ends. He is…predictable.”

Corvo looked down at the Outsider, so unassuming. He could sit down beside the Outsider, run his fingers through his hair, feel the joints of his slightly knobbly fingers. Hard to believe that this unassuming being, occupying the body of a fairly plain-looking man of about twenty-five years old, was the being for whom people were fighting and dying. “And I’m more interesting than he is, even though I didn’t mean to start a revolution.”

“My dear Corvo, that’s precisely why you’re interesting,” the Outsider said. “With a single poorly-thought-out sentence, you changed the course of the Empire. I don’t know what you’ll do next.”

***

Samara was considerably more interesting than Corvo expected. He knew that there was a courtesan school there, and also that the place was also where the best jellied eel came from. That was, until now, the only thing Corvo knew about the city. And he had expected a war zone. Chaos, people running in the streets, people shouting in the square.

Getting into the harbor, the ship he was carrying on had to be searched, and Corvo—thankfully unrecognized—had to sign an affidavit forswearing violence, along with other passengers and the crew. But that was all.

He was stunned that life in the city largely seemed to be going on as normal. There were banners of purple hung from doors and windows on every street; graffiti reading “THE OUTSIDER WALKS AMONG US” or “WE ARE MARKED FOR FREEDOM” was evident on just about every blank wall. There were burned buildings, the Office of the Overseers was completely obliterated, and people were going fairly heavily armed, but there was no open violence.

On more than one street corner, there were people preaching gospel that had to be of the Outsider to interested crowds; in cafés, Corvo heard young people excitedly discussing the future; on the waterfront, there was a lively debate happening between sailors. He could practically breathe the hope in the air. It was strange, to feel so buoyed up when he was here to kill the man who’d begun the revolution, but here he was anyway.

***

Caspar Sturm’s residence was humble and unassuming. Corvo lurked for two days discerning the man’s habits before entering the house at sundown with intent to kill. It should have been an easy mark, though Sturm carried a sword with the assurance of one who’d seen years of combat.

Corvo was stunned when Sturm, upon seeing him come in the window, bowed with the courtesy due to the Lord Protector of the Empire of the Isles and offered him a cup of coffee.

Chapter Text

 

“You realize, Lord Protector, that the only ones who have ever connected the Outsider to darkness and evil are those of the Abbey,” Sturm pointed out.

“Heretics have committed evil in his name,” Corvo replied. He wasn’t allowed, obviously, to express actual agreement with Sturm. Even if he did agree.

Sturm shook his head. “They begged him for power and struck out in his name because they feared the wrath of the Overseers. Never has a peaceful cult even had its name heard. Peaceful worshippers do not survive long under the gaze of the Abbey.”

That was a fair charge. And was Corvo anyone to actually contradict the man? “I’m listening.”

“Equally as many of the Empire’s greatest artists, poets, and inventors have been inspired by the Outsider’s whispers as criminals and murderers have worked in his name.” Sturm gazed out the window, visibly deep in thought. “When the Abbey prohibits worship of him—or even acknowledgement of his neutrality!—he becomes feared by simple extension. His cults are never given the chance to express an alternative, no matter how benign or beautiful.”

“Beautiful?”

The man turned to look at Corvo. “There is already a movement in Samara which acknowledges the Outsider as a metaphorical being, a purely imagined embodiment of man’s fears and desires,” he said with a definite twinkle in his eye. “They create art and call him their muse, their inspiration to invent and innovate and bring beauty to the world, acknowledging him as a force and not a god.”

“…do you buy that?”

“Of course not,” Sturm said. “He is entirely real; I believe this though I have yet to see him for myself. But the point is, Lord Protector, that the only violent sects in Samara thus far are those which have been first assaulted by the Abbey.”

***

Sturm put Corvo up for at least the night. There was a shrine in the room, and it was absolutely no surprise when the Outsider appeared the exact second Corvo closed his eyes. Corvo immediately had questions.

“Of course I don’t encourage cults,” the Outsider said scornfully.

Irritated beyond belief, Corvo folded his arms. “You certainly tend to inspire worship.”

The Outsider gazed at him. “And yet I inspired no worship in you.”

Corvo chose not to pursue that avenue of questioning. The Outsider—whether he knew it or not—was wrong on that count. “What do you think of all this?”

“I admit I am…interested,” the Outsider said. Floating in midair, he drew his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs, resting his chin upon his knees. “In all my years in the Void, I have never been associated with…beauty. Or with goodness, or kindness. It’s…”

“New and a bit alarming?” Corvo asked.

The Outsider made no response, only stared moodily across the room at the shrine. Clearly he had no desire to talk. Corvo could relate to that. He didn’t stare at the shrine, though; just at the Outsider.

***

He didn’t kill Sturm.

***

What do you mean, you didn’t kill him!?”

 

***

Emily sent him to Karnaca.

“The least you can do is try to control things there,” she said, “since you decided not to do as you should have and killed Caspar Sturm. Don’t let me down, Lord Protector.” She turned her back to him and stared out the window, a clear dismissal.

Corvo felt the world tilt on its axis.

In that moment, he was not looking at his daughter, but at the Empress of the Isles.

He was looking at a stranger.

***

“Children grow up,” the Outsider said. “It’s the way of the world.”

“I know,” Corvo said heavily. He stared at his hands. “It’s…harder, when the child is yours.”

There was a long moment of silence. Corvo thought about Emily—about when she was young and they played hide and seek in the gardens, about all the time she was empress, all the time that she was his daughter. How she’d grown from a sweet-natured and slightly persnickety child into a clear-sighted and ambitious ruler. How suddenly she’d changed from someone he knew into someone that he may never have known at all.

“For what it’s worth,” the Outsider said suddenly, and stopped.

Corvo turned to look at him warily. They were in the Void, of course, sitting on some floating earth-mote. And the Outsider was sitting next to him, rather than pacing around or moving. That was good: just now, Corvo didn’t have the energy to pursue him. “What?”

Very slowly, as if he were approaching an easily-startled animal, the Outsider set his thin hand on Corvo’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth,” he repeated, “I am…sorry, for your pain.”

“You’re…sorry. For me.”

“Its inevitability doesn’t make the wound hurt any less.”

That was true. And Corvo was terribly, terribly tired. So he let himself, for just a moment, be soothed by the touch of the god he’d thrown over the Empire and his family to protect.

***

Corvo arrived home to a city in flames.

 

***

The ship moored off the coast because the harbor was blockaded; Corvo had to use a small boat to slip into the city under cover of darkness. It took him three days to discern the major factions of the city. Primarily, it was the highly organized and vicious group who called themselves the Heretical Order, the Overseers, and the Duke himself—or, at least, the man who had replaced the Duke. As for the rest—the citizens of Karnaca were simply rioting.

***

“What can be done?”

“I don’t know,” Armando said. He shook his head. “This area of the city is protected. No Overseers and no Heretics can come here. But you saw what’s happening outside.”

“I had to walk through it to get here.”

Armando’s hands, in fists at his sides, trembled. “I don’t know whether to hate you or love you, Attano. You started this. People are freeing themselves, but they’re dying to do it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Apologies won’t bring back the dead.”

They were silent for a little while. Sun slid across the floor; in the distance, sirens were a constant piteous howl. Corvo felt like he was standing in the wrong reality.

“The least you can do,” Armando said finally, “is to show me that you had a damn good reason to do what you did.”

Corvo looked at him. The question was plain on Armando’s face, something between hope and desperation. He wanted a reason that Corvo didn’t have. He’d spoken on an idiotic impulse. He didn’t have a reason. Except…

Slowly, Corvo stripped off his glove and held up his hand. The Mark stood out sharply on his skin, and Armando gasped.

“You…”

“I’m not meant to be some kind of…of prophet,” Corvo said.

Armando looked him in the eye, and Corvo saw the light of reverence in his heavy face. “Help me,” he said. “Help me to save our city.”

***

“I am not your prophet,” Corvo spat, glaring at the Outsider. “I’m not holy.”

The Outsider shrugged. “You aren’t. But you saw what the impersonator-Duke believed you to be. I could not make you holy, but the reverence of men could.”

“I don’t want that.”

“If they know what I gave you, they’ll call you my prophet. You can’t escape that.”

Corvo was silent. He turned away, unable to face the Outsider. The guilt on his shoulders was so heavy that Corvo was fairly sure that his back was going to break.

“Are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Are you my prophet?”

***

The Overseers were the ultimate impediment to peace in Karnaca. The Heretical Order agreed to stop fighting, if the Oracular Order and the Abbey of the Everyman were both evicted from the city. This agreement was only reached when Corvo sat down with the Order’s leadership and demonstrated to them that he was on their side.

Corvo hated this use of the Mark. Hated that he was becoming a leader of men, when he didn’t want to be one. He didn’t even know what he was doing. His rebuke of the High Overseer had been an accident. Things were growing out of proportion, out of all control. He didn’t know how to stop what he had set in motion, or even if he should.

***

After a week of fighting, a young Overseer staggered from the fortified buildings they’d been occupying, waving a flag and begging for peace.

***

They found out why the Empress hadn’t sent troops to Serkonos when news arrived that Morley had declared its intent to secede from the Empire.

***

“I have to go back to Dunwall,” Corvo said.

“You’ll be executed if you’re caught,” Armando said.

Corvo shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. The last time Morley rebelled, the Empress was assassinated. It’s why we have a Royal Protector.”

“Are you sure that she still wants you in the position?”

