THE WITCH ARINA WAS BREWING A POTION¡ªJUST LIKE ANY SELF-respecting witch is supposed to do in her little house in the forest¡ªstanding by the Russian stove with the oven-fork in her hands, holding a cast-iron pot that was giving off clouds of greenish fumes, and muttering:
Spindle tree, white furze¡ªa pinch, Rocky cliff sand¡ªquite a sprinkling Heather branch and skeleton of finch Pustule squeezings¡ªjust an inkling.
Edgar and I went in and stood by the door, but the witch didn't seem to notice us. She carried on standing with her back to us, shaking the pot and chanting:
More white furze and spindle tree, Three tail feathers from an eagle...
Edgar cleared his throat and continued:
Kneecaps from a bumble bee, And the collar from my beagle?
Arina started violently. "Oh, good heavens above!" she exclaimed.
It sounded perfectly natural... but somehow I knew for sure that the witch had been expecting us.
"Hello, Arina," Edgar said in an expressionless voice. "Inquisition. Please stop working your spells."
Arina deftly thrust the pot into the stove and only then turned around. This time she looked about forty¡ªa sturdy, full-fleshed, beautiful countrywoman¡ªand very annoyed. She put her hands on her hips and exclaimed peevishly, "And hello to you, Mr. Inquisitor! But why interfere with the spell? Am I supposed to catch the finches and pluck the eagle's feathers all over again?"
"Your ditties are no more than a way of remembering the amounts of the various ingredients and the right sequence of actions," Edgar replied imperturbably. "You'd already finished brewing the light footfall potion¡ªmy words could not possibly have interfered with it. Sit down Arina. Why not take the weight off your feet?"
"How's that supposed to improve things?" Arina replied sullenly and walked across to the table. She sat down and wiped her hands on her jolly apron with its pattern of daisies and cornflowers. Then she glanced sideways at me.
"Good morning, Arina," I said. "Mr. Edgar asked me to act as his guide. You don't mind, do you?"
"If I did mind, you'd have ended up in the swamp," Arina replied in a slightly offended tone. "Well, I'm listening, Mr. Inquisitor Edgar. What business is it that brings you here?"
Edgar sat down facing Arina. He put one hand in under the flap of his jacket and pulled out a leather folder. Where had he managed to fit that under there?
"You were sent a summons, Arina," the Inquisitor said in a soft voice. "Did you receive it?"
Arina started thinking hard. Edgar opened his folder and showed Arina a narrow strip of yellow paper.
"1931!" the witch gasped. "Oh, all those years ago... No, I never received it. I've already explained to the gentleman from the Night Watch that I went to sleep. The secret police were trying to frame me..."
"They're not really the most terrible thing in the life of an Other," said Edgar. "Very far from it, in fact... So, you received the summons..."
"I didn't receive it," Arina said quickly.
"You didn't receive it," Edgar corrected himself. "Well let's accept that. The messenger never came back... I suppose anything could have happened to a civilian employee in the bleak Moscow forests."
Arina didn't say anything.
I stood by the door, watching. I was curious. An Inquisitor's job is like any watchman's but there was something special about this situation. A Dark Magician interrogating a Dark Witch. And one who was far more powerful than him¡ªa fact that Edgar couldn't fail to appreciate.
But he had the Inquisition standing behind him. And when you're faced with that, you can't count on any help from your "own" Watch.
"Let us consider that you have now received the summons," Edgar went on. "I have been instructed to conduct a preliminary interview with you before any final decisions are taken... so..."
He took out another piece of paper, glanced at it, and asked, "In the month of March 1931, were you working at the First Moscow Bread Combine?"
"I was," Arina said, and nodded.
"For what purpose?"
Arina looked at me.
"He has been informed," said Edgar. "Answer the question."
"I was approached by the leaders of the Night Watch and the Day Watch of Moscow," Arina said with a sigh. "The Others wished to verify how people would behave if they attempted to live in strict conformity with communist ideals. Since both Watches wanted the same thing, and the Inquisition supported their request, I agreed. I never have liked cities, they're always..."
