FATE, WHICH OUR MAGICIANS CLAIM DOES NOT EXIST, WAS KIND TO ME.

In the Assol's vestibule (well, you couldn't call that spacious hall an entrance) I saw the old woman that the vampire had been afraid to approach. She was standing by the elevator, gazing pensively at the buttons.

I glanced at the old woman through the Twilight and realized that she was totally confused, almost in a panic. The well-trained security guards were no help here¡ªon the outside the old woman seemed entirely calm and collected. I realized she was an "elderly lady"¡ªnot an ordinary old Russian woman at all. I set off decisively toward her.

"Excuse me, can I be of any help?" I asked.

The elderly lady cast me a sideways glance. Not a glance of senile suspicion, more of embarrassment.

"I've forgotten where I live," she confessed. "Do you happen to know?"

"The eleventh floor," I said. "Allow me to show you the way."

The gray curls with the delicate pink skin showing through them swayed ever so slightly.

"Eighty years old," said the old woman. "I remember that... it's painful to remember it. But I do."

I took the lady by the arm and led her toward the elevator. One of the security men started walking toward us, but my aged

companion shook her head. "The gentleman's showing me the way..."

The gentleman did show her the way. The elderly lady recognized her own door and even quickened her step in delight. The apartment was not locked. It had been magnificently refurbished and furnished, and there was a lively girl about twenty years old striding to and fro in the hallway and complaining into a phone. "Yes, I've looked downstairs! She slipped out again..."

The girl was absolutely delighted when we showed up. Only I'm afraid the sweet smile and the touching concern were mostly meant for me.

Good-looking young women don't take servants' jobs in homes like that because the money's good.

"Mashenka, bring us some tea," said the old woman, interrupting the girl's cackling. She probably had no illusions either. "In the large room."

The girl went dashing obediently to the kitchen, but not before she had smiled once more and deliberately brushed her pert breasts against me as she said in my ear, "She's gotten really bad... My name's Tamara."

Somehow I didn't feel like introducing myself. I followed the old woman into the "large room." Well, it was very large. With old furniture from Stalin's time and clear traces of an expensive designer's work. The walls were covered with black-and-white photographs¡ªat first I even took them for elements of the design. But then I realized that the blindingly beautiful young woman with white teeth, wearing a flying helmet, was my elderly lady.

"I bombed the Fritzes," the lady said modestly as she sat down at a round table covered with a maroon velvet tablecloth with tassels. "Look, Kalinin himself presented me with that medal..."

Absolutely dumbfounded, I took a seat facing the former flyer.

Even in the best cases people like that live out their final days in old state dachas or in monolithic, dilapidated Stalinist buildings. But in an elite residential complex¡ªno way! She had dropped bombs on the fascists, not ferried the Reichstag's gold reserves back home to Russia.

"My grandson bought the apartment for me," the old woman said, as if she had read my thoughts. "A big apartment. I don't remember anything here... it all seems familiar, like it's mine, but I don't remember..."

I nodded. She had a good grandson, what could I say? Of course, transferring an expensive apartment to your war-heroine grandmother's name and then inheriting it later was a very clever way to do things. But in any case it was a good deed. Only the servant should have been chosen with more care. Not a twenty-year-old girl obsessed with the profitable capital investment of her pretty young face and good figure, but rather an elderly, reliable nurse...

The old woman looked pensively out the window. "I'd be better off in those houses, the little ones... I'm more used to that..."

But I wasn't listening any more. I was looking at the table, heaped high with letters bearing the eye-catching stamp "no longer at this address." It was hardly surprising. The addressees included such figures as the old Soviet Union figurehead Kalinin, and Generalissimus Joseph Stalin, and Comrade Khrushchev, and even "Dear Leonid Ilich Brezhnev."

Our more recent national leaders had clearly not been retained in the old woman's memory.

I didn't need any Other abilities to guess what kind of letter the old woman had posted three days earlier.

"I can't bear having nothing to do," the old woman complained, catching my glance. "I keep asking to be assigned to the schools, the flying colleges... so I could tell the young people what our life was like..."

