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the comic's manuscript, without pictures

13. Shifting horizons

Although he still preferred shooting fireballs, Adrien liked to practice Air magic. After struggling so much with Water magic, Air magic came easy to him; he found it simple and straightforward - all he had to do was smile and not worry about it, and the spell would cast itself. It was only a matter of having confidence, and expressing it with joy; and he was full of both. Adrien found himself so changed from how he used to be before the apprenticeship, before meeting Val. He was happy, and he knew he was happy; he liked who he had become, and he was grateful to Val for helping him grow - for being at his side as a guide, and as a friend.

In his gratitude, Adrien only hoped that he could bring the same happiness to Val, as well. He'd come to understand that, within his gentle kindness, Val concealed a great sorrow, too great to bring to words; it lived in the quiver of his breathing when he hesitated to speak, and in the distance unreachable when his gaze became lost. Adrien could not guess what it was, and he would not ask; but he hoped that one day he would learn, and he hoped to be there for him and help him with his pain.

After practicing some spells, Adrien took a moment to stretch his back. He picked up the large tome on which he'd cast his lightening spell, and he set it on the windowsill. Past the window of the practice tower, the snow-covered landscape shone golden and pink as afternoon turned to evening. Adrien paused to take in the sight; Val stepped closer to join him. In peaceful silence, the two followed the fleeting clouds with their eyes.

"How have I been doing today?", Adrien said, turning his head.

"You've been doing splendidly", Val replied. "I think this is going to be our last day of Air magic. You're ready to move on to Earth spells".

"Oh, already?", Adrien commented. "It feels like I haven't been at Air magic for very long... has it even been a week?...".

"Two weeks, actually", Val said, leafing through his notes.

"Really!", Adrien exclaimed. He narrowed his eyes in a mellow smile. "I guess time goes faster when you're having fun".

Val smiled, but said nothing. He rifled through his notebook again. "I expect we'll be done with basic elemental magic by January or February. So far, you've been perfectly on schedule".

"Even with Water magic and --?".

"-- Yes, even with that", Val smiled. He set his notebook on the windowsill. "A standard learning course does allocate room for such incidents to happen. And, even if you had needed some more time, that would still be fine. Well -- for me, at least. Council rules notwithstanding".

Adrien widened his eyes. "Wait -- if I kept failing, would you get in trouble with the Council of Magic?".

"Eventually, I suppose", Val replied. "I'd have to report as to what are the issues in question, and there would be an investigation to confirm... an extension could be granted on a case-by-case basis, I believe. Of course, if I kept applying for extensions with no progress on your part, then the apprenticeship would be annulled, and... But you don't need to worry", he then added, noting Adrien's concerned expression. "This rule is in place to prevent people from exploiting the system. I think it would apply if, instead of one year, you took two...".

"Oh, that long", Adrien smiled with relief. "Then it's alright. I know that won't happen".

In the lull that followed, Adrien seated himself on the floor. He absentmindedly rolled the staff between the palms of his hands, then looked up at Val. "Anyway, uh -- so, for Earth magic -- is the exercise going to be -- making something heavy?".

Val chuckled softly. "That would be quite silly... No, the Earth exercise will be to stop the pendulum of a clock".

"That's Earth magic?", Adrien said, wide-eyed. "I wasn't expecting that".

"What were you expecting?".

Adrien paused. "Actually, I'm not sure. I don't really have a good idea of what Earth magic is like", he said. "Sorry", he then added with a crease in his brow.

"That's alright. It is an often-overlooked type of magic", Val replied, seating himself down on the floor in front of Adrien. "You won't meet many sorcerers who specialize in elemental Earth magic".

"How come?".

"Because Earth is what is always under our feet. What is always there is often taken for granted". Val paused a moment, then continued. "The Earth element is linked to the world of the grounded, the heavy, the stable, and the factual. As a metaphysical explanation for the solid state of matter, it is an abstract understanding of physical reality. Where the Air element is about reaching outside of yourself, the Earth element is about considering what you are, in the way in which you are".

Adrien lowered his head. "I think I see", he nodded. "What is Earth magic generally used for?".

