When there was time, Jared explored the Prison.
Not, of course, with the body. Well - yes, with the body. Inside the body, but not exactly with it. His mind was so much larger, and with the Prison to build electron paths for him he could go anywhere inside it, body or no.
So he picked a point, a random point, and started from there out, following the corridors and roads in ever-expanding radii. His own personal universe growing footstep by footstep outwards.
This time, it was a dim grey corridor, lined with cells barred with darkening but unrusted iron, for the air had ben so dry that despite the ages that no-one had been this deep within the Prison (the Eyes watched and recorded all, even if there was nothing to see) it had remained pristine.
His wings brushed against the walls even when he kept his arms down by his sides, and Incarceron stalked beside him as a great wolf with chains rattling from its collar. Jared looked cursorily into the cells as they passed. Nothing. No rags left on the floor, no marks upon the walls, nothing to suggest that humans had ever dwelt there, in hope or in despair.
Except, perhaps, for the footsteps. Someone, it sounded like, was following him along the corridor. Jared slowed, waiting for them to come nearer. Incarceron’s right ear swivelled around at the sound, until the person fell into step on Jared’s other side.
Strictly speaking, he didn’t have to turn his head in order to look at them - here, as everywhere, there were the Eyes hanging from the ceiling and walls, giving him grainy monochrome images of dark hair and dark eyes and a gap in the laced-together fingers - but he still found himself doing so. Humanity, it turned out, was a difficult habit to shake off.
Sapphique had feathers, Jared noticed. Not so many nor so beautiful as Jared’s new ones - his drooped like there had been dust rubbed into them, and sprouted for his arms, neck, hiding within his hair. Where did the wings go?
“It is now the second time you have done this,” Jared said.
“Well what? You did not ask a question.”
Jared rolled his eyes at Sapphique, who didn’t seem to notice. “Are you really here? Are you just a figment of my imagination? Were you last time? Are you actually just some - rogue program or something? Do you even exist at all?”
“Yes,” said Sapphique.
Jared sighed. “I suppose I should have expected that. Why are you here?”
“To give you advice.” A feather slipped from his hair and drifted down onto the floor.
After exactly one minute and 10.48 seconds (that came from Incarceron’s inner clock) had elapsed, and no advice seemed to be forthcoming, Jared asked about the wings.
“But you are Sapphique now,” Sapphique answered. “The wings are yours. I have to give them up. It is the price for not upholding my promise as you did. You see?” He seized a handful of the feathers sprouting from his forearm and tugged, gently. The feathers peeled away, leaving a patch of bare bloodied skin. Sapphique released his hand and they cascaded down to his feet.
Jared had had stranger dreams, crueler dreams. That was not what was making him uncomfortable now. “Was that your advice, then?”
“No,” said Sapphique. “This is: They will devour you.” He ripped out another handful of feathers to punctuate the statement. Jared winced. “The poor, the broken, the mad, the hopeless. You stand before a pack of wolves and you have said ‘yes, take me, tear my flesh, my entrails, crush my bones. Take it all, because you hunger and I can fill you.’” More feathers, the barbs twisted out of shape in the firmness of his grip. “Do you know, Master Jared, how many prayers have been addressed to my name?”
“Five billion, six hundred forty-three million, two hundred seventy-nine thousand and twelve,” Incarceron answered.
“And that is only the spoken ones.” Sapphique’s voice was almost a whisper. “It is an awful thing, to be worshipped. You remember, don’t you?”
He did. When he had opened his eyes (and that had been a surprise, hadn’t it, that he still lived and so still had eyes to open) to see - Claudia, yes, but behind her, the riot, the thousands of Prisoners made desperate by the abandonment of their god, only to see that turn to joy when the other, unexpected, returned.
I did not plan beyond this. His thoughts had been only to hold in Incarceron, because the world Inside would have failed without its guardian and the world Outside with it. He had wanted to save - anything, whatever he could, whoever he could. He hadn’t planned to be anyone’s hero.
But either way, now I must be worthy of that choice.
“You asked me not to let the Prison wear your face. Speak with your mouth, use your hands. What would have happened had I not been able to prevent that?”
“The Prison would Escape. The systems would shut down. All would suffocate and die in darkness.” Sapphique said this as matter-of-factly as the Prison had given the number of prayers.
“I know,” answered Jared. “But otherwise… would they have worshipped it? …Devoured… it?”
“They would have tried.” Sapphique shrugged. “It would not have satisfied them.”
The wolf growled low in its throat at him, but said nothing. After all, it was true. The world inside the Prison had been broken for centuries because Incarceron had failed to love the prisoners it had been entrusted with. Was still broken. He had promised to rebuild the paradise Incarceron should have been, but oh, it was weary and long work. The forces of entropy, it seemed, were always against him.
By now, Sapphique’s arms were almost bare and a pile of feathers surrounded his feet. “So,” began Jared slowly, “if I have already, as you say, doomed myself to godhood, what use is your warning now?”
“Give up the Glove,” Sapphique said. “Be Sapphique no longer. Allow someone else to wear it, let them mend the world. You can remain as yourself, if you do not wish to sacrifice Jared.”
“I would die,” Jared reminded him. Had been dying when he decided.
“So?” Sapphique shrugged. “Some would consider that to be preferred. A true ending, over a living death. Jared Sapiens lived thirty years, learned, loved. Would you wipe that away? Give up the Glove.”
“No.” He surprised himself even with the speed of the answer. I must be worthy of my choice. “If as you say I am to be devoured, to be a sacrifice - then I chose that when I took it up. I will keep that promise.”
Sapphique smiled. “In that case,” he said, and leaned forward to press a kiss to Jared’s forehead, gentle like the drift of the feathers onto the floor, “go feed your people, Sapphique.”