The question felt like a dagger driven into Corvo’s heart.

“It doesn’t matter if she wants me as the Royal Protector,” he said. “I’m her father.”

***

Corvo listened to the crew of the ship that carried him back to Dunwall. Many of them were from Morley, and when the captain—from Gristol—wasn’t listening, they were speaking of what was happening back home, of the chances of success.

“Don’t give a fuck about the Outsider,” a barrel-chested sailor rumbled. “But if the price we’ve got to pay for freedom is putting up a purple banner and wearing scrimshaw round the neck? I’ll do it ten times over, gladly.”

“There’s no faith that’s worth as much as freedom,” a weather-beaten woman said.

It was strange that Corvo had the sudden desire to stand up and speak to these people about Sturm’s theses, about the idea that the Outsider and faith in him was truly an acceptance of personal freedom. He’d never wanted such a thing before. But listening to this, hearing these men and women speak of freedom with clear belief in their eyes…it was inspiring.

***

“You can’t be here,” Emily said.

“You need a protector. It’s dangerous—”

Emily shook her head. “No. No. You’re dangerous. You refused to kill Sturm, you assisted the rebels in Karnaca, and if the rumors are true you went and showed off your Mark so now the entire Empire knows you’re a heretic.”

A dull pain seized hold of Corvo’s heart. “Where do you want me to go?”

“I don’t know,” Emily whispered.

Corvo looked at his daughter. Beautiful, proud, regal…more than he was, and even more than her mother had ever been. “I’ll stay away from Dunwall,” he said. “I can’t—I can’t say I’ll fight these rebellions.”

“If I were you, I wouldn’t either,” Emily said. She swallowed hard. “I trust you.”

“I don’t deserve it. But I hope I can live up to it.”

He turned to go and was stopped by Emily’s voice. “Dad?”

The word sharpened the dull ache into a searing agony. He looked back at Emily and held out a hand. The next thing he knew, she’d flung her arms around him, trembling. Corvo held her tight, unable to work out what to say. So he didn’t bother. She knew. She had to know.

Corvo kissed Emily on the forehead before he left, slipping out into the night so that no one would be any the wiser that the Empress of the Isles had met with the Prophet of the Outsider.

***

That night, the Outsider did not visit. Rather than feeling abandoned, Corvo felt that this was a mercy. The bonecharm lying by his side when he awakened, something that would ease an aching heart, seemed to confirm that theory.

He was grateful.

Chapter Text

He found a tiny town, north of Dunwall and inland, willing not to ask too many questions, where there was no resident Overseer, and decided it was best to hole up there for a while.

“Running from trouble?” the old woman boarding him asked over dinner. Her name was Emma Smythe, but she’d told Corvo to call her Mother Smythe right away. She was almost ninety years old, spry, and keen-eyed. He liked her.

“Something like that,” he said.

Mother Smythe shook her mob-capped head. Unlike most of the women of Dunwall, women here tended to wear long skirts and old-fashioned caps and bonnets. It was like stepping into the past. “The trouble with the Outsider,” she said.

Corvo fell still and looked at her carefully. “I didn’t think word had gotten everywhere.”

“Oh, everyone’s talking about it in these parts,” she said.

“And what do people in these parts think?”

She turned back to the stove with a careless shrug. “We’re not ones for religion, here,” she said. “We all know our Strictures and we celebrate the holidays, but there’s more to worry about than the Void, isn’t there?”

This was such a foreign notion that Corvo had to stop and take it in for a moment. “That’s a different opinion than the things I’ve heard before.”

“People being people, you get half a dozen of them together and you’ll have twelve different opinions,” Mother Smythe said.

***

In his bed in Mother Smythe’s attic, Corvo was restless.

“It’s hard to sleep without whale-song thrumming in your bones,” the Outsider said.

Corvo rolled over to see the Outsider sitting on the edge of his bed. He should have been startled, but the sight of the Outsider was nearly commonplace these days. “I don’t understand why you’re here,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You don’t play favorites,” Corvo said.

The Outsider looked down at him, inscrutable. “I don’t.”

“Then why spend so much time with me? I’ve seen you almost every night for months.”

“You’ve set an interesting course, my dear,” the Outsider said. “I want to watch you closely.”

***

It wasn’t a surprise, somehow, when Daud tracked Corvo down.

“You’ve made a real mess,” Daud said grimly.

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Yeah, well, doesn’t change the fact that wearing purple in Dunwall now can get you shot on sight by an Overseer.”

***

Somehow, even though neither of them were the kind of men to have done this before, they sat and talked theology over cider and sheep pie at the local pub.

“You agree with Sturm?” Daud asked.

Corvo shrugged. “He’s got more than a few good ideas. And he’s not wrong about the Abbey.”

“And the Marks? Word on the street says you’re getting hailed as a prophet in Karnaca, and it’s spreading to the rest of Serkonos. Rioters in Saggunto literally burned bridges in your name.”

“What?”

“Yeah. Pushed twenty or so Blind Sisters from the local chapel out onto one of the big wood bridges and set it on fire.” Daud took a long and slightly satisfied drink of cider, apparently entertained at the look on Corvo’s face.

Truly, Corvo had no idea what to say. People were killing in his name. Killing—as if his simple declaration that the Outsider wasn’t evil was some kind of law that needed defending. “…they shouldn’t have done that.”

“You know you’re acting just like him now, right?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Daud scowled. “Setting things in motion and then just sitting back and watching like you’re above it all.”

Corvo had nothing to say to that.

For a while they were quiet, eating and drinking in a not-quite-companionable silence. The pie was fairly good, asparagus and mushrooms and potatoes and lamb in a hearty crust; Corvo still frequently missed the food in Serkonos which actually had spices and flavor, but this pie was particularly nice. He was fully aware that he was thinking so hard about this because he didn’t want to think about the rest of the things Daud had mentioned.

Finally Daud looked up at him. “You know, after seeing what happened when you pulled off your glove for the Duke, I wonder what would happen if I showed off my Mark.”

***

Corvo ran north.

***

He made it as far as Old Lamprow when Daud publicly denounced the Abbey and unveiled his Mark for the entire world to see.

The gospel he preached was not Sturm’s gospel of freedom of action, or the Heretical Order’s ideals of a new order, or what Corvo heard from many lay folk as a religion of luck and fortune, or even the rumored new church at Yaro which preached the words of the Abbey with the Outsider’s name instead. No, Daud preached of power: that if one was unpredictable and strong, they might receive power beyond their wildest dreams, the power to seize hold of their fates and wrest them from their enemies.

Corvo seriously contemplated becoming a real prophet just to preach against that.

***

“There are so many ideas of what you are,” Corvo said, walking through the Void with the Outsider one night. “There’s some cult at Driscol going on about you as a god of magic.”

“Well, I am the source of that,” the Outsider said with a shrug.

Corvo shook his head in irritation. How could he not understand? “There is a single specific truth and you know it. By the Void—I know it!”

“But they don’t,” the Outsider said, ever tranquil. “When an unspeaking god with no doctrine or holy word is your only authority, there are many ways to interpret that. And that encourages sectarianism.”

“You could speak to them.”

“Why would I do that?”

At the edge of a precipice, Corvo stopped and looked at the Outsider. “They’re killing in your name,” he said.

“No, Corvo, they are killing in yours,” the Outsider said. Corvo froze as one cold, pale fingertip traced the lapel of his coat. “You claimed to speak in my name—ah, no, don’t contradict me, that’s what they all heard.”

“I can’t speak for you!” Corvo snapped.

The Outsider smiled, a slight thing that might as well have been a laugh. “You’re my prophet, dear one,” he said. “Speak for me.”

***

In Redmoor, there was to be an execution of a group of heretics worshiping the Outsider.

Corvo made a choice.

***

“I must say, I wish I had been there to see you dispatch them,” Sturm said, walking along the clifftop with Corvo. “It sounded impressive indeed.”

“I couldn’t let them all die,” Corvo said.

Sturm nodded. “You’re a good man,” he said. “And I assume that’s why the Overseers responsible were put on a ship that’s sailing for Whitecliff, instead of executed?”

Corvo looked out the sea grimly. “I don’t want to be a prophet, Sturm.”

“The people are looking to you,” Sturm said. He chuckled. “They looked to me, for a while, but I haven’t got a Mark on my hand and I don’t expect I’ll ever get one.”

Corvo thought of what the Outsider had said about Sturm, that he wasn’t interesting, and had the sudden thought that he had no idea why the Outsider chose who he chose. “If it were up to me,” he said, “I’d give you one. You’d already have it.”

Sturm looked at him keenly. “And that,” he said, “is why we have a problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not the Outsider,” Sturm said. “No one is. He only is, and we are interpreting the scraps he has given us. Whether he’s good or evil—we will never know. I prefer to think of him as good. It is a terrifying idea, that the Outsider might have evil intent.”

***

For the first time since Delilah, the Outsider was angry when Corvo saw him.

“I Marked a man who murdered a woman, and Marked that woman’s husband. Where do you people get the idea that I am either good or evil?”

***

He remained in Redmoor at the behest of Governor More, who was still straining to keep allegiance to the Abbey but knew that without Corvo’s protection that he’d end up beheaded or tossed off a cliff. Corvo was happy enough not to keep running. Besides, he was in no danger. Most of the garrison at Redmoor had defected the instant they realized whose side Corvo was on. His Void power had been on full display that day of the execution, and at this point Corvo saw no point in even trying to hide.

