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The Boy and the Darkness

Sergei Lukjanenko

Part 1. The Winged.

Chapter 6. True Light, True Sight...

I was lying under a blanket, and nothing hurt. This was because nothing terrible had happened. I'd just fallen asleep next to the Sun Kitten, and training with Lan hadn't happened yet, nor the patrol, nor...

But it had. It had all happened! It had!

I screamed, remembering the horror that had been. And a hand touched my face.

- Hush, boy, hush.. Don't shout. And try not to cry, if you can.

- Where am I?

- At my place. - The voice was unfamiliar, and the speaker quickly corrected himself:

- At Gert's, at old Gert's. Have you heard of me?

I shook my head.

- Never mind, boy, that's alright... would you like something to eat? You've just been on a sortie...

But I wasn't hungry.

- What about something to drink?

Gert helped me drink something, I didn't even taste what. Then he stroked my cheek again.

- And where is Lan?

- He's gone to his... to your home. You'd better stay with me for now, boy. For a day or two...

- Tell me, is it dark in the room? - I asked with stupid hope.

- No, - answered Gert after a short pause. - You have your eyes shut tight.

- And if I were to open them?

- Don't, boy. I put ointment on, but if you open your eyes, the pain will come back.

- Is this for always? - I asked.

Gert was silent.

- What will happen to me now?

- If you cannot fly, you will not be given food.

I laughed. Fly? Of course, how easy! They blinded me, but left me as one of the Winged. It was not my fault, but the fault of my eyes. Even so, I will be left to die of hunger. Unless of course, Lan and the good-natured among the adults feed me every so often...

- Don't cry, - repeated Gert, wiping tears from my cheeks. - You're washing off the ointment, and I have very little of it. Without it, the pain will return.

Let it return... Let it... I lifted my hand, but couldn't bring myself to touch my tightly shut eyelids. And at that moment the door slammed, and I heard footsteps.

That was all that was left to me now - sounds. Forever. Nothing but footsteps and sympathetic voices.

- How are you feeling, Elder? - Lan asked quietly.

Judging by the sound, he was next to the bed on which I lay. I felt for his hand, and gripped it tightly.

- Why? Why did Shoki do this? - I whispered. - Why did he blind me... himself?

For some reason, this seemed important to me.

- Had he given Ivon the blade, that one would have tried to kill you, - said Lan quietly. He buried his head in my chest and cried.

- It's all my fault, all my fault Danny... I should have told them.

- They would have killed you for certain.

- I should have told them everything from the start! I'm a coward, it's all my fault, I'm a coward, Elder!

- Don't throw such words about lightly, boy! - Gert said sternly. - You're not a coward. You're just not made for this war. We made a mistake once, and you are having to pay for it.

- Is it you that remembers the sun? - I asked, putting my hand on Lan's shoulder. His sobs were already quieting. For some reason, his tears had helped me calm down. I was still Elder. I should be stronger. I'll cope.

- Yes, boy. I am one of the last who remember True Light.

- And so we meet, just like we wanted to, - I said. - Lan, where is the Kitten?

- Here I am, - spoke the Kitten, and I decided from the sound that he was hovering in the air above me. - I have been silent until now because I was studying the situation.

His voice was serious, but quite calm. Hope returned to me.

- Kitten! You cured me last time! Remember?

The Kitten was silent, but Gert spoke in a changed voice:

- I'm not hearing things! You're talking?

- And I glow, too - you're not seeing things, either, - the Kitten cut him off. - Danny, I can't help you. Right now, I can't.

I sighed, and thought about how cool it would be to be healed now, and to look once more at Ivon and Shoki's faces, and to come back to Lan's house, and go hunting the Sun Kitten with pillows... Somehow I'd started crying without noticing.

- I don't have the strength, - said the Kitten in an apologetic voice. - If I had but a little light, True Light, I would be able to heal you. Forgive me.

- And later, when we find light, will you be able to? - I asked with hope.

The Kitten shuffled about, having come down onto the bed next to me. It seems he hadn't been flying - and where would he have got enough strength, anyway? Gert must have been holding him. From now on I'll be making mistaken guesses like this all the time...

- Answer me! - I demanded.

- If I have a little time, I will.

Now it was my turn to keep silent. Gert, meanwhile, walked heavily across the room and started to dig around in a wardrobe of some sort - I heard a door creak, and things being shuffled about...

- Danny, will you forgive me? - asked Lan.

- Stop it, Younger, - I asked. - We're partners.

