The Boy and the DarknessSergei Lukjanenko
For my wife, Sonya
Part 1. The Winged.
Chapter 1. The Sun Kitten.
Everything happened because I got ill.
It was already two in the afternoon, and I was lying in bed flicking through "Peter Pan" - I must have read it a hundred times over. I had long since pulled off the bandage my mother had tied around my neck in the morning, and thrown it into a corner. I simply can't understand - how can cotton wool soaked in vodka possibly help a cough? I don't argue with my mum, of course, but after she leaves I look after myself in my own way - namely, lie in bed with a book and wait for my germs to get tired of such a boring method of passing time. It usually helps - perhaps not at once, but after a day or three. A good thing, really, that the street outside looked quite miserable - the sun poking out for brief moments, only to make room for a patchy, nasty drizzle. Though, the sun never actually peeked into the room - our house is so unfortunately placed that it is in the shadows of the new nine-floor high-rises on every side. "The only use for such a flat is to grow mushrooms", - dad used to say, back when he still lived with us.
I put my book down on the floor next to the bed, and lay on my back. Perhaps, had I shut my eyes now, nothing would have happened. But there I was, lying staring at the ceiling and listening to the ticking of the clock in the hallway.
And a speck of sunlight jumped into the room through the glass. Small - the size of my hand - but surprisingly bright. As though the window was open, with bright summer sun outside. Someone was probably playing with a mirror on the balcony of the house across the street.
The rabbit floated across the ceiling, climbed down a wall, made a vase on the dressing-table glint, and stopped, shaking slightly, on my headrest.
- Don't go, - I said for some reason, knowing that in a moment the mirror would shift and the rabbit would leave my room forever. - Stay...
And that's when it all started.
The sun rabbit tore free of the bed and floated in the air. I didn't even realise at first that such things don't happen. It was only when the flat spot hanging in the air started puffing out to form a fuzzy orange ball that I understood - a miracle had happened.
Four paws stretched from orange glowing fur, followed by a tail and a head. Green cat eyes blinked and gazed at me steadily. And overall, in fact, the rabbit looked more like a kitten than anything else. Except he was hanging in the air, glowing, and seemed light as the fairy fluff that floats away if one blows gently.
- Hello, - purred the kitten. - Thank you for the invitation.
I closed my eyes for a second, but when I opened them again, the kitten hadn't disappeared. In fact, he'd flown closer.
- I don't believe in fairy tales, - I told myself. - I'm grown up now.
- Well, compared to the girl who was holding the True Mirror, you are quite grown up, - declared the kitten, unperturbed, and lowered himself onto the blanket. I glanced over - to see if there would be smoke - but everything seemed all right. I could feel warmth with my chest, but not strong. And the kitten tilted his head and added: - But one can't really call you adult, either. How old are you? Ten, maybe?
- Fourteen, - I replied, finding myself calming down at such a mundane question. - Who're you?
- A sun rabbit, - replied the kitten, examining himself curiously. - What an appearance.. do I look like one?
- Like what?
- Like a sun rabbit.
- More like a kitten.
- Hardly better, - stated the Kitten sadly and stretched out. And I didn't think of anything better than repeating:
- Who're you?
- But we have already arrived at a consensus! - said the Kitten with sudden hurt. - A sun rabbit, or more precisely - a kitten, because I look far more like one! What is there not to understand?
I found myself tongue-tied. Well, naturally, a small green animal that eats stones would simply be - a small green stone-eater. Simple. And a sun rabbit is a sun kitten, because he looks nothing like a rabbit.
- So you mean - any rabbit can come to life if one just calls it? - I asked cautiously. For some reason it seemed to me the Kitten would be hurt at the question again. But he just shook his head proudly:
- As if! Any! Only True Light, reflected in a True Mirror, can come to life.
