I DON'T KNOW if Lermont really would have brought the files or not. And I have even less idea what I would have done if he had. Probably 1 would have chosen a different candidate for the role of the Mirror Magician.
But we weren't given a chance to do any of that.
First I noticed Lermontov's face change. He was looking away from me, in the direction of the road.
Then I heard the roar of an engine and turned round.
A little white van hurtling along the road suddenly turned and broke easily though the symbolic wooden fence surrounding Lermont's cottage. It braked to a halt with a wild squeal, throwing up earth and gravel from under its wheels.
The rear doors of the van had been removed earlier. Two men jumped out of it and a third, left inside, opened fire from a machine gun mounted on a swivel.
The first to react was Foma. He had put up a shield as soon as the van came flying into his garden. Or maybe he hadn't put it up? Perhaps it was just a guard spell that had been installed a long time ago in order to deal with this kind of invasion?
The machine gun roared and rattled, the sound resonating in the back of the van and reaching us as if it had been amplified by a huge tin megaphone. The sound was accompanied by a stream of lead. But the bullets didn't reach their target. They halted gently, hung in the air for a second like some special effect in an action movie, and then fell to the ground.
The two who had jumped out, both masked in black hoods, dropped to the ground and opened fire with sub-machine guns. As yet, no one had got out of the front of the van.
Were they idiots, or what?
Semyon waved his hands a few times. I noticed the harmless Morpheus, which would give the attackers about ten seconds to carry on playing at soldiers, and the instantly acting Opium. But the spells didn't work and the firing continued, with the bullets getting stuck in mid-air halfway between us. I looked closely ?no, they weren't Others. Just ordinary people. But each of them had the gentle glow of a protective amulet on his chest.
'Just don't kill them!' Lermont cried out when I raised my hand.
I only had two Triple Blades ready and waiting for instant action ?I hadn't been expecting to wind up in a shoot-out like this. I flung both, aiming at the large machine gun. The first charge missed, but the second struck home, reducing the weapon to a heap of shredded metal. The racket quietened down a bit ?now only the men with sub-machine guns were firing, but rather uncertainly, as if they had just discovered the invisible barrier. That was good. Every defence has its limit of saturation and the machine-gun fire would have put it out of action fairly quickly.
We had been attacked by men! Ordinary men, equipped with protective amulets. An act that was not only absolutely unheard of but also stupid. It's one thing to shoot a magician from ambush, using a remote-controlled weapon. But like this, face-to-face, three gunmen against three magicians... what were they hoping to achieve?
Simply to distract our attention!
I swung round just in time to see the white smoke trail heading in our direction. The rocket had been launched from the roof of a high-rise building standing almost a kilometre away. But it was clearly controllable, and it was coming straight for the arbour.
'Foma!' I shouted, throwing a Freeze in the direction of the rocket on the off chance. But the temporal stasis spell either missed its target, or the rocket had also been protected against magic -nothing happened.
'Into the Twilight!' Lermont shouted.
Sometimes it's better to do as you're told than to think up your own original moves. I stepped into the Twilight, sinking down to the second level almost immediately. Lermont was there beside me ?he too considered the first level an insufficiently secure defence. But to my surprise, he didn't stop on the second level ?he waved his hand and went down deeper. Perplexed, I followed him down to the third level. What need was there for this? A powerful explosion in the real world might be felt on the first level, but it wouldn't reach the second... and if Foma suspected the unthinkable, the most terrible thing possible, then a nuclear blast scorched through the material of all levels of the Twilight...
The grey gloom was lit up by a white flame. The ground under our feet trembled slightly. Only slightly ?but it trembled!
'Where's Semyon?' I shouted.
Lermont merely shrugged. We waited a few more seconds for the splinters to stop flying, the flame to die away and the smoking fragments of the arbour to stop falling in the real world.
And then we went back out.
Lermont's neat and tidy cottage had lost all the glass in its windows and was covered with a fine sprinkling of debris. A hefty branch torn off the nearest tree by the explosion was protruding from a window on the second floor.
The small van was lying where it had been tossed on to its side. There were two motionless bodies beside it. A third man, the machine-gunner or perhaps the driver, who had prudently stayed put in his cabin, was slowly crawling away towards the fence, drag ging his useless legs behind him.
