“I would give you a boon,” the Outsider announces and Corvo startles and drops the chunk of bread he had been contemplating tiredly.
The Outsider had not been and then he is, as simple as always, a twist of shadows and then a man who is not a man walking on feet that don’t touch the ground.
He should look out of place, pallid and wan against the rich colors of tapestries and firelight. It’s almost unfair how instead the color seems to leach from the walls behind him, the warm light going cold where it touches him. As always, so removed. When the firelight flickers the light that exaggerates the hollows of the Outsider’s cheeks remains steady.
“You what?” he asks without thinking and then cringes while trying not to look quite so much like he is.
“You have done me a service,” the Outsider explains, just a hint of disapproval as though explaining pains him. “I understand it’s a human tradition.”
Corvo stares at him. The Outsider looks on impassively.
A service, that’s true. Smashing the dilapidated purple dens of scattered enclaves of fevered worshippers, rooting out their leadership. Worshippers of the Outsider and yet the Outsider had commanded him murder, or else some other equally miraculous thing to destroy the cult. He had lost no small amount of blood and sweat in devising an alternative to the murder.
“Of course, if you want nothing,” The Outsider says when Corvo doesn’t answer and there is the impression he’s turning away though he makes no motion at all. Theatrics, anyway. The Outsider knows he has more wants than a starving man, just as he knows that none of them will be granted to him. This is only another diversion.
The Outsider will not give him Jessamine back. He won't ensure Emily safety and a peaceful reign. There will be no unmaking of the Plague of Rats.
“It hardly seems like I’ve done something to be worthy a favour,” he hedges, trying to roll the words around in his mouth before he allows them. He's no good at it, understanding the hidden meanings, but he'd like to avoid offense all the same. He likes his bits where they are. “I don't see the purpose of it.”
The Outsider moves to the window and if Corvo doesn't look down it's almost easy to ignore that his feet are inches from the flagstone.
“How fickle and how predictable you are, humans,” The Outsider muses. The sun is almost all the way down and the sky is lurid purple and blue. Those colors don't leach. They frame his shoulders and the ragged incompleteness of his shadow. “Worshipping that which you have no way of understanding in hopes of gaining some morsel of power.”
Something in the outline of him that Corvo can't quite clearly make out writhes uneasily.
“People whisper that my mask is a worship of you,” Corvo hazards. “And yet I still wander, performing miracles.”
“It does not do to have you remember rats but forget the gods,” the Outsider says, as if it's any kind of answer. Corvo moves cautiously to stand at his shoulder, turns his eyes to the fading sunset.
You vain, mad thing, he thinks and it's not a blasphemy he's in a hurry to speak aloud but there's a certain measure of something to the thought that could be fondness if he doesn't look at it too closely.
“So I remain,” he surmises aloud.
“Your boon,” the Outsider reminds him. An edge where there had been none before. Impatience, the impatience of immortals, and Corvo remembers very abruptly that he has particular attachment to keeping such things as eyeballs and tongues.
“I have often wondered about the color of the sky,” he says, grasping wildly for something harmless. Not untrue, anyway, idle wondering watching the sky change while waiting for a change of guard to give him opportunity.
“Do you want to know why the sky is blue, Corvo?” the Outsider asks and it is one of the rare times he isn't looking at Corvo when Corvo can examine him so closely.
He hardly looks like a god. He looks like a sick boy, wan and gaunt and thin-lipped with misery, wreathed in shadows. Corvo lays that blasphemous thought aside.
“I'm no man of the natural philosophy,” he begins guardedly and in a moment the Outsider is looking at him, though there had been no intervening moment of movement.
“The sky is blue,” he says, and on a lesser being Corvo would call his tone whimsical, “because it's black from very far away.”
He’s gone, shadows contracting around him and then undone as if he’d never been.
“That’s hardly an answer,” Corvo tells the fire sourly.
“Only you, Corvo,” Emily laughs and Corvo sighs. He feels entirely put-upon by the lack of urgency in Emily’s response.
“He offered me a boon,” he stresses again. Emily chuckles again and pats his knee. There is the air about the act that Corvo is being condescended to.
“And you asked him to explain the color of the sky to you, as if he were Piero on one of his wild tears,” she reminds him. “In return for destroying a cult that you say was growing more violent in its worship? And you did it bloodlessly. I hardly see the issue.”
Corvo frowns and gets up to pace a little. When he looks back Emily isn’t even paying him any attention anymore. There’s a pile of correspondence at her elbow and she’s penning her replies one by painstaking one.
They’re training her a secretary, but even with the girl’s assistance there are some letters that must be attended to personally. Corvo sighs to see her trapped inside and squinting down at the bleached parchment.
“I don’t like when he meddles,” he says at last. “It bodes ill.”
“You? Dislike something? Perish the idea.” Emily replies without looking up. “Though the servantry know that the only things you do love are clean sheets and a glass of whiskey,”
“And you,” Corvo replies and accepts the soft smile Emily gives him.
Dunwall drowns for a time.
The rains that come are heavy and Corvo supposes most dislike them - he hears the complaints of nobles and guardsmen alike - but he cherishes the quiet they bring. Only he and the rats seem to venture out in this rain, and even then only to scuttle from shelter to shelter.
He goes about in a heavy whaleskin coat with the hood up and in the dim stormlight, penning in his vision, it feels somewhat familiar.
The rains stay for a long, long time.
“Another service,” the Outsider says, and Corvo opens his eyes to the Void.
It takes him far too long to recognize the dim and diseased apartment off the Wrenhaven Bridge, warped as it is by the Void. Emptied of the rats and the dreck and the airs of shadow Granny Rags had left there even after she’d moved on. Lit in blue, seawater sluicing endlessly down the back wall.
“I’m listening,” Corvo says, which isn’t what he wants to say. No, he wants to say, but he knows better than to turn aside a god. He knows better than to pass up favor these days.
The Outsider walks on his own feet in this dream, though soundlessly. He follows silently as Corvo walks to the stairs and edges down them, past floating books and nonsensical flows of water. There had been a shrine here. Now there is only a vacant little rectangle of dirt and shreds of violet cloth slithering past him in motions uneasily serpentine.
“She was so clever, Madame Moray,” the Outsider says and Corvo turns to him. He sits on an upturned crate and watches, impassive. “But never clever enough.”
“Your errand?” he asks, and hopes his tone is polite. The Outsider seems to take no notice anyway. He’s reaching out to the fabric, twisting it through his fingers as it flows past. It takes no notice of him, as fabric is wont to do.
“There is a paper,” the Outsider says and looks at him at last with his black, black eyes. “A ritual. Vera knew it. I would prefer none else did.”
“And this paper-,” Corvo begins, means to ask for some helpful detail, but the Outsider is already fading.
“You’ll know it by the rats,” he says, and the dream fades.
He goes the next day cursing the Outsider the entire way, as he loads himself with vest and belt and sword, as he rides to Clavering in order to begin his search.
It’s hours, hours crawling through the ruin of the apartment, hours more down in the murk of the sewers. He finds corpses, of course. Old corpses, soft with rot, bones stained red with the old Plague. Weepers are rare in these days.
He continues his crawl. The way is marked with graffiti, the faded red scrawlings of Granny Rags, but more than that the rats swarm more thickly. No conscience, about killing them. He wades among them and does his best to keep vermin blood from his boots.
The swarms lead him to that old lair, in the end. He finds the paper under the old, rotting bed. The furnace is cold but he fancies he can smell bone burning. There are no more runes hissing at the foot of the decaying shrine but the gold thread woven into purple fabric still shines.
An old manuscript page. Old print, scrawled annotations in a hand he finds vaguely familiar. He doesn’t bother to read beyond the first two lines, enough to confirm they are a ritual. The ingredients mentioned make his stomach turn, and so he douses it in whale oil and strikes a match to it.
