THE MORNING TURNED out so fresh and clear that all of the previous days doom and gloom seemed to have evaporated into thin air. Nadya meekly ate the rice porridge that she didn't like, and Svetlana didn't say a word when I casually told her that I was thinking of going to work early. But she did suggest that I should come back home early too, so that all of us could go to watch some family movie that her friends had told her was really great. I imagined the Dark Ones who were guarding Nadya being forced to watch a romantic fairy tale in which, naturally, good defeats evil, and I smiled.
'Definitely. I just want to find out how things are going. Maybe there's been some kind of breakthrough.'
'They would have called you,' said Svetlana, scattering my idle dreams like smoke.
But that didn't spoil my mood. I got ready quickly and grabbed my suitcase full of papers (oh, yes, even Light Magicians have to do their paperwork), then kissed my daughter and my wife and walked out of the apartment.
On the next floor down Roma, an amiable young lummox who had been working in our Watch for about two years, was making lively conversation with a thin, pretty young woman, one of the Dark Ones that Zabulon had assigned to guard us.
I greeted them both and walked on, shaking my head.
That was the way romances with unhappy endings got started. The way it had happened with Alisa and Igor...
The weather was so good that for a second I hesitated, standing outside the door of the building and wondering if I ought to walk to the metro. On the other hand, I really didn't want to go into the metro at all. Those hot trains, those jostling crowds ?the rush hour in Moscow ends at somewhere around midnight.
No, the car would be better. Svetlana wasn't planning on going anywhere. And if I checked the probability lines, I could skip past the traffic jams and be at work in just twenty minutes.
I removed the protective spells that wouldn't have done me any harm but would have made sensitive drivers give my car a wide berth. I got into the driving seat, turned the key in the ignition and closed my eyes to check the best route for me to drive. The result was rather discouraging. For some reason all the probabil ities were centred on Sheremetievo Airport, which was crazy since I had no intention of going there!
I felt something fluffy twine round my neck, and an amiable voice with a slight drawl asked:
'Does the king have a long journey to make today?'
I looked in the rear-view mirror and didn't like what I saw.
I didn't see Edgar. But I did see the thing that he had thrown round my neck ?a silvery strip of fur. It didn't look much like a decorative neckpiece, there was something predatory about it... as if there were lots of tiny teeth hidden under that grey fur.
And I also saw Gennady Saushkin, sitting on the right side of the back seat. The vampire's face was composed and impassive.
'What's on your mind, Edgar?' I asked.
'That's none of your business,' Edgar replied, with an ominous laugh. 'Don't even think of withdrawing into the Twilight and don't try any spells. That little ribbon round your neck exists at every level of the Twilight... at least as far down as the sixth. And it will rip your head off if you use even a trace of magic'
'I won't test it,' I said. 'So now what?'
'Maybe you'd like to invite us back home?' the invisible Edgar asked.
'Surely you don't think that I'd give you Nadya?' I asked. I didn't feel afraid, I was simply astonished by the question. 'You can kill me.'
'I wasn't really counting on it,' Edgar said. 'But Gennady insisted on the question being asked ?he's very keen to make use of your little daughter.'
'The way he made use of his own son?' I asked, unable to resist, and was rewarded with a vicious scowl that wiped away every thing human in the vampire's face.
'Quiet now,' said Edgar, nudging my shoulder. 'Don't get carried away, or I won't be able to hold Gennady off. He's very upset with you ?can you guess why?'
'Yes. Why don't you make yourself visible? It's not a pleasant sensation talking to empty space.'
'Drive out of the yard,' Edgar said, laughing. 'I wouldn't like your bodyguards to notice us ... We'd finish them off before they even knew what hit them. But Svetlana's a different matter, I'm afraid she might prove too hot to handle.'
Gennady scowled again, demonstrating that he had a full set of teeth and that his four canines were larger than the average human size.
