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What is left behind

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Nothing is True.

Nothing is There.

Desmond doesn't so much float in the nothingness as he… just… is. He doesn't know how long it's been, he's kind of lost the sense of why of it, too. He thinks he minded it, way back when, an eternity ago, he wanted to leave, maybe? It doesn't really matter. Nothing matters. There's nothing.

Well, that's not exactly true. Not True true, just true. There's something – just enough of a something for him to still be sticking around. It's like a string inside him, a cord frayed to its last sliver, gently waving in the nonexistent wind, just enough to remind him that, that he's still there. He's not gone yet. He's here, here is nothing, and he's in the nothing.

No one would ever see him here. No one would find him. And no one would care.

The Lonely savours him slowly, digesting his slowly ebbing, flowing misery like a tasty morsel. He's a candy on it's tongue, and it's wearing him out slowly, so slowly, tasting every aspect of his Aloneness and humming with the drawn out enjoyment.

The knowledge that he was always alone. Surrounded by what amounted to paper cutouts of people, rather than real individuals. They stand up in his memories now like stand-ins, all hollow and two-dimensional, repeating the same hollow, meaningless words.

Get up, Desmond, the words echo, sharp enough to cut, to bring forth a reaction, to make him twitch. Dad, calling him across the training ring. Get up, Desmond, he says, and never holds out his hand, never helps him up, never does anything. Get up, Desmond, he snaps, impatient enough for Desmond to hear it in his voice, but also distracted, like he's looking elsewhere, his attention on something else, like whether Desmond actually gets up or not doesn't actually matter. Get up, Desmond.

And the Loneliness whispers, No one ever asked if you needed help. No one offered a hand to pull you up. Did anyone ever give you their arm, their shoulder to lean on? Did anyone ever lift you to your feet? Did they hold you?

His mother's hands, cool and perfunctory on his cheek as she dabs stinging antiseptic on a cut. Her fingernails feel like paper cuts, and her disapproving tutting sounds like distant static. "It's just a cut, and you're a big boy, Desmond, you don't need my help."

Desmond knows, theoretically, that his mother helped him. He remembers it. But he also remembers the holes in those memories, the parts where they don't exist. Dad is easier, Bill Miles actually made an appearance in his life, such as it was, but his Mother is only a voice. Voice, and vast holes of absence, where the game creators hadn't bothered to fill up his background. Seventeen years worth of memories.

The Lonely has filled them, bit by bit, with cold shoulders from her, with dismissal, with distracted disregard as she turns away. Just enough care to make him feel it, a hand on his shoulder, a band aid on his lip, just enough to make him long for more – and then the Lonely takes the image and turns her away from him, leaves him at the mercies of a father, who turns more and more callous and cold as the memories twist and turn and...

You were a thing they raised, a fruit of labour, the culmination of a bloodline. They married for lineage, not love, they didn't love each other, they didn't love you – you were just a thing they made, an Assassin of Assassins, the Assassin, their Chosen One, alone and strange and

Desmond drifts. He thinks he might be floating. He has enough will left to know that this is kind of – not wrong, exactly, though it's that too. The Lonely wants his suffering, his slow anguish, his Loneliness, his Aloneness, his Solitude – and his knowledge of it, too. Wants to make him feel it.

But it doesn't come naturally for him. He can feel it, but it's artificial, in the end. Those people never existed, and those experiences never happened, and he knows it. He knows what he is. The Lonely can't take that away from him – it's the main thing it's feeding on.

He's a Solitary Existence, artificial, hollow, fake, empty, the Lonely can digest him forever. So it won't make him think he's human, not all the way. Whenever he threatens to tip over the edge of that knowledge and into delusion of humanity, it reminds him – he's just code, code, code, nothing but symbols on a screen, unloved and unreal, a thing no one knew, a thing that shouldn't be – and that breaks the illusion of suffering.

Desmond sighs, and the Lonely drinks it up all the while breathing in on it, like blowing on a hot coal, making it blaze in his chest. Alone, alone, alone, and unknown.

Desmond has no idea how long it's been going on. Doesn't know if there's time in this place. There probably isn't. The Lonely can and will feed off on him forever, and he's more or less… fine with that. Would be nice if it wouldn't try and fake it, though – it doesn't feel right.  He knows loneliness and isolation, and it can be so nice. So much nicer than fake social isolation. He's never minded social isolation, it's never done that much for him. Sure, he was sad, at times, but true isolation, the feeling of being properly removed from everyone and everything…

That's sweet.

Desmond jerks in the Nothing and in the Emptiness, and around him the Lonely shifts and breathes. There's – something. Like a tug in Desmond's chest, in his soul – in his code screen, or whatever it is he has. The empty space that's his body is feeling a drag, though. It kind of feels like he's - 

Gasping, Desmond convulses and grabs at his chest, as the Lonely disperses like so much mist around him, and the faked illusions of social isolation and dismissal fade. There's a tether – Desmond can almost see it, and he can definitely feel it. Someone's got a hand around his story and is tugging at his words, at the strings of his code, and he's -

Out there, someone Knows him.

He's Known.

He's Seen.

The string is tugged – and then released. Desmond stares in dismay as it goes taut and then snaps, withering away like smoke in the wind – the mist of the Lonely eats it up, wears it out, until Desmond is left holding just a – a bit of it, hanging from his chest. It's – thin, and black, plastic.

A… tape? It's thin and flimsy and takes Desmond a bit to actually remember what it is, but… yeah, it's tape. Cassette tape. "Huh," he says out loud, as the thin flimsy string of it loops loosely over his fingers, almost too light to be felt. Been – never, since he's seen this stuff, actually.

"Statement of Desmond Miles," the cassette tape announces into his fingers in a firm, brisk male voice. "Regarding his… existence…"

Desmond's skin crawls and he knows, instinctively, that it's Another. Another what, he's not sure, but it's Another. It feels like – like sandpaper against his senses, like anathema, but also like kin. It's a weird mixture of sensations, not entirely pleasant nor unpleasant. Kind of… tingly, like an itch that's satisfying to scratch.

It has to be the story, the one he made to the Eye, just like that old guy said – that has to be – someone out there, someone with power, just did something with his story. Recorded it on tape maybe? He isn't sure, but…

He has his hands again. And legs. So that's kind of nice.

Slowly, shakily, Desmond finds his feet enough to stand on them, peering around curiously. The Nothingness hasn't changed, the Lonely is still there, looming upon him, wishing to smother him, but – he's Known now, and that changes things.

"You're hungry," he says, which – is probably a weird thing to say, but it's what he feels. "I'm sorry, I'm not that kind of meal. I don't fear being lonely – it's all I've ever been. Can't fear the only thing you've ever known."

The Lonely doesn't answer, of course not, but it leans in, hungry and withering, whimpering and savouring. No one loves you. it whispers in his own voice, which is right enough. No one wants you. You're safe here. No one can hurt you here.

They're not really things it's saying, though, more like stuff his mind is saying at himself, as a placeholder for the things it craves. It kind of – it has the feel of a petulant, lonely child, mumbling into its knees, bitter and unintelligible.

The weird thing is, though it's been slowly digesting Desmond for eons, now, Desmond kind of feels bad for the thing. It's pitiful. Lonely things usually are… at least until they learn to live with it. And Desmond did, a long time ago… given the value of living, maybe, but… still.

"Here," Desmond murmurs, and gives the Lonely not his sadness, because he doesn't really have any to give, but his… serenity, the masochistic, drawn out edge of it – the moments spent alone in his flat, feeling self-righteously bitter about having to turn down an invitation to a party because someone was filming there. He feeds the Lonely the moments in abandoned gas stations when he was at his most desperate, his most alone, and with no one to turn to he turned inward instead, and felt worse for it. The moments of dissociation just after using the Animus, when he felt disconnected from everything, body and soul…

The Lonely flexes around him, and Desmond draws a shuddering, shocked breath. "Yeah," he croaks, shaky. "Now you get it." His mouth feels like dry parchment and tastes like mothballs at the end of a cabinet that hasn't been opened in decades – like an empty tomb in an abandoned castle, where Altaïr sat alone for centuries. "Isn't that better?"

The Lonely lets him go, and Desmond grips the shredded cassette tape in hand, and turns to follow it out.


Desmond comes out in an abandoned building, which is… fitting. He's not sure where he was when he slipped into the Lonely – somewhere with people, he thinks, feeling alone and invisible in a crowd. It was such a long time ago that it's hard to remember – but judging by the looks of this place, it doesn't look like it's been centuries. There are paper mugs littering the floor, a couple of discarded syringes in the corner of the room he's in, graffiti everywhere. Every corner is full of spider webs.

He can… there's something in the air. A tinge of – it's like stale coffee, going cold, forgotten on a dusty table. Mothballs too, and old clothes left hanging too long. A clammy feeling of abandoned, and probably mildew-riddled buildings.

Blinking slowly, Desmond looks down at his hand – he's still holding the bit of cassette tape. Good, he thinks, and gently puts it away – he needs it to lead him to… to somewhere. But first he needs – he needs something. There's something here, and he needs it.

It's an apartment building, the place he's in. Looks like it was only half constructed when it was abandoned – no furniture, no paint on the walls, just concrete and raw structures. Building project that went under and lost funding before it was completed, maybe? It smells old and – and like people have been doing their business in the halls. Which they have. There are stains everywhere.

There's also something there, on the second floor, near the stairs. A nest of mattresses, a curtain awkwardly hung on the stairs, to hide the little safe space underneath them. Someone's living there, keeping warm. They're asleep.

They're having nightmares. Desmond can feel them. A mist wafts off the nest of filthy mattresses and pillows and blankets, a clammy chill of lingering misery.

Slowly, inhaling the scent of loneliness hanging about the mess of hard won comfort, Desmond savours it, only half aware of what he's doing, or why. He can almost see it, inside his head. The reason for the human's misery – only not, not quite. It's not really a seeing thing, more of a feel of things piling on top of each other, turning into an insurmountable wall, an unclimbable pile, an impossible thing to overcome that isolated them, turned them into an outcast, left them so - very - alone...

"Shit," Desmond whispers, closing his eyes. It's not a lot, nothing like what the Lonely was drawing from him, but – he's never – it's – it's heady, the feel of human misery. It's also – disconnected.

Not the sort of misery the Lonely feeds off on, is it? No, the Lonely more used to things isolated in horror and fear, because that's what they do, that's what they are, they're fears. This is just aimless, unrelenting despair – this one, they're not afraid, they're just miserable. It's not… quite right.

Opening his eyes, Desmond shudders and then leans back. He feels – better. Which is frankly horrifying.

"Shit," he says again, and then backs away, brushing a spider off his shoulder.

He thinks he could reach out and bask in the human's seclusion, like it was cool breeze on a hot dry day - or warm candle flame in the darkness, and he could stifle the source of it, and drink it all in.

He leaves the apartment building instead, feeling stronger – and so much worse – than he has since he'd come out from the code.


The Lonely follows him. It – lingers – wherever he looks. Little whips of mist and thin mire of fog that lingers everywhere, obscuring bits and pieces here and there.

There are lonely places everywhere. Places people built, but didn't design for anyone to inhabit. Corners on the stairwell which are like traps, you can get stuck there, and it's not going to be a comfortable place to get stuck in. Alleys that end up in a dead end, which are cut off by bits of fence, closed up islands of no-man's land inside the city of millions. Places you can get trapped in, and who is going to hear you yell for help? Bits of street that are awkward and where cars don't move, where people don't walk.

There's a tree Desmond passes, which has wisps of seclusion lingering around its roots, cold like lingering dew, uncomfortable. Someone sat there, a lot, feeling all alone, so much that it's gotten smeared on the tree. Never having seen a tree feel alone before, Desmond considers it and then turns away, more confused than ever. It feels like rot.

He's… acutely aware of the fact that people don't see him. He's walking in front of motorists and bikers and pedestrians, and people pass him, avoid him, part in front of him like water, never touching him. He's isolated in a crowd, and it feels just about right, but also, yeah. Weird. Very weird. It wasn't like this before, when he was barely physical enough to even register as a person to people, and now – he's like negative space.

Desmond waves his hand over a woman's face, and she ducks under it with a shudder, her expression never changing as she moves away quickly, ignoring him.

"Huh," Desmond murmurs.

So, the Lonely had… done something to him. He'd figured it would, you don't get to hang around in a place like that for that long and not come out unchanged on the other end. But this is a bit more than he thought. This feels like – almost like a power, really.

"I have become Ezio," Desmond murmurs to himself, trying for a joke. It falls flat. "Invisible in a crowd."

Not really, though. Ezio blended in a crowd. Here, the crowd is collectively ignoring Desmond, all but scrubbing the impression of him from their brains. Dozens of people, hundreds, thousands – they flow past him, endless flood of strange faces, and not a single one of them acknowledges him at all. He's… he's kind of tempted to reach out and grab someone – just to see if he could. Would they notice him then?

Would be a bit rude, though, right?

Well.

What the hell.

Desmond reaches out and grabs the arm of a guy, a bit younger than him, with headphones on and hair dyed bright blue. The guy jerks, confused, and looks around – their eyes meet, briefly and -

something

overtakes.

The guy's name is Jason, and he'd broken up with his girlfriend four days ago. He's sad – he'd liked her, they'd been good. She was a painter, she'd dyed his hair, he thought it was love. She didn't. The break up had been amiable.

He's feeling a little lonely – not much, but, just a little. Hadn't seen his sister in four months now. Mom hadn't called that week, she was in Mexico on a work trip, too busy. Dad never called anyway. Jason was thinking of visiting his dad, maybe they could go out on drinks, father and son. He could tell his dad about the book he was reading, give them something to talk about.

Desmond sees a little… lingering… doubt in Jason's mind…

And he breathes life into it.

Jason's dad didn't really care about his books, never had. Just humoured him, because he was nice, but it was never an interest of his. It was more of a nuisance really, wasn't it, Jason babbling on about his stuff. No one cared. Rita was right, she'd just – she'd been so bored with him, hadn't she, hadn't really cared about any of it. Wasn't her fault. She had her own thing going on. He was just holding her back.

Better Jason just goes home and concentrates on his own thing for a while. It's fine, really. He can figure it out on his own. He's fine. It's all fine.

Jason slips out of Desmond's hold and heads away – a halo of grey smoke lingering about his head as he goes, his face pale.

Desmond releases the sudden tension that's overtaken him and his shoulders slump. "What," he murmurs, "the actual fuck."

Every word comes out with a thin, curling wisp of mist, cold against his teeth.

Jason would become a recluse, that day onward. Close his door, turn his music on high, and not think about things, while thinking about things all too much. He'd read the book again, and again, and then get the idea of writing his own. It wouldn't be very good, but he'd try his hand at it, it would distract him, keep his mind occupied. The loneliness would linger, settle, make itself home in his chest. He'd never have another girlfriend.

He'd dream about being all alone a lot, of being stuck in closed up rooms, or lost in wide open spaces - of standing in a crowd where people had no faces. He'd fear that no one would ever hear him and he'd fear ever speaking up. Jason wound fear people crowding him in almost as much as he'd fear being left all alone. It would only isolate him further, until after a while people would stop reaching out to him completely...

And the Lonely would feed off on his solitude until his eventual death – which, too, he would go through… alone.


Desmond freaks out in a park, for a while. Tugs at his hair and pinches at his skin, tries to figure out where flesh starts and mist begins. It's – yeah. Really fucking freaky. But hell, he's not empty anymore, so, there's that? There's that. He's not sure it's enough.

He's not sure what he is, now.

Desmond has this sense - it's almost like the Eagle Vision, but more inside his head than ever. He can feel the… the lonely things around him. They're like…

Like there are these holes in people - or maybe little embers, but cold, and instead of smoke there's just a chilly mist rising from them. After Jason, he can see them, like sparks of light under the Eagle Vision, only grey and lifeless. Little voids in the hearts of people where they feel just a little bit… alone. And the bigger they are, the more mist they expel… the wider the empty spaces are around people.

Desmond keeps thinking, almost remembering - he used to be a… bartender. Right? Yeah, that sounds right. He used to be a bartender. It wasn't real, but he still remembers it, and maybe something had patched up some of the holes in his code there, because he can remember people. Clients, customers, patrons. Bad Weather was a quiet sort of bar, the kind of place where people talk to their bartender, and people talked to him.

Because they were lonely. That's why you go to a bar for the most part, right? To be a little less lonely.

Everyone is alone in their heads, though, in their grieves and grievances, with their nagging doubts and disbelief, with their suspicion. Little things, big things, long drawn out bits of solitude and moments of just being by themselves – everyone is all alone, all of the time.

And now Desmond can feel it - can feel how easy it would be to reach out into those little voids, those little holes in people's chests where doubt and sadness are seeping in, how simple it would be to drive a wedge into those gaps and tear them wider, turn niggling doubt into anxiety and fear and whisper, no one will ever understand you, no one will ever see you, you're all a l o n e…

And it would be sweet, feeling trust turn sour and love grow cracks, watch the seeds of loneliness take root and drag the person down, down on their knees, into quiet cloying sadness, and finally into the Lonely.

Desmond shakes quietly in that secluded spot in the park, feeling spooked and strangely energised with sheer potential of people's little miseries. God, he's never felt so alive.

He's never felt so completely, utterly alone, either. Because he's… not really alive, is he?

Damn it… he feels like he's forgetting something important, too. Something - something he thinks the Lonely might've taken from him. What was it, it was - it was… it's gone. Whatever it was, he feels almost unmoored without it. It's really not helping with him trying to make sense of things, knowing that something was missing. 

Seems like something the Lonely would do - it's been digesting him for so long that it's polished away the things it didn't enjoy, the rough bits, until only the perfect marble of isolation remained.

Blowing out vapor into the cold night air, Desmond looks down to find an abandoned cat winding around his foot – she's a little injured, covered in fleas, and alone. He thinks she can feel him being alone too. Cats, the symbols of the lonely. Looking down at her, Desmond is also looking at his chest, the white hoodie he's wearing, the dark shirt under it. He's wearing the clothes he died – came to life – in. He'd also apparently walked through some spider webs, because there are little silk strings hanging off his clothes.

Brushing them away, Desmond can still feel it there, the lingering impression of the torn cassette tape, tugging. Someone out there, the one who made the tape… Knows him.

Maybe they Know what the hell is going on, too.

 

Chapter Text

Desmond dozes off most of the flight to the UK. It's probably just for the best, really, not that he can really help it. It's the plane, it's… soothing.

What's a plane but a big isolation tube, really, where every single person is aware of just how far removed from the world they've become? How seemingly simple it would be for that isolation tube just to fail, how it might just… drop and kill them all? Crammed in tight together, with that lingering awareness of mortality, people feel so alone, so stuck in their bodies and unable to move and forced right next to people they don't know, people they've never met and probably never will again...

The whole plane is filled with the thick mire of mist – it's like being in a hot box of quiet unease, only chilly and scentless. Desmond can feel himself breathing it in, in and out, breathing life to the quiet anxiety gripping his seatmates, spreading the chill. The woman to the right of him would be having nightmares about being alone on a plane, stuck in mid flight, forever isolated and unable to escape. The man to the left is reading an adventure novel about a plane crashing on a deserted island and one passenger surviving and having to fend for themselves all alone. It's quietly twisting into a horror novel as the guy reads on.

Yeah, probably best Desmond dozes off before he will give the whole plane nightmares about air travel related isolation. Makes the time pass quicker, if nothing else.

He closes his eyes and lets his mind wander. He's pretty sure the Another One is somewhere in the UK – the thread led to the shore and towards the Atlantic, so, somewhere in Europe at least. He's heard somewhere, back before the Lonely, that the UK had… institutions for the weirder stuff. He vaguely recalls he sent them copies of his audio file… the last one he made. The Lonely had almost made him forget, but – that has to be it, right? Someone listened to this audio file, that's how they Know him. That has to be it. Right?

Desmond's a little impatient to get there, to get answers. Can't hasten up air travel though, it will take it's time, and they'd get there when they got there.

Idly he imagines the plane stretching and stretching until it reaches all the way to the UK, lengthening into an endless corridor, sections repeating, people being copied like, like stock images, placeholders – repurposed NPC's. On and on...

Someone gets up to go to the toilet, but the plane is so long that they can't find it, there's no toilet, just an endless corridor of people crammed in, people who lose definition the further they go along in the endless row of copy pasted plane sections, until they're just blank-faced paper cutouts. The flight attendants have no faces.

The lone passenger runs down the corridor, they tug at the people, they try to go back and see their seat mates, the ones that still had faces and were three-dimensional people, but no matter where they go, the people around them keep losing definition, more and more, until they're just paper, and the passenger is alone, weeping, screaming in the endlessly empty plane.

Desmond sighs in his sleep, and somewhere on the plane someone cries quietly into their hands, alone – and no one asks them if they're alright.

It's a very refreshing nap despite the nightmares, Desmond finds, waking up energised and invigorated. There's a general sense of unease on every passenger when the plane lands, though – the flight attendants too, they're looking wide-eyed and pale. Maybe there was turbulence – who knows. Desmond slept right through it. Might be just the cold.

"Thank you for a great flight," Desmond says to the flight attendants, even though he's pretty sure they can't even see him. No one has so far. That's probably for the best, really – he doesn't even have a ticket, he's an unregistered extra passenger that just walked into the plane and no one stopped him. A bit creepy, but also handy, seeing as he has no money.

Still, never hurts to be polite, right? And he thinks the flight attendants react a little to his words, jerking a bit, and then staring fixedly through him. One of them shivers. It's something, at least.

Shaking his head, Desmond moves through the shifting throng of disembarking people and enters Heathrow Airport, looking around curiously.

He'd never travelled much – very little in his game, and less out of it. Can't remember much about airports, but he thinks he'd seen a couple, or at least he should've. He'd gone to Brazil and Rome in his game, so… he must have, right? He can't remember anything about either flight, though. It wasn't included in the game.

It probably wouldn't have been like that. There's so many people here – too many for a game engine to render properly without combusting. There's almost enough of them for it to feel real.

Airports are… transient sort of places, aren't they? A lot of lonely people in airport terminals, feeling themselves all untethered, neither at home nor abroad, but halfway in between places, stuck in that sense of unbelonging. 

There's a lot of mist hanging about.

Stuffing his hands into his hoodie pockets, Desmond shudders at the stifling feeling of not being where you want to be and then sets out to find an exit.


 

Desmond stops at a game shop. Can't help it, really – and it has nothing to do with the lonely gamer browsing through the rack of second hand games. It's the advertisement in the front – for a deluxe version of Assassin's Creed Origins.

There's a new game out, huh? Been out for a while too, for there to be dlc and stuff. They're still making the games – and have finally moved away from the colonial period, it looks like, expanding further back in the timeline, going before Altaïr rather than after Connor…

Rubbing at his chest, Desmond feels it again, that… awareness. It presses down on him with renewed power, a sense of unrealness, like his skin texture is off and his frame is clipping through the world. If he's not looking behind himself, does the environment get rendered? Do people move when he's not there to watch them?

He hesitates for a moment before slipping inside past the display of logo-adorned t-shirts and the cardboard cut out of the Egyptian Assassin. Inside the shop is mostly vacant, three customers and one salesperson, none of them look at him.

It's like his own personal horror show, visiting these places. There used to be more stuff, a lot more merch about his games before the Lonely took him. Walking into a game store and coming face to face with a poster of Ezio had been – it was an experience. The popularity has waned a little, though, it looks like, and the store is advertising other games.

Doesn't mean the games aren't there – oh, they're there. Rows of them on the shelf and boxes of them in the second hand bin – about twenty, thirty copies in total of varying games in the series. The first one with Altaïr, the Ezio trilogy in its many editions, the third one…

Behind the counter, the store clerk goes to get something from the back room and doesn't come out again.

Desmond had tried his hand in playing them himself, when he was still tangible enough to hold things. He couldn't – stomach the early games, there was something just fundamentally wrong about playing them, and he just couldn't… but he tried the fourth one, Black Flag, and then Unity, and damn if it hasn't been a trip and a half. It was…

Masochistic is probably the word. And maybe weirdly obscene. They added his damn autopsy to the fourth game. How morbid is that?

Not that he ever had an actual body to autopsy…

Everything is sort of flickering around him – like the Animus trying to load up environments – while Desmond flicks through the games and to the single copy of the Ezio Trilogy. It's got a picture of him in the back, a small one, with Rebecca, Shaun and Lucy in Monteriggioni and… it… it's…

Fuck.

Desmond strokes his thumb over the picture, sighing, while behind him another customer gets lost in a game.

The loneliness is sort of bitterly sweet, welling up inside him. It feels cool and almost refreshing, and it's making his arms feel heavy and his throat ache – he doesn't have organs or nerves, but he feels them, and they all ache.

He's forgotten a lot about them, his friends, his teammates – can't remember voices, and their faces look strange to him now, he doesn't recall the details anymore... but damn if he doesn't miss them.

And they were never real. Shaun, Lucy, Rebecca, they were never people. They're just images, something someone designed, another person animated, and someone voice acted. Amalgamations of separate creative processes. They never had lived, never had thoughts or feelings…

Desmond stopped playing Black Flag when Shaun turned up on screen, playing the part of a barista in Abstergo facility lobby. It still hurts, thinking about it – he's felt somehow… worse than when Lucy betrayed him. Like… Desmond has no idea what he was feeling then. Bitter, happy, abandoned, ridiculous. Like Shaun had moved on with his life and forgotten him? 

He had no idea what he's feeling now either. It hurts, whatever it is, it hurts to the point that it feels almost good, almost like pleasure. Masochistic mental self-harm? Something like that.

"Hey guys," Desmond murmurs, stroking the game cover gently. No one hears him – the only other customer present is too busy crying in the corner. "How are you doing these days – still kicking, I hope? Still in the narrative?"

They don't answer, of course not. They're just pictures, staring vacantly at nothing. And in the centre stands Desmond Miles, the modern day protagonist, head tilted up to look at the statue of Altaïr.

Sometimes Desmond wonders if the developers removed him from the narrative because he left it and they can't really write him anymore, because he's not part of that world anymore. Or maybe… 

Maybe they just didn't care for him.

His character wasn't very popular in the fandom. That's what happens when your narrative purpose is to serve as plot through line, giving the developers an excuse to keep games connected as a series. Get more hardcore fans that way, the sort that will buy your game every year… just to see what would happen next. So the developers hadn't given him much of a personality, trying to keep him as a blank slate for the audience to project themselves on. It didn't really work. He was too blank, he thinks. Too boring.

Desmond bows his head and sighs, setting the game down. Around him everything feels unreal and empty, and he'd pretty sure the street outside hasn't rendered in – it's just a static picture over the window until he will step outside, and then it will clear up into the semblance of reality, filled in with NPC's for him to interact with, or… not, as things stand now. 

Desmond turns to leave the now empty game shop behind, and he feels very, very alone.


 

There's a lot of lonely people in London too. Desmond tries to ignore them, but it's an old city, so old, and things linger in old things. Especially loneliness, it compounds on itself and thickens and turns into a heavy fog that seeps in through the cracks and infects the people it touches. There's… power in London.

It's weird though. So much potential, so much lingering possibility, and it's weirdly – unattended. It's just hanging around, all this tempting sadness and…

Why it feels like no one is doing anything with it, Desmond has no idea. What can you even do with sadness and loneliness, except perpetuate it? And why would you?

Why wouldn't you? None of it is real, they're none of them people. It's all just empty space, vacant, lonely, so very lonely...

Desmond concentrates on the thread of reality he's hanging onto. The shred of a cassette tape – it feels firmer here, stronger, more concrete, and it's leading him on through the aged streets, full of people, all of whom feel a little alone in the crowds.

The tape leads him into a building, which isn't surprising. It looks like, like… like something out of one of those 500 piece puzzles, actually. It's beautiful, red brick with white accents, sharp points on the roof and indented, arched windows. Very Victorian, very… what's it called… Renaissance Revival?

Above an arched doorway – and doors that look more like they belong to a gate with battlements rather than a house – there are big green tinted copper letters, shaped in kinda old timey font, that read…

THE MAGNUS INSTITUTE.

"Huh," Desmond murmurs to himself. Well. It looks the part.

And – yeah. Yeah, he – back when he could use computers, he'd searched for weird stuff, trying to make sense of himself, what happened to him, how it was possible. He didn't get any answers, but he did learn about some weird stuff, and, yeah, the Magnus Institute was one of them. They took statements from people who had supernatural experiences, stuff like that. People didn't really take them seriously, but...

Desmond had sent them a copy of the last audio file – it'd been just a little before the Lonely had swallowed him up. He'd been desperate to be heard, back then. To have someone… Know.

The tape leads inside, so… inside Desmond goes, stepping through the open doors and into a vast lobby with a domed ceiling, and doors leading to different wings. The dome is painted white, with a black round chandelier hanging in the middle.

Feels a bit like standing inside a huge eyeball, Desmond muses and looks around for people. There aren't many, but there's a counter with a woman behind it, so, Desmond steps up to it.

"Hi," he says. "I'm looking for Someone."

It's not exactly shocking when the woman doesn't even look up, but it is… a bit disappointing. 

"I'm not sure who it is I'm looking for, but there's Someone here, and I want to see Them," Desmond says. "I think They make tape recordings? I'd like to talk to Them, if I can."

Nothing. Okay.

"You don't mind if I just go ahead?" Desmond asks. "No? Great, I'm just going to go ahead then."

Weird, the woman at the counter didn't have that grey speck of loneliness inside her. She did have something else, but… so far everyone he's seen everywhere has had a bit of the Lonely in them – finding someone without is… it's just weird.

The woman at the reception isn't the only one – there are others. Desmond passes another woman in a hijab, and it's the same thing – no Lonely, but there's something else. Another woman, carrying a box of folders, same thing – she's got something in her, but it's not the potential for the Lonely. It's like they're – taken, already.

Desmond descends a level, following the tugging of the cassette tape, and feels as a gaze turns on him. Someone knows he's here. Someone is. Watching.

"Staring is rude, you know," he comments quietly, looking around. He can't see them, but he feels it even stronger – it's like he's being glared at by an enormous unblinking eye. "You," Desmond says, frowning, and he means to continue with, need to chill, but –

He feels the Lonely, all of a sudden.

It's here. Somewhere in here there's someone who's… Lonely.

"Hmm," Desmond hums, interested, and turns away from the feeling of being watched, turning towards the feeling of aloneness instead. It's down the hall, around a bend, an office with a locked door, same definite odour of go away all over it. There are thin grey wisps leaking from under the door.

Desmond leans onto the door and feels…

It's…

Hm.

He can tell a dismissal when he sees it, and the office inside is plastered all over it. Go away, leave me alone, don't bother me, go away, go away, go away… it has the sense of performative solitude in it, which is kind of nice, weirdly enough. A martyr's self-isolation. It's sweet.

"Alright," Desmond says. "I can take a hint." But damn, if he's not curious. This feels more than just someone who's lonely or isolated, or even doing separation as a form of self-punishment. This is…

A lot.

But also not enough.

"The Lonely will eat you up," Desmond murmurs. "And I'm not sure you're really up for it. You're not enjoying it at all, are you?"

The dismissal doesn't change, so, with a shrug, Desmond turns to face the heavy gaze instead. It's still glaring at him. "Chill – I'm just looking," Desmond says to it. "I'm not going to do anything…"

He trails away, considering the stare. Whatever it is, it's definitely Seeing him. Huh. Seeing him and not trusting him, really doesn't seem to like him, at all – is almost like the gazing eye is narrowing at him. Which means that whatever it is, wherever it's coming from… there's someone behind it with will enough to be suspicious.

"Actually…" Desmond holds up the shred of the cassette tape. "You wouldn't happen to know where the One who makes these is? I want to talk to Them. If I can."

The gaze becomes a pinpoint, like a laser. No other answer, just a harder, colder glare.

"Fine," Desmond sighs after a moment. "You're no help, are you? I'm going to find Them myself, then."

The gaze follows him as he goes, which is fine, he supposes, so as long as that's all they do. Desmond would've rather gone alone, though. As you do, when you're part of the Lonely.

"The one in there, the Lonely one," Desmond comments as he goes, looking around. "They're going to eat their heart out like that. But – you know that already, huh?" he asks the stare. "And you don't care. Harsh."

He tried to ignore the gaze after that, concentrating on following the cassette tape. It's not hard – the tape is leading him along a pretty clear path. The place gets darker the further along he goes, the windows turn dark and dirty and the lighting fixtures get older, until Desmond is not sure they're even electric anymore. Do people still use gas lights? The atmosphere down here is definitely right for it. Any moment now someone will round the corner with an oil lantern in hand.

Snorting to himself at the mental image, Desmond peers into very posh looking offices and storage rooms, eyeing the furniture, old looking hardwood chairs, filing cabinets, desks. Looks like a good place to feel lonely in, fancy offices like these… they got that artistic vibe. Desmond can just imagine someone lounging on a chair, smoking a pipe, and moping here.

Another sign of copper letters, this one emblazoned on a brick wall above a doorway leading to a long, kind of dingy corridor. The letters aren't quite so weathered this time, and the copper is actually copper-coloured, not green… but it's about as old as the sign at the front of the building. There are spiderwebs between the letters that proclaim this section to be…

THE ARCHIVES.

"Fancy," Desmond comments to the glaring eye.

Then he hears a voice.

"... concerning the incident. Basira made some preliminary follow-ups, but due to the age of this statement, any leads that might've ever existed have long since gone cold. There's nothing useful here, only another mislabeled incident involving the Corruption. End recording."

Desmond tilts his head. Yeah. That's the voice. The Another, the one who Knows. The one who read out his story. The one who, unknowingly, pulled Desmond out of the Lonely and back into material existence.

The gaze following him feels like it would be glaring physical daggers at him if it could, as Desmond's pushes through it, and goes to knock.

Chapter Text

The room in which the Another sits is a… Well, it's an office, probably. Follows the same style as the rest, dark and kinda fancy, but also not. This one is much smaller than all the rest. A little too small to be comfortable, and sparsely furnished with just a desk and a chair and a cabinet that takes most of the back wall. No decorations, and the walls are bare and dark. There's no window, which makes the place look a bit like a dungeon – there are even cobwebs in the corners, which complete the look. The lampshade on the overhead lamp looks old-timey, like it belongs to a museum.

The man that sits behind the desk doesn't fit the aesthetic – mostly he just looks worn, like a piece of clothing both washed too many times and also not enough. He's got a bunch of folders spread out in front of him, and he's holding in his hand a small tape recorder, and he doesn't at first seem to notice that he's not alone anymore.

Then the eye turns its gaze on Desmond, though, and the man behind the desk looks up. He's got scars on his face and bags under his eyes. In his hand, the tape recorder clicks on, making the man glance down at it and frown before looking up at Desmond again.

He's not what Desmond expected, from another vessel of a cosmic horror.

"Can I help you?" the man asks, lowering the tape recorder and setting it slowly on the table. "The main Archive is down the corridor and to the left."

Oh, the guy can actually see him. And apparently Desmond passes for a human. That's – that's good. "Not looking for the Archives," Desmond says, watching him – feeling him. The guy is lonely, he can see it, the atmosphere around him is smoky, but he's not… Lonely. He's something else. Desmond figured he would be, but… "I'm looking for you, actually."

The Another's eyes widen, and he leans back – and into the loneliness leaks a wisp of fear, a quiet echo of I'm alone and there's no one here to help me if he's here to hurt me, I'm all alone.

"I'm – not here to hurt you?" Desmond more asks than states and then shakes his head. "I'm really not – you, uh –"

"I know you – I – I've read your statement, haven't I?" the man asks and stands up sharply, clumsily. "Why can't I tell – what's your name?"

"You read my statement just the other day, I think – and my name is Desmond Miles," and oh, that's – interesting and unpleasant. Desmond didn't mean to say that – he would've, if he had a choice, but he didn't. Something just – pulled that out of him. "How did you do that?" he asks, suspicious.

"I – ah," the man says, smoothes scarred, too thin hands over his sweater. "Sorry, I didn't – mean to. I apologise," he says. "Desmond Miles, yes, I – recall the statement, concerning the game, your existence in it, and outside it. I wasn't certain – that you still – remained."

"Not sure I did, not fully, before you read the thing," Desmond says, watching him suspiciously. He lifts the shred of magnetic tape up and shows it to the guy. "I found my way back using this – it's yours, right?" he runs the tape between his fingers and it murmurs in the Another's voice, "The statement of Desmond Miles, regarding his… existence…"

The man looks down at the tape and then up at him. He swallows, uneasy.

"How about a name?" Desmond asks.

That makes the guy blink, and he relaxes a little with surprise. "You don't know me?"

"Um. No?" Desmond admits, giving him a puzzled look. "Should I? Um. I've been floating about in a misty alternate dimension or something for two, three," centuries, "years, so… yeah. No. Haven't gotten around much, to be honest."

"Oh. That's quite – nice actually," the man murmurs, sounding baffled. "I mean, obviously not for you. But usually when avatars of other Entities come to me, it's either to kill me or – worse. A nice change of pace – Jonathan Sims, I'm the Archivist," he says and holds out his hand. He has scars on the back of it, on his wrist, little perfect round… holes.

Desmond considers the guy's hand for a moment, thinking back to Jason, the only other person he's touched so far, who is probably not going to touch anyone ever again, and clears his throat. "Well, you already know my name," he says and carefully keeps his hands to himself. "It's nice to meet you, and – thanks, for this," he says, waving the bit of tape. "It, uh. Gave me a bit of a power boost, I guess?"

"Really?" Jonathan Sims asks, looking both disturbed and fascinated. "That's… that's very interesting…" he trails away, and his eyes go low-lidded. Desmond leans away a little, surprised – the switch between awkward and hungry on the guy's face is kind of – creepy. The guy is looking at him like he's considering leaping over the table. What the – "Are you here to give another Statement, Mr. Miles?"

Desmond shudders – both at the sudden compulsion he feels, and also at the way he says that, Mr. Miles. It sounds a lot like how Vidic said it, all keen and demanding. And sure, Vidic wasn't ever real, but… the trauma is. Shit. "Y-yes," Desmond grouses out through gritted teeth. "I suppose I am, now that you asked for it, that's why I am here – how are you doing that?"

Sims blinks, and whatever came over him passes a little, his eyes clear up and then he blinks. "I – it's the power of the Archivist, I – I'm sorry, again, I didn't – People tend to come here only for so many reasons, and I, ah," Sims says, looking a little flustered, turning away. "I'm still learning to control this, I'm sorry. Would you like to take a seat – "

"Yeah," Desmond says before the guy makes it a question – a compulsion. "I'd love to take a seat, thank you."

They sit. It's awkward.

"You can mind control people," Desmond says, regretting coming here a bit.

Sims gives him a rueful grimace and rubs at a burn scar on his hand. It looks like a handprint. "I can – compel people to talk to me, yes," he says and watches him. "At the risk of – why did you come… here?" he asks. "If it wasn't to make a statement?"

Desmond waits, but it's not a compulsion this time. "I wanted answers of my own," he says warily and shifts where he sits. He feels physical enough to know that the wooden chair is uncomfortable. How's that for a perk of getting strong, or whatever it is that's happening to him. "You read my statement – and considering this," he motions between them. "I'm thinking it's not out of the ordinary for you?"

"There have been – supernatural and esoteric phenomena related to machinery, computers, tapes and such before – I have even taken a statement of a woman who interacted with a computer program, which seemed to have gained sentience and… powers," Sims says. "Though there is still some question whether it was a program from the start, or a person who became a program, the… correlation is still there. You are the first so far to have done the opposite, but – yes, I have seen far too many things to disregard any aspect of the statement."

The guy has a hypnotic way of speaking. "Okay, that's… cool," Desmond says, swallowing. "So, uh. Not as unique as I thought I was, huh?"

"We're all terribly unique in this… theatre of horrors, Mr. Miles," Sims says with a weary sort of smile. "You've become something more than a program-made man, though, since that first statement, haven't you?"

The man's words seem to worm their way into Desmond's head, into his throat, urging him to speak. "I-if I give my statement, will you stop doing that?" he demands, choked. It doesn't hurt exactly – hell, it doesn't hurt at all. It's kind of the complete opposite of hurting.

Sims eyes are going low-lidded again. Jesus. "Apologies. I'm – hungry," the Archivist admits and closes his eyes. "I can – you have a statement, I can – sense it. And I haven't had a live one in weeks."

Okay. That's. Terrifying. "Right," Desmond says, swallowing around the hand gripping his vocal chords. "A-and giving my statement means what, exactly?"

"Just – tell me your story, Desmond Miles," Sims says, and when he opens his eyes, they're different. "Tell me what happened."

It's like someone turns off Desmond's brain then – or turns it up a notch, he can't tell. Something changes. He feels almost drugged. And then he's speaking.

"When I came to this side of reality, after leaving my game behind, I was more or less physical," Desmond says, and Sims stares at him, his eyes simmering. "It wasn't probably a full sort of physical, not the sort normal people feel – I've never had internal organs or a circulatory system, and I've never had them on this side either, so I don't know what that's like. But I could feel things, wind in my hair, dirt under my feet, when I burned my hand it hurt. Things like that, which I figure are more or less normal. It wasn't exactly how it had been before – back in the game I couldn't really feel anything, so my basis for comparison there is a bit lacking, but I think it was a close enough approximation."

Jesus, he barely even sounds like himself. And he has no control over continuing – the words just spill out.

"I spent weeks trying to figure out what it was that actually happened to me – months, really. I knew it wasn't perfect, I was – missing bits and pieces people have, insides and all – most people have those, and I was pretty much empty through and through, just… skin over the empty air," Desmond says. "It fooled people around me, and everyone I met treated me like there was absolutely nothing wrong with me, but I could feel it, the lack of everything that should be there. So I tried to figure it out, as much as I could. I was never the academic sort in my game, and I don't think I'm that here either, but I did what I could. Internet research mostly. It didn't get me far, the most I learned was about places like this Institute of yours."

Sims' eyes are low-lidded, and he looks…

"Eventually, I guess – I didn't as much give up on the research, as much as I just ran out of things to look into. I didn't know where to really go looking for stuff about the supernatural, and this stuff, it's not really online," Desmond continues, blinking – he's got that much control, at least. "Eventually it just petered off, and I just went about my days however I could. Tried to settle, you know, into being alive, not freaking out too much about the fact that I knew I wasn't. Spent a lot of time feeling vaguely sorry for myself, missing the things I left behind. I knew they weren't real, the game wasn't real – I even got my hands on a few copies to check the games I was part of, but… I couldn't really play them. That was mostly just my own mental state, though, not like a cosmic whatever stopping it. Felt wrong, on a personal level. I tried to make my peace with it."

Desmond draws a breath – that's automated too, kinda. Like this compulsion knows just when to make him breath to optimise the flow of words. His words come out with little puffs of steam. "I think I knew from the start that it wouldn't last, though. It was just this feeling of… being unfinished, I guess," he says. "I was held together by a wish and a prayer, it felt like, and they weren't even my own wishes and prayers. Whatever pulled me out of the game and made me man-shaped, it wasn't ever going to last, not on its own – eventually, I started to get… weaker. Not physically, exactly, I could do all the physically taxing things I ever could, but… corporally, I was getting weaker."

Sims' eyes are definitely glowing a bit – and the guy looks… he actually looks a bit healthier. Like he's actually slept, and maybe even had a sandwich sometime in his life. Huh.

Desmond continues. "At first it was people on the street, they started walking into me like they didn't notice me, even when I was standing right in front of them – and I am not a small guy, I don't exactly blend into a crowd unless I'm really trying. A cashier in the store passed me by in the queue, even with all my stuff right in front of her – she just swept it aside like it'd been left there by mistake, even when I was right there. Then not a single taxi in a whole line of them would take my fare… I knew it got bad by the time the landlord of the apartment I was renting came to steal my stuff – we'd passed each other by in the stairwell just that morning, but he was sure I'd booked it weeks ago and wasn't going to pay my rent."

"I was fading away," Desmond says, blinking at Sims. The guy is completely out of it now, and there's a – there's a feeling about him… "It didn't take long to figure it out, and I had a pretty good idea of what would happen when I finally did fade away. Of course, in the end it turned out that I had no real idea, not really – but I figured it wasn't good. About a year after I came out of the game, I was going to disappear from reality, so, I started researching again. Or, more accurately, I started reaching out. I wasn't really looking for anyone to save me, I didn't think anyone could stop what was happening, how would you even begin, you know – no. I just wanted someone to know."

"So I made my audio recordings – something I have a habit of. I kept an audio journal, before, it was a habit I picked up from my games," Desmond explains. "And it was a soothing enough practice in this side of reality too, so I'd kept up with it, talking into my phone, using it a lot like a tape recorder. So I made my final recording, my statement, and I sent it anywhere and everywhere I could think of, every institute, website, blog that dealt with the supernatural – including the Magnus Institute's public email address. I think that might have been the final nail in my coffin, in a way – because I didn't get a single response, not even an automated message telling me my emails didn't make it, nothing. I called out into the void, and there wasn't even an echo. There was no one in this wide world that knew I existed anymore."

Desmond gets a pause there, enough to almost gather himself, while Sims draws a slow, languid inhale.

"Then the Lonely took me," Desmond continues, again without his say so, and he feels it again, wafting off Sims – the seclusion. It's not quite enough to produce mist, but it's there. The guy is a solitary creature, and Desmond knows suddenly that he's among the very few who've seen him like this – feeding. That's… "It was a lot like when I came out of the game – suddenly I was just… elsewhere. Falling, walking, running, stumbling, I can't say what it was in the beginning, I just ended up elsewhere. In a vast, endless space full of nothing."

This room is the one where Sims spends a lot of time alone, and lately he's been more and more alone, Desmond thinks. He can feel it, there's… a separation there, lingering in the corners like a bit of dampness, and Sims feels it acutely. It's like a fresh wound, a bruise, an ache he's not used to. He misses company, and he's not used to it. It's – mmm…

"Have you ever been alone?" Desmond asks, and it's not completely forced out of him this time. "Not just alone in an empty room, or in an open clearing – but alone, in your head? Where it feels like nothing else exists in the cosmos but your own thoughts – there's nobody you know, no places you've been to, it all fades away, not even to the background, but into the ether. Your family isn't there, your friends, all the experiences you've had with them, with people you like and dislike, all disappear, and there's nothing in the universe but you, surrounded by your own thoughts, and nothing from the outside reaches in – you're just a mind in the nothingness. It's a sort of state where even if the person you loved the most appeared in front of you, you wouldn't know their face, because they don't exist in your mind anymore, you're completely empty of other people, completely alone..."

Sims shudders, and Desmond closes his eyes, feeling the cold spike of unease coming off him. Alone in a room with another avatar, alone and with a smidge of fear rearing its head. Oh, wow.

"The Lonely is that – it could be that, that's what makes it so sweet – it can take it all away. It can," Desmond says, "And it does. It didn't with me, though, because if it did, then… what would there be to feed off on? Loneliness is a long sort of suffering, it's not a race, it's not even a marathon – it doesn't have a deadline, or a climax. It's a state of being, not a goal, and with me the Lonely could draw it out from me forever. I am so very alone – and I am so very aware of it – and the Lonely could feed off of that awareness for centuries, savouring my sadness like a fine wine, endlessly. And it did. Time passes so much slower, when you're Lonely."

He can taste Sims' loneliness now – it's like he's put his tongue on a battery. Damn. "It took some things from me," Desmond continues, speaking more or less on his own volition now, while Sims lets out a choked, confused noise. "Faces of people I loved. Some of the experiences I had with them. Memories, I – lost a lot of memories, the Lonely didn't care for them. All it wanted me to feel was alone and scared, but… my loneliness doesn't work like that. I went past that kind of emotion a long time ago. It's just a state of being now, being alone. I don't fear it, I don't suffer from it – a lot of people don't, actually. There's a whole slew of people who enjoy being alone and prefer it, there's not much about it to fear, for people like us. We, the hermits of the modern era, we're alright, I think."

Desmond smiles, opening his eyes, to find Sims staring at him with slightly clearer, wider eyes. There's a flush on the guy's cheeks. Oops. "So, being Lonely didn't kill me or ruin me," Desmond says, blinking. "I was just there – until one day, while the Lonely was trying to make me miss my parents and feel abandoned by them, your tape reached me. It was like someone had cast a line through the still surface of a pond, and its hook got caught in my chest – you tugged, and I was… more, all of sudden. I was… Known. By you, Jonathan Sims. You Know me."

"I – gave you power," Sims says, his voice rough and breathy, a little strained.

"I think I also got power from the Lonely, it's become… part of me," Desmond muses. "I'm not empty inside anymore – it's all filled up with the Lonely now. But being Known, it… it made me more myself, I guess. The Lonely is good at taking away your ability to care, your will to be an active participant in your own life – in there you just don't want to bother with anything but being alone. Being Known again made me want to know in return. So, I… fed some subtle solitude to the Lonely, and it let me… go."

He trails away, swallowing and clearing his throat. His mouth and voice both feel like they're his own again. Nice. "And then I was back in the real world, physical and everything," Desmond continues. "People can't see me, but I can… affect them now. It freaked me out a bit, and then I… I followed the tape here, to you, who Knew me. Hoping you could… explain what I'd just become."

And like that, it's over.

Sims leans back in his seat, loose-limbed. The wooden chair creaks a little as his back impacts against the backrest too hard. He looks – he looks kind of pleasantly shaken, it's probably the nicest way of putting it. Desmond has the weirdest urge to ask was that as good for you as it was for me, except obviously Sims got more out of it than he did.

Desmond leans forward, putting one elbow on the desk between them. "What the hell was that?" he asks, more curious than bothered. As weird mind control compulsions go, he'll take being forced to tell stories to… other things someone might be able to do with a power like that, anyway.

"I – ah," Sims says, and he sounds about as wrecked as he looks. "I – apologise."

"Don't," Desmond says with a snort. "Looks like you needed it. But what?"

Sims swallows, closes his eyes, clears his throat, and brings himself back under control. "You're – new to this," he says and runs a shaky hand through his hair, trying to straighten it. It doesn't do much – doesn't look like the guy has washed it, or brushed it, in a while, so it just springs back into a mess the moment he lets go. "We, the… avatars of our unearthly patrons, we must… feed that connection. And my patron, the Beholding, the Eye, the Ceaseless Watcher, whatever you want to call it, it demands stories – supernatural stories. The fresher and newer and stranger… the better. And I guess the story of the birth of another avatar is… it's a full course meal. So to speak."

"Huh," Desmond says, leaning his cheek on his palm. "And judging by the looks of you, you haven't been feeding it enough."

Sims gives him an awkward look and straightens his back. "Thank you, for this…" he clears his throat again. "Well, it was a meal for me, so… thank you." He's quiet for a moment, gathering himself before giving Desmond a wary sort of look. "You should know," he says, quieter. "The further down you go along the path of the Lonely… the more you will have to feed it."

Desmond hums, thinking about Jason. Maybe he already has. "Right," he says and then gives Sims a once over. "Okay. You're welcome," he says. "And I – think I just… fed off of you too, a little, so, thanks for that, I guess?"

Sims just looks uncomfortable at that.

"Right," Desmond says again. So this is awkward. And weird. Magical too, apparently. "I really want to learn more about this, and so far you're the only person I've met who can see me, so, that's, uh." He has no idea what to say, especially since they just did… whatever that was. Um. "How about dinner?"

"I'm – sorry?" Sims asks, blinking.

"Actual food. Dinner," Desmond explains quickly. "And talk – I haven't eaten anything since I came out of the Lonely, no one can see me, so, um," he shifts where he sits. "Actual human people food, could be… nice?"

Sims stares at him like he's a particularly worrisome piece of furniture that just up and did a dance. "Dinner," he repeats. "I –" he stops and looks away – and the sharp spike up of loneliness and longing is tender enough to make Desmond's mouth water. "Yes," Sims says then, blinking and looking away. "Yes, I think – I think I could eat actual food, right now."

Yeah that doesn't sound worrisome at all. "Great," Desmond says and stands up. On the table, the tape recorder clicks off. "Awesome. Let's go."

Chapter Text

Though Desmond had meant for them to go to like… a diner or something, whatever the British equivalent is, they don't. There's a cafeteria in the Magnus Institute, which is pretty nice, Sims gets his food there for free, and Desmond doesn't actually have any money, so… it works, he supposes. It's not a bad place, either – a sort of elongated room facing the backyard of the Institute, with a portico between them and a little garden in the back. There's even a water fountain.

People give Sims a wide berth as he moves through the cafeteria. Desmond can't tell if it's because maybe the guy has a reputation or something, or because they think he smells – because going by the state of his clothes, he kind of looks like he would smell. Doesn't look like the guy's had a bath in days. Either way, there's an empty space around the guy, and it's… sweet.

Sims is aware of the empty space he's surrounded by – and so are the people around him. And as Desmond picks his choice from the cafeteria buffet, loading up a tray with a little bit of this and little bit of that, he basks in that awareness of loneliness. It goes both ways, and it's nice.

Sims goes to sit far away from people, Desmond following him quietly, as does the lingering loneliness… and as does the gaze of the invisible watcher, which had pinned Desmond down the moment they'd stepped out of the Archives. It's – more interesting now that he thinks he maybe knows what it is. Not that he hadn't had some inkling before, he had the vague sense of there being powers out there he didn't yet understand, but… now he knows for sure it's not someone behind a very high-tech security camera.

Someone is beholding him. And they think he's a threat.

It's kind of flattering.

"It's not very grand, I admit," Sims says, bringing Desmond out of his thoughts. "But the cafeteria food is usually edible, and I'd rather not go out of the Institute just now."

Around them the seclusion spikes sharply, as people send the man sideways glances and the sense of god, what a weirdo spreads over the area. Desmond casts a look around, and as much as he enjoys the effect… he can't help but feel a bit sorry for Sims. Obviously the guy is a bit of a recluse – and it doesn't feel like it's intentional on his part.

"You know, no one can see me but you," Desmond comments.

Sims looks up from his utensils. "Hm?"

"To everyone here, it looks like you're talking to yourself," Desmond explains apologetically. And the guy already looks a bit like a deranged homeless person, too, which is not helping the matters.

"Ah," Sims says, blinking. Another spike, rise and fall, ebb and flow, as the man fights his emotions and tries not to feel bad. "I don't care," he then lies and turns to his food. "Whatever people think of me is their own problem, it has nothing to do with me."

He couldn't be more obviously hurt if he tried. Desmond watches him curiously, battling between leaning in and drinking up that isolation, blowing into that bit of misery and making the man despair, but – uh. "Right," he says instead. "If you're sure."

Sims clears his throat, obviously not sure, but he braves on anyway. "I hardly ever see the other members of the institute, and the people in the cafeteria are mostly outside researchers, visiting to access the archives for whatever projects they are working on," he says dismissively. "They come and go, and I will never see them again. It's fine."

"If you say so," Desmond says and considers the food.

He could eat food before the Lonely took him, but... it wasn't normal sort of eating. He thinks the food maybe just vanished, when he ate it? Just disappeared nowhere. It definitely never came out the normal way, and he didn't really need it to nourish himself. He could still taste it, though, which was nice, so… hopefully that at least is the same now, even if his insides might send the food to the Lonely. Wonder what would happen to it, if it really did get sent into the Lonely... Would it just go splat on the shore and rot? Or would it sit there, all on its lonesome, forever. Just bits of food scattered about the nothingness…

Desmond takes a forkful of greens and decides that the Lonely needs to eat its vegetables, too. 

He can taste it, even the texture feels right. Thank god… or somebody.

Sims watches him, sideways, obviously trying not to stare. Desmond arches a brow back at him, and he clears his throat. "You can eat," Sims comments.

Desmond shrugs. "Apparently. I even got taste buds and everything. I don't think I need to eat, though, I don't get hungry and I don't think I can starve. Do you need to eat? I mean, you can eat stories, so…"

"I… try not to think about it too much," Sims admits. "I do eat, still. When I – remember to."

"Okay, what's the longest time you haven't remembered to?"

Sims makes a face that makes it obvious it was a pretty long time. Desmond grins a little at the expression.. "So, sustaining our patrons sustains us. Great. Are there others like me – who are more human-shaped than actually human?"

Sims looks uncomfortable at that. "From what I have seen, the ones who are human all throughout are far rarer than the ones that just keep up the pretence," he admits quietly. "The avatars of the Desolation are generally made of wax, the Stranger's avatars are… they don't even pretend to look like humans, not properly. The Flesh – not exactly a dinner conversation."

Desmond blinks. So, there's more of them? Enough to list them? "How many are there? These patrons of ours – are they all named like that?"

"We call them what makes sense, I suppose, what explains the most of them in simplest terms," Sims admits. "It is not as if they've ever deigned to talk enough to actually give us their names. There's fourteen, with quite a deal of mingling in between."

Fourteen. Okay, he could deal with fourteen cosmic entities. "Okay," Desmond says and takes another forkful of food, this one mostly potatoes. "And what… are they? I know the Lonely, it's more of a feeling of a place than an actual place, but…"

"They're fears," Sims says, looking at him. "Yours is the fear of isolation, of being left behind, alone, loneliness… of being stranded too, I suppose. One of the weaker fears, from what I have seen. Mine is the fear of being watched, observed, of being stared at, having your secrets exposed. The others follow similar patterns, with notable outliers in the Flesh, which is more of an animal fear."

Desmond blinks at that, curious. "What? Animal fear – like fear of animals?"

"It's a fear we believe comes from animals," Sims says and explains – and yeah, it's not a dinner conversation at all, is it. Fear of being turned into meat. Ugh. "And with billions and billions of animals being raised for butchery every year, it's… a fairly strong one."

"Right, okay," Desmond says, disturbed. He'd like to have innards, but damn, he's glad he's not attached to the Flesh, that sounds… eurgh. "Good to know, I guess. What are the rest?"

Sims tells him, quiet but methodical, which is nice. There is no way Desmond is going to remember them all, but the general sense of how they work is kind of appreciated. Fears, human and animal fears. Fear of the darkness, of the unknown, of disease and corruption, of being buried under ground… of being alone. Yeah, it makes sense, sort of. There's a kind of logic to it.

Around them people finish their dinners and empty their trays and leave, and other people take their places on the empty tables. Outside, the sky grows dark. People still give Sims sideways looks and keep their distance.

"You don't seem troubled by any of this," Sims comments, finishing his meagre dinner.

"I'm not really in a place to judge," Desmond admits. "And I guess I haven't seen the bad aspects of it yet? So far the worst thing I've seen, personally, was your mind control thing."

Sims looks surprised by that. "I – understand, of course, many find it deeply unsettling, but… you spent years in the Lonely, and my ability to compel people to speak is the worst thing you've experienced so far?" he asks. "The Lonely must not be so terrible, then."

"Honestly? It's not," Desmond agrees. "It's actually really nice. It's just nothing. If you let it carry you away, it's peaceful. Nothing happens, nothing comes, nothing goes. It just is." He trails away, reminiscing for a moment. "But I am also really not into mind control powers, so. There's that too."

That seems to puzzle Sims somewhat. "Do you mind telling me why?" he asks. "Is it an aspect of the Lonely? Being controlled and compelled that way is a bond of its own, perhaps, which competes with the Lonely?"

Desmond considers that. Hm. "Very dom/sub sort of way of looking at making connections," he snorts. "But no, it's a – carryover from the games. The bad guys wanted to do global mind control. I know it's not real now, but – honestly, I am still all for free will. So. I would – prefer it if you didn't do that again."

"Ah, I see," Sims says, nodding slowly. "Well, I will endeavour to avoid it in the future. And as I have already taken two of your statements, I doubt it will be necessary any –"

Desmond has had the invisible gaze in his neck along with all the people in the cafeteria watching Sims, so he hadn't really paid attention to the people looking at them. That's about the only explanation he has for missing the woman marching over to them, looking wary and determined as she steps beside the table, and looks down on Sims.

Sims looks back, frowning and then shifting in his seat. "Basira," he comments.

It's the woman in the hijab – the one who also was already taken by a cosmic entity, and not susceptible to the Lonely.

"Jon," she says, her voice calm despite the fact that she's looming over the table a bit. She's looking around, like she's – searching for something on the table. "You haven't come out of the Archives in a while – everything alright?"

"Yes, fine. I'm having dinner, Basira, I hardly think it's dangerous," Sims says, vary, his hands curling around his already empty plate. "I know I don't eat in the cafeteria often, but I didn't think it was actually a cause for alarm. I am still part of the institute faculty, I hope."

"Daniella told me you've been talking to yourself all the time you've been here."

Desmond leans back and tries not to bask too obviously in the effect of those words. Sims almost flinches at them, glancing at Desmond, and it dawns on the guy all at once what it must've looked like, what people must've thought, how far it must've already spread – Jonathan Sims talking to himself, the poor lunatic, he's finally lost it. The humiliation of having what he considers a friend there to see the aftermath makes the sudden, crushing loneliness of Sims that much greater – the lack of trust there, the uneasy awkwardness. Not betrayal, quite, but… they're friends, and obviously they haven't been getting along as well as Sims hopes, and it shows.

There's loneliness coming off Basira too. Hers has a guilty ache to it, determined but regretful, and she's wary, too. She doesn't like it, but she's scared for Sims – and of him.  Doesn't stop her from holding her ground, though.

"I –" Sims says, looks at Desmond like he's considering defending himself. Desmond gives him an apologetic look and says nothing – the woman wouldn't be able to hear him anyway. Sims sighs, and his shoulders slump, and in the end he doesn't try to explain himself.

"Right," Basira says. "Where is it, then?"

"Where is what?" Sims asks, uneasy, shifting in his seat again.

"The tape recorder, where is it?"

Sims frowns at that and then looks around. "There – isn't one? I left it in my office."

Basira hesitates at that, and then looks around, checks the chairs – even the one Desmond is sitting on. She's not pleased, and looks for a moment like she wants to turn the guy's pockets inside out to check, but in the end doesn't. "So you weren't – recording in the cafeteria?"

"What – no," Sims says, making a prissy sort of incredulous face at her. "Why would I want to record here? The audio quality would be terrible, and all that chatter – you know how bad the recorders are, picking up all the background noises. It would be utterly unusable."

"Jon," Basira says and then sighs, running a hand over her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Okay, right. You weren't."

"I wasn't what?" Sims demands, as the hurt and loneliness welling up inside makes him lash out. "What did you think I was doing?"

The woman shakes her head, taking half a step back, her expression tightening. "I thought you might – that it had progressed to the point of you becoming more like Elias, just plucking things from people's minds here and turning them into statements to feed yourself –" she stops, gritting her teeth and drawing a slow breath through them. "Jon, stop doing that."

Now Sims looks guilty, leaning back, shoulders slumping. "I'm sorry, Basira, I didn't –"

"Don't say you didn't mean to, it doesn't change the fact that you did," Basira snaps and then draws another slow breath, trying to not lose her temper maybe.  

More guilt as Sims looks down. "I haven't – progressed to that point, I mean. I doubt I ever will. What Elias can do, it's – it's different."

Basira adjusts her scarf and sighs. "Okay, good," she says, and then gives him another look – at first relieved, and then troubled in a different way. "Which means you… were actually talking to yourself? Jon –"

Sims leans back at the wake of the tone of sincere concern and the bitter irritation, and please just go away wafting off him is like something sharp being dumped into the sweet mixture of guilt. Desmond watches the interaction with rapt interest, wondering what the hell happened there. Sims is all but ripe with it, the sour unhappiness oozing off him, it wouldn't take much at all to tip him over the edge and into self-seclusion, into true isolation. Whatever's happened, the guy feels it so acutely.

It makes Desmond kind of want to just… hug him and take him away and keep him away from other people, find a nice safe hideout for them and isolate Sims further from everything that might hurt him, everything that might hold him back, just take him away to some place nice and quiet and safe and Lonely with no one in...

Which is… probably bad.

"Maybe I should – leave," Desmond says, quiet and choked. "I'm making things worse for you – I should go."

Sims casts him a look – and of course Basira notices it, and her concern and guilt grows.

"Are you – doing alright? I know we haven't really talked in a while, but –" she says, awkward now, guilty.

"I'm fine, just fine – and if me talking to myself in the Institute cafeteria is too much of a problem for people, then I will endeavour not to eat here in the future," Sims snaps at her. "If you think that's safer. Is that all, Basira?"

"I – yes," she says – it's hard to tell if she's being compelled to answer or not, but she doesn't look happy. "I think so."

"Then if you don't mind, I would like to be alone."

Basira hesitates, guilt and loneliness wafting of her in waves, while Sims wraps himself up in self-sacrifice and righteous hurt. It's all very… distancing, and Desmond can almost feel the rift growing in between. The bottom of it is filled with cold, black water.

Basira lingers a moment longer, saying, "I don't mean you shouldn't eat here – just… stop talking to yourself. It unnerves people," before turning and leaving.

Sims releases a shuddering breath, and Desmond kind of wants to eat him.

"That was a bit harsh," Desmond comments roughly, clearing his throat.

Sims sighs. "You're lucky, being what you are," he says quietly. "You don't have to see your friends watch you become a monster."

Desmond arches his brows. "Wow, okay," he says. "Wow. You really need to snap out of it, man."

Sims frowns at that, blinking slowly.

"I think me being here is – influencing you," Desmond says, motioning at him. "Making you feel like – this. Worse. God, I can smell the loneliness in you, you have no idea – I'm definitely influencing you, I should really probably go, before I make this worse," he says and stands up. "Yeah, I really should –"

"Wait," Sims says quickly. "I haven't told you everything yet – and I still have questions –"

"I'm this close to dragging you into the Lonely, Sims," Desmond says, desperate. "I gotta go. We – I – " he almost says they could continue this later, but that wouldn't be safe, would it? He knows Sims' buttons now, and pushing them would be so easy.

Sims' eyes are clearing up a little. "I – god, I can feel it," he murmurs. "You're – wait," he says before Desmond can just flee. "There's still so much – and-and I haven't really got another avatar I can – do you have an email, a number I can call –"

"Sims, no one can even see me," Desmond says while inching away. "Why would I?"

"Then – here, take mine – damnit, pen, I should have a pen somewhere –"

As Desmond watches, Sims goes to grab a pen from the counter, thoroughly freaking out the man behind it. He scribbles something onto a napkin and then thrusts it out to Desmond. His phone number and email, written in a hasty hand.

"Here – and it's Jon," Sims says. "Please – if, if you can, do give me a call. I don't have many –" he stops awkwardly, blowing out a breath.

"That's the loneliness speaking," Desmond says faintly. "And I think reaching out to an avatar of the Lonely is probably not good for you in this state. Or any state, really, now that I think about it –"

"Just take it, please," Sims – Jon says, looking at him. "It's a connection, right? Something to deter the Lonely. Maybe – maybe we can help each other."

Desmond hesitates, but… it's not a bad point. And… yeah. It would be nice to have someone to talk to.

He is a bit lonely.

Chapter Text

The visit to the Magnus Institute left Desmond a little unsettled. He's glad to get some answers, and hey, they're even answers that sort of make sense – at least, nothing about them makes him immediately dismiss them. The whole… thing that happened with Jon, the statement, that's a little hard to just dismiss out of hand… but he's still a little unsettled.

More than that, though, he's hungry. And he knows he's hungry. And it's not for food, which is… yeah, okay.

Of course Desmond knew the Lonely eats loneliness, that's what it had been getting from him – and he thinks he's unintentionally fed the Lonely at least once – actually… maybe more than once. There were times when people around him acted like something happened, and maybe that's the Lonely pushing through, but…

What do you feed to a god that feeds on loneliness? Should Desmond, what, go find himself an abandoned corner to feel sorry for himself for a while, thinking back to all the things he'd lost, things that had never existed, until the gripping urge released him? He could do that, it wouldn't really even be that hard, but… mostly it sounds just kind of pointless. Like autocannibalism. If this thing is supposed to feed him too, then… then why would his own loneliness feed him?

Desmond wanders away from the Magnus Institute, weaving invisibly in a crowd and watching the people pass him by. He can still see and sense their loneliness – some people have more of it than others, some are just little sparks, some people are almost wholly consumed by their internal voids – one woman he passes walks in a cloud of lonely mist, and no one touches her in the crowd. He could… probably do something to them, if he wanted to. They feel susceptible, and Desmond thinks he can – he could just reach into that tempting grey void and pull a little of the Lonely out of them. He isn't entirely sure what that would actually do, but he figures it would definitely do something

But that also just seems kinda mean.

Sighing, Desmond shoves his hands into his hoodie pockets, stopping in the middle of the road, in the middle of the crowd, and looks up at the grey sky overhead. The touch of people's little sorrows is tempting, but it has nothing on Jon – that guy made him as close to ravenous as he's felt since coming out of the Lonely. Something special about the emotions of another avatar? Or their fears? Jon didn't seem to fear loneliness as much as he endured it, suffered it. It was still tempting, to reach over and… and do… something.

How do you feed on loneliness – what, is he like a damn Dementor now, does he suck it out of people? Doesn't seem right.

Desmond had unwittingly made Jason more prone to being withdrawn and antisocial, when he'd touched the guy – and that had invigorated him, he's pretty sure of that now. There was also the flight, which had slowly filled with mist, that had been… yeah, he's pretty sure he made all those people feel a lot more lonely and stranded in their own heads. So… something like that, probably. Making people who otherwise wouldn't be Lonely, and letting his… god savour the ensuing years of slow despair and sadness.

"How damn depressing is that?" Desmond mutters. Jon's deal seems much nicer, if you disregard the mind control bits of it. He just learns stuff and forces people to tell him things. Though, of course, there might be things about it Desmond doesn't know yet, and everything is actually a little worse than he assumes. That's how it usually goes. Still, there's a clear difference between a moment of awkward mind control and whatever followed from that… and having your life derailed by sudden inclination for self-isolation and sadness. Stuff like that could… it could probably ruin you.

Desmond stands in the crowd, unnoticed and unseen – even the invisible watcher isn't following him anymore. All alone, fittingly enough.

Making someone change their inclinations like that… that's mind control too, isn't it?

"Shit," Desmond mutters.

Seems like he'll be going hungry for a bit, then.


Desmond gets a phone. He makes the token effort of doing it legally at first, aside from the fact that he has to pickpocket a few wallets from completely unsuspecting people on the streets. After about half an hour of trying to get a store clerk to notice him, though, Desmond just walks around the displays, picks a phone he likes the look of and walks out with it. It could be that the store would somehow report the theft and have the thing deactivated, but… he has a feeling it wouldn't matter, if they did. The store clerk is feeling lonely and distracted anyway, so he probably wouldn't even notice the theft until days, maybe weeks later.

Getting the phone charged, finding a bar with free wifi for him to use and then setting up an email account for himself keeps Desmond occupied for most of the rest of the night – it's nearly midnight before he has the thing figured out well enough to be able to send emails. He writes one to Jon straight away – that's the point of the thing, after all.

Hey, Jon, it's Desmond – I got a phone. No phone number though, sorry, I have no idea how to pay for a cell phone plan when no one can see me, and even prepaid SIM cards need to be activated by someone and so on and so on. Anyway, email I can do, so. You know. Hi?

I got a question. What do you feed to the Lonely? Since you got an Archive and stuff going on, you probably have better info about it than I do. If you could tell me anything, I'd appreciate it. I don't really know what I'm doing here, and I'd rather not mess up because I'm bumbling about like an idiot.

Dunno when I will be around to check my email next –

Desmond pauses in between typing, looking up. He can feel something. A tendril of familiar chill, coming from just across the bar – it curls over the mostly empty tables, almost like someone in the place is having a smoke. Desmond can recognize loneliness when he sees it, though.

Oh.

Slowly, only half intentionally, Desmond sends the message and pushes the phone into his pocket. Then he gets up.

The source of the tendril of loneliness is a woman – she's in her late thirties, maybe, early forties, and she's halfway into a cocktail glass of something fruity and colourful, and she is miserable. It hangs around her like a miasma, and the grey spark inside her, the knot of isolation, it's almost big enough that it's consumed her.

She's been lonely for a while, it feels like. Desmond isn't the one to judge, but it's pretty easy to draw conclusions from her clothes, her makeup, her general demeanour. At a guess… relationship that ran aground, at the end of a string of relationships that ran, similarly, aground. Also likely lack of friends, possibly – maybe they got married and had kids while she didn't… something like that. She's almost a cliché, it's kind of sad. And her loneliness, how it hangs about her, thick and oppressing…

Desmond swallows, looking her up and down, his head feeling a little hazy. She's sitting in a dark corner of the bar, out of view, and it doesn't seem like she's expecting either to meet someone, or leave anytime soon. She's all alone.

Would anyone miss her… if she… disappeared…?

Desmond watches her from a few steps away – she's got her phone laid out on the table in front of her, and she's reading some article on it, not looking terribly interested about it. After a moment she changes apps, and goes to Facebook instead, flicking through her feed as the lonely feeling about her intensifies. Back to the starting screen, where her finger hovers over another app for a bit – Tinder.

Desmond should walk away. He should, he really, really should.

Slowly, he sits down beside her, and watches her as she leans back with a disgusted sigh, knocks back her drink, and then waves the bartender over for another.

For the next hour or so, Desmond just sits there and basks in the woman's loneliness, watching her as she plays with her phone, flicking through WhatsApp and Facebook and various sites online. He learns that the woman's name is Julia, and she was supposed to meet a friend at the bar, they'd made plans – but Abby had cancelled just as Julia had been starting to get ready. Julia hadn't felt like staying home, might as well get the most of her night off… except her day off is on a Thursday, and though their usual place was open… it is mostly empty.

Not quite the night out she hoped for.

Julia checks out few Facebook profiles, friends and maybe former lovers, and she looks through the message histories with some of them – from that Desmond figures out it's been a while since she'd gone out. She'd been excited, and that excitement made the disappointment that much more crushing.

It's almost worse, learning about her. He doesn't want to, to – actually, he has no idea what he doesn't or does want to do with her or to her, but he doesn't want to kill her, that's not what the Lonely wants to do with its… meals. Mostly it just wants her… suffering. Wants it to spread. Grow. Stretch out into a lifetime as she withered and withered… and withered…

Desmond is leaning in towards her when the phone in his pocket buzzes with a notification.

Julia is quietly crying over a picture of an ex boyfriend.

Shit.

The notification on Desmond's phone is from Jon.

Desmond,

Thank you for your email, I was not expecting to hear from you in a while, as keeping up any sort of correspondence with people like us tends to be something of a shot in the dark. You are, in fact, the first I have any hope of perhaps establishing a regular correspondence with. It's a rather novel feeling, I admit.

We do have statements concerning your patron and those who have had… encounters with it. Sadly, conveying such information in any kind of detail over email, or indeed via any modern electronic device, is nearly impossible – something about the nature of those we interact with abhors such convenient form of communication. Any files sent will corrupt, any pictures will become unviewable, I can't even record statements digitally.

I can say that isolation of individuals is a common theme. Getting lost, stranded, stuck… that sort of thing. I do not know if this will help you in… seeking sustenance, shall we say. I do not know the needs that your patron has, as statements concerning it often overlap with the influence of others, which muddles those waters somewhat. People getting forever lost is certainly a trend many of our patrons seem to enjoy.

I hope I will not have to read any Statements concerning any missing persons due to your involvement, as I fear I would likely have to take steps to stop you, in that case. You did not seem like a murderer, Desmond. Please, do not disappoint me in this.

With best regards

Jonathan Sims, the Archivist.

Desmond leans back, staring at the message. He can… sort of hear it in his head, in Jon's voice. Weird. But also – fuck.

Julia is getting up to her feet now, stumbling towards the bathroom to wash her face – her makeup is running. Desmond casts a glance after her guiltily, and then quickly gets up and backs away, finding the most isolated corner of the bar and sitting down to read Jon's message again. It's not very helpful, sadly, it has nothing he didn't already know, but…

He doesn't seem like a murderer, huh. That's… that's funny.

Humming to himself, Desmond looks up as he realises that… he's actually not, is he? He hasn't, not in the real world, in real life. What murders he'd committed, the people he'd killed… those were in the games, and none of it was real. He hasn't killed anyone, ever. That's a kind of… a surprising realisation, actually. Even his worst accomplishments don't exist. How sad is that?

More fuel for the Lonely.

Leaning back and lowering the phone with a sigh, Desmond wonders what the hell he is even doing anymore. What is he, really? He wanted to live, back when he'd realised his life was just a point in a narrative all he wanted to do was get out and live… but that hadn't turned out the way he wanted, had it? In the game he'd made his peace with his existence as an Assassin, that was part of his character arc, what little there was of it. But now…?

The Assassin Brotherhood doesn't exist. It never existed, not the way he knows it. It was a – historical order of historical warriors, way back when, but it wasn't like it was in the game. Altaïr, Ezio, Connor… they're nothing, now. What does that make Desmond?

"I'm an Assassin," Desmond murmurs. "I am an Assassin."

It sounds hollow. Kinda like him. A hollow thing, with delusions of life. A fitting receptacle for the Lonely. Not so good at feeding it, though.

Stay your blade from the blood of the innocent. That still matters to him. And Julia, she's innocent. She's just some woman at the end of a string of bad relationships, she doesn't deserve whatever he'd just almost done to her. No more than Jason deserved what he did to the guy, accidentally. Being lonely might not kill the guy, but… it wouldn't make him happy either.

"Shit," Desmond murmurs to himself and leans his chin on his palm, feeling a roiling unease inside him, where the Lonely wants things he doesn't think he can in any kind of good conscience give it. Would it take no for an answer, though? Probably not. It's a slow, patient sort of sorrow, Loneliness, but it takes its due. It would take its due. And Desmond knows better than to hold any hope of ever being separate from it.

Well, he could just… not. And then die when the Lonely got too demanding and took him back.

Yeah.

Desmond is still for a moment, waiting… but the gloomy thoughts don't so much as dent the hunger he feels. That's a no on the emotional autocannibalism being in any way nourishing, then. Pity. So, with a sigh he pushes the phone into his pocket again and gets up.

Enough moping. Time to find someone who deserves to die.


Desmond hasn't had the call to use the Eagle Vision yet, but he's not particularly worried about whether or not it would work. There's a feel to it he can't really explain – awareness of its existence, which has never been in question. He's as certain of its existence as he is of the Lonely inside him – they're like… fundamental aspects of how he's put together. He's Desmond Miles, he has the Eagle Vision, and he's Lonely. Desmond isn't really too keen on questioning why he still has the Eagle Vision, really – it's just nice that he does.

Turning it on in his post-Lonely existence is – a little different, though. There's no headache, for one – no double vision, no momentary blindness as his vision flashes from normal to the darker hues of the Eagle Vision, nothing. Things just shift slightly off focus, like someone's put a filter on a photo. Everything goes dark, and people light up.

There are more hues to people than he's used to, though. Whereas in the game it was all red, white and blue, with a spark of gold when anything really plot relevant came around, here… here it's every colour of the rainbow – and no one person is solidly one colour. There are people with red and blue mingling into purple, there's a person who's sort of pinkish with streaks of white, there's green, there's orange, there's a person that's gold around her head, but the shine of it bleeds into cold black around her knees. No two people have the same auras.

Makes sense, probably. In reality people are more complicated than just simple characteristics, stripped down to the bare minimum, they aren't categorised as either enemies, friends, allies, or just civilians. They got facets to them. It's – probably much better that way, and Desmond is getting a lot more information out of people this way, with these more complicated auras, but…

It does make things harder. Here it's not as simple as finding the ones glowing red and going forth to stick a knife in their backs… or the Lonely into their hearts, whichever.

Desmond follows the one with a golden head for a while – at least back in the game gold meant important, gold had something to do with what you wanted, what you were looking for. The target colour. The one with the golden head is a woman, tall and proud – someone who works in an office, judging by the looks of her suit. She walks at a brisk pace, long strides, it makes her a bit hard to keep up with, but Desmond has nothing but time.

It's her hair that glows, Desmond figures out after a while. It's dyed vivid red under the glow, almost blood red. Colour of Ezio's cape, even.

Over the course of following her from a coffee shop down to the office building and finally inside, Desmond finds that her name is Mary, she's a data analyst, and new at her job. She's still making friends with her new colleagues, there's a bit of loneliness wafting off her as she watches them exchange inside jokes she's not yet part of, but aside from that she seems perfectly normal.

In her office there are three other women with glowing hair, which is… a bit confusing. They have different levels of loneliness inside them, and they all seem perfectly normal, perfectly lovely women – youngest is maybe twenty, oldest is around her late thirties, none of them seem in any way wrong or bad or… anything, really. They're just office ladies, programmers and data handlers or whatever, Desmond doesn't understand anything about what they're doing on their computers. They seem like decent people, not even all that interesting, really. There's nothing wrong with their office, either.

Not until Desmond sees the guy.

He's another office worker, going by his clothing, a man in his late forties maybe, early fifties? A little heavyset, broad-shouldered, neither handsome or plain, just… a guy, really. If it wasn't for the fact that he was blazing golden under Eagle Vision, Desmond wouldn't have cared. But he does – he glows so bright that it lights up the room.

Leaning onto a wall beside the door, Desmond watches as the guy moves about the room, asks one of the ladies something about some file, there's nothing outwardly off about it… but he does look at their hair a lot, complimenting Mary's new dye job awkwardly to her cringing delight, saying, "Aww, thanks, Lloyd," before quickly changing the subject.

Lloyd slumps a little, but lets it pass. An awkward guy, it seems. There's a curling, sickening miasma of twisted loneliness about Lloyd.

Desmond leaves the office with him. The guy's day at work isn't particularly exciting – he taps away at a computer for the most of it, exchanges a few works with his co-workers, and just works. There's a bit of gossip, "did you hear, Allison and May came to work together for the fifth day in a row?" which makes the nauseating loneliness spike around the guy, but aside from that he seems… mostly normal.

Still glowing gold, though, so when the guy clocks out, Desmond follows him home.

Lloyd's home is a small flat, and it's like entering a bog. You wouldn't think isolation could turn sour, but it definitely has here, it's festering like an infected wound, thick and sickly and wrong. It makes the Lonely inside Desmond croon, but…

Lloyd might be an awkward guy with a hair fetish or something, who knows, and maybe he creeps on the ladies at his workplace – that doesn't make him deserving of being… dinner for the Lonely. So far Desmond's only seen him be awkward and lonely, and maybe the loneliness sits on his shoulders worse than it sits on some other people's, but that's not exactly a crime. There's a lot of lonely people who wear it badly – it's probably most people.

Maybe Eagle Vision has gone off, somehow, thanks to the Lonely, and now it sees people who are going round the bend in their loneliness?

Desmond watches a while longer, struggling against the pull of the urge to do something before shaking his head. The guy is just making food, eating dinner, being normal. There's nothing bad about him, aside from mild creeper tendencies. This is wrong, he decides, and he's almost about to leave… when he spies something just under Lloyd's seat, under the living room couch. It's glowing golden too.

Desmond hesitates, but… wouldn't hurt to check it out, while he's here. It's not like Lloyd would ever know, the guy can't even see him.

When Lloyd heads off to the toilet, Desmond crouches down and pulls out a cardboard box. Looks like it's been there for a while – there's a dead spider on it, and the top is covered in a thin layer of dust. It's not even shut properly, the flaps are open, and there's nothing to stop Desmond from peering inside, into what the Eagle Vision seems to think is a treasure trove of something. And it is. Inside there are about fourteen photos, all of them instant film. Each photo is of a different person, men and women, most of them between twenty and thirty, and there's something… wrong about the way they look. At first Desmond thinks they've been taken when these people are sleeping, which is creepy enough, but… no, that's not it, is it?

Attached to each photo is a little plastic bag of hair clippings.

"Well," Desmond says flatly. "Shit, Lloyd."

Apparently Eagle Vision had pulled through for him, after all.

Chapter Text

"Statement of Desmond Miles, regarding the disappearance of the serial killer Lloyd Thomas. Statement taken direct from the subject on March 13th, 2018. Recording by Jonathan Sims, the Archivist. Statement begins."

Desmond leans his chin to his palm, watching Jon, while the compulsion washes over him and the words begin to flow more or less on their own. It's not so jarring this time – he knows what to expect, and he doesn't mind it so much, really. He's got a better sense of why it works like this. That helps.

"You know, it's odd to think that I've never really killed someone?" Desmond finds himself saying. "Which, I know, is a weird thing to say and would probably mark me down as a psychopath in another setting than this, but you know where I come from, how I was put together. I have these memories of killing people, of assassinating them, in my Game – I was an Assassin, and in one sequence of the game I went through a whole building of people. But none of them were real, I know that now, they were just video game enemies, cannon fodder. On this side of reality, I haven't even gotten into a fight. So it's like this mental dissonance, what I know to be false but feel is true, and what I know to be true but feel is false. I've never killed anyone – but I still think I'm a killer."

It's fascinating, watching it take hold over Jon. Had it taken over Desmond, that way, when he'd given in to the Lonely, when he'd dealt with Lloyd? Jon doesn't even seem to realise he's talking about killing people – the man is just soaking up the words, basking in their glow.

Desmond lets the words take over, lets the statement flow. It's – kind of nice. There's a privacy in it, a sort of ethereal solitude that's oozing off Jon. It's lovely.

"As the avatar of the Lonely, I have to feed my god, the same as any other avatar, apparently. I mean, I don't really know how it works, I'm still pretty new to this, but I figure since I'm in it now, I might as well figure out how to do it the way that I can stomach, the way I can… feel like I'm still adhering to my Creed. It might be fictional, but I came into existence believing it, and it still holds value to me. And the first most important Tenet of my Creed as an Assassin, is… Stay your blade from the blood of the innocent."

"I failed at that, at first, when I'd just came out and the Lonely was so close to the surface that just my touch transferred it to others. I didn't mean to, but I was confused and curious, and no one could see me. It's nice, really, being unable to be seen. It's lonely. I was standing in one of the most crowded intersections in the middle of Manhattan, New York, and no one could see me. And I didn't know what the consequences would be if I tried to change that, I didn't fully know what was going on, yet, what I had become. So, I… reached out to touch someone. It wasn't really anyone important, just the guy closest to me. His name is Jason. Jason is a very lonely man, now. I haven't touched anyone since. But I think I knew, right from the start, that it wouldn't last, that something had to give."

Jon is doing that low-lidded, hazy-eyed simmering thing. Around him the empty space of incomprehensible distance rolls and roils, quietly feeding back to Desmond. The man is so strange, so otherly – slowly inching his way to becoming utterly alien to the people who know him. It tastes like loneliness.

"I learned a little about the cosmic entities of Fear from the Archivist of the Magnus Institute," Desmond says and smiles a little at how Jon's lips part at that. "That's how I learned about the whole feeding things, how you need to keep yourself and your god fed. Not that it was really all that clear – what do you feed to the fear of Loneliness? I can feel and find the loneliest people in the crowd, but… knowing about someone being Lonely isn't enough. I could make people feel lonely like I did with Jason, and I think that feeds the lonely a little, but that's a little too much like hurting innocents."

"Still. Something had to give, and I figured it'd be safer if it was me. Better I give in a little than lose control and hurt someone, which I'd already almost done a couple of times – like I almost did, back at the Magnus Institute, where right in front of me the Archivist pushed away one of his closest friends and left himself wide open to manipulation. I could've eaten him then… but I didn't want to." Jon mouths something at that, silent, and Desmond pushes on. "I wanted to go about it my way, the Assassin's way. So, after giving it some thought and almost slipping up again at a bar with a lonely single woman… I went out looking for someone who deserved it. Someone who deserved to die."

Desmond is given a moment there, a dramatic break maybe, while Jon draws in a slow, silent inhale. "I have an ability, carryover from my games. It's called the Eagle Vision," Desmond says and Jon's eyes open a little wider. They're glowing a bit, Desmond thinks. "It lets me find people. Friends, enemies – targets. Under the view of the Eagle Vision, things I need glow golden. It's a game mechanic, designed to help players differentiate between enemies and bystanders and the like in game, eases the tracking of assassination targets and whatnot – and even though I am not in the game anymore, the Eagle Vision is still there, I still have it. And with it, I went about tracking my target – someone I could feed to the Lonely with no regrets."

"I didn't find Lloyd Thomas at first – I found one of his targets. Or at least the objects of his… obsessions, whatever it was he had," Desmond continues. "A pretty, proud office lady in a nice suit – her name is Mary, and under the view of the Eagle Vision, her hair glowed golden, so I followed her, figuring she was important. She led me to her workplace, some data centre, I think they help people with their in-company filing and data management? I don't know, but a lot of the ladies there had glowing hair, just like Mary. And the reason for that was Lloyd."

"Lloyd had a thing for hair. I'm not even going to pretend I know why, but he did – he collected clippings from all his victims. Stupid, if you ask me, not only did he have hair clippings, but he also had photos. That's the kind of incriminating evidence a serial killer shouldn't have, right, if they don't want to be caught? But I think maybe Lloyd did want to be caught in a way. He was a lonely man," Desmond muses. "Lonely, Lonely man, and he knew it, he was hyperaware of it, and that sort of thing, it instils in some people this… exhibitionist streak. Sometimes, you want to have all your secrets exposed in the most obscene way possible. I call it preformative solitude – a lot of people do it. They want people to see how lonely they are, maybe to make people feel sorry for them, or guilty, or just give themselves the gratification of having their self-designed martyrdom known, I don't know. Maybe it's a call for help. Probably is. Anyway, Lloyd was like that – he wanted to be found. He wanted to be seen."

Desmond smiles. "No one is going to find Lloyd now, though. No one is ever going to see him again," he says. "He's going to be alone, forever."

Another break. It has to be for dramatic effect, it has to be. "When I found out what Lloyd had done and what kind of man he was, I – I don't know if it was the Lonely taking over. Probably. In the games, Assassins aren't into torture, they don't drag out their kills. It's swift and usually painless, and over and done with as quick as possible. I was like that too, in my game – what few kills I did were fast. I guess those days are long over now, though, not that they ever existed. Either way, I knew Lloyd's punishment was going to be lengthy, very, very lengthy. Hell, I'm not sure it will ever end. But he's not dead, so, maybe it doesn't count against the Creed? I might be splitting hairs, though."

"Either way, it was slow," Desmond says. "Time stretches out into infinity when you're Lonely, and it definitely did for Lloyd. He didn't notice anything being strange at first, it was just another evening at home for him… before his doors disappeared. Just the one first, he looked away and suddenly the balcony door wasn't there anymore. He didn't really notice, he didn't go out to his balcony much, if ever, it was more of a place to store trash until he felt like taking it out to the bin in the back. He did notice the front door disappearing, though, but by that time the mist had filled the apartment. The Lonely was seeping in."

Desmond closes his eyes as Jon sighs. "The Lonely is all mist," he says. "Or maybe it's water vapour, I don't know. Temperature and moisture, maybe? It's cold clammy things, a chill down your spine, the mouldy scent in an abandoned building. It's dry, too, it's mothballs in your mouth, old clothing, and deserts and wide open spaces where not a single breath of wind stirs the still, oppressive air. It's also a closed room, stifling, hot, cold, clammy, dry, all the things that make you feel how stuck you are, how alone, how helpless… the feeling you get when you realise you're all alone."

"Lloyd started shouting for his neighbours by the time his bedroom door vanished," Desmond says. "Banging on the walls when his kitchen disappeared. Then, bit by bit, his furniture just dropped out of existence. His TV, his bookshelf, the tea table, the carpets on the floor, the photos on the walls… until finally even his couch was gone, and all there was… was him… and a box of photos and little baggies of clipped hair, sitting in the middle of an empty living room."

"And then, one by one… I took away each and every photo. I made the bags disintegrate and the hair scattered on the floor – and then that too disappeared. It was just Lloyd, a blank, windowless room, and an empty box of trophies that, too, had deserted him."

Desmond stops there, swallowing and trying to stomp down the feeling that the memory awoke, but it's – hard. It had been so… it had been a lot, when Lloyd had descended into pure despair. God, it had been a lot.

"Statement ends," Jon says, his voice firm and final despite what he just heard, and the compulsion releases Desmond. Shuddering a little, he opens his eyes to find Jon staring at him, his eyes a little clearer.

The Archivist reaches for the tape recorder. "Following the disappearance of Lloyd Thomas, there was an enquiry after he failed to show up at his workplace two days in a row. His landlord investigated his flat, and after finding the photos and hair clippings, he understandably called the police. Lloyd Thomas has subsequently become a key interest concerning the disappearances of over ten people over the course of the last ten years, as the photos found at his apartment were by all appearances taken postmortem. Lloyd Thomas is still missing, however, and I expect he won't be found anytime soon… or ever."

He looks up at Desmond. "I assume he is still there, wherever it was you left him."

"Yep," Desmond says. "And he's always going to be – or at least he will be, until the Lonely is done with him."

"Did you…" Jon asks and clears his throat. "Hm. You're taking a considerable risk, telling me this. I think it does make you something of a murderer, after all. Or at least a kidnapper. What's to stop me from taking this to the authorities?"

Desmond smiles. "What good would that do, Jon?" he asks. "Sure, you can try, but it's not like there's any evidence about me ever even existing, never mind being involved here. And what would the authorities do? I'm invisible."

Jon sighs and leans back in his seat and around him the loneliness wells up again. "There used to be a time I cared more about crimes committed by supernatural means," he mutters. "Enough to actually want to see perpetrators come to justice."

Desmond hums, sympathetic. Maybe he should've… given it more thought before giving Jon a statement about his not-murder. "Sorry," he says. "Are you alright? You look…" better, actually.

Jon runs a hand over his face and then looks at him. "It really didn't bother you, basically killing Lloyd Thomas?"

Desmond shrugs. "He was a murderer, a serial killer. And I was an Assassin in my games. I guess my sense of morals is a bit askew, when it comes to killers," he says. "At least now he can never hurt anyone again."

"You condemned him to the existence of suffering."

"He condemned fourteen people to an existence of being dead," Desmond says. "I say he had it coming."

Jon blows out a breath at that and then looks up at the ceiling for a moment. He's quiet for a long moment, struggling with it. "I don't know which is worse," he mutters ruefully, "That I agree with you, or the fact that while I know that three years ago I wouldn't have… I still don't care. We really are monsters, aren't we?"

Desmond hums. He doesn't know about that, but… he did trap a man in an alternate dimension to be digested by the cosmic concept of loneliness. So there's that. "Might as well be monsters on our own terms," he muses. "How was the statement, as a, you know. As a meal?"

Jon snorts wearily and shakes his head "It was… it was filling. Thank you. Two live statements in one week – I think I'm as close to well fed as I've ever been," he says and looks at him. "How are you feeling – after giving the statement? I've recently found that when I take statements like these, the people who give them, they… suffer from it."

"How so?"

Jon wets his lips with his tongue, looking awkward and guilty. "Weariness, nightmares, paranoia – the feeling of being constantly watched…" he says. "Being Known as you put it, it's… I suspect it's not something most people enjoy."