I didn't feel any particular pity for him. He was an ordinary bandit who had been used to distract our attention from the rocket attack. He'd known what he was getting into.
Where the arbour had stood there was a small crater, strewn with white scraps of wood. The playing cards were soaring and circling above our heads - a capricious chance had tossed them up into the air instead of incinerating them.
We found Semyon right beside the van. He was inside a trans parent glowing sphere that looked as if it had been carved in crystal. The sphere was slowly rolling along and Semyon, with his arms and legs held out, was turning over and over with it. His pose was such a hilarious parody of the picture The Golden Section that I giggled stupidly. Squat and short-legged, Semyon looked nothing like the muscular athlete drawn by Leonardo da Vinci.
'A very uncomfortable spell,' Lermont said in relief. 'But then, it is reliable.'
The crystal sphere cracked all over and disintegrated in a cloud of steam. Semyon, who was upside down at that moment, nimbly swung round and landed on his feet. He stuck a finger in his ear and asked:
'Do they always do that round here on Saturdays, Mr Lermont? Or is it just in honour of our arrival?'
'Follow me, gentlemen. I am afraid all this was merely a diversion.'
I didn't get time to ask what he intended to do about the over turned van, the demolished arbour and the crawling bandit who was already out in the street, where the neighbours could see him. A second portal opened beside the first, and Others began jumping out of it, one after another.
They weren't simply Light Ones from the Night Watch ?they were dressed in police uniforms, with bulletproof vests and helmets, and they were holding their machine pistols at the ready!
Well now, Thomas the Rhymer, aren't you a fine one for the blather! We have underestimated technology! I can see just how badly you underestimate it ...
Lermont stepped into the first portal. I hung back for a moment, waiting for Semyon, but he suddenly stopped, with his stare fixed on a gaunt man with red hair.
'Kevin! You old fogey!'
'Simon, you old blockhead!' the redhead shouted in delight. 'Where are you going? Hang on!'
They put their arms round each other and started hammering each other on the back with all the enthusiasm of those crazy rabbits in the advert for electric batteries.
'Later, we'll catch up on everything later,' Semyon muttered, freeing himself from Kevin's embraces. 'Look, the portal's getting cold. I brought you some wine from Sebastopol ?remember it? Sparkling muscat, here!'
I spat and shook my head. What sort of thing was that to say ?'later, later...' In the movies any character who said that to an old friend was irrevocably doomed to die soon.
I could only be glad that we weren't characters in an action movie.
I stepped in through the frame of the portal.
Lermont took no notice of this simple piece of wit. He inclined his head to one side, as if he were listening to someone's voice, and frowned. And his frown became deeper and deeper.
Then, with just a couple of gestures, he created the glowing frame of a portal in front of himself, and said:
A dense white glow all around. A feeling of lightness that could only be compared with what cosmonauts experience. Mysterious paths inaccessible to human beings.
What were those others in police uniforms going to do there? Wipe clean the memories of any chance witnesses, remove all traces of the explosion, interrogate the attackers if they survived? The basic day-to-day routine work of the Watches.
But who had dared to do it? Attacking a member of a Watch was already an act of insanity. But to attack the head of a Watch, plus two foreign magicians, was absolutely unheard-of. And to use human beings to do it ...
I suddenly realised quite clearly that the Frenchman I had met in the Dungeons had also been a human being. Not a Higher Magician who had concealed his true nature from me. Just an ordinary man. But incredibly cunning and cool, a brilliant actor. Not the same sort of pawn as these bandits who had been sent to their death. Perhaps it was him who had fired the rocket at us?
And then the vampire. Was it really Kostya? Had he really survived after all?
And to top everything off there were the protective amulets on the bandits, which had won them time. Vampires weren't capable of creating amulets. That was the work of a magician, an enchantress or a witch!
Just who were we up against here? Who was trying to break into the Twilight to get his hands on Merlin's legacy?
And was he capable of going down to the seventh level?
As always, the portal came to an end suddenly. The white glow contracted into a frame, I stepped through it ?and I was imme diately grabbed by the shoulder and jerked sharply down to the left, onto the floor behind the cover of an improvised barricade consisting of several overturned tables.
