GENNADY WAS DRIVING. Apparently Edgar and Arina thought that they could restrain me better than he could if I attempted to escape or attack them. I was sitting on the back seat with Edgar on my left and Arina on my right.
But I didn't attempt to attack or to escape - they had too many trump cards up their sleeves. Now that they had taken the Cat off my neck, the skin where the fluffy strap had been was scratched and itchy.
'They're guarding the Crown much more seriously now,' I said. 'Aren't you afraid of a massacre, Arina? Will your conscience be able to handle it?'
'We'll manage without bloodshed,' Arina replied confidently .'As far as that's possible.'
I doubted very much that it was possible, but I didn't try to argue. I looked out in silence at the suburbs we were driving through, as if I was hoping to see Lermont or his black deputy and at least be able to warn them with a look or a gesture...
If I tried to get away, they would almost certainly catch me. I had to wait.
The day was just declining into evening. It was the busiest time for tourists, but today Edinburgh seemed quite different from two weeks earlier. The people on the streets seemed somehow muted and joyless, the sky was obscured by a light haze and the birds circling overhead seemed alarmed by something.
So apparently everything in the world could sense the approaching cataclysm, including people and birds...
The cellphone in my pocket jangled. Edgar started and tensed up. I looked enquiringly at Arina.
'Answer it, but be discreet,' she said.
I looked at the phone. It was Svetlana.
As ill luck would have it, the connection was excellent. You would never have suspected that we were thousands of kilometres apart.
'Are you still working, Anton?'
'Yes,' I said. 'I'm driving in the car.'
Arina was watching me closely. She was bound to be able to hear every word that Svetlana said.
'I deliberately didn't ring. They told me something had happened ?some terrorists or other, pumped full of magic ?is that why you're late?'
A faint spark of hope began to glimmer in my breast. I wasn't late yet! Svetlana couldn't have been expecting me home from work so early.
'Yes, of course that's why,' I said.
Come on now, guess! Use magic! You can find out where I am now. Raise the alarm. Warn Geser, and he'll get in touch with Lermont. If the Edinburgh Night Watch are expecting an attack, that will be the end of the 'Last Watch'.
'Make sure you don't get stuck for too long,' Svetlana told me.
'Surely you have enough people working for you to manage all these things? Don't take everything on yourself. Okay?'
'Of course I won't,' I said.
'Is Semyon with you?' Svetlana asked casually.
Before I could answer, Arina shook her head. Of course, if Svetlana suspected something, she could phone Semyon after I said yes.
'No,' I said, 'I'm on my own. I've got a separate job to do.'
'Do you want me to help? I'm getting a bit bored sitting at home,' Svetlana said and laughed.
Arina was alarmed and tense now.
'Don't be silly, this is nothing special,' I said. 'Just an inspection visit.'
'As long as you're sure,' said Svetlana, sounding a bit disappointed. 'Call me if you get completely stuck. Oi, Nadya's trundling something around, bye...'
She cut off the call and I started putting the phone away in my pocket. Looking straight into Arina's relaxed face, I pressed three buttons on the phone: Incoming calls ?Call last number ?Off.
That was all. I couldn't risk leaving the phone switched on. Arina might hear the ringing tone from inside my pocket. Had the call gone through, had the international telephone network managed to process it before it was cancelled? I didn't know. I could only put my hope in the greed of the cellphone network operators - it was more profitable for them to put the call through and take the money for it from my account.
And also, of course, I put my hope in Svetlana's common sense. When her phone rang and then stopped again, she had to use magic, not try calling back. Arina and Edgar were far older than me. But for them a cellphone would always be a portable version of a cumbersome apparatus into which you had to shout: 'Young lady! Young lady! Give me the Smolny Institute!'
'She suspected something,' Edgar said. 'You shouldn't have done that with the bomb ... it didn't have to be detonated, but at least we would have had a trump card in reserve!'
'Never mind,' said Arina. 'Even if she did suspect something, they don't have any time. Anton, give me that phone.'
A glint of suspicion had appeared in her eyes. I gave her the cell without saying anything, handing it to her fastidiously with the tips of my fingers without touching the keys.
Arina looked at the phone and saw that it was in waiting mode. She shrugged and switched it off completely.