'I'm sure she would,' I said quite sincerely. I stepped on the gas and drove the car gently out of the parking lot. Maybe I should crash into a lamp-post? No, that wouldn't catch them out, they were prepared for tricks like that... 'For Nadya she'd grind you into the dust.'
'That's what I think too,' Edgar said as politely and peaceably as ever. 'The last thing we need is a rampaging woman on our trail. And whether or not your daughter can get through to the seventh level of the Twilight still remains to be seen. The chances are no better than if we give you a good shaking-up.'
'I'm afraid I'll disappoint you there. I can't do what's beyond me. I'm a Higher Magician, but not a zero-point one. You have to be Merlin to get through to the seventh level.'
'I told you we have to take the girl,' Gennady said in a quiet voice. 'I told you he couldn't do it!'
'Cool it!' Edgar reassured him. 'He can. He's just not motivated enough yet, but we'll help him, and he'll manage just fine.'
'Try it,' I said. 'But where should I drive?'
'Sheremetievo 2, where else?' Edgar laughed. His invisibility was gradually peeling away and he was appearing by stages, first as a transparent outline, then acquiring colours. Gennady still hadn't revealed himself and I could only see him in the mirror. 'I think the quickest way will be round the ring road, right? And try not to waste any time. We have a flight to Edinburgh in an hour ?I think we'll get there before anyone misses you. I don't really want to waste the last charge in my Minoan Sphere on a portal to Scotland. But bear in mind that if you're late for the plane, we will go through a portal.'
'I assume that Arina's waiting for you in Edinburgh?' I asked.
'You just drive,' laughed Edgar. 'And in the meantime I'll explain why you're going to help us.'
'Very interesting,' I said. There was a cold sensation spreading through my chest, but there was no way I was going to show any fear. But what difference did that make? Vampires can sense fear instinctively. It's hard to shield yourself from their perceptions even with magic.
?You're going to do your best for your daughter's sake, of course,' said Edgar. Tor your daughter's and your wife's. That wouldn't work with a Dark One, but it's just the trick for Light Ones.'
'You'd never get to my family'
'Perhaps I wouldn't ?on my own. Geser and Zabulon would give it everything they've got. I counted six bodyguards. How many do you know about? The two young fools on the staircase?'
I didn't answer.
'I expect there are at least eight, or even twelve,' Edgar said thoughtfully. 'There's no point in guessing, both the old farts have decided to play safe. But if there was an explosion beside your house ?not an ordinary explosion, but a nuclear one ?then even any Higher Magicians there would be killed. Hiroshima demon strated that quite clearly'
'You wouldn't go that far, Edgar,' I said. 'You're a Dark One, but you're not a psychopath. An atomic bomb in the centre of Moscow? Just to kill my wife and daughter? How many people would be killed? And what if somebody panics and decides it's a nuclear attack, and it starts a world war?'
'Right! That's the most important point.' Edgar laughed again. 'Even if Geser senses that something's wrong and moves your family far away from Moscow, to some secure vault in Ufa, for example, that won't fundamentally change the situation. Your actions will still decide the fate of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Not bad bait for a Light One, is it?'
'Edgar,' I asked, 'what's happened to you?'
'Nothing,' said Edgar, with a nervous, unnatural laugh. 'I'm just fine!'
'Have you lost someone, Edgar?'
The question was a shot in the dark. But when Edgar didn't answer, I knew I'd hit the target. That I'd finally begun to under stand something about what was going on.
'My wife,' he said eventually. 'Annabel.'
'You said you were in Crete with her,' I recalled.
'I was. Exactly a year ago. We were walking to the beach from the hotel... There was a truck driving past us. The driver lost control and ran into her at eighty kilometres an hour. There was no time for me to do anything.'
'You loved her,' I said, amazed.
'Yes,' Edgar said, nodding. 'I loved her. I'm not Zabulon, I can love. Or I could.'
'I'm very sorry,' I said.
'Thank you, Anton,' Edgar replied in a perfectly normally voice. 'I know you really mean that. But it still doesn't change anything... in the way things are between us.'
