HALFWAY BACK TO THE HOUSE I MET KSYUSHA AND ROMKA. THE CHIL-dren were striding briskly along the dusty street, holding hands. I waved to them and Ksyusha immediately shouted out: "Your Nadiushka's gone for a walk to the river with her granny!"
I laughed. Ludmila Ivanovna didn't very often hear herself called "granny"¡ªand like any other fifty-year-old Moscow woman, she hated the very sound of it.
"Okay, I hope they enjoy it," I said.
"Have you found the wolves yet?" Romka shouted.
"No, your wolves have run away," I answered.
Maybe, for strictly psychotherapeutic purposes, I ought to have said that I'd caught the wolves and handed them over to the zoo? But then, the little boy didn't seem to be suffering from any lingering fear after his encounter with the werewolves. Arina had done a good job there.
Greeting the small number of village inhabitants I met along the way, I reached our house. Svetlana had occupied my hammock with a bottle of beer and the book Fuaran¡ªFantasy or Fact? open at the final pages already.
"Interesting?" I asked.
"Uh huh," Svetlana said with a nod. She was drinking the beer rustic fashion, straight from the bottle. "It's more fun than Tove Jansson's Moominpapps at Sea. Now I understand why they didn't print all the stories about the moomintrolls before. The last ones aren't for children at all. Tove Jansson was obviously suffering from depression when he wrote them."
"An author has the right to get depressed too," I said.
"Not if he writes children's books, he doesn't!" Svetlana exclaimed sternly. "Children's books should be heartwarming. Otherwise it's just like a tractor driver ploughing a field crookedly and then saying, 'Ah, I was feeling depressed, it was more interesting to drive around in circles.' Or a doctor who prescribes a patient a combined laxative and sleeping draft and then explains, 'I'm feeling a bit low. I thought it would cheer me up.'"
She reached out to the table and put down the false Fuaran.
"Why, you're very strict, mother," I said with a shake of my head.
"That's why I'm strict¡ªbecause I'm a mother," Svetlana replied in the same tone. "I was only joking. The books are still wonderful anyway. Only the last ones are very sad."
"Nadiushka and your mother have gone for a walk to the river," I said.
"Did you meet them?"
"No. Oksana said: 'Your Nadia and her granny have gone for a walk___'"
Svetlana tittered, but then she immediately pulled a frightened face. "Don't tell my mother that. She'll be upset."
"Do you think I'm tired of living?"
"Why don't you tell me how your hike went?"
"The witch got away," I said. "We chased her down to the fourth level of the Twilight, but she still got away..."
"The fourth?" Svetlana's eyes flashed. "Are you serious?"
I sat down beside her. The hammock swayed indignantly and the trees creaked, but they held. I gave her a short account of our adventures.
"And I've never been to the fourth level..." Svetlana said thoughtfully. "How interesting... The colors come back?"
"I even thought there were some smells."
Svetlana nodded absentmindedly. "Yes, I've heard rumors about that... That's interesting."
I kept quiet for a few seconds. And then I said, "Svetlana, you ought to go back to the Watch."
She didn't object as usual. She didn't say anything. Encouraged, I went on: "You can't live at half-power. Sooner or later you..."
"Let's not talk about it, Anton. I don't want to be a Great Enchantress," Svetlana said with a wry grin. "A little bit of domestic magic, that's all I need."
The gate banged¡ªLudmila Ivanovna had come back. I glanced quickly at her and was about to look away¡ªthen I stared at her, puzzled. My mother-in-law was glowing. Anybody might have thought that she'd just put some uppity salesgirl in a shop firmly in her place, found a hundred rubles in the street, and shaken hands with her beloved Yakubovich.
She was even walking differently¡ªwith light steps, her shoulders held straight, and her chin held high. And she was smiling blissfully. And singing in a soft voice, "We were born to make a fairytale come true..."
I shook my head hard to clear it. My mother-in-law smiled sweetly at us, waved her hand, and in two strides she was past us and heading for the house.
"Mom!" Svetlana shouted to her, jumping up. "Mom!"