'Let's do without any calls, all right? If you need to call anyone, you can ask me for my phone.'
'I won't bankrupt you?'
'No, you won't.' Arina took out her own phone and dialled a number ?not from the phone book, but the old way, pressing every key. She raised the phone to her ear and waited for an answer. When it came she said quietly: 'It's time. Go to work.'
'Still haven't run out of accomplices, then?'
'They're not accomplices, Anton, they're hired hands. People can be perfectly effective allies if you equip them with a small number of amulets. Especially the kind that Edgar has.'
I looked at the royal castle towering up in state above the city, crowning the remains of an ancient volcano now for ever extinct. Well, well, this was the second time I'd ended up in Edinburgh, and I still didn't have time to visit its main tourist attraction...
'And what have you prepared this time?' I asked
There was an idea flickering on the edge of my conscious ness, scratching away at it like Schrodinger's Cat. Something very important.
'Funnily enough, I've actually prepared one of Merlin's artefacts,' Edgar said. He had already recovered from my ungentlemanly blow. 'It's called Merlin's Sleep.'
'Ah, yes, he was rather uninventive with his names for things,' I said, nodding. 'Sleep?'
'Just sleep,' Edgar said, shrugging. 'Arina was very upset about the high number of casualties the last time. This time it will all be very... cultured.'
'Ah, and there's the first little spark of culture,' I said, looking at the smoke rising from a taxi in front of us. The driver had clearly fallen asleep as he took a bend, and his car had run up onto the sidewalk and crashed into an old building. But the most terrible thing was not the smoke coming from under the taxi's hood, or the motionless bodies inside it. The sidewalks were covered with the corpses of local people and tourists - one young woman had clearly been knocked aside by the taxi's radiator and then crushed against the wall by its old-fashioned black box of a body. She was probably dying. The only thing I could be glad about was that she was dying in her sleep.
This was not the humane Morpheus that we learned in the Night Watch, the spell that gave people several seconds before they lost consciousness. Merlin's Sleep acted instantly. And it was very precisely localised - I could see the boundary line of the artefact's influence. Two adults stepped inside it and fell to the ground, instantly overcome by sleep. But the seven- or eight-year-old boy who was walking a few steps behind them was still awake and he cried as he shook his motionless parents. He had little prospect of help ?those people who had not entered the zone of sleep were running away from it with remarkable alacrity. I could understand why. To someone who didn't know the truth it all looked like the effect of some highly poisonous gas. And somehow the sight of this little boy trying to get his parents to their feet on the other side of the scattering crowd was almost as tragic as the sight of the young woman killed in the crash.
Edgar continued gazing fixedly at the smoking taxi after we had driven past it. That would probably have been a good moment to escape ... if I had been intending to escape.
'Does that remind you of something?' I asked.
'Incidental casualties are inevitable,' Edgar said in a voice that had turned flat and hoarse. 'I knew what I was getting into.'
'What a pity they didn't,' I said. And I looked at Edgar through the Twilight.
This was bad, very bad. He was hung all over with amulets: dozens of charms had been applied to him and there were spells trembling on the ends of his fingers, ready to dart off at any moment. He was positively glowing with Power waiting to be used. Arina and Gennady looked exactly the same. Even the vampire had not scorned the magical trinkets.
I wouldn't be able to manage by using force.
We drove to the Dungeons in total silence, past sidewalks strewn with bodies and motionless vehicles (I saw three that were burning). We got out of the car.
On Princess Street, on the other side of the ravine, everything had stopped dead too, but I could already hear a siren howling somewhere. People always recover from a panic. Even if they don't know what it is that they're up against.
'Let's go,' said Edgar, pushing me gently in the back.
We set off down the stairs. I looked back for a moment at the stone crown of the castle above the roofs of the buildings.
Why yes. Of course. You only had to think for a moment and put it all together. Merlin had been most magnanimous when he'd composed his little verse...
'What are you dawdling for?' Edgar shouted at me. His nerves were on edge, and no wonder. He was anticipating a meeting with the one he loved.
We walked past motionless bodies. There were people and Others - Merlin's Sleep didn't differentiate between them. I noticed several sleeping Inquisitors. Behind the fake dividing walls everything was lit up brightly by the glow of auras. They had been waiting, and the ambush could not have been prepared better.
