Illumination 7.8: The Box

Natalie refused to make it easy for them, because she had to fight back somehow. They were going to move her, and she had to be ready for any opportunity to escape. What she would do if she escaped into the labyrinth of the enemy Tower was beyond her. Run. Try to find the exit to the land beyond. It had worked for Surge when he’d invaded her home, after all.

But what was important was that she fought. She couldn’t make it easy for them.

She was careful with her food and drink, tasting it carefully and waiting. They wouldn’t drug her that way.

They didn’t.

She didn’t know how they’d slipped her the sedative. She only realized they had after the darkness started gently rotating around her head, black rainbows dazzling in the blind sky. And at first, she wasn’t even afraid. It took way too much energy to be afraid, and the spiral of ebony light was really interesting.

But then real light came, and Hatherly and Malachi and Surge, and a box. The sight of the box woke up her horror. It was a crate the size of a dishwasher, and she understood immediately what they intended on doing with her.

Malachi levered the top off the box, while Hatherly moved to Natalie with some cord in one hand. “Are you sleepy? Let’s tie you up anyhow.”

Natalie scrambled backward but as soon as she tried to stand up, she fell over. Her legs were tree trunks, and her arms were too long, and she wept. Surge stepped around the box and behind her, one clawed paw coming out to catch her. She turned and started climbing over his back, and Hatherly caught her foot and pulled her back again. Frantically, she tried to call her weapon, but nothing happened. She had the queerest sense she wasn’t herself; why would her weapon come to her? Then she lashed out wildly, her fist clipping Hatherly on the jaw.

He smiled, and pushed her to the ground, on her stomach. Surge’s paw settled on her back, holding her down as Hatherly tied her hands and feet. Then the men picked her up and dumped her into the box.

It was lined with several furniture pads, and not quite big enough for her to sit in. She remembered hiding under the dining room table with Seth when they were young, the tablecloth for the holiday dinner making a tent.

Then a hand reached in and pushed her head down, and they replaced the crate’s cover. The pleasant memory vanished.

She was in a box. It closed all around her. When something picked the box up, she fell against one side and started kicking the crate with her tied-together feet. Her kicks were weak, but it had to be making it harder for them.

She had to fight.

Hatherly laughed, and thumped the box back again. “Tick tock. Don’t wear yourself out too quickly.”

Natalie sobbed, and then panicked again, because her face was covered in snot and she couldn’t wipe it off. She struggled and twisted and fought her own body until she dragged her hands under her legs and she could scrub her face against her arm. Then she pressed her face against the single airhole in the side of the crate and dragged in a breath. The overwhelming panic receded, but the dreamlike wooziness rose in its place. It wasn’t better.

A moment later, she felt the void of portal transition. They were taking her through Earth to the new Tower. Hope flared. If she could do something— The Echthroi still used the same emergence points as the Guardians, as far as she knew. She had to come up with something to do, some way to leave a message near the emergence, so her friends would know she was still alive and sane.

She thumped into another wall as the box tilted, and Hatherly said, “Careful, Surge.”

Her weapon wouldn’t come to her. She couldn’t reach that place of focus. The dreams whispering in her head argued with her. But if she could, if she could hurt herself enough to bleed—

A few spots of blood on the pavement. It would mean nothing to a passing Nightlight, not even looking for her. Because they weren’t looking for her, were they? It was policy. Laurel had wanted them to look for Aya, and look what had happened there.

And here she was, utterly powerless and how far from a mirror could they be? In the dark, carried by a monster, in a box with the walls closing around her, and she couldn’t move more than a few inches in any direction and she was trapped.

She tried to scream, but what emerged was just a whimper.

From the depths of the dream came a memory. Malachi, standing beside the crate, looking at her. Calm, impassive. Empty. Void, the Cambions called him.

A breath of clarity blew through Natalie. Powerless. In all ways but one.

She could make a Cambion, too.

She tried to remember what Hatherly had said, and what Surge had told her about the process. But all she could remember was Malachi, after he killed the human attackers in the alley in Shanghai. How haunted and sad and anxious he’d seemed. How he hated and loved humanity at the same time.

Tears filled her eyes again, this time for Malachi the murderer. How could Hatherly consider him a failure?

Another memory emerged from the dream-depths. Soon after she’d been rescued by the Guardians, Jehane had asked them if an Awakened could ever be a friend, could ever do something productive. It had been a stupid child’s question at the time, but that was before Natalie saw soldiers with Awakened protectors, before she’d seen Surge’s inquiring intelligence. Now, she was desperate to make it true.

It was a horrible paradox: create a child of despair and madness to assure those who loved her she wasn’t beyond hope. Would it even be true? Could she even do it?

They won’t come, whispered a dream-Hatherly. You’ve dedicated your whole life to their ideals, carrying Seth along with you, pulling others into their service, but they won’t come. They have already given up. You are a monster, and Guardians kill monsters.

They loved me. They trusted me. I had more responsibility than anyone my age.

They loved the Nightlight. They loved the honor student. They loved the shield, the babysitter, the excuse, so good, so helpful, everybody’s darling. Such promise, squandered. But broken Natalie, who can’t exist without pacing like a caged animal, starving and lost and shattered, a snuffed star? Best to forget about her. You are already gone. You are already ours, one way or another. And they will never know otherwise.

They’ll never know I fought. They’ll never know I tried. They’ll bury a golden girl in a box while she’s still alive.

And they’ll secretly think that the mess left over is the weakness, and the weakness is the truth. That you were never good enough. That they were wrong to trust you. This all started when you brought Ajax home, after all.

They’ll never know. They’ll never care.

I am alone.

The thought filled Natalie, top to bottom. She felt herself split into two.

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