My mother-in-law stopped and looked at her, with that same blissful smile still on her face.
"Are you feeling all right, Mom?" Svetlana asked.
"Wonderful," Ludmila Ivanovna replied affectionately.
"Mom, where's Nadiushka?" Svetlana asked, raising her voice slightly.
"She's gone for a walk with a friend," my mother-in-law answered imperturbably.
I shuddered. Svetlana exclaimed, "What do you mean, Mom? It's evening already... children can't go walking on their own... with what friend?"
"With a friend of mine," my mother-in-law explained, still smiling. "Don't worry. You don't think I'm so stupid I'd let our little girl go off on her own, do you?"
"What friend of yours?" Svetlana screamed. "Mom! What's wrong with you? Who's Nadia with?"
The smile on my mother-in-law's face began slowly dissolving, giving way to an uncertain expression. "With that... that..."¡ª she frowned. "With Arina. My friend... Arina... my friend?"
I was too slow to catch exactly what Svetlana did¡ªI just felt a chill tremor run over my skin as the Twilight was parted. Svetlana leaned slightly toward her mother, who froze with her mouth open, swallowing air in small gulps.
Reading people's thoughts is pretty difficult. It's much easier to make them speak. But we can take an instant snapshot of information from close relatives in exactly the same way as we do between ourselves for the sake of speed.
But then, I didn't need the information anyway.
I already understood everything.
And I didn't even feel afraid¡ªjust empty. As if the entire world had frozen over and stopped dead.
"Go to bed!" Svetlana shouted at her mother. Ludmila Ivanovna turned and walked toward the house like a zombie.
Svetlana looked at me. Her expression was very calm, and that made it very hard for me to pull myself together. After all, a man feels a lot stronger when his woman is frightened.
"She just came up and blew on her. Took Nadienka by the hand and went off into the forest with her," Svetlana blurted out. "And she's been walking around for another hour, the stupid fool!"
That was when I realized Svetlana was on the verge of hysterics.
I managed to pull myself together.
"What could she do against the witch?" I grabbed Svetlana by the shoulders and shook her. "You mother's only a human being."
Tears glinted briefly in Svetlana's eyes¡ªand then immediately disappeared. Suddenly she pushed me gently away and said, "Stand back, Anton, or you'll get caught... you can hardly stay on your feet as it is..."
I didn't try to argue. After the adventures I'd had with Edgar I wasn't going to be any help. There was hardly any Power in me. I had nothing left to share with Svetlana.
I ran back a few steps and put my arms around the trunk of the stunted apple tree that was already in its final years. I closed my eyes.
The world around me shuddered.
And I felt the Twilight shift and stir.
Svetlana didn't gather Power from people around her, as I would have done. She had enough of her own¡ªobstinately neglected, unused... and constantly accumulating. They say that after giving birth, female Others experience a colossal influx of Power, but I hadn't noticed any changes in Svetlana at the time. It had all seemed to vanish somewhere; it was being hidden, saved up¡ªas it turned out¡ªfor a rainy day.
The world was losing its colors. I realized I was falling into the Twilight, the first level: The intensity of the magic was so great that nothing even slightly magical could remain in human reality. The book Fuaran¡ªFact or Fiction? fell through the rough board table and thumped hard against the ground. Three houses away clumps of blue moss¡ªthe emotional parasite that lives in the Twilight¡ªflared up on the roof and were instantly consumed by flames.
Svetlana was enveloped in a white glow. She was moving her hands quickly, as if she were knitting with invisible yarn. A moment later, the yarn became visible, as threads as fine as cobweb gossamer streamed away from her hands and spread out, driven by a non-existent wind. A storm began raging around Svetlana¡ªand then fell silent, when the thousands of glittering threads had flown off into the distance in all directions.
"What?" I shouted. "Sveta!"
I knew the spell she had just used. I could even have cast a Snowy Cobweb myself¡ªmaybe not so efficiently and rapidly, but still...
