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The Fable of the Escape Artist

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It was the birds that first told her of the Outside, the place far above and beyond the castle's walls. Yorda didn't even speak their language but they told her, the way their wings dipped in the wind currents and how they hopped around the courtyards and the tops of walls. She was only ever allowed in certain areas, and the castle always seemed so infinite. The cliffs below to the water, and the sky above were the only things that seemed out of its domain. But the birds had never been contained in the way that she was, and they settled in the sunny patches and drank from the puddles which sometimes formed when the rains came.

The rain also betrayed the outside world.

But Yorda had always been told to stay by the Queen, warned away from places too close to the walls, and especially the gate. And the shadows would loom when she dared move from her rooms. The Queen would say, this is more than you deserve and she would be grateful for it.

So she'd sit at the window, watching the birds huddle on a ledge when the winds picked up and the rains came. She would watch when the sun came out again, and they shook the droplets off their feathers and took to the skies again.

Yorda had begun to wonder.

---

The Queen never left the throne room unless she had to, so Yorda had to come to her. Yorda felt small next to her height and she felt weak next to the strength of darkness that moved around her, humming low and almost whispering. The Queen's beautiful face, the only thing of light in her, held its expression firm even when she spoke in Yorda's best interests.

"I want to know what's outside."

"Outside is a cruel wasteland, a place you would never survive."

Her heart sank, but the Queen had spoken firmly, and all knowledge came from her. Still, there was something in her that revolted, and it surprised her how it came out of her mouth.

"But the birds! They're such small things and they come from outside!"

When the Queen stood, the air around her trembled so that Yorda was forced to take a step back, concede to where the power really was.

"Your place is here, in the castle. There is no other place you can exist--or will exist."

The Queen summoned shadows, big hulking things that grabbed at her, pulling her down down into a blackness that rivaled the darkness of the Queen herself...

---

From the cage, Yorda could see the birds. It hung just high enough near the window to so that she could see a patch of sky, but nothing else. She couldn't lay down, but she could stand, and if she got up on her toes there was just the hint of a different blue--maybe the sea. It was the only thing besides the stone walls to look at. At first Yorda stayed awake as much as she could, staring out into the expanse of bright blue, wishing for the sunlight to shine on her face. Maybe bring a bird in with it, which would whisk her away into the grand Outside.

When so much time passed and the Queen didn't even visit her, Yorda really understood the message. She was weak, she was helpless, and there was nothing she could do. Maybe it took a little bit of time to sink in, but she found herself sitting more.

Eventually she stopped looking out the window at all.

---

Yorda found herself dreaming, since she couldn't bear to be awake.

In dreams she wasn't in the company of shadows, those large threatening figures that the Queen sent to pull her down. They were small and pointy mist beings, leaping and laughing along with her before she sprouted wings and flew upwards into the endless sky until the castle was just a diminishing speck drowned out by the blue. In Yorda's dreams there was no darkness, no light, only blue and the wisp of something else.

When she realized that the dreams had caused her to fall, her heart sank. There was no escape for Yorda.

---

But falling was real.

Yorda barely had time to register what had happened. The days had become so long and she had been asleep more than awake for the later part of it. The door to the cage was open, and the cold stone floor wasn't taunting her from her height. She almost was afraid to move, thinking the Queen had devised some test.

Before her was someone pointy, small, and brown.

It was different than with the shadows, and with the Queen. His--a word she realized hadn't been used by her before, or that she even knew until then--face had two eyes like hers, a nose like hers, a mouth like hers. But the points coming out of his head, the general flush of his flesh that reminded her of the firm part of the small tree she had seen in the castle courtyard once was definitely not like her.

So she reached out to touch him, make sure he was real.

The moment ended too soon, as the Queen proved again she had all the power and Yorda lived only within her graces. She was hauled away and pulled down into darkness, drowning again, dreading what prison she would be sent to this time.

But it was different this time. The small hand that gripped hers wasn't different at all, and it was most certainly real. Yorda surfaced and he gripped her hand harder, pulling her away and beating off her tormentors with a plank of wood.

Surely--from the incomprehensible words he spoke to the defiance he held--he was from outside. And he pulled her towards the doors covered in the chants and histories of the castle, and Yorda felt for a moment that her heart was being ripped from her chest as the door responded to her.

He looked at her with certainty, and she realized that he would need her to escape.

---

People from outside clearly didn't see the obvious dangers of the castle.

Inside there had been darkness and dampness; secret levers and fiery explosions. He had found ways past it, while she stood and wondered how long it would be before the Queen set her shadows to devour them both. Despite knowing they would come, she was still terrified when they did come. Again he fought them off, and she cringed every time the plank smacked into the smoke-flesh. Maybe he didn't hear the sound, but it was loud and almost painful to her.

