When the box opened and light crept into the inner space like the sunrise, the girl inside didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know who she was or how she’d gotten there, and she wasn’t even sure there was someplace else to be. Her head seemed quite full enough, cluttered with snapping lights and twitching pains and an ache that made her feel something had been cut away. All of this was enough to make the idea of outside the box no more interesting than a shadow.
But a shadow was what moved in front of the grey glow, and words wiggled their way through the sparks and pain in her head. Man and then there is a world out there.
“Hello, Natalie,” said the man, his voice smooth and golden brown.
She might have thought more words, how interesting, but the words burst over her, popped by that voice, and raining down meaning that dripped off her without sinking in. All that was left was a residue of hatred and pain.
“No,” she said angrily.
The silhouette took her hand and tugged her out of the box. She emerged willingly, because she wanted to see more of this creature and his words that popped like bubbles.
“No?” he said. It was a question. His voice was thistle-prickly but not all words were as fragile as the one.
The girl hesitated. Then she said, “No ‘Natalie’.”
The man considered the girl. “The trip was hard, but progress always is. Surge tells me you had an epiphany on the trip.”
“Did I? I don’t remember. Are you sure that was progress?” Clearly, there were many things she’d have to relearn.
“Hmm,” said the man. “Do you know who I am?”
She did. “Hatherly. You’re dangerous.” She knew it, and trusted the knowledge, but the reasons why were gone.
“I wish you only the best,” he said, and she thought, He believes that.
“Why was I in the…” she looked back at crate. “The box?”
“It is rather like an egg, isn’t it? I’ve found you can better appreciate the light after some darkness. But you should rest now.”
He left her in the room with the box. A dim light radiated from the walls, and there was a sleeping bag in the corner. She looked at the box again, trying to decide if she felt safer there. But she couldn’t go back.
She laid down on the sleeping bag. Her hands and feet tingled and she stretched them as she fell back into dreaming. Faces without names passed before her mind’s eye. Some of them brought her pleasure, and some of them made her ache in strange ways. Some of them made her feel pity. Some of them she hated.
She prowled a sleeping city on furred feet, laughing at everything that passed before her. She pulled Awakened into herself, devouring them, and replaced them with chains nobody could see. It was a game, and it made her feel satisfied. It was important that nobody was alone. And in her dreams, she cried.
A name passed through her awareness as she drowsed. Aya.
She woke up, and Aya was there. The girl from the box felt better than she did before. Her hands and feet felt alive, and the sparks of pain in her mind had faded. She felt like everything she’d known before was still there, right where she wasn’t looking— and it would stay there as long as she didn’t look for it. It was comforting.
The other girl, Aya, stood over her and looked down at her. She looked feral and wild, with her hair tangled and her face dirty. It was wrong. Aya was colder, and cleaner than this. Perhaps she’d lost part of herself, too.
Aya spoke, her voice low. “I hate you. I promised you something and I haven’t kept that promise yet. You’ll be pleased to hear that, I’m sure. Laugh at me.”
The girl didn’t remember the promise, but she remembered that Aya was one of the faces she’d felt pity for. She sat up, and Aya backed away.
“Hatherly doesn’t trust me. He keeps me with him like a dog. He says I’m his guard. But now he’s shoved me in here with you. Do you think he’s tired of you? Shall I kill you? This tower spirit isn’t mad the same way as the other one.” Aya held out her hand and a sword materialized there. “Well? Say something! Stop looking at me like that.”
But the girl who didn’t like to be called Natalie didn’t know what to say.
Aya’s weapon vanished again. “I won’t kill you. If Hatherly wants that, I won’t give him the pleasure. I still want to find your precious Seth—”
The name made the girl hurt, her mind and body twanging in unison. She cried out. The name Natalie was only a burden in comparison.
Aya looked taken aback, and then a terrible smile curved her mouth. “I see! You understand now. Seth! He always smiles. Can’t you see his face?”
It hurt. There was only hurting, and emptiness, and then Natalie leapt on Aya, knocking her to the ground and covering the other girl’s mouth with her hand. Shut up, shut up, shut up.
Natalie held her down, palm over her mouth, then pressed her head against Aya’s. “It hurts,” she breathed. “You hurt. We don’t have to hurt each other.”
Aya stared at her in puzzlement, as if Natalie was speaking an alien language. But she wasn’t fighting, so Natalie released her, sat back, and offered her a hand.
Instead of accepting, Aya scrambled away, like she was drowning in Natalie’s presence. “You can’t give me back what I’ve lost.” She banged on the door of the room until it opened, and then she darted out and down the hall beyond.
Hatherly appeared to take her place. He was smiling broadly. “What serendipity, my child.”
Natalie looked keenly at Hatherly. She could see the darkness flooding through him, gilded with silver.
“I am so pleased. You’ve retained your most essential traits, the reason I chose you. But let’s see if you’re truly balanced, or simply as focused as Malachi. Let’s do an experiment. I would like to see if you can have another living epiphany, like the one you had in the box.
He closed the door behind him.