The night before the Empress is to die, Corvo Attano dreams of the Void.
He's kneeling on shattered rock, wrapped in the starless sky, and stares out into the pieces of memory and probability. It's a dream, and it feels too real. He's never doubted his senses. Instinct kept him alive on the streets of Karnaca; skill keeps his Empress and his daughter safe in Dunwall.
"I didn't expect you here early," says a voice like sea-current and silk.
The Outsider sits crosslegged on a spar of voidstone, elegant and languid; their black hair is stylishly mussed, their deathless eyes amused. "So often it's trauma that leads people here. Longing. Vengeance." They lean forward, a wry smile on their thin lips. "People pray to my shrines and seek answers in bones."
Corvo watches the Outsider flatly. "What do you want?"
The Outsider flies apart: eel-like sparks, specks of ash. They appear behind Corvo again, lounging upright against a broken spar. "I don't want anything, directly."
Corvo's not amused. He wants to wake up; leave this place, find himself in his bunk on the ship bed...or another's. He doesn't visit the sailor often. Doesn't even know the man's name. Safer for them both that way. It's a long journey back to Dunwall.
"Would you do anything to protect your Empress?" the Outsider murmurs, flickering to stand beside Corvo.
There's only, ever, one answer to that. "Yes." He turns, hand dropping to his side where he no longer carries a sword in his dreams. "You threaten her and I'll—"
The Outsider laughs. It's the sound of distant whalesong and the crinkling of expensive paper bunched in a fist. "I don't threaten anyone, Corvo. But I will offer you something. A gift. My help."
"Don't need your help," Corvo says, uncertain despite his brusque front. He's dreamed before: seen blood, Jessamine's body broken on the terrance, his daughter screaming as she's dragged away. Not premonitions. Just possibilities. He's the Royal Protector. It's his duty to imagine, and to prevent any part of his fears from becoming reality.
"Think of it as a tool in your arsenal," the Outsider says with a smile. "I've watched you a long time."
Lots of people have. Enemies, allies. Lovers. Corvo shrugs.
"If you wish to protect your Empress, take my mark. Take the power I offer so you need never hold her heart in your hand."
It's just a dream, Corvo tells himself. He knows better; knows, and still hesitates. He will do anything he must to keep his loved ones safe. What price won't he pay, in the end? He can hide scars, so no one will know what he's done.
Corvo says, "Fine."
The back of his left hand burns and then he's no longer dreaming as the dawn stretches through the boat cabin's round window and he smells the salt and knows he's almost home.
Daud watches the Empress and her Royal Protector from his vantage point high on a roof. He's tired. Didn't sleep much. The mark on his hand, that black-eyed bastards's mark, burned all night. The doubts come, like they do. Is this what he wants his legacy to be? Assassin of the Empress? Deliverer of a child into the hands of a coup?
He'll have to kill the Royal Protector, too. It'll be mercy. Daud still remembers how to show it.
All this for coin. He sighs. Soon it'll be over. A job finished; maybe a new future. If he lives. Sometimes, when the doubts come, he wonders how different his career would have been if he'd refused the Outsider.
Another corpse in another street, likely. That's all his life really is, isn't it: corpses and streets. He used to want more and has never let himself believe—not really—that he deserves it.
One of his assassins turns her head toward him. Signs, Ready?
Daud gives the signal. It's time for the Empress to die.
Corvo's arms ache with the desire to pull Jessamine close, feel her strong hands on his back, the warmth of her heartbeat against his ribs. He bows, instead. Keeps it professional: the public lie that he's only her bodyguard. How many whispers drift in alleys and between the gossiping lips of nobles at parties of how he's fucking the empress in closets, on the roof, in the dungeons of Dunwall.
Not that any of that's a lie...he holds this gnawing irritation, a thought tucked deep and private, that he wishes the rumors wouldn't condense it only into fucking. He loves her. In another life, perhaps, he wouldn't have to hide.
Jessamine turns, unspooling the letter he's carried. Her voice bears sorrow as she reads the news. She's speaking but suddenly he's not listening.
Corvo's neck prickles. Something's wrong in the air. A hum like Sokolov's machines—electric, unnatural. The soldiers have disappeared from their posts. Emily is staring up at her mother, frowning.
Time itself feels slow, muddied and gray-tinged, stretching out like the Void.
His left hand aches. He looks down: the glove hides the brand left in his skin, more than a dream. He senses magic—a second later masked figures blink into the gazebo.
He kills two assassins before they can get within reach of Jessamine or Emily. Instinct. Habit. Rage. He cuts down a third as a man in a red coat appears on the gazebo and time...stutters.
Power thrums under the assassin's skin: Void magic. He moves out of sync with reality, too fast for mortal reflexes. Corvo flings his hand out, willing the Outsider's mark to pull the man to him, onto his blade. The assassin lifts a palm. Light flares between them. The friction burns against his mind, like wind-flung dust abrading his skin.
Corvo sprints forward. In his peripheral vision, he sees the Lord Regent and soldiers suspended in mid-stride, mouths agape in shock.
He will kill everyone—everything—that threatens his family. He pulls on the Void-magic inside him and lashes out at the master assassin. Daud—and he knows, a heartbeat surge of rage and understanding, that this is Daud—clenches his fist and magic meets magic.
Corvo feels pressure wrapping them both, tearing at their bodies and sense of what is whole, of what is real. And then the magic explodes.
The shockwave knocks everyone in the gazebo flat. Corvo's vision spins, and he realizes a second too late he's caught in the air, a fly in an unseen web. Daud is beside him. They're falling, both of them, down towards the rocks and the sea.
Time expands again, a lung expanded after held breath, then wind tugs at Corvo's hair and clothes and teeth as he falls.
He hits the water, plunges into salt and cold, and in an instant before blackness swallows him—soft and wet as a whale's mouth—he swears he can hear the Outsider's laugh.