Just in time. A bullet went whistling over my head.
I was in the Dungeons of Scotland. In one of the first rooms.
Lermont was beside me, sheltering behind the barricade, and I had been dragged to the floor by a dark-skinned Other. Judging from the number of spells that he had 'teed-up' on his fingers, he was a battle magician.
Another shot rang out. The shooting was coming from the open door leading into the next room.
'Foma, what's happened?' I asked, looking at him in bewilderment. 'Why are we lying on the floor? We should put up a Shield...'
Lermont didn't stir a finger, but a barrier appeared at the door, sealing it off. Before I even had time to feel amazed at the Scottish magician's stupidity and delighted with my own astuteness, there was another shot, and the bullet whistled by over our heads. The barrier hadn't held it back.
'I beg your pardon, I was a bit hasty there...' I muttered. 'How about going through the Twilight?
'The same problem as with the rocket,' Lermont explained. 'The bullets are enchanted down to the second level.'
'Let's go through the third.'
'There's a barrier on the third!' Lermont reminded me. I felt ashamed and said no more.
The dark-skinned magician half-stood and hurled several spells into the corridor. I spotted Opium, Freeze and Bugaboo. The reply was another shot. With that same precise, mechanical rhythm...
'It's a machine!' I said quickly. 'Lermont, it's the same kind of machine that fired at me!'
'So what? It's protected against minor spells. Do you suggest blazing away with fireballs, starting a fire and bringing the bridge down on top of us?'
No,Thomas the Rhymer wasn't panicking or falling into despair. He was clearly trying to think of something. And he had to have some kind of plan. Only I didn't want to hang about.
Semyon stepped out of the portal that was still hanging in mid air. He immediately squatted down and scrambled towards the barrier. Yes: sometimes experience is more important than Power...
Somewhere far away, behind the walls and the doors, there was .a scream that broke off on a high note.
... And sometimes fury is more important than experience.
I slipped into the Twilight.
First level. The decor seemed to have become real. The walls of plasterboard and plastic were now stone and there were dried stalks of some kind rustling under my feet. In the Twilight the interior of the building must have been constructed by human fantasy ?too many people had passed this way who sincerely believed in the rules of the game and had made themselves believe in dungeons.
Dungeons and dragons.
There was a little dragon with bristling red scales standing in the stone archway and blocking my way. The beast came up to my shoulder: he was supporting himself on his back legs and a long tail that was twisted into a corkscrew. His webbed wings were flickering nervously behind his back. The glowing faceted eyes glared at me, and then the mouth opened and spat out a gobbet of flame.
So that's what you look like in the Twilight, Shooter I ...
I jumped to one side, tossing a fireball at the little dragon. A very small fireball, so as not to cause any shocks in the real world.
Then I went down to the second level.
The dungeon hadn't changed. But the dragon here was black and a little bit taller. His eyes were bigger, rounder and darker, and he had acquired pointed ears that stuck up. The scales had changed into either coarse fur or chitin spines that were pressed tight against his body. The jaws were extended forwards. The wings had been transformed into small, trembling legs.
The mouth opened wide and a bundle of blue sparks flew out in my direction.
I dodged and took a few more steps. And then, forgetting once again about the barrier, I stepped down onto the third level of the Twilight.
At first it felt as if I had run into a wall - a flexible, springy, but impenetrable wall. But that sensation only lasted for a second.
An instant later I found myself on the third level.
And I realised immediately that this was connected with that scream of a dying human being.
Someone had opened the barrier again. Opened it with someone's living blood.
But there wasn't any little dragon here.
I ran along the corridor without bothering to destroy the robot shooter. Lermont could handle that himself. The machine wasn't going anywhere. It was more important for me to catch the killer. Whoever he might be ?vampire, magician, sorcerer. A stranger or a former friend...
This was clearly the central section of the Dungeons. The focus of the Power, the centre of the vortex, the keyhole. The River of Blood ?only here it looked like a ditch filled with bubbling black liquid as thick as pitch. A gleaming black table. And lying on it -a motionless body in a bloodstained white robe.
