1.44: A Complicated Array Of Interlocking Systems

“I know some magical theory,” Clara said cautiously. “Not much about curses in particular. What do you want to know?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m… mostly just confused by everything anyone’s said so far. This whole place is like ‘oh, hey, let’s violate the laws of nature, and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense, because spells are all different and magic is weird.”

“Ah,” Clara said. “Do you mind if I ask you to demonstrate something?”

“Uh… I guess that’s fine.”

She plucked a hardcover book off a shelf and stood is up on the table. “Can you knock this over with your mind?”

I shook my head. “I can’t control my curse like that. Sorry.”

“Just try, please. All you need to do is knock the book over with your mind.”

“Uh, alright.” I raised my hand. I tried to summon the feeling, summon what I’d felt running into Miratova’s lab, or on the roof with Matt. Reminded myself what it was like to shout at him to just die; forced the magic out…


“Nope,” I said. “Can’t do it.”

“Really? I can.” Clara raised her own hand, waved it dramatically, then reached forward and poked the book, knocking it over.

“That’s cheating!”

“How? I used the power of my mind to knock the book over. My mind is attached to nerves that can pull the muscles in this thing,” she said, wriggling her arm, “and manipulate it to manipulate the world around me. Built-in telekinesis. And I don’t even have any magic. I bring this up because you said magic violates the laws of nature and I’m curious – what makes my ability to evoke force any more natural than yours?”

“Well, I can do that, too,” I pointed out.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I know. But that’s the thing. We know how nerves work. Well, I don’t, but somebody does, and if I wanted to know I’d be able to learn. That’s just physics. Well, chemistry. Or maybe biology. All of them? It’s science, anyway.”

“Because it’s common. People know how nerves work because all animals have them, and they’re all common in structure. Spells are a lot harder to understand because of their variety, but a spell – one that’s inside a human, at any rate – is as much a part of your biology as your arm. Spellcasting is like raising an arm – or, if you’ve got one of those spells that trigger under certain events, like a reflex.”

“Then why can’t anyone explain to me how to use the damn thing?”

“Would you be able to explain to someone how exactly to raise their arm?” Even if you knew every detail of nerve structure, exactly what comprised the muscles and bones, could calculate the potential leverage of those muscles and bones perfectly – would any of that help you actually explain how to use those muscles? That’s something we all have to learn to do ourselves.”

“Babies learn that, though,” I grumbled. “Why are spells so hard?”

“I think muscle control is hard for babies, too. It takes months, when they have nothing else to focus their time on. Still, maybe the arm analogy isn’t a good one… a spell is more like your heart. You can learn some techniques for controlling its beat, but it’ll also do its own thing. And some people can control theirs more easily than others, no matter how much or how little they work at it.”

“A heart doesn’t flip out and hurt people, though.”

“What do you think a heart attack is? Sometimes a heart stops working, but most of the time it continues to work incorrectly. A heart can also kill you by speeding inappropriately; if you slice an artery open or get bitten by something venomous, your heart rate will accelerate from fear and kill you faster. A human being is a complicated array of interlocking systems, one of which will eventually make an error that will collapse the whole – an inappropriate reflex turning a car into a tree, an immune system overreacting to an infection and cooking its person from the inside out, a bunch of cells reproducing out of control. Or a spell misdirecting its energy. One of these things will get every one of us.”

“Are you always this grim?”

Clara shrugged. “The more complicated a system is, the more points of failure it has. We are very, very complicated. Does that answer all your questions?”

No. No, it didn’t. But I didn’t want to be too up-front with Clara about my concerns. She seemed a lot nicer than the rest of the Magistae dorm, but she was part of their dorm. And so far as I could tell, she was completely convinced that Simon was right.

Well, okay, I was also completely convinced that Simon was right. But that wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have with Dorm Magistae.

What could I learn without having to lead directly to that question?

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks. Another question – what do you know about the portals in the school?”

“You mean the ones leading to the outside locations, and the shop and gym and stuff?”

I hadn’t been aware that there was one for the shop. “Uh, yeah. And throughout all the corridors. I assume they’re the same. Are they all the same?”

“What do you mean, the ones in the corridors?”

“You know, how we’re getting moved around to different corridors and stuff when we walk between classes?”

She stared for a moment, then laughed. “Oh! No, nobody’s being moved around. That would be a massive waste of energy, and what would be the point? It just feels that way because we’re in a cave network, so you lose your sense of direction really quickly. See, these are tunnels, so you’re going to be moving a little bit upward or downward a lot without realising it, there’s a lot of not-quite-right-angles, so it seems like things don’t meet up where they should, but that’s just – ”

“Have you tested that?” I asked. (Should I mention that we had? No. If Max hadn’t brought it up, he probably didn’t want Clara’s dorm interfering.)

“What do you mean, tested it?”

“I mean with a compass and spirit level. Maybe a measuring tape.”

“Why? To find out which part of the school is the most confusing? The school already has a map, we don’t have to make one.”

“How can you be so sure there aren’t portals inside, then?”

She rolled her eyes. “Kayden, do you have any idea how much energy it takes to maintain a stable portal enchantment? Those things aren’t Simon’s damn force ring. Where’s that energy coming from? And why? If they wanted to make the trip from the dorms to the cafeteria shorter, it’d be more efficient to bore out a new cafeteria closer to the dorms than try to maintain a secret tunnel portal.”

Before I could reply, my tablet beeped at me. A message.

Mr James,

I am at Skolala Refujeyo. Something has come up. I’d like to see you at your earliest convenience.


Casey Pearson, def. att.

Well, that couldn’t be good.