I took a look at her through the Twilight anyway, and I almost exclaimed out loud.

The old flyer was a potential Other¡ªmaybe not a very powerful one, but it was absolutely clear.

Only, to initiate her at that age... I couldn't imagine it. At sixty, at seventy... but at eighty? The stress of it would kill her. She'd just fade away into the Twilight, an insane, insubstantial shadow...

You can't check everyone. Not even in Moscow, where there are so many watchmen.

And sometimes we recognize our brothers and sisters too late...

The girl Tamara appeared carrying a tray set with dishes of biscuits and candy, a teapot, and beautiful old cups. She set the dishes down on the table without making a sound.

But the old woman was already dozing, still perched on her chair as firm and upright as ever.

I got up carefully and nodded to Tamara. "I'll be going. You keep a closer watch on her¡ªyou know she forgets where she lives."

"But I never take my eyes off her!" Tamara replied, fluttering her eyelids. "I'd never..."

I checked her too. No Other abilities at all.

An ordinary young woman. Even quite kind in her own fashion.

"Does she often write letters?" I asked with the faintest of smiles.

Taking the smile as a sign of absolution, Tamara began smiling too. "All the time! To Stalin, and Brezhnev... Isn't that hilarious?"

I didn't argue with her.

Of all the cafes and restaurants that Assol was crammed with, the only one working was the cafe in the supermarket. A very nice cafe, on the second-floor mezzanine above the checkouts, with an excellent view of the entire hall of the supermarket. It had to be a good place to drink a nice cup of coffee, mapping

out your route for a pleasant stroll as you bought the groceries¡ª doing your "shopping": that terrible word, that monstrous Anglicism that has eaten its way into the Russian language, like a tick boring into its helpless prey.

That was where I had my lunch, trying not to feel horrified by the prices. Then I bought a double espresso and a pack of cigarettes¡ªwhich I only smoke very rarely¡ªand tried to imagine I was a detective.

Who had sent the letter?

The renegade Other or the Other's human client?

It didn't look like there was any advantage in it for either of them. And the scenario with another individual attempting to forestall the initiation was just too melodramatic altogether.

Think, head, think! You've come across more confused situations than this before. We have a renegade Other. We have his client. The letter was sent to the Watches and to the Inquisition. So the letter was most likely sent by an Other. A powerful, intelligent, well-informed Other.

Then the question was: What for?

And I already had the answer: In order not to go through with this initiation. In order to deliver the client into our hands and not go through with the promise.

That meant it wasn't a matter of money. In some incomprehensible fashion the unknown client had acquired a hold over the Other. A hold so terrible and absolute that he could demand anything he wanted. An Other could never admit that a human being held that kind of power over him. So he was making a cunning knight's move...

Yes yes yes!

I lit a cigarette, took a sip of coffee, and slumped back grandly in the soft chair like I belonged there.

It was beginning to come together. How could an Other end up in bondage to a human being? An ordinary human being, even if he was rich, influential, intelligent...

There was only one possibility, and I didn't like it one little bit. Our mysterious renegade Other could have found himself in the position of the golden fish in the fairytale. He could have given a human being his word of honor to grant him or her any wish at all. After all, the fish in the story hadn't expected the crazy old woman¡ªthat reminded me, about the old woman: I had to inform Gesar that I had discovered a potential Other¡ªthat the crazy old woman would want to become the Empress of the Sea.

And that brought me to the really upsetting part...

A vampire, or a werewolf, or a Dark Magician couldn't give a damn for any promise.

They would give their word and then take it back again. And they'd tear the human's throat out if he tried to stand up for his rights.

So it was a Light Magician who had made the rash promise.

Could that really happen?

It could.

Easily. We were all a bit naive¡ªKostya had been right about that. Our human weaknesses made us vulnerable¡ªwe could be trapped by our sense of guilt, all sorts of romantic notions...

So the traitor was in our ranks. He had given his word¡ªI wouldn't try to figure out why just yet. He was caught in a trap. If a Light Magician refused to carry out his promise, he would dematerialize...