'Why did you go against everyone? Why did you involve people?'
'People? What difference does it make how we use them, Anton? We live off their energy. Why shouldn't we use them as cannon fodder too? And as for why I went against everyone... that's the wrong way of putting the question. I'm not against them, I'm for them. For all Others, if you like. Dark Ones and Light Ones. When we achieve our goal, you'll understand. Even you will understand.'
'That's not what we agreed,' said Gennady.
'I remember what we agreed,' Edgar snapped. 'We do what we planned. And then you challenge Anton to fight. That's right, isn't it? You wanted an honest duel?'
'Yes,' Gennady said rather doubtfully.
'Well, if you're so certain that I'll understand,' I said as I turned onto the ring road, struggling with the temptation to swing the steering wheel hard and throw the car off the overpass, 'then you could tell me what it is you've planned. And then maybe I'll help you voluntarily'
'I thought about that,' Edgar said, nodding. 'From the very beginning, I thought that of all the Light Ones I know you were the sanest. But I happened to find myself working with Gennady here. And he was absolutely against it. He doesn't like you. And you know why ?you killed his son. His wife laid herself to rest because of you. So how could we take you into the Last Watch?'
'A very romantic name.'
'That's Gennady, he's a great romantic' Edgar chuckled. 'No, we weren't going to touch you. Revenge is a fine thing, but only if you've got nothing else left... but Geser had to go and send you to Edinburgh!'
'Did you kill Victor because he recognised Gennady?'
'Yes,' said Edgar. 'It was an improvised move. Gennady got nervous: he thought Kostya's old school friend couldn't have turned up by accident, that we were being followed. It was a mistake, of course. But we did discover how to open the barrier on the third level. We didn't have precise information about that before then.'
'But you did about the golem on the fifth level?'
'Oh yes!' said Edgar, laughing again. 'After Annabel was killed I was transferred to work in the in the secure archive. You know... to settle down and get over my pain in a quiet job ... If only you knew, Light One, what they have hidden away in the strong rooms at the Inquisition! I had never even suspected that things like that could be created. I tell you honestly, in the last hundred years, the quality of magic has actually deteriorated. We've been spoiled by using human things. But we used to have things that were like telephones and cars and aeroplanes... they weren't just like them, they were better. We could have founded a civilisation based entirely on magic!'
'Except that we produce less Power than we consume,' I said. 'We can't live without people.'
'I thought about that too,' said Edgar, brightening up. 'We could have ?Hey, don't slow down! Take the left lane, it's free now...
So, I've thought about that subject. I picture the ideal society as something close to the medieval model. People living a simple, healthy, uncomplicated life, working in the open air, pursuing the arts and crafts. No centralised state would be needed: a feudal system with barons and nominal kings would be quite good enough. And we Others would live partly separately and partly among the people. Without hiding from them! And everyone would know about us. Of course, under this arrangement even people could challenge a magician or a vampire. Let them! There has to be an effective mechanism of natural selection to weed out the weak and excessively cruel Others. A world like that would be far more pleasant than the one we have now, for Others and for people. Have you ever read any fantasy?'
'Haven't you read any of those books? Lord of the Rings? Conan? A Wizard of Earthsea? Harry Potter?'
'I've read a few,' I said. 'Some are a bit naive, but some are inter esting. Quite passable as escapist literature, even for us.'
'And it's far more popular with people than science fiction is,' Edgar said confidently. 'That's the paradox: people aren't interested in reading about settling on Mars or flying to the stars ?all the things that people really can achieve, but we can't. But they dream about becoming magicians, rushing into battle with a big sharp sword ... if only they knew what the wounds from a real sword look like... What does all that mean? That a medieval world in which magic exists is the one most attractive to people!'
