He was bleeding memories.

It was a bizarre sensation – cool without being cold yet warm simultaneously, while being both draining and fulfilling, all at the same time – and Gabriel watched as another rainbow of color broke free from his body before dissolving into nothing. He felt different but could not explain why. His skin crawled, as if it was too small for his body, and the dragon-mark tattoos itched and burned and froze. Something was wrong…

It would be so easy to just give up. He was bleeding and aching and so very, very cold. Snow hung heavy in the air around him, blanketing the woods with white. Biting wind curled through the trees, cutting through his sodden clothes as if they were not there. The surviving ambusher was gone along with his allies, confident that Gabriel was dead and that he was safe from retribution. No one would care or even notice if he let the cold take him and right now, it would be so very easy …

Gabriel blinked and fought back the urge to shiver. Of course there was something wrong, he snarled at himself. He was dead. They were all dead. He didn’t know how the others fell … no, that wasn’t entirely true. He’d seen Gestlin die, trapped in the grip of that beast that killed them all. And then, it had seized him, tore at him, ripped him apart…

Kneeling before his father’s cooling corpse, Gabriel fought the urge to just give up. There was a whimpering man behind him who held the secrets in his heart but Gabriel wondered … was it worth it? He could simply kill the man and vanish into the multitude of people in this wretched town, could forget that he had ever been an Auditore or that he possessed a certain skillset. Disappearing into the crowd would be so very easy and he would no longer have to struggle …

At his side, Merasiël shivered, though he didn’t know why. She was still gripping Angrist tightly and, while a part of him felt strange seeing someone else with the knife, Gabriel did not regret passing it on to her. If nothing else, he’d seen a flash of actual emotion on her face and that alone had been worth the gesture. It had not been a smile, but God help him, he would coax one out of her yet.

He stood quietly on the hilltop, concealed by trees heavy with leaves, and stared down at the crumbling ruin now swarming with activity. Auqui was dead. He’d seen the boy fall, seen him buried under stone and masonry, and the part of him that had kept him alive for so very long whispered that a strong man could survive such terrible injuries. Gabriel shook that away and concentrated on his next step. Auqui was dead and his damnable bishop yet lived. Challenging a man with that much political and spiritual authority … it was to court death and Gabriel was tired of this chase, tired of this life. It would be easy to turn away, to vanish into the populace. He could go elsewhere, Araterre perhaps, or that rumored Sahud far to the north. No one would know and it would be so easy.

“I feel … strange,” Rainald murmured, though even that was louder than it should have been. He waved one hand around, frowning at the after-image of light and color left in his arm’s wake. Mendel murmured something – it may have been a curse or a prayer; with how strangely the priest had been acting, Gabriel did not know which was more likely – and Magnifico danced a strange little number before pronouncing something Gabriel did not understand in that overly elaborate style of his. Gestlin and Dane stood apart from everyone else, frowning. They were all staring at the whispers of lost dreams and forgotten memories.

“You look like you want to quit,” his father whispered to him from twenty-five years earlier. The madness that would send them fleeing from Craine was three summers away and the rest of Gabriel’s family yet lived. “When life becomes difficult, everyone wants to quit. They look for the easy path, the one that provides the greatest reward for the least amount of work. So what you must ask yourself, Gabriel, is whether you wish to be like them or if mean to take the harder path.”

No. Gabriel’s hand automatically sought out the weapon at his side. The familiar sensation of the rapier’s hilt grounded him, reminded him of who he was. Surrender? Bah. Had he surrendered when facing that beast in the water with only Angrist to strike with? Had he surrendered when they stared at hills black with Vasar? Yield, hell. He had just gotten here.

In the snow, aching and bloody and wounded, Gabriel ground his teeth together and kept walking. Three months later, he would kill the crossbowman who had tried to murder him.

Staring at his father’s body, Gabriel thrust aside his grief and honed it into a weapon. He would leave this Caithness town in four weeks time, leaving behind nineteen bodies and one missing lordling who would never be found.

Concealed by the trees, Gabriel turned away and took the first steps on a new hunt. It would take him to the Fortress of Tears where he would earn his dragon-mark and then across Megalos to far-distant Serrun where he would become the Angel of Death.

And in the land of the dead, surrounded by listless ghosts and the only people in this world or the next he considered friends, Gabriel Auditore straightened. By God, he would not quit now. How did that quote go? Into the shadow with teeth bared, screaming defiance with the last breath, to spit in Satan’s eye on the Last Day.

“There,” someone called out. It was Dane, of course, with his eyes that could see the wings of a gnat at a hundred paces. He was pointing at an impressive structure atop the hill. Every ghost stared at it, expressionless faces somehow betraying their … longing? Yes. Longing. They had given up. Gabriel frowned as he glanced around. Well … this certainly looked like the Shadow to him.

Perhaps … perhaps it was time to begin screaming defiance.

“Let us go say hello,” Gabriel declared with a smile.