When Yevgeny Saltykov and Fedot Katin argued, the world argued alongside them. The air always seemed to agree with Yevengy, responding with great swirling currents when he made an emphatic point or with a meek draft when he was reduced to an ad hominen. Fedot, though, always had the ear of the ground. Angles became more angular, distances became more distant, and the snow became more frigid when he shouted. As the two of them walked to the meeting through the snow, the earth and the air were locked in a pitched battle.
Everyone was so engaged in the debate that they didn't notice the car moving slowly just behind them.
"You know the histories as well as I do," Yevgeny cried. "Novgorod fell and so did the Black Market! People said the exact same thing you're carrying on about! 'Oh no, the last gasps of Russian freedom, dead! The world is ended!' And nothing changed! The Earth still turned, the sun still rose! We continued as we always had! You're being too romantic!" The wind blew a gust of flakes at the two men, halfway blinding the pair.
As Yevgeny brushed the snow from his eyes, Fedot swept his arms around the scene. "This, though!? This is insanity! They're talking about worldwide revolution. How, when they're done, there won't be any classes. There won't even be Russians or Poles or Germans. Just a sludge of humanity. What magic is there in that!?" The sidewalk seemed to creak with indignation at the thought.
Yevgeny rolled his eyes. "Maybe your imagination is just lacking. Change is the only constant. If you can't adapt to the times, then perhaps…" He trailed off. The wind became a low breeze, and Yevgeny's features settled into a mocking smile. The fact that this was Yevgeny's neutral expression didn't make it any less infuriating for Fedot.
Fedot felt the anger at Yevgeny and his smug airs leap through his guts. For a moment, he considered trying to win the discussion by pointing out that ever since the revolution, he had heard words behind closed doors. Words about Yevgeny and others like him, who were seen as too friendly, too likely to flip to the new ways. About whether, well… and then he would leave it at that.
But no, things had been said in confidence that could not be said elsewhere. He simply fumed. The ice seemed to get more slippery as they walked.
The pair continued walking in silence. Only when the wind died down altogether did they hear the rumble of the motor behind them. They paid it no mind until it followed them for a second block, then a third.
A man in a thick coat, bundled up to his eyes, sat in the front seat. Even mostly covered, the man looked immensely serious, and quite large. In the back seat, a pudgy man in a rumpled suit stared at Yevgeny. When the man saw him look up, he smiled. Yevengy stopped. So did the car. Fedot continued to walk for a few more steps before realizing he was leaving everyone else behind.
Yevgeny walked up to the car and tapped on the window with his left hand. "Can we help you, friend?" he called through the glass. Fedot put his hand in his pocket and felt for the piece of dead man's string. He didn't like the situation, but feeling the fibers between his fingers calmed him somewhat.
The fat man opened the door of the car and stepped out. Fedot stepped back. Without taking his eyes off of Yevegny, the man began speak.
"Greetings comrades. You are Saltykov, Yevgeny Ivanovich, are you not?" Comrades. The past months had taught Fedot to hate that word, and all those who spoke it.
Yevgeny opened his mouth to reply, but Fedot got there first. "What business is it of yours, fatty? We're just two citizens going about our business," he said. He hoped that the contempt was sufficiently evident in his voice.
Fedot had been jostled, mocked, and harassed by low-life dullards like this. Idiots without a speck of breeding, too arrogant to know their place. Like Andrei Vasilievich, the chimney-sweep's son who had the gall to call himself a "magician." This man was doubtless some High Soviet Komissariat Poobah In Charge Of Widget Manufacture or somesuch, a new title that carried no heft. Not like "count" did. Or at least, had.
It was time that one of the faceless goons' own learn their place. Fedot smiled. Nothing too bad. Maybe just tip the car over on its side when the fat dullard escalated the situation.
But the fat dullard did not escalate the situation. Instead he kept his eyes on Yevgeny, a smile playing around his lips. "Come, Comrade Saltykov. We have much to talk about. Leave your companion."