It burns as paper does. He crawls his way free of the sewers into the burning afternoon of the next day, still cursing the Outsider the entire way.
He takes the briefest of rests in the railcar back to Dunwall Tower and is not in any way surprised to swim up through the layers of dream and surface for a moment in the Void.
Empty space and old ruins turning, ever-tumbling through their little eternities. The Outsider seated beside him on the little disembodied railcar bench. Close enough for the bodily warmth that ought to be there to be prominent in its absence. He can smell an ocean storm coming, though there is no ocean.
“A simple service, and a simple reward,” the Outsider whispers into his head. Corvo watches a wall three stories high spin past in a elegantly weightless parabola. Something harmless, he thinks dimly. It’s been almost thirty hours since he’s last slept. But yes, he needs to ask for something harmless.
“I'd like to hear whalesong,” he says at last and is aware somehow of the moment the Outsider’s attention sharpens on him.
“Very well,” the Outsider says at last and the shadows of the Void grow darker, but Corvo thinks he isn't in any danger. “Not now, but soon. Soon.”
Corvo shrugs and the Outsider is gone.
He debriefs to Emily and their new Master of Spies, tells them the details of Granny Rag’s lair with all mentions of the Outsider carefully expunged. He glosses over the ritual, tells of a ruined and decaying shrine he had been careful to rip down. Emily watches him anyway, something sharp and knowing and a little concerned, but he’s fine with that. There’s exhaustion in his bones, deep and aching.
He’s too old for this, that's been obvious for some time. He’s too old to be hopping from rooftop to rooftop, possibly wouldn’t even be able to without the Mark on his hand and the Void kissing his skin as he roars through it.
He lays the thought aside. He’s known for a decade that this service would likely let him leave it in a coffin only; that he’s lasted so long is something he’s only grateful for. More time for his Emily, more time to cherish what he can of her childhood on their way to her full reign.
It’s past the twelfth hour when he finally drags his aching bones to bed, gets himself between the warm sheets and falls into sleep with only a lingering thought to apologize to the servants for leaving his clothes in a strewn trail to the bedside.
He wakes as he finds he’d been expecting, somehow, into the blue-grey heart of the Void.
The docks, or some fractured impression of them, spread to either side. Wood boards underneath him, frozen at the height of their decay. Water washing against the pier, and otherwise silence.
“You dream so seldom of Serkonos,” the Outsider says, monotonous and fading into Corvo’s ear as his projection fractures into being beside him. “But the docks serve well enough. Water, for whales.”
Corvo opens his mouth to say… something.
“Look,” the Outsider interrupts Corvo’s incoherent thoughts to say and he doesn’t point but his gaze is remote and when Corvo follows it-
The whale swims serenely through the amniotic nothingness of the Void and begins to sing.
Corvo can do nothing but stand in the nothingness and listen and bear witness to this vast creature, dwarfing him. The Outsider stands beside him and is silent as well and it's comforting in a way, to not be alone with this creature and its song.
The whale swings farther and farther away and the song grows fainter as it goes until it's lost in the tumble of the Void. There is silence then, as much silence as there could be here. Rock tumbles against rock. Magic sings to itself, the screaming hum of a bone charm. But the Outsider doesn’t speak.
“Thank you,” Corvo says at last, and feels the inadequacy of it in an acutely human way. The Outsider isn’t looking at him, he finds when he turns, is still staring into the Void. “I’ve never seen a… a healthy specimen.” A whale free of the hooks, free of its animal fear. He doesn’t say that.
The Outsider is quiet for a heartbeat of time and then his head tilts, entirely like a bird’s in its wondering curiosity.
“Perhaps I have given you something more than just the sound of whalesong,” he says, and his beetle-dark eyes are gleaming as still he stares after the vast whale, and Corvo grasps what must be the shape of his game even as the trap closes around him.
The Outsider finally looks at him as he draws in a ragged breath.
“What can I do,” he says, panicked.
He knows where this will lead. He knows the stories. He knows the Outsider’s violent reputation, the capricious and mercurial ebb of his attention and favour. He should have expected a game, should have seen this trap before it had closed around him, only he had thought of the Outsider asking if he’d wanted to know why the sky is blue and-
“If there’s aught I can do of service to repay you, I'll do it,” he continues.
The Outsider watches him for a long moment and then shakes his head. There's no real change to his face, his perpetual consumptive blankness, but in some way Corvo can still tell the Outsider is disappointed.
“No matter,” he says. “It is… shall we say it is a gift. No matter of repayment.”
Corvo draws in a breath through lungs that don't want to cooperate. The Outsider does not blink and does not breathe. He is exactly more and less than human. He only watches Corvo push back the tide of panic.
“You're sure,” he tests, stupid and foolish. “I owe you nothing.”
The Outsider turns away and the dream collapses inwards, water and metal and stone surging in and in.
“That is another matter entirely,” Corvo hears before he jolts awake in sheets wet with sweat.
There are some things he cannot evade, and the various parties he must accompany Empress Emily to are the worst of them. It’s necessary for her to play the social games but he hates it still. Hates that he can never be sure of intentions, must watch every movement.
Some seek him out to attempt a dance. His favor is sought after, he knows, though there is little true advantage in it. He rarely leaves his Empress’s side, less often dances. There is a certain amount of courage necessary to approach him, and he cultivates that, though this leaves him often with those too drunk or driven by desperation to care of the dangers.
This Boyle sister wears a mask, a perfect mask that draws deja vu from him in painful waves. He forces his spine straight anyway.
It’s unfashionable to be too close to the Boyles, just as it’s politically unwise to turn them out entirely. There are too many crimes committed in the interregnum, too much filth and fear, too much heresy and hatred. All is forgiven so long as it is not unforgivable and the remaining Boyles stand at the razor’s edge between the two. Corvo hates it so, but he lets it be because he’s given up on setting his body against the wheels of fate.
Corvo looks over the Boyle sister’s shoulder because he can’t look at his shoes as he wants to.
“Darling Corvo,” she croons, her breath sour with wine, and Corvo decides she’s most likely Waverly. Waverly is ever the lush these days, and it’s painful to see, but he has no aid to offer and she wouldn’t accept anyway.
“Waverly,” he tries, and she laughs with a trill like a bird.
“Clever Corvo,” she say and lays a hand on his arm. “So clever you are! You could always tell us apart, couldn’t you!”
“You’re drunk,” he says gently. “Let me find you some water.”
“A pity,” she says, still laughing, that laughter like the titter of birds. “A pity you are not more clever. But darling Corvo is more stubborn than clever, hmm?”
“Miss Boyle, please,” he tries and her nails turn to claws against the meat of his forearm.
“You, you clever stupid man,” she breathes and there is such bitterness there that it drowns out the wine entirely. “A dog for aught to point and let go the leash, aren’t you? A dog and a bone, such a clever dog!”
He bites down on the anger. He bites down on the howl that presses up from his chest, the ugly swell of it, the way he aches to strike out at the senseless hurt dealt to him. He swallows it down. He turns away from it.
“You need to go now, Miss Boyle,” he says, as soft as he can, and beckons the nearest Watchman over.
“They should have put you down, Corvo,” she murmurs in his ear and then there’s a hand on her shoulder, drawing her inexorably away. “Like all the rest of the hounds!”
He dreams of a hand against his shoulder. It’s a soft hand. It presses there, not down, it doesn’t press him down. It only insists on the fact of its touch and the fact of its existence. He dreams it stays there and he dreams he curls up under the weight of it and the relief.
Another mission. Always, it seems, there is another mission.
