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monotony and the rising tide

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Teague Martin has never been one for superstition. True, he may offer up thanks to the Nomad when he shoots true, may roundly curse the Houndsfellow when the day is one failure after another, may raise a pint to the Eater of Songs when he and his men drink to their country’s freedom. When he sits wedged among his fellow soldiers on their passage across the strait, his hands white-knuckled on the bench as their ship bucks and rolls on storm-tossed waves, he may even breathe a prayer or two to the Leviathan who lies dreaming in the dark waters below. It’s common sense, he thinks, not superstition. Morley is a land that’s crawling with spirits. They’re in the rocks, the trees, the rain. They sing out from the hills and the forests, they call from the sea, and Teague has no need of superstition because the spirits simply…are.

Gristol is different.

Gristol is a land that’s purged itself of spirits, all save one, and Teague can’t help but find it unsettling that it’s the Leviathan -- the Outsider -- who has carved himself a place in this gray and desolate country that stinks of fish and seawater. There are those back home who worship the Outsider, but Teague’s never paid their cults much mind. Followers of the Leviathan tend to be half-cocked and odd, their eyes gleaming with mad knowledge they were probably never meant to possess, and because Morley is a land crawling with spirits the Outsider becomes just one petty deity among many. A black-eyed godling that lurks beneath the waves and drags his favored few to join him in the depths. Feared by some, worshipped by few, and easily ignored.

He’s far more powerful here.

And the people of Gristol are…strange. Strange, and superstitious, a country of men and women who would rigidly deny their faith only to turn around and offer up terrified pleas to their mercurial god before they die. At first he’d thought it was just the soldiers, because that, at least, would make sense. Men of the Navy are closer to the ocean than most; he can see why they, like the whalers and fisherfolk he’s familiar with, would instinctively turn towards a creature like the Outsider when the darkness of the Void closes in around them.

But -- as he discovers after his comrades are dead or captured and he’s alone in this ugly country with little coin and fewer options -- it’s not just the soldiers. He finds small chunks of bone among the valuables he takes at gunpoint, three-pronged carvings and runes with strange etchings. Even when they’re hollow-eyed with fear, his victims still try to take these carvings back.

“Please,” they say. The aborted movements of their hands towards these odd little charms, halted only by the sound of Teague cocking his pistol. “Please, you can take everything else. Please. Just don’t take that.” And when they die it’s the Outsider they cry out to, as if such a creature would care at all about their tiny, insignificant lives.

Given this, he’d thought maybe the objects were valuable, but no one will give him coin for them. He can trade them, sometimes, for a hot meal or a pint, a night with a whore, but the Abbey has sunk its claws deep into this country and no one wants to admit to desiring the damn things. Even fewer are willing to risk buying them. He takes to leaving them with the bodies, when there are bodies. Teague has no love of killing, but Gristol is a cruel, thirsty country and it’s already drunk enough Morley blood.

He tells himself he’s just evening the score.

*

The life he’s living…it’s not a good life. He’s tired, and cold, and his belly is empty more often than not. When he’s low on ammunition he uses his blade instead, and that’s much riskier than he’d like. He’s a good fighter, but life on the road has made him rough and he fights with more desperation than skill these days. When he’s injured or sick, he can ill-afford the physicians he’s forced to see.

It’s not a good life, but it’s a familiar one. This is what Teague hates the most: that he can ignore the sharp ache in his belly because he knows it too well, that he can stretch what little coin he has because it’s a habit borne of old necessity. When he’d lied his way into the military before he was barely old enough to shave, he left those days of being filthy and hungry and desperate behind; that he’s in such a place again, older now and with nothing to show for what he’s suffered save scars both mental and physical…

Teague laments, not for the first time, that Gristol is a country too wet to properly burn. If it were, he’d happily light the match.

And he’d laugh.

There’s been increased military presence inland of late. Something to do with one last, despairing effort by his fellow Insurrectionists, one that was stamped out hard with fire and electricity and strange new inventions. The talk around the pubs is that the Insurrection is officially over and the Empire’s rounding up sympathizers now. For information, or so it’s said; they want to know who the leaders were and how Dunwall’s defenses were so cleverly penetrated. They want to know how to keep such things from ever happening again.