Yevgeny nodded. A perpetual nodder, he nodded when he considered things. He had nodded when Lazar asked him for a small loan, just five hundred rubles, until next week. He nodded when the demon in the form of a sour-faced babushka had asked him his True Name. And he nodded now, when he was going to tell the man where to stick his discussion.
But Fedot saw only the nod and the mocking smile. He saw the betrayal of Yevgeny, and those like him. He saw the triumph of ill-bred shits like the man in the car. He saw red.
"The hell you are!" he roared. His face twisted with rage. The sidewalk became so cold that it sucked the heat from everyone standing on it, creating a sheet of ice that bound them to the ground. "I'll kill you first, you little cu—"
There was a loud "pop" and Fedot's head jerked back. The right side of his face burst outward, spraying Yevgeny and the car with blood. He slumped down, his fingers twitching. The ground sighed and regained some of its warmth. A man emerged from an alleyway, a pistol in his hand.
The man gave a smile as tight as catgut. "Now, Yevgeny Ivanovich Saltykov, the time for requests is over. Come with us. We have much to discuss."
Yevgeny nodded. "I-I… I have a meeting," he said quietly as he tried not to look at Fedot.
The pudgy man moved to the left side of the car, making room for Yevgeny and the man from the alley. Yevgeny felt the gun barrel prodding him in the back when he hesitated. The man in the front seat got out and picked up Fedot's body like it was a baby bird. The man disappeared into the alley carrying Fedot's body. A moment later, he climbed back into the front seat.
"I'm afraid you'll have to miss your meeting, Comrade Saltykov," the pudgy man said as Yevgeny sat next to him. He didn't look at Yevgeny. The bundled giant joined his twin in the front seat, and the car sped off. "We require a few minutes of your time. Just some routine questioning."
The pudgy man stared straight ahead. "Yevgeny Ivanovich Saltykov. Member of the bourgeois class, noted wastrel about Petrograd." A smile played at the pudgy man's lips and he turned his head to face Yevgeny. "Member of the Mystical Brotherhood of St. Petersburg, and wizard."
The car sped off into the cold January evening, spraying slush from its wheels.
In a well-appointed room crammed full of books and knowledge, the magicians were getting impatient.
The room was mostly empty, as lectures tended to be poorly-attended. The weather hadn't helped, nor had the fact that it was Katin, better known as "Fuckface" behind his back, who was lecturing. However, even the most esoteric subjects by the most irascible members used to have a dozen or so attendees.
The fact was, since last February, the lay of the land had been constantly shifting. First the Tsar had no longer been a tsar, and there was a government of the people. Then there was no longer a government of the people but a government of the soviets. Then Russia had begun to tear itself apart in a civil war.
In America, it was said that magic thrived on chaos like this, eagerly drinking up the change. But three centuries of rule by the same family had given the wizards and magicians of Russia a certain amount of conservatism. With the situation radically changing week to week, they were antsy. That most of those in the magical societies of Russia were aristocrats or landowners did little to calm the situation.
Sofiya stared into the snow outside as the tea cup she held cycled between blistering heat and icy cold every few seconds, drumming her eight fingers on the side of the delicate china. Maxim half-heartedly argued with Nikolai about the size of the Ravelwoods. Igor chewed on his fingers, which he had bought just last month.
"Where in the hell is he?" Olga muttered. She was an older woman, with a face that drew to a pinched point centered at her nose. Her hair was drawn into a tight bun. She paced back and forth parallel to the windows.
Andrei stood in the corner, leafing through a book on the thaumaturgical properties of honey bees. He looked up and slid the book back into its spot on the shelf. If he could get a rise out of Olga, it would be ten times better than whatever fool presentation Fedot was going to give.
He took his pocket watch from his jacket and made a show of opening it. "I wonder where Fedot and Yevgeny are. It's not in them to be late like this. Well, Yevgeny, maybe… You don't suppose he— no, he wouldn't."
