The Boy and the DarknessSergei Lukjanenko
Part 1. The Winged.
Chapter 4. The Return of the Sun Kitten.
I reached my new home almost without getting lost along the way.
My Younger wasn't there yet, but the door immediately opened at my touch.
When I saw the table with the sandwiches slowly going hard, my honest intention to wait for Lan and to eat together with him disappeared somewhere. I must have eaten at least half the sandwiches, drank all the juice from the bottle, then sprawled comfortably in the armchair. I wondered whether they always ate rations here or whether they waited for their mothers who'd feed the young defenders with borscht and meatballs, wash their shirts, iron their suits, then disappear in an unknown direction?
I sniffed, unintentionally realising just how comical the situation was. Right, let's think about this fairy tale world where I found myself logically.
There is eternal night here. This is, of course, due to the evil dark forces, since they're dark, yes? In the role of the dark forces, you have the Flying - things of darkness...
But as soon as I remembered the flapping of wings in the night and the darkness that was darker than night, I lost the will to make fun of things. I involuntarily shivered and started thinking seriously.
There are towns in which people live. The people have Wings which allow them to fight with the Flying, and the Wings are only strong enough for teenagers. Therefore it is they who fight. Logical? Very.
And what do the adults do? I guess they would occupy themselves with the less romantic deeds. They build, they plough, they sow... What do they sow, there's no light here? Then again the grass and trees manage to grow somehow, maybe the wheat has managed to adapt. I turned yet another sandwich around in my hands; the bread looked quite ordinary.
Thinking onwards. For whom is all this profitable? Who is winning here? The Flying? The citizens don't seem to be particlarly scared of them in the town. On the other hand, outside the town limits, the Winged are dying, that much is clear. The war here, it appears, has reached an impasse. Perhaps it might somehow be possible to reach an agreement with the Flying and bring matters towards peace. And I would be quite capable of doing this because I arrived from a different world and I see everything from a fresh point of view.
I didn't have time to finish indulging myself in my righteous and optimistic guesses; the door slammed and Lan ran into the house.
- Is somebody running after you? - I stood up involuntarily.
- After me? No, I was just hurrying. - Lan walked up to me, sat down next to me and explained:
- I walked into your Club; I was told that you'd gone - I thought perhaps that you'd gotten lost... Danny, did everything go alright in the Club?
- Why do you ask?
- They gave me looks there... strange looks... - Lan shivered. - You didn't fight with anyone?
- I fought.
- With whom?
- I didn't have time to get acquainted, and afterwards he didn't want to talk.
- Great. It's just as I thought, you could stand up for us.
He realised that he'd said a little more than he was intending to.
- Lan, you won't betray me, will you? - I asked directly. - I fly... poorly, and I fight better on the ground. If we get into a fight...
He turned his gaze away.
- I was told that I'm making a big mistake taking you as my partner.
- And what did you say?
- That you are my partner.
Lan bit his lip, undid the top button of his shirt and fidgeted, not knowing where to put his hands, then pitifully begged:
- Give me a chance, Elder. I won't fail you.
This declaration served little to add to my optimism. And at the same time, I became ashamed of myself for putting Lan into a corner. Getting up, I touched his shoulder:
- Alright Younger, let's try this. I'm going to sleep. Is your partner's room the one to the left or to the right along the corridor?
- To the left.
- Great, I'm taking it. See you tomorrow!
Lan watched me walk up the stairs, but didn't say anything. I went into the bedroom that was now to be mine, and looked around uncomfortably. Only a couple of days ago, a totally different person lived here, then the Flying got him and that's it. The room is free for anybody that wants to live there.
The room was spacy and very simply furnished. The window, like the one downstairs, was covered in dark curtains; there was a white bed, with a very thick blanket, standing in the middle of the room. I decided straight away that I would move it tomorrow because I like to sleep next to the wall. There was also a wardrobe - I didn't look inside - and weapons cupboard on the wall. Unable to resist, I took down the short, perhaps half a metre long, sword and examined it.
It was probably a fine sword. I couldn't know. I hung the sword back up in its place, climbed under the blanket and - as was becoming a habit, clapped my hands. The light went out.
- Goodnight - I said to myself and shut my eyes. I really wanted to sleep; so much had happened over the day. I fell asleep quickly.
