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SWC A18 - The Pentagram

Arisia'18 Student Writing Contest - 1st Place Winner

The Pentagram

By Rina Peromsik

Jeffrey Wainwright was a stubborn little boy who did not like being told what to do. So when his Uncle Nick, with whom he lived, warned him not to divide by zero, he decided to try it. He wasn't being openly rebellious or anything. He simply wanted to know what would happen. But perhaps we ought to start at the beginning.

It was late in November, and though it had not yet snowed, the promise of snow was imminent. It was rather cold outside, with a biting wind. Uncle Nicholas, the master of the big old manor, was preparing to leave.

"Where are you going, Uncle Nick? Can I come?" Young Jeff rather enjoyed his uncle's company, though he was always going on about intellectual things that Jeff did not always understand. Jeff liked to think he was smart, but his tutors had to work with him for quite a long time to get him to remember anything for more than five minutes. He was often told that he had a brain like a sieve, and this he remembered, for hadn't he been told it at least five times a lesson?

"Sorry, Jeff, not this time." Uncle Nick told him. The lookouts have discovered a disturbance in the magic levels, and I have to check it out. It may just be another dragon, but Cambridge is already the place where magic is most powerful, and we can't take any chances." Uncle Nick was a prominent magician in their Cambridge community, and it made sense that he'd be called on for things like this.

"Why can't I come?"

"The magic disturbance may just be another dragon in the area, but it may not be. It may be something more sinister, and we can't take any chances. I'm bringing all of the staff with any basic magic ability. You stay here. There'll be one maid still here if you need anything."

Jeff followed his uncle into the magic workshop, where Uncle Nick opened a cupboard and started to gather supplies. "There's nothing to do here!" Jeff complained. "I'll be so bored!"

"You could always practise maths." Uncle Nick suggested, favouring his nephew with a stern look. "You could stand to get better at division."

"I don't want to!" Jeff cried, aware of how petulant he sounded.

"Well, you're not coming." Uncle Nick said. "And while you're practising, remember not to divide by zero." He picked up his bag, buttoned his coat, and left.

"Why not?" Jeff asked the empty room. He sat down in the middle of the pentagram embedded in the floor. He was upset at being left behind, and feeling a little rebellious. When no answer was forthcoming, (the room was empty, remember?) Jeff decided aloud, "I'm going to!" Out of his pocket, he pulled a little wax tablet and a stylus. Using the stylus, he wrote: x/0.

Nothing happened.

Jeff stared at the tablet. "What was so bad about that?" He asked aloud. As if to answer, the 0 twitched. It wiggled. Jeff stared. Then the zero flashed, a bright, blinding light that left Jeff blinded for about half a millisecond. And then the zero grew. And sucked everything else inside it. And everything went black.


Jeff could not see. He could not move. Everything was so intensely black. He felt immensely heavy, but that might have just been his imagination. He was everything. He was nothing.  He was not sure how much time had passed before he heard the voice. It could have been days. It could have been years. Or it could have been seconds. The fact was, he heard a voice. Technically speaking, he didn't actually hear anything. He was aware of a niggling feeling inside his brain, and when he focused on it, his brain translated it into a voice. At first there were no words, but eventually he heard some. There were some questions, but some other things, too.

Where is this? What happened? Why did it happen? I wish I could do magic. Then I wouldn't have been left alone in a house that suddenly vanishes.

My house vanished? Jeff thought. Well, I suppose it did.


Yeah. That's me. Who are you?

I'm Kat.

Kat? Oh! Uncle Nick said that one of the maids had stayed home. Are you the maid?

Kat neither confirmed nor denied this. Instead, she asked a question of her own. Does this mean the alien thoughts around me are yours?

I'm not an alien!

Permit me to rephrase that. Are the thoughts that are here but not mine yours?

Yeah. Probably.

Master Jeff, you have some pretty strange thoughts. And there are no tigers in Antarctica.

You can see that?

See is a strong word, considering the circumstances, but yes, I do seem to have access to your private thoughts and feelings. And I don't think it's a good idea to start a zoo in Antarctica. It's much too cold, and the costs of heating would be astronomical. Besides, nobody lives there, so who would come to the zoo? Oh, and while we're on the topic of your private thoughts, some of them are grammatically incorrect. You should probably fix that. And – Kat detected a slightly indignant emotion in Jeff's brain. Er – did I just think all that out loud?

As loud as it gets, Jeff confirmed.

How did this happen anyway?

How did what happen?

This— this black hole.

We're in a black hole?

Couldn't you tell? Or have you never been in a black hole before?

Have you?

That's not important.

Why not?

I don't think you understand the gravity of the situation.


We're in a black hole, remember? Kat sighed. At least, it felt almost like a sigh in Jeff's head. Never mind. Just tell me what you were doing before it started.

