The darkness is hers, and she is the darkness.
The castle crumbles obediently around her, having sought her will and found her unwilling. All she wants is to be free of it. Acceptance of anything else, she knows, would cost her all that she has left of herself. Acceptance would cost her the boy who came back to save her.
He is everything she isn't, bright and warm and solid and outside. He knew freedom and fought with blood and sinew to return to it. He strained toward the sun. He never learned how to be caged.
There is no outside for him now, no sun to strain toward. He is so frail in her arms. He has so little darkness.
Around them the horned shadows whirl like smoke in the wind, growing thicker and bolder as they approach the tombs. Her unwillingness deters but not does disperse them; unlike the others, they recoil and return to ask again. Like the sea, they close around her, threatening to overwhelm in waves. Their eyes burn like fallen stars.
He taught her to stand and fight when there is nowhere left to run. So she lays him gently on the floor, mindful of his bleeding head, and whispers, "I won't let them take you." His life is all but sliding out of his skin, but she knows that he understands. After all, he returned for her.
When she rises, turning her body like a shield, the shadows press in closer. She can see the blurred outlines of what casts them; her world has exploded into overlapping echoes, claustrophobic but endlessly layered. One of them reaches for the boy, trailing its own ghosts, and she plants her leg in its path. It leaps backward, thick tendrils fluttering like wings.
The others push anxiously to take its place. "You can't have him," she says, and her own voice so frightens her that she almost trips backward over his body. Her intonation is darker and deeper than even the memories of her mother.
She is not her mother. She is Yorda (Yorda, Yorda, Yorda, declare the echoes of her whirling arms), and when she finds her balance, it is her own voice that says, "Please let him go."
Instead they flow closer until she swings at them. They flit backward and cower only briefly before advancing again, eyes so wild and bright that she can feel them trying to burn her away. She doesn't know how her mother controlled them, and she wouldn't want to; she refuses to enslave. But she is one and they are so many, and her words mean nothing to them.
With the boy words never mattered; their hearts spoke fluently through their tones, their gestures, the union of their hands. When she reaches toward one of the shadows, it flickers away, limbless.
He is small and dying, and she doesn't know how to save him. She has no power of her own, only the darkness that has bound itself to her.
But if she truly is helpless, why did her mother lock her away and turn her to stone? She wouldn't cage something she controlled; she caged something that could destroy her, that knew where her heart was hidden.
Her mother told her that freedom was being lost and alone with the constant terror of purposelessness. She remembers the thrill of fear when her cage burst open (you cannot survive outside) but the boy was freedom, and with him she was unafraid. With him the lingering chains fell off her heart, one by one, as she discovered her strength, her courage, her hope. For every obstacle she could not pass without his help, she saw a way forward that he could not. While her body had atrophied in her cage, her eyes and mind grew sharper.
She is not what her mother wanted her to be.
When she straightens her back, she feels solid, perceptive, more herself than more-than-herself. The shadows' eyes glow plaintively, seeking a place to reflect. Behind their echoes she sees their worried mouths, their pointed horns. Amid the seventy-eight burning eyes, she spies an empty pair, shadows cast by a void.
She doesn't understand their desperation, nor why the echoes of their desires twist from fleeing to clinging and back again. When she meets their gazes, she knows that they don't understand, either. Something beyond even the outside world pulls them like the tide, but they are moored here.
The boy's body is still and ashen on the floor. She can feel his life teetering on a hairsbreadth.
"He isn't horned anymore." This much she understands. Her words are only sound to the shadows, so she kneels and rests her fingertips briefly against one of the boy's wounds. His blood clings. Seventy-eight eyes follow the ascent of her hand, the descent of color to her featureless palm. When her fingers paint over the shadow without a caster, rubbing out its horns, she feels knots slipping apart, pits filling in, echoes aligning and falling still.
"You can go now," she says, gently.
The desperate stars wink out, and she watches the shadows fade as their casters drift silently beyond.
She kneels again and cups her hands over the bleeding stubs of the boy's horns until his life is contained. He is still gray, still breathing shallowly, but no longer slipping away. When she touches his palm, his fingers close weakly around hers.
Around them the castle is crumbling ever faster to ever more pieces. She takes him up again in her arms and carries him down to the docks, weaving between falling stones. There is no darkness now that is not hers, and it grows deeper as she descends. There is no one here to see him as the only brightness and warmth remaining. There is no one else at all.
When she places him in an empty boat and pushes him into the current, she is utterly alone.
Her shadow pools on the surface of the water as he drifts away. The darkness claims her as born of it and returning to it; she cannot survive in the outside world. Perhaps she should not survive at all, knowing what she was created to be.
But she can hear his breath, faint yet steady, over the unmaking of the castle, and she knows that it is not enough to free him. It is not enough to shatter cages and abandon the captives. The darkness knows that she belongs here, but she must be more than her darkness. She belongs where she decides to belong.
She is not her mother.
The sun peels her away, layer by layer, and the light on the water glints like knives against her feet. Perhaps she cannot survive outside, but she is unafraid; if this is the price of freedom, she will pay it gladly, unraveling with a song on her lips. Darkness sloughs away in her wake.
The boat scarcely rocks as she perches, shadow-light, on its edge. His hand is limp under hers, but he will wake soon. This is enough.
Wisps of darkness boil off around her into the sky. She waits to watch herself vanish, but her gaze flits downward as his hand twitches. His eyelids struggle apart. For a moment she worries that he will be afraid of her now, but he squeezes her hand, crackling as it is with shadows, and smiles blearily at her.
She smiles back (he can't see it, but she knows he understands). Perhaps when he washes ashore he will remember this, her joy and her freedom in the moment before the light scrubs her away. Her hand is falling apart in his.
But she remains after unraveling. Her shadows have gone and left her behind, pale and trembling. She is more than darkness.
When she raises her hand to stare at it, she tips the boat and falls into the cold shock of the sea. She needs to breathe again but can't remember how with waves tumbling around her. Freedom hurts more than being turned to stone and terrifies her more than the iron grip of her mother's shadows, but she would trade it for neither.
The shore scoops her up, scraping her across the sand. Her dress and hair are plastered to her skin. Her first breaths come in convulsing coughs.
She lies on her side for longer than she can keep track, blinking salt from her eyes, inhaling the sea and the sky. The breeze smells like the opposite of stones. Birds flit through the corners of her vision, unbroken by bars or darkness.
Footsteps approach at a run. Their cadence is more familiar than the swinging of her cage, and her heart swells as it has a thousand times before. She turns her face, muscles trembling with something unlike exhaustion (half-drowned, but she has never felt so strong), and he is already beside her, eyes shining, hair caked with blood and sand.
She opens her lips, breathes again, and curls a finger toward herself. "Yorda."
He knows already (she remembers hearing her name, the only point of comprehension when her mother spoke to him), but he repeats the word eagerly before pointing at himself. "Ico."
"I...co." She hesitates between the syllables. "Ico," she says again, smiling, reaching upward for his hand.
They understand, and this is enough. They are neither more nor less now than themselves.