- Hey, lads, if I'm not mistaken, you need True Light?

I felt the Kitten sit up and turn towards Gert's voice.

- Yes, to save Danny. And, well - I guess I wouldn't mind a little for myself, too.

- I understand that you are from far away, but you, Lan, are ours, - Gert continued. - I was your grandfather's Younger. Everything was only just beginning back then, lad... You've heard of Sunstone?

- It's a myth, - said Lan, his voice shaken. - Or so I thought.

- A myth... The darkness was shaky back then. The sun would appear at times, and the Sunstone that was mined in these mountains would store its light.

- After so many years it would long since have stopped glowing, - objected Lan weakly. I realised that he was afraid to hope.

- So it would - if one were to keep the stone in darkness. But if the stone is hidden in a box made of mirrors, so it's light comes back... What needs to be done?

- Put the box on the bed and open it, - commanded the Kitten.

And a moment later I felt light on my face. Warm, tender sunlight... The Kitten purred.

- Why is he licking the stone? - Gert asked, surprised. Lan answered him:

- He's feeding on True Light. He needs to gather strength... Right?

- Don't distract me, - muttered the Kitten. - Will it glow for long?

- Five minutes or so, the stone is only a little one, - replied Gert. - Will that be enough?

- We'll see, - said the Kitten, his voice noticeably stronger.

I lay and waited. Gert spoke quietly, either to me or to Lan:

- We decided back then that if we couldn't win, we'd at least see True Light before we died. Don't worry, I've no intention of dying. I'm not superstitious...

Then the Kitten, walking across my face, bent over my eyes. Spoke degradingly:

- What atrocity... An ointment of drugs and herbs. Lie still, Danny, this will hurt.

And his tongue, small and rough, started to lick at my eyes. This lasted a long time, but didn't hurt at all, just tingled a little. Lan and Gert kept a wondering silence.

- There, - said the Kitten at last. - I think I'm finished. I don't know how well this will work, I'm not a doctor. But you will be able to see.

- But I can't see! - I cried, so loudly that the Kitten jumped and shouted in response:

- Open your eyes, stupid boy!

And I opened my eyes.

The Kitten was looking at me, and I relalised how kind his eyes looked - kind, and guilty. The Kitten's fur was glowing brightly, like before. His face was smeared with ointment, and with something else.

Then I looked at Gert. He really was old, perhaps sixty or seventy years of age. I hadn't seen anyone this old here yet. Grey and wrinkled, wearing an old, worn shirt, but with a tie like the Elder Winged. Gert looked quite embarrassed.

And Lan was looking at me and crying quietly. By inertia. I knew that in a moment he'd smile and say: "Elder, everything's all right!"

- Elder, everything's all right!

I nodded and said:

- I know. Everything's like before, right?

- Yes. - Lan shrugged uncertainly, and once more I guessed his words before he said them: - Only... your eyes are glowing a little.

- How scary, - I whispered, shivering. - Kitten, is that right?

- You're a right stupid lot, - said the Kitten, washing himself. - Look at a good painting - and you'll see that people's eyes can glow. Look at one that loves you. Look at a child, or an old man. This light is that which you carry inside you. With some people you can always see it, and some spend their lives putting it out. Stupid boys...

I looked at Lan and said, almost honestly:

- Yours are glowing, too.

- They're reflecting yours, - Lan found a response. Standing up, he started wiping the last traces of tears off his face. He must, it seems, have been crying continuously since what happened to me happened. And when he was talking to me he'd been crying too, just noiselessly.

- I don't understand anything. - Gert shook his head. - The boy's eyes had been sliced out, nothing could have helped him. And I gave you the stone just to cheer you up... Are you a magician, sir?

- So ordinary kittens are just "hey, you", and that's acceptable, - declared the Kitten in a scandalized voice. - And to magic ones we shall speak extra-politely, just in case... Why bother? It's not necessary.

- I have, incidentally, just given you the most precious thing I had, - said Gert seriously. And the Kitten immediately quit mocking.

- I'm sorry, I understand. I'm still little, and poorly-behaved sometimes.

Gert, who'd clearly been wanting to, stretched out his hand and sat the Kitten on his lap. Who, embarassed, did not protest. Just muttered:

- I won't purr, sir, so don't go expecting me to... Or shall we go back to "Hey, you"?

- Let's.

- Hey, you know - you're alright! - declared the Kitten provocatively, and turned to face me:

- Danny, walk around the room, look around. Make sure everything's all right, while I still have the strength to fix things.

