a hand gripped Mikhail's shoulder, rousing him from a restless two hours of sleep, and a finger pressed against his lips.
"Quiet," Wiktor said, crouching next to him. "Just listen." He glanced at alekza, who was already awake and clutching Petyr close, then back to Mikhail.
"What is iti What's happeningi" Franco stood up, with the help of his staff.
"The soldiers are coming," Wiktor answered, and Franco's face blanched. "I saw them from the tower. Fifteen or sixteen of them, maybe more." He'd seen them in the deep blue predawn light, darting from tree to tree, thinking they were invisible. Wiktor had heard the squeak of wheels; they'd brought their machine gun with them.
"What are we going to doi" Franco's voice quavered on the edge of panic. "We've got to get out while we can!"
Wiktor looked at the low-burning fire, then slowly nodded. "all right," he said. "We'll go."
"Goi" Mikhail asked. "To wherei This is our home!"
"Forget that!" Franco told him. "We'll have no chance if they catch us down here."
"He's right," Wiktor agreed. "We'll hide in the forest. Maybe we can come back after the soldiers clear out." The way he said it told them all he didn't believe it; once the soldiers found the pack's den, they might move in themselves before the first snow. Wiktor stood up. "We can't stay here any longer."
Franco didn't hesitate. He cast aside his staff, and gray hair began to scurry over his flesh. Within a minute he was changed, his body balanced on three legs. Mikhail would have changed, too, but Petyr still wore human skin and so alekza couldn't change either. He elected to remain human. Wiktor's face and skull began the transformation; he threw off his robe, sleek white hair emerging from his chest, shoulders, and back. Franco was already going up the stone stairs. Mikhail grasped alekza's hand and pulled her and the child after him.
Fully changed, Wiktor took the lead. They followed him through the winding passageways, past the high vaulted windows where the trees had broken through-and suddenly they saw the dawn sky light up. Not with the sun, which was still a red slash across the horizon, but with a sparkling, sizzling ball of white fire that rose from the forest and arced down, bathing everything with garish, incandescent light. The ball of fire fell in the palace's courtyard, and two more rose up from the woods and fell after it. The third one smashed the remaining stained glass from a window and came into the palace itself, sputtering and glowing like a miniature sun.
Wiktor barked at the others to keep moving. Mikhail lifted his hand to shield his eyes from the blinding glare, his other hand locked on alekza's. Franco ran on his three legs just behind Wiktor. Beyond the windows, darkness had turned to false, cold white daylight. Something about this was dreamlike to Mikhail, as if he moved through the corridors of a nightmare on sluggish legs. The glaring light cast grotesque, distorted shadows on the walls, merging those of human and wolf into new life-forms.
Mikhail's sense of unreality remained even when the soldier-a faceless shape-appeared in the corridor before them, lifted his rifle, and fired.
Wiktor was already leaping for the man, but Mikhail heard Wiktor grunt and knew the bullet had hit its target. Wiktor drove the soldier down under his weight, and as the man screamed Wiktor tore his throat out with one savage twist.
"They're here! Over here!" another soldier shouted. "a dozen of them!" The noise of boots echoed on the stones. a second rifle fired, and sparks leaped off the wall just above Franco's head. Wiktor turned, slamming into Franco to back him up the way they'd just come. Mikhail saw perhaps eight or nine soldiers in the corridor ahead; escape through that route was impossible. Wiktor was barking, his voice hoarse with pain, some of the soldiers were shouting, and Petyr wailed in alekza's arms. Two more shots rang out, both of the bullets ricocheting off the walls. Mikhail turned and ran, pulling alekza with him. and then he came around the bend of a passage and stopped short, face-to-face with three soldiers.
They gaped at him, surprised to see a human being. But the first man regained his wits and trained his rifle barrel at Mikhail's chest.
Mikhail heard himself growl. He reached out, a blur of motion, grasped the barrel, and uptilted it as the gun fired. He felt the hot streak of the bullet as it kissed his shoulder. His other arm lunged forward, and it was only when his hooked claws sank into the man's eyes that he realized his hand had changed. It had happened in an instant, a miracle of mind over body, and as he tore the man's eyes out the soldier screamed and staggered back into his companions. The third man fled, bellowing for help, but the second soldier began firing his rifle wildly, without aiming. Bullets shrieked off the walls and ceiling. a shape jumped past Mikhail; it had three legs, and it plowed headlong into the soldier's belly. The man fought Franco, but it was Franco's legs that were crippled, not his fangs. He tattered the soldier's face and got a grip on the throat. Mikhail was on his knees, his body contorting, and he shook off his deerskin robe and let the change take him.