Long ago in Serkonos he had longed for that. Longed to be of use, to have a service he believed in. He still stands in that service.
It is only difficult, sometimes. Monotonous. It seems it always ends in some grand drawing room, a snoring body by a fire, averted blood running stainlessly from his hands. He will not kill. He has made that vow, to himself and to the Heart he refuses to carry any longer. He won’t kill. He’s more than a sword.
He pauses for a moment. There is no guard to change, he’s laced their meal well with sedative. Hours yet, before any but he stirs on the manor grounds. He sits himself in the plush well of a fancy chair and lets the fire warm his feet.
“You think the price of peace is your own happiness,” the Outsider says to him softly. The fire flickers behind him. If it weren’t for the Outsider, it would seem his own rooms. There must be a shrine nearby, or else some purpose to this mission that serves the Outsider, to bring him calling. Corvo finds he doesn’t care.
“Self-sacrificing Corvo. Ever so ready to hand over the last ounce of flesh if it means that peace will come.”
“I’m not stupid, Outsider,” Corvo grunts, and doesn’t bother moving from the slump. The fire is no longer warm but he’ll bet it’ll be so again, when the Outsider has said his piece.
“If you could,” the Outsider muses, and Corvo lets his head loll against the soft cushion to look in his direction. He’s seated at the piano, Corvo discovers, hands poised over the keys in some mockery of the playing position. “If it were possible. What would be your peace?”
“A good fucking night's sleep,” Corvo tells him and it's beyond him to rein in the curse, and the Outsider must know that because he doesn't comment, his expression doesn't flicker beyond a slow nod.
Corvo doesn’t comment. Either the Outsider means something or he doesn’t, and nothing Corvo can do will change either outcome.
The Outsider keeps pace with Corvo for a time, as he limps his way home. Always standing at the corner of his vision, watching him Blink from balcony to ductwork, keeping to the shadows of the alleys. He follows for longer than Corvo is accustomed to but he says nothing and he’s faded into the itching feeling of eyes at the back of his neck by the time Corvo makes it to Dunwall Tower.
His body hurts. His thoughts have ceased their spin and all that’s left to him is the dull plod up the stairs. At least there are no servants about, and those guards he meets only nod to him and say nothing.
He arrives at his room with a sigh of aching relief. The fire is banked. The sheets are turned down. The halls are silent and there's a cup of water by the side of his bed.
“Sleep, then, dear Corvo,” the Outsider says. The room is empty. Corvo knows he appears to be alone, just as he knows that is untrue. “Nothing will disturb you tonight.”
He dreams of nothing.
“A fucking fool’s errand,” he mumbles, crouched in the adjoined bathroom of a dusty guest bedroom of the Crawford manor house, and he still has only room for ten of Piero’s damned sleeping darts, which he'd all used. He's left waiting for the couple murmuring sweet nothings on the bed to fall asleep so he can go and be done with it.
The promised evidence of treachery had evaporated into baseless accusations, as most did. The papers in the safe, more concerned with evading the censorship of the Abbey than any attempt on Emily's life, are none of his concern in their folly.
He is not expecting anyone to be listening; there's only one that would be, anyway, but it surprises him less that it should when the bone charms strung across his chest under his coat buzz once softly.
“You enjoy watching, I do not,” he murmurs to them and sighs heavily when they remain silent.
Cursed to another hour of lonely boredom, then.
“It still worries me,” he says. Emily nods.
“I'm beginning to find it unsettling as well, you know,” she tells him. He looks at her sharply, finds her with her eyes tracing the coast of Pandyssia where it's been sketched uncertainty on their table map. “More so, the longer it goes.”
Corvo sits back and watches her reach out to trace the border of Morely. Thoughts swirl in his head like schools of fish, unhelpful and scattered and useless.
“I could ask him his purpose,” he ponders aloud. “He might answer.”
“The Outsider, to give a simple answer? Steady, Corvo.”
“You're right,” he sighs. She shrugs and moves to stand.
“There's naught to do, in any case. I'm content so long as he seems satisfied putting you to minor errands.”
Corvo carefully doesn't remind her that the Outsider’s minor errands have already nearly crippled him several times. She has enough worries.
“Dinner, then, instead of these pointless worries,” he says and offers an arm to her relieved nod.
He chokes an assassin and forces his hand to let go of the man’s throat before his life ends, though it’s difficult. He binds the man’s hands instead and lets the guard escort him to Coldridge, leaving the contents of his pockets to Corvo.
He can feel the pulse thrumming under his palm still, phantom, reminding him distantly of another Heart he’d held once. He ignores that and spends a moment riffling through the meager collection of the assassin’s pockets.
Money. The man had been hired, and he’ll need to find by whom. A poison Corvo only just manages to deflect his thoughts from contemplating in their consequences. He’s seen one Empress bloodied on unforgiving stone floors, and he will never see another even if it costs his own life. Otherwise, only useless papers and pointless trinkets.
Below the assassin’s former perch the ball goes on, the skirts of dancing woman and the flash of polished shoes winking up at him. Emily leads the dances, so graceful. He lets himself settle his heavy weight against the wood of the rafters, just for a moment, and watches.
He takes his breakfast in his rooms so that he can work through the morning before the meetings. It’s only a little to avoid the way his nerves snap at the tread of boots outside his door. He knows the threat has abated as much as it ever does; it’s only his paranoia now.
The maid comes to fetch him eventually, brings him to the meeting room to stand at Emily’s shoulder while the representative of the Abbey drones on about the future of their alliance.
Empty words. Emily knows it as well as Corvo knows it, if not better. There will be no easy alliance when one of the men in the room stands a barely-secret branded heretic. He smiles into the face of the deputy, a politely horrible smile he’s learned well for how gazes avoid his face when he wears it.
“The cults are in retreat,” the Overseer insists, “we are having some effect. It’s necessary to press the advantage.”
Dull, Corvo thinks and it’s an echo of the Outsider’s voice. He doesn’t flinch from it. He only swallows it down.
Someone is screaming.
He pauses in scaling the damnable tower stairs to listen. It’s faint in his ear and he frowns, turns his head to try to pinpoint the location because there are precious few good reasons for someone to be screaming in Dunwall Tower, but the sound seems to bounce from the wall as he turns so it’s always behind him, always behind and a little to the left.
He moves towards the stair to head down, where he thinks the screaming must be from, but his foot goes through-
He slams into the rock with a force that leaves him curling up into himself and groaning for a long moment, stifling the noise in his fist.
Seasalt, he smells that first and relaxes. Sea air and black oil smoke and ozone like the aftermath of a storm.
He’s in the Void, somehow. He gets up with difficulty, the pain fading as the Void takes truer hold of him but body still heavy with the confusion of the fall. It’s an undertaking to move at all and he does it with judicious slowness. It takes him too long to realize that the screaming is still with him.
Faint screaming, a howling animal scream of pain and fear that sets his heart pounding when he registers it at last. He turns to take in his surroundings in a whirl, looking for familiarity or some sign of the Outsider. He’s never far from Corvo, never strays from the opportunity to play cryptic games.
He stands in some ruined stone building, high arched windows and half a roof all that remains. Outside, a tempest rages. He is utterly alone.
A distance away that might be measured in years of travel, two rock behemoths are colliding. Everywhere the water that Corvo remembers pouring so politely in its endless waterfalls is sluicing, driven by wind that doesn’t touch him but whips the fabric bolted to other little earthen islands in the Void.
Disarray. He’s never seen this, and still the animal scream continues with no break for breath.
He turns in its direction, easier to fathom now that he stands in the correct realm. There are ruins between him and where the screaming is coming from, more little islands of stone and earth, more twisted ruins of metal and fabric and whalebone. They tumble horribly in the wind that doesn’t touch Corvo but it’s enough to Blink his way in that direction and so he goes.