It looked as if this time the person who had lost his life was one of the hired human personnel who worked for the Edinburgh Night Watch. One of the pathologists who did jobs for Lermont.
Could Lermont really have left the Dungeons with no reliable guards? Without anyone to ambush raiders? Had he abandoned the people who trusted him to the whim of fate?
A single glance at the real world told me everything.
He had left guards. And had set up an ambush.
But he had underestimated the strength of his enemy.
I counted six bodies in the room. Three of the dead were raiders
in semi-military uniforms that didn't belong to anyone's army, with automatic weapons ?and the magazines of the guns glitered with the spells applied to the bullets. One of the dead was a first-level Light Magician, almost torn in half by bursts of machine-gun fire at point-blank range. The magician's unexpended Power was slowly oozing out of him in a cloudy white glow. The other two who had been shot were human ?employees of the Night Watch. The protective amulets that had failed to save them sparkled brightly on their chests. They too had died with guns in their hands - they were still clutching pistols.
How many attackers had there been? And how many had gone on past the third level?
Before I had time to complete the thought, a grey shadow came flitting down through the Twilight from the first level to join me on the third. And Bruce appeared in front of me.
The Master of Vampires looked in pretty poor shape. His chest had been ripped to shreds by bullets. He was breathing heavily, and his fangs glittered in his mouth.
'Aha!' I exclaimed with such obvious delight that Bruce under stood me straight away.
'Stop, Light One!' he howled. 'I'm on your side! I came at Lermont's request!'
'And who shot you?'
'The robot in the corridor!'
I screwed up my eyes, tracing the 'vampire trail'. Yes, the traces of the undead feet passed through the corridor, from the entrance to the Dungeons. He wasn't responsible for the bloodbath.
So this was who Lermont was counting on to defeat the auto mated gunman. It's hard to kill someone who's already dead, even with charmed bullets.
'Who is he?' I didn't specify who I meant, but Bruce understood.
'I don't know! Not one of us! A stranger! He had about twenty people with him, but they're all dead. And Lermont's guards are dead!'
'Let's go after them,' I ordered.
Bruce hesitated. He glanced at the body oozing blood - unlike all the others, this man had died very recently, and his body existed on all levels of the Twilight at once. Death is very strong magic...
'Don't even think about it,' I warned him.
'He doesn't need it any more,' Bruce muttered. 'He doesn't need it, but who knows who I still have to fight?'
It was disgusting, and it was also true. But to hand a dead employee over to a vampire to feed on ...
'If you drink the blood, the barrier will appear again,' I said, finally finding an argument in my favour. 'Let's go. You can hold out.'
Bruce pulled a face, but he didn't object. He hung his head low, as if he was about to butt against some barrier, and went to the fourth level.
I slipped down after him.
Bruce was standing there, holding his chest. He was shaking and there was naked fear in his eyes. There was no one there apart from Bruce. Nobody and nothing ?the dungeons had disappeared. Just sand, grey and coloured at the same time, just black boulders scattered about here and there... And a pink and white sky with no sun.
'Anton ?I can't go any deeper.'
'Have you been on the fifth level?'
'Neither have I. Let's go!'
'I can't!' the vampire howled. 'Damn it, can't you see that I'm dying!'
'You've been dead for a long time!'
Bruce shook his head so furiously that it seemed as if he wanted to screw it off his neck.
If I'd had even the slightest suspicion that he was faking, I would have forced him to go down. Or finished him off for ever.
But going to the fourth level had clearly exhausted his final reserves of strength.
'Go and get Lermont!' I ordered him.
Clearly relieved, Bruce went dashing back the way he had come. The way a diver who is choking for breath hurtles upwards out of the fatal depths.
And I started looking for my shadow on the sand.
It had to be there. I had to cast a shadow. I was going to find it.
Otherwise something terrible was going to happen.
For instance - Merlin would rise from the dead. And a Mirror Magician would come to the assistance of the Edinburgh Night Watch, which had already suffered heavy losses. And he would maintain the equilibrium come what may.
The conjuror Egor.
And that would be his blinding moment of glory ?before he self-destructed, dissolved into the Twilight and was cast into empti ness by the remorseless will of the primordial Powers.
