"Follow me," Wiktor said, on a morning in late September, and Mikhail walked in his shadow. They left the chambers of sunlight behind, and went down into a place in the white palace where the air was chill. Mikhail wore the deerskin robe that Renati had made for him, and he drew it tighter around his shoulders as he and Wiktor continued into the depths. Mikhail had realized over the past few weeks that his eyes quickly grew accustomed to darkness, and in the daylight he seemed to be able to see with razor clarity, even able to count the red leaves in an oak tree at a distance of a hundred yards. Still, Wiktor had something he wanted the boy to see, down here in the dark, and he paused to light a torch of boar fat and rags in the embers of a small fire he'd previously arranged. The torch flickered, and the smell of the burning fat made Mikhail's mouth water.
They descended into an area where the murals of robed and hooded monks on the walls still held their colors. a narrow passageway led through an arch, past open iron gates and into a huge chamber. Mikhail looked up, but couldn't see the ceiling. Wiktor said, "This is it. Stand where you are." Mikhail did, and Wiktor began to walk around the room. The torchlight revealed stone shelves packed with thick, leatherbound books: hundreds of them. No, more than hundreds, Mikhail thought. The books filled every available space and were piled up in stacks on the floor.
"This," Wiktor said quietly, "is what the monks who lived here a hundred years ago labored on: copying and storing manuscripts. There are three thousand four hundred and thirty-nine volumes in here." He said it with pride, as if discussing favored children. "Theology, history, architecture, engineering, mathematics, languages, philosophy... all here." He made a sweeping gesture with his torch. He smiled slightly. "The monks, as you can see, didn't have much of a social life. Show me your hands."
"Yes. You know. Those two things on the ends of your arms. Show them to me."
Mikhail lifted his hands toward the torchlight.
Wiktor studied them. He grunted and nodded. "You have the hands of a scholar," he said. "You've lived a privileged life, haven't youi"
Mikhail shrugged, not understanding.
"You've been well taken care of," Wiktor went on. "Born into an aristocratic family." He'd already seen the clothes Mikhail's mother, father, and sister had worn; they were of high quality. Good torch rags, now. He held up one of his own slender-fingered hands and turned it in the light. "I was a professor at the University of Kiev, a long time ago," he said. There was no wistfulness in his voice, only memory. "I taught languages: German, English, and French." a hard glint passed over his eyes. "I learned in three different tongues how to beg for money to feed my wife and son. Russia does not put a premium on the human mind."
Wiktor walked on, shining the torch at the books. "Unless, of course, you can devise a more economical method of killing," he added. "But I imagine all governments are more or less the same: all greedy, all shortsighted. It's the curse of man to have a mind and not have the sense to use it." He paused to gently remove a volume from a shelf. The back cover was gone, and the sheepskin pages hung from the spine. "Plato's Republic," Wiktor said. "In Russian, thank God. I don't know Greek." He sniffed at the binding as if inhaling a luxuriant perfume, then returned the book to its place. The chronicles of Julius Caesar, the theories of Copernicus, Dante's Inferno, the travels of Marco Polo... all around us, the doors to three thousand worlds." He moved the torch in a delicate circle and lifted a finger to his lips. "Shhhh," he whispered. "Be very quiet, and you can hear the sounds of keys turning, down here in the dark."
Mikhail listened. He heard a tentative scratching noise-not a key in a lock, but a rat somewhere in the huge chamber.
"ah, well." Wiktor shrugged and continued his inspection of the books. "They belong to me now." again, that hint of a smile. "I can honestly say I have the largest library of any lycanthrope in the world."
"Your wife and son," Mikhail said. "Where are theyi"
"Dead. and dead." Wiktor stopped to break cobwebs away from a few volumes. "Both of them starved to death, after I lost my position. It was a political situation, you see. My ideas made someone angry. We were wanderers for a while. Beggars, too." He stared at the torchlight, and Mikhail saw his amber eyes glint with fire. "I was not a very good beggar," he said quietly. "after they died, I struck out on my own. I decided to get out of Russia, perhaps go to England. They have educated men in England. I took a road that led me through these woods... and a wolf bit me. His name was Gustav; he was my teacher." He moved the torch so its light fell on Mikhail. "My son had dark hair, like yours. He was older, though. Eleven years old. He was a very fine boy." The torch shifted, and Wiktor followed it around the chamber. "You've come a long way, Mikhail. But you have a long way yet to go. You've heard tales of wolfmen, yesi Every child is scared to bed at least once by such stories."