Only no one had known the full Power of the artefact that had been used.
'You haven't forgotten about the barrier on the third level, I suppose?' I asked.
'No,' said Arina.
I noticed that as we walked along first Edgar and then Arina left perfectly innocent-looking objects charged with magic on the floor and the walls: scraps of paper, sticks of chewing gum, bits of string. In one place Edgar rapidly sketched several strange symbols on the wall in red chalk ?the chalk crumbled into dust as soon as he had traced out the final sign. In another place Arina smiled as she scattered a box of matches across the floor. The 'Last Watch' was clearly afraid of pursuit.
Eventually we entered the room with the guillotine, which for some reason the 'Last Watch' had chosen as its point of entry into the Twilight. This was probably the exact centre of the vortex, the precise focus of Power.
And here, as well as two first-level magicians who were asleep, there was one person who was wide awake.
He was a young man, short and plump, wearing spectacles on his cultured-looking face. He looked very peaceful and unaggressive in his jeans and bright-coloured shirt. In the corner of the room I noticed a girl about ten years old, sleeping with her head resting on a bag that had considerately been placed under it. Had they decided to open the way through with the blood of a child, then?
'My daughter fell asleep,' the man said, correcting my mistaken assumption. 'An extremely interesting device, I must say...' He took a small sphere woven from strips of metal out of his pocket. 'The lever shifted and it won't move back again.'
'That's the way it should be,' said Edgar. 'It won't move back again for seventy-something years. So the device is useless to you ?leave it here. Take this!'
He tossed a wad of money to the man, who caught it and casu ally ran his finger over the ends of the notes. But I noticed that he was keeping his left hand behind his back. Oh-oh...
'All correct,' the man said with a nod. 'But I'm a little concerned about the scale of the event... and the devices that you employ. It seems to me that the deal was clearly made on unequal terms.'
'I told you this would happen,' Edgar said to Arina. He turned back to the man and asked, 'What do you want? More money?'
The man shook his head.
'Take the money and your daughter, and go. That's my advice to you,' said Arina.
The man licked his lips and then unbuttoned his shirt.
He turned out not to be fat at all. His torso was encased in something that looked like an orthopaedic corset. Except that it had wires protruding from it.
'A kilogramme of plastic explosive. The switch works on the "dead hand" principle,' said the man, raising his left hand. 'I'm going to take that sphere, all the strange trinkets that I found on these guys' ?he prodded one of the sleeping Others with his foot ?'and everything you have in your pockets. Is that clear?'
'As clear as day,' said Edgar. 'I said right at the beginning that this would happen. I made the right choice with you.'
I suddenly noticed that Gennady was no longer there with us.
'And this resolves a certain number of moral difficulties,' Edgar said, turning away.
The explosives belt suddenly flew into little pieces. It wasn't an explosion: it looked like the work of a clawed hand moving with unnatural speed ?out of the Twilight, for example. Totally confused, the man opened his left hand, and a small switch with an absurd little tail of wire fell out of it. He'd been telling the truth.
The next moment the man screamed, and I too chose to turn away.
'An exceptionally loathsome character,' said Edgar. 'His threat was serious, even though the little girl is his own daughter. But now we have the blood we need, with none of the killing of innocent people that upsets Arina so much.'
'You're no better than him,' I replied.
'I don't pretend to be,' Edgar said, with a shrug. 'Let's go. It's not the first time we've entered the Twilight together, is it?'
He even took hold of my hand. I didn't protest. I found my own shadow on the floor and stepped into it. Through the gust of icy-cold wind, into the frozen, hungry space of the Twilight...
The first level.
We moved on without delay. The second level. The space around us was seething, agitated either by the fresh blood or by the hole that Merlin had made here in the fabric of creation.
Edgar and Arina were still beside me. Intensely focused. A moment later Gennady too appeared, with blood on his lips. On the second level I could barely recognise Saushkin senior, his face was so badly distorted by hideous malice and insane hatred.
The third level. The final eddies of the vortex of Power that had been blocking our way so recently were still raging here. Edgar started looking round and said:
'Someone's following us ... one of the signs has been activated.'
'Successfully?' A cloud of steam escaped from between Arina's lips as she asked.