"Hm. Well, I don't sleep, I don't feel tired, and I don't… well, I do feel like someone's watching me, but that's just when I'm here," Desmond says. "Another Beholding avatar, I think, they keep glaring at my neck at a distance. But that's about it."

"Elias is watching you?" Jon asks, with some alarm. "He can see you, are you sure about that?"

"I don't know who that is, but someone's watching me," Desmond says, glancing around. Of course, he can't see it, but it's there. There are also more cobwebs in Jon's little dungeon – doesn't anyone ever clean here? "It's only inside the Institute , though, when I leave they lose track of me. I don't think they like me much, but all they've done is glare at me, so…"

Jon still looks a little alarmed. "I – see," he says.

Desmond gives him a curious look. "So," he says. "The weariness, nightmares, paranoia – is that what your patron feeds off on?"

"I – yes, I think so," Jon says with a sigh and sits back down. "I've been confining myself to written statements as much I've been able to these last few weeks. Getting statements from you, however, it has… helped."

"Even though I'm not afraid?" Desmond asks, arching his brows. "Or getting paranoia or whatever."

"Mh. Someone did, in this one. And last time it was the statement of your… awakening, which holds its own sort of power," Jon muses, and his eyes become vacant, distant. "I can… almost see Lloyd Thomas, when I concentrate on him. I think the Beholding can see him. There's – there's a connection between the Lonely and the Eye, they are especially suited to feeding each other."

Desmond arches his brows at that, trying not to grin, and Jon goes a little red around the ears. "I mean – you know what I mean."

"Mmhm," Desmond agrees, wiggling his brows a little, just to hear the man sputter. "It's what I came here for."

"I well – ah, um –?"

Desmond grins. "And also, it's my birthday," he admits. "And I guess… I guess I didn't want to spend it alone."

"Oh," Jon says. "You… have a birthday?"

"Sort of, kind of. It's the date the games gave, anyway, March 13, 1987."

"… huh. I was also born in 1987. What are the odds."

Desmond arches his brows. "Really?" he asks. The guy looks older – he's going grey and everything.

Jon gives him a look and then rolls his eyes. "Anyway. Happy birthday. I'm sorry I don't have a cake for you, but maybe there are some pastries in the cafeteria."

"Nah. It's fine. Though if you want to do something nice for me, for my birthday, and all… I wanted to learn more," Desmond suggests. "You mentioned statements about the Lonely? Do you think I could take a look at them?"

 "Ah, yes, the statements… I do recall several that I believe now are related to the Lonely," Jon considers it for a moment, looking relieved and then distracted. "I doubt cases 0161301 or 0090404 will aid you, they share marked similarities with what you did to Lloyd Thomas – isolation in impossible spaces. Statements 0110201 and 0100325 might offer some insight, perhaps, they are somewhat dissimilar. Oh, I think there is one I haven't read out yet, case number 0140911, statement of Herman Gorgoli, regarding his period of being trapped alone in a suburban area in Cheadle, originally written on the 9th of November, 2014."

Desmond blinks a little at that, his eyebrows arching up. "... okay?"

Jon lifts his gaze, looking mildly confused for a moment, blinking at nothing before seeing him again. "Desmond, would you like to see the Archives?" he asks. "I need to check something."

"Absolutely," Desmond says and stands up. "Lead the way."

Jon, Desmond notices, takes the tape recorder with them as they go.

The Archives are mostly just a big room, full of racks and racks of boxes and files, with lot of filing cabinets lining the walls. Though the design of the place is kind of old timey, with squat pillars supporting a heavy vaulted ceiling making the place feel both claustrophobic and a little too open all at once, the machinery present is pretty modern. The light fixtures are bright with LED bulbs, there's a fancy looking fire suppression system, and the whole place is carefully air controlled.

Even so, there's a lot of cobwebs everywhere.

The place is somehow markedly empty. Like, there should be someone here, several someones – and there isn't. Their absence is noticeable, and it makes Jon flinch a little. "Well," the man says. "Let me check to see if I can find the case number 0140911, and then I will get those other statements for you. Would you like to listen to the audio recordings?"

"Did you read them?" Desmond asks interestedly, peering around.

"I did, yes."

"Then, sure. I'll take a listen."

Jon heads off along the line of racks, and Desmond rocks his weight back and forth on the balls of his feet, peering around. The glare of the invisible watcher is there, and harder than ever – Elias, whoever it is, does not approve of Desmond being in the Archives. Desmond glances towards the approximate area of the gaze and then snorts. "That is still rude, you know," he says.

Elias just glares at him harder.

Shrugging his shoulders, Desmond looks away and then activates the Eagle Vision.

Oh, boy.

That's a… lot of gold.

"Jon," Desmond calls. "On the scale of one to you feeding me to the Beholding, how mad will you be if I poke around and take a look at these files?"

"So as long as you don't steal anything or damage anything, look your fill," Jon calls back. "Tell me if you find something interesting."

"Will do," Desmond says and steps forward, ignoring Elias' murderous glowering. The nearest is a dusty box marked as 096. It's light – there's only… one file inside it. While the gaze of Elias peers over his shoulder, Desmond brushes aside the dusty webs inside the box and picks up the file. It's marked at the front with a yellowed bit of tape, and printed on it is the number 0930000. Inside is a very dark photocopy of a frayed letter. It's in Arabic.

The Old Man of the Mountain to Leopold, Duke of Austria; greetings.

Desmond's nonexistent heart skips a beat. Old Man of the Mountain, that's – that's Al Mualim, right? That's what they called him – Desmond had looked into it after coming out of the game. Al Mualim was based on a real historical figure, his… his real name was Rashid… something something. Sinan maybe? Is this… was this written by the actual Al Mualim, did he –

Desmond looks up quickly, glancing around with Eagle Vision again. There are more spots of gold, and one of them calls to him – in another dusty box, this one marked as 506-3 – there's about a dozen files inside it, and two of them glow golden. Quickly, he opens the first he can get out, and there's another bad photocopy, this one of a sketch of what looks like a wall or a tablet or something, it looks familiar. Around the sketch there's writing in Italian, and on the top, in a painfully familiar hand, written in even more familiar code…

Considerations upon the Temple of Pythagoras , by Leonardo da Vinci.

On the other end of the Archive, Jon lets out an, "Aha!" followed by a quieter, "… damnit."

"Mmh?" Desmond calls distractedly.

"Nothing, it's just – apparently I no longer need to have these files in front of me in order to… to see them," Jon mutters. "The file I mentioned before, 0140911, I hadn't read it before, but here it is. Statement of Herman Gorgoli, just as I saw it."

Desmond looks up and then closes the folder in his hand, grabbing the other one from the box marked as 492 and tucking all three of the files under his arm, before going to find Jon. The man is holding a much newer looking folder, and he seems a little tired.

"Eye power, huh?" Desmond asks.

"Mm," Jon agrees, his shoulders slumping. "I'm not feeling particularly hungry right now, I think I will save this, but… I think it might have something concerning the Lonely in it, if you want to look into it."

"Sure, thanks – are you alright?" Desmond asks, giving him a worried look.

"I'm… I can see more and more, things I… shouldn't be able to see," Jon admits wryly. "I'm almost used to it, but not quite. What did you find?"

"Er, I'm not sure, but I know it's important to me. Got an eye power of my own, remember? Stuff here glows golden," Desmond says nodding to the files. "Something about the real history of the people who were characters in my game, I think. You mind if I read these?"

"I meant to ask you about that, the Eagle Vision… but I suppose it can wait," Jon considers him for a moment, thoughtful, and then looks at the Archives. "Elias definitely would mind, you're not part of the Archives," he comments with a scoff. "But I find myself not really caring right now. Knock yourself out, Desmond. And let me find you those other files while I am at it, concerning the Lonely."

"Thanks, appreciate it," Desmond says. "You didn't answer me though, really – are you alright?"

"I'm sure I'm not," Jon says, and walks away. Desmond sends a worried look after him and then turns his eyes down to the files he's holding.

Looks like he's about to get some answers here, but… he also is getting the feeling that finding answers in this place doesn't always turn out the way you want. Probably better be cautious about it. Hm.

Quietly, Desmond finds a desk in the back of the Archive, and while Jon browses through the Archives for the files he mentioned, Desmond sits down to read.

Chapter Text

The upsides of being… not quite real. Desmond doesn't get hungry, or tired or sleepy – after Jon leaves the Archives, Desmond can just read and read, and he doesn't get tired of it. He's not much of a reader, normally – not that he'd ever really… thought about it. In the game the developers hadn't given him much in the ways of interests, really, the most he got is the bartending, which doesn't do anything for him now, and emails, which he could read but never answer to. But he can read, at least. And in several languages too. So there's that.

There's a lot to read in the Archives.

The Old Man of the Mountain to Leopold, Duke of Austria; greetings.

I have read the fake letter they sent in my name. Whatever lies King Richard's court would like to spread and claim, it matters not now. Let them blame my assassins for Conrad of Montferrat and let them paint you a glorious ally or a fool – both you and I know, we're far past that now. True as it may be, and ignorant though they are to the true cause… it matters not, anymore.

We have failed, our labours thwarted. My eagle did not do its part, and thought Conrad's blood stains those unholiest of stones, and for that we might now pay… the fruit did not bloom, it did not reveal itself. The wisdom of Solomon failed us. In a way, I am glad of it, as should you be. The nine I gathered to feed my eagle might have not been enough to save us, but I daresay they were also not enough to condemn us, either. Our failure is two front.

I shan't say it will save our souls, I doubt there are such things, and even if there were, we both know what it is that will claim them, at the end, and it is neither heaven or hell, paradise or even oblivion. It's not a sweet end that awaits us.

Our labours weren't without their merits, late though they are now. We did gain gifts in the end, I of vision and you of might. When the eagle will pick my corpse, and it will, who knows what it will find in my bones. All I know now is that it will kill me, and it will be soon. You will not live much longer, either, this too I have seen. Death comes for us both. I hope he will be kinder to you than he will be to me.

My blood will anoint the Library. It won't be enough. And even if it was, it is too late for us.

Rashid al-Din Sinan

Desmond feels a cold shiver down his spine.

Of course, the eagle motif came from somewhere into the game. He's not sure where, exactly, but it… it came from somewhere, the developers based it on something. In reality… in the letter, it could mean anything, really. Anything, except for Altaïr, anyway – Altaïr never existed. Desmond did enough research about that to know for sure, and… it still kind of hurts.

"Yes, yes," he murmurs distractedly as the Lonely spikes up around him, drinking up the pain. "Take your fill, there's more where that came from."

Al Mualim – Rashid – is talking about something, though, and Desmond has a feeling it's not just metaphors. Something supernatural maybe? If the real life person was anything like the video game version, Desmond wouldn't be surprised. He has a vague memory of people on some forums saying that Assassin's Creed's historical accuracy was questionable at best, though, so… who knows.

Still, reading about anything even remotely related… Damn, but he misses it. All of it, big and small parts of it, and his place in it.

The gaze of Elias is pouring down his neck – the man will just not let it be, huh. Desmond ignores him with a sigh, setting aside the real-Al Mualim's letter and turning to the files from the box number 506-3, top one being the one with Leonardo, the sketch about Pythagoras or something. The Considerations upon a Temple of Pythagoras.

… was that real, the temple of Pythagoras, the cult of Hermes and all that – it was real? Huh.

Frowning, Desmond considers the photocopy of a sketch – it kind of looks like something he'd seen while living Ezio's life, but also… not. The photocopy is too dark to tell the details, like a photo with too much contrast, too many dark shadows – the copy must've been made years ago, back when photocopiers sucked more than they didn't. The writing on the photo is almost illegible. And the sketch…

It really is Leonardo's, huh. Desmond can recognize his art style, the smooth lines of it, the spidery little strokes where he'd shaded in even hand… it makes the image so realistic, gives it easily recognizable depth. The details, they're… kind of hypnotic really, how they whirl and twist and curl…

Desmond blinks, shaking his head, and then clears his throat and concentrates onto the writing instead, what little there is, scattered about the sketch. Parts of the writing are too smudged to read, but Leonardo's codes are familiar enough that he can decipher what's missing, more or less.

Temple of the Pythagoreans, the Hermeticists.

The entrance: stone, hard and cold to the touch. Inscribed upon it were symbols, like numbers, but of quantities and qualities I could not understand. No recognisable pattern, yet they repeated, again and again.

Like staring into endless corridors of repeating structures, every calculation a door, a pathway to another calculation, endlessly, endlessly, I could not see how far they went. The depth was terrible.

Everything can be rendered into numbers.

The catacombs under the temple made no sense, their architecture was like a maze, a trap, it twisted and turned and seemed to have no logical start or end – spinning into itself, and out of itself. Some trick of optics, of perspective?

Pythagoreans believed that the forces of nature could be translated into numbers and mathematics could harness the nature's power. And mathematics can be drawn. Some of the walls reflected on this – I will draw this.

Calculate the force of the wind and you can predict the storm. But what if the storm predicts the wind – what if it can change it?

That's… a little eerie. And it hits a little too close to home. Is this where the game developers got the idea for the Isu Calculations? Desmond had always thought it was one of the stranger aspects of the games – even when he was in them and played his part in their narrative, the whole concept of the Isu Calculations tripped him up. Hell, they might even have something to do with the reason why he ever got out of the game. The Eye was the culmination of the Isu Calculations, and on this side… well, the Eye is a thing. A being, an entity… a great big cosmic horror

Desmond looks over the picture again, looking for some hint of an eye symbol, or anything that might have something to do with the fourteen big fears and their various aspects. Anything – anything – fuck, even Leonardo's writing is kind of spinny and spirally, like it – like it winds in on itself… Leonardo had a very pretty handwriting – he kept writing it backwards…

Desmond comes back to his body feeling a bug crawling on his neck, and with a shudder flicks it off. How long he'd been staring at the thing, getting lost in the spirals, he isn't sure – he has a headache by the time he can drag his eyes away. He has a vague feeling he hasn't been blinking at all.

The hell did Leonardo do to his notes?

The other file from the box where the sketch was laid isn't written by Leonardo, which Desmond is both sad and slightly relieved about – until he realises who it is written by. It's also in Italian, though the hand is far less pretty than Leonardo's, it still has that artistic flair to it, and firmness of the well trained.

On the topic of our dear Maestro,

He is having nightmares again, and waking up at all hours to scribble his things. This can't go on – will you go see doctor Gaspari, get that foul tincture of his? I'm trying to convince him to leave it well enough alone, this has gone on far longer than it usually does with him – he should have snapped out of it. That place really drew him in.

He speaks of lost libraries and dancing living numbers in his sleep, it is deeply unnerving. He craves books, wants more of those… damned pages. He was never into books, before, not really – our Maestro has always held a disdain for the well educated, in his own way. That those that laud their education above all things else, and can use it for none, have no more value than a dumb man that never learned a thing. But now he wishes to write them.

He will get up from the deepest of sleeps and rush to paper and scribble down passages urgently, as though his life depends on it. By the time morning comes, he stares at those passages, and I can't say he even remembers writing them, never mind understanding them. It is almost as bad as when he was inventing those machines of his, his war machines – as though the knowledge had assaulted him and forced him to work with a promise of cruelty.

It looks cruel, what this is doing to him. How it makes him crave the impossible.

He keeps coming to this passage, which to me does not seem particularly insightful, and yet, he keeps writing it over and over.

"Just as courage is the danger of life, so is fear its safeguard."

I don't know what it means, but it worries me. Whatever the Cult had him do in those tunnels, it left an impact upon him I fear might not be as easily shaken as his… other ventures beyond the pale. And that friend of his, you know the one I speak of, well, he's no help. He's deeper in it than Leonardo is, mired in it, neck deep, drowning… in all those damned books.

I am trying to convince our Maestro to leave Rome – there is naught work here, and the atmosphere weighs on him. He once longed for France and Paris, I will try and convince him of it, or perhaps of Milan and the vineyard! Anything will be better than here. I hope you will do the same, for the longer we stay here, the further I fear he might slip. And under the shadow of the Vatican, even with a new Pope in power, is no place for witchcraft.

I have written too much already. By all rights I should burn this, but…

Yours, through dread and delight

Salaì

Desmond leans back, eyeing the words. That's, ah… Salaì's writing doesn't hold any of the confusing vertigo Leonardo's did – whatever Leonardo had tampered with, Salaì didn't share it. The things he wrote about though, that's… concerning. Almost like when, in the game, during Ezio's life, Leonardo was under the thrall of the Apple, making the war machines – and damn… Desmond knew those things were real, but he'd figured Leonardo had just invented them, the old fashioned way. If he hadn't…

Obviously, Leonardo had tinkered with the supernatural. Makes sense that he would, if there is someone in history who would be tempted, it would probably be Leonardo. Obviously he had brushed in with something – the Spiral, maybe? Jon had said that confusing patterns and hypnotic distortions were its thing, and Leonardo's sketch had that in plenty. Book, though – Leonardo wrote a book? And not just a codice concerning the things he studied, anatomy and bird wings and whatnot.

Setting the letter down, Desmond frowns to himself for a while, unsettled in a way he can't explain. It's not just the uncanny similarity with the Game, that just makes sense, really, the game imitated reality as much as it could, after all. But he hadn't… he hadn't how deep that imitation went.

Also what friend of Leonardo's was Salaì talking about? If it was the game, that'd be a clear damn reference to Ezio, but Ezio, like Altaïr, never existed, so… what? Machiavelli, maybe? They were friends in real life – Desmond's favourite thing about them is them trying to steal a river together, that soothed a lot of the hurt over changed history, but…

Running his hand over his mouth, Desmond looks up with the Eagle Vision, ignoring the Glaring of Elias as he takes in the Archives. There's plenty of gold left – some twenty, twenty five little points of importance that called to him, scattered among the boxes and filing cabinets. Plus there are the files about the Lonely Jon had got for him. If he went through them all, would they explain –

There's a sound somewhere across the Archives – a door opening and closing with a heavy thunk. Desmond looks up, blinking and feeling strangely floaty, as he hears footsteps, someone moving about the archive. Jon?

And then Desmond sees the mist, leaking in, thick and heavy. Yeah, definitely not Jon, then.

Shaking his slightly aching head, Desmond stands up to go and take a look. Could be the guy from the closed up office, the one who's wrapped himself in many layers of leave me alone. Desmond hadn't really expected to see them come outside, considering the lengths they'd gone to stay inside, but… assumably they work in the Institute too, so…

The steps echo in the distance, oddly, hollowly – like they're suddenly in a cave, and it's a hundred feet long and more. Desmond hesitates. Under his feet, the black tile floor looks… damp. He can barely see it, all of a sudden – the mist is curling around the legs of the cabinets and the racks, like a thin blanket that's quickly thickening. Desmond is suddenly very aware of the space, the void, the emptiness of the corners and the corridors between shelves.

Power of the Lonely is washing over the room, like someone's turned on the sprinklers and mist is being poured into it. It's – it feels off, somehow, though, it feels thin and reedy and difficult. The Archive groans, grinding stone and metal, and though Desmond can feel the mist try to sink it, the shelves and racks stay where they are.

"Now what are you doing here, all alone?"

It's a male voice, soft and kind of sleepy in a way, and it seems to come both around Desmond and behind him.

"This isn't the place for you," the voice says. "The Archives belong to the Beholding, and it's very jealous – there's no place for us here, no matter how many lonely corners there are here. We don't… belong."

Desmond frowns, shivering, and he can feel something behind him. As he turns around, he finds the desk he was sitting at is disappearing into the distance, like it's being… dragged by the floor under his feet, stretching out into infinity. It's like an optical illusion in a movie. The files on the table, Al Mualim's letter, Leonardo's sketch, Salaì's letter, and all the files Jon got for him – they're all gone.

"What do you think you can gain from here, knowledge? What's the point in that – nothing you will read will change the reality, will it? You're still all alone, and you always will be. Better to accept it, don't you think?"

Desmond stands very still, staring at the rising mist – it's at hip level now, and he can't see the floor. The lights above are gone, the ceiling barely visible, and everything is kind of… drab and colourless. It's all leaning on him, but also away from him, closing him and leaving him standing alone in an empty corridor, alone, alone… Thin curling tendrils of the Lonely try and sneak their way into his mind, into his brain – tickling at the loneliness inside him, trying to coax it forth.

"What are you doing?" Desmond asks, swaying a little.

"I'm not doing anything – I'm not even here," the voice murmurs, gentle, so gentle. "It's just you. You're alone."

Bullshit.

Desmond closes his eyes and then shakes the tendrils of mist from his head – when he opens his eyes, he can see. The mist is tick, and the Lonely leans in close, drawn forward by the other avatar – but it's not… what Desmond has inside him is stronger than this. The blanketing mist with its lure of gentle seclusion and safe isolation, it's nothing.

Walking in the mist, his hands behind his back, his steps slow and hypnotic, is a man in a thick coat, collar turned up – he's as grey and colourless as the mist he's summoned into the Archive. Every now and then, he blows out a breath of fog like he was smoking a cigarette, thickening the mist, making it colder, deeper, stronger.

Not strong enough.

"I'm not sure," Desmond says, watching him, "about what you're trying to do, here, exactly, but… I don't think Jon would be happy with you bringing this much condensation into the Archives."

The man pauses at that and looks at him over the lazily whirling mist. Desmond arches his brows, more confused than anything, really. The man's eyes widen a little, alarmed – and then he's gone, just, poof, disappeared in the mist.

"Who are you?" the mist guy demands.

Desmond scans the library – the guy is on the other end. Teleportation, now? Neat. "Hi, my name is Desmond Miles," he says and sets to follow the man. "Nice to meet you – you are?"

There's a moment of pause. "Peter Lukas," he says. "How do you do?"

"I'm lovely, thanks – was just doing a bit of reading," Desmond says, stalking across the room. "Nice weather we're having here, isn't it? Love the English fog. Very atmospheric."

Peter Lukas clears his throat at that, quiet, echoing, but the mist doesn't disperse. "What are you doing here, Desmond Miles?"

"Told you, reading," Desmond says and rounds the corner. "Learning things. Finding things."

Peter is there for a wink, and then he's gone, leaving behind an empty place which the mist silently fills. Desmond stares at the curling tendrils and then sighs. "What do you want, Peter Lukas?" he asks, resting a hand on his hip and glancing around. Again, the man's gone to the other end of the archives – and Desmond is not going to start running back and forth chasing someone who can apparently teleport. "What can I do for you?"

"A better question is what do you want, Desmond Miles – what are you looking for? Perhaps I can help you."

Geez. "I'm looking for the answer to life, universe and everything," Desmond says, annoyed, and glances at the shelf beside him. Oh, a glowing file, nice. "I don't actually need help, though, I was getting there. Reading, it's a wonderful way to learn things."

"What a lonely thing to say," Peter Lukas says. "Unfortunately, this isn't a place for you, Desmond Miles, and I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave. And put that down."

Desmond flips the file open. Case file number 0020603. A Statement of Igor Sviridov concerning the disappearance of his wife Larisa Sviridova in the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, on March 6th, 2002 –

There's a hand gripping the file, trying to tug it from his hands. "I'm afraid you do not have the pass to access these case files, Desmond Miles. You aren't Institute Staff, or an authorised researcher," Peter Lukas says firmly, his voice no longer echoing emptily. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Desmond holds onto the file, considering the man. He's – not very threatening, is the thing. Tall, sure, greyed out in a way that reminds Desmond of his dad, of Bill Miles, but… the guy doesn't seem to be a fighter. He just looks kind of sad. "I was given permission by Jonathan Sims, the Archivist," Desmond says slowly. "Isn't it up to him?"

"Well, I am the head of the Institute – I'm afraid my authority is greater," Peter Lukas says. "And you're not welcome."

Huh. "Fine," Desmond says, and relaxes his grip from the file. "Wouldn't want to be rude, Peter Lukas. You're an avatar of the Lonely, huh? Going by the mist."

Peter Lukas smiles, cold and kind of disheartened – hell, even his attempt of intimidation looks somehow abandoned, like the guy knows he doesn't have a friend in the world, he's all alone, and no one will help him. Jesus. "Don't come back," he says. "And stay away from the Archivist."

Desmond gives him a bewildered look. Why does it feel like he's being told off by a sad dad? "Right, okay," he says, a little unsettled. He's not going to do that, but… he can tell when he's not wanted. "Fine, fine, I'm going. "

Peter watches him back away, holding the file in his hands stiffly. Desmond turns, pushing his hands into his pockets – from the corner of his eye can see the man glance down at the file, read its description, and when he does that, Desmond glances quickly around for anything gold, something he can easily slip into his hoodie when the man isn't looking and take away with him.

Ah, perfect.

A cassette tape.

Chapter Text

Desmond steals an old cassette player from a second hand store selling vintage stuff, plugs it into an outlet in a vacant grocery store's bathroom, and listens to the tape recorded not by Jon, but by someone called Gertrude Robinson. The statement in it is not read out by her – rather it's an interview. It's the same type of interview Jon does with Desmond; where Gertrude tells someone named Walter Heller to tell her what happens, and then some poor old soldier from World War II spews out everything in a smooth, fifteen minute monologue.

It's about how back during World War II in Libya, Walter got injured in some operation with a shiny new tank, called the Crusader – which definitely catches Desmond's interest, though turns out it has nothing to do with the actual point. After getting injured, the guy had a period of recovery in Alexandria, and during it he wandered around to get some exercise and ended up accidentally in a buried library – and then had a spooky encounter with a dead body and a thing that chased him out of the place. What happened to the guy isn't nearly as interesting as Gertrude's thoughts after she's done interviewing the veteran, though.

Gertrude talks about the how, "It's taken a long time to track down someone still living who found the Serapeum of Alexandria," and how it might be an early iteration of the Archives and how it was sacked in 391, and how people were sacrificed in it, stuff like that, all the good spooky stuff with ancient evil gods and whatnot. And then…

Desmond winds back the tape, and replays the part that he thinks was meant for him – or the thing Eagle Vision thinks he should hear, anyway.

The corpse found by Mr. Heller would seem to be the remains of a Hospitaller knight of the order of St. John, at least based on his description of the tabard, most likely from the sack of Alexandria in 1365 by Peter the First of Cyprus. While generally grouped in with the rest of the Crusades, it’s generally considered to be one of the few such attacks with no religious motivation. Given this discovery, however, I do wonder if there might have been… other reasons.

Desmond hits pause on the old cassette player and folds his arms. "Interesting," he mutters.

Can't ever get out of the Institute without being a little unsettled, huh? The letters from Al Mualim, Leonardo and Salaì, and now this. It's… a bit disconcerting, really. Years ago, after he got out of the game and before the Lonely took him, Desmond had figured out that there was no point trying to compare the game and reality, it was all fiction, after all, it would never match with reality and he'd just lose it trying to find similarities beyond the obvious historical settings. The characters he cared for the most were fictional, and so were most of the things they'd done, or they'd been appropriated from other sources. And none of it really affected anything.

His history, the important bits, didn't exist, so… better to go forward just ignoring it, and trying to find something else to live for. Assassin Brotherhood as he knew it wasn't real, and neither was their fight, their grand old war. The Isu, the Pieces of Eden, Templars… at most, they were based on ancient legends. They didn't matter.

And still, the mention of a Crusader Knight makes Desmond feel his nonexistent heart beat harder, like… like he's getting back into it, back into that swing of running and trying to figure out, back into the swing of solving mysteries and unearthing conspiracies. A secret library in Alexandria, just after reading about Al Mualim's talk about a library, and an eagle, just after reading about Leonardo and books…

When Altaïr died, his books were sent to Alexandria with Darim, right?

"Oh, man, I'm weak," Desmond murmurs and runs a hand over his face. He stands there, unmoving for a moment, letting the thought settle in his mind. Then he takes out his phone.

Hey, Jon,

Sorry about just taking off. I got told off by the guy who said he was your boss – Peter Lukas? Don't think he was happy with me, but hey, he could see me, which was cool. I didn't get to listen to the files you got me, though, about my patron, which is a bummer, but maybe next time, right?

Right now I'm headed off for a bit, out of the country, don't know when I will be back. I'll see if I can find you some juicy Statements while I'm out.

Take care of yourself.

Desmond

Desmond considers the message for a moment, weighing his options. He kind of wanted to go back and see Jon. He hadn't managed to catch the guy after Peter Lukas had chased him out, and he'd been too eager to find a place to listen to the tape as soon as possible – just in case it would go and disappear on him or something. The sooner he went and seen, the quicker he'd be back, really, and if Peter is serious about keeping him away from the archives… might as well give it a break. Still…

Well, there's nothing more to be said, is there – and he's never been that big on book research anyway, reading and such. He's always been more… hands on kind of guy with figuring things out. Or brain-on, however you can summarise learning things via experiencing them first hand through the memories of others. Not that it was real.

And there, he's gone and made himself sad and lonely again.

Shaking his head, Desmond sends the message and then looks up as the door to the bathroom opens, someone entering quietly. At first Desmond goes to ignore them and go back to the phone, to do a quick search for flights to Egypt he can take before heading out – but the man is looking at him.

It's a young man – or, he looks… the opposite of aged, somehow. Tall, black, pretty nice looking – and staring right at Desmond, his eyes weary and sad.

"Er," Desmond says, slowly.

"Hello," the man says and holds out his hand. "Oliver Banks – I'm the avatar of the End."

Desmond lowers the phone slowly, his brows arcing. He looks at the man's hand uneasily and then looks up at him. "Okay," he asks, and doesn't shake the offered hand. "Hi?"

Oliver looks at his hand, then at him and then waves it, soothing. "Oh, don't worry. The Lonely can't touch me," Oliver says and sighs. "I'm already too far beyond anyone's reach. Go on, it's alright – it won't hurt you. You can't die."

"… er," Desmond says again. "Okay. Um. Hi, Oliver Banks, the avatar of the End. My name is Desmond Miles, it's nice to meet you," he says slowly and then hums. Well. "It actually is nice to meet you – nice to be seen and all, not too many can do that. But, uh. How did you find me? Kind of sounds like you were looking for me? Maybe?"

"Oh, yes, I was looking for you," Oliver says and smiles wincingly. "Not that I need to look for people, really, as such, but – anyway. I'm going to come to Egypt with you. I figured I might as well find you ahead of the time."

Desmond stares at him. "What?"

"Ah. Um. I am going to Egypt with you – you don't know how I – right. I'm not used to this," Oliver says, stops and clears his throat. "It's difficult – I know people, I know you too, I can still see you in my dreams. I know people, but people don't know me, and it's… The last person I really talked to was the Archivist, and he Knew me in turn, so introductions weren't really that necessary. I'm a – prophet, I think?"

"Okay," Desmond says slowly, staring at him warily, starting to feel a little alarmed now. "That's cool."

"I can tell when people will die – I can see it coming. It's very physical, I see these tendrils, um…" Oliver says apologetically. "And you don't – you aren't. You – can't. Because you're not alive and never have been. I'm explaining this badly – it's so much easier with an Archivist around, isn't it? When they can just – pull it out of you, nice and easy, in a proper order? Maybe I should have come to see you in the Archives, it would have made things simpler…"

Desmond feels a very powerful, very visceral shiver. "Okay, um. You can tell the future, and you know me, and can see me. That's – cool. Why are you coming to Egypt with me, Oliver Banks?"

"Because the plane you're going to take is going to crash, and you can't die, and I don't know what being on a plane that crashes will do to you," Oliver explains. "So I should come, just in case."

The fuck…? "Okay, that sounds like a good reason as to why you shouldn't come to Egypt with me," Desmond says slowly. "Actually, that sounds like a good reason why I shouldn't go either. Maybe we both just stay on the ground and not get on any planes for a bit. How does that sound?"

Oliver sighs. "I'm not sure you can avoid it. And you are going to Egypt."

"Well, I was, until you told me I was going to get in a plane crash. I don't want to get in a plane crash, so I'll just – not get on a plane," Desmond says, opens the cassette player and takes out Gertrude's tape. "Easy as that."

Oliver squeezes his hands into fists and releases them – not like he's about to attack or hit him or anything, but just sort of frustrated. "If you don't, it's going to be something else," he says, sounding both a little upset and a little defeated. "Trust me, I – I know. There are – well, powers at work here. If it's not this one thing, it will be something else, equally as bad or worse. It's inevitable."

"What, like fate?" Desmond asks suspiciously. "Is fate a thing?"

"Not – not exactly, I don't think, but – I think, some things are set, ahead of time. So as long as everything falls into place, the future is set to a point, and in yours there will be a disaster. This one, or something else," Oliver says. "It's tied to you."

"Oh, so now I'm the reason for the plane crash? All the more reason not to go, then," Desmond says, frowning. He really doesn't like the sound of this.

"No, yes – I, uh. It's already been seen," Oliver says. "It's – difficult to explain. The End is already reaching for the conclusion of the steps taken – it will happen, and if it doesn't happen the way the End predicts, then those – those tendrils, the preparations, they will do something else. There is an – an expectation, a trail. The plane is already marked. And so are you. You're wrapped in them."

"In – tendrils," Desmond clarifies.

"Yes," Oliver says apologetically. "And they will drag you either to the plane or to something equivalent, until the End can claim what the journey's aimed at."

Desmond thinks about it. It sounds like a really uncomfortable bit of bullshit, but… they are dealing with evil cosmic entities here. "A wind predicting the storm," he murmurs. "Or the storm the wind, huh?"

"I'm sorry?" Oliver asks politely.

"Um, never mind," Desmond says and gives him a look. "So the End, it – reaches for future disasters? With these tendrils it worms its way to them?"

"Towards deaths," the other avatar says, nodding. "You can shift those – those deadlines, shall we say, a little, but you can't escape them. Once the End begins reaching for you, there's no escape. You will get on that plane, Desmond. And I should be there with you."

"Hm," Desmond answers. Yeah, he doesn't like it. "What if I just… don't? What if I just walk away?"

"I'm sorry, but… I don't think you can."

Desmond eyes him up, taking in the sincere, somewhat beaten expression on the guy's face. Yeah, he thinks, fuck that, and picks up the cassette player and tucks it under his arm. "Watch me," he says, and walks away.


 

As curious as Desmond is about the whole business of the crusader in Alexandria and whether it had something to do with… with things related to the real world equivalent of what he knew in the game, it's nothing he can't put off. He goes to a library instead – a normal library – and looks up the sack of Alexandria and Peter the First of Cyprus, to see if they have anything to do with – with anything. And they don't seem to.

As far as history books are concerned, the Sack of Alexandria had more to do with money than anything else. Peter the First wanted to put an end to Alexandria being a major port city… as well as kill, steal, pillage and go home rich. There's nothing religious about the crusade, nothing about putting an end to any heretical faiths or pagans, or whatever it was crusaders justified their massacres with, nah. Just money and maybe a smidge of influence, and the city left with 20000 dead and 5000 enslaved for seemingly no other reason that because it was there. As Crusades go, as short as the Sack of Alexandria had been… it was successful. Relatively to, say, the 4th Crusade, which was a shitshow if Desmond ever saw one.

And yet, the library, the – archive, in the old caves. Scrolls on the shelves imbedded in walls, and a spooky monster with one eye…

Damn, he is curious. Chances are, Desmond wouldn't even be able to find the place, even with Eagle Vision – the modern world has the tendency of paving over old entrances like that. With his luck, there'd be, like, a bank vault right where he might be able to find entrance – though then again, maybe it wouldn't matter. He is invisible, after all. Still, he's not taking a plane, no way, not with the doom of a plane crash hanging over him, but maybe there's another way to travel… maybe he could take the Eurotunnel?

Desmond's phone buzzes in his pocket. It echoes in the empty library, sharply electronic against all the analogue books in their shelves.

It's Jon, of course, there's no one else who it could be.

Desmond,

Sorry about not seeing you go, I was in the middle of something myself. Can't apologise for Peter Lukas, I haven't ever even met the man, but – I'm glad he only told you to leave. There have been incidents involving him where he didn't simply ask people, and as far as we can tell, those people haven't returned. I imagine you would better know why than me, being what you are. Likely they will never return.

Hopefully this sudden trip abroad of yours is a good sign and that you found something useful in the archives. These days that's getting harder and harder – almost as though you can only find what the Archive wants you to find. Either way, I wish you a safe voyage and, should you learn or see something interesting… well, I am always hungry for stories.

Hell, I almost wish I could go with you, take a break from this, travel for the sake of travel and not for something, something… not for some worse reasons. My last trip outside the UK did not end particularly pleasantly, I admit – nor did it happen particularly pleasantly, actually, now that I think about it. I'm not sure I enjoyed anything about it…

I – well, this is depressing, I don't think I have traveled for the pleasure of it, and I don't expect ever to do it.

I apologise, it has been – after you left, I had an altercation with a friend, and it's left me feeling… well… quite Lonely. Pardon the pun.

Enjoy your trip, Desmond. And happy birthday, again.

With best regards,
Jonathan Sims
The Archivist.

Desmond reads the message twice and then leans back. He's somehow absolutely certain Jon wrote the message in the Archive room – the one Peter Lukas filled with mist and loneliness. Damn.

Desmond writes back immediately.

Why not just go and say fuck it – and come with me? It sounds like you need a break. I'm heading to Egypt – could be nice this time of the year, who knows.

It's almost half an hour before Jon answers. In that time Desmond picks through a few more books, looking into the Assassins of Masyaf, the real ones, and into Rashid ad-Din Sinan. The guy had died in a place called al-Kahf Castle, which might've been the basis for Masyaf Castle in the game. It's in ruins in the real world, though.

If it had been anything like it was in the game… wonder what happened to it. There's much about it in history – it was there in its full glory in one historical record from around 1240, and then the next record, some twenty years later, the castle was found in ruins… the Assassins there gone. It wasn't all of the Assassins, they were much bigger sect in reality than they were in the game, but the ones under Rashid were… detached from the ones in Aleppo and Nizari – and those were devastated by Saladin, before the siege of Masyaf, so that probably put a distance between them and the survivors too. Towards the end of his life, Assassins of Masyaf under Al Muslim were almost a sect of their own and then, less than seventy years after Al Mualims death… they were gone. Just, vanished. Poof.

"Well, that's not suspicious at all," Desmond mutters, rubbing at his forehead and trying not to get his hopes up, trying to keep that distance in his mind. He's a damn video game character, they based his story on history, this stuff, it doesn't actually have anything to do with him… and yet… what if…?

God, he wants to go to Masyaf now. Egypt first, then Masyaf, then Italy and Rome, to check out whatever he could of Leonardo's life, and Monteriggioni too, even though he knows Auditore Villa doesn't exist, it could be still fun, and then maybe, hell, maybe he'll go to Moscow! There was something in Moscow his Eagle Vision wanted him to know about, so, why the hell not make it a quarter of a world tour while he's at it?

Desmond lets out a little giggle, covering his eyes with his palms. Ridiculous. He could do that, probably. If he didn't have a plane crash hanging over his head, anyway.

And then there's another buzz of vibration from his phone, where it sits on the table beside the book and rattles. Jon.

I – would love to. I – 

Yes.

Please.

I need to get out of the Archives for a while. But I think I need –

Can you meet me at the front? In an hour? I need to wrap some things up here, but I think – I think I can go for a bit, a week, perhaps.

I think it really would do me some good, to get away for awhile.

Desmond stops at that, slumping back in his chair. Shit – did he just – he did, he totally did. He didn't expect Jon to actually agree. It was just a throwaway suggestion, kinda, a roundabout way of comforting the guy. He did mean it, of course, it was a sincere offer, but he didn't think Jon would actually take him up on it – fucking shit.

Jon had a moment of weakness, and without even thinking about it Desmond had gone and pushed buttons, hadn't he? Hey, I noticed you're having a hard time now, why don't try agreeing to a half-assed plan with a guy you barely even know and get away from everyone you know and trust and who have some chance of supporting you. Feeling alone? Try travelling with a potentially toxic source of despair and sadness and isolation. That will pick you right up!

Shit.

And yet Desmond can't bring himself to take the suggestion back.

I'll be there. Pack light – we're taking the long way, he writes and heads out of the library, leaving it completely vacant in his wake.

Chapter Text

Statement of Jonathan Sims, the Archivist, concerning darkness in the Eurotunnel. Statement recorded by the subject on March 14th, 2018. 

Statement begins.

In the light of everything I've learned and how much the world seems to have changed… you'd think there would be more fear associated with the Eurotunnel. Intellectually, I know why there isn't, I know the lengths the companies and authorities involved with a project such as a tunnel that goes under the channel would go to to keep the thing safe. The amount of engineers tasked with the all-important business of keeping everything in tip top shape must be quite high, and overall the fact there's been barely a handful of incidents in the channel tunnel in the twenty years of its existence stands as a testament of it's safety. A minor fire early on, a stalled train due to electrical fault caused by melted snow – all in all, the Eurotunnel is remarkably safe when you think of what it is.

A man-made tunnel, under some forty meters of earth and sixty meters of water, buried and submerged, 50 kilometres in length of what should by rights be pure darkness and which is only kept lit by man-made lights in man-made passages and structures. I can't even imagine how many redundancies there must be in place to keep all those lights on, but imagine if they failed, if the engineering had a fault, if you were stranded in the darkness under all that and so far away from the shore…

I can hardly imagine a more perfect place for the Dark and the Buried to dwell in and feed upon. Hundreds and hundreds of people travel in those tunnels daily, and the very idea of how much fear so many people could generate, were they scared of the dark and of being trapped, and buried and smothered…

And yet, I don't think that many people are afraid of it, of the tunnel, and travelling under the sea. Maybe they have some trepidation, maybe they have some reservations, and maybe they have a healthy amount of understandable unease – but very few seem to hold any true fear of the Eurotunnel. In fact, the greatest fear I can remember being associated with the tunnel were early concerns about rabies, of all things, about animals with rabies being brought over and infecting local animals. A place of darkness and suffocation, and it's the fear of Corruption that gets the only foothold. Isn't that strange?

But perhaps that is not how these entities function – passing fears aren't nourishing, perhaps. Lingering, lifelong horrors are… however long and short that life ends up being, in the end.

I had never travelled in the tunnel before, not because of fear, mind you, but simple lack of opportunity and interest. What few travels abroad I've done have been in service of my previous investigations, and I did them all by plane, my target locations being a little too far and a little too vital for me to bother with a slower train. But the trip I was about to take, the trip which I am still on now, wasn't anything truly urgent, so when Desmond Miles, an avatar of the Lonely, suggested we take the long way… I agreed.

I… doubt I would have, had he told me why he wanted to take the train. While I understand his reasoning, the risk of something going wrong was fairly obvious… in hindsight, anyway.

Desmond Miles is an odd one, as avatars go. There have been scarce few cases involving the Lonely alone, as it were. There's usually something of the Buried or the Vast or the Dark there, mixing the pot, as isolation is often a common feature of how they take their victims. Beholding too works well with the Lonely, as they can evidently feed each other. Perhaps it's a feature of the Lonely – it simply matches well with most of the others, amplifying their effects. This mingling has made it somewhat difficult to ascertain what an avatar of the Lonely such as the members of the Lukas family might be like and what powers they might possess. Of course, I have read statements concerning them, but… it's always been elusive.

I don't think Desmond is much like the avatars of the Lukas family. I'm not sure he can even be called a servant of the Lonely, though he does serve its needs, gets sustenance from its effects. I'm not sure how to put it. He doesn't so much get power from the Lonely, or fear it, or love it, as he Is... It… Part of it, anyway.

He brings to mind the Distortion, and NotThem. An entity in his own right, born from the aspect of his patron. A manifestation, more than a person. Only he is undeniably… a person. One I even like, even after what he just put me through.

An insidious effect of what he is, I fear. You can't help but like him.

When Desmond suggested I join him on his little venture abroad, I hesitated. I made the – truth be told, I bemoaned my own lack of traveling experience, and how I suspected I would never get to do it for pleasure again, which I think it's a fairly fair assessment of my future prospects, all things considered. I did it to let off steam, metaphorically crying on a sympathetic shoulder, I don't think I truly meant anything by it. Whether he meant anything by his invitation, I don't know, but it was so quickly suggested, it seemed so easy, so tempting, so… hopeful, that I couldn't help but consider it. I have been under some considerable stress of late, and any kind of escape from it, while exceedingly selfish, seemed…

I didn't even know where he was going or why, I still don't – all I knew then was that his destination was in Egypt. He could have been going to the moon, for all I cared – the moment he suggested it, I thought…

Would anyone even care, if I went? Basira might, but only because she couldn't keep an eye on me. Martin isn't talking to me, Melanie barely sees me, Daisy is still missing… The only person who truly seems to want me at the Magnus Institute is Elias – and he's in jail! So why not go. Why not.

It was like pulling teeth, writing a message back to Desmond, to arrange a meeting, but I did it. Elias glared at me all the way through my meagre preparations, setting my work in order, but I didn't care, I wanted to be gone. I took some statements from the Archives, just in case I needed them to tide me over, as Elias put it, and then I met Desmond outside. 

And we left, straight for the St. Pancras station.

At this point I no longer question the luck of the avatars – how of course there were empty seats on the night train to Paris, and how, of course, I got on without issues. Honestly, I don't remember much of it, getting through the check ups and into the train, I was too fascinated by the effect Desmond had on the people around him.

They can't see him – but they avoid him like he's of a wrong polarity, parting before him as if repelled by an invisible force. It's so opposite of how such entities usually make people react – by their nature both the Distortion and the NotThem seem to draw people in, somewhat. Desmond seems the opposite. But then again, the Lonely… drawing people in would rather defeat the point, would it.

Wonder what does that make me –

Oh, you're back? … no, yes – no, I was recording. Doing a statement of my own, about what – what happened … no, no, I don't … Desmond, I understand, it's alright … I know, don't worry about it… I know. Ah – for me? Thank – wait, how did you get this? People can't see you, you couldn't have bought – did you … oh. Heh. Alright then. Thank you… well, I haven't tried one before, but I'm sure it's delicious… yes, I thought I would put my thoughts in order, put it all down on tape, make, I don't know… it settles my mind, somewhat… no, I don't think that's necessary – a secondary statement concerning the same event doesn't carry the same power, I suppose. It's enough that I do my own statement. I think it will do fine. Thank you – yes, alright, if you're sure. I'll give you a shout when I'm done. Yeah.

Where was I...

We took seats on the train, I by the window and Desmond beside me. If there was a passenger with a ticket for that particular seat, they never came to try and claim it – but as the seat beside us on the other side of the isle was also empty, I figured whoever it was could probably find another seat. The train was late by nearly twenty minutes at that point, as these things go, but Desmond didn't seem at all concerned, and neither was I. It seemed… refreshingly mundane, to have your plans somewhat disturbed by something as simple as a mere late train. 

It was pitch black outside when we finally got going, though of course there were lights inside the train car – even if they only seemed to make the darkness outside thicker. Desmond and I talked of our experiences abroad, he lamenting how little if his memories actually corresponded with reality, before asking of my experiences. I did some travel when tracking down the trail of Gertrude and Gerry last year, and I have briefly been to Beijing to visit the Pu Singling research centre, so I have some experience. More than that, though, I have visited far away places in the statements. Desmond seemed to understand the feeling perfectly.

I… know Desmond can't be seen, I know he can't be heard either, but by those with enough power to pierce the veil of the Lonely around him. I know what it looks like, when people see me talk to him – as though to a thin air. As far as the people in that passenger car knew, I was talking to an empty seat. Perhaps I should invest in a Bluetooth headset, it would...

No, actually, I don't suppose I will. Hm.

I think it's a sort of a feedback loop, what happens when we converse in public. We amplify each other's effect. He makes me appear Lonely and vaguely insane, I See the effect it has on the people around me, which feeds back to him in the fears of our audience, as well as me… People grow so uneasy in the presence of those they consider mentally unsound. What if I am dangerous, what if I do something, what if I lose it and try to attack someone? I'm obviously seeing things already, so clearly, so visibly delusional – what if it makes me violent? Which then made me feel isolated, of course, because I am, Desmond sat between me and everyone else, and I knew what I looked like… which then made Desmond guilty and uncomfortable, perhaps even fearful of what he's doing to me, because he is, and he knows it and –

He is isolating me, and I see it, and it just builds and builds. I wonder if it makes me masochistic, that I don't want it to stop it.

We entered the tunnel around 20.45, a moment which was marked by an announcement warning about it, the driver's accent so thickly French that I could barely understand it – Desmond told me it was only heads up about the train soon entering the tunnel and how the WiFi would naturally not work down there. I was briefly distracted by his perfect understanding of French – and then the seat beside us was taken.

I knew who it was, of course. Oliver Banks has made two statements to the Institute – one in writing and one in person to me, and though I was hardly aware at the range, the image of him is still impressed upon my mind. Even if it wasn't, I think I still would have been able to recognize him.

Avatars have certain auras. Mine is the feeling of a thousand staring eyes, Desmond's is a blanketing, softening mist to get lost in. And Oliver Banks' is a certain awareness of death.

Desmond murmured a soft curse under his breath, and Oliver Banks smiled, apologetic. "I told you," he said. "If it's not one thing, then it's another. You can't escape the End, when it starts creeping towards you."

I remember a sense of...I wouldn't call it a betrayal. It was more of a disappointment, a sense of frustration. Of course something would happen, of course.

A thousand horrors flashed in my mind then, all the statements I had read and voiced. The tunnel ceiling would give away and the Buried would submerge us, perhaps, that seemed the most likely. An electrical fault would short out the systems in the train, and we would asphyxiate as the Dark costumed us. I knew there were redundancies, I could almost see them, all sorts of safety and security measures to ensure the safety of the people down in the tunnel... but what do such things matter to the cosmic entities of fear? Perhaps it would be Slaughter, catching the minds of those in the train and turning them into mindless proxies of violence. Perhaps –

I realised suddenly the feast of fear laid out before us. Hundreds of passengers in this train alone, how many in others – I knew that some of them would die. Maybe even most of them. And I knew… there was nothing we could do to stop it. I could almost see it then – the tendrils Oliver sees in his dreams. They had the train smothered.

I demanded answers from Desmond, of course, I compelled him to tell me the truth, and he did, easy enough, telling me of meeting Oliver briefly in a grocery store's bathroom, where Oliver told him of a plane crash he would be in, and how Oliver would join him to see what would happen – to see how Desmond would survive... if he would survive. "Obviously I wasn't going to get on a plane after that," Desmond said, flat and frustrated. "Who would? I went into a library instead, and I wasn't going to go anywhere for a bit… until you sent the email."

I admit I shouted at him a bit, made the coumpoud effect of our influences worse as people stared at me, and not caring – how could he have been so stupid… Why hadn't he told me?

Desmond didn't have an answer for that, perhaps he didn't know. Instead he looked at Oliver and asked him, why.

"The plane crash was going to be your fault," Oliver explained. "I don't know how, I don't want to know how the Lonely affects people, but your effect was going to make the pilot drive the plane down and into the Mediterranean sea. Everyone was going to die – except perhaps you. And because you're the cause, the lynchpin…"

I could see Desmond's horror at that. It's always worse, the fear of an avatar. It's always so gratifying.

I asked Oliver what would happen, how we could stop it, how could we prevent it, if there was any way – but we all knew it was too late, and Oliver didn't know. Not his wont to know how people die, all he knows is that they do. All he could tell us is that, "I can see people choking on tendrils here, so… asphyxiation, probably."

What happened wasn't sudden. It would've almost been better if it had been – a simple, single disaster to give the End its due... but no. No, it was slow.

First the train… jolted. It was a slight thing, but noticeable – brought to my mind a bump in the road, and why my mind cooked up a body on train tracks, I don't know, but it did. Then, then the train began to slow down, and maybe it wasn't just my imagination, maybe it was something I Saw, maybe…

We came to a standstill there, in the pitch back tunnel, almost perfectly between the UK and France. There was no announcement, no sound or sight that could explain why we stopped, but I knew – the driver thought he'd just killed someone. Likely it was an illusion, an image sent to him by some dread power, but – it did its job. We'd stalled.

I know I didn't imagine the cold creeping in, the damp. Desmond beside me breathed in mist with what I can only call a whine, and I knew – the power of the Lonely was in play. It makes sense, of course – stranded in under sea tunnel, there are few places you can feel more alone in, in such numbers. The helplessness of being stuck in a stalled metal tube so far from the land, so far underground…

The Dark came for us next. Flicker of lights overhead, before they started to go out in our car, one... by… one.

We got up then, Desmond and I – I don't know what we thought we could do at that point. The car was plunged into darkness, the only light in which were the screens of people's phones before they quickly started turning on the torch function, asking each other what happened, if they were alright, trying to assure each other that it was just a power failure, and there were access tunnels for this sort of thing, it'd be alright. The darkness was already almost too thick for their lights to penetrate.

Then I noticed that the air conditioning had failed.

Asphyxiation is the fear of the Buried, I think. Short of blunt force trauma, it's how people usually die, underground. That brought the fears present up to five. Fear of dying alone, in the dark, submerged under the earth and water, choking to death…

I – can't even describe it. 

Desmond tried the doors, but they wouldn't budge. We tried to break the windows, but they were like steel. We tried emergency releases, we tried the emergency phone at the front of the car, and… nothing.

The panic began then, the horror and the fear, and it was – god. People shouted, screamed and sobbed as they realised that the air was getting thin. They pleaded, they begged, they despaired. There was even some of the fear of the Stranger there, too – for I think some blamed me, as the strange one, the freak talking to himself, the creep. If this was the middle ages, I think I would have been lynched by a mob as a witch. I wasn't, obviously, but people did glare at me, as if that helped anything.

Some in there, though… some were eerily calm. They wrote goodbye messages on their phones, even recorded video messages, saying "I'm going to laugh about this so hard once we get to France, but, you know, just in case…" and "I am never seeing another stupid underwater horror movie with you again, you asshole – this is probably nothing, but if it isn't…"

I've never hated hearing the words I love you so much.

Desmond rounded on Oliver then, demanding he put a stop to it, swore he'd kill him, but... it wasn't of any use. "I'm just the messenger," Oliver said. "There is no point in placing blame – no one is to blame. Sometimes you can do everything right and still fail. That's life. That's death."

I think Desmond blamed himself anyway. I'm not – I'm not sure if…

Anyway. There was nothing we could do. At first the air was close, then it grew, not exactly thin, but… different. My second experience with excessive amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, not exactly a welcome trip down the memory lane. Hypercapnia and hypoxia, it was hard to say which was worse. As we lost oxygen, we gained carbon dioxide… Towards the end, the air was so thin and difficult to breathe in that it was hard to say which horrors we saw were real and which were a product of our own choking minds.

According to the news, they suspect a failure in a fire suppression system, which supposedly rapidly elevated the CO2 levels, as there should have been plenty of air down there, enough to keep us going for the four hours we were stuck, and no one could explain why we'd begun asphyxiating so fast. But I don't think it was four hours. I think it was days. It might have been longer.

It's a slow, terrible death, all the while the fear, the fears... mounted, and I'm not sure which is worse, now, the fact that we had to watch it, knowing it wouldn't kill us, couldn't kill us…

Or the fact that as those people died, afraid and helpless, we were feeding off them.

Not everyone on the train died, of course – but many did. 239, in total. The exact number of passengers and crew on a British Airlines flight from London to Cairo, which was flying over the Mediterranean… just as we stalled down in the tunnels.

Not that anyone will ever make that connection.

By the time the power was restored and the air began moving it was nearly two at night… and the damage was done. People tried to resuscitate those who'd been impacted by the ordeal the worst, and I know there will be many who will suffer from the aftereffects of the hypoxia for the rest of their lives, but… there's nothing Desmond or I could do. The last ten minutes of that train ride until we finally made it to France and above ground were mired in horror of the ones who survived having to sit with all those... who hadn't.

The End had taken what it thought it was owed – with interest.

We survived, obviously – of our passenger car, we weren't even the only ones. It wasn't exactly none too worse for wear, of course, a lack of oxygen affects even us avatars, it turns out. The ones of us who breathe, anyway. Of course we've recovered now, the effect only lasted long enough for Oliver and I to appear convincingly affected in our check ups in the hospital in Calais, where they sent us and every other still living passenger after we got out of the tunnels. We've been discharged now, obviously, though not without issues. The media circ – the public fallout of this will be enormous. I managed to keep my identity anonymous, thank god, but…

I imagine the people who care to know will know, sooner or later.

Desmond, of course, wasn't affected at all, he isn't human enough to be bothered by the lack of oxygen or the surplus of carbon dioxide. His insides are made of mist. I lost the track of Oliver Banks in the hospital – he was already discharged by the time I got the chance to ask after him.

We're in Paris now – planning how to get to Egypt. Needless to say, I don't think trains will be involved in any aspect of the journey. As for planes…

Hm.

I wonder how long it will be until my insides will be completely replaced with eyes.

Statement ends.

Desmond? Desmond, I'm finished, you can come back in now – Desmond? Where is – oh my god, what are you doing? What do you – how did you even get up there? … what do you mean – you, you should come down from there – I don't think either of us want to know what happens when you fall eight stories onto the pavement! … I don't care – just take, take my hand and come back down here –

Chapter Text

Jon thinks he doesn't need to sleep anymore. The tiredness he feels, it's got nothing to do with him being actually physically tired – mentally maybe, but not in any way rest would ever fix. There's a pressure upon his mind he can't get rid of – a constant, insistent pressure. Elias is watching him again.

He wouldn't be sending Jon any mysterious mail this time, though. Or maybe he would, through Peter Lukas. Not that Jon thinks they'd be staying in Paris long enough for the mail to actually catch them, and Jon doesn't know where Desmond wants to go yet. He doesn't want to know. 

He's tired though. And also – not. God, the Eurotunnel – he's never felt so, so… full. He's experienced horrible things before, even supernatural things, the Unknowing above them all, but… this was different. He was neither the cause of what happened, nor did he have any chance of changing things, events would run their course no matter what he tried, and in the end all he'd been was… an observer.

Shuddering, Jon runs a scarred hand over his face and then looks around. The hotel room is nice. Compliments of Eurostar – the start of what Jon assumes is a string of lawsuits and compensations by the company, just in case it turned out that what happened was their fault somehow, that some security check failed or something the like. It wasn't, but it might end up looking like it, though. Who knows what damage to the tunnel's systems the entities had done in their rampage. The company would likely end up taking the fall. Jon supposes he should feel sorry for them. He doesn't have the energy to.

There's a click as the door of the hotel room opens. Elias's glare intensifies for a moment as he gives a valiant effort to piercing through the influence now leaking into the room – and then he loses focus. Desmond enters silently, and Elias loses track of Jon.

Desmond is holding a paper bag of what looks suspiciously like treats.

"Another bit of French bakery?" Jon asks, lowering his hand.

"Eh, it was on the way," Desmond says and sets the pretty white paper bag on the table before Jon. "I figured, you know. Why not."

Jon gives him a wry look and shakes his head. "Sure. Did you pay for it, at least?"

"Yes, I paid for it. I left a note and everything," Desmond says with a snort. "I was a good boy, I promise. Anyway, there's a mother of all sandwiches in there, and a cheesecake."

"Cheesecake," Jon asks, peering into the bag. There are two plastic clam-shell packages inside, one on top of another, both sitting on a wad of novelty napkins. "How very American of you."

"I am American. Or think I am, which is about as close to the real thing as I am going to get – but if you don't want it, then give it here, I'll eat it," Desmond says dismissively and throws himself on the couch beside Jon. "It looked delicious."

Jon casts him a look. "Didn't get one for yourself, then?"

"Didn't have the money to cover two," Desmond says, looking away. "Doesn't really matter, after all – but I thought you'd like it."

Jon is quiet for a moment, peering into the bag. Right. Another bit of wrongly placed attempt at amends, is it? Desmond had been getting him food, ever since they came to France. Food, treats, a bit of cash, since Jon had forgotten to get any of his converted, and Jon is not going to ask where he got it from. Nowhere legal, that's for sure. It's not as if Desmond has an income to splurge.

"You don't need to… bring me baked goods," he says after a while.

Desmond shrugs, not looking at him.

Jon looks at him and considers pressing the matter. He knows why Desmond does it, of course, the man feels guilty and has very few ways of trying to make things right, after all. And they both are very aware that things are likely not going to get much better, the further they go along. Desmond will still be invisible, and Jon will still continue on in his miasma of loneliness and lunacy. With the whole ordeal of horror in the Eurotunnel behind them and who knows what horrors are ahead of them…

Baked goods it is.

Shaking his head, Jon opens the clam-shell holding the sandwich. It does look delicious, even though he's pretty sure he doesn't need to eat any more than Desmond does. "Did you find the thing, the – whatever important thing you could see?"

Desmond hums. "Kind of," he admits, running a hand over his face and then reaching for the messenger bag he'd… picked up along the way. "I don't think it's enough to make a statement out of – it was just a thing in some store."

"Mm. I would like to hear it anyway. What did you find?"

Desmond doesn't fight the compulsion at all, just shrugs his shoulders and complies. "Well, you know I glimpsed something golden across the city? I followed over the streets and sometimes on the roofs, climbing up for a better view when I lost track of it. The trail led me to one of the newer buildings, which was disappointing. I was expecting something dark and mysterious and old, some historic building or something, but it was just a shop, modern little shop, on a street of other modern little shops."

Jon takes a bite, letting Desmond slightly droning speech wash over him.

"Didn't look like it was doing well though, the shop. It was something between a souvenir shop and a vintage store, with delusions of being a jewellery store – the display cases made it kind of cramped. The place sold old stuff, vintage stuff – fake stuff mostly, made to look old and authentically Parisian or whatever," Desmond continues while taking out whatever it is he'd found. "Anyway, what I was looking for wasn't in the front, so I walked into their back room... and I found this."

Jon swallows the bite he'd taken and looks down. "A sketch?" Jon asks.

Desmond hums, brushing something off the thing - a hair? - before turning it over to show him. It's a piece of old yellowed paper, with a faded sketch and seven lines of a flowy sort of handwriting – it's been placed in a plastic pouch. Jon feels a moment of alarm he tends to feel all sorts of old pieces of writing these days, but... it doesn't look, or feel supernatural.

Desmond smiles. "No idea how the shop got their hand on this. I bet it was by complete accident, because judging by the price of 3 euros, they didn't really know what it was. It was among about a hundred similarly wrapped pages, all of them old paper with writing and sketches on them, and the bin they were in was marked as Genuine Renaissance Aesthetic, so I guess that they were intended as decoration?"

Jon hums in agreement. It looks like something you'd put in a frame to enhance a vintage, historic look. "It is something a little more special than that, then?"

"It is. This," Desmond says, holding the sketch out to Jon. "Was written by Gian Giacomo. The drawing, though, isn't by him, it's his master who drew that."

"Someone important, I assume," Jon says slowly, suspiciously, accepting the page. The name sounds familiar but he can't quite place it... "Some figure of occult?" He didn't know Desmond knew any, he didn't seem to have much experience when he first entered the Institute.

Desmond snorts. "No. He's also known as Salaì – he was a student of Leonardo da Vinci," he says and grins at the incredulous look Jon gives him. The compulsion is fading now. "I'd call it fate that I found it, except Eagle Vision helps. Anyway, this was drawn by Leonardo, and it's important to me somehow. Important to this… thing I'm trying to figure out."

"You haven't actually told me what it is you're looking for," Jon comments while peering at the sketch. Genuine da Vinci – really? There doesn't seem to be anything particularly unusual about it, it seems to be a study of perspective or something, a sketch of a doorway. Maybe something about the writing…

"Well, I don't know yet, actually," Desmond admits. "It's just when I was in your Archive, there was a bunch of stuff there I – saw. It glowed golden to me," he explains. "The things I managed to get a look at before your boss kicked me out all had to do with the past – my past. The, er. The history my game was based on."

"Hm," Jon answers frowning at the sketch. "Well, I can't see anything especially… special about it. The detail on the doorway is quite intricate, but it doesn't seem occult in any way. Something about the text maybe – I can't read it, so it's likely not related to the supernatural either."

"It's a shopping list," Desmond shrugs and looks at him. "What do you mean, you can't read it, so it's likely nothing? Does that mean if it was something, then you could?"

Jon sighs. "I can read anything… statement-worthy, no matter what language it is in. Which is not the case this time, I'm afraid," he admits and then glances up and away from the sketch. "I think it might be something similar to your… Eagle Vision. I've been meaning to ask you about it. It doesn't sound at all like a power of the Lonely. Most things relating to vision, seeing… they're the domain of the Beholding, as it were."

"Don't ask me, I'm just glad I still have it," Desmond says, seemingly not bothered by the idea in the slightest. "And yeah, I don't think it's a power the Lonely gave me, but since I had it in the game it's a bit hard to say. There was a lot of eye motifs going on, though, who knows. Maybe it does have something to do with the Beholding."

Jon hums. A creature of the Lonely that doesn't mind the hold the Beholding has on him... "There is some overlap, admittedly, between the powers," he muses and hands the sketch back over to Desmond. "I've never heard of an avatar of one power having the abilities of another, but then… most everyone I have met has had eyes, no matter who they served. So… who knows. Is the sketch what you were looking for in Paris?"

"There are other bits of importance I could investigate, but this one was the most important one, the one I needed to get," Desmond admits and looks at it again. "I just don't know why yet."

"Hm," Jon hums, reaching for the sandwich again. Something of the Web there too? "I assume we will be leaving then. How are we going to travel – by horse and buggy?"

Desmond gives him a sideways look, feigning an injured gasp. "I brought you a sandwich and everything," he says plaintively.

Jon snorts and shakes his head. "I'd rather not walk through the whole France, Desmond, if that's all the same."

"Well, not through France. Just little ways south, to start with," Desmond says, looking down to the sketch. "A little place called –"

"Don't," Jon says, shaking his head. "Don't tell me."

Desmond pauses at that, looking at him. He doesn't ask, though, for which Jon is grateful. "Well," he says. "Anyway. We'll go by bus."

Jon nods. "All I need to know," he says firmly.

The other is quiet for a moment, his knee bouncing. "Not sure if that's healthy... or safe. You trusting me this much. You… shouldn't."

Probably not – definitely not. But if Jon doesn't know, then it will be harder for Elias to find him, and the harder it would be for Elias… the better.

And Jon rather wants to get lost.

It's, yeah, it's definitely not healthy.

He bites into his sandwich and looks away. "What's the worst that could happen – I could die?" he asks and laughs.

Desmond just looks at him, uncomfortable, and doesn't join in.


 

They leave Paris early the next morning. The trip takes them about two and a half hours, and try as he might, Jon doesn't manage to avoid learning where they're going. The street signs are too difficult to miss.

"What's in Amboise?" he asks with a sigh, and immediately feels the uneasy watchfulness of the few other people on the bus.

"The house and grave of Leonardo da Vinci," Desmond answers. "We're just passing through, really, but I wanted to make sure before we left France. If there's something he – left behind…"

Jon looks out of the window, to the scenery passing by. Fields, gardens, houses… as they pass by a gas station be feels a spark of urgency – there's someone there, something with a Statement, but... 

"I imagine it's not just closure you're looking for," Jon comments.

"There was a sketch of his in your Archives, coded, and a letter by Salaì talking about Leonardo's occult dealings," Desmond says. "Also his sketch had an – effect. Really mad I didn't think to grab it before Peter Lukas came, should've pocketed it…"

Jon frowns and looks at him. "I'm sorry – we have a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci in our Archives?" he asks incredulously. "Was, was it like the one from the shop, unmarked and mislabeled, or –"

"No, someone marked it with his name. Considerations upon the Pythagorean Temple, by Leonardo da Vinci, or something like that," Desmond says. "I thought you knew?"

"I – I have only gone through about a quarter of the Archives so far. It's getting more and more difficult," Jon admits, and tries not to feel too frustrated about it. "I used to have assistants who would actually… never mind that. You said it had an effect? What sort of effect?"

"It was kind of hypnotic?" Desmond says and leans back with a sigh – the unease of the people around them at the face of a lonely man talking to himself is getting to him. "I kept getting lost, starting at the – the lines."

"Twists and turns?" Jon asks, half-intentionally making it just a tad louder so that people in front of them and behind them definitely hear it. Desmond looks like he'd having a particularly relaxing cigarette break. "Sounds like the Spiral."

"I think so too, yeah. Leonardo wrote in code a lot, and I think he started using Spiral in his codes, somehow. He definitely had dealings with something supernatural – and with a Cult. Do you know about the Hermeticists?"

"It sounds vaguely familiar."

"They had a thing with numbers. In the game, they thought that if they could figure out the calculations behind everything, they could control everything. That everything is reducible to numbers, and if you can learn them all, then you can predict everything and reshape everything. Dunno how they worked on this side of reality, but apparently the cult was real," Desmond explains. "And I know that Leonardo was briefly kidnapped by them and it left an impact. I just want to check if there's more about it in Château du Clos Lucé – it's where he lived the last years of his life."

Jon is quiet for a moment, considering it. With Desmond sitting beside him, it's harder to get those… insights of horror and importance that sometimes strike him in the Archives. The Lonely softens everything. This doesn't seem related to any ongoing concerns Jon has, however, which is somewhat relieving. Something supernatural, certainly, perhaps worthy of a Statement once everything would be said and done, but not anything… personally vital.

"Alright, then," he says and relaxes in his seat.

Desmond looks at him with concern, and then he too relaxes. "Alright," he agrees, and together they watch the countryside pass them by.

It's a beautiful day.


 

Amboise is clearly used to travellers, and Château du Clos Lucé is a tourist attraction, with security and tour guides who give Jon rather leery looks as he comes in, all alone by all appearances. Jon knows he doesn't look much like a tourist, especially of late, with all the… scars. So he's not particularly surprised. It's still uneasy enough, and he's aware enough for that feedback loop between him and Desmond to rack up a small bit.

Desmond leads him on through the château, peeking into the grand old rooms and checking aged, fancy furniture and then pausing briefly in a bedroom that apparently is where Leonardo da Vinci slept – and died. Desmond stops by the grandiose four poster bed and then lets out a small, quiet, "oh."

To watch him so visibly grieve for someone who died almost five hundred years ago is – strangely heady. 

"Is there something here?" Jon asks, peering around and wondering what it might be like, to actually be a tourist, here for no other reason than to see a historically significant house. It is a very great room, with a tile floor, a great big fireplace… it must have been a comfortable place to grow old and die in.

"Yes," Desmond says, slowly kneeling down beside the bed. "There is something."

It can't be anything obvious, the attendants of this place over the almost two hundred years it's been a memorial and a museum would've gone over every inch of the place. Jon leans in to see what Desmond is looking at. He's eyeing the dark wood frame of the bed, the poles holding up its canopy, which looks heavy and is intricately carved with winding, twisting patterns of leaves.

And then Jon sees it.

The bed has the Spiral all over it, but not just that. Through the red velvet the bed is draped in, Jon can see the carving on the inside. A web pattern, interwoven with eyes, with symbols, with – numbers? The bed, as comfortable and as grandiose as it is, is more than that. It's a device, it's an artefact, it's a –

"Trap," Jon says, blinking and then stepping forward urgently. "Desmond, step away from it, please – the frame has the workings of the Spiral, the Web, and the Eye on it."

"The Lonely too," Desmond says, and doesn't budge from where he's sitting, on his knees on the floor. "The curtains – isolation."

"Desmond – please, we don't know what it does," Jon says, reaching to touch his shoulder, to pull him back. "It's a trap of some kind, to hold and watch and isolate and confuse, and whatever it does to the one trapped in it, we don't want it to do that to you –"

Desmond flinches when Jon touches him, and quickly backs away – from the bed and the touch both. "That's, ah – you think whatever it is still works, after all this time? It's in public, people come in to see it, if it worked wouldn't people have noticed something?"

"I don't know, and I'd rather not take the risk. I will have to report this to the Magnus Institute, see if we can do something about having the bed removed from here and into a safe location," Jon mutters, though he knows from various rumours how hard that could be. The institute likely didn't have funds to acquire the bed of Leonardo da Vinci, of all people. "God, someone went through a great deal of work to trap Leonardo da Vinci – why?" he murmurs, vaguely horrified as the implication dawns on him. "And what did they trap him into?"

Desmond straightens his back and then gives him a confused look. "Uh, I don't think that's it?"

"Desmond, I have seen enough traps made by the Web, and this one is very carefully designed to not only trap, but to watch too," Jon says. "Whatever it did, the maker probably watched it happen – and with the Spiral influence, and if you're right about the Lonely, da Vinci wouldn't have noticed, and likely neither would have anyone else…" what an insidious thing to do. Someone must've really hated the man – or, much more likely, wanted to use him for something… some dark purpose.

Maybe even a ritual.

"Um," Desmond says. "I mean, maybe, I don't know how this stuff works, but, uh," he motions to the bed. "Whatever that is, I'm pretty sure Leonardo knew all about it."

"Oh?"

Desmond nods and folds his arms. "Yeah, I think this is his handiwork. Leonardo made that bed. And I bet he made the trap, too."

Chapter Text

Jon stretches his back with a groan, holding his arms up as his spine all but crackles. It had been good five hours on the bus now, and it's not doing him any good, even with the occasional breaks here and there. "You know," he groans, ignoring the looks the other passengers throw his way. "With a plane it would've been, what, a two hour trip? One and a half? And we're only halfway there."

Desmond shrugs, awkward, and looks around. "I'm not in hurry to get there, really – on a bus you get to see the sights, the countryside, all the little towns and cities – it's nice."

"My back does not agree," Jon mutters and lets his arms drop. The people that boarded the bus with him are quickly making their way out – and away from him, he notes with some rueful amusement. He had not made any friends on that bus, talking to Desmond all through the 5 hours from Amboise to here. "When's the next bus, then? Or do you think we'll stay the night here?"

"Might as well. You're looking a bit ragged anyway," Desmond says, and then takes another, closer look at him. "Actually, you look like shit – are you alright?"

It's been two days since the Eurotunnel – two days since he turned it into a statement. It's… starting to wear off. "Hungry, I suppose," is all Jon says, but Desmond understands, and it brings a frankly concerning gleam to his eyes. "Never mind that, I can handle it for a bit."

Desmond doesn't look so sure, but he doesn't push. He's good at that, not pushing it – not even when Jon almost wishes he would. Being forced to explain himself helps him put things into perspective, as it were, and if he can understand something, he can reason with it, somewhat. Desmond is too nice, though, he rolls with things with a little bit too much ease. Like mist in the breeze, just gently rolling along.

Damn, he really is out of it.

"Well, how about we get some actual food in you, see if that helps?" Desmond says and nods towards the stairs, leading away from the landing platform. "Come on. Let's go see what Lyon has to offer."

"I wouldn't say no to something greasy and unhealthy," Jon admits. "And a cigarette," he adds under his breath. Desmond is already heading off, though, so with a sigh Jon picks up his bag and follows him, out and into the streets above.

It's almost night, the sky above darkening while the street lights flicker on. The 2nd arrondissement of Lyon has no shortage of hotels, thankfully – though whether there's anything within his price range is another question. For now they head into a café instead, which is not far from the Eurolines station and serves various baked goods.

The coffee does perk him up and the pastries are delicious, but… they don't fill him up. Or restore him.

"Hm," is all Desmond says, leaning his chin on his palm and silently watching him as he eats.

Jon gives him a look, wary and perhaps a little defensive, and dares the man to say something. Desmond arches his brows silently, eyes roving over Jon's face before he turns away, looking a little too thoughtful for Jon's liking.

"What are you thinking?" Jon asks quietly – he doesn't want to get thrown out of the café before he's gotten the chance to finish his coffee.

"It's a big city, Lyon," Desmond comments. "It's, what, half a million people living here?"

"Yes, I think so – what about it?"

Desmond shrugs with one shoulder and closes his eyes. "Gotta be a murderer or two around here I could… you know."

It takes Jon an embarrassing amount of seconds to realise what he means. Obviously, to kill them – but the reason – "No, no,." Jon says quickly. "N-not because, not for me – I – I don't want to be the reason for you – "

"You need a statement, Jon. Something live and fresh," Desmond comments.

"Don't, please don't," Jon whispers – the woman by the counter is watching him now, frowning slightly. He ignores her. "I-I can find someone, someone who has a story they're holding onto – someone with a statement. There are more people like that than you'd think – "

Desmond hums and opens his eyes. They seem to burn with a hollow, cold light. "I'm feeling a bit – stuck, too," he admits. "I think it's been… too many people in too short a time. Would be nice to – to be alone, for a while. With someone who deserves it."

Jon opens his mouth and then closes it and leans back in his seat. His coffee is still steaming, the pattern in the cream still unbroken, but it feels cold, wrong in his hand when he wraps his fingers around the cup. He flexes his hands until it feels better.

Desmond had killed before, or condemned a man to the Lonely. In the wake of the Eurotunnel he'd been guilty and sad, but not broken up. Jon knows death doesn't matter to him as much, in a way – stay your blade from the blood of the innocent and all that aside… Desmond is… a killer. Or thinks he is one, anyway. And of course Desmond too needs sustenance, and of course, with their dread gods, if you don't feed them…

Jon has never gotten to the point of – of starvation, with his thing. But he had gotten to the point that, like it or not, he had forced people to give up statements just for his pleasure, just for his sustenance. He'd tried to avoid it, but he'd always felt it, lurking, the true withdrawal – the vague idea of what might happen, what he might do… if he really ran out.

Addiction is a bitch. Addiction to the fear of others even worse one.

Desmond watches him silently as Jon struggles with it. "Better it be someone who deserves it, than someone who doesn't," Desmond says.

Jon sighs. That, at least, he can agree on, but… still… "There are… they don't always die, the people – maybe –" he stops with a shudder. "Maybe you can – do, whatever, but not condemn them forever to the Lonely."

Desmond considers that for a moment, his eyes straying away. "I'll…" he hums. "I'll go out looking tonight, shop around, see if I can find anyone. See what… fits," he says then and leans back. "Finish your coffee and then we'll find you a hotel."

"I'm not sure I have enough money," Jon admits quietly. "And I don't want to use my card."

"… Okay," Desmond says and then stands up with a sigh. "Can you wait here, for, like… an hour?"

"Ah – sure," Jon says, guiltily. "So as long as the café doesn't close, I can – yes. I'll stay here."

"Great – I'll be back."

Jon knows, pretty much exactly, what Desmond does. It's not unforgivable, though it's not particularly nice, either. He sneaks up on people on the street, calmly picks through their pockets and wallets, takes a little bit here, a little bit there… not enough that it will really hurt the people he steals from, just five euros from her, ten from him, just enough to very quickly amass a decent amount of bills and coins. Likely the ones he stole from would just figure they'd forgotten how much they had to begin with. The Lonely is good at making you forget details.

It still feels wrong. Or maybe it feels like Jon should feel as though it was wrong. Mostly he just feels kind of awkward and a bit embarrassed maybe?

Should have planned better for this trip, he muses – and then Elias' Eye finds him. It's unmistakable now, that he's been free from it for a while – it's like suddenly all the CCTV cameras in the area had swivelled around to face him, and all the people on the street had stopped to stare.

Great, he'd almost forgotten about that.

Jon glances around, idly figuring which side Elias is watching him from – but there's no direction, really, it's more of an area inside which Jon now is, and Elias is too, watching him from inside and outside. He definitely doesn't feel happy.

"Go away," Jon mutters, wishing Desmond hadn't left, or that he'd gone with the man. "All I am doing is having a coffee. Go away."

He could swear the eye on him narrows – annoyed, amused, what, he can't tell. It doesn't even matter.

If only he could just poke Elias' omniscient eye out, just… gouge it out with a spoon. Would Elias still be able to see if he had no eyes? Probably. Tch. He certainly doesn't seem to have his eyes physically present wherever he's looking – though considering that he can be distracted from watching, that is something. The fact that nothing is distracting Elias from staring at him is probably good news – nothing going on back at the archives, then. Had anyone even noticed yet that he left? Who knows. Peter Lukas would know, Elias would've told him. Do they know yet that he was in the Eurotunnel?

Jon picks up his pastry and resolutely bites into it before he can say anything. The barista is already giving him some nervous looks and probably considering calling for someone, just in case. Better he keeps his peace, Jon muses, and takes his time, eating very slowly.

Elias stares at him, hard, for as long as it takes for Desmond to return – and then Desmond's presence obscures Jon again. The Archivist sighs, relieved, and then looks up.

"I think I got enough," Desmond says. "Let's go get you settled in, and –"

"Actually," Jon says, wiping his mouth with a napkin and standing up. "I'd rather come with you if – if that's alright with you?"

"Er, well… I – are you sure you want to do that?" Desmond asks warily. "I am probably going to kill someone, I'm pretty sure you don't want to see that."

"Elias found me again, and – I'd rather gotten used to not having him staring daggers at my back," Jon admits. "It's – he can't find me, when I'm close to you. And I'd rather he… didn't."

"Ah," Desmond says, stopping. "Well." He's quiet for a while, looking at him. "Jon, unlike me, you can be seen," he says then. "If I – do something. And I am probably going to, even though I don't know who yet, well… if anyone sees it, all they're going to see is you. Also," he clears his throat. "I'm going to have to go out looking first, find someone who deserves it, and – that might take some doing."

"Climbing rooftops?" Jon guesses.

"Yeah," Desmond says. "You up to it?"

Jon hesitates for a moment. It's a terrible idea. But he also doesn't want to feel Elias' eyes on him again. He's never been stalked before, and the Eye might enjoy his discomfort at it, but he doesn't. At all. Witnessing the doom of someone who deserves it, and maybe even gaining some strength from their misfortune…

He steels himself and then looks up, to Desmond's eyes. "I reckon we will find out, won't we?" Jon says firmly, in a tone he hopes brooks no arguments. "Let's go."

Desmond is quiet for a moment, before sighing and smiling crookedly. "Alright," he says. "But if something happens… stay behind me, alright?"


 

Desmond doesn't look or feel lonely – but maybe it's the same way Jude Perry did not seem to be in pain. It strikes Jon every so often how lonely Desmond should be, and how little he looks it. The invisible, hollow man, so close to the world and so isolated from it. Surely anyone would be lonely? Jon knows he would be. Maybe he'd enjoy it at first, it seems peaceful, not having to deal with… anything that's involved with living a normal life, its ups and downs… but he doesn't think he could go on for too long without losing his mind.

Desmond doesn't – Desmond couldn't. When Jon looks at him, Sees him, he gets the impression of centuries of solitude, and how Desmond would probably be able to weather it, all of it, and not feel all that worse for it.

"Whatever happened to your ancestors?" Jon asks, remembering. "Or, the memories of them? In your statement, the first one, which was largely about your game, you expressed a great deal of sadness about them – but you haven't really mentioned them since."

Desmond doesn't answer, staring at the crossing below them. There's not that many people out and about anymore, it being almost midnight, but a city of Lyon's size never really sleeps. Desmond is somehow screening them – looking into people's auras with the Eagle Vision.

"What?" Desmond asks after a while.

"Your ancestor – you mentioned one of them by name, Altaïr. What happened to them?"

Desmond blinks and looks up. "What, in real life? They never existed."

"I meant the memories," Jon clarifies. "The – in your statement you said, and I quote, There are people inside me and then, later, You can't imagine how lonely it feels – to be so full of people who… never existed. You haven't mentioned anything about that, since, however."

"Oh, that's eerie," Desmond says, straightening his back. "You just – speaking in my tone. Do you do that with everyone whose statements you read, you just take up their intonation like that?"

"More or less," Jon admits and looks between him and the crossing. "I'm sorry, am I distracting you?" he asks then, guiltily. He hadn't meant to, only… they'd been sitting here for a better part of an hour, now.

Desmond gives him a flat look. "I told you, the first part of this takes some doing. Finding somebody takes time," Desmond says and sighs. "I said that? About – having people inside me?"

"You did, it was… rather effective, emotionally," Jon agrees. "It seemed as though you felt very strongly about it."

"Huh. I don't – I don't remember that," Desmond says, shifting his weight uncomfortably. "I guess the Lonely took that away. I knew it took things away, made my peace with it, but… " he trails away a frown, looking a little disturbed. "I didn't realise it could take away… that. Haven't had a Bleeding Effect since then, either, I didn't even realise…"

Jon watches him warily. He hadn't meant to bring up bad memories – or lack thereof. "You don't have to talk about it, it's just… it's rather boring, sitting here, on my end."

"Hm," Desmond agrees. "Not much to say. I have the vague – idea of what it was, when I could remember them as though they were real, but can't now. That's about it, really – they got Lost in the Lonely and that's that. I guess." He doesn't sound sure, though.

"I'm sorry," Jon offers, soft.

Desmond shakes his head and looks down. He's quiet for a long moment before looking at Jon. "You know," he says. "We've talked about me a lot. Haven't heard that much on your end."

"Um, you know," Jon says.

"I know you're the Archivist, I know your life kind of sucks right now, I know you have difficult stuff going on with your friends and you've… been through a wringer, it looks like," Desmond says, motioning at him. "That's about it."

"Oh," Jon says, a little confused. "I – that's usually all anyone cares about. Rather, all they care about these days is my position as the Archivist," he mutters and shakes his head. "Um, there's – not much to say, really. I joined the Magnus Institute – "

"I don't care about that," Desmond says and then holds out a hand. "I mean, I'm sure it's very interesting for you, but – that's your job, not who you are."

"Well, it wasn't, back then. Not so sure these days," Jon mutters, sighing and running a hand through his hair. "Sometimes these days it feels like my job as it were is the only part of me that remains."

"That's – pretty sad, you realise?"

"I am acutely aware, yes," Jon says and blows out a breath. "Okay, I, uh. I suppose I've always been something of a researcher, I've always wanted to learn things, new things, interesting things – and got easily bored with things I already knew. I – I went to school, I studied bibliography, basically – something which is barely of help to me these days, but interested me at the time," he sighs. Maybe that's why Elias made him the Head Archivist and why he's supposedly so much better at it than Getrude – he has a sad affinity for books. "I – there really isn't much there."

"I don't know, that sounded like something," Desmond says, leaning onto the balcony railing and turning his attention back to the crossing below. "Bibliography, huh?"

"More or less – and pardon my venture back to my job, but it's how I got my original research job at the Magnus Institute," Jon muses and leans onto the railing beside him. "Something I thought I'd earned through hard work, at the time. These days I know better – it's not as if the Institute has that many eager applicants. And I was eager."

"Huh," Desmond says. "Why did you get a job at the place, then – why were you eager?"

"Well… because of the supernatural, I suppose. I – I had an encounter with a Leitner when I was young, and it left a lasting impact," Jon muses and then remembers, Desmond wouldn't know what a Leitner even is. "Ah, they are – books. Bound to the entities, in one way or another – they have… powers, usually not very good ones. Leitner was a collector, who brought many of the dread books under one library, marking them with his seal. From The Library of Jurgen Leitner," Jon says and snorts. "Granted, the contents of those books aren't his fault, but because he collected them, brought them all together… now we all call them Leitners, thanks to him."

"Right," Desmond says, obviously confused. "And what do these Leitners… do?"

"It depends on the book," Jon says and searches through his pockets for – there, the lighter. "The one I had was called Guest for Mr. Spider, it was a… children's book. Or a horror version of one. It had the power to… to lure you to a door, behind which there was a monster. And if you knocked at the door, as the book so patiently and horribly taught you to do… the monster in all likelihood ate you."

He falls quiet, staring at the lighter. It's pretty – he's never thought of that before, but it rather is. "It would have eaten me, if someone hadn't gotten in the way… and gotten themselves eaten first," Jon admits, quietly.

"I'm sorry," Desmond offers.

"It was a long time ago," Jon says. "But it did instil in me a certain – fascination of the supernatural. And the fear of it. That, more than my degree, is what led me to the Magnus Institute." And to his existence now… such as it is.

They're quiet for a moment, Jon turning the lighter in his hand and missing the time he smoked, and also the time when he quit smoking, when stuff like that seemed so important – preserving his good health for the future. Smoking probably wouldn't even hurt him now. Hell, soon he probably won't even have lungs. Maybe they're already riddled with… with eyes.

God why did he have to put that thought into his own head?

Shaking his head, Jon looks up and then down to where Desmond is looking. "How does it work?" he asks. "If you explain the Eagle Vision to me, maybe I can do it too, help you find whatever it is you're looking for."

"In the games it was genetic," Desmond says thoughtfully.

"Well, here it likely comes from the Beholding, so… maybe I can just. Learn it," Jon offers, looking at him. "Or do you not want to share your great and awesome power?"

Desmond smiles a little at that and then folds his arms on the railing, leaning in. "Okay," he says. "I don't actually know how to – to explain this, it was never really been explained in the games either, but, uh. Imagine that everyone down there has a sort of – glow to them. An aura…"

Jon looks down, concentrating. There's only a few people down on the street – seven in total, four women and three men. One of the women is on her phone, ignoring one of the men. The other three women are together, and it looks like they're heading out for a night of partying. The last remaining two men are talking about football.

"The aura has a colour, depending on your – disposition, I guess," Desmond says. "It's a bit different on this side, but I think it follows more or less the same rules. Red is – it's enemies, violence, stuff like that. People who are likely to get aggressive and attack you. Blue on the other hand is people who will help you, allies, whatnot. White and grey aura I'm not so sure about, it's either that they're completely neutral, or they're helpless, or they just won't help you. On this side there's other things too, yellow, orange, green, I've seen pink… but those are things I am pretty sure are still the same."

"Mm, so you can see emotional disposition," Jon hums. "And gold marks someone as important."

"Important to what I want, or need. I don't even need to know that it's important or needed – your archives kinda proved that," Desmond says. "The files I found with Eagle Vision there, I didn't even know they existed – but Eagle Vision found them anyway."

"That's…" Jon blinks and looks at him. "That's more than mere vision-based telepathy. That's more in line with some sort of… of fortune telling. Or clairvoyance."

"Don't ask me, I don't know how it works. It's based on a video game mechanic," Desmond says with a crooked grin and a casual shrug. "It just does, and I'm happy that it does."

"Hmm," Jon agrees, dubiously, and looks down. "Auras. Hmm."

Desmond watches him straining to See with a slight smile and then glances down. Jon sees the moment he sees something – his face changes, his eyes sharpening into keen, deadly focus. "There," he says. "Man in a tracksuit."

"He glows golden?" Jon asks quietly, quickly picking the guy out. It's a jogger, slowly making his way through the intersection, hopping from one foot to another while waiting for the lights to change. He doesn't look particularly… murderous. He actually looks shorter and thinner than Jon himself is – and he knows from experience that men of his stature have difficulties hiding bodies. "That's a killer?"

"No," Desmond says. "But he will lead us to one. Come on – we better not lose him."

Chapter Text

"... Ow, ow, Desmond –!"

"Hang on, hang on, I've almost got it – aw damn, there's another one in there, hold on –"

"Aah! That's – a warning would've been – ah, oh son of a –"

"There! I got it – sorry, Jon. I think that's the last of it. Christ, your back –"

"Hhhah, just more scars to the pile, right? Heh."

"I don't know, I think it's already closing up?"

"What, really? It's healing – give me the mirror – oh, that's a lot of blood."

"Yeah, was a lot of glass too. Had a nice roll in it –"

"I was thrown, Desmond."

"Yeah. Sorry. Um… do you feel okay?"

"... It doesn't even hurt anymore."

"That's good, but, uh, I mean – last time I touched someone, they… kind of had their whole personality rearranged so that they became more – lonely. Do you feel something… like that?"

"No, no, nothing like that. Just vaguely terrified about my apparent ability to self-repair at a record breaking speed, that's all."

"Okay that's... good."

"... See any eyes in there?"

"Eyes, in where – what, in the torn up flesh of your back? No, I didn't see any eyes there, Jon, geez."

"Just – just checking."

"Right.

"... shit."

"Yeah … um. Jon?"

".... Yes?"

"You brought a tape recorder?"

"What – no, I didn't – oh. Ah, it's been – hm. I did wonder why they stopped coming."

"So that's yours?"

"It's – complicated. They show up when something significant happens – I don't know. I think it's a part of the Beholding somehow, or a part of me? I don't know – it's – they just show up."

"Huh… okay? I didn't think the powers would – I mean, I'm not the one to speak, coming from where I do – but just, I don't know, manifesting bits of technology. Retro technology too, huh?"

"I know, I know. I'm sorry, Desmond, let me see if I can turn it off –"

"No, no, it's cool, it's cool. Your dread god sends you tape recorders, that's – I wouldn't say cute, but it's something. Do other powers like – manifest things like that?"

"Hm. You know – I've never thought about it? I know the powers manifest through people – there was this woman, Jane Prentiss, the avatar of the Corruption, her power manifested throughout an infestation of worms that had taken over her body – turned her into a Flesh Hive."

"Um. Eurgh?"

"Yes, trust me, it was much worse in person. I also know that the Web manifests through spider webs, which makes sense, I suppose. I… I'm not sure if I've ever seen any manifestations through technology, other than my tape recorders. Huh."

"Your tape recorders? So they're yours, not your god's?"

"I… I'm not sure? They are linked to me, I know that – Elias… Elias promoted their use among the staff, saying that it was for me, that I would want to or need to hear it, but – I don't know. The previous Archivist, Gertrude, she recorded sometimes, but certainly not as much as I do. And – mm."

"Yeah?"

"Sometimes I think that the few times she did record… it was for me?"

"Which is not self-centred of you or anything –"

"I know, I know. Still…"

"... It's running. Recording us."

"Yes. I think it wants a statement about what happened."

"The recorder has personality now?"

"At this point I wouldn't be surprised."

"Heh. No recorders after the – the train, though."

"... Well, I did make a statement about it later. It's curious, though – these days they usually show up when anything more supernatural happens – they're just there, finding their way into my bags, or pockets, or… whatever. Wonder why they didn't, today – or, or on the train."

"Maybe your god was busy."

"I don't think that's it. Hm."

"Right… well. Um. Do you want my statement of the creepy serial killer thing of Lyon? While you clean up. You're kind of covered –"

"I – yes, please."

"Alright. Do your thing, then, and I'll give my statement while you're taking a shower."

"Right. Statement of Desmond Miles, regarding a possible manifestation of the Slaughter in Lyon, France. Statement given March 16th, 2018. Recording by Jonathan Sims, the Archivist. Statement begins."

"... You know, I don't think I actually know what it means to, you know, feed your god. I've done it, I've watched you do it, Jon, and I got a rough sense of it – but I don't think I feel it, the same way as you do. Just another aspect of the Lonely, maybe – even when I'm more or less among my own kind, I'm the odd man out. Suppose that should make me feel isolated and distanced, but – it doesn't.

I think the Lonely – it either put me together wrong, or we're not actually as well matched as I thought. I should be lonely, I should be miserable, and I should be susceptible to the Lonely, but – I'm – not? I don't know how to explain it, but I think there's something there. Something… I'm still working on. Could lead up to something.

