Nine magic systems


1. We make things magical through ritual. By not stepping on the cracks for a year we earn the power to open them up and peer inside. By bringing back a pebble from each place we go to we draw them together, so that the echoes of a dropped stone can be heard across them all. By walking each day around the perimeter we make a place home.

2. Only the gods have powers. But very few people believe in those gods these days. So you can get powers, borrowed ones of course, by doing the gods a few favours. They don’t mind too much what. Find the god in your local pub and slip her a tenner, and you can walk through the air between rooftops for a night. A tip on the horses and she’ll let you borrow the ability to pull water from the ground. If you get to know her well enough that she asks you to look after your cats, you may just about be able to make it as a wizard.

3. You grow spells. They are fragile little things and need a lot of care. Out in the highlands there are spell farms, whole ranks of fortified glasshouses flooded with the peaty water that spells love. But it costs a lot to buy farmed spells and the quality is almost never worth it. So most spells are grown at home in bottle gardens. You can usually get two to flower a year if you are lucky. Choose wisely.

4. It turns out that magic is absurdly easy. You don’t need training or anything. Your every least whim is treated as a command. And as soon as the fairy wind blew across the world, everyone could do it, and they did. Subsequently, in the two remaining settlements, use of magic was strictly banned. But if you wanted to – if you really, really wanted to – nobody cared much what went on in the wilderness.

5. It turned out that magic was just a branch of mathematics. In fact, the movie industry had already predicted it; instead of numbers, it involved the complicated algebra of hearts, souls, love, hope and so on. But the principles were generalisable from some of the more specialised fields that already used numbers. Consequently, obscure academic rivalries suddenly became all-out thaumaturgic war. It was an odd few years.

6. There had been magicians all along. The problem was that performing magic produced a profound derangement of the senses. And so generally, part-way through the process, the magicians would forget what they were doing, and onlookers would believe them to be drunk or drugged. Once in a blue moon they managed to pull off a minor trick, of course; and the process was not unenjoyable in itself if you liked that kind of thing. It may be, though, that with the application of some medical knowledge, breathing equipment perhaps, a pharmaceutical cabinet, one might be able to function at a high level for long enough to do something truly fancy. Certainly worth experimenting, if you felt like ruling the world.

7. You create magic with parts of yourself. Hairs and fingernails for minor conjurations; a finger, perhaps, for something at a larger scale. That world had long since folded magic into its usual way of operating. The rich had enormous and elaborate hairstyles, which was their way of showing that they did not need to use it.

8. Awkwardly enough, it is the opposite of the stories. The only way in which you can get magic to work – and anyone can do it, anyone at all, there are no chosen ones or seventh sons – is to be absolutely, completely full of the belief that it will not work. Generally everyone therefore has one spell in them, provided only that they are not aware that it is a possibility. Magical colleges largely consist of scholars wistfully reminding each other that they must never publicise their secrets; the penalty of the visibility of magic being its death.

9. Cats could do magic, if they wanted. That is why the rumours. They can largely not be bothered these days, though. The code of recociliation for magical creatures limits each physical space to be the territory for one and only one magic-worker; and, since most of the space on Earth is considered territory by one or another daydreaming cat these days, humans have lost the art of it.