The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March: Consequences

Cover image for K. A. Cook's 'The Unnatural Philosophy of Kit March'. Vector/cartoon styling of a creepy folly/shack/treehouse with various gothic accountrements and a crow or raven perched on the roof. Folly is surrounded by more vector images of trees, bushes and scrub set on a cartoony green-hill background. Typeface for author and title credit is white stroked with black. The whole thing is very flat/one-dimensional and looks like a still from an 80s cartoon.Tes Alden, collector of words, rescuer of books and counter of objects, knows ze isn’t like everyone else. This wouldn’t be such a problem if everybody else didn’t struggle with it. Hir mother prays a run-down school in the middle of nowhere may be the best place to stow hir brand of peculiarity, and Tes has nowhere better to go.

Darius Liviu lost a limb and his lover in the hell of Mul Dura. He spent the last three months as a guest of the Greensward, crafting a jointed hand from elf-sung wood and trying to ignore the mutterings of the ghost that haunts him. Now, he returns to the College to take up the second-most dangerous job open to a magician: teaching.

Tes just might be a magician in the making, if ze can survive adventures in alliterative magic and hir own lethal curiosity. Darius, though, keeps a secret that makes the usual problems of overgrown rhubarb, basilisk hordes, verbose eldritch objects, shrieking purple monkeys and cauliflower explosions look like nothing at all.

The elves are coming, and nobody fears elves more than Kit March.

Cover credits: OpenClipart-Vectors (stock images) and VAGDesign (typeface).

Note the third: The species of caterpillar Tes calls “spitfire” bears no relation to the actual spitfire sawfly larvae (which aren’t caterpillars) and are very likely some variety of Chlenias moth (I think Chlenias banksiaria, but this has proven difficult to confirm online, despite these caterpillars and moths being exceedingly common in regional western Victoria). Knowing this, these “spitfires” (I was unable to find a colloquial name) are very likely harmless in addition to being incorrectly named. However, locally, I’ve always known them as spitfires and my classmates (I think knowing they were safe, for they cheerfully handled the caterpillars themselves) spoke of how much they’d hurt before tormenting me with them. The actuality, here, is rather irrelevant, although my intent is for Tes to later learn that speaking of a harmless creature as dangerous is another form of bullying.

You’ve the ability to dare a tower and dare magic. Dare this.

Tes rests hir palms above and below the lock. It’s an old-fashioned piece of plate metal set into the door—not mahogany but a sturdy redwood, an odd choice given that all the other school doors, in their battered dishabille, match. The wood is newer, rawer: the glyphs carved into the door and frame aren’t as worn as the many other cuts, carvings and scars born by the rest of the school’s walls and furnishings. If the door is new, ze wonders—unusual here where the staff account more than one hinge an optional extra—why an old lock? Ze pokes hir fingernail into the keyhole and pulls it away in horror at the slick coating on hir nail and skin: grease or oil. An old lock, but one well maintained. Why?

Ze crooks hir head and wipes hir finger on hir skirt, confused by the collision of seeming contradictions. A solid new door, an old lock that appears simple to pick, magical text marking door and frame, March’s casual words. Holly bragged that her spell worked upon any door she tried, and March implied it was possible, even probable, that students ventured here. He can’t have spoken as he did if that weren’t so.

Therefore, the gnomes can’t be that dangerous.

If so, why the door?

Someone, in a rough, scrawling hand, wrote gnomes – do not enter in chalked Eastern Orthodox across the top half of the door, right at eye level. That seems simple enough. Ze studies the runes, a twisting mess of short and curling lines that mean nothing to hir: one of the many languages the magicians here adopt like donning a new set of clothes, but ze knows not which one. On Monday ze might have—would have—accounted them deep magic, an esoteric warning by nature of their existence, but in the days since hir arrival Tes has seen grand magic put to all manner of mundane uses. Amelia March, in her starched skirts and apron, spent half an hour lecturing on laundry spells and the importance of never forgetting soap!

The door offers hir no answer other than the truth that standing here will grant hir none.

Ze draws a breath and begins tapping hir fingers against the plate.

The Rajadi used flashes of light to communicate over distance with a lamp or mirror,” Holly signed, grinning, as she, Iris and Tes crept past the Professors’ rooms and up to the third floor, Iris translating in a whisper at Tes’s ear. At that time of night, the school was quiet save for slinking cats, a few grunts or snores and the rattling from the floor above that, Holly said, usually meant the monkeys chasing rats but sometimes meant shadow demons or, one time, sleepwalking chickens. A door March hadn’t shown hir was set into the wall on the landing, hidden by a heavy tapestry of spearmen chasing a wallaby or kangaroo and the deliberate position of an overstuffed armchair. Iris draped the tapestry over the chair while Holly crouched in front of the door, leaving Tes to hold the torch: an alliteration written on a piece of paper. A piece of paper that glowed. “They created an alphabet made from the length of the flashes. I just changed those flashes into taps.” She stopped signing and began tapping her fingers by the lock, and later, once they’d taken the narrow staircase up into the series of dusty, unused, musk-scented rooms that were the vast attics of the manor house and Tes saw the dirty, plain-looking broadsword deemed the Worldblade, Holly showed Tes how to work the spell on the doors of the rhubarb rooms.

It seems strange to hir that magic works, given that the process doesn’t seem to require any esoteric or eldritch knowledge beyond mere vocabulary. Anyone can learn to alliterate via tapping, signing, writing or talking. Ze saw farmers and labourers in Flay’s End, at the end of a long day’s haying, gather in the taproom, down a few beers too many and string together a command starting with the same letter only for nothing to happen. This is no different, surely? Nothing in hir has changed, as far as Tes knows, yet the doors of the rhubarb rooms opened for hir. Is it the house? Is it something in the individual unlocked or released by March’s magic? Ze doesn’t know, and ze fears March’s answer, but nobody else seems to know any more than ze does—and even Iris, for all his interest in history and dates and people, only shrugs at the idea.

They take it for granted that they are magicians, that power is theirs to be learnt and wielded.

Yet ze stood in a classroom within a chalk circle March drew to contain hir magic, surrounded by other students doing the same, and watched the blood-spotted creamy florets and green leaves shift from white to bright blue. Of course, hir cauliflower exploded when, excited, ze tried to change its colour from cyan to chartreuse, but that was still magic! Ze never knew a farmer to make a cauliflower explode by talking to it!