I mean, I feel it, that – we call it a hunger, but it isn't, really. As much as it fills your senses and satisfies your urges and leaves you sated, it's not eating, what we do. It's almost more like – taking drugs. Or having sex, though… that's a bit of an obscene analogy. Never mind – it's more like drugs, addiction. We're druggies to our gods. And I guess I don't feel addicted enough, in a weird way. I feel less of a constant need and more like, Ah, there it is again. I suppose I need to do something about that, maybe. It's not all-consuming. I almost wish it was, like it would provide some clarity, pin down what I am, give me a definitive… diagnosis, maybe?

Anyway. We set out to try and feed our gods yesterday, around – nine in the evening, maybe? It wasn't much of a plan – I was going to find some guilty bastard who deserved it, a murderer preferably, you know, someone whose death would make the world a better place. Sounds a bit trite now that I say it out loud, but that's just how it's going to be – I try not to kill, or, I guess, disappear innocent people. My Creed still means something to me, and so, in order to find someone who deserved to be fed upon, we, me and you, Jon, set out to find a nice busy intersection so that I could watch the people go by.

It was over an hour before I spotted someone we could use, someone important. A jogger – he wasn't a killer, but going by how golden he gleamed, I knew he would lead us to something we could use, something we could feed on. I was hoping it would be something like the last time – a serial killer who I could easily snoop on to make sure they deserved to die, and then… do whatever the Lonely wanted. Isolating a murderer would feed me, and watching a supernatural justice hammer come down would feed Jon, win-win –"

"Actually, Desmond, I think it might have not?"

"Uh? What?"

"I have been thinking. Surely, there would've been someone… easier somewhere in Lyon, someone who deserved it, but who didn't pose that much of a threat. Your Eagle Vision led us to that one, and I bet it led you to that particular intersection too – I think it knew that… more was required."

"What, more than the Lonely?"

"I – I've already heard, Seen what it is you do to human victims, Desmond. I'm not sure it would have been as nourishing, as it were."

"Huh. You realise that's creepy as hell, Jon? And not really all that promising for our future chances of survival – if this thing is escalating..."

"I… I am aware. It could be a matter of variety too, I suppose."

"Right. You're dripping water everywhere."

"Ah, right, sorry for the interruption – please, resume your statement.

"Right. Well. Didn't turn out the way I was thinking, did it? What that jogger led us to, it wasn't a human killing other humans, it was… it was something else."

It wasn't easy, keeping up with the jogger at first. Since you insisted on coming along, Jon, I think you deserve to know the truth – you suck at running, you're just terrible. You slowed me down, I couldn't track the way I usually do, running, climbing, taking whatever shortcuts I could, since I had to make sure you didn't get left behind. I was seriously considering just throwing you over my shoulder and then just legging it at full speed – but then we got there. The alley.

I – lost the track of where it was, sorry – you probably know better than me. Somewhere in the city, I don't know. There was this narrow little alley, it wasn't even dark or dingy or anything, but it felt wrong. Our jogger stopped right in front of it to take a drink from his water bottle and to look over this patch of garden – looked like he timed it, actually, like this was a set route he took every day, and every time he stopped in this exact place to have a drink of water and a break. Probably did, that's probably how the thing marked him as a victim, by watching him from that alley every night, waiting for its chance…

Vary your jogging routes, people. Change is the spice of life and all that.

Jon spotted the thing before I did, or – its influence. He wanted to leave, knew what it was immediately – not sure how exactly, but he knew. Said to me that it was Slaughter and that it was too much for us to handle, that we shouldn't tempt it. He was scared – he felt alone. Missing someone, I think, someone who could've done something about the avatar of the Slaughter, maybe? Didn't think I could take it on, didn't think I was up to it.

I'm not mad about that. He was probably right, but, I uh. I guess I wanted to, to… show off a little. Plus, Jon feeling all scared and small and alone, it – it urged me on. It – does things to me. When he gets like that.

… anyway! I went in, looking for the thing. The jogger moved on, his break over, and Jon hung back, nervous, and – I went in. It wasn't much of an alley, barely fifty feet deep, ended in a dead end. There was a door there, but – it felt almost like a door in a video game, where it's just part of the structure, texture over the solid bit of nothing. Like it had never been opened and never would be?

Yeah, I knocked on it. Not my brightest idea, but there wasn't much else I could do – didn't look like there was anything else in the alley, really, and it felt like whatever it was inside, there wasn't another way in or out. Dead end on the inside too.

Jon called it a trap. I guess it was.

I mean, I wasn't completely stupid about it at first, I think. I stepped back to wait, kept a safe distance, all that. Jon was all worried, saying we should go, we should leave, he didn't need it that much – I pretended I wasn't worried at all. He grabbed my shoulder, tried to pull me away, but then I felt it.

I can feel the loneliness of places, the isolation that's forced by the architecture, or if it's just a place where people have been lonely in. It hangs around like mist, clammy and uncomfortable, lingering. Has a sort of cloying, mouldy feeling to it when it's bad. This – this was like – like… like that, but what hung in the air wasn't water particulates. It was blood – vaporised blood. It was isolation and terror, the dying alone feeling. It was revolting and delicious, like – like a raw steak. You know it could be good if treated right, if cooked properly, but if you eat it raw…

I knew immediately that a lot of people had died there, painfully, screaming for someone to help them until their last dying breath, until their voice gave out. They died, knowing that no one would come for them, and that no one would know what happened to them… that they were alone.

The Lonely enjoyed that, I think. But I didn't. I knew the moment I smelled it that I would kill the thing inside, just like that. I was going to force the Lonely down its throat, and it was going to be brutal.

You know, in my games – I've talked about it before, I know, but in my games there's always a couple of ways you can kill someone. The intended way is to sneak up to them, stick a blade in their back and walk away before they realised that they were dead, nice and neat. But then the games also give the players bigger blades, daggers, swords – later axes and even hammers. And yeah, there are distance weapons, throwing knives, crossbows, bombs, darts, whatever – things to kill with quick and clean without hassle, not the point. The thing is that sometimes the games got brutal. Really brutal. The executions you could do with a warpick, they're…

I – I guess it was like that part of the games took me over, the brawling, face-clawing, blood-splattering brutality if it."

"That… doesn't sound like the Lonely, Desmond."

"Honestly, I don't think it was. But there's some overlap, right? I mean, I got the eye thing going on for me too, and that's not the Lonely either."

"Between entities of a – of a likeness, yes, but the Lonely and the Eye, they have nothing to do with the Slaughter."

"I don't know. You're never quite as much on your own than when you're fighting for your life. Or to end someone else's. And there's a reason splatter and gore movies have their own popularity."

"That's, uh… ahem. Continue, please."

"I went inside, obliviously. Jon stayed behind, so I don't know if he saw it, the thing inside – I only glimpsed it for a moment. It was all cuts and blades, bonesaws and meat cleavers. It was like someone had taken the props from four different serial killer scary movies and smashed them together into a human shape – it was violent. And inside the place was – it was a mess. A maze of corridors and blood splattered rooms and cellars, with freshly butchered things hanging from meathooks. It was insane – I went from quiet streets of Lyon into every serial killer movie cliche ever.

I lost track of Jon almost immediately – I think he went different way from me, or hell, maybe the walls moved. Wouldn't surprise me a bit if they did. I figured then that the best way to keep Jon safe would be to find the thing in there and kill it before it could find him, and that's what I set out to do. Picked up the first weapon I could find, a baseball bat, and then set out to track the thing down. Easier said than done, that.

The place was a disaster, and not just because the room layout made no sense – no, it was filthy too. Trash and stains and cobwebs everywhere – blood trails, like someone had dragged bodies through every room and corridor. The stench of blood and filth hung in the air, like people had been stuck there for days and weeks and had had to do their business in the corners. And then there was the atmosphere too, that… that whole dark and spooky thing. Everything was both too quiet and too loud, and I kept thinking I heard something, like a laugh, always behind me. It was… just the classic scary movie vibe, you know, the one that just makes you expect a jumpscare. Impossible to find anything in that kind of setting.

So I had to rely on my Eagle Vision… which didn't help much, but I could more or less see these tracks trail through the mess. And so I set out looking for it – realising at this point that I was probably playing the part of the stupid sport jock that thought he could take out the murderer with a baseball bat, but whatever.

That place though – I can't even imagine what it must've been like for some unsuspecting jogger, being dragged into that place, being there unwillingly. Their terror, how they found themselves trapped and alone with that thing coming after them and taking sick pleasure from their horror as it picked away at them, bit by bit…

Jon was the one who got the jumpscare, in the end – I could hear his scream, and I swear, my soul just about vacated my body.

You want to tell what happened on your end, Jon?"

 

"Not particularly, but I suppose I should.

I followed Desmond in through the door, though I knew I really shouldn't have. I saw him only for a moment, disappearing through another doorway, and when I went to follow him, I saw it opened into a hallway going in two different directions. I couldn't tell which way he had gone, and in the end the direction I chose went the other way, obviously.

I saw much the same things, in that place. Horror movie clichés, for the most part. Of course, I didn't think of it like that until Desmond mentioned it later on. At the time I was there it felt very real, and very… very unnerving. Walking over all that blood, pushing through those webs, it was... Of course they were real, in their own way, but – anyway. I called after Desmond, but I couldn't see him or hear him, and I assume he couldn't either. The place seemed sizeable, and I should have stayed put, I knew I should have stayed still, but – I didn't.

Maybe I had something to prove as well. Desmond had gone on so fearlessly – and he's not an avatar of Desolation, or the Hunt, or anything of the sort. He's the manifestation of the Lonely, and the Lonely isn't exactly known for being brave or confident… but he'd gone in, regardless. I wouldn't say I felt inferior in comparison, exactly, but I should've known more about these things than him, I have much more experience, and – surely knowledge is supposed to be power, surely I should be able to do something. I guess that's a shred of lingering arrogance, which these things haven't managed to beat out of me yet. Or maybe something about the place brought it out of me. Some semblance of misplaced bravery.

I was examining what I thought might be some… some human remains, when the manifestation found me. It was – I did indeed scream, and I am not ashamed of it, the thing was gruesome. Spikes and blades and saws embedded in what looked like it might have been human flesh, once. Knives between every rib, protruding blades and spikes with chains attached on its back, noose around its neck… It had terrible eyes, dark and filled with blood, like from a thousand broken blood vessels. I think there were blood trails on its face but – it's hard to say. There was a lot of blood. Its mouth was full of glass shards in place of teeth, and it gurgled when trying to speak.

I ran, obviously, and like in every horror movie cliche… I stumbled. The thing caught me without any problem, grabbed me by the back of my jacket, and I just knew it was going to drag me to a place with hooks and blades where it could slowly pull me apart. I fought and I writhed to try and loosen its grip, I even tried compelling it with a demand, but – I don't think it had enough sense to be compelled. All there was left was the will to kill, painfully, slowly, mindlessly…

There was glass on the floor beneath me, broken windows, painting frames, mirrors… it dragged me over them, slowly… and I thought, I thought I was going to die, I thought I was going to die alone.

And that was when Desmond found us."

 

"I found Jon when it was dragging him, his screaming led me to them both. I didn't think of a plan or anything, I just ran in, wound the bat back, and hit the thing on the head as hard as I could. It didn't do much, but it stopped, even wavered, long enough for me to see the situation.

It was still barely enough.

The thing hauled Jon up and threw him – I didn't have time to react to that, I had to kill it before I could get distracted. The bat was no use, blunt useless thing, so I looked for something else, anything else, but there wasn't anything just conveniently lying around – and I didn't have any weapons either. All there was… was the thing itself.

And it was –.

The weapons in it, they're not growing out of it like I thought. Someone's stuck them into it – pulled out its teeth and replaced them with glass, stuck every kind of knife and pick and blade into it, tried to saw its limbs off and failed, leaving the saw right there – this thing, whatever it was, it looked like a hundred murder victims all in one. And I –

I felt it. The loneliness. It's not the victims it belonged to. It came out of this thing. Or, no, that's not right. No. This thing was the victim.

I – I hesitated, for a moment, for a beat too long, and it came at me, with spikes and a hook in place of hands, knives sticking from its chest, and I – I just.

I didn't have a weapon, but there was a plethora of them before me, so I stuck my hand out, past the grasping points of its sharp metal talons, and gripped the handle of something, and I pulled, fast. It came out with terrible ease, with a sound of sharp metal grinding against another bit of sharp metal. The thing of violence before me staggered back, screaming in terrible, agonising pain, and – then it ran away. It just ran.

And I didn't go after it. 

I picked Jon up, as gentle as I could with the glass in his back, and I found the exit. It was easier than I thought – like, almost too easy. It was right there – I turned a corner and the door was just right there, opening back onto the streets of Lyon. I got us out, and when I looked behind us, the door was gone, like it never had been there – there was just a solid wall where we came through.

So I – left. I found the nearest hotel, checked us in, and – here we are."

"... Statement ends. How did you check us in, Desmond?"

"The clerk could see me. Also saw the blood – freaked out about it, almost called an ambulance. I, ah, I just upended all of our money on him, told him to give us a room for one night and keep the rest. And he went with it."

"Ah. Something's… changed about your nature, then."

"Yeah, I think so. Something in there, or – I don't know. What do you think it was? The – manifestation, I mean."

"Well – I have a theory. I looked it up online, looking into the local news and such – and apparently in 2011 an investigation in the area unearthed a secret private movie theatre, likely right where we were. No one knows who set it up or when, it was abandoned before it was found – but they did find a very extensive catalog of film reels – containing nothing but serial killer thrillers."

"Movie theatre, like the one in the catacombs of Paris?"

"Much like it, yes… Do you – do you think you could've killed it, Desmond?"

"I definitely could've tried, but – I don't think that would've stopped it, exactly. Might've actually made it stronger."

"What do you mean?"

"It hurt when I took the blade out – it hurt the thing, a lot. I don't think I could've hurt it anywhere near as much, putting the knife back in – I mean, you saw the thing, it was full of blades, and they didn't slow it down much. I don't think it was there to kill us. I think – I think it was there to be killed."

"... What do you mean, to be killed, I don't – oh. Oh, I see. What is better, to violently kill a single victim, or… to violently create an equally violent killer? The people who are stranded in that place, they are forced to fight for their lives, to kill the monster – to emerge from the trial of horror as a victorious killer."

"Yeah – after all, that's the most satisfying part of the movie, isn't it? When the killer gets what's coming to them, in as violent a way as they deserve? Isn't it a little bit gratifying?"

"... damn."

"Yeah."

"... What are you going to do with the knife? You brought it with you – what, what are you going to do with it?"

"... I think I'm going to keep it."

"Ah. Al-alright then."

"Yeah."

Chapter Text

The glass leaves no scars.

Why Jon feels strangely resentful of the fact he can't quite tell, but resent it he does. His back feels – fine. Just fine. Old scars are still there, the punctures made by burrowing worms what feels now like a lifetime ago, but though his back was all but shredded by all the glass scattering the… horror movie monster's little basement… there's no sign of it, just an hour later. Now the only proof he has of it ever having happened at all is a water glass full of removed glass shards, a broken jumper stained thoroughly by blood and the vague awareness of something being… very wrong.

So much so that when Desmond had offered to go and check out the place, just in case the door came back, Jon hadn't argued. Elias would be able to see him soon – but Jon can't bring himself to really care. They'd be leaving Lyon by the morning, anyway, heading to Milan – to see if there'd be something of Leonardo da Vinci there. Salaì, or Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, had lived out the rest of his life there and inherited some things from the man – and, Desmond suspects, among them were his more… supernatural effects, if such existed. And if not, then… then next would be Rome.

It had been… three days since he left the UK, and the Institute. Jon had somewhat stupidly thought that getting away would make things better, that he would feel – better. And the thing is, he does, too, he feels stronger, in a way… the indignity of being dragged over the glass notwithstanding. He feels like – like he could take a bullet and survive. He probably could, if the healing ability would stay constant. And he fears it might.

But he also feels out of sorts in a different way. It's not precisely Desmond's fault, the Eurotunnel, and now this – but Jon wouldn't have experienced either thing had he just stayed home, and he's very… very aware if it. And he knows it's not going to get any easier from here on out – there's something… ahead. Waiting for them. Or, for Desmond – and Jon is the observer, the unwitting participant, the… potential collateral casualty.

Desmond has been touched by 4 great powers now. The Lonely's grip on him is still the strongest, but the Eye is steady on him, as is the End, and now… the Slaughter. The other three Jon could stomach, but the Slaughter is a clear deviation, and – it's like Desmond is collecting something, only half knowing it. Like he's accumulating… something. Jon wishes he could think it was only experiences.

It feels as though something has been derailed – and Jon is barely hanging on for dear life.

… and there's Elias, again.

Jon sighs and lifts his head from his knees, looking up. "Hello, Elias. Can't sleep?" Jon asks wryly, as the Eye focuses on him. For once, it doesn't feel like a glare – like a disappointed teacher staring down on a disobedient student. It seems more curious – even thoughtful. Trying another approach, is he?

Jon closes his eyes and rests his chin on his knee. He doesn't feel like dealing with it. He is still riding the wave of the whole experience, feeling himself shaken and shuddering and strong. "God, he does keep me well fed, doesn't he?" Jon mutters with a slight chuckle. "A hint that I'm hungry and he brings me a feast." And traumas to go with it, too. Granted, Jon has gone through worse than this. Just… not many things worse, but some things.

Jon is quiet for a long while, trying to make a decision on how he actually feels – to draw a definite, concrete line in the sand of whether this was alright or not. Desmond's voice still rolls in his ear, soothing, Jon feeling all scared and small and alone, it – it urged me on. It – does things to me. When he gets like that…

That, he thinks, that might be… bad.

Elias' gaze shifts, but Jon doesn't bother to follow it, doesn't care to. Probably should've – because the next he knows, there's a knock on the door. Jon doesn't lift his head at first, considering pretending he isn't awake, or alive, or whatever – but then it comes again, accompanied by a flustered sounding French woman, saying something about téléphone.

Damn it.

Knowing there'd be no saying no, not now that Elias knows where he is, Jon sighs and stands up, going to the door. It's a rather tired looking member of the hotel staff. "Mister – Miles?" she asks in a heavy accent, holding a mobile phone in her hands like it's a grenade about to explode. "A phone call for you? He is very insistent."

"He always is," Jon sighs. "Do you mind if I take it in my room – I promise I'll bring it back once I am done."

"Ah, yes, alright," she says, looking relieved to hand the phone over. "I am working the desk below, just bring the phone back once you are done."

"Thank you," Jon says, waiting until she goes and closes the door. Then, just because he can, he keeps Elias waiting for a minute longer. Wonder if they're timing him, back at the prison. Can you give people like Elias Bouchard a time limit?

"Hello Jon," the former head of the Magnus Institute says, the moment Jon lifts the damned thing to his ear.

"Elias," Jon answers and turns back to the too big armchair, sitting down and lifting his feet back on it. "What can I do for you on this lovely night?"

"How is your trip going? Not as well as you'd hoped, is it?" Elias asks. "Though I admit, you look rather well, Jon. Blood stains aside."

Jon closes his eyes. "I know you can see me, you don't need to subtly try and insinuate your great and awesome power, I am… well aware," he says. "What do you want – for me to head back home? Back to the archives like a good little Archivist?"

"I certainly wouldn't mind if you did, I did hire you for a reason," Elias says. "I'm sure your friends miss you –"

"Ha. Funny."

"Martin certainly misses you," Elias says, sly.

"The last I talked to Martin, he told me to stop finding him," Jon says and then tilts his head. "Shouldn't you know that? I mean, it was obviously something Peter has put into his head, this isolation he's doing. Doesn't Peter tell you these things? It happened the day I left, actually."

"Oh, is that why you left, a little spat with Martin – "

Right. "I'm hanging up now –"

"I wouldn't, if I were you," Elias snaps sharply and then softens, as much as Elias ever can. "Jon, contrary to what you believe, I actually don't want you to return to the Archives, not until you're good and ready. Obviously, you have something you need to work your way through, and, well, you do deserve it. I'm only worried about the company you're keeping, this… Desmond."

Jon smiles. "You're worried about him because you can't see him, and you can't see me when I'm with him."

"He's a powerful avatar, Jon – and you should know better than to let yourself be… seduced by the power of the Lonely. It's insidious, when it gets into your head – it changes your very brain chemistry, it can give you depression, anxiety, and those are only the best case scenario. Long term exposure can very easily lead to self-isolation, seclusion, self-harm, even suicidal thoughts – why do you think Peter is never around, really? He's an avatar of the Lonely too, and he knows the power he has, he knows the damage it can do to people's psyches. This Desmond obviously does not."

Jon lets his eyes fall shut. He knows that, of course. Desmond has done nothing but isolate him since they'd met, and the fact that it's only half intentional is not exactly an excuse. Three days, and Jon already feels dreadfully alone and abandoned, and can feel something like depression creeping in. He also knows Desmond is – changing now.

… and how much like an abused spouse he would sound like actually saying that, out loud. Oh no, he doesn't mean to, he can change. Tch.

"Jon," Elias says. "I know things have been difficult in the Archives, and I am sincerely sorry. But it's surely better there than being completely lost – and you are getting very lost indeed. Detective Hussain is quite concerned, some of it is even sincere care. And Melanie – "

"Shut up –"

" – is coming to terms with what you did to her," Elias says. "Perhaps you two should have a heart to heart about it. She will have nightmares about you for the rest of your life, of course, but one day, once the therapy has gotten far enough, perhaps she will thank you – "

Jon hangs up.

He's – not sure he could've done that, before, just hung up on information concerning his friends, the people he cares about. Elias has always been good at pushing his buttons, and usually Jon has been too… too… confused to resist the subtle and not so subtle manipulations. But now…

They turned their backs on me, and they did it for a good reason maybe… but they still did. Why shouldn't I do the same?

It really is insidious, isn't it, the effect of the Lonely.

It's less than two minutes before the phone rings again. Jon's finger hovers on the button to decline the call – but it's not the same number. Still from the UK, from London, but – he knows this one. It's from the Archive. And Jon can almost see the one behind it – not with any extra sensory perception, perhaps… but it's exactly what Elias would do, isn't it?

He answers and says nothing into the phone, just listening. He can hear breathing, rustling of papers.

"Jon?" Martin asks, wary, watchful. "Jon – is – is that you?"

"Hello, Martin," Jon answers and closes his eyes, feeling something like a noose, gently coming down on his neck.

"Um – are you – are you okay?" Martin asks.

"I'm just fine, Martin."

There's a moment of tense, confused silence – they hadn't told Martin why he was calling, or what was wrong, and now he's covering the speaker with a hand, demanding answers. Peter Lukas might be there. Probably is, listening with one ear while having Elias on the line in the other. Or maybe it's a conference call, and everyone is listening.

"Where are you, Jon?" Martin asks, sharper this time – so, something was said out of the phone's earshot. "Are you safe?"

Jon snorts at that – it's almost funny. No, he's not at all, obviously not, today alone proves that. But also yes, he's the strongest and maybe even the safest he's felt since he woke up from coma. "Elias knows where I am," he says. "How are you, Martin? How are things in the Archives?"

Another moment of silence, and then the sound of a chair being pushed back, footsteps – Martin walking away from whoever was giving him instructions. Jon listens in curiously, tilting his head, until Martin speaks. "They're still listening, but – to hell with that. Please, Jon, are you alright?"

"I'm fine, Martin, really," Jon says and smiles a little. "Elias is unhappy with me because I left the country without telling anyone –"

"You left the – where are you?"

"France – Lyon, to be precise," Jon says and blinks his eyes open as Elias' gaze loses focus on him, and Jon finds himself free of observation. Hm. "It's not really important, I'm not going to be here for long – and let's be honest, I probably won't be gone for long, either. From past experiences, it's a couple more days before compulsion of the Archives becomes undeniable, and then I'll come back, tail between my legs, and everything will be the same as it was before. Nothing to worry about."

"Peter doesn't seem to think so, or Elias," Martin says quietly. "Something about you being under someone else's influence. They say you're being… that you're straying, or something."

"Well," Jon says and then looks up as the door to the hotel room is unlocked and opened. "There's that. I might be."

Desmond is, predictably enough, bearing food. It's fast food this time. He looks up hearing Jon's voice, and his brows arch at the sight of the phone. Jon shrugs his shoulders.

"If you need help, Jon, if – if you need someone to come and find you –" Martin says, now a little more urgent.

"I don't," Jon says, dropping his feet on the floor as Desmond comes closer. "I'm fine, really. Everything is fine. Besides, Elias is in prison and shouldn't have a say in what I do, and I have never even met Peter Lukas, so, I find myself not really caring about what he thinks or wants."

"Jon…"

"Do you want me back in the Archives, Martin? You didn't even know I left until they told you."

"That's – not fair," Martin says quietly.

"… No, it isn't," Jon says and sighs. "Just let me be gone for a while. Everyone else is, more or less. I'll be back, probably sooner than I even want to be back. That's how it goes, after all, with the Institute. For better or for worse."

"Yeah," Martin agrees with a sigh. "I suppose it is."

Jon watches as Desmond sits on the bed and rifles through the bags. He's obviously trying to be quiet about it, but the crinkling of the paper bags is loud in the quiet room. The smell of fast food is quickly filling the air, and Jon finds to his surprise that he's… actually a little hungry. Huh.

"Jon, is there someone there with you?" Martin asks, his voice tensing a little.

"Yes, and he brought a late dinner, so I am going to go now," Jon says, leaning towards Desmond. "Take care of yourself, Martin. And the others too, if you can."

There's an aborted noise, like Martin wants to say something and stops. "… Peter wants me to remind you about Daisy's situation," he says then, sounding resentful. "But – never mind that, that's not your fault. Stay safe, Jon."

Martin hangs up without another word, which feels rather like a sudden slap in the face. Of course, the final bit of manipulation before the end, tch. Peter Lukas is no better than Elias, then – maybe even worse. Jon lowers the phone with a grimace, and Desmond watches him with a wary, concerned look about his face.

"… a friend, I'm guessing?" he asks quietly, staring at Jon with a strangely intense gaze.

Jon draws a breath and then shakes his head. "Yes. And a co-worker," he says. "Elias found me after you left, and then he called the hotel and made himself a nuisance until they got me on the phone. I should take it back."

"Mh," Desmond agrees dubiously. "Well, eat first, while it's still warm. I wasn't sure what you'd like, so I got burgers, some chicken nuggets, fries, and coke," he says while leaning back with a container of fries. "The usual basic stuff. All of it a lot smaller than back in the States, mind you, but I figure you're used to that here."

"Right," Jon says and sets the phone down. "The door?"

"Wasn't there – didn't look like it'd ever been. Maybe it – moves around, or something. Like your spider book door."

"Probably. Doubt any single city has enough potential prey for something like that," Jon agrees and reaches in to check the fast food, grabbing one of the wrapped up burgers while he's at it. "I wonder what it is with doors and these entities. So many of them are linked to doors."

"Something about transitions?" Desmond muses, throwing a fry in his mouth. "Isn't that like, a psychological thing? Like, people forgetting stuff when they go through doors?"

"Mm, yes, it's called an Event Boundary," Jon agrees, peeling the paper wrapper. "Your brain becomes so preoccupied preparing itself for what is about to happen, that it forgets whatever was occupying it before. An evolutionary thing, most likely. And – that might be part of it, who knows."

"Hm," Desmond agrees, still staring at him.

"What?" Jon asks, looking up from the burger.

"You – uh. You feel… really, really alone right now. Just though you should, uh. Know."

Jon blinks at him and then looks back down at the burger, feeling his ears heat up. "Doing things for you, is it?"

"I – really shouldn't have said that. In the statement. I'm sorry," Desmond says awkwardly. "But also kinda, yeah. Your, uh. Co-worker on the phone, huh? I'm guessing it wasn't a… amiable conversation."

Jon chuckles, shaking his head. "Yeah," he says and bites into the burger. "Funnily enough, they were just warning me off from you. Elias all but played the disappointed father – you're a terrible influence on me, apparently. Every avatar of the Lonely is – close proximity to them can cause depression, anxiety, and all sorts of fun things, down to suicidal ideation."

Desmond lowers his hand, the fry between his fingers drooping. "Oh," he says.

"You knew that already. So did I," Jon reminds him.

"Yeah, but – hearing you say it puts it into perspective," Desmond mutters and looks away. "I'm – I'm sorry."

"I'm fairly certain you can't exactly help it," Jon comments.

"Doesn't make it any less harmful, or toxic," Desmond says quietly and picks at the fries, his appetite apparently gone. "Maybe you should – "

"No. Maybe I shouldn't."

Desmond blows out a breath and then leans back, to lie against the cushions of the bed. "I'm pretty sure that's my influence talking," he says, and takes another fry, his face tight. "Part of it is making you like it. It's – you know. Self-destructive."

Jon shrugs. "Maybe. But I also feel better than I have since I woke up from a coma, so take that as you will," he says and adjusts his grip on the burger. "I've been feeling pretty miserable in general lately, is the thing. At least here, with you, I have a chance of – of going through it on my own terms, rather than on Elias and Peter's. Which is what I think Elias fears the most."

"Hm. This Elias of yours sounds like a dick," Desmond comments. "Why is he so invested in your – you know, everything?"

"I – I don't know. But I also think I'm not that far from finding out, and –" Jon trails away and shakes his head. "It's not going to be pretty. So the longer I can put that off, too, the better."

"Now we're adding avoidance to everything? That's healthy."

Jon throws a bit of tomato at him, and Desmond lets out a disgusted noise. Jon gives him a slight, wry grin and takes another bite, looking away.

Nothing about this is healthy. And he still doesn't want it to end.

They're quiet for a while, just eating. Jon makes his way through the burger, then grabs a fresh container of fries and washes them down with sips of Coke, trying to remember when was the last time he had Coke. He's pretty sure he's had it sometime. Maybe Georgie brought him some, when he was staying at her place?

Picking apart his fries, Jon wonders idly, masochistically, if anyone had told her he'd left. Had anyone had even noticed… other than Elias, anyway? Martin obviously hadn't, though of course Martin was keeping his distance anyway. Melanie couldn't stand the sight of him, so, she might be just glad. Daisy – yeah. There's Basira, but… Basira too was well past the point of trusting him…

"Jon," Desmond says, plaintive.

"I'm not going to apologise for my thoughts, Desmond," Jon says and gives him a look. "Can you see my thoughts?"

"No, but I can feel them," Desmond says, shaking his head. "It's like you're psyching yourself up to be miserable. And I can't say it doesn't do things for me, but I also know it's… well, it's making you miserable."

Jon peers at him thoughtfully. "I think I could see your thoughts, if I wanted to. I can See things. Know things. Does that bother you?" he asks, wondering what it would take to make Desmond turn his back on him, too. Not that they've known each other for long – hell, it hasn't even been a week. Not much there to lose, is there?

"I don't really mind if you read my mind, not much going on there anyway, but –" Desmond stops and then gives him a look. "I think you're crashing."

Jon blinks, taken aback a little, "Crashing. What, like from a high?"

Desmond gives him a pointed look and then glances towards the other bed, where the tape recorder sits. "Yeah," he says. "A high."

Jon squints at the recorder suspiciously, and – yeah, that does sound about right, doesn't it? He still has enough regular old human brain chemistry, that even when the high is supernatural… the crash after an endorphin surge is still a crash. And isn't that funny? His god gave him a head rush from being scared to death and shredded by glass, and then his brain crashed him down and made him miserable.

Good old human brain physiology at work.

"Can we leave Lyon early?" Jon asks quietly. "I'd really rather not get any more phone calls from Elias."

Desmond sighs. "Sure. Eat your food and we'll go."

Chapter Text

They leave Lyon on a very early train, in the end, not that it's an easy choice to make. Of course the threat of trains and of planes has likely already passed – with the incident in the Eurotunnel the End had collected its due, and Jon knows in an abstract sort of sense that there's nothing to fear from public transportation anymore, but still…

It does make you feel so small, doesn't it, to know that a greater power can hunt you down like that and bring the destruction down around you, partly because of you. Makes you wary of your own influence, makes you want to limit the harm you can do. Desmond certainly doesn't seem to want to risk it, but… it's easier.

"You've learned to control the Lonely better," Jon comments.

"I suppose," Desmond mutters. "Still feels like a risk."

"The End got what it wanted. I doubt it's coming back for more immediately," Jon says. "And you can't avoid planes and trains forever – else you'll soon be walking everywhere."

Desmond hums, like he's seriously considering it, and that's when Jon puts his foot down and ushers him towards the train station.

It's interesting to see how Desmond's influence had changed. People see him now, and the space he occupies seems denser, like he has more mass all of a sudden, but they also... forget him, almost immediately. The moment the ticket inspector looks away from Desmond, who had neither a ticket or a passport of any sort, it's like Desmond just stops existing for them.

Somehow it feels even more like an abuse of their powers than the invisibility of before. And yet Jon can't help but wonder if he could use his own influence the same way – just look the inspector in the eye, tell them you already checked my ticket, and get through the whole thing for free. Sounds like something Gertrude might've done, just talk and quietly compel her way through the minor inconveniences of life.

"How does it feel like, being seen now?" Jon asks. "Does it – diminish the Lonely?"

Desmond doesn't answer immediately, looking away. "I don't know?" he admits eventually. "I'm being – something's changed, I can feel it. And I think I should be afraid, because I know it's me that's changing, but – I'm not. I just feel kind of – more, I guess. Like a piece I was missing has been inserted back in. I don't know what it does to the Lonely, but I think it might've diminished it's influence on me, yeah. I'm not sure."

Jon blinks and then lets out a little sigh. "Did I compel you, just now?" he asks apologetically.

"A little. I don't mind," Desmond says and looks at him with a slight smile. "You put things into perspective, Jon. It's kind of helpful, actually."

"You didn't much like it before."

"Yeah, well. I've gotten used to it. You can get used to a lot of things, which you'd think you wouldn't," Desmond says and shrugs. "And it's not like you do it maliciously."

Jon considers him silently and wonders. Most people seem to find it unpleasant, even when they have something to share. It might be a different experience for him – Desmond's not human and never was, he's a – a… hm. "Did you ever figure out how it was that you got out of the game?" Jon asks curiously. "The Eye and the Lonely were involved, but – your last game came out in 2012. You came to this world in… 2016?"

"2015," Desmond says, looking away. "I ended up stranded in the Lonely in 2016, and came out this year."

Hm. The year Gertrude died. "Right. But there were three years between the game being completed and published and played by millions… and you coming out of it. Do you think there was a reason for that?" Jon asks. "I mean – did something… trigger it? Did you try to find out?" He's careful not to make it a compulsion this time.

Desmond is quiet for a long while, drumming his fingers on the armrest of the seat as he thinks. "I tried to figure it out, yeah, but nothing about it made sense. Thinking back to it, there was nothing particularly… magical about it. Nothing on this side – I just came to, and I was in a forest. I don't know, Jon, I really don't know – it just happened."

"Forest?"

"Yeah, near Turin, New York – I think it was the closest place to the place where I was in the game? I don't know."

Interesting – the correlation in locations between where he was in game and in reality. That's indicative of some involvement of… of something with enough of a mind to understand such association. And these things rarely happen without a reason, even if the reason is someone had a bad dream. Jon leans his head back, peering up at the train car ceiling, thinking about it, recalling all the statements he'd read that had to do with technology on such a level. There's not many. Maybe it's something in the game itself…? "Do you mind if I look into it, do a little research?"

"Knock yourself out," Desmond says. "If you figure it out, let me know."

Nodding, Jon takes out his phone, and for the first time on this trip he turns it on. Not the SIM card, though, he bypasses the pin code and then, with the phone still offline, he connects to the train WiFi. After a moment of slowness, his phone then informs him he has over fifty emails waiting for him. Lovely.

Ignoring them all, Jon begins doing internet research.

Not much to find there, it turns out – there's very little about any specific individuals involved with the creation of the game online, even the directors have barely filled IMDb pages, and obviously there's very little about their personal lives or… supernatural leanings there to be found. Personal and professional twitters give some indication as to what they are working on currently, but the few Jon glances through show very little out of the ordinary. Most still work for the same game company, or other game companies, nothing interesting there.

The most promising lead is Patrick Dehler, the director of several of the games Desmond was the main lead in – who left the company in the middle of the series. There is a very shallow explanation of creative breaks and contract disagreements, but it sounds much like PR talk. That's not what's interesting about him. What's interesting is that on the wikipedia page of the very first game of the series, it is said that while he was working on a sequel to a previous game series, the Prince of Persia, Dehler came across a book on secret societies, from where he got the idea for the Assassin's Creed…

Jon spends some time trying to chase down increasingly thin leads, trying to find any further mention of the said book. There's some suggestion that it might be based on the novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol – a book Jon has not read, actually – but judging by the plot synopsis, it has very little to do with the actual end product of the Assassin's Creed… no, it must have been another book. And if it was the sort of book he fears…

Well, it would explain things – and raise some very real concerns about the result.

"Did you ever look into the makers of the game?" Jon asks quietly, glancing at Desmond. "Patrick Dehler, in particular?"

"Er," Desmond says and sighs. "Not really? It didn't seem important."

Jon gives him an incredulous look. These people – and this one in particular – were in charge of Desmond's creation, and it didn't seem important? "Do you mind if I send the man a message?"

Desmond opens his eyes at that and looks at him – and there's… something in his eyes, something sharp and hard. "Sure," he says, despite the hardness of his eyes. "Send away. But don't mention me."

Jon fumbles with his phone a little "O-of course not," he says, and then goes looking for the man's email. Thankfully, the man's work is public enough that finding it isn't hard at all. Jon types a quick, succinct message about doing research on the games and professing an interest in the book that got it all started – implying that he's doing something academic and boring with it. It feels as though academic and boring would get him farther here than pretending to be a reporter – judging by how little that Dehler has spoken out in public since leaving the game company,, he's likely under some sort of non-disclosure agreements.

Beside him Desmond breathes in and out, and he seems – a little affected. Jon gives him a concerned look. "You said you didn't mind."

"I didn't – I don't," Desmond says, a little too hard to be convincing.

Jon frowns, and after a moment Desmond sighs, his shoulders slumping "I – I guess I didn't look into it myself for a reason," he admits, begrudgingly. "It feels like – like if I know and understand it, if I learn where I really come from, if – if I know, then… then whatever's holding me together, it will give out. I guess."

"Oh. Oh – I will stop, then, of course I will stop," Jon says quickly. "Forget I ever –"

"No, that's not – I don't think it actually will give out, not anymore," Desmond mutters. "Not after the Eurotunnel and our little serial killer guy. No, do your thing. Don't let me stop you."

"If it makes you uncomfortable – "

"It's fine, Jon."

It's obviously not, Jon thinks, and powers his phone down. Desmond heaves out a guilty sounding sigh, looking away, and Jon shrugs, slipping his phone back in his pocket. "I'll pick it up later," he says. "It's been a long night, and I'm not exactly at my sharpest anyway. I think I will have a nap."

"Sure," Desmond says and looks out of the window, still guilty.

Idly wondering about the fact that their whole feedback loop of influence and fear no longer works the way it used to, Jon makes himself comfortable, tilting the backrest back slightly. Now when people hear Jon talk, they can also hear Desmond replying, and it's not so strange and weird and concerning anymore. No more compound effect of people thinking Jon's that lonely weirdo seeing things and talking to himself.

Probably for the best – as much as Desmond seemed to guiltily enjoy the effect… it was starting to rather grate.


 

"So," Jon says, after they'd arrived in Milan and Desmond had, predictably, found them a restaurant to force Jon to eat. "Is there another house of da Vinci here? I know the Last Supper is in a church here, can't remember the name from the top of my head though – is that what we're going to see?"

"No, though I guess we could," Desmond says, digging into his plate, which he'd mostly filled with pasta from the buffet. "But no. Leonardo left Salaì a vineyard – and a building in which he lived for almost twenty years, when working for Ludovico Sforza – I checked, and it's still there, working as a sort of a museum. I figure if Leonardo left Salaì anything, and if Salaì was smart about actually possessing it… it would be pretty well hidden, somewhere in that place."

"And if it isn't?" Jon asks, picking at his rice.

"Then I guess I'll have to find a church tower to climb," Desmond says. "Eat first, though, it's a bit of a walk from here."

"… how much is a bit of a walk?"

"Five, six kilometres, according to google maps."

"Ah," Jon muses. He's not really one for that kind of exercise. "I don't suppose we could take a bus…?"

"And miss the sights? No way," Desmond says and grins. "You have no idea how much I've missed Italy. I wanna take my time, do the tourist thing. Isn't that why you came with me, to take time off, do the tourist thing?"

"And look where that has gotten us so far," Jon mutters and sighs. "I suppose it can't hurt… more than things already have."

"Great. Eat your food first," Desmond says.

Jon looks down at his plate. "I swear, you're fattening me up."

"Jon, it's been almost six hours since you last ate – "

"I'm hardly going to starve, Desmond," Jon answers, amused. "Most people can deal with less than this and with larger intervals, and I have never been a particularly… voracious eater in the first place."

"Well," Desmond starts to say and then sighs.

"We don't really need to eat – you don't even have internal organs," Jon points out.

"Maybe it's just something that's nice to do, Jon," Desmond says, giving him a look. "And I like the taste of food. Isn't that reason enough? Besides… bitch all you want, you look a lot less like death warmed over now, that I have been… fattening you up. Can't argue with the results."

In more ways than one, Jon thinks, and then clears his throat, looking down. "Well," he says. "I suppose."

Desmond gives him a smug look and shoves another forkful of pasta into his mouth with great satisfaction.

He's right about walking through Milan, too – the city is beautiful, and they happened to come across it on a beautiful day, too. Desmond obviously enjoys it far more than Jon does, sighing and smiling at the buildings and the trees lining the roads, all the little bits of traditional Italy he can see. Jon tries to borrow some of his obvious enthusiastic fondness, but… he's never really had much of a travel lust. It's something to be noted, certainly, but nothing that will truly enhance his experience with life, nor something that he could not live without. But it's… nice.

"That's the church where the Last Supper is," Desmond points eventually, after nearly an hour of walking, by which time Jon is starting to both feel the exhaustion of it – and its strange… lack. "Santa Maria delle Grazie – and just across from it… la Vigna di Leonardo."

"Yes, thank you Desmond, I can see," Jon says, looking at it curiously. Outwardly it doesn't look like much – advertising tickets, a bookshop, audio tour and a café in the front. Looks like all the other little tourist shops they've encountered so far. "Can you… see something there?"

"Well, the doorway is doing a glimmer, which is always a good sign," Desmond says, eager. "Come on."

They slip inside, and while Desmond talks in smooth Italian with the woman behind the counter, Jon looks around curiously. Everything there looks rather mass-manufactured – books about Milan, about da Vinci, about art, architecture… nothing terribly interesting. There's some wood and paper models of da Vinci's flying machines, with rather exorbitant prices, so Jon doesn't even touch them… but they do look interesting.

"Grazie mille," Desmond says brightly to the woman, and as he turns to Jon again, the woman blinks confusedly at his back, already forgetting whatever they'd been talking about. "Come on, I got us a pass to the back and a table in the café."

"We just ate –"

"And now we can have a cup of coffee and maybe a taste of wine by Leonardo da Vinci himself – or by his recipe, anyway," Desmond says, grinning. "Come on."

Sighing, Jon follows him, and though it all seems rather extravagant to him, he can't deny being curious. And, now that they're here, he too can feel – something. Something elusive and hidden, carefully covered up and forgotten, but… there.

Desmond leads him through the building, past all the historical little knickknacks and into the actual garden, what remains of what had once been the vineyard itself. It's a well-maintained, beautiful garden, to be sure, but there's not much in the way of actual vines there – just two rows of grapevines, which look like they're growing there just for show. Together they form a corridor, leading up to…

"Huh," Desmond and Jon say together, staring at the intricately carved stone archway that's just… sort of… standing across the garden.

"That's not –" Jon starts to say.

"It's not glowing," Desmond agrees, even while quickly taking out the sketch he'd found in Paris.

"But it is rather – pointed, when you think about it," Jon muses, already stepping closer, onto the grass and between the rows of grape vines. "If there is a more special doorway to be found there, and if someone hid it, knowing that people might one day come looking for it, that's rather… rather obvious. A red herring, perhaps?"

"Mm," Desmond agrees, following him while looking between the arch and the sketch of the doorway. "Yeah, it doesn't look anything like the drawing. But maybe there's something on it, like a switch – a lot of things like these with switches in the game."

"Hm," Jon answers, and together they examine the stone arch for anything… special. At first it doesn't look all that remarkable – maybe a bit of an older building, or just a stone decoration someone had put down. It sits between a gravel walkway and another part of the garden – this one looking like they're actually growing something there for the sake of growing it, rather than just for show.

In the end, Desmond goes back to the café briefly to bring out a leaflet, from which they learn, much to Desmond's obvious disappointment, that not much of the original house or vineyard remains. Turned out that neither had really survived all that well into the modern era, and most of it had been rebuilt in the 1920's by an Italian architect, Pietro Portaluppi – including the archway in the garden, and probably most of the house itself.

"There's something here, though," Desmond mutters. "I can – I can almost feel it."

"Hmm," Jon answers. He can too, though he can't tell which way the feeling is coming from. Strange. "Let's look around, see what we can find."

Not much, really. It's a rather nice looking place, no doubt about it, but there's nothing outwardly special or supernatural about it. It's well-maintained in the sense of every inch of it having been turned and polished and viewed by thousands. Of course, Château du Clos Lucé was the same, and there it turned out that da Vinci had been sleeping in a magical, entity-powered trap, so, that doesn't actually say much. Da Vinci's bed had been… inert, however.

Whatever is here, it's still very much alive.

They look for hours, long enough for the staff off the café to get a little leery about them. By the time the sky above starts getting dark and the café starts filling up with people much more interested in the advertised wine of Leonardo da Vinci… they have to admit their failure. If there's something there, they're not finding it tonight.

"I guess we should find a hotel and rethink this," Desmond says and sighs. "Suppose it would be a bit too easy, if you could just… find it, whatever it is. If it was that easy, someone would've already found it."

"Mm-hmm," Jon agrees. "I think I saw an advertisement for the hotel next door – Atellani… something."

Atellani Apartments are, it turns out, connected to the da Vinci Vineyard – it's now people generally get into the garden, apparently, Jon and Desmond had simply gone through the more complicated way, through the shop and the café, not realising there was easier – and completely free – way of getting in.

"Er," Desmond says when Jon gives him a flat look as they enter the inner courtyard of what looks like something out of a movie – all overgrown with vines, with open sky above surrounded by windows and doors. Desmond coughs awkwardly. "Oops? But in my defence, I've never been here either – and this place didn't actually look open – from the outside – oh, this looks kinda familiar…"

"Familiar – you just said that you'd never been here," Jon says.

"It just – there was this palazzo in the games, the Auditore palazzo, and it had an inner courtyard like this… aw, man, this is kinda nostalgic."

Jon looks around and then shakes his head. It is a very fine and very Italian-looking place, certainly – but he's been on his feet all day, and whatever powers the Beholding has given him, it has not cured many years of office work – which he did largely seated. "My feet are killing me," he mutters. "Can't we just figure out where the hotel actually is so that we can see if they have any room?"

"Er, Jon?" Desmond then says, his tone odd.

Jon glances at him, and Desmond nods ahead, across the open courtyard and towards what has to be the way to enter from the street outside. Jon can just see the church across the street past a metal gate, which likely set there to keep people from outright driving their cars into the courtyard and –

And then Jon sees it. The trefoil windows at each side of the doorway, the metal fence separating the courtyard from the street outside, and even the design on the fanlight of the old-fashioned arched doorway…

They're all absolutely covered in spirals.

Chapter Text

The fact that Atellani Apartments have a vacancy should probably be a concern. The place is old and connected to a major historical site, in a walking distance of the church in which the Last Supper is – the fee might be over 100 euros per night, but still, it's in a major tourist location, connected to a beautiful garden… it would have been booked for months, of not years, in advance.

"Apparently they had a cancellation," Desmond says.

"I see," Jon says, dubiously. Inside the hotel is almost startlingly modern, considering the old-fashioned architecture it's nestled in – all smooth clean while walls and almost futuristically sharp-cornered furniture. It's not bad, of course, it's obviously a very luxurious and fine hotel with state of the art air-conditioning and speedy WiFi, but it still feels a bit like a whiplash, stepping out of one time into another.

There's only one bed, theirs being the smallest of the available apartments – it's king-sized, but still… just the one.

Which would be more concerning, if Desmond actually slept.

"Do you feel anything, see anything?" Jon asks while setting his bag down on the said bed.

"Mm. Yeah, I think I do – and if I were to make bets, I'd say that this place had a cellar," Desmond says while walking slowly around the room, checking the corners. "Nothing about spirals here."

"Thankfully – and I doubt this place would be as highly rated as it was if the guests staying here were getting infected by the Spiral," Jon muses and takes out a notebook in which he'd quickly scribbled the spiral design that marked the metalwork outside. It's not chaotic like he's used to – the spiral was… tamed into the shape of loose squares, their corners spiralling into each other. It had an effect on the onlooker, but nothing much greater than that of your usual optical illusions. A tamed spiral…

"What do you think is down there?" Jon asks, while trying to puzzle out the intended effect of the spiral design.

"Something that will explain why Leonardo tried to trap his own mind like that," Desmond hums. "Or else, something Leonardo was working on."

Jon blinks and then looks up. "You think he was trying to trap his own mind?"

"Well, it wasn't his body he wanted to preserve – nothing about the Flesh in there, right? Just the Spiral, the Web and the Eye. Sounds like a mental thing to me, with the Spiral," Desmond shrugs.

Jon blinks at him.. Why hadn't he thought of that? It's obvious, but – he hadn't even considered it. "Ah – the Flesh wasn't an entity back then, I don't think. It came about with industrialised meat farming."

"Oh. Still, it makes sense, right – the Eye to see, the Spiral to, I don't know, draw something in, that's what it does, right? And then the Web to trap it, and manipulate it," Desmond says and then makes a soft huh sound. "I wonder – do dreamcatchers work?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Dreamcatchers, you know – a hoop with a web in a spiral. With the – the non-logic of how this stuff works, you know, it almost sounds sensible that of course it would work. Do they?"

"I – have never tried," Jon admits, blinking. It does sound almost logical though, doesn't it. And if it does work, if it – it would definitely bear testing. Considering the amount of people he'd given nightmares to, intentionally or unintentionally… "You – you seem to have an innate grasp of how this works, Desmond."

"Eh, I'm just – used to bullshit," Desmond comments and gives him a look. "I mean, history is full of symbols people thought would protect them from all sort of nasty stuff, evil spirits and bad vibes and so on. Why would there be so many eye symbols in so many cultures, if they didn't work at least a little bit, you know?"

Jon stares at him, wondering why on earth does this sound like a revelation. He's seen people use symbols to protect themselves – Gerry had eyes tattooed on him to protect himself, and it obviously worked too, but… "Why – why do you think someone would tattoo eyes on their joints, following – following your logic of symbols providing protection?"

"Mm. Open or closed eyes?" Desmond asks.

"Open."

"I guess – to give them awareness? No, wait, on the joints?" Desmond asks and considers it. "Protection against being manipulated maybe? The Web is called the Mother of Puppets too, right? Puppet strings go on the joints, so, if you put eyes there, if you can see or sense, or at least fake seeing or sensing through those eyes, then – then it's probably protection against being puppeteered, against being manipulated. Or at least, if you are being manipulated, then at least you'd know?"

Something someone like Gerard Keay would certainly be interested in.

"That sounds handy," Desmond muses.

"Yes," Jon agrees faintly. "It rather does. What about – about –" what was it, there's another thing. "A – a lighter, with a web design?"

"Like yours?"

Jon swallows and nods.

"Hmm… fire is Desolation, right?" Desmond muses.

"Yes, I think so."

"So manipulation and destruction. Er…" Desmond looks at him. "What – what do you use your lighter for, Jon?"

"I – used to smoke…?" Jon admits hesitantly. "I don't anymore, but…"

"Um. Manipulation and self-destruction, then," Desmond says slowly. "Gotta say, Jon, that doesn't imply anything good."

"... It doesn't, does it," Jon says and then shakes his head. "But – but it's just a lighter, it – it doesn't actually have any power over me. Never mind that – about that basement –"

"Jon –"

"Tonight, do you think? We'll go looking for it tonight, when most of the staff has gone home and the guests are asleep," Jon says and stands up. "I'll – I think I will have a shower, if you don't mind. I smell like a train, I bet."

"Hmm," Desmond answers, giving Jon's bag a thoughtful look. "Sure. I'll see if I can snoop around a bit in the meanwhile, see if I can find a way to get below the Palazzo."

"Don't – don't go too far. I don't want Elias to find me while I'm having a shower. Or at all, actually."

"I won't."


 

In the end, the way into the cellar is fairly easy. Desmond cloaks them in thin mist and they slip past the sleepy receptionist, though the staff quarters and then into the cellar. It's largely reserved for wines and other things that require cool storage, but not a full-on refrigeration – the problem is that in the cellar… is a dead end.

"I can see it. Just on the other side of this wall, there's – there's more," Desmond mutters restlessly as he paces next to the wall. "But this…"

Jon examines the wall at a distance, trying to see if he can pick out any kind of – of doorlike shape, but… there's nothing there. The wall is completely smooth, painted white and kept carefully clean by the staff. There's no obvious way through it – no gaps or secret staircases, no trapdoors, and the wall feels like solid concrete. There's no way to hack through it with anything less than powertools.

"It's through here, I know it is," Desmond says, sounding almost frustrated. "But I can't see anything."

Jon hums in agreement. "What we need is a door," he muses. "I… have an idea. Desmond, did you bring that sketch?"

"Yeah, I got it with me –" Desmond takes it out and holds it out to Jon, who considers it at length. For a da Vinci drawing it's not very intricate, is it, the archway in the garden was much more complicated, and it was just an archway. The sketch looks like a perspective practice, really – an open doorway without a door, set in a corner of a room with a low ceiling, and inside the doorway there's a corridor…

It's a little strange though. The corridor inside is much better drawn than the doorway, as is the corner in which the door is set. The corridor looks completely three-dimensional and realistic enough that it's like someone could walk right in, but the doorway is… despite the intricate pattern around it, it's flat. Completely flat.

"It's a drawing…" Jon says.

"I'm sorry?" Desmond asks.

"It's – is a drawing," Jon repeats and looks up. "You wouldn't happen to have a marker on you?"

Desmond doesn't, but he finds one easy enough in the lobby, much to the consternation of the night shift worker, who… forgets all about it, immediately after. Between Jon and Desmond, they figure out the exact spot the door is meant to go on, and then, with markers in hand, they begin to copy the drawing onto the wall.

"If this works, you can colour me impressed," Desmond says, while quickly sketching out the spirals and webs and cracks.

"If this works, I am going to be very concerned about what else you can draw into existence," Jon says, grunting as he tries to reach the upper part of the door. Desmond takes over for him in the highest parts while Jon works on the bottom half of the door, and between them the door starts taking shape.

A good half an hour had passed by the time they're finished. The real life copy they made is not as detailed as the one in the sketch, and their longer lines are nowhere near straight, but Jon can't help but think that it's a… decent enough replication. Problem is… nothing happens.

The drawing remains just a drawing they randomly made on a cellar wall.

"Well," Jon says, embarrassed. "This will make things fun for the hotel staff member that comes here next."

"It was a good idea," Desmond says, consoling, as he eyes the drawing. "It feels like it should've worked – it makes sense. In a weird sort of way, maybe, but it makes sense."

"Well, it's not working, and short of asking an avatar of the Spiral to help us, I don't know what else to do," Jon admits with a sigh.

Desmond gives him a curious look. "You know an avatar of the Spiral?"

"Well – sort of. We call it a Distortion, it's – hard to say if she, it, whatever it is, is an avatar of just an… embodiment," Jon admits quietly. "It was forced to take a human shape during a ritual, it was – mixed in with a human, so. It's. Complicated. Currently it's going about in the face of Helen Richardson, she… she was a statement giver. Before it took her."

"Oh," Desmond says and is quiet for a moment. "Would she… help us?"

Jon blows out a breath. Probably. "I don't know how to call her," he admits. "I'm not sure I want to –"

"All you have to do is Ask, Archivist."

Shudder runs up Jon's back at the sound of that familiar, distorted voice. The door appears in the exact place neither he nor Desmond is looking at, and then it's like it was always there, and Helen is coming out like there's nothing unusual about any of it.

She's wholly unusual, though, just completely, all around unusual, with her… well, distortions.

"Though I didn't think you would ask for me under anything but the most dire circumstances, I suppose…" Helen murmurs, while Desmond takes out the knife he took from the Slaughter creature. "I suppose there's little more dire than this. Is it time then?"

"Helen," Jon grits out. "I didn't actually ask – how did you find me? Even Elias can't see me right now."

"Didn't the Unknowing teach you anything, Archivist? You can wrap yourself in as many layers of isolation as you want, there's always room for a little madness," Helen says and then strokes her cheek with a too long finger, with too many joints. "Hmm, actually, the Lonely only makes more room for the Spiral – it's the eternal amplifier. Everything gets worse when you're alone, doesn't it?"

Jon breathes in and out and then sends Desmond an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to call her here. Didn't even know I could."

"You can't and you didn't – I was looking for you, actually," Helen says. "Melanie asked if I knew where you were, and when I realised I didn't, I went looking."

"But you just said – wait, Melanie? What did you do with her –"

"None of that, Archivist. Melanie is fine – Melanie is a friend," Helen says, sharper. "And she asked after you, and here I find you, surrounded by the Spiral, with this…" she chuckles – it echoes, too sharp and for too long for the cramped cellar. "I was hoping for a change, for a chance… but isn't this a turn of events?"

Desmond leans back a little and after a moment puts the bloody knife away. "You know who I am?"

"I don't know who you are, I'm not sure I care – but I know what," Helen smiles with too wide lips, and too many teeth. "And the what is so much more fun. What do you want, then, Herald?"

"Herald?"

"Oh, not yet, then? How about – a Precursor? Oh, I know," Helen says, and smiles and smiles, and says, gleefully, "a Messiah!"

For the first time since Jon had known him, Desmond looks thoroughly alarmed. "Er, what – what are you talking about?" he asks. "How do you –"

"If you don't know yet, then I'm not going to tell you – it's going to be so much more fun that way, isn't it?" Helen says and laughs again. "All those plans, and now this – yes… But what was it you needed help with, Archivist?"

Jon and Desmond exchange uneasy looks, and Jon says, after a moment, "We need a door through that wall."

Helen looks at the drawing and then at them. "You have a door already," she says, amused.

Jon checks quickly, just in case – but no, the drawing is still just a drawing. "It doesn't work."

"Well, that's your own fault, isn't it – you drew it in the wrong place," Helen points out. "Aside from that, it seems perfectly functional."

Jon looks at the door, as does Desmond. "No, we drew it exactly like it was in the sketch –"

And then Desmond lets out a groan with that obvious I can't believe this tone. "It is the wrong way around," he says with a sigh when Jon turns to look at him. "Leonardo used to write backwards – why would his secret door be any different? It's drawn the wrong way around – it should be in the right corner, not the left."

"Oh," Jon says. "You mean – we have to draw that thing again?"

"Allow me," Helen says, reaching out her too big and too long hand, and distorting the door they'd drawn. It flows in spirals and curls over the wall, twisting and turning until Helen lays it flat again – and suddenly, there's a corridor.

"There, that's – hm," Helen says and tilts her head. "Ah, he's still in there. Persistent little devil, isn't he? Well," she hums. "If that's all, I'll be taking my leave. No use for me stirring up old dust."

"Wait – what did you mean – and what you said about Melanie –"

Helen waves her distorted hand, and then she's gone, and between one blink and the next so is her door. In her wake the cellar seems somehow much tighter, like it's suddenly smaller, the walls leaning in.

"So," Desmond says after a moment. "That's the Distortion."

"... Yes," Jon agrees wearily. "I really am sorry, I didn't –"

"She knows me – or at least seemed to know what I am," Desmond says and looks at him with real fear in his eyes. "That's – that's bad, right?"

Jon looks at him helplessly and then sighs. "Yeah, I – I fear it might be."

They're quiet for a moment, looking at each other with a steadily mounting feeling of doom before Jon clears his throat. "We should go in, before anyone upstairs has a reason to come down here and finds out we've expanded their facilities somewhat."

"Here's hoping we can un-expand them once we're done here," Desmond mutters and gives out a shudder. "Right. Right – let's go."

The air inside is musty and dry, and utterly, completely stale. Jon wonders for a moment if they should've gotten gas masks, maybe some sort of breathing apparatus, but – if a bit of old air can kill him at this point, he'd be very surprised. And Desmond doesn't even have lungs.

It's still unpleasant to breathe in the scent of time and old stonework. The inside is roughly hewn, the ceiling supported by wooden beams, and it's not a particularly pretty place, not the way you'd expect a secret hideout of Leonardo da Vinci to look like. Mostly it looks just practical.

It's dark, though, and after a moment Desmond takes out his phone to use it as a torch. The corridor narrows and the walls look almost like bare dirt or raw stone, and suddenly there's an oppressive feeling of everything being a little too close, too narrow, it's like – they shouldn't be able to breathe.

Desmond steps stall ahead of Jon, and he breathes out slowly. "It's a little tight in here," he comments with a strained chuckle. "Maybe we should –"

"I think – I think it's intentional. This place invokes the Buried – look at the walls," Jon says, feeling a little like he's being squeezed at all sides. "They – they look like they're natural stone, but someone made them like this. They're – trying to ward us off."

Desmond hesitates. "Are you sure?"

"No," Jon laughs. "But I keep seeing little spirals when I close my eyes, so I think I might be right."

"... Okay," Desmond says and begins pushing through. "Okay – I'm going to, I'll –"

And then they come into the room – the main room or the only room, it's hard to say, but it's sizeable. The narrow passage to it – which, when Jon looks back, doesn't look that tight – connects to it at an upward angle, with five downward steps leading down to the floor. And upon the floor...

Jon's breath catches as he takes in what's there and the sheer enormity of the find crashes down on him.

There are bookshelves with books on them. A work table with sheafs of papers, even at a distance they are obviously something someone drew on. There are scrolls, some of them look like paper and others look like canvases. It's a treasure-trove of history, hitherto unseen works and writings of Leonardo da Vinci – all perfectly preserved in a carefully isolated chamber, exactly as people half a millennia ago left them. It's all dusty and dry and covered in spiderwebs, but…

In archeological, anthropological terms… it's a priceless find, perhaps the biggest of the decade. And no one would probably ever know, because the whole place is mired in the unpleasant, unearthly feel of the supernatural.

Desmond steps down first, reaching his phone flash around to take it all in. Jon quickly gets out his phone too, powering it on while following Desmond. There's still that smell of stale, still air – as Desmond walks through it, it stirs whirling spiral patterns in the dust.

Jon gets the phone torch on and then watches as Desmond carefully, slowly walks over to a stretched canvas lying face down flat on the floor, covered in dust and cobwebs. Even with the face hidden, Jon can tell it's been painted on – the edges are dark with old, cracking paint.

Desmond lifts the painting slowly and gently to the easel it had apparently fallen off from and shines the light on the face with his phone. On the painting there's a nude young man, soft and beautiful by any standards, with a riot of airy dark curls spread over bare shoulders. He appears to be sleeping stretched over a field of roses – they've grown over his hands and feet and are tightening over his limbs like shackles, their thorns digging in the pale, vulnerable flesh. The centres of the roses are spirals, and their stems are covered in spider webs.

"I think that's supposed to be Salaì," Desmond says, amused. "I think – I think it's a self-portrait."

"Vain guy, was he?" Jon asks, tilting his head, feeling strangely disturbed by the painting. There's something terribly wrong with it, something about the sky, the colour of the roses – how vividly red the blood on wounded ankles and wrists is...

"Something like vain definitely – you know, he painted a version of Mona Lisa named Monna Vanna, which was basically him as Mona Lisa, except she had her tits out."

Jon snorts. "Da Vinci must have loved that."

"He probably did," Desmond agrees, aiming the flash to the face of the man on the painting again. "Hang on – I swear I just saw –"

As they watch, the surface of the painting seems to ripple and twist, the spiralling centres of the roses turning as the rose thorns dig in deeper, and Jon – Jon thinks the painting might actually be bleeding.

And then the man on the painting begins to quietly cry.

Chapter Text

Statement of Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, also known as Salaì, deceased, regarding his Master, Leonardo da Vinci, and their various explorations of the supernatural – and his own… demise. Statement taken posthumously on March seve – March 18th, 2018. Recording by Jonathan Sims, the Archivist.

Statement begins.

I have known him since I was a boy. My maestro, Leonardo, I knew him, I've always known him. I was born into his household, or rather the household that would be his – Ludovico Sforza gave it to Leonardo, and us along with it, more or less. A vineyard, because Leonardo's father also made wine, and it was an incentive for Leonardo to stay and actually finish the works he started. My father worked the vineyard and made his wine while Leonardo let himself be distracted by this or that, whatever caught his fancy more often than his actual work.

I was fascinated with Leonardo, always, for as long as I could remember. He had such chaotic energy about him, like the world was a wonder, and he knew it, and every part of him strained to reach out and grasp it all – he couldn't settle on any one thing, he had to have it all. I remember him being always in motion, his hands never stopping, always working, always making something, sketching, figuring out. Even when that something he was figuring out happened to be a dead body, it was fascinating.

But I think I also resented it a little. He took interest in me early on, not because of skill or any curiosity of my own – which I thought I had in plenty, and skill I could learn but… no. He just liked the way I looked. Leonardo liked pretty things, and I was pretty indeed. It was my greatest value to him, I think, he delighted in it, in surrounding himself with pretty things. It made me act out, and I think he enjoyed that, too.

Leonardo was always sticking his fingers into new pies – learning things and making things, sometimes I'm not sure it even mattered to him what those things were, as long as they were new and interesting. Of course, he painted, and he sculpted, and he did other things, the things that brought the household money – but most of his time was spent in… other pursuits. His studies of bird wings, his flying machines, his anatomical lessons – there were too many to keep track of. As such, as I learned under his tutelage and painted what he was too busy or too bored to paint, I also learned to ignore certain things. He would be excited about something one day, and then the next he'd move onto something else, never quite settling, and… well, one gets bored of so many new revelations.

So I suppose – I'm not sure when the occult crept into his interest. Maybe it was always there, maybe – if I had to guess, it was in Florence when it started, 4 years before my birth. At least that's what he told me, that's when he met him, his beautiful killer. I didn't come into Leonardo's, ah, keeping? Until the year 90 – that is, 1490 in the year of our Lord. Leonardo was in Florence until 1480, after which he went to Venice, and if there is a place to get inundated with sorcery and magic and sin, it might be Venice, hah.

Either way, they were already old friends by the time I began my apprenticeship, and for all his faults and failings and thousands of little distractions, Leonardo was always good to keep us apprentices apart from his… less legal pursuits. Of course we knew, as masterful a liar Leonardo was, it was us who cleaned after him, washed his clothes and dishes and cleaned away the medicines and the bandages and the many bottles of wine they could put away between them on those dark nights when their guard slipped. We knew Leonardo had his… flings, of course. As we did, under his protection. We knew to keep our mouths shut.

But that man, that – he was different. We knew it. He was… something other than a mere sodomite Leonardo had become affectionate with. He was something beautiful and terrible. The others made their excuses and looked away and pretended not to know, but I knew, from the moment I met him, I knew he was a murderer and worse. There was always something wonderfully frightening about him, a sweet, tempting danger… like poison in the sweet wine, like a dark red rose, hiding all its thorns…

Yes, I admit, he was handsome as sin and I wouldn't have minded a tumble or dozen with the man myself. I was young then, I hadn't yet studied the sorts of things Leonardo probably already did at the time. For all that I think I sensed was the sorcery upon him, the unnaturalness of it, but I didn't have the words to describe it then. I dared not to go near, but Leonardo…

I think he sipped that wine more than once – and then some.

It was in Rome where Leonardo began – slipping. It was a year 1506, some sixteen years into my apprenticeship – I was even becoming something of a painter myself, though I knew long before that I would never attain Leonardo's mastery of the craft – or any of his various crafts. Leonardo had been, ahem, left behind by his previous patron, Cesare Borgia, and at loose ends he indulged in those pursuits that are wholly unsafe in the view of the Vatican. He sought out books, he worked on unnatural designs, he – met with his beautiful killer and his brotherhood, far too often, and with far too little care.

That, I think, is what brought the cult upon him – the Hermeticists. I – still don't know who they were, I don't know what they wanted. There was something of numbers and designs, it's all nonsense to me, but it obviously meant quite a deal to Leonardo, and to his beautiful killer. For three days they had Leonardo – and at the end of those three days, I do believe they all met gruesome, bloody ends at the hand of his dark beau.

Leonardo was different after that, and it wasn't just how they'd beat him or tortured him, though all of that was terrible to see. Something, some thin thread of trust he had remaining, some… feeble appreciation for the beauty of nature, it had come undone, frayed to the last thread. After that, I fear, he only… pretended to love the things he did before. His passion, his true passion was given over to those things he did in the dark. And I wish it was only sodomy.

There was some push and pull between him and the man that had brought him free from the clutches of the cult. I think that man, that glorious creature of murder, I think he even tried to keep Leonardo at arm's length, tried to… to stop him, to keep him at bay. Tried to save him. I saw them argue, I heard them speak of dark things, of blood and time and thousands of sacrifices made to write the Codex, whatever that is.

I sincerely think he tried to save Leonardo's soul.

And I think, equally, Leonardo had decided he had none to save. You could see it in his eyes, sometimes, how he looked at his own reflection, how he looked at us, how he looked at him. Like we were all… I don't know. So much paper? Doomed to die? Hm. Whatever it was, it robbed some of the joy of life from him. It was sad to see.

We moved away from Rome not much after that, but not before Leonardo acquired a number of books, before he started to make his sketches. I think he was still figuring it out, then – what it was that he wanted, what he was aiming for. It's a terribly elusive thing, isn't it, the thirst to understand and control such a power, but the inability to grasp its form, its function, its purpose…

We returned to Milan shortly after. It wasn't for long, a year only, after that he was called to France, and how could he possibly deny such a temptation. Everyone knows Paris is full of catacombs, full of secrets and magic, full of dark corners to learn terrible things in. But for a year we were here, and here he worked under the thinnest veil of doing anything other than… this…

This was his workspace, his true workspace, and he scarcely left it, between the years 1506 and 1507. Here he learned to harness the power of the Trickster, the thing which spins and twists and tempts you into madness. Leonardo always loved his codes and his puzzles, after all, and as close as he comes to having a Master among these terrible forces, it is the Trickster that he loved the best. After he mastered it, or at least learned to apply enough of it to make his notes confusing, it became my task to separate his notes and his work into two sections – the one that can be safely looked at, and the one that… cannot.

After that it was the Weaver, and of course it would be. I didn't realise it until years later, but that is the one his dark beau bows to, the trapper, the ensnarer – the manipulator. I know now, with years of hindsight, the terrible web that beautiful killer weaved across not only Rome, but all of Italy – perhaps all of the Mediterranean. He commanded so many, and so often to their deaths.

Then the Watcher, of course. Honestly, were it not for his codes and his lover, I would have said that the Watcher would be the first, for him. Vision was always so very important to Leonardo, his whole life and all his work depended on his ability to see. So you would think then, that the Watcher would find a suitable home in his heart. Yet, I believe, the Watcher was preoccupied elsewhere, and Leonardo got from them only a passing glance.

Those were the ones he utilised the most, courting them with gifts of his terror and by scaring others in their name, and drawing from them symbols to use in his work. Spirals to hide his learning, webs to contain them safely, and the eyes to keep a watch over them, and so many things – like a witch, Leonardo put together a spellbook of symbols drawn from the horrors, and then, with terrible understanding, he went to France… leaving me in charge of his household here. Leaving me behind.

I – admit, I spent my first couple of years drinking my way through his fine wine and doing little to no work. I indulged in my own vices, and back then they were far more earthly than Leonardo bothered with anymore, and I suppose I was… drowning my sorrow. I knew I had been left behind. He took Francesco with him, after all, and we weren't that far apart in looks and age, but… ah.

Such is life and the cruelty of the affections of a man who loves beauty almost as much as he hates boredom. And now, at twenty seven, I wasn't quite as young and pretty as I used to be, I suppose.

It was in 1509 that I ventured down into Leonardo's secret study. I – might have been drunk, I can't quite recall, and I might have been less kind with his work than I should have been. But, after two years apart and with nary a word from him since, I began to read through his notes, his work, those dread books he collected – or were gifted to him by that man. And I began to… see.

I learned of cults, I learned of powers, I even learned that the Vatican itself had attempted to harness them a time or two, and isn't that funny, that the seat of the holy of holiest turns to such dark pagan gods? I found it hilarious, and I read on and on, understanding little at first, but learning more and more… until eventually I found that I could not stop. That's the thing about this kind of knowledge, is it? Once it catches a hold of you, it will not let you go.

Unlike Leonardo though, I chose my master among those dark gods, and I chose well and I chose poorly. Like Leonardo, I learned of immortality, I learned of the Codex and I also learned of those poor souls tricked by Death to do his bidding – the grim reapers, doomed to wander the earth until someone tricks them in turn. Death, then, would be the best master, the strongest master – the one who could return to me my youth, my beauty, and ensure that I would never wither again.

I won't be ashamed of that choice, I can't – nor of my reasoning. I am what I am. And the thing is… I didn't do it for myself.

I know, look at me now, stuck in a painting, slowly drawing and squeezing all my pain and pleasure out of me until I will be nothing but a shrivelled husk for the flowers to consume like so much manure – still. It wasn't for me. It was for him, for Leonardo.

I loved him. By my God Death, I still do. It pulses within me with what remains of my heart, the only reason for it to keep on beating, to keep my blood flowing for the roses to drink up – I love him. I love him. I love him and I have always loved him, from that first moment I saw him amongst the grape vines, blood under his fingernails and sun in his hair as he grinned with all the apparent joy of life – I loved him then, and I love him now, and I hate him, too.

And I knew that Leonardo would never let death take him. Oh no, not Leonardo. He had far too much to learn. However he would manage it, I didn't know, I only knew a thousand ways he would not do it. He would not join Death as a trapped Reaper doomed to wither, he would not become a follower of the Destroyer, for he loved creation and pleasure too much. The Hunter would not take him, even if he called to it – he was never a fighter. Perhaps that dark lover of his would spin him into a web of the Weaver like spiders do with their meals, or perhaps…

No, none of that. However Leonardo would do it, it would be as close to perfect art as he could manage it – and Leonardo, he knew art. When he achieved immortality, it would be perfect.

And I loathed to be left behind almost as much as I loathed losing the beauty he so appreciated – as much as I loathed that beauty to begin with. Love, I find, is a rose with many thorns, so beautiful and so full of pain.

I began to work on my own method of immortality, worshipping my Lord Death and laying sacrifices at his feet – I shall not say what or whom, only that I daresay my Lord was pleased. Following Leonardo's techniques and his instructions, I weaved a web of my own. That, Leonardo always impressed upon his notes, was the key. The Weaver's web to hold, to contain – and the Trickster's spiral to draw in and confuse. With them working together and against each other, one might forever circle in the nets of the Weaver, but never reach the centre – it would hold, but not devour.

I made my plans, I plotted my method – but I could not solve the issue, which had troubled Leonardo also. The matter of the flesh. The Trickster might ensnare your mind, and the Weaver keep it – but your body would age, and die, and wither all the same. I considered building puppets to hold me, of waxen works of wood and metal, and maybe feathers in honour of Leonardo's flying machines – I would give myself wings and fly to him to display my newfound beauty… but it was never to be.

Years I worked at it, and in the end I could not figure a receptacle more perfect than that of a painting. So I weaved my spells upon it, watering my paints with my blood and painting with fear and ecstasy both. In the meanwhile, I also worked on the vineyard, I had some workers, even some apprentices of my own, but none too important. I drew upon the Strangler too, to hide the entrance to the workshop and to hide it from the outside world, for soon it would not only be Leonardo's secret legacy to me, but my holding place…

Then, in the year 1519… I heard he died. An old man, slipping away in his bed, surrounded by all manner of attendants and priests to give him his last rites, and I was… I was disappointed. I saw him in my mind's eye as he had been, golden and sun-kissed and full of life, but when Francesco came to me to give me my meagre part of our shared inheritance, he told me how… frail he was, how white his hair became, how fine. How his hands shook, how he could not hold a cup. He had attacks, towards the end, and in his final days he could only smile with a half of his face.

Francesco even brought me a sketch of him, and it was all I could do not to throw up at the sight of it. He withered away. Leonardo withered… and he died… and he did not rise again.

I think, by the end, Leonardo must have forgotten much of me, much of what I had seen. He left me with very little. The vineyard, which had been all but mine for ten years by then. Some paintings, the less popular ones. Sketches, a journal. Vast majority of his work he'd done in France went to Francesco, though Francesco would not say if any of it was… unusual. It was all so disappointing.

I drank like I had not in years, after Francesco left, and I did not work on my dread painting for years.

Not until he came to see me.

That beautiful killer of Leonardo's. God, even though he had grown old.... Grey in beard and hair, and yet, within his eyes burned that same tempting danger, beckoning me closer, drawing me in – lord, it was like he had only grown stronger over the years, like aging wine. We had only met briefly during Leonardo's damned kidnapping back in Rome, but he remembered me well – and he knew what I had been doing.

Spiders get everywhere – as do spies, and I suppose he has hundreds of both.

He told me that Leonardo had not faded away like I feared. He had not withered. Leonardo had ascended, and left behind what is only crude flesh, joining the Untold Sacrifice to the Forgotten, giving up his mind, his knowledge, his service… to the Codex.

I wish I had asked more, I wish I had demanded answers – I wish I could have. I drank his words like the poison they were, and I understood none of it but the temptation, the promise – the lie he told me. He offered me a chance, told me how I could join Leonardo, how we could stay immortal, forever young, forever beautiful and forever together. All I had to do was to make a sacrifice, and it would all be mine. And I believed him.

Leonardo might have been beloved of the Trickster, the natural liar… but the Weaver is so much worse still.

Under his guidance I destroyed Leonardo's darker work. I burned it, shredded them. All those spells, all those techniques, the tricks and wisdoms he'd mastered, the fine line Leonardo learned to balance upon – together with that damned human embodiment of the sweetest sourest sin, I destroyed it all. After all, what is a greater sacrifice than that of such special knowledge, only once to be discovered and never to be learned again?

I think now that Leonardo had discovered something very special, something… something the Brotherhood could not allow to exist.

I was promised that with this sacrifice all that I wanted the most would be mine. Now all that was left to do was for me to finish my painting, just as I had planned it, and then wait. Death would collect me when it did, perhaps by blade, perhaps by disease, it didn't matter – so as long as my painting was completed before that, I would never die.

I finished my painting not a year later, and then, with bated breath and my heart beating with dark, dark desire, I waited for my Lord Death to collect me and to take me back to my beloved. It took both longer than I would have liked, and… less time than I now think I deserved.

I died in a duel – at only forty four years, I died, and I thought it was the happiest moment of my life.

What a damned fool I was.

Of course nothing I was promised came to pass. There was no Leonardo, no happiness and no joy waiting for me – not even his dark beau was there to greet me. There was nothing, nothing at all… but the trap of my own making.

I can't tell you what death is like, I can't remember a thing about it. I only remember my mind being stretched and ground and moulded and turned to paint, poured into the crevices and creases of this canvas and trapped. I gave myself eyes, so I can see. I gave myself a mouth, so I can speak. And all that was only to realise what I had done to myself, to then spend years and years and years in dark and in pain.

No matter how I scream and cry, how I weep and writhe… I can't move, I can't breathe, I can't live. I can only lie, trapped in this torment of my own artistic making, and suffer my own stupidity. I feed my blood to the roses and my pain and fear to my God, and I swear I can still hear his chuckle when he left me, promising my salvation and condemning me to my doom. It was such a sweet, sweet poison…

Tell me… how do I look? Am I still beautiful?

Statement ends.

Chapter Text

Jon's hand wavers as he finishes writing down the statement. He hadn't thought to bring a recorder, and one hadn't conveniently appeared – it was like the Eurotunnel and the Slaughter creature all over again – so, writing it is. Though Salaì had given it all in Italian, Jon both heard and wrote it in English – which would make eventual recording of it easier… if he ever did record it. He isn't sure he would.

Desmond is sitting on the floor beside him, completely silent, completely still, staring at nothing with his face fixed in a hard expression, while above them on the painting, Salaì writhes in quiet, enduring pain, the thorns still biting into his flesh.

"There," the painting says, panting, voice like dripping wax in a cramped room, strange and inhuman. "My story, you're welcome to it, whatever it is you want it for. A neat gift you have, that, to compel one to speak. I wonder if it would've worked on that man, too – never said anything he did not mean to, he didn't."

"The one who – who inducted Leonardo into these matters?" Jon asks, his throat feeling dry. Something about the story, it had gotten to him in a way he can't explain. It wasn't only the nourishment, or the… drug of a statement given, of a story never heard, but there was something about it that had shaken him. He'd heard and taken and read statements of avatars and would be witches before, but this… this was different.

"The very one," Salaì snorts and throws his head back with a quiet whine. "By the God of the Underworld, wouldn't that have been satisfying, to watch words being dragged out from his lips, dripping out like so much blood – I would've enjoyed that."

"You – never mentioned his name," Jon comments. "What is it?"

The texture of the painting seems to shift and twist as the subject on it thinks, as he turns his head up to look at the dark, swirling sky above. "I don't –" he says, struggling and straining while the thorny vines tighten on him, one of them curling quietly over his neck. "I can't – it's – I can't –"

"Stop," Desmond speaks finally. "If – you won't be able to, I don't think. Not if – if it's who I think it is. If he had – magic, if he was really –" he stops and shakes his head. "It's okay, I think I know who it was."

Salaì laughs, choked and pained. "Oh, good for you."

Jon looks at the painting and then at his friend – who is looking a little pale. "Desmond," he says, slowly. "But, um – how?"

Desmond shakes his head. "I don't know," he says and runs a hand down his face, looking around. "I don't understand this at all, but I think it might've been Ezio."

Jon lowers the pen he's holding and then puts a cap on it. "Ezio – the main character of the… the trilogy? But he's fictional. How –"

Desmond swallows and then swings to his feet. "I don't know, Jon," he says, frustrated. "But it sounds just like him. Salaì, what did he look like?"

The painting groans. "Oh, don't make me –"

"He wore white, right? White hood. And maybe a red cape," Desmond says, stepping up to the painting. "You said he had a beard – did he have a scar, like this? Just like this?" Desmond motions to his face, where he has a scar, cutting through his lips. "You called him a killer – was he an assassin?"

On the painting the roses tighten, and Salaì lets out a breathless cry, looking at him. There's blood dripping down the canvas now, from the places where the roses dig in, dripping down over the texture of the paint, down to the floor. "Y-yes, yes, maybe? I think – Lord, he was handsome as sin – "

"Did he look like me, Salaì?"

Jon blinks at that and then stands up as well, shoving the pen into his pocket. "Desmond – what are you –?"

"Did he, Salaì? Take away the beard – did he look like me?"

Salaì lets out another cry. "A little! Please, mercy, the roses, they are strangling me – "

Looking closer, the vines aren't moving on their own, not exactly. There are strings, threads – little bits of spider silk, wrapping around every stem, and as they tighten, the stems move and curl and twist around the subject on the painting.

"Desmond, the painting will smother him if you force more out of him," Jon says and points. "Look, I think someone has put in – I don't know, a spell to keep him quiet." Already the roses are creeping over Salaì's bare chest, leaving welts on the soft skin as they go.

"Shit," Desmond mutters, lifting his hands as if to take the roses away and then dropping them, helpless. "Shit – why would Ezio do this to anyone? This is –"

Salaì laughs, breathless, grinning madly at them. "Don't give what little accomplishments are mine to him. This is my work," he says and arches his back. "Never even seen him paint, and I doubt he could be so skilled. I was the one who painted the webs in, with a thinnest, thinnest brush, made them flimsy little things – thought I was being clever, keeping them frail."

"But a web is still a web," Jon mutters. "And if – if Ezio was an avatar of it, of the, the Weaver…"

"Shit," Desmond mutters again, harder this time. "Why? Why would he – why – this is cruel."

More or less cruel than spreading the Lonely, than asking questions like Jon does and having them magically answered – or the darkness in the Eurotunnel? Jon shakes his head and then collects the statement. "If he served a dark power, then he too would've had to feed it," he says quietly and hands the statement to Desmond. "Same as we do. And if Salaì served the End…"

"… then he would've had to kill people?" Desmond mutters, accepting it quietly..

Salaì hisses. "They were no one, they were nothing," he says, dismissive. "No one missed them."

Desmond looks at him, his expression unreadable, and then takes the statement, slipping it into his pocket. "Right," he says. "Okay. Jesus Christ, I need a drink – now what? What are we going to do about all of this – about him?" he motions to the painting.

Jon clears his throat and looks at Salaì. "Well… we can burn your painting, that would probably release you," he says. "It's worked with other things trapped into… things like these."

The subject of the painting grimaces. "And ruin my good work? Don't you dare," Salaì snarls. "Almost five years I painted, and bled, and worked – aching though it is, I did it to live. I gave you my story – now you will do something for me. You will get me out of here."

Demanding guy, Jon thinks and runs a hand through his hair. "I guess I could take him to the Magnus Institute," he says, looking at Desmond. "He'd go to the artefact storage, of course, but I could have him hung up where he could talk to people and see things – and, if he knows anything of da Vinci's work –"

"No," Desmond says, shaking his head. "No, I – no, not the Magnus Institute. He – he still knows things, about…" he trails away, uncomfortable, and meets Jon's eyes. "I – I don't want to – I can't let that happen, not until I understand everything."

Jon's instinct is to argue – the Magnus Institute is one of the few places you could keep something like this painting without a risk of… of something terrible coming out of it. At the institute, the researchers could extract information from the painting without harming it's subject, they could learn from Salaì, figure things out. It's not like you could hang a moving painting in a normal museum.

"You," Salaì says, watching Desmond with dark, keen eyes. "Are you part of the Brotherhood?"

"I – think I am, yeah," Desmond says somewhat dubiously. "Somehow. I – I don't think it actually means what I think it means, though, I don't know much about it. Yet."

"Yet," the man grins, devilish and a little too wide. "Then I will go with you, and as you learn I will learn with you, and if the Codex is real, you will put me into it."

"Er –"

Salaì laughs and slumps back down on his bed of roses and thorns. "Yes – yes, that's what will happen. It's years and years too late – oh, so many years. But Leonardo will be there, and I will join him. Yes – yes!"

Desmond blinks at him, looking a little disturbed, and then looks at Jon, pointing at the painting. "Um, that's also why I don't think I can let you have him. If the Codex is real, whatever it is… I think… I think I am going to have to… protect it?"

"You – think," Jon says slowly. "You don't really sound very sure, Desmond."

"I'm really not – don't ask me, I don't know, but… yeah. I think," Desmond says and blows out a breath. "Sorry."

They stare at each other for a moment, and Jon isn't sure which one of them is more confused. They're both confused, really. "Well," Jon says finally. "He's going to be difficult to carry, that's not a small canvas, but… I guess… if you insist, we'll figure it out."

Salaì laughs again. "Take me off the stretcher," he says, his fingers gripping and tearing at the roses. "I will tell you how – and then you can roll up the canvas and carry me away like that. Simple."

Jon and Desmond look at the canvas, its paint old and hardened and likely to crack. "Maybe," Desmond agrees warily. "I wonder if there's a supernatural painting conservator."

Jon snorts and then thinks about it. "Actually, I think the Magnus Institute might know one," he says. "We do have other paintings with some supernatural effects and origins, several where people have attempted to capture things they'd seen and experienced, inadvertently giving their artworks supernatural effects, and while they're not anything at this level… they do need upkeep every now and then. I – suppose I could find out for you?"

Desmond's shoulders slump. "Thank you."

Jon pats his shoulder awkwardly and then, after casting a look at Salaì who's closed his eyes, looks away. "We should probably take a look around here. Even if Salaì destroyed Leonardo's more supernatural work… there might still be something here."

"Right," Desmond says. "Yeah, let's – do that."


 

The mood between them is still somewhat strange, when, four hours later, they stop to consider their findings. Salaì has at that point fallen asleep, or unconscious, or whatever it is paintings do when they're not awake. When he rests, it looks like his painting is completely normal – he doesn't breathe, the dark clouds above him don't move in the wind, the roses don't so much as rustle. It's completely, eerily still.

Among the works left in the workshop, there are some hints to the supernatural, every now and then – some notes, which Leonardo had coded with the use of the Spiral, and one… trap of a sort, made with the use of the Web, but mostly it's notes about art, or engineering, or architectural designs that are left in the place. While some of it reminds Jon a little of Robert Smirke's work, the shape of the sewer systems Leonardo had sketched out and the sort of passages he'd considered, they didn't utilise the Buried in the same way.

But the way the man combined influences, how he balanced their powers and used them in conjunction… there's very little about that anywhere.

"There have been cases of different powers working together," Jon muses, while they compile what little allusions to supernatural they've been able to find. "But usually that happens… naturally – as in, it just happens when the powers' influence leaks into our world. Very rarely can people intentionally marry the powers together. Though if there ever were powers that worked well together, the Spiral, the Eye and the Web… they would make a very powerful manipulative force, combined."

Desmond rubs at his forehead, staring at a sketch da Vinci had made, apparently – of a large box, simple and only marked by a symbol on top. "I think I need to go to Rome," he murmurs. "If it was Ezio, if this… if this is really happening and I haven't completely lost my mind, then it will be in Rome."

Jon swallows and nods. "What do you think it is?"

"I – in the game Altaïr wrote a Codex, it was about – about his life as an Assassin, about the things he learned and developed," Desmond says and blows out a breath. "And there was that letter from Al Mualim in your Archives – he mentioned in it his eagle. I sort of dismissed it at the time, because it's not possible, right, Altaïr never…" he trails away. "Shit, I don't get this at all. I thought I was just a – I thought it was just a game, that none of it… I don't understand."

Jon rubs his hands together – it's a little chilly in the workshop, and the burn mark aches. "There – was a mention of a… a book. On the wikipedia page of the first game – it mentioned that the director and the creative lead of the early games, he got the idea for the series from a book. And I think it might've been a Leitner – or like a Leitner, if not actually from Leitner's library, anyway."

"A… supernatural book about Assassins," Desmond clarifies. "You think it was the Codex?"

"Maybe," Jon agrees. "It was probably a book about this brotherhood, anyway. And if it was supernatural and enough of that influence was passed into the game, then… then it might explain… well, you."

Desmond is quiet for a moment, leaning his forehead onto his palm as he slumps over the old worktable in the da Vinci's and Salaì's workshop. "I think I should be terrified," he says thoughtfully.

Jon grimaces. "It's better to know than not, right?" he asks.

"Yeah, but…" Desmond hums. "I keep thinking – if, if this…" he trails away, making a face. "If it started with Altaïr, or… someone like him, and then continued all the way to Ezio's time, and if it kept on going – and then it, I don't know, culminated in me?" he shakes his head. "Why?"

Jon hums. "Maybe it wasn't meant to? Maybe you're not the end goal, but… a side effect?" he suggests.

"Yeah, that makes me feel loads better," Desmond snorts and then looks away with a weak laugh. "Actually wouldn't that be nice? To be just a side effect of a thing, and not… not something important. It'd be a relief."

He doesn't seem to think it's likely, though. Jon wishes he could think it was just some sort of self-important arrogance talking, but… it never is, is it. Even if the one choosing you was someone who didn't know what they were doing, someone who didn't mean to do it… Worse yet, this all seems fairly intentional, in a way.

"So, Rome next, with Salaì," Jon muses, rubbing at his forehead and staring idly up to the cobwebs in the corner of the room. He wonders for a moment if he should – step back now. There's something going on here, something… bigger than he thinks either of them know yet. It might even be a ritual of sorts, though considering that Desmond is somehow being distanced from the Lonely, and that other things are coming to influence him, the End, the Slaughter, the Web most obviously now… he doesn't know. It seems like something he ought to try and stop, but…

He rather likes Desmond. Is it selfish, to not want to learn more in order to avoid having to… to…

Jon's shoulders slump a little. He's teetering on the edge of a high again – Salaì's story had been amazingly nourishing, but also terribly cold and stomach-turning. Something about it was just off-putting, and Jon can't put a finger on why. He usually can, the other powers tend to give him different senses of nausea, but this is new. It doesn't feel like the uneasy, sticky manipulation of the Web either, it just feels… cold and vacant, like he'd bitten into something that looked incredibly delicious, only to find it full of stale air. He's still full – but unsettled.

"You look tired," Desmond comments.

"Mh," Jon agrees, though he's not sure if he's tired, drunk, or somewhere in between. "I'm fine. What are we going to do about… all of this?" he asks, motioning around them. "You know, if you took it all, found someone to evaluate and identify it and then sold it all on some black market art auction, this would make you rich."

"Isn't that an idea," Desmond hums, amused, looking around. "I don't exactly have a place to put it all. Probably better leave it here."

"Yeah," Jon says with a sigh. "You mind if I take something – as a memento? I mean, it's Leonardo da Vinci's secret occult workshop, so…"

Desmond grins. "Sure," he says and stands up. "In the meanwhile, lemme see what I can do for Salaì, get him wrapped up and transportable."

Salaì startles awake when he steps close to the painting, squirming amongst the roses. "Time to go then? Yes, yes, good," the painting all but moans. "Yes, take me…"

"… you're going to be a bucket of fun, aren't you?" Desmond sighs. "Why did you paint yourself naked, Salaì?"

"This is how I assumed I would spend a sweet, sweet eternity, why should I not show to my advantage?" Salaì asks and arches against the roses. "Why, don't you like it?"

"Ugh. How do I take you off the stretcher, then?"

Salaì hums, all but purring. "There are nails, just pry them off and the canvas will come loose. There should be a hammer here somewhere for that – oh, but do be gentle with me, it's been so very long."

Jon snorts at the faces Desmond makes as he goes. "Actually, I have a question," Jon says, looking at the painting. "You destroyed da Vinci's work – but you're still here. And you learned from his notes and such – do you still remember how his… magic was done? How he combined the influences?"

"Mm, maybe," Salaì says, suggestive, smiling and glowing and bleeding again on the canvas. "But such things have a cost, my scarred friend."

"Um, you're a painting," Jon points out. "I'm not sure there's anything I can give you that you could actually use."

