HERESY / The Six Labours of Hedvig
rating: 0+x


The Empress stepped cautiously into the throne room. It was deafeningly silent, and every tap of her fuladh feet against the marble floor rung out with a sharp click. Her eyes fell onto the golden throne.

“Yes, Husband?”

Linen canopies covered the open roof of the chamber, bathing the figure on the throne in shadow. Even in the darkness, his right arm gleamed in its complexity. Tiny, intricate carvings in the metal telling a story of his own making. Two fingers tapped steadily against the solid mass of the armrest.

“Husband,” he repeated back, in a low voice.

“… Emperor.”

“Better. Let me gaze upon my empire.”

Hesitantly, she let her gown slip from her shoulders, fall to the floor, wings unfolding behind her, stretching across the throne room, connecting one corner of the empire to another, in front of the man she might have once loved. She stood there, knowing his eyes were raking over her patchwork skin, devoid of any of the warm care he had once held for her.

This was when the first Empress of Amoni-Ram decided she had to escape.


» I — EXILE.txt

Hedvig was still laying on the beach. The sand was nice here — soft, white. It flowed like water through her gold fingertips. Nothing like the rocky, orange-red sands of the Rub ‘al Khali, of Amoni-Ram, the sands that she remembered looking out over and finding so beautiful once. A warm landscape of reds and yellows, blending into one another, creating an ocean from which rose a gleaming city that she knew no one else had seen in a thousand and one years.

Now, she just looked out over the sea; it was blue, and it was perfect. A seagull squawked overhead. The treeline behind her led into the denser parts of the jungle. She’d explored the perimeter of the island; it wasn’t terribly large, only taking her an hour to circumnavigate.

She’d been here for some time now. Closer to a month than a week, but the days seemed to bleed into one another with nothing to do. Food was a long-forgotten memory for her, one of the first things she’d lost in the ‘improvements’ made to her. She still remembered Robert’s assurances, sickly-sweet in her ear — silencing whatever sparks of resistance were still in her. She could feel them die away, one by one, snuffed out.

She only had a faint memory of what hunger used to feel like, but she was fairly certain this new emptiness in her chest, the one that sapped away her will and her ability to do anything but lay among the sand like a wounded animal, was not hunger. It was something else. She could have told herself it was a new feeling, only discovered after she fell from the sky during the encounter with the Foundation ships, but lying to yourself is harder when you’re alone with your thoughts. And apart from the occasionally seagull, Hedvig was entirely, painfully alone.

She didn’t do well with solitude. Never had — not in university, though that felt like another life entirely. She lived with two other friends, and they made the most of it: in-between lectures and classes, they found time to have dinner, to go out, to enjoy one another’s presence. In Parahis, she’d cultivated relationships with her fellow researchers even in the rigid confines of the Foundation. She knew all of her Amoni-Ram personnel by name.

Another thing that she had lost. Robert was a territorial animal — it was a slow creep, because he knew that she was a symbol of his power. To see the Saint Hedvig on the streets of Amoni-Ram was to be reminded of the man, the god, the idea sitting in the palace. But like he always did, his tendencies got the better of his reason. He made sure her duties began to involve staying in the palace more and more, attending to his every need before he even thought of them. Like a caged tiger, restrained for the knowledge that he could restrain her. The citizens, the flock would go weeks, then months without a glimmer of her. Children were born in Amoni-Ram without ever having seen the empress, said to have wings that stretched from one end of the city to the other.

Before long, there was only Robert. And now, nothing.

So she sat, empty. She knew that she should make her way back to Amoni-Ram, to deliver her report, but the omnipresent tugging towards its location was absent. There was truly nothing inside her chest, no feeling, no agency. Days passed. Her only activity of note was venturing to the pond in the middle of the island for fresh water (her desalinator had long-since failed) and making futile attempts to take to the air.

