The Boy and the DarknessSergei Lukjanenko
Part 1. The Winged.
Chapter 5. Coward.
It was only when I first put on Lan's suit that I really understood what Wings were.
Thick cloth tightened around me as a rubber glove does around a hand. Then I felt pain in my shoulders and gave a scream. As if a kitten had settled on each shoulder and, stretching out his claws, dug in.
- Don't be scared - said Lan quickly. - The Wing needs strength.
- What, mine?
- Whose else? How were you intending to fly? Batting your arms like a bird?
For a minute I wriggled and squirmed, then calmed down under Lan's reproachful gaze. The pain had dulled.
- Is it like this all the time?
- You'll get used to it - Lan comforted me. - In a month's time, you'll not be paying attention to it. Right, lift up your arms...
I flapped my arms. The cloth hanging down from my sleeves moved limply but had no intention of straightening.
- Imagine a Wing, - Lan repeated tirelessly, observing my clumsy attempts at flight. We were standing in the room on the ground floor, and the Kitten, lying on the stair rails, was watching us. - Imagine a Wing. Imagine flight. You can.
- I can't, Lan...
- Nonsense, everybody can. You're not heavy, the Wing will lift you.
After an hour, having convinced himself that we were getting nowhere, Lan made me climb up on top of a wardrobe and jump from a two-metre height. Now, this worked. It felt like my arms had grown to several times their length, widened, and hit... no, not even air, but water. My fall slowed, the floor moved away again, then once more I came towards it and once more approached the ceiling. A wind swept around the room, swinging the pictures about on the wall and tipping over small ornaments.
- That's fine - said Lan, who was standing underneath me, head tipped backwards. - The Wing is cleverer than you.
- I'm flying! - I shouted, realising that my fall had been postponed.
- Not flying. You're fluttering around the room. - The Kitten voiced his opinion.
- The Wing knows how to fly, you just need to guide it. Understand? It needs your mind and a little strength. Come down, Elder.
I tried to fold up the Wing and landed softly on the floor. The pain in my shoulders was stronger but I was delighted.
- Lan, how do I make the Wing into a tent?
- Shelter, - corrected Lan. - Right, shut your eyes, spread your hands, move your fingers apart. Imagine the suit expanding...
This I managed from the first time. Opening my eyes, I found myself in a small dome-shaped tent that was glowing with a steady light. My shoulders were covered in a bright red rash, but the pain had gone.
- May I?
Lan peered into the opening and the Kitten squeezed through between his legs.
- Of course.
- It is customary to ask, - explained Lan. - One's shelter is far more important than one's home. One can't just walk in here.
We sat down and stared at each other. Lan and I were smiling, the Kitten looked thoughtful.
- Will we have time to visit that old man before your sortie? - he enquired.
- The one that remembers the sun? Hardly... we need to have a decent meal, then train some more then eat again...
- Listen, why am I so hungry? - I asked, realising that Lan's words did not sound out of place. - as if I hadn't eaten for a day.
- You gave your strength to the Wing. And, in fact, not just for this fluttering, but also in reserve. We have to eat a lot, Danny.
- Looking at you, I couldn't tell.
- It all goes on the wind, Elder... oh, if only we could train in the air now! But we can't... Right, try flying up from where you're sitting.
And we trained, from time to time breaking for food. I ate sandwiches, omelettes, sweets and drank milk and tea. I don't know where everything went because after an hour's training, my hunger would come back with fresh force.
- How long does a sortie last? - I asked Lan, "fluttering" round the room. By now I had already learned to control my flight a little, learned to relax and leave most of it up to the Wing.
- Five or six hours.
- I won't hold out that long - I said, aghast.
- We take food with us. Also, at the moment you are using your strength all the time, while in normal flight we would be gliding and resting. Keep training.
We flew out from the turret of our house. I had been afraid that other Elders would be present for this, but it seemed that this was not required. On the other hand, the sky over the city was being watched all the time, and our departure can't have gone unnoticed. We were hoping that, from afar, my flight would not appear suspiciously inept.
It was the jump from the ten-metre-tall turret that I found hard. Again and again I walked to the edge of the platform, the place where the guard rails had been removed. The stone underfoot, polished over the many years, seemed treacherously slippery. Every so often people passed by along the street, but nobody paid us any attenion. Only two children, a boy and a girl, being led by the hand by an elderly woman, kept turning their heads, watching the turret and awaiting my flight. I think I disappointed them.
- It's time, Elder, - said Lan worriedly. - It's time. We should be in the air by now.
I walked to the very edge and stopped, balancing.
- Gather yourself! - whispered Lan.