Teague quietly listens and pays for his drinks without speaking, and that night he sets out towards the coastal roads. There are few places for ships to land along the long stretch of coastline between Driscol and Whitecliff, and the Navy leaves it more or less alone. The land and sea here meet in a jumble of rough waves and jagged rocks and high, impossible cliffs. The few travelers he passes are mostly pilgrims on their way to Whitecliff, and he discovers they have little coin on them. After a while, he just leaves them be.

Besides, the pilgrims may weep as he relieves them of their possessions (and occasionally their lives), but they don’t attempt to bargain for their souls. They don’t carry worthless charms and chunks of polished bone they value above all other things. They don’t plead with the only god this wretched land has left. Teague’s not sure why he approves of this, but he does. The people he passes quietly may never know it, but leaving their skins and purses intact is his way of honoring their lack of hypocrisy.

Perhaps, he thinks, he’ll follow their example and travel to Whitecliff himself. He can’t haunt the roads forever. His dreams are fitful and feature a hangman’s noose, a chopping block, a row of uniformed men with pistols pointed straight at his heart. One of these days his crimes will catch up to him, and he’s not ready to die.

Not yet.

So he makes his camps well away from the roads. He builds rings of black stone to contain his fires, which are small and hot and fed with the dry scrub of the cliffs and sweet-smelling yellow grass. He eats gull eggs and sour berries and uses his remaining coin to buy bread and dried fish from the pilgrims he meets, and he tries, in vain, to fool his stomach into thinking it’s full by drinking hot tea made with bark and herbs.

Because he doesn’t want to die in this miserable excuse of a country, this country without gods that drinks too deeply of everything it touches. Despite his best efforts it’s swallowing him too, and he hates that this makes him afraid.

His hipbones are too sharp. He can count all his ribs. His clothing is threadbare and he can never get warm, and he kills now not for coin but for food. For blankets. For a coat that will keep out the wind, and there’s so much wind, wind and icy rain, storms that darken the horizon to the point where it’s impossible to tell sea from sky. He’s lost track of the days but he thinks the Month of Nets has almost passed, and this frightens him even more than his dwindling ammunition and increasingly hollow stomach does.

After Nets comes Rain. Then Wind. Then Darkness. He has no idea how far it is to Whitecliff, and the rocks and the wind and the cold steal his prayers and gulp them down long before they ever reach home. The lone spirit that lurks in the cracks of Gristol’s geography is not one he wants to pray to, not anymore, and Teague, who was never all that superstitious to begin with, eventually lets all his prayers die unsaid.

This land is wrong, and he was wrong to come here.

This land is wrong, and it’s hungry.

He doesn’t want to die here.

He’s afraid.

*

He finds the ruin on the night of the worst storm yet. In Morley, he would have attributed this to divine provenance -- quiet intervention by the Lady of Hollows, perhaps, or the One Who Waits. Here it is luck: blind, simple, stupid luck.

The ruin itself is on a high bluff overlooking the ocean. The roar and crash of the waves against the rocks is so loud that it almost drowns the angry howling of the wind; the rain sheets sideways here, mingles with the spray of the rioting ocean below. He is drenched down to his skin, to his very bones, and his fingers are clumsy and stiff as he struggles with the heavy door. The wood is swollen, the hinges corroded by years of exposure to seawater and uncompromising winds. Sodden splinters peel away under his fingernails as he scrabbles at the latch, and he is finally -- mercifully -- able to wrench the thing open and stumble inside.

The building is old. How old, he’s not exactly sure. The stones of Gristol stand firm even when everything else crumbles around them. It’s old enough that much of the roof has collapsed under the weight of water and disrepair, and for a moment he despairs of ever building a fire, much less getting dry. He wonders, for the very first time, whether setting his pistol to his temple and using one of his few remaining bullets would be the coward’s way or merely practical. The thought leaves him shaken, and to get it out of his head he prowls the ruin, searching for just one place where he can get out of the rain.

That’s all he needs. Just one dry place.

