Illumination 9.5: Prayers to Broken Stone

Natalie was surprised when Malachi opened the door to her room. “I didn’t think you’d be allowed to visit me again.”

He looked at her, flat and expressionless, until his eyebrows drew together. “Why wouldn’t I?”

It was such an unexpected response that Natalie wondered if there were two Malachis. But if they were, they shared a body, because this Malachi had the same faint scar on his cheek. And she knew better than to bring up topics that somebody didn’t want to talk about. So she only shrugged.

He came to her side. “It’s time. Hatherly asked me to bring you to the Portal Hall.” He put a hand under her elbow. Then, his mouth barely moving, he said, “It had to be me. He can’t trust Aya with you, or you with Tainter.” She looked at him quizzically, and he shook her elbow. “Are you ready?” he asked, in a louder voice.

Natalie glanced around the room, then down at herself. She didn’t quite know if she was ready for whatever Malachi was asking about, but she was ready for the waiting to end. “Yes.”

They moved forward. In a low voice, he said, “Surge and Hatherly are working on a portal. Tainter is planning something. He isn’t ready to stop playing yet, and he certainly isn’t ready to hand power over to you.”

“He shouldn’t be,” said Natalie, in satisfaction.

“Hatherly’s very… smug. Pleased.”

“Are you going to try something as well? You’re not as… off as the others.”

“I’m trying something right now, aren’t I?” He gave her a sidelong glance. “But you believe in his goal.”

She shifted uncomfortably, suddenly wondering where Malachi was taking her. His grip on her elbow tightened. “The spirit of his plan, maybe.”

“Of course. Who can argue with an ideal world? Certainly not the dead. But you haven’t tried to escape, even with the door unlocked.”

She whispered, “Where would I go? Out into the wilderness? There’s no place behind me to return to.”

“No place you want to return to,” he countered. It hurt, and she yanked herself out of his grasp and turned toward him, hand raised to strike. He neither flinched nor tried to stop her. Instead, she controlled herself, stepping away from him.

“I was born in a box,” she told him. “All alone. Maybe you’re thinking of someone else.”

“Maybe you could find that person?” he suggested, watching her.

She looked away. “I don’t think she exists anymore. Maybe she never did. Maybe other people just thought she did.”

“That’s what Hatherly wants you to think.”

She turned and went through the door, her chin up like a queen. She was wrong; he was as mad as the rest of them.

He strode past her at an intersection, taking the lead. This displeased her, but she realized that without his lead she would have returned to her room, returned to her waiting.

The portal room of the Tower wasn’t what she expected, although why she should expect anything, she didn’t know. It was circular and full of motes of light, so many motes that they made constellations and galaxies against the dark walls. The constellations made monstrous shapes, and embedded in the dark walls were the bodies of real monsters, like trophies encased in plastic.

A nebula swirled in the center of the chamber, cloaking Surge. Hatherly stood near him, talking quietly. Aya leaned against a wall, looking better groomed than she had last time, and Tainter stood near her. When he saw Natalie, he smirked and moved so that Aya was between himself and Natalie.

Hatherly glanced up, saw Natalie, and smiled. It was a proud, parental smile, and it hurt Natalie just as much as Malachi’s earlier implications had. The smile told her that she was hope, she was the future, she was the responsible one.

But she wasn’t. She was patience, and she was vengeance, and the only promise she contained was the promise of a world without those she hated. If she could achieve that and nothing else, it would make the world a better place.

“Well done,” said Hatherly to Malachi, as if praising a small child for a mediocre effort. He came to Natalie and took her hand. “My former brothers at the old Tower have been trying to thwart our plans by shooting themselves in the foot. But all that teaches us is that we must not rely on them to carry us.

“What are we doing, then?” asked Natalie. His hand was cool and she kept her own limp. It wasn’t time, yet.

“Opening our own gate. We could, of course build a network, but I think we’ll only need one. One gate to decide for everything. And then some setup time, and then… and then we shall see what sort of flower you will become, my little seed.”

Surge growled, then said, “We’ve found a target to anchor the gate.”

Hatherly’s smile flickered, and a memory bubbled up in the walled garden of Natalie’s mind: Hatherly, ragged and shattered, after another gate had been opened. Without context, it was a pleasant memory, and she miled.

Hatherly’s own smile returned as if in response, and he said, “Open the gate.”

Something flickered in the nebula surrounding Surge. Then the walls of the chamber shuddered. A light, eager voice said, “A portal! Ah! Time to move? I don’t know how to—” The cloak of stars compressed on Surge until he was glowing.

Then the whole world shook, and the walls seemed to drift soundlessly apart. Black emptiness opened up around them, devouring the room, the stars, and the Cambion in the heart of the Tower. Hatherly’s mouth moved but no sound emerged, and this was because the whole world was sound, a horrible ripping roar that swallowed everything and drove it into the black.

Malachi shoved her before leaping toward Hatherly.

Then the blackness swallowed Natalie, too, and she could see nothing, even though her eyes were open. The sound faded into silence, or maybe she’d gone deaf. The blackness became a grey mist, and Natalie was certain she was no longer in an enclosed space. The air moved around her, whispering of skies too high to touch.

She wondered if she was dead. Perhaps this was where she was before she was born. Or perhaps Hatherly’s event had taken place, leaving another hole in her memory and this hole for the world.

She put out her hand and summoned a sword. It was the action of a habit, not consciousness. But the sword glowed as it came to her hand, and her feet came into contact with the ground.

With pavement.

She was on a street. People pushed past her, ignoring the sword in her hand. Somebody was screaming, high and thin, and many people were shouting. They were fleeing, all of them, running away past her.

Slowly she turned around. Behind her was the wreckage of a large concrete building. It looked like it had exploded, but the dust cloud was — strange. Then she realized that within the cloud was a bounded grey vortex, six stories high and almost as wide. The greyness of the vortex formed into the faces of the monsters she’d seen in the walls of the Tower.

Then the monsters themselves stepped into the world, onto the broken stones and girders and bodies.

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