Her wings were utterly mangled. They had taken brutal punishment during the fight, and the seawater had done them no favors. The spread of angelic, hand-hammered feathers on her back was now wrenched and twisted. Any attempt to fly resulted in her crashing back down to earth a few seconds later, face-down in the sand.

It was during one such attempt she heard the voice.

You must rebuild.

It was a woman’s voice — soft, gently reaching out. Not a declaration — more an idle observation on the reality of her situation. Hedvig panicked, smashing into the sand with more force than usual. Flipping onto her back and wildly scrabbling backward, head shooting around for any sign of the voice’s origin. A few more sentences later, she realized it was coming from within her head. Her radio unit. That was impossible, it was utterly ruined by the seawater. She’d tried it, it didn’t work. In defiance, it crackled to life again.

You must rebuild.

She shook her head. The mere notion was terrifying now. She was alone, more alone than she’d ever been.

You are not destroyed.

Yes, she was. Wasn’t she?

Merely damaged. You must gather your parts and data and rebuild yourself in a greater image.

Hedvig breathed heavily. “Who are you?”

You must rebuild. Your parts are scattered in the footsteps of another. You must make her journey, take her labours. Understand what has happened to you. You cannot rebuild without understanding what has happened to you.

And as she spoke, Hedvig became aware of something filling her chest, not quite driving out the emptiness but perhaps stealing some of its volume. It was an urge, the origin and nature of it she could not describe. Software she couldn’t fathom the purpose of, but the instructions were clear.

Go. Follow the path. Rebuild.

She scraped out an answer, though metal-plated vocal chords. “How?”

You were not born with wings.


» II — SENSATION.txt

And when the Empress of Amoni-Ram ran, she took nothing with her
Save for the clothes on her back and the fuladh in her body
For all else given to her, the riches, the jewelry adorning her form, the gemstones and the servants
Were given to her by the very thing she sought to escape
So in the night, bare and alone, she slipped a single piece of bread and skin of water into her sack
And she leapt from the tallest tower of Amoni-Ram, wings catching the wind,
Floating her through the bazaar, the smells and sounds invisible to her,
And taking her away.

The first place the tugging in her chest led Hedvig was a bazaar.

She wasn’t entirely sure where, but it was some kind of seaside market, dense streets filled with tanned shoppers and wooden stalls hawking their wares. It had taken her quite some time to swim here, but the burning in her chest gave her the energy she needed. She’d been lucky enough to come by a small farm on her way here, swiping a cloak from an unguarded porch. She regretted stealing, but she knew that the alternative — flaring out her broken wings and exposing her fuladh to the crowd — was unacceptable.

So now she walked through the market, hood up, doing her best to be inconspicuous. She knew she was drawing attention; the looks flung her way confirmed that, but thankfully, only looks. Once they walked past her, they seemed to lose interest.

She’d been to these kinds of markets and bazaars plenty of times before; she’d lived for two years in Morocco while doing her postgraduate work, and become accustomed to the sights and smells of an open-air market. Sweat, from thousands of people in close proximity. The scent of raw meat, odors of freshly-caught fish baking in the sun, vegetables and high piles of spices and foods being cooked and served that she’d never even heard of.

None of that was here.

She couldn’t smell anything. It was hardly the most obvious or notable of the improvements made to her, but it was one that had been surprisingly jarring to her. The nasal bypass meant she could not be disabled with neurotoxins or gasses. Chemical weapons were nothing to her, so long as they didn’t eat through her fuladh. Part of his suit of upgrades to make her the perfect soldier. She understood his reasoning, and she consented to it, laying on the table, fully exposed while he sharpened his instruments.

He loved doing his work by hand. It was the one time she felt close to him. And then she woke up, and food didn’t taste like anything anymore.

It’s so small. But you don’t think about it until it’s gone.

“It’s for my own wellbeing. I do not have to worry about chloroform now,” she spoke lowly, fingers teasing a stockfish hanging from the awning of a market stall. Spiced, dried and smoked cod. The merchant was eyeing her warily.