It’s a puzzle, this ruin. Teague can’t tell what it’s for. It’s too big to be a house and lacks the grandeur of the Abbey buildings, and up here on the bluff it’s terribly isolated. The curved inner walls are slick with rain and algae, limned with white salt. His teeth chatter as he moves further into the building.

Here, at least, the roof is more present. There’s still water, but it’s mostly underfoot and soaking through his boots, streaming down the walls, dripping into his hair. The further inward he goes the darker it gets, and he thinks maybe he should stop and attempt a fire; there’s cover now, although it’s not good cover, and perhaps he’ll have gotten lucky enough that at least a few things in his pack are dry enough to burn.

He finds the stairs entirely by accident: namely, when he slips on them and almost breaks his neck.

The fall hurts. He doesn’t go far but he lands hard, hip first, then his right elbow, and the pain is so white and sudden and blinding that he can’t do much more than lie on the wet rocks and breathe. He hopes there was supposed to be a door set into the floor at some point and that it’s long since rotted away, because who in the Void would do something like that, who would build a fucking stairwell in the middle of the damn floor and--

There is light, blue and dim, coming from below. The stairwell is steep and spiraled and curves ahead of him, and the walls are rough. It’s as if whoever created this stairwell had simply hollowed out the shape of it in the rock and was content to leave it at that. When he finally pushes to his feet, bones aching and elbow screaming, the black stones feel slippery and treacherous. If he was smart, he would backtrack up from where he’d slid, find a way to make a fire. Dry his clothes. Get warm.

That light, though.

He calls, “Hello?”

His voice is rusty with disuse and echoes strangely in the hollow stairwell. The roar of the ocean is inexplicably louder here. He clears his throat and tries again.

No one answers, and Teague's not sure if he's disappointed or relieved. He continues down, and down, and it's disorienting, he feels like he's gone much too far, and he's thinking of turning back when the rocks suddenly open outward and--

It's a cave. Deep, and massive. The section where's he's standing was obviously carved by hand, the same as the stairs; the stone stretching before him is uneven but entirely too flat for nature's doing. When he carefully makes his way towards the drop-off about twenty or thirty feet ahead, he gets an entirely-too-clear picture of just how large the cavern is. The drop is a nasty one, and dark waters heave and churn below. There's no visible entrance. The high tide must’ve drowned it for the time being.

That he can see anything at all is a miracle, and one due entirely to the eerie phosphorescence of the stone walls curving high overhead. The walls and floors and ceiling of this strange cathedral shimmer with chilly blue. When he touches the rockface nearest him, his fingers come back smeared with algae and fishy-smelling brine. Four dark blots mark the press of his fingers on the stone.

Teague's heard of this, plants and animals that make their own light when none is to be otherwise found. He'd always thought them rumor, or things only in the dark places of the world. Not somewhere like this, so close to daylight and obviously touched by human hands. Then again...

Perhaps human hands are the ones responsible. As he makes his way farther into the cavern, shapes loom out of the wierdlight: immense bones, the ribs of some long-dead leviathan arcing so high overhead their tips are lost in the gloom. A rough stone alter set into the floor. Tarnished offering bowls larger than his torso. Sodden purple cloth draped over bones and altar both, faint blue flickering from the depths of the weave. There are runes here, carved into the bones and the altar and the floor, the walls, and Teague knows what this place is now. The unholiest of holies, a place where a black-eyed godling once walked.

This place is not a place of honor. He should leave.

But to leave means navigating the algae-slick stairs, means attempting a fire in hallways that are already dark and dripping. Going back outside is even worse. He'd die of the cold before he ever found shelter again. Despite the salt and damp suffusing the air, despite the creepiness of the cave and the wrongness of the altar and carved leviathan bones, this is still the best option he's found. If he wants to get dry and wait out the storm, it’s probably his only option.

He doesn’t have a choice. Not really. There’s not…he doesn’t have a choice.

