Pneumatics

“Ooh,” said Aidra, “I can’t wait for when she starts to get how to do this one. There’ll be lots of fire.”

Um?” Alice asked, suddenly very alarmed.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Red, glaring at Aidra. “This isn’t anything to do with fire. If it does start getting uncomfortably warm or cold, that’s because you’re doing the energy conversion wrong, and you should probably stop doing it before something explodes. So, give it a go. I’m on hand to catch you if you start mishapping, and so’s he, by technicality.”

Explode?

He sighed. “Don’t worry. I sincerely doubt you can generate enough energy to injure yourself yet.”

“I’m not sure if I’m reassured,” she said, but she held her hand, palm up like Red had shown her, and concentrated on the strange sensation, the pneuma, the sightless sound, the scentless light, the silent odour of this particular magic. It took several tries, far fewer than it had taken for her first spell. She felt the magic connect, saw a little flicker of green light above her hand and was so surprised, she lost concentration and it disappeared in a burst of darkness ‘bright’ enough to hurt her eyes.

Red watched this transpire, frowning. “Hmm.”

“Hmm?”

“Well done, you’re a quick study. The metaphors you’re using seem to hold light as an opposing force to darkness, so I’m not sure you’ll have trouble with waste heat, and your personal pneuma appears to be settling into something relatively stable.”

“Personal pneuma?”

“How to explain this… your pneuma is like your magical fingerprint. Whenever you do any magic at all, there’s a kind of, er, ‘waste energy’-”

“I’d personally argue,” said Aidra, tone professorial, “that it’s not waste energy – magic isn’t a heat engine, it’s a thaumatic process, and pneuma is more like waste sensation.” He pulled from his pocket a pair of pince-nez glasses and held them up to his face, as he didn’t have a nose to affix them to.

Red sighed. “Yes, I was getting to that. Everyone’s magic has a distinctive smell, taste, sound, visual appearance and texture. Exactly what it appears to be is… somewhat dependent on how you visualise and conceptualise your magic, and to some extent styles are picked up from those who teach you magic – I could tell, even if I didn’t already know, that Gyran was the person who taught you your first spell. People start off with a straight mimic of their teachers’ styles, but this tends to settle into something personalised, which rarely ever changes unless you undergo something that strongly changes your sense of self.”

“Right. I think Gyran said mine… sounded like chimes? And hers smelt somewhat ashy.”

“Mmmm, well, Gyran’s a bit of a special case.” He shifted, uncomfortable all of a sudden. “Hers kinda uniformly smells and tastes of ash, but that’s, er, due to something in her past that it’s not my place to tell you about. Your pneuma’s still developing, but yeah, it sounds a bit like chimes, or some kind of instrument like that. It’s green, too – you saw that in the colour of the light.”

“Oh! That’s cool, green’s my favourite colour.”

He grinned. “Yeah, and there’s a pretty good correlation between favourite colours and pneuma colours. As for smell, taste and texture, I think… hmm. That smell you get after it rains?”

“Petrichor?”

“Yeah, that. Not so sure about the taste, that was a bit vague, and the texture was just… cold.”

“Huh. Wait, the light you made earlier was white, not green or red or anything. Does that mean your pneuma is white?”

“Ah, no, my pneuma is – you guessed it – red.”

“Then why was my light green?”

“Well, one of the things you learn how to do as you get better at magic is to suppress the appearance of your pneuma where it would be inappropriate – it may be just sensation, but it’s still waste sensation. And as you do so, it’ll get easier and easier to make stuff with only the slightest hint of your signature colour, for example. Now, if I were to stop doing that, and just try to make light without trying to make it ‘clean’, I’d get…”

It was his right, his crystal hand that he raised this time, and above his palm a spot of bright red luminescence popped into being. It was smoky, like those constructs and swirls of red smoke he habitually made, and as she looked at it, she saw it move. Shadows of tiny tentacles seemed to move across the light, like it was in the belly of some baby octopus or something.

“Ooh, spooky.” A thought occurred to her, and she turned to Aidra. “What’s your magic pneuma thing like then?”

“It’s like unicorns and rainbows.”

“Oh, come on.” She thought a second. “It’s a chance to show off?”

“Well, I can’t refuse something like that,” he said, rolling up his sleeves.

As the deck of cards made a reappearance, Alice interrupted. “I’m not sure how this is supposed t-”

“Who’s the expert here?”

“Um.”

“Correct. Right then,” he said, producing something from thin air with a flourish. “Is this your card?”

DCLXVI: THE SHACKLED PILLAR

The picture on the card showed a storm-tossed sea, beating around the base of an enormous lighthouse. Great iron chains wrapped around the building, leading up into the clouds, crawling with barnacles and seaweed, and the stone of the tower was cracked. Where a light would be, at the top of the lighthouse, a single lidless staring eye looked back up at her from the shockingly detailed illustration.

“It’s a bit Lord of the Rings-y,” said Aidra, “but it gets the message across, aye?”

“Firstly, what is this? Secondly, you still haven’t demonstrated your pneuma.”

He rolled his eyes. “Everyone’s a critic.”

Red took the card from Alice. “What’s ‘The Shackled Pillar’ when it’s at home?”

Well, in terms of divination, the Pillar is generally held to be one of the Axioms – one of the ‘pillars that hold aloft the roof of the world’. That the Pillar is shackled is in some way the idea that Incandescent Law itself has been held back or prevented from acting, but that some manner of reckoning is coming.”

“That’s, er, one of the bad cards, isn’t it?”

He pulled a face. “It’s possible.

“Why do you never give me good news?” Red asked dryly.

“Have you considered,” he replied, “that you make terrible decisions?

“He’s got you there,” said Alice.

“He does not ‘got me there’!”

“Sounds like the kind of thing a got person would say,” Aidra added.

“Ominous omens aside, and we’ll be having words about that, believe me,” she said, “you still haven’t shown me your special magic flavour or whatever.”

“Ugh, fiiiiiiine.” He snapped his fingers, and his hand burst into flame.

The fire that licked harmlessly through his fingers was bright turquoise, and seemed to fizz slightly, small bubbles occasionally appearing, floating for a second and popping.

“And,” he continued, “just to show I can do magic properly…

He closed his hand, so that just his index finger was raised, and the fire shrank and changed colour into something very much like the small flame of a lighter, just above the end of his finger. Theatrically, he blew it out, then mimed ‘holstering’ his hand.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, you’re very funny.

“I’ll have you know I’m hilarious. I’m unappreciated in my own, entirely nonspecific, time.”

“That isn’t suspicious wording at all.

“Glad we agree! Now,” he said, pulling a frankly enormous pointy hat from a pocket in his robes that didn’t look like it should fit at all, “here you go, young miss wizard.”

Alice took the hat from him, and it sproinged into full size. If she wore it, she was fairly sure she wouldn’t be able to see past the brim. “Er, thanks?”

“Right then,” said Red, “your next lesson is to repeat that light spell until you can produce a light that remains constant for, say, ten seconds. You can practice to hold it indefinitely in your own time. Now get cracking!”

She groaned. She should have expected learning magic to be somewhat like learning how to play an instrument. Probably a theremin, given how vague and hand-wavey everything was.

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