The storm is terrible. It doesn’t touch him, but there is no predictability to the way it throws the little rocks he uses to hop from island to island. It absorbs his focus, absorbs his energy until every jump leaves him panting for breath even in this soundless place.
He almost misses the little shape in the turmoil. It would have been easy, but there’s little of white in the Void and the flash of it catches his eye so he Blinks over before he really knows what he’s doing.
The twisted shape is the Outsider.
Curled in a hollow of what might have once been a throne but is now only a ruined, worn cradle. Knees to his chest, a pallid hand spiderlike in dark hair, the other clenching and unclenching against the rock and cleaving fragments free with every motion. The scream doesn’t come from him but he shudders with the rise and fall of it.
“Outsider,” Corvo hazards carefully.
The scream cuts off with the abruptness of an ejected audiograph. The sound dies as it shouldn’t in so vast a space, as if it had been removed from existence instead of fading away.
“You should not be here,” the Outsider says. He shifts, somehow, indecipherable motion until he’s looking at Corvo.
His voice is perfect as his projection is not. It flickers, the edges and planes of him shattering and remaking in flares of darting shadows. His eyes are so dark and glitter so, and his mouth is a blur as if it can’t decide if it’s speaking or not. His voice, though, his voice is a perfectly smooth disdain.
“Who screamed,” Corvo demands. Feet away two boulders slam into each other in a spray of rubble and mud and the crash of breaking rock.
The Outsider straightens.
“You need to go, Corvo,” he says, and his arms are suddenly behind his back. No intervening movement. A parody of his old aloof haughtiness. His outline still won’t firm, is more fishlike darting shadow than man.
“I can help them,” Corvo insists and steps forward.
The Outsider’s eyes are so, so wide. Wide and deep and glittering.
Go, he says, except there is no voice, there’s only whalesong and earth screaming against itself and he jerks to cover his ears.
He opens his eyes on the landing of the staircase. The Mark on his hand burns.
He attends fewer meetings in the stead of Emily, and instead stands at her shoulder in his former role. His knees don’t thank him for it but he’s happy all the same, happy to see Emily dart among the men vying for position and power like a cat among rats.
“What do you think?” she asks after, still. He thinks she’s doing wonderfully.
“You do me proud,” he says to her and her face lights up like a lantern and he can’t bring himself to tell her of what’s happening, still. Can’t tell her of strange screaming and the storms in the Void. He’ll find a way. He always has.
They got the children, Cecelia’s note says. Get them out.
There’s an address too, a fucking noble’s manor, and some details to keep the innocents separate from the guilty. Corvo’s grateful, even as he lays the neat little note back down on the lovely, creamy envelope it had come in with tired hands.
Cecelia, mischievous Cecelia. Corvo rubs his eyes and wishes that things were different and she didn’t have to ask this of him. Saving children from monsters; he’s always been remarkably good at that, it seems.
He’ll do it gladly, of course.
In the end it’s almost easy except that it leaves his mouth sour with bile and his chest creaking with rage. Children in crates like dogs. He spares the innocent, cages the guilty in the crates and nails the evidence of their crimes to the manor door because he will not kill, he won’t spill more blood. The children Samuel takes, and it’s another bitter dose of memory to see him and his little boat waiting at the docks.
“Nice to see you again,” Samuel says, and he doesn’t comment on the mask that Corvo wears, and that’s a kindness.
He finds the shrine in a forgotten little basement. He would have missed it entirely, except a maid had been whispering of voices heard through the wall and he’d had a moment of terror at some little one trapped starving in the dark. A simple matter to go looking, to find the door hidden behind a hollow barrel.
No children here. Only rich purple brocade and golden embroidery thread, dark iron and driftwood and whalebone. A hissing rune and a Mark on the back of his hand that pulses like an infection.
He thinks about just leaving it, walking away from it and forgetting the temptation, and as he’s waging that inner war the world slips sideways anyway.
“In their own way they are so interesting, the machinations of men who claim to be noble.”
The Outsider watches him, hovering impossibly, inscrutable and impeccable.
“It isn't right,” he manages at last, struggling to swallow down the swell of bitterness, of righteous anger. There’s bloodrage in his veins, pounding and shrieking to make the men who’d stolen children to be sold like animals pay for what they’d done. It aches bitterly in the base of his throat.
“What men do with power is rarely right,” the Outsider counters carelessly. There’s no way to decipher the existence of sympathy in the blankness of his gaze, if it even exists at all.
“This shrine,” Corvo tries. His tongue feels clumsy. “You encourage them-?”
“Built by a madwoman. I give them no power and no suggestion,” the Outsider cuts him off sharply. “Would you be so dull as to assume I am what is needed to invoke cruelty? You know better.”
For a moment there is blood and ozone and cooking flesh in his nose. Iron at his wrists. Harsh Coldridge stone under his knees and hands on him, hands with no mercy and less humanity. He blinks away the sense memory.
“Still,” he presses on hoarsely. “You could stop them.”
It occurs to him that he is arguing with a god. It occurs to him that the Outsider has taken eyes for less, and that there is nothing but capricious whim keeping him safe. Pensive though the Outsider seems to be Corvo is testing him.
The Outsider is quiet for a time.
“Perhaps I could,” he says. His voice is heavy. The shadows of the room are darker, or seem so. Corvo tries not to shiver. “I could walk their dreams, build them obsessions more to your taste. So you would have me comb the thoughts of every man for the hint of evil? Take their choices from them and lead them by the nose to compliance, hmm?”
Corvo bites his cheek until blood wells, salt and bitter. Helpless, this anger. Sour, festering anger that he knows like his own face in the mirror, centered on the Outsider because he can't bring himself to think of from where it truly comes.
“You mistake me for the Abbey,” the Outsider says at last. “If you must preach morality to me, understand what you have asked of me.”
There must be a way, he aches to say, but he swallows it down. He's tested a god’s patience enough.
“Is there anything else?” he asks. The Outsider regards him.
“I think not,” he says at last. “So interesting, what you do with your power. Goodbye for now, Corvo.”
He vanishes and takes with him some warmth from Corvo’s chest. He takes the rune as poor repayment.
As a matter of course the Lord Spymaster comes into possession of several crates of scrimshaw and whalebone witchery.
Most of it is nothing of interest, clumsy forgeries that hold no power except the power to greatly offend the Overseers, but at the bottom of the second crate are two hissing runes that tug at the edges of Corvo’s vision. He does his best not to look.
He sends word to the High Overseer that the Tower has come into possession of contraband to be burned in the Abbey’s great furnaces, and makes no attempt to rescue the genuine articles. The time for buying the Outsider’s favor with bone charms is passed and done, his powers as great as his need these days.
There is no way for the hiss of their song to reach his awareness, four stories above the basement vault they hold the scrimshaw in. Nonetheless he dreams of it, hovering unpleasantly between awake and asleep.
The fog of the streets gives way to the soft blue haze of the Void so subtly he doesn't realize he's stumbling through it until he turns the corner and a vista of floating rock and endless depth confronts him.
He glances back over his shoulder, down the dark street. When he pulls his hand from the wound in his side it's wet and bloody but nothing fresh spatters the cobbles.
“You were reckless,” the Outsider says and it's his exhaustion that truly keeps him from jumping.
The Outsider watches him from the awning above, boots dangling into the air. He's frowning, eyebrows tilted cruelly and mouth pursed to match the displeasure of his tone.
“You complain my methods now,” Corvo says shortly and lowers himself heavily to the cobbles. His wound still hurts, though muted, and his head is pounding with blood loss. “Am I dying?”