I stood up, dressed (Lan had brought clothes, the same as what he was wearing - shorts and a T-shirt), walked around the room. Everything was fine. I could see just like before, even...

Even better. I looked at the wardrobe in the corner, and somehow saw the clothes inside it. Through a closed door!

- Gert, in your wardrobe you've got two suits, lots of women's dresses, a dozen or so of your shirts, an Elder's Wing and a pair of ties. Right?

- Shut that wardrobe, insolent boy, - said Gert without turning around. Lan, who had been watching me the while, batted his eyelids.

- I can see through wood, - I said, almost without surprise. The Kitten arched his back, his fur standing on end, and declared worriedly:

- This is what I'd been afraid of. I overdid it, it seems... Is this a big problem, Danny?

- It's not a problem at all, - I proclaimed. - Quite the reverse... Gert, there's an old woman wearing a blue dress walking towards the house.

- That's my other half, - Gert said in a doomed voice. - Now things'll start...

He shook his head. It seems this news had had a greater effect on him than my new-found abilities:

- I swore I'd wash the floor... Great Light! I clean forgot everything.

He was quite a funny sight. I imagined this ancient man, sleeves rolled up, shuffling a cloth around the floor, and giggled. Lan giggled too - just to fit in, I think. The Kitten stayed worried:

- Danny, can you see through walls too, then? They're made of stone!

- I can't see through the walls, - I admitted. - But the wooden window-covers and frame are easy.

- Are you alright?

- I'm like new! - I shouted, and jumped as proof. Just as the old lady walked into the house.

At first she just tilted her head reproachfuly. Then she wrinkled her forehead, staring at me and trying to work something out.

- Keya, I didn't have time to clean up, we had such a thing happen, - Gert fussed. Cute: a grown-up, an old man even, but making excuses like a guilty boy.

- Gert, I knew that you were going to look after the boy that had been blinded, - began the old woman slowly. - But now, it seems to me like... You can see?

- Yes, - I admitted guiltily.

The woman positively shone, and clapped her hands:

- Gert! Shoki managed a trick of some sort after all? Yes?

We were silent.

- I knew that our grandson wouldn't do such a thing, - said the old woman with relief. - And why was I so stupid as to doubt him?

- Let us assume that that is how it was, - suggested the Kitten dourly. - Not a bad version.

- You talk? - The woman exclaimed.

- Even a little grey mouse would talk, to such a lovely lady, - declared the Kitten gallantly. It seemed this surreal compliment returned to Keya some semblance of self-control. She shook her head, walked up to the Kitten, looked at him suspiciously, and then at Lan.

- It's not him, - prompted the Kitten.

- It's not me, - Lan shook his head.

- Wonderful. - The woman was back in control of herself. - You're Younger in a pair, aren't you? That means you know how to peel potatoes. Let's go.

And she dragged Lan off after her.

- She always calls it thus - "peeling potatoes", - declared Gert, sitting down in a soft chair by the fireplace. - More likely, he'll have to knead dough for a cake... Danny, since you're alright, will you pass me my pipe and pouch? They're on the table.

- I can see them, - I said with pleasure.

Gert started to stuff his pipe, looking at us. The Kitten settled himself on the floor in front of Gert. I thought for a moment, and sat cross-legged next to the Kitten.

- And what is it you would like to know? - inquired Gert.

- How you lost the sun, - said the Kitten firmly. - Will you tell us?

Gert sighed.

- I will... We sold it.

- What? - I shouted.

- We sold it, - repeated Gert. - Each one of us separately, and all of us together. It was at that time the traders first came to us; they had many surprising, wonderful things... - Gert sighed. - And it turned out that we had little they needed. Grain, fruit, swords - none of these interested them. We lived simply, and we so wanted to live beautifully. I was the same age as you, Danny, and I remember how my mother looked at the jewellery and cloth - finer than any we ever had. And my father really liked the sword that could go through stone and steel like a hot knife through butter. He was a warrior.

Gert lit his pipe, breathed in the smoke and continued:

- And so, one day, my mother came back from the traders with everything she had wanted. She had sold the part of the sun that shone for her. Now she always walked in twilight; a shadow lay upon her. But it didn't bother her at all; and it didn't scare me back then, either. And, in the sky, a small grey cloud floated - always staying over my mother, hiding her from the sun. And there came to be more and more such clouds. We got bright lights in our homes, instead - and hot water in our baths, and good weapons, and tasty food; none of which we'd ever had before. Someone demanded that the traders feed him for his entire life - and they obliginingly brought him food. It was so simple - to sell a little light, and live thereafter in calm contentment. People walked in the streets like grey shadows, the last spots of light jumping around them - trying to escape the darkness. Not everyone was tempted by food and rags, but there were goods even for the most obstinate. And they sold their light. For clever books that they had dreamed of reading, for beautiful words that they learned to speak, for new songs that so pleased the ear.