We had used plenty of people before, surely?
I growled, taking a step forward. I shouldn't be looking for this shadow on the sand. This shadow was inside me.
I was lashed by an icy wind - and I fell through to the fifth level of the Twilight.
And landed face down in green grass.
There was a cold, fitful wind blowing. The sunlight filtered through the purple clouds, as heavy as snow clouds, that were drifting across the sky. The rolling plain, covered with tall, prickly grass, extended all the way to the horizon. Somewhere in the distance there was thunder rumbling and lightning flashing ?flashing the wrong way, from the earth up into the sky, up into those purple clouds.
I stood up and swallowed hard ?my ears were blocked. The usual oppressive sensation of the Twilight, the creeping weariness, the desire to get back out into the real world as quickly as possible, had disappeared. The fifth layer turned out to be energetically balanced. When my eyes had adjusted and I looked more closely, it was obvious that the colours around me were not entirely alive after all. The grass was green, but pale. The clouds were more dove-grey than purple. Even the flashes of lightning were strangely subdued: they didn't sear the retinas of my eyes.
But even so ... It looked as if it was possible to live here.
I looked around me. And I saw the Guard in the flattened grass.
It was a golem ?a creature made of clay and brought to life by magic. A rare sort of thing: nobody has made them for a long, long time. A medieval robot that they sometimes tried to put to work, but more often created to guard things.
Only the classic golem looked like a clay man and he was brought to life by means of Runes inserted in a special opening. (When it came to this the magicians' sense of humour usually plumbed the depths.)
But this golem was a snake. Something like a clay anaconda ten metres long, as thick as the torso of a grown man, and with two rapaciously grinning heads - one at each end of its body. Its skin was reddish-grey, like a badly fired brick. The golem's eyes were open ?and it was the eyes that frightened me most of all. They were absolutely human.
But then, why shouldn't they be, if the golem had been made by Merlin?
Exactly halfway along the snake's trunk there was a slim section with a small hollow in it, about the size of an open hand. And lying in that hollow was a square grey stone, covered with half-effaced Celtic writing.
Yes, a strange golem. The Rune hadn't brought it to life, it had killed it.
Or rather, it had rendered it motionless ?if the baleful glint in its eyes was anything to go by.
I looked round again. There was no one there apart from me and the motionless golem. The grave-robber had already gone deeper.
I summoned the battle spells up out of my memory, all the most powerful things that I had learned and had sufficient Power for, and teed them up for rapid use. I had to be ready to go into battle at any moment. Provided, of course, that I managed to get any deeper...
Three figures materialised out of the air: Lermont, Semyon, and a black man I didn't know. Lermont had literally dragged Semyon and the black man after him, holding them by the arms. Oh, he was powerful, all right...
'What a lovely place!' Semyon said in delight, gazing around. 'Ooh ... So this is where...'
He spotted the golem and stopped. Then he walked across and gave it a cautious kick. He shook his head.
'Ooh... what a massive beast... Did you bring it down, Anton?'
'I'm afraid it's not that simple to bring down,' I said, pointing to the Rune. Then, turning to Foma, I said, 'Shall we move on, Mr Lermont?'
'Can you manage it?'
'I'll give it a try'
Lermont shook his head doubtfully. He glanced at his subordin ate and said:
'You can't go any further. I brought you along because of this... ugly brute. But there's no way you can go on. Wait for as long as you can and then go back.'
He heaved a deep sigh ?and dissolved into thin air.
I took a step forward.
Another step. And another, and another.
'It's not working, then?' Semyon asked sympathetically.
What was this? I'd broken through to the fifth level, and it was absolutely calm here, but I couldn't get any lower!
A step. Another step. Where's that shadow?
'Anton...' said Semyon, shaking me by the shoulder. 'Anton, stop. You're just wasting your strength.'
'I'll get through,' I whispered. 'I have to...'
'You don't have to do anything. Lermont's got the experience. He'll handle everything.'
