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Unnatural Magic

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Unnatural Magic

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Author: C. M. Waggoner
Publisher: Ace Books, 2019

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Onna can write the parameters of a spell faster than any of the young men in her village school. But despite her incredible abilities, she's denied a place at the nation's premier arcane academy. Undaunted, she sails to the bustling city-state of Hexos, hoping to find a place at a university where they don't think there's anything untoward about providing a woman with a magical education. But as soon as Onna arrives, she's drawn into the mysterious murder of four trolls.

Tsira is a troll who never quite fit into her clan, despite being the leader's daughter. She decides to strike out on her own and look for work in a human city, but on her way she stumbles upon the body of a half-dead human soldier in the snow. As she slowly nurses him back to health, an unlikely bond forms between them, one that is tested when an unknown mage makes an attempt on Tsira's life. Soon, unbeknownst to each other, Onna and Tsira both begin devoting their considerable talents to finding out who is targeting trolls, before their homeland is torn apart...



Since the earliest days of our nation, when Elgar was yet to walk among us and the trollfathers still guided our clans, we humans of Daeslund have been a singular people: unique in our government, in our religion, in our customs and speech. Great wizards have been born to us, and great poets: Callet Brown was rocked in a cradle of Dirnam wood, and Oneram was nourished upon good Daeslundic bread. We are a proud nation, but we must not allow this pride to be our undoing. We must not make an altar to our past and consign our future to the ash heap. From Sango, from Nessorand, from the Mendani federation, from all of these nations can we see the shining lights of progress, of bustling commerce, of scientific endeavor. Gentlemen and ladies of the Assemblage, we must not allow ourselves to be left behind. Let us look to the Sangan examination system, which has lifted so many great minds from obscurity. Let us look to the engineers of Awat and the mighty dam of Botevi. To emulate wealthier nations is not to abandon what makes us proud Daeslunders, but rather to ensure that in one hundred years our descendants will see in our history an unbroken line of progress...

-Assemblor Elgarson H. Whicks, in a speech before the Assemblage on the modernization of the Daeslundic magical education system, Erlmonth 17, 6572

Onna Gebowa had always liked numbers.

She could remember being six years old and watching her mother making apple pies. Her mother was very good at making apple pies. There were eight apples in each pie, apples that her mama had brought up from the cellar. Onna stood nearby as her mama rolled out dough and peeled and sliced the fruit. Onna's job was to help eat bits of apple peel, fetch anything from the pantry that her mama had forgotten, and ask innumerable questions.

"Mama, how long does it take for you to use up a whole bushel of apples?"

"Oh," her mother said. "I don't know, Onna! I suppose it takes about two months."

"We have apple pie once a week, Mama. That's sixty-four apples every two months, and there are one hundred and twenty-eight apples in a bushel. We have six bushels in the cellar. That's seven hundred and sixty-eight apples. That's an awful lot of apples, Mama."

"That's very clever, Onna," said her mother, and pointed to a bucket of peas. "Do you think you could help me to find out how many peas are inside of the pods?"

Her mother told this story to her father that night, one of several stories she told about funny things that the girls-there were six of them altogether, Onna the third-had done that day. Mr. Gebowa didn't laugh, but instead took off his spectacles to examine his daughter more closely. "Onna," he said, "please fetch me a piece of paper and a pencil."

She did so, and he used them to work out the sums. He stared at the paper for a moment. "How many apples did you say that there should be in the cellar, Onna?"

"Seven hundred and sixty-eight," she said. She was surprised that Papa had to ask.

Mr. Gebowa set down his pencil. "I think that we should take her to see Mr. Heisst."

Onna frowned. She didn't think she would like to go to Mr. Heisst's school. He was a very untidy-looking man, not at all like Papa, and his school was full of big, loud, rowdy boys.

"Oh, Kasi," said Mrs. Gebowa, in tones of great reproach. "But she's barely even six! She shouldn't have to worry about learning wizardry, of all things. And I told Miss Amelia that I would send Onna to her girls' school next autumn. And what if she gets the swooning sickness?"

"I will take her to Mr. Heisst's tomorrow," said Mr. Gebowa, and Mr. Gebowa so rarely argued with his wife-he tended toward smiling indulgently at everything she said and then retreating into his favorite chair to read an improving book-that she hadn't the heart to disagree.