But now outside walls were high, and the ledges dropped far down into only mist and a threatening dizziness. Despite this the boy, who she had decided to call Reckless since they couldn't really speak to each other, didn't seem at all bothered by it. He was always looking around, and where she saw only a rusty chain swinging in the ever-present wind, he saw an opportunity.

Reckless was finding ways for her, as she was certain that there was no way she was capable of the sorts of things he did without hesitation. So when he leaped over a gap in the path, she held her breath. When he held out his hand on the other side, Yorda gaped.

He called, in the way that she understood as 'come here'. She shook her head. Reckless remained, hand outstretched.

Escape was being offered to her, slow and arduous, but escape just the same. The shadows had come and would continue to do so, but was waiting for the Queen to decide to set her free any better? How long would the boy stand there, waiting for her, before he found his own way?

Yorda decided to jump. As soon as her feet left the solid rock of the path she regretted it, wondering if this was really what those birds felt as soon as they left the comfort of the earth. She wondered if she was going to fall endlessly. She wondered if this is what the Queen had in mind for her in the end, hoping she would escape only to be ensnared by the castle itself, a fledgling whose wings would never be ready.

She almost didn't realize she'd been caught, by Reckless's strong hand, dangling, but not falling any more. By the expression on his face, he was just as surprised as she was that it had worked. Yorda had to wonder if all those from the Outside were as strong, or if she was simply lighter than they were.

From then on, she was less hesitant to jump.

---

The next time Yorda reached the sacred doors, she realized that maybe she was more than just a key. For the shadows vaporized as the light and electricity crackled through her limbs.

It almost felt good.

---

Even as she ran, as Reckless pulled her along, she knew that they wouldn't make it to the gate before it closed.

Yorda's sense of certainty loomed, as she knew the Queen was materializing. The fear gripped her, made her stumble, and proved her right. The doors were shut. Now they were both doomed. She wished she was very small, and didn't get up when she saw the dark mist of the Queen's dress on the ground in front of her.

But she didn't speak to her. The Queen spoke to Reckless, in tones that she was familiar with, but in that language he understood, punctuated with her name. So the Queen had been in the Outside before, how else could she speak with him so easily?

"Yorda, why can't you understand?"

Please, don't hurt him. Let him go.

"You cannot survive in the outside world."

It was just the two of them, Yorda and Reckless, given a chance. He helped her up and they looked at each other for a while.

"Yorda," he said, pointing at her, and then pointed at his chest, "Ico." So that was his name. The Queen had told him hers, so he was offering his. It sounded strange and rough, like his language, and he didn't say her name quite right. But she should respond in kind.

"Ico," she said, pointing at him. He nodded enthusiastically and then gestured towards the castle.

They would find another way. If the Queen had not destroyed them or imprisoned them, then there was hope. Just the two of them, Ico and Yorda, against a castle full of locks.

---

Sometimes the castle spoke to her, through the symbols in the stone. Yorda had never been to this part of it, but some of its secrets were being revealed. Ico found the way for her to go, and she found the way to open the gate again.

The large structures harnessed light. She could see switches and levers hiding in the shadows, where Ico didn't always look. Yorda would point to them, and he would try them out. Though he still helped her up places and held her hand, she was finding ways. No longer did she drag her feet.

Even as the castle's barriers made their journey longer, made it harder to find the reflectors needed to break the dark influence over the gate, she could still see the sky. She could feel the breeze and walk out in the grass near the cliffs which ended in the ocean mist below.

Yorda could believe they would make it out this time. Together they were strong.

---

The gate responded to her.

She had gotten used to the tingle from the doors, the relief as shadows vaporized, but this was a far stronger magic than she was prepared for. Yorda dug her heels into the ground before it brought her to the ground, but she wouldn't relent. They were going to escape and she would use every last bit of her energy to make it so.

The gate opened wide, and the bridge spanned out before them. Ico looked concerned, said something to her in the language that still sounded rough, but was slowly becoming familiar. Was she alright?

"A little more," she answered, and even if he didn't understand the words, he got the meaning. When Ico grabbed her hand she had to wonder if it was more for his comfort than hers. Yorda's knees were weak from the draining the gate had done on her, so she stumbled, but she got back up every time.

The trees across the bridge were so close...

This time the gate was responding the the Queen, and it attacked them, sending her to the ground. The pain was worse than the drowning she had felt when the shadows tried to carry her back, it was almost consuming her, dissolving her. But she opened her eyes and focused, only to see that the bridge was pulling Ico away from her, to freedom, while her side was pulling her back to the castle.

Go! You can be free now!

The gap widened, but she could still see his face. Yorda had seen that look before, many times, before he climbed impossibly tall cliffs or leaped onto rusting chains. But this time the gap was too large. He wouldn't make it on his own.

Yorda summoned every wish she had, summoned every bit of trust she had in him and reached, reached at him and hoping that she wouldn't miss.