I shook my head, trying to relax. I'd got to this level using my anger... maybe I could get to the next one if I was calm, peaceful? All I was facing was a kind of watershed. A thin film of surface tension between worlds, a borderline beyond which the vital Power began to increase. The first level was practically dead, dried out, sterile. The second was a little more alive. The third and fourth already began to resemble our world. The fifth... the fifth was almost fit to live in. There were already colours here and although it was cold it wasn't so cold that you would freeze, grass grew here, there was rain, and strange violent storms. What would there be on the sixth level? I had to understand the place I was trying to break into. Was it a glacial world, a dying world? A place where it would be hard to breathe, difficult to walk or talk?
No. The sixth level wouldn't be like that. It would be even more colourful than the fifth. Even more alive. Even closer to the real world.
I nodded to my thoughts.
And stepped from the fifth level to the sixth.
It was night there. Perhaps not a summer night, but it was still warm. I couldn't see a single star in the sky above my head, but there was a moon. Not a strip of grey dust in the sky, like on the first level. Not the three tiny coloured moons that shone on the second level. An absolutely normal moon, perfectly familiar to the human eye.
But not a single star. The stars are not for Others.
Under the white spotlight of the moon the world seemed completely real. The trees were real, alive, with leaves that rustled in the wind. There was a smell of grass and burning ... I suddenly realised that this was the first time I had ever smelled anything in the Twilight. No doubt, if I chewed on a grass stalk I would actu ally taste the bitter juice...
I turned round, and saw Lermont. But I didn't see him as a stout middle-aged gentleman. I saw him in his Twilight form.
Thomas the Rhymer had become a white-haired giant almost three metres tall. His skin radiated a murky white light. He was grabbing bunches of white and blue light out of the air, mixing them together in his gigantic hands as if he was making snow balls, and throwing them off into the far distance. I followed the trajectory ?the hissing bundles of flame went flying over the flat plain, sweeping aside the rare trees in their path, and fizzled out in a dark cloud that was moving rapidly away. Burning trees marked the shots that had missed.
'Foma!' I shouted. 'I'm here!'
The giant mixed up a truly immense sphere in his hands and grunted as he hurled it after the dark cloud. He turned round.
He had an amazing face. Kind and harsh, beautiful and fright ening, all at the same time.
'The young magician has passed the barriers, 'Thomas rumbled. 'The young magician has hastened to come to our aid...'
He was little bit crazy just at that moment ?like all Others who take on their deep Twilight forms in the heat of battle
Thomas covered the distance between us in just a few steps. It seemed to me that the very ground shook under his feet.
'They didn't manage it, my friend...'The ancient bard lowered a hand as big as a shovel onto my shoulder. 'They only got as far as the sixth level. Thomas drove them away, he did. Thomas drove them away, like cowardly little puppy dogs.'
Lermont leaned his face down to me and whispered confiden tially:
'But only because his enemies didn't fight. They'd been here long enough to realise that they couldn't get to the seventh level of the Twilight.'
'How many of them were there, Thomas?'
'Three, my friend, three. The right number.'
'Did you get a look at them?'
'Only a short one,' Thomas said with a shake of his head. 'You can't read an aura properly here, but Thomas managed. A Dark Other ?an undead vampire. A Light Other ?a sorcerer-healer. An Inquisitor Other ?a battle magician. Three came together for the legacy of Merlin. Three almost got through. Three Higher Others. But even Higher Ones cannot get though to the seventh level of the Twilight.'
'A Dark One, a Light One and an Inquisitor?' I asked in amazement. 'All together?'
'The legacy of Merlin is enticing to all. Even Light Ones. Why else do you think, young magician, that Thomas wished to keep your arrival secret from his Watch?'
'Are they all men?' I asked.
'All men. All women. How should Thomas know? Thomas didn't touch them. Thomas just saw a little bit of their auras.'
'Thomas, we have to go,' I said, looking into the giant's eyes. ' Thomas, it's time to go back. Time to go home.'
' Why?' the giant asked in surprise. 'It's good here, young magi cian. You can live here. A magical land, a kingdom of fairies and magicians... Thomas can settle here, Thomas can find his haven...'
Thomas Lermont, you are the head of a Night Watch! The whole of Scotland is under your protection! Witches, vampires, ghouls ?you're not going to let them all run riot, are you?'
Thomas said nothing, and for a moment I thought he would refuse to go, that he really had found the fairy kingdom to which, legend said, he had withdrawn four hundred years earlier.