At least, this is what he tells himself as he drags one of the offering bowls to the wet stone floor and uses it as a makeshift fire pit, and it’s what he keeps telling himself as he hunts down every scrap of salt-soaked driftwood in the cavern and tears them into splinters for kindling. He knows they were offerings, once. Carvings of whales and sharks and octopus, other strange beasts of the sea. But the people that offered them are long gone, as is the creature they offered them to. Meanwhile, Teague is here and frozen and scared, and if it makes him uneasy to burn the gifts once presented to the spirit of deep waters and nightmares, he crushes the feeling down as far as it can go.

If the Outsider doesn’t want him here, he can damn well tell Teague himself.

In the meantime, Teague’s going to peel out of his sodden clothes and drape them over the altar so they can dry in the ambient heat of the fire. He’s going to drag down bolts of thick purple fabric, some of which is marginally drier than the rest, and wrap it around himself like a sacrilegious blanket. He’s going to clench his teeth against the pain as parts of him that have been numb for hours slowly remember just how cold they are, and he’s going to burn every last scrap of flammable material he can find until he stops shaking. He’s going to attempt to silence the howling in his stomach with a heel of old bread and a strip of fish jerky (and quietly despair when it just makes him hungrier), and, with the roar of the waves in his ears and the smell of salt and smoke in his nostrils, he’s going to fall into an uneasy sleep…

…and he’s going to dream.

*

“Well,” a smooth voice says, “if you wanted to get my attention, you certainly went about it an interesting way.”

Teague blinks, and says, very carefully, “I wasn’t trying to get anyone’s attention.”

The air of the cavern is cool on his naked skin, but not, he notices with some surprise, outright cold. The cavern’s larger than he remembers, the light stranger; it seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, a soft violet tinge that replaces the earlier icy blue. The sea, too, is oddly quiet. The sound wrapping around him now is an eerie humming, like a whisper or a song just on the edge of hearing. It makes the hair on his arms and the back of his neck rise. There’s something wrong about it, this sound. It’s not one meant for human ears.

A terrible certainty prickles up Teague’s spine. He says, more softly this time, “I wasn’t trying to get anyone’s attention at all.”

“You weren’t trying to,” the voice repeats. It’s as smooth and flat as the expression of its black-eyed owner, mocking. The Outsider -- and there’s no one else it could be, not in this place, not with those eyes shimmering like an oil slick -- tilts his head to the side and studies Teague with the sort of mild and cruel curiosity he’s seen cats regard insects.

“Tell me, Teague Martin,” the Outsider says, and when Teague opens his mouth he adds, “Oh yes, I know who you are. Bright, clever Teague Martin, a man destined for so much more than dying in a long-forgotten place of worship far from home. You sent countless Empire soldiers to their deaths without a single thought, and you’ve robbed and murdered countless more. Tell me, my dear, clever Teague, what exactly did you expect to happen when you came into this place and burned the offerings that were once meant for me?”

In spite of the comparatively mild temperature, gooseflesh ripples over Teague’s skin. He snaps, “I expected to get warm.”

The Outsider leans in. He’s beautiful, Teague notes distantly, in an uncanny and alien way. He hadn’t anticipated that. He always thought the Leviathan would look monstrous. Tentacles, or teeth. Something to underscore just how dangerous he was. Instead, the creature before him is nothing but long, smooth lines and shadows, and the only truly dangerous things about him are his eyes, which glitter with some species of dark humor that makes Teague deeply uneasy.

“Well,” the Outsider says. “You think yourself clever and funny. Whatever shall I do with you.”

At a flick of his hand, the walls of the cavern lift up and out, and most of the floor falls away into a vast, dizzying expanse of blue. There are shapes out there. Most floating motionless, some spinning drunkenly like a child’s top. Teague squints at one and quickly looks away again. He’d glimpsed the frozen tableau for but a moment, but a moment was enough: a wall streaked with red, battered men lined in front of it. The faces are ones he recognizes, and he wishes he didn’t. One of them spits defiance even as a bullet flies towards his heart.

There are other scenes out in the murky blue, held motionless in the way of Teague’s worst nightmares. Friends he thought dead being “questioned” by men wearing Gristol blues. Caulkenny burning. Are these things that have already happened, Teague wonders, or things that will happen? It never occurs to him that they might be false. The Outsider’s known for being many things, but a liar isn’t one of them.