Sturm went back to Tyvia after a fortnight in Redmoor. “Be careful, allowing people to abide by the Strictures in this city,” he said in parting. “It’s dangerous to allow the Abbey’s teachings to exist unchecked.”

“You know you sound like the High Overseer when he talks about you?” Corvo said.

He got no reply to that, but it was unsettling to realize that even those who claimed to preach freedom of action were preaching freedom only of their action.

***

Corvo was no general, even if he was a seasoned fighter and could manage the maneuvers of a small guard. In the interest of protecting Redmoor—which already had a significant strategic advantage from the cliffs atop which it sat—Corvo convinced Governor More to appoint the seasoned sailor and naval captain Anne Cormac to the position of Admiral.

“We need someone on the ocean, if the Empress takes exception to what’s happening here.”

“Don’t think she will, long as Morley’s up in arms,” Cormac said. Her eyes were keen, lines written heavily around them from years of squinting into the sun. “Best be prepared, in any case.”

They walked along the deck of the ship, side by side. Corvo watched the Admiral subtly as they went. She was as tall as he was, a woman who was clearly from Morley despite the fact that her crew was largely from Gristol. Older than Corvo, with the rolling gait of a sailor. The stories he’d heard of her were promising. If push came to shove, Anne Cormac was exactly the person they needed at the helm of the fleet.

“I’m surprised that the navy defected so quickly,” Corvo said. “Heresy’s not easy.”

“Ah, well, sailors aren’t so fond of the Abbey, in general,” Cormac said. “We understand the sea, and we understand that the sea means the Outsider.”

What?”

Cormac grinned. “Pardon me, prophet, but who the fuck do you think came up with the idea of calling him ‘Leviathan’? Sailors have always known him, the whale-eyed god of the abyss. There isn’t a sailor who doesn’t spare him a thought when a storm is on the horizon.”

***

“They’re lying to themselves when they think they know you,” Corvo said.

The Outsider smiled. “Are you lying to yourself, when you think you know me?”

“I’m sure I am,” Corvo said. “And look what I did with that.”

“Dear Corvo, lies do no harm.”

Corvo shook his head. “They do.”

“Not always. Lies are a way of removing free will, and lies are a way of asserting it. All lies fall to the end of the speaker, and all lies are more powerful than truth.”

Chapter Text

The new year came without fanfare. Redmoor didn’t celebrate the Fugue Feast. “No need,” people said, “not when the world’s already been turned upside down.”

Corvo had a brief moment where he wondered what exactly they were going to do about the calendar without the Abbey to keep it for them.

***

Besides Corvo and Daud, three others with the Outsider’s Mark appeared. Katrina, a girl of seventeen who claimed to have had miraculous visions of the Outsider since the age of thirteen, leading resistance fighters in Morley. The wandering former beggar John Denck, who preached that faith should not be used to change the governance of the Empire. And a very old man in Tyvia, brought under the protection of Caspar Sturm and his followers, whose powers of the Mark allowed him to perform some kind of miraculous healing on the injured and sick.

A letter from Daud arrived in Redmoor, asking Corvo if the Outsider had spoken of any of these others.

He hadn’t.

***

“I don’t have favorites,” the Outsider said, almost gently, when he pulled Corvo into the Void that night. “Tell Daud that I did not plan—and do not plan—to interfere in your affairs. This is your revolution, not mine.”

Corvo turned to him, looking him dead in the eye. “It’s in your name,” he said. “If it’s not chaos and magic, it’s whales and storms, and if it’s not that it’s luck and fortune, and if it’s not that—”

“I know,” the Outsider said. He stared back, intently; even if Corvo blinked, he never did. “I see it, all of it, just as I saw a future where you kept your mouth shut that day in court.”

Instantly Corvo was furious. “You knew and you didn’t bother to warn me?”

“This future was unexpected.”

The Outsider’s flat tone brooked no argument. But Corvo was his prophet for a reason, so in for a coin… “You should know by now to expect the unexpected.”

The Outsider didn’t shake his head or shrug, but his absolute stillness gave the same effect when he spoke. “I still don’t understand your motive in defending me. Many of your decisions are surprising, but this was beyond that.”

Corvo thought back. When was the last time that he’d surprised the Outsider, truly surprised him, knocked him this far off his guard? “That was as unexpected as when I spared Daud?”

“Yes. Then, as now, I do not understand you.” One slender hand pressed against the lapel of Corvo’s coat, over his heart, flattening the fabric. And it stayed there. Corvo didn’t trust himself to speak or even to move, so he didn’t. He stood there in the cold deep blue of the Void, listening to the distant songs of whales, watching the Outsider, and waiting for someone to make a choice.

***

Whitecliff published a ban on the worship of the Outsider. They foretold violence if “heresy” was not forsworn. Rumor had it that Daud burned a copy of the paper in the middle of Holger Square before vanishing without a trace.

Corvo actually approved of that one.

***

The ethics of the Abbey stifle the progress of the Empire, read one widely-discussed paper from a philosopher in Redmoor. Work hard, stifle one’s innovation, curiosity, and creativity, and come to the same oblivion as all the rest.

A writer from Karnaca disputed the point of oblivion: After our deaths there is nothing but the Void; even still there is the chance of immortality in the living world, for we through creativity and curiosity may build our own legacies.

Still another, a theologian who clung stubbornly to the Seven Strictures, retaliated. The legacy of Man in this world is nothing more and nothing less than what he leaves by his strength of character. A man must lose the name of action in order to leave meaning behind.

***

“The devil is in the printing house,” Corvo said, watching the printers at work. A copy of Sturm’s latest tract—“A Treatise on Liberty with an Open Letter to High Overseer Wilhelm Aleander”—had arrived in Redmoor, and was being printed for distribution as fast as possible.

“He is indeed,” said the printing master. “From text, we are educated; when we are educated, we gain knowledge which we must then interpret; from this we are inspired, and from that comes chaos. As we all know, in these changing times.”

Corvo shook his head. “I’ve lived more than half a century and I couldn’t have predicted any of this. I meant nothing when I spoke to the High Overseer.”

“Your words meant nothing until they were written down,” the printing master said. “And now they have a life of their own.”

“I’d rather they died,” Corvo said. “Consign them to the Void for all I care.”

The printing master eyed Corvo. There was definite greed in his gaze, but his words still made a certain kind of sense. “You could kill them yourself, if you chose. Write an open letter—I’d print it and distribute it.”

***

The essay, when it was published, was entitled simply “An Admonition to Peace”.

***

After the publication, Sturm came back to Redmoor. He was on his way south, to meet with Daud for the first time, but there was time to speak on the essay.

“You admonished your own followers and the lords of the land,” Sturm said, shaking his head with admiration. “Bold.”

“What else was I supposed to do?” Corvo asked. “Six words. And now it will take volumes to retract them. This is how ideas move through time. They never come out unscathed.”

***

The response to the essay was mixed. Whitecliff seemed largely amicable, to everyone’s surprise, and many of the less-radical reformers approved. It had been almost two years since things began, and everyone was tired of the fighting. The more radical reformers—Katrina of Morley, Daud, and others—condemned the words and condemned Corvo for blasphemy.

Irony never hurt so much.

He was beginning to feel very alone lately. Caspar Sturm, who was still his ally, was becoming as uncomfortably radical as Daud; Corvo did not know Katrina of Morley or John Denck; and he was so cut off from Serkonos that he did not even know if Armando was still alive. And he had no true friends in Redmoor: Governor More was barely even an ally and while Anne Cormac was a good woman they were living two different lives.

Corvo had always been solitary, but right now he felt as if he weren’t part of the world at all.

***

It had been two weeks since Corvo last saw the Outsider, so he was absolutely shocked when he woke up to find the Outsider lying next to him in bed.

After the initial panic, Corvo found himself glad of whatever impulse had driven the Outsider to do this. There wasn’t a lot of comfort to be found, these days, when he was supposed to be the prophet of a god who didn’t care about the world. This was good, and it was right, and the impulse Corvo had next was possibly the stupidest thing he’d done since he opened his mouth to proclaim those words that started it all.

He kissed the Outsider.

It lasted half a second, a brush of lips that left Corvo’s mouth tingling, already wanting more, but already the panic had set in, the feeling that he overstepped, misinterpreted. And the Outsider just stared.

And just when Corvo would have opened his mouth to apologize, a cold hand curled over the back of Corvo’s neck. The Outsider leaned in and returned the kiss, thin lips slightly chapped and leaving the taste of salt in Corvo’s mouth. It was shockingly hesitant, terribly unsure, as if Corvo kissed a young man with no experience instead of a four-thousand-year-old god. Were they both that afraid?

He coaxed the Outsider’s mouth open, listening to the soft sounds the Outsider made for guidance as he deepened the kiss. The Outsider’s tongue was strangely smooth, and his teeth pointed, but judging by his sound of pleased surprise when Corvo nipped at his bottom lip there was no risk of getting bitten yet. He didn’t know what he was doing, what Corvo was doing. Had no one ever done this for him?

The Outsider didn’t breathe, and that was strange. But there was a faint heartbeat, when Corvo took his hand, and with every move Corvo could feel it quickening. At some point the Outsider’s eyes closed. Corvo was ecstatic knowing that he did this, that this kiss was enough to bring a god to earth.

And the Outsider was still there in the morning.