Spreading my arms, I shut my eyes. And the Wing decided everything for me. It hit the air, hard as concrete, and the tower dropped away from under my feet. My eyes still shut, I heard Lan's wings beating below me, and the rising wind ringing in my ears.
- We have Wings! - shouted Lan, his voice so happy I barely recognised it. - We need only to trust them - and we can fly! We have Wings!
I opened my eyes. The town was far below, and I could no longer make out the people in the street. We had risen to just below the clouds - sparse, fluffy, with a sheet of pitch darkness over them.
- Lan! - I shouted. My Younger was dashing around as though it wasn't costing him any effort to fly. Hearing me, he folded his Wing and levelled with me.
- Lan, can one fly higher than the clouds?
- No, Danny, that pitch darkness kills. Only the Flying can survive it.
- And if we were to go above it? Would there be sun?
- I don't know. We need to fly, Elder. Follow me!
And we flew away from the town - to the place we were supposed to be patrolling. Lan kept flying ahead, then waiting for me to catch up, and every so often trying to give me some sort of hints. But I wasn't listening to him - I was enjoying the flight.
Perhaps it would have been more interesting still to fly without anything at all, like Peter Pan. But such things are only possible in fairy tales. There and then, with the Wing, was enough for me; especially so since I wasn't afraid of the height at all. It felt like I'd always been flying.
Our task wasn't hard - to fly over the hills to the north of the town, watch for the Flying, and, if we happened upon a lone enemy - attack him. Either we were lucky, or Lan had been careful in his choice of route, but we didn't spot a single Flying. It was even a pity - I would have liked to have looked at them through the glasses and to have worked out what, in fact, they looked like.
At times we hovered - we weren't supposed to land during a patrol - and ate. Then we'd fly side by side and I'd quiz Lan about everything I could think of.
- Younger, what do you do in your club?
- Well, we certainly don't drink wine - mocked Lan. - And usually don't fight. We do all sorts of things. We play "Flying"...
- How do you do that?
- It's very simple. We sit behind a table, about ten people, and we hand out cards. There are two black cards among them - those are the Flying. Nobody knows who got dealt the black cards. Then everybody shuts their eyes - that means it's night; and the Flying open their eyes, recognise each other and decide on a target by glancing towards them. Then everyone opens their eyes and starts to decide - who's the Flying, who needs to be killed.
- Pretend, of course. Everyone sits around and votes on who looks the most suspicious, who is the secret Flying. Then they vote and kill somebody. Pretend. After this, night comes, everyone shuts their eyes, and the one who was killed becomes leader. He calls out everybody's name in turn, and the Flying lift a finger when the name of the target is called. If they both decide on the same one, that means he's dead. Then everyone opens their eyes again, and the leader says that in the night the Flying killed such and such Winged. Or that the Flying had chosen their target poorly, attacked different people, and those managed to escape. We vote once more on who is one of the Flying, kill somebody else... - Lan glanced at me and added just in case:
- Also pretend, of course. Night comes again and the two Flying, or the one if one had already been killed, point to somebody. It gets really interesting - everybody argues, tries to work out who is being suspicious, why the Flying picked a particular target rather than another... we play until we kill all the Flying, or until they kill all the Winged. Of course, it's more interesting to be one of the Flying. I got to be Flying twice last night, I was really good at pretending to be good...
I decided that the game really was quite cool, and if I ever got home, I would teach my friends to play it. Only instead of the Flying, we'd have to pick some sort of mafia leaders. And instead of the Winged - honest citizens.
By the time our shift was up, we'd flown some forty kilometres from the town. That's half an hour's flight, no more. Especially since we'd decided to return in a straight line, over some low mountains that were being patrolled by other Winged. This was allowed.
- We'll go and visit one of the adults soon, - Lan was saying. He was flying ahead of me and I could hear him perfectly. - Let them feed us properly. We have a right to go visiting after a patrol. And then...
Suddenly he stopped sharply, beating his Wings against the air. I almost flew into him.
- Look! - shouted Lan.
Over the mountains, a couple of kilometres from us, I saw fighting. Two were fighting a third - judging by his size, Flying. And another, that looked like a blot of darkness even through the glasses, was running for it in our direction, flapping his wings hard.
- A patrol has intercepted some Flying, - said Lan excitedly. - Look they finished that one!
The Flying that had been attacked by the two Winged was falling towards the mountains. One of his wings was fluttering helplessly; the other - damaged, it seemed - hung loosely.
- He'll shatter, - declared Lan. - Shall we fly off?
- What about this one? - I pointed at the Flying that was trying to escape, lost my balance and almost fell myself. I straightened up and added:
- Can we not catch him, Lan?
My Younger stared at me.
- Are you serious, Danny? You really want to fight?
And I snapped. I remembered too well how I'd run over the mountains from the pair of Flying. I wanted to settle the score.