In this fashion Onna embarked upon her academic career, and despite her mother's concerns, she flourished at Mr. Heisst's. By the time she was seven she was already working at the theoretical level of her twelve-year-old classmates. What made her truly remarkable, however, was her ability to invent and recall parameters. While other budding wizards were forced to write everything down, and read everything out loud again when they were ready to incant, Onna could memorize pages worth of parameters as easily as a grocery list, and she could incant entirely without speaking. Though, of course, she was strongly warned against any attempts at major magical feats, for fear of her developing the wizard swoons. Very few studies had been made of the effects of magical education on young girls, and it was generally thought that their more delicate natures would make them more susceptible to magically induced illness.

The boys, for the most part, took being embarrassed by a little girl with admirable grace, and they alternated between teasing her to distraction and making a pet of her, bringing her sweets and allowing her to come along on their romps. By the time she was thirteen she was, it must be confessed, rather spoilt by them. Though Onna was perhaps not quite as pretty as her elder sister Mani (who was married to the village headman and had once posed as a shepherdess for a series of pastoral tableaux by a famous painter from Leiscourt), it still pleased the boys very much to be given the honor of escorting Onna home from school in the afternoons or to pick up her handkerchief should she happen to drop it. She was a small girl, quite unlike her statuesque elder sister, but she had a spotless dark brown complexion, wide startled-looking eyes that she accentuated by keeping her hair cropped very short, and full lips that lent themselves very agreeably to smiles at the boys who surrounded her. She smiled often, and as she grew older her smiles increased with her awareness of how the boys reacted to them. They often seemed to look at her face as if it were an examination paper, and a frown at the weather or too-tight stays or indigestion was a failing mark.

Sy Carzda was the richest of all of the students at the school, and his parents the most disliked about town. They, like Onna's parents, had moved to Cordridge-on-Sea from Leiscourt. However, while Onna's parents were fairly popular and admired-Onna's mother's youthful indiscretions as a successful authoress were forgiven due to her exemplary behavior now as a frugal and fastidious housekeeper-Sy's father was thought to be "stuck on himself" for his academic inclinations, and his mother "no better than she ought to be" for her Adaptivist politics. All of this combined led the good people of Cordridge-on-Sea to conclude that they were at best very peculiar people, and at worst actual Hesendis, which was considered an eccentricity of a particularly alarming sort. Onna's parents, Leiscourters themselves, were not overly concerned by this, which was very fortunate for Onna, as Sy had been her bosom companion since she was seven years old, and he a very mature and sophisticated nine.

Sy came by to walk Onna to school almost every day, though it generally launched such a storm of shouts of "Onna, it's your beau!" and shrieks of laughter from her sisters that he would often tell her that he regretted it. One morning on their walk she asked him about the rumors about his family for the first time. "You know, I've never really asked if you are a Hesendi or not."

He laughed, but it didn't sound very natural. "Of course, I'm a Hesendi. Why else would I not eat meat?"

She kicked a stone. "All sorts of people are vegetarians now. Magister Exley says that it dampens the immoral appetites." A pause. "You don't wear all black."

"Magister Exley's a Hesendi," Sy said. "He just used traditional Elgarite theology in his book because he knew that otherwise no one would read it. Vegetarianism is one of our universal principles: we're supposed to try and spread it about. And I don't wear all black because I haven't dedicated myself to the spreading of the principles. I'm not even that religious." He shoved his hands into his pockets. "Though I might have to dye all of my clothes and buy a riverboat if I don't get into Weltsir. After ten years of wizarding school, I'm certainly not suited for anything else."

"You'll get in. And what would you do with a riverboat?"

"Oh, I don't know. I can't be be one of the Clear Voices and heal people's thoughts if I'm not religious, can I? I suppose I'd just have to travel about in it and have adventures."

"Can I come, too, then?"

"Don't be stupid. At least one of us has to get into Weltsir. It will probably be you. You can read all of my letters about my travels when you're not working like a peat miner in the library."

She smiled. "Oh, will you write me letters?"

Sy nudged her with his elbow. "Of course I will. And you'll send some back, won't you?"

"I suppose I might," she said, and kicked at a rock with such joyful energy that it flew through the air and landed in the ditch at the side of the road. All of the boys seemed to think that her moods were directed toward them, but the thought of entering into an intimate correspondence with Sy really was enough to make her feel as giddy and lightheaded as if she had just poured half the magic in her body through a particularly tricky set of parameters.