"You have knowledge. What was it, you threatened to burn my masterpiece – and said it worked with other things trapped," Salaì says, sharp and curious. "You know others like me, don't you?"

"Oh, right – kind of. Not like you, though, they weren't trapped in a painting," Jon says. "Um, they were – it was a book of people, with their final moments written down on pages made of their own skin. When the pages were read, it summoned a version of the individual, a ghost of sorts, with the memories and knowledge of the original."

"The skin book," Salaì says. "It's still around, then? Of all the things…"

"Er – you know it?" Jon asks, with a sudden feeling of dread. "What do you know about it?" it comes out as a compulsion without his intention.

"Leonardo had it for a while – borrowed it, I should say, though how much of a permission he had for that I can't say," Salaì muses, shifting on the roses again, all but grinding against them. "It was a cause for the argument between him and that dark lover of his – who took it away, of course, much to Leonardo's consternation. He was even studying Sanskrit to be able to read it. I didn't know what it was at the time, of course, I wasn't yet informed about these things, it just sounded like another argument about a book – but Leonardo wrote about it in his journal, later, from where I learned of it after he died."

"Wait, a journal – Leonardo wrote a journal about all this stuff?" Desmond asks, coming back with a hammer. "Where is it now?"

"It was supposed to burn with the rest of it," Salaì says. "But he wasn't as sneaky as all that, that man. He took it. Held it like the most delicate treasure, too, as he took it away," he closes his eyes with a hum. "I think I hated him for that the most. That after all that time he still had the audacity to love Leonardo."

Jon and Desmond share a look. "Rome," Desmond says. "If it still exists, that's where it will be."

Jon nods. Returning to London would have to wait. "I don't suppose we could take a plane, this time?" Jon asks plaintively.

Desmond snorts and hefts the hammer, turning to Salaì's painting. On it the man looks up, bracing himself for it. "We'll see," Desmond says, and begins prying the nails off.

Chapter Text

Jon is starting to feel the pull of the Archives again. It's a mixture of more abstract concerns – why did Melanie ask Helen if she'd seen him, why are Peter and Elias so insistent on reminding him about Daisy, what Basira is doing, is Martin okay, what about – and then there is an underlying… longing for the place itself. It's almost like homesickness, how everything here, so far away, seems uncomfortable and how he misses the sounds coming outside his little office, the Knowledge of where everyone is in relation to himself, how he even misses the food in the cafeteria. In a strange way he even misses Elias, watching him.

With Desmond, it feels like he's drifting further and further out to an unknown ocean, and there's no sight of land anywhere. And the worst thing is that he is almost certain the whole thing, this whole journey, Desmond's existence, the past of Leonardo da Vinci, all of it… is a ritual of some kind. And yet he doesn't know for what. A ritual for the Web, perhaps? It doesn't seem likely – for one, you'd think there'd be more victims if that was it, almost all the rituals require sacrifices, and for two… the Web isn't interested in a ritual. It, as far as Jon is aware, prefers the world just as it is, messy and complicated and ripe for manipulation. The Web doesn't want things to change.

At least, not the current iteration of the Web.

And besides, Desmond doesn't seem like a lynchpin of a horror like that. The lynchpins, the embodiments of various powers, they are terrible existences in their own right, Desmond… isn't. Honestly, he barely even fits as an avatar for the Lonely. And he isn't, not anymore. The Lonely had a hold on him, sure, and it's still partially there, there's still more of the Lonely in Desmond than anything else – but there are other things there now, too. The Eye, the End, the Slaughter – now the Web.

All of it is so strange. It's something big, but it's also… so quiet. Whatever this is, Jon hadn't heard a whisper about it until Desmond came along. The Untold Sacrifice to the Forgotten… It's like bits and pieces of a puzzle, scattered and hidden, coming slowly together, and Jon… doesn't get it, at all. It's all a weird mixture of ancient and new, young and old, and he just… doesn't understand. He can feel himself not understand. The only comfort he has is that Desmond obviously doesn't either, but… that probably shouldn't be comforting at all.

He's starting to feel tired again.

"I think I'm coming down again," Jon murmurs, leaning his head back and swallowing around the taste of paint on his tongue. "First the head rush and then the crash…"

"Sorry," Desmond says, bouncing his knee and watching the plane around them for any sign of trouble. The painting of Salaì stands between his knees, covered and bound in cloth wrapping – Desmond doesn't dare let it out of his sight.

Jon hums, considering telling him it's not his fault… but it is. "It's… fine. I'm almost used to it," he says instead. And certainly, he shouldn't have much to complain about, really – since meeting Desmond he hasn't had the urge to find himself a… well, he hasn't needed to. Desmond has kept him content. He should be glad of it. Maybe he is.

But it's starting to pile up.

Beside him, Desmond watches him and sighs. "Yeah, not what I promised though, is it. Just thought we'd see some old sights, figure out what happened way back when and move on. Didn't know it would be –"

"Like digging in ruins and finding live electrical wires?" Jon muses, smiling.

Desmond snorts and turns to him. "Yeah. Sorry, I probably should've just… left it well enough alone. Or at least not dragged you into it. This has nothing to do with you."

Jon opens his eyes and looks at him. "No, I'm glad you did. Not glad for the headache it's all turning out to be, maybe," he admits. "But it's a – a kind of a holiday from my own problems. A horrible adventure holiday, perhaps, but still… a holiday." It almost feels sincere, when he says it out loud.

"Mmh," Desmond agrees, casting him a sideways look. "Right. Still."

"It's alright," Jon says and makes an attempt of clearing his head. Salaì's voice is bouncing in it, still dripping with weirdly sensuous suffering, and it's – yeah. "I am curious about where this all is going," Jon says. "And of the – the magic da Vinci devised, the blending of influences. There have been people who have tried to balance out the powers before, but the success was always kind of minimal, and it's always bad. Wonder how he managed it…"

"Hard work, genius and too much curiosity and persistence, is my bet," Desmond murmurs and sighs. "Christ, when you say it out loud, none of this makes sense. Or… it does. Which is somehow worse."

"Mmh, tends to be how it goes, the more sense it makes the worse it is, really," Jon agrees and looks out of the window. "Looks like we're coming up on Rome."

"Yeah. And guess where we're landing?" Desmond asks and cracks a crooked smile. "Leonardo da Vinci International Airport."

Jon smiles at that, and tries to feel invested, tries to – but he can't. It would be another trip through another city, he'd make another attempt at being interested in touristy things – Desmond would get him something classically Italian to eat, maybe, and maybe Jon would even enjoy it – and then they would have a bit of a treasure hunt. And it would, maybe, be enough to distract him for a while, make him forget the troubles back home…

But not the call of the Archives. He feels it stronger now than ever before – it wouldn't surprise him if it was something Elias had done, if he had discovered some way to make the urge stronger, driving the Eye to the brink of starvation, perhaps, in order to call his Archivist home… Hell, maybe there is a dial Elias has his finger on – or maybe it's Peter now, tightening that invisible leash that kept them all chained to the Institute, kept them from quitting, from leaving.

How long had his research trip been, the year before? Three weeks? Two? Maybe it was just one, and it felt longer for the yearning hunger that weakened him until he got his fill from statements, from the things Elias sent him. Desmond has kept him well fed, but…

It's been… a week.

Jon sighs. The very air in his lungs feels tiresome.

"What is it?" Desmond asks quietly.

"I – it's nothing," Jon says. "It's nothing – just slight restlessness. I'll walk it off once we land."

But the moment they do land, he Knows. He Knows that there is a plane headed to London just an hour from now, and they just had a cancellation because a woman found herself with a bout of food poisoning and had been admitted to a hospital. He Knows that a seat is waiting for him, and that it would be less than three hours after that, that he'd be back in the Archives, back home, where he Belongs. He Knows.

Leonardo da Vinci airport buzzes around them with activity, wide and spacious and full of people coming and going, and Jon Knows he wouldn't be stepping a foot outside it.

"Desmond," Jon says quietly, as Desmond gets Salaì's wrapped up painting through the security check up. "I'm… I'm sorry."

Desmond looks up, his expression unreadable. "What for?"

"I think…" Jon says and then sighs. "I think it's time I head back to London. I'm – sorry, I didn't – I wanted to come with you, I did, but – it's time."

The man doesn't understand. "Time – but why? Is it hunger– if you're hungry, I can get you something, I can find you a story," Desmond says quickly, picking up the painting and slinging it over his shoulder – much to the consternation of the subject, judging by the muffled noise of complaint. "Rome is a big city, there's gotta be a bunch. We'll get you something tonight – "

"No. I mean, there likely is more than enough here, and don't – don't worry about that. You've kept me well satisfied," Jon says with a feeble laugh. "But the Archives are calling me, and it's probably going to get worse from here on out, no matter how I resist. It will be a distraction, and so will I, to you – if something happens, I'll… be a distraction."

"You – just said you wanted to see how this ends," Desmond says, his voice going quiet. "I can cover for you, you know – I can keep you safe."

"Like you did in Lyon?" Jon says and shakes his head. "No, I'm sorry, never mind that – I know you can, it's not about that. There's a plane here with an open seat, and it's… it's convenient, if I go now."

Desmond looks down, shifting his footing and looking for all his height and power like a big sullen kid. "Right," he says and then clears his throat. "Did you at least get something out of this all? I mean – you seemed to be in a pretty messy headspace when we left – are you at least feeling… better now? Did this – " he motions at himself, "help?"

Jon pauses to consider that. "You know, I think it did," he agrees. "I could have done without all the horror, but – I do feel more… settled."

"Okay, that's good, I guess," Desmond says. "You're sure you – if it wasn't for the Archives," he says then. "Would you still…?"

"I was always going to go back eventually," Jon admits with a shrug. "I might be magically bound to the place more or less against my will, but… I do rather love my job, for all that's worth. And I like my co-workers, my friends – it's been difficult of late, yes, but… things are, sometimes. This helped, but I do want to go back and see how everyone is doing."

Desmond sighs, sounding a little disappointed, but he nods. "Okay then," he says. "If you're sure."

"I am," Jon agrees. "And thanks, for all of it. Even the messy parts – they did make some excellent statements."

Desmond snorts and pulls him into a hug. "You're a weird guy, Jon," he says while Jon freezes up. "But I'm glad you're not feeling so lonely anymore."

Jon sways into his hold and then hums, surprised. He really isn't, is he? He doesn't feel lonely anymore. There are people waiting for him, maybe not eagerly, and maybe they won't be over the moon to see him back, but they're still his friends, and for all the issues therein… he misses them again and he wants to see them again. Isn't that a lovely thing to realise?

"Yeah," Jon says against Desmond's chest and then hugs him back, gripping the back of his hoodie tightly. "You too. You don't feel Lonely anymore either. Which is, admittedly, a little concerning, but – still true."

"Yeah, let's not consider the troubling implications of it," Desmond snorts, giving him a tight squeeze before pulling away. "Right, um – you need money for the trip back? I – I have some to spare if you – "

"No, no, I think I will just use my card, draw some money from my actual account," Jon says, shaking his head. "They're going to figure out where I travelled from anyway, so it doesn't matter as much anymore. Actually, maybe I should pay you back before I go… I mean, you've been paying for all our hotels…"

"Nah, don't worry about it. Wasn't really my money anyway," Desmond says and considers him, Salaì's portrait hung over one shoulder. "Though there is something I'd like, if you don't mind. Consider it a memento."

"Hm?" Jon asks.

"That lighter you got."

Jon pauses at that, frowning. "The – lighter."

"Mmhm," Desmond agrees, watching him closely. "You don't smoke anymore, right? So you don't really need it. If you want to pay me back for all the hotel rooms and some excellent desserts… give me the lighter."

"Uh…"

Why the idea of parting with the lighter seems so difficult, Jon can't say, but it does. It isn't even a particularly important object for him – someone had simply mailed it to him, he has no sentiments attached to it. And yet it feels like something pulling away, something… like he is doing something wrong, just thinking about it.

Slowly, Jon finds the lighter in his bag, and for the first time wonders how he even got it through the security checks. The same way Desmond got his Slaughter's Knife? "Um," Jon says, staring at it. "I – I guess I don't really have a need for it. If – if you're sure it's what you want."

"I am," Desmond says firmly and holds out his hand. "Please."

Slowly, Jon places the lighter on his palm.

"Thank you," Desmond says and smiles.

"Right," Jon says, swallowing, staring at the thing on Desmond's hand. He's almost tempted to snatch it back, but… he grabs his bag instead. "I think I need to go, before I get too late to actually book the flight. It's been… it's been very interesting, Desmond. If you happen to come around to London…"

"I'll definitely stop by," Desmond promises. "Bye, Jon. Stay safe."

Jon smiles, and steps back. "You too, Desmond. You too."


 

He spends the whole flight back both regretting the decision to leave and feeling immensely relieved of how easy it was. It could have been harder. Desmond was – something inhuman and strange and evolving, which is likely something to be very concerned about, but he's not possessive. Not – anymore, anyway? Those subtle manipulations Jon knows he always regretted doing, he doesn't do them anymore.

He even took the window seat on the plane from Milan to Rome – where before he always kept himself between Jon and everyone else… keeping him separate.

The Lonely is a strange one – Jon should make a statement about it, or, no, not a statement. A study? An essay? God, he can't even remember the last time he did something properly academic, all his life is all about stories and horrors these days, but he used to actually try his hand in proper academic writing. He should get back on it, write down all his observations of, say, the Lonely, reference it back to all the statements he'd read and taken and spoken – and make a cohesive record, an analysis of the things he'd observed. He's observed quite a lot, after all.

He should make a paper about the Lonely. He'd always considered it the weakest of the Fourteen Great Fears. It isolated its victims, spent what could possibly pass for enormous amount of resources on breaking their will, and then those victims vanished, or died, or survived, and that… was it. The Lonely has such a small effect outside those cases. It doesn't spread and infect like the Corruption, it doesn't turn entire buildings into horror shows like the Flesh, it doesn't leave families torn asunder by replacing loved ones like the Stranger… it just takes one here, another there, and snatches them away. And it doesn't even feed on the misery of those left behind – no, that's fear and sadness for some other power to feed upon. The Lonely just wants individuals.

But that's… not it, precisely. Sure, the Lonely takes one here, another there, but it's more than a hunter of solitary targets. It's an amplifier. Every other fear uses it, collaborates with it. The Buried isolates its victims, as do the Vast and the Dark. The Lonely and the Eye are practically married in influence, that's how well they work together. The End, well… everyone dies alone, in the end. The Web – one can only imagine how lonely it must feel, to realise you've been manipulated for… however long the Web has had you. The Slaughter, the Desolation, both can enjoy solitary targets as much as they enjoy taking groups. There's always some bit of isolation there… the Corruption and the Flesh are perhaps least suited to work with the Lonely, but Jon can offhand name half a dozen victims of theirs who must've felt quite alone, in the end…

Which then brings up the question. Did Desmond really… fall into the clutches of the Lonely, or was it by design? The Lonely fed upon him, to be sure, Desmond's own statements tell that, but also gave him power. And it… hollowed him out, as much as you can hollow out a man who is already nothing but empty space. It filled him with all the potential Lonely can give. A fertile growth medium for other powers – and of course, the Eye was there from the start, keeping watch.

Rubbing a hand over his own eyes, Jon wonders why it didn't dawn on him before. Desmond's influence, maybe? Or, maybe… maybe something else.

What did Desmond call it again? Manipulation and Self-Destruction. One of the many things you can do with a source of light like a lighter, is blind your own night vision. Jon can still remember how Georgie used to rage about it, how in all the movies the people with torches held them in front of their own faces – not only blinding themselves but also ruining any night vision they had.

Maybe there is something to the marriage of influences and symbols. How much faith in magic features in it, Jon isn't sure – in a lot of cases of people performing rituals of unscientific nature, how little they understand the actual sciences behind the things they're doing seems to help. In the realm of gods, the faithful ignorant wield more power than the informed sceptics.

Wonder what that makes Gertrude, though. Follower of the Eye, who gave her own god seemingly no quarter, no respect, no love, and certainly not a shred of fear. She wasn't powerful in… magic, though. She was knowledgeable, shrewd, cold, calculated. Practically Machiavellian, really. Something Jon knows he can't be.

Jon thinks… he's done being a sceptic. He's seen too much for that, and it didn't really work in the beginning either, as much as he hoped it would. Maybe he could try for another approach now. A… Leap of Faith, even. Wouldn't that be something.

Jon opens his eyes as he feels Elias' Eye fall upon him. The plane is still sitting on the tarmac, so, Desmond must've left the airport, headed off to Rome, to find out what the Brotherhood had left for him to find – left for him to internalise

"Before you call the airport, or something," Jon says, and perversely enjoys the spike of familiar Loneliness as his seatmate realises he's talking to himself. "You can rest easy – I'm coming home."

Elias' gaze narrows at first, suspicious. Then it shifts, probably checking the flight crew, their computers, the airport, the flight plan, everything down to the nuts and bolts of the plane, before returning to him with the feel of smug satisfaction. Jon rolls his eyes and looks out of the window, drumming his fingers on his knees, wondering…

Considering his newfound healing abilities… could he get tattoos?

Chapter Text

"… winded around the arms and legs like worms, like snakes, but they weren't – they were cables, thin white cables, like – like ethernet cables, but living and moving, tightening their grip and dragging the people closer and closer to the thing in the back –"

There's a knock on the door, and Martin's flow stutters to a halt. It's – nice that whoever is behind the door doesn't just try to get in, like they used to. Back when he started as Peter's assistant, people would still just barge in, but… it's been long enough now, and he's burned almost enough bridges, for people to get the point. They don't come in unannounced anymore.

Martin swallows, closes his eyes, braces himself, and then shuffles the papers into an order where no one can at a glance tell what the statement he was reading was about. "Come in," he says, as steady as he can.

It's Melanie.

"Jon's back," she says. "Basira just brought him from the airport."

Oh. "Right," Martin says, swallowing. Peter hadn't told him that they'd managed to talk Jon over. Though, maybe they hadn't – the Archive dragged them all back in the end, no matter how they struggled. "Okay. Thank you for letting me know."

"You might want to actually take a look at him. He's – different," Melanie says, looking him up and down, barely hiding her disdain. Martin knows why, he knows – but it's not as if she has a leg to stand on, where it comes to –

He stops the thought there, guilty and uncomfortable. That's unworthy of him, even with the Lonely making him all – he shouldn't think that about her, knowing what she'd gone through. "Right – I'll… see him when I see him, I suppose."

Melanie blows out a breath, frustrated. For a moment it looks like she's about to go, fine, be that way, but she doesn't, lingering at the doorway. "I don't know what you're doing, and I don't care, but I've been around to know enough that you and Jon, you've got – something going on. And I'm – trying to be different, I'm trying to –" she stops and looks at him. "I think whatever Jon went out to do, it helped him get better. Hell, it might even help him grow, get out of the – the pit he's dug himself in. I think he's decided he's going to heal. And you're going to miss it."

Martin blinks, taken aback, as Melanie looks at him pointedly and then whirls around, and then she leaves, her part said, her point made. Therapy's doing her good, then – putting things into perspective, despite the fact that she hadn't been able to talk about anything supernatural with her therapist. It's, ah… it's a sort of point of view they could've used… before.

Martin isn't sure it can do much for them now.

The door shuts behind Melanie, and Martin leans back, alone in his office again, breathing in and out. He shouldn't. It would – strengthen the Lonely, if he didn't. Not knowing helps, not just to make his own growing connection stronger, but it would keep him from influencing Jon, too. Keep him from…

The Lonely is a toxic Entity, he knows that, it's more damaging on an emotional, mental level than the other Entities. Martin has a handle on it, he can manage it, but Jon's situation is precarious. There are too many uncertainties and threats in Jon's life, too many potential tipping points. He's already a bit too self-sacrificial for Martin's tastes. It would be so easy, too easy, to irreversibly damage his emotional state. Martin thinks he already might've, in the handful of awkward interactions they'd had since Jon came out of coma.

If Jon is getting better, well, that's all the more reason to not go see him.

"You should go see him."

Martin shudders, his shoulders drawing up. Peter is behind him, and the mist is leaking into the office. "I thought that was a bad idea," Martin says grimly, not looking.

"Well, that was before he went and did – whatever he did," Peter says. "Elias is oh so concerned about him now, about the influence he put himself under, and I have to admit, I am too. He's so fragile, our Archivist."

"Jon's not – " Martin starts and then stops. He just thought he was, didn't he? "Can you read my mind?"

"No, I'm afraid that's more Elias' forte, but I can read expressions with the best of them," Peter admits with that detached amusement, like whatever Martin thinks or feels doesn't ultimately matter at all. "He was with an avatar of the Lonely, you know."

"What?"

"The Archivist – the little trip he took, it was with another avatar of the Lonely. And as it looks to me, they got quite intimate."

Martin's blood runs cold.

He knows, intellectually he knows what Peter is doing. Another way of subtle emotional manipulation to make him feel more lonely – Martin knows what he's doing, and he's accepted it. It's part of the whole thing of joining the Lonely, he has to feel it and want it, yes, but he also has to suffer it. Jealousy is an isolating emotion too, and an ugly one according to Peter, but a useful one. It makes people do things they otherwise wouldn't.

He's trying to make Martin feel jealous of Jon, so that Martin will do whatever Peter and Elias want him to do, be it mire himself into more of the Lonely, or inadvertently manipulate Jon in some way. It's a trick, a rouse – maybe they want him to influence Jon with the Lonely, maybe they want to weaken Jon so that he's more susceptible to their manipulations. That's probably it. It's a trap.

And it's bloody working.

"Go on," Peter says, almost kindly, but it always comes out more patronising than anything. "A little glance won't hurt – you've missed him, I know you have. You've been worried."

Yeah, Martin thinks, whose fault is that? That damned phone call when Jon was in Lyon, of all places… and he was there with someone. With the other avatar? And now Jon is supposedly better, despite spending that time with an avatar of the Lonely…

"Go on," Peter says, and Martin stands up.

There's no point in resisting, is there? Peter would insist. So Martin would just – he'd just take a quick look and leave before Jon noticed. Yeah, that's – that's what he would do, just peek out and then go back in. Just a peek. Right.

"He's in the Archives," Peter advises him before disappearing, and with a muttered curse Martin reaches over to turn the recorder off.

Jon is indeed in the archives, and he isn't alone there. Basira is with him, and Melanie is hanging around the doorway, watching and listening as they talk.

"… and you're – alright?" Basira is asking, dubiously, and Martin can see why.

Jon doesn't look that different. Same messy greying hair, the shirt he wears is a little ill-fitting and all the scars are there. He stands different, though, his back straight in a way Martin hasn't seen it be in… in almost three years now, not since he just started as the Head Archivist. His head is held high. He's also moving about with a sort of purpose Martin hasn't seen in a while, peeking into boxes of case files, picking one here and another there seemingly at random, but with determination. Looking for something – and finding it, with his Sight.

"I'm fine – I had a holiday, and it was damn well needed too," Jon says, shaking his head. "I'll take a day or two to settle back in, catch up on what I missed, and then it will be business as usual."

Melanie snorts. "Like there is ever anything usual about this place," she says. "But you're – you? Right? No one wormed their way into your head, replaced you, or… anything."

Jon glances at her, and he looks almost amused in the glimpse of his expression Martin gets before he backs away out of sight. "I very well wouldn't be telling you if I was, would I?" Jon says. "But no, I don't think you can replace an Archivist that easily, no. And I – I think I rather got myself rid of some influences I was under, rather than the opposite."

"What does that mean – what influences?" Basira asks, instantly on alert.

"Hm. I think the Mother of Puppets was leading me on, a bit. The – the lighter, you know. It was a stronger artefact than I realised – I don't have it anymore, and my sight is… much clearer," Jon says.

"What happened to it, then? The lighter – where is it now, did you destroy it?"

"I gave it away."

"You – gave it away," Basira repeats. "Just like that?"

"Does that mean someone else is being jerked around by the Web?" Melanie asks, suspicious.

"Hm, I doubt it," Jon says. "It doesn't matter, either way – there's supposed to be a file here, where is it? Case 0010311, statement of Dean Jenkins concerning strange symbols in his notebook – where is it?"

"Maybe someone took it out."

"No, I don't think so, I can still – I think it's fallen off the box, could you help me move this so that I can have a look? There's so many statements in the way, I can't See through them…"

Martin backs away quietly, not sure what disturbs him about the interaction, or why it seems so alarming. He – he'd heard of the lighter, it'd been mentioned, and he'd seen Jon use it, and there had been a suspicion in the back of his mind, but… he hadn't realised it might hold that much influence on Jon, though… of course it would, if it was something that came from the Web. But beyond that… the little mentions…

Seeing through statements – or rather, not seeing through them. Jon's overall – confidence. He looks better too, better rested and less starved. You'd think that after a week outside, he'd be in a worse shape, but he isn't. Aside from the Scars, Martin isn't sure he'd seen Jon looking so healthy since… well, since the start. He doesn't feel lonely, either.

Something has changed. And unless something happened to bring Jon down to his knees again, it's going to keep on changing. There's – a purpose to Jon now, and it doesn't feel like the old obsession, paranoia and suspicion. This is something else, something stronger, something… something good. Jon is getting better.

And Martin suspects Melanie is right – he is going to miss it.


 

It's a few days until he sees Jon again. That's partially by design, and out of stubbornness. Peter keeps – pushing him. It goes against all their previous plots and plans, back when Peter had been telling him that isolation is the key. Now, now it's the opposite – Peter wants him to go and see Jon. He wants Martin to infect Jon with the Lonely, again. So, Martin does his damned best not to see Jon.

He does hear about him, though, through the door, in passing. Jon is on a research binge, looking into symbology, into totems, things like that.

"…a dreamcatcher," Martin hears Melanie say. "You know like one of those novelty décor ones, the ones that have like pink feathers and stuff. I almost punched him in the face, I mean – it's a web, right, a dreamcatcher? But then he went on and on about spirals and webs and how they work together and that I should just – try it. And I – you know how badly I sleep these days. So I was thinking, could I, maybe… at your place, tonight…?"

"Sure, if you'd like, I can watch you. But if it eats your brain, I am going to kill Jon," another woman's voice says – Martin doesn't know her. "I really am."

"That's valid," Melanie laughs, and then they're too far from Martin's door to hear.

And then there's Basira.

"I – I don't know about this, Jon. Feels a bit like – like inviting trouble."

"Suit yourself. I just thought it would – you know. Help. What with you looking into things and such – it's not actually, I didn't make any sacrifices or anything, I'm not that daft yet, but… birds of prey, they're… I think it's a stable symbology," Jon explains.

"I don't understand."

"People have been worshipping these powers for thousands of years, and there are certain types of symbols that crop up again and again," Jon says. "Birds of prey are a big one. I think something about them strikes a balance between the Vast, the Eye and the Hunt – might be why a lot of early hunting societies used symbols like that."

"… or it could be that they just saw a bird snatch up a rabbit they were hunting and decided the bird was cool," Basira says flatly.

"I – suppose there's that too," Jon agrees. "Anyway, I just thought, you know… it couldn't hurt to try and take advantage of the things that are trying to take advantage of us. Might as well get something useful out of all of this nonsense."

"Hm. And you didn't do any – rituals on this? No sacrifices, no chanting, nothing?"

"Nope, I just saw it in a store and thought of you."

"Well. I can't say the idea of using them in return doesn't sound kind of satisfying," Basira admits and hums. "Alright. I guess I'll see if it does anything. Thanks, Jon."

"You're welcome, Basira."

"If it turns me into something, though, I am coming after you first."

"Fair enough."

Martin feels a little like he's shrinking, listening to it. Jon is – it's obvious he'd figured something out, he'd settled into his role as the person who Knows things, it seems. It sounds like it's doing good for him too, and Martin is sincerely glad for him, it sounds like just the thing Jon needs, something he has actually some control over…

But Jon doesn't know about the Extinction and the things that might be coming. He doesn't know about what Peter is planning – not that Martin knows much about it either, but it's there, and… and Jon doesn't know. It's almost sad, in a way. Jon's gotten stronger and more confident, and he's so oblivious to the things going on behind the scenes. Martin isn't sure if he's glad for him for it, or if he's just kind of bitter that he's the only one with this weight on him.

And then there is Peter, telling him, "Just go talk to him. You can't tell him anything, obviously, we can't have that, but just – talk to him." Talk to him, maybe make him feel guilty for not getting Martin anything, make him feel isolated, swathe him in the Lonely and break his new confidence. And then, worst of all, Peter hums, almost mocking, "Why, I do believe he's forgotten everything about poor Daisy… tut-tut… she must be so lonely down there…"

Martin wishes he could just sink through the chair and the floor, through the basement below and right into Smirke's tunnels. Whatever he is going to do, he is not going to go see Jon. He's not. He's not. He's just going to stay in his office, keep his distance, let Jon keep his ignorance, and everything would be just fine.

… but even he needs food, still, and with the Lonely he keeps forgetting the small things – like that he's supposed to pack himself lunches. So, one day, finding himself without so much tea to keep his belly filled, Martin sighs and then sneaks out to go see if the cafeteria has anything he could grab and eat in his office.

And, of course, Jon is there, sitting by the window with a notebook in front of him and a statement sitting beside him as he sips tea and writes something down. There's a tape recorder there too, sitting like a pet on the corner of Jon's table, quietly recording.

Martin wants to turn away. He can go one day without food. He'd eat a big dinner once he's home. It would be fine.

Then Jon looks up and directly at him, and Martin – just… can't.

God, he's missed Jon. That look he gets, when he sees something unexpectedly delightful, and – and Martin has rarely had that look aimed at him, but Jon is looking at him like that, lifting his head, straightening his back, his expression of intense concentration clearing, opening – through the window the sun's rays hit him just so and he just looks… brighter.

Martin should walk away. He should.

He just barely manages not to walk over, turning instead to the counter to grab a cup of tea and a wrapped up sandwich. He'd have them ringed up, he'd go, he'd just get the food ringed up and then he'd would leave, he would have the woman behind the counter ring up his food and then he would turn around and not look at Jon and he would just walk away

"Martin," Jon calls over the cafeteria, and Martin feels his resolve break like a frayed rope on its last thread.

He walks over, awkward, lumbering, dragging his feet, and stands over the table. Jon looks up at him, god, he looks so happy to see him, it's unbearable. Then Jon moves aside the file, shifts the recorder, makes him room.

And Martin sits down.

"Hey," Jon says, smiling. "Been a while, huh?"

"Ah – yeah, I guess, it – has," Martin says. "Um – how, how was Lyon?"

"I didn't see much of it, actually," Jon admits. "It was nice, I suppose. Had a run-in with a Slaughter thing – a – never mind, you're eating," he says. "How have you been?"

"Good, good, I'm – good," Martin says, feeling increasingly awkward. Should've just walked away, stupid… well, at least it would make Peter happy. Probably. "I've never seen you work in the cafeteria before – what are you working on? You're not recording here, are you?"

"Ah, no, it just – turned itself on when you appeared," Jon muses, looking at the tape recorder. "It's been interesting, getting used to them again, the tape recorders."

"They – didn't follow you around while you were travelling?"

"They did sometimes – but mostly not," Jon admits. "I think it was something about Desmond that kept them away. Hm. Well, anyway – I'm working on figuring out my totem."

"Your totem?" Martin repeats. "What, like an animal totem?"

"More like an Entity totem? I suppose you could call it an anchor, too," Jon muses and folds his hands over the notebook. "I'm starting to think that avatars all either have one, or they can have one. Something that – represents them, and also limits them? Something that you can…" he trails away, making a face. "I don't know how to explain it."

Martin considers him silently. An anchor, huh? "So," he says. "Something that will be connected to you, to help you find your way back when you go into the coffin."

Jon blinks, surprised, and looks up. "Um."

Martin sighs. "It's what it's here for, right? It's why they brought it here, why Daisy was put in there – so that you can go into it, mess yourself up, and prove something to Elias. Right? Another trial of his, another bit of… preparation."

"Well… it's likely," Jon says and leans back. "But it's not like I can leave Daisy in there – and I think I know a way I can do it, I just need to figure something out."

"Your totem, right," Martin says. "You – really don't know what it is?"

Jon sighs. "I did consider a – small sacrifice. A finger, maybe," he says and makes a face. "But I am not a Flesh avatar, so it doesn't feel quite right."

Well, some things never change. Jon's still an idiot. He's more confident, stronger and maybe even more knowledgeable, but he's still a bit of an idiot. Martin shakes his head and reaches for the tape recorder, turning it off. While Jon watches him, Martin jiggles the tape out and shows it to him. "What does this look like to you, Jon?"

"Um, it's a – cassette tape?" Jon says, slowly.

Martin rolls his eyes and hands him the tape. "Two openings, the reel of knowledge that goes around them, and the more knowledge there is, the bigger the reel – that doesn't seem at all significant to you? How many tapes have you recorded, really – and how many tape recorders do you own? They just appear these days – and I don't think it's Elias doing it."

Jon takes the tape, staring at it. "Huh," he says. "I guess they do look like eyes. Why didn't I think of that?"

Because you're a dumbass. Martin shakes his head, feeling a surge of fondness for him. "Tape records, Jon," he says. "When you go down there, maybe… maybe put on some of your tapes."

"You're not going to stop me?" Jon asks.

"You're going to do it either way, aren't you?" Martin says with a sigh and stands up. He's already been here for too long, said too much – he needs to go. "Might as well try and make sure you survive."

"Hm. Thank you, Martin," Jon says, gripping the tape harder. "I'm, ah. Yeah, I'm going to go in. Not today, I've got something I need to do first, but… yeah, I'm going in tomorrow."

Martin swallows and picks up his tea and sandwich. "I gotta get back to work, um… Good luck, Jon."

With that said, he turns around and leaves Jon alone.

Chapter Text

There – there, yeah, seems like it's on now. Huh. Feels like – hmm. Yeah.

Uh, hi, Jon! It's Desmond – uh – obviously. Guess what I found? Well, I suppose if you ever get your hands on this thing, you'll know exactly what I found – it's a tape recorder. It – it wasn't left by you, mind you, and it didn't exactly appear from nowhere, I had to actually go out and look for one, ended up finding one in this cute little retro boutique, it was – well, never mind. Point is that I had to actually find one and pay for one, got a whole box of tapes and everything – no magically manifesting bits of old technology for me, I guess. I actually bought a Polaroid camera too – well, it's called an Instax, but apparently the film is easier to come by and – and anyway, I thought, you know, if your old-fashioned tapes can capture the supernatural, maybe old types of photography can too? I think I used to have a camera like that, or – or something similar – in the games. There were Polaroid type pictures anyway, and – and this has nothing to do with anything, right.

It's kinda funny. I used to make audio files in the games – made them for my, I guess fictional, dad, but I think they were more of a long-winded final message type of thing, not – not like what you do. Rambling audio journals, basically. So, um, I got a bit of experience with this, but not like that, so, forgive me if this all comes out completely nonsensical. God knows none of this makes sense.

Okay, where to begin. I guess at the airport? Not that there's much to say. You stayed, I left, headed off to Rome. I was – a little sad, I admit, so I figured I would take my time and clear my head a bit. See the old sighs, do the touristy thing you hate, get myself a fancy cup of coffee and some nice classically Italian snack, all the good things. Spent most of the day like that, checking places that were, you know, significant in the games. One of them took place in a somewhat shrunken down version of Rome, and the landmarks were roughly the same. Churches, ruins – and, damn, the Colosseum is so much bigger than I realised. Did a bit of parkour there in the game, but – the places in the game, they, they don't have the same… presence as things do in reality, you know? I don't know how to explain it right, but on this side you can just tell that things are pressing down on the earth with their bulk, that they have mass, that – that they aren't just static things. Everything is movable, on this side, everything has weight.

Sorry, this would be easier if I was making a statement, huh? It would all flow out in a sensible story form without distractions. Maybe I should try that, just pretend you're here and I'm making a statement, right? Right. Right – I'll try that. Um…

Statement of Desmond Miles given on March 21st, 2018. Statement begins…?

I knew from the start where I should go, where I would need to go. Tiber Island, that's where the Brotherhood under Ezio had its headquarters, that's where Ezio built his version of the Brotherhood, so, it seemed like the safe bet. I didn't go there right away though, I took my time. Not because I was worried or scared or anything, but because… I suppose it was because I was saving it. So sure it would be more or less the end of the journey, I savoured the hours before what I anticipated to be easy – well, not easy, but… well, the conclusion, anyway.

I got this tape recorder, the camera, bought a tube to carry Salaì's painting in a little better – also muffled his constant moaning somewhat, which was appreciated. Figured that once I found a place, I'd find a stretcher, hang him up, but for now it's much safer to carry him around all rolled up and muffled…  but who knows what will happen.

With my new camera and Salaì in a tube, I went around to every significant sight in Rome – significant to me, anyway. The Colosseum, which in the game had an entrance to a lair of the Followers of Romulus, nothing there. The Baths of Trajan, the same thing. Santa Maria in Aracoeli – a beautiful church with an incredible ceiling, but… just that. I even considered breaking into the Vatican, taking a look at the Sistine Chapel, but I figured it probably wouldn't get me anywhere. Better I didn't risk it.

Still, it was nice to see Rome again – and for the first time.

It was almost night by the time I finally circled around to Tiber Island. It wasn't at all what I was expecting, nothing at all like it was in the game, but I guess I should have expected that – as many similarities as there were between the historic sighs of the game and of the real world, there were differences, and why would Tiber Island be any different, really?

What surprised me the most was how flat it was. In the game the island was all ups and downs, platforms and stairs. In the real world version, it's pretty much all flat, with a piazza that wasn't in the game near the middle, and the southern tip is all flat pavement, all stonework right to the edge of the water. Apparently it's the site of an annual film festival and everything, they fill the area with chairs and bring in a screen and…

I learned my lessons from the vineyard and did a bit of research online before starting to poke around. Found some interesting things about the island's history – some things I think you'd find rather relevant.

You know, I don't think I actually told you, but I stole a tape from your Archives. I meant to give it back to you, but I forgot – it was back when your boss chased me out. It's uh, marked with a case number 9970509 – it's about a library in Alexandria, how a soldier on a sick leave stumbled on it back during World War II, I think, and got scared out by an old skeleton and a spooky monster. The lady taking the interview called it the Serpeneum of Alexandria – and speculated that the skeleton was from the order of Knights Hospitalier of St. John's – or I guess Hospitaller is the more English pronunciation.

Anyway. Tiber Island. It has an interesting history, a lot of temples, a lot of superstition. There is a story that some time around 500 BCE, the people of Rome overthrew a tyrant and cast his body into the Tiber river – or maybe it was a bunch of grain the guy owned, the stories vary – anyway, that's supposedly where the island came from. The river's silt built up over his body – or his grain – so thickly that it became an island. I can just imagine it being the derivation or an evolution of a much stranger truth, maybe of an avatar or a manifestation of some Entity being drowned, of the Buried consuming them slowly, building up more and more pressure over them… because that's – there's something below Tiber Island. Something… Dark.

I'm getting ahead of myself though. Another thing about Tiber Island is that it had a history of healing. One of the first and biggest temples on it was the temple of Asclepius, a Greek god of medicine. I don't know how relevant that is to what happened later, but it probably gave the Hospitallers something to work with. Here, let me just read this outloud…

...The island is still considered a place of healing, because a hospital, founded in 1584, was built on the island and is still operating. It is staffed by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God…

Quite the coincidence. Except I don't really believe in coincidences anymore. If it sounds like a connection, it probably is.

If Ezio ever had a hideout or headquarters for his version of Brotherhood on the island, I figured it would have been right where the hospital stands. In the games Ezio died in 1524, and if reality here follows the fiction, then the hospital was obviously built after his time… if he actually ever died. I – have my doubts. Someone had to stay behind to pull the strings, after all. 

God, it's still so weird to think he was real. Weirder still to think he still might be.

Anyway, I figured the hospital would be my target, where I would find whatever the Brotherhood left behind and get my answers. So I broke in – walked in, really. It wasn't difficult – the key to getting into any facility without being stopped is to walk in like you know what you're doing and you're there for a reason. I sweetened my disguise with some flowers, like I was there to see someone, and no one stopped me. Though I guess it helps that, once I was done passing them by, no one could actually recall seeing me. Benefits of being – whatever I am. It's handy... not that I can rely on that anymore. At least not right now.

I poked around in the hospital for a bit until I had the lay of the land, and then I went out looking for, you know, secret rooms, basements, some old section of the building that would lead me to the original sections, from where I could get to what remained of the old hideout, which I knew was there. Only – only the wasn't any.  The hospital had completely covered up all old structures with more modern architecture, with over four hundred years of repairs and rebuilding and whatnot. In the end, all there was for me to use was your regular old manhole cover and a dip into a sewer.

So that's where I went, with Salaì in tow, phone turned on for the torch. I had my camera out too, though I wasn't all that seriously looking to take pictures. It was mostly for fun, you know, in case I saw something spooky. Could be fun to see if I could take a picture of it.

I thought I'd come through to your usual modern sewer – but there wouldn't be much point in telling you this story if I had, would there?

In the game about Rome – called Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, conveniently enough – there was a system of fast travel that used the old Roman sewers of the city. They had to be bought and renovated and everything, of course, gotta have a game progression. I don't know why I didn't think that might be significant to my little investigation in the real world, but I obviously should have. It was clearly some ancient sewage I stumbled on.

It was also exactly the sort of sign I was looking for, all cobweb-covered and mysterious – hell, I even took a picture, it looked so inviting in that sense of more creepy things this way, come along and meet your doom kinda way. 

I'll take this moment to say that going in was stupid, I know, but by the time I got there I don't… I don't think I had any choice but go forward.

The deeper I went into the sewers, the… the less I could see. It was dark, obviously it was dark, it was pitch black, but it still seemed to somehow get even darker, like somehow there's darker darkness than the complete lack of light. I think you can guess why.

What did I learn down there? Absolutely nothing. I didn't find any hideouts, even with the Eagle Vision I didn't see through that darkness. It was so perfect, that it was like my phone's flashlight had to fight it and, yeah, the battery ran out pretty fast. Then the only way I could see was using the lighter I got from you, and that got me pretty much nowhere, the light didn't reach much past my nose. I – realised around then that I was completely lost, and figured I should head back, rethink this – maybe bring flares the next time.

So I turned around to try and find my way back, and then, of course, I stepped on something that I can swear wasn't there before. I tripped, and, yeah. I dropped the lighter. I heard it fall, and I knew it couldn't have gone far, but – I didn't find it again.

So. That wasn't good. I –

I know you, or your dread power of Beholding, anyway, I know you want the fear – that's what nourishes you, the fear these things evoke. I'm almost sorry, this is probably not going to be much of a meal, because – despite being lost in a pitch black tunnel without a light I… didn't feel afraid. I just – waited.

I – I'm not sure what for, hell, I'm not even sure what happened. I think I, maybe – I, I think something got me, though… there was something. It –

I was sitting there, on the floor of that ancient dark sewer, and I remember trying to think clearly, but I don't really remember not being able to think clearly? I just know that I was trying to – to gather myself. To figure out my next move, how I would get out of there now that – that I was done? Because I had to get out, and I was – I was stuck.

The Dark was all around me, and it was like it had a weight of its own – like the very lack of light gave the place a mass, and it was holding me still – I was stuck still in this lightless, lifeless place, and I couldn't even get up, the Dark was so heavy.

There was something in my hand, and I looked down on it. It's been hanging from my neck, and I don't remember taking it off – but it was in my hand, strap and all, like someone had placed it there.

You know what works pretty well against the Dark? Flash photography. You know what it doesn't work so well for? Keeping what little vision you have left in a place like that. Yeah, I pretty much blinded myself with that first flash, and then I was too busy cursing to even notice what there was to see. Which is whatever, really, because the flash just about burned it into my retinas.

Yeah. Even with that, it took me a while before I could actually make use of my newfound source of light. Lemme tell you, the next time I used that thing, I made damn sure I kept one eye closed against the flash – you know, how pirates did, one eye for the deck, one for the cabins below? Yeah, I did that. After the second flash I even pressed my hand on my left eye so that not a bit of the light could leak in and blind me in the darkness again.

I wonder, if I'd known, would I have taken better care, choosing the eye? In hindsight, it was such an obvious choice – I had the camera in my right, so, left hand went over the left eye. But, I'm ambidextrous, so it could've been one or the other really. The camera is right-handed, though, so, I guess that's what chose it for me. The general dominance of right-handedness.

Well, anyway. I could move, after that. It was suddenly… easier. The way I did move wasn't the best, but it was a way I could see, one intense burst of light at a time, piercing through the dark. And I think it hurt that place, using the camera on it. Something about the sudden flash, plus also I think the photography itself actually does something. Maybe it's because of the Eye? Recording medium, that's all Eye stuff, right? Maybe? I don't know. The darkness came back weaker every time, until by the ninth and final flash I could almost see in it – hell, I was even planning to come back, this time with more film

Heh. How the turntables. Hell, I still might go back down there. Probably will. Yeah, I will.

It could've been the camera, it probably helped… but ultimately, I think it let me go – because I'd made a sacrifice to it, and it… The Dark accepted it.

Anyway, by the time I'd wasted nine not exactly cheap pieces of instant film to navigate my way through that pitch black darkness, I was starting to feel both a little confident and kind of worried. I'd walked longer ways going back than I think I did when I stopped, and – I wasn't finding the hospital entrance. I didn't dare to really look, even with the covered eye, just in case – so it was a lot of groping around in the darkness, until, finally… a ladder.

By that time all I could see were starburst bright flashes right in front of my right eye, afterimage, you know, so I was pretty damn glad. I was actually getting a little worried it might do some damage – bright flashing light in that darkness… it did kind of hurt every time, brought tears to my eyes and everything. I mean, it's not beyond the realm of possibility, right? That kind of dark seeping in through your pupil and all the way to the back to the cones and rods, or whatever I got passing for them, and then flash, you flood them with light – I wouldn't have been surprised.

I was worried about the wrong eye, though. I hadn't shifted my hand from my left since I put it there, and I was still grasping it when I reached the ladder and –

Yeah.

The manhole cover led up to a side street – it was early morning by that time, light just seeping on from the still mostly dark sky. My right eye was still half blind from all the flashes but I could tell it was passing now that I wasn't flashing my retinas anymore. My left though…

I thought at first that I'd – pressed too hard? Or maybe some light had leaked in and I'd somehow ended up blinding myself again? I thought – I don't know what I thought. I knew. I – I knew.

I – went and found myself a taxi to ask about a hotel, figuring I needed a rest, if nothing else. Break to gather myself, rest my eyes, rethink what I saw and experienced and take some time to come up with an attack plan. More film, maybe another camera just in case – I wondered if it was just instant film or would old 35mm film cameras work too? I figured they might, so I was wondering if I should get one or just stick to the instax. I don't exactly have the means to develop film, but maybe I wouldn't need to, maybe I'd just use it as a – Dark deterrent?

Had a laugh over that one. I think it was just to cover my nerves. The taxi driver kept glancing at me through the rearview mirror, and I could tell he was looking at the eye. The eye that… still didn't even register the streetlights flashing by. He recommended a hotel to me, one that likely wouldn't be all booked and could take customers at a short notice, and I went by his recommendation. I could pretty much tell at that point that the Dark did something to me – I can feel it. I can feel more, again. And the hotel clerk didn't immediately forget I existed after I was done paying for the room. So that's – nice. No more sneaking through customs, though, which…

Fuck, I don't even have a passport…

Uh. Well… right.

It's been over six hours. My right eye is fine again, no more floating blobs of light, thankfully, everything works as it should… but the left one… yeah, it's…. yeah. I don't know exactly what happened, but I can… kind of theorise. In that dark place I darkened my eye – or maybe I trapped some of the darkness in there? I don't know. Something got in, and inadvertently or not, I kept it there for long enough – or, maybe by darkening my eye I gave it away

I – I don't know. The eye is still there, it's just…

It's gone white. Iris, pupil, all of it, just a faint ring of colour around the edge of the iris, and… yeah, I – I think I can assume at this point it's… it's not going to go away.

Yeah…

The way I got out of there, taking pictures. Well – I kept the pictures, of course, stuffing them in my pocket as I went. Most of them are boring, just pictures of dark narrow sewer passages. Two of them, though… two of them have something on them. I mean, they're blurry, what else can you expect from trying to photograph the supernatural, right? One, I think, is a – foot of someone just turning round the corner, walking away. The other…

The other I am damn sure is Ezio. I – I can't see his face, it's all blurry and smudged, and he's got his hood on, but I'd recognize those clothes anywhere, that armour, the cape, it's – god, it's… it looks just like him. Even stands like him. The inside of his cape is dark– and I think it's marked with a spiderweb pattern. Apparently Ezio is the original Spider-Man! Aha – haha – hhahh...

Fuck, my eye…

I'm – I'm going to go lie down a bit.


Careful, careful! I am a delicate flower, a beautiful masterpiece, a – be more careful, you brute, stop pulling like that – careful!

I could just shove you back in if you'd prefer, Salaì. Damn, I forgot how big the canvas is – um, I think I'm going to have to lie you down on the floor.

At least do me the decency of a bed! Wait, wait – there's a wrinkle, careful –

Ha, there. Ugh, you're all dusty, Salaì, that's disgusting.

Excuse me, I am in a pristine condition – look at my skin, how it glows, clean and pure and –

Bloodstained?

That is quite pretty too, I think – droplets like rubies. Hm. Now what was that whole thing with the Shadow then? What were you doing – what on Earth did you drag me into?

Er, it was some sewers? We're in Rome, by the way. Congratulations, Salaì, you have travelled the world for the first time in over four hundred years.

Hm. You'd think I would've gotten to enjoy it more, but no, you had to shove me into a tube. Tch. I assume you were investigating the remnants of the Brotherhood, since you went someplace dominated by the Shadow, then? I always figured the Brotherhood used that one quite liberally, all that… serving the light from the darkness nonsense.

… they really said that? They – never mind. Yeah, I was investigating a place where the Brotherhood used to have its headquarters, I still think there's something down there, but, uh… there's a lot… a lot of Shadow down there too. Did – did Leonardo do anything with the Dark, at all? He worked with a bunch of the Entities, right – was, was the Dark, the Shadow one of them?

Oh, no, never. Leonardo loved his vision too much to ever risk it like that – everything he did, everything he ever wanted to work with, depended on his ability to see. Those Who Sing the Night, if they don't just blind themselves, then they have other… issues with sight. Leonardo would never… oh. Oh-hoh! What have you done to yourself? Come closer, let me see…

Yeah… wait – Those Who Sing the Night, that's – that's like another group?

A small one, yes, at least in our part of the world. I heard and read about them more than I ever met them, really – I don't think they enjoyed our lovely sunny land that much. Too warm, too bright for their kind. I'm surprised you found one in Rome, of all places. And obviously you did! Look at your eye.

Yeah, laugh it up. It was in a tunnel, whatever it was. But, uh, Leonardo didn't – I mean, if he was worried about his vision, maybe he, you know… came up with –

What, a treatment for your sudden unfortunate ailment? Wouldn't that be a relief for you, would it? You went down there without light didn't you? It's really your own fault then – the Shadow is one of the oldest, they say, and it extorts a heavy toll just for a passing glance. Haha, no, no, I'm afraid I can't think of any cures currently, maybe later.

I – fine, what do you want?

Put me up against that window.

And flash everyone out there with your naked tooshie? No way. I'm in enough trouble without getting like… an indecency charge or something.

What do you care, you don't even like my, ah, tooshie. My, what a word… all the work I put in this painting, and you can barely look at me without grimacing even now with half a vision. Actually, I think I prefer it like this. Now I can blame your terrible taste on you being half blind.

Hey, I never said I didn't enjoy the painting. It is a very well done painting. It's the – writhing and bleeding and moaning I'm not a fan of.

My beautiful artistic torment doesn't please you? Ugh, what are you, a celibate?

Guess it's just not the kink for me, hmm… but. It probably is for a lot of other people, now that I think about it… Hey, Salaì, how would you like to be seen – and enjoyed by people all over the world?

… what are you talking about?

There's this new thing called the internet that lets people share all kinds of things with like-minded people just about everywhere on earth, and I just bet there's an avid audience out there for your… artistic torment. You could even end up famous, way more famous than if I pressed you up against a window facing a practically vacant side street in Rome.

Mmm, now isn't that a temptation. Though having you press me up against anything... Maybe you do have something of that man in you, after all. Yes, yes, let us do it.

Christ… Tell me about the Dark's toll first. Is there a way to – to reverse it?

Ugh, fine. There might be a way. But you're not going to like it – Leonardo certainly didn't.

Chapter Text

"You're different," Daisy says quietly from where she's standing, against the wall of the narrow office. She's stretching her legs, and every now and then Jon can hear a joint pop. "From the way you were before – before the Circus and the coma and everything."

"I – I suppose I am," Jon sighs, leaning back and away from the statement he'd been reading. It has a very brief mention of a symbol in it, a closed eye, which is likely why it caught his interest in the Archives, but it's not enough to make an audio recording of. "I have been trying to – to become more active in my… change, I suppose."

"You sure that's wise?" she asks, quietly. "Do you know where it might lead?"

"No, but I know there's no stopping it now – I'm too far along to go back," Jon admits. "If I am going to turn into a monster, and I'm afraid there's no getting around that, well… might as well choose what kind of monster I'm going to be. Beholding and us Archivists, we're always accused of only observing, only knowing things and doing nothing with that information, so… I'm trying to put my knowledge to better use. Such as it is."

"A sharing Archivist," Daisy comments, warily. Which makes sense, Jon supposes. She's trying her best to stop her own change, and Jon is going to do everything in his power to help her, but he hasn't yet figured out a – a counterbalance for the influence of the Hunt. The Lonely might be one, but after all the time she spent alone in the Buried…

"One would think that's what an Archive is for – to be learned from," Jon says and considers her. "This isn't meant to be a judgement of your decision, of course."

"No I know, I know," Daisy says and takes a few steps back and forth. "I almost wish I could do that, but – I don't like what the Hunt does to my priorities. I don't like how it makes me – how it makes certain things seem so simple when they aren't and shouldn't be. I don't want to – to be like that anymore."

"I understand," Jon says and turns back to the papers. "And I'm going to find something to help you with – distancing yourself from it."

"Some symbol, like that brooch you gave to Basira?"

"Something like that, yes, but to the opposite effect. She told you about it?"

"Mm. Showed to me too. Said she didn't know if it worked, but with it she needs less coffee when reading really dry statements."

Jon chuckles at that. "Good that is working for something, at least."

Daisy is quiet for a while, taking steps back and forward. "Why is your office so damned small?" she then asks. "There are bigger offices here – Basira has one that's three times this size – and you're the Head Archivist. Why is your office a closet?"

"Hmm? Oh – it's better for recording the statements. Bigger offices echo," Jon says. "I did have a proper office in the beginning, and I came to this one to record, but after a while I just stopped bothering to switch. Easier to just stay in one place – and it's closer to the archives anyway."

"Hm," Daisy answers. "Guess that makes sense."

Jon shuffles through the gathered statements to read through the snippets of information about this symbol or that, writing them down in his notebook before looking up. Someone is – ah.

There's a knock against the office door, and Jon calls, "Come in, Melanie."

"I'm almost used to that, but it's still creepy," Melanie mutters as she eases in with armful of files. "There's a package for you, Jon – hey, Daisy – everything okay? Where's Basira?"

"Busy," Daisy shrugs.

"Package?" Jon asks suspiciously. Last time someone delivered him anything it was the coffin of the Buried. "Big or small?" And why can't he see it?

"Small – here," Melanie says and picks through the files she's holding. It is small – a bubble wrap envelope. "Looks like it's from Rome, going by the post mark and – uh. It's got a – thing on top."

There's a symbol drawn on the envelope roughly with a thick black marker – a closed eye. Well.

"Isn't that the symbol of the – the Maxwell Rayner people?" Daisy asks warily. "The – the people's church something or other."

"The People's Church of the Divine Host, yes," Jon says, turning the envelope over. There's a matching symbol on the other side, and he can't see through it. "It's also the symbol of the Dark, I think. Oh, that's almost clever – I can't see inside."

Melanie and Daisy both go on alert at that. "Maybe don't open it," Melanie says.

"Do you have a scanner here, an x-ray, something to check packages before opening them?" Daisy asks, coming forward.

"It's fine, I know who it's from," Jon says, smiling. "I think using the symbol is to keep Elias from seeing inside."

While the others exchange looks, Jon takes out a letter opener and tears into the package. Inside there are three cassette tapes and a handful of… Polaroids? The top one of them sits face down on the stack with writing of I'm so sorry – he insisted done with a blue ballpoint pen on it.

It's a picture of Salaì's portrait.

"Wow, Jon," Melanie says, peering over his desk while putting the files she'd been carrying down on it. "Wow."

"What – no, no, it's a picture of a painting, Melanie, not a photograph of an actually living person. Not – not really, anyway," Jon says. The picture renders the painting so small that the details blend into each other, and it does look a little like it's been taken of a live human. "It's a Renaissance painting."

"A – supernatural one?" Daisy asks, leaning in to see.

"Oh yeah – he talks. And he's excessively vain, from what little I saw of him," Jon says, handing it over for them to examine while leaning back to look at the other photos. There's one taken of the St. Peter's Square in the Vatican with the writing of nothing here, but it's sure pretty on the white part under the photo, and another of the Colosseum with the writing of nicest place to sprain an ankle in, 10/10 would recommend. What on earth is Desmond doing?…

There's a picture of a dark sewer, a blurry – something in it. And then there's a picture of what looks like an emptied library. It only has two letters drawn on the white part. HQ.

"Hmm," Jon hums, starting at the HQ picture. There's lots of empty shelves there – but he can see some papers on the shelves, and there's a – a wanted poster, pinned to a wall beside the shelves. It looks rather familiar, from what little research to the games Jon had done. This would be the headquarters of Desmond's Brotherhood, then… which means...

"I…" Jon says, licking his lips and considering the tapes. They will be statements, he knows they are statements, and since they're Desmond's statements… they will be heady ones. "I think I need to go down into the tunnels to listen to these."

"Jon?" Daisy asks. "You – you sure that's safe?"

"Safer than Elias overseeing and hearing what's on them… Desmond hid them with the Dark for a reason," Jon says and stands up, gathering the tapes. "I won't go too far, just enough to obscure Elias' vision."

"Maybe we should come with you," Melanie says, while Daisy looks increasingly uncomfortable.

"Ah – no," Jon says. "Some of it might be – personal, I don't know. I've been in the tunnels before, I know my way around the nearest bits – I promise it will be fine."

"If this is you keeping secrets like before –" Melanie says dangerously. "I'd think by this point you'd know that's a bad idea."

Jon hesitates. Melanie is right, of course she's right. But… but Desmond is something else. He doesn't want to lie to them, but he also doesn't want to give away Desmond's secrets, they're not his to share. And the whole thing with the Brotherhood, it's… well it's the sort of thing that usually would have them all up in arms, isn't it?

"Desmond is working on things that – I don't think Elias or Peter Lukas would want me to learn," Jon admits. "Elias is watching me constantly, so I can't go into details without him learning about them too, but – it's powerful stuff. Stuff that I think might help us."

"Stuff like the symbology you've been using?" Melanie asks.

Jon nods. "There are many things about all of this that Elias kept from me, from everyone, spoon-feeding us snippets when it serves his cause – this is a chance for me to learn things that he's keeping from me. Things that will work against him."

Melanie's eyes sharpen. "Things like how to get free from the Archives?" she demands.

"I hope so. And if along the way I learn things like how to stop people from seeing nightmares about me, well…" Jon shrugs and looks at her. "The dreamcatcher was Desmond's idea, by the way – did, did it work?"

"Um – yes, actually. I – I don't think it's good to use always, it felt like it – like it took something away from my dreams," Melanie admits. "The first night I used it, I had a nightmare, but – it was taken away. I haven't had the same dream again, and the next couple of nights were peaceful, but, I don't know. I sleep better, but it just feels a bit weird, I guess. Like where the nightmare should be there's a hollow space now."

"I tried one too," Daisy admits. "It worked... but I didn't like it."

"Ah. I suppose it would be too easy if it was exactly what we wanted it to be," Jon says with a sigh. "I'm sorry, Melanie."

"No, I'm – it's good, and I still use it if I have a nightmare. But not always. I don't want it to take away my good dreams too," Melanie says and folds her arms. "You're figuring out other stuff like that, huh. Stuff like how to keep Elias from seeing things. That's – that's good."

Daisy tilts her head downward, considering the envelope. "Symbol of the Dark works against the Eye then?" She asks.

"Maybe – I don't know," Jon says, and lifts the envelope. "Maybe. Desmond definitely seems to hope so."

"... Do you think Elias would be blinded if his cell was covered in these?" Daisy asks, tapping the closed eye symbol.

They all look down at it

"Huh," Melanie says.

"I think it might take more than that," Jon says slowly. "Elias is powerful, really very powerful. I think it might take an avatar of the Dark to do it. But… maybe."

"Do we know any avatars of the Dark?" Melanie asks dubiously.

"They were all taken out in the raid on the Outer Bay Shipping facility," Daisy says. "Where the… thing, Maxwell Rayner, was killed. Basira made a statement about it, right? I remember her telling me, just before she quit."

"Yes – case number 0171102," Jon agrees. "Weren't three members of the church arrested?"

"Yeah, and they've never said a word since, from what I remember," Daisy says and thinks about it. "I recall one of them doing some sort of self-mutilation in their cell, though."

"What – biting through their tongue?" Melanie asks.

"No. Ripped out their eyes, I think."

"Eurgh," Melanie says with a shudder.

Jon blinks at that slowly, as something – something almost connects. Hmm. "Well, anyway, we can think about Elias' cell conditions later – I would really rather listen to these records now. Desmond sent them to me for a reason, and – I should listen to them right away."

They both look a little worried, and Melanie clears her throat. "This being the Desmond who isn't actually – real?" she clarifies.

"What?" Daisy asks, confused.

"Excuse me?" Jon asks, offended. "He's plenty real, what are you –"

"I mean – he's the guy who came out of a video game," Melanie says and looks at Daisy. "Before he got you out of the coffin, Jon went out on a little road trip, barely told anyone why or where – he just took off. Which, according to Martin, isn't anything new, but this time he didn't go alone – he went with a guy who's a character from a video game about assassins, who through some weird metaphysical paranormal bullshit just – got out of the game and decided to be a person."

"You listened to the statement?" Jon asks, surprised.

"Yes, Jon, I listened to the statements – I listened to all of them after we suddenly couldn't find you," Melanie says and rolls her eyes. "Historically, it's rarely a good thing when people around here just up and vanish. Did you guys have something to do with the Eurotunnel? We all figured that was paranormal."

"Ah – well. We were present, I – actually made a statement about it –" Jon stops and takes a breath. "Desmond is fine, he's – he's good, in a way few avatars are. I trust him."

"He's an avatar, then, this video game person?" Daisy asks quietly.

"He – he was very heavily mired in the Lonely, but it changed, he – it's complicated. Point is that I still trust him, and he sent me information I should be looking into," Jon says. "In private and out of Elias' field of view."

"It's he human?" Daisy asks, watching him closely.

"He's – no. No, obviously not, but he's becoming more like a human, I think," Jon says. "And honestly, I am in no place to judge his humanity – but he's good. He's decent. I swear, he's – he's on my side."

Daisy and Melanie are quietly watching him. "Okay," Daisy says then. "If you trust him, then… okay."

Melanie lets out a sigh. "Seems to me like a bad idea. What is he then, like a ghost? Or worse – some kind of AI that's gaining sentience? Seems like a bit of a bad thing, in context of what our lives are like."

"He's good, I swear," Jon says quietly, not sure what else he can say to convince her. "In the game his character gave his life to save humanity – that's got to count for something, at least."

She sighs again. "Fine, fine – go listen to his messages then. Come on, Daisy – they're serving lemon pie in the cafeteria. Let's go see if they still have any and do some internet research on these games while we're at it."

"Right," Daisy says and looks at Jon. "Take care. Be a shame if you got killed now."

"Yes – thank you, Daisy," Jon says feebly. "Hope you enjoy the pie?"

They leave, and he follows soon after, though heading in a different direction – heading for the Archives.

It had been some time since Jon had been in the tunnels. In truth, he had been somewhat avoiding them, for… all too many reasons, really. Not the least of which was the fact that Helen had apparently set up something of a permanent residence near the entrance to the Archives and was holding Jared Hopworth in one of her many doors. That was just… too many layers of trouble for him to deal with, and honestly, Jon had been rather glad that Melanie had somehow ended up the liaison, so to speak, between Helen and the Institute. Not that the Institute had so far done much with the connection. Jon has an uneasy feeling they're waiting on him.

He avoids the part Melanie had told him Helen was in, though, making his way further down along the winding passages, following old arrows until the feeling of Elias' finally fades and Jon feels himself completely alone.

"I really need to figure out a way to stop him from doing that," Jon mutters to himself, sighing. Gertrude had managed it somehow, going around being Elias' back. She'd managed to go as far as to hide finding and dealing with Leitner from Elias. She had some protection, some… maybe a symbol, maybe a deal with another avatar, or a manifestation, or maybe… hell, it could have been a book. Jon hadn't even thought of what she might've been doing to keep herself safe, partially because just the idea of taking steps to keep himself safe hadn't even occurred to him.

Scratching at his elbow with a ghostly sensation of itch that isn't really there, Jon looks around and then, with more concentration, looks around again. He doesn't have the trick down quite as well as Desmond does, he thinks, but there's something to be said about demanding useful information from his surroundings. Maybe in time, it might even develop into a version of the other's Eagle Vision.

No one there, no one watching. Good.

Jon sits down right there, in the middle of the corridor, and takes out a tape recorder, switching out his tape with Desmond's – the one marked Tape 1, and starts listening.


 

… so, you… you pour your soul into another person, that's…

Leonardo never quite did come to terms with whether people actually had souls or not. But he did admit we do have some essence that is the root of all this… nonsense. Though who knows what that essence is, Leonardo definitely didn't dare to make any definitive claims. Maybe it's our innate ability to believe, or our innate ability to fear, or something in between? Whatever the reason our great Dread Gods prefer to feed on humans, it has to do with that essence. Personally, I always thought it was just… self-delusion.

Um, okay, what – what does that have to do with my issue here? I mean, I am not going to pour my essence into anyone to take their bodies over, Christ… This essence stuff, it's not going to cure my eye, is it?

Depends on how you see it. How you use it, how you… choose to abuse it. Do you know about how the disciples of the Destroyer can draw out the suffering of men?

Um…

They can reduce people to wax. Just render people down like tallow, spin and boil and distill them, until what they have is a purified quintessence of suffering. Leonardo met one, in Paris, had some long heartfelt talks with her – the notes he made were horrifying. People are measurable in the quantity of their fear. Fear gives power as much as it takes – cross that border between wilful ignorance and revealing fear… then your fears begin manifesting in abilities.

Yes, I know how this whole avatar business works, more or less – what you fear eats you up and gives you power, I know. What does any of this have to do with my eye?

I am trying to explain, you are so impatient. You should learn from your predecessors – that dark man certainly knew how to draw out gratification.

Salaì…

Yes, yes, I am getting to it. Knowing that fear can give you power. Imagine a man – or it could be a woman, I suppose, or neither, doesn't really matter. Imagine a person who is deathly afraid of losing their sight. Just, petrified by the notion. Much like Leonardo. Imagine the care they take with their eyes, the dread they feel at every potential injury, imagine the awareness they have of every aspect of their vision. Then imagine slowly, painfully, torturously taking their eyes from them, making them feel and fear and dread every moment –

Uh… I'd really rather not…

Imagine how much fear would go into those eyes, imagine how much power would be contained in them? Perhaps such an eye would be powerful enough to combat the toll of the Dark. Who knows.

Oh god. And Leonardo – he came up with it?

He came up with the theory. Mostly because he theorised that if he, a man who feared losing his sight almost as much as he feared losing his mind, the beloved of the Trickster as he was… well. With the right amount of sacrifice and right amount of fear, if he could take his own eyes and transplant them to another body…

Christ…

I told you you wouldn't like it. Leonardo had many theories about eyes, vision, and the power we gave to our own corporeal form by fearing its failing. Never mind the power we give to those feeding off from those fears. Going by his notes, the last few years of his life he thought of nothing more than he thought of losing what he had – his life, his sight, his ability to think, his ability to work. Lost all of them, in the end, one by one.

Right… right. And he never used any of these – these… eye rituals?

Well, he wasn't Besighted, was he?

Um – what –

Beloved of the Watcher. That's what he called them, the Besighted. Anyway, by that point he'd figured out the – the thing – fuck, you know, the work of his dark lover. The damned thing I can't talk about.

The Codex and the, uh, the Unseen Sacrifice to the Forgotten?

That, yes. I figure Leonardo could have extended his life, even taken another body if he had wanted to. He wasn't as powerful as some – my, I think I had more power than he did, towards the end of my life. But he was so damned clever. He could have done it. But he chose the other thing, instead.

Hm. I guess he did.

And I am guessing you will not be doing anything to that eye, are you?

…I guess I'm not. Yeah, yeah, I'm not. I – no. Not… not like that.

Heh, I knew it. And I also know you're going to go down here again… aren't you?

… Phew, yeah, I am. This time with more film. And a big flashlight. And maybe – huh? When did –

What is it?

A recording device – it records sound. It's been recording us talk. Must've turned it on by accident. Aw, shoot, this is the tape I recorded the statement for Jon on, isn't it? Oh well, hi, Jon! Hope you're doing well, that London weather isn't bringing you down and all that. Um. I don't actually have much to say right now, so, uh… Bye, Jon!

What is film –?

Chapter Text

Leaning back Martin reaches for his tea cup, staring blankly at the computer screen. It's a long way from finished, his rather desperate attempt of cleaning up the mess of the Institute's… everything, really, but mostly it's general paperwork, meeting records, budgets, all that official nonsense you really should have in order when running an institution as big as theirs. They employ some fifty people on a good month, they have several standing agreements and contracts with various other institutions, schools, and whatnot, and… very little of it is all that well documented.

Which, considering that they're known for their extensive archives, is kind of laughable. You'd think someone would keep track of all the paperwork, but no, apparently not. Which… actually might explain why a lot of people do consider them something of a laughing stock. Go to the Magnus Institute, they take in everyone. Hah.

How the Institute had run so well for so long, considering the fact that the majority of the funding came from a guy who couldn't use computers, and it was then used and distributed by a man who also… couldn't use computers, Martin has no idea. It's kind of funny, in hindsight, to realise that Elias too was something of a technophobe, because seriously… what a mess. Elias could do the budget, at least, the man used numbers like scalpels, and every bit of the budget was stretched to its utmost limit… but then he had an assistant to type it out on computer and all that, and there were so many errors in that particular bit of translation work. Half of the time, Martin had to go over the actual physical accounting books to figure out what went where and why in their budgets.

At least, with Peter in charge, money wasn't really an issue anymore. If nothing else, Martin could always trust the man to throw money at any problems he presented him with.

For now, it looks like they'd get through the month all right. Everyone was paid, all the contracts had been adhered to, Martin had even soothed some ruffled feathers concerning Peter's many conveniently mis-scheduled business meetings. Starting next month, Martin was just going to start running them himself, and not even bother to tell Peter, since the guy really doesn't care. He'd meet with the library staff, hire a couple more researchers maybe, the department is starting to lag a little… they really needed a new manager…

There's a click, and Martin glances to the left. There's a tape recorder sitting on his desk, which he's certain wasn't there before. "Hey, again. What is it this time, then? Someone's going to barge into my office?" he asks the tape recorder. "Suppose I need a break anyway. Do you reckon I have the time to type out a email or two before –"

There's a knock on his door, so, that's a no, then. "Come in," he calls, setting his teacup down and wishing idly he had Jon's rumoured superpower of seeing through doors. Would make avoiding people so much easier.

It's Rosie behind the door, leaning in carefully, but not stepping inside. "Sorry to bother you – but we just got a strange parcel in the front – it was brought by a courier, of all things," she says. "I would've taken it to the archives, figured I'd let them sort it out as per usual, but, well – it's marked with all manner of danger labels, so… I thought I'd run it by you first?"

Martin sits up straighter. Parcel sent to the Magnus Institute, marked as dangerous, is rarely good news. "Where is it now?"

"Still in the front – it made it through the metal detector alright, though, but you never know with these things," Rosie says and motions him to follow. "Come along, Martin – I mean… if you please, Head Assistant."

Martin looks after her, feeling that all-familiar spike of regret, and then stands up with a sigh. Rosie had always been good to him, they'd been friends, she'd taught him a thing or two about the Archives, and – it's… regrettable that she too… yeah.

The parcel isn't very big, not even thirty centimetres at its longest side, but it is indeed marked with a lot of labels. Just about every warning label has been slapped on it, really – everything from chemical to toxic. The address label marks it as having been sent from Canada without a return address, which is almost more worrying than the assortment of labels. How the hell did it get through customs with all these warnings, and why would someone send them something with corrosive and toxic chemicals?

"Did you handle it at all?" Martin asks worriedly, glancing at Rosie.

"I did have to sign for it, and I weighed it," she admits. "And if you don't mind me saying, it didn't feel like it had any chemicals or anything like that in it."

Martin looks at her. What did she do – shake it? "What did it feel like then?"

"Well… like there's a book in there?" she admits, grimacing.

Ah. That's – something infinitely worse, then. "Right," Martin says. "I'll handle it."

He has no idea how to handle it. There are a couple of Leitners in the artefact storage, and this one would go there too, no doubt, but… None had come in during his time – not like this, anyway. What are you supposed to do with an unknown Leitner – is there a protocol? If there is, then Martin had definitely never found it in the Institute rulebook. Not that they had a rulebook. Just a really terrible employment contract, really…

He takes the package to his office. The recorder is gone, of course, and with a sigh Martin rummages through his pockets until he finds it and sets it down again. "There, better audio quality for you," he mutters and sets the package next to the recorder. "Right, so… the package is small, approximately – wait, I have a measuring tape here somewhere…"

It's 29 centimetres by 22 by 13, just about big enough for a small book. "The package looks new, as does the label, so – not something that was held in storage for a few decades before delivery. That's something, at least. Packaging tape looks new too… no return address, no sender's name, nothing. I – I think there's a bit of spiderweb on it, though, just near a bottom corner. That's not worrisome at all…"

Martin considers the package for a moment before glancing around to see if Peter would be popping up. Doesn't seem to be – though there does seem to be a brand new spiderweb on his office's ceiling corner. "Right. I guess I better open it," he mutters, glaring at the web before turning and finding a box cutter in his drawer.

There is, thankfully, a letter sitting on top of the book. Thank god – maybe it would explain what the thing was and what it did, and he wouldn't need to open it.

"Right," Martin mutters, glancing at the tape recorder, which is still rolling, before sighing and clearing his throat. Okay then. "Martin Blackwood, assistant to the head of the Magnus Institute, Peter Lukas, recording statement number 0182703, I guess. Statement of unknown origins, delivered to the Magnus Institute with a book, possibly of the Library of Jurgen Leitner. There is no attached date, but the letter is handwritten with ballpoint pen on modern stationary, so it is likely written within this year. Statement begins."

You had many questions, none of which I particularly feel like answering these days. Those years are behind me, as are my accomplishments – the game company was quite adamant on that, and the contracts I'm under keep me from saying much more than that. The further behind me I can leave them both, the better. Therefore… this package.

I would like to say that I found this book, or that I discovered it, but I know better now. It came to me when I wanted it the most – and needed it the least. That's how it goes with these things, isn't it? You want something not knowing that this is the thing you least need, and then you're screwed. Well, I think I wanted this book like I wanted to be a millionaire – I needed it as much as I needed the sun to turn black. Of course, back then I didn't know anything about… these sorts of things. All I cared about was making something new, something extraordinary. I was bored with my old work, and I wanted a… a fresh breath of air into my creative ventures.

I found it in a pile of books, my books. My old university books, which I had boxed up after graduating – I meant to throw them out, but there this thing was, right on top of a pile of much less interesting schoolbooks. I – I used to have a copy of the Alamut, and now that I think about it, maybe, somehow, by some weird… coincidence, the books got switched? Like this one took the place of that one – does that make sense? I couldn't find the copy of the Alamut, in either case, but I found this. Or it found me. And then it had me – and since then, it hasn't let me stop.

I read it for the first time right there and then, sitting on that box of books. Can't remember a thing about it, even now – I've read it probably a hundred times in these last fourteen years, and I can't remember a single word of what it is actually about. Assassins, maybe? Templars? Going by what happened after, it seems about right, but I can't… ever… remember it.

But after I read it for the first time, I had it, the idea for my next game, and it was just what I wanted, new and exciting, a whole new direction to take the work we'd put into our previous projects. For the next month or so I could barely sleep – if I wasn't sketching or working on concept ideas, I was rereading the book. I made my team read it, I made my lead animator read it – if they could remember it afterwards, I never asked, but we put it together somehow. The game concept. It was ambitious and exciting and different, it was going to follow historical events, not to the letter, but definitely taking more than inspiration from actual history… it was going to be great. And the studio obviously thought it too, since we got the green light.

We got to work immediately – I remember only about half of the process, all the design and code and work, the long hours we put into working out a whole new game engine, because the old one we had couldn't deal with the open world concept that well. The book was always there, always open on some section, and I remember how we went back and forth, checking passages, but – I can't remember why.

Eventually, the game was finished, the first instalment of Assassin's Creed. We launched it, and it was a success. And so we begun working on a sequel – though maybe that's a bit misleading. We were already working on it. It was going to be even Better.

Six years I slaved at the book and the games, going back and forth between it and my series, rewriting things I can't remember now, dreaming endlessly of the Holy Land or the Renaissance or Constantinople. Other people read it too, they had to, we had work to do, we needed the book, we needed to get it right.

I don't know who broke first, me or the producers. There was a fight, I – the plan, my plan, they wanted to make it different, they wanted to remove aspects of the Brotherhood, the – the world was getting stale, they said, I had to liven it up. The conflict was too static, the enemy too black and white, I had to diversify. They wanted to change the main character, he wasn't doing well with the target audience. They wanted to replace him with a nameless, voiceless first person PoV character. Like – like they could just do that, like they could just replace Desmond – like it didn't go against everything I was working towards –

There were six more games I had to make! I hadn't gotten to cover everything, it wasn't ready, he wasn't ready, there was so much more I had to – he had to learn these things, he had to –

Fuck. Sorry about that, it's – anxiety, obsessive disorder. Mania. Happens to the best of us.

I was fired – let go – I parted with the game company in 2010, all on good terms, naturally. I – took the book with me, of course. As if I could ever leave it. I haven't been… able to work on anything else since. I've been writing, or trying to, to get it all out. Assassin's Creed, the Continuation, I thought. Wouldn't that be great. All my contracts prohibit me from ever publishing it, of course, but it doesn't matter anyway. Every time I try to write it out, the story in my head, it – it comes out as game code. Not very good for publishing. Not many who can read between those lines, right?

I – know the book is bad for me. I've been to therapy, I've seen several experts, they call it as they see it – obsessive-compulsive... whatever. I know what it is, though. The book is cursed. It is a curse. I don't believe in the supernatural, but I believe in this book, and I believe it's alive. It wants to be rewritten – it needs to be rewritten. It needs to be written out. And I only got a part of it down. I've been trying to finish it, to give it away, I even tried burning the book, once. Nothing worked.

Then I got your email, Mr. Sims, and I knew – I could pass it on to you. It was time, finally. I don't know if it's because you're going to be my unlucky spiritual successor, or if you're going to be able to destroy the thing. You'd think I'd care more – and I do, I suppose, but – it's been fourteen years of scratching at that mountain, trying to reach the peak, and I'm sick of it, sick and tired of it.

So, you can have it. My advice to you? Don't go working for the same game company I did. If you can, try going indie instead. It's probably going to be much more stressful that way, but those contracts just aren't worth it. Either way, here's the book, you're welcome to it.

Maybe once you finish it, I can finally remember what it was really about.

"Statement ends," Martin says quietly and stares at the letter, wide-eyed. It was for Jon. Jon – had sent an email to someone with a Leitner, and they'd just… sent it to him. And it was about that guy, the one he'd gone travelling with, the video game guy. Desmond.

Shit.

Shit.

The recorder is still running, still sitting on the table beside the cardboard box, inside which waits the book. Damnit, Martin thinks and sets the letter down, his hand shaking a little.

"Ah, the book – it's – it has a dark red cover, leather. No title that I can see, no plaque. The only thing on the cover is a symbol, it looks like a stylised capital A, only without the dash in the middle. I – don't… want to touch it," Martin admits with a nervous laugh. "Knowing that it led some guy into – into fourteen years of obsessively reading and rewriting it? Yeah, I think I've got quite enough going for me right now, thank you all the same. I should…"

He should not take it to Jon.

But it was sent to Jon, and he obviously asked about it for a reason, and so what if that reason is because of his – his… whatever Desmond is to Jon. It's not really any of Martin's business, is it, what they have going on, he has no leg to stand on criticizing whatever company Jon keeps, and why and what he does for them… it has nothing to do with Martin, and if Jon found someone he likes or whatever, then more power to him, because he needs someone, he really does, and Martin can't be…

Except Jon was under the guy's influence. That's what Peter said, and Elias, that's why they got so worried and panicky when Jon just up and took off. Because he was falling under someone else's influence. And, game character or not, Desmond is an avatar of the Lonely… or something like it. Can artificial beings be avatars, do they have that – do they feel fear? How does that even work?

Is the guy even human? The – the person in the letter, the game developer, whoever he was, he spoke of it like, like the point was to make… something. Make Desmond, maybe? That could be bad – and if it was bad, then Jon needed to know. Right? Jon should be warned. Except… then Jon would know about the book. And see it. Maybe read it.

Martin closes his eyes and breathes in and out, slowly.

Then he glances at the corner of the room, where the spiderweb sits. "Why me, huh?" he asks. "You want me to keep this from Jon, is that it – is that why it just so happens to not have Jon's name on it, that's why it so happens that Rosie brought it to me and not to the Head Archivist? Or – or do you want me to keep this from Peter? Hm?"

No answer, of course not. The Institute is all but covered in cobwebs these days, so much so that Martin could swear the spiders are fighting each other for the territory. Not that you can ever see them, the spiders, but he's noticed – sometimes a spiderweb disappears just for another to take its place, and it's not because the cleaning staff got to them. They don't even bother to try and get rid of the cobwebs anymore, since it never does anything. They always come back. And Martin likes spiders, but come on...

All these webs, and the Web never talks.

"Figures," Martin mutters and collapses to sit behind his computer, staring listlessly at the spiderweb. Has anyone even noticed? After Elias had been taken away, the Web had stopped even trying to be subtle about it, spreading its influence over the Institute. Now this…

Now would be a good time for Peter to show up to tell him what to do, to patronisingly insinuate which way was his approved path, but of course… of course it doesn't happen. Martin's office remains quiet and lonely, with only the whirring of the tape keeping him company. The tape…

Which is connected to Jon… Not to Elias. To Jon.

Martin looks down at it and watches the tape idly spin inside the recorder, capturing the sound of his breathing. "Jon," he says. "Jon, if you can hear me, if you're listening to me… if that's you behind that thing, then – just…" he can't say it. Come here, Jon. The something here for you Jon. I want to talk to you about it Jon.

He can't get the words out through the stifling pressure on his throat, and in the end Martin just falls quiet, waiting, hoping for – for a sign. For something. Anything.

Nothing happens. The tape recorder rolls on, minutes ticking by until the magnetic tape runs out, and with a snap and a click it turns itself off, and Martin's office is plunged into silence.

Of course.

Chapter Text

Hi, Jon. Again. It's Desmond, though I guess you know that. Um.

It's been a few days since – since I went down to the tunnels. It's the 24th now, lovely day, sunny and warm, a bit windy, but nothing bad. Clear blue skies as far as the eye can see and all that. I've been outside all morning, actually – after taking a day or two to feel sorry for myself and get used to it, the – you know, the lack of stereoscopic vision and all that… I finally figured I wasn't going to get anywhere moping about in my hotel room, so I went out to take a walk – wondering to myself if I should get myself some spiffy sunglasses to, you know… hide it. I didn't, in the end. It's not like it's going to go anywhere, and I might as well get used to it.

People don't stare as much as you'd think, really. Some do, I guess a young guy with a busted eye, it's a little surprising… but people are overall pretty polite about stuff like that. Plus, not that many just stare at people's faces enough to notice stuff like that, I guess. Which is a bit of a pity actually – I think making people feel awkward would've made me feel better. Justified or… something. Which is dumb, I know, but – I lost an eye by being dumb, so what are you gonna do?

Found my way to the Colosseum eventually. Did I ever tell you I parkoured through the place in the game? Yeah, it was fun – and I figured since I got this thing going on I need to learn to live with, I should actually… train. Or something. Physiotherapy à la Assassin's Creed – find the tallest historical monument and climb it.

Dumb idea number... actually, let's not start keeping track, it'll just depress me. I didn't get arrested, at least, so that's probably good. I did sprain my ankle. Missed a ledge during a jump, because it's a bit hard to judge distances now, but – I think I'm getting a hang of it. And I didn't break anything, which I'm considering a victory.

I also got myself more instant film, batteries and a big old flashlight. Once the swelling of my ankle goes down a bit, I'll head back down there.

Also, I got enough stuff in me that my ankle actually swelled. Which, while painful and annoying and all that, well... It's kinda swell.

I'm becoming a real boy. Hehe.

I'll record more later – I think I'm going to try for a nap. Place your bets, Jon. Nightmares or no nightmares?


 

So it's – 3:46 in the morning, and that's a definite yes on the nightmares. Mmhm. I – well, since I'm already up and this is your thing, fears and nightmares and all that, l figure I'd tell you. Make it a meal and get it out there.

Right, uh… mmh.

Statement of Desmond Miles on March 25th, regarding a really really bad dream. Statement begins.

I have always been having bad dreams. I mean, I did in the game – all throughout it, ever since my first time in the Animus, I had bad dreams. I know that they were just another element of the story, a way to show the toll the whole Animus business was taking on my psyche and eventually justify the Bleeding Effect they used to teach me the abilities of my ancestors and all that… I don't think the nightmares were ever fully shown, just mentioned. The only dream they showed in the game was plot device to show the passing of the genetic torch, from Altaïr to his son, Sef, but…

I still remember the nightmares, and they were… bad. Bad enough that once I got to this side of reality and no longer had to sleep at all, I considered it a relief, at first. I guess I still do, but – I'm not sure I can go without sleep anymore.

I'm becoming more physical, I think. Still missing bits and pieces, but I'm developing into a more human shape on the inside, and human bodies need sleep. I'm glad of it, really, I am, but…

I really didn't miss the nightmares.

They're not always the same. Sometimes I dream of Altaïr, of him standing high, high on top of a city, on the tallest spire of the highest church – he jumps and he falls, and he falls forever and ever, and no matter which way he looks can't see the ground or the church or anything, just endless vast sky, and he falls and falls.

Or I dream of Ezio, feeling like he's tangled in a endless weave of a web that ruined his family and tried to control cities and republics, and no matter how many strands he breaks and severs there's always more, there's so many more, he only ends up tangled further and further, until finally he can't move, and the web holds him displayed like a statue.

I dream of Connor, he's hunting, silent and deadly, and the forest around him is deep and dark and all wrong. There's snarling of wild beasts, wolves and bears and worse things. He needs to bring deer back home, the village needs food, he needs to catch something – but when he finds a deer and readies his bow… the deer attacks him with fangs and claws, blood dripping from both.

Those are the nicer nightmares. I almost like those ones. There are worse ones, though.

The ones where Machiavelli stands over a body, with dark ink dripping from his black eyes. Where Mario sacrifices himself for Monteriggioni, ritually stabbing himself, and it does nothing. Where Claudia takes up a knife, her face vicious, dead bodies all around her as she looks around for more men to kill. La Volpe with blood in his teeth, snarling like a wild fox before Ezio has to put him down. Yusuf, all twists and spirals, his body broken as he twists into a corkscrew –

There's a – a lot of nightmares I can choose from. They never made sense to me, not before. Not sure they do now either.

Today's nightmare was – it was my own. I think that makes it worse, maybe, like it dug in deeper, sunk its claws into me worse than all the others.

You know how my games ended. There is a solar flare, the end of the world, and I have to sacrifice myself to stop it. And I did, and I died and – you know what happened then.

I dreamt of that.

I dreamt I chose the other thing – I walk away from the Eye, and the Lonely doesn't wake me, and I leave the Grand Temple, and I go outside to watch how the world ends.

Slaughter and Desolation take it first, while those doomed to survive Behold. Everything burns and everything dies in the worst of agony, their skin boiling if they're outside, their blood if they're in.

The Buried and the Vast follow. The earth shakes and the oceans roll and roil, while ships sink and planes fall, and everything that could ever reach for the sky comes crashing down.

Darkness follows them. The sky is covered in ash so thick it blocks out the sun for a whole generation, as the Lonely survivors suffer and fear Strangers. During the many years of starvation, some give in to the hunger for Flesh and turn on each other. They Hunt for what little remains that's alive and they devour it.

Corruption begins picking out the survivors, one by one, disease by disease. The few that remain lose what civilisation and sanity they had left, and the Spiral luls them all into madness. It's almost soothing, before the End comes and collects what's left.

And then there is just me, watching, waiting. Nothing moves. There's nothing left to move. Even the wind has died.

I turn around in that darkness, in that ash, and I go back to the Grand Temple. I punch my hands through the Eye.

And – then I woke up.

Yeah.


 

Right, so. Hi, Jon. I'm getting ready to go back down into the tunnels. Got my weapons of choice – flashlight, camera with plenty of extra film, all the good things. Also got my knife, just in case. Anything – anything to add, Salaì, before I roll you up? He's coming with me, by the way.

Yes, I am, and yes, I do. You should bring fire.

Fire, what, like an… actual torch?

Destroyer and the Shadow rarely go well together. Might help you, down there – though of course you already paid the toll, so who knows, maybe you don't need to do anything – maybe the Shadow will let you pass.

I already got the camera – even put a symbol for the Eye on it. I think it will do the trick better.

Suit yourself. Now, roll me up and be gentle this time – the tube is so very tight. I wouldn't want to get stuck in such a narrow little thing.

Why is that everything you say comes out sounding like – you know what, I am not humouring you. Jon, I'll bring the recorder with, but don't your hopes up – I'm no reporter, it'll probably be just a lot of silence.


 

I – ah. Well, I'm in the tunnels – hi, Jon, sorry. I – fuck.

The Dark, it – it let me pass. I'm sure it did – it – it opened up in front of me like, like a curtain, it just opened up. I – followed the path it revealed for me, through all the cobwebs and everything. All the way to… here. I haven't taken Salaì out yet, I want to – to go through this place myself, first, without his commentary.

I'll take some pictures, but I guess I can just describe it too. I think it's a library – or maybe someone's study. It's – weird, the architecture down here, it doesn't make sense. There are doorways that lead into brick walls and stairs that just sink into the ground – like this place is only half-rendered or something. The only room here is this room, and – and it feels like it was, I don't know… left behind? Like everything else here just picked up their bags and left, but they forgot to take this room with them. I know that doesn't make much sense, but that's just how it looks and feels.

There's not much here, um. Some bookshelves, a desk and a chest – which is empty, I checked, no treasure for me, sadly. There are some papers here, but nothing really important – one old wanted poster of Ezio, which I am damn well keeping and framing if I ever get a place of my own. It looks just like in the game, how nostalgic is that? Wonder how it survived this long...

There's one thing – I haven't looked into it yet, I – I guess I wanted to record my own reaction for myself as much as for you. You know, first impressions matter, right? So, uh.

It's a – box. Wood with a leather cover, dark red – on top there's a silver emblem of the Brotherhood, you know the one, our symbolic A. I think it's for the bottom of the eagle skull? It makes that exact impression if you press the bottom of an eagle skull on something – anyway. The box.

I know what it is. I – I remember it, just barely. I think it was made for Altaïr, to store the pages of the Codex originally. At least that box and this one look a lot like each other. The Codex wasn't bound in a book form, it was all loose pages, so it had to be kept in a box. I think Ezio wrote his Codex on loose pages too, his Prophet's Codex. They both wrote it in parchment, in heavy leathery pages. Actually maybe it was the same one… I...

I guess I should open it. Heh. Wonder why I'm nervous. I – my hand is all sweaty, this is ridiculous.

I'm going to open it. Right…

Oh. Um.

Well, that's kind of disappointing, there's just one page here. Not much text on it either. Hm…

Huh. I don't… hm…

Right, I – guess I'll read it out loud?

To those that Follow and to those that See and Seek, a Warning and a Welcome.

The Brotherhood had joined the Forgotten, and so it too shall be Forgotten. The Untold Sacrifice has moved beyond the Realm of Paper and Blood, as with the Aid of the Maestro we finally Master the Form with which to Render our prayers to power. Seek not our Graves, for we have given All of Ourselves to our task and Naught shall remain, not our Names, nor our Bodies, not our Fears. These we will lay at the altar of the Untold and the Unknown, and bequeath them to the Future, to await the day when the Numbers attain life, and we can bring our immortal unending Creation into existence.

Mourn us not. Follow us if you dare. Join the Untold Sacrifice at the Peril of Your Existence, and know that None can Remember, and None can Know. Only thus can we ever hope to succeed.

The Codex has been released into the Mentor's keeping, and we join our Predecessors gladly – and should You follow us on the Path of the Forgotten, we welcome You.

We work in the Shadows to serve the Light.

We are…

We were Assassins.

So, uh. That's – that's something. I don't know what that means, I…

What the fuck. What the actual honest to God fuck does that mean? When numbers attain life? Creation – Jesus. I – trying really hard to not take this personally, but – fuck.

I…

I'm going to bring Salaì out, see what he thinks.


 

So, um – don't know what happened there, I think the recorder had a little glitch or something. I listened back to the tape, and it was all distorted. Guess that's what you get from relying on old media like this, heh. Should work fine now, I hope – I'm taping this over the white noise – tested it before, and it seemed to work.

We're back to the hotel now, and Salaì is suntanning in the last bit of sun on the balcony floor. It's probably bad for the paint, but I'm beyond caring right now. He wants a little UV damage, that's his prerogative, and more power to him. After four hundred years in the darkness, I would want a little sun too.

He probably can't get a tan. Not that he would want to. Renaissance was all about that pale shut-in aesthetic.

Salaì wasn't of that much help down there, really. His theories were a lot like mine, actually, and the letter I found down there didn't really clarify anything, just… affirmed the confusion, I guess. Though I do have some theories, some – wild speculation… it's nothing I have any proof of.