"Earth magic is most often used as a component to other spells and enchantments, because of its stabilizing effect", Val said. "It is often used as a source of energy for defense magic, as it summons notions of safety, memory, and truth. All sorts of mechanisms are often imbued with Earth magic, for better functioning. Many staves have Earth properties for the protection and the balance of the user; the staff you are currently using does, too".

Adrien looked down at the viper staff in his hands. "It does?".

"It is made of wood, and snakes are connected to Earth. It has intertwined snakes forming a circle, a symbol of protection in itself", Val explained. "And the snakes are vipers - they carry venom, which can kill, but can also be used in the most powerful healing potions... And their eyes are tigerseyes, which grant safety and insight".

"Wow", Adrien could only say. "I hadn't realized". He tilted the staff from side to side to make the tigerseyes catch the golden light of the sunset. "But that's about enchantments and other stuff. What is Earth magic for, on its own?".

"On its own, you may use Earth magic to stop about anything. It can prevent objects from falling, food from spoiling...".

"So... It's mostly for stopping? Could it be used to do anything more --".

"Earth is a descending element, so it makes things less, not more", Val replied with an amused smile. "And that too is important. You would not think of how essential brakes are until the moment in which they stop working".

"...Right", Adrien giggled, caught.

"However, I see why you would ask me that", Val added with an impish grin.

Adrien laughed nervously in response, his face turning red. "You know me...".

Val chuckled. "There is nothing wrong in you being drawn to the more active aspects of magic", he then said. "However, action should be balanced and controlled... always considered. Earth magic is about consideration. It is humble and inward, but so important. I think working with it will only strengthen you".

Adrien nodded slowly, smiling with his eyes closed. He felt the warmth of Val's care and attention for him. "I think so too", he then said. "I trust your judgement. As always".

From that conversation alone, Adrien already knew that Earth magic would not come easy to him. This time around, there was no denying that his personality was at absolute odds with Earth magic; even with how much he'd recently grown, he was far from being described as patient and stable - and his anxiety over getting results would only drive him further from his goal. His only choice was to spend many days in meditation, slowly creating room within himself for this state of mind that he was not accustomed to. He took to this task dutifully and agreeably; in spite of his struggles, he had confidence in his abilities and in Val's guidance, and he did not doubt that he would eventually succeed. Over time, his reach towards the Earth element took the form of a contemplative mood that he most often found in the evenings after his lessons - when he retreated to his room, set his head against the pillow, and lingered in the doorway of sleep.

In these private meditation sessions, he thought about his present, where he was, how he was. He'd made it far, and changed much. He was no longer coasting along on his life's happenings and mistakes, but choosing what would be of himself with intention; he was no longer scattered, brittle, and combustible - he had become focused, resilient, and understanding. Where he had flaws, he no longer saw them as unlovable stains on his being; in fact, from afar, he recognized that perhaps they even gleamed a little. They certainly did in Val's eyes, whenever he gently teased him over his fiery temper and brash impatience; things Adrien shamed himself for, but that Val seemed to not mind. If he could see himself with that same kindness, Adrien thought, then he could see his flaws as a part of himself, without judgement or reproach. If he could see his flaws as a part of himself, then he could see where they belonged: his impatience within his enthusiasm, his chaos within his will. Adrien smiled. It was certainly an unorthodox approach, but he could learn to be patient towards his impatience, and turn his hurdles into allies. This would be his strategy to succeed at Earth magic.

Adrien stretched his arms against the pillow. He thought about his present, his reality, the time he was living. It was easy to be happy when all was well, but his recent struggles had made him realize that he was happy even in other times. When he tried Earth magic, often Val had to correct his posture and remind him to set both feet on the ground - which came difficult to him, as he often felt like he was walking on clouds. Each new day brought new joys - learning and studying and having lovely breakfasts and conversations and laughter. This was a happy time of his life, one that he was sure to look back upon fondly.

Look back upon fondly.

Adrien's stomach sank. In that moment, he was struck by the realization that this bliss that he was living was only a short period of his life, a time transient by nature - one that would have to come with an end. The reason why he was there was to become a sorcerer; when that would happen, he would have to go home. Back in Ordly, his mom and his friends were waiting for him to return; and he missed them too, and he wanted to be back - but, in the meanwhile, he didn't want to leave. He was happy to be in the tower, studying magic at Val's side; and yet, one day, this time would have to end, and he'd have to say goodbye. Would Val cry, too?

