THERE ARE SOME words that can send a man into a trance without using any magic.
For example: 'Tell me something funny' Even if you've just watched the final of Smart-Alecs Club?on TV, read the latest Terry Pratchett book and dug up ten really funny, fresh jokes on the internet ?that will all fly right out of your head in an instant.
The words 'Sit and think' are pretty effective too. They imme diately remind me of an algebra test or some quarterly essay at school, and the weary face of the teacher who no longer expects anything good from his pupils.
This time we were flying directly to Edinburgh, on Aeroflot. If this had been a standard assignment, I wouldn't have minded at all ?I liked what I'd seen of Scotland. And particularly since Edgar, of course, had taken seats in business class. Three infuriated com patriots of ours, who between them could obviously have bought the Boeing 767 we were flying in, were left fuming at check-in when their tickets proved to be invalid. I didn't say anything, but I felt hope beginning to warm my chest. Most human problems with double bookings or invalid tickets are caused by the machin ations of certain light-fingered Others, most often Dark Ones but sometimes Light Ones too. That's why all such incidents are investigated by the Watches. Well, in theory all, but in practice only the ones that cause serious scandals. In this case it looked as if a really large-scale scandal was in the offing...
But I was afraid that the investigation still wouldn't be as prompt as I needed it to be. Especially right then, when everyone all the way across Moscow was hunting for Saushkin.
The customs post at departures had also been reinforced. Instead of two Others on duty, there were four ?in such cases parity is strictly observed. I had been hoping that perhaps they might use some of our lads for the reinforcements and they would spot me, but all of the Others were from Moscow District, not the city. And before check-in Edgar had given us false passports and applied high-quality masks that fourth- and fifth-level Others wouldn't be able to penetrate. So I walked past my colleagues under the name of Alexander Peterson, resident of St Petersburg. Gennady became Konstantin Arbenin, but what Edgar called himself I didn't hear.
Once I was in the plane and the flight attendant had brought the coffee and cognac that Edgar had promised I realised that I had lost the game all hands up. Every now and then the furry noose on my neck, which had attracted glances of puzzlement at customs, squeezed a little bit tighter, or scratched at my skin with its tiny little claws... or teeth. Just about the only thing it didn't do was purr while it waited for me to use any magic. I even remembered what the thing was called. Schrodinger's Cat. Evidently because nobody had ever been able to decide whether this piece of trash was alive or dead. In the Inquisition they used Schrodinger's Cat for transporting the most dangerous criminals. The lousy son of a bitch had never failed. And by the way, unless I was getting things confused, it was the only one of its kind. Edgar had stolen some truly unique artefacts.
'Drink your coffee,' Edgar said amiably. I had been put in the window seat, with Gennady beside me. Edgar sat behind us, and he made sure there was no one in the seat beside him: the perplexed but unprotesting passenger was moved to somewhere in economy class, with showers of apologies and promises of countless bonuses in compensation. All in all, Aeroflot made a quite remarkably pleasant impression. No worse than the western carriers, or even a bit better. It was just a pity I wouldn't be able to enjoy the flight. I was in the wrong company for that.
I drank coffee and brandy by turns, watching as the plane rolled out onto the runway. Edgar whispered something behind my back - and the roar of the engines disappeared. A Sphere of Silence. Well, it made sense: now no one would bother us, and no one would hear us. It was a good thing that, unlike the wizard Khottabich in the fairy tale, Edgar had other ways of combating the noise apart from stopping the engines...
Proceed, if you are as strong as I;
Or go back, if you are as wise as I.
He was mocking. Of course he was ?mocking the hapless treasure hunters. But he still believed that he had to give a hint. That was in the unwritten rules of the game in those days. So there had to be a way.
Proceed-go back. Forwards-backwards ...
Perhaps you had to pump up the momentum, by swinging back wards and forwards, like trying to free a car that's got stuck in the mud ?an art completely forgotten by the masses in this era of automatic transmissions. Reach the sixth level, jump back, then back to sixth and take a run straight through...