'Well, yes,' I said. 'Of course. Because no one thinks about how delightful it is to relieve yourself into a cesspit at twenty degrees below zero, or the stench those pits give out when it's forty degrees in the shade. Because the heroes in the books don't get colds in the head, indigestion, appendicitis or malaria and if they do there's a Light Healer right there on hand. Because everyone sees themselves sitting on the throne, wearing a magicians cloak or, at the very least, in the retinue of a brave and jolly baron. Not out in a parched field with a wooden hoe in their hands, watching the barons retinue ride off after they've just trampled their pitiful harvest, half of which belongs to the brave and jolly baron anyway'
'That's a different matter,' Edgar said peaceably. 'There are pluses and minuses to everything. But there wouldn't be any advertising, politicians, lawyers, genetically modified food...'
'It's time you joined Greenpeace. There would be plenty of children who were jinxed in their mothers' wombs. And even more perfectly normal children dying during birth because of incorrect presentation or lack of medicines. Edgar, are you really planning to throw the world back into the Middle Ages?'
'No, Anton. That's a very, very unlikely outcome. I can tell you honestly, that's what I'm hoping for. But the chances aren't great.'
'I'm thinking very seriously about turning the wheel and crashing into a pillar,' I said. 'See that pedestrian bridge over the ring road? It has these very tempting concrete piers...'
'We wouldn't be hurt,' Edgar replied. 'And I don't think you would, either. You've got a good car, air bags, safety belts ?you could survive. Don't be silly. If you want to kill yourself, try working a bit of magic'
'What did you dig up in the archives? What are you hoping for?'
'Don't tell him,' Gennady said morosely. But his words seemed to have the opposite effect from what he intended. After all, Edgar was a primordial Dark One, used to regarding vampires with disdain. Even those that were his allies.
'The Inquisition has always taken a great interest in artefacts that lie out of its reach,' Edgar said. 'And particularly in the arte facts created by Merlin ?for perfectly understandable reasons. Not much was known about the Crown of All Things. Only that it was in Scotland and was potentially one of the most powerful magical objects in existence. If not the most powerful. But it was believed that no information about the Crown existed. Fortunately, several years ago the Inquisition began compiling a comprehen sive catalogue and putting everything in the computer system. This included the translation into electronic form of the results of medieval interrogations of witches and reports by agents and scholars that had been forgotten by everybody. I searched for everything to do with Merlin and discovered a few lines that had been forgotten for a long, long time. A certain thirteenth-century first-level Light Enchantress... let's say that she came into posses sion of information above and beyond her rank... This enchantress was questioned about a dust-up in Glasgow, which was still a small provincial town at the time. And during the interrogation, she mentioned the "last artefact" created by Merlin. They asked her to say what this artefact did and she replied, to translate literally: "The Crown is what all the Others who have left us dream about, what they wait for in the Twilight, what will bring them happiness and restore their freedom..." Nobody attached any significance to her words at the time, and they just lay in the archives for centuries. Until that sheet of parchment was put into a scanner and I started a search with the key word "Merlin".'
'Am I to assume that this information is no longer in the Inquisition's database?' I asked. Edgar laughed.
'You want to bring dead Others back to life?' 'Departed,' Gennady hissed. 'Departed, but not dead!' 'It's not that simple,' said Edgar. 'We think that the Crown of All Things will fuse the Twilight world and the human worlds, eliminate the barriers between the levels. At present the departed ones cannot ?or effectively cannot ?return to our world, and we are not strong enough to stay in the lower levels of the Twilight lor any length of time. But the Crown will change all that. Our departed ones will be with us.'
'Edgar, you don't know anything for certain,' I said. 'You can't know anything. This is all nothing but guesswork. What if the different levels really do fuse with our world? That will be a catastrophe!'
' We know that the departed Others want this,' Edgar said firmly.
'All based on a single phrase spoken by an enchantress in the thirteenth century?'
'She was Merlin's mistress. She knew for certain.'
I didn't argue any more.
What could I oppose to their faith? Nothing. Faith can only be opposed by another faith, not by facts, let alone hypotheses.
