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The Boy and the Darkness

Sergei Lukjanenko

Part 1. The Winged.

Chapter 2. We wait for dawn.

I woke up from the cold. The Kitten slept, and from him came a steady warmth - but only enough for my stomach and a little for my legs. A cool breeze was wandering across my shoulders.

I shivered; immediately, the Kitten lifted his head and glowed back to full brightness.

- You frozen?

- You have to ask? - my teeth were chattering, and I was beginning to feel really hungry. - At this rate, I'll get a cold again..

- I'll cure you - promised the Kitten, without much enthusiasm. - All right, there's not long left now. It's always just before dawn that it gets really dark and cold.

- So it's about to dawn. - I carefully lowered the Kitten to the ground and jumped up and down to try and get warm. It didn't help.

- Maybe we didn't sleep long enough? - I suggested, sitting down on the grass again.

- Seven and a half hours, how much more can one sleep? - said the Sun Kitten. - Sun Kittens have a perfect sense of time.

I suddenly started getting some very nasty suspicions. But I didn't hasten to mention them; instead I asked:

- There's really no way you can open the door before dawn?

- None.

- What if.. well, I mean.. maybe the nights here are really long?

- How do you mean, long?

- A few months, like near the poles!

The Kitten was silent a moment, then walked up and down along the grass and said sadly:

- I was hoping you wouldn't think of that.

Hugging myself around my shoulders, I stared at the distraught Kitten. Then I asked:

- So what, are we just going to have to stay here in these mountains? There's not even anything here to eat!

- Not for me either - snapped the Kitten. - At least there's water, you can have a drink.

- They'll be looking for me at home by now, - I suddenly realised. - They won't know what to think - I disappeared from my bed without even putting on my slippers!

- Let's wait a while, - suggested the Kitten. And we waited - silently, because we had nothing to say; except the Kitten, with his time sense, counted every fifteen minutes that passed. When, with a sigh, he said "one hour", I exploded:

- So where is the dawn?

- None yet - admitted the Kitten. - And I can't feel it. The Sun is still far away. Let's wait some m..

- Enough - I interrupted. - We need to do something.

- There is one possibility, - said the luckless magician with a sigh. - I can, of course, fly. I could fly up now, and fly along until I hit a dawn or a sunset.

He made dawn and sunset sound like thick stone walls. I smiled involuntarily.

- And then?

- Once I've gotten a bit stronger, I'll come back. Sun Kittens have a wonderful sense of direction, I will find you without a problem. We open the door, and there we are.

- Why didn't you suggest that earlier? - I enquired bitterly.

- You see, I'm not a sunbeam any more, - admitted the Kitten. - I will fly very fast, but it might take a few days.

It was then I got really scared.

- Do you understand what you are saying? - I whispered. - What will they do with me at home?

- We have no other choices. We wait - or I fly.

I turned my gaze away from the Kitten. And suddenly I understood why this suggestion had got me so angry. I was scared.

I was probably starting to be afraid of the darkness. And without the Sun Kitten, the darkness would be complete. And.. what if he didn't come back?

- Go - I squeezed out the words. - Fly. Only hurry up, or I'll change my mind.

He understood.

- Danny, hang in there. I'll fly very fast. If you want to drink - the brook is right in front of you, thirty metres or so. Wait.

And before I had a chance to say I'd changed my mind, that there was no way I could wait for him alone and in total darkness, the Sun Kitten jumped and spiralled up into the air. The orange bundle of light rapidly rose, turning into a tiny dot in a black sky. And disappeared. He really was fast: I lost him from view in a few seconds. But would he have the strength to carry on at that speed?

For ten minutes or so I cried, burying my face in the thick, soft grass. Strangely, it warmed me up a little. Rising, I wandered in search of the brook the Kitten told me about.

It is a very strange feeling - to wander in darkness. You lose the senses of distance and of time. It was only the stones I stepped on every little while that proved I wasn't just treading on the same spot.

I held my hands in front of me, afraid of tripping any moment, but I soon heard bubbling water, and a moment later the grass under my feet changed to damp sand.

Bending, I greedily drank the cold, clean water. Then, retreating a few steps - so I could still hear the brook - I lay down in the grass; tall grass - its blades closed up again above me.

