THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT handed out the lunches. I was offered cognac again, but I refused. Enough already. I had to be in good form in Edinburgh.
Behind me Edgar ate with a hearty appetite. Gennady prodded pensively with his fork, picking out the pieces of meat. When his gaze fell on me I completely lost all desire to eat my meat. It even cost me an effort to get the salad and a piece of cheese down. It was really rather annoying that everything tasted so good. I ought to have ordered the vegetarian lunch.
Saushkin took a flask out of his pocket. He unscrewed the top and took a gulp, then he put the flask away, ostentatiously licking his dark-stained lips.
'You know, Edgar, there's one thing that surprises me,' I said in a quiet voice. 'I thought you always had a dislike for bloodsuckers. Not to mention vampires who violated the Treaty... And you removed a criminal's registration seal?'
'Calm down, Anton,' Edgar said soothingly. 'When Gennady killed those Light Ones on the boulevard, it was only self-defence. And in Edinburgh... well, that was unfortunate. But it was self-defence too in a certain sense. Gennady didn't even drink the boy.
He didn't like the idea of drinking one of Kostya's friends, so he poured all the blood away...'
'And how did he reach the Higher level?' I asked, looking at Gennady.
The vampire opened his mouth just a crack, extending his fangs. He shook his head.
'His son left the recipe for "Saushkin's Cocktail" in his notes,' Edgar said coolly. 'Sure, Gennady increased his level illegally. But he didn't have to kill any people to do it... '
'Are you sure about that?' I asked, looking at Gennady. His fangs were moving further and further out. I wondered what Schrodinger's Cat would do if someone tried to bite me though its fluffy body.
'It's true, isn't it?' Edgar asked, reaching out one hand and taking Gennady firmly by the shoulder. 'Or is there something I don't know about my comrade-in-arms?'
'He's lying,' said Gennady. 'He's trying to set us against each other.'
'I don't think so,' said Edgar, still holding the vampire's shoulder, and perhaps even applying a little pressure to it now. 'You're very agitated, Gennady. Calm down.'
'I'm perfectly calm,' the vampire hissed.
'Have you killed people?' Edgar asked imperturbably. 'There wasn't any recipe for a cocktail e-mailed to you by your son, was there?'
'Yes, I've killed some,' Gennady said. He took the flask out again and shook it. 'But there was a cocktail! This is it, Kostya's cock tail. I didn't check the mail, I had too many things on my mind! So I only read the letter in the spring, and by then it was too late ... So what now?'
'They found fifty-two bodies drained of blood in his apartment. Perhaps you were wondering what had got the Watches so hot up? His own kind are ready to tear Gennady to pieces now. They've been left without licences for five years!'
'That's Geser being too modest again,' Edgar commented. 'In his place I would have demanded ten. It's outrageous. I had my own suspicions on the matter. Outrageous! Gennady, that's not the way to do things! We're all one team!'
'Are we still one team?' Gennady asked.
'Yes. What's done can't be undone... But why did you do it?'
'How was I to know that you would come and find me?' the vampire asked. 'I wanted my revenge on Anton. And how can a weak vampire take his revenge on a Higher One? I had to build myself up. It's all his fault!'
This was an excuse that would never go out of fashion, I thought. Not only among the sons of Darkness, but among the most ordinary of human scum.
'It was all his fault! He had an apartment, a car and an expen sive cellphone, and all I had was three roubles, chronic alcoholism and a hangover every morning. That was why I waited for him in the gateway with a brick...' 'She had long legs, she was seven teen and she had a handsome boyfriend, and I had impotence, a porn magazine under my pillow and a face like a gorilla's. I just had to attack her in the hallway when she walked in, humming to herself, with her lips still hot from kisses...' 'He had an inter esting job, work assignments all over the world and a good repu tation, and I had a degree diploma that I'd bought, a petty job working under him and chronic idleness. That was the reason I fixed things so that he would be accused of embezzlement and kicked out of the firm...'
They're all the same, these people and these Others who are desperate for glory, money or blood and have discovered that the shortest path is always the Dark one.
There's always somebody who was getting in their way and somebody who was to blame...
Probably when Gennady Saushkin wanted to save his little son he really was trying to do good. He didn't have a soul, but in his mind and his heart he simply couldn't accept Kostya's death. Just as he didn't want to accept it now. And the Dark way had proved so simple and so short...
For a long time he had teetered on the very brink, if a vampire still has that option open to him. He hadn't killed people. He had even tried to be honest and kind, and he had managed it. He had even managed to bring Kostya up almost as a human being.
But what makes the short roads different is that you have to pay a levy for using them. And on the Dark roads they like to announce the charge at the end of the journey.
'Are you satisfied with his explanations?' I asked.
'I'm disappointed,' Edgar replied. 'But there's nothing to be done about it now.'