"Yes, sir," Mikhail answered. His father had told him and alizia tales of cursed men who became wolves and tore lambs to pieces.
"They're lies," Wiktor said. "The full moon has nothing to do with it. Nor does night. We can go through the change whenever we please... but learning to control it takes time and patience. You have the first; you'll learn the second. Some of us change selectively. Do you know what that meansi"
"We can control which part changes first. The hands into claws, for instance. Or the facial bones and the teeth. The task is mastery of the mind and body, Mikhail. It is abhorrent for a wolf-or a man-to lose control over himself. as I say, this is something you'll have to learn. and it's not a simple task, by any means; it'll take years before you master it, if ever."
Mikhail felt split; he was listening with one half of his mind to what Wiktor was saying, but the other half listened to the rat scratching in the darkness.
"Have you ever read anything on anatomyi" Wiktor took a thick book from a shelf. Mikhail looked blankly at him. "anatomy: the study of the human body," Wiktor translated. "This one is written in German, and it gives illustrations of the brain. I've thought a lot about the virus in our bodies, and why we can go through the change while ordinary men cannot. I think the virus affects something deep in the brain. Something long buried, and meant to be forgotten." His voice was getting excited, as if he were on a university podium again. "This book here"-he returned the anatomy volume and removed another book near it-"is a philosophy of the mind, from a medieval manuscript. It proposes that man's brain is multilayered. at the center of the brain is the animal instinct; the beast's nature, if you will-"
Mikhail was distracted. The rat: scratch, scratch. a peal of hunger rang in his stomach like a hollow bell.
"-and that portion of the brain is what the virus liberates. How little we know about the magnificent engine in our skulls, Mikhail! Do you see what I meani"
Mikhail didn't, really. all this talk of beasts and brains made no impression on him. He looked around, his senses questing: scratch, scratch.
"You can have three thousand worlds, if you want them," Wiktor said. "I'll be your key, if you choose to learn."
"Learni" He tore his attention away from his hunger. "Learn whati"
Wiktor came to the end of his patience. "You're not a half-wit! Stop acting like one! Listen to what I'm saying: I want to teach you what's in these books! and what I know about the world, too! The languages: French, English, German. Plus history, mathematics, and-"
"Whyi" Mikhail interrupted. Renati had told him the white palace and this forest would be his home for the rest of his life, just as it was for the others of the pack. "What use would I have for those things, if I'm going to stay here foreveri"
"What use!" Wiktor mocked him, and snorted angrily. "What use, he says!" He strode forward, brandishing the torch, and stopped just short of Mikhail. "Being a wolf is a wonderful thing. a miracle. But we were born humans, and we can't let go of our humanity-even though the word 'human' shames us to our core sometimes. Do you know why I'm not a wolf all the timei Why I don't just run in the forest day and nighti" Mikhail shook his head. "Because when we take the form of wolves we age as wolves, too. If we were to spend one year as wolves, we would be seven years older when we returned to human form. and as much as I love the freedom, the aromas, and... the fine wonder of it, I love life more. I want to live as long as I can, and I want to know. My brain hurts for knowledge. I say learn to run as a wolf, yes; but learn to think like a man, too." He tapped his bald skull. "If you don't, you squander the miracle."
Mikhail looked at the books he could see by the torchlight. They appeared very thick and very dusty. How could anyone ever read one book that thick, much less all of themi
"I'm a teacher," Wiktor said. "Let me teach."
Mikhail considered it. Those books frightened him, in a way; they were massive and forbidding. His father used to have a library, though the books were thinner and they had gilded titles on their spines. He remembered his and alizia's tutor, Magda, a large gray-haired woman who used to come to their house in a buggy. It was important to know the world, Magda had always said, so you could find your place in it if you were ever lost. Mikhail had never felt more lost in his life. He shrugged, still wary; he'd never liked homework. "all right," he agreed, after another moment.
"Good! Oh, if the linen-shirted regents could see their professor now!" He grunted. "I'd tear out their hearts and show them how they beat!" He listened to the scratchings of the clawed intruder. "The first lesson isn't in a book. Your stomach's growling, and I'm hungry, too. Find the rat and we'll have our meal." He clubbed the torch on the floor, and sparks flew until the flames were beaten out.
