It is difficult for you to stay calm during your first real meeting with the self-styled Loyalists. You’re warm and clean for the first time in months, but new clothes and bathwater don’t erase injuries or exhaustion, and you just want to sleep. Nor does it help your mood that they are constantly talking at you, not to you, but you suppose that you had better get used to it. It’s not like you can interrupt them anymore.
They seem to forget that you’ve just broken out of prison. Six months of...of malnutrition, mistreatment, and little chance at movement have not been kind to your body, and you are not the strong and steady guard you once were. It’s unbelievable how they ignore your gaunt face and sunken eyes, the myriad scars and the way your clothes hang off you like so much washing on a line. Still they talk about infiltration, assassination - they’re idiots, you decide, if they think you could overpower so much as a sickly maid.
You’re too tired to argue when Piero gifts you with the mask of Death itself, and though Cecelia is sympathetic and more than happy to help you and your aching body up the stairs, she doesn’t quite seem to get it either.
You can’t do this. You aren’t physically capable of carrying out this plan as they want you to. But by the Outsider, Emily is the only thing you have left in this world, and if you’re going to die, then you’ll die saving her. And that’s a promise.
(...in the morning, you awake branded by a god; you are his now, plaything of a monster, but you can’t bring yourself to care. there is a chance. there is a chance you will see Emily safe again. a chance…)
Your first mission is to liberate one Teague Martin from his captivity in Holger Square; you’ve never heard of the man. The second is to spare the life of Guard Captain Curnow; someone you might once have counted as a friendly acquaintance, if never a friend. You would have saved him anyway.
When you arrive at the Square, there are two Overseers. One is bound, and the other laughs. You observe from above. You can’t afford to show yourself - powers or not, you’re too weak to attract attention. You need to be subtle. Leave no trace.
You can’t afford to let anyone know about the Mark, either. Even if you survive, if you’re alive when Emily is crowned, you’ll be strung up by the Overseers. Leave no witness.
A bottle smashes on the cobblestones behind the prisoner; even as a boy, you think, your throw was never so weak. But the Overseer investigates as planned, and that’s when the screaming starts. It’s not the first time you’ve seen a man eaten alive by rats and you doubt it will be the last, but it could never be a pleasant experience. Martin cringes in his manacles, closes his eyes; he is the only other living thing in reach, and the rats are never sated.
He is surprised when instead his hands are freed. “The rats?” he asks; you nod, and he is satisfied. He recapitulates the plan, wishes you luck, and turns to leave. Then stops, turns back. Advises, “It would probably be quicker and quieter if your target were knocked out first.”
Upon your return to the Hound Pits, Martin smiles at you. They’ve already heard of the High Overseer’s tragic death by rats, and Curnow’s speed and efficiency in alerting the building to the incursion. Nobody asks how you did it; it’s enough that it was done. You still invest in a pair of gloves.
(...nobody looks twice at another rat-eaten corpse in the street, even that of an Overseer, and Campbell’s demise is horrible bad luck, but an accident waiting to happen - stupid man, with a stupid secret subterranean room; what did he expect? the rats are like water, they say, and water is patient; it will erode mountains and scar valleys and, drop by drop, it will wear away the dam. no one is safe. all will drown, drown in the rat river…)
"Leave me," you say with your stolen tongue, and it hurts to think that this is the first time you have formed words since your first days in Coldridge. You wonder what Emily will think of you; you have always been quiet, but equally you were never hesitant to joke, to quip, to praise. You still don't know what to tell her.
But that is in the future. You have a suicide to stage and a tragic accident to orchestrate before Emily can escape. Your worries can wait.
"I said, leave!" The courtesan looks as if she is about to protest, but thinks better of it and slips out the door. Your puppet smiles grimly and grabs for the whiskey; you use half to douse Morgan's clothes, and then you step back.
You're hardly unfamiliar with chokeholds, but your arms are not as strong as they were six months ago and you opt instead to push the retching and wretched man into the bath. In his shock he forgets to struggle, and soon grows limp under your hand. You are free to set the scene - an empty bottle here, a half-finished one there…
(...the Pendleton fortune is running out, doesn't everybody know, and still they spend spend spend on whiskey and women; only the poorhouse and the plague in their future, no wonder Morgan would drown his sorrows, drown himself…)
Lord Custis cuts himself off in the middle of a rant as you take his reins. You twist his face into a sickly grimace, and twitch one hand reflexively towards his mouth; you force a mumbled 'need air' from his jaws before dashing for the balcony, just out of sight of his escort.
She’ll hear gagging, and wince at the wet splash that follows. You release your hold, and he begins to stumble back to the room, but missteps - he slips in his own vomit and, aided by a sudden gust of wind, through the railing. The courtesan watches helplessly from across the room as he grasps at nothing and falls, falls, screaming for help, until all of a sudden there is silence.
