Lera looked at Victor and smiled. Inside every man, no matter how grown-up, there was still a little boy. Victor was twenty-five years old and of, course, he was grown-up. Valeria was prepared to insist on that with all the conviction of a nineteen-year-old woman in love.
‘Dungeons,’ she said straight into Victor’s ear. ‘Dungeons and dragons. Oo-oo-oo!’
Victor snorted. They were sitting in a room that would have been dirty if it wasn’t so dark. Jostling all around them were excited children and adults with embarrassed smiles. On a stage decorated with mystical symbols a young man wearing white make-up and a long flowing black cloak was making frightening faces. He was lit up from below by a few crimson light bulbs.
‘Now you are going to learn what real horror is like!’ the young man drawled menacingly. ‘Aagh! A-a-a-agh! Even I feel afraid at the thought of what you are going to see!’
He spoke with the precise articulation that only drama college students have. Even Lera, who didn't know much English, could understand every word.
‘I like the dungeons in Budapest,’ she whispered to Victor. ‘They have real old dungeons there . . . it’s very interesting. And all they have here is one big “room of horror”.’
Victor nodded guiltily and said:
‘But at least it’s cool in here.’
September in Edinburgh had turned out hot. Victor and Lera had spent the morning in the royal castle, a centre of tourist pilgrimage. They had had a bite to eat and had drunk a pint of beer each in one of the countless pubs. And then they had found somewhere to take shelter from the midday sun . . .
‘Sure you haven’t changed your minds?’ the actor in the black cloak asked.
Lera heard someone crying quietly behind her. She turned round and was surprised to discover that it was a grown girl, about sixteen years old. Standing there with her mother and little brother. Several attendants surfaced out of the darkness and quickly led the entire family away.
‘There you have the other side of European prosperity,’ Victor said didactically. ‘Would any grown girl in Russia be frightened by a “room of horror”? Westerner’s lives are too calm and peaceful, it makes them afraid of all sorts of nonsense . . .’
Lera frowned. Victor’s father was a politician. Not a very important one, but very patriotic, always taking every chance to demonstrate the shortcomings of Western civilisation. But that hadn’t stopped him sending his son to study at Edinburgh University.
And Victor, who spent ten months of the year away from his homeland, stubbornly repeated his father’s rhetoric. You would have to look very hard to find another patriot like him even inside Russia. Sometimes Lera thought it was funny, and sometimes it made her angry.
Fortunately the introduction was over now, and the slow procession through the ‘Dungeons of Scotland’ began. Under a bridge beside the railway station some enterprising people had partitioned off the bleak concrete premises into small cages. They had put in weak light bulbs and draped tattered rags and artificial cobwebs everywhere. On the walls they had hung portraits of the maniacs and murderers who had run riot in Edinburgh over its long history. And they had started entertaining children.
‘This is the bootikin!’ howled a girl dressed in rags — their guide for this room. ‘A terrible instrument of torture!’
The children squealed in delight. The grown-ups exchanged embarrassed glances, as if they had been caught blowing soap bubbles or playing with dolls. To avoid getting bored, Lera and Victor stood at the back and kissed while the guides babbled. They had been together for six months already, and they were both haunted by a strange feeling that this romance would turn out to be something special.
‘Now we’ll go through the maze of mirrors!’ the guide announced.
Strangely enough, this turned out to be really interesting. Lera had always thought that those descriptions of mirror mazes in which you could lose your way and run your forehead straight into the glass were exaggerated. How was it possible not to see where there was a mirror and where there was an empty space that you could walk into?
It turned out that it was possible. In fact, that it was very possible indeed. They laughed as they jostled against the cold mirror surfaces and waved their arms about as they wandered around in the noisy clamour of the group, which had suddenly been transformed from a handful of people into a crowd. At one point Victor waved in greeting to someone, and when they eventually got out of the maze (the door was slyly disguised as a mirror, too) he gazed around for a long time.
‘Who are you looking for?’ Lera asked.