The Outsider disappears in a swirl of ragged shadow and then is standing at his side. For the briefest moment Corvo fancies he feels something cool brush his cheek but when he tilts his head to look up the Outsider is frowning down at him with his arms crossed.
“You are,” he answers, and Corvo is ready to open his mouth and demand to be put back in his body when the Outsider continues. “You aren't to die, though. The Watch will find you in a moment and revive you. This will be only another scar, in a week's time.”
Corvo huffs out a breath and watches the Outsider’s head tilt to examine him.
“Damnable embarrassing,” he says and the Outsider’s frown deepens.
“You were reckless,” he says sharply.
“Is that not what you want?” Corvo answer. He’s aware of his own insolence but it’s been so long, a long set of years, and his body is bleeding out on the cobbles of a backwater alley north of Holger Square, and he is so tired. “Is it not more interesting that way?”
The Outsider looks down at him and some wind whips the fabric of the awning overhead abruptly. It’s soundless and doesn’t touch either of them in its violence. “You do not need to risk your life to be interesting to me, dear Corvo,” he says at last. “Death is… so very commonplace.”
A shingle hits the street a block away with the tinkle of breaking slate.
“You will live,” he continues as if a storm isn’t gathering overhead. “Return to your body. Rest.”
Corvo blinks and then he is choking on the taste of blood in his mouth and there’s someone standing over him asking him if he’s alright.
When she finds him in the sickroom Emily lectures for long enough that Corvo finishes the thin broth the doctor had bullied him into accepting. He sets the bowl aside when he’s finished and watches the shift of Emily’s face and pays no attention to her words at all.
She is afraid. So afraid her hands shake, her knees locked under tall leather boots.
His chest aches in answer. Regret.
“I’m sorry,” he says when she finally pauses to draw breath. She blinks at him for a moment and the tears come then. Only a trickle that she dashes away with the back of her hand at first, but then he opens his arms and she throws herself at him, buries her face in his shoulder and sobs for air like a drowning sailor.
“Please,” he feels vibrate through the thin linen of his shirt. “Be safe.”
So he gets drunk.
Whiskey by the fire has always been a refuge and so he falls into it readily, drinking until the world falls soft at the edges, until the hardness he keeps pressed against his chest has fallen away and he cannot even remember why he held it so tightly in the first place. He’s warm all the way through and it buoys his way to the Void, delivers him laughing to the strange version of his study that the Outsider stands in.
He stands by the window and the way he looks at Corvo is almost surprised. He hadn’t expected this any more than Corvo, hadn’t expected him to slip into this place with him, and so something like courage bears him up and forward.
“What can an old, decrepit man do for you, deity?” he asks jovially and if he didn’t know better he would assume the wide gaze the Outsider turns on him is shocked.
“You are a graceful man, still,” the Outsider says, and if he were more sober Corvo would not know what to do with that, but he is not sober and so he waves it away with a snort. A god will forgive a drunk old man this once, he’s sure.
“Tell me,” he begins, and the whiskey is heavy and taunting in his veins, pressing him on to stupid, animal curiosity. “Do you feel?”
The Outsider looks at him and there is something there, some cast to the sharp bones of his face that suggests… something. Corvo presses on anyway, because he is committed and he is reckless, drunk and drunk with it.
“Fear, anger,” he clarifies. “Love, and the like?”
At this the Outsider blinks, a deliberate movement that Corvo can't parse into its meaning.
“You do ask the most unexpected things,” he muses at last. His eyes are glittering like fever. “You would know if I can fear? If I can love?”
“Is a god capable of such things?” Corvo presses, and knows he's treading unsteady ground and still cannot find it in himself to care.
The Outsider doesn't look at him, in any case. His gaze has wandered, a hovering footstep taking him in the direction of the night sky through the window.
“A thing with no heart cannot love, Corvo,” the Outsider says. “Fear… What do I have to fear?” In profile he cuts something of a figure, the night sky glittering around his shoulders like a dim version of his eyes.
His projection isn't small but he looks it, for a moment. Malnourished, shoulders broad and brittle and waist starvation-skinny. One of the begging children of the street, tailored in leather and reaching shadows. Pathetic, Corvo thinks, and flinches back from the thought not because of the blasphemy of it but because it is… it is unkind.
“Anger then, or happiness?” Corvo presses. There is some cramping twist to his stomach, unexpectedly. The Outsider tilts his head.
“What occasion would a god have to feel those?” he asks. Corvo frowns, almost asks another question, but bites his lip as the dark gaze is turned on him.
“A thing with no heart doesn't feel, dear Corvo,” the Outsider tells him, and again that tone of whimsy.
Corvo almost misses the moment of his departure between one breath and the next. The twist to his gut hasn't faded and he puts himself to bed with a frown and a hand to his stomach.
He dances with a fine lady at a fine party because Emily had frowned at him and told him that he could find something to enjoy, couldn’t he, dear Corvo? He had shrugged and dutifully left to be seen enjoying himself, though the painstakingly practiced dance felt mechanical after the lightning flickers of dancing his way through an enemy encampment. He bares his teeth in an appropriate smile when the lady makes a charming comment and escapes back to Emily’s side as soon as is polite.
“Here,” she sighs and hands him a honey tart. “Enjoy some food, at least.”
It’s delicious. He unbends enough to smile at her genuinely and her eyes crinkle back at him behind her fashionable fan.
A conspiracy in the kitchen staff.
A bloody affair, and one he catches wind of a beat before the knick of time. Knives in the hands of those with no business carrying them, poison where it’s forbidden for poison to be, and then there is the unpleasant business.
Days of interviewing and interrogation, a step removed from torture after Emily’s edicts, but still enough to leave his chest heaving. Sorting the staff. Innocent from guilty, always. He lets pass more than he wishes he had to, the brutal that at least mean no harm to Emily, those whose crimes won’t touch her. He thinks of the Outsider’s words and wishes they weren’t so apt.
You would have me comb the thoughts of every man for the hint of evil? He wishes he could.
In the end he still has some seven men and women waiting judgement in Coldridge. He reports them to Emily and watches another tiny lick of innocence in her fall dark and cold. She orders them judged with all fairness of the law; a death sentence.
He puts his head in his hands that night, before the coldness of his banked fire. At least there is no blood on his hands. At least there is no blood on hers.
“I find it hard to believe I’m still so interesting as to merit this kind of visit,” Corvo says, and the Outsider looks on.
“You’ve always been interesting, dear Corvo.”
Again, Corvo’s rooms. Again the Outsider’s brittle shoulders against the fading glory of a sunset. Again how the colors of the room seem to leach away where they touch him, the fabric of the world wearing thin and gossamer where he treads. This time, Corvo feels little fear.
Vera Moray had been a clever fool. He thinks that he is also a fool, but perhaps a less clever one, and that is why his eyes remain in his head yet.
“As you say,” he tells the Outsider and doesn’t bother to polish the disbelief from his tone.
“Empires turn with you as their axis, as they have for my chosen. You are kind, as have been some of my chosen before, though few enough of them.” The Outsider shrugs elaborately. There is an air of performance to the motion, sitting awkwardly on this projection of a false body, like the Outsider had practiced it.
“I'm a man,” Corvo says shortly, and means to say that he is only a man. There's bitterness here, a bitter sour bile welling in the back of his throat.
“You could be a king,” the Outsider says and there's no speculation to it. His black gaze glitters and glitters. “You could rule the most vast empire. You could be revered as a god. And yet.”
“And yet,” Corvo snaps. “I am still a man, and a man I would remain. I have seen godhood and it appeals little.”
The Outsider looks at him and looks at him and doesn’t blink and Corvo is struck again by how young he looks. How sick, how deeply lined in misery. His eyes are still every star burning out at once, but there is no awe to it. There is no grandeur to him, not here.