Absolute drivel. I had just barely managed to get as far as the sixth level once, pausing to catch my breath after every breakthrough.
I was assuming that I could jump straight out of the depths of the Twilight, like Geser, I still wouldn't be able to pump up my speed like that.
Let's repeat the argument from the beginning.
The Crown of All Things is here concealed. Only one step is left.
That was all clear enough. The inscription was on the sixth level. The Crown of All Things was hidden on the seventh. The cunning Merlin had left the signpost where only the most powerful and skilful magician could reach it... it felt really good that I had managed to get there!
But we weren't told anything special in this line. It was a kind of preamble. An introduction. We could only hope that Thomas the Rhymer's translation was adequate... but then it ought to be, coming from a great bard and an ancestor of Lermontov.
But this is a legacy for the strong or the wise ?
This was more or less clear too. Merlin had left the decision about whether to use the artefact or not up to those who would be his equal. In Power or wisdom - it didn't matter which.
You shall receive all and nothing, when you are able to take it.
Right, now this was a bit more interesting. It looked as though Merlin believed that using the Crown might cause a global catastrophe. You shall receive all and nothing - you shall receive everything, but not for yourself.
Or was I like Edgar and Gennady, only seeing what I wanted to see?
What if' you shall receive all and nothing' meant that the whole world would be in your power, but it would be destroyed?
I didn't know. I couldn't understand. If only I could have read it in the original...
'Edgar, I have to make one phone call,' I said.
'What?' Edgar chortled. 'Who to, Geser? We've already been warned to switch our phones off.'
'Do you want me to produce a result? I have to ask Foma Lermont about something.'
Edgar didn't hesitate for long. He closed his eyes, then nodded.
'Call. You have three minutes before we start to take off. But remember, I'm listening very carefully'
It was a good thing that I hadn't erased Lermont's number. I took out my phone and called. One ring, two...
There was a clear note of curiosity in Lermont's voice.
'How does that third line go? You translated it as "You shall receive all and nothing, when you are able to take it" ?remember? What's the point here ?you shall receive everything and lose every thing" or "you shall receive everything, but you don't need it"?'
Thomas grunted and recited the line in Old English:
'With it thou shalt acquire all ?and nothing shalt thou get... '
Well, thanks a bunch for not saying it in Welsh...
'That means... ' I began, determined to get it clear.
'It means that if you get it, you will receive something that you personally don't need, although it is very important, global, universal.'
'Thank you, Foma!'
'Brainstorming?' Lermont enquired. 'Good luck. We're not wasting our time here either, we're working...'
I cut the connection. I wondered if Edgar and Gennady had heard our conversation and was suddenly surprised to realise that I was enthralled by the task. Despite the noose on my neck. Despite the blackmail. Despite the vampire and the crazed Inquisitor sitting there with me. I wanted to understand. I wanted to solve Merlin's riddle. I could never be as powerful as him, but maybe I could at least rival him intellectually.
I wanted to believe that I could.
Proceed, if you are as strong as I;
Or go back, if you are as wise as I.
Right, then. We'd come back to that phrase. The meaning was more or less clear. The strong could proceed and attain the goal by following Merlin's route. The wise would go back and choose the other way round.
Beginning and end, head and tail, all is fused in one ...
That was probably just fine words. Alpha and omega, the begin ning and the end. Head and tail? Maybe that was a hint at the golem on the fifth level of the Twilight.
Right, this line had to be thought about seriously.
In the Crown of All Things. Thus are life and death inseparable.
This bit probably referred to the application of the spell. Life and death are inseparable. The Others who have withdrawn into the Twilight will come to life again, return to our world ... I wondered if that was what they wanted. I'd almost had to drag Thomas the Rhymer out of there, he'd wanted to stay so much, to taste the joys of the magical heaven.