I think – I think the Codex and the Untold Sacrifice to the Forgotten, I think they're the same thing. Salaì and Leonardo and all the stuff about – about rendering people into something, I think – I think the Brotherhood did that. To themselves. They did some kind of – of self-sacrifice thing. I – I think they became –

Did I ever tell you about the Calculations? I gotta have. They were this aspect of the games, this thing – right, so there were these Precursors, right, the super advanced pre-human civilisation prior to actual humans, yadda yadda. They had this thing they could do, how they would predict the future through math. The Calculations. I think – I think they might be…

No, no, that's stupid. But –

In the game I was once called the Cipher – like I was a key to a code, a way to decrypt something – like I'm – It made sense in the game context, where I was the one who had to turn on the switch, use the Eye, save the world, all that, but I – I thought it was just the game plot. Now, now I keep thinking back to it and…

You know – remember that thing – I found a paper, a sketch in your Archives, by Leonardo. I mentioned it, right? It had a passage on it that said… Everything can be rendered into numbers. I – I think – I think that must be it. That's –

But why? That's the thing I keep getting hung up on – why would they even do that? What's the impetus, why did they start and what's the Forgotten? Is that them or – or is it something else, something that came before them? Is it Altaïr and the Assassins of his time? Something even earlier than them? There's probably a lot of forgotten people out there, a lot of lost civilisations and whatnot, people we don't even know about, because they're, you know, forgotten – but why would the Brotherhood sacrifice themselves for some people who died and were forgotten, that doesn't make any sense

I think...

I think it's an Entity. The Forgotten. It's a dread power – but – but which one? Or – or is it the one that was around back then... but isn't anymore? The entities change, right – that's – that's what you said, the entities change, like the Flesh came about with factory farming of animals, right? So maybe the Forgotten was a great big Fear before, four hundred years ago, but, I don't know, colonialism discovered all the forgotten things and…?

I – I don't know. I got bits and pieces to this puzzle but I can't make sense of the picture. Why did they do the Sacrifice? Were they worshipping or serving this thing, this Forgotten, and knew it was about to go under or something, and the Untold Sacrifice was their way of keeping the Forgotten alive? Maybe? Obviously they didn't succeed, since the Forgotten is still very much the Forgotten one, but – but –

I –

Fuck

What I don't get is what do I have to do with this. Or the game – they're connected, right, they have to be, there's too many similarities. And, I mean, it sounds bit self serving, but… why am I here at all? Is it just a coincidence, did – did some game developer find a story about the Assassins before their Sacrifice, did they go about recreating it – is it all a big coincidence? Am I a mistake? Or am I here for a reason, is it by design, was it on purpose, did – did they make me, am I supposed to do something, learn something? Or am I just – just the key to unlock the Codex? And, fuck, what will happen if I do? Do I bring their Forgotten God back into existence or…?

Jesus. I'm trying not to think of it that way, trying not to put myself in the centre of this mess, but hell, it's kind of hard not to, because here I am, you know, a man made from a damn video game – I just – you gotta wonder how this all comes together, right? And who doesn't want to be the centre of a great big conspiracy theory?

I think I am having an existential breakdown, haha hah – it's a long time coming, right?

F-fuck…

I –

Oh boy, give me a moment, I need –

Hhhah…

… I'm – I'm heading out of Rome. I – I have to figure out a way to travel, can't pass through checks all invisible anymore, I'm too physical now, whatever the fuck that means, and I don't have any paper work. So that sucks. I figure I need to hop on a boat, all sneaky like, and smuggle myself across the Mediterranean. I – I need to go to Masyaf, see what, if anything, Altaïr left behind. Then Alexandria maybe, if – if it's even relevant at that point. I don't know when I can do recordings or anything the next time, and – uh, my phone, it – stopped working, I think? I don't know, but, uh –

I'll send this over before I go, along with the other tape – oh, and the one I stole from your Archives, sorry about that, I'll send that back too. Maybe I'll add some pictures – not all of them, I think I might need them, but… some of them. And, uh, I'll get in touch with you when I can.

I think right now I'm going to go lay down with Salaì, maybe finish this lovely panic attack I'm having. Yeah. That sounds like just the thing I need.

Talk to you later, Jon.

Safety and peace.

Chapter Text

"Well. Don't you look cheerful."

Elias looks up from the floor, to see Basira enter his cell. That alone is somewhat worrisome – usually they meet in an interrogation room, with all the mechanical eyes the Metropolitan Police deigns to spare for their meetings – and with the oldest, coldest chains to hold him with. For her to be in his cell…

"Detective," Elias says, lifting his head. "How wonderful to see you again. Do tell me, how are things at the Archives?"

"What, having trouble seeing in there?" Basira asks, glancing back as the cell door is closed behind her and they're left alone.

She has no weapons that he can see, or… see. The closest thing to a weapon she has is the needle on her bird brooch – a gift from Jon, Elias knows, he'd seen him pass it over, had watched the gears turn in her head as her older research met with Jon's new conviction and the two met together to form something… thoroughly unpleasant. It's still not beyond the realm of possibility that she's here to hurt him, though… he does rather doubt it. It's not her style.

"There have been so many things going on, I could hardly keep on track," Elias says, smiling. Jon coming back altered he'd foreseen, more or less. Malleable like porcelain clay, Jon can hardly take a turn without something changing him – so very impressionable, their Archivist. For him to change into the firmer direction, though, that Elias hadn't expected. While he was looking forward to a few more dents and dips in the clay, Jon instead came back… pre-fired.

He also came back with a disturbing number of spiders on him.

Basira smiles back, cold and mirthless, and clasps her hands in front of her loosely. She's at ease, but guarded. "You asked to see me?"

"I did," Elias says, frowning. "Though I'd rather thought that when I did see you, it would happen in a visiting room. Cashing in the favour the inspector owes you, to draw up some closed eyes?"

"Saw that, did you?"

"Mm. I'm sorry to tell you it won't work, not coming from you – likely not coming from an avatar of the Dark, either. It would take the sort of Maxwell Rayner at the height of his power to draw symbols I could not see through," Elias says and looks away – and the fact that Desmond Miles had drawn symbols he couldn't see through vexes him ferociously. "And you saw to that, didn't you, Detective?"

"Goodman shot Raymer," Basira says. "I was just there."

"Of course," Elias answers agreeably, smiling, benign.

The Detective sighs. "What do you want, Elias?"

Elias considers her, her posture, her general mood – the tug and pull of her instincts and wants and fears. She's so very concerned about everyone and everything. Feeling as though she is the only one who can do anything, who can act, who can be counted upon. Jon's new wind has given her some hope, but she doesn't dare to trust it yet, not with Daisy being so severely changed, and Melanie being still erratic. She fears, ever so slightly, that Jon had done something to Daisy in that coffin – taking something from her, empowering his own growth by draining her force of will.

It could be a string to tug. Of the two, Basira needs Daisy more and trusts Jon less, and needs and trusts are so very easy chords to strike… though it might have the risk of backfiring, should Jon suddenly prove himself actually reliable. Better not risk it.

"Jon's recent changes," Elias says, testing the waters there, murky though they are. "They aren't without a cause."

"Hm," Basira agrees, noncommittal. "He took a holiday. Seemed like it did some good to him. And from the way I hear it, you couldn't see him during most of it."

Oh, that pleases her, doesn't it? "And that doesn't strike you as concerning? There are only very few things my eyes can't see through, on the best of days – and I have been kept so very well here," Elias says pointedly. "For someone to obscure Jon from my sight must be both very powerful – and very against me."

"A position I can respect, wholeheartedly," Basira says flatly.

"Ah, let me rephrase that – against the Institute," Elias says, amused. "Of which Jon is a major part of, a focal point, if you will. With myself over here, I'd say that Jon's becoming the pulsing centre of the Institute, and so what affects him, affects… you. And everyone else who has signed a contract with the Archives. Which, as of… roughly eighteen hours ago, includes Detective Tonner."

"What?" Basira demands.

"Oh, she didn't tell you, then? The nightmares that come with dealing with Jon – you remember those, I'm sure – well… in her current state, Detective Tonner isn't quite as… mentally resilient as she used to be," Elias says, apologetic. "And Jon is growing ever more powerful, every passing day. You've noticed it surely, but working for the Institute as you do, being under Its contract, you are protected from his… less than benign influence. The nightmares he so unwittingly gives and so eagerly peruses."

Basira swallows – oh, she does remember then, wonderful. Elias continues, "Detective Tonner sat easy in the coffin, for nearly eight months of… I wouldn't call it peaceful rest, but it was without observers. When Jon retrieved her, he also reaffirmed that connection – and returned into her dreams, into her nightmares. She withstood it for as long as she could, which it turns out was roughly for four days. She tried using a dreamcatcher, like Jon had suggested Melanie to use, but it didn't work quite as she wished it would, leaving her feeling even more hollowed out. So, eventually… she took matters into her own hands. By breaking into my office, finding an employment contract, and joining the Archives."

"Damnit, Daisy," Basira mutters and looks away, leaning back against the cell door.

"Don't blame her," Elias berates her, amused. "She's not at her best currently, and as I said – Jon has become very powerful."

"Right," Basira says, scowling at him. "And I'm guessing you don't like it. From what I hear, you've been doing nothing but putting obstacles in Jon's way to make him more powerful, why is this time so different?"

Because Elias doesn't know why it happened or what Jon is feeding off of. It can't be a mere avatar of the Lonely, those are rarely, if ever, powerful enough to empower a single room, never mind an Archivist, but Jon is oh so very well fed, as he said. He'd implied that it was because of his Desmond, as though a single man could leave an Archivist so sated – and yet.

"I worry about the influence he has put himself under," Elias says, choosing his words with care. "I am worried about the things he is letting into the Archives. The Magnus Institute stands on a foundation of neutrality, Detective Tonner, of balancing out those influences that in other places tip the scales from peace to chaos – unknowingly or otherwise, he is letting something in, he is all but welcoming it in."

"I'm sorry – wasn't it you who put Peter Lukas in charge of the Institute – isn't that tipping the balance?"

Elias considers which way to take with that one, and answers, "Peter barely cares about the Institute – and he is doing what I want him to do," speaking with the sort of callous confidence which has a strange capability to put the Detective at ease. "It is a temporary situation with few to no lasting effects upon the Institute – what Jon is doing is changing the very core of it."

"Hmm," Basira answers, considering him. He's getting to her now, but of course she's not going to let it show. She never does. "Considering the way the Institute is and how it's been run, I think change might be good," she says, as though change doesn't terrify her. "Maybe once Jon gets his head in the game and starts actually acting on the powers and abilities he has, we will have less murders to worry about."

Two researchers whom no one would miss. Sometimes Elias really does miss the good old days when people didn't get so very… nitpicky about a few missing people. "And you think Jon would be a good head for the Institute?" Elias asks, amused. "Please, he can barely keep the Archive running, never mind keeping it running smoothly. One week of him in charge of the Institute, and it would all fall apart."

He's misstepped, he realises the moment she turns her eyes to him, sharp and cunning. "Which begs the question of why you made him the Head Archivist in the first place," Basira says. "I looked into his records, he doesn't have any kind of history with archival work of any kind – he was barely more than a junior researcher when you pulled him from the research department and put him in charge of the Archives. Quite the promotion. Then again, that wasn't the point, was it. You wanted him as an Archivist, which is a very different position altogether."

Oh, they have been talking too much, haven't they? She's starting to sound like him. "Jon had an aptitude very few do," Elias says. "And yes, I chose him because he was uniquely suited for the position, and his sad lack of archival experience aside, he does have a bibliography degree, which I thought would be useful, considering the recent happenings."

"The Leitners?"

Always so useful, aren't they? It's so easy to blame it all on a Leitner. "Quite," Elias says. "Gertrude wasn't terribly interested in them, beyond using them or destroying them, while Jon had more… personal experience."

"What else can you do with a Leitner, other than use or destroy it?" Basira asks suspiciously.

"They are books, Detective, and we run an Archive," Elias says amusedly. "Surely it's not a difficult equation to solve."

"You – wanted to collect them?"

"It had occurred to me, at the time, that there might be some among the books that could be useful, and which would bear saving and even storing," Elias says. "Never mind the question of their origins, which is still one of the greater mysteries in our, ah… circles." He harrumphs. "Of course, I was rather getting ahead of myself, but I had hoped that one day Jon would grow… powerful enough to do what Jurgen Leitner could not, and actually master some of those books. Now I'm afraid that hope is long since lost, and Jon has turned his eyes to wholly different pursuits, hasn't he?"

Basira says nothing, watching him, weighing how much she believes him. He doesn't really care – though he had had an interest for the books for a time, and Jurgen Leitner too, before he actually met the man, the books are tools he hardly needs. What he needs is to get Jon back on his proper track. Or at least discourage him from the one he is currently on.

"I have seen greatness in Jon, and I know he could become quite formidable," Elias says. "But you know perhaps even better than I do," unlikely, "that such power has to be managed carefully and with restraint. Something I'm afraid Jon is not exercising currently. If he's allowed to continue down this path…"

"He'll go astray?" Basira asks, noncommittal, and unclasps her hands to flex her fingers, which she'd been squeezing too hard. Not so comfortable then, is she?

"I worry he already might have, yes," Elias agrees, watching as she folds her arms. Defensive gesture, hmm?

"Hm," she says. He almost has her again – she needs a little push. Concern for Jon isn't enough, she needs more…

"And," Elias says. "While he pursues his new interests, I'm not so sure he will be all that vigilant about the threats the Archive – and those connected to it – are still under. As he develops his new… theory, shall we say, he is looking further and further inward – and so spends less time looking outside. And you've already lost two defenders, Detective. Daisy can't run, can't Hunt, and Melanie… can you afford to lose another, especially one as potentially useful as Jon?"

Basira's jaw tightens. "And you get out of this, what?" she demands

Elias smiles. "Hopefully I get to keep on watching over my Archives, Detective," he says. "I am very concerned about  them. There are threats out there, some of which you've encountered, others which are still coming. Perhaps Jon's new friend is one of them, I wouldn't be surprised. And I'm sorry to say, you seem to be the only one in any position to defend all that which I spent so very long building."

"Right," Basira says. "So you want me to do what, put Jon on a house arrest, tell him not to do his job, try and break him and his new boyfriend up?"

Oh good heavens, is that what it is?

Basira scoffs at him. "The way I see it, what Jon is doing now, it's good for all of us. The crap he'd filled his head with, he's figuring out how to use it – how to stop these damned dread powers of yours," she says and tugs a finger under the edge of her hijab. "Including, as it happens, yours."

Elias blinks slowly at the sight of the inside of the dark fabric. It's patterned – embroidered.

The whole thing is covered in stylistic, if rather simple, depiction of closed eyes. Not only closed eyes – there are also spirals there, and open eyes, but mostly closed ones. A depiction of a cloud too, ah, for the Lonely? The blind, the dumb, the distanced – all the things to blur sight with.

How clever. And Elias hadn't even realised – the effect isn't very strong, he could pierce through it, he thinks, and he can still sense her, see into her… but the vision is obscured, somewhat.

"You know, there is some danger in swathing yourself in symbols of… others," Elias says, leaning back.

"More dangerous than letting you get into my head?" Basira asks, shaking her head. "I've been going through statements about you, Elias. I was before, but when Jon came back with his new symbology and gave me this," she motions to the brooch, "Well, it clarified my vision a bit. Gave me perspective."

"Indeed?" Elias asks, eyeing her, eyeing her, looking through the veil of her hijab. He can see – "And what did you see with this new perspective of yours, Detective?"

"Yeah. You're a manipulator with the ability to read minds and implant memories," Basira says. "With unknown goals and motivations and two murders on your account. Why on earth would I ever trust you?"

"Because, Detective, we have the same goal," Elias says, effecting exasperation while the unease leaks into his mind. "To keep the Archives safe and – "

"No," Basira says, shaking her head and tucking her hijab neatly in place again, the symbols on the inside hidden. "No, that's your goal, Elias. My goal is something very different."

"And," Elias continues insistently, "to stop other powers from completing their rituals. Or would you like the world to fall into other powers, after all? They are still out there, working relentlessly to release their gods into our world. And Jon currently doesn't seem to particularly care, does he. Do you, Detective, or am I sadly mistaken about you after all?"

Basira hesitates, just enough. "What are you talking about now?"

Elias smiles, relieved both sincerely and in affectation. "I have been observing recent increase in people and supplies being moved to a small town of Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard…" he begins, taking the utmost care with his words. Despite her doubts and her new confidence in her little totems and Jon's insipid symbology, she can't help but worry he's telling the truth. He might be – but oh, what if he is, and she doesn't do anything… what if it all goes wrong?

It's all up to her, isn't it?

One can change their clothes, Elias muses. Their forms, their shapes, their beliefs. But they can never change their nature. The only thing that can… is an outside force. "Feel free to do your own research to confirm what I'm telling you," he says, amused. "Just don't take too long."

Basira breathes in and out, deeply, self-soothing. "If you're lying about this –" she begins.

Elias smiles. "You'll kill me? I can hardly wait," he says and watches her bang on the cell door. "Out of curiosity, detective," he then says. "Why did you want to see my cell? Surely it can't be any different from all the others you'd seen?"

Basira blinks. "You can't tell?"

Elias frowns. "You – wanted to see my cell, to best determine how to cover it with closed eyes. I'm telling you, Detective, for your dignity as much as for my own – it will not work."

"Maybe not," Basira agrees. "But there's not a damn thing you can do to stop us from trying – and that… that's almost better than it not working. Goodbye, Elias."

Elias smiles with gritted teeth. "Good luck, Detective."

She leaves him, and the door is closed and locked after her. Shaking his head with irritation, Elias immediately turns his eyes elsewhere, seeking out Jon.

His Archivist is back in his office, leaning back in his chair – doing nothing. The notebook sits in front of him, closed – its lid drawn full of symbols of the closed eye, which do nothing to hide its contents from Elias. Whatever Desmond Miles did to make his symbol of the Dark powerful, Jon lacks it. That says more about Desmond Miles than about Jon, of course. Jon, while he can be marked and infected, broken and burnt, he cannot be taken away from the Beholding, not with the amount of care Elias had taken to bind him to it.

That an avatar of the Lonely could achieve power over the Dark, that… is concerning.

But then again, so were Gertrude's repeated uses of the Desolation.

Elias closes his eyes to block out the view of his cell, and throws his vision further, further away. He searches the Mediterranean area for that blank glimpse of nothing that was Desmond Miles – a reverse black hole, a presence of nothing that pushed his gaze away. It had been getting smaller and smaller as the man goes forth, and now Elias can find it, just about, though he still can't see into it. Whatever protection Desmond Miles is so quickly spending away, it's still there, still keeping him obscured when not within the influence of the Beholding, like he was in the Archives.

The empty space is on a ship, travelling toward Cyprus. Hm, now, what could there possibly be in Cyprus…

Ah. The former stronghold of Knights Hospitaller? Desmond Miles had stolen an old record concerning an even older version of the Archive, and there was something about that hospital in Rome, in Tiber Island – also built by Knights Hospitaller… it does seem rather like an obvious connection, doesn't it?

From what Elias knows, it's a dead end good four hundred years old and long since gone cold. Once upon the time, the Hospitallers had learned something of the reality of the universe, once they had even done what they could to combat it. They had, of course, failed. What remains of the Hospitaller now turn their eyes from the truth of fear, as do so many other institutes, old and new. There is nothing there, nothing of use, and nothing that can prove a risk – Elias had looked.

Only… there wasn't supposed to be anything under that hospital on Tiber Island either, and yet there was, wasn't there?

"You, Mr. Miles, bear watching,'" Elias murmurs, and wonders how to kill someone who was never actually alive.

Chapter Text

Desmond hadn't meant to go to Cyprus really, but the easiest ship to get to had been headed for the place, and so that's where he ended up, with Salaì's storage tube hanging off one shoulder and his messenger bag off the other. It probably makes him look like a tourist, which is just as well really, helps him get through the port authorities without anyone paying him too close attention. Though he still has to apply some sneaky effort to get by.

People don't forget him anymore. As he's becoming more – something, just more, the less people's eyes seem to flow over him. It's almost novel, having to actually intentionally go unnoticed, but thankfully even with all the spooky stuff that's been going on, he hasn't forgotten Ezio's lessons. He can still blend in with a crowd successfully. And speaking of Ezio's lessons…

Cyprus is a lovely place, really, a bit dry, kind of windy around the Latsi Port where it ended up landing, but nice, and Desmond thinks he would've actually sincerely enjoyed coming there… if he didn't feel like he'd been tricked into coming to the place. In hindsight it makes sense that he should've. Cyprus had been the centre of a lot of knightly activity way back when – Templars owned it for a time, and then there were the Knights Hospitaller there, becoming the Knights of Rhodes, or however it went... Desmond is pretty sure they built a castle there. And, of course, in the games there had even been a Templar Archive on Cyprus, which Desmond probably should've made a note about earlier, since it just seems like the sort of coincidence that's a bit too much of a coincidence. But he hadn't. And so instead of choosing to come to Cyprus, he sort of just… ended up there.

He blames the spiderwebs on the cargo ship he snuck onboard of. The place had a bit of an infestation going on, really. Still feels like he has sticky webs stuck in his hair.

"I don't suppose you could just come around and say what you want me to do here, what other encounter I should run into?" Desmond casually asks a bit of spiderweb hanging off a willow he's passing by. "No? Yeah, didn't think so."

The whole thing of being jerked around by strings… it's not even subtle anymore. Desmond probably wouldn't have minded it so much if they'd just been a little more clear about things. He only has one eye now, maybe, but he can still see, and being strung along like he's completely blind, well, it's starting to grate a bit. Especially since he's pretty sure he would have agreed to go along with it anyway, if they'd just asked him and told him what it was they wanted him to see.

But no, we gotta be all mysterious about it. Of course.

"Fine," he says to the spiderweb and lifts the strap of the painting tube over his neck, to sling the thing slanted across his back. "Fine. Guess I'm going to Limassol, then, and figuring it out on my own. I don't suppose you could arrange a ride for me?"

No answer. Of course.

Desmond ends up hitchhiking, in the end. It's partially because he's actually half-tempted to walk all the way to Limassol just out of pure spite… and partially it's because he doesn't have much in the way of money, and he doesn't really trust himself to pickpocket successfully right now. Gauging distances is still a bit of work in progress, and the last time he tried pickpocketing someone, he'd accidentally ended up giving the impression of trying to cop a feel. So. He's taking a little more care right now.

Might have to resort to actual robbery, before he gets things down properly. Wouldn't that be fun.

After poking around a little in Latsi, Desmond heads down along a road that claims it goes all the way to Limassol. It's a way to stretch his legs after the ship, at least, and the scenery is interesting – hilly, dotted with older and newer houses and farms. Just… generally pretty nice. Smells a lot better than the ship too, which is much appreciated.

It's not Syria though, so Desmond is still a bit peeved.

He's walked for some hour or so, in the dry air and drier scenery, before an old man in a slightly rusted up pickup truck stops to ask him something in Greek – one of the languages Desmond didn't come installed with.

"Sorry, man – can't understand you," he says cheerfully. "You got English?"

"A little, yes – do you need help?" the old man asks, accented but recognizable. "Where are you going?"

"Limassol – which the street signs say is thataway direction, so," Desmond shrugs. "That's where I am headed."

The man blinks at him. "It's – hundred kilometres there," he points out warily.

"Ah. Well. Guess I should walk faster then," Desmond says. It's weird, being seen and talked to. Nice and weird. Before even the people who did see him were also kind of dismissive of him, like they only half believed he was for real. Now he's being talked to like a person. Weird.

"Are you on something? Drugs?"

"Righteous indignation," Desmond says. "I was pretty much dumped here, and I figure I might as well blow off some steam by walking."

"Ah. Well. It's a very long way. Hop in, I will take you as far as Paphos, cut your trip by half."

Desmond checks the truck with a glance to see if there's any obvious cobwebs anywhere. He can't see anything – though he doesn't exactly get on his knees to check the underside. "That's downright nice of you, thanks," he says and gets in. "Desmond," he says, offering the guy his hand.

They shake. "Nikolas – have you been in Cyprus for long?" the old guy asks, while putting the truck in drive again.

"Not very long at all. Tell me about what's good to eat around here?"

Nikolas tells him about his wife's cooking and how Desmond has to try souvlakia and halloumi and some other things, before suddenly veering off to complain about the plastic in the ocean. Desmond leans back, watching the road while Nikolas tells him about a documentary he just watched that morning, about all the microplastics in the Mediterranean, how they got into all the fish people eat, how much average person ate plastic in seafood, how seabirds eat plastic and the sea turtles –

Desmond gets the feeling Nikolas is one of those guys who just like to complain about things, so he lets it wash over himself. It's a nice enough way to get around, and he has to admit he's missed people talking. He even missed them complaining at him. Hearing people's problems always puts things into perspective.

It's still weird, though.

Desmond ends up hitchhiking the rest of the way to Limassol too, after parting ways with Nikolas in Paphos. He catches a ride with a young couple in a nice sedan – they spend most of the way to Limassol asking about the United States and if he's ever been to this or that city. Desmond tells them about New York – the one city he has been to in real life – and they wistfully tell him they would like to go, one day, do the tourist thing themselves, if only, you know, the world wasn't ending.

"I'm sorry?" Desmond asks, confused.

"Well, it is very expensive, flying all that way, staying in hotels and stuff." the boyfriend says while the girlfriend sighs wistfully. "Maybe one day."

Right. Must've misheard then.

For the rest of the trip they ask him if this or that thing they'd seen on TV about the USA is really true, and are the high schools really like that, which is… kinda awkward, since Desmond has never even been near a high school that he knows. He answers them as well as he can and tries to put aside the weird, uneasy feeling he's suddenly getting.


 

Sitting in the shadow of a nearby tree, Desmond looks between the Limassol Castle in front of him in its shining glory and the brochure he'd picked up from the front. The castle is covered with tourists – well, not so much covered, the touristy places in Rome were a bit more full, but… it's definitely a pretty busy tourist place, with tours and displays and all. Which generally means that people have gone over it a thousand times, exploring every crook and cranny, discovering every secret place. And sure, the same could be said about the Fatebenefratelli hospital back in Rome, but…

It doesn't feel right.

Doesn't help that, according to the brochure, the castle had been destroyed by Venetians and rebuilt by Ottomans. Although the fact that the castle's underground chamber and the first floor had been used as a prison is pretty promising, on the level of potentially interested entities of cosmic horrors and their various avatars… it still doesn't feel right.

Sighing, Desmond lowers the brochure and rubs at his useless eye. It's aching a little – he keeps straining to see through it, and there's just darkness there. Even in this light, perfect late evening glare coming right at him, bouncing off the castle's walls, the left eye sees nothing. He's almost used to it, and he knows better than to expect it to change, but still… still he keeps automatically straining and squinting, like with concentration he can get it back online. Stupid, probably.

It doesn't feel right, this place – or rather, it feels like a red herring, somehow. Even if the original castle was supposedly built by Guy de Lusignan, a crusader and a knight… It just doesn't feel like there might be a secret archive under it. Though maybe there could be, who knows – he hadn't felt the tunnels under Fatebenefratelli either, but…

There's gotta be some other place.

Standing up with a sigh, Desmond goes to find a tourist guide. Would be nice to be able to just Google it, but… whatever. "Excuse me," he calls out to a suitably professional looking person hovering by the entrance to the castle. "I'm looking for a place connected to the Knights Hospitaller – a place built by them? This isn't it, right?"

"Ah, no, you're thinking of Kolossi Castle," she says brightly and brings out a map seemingly from nowhere. "It's in the Kolossi village, 14 kilometers from here – though there is some dispute concerning who originally built the castle, in 1212 the land of Kolossi was given to the Knights of the order of St. John's of Jerusalem, also known as Knights Hospitaller, so it was either them or the Franks! Would you like driving instructions?"

"Walking instructions, please, I'm going on foot," Desmond says.

"In that case you better hurry, the end is near, you know!" the tourist guide says cheerfully, and while Desmond stares at her, she goes to grab a pen.

"Um. What?" he asks flatly.

"I mean, it's getting late," the tourist guide says, smiling. "I don't know the exact time they close the castle, but I doubt it will be open for that much longer than the Limassol Castle. You might want to grab a taxi."

"Uhhuh," Desmond says dubiously and then watches her draw out the instructions.

Though he considers taking her advice and catching a ride to the village, in the end he just… can't be bothered. He's still feeling a bit indignant about the whole damn thing, and there's something weird going on, something strange, and it's making him a bit uneasy overall. So, he walks, and if the castle will be closed by the time he gets there – which might be anywhere from two to four hours, he's not in a hurry, well… that would be just too bad.

No spiders between Limassol and Kolossi, just a lot of houses and streets and bits of garden and a rather disheartening number of graffiti, but that's just the way of the world, isn't it? No chance of getting lost in memories or anything, there's always a little bit of modern something to pull you out of the feeling of history, be it a street lamp, or a modern car, or bit of spray-painted Greek text Desmond can't read, but which probably has a very important message to make. Not that Italy was much different. Nothing quite like visiting a historic site and finding someone had spray-painted a slur on the side of it. People be people, apparently.

Why part of him finds it weirdly pleasing, Desmond doesn't know, but he does.

He arrives at Kolossi sometime in the early evening, having half-intentionally gotten lost along the way. It's getting a little dark by that point, and the village is pretty quiet – though it doesn't look like it's exactly the centre of nightlife anyway. There are a few shops, a few cafes, restaurants, stuff like that, and obviously it's a place tourists go through, but it doesn't look like a place to stay the night at, so it's pretty chill.

The Kolossi Castle is in the southern part of the village, and it is indeed closed.

What it isn't, though, is guarded. There's no fence, no wall, no closed or locked door – aside from the castle door itself, of course. The grounds around the place, the park, the ruins, the less well-maintained bits, they're just free to walk into.

Desmond peers at a sign that readily tells him all about the history of the place. Built sometime after or around 1210, passed hands between various knight orders, Hospitallers and Templars, they used to make wine in the place, which Desmond heartily approves, and then there were attacks… and, of course, of course the original Kolossi Castle was destroyed sometime in history and rebuilt in 1488 by the commander of the Hospitallers of the time, Luis de Magnac…

1488. Huh, that would've been around in Ezio's lifetime. A bit early in it, sure, he would've been 29 at the time, but still… interesting. And in 1210 Altaïr would've been 45 and well into his mentorship, or whatever it was he did in reality. Built in Altaïr's lifetime and rebuilt in Ezio's… Isn't that a coincidence.

Desmond looks up, and his eyes just so happen to fall on a spiderweb, hanging off a stray tree branch just between him and the castle.

"Yeah, okay," he says, and walks over. "Show me the way, then."

The spiderwebs lead him to the older parts of the ruins – the remains of what might've been the original castle built by the original knights. Desmond glances around, but it doesn't seem like there are cameras or much in the way of security around the castle – and why would there be, there's nothing there to steal. As far as anyone knows, anyway.

There's a part of the ruins that's better preserved – a doorway, which is still standing, even though the adjacent rooms and hallways are long gone. On the top part of the arch hangs a spiderweb, of course, just visible against the shadows.

"Gotta say, that looks like a trap," Desmond comments flatly. "Oo, come into this spooky archway, nothing is going to happen! What if I just don't, huh? I'm probably going to be attacked by some, I don't know, anthropomorphic personification of murder and death and torment next, so how about I just… don't?"

He waits and nothing happens, so, with a roll of his eyes, Desmond finds a nice bit of wall to sit it out on. "I can outstubborn you," he says, and takes a seat with a flourish, setting Salaì's painting down and idly digging out the instant film camera from his bag. "I sat out nine years from all this Assassin business, now watch me do it again."

Just to be a dick about it, Desmond lifts his camera and takes a picture of the doorway, and then sits back to watch the ruins while waiting for it to develop.

As far as historic sights go, it's not the most impressive he's ever seen – all the stuff in Rome kind of takes the cake, no matter how covered with tourists they are. This place is very authentically functional though. It's not pretty, it's not even trying to be – the castle is just a… block. The only concession to prettiness it's made is with slightly artistic machicolations up on an archer box near the top, and even they're more functional than anything else. It's… actually kind of nice, in a way – it's a very solid piece of history.

Gotta be, to have survived this long intact. Five hundred and thirty years old. Not bad. Though it could be that by that point the place wasn't significant enough to attack, who knows. Wonder what it would look like in ruins… it's built solid, of course, each wall several feet of near solid rock, they'd probably built it with cannons in mind… Still, there is a weird satisfaction in watching sturdy things break. Like buildings being demolished. The bigger and stronger the building, the more gratifying it is to watch it come crashing down.

How many castles had been built over the course of history – how many are now rubble, like the remains of the old Kolossi Castle on which Desmond is now sitting? How many more are buried under layers of sand or dirt or water, and no one even remembers them anymore…

Humming idly and wondering what state the Masyaf Castle would be in, Desmond looks down to see colour bleeding into the white bit of film slowly. First the darker bits, the shadows of the arch, the dips and valleys in the rock. Then colour begins to bleed in, faded at first, but coming on stronger.

And then he sees it, the pale shadow in the archway – white-robed, with red accents, hooded, with a cape. It's a little blurry, of course it's a little blurry, but the silhouette is unmistakable.

Desmond presses his lips together, looking between the apparently empty archway, and the photo, where it very clearly isn't empty. The photo gets a little darker as it finishes developing, but not much more detailed – you still can't see the face, but… with that get-up, he doesn't really need to see his face.

With a defeated sigh, Desmond picks up Salaì again and gets up. "Come, little fly, right into my trap," he mutters resentfully and steps under the archway. "Nothing bad will ever happen to you, at all –"

There's something behind him, in the shadow – no, in the light? In the edge between, where the last rays of the sun and the faint light of the rising moon meet, and where they both abruptly stop at the edge of the archway's shadow, there's something there. Right behind him – leaning towards him.

Desmond whirls around sharply to meet it, and comes face to face with a memory, painfully familiar. The clothing, the armour, the whole mythic regalia, red and white and silver, it's all –

Wrong.

It's all wrong.

Desmond goes for his knife, but it's too late, the thing, whatever it is, it's too close, way too close. A hand like iron grabs his wrist, stopping him just short of the knife handle, while the thing's other hand grabs Desmond's right by the palm, twisting, pressing his fingers tighter around the camera he's still holding. It goes off between them, and in the light of the flash Desmond can see under the white, peaked hood.

Standing face to face with him, so close that Desmond should feel his breath, is a shadow of Ezio Auditore, but it's not him. There's no face under the hood, just a suggestion of a beard and nothing else, there's no eyes, no nose, nothing, not even the familiar scar – and yet still, somehow the faceless head manages to grin at him, all crooked and too wide and wrong. It's staring at him, eyeless, grinning at him, toothless, and somehow, even without a voice, Desmond can hear it laughing.

His wrist twinges in pain and his fingers ache, and even as Desmond goes to kick the monster in front of him, it drags him down, into the line between shadow and light and away.

Chapter Text

Desmond is slowly starting to remember the things lost to the Lonely. Not all of them, a lot of the mundane things are gone, probably forever, but some of the things the Lonely didn't so much just remove but… pushed aside as not relevant or important right now.

The memories of his ancestors are a big part of that. Which, in hindsight, it's kind of weird that the Lonely removed them at all, as they were a big part of why Desmond felt so Lonely to begin with, they were what really set him apart and made him feel like he didn't belong – made him feel like a stranger among the people around him. Made it feel like when Shaun, Rebecca, Lucy, even his dad… like when they looked at him, they didn't always see a person.

Which… yeah, the team was another thing – which made more sense, the less friends you have the more lonely you feel, but… then again, there is that knowledge aspect of loneliness. Part of what makes it bad, makes it hurt, is knowing just how lonely you are, and you can only know that having something to compare to, something to be jealous of and bitter about. Desmond remembered the people he'd been with, sure, but he lost the… the emotions attached to them, the camaraderie, the jokes, the good times as well as the bad ones. One would've thought the Lonely would enhance those memories to keep him aware of all the things he was missing… rather than just blur them out.

But it had, and that's… weird. Right?

It could've been that the Lonely had just used up those parts of him, rehashing that suffering over and over until he grew jaded to it, then it had to cauterise that feeling and concentrate onto the other things that still hurt, that made him suffer. The blurry, half-constructed memories of his family, which was never an important aspect of the games, his father's treatment of him, the absence of his mother, the bitterness of the Animus… it's not much, compared to the other two things, but it was still suffering, something the Lonely could prolong and feed on, slowly, so slowly…

But they've been coming back, those memories, and with them comes the realisation that… for all the things the Lonely had done and taken and moulded into new shapes for better digestion… Desmond just wasn't much of a meal, was he? He wasn't a person. He was barely even a suggestion of a person. All surface and no insides, no substance – the Lonely couldn't eat him, because there was nothing in him to eat. He was hollow.

He's still a little hollow. Less so, though, with things reaching inside to reorganise bits and pieces. His presence, his physicality, his abilities – like he's a blank slate for the universe to customise, and it is. Add a little murder there, a bit of cosmic horror there, a sight and its loss, realisation and the ensuing crisis. Push and pull, tug and twist…

Desmond knows at this point that he's being made into something. He just doesn't know what, or why. Is there even a reason? He thinks there is… but what if there isn't, what if it's a big accident, a cosmic joke? What if none of it matters, at all? Doesn't help that it feels like he's still only half-baked. Half done. Only halfway into any sort of comprehension, and the fact that this feels like part of the baking process does not help.

As much as he tries to ignore the reality of his existence and concentrate on enjoying what he has, what he's been given, no matter how intentional and accidental… there it is, always in the back of his mind.

He's not real. He's not a human, not a person, he's barely even a character. The reason why the game company decided to kill his character was because he didn't really have one, and the audience just never warmed up to him. He was killed off, like the plot device he was – five games, and no one cared. The Lonely had fed on that, and good for it, but it's not really sad, is it? It's not really much of anything.

It just is. The same way he is. Fake and meaningless, suggestion of a person. An echo without the source noise.

Might as well let the universe take him and twist him. It's not like he's doing much with himself so far, just running around, looking for ghosts. He's found them, but for what? The only connection he made got scared off. Jon probably regretted joining him the moment they entered the Eurotunnel, and he was right to, wasn't he?

Considering everything that happened, hell… it's a wonder Jon hadn't turned around and ran off in Calais. Why hadn't he? Because, like Desmond, he wasn't much more than pretending to be human, and like with the Lonely… Desmond was a convenient source to feed on? Until he wasn't anymore, until Lonely stopped doing the trick, and then Desmond started dragging the guy into worse and worse danger… Jon wasn't a fighter, that was obvious. Not like Desmond.

How long had he been denying his fake heritage as an assassin? He'd barely killed anyone so far. Fed one guy to the Lonely, stood around uselessly while the End fed on the whole bunch of people around him, and then had a very brief scuffle with a Slaughter monster. Pretty pathetic, for an Assassin. He could at least make himself an interesting monster – right now he's as boring as his depiction in the games.

So much potential. Why isn't he using any of it?

Wouldn't it be –

Desmond groans, as his neck lets off a painful sounding crack at the weight pulling down on it. There's a pressure in his head he doesn't like, a weight – it feels like his brain is in a vice. And his neck – he's –

There's someone in front of him.

Some thing –

"Shit!" Desmond gasps, as the thing from before – leans down over him, its featureless face almost pressed against his own. His head is between the thing's hard, metal-like hands, and they're holding him up by his head, his feet are on the ground, just barely, but his body hangs limp by his neck – with a pained gasp Desmond tries to get his legs under him to take the weight, and in that moment he's pushed, hard, against a stone wall behind him.

The thing that's trying to look like Ezio leans in hard enough that Desmond's head is pinned between it and the stone wall.

"Ow, you fuck –" Desmond groans, trying to push back, to check if he has his knife, anything. Salaì's scroll tube is gone, but his shoulder bag is still hanging across his chest, a little lopsided, but there. "What – the fuck – is your – "

The knife is there, but the angle is awkward – he can't get it.

There's a sound, like leather creaking, metal scraping against metal, cloth shifting, all at once, like the thing is trying to fake real sounding clothing and gear, but it all comes out as single noise – and from the wrong place. The thing tilts its head, grinding hard, hooded forehead against Desmond's, like it's trying to push right through it into his head, into his brain, and –

Desmond remembers Ezio, being him, playing as him, whatever – he remembers it. Remembers… more of it than he really should, considering that all of it had been just a game, a simulation. He remembers things like – like the texture of Cristina's bed sheets when Ezio dipped her down on it. The smell of a candle, burning out on its own. What it tasted like in the back of his mouth, when blood and bile and cheap wine mixed. The edge between pleasure and pain, when he was wounded and, despite still bleeding, sought out a brothel to soothe his ills in the most carnal of ways. He liked to be tied down, the old rake.

He remembers the feeling of helplessness in a crowd as the men of his family hung from ropes like puppets, like dolls, lifeless – they felt like that too, when he carried them to the river, to take them out of the city, to bury them in secret. He remembers the feeling of the web, how far it stretched, as he unearthed more and more conspirators, and the thing spread out further and further. He remembers the feeling of strings cutting into his joints as he struggled against it.

He also remembers the disappointment at the end of it, because for so many years, for decades, he'd struggled against the mass of tangled threads, and for what? Rodrigo Borgia was already the thrice damned Pope at that point, and he wanted more power? That was what it all was for, for more political power, influence, blood?

What a damned waste.

Desmond cries out, and feels his fingers touch metal.

He feels something else too, and this – this isn't coming from him.

He feels a – hole in the world, where something had been removed, only it was not as clean or as tidy as they thought it would be – it wasn't a mere absence, no, it was like an abscess. They tore themselves out of the world, and they left behind an ulcer that festered and boiled and formed into a cyst of confusion and false memories as the thousands and thousands of people who once Knew could not quite Contend with a Lack, and so they looked in crowds and in shadows, and looked for familiar blades, and in that expectation, the boil burst.

It has no name, it has no voice – it's nothing but the lack of a thing given form, and it has festered. As manifestations of powers go, it's on the weaker side, because it can't shift its shape, can't take the form of another – all it can look is like the Lost Legend of the Untold, and it hates almost as much as it craves, and it KNOWS that inside Desmond's head

There's something trickling down Desmond's face, he's not sure if it's tears or blood, it feels hot and it's in his eyes, the one that sees and the one that doesn't. His head feels like a boiled egg between the thing's hard metal hands, and it's about to peel him open. He thinks he's holding the knife now, but everything is hot red pain, and he can't think.

The – the Echo of Ezio has waited for a long, long time, to tear back what it lost without ever having it. It had been formed already lacking – just like him. So, they're much the same, aren't they – more so than them and that man. Both hollow, both fake, accidental creations of the Untold Sacrifice – aren't they just the same?

It has what Desmond doesn't – power and knowledge and memory. And Desmond has what it doesn't – face and voice and name. Together they can be a whole person, together they can be a complete being – if only Desmond will just let the Echo in, let the Echo into his brain, into the grey matter, into the flesh, into the –

Desmond is sure he's holding the knife now. He can feel it – the blade, it's digging into his thigh, and the new spark of pain brings some clarity, if only so that he can curse himself for accidentally stabbing himself. He's on his knees now, the Echo is looming over him like the most dramatic Renaissance monster that it is, and it's trying to literally claw its way into his head.

"Fuck you, Ezio," Desmond says, somehow, he isn't even sure where he gets the air to say it, but it seems like a very important thing to get across. If he dies here, and it kind of looks like he might, then Ezio should know he's pissed. Even and especially if it's the last thing he gets to say.

The Echo stops, stills, just for a blink – and in that moment Desmond stabs it, as hard and as accurately as he can, into the heart. The blade shrieks going in – he gets it through the gap in the armour under the arm, but the Echo is all blades all throughout, with ribs like sickles and heart a lump of solid metal. The blade jostles and scrapes all through the stab, but it goes in.

The Echo looks down on the blade in its side, as much as a thing without even the suggestion of eyes can look at anything, and then it looks at him.

Desmond wrenches the knife out and then goes for another target – the Echo's bare neck, which almost looks like it might be skin, might be vulnerable. It isn't – it's pale leather, and as Desmond cuts into it, he discovers wood and gears, ropes and pulleys inside the thing, like it's some sort of… Renaissance clockwork creature. It's…

The blade slices through a rope, and the Echo's head leans limply to the side.

It's –

"Oh, god," Desmond whispers, his hand shaking. His mind tells him it's Ezio. It looks so much like Ezio, the clothes are a little wrong, some details are off, but it looks so much like him. And in a way, it is him. It's a thing of all the memories Ezio left behind when he ripped the Brotherhood right out of existence – it's –

it's shrieking and reaching for his head, so Desmond slices at it again, this time going for its inner arm, where there is no armour, and where there might be something in place of tendons. And there is – under the cloth of white sleeve there's a wire, more rope, a bit of wood – with a wrench of the knife blade, Desmond severs them all.

Then, with tears pouring out on their own, Desmond grabs the knife in both hands and begins to hack the writhing, faceless version of Ezio apart. He cuts apart ropes, tears out bits of wood – the chest is mostly metal and blades, but the shoulders have gears and wooden joinery, all of which he can take apart. The thing screams its strange voiceless scream, and it hates him almost as much as it loves him, and it's so wrong, all of it's wrong, it's like he's killing a version of Ezio, and –

And he has to – he has to kill it.

He has to.

So he does.

It keeps on writhing until Desmond finds a pulley in its waist and rips it out. It looks like a bit of a crane mechanism, like the ones Ezio used to use for a quick getaway to rooftops. Hell, it might even be one Ezio used once.

Desmond throws the chunk of rusted metal away as the puppet under him goes finally still, and then he just sits there, on top of it, looking down at his horrible handiwork. It… it doesn't look like Ezio anymore. The hood's come off – the thing never had hair under it, just a smooth block of wood.

The armour is wrong, it's too thick and too heavy. The robes are a little off too – the colour scheme is right, but the accents are off. Nowhere is there the Assassin Brotherhood's symbol. The Echo didn't even have weapons, just empty hands made of metal. It looks… There's not much there, not enough to really look like anything anymore. Definitely not human, anyway.

"Fuck," Desmond whispers and wipes at his face. There's both tears and blood there, so the Echo had cut him somewhere. Doesn't feel too bad though, probably just a scrape. Not that much blood. Though any amount of blood is kind of… surprising.

"Damnit, Ezio," he breathes and then stands up, shakily. Salaì's portrait tube is on the floor, little ways from him – it must've fallen off his shoulder when the thing had… moved him. With a shaky hand and a deep, pained breath, Desmond picks it up and slings it back over his shoulder, tightening the strap just in case. On the floor, the Echo lies still, lifeless, and Desmond stares at it for a long while, not sure what, if anything, he thinks.

It has Ezio's boots. Or, at least, they look like boots Ezio would've worn. Did people really have that good an impression of the guy's footwear? Geez.

Shuddering, Desmond looks up finally, to see where the thing had brought him.

It's a chamber, circular, with pillars in a formation around a centre. It's – kind of full of trash. Bits of shredded paper mostly, torn up books – the nearest has visible slashes on its cover, like something with big claws really didn't like the contents.

Desmond glances at the Echo's hands and winces. Yeah.

It's a moment before he dares to step around the lifeless form of it and to examine the carnage of paper.

They're all empty, the books, the papers. Not a single torn shred has any writing on it – it looks like the remains of hundreds, if not thousands of books, there's so much paper that it's turned to pulp in the bottom after many years of rotting, but even the bits that seem to have survived the best don't have a bit of ink on them. There was a library here once – library of apparently empty books.

"Right," Desmond mutters, crouching down to flip through a relatively intact book, with only about half of the pages torn out and the rest still hanging on its cover. Nothing on them, not so much as a suggestion of a sketch – it's like no one ever wrote anything on them. "Right, I'm guessing all this is supposed to mean something? I'm – supposed to – shit..."

His hands are shaking. Funny, that. Didn't used to do that before – why would they, since he didn't have muscles or tendons or bones, why would his hands shake? There's no need for them to shake now, but they are. He's shaking all over.

"Fuck you," Desmond mutters. "Fuck you a whole bunch. What the hell was this even about – did you really bring me to Cyprus just to fucking scare me? To – to show me my shadow self, the one who came before me, what? Teach me a lesson about my lack of humanity? What I could become? Could have been? Well, mission accomplished, and fuck you."

There's no answer, of course.

Desmond wipes his face clean as well as he can and then stands up, swaying on unsteady knees. Then he turns to look back at the Echo, lying broken and torn on the floor after his… counterattack. It looks…

He's probably supposed to just get up and go, go and have a freak out and feed the – whatever the fuck he's feeding with these actions, the Forgotten? Seems about right, that's what they all are, right, the forgotten? Just like this thing. Desmond is meant to go now, leave this place, seal it up and leave the Echo here all alone with all the empty books and empty memories, a forgotten thing made out of the absence of something, and wouldn't that just be fucking poetic, for it to remain here, rotting away.

Yeah, well, fuck the Forgotten too.

Drawing a steadying breath, Desmond goes back to the Echo and goes about seeing if he can take its cape off. "Sorry about this," he murmurs, wincing as a bit of wood cracks and rope creaks.

Whatever magic held the thing together, it's breaking apart more and more, as Desmond takes off its clothes. There's less and less suggestion of a human shape there – the chest falls apart into blades and nails, and however the legs came together, they aren't held by it anymore – they're just loose bits of wood wrapped in cloth now. In the very Ezio-esque shoes there's no feet, just… table legs. Like the Echo was just made from furniture.

Maybe it was. Maybe this is what became of the upholstery and furnishings of the Assassin Brotherhood's hideout. Empty house, coming together bitterly in the lack of its occupants, looking desperately for its humanity, for its memory – for its people.

Desmond takes it apart, and then, with a sigh, begins fitting it into a sack made of the largest bit of cloth, the white and red cape. It's – both strange and fitting, that all the bits of wood and cloth, leather and metal put together, the Echo weights about the same as a man. Probably exactly as much as Ezio weighed.

"Well then, fratello mio," Desmond murmurs, still a little shaky, and lifts the sack with a grunt up to his shoulder. "Let's go."

If there's any spider webs on the way out, Desmond doesn't so much as look at them.

Chapter Text

Jon is thinking of… nothing.

It's been a quiet few days since he listened to Desmond's audio records, and returned the one he stole from the archives to its rightful place. Something about the tapes left him feeling… hollow. For all the sustenance they provided and all the answers they alluded to, there's something terribly empty about the whole thing he's only now starting to grasp at the edges of. The Forgotten, the Missing, the… the lack of something.

Can that really be a fear, a great fear, like the Fourteen? Can you really fear the absence of a thing? Or – or is it something else, something he's missing? Something that used to be a thing way back when, but people grew out of?

On an intellectual level it makes sense that people can grow out of fears, culturally. If fears can appear, then why couldn't they also disappear? It only makes sense – as does the fact that Jon can't quite think of fears that might have once existed but which people had grown past. What concerns has the modern world lost? Hunger, maybe? Starvation? People used to die of it lot more before, Jon had even wondered at a time why Famine wasn't one of the fears, if the Flesh was – but then, though there is still hunger in the world, entire populations no longer die in the same way, so… fewer and fewer people fear it. That could be a fear that used to exist but is now gone…

Fear of… of invading perhaps, being changed, that could be one too. It smacks of the Stranger maybe, but war with the emphasis of invasion and colonisation used to be a much larger part of human history and experience a few hundred years ago, so there might've been enough fear about it back then – the fear of having your land taken, changed, turned into something else? It's not a fear Jon can quite grasp now, but…

Fear of god, of hell, back when religion moved people more than it does now? Everyone claims it doesn't exist and never have, but if fear of wide open spaces can be a thing, then why not the fear of, of divine retribution? According to history, people used to be beside themselves with the fear over the state of their souls. Though perhaps that's more about the End…

What could there be, what had there been, some five hundred years ago? A dying great Fear, perhaps so far gone that it could only be recalled as the Forgotten, which people might have tried to revive? And why on earth would anyone want to revive a dying fear? Surely the fact that it is gone is only good for everyone. Less supernatural trouble for humanity to worry about…

The idea that Desmond's spiritual ancestors were so inundated with the worship of a fear that they fought tooth and nail to keep it living is unexpectedly vile, even if Desmond doesn't have any actual blood relation with them.

Worse still is the idea that the plan to revive the Forgotten might still be out there – and Desmond might be, unknowingly, playing some part in it. Retracing the path of the Brotherhood… poking at the corpse of a fallen titan…

Christ, Jon is hungry. He'd gotten used to more with Desmond, being fed fresh almost every day, it had been overwhelming and intense maybe, but – that hadn't stopped him from getting used to it. The recordings had certainly helped, but they'd also made things a little worse – it's been only a few days since then, and already the urge to get something more, something… satisfying is rearing its head.

Does Desmond feel the hunger still? He doesn't seem to be feeding the Lonely anymore. And he's changing too, which would demand some power to keep that change going, surely… and the loss of an eye…

There's a knock on Jon's door, and he draws his mind away from trying to figure out if Desmond is now being fed by the loss of things, if he would now start losing bits and pieces of himself and that would feed him. "Come in… Martin?" he murmurs and then looks up. He hadn't even realised Martin was coming, hadn't seen him –

Martin slips into his office silently and closes the door. He looks – wan and tired and amazing, and he's in Jon's office.

"Hi," Jon says and sits up straighter. "Is – is something wrong – not a question," he says quickly, not wanting to risk compelling the man even as his heart suddenly starts beating a little harder. "C-come in?"

Martin looks at him and snorts softly at that, shaking his head. "Hi, Jon," he says, looking very uncomfortable. "I'm ah – do you mind if I – ?"

Jon has no idea what he wants but the answer is clear enough, "Of course not, go ahead."

Martin nods and then whips something out – a marker. "You got paper – give me some, please?" he asks, and as Jon watches, Martin writes something on the paper, just a couple of lines written behind the cover of his palm. Blinking, Jon waits, expecting him to show it to him – but Martin doesn't. Instead he takes the paper and then rolls it into a long crushed up tube of paper, and stuffs it under Jon's door.

Everything goes – very quiet.

"Figured out my own totem," Martin says a bit awkwardly. "From, you know… the worm incident. Take something symbolically Lonely that matters to me – and stuff it in the gap under the door. Seems about right."

"Um, I – it's very clever," Jon says faintly, not sure how well he likes the sound of that. "I'm sorry, Martin."

"Didn't come here to make you feel sorry. Peter's off to see Elias, I think, and I don't like the implications," Martin says. "But it does mean both of them are busy for a bit, which means I can – go around their backs and do this."

Jon watches, holding his breath, as Martin leans over his desk – and then takes something from under his jumper and places it down. A book – wrapped in embroidered cloth, covered in the symbols of a closed eye and the clouds of the Lonely. "Um," Jon says, a little baffled. "Basira?" he asks faintly.

"I got the idea from her, yes," Martin says and hands Jon a piece of paper. "This came last Wednesday for you – I didn't mean to look through it, but it wasn't marked with a recipient. I – I was tempted to not let you have it, but – it doesn't seem connected to what Elias and Peter are doing. And you should… know."

Jon accepts the printed paper slowly and – he knows what's on it without even reading it. He also knows that Martin had read it – there's just sudden awareness of both, like he had already gone through both and they're already part of his memory. "Oh, I – thank you, Martin," he says softly, blinking rapidly. "You didn't tell Peter?"

"Honestly, it didn't seem like any of his business," Martin admits and shakes his head. "But it's yours, so…"

It is, in part, but only because Desmond made contact with him in the first place. Now…

Jon leans back, setting the paper down. A Leitner – in spirit, anyway. The book had never been part of Leitner's library, Martin had looked it over and there was no label there, Leitner hadn't marked it with his plaque. Still, it is a supernatural book of some kind, and that supernatural aspect of it… is the origin of Desmond's games.

It – makes sense. How could such a person come out of nowhere? Something had to set forth the process of his creation, and for it to be a book… it makes sense. It's just…

Jon looks down at the wrapped up book. He isn't sure why he feels such a profound disappointment over it, but he does. Desmond, while never quite real or quite human, seemed like something… special. Something new and exciting and kind, in a way. For him to be another consequence of another damned book, it's… it's disappointing.

"I'm – I'm sorry," Martin says "I know you like him."

"Mm," Jon answers, resting a hand on the still wrapped up book. A book that forced its reader to recreate its contents – and almost literally give them life. Seems like one that should be destroyed, or at least handled with great care. What would happen to Desmond if it was destroyed? Would he simply cease to be, or had whatever influence the book had given the games' creator passed on to the games?

No, that can't be. Thousands of people are still playing those games, with no adverse effects – nor had anyone ever reported anything supernatural concerning the Assassin's Creed games, Jon had checked. They were just games, up until Desmond got out of them, and then they continued to be games… And there were several years between their completion and Desmond ascending out of them and into reality, too. How and why that happened is still a mystery.

One this book might be able to answer.

"I – think I need to take a look at it," Jon says.

"Are you sure? Did – did you read the message?" Martin asks, frowning.

"I – know the contents, yes," Jon says and looks at the book, blowing out a breath. "I need to take a look – it, it should be fine. My connection to the Beholding will protect me." Probably.

Martin frowns and then nods. "Fine," he says, and that single fine is the implication of but so help me if it does anything...

Jon smiles faintly at that and then unwraps the scarf from around the book. It's as simple as he expected, red leather with metal symbol for the Brotherhood on the front. It's not a big book, and if the pages are something other than paper, then it can't have more than under a hundred of them, it's so thin. For five games worth of material to come from it, though…

Drawing a deep breath, Jon takes the book in his hands and then, careful to keep Martin from seeing what's inside it, in case it would take Jon over as it had the game developer… he slowly opens the book and peeks inside.

Nothing on the inside cover. Nothing on the second spread… nothing on the third, either. Or the fourth. Or the fifth. Frowning, Jon leafs through the pages faster and then opens it at random spots before tilting the book to the side and letting gravity shuffle through the pages. There's nothing there.

"It's – empty," he says. "The whole book is empty."

Martin blinks. "Oh? Can I – maybe it's –"

Jon shows him the book, carefully, and obviously Martin can't see anything in it, either.

"Maybe it's only visible to people who are suitable victims? And we aren't," Martin suggests uncertainly.

"Hm, maybe," Jon says, leafing through the perfectly blank pages confusedly. There's not even a suggestion of anything having ever been written on it – it's like a fresh notebook, just… several hundred years old. "Probably best to keep it away from people who aren't under the influence of the Powers. Still…" it doesn't offer any answers, one way or the other. Explains why the developer could never remember what was in the book, though. "Thank you for bringing this to me, Martin."

"Well, it was addressed to you, even if poorly," Martin mutters and folds his arms. "Jon, you… do you know what you're getting into, with this… with Desmond?"

"I – have an inkling," Jon murmurs and lets the empty book close, the metal emblem in the front glinting enticingly. "But it has nothing to do with the Extinction, so you can rest assured about that."

"… right. You know about that," Martin mutters. "Of course you know about that."

Jon inhales slowly and sighs. "You're making recordings, Martin," he points out. And now that Jon has embraced the cassette tapes as part of himself, well… he knows.

Martin looks away briefly, his expression almost like something Jon remembers seeing on him, before all of this – embarrassment. "They – just appear in my office, and this is still the Archive, so…" he says and coughs. "You should – keep it on the down low. The fact that you can – that the tapes, that you can – you shouldn't tell people about it."

"Peter doesn't know?" Jon asks.

"I hope not, though I think he suspects," Martin says, shaking his head. "He doesn't think you're powerful enough to – connect with them that way yet. One day, sure, but not yet. If you can already, if the tapes are part of you, then… keep it secret."

Jon swallows and nods. "Do you think Elias knows?" he asks. Martin has gone to him, after all – there was even a tape recorder present.

"I don't know, Jon," Martin admits. "Probably. Whether he's told Peter, whether he will, I don't know. They're playing against each other in this, whatever this is, so I hope not."

"Elias is still in charge," Jon points out. "Even behind bars. You know that."

Martin sighs and looks away. "Yeah. But as long as he pretends to be imprisoned like a good boy, and sticks to that cell and what little he can do from there, then we have leeway in what we do here. And Peter is gone more than he's around, which gives me almost all the freedom I want. Whatever game they're playing is dangerous and convoluted… and the more convoluted it gets, the better for us, I think."

Jon nods slowly, watching him. "You're – telling me things again," he points out. "I'm thinking that's not part of the plan."

Martin glances at him and shakes his head. "Their plans are changing," he says. "You going away spooked Elias, and it's making Peter go around on a lot of the things he'd said before. It's… it's making it pretty obvious how much of what they're doing is just educated guesswork."

"Not on Elias' part," Jon mutters. "Whatever he's doing, it's well calculated."

"Yeah, but him, being afraid about you not doing what he wants, it means even he can't see into the future, and even his plans can go wrong," Martin says. "It was easier to… to believe they knew what they were doing, that they had all the reins, that going against those reins was stupid. Now…" he shakes his head. "I'm not sure anyone knows what they're doing. They're just… taking shots in the dark."

"Hm," Jon answers. When even your enemies don't know what they're doing… yeah.

Martin has always been a caretaker type of person, hasn't he? And he's relied all this time on the knowledge that the people in charge, however evil, however cruel, knew what they were doing – that they were taking care of things. Now that faith is gone, Peter and Elias trundled into the ground never realising what they were doing or what they lost. Somewhere along the way Martin looked around and realised no one knows what they're doing.

So now… Martin is going to take care of things.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Jon asks quietly. "With – whatever you're thinking?"

Martin goes to say no immediately, but then he pauses to think, considering. "I'm working on a theory," he admits. "It's – it's still kind of forming in my head, but. If you have the time, can you work on separating written records from your audio tapes? Your and Gertrude's, and both your assistants – just separate them. All the cassette tapes – just the cassette tapes."

Jon blinks, and it's tempting to take a look and see what Martin is thinking… but he doesn't. "Alright, I'll do that," he says. He can sense and see them now, wherever they are, so it shouldn't take him that long. There's thousands of files, but only hundreds of cassette tapes, so… a day's work, and it would be done. "You want me to take them out of the Archives?" he clarifies. "That will wreak havoc on what little filing system we have going on, you realise."

"I know, I'm sorry, but, yeah. Take them out of the Archive – store them here, maybe. I'll get you proper boxes for them," Martin says. "Don't let me know when you have it done."

"Okay? Um, sure, I will do that," Jon says. "On the caveat that you will one day tell me why and help me re-sort everything to their proper places."

Martin offers him a smile. "If I'm right, I'm not sure it will be necessary," he says awkwardly. "Thanks, Jon. For trusting me."

With a sigh Jon nods. "I'm sorry it's been so long in coming."

Martin nods, visibly considers saying some more and then looks to the door. "I should go. Um – hide the book, maybe," he says. "Just in case."

Jon nods, and while Martin takes out his wadded up totem from under the door, Jon wraps the Brotherhood's book back in the muffling, symbol-marked cloth, gently placing it into his desk drawer. Martin glances back at him once more, looking a little torn, and then he leaves without a further word, leaving Jon, once again, alone.

For a moment he sits there, still, his mind quietly filling with the chatter and noise of the institute, with the Knowledge of where everyone is, more or less. Melanie isn't in – she's in therapy. Basira is in the Archives, researching something Jon could look into at a distance, but decides not to, to let her have her privacy. Daisy is there with her, quietly stretching still aching legs as she resolutely refuses to engage with whatever hunt Basira has going on. Martin is returning to his office, barricading himself in…

Why is it that an Archivist always has three assistants? Gertrude had three, and Jon has always had three. Sasha, Tim and Martin at first. Then Tim, Martin and Basira. Then Martin, Basira and Melanie… now Martin has left the Archives, and there's Daisy, who has technically replaced him, though she, much like Melanie, refuses to actually work for the Archives…

Always three. The Archivist and three Archival Assistants. Why? Is trinity such an important number to the Fears? Doesn't seem very likely. Three parts of an eye, maybe? The sclera, the iris, the pupil. Or maybe because of three-dimensional vision. The three types of cones in human eyes for trichromatic colour vision…

Shaking his head, Jon stands up. He has no statements to read, and the one from Dehler has already been read and added to his Archive, so it will be nothing but excess mastication if he reads it now… Might as well get started on separating the tapes. And if Basira happened to need any help with whatever she was working on, Jon could give her a hand. Though he doubts she would ask for help. She never does.

Jon pauses on the way to the door, glancing at the trash can. Martin threw the wadded up paper there, where he'd written something. Jon could just look and see, but… he crouches down instead and takes the paper in hand, gently easing the twisted roll open, spreading it out. The writing is a little blurry, the ink had been wet when Martin had rolled it up and it had smeared, but it's still recognizable.

It's… a line from a poem.

"Oh," Jon murmurs. "Oh, Martin." It must've been written by him – a bit of a poem he'd…

Smoothing the paper against the door, Jon runs a thumb over the blocky letters, and then gently folds the paper before putting it into his pocket. The knowledge of it being there is warm, like… well. Like it's a totem.

Jon knows he's probably not going anywhere without it, now.

Right. Basira. Might as well go and offer her his assistance. You never know – maybe she'd learned something new about how the world is going to end the next time.

Chapter Text

Desmond feels a little better about life in general once he's left Cyprus behind. He does check that the ship he gets on isn't obviously covered in spiders – not as much as the previous one, at least. He's still doing what the Web probably wants him to, heading to Masyaf to try and figure out the next piece of the puzzle or whatever, but at least this way he can pretend he is doing what he wants and not what an Assassin who should've died almost five hundred years ago wants him to do.

Going to Masyaf is probably not the best idea, considering the state of the region currently, though. Desmond hadn't even realised, hadn't really… looked into it. It's hard to keep track of modern things now, with his mind being in the past more often than not, but… There's a civil war in Syria, a pretty serious one at that, and… yeah. That's a… yeah.

Going from a dingy chamber with a monster into the wide open ocean and the realisation that he's probably heading into a war zone, it – it does put things into a weirdly wide perspective. He's still more than a little shaken after the Echo, and going from that crowded headspace into the realisation of the wide open world with all of its problems and issues and difficulties…

Desmond hasn't had to ever really deal with the concept of war, and he knows he's kind of privileged in that. In the realm of a game world, these things, they just… they don't exist. Everything is narrowed down to only what matters in the story, and if there just so happens to be a bloody conflict in the area in the real world, well, it doesn't affect the game world. And his head is still stuck there, in part. In that narrowed, protected view of fiction. Blissfully ignorant of the reality of things.

Then, on the ship, he hears some of the crew talk in Arabic about the United States pulling out of Syria, and it just – it hits him, with a surprisingly heavy blow. That the world is – it's big. Beyond all the monsters and entities and whatnot, the world is a vast place full of issues and conflicts and trouble.

The fact that Desmond, after almost walking face first into a cobweb, had promptly decided the ship was too damn stuffy and then proceeded to climb the tallest spot on the ship… yeah, sitting up on the masthead probably doesn't help how small he suddenly feels.

He probably should forget about Masyaf. According to his research, back when his phone still worked, before the Dark drained its battery down to the point of hollowing the whole damn thing out, he'd read that the castle is long gone. There'd been a mention of some ruins being left, but as far as history thinks, the al-Kahf Castle had just up and vanished sometime before 1260, wasn't it? So chances are there's nothing left there.

Yeah, the same way there was nothing left in Rome, probably. Or on Cyprus. Absolutely nothing left in either of those places.

Desmond sighs, tilting his head back to stare at the open blue sky above him.

He wants to bury Echo in Masyaf. The sack in which the parts of it are is hidden in the ship below, waiting for landfall. Desmond had meant to bury Echo topside in Cyprus, find some nice place and give the thing some proper Assassin rites and all… but it just hadn't seemed right. Masyaf seems more fitting. More poetic – and also more of a fuck you to the actual Ezio and the sad mess he'd left behind. Poor Echo.

He's probably being stupid again.

No he's definitely being stupid.

"Well, I have to say, this does rather make my job easier for me."

Desmond blinks and then looks down and then behind himself. There are cables attached to the masthead, running into some antennas and whatnot, and on the cables there stands an old, kind of windswept man, tiny and thin. He's just standing there, on a metal wire, several dozens of meters from the ship below. The hell…

"Lemme guess," Desmond says flatly to the man. "You're an avatar?"

"Ah, yes, that's what they're calling our sort these days, isn't it? Seems 'bout right, yes," the old man says, smiling at him rather cheerfully and tipping him an invisible hat. "Simon Fairchild is the name, I am the avatar of the Falling Titan. That is to say, the Vast."

Well… that explains absolutely nothing. "Okay. Desmond Miles, nice to meet you, I guess," Desmond says and then turns around to face the guy – there's not much space on the masthead, it's basically just a pole, and he has to swing his legs over it to hang on the other side. The old man waits patiently as Desmond settles back down. "Did you come here led by spider webs?" he asks then

"Ah, no – Peter Lukas sent me to kill you," the old man says, all friendly like.

"Er," Desmond answers, feeling his expression freeze. "Okay, I – gotta admit, I didn't expect that. Peter Lukas, as in, the Head of the Magnus Institute? What did I ever do to him?"

"Hm, I don't think it is so much what you did to him, as much as what you did to the Archivist," Simon says, balancing on the wire seemingly without any trouble, despite the fact that it's windy as hell up there. "Peter and Elias – you know Elias, I hope, Elias Bouchard, the former head? – well, they have some sort of gamble going on, and from what I figured, you threw some wrenches into their works, and now Elias wants you dead, he asked Peter to sort it out, likely by promising favours, and since I lost a bet to Peter some time ago and owed him a favour, well, this is how he chose to use it."

"Um. So, Elias wants me dead, he delegated the murder to Peter, who… delegated it to you," Desmond clarifies.

"That seems about the size of it, yes," the old man agrees. "And I have to say, it's the kind of trouble that makes a man mighty curious. What did you do to the Archivist that has all their knickers in such a twist?"

Desmond snorts. "I showed him the world," he says wryly. "Shining, shimmering and splendid."

"Oh, wonderful – always loved that one," Simon says, delightedly. "So you showed the Archivist things other than what Elias wanted him to see and, ah, yes. I can see why that would tick him off. Hm. He always does get peeved when his plans don't turn out the way he wants them to."

"Right," Desmond says, considering him. "And you're just… good with the murder, huh?"

"Well, a bet is a bet, and I do owe Peter one – and the request did catch my interest. It's not the sort of thing Peter delegates usually, you see – feeding people to the Lonely is much more low-key," Simon says, making a little waving motion, his fingers thin and his wrist like a twig. "Just poof and they're gone, no fuss, no issues. For him to ask for help in such a matter, well… that makes you someone rather interesting, doesn't it?"

"Does it?" Desmond asks, trying to keep up. The guy talks fast, geez. "Might be because I was an avatar of the Lonely before, and it couldn't eat me then and probably can't now, either."

"Oh, indeed? I suppose that explains it then," Simon says, apparently satisfied with this explanation. "How interesting. The Lonely doesn't make that many avatars – it's ever so much effort, I think. Takes a certain temperament, to give into the Lonely without giving into the Lonely. It's so very easy to lose yourself in, I'm sure you understand."

"Um, yeah, okay, sure," Desmond says, blankly. "If you say so."

"I suppose I am no expert," Simon says modestly. "But it does seem that way for me, anyway."

"Right," Desmond says and then shakes his head. This has nothing to do with the main issue. "So, how are you going to kill me? I'm guessing not in a fist fight." The guy looks like a stiff breeze would take him out, except for the fact that it isn't. The Vast, huh?

"Oh, no, no, of course not," Simon says and smiles. "I thought I'd simply throw you off the ship and then watch as you slowly drown in the Mediterranean sea. It's so very vast, after all."

Okay, having someone tell him they're going to murder him with such cheer in their voice, that's… a new level of weird. "Right," Desmond says and sighs. "Okay. Do you mind if I get something from the ship below before you try to do that? I got my brother stowed away in the hold, I'd rather not leave him here alone." Echo's been alone for long enough, really.

"Oh? That's – a very unusual reaction to such a thing, but I suppose this is a day of unusual things," Simon says, seeming more curious than anything else. "How do you plan on getting down from here?"

Desmond shrugs and stands up with a stretch. "I figure I'd just jump. Oh, another thing – I got a sentient painting, do you think you could deliver him to the Magnus Institute after you toss me overboard? I don't think he'd take that well into being dunked into the ocean. Be a bit of shame anyway, it's a really nice painting… if you're into that sort of thing."

Simon blinks at him. "Well now," he says almost admonishingly. "I have to admit, you have caught my interest, my dear boy – you are not reacting to this at all the way I thought you would."

Desmond sighs. "It's been that kind of week," he muses, peers down for a safe landing spot. There, a lifeboat with a tarp over it, it shows up white and inviting under Eagle Vision. So, with a fatalistic sigh, Desmond stretches out his arms, and jumps.

His first Leap of Faith since coming to this place, and it's before he's about to be thrown off a ship. It's almost poetic.

Simon Fairchild is waiting beside the lifeboat when he climbs out of it, blinking at him with open fascination. "Well, well," the old man says. "You are an interesting one, aren't you?"

"Are you going to follow me around the ship? I'm a stowaway, you'll get me caught. You'll get caught," Desmond comments, standing up.

"I really do think that's the least of your concerns right now, but by all means, let's be sneaky about it," Simon says, "Haven't had the cause to do that in a while, sneak about. Hehe. Right after you, then."

Somehow they don't get caught. Desmond has a feeling it has something to do with the old man, like he exerts some kind of influence of his own or something… or maybe people just don't want to pay any mind to the strange thing happening in front of them. Simon definitely doesn't look like the kind of guy who just stows away on a cargo ship, especially not with the fancy suit the guy is wearing. At this point Desmond is kind of beyond caring.

It really has been a week, hasn't it. A whole ass of a week.

Desmond finds the sack of the bits and pieces of Echo which he'd hidden between some smaller crates, and checks it over, peering inside just in case a rat or something squirmed their way in. Or a spider. "Not quite the burial I meant for you," he comments, patting the block of wood that had been the thing's head. "But better than a lightless chamber on Cyprus, right?"

"… fascinating," comes behind him, as Simon Fairchild leans over. "That's the Roman Marionette, isn't it?"

"I'm sorry?" Desmond asks.

"Oh, it used to go around some… four hundred and fifty years ago? Killed a few people, tore some bookshops apart, before the Hospitallers lured it onto a ship and to Cyprus," the old man says. "Last I heard of it, it had been trapped underground somewhere – where on earth did you find it?"

Desmond blinks and looks at him. "Echo killed people?" he asks.

"Hm, a few people, not nearly as many as it could have, I suppose. Echo, hm? Well," Simon says, considering. "There was something about books. I wasn't around then, not really, but I did see your friend once, in the… flesh, so to speak. Quite the terrifying thing – the Stranger did quite a deal with masks and puppets back then. Oh, the Carnivale in Venice was stock full of the Stranger's creations back in the day."

Desmond turns to face the guy. "How old are you?" he asks suspiciously.

"Desmond, don't you know you should never ask a lady her age?" Simon says, huffing theatrically.

"You're not a lady."

"Well, now I'm doubly insulted," Simon says, huffing again. "But for your information… well, I can't say I've kept track. After the first few centuries the years just start blending together, you see, and quite honestly I'm not entirely sure what the year now is. But I was born, hmm, somewhere in the mid 16th century, if you must know."

Avatars can live that long? Desmond tilts his head, eyeing him. He does look very old. "You're lively for a four hundred and fifty year old," he comments.

"Why thank you – it's the Vast, it really goes a long way," Simon says, obviously a private joke, and chuckles. "I do like to keep things fresh. And my… you are a fresh one, aren't you?"

"Er," Desmond answers, not sure where the conversation is going now, but not sure he likes it either. "Right, um. Can you tell me anything else about Echo – what else it did?"

"I've told you about all I know, honestly, it seems like, considering that you killed it, you know much more," Simon says, tapping his chin and looking between Desmond and the sack of bits and bobs. "You mentioned a sentient painting, too… an End creation?"

"Yeah – a self-portrait of the beloved of Death," Desmond says.

"Oh," Simon says and actually puts a hand on his chest. "Oh, it's been more than the age of a man since I've heard it being called like that. Beloved of Death, isn't that just lovely. I do miss those times – everyone is always so hung up on the suffering and the misery of these things, so few take pleasure in the thing anymore. That's what makes us avatars – the fact that we love the things so many fear so much."

"Right," Desmond says, feeling like that's all he's doing right now, just agreeing with the rapid fire flood of words. "If you say so."

"I do, I do indeed – tell me, that Jump you did, splendid form, by the way – do you do it often?" Simon asks, and looks at him. "Because it had the loveliest flair of a ritual to it."

"… oh," Desmond says. Of course it fucking did, what else did he expect. He sighs and shakes his head. "Used to do it more, kind of. Haven't had much call for it lately," he says and turns to close the cape sack, winding a leather strap around the mouth to keep it tightly shut. "Was feeling a little cramped down here, though, so…"

"I know just the feeling," Simon says with great sympathy and steps back as Desmond stands up with the sack over his shoulder. "So, a former avatar of the Lonely, who seduced an Archivist away, who is carrying with him the corpse of a Stranger's Marionette, a portrait of a beloved of Death, and judging by the look of the eye, you've traded looks with the Dark too… what else, what else – ah, I do spot a knife. Slaughter? And on top of all of that, you perform little rituals for the Vast."

Well… when he puts it like that. Desmond clears his throat. "I think I'm ready to be thrown overboard now," he says warily. "Ready when you are."

"Oh, no, no," Simon says, smiling a little wider. "I have decided, I will not kill you now, you're far too interesting. And I am missing one, aren't I? Which one did I miss, the Buried, have you been trapped underground? Or, ah, the End, there's been more than your contact with its beloved."

Desmond sighs. "And I have an Eye power," he says, defeated.

"Splendid," Simon says, clapping his hands and laughing. "No wonder Elias wants you dead, you are entirely abnormal. How exquisite. Where are you headed, Desmond?"

Desmond considers his life, his options, the chances he'd have if he jumped overboard, and how badly Salaì would curse at him if he really did get his painting soaked with salt water. Then he sighs. Fuck it. "Masyaf – it's a town in Syria, where once upon a time a brotherhood of Assassins lived and vanished, apparently," Desmond says. "I'm intending to poke around some ruins until I inevitably find a hidden chamber and then some monster attacks me."

"That happens often to you?" Simon asks interestedly.

"Yeah," Desmond says. "Yeah, it does."

"Wonderful," Simon says, delighted. "Just wonderful. Come, my dear boy – let's jump ship and see where we end up."

"Sure, why the fuck not," Desmond agrees and sighs. "What could possibly go wrong. Any sea monsters around here?"

"Why of course there are," Simon says. "Don't you know, the sea is a terrible vast place full of terrifying monsters."

Great. Just great. Shaking his head, Desmond checks that he has his messenger bag, Salaì's tube, that everything is strapped on tight and then, with Echo's sack held over one shoulder, he follows Simon back onto the open deck.

Outside everything has gone very, very still.

The ocean, previously rolling at mild sea breeze, is completely motionless, its surface like glass, like a mirror. The ship's engines have gone deathly quiet, and the ship sits motionless on the utterly still waters, and suddenly everything seems just – too big. The way the water meets the sky in a far, far-flung distance, how the line between the surface and the blue heavens seems to blur and vanish, until the clouds float up from the water and come down from the sky, and everything is just blue all throughout –

"The Vast?" Desmond asks, quietly – his voice sounding oddly small against the immense silence.

Simon hops easily to stand on a thin metal railing that separates the ship's deck from the endless blue just beyond. "Just so," he says, and holds out his hand. "Come, Desmond. Come look at the deep blue."

Swallowing Desmond takes the hand and lets himself be drawn on the railing. It's like the ship isn't even on water anymore – it's hanging instead miles and miles above, in the endless blue sky, the clouds never ending and the sun's light coming from all directions all at once – it's almost unbearable, how big it all is.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Simon whispers, conspiratorially, lovingly. "So few appreciate the feel of it, the true, crushing weight of it – how small we are and how immense everything else is. We're not even the grains of sand on the shoreline of the universe, we're not big enough to be bacteria clinging to those grains, even specks of dust matter more than we do. We're nothing. It's it lovely?"

"It's… kind of a relief, I guess," Desmond agrees.

"How so?" Simon asks.

"Being so small… our fuckups don't mean much, do they?"

"Now that is the right perspective," Simon says, and with a grin and a pat to Desmond's back, shoves him over the edge and into the endless blue sky. "Enjoy it!" he shouts. "Enjoy the sky blue!"

And what do you know – Desmond really does.

Chapter Text

Jon is trying to pick through three separate statements, trying to figure out which one to record. They all feel stale even to the touch, old records from Gertrude's time – confirming this or that ritual and their ultimate failure. Though he can't tell word for word what's in each one, they feel like – like he knows them already. One statement is about Agnes Montague and how she was made. Another was about the space station Daedalus and hints to the ritual of the Dark. The last is an old record from 1955, concerning the ritual of the Slaughter.

He can almost – see them, without ever opening the files. Agnes Montague, who was made to be the incarnation of the Desolation, and who ultimately fell and failed because of human emotions. The Extinguished Sun, it begun in space, with the creation of the dark sun, many years ago. The Nemesis, a ship built upon violence, where bloodied survivors fought to the death until none remained, and then it sank, too rotten to even sail.

Jon is getting stronger – and with that strength comes the knowledge of the things already in the Archives. If he concentrates, he can tell what's on files he's never touched, where to find files he's never thought to look for, where everything is and should be and how… how they all come together, or don't, in the grand scheme of things. The Archives are still a mess, the filing system is still atrocious, and it's in even worse shape now that he's separated the tapes and written records, but he feels like he knows it now. Like it's – it's the mess of his own house, where he knows where to find everything, despite the fact that nothing is where it should be.

It's how he also knows that nothing in there will be enough to feed him for long. There's a gnawing, restless urge to get up and find something new, something fresh. Surely there is someone out there with a new story, new recollection, a new fear for him to learn and experience through them, a new –

Sighing Jon puts a hand on his forehead, willing the headache to abate. Maybe he would read all three of the statements, one after another, and maybe that would be enough to sate him for a bit. Maybe…

It probably wouldn't be enough soon, just reading old statements. Not with – with the totems, with his own awakening of sorts, it's – it's demanding more. God, would soon he have to find sacrifices too, like the candles fed to Agnes Montague, would he have to – to skin people, to replace his own insides with impossible things, become a monster, in and out, what? No. Probably not. The Eye watches, it Beholds – it wouldn't be satisfied until he found someone, gazed into the abyss of their deepest traumas, and then forced them to relive those traumas forever in their nightmares.

And he couldn't do that.

Damn, but he misses Desmond. Misses the moments when just talking to the man on a crowded bus was enough to give him that satisfaction of being watched, being feared, of being…

Jon lifts his head, frowning. There's something outside his door.

Quickly standing up, Jon walks to the door and pushes it open. The door of his office faces a blank wall, usually – but not anymore. There's someone there, and they're hanging something on the wall, a frame with an old painting in it. It's –

"Salaì?" Jon asks, and the old man who's just finished hanging the painting looks over his skinny shoulder and back at him.

"Oh, shoot," the old man says. "And here I was hoping to slip away before you even noticed me. Getting sharp in the eye, eh?"

Jon just gapes at him and the painting, while on it Salaì stretches languidly and sighs. There's newer welts on his skin, and the painting has bled enough that the elaborate gold-leafed frame is already a little stained. "Oh, that's much better," the painting says in Italian and looks down at Jon. "Ah. There you are."

"What?" Jon asks, looking between him and the old man – and then Jon Knows who he is. "You're Simon Fairchild. But – howwhere's Desmond?" he demands, feeling the compulsion lash out in his voice like a whip.

"Probably already in Egypt," Simon says and shudders. "Oh, that is quite the voice you got, young man – he took a plane from Beirut, I believe, and it should've landed by now. Beyond that, I'm afraid I don't know. He really didn't want me getting on the same plane as him, you see. For reasons I believe you can guess."

Jon stares at him and then looks up at Salaì. "He gave Salaì to you," he says. "Why? Or did you take him?"

"No, it was quite the amiable handover. And he did it to bring him here, of course," the old man says and pats the portrait fondly. "Plus the old boy was getting quite cramped in the tube he was being carried in, quite the undignified state for such a fantastic piece of art. Even if the clouds are utterly terrible – swirls, Salaì, really?" he says the last bit in Italian.

"I needed to invoke the Trickster," Salaì says with a harrumph, while writhing to lay on his front among the roses, stretching his arms out as if to embrace all the thorns. "You have no cause to criticise me, you airy little charlatan – you haven't painted anything of note since – well, ever."

"This from a man who painted a version of Mona Lisa with her breasts out," Simon answers and tuts, smiling. "And yourself like – well – this! You are utterly vile and impudent."

"And you are a crazy old man," Salaì answers and yawns. "Couldn't even find me a nicer view than this. Tch, no taste to speak of."

"Well, now –"

"Excuse me," Jon says, finding his voice. "W-why did Desmond give Salaì to you, who – what did you do to him? Is he alright?"

Simon's thin throat works for a moment, and he lets out a frustrated sigh. "Archivists," he says after a moment with some difficulty. "Ever so impatient. Desmond is quite alright, I promise, all things considered, and I did what he asked – I tossed him off a ship," Simon says, giving him a look. "I believe he quite enjoyed it too. You be careful now, young man," he says then, narrowing his eyes when Jon opens his mouth to ask. "We're not so far below the ground that I can't find something to toss you out of, or into. Play nice, Archivist."

He doesn't look particularly threatening, being that he's shorter than even Jon is, and far thinner too. One of the statements once described Simon Fairchild as tiny pink skeleton of a man, and honestly, it's not far off the mark. Still, there's a feel about him, that aura of the other that makes air around him seem bigger than it is. It's almost as though the corridor around them is stretching, flexing, and everything seems suddenly just… larger.

Simon Fairchild, Jon Knows abruptly, is very old – and very powerful, despite all appearances.

Jon presses his lips together and swallows. "I – apologise," he says and then chooses his words carefully. "I would like to know, if… if Desmond said something, if he – he sent Salaì to me, so, if there was a message…"

Simon arches his brow and then smiles. "It's quite difficult, isn't it? To just talk without asking questions. Heh. Yes, there was actually a message," he agrees and takes out something from the inside pocket of his jacket. "And it is out of respect to the young man and the sheer… irreverence he gives to the Vast that I ever chose to deliver it – not because of you, Archivist."

"Irreverence," Jon repeats even as his eyes are drawn to the paper. It's handwritten, and he knows it will be sweet. "Shouldn't that – most avatars demand respect and fear for their patrons."

"Well, I like few things as much as I like a reckless fool that finds his way to the highest peak just to throw himself down from it," Simon says and chuckles. "Never mind all the other things he stands for – and doesn't. He's got dimension to him, that boy. Quite the… depth. Heh. Well, here you are, Archivist," he says and hands the paper over. "Enjoy your statement, for you shan't be getting one from me."

"… thank you," Jon says, licking his lips and accepting the paper. He feels something from it, from Simon – the guy knows something, he – Jon draws a breath and carefully stays out of it. "I would like to know how you and Desmond met," he says then. "But I think Desmond wrote about it here."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Simon agrees. "Which is why I believe I shall be taking my leave before you do read it. Peter won't be very happy with me at all, and I believe I need to find some far-flung place to hide in for a while now. Well then. Cheerio."

Jon blinks and looks after the cheerful old man incredulously. He really did just say that – Simon Fairchild just said cheerio to him. "Well, alright then," Jon says and looks up at Salaì. "Um."

Salaì peers at him with a single unimpressed eye open. "I don't suppose you could move me somewhere else?" he asks, giving a disdainful glance to the hallway. "This place is dreary."

"I'll… see about finding you a space in the upper levels – near the artefact storage, maybe, it should be more interesting there," Jon says faintly. "That's a very nice frame – did Desmond get you that?"

"Hm? Oh, no, it was Simon," Salaì says and wiggles, obviously pleased. "He's a ridiculous old man, but he knows how to treat a painting right. Unlike some."

Jon has a sudden feeling of doom and clears his throat. "I see," he says faintly. "Right, um. I'll – I'll just look this over," he waves the paper. "And see about moving you. You just – sit there for a moment."

Salaì scoffs at him, and Jon more or less escapes back into his office, closing the door after himself and quickly opening the letter.

It's not very long, which is even at a first glance disappointing, but he can feel the power roiling in the words, barely contained in the paper and the ink of a cheap ball point pen. Jon can – he can see him writing. It was on a rooftop, windswept, the air tugging at the corners of the paper, making them curl – the hand is shaky.

Jon

It's been a while, huh? Sorry about that, my phone just went and died after the thing in Rome, and I haven't been able to get a new one. Harder to steal stuff now that people can see me and actually remember me. I also lost my tape recorder and my camera, because I, uh, went impromptu skydiving without a parachute, thanks to Simon? I swear, I'm, like, going backwards in technology here. Soon I'll be sending you smoke signals, huh?

Here's hoping not.

I have so much I want to tell you, but I don't think I can, anymore. I learned something in Masyaf, I want to tell you so bad, but – the Untold Sacrifice abhors being recorded, and I can't, that's – that's the nature of it. I – they sacrificed themselves utterly, in body and memory, that's – that's how it works, why it works – fuck, I can't write about it.

Funny thing is, I know why I exist now. You'd think it would make things better, but it doesn't really. They made me from nothing to become this thing, and – and apparently that's about as much as I can write about it, okay, shit.

I think I should stop now. I should – I should probably stop. Figure out a way to kill myself, before – before this process finishes. I bleed now, so maybe I could bleed out? I… I don't want to die, though, so. You see my dilemma. And I don't think Ezio will let me die at this point. Yeah, this sucks.

I'm sending Salaì to you. Going by my track record, I will probably end up being mauled or something when I make it to Alexandria, and he doesn't deserve this shit. Take care of him, 'kay? Give him a nice view, somewhere sunny. And throw a tarp over him or something when he gets too – you know. Promiscuous.

If, if we meet again, ask me about Echo, okay? I wanna tell you about him. I want someone to know about him. Don't have the time to write about him now, I wasted too much time trying to write about the other thing, and Simon is telling me I'm gonna be late at this rate. Sorry, I really wanted to – to give you a nice meal, as like… I don't know. Would be nice for something good to come out of this, for someone, at least. Sorry.

I gotta stop now or I'm gonna miss my flight – so, you can probably imagine my mental state right now. Heh.

Safety and peace, Jon.

- Desmond.

Jon's heart is thundering in his chest as he finishes. He can feel the emotion dripping from the letter – Desmond's panic and betrayal and anger and utter, overwhelming fear. And yet, it's all underlined with a strangest backdrop of complete serenity so absolute it feels almost sinister. For all the frustration and shock Desmond had written with, there was resignation there too, acceptance in the face of the utter dread he felt.

Closing his eyes, Jon presses the letter to his chest. There's almost nothing of clarity on it, and yet he feels utterly sated by it, by the feeling emanating from it. Desmond's whole worldview had been shaken, he was terrified, and Jon revels in the feeling of it like it's a balm on aching wounds. It feels – lovely.

It's a moment before he has the presence of mind to feel horrified by his own reaction. Desmond was afraid, and he revelled in it like –

Shuddering, Jon lifts the letter and reads it again, walking over to his desk. There is a tape recorder sitting there, waiting, the reel turning idly as it records the silence of the office. Jon reaches out to turn it off and lays the paper on the desk.

He'd – felt it. There is an intent behind Desmond, like a great unseen mechanism. The statement of Dehler, the empty book, the games, the mysteries of fictional characters that turned out to be not so fictional – he'd felt it. There were strings all over it, moving pieces here and there, and for there to be strings, there must be a puppeteer.

Desmond himself suspected that Ezio was not only real, but still alive. Though whether an avatar that old could be called alive… Frowning, Jon looks up and then behind himself, at his office door. Simon Fairchild was nearly as old, and he was still very alive. Alive enough that Jon is fairly certain his insides were still flesh and blood. So, where does the line sit, then – the line between human avatar and the manifestation of an entity?

Does it even matter? Desmond is going to Alexandria, and he is afraid.

On the desk, the tape recorder clicks itself back on, and Jon looks at it, frowning. "What?" he asks. "Should I take that as a sign I should go as well? I'm not reading the letter out loud for you. This doesn't belong in the Archive. This belongs to the Codex."

He blinks at that as he – grasps at the edges of it, the understanding, the knowledge. The Codex – Desmond knows what the Codex is, now, Jon can Read it between the lines of the letter, Desmond knows, and through his words Jon can almost… he almost knows too…

Could he… could he just… Look, and… Know…?

Looking down at the Letter, Jon runs a hand over his mouth. He'd – thought about doing it before. He thought of looking into what Martin was doing, what Peter was planning, but he'd ultimately decided to trust in Martin and leave it be. This is different though – this is dangerous, and if Desmond doesn't have a choice anymore, if he can't stop… if he needs someone to stop him, then…

Maybe he should Look. Maybe it would be wrong not to.

Taking a deep breath, Jon straightens his back. "Okay," he says and then closes his eyes. "Right… right…"

Jon blows out the breath he took and then, keeping his eyes shut, he slowly but determinedly opens his eye.

The first thing he Sees is the instant lance of pain through his head, as though someone had driven a knife through his skull and is trying to mangle his brain.

The second is the feeling of thousands and thousands eyes turning their gazes on him – only they're not the eyes of the Watcher. These are individual eyes with individual owners, hundreds of them, thousands of them – generations of people with the Eyes of the Eagle turn to glare at him, and Jon finds himself surrounded by them, all of them, as they stare down upon him –

He sees a castle, ancient – no, not ancient, but old enough. It stood tall and mighty on a mountain top hundreds of years ago, and on its highest point stood a man, a beast, a monster, the one Rashid al-Din Sinan called his eagle, Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, named for the Eagle's Eye, a star – born in darkness, in pain, born to become a killer.

There had been a book, the original Key of Solomon, which detailed the Entities, which described Rituals, which was the only book ever capable of containing the knowledge of how Powers are born – and how to bring one into existence. It had been found in a tomb, in a temple, it had been fought for, blood had been spilled over it, and it had been read, and within it, there were secrets, terrible secrets, terrible rites

Rashid had meant to become one. He had built a Library of Power, he had collected Men with Terrible Gifts, and then he had fed them to his eagle, one by one, Altaïr had killed nine avatars of the nine powers described in the Key of Solomon.