Adrien closed his eyes and decided to fall asleep. The thought was too much for him.

*****

On the 31st of December, it had been lightly snowing on and off. During that week, Adrien found himself more and more consistently able to stop the pendulum; on that afternoon, Val had told him that he could consider himself proficient at Earth magic, and that they would move on to the next element in the coming days. When the evening came, they enjoyed a dinner that was longer and more elaborate than usual; Val, who would usually retreat to his private quarters much sooner, had decided to stay in the main hall with Adrien until the new year, playing card games such as scopa as they waited for midnight to strike.

Adrien's nose twitched when he saw the seven of coins that had just landed in his hand. He conspicuously sniffled to mask his blunder. Even though Val didn't act like he had noticed, Adrien had seen enough of how he played cards by that point in the evening to know that he was frighteningly good at concealing his strategies, and that he was perfectly capable of reading him without needing to lift his gaze from his cards.

Face up on the table, there were a five and a three - making eight all together, which meant that Adrien could not make a play with the seven of coins yet. In his hand, Adrien also had a king of coins and a four of cups. If he placed the four of cups on the table, he could use the seven of coins in his next turn to capture three and four - provided that Val wouldn't block him. Adrien knew that the seven of clubs had yet to appear, and there was only one more hand before the end of the round - it wasn't unlikely at all that Val was currently holding it; if that was the case, setting the table for a seven would mean that Val would get to play and keep his valuable seven of clubs, forcing Adrien to drop the seven of coins. If Adrien played the king of coins, instead, he would not help his later moves at all, but he also would not be potentially turning the table to Val's advantage. And if Val had low cards, he would then have to drop them, which might create once again a combination leading to seven. His eyes darted between his cards and Val's serene face. Which move was less likely to arise suspicion? How much had Val figured out yet?

Not wanting to waste any more time for Val to think about it, Adrien dropped the king of coins and decided to see what would happen. He knew it wasn't the brightest move, but the alternative was too risky for him.

But, contrary to all of Adrien's predictions, Val played a three and picked up the three that was on the table. Adrien inhaled sharply. Now the table had a five and a ten, with no way to make a seven. He dropped the now-useless four of cups onto the table as he quietly cursed himself for this self-sabotage: it could have been easy, he thought, and instead he had to make it hard - and now he would probably lose the point because he didn't have the courage to do what he should have done in the first place.

While Adrien explored new ways to chastise himself in silence, Val smiled. "Interesting", he said. He dropped a two of swords onto the table.

Adrien's eyes went wide. "No way!", he laughed. Forgetting all about the disappointment of one second before, he cackled as he played the seven of coins to capture the five and two. "I don't know how this is even happening", he laughed as he stacked his loot onto his pile.

"Let me show you, then", Val smiled. He spun around to show the last card in his hand: the seven of clubs.

Adrien laughed again, this time in wild disbelief. "You were setting it up for yourself!".

Val placed the seven of clubs onto the table and sighed. "I suspected you had the seven of coins, but when you played the king, I thought you had no way of turning the table towards it... And I even had two different ways to make it to seven, and yet... Well played, Adrien", he smiled.

Adrien chuckled. "Thank you", he said. "When you picked up the three, I was sure I'd blown it... I wondered if you had the seven of clubs, but -- actually, now that I think about it, I should have considered that you could be doing the same thing as me".

"You did just fine", Val said as he dealt more cards. "No need for regrets".

Adrien reviewed his new hand. He picked up the king of coins with a king of swords. "Right", he replied. "I shouldn't think like that". He leaned back in his armchair, stretching his legs under the table. "Anyway, I've been thinking about Light magic...".

Val set down an ace of clubs. "What about it?".

Adrien placed a knight of swords on the table. "Do you think I'll find this one hard, too?".

"-- and I'm taking these back", Val stated gladly as he played a lady to pick up both the ace and the seven. He looked up at Adrien. "What about it worries you?".

"Well, Light is an abstract element", Adrien said as he placed a five of cups onto the table. "Doesn't that mean that it's harder to grasp?".

"No, not necessarily", Val said as he placed a two of clubs down. "It only means that you will need an abstract frame of mind to do so. What do you already know about the Light element?".