Teague gropes for the altar, tries not to look like he’s clinging to it. What remains of the cavern floor isn’t wide enough for his tastes, and the Outsider has seen fit to drop massive holes from the rock. As Teague watches, a fish lazily swims upside down through the gaping hole just to the left of his bare feet. He swallows down his nausea and says, “And here I’d hoped you might just let me have a good night’s sleep.”

He flinches when something cool and wet and shadowy slithers over his bare skin. The stone altar is between him and the Outsider now, but it feels like laughably flimsy protection. More shadows coil around his legs, his forearms. They’re chilly and whisper-soft and, he realizes with no small amount of horror, terribly strong.

The Outsider’s eyes glisten, black on black. “You don’t get much sleep these days, do you Teague?”

The inky shadows don’t give an inch when Teague attempts to jerk free. They flex instead, ripple further up his skin. Either he’s growing accustomed to their eerie chill or they’re warming to his body heat; his skin prickles everywhere they touch. “Not really,” he says. “Cold and starvation and fear of imminent death tend to do that to a man.”

The corners of the Outsider’s mouth twitch, and the impassive face creases ever-so-slightly into something Teague really hopes is a smile.

“I find it interesting,” the Outsider says, in a voice made far more frightening by its blandness. “The way you jest even though you’re so terribly afraid.”

“I’m not afraid,” Teague snaps.

Darkness drops upon them so suddenly he cries out in surprise. The vast, mostly-empty blue is gone. The unnerving tableaus of things that are or will be, the rippling silver fish, the song. The ocean’s roar echoes around Teague once more, and the icy tang of seawater is sharp in his nose. The cavern again, only it’s much too dark. The ribs of the long-dead leviathan are little more than dim shapes rising in the gloom.

He can’t see the shadows, but he can still feel them. Sliding up the insides of his thighs, creeping over his chest. Teague digs his fingers into the stone altar and repeats, “I’m not afraid,” and he shudders when cool fingers dance up his spine and lips brush his ear.

“Liar,” the Outsider croons. “You are.”

The terrible thing isn’t that the Outsider’s right: it’s that he knows he’s right, and he’s amused by it.

Teague strains against the shadows, tries and fails shut his ears to the Outsider’s quiet amusement and to shake off the touch skimming ticklishly over his shoulder blades. He’s not sure if he’s dreaming anymore, if he was ever dreaming, and it’s been far too long since he’s been touched

“You’re always afraid, aren’t you, Teague?” Contemplative, as if the dark things lurking in the depths of Teague’s soul were no more than passages in a book he found modestly intriguing. “Your bravado might fool most, but I can hear it dripping from your every word. You’re saturated in fear, you wear it like a second skin. It courses through your veins and fills your lungs, and when you breathe it all but shimmers in the air before you like mist.”

The walls are beginning to glow again. Teague drops his head forward, breath shivering out from between clenched teeth. He’s all but wrapped in shadows and he doesn’t feel cold anymore, he feels--

Teague makes a small, startled noise when the Outsider presses against his back, and he’s not sure if he drops to his knees in front of the altar of his own accord or if the shadow tendrils have dragged him down. Arms outstretched, palms flat against the cold wet stone. His hands are shaking.

“I heard you pray, Teague Martin. For your ship’s safety as you crossed the strait, for the men who were swept overboard in the storm and drowned.” Lips trail over his cervical vertebrae, down the line of his neck to his shoulder. Fingers lightly mapping his ribs. The sharp sting of teeth. “And later, as you trudged along the cliffs and fought against the wind for your every fire, I heard those prayers too. Such mundane, desperate little things.”

Teague tries to jerk away even as his body urges him to arch into the touch. “Those prayers weren’t meant for you,” he hisses.

The smile that curves against the back of Teague’s neck is cruel, as is the bite that follows. “Haven’t you learned yet?” The Outsider flattens his palm against Teague’s belly and then moves his hand lower, and Teague hates himself for the moan that’s wrenched out of him and the way his hips (and it’s not the shadows this time, he knows it’s not, this is him and him alone) rock into the loose circle of the Outsider’s fist. “All prayers in this land are prayers to me. No other gods walk the Void here, not anymore.”