There was absolutely nothing to do. I'd never thought total boredom could wear one out so much. I lay there, listening to the splashing water and the howl of wind somewhere far above. I probably lay like that for a very long time. And then I fell asleep again.

I was awoken by footsteps. I opened my mouth to call out to the returning Kitten, but realised in time that these were another kind of footsteps: heavy, human.

My fear came right back.

The footsteps approached from both sides at once. The walkers met a few metres from me. I heard a low voice:

- There is no-one there.

- There is no-one here, either.

I understood the speakers, although for some reason in felt like they were talking in a foreign language. And the heavy, slow voices gave me shivers. I froze, too scared to move.

- There is no-one here. But the lookout saw a light.

- The lookout saw True Light.

- That is impossible.

- But the lookout saw it.

- There is no light here. There is no-one here.

- The one who made the light has flown away.

- Or has gone up over the cliffs. The cliffs are low here.

- We shall be accused of tardiness.

- That is bad. We shall have to say that the Winged that ran away yesterday was here.

- They will ask us where his heart is.

- We shall say that he defended himself. We shall say that we covered the valley with Black Fire.

- That is wasteful. That is bad.

- But it is better than tardiness.

- True. Do you have any Black Fire?

- In my tower.

- I have no Black Fire. We shall fly to your tower, take the fire and burn the valley.

- Very well. Let us fly.

And I saw a shadow unfold in the darkness. Deeper than darkness, blacker than the night. Two pairs of giant wings. A wind hit my face, filled with an acrid, alien smell, and darkness flew into the sky.

For a while I just stayed there, trying to convince myself I'd had a nightmare. But the acid smell hung in the air, and in the place where the speakers had stood I felt the grass had been pulled out with its turf.

I had no desire whatsoever to wait for people that rooted grass as they walked to come back. I had even less desire to wait for Black Fire, whatever that was.

I stood up, feeling the world squeeze in around me, turning into a cage of darkness and fear. Oh, kitten, kitten, could you really not guess what sort of places Hidden doors might lead to?

- I'm not afraid - I said loudly. The darkness made no reply. - I'm grown up now. I shall leave over the cliffs, the cliffs are low here.

The darkness was silent.

Stretching my hands out in front of me, I walked along the brook, and the darkness walked with me. When I came to the cliffside, I realised the water was coming down it into the valley. Almost silently - that meant the cliff wasn't vertical. This was good. A sixth sense told me to climb close to the water, so its noise would hide my movements.

Feeling along the stone, I found a small ledge, stood on it. Then the next. Caught a bush of some sort - at least it wasn't prickly - and moved another metre. It wasn't really that difficult, especially since I couldn't feel any height.

- I won't fall - I whispered into the darkness. - You hear me? I won't fall. Such things don't happen - to come to a magical world only to fall off a cliff..

The rock under my foot moved. I held my breath, and had to keep going in silence. Some ten minutes later, touching my hand to my lips, I tasted blood. My hands had worn on the rock. The same was probably true of my feet, but I wasn't about to check. Since it was impossible to hang from the cliff edge motionless, like a cockroach on a wall, - I moved on upwards.

Another five minutes - I was beginning to feel at my limit, about to fall - I found a ledge. Pressing in against the cliff, I sat, my feet hanging down into darkness. Had I climed a long way? Five metres? Ten? Probably not far enough for the incomprehensible weapon of the flying beasts.

Taking off my useless vest, I bound my hands and feet in turn, waiting awhile each time for the blood to stop. The climb had made me hot - I couldn't feel the cold any more. Leaving my torn and dirty shirt on the ledge, I carried on the first climb in my life. The gurgle of the water to my left was my guide. At one point I came upon a wet part of the cliff, with the splashes hitting my head. I had to move carefully and slowly to the right, feeling the rock become treacherously slippery. Sometimes I rested, if I came along a large enough ledge, then started to climb again. And the darkness climbed after me, hiding the height in itself, dissolving time. Perhaps I had been climbing for half an hour, or maybe a few hours - I don't know. The only thing I knew was - I'd never been this tired before.

And then wings flapped overhead, and looking up I saw a darkness moving through darkness. Two shadows hovered almost level with me, and, pressing into the cliff, I heard a whistling whisper:

- Pour..

I saw nothing - just a crackling noise from below, as though dry twigs had suddenly appeared from nowhere and were snapping all along the valley. Then the water in the brook hissed. And I was hit by a wave of hot, baking air.

