WE DROVE ON to the Plateau of Demons at half past three in the morning. On the way we passed an aul, a tiny settlement in the mountains - less than ten small clay-walled houses set back a little way from the road. There was a bonfire on the only small street, with people crowding round it ?ten or twenty of them, no more than that. The recent earthquake had evidently fright ened the inhabitants of the aul and they were afraid to spend the night in their houses.
Alisher was still driving. I was dozing on the back seat and thinking about Edgar.
What had made him go against the Watches and the Inquisition? Why had he broken every possible taboo and involved human beings in his machinations?
I couldn't understand it. Edgar was a careerist, like all Dark Ones, of course he was. He could kill if necessary. He could do absolutely anything at all: Dark Ones had no moral prohibit ions. But to do something that set him in opposition to all Others - that could only be explained by insanity or a thirst for power. And then, Edgar had so much Baltic restraint and reserve. Spending decades crawling up the career ladder was easy. But staking everything on a single throw of the dice?
What had he found out about the Crown of All Things? What information had he dug up in the archives of the Inquisition? Who else had he managed to involve? The Dark vampire and the Light Healer - who were they? Where were they from? Why had they conspired with an Inquisitor? What goals could a Dark One, a Light One and an Inquisitor have in common?
But then, the goal wasn't too hard to figure out. The goal was always one and the same. Power. Power in all its forms. You could say that we Light Ones were different. That we didn't need Power for Power's sake, but only in order to help people. And that was probably true. But we still needed Power. Every Other is familiar with that sweet temptation, that delicious sensation of his own strength: the vampire, sucking on a young girl's throat; the healer, saving a dying child with a wave of his hand. What difference did it make what it was for? Every Other would find a way to apply the might that he acquired.
I was far more concerned about another point. Edgar had been involved in the business with the Fuaran. He had been in contact with Kostya Saushkin.
And that brought me back to that unfortunate youth, Victor Prokhorov. The boy Vitya, who had been friends with the boy Kostya...
Again and again everything pointed to Kostya Saushkin. What if he had managed to survive somehow? If he'd used his final scraps of Power to erect some kind of vampire Shield round himself and lived long enough to set up a portal and disappear from his burning spacesuit? And then he'd got in touch with Edgar?
No, it was impossible, of course. The Inquisition had checked the matter very carefully. But then, what if Edgar had already been playing a double game, even then? And he had falsified the results of the investigation?
But even so, it still didn't add up. Why would he save a vampire he had just been hunting? Save him and then conspire with him? What could Kostya do for him? Without the Fuaran ?nothing! And the book had been destroyed, that was absolutely certain. It had been observed just as carefully as Kostya. And its destruction had been confirmed by magical means. The discharge of energy when such a powerful and ancient artefact is destroyed is quite impossible to confuse with anything else.
Basically, there was no way that Edgar could have saved Kostya ?that was the first conclusion. And he didn't have any need to save him ?that was the second.
But even so, even so ...
Alisher stopped the jeep and switched off the engine. The silence that fell was deafening.
'I think we're here,' he said. He stroked the steering wheel and added: 'A good little vehicle. I didn't think we'd make it.'
I turned back towards Afandi, but he was no longer asleep. He was looking at the freakish stone figures scattered around in front of us. His lips were pressed tightly together.
'Still standing there,' I said.
Afandi glanced at me in genuine fright.
'I know about it,' I explained.
'It was a bad business,' Afandi said, with a sigh. 'Ugly. Not worthy of a Light One.'
'Afandi, are you Rustam?'
Afandi shook his head.
'No, Anton. I'm not Rustam. I'm his pupil.'
He opened the door and climbed out of the jeep. After a pausing for a second, he murmured:
'I am not Rustam, but I will be Rustam...'
Alisher and I glanced at each other and got out of the jeep too.
It was quiet and cool - it's always cool in the mountains at night, even in summer. And it was just starting to get light. The plateau that I knew from Geser's memories had changed hardly at all. Except perhaps that the outlines of the stone figures had been softened by the wind and the rare showers of rain: they were less clearly defined but were still recognisable. A group of magicians with their hands raised in invocatory spells, a werewolf, a magician running...
I started to shiver.
'What is this... ?' Alisher whispered. 'What happened here... ?'
He reached into his pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
'Give me one too,' I said.
We lit up. The air around us was so pure that the sharp smell of tobacco seemed like a memory of home, a reminder of the smog of the city.
'These... were they people?' Alisher asked, pointing to the blocks of stone.