'I don't know. Let's go lower!'
The fourth level greeted us with its pink sky and coloured sand. I pulled my hand out of Edgar's grasp and said:
'We agreed! I won't join the fight against the golem!'
'And nobody's forcing you to,' Edgar said, with a toothy grimace. 'Don't worry, you can keep out of it. Forward!'
This was the point at which I had planned to start an argu ment. To drag things out and then run for it, or even stay here and send the 'Last Watch' on to a pointless battle against the monster.
But something seemed to urge me on. Something like the insane obsession that had possessed Arina, Edgar and Gennady seemed to take possession of me too. I had to go down to the fifth level... I had to!
If only to lull their vigilance ...
'All right, but I don't intend to lay my life down for your sake!' I shouted and stepped down to the fifth level under Edgar's watchful eye.
They appeared beside me almost instantly. Yes, they had certainly pumped themselves full of Power. Gennady was the only one who was slightly delayed. He had obviously got through at the second attempt.
And this level of the Twilight was so much nicer than the ones above it! Cool, even chilly, but already without that icy wind that sucked the life out of you. And the colours here looked almost natural ...
I looked round, trying to spot the golem, and I saw it about two hundred metres away ?there were two snakes' heads sticking up out of the grass, turning this way and that like submarines' periscopes. Then the golem spotted us. The heads shuddered and reached up higher. There was a loud hissing sound, very much like a real snake's hiss, except that it was coming from such a long distance away...
A moment later the snake was already slipping towards us, managing to keep both of its heads above the grass at the same time.
'Head and tail,' Arina said pensively. 'I don't know, I don't know... Edgar, release Kong.'
I understood what she meant when Edgar took a small jade figurine out of his pocket - it was a long-armed monkey with short pointed horns protruding from its head. The Inquisitor breathed on the figurine and then carefully screwed its head off ?the figurine turned out to be hollow ?and carefully set it down in the grass. We barely had time to jump back before the vessel started giving out green smoke that coiled into the form of a monster.
The deva that had hunted Alisher in Samarkand was nothing like King Kong. He didn't have the height for that, since he only stood about three metres at the withers. But the toothy, gaping jaw, muscular limbs with sharp claws, coarse dark green fur and brutish, flaming-orange eyes impressed me far more than the sentimental giant from the old movies.
And King Kong probably never had such a repulsive acrid smell either. How could a golem stink, when it consisted of concen trated Power, not flesh, or even clay, and it had been stored in a magical vessel? I didn't know. Maybe it was an accidental side effect. Or maybe it was a joke by the deva's creator?
'Go and kill it!' Edgar shouted, pointing to the snake. Kong roared and went dashing towards the snake in huge bounds. The snake slithered towards him, not at all frightened by his sudden appearance, even seeming to liven up at the prospect of a worthy opponent. The earth shuddered under the impact of their feet and coils; the monkey's thunderous roar and the snake's deafening hiss fused together into a single mighty rumble.
Now was the time! While they were entranced by the prospect of the forthcoming battle.
I turned round ?and froze. Standing behind me was a short old man with a beard, dressed in white. At some moments he looked absolutely real ?I could count every last hair in the grey beard and gaze into the weary face furrowed with wrinkles; at others he became a hazy white shadow, through which I could see the grass and the sky.
The old man pointed slowly to the ground at his feet. Then he repeated the gesture.
Did he want me to go down to the sixth level?
I jabbed my hand downwards. The old man nodded, and an expression of relief appeared on his face.
He began melting away into the air.
There was no time to hesitate. At any moment one of the 'Last Watch' might look round and realise that I was preparing to make my escape.
The Power is within me! I can go down to the sixth level.
The Power is within me! I can see it always.
I must do this! Therefore I will do it.
I felt a blast of icy wind.
As I stepped through the barrier I heard Arina's voice:
'Somebody really is?
The voice fell silent, cut off at the border of the sixth level. At the border that protected the world of Others who had withdrawn.
'Thank you for coming,' the old man said. And he smiled.
Before I answered, I looked around me.
Daytime. A blue sky with white fluffy clouds and a sun. A meadow of green grass. Birds twittering in the trees.