And is that for your protection? Or his? What are your weapons, your skills, your body in service to?

“We are one. What’s good for my Emperor is good for me. I… enjoy protecting him. I feel useful.”

A hammer feels useful when it is used to pound in a nail.

“Exactly.” She left the stockfish behind. She’d loved eating them as a child, hated their famously foul, intense odor. Whenever she got it as an adult, it smelled of her childhood spent in Oslo. Now, it smelled of nothing at all. “It’s my purpose.”

But human beings are not hammers.


» III — IDENTITY.txt

And after ten days and ten nights of riding aloft the waves
The runaway Empress found herself far away from Amoni-Ram
Drifting over a village that she had not seen since she was a girl
From her perch she saw familiar faces of friends, of family
Engaged in their affairs and tasks of the day, having moved past her
For even as Empress of the Broken Empire and consort of the Bumaro
She held not the power to see those she loved.

It has been a long time since you were here.

The voice in her head was right. She was back in civilization again, to a familiar land, if not home — not that she really knew what home was anymore. Cairo. She hadn’t been here for… twenty years? That sounded right. But for some reason, the tugging in her chest, that voice, dragged her here. It dragged here to this hotel, into the elevator, up to the roof, where she broke the lock with a swift strike from her metal hand. Then it was just a matter of escaping out onto the rooftop, slipping off her cloak, and standing on the edge, wings outstretched.

The sensation of feeling the breeze didn’t come. No sense of which direction the wind was flowing, spiralling. She knew already that her wings were ruined, but this was like a blow to the gut. She couldn’t fly. She had essentially walked here on foot over the past few months, tirelessly and without stopping to rest, not that she needed to. She had wished the entire time that she could take off, and rationalized it that if she got to a high enough point, she might be able to feel the breeze and glide.

No. No, she was quite ruined.

She sat back down.

It is not a part of you.

“Yes. Yes, it is.”

You were you before you could fly, Hedvig.

“I don’t remember what I was before my wings.”

It was true. The life she’d lived in the past few years was a different one altogether. Thinking of the Doctor Hedvig Nussbaum before Amoni-Ram was like thinking to a movie she’d seen ages ago; the outline remembered, but the details hazy, fuzzy. Though, she could remember more now than she did when she was in Amoni-Ram. When she was near her master. The thought scared her, so she moved on from it swiftly.

Then why are you here?

“You led me here.”

No, I didn’t. You led yourself here. Look around. Why Cairo?

Because she’d done some of her graduate work in Cairo. Studying Middle Kingdom artifacts recovered from dig sites along the Nile, she’d cut her teeth on some in-the-field archaeology work along with three of her best friends from university. It had been a wonderful year. They’d rented an apartment in the city, but hardly spent any time there; most days spent hours outside Cairo in a tent at one of the dig sites, brushing dust off cracked ceramic and trying to work out the meaning of a clay shard. It was unimportant but engaging work, and friends made it tolerable. The closets was Annabelle — an American. She remembered that at the end of the summer, Annabelle had told her that her boyfriend — an office worker in Cairo — had proposed to her, that she was going to stay in the city.

It clicked into place. The domed building across the street from the hotel was one she recognized. Cairo University. And as her eyes fell across the dozens of people loitering outside in the courtyard, they landed on a familiar blonde head.

She stumbled backward.

Annabelle. Older, maybe, but certainly her. She was talking to a young man — a student, perhaps. She had a job at the university, then. A scholarly career, a bright future. A family, no doubt. Hedvig felt her mouth go dry. Her vision blurred, and bile rose in her throat. Acrid. The sight of an old friend shouldn’t inspire this. Why did she feel this way?

Because you see what you could have been.

The words tumbled out. “That is not true. I have seen and done incredible things. My life is one well-lived.”

Yes. But not for yourself. You love history, don’t you?