- Quit being a coward! - I shouted at Lan, and dashed forward towards the Flying. Lan followed me.
We closed in on the escaping one, and were circling him - Lan and I, and the other pair. The Flying saw us and tried to rise, but Lan was easily faster than him and hovered above the dark figure. He held his knife in his hands, and the Flying did not risk attacking my Younger from below. Lan had already told me that being positioned above the enemy was a major advantage in a fight.
Pulling out my sword from its scabbard, I approached the Flying. The Wing was carrying me towards the fight by themselves, and suddenly I felt very certain - I would do everything right. I would fly up to the creature of darkness and kill it. Yes, kill it - because they kill people, because they brought darkness into this world, because I was now Elder in a pair. I was just curious what the Flying would look like - a bird, a lizard, or perhaps even a human - but with an ugly, angry face...
How stupid I was then...
Diving under the Flying, I shot upwards and came face to face with him. I think Lan would have been proud of me at that moment - his Elder had started a beautiful attack.
Started - and froze; because in front of me, wrapped in a suit of darkness, giant black wings open, hung a perfectly ordinary man. A young lad that resembled Shoki - only his face was not covered by a transparent rectangle like the Winged; it was open, and his eyes were staring at me. He could see through the eternal night.
- Don't kill me, - he whispered hoarsely, - don't kill...
I froze in the air, with the Wing holding me, and the sword pointed at the Flying. He had no sword; he'd probably lost it in the fight.
- Let me go, - whispered the Flying; quietly - I barely heard him over the wind. We were perhaps a kilometre up, and with cliffs below - the sluggish thought went through my head that I had only to hit the black Wing, and...
- Let me go, - repeated the Flying. The two that had killed his partner were approaching. Lan shouted from ahead:
- Strike! Hit him Danny!
- Fly, - I whispered lowering my blade. And I saw surprise on the face of the Flying. An ordinary, human face - just slightly distorted by some sort of inner pain.
- Fly with me, - he whispered. - Fly, you're ours!
- No! - I shouted. - Leave!
- You'll join us yet, - said the Flying and, flapping his wing, flew downwards. He picked up speed in his dive, then stretched out the black cloth of his wings and glided over the mountains. There was no way we could catch him now.
- What have you done! - shouted Lan coming down to me. - What have you done, Elder!
- He's human!
- He's made of darkness! He's its servant!
- He's the same as us! He's human!
- You've killed us both, - whispered Lan without listening. - Danny...
Tears streaked down his face, and I snapped back to reality. Really, could the servants of darkness not be people - in appearance? They could...
- I saw! - shouted a Winged from the other pair, flying up to us. - You let him go; you betrayed us!
It was a boy, the same age as Lan and I. His Elder, heavier and less agile, had fallen behind.
- I'll explain everything! - I shouted. But no one was listening. The other Elder flew up to us too - it was the same lad I'd fought yesterday. I wasn't surprised. When one's unlucky, one's unlucky in everything.
- Are you going to run? - he asked with hope. He was holding a crossbow.
- I won't even think of it, - I replied, trying with all my strength to be brave. - I'll explain everything.
- Just try... Cheki, fly to the city. Let everyone gather in the square, by the gallows.
His Younger, clearly certain of his Elder's authority over Lan and myself, flew towards the city.
- Now you! - commanded my enemy. - Both. You, Lan, will be questioned separately.
We flew towards the city. Lan approached me and whispered:
- I'll try to knock the crossbow out from his hands. I'm fast, I'll manage. And we'll fly away.
- Where? - I answered with a question. - Don't worry, we'll get out of this.
- Really? - asked Lan with faint hope.
- Don't worry, Younger!
I was going to tell him the truth. About how I'd come from my world, how I met Lan; how I attacked the Flying but froze - seeing that he was human. Like myself.
It was only when we'd started to come down to land that I realised there was no way I could tell them everything. No way. Because I, perhaps, might be forgiven. But for Lan, who'd covered for me, it would be the end.
At that moment, I suddenly wanted to fly away. But perhaps a dozen Winged were already flying around us. And to try to escape, especially with my lack of flying experience, would have been madness.
We landed in the centre of a square filled with people, in a small clear area. Behind us, Winged casually dropped straight into the crowd.
- I felt the rot in him right from the start! - our captor shouted loudly. - And I was right! Today this... Elder... let one of the Flying go! What can we expect from him tomorrow?
The people around were silent. There were Elders here, and the Younger, and women, and adults. Admittedly, there were few of that last. But the looks on their faces were such...
I became afraid. Can it ever be possible to justify oneself before people that hate you and have decided everything in advance?
- What can we expect from him tomorrow? - repeated the lad. - Nothing! Because we shall deal with him today!