Tes finishes tapping the last word, draws a breath and waits.

The lock turns with a dull click. Ze shivers, stands, slides free the heavy iron bolts at the top and bottom of the door and, after a last look down the empty hallway, pushes the heavy, creaking door open. Will they rush at hir, desperate to be free or, worse, devour hir?

Silence.

Nothing but dark, must and quiet await hir on the other side.

Tes draws a breath, tries to will hir shaking hands to stillness and yanks hir pack off hir shoulders and pulls out the ham, the dagger and a piece of paper, plain save for the sentence Tes wrote, copying from the sheet stashed in Holly’s Language Arts notebook, while Holly snored in her bed. Ze drops the ham to the ground, slides the dagger underneath the waistband of hir skirt until the hilt sits snug against the fabric and grabs a pencil from hir boot: after listening to March talk, it seemed the best place to store a few extra pencils. Ze listens a moment, hearing nothing but the faint, tinkling strains of music down the hallway, before scribbling the last word of the spell, phosphorescence, on the paper.

The glow isn’t bright and tinges the paper a sickly pink, but it glows, and Tes hugs hirself in glee before returning the pencil to hir boot and picking up the ham. Ze has meat, a blade and a light source. Good enough for any adventurer, surely?

Hir stomach knots and hir head spins, but ze holds the sheet of paper aloft and steps forwards into the dark.

The dark, round tower room stands empty of everything save a corkscrew staircase at the far end and festooning cobwebs: no rugs, no drapes, nothing but a boarded-over window and layers of dust coating the floor in layers so thick Tes isn’t sure if ze steps on wood or the omnipresent first-floor slate tile. Unless the gnomes are invisible, ze decides, there’s nothing here, and even the dust shows no sign of passing feet, but the room smells wrong. Ze’s used to the reek of dust, damp, monkey and neglect that pervades the College, but this… Tes frowns and turns side-on towards the door, checking for a latch. Gnomes can’t be terribly bright, if a locked door, a spell that can be broken by students and a few bolts keep them from taking over the rest of the school, but that doesn’t mean ze should give them the chance to escape. An iron hook suggests the door can be closed from the inside, so ze slots it in place, raises it, opens the door just far enough to test that ze can leave whenever ze likes and repeats the process of closing and latching, hir lips pursed.

Why should one be able to open and latch the door from the inside?

Of course, the tower might not have always housed gnomes, any more than the student rooms always featured rhubarb. It might be a holdover from the tower’s previous use. If so, though, why leave the latch? But then, if the door is always locked, does it matter?

No, this is ridiculous! Ze doesn’t have time to waste in wandering about the latch or the curious fact that the window appears to be boarded from the inside. Ze sweeps the room again, but there’s nothing but dust and cobwebs. Upstairs, then … but the room smells odd, too. Something salty, something suggestive of skinks and carpet pythons, something akin to mice, something comprised of too many things to be within hir experience. No! Ze’s just standing, dithering, because ze’s too scared to move. Walk, then!

Ze steps towards the staircase, walking in a low crouch with one eye on the stairs and one eye on the hanging grey tendrils. Just the thought of them touching hir face and hair makes hir want to shriek, and ze trembles as something ghosts over hir head, light and dreadful. Ma never understood why her gentle touches were the worst, why Tes flinched away from a soft embrace but stood still for a firm grip. Tes doesn’t understand the why of it, but ze never wasted a breath on pretending it wasn’t so the way Ma and hir family—the way similar people—seemed to think hir discomfort a mere performance. Walk forwards, ze tells hirself, and ze inches along, almost doubled over, hir teeth clamped tight on hir bottom lip.

Ze shudders with every horrid brush of cobweb over hir arms, shoulders and head.

Walk forwards, because Holly and Iris treat hir as though ze’s already their friend, because Holly should have a proper dress to wear to class, because ze can do this for someone who bothered to be nice to hir. Walk forwards. Don’t scream, because that must draw either the gnomes or the teachers, and Tes isn’t sure which is worse. March welcomed hir into his home with a generosity unmatched by anyone in Flay’s End, but ze’s ignoring a sign that cannot be misinterpreted, even if March made ignoring it seem of little account. March might treat it as nothing, but he’s busy with Darius; the Professors won’t. Just keep moving. Don’t scream!

The cobwebs thin out as ze reaches the stairs, and Tes sags against the wall in leg-shaking relief. Only after a moment does ze think to look down, but hir own boots made the marks in the dust. Strange. Centuries of dust layered the rafters in the attics, but it was easy to see where monkeys, cats, birds, possums, rats, bats, shadow demons and students had disturbed it, and while everything did smell of dust and rat droppings, the odour didn’t have the same thick, salty, cloying quality.

It smells like, ze thinks, too many things in too small a space.

Where are they, though?

Ze draws a breath, wishes ze thought to bring a scarf or cloth to cover hir head, and starts up the winding stairs. These stairs are short, a little too low for a comfortable step, and the light cast by hir rolled-up piece of paper doesn’t give hir enough visibility to judge depth, so ze stumbles, banging the ham and hir hands against the wall and the steps each time ze falls forwards. The din makes hir heart sink and hir teeth chatter, but ze hears nothing that isn’t hir.

Where are the gnomes? Shouldn’t the meat draw them? Shouldn’t Tes?

Tes stops, frowns, listens. Nothing. Ze’s come too far to turn back without seeing where the stairs lead, so ze feels hir way upwards, the paper-torch held high, hir teeth leaving stinging tears in hir lip.

More dangling filaments, the awful shudder as they brush hir skin and a sense of space tell hir ze has reached the second floor. All ze can see are long, dangling grey cobwebs and a thick layer of unmarked dust, soft and spongy under hir soles. Tes pokes at it with the toe of hir boot, wondering if there’s carpet beneath, but it takes several scrapes to reveal dull floorboards. Perhaps the dust is so thick because the carpet mouldered away? Ze waves the paper-bearing arm, trying to see through the dangling mess, but the cobwebs are so thick it’s like trying to see through a hundred layers of soiled lace. Ze should have done this during daylight, when light may appear through the cracks of the boarded-up windows, but now Tes can only guess at where the windows might be. Ze creeps forward, crouched so low hir back and knees ache; ze almost screams as a mess of threads brush over hir face and hair. Cobwebs! Just cobwebs! Ze knows hir own oddness, but ze isn’t so craven as to not do this because ze can’t bear what’s nothing more than spidersilk coated in dust … is ze?