- And what is.. - I began. But the Kitten didn't wait for me to finish the question. He jumped up and, strolling back and forth on the blanket, explained:
- True light is sunlight. But not just any sunlight - it's the kind where only one ray from a thousand thousand makes it through to the ground. You get it at dawn, or at dusk.. - the Kitten looked out of the window and wrinkled his nose in disgust. - Or, I guess, in weather like this. And a True mirror is.. - he fell silent. Then opened his mouth again and rubbed his head with his paw guiltily. - I don't know. I'm not even five minutes old yet, and I only met the mirror very briefly. A True mirror.. well, it's a mirror that reflects the nature of things. They are very rare. In such a mirror a person would be reflected the way he really is, and things - the way they ought to be. For this reason, True mirrors often get shattered, - he added unexpectedly. - There. That's all I know.
He jumped off the blanket and glided to the floor; ran to the window, lifted his head and said in a sad voice:
- Well, that's that - the sun's gone. I knew it.
The Kitten's yellow fur glowed with a soft, warm light. One couldn't exactly call it blinding, but it seemed to make edges stand out and things easier to see. I suddenly spotted a coin under the radiator that must have rolled there a long time ago, and the old tea-stain on the table-top glared out. And at that moment I understood that this was all really happening. I was lying in bed and talking to a Sun Kitten, made of True Light in a True Mirror.
- So you're magic? - I asked quietly, shy of my own words. The Kitten felt that in my voice:
- "I'm grown up, I don't believe in fairy tales", - he teased. - Yes! Magic. If you like, of course, I could make something up about photons and magnetic fields. Only please bear in mind I don't believe in them.
I felt a little hurt at his teasing.
- What can you do? - I asked. - Can you meow?
- Perhaps you'd like me to catch mice, too? - the Kitten jumped, bristling, and hung in the air. - I can so! Meow! Like that?
- Not very, - I said reluctantly. - But you're magic; you should be able to do miracles.
- I am a miracle in myself, - said the Kitten, and made a show of turning away.
I threw my blanket to one side and lowered my feet onto the floor. I wanted to stroke the Kitten, and perhaps even apologise to him, so that he wouldn't go into a complete sulk and run away. But suddenly I found myself coughing, a strong bout.
- You ill? - asked the Kitten without turning around.
- You should lie down.
The Kitten flew to me and suddenly jumped right next to my neck; I flinched from the suddenness.
- Lie down, I said - repeated the Kitten sternly. - And don't fret, I won't bite, I don't eat boys with colds.
I don't know how he held on to me. If the Kitten had claws, he wasn't showing them. Perhaps he was just hovering in the air in front of me? I lay down obediently, and he made himself comfortable on my neck, laying his head on my chin.
- What's that for? - I asked; gently, so the Kitten wouldn't fall off.
- I'm going to get you better. Feel warm?
- Then lie still. If it gets hot - say.
But I didn't feel heat - only warmth. I said so. And the Kitten lay on me for a minute, then jumped to the floor and declared:
- Well, that's it.
- You mean, I'm cured?
He nodded. A nodding kitten looked very amusing, but his fiery glowing fur was a cause to treat him seriously.
- But I don't feel anything! Just my throat's stopped itching..
- What should you feel? - grumbled the Kitten. - All you had was a cold. A great big lad, a slight cough - and it's straight to bed!
I wanted to reply that it was my mother that had put me to bed, but thought better of it. After all, it was long since my mother had gone to work.. I wonder how she would take to a talking, glowing kitten? Would she be scared?
- What else can you do? - I asked.
- I don't know, - he confessed. - I'm still little.
- Will you grow up, after?
- I doubt it, - the Kitten saddened rapidly. - True Light is a rare thing, and that's what I need to grow. Oh! You know what I can do? I can find lost things, like buttons and coins! I have True Light inside me, nothing can hide from it!
- Cool, - I said uncertainly. And, unable to restrain myself, stretched a hand out towards the Kitten and stroked him. He wasn't very hot, just a little warmer than an ordinary kitten. I had a cat once, but then my mum made me give it away. She suddenly discovered she was allergic to cats.
The Kitten pretended not to notice my touch. But he seemed to like it.
- Another thing I can do.. - began the Kitten, - I can.. I can find doors.