And he loudly laughed at his own joke. Shoki pushed his way towards me through the crowds. People moved out of his way - Shoki, it seemed, was respected in the city.
- Why did you do this, Danny? - he asked sharply.
I was silent. What could I say?
- There is only one thing left to decide, - the Elder I shamed yesterday was babbling meanwhile. - Whether he's a coward or a traitor. I think he's a traitor.
- Shut up, - Shoki spat at him. - Danny! What exactly happened?
I looked into his eyes - and understood: Shoki was giving me a chance. Was trying to give me a chance.
- Eyes, - I said unexpectedly. - My eyes! I have this thing with my eyes, my vision gets poor. I came up to the Flying and lost my bearings! And then he was far away.
Perhaps I'd remembered how we used to fantasise in school, just before exams. My head hurts, I have a stomach ache, I've twisted a finger on my hand... in school, this used to help.
- Nonsense! - shouted the Elder, aiming his crossbow. But with a wave of his hand, Shoki bade him be silent again. Turning to Lan, Shoki asked:
- You knew of this?
Lan shook his head and, like the bright lad he was, hurriedly said:
- No, I didn't. But there was something odd about Danny's eyes - sometimes he'd pause, and rub them...
- Don't believe his Younger, he's a coward himself!
- Shut up, Ivon! - Shoki said firmly. - Things happen. It's the word of Danny and his Younger against that of you and your Younger. Impasse.
Strangely, Ivon didn't seem particularly upset. He smiled and said, as if he was quoting:
- The Winged should be ready to fly and to fight. And if his arm fails him - sever his arm; if he fails to hear the signal - cut off his ears... Do you remember the rules of the patrol, Shoki?
Shoki nodded. I was still in the dark, but decided that I wouldn't wait to see what came of it. I'd fly up - and let what happened, happen. Try to escape...
My arms were seized; somebody, falling to the ground, grabbed my legs. I didn't even try to resist. It took them half a minute to tear off my Wing, and I was left wearing only my underpants before the crowd, just as I had been when I entered the city. For some reason this made it a lot more frightening, as though clothes could have protected me from something. At least somebody's rough fingers put some glasses on me.
- Do you understand? - asked Shoki. - This is the law, Danny.
I understood nothing, but whatever. I asked:
- What will happen to Lan?
- If you do not come out with him on the next patrol, he will have to find a new Elder, - said Shoki, with sympathy.
If I don't come out? So there is still hope?
- Shoki, Lan's not a coward. Help him if he needs it, - I asked. Shoki nodded, and turned towards the crowd. Shouted:
- What are you all doing here? This is Winged business! And send away the Younger, there is nothing for them to do here!
The women and the younger boys started quickly making their way out of the crowd. But one of the men calmly objected to Shoki:
- We, too, were once Winged. We have a right to remain. In addition, somebody will have to be with this boy... afterwards. To keep an eye on him.
- Very well, - Shoki agreed grimly. - Ivon, are you satisfied?
- Completely! - That one replied nastily.
- You hate Danny this much?
- I hate the Flying. He let one of them go!
Shoki walked up to me and took out his knife. I struggled, but I was held firmly and couldn't free myself. What was he going to do?
- Let him go! It wasn't like that! - Lan shouted suddenly. - Danny, tell them...
- Silence! - I shouted. - Be silent, I order you! Younger!
Lan shut up, holding his hands over his mouth. But now he was watching me with such horror that, were Ivon's helpers to let me go, I would have dropped to the ground. My legs wouldn't have held me.
- Why did you let the Flying go? - asked Shoki quietly as he walked up to me. My lie had not convinced him.
- I couldn't hit him, he looked like you, - I admitted, also in a whisper. And I saw my only defender amongst the Elders go pale.
- That was my brother - he said quietly. - But this changes nothing.
Ivon walked around from behind me, stood next to Shoki, and pulled the glasses off me with one quick movement. I was plunged into darkness. How unpleasant it is to be blind amongst the sighted! Nothing but the noisy breathing around me - and fear, fear, fear...
- Let me! - said the invisible Ivon.
- No. - Shoki cut him off. - Hold his head!
And then I understood. Understood everything. And thrashed around, trying to free myself, or, at least, to pull back my head that was now being gripped by someone's helpful hand. And afterwards, simply screamed:
- Don't, don't, kill me instead!
I was gagged. I sank my teeth into somebody's arm, but couldn't bite through the cloth of their Wing. And then I felt pain in my left eye - burning, twisting pain, from the strike of a blade, - and a moment's flash of fiery, blood-red light...
Once they managed to grip my head again, the pain must have come in my right eye. Only this I do not remember. Or have made myself forget, during the time I spent unconscious.
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