There was a flash of metal. The soldier drove his arm down, and the knife he'd drawn sank into the back of Franco's neck. Franco shuddered, but he didn't release the man's throat. The man pulled the knife out, struck again and again. Franco crunched down, crushing the soldier's windpipe. The knife sank into Franco's neck up to the hilt, and bloody spray burst from Franco's nostrils.
Two more soldiers appeared in the whirl of gunsmoke, fire sparking from their rifle barrels. a hammer blow hit Mikhail in the side, stealing his breath. another bullet clipped his ear. Franco howled as a bullet struck him, but he propelled himself forward, the knife still in his neck, and sank his fangs into the leg of one of the soldiers. The other man shot Franco at point-blank range, but still Franco clawed and bit in a frenzy. Wiktor suddenly bounded out of the smoke, dark blood streaming from his shoulder, and he slammed into the second man, knocking him to the floor. Mikhail was fully changed now, the smell of blood and violence igniting his rage. He leaped upon the man Franco had attacked, and together he and Franco made quick work of him. Then Mikhail swerved and lunged onto Wiktor's combatant, his fangs finding the throat and tearing it out.
It had been a soft groan.
He turned, and saw alekza on her knees. Petyr was squalling, and she held him tightly. Her eyes looked glassy. a thin creeper of blood oozed from the corner of her mouth. Her knees were in a puddle of it. "Mikhail," she whispered again, and offered the child to him.
He couldn't take Petyr. He needed hands, not paws.
"Please," she begged.
But Mikhail couldn't answer, either. The wolf's tongue could form no words of human love, or need, or sorrow.
alekza's ice-blue eyes rolled back into her head. She fell forward, still holding the child, and Mikhail realized that Petyr's skull was going to smash on the stones.
He leaped over a dead soldier and slid underneath the child, cushioning Petyr's fall with his body.
He heard more soldiers coming through the smoky corridor. Wiktor barked: a sound that urged him to follow. Mikhail stayed where he was, his mind dazed, his joints and muscles full of frost.
Wiktor bit Mikhail's wounded ear, and tugged at him. The soldiers were almost upon them, and Wiktor could hear the squeak of wheels: the machine gun.
Franco staggered forward, gripping Mikhail's tall between his teeth and jerking backward, almost ripping the tail off. The pain charged through Mikhail's nerves. Petyr was still wailing, the soldiers were coming with their machine gun, and alekza lay motionlessly on the stones. Wiktor and Franco kept pulling at Mikhail, urging him to get up. There was nothing more he could do, for either alekza or his son. Mikhail raised up and snapped at Wiktor, driving him back, and then he eased carefully out from underneath Petyr so the child slid to the floor. He stood up, the taste of blood bitter in his mouth.
The shapes of men stood in the smoke. There was the sound of metal scraping metal: a firing bolt being drawn back.
Franco lifted his head, awkwardly because of the knife in his neck, and howled. The noise echoed along the passageway, and stilled the finger that reached for the machine gun's trigger. and then Franco hobbled in the direction of the soldiers, his body tensing for a leap. He flung himself into the whirling smoke, his jaws gaping wide to tear whatever flesh his fangs might find. The machine gun chattered, and the bullets cut Franco in half.
Wiktor turned in the opposite direction and ran along the corridor, jumping over the dead soldiers. The machine gun was still speaking, bullets ricocheting off the walls like hornets. Mikhail saw alekza's body shake as another bullet hit her, and a slug whined off the stones beside Petyr. It was Mikhail's choice; he could either die here or try to get out. He whirled around and followed the white wolf.
as soon as he sprinted away, he heard the machine gun cease firing. Petyr was still crying. One of the men shouted, "Hold your fire! There's a child in there!"
Mikhail didn't stop. Petyr's fate, whatever it might be, was beyond his control. But the machine gun didn't fire again, and the rifles were silent. Maybe there was mercy in the Russian heart, after all. Mikhail didn't look back; he kept going, right behind Wiktor, his mind already turning away from the present to the future.