Stop! There was another curious point here. I could promise a human being to do "anything he wanted." But if I was asked to do the impossible... well, I didn't know what exactly, not something that was merely difficult, or repugnant, or forbidden, but precisely impossible¡ªextinguish the sun, for instance, or turn a human being into an Other¡ªwhat answer would I give? That it was impossible. No way. And I'd be right, and there wouldn't be any reason for me to dematerialize. And my human master would have to accept that. Ask for something else... money, health, incredible sex appeal, good luck playing the stock market, and a keen nose for danger. In general¡ªthe usual human pleasures that a powerful Other can provide.

But the renegade Other had panicked. He'd panicked badly enough to set both Watches and the Inquisition on his "master" at the same time. He was backed into a corner, he was afraid of disappearing into the Twilight forever.

That meant that he really could turn a human being into an Other.

That meant the impossible was possible. The means existed. Not known to many, but they did exist...

I suddenly felt uneasy.

The traitor was one of our oldest and most knowledgeable magicians. Not necessarily a magician beyond classification, not necessarily someone who held a really important position. But an old hand with access to the greatest secrets...

For some reason I immediately thought of Semyon.

Semyon, the Light Magician who sometimes knew things that meant the sign of the Avenging Fire was applied to his body.

"I'm well into my second century..."

Maybe.

He knew a lot of things.

Who else did?

There was a whole bunch of old, experienced magicians who didn't work in the Watch. Just got on with living in Moscow, watched TV, drank beer, went to soccer matches...

I didn't know them, that was the problem. Those wise old birds who had quit working didn't want to get involved in the endless war between the Watches.

And who could I turn to for advice? Who could I expound my terrifying conjectures to? Gesar? Olga? But potentially they were on the list of suspects themselves.

No, I didn't believe they could have blundered. After the rough deal she'd had from life, Olga¡ªnot to mention the arch-cunning Gesar¡ªwould never make a gaffe like that. They wouldn't make impossible promises to a human being. And Semyon couldn't do it either. Semyon was wise, in the primordial, folk meaning of the word. I couldn't believe he would slip up like this...

That meant it was another of our senior colleagues who had blundered.

Anyway, how would I look putting forward an accusation like that? "I think the guilty party is one of us. A Light One. Most likely Semyon. Or Olga. Or even you, Gesar..."

How could I carry on going to work after that? How would I be able to look my comrades in the face?

No, I couldn't come out with suspicions like that. I had to know for sure.

Somehow it felt awkward to call the waitress over. I walked to the counter and asked her to make me a fresh cup of coffee. Then I leaned against the railings and looked down.

Below me I spotted my acquaintance from the night before. The guitarist, collector of amusing T-shirts and happy owner of a large English toilet, was standing beside a small open pool full of live lobsters. Las's face reflected the intense workings of his thought. Finally he laughed and pushed his trolley toward the checkout.

I pricked up my ears.

Las unhurriedly set out his modest purchases on the moving belt, with a bottle of Czech absinthe towering over everything else. As he was paying, he said, "You know, that pool of lobsters you have over there..."

The girl at the checkout smiled, every element of her pose confirming that there was a pool and there were live lobsters swimming in it, and a couple of arthropods would go remarkably well with absinthe, kefir, and frozen pelmeni.

"Well," Las continued imperturbably, "I just saw one lobster climb on another's back, crawl onto the edge and hide under those refrigerators over there..."

The girl started blinking rapidly. A minute later two security men and a sturdy cleaning lady appeared at the checkout. After listening to the terrible tale of the escape, they rushed over to the refrigerators.

Las finished paying, glancing back into the hall every now and then.

The pursuit of the nonexistent lobster was in full swing. The cleaning lady was poking her mop under the refrigerators, with the security men bustling around her. I heard one of them say: "Drive it this way, toward me! I can almost see it already!"


Las moved toward the exit with a smile of quiet joy on his face.

One of the security men warned: "Go easy with that poking. You'll dent its shell¡ªit'll be damaged goods!"

Trying to wipe a smile unworthy of a Light Magician off my face, I took my coffee from the girl. No, that guy wouldn't have cut letters out of newspapers with nail scissors. That would have been far too tedious.

