Natalie drifted in and out of a restless sleep. For a while she was aware of only three things: it was dark, she was in a confined space, and she hurt. But eventually, the insistent demands of her body became so severe that she woke up enough to feel fear.
She remembered fighting weakly against Hatherly’s hold, and then falling through a cold void. On the other side, a confusion of light and noise before another pair of arms wrapped around her. Something pressed over her face and nose, stealing her breath and replacing it with darkness.
Now her head hurt, and she was so thirsty. Her injuries ached and throbbed as she moved, exploring the space she’d been shoved into. There wasn’t much to explore. It was bigger than a coffin, but much smaller than a prison cell.
The walls of the closet felt familiar, the same smooth artificial material as in her own tower. She felt for the door iris and prodded it hopefully. It didn’t open, but the wall spoke to her, scratchy, creaky alien words that tumbled over one another far too quickly for sense.
She leaned her head on the door and tried to remember lessons. The Prowlers all knew a basic Antecessor vocabulary, because sometimes dangerously confused towers would respond to the alien words. But her head felt like a forest of seaweed and knives. Navigating back to half-forgotten lessons was impossible. And what would she do if she opened the door?
A dry sob, halfway to a laugh, escaped. She’d find something to drink, that’s what.
The door moved and opened beneath her. She stumbled and fell to her knees outside. It was almost as dim as inside the closet. Aya looked down at her.
“Not dead yet. Good, I suppose.” Her nostrils flared. “But you stink. Come with me.” Aya waited until Natalie pushed herself to her feet, then turned on her heel and stalked down a long corridor. Natalie looked around at the walls, then followed her.
“Are you all right, Aya?” Her voice came out as a croak.
“I’m fine.” Aya’s voice was flat and calm.
“Are the others here? Hatherly?”
“Yes.” Aya opened another door and stepped into the room beyond. Natalie hesitated. “Where are we going?”
“You stink. You need a shower. You can use mine.”
Natalie’s body, thirsty and filthy, didn’t even allow her to think. As she moved past Aya, she smelled the herbal shampoo Aya had used on her hair, and the plastic scent of the duct tape she’d used to patch her destroyed clothing.
“What happened to you?” she asked, even as she eagerly scanned the room for the promised shower. There was a large enclosure in one corner of the room, much larger than her closet, big enough for ten people. She could smell the water.
“I saw the truth,” said Aya.
Natalie snapped her head around to look at Aya warily. “What truth?”
Aya narrowed her eyes and pulled her lips back from her teeth. “The truth you all willfully blind yourself to.” Her voice was no longer flat and calm. “That death is everywhere. Nothing you do matters, nothing you do will last when you are gone. The truth that you have probably made the world worse by entering and then leaving it again. And if you don’t make the world worse by leaving it, it is because everybody you care about has already left you, and what life you have left is as meaningful as mud on a road.” Suddenly she was smiling, perky and cheerful. “But I hope you enjoy my shower. It’s really the only pleasure I have anymore.”
She stepped out of the room, the door closing behind her. Natalie moved after her, touching the door to see if it would open for her. It didn’t. But there was a shower, and maybe getting clean would clear her head, too. It was hope, and an immediate goal.
The water sprayed directly from all four walls, which might have been pleasant in another situation. At least it tasted how she expected water to taste. But cleaning her injuries turned dull aches into sharp agony, and the warm water made her aware of how restless her unconsciousness was. It cleared the fog from her mind, but what the clearing fog revealed was terror. She tried to fight it with reason, with sense, with hope, but she kept seeing Aya and Malachi. Maybe their transformations had begun with a shower, too.
After she was as clean as she could make herself, she stood in the spray and closed her eyes. She wasn’t helpless. She could still summon her weapon.
She could, couldn’t she? Sudden uncertainty took her. But how could they take that away?
She held out her hand and breathed. The katana flowed into her hand, just as always. She swung it once, and thought, Not disarmed, then. Just injured.
Then the walls started shrieking at her, the creaky voice elevated to a howl. The floor and walls boiled, birthing small monsters that swarmed toward her as the lights vanished utterly. She swung wildly as something grabbed her arm, and something else hugged her legs, and a weight carried her to the ground.
Less than ten seconds later, she was pinioned to the ground, arms spread and utterly unable to move. The shower pattered on above her.
She let the sword vanish, but the monsters from the walls didn’t move, nor did the light return. It was hard to struggle in panic when she couldn’t move any part of her body except her head, but she did her best.
The door outside the shower enclosure opened, and a faint light entered the room. It crossed to the shower entrance and stood there. It was Hatherly, with a dim corona of glowing motes swirling around his head. He clicked his tongue, and the monsters released Natalie. “I see you tried out your weapon. That’s not a good idea here. This particular tower ghost has some distinct opinions on that kind of behavior. You’ve made it think you’re the enemy, but as you can see, I’ve convinced it not to shred enemies summarily.” He made a sound, and the lights came back on.
Suddenly she wished she’d waited until she was out of the shower and dressed again before summoning her weapon. Being naked and wet on the floor in front of Hatherly was the stuff of nightmares. She wanted to go back to the closet, away from that bland expression and those old eyes.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded instead as she rose to her feet. “What am I doing here?”
He held out a towel to her. She didn’t want it, didn’t want his decency. She hated him for putting her in this position, and hated herself for being so weak. But she took the towel anyhow.
When she’d wrapped it around herself, he said, “You’re here to get rid of the darkness. Aren’t you pleased? The true goal of every Nightlight and you, my dear, get to achieve it.”