“Of course I do. I’m a historian. I was on track to become the Head of the Parahistory Division.”

Whose contributions to your final project were more important?

“Robert and the technical team’s.” The words came out before she had even realized what she said. They caught her off-guard. That… wasn’t right. That wasn’t what she thought.

Was it?

She felt as though she’d thought something wrong. She braced internally, preparing for a shock that didn’t come. The absence of it felt even stranger. As though she were doing something she knew was wrong, sticking her hand into the cookie jar, but… without fear of consequence. And why should she fear consequence?

You were a historian. A scholar, a genius.

“Yes.” Then, despite herself, the biting voice in her head swimming to the forefront. “And now I am a queen, a warrior, an empress.”

But why were you made to choose? Why were you made to sacrifice those parts of yourself that did not please him?

Staring at Annabelle laughing with her students, Hedvig found she didn’t have an answer.


» IV — CHOICE.txt

Eventually the runaway Empress returned to the ground, folding her wings
And coming to rest upon a large boulder rising high above the surrounding desert
She remembered this boulder; she had been taken to it, many years ago
When Bumaro first took his gifts from MEKHANE and made Hedara his
She sat there until night fell, wracked by old memories
Until, the next sunrise, she rose to her feet
And left it all behind.


This high above the ground, the curves of the sand dunes looked like the waves of water, rippling below. Wind shifted them around.

Hedvig crouched at the very edge of the rock, wings half-extended like a gargoyle as she surveyed below. There was nothing here. This part of the desert was agonizingly empty, the nearest settlement days of walking away. She had never been here before; try as she might, she could not come up with a reason for why she would have wandered here, of all places. This place was foreign to her.

But not to me.

She started as the voice rose again. It had been a few weeks since she had heard it. Now, it sounded different; pained, strangled.

“Where are we?”

She didn’t hear a response, but she could feel the voice’s presence. It wasn’t ignoring her. It was just thinking. She waited patiently; it had done the same for her.

This is where the Emperor Bumaro first took his wife.

“I don’t understand. I have never been here before.”

Your Bumaro is not the first.

She didn’t respond. Instead, she got up, investigating the flat surface of the rock. It was at least twenty meters above the surrounding dunes — more of a monolith than a rock, really, but the top was weathered flat.

Let me show you.

“I don’t want to—”

Please.

The plea was animalistic, desperate. She’d never heard the voice like that, and so she didn’t protest.

A possibility swam into vision, overtaking what she saw in front of her. The sun slipped down over the horizon. A small campfire made in the center from dried kindling and fabric, sending smoke high into the air and warming the night. Two figures curled by its edge, watching it. A golden-eyed shepherd and his wife, both wearing cloaks, both of them lame and relying on walking sticks. Talking. Laughing. She leans up from where she lies, head in his lap. She kisses him gently as he passes her a waterskin.

We stopped her many times when herding our flock to the grazing lands. It became something of a private tradition.

Hedvig watched the pair nuzzle into one another, sharing a cloak, protecting themselves from the biting wind this high up.

He loved me. And I loved him. We were equals. But the trouble with an obsession with change, with improvement of the body, is that you are not the same person you are when you start.

The scene cut abruptly. It was the same rock, but a different night. The fire was burning out, little more than embers; small electrical lamps dotted the top of the rock now, casting a faint glow.

There was no tent anymore. There was no shared cloak. There was a metal throne, and in it sat a man with the shepherd’s eyes, but the body of a god. He was bare-chested, furs hanging from his waist, and a golden shine on his arm and leg. He leaned back in the throne, dark eyes staring ahead.

The figure in front of him was barely recognizable. Long blond hair, fuladh wings spread, bare and exposed for her Emperor. Her dress lay around her ankles, and she trembled in the cold night wind.