A whine catches in the back of Teague’s throat as the Outsider’s hand moves faster. The shadow tendrils are shifting again, dragging over his oversensitive skin like wet silk; when the Outsider nips the back of his neck, it’s less pain and more a bright jolt zinging up his nerves. Teague’s not sure if the roaring in his ears is the ocean or the increasingly rapid thrum of his own blood.

“What--“ he rasps, falters when he hears how desperately wrecked his own voice sounds. “What happened to them?”

“I ate them, clever boy,” the Outsider says, lips against Teague’s ear and nothing but vicious satisfaction in his voice; rippling shadows replace his hand on Teague’s cock and wind around his neck, tighten until he’s gasping. “I’ll eat all of it, someday. Every weak and petty spirit that haunts Morley and Serkonos and Tyvia, each and every one of the elder gods worshipped in Pandyssia and the lands beyond. I’ll eat them all, dear one, and once I’m done I’ll eat the world too--“

The slick shadow-tendrils wrapped around him pulse, and Teague comes with the taste of salt on his tongue and the Outsider’s voice in his ear. Everything after that is merciful blackness.

*

He jerks awake to the distant, mournful cry of gulls wheeling overhead. The little fire he’d somehow managed to coax into life during the night has long since died, and his clothes are cold and soaked and plastered uncomfortably to his skin. At least, he notes with no small measure of relief, the storm seems to have passed. Through the gaping holes in the roof he can see patches of blue--

sense memory, briefly there and gone in an instant, of terror knotting cold and hard in his belly at the sight of a little silver fish finning lazily through a wide murky expanse

--and this means he might have half a chance of drying out during his long walk today.

Teague’s glad to take his leave of the ruins. Discomfort squirms in his chest at the salt-limned stones and the curved walls, like a long-forgotten dream trying to surface. He laments, not for the first time, that Gristol is a country too wet to properly burn, and that its rocks stand firm when everything around them crumbles. He would happily strike a flame and burn the miserable little ruin to the ground.

He meets the wagon at the crossroads several miles down the road. The sleek, well-fed men and women in it are dressed richly. Pilgrims, Teague assumes, since they appear to be traveling toward Whitecliff. Moneyed, if their clothes are any indication. His hand twitches towards his pistol and draws away again when one of the men, light-haired and barely older than Teague himself, raises his arm and calls, “Ho, traveler!”

Normally, this would be his cue to either draw his pistol or keep walking. Instead, Teague approaches the wagon with empty hands, unsettled by the concern that floods into their faces as he nears and they get a good look at him.

“By the Void,” one of the women says. “What happened to you?”

“I was waylaid by bandits on my way to Whitecliff,” Teague says. The words are rising from the same dark, murky place that left him feeling uneasy in the ruins. “Agents of the Outsider.”

“Terrible shame,” says another woman.

The first speaker, the man who’d called out to him, plants his elbows on his knees and leans forward. “What brings you to Whitecliff, friend?”

Teague hears himself say, “I’m going to be an Overseer,” and the moment it comes out he knows it feels right. To his utter shock, the man holds out a hand so he can help Teague into the wagon.

“Any enemy of the Outsider is a friend to us,” he says. “My name’s Jasper. You are?”

“Martin.” The bench beneath him is hard and his right hip and elbow flare with unexpected pain when the wagon jerks into motion, but it feels good to sit and even better to sit among people who are ostensibly friends. “Teague Martin.”

Jasper claps him on the shoulder. “Well, Martin, it won’t be but a day or two until we reach the city. Would you believe I’ve been thinking of accepting the mask myself? Fortunate you met up with us when you did.”

“Yes,” Teague says. He glances back up the road behind them; the dark stones of the ruin are barely visible now on the high bluff. Another mile or two, and he won’t be able to see them at all. Something small and ugly winches tight in his chest and howls. “Fortunate.”

*

The little ruin wouldn’t burn.

But witches will.