“Hmm. This is… what fits in the, erm, ecological niche of alcoholic drinks, locally. It’s a mild poison for pretty much everything, but I suspect it’s a bit too concentrated like this for human consumption.”
“You can stop doing the whole poison sommelier routine on every fricken breakfast food, Red. You’re putting me off my still-twitching cereal slime.” Alice prodded at the beige-yellow undulating debatable foodstuff with her chopsticks.
“It’s supposed to be served alive,” said Aidra. “I know chefs who’d have you hung, drawn and quartered for visiting such an injustice on an innocent bowl of Fuligo Flakes.”
“It’s a breakfast cereal,” she replied, “how much of a purist about it can you even be?”
“I mean, you did put it in the bowl before the milk. That’s the sign of a truly disturbed mind.”
“I didn’t know it was cereal!”
“It says on the box!”
Nik sighed loudly. “Children.”
“Sorry,” Alice said quickly. “Red, pass me something non-toxic, if you would.”
“Certainly, madam,” said Red, in the snootiest accent he could apparently manage. “I recommend this, it pairs quite nicely with Fuligo Flakes.”
She took the offered glass of green liquid with some scepticism, but it tasted fairly nice – something fruity with undertones of the feeling she got when she made a breakthrough on a difficult problem.
“What’s this supposed to be?”
“Uh.” Red squinted at the label on the bottle he was holding. “Juice of the Serindipitree.”
“That… that actually makes sense,” she replied begrudgingly. “It tastes like epiphanies feel, if that means anything.”
“Ah, look here,” said Aidra, deftly plucking the bottle from Red’s hands. “Health information! Ahem. ‘Tree Solutions sources its tree juices from safe ideaspaces, but there may still be dietary problems. Do not imbibe if you are, aren’t, or may be, and make sure you do if you might or willn’t. Tree Solutions are not responsible for injury, uninjury, healing, life, death, thereafters, or other things involved in the ontology of this liquid or its source. If you experience mitosis, meiosis or necrosis, please stop drinking this.’”
She blinked. “Um, is that bad?”
“Wellllll,” he said, “‘bad’ is all a matter of perspective, so-”
Red interrupted him. “It’s fine. I’ve tried it – there’s no adverse effects on human biology.”
“Do you even have a ‘human biology’?”
She felt she’d made a mistake, but couldn’t work out how to escape the awkwardness, so she pressed on. “I mean, you don’t need to breathe, you can’t get poisoned, and… well, I’m not sure. What even are you?”
Red grimaced. “I’m, well, mostly human.”
“But,” said Aidra, triumphantly, “how long have you been seventeen?”
He looked very confused. “What.”
“You’re a vampire! Now, get in the sunlight and take your shirt off, so we can see you sparkle.”
“Wh- I, what?” He opened his mouth, closed it again, then looked at Alice helplessly.
“Aidra, shut up,” she said, “and Red, answer my question before I change my mind and ask him to come up with something dumber to say.”
“Just say the word, ma’am,” he said, cracking his knuckles. “I’ll non-sequitur his knees in.”
“Look,” said Red, “I’m human.” He held up his red crystal hand. “This thing, however, is the primary reason for my preturnatural resilience.”
She looked at his disconnected fingers as they waggled in the air. “How does that work, then?”
He shrugged. “Magic.”
“As an explanation, that’s kinda unsatisfying.”
“It unfortunately defies explanation. It’s frustrating for me too, believe me.”
“Huh. Where’d you get it?”
“Dunno. I’ve had it as long as I can remember. I genuinely didn’t know that humans had two arms until I first met Alan – hey, stop laughing!”
“Okay, okay, sorry,” she said, suppressing her giggles, “but you’ve got to admit-”
“I admit nothing.”
– – –
An hour later, Alice voiced a scientific thought in the vague direction of the train car’s other inhabitants.
“So, if I jump up,” she said, “towards the middle of the train, will I fall over to the other side, or will I just fall down, no matter how far I jump?”
“I’m not sure,” said Red, “but I’m pretty sure that it’s a good way to do yourself a serious injury.”
“Careful, you’re sounding like Aidra.”
“No I’m not!” she exclaimed, in unison with “She does not!” from Aidra himself.
“The resemblance is uncanny,” said Nik.
Him and A Librarian were sitting on the seats on the ‘other side’ of the strange cylindrical gravity thingie the Seeper Train had going on, so she had to crane her neck to look at them. She stuck her tongue out at Nik, but he didn’t notice – he’d returned to the book he was reading.
“Hey, Red?” she asked, in her sweetest voice.
He glanced at her suspiciously from across the table he, Aidra and her were sitting around. “What do you want?”
“Can I have a magic lesson?”
“I would… prefer not to?”
“No, I won’t fall for the puppy-dog eyes.”
“Oh,” said Aidra, “I guess Gyran was right when she said you weren’t the best teacher, then.”
The look Red gave him could have stripped paint. “Look, I know wh- I mean, I- argh fine.” He groaned. “You win.”
“Right, so Gyran probably told you your first Truth, and taught you something smallish.”
“Yeah! She gave me this-” she rummaged briefly in her pockets before retrieving the feather. “And I’ve been practising, see!”
She plonked it down on the table, and then with a waggle of her fingers and act of will, she made it lift from the table and flip over, borne by a series of small wind currents.
“Ah, you have been practising, well done. Now, unfortunately, as your erstwhile teacher, I have to work out what bad habits you’re getting yourself into and sort them out. Now, hmm. Lift it up, like before, but hold it in the air, as still as you can, for as long as you can.”
She reached out with her mind, feeling the shape of the air in the carriage, as it moved through her lungs and around her in slow currents. As she visualised the movement of air, she saw the feather move. It felt somewhat distant to watch it, with the eyes outside her mind, the ones set in the outside of her skull, as opposed to how she felt it moving in her head.
It rose slowly from the table, trembling slightly as it reached its full height. Keeping it still while it hovered there, however, was somewhat like balancing a stick on her hand, but in her mind. She managed to keep it roughly stable for a six seconds that felt like half an hour, before things went wrong. It felt like a hole had opened in her skull and her brain was draining out of her ears. Pins and needles raced up and down her body, and the feather dropped to the table like a stone.
“Aha,” said Red, “allow me to fix your first thaumoexertion headache.”
“Nnngh, yes please.”
He reached over – with his human hand, she noticed – and rapped on her head with his knuckles.
“Ow, I- wait, what?” she said, starting angry before she realised that her head wasn’t hurting anymore.
“So,” said Aidra, “what’s the diagnosis, Doc?” How long’s she got to live?”
“You’ve got some pretty decent talent,” Red replied, “but you’ll need to work on your endurance, basically by doing that a couple times a day, and when I get around to giving you more exercises, doing those instead.”
“Ooh, more exercises?”
“Yep! We can’t spend all our time lifting feathers. Although, a first start in moving objects directly – telekinesis – would involve doing much the same thing in a different way. But that’ll be later, because those two things are a bit hard to detangle. For now, however, we need an exercise as far removed from what you were doing previously as possible – so the things you’re working with are distinct, and you’re not getting too sidetracked by and specialised in air magic.”
“Oh, I guess that makes sense. What’s next, then?”
“Well,” said Red, “watch, listen with your hidden senses, and learn.”
He held out his left hand, palm-up, and a little point of light flickered into existence like a fluorescent bar.
He grinned at her expression of surprise. “Let there be light.”