One for the Dark, a black market dealer that worked in the shadows. One for the Spiral, a doctor who twisted the minds of the sick. One for the Hunt, a slaver that turned people into sport. One for the Corruption, a merchant who delighted in filth and poisoned his guests. One for the Slaughter, a war lord who executed prisoners by the thousands. One for the Vast, a man who thought himself a god, playing with the lives of others. One for the Stranger, a man overcome with paranoia who killed his allies in fear of strangers. One for the Desolation, a man who burned books and delighted in destruction of knowledge. And the last for the End, the man who began it all.

And Rashid himself would be the Tenth. All he had to do was feed his eagle with the manifestations of the powers, soak its feathers in their blood and their suffering – and then sacrifice it on the altar of his own power, like a bird of prey fattened by those that it had consumed.

But it didn't work. For one, he couldn't kill Altaïr, he wasn't capable of it. And Rashid didn't know the book was wrong, the Key of Solomon was wrong right from the start. There were already more Powers then than just nine – there were other forces, and even if there hadn't been, he got it wrong.

In the end, all it did was make Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad powerful beyond belief. Altaïr was the avatar of the Vast, and within him woke the Eye, and together they gave him a Vision almost beyond human comprehension.

Jon Sees it now.

The Codex.

Eight hundred years of willing human sacrifices, of Assassins giving themselves to the Great Powers, of men and women over many generations silently and brutally empowering themselves with sacrifices who deserved death, and then sacrificing themselves in turn to the Codex – all in preparation for a day in a far flung future, when it would be enough.

Jon Knows.

Chapter Text

As a rule Peter doesn't spend more than perhaps ten minutes at the office on any given day – less, if he can manage it. There's too many people in the Magnus Institute, even when the doors are locked and even the researchers have finally gone home, there's always somebody there. Cleaners come at night to try and get rid of all the spider webs, a job which now takes so much effort that Martin had taken the liberty of hiring extra janitorial staff... which ultimately doesn't do much. There's always more cobwebs back there, by the morning.

The Web's quiet, slow assault on the Archives is almost complete now, and the main reason Peter hasn't authorised the use of flamethrowers is because, for all their choking presence, they haven't done anything yet. They're just there, waiting.

Plus, Elias would likely skin him alive if Peter set his precious Archive on fire.

The Archivist is another who never seems to leave these days. Jonathan Sims had rather given up the pretence of having a flat he's at all interested returning to, and considering what Peter had heard about the man's dreams, he's not sure he can blame him. It does make the Institute unpleasant to visit, more and more each day. Between the spiders and the Archivist's eye roaming the halls of the building, it's just… too much observation for Peter's liking. So he avoids it, more and more.

But he still has something of a job to do, and though most of it can be done at a distance in form of memos and such, there are the occasional on site check-ups he needs to do. If nothing else, he needs to make sure Martin isn't getting… ideas.

Though that rather seems to be a lost cause already. What Peter had hoped would be a long, drawn out campaign to wear out what Elias had assured Peter was quite hopeless adoration poor Martin had for the Archivist, it had turned into something of a marathon. Being apart had only made hearts grow fonder there, and being alone had just steeled Martin's resolve. What a headstrong young man – Elias had quite underestimated him.

That's a thing with the Lonely, though. Everyone always does. There are two types of avatars for the Lonely, in Peter's experience. There are the hermits like Peter, who seclude themselves and then enjoy their own solitude, suffering quietly to themselves. They're the predictable sort, the comforting and easy to handle sort. The kind Elias thinks they all are.

But then there are people like Martin – people like Desmond Miles seemed to have been. People whose loneliness just makes them stronger and kinder, who find some well of serenity in being lonely and then draw power from it. Peter had privately called them sages and saints in his own head… but he doesn't really see the point in titles. They're not quite right anyway. Martin is early in that process, and Peter had tried his best to steer him to his own sort, but…

They'd miscalculated. The Archivist had gone on a little sabbatical and found himself, and Martin, like a silent counterweight, had moved to answer in kind. And now Peter had lost the handle he had on Martin, the same way Elias, no matter how he denied it, had lost the handle on the Archivist, and for all the webs all over the institute, the situation was no longer under control.

There's a storm brewing. And, looking down on the spiderweb-covered, innocent little cassette tape sitting on Elias' desk… Peter desperately wants to set out to the sea before it hits.

He puts the tape into a recorder and with a sigh sits down to listen to it. He'd not particularly surprised when it's Gertrude's voice that comes from the speakers.

Well. I believe I've just about come to the end here, all the pieces spring together nicely, or… as nicely as anything about any of this does. It's all so very messy in the end, and not because of our entities, or great fears, but because of people. We add so much of our own nonsense to this all that in the end it's not the Fears we fight or worship, but the people attached to them. The Fears themselves…

Hm. I have quite given up the hope of figuring out where they come from – or what they are. Answering the question, if possible at all, is ultimately meaningless and will change nothing about our reality now. Once a power comes into its own, I don't think it can ever truly be undone, not by anything but the total change of all the things that live and have enough mind to fear things – and even a mouse can fear being watched, being hunted, having its fellow mouse sicken and turn strange, go mad, slaughter its fellow mice… even a mouse can fear dark and death, pain and loneliness… hmm...

Fears can be created, though, this I am now certain of. And I do think it's always, always, intentional. We call out to the gods to save us from the dark, from pain, from sickness – have enough animals wishing their previous owners would save them from being turned into meat and, well, there we are. It's the intent that's the key – intent that can turn a not yet born human child into an incarnation of fire, that can create a dark sun that defies all the laws of science. Intent, what we want, what we desire – what we give ourselves and our sacrifices for, that's the root of all of this, isn't it? Desire, intent, Arthur's Gut Feeling – whatever feels right. Whatever freezes our bellies with fear.

The Great Powers are. They can be invoked, they can be called upon – and sometimes they bleed through the reality on their own, like oozing sores – but they haven't will of their own, they don't want anything, they don't have enough will to do so. They simply are, and by being they shape reality.

And that's why I think most of them were called into being, by long rituals and thousands of sacrifices – or simply by wish and fear of enough people. In one way or the other, those that called them wanted to change reality, make something they feared into something they could control. Perhaps the creation of the Dark coincided with humans discovering fire, perhaps the End came about with the first concept of burial rites, who knows. The desire to know, to master, to simply be saved from a thing…

Which brings us to the Extinction. I've been puzzling this over ever since I got my hands onto a copy of the Key of Solomon, ever since Adelard Dekker made his first discoveries and began to form his theory. I had an inkling before, but to put these two concepts together would mean that the Extinction is intentional, that there's a force behind this emergence, which had been sacrificing for it for a long time, at least a century now.

Why would anyone call Extinction into being? What would be the cause behind it? Is it some lunatic who dreams of a deathless world, a total annihilation of everything that ever lived, or… or is there a more reasonable, sane answer? Is it simply because someone saw the End of Everything coming and is now trying to prevent it by all means possible – and in so doing, inadvertently bringing about the worst case scenario?

There is certainly a Fear in action here, a great ritual taking place somewhere just beyond reach, and I believe… well. If I have learned anything from seeing so many rituals fail under their own power…

Hmm… I must look into this at greater length.

End recording


 

"I found it on your desk," Peter comments as the recording stops playing and Elias leans back, looking vaguely disgusted. "Covered in cobwebs, I might add, so I figured it was important enough to bother you with."

"And which agent of the Web sent it to you?" Elias asks dubiously.

"I don't follow?"

"There are two avatars of the Web spreading their influence over the Institute, covering every corner with strings," Elias scoffs. "They've been fighting over territory for days now, and whoever the other one is, they're certainly as powerful as Annabelle Cane. Whatever designs they have on the institute, I don't know yet, but they've certainly displayed some keen interest in Jon."

Peter folds his arms. That's what it all comes down to, didn't it, the precious Archivist. "Did you not just listen to the same tape I did?"

"Yes, yes, the Extinction – the tape is a manipulation tactic, Peter, to make you do something that benefits the Web, obviously," Elias says and tugs at his hands, making the chain between them jingle. "It's hardly important – what is, is knowing who sent it to you and what they hope to achieve with it. Likely they're distracting you, somehow. But to what end…?"

Peter says nothing for a moment, watching him levelly. "You knew, didn't you? You knew the Extinction was coming, you knew someone was making it. You knew this whole time – did Gertrude figure it out then, did she find out who was behind it, how to stop it –"

Elias sighs, visibly irritated. "Peter, it doesn't matter – the Extinction doesn't matter, not yet. The ritual was stalled, I stalled it –"

"You – all this time? But you said –" Peter takes a breath and forces himself to be calm. "You said you didn't even think it was that urgent yet, but you knew."

"Ah, so this is why," Elias mutters and leans back. "Just to make us fight over this, how juvenile. Yes, Peter I knew, and yes, I made you think I didn't, that I didn't care, that you were the only one interested in saving the world. I did and said what I had to, to put you in a place where you could do the most good – and I think at this point the reasons behind it hardly matter –"

"They matter to me, Elias," Peter says. "Why? Why the manipulation?"

"Because if I hadn't, you wouldn't have stuck around anywhere near as much as you did – you would have found someone inside the Institute to delegate all your responsibilities to, like you do with all Lukas home offices, and then you would've headed back to the sea, like you always do. I did it to keep you around," Elias says. "And it worked."

Peter had never been a particularly violent person, but damn if he doesn't want to punch Elias in the face. "And Martin, the bet? No, I think I have it figured out – I influence Martin, who influences your Archivist, keeping him at arm's length to everyone, keeping him isolated and vulnerable… and easy to control, even at this distance."

Elias sighs. "Yes, well done, good job – as if you're a saint when it comes to these things. Now that we're done with this, consider why the Web wants us at –"

"No, I don't think we're done done with this, Elias," Peter says. "The Extinction – is it coming? Did Gertrude figure it out – what else do you know which you aren't sharing with me? Did Gertrude learn more?"

Elias looks at him, unimpressed. "Well, of course she did. And you really shouldn't put that much stock in her process, because towards the end she was the one trying to complete the ritual."

"What? Gertrude Robinson tried to complete the ritual for the Extinction?" Peter demands.

"I killed her before she could, of course, but yes, she did," Elias says and shakes his head. "I don't know what was going on in her head, it's a place even I didn't care to look into, but in her final days she was collecting materials for a summoning. I think she believed it would be the end of it – once the Extinction came, there would be no hope of any more rituals. Which, I suppose, is an accurate enough supposition. If everything ends and everyone dies, well… there really will be no more rituals, will there?" Elias sighs. "To me it rather seemed like burning your own house down just to keep the spiders out, but I suppose towards the end she was rather jaded about all of this. And she knew the End was coming for her as well, so maybe she thought that, well… if she couldn't live, then neither should anyone else."

He's lying. Peter knows he's lying. Problem is, he isn't sure which part Elias is lying about – and to what end. The man said it himself – it's a manipulation tactic. So what would Elias think Peter would do with this information?

Stay – he would stay and look into what Gertrude had figured out in the fear that there was still something there and the hope that he could stop it.

Right. Right.

"So why do you think the spiders brought this to me?" Peter asks, motioning to the tape recorder. "What was the goal of this, other than to make us argue over it?"

Elias hums, relaxing a little. "Distraction perhaps," he says and looks away. "Something is going on in the Archives. There are so many webs that it's getting harder to see, and with these symbols people are using to hide from me… they don't work, obviously, but they do make things a little more difficult. Let me See…"

Peter quietly takes the tape out of the recorder. He knows when he'd been played, it's happened so many times that he's almost gotten used to it. That's the nature of the Lonely, after all – it leaves you so vulnerable to your friends…

But he's not stupid, and despite all the things she was, Gertrude Robinson wouldn't have tried to destroy the world. If she attempted to finish the ritual of the Extinction, it was for a damn good reason.

Problem is that… that knowledge only makes Peter want to look into it twice as much as the other possibility. And Elias has probably accounted for that, too. As have the spiders. Together they're whispering, stay here and figure it out. Solve the puzzle. Win the game. You still have cards to play.

Elias thinks, not without cause, that Peter's pride and maybe some untold reserve of heroism would keep him in check. And he's right.

Damn it.

Peter really should know better than to play with a con artist.

Running a hand over his beard, Peter sits back and waits for Elias to finish his check of the Archives – and going by the frown on his face, something is wrong.

"Simon Fairchild is in the Archives," he says and turns to Peter, frowning. "He didn't kill Desmond Miles."

That again. "What does it matter?" Peter asks. "He's hundreds of kilometres away, and judging by what I've heard he's powerful enough to already fry electronics, which leaves him with no way to even get in contact with your precious Archivist. I'm sure he won't mess up your delicate plans, whatever those are."

"He already has, and he still is," Elias says, irritated. "And Simon carried a message for him, too."

"So what? Your Archivist has a social life with another avatar," Peter says with a sigh. "It doesn't seem to really interrupt his work much – from what I heard, he came back with several statements from the man, seemed to do him some good too. He's still bound to the Archives, so it's not like he's going to elope with the man…"

He trails away as Elias' eyes widen – he's reading something very far away, the message the Archivist had gotten from the American, likely. Peter sighs and waits, smothering the urge to roll his eyes, if just barely.

After a while Elias blinks, clears his throat and then goes to straighten his clothes, apparently forgetting he's not wearing a three piece suit anymore. "Well," Elias says, by all appearances affected by what he'd just read. "That makes… sense, I suppose."

"What?" Peter asks, patiently he thinks.

Elias turns to look at him, and damn if the expression on his face doesn't look convincing. Problem is, Peter can't tell if he's really trying to hide how shocked he is – or if the shock itself faked too. Then Elias says, calculatedly, "Desmond Miles is the avatar of Extinction."

"What now?" Peter says, a little incredulous. "He's the avatar of the Lonely – I met him, Elias, the man is barely anything but the Lonely."

"He was at the time, yes, but things have been changing greatly since then," Elias says and makes a face, thoughtful and disturbed. "I didn't tell you, because you didn't need to know, but since leaving the UK Desmond Miles had been collecting – experiences, and with them he'd become more fleshed out. He stopped being a container merely to the Lonely the moment the End hunted him down in the Eurotunnel."

Peter presses his lips together tightly and says nothing.

"Ever since then, he's come in touch with various entities, collecting – samples of their power," Elias says, and he sounds almost impressed despite himself. "I thought it was just a coincidence, that I had worried for nothing, but – it's all on purpose, after all… of course, the concept…

"So now the man your Archivist is infatuated with turns out to be the incarnation of the Extinction," Peter says flatly. "Of course he is. How convenient."

Elias draws a slow breath. "I'm not trying to manipulate you this time, Peter –"

"Unlike all the other times you supposedly weren't manipulating me and then later it turned out that, oh, would you look at that, it was all according to your plan, serving your purpose, and I didn't need to know, because it wasn't important," Peter sighs. "Damn it, Elias, I know you have some issues with control, but the man is barely even human, he's more empty space than he's a person – you can do better than that, surely."

"Peter –" Elias says as Peter stands up.

"I'm sure he won't hurt your precious Archivist – actually, the whole relationship seems to have done the man some good," Peter muses. Which in turn had done Martin some good on the path of the Lonely, even if it wasn't going the way Peter would've preferred.

"Peter, I'm not lying to you," Elias says, obviously irritated it's not working. "I Saw it – Jon Saw it. The ritual, Gertrude must have done something before her death to set it in motion, and it's back in action now –"

Peter shakes his head. "No, Elias, I think I'm quite done here. I miss the Tundra, you know – of course you know. And I think you have a good point about delegation –"

"Peter, listen to me –"

"I think the Archives might do better with a bit more hands-off approach," Peter muses. "Martin is more or less running the official side of things anyway – I think it's time I step back –"

"You can't do that, Peter," Elias says, standing up too, with chains jingling. "You can't."

"Actually, I think I can," Peter hums. "Never did sign a contract, you know. I'm not that stupid. Legally speaking, I'm not even working for the Institute, now that I think about it, which is really all the more reason I should go –"

"Peter, this is serious," Elias snaps at him. "Stop acting like a fool!"

"Or what, you'll get into my head and show me my deepest darkest fears?" Peter asks and smiles, patronisingly. "I'm not one of your lost souls from the Archive, Elias, I embraced my fears at the age of six and I have lived with them ever since. And I do believe I would like to be alone with them, now."

"Peter, please," Elias says. "I need your help in this."

"I don't think you do, actually," Peter says. "And I don't need you. Call it my loss, Elias. You win, again."

Elias shouts after him, telling him he's making a mistake, that he's being manipulated, but honestly, Peter hadn't felt freer in months. Just the knowledge that he wouldn't have to set a foot in the Archives is lightening the load, and the idea of bringing the Tundra out of the moorings and taking her out to the vast, open, lonely sea…

Yes, it's been long enough.

Chapter Text

Oliver is kind of used to being jerked around, these days. He doesn't have much choice, really – he serves an inexorable sort of patron, and what few times he's tried to go against the End's will, or what passes for it's will anyway, well, it hasn't turned out so well. At least this way he hasn't died in a while, just… moved about when the tendrils began tugging or pulling him, or when the webs in his head got a little too insistent.

This is the first sort – it's tendrils that dragged him to Egypt and there to Alexandria. He's – sort of – aware why. He's been dreaming of Desmond Miles more and more these days – not of his death, but of his… awakening. It's coming soon, and around him the tendrils of death twist and turn, push and pull… never quite touching the man, but definitely moving with him. It's that way with most of the other avatars Oliver has met, the violent ones, anyway – one of the rarer exceptions being Jonathan Sims, who, so far… technically hasn't killed anyone. There was the entity he consumed, but as far as the End was concerned, the Breekon and Hope weren't really alive, they were… the other thing. The sort that doesn't die, really – it just… returns.

Desmond is kind of like that too, he isn't alive, so he can't die – but he doesn't have anywhere to return to, either, so… he's… something else.

Sitting down on a low bit of a wall on the side of the street, Oliver idly looks around in the alleyway where he'd found himself being dragged to. It's… dirty. Far enough from all the places where tourists usually go, there's a layer of trash trampled into the corners where the ground meets walls, and there's a persistent smell of decaying garbage and other waste in the air. Not quite the sort of place he hoped to end up in on a trip to Egypt, of all places, but it's not the worst. At least it's just filth, not literal Corruption.

Under his feet, the ground is moving ever so slightly.

Oliver wonders idly, just… just for fun, really, what would it be like if he tried to kill someone, or something. He hasn't tried it, though he has considered it before – how much of that action would be his own. He doesn't think he could just whip out a knife and stab someone just like that – no, not just like that. There would have to be tendrils there first, otherwise how would he know they would die? But if there were the tendrils of the End there already, and then he stabbed them, well… how much of that action would be his own, and how much of that would be the End?

Could he kill someone like Desmond Miles, a man who now bleeds convincingly, but doesn't have a heart or a circulatory system, who thinks and feels and emotes, all without a brain? He's better put together these days, Oliver knows that much, he'd seen it happening, but is it enough to… die?

Probably not. Not a single tendril reaches within Desmond Miles. So Oliver will not try to kill him.

Even though he, or the part of him that still thinks it's human… thinks he probably should.

The street gives a little jolt, like underground there's an explosion, or like something is pushing through the dirt. Oliver crosses one leg over the other and watches, as a hand punches through the dry top layer and then claws at the dirt for purchase, before pulling more of itself out. A wrist, then an elbow, white sleeve punching up just after it, all covered in dirt.

A moment later Desmond gets his head out of the dirt and begins coughing, hacking up sand and dust and bits of dry parchment, as he crawls out from the grips of the Buried. He's not a very dignified sight, all covered in dirt and black ichor of the thing that had been haunting the dead halls of the ancient Archive for centuries, and which was now, finally, still. Not dead, though. It wasn't human enough to die.

Maybe Oliver should tell that to other avatars someday. Tell them about that terrible, fundamental difference between humans and those who give themselves to these powers, these entities, these fears. That the purest and deepest of rest anything that has ever lived would ever experience… is forever denied them from that first moment they decide they will not die. Oliver would not die – he would live and suffer, and then he would stop living, and he would continue to suffer. Desmond too, likely. Though considering the lengths his creators had gone to… he likely would not stop either.

Oliver does not envy the man.

"What did you dream of, down there?" he asks.

Desmond stills in mid-cough and looks up. There's dirt in his teeth, and Oliver can almost feel the grit of it in his own. "What?" he croaks.

"You slept, didn't you, down there? What did you dream about?"

For a moment Desmond says nothing, just stares at him as he stays there, on hands and knees, with dirt raining down from him at every breath he takes. Then he puts his head down and hacks out a bit more of the dirt, before sitting back on his knees and wiping his hands over his face. "Where am I?"

"Alexandria," Oliver tells him and points. "Pompey's pillar is that way. You've been underground almost a full day."

"Oh," Desmond says, tugging at his hoodie and upturning his pockets to reveal more ancient dirt. "A day?" he asks and then sighs. "Well, that… proves my life is a joke, then. Okay."

"I'm sorry?"

"It's April first, right?" Desmond asks. "Because if it isn't, then I was down there for longer than a day."

"I – yes, it's April first," Oliver says apologetically.

"Yeah," Desmond agrees with a rueful laugh and ruffles dirt out of his short hair. "Oliver, wasn't it?" he then asks.

"Mm," Oliver agrees. "I meant to meet you here, but you beat me to it. Don't ask me why I'm here, though – I know and I don't, but either way, it's not because people will die here, or because of you. Not right now, anyway."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I think you know," Oliver says and takes out a pack of wet wipes from his pocket. "Here – to clean your face with."

It's a moment before the man on the ground accepts them. "… thanks," he says, his voice still sounding like he's gargling sand. Likely he still is.

"So, what did you dream about?"

Desmond wipes his face with the wet wipes, picking at his ears and flicking bits of dirt away. "I don't know. Fire, death, disaster – all the good things."

"Ah," Oliver says. "So even down there, the dreams find you."

"Yeah."

They're quiet, Oliver watching Desmond try and get the dirt out of his clothes until the man goes about taking his clothes off, and then Oliver looks away to be polite. There's a pile of dirt on the ground when Desmond is done. Used to be a time when a guy like Desmond stripping in front of him would've made Oliver's heart skip a beat or two, but… the End had rather dulled all those urges. Even if Desmond couldn't die by conventional means, he still isn't alive, and Oliver thinks he could taste that. Everything has that taste of… of mortality these days. Desmond, he thinks, would taste even worse.

"So," the American says, after shaking the dirt out of his jeans and pulling them back on. "If people aren't going to die here, why are you here?"

"I think… to bear witness," Oliver says. "And maybe to give you a pointer."

Desmond scowls at him and glances around. "Spiders?" he asks suspiciously.

"No, this was just my patron," Oliver says. "You don't need to worry about agendas from the Web from me – and even the End has none. But – it can feel the future coming. It can feel you. It wasn't spiders that led me to you, now or before, it was just… inevitability."

There's a moment of quiet as Desmond pulls his dirty shirt back on and then stares at the pile of dirt on the ground. "So," he says. "I can't stop this, can I?"

Oliver sighs and leans back, putting his hands on the wall behind him and peering up at the sky. It's cloudy. "You could, maybe. But the results will be infinitely worse that way. I think you learned that lesson in the Eurotunnel."

"I learned that your patron is a bitch in the Eurotunnel."

Oliver chuckles. "Death always is," he agrees. "Entities are good at taking their due, because time is… it works differently for them. They can see ahead of us, and so feel owed the things that have yet to happen. You are like that, I think."

"Did you know, when we first met?" Desmond asks.

"No, I didn't, there wasn't a point of me knowing," Oliver says. "Now I do, because me knowing will speed you along towards the future the End is expecting."

Desmond says nothing for a moment, looking down to his hoodie and trying to get the stains out of it, without much success. Then, giving up, he sighs and sits beside Oliver, staring at the dirty street. "So, uh," he says. "I'm fucked if I don't and fucked if I do?"

"Unfortunately it seems to be that way," Oliver says and glances at him. "It's not much of a choice, I know, but it's more than most of us get."

"Did you get a choice in becoming… whatever you are?"

"No. I just… I just became," Oliver says and looks away. "I began dreaming of death, seeing the tendrils reaching towards people who would soon die – and I think I knew pretty early on that it wasn't something I would easily get out of. I did make a choice, in the end – I chose to accept this," he motions at the world around him, with all the tentacles of death that grip it. "Rather than fight it. Things have been easier since."

Desmond shakes his head. "Not really a fan of the idea of just giving in like that," he mutters and folds his arms. "So, what is the worst case scenario? If – if I manage to stop this, if I get out of Ezio's strings and manage to kill myself, or – something. Throw myself back into the Lonely and never come out again… what happens then?"

Oliver looks away and considers it. He doesn't as a habit try to see into the future – it happens with or without his input most of the time, and usually only on an individual level. This, though, this is something bigger. "I've been – seeing more and more tendrils, lately," he admits. "There's something in the works – not your thing, something… worse. I don't know what it is, but the End has been making its way towards millions, millions of people these last couple of years in preparation. If it happens…"

He trails away and shudders before looking at Desmond. "They've been stopping, though. This last week, those bigger veins, they've – stilled. And I think – this is the cause."

Desmond blows out a slightly incredulous breath at that and looks away. "So… human sacrifice to stop the death of millions?" he asks and shakes his head. "You'd think that Death would be against it, though," he comments, and when Oliver glances at him, he explains, "I mean, death of millions – isn't that the whole… point of the End? It definitely demanded its due in the Eurotunnel, even though I didn't get on that plane, so..."

Oliver looks away, considering how to put it. "Everything is going to die someday," he says. "There isn't anything that's ever lived that hasn't also died, or won't die. Though the End is working towards this event, this… this great dying, it's not... " he trails away. "I guess you could say that the End enjoys delayed gratification. What's happening, what could happen, is not that, it's… it's wrong somehow."

"Wrong?" Desmond asks.

"Mm," Oliver agrees. "Most things die for a reason. They get sick, they get injured, they lose the ability to get sustenance, they grow too weak, they choke, whatever – there's a cause behind every death. Natural death, anyway, it doesn't just happen on its own, there's always a reason," he explains. "This – whatever might happen, all those deaths, they… don't have a cause. I'm not sure the End will get to collect those people when they die – and it's… wrong."

"... oh," Desmond murmurs. "So, they, these people who die, they – don't die?"

"Something will happen that's like death," Oliver says quietly and draws a fortifying breath. "But it's not the End. It's wrong. It feels… terrible."

It feels like hell, the kind of hell only their patrons could create, a world of the sort terror and suffering and agony that goes beyond Oliver's capability to even understand, never mind put into words. But he's fairly certain that whatever will happen, those who die because of it will suffer long, long, long past the time the End should've relieved them.

Oliver swallows and clears his throat, while Desmond watches him, one eye dark and deep and other white and eerie, and both of them sharp. He seems to be able to read some of Oliver's thoughts from his face. "Okay then," the man then says and looks away, his expression fixed. "Either I do this or… millions suffer. Seems about right."

"Does it?" Oliver wonders, running a hand over his face.

Desmond shorts. "Yeah, kinda," he says, and for some reason that makes him relax a bit. "It kind of does. So, you had pointers for me?"

"Yeah," Oliver says. "You're on the edge right now – I don't know if you're killable, but… you're at a point where you're the most vulnerable, I think. Point where you could be stopped. And I think people will try to stop you – thought about doing it myself, if I'm honest. So you need to be careful – how many do you have left?"

Desmond hums. "Five, I think," he says. "Hunt, Corruption, Flesh, if that even applies to me, the Spiral, possibly? And Desolation."

Oliver nods slowly. "It seems about right," he says and considers it. "Hunt you can find in the United States the easiest, I think. There's one Hunter in the UK, but she's not hunting currently and might not make much of a sample for you."

"Okay, United States it is," Desmond says. "Back home for a bit, then. Anything else?"

"Until you get the rest of them down, you need to be careful, but I suppose I don't need to tell you that," Oliver muses and looks at him. "I suggest you get the rest as quickly as you can, in a succession, if possible. Do you have any ideas about the rest?"

"I know there's a Spiral manifestation in the Magnus Institute, and she seemed thrilled about all of this, so I bet I can get her to whammy me," Desmond muses. "And if I can't figure out the rest, then I guess I'm just going to have to trust the spiders. They seem to have everything plotted out for me, anyway."

"They're like that, yes," Oliver agrees with a hum.

They're quiet for a moment, Oliver peering up at the sky while Desmond looks down on the ground. An old man passes them by in the alley, casting them a sidelong look. Oliver glances at the tendrils over the man's chest and then looks away. Heart attack, in two months.

"Can you tell me what it's like?"

"What, death?" Oliver asks.

"Being this – thing," Desmond clarifies and shakes his head. "I thought I knew, I thought I was the avatar for the Lonely in the beginning, and that – that was easy. I even fed a murderer to the Lonely, but – I didn't feel like this back then. I'm not sure I felt anything back then. I'm not sure I was anything back then."

Oliver considers it for a moment. "Well. I think the thing about people like us is just that deep down… we're still people. Not human maybe, not towards the end, but still people. And I think that's what matters. That makes us different from the – the manifestations, the monsters, the things that just appeared and were never human to begin with."

Oliver stretches out his legs and leans back a little. "The entities, they don't have a will, you know. The End doesn't go after people with its tendrils because it wants them dead, not really. If it had a will, then I doubt it would care about little things like that – no, it just goes after things because that's… that's its nature. A person is going to die, and so the End comes for them."

Desmond hums and says nothing.

"Me, on the other hand," Oliver continues. "I can have emotions about it. I can look at the world that's ensnared in the tentacles of the End and I can have a reaction over it, be it horror or fear, or even solace over the fact that whatever killed all those people the End took, it's over now and none of them hurt anymore. That, I think… that's the point. Of me, at least – I am the extension through which the End can observe itself. And so I can just – watch and feel dread and fear and helplessness and whatever else. And that's what – that's what this feels like for me. Like I'm helpless and afraid, and like nothing I do ultimately matters all that much, because I know everything that's ever lived will all die in the end."

He looks to Desmond. "I think that's different for you. It's different for every one of us. We're all different tools. I'm a lens, a crystal ball. You're a… binder, maybe?"

Desmond snorts. "I'm the binder clip holding the pages of the Forgotten in place?"

Oliver tilts his head. "The Forgotten?" he asks, fascinated.

"Yeah, that's what they called it," Desmond agrees. "Way back when they put this whole damn thing together."

"Hm," Oliver says and feels a sudden twinge of doubt. "Why the Forgotten?"

Desmond looks up. "Because people forget," he says and shrugs. "How many lost civilisations are there? How many ruins, how many nations and empires and just people have there been that were just wiped out over the course of human history? How many species lost and gone, which we have no record and no knowledge about because they're just – gone? Every one of those had an apocalypse of one kind or the other, every one of them is gone and forgotten."

He trails away with a frown and then shakes his head. "I guess it was a way to honour all the things that came before. All the things that, well. Ended. It's a nicer name than calling it the Apocalypse, anyway."

Oh. Well. That might explain why Oliver is here, then. "Most people call it the Extinction," he comments thoughtfully, wondering.

"Sounds a bit gloomy for my tastes," Desmond muses. "Think I'm gonna stick to calling it the Forgotten."

Oliver hums in agreement. "Fair enough."

Chapter Text

"...well, it was mostly because of a sort of accidental publicity stunt, not because of the inherent goodness of the work – always did find it somewhat boring myself. It was stolen in the 1911, you see, which caused quite the hubbub at the time, leading to all sorts of mass merchandising…"

Martin pushes the door leading to the Archive wing open, frowning slightly at the voices. He'd picked a moment when he knew Jon was out eating with Basira and Daisy, and Melanie was out – there should be no one in there right now. And though he'd told himself he wouldn't check up on Jon's progress on separating the written archives from the audio recordings, he did have to go in to look for more statements concerning the potential emergence of the Extinction, since Peter hadn't shown up to give him any lately, and…

There's someone standing in the hallway just outside Jon's door.

"Excuse me, sir? You can't be here, this area isn't open for the public," Martin calls.

The old man chuckles at that. "Oh, quite right too. Goodness, the things they could see here! Would give the Institute a terrible reputation. Best to keep them out, I say." The old man smiles, charmingly, and leans an elbow onto the painting frame – saying to it, "You are very provocative, my dear – the shock of seeing you in such a state, why, it would be rather startling, now, wouldn't it?"

Martin hesitates, glancing around warily for someone else, but it's just the old man there, talking… apparently to himself. Or rather to the painting. And since when was there even a painting here? It's right across Jon's office, Martin should've noticed it before…

A little uneasy now, Martin takes a closer look at the man. He's not terribly frightening, which is something at least – a tiny old man in a fancy suit, obviously tailor-made and perfectly fitted, and still it looks too big on him. Definitely not an employee, Martin is pretty sure he would remember the man if he did work in the Archives – there's something very… flamboyant and lively about him, despite the fact that he looks about a hundred years old.

There's no sight of anyone else, and no obvious indication of how the man had gotten in, but he had, and now he's talking to a painting, which had apparently appeared from nowhere. Which is in and of itself very concerning. He also has the air of… otherness.

"Who are you, how did you get here?" Martin asks suspiciously, taking a quick glance at the painting, just in case. It's one of those old Renaissance looking pieces, all realism and dramatic lighting and vaguely – or more than vaguely – suggestive postures.

"Oh, I quite just slipped in," the old man says. "Must have come through the window."

"There are no windows down here."

"Up on the next level, then. I'm sure it was a window – lovely day outside, by the way, just lovely."

Martin narrows his eyes. Definitely something, then. He doesn't have that – that aura of horror to him that avatars usually have. Jane Prentiss was like sticking your hands into a rotten tree trunk full of maggots, Jon is like being suddenly in front of a live audience of thousands, and they're all making eye contact – even Daisy used to have an aura of her hunting you. This guy…

All Martin feels from him is wind and free fall. Which, old man, laughing, wind – "You're Simon Fairchild."

"Oh?" the old man asks, surprised and delighted, and glances at the painting. "My reputation precedes me, I see. I knew there were records about me here, statements and suchlike, but I wasn't sure I had a good enough reputation to be so easily recognizable."

"Um," Martin says slowly, trying to keep up. The man is talking to a painting. How is one supposed to react to someone talking to a painting?

"But I suppose I did hear that that bone fella has more than a dozen by this point, and he's a fairly new one," Simon Fairchild muses. "But I thought, surely I can't have slipped that many times myself. Of course, I have had slightly more time than him, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility. Hm. And who might you be, then?"

Martin clears his throat. This is the guy who is having fun by throwing himself – and other people – out of planes. Right. They're in a closed room, technically underground, but… better be careful. "My name is Martin Blackwood, I'm the assistant to Peter Lukas, the head of the Magnus Institute," he says carefully. "What can I do for you, Mr. Fairchild?"

"Hm, oh – nothing really, I just wanted to pop in for a bit, have a chat with Salaì, nothing to it," Simon says. "Now that Peter is gone off again, I don't have to worry about him catching me and forcing me to hold up my end of our bet."

"What?" Martin asks. "Peter's gone off?"

"Oh, yes – or he will be soon. I spotted them preparing the Tundra for a launch, and Peter would never let anyone else captain her," Simon says. "Which must mean he's about ready to be getting on. And Elias, I understand, is still in jail for the time being, so…"

"Wait – what?" Martin asks, and then has a sinking feeling. "You – you're not here to take over for Peter, are you?"

"What? Oh no, no, no," Simon chortles. "Running this place? Good grief, I'd rather throw myself off a building. Do you know how many avatars such as myself hate the very guts of this place? So many little tethers tying us to these Archives through the Watcher's statements, it's like – like dragging a bit of deadweight with you everywhere. It's not terribly heavy, you understand, nothing one can't handle, but it is a bit of a bother. No, the Institute is not for me, no thank you."

"It – is? I mean, it's a weight –" Martin pauses, confused. "I – I know that the sacrifices, they get nightmares from leaving live statements," he says – it's a reason he's been pushing Rosie to taking more written statements and not letting Jon see statement givers in person anymore. Not that they were getting many of those, either. The rumour of the nightmares had rather spread. "But I didn't know avatars felt any – side effects."

"Well, the Watcher is something of a nit, isn't it? It latches onto you, just so that it can keep watching you, enjoying your horror, or whatever," Fairchild says and shrugs. "It's a nuisance, really, but not anything one can't handle, in normal conditions. Not sure how Peter could manage it for so long – though I am glad we didn't bet on it, I fear I would have lost. You worked for Peter."

"I honestly thought I still did," Martin says. "Are you sure he's gone – surely he would've told someone, sent a memo – "

"I suppose I could be wrong, but I doubt it. I've known him long enough to know his habits, and when the Tundra comes off her moorings, well… that will be that," Simon says. "Peter won't be setting a foot on land for months to come, if he can manage it. I suppose he will do what he does with his other holdings on land – delegate them to someone else. He's good at that, pushing his responsibilities onto others."

Martin makes a noise of rueful agreement at that before he can stop it. "Right. But – why? He's not done here, we're not done here – why would he leave?"

"I'm afraid I haven't got the foggiest," Simon says and chuckles. "Heh, foggy, hehe. Martin, wasn't it? You know, I do believe he mentioned you in our wager."

"A… wager," Martin says suspiciously.

"Mm. He was intending to have me have a chat with you, I think, talk over those points he himself is having some trouble conveying – not much of a talker, our Peter, I'm sure you've noticed," the old man says, and Martin sighs in agreement. "Quite so. Well, I lost a bet to him, and he originally intended to have me answer some of your questions, as you apparently have a vast amount by this point, and Peter, well, he's not much for that. But then Elias cut in and asked for something else, calling in another debt owed. I do wonder if those two can interact any other way, except by making it something of a confrontation. Eyes and the Lonely ones, eh?"

"I – don't follow," Martin admits.

"Well, the Lonely wants to be alone, you see, and the Eye wants to watch. The Eye takes pleasure in watching those who don't want to be watched, and the Lonely, well, nothing quite makes you feel as isolated as hard, cold observation of how alone you are – it's a push and pull sort of symbiotic relationship, between those two," Fairchild muses. "It always is, between the beloved of the Watcher and of the Lonely."

Martin swallows. "Um – I see. Well, while you're here, do you think you could answer those questions Peter mentioned?"

"Hm, well, now, that depends I suppose," Simon says and smiles. "What's in it for me?"

"Right, okay – what do you want then?"

"Oh, come now – it doesn't work like that. It's not even interesting that way," Fairchild says with a berating sort of sigh. "I already know what I want, and if I just get it, well, then that's that, the thing is done. Not that you could give me what I want, at any rate. No, no, offer me something, or make it a wager like Peter does, try and be a little less boring about it."

Martin chews his lips. Right, right, what would the avatar of the Vast want… or what would the avatar of the Vast bet on?

He… has no idea. Statements about the Vast maybe? Or about Simon himself. There's certainly some of those in the archives. Would they be interesting for the man though? Maybe there's – no, it wouldn't work. Nothing really comes to mind. What can you offer to someone who likes to throw people off planes?

"Um," Martin says a little desperately. "How about… a nice cup of… tea?"

Simon stares at him for a moment, his face falling a little, and Martin begins to feel his stomach sinking just as the old man throws his head back and laughs. "Marvellous, absolutely marvellous – yes, please, that sounds utterly delightful," he says. "Do you know, I don't think anyone has ever offered me tea, knowing what I am? Where are people's manners these days?"

Martin's shoulders slump and he sighs. "You know, I wonder about that myself sometimes. Would you like to come into my office – I've got a kettle there."

"Right after you, my boy, right after you," Fairchild says, still chuckling. "I don't suppose you have any lemon?"

"I – have some lemon extract?"

"Excellent," the old man says and turns to the painting. "We'll continue this later, my dear," he says, smiling fondly and actually pats the bum of the naked bloke in the painting, and Martin very determinedly decides not to even go there.

Instead he leads the old avatar to his office, offering Simon a seat before going to put the water on – and thank god the kettle has some water in it, it would be a bit awkward if he had to go out and get some. Maybe he should get some water bottles in his office – and a mini fridge, and then he wouldn't ever need to step out, huh?

"So, you know Peter?" Martin asks, while readying two cups.

"Mm, we've done some projects together," Simon agrees while taking a seat. "Lovely fella, though not much for social interaction. That's the Lonely for you, of course, but we do get together every now and then."

"Right," Martin says. "You know about his, uh, the thing – with the Extinction?"

"Oh, that," Simon says and chuckles. "Now that is an interesting thing."

"So you do know about it."

"It's been coming for a while now – I think the first signs of it were more than a hundred years ago," Simon says, crossing one leg over the other and practically lounging in his chair. "Though really it's much older than that. It's been coming on more and more these days, what with all this new environmentalism and climate change going on – people are becoming more and more aware of the grim possibilities, I suppose."

"So – it's – it's real," Martin says, his stomach sinking. "Peter was telling the truth – it's real, and it's coming."

"Oh, yes. Quite close now, I believe," Simon says, chuckling, and watches Martin make the tea with a slightly shaky hand. "Oh, come now, it's not so dire. What has he been filling your head with – all sorts of things about the end of the world, I suppose?"

"Well – isn't that the point of it?" Martin asks and hands him over the cup. "It is the… the Extinction. If it comes out, if it – forms or whatever… Well, that's the end…"

Simon smiles at that, and while not exactly patronising, it definitely has the look of an elder being amused by the antics of a kid. "Ah, yes – it does sound very terrifying, doesn't it?" he comments. "The Extinction, hm. Yes, quite the dramatic name for a thing, that. The Future Without Us, that's another one, and, uh… I think it has other names. Fear of Change, of Catastrophic Change. Rather a terrifying thing, yes."

"You don't seem worried," Martin comments, sitting down. "You don't think it's real?"

"On the contrary, I know it is, but I also don't think it's much to be afraid of, anymore," Simon comments. "I thought it might be, and much like Peter I did dread a new potential competitor, and I shared some of his concerns, but…"

Martin waits, but Simon just shrugs and takes a sip. "Peter thinks it will – be bad," Martin says slowly. "Doesn't he? Or – or is that why he's leaving, because he figured it isn't?"

"Could be. In hindsight, the fear we held for it was quite absurd," Simon muses. "I've lived through the emergence of one Entity, you see – the Flesh wasn't around when I gave myself gladly to the sky blue, and if I'm brutally honest about it, well… it didn't change much of anything, did it, the Flesh. Just one more big fear to be utterly confused by and terrified of, and that's about it. Sure, it's something of a rival to the previous entities, but it's not as if a person now afraid of their own flesh and bones – or in love with them – would in other circumstances be afraid of being buried, or of falling, or of spiders. It's just not how phobias work."

Martin leans back, frowning, uncertain. "So, you don't think the Extinction coming out will change things?" he asks. "Peter was just… wrong? And I thought Elias was on this too, that he…"

"Becoming an avatar hardly makes one infallible," Simon says amusedly. "Peter is uniquely suited to being nervous about change – lonely people get so stuck in their patterns and rituals, that any change to them seems terribly frightening. And Elias, well, if he's ever been afraid of anything, I have yet to see it. No, I don't think the Extinction coming into its own will change things much at all – in fact, it might even be a herald of the fact that things will never change."

"I don't – follow?" Martin says slowly.

"It's rather counterintuitive, don't you think – that the emergence of the Fear of Extinction will then cause that Extinction," Simon points out, and sips the tea again. "Mm, lovely. After the thing happens, there won't be much to be afraid of, after all – and dealing with the consequences, well. That's a different thing, isn't it."

Martin frowns at that, thinking hard. "Hm."

"Sometimes the fear of heights and of falling is the same thing," Simon comments, stirring his tea with obvious pleasure. "Sometimes when you find someone who is deathly afraid of heights, getting them somewhere high up, well, it quite ruins it, you see. It's the moment before the realisation of the fear where their terror is at its peak. And fear of falling, it's the greatest at the edge – not in actual free fall. You understand?"

"Yeah, I read statements about the Vast that are like that – leaving people stuck on high places," Martin says wryly.

"Well, yes. And don't you think the Extinction will be much the same?" Simon points out. "Like for those who fear falling, what's the point in the fear of Extinction after the thing happens? Sure, there might be some who are afraid of being left in a world after everyone else, but then it becomes a tangled web of Lonely, Desolation, Slaughter and any number of other things. Extinction by then has done its part. But I think the major bulk of people are afraid of a thing that might happen in the distant future, not a thing happening now, or what would happen after. Extinction is an end point, after all."

Martin frowns at that, thinking. "Hm, I… didn't think about it like that," he admits. "I thought it would be catastrophic, but…"

"The fear of Flesh didn't end the meat industry, and it never will. If anything, it made it a hundred times more enduring," Simon comments, taking another sip and leaning back a little. "As the former servant of the Eye, you should know better than anyone – when has ever the fear of being watched made anyone… not be watched?"

That's a… kind of a good point.

Martin sighs, frustrated. "But – doesn't that kind of mean that… if Extinction does come into its own, or however it works, that means… that means extinction can't actually happen?" Martin asks quietly. "Or it doesn't want to happen. If it's the fear of the thing that only works as a fear before the thing happens, then… then the Extinction would be like the Hunt. It doesn't want the – the game to end?"

"If it can want anything, and I'm not sure they do, any of them," Simon agrees. "But the nature of the thing seems like it would work that way – to me, anyway, now that I've met him."

Martin blinks and meets his eyes. "Met who?"

Simon smiles and looks away. "Have you ever read about Smirke's beliefs? I think your Archive here is the biggest source of his writings about the esoteric these days. You know the Smirke's List of Fourteen, yes?"

"Um, I've read about it, yeah."

"Well, Smirke believed that the entities were brought into existence by a ritual of some long forgotten people, who gave their fears shape through sacrifice and pagan chants, and whatnot, and in doing so doomed us all," Simon says. "What do you think of that?"

"Um – well… there's proof of people giving, um, human shape to fears – like, like Agnes Montague," Martin says. "She was made into an incarnation of the Desolation at birth. Sort of. So, um… I don't know, maybe?"

"A baby made into an avatar right at the time of her birth, yes – met her once, a lovely girl, actually, in her own way, and her terrible upbringing was hardly her fault," Simon says. "There's been others like that, you know – not made at birth maybe, but people made into avatars quite without their own control. I'm of the self-made sort – I fell in love with the Vast and haven't fallen out of it, and I expect I never will. But knowing that you can turn someone into an avatar, without their conscious choice or even knowledge, well. Imagine making an avatar for a fear… that doesn't yet exist."

Martin blinks, as Simon stands up with some flourish. "Wait – wait – you think someone is making an avatar for the Extinction, intentionally, to bring it into its own?" he asks with alarm.

Simon chuckles. "Wouldn't it be just the thing to bring it out, hm?" he asks, and sets his teacup down on Martin's desk before standing up. "It's just a thought. Thank you for the tea – it was lovely – but I think it's time I go –"

"No. Sit down," Martin snaps. "You know who it is. Tell me."

"Bold," Simon arches his brows and then, with a smile, sits down. "I like it. Well. Yes, and – no."

"What is that supposed to mean," Martin demands. "Do you know them or not?"

"I do – and no, I will not tell you," Simon says. "See, if I do tell you, you might tell Peter, who will then tell Elias, and they will try to kill the man again – which I feel at this point would be a terrible shame. He's a lovely fella, you see, and it would be a terrible shame if he were to get himself killed while the process is still ongoing."

"But – if he's allowed to – wait," Martin says and drums his fingers against his desk, thinking. "Wait, wait, you believe if this guy becomes the avatar, and the Extinction comes into existence, then… it will never happen – what will happen if the avatar is killed?"

Simon hums and shrugs. "Nothing changes, I suppose," he says. "A single man dies. And maybe one day, the world will end. Who knows."

Martin leans forward. "What – what do you think they're planning, Peter and Elias? Do they know this?"

Simon hums. "Elias is always fourteen steps ahead of everyone else in these matters, and Peter – is leaving. So who knows," he trails away and tuts. "I dearly hope they don't, either way."

"Right…" Martin says slowly and then looks at him as a thought occurs to him. "Why are you telling me this? Knowing that I work for the Institute, that I'm Peter's assistant – why tell me anything at all?" he asks worriedly. Another great avatar trying to turn him against the others, against the Eye, against Peter?

"Why, you offered me tea, my dear boy. And it was lovely, thank you," Simon says and stands up again. "Now I think I am quite done. I have a discussion with a painting to finish."

Martin watches him warily and then stands up. "Right, um. Well. It was – lovely meeting you," he says, not exactly sincerely. "And thank you, I guess. It was –" terrifying, "enlightening."

"I'm sure it was," Simon says, smiling brightly. "You might find yourself wondering whose side I am on here, hm?"

"It crossed my mind, yeah," Martin says faintly.

"I could be callous and say my own, but honestly – I'm on the side of the future," Simon admits. "Most of my plans rely on humanity living in relative prosperity for the next hundred years at least – I want to see them get into space, you see, into the great vast beyond. And in that young man, I do see a long, long future ahead of this planet. Should he come into his own, he will never ever let this planet end. And won't that be a terrifyingly long time for humanity to live?"

"That's… a bleak way of looking at something that actually sounds positive," Martin comments. "Humanity living so long, that's a good thing, right?"

"I suppose it's a matter of perspective," Simon muses. "It's not a thought I deal with much, you know, the vastness of humanity. I usually find us all so pointless. Universe's timeline is so terribly long, you know. Humanity and our existence, it's not even a blip on the universe's radar. Wipe us out, and nothing about anything out there changes."

Martin swallows. "I – I think our experience of the universe has value. Even if it disappears forever."

"Hm. What a lonely way to look at things," Simon says. "Well, now imagine something forcibly stretching that blip out, from a few meagre hundred thousand years into millions, billions, human race forced to keep on going forever, up until the point we crave oblivion of extinction almost as much as we fear it…"

Oh.

"That's the future, with the Extinction." Simon says and sighs almost dreamily. "I'm quite warming up to the idea. So very vast might be the future of humanity. Makes one feel young again, don't you think?"

With a final cheerful chuckle, Simon Fairchild saunters out of Martin's office, leaving behind an almost tangible sensation of existential dread, as Martin sits down quietly and feels the weight of years stretching out ahead of them. Not years, not decades, not even millennia, but eons.

"Huh," he says faintly.

He'd never considered the survival of humanity as a potential point of cosmic horror.

Learn something new every day.

Chapter Text

"What do you mean, it isn't important?"

"I can – See into Ny-Ålesund, Basira," Jon admits, rubbing at his forehead. "When I concentrate – it's nowhere near as powerful as whatever Elias has, but if I concentrate onto specific things I can – Know them. And I know there's nothing there. The ritual you're worried about, it failed years ago."

Basira feels a hot flush of anger and quickly stamps it down. "How long have you known?" Did he let her do useless research, knowing it wouldn't amount to anything? Why, just to distract her?

"Since you said the words, four minutes ago," Jon says and meets her eye. "I'm sorry – I, I knew you were working on something you thought was important, and I – I didn't want to pry into things unnecessarily. I figured you would tell me if I needed to know – I would have told you if I knew, I promise."

A month back Basira would have doubted that very much, but… Jon had been getting better. Stronger. Actually, he looks better now, which is worrisome in another way. "Right," Basira says and lowers the file she'd brought, thinking to convince him to go. Shit. "Right. Have you fed on a live one, then?"

"What?" Jon asks.

"You don't look like you're fourteen coffees into a three night research binge, Jon – you must've fed on a live one," Basira says worriedly. "For an energy boost?"

"Hmm? Oh, no, I didn't – no. I, ah," Jon looks away and clears his throat – he looks almost embarrassed. "I got a message from – from Desmond. It was rather filling."

"... That where the saucy painting outside your door came from?" Basira asks, wry. "It's the same one from that Polaroid, right? Daisy told me."

"Instax, and, er, yes, both were delivered at the same time," Jon agrees and sighs, definitely embarrassed now. "He is terribly raunchy isn't he? I meant to have him moved to the artefact storage, but – there's something to be said about having a semi-reliable watcher at my door."

Basira blinks. "Jon, is there something – special about that painting?"

Jon looks at her. "You haven't noticed? I suppose he does enjoy making people think he's just a painting – Salaì is like the pages of the Skin Book, I think you've heard about that one. He can move and talk, to an extent – though seeing as few here can speak Italian, he prefers not to bother. You haven't noticed him changing poses?"

"I honestly haven't been looking," Basira says wryly. "Not really my kind of thing. Is it safe, having it outside your door?"

"Might be the safest place to keep him, if I'm honest," Jon muses. "And considering all the things he knows about Renaissance era occultism and rituals, he rather does belong in the archives, doesn't he? I should take another statement from him one of these days, maybe about that dark man of Leonardo's…"

"... Right," Basira agrees, missing the days she could dismiss stuff like this. Granted, that day passed long before she joined the Archives as a hostage, but still. The story of the thing is just the kind that would've been nice to be even a little sceptic about. "So what happened in Ny-Ålesund?"

Jon looks away, thoughtful. "I obviously don't have a full picture of it, we don't have all of the records, all of the statements. The People's Church of the Divine Host made an – impossible thing up on the Daedalus Space Station – a black sun. It was going to be a focal point in their ritual for the Dark, which I believe they called the Extinguished Sun. It happened on March 15th, 2015. So I'm afraid we're a little too late for the party."

Basira sighs and pulls up a chair from the side of Jon's tiny office, sitting down. "Did Gertrude stop it?" she asks resignedly, knowing she should be relieved, but…

"No, as far as I can tell, Gertrude didn't do anything. The ritual just failed," Jon says. "I think the dark sun is still there, but – it just is. Another relic of a failed ritual."

"It just failed? No one intervened, and it just failed?" Basira demands. "Did they get it wrong, did they –?"

"I'm not sure," Jon admits, frowning. "All I know is that the world wasn't plunged into darkness. I suppose it might be worth it going just to figure it out, but – but I promise, there's no end of the world coming from that direction," he hums and looks down at the door on his desk. "Or any, I think."

"I'm sorry?" Basira asks, and then her eyes key in on his face. Oh, he Knows something. "What is it, what else do you Know?"

Jon hesitates, folding his arms on top of the table and leaning onto them, obviously torn. "I – know something is coming," he says. "It's not a ritual in that sense, it's not a ritual to bring the world of Flesh or the Stranger or anything like that into our world. Rather, it's to bring a new entity into existence. An… emergence."

"The Extinction, you mean?" Basira asks, and Jon looks up. "Martin isn't as sneaky about it as he thinks – you know there's a pile of tapes he's leaving for you to find in case something goes wrong?"

"He – he is?"

"Mmhm. I listened to them all," Basira says and sighs. "I was hoping that Peter and Elias were just, I don't know. Tricking him into serving them by –" oh, that son of a bitch.

Jon arches a brow. "By whipping up an apocalypse for him to stop?" He asks wryly.

Basira sighs. "Yeah – I don't suppose you could keep this between us and not tell Daisy? She's relying on me, and I don't want her to know I almost got played too."

Jon smiles faintly. "Your secret is safe with me," he promises.

"So the Extinction is real?"

"Yes – and long time coming too," Jon agrees. "Longer than we realise. There's an avatar for it that's being prepared, powered up with samples of the other entities, so that he can – pull them all together and form a new power from them. The process is almost halfway done. I'm not sure if Martin knowns about it – I only know because I Looked. It damn nearly fried my mind."

Basira sits up straighter. "It's that close – close enough to have an avatar? And you know who it is? What are we waiting for, then – we need to go and kill him."

Jon looks at her, and his eyes are so dark and so deep that it gives her a pause. "No," he says.

"What – why not, what don't I know? Jon?" Basira demands.

Jon sighs and shakes his head. "Extinction will come into its own whether the avatar succeeds or not, it's just a matter of time, really. With the avatar it's – it's controlled, it's managed, it's – it's smooth and easy, like this. If the Extinction emerges naturally, well… it will probably come with a real extinction. A lot of it. Not human extinction maybe, but with enough death toll to call it an Apocalypse."

Basira frowns. "And with the avatar we get, what? Slow withering death of everything?"

Jon looks at her. "Fears can't function without people to fear them," he points out.

"... Hmm," Basira answers and leans back, watching him. "It's him, isn't it? Your Desmond."

Jon leans back too, going wary. "How do you –"

"You're defensive, and he's the only one you've interacted with outside the Institute lately – it's not that big of a leap in logic," Basira points out. "And I did wonder how he was keeping you so – sated. Statements from an emerging power have to be pretty powerful, hm?"

Jon actually blushes at that. "Um," he says and then clams up. Not much of a defense, that, um.

"How sure are you that this is not your Beholding bias or whatever talking? Everyone gets rose-tinted glasses when they're infatuated –"

"I'm not infatuated with him!"

Basira gives him a look. "Are you sure, Jon? Or is it your turn to be tricked about the end of the world?"

Jon sighs, frustrated, and shifts in his seat restlessly. "I'm – not sure," he admits. "Because I Know that in a long term the Extinction will not make things exactly better. It will mean more oil spills and chemical leaks, more nuclear scares and animal species randomly dying for no reason – it will mean some of the things people are doing to combat climate change will ultimately fail and things will get a little bit worse. It will mean bigger storms and more floods and more people being scared about those things. And people will become more aware of those things and they will fear them more, but..." he shakes his head. "But it will also mean that the world will not end. It will not catastrophically get worse."

"... Because fears can't function without people to fear them," Basira finishes.

Jon sighs. "That's the hope they bet on, when the Untold Sacrifice was set in motion, eight hundred years ago. That they could – well… save the world from Extinction by bringing it into its own on their terms. A – a controlled fall, if you will."

"Hmm," Basira answers, dubious, while Jon looks up, before there's a knock on the door. His eyes widen, and he straightens his back, just short of tugging at his clothes and combing his fingers through his hair.

"Come in, Martin," Jon says, already flustered, and Basira's brows arch nearly to the edge of her hijab.

"Is this a bad time?" Martin asks, peeking in.

"Never – did it come through, then?" Jon asks.

"Um?"

"The memo?"

Martin blinks and then sighs. "Oh course – yes, it did. I'm going to send out an announcement to all the employees in just a bit, but I thought I should tell the Archival staff personally, since… you know."

"Tell us what?" Basira asks. "What are you talking about – Jon?"

"Um – sorry, it rather slipped my mind –"

"Peter Lukas is leaving," Martin says. "Actually, he already left – he's still the interim head of the Magnus Institute until further notice, but he's not – here anymore. I'll be working as an, well… I suppose an interim interim head? Until something more permanent is arranged."

"Oh. Oh wow," Basira says. "Getting up in the world, aren't you?"

"Trust me, it wasn't my intention," Martin sighs. "I'm going around to all the heads of the department's, see if we can put together a plan for now – and that includes you, Jon. Now, I know you don't like department meetings, but we really need to have one, soon. As in, tomorrow."

"Right, right," Jon says, looking more worried about a mere idea of a meeting than of the Extinction. "What – what should we expect?"

"Hopefully, actual Institute-related work," Martin says and shakes his head. "I know the Archive is kind of its own special entity, but it's been – it's still in a state, Jon. And we still have to work as an actual Institute here. We'll talk about it tomorrow – given that you come."

"I will, I promise – barring any, er, esoteric complications," Jon murmurs.

"Suppose that will have to be good enough," Martin sighs. "Oh, a fair warning – I'm inviting Helen too."

"Wait – what? Why?" Jon demands.

"Because she all but lives under the Institute, and we might as well make it official. Head of the – basement storage, maybe, if she is interested," Martin says thoughtfully. "Probably won't be, but I thought I'd offer anyway."

"Any chance that while you have this authority, you could look into our contracts?" Basira asks. "Melanie would definitely appreciate it."

"It's right on top of my list," Martin says and then almost jumps as his phone lets out a notification noise. Sighing, he looks it over and then shakes his head. "I have to go to the artefact storage – there's been a spill, um – Basira, you're welcome to the meeting too, if you'd like. I think I could use your input."

"I'll be there," Basira promises and with a brief, apologetic nod Martin heads out, making a call as he goes.

There's a moment of silence. "Well," Jon says. "Some – good news, finally?"

Basira hums in agreement and looks at him. "What else do you Know is going on and which is slipping your mind?" she asks. "Just to bring everyone on the same page."

"Um – well, uh… Five hundred year old avatar of the Web just won the territory war over the Institute," Jon says and points to the corner of the room, where a little spider web sits smug and perfectly balanced between the walls and the ceiling. "He's the one driving the – the ritual to manifest Desmond into an avatar of the Extinction. He's spent the last two weeks driving Annabelle Cane's influence out of the Institute."

"And that's… good or bad?"

"Depends on your view, I suppose – Annabelle was aligned with Elias, Ezio is with Desmond, and Desmond doesn't want the world to end," Jon says. "I don't know what Elias wants, but – well. We know what he's like."

"Hmm," Basira agrees. "I'm not sure I like it. Just – sitting back and doing nothing while a new great terror emerges. It feels like we should do – something."

Jon hums in agreement. "Sometimes the best thing we can do is… nothing."

"Such a Beholding thing to say," Basira says, giving him a look. "Watch and do nothing."

"Yeah," Jon agrees with a sigh. "I know, and I'm not sure I like it either, but – I sincerely think doing nothing and letting Desmond become the avatar is the best course of action right now. So I'm, personally… sitting this one out, I suppose."

"Right," Basira says. "Up until something goes wrong, and then you do something."

"Well," Jon says and doesn't even try to deny it. Ha.

"If it's a good thing that this emergence happens – and if it's better it happens on our terms and not naturally…" Basira trails off, thinking about it. "Maybe we should… speed it along?"

"Hmm," Jon answers, thinking as he looks down at his desk.

"If he needs samples of the powers, what's a better place than this? We have the whole horror rainbow here, don't we, isn't that the point of the Archive?"

Jon looks up at that, meeting her eyes. "Oh," he says and then winces.

"What?"

"Elias," Jon says. "He Saw that, and he's not happy – he's –" he trails away and shakes his head. "I thought about it – inviting Desmond here to, to finish the process. He's – I know the ones he's still missing include the Spiral and the Flesh, and with Helen still holding Jared Hopworth… it could be a neat and easy way to kill two birds with one stone. Problem is… I think something needs to – to go extinct, when he finishes. Something needs to be lost, forever. And I'd rather it not be us."

"Ah," Basira says. "Yes, better avoid that."

"And one of the entities he hasn't been touched by yet is the Desolation," Jon adds ruefully.

"And that's just tempting fate, with how many people have tried to burn the Archives," Basira agrees. "Yes, I see your point."

"Despite how much Melanie would like to see it all burn, I'm rather fond of the place," Jon admits with a sigh. "All the pain and horror and existential terror notwithstanding. Where is Melanie anyway, I haven't seen her all day. Or Daisy."

"Can't you See them?"

"I – try not to spy on my friends. Not unless I think they might be in trouble."

"Hmm. Well, Melanie said something about self care day. Something about ritually burning her monthly pay from the Magnus Institute on the altar of self care and shopping," Basira says. Melanie had actually invited her to come along, but Basira had figured it would be a good opportunity to talk to Jon about the Dark ritual. "She took Daisy with her, they're going to get massages and so forth."

"That sounds great," Jon sighs.

"And just like what they both need," Basira agrees. "I hope it does them some good."

"Mmm," Jon agrees. "Maybe now that the world might not be ending, the rest of us could look into that too. Self care."

Basira considers it seriously. "Feels weird," she comments. She'd been working non stop for so long that actually stopping seems… wrong.

"It really does," Jon snorts. "I don't even know what passes for self care for people like me. Other than statement taking, and we know how that goes."

Basira snorts and looks at the boxes of tapes he's begun hoarding away in his office, like a skinny disheveled dragon. "Maybe – maybe finding statements no one knows about and taping them – and then burning the original written record?"

Jon looks at her in horror.

"Then maybe it would be just – yours," Basira suggests. "I don't know. You already regurgitate the statements, and it gives you sustenance, so… destroying the original would make it… I don't know. Better?"

"Well, thank you for that entirely unappealing mental image," Jon says, "but I don't think –"

"Actually, Gertrude already took those statements, and even taped some of them – and she was an Archivist too. Wouldn't that mean that the Eye already… has them?" Basira wonders. "Why does that work as a way to feed the Beholding – except if there is something about the process of reading them out loud and onto a tape that makes it special?"

"Hmm," Jon answers.

"And didn't Gertrude plan on burning the Archive?" Basira asks. "I remember Elias mentioning it – that she and Jurgen Leitner were planning something, and that's why he killed them."

"... You're right," Jon agrees. "Hmm, I wonder why. By that point Gertrude had stopped bothering with the rituals, I think…"

"Could be worth looking into," Basira muses.

"Another research project?"

"Well… since the world isn't ending," Basira shrugs and looks at the boxes of tapes. "Why audio recordings? I know it's – part of your whole deal, they're your totem now... but from what I've heard, the whole idea of putting the Archive statements on tape was your idea originally, it wasn't something Elias ordered, right? You just started doing it – why?"

"I…" Jon trails off and then clears his throat. "Honestly, I – don't know? I just thought – I…" he trails off. "I thought it would be – better. For the future, in case of researchers and archival assistants who had impaired vision, who couldn't read."

"Not exactly a problem here, is it," Basira comments ruefully. "You know, I used to be just a smidge colourblind when I came here? Not enough that it's bothered me, but enough that blues and greens blended together sometimes. Not exactly a problem anymore. Actually, it made me wonder what would happen if you did hire a blind archival assistant. Would the Archive just… fix their vision?

"It wouldn't work at all," Jon says promptly. "You need at least some vision to work here – for example… hm," he trails away. "There's a statement in Elias's office, a tape Gertrude recorded, I think it concerns this."

"About blind Archivists?" Basira asks, while moving to get up. Might as well go there now, since there's no danger of Peter Lukas anymore.

Jon nods slowly. "And about how to quit."

"Huh. Well," Basira hums. "Things are changing around here, aren't they."

"Maybe even for the better. Wouldn't that be a thing," Jon says, also standing up. "Speaking of which, the meeting tomorrow – you've been doing most of the work in the Archive these last few months – if you have any ideas…"

"Actually, I do – the archive is sorted by the date of the statement, right? How about we turn that into a subcategory – and sort everything by entity, first? Would make it much easier, finding things in the future."

"Hmm, I have been thinking about it, but there are statements that concern multiple entities," Jon hums, pushing the door of his office open. "I suppose we could make them their own category…"

As they step outside, Basira gives the painting across from the door a look. It really has changed positions – and somehow this one is worse than the last one she saw.

Basira snorts amusedly at it, and she could swear the man in the painting winks at her.

Chapter Text

Desmond is still holding onto his aching side, feeling the twinge on his non-existent ribs, when he finally finds Jason. It took him almost all day, to track down that barely discernible wisp in his head, half buried under the veritable avalanche of all the other crap now vying for his attention. Under the clawing of Connor's monster and the cloying, rotting decay of the damned thing Haytham had made, under the choke hold of the Buried and the razor breeze of the Altaïr's fall through the Vast, the hollow strangeness of Echo, under the Dark and the Slaughter and the End itself… there's a wisp of the Lonely, still tugging.

Jason, the guy he'd unknowingly doomed to a lifetime of loneliness. It's been… what, a month now? Damn if it doesn't feel like a lifetime, but it was a month ago when Desmond reached out and grabbed the guy and left him forever mired in the halo of the Lonely – and it's still feeding back to Desmond, nourishing him with the guy's quiet, solitary suffering.

Jason had moved, Desmond thinks – and he had left most of his stuff behind. There's almost no furniture in his tiny single apartment – just a bed and a table and a laptop where he taps away at a nonsensical book the Lonely is telling him he needs to write for the rest of his life.

Desmond remembers the guy perfectly, like part of him had been impressed on his mind – he'd been tall, proud, on the handsome side of average, with sporty clothes and vibrantly blue hair. Now the colour has faded, and Jason has lost not an inconsiderable amount of weight, and the hoodie that had fit him snugly before now hangs from his shoulders. His wrists are thin, and his fingers spidery as he writes.

The Lonely has grown. What had been a little wisp of fog before is now a cloud that covers most of the little apartment – it's thick enough that even though Desmond isn't that deeply mired within the Lonely anymore, he blends into it regardless. It welcomes him like he's coming home – which is, in the most unpleasant way, kind of right. It's his own loneliness he'd infected the guy with, after all.

"Well," Desmond says, rubbing at his side and sighing. "Looks like you've had a quiet month. I'd be jealous, except… I bet it hasn't been exactly fun either. Sorry about that."

Jason doesn't react. He's tired – hasn't been sleeping – and his head is foggy, because he hasn't been drinking much of anything that isn't an energy drink. He has nightmares now – he dreams of people in crushing crowds, grabbing him, changing him, so… he doesn't sleep much.

"Yeah," Desmond murmurs. "I, ah… no point really explaining all of this. I – I came to take back what I gave you. I don't think you'll mind."

He reaches out and winces at the sight of his hand – he should've washed the rotten book-pulp out from under his fingernails, that's disgusting. Well, too late now, he thinks and then reaches into Jason's fog of lonely, into his head, into his mind – into that place where a whisper in Desmond's own voice keeps telling Jason he might as well stay home.

It comes loose easily – though it takes some effort not to replace it with something else. Jason is a little hollowed out, like a washed out wound, and it would be so easy for a little bit of Rot to slip in, a little bit of Fury, a little bit of… any number of horrible things. "No," Desmond says. "This one isn't a meal, stop it."

He pulls his hand back and takes out what looks like a marble made of thin blue mist. It quivers in his fingers, almost afraid, which is… a little sad, really. It's part of Desmond, and it's afraid of him. That's the Lonely for you.

Desmond plops the little thing into his mouth and inhales the fog in the room, until the air clears and Jason lifts his head, blinking.

Slowly, the guy turns to look at him, his face gaunt, the faded blue hair hanging limply to his face.

"You should clean this place up," Desmond says. "And have a shower. And then call your dad."

"W-who are you? Where did you come from?" Jason asks, his voice reedy, his eyes wide, and probably a little greyer in hue than they had been before.

"Well, I came here to rob you, but there's nothing here to steal, and it's making me sad," Desmond says. "How about you go have a shower and I'll take out your trash?"

"Uh… um. Okay," Jason says. "Please don't hurt me."

"I won't, sorry," Desmond sighs and goes about picking up the trash bags that are almost barricading the front door. "Call your dad, Jason. Maybe go to therapy."

"How do you know my –?"

Desmond leaves before the guy can finish – and before he can do any more damage to him. Hopefully Jason hasn't in the meanwhile blown through whatever social credit – and actual money – he had, but there's not much Desmond can do about that. All he can do is take out what he put in, and hope the damage wasn't permanent.

Throwing the bags of trash out is enough to make his side flare out in pain again, and though Desmond meant to just head off, he ends up taking a seat on the side of the road, rubbing at his side and breathing through the pain.

"This whole week sucks," Desmond mutters and leans his head back against the dirty wall behind him. The side of the city where Jason lives is kind of poor and not best maintained, and there's a pile of trash on the ground beside him, which is just lovely. Everything smells vaguely of rot and misery, which isn't helping his mood any – not that he really has a mood other than tired.

Lifting the bottom of hoodie, Desmond checks the damage. Yep, it's already healed – but looks like the scar will be permanent. And big. Geez. You'd think there would be benefits to this whole not being human thing, but no, he apparently can scar now. Maybe that's the benefit – achievement unlocked, real enough to scar.

Desmond sits there for a long while, weighing options between getting up and taking a nap. It would be riddled with nightmares, they always are, but he's so tired. It's like there's a pressure inside him, inside his head, and it's wearing out his skin, like he's a – a balloon blown up too full of air.

Ten down, four more to go. Three, if Flesh doesn't count. God, he hopes Flesh doesn't count, it's bad enough without Flesh.

Something tickles over his hand, like a bug skittering over it, and Desmond opens his single functional eye just enough to see the spider, sitting on his knuckle. It's – he has no idea what kind of spider it is. It's small, about the size of his thumb nail, and watching him. Definitely there for a purpose.

"Right," he says and sighs. "Where to next? Somewhere for a nice little bonfire for you to trip me into?"

The spider sits still on his hand for a moment, before with a quick, jerky motion skittering away – down to the asphalt and towards the corner of the wall against which Desmond is sitting. It does it on his good side, he notices mirthlessly – what a nice and considerate spider, making sure he can see it. As he watches, it climbs up the wall and…

"Huh," Desmond mutters. There's a line of three old payphones on the wall just above him. He hadn't even noticed. Guess these buildings are old enough for that kind of thing.

The spider disappears into the middle phone, and with a sigh Desmond stands up. "Fine," he says, looking down at the spider. It's gone, but… they are never far, are they? "Who are we calling then? You know these things probably don't even work, right? People have cell phones these days…"

The phone is already dialled and ringing, as he picks it up, of course – and it's not like it would matter even if the line had been cut, not for this. Leaning his head on the spray paint covered divider between the phones, Desmond waits, feeling his lack of bones ache. He kind of misses the dirt of Alexandria. At least he didn't ache so much down there.

Finally, someone picks up.

"The Magnus Institute, Rosie speaking," a professional sounding female voice answers.

Ah. "Hey Rosie," Desmond says. "My name is Desmond Miles, I think I'm trying to reach the Head Archivist, Jon Sims?"

There's a pause on the other end, significant and pointed. "Ah," Rosie then says. "Can you hold for a minute, Mr. Miles?"

"It's Desmond, and I think I can hold for as long as it takes," Desmond says. "Take your time."

"I'll be right back, Desmond," Rosie says, and then Desmond is on hold. He waits quietly, thinking carefully about absolutely nothing as he leans onto the dirty pay phone and pretends to not be on his way to falling to the ground.

It takes… maybe two minutes, before anyone picks up the phone again. Desmond can tell it's Jon just by the sound of his breathing – the man has a way of bracing himself to talk, like he's always preparing for the worst. "Desmond?"

"Hi," Desmond says, not opening his eyes. "How are you doing, Jon?"

"I – was in a meeting, actually. Is – is something wrong, are you alright? Where are you?" Jon asks.

"Hmm, I'm in New York, And I'm – fine. A bit – heh – chewed up," Desmond says, smiling. "Meeting sounds exciting. I'm sorry, I – I didn't mean to interrupt anything important, I can call back later – "

"No, no, it was mostly – it wasn't really about the Archives, they were talking about the library staff when I – when Rosie came in to tell me I had a call, it wasn't important," Jon says and there's a creak of leather like he's sitting down. "I can See you, Desmond. You're not alright."

"You've gotten stronger, huh," Desmond asks.

"You look injured. What happened?"

It's not quite a compulsion, but there's a little suggestion there, and for a moment Desmond wonders if this is Ezio being kind in his own way, letting him have a bit of relief in the middle of all the horrible things that are starting to pile up. Just get it all out, lighten the load, feel a little catharsis maybe… then move on, with his head clear and his statement given.

Most likely it's a manipulation tactic, another way to lead him on somewhere.

Desmond lifts the receiver more firmly against his ear and presses his forehead against the wall. "If you have a recorder there, put it away," he says.

"There isn't one," Jon says, quickly enough that it might be a lie.

Desmond decides he doesn't care enough if it is. "Okay," he says and takes a deep breath. "Okay, give me – ask me, properly. I'm too tired to think, and it helps it come out all smooth and stuff, when you compel it."

"Alright, I'll… yeah," Jon answers, quiet. "Tell me what happened."

Desmond releases the breath and just… gives himself to it.

In the game series, there was a family of Assassins who shaped most of the 18th century – the Kenways. Edward Kenway was the first Assassin of the family, though he began as a privateer during the War of the Spanish Succession and then a straight out pirate in the Golden Age of Piracy – that was the subject of the 4th official game, the game immediately after my… departure from the series. I never paid much mind to him, and he doesn't really matter – what matters is the two I actually interacted with, in the third game. Haytham, Edward's son, and Connor, Haytham's son.

The plot of the third game – or, fifth, depending how you count them – was that Haytham has been raised as an Assassin and worked as one too, until at some point he saw – or stopped seeing – the light and switched sides, joining the enemy, the Templars. There was a whole treasure hunt thing for the Grand Temple, yadda yadda, not important.

What's important is that in the middle of the search, which was just the introduction of the game really, Haytham met a woman from a Native American Kanien'kehá:ka tribe, Kaniethí:io, and unknowingly fathered a child, that child being Connor. Or Ratonhnhaké:ton, as was his name originally. Fast forward about ten years, Haytham's Templar buddies burn Connor's village, kill his mom, and Connor sets out in a quest of vengeance, being the main character of the game, the main Assassin – the last of the 3 ancestors I played as.

He was a bit – off, in the game. I think it's because something was missing in the process maybe, the translation was off… The games originally come from the Codex, the Untold Sacrifice to the Forgotten, all that, right? The third one, I think, was missing something vital… I don't know. What was in the game and what actually happened, it's – it's different. And I know it was off with Altaïr and Ezio too, Altaïr of the game wasn't what he was in real life, and Ezio in the game didn't command spiders, but… Connor was… he was missing a lot.

I don't think in reality Haytham and Connor were related. Or, Ratonhnhaké:ton, I guess I should call him. I'm not sure they even met properly.

Haytham was – kind of part of the Brotherhood, but not really. The Brotherhood was long gone by that point, they'd all sacrificed themselves a couple hundred years back, so there wasn't really a brotherhood to be part of. But somehow, at some point, some distant sect of it had been revived in the Caribbean, and Edward was one of the Codex Assassins – he made the sacrifice properly, and he gave himself to the Untold Sacrifice in the end. Haytham didn't – he didn't make the sacrifice. He considered it… old fashioned, I suppose. Crude and savage.

I think he just didn't want to lose a finger. Either way, he didn't swear himself to the Codex, like Edward had and like Ratonhnhaké:ton would eventually do. So, he didn't have that… that protection against the Entities.

Edward was an avatar for the Vast, of course – open sea and endless riches, you know, fitting for a pirate. The guy liked to dive to sunken wrecks and stay there way past the point where normal humans would've needed to get up and breathe – freaked the hell out of his crew, but he had fun. I guess avatars of the Vast are just like that. Haytham was raised in the way of the Brotherhood, and he… fashioned himself as the next big avatar of the Web. They didn't word it like that back then, they had different terms for it, but… that's the gist of it. He wanted to be in control, to one day inherit the Mentorship of the Brotherhood and lead it to a new, greater age.

But he didn't ever make the sacrifice. He didn't promise himself. I don't know if it was because of the lack of the sacrifice that he went wrong – or if he couldn't do the sacrifice because he was doomed to go wrong… either way, he went wrong.

There's no Templar order in reality, that's – that was game addition. But there's always been some opposing force, trying to destroy the Codex, trying to undermine the Untold Sacrifice. In Altaïr's and Ezio's time and in between, it was Knights Hospitaller – which they couldn't call that in the game because, well… Knights Hospitaller are still around, you know, and that's bad publicity. So, the games used Knights Templar instead. By Haytham's time the Hospitallers had moved onto different things, though, and the order Haytham defected to, it was the… heh. The Fathers of Understanding.

I can't even explain why that is so hilarious to me, but… anyway.

Their deal, as far as I can tell, was attempting to control the Entities and through that control reshape the world, maybe save it, I don't know. But they – they didn't have what the Brotherhood had. See, the Untold Sacrifice, it does more than just take, it gives too. It gives this… this layer of protection to the people who sacrifice themselves to it. It lets them hold out against the influence of their patrons for longer – lets them keep their sanity. Sacrifice to the Codex, and it lets you keep yourself intact until the very end.

The Fathers of Understanding didn't have that. So, as they began to apply what Haytham knew of the interactions with those powers, it… it went slowly, but very damningly wrong for all of them. They all got… twisted. Haytham included.

I don't know what happened to the others, I don't really care, but Haytham, he wasn't the avatar of the Web towards the end – I'm not sure he was an avatar of anything. He got very desperate, tried to reach out to his former Brotherhood, but Edward had joined the Codex by then, and everyone else kept their distance. So he turned… to other things. To the things he knew, the things he'd been taught – and to the things he'd learned since.

I think he tried to create another Codex – or something very similar. He tried to turn people into books, into information. If he'd been Avatar of the Web like Ezio, it might've even worked, but… he wasn't. He was already something else, something in between by that point. He experimented on people, I think, colonialist and local natives, Kanien'kehá:ka among them, I think. I won't go into detail how, I'll just… say it was bad. A lot of them died, and the ones that didn't… probably wished they had.

Ratonhnhaké:ton was one of the few survivors, and I'll spare you the suspense – he eventually was taken over by the Hunt. He wanted revenge, he wanted to kill the man who'd done terrible things to his people, and the Hunt gave him a lot of power to do just that. Along the way he met a member of the Brotherhood, Achilles, who restrained him enough to tell him about the Sacrifice – Ratonhnhaké:ton made the sacrifice, joined the Brotherhood, and then he Hunted Haytham down.

I don't know what happened, I only – felt bits of it. But I, heh. I saw the end result.

Haytham was taken over by the Corruption – or the thing he tried to make was, anyway. I think Ratonhnhaké:ton was the one to lock the thing away – I found it in a cave, funnily enough, nearly where the Grand Temple was in the game, and it was… it was gruesome. A thing made of people and paper and rot, crawling on the ground like living moss, but filthy, I…

It was still moving, when the spiders led me to it. It was late in the evening, there was barely any light in that forest, and I only found the entrance because of the spider webs… it should've made me more cautious. But I guess what I'd gone through before made me a little reckless. I'd survived the Endless Fall and the Crushing Depth, and all the other things too, so I figured it wouldn't be a big deal. Traumatic, probably, but I'd walk out of it more or less intact.

And it… didn't seem that bad, really. I destroyed the thing – tore it apart with my bare hands, mostly. It wasn't even hard, it was like ripping out chunks of paper from a pile of rotting newspapers. Disgusting, sure, but not difficult. There wasn't much life left in the thing, really, it was mostly gone already. But… it got to me before the end – slit me open on the side with dozens of rotting pages. Which, let me tell you… did not feel very good. I figured it wasn't that bad, thought, paper cut from hell maybe, but it didn't go that deep. So I finished and…

You wouldn't think I was human enough to get infected, but I did, pretty much immediately. Only it wasn't a normal infection. What it did to my flesh, or… lack thereof, it was wrong, it was… it turned my skin into paper, my meat into pulp, already rotting, festering with – with whatever bacteria works to rot paper, anyway. It was watery and wet and foul, and I knew… I knew it would turn me into a thing like that. That's what Corruption does, right? It corrupts you.

The beast got me before it did, though. I think it was like… a guard. No, I'm pretty sure it was – it'd been guarding the cave, keeping people away from it, away from joining the thing Haytham made. It was huge and… just human enough that I thought werewolf for one insane moment, as it came right at me. And it must've felt what – what was eating away at me, because that's where it aimed, maw wide open – right at my side.

I… I'll spare you the details of what it feels like, having a chunk bitten out of you. It hurt. A lot. Let's – let's leave it at that.

I attacked the beast – I didn't even think about it, and I don't think it would've let me out of there alive if I hadn't. I took my knife and I drove it through the thing's eye while it was still chewing on me. I don't know how many times I stabbed it. It was a lot of times, before – before I couldn't anymore.

I passed out, and when I woke up, it was… gone. I – I think It might've been Ratonhnhaké:ton, but… I'm trying not to think about it. I just… I hope it's dead.

I hope they're both dead.

Desmond releases a slow breath, his eyes still shut as he relieves the moment. He only feels the phone receiver against his ear as a sort of hindsight, like he'd forgotten it for a moment, and, oh, there it is again. He can hear something from it, breathing.

"A-are you alright?" Jon then asks. "Are you still hurt?"

Desmond chuckles. "Skin's closed, but yeah," he says. "Yeah, I'm still hurt. Actually, I think I might be dying. I'm not sure the beast got the Corruption out of me. Took a big chunk, but – I think it's still working its way through me. It's slow, so I got some time, but…"

"How long?"

"Days, maybe," Desmond says. "A week? Not much. No idea what will happen when it works its way through me, though. It's not like I have a heart for it to poison. But… it probably won't be good."

"Shit," Jon says, quiet. "Can you – can you travel? Can you come here? I can – we can help you here, maybe. There are devices, and we've dealt with Corruption before, maybe we can stop it, maybe we can… Can you make the trip, Desmond?"

Desmond breathes in and out and then nods, even though Jon can't see it. "I – maybe?" he says weakly and looks up and towards the building where Jason lives. "No promises."

"No, promise me, Desmond," Jon says. "Promise me you'll try."

Desmond watches as Jason opens the curtains of his room and throws the window open, and smiles. "Alright," he says softly. "I'll try."

Chapter Text

It's funny how you take a look at a whole picture and think you know everything about it. It's all there, all the colours, the brush strokes, the design, the arrangement of figures and their placement in a premeditated pattern – or not, depending on the style. Even the most chaotic of Pollock's has a design to them, though – the choice of colours, if nothing else. You look at the finished work, and it's easy to make the mistake of thinking you can see it all, just because that's all there is to see.

But you can't see the canvas, the frame on which it's stretched on, the nails with which that canvas is pinned on, the nails by which it hangs on a wall. Or maybe you can, maybe you were part of hanging the painting and thus feel some control over it… but even then, what do you really see? Do you see the shop where the canvas was bought or the choice of its cutting into this particular shape – or the choice of paints the artist made at the shop, how much both were controlled by the market, how much variety was available? How about the weaver that made the linen, or the chemist that mixed the paint? The ingredients those came from, the plants that had to be grown and harvested, the minerals that had to be mined… what about the people who invented those processes, the long line of innovators perfecting it between the original inventor and more modern processing? What about the person who invented the tools used? Who really was the one who came up with the concept of weaving? Did anyone, or was it just… discovered?

Annabelle Cane has had a humbling month. What had begun as a small irritant and snag in the threads of her own plans had has bloomed into a tangle she can't seem to solve, and it's all the more vexing because she can feel the string there, held by another in a steady, confident grip, and all it will take it's for that person to tug ever so slightly, and it will all come undone.

She can't quite decide if she's annoyed or impressed. The other has stopped trying to be anything like subtle, but it hardly matters any more – the ball is rolling down the hill, yarn untangling as it goes… it's rather marvellous, how simple it all seems, and yet so impossible to stop now.

Still… she does want to try. She might've not worked on dear Jonathan as long as the time that went into the creation of Desmond Miles had been, but it is a rather important personal project all the same and it is… bothersome, to have all that work just torn asunder, even if it was by another spider. She might've lost her influence over the Institute, but that's only for now. All she needs is time, and a chance to slip back in, perhaps through the tunnels – or maybe she would create an acolyte of her own, a puppet in her strings, and send them to burn the foreign threads of silk away…

That's why he's here now, on the Hill Top Road, because she wouldn't stop, and he can't let her interfere anymore. In that way, perhaps her doom is more her own doing them his. Hmm.

Annabelle sets the table with dirty glades, brushing a small sector spider off them, and then breaks through the veil of webs to pull out a bottle of wine from a rack sitting beside a knife block. It's a good vintage wine, she thinks – though she was never much of a wine snob, really. Setting it on the table between the glasses, she wonders idly if she should've gotten food, or maybe some treats – dark chocolate went well with red wine, and she recalls liking the combination… back when she still ate anything physical…

Well, she doubts that the other can eat anything either, having lived for so long. Food at a certain point becomes more of a nuisance than a necessity, or even a luxury. The wine is more of a symbol than anything. One wouldn't want to seem impolite.

Then a voice calls, "Knock knock!" from the outside, which is surprisingly polite of him.

Annabelle straightens her jacket and checks her skirt before squaring her shoulders and walking to the door.

It's not him.

"Hello," says an incredibly old man, who isn't real and who isn't really there. He looks more like a sketch than a person, dressed in very old fashioned clothes, doublet and a cape and a beautifully drawn beret. "I was told you'd be expecting someone – not me, thought, I don't think."

"No – I," Annabelle says and then sighs. Of course. "I take it he sent you in his stead?"

"Yes – Leonardo da Vinci, at your most humble service," the old man says, and bows. She can see right through him, as he does it. "Pardon if I don't kiss your hand, my dear fair lady, I'm not entirely physical, you see. This is an – apparition of sorts, an illusion."

Leonardo da Vinci?

"... My name is Annabelle Cane. It's certainly a pleasure," she says, and she does not like how surprising this is, not at all. Still, she gives him her best curtsy – the man is something of a legend, after all. "I didn't expect someone quite so famous. Would you like to come in, Maestro?"

"I would be delighted," the old man says, smiling. Though he looks like someone drew him into existence with a pencil, somehow his beard and hair both look like gossamer silk. "It's a lovely house you have – recently rebuilt, I think?"

"Yes," Annabelle agrees. "Relatively speaking – please, come this way."

She shows him into the sitting room where she's put out the wine, and Leonardo da Vinci makes suitably impressed noises, even as he walks through the spider webs, utterly intangible. There is a feel of the Spiral on him, but it's rather faint – everything about him is somewhat muted, really. Must be an effect of the illusion.

Wonder how he managed it, the projection. Annabelle has no doubt that the real Leonardo da Vinci is no less physical than this one, whatever and wherever he is these days, and him figuring out how to protect himself through art at a distance is hardly beyond the realm of possibility, the man was a polymath in life and had had five hundred years since then to learn. Still, it seems like a marvellous ability, one she wouldn't have minded learning… even if she couldn't ever really draw…

She had rather gotten the impression, from what little dear Jon had put on tape and paper and let slip, that the man went quite mad before the supposed end of his life. Certainly by that point the Maestro should have had been in the clutches of the Spiral for years, decades even – which she knows very well tends to have a… terribly detrimental effect to one's sanity. Spiral is not a genteel power, in normal conditions. One would think…

They sit, and she watches him, looking for signs of it. Aside from the form in which he appears, there's very little about him that seems immediately concerning. A well drawn, beautifully detailed figure, but… understated, somehow. Not much colour there, no obvious spirals or fractals. If anything, he seems rather… underwhelming.

He doesn't seem like a killer, either.

"Well then. Ezio said to answer your questions," Leonardo says, marvelling at the wine glasses for a moment and then leaning back with flourish, throwing his cape over one arm. "He figured you would want to know, before the end – and I have questions of my own, of course."

Before the end, hm? "I'm sure you do," Annabelle hums, eyeing his cape a little enviously. She'd preferred more recent fashion, 50s being her favourite decade, but there's really something about capes, isn't there? "Question for question then? A fair trade."

"If you'd like," the sketch agrees. "Though I think yours outnumber mine."

Not if she's careful about it. Annabelle crosses her ankles and considers it at length, watching him. Perhaps he's like Desmond Miles, in the sense that he somehow shook his original affinity for one power off, and no longer solely serves the Spiral? Well, it doesn't matter. "What is the Untold Sacrifice?"

Leonardo smiles behind his beard. "Opening with a difficult one, madonna Annabelle," he comments, sounding almost approving. "It is not a what, precisely, it's more of a… who. And perhaps when. The Untold Sacrifice is a people, committing ritualistic self-sacrifice through their careers, and ultimately at the end of their lives, to join a great collective of other similar sacrifices. Originally they sealed themselves in books in the honour of a mentor, Altaïr Ibn La-ahad, but the method was perfected in my time – removing the need of a physical representation."

Annabelle can feel her face stiffen. She hadn't expected him to answer, and certainly not at such length or so truthfully. She'd figured all this out with what little snippets of information she had managed to glean, this is only a confirmation… but the fact that he says it at all... and so carelessly, so openly.

He really is here to kill her, then.

"Thank you," Annabelle says, resting her gloved hands primly in her lap while casting her senses about, just in case. No one there but them. "I believe it's the turn for your question?"

He doesn't even hesitate. "What is Elias Bouchard planning?"

"Ah. I see you have difficult questions of your own," Annabelle says, a little dismayed now.

Leonardo smiles, and though it's a beautifully drawn smile, it's not a nice one. He doesn't say anything, but the way he's watching her is a clear dare. Perhaps he's fallen under the influence of the Web…?

Annabelle chooses her words with care. "It's called the Watcher's Crown – it's the ritual for the Beholding," she says. "The Archives are its lynchpin – Elias has spent an inordinate amount of time collecting samples of other powers there, and it's almost ready now, missing just two little things, and then it'll be complete. Once it is, he believes he can bring his patron, the Ceaseless Watcher, into this world."

Not a word of it is all false, and as far as she can see he doesn't doubt it. His eyelids don't so much as twitch. He only hums, thoughtful, and nods in satisfaction.

Annabelle smiles and reaches for one of the empty glasses. "My turn," she says and watches as a spider tumbles into the glass, pretending to think. "How powerful is Desmond Miles?"

Leonardo makes the slightest face at that, lips thinning, eyes narrowing – he didn't expect that question, and he actually has to think for the answer. And he does seem to have real enough facial expressions – good to know. "In what way?" he finally asks.

"I meant what I said. How powerful is Desmond Miles?" Annabelle says slowly. How he would choose to answer would tell her a lot – would he relate the answer to physicality, to humanity, would he reference the Great Powers… or the Sacrifice?

"He – isn't," Leonardo says finally. "What power he has isn't his, it's all borrowed. Personally, Desmond has about as much power as I do – he's a picture, not much else."

Annabelle narrows her eyes. "So he's just a receptacle, a container."

"I do believe it's my turn to ask a question," Leonardo answers and his eyes narrow ever so slightly. "Is Jonathan Sims a container too?"

Annabelle leans back at that, her fingers twitching without her say so.

The sketch tilts his head, silvery curls swaying. "He soaks in the power of others, takes it in like a sponge, feeding off on other entities," Leonardo points out, like it's obvious. "And he's quite marked too, I've noticed. Is that part of the Watcher's Crown?"

Oh, they've been watching more than just their Desmond, hm? "That's a little more than a single question, but I'll answer it; yes," Annabelle agrees, composing herself. "The Archivist is an old concept, older than your receptacle, and they've always worked as a Record of Fear. Something about the nature of the Beholding, I believe – it's something of a hoarder, I've found."

Leonardo nods in agreement, watching her with sharply detailed eyes. The depth of them is so carefully drawn, that she can almost see inside them. "Your turn to ask a question, my dear lady," he says and smiles.

There's a spider running up Annabelle's spine, and it feels rather like a shiver. There's something about his eyes… "What will happen once Desmond Miles is complete?" she asks, meeting the unnerving gaze head on. Is he – trying to do something? Confuse her?

"He'll become whole, with the power of over eighty thousand sacrifices at his back," Leonardo says and then she sees it –- the hyper realistic details of his irises spin slowly. "And with any luck… that will be enough to bring the Forgotten back into this world, permanently."

Back? Annabelle clenches her hands and draws a breath, bracing herself against the effect he's trying to instill upon her. He's trying to confuse her. "Fascinating," she says. That – that is a very subtle application of the Spiral, but she has caught it now. It would not have any effect on her. "Your question then, sir."

