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The Hunters of Men

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"Do you really think you can hide from a hunter of man?"

Corvo watched Daud prowl the room. Despite the challenge to a fair duel, the assassin's steps made no noise. Corvo understood; their kind of silence wasn't something you could turn off. Even Jessa had had to endure weeks of silence when she'd first run into him. She'd broken him with gifts that got bigger and bigger until awe had overcome his sense of station and he'd just had to thank her.

And Daud had broken her. He had broken her, and dropped her, and she had died with her own blood hot and sticky between her fingers.

"Is this how you protected the Empress?"

A taunt too blatant to be anything but desperate. Would leaving be the worse punishment? Daud would kill again - too late to break that habit - but he had found a mirror in Jessa's dimming eyes, and what he'd seen there was eating him from the inside out. Corvo could return to the Flooded District for a weekly dose of vengeance and watch him rot. He would tick it off his to-do list like a chore.

Or he could jam his blade into the assassin's stomach. Jessa had commissioned the sword for him for his first birthday after being made Lord Protector, when he was twenty. Could it make Daud feel the loss of two decades and child worth of love in one thrust?

But the decision wasn't his alone. Corvo was only half of a whole - the shadow, even without her left to cast it. He pulled the Heart out of the Void on a wisp of smoke that smelled of burning whale oil.
"Why have you brought me here?" Its voice was the warmth of her hands, and the skin of a sunken corpse, "Am I meant to forgive this man for what he did?"

Corvo waited until the pressure of his guilt and grief let him breathe, then looked to Daud once more. The Heart pulsed.

"No. There is no turning back from the path he has chosen."

Judging by his ledger, Daud knew that better than any. Corvo could taste her disgust. It was cold, and made slick with the fear that always clung to the Heart, but he wasn't asking its opinion of Daud, he was asking for its advice. Emily would live in the future he built in these moments, and he would bear all the Heart's fear and confusion if it meant he could build it bright. Corvo curled his hand around the Heart so that his gloved fingers came between it and Daud like a shield, and waited while the shadows around him grew.

"His hands do violence, but…" he felt the Heart like someone pressed against his side, felt her breath at his ear, "There is a different dream in his heart."

Corvo nodded. The Heart slipped through his fingers as smoke, leaving him colder than its voice had ever been. He watched the man below, let him finish his cigarette. The study had been bright when he'd slipped in an hour ago, but from the tight line of Daud's shoulders, it was plain he held no illusions that Corvo had left. Or perhaps those lines on his face and the gaze that darted from corner to corner were just the cost of murdering an Empress and her city.

When he thought of Dunwall, Corvo saw Jessa's face washed in orange light and cigar smoke as she watched the sun set over her city from their secret tower room. He shouldn't have encouraged her to stay up late like they did there of course, but he could have listened to Jessa talk for years, and she wore the bags under her eyes like battle scars. She used to have him smuggle in whiskey - cheap malts that he still didn't quite believe she preferred - except when Emily was coming. It had been difficult for her to go without then, so Corvo talked instead. They'd chosen Emily's name on one of those nights, as dawn painted the rooftops pink and gold. On another, they'd recorded audiographs for her first eleven birthdays, each one peppered with Jessa telling him to feel free to speak up at any time, really, but what could he possibly say to someone who already held so much of him in her tiny hands?

He'd lost Jessa's last audiograph - the one he'd found while sheltering in their hideout on his way to the traitor nested in her old room. It was gone from his jacket when he woke in the bottom of Samuel's boat. Had the Loyalists destroyed it? He'd never had a chance to play it so he couldn't say if they'd had cause. Corvo found it easier to imagine his blade sprouting from Havelock's chest than Daud's. Daud and Corvo had more in common with a crossbow than with men like Burrows and Havelock. Daud, Corvo understood.

Daud, who had blinked into a moment when Corvo's biggest concern was that he might kiss Jessa right there in the tower, and turned their goodbye kiss all those months ago into their last.

His sword felt unusually light.

There was one more person to ask, but Emily had been ripped away from him and shoved into a boat with a bruised head. He tried to look at Daud through her dark, wide eyes that could always tell the difference between the man and the mask. She wouldn't recognize him. She would ask what was in all his filing cabinets.

Corvo landed on the balls of his feet behind Daud, close enough to choke him. The assassin was shorter than he'd realized; he could see out the window over his head. Buildings, rubble, an inky black sky. His sword felt like nothing in his hand and for a second, his heart doubled up, beating for two. 

Daud's pouch was heavy when Corvo plucked it from his belt, but not as heavy as the man's sigh. Had he sensed death pass him by on the memory of a child's wide, dark eyes? The Royal Protector dumped the pouch, unopened, several blocks away, yet it continued to tug at his steps as he slipped back to Emily's tower at the Hound's Pub. He took the Heart out twice on his way, but it was too quiet to hear. He could wait. In the months since Jessa's murder, he'd felt so frail he'd begun to fear the breeze, but the weight of his choice anchored his mind as much as his daughter's face burned into it. For the first time since his family had shrunk on Dunwall's shores as he sailed away for a cure, Corvo knew his next move.