'Others,' I told him.
'They didn't die. They turned to stone. Lost all their external senses. But their reason remained, attached to the lumps of rock.' I looked at Afandi, but he was still standing there, pensively exam ining the field of the ancient battle, or watching the eastern horizon where the sky had turned slightly pink.
Then I looked at the plateau through the Twilight.
The sight was genuinely blood-curdling.
What Geser had seen two thousand years ago had made him feel fear and revulsion. But what I saw now made me feel pity and pain.
Almost all the Dark Ones who had been turned to stone by the White Mist were insane. Their reason had not been able to withstand being incarcerated in total isolation from any sense organs. The fluttering coloured auras around the stones blazed with the brown and reddish-green fire of madness. If I try to think of something to compare this sight with, I would say it looked like a hundred total lunatics whirling around on the spot, or rather standing there absolutely motionless: screaming, giggling, groaning, weeping, muttering, drooling, scratching their faces or trying to poke their own eyes out.
There were only a few auras that retained some remnants of reason. Their owners were either distinguished by quite incred ible willpower, or they were blazing with the thirst for revenge. There was not much madness in them, but they were over flowing with fury, hatred and the desire to annihilate everyone and everything.
I stopped looking through the Twilight and looked at Alisher instead. The young magician was still smoking, and he hadn't noticed that his cigarette had already burned down to the filter. He only dropped the butt when it scorched his fingers. And then he said.
'The Dark Ones got what they deserved.'
'Don't you feel any pity for them?' I asked.
'They abuse our pity'
'But if you have no pity in you, how do we differ from them?'
'In our colour,' said Alisher. He looked at Afandi and asked: 'Where should we seek the Great Rustam, Afandi?'
'You have found him, Light One with a heart of stone,' Afandi replied in a quiet voice. And he turned to face us.
He had transformed with the speed of a mature shape-shifter. He was a whole head taller and much wider in the shoulders ?his shirt had split and the upper button had been torn out, together with a piece of cloth. To my surprise, his skin had turned lighter, and his eyes had become bright blue. I had to remind myself that two thousand years earlier the inhabitants of this part of Asia had looked quite different from they way they did now. Nowadays a Russian will smile when someone from Central Asia tells him that his ancestors had light brown hair and blue eyes. But there is a lot more truth in these words than modern-day Russians realise.
Rustam's hair, however, was actually black. And of course, his eastern origins could be seen in the features of his face.
'So you are Rustam after all,' I said, bowing my head. 'Greetings, Great One! Thank you for responding to our request.'
Beside me Alisher went down on one knee, like a valorous knight in front of his lord ?respectfully, but proudly.
'Afandi is not Rustam,' the ancient magician replied. His gaze was clouded, as if he were listening to someone else's voice.' Afandi is my pupil, my friend, my guardian. I no longer live among people. My home is the Twilight. If I need to walk among mortals, I borrow his body'
So that was it... I nodded in acknowledgement of his words and said:
'You know why we have come here, Great One.'
'I do, and I would prefer not to answer Geser's question.'
'Geser said that you?
'My debt to Geser is my debt.' A spark of fury glinted in Rustam's eyes. 'I remember our friendship and I remember our enmity. I asked him to leave the Watch. I asked him to stop the war over people. For the people's own sake. But Geser is like this youth...'
He stopped talking and looked at Alisher.
'Will you help us?' I asked.
'I will answer one question,' said Rustam. 'One question. And then my debt to Geser will be no more. Ask, but do not make any mistake.'
I almost blurted out: 'Did you really know Merlin?' Oh, these sly tricks... ask one question, make three wishes...
'What is the Crown of All Things and what is the easiest way to get it from the seventh level of the Twilight?' I asked.
A smile appeared on Rustam's face.
'You remind me of a certain man from Khorezm. A cunning merchant to whom I owed money... and I promised to grant him three wishes. He thought for a long time and said: "I wish to grow young again, be cured of all ailments and become rich ?that is one wish." No, young magician. We shall not play that game. I am not granting a wish, I am answering one question. That will be enough. What is it that you wish to know? What the Crown of All Things is, or how to get it?'
'I really don't want to wind up like Pandora by asking "How do I open this box?'" I muttered.
Rustam laughed, and there was a hint of madness in his laugh.
But what else could you expect from a Light One who had dissolved into the Twilight and was living beside the enemies he had once condemned to eternal torment? He had fixed his own punishment, or penance, and it was slowly killing him.
'What is the Crown of All Things?' I asked.