If ze asks Anise, though…

Anise lives three days’ walk away. Tes lives in a grand ramshackle house where ze gets to eat in a grand dining hall and listen to opera when ze isn’t learning magic. March wants hir here. Maybe only because he feels sorry for hir, but from the way Holly and Iris talk, he feels that way about anyone like them. Ze exhales, hir heart thudding in hir chest. What does Anise matter?

The paper softens in hir sweating hand. Blood seeps from hir lip. Tes takes another wary step forwards into the forest of dangling grey fronds.

There must be thousands of spiders in the tower if the cobwebs are this bad, even by the College’s forgiving ratio of the correct number of spiders to human inhabitants. What do the spiders eat, though? Won’t a sensible spider venture down to the biology lab where there’s like to be more flies? The state of the hall chandelier makes sense given that the main doors don’t close, but here? Maybe, ze wonders, there’s more flies here in the summer? If that’s the case, though, why do the gnomes let the spiders live, given that they are flesh and therefore food? Is there a symbiotic relationship between gnome and spider? But why? Gnomes eat flesh, and if they’re trapped in the tower, they’re not going to be picky about what kind of flesh, which means they’ll be eating spiders, rats, unwise monkeys, foolish students and little else. So why the cobwebs? Why hasn’t ze seen anything? Why haven’t they attacked hir?

Web-spinning spiders, ze remembers, don’t rush over to the fly the moment it lands on the web. They wait and let it get well and stuck before arriving, at their leisure, to feast.

Tes freezes, too afraid to even breathe.

A trailing thread brushes over hir head and catches on hir arm.

Ze knows in one horrific, trembling moment of realisation. Knows just how ignorant ze has been, knows ze didn’t research anywhere near enough, knows the books were useless, knows hir own dread fate. Knees shaking, ze lowers the ham to the ground and steps backwards. There won’t be cloth here, or if it exists it’ll be too destroyed by dust, time, spiders and gnomes to be worth salvaging, assuming ze survives—no, don’t think about that! Think about the gnomes in the cobwebs above hir head, the gnomes even now making the cobwebs twist and turn in the pink-tinged light from the paper grasped in hir damp palm. Ze takes another step backwards, hir eyes riveted on the twitching cobwebs, but there’s nothing to see but grey filament swaying in the dark. That makes it worse, so much worse, because Tes’s imagination offers a thousand different split-second possibilities of what the gnomes might be. Another step—no, the stairs! Ze turns, heart pounding. The cobwebs were thinner downstairs. Fewer gnomes. The door. Ze runs, forcing hirself to look at the stairs and only the stairs, only the shadowy rise and fall of those low steps spiralling down into the dark…

Something lands on hir shoulder with all the force of a butterfly landing on a leaf and sinks two embroidery needles into the side of hir neck.

Ze shrieks, snatches at the thing on hir shoulder, marvels that it feels much like brushing away a tiny four-legged spider, tosses it into the black—and tips forwards into a rattling, banging, breathtaking tumble down the twisting stairs.

Silence falls.

Silence marred by a gentle rustle only almost drowned out by hir own breath and heartbeat.

The first thing Tes notices about hirself is pain. Shivery, sharp, shredding pain in hir legs and arms, pain followed by that uneasy rustling and something—many somethings—moving over hir clothes and skin in a light, flinch-inducing crawl. Caterpillars. The shrill cry spills from hir lips. Not again, no, not caterpillars! They loved to torment hir, the students under the tree, by picking up caterpillars, millipedes, spiders and any other crawling creature the soil and leaf litter offered the curious hand. The looping green-striped, red-tipped ones were worst—the ones the students called spitfires, the ones said to cause excruciating bites, the ones that dwelled in the messmate and paperbark trees growing around the village square and hung, dangling, from fine filament to explore heads and shoulders every spring. Ze sat, peering up at the leaves overhead, afraid of anything landing on hir hair or face. The moment Teacher Mary asked hir a question or Tes went to pull up hir stockings, it happened: tiny feet crawling over hir face, tiny feet wriggling their way underneath hir shirt collar, tiny feet touching hir in light, crawling movements.

Ze knew better than to scream. Ma told hir not to scream and cry, not to draw attention to hirself, not to act like a child. Ze couldn’t not. The students, even the quieter ones, leant forwards and howled while ze screamed and twisted and tried to remove with frantic, shaking hands the invaders from hir person. Funny to watch Tes shriek and cry; funny to watch Teacher Mary scold Tes for interrupting the lesson; funny to laugh at hir babyish ways when ze should know that a caterpillar in hir shirt won’t hurt hir.

But ze didn’t know. Everyone said spitfires hurt when they bit! Yet it didn’t matter that they never did: ze couldn’t explain the sickening horror of those creatures moving, so softly, over hir skin. Ze couldn’t make anyone else understand the terror in the soft brushing, the light touch, the shuddering and intrusive awfulness.

Ze knows ze scrapes hir hands at hir own limbs and scalp. Ze knows ze writhes on the floor, helpless against the swarm. Ze even realises, after a moment, that the petrified keening emerges from hir own bleeding lips. Part of Tes, though, isn’t in the room at all, but sobbing underneath a far-distant tree, trying to brush away caterpillars to a chorus of heart-breaking laughter. The part of hir that does know, the part of hir that knows these caterpillars bite and the spitfires merely crawled over hir, only shrieks louder and harder.

They wriggle under sleeve, down stockings and over hair, and all ze can do, all ze ever did, is scream.

Why shouldn’t ze? Ze doesn’t know anything worthwhile, ze can’t do anything but sew, ze didn’t research enough about the gnomes, ze ignored the sign on the door…

Ze read a sign on a fence.

This isn’t the tree. This isn’t Flay’s End.

Tes Alden of Flay’s End won’t enter an inhabited tower to find cloth for someone else. Not for Ma, not for hir siblings, not for anyone. Ze never thought well enough of anyone else to want to do such a thing! Tes Alden of the College, though, did. Only here, only in this strange place, exist the kind of people who deserve such a gift, people who don’t torture with insects, people who offer cakes and think hir feelings matter. Ze isn’t that person trapped under the tree. Ze isn’t that person with nowhere to go. Ze has a room and a bed of hir own and people, people!

If ze can do something unthinkable to enter, can’t ze do something unthinkable to leave?

