... The stone burns your feet through the soft leather shoes, because the stone is red-hot, and even the spells applied to your clothes lose their effect. And up ahead someone's body is smoking, half sunk into the softened stone. Not all of our comrades' charms have withstood the Hammer of Fate.
'Geser!' a broad-shouldered man shouts in my ear. His short black beard has turned frizzy in the heat, his red-and-white clothes are dusted with black ash. Lacy black-and-grey flakes are falling on us from above, crumbling into dust as they fall. 'Geser, we have to decide!'
I say nothing. I look at the smoking body and try to recog nise who it is. But then his defence finally collapses, and the body . explodes into a column of greasy ashes that shoots up into the sky. The streams of dispersing Power waft the ashes about and for a moment they assume the spectral form of a human figure. I realise what it is that is falling on us, and a lump rises in my throat.
'Geser, they're trying to raise the Shade of the Rulers. 'The voice of the magician dressed in red and white is full of panic and horror. 'Geser!'
'I'm ready, Rustam,' I say. I reach out my hand to him. Magicians do not often work spells in pairs, but we have been through a lot together. And it's easier for two to do it. Easier to take the decision. Because there are hundreds of Dark Ones and tens of thousands of men in front of us.
And behind us there are only a hundred people who have put their trust in us and about ten apprentice magicians.
It's not easy to convince yourself that a hundred and ten are worth more than a hundred and ten thousand.
But I look at the black-and-grey ash, and suddenly I feel better. I tell myself what powerful and benign individuals will always tell themselves in a situation like this, in a hundred, a thousand, or two thousand years.
These are not people facing me!
These are raging beasts!
The Power flows through me, the Power floods my veins with an effervescent broth, emerging onto my skin as bloody perspir ation. There is so much Power all around: flowing out of the dead Others; dissipating from the spells that have been pronounced; flooding out of the men running into the attack. The Dark Ones knew what they were doing when they brought an entire army with them. Others do not fear the weapons of men, but the arms waving swords, the screaming mouths set in fierce grins and the eyes craving death belong to living wineskins filled with Power.
And the more this filthy human rabble - driven together under the banner of the Dark by cruel rulers or the thirst for gain -hates and fears, the stronger are the Dark Magicians walking amongst them.
But we have one spell in reserve, a spell that has never yet been uttered beneath this sun. It was brought back by Rustam from an island far away in the north, where it was invented by a cunning Light One called Merlin: but even he, who stood so dangerously close to the Dark, had been horrified by it...
The White Mist.
Rustam pronounces strange, coarse-sounding words. I repeat them after him, without even trying to understand their meaning. The words are important, but they are only the hand of the potter, giving shape to the clay, shaping the clay mould into which the molten metal will be poured, creating bronze manacles that allow no freedom to the hands. There are words at the beginning and end, words provide the form and the direction, but it is Power that decides everything.
Power and Will.
I can no longer hold back the force that is pulsing within me, ready to tear my pitiful human body apart with every beat of my heart. I open my mouth at the same time as Rustam. I shout, but I shout without words.
The time for words is over.
The White Mist surges out of our mouths in a murky, billowing wave - and it rolls on towards the advancing army and the circle of Dark Magicians, who are weaving the cobweb of their spell... no less terrifying, but slower... just a little bit slower. The grey shadows that are just beginning to rise out of the stone are swept aside by the White Mist.
And then the White Mist reaches the Others and the human warriors.
The world in front of us loses its colours, but not in the same way that this happens in the Twilight. The world turns white, but it is the whiteness of death, not life, a displacement of colours that is as sterile as their absence. The Twilight shudders and collapses, layer upon layer adhering to each other, pulling the men screaming in pain and the Others struck dumb by fear in between its icy millstones.
And the world congeals.
The white gloom disperses. The ash falling from the sky is still there. The red-hot ground beneath our feet is still there. And there too are the petrified figures of the Others ?freakish and bizarre, often entirely unlike human forms. They have been turned to granite and sandstone, coarsened and warped. A shape-shifter who was transforming into a tiger, a vampire who had fallen to the ground, magicians with their hands raised in a vain attempt to protect themselves...
There is not a trace left of the humans. The Twilight has swal lowed them, digested them and reduced them to nothing.
Rustam and I are shaking. We have torn and bloodied each others skin with our nails. Well, we had been thinking for a long time of becoming blood brothers.
'Merlin said that Others would be cast out on the final level of the Twilight, the seventh...' Rustam says in a quiet voice. 'He was wrong. But this is not a bad result either... This battle will live down the ages ... It is a glorious battle.'
'Look,' I say to him. 'Look, my brother.'
Rustam looks ?not with his eyes, but in the way that we Others know how to look. And he turns pale.
This battle will not live down the ages. We shall never glory in it.
To kill the enemy is valorous. To condemn him to torment is infamous. To condemn him to eternal torment is eternal infamy.
They are still alive. Turned to stone. Deprived of movement and Power, touch, vision, hearing and all the senses granted to men and Others.
But they are alive and they will remain alive - until the stone is reduced to sand, and perhaps even longer than that.
We can see their auras quivering with life. We can see their amazement, fear, fury.
We shall not glory in this battle.
We shall not talk about it.
And we shall never again pronounce the prickly, alien words that summon up the White Mist...
Why was I looking up at Alisher? And what was the ceiling doing there behind his head?
'Are you back with us, Anton?'
I lifted myself up on my elbows and looked round.
The East is subtle. The East can be sensitive. Everyone in the chaikhana had pretended that they hadn't seen me faint. They had left Alisher to get on with bringing me round.
The White Mist,' I said.