Chapter Text

The idea that this reformation would lead to lasting change began to take hold in some circles. Corvo bowed to the inevitable and, when an angry mob of people burned the city of Potterstead nearly to the ground in retaliation for the execution of two dozen Outsider devotees in Dunwall, wrote his second essay. It was better than the first one, on all counts: still, it got him declared a heretic, again, this time by factions who had previously thought him their ally.

***

There were toys appearing in Redmoor, Corvo noticed, simple and sweet-looking whales painted in blue and purple. He was given one by a shy child in the street, and for some reason set it beside his bed. It had no teeth in its closed mouth, and little enough detail, but the dark eyes gazed at him with odd familiarity. He felt like a sentimental old fool when he touched it, but it brought some measure of comfort in moments when there was little enough to spare.

The toys may have been all for fun, but the fun was not all innocent, either. Little toy whales were not the last object. People began to wear bonecharms. Nothing with power, but symbols, signifiers. Carved with the Outsider’s Mark, in the shape of an eye, in the shape of a whale, or a ship, or simply circles of whalebone. His face—looking older and grayer by the day—on vases or plates, sometimes next to Sturm’s or Daud’s, or even Katrina of Morley’s. Objects of worship, the faces of prophets and saints.

But never the Outsider’s face.

Corvo appeared to be the only one regularly privy to the sight of that.

***

“Is this what passes for worship in your reformation?” the Outsider asked, sitting by Corvo in his study in the governor’s residence. He was housed permanently there, it seemed; Corvo had no objections. He did not need a house: his few personal belongings—a locket with a curl of Jessamine’s hair, a drawing Emily had made for him as a child, the little toy whale, a ring that Samuel had given him long ago—could be packed up and moved at a moment’s notice. And besides, the residence was large: he rarely saw Governor More, unless they had to speak.

Corvo looked up from his paper. He needed a better title than Against the Murdering Hordes of Peasants, which was the title that had been suggested sarcastically by the governor at dinner that night. “I don’t worship you.”

“Then what is this?”

“What I feel about you isn’t worship.”

“Love, is that it? If the very thought weren’t so ridiculous, I’d be touched.”

Corvo did not speak. He didn’t trust his voice at all. He simply took the Outsider’s hand, as he had longed to do so long ago. Their hands made such a contrast. His dark, weathered hands, strong from holding a sword, fingers bent from previous breakings; the Outsider’s slender, pale hands, joints a little knobbly, skin smooth and cold and almost wet.

A minute, perhaps two, passed, before the Outsider made another sound. “Oh.

***

The appearance of the Church of Paradise was unexpected to everyone.

***

Maybe it shouldn’t have been so unexpected. Some of its sentiments had existed before all of this began. Mulani’s Whispers From the Void had certainly caused a stir, and Corvo remembered reading it and shaking his head. He and Mulani were clearly thinking of two different places: Corvo certainly didn’t recall any lakes of diamond in the Void. But the idea that the Void must be some kind of mystic paradise was not exactly a new one.

What was a new idea was the Church of Paradise’s bizarre idea that what was done in life had consequences after death. That is, they preached that those who acted “rightly” would experience an eternity in a Heavenly Paradise, and those who acted “wrongly” would suffer eternity in the Abyss of the Damned. Paradise had golden light and infinite gardens, serene and perfect; the Abyss was full of monsters of the deep that would constantly rend and tear souls.

An eternity in a world of beauty, walking side by side with the singular and benevolent Outsider, source of all magic. This is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Corvo laughed so hard he had to sit down when he first read their pamphlets.

***

Everyone who knew what they were about quickly got on with calling the Church of Paradise a gathering of heretics. Corvo, who was decently sick of the word “heresy” by this point, just ridiculed them in private. He waved off requests for comment: if they wanted to believe that, then they could. Who was Corvo to stop them?

***

He discussed it with the Outsider one night, lying in some secret place in the Void. The blue around them, the sense of the infinite pulling at his skin; the Outsider cold and beautiful in his arms. Corvo could imagine, truly, no greater paradise.

“There is nothing but a fading into the Void, when a mortal soul dies. Their doctrine is only the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country.”

As he listened to the Outsider speaking. Corvo looked up at the emptiness above them. The Void changed, he noticed. The first time he visited it was blue and calm, as if in shallow water; two years ago, it was black and tumultuous like a sea in a storm; now, it was a deep indigo, the color of drowning. He wondered what the changes signified, if they signified anything at all.

“We have only lingered in the chambers of the sea. Oceans rise, empires fall,” the Outsider said, lightly tracing the curve of Corvo’s collarbone with the tip of one finger. “That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.”

“Poetry?” Corvo commented. It was high-flown, even by the Outsider’s usual standards.

The Outsider shrugged. “None of it mine, only words from stillborn futures.”

***

Daud sent him a message from Karnaca, telling him to come quickly. There was, apparently, a cult that warranted Corvo’s direct attention. The Outsider didn’t contact Corvo for the week and a half it took to sail to Karnaca—in secret, of course, so no Overseers took exception to his presence—and Corvo was concerned.

He kept his head down entering the city. No need for a fuss: if Daud’s message was true, then these “Eyeless” were among the highest in the city. And Corvo was just guessing that he didn’t want to be noticed at all by them.

***

“They hook people up to this…machine, drugged so they can’t fight back,” Daud said. “Pump blood out of their bodies and into a cultist’s. Lets them experience the ‘edge of the Void’ while their poor bastard victim is sitting there wishing for death.”

Corvo felt sick. “And no one’s doing anything.”

Daud’s face twisted. “Thanks to us, there’s no Overseers around to shut them down. Though from what I hear, they weren’t doing much even before this started.”

“We know where their headquarters is,” Daud’s lieutenant Billie said, leaning forward and looking Corvo in the eye. “Shouldn’t be hard for the three of us to get inside.”

“What say we have ourselves a little holy war, Prophet?” Daud asked.

There was a time when Corvo would have stepped back from even the idea of this. When he would have rescued the victims and dragged the names of the perpetrators through the mud and ruined them without a drop of blood on his hands. When he would have held up his hands and refused to judge.

But if there was ever a true blasphemy against the Outsider…this was it.

***

Between the three most skilled assassins in all the Isles, not one cultist walked away alive.

***

There was blood under Corvo’s nails for days afterward.

***

“I don’t understand you, and I start to think I never will,” the Outsider said.

“Don’t you expect violence?”

The Outsider looked, if possible, disturbed. “Yes. But not from you. And not over…them.”

Corvo studied him. They were merely in a bolt-hole of Daud’s—no one needed to know that Corvo was in Karnaca, and he was sailing for Morley tomorrow—so the quarters were cramped. Not that Corvo minded, though his knees and back would kill him in the morning, because the Outsider was sitting very close to him. “They were committing horrors, in your name,” Corvo said at last. “I couldn’t let that happen.”

“You never can keep your head down, when it comes to people taking my name in vain.”

“I can’t,” Corvo said. This was no confession: it was simply true.

“My name’s been through a lot, in the thousands of years I’ve been here,” the Outsider mused. His black eyes searched Corvo’s. “And only you have ever truly taken exception to that.”

Corvo stared right back at him. “It’s high time someone did,” he said. “You say you don’t care, but you’re not made of stone. What they were doing—I don’t know why you didn’t do anything, to them, at least. How could you not be terrified?”

“I don’t act in this world, so I would never have done anything to them,” the Outsider said quietly. “But they did frighten me.”

The admission felt like Corvo had been struck. Years. Years, he had known the Outsider, seen him in all manner of terrible and frightening circumstances. But never heard him confess something so intensely secret and personal.

He found it odd, how small the Outsider felt that night. His head tucked under Corvo’s chin, letting himself be wrapped in Corvo’s arms. All too frequently it felt like permitted action to do this, as though the Outsider were comforting him.

Tonight, though, it felt as if he might just be comforting the Outsider.

Chapter Text

The ship to Morley was tedious in the extreme. Corvo was going to circle Gristol, at this rate: the trip south to Karnaca, now up toward Arran, and from there likely back to Redmoor. But the stop at Arran was important, considering that the woman he was going to meet was the leading force of change on the island.

He never made it as far as Morley.

In the night, the ship was boarded. No one saw it coming: they weren’t Overseers, but small-time pirates. Or, actually, they should have been small-time pirates. Instead, it turned out that whoever they were, their leader had a Mark. And was twice as fast as Corvo.

***

“Creativity and determination generally win the day. Still, this is unexpected,” the Outsider said with great amusement.

“I don’t suppose you’ll help me wake up?” Corvo muttered, thinking about whatever powder he’d breathed in that had knocked him out.

“No,” the Outsider said. “As I’ve told you, I don’t act in the world. I suspect you’ll spend most of this trip sleeping in the brig.”

Corvo squinted at him. “You’re just entertaining yourself now.”

***

The Outsider was correct; Corvo spent most of the trip unconscious. They had a damn music box, not too painful or loud, but enough to disrupt his ability to Blink out of the holding cell. And when he was awake and functional, no one would talk to him. Corvo had no idea who these people were, only that they probably weren’t Overseers and they almost definitely weren’t any of Emily’s people.

He felt it when the ship stopped, the engine thrumming down and ceasing to groan and rumble. Corvo anticipated seeing the faces of his captors at last, maybe a leader, someone who he might be able to bargain with. He readied himself for the moment when they opened the door of his cell. They would be made to regret imprisoning him.

Corvo was not entirely prepared for King Frederick III and Katrina of Morley to walk into the brig together to greet him.

