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the comic's manuscript, without pictures

15. The alchemy laboratory

When something is named, it can no longer be denied. This thought resonated with Adrien as he practiced Darkness magic. He came to cherish its name. He could now call for that which had always been with him: it had been his curiosity and his fear, his anxiety and his respite, the chaos that he held and that held him. The more he sat with this old companion, the more he felt like he owed it an apology: he had so often blamed it when he felt himself as too much, and as not enough. It was always something about him that he chose to hate, something about him that was at fault for all that he couldn't be. But it was himself, after all, and he'd already decided to see himself with different, unclouded, truthful eyes - with Val's eyes, always so infallibly kind, never wishing for him to be anything but himself, no matter what.

"This completes your first course of elemental magic", Val smiled from the other side of the dinner table. "You should be proud of yourself and of how much you've grown. I know I am".

Adrien smiled. "Thank you", he replied. "So, what happens next?".

"According to the Council of Magic guidelines, I would need to teach you the fundamentals of a healing-oriented subject. Most often, that would be healing magic. However, I don't think that is feasible in our case. Healing magic needs to be practiced under strict Council supervision in special facilities, the closest of which is in Thersed, which is quite far from here. You would have to study there for a few months, and with a different teacher, since I am not personally well-versed in healing magic... So, instead of healing magic, I propose that we next study the basics of alchemy, focusing on healing potions. Does that make sense to you?".

"Yes, absolutely", Adrien nodded. "And if in the future I wanted to study healing magic, I can look into that course then, right?".

"Right", Val replied. He cut up a morsel of baked chicken and ate it before continuing. "We will set up an alchemy laboratory upstairs from the practice room. Tomorrow morning, we'll have to go to the south tower and figure out what we'll need... That is going to be an adventure", Val added in a low chuckle. "I apologize in advance for the mess you will see".

"I'm sure it's not that bad", Adrien smiled.

"You'd be wrong", Val whispered a little too loudly. "Have you ever practiced alchemy before?".

"No, never. I've only read about it", Adrien said, carefully tearing the meat away from his drumstick with a knife. "It seems both very interesting and very weird".

"How so?".

"You know -- the way it works, I mean -- like, for example, the thing that, in alchemy, ice is not water...".

"Well, that is true in elemental magic as well", Val replied. "As ice is not fluid, it lacks a fundamental quality of the Water element. Since it is a solid and forms a surface, it is more Earth-aligned than Water-aligned".

Adrien raised his eyebrows. "I'm not sure I like this...".

"Alchemy is not about the literal properties of the ingredients, but rather about their perceived, symbolic function. When seen in that light, water and ice are two very different things with very different properties". He finished eating his share and set his fork down on the plate. "Don't you agree?".

"When you put it like that, I kinda have to", Adrien chuckled.

*****

The following day, Adrien flung himself out of bed and into his new sweater, leaving as little time as possible for the chilly morning air to touch his skin. One cup of hot chocolate later, he felt warm and fed enough, and so followed Val to the south tower for the first task of their day.

"Before we go inside", Val said as he took his hand off the doorknob, "let me cast a defense spell on you. The contents of the room are magically stabilized, so I don't expect any boxes to fall on your head... but you can never be too safe".

Adrien chuckled as the protective spell enveloped him. "Is it really that bad?".

Val narrowed his eyes in a reluctant smile. "Well", he said as he opened the door, "I'll let you be the judge of that".

Adrien had been expecting this room to look like a poorly-organized closet; in truth, it looked more like a dragon's horde - after a hurricane. Adrien could only take one step before he found his path blocked. The entire room was cluttered with piles of boxes and objects stacked upon each other, some of these columns almost touching the ceiling. In one corner, Adrien could recognize the ping-pong table they had used a while ago - placed upside-down on top of a pool table and covered in other things. Some of the boxes by his feet were opened, and inside he could see all sorts of strange bottles and gizmos; other boxes were filled with nothing but paper - and on some of the sheets, Adrien could half-see Val's notes and spell designs. More boxes yet contained copies of the books that Val had written. Nothing seemed to have been placed in its spot on purpose.

"Wow", he gasped under his breath. "You weren't kidding". He then realized what he'd just said. "I -- I'm sorry, I shouldn't --".

"No, it's alright", Val sighed. "There's no need to apologize for speaking the truth". He moved one hand and opened a path through the mountains of things, and started walking through - with Adrien cautiously following him. "This is what happens when one has a habit of making things disappear instead of taking care of them", he commented. "They don't disappear, of course. They just go make a mess somewhere else".

Adrien chose not to engage with that thought. "...What are we looking for, exactly?".

"I'm not entirely sure", Val replied. "We'll need some furniture, I suppose, and -- ah, there it is". Val pointed at one of the many piles of clutter, and drew a spell in the air. Some of the boxes began floating and scattering away, revealing the surface of a wooden table; it had been so enmeshed within the mess that Adrien could have not seen it before. Val moved his hand again, and the table slid out, hovering a couple meters above them. With one last gesture of his hand, Val freed a spot in the room, where the table then landed. "That's the first thing", he said. "Can you help me look around the room? I should have some boxes of alchemical supplies lying around - labeled, I think...".