Of course, the Dark Ones wouldn't have run riot. Help would have come ?from England, from Ireland, from Wales. And Light Ones would have been found in Europe and America to come to the aid of the orphaned Scottish Watch.
But would Lermont's disappearance be the final drop that trig gered Egor's transformation into a Mirror Magician?
'Let's go, my young friend,' Lermont said. 'You're right, you're right, and I am in too much of a hurry ... it is not yet time... But listen, young magician! Listen to the ringing of the silence, to the singing of the crickets in the grass, to the night birds beating the air with their wings...'
Either he made me hear it, or it was all real, but through the giant's noisy breathing I heard the silence and the sounds.
'See how hotly the fire blazes, how the silvery leaves catch the moonlight, how dark the grass is beneath our feet... ' Lermont whispered. 'You could live here...'
And I saw.
'Not many Others have been here when they were still alive...' Lermont said and sighed. 'We only come here after we die, do you understand? We come here for ever... '
I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. I remembered the members of our Watch who had died: Igor, Tiger Cub, Andrei...
'Did you know that? Did you know that earlier?'
'All Higher Ones who have managed to reach the fifth level know it,' Thomas said in a sad voice. 'But this knowledge is too dangerous, young magician.'
'It is not good to know what awaits you after death. Thomas knows ?and it is a burden to him. Thomas wishes to come here. Far away from cruel and greedy people. Far away from human evil and human good. It is so sweet... to live in a world of Others...'
'Live, young magician... Here even vampires have no need of blood. Here everything is different, otherwise. Everything is the way it should be. Here is the real world ... on the fifth and sixth levels, and the seventh - the very greatest. Here the towers of wise men studying the world of creation soar up to the heavens; cities full of Light and Dark seethe with vital life; unicorns roam through virgin forests and dragons guard their mountain caves. We shall come here ... I sooner, and you later... and our friends will come out to greet us. I too shall be glad to greet you, young magician...'
A gigantic arm hugged me round the shoulders as if I were a child. Foma heaved a deep, heavy sigh and continued:
'But it is not yet time. Not yet time. If I had been able to reach the seventh level ... I would not have come back. But my Power is not sufficient for that. And yours will not be either, young magician...
'I'm in no hurry for the time being,' I muttered. 'I have...'
What did I have? A wife and daughter? They were Others, Higher Others. We could all depart together. For the cities of Light and Dark... where Alisa and Igor were happy together, where no one remembered about those stupid little people...
I shuddered. Was I dreaming, or had I become taller too? Or had Lermont started to shrink?
'Foma, let's get going!'
'Wait. Look at this!'
A white light had started dancing above our heads. Foma reached out his hand and pointed to a slab of transparent red stone hidden in the grass under our feet. What was this, a ruby the size of a large tea tray?
I squatted down, ran my hand across the smooth surface and looked at the lines and dashes of the Celtic Runes.
'What's written here, Foma?'
'Merlin wrote that,' Lermont said, with a thoughtful note in his voice. 'Merlin wrote that, it is the keyhole and the final key, both at the same time. It says here in Coelbren...' He paused. 'If we say it in high style... then...'
'Say it in any style!' I exclaimed, feeling the time slipping away.
'The Crown of All Things is here concealed. Only one step is left. But this is a legacy for the strong or the wise ?y
Foma declaimed in a strange voice, one that was higher and more tuneful. And at the first words he spoke the letters carved in the stone started to glow, as if someone had lit up a powerful lamp underneath it. One after another the letters were transformed into slim columns of light, shooting up into the sky.
'You shall receive all and nothing, when you are able to take it. Proceed, if you are a strong as I;
Or go back, if you are as wise as I; Beginning and end, head and tail, all is fused in one, In the Crown of All Things. Thus are life and death inseparable.'
The final letter flared into white brilliance just as Lermont spoke the final word.
'I hate karaoke,' I said. 'What does all this mean?'
'Thomas knows no more than you do, young magician,' said the giant, clutching me in his arms. 'And now, let's be leaving!'
I thought Lermont was going to step straight into the real world. But no, he went to the fifth level first and waved to Semyon and the black guy.