Svetlana didn't answer. She raised her hands to the sky, as if she were praying. But we don't believe in any gods, or in God. We are our own gods and our own demons.
A rainbow sphere, like an oversize soap bubble, parted from Svetlana's hands and drifted majestically up into the sky. The bubble expanded, rotating slowly around its axis. A dark-red spot on the translucent rainbow film reminded me of the planet Jupiter. When the red spot rotated to face me, I felt a cold, searing touch, like a breath of icy wind.
Svetlana had created the Eye of the Magician. First level again... but to create it immediately after the Snowy Cobweb!
The third spell followed with no perceptible pause, and I realized Svetlana had been holding it in readiness for a long time, for occasions precisely like this. She released a flock of ghostly white birds from her hands. You could have called them doves¡ªexcept that the ghostly birds' beaks were too large and sharp, too predatory.
I didn't know that spell at all.
Svetlana lowered her hands and the Twilight settled back down. It came creeping back to us, touching our skin with its cautious, predatory chill.
I emerged into the ordinary world.
Followed by Svetlana.
Here nothing had changed. The open cover of the book lying on the ground hadn't even slammed shut yet.
Only all the dogs in the village were yapping, howling, and barking.
"Sveta, what?" I asked, dashing toward her.
She turned toward me, and her eyes were clouded. Her invisible magical envoys were still dispersing. And then, as they dematerialized tens and hundreds of kilometers away from us, they sent back their final reports.
I knew what they said.
"Nothing..." Svetlana whispered. "Nothing anywhere. No Nadiushka... no witch..."
Her eyes came back to life. That meant the magical cobweb had decayed, the white birds had fallen to earth and dissolved, the rainbow sphere had burst in the sky.
"Nothing anywhere," Svetlana repeated. "Anton... We need to calm down."
"She couldn't have gone far," I said. "And she hasn't done anything bad to Nadya, believe me."
"A hostage?" Svetlana asked. I read hope in her face.
"The Inquisition has the district blocked off. They have their own methods¡ªeven Arina won't get past the cordons."
"Yes..." Svetlana whispered. "I see."
"To get away, she needs outside help," I said, unsure whether I was trying to convince Sveta or myself. "She's not going to get it voluntarily. So she's decided to blackmail us."
"Will we be able to satisfy her demands?" Svetlana asked, taking the bull by the horns right away, without bothering to ask if we would want to satisfy them... What else could we do? We'd do anything... if we could.
"We have to wait for the demands."
"Yes... wait. But what for, exactly¡ªa call?"
Then she immediately flung her hand up and looked at the window of the bedroom.
An instant later the comb that Arina had given her broke the glass as it came flying through the window. Svetlana caught it in her hand as if it were some repulsive insect. She looked at the comb for several seconds, then grimaced and ran it through her hair.
I heard a low, good-humored laugh. And somewhere inside my head Arina's voice said, "Hello there, sweetheart. So we meet at last. Did my present come in handy?"
"Remember, you old wretch..." Svetlana began, holding the comb out in front of her.
"I know, I know, my darling. I know everything, and I shan't forget. If I harm a single little hair on Nadienka's head, you'll follow me to the ends of the earth, drag me back up from the fifth level of the Twilight, tear me asunder, chop me into little pieces and feed me to the pigs. I know everything you want to say. And I believe you'd do it, too."
Arina's voice was serious. She wasn't mocking us, but explaining perfectly seriously how she thought we ought to deal with her. And Svetlana waited without saying anything, keeping the comb in her hand. When the witch stopped talking, she said, "All right. Then let's not waste any time. I want to speak toNadiushka."
"Nadienka, say hello to Mommy," Arina said.
We heard a perfectly cheerful voice say, "Hello!"
"Nadiusha, is everything all right?" Svetlana asked cautiously.
"Uh huh..." said Nadya.
And then Arina immediately started speaking again. "Enchantress, I won't do your daughter any harm, just as long as you don't do anything stupid. I don't want much from you¡ªlead me out of the encirclement and you'll get your daughter back."