Olga shook her head. "With Yevgeny, it's always something. 'Oh, I couldn't find my boots!' 'Oh, my alarm didn't go off!' 'Oh, I was in a world without sun!' But Fedot is always here on time."
Andrei sighed. If she wouldn't take the bait now, she wouldn't ever take it. What a disappointing blow up. He turned to Igor.
"Did you hear about Ivan? The shopkeeper, I mean. They seized his store and said that he was a petite bourgeois or somesuch. Not as much eye of newt for you anymore, eh?"
Igor continued to chew at his fingers. "I said…" Andrei repeated.
Sofiya glared at him. "No outside business in the chamber," she said.
Andrei grumbled under his breath. The Mystical Brotherhood had plenty of strange rules regarding procedure, but that was one that always irked him the most. They acted as though the chamber was some sacrosanct thing, disconnected from the rest of the world, while half of the magicians drew their power from the very strength of Russia itself. Lousy hypocrites.
There was a commotion downstairs. There was a loud bang of the doors, followed by muffled shouting from Sergei, who watched the entrance. There was a pause as someone replied. Then the sounds of a group making their way up the stairs.
Everyone in the room looked at one another, unsure of how to proceed. The doors were supposed to be impenetrable to anyone outside the Brotherhood. Indeed, the building itself was enchanted to escape notice from outsiders.
The doors to the chamber burst open, revealing a rotund man in glasses with a briefcase. A moment later, a group of at least twenty poorly-dressed and well-armed men moved in from behind him, spreading around the room. The eyes of the young men flicked from person to person in the room, daring them to move. No one did. For a moment, all was still.
The fat man broke the silence. "Greetings, comrades. This is the meeting place of the Mystical Brotherhood, is it not?"
The magicians exchanged looks, but none said anything. The fat man adjusted his glasses and repeated himself. "This is Chelyadnin Hall, correct? And you all are the Mystical Brotherhood of Petersburg, are you not?"
Maxim looked at the man. "We are. And who might you be? The last thing to break into the Hall like that was a demon of the highest order."
The fat man smiled and shook his head. "I am no demon, comrade. However, I don't feel that it's time for you to know my name just yet. You may just call me Comrade Roman. Who I am is of little importance at the moment. Who I represent, though…" He wagged his finger. "…is much more important. I represent the people and the working masses of Soviet Russia."
Andrei felt he had to tear the question out of himself. There was no good answer to this, but maybe, just maybe, if the fat man had the wrong idea, they could bluff their way out. Things were changing, and maybe the change was inevitable. But not having guns waved in one's face took temporary precedent over everything else. "So, what do revolutionaries want with a club devoted to reading old mystic texts?" he said.
Comrade Roman chuckled. It was dry and soft, like rotted wood. "Well, if that was all that you did, comrade, we would have little use for you. But listen, your friend, Yevgeny Ivanovich, told us all about you. The way that you work wonders, your rivalry with the other societies, the, ah, duel in Siberia.
"You've lived in your decadent ways for longer than anyone can remember, feeding like ticks while the peasant and the worker labored around you. Your ways, both as a class and a discipline, are dying. The world is ready for revolution, a new leap into an era of equality and progress. The only question is: can you make yourselves relevant in this new world? Or will you choose to be cast into the dust heap of history like serfdom or the gods?"
The dissonance was making Andrei's head hurt. Great speeches of worlds yet to come and irrevocable changes usually came from grandiose wizards or else from printed polemics, where he could imagine the speakers as properly magnificent. But here was a man, one whom Andrei might have normally not noticed on the street, speaking of a brave new world, telling the wizards of Petrograd that they must join or die. He wondered if this was some very elaborate, very unfunny joke.
As Andrei wondered, Nikolai stood up. "What in God's name are you talking about, sir?" he said. He did his best to keep his shoulders steady, but from where Andrei was standing, it was obvious that he was shaking.