The chamber was in darkness. Mikhail tried to listen, but his heartbeat was a thunderous distraction. a rat could be a good, juicy meal if it was large enough; this one sounded large enough for two meals. He'd eaten the rats Renati had brought him. They tasted like stringy chicken, and their brains were sweet. He looked slowly right and left in the dark, his head tilted to catch the sound. The rat scratched on, but it was hard to pinpoint its location.
"Down on the rat's level," Wiktor advised. "Think like a rat."
Mikhail got down on his haunches. Then on his belly. ah, yes; now the scratching led him to his right. The far wall, he thought. Maybe in a corner. He began crawling in that direction. The rat abruptly stopped scratching.
"He hears you," Wiktor said. "He reads your mind."
Mikhail crawled forward. His shoulder bumped something: a pile of books. They slithered to the floor, and he heard the rat's claws click on the stones as it scuttled along the far wall. Going from right to left, Mikhail thought. He hoped. His stomach growled, an alarmingly loud noise, and he heard Wiktor laugh. The rat stopped, and remained silent. Mikhail lay on his belly, his head cocked. a sharp, acidic odor came to him. The rat was terrified; it had just urinated. The smell was as clear a pathway as a lantern's beam, but exactly why that was Mikhail didn't yet fully understand. His vision detected more piles of books around him, all outlined in a faintly luminous gray. Still he couldn't see the rat, but he could make out the volumes and shelves on the far wall. If I were a rat, he thought, I would squeeze into a corner. Someplace where my back was protected. Mikhail crawled forward, slowly... slowly...
He could hear a muffled, steady thump about thirty feet behind him; Wiktor's heartbeat, he realized. His own pulse was all but deafening, and he stayed where he was until it had calmed. He angled his head from side to side, listening.
There. a quick tick... tick... tick like a small watch. To Mikhail's right, perhaps another twenty feet or so ahead. In the corner, of course. Behind an untidy heap of luminous-edged books. Mikhail crawled toward the corner, his movements silent and sinuous.
He heard the rat's heartbeat increase. a rat had the sixth sense; it could smell him, and in another moment Mikhail smelled the dusty hair of the rat, too. He knew exactly where it was. The rat was motionless, but its heartbeat indicated it was about to burst from its cover and run along the wall. Mikhail kept going, inch after inch. He heard the rat's claws click-and then it darted forward, a blurred luminescence, as it tried to flee across the chamber to the far corner.
all Mikhail knew was that he was hungry and he wanted the rat, but his mind worked instinctively, calculating the rat's angle and speed with an animal's cold logic. Mikhail lunged to the left. The rat squeaked and darted away from his hand. as the rat swerved and shot past him-a streak of gray fire-Mikhail instantly turned to the right, reached out, and gripped the rodent behind the head.
The rat thrashed, trying to get its teeth in Mikhail's flesh. It was a large rat, and it was strong. In another few seconds it was going to fight free. Mikhail decided the issue.
He opened his mouth, put the rat's head between his teeth and bit down on the tough little neck.
His teeth worked; there was no rage or anger in this, just hunger. He heard the bones crunch, and then warm blood filled his mouth. He ripped a last piece of flesh loose. The rat's head rolled over his tongue. The body's legs kicked a few times, but with dwindling strength. and that was the end of a very unequal contest.
"Bravo," Wiktor said. But his voice regained its sternness. "Two more inches and you would've lost it. That rat was as slow as a muffin-stuffed grandmother."
Mikhail spat the severed head onto his palm. He watched as Wiktor approached him, outlined in luminescence. It was good manners to offer the best portion of any meal to Wiktor, and Mikhail lifted his palm.
"It's yours," Wiktor told him, and took the warm dead carcass.
Mikhail worked the skull between his teeth, finally breaking it open. The brains reminded him of a sweet-potato pie he'd eaten, in another world.
Wiktor ripped the carcass open from stub of neck to tail. He inhaled the heady fragrance of blood and fresh meat, and then scooped the intestines out with his fingers and pulled pieces of fat and flesh away from the bones. He offered a portion to Mikhail, who took his share gratefully.
The man and boy ate their rat in the dark chamber, with the echoes of civilized minds in the shelves all around them.