'All right, all right,' said Alisher, nodding. He was seriously alarmed. 'I made a mistake: not haze, but mist. I'm sorry. But what reason is there to faint?'
'Rustam and Geser used the White Mist,' I said. 'And three years ago... anyway, Geser taught me that spell. He taught me it very thoroughly. Shared his memories. Anyway... now I can remember how it all was.'
'Is it really so very grim?' Alisher asked.
'Yes, very. I don't want to go to that place.'
'But it was all a long time ago,' Alisher said reassuringly. 'It's all over now, it's been forgotten for ages... '
'If only...' I said, but I didn't try to explain. If Alisher was unlucky enough, he would see it and understand for himself. Because we would have to got to the Plateau of the Demons in any case. The Rustam in my borrowed memories was nothing at all like Afandi.
Just at that moment Afandi came back from the toilet. He sat down on his cushion, looked at me and asked:
'Decided to take a rest, did you? It's too soon for resting ?we'll have a rest after the pilaf.'
'I'm not so sure,' I muttered as I sat down.
'Ah, what a fine thing civilisation is!' Afandi went on, as if he hadn't heard me. 'You're both young, you don't know what bless ings civilisation has brought to the world.'
'Was the light bulb in there actually working, then?' I murmured. 'Alisher, ask that waiter to get a move on with the pilaf, will you?'
'You're in a hurry...'
He got up, but just at that moment a young man appeared bearing a large dish. Naturally, one plate for everyone, just as it should be: reddish, crumbly rice, orange carrots, a generous amount of meat, a whole head of garlic on the top.
'I told you the food here was good,' Alisher said delightedly.
But I looked at the man who had brought the pilaf and wondered where the young boy had got to. And why this waiter was acting so nervous.
I took a handful of rice and raised it to my face. Then I looked at the waiter. He started nodding and smiling eagerly.
'Mutton in garlic sauce,' I said.
'What sauce?' Alisher asked in amazement.
'I was just remembering the wise Holmes and the naive Watson,' I replied, no longer concerned that my Russian might seem out of place. 'The garlic is to cover the smell of the arsenic. You told me yourself ?in the East you have to trust your nose, not your eyes... My dear fellow, take a little pilaf with us!'
The waiter shook his head and backed away slowly. Out of curiosity I took a look at him through the Twilight ?the predom inant colours in his aura were yellow and green. Fear. He was no professional killer. And he, instead of his younger brother, had brought the poisoned pilaf himself, because he was afraid for him. It's amazing what abominable things people will do out of love for their nearest and dearest.
Basically, it was all pure improvisation. Some filthy substance with arsenic had been found in the chaikhana, some kind of rat poison. And someone had given the order to feed us poisoned pilaf. It's not possible to kill a powerful Other that way, but they could easily have weakened and distracted us.
'I'll make lagman noodles out of you,' I promised the waiter. 'And feed them to your little brother. Is the chaikhana being watched?'
'I... I don't know...' The waiter had realised that, despite the way I looked, he ought to speak Russian. 'I don't know, they ordered me to do it!'
'Get out!' I said, standing up. 'There won't be any tip.'
The waiter dashed for the door of the kitchen. And the customers started leaving the chaikhana, deciding to take the opportunity not to pay. What had frightened them so badly? What I said, or the way I said it?
'Anton, don't burn a hole in your trousers,' said Alisher.
I looked down ?there was a hissing fireball spinning in my hand. I had got so furious that the spell had slipped off the tips of my fingers into the launch stage.
'I ought to burn down this nest of vipers, just to teach them a lesson,' I hissed through my teeth.
Alisher didn't say anything. He smiled awkwardly and frowned by turns. I understood exactly what he wanted to say. That these people were not to blame. They had been ordered to do it, and they couldn't refuse. That this modest chaikhana was all that they had. That it fed two or three large families with little children and old grandparents. But he didn't say anything, because in this case I had a right to start a little fire. A man who tries to poison three Light Magicians deserves to be shown what's what, to teach him and other people a lesson. We're Light Ones, not saints ...
'The shurpa was good...' Alisher said quietly.
'Let's leave via the Twilight,' I said, transforming the fireball into a thin plume of flame and directing it at the dish of pilaf. The rice and meat were reduced to glowing ashes, together with the arsenic. 'I don't want to show myself in the doorway. These bastards work too quickly'
Alisher nodded gratefully and got up, stamped on the embers in the dish and emptied two teapots on them just to be sure.
'The green tea was good too,' I agreed. 'Listen, the tea looks pretty ordinary. Pretty poor stuff, to be honest. But it tastes really good!'
'The important thing is to brew it right,' Alisher replied, relieved by the change of subject. 'When a teapot is fifty years old and it hasn't been washed once...' He paused, but when he didn't see an expression of disgust on my face, he went on. 'That's the cunning part! This clever crust forms on the inside ?tannins, essential oils, flavonoids...'
'Are there really flavonoids in tea?' I asked in surprise, hanging the bag over my shoulder again. I'd almost forgotten it. The underwear wouldn't have mattered, but the bag also contained the selection of battle amulets that Geser had given me and five thick wads of dollars!
'Well, maybe I'm confusing things...'Alisher admitted. 'But it's the crust that does it, it's like brewing tea inside a shell of tea...'
Taking Afandi under the arms in the way that had already become a habit, we entered the Twilight. The cunning old man didn't argue: on the contrary, he pulled up his legs and dangled between us, giggling repulsively and crying out: 'Hup! Hup!' I thought that if, despite what Geser's memories told me, Afandi really was Rustam, I wouldn't let his age prevent me from giving him an earful of good old vernacular.