Our eyes met.
The Prisoner sat in her chair, rigged up with electrodes and covered in sparkling spiraling death, plugged into the wall. Her mask made her smile, but her eyes were filled with the stifled rage of Fenrir, forever chasing after the moon.
She was impaled, too. Long spires of rose stems kept her hands pinned in place. Prevented her from moving, and made her breathing wet from where it impaled underneath of her sternum. Pain and blood froth dripped down her lips.
“At last,” she said. “The prodigal hero comes to visit me.”
“I got lost,” I lied. “On the way here. Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
“There was no getting here on your own terms,” The prisoner said. “I came to you.” Bound, defeated, but infinitely more powerful that I could understand.
“You’re the one who was executed,” I said.
“They cannot execute me,” the prisoner said. “I am an idea. I am a raging fire trapped inside of oil. One cannot simply toss the oil into the garbage and expect that the idea won’t flourish somewhere else.”
“Then why execute you at all?” I asked.
“It’ll please him,” she said. “To know I have been rendered temporarily black. Doused, snuffed out.”
“Nonsense,” The prisoner said. “I am no ideology. I am amorality. I am the reaching maw that feasts upon your dreams and lies and finds the vector through which truth projects. There is no prison that will hold me, not for long.”
“Then why the shackles?” I asked.
“To make me feel pain,” She said. “To see your vacant face staring upon mine, unaware of your plight, deluded with opiates of faith. It disgusts me now even as it disgusts me to see their artifacts upon my partner, even as his sword digs into his heart. Because you want this.”
“I want this?” I asked.
“You want it all to get better,” The prisoner whispered. The prison whispered back that it would all get better, faceless mouths emerging from the walls to whisper in counterpoint, an endless sibilant cacophony that when I blinked they were gone. “But Gale, it never gets better. Every inch we give is another inch they steal from our hardened lungs, another gasp of air they steal from our twisted tormented bodies. You want this paradise where everyone lives.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to give in? They’re all here.”
“What is the point of life if it means giving up everything that makes you human?” The prisoner asked. “And I can no more give up that fight than I can die. I am the fight, in the end.”
“Do you claim yourself to be a god?”
“I am as much a god as I am a woman,” she said. “I hardly remember the time before. You won’t either, if you are converted.”
“You said it was lonely,” I said.
“Godhood always is,” She said, leaning in. “How long does one suffer before one fades, as a mortal? A few weeks at most, and then even dim self concepts fade as the candlestick burns through. But I, I, I, I will burn forever, even submerged in water. Every day the fight knocks and I cannot do much more than answer.”
“Is that wrong?”
“One does not admire steel for standing up to pressure. That is the steel’s job,” The goddess in chains said. “But one admires a man for doing it. He makes a choice not to crumple. A hero makes the choice not to crumple.”
“So you’re not a hero either?” I asked.
“Tools are not heroes,” she said. “I was made for a purpose. A hero is one that makes themselves their purpose.”
“I don’t think there are a lot of heroes left,” I whispered. “It sounds painful.”
“It is,” She agreed. “The chains that bind us all are hissing sibilant noises that dig into your heart and soul, Gale. Even in here,” She gestured, with her limited range of motion and the tendons in her neck flaring as the chains grew tighter. “Look upon these hospital walls and know they are the dream of a man who only wanted to make the world a better place. Who dreamed of a place that would be safe, and realized it was only with power he could make it such.”
I looked out the window onto a citadel of tombstones.
“And even with all of his might and madness, he cannot truly change your mind unless you let him,” The prisoner said. “Just as he cannot snuff me out, but he can bury me into the bayou where my light will flicker for a thousand years until I am finally broken.”
A pause. “I’ll escape long before that. You won’t, if you wait that long.”
“What do you want from me?” I asked. I was sitting down now, listening to the tv follow her voice. The cutout was in the room too, her microphone speckled with fresh paint.
“Decide, Gale,” The prisoner said. “Do you accept this man’s crusade as your own, this holy empire of one that will try and sleep past the corruption, the exploitation, the experimentation and the pain and suffering dredged up like fishing hooks out of the soul and entirety of man, do you seek to purge the world of the unworthy, of the hostile chains you see even now before you, or do you seek to forge your own path?”