'There are some things that you can't put right,' I agreed.
But to myself I added: 'And there are some that you can.'
The Twilight customs counter at Edinburgh was empty. There were some forms lying there, and even a search amulet, glowing an even, milky-white colour. The last Other to pass this way had been a Light One. There were no Others on duty.
Edgar pulled me into the Twilight. I still couldn't use magic, with that damned Schrodinger's Cat squirming on my neck and occasionally sticking its claws out. I took one look at Gennady and turned away. He was an appalling sight. What was it that Zabulon had said about human children playing at vampires? They ought to be shown what a vampire really looked like. Cheeks eaten away by ulcers; earthen-grey skin; vacant, cloudy-white eyes like hard-boiled eggs with the shell removed.
We walked past the counter and through a door that was closed in the real world, into some kind of service corridor. We went into a small room that was either a poorly furnished janitors office or a store for lumber that was already worn out but not yet written off. Chairs with their backs torn off and broken legs, shelves full of dusty boxes and jars, rolls of murky-coloured flooring material.
Edgar jerked me by the shoulder and pulled me back into the real world. I sneezed. It was definitely a temporary store for junk. I blinked as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim lighting - the windows were completely shut off by blinds. I laughed. Well now, I could award myself another point in this game.
Sitting in a chair that was better preserved than all the others was a beautiful woman with black hair. The simple everyday clothes ?trousers and a blouse ?seemed entirely inappropriate on her. She ought to have had a long dress that emphasised her femininity, or something light and airy, white and transparent, or nothing at all.
But she would have made any clothes look good. Even a hobo's old suit.
I admired her once again. Like that first time when our paths had crossed.
'Hello, Arina,' I said.
'Hello, sorcerer.' She held out her hand, and I pressed my lips to the palm.
Even though I had seen her in her Twilight form.
Even though I knew that this magnificent body, so healthy and overflowing with vitality, only existed in the human world.
'You're not surprised,' said Arina.
'Not a bit,' I said, shaking my head.
'He knew,' Edgar put in. And from the way he spoke I suddenly realised that he was not the most important member of the trio.
Maybe Edgar was the one who had stirred everything up in the first place, and he had supplied the Last Watch's battle magic, but he wasn't the most important one there.
'Svetlana guessed?' Arina surmised.
'We decided together,' I said. 'By the way, you're a Light One now, aren't you? Pardon me, but I won't risk looking at your aura - I've got this little kitten dozing round my neck...'
'Yes, I am,' Arina said calmly. 'But you already knew that Great Ones can change colour, didn't you?'
'Merlin changed,' I said casually. 'I have a question for you, witch, or whatever you are now. Healer?'
Arina didn't answer.
'You gave a promise to my wife. Swore an oath. That for a hundred years... '
'I would not cause harm to anyone, neither Others, nor people, except in self-defence,' Arina continued.
'Surely changing your colour hasn't released you from your oath.'
'But I haven't killed anyone, Anton. I fitted out Edgar and Gennady, but that's a different matter altogether. That didn't violate the oath.'
'Svetlana took pity on you,' I said. 'She took pity on you.'
'Perhaps she was right to, Anton,' Arina said, smiling. 'Look, I've become a Light One. And I haven't harmed your wife and daughter, have I?'
'And what about the nuclear weapon that Edgar is threatening to explode beside our house? In how many hours' time?' I asked, looking at the former Inquisitor.
Edgar raised one hand and looked at his watch. He said:
'The thing is, Anton, that to be really interested in the success of our venture, you had to feel a real personal involvement.'
Before he had even finished speaking, I felt a heavy throbbing in my temples and a mist seemed to obscure my vision.
'The explosion took place five minutes ago,' Edgar said dispassionately.'I haven't broken my oath ?the time was set yesterday... And don't get emotional, please. If Schrodinger's Cat finishes you off, you won't be able to help your wife and daughter.'
I had no intention of using magic.
The dead always have trouble with taking revenge. Especially dead Others. I didn't need that kind of trouble.
I kicked Edgar. Maybe not as elegantly as Olga kicked open the lock on Saushkin's door. But I think I kicked harder.
Edgar flew back against the wall, struck it hard with the back of his head and slowly slid down it, catching at his crotch with his hands.
Then Gennady jumped me. He grabbed me across the chest with superhuman strength, pulled my head back with his free hand and bared his teeth...
'Gena!' Arina only said a single word, but the vampire's fangs were instantly withdrawn. 'Edgar asked for what he got. Calm down, Anton. Our grey friend was mistaken.'
Edgar groaned as he rolled around the floor, clutching his crotch. I'd hit the right spot.
'There hasn't been any explosion,' Arina continued. She got up and came towards us, then looked into my face. 'Hey, Anton! Calm down. There hasn't been any explosion!'
I looked into her eyes. And nodded.