Tes draws a gulping, shaking breath, trying to still hirself enough to think. Ze can survive this. The prickling and scurrying begins to fade, as though the gnomes are too settled to hurt hir. Tes falls still, moving only to breathe, and the gnomes, too sit still. Good. Ze breathes in, exhales, breathes in again, and hir heart slows. One day ze’ll remember how much exhaustion panic causes. Ze inhales again. Think. At least ze can think now, even if hir limbs are heavy and ze just wants to sleep. No. Ze’s on the floor, in the tower, being eaten alive by tiny gnomes, and nobody knows ze’s here. So. What can ze do? Ze needs to get out, but ze needs to do it without bringing a horde of gnomes into the school. This is hir mistake; ze can’t make anyone else pay for it. Not the staff, not the students, not the cats or the monkeys or Susan. Just the thought makes hir shiver. So. Ze needs to get to the door absent gnomes. How?

The score of children under the tree break into another round of laughter.

No, no laughter. Ze isn’t awkward, useless Tes who knows everything irrelevant and nothing important; ze’s a student magician who made a cauliflower explode just by talking to it. If ze can do that, why not more? No, ze doesn’t know things, but next time ze’ll read more, learn for hirself, make sure ze knows what type of gnomes live in the tower and how to fight them! Tes draws a breath and, praying the gnomes don’t move too much, lurches into a sitting position. Hir head spins, but ze’s only dizzy and tired. Ze can move hir arms without provoking that squirming scurry; the gnomes seem to have stopped shifting about. Good. Ze glances about and sees the soft rose glow of the paper just by hir hand, so ze leans over and grasps the paper in hir fingers. It doesn’t feel right in hir hand, but ze can’t decide why that is. Held aloft, ze can see the door—a few feet away? Now what? Hir pack hangs off hir back, but ze suspects now that the gnomes care nothing for bacon, not when they can feast on Tes. What else has ze got? Paper, pencil, a stick with cotton soaked in kerosene just in case ze couldn’t get the light spell to work because ze isn’t unprepared—

The gnomes need the cobwebs. They have some degree of intelligence.

What happens if ze destroys their homes?

Tes drives hir teeth into hir lip and grabs hir pack from hir back. The creatures don’t move, not enough to matter—a light, almost negligible brushing over hir skin. The bites don’t sting. Hir lip doesn’t sting. Warm fluid dribbles over hir chin but it doesn’t hurt, and the terror of that sees hir hands shake as ze reaches into the pack and fumbles for the stick. What if the gnomes are moving? What if ze just can’t feel them? What if their bites numb the skin so their prey just lets them feed?

Ze is, at least, sensible enough to know it for the wrongness it is.

How long does ze have before ze loses this, too?

Ze shoves the pack onto hir lap, tries not to think about moving gnomes too small to see in the dim light or the fact that ze holds the paper at an angle to avoid looking at them on hir arms and hands, and feels around in the pack until ze finds the stick. Ze isn’t the helpless child under the tree. Ze isn’t. Tes pushes the pack aside and reaches into hir skirt pocket, because no soul of the Wold ever leaves home without a pin, a needle, a coin and a striker. Born of the Wold, but made a magician, somehow. A magician enough to get hirself out without hurting anyone else.

Ze grabs hold of the terror, cradles it close in hir heart and soul while hir strange, sluggish fingers fumble with the striker. Ze drops it in hir skirt, picks it up, tries again. Ze is a magician. Ze will get hirself out of here.

At first, there’s nothing more than a tiny spark, but the cotton catches alight, a small, red-yellow beacon of tiny hope. Tes thrusts the torch up as high as hir trembling arms allow, jerks it until the trailing tangle of cobwebs brush against the flame and little flickers of red and orange leap up individual strands only to burn themselves out.

Why ze thought the whole tapestry of cobwebs above will flare into flame like a brushfire over summer-dry grass, ze doesn’t know. This little torch isn’t enough to threaten the gnomes! Ze needs more than a tiny spluttering torch—ze needs a fire. Something that makes them run for their lives and leave hir alone.

Fire. Flame. Ze swipes at hir eyes with hir free hand, brushing something with numb fingertips. Do they fight amongst themselves for the prime spots to feed? Are they touching hir eyeballs the way ants feast on those of a dead dog or cat? Ze shudders and swipes hir eyes again in a desperate attempt to keep them from sagging shut. No. Sleep is forever. Fire, flame … flare. Conflagration … is “flagrate” a word? Maybe, maybe not. Firebrand. That means “torch”, almost, doesn’t it? Cobwebs … threads, strands. Filament!

Firebrand’s flame flare for firing flowing filament? It sounds ridiculous.

As ridiculous as the words ze spoke, in earnestness, to a cauliflower.

If magic is anything at all, it is ridiculous. Ridiculous, like gods and social conventions and people, and all ze needs do is believe in it—and that’s the difference between Tes Alden and farmers. Ze knows magic exists. Here, in the College, it isn’t abstract or fantastic or useless. It’s tedious and ordinary and wonderful, a thousand, a million different things, but it is, mostly, ridiculous.

Nobody here, though, has any interest in pretending it isn’t.

“Gnomes.” Hir voice rasps over a dry tongue. “Get off me or I’ll burn your webs.”

Ze hears nothing but hir own breathing and a faint clicking noise—something that sounds like a wire on a gate slipping into place over a fence post.

“Firebrand’s flame flare for firing flowing filament,” ze whispers to the torch.

Ze has never heard anything in hir life like the sudden, violent roar of fire rushing up towards the ceiling. One moment there’s little but dark; the next there’s nothing but brilliant orange-red light shot through with occasional fine streaks of crumbling ash and larger, raining bodies as the cobwebs sear away. Bodies patter on hir skin, hair and clothes like raindrops. Ze huddles against the floor, hand over hir watering eyes, for that moment of wonder is followed a moment latter by the suffocating heat and the pain of it searing hir skin—and then, just as Tes gasps, thinking that ze needs to find the door and find it now because there’s little left for hir to breathe, another sound echoes in hir ears, wild and glorious.

The door thuds against the adjoining wall.

Light, bright and gleaming and impossible, spills into the tower room.

“Hammer. Nails. Wood. You nail the door shut.” A figure coughs. “Student! Don’t burn me! It won’t help!”