Comrade Roman smiled. "What I am talking about, comrade, is you turning your talents in the unexplained sciences towards the cause of the communist revolution. I'm talking about turning away from romantic notions of wonder and magic and giving yourselves over fully to the ways of science and Marxism. There is so much potential in this room alone, to say nothing of Russia as a whole. The societies of Moscow and Kazan have already joined."
"Just the few of us in this room could destroy you five times over, ant," Maxim said. He didn't even bother to look at Comrade Roman.
"Yes, you could. And maybe all of the men in this room as well." Roman gestured to the gunmen surrounding him. The gunmen stared ahead. "But it is not a question of if, but when you would be overrun. Then, of course, all of you would be executed. The rest of your society would be hunted down and shot like dogs, never knowing why this was happening. Your library would be burned, to serve as an example for others. In that way, no one benefits."
As soon as the gunmen had entered, everyone knew that this was the case, but hearing it out loud made it real. Maxim deflated, and the magicians looked to one another.
"And if we accept? If we join, what then?" Andrei asked.
"Then your society will be dissolved and you will be inducted into the government of the Soviets as, ahem, applied scientists. You will be put to work, sharing your gifts with the world. No longer will you be allowed to selfishly hoard your knowledge." Roman placed the briefcase upon the podium.
Maxim stood up, puffed with indignation yet again. "Disso— no! The Mystical Brotherhood of St. Petersburg has stood for over two hundred years! There is a power woven into the very name of the society!"
Roman shrugged. "Funny, that's what was said about the Romanovs. Your ways are finished, comrades. The best that can be hoped for is creative destruction." Maxim slumped.
Andrei looked to the other magicians. Maxim refused to meet his eyes. Nikolai gave a slight nod. Olga and Igor shrugged. What else was there to do? In older times, maybe they could have taken refuge with the Library, but the time that they would be welcome, or even allowed in the Grand Library, had long since passed. The other societies were turning their backs on the old ways, too.
Besides, hadn't this been just what he had wanted? No more pretending that the outside world didn't exist? In his younger days, before he had given himself fully to magic, Andrei could have been one of the squirrely-eyed gunmen, seeking to do away with old things that existed for their own sake.
"We'll be protected, yes?" Andrei asked.
"Absolutely. The revolution looks after its own," Roman said.
"Then we'll accept. The other members of our group, though… I don't know if they'd be as willing."
"We will address that later. Now, you are the only members of the Mystical Brotherhood of St. Petersburg in the library. Your signatures are all that matter." Roman opened the briefcase and took out a sheet of paper. Andrei and the others moved towards him.
A sound like a gunshot rang out. Andrei jumped and searched the room for the source.
Before he could locate it, he heard the cocking of a dozen rifles. He turned and saw all the weapons were pointed at Sofiya. In her hands were the shattered remains of the teacup. The tea that had fallen in her lap steamed into a brief cloud. She mumbled something that no one could hear. The fat man's smile slipped a little.
Sofiya spoke up, saying the same words as before. "That's it, then?" She stared at the remnants of the cup.
Flames suddenly engulfed her hands, causing the delicate paint to run in thin rivers of gold down the side of what remained of the tea cup. She seemed not to notice. The gunmen cocked their weapons, but the fat man waved them down. Sofiya stood up.
Olga spoke, trying to maintain an even voice. "Sofa, don't—"
"Two hundred years, Olga. Two hundred years we've stood. And we had two simple rules. No outside business in. No inside business out!" She held up her fiery left hand, its three fingers visible through the flames. "Or did you think I'd forgotten that?
"Sofiya, please, listen to me," Andrei began. He hoped that his voice was reassuring and didn't waver too much. "Things have changed. We have to change with them if we want to survive."
Sofiya's expression remained neutral as Andrei talked. However, the flames around her hands began to grow, and within seconds they were eating away at the sleeves of her dress. She looked to the assembled members of the Brotherhood. "Is that what you all see, too? The world changes and we change with it? To hell with principles or dignity?"