She was telling the truth
'What do you mean... there hasn't... ' Edgar groaned from the corner.
'I told you I didn't like the idea,' Arina said. 'Even if I was still a Dark One, I wouldn't have liked it! There hasn't been any explo sion. The criminals who stole a tactical nuclear warhead have repented and have returned it to the authorities. They are being interrogated at this very moment.' She sighed. 'And not very humanely, I'm afraid. There hasn't been any explosion and there won't be.'
'Arina!' Edgar had even stopped groaning. 'Why? You could have just delayed it... for a guarantee...'
'I can't do things like that now,' Arina explained, with a sweet smile. 'Unfortunately, I just can't. I told you at the beginning that I would cut out any acts of mass destruction with massive human casualties.'
'Then why... did you let me start all this anyway...' Edgar said, straightening up with difficulty. He gave me a glance filled with hate. 'Bastard! You've... smashed everything up!'
'You won't need any of it for the next seventy-seven times,' I replied spitefully. 'Didn't you notice the spell that Afandi flung at you?'
'So that's it. That old joker Afandi. Yes, the next seventy-five times you can pester someone else, Edgar.'
'Why did you do this?' Edgar asked with pain in his voice.
'So that what you said would sound convincing. Anton could have spotted a lie, even with the Cat on his neck. Saushkin, please let our guest go. He won't fight any more. Boys always try to settle their disagreements by the most primitive methods...'
Gennady reluctantly moved away from me and sat down on the floor with his legs crossed under him. I looked round for a chair that wasn't a total wreck and sat down, deliberately not asking for permission. Arina went back to her own chair. Suddenly real ising that he was the only one standing, and that he was clutching his own private parts, Edgar also took a seat.
'All right, now everyone's settled down and we can talk calmly,' Arina said in the voice of the hostess at a literary salon who has just watched one poet pulling another's curly hair. 'Peace, peace and more peace! Anton, let me explain things to you. You understand that it's far more difficult for me to lie than it is for Gennady or Edgar. We don't want any atrocities, we're not trying to destroy the world. We're not trying to exterminate all human beings. All we're doing is bringing the withdrawn back to life.'
'Arina, what did they hook you with?' I asked. 'Someone you loved? A child?'
For a moment I clearly saw sadness in Arina's eyes.
'A loved one... Yes, there was someone I loved, sorcerer. He was here for a while, and then gone. He didn't even live out his human lifetime, he was killed... And I had a daughter. Earlier, before him. She died too. When she was only four... from plague. I wasn't there with her, I arrived too late to save her. But not even the Crown will bring them back ?they were people. Wherever they might have gone, there's no way for us to reach them and no way back for them to come back.'
'Then why...' The question was left unfinished, hanging in the air.
Gennady gave a quiet, hoarse laugh.
'She's got ideals! She's a Light One now, like you. She only kills for noble reasons...'
'Hush, bloodsucker!' said Arina, and her eyes flashed. Then she immediately continued in a steady voice: 'He's telling the truth, Anton. I became a Light One by my own deliberate choice. On the dictates of my reason, not my heart, you might say. I'm sick of the Dark Ones. I've never seen anything good come of them. I was thinking of joining the Inquisition, but I had too many old charges to answer. And I don't like them anyway, the smug hypocrites ... I beg your pardon, Edgar, that doesn't apply to you, of course. I went straight to Siberia that time. And I lived in Tomsk, a nice quiet town. It inclines you towards the Light. I worked for a living the way I used to, as a local witch. I put an advertisement in the newspaper, and when they came from the Watch to check me I pretended to be a quack. It's not hard for me to wind the average watchman round my little finger. And then I realised that I was only doing good deeds. I only sent husbands back to their wives if I could see their love was still alive, that it would be better for everyone. I healed sicknesses. I found people who were lost. I made people younger again... just a little bit. The important thing there was to use just a little bit of magic: all the rest is making people believe in themselves, making them live a healthy life. And not a single hex, not a single potion to send someone back to a woman he didn't love ... So I decided I'd had enough of playing Dark games. But do you know what it takes for a Dark One to change colour?'
I shook my head.
'You have to think of something immense, something really important. It not as simple as "If you've done good deeds for a year, you become a Light One; if you've worked evil, you become a Dark One." No. You have to do something that turns everything in you upside down. Something that will bleach white everything that came before, everything you did with your life ... or simply cancel it out.'
'Was Merlin caught out by his massacre of innocent children?' I asked.
'Yes, I think so,' Arina said, nodding. 'What else? He wanted so badly to create a kingdom of justice and nobility here on Earth, that was what he nurtured Arthur for. How can you be choosy about your methods in the cause of such a great idea? And suddenly the probability lines showed a child who would grow up and destroy the entire kingdom ... I wasn't alive then, so I don't know what Merlin was thinking and what he wanted. But the very moment that Merlin decided to murder the innocent for the sake of his dream, the Great Light Magician died and the Great Dark Magician was born.'