‘Ah, it’s nothing,’ Victor said, with a smile. ‘Just nonsense.’
Then there were a few more halls with the sombre trappings of medieval prisons, and then — the ‘River of Blood’. The hushed children were loaded into a long metal boat that set off slowly across the dark water to the ‘Castle of the Vampires’. The darkness was filled with malevolent laughter and menacing voices. Invisible wings flapped above their heads, water gurgled. The impression was only spoiled by the fact that the boat sailed about five metres at the very most — after that the illusion of movement was maintained by fans blowing air into their faces.
But even so Lera suddenly felt afraid. She was ashamed of her fear, but she was afraid. They were sitting on the last bench, there was no one else beside them, ahead of them were actors groaning and giggling as they pretended to be vampires, and behind them . . .
Behind them there was nothing.
But Lera couldn’t get rid of the feeling that there was someone there.
‘Vitya, I’m afraid,’ she said, taking hold of his hand.
‘Silly girl . . .’ Victor whispered into her ear. ‘Just don’t cry, all right?’
‘All right,’ Lera agreed.
‘Ha-ha-ha! Evil vampires all around!’ Victor exclaimed, imitating the voices of the actors. ‘I can sense them creeping up on me!’
Lera closed her eyes and clutched his hand even tighter. Boys! They were all boys, even when they had grey hair! Why was he frightening her like that?
‘Ai,’ Victor exclaimed very convincingly. Then he said, ‘There’s someone . . . someone biting my neck . . .’
‘Fool!’ Lera blurted out, without parting her eyelids.
‘Lera, there’s someone drinking my blood . . .’ Victor said in a mournful, despairing voice. ‘And I’m not even afraid . . . It’s like a dream . . .’
The fans kept blowing their cold wind, the water slapped against the sides of the boat, the wild voices howled. There was even a smell of something like blood. Victor’s hand went limp. Lera angrily pinched him on the palm, but he didn’t even twitch.
‘I’m not afraid, you blockhead!’ Lera exclaimed almost at the top of her voice.
Victor didn’t answer, but he tumbled softly against her, and that made her feel a bit less afraid.
‘I’ll bite your throat out myself!’ Lera threatened. Victor seemed to be confused. He didn’t say anything. Then Lera surprised even herself by adding: ‘And I’ll drink all your blood. Do you hear me? Straight after . . . straight after the wedding.’
It was the first time she had mentioned this word in connection with their relationship. She froze, waiting to see how Victor would react. A single man simply had to react to the word ‘wedding’! He would be either frightened or delighted.
Victor seemed to be dozing on her shoulder.
‘Did I frighten you?’ Lera asked. She laughed nervously and opened her eyes, but it was still dark, although the howling had begun to fade away. ‘All right . . . I won’t bite you. And we don’t have to have a wedding!’
Victor still didn’t say anything.
A mechanism creaked and the iron boat floated another five metres along the narrow concrete channel. The clamouring kids piled out onto the shore. A three- or four-year-old girl who was holding on to mummy with one hand and sucking one finger of the other kept turning her head and staring straight at Lera. What could have caught her attention? A young woman talking in an unfamiliar language? No, that couldn’t be it, they were in Europe . . .
Lera sighed and looked at Victor.
He really was asleep! His eyes were closed and his lips were set in a smile.
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Lera asked and gave him a gentle shove. Victor started slowly slumping over, with his head falling straight towards the iron side of the boat. Lera squealed and managed to grab hold of him (what was happening, why was he so limp and flabby?) and lay him down on the wooden bench. An attendant immediately appeared in response to her cry — black cloak, rubber fangs, cheeks daubed with black and red make-up. He jumped down agilely into the boat.
‘Has something happened to your friend, miss?’ The boy was very young, probably the same age as Lera.
‘Yes . . . no . . . I don’t know.’ She looked into the attendant’s eyes, but he was bewildered too.
‘Help me! We have to get him out of the boat!’
