by Sergei Lukyanenko
This text has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of Light.
This text has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of Darkness.
The escalator crept along slowly, straining upward. In an old station like this, what else could you expect? But the wind swirled like a wild thing inside the concrete pipe—ruffling his hair, tugging the hood off his head, sneaking under his scarf, pressing him downward.
The wind didn't want Egor to go up.
The wind was pushing him to go back.
Strange, but no one else seemed to notice the wind. There was hardly anyone around—by midnight the station was already emptying. Only a few people riding down toward Egor and hardly anyone on the escalator beside him either. One person ahead of him, two or three behind. That was it.
Except, of course, for that wind.
Egor stuck his hands in his pockets and turned to look back. For a couple of minutes already, from the moment he'd stepped out of the train, he'd had the feeling of being watched. It wasn't a frightening kind of feeling at all; it felt fascinating, a sudden, pricking sensation.
Down at the bottom of the escalator was a tall man in uniform. Not police, a soldier. Then there was a woman with a sleepy little child, clutching her hand. And another man, young, wearing a bright orange jacket, with a Walkman. He looked just about dead on his feet as well.
Nothing suspicious. Not even for a boy going home too late. Egor looked up again, to where a policeman was lounging against the gleaming handrails, dejectedly trying to spot some easy prey in this sparse stream of passengers.
Nothing to be afraid of.
The wind gave Egor one last nudge and suddenly dropped away, apparently resigned to the pointlessness of the struggle. The boy glanced back once more and started running up the moving steps as they flattened under his feet. He had to hurry. He didn't know why, but he had to. Again he felt that pricking sensation of senseless anxiety, and a cold shudder ran through his body.
It was the wind again.
Egor slipped out through the half-opened doors and the piercing cold attacked him with renewed fury. His hair, still wet from the pool—the dryer was broken again—was instantly stiff with ice. Egor pulled the hood farther forward over his head, darted past the vendor kiosks without stopping, and hurried into the underpass. Up on the surface there were far more people, but the feeling of alarm was still there. He glanced behind him now, without slowing down, but there was no one following him. The woman with the small child was walking toward a streetcar stop; the man with the Walkman had stopped in front of a kiosk, studying the bottles; the soldier still hadn't come out of the subway.
The boy walked faster and faster through the underpass. There was music coming from somewhere, so quiet he could hardly hear it, but incredibly soothing. The delicate trilling of a flute, the strumming of guitar strings, the chiming of a xylophone. The music was calling to him, telling him to hurry. Egor dodged past a group of people hurrying in the opposite direction, overtook a happy little drunk who was barely staggering. All his thoughts seemed to have been blown out of his head; he was almost running now.
The music was calling.
And now there were words weaving themselves into it… not clear yet, still too quiet to make out, but just as alluring. Egor bounded out of the underpass and stopped for a moment, gulping in the cold air. A trolley was just rolling up to the stop. He could ride just one stop, almost all the way to his house…
The boy set off toward the trolley, walking slowly, as if his legs had suddenly become numb. The trolley stood there for a few seconds with its doors open; then the hinged flaps swung together and it moved away from the stop. Egor watched it go with dull, glazed eyes; the music was getting louder all the time, filling the whole world, from the semi-circular lobby of the high-rise hotel to the «box on stilts»—his own house—that he could see not far away. The music was prompting him to walk along the wide, brightly lit avenue, where there were still plenty of people around at this hour. The entrance to his house was only five minutes away.
But the music was even closer…
When Egor had walked about a hundred meters, the hotel suddenly stopped sheltering him from the wind. The icy blast stung his face, nearly drowning out the melody that was calling to him. The boy began to stagger, almost coming to a halt. The enchantment was shattered, but the feeling of being watched was back, this time with a strong undercurrent of fear. He glanced back. There was another trolley approaching the stop. And he caught a glimpse of an orange jacket in the light of the street-lamps. The man who had ridden up the escalator with him was walking behind him, with his eyes still half-closed in the same way, but he moved with surprising speed and purpose, as if he could see Egor.
The boy started to run.
The music resumed louder than ever, breaking through the curtain of wind. He could already make out the words… he could, but he didn't want to.
He should walk along the avenue, past the shops that were closed but still brightly lit, alongside the late-nighters on the sidewalk, in full view of the cars rushing by.
But Egor turned into an alleyway, to where the music was calling him.
It was almost completely dark in there; the only moving things were two shadows by the wall. Egor seemed to see them through a dense haze, as if they were lit up by some ghastly bluish glow: a young man and a young woman, very lightly dressed, as if the night air were not twenty degrees below zero.
The music rose to a final, crashing, triumphant chord; then it stopped. The boy felt his body go limp. He was covered in sweat; his legs were giving way; he wanted to sit down on the slippery, ice-covered sidewalk.
«A pretty one…« the girl said in a quiet voice. She had a thin face, with sunken cheeks and a pale complexion. Only her eyes seemed to be alive: black, huge, magnetic.
«You can leave… just a little bit…« the young man said with a smile. They were as alike as brother and sister, not in their features, but in some indefinable quality that they shared, as if their faces were covered by dusty, semi-transparent gauze.
«For you?» For an instant the girl turned her gaze away from Egor. The numbness eased slightly and terror flooded his mind. The boy opened his mouth, but his eyes met the young man's and he couldn't shout, as if he were suddenly wrapped in some cold, elastic membrane.
«Yes. You hold him!»
The girl gave a mocking snort. Turning her gaze back to Egor, she stretched out her lips as if she were blowing a kiss. In a quiet voice she pronounced those familiar words, the ones that had been woven into the alluring music.
«Come, come… come to me…«
Egor stood there without moving. He had no strength to run away, despite all the horror, despite the scream that had burst out of his lungs and stuck in his throat. But at least he could simply stand there.
A woman walked past the end of the alley with two massive German shepherds on leashes. Walking in slow motion, as if she were moving under water, as if she were part of his terrible dream. Out of the corner of his eye, Egor saw the dogs turn sharply toward the alley, tugging at their leashes, and for a moment an insane hope flared in his soul. The German shepherds started growling uncertainly, with a mixture of loathing and fear. The woman stopped for a moment and glanced suspiciously into the alley. Egor caught her glance—indifferent, as if she were looking into empty space.