Even as Tes tries to comprehend light, a figure crossing the room, the bliss of fresh air and the roar of the fire, all at once, the fire flickers and dies—despite the rush of cool air flooding in from the hallway. Air, ze thinks, confused by the fire’s behaviour, yet too dizzy and relieved to care how it came to be. Ze hadn’t thought about air. Tes draws in a gasping breath, coughing. It should be easy to move now, shouldn’t it? Put a hand to the ground, push hirself up, rise. Easy, but hir chest heaves and hir head spins, and even standing feels like too much effort. Ze’s just so tired and hir head hurts and—no. Ze can’t just lie there. Ze needs to figure out how many gnomes are still attached to hir and then—

“Sir! I’ve got them!” A voice, drawling and pitched to carry, sounds just before hir, followed by a hand grasping hir shoulder. “Here. I’m draping your arm around my shoulder. I’m going to slide my arm under your back and lever you up. Can you grip my shirt?”

Terror gives hir energy where logic failed; ze grabs the hand and shoves it away with all hir strength. “Don’t touch! Gnomes!”

Hir rescuer laughs. “Too late. Fire doesn’t kill them. They wouldn’t be ravaging Laiphu if it did.” Ze sees more shadow than person, but ze knows that voice, even if ze shouldn’t yet know it. Why is he here? Where’s March or the other teachers? Yet Darius takes hir arm and positions it over something warm and bony before he pulls hir forwards, just enough for him to slide an arm underneath hir back. “What’s your name?”

Ze doesn’t know what to say. “There’s gnomes on me. Everywhere.”

“Fewer, now.” His arm shakes like a leaf in a high breeze but he doesn’t pull away. “Doesn’t matter. Grip my shirt. I’m going to lever you up. Can you tell me your name?”

“The gnomes,” Tes says, but then Darius fists his hand in hir shirt and rests his other hand atop Tes’s arm, and somehow manages to both pull and push Tes up onto hir feet, and then nothing matters but the rush of movement. Hir eyes blur and hir head whirls, and for a moment there’s nothing Tes can do: ze slumps forwards, hir knees sagging, hir feet unwilling to bear hir and hir head wanting nothing to do with the art of remaining upright.

Darius seems to expect that, for his hand snakes around hir waist and pulls hir close to him.

Ze rocks in his grasp, but ze can’t fall.

“Person? Your name?”

Ze’s never in all hir life heard someone so persistent about something so simple. “Tes. It’s Tes.”

“Tes. I’m Darius.” His voice sounds closer to hir shoulder than hir ear as he turns them both towards the door and walks them forwards. He twitches and he breathes like a man who just ran a mile, but his words, albeit interspersed as he inhales, lack no calm. How can someone flinch like that, a constant trembling shudder, yet speak quietly? “Can you tell me where you are?”

The light makes hir eyes water, but why is it so bright? The bliss of fresh, clean air, though, dizzies hir. “The tower?” He knows they’re in the tower, surely? “Why talking? Why asking?”

A pause sounds, marred by breathing, a scratching noise from outside and Darius’s near-convulsive twitching. “Well, it tells me that you’re conscious and alert. I suppose it doesn’t much so matter here, but I’ve been in circumstances where we need to determine who gets a doctor or butcher first. If you can say your own name and location, breathe and you’re not bleeding out, you wait. Habit.”

Ze tries to imagine developing the habit for such questions, but then they’re at the doorway. It takes a moment for hir eyes to adjust and hir head to settle just enough to make sense of the light … and the truth that it isn’t the doorway Tes remembers. Spheres of formless white light, like clear plums, bob an inch underneath the ceiling. Lines of smooth whitewash, lines ze knows didn’t exist before, mark the slate tiles leading off into two rows, like a road or a funnel; March sits on his knees, chalk in hand, scribbling away. The two unbroken lines of whitewash are surrounded either side by a wild string of incomprehensible letters, runes and trailing lines stretching a few feet down the hallway before stopping, some of it lime, some of it chalk. It makes Tes think of grass growing on the verge of a road or path, but how, how can it be there when it wasn’t there before?

“Go forwards.” March stands, still clasping the chalk, and hovers on the outside of his line. Only when Darius walks both he and Tes through the doorway does he dart behind them, almost dancing as he tiptoes over the chalk, and slams the door closed. “Don’t cross the—”

“Don’t cross the ward line? No, sir, I was going to take this person across and infest the whole school.” Darius speaks in little more than a whisper, but he doesn’t need to yell. The slow, almost absurd length to which he stretches out syllables and adds pauses between words conveys emotion without volume, and even Tes knows it, despite not knowing Darius at all, for sarcasm. “Block whilst I still care.”

Curiosity, for ze never imagined anyone speaking to March that way, makes hir turn hir head.

They surge over hir arm in a scurry ze doesn’t feel to crawl over Darius’s face, neck and scalp, giving him the appearance of a flea-ridden dog. In the dim hallway, the gnomes look like the unholy offspring of a miniature human being and a tick, partially-translucent, creamy and flat with giant, blood-swollen bellies, but somehow human-shaped despite their habit of scurrying on all fours. Thumbnail-sized at best, and most far smaller than that, but many, so many, and just the thought of how many attached themselves to hir makes Tes’s knees shake. If ze considers how many have worked their way under clothes … hundreds. Hundreds of bites, hundreds of tiny creatures slaking their thirst. Hundreds.

Some desperate, incomprehensible sound emerges from hir lips.

Darius’s grip on hir waist tightens. “Tick gnomes aren’t lethal to adult humans—not immediately. They envenomate miniscule amounts of a numbing agent and, first, drink. Only once we’re drained do they spawn. An hour or so after that, the eggs hatch and the puggles eat. Everyone I ever knew … they died overnight. Parents wake to bones because the child didn’t cry.” He stops, draws a breath. “There’s time. Plenty of time. Better to make sure they don’t escape.” He breathes out as though trying to calm himself, long and deep, and releases Tes’s shoulder to fish in the pocket of his vest. “Here. Eat. The drain will probably kick harder than the gnomes, given the enthusiasm you put into it.”

He holds out a damp handkerchief, flips it open and reveals a soggy bran biscuit. Gnomes bite his wrist and fingers.