"Arina," I said, taking Svetlana by the hand, "the district is cordoned off by the Inquisition. Do you understand that?"
"I wouldn't have asked for help otherwise," Arina replied coolly. "Think, Sorcerer! There's a weak board in every fence and a tear in every net. Lead me through, and I'll give back your daughter."
"And what if I can't?"
"Then it's all the same to me," Arina said succinctly. "I'll try to fight my way out. And I'm very sorry, but I'll kill your little girl."
"What for?" I asked in a very calm voice. "What good will that do you?
"What good?" Arina asked in astonishment. "If I manage to break out, next time everyone will know that I'm not joking. And then again... I know someone who likes to have Others do his dirty work for him. He'll pay me well for the death of your little girl."
"We'll try," said Svetlana, squeezing my hand tightly. "Do you hear me, witch? Don't touch the child, we'll save you."
"We're agreed, then," said Arina, sounding almost happy. "So think how I can get past the cordons. You have three hours. If you think of something sooner, Enchantress, then pick up the comb and comb your hair again."
"Only don't touch Nadiushka!" Svetlana shouted in a trembling voice, immediately making a swift pass with her left hand.
The comb was instantly covered in a crust of ice. Svetlana dropped it on the table and muttered: "The disgusting creature... Anton?"
We looked at each other for a second, as if we were tossing the initiative backward and forward, like a ball.
I spoke first. "Sveta, the risk is very great. She can't handle us both in open combat. So she leaves herself exposed if she gives Nadya back."
"We'll find her a corridor... a way out..." my wife whispered. "She can get beyond the cordons and leave Nadienka there. I'll find her right away. She can even go to another town and leave Nadya there. I'll open a portal... I know how. I can do that. I'd be there in a minute."
"That's right," I said with a nod. "In a minute. And then what? The witch won't have time to go far. And as soon as Nadya's with us, you'll want to find Arina and dematerialize her."
Svetlana nodded. "Blow her to pieces, not dematerialize her... The clever thing for the witch to do would be to use our help, but kill Nadya anyway. Anton, what should we do? Summon Gesar?"
"What if she senses it?" I asked.
"Can't we phone him?" Sveta suggested.
I thought about it and nodded. After all, Arina had fallen well behind the times. Would she even guess that we could contact Gesar by nonmagical means, using an ordinary cell phone?
Svetlana's phone was still in the house. She dragged it out like the comb, with another casual pass of her hand, then looked at me again. I nodded.
It was time to ask for help. Time to demand help. The full might of the Moscow Night Watch. In the final analysis, Gesar had plans of his own for Nadya that we knew nothing about...
"Wait!" a voice called to us from the gate. We swung around, probably throwing our hands up too hastily into a combat pose. For us this was no longer the ordinary, human world. We were living in the world of the Others, where the power of your spells and the speed of your reactions decide everything.
But we didn't have to fight.
There was a young man standing at the gate, with three children behind him¡ªtwo boys and a girl. The man and the children were all dressed in grayish-green, semimilitary clothes that looked like the uniform of a routed army. The man was about twenty-five, the children about ten. He couldn't have been their father, or even their brother¡ªtheir faces were too dissimilar.
They had only one thing in common¡ªtheir dark auras. Wild and shaggy, totally out of keeping with their likeable faces and short, neat hairstyles.
"I see our werewolves have come calling," I muttered.
The man inclined his head briefly to confirm that I was right.
What a lamebrain I was!
I'd been looking for an adult with three children, but I hadn't bothered to check the Young Pioneer camp!
"Come to give yourselves up?" Svetlana asked frostily. "You've chosen a bad time."
No matter how weak they were as Others, they must have felt the recent vortex of Power¡ªand the incredible might radiating from Svetlana, which left no chance for werewolves, vampires, or any other magical being. Sveta could have buried them up to their necks in the ground there and then with a single wave of her hand.
"Wait!" the man said quickly. "Listen to what we have to say! My name's Igor. I'm... I'm a registered Dark Other, sixth-level."
"What town?" Svetlana asked curtly.