My phone rang.

"Hi, Sveta," I said.

"How are things going, Anton?"

Her voice sounded a bit less alarmed this time.

"I'm having a coffee. I've had a chat with my colleagues from the competing firms."

"Aha," said Svetlana. "Well done. Anton, do you need my help at all?"

"But you... you're not on the staff," I said, perplexed.

"I don't give a damn!" said Svetlana, flaring up instantly. "It's you I'm concerned about, not the Watch."

"No need yet," I replied. "How's Nadiushka?"

"She's helping me make borscht," Svetlana said with a laugh. "So dinner will be a bit late today. Shall I call her?"

"Yes," I said, relaxing, and took a seat by the window.

But Nadka didn't take the phone, and she didn't want to talk to her daddy.

They can be stubborn like that at the age of two.

I talked to Svetlana a little bit longer. I felt like asking if her bad premonitions had disappeared, but I refrained. It was clear enough from her voice that they had.

I wound up the conversation, but I didn't put my cell phone away. There was no point in calling the office. But what if I had a word with someone in a private capacity?

Well, I had to go into town, meet people, keep the wheels of my business turning, sign new contracts¡ªdidn't I?

I dialed Semyon's number.

It was time to stop playing the sleuth. Light Ones don't lie to each other.

For meetings that are not entirely business, but not exactly personal either, the best places are little pubs, with five or six tables at most. There was a time when Moscow didn't have any places like that. Public catering always meant premises large enough for a full-scale bash.

But now we have them.

This particular entirely unremarkable pub-cafe was right in the very center, on Solyanka Street. A door in the wall leading straight in from the street, five tables, a little bar¡ªback at the Assol complex even the bars in the apartments were more impressive.

There was nothing special about the clientele. It wasn't one of those special-interest clubs that Gesar loved to collect¡ªscuba divers get together here, and recidivist cat burglars here...

And the cuisine had no pretensions of any kind. Two kinds of draft beer, other alcoholic drinks, sausages out of a microwave and french fries. Booze and junk.

Maybe that was why Semyon had suggested meeting in this cafe? He fit right in there. And I didn't exactly stand out from the crowd either...

Noisily blowing the froth off his Klin Gold beer¡ªI'd only ever seen that done in old movies before¡ªSemyon took a mouthful and looked at me amiably. "Let's hear it."

"You know about the crisis?" I asked, taking the bull by the horns right off.

"Which crisis is that?" Semyon asked in reply.

"The one with the anonymous letters."

Semyon nodded. He even added something. "I've just completed the temporary registration of our visitor from Prague."

"This is what I think," I said, twirling my beer mug around on the clean tablecloth. "They were sent by an Other."

"Sure they were." said Semyon. "You drink your beer. If you want, I'll sober you up afterward."

"You can't, I'm shielded."

Semyon screwed his eyes up and looked at me. And he agreed that yes, I was shielded and it was beyond his powers to break through a magic-proof shell installed by none other than Gesar himself.

"Well then," I went on, "if they were sent by an Other, what is he trying to achieve?"

"The isolation or elimination of his human client," Semyon said calmly. "Evidently he must have rashly promised to make him an Other. So now he's on the hook."

All my heroic intellectual efforts had been pointless. Without even working on the case, Semyon had figured it all out in his own head.

"It's a Light Other," I said.

"Why?" asked Semyon, surprised.

"A Dark Other has plenty of other ways to go back on a promise."

Semyon thought for a while, chewed on a fry and said yes, it looked that way. But he wouldn't entirely rule out any involvement by Dark Ones. Because even Dark Ones could swear a rash oath there was no way to get around. For instance, swear on the Darkness, call the primordial Power to bear witness. After that, they couldn't wriggle out of it.

"Agreed," I said. "But even so, the chances are greater that one of us has slipped up."

Semyon nodded and said, "Not me."

I looked away.

"Don't you get upset," Semyon said in a melancholy voice. "You've got the right idea and you're doing the right thing. We could have slipped up. Even I could have blundered. Thanks for asking me to talk, and not just running to the boss... I give you my word, Light Magician Anton Gorodetsky, that I did not send these letters that concern you and I do not know who sent them."