An ancient grey-haired man standing in front of me. His clothes had probably never been white ?the coarse greyish sackcloth had only appeared to be white at first glance. And he was barefoot too... but the effect was not a pastoral, sentimental closeness to nature. He was simply a man who went barefoot, who didn't think it was worth wasting time on making shoes.
'I greet you, Great One,' I said, bowing my head. 'It is an honour for me ... to see the Great Merlin.'
The old man looked into my face curiously. As if this wasn't the first time he had seen me but he'd never had a chance to look at me properly before.
'An honour? How much do you know of my life, Light One?'
'I know about some things,' I said, shrugging. 'I know about the ship with the little children.'
'And even so it is "an honour"?'
'It seems to me that you have already paid for many things. And, in addition, for millions of people you are a wise defender of good and justice. That also counts for something.'
'There were only nine of them...' Merlin muttered. 'Legends ?they always exaggerate. The bad things, and the good things...'
'But they did exist.'
'They did,' Merlin confirmed. 'Why do you think that I have already paid? Do you not like the heaven that awaits Others after death?'
Instead of answering I bent down and plucked a stalk of grass. I put it in my mouth and bit it. The juice was bitter... only not quite bitter enough. I screwed my eyes up and looked at the sun. It was shining in the sky, but its light was not blinding. I clapped my hands - the sound was very slightly muted. I breathed in, filling my lungs with air ?the air was fresh... and yet there was something lacking in it. It left a slight musty odour, like the one in Saushkin's apartment...
'Everything here is not quite genuine,' I said. 'It lacks life.'
'Well done,' said Merlin, nodding. 'Many do not notice that straight away. Many live here for years ?or centuries ?before they realise that they have been deceived.'
'Can't you get used to it?' I asked.
'No. It is impossible to get used to this.'
'Remember the joke about the fake New Year's tree decor ations, Anton?' someone asked behind me. I looked round.
Tiger Cub was standing just five steps away.
There were many of them. Very many of them, standing there and listening to my conversation with Merlin. Igor Teplov and Alisa Donnikova ?they were together, holding each other by the hand, but there was no happiness in their faces. The girl-werewolf Galya was hiding her eyes. Murat from the Samarkand Watch gave me an embarrassed wave. A Dark One I had once killed by throwing him off the Ostankino Television Tower looked at me with no malice or resentment in his eyes.
There were so many. The trees prevented me from seeing just how many of them were standing there. If not for the forest, they would have stretched all the way back to the horizon. They had let the ones I had known come through to the front.
'Yes, Tiger Club, I remember,' I said.
I didn't feel any more fear or anger. Only sadness ?a calm, weary sadness.
'They look so real,' Tiger Cub said and smiled. 'But they bring no joy at all... '
'You're looking good,' I muttered, for the sake of saying some thing at least.
Tiger Cub pensively examined her tiger-skin cape. She nodded.
'I made an effort. For the sake of this meeting.'
'Hi, Igor!' I said. 'Hi, Alisa!'
They nodded. Then Alisa said:
'Good for you, Anton, You're powerful. But don't get too big-headed, Light One! Merlin himself has been helping you.'
I looked round at the old man.
'Sometimes,' Merlin said tactfully. 'Well... beside that outlandish tower of yours. And then when you were fighting that werewolf in the forest... And only just a little bit... '
I wasn't listening to him any longer. I was gazing round, trying to find the one whose words were most important of all to me.
Kostya pushed aside the Other he had been standing behind and came forward towards me. Of everyone there, he probably looked the best and the most absurd at the same time ?he was wearing a tattered spacesuit that had once been white but was now blackened and burned through in several places.
'Hello, neighbour,' he said.
'Hi, Kostya,' I replied. 'I ... I've been wanting to say something to you for a long time. Forgive me.'
' Will you drop those Light affectations of yours? What is there to forgive? We fought honestly, and you won honestly. Everything's fine. I ought to have realised that you weren't erecting the Shield because you were afraid...'
'Even so,' I said. 'You know that I hate my job. I've turned into a small screw ... a tiny part of a machine that gives no quarter and shows any mercy!'
'And how else could it be, between us?' Kostya suddenly smiled. 'Drop that... And you... forgive my father. If you can. He never used to be like that.'
'I'll try. I really will.'