I imagined the resurrected Kostya yelling at his father: 'Did I ask you to resurrect me?' Was that a possibility?
I didn't know. I couldn't understand a thing. Oh, but Thomas could hardly be right. He was caught in the trap of his own dream, just as Edgar and Gennady were blinded by theirs. That inhabit ant of the Twilight who had managed to reach the first level and had even saved me, you could say, by showing me the way to the Dark Ones' headquarters such a long time ago, hadn't looked very happy with things. I wondered who he was and why he had helped me. How had he ever found out about what was happening from down there in the spectral Twilight depths of the creation?
Questions, questions and no answers to them...
Beginning and end, head and tail, all is fused in one...
There seemed to be something in this, though. Head and tail - that was the bit that I couldn't get out of my mind. Whose head was fused with his tail down there? That was if I didn't take the golem-monster with teeth in both tails seriously as a candidate...
And by the way, why not take it almost seriously?
Not for myself, of course. For our own dear Last Watch.
So, the Crown of All Things was concealed in the body of this miserable two-headed beast. Somewhere in the middle, where one part ended and the other began. Where head and tail were indis tinguishable... Go back, that is, to the fifth level, and you'll find it there!
Well, that sounded very convincing. If it was said with a straight face. They didn't have the Rune, and Edgar wasn't likely to be able to get it. Just let them try to destroy a golem created by Merlin!
Of course, if the Crown of All Things really was found in the belly of that creeping horror, then that would be ... that would be very annoying.
But I doubted that would be the outcome.
'You're smiling,' said Gennady. 'What have you come up with?'
'Quiet,' I said. 'I'm soaring on the wings of inspiration. Better give me some cognac'
Gennady pursed his lips and said nothing.
Absorbed in my thoughts and surrounded by a cocoon of total silence, I completely missed the moment of take-off. When I looked out of the window we were already high up above the first layer of clouds, the first level. Aagh, now I was seeing levels that had to be broken through everywhere!
Yes, there was definitely something about that line that stuck in my mind. Head and tail, right? I'd heard about that somewhere. In magic? No, more likely in folklore. In some beliefs or other... yes, of course! Egyptian myths and, later, European ones. Alchemical treatises. Buddhism, in the form of the wheel of Samsara, rebirth...
The snake devouring its own tail.
I felt goose pimples rising on my skin. It was no accident that Merlin had set a two-headed snake to guard the fifth level... The Crown wasn't in it, of course.
But it was a hint, and a very clear one!
The beginning and the end. It gives birth to itself, fertilises itself and kills itself. An eternal and unchanging force that is dissolved in space and then restored again, the eternal circle of time, a defence against chaos and darkness, safeguarding the Universe, enclosing and supporting the world, bringing life into death and death into life, simultaneously motionless and moving...
Death and resurrection.
An eternal stream of Power, dying and being reborn...
I understood everything.
My fingers started trembling and I grabbed hold of the armrests tightly. I caught Gennady's suspicion glance and said:
'I'm afraid of flying. Get me some cognac, okay? Be a real man, even if not for very long.'
Gennady got up without saying a word and beckoned to the stewardess.
The beginning and the end. Life and death. The circle of Power maintaining the Universe.
I understood it all. I was the first since Merlin. Now I had something to be proud of, if only I could manage to stay alive!
'You've thought of something,' said Edgar. Half-standing, he leaned forward over the back of my seat and looked into my eyes curiously. 'Ah, Anton! I was right. You do have an idea.'
'I do,' I said, not trying to deny anything. 'Edgar, I want to ask you one more time ?are you sure that bringing out those who have withdrawn is safe? You know what the Shade of the Masters is, don't you?'