'A spell that pierces through the Twilight and connects it with the human world,' Rustam responded instantly. 'You made the right choice, young magician. The reply to the second question would have confused you.'
'Oh no, if you're answering one question, then answer fair and square!' I exclaimed. 'Explain how this spell works and what it's for!'
'Very well,' Rustam agreed with surprising readiness. 'The strength of an Other lies in the ability to use the human Power flowing through all the levels of the Twilight. Our world is like an immense plain covered with tiny springs that give out Power, but do not know how to use it. We Others are merely the ruts into which this water flows from the hundreds and thousands of springs. We do not provide a drop of water to this world. But we know how to retain and use the water of other people. Our ability to accumulate that Power is the consequence of our ability to immerse ourselves in the Twilight, to break through the barriers between the levels and manipulate ever more powerful energies. The spell that was invented by the Great Merlin erases the barriers between our world and the levels of the Twilight. What do you think would happen as a result of that, young magician?'
'A catastrophe?' I guessed. 'The Twilight world is different from ours. On the third level there are two moons... '
'Merlin thought otherwise,' Rustam said. He seemed quite carried away now that he had answered the question and was perfectly willing to talk. 'Merlin believed that each level of the Twilight is something that didn't happen to our world. A possi bility that was never realised. A shadow cast on existence. He thought our world would not die, it would destroy the Twilight. Obliterate it, as the sunlight obliterates shadows. Power would flood the entire world, like the waters of the ocean. And under that layer of water, it would make no difference who had once been able to immerse himself in the Twilight and who had not. Others would lose their Power. For ever.'
'Is that certain, Rustam?'
'Who can say?' Rustam asked, spreading his hands wide. 'I answer your second question because I do not know the answer. Perhaps that is what would happen. People would not even notice the change, and Others would become ordinary people. But that is the simplest answer, and is the simple answer always right? Possibly catastrophe would await us. Two small moons colliding with one large one, blue moss starting to grow in the wheat fields... who can say, magician, who can say? Perhaps Others would grow weaker, but still retain some of their powers. Or perhaps some thing absolutely inconceivable would happen. Something we cannot even begin to imagine. Merlin did not take the risk of using the spell. He invented it to amuse himself. He found it pleasant to think that he could change the entire world... but he did not intend to do it. And I think Merlin was right. It is not a good idea to touch what he has hidden in the Twilight.'
'But the Crown of All Things is already being hunted,' I said.
'That is bad,' Rustam declared imperturbably. 'I would advise you to cease these attempts.'
'We're not the ones,' I said. 'It's someone quite different. An Inquisitor, a Light One and a Dark One, who have joined forces.'
'Interesting,' Rustam said. 'It is not often that a single goal brings enemies together.'
'Can you help us to stop them?'
'But you say yourself that it is bad!'
'There is very much in the world that is bad. But usually the attempt to defeat evil engenders more evil. I advise you to do good ?that is the only way to win the victory!'
Alisher snorted indignantly and even I winced at this well-meant but totally useless conclusion. I thought what a victory evil would have won if Rustam and Geser had not used the White Mist! Perhaps I did feel pity for the incarcerated Dark Ones, but I had no doubt at all that if they had destroyed the two Light Ones standing in their way an agonising death would have awaited the Others and the people whom Geser and Rustam were defending... Yes, perhaps you couldn't defeat evil with evil. But you couldn't increase the amount of good by using nothing but good.
'Can you at least suggest what they are trying to achieve?' I asked.
'No,' said Rustam, shaking his head. 'I cannot. Erase the differ ence between people and Others? Why, that is stupid. In that case you ought to erase all the inequality in the world. Between rich and poor, strong and weak, men and women. It would be simpler to kill everyone.' He laughed and I was horrified to realise yet again that the Great Magician was not entirely sane.
But I replied politely:
'You are right, Great Rustam. It is a stupid goal. One Other has already tried to attain it... with the help of the book Fuaran. Only by another means, by transforming all people into Others.'
'A fine jest,' Rustam replied without any particular interest. 'But I agree, these are two roads that lead to the same goal. No, young magician! It is perhaps more complicated than that.' He screwed up his eyes. 'I think the Inquisitor found something in the archives. An answer to the question of what the Crown of All Things really is.'
'And?' I asked.
'And it proved to be an answer that suited everybody. Dark Ones and Light Ones and the Inquisition that maintains equilib rium. It is remarkable that such a thing has been found in the world. It even makes me feel slightly curious. But I have told you everything that I know. Merlin's spell annihilates the differences between the levels of the Twilight.'