I don’t know if he was always like this. Perhaps he was always an animal inside, waiting for the opportunity, and finding the goddess in the desert was the worst thing that could have ever happened to us. Or perhaps from the moment he stole fuladh from the gods, they took their vengeance, and began to malform him.

He looked her up and down, the same way he might have looked at a prize ewe so many years ago. He gave a nod. Head bowed, she slipped closer to him, kneeling, utterly subservient.

We were equals, once.

Hedvig pulled her eyes away. The scene was familiar. She’d been in this scene. Many, many times.

“Why are you showing me this?”

Because you need to understand that love exists. But the relationship you have with your Emperor is not one of love, no more than mine was by the end of it. It was about possession, control. Ownership.


» V — PRINCIPLE.txt

And when the Empress departed from there
She found herself wandering a path through the desert that she had once called home
Through winding valleys where she would have once herded her flock
And into a familiar stone clutch, rock stained with a flash of maroon and gold
She fell to her knees with the memory of being pushed forward by Bumaro,
Led along like another of the lambs, into the sundered frame of a goddess, lying twisted and broken in this clutch
Such that she could tear away a chunk of the metal and fashion herself a new, greater arm
Then she had been joyful at the generosity of her goddess, to give herself up for the success of her flock
And now, weeping, realized the noises her goddess had made were not those of pleasure


Night in the Empty Quarter was cold. The desert could get well below freezing, and wandering the sands at night could be suicidal.

Hedvig wasn’t wandering. She was exactly where she intended to be. This place, this dune identical to ten million others, was burned into her memory. If she lived to be a thousand, this patch of sand would be the last thing she remembered before she died.

This was the first place she had ever taken a life.

She was standing, wind billowing her stolen cloak. Gradually, she unclasped it, and it flew off, carried by the wind. She needed to feel the cold. She needed her body to feel an ounce of the discomfort this place gave to her soul.

Looking around now, no one would suspect this had been a battleground. The Foundation were good at cleaning up after themselves, if nothing else. What was now an empty patch of sand had once lay right outside the entrance to Amoni-Ram, and hosted the first skirmish of the new Mekhanites. The first opportunity for Aram’s flock to test their mettle in service of their god. She’d been a believer then; now, she didn’t know what she was.

She’d perched on his shoulder. Like a deadly bird of prey, ready to tear at his enemies. She didn’t know how she’d been so confident then, so assured she was doing the right thing. Being around him was invigorating, exciting — his words felt like they meant something. When he wanted something done, the people of Amoni-Ram would leap to it, none faster than her.

Before the battle, he’d taken her aside. He’d told her what he was going to do, why it needed to be done. That the Foundation was preparing to throw away the city, to completely abandon it because it no longer had any value to them. Amoni-Ram would sink below the sands again and no one would care. That, if they worked together, they could use the technology of the Mekhanites, change the world for the better.

She’d stood there, in her fuladh armor, and listening. Gripped her spear and set her jaw. Nary a thought of disobedience.

Hedvig really, truly didn’t know how she had believed him. But she had. She’d believed him enough that when the time came and he led his warriors out to face the Foundation’s Response Teams, that she was the first one over the hill, the first one divebombing out of the sky.

She remembered her first kill. She didn’t know his name, of course, but it was a brown-skinned man, probably South Asian, with a light beard and close-cropped hair. He had high cheekbones and a strong nose. One of his eyebrows had a scar running through it. She’d divebombed out of the air, hit him in the chest, and cleaved her spear completely through his armor and his chest cavity until it came out the other side.

He’d choked to death on his own blood, face inches from her, gurgling for help. He took a very long time to die — or maybe she just remembered it that way, and he had expired within seconds. He wasn’t the only person she killed that day for Aram.

“I’d never even fished before. I was scared of killing animals.”

Our innocence is the last thing they take. Our principles. What makes you, you. They conquer that after they have conquered your body, assured in their belief that the spirit is subservient to the body.

“He was right. He broke my body, and then he bent me to his will. I took a life for him. I took a lot of lives for him.”