Many started to sell the light of their little children - those that were still unable to argue with them. And a grey sheet covered the sky, and would part less and less. And in the darkest places, towers started appearing where the Flying lived. They attacked us, and kidnapped people who would then also become Flying. We asked the traders for Wings - by then we had no light left to trade, but we had to fight. And they suggested that the strongest men work for them - as guards. We had no choice. But the Wings would lift only children - they weren't strong enough for adults. And there it all ended. The darkness became total when all of us sold our light. The teenagers divided into Elder and Younger, and started to defend cities from the Flying. The adults would work for the traders to feed their families. Only a very few, - Gert smiled sadly, - would live in the towns until they reached old age. We have grown used to living thus.

- You sold your light, and your sun stopped shining, - said the Kitten with anger, - the Sun shines for people, and if they choose darkness...

The Kitten hissed, and started to wash himself violently.

- Sun Kitten, do you mean to say that they have no hope whatsoever? - I asked in a whisper. - The light won't come back? If they repent, promise...

Gert sighed.

- We tried. We asked the sun for forgiveness. We killed the Flying. We burned fires, trying to chase away the darkness... And we asked the traders to sell the light back to us. But they told us that the light had long since been bought from them, and the buyer had no wish to sell it back.

- And this buyer is the ruler of the Flying, - the Kitten summed up.

- We think so, - agreed Gert.

The Kitten started pacing the room aggravatedly.

- I saw his tower, - he said finally. - It is darkness. I don't know, I don't know... Only if the light is hidden in the deepest of its dungeons... I doubt everything is that simple, Gert.

- What are we going to do? - I asked. The Kitten glanced sideways at me:

- Decide for yourself. I have some strength now. I might, I think, be able to open that door.

- You might? - I jumped up, picked up the Kitten. - We'll go back home?

- I will return you, - promised the Kitten.

- What about you?

- Sun Kittens do not leave a world without sun in its trouble.

- Hey, you know, I don't abandon my friends either! - I said angrily. - And after, once we've won, would you be able to bring me back?

- Of course.

Gert considered us thoughtfully, forgetting his burnt-out pipe. Then asked:

- If I understand correctly... In the place where you are from, there is Light?

- Plenty! - the Kitten said proudly. - They haven't sold it yet, there... I hope.

- But you're intending to help us?

- We'll try, - the Kitten declared humbly. - I can do a little, and Danny turned out not to be the most stupid boy in the world.

At that moment, Lan returned from the kitchen. Covered in flour, frowning, but proud.

- I deserve an extra piece of cake, - he declared proudly, sitting down behind the table. - All agreed?

We didn't argue. Especially since the cake turned out to be huge, and very tasty, with strawberry jam. We didn't count the pieces, of course, but when only one was left, Keya carefully wrapped it up in paper and put it away.

- This is... for our grandson, - explained Gert, giving me an ashamed look. - Danny, you won't want revenge, will you?

I was silent. Everyone was waiting for my words - both Gert and Keya, who'd probably been told by Lan how everything had been.

- I'll wait until we grow up, - I promised. - And I'll punch his lights out... on the first suitable dawn.

The Kitten was staring darkly at me.

- If he doesn't say sorry, - I added reluctantly.

Gert reached forward, and patted me on the head.

- You're a good boy, Danny - he said kindly. - Whatever happens, darkness won't be able to touch you.

Such a compliment made me feel shy; I started hurrying Lan to get home. At the front door, Gert stopped me, and gave me a thin black ribbon.

- It's not worth it letting the Winged see your eyes. Or they might decide to repeat their punishment. We'll make holes, and...

- Don't bother with the holes, - I said, tying the ribbon around my eyes. - It's only cloth. Thank you, Gert. Thank you, Keya. The cake was wonderful!

And we went home. I had the Kitten in my arms, and Lan held my shoulder, as though I was still blind. There turned out to be a lot of people in the streets - it was probably still early. As I walked, I saw the faces of people walking towards us. Some, especially Elder Winged, were smiling. They were few, very few. But they were there.

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