Uroboros again. Life in death and death in life.
Could it all really have been so very simple for Arina? She was tired of being a Dark One, she was drawn to do good deeds ?and so she became a Light One? She reformed, like the old woman Shapoklyak in the story, and changed sides...
Or was there something else involved? For instance, the long and complicated relationship that bound her to Geser? Those joint intrigues of theirs, when the Light Magician and the Dark Witch pursued the same goals? Had Geser inclined her towards the Light, or had Arina realised that there wasn't that much difference between her Darkness and Geser's Light?
I didn't know, and she wouldn't answer me if I asked. Just as she wouldn't answer if I asked whether Geser and Zabulon had known her plans in advance and were playing their own game, allowing the 'Last Watch' to get closer to Merlin's legacy.
'But how did you and Edgar get together? If it's not a secret, that is.'
Edgar didn't say anything. He was whispering ?obviously trying to heal his injuries as best he could.
'Why should it be a secret?' said Arina, looking at her comrade-in-arms and, apparently, lover. 'He managed to track me down after all. It had become a matter of principle for him. Well, he tracked me down, but by that time he wasn't interested in his career any more. His wife had been killed, he had found out about Merlin's last artefact and he wanted to get his hands on it. And the quickest way to do that was to become a Higher One, and not simply a Higher One but a zero-point magician, like Merlin. Edgar thought I could reconstruct the Fuaran. He overestimated my abilities a little there. But I liked what he told me about the Crown. So the two of us joined forces.'
I nodded. That sounded like the way it must have happened. Edgar, already obsessed by the idea of reaching the artefact, had found Arina. Together they had co-opted Saushkin, who was thirsting for vengeance, into their 'Last Watch'. And they had set to work. An Inquisitor who had access to an absolutely vast repos itory of magical amulets; a highly intelligent witch who had become a Light One; a Higher Vampire who was going insane with grief for his son and his wife...
A sorry sort of crew they made.
But a terrible one.
'Aren't you afraid that the Crown will become your mistake, Arina? In the same way that Mordred was Merlin's?'
'Yes,' she said. 'I am a bit afraid of that... Well then, did we make a mistake by taking you prisoner? Have you found a way to get hold of the Crown of All Things?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Merlin deliberately confused the question of the seventh level. Only a zero-point Other can enter the kingdom of the dead.'
'The withdrawn,' Gennady corrected me without any malice in his voice. 'Not the dead, the withdrawn.'
Why was that such a sore point with him? Because he wasn't alive?
'I think it's impossible too,' Arina said, nodding. 'If I had the Fuaran, I could have raised Edgar to the zero-point level. But without the book it's difficult. I remembered some things, I managed to rewrite a few others, and somehow or other I raised him to the Higher level. But I obviously don't have the skill to rival the Fuaran ... So what were your thoughts?'
'The Crown of All Things is on the fifth level,' I said. 'You could have taken it two weeks ago!'
Arina screwed up her eyes and peered at me. And I started telling her all the nonsense I'd fed to Edgar and Gennady in the plane. About taking a step back. About the head and the tail. About the golem.
'You're probably lying, I suppose,' Arina said pensively. 'It all fits so well... But it's a bit simple for old Merlin, don't you think? Well?'
'I think he's lying too,' Gennady suddenly put in, backing her up. He hadn't shown any sign of trusting me in the plane either. 'We ought to have taken the daughter...'
'Gena, don't you dream even in your worst nightmare of ever touching that little girl!'Arina said in a quiet voice. 'Is that clear?'
'Of course,' said Gennady, suddenly changing his tune.
'Well then, sorcerer, are you telling the truth or lying?' Arina asked, looking into my eyes. 'Eh?'
'The truth?' I said, leaning forward. The only thing that could save me now was fury... and frankness, of course. 'Who do you take me for? Merlin? How should I know the truth? They hung this brute round my neck, threatened to blow up my wife and daughter, together with half of Moscow, and then ordered me to tell them how to get the artefact! How do I know if I'm right or not? I thought about it. It seems to me that this could be the right answer! But nobody, including me, can give you any guarantees!'
'Just what do want from me, my darling cut-throats... maybe I should play "Murka" for you?' Edgar said suddenly.
I didn't immediately realise that it was a joke. He didn't often manage that.
'But there is something to this lie of his, after all,' Edgar added, giving me a hostile look. 'It sounds like the truth.'
Arina sighed. She spread her hands and said:
'Well then, all we can do now is check it. Let's go.'
'Stop,' I said. 'Edgar promised to take the Cat off me.'
'If you promised, then take it off,'Arina told him after a moment's thought. 'But don't forget, Anton, that you may be powerful now but there are three of us, and we're as strong as you are. Don't even think about pulling any tricks.'