Slowly I Turned: The Challenge, Week 1

Here it is, as promised: a short story based on the idea presented by Jacob Baugher: Design a completely original magic system: no alchemy, burning metals, sympathy, name casting, ancient language, spirit casting, elemental casting, or anything else you’ve read. Also the magic is cast out of the wizard’s nose. And so we have Week 1’s entry, “Inauspicious Roots.” I hope you enjoy it.

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Inauspicious Roots

By H. M. Snow

Beginnings are often the most difficult stage on the road to greatness. A glance around the waiting room of the Mucinoid Experimentation and Studies Society would not have revealed the presence of one who was to become the face of visceral magic within only a few years. Given the volume of sniffles, gurgles and coughs that echoed back from its vaulted ceiling, any outsider might understandably mistake it for the antechamber of an urgent care clinic rather than the holding area for the most prestigious of entrance exams. A raggedy assemblage of young men and women slumped in the same uncomfortable arm chairs common to every institutional waiting room. Most of the applicants were between the ages of eighteen and thirty, with the arithmetical mean landing somewhere about twenty-two years of age.

The future star of the Society, whose name was one day to be known world-wide, occupied an obscure chair between two hulking kinesthetic scholars. Perhaps this made the boy appear to greater disadvantage than usual. He was, after all, merely twelve years old at the time, barrel-bodied and round-faced with a pallid complexion that would have done any solitary confinement inmate proud. He wore a bowtie at his throat and his fair hair slick against his scalp. Moreover, he sniffed incessantly. Amongst such a din of coughs and snorts, it is a wonder he made himself heard at all, but his two seatmates threw him such irritable glances as might curl the toes of a more sensitive soul. Every prim little sniff from the boy’s nostrils seemed to go straight to their nerves.

All the other applicants showed abundant signs of anxiety. The entrance exams for the Mucinoid Experimentation and Studies Society were both rigorous and secretive. Each applicant sat the exam alone in front of a board of examiners. Pass or fail, the examinees left via a different exit so as to prevent the applicants yet to come from discerning whether their competitors had done well or poorly. The only people who exited from the waiting room entrance were the custodians. The waiting applicants referred to the custodians’ comings and goings as they would a clock. Going in meant another exam was finished and another applicant was soon to enter the lion’s den. Since the custodians went in to clean up after each exam, their movements provided no information about the previous examinees’ performances either.

The tension began to tell on the boy’s seatmates as they watched the custodians come and go. One sniff too many provoked the young man on his left to exclaim, “Look, kid, go wait for your dad somewhere else! I’m trying to concentrate.”

“I’m not waiting for my dad,” the boy began to explain. He spoke as pedantically as he looked.

“Whatever. Just go sit somewhere else, okay?”

The boy rose without argument. His luck was no better at the next seat he tried, nor at the seat after that. When he was driven away from his fourth choice of seat, the boy wandered the perimeter of the waiting room, coming to a halt near the alcove where three custodians awaited their next summons.

“… and all the Professor says is, ‘There was nothing at all magical about that vomit. Please check out at the receptionist’s desk and reschedule.’ Like he wasn’t wearing puke all down the front of his suit and all!” The elder of the two male custodians laughed under his breath.

The female of the trio laughed also. “Whatever the Professor said, I still say the amount must have been magical. Maybe the guy connected his stomach to one of those pocket dimensions they talk about up on the fourth floor. Nobody has that much stomach capacity by nature.”

“Might have been why the Professor told him to reschedule. Sucks if you’ve got that kind of talent just to fail the entrance exam from nerves.”

The third custodian, whose silence was due entirely to the potato chips he was transferring from bag to mouth in a steady flow, held the bag out to the boy who stood by listening. “Want some? Boring for you, waiting for somebody sitting the exams.”

The boy shook his head. “No, thank you. I’m on a special diet. And I’m not waiting for—” He perked up his ears as the walkie-talkie on the desk beeped.

“Ready for clean-up,” said a crackly voice from the small speaker.

The custodians rose. Custodian number three clipped his bag of chips closed and tucked them into a cubby-hole above the desk. “What’s the next number again?”

“Sixty-one,” said the woman.

“Sixty-one? That’s my number,” the boy remarked. When they gawked at him, he held out the paper to prove it. He straightened each cuff of his dress shirt and took up the clear zippered plastic bag lying at his feet. He shuffled behind the custodians to the exam room door. As it shut behind him, he paused to take in his new environment.