Weltsir College of Magic was in Leiscourt, and it was the best school of human magic in Daeslund-troll schools, it was said, were vastly better, but no humans were admitted to them. Weltsir also lagged woefully behind the Heijin Fa'ou in Sango, the Palace of Learning in Bene, and, of course, the great university on the wizard island of Hexos, but a degree from Weltsir was still more than enough to secure a Daeslunder a life of work in magic.

Weltsir was also the scene of a great deal of recent excitement. For centuries Weltsir had been open only to the sons of Daeslund's greatest families or to certain other boys with faultless letters of introduction from men of appropriate wealth and rank. Then, only a few years ago, the new Adaptivist government led by Assemblor Jemmis had forced the school to modernize and adopt a Sangan-style examination system. The university had protested, but the Adaptivists had held firm: How was Daeslund to maintain any sort of economic strength when its magical education system lagged so dreadfully behind that of other countries? And so the reforms came about, so that even Onna-who was a girl, and solidly middle-class, and whose family had only been in Daeslund for three generations and were therefore quite clanless-might have a chance to attend.

Although Mr. Heisst now had almost a dozen regular students, it was generally understood that only Sy and Onna had the necessary aptitude required to even sit for the exam, though Sy's father's excellent connections in the capital made him a far more likely candidate. To be a wizard required, of course, the intrinsic magical ability that most people had-enough to fire a folk incantation to keep milk from souring too quickly, or to keep your shoes dry on a rainy day-but, more importantly, it required an enormous dedication to studying and understanding the construction of safe and accurate parameters. Most of the boys at school knew they were as capable of becoming wizards as they were of successfully engineering a cantilever bridge. However, the heady vision of one day having Sy, an old school chum, with a room in Leiscourt-where one could kip, and from which one could sally forth to the jolly pantomime, or the crowded dance hall, or the glittering gin palace-was such a wonderful one that the other boys at Mr. Heisst's put forth every particle of effort to bring it to fruition.

Thus, before Sy was to take the exam, Onna and his classmates spent many a long, warm spring day sitting under the blooms of the big old apple tree in Mr. Heisst's garden, books and papers spread out in a great confusion all around them, peppering Sy with questions of every imaginable sort-what parameters would you write in order to heat one pound of copper by five degrees? If you examine this parametrical description of an onion, what linguistic errors can you identify, and how would they influence the result of any parameters you wrote including this description? What five devices are commonly used in the creation of weather analysis and prediction constructions? And so it went until poor Sy flung himself face-first onto the grass and begged them for mercy, as he could bear no more.

It was up to Onna, then, in the quiet evenings when the boys had all gone home to their suppers, to come up with a rational system of study and organize everything into neat stacks of notecards, to brew coffee and procure cakes, and thereby, as Sy said, "to cram a bit of knowledge into me, in one way or another." Sometimes she studied along with him-after all, she would have to sit for the exams herself in another year, after her graduation from Mr. Heisst's-and sometimes she played the tutor and quizzed him. And sometimes she only sat nearby and kept him company. This was as much for her own sake as it was for his. Home, with its noise and laughter and endless stream of sisters, was all very well and good, but far more delicious was the opportunity to sit in Mr. Heisst's dusty little study and read one book after another, warming her feet by the fire and eating too many cakes with no one in the world to disturb her.

She liked to read novels the most, but she also enjoyed the sort of history books where the author included entire conversations between great wizards as if they had been crouched in the corner of the room taking notes. One of her favorites of these probably-mostly-invented history books told the story of how, after many years of her clan having ruled over humans, the great troll Cynbatren traveled the earth sharing the secret of magic with all of humankind. After that trolls could no longer have dominion over humans, and humans of every nation could at any time produce a wizard great enough to lay waste to an invading army or overthrow a cruel tryrant. It was a much nicer story, Onna thought, than the much drier and probably factual versions (that magical education had either originated in modern Nessorand and then spread along trading routes over the course of several centuries, or that powerful innate magical ability began to occur spontaneously in humans as a survival mechanism in response to a global pandemic, or both, or neither; it was a very popular argument between wizards). In any case, it was very thrilling to read all of the gory stories about humans marching about sticking their kings onto spikes before the Magical Awakening (quite interesting) and the Waste of the Gauts (wonderfully thrilling, though Onna wasn't sure if she believed that a single wizard really could have single-handedly dissolved the skeletons of an entire occupying army), and all of the terribly boring laws and treaties and things that had come after it.

Copyright © 2019 by C. M. Waggoner


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