It's not fair. Why can you see into all of my memories but I can't see into any of yours?

I can't see your memories. I can only see what you are thinking about now. Technically, it's not really sight, though. Sight isn’t even remotely possible in a darkness this thick. The sensation is a silent sort of communication, Kat pointed out.

Okay, so why did you know about the zoo plan?

Your mind flashed to it when I mentioned how I could hear your thoughts. You were thinking, 'Here's some things she probably doesn't know about,' but you were thinking it so quietly I'm not sure if you realised you were thinking it.

That doesn't make any sense.

It doesn't matter. The fact is, we're in a black hole, and unless you tell me how it started, I don't know if I can figure out a way to end it.

You can end it?

I DON'T KNOW! Kat silently screamed. Jeff tried to move his hands to cover his ears, but he wasn't sure if it worked. Kat's voice ricocheted around in his head, bouncing off the walls of his brain. At least, that's what it felt like to Jeff. It was hard to be sure.

All right, I'll tell you what I was doing, but only to get you to stop screaming in my head. I was sitting in the pentagram — that's the five pointed star on the floor of the magic workshop—

I know what a pentagram is! Just because I can't do advanced magic doesn't mean I don't know basic geometry!

Do you want me to tell you or not?

I want you to tell me what you were doing, not what a pentagram is!

It was a rhetorical question, Jeff replied, though it hadn't been. He couldn't resist adding, that means I didn't expect an ans—

I also know what a rhetorical question is, believe me! Get back to the story. The glare in Kat’s tone cut through Jeff's thoughts so sharply that he winced.

I will if you'll stop interrupting me. I was in the pentagram, the five pointed star, Jeff paused, waiting for Kat to interrupt. When she didn't, he continued. My uncle told me I should practise maths. He told me not to divide by zero, and—

Oh, no. You divided by zero, didn't you. That was a really dumb thing to do.

Why? What was wrong with it? Okay, I guess it did eat me alive, but—

You divided by zero. In the one place in the world where magic is most powerful. In the magic workshop of a prominent magician. In the very centre of the pentagram, no less! AND YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT'S WRONG WITH THAT?

Jeff winced, the mental sound once again too loud for comfort. Weren't you going to stop shouting in my head?

I did stop. I just started again. Besides, it's not really shouting, just thinking loudly.

I really wish you'd stop pointing that out.

You really don't understand the gravity of the situation.


Gravity. We're in a black hole, Master Jeff. A black hole is a place where gravity is so intense that nothing can escape, not even light.

Wow, that's encouraging.

However, the laws of science don’t always restrict the use of magic. Like anything else, magic has it's own set of rules.

I know that! I have studied basic magic theory! I'm not dumb!

I'm raising a metaphorical eyebrow at you now, because if I raised a real eyebrow you wouldn't be able to see it, and I've never been able to raise just one eyebrow anyway.

Okay, if you're so smart, tell me how we can get out of here.

The same way we got in.

You want me to divide by zero again? Jeff was sceptical.

NO! No, no, no, no, NO! Do you want to stop existing?

Okay, so what do you want me to do?

Well, when you have an algebraic equation and you need to isolate a variable, the way to undo multiplication is by dividing. Likewise, the way to undo division is by multiplying. Therefore–

You want me to multiply by zero?


Won't that reduce us to nothingness?

Not necessarily. It could cancel out the division before it has a chance to do that. As long as you didn't divide yourself by zero in the first place, everything should be fine. Of course, there is a slim possibility that we will be reduced to nothingness. You'll never really know until you try, so that's a risk we will have to take.

Thanks. That's encouraging.

It wasn't meant to be. If I wanted to encourage you I would point out that the situation can't be any worse than it is now.

WHAT? What do you mean by that? I think not existing would be worse.

I'm in your brain, Master Jeff. It can't be any worse.


I'm just stating the facts. Now, why don't you try multiplication.

I don't want to be nothing.

Have you thought of what will happen if we stay in this black hole? The gravity will eventually cause us both to disintegrate. If you dilly-dally too much longer, you won't exist anymore anyway.

Fine, I'll try it. Jeff imagined closing his eyes in concentration. He had no idea if it worked, or even if he still had eyes. X times zero, he thought.

Nothing happened.

Try again. You have to really mean it.

X TIMES ZERO! Jeff mentally shouted, meaning it with every fibre of his limited being.

Suddenly, a zero glimmered in the air. It seemed to be made of light. It shone, the only thing in the darkness. In front of it bloomed a division sign, and in front of that an X. Parentheses blossomed around the whole thing, and in front of those came another zero. That mathematical expression hung in the air, the only thing in existence, until suddenly it was etched on a wax tablet. Jeff was aware, all at once, of his hand, holding the tablet, and then the rest of him existed as well. It was a queer feeling, after being nothing but thought. It felt... right. Jeff smiled. He was not nothing. He was a boy, and he was alive. And he was about to pass out.