Pressing against the instantly warm stone, I choked in the heat. The wind from below tugged at my hair, and I felt the blood caking on my scratched legs.

Everything stopped as quickly as it had started. The flying shadows disappeared, the heat left. I hung off the cliff, my skin belatedly covered in beads of sweat.

The black fire had gone out. But in the moments while the valley under me burnt, I realised I must have climed a long way. At least fifty metres. And I was certain I couldn't make it back down. Which meant - I had to go on up.

- I'm not afraid - I repeated, like a mantra.

Darkness and silence climbed the cliff with me. It got colder, my fingers grew numb, I could hardly feel my legs. Coming to yet another ledge, I lay for a long time and gathered the remains of my strength, then felt underneath me for the cliff edge. But my hands touched only soft, live grass.

I'd managed it. I'd made it out of the stone trap, and found myself, it seemed, on some sort of plateau, where a steady cold wind blew, and the grass was wet with dewdrops. Perhaps there were more mountains further on, but I felt an enormous open area around me. Here I could wait for the Sun Kitten, had I any kind of food and clothes.

Perhaps were it an hour or two ago, I would have cried again. From the cold and the loneliness, and the total lack of hope. But my escape from the creatures made of darkness and my climb up the cliff had changed something inside me. It was at home, having been in a fight or had another telling off from my mum, that I could cry. Here was too scary for tears.

And I was too proud to just lie in the grass and freeze quietly, waiting for my bumbling magician.

Standing up, I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted:

- He-e-ey!

I probably just wanted to hear an echo. To convince myself that there could be some sound in the darkness other than the beating of my own heart.

But even before the distant echo came back with my faint cry, the grass rustled a few steps away. And someone invisible said in the darkness:

- If you move, I shall kill you.

The only reason I didn't freak was because the voice was nothing like the whistling hiss of the winged creatures. It was just a human voice.

- I amn't moving, - I replied quietly.

- What are you doing here? - I heard. Closer, it seemed, than the first time. The invisible speaker was creeping towards me.

What am I doing here? What a question. I'm waiting for the Sun Kitten, freezing slowly, shouting with my last strength..

- Waiting for dawn - I replied, still not moving.

Someone grabbed my hand, and I jumped.

- The dawn will come, - I heard the whisper right next to my ear. I felt someone's breathing, and barely stifled a cry.

- The dawn will come. That was a risk, I could have killed you.

- Oh? - I couldn't help asking. And heard a quiet clinking of steel.

- You saw the Flying?

- They poured Black Fire on the valley beneath, - I answered, hoping the answer was right.

- I heard. They were after me.

- And almost killed me.

It seemed those words decided everything. The stranger's voice became embarrassed.

- I never thought that there was anyone in these parts. I'm sorry. It's a good thing you're whole.. Come on.

I was gently dragged to one side. I stretched my free hand out in front of me, and immediately heard the question:

- Where are your glasses?

- I never had any..

- Whoah.. hey, hey, careful, there're trees here.

I squeaked, hitting a springy, spiky branch, but decided not to take offence at the late warning.

- We're here. Bend down.

I obediently bent forward and felt thick cloth brush against my face. I followed the stranger, squeezing through a narrow cut, and felt warmth inside. It was something like a small tent.

- Shut the entrance.. oh, you can't see. Sit down.

Cloth rustled behind me. Then there was a click, and suddenly there was light, glaring from all sides!

Squeezing my eyes tightly shut, I waited a few minutes, fighting the unpleasant feeling I was being examined. I risked opening one eye, and, still squinting, looked around.

It turned out to really be a small round tent. Inside it was a clean white, and glowed softly.

In front of me a boy, no older than myself, sat cross-legged. He was thin, light-haired and very pale, which didn't surprise me in the slightest. He wore only short, crumpled shorts made of bright blue cordy cloth; a wide leather belt held a knife in a long, thin scabbard.

My fear started to fade. I had been expecting a grown-up thug with an animal face, not someone of my own age.

- I don't know you - said the boy suspiciously.

- Nor I you - I parried. The tent was warm and light. The creatures of darkness seemed like just a bad dream here. I wasn't afraid at all.

- Where are you from? - the boy continued the questioning. He held his hand on the knife, as though ready to put it into use at any moment.