***

It turned out that Katrina was the one who had beaten him before he was captured. Corvo could not help being somewhat fond of her when they finally met off the field of combat. She was only a little more than eighteen, clear-sighted, intelligent, and surprisingly soft-spoken.

“I have seen Him since the age of thirteen,” she explained when Corvo asked about the Outsider, “and the first time that I met Him, I wept at the sight of His beauty. He gives no commands, but if the choice is truly mine to make, then I must choose to use His gifts in service of my country.”

Corvo truly could empathize with all of those things. Surprisingly, with the exception of her revolutionary ideals, he found that he agreed with her. Katrina, at least, held no doctrine that the Outsider could claim to be on one side or the other.

***

“Fraeport is the safest place I could think of,” the king said as he and Corvo walked in the royal residence of the city. Frederick was a heavy-set man with a square-trimmed beard and kind eyes, wearing a chain of office as was the Morley custom and a fur cape as befitted the misty cold of the city of Fraeport. “No one will expect the Prophet of the Outsider to be here. You were last seen in Redmoor, and everyone knows that you’re in Arran.”

“Why are you hiding me at all?” Corvo asked.

Frederick sighed. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a paper, passing it to Corvo. “I am terribly sorry,” he said. “It’s a decree from Empress Kaldwin.”

***

…we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Corvo Attano. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Attano. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

***

Corvo stayed in Fraeport for a year.

***

The iron foundries of Fraeport seemed almost homelike, to someone accustomed to Dunwall’s industry. But here there were no screams of dying whales. There were no great plagues, no pests. Fraeport had its problems—many of the older folk had terrible coughs from years of breathing smoke—but, in whole, Corvo found himself comfortable here.

Overseers were in the city, but not many, and they kept mostly to the fortified building that was their headquarters. Worship of the Outsider was too widespread to make a crackdown wise, and so the city existed in an uneasy truce. They knew that they were not entirely welcome, and it was easy enough to avoid them. No one else cared who Corvo was.

In jest, Frederick once suggested that Corvo grow a beard in case of discovery. Corvo disregarded this advice entirely. Still, though no one in Fraeport had any reason to know the face of the Prophet of the Outsider, Corvo wore a hood when he went out. It seemed wise.

***

Corvo kept up correspondence. He sent open letters and short tracts to the printing master in Redmoor. Letters went to Sturm in Samara, the Duke in Serkonos, and Daud, when he could find the old assassin’s location long enough to send a letter. Katrina wrote him, too, a back-and-forth that was less about theology and revolution than about the worries and stresses of being a public figure in these strange times. She was so young, and Corvo couldn’t bear to refuse to help her.

Their first few letters were stilted and awkward; after a while, she spilled out her heart in her letters, asking for advice in how to go back to sleep after nightmares, relating thrilled tales of her activities on the front lines of combat, and telling him delightedly about a young man she was sweet on. Though Corvo adored Emily, he’d never been able to help her the way that Katrina seemed to think he could. He did his best, even though he was so far away.

***

He was not housed in the royal residence, but in a three-room apartment in one of Fraeport’s poorer districts. A bedroom, a bathroom, and a room with a stove. There was a box desk in that room, and Corvo sat there to write. It acquired smooth places where he rested his elbows while he wrote. An inkstain appeared on the wall after Corvo, startled by the Outsider’s sudden appearance, threw an inkwell at him. He came into possession of the vertebra of a whale, which he used as a footstool.

Corvo hated being sedentary, but he would be the first in line to say that his body was no longer what it had been. During the incident with Delilah, he had been fifty-four; it was three years since then, and at fifty-seven, though he still trained and fought and kept healthy habits, his body was beginning to fail him in some small ways.

The reading spectacles, Corvo had to admit, made him look damn distinguished.

***

There was a little church in Fraeport which began to make a stir. It was said that they sang in services, performing worship with their voices. Corvo found the whole concept patently ridiculous, but he went anyway after a few weeks of hearing the talk on the street.

By the standards of worship of the Outsider, things were ordinary. Corvo couldn't help shaking his head in mild exasperation: these people were a strain of the Paradise believers, albeit not as rabid as the ones in Tyvia. Still, despite the incorrect theology, the sermon was of right behavior and virtue, of kindness and compassion, and in the rafters where Corvo watched unnoticed he did find himself approving of that message.

And then books were distributed, small and bound in cardboard. There was a piano, which a group of strong youths pulled to the center of the room, and a man sat down at it and played a chord. All of the congregation gathered around it, and they began to sing,

It was beautiful.

Not everyone was in tune, and certainly many of the singers were about as bad as Corvo. But the heartfelt way that people sang of the Outsider, of his watchful presence, of the way that they were never alone even at their darkest hour...it made Corvo glad. He wasn't alone in seeing these things.

In one sight he was alone: he saw the Outsider standing near one wall, watching the congregation. It was certain that only Corvo could see him, because the reaction otherwise would have been loud. The appearance was surprising.

He hadn't known until then that the Outsider could cry.

***

“I did not inspire the man who wrote those hymns. He was unexpected.”

Corvo watched the Outsider where he stood, stock-still and out of arm's reach. “Will it spread?”

“It will. Music gets into the heart. They will sing hymns in church and in school and in the street, and they will become sea shanties. Great men will compose immortal works from these simple tunes, and hundreds of years hence that song you heard will still be sung. That is out of the hands of choice, now.” The Outsider stared away from Corvo, something distant and impossibly sad in his expression.

It took courage, but he finally managed to open his mouth. “Are you all right?”

The Outsider didn't move. “I told you before. I’m…not used to this. To people thinking well of me.” His impassable expression was gone, replaced by something between terror and grief.

“Come here,” Corvo said gently.

Without a word, the Outsider did.

***

He began to write about the Outsider while he was in Fraeport.

Not doctrine, not commandments—only the words he remembered the Outsider saying. His habits, the secrets he revealed, his history, his appearance. Small things. Things that Corvo was sure only he would value. Things Corvo wanted most to remember.

…fifteen years old when he entered the Void but must be more than twenty-five now…does not blink unless he is startled; it is rare to see him blink…whale’s teeth and tongue to match his whale’s eyes…if he can be said to play favorites, then of all flowers he favors hydrangeas…

None of it was published. Corvo only kept it, unread, in his desk. He never even spoke of it to the Outsider.

***

After a while, he also wore gloves to cover the Mark.

“I am not ashamed of you,” he told the Outsider, the first time he wore the gloves. It was so strange, not to look down and see the Mark.

A cold hand pressed against his cheek. “I would rather have you alive than displaying my Mark to the world for the sake of pride,” the Outsider said softly.

Chapter Text

Time marched on, and with it, the Reformation.

Change was in the air everywhere. King Frederick was only stopping just shy of outright declaring secession, paying lip service the Empire while sheltering the Prophet of the Outsider and handing money to the leader of the revolution under the table. Serkonos seemed on the verge of complete collapse, held together only by the fact that there was unanimous agreement that no one in Serkonos wanted rule by Dunwall or Whitecliff anymore. Redmoor was the only bastion of the organized worship of the Outsider in Gristol and was only avoiding a siege because the forces of the Empire were deployed to Serkonos and Morley. Tyvia had successfully evicted the Abbey of the Everyman entirely—except for the stubborn believers in Wei-Ghon—and there was infighting now as factions vied for power. The High Judges no longer held the reins of the country, which meant that every petty warlord with enough men to hold a town was striving for control. At this point, there was no chance of unification. For every gain, a loss.

Corvo wasn’t sure if he should be hopeful or if he should despair.

***

Two years after Katrina’s rise at the head of the revolution, the Overseers captured her at Caulkenny and took her to Whitecliff where they tried and burned her for heresy.

***

“Were you with her?” Corvo demanded of the Outsider, the night he received the news.

“I saw her on the pyre,” the Outsider said.

The audiograph in Corvo’s fist cracked as he squeezed it. “Were you with her?”

Amid the cloud of Void-stuff, the Outsider gazed back, inscrutable. “You know the answer to that,” he said. “Why even ask?”

***

Corvo didn’t know the exact date, because he received the information secondhand from Daud and Sturm. But what he did know was this: the Abbey had finally convinced the Empress to sail against the rebels in Tyvia with intent to invade the island and retake it by force.

***

Frederick sent Corvo with his fastest ship. A group of rebels from Morley came with him, out of a sense of solidarity. There was no great welcome when they reached Dabokva. Preparations for war were imminent.

“If they take this city, they’ll strike at Redmoor, too,” Sturm warned grimly as he, Corvo, and Admiral Anne Cormac studied a map of the channel between Tyvia and Gristol. “We have to prevent them from landing even one ship.”

“The Empire sails battleships, and Redmoor only has three of those,” Cormac said. “And only five factory ships; most whalers sail out of Dunwall. Fishing boats and a few private pleasure yachts donated by citizens. And Dabokva provides much the same. There’s no other garrison on the south of Tyvia, and Morley can’t spare any ships but the one Attano took to get here.”

Sturm scowled. “Damn. And I hear that they’ve called for reinforcements from the garrison at Wei-Ghon, too.”

“Those will take time to arrive,” Cormac said. “It’s a rough trip coming south, and chances are good that by the time Wei-Ghon arrives the whole battle will have been fought. Even so…there’s a reason that Morley lost to the Empire, and it’s because Dunwall has all the naval power in the Isles on its side.”

“Dunwall doesn’t field anyone with the Outsider’s Mark,” Corvo said, studying the map. The channel was at its narrowest point directly south of Dabokva, a passage that was far too wide but would be easiest to defend. “I can’t speak to naval strategy, but I do know that I can play havoc if I can get on board their ships.”