"And the children?" she asked continuing her interrogation.
"Petya's from Zvenigorod, Anton's from Moscow, Galya's from Kolomna..."
"Are they registered?" Svetlana asked. She clearly wanted to hear the answer "No," and that would have sealed Igor's fate.
The little boys pulled up their shirts without speaking. The little girl hesitated for a moment, but then unfastened her top button.
They all had seals.
"That won't do you much good," Svetlana muttered. "Go into the shed and wait for the field operatives. You can explain to a tribunal why you took the cubs hunting humans."
But Igor shook his head again, with an expression of genuine concern¡ªand not for himself. That was the most surprising thing.
"Wait! Please! This is important. You have a daughter, don't you? A little Other girl, A Light One, two or three years old?"
"We saw where they took her," the little boy with my name said in a quiet voice.
I moved Sveta aside and stepped forward.
"What do you want?" I asked.
We understood what the werewolves wanted. And the werewolves knew that we understood. The sad thing about it was they could tell we'd be willing to deal.
But there are always little details worth talking through.
"A charge of minor negligence," Igor said quickly. "While we were out walking we inadvertently allowed ourselves to be seen by human children and frightened them."
"You were hunting, you beast!" Svetlana burst out. "You and the cubs were hunting human children."
"No," said Igor, shaking his head. "The kids got a bit frolicsome and decided to play a game with the human children. I arrived on the scene and pulled them off. It was my fault, I wasn't watching closely enough."
His calculations were precisely right. I couldn't have closed my eyes to what had happened, even if I wanted to. The facts had already gotten out. It was just a matter of how to classify the incident. Attempted murder almost certainly meant dema-terialization for Igor and extremely close supervision for the cubs. Minor negligence meant no more than a report, a fine, and "special supervision" of his subsequent behavior.
"All right," I said hastily, so that Svetlana couldn't get in before me. "If you help us, you can have your 'minor negligence.'"
I wanted to be responsible for saying it.
Igor relaxed. He'd probably been expecting the deal to take longer.
"Galya, tell them," he ordered. He explained: "She saw it... Galka's a fidget, she just can't sit still in one place..."
Svetlana walked up to the little girl and I gestured for Igor to move aside. He tensed up again, but followed me obediently.
"A few questions," I explained. "And I advise you to answer honestly."
"How were you granted the right to initiate three children who aren't yours?" I asked, swallowing the words "you bastard" that were begging to tag themselves onto the end of my question.
"They were all incurably ill," Igor answered. "I was studying in medical college, on practical training in a children's cancer ward... all three of them were dying from leukemia. There was a doctor there who was an Other. A Light One. He suggested it to me... I bite all three of them and turn them into werewolves, and they recover. And by way of return he receives the right to heal a few other children."
I said nothing. I remembered the incident from about a year earlier. An absolutely outrageous case of open collusion between a Dark One and a Light One, which both Watches had preferred to hush up. The Light One had saved about twenty children, knocking himself out to exploit such a rare opportunity to heal them, but he had saved them. The Dark Ones had received three werewolves. A small exchange. Everyone was happy, including the children and their parents. A few additional amendments to the Treaty had been adopted to avoid similar cases in the future. They had preferred to forget the precedent as quickly as possible...
"Do you blame me?" Igor asked.
"It's not for me to blame you," I whispered. "All right. Whatever your motives might have been... never mind that. The second question. Why did you take them out hunting? Don't lie this time, don't lie! You were hunting. You were planning to violate the Treaty."
"I got carried away," Igor answered calmly. "What point is there in lying? I took the cubs out for a walk, and deliberately chose the most remote area. Then suddenly there were those little children... Alive. They smelled good. One thing just led to another. And as for the cubs... they only caught their first rabbit this year, got their first taste of blood."
And then he smiled¡ªa guilty, embarrassed, even sincere smile. He explained: "Your mind works quite differently in the animal body. Next time I'll be more careful."
"All right," I said.
What else could I say? Right then Nadiushka's life was hanging by a thread. Even if he was lying, I wasn't going to start prying.
