Each snowflake made a soft tinkling sound as it dashed itself against the window of the apartment. Inside, the old man switched off the grow light and began to water the basil seeds he had planted. Seeing the first sprouts emerge from the black soil never failed to excite him. He was humming to himself as his daughter-in-law waddled into the room, one hand over her bulging stomach.
"Little Irinushka is finally asleep," she said with a grin and a pantomimed wiping sweat from her brow.
"How such a little one can wail for so long is beyond me," the old man said. He adjusted his glasses as he looked up from the rows of seeds, "Next time, let me handle her. Andrei has to leave so early for work and you're with child while I just sit around all day." He furrowed his brow and sliced the empty air with his finger, trying his best impression of Uspensky, the head of the neighborhood council, "I want to do my part in raising the next generation of the proud proletariat."
Lidiya laghed. "Wait until you get woken up at 4 AM by a screaming baby, Comrade Polyakov. Then you'll change your tune."
Suddenly, a series of sharp raps came from the door. A second later, an insistent pounding began. In the bedroom, Irina began to wail, her nap interrupted.
"Oh, God damn it," Lidyia cursed, "and she had just got-"
"You get the door, I'll put Irinushka back to bed. Fair's fair," the old man said he said as he got up to go to the bedroom. The pounding at the door continued, increasing in frequency and volume.
"In one second! I'll be right there," Lidiya said crossly as she made for the door. The old man turned on the lights in the bedroom and scooped Irina into his arms. Her squalling continued as loudly as before.
Lidiya appeared in the bedroom doorway. "They want to speak to you, actually. I'll take her," she said as she took the infant from the old man's arms. A note of uncertainty colored her voice. The old man gulped and made his way silently to the door. Rather than what he had been expecting, he was greeted with the sight of a slightly wild-eyed couple, a man and a woman, and a vaguely-human shaped thing bundled in scarves and jackets. He could see feathers poking out from its garments. Whatever it was, it appeared to be in some kind of pain.
"Tikhon Polyakov?" the woman asked quietly. The thing between them groaned.
He tried his best to maintain his composure. "Yes. Perhaps you should come in. Your companion seems unwell," he said, keeping as even a tone as he could manage. The couple nodded and entered the apartment, supporting the third one between them. Irina's muffled cries continued from the bedroom.
"Take off your coats and come in. Can I get you something? Coffee, perhaps? Tea? Or maybe something stronger?" Tikhon asked as he made his way to the kitchen.
"No, I'm good," said the woman as she gently guided the thing to the couch. The thing began to unwrap itself.
"I'll have a coffee," the man said. Tikhon filled the kettle with water and set it to boil.
"Very well. While the water boils, you can tell me what your problems are, yes?" Tikhon said as sat down across from the three guests.
"We need help," the man began. "We are from the… uh, the Mystical Brotherhood Of Leningrad. We need the help of the magicians of Moscow."
The woman leaned forward. "Boris is one of our fellows. He was attempting a study of Samedov's 'River of Air' when he was struck dumb. The dumbness went away few days later, but then the changes started happening."
Tikhon bent over the strange creature and looked it over. A narrow, fur-covered head, terminating in a thin, crooked beak. The creature's fingers had grown long and pencil-thin and had begun to sprout feathers. There was no mistaking it.
"It seems that your friend here was subjected to a spell of transformation. Magicians like to booby trap their books for unwary fools," he explained, glancing at the creature. It looked down to avoid his gaze.
"When will it stop?" the woman asked. Her small hands were clenched into tight fists.
"When he's dead, presumably. The human body can only handle so much change in such a period. Looking at him now, I would say that it has a week at most," Tikhon said.
The man's head hung low, the woman covered her open mouth with a hand, and the creature merely stared. It was a minute before anyone spoke.
"Is there anything that can be done?" the woman asked.
"I am afraid that I can be of no help. You see, I am retired and have been for some time now. Besides, transformation was never my area. I was always much more discreet."
The woman shot up from her seat and stood over them, ramrod stiff. "Comrade Polyakov," she commanded "We call upon the Muscovite Society of Magicians to honor its alliance with the Mystical Brotherhood Of Leningrad and render aid unto us in our time of need."
The old man appraised her calmly. "You are not from The Mystical Brotherhood of St. Petersburg. First of all, they have been defunct since before the war, long before either of you were born. I would know; I was the one who struck the killing blow. Second, had you been a true member, or even talked to a true member, you would have asked for tea leaves in hot vodka. Third, there is no more Muscovite Society of Magicians to ask for help. I am the only living member, and as I said, I am retired." His voice was as cold and clear as the glass on the window.
The woman deflated and sat down.
"But they sa-"
"What they said was true twenty years ago. A decade, even. But now I am the last magician of Moscow, at least as far as I know. The others are gone, either by the Bookburners or the secret police, or more often just pointless rivalries. Perhaps it was for the best."
"Please, you have to help us!"
"Since you are young, I will give you a lesson. To impersonate a magician is one of the most serious crimes. To falsely represent an entire magical society? That is perhaps the most serious crime of all. You are lucky I did not kill you where you stood when you lied to my face and are supremely lucky that I did not do worse when you lied to my face."
The woman was fighting back tears. "So, that's it, then? Nothing more for it?" she asked.
"I suppose not. Unless you still want your coffee," Tikhon said. "I wish you the best of luck, but I can be of no assistance. Now please leave. I have a feeling that trouble follows the three of you closely."
The three visitors got unsteadily to their feet. In the background, the sound of Irinushka's cries subsided slightly. Tikhon walked them to the door. On its way out, the creature turned.
"Your grandson will be strong. A good man. You will be very proud of him," it half-said, half-croaked.
"What makes you think that?" Tikhon asked with a slightly raised eyebrow.