I was dreaming. A nightmare, where everything that had happened since we found the hidden door was mixed up. I was dreaming that I was walking in the darkness, completely alone, naked, and underfoot - an icy crust covering rock. Then I looked down and saw that under me was a huge ravine, the bottom of which was burning with black fire, and I was walking in the air without falling. Dreaming, I was not surprised. I carried on walking. But in the darkness there came a flapping of wings, and a silhouette of darkness appeared before me. I stopped, and the monster slowly approached me. And I recognised the face.
- Lan? - I whispered.
Lan nodded. And spread his arm-wings. As if to say, that's how it goes.
- You told me that you wouldn't betray me, - I said, and felt a sword in my hand. The same one that in reality hung on the wall in the bedroom, then Lan lowered his hand into the folds of darkness that covered him like clothes and dragged out a blade. The blade made a scraping noise as it was slowly pulled from the darkness. The blade kept growing and growing and the horrible scraping noise carried on. I woke up.
And heard the scraping of claws on the wood of the door. I was instantly struck by a cold sweat. Clapping my hands, I turned on the light, jumped off the bed and tore the sword off the wall. The chill of the steel in my hands helped connect together dream and reality. Standing next to the door, I lifted up the sword and pushed the door handle with my left hand.
The door obediently opened; the corridor was empty - only from the door of a different bedroom was there some light. I stood frozen, peering into emptiness. And when something touched my bare legs, I couldn't hold out and screamed.
The Sun Kitten was sitting next to my legs. But in what a state! I barely recognised him, he had changed so much. His fur had stopped glowing and became merely ginger, his eyes were sunken, he was as thin as the shabbiest alley cat. Bending down, I picked him up.
- Stupid boy... - whispered the Kitten - you've done well for yourself...
- What's wrong with you? - I barely spoke - What?
- There is no day here Danny - continued the Kitten, not listening to me. - There is no True Light here. I shan't be able to bring you back home...
- I know, I know, it doesn't matter... What's wrong with you?
- I'm dying - said the Kitten with an unexpected and somehow misplaced pride in his voice. - There's no True Light here, you understand - I'm dying of hunger.
I held him to my chest, sat down on the floor and cried. What could I do? Where could I find Light? Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Lan, who had jumped out into the corridor and was staring at us in surprise. I could hear the Kitten's heavy breathing, I could hear my tears falling on to the floor, I could hear Lan shuffling his feet on the cold floor...
How could I find Light to save my friend?
Suddenly the Kitten moved weakly. And said in a slightly stronger voice:
- Danny, I shan't die.
Lan squeaked and stepped back. But I paid him no heed. I held the Kitten closer to me and asked:
- Honestly? You're not lying?
- Honestly. I'm stupider than you. I forgot. Love, too, is True Light. For as long as you love me, I will not die. Truly.
I laughed through my tears and looked at Lan. He was staring at the Kitten in fright.
- Don't be scared, it's just a Sun Kitten. It's a friend - I said to him.
Lan nodded uncertainly.
- Kitten, this is Lan. He's now my Younger, partner and friend. - I said, stroking the Kitten. The Kitten gently freed himself and jumped on to the floor, and I noted with delight that his fur was starting to glow gently.
- I know; I am, after all, a magician. Hi Lan!
- Hello - whispered Lan.
- Are you full now? - I asked the Kitten. He bristled.
- Stupid! - He said in the same tones as before - you can't feed yourself on love alone. I won't die and that's enough.
He was, it seemed, ashamed of his recent weakness. I found myself at a loss for something to say and Lan broke the silence:
- I'll just be a moment, hold on...
I shared a bemused glance with the Kitten.
- What, has he got half a kilo of True Light hidden in a wardrobe? - enquired the Kitten. I shrugged. And Lan was already coming back, holding something close to his chest and, realising what he'd run to get, I almost laughed. Lan, meanwhile placed a deep bowl in front of the Kitten and carefully filled it from a clay pot.
- There, this is cream. It's good cream.
The Kitten measured Lan with a disgusted glance and then turned towards me.
- Is everyone here this... this motherly? Motherly boys!
- Kitten, - I whispered, - don't offend him. He doesn't know that you don't drink cream. Pretend that you're lapping.
The Kitten stared at Lan, who was practically shining from happiness, and approached the bowl with a sigh. Giving me a sidelong glance, he whispered:
- I just lap it?
I nodded encouragingly.
- It's not sour?
- It's fresh! - Lan intruded into the conversation.