They’re drinking hir blood. They’re drinking his. He’s talking about something nightmarish as though it’s a history lesson. Ze can’t even nod, as horrific a picture he painted: ze just stares at the gnomes ze doesn’t feel swarming over hir hand, over Darius’s shirt sleeve and up his neck or under his collar. The shocking part isn’t their greater resemblance to parasites: it’s their retained humanity, the tiny skulls not so different in shape from hir own, the miniature humanoid faces latched onto human flesh. Tiny, distorted humans feasting on a man, leaving trickles of blood in their wake. Against Darius’s brown skin, they look like wriggling pustules about to burst. Ze jerks hir eyes away and shudders, bone-deep cold. How many hundreds have decided Darius a better feast? How many, then, are stuck to hir?

Ze looks at the whitewashed patterns on the floor, all graceful flourishes and curving lines. “Why…?”

“They like magic. Hamide Golzar made them for torturing and restraining magic workers. It’s … difficult to properly restrain a magician or blood witch.” Darius’s laugh, whilst soft and short, is the least-humorous sound Tes has ever heard. “We have this habit of opening locks, don’t we? Blood witches too drained to work and magicians too close to exsanguination to survive the drag tend to stay put.” He shifts his weight. “Eat, person. You’ll feel less like passing out if you do.”

The sight of the soggy edges of the biscuit make hir stomach knot, but Tes grabs it, checks it for gnomes, shoves it into hir mouth and chews as fast as ze can, trying hir best to ignore the bland taste and revolting texture. Now Darius holds hir upright in the clean air of the hallway and there’s nothing to do but stand, hir dizziness feels more overwhelming. Bliss, ze thinks, is lying down, closing hir eyes and going to sleep, but March crouches on the ground, drawing with a fury that makes hir hands ache just watching him. There must be a reason why he still draws, why Darius waits even though the gnomes crawl from hir to him.

“You gave it all to hir?” March’s voice rises on the last syllable, making Tes think he means it to be more interrogative than a mere question.

Darius stands still, only rocking from foot to foot. Not flinching, Tes realises. Just a steady rock. Ma grabbed hir by the shoulders and held hir still when ze rocked like that. “They must have feasted when they were released into your room, sir—how they must have feasted.”

Ze doesn’t understand the exchange; ze also doesn’t care. Ze can feel hir breaths, hir heartbeat … but the small sensations, the feel of cloth over skin or the press of hir boots on hir toes, strike hir as being distant somehow, there but not. There but, for the first time in hir life, only there … and while that should have been a relief, Tes can’t think of anything more terrifying. Is this the numbing effect of the bites? Or are they all on Darius now?

“I take it that you are acquainted with tick gnomes, Darius.” March sounds as though he offers a cup of tea and pleasant conversation around the kitchen table, but the chalk squeaks as he writes apace.

“I was there when Laiphu fell to Sahar Ehsan. It was … until recently, it was the biggest mistake Efe and I ever made.” Darius’s voice grows louder and faster, until he asks the next question in something near to ordinary human pace. “Why are there tick gnomes in your bedchamber?”

The tower is March’s room? His bedchamber?

Tes stares down at him. March scribbles something in a scrawling line: the lines of whitewash, ze realises, head straight towards a closed mahogany door, one of many such doors, to the right of the tower. Someone also outlined the door in a mix of whitewash, chalk and words carved into the doorframe and wall. He rests on his knees, back hunched, his right hand moving with a frenzy that baffles hir: how can anyone write an incomprehensible mix of symbols and glyphs so quickly? Yet even as he writes, he leans as far away from Darius and Tes—who stand just inside the hallway—as possible, despite being on the other side of whitewash and chalk. Is he too afraid to draw close?

“Why, sir?”

“A gift from one of Erondil’s agents.” March’s quiet voice clips the ends of words as though he fights himself not to snarl. He looks at nothing but the floor. “Fortunately for all of us, there were enough assassins trying to kill me, in the early years, that I fireproofed the whole tower in addition to sundry extant ward spells. There was that incident with the assassin and the drapes, after all.”

Darius doesn’t speak, but his body stiffens and his hands tighten further.

Kit!” A woman bustles down the hallway, trailed by a column of flying purple monkeys. The monkeys bear an absurd collection of things: buckets of water, kettles, small glass bottles, towels, cups, baskets, jars, blankets. Most of their burdens are bigger than the monkeys themselves, but they flutter their wings with a remarkable lack of effort. She carries only a battered leather satchel over one shoulder, but she moves like a woman furious: boots smashing into the tile floor, brown eyes fixed right on March’s back. Iris and Holly didn’t have much to say about Doctor Amelia March, but Tes noted that neither did they complain about her as they did the Professors, and, watching her move like a charging bull in prim, swishing skirts, ze thinks ze knows why. Her hair, apple-red shoulder-length corkscrews, bounces as she walks and she flings her arms in time with her steps, smacking the air as though she wishes to hit someone else with her long brown hands. “Did you give your dangerous, absurd, criminally negligent, lethal speech again about practising unlocking spells—goddess, Darius? Is that actually Darius?”

Darius draws a breath, a congested breath that reminds hir of every cold and chill ze’s ever had. “Amelia.”

“You’d go some way to making up for my mistakes if you’d get started.” March doesn’t look up from his work. Nor does he sound in any way bothered by Amelia’s words. Close together, ze can see the shared similarity in roundness of cheeks and set of nose in addition to a lack of height, but Amelia has nothing of March’s delicacy. “I think Darius stands because he’s afraid he won’t make it up without a third person to help him if he sits, and he’s far too noble to inflict this on someone else given that he’s doing it solely to save me.”

“You don’t deserve him. And I don’t even want to think on what it says about you that you let a man in his state do this for you. You’d better hope he doesn’t faint, Kit, because if he does, you’ll pay.” Amelia strides towards the door, picks her way over the chalk and pushes it open with force enough to rattle the hinges. The monkeys follow her in, two and three at a time, but almost as soon as they enter they fly back outside and stream down the hallway towards the foyer, buckets and kettles in hand.

“It was this,” Darius says, loud enough that Amelia might hear, “or blocking and the drag. I thought this was better. And I saw his face at the door. Me … tick gnomes aren’t the things I dream about.” His words are longer now, the pauses greater, his breaths and words ever more nasal. “He didn’t convey the amount. He didn’t.” Darius stops, inhales. “Person. She … she won’t bark at the students. She never barks at the students. Don’t fear her.”

Amelia’s scoff carries into the hallway. “If you think that’s a justifiable excuse, the serpent damaged more of your brain than even I reckoned.” She stops; more monkeys fly out the door and down the hall. “You’ve gone and become one of those, aren’t you?”