Wiktor found a narrow ascending staircase and went up, leaving drops of blood on the stones. Mikhail added his own blood to them. They got through a glassless window on the upper level, slid down the sloping roof, and crashed into the thicket beneath. Then they were running side by side into the forest, and when they'd gotten a safe distance, they both stood panting in the chill dawn light, the dead leaves beneath them spattered with drops of red. Wiktor burrowed into the leaves and lay there, half hidden, as he rasped with pain. Mikhail wandered in dazed circles until he fell, his strength gone. He began to lick his wounded side, but his tongue found no bullet; the slug had pierced the flesh and gone through at an angle, missing the ribs and internal organs. Still, Mikhail was losing a lot of blood. He crawled beneath the shelter of a pine tree and there he drifted into unconsciousness.
When he awakened, the wind had picked up, swirling through the treetops. The day had passed; the sun was almost gone. Mikhail saw Wiktor, the white wolf burrowed in the leaves. He got up on all fours, staggered to Wiktor, and nudged him. at first he thought Wiktor was dead, because he was so terribly still, but then Wiktor groaned and rose up, a crust of dried blood around his mouth and his eyes dull and lost.
Hunger gnawed in Mikhail's belly, but he felt too drained to hunt. He staggered in one direction and then another, unable to decide what it was he should do. So he just stood in position, his head drooping and his side damp with blood again.
From the distance there was a hollow booming noise. Mikhail's ears twitched. The sound repeated itself. He realized it was coming from the southeast, where the white palace was.
Wiktor walked through the forest and up a small, rocky ridge. He stood motionless, staring at something, and after a while Mikhail gathered his strength and climbed up the ridge to stand beside him.
Dark smoke was rising, whirling in the wind. a red center of flames burned. as Wiktor and Mikhail watched, there was a third explosion. They could see chunks of stone flying into the sky, and they both knew what was happening: the soldiers were blowing the white palace to pieces.
Two more blasts shot banners of fire into the falling dark. Mikhail saw the turreted tower-where his kite had been caught, long ago-crumple and go down. a larger explosion bloomed, and out of that blast flew what appeared to be fiery bats. They were caught in the wind, whirling around and around in fierce maelstroms, and in another moment Mikhail and Wiktor could smell the scorch and char of mindless destruction. Fiery bats spun over the forest, and began to fall.
Some of them drifted down around the two wolves. Neither one had to look to see what they were. The burning pages were written in Latin, German, and Russian. Many of them held the remnants of colored illustrations, rendered by a master's hand. For a moment it snowed black flakes of civilization's dreams, and then the wind swept them up and away, and there was nothing left.
Night claimed the world. The fires grew wild in the wind, and began to feed on trees. The two wolves stood atop their ridge of rocks. The flames gleamed redly in two sets of eyes: one that had seen the true nature of the beast, and hated that sight; and another that stared in dull submission, glazed with final tragedy. The flames leaped and danced, a mockery of happiness, and green pines shriveled to brown before their touch. Mikhail nudged Wiktor: it was time to go, to wherever they were going, but Wiktor didn't move. Only much later, when they could both feel the advancing heat, did Wiktor make a noise: a deep, terrible groaning sound, the sound of defeat. Mikhail climbed down the ridge and barked for Wiktor to follow. Finally Wiktor turned away from the flames and came down, too, his body shivering and his head slung low.
It was as true for wolves as it was for humans, Mikhail thought as they wound their way through the forest. Life was for the living. alekza, Franco, Nikita... all the others, gone. and what of Petyri Did his bones lie in the ruins of the white palace, or had the soldiers taken himi What would happen to Petyr, out in the wildernessi Mikhail realized he would probably never know, and maybe that was for the best. It struck him, quite suddenly, that he was a murderer. He had killed human beings, broken their necks and ripped out their throats and... God help him... it had been easy.
and the worst thing was that there had been pleasure in the killing.
Though the books were in ashes, their voices remained in Mikhail's mind. He heard one of those voices now, from Shakespeare's Richard II:
With Cain go wander through the shade of night,
and never show thy head by day nor light.
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe,
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.
He went on into the forest, with Wiktor following, as the wind continued to whirl and the trees burned at their backs.