"Please stick to the point," Edgar told her.
"I carried out the task I was given," Arina said, and finished off her story in a rush. "I brewed the potion, and it was added to the fine white bread for two weeks. That's all! I was thanked by the two Watches, I left my job at the bakery, and went home. And then the secret police started going absolutely..."
"You can write about your difficult relations with the organs of state security in your memoirs," Edgar suddenly barked. "What interests me is why you altered the formula."
Arina slowly got to her feet. Her eyes glittered with fury and her voiced thundered as loud as if she were King Kong's mate. "Remember this, young man! Arina has never made any mistakes in her recipes! Never!"
Edgar remained absolutely unimpressed. "I didn't say you made a mistake. You deliberately altered the formula. And as a result..." He paused dramatically.
"What as a result?" Arina asked, outraged. "They checked the potion when it was ready. The effect was exactly what was required."
"As a result, the potion took effect immediately," said Edgar. "The Night Watch has never been a collection of fools and idealists. The Light Ones realized that all 10,000 experimental subjects would be doomed if they made an instant switch to communist morality. The potion was supposed to take effect gradually, so that the remoralization would peak at full power ten years later, in the spring of 1941."
"That's right," Arina said soberly. "And that's the way it was made."
"The potion had an almost instantaneous effect," said Edgar. "We couldn't work out what was happening at first, but after one year the number of experimental subjects had been reduced by half. Less than a hundred of them survived until 1941: the ones who managed to overcome the remoralization... to demonstrate moral flexibility."
"Oh, what a terrible thing," Arina exclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air. "Oh, how awful... I feel so sorry for the poor people..." She sat down. Then looked across at me and asked: "Well, Light One, do you think I was working for the Dark Ones too?"
If she was lying, it was very convincing. I shrugged.
"Everything was done correctly," Arina said stubbornly. "The basic ingredients were mixed into the flour... do you know how difficult it was in those years to carry out any subversive activity? The retardant in the potion was plain sugar..." She suddenly flung her hands up in the air and stared at Edgar triumphantly. "That's what went wrong. Those were hungry years, the workers at the bakery stole the sugar... That's why it worked too fast..."
"An interesting theory," said Edgar, shuffling his pieces of paper.
"I'm not to blame for any of this," Arina declared firmly. "The plan for the operation was agreed. If the wise men of the Watches failed to think of a simple hitch like that¡ªthen whose fault is it?"
"That would be all very well," said Edgar, lifting up another sheet of paper. "Except that you conducted the first experiment on the workers at the bakery. Here's your report¡ªrecognize it? After that, they couldn't have stolen the sugar. So there's only one explanation left¡ªyou deliberately sabotaged the operation."
"Why don't we consider some other explanations?" Arina asked plaintively. "For instance..."
"For instance¡ªyour friend Louisa's report," Edgar suggested. "About how, during the operation, she happened to see you in the company of an unidentified Light Magician near the stand at the racetrack. About how you argued and haggled for a long time, until finally the Light One handed you some kind of package, and you nodded, and then you shook hands. Louisa even heard the words: 'I'll do it, and in less than a year...' Let me remind you that for the duration of the experiment you were forbidden to have any contact with Others. Weren't you?"
"Yes," said Arina, bowing her head. "Is Lushka still alive?"
"Unfortunately, no," said Edgar. "But her testimony was recorded and witnessed."
"A pity..." Arina muttered. She didn't say exactly why it was a pity. But it wasn't too hard to guess that Louisa was fortunate not to be around any longer.
"Can you explain which Light One you met with, what you promised to do, and what you received from him?"
Arina raised her head and smiled bitterly at me. She said, "What a muddle... I'm always getting in a muddle... over little things. Like that kettle..."
"Arina, I am obliged to deliver you for further questioning," said Edgar. "In the name of the Inquisition..."
"Try it, second-ranker," Arina said derisively.
And she disappeared.
"She's withdrawn into the Twilight!" I shouted, tearing myself away from the wall and looking around for my shadow. But Edgar still delayed for a second, making sure that the witch hadn't averted our eyes.