The Kitten, with a martyr's look, started to lap at the bowl, slowly at first, then faster and faster. Only his tongue was visible, quickly flashing above the rapidly disappearing cream. Somehow it didn't seem that he was merely pretending out of diplomacy.
- Where's he from? - asked Lan delightedly. I realised that I would either have to make up a colossal set of lies or admit everything.
- Lan, I am going to tell you about everything now. Just don't interrupt until I have finished.
And I began to talk. I told him of my window that was rarely entered by sunlight. I told him of True Light that was reflected by a True Mirror... I told him everything.
- As for me, I've never seen the sun - said Lan. - Here in town there lives an old man that still remembers it. But he's really ancient, hardly anyone believes him. - He stretched his hand forward and stroked the Kitten, who, strangely, did not shy away from the caress. He settled on my lap and was washing himself just like an ordinary kitten.
- Danny, and if the Sun Kitten opens that hidden door, will you go home? - unexpectedly asked Lan.
- Of course!
- Can I come with you?
I was dumbfounded. It's only in books that you can bring home friends from a fairy tale and say, "Mother, we'll live together from now on..."; in reality, we'd get so many problems appearing...
- Danny, I'm your partner... - Lan sniffed, and added uncertainly:
- I fly well. I can fight.
Imagining Lan sitting in an army field, covered with sensors, with anti-aircraft guns all around to stop him flying away, I shuddered. How could I explain to him?
- I don't think you'd be able to fly in Danny's world - the Kitten came to my aid. - Your wings are from this world. And, moreover, I don't know how I'd be able to open the door now.
- But you're full now! Or should I pour some more?
The Kitten sniffed.
- One can't get magic from cream. Even though it tastes nice. For magic, we need True Light. If it were to dawn, even for a moment...
- Dawn will come... - sighed Lan. - It's in our greeting that we say so confidently: "I wait for Dawn - the Dawn will come." But in reality, nobody believes in that any more.
- Lan, tell me of your world. Really, there's very little that we know about it.
- Let me tell a bit first - said the Kitten grimly. - After all, I've just completed a round-the-world voyage. In two words - everywhere's dark. And if you want more details, I saw many towns with people living in them, and a great many towers... - the Kitten shivered, - full of some sort of things made of darkness. I saw you fighting between yourselves; I saw this dark lot taking your people prisoner, and I saw your people killing the dark ones. An unpleasant sight. Also I saw a big town by the sea from which caravans and ships left and disappeared into nowhere.
- Those are traders - Lan made a dismissive gesture. We're due a caravan soon too. We can't provide food for ourselves. Little grows here now. The traders don't fight, they're from a different world. They trade both with us and with the Flying.
- What do you sell them? - I asked curiously. - Gold?
- Who needs it? - Lan was surprised. - To make door handles? Bronze would be prettier. No, we trade ourselves.
- What? - I didn't understand.
- The adults throw lots or decide between themselves - explained Lan with a sigh. - And they're going to the service of those who buy from the traders.
- And what do they do?
- They fight. We are good soldiers Danny, we are not afraid of death.
- Too right, - ironically said the Kitten, and Lan fell silent. And the Kitten continued:
- Also I saw one very tall tower. I couldn't even fly over it, I had to fly around. And it was all made of darkness.
- That is the tower of Darkness - Lan spoke again. - Many cities have tried to destroy it, but got nowhere. The ruler of the Flying lives there.
- I guessed that for myself - muttered the Kitten. - How did you come to live such a life, boy?
- I don't know. People say different things: that the Flying attacked us and brought the Darkness with them, and that we are guilty for some reason... I don't know.
- We shall ask that old man who remembers the sun - decided the Kitten, - he ought to know the truth. - And these things made of darkness, are they yours or from another world?
- They are from without - said Lan confidently. - They appeared together with the Darkness. Had we not bought from the traders the secret of the Wings, we would be totally done for.
- And there are no Wings for adults?
- Right, that's all you lot clear, then - firmly declared the Kitten. - Have you got someone in charge, at least?
- Nope, no-one.
- That's impossible.
- It's possible. Us Winged have our own laws, and everyone watches to make sure they are obeyed. The women have their own. The adults too. And we don't mess with each other's business.
- They don't interfere with you - that much is clear, - reluctantly agreed the Kitten. - You, the Winged, are strong. And in addition you protect everybody from the Flying. But what if one of the older ones kidnaps a girl that he likes? What could a woman do?