I laughed. Suddenly, I was really happy - either from the bragging but self-critical magical Kitten, or perhaps because my throat didn't hurt any more.
- I can find the door myself! And if my hair glowed, I could find it in the dark, too.
- Silly, - the Kitten gave me a withering glance. - I wasn't talking about ordinary doors. I can find Hidden doors.
At that moment, of course, I didn't understand what kind of doors the Kitten was talking about. But I felt a light shiver, as though a cool breeze had gone over my back.
- What are - Hidden doors? - I asked, whispering for some reason. And the Kitten answered in a whisper:
- Hidden doors link world to world. People don't normally see them, even though sometimes they build them.
From world to world? Well, well..
- Where are they? - I asked, even quieter.
- Everywhere, - declared the Kitten bravely. - You've probably got some in your room. Here, let's look.
And he ran alongside the wall.
As the Kitten approached it, something strange happened. At first I saw three layers of wallpaper through each other. And even though I remembered the second layer - we'd put on that wallpaper when we moved from our old flat - the third was obviously from the last owners. Under the wallpaper were newspapers; I didn't recognise any of the titles. Under them - brick.
And the kitten was running along the wall, and I saw an unpainted wooden door under the brick.
- Stop! - I cried, but the Kitten didn't stop. He just sniffed and muttered:
- No way - what fun could there be behind a door like that?
The Kitten found the next door in the corner. It was steel, grey, with a little wheel instead of a handle, like on a safe. The Kitten stopped there for a second, then gloomily suggested:
- There's probably all sorts of photons-protons and magnetic fields behind there.. Let's carry on looking.
- Let's, - I agreed. Excitement had taken me over. I was following the Sun Kitten's footsteps, and my feet were bathed in warmth. Such a nice feeling! Especially when you're barefoot, and, having just recovered, the last thing you want is to get sick again.
- There! - squeaked the Kitten happily. - Cool or what?
The door really was beautiful. Made of black wood, with carved patterns and a giant bronze handle that stood out slightly from the wallpaper. Amazing what one could see in True Light!
- Shall we look? - asked the Kitten.
I was really surprised.
- Is that allowed?
- Of course. That which you see in True Light is always open for you.
I shrugged, unconvinced. I looked at myself - boxers, a vest, and nothing else. I wasn't even wearing slippers. What if the door led into some palace, or maybe a ball? I could just imagine trying to make excuses: "Of all the places to have tea..!"
- You know, I think I'd better get dressed, - I said hesitantly. And the Kitten noticed my wariness.
- Silly! - he shouted. - You think it's easy to light up Hidden doors? I'm only little! I won't be able to keep this up for long!
And I couldn't restrain myself. Who could have, were they in my place?
- How do I open it?
- Look at the handle, - whispered the Kitten. It seemed he really was finding it hard. - Look until you see it really clearly. And then take hold and turn.
I stared at the handle. At first it was slightly foggy, as though under dark glass. And then I saw it very clearly. The bronze was rough, only smooth at the edges, as though polished by many hands. Could it really have been in use, once? I stretched out my hand and felt cold metal.
- Hurry, - said the Kitten pitifully. And I pulled the door towards me.
It was heavy, really heavy. Perhaps the hinges had seized up with time, or didn't want to be woken from their long sleep. But I pulled, and the door slowly came towards me. Through brick and old newspaper, and three layers of wallpaper. I'd stopped being surprised at things.
Cold wind blew over us. Trees rustled quietly. And also, it was dark. At least it turned out to not be a palace.
- Night, - said the kitten, disappointed. - You can't even see the stars; a pity - starlight is always True.
But a moment later he was cheerful again.
- Never mind. My True Light is always useful at night.
And he bravely jumped over my leg - and through the door.
- Be careful! - I shouted.
The glowing spot was already flickering a good dozen feet away.
- Tosh! What can happen to a Sun Kitten? Even at night? Come on, there's grass here!
I stepped over the ledge. And felt warm grass under my feet. It was definitely not autumn here. Summer, or spring..