There was a long pause. “Are you sure that’s enough to turn the tide?” Sturm finally asked.

“No,” Corvo said. He looked between the other two. “But Daud is on his way, and his Mark lets him share his power with his followers. That might be able to change things.”

***

Their strategy was simple and desperate. No ship of the Imperial Fleet could be allowed to land on Tyvian soil. Since the Fleet’s success relied largely on boarding enemy ships, the rebels could not be boarded. The Fleet was slow, and so the rebels would have to be fast.

Eight expendable ships—six old scows that were half-sunk and two private boats that could not be outfitted with cannon—they planned to set alight with whale oil and sail directly into the Imperial Fleet. That should cause some alarm, and buy Admiral Cormac time to respond to the opening salvos.

Daud, when he finally arrived with his Whalers and more militant followers, agreed immediately with Corvo. “Get us on board one ship and we can blow apart the chain of command,” he said. “It won’t stop them for good, but it will slow them down enough that you’ll control the field, at least for a little while.”

It was a plan based on fragments of rumored information, luck they may not have possessed, and chances they couldn’t afford to take.

It was the only plan they had.

***

The night before the battle, there was celebrating in the city of Dabokva and among the sailors and mercenaries and citizens-turned-soldiers who took to the sea tomorrow. Most were careful not to get too drunk. Though everyone knew they might die tomorrow, no one wanted it to be because of a hangover. Still, the excitement of a crowd and the threat of impending death was enough to make people wild.

The rousing music and noise of the crowd was too much for Corvo, though. He found a rooftop and sat on it, well away from people, staring up at the stars, faint behind the lights of the city. When the Outsider appeared beside him, Corvo didn’t flinch. He’d almost expected it.

“Hello, Corvo,” the Outsider said, voice crisp and soft in the cool night air. “Your life has taken a turn, has it not? The Empress, your daughter Emily, stands facing you across the field of battle. You have played a pivotal role in the chaos that consumes the Empire, wielding my Mark as a weapon against the tyranny of the Abbey of the Everyman. The forces in the world and beyond the world, those men call ‘magic’, serve your will. This power has been my gift to you, and now it will serve you in the war that threatens to consume the world.”

Corvo waited. There was an echo of this speech written on his bones, the reminder of their first meeting. He remembered it, would always remember it.

“In the days that follow, your trials will be greater than ever before, Corvo. You have walked the lonely places of the world and raised shrines and whole churches in my name. And your power is beyond that of any other man, now. You have no need of runes now, only the work of your instincts and Mark that you bear. But there is a final gift I may give you, which may help you in what will soon come to pass.”

It had been so long since the Outsider gave him anything that Corvo was shocked. He began to ask what it was, and was cut off by a brief, gentle kiss. Corvo felt off-balance, as though he’d slipped once again into the Void.

“It is not the heart of a living thing, but I may give it to you with my hands all the same,” the Outsider whispered. “The heart of a god.”

The world stopped.

Corvo stared into those fathomless black eyes and felt words trying to rise to his lips. He couldn’t say them even now, though. But he suspected that the Outsider knew.

“How you use what I have given you falls upon you,” the Outsider said, drawing back. “Know that I will be watching with great interest.”

And he was gone.

Still, Corvo knew he was not alone.

***

It was a red sky in the morning.

***

Later, Corvo could not have spoken of what happened in the greater scope of the naval battle. He was far too focused on the job at hand, occupied with only one ship at a time. He, Daud, and Daud’s men were actually set aboard one of the fire ships, since those would close fastest. The plan was that they would Blink from one ship to the next, incapacitating the commanders of each ship as they went.

And they did.

It was hell. Ship to ship to ship. Some captains were simply knocked out, locked in crates to be forgotten; some were killed. Corvo was back to back with Daud half the time, summoning up rats from the holds of the ships and blasting people away with wind. Outside the fighting raged on, a constant barrage of cannon fire, ships churning through the waters of the channel. Corvo didn’t even know which way the tides of battle were turning. He could only fight.

***

After what seemed like years, all the firing stopped.

***

The Empress herself, aboard her flagship, had ordered a flag of truce.

Chapter Text

Tyvia was implicitly freed by this declaration. With the calling of a truce, the Empire relinquished its hold on the island. There was riotous celebration across the island, brief cessation of hostilities between all the warring factions. It was independence day for them.

Corvo was glad. He raised a quiet glass that night with Sturm, Daud, Cormac, and some of the other officers and notaries in Dabokva that night. They were all too damn old to participate in the wilder celebrations, and too well aware of the fact that things were not over yet.

“Where do we go from here?” Cormac finally asked.

It was somehow still a surprise when all eyes turned to Corvo.

“We fortify ourselves,” he said. “Unite as one. Send aid to Morley—help them in their revolt. If the Empire is on the defensive, we have to keep going. Now’s our chance to turn the tide.”

“I’ll drink to that!” Sturm said, and he did, joined by the rest.

***

Later, Daud cornered Corvo. “I thought you weren’t planning to be a revolutionary.”

“This was never in my plan,” Corvo said. “I had to make a choice, Daud. And between bending knee to the Abbey forever and…”

There was a long pause.

“You’d rather choose him,” Daud said at last.

“Yes.”

The assassin-turned-templar smiled bitterly. “Be careful, Corvo. I fascinated him once, and now all I can do is to preach the gospel of a god who won’t even speak to me.”

Corvo nodded slowly. “And still you choose him.”

Daud looked down at his hand, at the black mark drawn stark on the back of it. “Would you do any different, if you were me?”

***

The Synod of Whitecliff was proposed as a way to reconcile the differences between the doctrines of the Abbey and the doctrines of the Outsider’s followers. The Empire was facing complete collapse: Tyvia and Morley were all but gone, and Serkonos would follow suit shortly. It was in everyone’s best interest to come together and sort out at the very least the issue of religion.

In the end, after much discussion and internal argument, it was decided that Corvo would go. The Abbey had guaranteed safe passage, a promise underwritten by the Empress. It was dangerous, stupid—and necessary, if they were to look to the future and a lasting peace.

***

Before Corvo sailed for Whitecliff, those gathered in Dabokva came together to give him something to argue, a doctrine he could defend.

“They won’t listen to you without it,” Sturm said logically.

Corvo looked at the piece of paper with its five simple points written on it. “None of it makes any damn sense. There are problems in every line.”

“Theology is always full of problems. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about.”

“It’s the only statement I think we’ve all ever agreed with,” Daud said. “Take it, Corvo.”

***

Article I. That the Outsider, eternal and unchanging, holds no allegiance to good or evil in this world.

Article II. That the Outsider is in the Void the source and conduit of all magic in the world.

Article III. That in order to identify and empower mortal agents of change in this world, he gives his mark to certain chosen persons, thereby connecting them to the power of the Void.

Article IV. That even the Outsider’s Mark is no mark of fate and it is left to the choice of all mortal people to chart the course of their fate as a ship charts a course in a storm.

Article V. That there is no salvation and no fame or infamy but that which exists in this world.

***

He arrived in Whitecliff with three dozen of the most competent fighters that could be managed. Sturm and Daud, wisely, stayed back: should the Synod go awry, they would be able to unite with forces from Morley and possibly Serkonos for a real fight. It was depressing that contingencies like that were required, and Corvo was uncertain of their success even if the Synod went well.

And even if he was the Prophet—self-acknowledged, now—he was still nowhere near the lawyer Sturm was, and commanded a quarter of the direct loyalty Daud held. His fellow leaders had, he felt, a far better chance of success. Corvo had nothing, no weapons with which to fight.

Though that was not quite true.

He had the heart of a god, after all.

***

Corvo entered the Abbey under heavy guard. The Empress, he was assured, would arrive soon; but the assembly had been ordered to begin regardless. Corvo was rather glad. He didn’t know if he could manage to face Emily, just yet.

The Synod itself took place in an open lecture hall, where all present Overseers and heretics could observe the arguments and discussion. Corvo faced a battery of Overseers, surely trained in law and theology. He stood, because they offered him no chair, and refused to ask for one. High Overseer Wilhelm Aleander—the man who had faced Corvo in the beginning of it all—faced him now.

“Please, present your arguments for the record,” he said.

Methodically, Corvo pulled off his gloves and tucked them away. The Mark on his hand was undeniable. The hall exploded into whispers, as expected. He called the Articles to mind and explained them, aloud, aware that an audiograph was being recorded as he spoke. It didn’t take long, and when he was done they seemed almost…disappointed.

“Is that all?” Aleander asked. “What does the Outsider want?”

Corvo laughed. “I can tell you what the Outsider wants, but it’s on my authority, not his.”

“Does he not want evil? What say you to the murderous cultists that you yourself defamed and their ilk? Evil, true evil, in his name!”

“There’s nothing that humanity can’t pervert, one way or another,” Corvo said.

Aleander’s eyes narrowed. “A fair point, Prophet. Humanity has indeed perverted the right way, the way the Abbey defends and upholds.”

“You heard the Articles. You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

“Heresy,” one of the other Overseers said, drawing the word out.

Corvo’s heart thudded once. Twice. Three times. He was alone on the floor. And he knew what was coming.