- They will deny us Wings. Only the women know how to make them. And the Wings live for a month or two, no longer. And it depends on the adults whether the traders will bring us food and clothing.
- You live well, then. A friendly, loving life. - the Kitten sniffed, and started cleaning himself furiously. - Anarchy... the mother of order.
He kept on muttering something, remembering some sort of revolutionaries, but clearly to himself. As for me, I couldn't understand what was wrong with such a life. And Lan suddenly started at me, and asked:
- Danny, you live without Wings, then?
- You didn't have them before, either. - I snapped. - Instead we have aeroplanes and helicopters.
- Danny, so you can't fly, then?
- We have a sortie tomorrow! If they understand that you're not Elder... and you are not Elder... we shall be punished.
- Liars will be killed by the sword - I remembered his words. - Lan, this is not your fault. I lied to you.
- I lied to myself! I wanted you to be Elder too much. - Lan plopped down in my bed and started biting his nails.
- Get your finger out of your mouth! - Ordered the Kitten without even looking at him. - And, incidentally, since you've become partners, your mistakes don't matter. You, Lan, are Younger. Danny's Elder. Am I to remind you of the rules of behaviour for partners in life and death?
- I know, - grimly declared Lan, still chewing on his nails.
I understood that the Kitten was worried about me, and bits of the nightmare where Lan was standing in front of me with his sword wouldn't leave my head. But, as I looked at Lan - thin, so pale he was almost blue, ruffled, not knowing where to put his hands or where to look - I was pierced by pity.
It's strange - if such a boy were to find himself in our class, he would be terrorised by everybody. It was clear he couldn't brawl. And I would probably be right in there with the rest. But it's one thing to steal a piece of chewing gum, hand out a couple of punches or push somebody's head into the snow. It's totally different when one is talking of life and death. I couldn't get my head around it all. I didn't really believe, but I didn't want to joke about such things.
Lan saved me. He vouched for me. And what difference does it make what he was thinking at the time? Thoughts are one thing, deeds are something else entirely.
- Lan, I could leave, - I said. - You can explain to the Elders that you discovered me and I ran away. You'll not be punished. True?
Lan jumped off the bed and walked up to me. He squeezed my hand hard. He certainly had strong fingers, at least. I realised that he was about to thank me for the way out I was suggesting, and felt a pang.
- Elder, I won't betray you, - said Lan firmly. - I swear! I want to be your partner. We'll think of something.
I gripped his hand too, and we stood there silently looking into each other's eyes. Until the Kitten, in a purr, said:
- Children, you are not entirely hopeless. I'm glad. Of course, I'll have to be the one that thinks of something. But I guess that's alright.
- Listen, you half-witted magician! - I shouted. - We're going to tear your ears off in a minute, one each! Quit mocking!
- Apologies, - said the Kitten in a mock-scared tone. - It was very touching how you befriended each other. Perhaps you'll kiss each other next?
I threw a pillow at the Sun Kitten and missed. Lan's aim with another one was somewhat truer. The Kitten crawled out from under it with a hurt look, and started licking his paws. We all laughed, not because it was funny, but because all the tension had disappeared away somewhere.
- Alright, truce - said the Kitten, finishing his wash. - Lan, how long does it take to master the Wings?
- A year - readily informed Lan.
- I'll rephrase that. How long would it take you to teach your inept Elder to hold himself in the air without giving the impression of a migrating chicken?
- A morning, - said Lan, smiling. - It's not that difficult to fly. To fly and fight is a different matter entirely.
- That's great then, tomorrow you shall teach him. Then you'll go on your sortie and you'll spend your time carefully dodging the Flying. You're good at that, if we're being honest, aren't you?
Lan guiltily lowered his head and I patted him on the back.
- Ignore the Kitten. He's a pain like no other.
- You'd better go to sleep - the Kitten said, looking at me annoyedly. - You'll need both strength and a sharp wit tomorrow.
- And you?
- And I'll go downstairs, have a think, read some books - said the Kitten importantly. - There ought to be someone thinking for you, ought there not?
- Goodnight, Lan, - I said. And he went out of the room together with the Sun Kitten, and, picking up my pillows, I dived back into my bed. For some reason, I found myself in a great mood. And when, some ten minutes later, the Kitten crawled into the room, quietly lay on the spare pillow and slowly started licking his cream-covered paws, I slowly decided that from now on everything would go well.
- Goodnight - I whispered.
- It's to you a good night. And to Sun Kittens, one wishes a clear dawn.
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