"You know, I'm really glad about that," I said honestly.

"Not nearly as glad as I am," Semyon chuckled. "I'll tell you something, the Other who did this has got some neck. He hasn't just got the Watches involved in this mess, he's dragged the Inquisition into it as well. To do that, you either have to be way out of control or calculate every last little detail. If it's the first, he's done for, but if it's the second, he'll squirm his way out of it. I'd lay two to one he'll squirm his way out."

"Semyon, so an ordinary human being can be turned into an Other after all?" I asked. Honesty is the best policy.

"I don't know," said Semyon and shook his head. "I used to believe it was impossible. But if recent events are anything to go by, there's some kind of loophole. Very narrow, pretty nasty, but still a loophole."

"Why nasty?" I asked, jumping on his words.

"Because otherwise we would have made use of it. What a coup, for instance, to make the president one of your own. And not just the president, but everyone who has any kind of influence. There'd be an amendment to the Treaty, determining the procedure for initiation, and there'd be the same standoff, only at a new level."

"But I thought it had been absolutely forbidden," I admitted. "The Higher Others got together and agreed not to disrupt the balance... threatened each other with the ultimate weapon..."

"With what?" Semyon asked, astonished.

"You know, the ultimate weapon. Remember, you told me about the incredibly powerful thermonuclear bombs? We have one, the Americans have one... There must be something of the sort in magic too..."

Semyon started laughing. "What nonsense, Anton! There aren't any bombs like that¡ªit's all fantasy, fairy tales! Learn some physics! There isn't enough heavy water in the oceans for a self-sustaining thermonuclear reaction."

"Then why did you tell me that?"

"We were spinning all sorts of yarns at the time. I never thought you'd believe it..."

"Ah, dammit," I muttered and took a mouthful of beer. "And you know, after that I couldn't sleep at night..."

"There is no ultimate weapon, you can sleep easy," Semyon chortled. "No real one and no magical one. And if we accept that it is possible to initiate ordinary people after all, then the procedure is extremely difficult and disgusting, with unpleasant side effects. In general, no one wants to get their hands dirty. Neither us nor the Dark Ones."

"And you don't know about any such procedure?" I asked, just to make sure.

"I don't." Semyon thought for a moment. "No, I definitely don't. Reveal myself to people, give them orders or, say, recruit them as volunteers¡ªI've done it all. But as for turning someone into an Other when you want to¡ªI've never heard of that."

Another dead end.

I nodded, gazing gloomily into my beer mug.

"No need to knock yourself out," Semyon advised me. "There are only two possibilities. This Other is either a fool or he's very cunning. In the first case the Dark Ones or the Inquisitors will find him. In the second case they won't find him, but they will find the human being and teach him not to wish for such strange things. Similar cases have been known..."

"What am I going to do?" I asked. "I must admit that place is interesting, it's amusing to live there. Especially on expenses..."

"Then enjoy living there," Semyon said calmly. "Or is your pride offended? Do you want to out-gallop everyone else and find the traitor first?"

"I don't like leaving things half-done," I admitted.

Semyon laughed. "All I've been doing for the last hundred years is leaving things half-done... For instance, there was the little business of the hoodoo laid on the prosperous peasant Be-sputnov's cattle in the Kostroma province. Ah, what a case that was, Anton! A mystery. A tight tangle of intrigue. It was magical all right, but it was all done so cunningly... the hoodoo was applied through a field of hemp."

"Do cattle actually eat hemp?" I asked, intrigued despite myself.

"Ah, who'd let them? The peasant Besputnov used to make rope out of that hemp. And he used the rope to lead his cows around. And the hex went through it that way. A cunning hoodoo, slow and thorough. And not a single registered Other for a hundred miles around. I moved into the little village and started searching for the evildoer..."

"Did they really work that thoroughly back then?" I asked, amazed. "Sending in a watchman for the sake of some peasant and his cattle?"