'Tell him that Mom and I are waiting for him.' Kostya paused and then added firmly: 'Here.'
'I'll tell him,' I promised, trying to spot Polina.
Kostya suddenly took a step forward, shook me awkwardly by the hand ?and stepped away again.
And in that brief instant when our hands touched I felt his cold hand turn warm, saw his skin flush pink and his eyes gleam once again. Kostya stood there swaying, looking at his hand.
But my hand was seared by an icy chill...
The ranks of Others shuddered. Slowly, involuntarily, they began moving towards me. There was hunger and envy in their eyes ?in all of their eyes, even Tiger Cub's, even Igor's, even Murat's
'Stop!' Merlin shouted. He darted forward and stood between me and the withdrawn Others, raising his hands high in the air. I noticed that he carefully skirted round me to avoid touching me.
'Stop, you mad fools! A few minutes of life... that is not what we want, not what we have been waiting for!'
They stopped and looked at each other in embarrassment. Then they moved back. But the hungry fire was still blazing in their eyes.
'Leave now, Anton,' Merlin said. 'You understand everything and you know what you have to do. Go!'
'I can't get through, the "Last Watch" is up there,' I said. 'Unless your golem has stopped them...'
Merlin looked straight through me at something. Then he sighed.
'The golem is dead. Both golems are dead. A pity - I used to go up to the fifth level sometimes and play with the snake. But it was sad and lonely too.'
'Can you take me through?' I asked.
Merlin shook his head,
'Not many of us are capable of going to the fifth level. Only very few can reach the first level, and even so we are powerless there.'
'I won't be able to get past them,' I said. 'And I can't go straight forward to the seventh level either.'
We smiled at each other.
'You will be helped,' Merlin said. 'Only do everything right, I beg of you.'
I didn't know if it would work. All I could do was try.
The next moment the air around me started to vibrate as if something seething with an huge excess of Power had broken through the Twilight. What levels, what distances? What did these mean in the face of this Power resonating in awareness of its own self?
Little Nadya stepped down onto the grass. She waved her arms about, but couldn't keep her balance and plumped down onto her bottom, looking up at me.
'Get up,' I said sternly. 'It's damp!'
Nadya jumped to her feet, dusted off her velvet jumpsuit and jabbered:
'Mommy taught me how to walk into the shadow! That's one! And there was a monkey and snake fighting, and they both beat each other. That's two! Two men and a woman were watching the snake and saying very bad words. That's three! And Mommy told me to bring you straight back home for supper! That's four!'
She gulped when she saw the huge crowd around her, then lowered her eyes in embarrassment and said in a polite little girl's voice:
'Hello,' said Merlin, squatting down in front of her. 'Are you Nadezhda?'
'Yes,' Nadya said proudly.
'I'm glad I've seen you,' said Merlin. 'Take your daddy home. Only not straight home ?first go back to the people. And then home.'
'Backwards means forwards?' Nadya asked
'You look like a wizard from a cartoon,' Nadya said suspiciously. Just to be on the safe side, she took hold of my hand, and that clearly made her feel more confident.
'I used to be a wizard,' Merlin confessed.
'A good one or a bad one?'
'All kinds,' he said, with a sad smile. 'Go now, Nadezhda.'
Nadya cast a wary look at Merlin and asked me:
'Shall we go, Daddy?'
'Yes, let's go,' I said.
I looked round and nodded to Merlin, who was watching us silently. In sad anticipation. The first to raise her hand and wave goodbye was Tiger Cub. Then Alisa. And then they were all waving to us... waving goodbye for ever.
And when my daughter, the newly initiated Absolute Enchantress, took a step forward, I stepped after her, holding her hand in order not to lose my way in the swirling vortex of Power that had completed its circle and was returning us to our world.
Because the Twilight, of course, has no end, just as no ring has an end.
Because the warmth of human love and the cold of human hate, the running of beasts and the singing of birds, the fluttering of a butterfly's wings and the sprouting of a grain through the earth do not pass away, leaving no trace. Because the universal stream of living Power out of which parasites like the blue moss and the Others greedily snatch their crumbs does not disappear without trace ?it returns to the world that is awaiting rebirth.
Because we all live on the seventh level of the Twilight.