“Probably.” Darius slips to the side and gathers his knees under him before they both hit the ground, but even Tes can no longer call his rocking rhythmical or purposeful. “Sir.”

Ze’s screamed words like that, and this word, despite being spoken in a near-inaudible whisper, is no different. No, please, stop, a world of desperation voiced in too-few syllables to contain it.

Tes plants hir feet on the ground and, despite hir uncertainty that ze can even keep hirself upright, grabs him by the shoulder.

“A moment, Darius.” March sits almost at the doorway and shudders. The score of monkeys flying back and forth over his head, now returning down the hall again with buckets brimming with water, don’t appear to be the cause despite the fact they’re dripping over his head and suit. It’s a long, violent, rippling tremor, something that makes Tes think again of trees and caterpillars. He said the tower used to be his residence. How badly was he infested before he saved himself or someone saved him? How can March, who has spoken so lightly of just about everything else, have nothing simple to say on the matter of tick gnomes?

Ze’s tired, so tired.

Ze turns hir head to look.

Hir arms are bare, save for a few gnomes here and there, blending better into hir pale skin. More under hir clothes, most like, but nothing, nothing like the gnomes gorging themselves on Darius. Sickly pale blotches fastened to his cheeks, brow, chin and neck. Several feed on his lip; others feast on his nose and the corners of his eyes. He doesn’t make any move to dislodge them, and ze wonders if hir face shows the same terrible parasites made even more horrifying by hir unawareness.

Ze tries to count, messes up, discards it as pointless. Ze just reaches over with hir shaking right hand and plucks a gnome, its belly dark and round, free from his left nostril. A tiny trail of blood drips down onto his upper lip, just for a moment, but, even as Tes places the gnome on hir left hand, a second gnome crawls down from the bridge of his nose to replace it.

Darius’s eyes flicker and he nods his head, but he doesn’t seem to notice the gnome.

Ze did this. Ze ignored the sign and ze caused this. Darius knows about gnomes and he came in after hir, and he holds hir even though he doesn’t look strong enough to withstand a northerly wind, never mind a horde of gnomes more interested in a proper magician than hir.

“Hurry!” Hir voice cracks. “Sir! Please!”

The lines of chalk trailing from a series of characters ze can’t read meet at the whitewashed lines leading to the doorway.

“Go.” March steps over the lines of chalk and flinches away from them both—and which of them pushes and which of them pulls, Tes doesn’t know, but they’re both clinging onto each other, both moving forwards as though it’s the only possible answer. “Amelia! They’re coming in!”

How long? Not long at all in the ordinary sense of time, Tes decides, but too long regardless. As they stagger together under the lintel, ze sees into a tiny, dusty room with shelves lining the walls, possibly once a storeroom or office. Now, the shelves are empty and the room houses only two battered tin tubs, each easily big enough to house an adult lying down and then still have room to splash, in addition to Amelia and the monkeys, still flying over their heads with buckets and kettles. The room steams from the hot water, condensation forming on the walls and shelves, and Tes wonders how ze missed the pungent herbal smell. The strange thing isn’t the shelves or the tubs or the monkeys, at least not when compared to the rest of the College, but the glyphs carved into or painted onto the doorframe, slate tile, walls, ceiling—everything Tes can see bears some sort of engraving or drawing. It all matches that on the doorframe of the tower and the lines March chalked onto the floor: twisting lines, serifs, a tendency to curls and flourishes. This room was ready, or close enough to it, and March needed only to ensure anyone who went in the tower could make it safely here to … what? Bathe?

Amelia, wearing a new, embroidered apron over her dress, an apron worked in plain, even severe black thread in more glyphs and lines that speak nothing of decoration, looks at hir face, Darius’s, hirs again. “Tes. You need to get both of you into a bath. Get in, all of you, everything on you. Get your head under water, scrub everything off you can, then strip and scrub the rest. Then help Darius.”

“I’m conscious.” Darius’s words are slow and thick, but he lets go of Tes, slips out from under hir arm and stumbles two steps forwards to fall against the rim of the closest bath. “Not going to pass out. I’m not. Yet.”

He doesn’t so much as climb into the bath as he grabs the side and rolls himself over it to land, with a thumping splash that soaks Tes and Amelia, into the water.

Amelia swears and darts over towards the bath. “Are you trying to drown—”

His scream, a shrill, breathless, maddened shriek, ends only when he gulps a breath and ducks his head under the water. Even then his hands and legs twitch, something horribly close to a convulsion, as though Darius fights his own body to stay submerged. Every so often he raises his head, draws another gasping breath and sinks back under; after a few minutes of this, he raises his arms to his face and head and starts working his fingers, his movements slow and clumsy, over his eyes and through his hair.

The horrific part, the part Tes knows to be the reason for the scream, the part that has nothing to do with the kiss of hot water against hundreds of bites, is the gnomes. Ze stands, hir hands clasped over hir ears, hir knees trembling, too horrified to watch and too appalled to look away.

Amelia sits with her elbows resting on the rim of the bath, her sleeves rolled up and the right hand extended as though she means to reach forwards and grab Darius by the collar should he slip, but even she leans backwards, like March, as though it takes all her courage to be even this close.

They move. Spilling out from collar and sleeve, surging over his face and hair in search of any safe, dry spot. At the first dunking, Darius’s face seems more gnome than human, covered in too many parasites to show his eyes, nose and lips. His breath sounds a tortured, frantic wheezing that might be as much panic as inability to inhale. At the second dunking, they writhe through his hair. At the third, Tes can see clusters of creamy bodies the size of hir thumbnail filling the bath like a flotilla of boats around an island on a surging sea, their legs and arms wriggling for a moment of desperation before succumbing to that final stillness. With each successive dunking, they fall away and float in the water, and more and more of Darius’s face and hair rest free of moving bodies—although dead gnomes tangle in his clothes and wet curls, hanging there like burrs in a horse’s tail.

Some of them he finger-combs away before sitting up and leaning against the back of the bath, his ribs and chest heaving, his right hand twitching, his head hanging to one side as though he lacks the energy to hold it upright.

His saturated clothes, clinging to his skin, just make him look all the thinner.

