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The greater the gift, the greater the cost.

The Loyalists understand this. They gave Corvo his freedom; in return, they want a weapon. A master assassin, they call him.

Assassin.

Corvo would laugh, if the thought of laughing didn’t make him want to rip out his own throat. He is (was) a bodyguard, not an assassin. He wants to tell them they picked the wrong man.

But Corvo’s got nothing left to give, nothing save his body, his knife, his crossbow. And if it means finding Emily again, he’ll be their blade in the dark.

Nothing comes without a price.

*

The Outsider tells him to think of it as a gift. Asks for nothing but entertainment in return.

A good show.

Corvo trails his fingers over the rune’s surface, feels its hum vibrate through his skin, settling deep in the marrow of his bones, and he thinks about the last time he was made to dance for someone’s amusement. He’d refused then, too. No words of confession spoken or written. He may be a puppet, but he has limits and for a gift like this the price must be staggeringly high.

“What if I say no?”

The Outsider just laughs.

*

The others notice the Mark immediately. It makes Corvo’s skin feel too tight. The newly-rescued Martin’s interest is particularly unnerving; there is a gleam in his eyes that suggests he knows too much, and if circumstances were different Corvo might find himself in an Abbey interrogation room, being made to answer for things he never wanted nor requested.

He tries his powers once, out in the waking world. When he Blinks, his nerves sing in a way they hadn’t in the Void. It’s exhilarating, and he wants to do it again

The price is too high. It’s the last time.

*

The Heart (thinking her name is too painful, and he can’t afford to lose his will, not with Emily depending on him) murmurs secrets in his mind. Most are things he’d rather not hear, private and terrible. He begs her to stop, sometimes, but her silence is worse and inevitably he seeks her counsel once more.

Because it’s not just secrets. Sewer routes, and paths over slippery tile rooftops; she whispers, ”wait!” and Corvo freezes until the guard’s steps have faded. She guides him, just the way she did when she was alive.

And she leads him to the runes.

*

He’s not sure why he collects them. He doesn’t plan to use them, after all; he hides them in a metal box beneath his bed and hopes the others won’t find them, Emily especially, and he reasons that it’s better there than out in the world where anyone could find them. He’s seen the aftermath of such interactions: they’re not pretty.

There is red beneath his fingernails, darkening the creases of his knuckles. It doesn't go away no matter how much he scrubs, and every time he finds a rune the Mark on his hand aches.

He’s so very tired.

*

Corvo’s dreams are dark, splintered things, full of blood, of fire, the feeling that he’s looking for someone. He finds himself falling and he dies, he dies, and the Outsider’s voice is in his ear whispering that he could survive this and the waking world too if he’d only just…try.

Try, Corvo.

And Corvo says, “No.”

He falls. Dies. Wakes.

Half-moon marks in his palms filling with blood, the taste of ashes in his mouth. The runes speak in a long-forgotten tongue, the language of the mad, but he’s not imagining the increased frequency with which they speak his name.

*

And at night, the runes whisper. He could be faster, stronger. Turn his enemies to dust. Control winds and minds, see through walls, speak to the rats. When he finally sleeps he dreams of black eyes and of cold, sinuous shadows, and he shivers when lips trail over the line of his cheekbone and the Outsider murmurs, “You could be so much more than what you are, my dear.”

“I don’t want what you offer,” Corvo says.

Even in his dreams, he can hear them. Calling.

“Liar,” the Outsider says. His smile is delighted. “But that’s what makes it interesting.”

*

A master assassin, they call him.

His palms are scraped raw from the bricks. Every jump he makes (and almost misses) sets his whole body aching. His joints creak like those of an old man and he’s tired, he’s so tired, and his left hand always feels like it’s on fire.

The Heart whispers.

The runes whisper.

And he keeps them in a little metal box, keeps them (Emily) safe, and he pretends not to see the looks in all their eyes when he returns from his missions.

He thinks, this is what they asked for.

Everything has a price.

*

In the shadows at the Tower, the Outsider’s eyes gleam.

Burrows dies.

From over Daud’s shoulder, the Outsider smiles. A sharp flash of teeth, tendrils of darkness curling in the air around them. Daud looks down at the pool of growing red, his laugh wet and bubbling.

“You’re a fool,” he says. “You should have accepted what he made you. Now the fun is in watching you break.”

The runes never stop singing. Phantom touches on his skin at night; when he wakes, his mouth tastes of salt.

It hurts to smile. “Who says I’m not already broken?”

Daud dies.

*

And at the end of it all Corvo stands swaying atop the lighthouse, a trembling Emily held tight in his arms. Havelock is dead. Martin. Pendleton. Samuel. This last is like a hook in his chest, and he pushes the thought aside.

He’d held the Heart cupped in his palms and turned it towards himself. “What do you see?”

But she wouldn’t answer.

“Is it over?” Emily says. Muffled against his shoulder.

A master assassin, they’d called him.

I want a good show, he’d said.

“Yes,” Corvo says, voice shaking, “yes, it’s over,” and hopes beyond hope it’s the truth.