She caught him, just at the edge. He was far heavier than she imagined, but she held fast.

I won't let go.

Even when the fire of the magic from the orbs gave way to the cool oblivion of shadows as the Queen herself overtook Yorda's light, turning her pale form into darkness, she held fast.

I won't let go.

It was only when her very fingers had turned to nothing but dark mist that Yorda was forced to let go, and Ico fell.

"Thank you..."

---

Even though she was alone, and the Queen had turned her limbs to stone, she didn't despair. Yorda was through with despair. She wanted destruction. She wanted the whole castle to fall into the sea.

"Do you want to know what I have done to you, my daughter?"

Even if Yorda could not move, she could still hear and see. The Queen was clearly amused, and Yorda strained against the stone, knowing that if she were just a little stronger or the Queen's hold just a little weaker in this chamber, she would rip her pretty face off.

"I've freed you from pain. Soon your purpose as my vessel will be fulfilled, and you'll cease to feel loneliness or discontent."

The Queen touched Yorda's stone cheek, and she inwardly recoiled.

"I alone have contained the Taint, since sealing myself here centuries ago. The outside world is full of fear, and superstition; they wouldn't send me those horned boys for servants otherwise."

No...

"I was once weak like you, Yorda. But I have embraced the shadow. There is no strength in the light. Only sadness."

Yorda didn't care about what gripped the Queen. It didn't change how wrong everything was that she had done. There was a strength in her, she had felt it. Did the Queen call it weakness because she was afraid of it? If Yorda lost her own light, would she be as cruel?

The Queen had shut herself in, and all Yorda had wanted was to get out. It was much bigger than that, wasn't it?

Yorda could feel the centuries of the Queen's life weighing on her, feel the disappointments and the despair. She knew then that in all the time of sacrifices and curses, no one had taken the leap for themselves.

She knew this wasn't the end.

---

Yorda learned Ico had survived the fall and come back, because the castle knew. It hissed and whispered of the intrusion. Since she was stone, she was of the castle now.

And she could assert her will on it.

Yorda guided him through the waterways, coaxed him to the sword. Its magic was her magic, and if she could not walk with him, she would be at his hand. Through the sword she opened the door to the chamber where she knelt, frozen. The place where it all began for him, and the place where she hoped it ended for her.

You must release them all, all of your kindred.

The souls of the other horned boys from the past, the Taint that the Queen talked about... they were releasing them. Every time the sword made contact she felt it, and if she could, she would have smiled. Yorda had always dreamed of being freed herself, but now she was freeing others.

All they had to do was free the Queen from the cycle, and end her.

---

Yorda was the shield and the sword now.

Through the castle's eyes she could see how the Queen strained on her throne, sending waves of energy at Ico. He looked so small compared to the stone relics, the high back of the throne, and the swirling dark magic of the Queen.

But when Yorda whispered through the stone, lighting the glyphs on the sword, he was unstoppable.

---

"She can never leave this castle."

When the stone finally fell from her limbs, Yorda was surprised to see that she had become shadow completely. She reached out to the castle, and felt nothing. The Queen had severed her connection to it in her last breath.

And the castle was falling to pieces around her.

Her wish for destruction had been heard, but freedom was not meant for her. But Yorda didn't despair now. Falling stones passed through her body, yet she could touch them, carry them if she wished. Insubstantial, but strong.

Ico lay on the cold floor with his horns broken. He was as light as a feather to pick up. He was no strong warrior like she had thought at first--merely a boy with a will. Now she carried him through the chambers that had confused them, through the doors that had been closed to them.

She placed him in the boat that had born so many of his kind here for sacrifice, and realized why it wasn't as sad as she thought it would be. In all the years that the Queen, and maybe even someone before her, this had been a place of death and imprisonment.

Yorda had set someone free.

"Farewell."

---

The boat was too far for her to see when the last bits of stone fall into the sea. That was when everything went dark in a way that had to be more permanent than any darkness the Queen was able to create.

---

Death was a dream.

A different girl in white stood on a distant shore. The sun was so bright that it almost turned the earth and sky white too. There was no breeze, and her long dark hair hung limply around her face. Her expression was serious, but not grim.

"To think after all this time that a curse would be broken by such a child..."

The other girl's voice was familiar, but lacked an authority. And she laughed in a manner lacking any cruelty.

"Go. May your lifetime never disappoint you."

Death suited the Queen, as strange as that was.

---

She felt wetness, roughness, and heat. Yorda knew these sensations, but never with such an intensity. She lay taking it all in, wondering exactly where she was.

Small noises on the--sand?--were coming her way, first slow and then faster. Now stopped. It was a struggle to open her eyes with the real sun shining directly on her, and almost as hard to focus.

Ico looked afraid, peering down at where she lay.

"We have nothing to fear now. Everything will be alright."

He seemed to understand.