Amelia sighs, although whatever emotion she means by it is beyond Tes to guess. She stands, picks up a metal sieve and one of two mismatched mugs on the shelf beside a kettle and several towels, and kicks a bucket back beside Darius’s bath with a thumping clang. “Darius. Drink. Don’t argue.” She kicks the bucket into the bath—Darius groans and raises his hand to take the mug—and Amelia grunts, dips the sieve into the water and begins scooping up dead gnomes to, her lips screwed up in what Tes takes as distaste, drop them into the bucket. “Are you just going to stand there, Tes? Idling won’t make it any better.”

Ze wants to curl up in bed and weep.

It’s not that ze fears the gnomes, although ze does. Ze didn’t pay attention to the sign and now someone else slumps fully-dressed in a bathtub, too bitten and weary to sit properly. Someone else screamed like that because of hir, and it doesn’t matter that ze didn’t mean it, that it was carelessness and ignorance: he screamed because of hir, just like Tes screamed under the tree. How does a lack of intent make any difference when ze’s made someone else, someone who rescued hir, hurt so much?

Darius sips from the mug as though it exhausts him to drink.

Tes looks down at hir arms. Yes, ze sees the bite marks, swollen and livid, peppering hir skin; ze sees the smears of blood the ticks left behind. Ze sees the odd tick gorging itself on hir blood, but only a few. Stepping in the bath will be only unpleasant, but that still makes Tes’s stomach knot. There’s nothing else to do, however, but raise hir booted foot and step over the rim of the bath.

It shames hir that ze hesitates one last moment before stepping over the rim.

It isn’t just the stinging pain as the oils in the water touch the bites, for all that brings tears to hir eyes. It isn’t just the driving of another score of sewing needles into hir skin. It’s the sudden movement, the scurry of things crawling through hir stockings and up hir leg, the vivid reawakening of things crawling all over hir body. Ze stands, both feet in the bath, trembling—and more awake, more aware of pain and sensation, than ze has been since finding hirself on the floor.

Ze never realised what a dreadful thing it is to awaken.

“Just sit.” Darius’s breaths still sound closer to ragged than is right, but his eyes rest on hir shoulder. He holds the mug so low the bathwater laps around the blue crockery base. “Sometime … today, tomorrow, sometime, March will give you his speech on consequences. Like this. You’ve got the ability to dare a tower and dare magic. Dare this.”

It’s not consequences ze deserves, and tears run down hir face only to set hir bites to throbbing. Here ze shakes, too afraid to sit down, but ze made someone else scream—someone who is still, nonetheless, being far kinder to hir than he should. Someone who has far more courage than ze does.

Tes draws a breath and sits.

Ze doesn’t scream, although blood seeps from hir lip, rolls down hir chin and pinkens the water. Ze doesn’t even scream when ze ducks hir head under, and while the first time makes hir breath catch, each successive time becomes easier. The gnomes, twitching, fall away or hang still, caught in clothing or hair, and while the water bites raw wounds hard enough to make hir gasp, it’s only stinging pain—ordinary, natural, reasonable pain.

Hir silence does hir no credit, not when the man who carried most of hir gnomes lies in the bath beside hir, his eyes half closed.

The mug slides from his fingers and lands, with a thunking splash, into the bathwater.

“Darius?” Amelia dumps the sieve of gnome bodies into the bucket, leans over and flicks him on the nose with her free hand. She drops the sieve into the bath with the other and rolls up his right shirt sleeve, baring a thin brown arm marked by rows of fine horizontal cuts, almost like rings in a tree. Many are old and pale, some are raw and pinkish, a few are only scabbed over. Tes can’t imagine any reason for such scars save something foreign or decorative, but Amelia blinks, her lips parting and framing a word spoken too quietly for Tes to hear. “Darius!” She flicks him again; he moves his fingers in something that looks too deliberate not to be sign. “Stop that. Can you feel any moving gnomes?”

“No. Not many. The belt.” He twitches his left hand in a strange, jerking movement as though his fingers won’t bend. “Upstairs, on my saddlebags. Maybe … maybe I should have it.”

“The belt?” Amelia, her own lips pursed, presses her fingers against the inside of Darius’s wrist, although she still holds her body as far away from his as she can. Darius jerks as though meaning to pull away, but Amelia grabs his arm. “Hold still! It’s not that bad. Tes, don’t sit there! Rinse, scrub everything and then get your clothes off.”

“I know what he means.” March’s voice, punctuated by a soft crunching, sounds from the doorway; Tes jumps and whirls around to look at him. He leans against the doorframe, an apple in either hand, alternating his sentences with bites, his chewing so rapid it seems amazing he doesn’t choke. Despite the enthusiasm, Tes can’t help but think he’s aged ten years in one night: his face looks drawn, almost sunken, and he leans against the doorframe in the slack-bodied way of someone no longer bothering to pretend it isn’t keeping him upright. “I’ll get it. Tes, meet Darius Liviu, our new Construct Magic master. He needs someone to help him fix his hand. Darius, Tes Alden. Ze collects words and hems drapes. Do talk and discuss between yourselves when it’s suitable for Tes to help you, Darius. I think ze might do well in your class, don’t you?”

Ze stares, too stunned to know what to think. March wants hir to help Darius? Why? Is it punishment? March’s words seem too light for punishment, but given how he spoke of the tower, how is ze to know?

“Help?” Darius speaks so slowly an eon passes between each syllable. He sits up, grabbing the rim of the bath in the pale fingers of his left hand. His lips twist: not punishment, then, not to him. “Ze ventured into an unsecured tower inhabited by tick gnomes and you want to speak of—” He sags backwards like a puppet with its strings cut, the back of his head brushing the rim of the tub before he slips under, and while he stirs, gasping and spluttering, once Amelia grabs his shirt and yanks his head and chest out of the water, his hands tremble. “Belt.” His cough wracks his shoulders and chest. “Now. Belt.”

Amelia grabs Darius’s arm, wraps it around her neck, slides her arm around his shoulders and the other under his knees, and lifts him clean out of the tub, heedless of both water and gnomes sloshing over the slate tile. Tes sits in the bath, forgotten, while March, too weary to stand a moment before, bolts into the hallway as though a life rests in want of a belt, of all things. Ze sits, forgotten, while Amelia settles Darius on the floor, barks at the monkeys to hand her the towels, the blankets and more tea, and begins unbuttoning his shirt.

Ze isn’t good at reading people. Nonetheless, even Tes can figure just what Darius means by those words, and why should he say anything different?

It wouldn’t be so awful, though, if Tes didn’t agree with him.

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