Corthos stood stock still, hands gripping the railing as he looked out on Kintargo from the Opera House. Beneath him, he could see the battle raging, and he knew with absolute certainty that his friends were defending on his command. He could hear the great doors downstairs being thrown open, and he turned to walk towards the sound. As he headed for the main hall, the sounds of screams echoed around him. Towards the end of the main hall, he felt his foot catch on something. Looking down, he could see it was the twisted body of Jules, his neck bent at an awkward angle, his eyes narrowed in accusation. Corthos mumbled an apology, but found he could not stop. His hands moved forward of their own accord, and he pushed the door open. One part stuck, and as he stepped through, he could see why. Rexus lay in the hall, a blade still pressed into his chest, his eyes open and pleading. Corthos continued onward, finally coming to a stop at the top of the main stairs of the Opera House. Looking down, he felt his breath catch. Bodies laid strewn across the stairs, and each one looked back at him. Octavio laid sprawled alongside his knight at the foot of the stairs. A few feet from him, Laria laid still, a dozen arrows jutting from her back. In a pool of blood that slowly trickled down the steps was Lena, her last expression one of horror as some massive hound had torn into her throat. Just beyond her lay Maxwell, Corthos’ own rapier next to him, the blade soaked crimson. Isabelle was a step past him, her arms reaching out and grasping at some sort of safety that wasn’t there, one eye unable to look at him from the slash across her face. Her hand seemed to stiffen, pointing to something behind him.
He turned, even though he did not want to do so. His eyes trailed up to a woman’s figure, hanging lifeless in a noose before him. He knew without having to look that it was Eliza. He tried to cry out, tried to make any sort of noise, but found that he couldn’t. Instead, he turned again, bearing mute witness to the events unfolding in front of him. His feet moved of their own accord, taking him down the stairs and past his fallen comrades. There was a wet gripping noise as his boot pulled free of a blood puddle, and he could see each imprint clearly as he reached the bottom. Once he had reached the floor, Corthos was certain he could hear someone – not far now, a room away at most. He felt his body move towards the sound, pausing for only a moment to take in another pair of corpses that laid sprawled between him and the door – the armored form of Alasdair, hands grasping at a spearhead in his stomach, laid next to the prone form of Guinevere, her throat slashed open in a ragged tear, bloodstains having pooled down the front of her dress. Silently, he stepped over them, feeling hot tears run down his face even as he opened the door to the dressing room. Inside was a fine and well-maintained room, complete with its own fireplace and large mirror. As he entered, he saw a form run towards him, and his hand shot to the side. He grabbed a wrought iron fireplace poker, swinging it in an arc that collided with the figures head, knocking them to the floor. He stepped over, looking down into the tear-streaked face of Merrigold, talking depserately. The movements of the lips told Corthos all he needed to know – ‘You failed us. You failed us.’. Standing above her, Corthos raised the poker high overhead. At the peak, he saw himself in the mirror – the all too familiar mask of white and yellow hiding his face as he brought the fireplace poker down, again and again and again. He kept swinging until he felt his arms growing tired, and with a pained scream of primal terror and rage, he slammed the poker down one last time.
Corthos sat straight upright, a yell emitting from him that was hardly human. He threw his bedsheets away from him, drenched in a sweat that ran cold, tears streaking his face. In a panic, he glanced around the room – movements made in an abject terror without a clear reason. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard a low laughing fading away, a sound hissing out of existence like the last gasp of a smokestick. He took a deep, gasping breath that was half a sob, fighting for every bit of air that he could get. He threw open the drawer of his bedside table, grasping through it in desperation before he found an ornate writing pen – a gift from Merry on one of the last occasions he had been able to see her. He clenched it in his hand like a holy man grasping at a totem, trying to gain whatever he could from it. His breathing was erratic, short gasping breaths alongside large, chest-wracking sobs and inhalations. It took some time before he could think in any way close to clearly, and he stood from the bed and moved to his desk. He set paper after paper down now – maps and plans and ideas, writings from Roland Tanessen and other military minds, and he began to read over them. Even as he felt the exhaustion battering at his mind, he continued to read. When his eyes grew heavy once again, he pushed through and continued to study.
He could not fail. The slightest mistake, the slightest error, and these people could die – and he had promised himself that he could not allow that. They were willing to listen to him, willing to follow – but was he willing or capable to lead? He could not think of them as pawns on a chessboard, not with how he knew them. His fear of sending them into battle could hurt the cause far worse – as Roland himself had said ‘Hesitant leadership in a battle against a larger foe is just as damning as incompetence.’ Corthos moved over the maps, his pen making brief notes on a small pad by his side. As the morning sun rose in the sky and the light poured in, Corthos was still working. He could not let these people down. He would not allow himself. But somewhere, in the back of his mind, he felt the tension – the pressure – as if something, large and horrifying, had finally settled its eyes on him. He could almost hear the hounds now, feel the warmth in his blood, the hot breath on the back of his neck. Crossing the room, he grabbed a book on Roland’s military tactics, no longer feeling any desire for sleep.