- Kitten! - I called, and walked into the darkness, taking care not to trip. - Kitten!
The spot of light darted towards me.
- The door! Silly boy!
I turned around and saw the hole of light slowly closing in the darkness. I ran back, but my hands met stone. I nearly shattered my forehead on a cliff.
Things had suddenly taken a frightening turn.
- The silliest of silly boys, - jumped the Kitten underfoot, - what have you done?! The door shut itself!
- I can see it's shut! - I shouted. - So light it! We'll open it again!
The Kitten didn't reply straight away.
- I'll try..
He walked right up to the stone, and I saw the edges of the black wooden door fade into view through the grey shadow. I also saw that the cliff in which the door was embedded was enormous. Not just a ledge; it was part of a mountain. But the door, however much I stared, didn't become clear. And my hands hit only rock - not a bronze handle.
- I can't, - I said guiltily.
- I can see, - replied the Kitten quietly. - It's difficult to see Hidden doors through stone. It's not your old newspapers. Perhaps we could look for another.. Three doors should join each world, that's a law.
- So you can't? - I asked, with mounting horror. It would be stupid to try and search the planet for another door to Earth.
The Kitten stayed quiet.
- Speak! - I shouted. - Why are you silent?
- I can't, - whispered the Kitten, barely audibly. - I'm little, I warned you. And it took a lot of strength for me to open the door the first time.
- Sun Kitten, Sun Kitten, - I said, barely holding back tears, and sat in the grass at the foot of the cliff. A sharp stone was scraping my foot painfully, but I paid it no heed. The door in the stone was barely visible. - Perhaps we could smash into the rock?
- I don't know that that would help, - said the Kitten sadly and pressed close against my leg. All my anger suddenly disappeared. - It's your fault too, silly boy. You should have kept an eye on the door.
- If you'd warned me.. Why do you keep calling me silly boy?
- If you're sure about it, I can call you clever, - prodded the Kitten.
- I have a name!
- You never introduced yourself.
We were silent for a minute, then the Kitten asked quietly:
- What's your name?
- There are worse names, - said the Kitten philosophically. - All right, don't panic. We need to wait for dawn. I just need a little True Light, and I shall be able to light up this Hidden door.
- Indubitably, - swore the Kitten. - I daresay you couldn't manage the marathon on an empty stomach?
- I couldn't manage the marathon at all, - I admitted. - How do you know about the marathon?
- I saw a lot before I was reflected from the True mirror.
- What kind of mirror was it? Where did it come from?
- I don't know.. It was really old, a little girl had found it and started making rabbits.. What a silly word! Rabbits! And the girl doesn't even suspect what a wonderful thing she has in her home.
I sat next to the Sun Kitten and thought. I thought of all the houses that might have True Mirrors, capable of miracles. And all the people walking past, never guessing to put them under the morning light..
- Kitten, how do you recognise a True Mirror?
- You just need to look in it. And want to see yourself the way you really are. But people are scared of mirrors like that; they prefer to see a reflection, and not reality. And some can't even see any more - they can only look.
- What's the difference - to see, or to look?
- Silly, silly Danny, - said the Kitten sadly. - You really are still small..
That hurt, and I didn't ask again. And the Kitten shuffled about by my feet, then asked guiltily:
- You're not cold?
- Don't take it badly when I call you names. Really, it's all my fault. I'm a braggart..
- That's all right. We'll wait for dawn, then come back. Just a pity we didn't see anything.
- What's there to see? - said the Kitten sleepily. - A little valley between cliffs. A hundred meters by two hundred, no bigger. A stream, a couple of trees and a few boulders.
- How do you know?
- I can see.
- But it's dark!
- I have True Light inside me, - reminded the Kitten, yawning. - Danny, let's sleep..
- I don't want to.
- Then be quiet, and I'll sleep..
Have you ever sat in complete darkness, holding a sleeping kitten on your lap? Yes, in darkness, because when the Sun Kitten fell asleep his fur faded to no brighter than a child's nightlight. What would you do in a situation like this?
Exactly. I fell asleep, too.
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