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Unfinished Story Fragment

Once upon a time magic wasn’t very useful. Most people could touch it, bend it in at least a small way, but as a practical force it was too complicated, too arcane for most. The most successful magicians, the ones with towers of their own and actual incomes from the use of magic, were mildly autistic types with the superhuman will and precision which to perform spells beyond cantrips without getting something wrong.

The will generated the power to accomplish the work of the spell. Magic, after all, is little more than human will imposed upon the world, forcing the world to change. The precision was required to actually perform the spell, which in casting looked something like an impressionistic dance: precise, twitchy movements accompanied by precise, arpeggaited nonsense syllables. None of it was actaully nonsense though: one twitch misplaced, one word mispronounced, and the whole spell was wrong. When dealing with the kind of spell the casting of which allowed a wizard to afford a tower, even the most trivial error was often fatal.

Incidentally, most people are familiar with Merlin, the last of the great casters of the old style. He was a genius, to be sure, and was instrumental in uniting Britain. However, in the popular imagination, his prowess has eclipsed his actual accomplishments. Few people remember that the lowest 12 stories of his tower were occupied by his support staff, who did most of the work of actually inventing the grand spells that he cast. He was the performer, and an exceptional one; he was the manager, and talented at it. They were just the writers, but without them he would have been a gun without bullets. All his most famous sorceries were ghostwritten.

The Djinni of Arabia, the faculty of the research university of al-Djinn, had been advancing the world’s understanding of magic for centuries. In an inversion of European norms, the faculty themselves were the researchers and writers; they used slaves to cast the spells they wrote. They’d discovered compulsion spells as early as the 9th century AD, but it took another four centuries before anyone figured out how to make them useful: on their face, they were more complicated and more trouble to cast than simply paying someone to do whatever work would have been compelled.

The key to the revolution wasn’t immediately obvious: an efficiency improvement which allowed anyone who could cast a cantrip to at least begin a compulsion. Even then, the meticulous precision with which the actions to be performed had to be described couldn’t make compulsion cost-efficient for industrial purposes. Upon this discovery Abara Adaba, the researcher in charge of the project, lost his grant and turned to other projects.

Two years later, he made history by casting on himself a compulsion to read a given magical text, memorize it, then perform it exactly as written. The resulting spell–one which endowed an ordinary carpet with flight–had been until that moment tremendously expensive: it generally killed dozens of slaves attempting to cast it before one managed to get it right. Adaba rode his magic carpet straight into the history texts as the innovator who introduced the Industrial Age.

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