'I know,' said Edgar, and his face darkened. 'It summons magi cians who have withdrawn back from the fifth level, where they can exist for a fairly long time. Torn out of their natural surround ings, pumped full of Power, absolutely insane... destroying everything around them with appalling ferocity. Anton, don't confuse the forcible extraction and exploitation of the withdrawn with their resurrection. You know, if someone woke you up in the middle of the night, hit you on the head, poured shit all over you and started yelling in your ear, you'd go on the rampage too.'
'So you've definitely made your mind up...' I said and paused. I ought not to 'surrender' straight away. Edgar couldn't read my thoughts ?I was a Higher One, after all ?but he could sense a lie in my intonation or the expression on my face. And so could Gennady. 'Edgar, what guarantees do I have?'
'What guarantees do you mean?' he asked in amazement.
'Guarantees that when I explain everything to you, you won't give orders for the bomb in Moscow to be detonated. And that you'll take Schrodinger's Cat off my neck.'
'Anything else you'd like?'
'I'm giving you a lot,' I answered.
'Will the Oath of the Light and the Dark satisfy you?'
'Edgar!' Gennady said in a chilly voice. 'There are limits to everything!'
'I swear on the Light and the Dark and the equilibrium between them,' Edgar said in a steady voice, 'that if you help us to obtain the Crown of All Things, I will remove Schrodinger's Cat from your neck, will not give orders for the bomb in Moscow to be deto nated and will allow you to fight Gennady one against one. If you win, I shall cause no further hindrance to you and your family, provided that I am not attacked by you. If you lose, I undertake not to undertake any measures against Svetlana and Nadya. Again provided that they do not attack me themselves. I do so swear!'
A small sphere appeared on the palm of his hand. One half of it glowed brightly and the other half was black, as if it was sucking the light into itself. The sphere revolved slowly, with light flowing into darkness and darkness flowing into light.
'One clarification,' I said. 'What does "If I help you to obtain" mean? When's that?'
'When we have the Crown in our hands.'
'I don't agree,' I said, shaking my head. 'There's a serious chance that you'll be killed trying to obtain the Crown. But the Cat can only be removed by the person who put it on. I don't fancy the prospect of spending the rest of my life with no magic and this piece of garbage round my neck.'
Edgar thought about it. Or, more likely, he pretended to think about it. He had probably decided long ago just how far he was willing to move.
'Let me clarify, he said, looking at the sphere of Light and Dark spinning on his palm. 'I shall order the bomb in Moscow not to be detonated just as soon as we all believe that what you tell us is the truth. I will remove the Cat before we set out to obtain the Crown. But you will be with us, bound by an oath not to obstruct us. That is as far as I can go.'
Now it was my turn to demonstrate the workings of my thoughts. Was I or wasn't I prepared to accept such conditions? If I was going to tell the truth, then I probably ought to do a bit more haggling...
'Another clarification,' I said. 'You will not only remove the Cat, you will also allow me to withdraw to a safe distance. I do not wish to be obliged to join battle on your side against my own will!'
'Battle?' Edgar repeatedly curiously. 'You probably don't mean against the members of Lermont's Watch?'
'No, I don't,' I said, with a smile. 'You'll have enough problems without them, believe me.'
'All right,' said Edgar. 'I will allow you to withdraw to a safe distance before we set out to obtain the Crown. But afterwards you will be obliged to come back and do battle with Gennady. He... wants that very much.'
'Agreed.' I held out my hand and said, 'I swear on the Light.'
A sphere of fire appeared on my hand and immediately disappeared again. The Cat round my neck tightened in annoyance ?and relaxed again. It wasn't my magic: the Primordial Power itself decided whether or not to affirm a magician's words.
'Gennady, do you confirm Edgar's commitments?' I asked.
'Yes.' He didn't swear on the Dark. The Primordial Power only rarely descends to vampires. But I believed him. After all, the most important thing for Gennady was to get his son and wife back. Revenge was secondary now.
Suddenly realising that the Sphere of Silence would not prevent passengers from observing the strange lights, I glanced around.