"Anton!" Svetlana called to me. "Catch!"
I looked at her¡ªand the images came crowding into my mind.
... A beautiful woman in a long, old-woman's dress with a bright-colored Pavlovsk shawl . .
... Walking beside her, a little girl... falling behind... the woman picks her up in her arms...
... Along the riverbank...
... Grass... tall grass... why is it so tall¡ªabove my head...
... I jump over a stream¡ªwith all four paws, put my nose to the ground, pick up the trail with my lower instincts...
... A stunted patch of trees, merging into a hummocky field... trenches, ditches...
... A smell.. . what a strange smell this land gives off... it's thrilling... and it makes me want to squeeze my tail between my legs...
... The woman with the little girl in her arms goes down into a deep trench...
... Back... back... it's the same witch, the same one, that's her scent.. .
"What is it?" Svetlana asked. "If it's not far away, why didn't I find them?"
"A battlefield," I whispered, shaking the images of what the little wolf-girl had seen out of my head. "The front line ran just past here, Sveta. The earth there is soaked in blood. You have to look for something specific to find anything at all. It's like trying to probe the Kremlin with magic."
Igor came up, cleared his throat politely and asked, "Is everything all right then? Maybe we could wait for the investigators at the camp? Or we don't need to rush things, our session there ends in a week, and I can report to the Night Watch to explain everything..."
I was thinking. Trying to correlate what I'd seen with the map of the area that I'd summoned up in my memory. Twelve miles... uh huh, the witch hadn't simply walked there with Na-diushka. She'd shortened the journey¡ªwitches can do that. We wouldn't catch up to her in a car¡ªmine wasn't a Jeep, after all, and there wasn't a single Niva or UAZ four-wheel drive in the whole village. What you really needed for those roads was a tractor...
But I could enter the Twilight.
Or even better, make myself faster.
"Sveta," I said and looked in her eyes. "You've got to stay here."
"What?" She was startled to hear that.
"The witch is no fool. She won't give us three hours to think. She'll get in touch sooner than that. With you¡ªshe's not expecting anything remarkable from me. You stay here, and when the witch contacts you, talk to her here. Tell her I've gone to prepare the corridor through the encirclement... Lie, tell her anything. And then I'll summon you and distract her."
"You won't manage it," said Svetlana. "Anton, you're not strong enough to take her. And I don't know how quickly I'll be able to open a portal. I'm not even sure I will be able to. I've never tried, only read about it. Anton!"
"I won't be alone," I replied. "Right, Igor?"
He turned pale and started shaking his head.
"Hey, watchman... That's not what we agreed."
"We agreed that you would help," I reminded him. "We didn't define what counts as help. Well?"
Igor cast a sideways glance at his young wards. He frowned and said, "You're a real swine, watchman... It's easier for me to fight a magician than a witch. All her magic comes from the earth. It cuts straight to the core..."
"Never mind, we'll be together," I said. "The five of us."
The cubs¡ªI forced myself to think about them only as cubs¡ª glanced at each other. Galya jabbed Petya in the side with her fist and whispered something.
"What do you need them for?" Igor asked, raising his voice. "Watchman! They're only children!"
"Werewolf cubs," I corrected him. "Who almost ate children. Do you want to atone for your guilt? Get off with a caution? Then stop yapping."
"Uncle Igor, we're not afraid," the boy called Petya said unexpectedly.
The boy called Anton backed him up. "We'll go with you!"
They looked at me calmly, without any resentment. They clearly hadn't expected anything else.
"They can't do anything more..." said Igor. "Watchman..."
"That's okay¡ªif they distract the witch, that will be a help. Now transform!"
Svetlana turned away, but she didn't say anything.
The werewolves began getting undressed without saying anything. The little girl was the only one who looked around shyly and went behind a currant bush. The others weren't embarrassed.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a village woman walking along the road, carrying a bucket filled with potatoes. She'd probably dug them up out of the collective farm field. When she saw what was happening inside the fence, she stopped, but I couldn't give a damn for her right then. I wasn't in great shape as it was. I had no power to waste on chance witnesses. I needed to learn to run. To run very quickly, so that I could keep up with the wolves.