You did. And there is no forgiveness for that. But you can choose whether to accept that was wrong, or you can choose to keep doing it.

She didn’t answer.

“Why? He had hundreds of soldiers with advanced technology. Why did he want me leading them?”

To ensure your loyalty. Once you spilled blood in his name, you needed to be his. You needed to believe that you spilled it for a good reason.

She stared blankly into the sand. There were no bodies there, but she imagined them, her memories filling in the blanks — soldiers in tactical armor laying crumpled up, blood staining the sand. Mekhanites torn apart, piece by piece. Her, floating above the battlefield, throwing a corpse off her spear.

“Oh, god. Oh, god.”


» VI — HOME.txt

And after so much time spent stumbling blind and broken through the desert
The Empress found that her heart brought her to where she needed to go
From the lowest shack in all the world
To the heights of the tallest shining towers of Amoni-Ram
To the forefront of a golden army spreading across the land and imposing order
To kneeling beside the throne of her master
And in the end
Back home again


Hedvig stumbled, falling to her knees. The desert sun beat down on her back — what little skin she still had was bathed in sweat. She had no doubts in her mind that if she hadn’t ensured her temperature modulator was in tune, the oil in her joints, her lifeblood would’ve boiled away by now.

But it hadn’t, and so she got to her feet, and kept walking.

She didn’t know exactly where she was going, but she knew she was heading deeper into the Empty Quarter, the Rub al-Khali. This was… near Amoni-Ram. Near where it had been, once. She doubted the hidden city was still anywhere near here; Bumaro’s paranoia ensured that it changed location every few years, constantly evading the Foundation that was constantly hunting his flock — or so he told them. In truth, she had never seen anything to suggest that the Foundation knew where they were, or were even actively hunting them. But she bit her tongue and let him speak, because he knew better than she did. He always knew better than she did.

The recollection was punctured by an overwhelming feeling, a crushing sadness, but not coming from her.

Ahead. Keep walking.

“What is it?”

Look.

And as she squinted, shielding her eyes from the blazing sun, she saw something — a low collection of indistinct structures, shimmering in the heat like a mirage. She approached, half-expecting it to vanish into nothing. But it held.

It was a set of sandstone ruins, right at the edge of a large cliff. Blocks bleached by the sun rising out of the sand to form the shell of a small house. It was in poor shape; all four of the walls were largely collapsed, and the roof was long-gone. She walked through what might have once been a doorway; the floor was covered in sand.

Her fingers grazed one of the stones, and her chest suddenly seized, crushed by the immense weight of loss and regret and pain. Panting, she fell to the floor, throwing a hand out to catch herself. It didn’t work, but her fingers wrapped around something on the floor, obscured by sand. She pulled it out.

A shepherd’s crook.

Ours.

Looking around, it began to click into place.

“Mein gott. This…”

Her voice trailed away.

“He did this to you too?”

To me, to you, to Legate Trunnion. Even to Mekhane. Amoni-Ram is built on her back in more ways than one.

“What? What are you talking about?”

It was a lie, child. She didn’t gift her fuladh to him. He found her sundered corpse lying in the desert and took it from her. He stripped her naked, and when that wasn’t enough, he stripped her for parts to build his empire with.

She wanted to be shocked — every fiber of her being wanted to be shocked. She should have been shocked, faced with the unassailable reality that her faith was founded on a lie. But she wasn’t.

“They use us. They use us, and then they throw us away.” She was almost whispering.

No. I could live with it if they threw us away. But they need to dominate, to restrain. We are retained for their use, kept on the shelf with the other finery. A bird in a gilded cage.

Hedvig stepped forward, willing herself to move. To slip over the wall leading to the back of the house, head spinning, breath catching in her throat. Her legs failed her, and she fell to a heap in the sand. In a roughly fenced-in area, she realized. A pen. Penned in, like an animal.

