Illumination 9.2: Sweet Blind Thing

Natalie had a room with a bed and many shelves. On the shelves were toys: clay and blocks and paper and paint. Outside of her room was another room, much larger and nearly empty. Sometimes she went out there when the walls of her room closed around her, squeezing her small and breathless, but she didn’t go beyond. Where else would she go? She was waiting for something here, and she was very patient now.

Hatherly visited her often, several times a day. He brought her meals, and inspected how she’d been occupying herself and spoke with her. Twice now he’d evoked new Cambions from her. They were small things, and Hatherly had tried to disguise his disappointment in them, but she didn’t know why. They were small things, but they were what she needed now. One of them had escaped him, as had the cat who padded through a cold landscape. The other he caught and held. “All things have a purpose,” he told her. “We just have to find out what it is.”

“If,” she told him, as she lay on the floor, weak from the evocation. But he didn’t understand. That pleased her. She didn’t want him to understand. She followed where he led, because she was very patient, and she wanted to understand more than he did. And he didn’t try to make her remember why she hurt.

“Let it go,” she suggested. “I don’t like it here.”

Instead he tucked the tiny cambion away, into a box, and she shuddered and crawled back to her bed. “Why are you doing this?”

“I think if I told you, it would hurt you, as other things do.” He sounded regretful. “So I won’t. But you may trust me that together, we will work to reduce the pain all things experience.”

“How?” she demanded.

“We target the source,” he said calmly.

Later, he told her about the nature of the darkness and the light, and how the darkness was responsible for suffering. She curled up in bed that evening and thought about it. The cambions, she thought, were both darkness and light. They seemed to be very much like people, except that they took their light from the people who formed them. The idea made her sad. While Hatherly was vague, she knew that he intended to give her great power. He trusted that her light would make her strong, make the power mean what he wanted it to mean.

But although he inspected her artwork and her models carefully, he didn’t know what was happening inside her head. She was very careful not to let him know, no matter how he tried to dig inside her. She couldn’t let him know that she wasn’t going to use the power the way he wanted. She was going to use it to destroy him, instead.

He was dangerous. She’d known that from the beginning, and after he’d forced the little cambions from her—

She drifted off to sleep, wondering how exactly he’d die.

She woke up in the dimness of night. A dark figure, bigger than Hatherly, stood beside her bed. It was the one called Malachi. She knew them all from encounters in the outer room, as she took her exercise, but only Hatherly came to her room, and Malachi had never even spoken to her before. It was mysterious.

She sat up, and he crouched down. “Has he explained why you are a prisoner?” His voice was soft.

“Am I a captive?” she wondered. “I haven’t seen any locks.”

His mouth turned down. “There are people who care for you still.”

She twitched. He didn’t say any of the forbidden words, but they lay under the surface, the things she could not hear without screaming. “It doesn’t matter.”

Malachi’s brow drew together. “His plan will most likely kill as many people as it touches, you know. Possibly the entire human population.”

She drew back. “That’s ridiculous.”

“No. He found the plan in another Tower. I think it explains what happened to the Antecessors: they tried to win an ultimate victory over the enemy of sentience, and wiped themselves out in the process. Maybe all that’s left of them is the Awakened Darkness.”

Malachi’s words sent unpleasant tingles through Natalie, brushing as they did against a whole host of things she could not let herself think about. But she understood enough.

“He said it would do something else.”

“Reduce pain? Yes. Destruction isn’t his goal. He’d like to create a god to fill the void.”

Another voice said, “Not his goal, but it’s yours, isn’t it, kid?” It was Tainter, a black shadow in the open doorframe. He moved forward. “Tsk, tsk. Ruining his plan just because you can’t bear a world without your girl. Nihilism is quite the bandaid, isn’t it? But it’ll never take away your own role in what happened to her. To Emily.”

Fascinated, Natalie watched as Malachi’s face changed. Hatred crossed it, then ice, then stillness, and she understood that like herself, like Aya, he had things that he couldn’t think about either.

“Sorry, miss,” continued Tainter. “Can’t let this one without a leash these days, oh no. He really would like to destroy the whole world. It’s kind of an open secret. He did a naughty thing once, and he just can’t bear it.”

“Shut up, Tainter,” said Malachi, his voice absolutely flat.

“Try and make me. But not here. This sweet, blind thing might be damaged by our coarseness. And then Daddy would angry, and it wouldn’t be at me. I’m his golden boy these days. But I’d love a chance to help you cope with your little troubles, boy. We could extract them and look at them together. I’ve got just the place to do it.”

Malachi flowed to his feet, then stalked past Tainter and out the door. Tainter smiled at her and she narrowed her eyes. She didn’t like Tainter. He was on the list. But the difference between Tainter and Hatherly was that Tainter seemed to know it, and enjoy it.

As he stood in front of the exit, he said, “It’s true, you know. I think your little friends know, from the way they’ve been acting. Oh wait. They’re all gone, aren’t they? They’ve all gone away and left you, your—”

A red mist descended over her eyes, and she lunged, and he laughed and slammed the door behind him as he escaped.

That was when she discovered the locks.

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