"Let me help," said Svetlana. She moved her open hand through the air and I felt a pleasant ache fill my body and strength start flooding into my legs. I instantly felt hot, as if I'd stepped into an overheated sauna. 'Pace' is a simple spell, but it has to be used with great caution. Catch the cardiac muscle as well as the legs, and you'll give yourself a heart attack.
Beside me Igor began groaning and arched over with his hands and feet on the ground and his spine reaching toward the sky, as if it had snapped in half. So that was where all the old folktales about having to jump over a rotten tree stump came from... His skin turned dark, broke out in a bright red rash, then sprouted clumps of damp, rapidly growing fur.
"Quick!" I barked. The air coming out of my mouth was hot and damp. I even thought I could see my breath steaming, as if there was a frost. It was unbearably difficult to stand still¡ª my body craved movement.
It was good to see the werewolves felt the same.
The large wolf grinned. For some reason his teeth were the last thing about him to change. The human teeth in a wolf's mouth looked comical, and at the same time horrific. I suddenly had the strange thought that werewolves had to do without fillings and crowns.
But then, I realized, their bodies are a lot stronger than human ones. Werewolves don't suffer from tooth decay.
"Let's-s-s go..." the wolf barked with a lisp. "It's hot."
The cubs ran up to the wolf, yelping¡ªthey were wet too, as if they'd been sweating. One of them still had human eyes, but I couldn't tell if it was one of the boys or the girl.
"Let's run," I said.
And I tore off, without looking back at Svetlana, without thinking about whether anyone would see us or not. I could sort that out later. Or Svetlana would erase our tracks.
But the streets were empty, even the woman with the bucket had gone away. Maybe Svetlana had driven everybody back home? It would be good if she had. It's a strange sight¡ªa man running faster than nature allows, and four wolves running along with him.
My legs seemed to carry me of their own accord. The ten-league boots in children's fairytales and Baron Miinchhausen's fleet-footed friend¡ªthese are the reflections in human myth of this little piece of magic. Only in the fairytales it doesn't tell you how much the pounding of the road against your feet hurts....
After about a minute we turned toward the river and it was easier running over the soft earth. I stayed beside the wolf, like some considerate fairytale Prince Ivan who didn't want to exhaust his gray friend. The cubs fell behind a bit¡ªit was harder for them. Werewolves are very strong, but their speed doesn't come from magic.
"What ideas... have you... come up with?" the wolf barked. "What are... you going... to do?"
If only I knew the answer to that.
A battle between Others is the manipulation of the Power dissolved in the Twilight. I was a second-level magician¡ª which is pretty high. Arina was way beyond all the frameworks of classification. But Arina was a witch, and that was an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. She couldn't have taken all her charms and talismans and amulets with her... only a few little things. But on the other hand, she could draw Power directly from nature. Her powers decreased in the city, but here they increased. For really serious magic she needed to use some particular amulet, and that took time...
but the charge of accumulated power in the amulet could be monstrously strong.
I couldn't tell. There were too many variables. I wouldn't even have tried to predict the outcome of a fight between Arina and Gesar. The Great Magician would probably win, but it wouldn't be easy.
And what could I use against the witch?
She'd withdraw into the Twilight, where she felt a lot more confident. And with every successive level, I'd get slower and slower for her.
To some degree. After all, I was hoping Arina wasn't expecting my arrival.
Simple brute force? Smash her over the head with a rock?
But to do that, first I had to get close to her.
Everything pointed to the fact that I had to sneak up on her and get as close as possible. And the moment the witch was distracted, attack. With a crude, primitive punch.
"Listen!" I shouted to the wolf. "When we get close, I'll withdraw into the Twilight. I'll go on ahead and creep up on the witch. You advance in the open. When she starts talking to you and gets distracted, I'll attack. Help me then."
"All r-r-right," the wolf growled, not saying a word about what he thought of the plan.