At the front of the tiered lecture hall, six distinguished examiners sat behind a table. They peered at him through a variety of corrective lenses. One leaned over to another and murmured, “This is the one? He doesn’t look like a prodigy.” But his associate shushed him and beckoned to the boy. “What have you brought? They warned you, did they not, that we must examine any supplies brought in from the outside? You were offered use of the Society’s standard-issue supplies for the exam, were you not?”

Still placid, the boy brought his zippered plastic luggage to the examiners’ table. He proceeded to lay out its contents, also in sterile clear zippered bags. Each little bag contained a bundle of plain white facial tissues and was labeled with a lengthy chemical formula. “I treated them specially,” he announced as the examiners handled the bags, “according to Magill’s rules. You can check them.”

Having this solemn authorization handed down to them by a child not yet in puberty amused the examiners. They duly checked, glanced at each other with subdued approval, and returned their attentions to the boy. “What have you prepared for us today…” The eldest man among them consulted his clipboard before venturing to add, “Silas Lumkin?”

“You can choose,” said the boy. He sniffed again. “I can do any of them. Do you have any saline spray? I forgot mine.”

The youngest of the examiners went to the supply closet to fetch the needed spray. Meanwhile, the other five whispered together. “I don’t recognize the notation on this bag,” said one aloud. “It appears to be incomplete.”

“No, ma’am,” said the boy Silas, “it’s a sterilizing compound.” He accepted the saline spray from his benefactor and applied a squirt up each nostril. Then he pulled on a pair of examination gloves and withdrew one of the sterile facial tissues from its bag, ensuring that it touched nothing.

The examiners raised clear plastic sneeze shields on the table in front of them.

Before he blew his nose, the boy Silas raised his free hand to his face. He pressed his thumb into the hollow of his right eye socket, just above the tear duct, and massaged the spot six times in tiny circles. He tapped three fingertips against his forehead, pinched his nose, and used his fore- and middle fingers to stroke down and away from each side of his nose in turn. Then he blew his nose with a resounding, elderly honk.

The tissue fizzled and, when Silas held it out, frothed up in odd formations that solidified as a peculiar amalgamation of fur, dust bunnies, and flowers, among other less identifiable textures. The boy Silas laid the mutated tissue on the table for the examiners’ better viewing.

“What,” said the youngest examiner, “on earth is that?”

“I made it myself,” Silas answered. “It’s my allergy test. I discovered that combining Joba’s nasal manipulation arcana with traditional Asian mystical pressure points, in the presence of a specially-sterilized medium such as…” He continued on in this pedantic vein for some time, as oblivious to the examiners as they were to his explanation. He did notice, however, when one of the fascinated examiners began to prod the tissue with the end of a pen. Then Silas’ discourse turned more toward the practical. “By identifying the parts of the allergy test, it is possible to pinpoint the source of the allergy. This part here is cat hair from my mom’s Persian, and this is ragweed—it’s just come into season— and dust— I’m awfully allergic to dust—”

“And you developed this yourself? But how?” said the youngest examiner. When the eldest cut him off with a gesture, he blurted, “But Professor—!”

The Professor folded his hands on the table. “This is a practical exam. We must continue. Please select another type of tissue and display its uses for us.”

Unfazed, the boy Silas opened a different bag of tissues. This time, he squirted saline up each nostril twice and used both hands to massage his temples, the glands beneath his jaw, and the spots in front of his jug ears. Then he laid the tissue on a pedestal table provided for the purpose, hawked violently, plugged one nostril, and from the other nostril exhaled a mass of phlegm that burst into flame on contact with the treated tissue.

“Expertly done,” the Professor said. “It is not our practice to admit minors into the Society, but you have shown enough proficiency to prove that it shall not be a waste of our time.” He marked an emphatic tick on the clipboard before him. “Expect to receive your training schedule by post within a few days, young Mr. Lumkin. We look forward to working with you.”

Small praise, perhaps, for a boy who had just displayed knowledge of mucinoid magic far beyond his age. Silas only said, “Yes, sir. Thank you,” and gathered up his supplies. Such were the inauspicious roots of the greatest nasal mage of our times, Dr. Silas Lumkin, M.M.D., better known to the admiring masses as Silas the Sinus.

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hmsnow1

Fantasy novelist and essayist H.M. Snow, author of the Last Book of the Kings series and the novella Faerie Tales for Travelers.

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