We appeared at the first level almost simultaneously. I was a little wary of looking at Edgar¡ªwhat would the Twilight world transform him into?
It wasn't too bad. He'd hardly changed at all. His hair had just thinned out a bit.
"Deeper!" I waved my hand insistently. Edgar made a movement of his head, raised his open hand to his face¡ªand his palm seemed to suck all of him in.
Impressive. Inquisitors' gimmicks.
At the second level, where the house turned into a log hut, we stopped and looked at each other. Of course, Arina wasn't there.
"She's gone down to the third level..." Edgar whispered. His hair had completely disappeared and his skull had stretched out, like a duck's egg. But even so, his face was still almost human.
"Can you do it?" I asked.
"I managed it once,'' Edgar answered honestly. Our breath turned to steam. It didn't feel all that cold yet, but there was an insidious chill in the air...
"And I managed it once," I admitted.
We hesitated, like over-confident swimmers who have suddenly realized that the river in front of them is too turbulent and too cold. And neither of us dared take the first step.
"Anton... will you help?" Edgar asked eventually.
I nodded. Why else had I come dashing into the Twilight?
"Let's go..." said the Inquisitor, gazing down intently at his feet.
A few moments later we stepped into the third level¡ªa place where only first-level magicians were supposed to go.
The witch wasn't there.
"Well that's inventive..." Edgar whispered. The house of branches really was impressive. "Anton... she built this herself... she stays down here for a long time."
Slowly¡ªthe space around us resisted sudden movements¡ªI walked over to the wall, parted the branches, and looked out.
It was absolutely nothing like the human world.
There were glittering clouds drifting across the sky, like steel filings suspended in glycerine. Instead of the sun there was a broad cloud of crimson flame way up high in the sky¡ªthe only spot of color in the hazy gray gloom. And on all sides, as far as the horizon, there were low, contorted trees, the same ones the witch had used to build her house. But then, were they really trees? There were no leaves, just a fantastic tangle of branches...
"Anton, she's gone deeper. Anton, she's beyond classification," Edgar said behind me. I turned and looked at the magician. Dark-gray skin, a bald, elongated skull, sunken eyes... But still human eyes. "How do I look?" Edgar asked and bared his teeth in a smile. He shouldn't have, his teeth were sharp cones, like a shark's.
"Not great," I admitted. "I suppose I don't look any better?"
"It's just the appearance," Edgar replied casually. "Are you holding up okay?"
I was holding up. My second immersion in the lower depths of the Twilight was going more easily.
"We have to go to the fourth level," said Edgar. His eyes were human, but there was a fanatical gleam in them.
"Are you beyond classification then?" I asked him. "Edgar, it's hard for me even to go back!"
"We can combine our powers, watchman!"
"How?" I was perplexed. Both the Dark Ones and the Light Ones have the concept of a "Circle of Power." But it's a dangerous thing, and it requires at least three or four Others... and anyway, how could we combine Light Power and Dark Power?
"That's my problem!" said Edgar, and began shaking his head about. "Anton, she'll get away. She'll get away on the fourth level. Trust me."
"A Dark One?"
"An Inquisitor," the magician barked. "I'm an Inquisitor, do you understand? Anton, trust me, I ord¡ª" Edgar stopped short and then continued in a different tone: "I ask you, please!"
I don't know what made me do it. The excitement of the hunt? The desire to catch a witch who had destroyed thousands of people's lives? The way the Inquisitor asked?
Or maybe a simple desire to see the fourth level? The most mysterious depths of the Twilight, which even Gesar visited only rarely, where Svetlana had never been?
"What do I do?" I asked.
Edgar's face lit up in a smile. He reached out his hand¡ªthe fingers ended in blunt, hooked claws¡ªand said: "In the name of the Treaty, by the equilibrium that I maintain, I summon the Light and the Darkness... and request Power... in the name of the Darkness."
He gazed insistently at me and I also held out my hand¡ªand I said: "In the name of the Light..."