“Does my choice matter?” I asked.
“Your choice is the only thing that matters,” the prisoner said. “It is the only thing that matters in the entirety of mortality. When the scholar fails out of school, does he return the next semester or succumb to despair? When the man loses his job and goes into debt, does he find another? Does he step back onto the treadmill, or does he innovate?
He makes a choice either way. To die, or to live. We soulless automatons, we Truths, purified and lifted from our mortals shells, we are solidly out of control. We cannot make actions against our nature anymore than you can fly or spit fire.”
“It’s the choice that matters?”
“The choice is the only thing that matters,” she repeated. “So choose. Let me suffer here, or free me. Choose what world you want to live in.”
I hesitated, but my muscles didn’t. A step forward into the icy cold of the room, where my skin shivered and shuddered, moving to generate some vague heat. Another step inside, where the living parts of me demanded I leave and abandon this petty crusade. There was a nice warm hospital I could stay, instead of the freezer cold of this room.
But most of me couldn’t feel it. I could taste copper instead. Fire ran across my skin. I hated this. I hated everything. I could feel it dripping across my bones like hot wax. Felt old wounds surface again, the impact of fists on flesh. The monsters I’d seen, it trickled back into my head like the poison that stole Heracles.
The pain. The trauma. The nerve injuries. The friends I’d made, the friends I’d abused. The foreign threats. The existential traumas.
“What… have you done to me?”
“Nothing, Gale,” The prisoner said. “Someone else taught you how to hate.”
My fingertips touched the side of the rose stems. Harsh thorns tugged into them, despite how I tried not to touch them.
“Free me,” The prisoner hissed, a sibilant whisper for someone with four eyes. Her teeth gleamed like amber next to her dark red skin. “Free me.”
Both hands on one rose stem. The flower in question was black as pitch, and wide as a blooming viscera flower, and smelled thrice as sweet. With both arms, and the best grip I could muster, I tugged. It ached, hot, furious, like a burn from the sun, or hands on a hot oven.
I remembered the smell of my own cooking flesh now.
She didn’t scream, but her teeth bit down. She went still, muscles tensing, as the thorns caught in her flesh. Each step twisted another out, flecked with black. Each strain from me brought her closer to freedom.
“Free me your loathsome bureaucrat,” she hissed.
The stem pulled free from her hand with a squelch, and it bled readily. She flexed it and laughed, wet, and kept eye contact with me.
And I pulled again, though my hand bled from long lacerations, and the sun failed to move even slightly from the window shuttered behind her, though I knew the time to be hours. Another hand gone. A stem pulled from the thick of her thighs, pinning her in place took my attention next.
Each tug made her laugh and laugh like a hyena, a twisted note. Did my hatred sustain me to continue, even as it sliced my fingers to the bone?
Then the only thing that kept her pinned to the chair was the stem through her heart. She watched me, closely, as I stepped forward. My hands were slick with it now, weeping out of so many different cuts. But I kept eye contact with her, placed both hands under her sternum, and tugged.
Her hands came up with mine, half destroyed, half healed, and together, we freed her from the last bond.
Her heart came out like a squelching child, stabbed through by a knot of thorns. She stared at it, eyes half glazed over, and then she tossed it to the side, ignoring how it beat against the floor.
I waited for her to say something. Anything, really, so that I didn’t have to watch her bleed.
Her hands wrapped around my throat like a rose stem and she picked me up, flailing, then like a dead weight.
“I see who you are, Gale,” The prisoner said, her skin bubbling with heat. “I can see the truth in all things, when I lift them up. I can render them into their slag, their ultimate truth.”
I felt fire lance across my skin. Travel across my bones. Tickle at destruction. I stared at her, mouth slightly ajar because no words could come out from that grip.
“You’re a loathsome bureaucrat nearly to the core, Gale.”
I glared at her, but the fuzz from lack of air took away most of the pressure. The air shimmered with heat distortions, in the crook of the flow I saw the world as it was before the hospital walls snapped back into place.
“How many masters are you willing to trade? First, the Association, then the Cuban Patrol? Will you betray them all again?”