Jeff awoke to Uncle Nick's worried face leaning over him. Jeff was tucked up in bed, with his dark blue comforter wrapped snugly around him. "What's wrong, Uncle?" Jeff asked sleepily, sitting up and yawning.

"What's wrong? What's wrong, you want to know?" Uncle Nick no longer looked worried. Now he looked furious. "I'll tell you what's wrong. I leave for one hour— one hour!— and when I get back, my nephew is passed out on the floor of the magic workshop, with shattered bits of half unravelled spells littering the room around him. The spells, the wards, the raw ingredients, everything! Everything we kept in that room was completely destroyed. It's a very good thing we had so many protective spells and wards around that room, or the whole house— the whole country!— would be destroyed. As it was, there was only one spell left when I got home, and it was very frayed and had started unravelling at the edges." Uncle Nick paused for breath.

"It was lucky you got home when you did, Uncle." Jeff said meekly.

"Lucky! Luck had nothing to do with it, child. We had all the magic tracing instruments with us, and when the last spell frayed enough for magic to seep through, they all started beeping and swivelling to point at our house. Naturally, we left what we were doing and ran to see what the matter was. It took all of us to stabilise the room enough to venture inside! We found you untouched among the wreckage, clutching a wax tablet with some indecipherable lines etched on it. Were you trying a spell? I thought I told you to practise maths!"

"I was practising maths, Uncle!" Jeff protested, shrinking back against his pillows.

"Don't be ridiculous. Maths aren't that destructive." Uncle Nick turned to leave the room, muttering about irresponsible children and maids who were supposed to be watching them.

"Please, Uncle Nick!" Jeff called after him. "Don't be mad at Kat. She was with me the whole time!"

"That just makes it worse. She should have stopped you." Uncle Nick stopped and turned around. "Kat? Who's Kat?"

"Isn't she the maid?"

"The maid is Martha. I have no idea who this Kat person is." Uncle Nick turned and left the room.

Maybe she's not a person. The thought entered Jeff's head, yet he was sure it was not his own. And maybe she's the 'magical disturbance' you've been prattling on about.

"Kat? Are you still in my head?"

Don't be ridiculous. I never really was in your head.

"Great. I've got a voice in my head named 'Kat' and it's in denial."

I'm not in your head, silly. A black cat leapt, seemingly from nowhere, landing on Jeff's bed. Her green eyes seemed to glow, and she had a smug air about her.

Jeff's jaw dropped. "You— You're a cat?"

Kat eyed him sarcastically. Can't you tell? I thought my name was a bit of a give-away.

"But— you were talking about eyebrows!" Jeff protested.

Where I come from, felines are permitted to talk about eyebrows just as much as anyone else.

"You said you never could only raise one before!"

One must have eyebrows before one can raise them, true? Kat moved up to the head of the bed and curled up next to Jeff. I suppose you'll also want to know that I'm the magical anomaly your uncle kept going on about. How lovely for him when he finds out that I've decided to stay at his house.

"You? Magical? But you kept saying that you couldn't do magic! And calling me 'Master Jeff'!"

That was my ignorant maid disguise. You were quite convinced.

"Ignorant! But you kept going on about intellectual things, like science stuff, and grammar!"

Kat closed her eyes and laid her soft black head on her front paws. You were quite convinced, she repeated. Now, if you're quite done expressing disbelief, would you oblige me by scratching behind my ears?

"Why're you planning to stay?" Jeff asked as he obliged.

Kat opened one eye. You need a magic tutor. You're a powerful magician in your own right, and without proper training you could destroy worlds. You need a feline.

"How do you know I'm powerful? Aren't cats for witches? And did you say worlds?"

Kat opened her other eye and favoured Jeff with a piercing look, not too unlike the one his uncle had given him earlier. You should do your research before asking dumb questions.

"Worlds?" Jeff persisted.

Yes, there is more than one world. Either that or I'm a liar. Use your common sense.

"And you really think I'm powerful?"

Kat let out the cat equivalent of a sigh. You can hear me, can't you?

Jeff grinned. "Technically, it's not really hearing. You're not speaking out loud, at any rate."

Kat closed her eyes again. You and I are going to get on just fine. After we convince your uncle to let me keep you, that is.

As Jeff gently scratched Kat's head and she began to purr, Jeff felt a warmth spreading through him. True, his uncle was furious at him and would probably remain that way for a while. True, the magic workshop was in shambles and it was his fault. But he had been in a black hole and come out alive, and gotten a new friend who was going to teach him magic into the bargain. As he dropped off to sleep again, he decided that he would never tell anyone, he would not recommend it to anyone, and he was certainly never going to do it again, but perhaps, after all, it was not such a bad thing that he had divided by zero.