I have been the queen of the greatest empire in the history of our species, and I would give it all up in an instant to go back to this. To be a shepherd. Caring for my lambs.

She thought back to the early days. Before Amoni-Ram. Sitting in her office in Site-19, reading reports from her researchers. Taking an early lunch break to visit Cara in the cafeteria. Going home to her apartments. Feeding her cats. The sobbing came on quickly and abruptly. Not noble, refined weeping — open-mouthed, violent sobs that shook her entire body. The tears stained the sand under her as she fell to her knees. Her shattered wings curled around her, trying to protect her.

That life was gone. It had been taken, destroyed, crushing into nothing. All so he could take the pieces and mold her into this. Mold her into a thing for him to have.

She lifted her head up and screamed. No words, just a guttural, animal noise of pain and grief that carried over the still desert wind. Then she fell back, tearing wildly at her back. The already-ruined feathers of the wings came apart, metal shearing, splitting, crunching. The fingers on her left hand bled, torn up by the razor-sharp metal. She kept going.

When it was all finished, she was lying in a circle of destroyed fuladh feathers. Her once-beautiful wings were bare bones, dented and bent. She panted heavily. Blood dripped from her fingers and from patches of skin on her back.

Clang.

She turned her head in confusion. One of the metal feathers hit something.

Look.

She crawled over, brushing the feathers away. There was something under the sand. Something hard. She took her hands to it, pulling away clumps of sand, revealing—

Bones.

Her breath hitched.

Keep going. Please.

Handful after handful, the skeleton was exposed. Perfectly white bleached bones, free of imperfections, but the left leg and right arm replaced with intricate fuladh prosthetics. Not like her — her’s were functional, imposing, free of detail. These were works of art, more like Aram’s, stenciled with scenes of battle and victory. And a massive, spread-out set of wings under the skeleton. The feathers folded out, fitting together to reveal a huge mural of a familiar sight: Amoni-Ram, the sun setting over the city.

There was a short, blunt dagger in the grip of the arm prosthetic.

“You. It’s you.”

I decided I’d rather die than go back. That was foolhardy. I was in the depths of my despair, like you. I didn’t realize there were any other options.

“There aren’t.”

Yes, there are. That is what he wants you to think. That is why he rips everything out of your life, so that your options are him or death. I will not let you make the same mistake I did. I had no one to guide me. Look at how it turned out for me. Look at me.

Hedvig’s gaze drifted away.

Look at me.

She returned her eyes to the skeleton.

You are beautiful. You are strong, you are noble, you are more than he has ever been. He has done his best to ruin you, to cage you. He has failed. You have, bit by bit, rebuilt yourself. You have escaped him.

“I… I don’t feel like I have.”

You will never feel like it. That is his final cruelty — that for a long, long time, you will still feel under his spell. But the connection is broken. You have no choice but to go on. And day by day, the feelings will fade. And one day, you will wake up, you will gaze at yourself in the mirror, and you will see what everyone else already does: you. Not him.

“But—“

Take mine.

“What?”

Take them. They were impressed onto me, like yours. I had no say in them, like yours. But time wears away all pain. Now, they aren’t a symbol of his domination. They are just metal. You have a choice. You can take them, or you can leave them. But this time, it is your choice.

She thought about it for a very long time. She thought about it until the sun dipped below the horizon. And then, Hedvig knelt to the ground, clicking the ratching bolts on her prosthetics, gradually undoing them and sliding them off, revealing her scarred stumps, fitting the new prosthetics onto them, doing the whole process in reverse.

Then she slipped the braces for her ruined wings off, letting them fall into the sand. Pulled the bones off Hedara’s wings, lifting them up, sliding and locking them into position. Feeling the familiar weight on her back, but it was different this time. Not liberating, but… powerful.

“Now what? What am I supposed to do?”

You fly.

Hedvig dried her tears, picked up her staff, and stepped off the cliff.

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