- From far away - I replied, honestly and uselessly. Strangely, he was satisfied with the answer. But I wasn't to escape without further clarification.

- Where are your parents? Where are your friends?

- Where it is light. - I nastily decided to vary my answers. The words unexpectedly worked.

- Sorry - he said, looking guilty. - Mine.. never mind. You're completely alone?

The truth is such a convenient thing that there is no reason to exchange it for a lie. One can make pretty much anything of it without that.

- I had a friend, but he went to search for light.

Something told me that questions about my friend would stop after that. I was not mistaken. The boy sniffed and stretched out his hand.

- Lan.

- Danny. - I squeezed his palm.

- I had a friend too - he said unexpectedly. - But he couldn't break out of the tower. He was Elder.

- And my friend was my younger.

- Yes? - the boy was clearly surprised. - What are you going to do?

- Make my way out of here.

- Will you come to our city?

Why not, I thought. I'd gotten quite sleepy in the warmth, but tried to hold on to the thread of civilisation. Rather than sit naked in the mountains and wait for a kitten that might not even come back, it made sense to make my way towards civilisation.

- Will they be all right with me turning up there? - I asked carefully.

- You ask! - Lan spoke offendedly - If I vouch for you, everything shall be in order.. Don't look like that, I'm not bragging!

- I believe you - I replied limply. - Lan, may I sleep?

- Boy, am I stupid! - Lan jumped up and started rifling through a small bag that was lying in a corner. - You're hungry too, right? I'm sorry I don't have much..

A moment later I was fiercely chewing hard, either smoked or dried, meat. When there was nothing of the piece left, Lan stretched towards me a handful of dates, or something very like them, and a bottle.

- And you? - I weakly protested, already starting on the dates.

- You are Elder, since we shall go together from here, - said Lan. - And anyway, I've already eaten today.

Perhaps it's not very nice, but I didn't argue any more. I finished the thick, sweet milk in the bottle (it tasted like slightly diluted condensed milk), looked at Lan guiltily. And he was already spreading a short blanket in the corner.

- Here, sleep, we'll decide everything later - said Lan, gently pushing me towards the blanket. - Sleep.

He was behaving strangely; on the one hand, as though he'd really decided that I was in charge and he had to serve me, like.. well, like a young soldier an old one, maybe. And at the same time he was matroning as though I was a kid and he an adult.

But I couldn't think straight. I lay down - and it was as though I'd fallen into a pit. That's what it means to go hungry, freeze, and then get somewhere warm and eat.

I woke up when Lan rolled on top of me and pressed his hand over my mouth. In truth, I thought that he'd been trying to make me feel safe and was now going to strangle me. And I started twisting and prodding Lan in the stomach with my elbow. He yowled and whispered in my ear:

- Quiet, it's a watchman! Quiet!

I froze. And heard above us, really low, the slow, heavy beating of enormous wings. We huddled close while above us something hovered that was frightening even by sound.

Finally, the rustle of wings disappeared in the distance. We sat down. Lan looked at me and quietly said:

- He's flown away. To the nearest tower.

- Well, that's cool - I said, still thinking sluggishly.

- He saw us! - Lan shouted. And sniffed, obviously about to break into sobs.

Truly, a fine warrior of a fairy-tale land. I grabbed his shoulder:

- Lan! Snap out of it! We've gotta scramble!

- What?

- Drape, leg it..

- Yeah-yeah, - Lan burst into activity. He stuffed the blanket into the bag, opened the tent (the light went out straight away), threw the bag outside. The darkness breathed cold into the tent.

- Go outside - sternly, as though I was doing something impolite, said Lan. I shrugged and started feeling my way towards the exit.

- Wait..

I felt a cold, flexible ribbon in my hand.

- Put on the glasses.

- What about you?

- I shall be in the Wing, of course! - replied Lan, surprised.

Climbing out of the tent, I put the ribbon to my eyes. And jumped. The darkness parted. I could see a hilly plain, belted by mountains, a few rare trees around us. I looked up, and saw a low, grey sky. It seemed very low down and thick, as though it was made of mercury. Tying the ribbon at the back of my head, I spun around a few times, making sure the "glasses" held. They seemed to be on tight. They weren't a night vision device like you see in the cinema - you know, the warmer the object, the brighter it glows.. These things merely turned the darkness into twilight.