By when they were finally finished with trawling through the confusion, it was already noon. After a quick lunch, Val and Adrien went to sort the materials they'd selected and set them up how they wanted - the part of their endeavor that Adrien had been most looking forward to.

The room that would become their alchemy laboratory was in the north tower, one staircase above the practice room. It looked to have once been a bathroom; however, all that was left of its previous function was an old stone sink by one wall. It was no issue for Val to quickly arrange the furniture around the room - just a flick of his fingers, and tables and shelves and chairs and stools took flight and landed in their proper places; however, he suggested that books, ingredients, and tools should be set around the room manually, so that both him and Adrien would be able to find them easily around the room. Adrien happily took on his request, but his task was considerably slowed by how he couldn't help himself from inspecting each piece of equipment and leafing through each alchemy tome. He'd caught himself several times, but Val had told him to continue indulging his curiosity - "We are not in a hurry", he had said with a bright smile.

Adrien had been sitting on the floor and going through one of these books when he starting laughing. "Oh, it's just -- I'm reading this book and -- many of these potions sound easy to make, but where would you even get the ingredients? Like, unicorn horn? Demon seed?...".

Val had been putting away ingredients at the other end of the shelf; he looked down at Adrien, amused. "As strange as it sounds, 'unicorn horn' is rather easy to come by", he started. "It is taken to mean that it must come from an animal that has only one horn. Most often, that ingredient is simply a bird's beak".

"A beak?", Adrien repeated. "But -- but that's not even --".

"-- For some special cases", Val continued, "you could use a narwhal's horn". He pointed at one of the bottles that he'd already put on the shelf.

"But the horn of a narwhal is actually a tooth!", Adrien whined.

"That doesn't matter here. Alchemy is a matter of metaphysics and symbolism, not biology", he said as he put another little jar away on the shelf.

Adrien shrugged. He looked down at the book in his lap. "Yeah... I guess", he muttered. He looked up at Val again. "And what about the demon seed?".

"The -- the demon seed?", Val stumbled, wide-eyed. "Oh... Well... Well, that is just -- something you can acquire".

"You can? How?".

Val looked off to the side and chuckled. "Well... You... You could summon a demon... and... simply ask for it".

"Really?", Adrien gasped. "That would work? And the demon would just -- give that? How?".

Val hid his face with one hand and took a loud breath. "...Use your imagination...".

Adrien paused for a moment as he did just that. "Oh".

"...Of course, you could also purchase it from the right alchemical suppliers", Val quickly added. "But -- why are you reading about that kind of potion in the first place?", he then said with an impish smile.

"What?". Adrien looked down at the title of the recipe: The Potion of Length and Girth. "Ah!".

*****

By late afternoon, they completed setting up the laboratory. Adrien took a seat on a stool. "We did a nice job", he commented, looking around the room. The shelves were now lined with bottles containing ingredients suspended in fluid, jars of translucent powders, and canisters of nuts and fruits; dried leaves had been hung from hooks, and empty flasks and bowls were lined up to be filled with what would be created during the course. Val had laid some carpets that he had in storage around the room, so to give it a warmer feeling; the walls had been decorated with star charts. On the table in the back, Val had placed large instruments of unclear purpose; a basket contained all kinds of small measuring tools. The books were now arranged by weight, color, and theme; Val had set some of the most useful manuals by the table in front of the window, where he supposed that the majority of the potion preparation would be taking place. Adrien had put special care towards making sure that the windowpane would be perfectly clean, so not to corrupt the light that would be needed for brewing potions.

"Are we making a potion today, or are you too tired?", Adrien asked.

Val paused. "I am a little tired, but not overly so. Maybe working on a potion will even help", he said. He pulled a book out of the bookshelf and leafed through it. He stopped on one page, read its contents, then nodded. "Right. Let's do this one. Today, we'll be making the Wine of Wakefulness".

"Oh, I've heard of that one!", Adrien said. "I knew someone in university who used it whenever he had to study all night".

"A bit of a sad use for it", Val smiled. "But I suppose that is one of its many purposes. It really is a very useful thing - and a good beginning potion, too. Come here, you should start by reading the recipe".

Adrien snuck behind Val's shoulder and looked down at the book. The page facing right was framed by an ornate border with vines, leaves, and sunbeams.

The Wine of Wakefulness

To cleanse from sleep
Bitter the ritual of awakening
The brightest of light
Shall open your eyes to the day

"Huh? That's it?", Adrien said, confused. "But there's no mention of the ingredients!".

"It is an older recipe, written as a riddle", Val said. "It is up to you to solve it in a way that resonates with your personality. I have books of known possible interpretations of alchemical recipes, but you should not go to those immediately; first, you should try to figure it out yourself".

