Olga wasted no time in putting her life back in motion.
When the tribunal handed down their surprising reprieve, she didn’t know what to think. Even the restrictions of her probation didn’t bother her over much in that moment. Olga half listened to the terms, her face expressionless. Just thinking about not enduring the agony of transformation, the agonizing ages confined and immobile but hideously aware of her place on a dusty curio shelf, frozen with the smell of soot and fire in her nose - it was enough to make her want to skip around the room as if she were at a Court ball. Later she could consider things more seriously, mourn the peculiar narrowing of her gifts that left her feeling bereft and frustrated. Right now, all that mattered was her ability to keep her skin. Her own skin, not a strange one. Her own body, breathing the harsh air.
There were moments where it seemed like the decades hadn’t swept through at all, and others were Olga felt like a cosmonaut back from outer space. Some faces were absent and some were changed, irrevocably. Some remained. She wasn’t ready to think too hard about the losses of time and life between here and there. She was glad enough to embrace her fellows in the Watch and throw herself back into living as quickly as she could. Her most recent partner, Anton, helped her search listing for apartments on his computer and Olga spent a day reacquainting herself the fashions of modern women on the boss’s credit card.
The adjustment was not so hard. It seemed to surprise Anton, who maybe imagined she was always a bird and only infrequently a woman. But Olga had lived through so many things already that it didn’t seem overly strange that the world was different. She wasn’t entirely ignorant, thanks to a certain someone’s habit of leaving the television running nonstop at times, pointed at the cabinet and the dusty shelf. She was only out of practice.
Olga had little patience with the complexities of technological life. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate the pleasures, especially when it came to automobiles or exquisite multi-head showers with in floor heating and stereo speakers. She just didn’t care enough about understanding the complexities of computer model forecasting or whatever it was that the analytical department did now instead of casting bones or reading entrails. It might be faster, neater, easier to read. But it wasn’t compelling. Olga preferred her destinies and dooms to come with bloody feet over hallowed ground, with a howl. Not an anemic clicking under flickering lights.
It was a chance conversation at Night Watch headquarters that turned her towards the computers.
“What are you doing Yulia?” she asked the young witch. Gesar had asked her to spend some time evaluating the newest and youngest members of the Light and the Night Watch. So she spent a few hours every day standing in classrooms or roaming the halls. Yulia stood out, a butterfly among the moths in the dusty classrooms. Not a legend, but strong and perhaps destined to do good work one day.
“Playing a game.” Her answer was distracted, the words vague and half hearted as she bent her concentration on a flurry of clicks and taps. Olga watched over the young girl’s shoulder as she navigated expertly with minimal taps.
“What’s the point of this anyway, sinking all your time to something less real than any of the barely tangible work we already do?” Olga was genuinely curious for an answer, because Yulia was both talented and part of a world that passed Olga by while she waited on that damn shelf.
“It’s fun.” the girl was perplexed. “It isn’t meant to mean anything.” She tapped the keyboard and turned to look at the other woman. “A lot of kids can’t play outside, because of the vory or whatever. Or it is too far to take the metro all the way across town to see somebody. So you can play online, whenever, with your friends.”
“Hmm.” Olga furrowed her brow. “Alright, show me how to play.”
Yulia recruited one of the other Watch agents, a young man with an attractive half smile who alternately stammered and blushed in their company. He quickly cobbled up another computer with appropriate working parts from the various pieces in his office. While he installed the software necessary to run an entire host of computer games Yulia assured her were the absolute best this year, Olga took the younger witch to dinner.
She passed Anton in the hallway. He shook his head and refused the invitation, pleading that he was behind on the mountain of paperwork relating to his last assignment. Olga felt that was only partially true and wondered what he was really chewing on behind his careful words. Something, certainly. She debated for a moment confessing that she meant to finally use a computer for something other than looking for apartments. He would be pleased, she knew, and maybe even come to join them at whatever game Yulia wanted to teach her.
“Are you sure?” she asked again, giving him her best friendly smile.
“Forgive me, Olga, it is just all this and an -” His phone began ringing in his pocket, a trilling jingle. Anton fumbled a handful of folders from one hand to the other as he patted his jacket and pockets in search of the ringing cell phone.
“Hello? Sveta, hang on one second...” Anton dropped his satchel and made a face as things spilled out over the floor.
Olga put up her hands, a mock surrender. When he started to cover the phone she shook her head and left him standing in the hallway, making some hurried plans. Privately, Olga found cell phones a little perverse. Who wanted to be constantly in reach of anyone? Bad enough if your friends had incredible mental powers already, she mused, but letting anyone insert themselves into your ear was really a bit much.