No, everything was in order. The passenger on the other side of the aisle was sleeping. His neighbour by the window was working on his laptop. What fine fellows these businessmen were...
'It is not possible to get through to the seventh level,' I said. 'There is no way. Only a zero-point magician can do it... or an Other who has dematerialised and withdrawn into the Twilight.'
Gennady tensed up. Edgar asked in an icy voice:
'And is that your advice?'
'No,' I said, shaking my head. 'Merlin explained everything quite marvellously. You simply got hung up on your own idea about the seventh level of the Twilight! Well, not only you,' I added self-critically. 'Merlin didn't simply give instructions on how to obtain the Crown! He was writing about the problem in general! About how it was possible to meet one who had withdrawn!'
Edgar and Gennady exchanged glances.
Yes, that had been meant to hook them. And it had.
'Proceed, if you are as strong as I,' I declaimed. 'What's that about? It's about travelling to the seventh level, where those who have withdrawn live! But if you don't happen to be a zero-point magician, what then? Then you need the artefact created by Merlin. The Crown of All Things. And where do you get it? The inscription on the sixth level reads: "Go back, if you are as wise as I"! And what do we have on the fifth level?'
'The guard. A golem in the form of a double-headed snake,' said Edgar, screwing up his eyes.
'Head and tail, all is fused in one!' I exclaimed triumphantly. 'It's not just a guard, you idiots! It's the artefact's wrapping, its protection. Did you read fairy stories when you were children? The death of Kashchei is in the egg, the egg is in the duck, the duck is in the trunk... It's the same principle. And by the way,' I added in a sudden access of inspiration, 'I wouldn't be surprised if, when you rip the golem in half, some other vile beast crawls out of it. Or even flies out of it. It will probably try to get away, so be prepared to take down a fast-moving flying target!'
'Thus are life and death inseparable,' Edgar said and started thinking.
'The death of the golem is a new life for the withdrawn,' Gennady whispered. 'Edgar, could this be true?'
Edgar thought. He was trying to remember something.
'By the way, the Crown is probably the golem's activator. Merlin inclined towards simple and elegant solutions.'
'There have been two cases in history when a golem-guard also served as the casing for what it was guarding,' Edgar said. 'And the first to use this cunning trick was one of Merlin's pupils.'
In my own mind I gave thanks to this unknown magician for so aptly confirming what I had said. But outwardly all I did was to nod pensively.
'There, you see. Merlin probably told him about his own idea. Or perhaps he helped his teacher to make the snake-golem.'
Edgar nodded and said:
'If only we had the Rune ... It was the simplest thing in the world to neutralise the golem with it.'
He believed me.
'It's your own fault,' I said. 'Instead of organising secret societies, you should have opened up your ideas for general discussion. All Others have lost someone at some time...'
'You have no idea how strong the bureaucracy is,' Edgar said in disgust. 'The discussion would have gone on for a hundred years. And in the end they would have decided not to do anything.'
'That can't be right,' I blurted out.
'You're simply too young... and too remote from the admin istrative structures. Geser and Zabulon would agree with me.'
I shrugged. Perhaps they would.
I wondered if Geser had anyone to grieve for. He loved Olga, and now she was with him. He had even managed to make his son an Other. But surely, over thousands of years the Great Geser must have lost loved ones, friends, children. And some of them must have been Others, not ordinary people. Others who had withdrawn into the Twilight.
And Zabulon? Of course, as he now was, Zabulon didn't love anyone. But could that always have been the case? He had been a child once, the same as all other children, except that he had been a potential Other. He happened to have taken the path of Darkness. But it wasn't possible that he had never loved anyone! Even Dark Ones can love... even malicious and heartless ones like Alisa Donnikova...
An interesting little situation. In principle, the activities of the "Last Watch' worked to Geser's and Zabulon's advantage! Any Other of any serious age had to be delighted by the idea of bringing back the withdrawn.
Although, of course, they could never admit it openly.