"I -- I understand", Adrien replied. His eyes skimmed over the recipe again. "...I'm not sure what am I supposed to do with this, though...".

"In this case, try to think of what each line could be instructing you about. This first time, I can steer you like this... The first three lines describe ingredients, and the last describes the result".

Adrien squinted his eyes. "To cleanse from sleep...", he repeated.

Val had picked up a book of recipe interpretations, and had found and read the page relating to this potion. "Would you like a hint?".

"No, no, not yet", Adrien said, waving one hand. "Cleanses from sleep... It can't be just water, right?".

Val chuckled. "That is a common interpretation", he then said.

"Really!", Adrien laughed. "That seems way too easy".

"Not every answer is unicorn horn", Val said with a simper.

"I guess that's true, too", Adrien smiled. He read the recipe again. "Bitter the ritual of awakening. Okay, that has to be coffee".

"Correct again", Val smiled, and set down his book. "What is the last ingredient?".

"Let's see... The brightest of light...?". He furrowed his brow as he tried to make himself think. "Do I have to cast a Light spell?".

"Yes, if you want", Val replied. "You could also use noon sunlight - it is preferred, in fact - but, right now, it's too late for that", he commented, looking at the reddening sky.

"Right", Adrien said. "Okay, so, now I know the ingredients... It's water, coffee, and light. It's... hardly a wine, though", he said, raising one eyebrow. "It's going to be more like watered down coffee...".

Val giggled, one finger against his nose. "The inventor of this recipe liked the alliteration", he said with a silly smile. "Word magic sorcerers...".

Adrien laughed as well. "Well, alright", he said. "Though, I still don't know what happens now. How do I put the ingredients together?"

"This is where other theoretical knowledge comes into play", Val replied. "The techniques used to mix and process ingredients all have their own symbolic meanings, and, once again, it will be up to you to choose which makes most sense to you".

"This seems very complicated", Adrien said between gritted teeth.

"Don't worry", Val smiled. "You'll learn recipe by recipe. Besides, as I said earlier, sometimes things are simple. Look at the first line again: the water should be what cleanses you from sleep. So, it should be just like what you would use when you wake up in the morning".

Adrien paused in thought. "That'd be cold water from the sink... or maybe warm from the shower. I'd still use the sink first, though...".

"Then cold water it is". Val picked an empty cup from the shelf, filled it, and passed it to Adrien. "Like this?".

Adrien put a fingertip into the water, and shuddered. "Brr! Yeah, just like that". He wiped his finger on his pants. "What about the coffee? I don't drink it very often...".

"...But, when you do, how would you have it? How much sugar would you put in it?".

"One teaspoon", Adrien said.

Val moved his hands again, and produced a cup of hot coffee, to which he added the sugar. He looked at the book of recipe interpretations again. "You should mix the two, then cast a Light spell, and stir together for a while. As you work on the potion, your mind should be clear, just as if you wanted to cast a spell", Val explained, "and you should try to imbue the feeling of being wide awake within the potion. So, take a few deep breaths...".

Following Val's instructions, Adrien mixed the Wine of Wakefulness. In spite of the simplicity of the recipe, he needed some time to reach the right state of mind to be able to make it - just like the time he took for himself before each day of practicing spells. At one point, he felt like something had become different about the mixture of water and coffee that he had been whirling in the bowl for a while, and so he proceeded to bottle his first potion.

"Now what? Am I supposed to drink it, or...?".

"Oh, no, no", Val smiled. "I have a potion tester for that".

Adrien followed Val to the table on the opposite wall, which had been covered in all sorts of strange instruments. Val moved one of them forward. This machine looked like something in between a scale and a gyroscope, with a flat surface on which to place the potion surrounded by all sorts of crescent-shaped metal parts; its base was covered with a series of indicators and gauges. Adrien had seen this kind of machine before in stores, but he had never seen one in action before. This particular machine had a power cord; Val plugged it into the wall, set the flask onto the surface of the potion tester, and pressed a button to turn it on. A red indicator light started to blink; with a low hum, the machinery began to spin slowly around the potion. Val waited until the light stopped blinking, then he flipped another switch. The revolving parts picked up speed, their buzzing rising in pitch as their orbits turned into a blur. Adrien watched, mesmerized; the frantic spinning lasted only a few seconds, then it slowed down to a stop. The machine printed out a small piece of paper, which Val pulled out and showed to Adrien:

Wine of Wakefulness

Effectiveness: Below average
Duration: 15 hours

"Below average?", Adrien repeated, frowning.

"Don't mind that", Val replied with a dismissive gesture of his hand. "More importantly, this is your very first potion, and it works".

"I -- I guess", Adrien chuckled. "Sure it could say it in a nicer way...".

"Oh, I agree", Val smiled. "Well, then I will be the one to tell you: you did very well, Adrien, and you should feel proud".

Val touched Adrien's shoulder with one hand; and Adrien felt a great smile appear on his cheeks. "Thank you", he said.