'Edgar, if I knew definitely that the Crown would bring back the departed Others, then I would help you. But I'm not sure it will.' I turned onto the Leningrad Chaussee. 'That's the first thing.'
'Carry on,' Edgar said politely.
'But even if I wanted to help you, the guard on the artefact in Edinburgh has been strengthened. Everyone knows that you'll go back in there again. And I think they've already figured out what magic you stole from the repository and how much, so your amulets won't come as a surprise any longer. We won't get through that easily. That's the second thing.'
'Believe me, I did a thorough job,' Edgar said proudly. 'Right now in the Inquisition they have no idea of what they had, what they didn't have and how much is left. The Inquisition is a very highly bureaucratised structure, which is probably the inevitable fate of any supranational organisation, whether it's human or ours. It will be hard, but we'll get through. Even if you don't help us ... I expect it's almost impossible to make you kill Light Ones.'
'We should have taken the girl, then he would have helped us,' Gennady rumbled from behind me.
'Calm down,' Edgar told him. 'What kind of monster are you anyway? You should be more humane, Gennady!'
'I was humane when I was alive,' said the vampire. 'And I held out until they killed Kostya. And until Polina left me. I can't take any more!'
'But even so we have to try to overcome our differences of opinion, since we're going to be in the same team for a little while at least,' Edgar stated reasonably. 'Avoid insults, don't threaten his family... there's no point. Is that all you have to say, Anton?'
'No, there's one more little comment. I can't get through to the seventh level. When I got to the sixth, I was hyped up, the adrenalin was flowing. But the next barrier is too strong for me to break through. And the Watches have also evaluated the strength of the barrier ?no input of Power from outside will help.'
'Because it's not a case of Power as such! There's more of it pouring down the vortex above the Dungeons of Scotland than you could possibly use. But you have to work with it, pass it through yourself. And what if you do supply Power artificially? Pump it out of people, out of artefacts... what then? You can't keep raising the voltage in the mains for ever, the wires will melt! What's needed is a superconductor, do you understand? And that superconductor is a zero-point Other, someone who produces absolutely no magical energy!'
'Oh, these technical explanations,' Edgar sighed. 'Gennady, did you understand that?'
'I did. I told you?
'All right, be quiet. Anton, I understand that you can't jump over your own head. And neither can I...'
'Edgar, when did you become a Higher One?'
The former Inquisitor laughed.
'Just recently. Don't pay any attention to that.'
'Okay, so you removed Gennady's registration seal,' I said, thinking out loud. That's fine, I know they taught you fancier tricks than that in the Inquisition. But you can only raise your level of Power with the Fuaran. The book was burnt up...'
'Don't try to blind me with science,' Edgar said. 'Tell it to Gennady, he likes that stuff. Nobody's expecting any miracles from you. What's expected is a bit of savvy. Find the way round the barrier.'
'I'm sure Thomas the Rhymer has been searching for that for hundreds of years.'
'But he didn't have a wife and a daughter sitting on a nuclear bomb all set to blow,' said Edgar, glancing at his watch. 'We're on time. Well done, you're a good driver. And now listen ?don't go into the parking lot, we don't want to leave any unnecessary tracks. There's a young guy waiting for us at the entrance to the depar tures hall, give him the keys. He has been paid to drive your car to a parking lot and pay for three days. If you come back, you can pick it up.'
'If you come back,' Gennady growled.
'I'm sorry, but I think his chances are better than you do,' Edgar snapped. 'So, we'll slip through passport control quickly, and you won't try to attract the attention of the Others at customs. A Light One wouldn't want any unnecessary casualties, right? We'll get into the plane and you'll have a cup of coffee, even a sip of brandy is permissible. And you'll think. Think hard. So hard that I can hear your brains creaking. And it will be very good if by the time we reach Edinburgh you already know how to get the Crown of All Things. Because we don't have any time to spare. Only twelve hours until the bomb goes off.'
'You bastard,' I said.
'No, I'm a highly effective personnel manager,' Edgar said, with a smile.