‘Maybe it’s his heart?’ The lad leaned down and tried to take hold of Victor’s shoulders — then he jerked his hands away, as if he had taken hold of something hot. ‘What’s this? What kind of stupid joke is this? Light! We need light!’
He kept shaking his hands, and there were drops of something thick and dark falling from them. But Lera was petrified, staring at Victor’s pale face. The lights came on, bright and white, burning out the shadows, transforming the frightening tourist attraction into the setting for a sordid farce.
But the farce was over, vanished with the tourist ride. There were two open wounds with raised edges on Victor’s neck. Blood was oozing from the wounds slowly, like the last drops of ketchup from an upturned bottle. The thin spurts of blood-drops were even more terrifying because the wounds were so deep. Right above the artery . . . as if they’d been made with two razors . . . or two sharp teeth . . .
And then Lera started screaming. A thin, terrible scream, with her eyes closed, waving her arms around in the air in front of her, like a little girl who has just seen her favourite kitten smeared across the surface of the road by a dump truck.
After all, inside every woman, no matter how grown-up she is, there is still a frightened little girl.
‘How come I could do it?’ Geser asked. ‘And why couldn’t you?’
We were standing in the middle of a boundless grey plain. My eyes could not make out any bright colours at all in the overall picture, but I only had to look closely at an individual grain of sand and it would flare up in tones of gold, purple, azure and green. The sky over our heads was a frozen swirl of white and pink, as if a river of milk had mingled with its fruit-jelly banks and then been splashed out across the heavens.
There was a wind blowing too, and it was cold. I always feel cold down on the fourth level of the Twilight, but that’s an individual reaction. Geser, on the other hand, was feeling hot: his face had turned red and there were beads of sweat trickling down his forehead.
‘I haven’t got enough Power,’ I said.
Geser’s face turned deep crimson.
‘Wrong answer! You are a Higher Magician. It happened by accident, but you are still a Higher One. Why are Higher Magicians also known as magicians beyond classification?’
‘Because the differences between their levels of Power are so insignificant that they cannot be calculated, and it is impossible to determine who is stronger and who is weaker . . .’ I muttered. ‘Boris Ignatievich, I understand that. But I haven’t got enough Power. I can’t get to the fifth level.’
Geser looked down at his feet. He hooked up some sand with the toe of his shoe and tossed it into the air. Then he took a step forward — and disappeared.
What was that, a piece of advice?
I tossed some sand up in front of myself. Took a step forward and tried in vain to raise my shadow.
There was no shadow.
I was still where I had been, on the fourth level. And it was getting even colder — the steam of my breath no longer drifted away in a little white cloud, it fell on the sand in a sprinkling of sharp frosty needles. I turned round — in psychological terms I always found it easier to look for the way out behind myself — and took a step forward, emerging onto the third level of the Twilight. A colourless maze of stone slabs corroded by time, lying beneath a low, motionless grey sky. In places the desiccated stems of plants trailed across the stone, looking like oversized bindweed killed by the frost.
Another step. The second level of the Twilight. The stony labyrinth was covered with a carpet of interwoven branches . . .
And another one. The first level. Not stone any longer. Walls with windows. The familiar walls of the Moscow office of the Night Watch — in its Twilight version.
With a final effort, I tumbled out of the Twilight into the real world. Straight into Geser’s office.
Naturally, the boss was already sitting in his chair. I stood there, swaying, in front of him.
How on earth had he managed to overtake me? After all, he had gone on to the fifth level, and then I had started making my way out of the Twilight!
‘When I saw you were getting nowhere,’ Geser said, without even looking at me, ‘I came straight out of the Twilight.’
‘From the fifth level into the real world?’ I asked, unable to conceal my amazement.
‘Yes. What do you find so surprising?’
I shrugged. There was nothing really surprising about it. If Geser wanted to present me with a surprise he always had a huge range to choose from. There’s an awful lot that I don’t know. And this . . .
‘It’s annoying,’ said Geser. ‘Sit down, Gorodetsky.’
I sat down facing Geser, folded my hands on my knees and even lowered my head, as if I felt guilty about something.