“Dearest Corvo, so interesting,” he murmurs at last. Corvo blinks and he is alone.
“We’ve talked,” is what Corvo says when Emily finally corners him in a forgotten corner of a library gone heavy and ambiguous with dust.
She lays her hand on his, palm over the Mark. Unerring. He looks down at it for too long before lifting his eyes to meet hers. It’s a painful endeavour.
“Corvo,” she says, and it’s reproach laden with fear.
“He’s asked nothing more of me than before,” he insists, and wonders why it feels a lie as he says it. It’s entirely true. “We only talk, mainly.”
“What do you talk of, that leaves you so stricken?” she demands and in the moment she truly looks a girl of seventeen. There is no Empress here. More difficult to explain to, this way, if he even had an explanation to give. He understands nothing himself.
“Godhood,” he says at last. “The quandaries of it weigh heavily.”
It’s not much a lie. In some ways it’s even still the truth.
“Well,” Emily says doubtfully, seems even more young than before. “If it’s only that. You know to keep the heresy hidden, I trust you.”
He kicks apart a shrine in the Old Waterfront, because there are Watchmen about that had seen him enter the building and if the shrine is found later intact then doubt he cannot afford might be cast his way.
“I would have expected an apology, perhaps.”
“You don’t care for your worshippers or their shrines,” Corvo says and doesn’t pause in bending to pile the mildewed cloth and splintered driftwood together for burning. “You care little enough even for your Marked.”
A motion catching his eye, the Outsider’s head tossing as if in disdain, though his expression doesn’t change.
“I have watched over you as you slept,” the Outsider tells him, agitation clear in the flickering jagged way he moves, as if his protection is failing. As if he lacks some crucial attention necessary to render the motions more human. “How boring a dreamless sleep, and yet I watched over you anyway.”
Corvo pauses, a piece of rusting iron falling from the pile in his arms. He doesn’t understand, though he thinks the Outsider must be saying something important.
“I did not ask for it,” he says stiffly after a moment. His cheeks are hot and his pulse is thundering in his ears.
“I know well what you ask and don’t ask for,” the Outsider tells him with naked scorn. His lip is curling into something a gaunt hybrid of sneer and scowl. Corvo stares. “I gave it to you.”
“Then I owe you nothing for it,” Corvo says and he is trying desperately to rein his tone back but it’s nearly impossible, with how the anger pounds in his veins, how he is so confused and the Outsider makes no sense, how he is so tired and his body aches with the ceaseless use he must put it to.
The Outsider is abruptly still. A pause so absolute it’s as if for a moment the world was still with him. Looking at and through Corvo, seeing nothing, being nothing. He is a statue until the eyes shift, slow and liquid.
“You understand nothing, my dearest Corvo,” the Outsider says, and he turns away before he’s gone so that the last of him Corvo sees is the shine of wet leather and clenched white fingers.
The anniversary of Jessamine’s death passes as it always does.
He aches, of course. His chest aching for her, his hands aching with the memory of her blood. He moves through the Tower gingerly. Staying close by Emily’s side is necessary for both of them, though she barely remembers the night itself. She remembers enough, and feels enough of his own pain besides.
There are no attempts on her life this year. They eat dinner in the Empress’s chambers and he retires when he’s assured of the guard rotation outside her door.
Sleep comes late, and uneasy. He wakes in the early hours and the ache of his chest hasn’t eased exactly, but it is easier to bear. Easy enough to last another year.
Emily commissions a portrait of Jessamine, which is traditional. Sokolov paints it for her, from sketches and other, older paintings, and Corvo watches, and aches for every stroke of paint to canvas. It looks so like her.
The High Overseer parades through to inspect the Tower staff for signs of heresy. A tradition, and one Corvo dislikes, but the Overseers’ eyes don’t travel in Emily’s direction and watch him with only dislike and no suspicion, and so he tolerates it.
He manages to keep himself contained, meeting the black stare of the man standing at the back of the Overseer’s entourage. They seem to take no notice of the heretic god walking among them and he takes their cues.
The Outsider follows him as he leaves the room the entourage has commandeered for their pointless work. Corvo doesn’t turn to him until he’s sure they’re alone, far from listening ears, a disused sitting room far from anything of political importance. Dust is filmy on every surface and disturbs at his passing.
“You indulge in heresy now?” he asks, genuinely curious. “Does it offer some amusement?”
The Outsider makes a noise that could have been laughter, if he were more human. It’s a sound nothing like whalesong, but Corvo thinks of it anyway. He doesn’t seem to be smiling.
“The amusing thing is to catch you so unaware, my dear,” he says. “I thought you would take notice of me much sooner.”
“Is there anything you’ve come for?” he asks. Tension is draining from him and with it the energy of the day. “Or do you offer only cryptic words.”
The Outsider makes that noise again, that almost-laugh.
“I offer you anything in my ability to give,” he murmurs. “You ask only for baubles and you perform for me miracles. And you wonder why I find one such as you so fascinating, my dear.”
“You want so badly for me to be… a ruler. A tyrant,” Corvo says tiredly. His eyes ache. His joints ache. His bones are beginning to hum as they do when he’s spent too long dipping in and out of the Void, drawn too deeply of the Outsider’s gifts. “I won’t be. I refuse it.”
There is a moment where the world screams around him.
When he returns to himself he’s on his knees and he’s shaking like the world is ending around him, his cheeks are wet and his chest hurts and there’s something pressing against his ear drums and-
The Outsider has his back to him. Again, those knobbly white fingers clenched in an unforgiving fist. Back ramrod straight, shoulders so level as to defy possibility. His feet-
His feet are on the flagstone. He stands like a mortal would, only his twisting shadow to give himself away.
“I would change nothing of you,” the Outsider’s voice comes, ragged, not from the frozen figure Corvo sees, but beside him. There is nothing there, but the voice is at his shoulder nonetheless. “I would change nothing. Not a thing.”
Corvo gasps for air. His body is shaking, on the edge of convulsing, and nothing will communicate with the impulse of thought. He tries to steady himself with a hand on the floor and only jerks, topples forward towards cold stone until a hand catches him. The fingers are just a shade too cool to be human.
The Outsider settles him gently back against the legs of the chair behind him and then he stands. The movement is fluid. His control of his form is perfect. He stares down at Corvo and he looks…
He looks a sick, miserable young man.
“Call me, if you have need,” he says at last. His mouth does not move.
The fire roars. Corvo is alone.
He wakes and the Outsider sits at the end of his bed.
It should startle him but it doesn't. He only blinks tiredly into the birdlike stare affixed to him. The Outsider says nothing, sits cross-legged at the end of the bed, but when Corvo glances at the sheets they aren't creased. He's hovering, an inch above the mattress.
“You're watching me sleep,” Corvo says, the obvious because what else is there to say. “Again?”
The Outsider smiles and Corvo realizes it’s only a dream as he wakes, again, to an empty room this time.
His hands grip at his mattress, nails scrabbling against fine linen. His legs are tangled in the sheets and the fabric is wet with sweat around him. His mouth tastes faintly of sour blood but beyond that is ash, the dead fire. A fine sheen of sweat, for a moment it’s on his lips and he can- there’s something- he can almost-
He’s trembling. He can feel it as he stills himself, forces himself to slow his breathing until his heart takes its paces.
There’s a smile blazoned on the inside of his eyelids. Cruel lips tilting into something else, something other than the vacant amusement or furrowed misery that’s all Corvo knows from him. He hauls in another breath and waits for the muscles of his back and thighs to unclench, waits for his body to let go.
When he presses his face into his pillow it smells of linen and goosedown but mostly of salt sweat, which is more animal than seawater but still enough to push the memory against the backs of his eyes.