Leonardo taps his fingers against the side of this arm and sighs. "I'm afraid I don't have any left," he admits, closing his eyes and opening them, slowly – their movement and unfathomable depth seems more obvious now. "I think I will rather enjoy figuring out the rest of it for myself, that's always much more fun, don't you agree?" He chuckles and looks at her. It's like his eyes are doing… more than just looking. "But I will answer one more question, if you have one."

Annabelle chooses it with care. "Can you tell me everything you know about the Forgotten?"

Leonardo smiles wider, and it's like someone's applied a highlighter to him – he visually brightens with the rays of nonexistent light. "Very well. It's almost as old as Death, we believe," he begins. "And it comes and goes. Altaïr, our most honoured first mentor, saw it in a vision and then dreamt of it for the rest of his vast life – the slow advent of the Forgotten upon the world. It comes in cycles, and it heralds worse things. This we learned later on, mind you, with the advancements of science and the study of prehistoric events – the great past Extinctions and such."

He holds out a hand. "First comes the one we call the Forgotten," he says. "Named thus, because Altaïr thought it was what brought civilisations to ruin so compete that future generations would not even know their names. The Forgotten marks everything that's doomed to disappear. Animals, plants, entire species, it washes over them and leaves them waiting. And they wait, they wait their entire lives, they wait for entire generations – in some cases, they wait for tens of thousands of years for the End to collect them. And they feel it coming. And they fear it."

Annabelle frowns, uncertain.

"Then something happens," Leonardo continues and lifts his other hand. "Something snaps. We don't know what, but it's likely one or two other Powers, reaching out – the Forgotten is an extreme one, it brings things to a brink, and once it's gone on long enough, things wear… thin. Some distance between us and them breaks.. And then we have the event, the disaster, a collapse of an ecosystem, a great big fire, a volcano that erupts, or an asteroid that strikes – whatever it is, in that moment, the Forgotten and everything it marked disappears."

He snaps the fingers of his both hands – there is an actual spark of sketched lines in reaction. "Like that, gone," he says, opening his hands. "And humanity was marked long before your birth, my dear – or mine."

Annabelle says nothing, thinking, warily watching out for the pen-line fine ways he's trying to influence her. He's trying to confuse her, bend her, twist her own thinking…

"But it's not here yet," she says, with a clear and crisp voice, to cut through the softening, blurring effect of his words. "You bringing it into this world will just speed the process along. What you're doing – it might doom us all."

"Or save us," Leonardo says. "We're rather confident that it will save us all."

"And you think by doing that, by bringing Extinction into our world… you prevent extinction?" Annabelle asks, putting just a little of patronising disbelief in her voice, just to see if it would annoy him. "I'm sorry, I'm sure the reverse logic seems clear to you, but… how can you be sure? What if you're wrong?"

"That is always a possibility," Leonardo agrees and smiles – and the spinning depth of his eyes seems endless, a bottomless twisting well – "But what's a life without a little risk, without a little… excitement?"

Ah. So he is mad. Well then. "Maybe you're doing what it wants," Annabelle comments. "Maybe you're being controlled by it, maneuvered into bringing it into its own, and once it comes into this world… all will be lost.

"We don't mean to merely bring it into this world, Miss Annabelle – we mean to trap it in this world," Leonardo answers. "By tying it to a form that cannot be killed, cannot be removed, and that cannot ever be undone. And since it can never be killed… it can never come into its… end." He smiles wider there.

"What a horrible existence you're dooming that boy to," Annabelle tuts, quickly thinking of some way she could turn this to her advantage. He's obviously mad, but madness can be controlled too. If she can convince him, if she can manipulate him… "It will be agony."

Leonardo sighs, shaking his head. "That's regrettable, yes," he agrees. "That's why we sought to make our chosen one from nothing, and not use a living person. We didn't think he would be so empathetic and… real. But the process is almost finished now, and with the amount of effort we've put into this, I'm afraid we can't let you try to interfere any more. Things are getting too delicate."

So now they come to this. Annabelle considers briefly trying to barter for her life, she still has some cards up her sleeve – not the least of which is Elias Bouchard himself… "And so you will deal away with me," she says and shakes her head. "Sent over to do the dirty work by another. Hm. How much like a spider he is. You loved him – doesn't it hurt you, to be manipulated by him?"

Leonardo pushes his silvery hair over his shoulder. "Ezio doesn't enjoy killing women. He's got… a soft spot for them. As for myself, well, I don't care as much," he says and smiles. "We're all people, in the end, made of mostly the same stuff."

"Mh, lovely," Annabelle says, wry. "Well, so as long as all sensibilities are adhered to. I would hate for my untimely death to make anyone feel bad. Especially my killer."

He chuckles at that, watching her. "Yes," he agrees. "There is something… delightfully ironic about it, isn't there? But then, I'm a trickster and you a manipulator. A fight between us seems quite satirical, if you think about it for too long,"

Annabelle lifts her chin at that. "Indeed, but I'm still not going to go down without a fight," she says regretfully. It's all so lovely, after all – it will be a shame to tear it all apart.

"We would be dreadfully disappointed if you did," Leonardo says.

They neither of them move, both waiting for an opportunity. Annabelle doesn't so much twitch as she waits, and when nothing comes within the first second or the next, she acts, testing the waters. With a single finger, she tugs.

The reaction is immediate, and almost too fast for her to see. The knife that was pulled violently out of the knife block and spun around to stab Leonardo is caught deftly by the man himself in mid air, just a palm's width from his sketched neck. He holds it firmly by the handle, and to Annabelle he seems surprised. He looks at the knife, his brows arching, and then he looks at her.

"Madonna Annabelle," he says, sounding almost offended.

"Hm," she says, narrowing her eyes, watching the knife he is gripping. "Not quite so intangible then." Nor invulnerable, since he decided to grab the knife, rather than let it hit him.

Annabelle lifts her hand, strings of spider silk flowing between each finger, and in the dusty air they gleam. "Well then, Maestro Leonardo," she says. "Your move."

He considers the strings and then smiles. "No, not mine," he says and holds out his hands to his sides, spreading them out almost languidly. It's then Annabelle sees them – the strings, and not hers. They're fine like her own spider silk, but they gleam like metal, like wire – and as ink and paint begin to bleed into the colourless sketch of Leonardo, the man gives himself into their embrace, gladly.

Ah.

"Ezio, I presume?" Annabelle asks calmly and nods her head slightly. "At last. It's a pleasure."

"Signora, pleasure is all mine," her Mother's beloved purrs through Leonardo's mouth as the man stands, gently led by the strings, knife still in hand. "It's a wonderful web you've spun, but it's getting in our way now. You must stop, little one."

Ugh. "I see," Annabelle says and sighs, smoothing out a wrinkle from her dress with her free hand. Neither of them had even done her the courtesy of showing up in person, and now they're condescending to her. "Tsk. Well. Let's get on with it, then."

She doesn't move, waiting, strings at the ready as the image of the old man is fully fledged in swirling, hypnotic colour. He waits for her to make the first move, and when she doesn't… finally… he twitches.

In that moment Annabelle twists her hand, and a thousand strings of silk are sprung and pulled taut all throughout the dining room – razor-sharp, they cut through the apparition at a thousand angles, splattering the dining room with ink and paint and leaving the image utterly torn apart. Annabelle watches calmly as what remains rains all over the table, the chair and the floor, probably ruining all of them, staining them with the swirls of the Spiral. The knife lands on the floor, landing on its sharp point.

In a second, all is quiet – and another stain in the house leaks through the floorboards, as if Agnes wasn't enough.

Annabelle waits a moment, just in case, and then stands up, stepping briskly around the puddle of paint on the floor. She wouldn't be lingering here, knowing that another avatar of the Web is coming for her – but she's not about to take this sitting down, either. They might've been working on their little Extinction avatar for eight hundred years, but she'd put quite a bit of effort into dear Jon too, and it would be a dreadful shame to just let all that go.

No, she will not stop.

Stepping out of the house on the Hill Top Road, Annabelle checks the area and then leaves, taking out a cell phone as she goes. It really doesn't suit her style normally, but oh well, needs must.

Better let Elias know he's running out of time – and that it would be a race for the finish.

Chapter Text

Martin finishes shoving the wadded up poem under Jon's door, feeling for the mood of the office before nodding. "It's sealed," he says. "I'm pretty sure Elias can't see through it, or… anyone." Something about closed doors and him – Elias hadn't been able to see him preparing to burn the statements either. All it takes is a closed door, and a little bit of… contrition.

"Been practising, huh?" Basira asks.

"Seemed pertinent," Martin agrees and shifts his weight uncomfortably, glancing at Jon. "So, uh… where are Melanie and Daisy?"

Jon shakes his head, frowning. "I sent them both a text, but I haven't seen them since yesterday – Basira?"

"They had a self care day yesterday," Basira explains to Martin and shrugs. "I figure Daisy dragged Melanie and Georgie out for drinks – which means they won't be feeling anything like a human today. Maybe not tomorrow either."

"Ah," Martin says, increasingly uncomfortable. There's… never really been a proper official, or really even an unofficial meeting in the Archives, concerning the Archives, with all the archival assistants present, has there? There's always someone missing, someone injured – or someone dead. And usually not for a good reason. "Right. Jon, maybe you should – check on them?"

Jon looks up and then clears his throat. "Both Melanie and Georgie have been… fairly clear I shouldn't do that," he says awkwardly.

"Daisy hasn't – she prefers that you can find her, in case of something… going wrong," Basira points out. "Check up on her."

"Right – right," Jon says and takes a breath. Martin has never really seen him do it before, not like this, not after… well, everything that had happened after the Unknowing. Jon had tried doing things with his powers before that, but – not to this extent, and not with this kind of casual… ease. Like he knows what he's doing, has done it loads of times, and is confident of it working.

Martin can almost see the eyes opening, distant, ethereal, and utterly other, as Jon closes his human eyes and looks elsewhere. He frowns a little with concentration and then releases a breath. "Daisy's asleep, I can't – she seems fine. No nightmares, nothing, she's just sleeping," he says and hums. "She… does feel a little hangover, though. I think she's at Georgie's place, though. I recognize the couch."

"Ah," Basira says and snorts. "Guess that answers that. I'll swing by their place after, see how they're doing and bring them up to speed."

Martin releases a breath. That's good – nice, even, that for once the absences are for strictly human reasons, and not because someone got kidnapped. "Right," he says and tugs at the lapels of his jacket – he'd worn the nice one for the meeting with the library staff and – it feels a bit weird, being dressed almost fancy in Jon's little closet of an office. "What was it you wanted to talk to us about, Jon?"

Just the fact that he has and that they're all here makes him worried.

"Right, um… I – we should," Jon starts to say and then sighs. "We should, maybe…"

"Figure where we stand and get it all out in the open, bring everyone up to speed?" Basira suggests wryly.

"Yes, that," Jon says, nodding with clear relief and looks at Martin. "About all this – about the Extinction."

Martin runs a hand over his chin, looking away – his first instinct is to deflect, like he has been, for months now, but… Peter is gone. Elias is in jail. Things are – different. Maybe even better. And all the stuff about the Extinction… "Right," he says and pulls up a chair from the side of the office, bringing it closer to Jon's desk. "Right. Um. I guess I'm the first to go then?"

"I – am trying not to ask questions, but – Peter, right?" Jon asks, while Basira too takes a seat.

"Yeah, I learned about it from Peter," Martin agrees, a little awkward under both their stares. "It was around the midpoint of your coma – it was just hints at first, him warming me up to the idea, I think – we were still busy trying to get the Institute back in order… or into an order Peter could handle. Reshuffling the departments so that he could avoid all meetings."

"Oh, was that what it was?" Basira mutters.

Martin hums in mirthless agreement. "He hinted that he took the position for a reason, and then began hinting at… dangers Elias was ignoring, things like that. Then the Flesh thing happened with Jared Hopworth, and… then he started finding me statements about potential manifestations of the Extinction."

"He found some," Jon assumes.

"Yeah, there were some – there was one about native South American tribe village being recreated from concrete and trash, which was pretty… post-apocalyptic," Martin admits, sighing. "The Future Without Us, he called it – with things and powers that are left behind trying to recreate what we were like from the garbage we left behind."

"I listened to it," Basira agrees and looks at Jon pointedly. "Doesn't line up with your theory much, does it?" she asks, making Martin arch his brows.

"These things are malleable – the ways entities manifest depend largely on through what they manifest. Each avatar, each thing, each spill of power is… it's influenced by the situation and the location," Jon says and looks distantly at nothing. "Imagine the fear of pre-industrial society at the face of cities made of concrete, metal and glass, how that fear might manifest in distorted reflection of what they know."

"So, it means nothing?" Basira asks dubiously.

"No, I… think it means everything," Jon says and shakes his head and looks at Martin. "Go on, Martin."

Martin looks between them warily and then shakes his head. "Peter thought the Extinction was close and that – well… that no one was working on a way to stop it. Apparently there's something in the Institute that can stop it, some… device or something, that can stop the Extinction or maybe push it back, or… delay it, at least. But it's aligned with the Eye, so… he needed a former archival assistant, I guess."

"Someone marked by the Beholding," Jon muses. "But influenced by the Lonely – the eternal amplifier."

"I'm – sorry?"

"Lonely, I think it works with… every other power," Jon explains. "It makes them stronger, makes them worse – amplifies all of them. Everything's more when you're dealing with it alone, after all. Whatever power or… affinity you got from the Beholding by being tied to the Archives, I… suspect it's gotten stronger since you fell under the influence of the Lonely."

Martin blinks and leans back, surprised. Had it? He supposes he's been doing a lot more lately, and looking into things a lot more. And… maybe he's been working more… efficiently? But then, he does have a lot more responsibilities now, so, it's hard to say. He's had a lot of little… insights, maybe? "Um," he says and casts a glance at the boxes of tape recordings Jon had gathered at his office – at Martin's request. "Huh."

"Right," Basira says. "So, Peter wanted to save the world, that's… quaint, coming from a guy who can't apparently stand being part of it. Why'd he leave then?"

Martin clears his throat, bringing his mind back to the matter at hand. "I think it was because he figured out he was… wrong about it?" he says and folds his arms. "Um – just before he left, or just after it, I ran into Simon Fairchild right here, in the Institute – outside of your door, actually, Jon," he adds, arching his brows at the man. "And he told me that the Extinction will… um… stop extinctions from happening?"

Both Jon and Basira look at him with surprise. "Simon Fairchild – the guy who likes dropping people out of the airplanes?" Basira asks.

"Simon talked to you? Really? Why?" Jon asks and then grimaces. "Sorry, that wasn't meant to –"

"It's okay, and um, yeah. I – offered him tea?" Martin says, wincing a little at the looks they give him. "I couldn't think of what else to do, and he seemed – pleased about it, actually? So we had tea in my office and chatted a bit. He's the one who told me Peter was leaving, before Peter himself did, and uh… well, the Extinction came up."

"Huh," Basira says. "When was this?"

"Just a few days back, actually – um, the day before the memo went out," Martin answers and shrugs. "I was going to talk to you about it, but then I got… busy."

"Busy taking over the Institute," Basira points out, amused.

"Yeah, when you put it like that, it almost sounds easy, but it really isn't," Martin sighs. He's still got so much work to do, it's kind of terrifying. Just having this meeting is eating into time he really should be spending elsewhere, trying to keep their workplace from falling apart. "Anyway, he told me about the Extinction, how it wouldn't be anything like what Peter feared. He'd met the avatar of the Extinction. Lovely guy, apparently."

Jon coughs, awkwardly, and looks away while Basira gives him a look

Martin looks between them, narrowing his eyes. "Simon told me that because the Extinction is a fear, it… by its own nature can't actually cause an extinction. Because who'll be there to fear, then? Also he implied to me that if you make an avatar for an Entity that doesn't yet exist, then you… shape how that entity acts, I guess. And you know who he's talking about, Jon."

"Y-yes," Jon says, crossing his hands and looking a little uncomfortable.

"It's his Desmond," Basira says flatly.

"He's not my anything," Jon says, while Martin feels a throb of pain in his chest, just at the sound of it. Jon clears his throat. "But, uh – yes. Yes, he – it's Desmond. That book, Martin – it was part of the process that… made him, I believe."

"What book?" Basira demands. "How long has this thing been going on without you two sharing with the rest of us?"

"About a week?" Martin offers. "The book came in the mail last Wednesday. It wasn't addressed to anyone, but Rosie suspected it was a Leitner, so she brought it to me, since Peter wasn't here, and… yeah."

"It's been a busy week," Jon sighs in agreement. "Martin gave the book to me on Friday, and… and then it was a weekend, and no one was here. And on Monday – "

"I met with Simon and found out Peter had left," Martin agrees, shaking his head. "And haven't had a moment to sit down and chat since."

"Right," Basira says with a sigh. "So, the book?"

"It was empty and has no power anymore – it's here, actually," Jon says and pulls the book out from his desk drawer. "It was once part of a collection called the Codex – it was made by a Brotherhood of… among other things, Assassins," he hums, resting the book on the desk. "Who, after pledging themselves ritually to the Codex, served to a variety of entities, and at the end of their lives… had their whole existence rendered… into books."

"That – thing was like the pages of the Skin Book?" Basira asks, giving the book a thoughtful look. "That thing had a person in it?"

"No, this thing was a person, once," Jon says, stroking his fingers over the lid and considering it. "The Codex was a bit more thorough than the Skin Book, though the idea behind them is similar. The books of the Codex didn't hold just an impression of a person – they held the person, in their entirety."

"Why?" Basira asks while Martin frowns, considering the book. "If this thing was done ritualistically, then there had to be a reason, right? Was it like those – those candles Eugene Vanderstock made out of people for Agnes Montague to… breath in the misery fumes off?"

Jon blinks at her. "You've been – reading ahead."

"Yeah, well, when you started to force people to feed you their trauma, I tried looking for alternatives," she says. "It came up. Are the books like that?"

Jon hesitates and then sighs. "More like… the choir of the Unknowing, actually," he admits, uncomfortably. "Only they were willing. The members of the Brotherhood spent most of their lives accumulating power in order to make themselves better sacrifices, to… to bring the avatar of the Extinction into existence. To – empower him."

"And that's – Desmond Miles," Martin says, awkwardly. "A… video game character."

"Hm, a person created seemingly from nothing, yes," Jon agrees. "During the 15th, 16th century, the Brotherhood discovered a way to… secure the Codex better. I don't know how they did it, but they learned to move beyond books – the Codex is bound into nothing, now, I don't know where it is, or how it still exists at all, maybe they're off in an alternate dimension or something. There was an idea that they had rendered it all into… free-floating data, into numbers. Either way, they couldn't… fulfill their purpose, couldn't reach out of this new form until a new way of formulating things was invented. A new expression of mathematics, I suppose."

"Mathematics," Basira mutters. "Hmm. So they needed computer code?"

"Specifically, the code that could give the illusion of life," Jon agrees with a shrug. "Such as the fictional, simulated world of an open world video game. Existence out of seemingly… nothing."

"Huh," Basira answers. "I miss the days when these things didn't seem at all logical."

Martin snorts in agreement. "So, the – Codex cloud of dead people, through the book that was once a physical part of the Codex, influenced a game developer into… creating their avatar?"

Jon nods. "I think something went wrong with the process, though," he muses. "The developer under the Codex' influence lost directorial control over the series in the middle of it, and the avatar that was being created by the games ended up… unfinished. There were supposed to be a total of eleven games involving Desmond originally, maybe more – likely with each one empowering him more and more with the Codex and its various samples of other Entities. But the process… failed. Only five were made."

"But he came out of it, though?" Basira says. "I listened to the recordings, he tumbled right out of the games sometime in 2016, right? He sent a statement to the Archives and everything. So it obviously worked."

"Yes, he came out – and soon after, he grew weak and was taken by the Lonely – which actually might have been done on purpose," Jon says. "I don't know what pulled Desmond out of the games, but he came out as barely a mirage, really, with no strength whatsoever. Then, after a couple years after being powered by the Lonely, along comes… me, finding a statement covered in cobwebs."

Basira hums in understanding. "Ah. The Web, huh?"

"Is Annabelle Cane behind it?" Martin asks, thoughtfully.

"No, there's another, older Web avatar, who's part of the Brotherhood, but stayed outside the Codex. Ezio, he's been… leading Desmond along as he's powered up, shall we say, with other Entities," Jon says and scratches at his neck. "I was there for a part of it, when I travelled with Desmond – the Eurotunnel –"

"You were there?" Martin asks quietly. "You were in the Eurotunnel when the… the shutdown happened?"

"Did Desmond cause it?" Basira demands, eyes narrowed.

"Well… indirectly, yes," Jon winces. "It was the End, it marked him – he was originally going to get into a plane accident, we took the train to avoid it, but… once the End marks you, there's no escaping it, really."

Martin shares a look with Basira, who grimaces and leans back. "So that was one of the moments of getting a sample of other entities. What else? There were other things too, right – you mentioned something happening in Lyon."

"There were other things, yes," Jon admits. "A manifestation of the Slaughter in Lyon, and then in Milan we found Salaì – the painting now hung outside my door," he nods to the said door. "And then we parted ways in Rome, where he proceeded to encounter the Dark, and… other things since then."

"So he's… what? He's collecting powers?" Martin asks, just to make sure he got it right.

"Samples of them," Jon agrees. "I think it's necessary for the process of the – the ritual – he needs to have samples of all the other entities to bring the Extinction forward in full. They've been… I guess, fleshing him out, making him stronger, more real."

Martin frowns at that, biting his lip in thought.

"Right – and how close is Desmond to finishing, then?" Basira asks, running a hand over her hijab, her face grim. "How close is he to becoming the avatar of Extinction?"

"He's… he's got three powers left," Jon admits. "Two of which he can… acquire here. The Spiral and the Flesh."

"Helen and Jared Hopworth?" Basira guesses and Jon nods.

Martin looks at Jon, steady. "He's coming here," he asks. "Desmond is on his way, isn't he?"

Jon nods again, almost apologetic now. "He's on the plane, it'll be here in two hours. He's hurt, an encounter with the Corruption left him infected, and – and I am going to take him straight to Helen. I'm pretty sure she knows anyway, with the way she was grinning at the department heads meeting," he mutters and shudders. "Um, I – I just didn't… I wanted to tell you first, I didn't want a repeat of… I'm still going to do it, though," he looks at Basira. "I'm going to try and speed him through the rest of the… transformation and finish the process."

Basira doesn't answer, but by the look on her face she's not surprised, nor does she seem to be against it. If anything, she just looks resigned and determined. Martin looks away, frowning. Months he'd spent afraid of the Extinction, wary of it, trying to stop it, and now…

"Martin?" Jon asks quietly. "I – I hope you're not against this. I –"

"You said he's missing three… samples," Martin interrupts him. "What's the last one?"

Jon swallows. "Desolation," he says quietly.

Martin closes his eyes, leaning his head back and tucking his hands into his armpits as he thinks. "Let me just… count," he mutters more to himself than them as he thinks back and counts with his fingers "First was the Web, then the Eye that's the second, the Corruption, third… the Stranger – actually maybe the Spiral first, then the Stranger, one or the other, fourth and fifth either way…"

"What are you…" Jon starts to ask and trails away.

"Hunt with Daisy and Desolation with Jude and the burn she gave, six and seven – and Vast maybe?" Martin murmurs and opens one eye to look at Jon whose eyes are widening almost comically. "Mike Crew? Or Simon, you had an encounter with Simon here, right, so, maybe it's a later one?"

"N-no it – it was Mike Crew," Jon says, choked.

"We're up to eight. The End with the coma, which wasn't even a coma, Jon, you were clinically dead for months, so, nine," Martin continues with a terrible sinking feeling in his belly. "Slaughter with Melanie, or this Lyon thing, ten – and Desmond definitely gave you the Lonely, right," something he really shouldn't be jealous of at this point, Christ. "Eleven, and then the Buried with the coffin, twelve…"

Jon lets out a choked sound while Basira stares at them with wide eyes.

"So that's… twelve to Desmond's eleven," Martin concludes, his voice a little high. "Well, you got him beat, Jon. Just the Flesh and the Dark left, huh?"

"Yay me," Jon says, horrified.

They fall quiet, staring at each other.

"Question is," Martin says faintly. "Whose ritual are you, Jon? And what are they trying to bring out using you?"

Chapter Text

It has been well over two weeks since Jon had last seen Desmond, in the Leonardo da Vinci airport. It feels both longer and shorter than that, though, so many things had been going on, and he'd barely been able to keep track of everything. The Institute, the changes there, and then what Desmond himself had been doing, the few snippets of information he'd sent back to Jon and all the implications in between, the revelations…

Two weeks, and the world seems so different. Jon feels different. Desmond probably would be… different too. Jon's almost afraid to find out how much they'd both changed in such a short time. After the years and months in the Magnus Institute he's painfully aware how much people can change in a short time – and how badly they will then fit with people they knew before. What once were perfectly easy friendships can so easily turn awkward, even hostile, as people… grow apart. And he wouldn't be surprised if the changes Desmond had gone through would… lead that way too.

But at the same time… Jon's not sure he's ever felt so urgently like he needs to see someone.

"Are you alright?" Martin asks, not looking away from the lights.

"Fine – or as… as fine as I can be, under the circumstances," Jon says and blows out a breath. The idea that he might be a ritual, like Desmond, it's… not relevant. "Not sure how I feel really matters at this point."

"Of course it matters," Martin says, and he sounds almost annoyed.

"I mean – Desmond is injured, and probably weak, he has an infection of the Corruption working its way through him – I should… concentrate on that," Jon says and sighs. "The rest can wait."

Martin makes a slightest unhappy face at that, tapping the steering wheel and then easing them through the lights. Once they're on a straight stretch of road for a bit again, he speaks, "You think we can fix it? I've read statements about the Corruption, how it infects people – it's not something you can cure, usually."

"No, not usually," Jon agrees, which is really why he should be concentrating onto that, not his own issues. "But Desmond is – different, and I hope that will mean we can take out what was put in with… relative ease. Hopefully he's not human enough to die, yet."

"Human enough? I thought the guy is all empty – he's becoming human?" Martin asks, glancing at him.

Jon nods. "I don't know if it's some sort of… self-delusion that's taking physical form, if it's still only surface deep, but he seems to be becoming more real, yes. He eats, he's begun to sleep," and see nightmares, "And he can bleed. The more samples of powers he's collected the more… thorough the illusion of humanity has become."

"So, as he's gotten stronger he's gotten… more human," Martin clarifies. "And more vulnerable."

"A common feature with rituals, I suppose – the further along they get, the more exposed they become to attacks," Jon muses and glances at Martin. There's a little Lonely leaking into the car – it's not quite as general and all-consuming as Desmond's brand of Lonely had been, in the beginning. Martin is a more subtle creature in that way… and perhaps a nicer one, too. His Lonely is solitary, aimed inward – it doesn't infect other people.

"I'm sorry, Martin," Jon says.

"What for?" Martin asks, his hands gripping the wheel.

For whatever is making him hurt, for whatever about Jon's words is making him feel so alone. "Everything, I suppose," Jon says and looks outside again. "For dying and for everything that followed."

Martin's swallow is audible. "Don't – don't apologise for that. That wasn't – did you die on purpose?"

"Well… no."

"Then it's not your fault and you can't apologise for it," Martin says. "And don't apologise for Tim either, or Sasha, or – anything, actually. None of this is your fault."

"Some of it is," Jon says quietly. "Some of those marks, I – got them by being stupid, probably. Jude was definitely my fault. And Melanie – "

"You saved Melanie. You saved Daisy. And you didn't put them in those situations – other people did, or they themselves did,," Martin glances at him and then sighs. "If you want to be sorry about something, then… then be sorry about being a paranoid git, last year. Because that definitely was your doing, and… it wasn't very nice. And as far as I am concerned, that's the only thing you gotta be sorry for."

Jon blinks. "Ah," he says and frowns. That's definitely not what Melanie thinks. Or Basira. Or Daisy. "Er."

Martin glances at him, seems to see somehow right through him and shakes his head. "It's…" he starts to say and sighs. "I'm sorry. You were in a coma, and then you weren't, and – I didn't react well to… to you coming back. I should've –" he stops and shakes his head again. "I'm not going to blame the Lonely for it. I should've – talked to you. It couldn't have been easy, coming back to everyone… avoiding you, after all that time."

Jon isn't sure what to say to that. "I think maybe I – "

"Don't say you deserved it. You didn't."

"Um," Jon says, feeling… a little thrown. This is not how he expected his first real talk with Martin after all this time to go. "O-okay, then," he says, a little humbled. "How – how have you been? I mean, taking over the institute and all, it – must be a lot of work." And to think, last year Martin was only an archival assistant. And he doesn't even have a degree for – any of it, really, and definitely not for management.

But Martin actually smiles and relaxes. "Yeah, but I think I like it," he admits. "I know what's got to be done and I actually get to do it. It's honestly… a bit refreshing, really."

Jon looks at him and then smiles too. "It's a good look on you," he says and turns away before Martin can meet his eyes. "Authority. I think you're – well suited for it." Certainly, he'd be better liked than Peter was. Definite improvement, for all of them.

"Hah, that's not what Elias would think," Martin snorts.

"Well, Elias has been overlooking you all this time," Jon says, dismissive. "His worst mistake, really."

Martin hums, and from the corner of his eye Jon can see him blushing. He doesn't say anything more, though, as they turn to Heathrow airport, and go about finding a place to park.

Desmond's flight is still fifteen minutes out, so there's a bit of a wait, made awkward by the fact that the terminal is full of people and most of their potential topics of conversation all have something to do with the supernatural – and rest are too personal and too delicate. So, they wait in silence, looking away, Jon craning his neck as he looks for Desmond despite knowing that the plane is still some ways out.

"What was Italy like?"

"What?" Jon asks, blinking.

"I've never been," Martin says. "Actually I've never really travelled much at all – what was it like?"

"I – suppose it was nice," Jon says. "I've… never been much of a tourist though, so I, I didn't pay that much attention to it. Desmond made me see some sights, but…" there's another spike of the Lonely and Jon glances at Martin. "It was – picturesque," he finishes lamely.

"That's nice," Martin says, awkward, and then they're quiet again and avoiding looking at each other.

It's a long ten minutes, until Jon feels it. It's an elusive feeling of wrongness that suddenly sweeps over the terminal like a gust of ill wind. What was once Desmond's brand of Lonely has turned into something else, and he doesn't have control over it, it's leaking out like the Lonely did in the beginning, just spilling through the crowd.

"Come on," Jon says, as he Sees him. "He's here."

Martin is left to trail after him, as he hurries through the crowd and towards the section for departures. As he makes his way towards the wrongness, it gives way soon to pain and then, finally, to rot.

Desmond looks like shit. He's pulled up the hood of his rather dirty hoodie, and his shoulders are drawn up like he's cold – and likely the only reason the security isn't taking a note of him is the leak of power around him, which is making everyone avoid him. The aura around him is almost visible, and it is repulsive in the literal sense of actually repelling people from him.

"Desmond," Jon calls and the taller man looks up. He's pale, under the hood, and his eyes – "Hey," Jon says and goes to him, Martin following soon after. "You look terrible."

"Thanks, just what I need to hear," Desmond says, his voice low and rough. "Hi Jon. Jon's Lonely co-worker," he adds, nodding to Martin.

"It's Martin, hi," Martin says, wary.

"Hi, Martin, nice to meet you," Desmond nods and swallows, swaying a little as he turns to Jon. "Can we get out of here before I lose it?

"Lose it how?" Martin asks suspiciously, while Jon quickly begins ushering Desmond away.

"I don't know," Desmond sighs, letting himself be led. He's stumbling a little. "I think I might hurl. And I think if I hurl, it's not going to be good for anyone. I feel like I'm full of – of bugs. And they really want to get out."

"Ah. Right," Martin says, going a little pale. "Okay then."

Martin sets himself ahead of them and then just shoulders a way through the crowd, making a beeline for the exit and to the short term car park. Jon puts a hand on Desmond's back as they go, murmuring softly, "We'll get you to the Institute, and fix this."

"That's nice," Desmond says, smiling faintly. "But seriously, Jon, I think I might actually be full of bookworms. Maybe get, like… pesticide, just in case."

Jon snorts, despite the sudden, cloying fear he feels. "Bookworms," he says. "That's – fitting. I'm so sorry," he offers and Desmond waves a dismissive hand, letting out a weak chuckle. "We'll take care of it, don't worry. Just… come on."

Between him and Martin, they get Desmond out of the terminal and to the back seat of Martin's car. "Please, please don't throw up here," Martin says, while Desmond leans back with a groan. "We'll stop by somewhere where you can throw up on nice solid concrete and then we can kill the bugs. Jon, there's a fire extinguisher under your seat, grab it."

"What, really?" Jon asks, and true enough, there really is one – a CO2 fire extinguisher, brand new. "Still, Martin?"

"Never go anywhere without knowing where there's at least one somewhere nearby," Martin says firmly and glances back at Desmond. "CO2 killed Corruption bugs the last time we had an infestation of them, maybe it will work on this too," he explains, and then backs the car away from the park.

"Huh. That's – nice," Desmond says tiredly and closes his mismatched eyes. "You have a – a thing for bugs. A bug protocol. That's so cool."

Martin grins at that, a little grim, and speeds out of the airport as fast as the speed limits let him. Jon checks the extinguisher and then keeps a firm grip on it, and in the end they don't need to use it – because in less than a couple of minutes, Desmond is out like a light in the back seat, his face grey and his breathing faint.

"He seems nice," Martin comments tentatively while Jon quickly checks that Desmond just fell asleep and didn't actually pass out.

"Yeah," Jon agrees with a sigh and clutches the fire extinguisher for the rest of the way, just in case.


Helen is not by her own right a patient creature. Even before Michael and the doors, her world had been all about efficiency and speed and, well… confusion.

Before it has been all about money of course, back when she identified herself as a real estate agent – money, and making people part with more of theirs than they generally would've liked to. People don't usually want to be spending exorbitant sums of money willy-nilly, and the more time they had to think the more likely they were always to settle for something nice and cheap – which then cut into her bonuses. As such, time had always been something of a detriment to her. It was better to get the viewer in, talk their heads around, get them interested, pretend there's a time limit and get them to close the deal, snappy and fast. And the more confused about their options and the more hurried about deadlines they were, the better.

That's probably why Michael singled her out and why the Spiral chose her over him, in the end. Things are getting closer and closer to the wire now, with so many delicious plots coming to ahead, so many little schemes approaching their culmination. Someone a little quicker was demanded, as the End of Days approached. Someone a little less likely to… get sentimental. Helen had always gone with her gut feeling more than anything, and that seemed to suit the Spiral just fine.

Which makes it honestly rather ironic that what she's doing now is… waiting.

She'd even found a chair for it, and is now sitting outside her door, one leg crossed over the other as she eyes the dark corridors. It has a tinge of nostalgia to it – she almost misses the clipboard she used to carry around, the folders, the tablet from which to show pictures and confuse her clients even more. Because that's what she feels like – she's waiting for clients.

Question is, who would reach her first. They all needed Helen now – or rather, they needed what she has in her possession. A prime feature of horror, solely in her keeping – and all the interested parties needed it to move forward with their plans. For a position she'd put herself in quite accidentally, it's a quite… advantageous one. And what makes it ever so much interesting is the fact that none of them have anything she wants!

Hearing what they would try to bargain with should be interesting. But right now, she's most interested on who would be the first. They are all working so hard out there, racing towards a finish line not knowing where it even sits, except perhaps for…

Well.

Helen chuckles, listening to the echoes as footsteps finally sound through the maze of corridors – and though she isn't surprised by who reaches her first, she is a little disappointed. "Hello, Elias," she says. "Can I call you Elias?"

Elias Bouchard has managed to find himself a suit. Must've swung by his old office, on his way down. He looks none worse for wear, despite his recent hardships. "Miss Richardson – or do you prefer Helen?" he says, prim and proper.

It really makes her want to mess him up a little.

"Helen will do, if you have to call me something," Helen says and leans her cheek on her curling knuckles, smiling at him. Oh how straight he stands. His hair has been pushed back, but it's grown out of it's usual cut, and there is a strain of weariness on his face some might miss. Been away from the Archives for too long, has he? Hasn't been feeding his God. Not like the Archivist, who's been all but a glutton, this last month.

Someone's punched him in the face recently. He hadn't seen it coming, and it vexes him, annoys him, maddens him, how weak he's become.

Elias adjusts his tie, clearing his throat and trying to affect a disdainful look. It only makes Helen smile wider. "I assume you know why I am here then, Helen?"

"Oh, I have an idea," Helen agrees in an echoing purr.

"And I assume you're… out of your domain to meet me."

"You, or whoever reached me. You happened to be the first, congratulations for that," Helen says. "Well, the first in this time, anyway."

Oh how it throws him of balance, that little suggestion of another thing he missed, another thing he did not see or anticipate. Helen leans back and chuckles. There's something ever so delightful in confusing the ones that belong to the Beholding – they thrive in knowing and when they find out they don't know something, oh, how it shakes their world, makes them unsure of any step – makes them doubt their own decisions, their own knowledge, all the things they base their actions upon.

"What do I know, Head of the Magnus Institute?" Helen whispers suggestively, grinning. "Don't you want to know? Who have I talked to, who did I make deals with – what do I know that you don't?"

"Not much, I suspect. You haven't been in this game for very long," Elias says, so nicely disturbed.

"Indeed," she agrees, enormously amused. "Not very long at all."

He frowns, likely wants to prod and poke at that, at the suggestion of her amusement. But ultimately, "I don't have the time for this," Elias says. "Jon and Martin are coming here with a potential avatar of the Extinction – they want you to take him to the Boneturner. He is still locked behind one of your doors, isn't he?"

Helen hums, still smiling. "He's still in there, alright," she agrees. "He's not very happy."

"No, I don't imagine he would be," Elias agrees. "What will it take for you to send Desmond Miles away, far away – and take Jon to the Boneturner instead?"

Helen laughs at that, laughs and laughs and it echoes madly. "I believe the question is… what have you left to give?" she asks, grinning wider and wider. "What have you got, Elias? I don't want your money, I don't care for your books, I don't care for your people or artefacts or knowledge, I care for none of it. What do you have that I could find valuable?"

Elias does a remarkable job at not seeming concerned at all. "I can give you Hill Top Road," he says.

That… that does surprise her, a little. "The Spider's hold on that place is formidable," Helen says, running sharp fingers over her chin. She had been… looking into it for a time, curious about what the spider was spinning there, but…

"Not any more," Elias says. "Annabelle Cane destroyed a projection of the spiral there, and it's leaking through the floorboards – paint and ink," he explains to her curious blink. "Quite hard to get out of the woodwork, once it's had the time to seep in. And it has. It's… quite taking over the foundations, the basement levels."

"Hmm," Helen says. "If that was the case, I would know. If that was the case… it would already be ours."

"Well, it hasn't gone on for long enough yet. But I can promise to distract the Spider long enough that you can finish the job," Elias offers. "If you do what I ask."

"I have to admit," Helen hums, rather impressed with him despite everything else. "I didn't expect you to have something I might actually find interesting, but that… is tempting."

"You will do it, then?" Elias asks. "Cast Desmond Miles far away, and send Jon to the Boneturner."

Helen curls a finger down her lower lip, considering him. "Very well," she says and smiles. "Unless of course they have something better to offer me, of course."

His lips tighten and his jaw flexes – heh. Mad again. "Fine. To make it an exclusive deal… Deborah Madaki," he says, annoyed. "Do what I ask and only what I ask… and I will get her back to you – after you've done what I ask."

Helen lifts her head slowly. "The sculptor's apprentice," she says slowly. "She's imprisoned for the rest of her life – Gertrude saw to that. They have her in a straight jacket." And it was a prison where neither Helen nor Michael could get into.

"Yes, and I have quite a bit of dirt on a number of people who will one day be in charge of reviewing her case," Elias says and smiles cuttingly. "Perhaps the next time it comes up they will, rather than keeping her wasting away behind bars, decide for leniency instead, and she will be sent to a care facility for psychiatric treatment. Somewhere a little easier to get to."

Helen narrows her eyes. If the sculptor's apprentice had any of Gabriel's flair, she might one day be able to create a door, like the one through which Helen – or rather the thing that had been forced to become Michael, which had then become Helen – been pulled out of. If Deborah could create a reverse door… perhaps she could cease being people, again.

He could be lying. Considering what he's planning, he likely is.

But then… there is that thing he's planning which will possibly be just as good. If not better.

Helen makes a show of thinking about it, and then chuckles. "Alright, Head of the Magnus Institute," she says and smiles. "I'll play your game."

"You'll send Mr. Miles on his way, and deliver Jon to the Boneturner," Elias clarifies.

"Sure," Helen purrs. "I can do that."

He considers her suspiciously, but can't see into her mind – though she fully welcomes him to try. Having someone like him lost in her curls and curves would be quite the twist, wouldn't it? In the end, he backs away, glancing elsewhere, looking elsewhere. "I suggest you hold up to your end of the bargain, Helen," Elias says. "For I have little patience for liars."

Helen laughs uproariously at that, sending the echoes to follow him as he flees from the corridors. "Oh, fun," she crows and laughs harder. "What fun!"

She's still chuckling to herself as his footsteps fade away – and another set replaces them. Leaning back in her chair Helen sighs and leans back.

She sees the Archivist first, he's coming ahead with a torch and pinched expression of terrible concern – then Martin Blackwood, her new boss, technically speaking. Martin is dragging Desmond Miles in turn, and he looks… quite terrible, really. If Helen didn't know better, she'd say he's quite ill.

"Helen," Jon calls, surprised. "Helen – quickly. I need to get to the Boneturner – you have him still, right, Jared Hopworth? He's still locked behind your door."

"He is indeed," Helen agrees and tuts. "And you really do need to see him, don't you. Hello, boss."

Martin almost flinches. "Don't call me that, I'm just –" he says and blows out a breath. "Never mind that – Helen, do you think the Boneturner can take the Corruption out of someone?"

"I'm sure I have no idea, you will have to ask him," Helen says, tilting her head while holding out her long fingered hand in the air beside her, and opening the door with a wave. She looks at Desmond as she does it – he's quite out of it, the poor thing. "Well then. Go on, Archivist – I'm sure you will want to lead the way. It's – not a clear path, someone needs to be the lookout."

Jon braces himself and then, the foolish beautiful idiot he is, he goes right in. Helen watches him go, watches Martin begin dragging Desmond after him – and quietly closes the door between them.

The atmosphere quite plummets afterwards.

"Helen," Martin demands. "Helen, what are you doing?"

Helen stands up with a stretch. "What I was quite generously asked for – the Archivist needed to get to the Boneturner, and I sent him there," she says and steps closer while Martin shudders and moves to step back. "He's in a right state, isn't he," Helen comments and bows down to look at the American's pale face. "There you are – hello, Mr. Miles," she murmurs and he shudders in terrible, maddening memory.

Helen hadn't paid him that much mind, the last time. He'd been early in the process, and quite honestly so weak she would've bet against him, had there been anyone to bet against. Nothing at all like they expected, all hollow and thin and weak. Things have obviously changed since then, though – he's overflowing with power now, quite literally. It's leaking out of him, all spoiled and rotten, each entity vying for attention from his feverish mind.

Desmond looks up at her, one eye milky white and other eagle sharp. "Helen, wasn't it?" he asks, his voice dry and rough, like a rotten desert. "I've been told you could – help?"

"I can do worse than that," Helen promises, placing a hand on his cheek. "Look at you – you're coming along in leaps and bounds. Got a little chewed up, did we?"

"Helen – he needs help, he needs the Boneturner – he has infection by the Corruption working its way through him," Martin says, taking a slow, steadying breath. "He needs help – please, open the door."

Helen smiles and looks up at him. "You're just a few minutes late, boss. I'm afraid Head of the Magnus Institute beat you to the bunch."

"What – Peter was here?" Martin asks, and then realises what she means, his eyes widening. "No… you mean Elias, don't you? Elias was here."

Helen hums in agreement and looks at Desmond. "He told me to send you far away," she admits conspiratorially and presses her fingers into his head. Martin lets out a yelp of horror as Desmond goes stiff as a board, his eyes widening and Helen's grin widens "But he didn't say it had to be through a door! I anoint you, Messiah – now sleep.

Desmond Miles collapses down in dead faint, and Helen laughs and laughs and laughs.

Chapter Text

It could've been anyone. It could have even been anything. That Desmond is Desmond at all, that he is a human, shape-wise, anyway, was nothing but a fluke. That's how the game developers just ended up translating the need of a blank slate. At the end of the day, it could've been anything from a piece of stone to a dragon, but because of the human influence and bias in the game creation, Desmond ended up… Desmond.

It worked well enough in the end, though. Something human-shaped had an easier time traversing a world full of humans, rather than something a little more monstrous. It allowed him to slip and blend into crowds even without the Lonely, let him vanish, let him fit in. Even with those humans who could see him, he belonged, and they sympathised.

Not so with Altaïr.

Altaïr stopped even looking like a human towards the end of his Hunt.

"Nine things he marked me with," he rasps through the mouth that isn't a mouth, with a voice that isn't a voice. "Nine powers, and his own human bias. Not something mortal flesh can take, without a change, without corruption."

Desmond thinks he's horrified. Not of Altaïr, precisely, or of what was done to him, so early on in his life. It's more – sympathetic horror, the knowledge of the years that had followed, the people who'd loved him, and how much it had hurt, to have them look, have them see. He thinks what he feels is horror, but...

His mind can't quite get a grip of what Altaïr even looks like. It's too many things overlapping, things with teeth and talons, feathers and worms – the closest thing he can call it is an eagle, but Altaïr is an eagle in the same way a festering, rancid swamp is a brook. Altaïr is all wrong. In the corner of Desmond's eye, Altaïr looks human-shaped, but the image oozes and decays even as he looks at it, all twisted and distorted.

The original container, which failed horribly.

Altaïr moves away, and like on a leash, Desmond follows.

He sees the first kill, with an Altaïr that still looks like a human, with a white robe and knives and a sword instead of claws and fangs. Tamir of the Shadow, the black market dealer, as oblivious and as intentionally spoiled as Altaïr would be in the end – Rashid had taught Tamir the blackest of magic, just enough to make the Dark take a hold of him. He bled black on Altaïr's hand and into his mind, and Altaïr was marked.

"Like a calf at slaughter. He was rancid, rancid in his ways, rancid in his power," Altaïr shudders, and it drips and burns. "They were all rancid."

Then Garnier the Doctor, the Grandmaster of Knights Hospitaller and the start of a long feud. Twisted around and turned by the Trickster, the Spiral, the good doctor's healing methods made men mad, twisting them in turn, and killing him left Altaïr confused, left him vulnerable – made him a little mad in his own way.

Al Mualim used it without remorse and confused him further.

Talal the Hunter and Abu'l Nuqoud the Corrupt followed in quick succession, and they earned their end. Between their deaths at his hands Altaïr began noticing the changes – the Hunter made him hungry in a way he couldn't explain. He didn't know magic yet. Didn't know what he was. What he was becoming. Killing Abu'l Nuqoud almost made him not care.

"Why are you showing me this again?" Desmond murmurs. He'd seen it in Masyaf already. It left him weak then, and he doubts it will make him feel any better now.

William of Montferrat came next, slaughtered by a changing Altaïr as he'd slaughtered others. In his thick blood there was evidence of three thousand deaths and more – helpless fear and terror of those he'd doomed to die. He was the first whose blood Altaïr was tempted to taste.

Majd Addin, who proclaimed himself God, who had grand plans and grander ambitions, and who bled like any old human. His blood was cold, when Altaïr sunk his talons in.

"Stop," Desmond whispers.

Sibrand – who feared strangers, who jumped at white shadows, who beat up his own servants and scholars in sweet, sweet paranoid fear of Altaïr. By that point Altaïr had lost enough of his humanity that when Sibrant finally saw him, he screamed like none had before.

Jubair al Hakim, the one that burned all he touched, who burned books and people and would've burned Altaïr too, had he not gotten to him first. Altaïr tore his claws into him and took him to the sky, and he burned and he bled in the darkness of the cold, cold night.

Robert de Sable was almost the worst. He just waited for Altaïr to catch up with him, and he waited alone. The games portrayed him as a murderer and a butcher, but in reality he was calm and he didn't fight it, and that made it so much worse. As Altaïr clawed into him, into the cold dead centre of him, he told Altaïr the truth.

"And Al Mualim's plan failed," Altaïr rasps, bitter and joyous and disgusted and satisfied. In part he wishes it hadn't, that it had succeeded. Al Mualim even had an altar at the ready, and he meant to lay Altaïr down upon it like human sacrifices of old, and he meant to drink his blood in turn and become all-powerful, all-capable, he meant to bring along a new era. At least then it would've been over.

Instead, Altaïr lived and he tore into the liver of his maker, and he bled Rashid ad-Din Sinan on the stones of Masyaf.

Over half of the Assassins there died trying to stop him, and failing that, kill him. The ones who survived all went mad in their own ways – they had to, to protect that little will and reason they had left. They broke themselves, twisted and bent their thinking, until Altaïr made sense to them and didn't threaten the very existence of their personhood, as he did their lives and their minds.

For the first two years, as Altaïr settled, they worshipped him as a dark, twisted embodiment of a horrible god. Altaïr would have stopped them, had he not been debilitated by the Vision. It took him months to regain his own sanity, and years to regain even a shred of humanity. By then, the Brotherhood had been forever altered.

It took years before their love for him lost its mania and zealousness, and became more sincere, as he did his best to undo the damage done and keep the Brotherhood safe. He tried to make them stop loving him, did his best to show them the truth, and they loved him for it – it was a thousand times more painful for all that.

Desmond draws a ragged breath as he sees it, the tentative way they approached him, the horror living inside Altaïr, the Knowledge that always weighed on him, heavy and crushing and vast. There wasn't a day of Altaïr's life that he didn't spend with the taste of rotting blood on his tongue. And he had to feed. He was always so hungry.

Malik was the first, once the fervour of worship had passed, to feed him. Altaïr isn't sure he ever forgave him for it – not did he ever stop loving him for it, either. He'd been so sane, sharp and clear like the edge of a well polished blade, so reasonable. "We need you now," Malik had said. "Without you, we will all die. Eat."

"I don't want to see this again," Desmond begs.

Altaïr's love for the Brotherhood was a terrible, overwhelming thing, twisted and dark and deep and heavy and bloody and burning. They fed the monster he'd become, and he loved them, and he feared for them, and he kept seeing their end every time he closed his eyes, how the Forgotten would claim them all, until even their name would lose its meaning, until nothing they'd ever done would matter, until all they stood for would be nothing but rubble for other people to fight over for newer ideals. They were all doomed, and he could see it, he could never unsee it.

It wasn't the fear of Extinction that brought to life the Untold Sacrifice, though. That was Ezio's doing.

Altaïr just wanted to make sure the people he loved would Never Fade, would Never Be Forgotten, would Never Vanish. He kept seeing all the things that had been, all the things that had vanished, and he promised his Brotherhood would never join them.

So he made them immortal. He made them See taught them the way they could stay themselves, he showed them the path, and then he led the way – from torn and twisted flesh into pure knowledge. And one day...

Desmond closes his eyes and crouches down, makes himself small, tries not to see.

The Vast and the Vision gave Altaïr power and they made him strong, but they didn't give him understanding. The Weaver wasn't an entity back then, people didn't fear being controlled in the same way – even being Seen and Known was a distant, tentative fear then, and nowhere near the power it would grow into. So Altaïr had perspective, and his perspective was vast… but it wasn't nuanced.

He didn't know how the Brotherhood would suffer.

Eight hundred years.

They don't weigh on him anywhere near as much, he isn't human enough to mind the time, but his brothers, his sisters, his students, his sons and his daughters – they feel it. The years spent trapped in books, and the years as free-floating, anchorless Knowledge, they wear on them all, they wear them thin. Ezio gave them more, he added Understanding to the Perspective and Plan to their Existence – he gave them a Purpose.

Altaïr just gave them pain.

Desmond shudders as he feels them brush him by – the tens of thousands of Assassins sacrificed over the centuries. Some of them are more coherent than others, some of them feel like people still – but most are just weary ghosts of themselves, staring at him, waiting for their end, for their release – for him. With him it would be for a reason, with him there would be a point to it all, and they want that so much it feels like agony.

Altaïr withers under it almost as much as it tries to lift Desmond up. He didn't know. Altaïr had a vision, and it was horrible, but he didn't understand it. He still only barely understands it. Now he just wants it to be over – all the people inside him, inside Altaïr, inside Desmond, in the Codex between them – he wants to let them go. The Fears have been feeding on them for so long. He wants to give them all their freedom.

But he can't.

"End it," Altaïr murmurs, and it comes out as a growl.

"I'm trying, alright – I'm trying," Desmond gasps and looks up. "What do you think I'm doing?"

The thing in front of him is horrendous, vast and shapeless. It roils from within as it reaches for him – with hands made of hands, made of blades and claws and –

There had been a reason for them, for those thousands of Assassins who'd given themselves away. Altaïr at the centre of it had suffered, had withered, had felt every Sacrifice and regretted them, and he'd carried them all regardless – but for the people making those sacrifices, for them there had been a reason, long before Ezio had come along, there'd been a purpose. Because even after his physical form had given out, even when Altaïr's body had broken up in a million parts and his Brotherhood had made them into pages, the people who had sacrificed, they believed.

And Altaïr might regret it now, but the Brotherhood believed. Even when there was nothing to believe in… they believed. And they trusted. And they loved. They still do.

Desmond presses his form into the Codex, and he loves them right back. There isn't even a reason for it – hell, it's probably the very definition of insanity. There are over eighty thousand people inside Altaïr. And Desmond loves them all.

Altaïr keens like it's the worst pain he's felt. It probably is.

"I'll finish it," Desmond promises. "I don't know how, but I'll finish it. I'll take the Untold Sacrifice and I'll finish it."

Altaïr embraces him, and Desmond begins to scream.


"Hold him – oh god – hold him steady –"

"There, you little – little squiggly things –"

"That looks horrible – the fire extinguisher is almost running out – how, how much more are there –? How can you even fit this much inside one guy?!"

Someone is laughing, it echoes like in an endless corridor. "My, that does look quite terrible, doesn't it. Not a man of delicate touch, are you, Boneturner?"

"Shut it, I'm working," a voice answers, and it sounds like it's made by a throat that's partially calcified, "Almost got the – the maggots out –"

"I think they're larvae, actually –" that's Jon.

"Whatever – there, that's the last one. Have at it," the calcified voice says, while something sprays in a hollow sound of rushing gas – a fire extinguisher. The calcified voice continues. "He's been hollowed out. Gotta patch up the hole. I need a bone – and he ain't getting none of mine."

"Er…"

Desmond can't move. It's like his mind is still floating outside his body – or inside it, it's hard to tell. It's been like this the last time too, when he'd touched that was left of Altaïr's body and ended up coming in contact with the Codex. The Buried had been a damn relief afterwards, he kind of misses that now, the squeeze, the feeling of being embodied –

"I – you, you can use mine," Jon says.

"Jon!" that's the Lonely guy, Martin. "Don't you think you've done enough for him? You already gave a rib –!"

"Well, luckily I have plenty to spare – Jared, is one rib enough?"

"Should do, once I stretch it out a bit –"

"Jon, no – no, take one of mine instead –"

"Martin, don't be stupid – I can heal from it, you can't. It's fine, it's a bit of pain, and then I won't even notice it's gone. You, on other hand, you'll feel it – maybe for the rest of your life –"

"Enough," the Boneturner says. "Whose bone is it going to be?"

Judging by the screaming that follows, is Jon's.

Then Desmond feels it.

There's a hand inside him, dipped right into him, and they've been scraping at his insides, taking handfuls of stuff and pulling it out – he feels all thin and empty again. And then he doesn't, as something is shoved inside him, right into the empty void, and then it's being filled with something that stretches and moulds into a new shape, into vertebrae, into ribs, into –

Desmond finds himself with lungs just in time to bite back a scream.

There's a huge guy leaning over him, both hands in Desmond's torso, still rearranging bits and pieces here and there, hands sliding in right through his clothing. Helen is standing over them both, watching, grinning and chuckling as Desmond gapes at what's apparently being done to him.

He can feel – he can feel his own insides. He has insides.

"Jon, Jon, are you alright –"

"Fine, Martin, it's – it's passing, already," Jon gasps, one hand clasped over his side as he sits crooked beside Desmond. "Just – just give me a moment…"

There's a pile of something messy right beside Desmond, which at first looks like trash… but isn't. It's dead bugs, all kinds of worms and larvae that eat books, apparently. Beside them lies a discarded fire extinguisher.

There's a nauseating tug in Desmond's chest as the huge, vaguely misshapen guy pulls his meaty hands out. "There, all proper now," he says, and there's a menacing sound of grinding bones and shifting flesh as he moves. "That's me done."

"Desmond?" Jon asks, wincing as Desmond brings shaky hands to touch his chest. "Desmond, are you – alright?"

"What the fuck was that?" Desmond wheezes, shuddering.

"Fixed you," the huge guy growls. "You were all messed up inside, bits missing – I put everything more or less in the right places. Gave you bones too, almost a proper skeleton. You were missing most of it."

"Er," Desmond says. "I – apologise for my anatomical inaccuracy?" he offers and drops his head on the floor with a groan. "Ow, my bones."

"I think technically they might be Jon's bones," Martin says faintly and looks at the Boneturner. "You can just – stretch out a skeleton from a single rib?"

"Why not?" the guy asks and stands up. "It's mostly the same stuff, bone and marrow. I'm going now, and no one better stop me."

"Yes, we – Helen, could you, please, show him a way that takes him out – not through the Institute?"

"As you wish, boss," Helen grins and looks at Jon. "That's one for one. You're tied now," she laughs. "Have fun –!"

Jon blows out a breath as they leave and leans back with a groan of his own. "Yeah," he says in monotone. "I agree. Ow, my bones."

Desmond laughs feebly at that. "Did he really just make me a skeleton out of your rib? What am I, Eve?" And isn't that ironic.

"Yes, it was practically biblical," Jon agrees ruefully. "I already had to give him one to get him to help you at all, so I figured, what's one more. How are you feeling?"

"Like shit, but I don't think I'm full of worms anymore, so there's that," Desmond says and reaches a hand to grip Jon's. "Thank you. Christ, I don't even know how I'm going to repay this. You gave two ribs for me, Jon, what the hell?"

"Give me a few fresh statements and don't destroy the world, and I'll call us even," Jon says with a weak laugh and grips back.

"Yeah, not even close, buddy, not even close."

Martin clears his throat, looking between them. "Hate to – interrupt," he says awkwardly. "But Elias was here."

"What?" Jon asks, his eyes snapping to Martin, while Desmond pushes himself to sit up. "You saw him? He was here?"

Martin shakes his head. "He was here before us – I think he tried to talk Helen into sending Desmond away and you to the Boneturner for you Flesh mark. We're lucky she's on our side, for once – or on her own, and not strictly speaking on Elias' side, at least."

He looks between them. "If she gave Desmond the Spiral mark, and the Boneturner gave you both the Flesh mark, then… you really are tied now. And I think we know which one Elias is working for."

"I'm sorry – what?" Desmond asks, rubbing at his chest. His sternum aches. "I think I'm missing something here…"

"I, ah," Jon starts, squirming. "Martin figured out that I'm similar to you. I'm… we think I'm a ritual too, marked by the entities. We don't know why, but I think it might be for the ritual of the Eye, the Watcher's Crown, I think that's what Elias had been trying to do all this time."

"And why he threw a hissy fit when you interfered and took Jon away," Martin scoffs.

"Uh – huh," Desmond says slowly, not sure what to say. "Okay, um. Didn't mean to become a rival, Jon?"

"No, no, trust me, I don't want my ritual completed," Jon says quickly. "Whatever Elias is planning, I don't want it to happen, not now and not ever."

"You're both one mark short," Martin says grimly and looks at Jon. "Good news is that your last mark is going to be harder to finish, since there aren't any proper holdouts of the Dark left in the UK. That's when I think he was trying to send you and Basira to Ny-Ålesund – whatever proper Dark is left, it's going to be there."

"Unless it isn't the last one," Jon says and looks at Desmond. "What's under Tiber Island – can it move?"

"I don't think so – I'm pretty sure it's tied to those tunnels," Desmond says, rubbing at his left blind left eye and still trying to keep up. "So you… don't want to be finished?"

"Absolutely not," Jon says firmly.

"It's better we… finish your ritual first," Martin agrees, uncomfortably. "That way there will be fifteen Entities, and it will be that much harder to finish Jon's ritual. Given that your ritual doesn't bring about the end of days, of course," he adds under his breath.

Desmond hums, still not sure he's keeping up, but… if they want to help him, he's definitely not turning it down. "Okay," he says. "In that case, I have some probably bad news for –"

"Jon, Martin! There you are," a female voice shouts, and they look to see three women coming their way – one of whom Desmond vaguely remembers from half a lifetime ago, Basir- something, and the rest who are completely unknown to him. "Bad news. Elias is gone."

"We know, Basira – he was here," Martin says and stands up. "And thanks to him, Jon now has the Flesh mark too. When did he escape?"

"Just a couple days back – a friend in the force let us know," a rather hungover looking Welsh woman says, rubbing at her eyes and looking down at Jon and Desmond. "This is him, then?"

"Daisy, Melanie, Basira – this is Desmond," Jon introduces him. "Desmond, meet the current archival assistants, Daisy Tonner, Melanie King and Basira Hussain."

"Pleasure," Desmond says and pushes up to stand, pulling Jon along with him. "Nice to see Jon's not avoiding friendships anymore."

"I wasn't avoiding anything –"

"There's no time for this," Basira says and turns to Jon. "I checked his call logs from when he was incarcerated, and the last few calls he made were to Ny-Ålesund. And that was a few days ago."

Desmond shakes his head, hopelessly confused, while Jon looks like he's been slapped.

Basira nods, grim. "The dark sun. I think he might've had it brought here."

Chapter Text

Martin tries very hard not to let his personal feelings get in the way of – well, everything, really. There's no time for them, no matter how the Lonely makes him hyperaware of the hand Desmond momentarily rested on Jon's shoulder, so casual and easy, and how Jon still stands just a little closer to Desmond than anyone else... or how he seems to generally stand up straighter and prouder in Desmond's presence. It's like all those little changes that happened in Jon recently come alive and get amplified, as the pair gravitates towards each other, and Martin –

Is not going to be thinking about it right now, there's no time.

"The dark sun is what, exactly?" he asks instead, forcing himself to concentrate, as they settle in the Archives. There's no point in hiding from Elias' gaze anymore, since the man seems capable of manipulating them anyway, and the tunnels have a tendency of leaving everyone out of sorts.

"It's a – a manifestation of the Dark created by the People's Church of the Divine Host, up on the space station Daedalus," Jon begins, drawing a breath.

"They made it for their ritual, which apparently failed back in 2015," Basira interrupts and waves a hand. "Not important – important is that it's movable, and it's a thing of the Dark, and if Jon is really just one mark away from completing the Watcher's Crown…"

"And how do you two know about it, exactly?" Martin asks, sighing and wishing he had something to write on. "I thought we were all on the same page already, wasn't that what the meeting was – never mind. Just tell me, please?"

"Elias tried to get Jon there," Basira explains. "By feeding me information and making me think that there would be a Dark ritual and it would take place in Ny-Ålesund, up in Svalbard – but when I took the matter to Jon, he told me the ritual already happened and it already failed. So obviously we didn't go, and afterwards we didn't think it was important. We didn't know why Elias tried to make us go, at the time, but now… Now it's pretty damn obvious it was for the Dark mark."

"Which proves Elias is behind it all," Jon mutters, sighing. "All the marks, the whole ritual, all of it."

"Hold up," Melanie says, frowning. "So, let me just get this straight. Elias is and has been making a ritual all this time, and that ritual is… Jon. And it works by giving him fear marks from other entities to bring about the Watcher's Crown, and all that."

"That's about it, yeah," Jon agrees. "And with the Boneturner and the Flesh mark, I'm… up to thirteen."

"And back last year you were at, what, six? And you didn't let me kill him," Melanie reminds him, offended. "We could've avoided all of this if you'd just let me kill him a year ago!"

"I say we do it now," Daisy agrees.

"Wait, wait," Jon says, holding up his scarred hands. "The reasons why we can't haven't changed – if Elias dies, we don't know what will happen to the Institute –"

"Don't we?" Basira asks and looks between him and Martin. "Martin's in charge now, and Jon's getting stronger – haven't you two figured out anything?"

Martin sighs. "The Institute contracts are archaic and very traditional, but… there's nothing outwardly or obviously… occult about them. However the binding works, I haven't been able to figure it out – though I think the binding contracts, the ones we signed, they aren't made with modern printers. I think they are prints – old fashioned prints, you know, like… really big stamps."

"What about you, Jon?" Daisy asks quietly. "You can See more now, right? Do you know?"

Jon sighs and leans back – closer to Desmond, who's standing a little behind him. "Well… no. I've – looked, a little, but – it's… it's like it's behind a lock and key, I can't – get at it. There are some things that are like that, things I might be able one day look into, but I'm not strong enough yet. If I try now, it – it will just overwhelm me, overpower me."

"How much stronger do you have to be?" Basira asks, watching him. "If you read a… a good statement now – "

"It'd take more than that," Jon says, shaking his head. "It would take something really powerful."

"I think I have a few of those, now," Desmond comments, leaning back against one of the shelves, arms folded. Jon turns to him, and he shrugs. "It's been a couple of weeks. I've… gotten around," he explains and smiles, slow and just short of suggestive.

"Er," Jon says, and Martin looks away – he does not want to see if Jon blushes.

"Either way," Martin says. "Stopping Jon's ritual is one thing – but how about finishing Desmond's?"

"Quick question," Melanie says, actually putting her hand up. "What the fuck?"

Martin blinks and looks at Basira. "I might've – not gotten around to covering all," she admits. "In my defence, we couldn't get her to wake up before we headed to the station – we picked her up on the way here."

"Ah. Well. Desmond here is the… potential avatar of Extinction," Martin says lamely, and glances his and Jon's way. Thank god, they're not giving each other the eyes anymore. "And like Jon, he's… marked with other entities. One more, and I think the ritual will be complete?"

"According to Jon, it would take something going extinct to finish it," Basira comments and looks at Desmond too. "How is the ritual completed?"

"Wait, wait, wait, what?" Melanie demands. "We have an evil ritual with Jon going on, which is bad enough, but now we have an avatar of the bloody 15th power here, and you want to complete his ritual?! Did everyone completely lose their minds when I wasn't looking?!"

"Er, it's a long story," Jon says slowly.

"Then shorten it! What the hell are you guys talking about? And why hasn't anyone told me anything?"

"In my defence, you all but quit already," Jon mutters. "So you haven't been around much."

"The gist of it is that we think, we hope, that Extinction works like the Hunt, the End and the Web," Basira says. "No ritual and no culmination – it'll be an entity that thrives on the anticipation of the thing it's based on, not its completion. So, if the Extinction emerges properly, it means extinction, as in the end of the world, won't happen."

"What kind of bollocks logic is that?" Melanie demands incredulously.

"Sometimes I wonder," Martin sighs. He still has a bit of a hard time figuring out his side in this. Sure, he'd… more or less suspected that Peter and Elias were just playing with him to string Jon along and the whole thing about him helping Peter stop the Extinction to save the world was just complete nonsense, but… well, it'd been months. He can't help that some of it stuck.

Between Jon and Basira they explain the situation to Melanie, who throws up her hands and basically goes, well of course, this might as well happen. Desmond, Martin notices, doesn't say much – just stands back, looking increasingly awkward about the whole thing.

"The idea is that with an artificial emergence it won't be as bad, as catastrophic, as it would be if it happened on its own, naturally," Jon finishes.

It's also pretty much exactly the thing Peter had been grooming Martin to stop. Shaking his head, Martin turns back to Desmond. "So, how do you complete the ritual of the Extinction, to make it emerge in full?"

Desmond sighs and folds his arms. "Well. I just have a… feeling about it, really, no one's really told me, but…" he clears his throat. "I think there was supposed to be a Library, and I think… I think I was supposed to burn in it."

"What?" Jon asks. "Wait – oh, of course. The Codex and the Untold Sacrifice are all about lost knowledge, of course, it was going to be books. But there was supposed to be a library –?"

"Like the Library of Jurgen Leitner?" Martin asks suspiciously.

Desmond blows out a breath. "I'm not a hundred percent sure what that is, but – even when they didn't know what they were doing, the Brotherhood always tended to build libraries. The first one was destroyed centuries ago, though, the remaining books were sent with surviving Assassins to Egypt, where they wanted to use the Serapeum of Alexandria, but… the Hospitallers kinda ruined that plan. And in Ezio's time, there was a library of the Codex books themselves, which I think would've worked, and I think they set them aside intentionally for the ritual, but – it was destroyed too."

"Ezio being the avatar of the Web, who's steering this whole… thing," Basira says, thoughtful. "And who's been doing that for centuries, preparing for this – was he behind the Library of Jurgen Leitner?"

"I still don't know for sure what that means, but it sounds special, so, maybe," Desmond admits. "I don't know. He hasn't exactly been straightforward with me so far, so I don't know what kind of plans he has. But… I guess he could've set up a library ahead of time. Seems reasonable."

"Well, it was destroyed years ago too. It was attacked by pretty much all of the other entities."

"Ah. Crud."

"How many books are we talking about?" Daisy asks quietly.

"I don't know – how many make something in a library, instead of just a room with bookshelves?" Desmond asks, and shrugs. "It won't be enough that it's just any old library, though. They gotta be special books – only editions, so that when they go… that knowledge is lost, forever. Forgotten. And considering this whole mark collecting business, I guess they gotta be magical, too."

"So, basically Leitners," Basira mutters and glances at Martin. "We have some Leitners in the artefact storage, don't we?"

"Not enough of them to even fill a shelf, never mind a library," Martin mutters.

Jon hums. "We do have one book from the Codex, though," he says and looks up. "The game developer behind Assassin's Creed sent it to me after I sent that email – I have it in my office. That could… work towards it, maybe?"

For the first time since the man woke up screaming, Martin sees Desmond actually looking emotionally affected. "You do?" he asks, with actual longing. "Can – can I see it? Please?"

"Of course, I'll go get it," Jon says with a smile. "I'll be right back."

"What is it with evil powers and books," Melanie mutters and sighs. "There are all these books, why books?"

"I think it has to do with the human psyche," Martin admits, watching as Jon leaves the room. "And tradition. Humans are natural storytellers, that's basically how we've always transferred knowledge, and almost all of the Leitners are prose in one form or another. A book can be its own contained world, so… it makes a certain sort of sense that they're well suited for supernatural influence and effect."

"Right," Melanie mutters. "Well, there's gotta be more evil libraries out there – do we know of any? Jurgen Leitner was a big one, sure, but there's gotta be others. There's always been libraries."

"Libraries of this sort, hmm…" Basira hums. "From what I've read, there tends to be only one at a time, if there's any – it takes destruction of one to make a new one. And of course there's the Archive, but it's not really a library, is it?"

Martin narrows his eyes. "Depends on how you classify a library," he murmurs and looks at the shelves. Though he sometimes misses the simpler existence among the Archive staff, he doesn't miss the archiving work itself. "There are… stories here, prose. Actually, isn't that an interesting coincidence – that the Beholding takes its statements in narrative. It prefers descriptions, scenes, even a plot at times."

"I thought that was just Jon being weird," Melanie mutters.

"No. The Magnus Institute has had a half a dozen Archivists, and they all took their statements in form of stories," Martin muses. "Gertrude did too. It's a trend, isn't it… horror stories about the supernatural."

"Right. So, what happens after the ceremonial burning of evil books?" Melanie asks, looking at Desmond. "The apocalypse?"

"I… don't know," Desmond says and sighs. "But not… that, if I have anything to say about it. I'd really rather the world stay as it is."

"Forever?" Martin asks wryly, thinking back to what Simon said.

"You know, that wouldn't be a bad thing?" Desmond asks, scratching at his scarred lip idly, fingernails scraping against stubble. "It's a nice world. I'm kinda fond of it. I'd miss Italy. And you know, you can never get a decent burger in an apocalypse."

Martin huffs out a laugh at that. It would be so much easier if he could dislike the guy, but he really does seem like a decent bloke. If it wasn't for all of this… "Well," he says and casts a thoughtful look at the Archives. "Maybe there's a way."

"The Archives," Basira says flatly. "Really?"

"It's a lot of first hand accounts, the great majority of which has never been copied elsewhere," Martin agrees, considering it. "It's what makes the Magnus Institute so special – there's a lot here… that can't be found elsewhere. Question is, is there enough here to call it a library? Most of the statements are short."

"I say we try, just in case. I mean, it can't hurt, right?" Melanie asks eagerly. "I got an extra tank of petrol in my car, we can have a go right now."

"I got some bottles of vodka that could help," Daisy agrees, already getting up, while Desmond looks between them with his brows rising more and more by the moment.

"Wait, wait, hold on" Basira asks. "We're all tied to the Archives, aren't we? What happens if we – damage them, to that extent?"

"I know for a fact it pisses Elias off," Melanie muses, and smiles. "During the Unknowing, Martin burned a good handful of statements. Elias was not happy."

Martin grimaces. "There's that, but…"

"Wait," Basira says again, firmer, holding her hands up. "A few statements aren't exactly equivalent to burning the entire Archives," she says. "We don't know if killing Elias will affect us, or how much, but – we're definitely connected to the Archives. I can't be the only one who feels that. And what will it do to Jon, if we burn it all?"

"Yeah, maybe… don't," Desmond says quietly. "Don't hurt Jon for me, that would… not be ideal."

Martin hums, agreeing. "I have a… theory about the Archive I've been working on, and maybe…" he trails away, glancing at Desmond, whose mismatched eyes narrow, and then quickly looks away. "Actually… Shouldn't Jon be back already?"

They all look at the door, and then Melanie curses, "Son of a bitch," before marching out. They all follow her quickly.

Jon is gone. Of course he's gone – the moment they take their eye off him for one second he's gone. Someone should've gone with him, someone should've –

"The book is gone too," Basira reports after checking Jon's desk. "There's something here, though – it's a tape. And –"

She stands up, holding in her hand a single cassette tape – and a familiar looking lighter.

"Didn't Jon give that away?" Daisy asks.

"Yeah," Desmond says, taking the lighter from Basira. "To me – and I lost it in tunnels full of the Dark in Rome…" he trails off, and then spins around and steps out of the office – and up to the promiscuous panting hung outside Jon's office foort.

"Salaì, wake up," he snaps. "Was Ezio here – did he take Jon?!"

The man in the painting, normally still with only the occasional blink and a teasing wave, wakes up with a rather suggestive groan and a stretch. "Oh, it's you," he says while Daisy lets out a surprised noise and Martin shivers. The panting is bleeding. "You promised me a view, and here I am, stuck in a basement, again –"

"Salaì, not now – did you see Jon leave?" Desmond asks. "Was he with someone?"

"He comes and goes, I don't pay attention to it – he's boring, most of the time," Salaì sighs and shimmies to lie on his side, ignoring the welts that are being drawn on his skin by the thorns. "Maybe?" he offers and smiles. "What's in it for me?"

"We don't rip your nasty little portrait apart, that's what's in it for you," Melanie snaps and snatches the lighter from Desmond's hand. "Tell us or I'll set your frame on fire."

"Pushy!" Salaì says, admonishing. "That's no way to make deals."

"Salaì, please," Desmond says. "Just tell us."

Salaì hums. "I suppose I could," he says and closes his eyes. "Or you could ask him yourself."

Melanie snarls and Daisy produces a knife from somewhere. "You little –"

"What are you doing?"

Martin whirls around to see Jon, coming down the hall with a book under his arm. "Jon! We thought you'd been taken – you weren't in your office."

"And the spider left you a gift," Basira says grimly. "Where did you go?"

"Ah, well," Jon says and scratches at his elbow. "I – did actually. Um. I think someone tried to take control of me, for a moment there, give me the urge to go somewhere and, well… I wanted to figure out why, so I thought I'd let them, just long enough to figure out where they were trying to take me."

"You – let them?" Daisy says quietly. "That implies you can stop them."

"Well," Jon says and clears his throat awkwardly. "I've taken – precautions. Since manipulation has been word of the day for so long, it seemed... pertinent."

"What kind of precautions?" Basira asks suspiciously, glancing at the rest of them. "And why didn't you tell us?"

"Because as long as no one knows about them, no one can take countermeasures against them," Jon says and pulls back his sleeve a little.

His wrist is tattooed from the inside and out with a simple but easily identifiable pictogram of an open eye.

"Oh you had it done," Desmond says and grins. "Nice."

"Taking a leaf from Gerald Keay's book?" Martin asks faintly, as the idea that Jon has tattoos now tries to settle in his mind. Not only does Jon have tattoos, but if he follows Gerard Keay's way… he'll have them all over. "When – when did you get them?"

"The evening before I went into the coffin. I wanted to make sure it was me choosing to do it," Jon shrugs, glancing at Desmond and smiling before covering his wrist again.  "Anyway, the Web – or anyone – can't manoeuvre me around without me knowing, now. And I know where he wanted me to go."

"Well?" Basira asks, tense.

"Into the tunnels. There's a way down there in Elias' old office, and I think I know exactly where it leads," Jon says. "The Panopticon."

Martin blinks as the dots connect. "The – the device Peter talked about, powerfully aligned with the Eye – but – that must be where Elias is – why would Ezio send you over to Elias?"

Jon blinks. "What do you mean, Ezio? I think it was Elias who was controlling me – it felt like him."

"What? But –"

"The lighter," Desmond says, plucking it from Melanie in turn and showing it to Jon.  "Ezio took it from me under Tiber Island. And now we find it in your office – and considering what we were just talking about…"

"Um," Jon says slowly. "I think I am missing something. What were you talking about?"

"Burning down your Archives."

"Um?!" Jon says, a little more urgently.

"Maybe we should listen to the tape first," Daisy says and looks at Jon. "There was a tape too, left with the lighter. We should listen to it."

"Tape. Right. I stepped out for five minutes – what else did I miss?" Jon asks, sounding bewildered.

Martin sighs. Yeah. This is going to be one of those days, isn't it, he muses, and quietly reaches over to pull the fire alarm.

Chapter Text

 

"Are you… sure about this, Gertrude? I mean, it's not a Leitner, exactly, but that's one powerful book, and that guy, he's obviously overtaken by it somehow. Just letting him keep it, like that…"

"Not everything the entities do is purely dedicated to death and suffering, I've found. I looked over his work and while it was obviously prompted by the book, it seemed remarkably… benign. There is some system behind it, some purpose, but… if the entities, any of them, could be satisfied with something as little as a horror game, or action adventure, or whatever it is, then, I'll call us lucky."

"We could've just burned it."

"No, Gerard, I don't think we could have. Not with that many webs around the place, I don't think we ever would have gotten a chance. Quite honestly, I am of the mind that the Web, when distracted to that extent, is only for the best for all of us."

"Just because they're not trying to perform a ritual doesn't make the avatars of the Web any less dangerous."

"Well, this one seemed remarkably cordial. For a meal, Mr. Dehler seemed in a remarkably well-preserved state. No, I believe it's best to let it be, for now. You're concentrating on the wrong thing, anyway."

"What? What should I be concentrating on, then? What did I miss this time, Gertrude?"

"Why did the Web show it to me in the first place?"

"Um… you, you think it was on purpose?"

"Oh, we were all but invited, Gerard – that there was as close as the Web ever comes to rolling out a red carpet. All of it was quite intentional, and whatever the reason for showing us that, well… I'm certain we will learn about it, sooner or later."

"Right. I still think we should've burned the book. Even if there was nothing actually written in it."

"Leave it be, Gerard."

 

"Ah, apologies. They show up sometimes – I trust you know what this is?"

"A recording device, yes, I know, Signora Robinson. I haven't completely distanced myself from the living world, yet."

"Call me Gertrude, please. I can destroy it if you'd like, that usually keeps them at bay for a little while, if you would like this discussion to be private.

"No, it's fine. It's likely here for a reason – I know an instrument of the Watcher when I see one, though few are so powerful as to reach backwards in time. Hello, little one – in the middle of the table will do fine for it."

"Backwards in time – is that what – oh. Oh, I see. I didn't even realise. I thought I was…"

"Recording for yourself? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to give you any unpleasant realisations. Do you need a moment?"

"I – no, it's… it's quite alright. I suppose I should feel flattered that some future avatar of the Beholding finds my work so interesting as to spy on my lunch dates, heh. An Archivist, do you think?"

"I wouldn't know, my Brotherhood has never produced one. But if they can become as powerful as I have heard… it seems likely."

"Hm. Well. I hope they find this discussion interesting, then. I know I will. I admit, it came as quite a shock, when I got your invitation – avatars of the Web rarely, if ever, meet with people… other than their sacrifices, anyway. You have no shortage of those, though, do you, Messere Auditore?"

"Heh. I promise I have no such intentions towards you, of all people – and please, dear Gertrude… call me Ezio."

 

"Ah, there you are – I was wondering if you'd show up. Hm. I wonder, is there a difference between those times when I choose to record on my own, and the times when a tape recorder simply appears? And how much of my own choice to record is really my own. Sometimes I think I can feel it – the eye of the future Archivist on me. My successor, I suppose. I hope…

Well, I can put my musings down at another time, that's not why you're here, is it? You're here for this? It was delivered just this morning, given the value of delivered, of course. It was beside my pillow when I woke up, which I suppose I could take as something of a threat, but… heh. Ezio does have that kind of flair to him, outrageous man that he is. I'm half surprised he didn't leave it with a rose. I suppose that maddened spiral of his would be jealous, if he did. I do wonder about those two, at times. How long lost they really are.

Hm. Well, I suppose I should… read this outloud then.

Oh, good grief, my dearest, really? That man…

 

My dearest Gertrude

Do you remember our outing, some years back in fair Montreal? It was a beautiful day, and you had a latte which you didn't enjoy much at all, and a piece of cheesecake you seemed to enjoy even less. Two hours we talked, before heading off to a more interesting walk and – well. I'm sure you remember.

It turned out our plans didn't pan out the way we wished, concerning the Codex project. The development of art and entertainment being what it is these days, even the director cannot hold all the reins on their own projects, and unfortunately our chosen conduit, Patrick Dehler, was… removed from the development before he had the chance to finish the translation. Our creation has been left thus sadly incomplete. I have expended some effort into patching up at least this part of our creation's process, but unfortunately it had unintended consequences – the studio finished creation's arc before it had the chance to make it into a full circle. Our dear Desmond was killed before his due time – before he could awaken to his power.

Now, I admit, I have been keeping an eye on your Institute, and specifically on your magnificent Archives. I think you might even guess at the reason. With the destruction of Leitner's Library the decade before, I haven't the access to the types of stores of power I was once used to, and what little I had, I have spent in putting forth the Codex for Dehler and his team to read. I will use what I have in finishing the project to the best of my ability, but, as you might surmise… this will take a toll on me. We're none of us as powerful as we used to be – age takes a toll on all of us, doesn't it, dear Gertrude?

I have seen some of your preparations in the Magnus Institute. I know what you plan – I applaud you for it, should you succeed, it will be quite the thing. As such, I hope I am not too presumptuous in asking you to… lend me some of that power you are about to so gloriously spend. I needn't much from you, neither blood or pain or death – only to dedicate the destruction to Desmond, lend him that knowledge you are about to wipe from existence.

I think this will be enough to give him the strength required to come forth.

I demand this not from you, dear Gertrude, under threat of pain or death. I demand it not at all. I ask only as a friend, in respect and in fear, as is our wont – these offerings, as with all offerings that are made to the Untold Sacrifice, must be done with free will. The Codex will not accept them otherwise.

I can only hope that your studies since our meeting and your discoveries have shown you what I have known to be true, all these years. Change is coming, and it is up to us to shape it.

I will understand, if you will refuse.

With the greatest of respects,

Ezio Auditore da Firenze

 

Well. Oh, dear. Oh, you dear man, you know I can't. It will take me all I have just to hide the whole thing from Elias' gaze. To add in another ritual amidst it all… and to bring forth an avatar of a power not yet emerged? Hah. What they plan, what they hope, what they pray for, it's admirable in its own right, but…

I can't."

 

"Ah – ah – damn – now it hurts, of course. Heh. Seems like – like the trick worked, at least. Elias is gone, though – he thought the first shot killed me. Well, it will, in a moment, hah, but… he's off to check up on the Panopticon and I have a few minutes. Not the most – dignified way of using Flesh to your advantage, but… but I'll take it.

Another tape, is it? Interesting. Well, I haven't the time for that – shit. Of course he took care of the petrol, and – ah. No lighter anywhere in sight, of course. Can't risk it going off accidentally, I suppose. I certainly wouldn't – ah. Hhah – oh, that's quite a lot of blood. I need to – just…

Ngh! I am not going to die so easily. Not without – not without – making a mark. My mark. Where – ah, no. No, not the records. I can't, those are for the next – the next Archivist. I wish them better luck than I got, heh. They'll need it. And I need something else, something…

I suppose…

Well. There are things…. terrible things… that only I know. I'm no book, I'm no record, but an Archivist is an Archive onto themselves… aren't they? It's quite a bit of knowledge, isn't it, that's about to die here… I should've written more of it down… I hoped… if Gerard had lived, maybe he could've…

Too late now, I suppose.

Very well… Not much time left. Might as well do it now. An Archivist can reach backwards in time… in the form of their records. Let's make this… let's make this a good one, then…

I never played those games of yours, they're not – not quite my style – but I did make Gerard play them, and I… I watched. Ridiculous plotline if I ever saw it, but… they had their charm, and one has to hand it to… to some of the historical accuracy, I suppose. I remember the end very well. They called it an Eye, didn't they, that world-saving device at the end? Hah. Must've been… Ezio's doing…

I See you, Desmond Miles. I Know you. And I dedicate my – my death, my life… and my knowledge… to the Untold Sacrifice…"

"Thank you, Madonna Gertrude. The Untold Sacrifice accepts your offering. And I promise, your death will not be in vain.

Requiescat in pace."


 

Elias closes his eyes with a sigh. Damn it. He'd underestimated the Web's influence over the Institute – Peter had really let it fester, hadn't he, letting it spread through all the corners and archways until the Institute all but belonged to them. Damned the Lonely and its weaknesses – as much as it is a source, it is also a sink for power, and when something sinks their claws in, the Lonely more often than not just… gives way.

And Annabelle hadn't been able to get her foot back in, after Ezio had won the territory. Too subtle by far, when compared to something so old, so sly and so ruthless. Pity.

It's all such a damned pity, isn't it?

Shaking his head, Elias closes his eyes, for long enough to see what the Archivist and the others would do now. There is no question of him being able to lure the Archivist to the Panopticon now. Even had the Archivist not given the secrecy of movement away to the Eye's constant hard observation, the archival assistants – current and former, in this case – would not let him go. They would chain him down if they had to, which, considering that Jon seems vehemently against going himself…

In the Archivist's office, everyone stands very still as the cassette ends in a click as years ago Ezio Auditore took it out of the recorder and took it with him. There is shock, there is surprise, there is a great deal of confusion in the air – and not near enough fear. Even the Archivist is no longer afraid, damn it all. He felt Gertrude through the record, felt her death – Elias can See it in him, he can feel the bullet inside him as Gertrude had inside her, but it's not enough.

"Okay, that – that was," the Archivist says and clears his throat. "Well. That – explains some things I was wondering about."

"That – that was Ezio, the avatar of the Web, in the end?" Melanie asks, turning to Desmond. "He was there – and he didn't do anything. He just – let Gertrude die."

"Er," Desmond Miles, the would-be-avatar of the Extinction says. "That is actually a very good point. What the hell?"

"Could be that he got there too late?" the Archivist suggests.

"Yeah, I doubt it. When do these things ever show up late to the party? He was there, and he didn't do shit," Melanie says. "And we're supposed to take his word – and yours, Desmond that this Untold Sacrifice thing you're working on is a good thing?"

Oh, Melanie – the Slaughter's violence is out of her, but she's still a fundamentally angry person, isn't she? Elias smiles grimly. If only she'd been more on his side than against him, she would've made a ferocious ally. He'd miscalculated in tricking her into serving the Institute.

"Also a very good point," Desmond admits, to his credit. "I don't actually have an answer to that."

"Ha!" Melanie answers.

"Okay, right," Basira says, scowling. "So, Gertrude – was part of the ritual, or helped it anyway, before… with her death. What does it tell us, aside from…"

"Aside from the fact that Gertrude was a badass," Daisy says quietly.

"Aside from that, yes," Basira says and looks at others, searching for clarity. "Jon?"

"Ah, I – ahem," the Archivist hesitates. "I – Gertrude was trying to burn the Institute. Or at least the Archive."

"We knew that already," Basira says. "It was on the tape with Jurgen Leitner, he told you. So, we knew that."

"But – why?" the Archivist asks. "And – and how – how could she even try it without – without it hurting her too? She was the Archivist – if she burned her own Archives, that would – that would hurt. Maybe even kill her."

"So she had some way to escape it," Basira says. "Not surprising, it was Gertrude. Can you, you know, use your powers to tell… how?"

"Um…" the Archivist hesitates, fiddling with his hands before shaking his head. "I – I don't know."

Good, he hasn't figured it out then, not yet – still going for the records offered to him, like a good boy. Elias breathes a little easier at that. Of course, it would only be a matter of time before the Archivist would try and reach for a file not meant for him and learn things before their due time, but… for now he'd been playing nice.

"I have an idea, actually," Martin says. "Umm, two, really – one of which I like better than the other."

"Well? Share with the class, then," Melanie says impatiently.

"Well, uh… I've been looking into past Archivists, archival assistants, all of that – I was trying to figure out how to break the contracts, or at least amend them," Martin says while Elias grimaces. "I haven't had much time, but – I think every Archivist of the Institute always… changed the Archives. I mean – think about it, have any of you ever encountered a single statement that isn't filed in Gertrude's filing system? And the moment you became the Archivist, Jon, you immediately began transferring the statements into audio tapes. Why was that?"

"Um, it – it just seemed like a thing to… do?" the Archivist says feebly. "In case of… people with visual impairments…"

"The tapes are part of you, right?" Martin asks. "Gertrude and Ezio said that the tapes she made were manifestations of you, reaching back in time. The recorders that pop in and out… they're you, Jon, aren't they?"

The Archivist is Looking elsewhere, and through him Elias can see – the damned record is on a tape after all. Gertrude had put select things on audio. Things, which Elias now realises, weren't meant for the ritual – they were meant for this particular Archivist.

"Oh," the Archivist says. "So, uh… so what you're saying is…"

"We take the tapes out and what's left is Gertrude's Archives," Basira concludes. "And Jon's Archive is… in the tapes. And safe."

"Seems like splitting hairs," Daisy comments quietly. "And wouldn't that take forever?"

The Archivist stares at Martin, impressed. "No, I've already done it, Martin told me to before. The tapes are set apart from the written Archives. And I feel it – I think you're right," the Archivist says and shakes his head. "And the other thing?"

"Well. When I was going through the records of archival assistants, I… came across one of Gertrude's," Martin says. "Who quit."

"Eric Delano," the Archivist says, distant as he internalises the audio record hidden in Elias' office. "He – he was Gerry's father. Gerard Keay's, he – he quit the job in Magnus Institute, by, uh… by blinding himself."

"In case of people with visual impairments, huh," Melanie says. "Blind archivists."

"Um… Well… I – didn't…"

"How much you knew and how much you Knew aside," Basira says and looks at Martin. "Whether we can burn the Archives or not is one thing – question is should we?"

Elias opens his eyes slightly and glances back at the closed door behind him. He needs to act quickly, and to do this he needs power – power he can't draw without a little bit of a…

Closing his eyes firmly, Elias pulls out a blindfold and then carefully winds it around his head, to make absolutely sure no light and no darkness can slip through it. Then he pushes the door open, blindly, stepping out of the corridor and into the Panopticon.

Having the dark sun there isn't enough to blind him, it will take more than a failed project of the Dark to do that. It still feels wrong, and he can't look at it without risking his eyes, so he doesn't. Thankfully, the room has been impressed in perfect detail into his mind, and he doesn't even hesitate, making his way down the stairs without railing, and down to the floor.

His body, when he reaches it, feels cold to the touch.

With the feel of his hands alone, Elias tilts his body's head back, to look up to the dark sun. "Take it in," he murmurs at himself. "Look."

To Know something, to See something that fundamentally abhors being seen and known… it's a trick, really, his body can't see anything, it has no eyes to see with, but the Dark can't tell that. He tells it he's looking at it, and it believes him.

The power that flows from that antithesis is not much, but it's enough.

Elias turns away, and reaches back to the Archivist and to his archival assistants, the one with bonds to him. Which one to choose… he can't affect the Archivist like this anymore, he's watching out for it. Desmond Miles he has no connection with at all, it wouldn't work. Martin has proved himself far too capable to fall for it… and Detective Hussain has her own protections, now.

So, Elias turns his eyes upon Daisy and Melanie. "I am here," Elias murmurs. "I'm a threat, I will always be a threat, you will never be free of it. You have to take care of me, you have to kill me. Just in case."

And obligingly, they parrot it back. "Well, that's all well and good," Melanie says. "Let's get the petrol, and you can get right to it. And in the meantime, I'm going to go to the Panopticon, and I'm going to kill Elias."

"Melanie –" the Archivist begins.

"It has to be done," Daisy agrees. "Even if we do this, and it works… Elias is always going to be a threat. What's to say he can't still try something, afterwards? He has to be taken care of."

"Well, Jon is going nowhere near that," Martin says sharply. "Not with the dark sun probably right there. That's just asking for it."

"So, we go," Melanie says, reasonable in her blood thirst. "Me and Daisy, we can take him."

"I'll go too," Basira adds with a sigh. "We'll… keep him busy, if nothing else, while you do this. It should buy you time, in case he tries anything, and if… if we can actually deal with him…"

"Then it will be best for everyone," Martin sighs. "I – agree. Here's a question though – how are you going to find it?"

Elias smiles and speaks through Daisy's mouth. "I've spent time… well, underground," she says with a wince he thinks works quite well. "Maybe – maybe I got a bit of an affinity for it now. I think I can figure the tunnels out."

"And if not, Helen can help us," Melanie adds, and Elias doesn't even have to make her do it.

"Right," the Archivist says, and bless his foolish heart, he doesn't even Look. "Right. I guess that's a plan, then."

Yes, Elias thinks with satisfaction. That's a plan.

Chapter Text

After the women leave, Basira leading the charge and trying to settle the awakening bloodthirst in Melanie and the thrill of the Hunt in Daisy, there's a moment of… awkwardness. Jon still hasn't quite gotten over the sensation of Gertrude's death, it courses through him like a sour but strong drink, making him shudder to the core. The death of an Archivist, and her little… dedication in the end.