I heard a rustling behind me. I turned around and saw the small, round tent with Lan inside shake and begin to crumple. It didn't just fall - it shrank, tightening around the boy inside it, turning into something like an anorak and a cape all at once. Wide, black folds of cloth now hung along Lan's arms. Wings?!

Lan walked up to me - he had a small transparent panel in front of his eyes, that probably let him see in the dark too, - picked up his bag and said hopelessly:

- It's no good. You don't have a wing. And there's no way we can get away on foot.

His words riled me. If I'd stopped to think about whether I could make it away, I'd still be in the valley when the Black Fire came down.

- Where is your city?

Lan wavered, then waved a direction:

- There. You have to fly along the river, then walk some more.

- Is the river far?

- Half an hour on foot. - Lan looked at me with hope. - You've thought of something?

- I don't know, - I avoided a straight answer. - But at least you can always fly off.

Lan turned away.

- Danny.. I lost my Elder through no fault of my own, I swear.

- I believe you, - I said, confused.

- So why are you implying I can abandon you?!

I gently took his hand. His fingers seemed hard and taut under the black cloth.

- Hey, Lan.. I didn't mean that at all. It's just that, if one of us can get away, then..

- Would you have left me?

I lowered my gaze. What would I have done, had black shadows appeared in the sky? If I could fly away, and a boy I hardly knew - couldn't? What would I have done? I don't know.

Thankfully, Lan understood my silence in his own way.

- You see, Danny, - he said firmly. - Me too. I mean it.

- Let's go to the river, - I suggested. - We have to hurry.

So we walked. It was easy, with the glasses, and some twenty minutes later we came to a sharp slope, with a river below.

A normal mountain river. Quite fast, quite narrow, and with rocks poking here and there from the water.

My amazing idea suddenly seemed very stupid. But I couldn't let myself show that to Lan. I shivered and said:

- We get down to the river, there you turn your suit into a tent..

- A what?

- A shelter. It's waterproof?

- Of course!

- Great. We climb into it, push it into the water and float to the city.

- Yes? - asked Lan, untrustingly. - It'll be the end of the Wing.

- It'll be the end of you otherwise, idiot!

Lan sighed.

- All right. At least I'll glide one last time.. Grab on, Elder!

I walked towards his back. Lan rotated his finger next to his brow:

- In your city people manage to fly with a weight on their back?

- We don't fly with a weight at all, - I admitted.

- Then watch..

Lan made me hold on to him from the front holding him around the neck with my arms and around the belt with my legs. This is how children rescued from terrorists' paws hang off brave policemen in american action films. But Lan wasn't a policeman with Schwarzenegger's figure. He wobbled, his knees were buckling, but he managed to walk right to the edge of the precipice. I looked over my shoulder and suddenly decided I didn't want to be a part of this experiment any more.

- Lan, - I began to speak. But he wasn't listening. He stepped off the edge.

Closing my eyes, I gripped Lan like a hungry louse grips a fat dog. The wings flapped heavily behind Lan's back. I don't know whether we were falling or, after all, flying. Then Lan strained, and the flapping was faster. We slowed our descent, and then hit.

- Climb off - said Lan sternly. And, unable to hold it, dropped to his knees.

We were standing right next to the shore, on wet stones. We'd glided for at least two hundred metres.

- A great flight, - I said, and Lan glowed with a smile. - Well, then, shall we try?

- Let's.

The river seemed a lot faster closer up, but also a lot wider, so we definitely had a chance. We opened up the tent-shelter, dragged it to a shallow spot, jumped inside and closed the entrance. Then we had to climb back out and drag the tent further from the shore, then we had to fumble with the entrance that was letting water in..

When the shelter was floating more or less stably, I belatedly asked Lan:

- There aren't any waterfalls on this river, are there?

- No, only rapids, - Lan calmed me.

We floated on in silence, rolling about the wet bottom of the tent, landing on each other, sometimes managing a glance out of the tiny window that had served as Lan's glasses. Strangely, after a few minutes, every impact on the bottom of the tent brought laughter from us rather than fear. I don't know why Lan was braving himself up like that. As for me, I just couldn't take what was happening seriously. It felt like a fairground ride. I just wanted the Sun Kitten to hurry up and come back and find me. I didn't worry one bit about him finding me. After all, he was a magician, if only a little one.

We were carried for two hours before Lan said he recognised the town's surroundings.

Next chapter

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