The smile, and how for only a moment the Outsider had looked beautiful.
He runs. He jumps, his hands catch the edge of the eaves and he hauls himself to the rooftop. He runs again, feels his pulse pound in his ears and it feels cleaner than aught has for weeks. His boots don’t slip against rain-slicked slate and if any inhabitants mark the noise of his footfalls he’s gone by the time they peek heads out of windows.
In the lamplight, in the fall of the rain, it feels so clean. It feels like those fleeting moments so many years ago.
His purpose had been so clear. There is no purpose anymore.
The Hatters choke when he drops among them, men barely older than boys that fall to his darts and the crippling slash of his blade as he deals them. Their target flees into the night, trailing the sound of an old man’s hurried footsteps, and Corvo lets him go.
The lenses of his right eye buzz and bring the world to sharper focus. He clenches his fist wordlessly and brings himself aloft. None will know of his presence, any that dare will speak only of the Masked Assassin. There are only two that would know of his actions, and neither of them would speak.
There is quiet for some time.
Such is customary in the exhausted aftermath of the Fugue. The city gasps for breath, braces its feet on bloodstained earth and strains upwards as it has all the years before. Corvo shuffles reports the Spymaster hands him and reads the aftermaths of little crimes well into the night. Nothing he can persecute, but often is the Fugue Feast a prelude to some other crime.
He marks those that took the chance to speak of treason for watching, hands off his reports to the Spymaster.
The ball Emily holds for her majority is meant to be the biggest of her reign so far, and she throws herself into the preparation joyously.
Corvo throws himself into the measures of security as ardently, though with less joy. There are layers and layers to attend to, and he watches the preparations with a jealous eye. The Spymaster he works so hard that he thinks were the man allowed to he’d be challenged to a duel. He cares little.
There is so much risk and it scares him.
He dreams of Jessamine, when he would have expected to dream of the ball itself. He dreams of her dances over the years, dreams of her hand on his arm and her laughing mouth. In the dreams her gown is bloodstained but she dances anyway. They are not quite nightmares, though they leave him far from rested.
He pushes himself on nonetheless. He’ll keep Emily safe.
Curnow finds him in the busy hours of the morning before the ball and hands him a cracked bone charm.
“They got some kinda base on the far side of the Wrenhaven,” he says, and his cheeks are white. “Got it off’a one of my men. Says there’s a conspiracy.”
Corvo forces his hands still, waits for Curnow’s full report though his heart leaps in his chest and there’s fear at hand like nothing he has in him to conquer. There aren’t many details anyway, except that somehow someone’s been stealing scrimshaw. Someone able to tell the good from the bad, with access to the Abbey’s furnaces to spirit the genuine charms away.
Enough to arm a complement of assassins. He nods to Curnow’s report and stands. He doesn’t sway, though the world is spinning around him.
“Watch Emily,” he says tersely, “keep her safe.”
Curnow nods and Corvo forces himself not to Blink away until there’s a door between himself and Curnow’s retreating back.
The Old Port District is not as familiar to Corvo as it once was.
He threads his way through it in a series of Blinks and watches the people scurry by below, crowds and crowds of them too thick to fathom into enemies, and bites back the desire to drop among them and strike out at random.
The base is not as difficult to find as it could be. A street over from the Hound Pits, at the end of a winding alley Corvo would miss except for how remarkably empty the street it opens off is. The locks are too good when he investigates closer, the windows boarded too well, and he slides in through the back door with a sense almost like relief.
There are few people about and he finds that worrying, cases empty of their equipment, tables busy with papers and absent their attendants. He slips past those that do remain with ease.
The last floor is a simple office and there is a woman sitting at the desk he doesn’t recognize.
She doesn’t startle when he drops from the rafters. She doesn’t even reach for a weapon, makes no move to clear the incriminating plans of the Tower ballroom from her desk. She merely grins at him and there’s a light to her gaze he recognizes, the light of a cultist, the light of true belief and zealotry.
“You came,” she sighs and sickness dawns in his chest. “Oh, you stupid hound.”
“What have you done,” he grinds out and she laughs, high and clear. There’s a glass at her elbow and she picks it up, toys with it a moment.
“I haven’t done a thing,” she says and drinks. “Oh, but you, Lord Protector. You have abandoned your Empress once again at just a token word brought by a trusted friend.”
“Curnow,” he chokes and the blade is in his hand, he could strike, but he needs to know. The sickness is high and shrill in his chest, thrumming in the tendons of his wrists. She laughs at him again.
“The well-meaning captain,” she taunts. “You mustn't hold that against him, he doesn't know what he's done. So easy to hand him the evidence to lead you here. It could not have been simpler.”
He barely notices her first convulsive cough.
He’d been tricked. A scheme so simple and he hadn’t seen it coming, had come running thoughtlessly, allowing panic to guide him.
“Emily,” he manages. The woman is choking for air now and she still laughs as he Blinks to her side, stares up at him with wide, mad eyes. The whites are bleeding and he recognizes Tyvian work.
“Death for the Empress,” she chokes with bloody sputum on her lips. “Long live the Empire.”
The woman dies in his hands, spit foaming from her mouth as she laughs, zealous light fading from her eyes and her body tumbles to the earth from his nerveless fingers. It is a familiar sound, it is so horribly familiar, a body hitting the dirt. He shakes, and he does not know how to stop.
He closes his eyes and prays as he’s never prayed for anything since the moment Jessamine had bled out in his arms.
Please, he thinks, the only coherent thing, Outsider, please.
He realizes, as the blood-warm numbness of the Void steals through him, that he somehow hadn’t expected the Outsider to come. After so long, after the desperate hope, he hadn’t expected this at all.
Warm, the numbness of the void. Even warmer, when he opens his eyes to find the world has frozen around him. There might still be time. There could be enough time.
“You called for me,” the Outsider says, and his voice hums at the edge of something Corvo doesn’t understand and has no impulse to try.
The breath he takes stings his lungs.
“You want of me entertainment,” he says, and it breaks something in him to say, but he presses on anyway. “The use of power. I have need of it, I have need- Emily.”
He breathes in. The Outsider is a statue above him, haloed in shadow, the Void a tide sluicing past the both of them. In the dim Voidlight the Outsider shines like water. He has never seemed like a god so much as he does now, as he does appearing silent in the hour sour desperation coats the inside of Corvo’s teeth.
“Give me what I need to save her,” he manages. “Whatever your price may be. I will be a tyrant for you. I will kill. I will do aught you want of me, anything. But let me save her.”
There is silence that falls. The Outsider does not breathe, does not blink, and Crovo finds that he cannot do either.
“Still, you understand nothing,” the Outsider says at last.
His voice creaks. It is an old voice, and Corvo looks at him desperately, and that impossible tortured hope is still running like acid in his veins.
“Please,” he murmurs.
The Outsider breathes in. It is an unprecedented motion. Corvo feels it in his own chest. His skin burns, hot and tight and beating with the horrid thrum of his pulse, and still he strains towards the Outsider.
“I give you power,” the Outsider pronounces, and it is a benediction. “I give you the power to stop all of time. I give you the power to move where you wish, to be as the shadows. I give you what power you need.”
It fills him like the sun.
He is incandescent and the Void burns to tatters around him. He throws himself back to earth like a meteor, reaching for the call of his body. Nothing pauses him but against the blaze of his skin there is a moment of cool, pressed against what had been his cheek.
“Remember yourself,” and then the Outsider is burned from his vision along with the Void.
He strikes the air and time stops. He clenches a fist and he’s halfway across the city already, an hour’s travel in a moment. Clavering is still, washed clean of detail or importance in the cold of Voidlight, and he strikes again to continue on.