The other members refused to meet her eyes. "Sofa, please. We-" Olga began.
Sofiya held up a fiery finger to her lips, hushing the old woman. "Olga, it's fine," she said.
She turned to face Andrei. The air around her began to ripple with heat and all over her clothes, burn marks first appeared then spread. "I've always hated you, Andrei Vasilievich," she said. With a cry, she lunged at him, burning hands swinging at his head.
Andrei ducked out of the way a split second before the hands came down. He rolled to the right, ending up on his back a few feet to the right of Sofiya. Bits of her skin were beginning to char as well.
In the back of his mind, he recognized the sound of gunshots. But Sofiya didn't react to them in any way. Probably some barrier keeping them at bay, at least for now.
Andrei fumbled for a spell, a witty comment, something. But his mind was empty. All there was room for was animal panic. He tried to get to his feet, far away from the fiery witch, but his joints refused to cooperate. Any second, she would burn him to a cinder.
But her attention was on the wall. Sofiya mumbled something, and suddenly, the ceiling-high bookcase burst into white-hot flames. Hundreds of years and millions of words worth of spells and other information began to curl, then burn in the heat. The sounds of screaming, of gun shots, and of burning wood and paper all competed to overpower one another.
"My God, what are you doing!?" one of the magicians (Nikolai? Andrei thought, maybe Igor?) shouted. The flames began to spread to the walls.
"If the Brotherhood must die, let it die properly! Let the new world mean new knowledge!" Sofiya shouted above the din. She no longer looked anything like the serious, reedy woman Andrei had once known. Now she was nothing but fire, everything about her having been consumed in the blaze.
"We have to leave!" Roman shouted, grabbing Andrei by the shoulder. The other magicians were already making a hasty retreat. A normal fire this size could have easily been dealt with by one or two of them. But a magical fire, from an infuriated fire specialist, determined to bring down the Brotherhood with her, was too much for any of them to handle, and they all knew it.
Parts of the ceiling began to fall, one landing a few feet away from Andrei. The pillar of flame where Sofiya had once stood made no move towards them. The falling plaster finally brought Andrei to his senses and he dashed outside, following Roman.
As he ran, he turned his head to see if Sofiya was following them. Later, he would tell himself that it was just a trick of the light or the heat. Surely, the amount of adrenaline running through his system, combined with the destruction of all of this knowledge, must have created an illusion. But at that moment, he could swear that he saw the column of fire smile at him.
Outside, the small group gathered on the side of the road opposite the burning building. The flame didn't appear to be spreading to the other buildings on the block, so at least there was that.
Igor and Olga slumped down, sitting against the cool stones of the building. Nikolai began to pace, while Maxim counted the handful of books he had been able to gather before they caught. Andrei stood in a daze, looking up at the building as it began to collapse in on itself.
"All those books. All that truth. Gone," he said. He wasn't speaking to anyone in particular, and no one in particular paid him any mind.
Roman cleared his throat. "Excuse me, comrades. I think that it is best if we get stock of the situation. Hopefully, soon there will be a fire wagon coming by to deal with the issue," he said. He pulled the briefcase up to his chest and opened it, removing several papers. Andrei sighed. Of course. Of all of the damn things to survive the fire, it had to be the briefcase.
"However," Roman continued, "there is still some business left to attend to. If you could sign this agreement, as we had discussed, you may be on your way."
"Now!?" Maxim asked, "You want us to sign that damn thing now!?"
"I honestly cannot think of a better time than now," Roman said. He pushed the papers towards Andrei.
Andrei sighed and signed the documents. He was too tired, after all of that, to even read it. He passed it to Igor, who did the same. The magicians passed it to one another, and the document was quickly filled. Olga was the last to the paper. After she signed it, Andrei felt a curious lightness on the top of his head. Looking around, he knew that everyone else in the group, and all of the other magicians in Petrograd, felt it too.
That was how, with less than one-tenth of its membership present, the Mystical Brotherhood of St. Petersburg dissolved itself.