"Not think. Know. I have 'Unseen Eye.' From Pokrovski's book. Kartashyov's 'Permanence' keeps it open. It lets me see certain things." The creature gave a bitter laugh. "Sometimes it's a bit spotty."
That was actually quite clever, Tikhon thought. He hadn't seen anyone try to modify "Unseen Eye" since his very first days with the Society. Fedot, or had it been Karina, had tried to use it to predict the weather. Or had it been black market prices during rationing? Without warning, memories began to surge through him. Of the early days. When the only link to the past had been old Sozonov, and the rest of them had been experimenting. What happened when this was added? Could this spell be changed with this? Was it possible to make new spells? They had been rash and foolish, those young Turks, but they had learned things. Amazing things, things that still made the hair on the back of Tikhon's neck stand on end when he thought of them. And when they found out that there were other societies working along the same lines, forming an invisible network throughout the world? My God, he thought, the world had opened before them.
Old Sozonov had warned them that they were reaching too far, allowing their egos to get in the way. They dismissed him as a transcriber, content merely to sit among his books, parroting old spells and never innovating. Soon after, the infighting began. The magicians of Novosibirsk were the first to fall to the Muscovite magicians. Some petty slight, long-forgotten, had started it. When it ended, there was not a mage left alive in the oblast. Meanwhile, their fellow magical societies had duly begun to tear one another apart in a frenzy of fear and rage. Sozonov, by then ancient, had left them for good around that time. By the beginning of 1935, the Mystical Brotherhood Of Leningrad and the Muscovite Society of Magicians were the only two organizations worth mentioning. By the end of 1935, the Society was the only one.
But the momentum could not be stopped, and the Muscovites soon began to turn on one another. With the death of Zheglov in 1946, Tikhon became the sole user of magic in all of Moscow.
Perhaps Sozonov had been right all along. Maybe it would have been better to stay in their homes, practicing privately. He still recalled the look that Sozonov gave as he entered the Library, never to ret- wait, Library? Why hadn't he thought of it before?
"Stop!" Tikhon shouted to the visitors, now halfway down the hall, "Wait! I'll be right out." He dashed inside to grab his coat and the copy of the Bible from his bedroom. Hastily donning the coat, he sprinted after them. By the time he reached them, he was panting for breath.
"I know of a way to help. But I must know," he said, pointing to the man, "do you believe in God?"
"Do I what?"
"Answer me! This is important!" Tikhon almost shouted.
"No, not really, I suppose… I mean, I k-know that there's something, but…" the man stammered. Tikhon rolled his eyes.
The woman spoke up. "I don't believe in God or anything. It's just unexplained, I think."
Tikhon looked at her for a moment. "A woman? It's never been done with a woman, but I don't see why it wouldn't work. Well, then, follow me."
Five minutes later, they were standing outside in the biting cold at the end of a stark blind alley. Tikhon took the Bible from his jacket pocket. The wind howled and whipped snow around them in great billows.
"Before I begin this, I want you three to promise me. The magic of Russia is collapsing. The old societies are dying or dead, and every day the country becomes less and less vibrant, less alive. I want you to promise me that you won't let it die. That you'll keep the flame going, and that you'll teach others. In there you'll find every resource you could ever want on the subject of Russian magic. There you will find people, or at least books, on how to reverse Boris' condition. Learn, discover, explore, do what you will. But don't allow yourselves to tear one another apart, as we did. You will likely find a book in the Library, possibly several, that detail our triumphs and tragedies. Read them and avoid our mistakes. This is what I ask in exchange for this boon."
"I swear," the man whispered.
"I too swear," Boris said.
"I promise," nodded the woman. Tikhon opened the Bible and placed it on the snowy ground.
"Very good. Now, for this ritual to work, you must be at this exact spot. Two people, one a Christian and the other an Atheist, must shake hands and exchange names over a Bible opened to one of the four gospels. Matthew works best, I've found," Tikhon extended his hand over the Bible to the woman. "I am pleased to meet you. I am Tikhon Polyakov, the last magician of Moscow."
The woman took his hand and shook it firmly. She smiled for the first time. "And I am Lyubov Sukhorukova, magician of Leningrad."
Suddenly, the scene changed. In front of them was no longer a blind alley, but a library. Spotless marble floor and enormous book cases stretched as far as the eye could see. A ways down, what appeared to be several people stopped and stared. The biting December winds rushed into the way.
"You must go quickly," Tikhon shouted to be heard over the winds, "the portal does not remain open for long!"
The three of them dashed through the portal.
"Thank you!" Boris shouted as the window began to narrow. Lyubov waved. It grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared with a slight "pop." Tikhon bent over with a grunt as he picked up the Bible. He put it back in his jacket pocked and began to walk home. By the time he arrived at the apartment, the winds had calmed, and the snow drifted lazily to the ground.
Opening the apartment door, he wiped his feet on the mat and hung his jacket on the coat rack. Lidiya was in the kitchen, sipping a cup of tea.
"I wish you wouldn't leave the kettle on when you leave like that. The whistling scared Irinushka half to death. She finally got to sleep, though," she said.
"I'm sorry. I'll try to remember next time," he said as he half-fell into his armchair.
"So, what did they want?"
"Just directions. I helped them find a place they needed to go. I had almost forgotten it myself."
"You run with a motley crew! Is there a second life you have been keeping from me and Andrei?" Lidiya laughed.
"An old man is allowed his secrets," he said. "Besides, you should not worry for me. It is bad for my grandson."
"Oh?" she asked as she ran a hand over her distended belly. "What makes you so sure it will be a boy?"
"Call it an old man's intuition," he said, settling down in his chair. He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. Outside, each snowflake made a soft tinkling sound as it dashed itself against the window of the apartment.