“The charge is true,” Aleander said, rising to his feet. He was fairly short when he approached, but it was clear who held the power. The crimson jacket he wore had sisters and brothers all around the room, armed, ready, powerful. He had followers here, and outside the walls, and even in his prime Corvo wasn’t sure if he could have survived an all-out fight. “Will you recant your words, Corvo Attano? Will you renounce the Outsider?”

“You have no idea what you’re asking,” Corvo said. He thought of black eyes, and cold hands, and a lonely figure in the dark. “You might as well ask the tides to renounce the moon.”

“The only way for peace to be reached,” Aleander said, “is for you to give up this farce. You are the Prophet of the movement, the man who set the course. Put down your banner, Attano, and though we may not spare you we may strive to reconcile with those who hear your heresies.”

“They make their own choices,” Corvo said. He folded his arms. “Kill me, Aleander. They don’t follow me and they never did. Nothing ends with me.”

The High Overseer’s face twisted with what might have been regret. “I don’t want you dead.”

“You don’t have a choice now,” Corvo said. “If you’re planning to martyr me…make it short.”

“One last time, I ask you: recant your heresies,” Aleander said, opening his arms wide.

Corvo stared him down. “I cannot and will not recant anything. To go against the truth is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other.”

***

Later, Corvo was really irritated that he missed his own execution.

***

The pyre they put him on was large, since it would shortly be housing all of the people who’d followed him as well. Even though the fire was hot and hellishly painful, he was confused and losing consciousness well before he began to really burn. And so all that he knew was something like the crash of ocean waves, extinguishing the heat, and the loosening of his bonds, and a frigidly angry voice.

And that was all.

He was fairly convinced that he’d died.

***

Corvo woke up in a sick room, sterile and white and well-appointed, with the Empress asleep in a chair by the bed.

He took stock of things. He had many burns, but most of his body had been protected by his clothes, so he wasn’t in as much pain as he expected. He felt as if he had a bit of brain fog, but nothing too severe. And there was Emily next to him, visibly disheveled, sprawled in the chair like she’d sat down and fallen asleep.

For a long while, Corvo just lay there, thinking. He remembered what had happened right before he’d lost consciousness, the waves and the voice and the sudden feeling of relief. And he watched his sleeping daughter, feeling that even though he was the one in the bed that he had time, just now, to look after her.

After a while, Emily stirred. She opened her eyes and rubbed them, shaking off sleep, and when she saw his eyes open she smiled. “How long have you been awake?” she asked muzzily.

“Long enough,” Corvo said. “Shouldn’t you be out of the company of the heretic?”

“You’re not a heretic anymore,” Emily said softly. “We…do you remember?”

“Remember what?”

***

The story went like this:

Emily had arrived late, unaware that the Overseers were planning treason. There had been a battle at the Abbey gates, which Corvo had entirely missed, being too busy burning alive. She had run for the central courtyard where the pyre was raised, and had been caught in the fighting, and been standing facing the pyre when it happened.

He’d simply appeared beside Corvo in the fire, which had died in a tidal wave of cold, and pulled him free from the stake. He’d carried Corvo out of danger and set him at Emily’s feet. And then, looking down at Corvo, with a voice that echoed like a leviathan’s in the abyss, he’d said: “He is mine, and you will not touch him.”

And just like that, the Outsider was gone.

***

Dunwall Tower was just as Corvo remembered, but it felt unfamiliar, now. He sat with Emily in her private suite and they talked, and talked, and Emily cried and maybe Corvo cried a little bit, too. It had been a little more than three years since they spoke. And they’d both been convinced that they never would again.

Emily had decreed the “Act of Supremacy”, approved by the Parliament, which established that the government of the Empire would no longer bend its knee to the Abbey. There would be no more tithes, no more official worship. She was in the process of appointing her own astronomers to set the clocks and manage the calendars, and occupied with building up a true police force for the Empire, one not controlled by the Abbey. “Serkonos has stopped trying to secede,” she informed Corvo. “King Frederick and I are working to set up peace talks, and Tyvia…”

“Leave Tyvia alone and just accept that they’re gone,” Corvo counseled. “There isn’t just one government anymore. Last count, there were twenty-three people trying to run the island, and none of them got along.”

“…noted,” Emily said with a shudder.

***

He didn’t stay in Dunwall.

There was no way he could stay forever, and he and Emily both knew it. Most of the people in Dunwall still followed the Seven Strictures. The Parliament would not accept a Royal Protector who was the Prophet of the Outsider, especially not once word had gotten out about what was coming to be called the “Miracle of Whitecliff”.

And besides, Redmoor had recently held a very successful referendum for its independence from the Empire. Emily had honored the result, and as a result, the northern end of Gristol was now occupied by the city-state of Redmoor. It was a strange feeling, but Corvo thought he might be slightly responsible for the city’s new status and situation. He also felt in some way that he belonged more there than he ever truly had in Dunwall. So he bid farewell to Emily, sure this time that they would speak again, and went home to Redmoor.

He was welcomed with open arms.

***

“How have I become a hero?” Corvo asked the Outsider, five years after his first moment as an accidental prophet. They’re alone in the bedroom of his house in Redmoor, away from all the people who would speak with him or write down the things he said. “Who decided that I, the most idiotic man in the Isles, should be a hero?”

“Ah, there you have the age-old paradigm,” the Outsider said with a smile. “Those who are the first to overthrow law and custom are wicked at first. But the law cannot be reinstated later, and when the practices change, the new order of things is accepted. Then history begins its pageant, and the wicked man becomes righteous. And so it goes.”

Corvo shook his head, pulling the Outsider down beside him on the bed. “I never meant it.”

“Never meant what?”

“To cause so much trouble.”

“But you saw it through,” the Outsider said, cold lips against Corvo’s jaw. “You began it, and you ended it, though even I can’t foretell a true ending of everything.”

He was as gentle as always, when he pushed the Outsider back onto the bed, leaning over him as carefully as if the Outsider were made of the same human stuff as Corvo. “There was no one else I’d have done it for.”

The Outsider gazed at him, pitch-black eyes unreadable except for the faint silver rings of his irises, only visible in certain lights. “I know,” he said. His fingers tangled in Corvo’s hair, reeling him in as surely as if Corvo were caught in a net. “Do you regret it?”

“Never,” Corvo said, and kissed him, long and deep.

Chapter Text

Corvo Attano is seventy-four years old.

He is hale, healthy and strong; the Outsider’s Mark has given him some degree of supernatural vitality. By wit and cunning, he’s avoided ever being elected governor of Redmoor, and he’s still doing just fine at avoiding having to actually preach at people. He writes, obviously; essays and polemics and letters are a form of fighting that doesn’t require physical labor that Corvo can no longer perform.

His hair is white, and his skin is lined, and he wears spectacles all the time now. People assure him that he’s no less handsome. Corvo isn’t sure he cares, much: the only lover he’s had in the last thirty-five years has no regard for physical appearance. Still, it’s reassuring to look in the mirror and see that he hasn’t changed too much.

The world is not precisely at peace. Three years after the Miracle at Whitecliff, a new super-radical sect preaching a doctrine of separation from the world arose. Their civil disobedience brought a crackdown from the Empire, and, in order to escape that, they had followed in the wake of explorers to sail to Pandyssia. Their colonies, far away from Imperial navies and hostile Overseers, had slowly grown, and now others, much less religious and much more interested in the natural bounty of the continent, are slowly beginning to follow. Despite the danger, they’re seeing some success establishing footholds.

Fighting across the isles has died down. Even Tyvia has come to conclusions regarding its many sects and factions, and although the island is split into twelve parts, there is little to no open warfare these days. The Abbey endured a period of major internal tumult, and had come out with doctrines that are now a little less extreme. Much of Gristol retains its allegiance to the Strictures, as do the city-states of Wei-Ghon and Saggunto.

Morley and Tyvia have entirely departed the Empire, along with the city-state of Redmoor where Corvo still resides. Wei-Ghon had stayed loyal to the Empire, and Serkonos ultimately had as well. There is tension in the air, still, as if this “peace” is only an absence of war. Corvo isn’t really sure that there will ever be a true peace in the isles—but then, knowing all he knows now, he’s not sure that there ever was to begin with.

And there is little he can do about it. He is not the force of change he once was. He has been called upon, of course, many times: he’s still got quite a bit of reputation, and is the First Prophet of the Outsider besides. But Corvo is no longer on the front lines of the fight. He last went to Dunwall two years ago to see Emily, and to meet with a woman who had met the Outsider in a dream and been gifted his Mark. She had ideas about change in Dunwall and in the Empire at large, and Emily seemed inclined to listen. That woman would be the future, not Corvo. And he was happy with that. He had never wanted the stage at all.

Daud vanished six years ago. Rumor says that he got aboard a ship to Pandyssia; Billie Lurk, who had come to see Corvo, said that he passed in his sleep, and that he didn’t want to be lauded in death for what he wasn’t in life. Corvo wants the same.

He’s tired, lately. The Outsider seems nervous around him, almost snappish when Corvo mentions his age. Corvo is quite at peace with the fact that this is the end of his life. Thirty-five years he has carried this Mark, and it’s beginning to wear on him.

The Outsider refuses to admit that Corvo might be old, though, and Corvo finds it strangely sweet. He’s sure that he will be forgotten, when he dies. He’ll become another of the Outsider’s stories, told with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence, to someone else bearing the Mark. Not even a footnote, in the history of the Outsider. And Corvo is content with that, too. What he feels is not what a god feels, and that’s still more than enough.

It’s evening, and the sun is setting to the west of Redmoor. Corvo looks out at the sky, red as a banner. “Tomorrow will be a fine day,” he says.