'You live in the Twilight yourself,' I observed. 'You could suggest something! After all, if the Twilight disappears you will die!'
'Or I shall become an ordinary man and live out the remainder of a human life,' Rustam said without any particular emotion.
'Everyone who has withdrawn into the Twilight will die!' I exclaimed. Alisher looked at me in amazement. Of course ... he didn't know that the path followed by Others ended on the seventh level of the Twilight...
'People are mortal. How are we better than them?'
'At least try to suggest something, Rustam!' I implored him. 'You are wiser than I am! What could it be? What could the Inquisitor have found?'
'Ask him yourself,' said Rustam, reaching out his hand. His lips moved and a stream of blinding white light flashed past me towards the Toyota.
I could probably have spotted Edgar myself?if only I had been expecting to see him on the plateau. Or perhaps even the most thorough check would have been useless. He had not concealed himself in the Twilight or by using the common spells available to all Others. Edgar was hidden from our eyes by a magical amulet on his head that reminded me of a skullcap. It was only its size that prevented me from calling it a hat of invisibility. I supposed it could be a skullcap of invisibility, since we were in Uzbekistan after all.
I automatically raised a Shield around myself and noticed that Alisher had done the same.
Only Rustam seemed entirely unconcerned about the Inquisitor's presence. The light he had summoned had taken Edgar by surprise he was sitting on the hood of the car with his legs dangling, calmly observing us. For a second it looked as if he couldn't under stand what had happened. Then the skullcap on his head started smoking and Edgar flung it to the ground, with a muffled curse. That was when he realised that we could see him.
'Hi, Edgar,' I said.
He hadn't changed a bit since the last time we'd seen each other in the train, when we were doing battle with Kostya Saushkin. Except that now he wasn't dressed in his eternal suit and tie, but in a much freer and more comfortable style: grey linen trousers, a thin white cotton sweater and good leather shoes with thick soles... He looked like a svelte, fashionable European ?and in the Central Asian wilderness, that made him seem like an amiable coloniser taking a brief respite from the white man's burden, or an English spy from the time of Kipling and the Great Game that Russia and Britain played in this part of the world.
'Hi, Anton,' said Edgar, getting down off the hood. 'Just look at that... now I've interrupted your conversation.'
Strangely enough, he seemed embarrassed. But then, who wouldn't be embarrassed after calling down tectonic spells on our heads? Who wouldn't be afraid to look us in the eye?'
'What have you done, Edgar?' I asked.
'It was just the way things worked out,' he said, with a sigh. 'Anton, I won't even try to make excuses! I feel really awkward!'
'And did you feel awkward in Edinburgh too?' I asked 'When you cut the watchmen's throats? When you hired the thugs?'
'Very awkward,' Edgar said, nodding. 'Especially since we didn't manage to break through to the seventh level in any case.'
Afandi-Rustam began laughing and slapping his sides. How much of it was Rustam and how much Afandi, I couldn't tell.
'He felt awkward!' Rustam exclaimed. 'They always feel awkward, but it never means anything.'
Obviously embarrassed by this reaction from Rustam, Edgar waited until the magician had laughed his fill. I took the chance to look the Inquisitor (perhaps I should have said 'former Inquisitor') up and down through the Twilight.
Yes, he was hung all over with amulets, like decorations on a New Year's tree. But there was something else as well as the amulets. Charms. Combinations of the very simplest natural compon ents, which didn't require great effort to saturate them with magic, which acquired their magical properties from light, almost imperceptible touches of Power. In the same way that saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur, almost harmless in themselves, together become gunpowder, which explodes at the slightest spark.
It was no accident that Edgar was dressed completely in cotton, linen and leather. Natural materials have an affinity for magic. You can't charm a nylon jacket.
And these charms that transformed his light clothing into magical his cheeks swelled up in red botches from slaps delivered by an invisible hand.
'Never try to put pressure on me again,' Rustam warned him when the slapping session was over. 'Do you understand, Inquisitor?'
Before Edgar could decide what to say, if anything, I threw up my hand, feeling absolutely delighted that I hadn't used my set of bracelets against Rustam, and fired off all four tongue-loosening spells against Edgar. The amulets on the Inquisitor's body blazed up brightly, but they couldn't absorb the full force of the blow.
'Who was the vampire with you in Edinburgh?' I shouted.
Edgar's face contorted as he struggled painfully to hold back the word that was rising to his tongue. He failed.
'Saushkin!' he shouted.
