“A final warning, and then I will see about some basic theory of the Art Immaterial. Is that acceptable?”
“Do you know what demons are?”
“Well, erm, maybe?”
She nodded slightly, staring into space for a moment, eyes like cinders, grey with flecks of amber. “How best to explain. Demons are creation’s means of self-destruction. They are echoes of Is-Not, sometimes. The inevitable tendency of entropy to destroy. They have many faces, many forms, but the ones that have drawn my attention recently are called the Grey and the White.”
She looked back at Alice. “They move to intercept you, I believe.”
“At this point, I cannot say. It could be one of many reasons, but I am privy to more information of their activities than they believe, and thus know what they are planning with some degree of approximation. Agents of theirs have appeared in numerous places in your wake, searching.”
“What- what’ll they do when they find me?”
“If they find you, they will likely offer you a ‘deal’, which will for reasons not immediately visible, be far better for them than for you.”
“Oh, a devil deal.”
Gyran tilted her head. “I don’t see what this has to do with devils.”
“Uh. Where I come from, ‘devil’ and ‘demon’ sometimes mean the same thing?”
“Ah. In any case, you are luckily travelling with sensible people who can steer you from such matters.”
“Wait,” said Aidra, “she is? How come I haven’t met any of them?”
“I amend my previous statement to ‘sensible people and Aidra’. Now you are forewarned, and it is time to speak of magic. Let us go and find a quiet room.”
At that, Alice may have made an entirely undignified noise of glee.
– – –
The ‘quiet room’ had two easy chairs and a table, sitting incongruously in the centre of a lawn. The grass wasn’t quite the right colour, and the plants standing in pots on the meticulously swept patio were alien-looking, but the pond, the soft murmur of the fountain, of the water features, they spoke of ‘garden’ in terms she remembered from home.
“I asked your friends to remain in the War Room,” said Gyran, “firstly so that they could provide Red with some well-needed humility about the actions he has taken towards you, and secondly because the first steps on a mage’s education are very delicate, and too many conflicting efforts tend to… confuse.”
Sitting down, Alice realised these were rocking chairs. “Too many cooks?”
“Yes. Now, the precise philosophy of thaumatics is somewhat up for debate, so I will try to give you some options. It will likely not be too relevant which one you decide is ‘correct’, but some things are precluded.”
She smiled softly. “People have been debating the fundamental nature of magic since before I was born, thousands of years ago. I doubt they’ll stop any time soon. What you personally think magic is is the least important of the fundamentals, but it is necessary.”
“Right. Wait, thousands of years? How old are you?”
“It is impolite to ask a lady her age. Now, as for these philosophical explanations-”
Gyran explained that the analogy most commonly taught in the schools of the Foyan Polity was that the Real is made as such by the Incandescent Law – the ‘rules of Reality’.
“It is that which underpins the Vow Red has made for you, for instance.”
“Huh. Still pretty stupid of him, right?”
Since sentients were part of the Real, it would stand to reason that they were partly made of Law. Thus, it could be argued that by having desires, it wouldn’t be too far removed from the Law itself having desires.
“And so,” she explained, “with an expenditure of will and personal power, one can work miracles. According to the teachings of Konithar ex Tshoon, who founded one of the most influential magician’s guilds this Age. Due to drift in motives, they have since become a far-reaching inter-Realmic criminal syndicate, but seeing as they trade neither in flesh nor souls, I find no strong objections to their non-violent works. But I digress.”
“I think the takeaway from that is something about magical mafias.”
“Well, I would say that I haven’t got to the part about actual lessons yet.”
“Now, I will explain the philosophy I was taught under when I was… how old are you?”
“Ah, when I was half your age. A while ago, by most reckonings. I was told that the true Real was a consensus. It is not that which, when disbelieved, fails to disappear. You are part of the consensus that dictates Reality, and thus, you have a degree of power over the Real, if you could just access it.”
“So, the other thing isn’t true? Or is the more, er, modern version true?”
Gyran smiled again. “The true lie to the Art is that both of those are true. Or, rather, that truth in this matter is subjective, rather than objective. You adopt one of these truths, or find your own, to facilitate your understanding of the transmundane.”
“How do I tell if it’s working?”
“When you cast a spell and it works. Now, for your first working of the Art, I would suggest something that can’t easily go wrong, detonate or cause unpleasant side effects.”
She gulped. “Is that… common?”
“In my first apprenticeship, at age eleven, I was filled with youthful impatience and hubris. The first exercise I was given by my master was to draw the latent heat from a beaker of water, and apply it in concentrated form to light the wick of a candle.” She leaned back in her chair, letting out a quiet chuckle. “The next task was to remove all the shards of glass and splatters of tallow from the ceiling, walls, floor and my master’s clothing. I escaped with a couple of minor cuts, but it taught me an important lesson and dented my pride.”
Alice snorted. “Well, I never thought magic was a real possibility, where I came from, so I doubt I’ve got any illusions about how competent I’m going to be.”
“Reasonable. Back to first workings. I’d suggest something in the spherus aer, because at a beginner level of power and skill, you are unlikely to lose concentration and cause yourself damage.”
She flicked her hand, and a breath of air tickled Alice’s nose.
“Are there, like, magic words?”
“While Bibliomancy – the Words of the Library – is a language of literal Magic Words, any vocalisations you make while casting intrinsic magic are something of a memory or concentration aid. The important part is to ‘listen’ to the pneuma, the… impression you get from the magic, and trying to replicate it in your mind.”
“Focus real hard on the wind?”
“The part of it that isn’t the wind. Directing it at your face distracts you. Try to move,” she said, pointing at the table, “that feather there.”
She made the gesture again, and the feather lifted into the air, flipped lazily over, and floated back down. This time, Alice was paying attention, and caught something like the scent of ash, mixed with the idea of flight, of space, of breath, that tickled the back of her mind like the wind had tickled her face.
Concentrating, she copied the gesture. Nothing happened.
“Focus, perhaps, on what you think reality is, and how what you are doing aligns with and defies it.”
Alice frowned, and tried again. And again.
It was at try number twenty-five, and she was considering taking a short break to rest her hand, when Gyran made a noise of surprise.
“Ah, there you are! I felt that one.”
“But the feather didn’t-”
She nodded. “Whatever movement of air you caused was too weak, but I heard its pneuma. Yours has something of a sound of… chimes? It will likely develop more thoroughly when you work further in the Art.”
Alice flicked her hand again, and this time, the feather twitched. “Hah!”
“And there you have it. Your first Working, achieved cleanly, with none of the paraphernalia or clutter that can distract the modern student.”
“So, er, what now?”
“Now,” she replied, standing, “I give you this feather so you can continue your practice – and you can continue your education with Red or,” she sighed, “Aidra.”
“I’m a wizard!”
Gyran smirked, holding out a hand to help her stand. “That you are. I look forward to teaching you again, when you are moving towards more advanced topics.”
Gyran: It is impolite to ask a lady her age.
Gyran a minute later: How old are you?