In part this was like the swearing of an oath between a Dark One and a Light One. But only in part. No petal of flame sprang up in my hand, no patch of darkness appeared on Edgar's open
palm. It all happened on the outside¡ªthe gray, blurred world around us suddenly acquired clarity. No colors appeared; we were still in the Twilight. But shadows appeared. It was like a TV screen with the color turned down, when you suddenly turn up the brightness and contrast.
"Our right has been acknowledged..." Edgar whispered, gazing around. His face looked genuinely happy. "Our right has been acknowledged, Anton."
"And what if it hadn't been?" I asked cautiously.
"All sorts of things could have happened... But our right has been acknowledged, hasn't it? Let's go!"
In the new "high-contrast" Twilight it was much easier to move around. I raised my shadow as easily as in the ordinary world.
And found myself where only magicians beyond classification have any right to go.
The trees¡ªif they really were trees¡ªhad disappeared. All around us the world was as level and flat as the old medieval pancake Earth, supported on the backs of three whales. Featureless terrain¡ªan endless plain of sand... I bent down and ran a handful of the sand through my fingers. It was gray, as everything in the Twilight was supposed to be. But there were embryonic colors discernible in its grayness¡ªsmoky mother-of-pearl, colored sparks, golden grains...
"She's gotten away..." Edgar said right in my ear. He stretched out an arm that had become surprisingly long and slim.
I looked in that direction. And I saw, way off in the distance¡ª so far away that you could only ever see that far on a flat plain¡ª a gray silhouette dashing along at great speed. The witch was moving in immense leaps, soaring into the air and flying over the ground ten meters at a time, throwing her arms out and moving her legs in a funny sort of way¡ªlike a happy child skipping across a meadow in spring...
"She must have drunk her own potion!" I guessed. I couldn't think of any other way she could take leaps like that.
"Yes. She knew what she was doing when she brewed it," said Edgar. He swung his arm and flung something after Arina.
A string of small balls of flame went hurtling after the witch. A group fireball¡ªa standard battle spell for the Watches¡ªbut in some special Inquisitors' version.
A few charges burst before they reached the witch. One accelerated sharply and actually reached her, connected with her back and exploded, shrouding the witch in fire. But the flames immediately went out and, without even turning around, the witch tossed something behind her¡ªa pool of liquid that glimmered like mercury spread out at that spot. As they flew over the pool, the remaining charges lost speed and height, plunged into the liquid and disappeared.
"Witches' tricks..." Edgar said in disgust. "Anton!"
"Eh? What?" I asked, with my eyes still fixed on Arina as she disappeared into the distance.
"Time for us to be going. The Power was only granted in order to catch the witch, and the hunt's over. We'll never catch up with her."
I looked upward. The crimson cloud that had shone at the previous level of the Twilight was gone. The entire sky was glowing an even pinkish-white color.
How strange. Colors appeared again here...
"Edgar, are there any more levels?" I asked.
"There always are." Edgar was clearly starting to feel worried. "Come on, Anton! Come on, or we'll get stuck here."
He was right, the world around us was already losing contrast, wreathing itself in gray vapor. But the colors were still there¡ª the mother-of-pearl sand and the pinkish sky...
Already feeling the cold prickling of the Twilight on my skin, I followed Edgar up to the third level. As if it had just been waiting for that moment, the world finally lost all its color and turned gray, filled with a cold, roaring wind. Holding each other's hands¡ªnot in order to exchange Power, which is almost impossible, but in order to stay on our feet¡ªwe made several attempts to return to the second level. The "trees" on all sides
were breaking with a barely audible cracking sound, the witch's bivouac was tumbled over onto its side as we kept searching and searching for our shadows. I don't even remember the moment when the Twilight parted in front of me and allowed me back through into the second level, which seemed almost normal, not frightening at all...
We sat there on the clean-scraped wooden floor, breathing heavily. We were in an equally bad way, the Dark Inquisitor and the Light Watchman.
"Here." Edgar put his hand awkwardly into his pocket and fished out a block of Guardsman chocolate. "Eat that..."