You don't bother blinking to the fallen man's side. He's as dead as the Empress, and you have a little girl to save.
(...isn't it funny, though, in such a gruesome way - maybe there's more to be said for the connection between twins than anyone ever thought. the detective, she said their deaths had been so close it was impossible to tell who perished first - did Custis' death drive Morgan to suicide, or was Morgan's suicide the catalyst for Custis' sudden sickness? the aristocracy will argue about it for months…)
She’s there. She’s there, alive, whole and healthy, and for a moment you’re struck dumb. “Who are you?” she asks, voice aquiver, and you remember that you are a strange, silent man with Death’s skull for a face. You reach up, remove the mask, and smile, genuinely, for the first time in a long, long while.
Suddenly your arms are full and you’re being hugged tighter than you’d ever have believed a ten-year-old capable; she’s crying in your ear, but you’re crying harder as she voices your exact thoughts - I thought you were dead, they told me- - I missed you so much - what happened to you, are you okay -? You can’t answer her and she doesn’t know your questions, and for a moment this is okay, wrapped in each other’s solidity - here, here, safe, alive.
“Corvo?” she asks, releasing you from her bear hug and tugging away from yours. Her brows are furrowed, her eyes concerned as her gaze roves over your face; you feel self-conscious when it lingers on your scars. You try smiling at her again, but she’s having none of it. “Corvo, what’s wrong?”
What isn’t wrong? The Empress is dead, her daughter lives in a brothel, the Lord Protector is a mute murderer, and the rats are set to inherit the throne. You almost laugh, an awful bitter noise, but such dark humour is not for Emily’s ears. You open your mouth to explain, forgetting yourself, and her question is answered anyway.
She gasps your name in horror, and the tears are falling again for the both of you.
(...the girl is gone and the twins are dead, how could it be anything but some treasonous murderer? and yet there is no evidence, none at all - not a trace, and an explanation for everything: suicide, accident, opportunism. clever girl. she’s probably dead now, or dying; tiny creature in white silk stockings, stinking of dread and despair, and devoured by rats if she’s lucky. what a dreadful, dreadful way to end a dynasty…)
You disable the floodlights with a well-placed explosion, and you thank the Outsider that whale oil is so volatile. You’ve pinned the blame on one of the workers; the man had expressed his enthusiasm for climbing to his colleague, who’d wondered aloud if the fuel cells would need changing soon. You slip into the man’s skin as easy as breathing and it’s with his hands you remove the tanks. You knock him unconscious and apologise, silently: no witnesses. You get some distance before shooting an incendiary bolt at the glowing tanks, and blinking away from the scene.
Sokolov is easy to find and easier to spirit away, but it takes a lot of effort for you to leave his test subjects behind. The famous Natural Philosopher going missing is suspicious enough, and the walls of light in the cells malfunctioning at the exact same time… You’d like to be able to say that releasing them would be worth the risk of detection, but it’s not. You can’t fight anyone head on, you can’t let your actions alert your next targets, and you can’t let anyone make connections between the still-missing convict and a masked heretic.
You leave the prisoners. For Emily, you think, but the guilt still churns in your gut.
(...a man walks down to the river and disappears. this wouldn’t be news, save for the fact the man is Anton Sokolov. they send search parties, but he is not to be found. they say he looked ill when he walked, movement stiff and strange, and they whisper of the plague. he’s a weeper, they say, no sense searching. you wouldn’t recognise him anyway…)
A mute assassin infiltrating a highly guarded, invitation-only costume party for the upper class; what a plan. It’s as if they’ve forgotten.
That said, the hardest part of this mission is deciding to go through with it. Rat-shaped, you walk the corridors of the mansion and discover your victim’s identity. You deliberate. Procrastinate. Run through your options.
There’s a wall of light you could rewire; you overheard the guards talking about safety procedures just earlier, and you know that if the alarm went off your target would like as not pass through it. All you need is a key.
There’s a man here whose name you recognise; Brisby, they called him. You’ve seen it before, on a list of Loyalist sympathisers. He’s likely aware of tonight’s mission, and could perhaps be of some use.
There are more balconies than you care to count, and a cellar full of alcohol with a connection to the sewers.
There are plenty of ways to make Lady Boyle’s passing look like an accident, but something just strikes you wrong about the whole affair. She’s the Lord Regent’s financial backer, yes, and she was aware of the man’s plotting; you will never forgive her for that. But...you’re not sure she deserves to die. High Overseer Campbell and the Pendleton brothers, they were different; bad people whose removal could only improve the overall quality of humanity. The Ladies Boyle don’t seem nearly so awful in comparison.
Maybe it’s because Emily is safe, now. (Not that that stayed your hand from killing an innocent guard, you think, and you can’t quite bring yourself to protest.)