Semyon smiled. "I did all sorts of work back then. This peasant's son was an Other, and he asked us to step in to help his father¡ªhe almost made himself a noose out of that rope... So anyway, I moved in, all on my own, got myself some property, even started cozying up to a certain little widow lady. But at the same time I was searching, and I realized I was on the trail of an ancient witch, very well disguised, not a member of any Watches and not registered anywhere. It was really fascinating, just imagine. A witch who was two or three hundred years old. She had accumulated as much power as a first-level magician. And there I was playing at Nat Pinkerton... detecting... I felt ashamed somehow to call in the Higher Magicians to help. And gradually, bit by bit, I turned up clues, and put together a list of suspects. One of them was actually the young widow I found so attractive..."

"Well?" I asked, entranced. Semyon certainly liked to stretch the truth a bit, but this story seemed like the real thing.

"That's all there is," Semyon sighed. "There was a rebellion in Petrograd. Then the revolution. So you can imagine, there were more important things to deal with than cunning witches. Human blood was flowing in rivers. I was recalled. I wanted to go back and find the old hag, but I never had the time. And then they flooded the entire village and everybody was resettled. Maybe that witch isn't even alive anymore."

"Frustrating," I said.

Semyon nodded. "And I've got an entire wagonload of stories like that. So there's no need for you to go working overtime on this one."

"If you were a Dark One," I admitted, "I'd definitely think you were trying to divert suspicion from yourself."

Semyon just smiled. "I'm not a Dark One, Anton. As you know perfectly well."

"And you don't know anything about the initiation of human beings," I sighed. "And I was really hoping..."

Semyon turned serious. "Anton, let me tell you something. The girl I loved more than anything in the whole world died in nineteen twenty-one. She died of old age."

I looked at him, but didn't dare risk a smile. Semyon wasn't joking.

"If I'd known how to make her an Other..." Semyon whispered, gazing off into the distance. "If I'd only known... I revealed myself to her. I did everything for her. She was never ill. At the age of seventy, she looked thirty at the most. Even in hungry St. Petersburg she never wanted for anything, the permits she had used to strike Red Army men dumb... I had her credentials signed by Lenin himself. But I couldn't give her my length of life. That's not in our power." He looked into my eyes somberly. "If I'd known how to initiate Lubov Petrovna, I wouldn't have asked anybody's permission. I'd have gone through anything. I'd have dematerialized myself¡ªbut I'd have made her into an Other..."

Semyon stood up and sighed. "But now, to be quite honest, it doesn't matter to me. Whether people can be transformed into Others or not simply doesn't concern me. And it shouldn't concern you either. Your wife's an Other. Your daughter's an Other. All that happiness for one person? Gesar himself can't even dream of anything like it."

He walked out, but I sat on at the table for a while, finishing up my beer. The owner of the cafe¡ªwho was also the waiter, and the chef, and the barman¡ªnever even looked in my direction. When Semyon came in, he had hung a magical screen around the table.

What had I been thinking of, really?

There were two Inquisitors beavering away. The talented vampire Kostya was circling the Assol complex in the form of a bat. They'd figure it out. They were bound to discover who had wanted to become an Other. And they'd either find the individual who had sent the letters, or they wouldn't.

What difference did that make to me?

The woman I loved was an Other. And more than that, she had voluntarily abandoned her work in the Watch, a brilliant career as a Great Enchantress. All for an idiot like me, so that I wouldn't get hung up about being stuck forever at my second level of Power...

And Nadiushka was an Other too. I'd never have to go through the horror of an Other whose child grows up, grows old, and dies. Sooner or later we would reveal Nadienka's true nature to her. She would want to be a Great One, no doubt about it. And she would be the very Greatest. Maybe she would even do something to make this imperfect world a bit better.

But here I was playing at spies, like a little kid. Worrying myself sick about succeeding in my mission, instead of dropping in on my jolly neighbor in the evening or relaxing¡ªstrictly for purposes of camouflage¡ªin the casino.

I got up, put the money on the table, and walked out. In an hour or two the screen would disperse, the owner of the cafe would see the money and the empty glasses, and remember a couple of ordinary-looking guys drinking beer there.


Tags: Sergei Lukyanenko Watch Horror
Source: www.StudyNovels.com