Rustam laughed again and said:
Afandi was suddenly himself again. It was as if a rubber doll had been slightly deflated ?he lost height, his shoulders narrowed, wrinkles appeared on his face, his eyes dimmed, the hairs of his beard fell out and scattered.
Edgar and I looked at each other with hatred in our eyes.
And then, without wasting any time on gathering Power or intoning spells, Edgar struck at us. A fiery rain poured down from the sky, seething and bubbling on the Shields that Alisher and I had erected. But there was no fire around Afandi, who was still confused and hadn't yet recovered his wits ?evidently one of the protective rings had been activated.
The minute that followed was full of attacks and counter attacks. Alisher wisely left me to conduct the battle, took a step backwards and fed Power to our Shields, only occasionally allowing himself a brief lunge of attacking magic.
Geser must have involved the finest diviners in the Watch in the preparation of our equipment. After the fire came ice. A blizzard started howling through the air: tiny snowflakes with edges as sharp as razors tested the strength of our Shields and melted impotently as they approached Afandi. Before the storm of ice had even died away, Edgar struck with the Kiss of the Viper and the rocks under our feet were covered with drops of acid. Afandi was protected yet again. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the old man wasn't just doing nothing, he was weaving some weak, but very cunning and unusual spell. I didn't really expect him to be successful, but at least he was busy and not getting under our feet.
The fourth spell that Edgar used was a vacuum. I was already expecting exactly that ?and when the air pressure around me started falling rapidly I calmly carried on lashing Edgar alternately with Opium and Thanatos. Behind me Alisher was striking out with fireballs and lumps of super-cooled water from the wands. The combination of fireballs and icy shrapnel exploding into viscous blue drops was remarkably effective ?I could see the Inquisitor's amulets, confused by the contrast, starting to lose their Power.
But there was more to all this than just the amulets. Edgar, a first-level magician was holding out against both of us and still managing to counter-attack! Either he was pumped right up to the hilt with Power, or he had surpassed the first level. I didn't have the time to make a thorough check on his aura.
The failure of the vacuum seemed to dent Edgar's fervour. It was such a rare spell that our readiness for it bewildered the Inquisitor. He began to back away slowly, circling round the charred Toyota that was smoking from acid and covered in hoar frost. He got snagged on an icicle that had smashed through the car's door and almost fell: as he waved his arms about to keep his balance he almost let my Opium through.
'Edgar, surrender!' I shouted. 'Don't make us kill you!'
Those words stung the Inquisitor to fury. He paused for a second, and then took a strange pendant off his belt ?a bundle of small grey feathers tied together with string, like a small twig broom. He tossed it into the air.
The feathers turned into a flock of birds like overgrown spar rows, but with beaks that glittered like bronze. There were twenty or thirty of them ?and they came dashing straight for me, manoeuv ring like super-modern re-entry vehicles, the pride and joy of the generals in the rocket forces.
The 'chicken god' hanging round my neck broke and fell off its chain. And the flock of birds began fluttering about aimlessly in the air. They didn't try to approach Edgar, but they couldn't attack me ?and they carried on fluttering about like that until Edgar swore and waved his hand to make them disappear.
Afandi too cast his spell and seemed to break through Edgar's defences. But there was no visible effect on the Dark Magician. He carried on backing away, occasionally counter-attacking. There was a glow on his chest that kept getting brighter and brighter all the time ?an amulet hidden under his clothes had been activated and was preparing to respond. For an instant I even thought that Edgar had equipped himself with a suicide spell, Shahid or Gastello, which would take us to the grave along with him.
'More Power to the Shields!' I ordered, and Alisher gave it every thing he had, powering up the Shields around us and one around Afandi.
But Edgar was clearly not in the mood for a dramatic suicide. He launched one more brief attack and then pressed his hands to his chest, where the amulet was glowing. The blue lines of a portal sprang up around him - the magician took a rapid step forward and disappeared.
'He's hopped it,' Alisher said. He sat down on the rocks and immediately swore and jumped back to his feet, his trousers smoking. The Kiss of the Viper was still working.
I stood there, feeling completely drained. Afandi stood beside me, laughing.
'What did you throw at him?' I asked.
'The next seventy-seven times he lies down with a woman he will suffer shameful failure!' Afandi explained triumphantly. 'And no one will be able to remove the spell.'
'Very witty,' I said. 'Very eastern.'
With a few brief spells I cleared away the traces of magic from the ground under our feet. The drops of acid had raised bubbles in the stone, like rising dough.
So it was Saushkin!