Is right now good for you?


I had a reply in seconds.

I can be ready in 5 minutes, same room as last time.

“Is… is everything okay?” Clara asked.

“Yeah, fine. I have to go, though.”

“Late for a class?”

“Something like that.”

It took me about fifteen minutes to pack up and get to the classroom, so Casey was well and truly ready for me. The expression on their face was not promising.

“There have been developments,” they said as I sat down. “First, we have a date for the trial.” They handed me a piece of paper.

I stared.

“That’s barely three months away,” I said.


“I don’t know much about these things, but isn’t that kind of soon? For a case like this?”

“Yes. There are… factors involved.”

“You mean the media circus?”

“No, that’s fairly normal. I mean – and I recommend that you don’t tell your friends and family about this because we do not want it getting out to the media at this time – that they want to be as sure as possible that the victim is able to testify.”

“Is there, uh… a reason he couldn’t?”

“Maybe.” Casey rubbed their temples. They looked very, very tired. “Matthew Parker suffered some health complications as a result of his fall. He had to have some minor corrective surgeries; fairly common in such an accident. But, well, any surgery is dangerous. He sustained an infection as a result of one of them, and is in fairly poor health.”

“That’s why he hasn’t been at school? I thought he transferred!”

“His parents are being fairly quiet about it, which is suspicious given how eager they are to talk to the press about everything else. But his health is deteriorating. The mistakes of doctors are not your responsibility, morally, but this does blow rather a hole in our case.”


Casey sighed. “You might recall that our entire case relies on the stance that your curse acted outside of your control, and that Mr Parker, by deliberately provoking you and knowing the risks, in fact caused harm to you by rousing it.”

“So how does this change anything?”

“I’m given to understand that you shouted for Mr Parker to ‘just die!’ when the incident occurred. Well, now it seems that there is a reasonable chance that he will, in fact, die.”

I could feel the bile rising in my throat. “I killed someone?”

“No! No, these sorts of things happen. It’s just bad luck. What you did was get harrassed by somebody who, by all intents and purposes, seemed intent on pushing you off a roof, and you merely made him suffer the same fate. It’s classic self-defense.” They bit their lip. “Unless they make the case that you deliberately used your curse to kill him. Which they will.”

“Because my curse is killing him!”

“Is that something your curse can do?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know anything about it! Apparently it can do whatever’s going to make the current situation worse, so I wouldn’t be surprised!”

“It’s none of my business, but I heard that you used it to pull somebody out of a fire?”

“Yeah, after my curse caused that fire in the first place! I can’t believe this!”

“Kayden, calm down. We still have a fairly strong case. This is just a complication; we can work around it.”

“A complication? Somebody’s dying because of me and it’s a complication? Look, is there anything I can do here? Anything you need from me?”

“No. I just thought that you should be informed.”

“Well, now I’m informed. I have to go.” I stood up and stormed out. Then I turned around and stormed back. “Thanks for your help,” I snapped. “I’m really grateful you’re on this case; me and my family would be totally lost if we had to hire some non-expert.”

Then I stormed off again.

So this was how it was, huh? I was a danger to people with and without spells alike. There was no way they’d let me stay at Skolala Refujeyo once I told the staff what was going on, and as for the rest of the world… well, even if Casey could get the jury to find me innocent, I was still going to be that cursed kid who murdered a classmate in the eyes of the public, forever. And if Matt survived, I’d be that cursed kid who almost murdered a classmate.

Yeah, I had great career prospects.

What the hell was I supposed to do now?


5 thoughts on “1.44: A Complicated Array Of Interlocking Systems

  1. Great, now Kayden’s telling his unproven, shaky evidence theory to a third party adult. Normally I’d be thrilled by that, but in this case the adult can offer no advice, and Kayden has presented it as a fact rather than speculation so his lawyer might act on it.

    Interesting things in the conversation with Clara. Either there’s a lot of ‘impossible to achieve magically’ effects going on, or the limits of magic are immeasurably varied and people are just quoting memetic factoids. The school already has such seemingly impossible enchantments as a magical intranet with custom gui and wireless connectivity, a random cave lake monster that was clearly somewhat magical, and oh yeah, permanent portals to random sections of the globe, possibly two such systems considering the ancient school. Something’s just not adding up about the common magical knowledge versus Kayden’s experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s only a secret underground school run by people who answer to no nation, are incredibly vague when recruiting students and not quite consistent in their explanations, and artificially limit information and outside communication to primitive and easily traceable means. I’m sure everything’s above-board and all these students have accurate and up-to-date information. Teenagers are well-known for having a realistic perspective on their own capabilities and the reliability of what they’ve been taught, after all, so nothing could possibly be pulled over their eyes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mean, it was clear from the beginning this wasn’t going to be Hogwarts or anything, with the vibes of closed door politics and shadow organizations (and janitor unions?) we’ve been getting from the start. Still, the sheer amount of second- or multi-generation family heirs who were presumably taught until now by alumni… it’s strange to me that so much misinformation could exist in a setting with so much emphasis on testing rigorously and using caution. With people like Max and Clara especially, since they probably researched these limits that have been found in their endless quests for knowledge.

      That said, I’ve read your other work and written some stuff myself, so I know to doubt the information given by our many unreliable narrators/teenagers. The truth will come out in time, you rarely disappoint on that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Unfortunately, I saw what you originally posted before the ninja edit thanks to the way emails work. While I sort of disagree with the example I understand the rationale.

    Rest assured that it wasn’t really enough to spoil anything. Always hard to dance around spoilers in these serialized projects, I know how it burns to keep those secrets when you want others to share it.


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