To think Gertrude was not only involved, but directly responsible for Desmond's late emergence…

"So," Martin is the only to break the silence. "I – suppose we wait until they reach the Panopticon?"

"Yes," Jon agrees and clears his throat, looking at Desmond. "Which might take some time – or it might be instantaneous. Depends on Helen, I suppose."

"We'll need to make some preparations," Martin says, running a hand through his hair. "I pulled the fire alarm, so, hopefully, the Institute is empty already, but I'd rather it didn't burn all down. And we need to kill the fire suppression system, or this won't work at all. That'll take a moment."

Desmond hums. "Well, I'm in no hurry, personally," he says and looks down at the Codex book.

There's a strange… half tension in the air. Martin is tense, and Desmond is completely distracted, and Jon…

"Rather ironic, all things considered. Elias had a state of the art fire suppression system installed," he muses. "And the one time it might come in handy for the actual purpose it was given… we're intentionally going to turn it off."

Martin lets off a mirthless little laugh at that, though it's more to be polite than because of any sincere amusement, and it does nothing to alleviate the crawling unease in the air. "Yeah," he says. "At this point it's more of a Corruption suppression system, isn't it?"

Jon smiles at that, feeling a little better at how flat Martin's joke falls too. "Not a bad thing to have at this point, admittedly."

"I'm missing a joke," Desmond says, lightly, not sounding particularly bothered.

"We used it against the worms once," Jon explains. "Avatar of the Corruption attacked the Institute. As far as I know, there hasn't ever been a fire here – aside from Martin's occasional attempts of petty arson."

Martin looks momentarily offended, then pleased as he senses the attempted joke for what it was. "It wasn't an attempt, I was very successful," he says. "I selected an office without fire suppression and smoke detection and everything. Elias had to break down the door to stop me." Which, judging by the sharp, cutting bitterness that flashes in his eyes, is still not a pleasant memory. And it wouldn't be, considering what Elias had done to him. "It was very petty though," Martin adds, a little vicious.

Jon clears his throat, realising that, for all that's happened… he'd never gotten the chance to talk to Martin about it. He hadn't even gotten to ask him if he was alright, how he was coming along, if he… well, with the Lonely, he rather had an answer, didn't he?

And now isn't the time to ask either.

Jon looks away. "Right. What else do we need to do in preparation? I should remove the tapes," he says and motions to the boxes on the side of the office. "They are almost all there, aside from a few hidden in Elias' office. So it won't take long. Anything else?"

"We'll need to control the fire so that it doesn't spread," Martin says, thoughtful. "The building design will already do that, I hope… there might be smoke damage, so if there's something down here you'd rather not lose, Jon…"

"We need to move Salaì somewhere safe," Desmond says and looks up from the book. "He's a nuisance, but I really don't want him to burn. Not even if… even if that's what Ezio meant for him."

Jon nods, thinking. It… does sound like potential reason as to why the Web avatar had engineered Salaì's rather ghastly fate, doesn't it. To serve as another bit of sacrifice. "We won't let anything happen to him," he promises while trying to think if there's anything else they need to prepare. "We'll keep him safe."

"Much to his irritation, likely," Desmond answers and smiles, stroking the book cover with his thumbs. "I hear he's getting a little bored down there."

"You'd think after what he went through he'd be satisfied with less. Surely any improvement is major, in his position."

Desmond chuckles, shaking his head. "You'd think. Maybe if you moved him into your office," he comments and grins. "Give him something more interesting to do than just a door to watch."

Jon imagines trying to make statements with that constantly in the corner of his vision and sputters with horror, much to Desmond's obvious amusement. "A-anyway, aside from that, I don't think there's anything vital here," he says and turns to Martin. "Once the tapes are safe, the rest of it…"

It's free to burn, which hurts a little to think about, but…

Martin must see it on his face. "Right – are you sure about this, Jon?"

No he's not sure at all. "I…" Jon says, and looks at Desmond. "I would like to know how much you know about what will happen."

Desmond blinks and arches his brows. "Very carefully not a question, that," he comments.

Jon hums in agreement and considers him. He can feel the power coming off Desmond in waves, like he's pulsing – he is pulsing, on the inside, his whole being throbbing with its new physicality. He has a heart now, and it's probably not pumping blood, exactly, but it's pumping something. Thirteen marks, and the last one of them was the Flesh.

Jon doesn't have particularly good memories of trying to compel beings with this much power, and he'd really rather not try. At this point it would feel wrong.  "I would like you to tell me," he says instead, while Martin looks between them warily.

Desmond scratches at his scalp and then shrugs. "I don't know. No, really – I don't know," he says and sighs. "I don't know if even Ezio knows – they have the, the shape of it down, I think, but… the whole ritual thing, it's built on eight hundred years of wishful thinking, mostly. There's no actual… design to it, I don't think."

"Really?" Martin asks, half incredulous, half suspicious. "All that work, and they don't know?"

Desmond shrugs. "I think it's a know it when you see it sort of thing."

"So, no magical words or chants, hm," Jon very carefully says, and doesn't ask.

Desmond hesitates at that. "When Al Mualim began it all, when he – made Altaïr into that thing – no, wait, I haven't told you about that," he mutters and sighs. "I was meaning to make it into a statement for you, but since it's about the Untold Sacrifice, it doesn't… want to be recorded. Either way, when the Untold Sacrifice… started, or before it started – it's all kind of connected, but… Altaïr, my game-ancestor, he was made into a container, kind of, by his teacher."

"Ah, I – I know about that," Jon says, his shoulders slumping a little. "I'm sorry, I – I Looked. When Simon Fairchild brought Salaì and your messages, I couldn't resist Looking into it, and – I Saw some of it. Not everything, it was… overwhelming, but I Saw the start and the general shape of the Untold Sacrifice. Rashid al-Din Sinan… feeding other avatars to Altaïr."

"Oh," Desmond says quietly. "Well, um. That – that was a ritual, what Al Mualim – Rashid did. With chants and stuff. It was like this, but… not as much. He got it wrong, Altaïr came out of it wrong – inhuman and… I guess it was sort of the basis for everything. Ezio, I think he – perfected it, sort of. I think he saw visions too, or he had a knack for interpreting them, I don't know – he was the one who turned the Codex into – into a ritual, I guess. He was the one who made me. I don't think there were any spells involved though, it was mostly just… him doing it."

Jon hums. As evidenced by the record he'd left, Ezio had been behind it all almost literally. "He delivered the book to Patrick Dehler, and kickstarted the game development," Jon murmurs. "But if even Ezio doesn't know what will happen… then…"

He shares an uneasy look with Martin, who doesn't look any more confident than he feels. "Jon, I… have some reservations about this," Martin says quietly.

Jon sighs. Me too, he doesn't say out loud. It'd seemed so simple and clear when he'd seen it, and now it's just… once more big, terrifying and unknown.

Looking a little awkward, Desmond turns his mismatched eyes down at the book, stroking his hand down the cover. There's a look of mingled fondness and pain on his face as he eases a finger under the cover, to pry the book open. "Oh," he murmurs softly, and strokes his fingers down the thick page. "I thought so."

Jon watches as he lifts the book up, pressing his lips to the blank, parchment page. "Desmond, I need to be sure, we need to be sure. I need to know this won't make things worse,  I need…" he trails away, frustrated. "Please, I need to know this is the right thing to do."

Desmond breathes in the smell of the book and then closes it with gentle hands, pressing it against his chest. "I – don't think I can help you there," he admits. "I don't know, Jon. I know Altaïr had good intentions in mind when he started, but it didn't go the way he hoped. I hope that Ezio had good intentions, I hope he still does – but I can't be sure. He doesn't talk to me. So I don't know."

"And yet you're asking me to burn the Archives," Jon says quietly. "That's not very reassuring, you realise."

"Yeah, no kidding," Martin agrees.

Desmond shrugs, and again the power inside him pulses in restless waves. "I'm not asking you, though," he says. "Your people asked how it was done, and I told them. I haven't asked you to do anything."

"But you – "

"Ezio left the lighter to you, Jon – not me," Desmond points out.

Jon thinks he gets it. "It has to be someone else's sacrifice," he says. "Not yours."

"I'm just a container," Desmond shrugs again, arms folded securely around the book. "I'm not sure if you've noticed, but I don't have anything. Everything I picked up along the way, the phone, the camera, the recorder – hell, even Salaì's painting. I can't keep them, because that's… not the point of me. I don't own anything. I'm not sure I can actually do anything at this point, either. It's up to you, I think."

Jon gapes at him. "That's… that's far cry from what you were thinking back in Paris, and Lyon, and Milan. You've been nothing but contrary all that time, and now…"

Desmond hums in agreement and then sighs. "Yeah," he agrees. "I mean, I don't exactly like any of this. Would be nice if it wasn't like this, but it is, and eight hundred years worth of people went into making it like this, and I…" he trails away. "I know why, and I know how, and I even know the mistakes they made along the way, and… I don't mind it."

That's – Jon feels almost thrown by the statement, it's not at all what you'd expect from something like this. I don't mind it, what does that even mean, in a situation like this? I don't mind my own lack of agency, I don't mind being a vessel to ancient plans, I don't mind that this thing might destroy me and all I know, and –

"What a Lonely thing to say," Martin comments quietly, looking stricken. "Like you're just a…"

Desmond smiles crookedly at his expression and then tugs the Codex book under his arm. "Ezio made me for a purpose. It was with nothing but good intentions. I don't know how it's going to end, but I don't mind it, either way," he says simply. "That's all there is, now. The rest is up to you, Jon," he says and then grins. "Heh, I'm aping Minerva."

"What?" Jon demands before he can stop himself.

"In-game joke, never mind, not really important," Desmond says, brushing the compulsion aside and then looking at him seriously, but with a smile. "It is up to you, though. I can't flick that lighter for you. It has to be you – it's your Archive."

"Right," Jon says, more confused than ever. God, he hadn't even…  he glances at Martin, who looks as unnerved as Jon himself feels, and then turns to Desmond. "Um. If – if it's up to me," he says. "Do you – would you mind if – I could Look," he says, careful.

"I don't mind," Desmond says and smiles. "But we should probably complete the preparations first, just in case. Knowing how these things usually go…"

"Right – right," Martin says, running a hand over his face. "Christ. I'll take care of the fire suppression system," he says and looks at Jon. "You have a safe place where you can take your tapes?"

"I figured I'd just take them to my car," Jon says and glances at Desmond. "And Salaì too."

"Thanks," Desmond nods and turns to the door. "I'll just take him down. I need to talk to him, anyway."

Jon nods, feeling a little shaky, and then turns to Martin. "I – don't know what I'm doing," he admits quietly. "I don't know if this is the right thing to do."

"Me neither," Martin admits with a sigh. "But we're going to do it anyway, aren't we?"

Jon looks down. "For – for what it's worth, I'm sorry," he offers, though he's not entirely sure what he's apologising for.

Martin looks at him and then, awkward, rests a hand on his shoulder. "So am I, Jon. I'm so sorry."

Jon blinks at the sincere empathy of the words, and he almost sees it, what Martin is thinking, it's never nice, watching someone you love self-destruct...

Jon opens his mouth to argue, but Martin has already stepped out of the door, and – and he's not wrong, is he?  That's… that's exactly what's happening here, isn't it? And god, Jon's going to be instrumental in making it happen.

Shaking his head, Jon turns to his desk and begins pulling out the last tapes to add into the boxes – and if his hands shake, only he and the Beholding see.


 

Between them, they get both the tapes and somewhat irritable Salaì packed away into Jon's car, while Martin does what he needs with the Institute's fire suppression system. Martin likely does something to soothe the nerves of those Institute employees still hanging about too – him pulling the fire alarm sent most of them out, and it seems like they'd been nervous about calling the fire brigade and the paramedics. At a distance Jon can See Martin calming them with a, "False alarm, call it an impromptu fire drill – still, I will be going through the systems with the Head Archivist to make sure everything is as it should…"

It makes Jon regret that they hadn't gotten the chance to see Martin properly take charge of the Institute. He would've made a great Head, and it would've been something else, to be able to come into work, secure in the knowledge that they're all working for a good man. That really would have been something special, especially in their world.

How it all would seem after everything was said and done, Jon can't even begin to guess. Hopefully Martin wouldn't lose his position. Though… who is there even left to fire him? Peter Lukas is in the middle of the Atlantic and very much not in touch, and Elias doesn't have any authoritative power over the Institute anymore, and above them, there is… no one, really, anymore.

Of course, that might change, if Elias would get his way.

"Right, I think that's – that's all our bases covered," Martin says a little nervously, as they meet up in the Archives, the halls of the Institute eerily quiet and still. "Is it – is it enough, Jon? Is it – is it alright now?"

Jon looks over the Archives, narrowing his eyes, concentrating. Then he nods. "I think so. I don't – I do feel some connection to these files, they are part of the Beholding's own, but not like I do with the tapes," he says and looks at Martin. "You're right. This is Gertrude's Archive – without the tapes, it's not really mine."

Martin blows out a breath and nods. "Good, that's good," he says. "So, uh. Are we really going to do this, then?" he asks, casting an uneasy look at Desmond. "I mean, we have Gertrude's seal of approval, I guess, but still…"

It's still the ritual to bring forth the 15th power. Making a face, Jon turns to look at Desmond. "That's the question, isn't it," he says and draws a breath. "Right. I want to Look now, " he says and meets Desmond's eye's steadily – one clear and one white. "I need to Know."

Desmond nods and gently sets the Codex book he'd been carrying down. "Go right ahead," he says and spreads out his arms, an open, casual gesture. "I have nothing to hide from you, Jon."

Jon blows out a breath, nodding, and then lowers his chin a little, Looking. It doesn't even feel connected to his eyes, when he does it – it's more like he's staring out of the centre of his brain, or the central mass of his body – from some well of the Beholding that's pooled up inside him. As much as powers curl inside Desmond, restless, pulsing with need and waiting for their completion, the Beholding flows in Jon's veins, and it all Looks out.

There's a… veil there, at first. Like the curtains made of gauze, Desmond's Truth lays obscured behind that curtain, gently covered in spider silk and… spirals. He's protected, Jon realises, feeling almost as though the thought happens somewhere outside his body, not in the centre where he is Looking. Desmond is and has been protected by not only an avatar of the Web… but of the Spiral too.

He can almost see them – like they're there, standing by Desmond's side, two men, old and wizened, thin and withered. Five hundred years they've been working at it, and they're so tired.

They part ways, gentle, letting him to the core of Desmond and he can Feel. Jon feels the heart beating inside Desmond, rapid and utterly, viscerally physical. He feels his bones, his own bone in Desmond, stretched out to a full skeleton. Feels his mind, apprehensive and yet completely calm, accepting – he's made peace with his fate, whatever it would end up being. This is what I was made for. The eye, the loss of it, the darkness that took it and still lingers in it. All the things that make Desmond now very human indeed.

But that's not what Jon needs to See, not what he wants to See. He needs to See the reason, the purpose – and most importantly, where it would all lead. What did they actually mean to happen? What would happen, what would follow… what would happen to Desmond, at the end of it.

Because Desmond might be happy giving away his existence to serve the Untold Sacrifice, but Jon isn't as sanguine about losing friends. So, as the two shadowy guardians at Desmond's sides give way, Jon Looks deeper, and further and –

There's an explosion.

And pain.

It lances through Jon like someone's torn a hole into him, like he's been ripped open, through and through, in and out, tearing a gash right through the core of him.

A bullet, it was a bullet, and the sound of explosion, it was – someone shot him.

Jon stumbles, expecting weakness and more pain, his hand coming to his chest only to find… nothing.

His vision clears, out of the spiralling mist and spider silk and into reality. Desmond wavers in front of him, confused, with a deep red stain spreading through the white of his hoodie, his eyes hazy and unclear. Someone shouts with shock and alarm, Martin, but Jon can't react – he feels stuck in the act of Beholding, and he can't look away as he feels the pain coursing through Desmond like it was his own, feels the shattered bone and torn flesh, the draining of blood… the cold, confusing horror of the realisation, his own, as it dawns on him that –

It's the final stage of Desmond's ritual, and he's at his most vulnerable.

He's human enough to die.

Jon gapes in confused horror as Desmond lifts a hand to the little hole torn through his chest, and then the Assassin stumbles to his knees, his blood spilling through his fingers and down to the floor of the Archives.

"There," a nauseatingly familiar voice murmurs in Jon's ear as he sees the gun, the hand holding it – aimed not at him, not at Desmond, but at Martin. "I think that's quite enough of that."

Elias.

Chapter Text

He's never actually been in pain, it turns out. Not a fun realisation to have while he's been shot through the chest, but there it is. Desmond never felt pain before. Not like this.

The eye was... agonising, but not really at a physical level, it was more of a spiritual, conceptual loss, which then gave him a mental migraine – and then made him twist his ankle when he was getting used to the loss. It hurt, but not really, at the same time. The infection by the Corruption and the ensuing bite by the Hunt monster, they were – they were more like invasions, engagements happening with his body as the battlefield. Condensed form of Haytham's and Connor's two centuries of ongoing war, taking place around Desmond's ribs.

This is – this is just his body. No magic to it, just torn skin and scattered bone, flesh and tissue ripped open and bleeding. His blood is red and hot, which is something of a surprise – and the sheer fucking volume of it is frankly distressing. There's so much. It's gushing through his fingers like a hot, red spray as his heart beats painfully around the hole torn right into it – it's like something out of a fucking slasher movie, like his body isn't sure how much blood there should be, so it's just going fuck it and producing it by the bucketful, and he can't keep it in –

There are voices, shouting, and then someone cutting through it with a sharp, "Enough."

Desmond looks up, his hands soaked and his body overtaken by the gaping maw of pain. Jon is standing closest to him, not looking at him. Martin not far from him, hands held up, eyes wide. And then there's someone else.

Right – someone shot him, so… there needs to be a shooter.

"The lighter, Jon, if you please," the man says, an old looking revolver aimed at Martin. "Let's not tempt fate, shall we?"

"Elias," Jon says shaky. "I – I thought you –"

"That I'd be waiting at the Panopticon, yes, I know – don't stall. Hand over the lighter, now."

Jon looks around, terrified and desperate, looking at Desmond, at Martin, at the surrounding room. Desmond tries to say something, though he's not even sure what he'd say, and in that moment his mouth fills with blood and he nearly chokes on it.

Jon makes a noise, small and reedy, as Desmond bends down and begins hacking it out. It's coming to his mouth almost as fast as it's spilling from the wound – he can't breathe, can't clear his mouth enough to talk, he can't –

"You shot him," Jon says, choked. "You –"

"Yes, I did, with every intention of killing him – the lighter, Jon," Elias says and there's a click of a hammer being pulled back, a round snapping into a chamber. "Now. Or else it will be Martin, next."

There's a wash of terror through the room, coming from Jon – Desmond can almost see it, it's so thick. Martin's afraid too, but nowhere near as much, he's more wary, and Elias…

Elias is furious.

Desmond looks up just as Jon takes out the lighter and hands it over, his hands shaking. "Elias, please –"

"No, I do not please," the man says, inspects the lighter, and then puts it in his own pocket. "This really has gone on long enough. Step away from him, Jon – you, Martin, can stay right over there. Now, both of you."

Desmond tries to reach for his knife, he could throw it, maybe, if he was quick enough – but in that moment the pain in his chest takes out his legs, his arms, and he falls flat on his face, not even able to gasp at the pain. Every part of him, every bit that's been building him towards humanity is in pain, and his vision, what's left of it, grows blurry.

And his torn heart is still beating, still pushing out more and more blood. He's lying in a pool of it, and it feels like – like hate and violence and flesh.

"What are you going to do?" Jon asks.

"I'm going to wait until he's done dying and then you and I are going to the Panopticon and finishing this charade once and for all – don't move, Martin."

"He's already dying, Elias, at least he can have the dignity of not dying with his face down," Martin snaps back, and it's apparently good enough, because next Desmond feels hands on his shoulder, turning him, pushing him up, and –

Fuck, it hurts. It hurts. It hurts, hurts hurts hurts –

Desmond spits blood in a pained croak as Martin pushes him back to lean against an archive shelf. The man's kneeling on the blood, already covered in it, and his face is drawn and pale and tight with fear.

"My, he has a lot of blood, doesn't he?" Elias says somewhere far, far away, as Desmond's vision blurs and fades in and out like a lens out of focus.

He should – he should tell Martin – about the knife...

"Elias, why?" Jon asks, wringing his hands and then rounding on the man. "Tell me – why?"

"Oh good grief, Jon, why do you think?" Elias snaps. "Do you really think I would not only let you burn down my Institute, but summon forth the 15th power, and so close to the culmination of your little journey? I've put a considerable amount of effort into you, and I am not about to have all that work go to waste just like that."

Desmond tries to concentrate onto Martin, onto meeting his eyes, but it's hard, and Martin isn't even looking at him – he's looking around desperately, looking for something that might help, a weapon, something – come on, man, the knife. It's right there.

"Elias, the Extinction, if, if we bring it forth like this, then –"

"Then it will be controlled, and no world-ending apocalypses will actually take place, yes, I know the theory you're operating under, you might even be right," Elias says dismissively. "Perhaps bringing the 15th entity into existence like this will lock the world and humanity into a nice status quo, which will never change, but you utterly miss the point where I don't care. And honestly, Jon, neither should you."

"I – I –"

"You serve the Beholding, Jon, you are its strongest servant now, you nearly rival my power, and I had to pay dearly for mine. You got yours handed to you on a silver platter! And if the Extinction comes into its own, that's all there's ever going to be."

"Doesn't sound so bad to me –"

"With me, you will wear the Watcher's Crown. You can bring about a world dominated by our patron, and rule it eternal!" Elias interrupts and chuckles. "But I suppose that's never been something you've been interested in, Jon, has it? It's why I chose you. My Chosen One."

"I – what?"

Desmond coughs out a lump of something he doesn't want to look closely at. There are things moving inside him now, welling up and rushing to the surface – the powers, vying for space in the precarious balance Helen and the Boneturner forcibly given him – and hah, he gets it now, why it was in that order, finishing with Mind and Body, that's clever, making him all the way real before – before his –

"Is he not done dying yet?" Elias asks, irritated. "Do check that he isn't healing, Martin."

Martin looks at him, and Desmond forces his head up to look at him. The knife –

"He's not healing," Martin says and puts a hand to Desmond's cheek, keeping his head up. "I think he's actually falling apart."

Desmond would laugh at that if he could. He'd about to implode inside out, and all the crap he's containing will blow up and –

… please, whispers a curl of mist in his ear. … pretend… please… sleep...

Desmond blinks, bleary – the Lonely feels like cold water slithering into his ear canal, and if his body hadn't been busy bleeding and dying with thirteen powers nauseatingly bubbling inside him, he probably would've squirmed. He only manages a slow, confused blink, as Martin stares at him, hard, just glaring daggers into his lone functional eye, and quietly whispers… pretend...

Desmond coughs out more blood, and it's probably not much of an act, but – he's about to slump over anyway. This time Martin doesn't so much stop him as he catches him and pulls him in, and as Desmond loses what little control he had over his extremities, the man makes a noise between alarmed and dismayed, and the Lonely whispers.

… he's dead, oh god he's dead… and …all alone, Jon, you're all alone, feel it, feel how alone you are…

Desmond is too out of it to get it at first – but then Jon's horror hits him like a tidal wave, as the man looks on and thinks with all the surety of Knowing that Desmond had died. Except he hasn't.

Desmond doesn't – he doesn't understand, but he also can't move, and Martin is firmly keeping his head down, and – Jon thinks he's dead.

"Good," Elias says with a satisfied sigh. "Now we can go –"

"I'm not going anywhere with you –" Jon snarls.

"You will, Jon, don't try to pretend otherwise. After all – that's where your archival assistants are going, all three of them," Elias says, smug asshole. "Where they are heading, there's a dark sun waiting for them – do you want to know what will happen if they see it? Or do you already know?"

"Then – you didn't –"

"Do anything to them, other than lead them into a deadly trap? No. But they are indeed heading to said deadly trap, and the only way to save them now, Jon… is to get there first," Elias purrs. "So come along now. Martin, be a dear and clean this mess up."

Martin hisses out a breath, but doesn't answer. Jon lets out a wounded sound that cuts Desmond to the core, saying, "Martin…" his voice small and helpless.

"Now, Jon. The clock is ticking."

They leave, and Martin holds Desmond down, bleeding and messy, until the door closes after them. Only once even the feel of Jon's desperate Beholding passes does Martin push Desmond back.

"Sorry about that," he says, wincing as things begin to leak from Desmond's chest – blood and other things. "Christ, I'm so sorry. I didn't want him to shoot you again, or me, for that matter, and – and convincing Jon that you died was the next best thing to convincing Elias, and –"

Desmond coughs and finally, when it's already too damn late, he manages to croak out, "Knife."

"What?" Martin asks.

"Knife – Jon –" Desmond gurgles and hisses – "Ssave – Jon –"

"What?" Martin asks, and finally he gets it, even finds the damned knife at Desmond's waist. And then he discards it. "No, no, Jon's going to be fine, as long as they don't make it there before we do."

Desmond gives him an incredulous look – and in answer Martin produces a lighter. It's not as fancy as Jon's Web and Desolation lighter, this one is just a cheap red plastic one… but it's a lighter.

Desmond blinks and gives the guy a look. Martin shrugs. "Petty arson, right? Lighters seem to be word of the day, so I – grabbed mine, just in case. Desmond, will it be enough if I burn the Archives? Will it work?"

Desmond has no idea.

"It won't," says a rough, soft, beloved voice, and Desmond's eye is drawn almost by itself to the doorway – he almost cries.

Ezio slips into the room silently, followed by Leonardo. Neither of them look like what Desmond remembers them looking – Ezio is pale, not just in face, but like he's lacking colour, just completely white, and Leonardo looks so old, with white hair and beard that go down to his chest and curl into little spirals at the end. They neither of them look right, but they – they feel like them.

"Um," Martin says, as Ezio walks over, right into the puddle of blood, his footsteps too light to even make a ripple. Even his shoes are white – until the blood stains them, anyway.

"They're not your Archives, Martin Blackwood," Leonardo says, smiling apologetically. "They're not yours to sacrifice."

As Desmond stares, wide-eyed, his breath catching in his blood-soaked throat, Ezio kneels in the blood in front of him. It's then Desmond sees that is not just that he's white – he's thin, see-through. Not like he's transparent like smoke, but like he's not properly made.

"This is not how I intended for things to turn out," Ezio says quietly, watching him. "But sometimes we must settle and be content with what the world gives us."

Yeah, Desmond is totally dying.

"Then you're – but – wait – Jon agrees to it, it's his – Jon would do it, if he could!" Martin says, looking between the two. "It's his sacrifice, and he would agree to it."

"It's not his sacrifice either," Leonardo says, and Desmond glances at him to see he's painted, like a figure taken straight from a hyperrealistic fresco, the details almost too closely captured and slightly too sharp with stark lighting. Leonardo smiles at him and then looks at Martin. "Jonathan Sims is the Archivist, yes, and as such he could burn his own Archive, and then it would be his Sacrifice. This," he motions expensively at the Archive around them, "belongs only to the Head of the Magnus Institute."

Martin blinks. "You mean… Elias," he says flatly. "Well… fuck."

Desmond blinks and looks back at Ezio, trying to convey something, but – fuck, he doesn't even know where to begin. Calling Ezio an asshole would be a good start, probably.

Ezio smiles like he knows, and reaches to take Desmond's hand in his. For a moment Desmond is distracted by the fact that Ezio only has four fingers on his left hand, he's missing his ring finger, like Altaïr... but then he fees it. Ezio's skin is strange, airy and spongy and sticky, like Ezio's hand is made out of pillow stuffing that someone poured honey on, and...

Ezio's made from spider silk. His whole body – it's strung from millions and millions of strings of spider web, held together in the shape of a person. He's more empty space than he's actual matter, all thin and wispy. No wonder he's see-through.

"When Dehler and his team designed you, I had no control over it," Ezio murmurs, almost reverent. "I pushed them and steered them, but so much of the creative process was in their hands, and I had little control over what personality they gave you – they made you kind. They made you caring. I'm not sure I would have."

Desmond draws a pained breath. Fuck that's – what, a criticism? Placing blame on the humans? Now? Seriously...

"When I began this process, when I took what my predecessors had made and turned the Codex into the Untold Sacrifice to the Forgotten, there was no knowing when or how it would end," Ezio says, stroking his hand. "I knew that one day the Codex would need a vessel, a human vessel, for these powers thrive in our mind, in our imagination, in our fear…. But no human would ever be able to contain us, it would break them, twist them, turn them monstrous. It had to be artificial, a human created for the purpose, one with infinite space inside them. The vessel would have to be born from the Codex, and born for it. It took so long for technology to reach the point where we could even hope to begin."

Desmond closes his eyes, wincing. And after all that, he's just gonna fucking die. Perfect. "S-sorry," he forces out.

"Don't be," Ezio says and lifts his hand.  "I'm sorry that the path was so bloody. I did my best to steer you, and I didn't always steer you to safety. I steered you here, too. The fault is mine," he sighs and presses a kiss to Desmond's palm – the one that had touched the Eye. "I didn't expect you to be so kind."

Desmond's heart fucking hurts.

"Is there nothing we can do?" Martin asks quietly. "He's just going to die, and – and it's game over?"

"Is it?" Leonardo asks him, smiling, and steps into the blood as well, putting one hand on Ezio's shoulder and reaching the other for Desmond's head. "Dear boy, we're so proud of you. You did so very well."

Would've been nice to hear before he lay there dying in terrible agony, but better late than never.

"… It will be over soon, one way or the other," Ezio promises.

Behind them Martin lets out a frustrated sigh. "That's it? That's it?! That can't be it – I have a lighter, I can still –"

Leonardo smiles, and Desmond is the only one who sees how mischievous it is. "You're not the Head of the Magnus Institute, Mr. Blackwood," he says. "Are you?"

Behind him Martin freezes, and through the blood and tears Desmond can see the realisation dawn on his face. "Oh, you son of a – that's it?!"

Desmond blinks, and in that blink Martin has gotten up and is running out of the door, and Leonardo is... chuckling? "Oh, don't worry," he says to Desmond. "It will take more than a bullet to kill you. You didn't think we'd leave something like this up to chance?"

Desmond frowns, looking between him and Ezio. What the fuck?

"I am sorry about the pain, that wasn't part of the plan," Ezio admits and glances down.  "Or the blood," he adds, making a face. "Of which there is really… quite the impressive amount."

Desmond tries his best to convey his thoughts to the two, because his mouth and throat are still not working, through the power of his glare – what the actual fuck?

"Always have a backup plan," Leonardo says, as if that explains anything. "You never know when your main one ends up kidnapped. I think this one might even do better, overall."

Ezio shakes his head and looks at Desmond. "You said that you didn't mind – but are you willing, Desmond? Do you do this of your own free will?"

Desmond makes a face at them. Sly old bastards. "Yes," he croaks. "Fuck you."

"Language, young man," Leonardo says, amused. "That's your creator you're speaking to. You could even call him your father, really."

Desmond scoffs. Definitely fits the pattern, then. "What about you – and Salaì?" he asks, weak. What the hell was Salaì's role in this?

Leonardo hums and glances at Ezio. "Well," he says and looks away. "I hope it's not too much to ask… that something of us will survive, after all."

Ezio shakes his head, and Desmond blinks blearily at them, not quite getting it. "Dichotomy of our existence," Ezio says quietly. "If you forget that you have forgotten, then… what's left at all?" he shrugs and hums. "Something has to remain. A reminder, a relic. Salaì isn't the only one, but… he is one nonetheless."

Desmond blinks and then coughs. "Ah," he says, eloquent.

Martin rushes back into the Archives then, carrying with him a bunch of papers. "Will this be enough?" he demands. "Will it?"

"I suppose we will see," Leonardo chuckles. "You better hurry – who knows when they will reach the Panopticon."

"Right, right," Martin says, and then forgoes tables entirely, spreading the papers out on the still dry bit of floor and kneeling down to write. On each paper he crosses something over and writes something in its place, until Leonardo goes over and does something to the papers, like wiping a bit of dirt off each document.

"There," the polymath said cheerfully. "All rewritten. Isn't that better?"

"Cheers," Martin answers, utterly dry, and finished his work. "There, is that – ah," he paused as Leonardo hands something to him – more papers. "Right, of course," Martin says and writes some more with a flourish. "There. Elias Bouchard, Peter Lukas, the Magnus Institute thanks you for your service, and we're utterly delighted to tell you that we desire absolutely nothing more from you, and your contract is hereby immediately terminated with no notice and no recompense. And who bloody cares about labour laws in this place, anyway."

Leonardo grins like a fox. "Splendid."

Desmond makes a confused noise.

"Definitely not how I was planning to use that particular privilege," Martin mutters and looks up. "Peter gave me the power to hire new employees. I just hired myself to be the new Head of the Magnus Institute."

Desmond arches his brow. Well. Okay then. Damn.

"Can I now burn this Archive down?" Martin demands, turning to Leonardo. "And will it work?"

"One way to find out," Leonardo laughs and turns to Desmond. "Are you ready?"

No.

Desmond nods.

Martin pulls out his cheap lighter again and then waits. "Um. I'm going to set it all on fire now."

"Go ahead," Ezio says, picking up the Codex book and gently laying it on Desmond's chest, placing his hand over it. "We're ready."

"Uh – you might want to… move?"

Leonardo chuckles and comes to join Ezio at Desmond's side. "No, we're right where we should be," he agrees and puts one painted hand on Desmond's shoulder, the other around Ezio. "We'll do just fine here."

oh.

Desmond swallows, and the strangling feeling he gets has nothing to do with the chest wound.

"We're part of the Codex, Martin," Ezio says. "And we've been putting off our final sacrifice for long enough. Time is short, so, if you please…"

"O-oh," Martin says, shaky. "Um. Desmond?"

His eyes stinging, Desmond nods.

"You did very well," Ezio murmurs, pulling him into his arms. "And I'm sorry I can't do more for you."

Desmond chokes, "It's… enough," and buries his face in Ezio's chest. "You bastard."

Ezio chuckles warmly, pulling Leonardo in too. Desmond doesn't care if it's to bring the most powerful sacrifices closer together or what – he clutches onto them with what little strength he has left, closes his eyes and thinks of… nothing at all. Peace, maybe. He feels calm. It's weird, acceptance. He's going to die and he feels... just fine with it.

Quietly, Martin says, "I dedicate this act to the Untold Sacrifice and to Desmond Miles… the avatar of the Extinction." The flick of the lighter is almost inaudible.

The petrol canisters catching fire aren't.

I accept your offering, Desmond thinks, closing his eyes, as Desolation consumes them all.

Chapter Text

"… Jon, recorder."

"Ah. Yes, I suppose… if this is to be the beginning of a, ah… new Archives of a new Institute, we might as well make it official and do it properly. Unless anyone minds? Ah, good. Well, then… I suppose we should start from the beginning. Basira, would you like to begin?"

"Sure. Though, beginning technically would be earlier than us leaving the Archives – us meeting in your office earlier in the day, you picking up Desmond from the airport while me and Daisy got word of Elias escaping from the prison… all that."

"Yes it's… it's been a long day, hasn't it? I will put all of that on tape later, with time, going over all the details – Martin is putting together a timeline, wasn't it?"

"It's almost done, every moment itemised and everything. Might not be a terrible practice in the future, itemising and dating things that occur in the statements. Also, key words. If it's up to me – and I think it might be – I am going to insist on the use of keywords. Entities, individuals, places, items and other key points of interest."

"I suppose that's not a bad idea. But anyway, Basira, if you please."

"Right. Do you wanna do your, you know… your thing?"

"Why not. Statement of the staff of the Archives of the Magnus Institute concerning the rituals of Extinction and the Watcher's Crown. Statement recorded on 8th of April, 2018. First statement by Basira Hussain, archival assistant. Statement begins."

"We left your office around five pm, 17:04 maybe, me, Daisy and Melanie. We were none of us confident about going empty-handed, so, we… picked up what we could on the way. Daisy and I got our guns, Melanie picked up a knife, we all got torches, Daisy got flares, and I brought the talismans I'd been making. They weren't much, just scarves and such, which I'd embroidered with what imagery I thought could help, eyes mostly, in this case, I figured we'd need vision down there more than anything. Hard to say now how much they helped. Daisy got us stab vests too.

We went to Helen first, to ask her for help, but she was… not terribly interested. Said she'd have more fun watching us fumble around, and that she had a horse of her own in the race, and if she interfered any more, it might complicate matters. She did give us a book, though. A Leitner – The Seven Lamps of Architecture – said she found it in the tunnels. It was covered in blood – I think it was Leitner's? The actual Leitner's. Anyway, we weren't terribly sure about the book, but it was something, and if it was how Jurgen Leitner got around in those tunnels, then…

I took the lead, Daisy and Melanie kept the rear, and we went forth. The tunnels are a maze, what markings we'd made before had been wiped out, or smudged, or just pointed the wrong way. The apprehension started somewhere around the time the arrows began leading us in circles – Daisy was the one who figured out someone had been down there, and that the arrows were intentionally leading us astray. They were a distraction.

We figure it must've been Elias, stalling us. I guess it really was.

Eventually, we decided that there was no use, the tunnels weren't about to get any clearer, and we were losing time. So, we – had a small disagreement about the Seven Lamps of Architecture, about which one of us should open it and take a look inside. I thought it should be me, I'd been doing the most reading in the Archives, I'd done the most work with the symbology, and I thought I could handle it – but Daisy was of the mind it should be her, because she was the least likely to be useful in a fight, and if there would be a fight, we'd need… me. She's still a bit weak, from the coffin, and from not feeding the Hunt, so… I can't say she was wrong.

It was Melanie who read it, though. Because, I quote, "You're the ones with guns, and as much as I'd like to, I'm pretty sure you can't take out Elias Fucking Bouchard with a knife." She was speaking from experience, so… we gave way, and Melanie opened the book.

The book had been tampered with – there were pages that had been stuck shut by spider webs. It was too late by the time we noticed, Melanie was already reading the pages the book automatically opened to, and I guess she's a damn fast reader, because the tunnel started shifting right before our eyes, straightening, all the bends and twists and turns evening out.

I guess the spider web was Ezio's doing, because the straightened up corridor led us right to the Panopticon. Or, I guess, it could've been Annabelle's, since apparently we were meant to be used as hostages? Or as an incentive. I don't know. Either way, it was good for us."

"Melanie, do you… do you want to continue? You don't have to, I can go on, but, um…"

"It's fine, Basira, I can still talk. And yeah, I want to tell you. Second statement by Melanie King, archival assistant. Statement begins."

I can't remember a word of the Seven Lamps of Architecture, reading it was like… like looking at a drawn maze, trying to figure out how to solve it. And I guess I did, since it worked, but… yeah, I don't remember much about it. Suppose that's how it works with Leitners – it was my first, though, so I don't really know.

Kinda pissed it's the last thing I ever read, but – fuck it. I'll learn Braille.

I took the lead and led Basira and Daisy to the Panopticon, not knowing what to expect, but prepared for anything. So I was the first to feel it, the – I don't really know how to describe it. The antithesis? It was like the feeling of looking up at an eclipse, and then suddenly the sunlight starts coming through, but in this case it was coming through the middle, like – it was an impossible feeling of counteracting forces. Like, water, but it's on fire, or something. The closer we got, the more wrong it felt, and in the end we stopped right at the threshold, a closed metal door between us and the wrongness inside.

Basira thought it was the dark sun we were feeling, and I figured she was right, but it was more than that, it was… well, we know now what it was – it was the whole messy dicthomy of having Jonah Magnus and the dark sun in the same place, fucking staring at each other. The asshole parked that thing right on top of his body, and I guess he figured it was all nice and safe that way – and why wouldn't it be? It was the dark sun, and it was…

We could all tell that going in there was a bad idea. I guess it was the Beholding in us talking or something, but we just knew, we could feel it – I could feel it right behind my eyes, like this itch of – go in there and you're fucked. So we tried to figure out how we could go in. Basira suggested blindfolds, closing our eyes, not looking at the thing, and maybe that would've worked, a little, but…

I don't know what it was about it. Maybe it was all this damned talk of sacrifices and rituals and all that. You know, vision-impaired archivists and all that – and I kept thinking of Desmond, how his eye was – I mean… I didn't know, but I also didn't not know. I think maybe because Jon's been getting more powerful and more sure of himself, we've also gotten a bit, I don't know, better at our eldritch horror jobs. Plus, you know, the whole thing about being free from the Archives if you go blind? I just kind of connected the dots there and went, right. That's what that is.

Also I really wanted to kill Elias. I'm not even going to pretend it wasn't the Slaughter talking, I just really, really want to kill him.

Basira tried to talk me out of it, credit where credit is due. Daisy did too, but I think she got it. I felt a bit like it goes in some of those statements in that moment, like the one about Mike Crew, how he gave himself to the Vast to escape the Fractal, and all that – and I am not saying I wasn't scared, because I was fucking terrified. But I was also…

It felt kind of… peaceful. Like I just knew. For the first time in, I think… years, I just knew what was going to happen to me, and I was alright with it. So…

I went in.

Have you ever seen a picture of the sun, but the colours are all reversed, and the sun is this black ball, radiating darkness all around it? That's not exactly how the dark sun looked like, but it's… about as close as I can get. It was a lot smaller than I thought, too – I thought it'd be like… the size of a car at least, because the sun, it's big, right? But this thing wasn't. I think it was about the size of… well, the sun. Like, the sun in the sky, when you look at it, it's small, and the dark sun was the same size. It stayed that size, the closer I got to it. Under it, I saw the body.

And then I… couldn't see anything.

It was like it sucked the light right out of my eyes, just drained it out, and everything went – black. Dark, I guess. I got the Dark in my eyes now. Which is… something I will have to deal with, I guess, and I will. I think I will get better along with the Dark than I have ever with Beholding, and fuck, at least it took the Slaughter too. So…

Anyway, the body was the only thing I saw before I lost it, so, that's where I went. Almost fell over a bunch of times on the way, and I almost fell off the stairs too – in the end I went on my knees and crawled the rest of the way, feeling in front of me with my hands until I reached it. I could feel the dark sun hovering over me, its opposite to warmth radiating down to the top of my head, and I ignored it the best I could, just feeling at the body. It felt… wrong, a lot like everything else did. It felt cold and hard and dead and alive, all at once. I felt for the neck, and fuck, I swear, the thing had a heartbeat.

I could tell by the clothing it wasn't Elias, but it was the only thing there, so… I took hold of its ankles and began dragging it back with me. Thankfully, it was pretty light – worn down to skin and bone, I guess. It was like dragging a skeleton along.

It took a lot of work, and probably more time than we had, but… I managed to drag the body back to Daisy and Basira, who then told me what and who it was and what it looked like.

Jonah Magnus, with his eyes gouged out, his body all worn and emaciated and covered in dust. Elias' real body, as it turns out. Or, the body whose' eyes Elias hosts. Hosted. Which is… I really miss the time when this shit didn't make sense.

Anyway, I really wanted to stab him. I really wanted to stab him."

 

"… can I go next?"

"Of course, go ahead Daisy. Third statement by Alice "Daisy" Tonner, archival assistant. Statement begins."

"Melanie looked pretty messed up when she came out. The eyes were bad enough, but the Dark hung about her like a dark cloud, just clinging to her hair like – like when after a hot shower you steam a bit in the cold air. I figured she needed a moment to recover at least, and get her bearings, especially since… since her eyesight was gone. It was… she needed a moment, and we needed a moment to think.

I could tell something was wrong, then. It was just too easy – Elias was my prey now, and it felt like he'd tricked me, like we'd been played. I get that sense sometimes, when people I'm hunting know it and go against it, and it's infuriating. I knew, then, that it'd been a trap. I didn't know how badly we'd fallen for it, but we had, and something was wrong – something was coming.

So I got Melanie away from the body, just in case, tried to wave away all the black mist as well as I could – it felt cold in my hands, freezing, I can still feel it a bit… but it cleared away. Basira was examining the body and confirming it was who we thought it was, trying to figure out why. There wasn't anything useful there, but we could tell that it was… it was tied to something, to many things – to us, the Institute, everything. And if we killed it…

It would hurt. Maybe it would even kill us.

Basira wanted to grab the body and go, but I think we both knew that it wouldn't matter – Elias would always know where it was, what was happening to it. And by that point I knew Elias was watching us, he'd know if we tried to lay down a trap, or do something, or… or anything. It was infuriating, for a moment I thought there was nothing we could do, that we would have to just wait there and see what would happen, and that didn't sit well with me.

So, I grabbed the Seven Lamps of Architecture and flipped it, hoping there'd be another convenient spread waiting for us. There were two – the book pages were bound in a way that it would easily open only on two or three spreads. First one was the one Melanie read, which straightened the tunnel. The second closed the tunnel in front of us, building a wall right in front of us and shutting the way to the Panopticon. The last… closed the way behind us. Trapping us in a dead end tunnel, closing the way in and out.

I…

It was, I didn't… we were underground with no way out, no windows, no doors, all the outside light went out – the ceiling, it was so low… We were trapped. I'd trapped us in that tunnel, and it wasn't – it wasn't good. But we were also safe. It was dark and cramped, and the air was going to run out, so it wasn't a good solution, but it gave us time. Most of which I spent panicking, but… it stalled Elias. I think that was all it was supposed to do – to stall Elias from getting to the Panopticon, to his body – from getting to us. In hindsight, there are worse things.

We didn't expect Elias to have copied the book – or memorised, or whatever it was what he did. Maybe he could read the damn thing at a distance without ever needing to open it or something, but it didn't hold him back for long.

The tunnel we took was torn open, and there was Elias… and Jon, held at gunpoint.

I don't know what happened then, just that I took a shot and everything became really… really a lot, all of sudden. It happened so fast, I… I don't know what it was. But I shot at Elias. I know I did."

"Please, let me. Fourth statement by Jonathan Sims, the Archivist. Statement begins."

"After Basira, Daisy and Melanie had headed down to the tunnels, Martin, Desmond and I prepared to burn the Archives – we separated my tapes from the written files, and we were about to do it shortly after, and that's when… when Elias arrived and shot Desmond through the chest. There was no hesitation there, no moment to try to talk him over – he shot Desmond the moment he entered the room, right through the heart. I suppose… he couldn't leave it up to chance.

He couldn't risk the 15th power manifesting, not so close to the culmination of his own ritual. I suppose the moment both Desmond and I came upon our thirteenth mark, his goal shifted from luring me to the Panopticon… to killing Desmond as soon as possible. And he did, without mercy or hesitation. Desmond bled out on the floor of the Archives with Martin trying to help him, and… and Elias took me away.

I knew what was waiting at the Panopticon – I couldn't see into it, I couldn't even picture it, but I knew it was there, and I knew what it would do to those who looked at it. With Basira, Melanie and Daisy heading towards it, I – I didn't think I had a choice. I didn't want anyone else to die, so I… went with Elias' demands and I followed him down to the tunnels.

He told me on the way about his plan. It wasn't the Watcher's Crown, exactly – he'd attempted that one before, over a hundred years ago, when he was still only Jonah Magnus, and while it failed like all such single rituals do… it had given him power. Nearly omniscient power. Since then, over many years and several lifetimes, he'd been trying to figure out why it failed.

Gertrude was the one to do it, though. She figured it out, in the process of stopping several rituals, and… and eventually ceasing to even bother.

No single ritual can succeed – the Entities are bound too closely together. Try and bring Desolation alone into the world, and all thirteen other powers will snap it right back and away, into the realm or dimension, or whatever it is where they dwell. The ritual of the Dark didn't fail because they got it wrong, it failed because they all fail. And so, Elias'… Jonah's thinking was to bring them all into the world. All fourteen, all at once, by using an Archivist marked with each and every entity. By using me. That way, with all the powers held together, they wouldn't be drawn back again. That was what he chose me for, that was what he'd… cultivated me towards.

But then there was Desmond, who came in and completely disrupted everything. A similar ritual, but to the opposite end, which unknowingly was intended to use the touches of all other entities to bring forth a new one. Perhaps even the final one. The theory is solid enough that Jonah feared it would succeed, and if it did, then no other ritual would ever again be a success. There would never be a world like he envisioned, a world of horror, because the Extinction by its very existence would prevent it.

So, he had to kill Desmond, stop that process, and then finish before the Untold Sacrifice would get another chance to try.

He was… very smug about having succeeded there. And I was… devastated. I thought…  

Then, as we walked, Elias started growing… uneasy and worried. And then he started to hurry, forcing me to all but run down the corridors. I think by that point, Martin was getting ready – I think I might have felt it, the moment he signed the altered contracts and shouldered all that responsibility. There was a shift in reality, like a weight coming off my shoulders, an enormous sense of relief, and then –

Then Martin set the Archive afire, sacrificing it and everything in it to the Untold Sacrifice… and to Desmond.

That's what you felt, Daisy – you all must have felt it. In that moment, reality changed for us – in more ways than I can easily explain. The name won't mean anything to you now, but… when you wipe a being like Leonardo da Vinci from existence, wiping out all the things he'd affected, all the things he created and all the contributions he made, it… it's a lot. All the records in the Archive are gone too, of course, all memory of them is wiped out. That is the Untold Sacrifice – afterwards, you can't quite tell it even happened.

I wonder if there's an empty frame in the Louvre now, protected by millions of euros worth of security, with no one knowing why. I wonder what all the artists and historians think, if they…

The thing about what Elias was planning, ultimately what it all boils down to is that… it would have been an apocalypse. He would've filled all the dark corners of the world with horror, and all things normal and comfortable, kind and light would've died in that moment – what reality would've been like, after, I can't tell, but it wouldn't have been normal, it wouldn't have been the same. It would have been the apocalypse, and it would have, likely, cost millions of lives and wiped out thousands of species'. A factory farm of fear, Gerard Keay called it, only it would've been a thousand times worse. The End of the World. In that sense… I wonder if it had to be like this.

Maybe, the ultimate Sacrifice was that very apocalypse – stopping it, denying its existence.

Either way, in that moment, Jonah himself became… something to be sacrificed.

Daisy was the first to react to it, yes. The moment Martin, our new Head, made that sacrifice, Jonah became killable, and you reacted to it.  You shot him twice in the chest, which was not at all enough to kill him, but it was enough to stall him. Basira drew her weapon, ready to follow suit – the shot she took went wild, missing his chest and hitting him on the shoulder, the impact enough to knock him off balance. I backed away against the wall then, terrified of being hit and overwhelmed by the feeling of things changing. Melanie reacted next.

Frightened by the sound and unable to see, she took her knife. It was the only thing she could do in that situation, and she was damn well going to do it properly, so she found her way to Jonah Magnus's body and begun to stab it, repeatedly, to the chest, shattering the ribs and very quickly finding her way into his heart, shrivelled and dry, but still beating.

Elias fell to the floor, with Basira and Daisy moving forward, ready to take further shots – he was still alive, and he would've lived through the assault, even the death of Jonah Magnus' body, he could've survived that, given time to recover. But then, as he tried to breathe with punctured lungs, I… Knew what had to be done. I Knew what I had to do.

I'm not proud of it, and I won't… I won't claim it happened by itself, as though someone controlled me, though that would certainly be a comfort now. But no, the actions were completely my own. As Daisy and Basira stood over Elias, I crawled my way to him, and as he tried to – to speak…

I took his eyes – the very same moment as Melanie stabbed him through the heart.

And so Jonah Magnus and Elias Bouchard… died."

"When you say you… took his eyes…"

"He ate them, Martin."

"Oh Christ."

"Which actually begs the question – are they gone, Jon? Can he… are they like floating in your belly or something, and can they take you over, can he… come back?"

"Um, no, Basira, he can't. I, uh… I internalised them? I ah… it's how the first – how the Codex came to be, in a way, the first member, the foundation, Altaïr – he… consumed other avatars'… well, he made them part of himself, and like that, they ceased to be. They are mine, now. Jonah is gone, as is Elias, and his eyes are… mine. Let's – leave it at that."

"Yea, let's. So, while we were killing our boss, twice… What happened in the Archives? What happened with Desmond? Martin?"

"I don't… know? Um – there's not enough there for a statement, sorry, I, uh… Well, I set the thing on fire, and I ran – the last I saw Desmond, he – I think was being hugged by Ezio and Leonardo, and then there was an explosion as the petrol cans caught on fire. I just ran, I ran as fast as I could and as far as I could, so… that's about all I know, really. The fire didn't last for long, and it didn't spread in the end, which is damn good. I think it only burned what it needed to burn. It was already settling down by the time you guys came out, and… and that was kind of it. You saw what was left."

"Which was mostly nothing but ash."

"Yeah. But there weren't any bones there, so… maybe? Maybe he's… still… somewhere?"

"Yeah, maybe."

"So, what happens now? Elias is gone, Jonah is gone, there's probably a 15th power of fear, Melanie is blind and needs therapy, as does Daisy, hell, we all need therapy… Desmond is a Schrödinger's avatar, Jon eats eyes now, and Martin is apparently our new eldritch boss? So what now?"

"I suppose… we just keep calm and carry on?"

"... is that a joke?"

"It's what Desmond would've wanted… I think."

"I'm sorry, Jon."

"Yeah... Yeah, me too."

Chapter Text

"I don't actually need a new office, Martin, I like the one I have in the basement just fine."

"The one you have in the basement is sad and depressing, Jon. Please just… have one with windows."

"But – the recordings – I need a nice sound-isolated place – "

"I will get you sound insulation, alright? Maybe even a recording booth. Just, please. I want you somewhere where I can actually see you, occasionally."

Jon fiddles with his hands uncertainly, looking over the office Martin is insisting he takes up. It's the one on the second floor – security reasons, apparently, so that people can't just get in through the window – but still… it's a big, spacious, nice office, with white plaster walls and wide windows that let in a lot of natural light. It also, Jon notices, has a couch, a couple of armchairs, all arranged around a tea table – it's very cosy and very pointed. Judging by the book on Braille sitting on the table beside a bowl of sewing supplies, both Basira and Melanie had already been making use of them.

It still feels a little… much.

"We're moving the Archive out of the basement," Martin says, running a hand though his air. "It doesn't make sense for the Archivist to stay in the basement when the Archive isn't there, right? That's why you migrated down there in the first place."

"I was fine with – "

"Jon, Please. I'm trying to take steps to stop my Lonely from taking over this place," Martin says with a sigh. "The damage Peter did was already bad enough – just… take it."

Jon squirms a little, Knowing that's only part of the reason. The Archive was being moved because of insurance and security reasons – and also the fact that it can currently fit in three cardboard boxes and no longer needs a hall of its own. Jon is moving because he's the Archivist, and unlike Elias, Martin isn't looking to diminish his influence on the Institute. No, Martin has done his reading, conducted his research, he sat down with the archival assistants, and he made his plan – and so, Jon was being moved right into the centre of the Institute – where his power would affect everyone and everything.

It's – uneasy, after good three years of Elias trying to shove him into the gaps in the floorboards, for Martin to want to empower him like this.

"Aren't you worried I will… affect people?" Jon asks uneasily. He already is, and this… this would make it worse.

"Everyone under the Magnus Institute contract is already affected, Jon," Martin says and shakes his head, looking at him. "The way it was before, it… I think it weakened us all. We know why Elias was doing it, why he stretched us out like that, but it – it left this place vulnerable in ways we can't afford anymore. I'm not omniscient like he was, and I don't have his… whatever. We need you at the heart of this place. I'm sorry, but please, just do this for us."

Jon sighs. "Never thought I'd find myself as the head of a cult."

"You're not the head of a cult – I'm the head of the cult. You're just the figurehead," Martin says with a faint grin and pats his shoulder. "I'll have your desk and cabinets moved up here. Figure out what furniture you need, and plot out a recording set up with Basira, and we'll get it done hopefully within the week."

"Right," Jon says. "I'll do that. Um. Can I put things up on the walls?"

"Salaì?" Martin asks.

"Yeah, I – I want him in my office."

"I thought you didn't – that he'd be a distraction?"

"Um, yes, but… After everything that happened…" Jon squirms a bit, looking away. Salai is… more or less the only thing he has left that has anything to do with Desmond.

"Ah. Okay, sure. Just – maybe not in front of a window," Martin snorts. "Our reputation is bad enough without word going out that our employees have pornographic paintings on the wall."

"It's not pornographic," Jon mutters, wincing.

"It is, a bit," Martin says and checks his watch. "Right, well, I've got a meeting with the library staff – settle yourself in, and if you need something, please let me know."

"I will, I will," Jon says. "And uh, Martin?"

"Mm?" Martin asks, already halfway out of the door.

"Thank you," Jon says.

Martin offers him a smile, and then he's gone, headed off to the next item on his increasingly long agenda. Jon looks after him and then glances over the office. "Right…. Right…"

Damn, the office is big. Too big – actually, the entire institute feels too big, these days. The same building, but it feels like Jon's stepped into a whole new place. And he actually kind of has. He hasn't had a reason to go anywhere above ground floors in… years. These upper level offices…

He's not even sure who used them, before. Someone did, probably, since they have large spacious offices, but… he can't recall them actually having people in high enough standing for offices like this. The Head Librarian, maybe? The Head of the Artefact Storage? This might've been an Archivist's office once, before Gertrude started scheming and Elias began his… thing.

Jon hadn't been given much of a guide or help when he'd taken up the job as the Head Archivist, and if there's ever been perks to the job he'd certainly not heard of them – and, considering the power of the office, one would think there would be. Actually, he hadn't even thought the position was in any way important – it had almost felt like a downgrade from his researching position, originally. Like he'd been shackled with a lot of responsibility for next to no gain – and certainly no fame.

Funny how these things work out.


The days following the Archive's burning and Elias' demise had been… strange. The world was still shifting around the gaping hole made into culture and history by the Untold Sacrifice, and in that shuffling things blurred, stretched, covered the holes made in the whole thing. And one of holes, it turned out… was Elias himself.

Though, thankfully, it wasn't as dramatic as it had been with Leonardo da Vinci. Jon thinks they would probably start getting statements about that – about the empty painting frames that suddenly appeared in galleries, the blurred images online where copies had once existed, and the probably hundreds of art historians who woke up that morning with tremendous sense of loss they would never be able to explain. With Elias it hadn't been that dramatic, but his death had gotten mixed up with the Untold Sacrifice, and thus it had been… covered up.

When Martin had set forth, shouldering the burden of trying to explain the situation… no one really questioned it. It all just sort of blurred nicely. Of course Martin was the new Head of the Magnus Institute, of course he'd be taking over all the responsibilities, of course. He'd been trained by the interim head just for that position, so of course it turned out like this. The fire itself – as good as never happened. There was a report written, inspections made, condolences given, and somehow everyone missed the fact that it had been a case of arson. They even didn't notice that the fire suppression system Elias had put half a budget into had been turned off. It was all labelled as a tragic loss, terrible accident, and no one questioned it whatsoever.

Turned out the Archive was pretty well insured, which is why and how Jon is getting a new, better secured Archive, designed for the storage of cassette tapes. And a new office. With couches.

"And windows!" Salaì enthuses. "Oh glory be, light! At last."

"It wasn't so bad down there," Jon mutters, while adjusting the frame so it hangs straight.

"It was dark and dank, and I feared for the state of my paints – do you know what moisture can do to a good canvas?" Salaì scoffs and reaches a blood-painted hand towards a beam of light that falls on his painting. "Oh, this is much nicer."

Jon hums and steps back. Salaì is still a terribly promiscuous painting, but… weirdly… he fits the new office. With the gold-leafed frame, he looks like he belongs. "I suppose it will do," Jon says. "Don't bother people who come here, other than my assistants anyway – or I'll throw a curtain on you."

"No promises," Salaì purrs and stretches out towards the sun, despite how the roses dig into him as he does it.

Jon hasn't dared to ask him whether he still remembers Leonardo. He doesn't do it now, either.


Melanie and Daisy spend the most time in Jon's office, beside Jon himself. They're both still pretty weak, and getting used to things – Daisy is still not recovered from the coffin, and she's still weak from not hunting, and Melanie is only getting used to her new normal. Jon doesn't… mind exactly. They rarely make much noise, while Melanie works through her Braille and Daisy usually just sleeps, but… it's… it's something to get used to.

"Where's Basira?" he asks, for the lack of anything else to say.

"In the library, reading," Daisy says quietly, not opening her eyes as she lies back on the couch. "Something about talismans."

"Still on that, huh."

"It is useful," Daisy says and shifts. "She thinks she will find me something to help."

Jon looks up from the files he'd been shuffling through – old letters sent from their sister institute in Pu Songling Research Centre. He looks her over and considers her state. It's not… better exactly, though getting to take part in the death of Elias had… bolstered her up somewhat. She's… still weak. And would be weakening soon.

"Hm," Jon says.

"She's not going to be able to, is she?" Daisy asks, not opening her eyes, while on the armchair Melanie lifts her head.

"No, I don't think so. But… I have been considering something," Jon admits. "Which might… help. You could Hunt for the Institute."

Daisy doesn't move. "I'm not Hunting prey for you, Jon," she says. "I'm not Desmond."

Jon's fingers curl with an unexpected spike of pain. "Well, no of course not, that's not… not what I…" Actually, it's exactly what he had in mind… but not like she's thinking. "I thought you could… well. Find things – not people, but things, for the Institute. Statements, pieces of writing, artefacts."

Daisy sighs. "I thought about it," she says. "It's not the same – it's not filling when they don't fear, when they don't bleed."

Jon considers that, rubbing his hands together. "What if it was something people feared to lose?" he asks. "A secret they don't want to share? I know it's rather a Beholding sort of fear, having your secrets and treasures hunted, but… people have mingled the influences before," Jon comments, casting a glance at Melanie. From Slaughter, to the Beholding, to now the Dark. It might've not been a comfortable progress for her, but… it happened, and it worked for her.

"You're looking at me, aren't you? I can Feel it," Melanie says, lowering her book. Her blind eyes are covered behind a pair of round sunglasses, but she still manages a glare.

"You're getting good at that," Jon says, approving.

"Only when it's you. You look at people like you have too many eyes, and they don't even fit in the room you're in," Melanie mutters and leans back, turning to Daisy. "He might have a point, though – you, switching patrons, it might… not be a bad idea?"

Daisy crosses one leg over the other, kicking the air idly with her foot. "Why did you stick around?" she asks then, looking at Melanie. "You're free from our contract – why stay?"

Melanie considers that, tapping her fingers against the Braille book. "I hate this place enough to want to change it, I guess. And it is," she says. "And going away won't make all the bullshit in the world go away, will it? The fears are still out there. At least here… I got a chance to fight back."

Still a little of Slaughter there, then.

"Stop Knowing at me, Jon."

"Sorry," Jon says and crosses his hands over the desk, looking at Daisy. "There was something Desmond could do, it was a power of Beholding, which he used to hunt for things, in a way. He could see things of… interest to him. I've been thinking of how to replicate the ability, and, while I don't think I can give it to myself, it's not exactly in my sphere of influence… I could maybe give it to others. I Know how it works now, so…"

Daisy is quiet for a moment, and then she sits up, slowly. "It would tie me more to the Eye, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, it would," Jon admits. "It could tie your… need to hunt to the Beholding. To me."

"And I would hunt for food for you," Daisy says, scowling.

"I – I think I could… only inanimate objects. Writing, books, maybe photographs – artefacts," Jon says quickly. "Not people. Not if you didn't want to – the ability is tied to what you want and need to find, and that doesn't have to be people…. I think."

"You think?"

"Er… yes."

"Hm. I'll think about it," Daisy says and leans back. "And talk it over with Basira, see what she thinks."

"Sure," Jon says and sighs with relief. "Take your time."


It's about a couple of weeks before statements begin trickling back in, the usual way. Jon thinks – and then Knows – that Martin has put out a campaign, which does little to help their Institute with its reputation, but which brings in a great deal of new statements. He's sending out statement forms into other facilities, institutions and associations, including some museums and galleries dedicated to gory, horrific things, any place that has any dealings with the supernatural. He sends them by the boxful – most of them would probably end up being tossed out…

But some are sent back.

Jon is the one to shuffle through the statements – Basira gets him two boxes, one to toss useless statements in and other for the ones that have actually something to do with the supernatural – if he didn't just record them outright. It's not much as these things go, definitely nothing like the old archives, but some days they can get as many as four real statements in, so… it's something, definitely.

Martin is also considering the ways of… monetising the thing.

"I'm sorry, what?" Jon asks.

"Funding is a little – iffy, right now," Martin admits, while using a paper towel to try and rub away an imaginary stain from his hands. "I haven't been able to get in contact with Peter in days, and while the insurance money covered the rebuilding of the Archives, it won't last forever. We get a lot of statements that, while spooky sounding, have nothing to do with the powers, right? And we have some still left over from when you were tossing useless statements out of the old Archive and into the library. We've been thinking of… making a book out of them."

"We who?" Jon asks suspiciously.

"Me and the library staff, mostly," Martin admits and shrugs, considering his nails and then crossing his fingers over the desk in between them. "It's likely won't be any kind of bestseller, but – they're a little short on things to do currently, and it turns out the Magnus Institute hasn't published anything in… well, not since Gertrude died, actually."

Jon leans back, humming. He didn't realise they ever published anything – other than being credited in dry research papers, anyway. "So as long as they're not entity-related," Jon says and sighs. "I haven't survived this long just to end up producing Leitners."

"A general guide to the supernatural might not be the worst thing in the world," Martin muses. "Use of C02 on worms could be invaluable information for someone."

"Hm. If it works on all kinds of worms," Jon mutters. "Corruption comes in many forms, and we have no idea if they all work the same way."

"There's that," Martin agrees with a sigh. "Another thing I have been tentatively looking into is us consulting with… well. Anyone who needs proper consulting with. For a price."

"Like… like Basira and Daisy, back when they were with the police?"

"Yes, only legally this time," Martin says. "Even if the Archive isn't in any kind of usable state – yet," he adds, before Jon can get insulted. "The idea of the Magnus Institute is still the same – we collect information on the supernatural as one of the leading authorities on the matter. Elias used to maintain some consultation contracts, but… Peter wasn't really interested in keeping up with them. With funding looking kind of thin, I think we might need to make it available as a service you can… pay for."

"I thought we had more funding than just from the Lukas family," Jon mutters. "Those consulting contracts, they were for something, right? For funding, if nothing else."

"Yes, and then Peter happened," Martin says. "Also, Elias wasn't that keen on the contracts since you became the Archivist. I think he was distracted – plus, for consultations one needs someone to consult, and he didn't want you… doing that, I suppose."

"Right," Jon says with a grimace. "Well… do what you feel best, I guess. Just… let's not make any Leitners, if we can avoid it."

Martin nods and then looks at him, considering. "Any… any word on…?"

Jon's shoulders slump. "Nothing," he says quietly. "And no statements about the Extinction either."

"Ah," Martin says and looks down at his desk – Elias' old desk. "I'm sorry."

"I'm not losing hope yet," Jon says and stands up with a sigh. "I don't Know, one way or the other. No news is… not bad news, not yet. So, I'll just… wait a little longer."

"Right," Martin says, his fingers curling into his palms, and looks away, awkward. "If – if you hear something –"

"I'll let you know," Jon promises.


There's someone in Jon's office.

He Looks through the walls from the Archive, through the wooden racks that are slowly being filled with carefully labelled and indexed cassette tapes – turned out spice racks from IKEA are the perfect size for storing cassette tapes in their cases. There's a couple of walls between him and his office, and he knows Georgie had picked up Melanie earlier for her therapy, and Basira and Daisy were out, so there shouldn't be anyone in his office, and…

Ah.

Slotting the latest tape in its place, Jon takes a moment to mark it down on the index – case number 6752404 in the old system, 04/05-13.03.1675/24.04.2018 in the new system, with a whole load of Martin's keywords included. Jon finishes the index card with a slight shake of his head, with a sheet of carbon paper and another index card underneath to make a copy, before heading to his office.

It feels… even larger and emptier than ever before. Of course it does.

"Mr. Fairchild," he greets the man now sitting in one of his armchairs, chatting up obviously delighted Salaì.

"Simon, please," the old man says. "I love the new office, much more spacious than your old one. You could even call it vast, couldn't you?"

"I'm… glad you approve," Jon says, looking him over and then turning away, carrying the index card to his table and adding it to the little box. Having the man there is… "Anything I can do for you, or are you just here to see Salaì?" he takes care not to make it a compulsion, though it's tempting.

"Well. That entirely depends," Simon says, crossing one leg over the other. "I was actually hoping to have a chat with your boss, but it seems I quite missed him – how is young Martin coming along as the new Head of the Institute?"

"I think he's doing well," Jon says and casts him a slightly suspicious look. "Why?"

"Oh, no need for that, don't worry – I rather liked him, when I met him, he seemed like quite the bright young man," Simon says. "But there are some rumours going around concerning the institute of late, and I was hoping to talk, well… business with him."

Jon considers taking a seat behind his desk and then decides against it, going to sit on the armchair opposite the one Simon is sitting on. "I can't make any promises on Martin's behalf, but…" he offers. "What kind of business?"

"I heard your Institute was having something of a funding problem of late," Simon says and then snaps his fingers. "But ah, since you're here, could you confirm something for me? You would Know, after all – Elias, is he really… gone? You see, with beings like us, gone doesn't always mean the same thing it means with most people, and Elias, he was… something of a special case, much like myself. So, is he…"

"Dead, he's dead. Him and his old body both," Jon says. "I ate his eyes, and he's not coming back."

Simon blinks at that, looking a little taken aback. "Ah," he says and leans back, clearing his throat. "That… would do it, I suppose. I guess congratulations are in order?"

Jon shifts where he's sitting and tries not to feel the said eyes inside him. They still haven't quite settled, which is… well. Unsettling. "It was a group effort, really, but… thanks, I suppose," Jon says and shakes his head, looking up to Salaì, who is squirming around on his bed of thorny roses. "I'm taking over as the esoteric heart of the Institute, as it were, and Martin is our Head, bound and binding. The Institute will… carry on. But it is changing."

"Hm, so it would seem. No wonder, then, that you have issues with funding," Simon muses. "Well, I was thinking of offering my services on that score. It being the era of information and all that – things are bound to get faster and more data-based as things go along. Such an expansive thing, isn't it, human knowledge – and it's about to expand even further."

Jon gives him a wry look. "Does information overload serve the Vast?" he asks curiously. "Seems more like the Spiral's thing."

"We do collaborate on the occasion," Simon muses, scratching at his chin. "Now there's a thought – the fear of too much information. You know, I have been looking into these learning AIs people have been talking about, all that knowledge that goes into them, too much for any human to ever even begin to understand. Vast amounts of data, someone said. They say they're going to be a key feature in space travel – I suppose I should invest in them too…"

That's… not terrifying at all. "Well," Jon says. "It sounds... very futuristic."

"Well. We do have quite the future ahead of us, don't we, Archivist?" Simon says, and smiles. "Might as well enjoy the ride."

"What – what does that mean?"

Simon chuckles. "Well, all in due time, I suppose," he says, mysterious. "Shouldn't hurry such things along – you should Know."

Jon really doesn't. "I…" he says and trails away. It's distracting, the things Simon knows, Jon can feel them. "Right. I don't suppose you have a statement for me?"

Simon hums, looking him over, and then turning away. He looks up to Salaì instead. "What do you think of the Future, Salaì? How does it look from up there?"

"I'm sure I don't care one jot about it, but please, do change my mind," Salaì purrs. "If you can."

Jon looks warily between the pair and then clears his throat. "Right," he says and stands up. "I'll let Martin know you're looking to talk to him – you should try around business hours," he says. "That's when he's usually here. I suppose you can show yourself out?"

"I'm sure I will find my way, yes," Simon says and glances at him. "By the by, whatever happened to all the spiderwebs? This place was chock full of them the last I was here, and now the place is all but spotless. It quite took me by surprise."

Jon looks away, his shoulders slumping. "They're gone," he says. "Burned."

"Ah," Simon says. "Well… it's for the best, I suppose."

Jon sighs and shakes his head. "Turn off the light when you leave, please," he says. "And if you could lock the door, I would appreciate it."

"Will do," Simon promises, making a thoughtful sound and turning to Salaì. "Well then. Seems like things have been quite interesting here of late, haven't they?"

"What with all the heartbreak, absolutely," Salaì laughs. "You wouldn't believe the amount of pining people around here do…"

Jon slips out of the office before he can hear more, and very resolutely stops listening. Unable to help himself, he glances at the corners of the hallway, up and down, but… Simon is right – there really are no spider webs at all left. Even in the bottom levels, it's all clean. The Institute really is spotless.

All strings detached, huh.

Rubbing at his tattooed wrists, Jon sighs and resolutely turns his mind to what he would be making for dinner tonight. Pasta, maybe, with a bit of French toast.... Something nice and real and normal. Wouldn't that be something.

Soon it wouldn't be enough. Elias' eyes had nourished Jon for a good long while, but…

He's starting to feel Hungry again.

Chapter Text

Martin is shuffling through some old contract forms that Elias had used with the Institute's consultation contracts when there's a knock on his door. There's still that moment of temptation, to cloak himself in the Lonely and stay in, but – it's easier to ignore it these days. "Come in," he says, looking up.

It's Rosie, carrying in a couple of letters. "There's a man who came to make a statement, and – well, you told me to let you know if we got one of them, and this is one of them?" she says hesitantly. "He was very nice, though, and didn't cross the boundary line."

"Oh? Is it working, do you think?" Simon Fairchild definitely didn't care about the barrier they'd tried to put up around the Institute, but he could just fly in, it turned out. People more bound to the ground, though, well… they hadn't yet tested if it worked on them, "Was it that he couldn't cross – or did he just stay out to be polite?"

"I think it might have been to be polite, but he definitely noticed it," Rosie says and sets the mail down on Martin's desk. "Got two statement givers today, too. That's something, isn't it? Things are turning back to normal around here."

"Bit by bit," Martin says, glancing over the letters while standing up. They could wait. "Let's go see who it is then – did Jon notice yet?"

"I think he's out – the archival assistants dragged him out for food," Rosie says, smiling.

"That's good," and worrisome. Jon had started looking a little thin recently, which is not a good sign, so Basira and the others taking him out might do him some good. That this avatar turned up specifically when Jon wasn't there, though… that could be bad. "Right," Martin says and smothers the urge to pop into a toilet to wash his hands again. "Right."

He heads out ahead of Rosie, making his way down the stairs and through a corridor to the entrance hall. In the Institute it's one of the places where he feels the Beholding on him – the whole hall is shaped like the interior of an eye, after all. Martin tries not to look too deeply into it – or wonder if the Eye approves of him or not – but here, he definitely feels it looking at him. He generally doesn't spend much time in the entrance hall because of it, and entering the place always makes him suppress a shudder.

Then he sees who's waiting for him by the entrance, carefully outside the invisible lines of their new barrier. "Oh my god."

It's not – it is.

"Desmond," Martin murmurs, and the avatar turns to him, mismatched gaze finding Martin quickly.

When he grins, his teeth are – artificially perfect, shiny and straight. "Martin – hi," the man says. "You're still around, that's – great."

"I'm still around, yes," Martin says, stepping forward – carefully keeping his own hands down to his sides. He can feel them dripping again. "I, ah – we were worried. You've been… gone for a while. How are you?"

"I'm great," Desmond says and looks down at the floor. "You have a thing here," he points at the line. "It's to keep people out, I think? I wasn't sure if I'd be welcome."

"We're trying to limit – surprise guests, I suppose," Martin says and clears his throat. There's something a little – off? But Desmond is standing easy, casual, not in any way hostile or… anything. He doesn't look all that changed. "You're welcome, if you have good intentions."

"I just – yeah, no bad intentions," Desmond promises and slowly steps over the invisible line. "What are we, vampires?"

Martin laughs, a little awkward. There's something about how Desmond moves, it's – too smooth. Had it been like that before? Martin knows the man had been all but invisible with the Lonely, silent and unseen, but… "That's where we got the idea, actually. They're real, you know. Vampires. Invitation or lack thereof doesn't do much to them, though, but we'd thought it was a… valid idea."

"I suppose," Desmond says and looks at him. "So, uh…"

"Right – come this way, we can – talk, in my office," Martin says, motioning him to follow.

"… sure, yeah, we can do that," Desmond says, a little awkward. "Jon isn't here."

"Did you come here knowing that?"

"Maybe? I – I'm not sure," Desmond says, humming. "I was trying to call ahead, but the phone started spitting numbers at me, it was weird. I want to see him, but…"

Martin looks him over. "How long has it been since you – came back?"

"A day, maybe? I had to – I was hungry, I had to…" Desmond trails away, looking down, mismatched eyes blinking somehow too evenly. "It's weird, I'm – getting used to it. I'm trying to be careful and not – not to do. Things."

"Right – what did you eat?" Martin asks worriedly, as they go up the stairs and towards his office.

Desmond doesn't answer immediately, and Martin lets him into the office, Elias' old office. "Getting on in the world, huh?" Desmond comments. "Nice office."

"I did become the Head of the Magnus Institute, that… ended up being non-reversible," Martin admits with a sigh and motions him to sit. "It's been – not terrible, so far. Can you please tell me, what did you eat?"

Desmond shakes his head. "I – there's a patch of garbage in the ocean, did you know? I didn't know that," he says. "It's where I woke up. There was a city there, just for a bit, built it up from all the trash – some researchers, I think, got lost in it for a bit. I didn't kill them," he says quickly. "They were good people, but I did… scare them. A lot."

"But they're alive?" Martin asks, sitting down.

"Yeah, I – I made sure they got away alright. And then I sank the city," Desmond says and sits down slowly. Again, there's that… weirdly smooth movement to him. Like he's doing it with unerring accuracy. "I'm not normal anymore, huh?"

"If you ever were," Martin comments, watching him, trying to put a finger to the feeling he's getting. Something's just… off. "But you let them go, that's… not bad."

Desmond looks at him with his mismatched eyes, and Martin looks back, trying to figure if the eyes are different. One white and blind with a hint of shape where the iris had been turned pale, the other dark and bright and…  Desmond smiles, and it doesn't reach eyes at all. "You burned the Archive for me. And Ezio and Leonardo."

"Um. Yes," Martin agrees, and looks down at his hands. They're clean, but they feel wet and sticky again, like they're covered in – "Leonardo's influence got wiped out of reality. Did you know it would happen?"

"I figured. It happened to everyone else," Desmond agrees. "That was the point."

Would've been nice to know that, before he killed everything Leonardo da Vinci had ever done and made. It still comes back to him every so often, the same way the feel of Desmond's blood on his hands does, and… and it's just a lot to have on your shoulders. "Right. I'm sorry."

Desmond doesn't say anything for a while, staring at him, unblinking now. Then, almost as if catching himself, he blinks, slow, and looks away, shaking his head. "It's what they wanted. It was their plan," he says and turns his eyes down. There's a moment of silence, and then he announces, "This is awkward."

Martin snorts. "Yeah," he agrees. "It is. How are you feeling, Desmond?"

"Weird," Desmond admits. "I feel – a lot, and most of it's weird. Like I'm standing on a cliff, and there's a pile of trash at the bottom, just… weird and kinda nasty, and – I guess exhilarating, too. I guess that's the point, though, with – Extinction and Forgotten things? There's an element of discovery there, like, it's a tiny bit exciting." He snorts. "My god is young and excitable."

Not – not a very reassuring way to put it. "Can you – control it?" Martin asks quietly. "That was the point, right, controlling it – can you?"

Desmond hisses out a breath through his unnervingly perfect teeth. "Guess we'll see," he says and leans back. "But I think – it likes to throw things at people, more than it likes to take things – or people. Taking forgotten, discarded bits, buried chemical spills and covered up gene manipulation trials, and throwing them in people's faces – that's… that's the Forgotten. Making people face the horror of their, and other people's, actions."

"How very environmental of it," Martin comments, frowning. He's never been particularly fond of the ideology of humans are the real monsters, where every evil and bad thing done to the world is because of people. It just – it's a nasty and toxic way of looking at things, and it doesn't really help anything, just makes people feel bad, or justified in making other people feel bad.

"Humans are the only creatures capable of fearing the consequences of their actions," Desmond says thoughtfully. "Or extinction, or the apocalypse. I suppose natural disasters would work too, but – it's not the same when it's random. It's not… justified."

Martin looks at him, pressing his lips together. He's not sure why the idea of a fear looking to justify itself gives him a terrible feeling in his gut, but it does. All other fears are random and somewhat indiscriminate, targeting either random people or maybe those with phobias. This seems more… calculated. A fear feeling justified is just short of fear as punishment, and one of the things he'd always relied on in all of this mess is that… none of it is justified, no one deserves this bollocks. It just happens, cruelly and randomly. If Desmond starts targeting people he thinks deserve their doom, that's just… that has a lot of leeway for corruption.

What a weirdly upsetting idea – an avatar of fear with the potential of becoming ideologically corrupt.

Desmond looks at him, his lone seeing eye too bright, too detailed somehow, too shiny… "I'm not – I'm trying not to be a monster," he says, and for a moment he looks like someone Martin might've seen on the cover of a fashion magazine – there's this Photoshop perfection to the cut of his cheekbones, the line of his chin. It's – Martin had noticed the guy was handsome before, but it seems just more obvious now. "But I am here for a reason, remember?"

Martin hums, leaning back a little. "Sorry. I'm just – coming face to face with the realisation of what we made," he murmurs and draws a breath. "What I made."

Desmond tilts his head. "I don't suppose it would help knowing that really, if it hadn't been you… Ezio and Leonardo would've found someone else. It wasn't like they were going to leave it up to chance."

"No, I suppose not," Martin says and shakes his head. Guess he'll just have to learn to live with it. "Right, um. Do you have a statement for Jon? He's, ah… he's getting Hungry."

Desmond blinks that even blink again and then leans back. "You don't mind?"

"Better he feeds off you than innocent people," Martin says. He'd actually been – tentatively – looking into other avatars, trying to see if he could find… a replacement for Desmond, in that way. Jon had become so much stronger and healthier when Desmond was feeding him, so much better off. He doesn't like it, but… Jon needs his strength back. And if Martin has to forsake a few morals and maybe break his heart, again, then… so be it.

"Alright," Desmond says and smiles. "You're a good man, Martin Blackwood."

Martin blows out a breath and smiles back. "Give it a few years," he says. "And we'll see."

Desmond looks him up and down and his smile widens, a little unsettling. "Guess we will."


 

Martin tells himself he's not going to be there when Desmond and Jon meet again, that he doesn't want to see it – but he ends up being right there anyway, all but leading Desmond to Jon. Whatever power Desmond has now aside, he can't instantaneously locate Jon's new office, it turns out, so Martin has to direct him to it.

Jon is back, it turns out, a little faster than Martin had expected – and he's not alone. Melanie, Daisy and Basira are in his office too, and they're laughing, talking about some poor guy at the restaurant, tripping over his feet and making an ass out of himself trying to back-hand compliment her sunglasses.

"Sounds like they decided on takeout," Martin mutters, lifting his hand to knock, just as the door to the office is all but thrown open from the inside, nearly slamming him in the face.

Jon stands there, eyes wide and Knowing, immediately searching for Desmond's. Martin gets the uncomfortable first row seat to them seeing each other for the first time in a month – how Jon's whole being seems to brighten and how Desmond smiles – and if Martin's insides do a little twist as Jon throws himself into Desmond's arms, well. That's for him to know.

"You're back – I Knew you'd be back," Jon murmurs, gripping tight.

"Hey," Desmond answers, smiling, smiling, looking like a Colgate commercial. "Sorry it took me a while. Had to finish cooking, I guess."

Martin steps back at the sound of Jon's choked laughter, and he would've taken that opportunity to back away and leave, hadn't it been for Basira and Daisy, looking between the pair and Martin. "What," Basira mouths and Martin shrugs, helpless.

The hug is thankfully not long in the end, but what follows is almost worse as Jon leans back to Look at Desmond, eyes all but glowing as he gazes up at him – and the picturesque, unsettling perfection of Desmond just intensifies, and – ugh. Martin swallows, draws a breath and then steps past them into the office. "He just appeared in the front hall," he murmurs to Basira, smothering a grimace. "He's – different somehow."

"Yeah, no kidding," Basira mutters back, looking at Jon and Desmond warily. "Dangerous?"

"Without question," Martin says. "But maybe under control. We need to watch out for him, anyway."

"Right."

"Anyone want to explain what's going on to the blind person?" Melanie asks irritably, setting down her fork. "Is there hugging? I can hear hugging."

"It's Desmond, he's at the door and Jon's hugging him," Daisy says, watching with her elbows on her knees, a simmering attention in her eyes like she's watching Desmond for danger. "Looks none too worse for wear."

Jon clears his throat, awkward, and backs away with apparent embarrassment. "Right, um, you're – what, when did you come back?"

"Here or in general?" Desmond asks, watching him raptly. "Here, about half an hour ago, into London this morning, and into general existence… about two days ago."

"You – you look… unchanged?" Jon says and hums. "Mostly."

"Mmh," Desmond agrees, and there's that thing again, about his movement, the way he smiles, the gleam of his eyes, that makes him look like he belongs in an overproduced comercial. "Hope I didn't interrupt anything."

"No, no, we're just – eating," Jon says and turns to the others. "I'm – I'm sure there's enough here for you too – you can eat food still, right?"

Desmond hums, interested. "Haven't had a cause to try," he says. "Wouldn't say no to a bite or two."

Martin runs a hand over his forehead to keep himself from scowling at that, trying to figure out a reason to leave, while also fighting the urge to stay and watch, just in case something… happened. Becoming the Head of the Magnus Institute has made him more than a little… possessive of Jon, it's all but written into the job description, but…

Jon ushers Desmond to the couch, where Basira and Daisy watch him warily and Melanie tilts her head to listen. "So, what happened?" Jon asks. "It worked, didn't it?"

"Yeah," Desmond says and looks between everyone. "I'm guessing everyone wants to hear it?"

"Yes," Daisy agrees, wary. "We do."

"Considering all that went into the whole thing, and what the result was supposed to be…" Basira trails away and folds her arms. "The 15th power, it's… is it here now?"

"Hm," Desmond nods. "I'm – I haven't figured it out entirely yet, but, yes. It is," he closes his eyes and hums, tilting his head as if listening to something only he can hear. "It's not all that – hungry yet. I guess it's still something of a… baby fear," he grins, his eyes still closed, the whole thing somehow picturesque. "But yeah, it's…. here."

Martin folds his arms, glancing at Basira and then back at Desmond. "And what does that mean for… for everything. How is it going to manifest?"

"The same way everything else does, I guess," Desmond says and opens his eyes. "Not that I know, really, I wasn't much of an avatar before, it turns out. I figure it's the same, more or less, just that the fear is different."

"And what are you going to do?" Melanie asks, frowning behind her sunglasses. "How do you feed the fear of the Extinction?"

"How else?" Desmond says and smiles. "By showing it to people. Isn't that what they all do?"

"Melanie," Jon says, faint, and looks at Desmond. "You – you're not going to – "

"Feed people to it? Only those people who deserve it," Desmond says. "The same as before."

"Er – "

"Wait, you – you fed people to the entities?" Basira demands, while Martin's hands curl into fists and Daisy lifts her head sharply. "You fed people – not just scared them, but fed them to the entities?"

Desmond looks up and blinks at her – and it's obvious on his face he doesn't quite get or care about her alarm. "Just the one, really. Lloyd Thomas," he says simply. "Lonely man, Lloyd, liked to keep company with pictures and hair clippings. I fed him to the Lonely, back when I thought I was an avatar of the Lonely and that was something I needed to do. Technically, Lloyd is still alive," he muses. "Locked away in a doorless, windowless box inside the Lonely."

"Oh my god," Martin mutters while Jon makes a face. "Jon, you knew?"

"Well – Desmond made a statement about it –"

"You – that's why he's – people are still looking for him," Basira says, obviously torn between arguing and disbelief.

"Wait – what, do you know the guy?" Melanie asks.

Desmond smiles a little wider, and the otherness of him rises to the surface – he looks unsettlingly unruffled and perfect, even in his simple hoodie and jeans. Hollywood perfect. "He killed fourteen people, Lloyd, and was planning for a fifteenth, when I found him," he says simply. "One of the girls in his office – he really liked their hair."

Melanie turns her head slightly to face him, and even through the glasses, her expression is obvious. "Oh," she says. "Well. Fuck him them."

"Melanie," Basira says.

"What – if the guy was a serial killer, I say good riddance," Melanie says. "If you have to feed someone to your dread god, it might as well be someone who deserves it."

"That's not how – that can't be how this works," Basira says, looking between them all. "Who are we to decide who deserves something like that to happen to them?"

"I think you should've thought of that before we murdered Elias," Melanie shrugs. "Jon needs to feed, I need to feed, Daisy needs to feed – we all need this stuff. We might as well try and… not ruin the lives of innocent people while we do it. Else, we should just give up and kill ourselves. And I'm not gonna. How about you, Daisy?"

"Hmm," Daisy says and looks at Desmond. "You find them by Eagle Vision, right? The people who deserve it."

Desmond shrugs, easy and casual and entirely too confident. Martin looks away from him, fighting between his unease at the face of the man and the even more uneasy realisation that, as much as it makes him nervous… there might be a point to it. If it has to be someone…

"Anyway," Desmond says, picking a bit of someone's takeout. "Aside from that, nothing's really happened to me – I came out, I came here, that's about it. So, what did I miss? You murdered Elias?"

"With extreme prejudice," Melanie agrees. "Asshole."

"Awesome," Desmond says, smiling wider. "Tell me about it."

With a sigh Martin takes a seat on the armrest of the couch and reaches to pick out a bit of tomato from Basira's salad, as they all settle down to rehash the things that had happened over the last month or so. How easily Desmond makes himself at home amongst them, and how quickly everyone grows adjusted to his presence still makes Martin a little wary, but…

Jon is looking at Desmond like he wants to eat him – likely feeling the Statement Desmond has in store for him. So… Martin would bear it.

He can bear a lot, these days.

Chapter Text

"What do you think? Pretty nifty, I'd say," Desmond comments and looks up to the – the monument he'd made. He's not entirely sure what he intended it to be in the beginning – the most he had for an idea was to make something to mark the occasion, to leave some sort of memorial. Here lies the last of the Untold Sacrifice, something like that. A statue would've been nice.

What it came out as was the most vague piece of modern art he's ever seen. It's built up from trash and discarded furniture, from oil barrels, from syringes, from magazines with plastic covers and CD-ROMs and computer bits, and just about every bit of non-biodegradable trash you'd be able to find in most landfills. There's even a part of a car in there, he thinks, plasticy-perfect and rusted all at once.

Desmond is pretty sure he'd begun with stone and metal. Might've been concrete. Things tended to blur a little when the – the Building of Monuments took over, and the end results were never what he planned. Either way, the result, while the texture is nothing like what he planned, it… it looks about right.

A fifteen foot statue of Altaïr, with a hood made of woven plastic and armour made from chain link fence, stands in the middle of an otherwise untouched forest, with no sign of how it got here, who made it or why. It's just the sort of thing the Forgotten likes – mysterious monuments with all kinds of creepy implications and no explanations. Desmond has made – several of them, over the last year, some intentionally, some not so much. This, he thinks… this is one of his better works.

"To the Forgotten Sacrifice, to the Codex, and to Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad," Desmond says and bows with a flourish. "Not quite as pretty as the marble statue in the basement of the Auditore villa, but hell, it'll last just as long." He lifts a plastic bottle of coke in toast. "To you. All of you. Mad bastards, the lot of you."

Something shifts around his foot as he drinks his toast – ugh, the coke's gone all flat – and Desmond looks down. Cat is rubbing her body against his ankles, making insistent little mrp noises. "Yeah, I'll take that as approval," Desmond says and picks her up. "I think we're done here. Happy anniversary to me, huh?"

Cat rubs her head against his, and Desmond grins, letting her settle on his shoulders as he gives the monument another, satisfied look. A group of kids on a school trip would stumble on the statue eventually, and it would make a lifelong impact on at least a few of them – would be fun to see what came out of it, in ten, twenty years. For now, though, he's done.

"That's that, then," Desmond murmurs, scratching Cat's chin. "I think I'm done with the States for a bit, time to move on, maybe stop by London. What do you say, cargo ship or a tanker? Hm? Do you think you would like to be a ship's cat?"

She bites his finger, so, that's probably a no. "Alright. Let's go find you something to eat."


Desmond moves about mostly by foot these days. It's partially because things tend to break down around him – and you can give only so many cars so many oil line failures before you start feeling a little guilty – and partially he just… likes walking. Plus, it gives him the chance to examine nature – and occasionally add a little compounded human influence in it, where it feels about right. So he gets to build things and sculpt things, and he gets to get his steps in. And if occasionally he runs into someone who could do with a little trip down the Apocalypse Alley, well.

When crossing water though, he prefers ships. There's something nice about ships. Maybe it's the age of the technology that went into them, the long history – or maybe planes are just too efficient. Who knows. Plus, ships are easier to sneak onto.

He probably should've looked into whose ship he snuck onboard.

"Oh," the Captain says, finding him on the masthead. "It's you."

"Hi," Desmond says, Cat sitting snug in his lap, purring away. "It's you. Why is it that I always meet you guys on ship masts?"

"You guys?" Peter Lukas asks, wry, and steps down to stand beside him on the narrow piece of metal. "Who else have you met on a ship's mast?"

"Simon Fairchild – it was over a year ago, though," Desmond says and considers him. "Didn't know Lonely gives people the ability to fly – seems more like the Vast's thing."

"The One Alone gives me the ability to move around," Peter muses, looking at him consideringly. "And to move others, if I so choose. And you, Mr. Miles, don't have a ticket."

"Simon Fairchild threatened to toss me overboard too," Desmond muses. "I don't know what would happen if you tossed me into the sea. I bet it wouldn't stay this nice and clean, though. Also, if you hurt Cat, I am gonna hurt you."

Peter considers him and then the animal in Desmond's lap. "I think your cat has mange."

Desmond looks down and sighs. "Yeah, she's got mites, fleas too – I got her on medication," Desmond says – though of course as long as Cat was with him, it probably wouldn't be getting that much better. He might not be the avatar of Corruption, but… the Forgotten works a little too well with all the others. "She's gonna be fine. Aren't you, sweetheart?"

Peter considers him, and there's a trickle of the Lonely around them, mist whipping in the sea breeze. "Would be just what you deserved, to take the cat and throw you into the ocean," he says. "You, who betrayed the One Alone."

Desmond blinks and looks up at him. "What, you think there's loyalty to this shit?"

Peter scoffs. "You were st