Or maybe it’s because Esma Boyle has a daughter, and you’ve murdered enough people today.
(...the Lady Boyle disappears, but unlike Sokolov she leaves a note. she’s going on holiday, she says, for a month or two or maybe forever. her handwriting is shaky and there is a wet mark on the page, but there is no sign of a struggle; perhaps she was only cold. she did mention that she’d like to go somewhere a little brighter, and warmer, and safer…)
Prison beds will never be the most comfortable things in the world, but for six months yours presented the only escape from a world where you failed your duty in the worst way anyone could conceive. You dreamt of this day. It played out in your head, different every night; you still don’t know whose blade it was, but you know who bought it.
But in your head you’d never been what you are now. Weak and tired and aching, you’ve not had an undisturbed night’s sleep in a long, long time, and the wounds from what they did to you in Coldridge are far from fully healed, heretic magics or no. You can’t choke the man to death, you can’t duel him; you can’t even allow yourself the satisfaction of slitting his throat because the guards would be on top of you in moments, and you’ve come too far, too close to surviving this to throw it all away now.
You hate it. You hate that you’re going to have to play the ghost again, and it’s only Emily’s cheery smile that eases your mood. For a moment you wonder how she stays so strong, but you remember Callista’s words: she cries at night, when she thinks nobody is listening. It hurt you then and it hurts you now that she doesn’t think she can come to you for support like she once did. She’s grown up a lot in six months, and you hate, from the deepest, blackest depths of your heart, that she had to.
You can’t fail this last mission. You can’t let her down, again.
(...the man is paranoid, but you suppose he is right to be. his supporters are dropping around him from apparently innocuous accidents: a spate of ill fortune, others would say, but not Hiram. there is an assassin, he knows, and it is his head next on the chopping block. you look at this fusspot of a man and you wonder: how can I keep him alive…?)
Attention Dunwall Citizens: Hiram Burrows, once known as the Lord Regent, is no longer in power. His corrupt and illegitimate regime has come to a close. Long live the Empress!
The announcement sounds out through the city and seeps through an open window as you approach the celebrating Loyalists, and it brings a rare smile to your face. The man kept his word, then; no mention of a strange masked intruder. It’s the biggest risk you’ve taken, but you are glad that is has paid off. Perhaps you’ll try to find the man later, and offer him a better reward than his life.
You’re not blind to the fear in their eyes as they raise their glasses to you, to Emily, to the Empire. You must terrify them, this silent man with more scar tissue than skin, yet to regain much body mass and still you’ve slipped past guards and gates aplenty; none save them even know of your involvement. How fearful must they be, when you terrify even yourself.
You soon realise to what extent you are correct; it’s all you can do to pass out on the landing and not the stairs. Poison, you think through the hazy blackness, those bastards, and then you think Emily! and it’s enough of a jolt to bring you a little further toward reality; you catch the tail end of someone’s speech.
“...want to do the same to me as soon as I’ve outlived my uses. Hopefully, you’ll wake up and find your way out of this cursed city.”
There are footsteps. You black out again.
If they think you would leave Emily now, they’re dead wrong.
(...the sound of water, river water, not the ocean; the creak creak creak of an old wooden boat. pain lances through you but it’s nothing worse than you’ve had before, and though you’ve an assassin playing gondolier in front of you, they’re no threat. funny that that’s what would spring to mind, in all this. you haven’t thought of your homeland in so long; might you ever go back…?)
You’re being lifted. Strong, gloved arms. What do they make of you? You feel so frail. You’re placed, uncomfortable; the metal digs into your chest, and then the motion makes you nauseous. Up, up, you can see the sea, lord of all you survey. You’d maybe rather not be lord of the Flooded District, though. A bleary glance at the building below lets you witness a man materialising out of nothing. It’s interesting. Is that what you’ve been doing, all this time?
“I know a great deal, bodyguard,” says the man, “and I suspect a lot more.” He takes your hand from where it hangs limply over the side. Removes the glove, nods to himself. “I recognise these marks on your hand. A gift from your friend, the one who talks to you in the dark. Talks to you when you visit his shrines. I’ve visited those shrines too.” He throws the glove on the ground - a challenge? - and steps away.
He has a box now. Opens it up; removes your sword. It flicks open, shining. Bloodless. “And I know what it felt like to shove a blade into your Empress.” You choke. “But I don’t know you, who you are and who you fight for. You’re a mystery, and I can’t allow that.” He walks to the edge of the platform, throws the box - your box - into the pit. Your hand makes a grabbing motion, but the poison remains and your eyes are burning anyway.
Daud. That’s his name.
An assassin takes a swing, and you are consigned to the darkness once again.