They didn't have to be asked twice. Then Lermont winked at me, leaned down over the golem - and jerked Merlins Rune out of the snake's body.
The beast's eyes flashed in fury, its trunk swirled up into the air, and both mouths opened wide in unison.
But we were already out of the Guard's reach. In the ordinary human world. In a room full of dead bodies.
Overweight, ageing Lermont put me down and collapsed on the floor. His face was covered with sweat ?there were even beads of it hanging on the ends of his moustache.
We were surrounded by a familiar hustle: Light Others were taking prints of auras, studying the bodies, collecting small pieces of flesh and drops of blood for analysis. When I arrived, and Semyon straight after me, we were immediately met with wary glances, and I felt the probes of spells slipping over my body. When they discovered that we were Light Ones, and high-ranking, the embarrassed watchmen withdrew their probes.
I saw Bruce off to one side. The Master of Vampires no longer looked like a walking corpse, the rosy bloom had even returned to his cheeks. He was squatting in the corner, drinking something from a glass. I didn't try to see exactly what it was.
'Well, I never!' said Semyon, shaking his head. He looked absolutely happy. 'I never even imagined I'd see the fifth level some clay, like the Great Geser or Thomas the Rhymer. Oh... now I can die happy...'
He winked at me.
'I'll sew your mouth shut,' Lermont declared in a very familiar tone of voice. 'The fifth level of the Twilight is no subject for idle talk.'
'Aha,' Semyon agreed quickly.'It's just my stupid way of nattering.'
'Foma...' I reached out one hand to help the magician up. 'Thank you... for coming back. And for showing me ?thank you for that.'
'Let's go,' said Foma, walking quickly through to the next room and the 'mooring', where the metal boat was swaying on the dark water. I followed him. Lermont hung an umbrella of silence over us and the noise immediately died away. 'Did you want to ask something?'
'Yes. Who are they?'
'I don't know' Foma took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his face. 'Several attempts have already been made to reach the legacy of Merlin. But I'm not certain it was these Others who tried... the last attempt was more than a century ago. And in particular, no one has ever made such wide use of people before... This is all very serious, Anton. But we've been lucky ?Merlin has puzzled everybody with the third key'
'What does that poem mean?'
'It's a riddle. In those days they were very fond of riddles, Anton. It was considered good form to give your opponent a chance to beat you. Even if it was only the bare ghost of a chance.'
'One thing is clear: apart from simply going head-on trying to break through into the seventh level, there's an alternative route,' I said.
'It looks that way. But I don't know what to say to you about that. And if I did, I wouldn't say it.'
'Are you going to guard Merlin's hiding place until the end of time?'
'For as long as I can,' said Lermont, turning the Rune of Merlin over in his hands. He sighed. 'At least now the Guard is watching over the fifth level again. Next time the enemy will have to subdue it again.'
'Destroy the Rune, Foma!'
He shook his head.
'There aren't any simple answers, Anton. If the Rune is destroyed, the Guard will disappear too. I'll hide it as securely as I can. You don't need to know how. And... thank you for your help...'
'Meaning "Now get lost"?' I asked, smiling.
'Meaning "Thank you for your help." The more outsiders there are here, the more fuss there will be over everything that has happened. I'm grateful to you, and to Semyon. Your tickets will be delivered to your hotel.'
'Fair enough. And thank you, Foma.' I bowed. 'May the Light be with you!'
'Wait,' Thomas said in a gentle voice. He walked up to me and embraced me. 'I mean "Thank you." Don't take offence. We're going to have a lot of problems here, and a lot of visitors from the Inquisition. Do you really want to get stuck here for a month?'
'Guard the Crown well, Foma,' I said after a pause.
'Think about what you've seen, Anton. I'm sure that one of your compatriots is involved in what has happened. Approach the mystery from your side ?and we'll meet again.'
'If I find whoever it is from our side, I'll tear his legs off and stick them in his ears. Goodbye, Thomas the Rhymer!'
When I had already reached the door, I added:
'Oh yes, by the way, we're used to flying first class!'
' Be grateful if I don't send you as baggage,' Foma replied in the
same tone of voice. Then he turned and walked back to his colleagues.