Illumination 9.8: Monsters and Invisible Things

Natalie wandered through a world of faces she didn’t recognize, under a sky that seemed too far away and too full of light.

At first, it didn’t bother her. The faces spoke words she mostly didn’t understand, and fled from her sword, but there were monsters, too. And she was very happy to fight monsters.

They seemed more real than the people, and when she found them attacking the unfamiliar faces, she understood that very well. But sometimes the people fled from the monsters, and sometimes they didn’t seem to realize they were under attack. Sometimes the monsters bled red, and sometimes they bled clear. She didn’t understand that.

It was all like a dream, anyhow. She was pleased to be away from Hatherly, but it wasn’t enough. She looked into each face she encountered, and each face was not Hatherly, but nor was it… something else. Something had whispered inside her that now she could find them, but all she could think was that she was looking for the source of pain.

Or maybe the pain was that they weren’t there?

She neither rested nor ate. It didn’t seem important, not when there were so many monsters around.

Then she realized what hurt most was when she saw a face in a reflective window. It was a good face, a face people loved. It wasn’t the face of somebody who broke all the rules, who violated taboos, who gave up, although at some angles it seemed close. And seeing the face hurt like nothing before, because it was everything she’d lost.

The next time she fought a monster, she didn’t dodge when it clawed at her face. The pain was real, as hunger and weariness weren’t, but it was good, too. It made her believe in change.

But the next time she looked in a glass, it still wasn’t the right face.

Rain splashed in her eyes, stinging and running over her lips. She found a sheet in a basket of abandoned laundry and wrapped it around herself, covering her face so a chance reflection couldn’t touch her.

She started looking into the faces of the strangers now, as she stalked among them and they stumbled out of the way. They were as frightened of her as they were of the monsters, but she didn’t mind. She was starting to get angry. She couldn’t find what she was looking for, and sometimes she thought she ought to let all the other faces get as clawed as hers.

A moth fluttered near her, feathery wings immune to rain. She raised her hand to it, and it drifted away. It existed to torment her with the promise of what she could never have again, she thought resentfully, and turned and stalked away down a narrow alley. It was closer to the great portal, and deep within the region the monsters had infested. People still tried to live here, among the monsters, because where else could they go? She understood that, even if she only understood a few of their words.

Something growled, and something else sobbed and babbled. Near an intersection of alleys, the one narrow and the other barely more than a fissure, a young woman had fallen to her knees. She had a baby tied to her, and a basket spilled beside her, and she was urging a small child to his feet. But the child had hurt himself, and he was wailing, and the woman was speaking rapidly and the monster growled and inched ever closer.

Natalie’s sword came to her hand, but she hesitated, remembering the moth. She was alone and broken, and even if she killed the monster, the humans would see her as another monster. So why?

A shriek split the air, and feet pounded up: another child. This one was older, maybe eight, and she positioned herself between the monster and the young woman, holding a weathered plank with a rusty nail at the end. She yelled a string of angry words at the monster, and it switched its attention to her, crouching. She was very small compared to the monster., but her expression was fierce and defiant. Behind her, the woman screamed, “No, no!”

Tears sprang to Natalie’s eyes. In the little girl’s face, in the woman’s voice, she finally saw something she recognized.

She stepped forward, bringing her sword around with a hum. The monster sprang at the child, but Natalie pushed her feet against the ground and hit the monster with her own shoulder a heartbeat before its jaws snapped closed on the child. It was big, heavier than her, but she had momentum, and she’d found something to save. That made the battle different than a fight just to kill monsters. Her sword was sharper, her reflexes faster.

Angry, it swiped at her, trying to knock her down so it could tear her throat out at its leisure. But she didn’t go down, because the clawed paw never reached her. The furred foot went flying, which shocked the monster. But only for a moment. It only had a moment left to be shocked in.

When the monster had collapsed onto the ground— red blood, she noticed— Natalie turned slowly to look at the family she’d saved. They were still there, staring at her. The smaller child had gotten to his feet, clinging to the woman’s hand, and they all looked at her.

She looked back at them, her gaze roaming over their faces. They weren’t faces with names, she didn’t know them that way. But what stretched between them, as invisible as her sword when she didn’t hold it— that she knew.

With a roaring in her ears, dizziness and hunger rushed over her. She fell to her knees, and all at once, the family scrambled over to her. The woman spoke in a scolding tone, and the girl pushed her cowl away from her face. Natalie flinched away from this, but then the tiny boy held up a loaf of bread from the spilled basket, and she remembered the existence of food. She snatched at the bread, devouring it almost before she was aware she’d picked it up. Then she looked up at the family again.

They’d watched her silently. Then the woman said, “Thank you.” Natalie remembered that much, at least, of the language they spoke, and the words hurt. She remembered her rage at the unfamiliar faces, and wondered if the fierce love she’d recognized lurked beneath each one.

She touched the girl’s face. “Why?” she asked. Why are you here? Why did you come back? But she didn’t know the words. “Why?” she repeated.

The little girl smiled, and spoke. Natalie didn’t understand, but she seemed to realize that. She kissed the woman on the cheek, then the small boy, then the top of the baby’s head. Then she kissed Natalie on the cheek, too. “Home,” she said. “Family. Love.”

Natalie stared at her, then put her face against her knees and started to cry.

The moth whose wings were immune to rain fluttered near her, not to torment, but to hold her secrets.

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