(...the Void is as eerie as ever, and the Outsider more so. dispassionately, he summarises your last few hours - days? - as if he were reminding you of a plot point. you ignore him. you knew, you knew you would live to regret this, yet you never expected to live at all. you and the Empress’ assassin, marked both by the Leviathan’s hand. how this must amuse him so…)
His hands do violence, the Heart whispers, but there is a different dream in his heart.
No. No, no, that’s not what she’s supposed to say - she’s supposed to reassure you, tell you that you’re in the right. Campbell’s hypocrisy, the Pendleton twins’ callous immorality, the Boyles’ humanity, Burrows’ compulsions… Her secrets have always helped you decide. You don’t like this one, though. He is the man who murdered your Empress, kidnapped her daughter, destroyed your life. He is the very reason you crouch here, a shadow of yourself, when you should be standing at Jessamine and Emily’s side.
But...but. That’s his job. He gets paid to take those lives. The Loyalists never gave you a salary, but doesn’t the blood still drip from your fingers? Is it worse, you wonder, to murder for money, or for oneself? Or does it all, in the end, amount to the same? Either way there is a person, a human being, lying dead on the floor. Either way there is a grieving parent, spouse, child.
You are, perhaps, not so different as you like to think. Do you, too, deserve to die?
(...the assassin gets the message. you never see him again, but one day you receive a letter written in Serkonan. the man who killed your Empress offers you thanks. thanks. the letter ends in pieces in the fire grate. you’ll never revisit the shining isle, jewel of the south - la Patria, that you abandoned long long ago, though of course it was they who abandoned you first…)
“I just don’t get it, Wend. This whole conspiracy thing - what’ve they even been doing all this time? ‘Cause I ain’t heard nothing.”
“How should I know? I heard Lord Regent Havelock said they were harbouring Corvo, and that he’s the one who killed the High Overseer and the Pendleton twins.”
“The hell d’he manage that? What with being dead and all.”
“That’s what I said. Not to mention everyone else who said it was all accidents. Not a mark on ‘em, the detective said, didn’t she? Just shit luck, is all. Coulda happened to anyone.”
“They never did find Attano’s body, though, did they?”
“Well, no, but the guy was in Coldridge for, what, six months? Dai, don’t tell me you think he coulda survived - bastard probably got eaten by rats, and good fucking riddance.”
“I guess. I just think, he was specifically chosen to be the Empress’ bodyguard, right?”
“Yeah, and fat lot of good it did her, too.”
“Yeah, but I mean he’s probably made of tougher stuff than you or me, right? We wouldn’t stand a chance, but if you got training-”
“You’d still be rat food. Listen: that fucker Corvo is dead as the Empress, may she rest in peace. Dunno what bullshit source Lord Havelock came across, but it ain’t true. Yeah, no-one ever found his body, but no-one’s seen him alive either - and you bust outta prison, you’re gonna want to fuck things up, am I right? I’m right. And there’s nothing been fucked up.”
“Unless you count the accidents. And Burrows. And the plague.”
“Well, yeah, but that ain’t Corvo fucking Attano wreaking vengeance. Accidents’re accidents, Burrows was the loudspeaker guy bein’ an upstandin’ citizen, and the plague was Burrows. Don’t see how some backstabbing bodyguard’s to blame for them.”
Neither Corporal Wendell nor Corporal Dainton notice any intruder, and wake up several hours later with splitting headaches and under new management.
(...Sokolov suspects. you can tell it by the way he looks at you, looks at your gloved hands, looks at you as if you are an insect under the lens of his microscope. he says nothing, but there is jealousy, envy, in his gaze, and you remember the Outsider: wasn’t chosen. doesn’t wear the Mark. performs disgusting rituals beneath the old Abbey. interested, not interesting…)
You’re tired. More tired than you have any right to be, perhaps; you put little effort into subtlety this time around, though you convince yourself there is reason: Corvo Attano is neither ghost nor ill wind; merely a man with good aim and a lot of tranquilisers, handpicked for a reason.
Corvo Attano is also a man recently poisoned and betrayed, whose charge has been kidnapped, and is still reeling from the weight of his decisions, but then you have always been hard on yourself.
Teague and Treavor are dead at the table, and you don’t like these mingled feelings of irritation and relief that well up in your chest, nor the vitriol that arises when you spy Havelock. You want him dead, the traitor, but you don’t see Emily and Corvo Attano is not a criminal.
Havelock offers you a key, and you put a crossbow bolt in his chest before obliging. Oh, he’ll live, but he’ll be taking your empty cell. Perhaps you’ll visit.
(...Emily is waiting, and oh, isn’t this like the Golden Cat, remade with a new backdrop? she asks the same questions; you are silent; you both cry. the only difference is that when you press your lips to her hair and mouth her name, she gasps - “Corvo! your voice!” and your pronunciation is warped and your diction brutalised - no Ls for the tongueless - but you say it again, again, because it is only right for your first word to be ‘Emily’.)