Adrien dropped his last card, a king of cups, down on the table with the others. "Well, it's the purest form of rising energy", he said, "and it's about -- knowledge, completeness, and -- being revealed. Which I find very interesting, so I can't wait to try it myself".

Val smiled. He dropped a two of clubs on the table, then cleared the table of all cards, which gave the cue to Adrien to start counting his pile.

"...teen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one", Adrien proclaimed. "...ty-two, twenty-three. I have the most cards".

"I have the most coins", Val said as he went through his cards. He grabbed the piece of paper on which he'd been keeping score. "You have the seven of coins... ah, no point counting for the primes - that already brings you to eleven, and I'm still at nine. You win".

Adrien smiled, satisfied. "You played very well, though".

Val took the cards from Adrien's hands and shuffled them for a little before reforming them into a pile and putting them on the side. He glanced at the fireplace behind his back, then went to stoke its flames. "On the Light element", he resumed, "I wanted to point out that, rather than knowledge in itself, you may want to think of Light as... representing that which is eternally known". He set the poke back on its stand, then turned around. "That which is eternally known, and eternally achieved".

Adrien tilted his head on the side. "...Knowledge in the complete aspect", he then said.

"Yes -- that is a much more -- ah, much less -- needlessly verbose way of putting it", Val chuckled, lowering his head in what looked like shame.

"Don't say that!", Adrien half-scolded him with a laugh. "I want to listen to you! In fact, tell me more!".

Val smiled. "Well, one concept that might help you grasp upon the Light element is... that, in some ways, it might be easier to think of Light as a philosophical concept rather than a series of attributes. Light is the all, and Darkness is the nothing. Even outside of what is traditionally called magic, Light and Darkness are core concepts of philosophy and mysticism - and aspects of existence; the most essential principles of the cosmos. But it is also useful to think of Light as the most absolute form of the other rising elements. The joy of Air becomes the elation of Light; the intention of Fire becomes the certainty of Light. All aspects of Light are final and absolute; as such, it represents order, with Darkness representing chaos".

Adrien had been looking up at Val with rapt interest, trying to absorb as much information as he could. "Thank you", he then said. "I hope this will go well for me".

"I'm sure it will", Val smiled. He looked up at the clock. "Thirty minutes to midnight", he read. "It's almost time". Val gestured with his hand, and set the table with panettone, pandoro, and a bottle of spumante. He unpacked both cakes and picked up a knife to slice them: "Which do you prefer?".

Adrien blinked. "Oh, um -- can I have a bit of both?".

Val smiled and did as requested; he offered Adrien a plate with two slices, and set aside a smaller portion for himself. As Adrien sat on the couch eating his slices, Val wandered off and rummaged through one of the cabinets underneath the bookshelves. When he found what he was looking for, he approached Adrien with a big smile. "Happy new year", he said. "This is for you".

From behind his back, Val produced a shallow paper box wrapped in a ribbon. Adrien could say nothing; he looked at Val, at the package, and then at Val again, not knowing how to respond. "I -- wow -- thank you", he managed to mumble as he took the package from Val's hands. He looked up at Val with an interrogative gaze one more time, to which Val replied with a nod. Adrien unfastened the ribbon and opened the lid: inside, there was a sweater, vermillion in color, made of the softest wool.

"I hope it fits you", Val said, "and I hope you like it".

Adrien unfolded the sweater, speechless. He looked at it front and back; he then turned away from Val - he slipped out the black sweater that he had been wearing and tried on the new one; he was pleased to see that it fit him well. He turned to Val again.

"It's perfect", he peeped.

"It looks like it", Val replied.

Adrien breathed in - the air in his lungs trembled and bubbled out in the form of a sob in his throat. "I -- it's -- it's wonderful -- I don't -- I don't know how to thank you -- you really didn't have to --".

"I wanted to", Val smiled.

At that, Adrien threw himself forwards and wrapped Val in a big hug. "Thank you so much", he said in half-tears from against his shoulder. "Thank you so, so much".

Val smiled softly. His hands rubbed Adrien's back as he held him. The booming of the first fireworks echoed faintly from Falderdeen and further. In a few more minutes, it was midnight.