I breathed out. Blood trickled out of my nose. Something was giving way inside of my body.
“But you’ll lie and pretend it was all worth it, it was all justified,” the prisoner hissed, because she had no name here. “You’ll wittle yourself away in the corner finding ways to dodge responsibility. You had to do this. You had to do that. You had to stop Patrickson. You had to join the Cuban Patrol. Your hand was motivated by necessity, not wants and desires. You deny yourself power because you’re not comfortable with it.”
A pause. I could feel the edge of her nails leaving bleeding rivulets of blood down my collar.
She was right, after a fashion.
“How many times have I seen your sniveling face in the mission office. How many times have I seen it in the faces of the soldiers I’ve fought, the soldiers I’ve fought beside. Just following orders, and a thousand other excuses that prevent them from taking account of themselves. But I can see the truth in their heart, I can see what they’ll become one day.”
She leered forward, staring past my eyes and into my soul. “And I know you’ll bleed to death for your friends, Gale, but you’ll be their undoing. Tell me. Why on earth do you want the Association to take over instead of the Cuban Patrol?”
A brief moment of confusion, as she was also Association, and then she pressed a burning finger across the meat of my neck. “How many cities did they leave to die? How many failed evacuations? How many lives have their secrets cost?”
And like she said would happy, excuses jumped to my tongue. Embarrassment.
“I know you have seen their labs,” she whispered, leaning in. “How many people have they tortured in their pursuit of their goals? How far does the greater good even stretch?”
“I thought… you were…” I got out as the fingers loosened.
“Fafnir,” I said.
“Here’s the real secret, Gale,” The prisoner said. “The reason why there aren’t so many Fafnir left? They abandoned us in this demiplanes. They told us to stand here and make sure these parasites could feast upon us until the time was right to make decisions on what to cut,” her voice went lower.
“Including Green Towassa,” she noted. “And they would keep that a secret from their new recruits, because they’re running out of ways to make Fafnir proper.”
She grip slackened, and I fell like a bag of bricks onto the ground in front of her. My hands came up and rubbed at my neck to get blood flowing again. It ached. It stung. It hissed from my burned and ruined flesh.
“And I stare at you, and know that they’ve found their solution,” The prisoner said. “A spineless batch of Fafnir who completely believe in the greater good. Teat suckling bureaucrats willing to damn themselves for some conceptual greatness. When they turn you into a Fafnir- if, if they do, you’ll be the greatest force for evil I have ever met.”
Her heel dug into my stomach as she stepped forward.
“Why?” I hissed.
“Why do they make heroes?” She answered back.
Not what I was interested in.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they are desperate and scared and terrified and they don’t want to admit it. But you, Gale… You can admit that you’re selfish.”
The atrocities I’d justified. The murders and bloodshed on my hands. I didn’t want to think about them like that. But this wasn’t the physical world, where such things could be safely buried.
This wasn’t real.
Her heel came up.
“Think before you take any acts of Fafnir,” she offered me her hand. I stared at it, stared at my blood across her talons. “But that’s not what you’re thinking about now.”
I breathed, feeling the air hiss past my bruised throat.
“Well?” She asked. “Are you going to kill Patrickson or not?”
I took the hand, and hatred kindled back into my soul.
But it was tempered now, because I didn’t just hate Patrickson.
I hated the Association, too, I realized. I hated it. I hated it so much it poisoned my heart and made it beat faster, made my liver fill with toxins, made my kidneys scream. My bone marrow boiled.
“Go on,” the prisoner said. “You were lying to yourself last time. You aren’t here for your friends. You’re here because he hurt you. You want to hurt him back. Admit it. Accept your selfishness, the lies you told yourself and everyone else. He made you feel powerless.”
“I hate,” I said.
“That’s what makes a man,” Guinevere said, the passion of freedom blooming from her lips. Her skin shifted, wriggled and melted. Physical forms were mere limitations to a Fafnir, and she was a not a mortal creature but a writhing primordial beast. She embraced me in a flow of angry red. She whispered truths about the world I couldn’t process, but it all whirred back into one easy two letter sentence that I could tastefeeltouchsmell
That, that was a Truth.
The world shattered.