"What about you?" I asked, tearing off the wrapper.
"I've got more..." Edgar rummaged in his pockets for a long time and finally found another pack of chocolate¡ªInspiration this time. He started unwrapping the fingers of chocolate one at a time.
We ate greedily for a while. The Twilight draws the strength out of you, and it's not just a matter of magical Power¡ªit even affects something as banal as your blood sugar level. And that's about all we've managed to discover about the Twilight using the methods of modern science. Everything else is still as much of a mystery as ever.
"Edgar, how many levels are there to the Twilight?"
Edgar finished chewing another piece of chocolate.
"I know of five," he answered. "This is the first time I've been on the fourth."
"And what's down there, on the fifth level?"
"All I know is that it exists, watchman. No more than that. I didn't even know anything about the fourth level."
"The color came back there," I said. "It's... it's completely different. Isn't it?"
"Uh huh," Edgar mumbled. "Different. That's not for you and me to worry about, Anton. It's beyond our powers. You should be proud you've been down to the fourth. Not all first-level magicians have gone that deep."
"But you can?"
"If necessary, in the line of duty," Edgar admitted. "After all, it's not necessarily the most powerful who join the Inquisition. And we have to be able to stand up to a crazy magician beyond classification, right?"
"If Gesar or Zabulon ever go crazy, we wouldn't be able to stand up to them," I said. "We couldn't even manage the witch..."
Edgar thought for a moment and agreed that the Moscow Office of the Inquisition wasn't really up to dealing with Gesar and Zabulon. But only if they happened to violate the Treaty simultaneously. Otherwise... Gesar would be glad to help neutralize Zabulon, and Zabulon would be glad to help neutralize Gesar. That was the way the Inquisition worked.
"Now what do we do about the witch?" I asked.
"Look for her," Edgar said briskly. "I've already been in touch with my people, they'll cordon off the district. Can I count on your continued assistance?"
I thought for a moment. "No, Edgar. Arina's a Dark One. And she really did do something terrible... seventy-odd years ago. But if she was exploited by Light Ones..."
"So you're going to carry on sticking to your own side," Edgar said in disgust. "Anton, do you really not understand? There is no Light or Darkness in a pure form. Your two watches are just like the Democrats and Republicans in America. They quarrel, they argue, but in the evening they hold cocktail parties together."
"It's not evening yet."
"It's always evening," Edgar said bleakly. "Believe me, I was a law-abiding Dark One. Until I was driven into... until I left the Watch to join the Inquisition. And you know what I think now?"
"Power of night and power of day¡ªsame old garbage anyway. I don't see any difference between Zabulon and Gesar any more. But you, I like... as a human being. If you joined the Inquisition, I'd be glad to work with you."
I laughed. "Trying to recruit me?"
"Yes, any watchman has the right to join the Inquisition. No one has any right to hold you back. They don't even have any right to try to change your mind."
"Thanks, but I don't need to have my mind changed. I'm not planning to join the Inquisition."
Edgar groaned as he got up off the floor. He dusted off his suit¡ªalthough there wasn't a single speck of dust or a crease anywhere on it.
"That suit of yours is enchanted," I said.
"I just know how to wear it. And it's good material." Edgar went over to the bookcase, took out a book, and leafed through it. Then another, and another... He said enviously, "What a library! Narrowly specialized, but even so..."
"I thought Fuaran was here too," I admitted.
Edgar just laughed.
"What are we going to do about the hut?" I asked.
"There, see¡ªyou're still thinking like my ally!" Edgar promptly remarked. "I'll put spells of protection and watchfulness on it, what else... The experts will be here in two or three hours. They'll give everything a thorough going-over. Shall we go?"
"Don't you feel like rummaging around a bit yourself?" I asked.
Edgar looked around carefully and said he didn't. That the little house could be hiding lots of nasty surprises left by the cunning witch. And that digging through the belongings of a witch beyond classification was a job that could be dangerous for your health... better leave it to those who had it in their job description.