There is no air in his chest. He breathes in and time resumes, and he stands on the topmost roof of Dunwall Tower.
It had been a moment. In his ear still is the dying laughter of the woman telling him there will spill more blood of Empires. Closer, the Outsider’s blessing burning like cold fire in his chest and against the back of his hand.
He points, makes a fist, and he stands in the frozen moment of the Empress’s assassination.
There is time to linger but no inclination to, and yet for a moment a thought pierces him. A brief moment where he wonders if he is seeing as the Outsider sees, if the Outsider is watching even now, a million shattered points of probability in a sea of heaving humanity.
He dashes on. There are assassins in the crowd, dark flutters of robe at the rafters, poison in the food. He roots them out. He marks each body, seating himself at Emily’s side in the timeless moment he’s allowed. The only sensate man in a sea of statues, he tracks their gaze and their hands and the weapons under their expensive clothes.
A pulse beats in his palms. They are dry, and he aches, oh he aches. His mouth is dry and his throat is parched and there is a thirst in him for blood that is a monster.
The first assassin is a slender man. Narrow jaw, pale eyes. A high collar, and Corvo chokes him until he doubts the man will breathe without pain for the rest of his life, but he leaves off at the moment it would push over into death. Instead he hefts the slight weight, carries it through the statue crowd and throws the unconscious man to the flagstones of his chosen closet.
Somehow he expects the Outsider’s commentary. Instead, there is more silence.
He goes about his work.
Time has no meaning and so he doesn’t know how long it takes him, to clear the hall. He only knows the dogged work, the flashing steps he takes to pluck assassins from the rafters like rotted fruit, the careful work of replacing every poisoned dish at Emily’s table. Brief moments stepping back into the flow of time, a second or so allowing more knives to be unsheathed and then back to his stolid work.
His body does not hurt, somehow. There is no pain here, as if this still frozen moment is the Void. Still he can feel a phantom ache at the base of his throat.
There is blood on his hands. A woman biting through her tongue in her struggles against his grip, a man whose leg had broken when Corvo had thrown him from the rafters. It is no one’s lifeblood.
The work finishes. He breathes out, and looks out upon the crowd. It looks the same, though thinned of some ten guests, another three of the serving staff. Two of Emily’s guard, and he bites through his own cheek in punishment for the oversight. The rafters are clear. The food and drink are all pure, he knows this from painstaking effort.
He melts back into the shadow behind the Imperial dais and strikes the air again, a motion he knows though none have taught it. Time jolts, shakes, and moves again.
The guests begin their motions anew, and there are murmurs of disquiet as absences are noted. Corvo pays them no mind. There’s no way they could know the truth, no way for them to guess with any certitude that heresy and magic are responsible. He ignores them, and steps to Emily’s side.
There is unearned divinity running through his veins, and yet Emily smiles up at him no differently.
“I didn’t expect you back for hours!” she says happily, and he tries so hard to smile.
He visits a shrine.
He’s ready to pay the price, whatever it may be. It must be high; he can feel his begged-for powers ebb and flow under his skin, the burn of them. No man should have this. The fragment of godhood stuffed under his skin is heavy and it fits ill.
A forgotten little shrine, mouldering fabric and the smell of whale oil slowly going rancid. This one in the attic of an abandoned little apartment on the edge of the Drapers Ward, one Corvo had turned a blind eye on… just in case. The rune is an old one, the carvings worn by frantic fingers, but no less powerful for it.
The hissing fills his ears as he kneels. He reaches out to touch the bone, and his hand is steady.
“Back so soon, Corvo?”
He breathes out, dashes a hand across aching eyes and looks up at the Outsider. He hovers. He looks the same as he ever has, unruffled and perfect, cold and unreachable.
“I’ve come to pay what I owe,” he says. “And… and to ask you to take them back. The powers.”
In the street below a drunk is singing, the sound stretched and warping through the Outsider’s presence, but marking the passage of time anyway. And still the Outsider is silent for long minutes and stares.
“You would return them,” he says at last. The mouth of his projection doesn’t move.
“Your price,” Corvo insists. His breath is coming ragged.
The Outsider moves then. It is only a step to reach where Corvo kneels and he takes it quickly, Corvo has scarcely time to breathe in before there’s a hand against his brow.
There is no time, and yet he still notices the peculiar give of the Outsider’s projection. As cold as the night air. Exactly like a hand, and yet the impression of being hollow. As if he would be skin wrapped around air if Corvo cut him open.
And then the tide beating against his skin is withdrawing all at once.
He keens with it, though it is not exactly like pain, noise forced animal and instinctive between his teeth for a time that he can’t measure, and then he is empty and the hand on his brow is gone.
The Outsider floats where he had been, as if he’d never moved at all. Corvo flexes his Marked hand and feels… human.
“A gift,” the Outsider says. His eyes are on Corvo’s hand.
“What?” Corvo asks.
“It is no matter of cost,” the Outsider clarifies. His gaze drags to Corvo’s face, black and shining and overwhelmingly present. “A gift. You owe me nothing.”
The drunk passes below the window, a swell of song. What will we do with the drunken whaler! It passes as the man proceeds down the street, and still the Outsider doesn’t explain, and still he doesn’t leave.
“Why?” Corvo asks at last.
The Outsider smiles.
“And why did you offer so much to Jessamine,” he whispers, only his whisper is as loud in Corvo’s ears as a pistol going off, “with no thought of repayment?”
He swallows nausea and bitter ache.
“Love,” he grinds out and the Outsider inclines his head. Still that strange turn to his lips, his whole face somehow changed by it.
This silence lasts far too long, with no drunken song below the window to mark it.
“But you,” the words spill from his tongue, he is so numb, shock in the heartbeat in his ears. “You told me, a thing with no heart?”
“Oh,” the Outsider says. Corvo would call it pity, but he does not know directed at who. “But I gave you my heart, molded by my own two hands, don’t you remember? I am no thing without a heart. I am, it seems, capable of love.”
“I don’t understand,” Corvo manages. “I don’t… you never spoke of this.”
The smile doesn’t fade.
“What is to love in a god?” the Outsider asks, rhetorical and faintly bitter. “What could I offer? I have no family, no warmth, no impulse to fuck. I could offer you no home and no happiness. The love of a god is nothing to covet.”
He turns in the rustle of linen and creaking leather, as real as he's ever been.
“I offered you what I could, such things as I have to give, and you… you wanted none of it. I don't have even a Void’s-damned name.”
“I,” Corvo manages, and then fails because his pulse is roaring and his guts are twisting and his feels sick, sick and blindsided and more than all of that his chest aches.
“I expect nothing of you,” the Outsider says, enough time gone to know Corvo has nothing to say. “I take back the last gift but keep what you’ve already accepted. There is nothing owed between us. Consider all debts settled.”
He’s walking to the door and Corvo almost doesn’t realize how unprecedented that is, until the Outsider is turning through the doorway and disappearing into the hallway, out of sight-
“You-!” he says and lunges from his cramped position kneeling before the shrine, curses as he stumbles over the rug and lunges to throw the door open wide. He looks wildly up and down the hall and it is abandoned and empty, dusty with it, no footstep in the thread of the carpet.
He is alone. He is utterly, absolutely alone.
“You, you stupid,” Corvo chants, mostly to himself, and clutches at the ache in his chest.
He writes a letter. He writes another letter. If pressed he could say what their contents are but they are immaterial to the Empire and some days that which is inessential falls to the side. Indeed, most days.
He thinks little of it.
His lungs work. He sips whiskey by the fire and watches the flames dance and he thinks of the past. There can be no future that is not this, he knows. This is the best possible future, he’s sure of that, and if the price is his own empty chest then what a little price it is to pay.