Over bowls of steaming soup thick with noodles and floating rings of onion thin as paper, Olga listened to Yulia chatter. She was still so young, hardly out of childhood and terribly innocent in some ways. But there was a knowing flame lurking, under her girlish voice and bright blue eyes.
“Yulia, most girls your age wouldn’t be interested in working in an office and listening to war stories from old men and women.” Olga balanced her chopsticks and hunted for slivers of meat in the soup. Outside the windows, lights flickered in the dusk.
“Well, I’m not like most girls my age, am I?” the younger witch replied without a trace of irony. “Not really.”
“True,” Olga agreed. “But it is unusual to start so young in the Watch, since the end of the wars.” It surprised her actually. Gesar was such a stickler for rules in some ways and she wanted to know what made him let this child take up her flag and shield so early. Olga strained her senses to part the Twilight and see Yulia’s aura. The effort required was ridiculous. It was like forgetting how to open one’s mouth and breathe. While Yulia chewed on her noodles, the corona around her head flickered in clear, shining tones. It reminded Olga of the auroras in winter.
“I do plenty of regular things, like school. And I see my friends. But I do this too. I couldn’t just pretend none of this existed.”
“You could though, plenty of people do.”
“No,” Yulia sighed. “I don’t think so. I would know and it would always be at the back of my mind wondering. This way, I at least know what’s waiting in the dark.”
“Fear no darkness, Yulia.” Olga pressed her hand over the girl’s. She would find out somehow, what exactly it was that built the flame in the girl. Maybe someone she loved was sacrificed or something happened to her after learning what made her so different from her classmates. Maybe someone in the Night Watch had accidentally revealed something of the terrible truth to the girl. She didn’t know. But she didn’t pry any further and steered the conversation to lighter subjects. Soon Olga was laughing uproariously as Yulia described popular movies with the superiority only a gift teenager could muster.
Back at the office, the blushing computer tech keyed on the computer and bolted. Olga watched him retreat with a half smile that verged on predatory. But Yulia quickly drew her attention back to learning a sequence of letters and numbers meant to advance her in the game. It wasn't overly hard and to her surprise Olga found it sort of amusing the further she went. Yulia guided her through adventures, learning to point and click and move her little avatar through a curious imaginary world contained in the computer.
“This is ridiculous,” Olga grumbled at one point. “None of this magic is in any way realistic...” She flexed her fingers and tried to settle them over the unfamiliar keyboard.
“There probably aren’t many Others working in video games,” Yulia said seriously. “Anyway, the point is for it to be a fantasy! Most people don’t know that these spells would really require a lot more work and any way that spoils the fun.”
They ran in circles, killing angry little monsters until they were sufficiently powerful and burdened with monster pelts to satisfy the petty quests assigned. Then Yulia guided her out of the starting area, showing her the numerous other players running, jumping and otherwise playing at things that they probably didn’t know were real enough outside their computer screens. It was surreal but Olga forged ahead, clicking along to keep up with Yulia in the game. The girl kept up a running commentary on the apparently vast and complex world around them.
“If only real werewolves were so easy to put down!” Olga exclaimed with a laugh as they finished a mission that involved rescuing absolutely useless villagers from a band of monsters. No consulting permits or regulations, just point and click and kill the werewolves. She was starting to see the appeal these games held for the younger members of the Nightwatch. It wasn’t their generation's technological ease that drew into the games. It was the promise of a world with clear rules, black and white, good versus evil without compromises or requirements of balance. It was the opportunity to do all the heroic deeds denied to them by the Treaty and the fragile, terrible peace between Light and Dark.
“If only,” the younger witch agreed. The realization hit Olga slowly. Yulia flashed her a knowing grin that disappeared as quickly as it came. Olga swallowed and excused herself for a moment. In the hallway she closed her eyes and summoned forth the image of the Treaty, the letters burned into her mind’s eye. Time would decide, if the machinations of the Watches didn’t. But meanwhile, generations of Others would have to learn to live with the compromises made in their names.
Olga bought them both sodas from the vending machine, cold and slick in her hands. There were some things to value in the technological wonders of the current age, she thought. Down the hall, Yulia’s pale head bent over her keyboard as she tapped out a sequence of keys that blossomed into a rain of fire on the screen, burning her enemies to ash. If only all their battles were so clear cut as these worlds of might and magic, sword and sorcery, warcraft and witchcraft. No wonder they loved their computers so damned much.
“If only,” Olga sighed. She straightened her spine, conscious that it was a woman’s and not a bird’s back now. A woman was meant to carry much heavier burdens, she reminded herself. But a woman could take comfort in the anemic plastic spirits of the new world, even knowing they were even less substantial than fairy tales. The truth would still be waiting when they were done slaying monsters and finishing quests.