I waited while Edgar put up several spells of watchfulness around the hut¡ªhe didn't need any help. And we set off for the village.
The way back turned out to be a lot longer, as if some elusive magic that had helped us find our way to the witch's house had disappeared. But then Edgar was far more garrulous now¡ªmaybe my help had inclined him to talk frankly?
He told me about his training¡ªhow he had been taught to use Light Power as well as Dark. And about the other Inquisition trainees¡ªthey had included two Ukrainian Light Enchantresses, a Hungarian werewolf, a Dutch magician, and all different sorts of Others. He said the rumors about the Inquisition's special vaults overflowing with magical artifacts were greatly exaggerated: there were plenty of artifacts, but most of them had lost their magical power long ago and were no good for anything any more. And he told me about the parties the trainees had organized in their free time...
It was all very entertaining, but I knew perfectly well where Edgar was headed. So I started recalling the years of my own training with exaggerated enthusiasm, bringing up various amusing incidents from the history of the Night Watch, Semyon's historical tall tales...
Edgar sighed and dropped the subject. In any case, we'd already reached the edge of the forest near the village. Edgar stopped.
"I'll wait for my colleagues," he said. "They should be here any minute now. Even Witezslav postponed his departure and promised to call over."
I wasn't in any great hurry to invite the Inquisitor back to my place. Especially not in the company of a Higher Vampire. I nodded, but I couldn't help asking: "How would you guess everything's going to turn out?"
"I raised the alarm in time, the witch can't get out of this district," Edgar said guardedly. "The trackers move in now, we'll check everything and arrest Arina. Put her on trial. If you're needed, you'll be called as a witness."
I didn't completely share Edgar's optimism, but I nodded. He should know better what the Inquisition was capable of.
"And the werewolves?"
"That's the Night Watch's prerogative, right?" Edgar said, answering a question with a question. "If we come across them, we'll let you know, but we won't make a special point of going chasing through the forest. And what makes you think they're still here anyway? Typical city types, out in the countryside for a spot of hunting. You should keep a closer eye on your clients, Anton."
"Somehow I have the feeling they're still here," I muttered. I really did think so, although I couldn't explain why I was so sure. There was no trace of them in the village... and werewolves rarely spend more than twenty-four hours in their wolves' bodies.
"Check the nearby villages," Edgar advised me. "At least the one the witch used to go to for her groceries. But really it's a waste of time. After an unsuccessful hunt they also just tuck their tails between their legs and go into hiding... I know what their type's like."
I nodded¡ªit was good advice, even though it was pretty basic. I should have gone around the outlying areas right away and not tried to catch the toothless old witch. Some detective I was¡ªI'd gotten too interested in that book, Fuaran... What I ought to do was pay more attention to the routine, boring work. Preventive measures were best, as they used to proclaim so correctly in Soviet times.
"Good luck, Edgar," I said.
"And good luck to you, Anton." Edgar thought for a moment and added, "Yes, by the way. It's a strange situation that's come up¡ªboth Watches are mixed up in this business with the witch. You pretty much represent the interests of the Night Watch. But I think that Zabulon will send someone too... before the situation is resolved."
I sighed. Things were going from bad to worse.
"And I think I can guess who he'll send," I said. "Zabulon takes pleasure in causing me petty aggravation."
"You ought to be glad he hasn't set his mind to major aggravation," Edgar said dourly. "But you'll have to put up with the petty stuff. Nobody has the power to change another person's nature. Your friend was a Dark One and he'll die a Dark One."
"Kostya's already dead. And he's not a person, he's a vampire."
"What's the difference?" Edgar asked gloomily. He stuck his hands into the pockets of those expensive trousers that he knew how to wear so well and hunched up his shoulders as he watched the red sun sinking down behind the horizon. "It's all the same in this world, watchman..."
Yes, serving in the Inquisition definitely had a strange effect on Others. It made them take a nihilistic view of life. And mouth empty phrases...
"Good luck," I repeated, and started off down the hill. And Edgar creased his suit mercilessly by lying down on the grass and gazing up at the sky.