He sits down for just a moment. Tomorrow he has an appointment with a historian from Samara, who wants to write a biography of the First Prophet. Corvo thinks it’s ridiculous, but he’s going all the same. His papers are on the desk, page after page he’s written about the Outsider, for his reference. Corvo has never in his life kept a journal, and those words are the closest he has to a record of his life.

That it’s a record of the Outsider is somehow fitting.

Shadows slide across the wall, rippling like light on the sea. It’s hypnotic. Comforting. He thinks he can hear the song of whales, somewhere in the distance. Funny, that: there haven’t been whales off the coast of the Isles in years, from too much hunting. He must be hearing memories.

After a while, Corvo closes his eyes.

***

He wakes up in the Void.

It takes him a moment to determine where he is. He’s on the ground, propped up, head resting on the Outsider’s chest. The Outsider’s arms are around him, and he feels…warm.

“Hello, Corvo,” the Outsider murmurs.

Corvo isn’t particularly inclined to move. “This is a good dream,” he says.

“It’s not—it’s not a dream,” the Outsider says.

The catch in his voice makes Corvo take notice. He sits up and the Outsider lets him. And that’s when Corvo notices just where in the Void they are. This is his room in Redmoor, dark and quiet and cold.

And he’s still there.

It’s a strange experience, to see his own body. He looks relatively peaceful, drowned in the strange light of the Void. Corvo looks down at his hands and sees that they’re younger, the way they looked when he was in his fifties. A nice touch. He’d never really stopped feeling that young.

He turns to the Outsider. “This is goodbye, isn’t it?”

The Outsider stares back at him. “No,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

“This is my final gift,” the Outsider says. “I would let you stay here. With me. In the Void. You will not age, and you will not…die.”

Corvo feels a surge of pity. He takes the Outsider’s hands. They’re so warm, and it’s strange, but good. “It’s time,” he says. “I’m ready.”

The Outsider shakes his head. “You might as well ask the tides to renounce the moon,” he murmurs. His eyes shine eerily.

“You should let me go,” Corvo says gently. What kind of sacrifice had it taken, to bring him here? What had the Outsider done?

“I won’t,” the Outsider says. His hand rests against Corvo’s cheek. “There were many futures for you, and many futures for me. And in none but this did you sacrifice so much for me. Your family, your liberty, the whole of an Empire, and all thrown over for me. Do you understand? I have had prophets before, but never—”

His voice breaks off. He looks rattled, unsettled, even afraid—and Corvo doesn’t know what to do with that. He knows what to say, of course; it’s long past time. Years he’s been carrying the burden, years he’s tried to avoid explaining exactly why he’d contradicted the High Overseer all that time ago.

What’s the point in hiding anymore?

The whale-song echoes in the Void around them. Corvo feels weightless.

“I love you,” he says.

The Outsider is utterly still. “This is difficult, when you’re a god,” he says at last. “Mortals pass so quickly, dying as fast as a butterfly in a garden. I would have regretted your passing.”

“Then I didn’t love in vain, at least,” Corvo says. And he means it. Having even the chance to feel this way—it’s an unimaginable gift.

“You misunderstand,” the Outsider says. “Difficult does not mean impossible.”

“…what?”

“I have known since the moment I laid my eyes on you,” the Outsider says. “Fascination became obsession became something more. You sacrificed an empire for me, and became a prophet in my name, not because you ever wanted power but because you wanted me. I spent four thousand years in the Void. Alone. Wanted only for what I could give. And then you came. You gave, and you gave, and you gave, and you never asked for anything.”

Corvo shakes his head. “That can’t be unique…”

“I have a very long memory,” the Outsider says. He leans forward, resting his forehead against Corvo’s. “You are unique, Corvo. And that is why I love you.”

***

For a long time, he’s content to walk the Void with the Outsider. He knows his legacy: his body was found when he didn’t turn up for the meeting with the historian from Samara. He was publicly mourned and given a state funeral, buried to the shock of the Empire in the tomb of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin. His writings were found where he left them on his desk and published, unedited: the consequences of that remain to be seen.

Time passes strangely in the Void. Sometimes Corvo thinks it’s been a century and seconds have gone by in the world; other times, he blinks and a decade flies by. He doesn’t mind. The Void is open to him, now, and he takes full advantage of the ability to explore it. There are no lakes of diamond, no gardens. Only impressions of the past and present and future, broken motes of earth hanging forever in the Void. He need only think and he arrives where he wants to be.

Over time he begins to realize that there is some semblance of a center and something that might be an edge. Once—only once—the Outsider takes Corvo to that edge, to the place where his physical body remains. For a long time after that, they stay in a room that’s an impression of the one Corvo had in Dunwall Tower, the Outsider securely protected in Corvo’s arms.

And eventually they go out again. Corvo follows the Outsider, watching mortals, his prophets, his agents of change. He watches Emily abdicate in favor of her son, a solemn young man who holds no religion at all, and therefore is popular with everybody. Emily and her husband Wyman remain in Dunwall Tower, but not as Empress and her consort. It appears that her story will end happily. Other stories don’t end so well, and for all of them the Outsider tells of what might have been, laying out for Corvo the possible futures they might have carried. And then they move on.

This is the life-after-death, and Corvo doesn’t expect it to change.

He is, as usual, entirely wrong.

***

The colony of Whitland on the edge of Pandyssia is a latter-generation colony, which means it’s not quite as fanatical as some of the earlier colonies. These settlers came not for religion, but for financial opportunity. There are no indigenous people in this part of the continent; though, as Corvo has come to know, these settlers will eventually explore so far that they may very well meet the people who still live here. It’s a place of interest and great change. Someday, new bearers of the Mark on both sides of the conflict will be forced to discover the truth of themselves, and that will be an interesting time indeed.

For tonight, though, he and the Outsider are standing in the Void in a small house in Whitland, watching a family gathered around the sickbed of the youngest daughter.

They are praying for her, desperate prayers to the Outsider, to anyone who’s listening. They don’t know, of course, that their god is standing by and waiting. They won’t, until the oldest daughter cries herself to sleep tonight and wakes up the next morning with a fire in her heart and a Mark on her hand.

“Her choices are many,” the Outsider had explained. “There are many ends. Will she chase a cure for this sickness and venture deeper into the continent, thus initiating contact with the native people, or return to the Empire to seek a cure through science, or…well. We’ll see, won’t we?”

Corvo knows the moment the little girl draws her last breath. It takes a moment for the family to realize, but then the crying and screaming begins. Corvo’s heart aches. He can still feel, and he does, deeply and often. Maybe he hasn’t been in the Void long enough, or maybe it’s because of the manner of his entry. Either way.

He doesn’t expect to see the little girl on the bed sit up, leaving her body behind. This is new—he’s never been present at the actual moment of someone’s death. She’s visibly disoriented, looking around; when she sees her crying family and looks down at her own body, she begins to sob. Corvo can’t stand by and watch.

Two steps bring him to the side of the bed. He kneels and takes her small hands. “Hey. Look at me,” he says. “It’s going to be all right.”

She’s already fading at the edges, going out of focus as her soul returns to the Void. “I don’t know where I am,” she sobs.

“You’re safe,” Corvo says. “I promise. Come here.”

The little girl launches herself into his arms and clings to him, sobs deteriorating into sniffles. He rocks her back and forth and strokes her hair. She doesn’t say anything to him, and fades before he can say anything else. When she’s gone, he stands up and finds the Outsider watching him.

“Somehow,” the Outsider murmurs, “you still manage to surprise me, Corvo.”

***

It happens again and again and again. Corvo hears the last confessions of murderers on the gallows, takes razors from the hands of those who took their own lives, listens to the last memories of elders dying in bed. Everyone, regardless of who they are and how they died, as many as he can reach.

He tries to make the passing easier, less lonely. The Outsider has only chosen him, and Corvo doesn’t understand why—but this is a purpose. This is a meaning, and he refuses to let it go.

The last time that Corvo sees Emily, he is holding her as she fades away into the Void.

Not all passings are easy, even for him.

***

“An assassin becomes lord becomes a prophet becomes a god,” the Outsider murmurs, his lips against Corvo’s. “Who would ever have thought? Six words, and the whole world changes.”

“Two words,” Corvo corrects.

The Outsider’s eyes narrow. “Oh?”

Corvo leans in close, whispering in the Outsider’s ear. “Hello, Corvo,” he says. “If you had never said that…I would never have had a reason to throw those words back in his face.”

“You are a god,” the Outsider says, “and it was all your own choice. There was a future where you said not a word, and I was brought back to the world as a man again at the hand of Billie Lurk. There was a future where you never brought Emily back from her stony prison and raised yourself up as a tyrant, and kept me by your side as a lover and consort. A future where you never loved Jessamine, and Emily was never born. A future where you never left Karnaca. And more, and more, so many that I could never have predicted them all.”

“And in every one of those, you would have given me your Mark?” Corvo asks.

The Outsider kisses him. That’s answer enough.

***

Corvo would also like this to be very clear: he did not mean to become a god.

***

A drowning sailor whose soul slips halfway into the Void encounters him before air is forced back into their lungs.

He crosses paths with a man shot by a thief, saved at the last second by a bystander who knows how to tie a tourniquet.

A mother who nearly dies in childbirth finds him by her bed, holding her hand, before she is pulled back to the world of the living.

The stories begin to spread.

***

They call him the Protector.