Text version

the comic's manuscript, without pictures

5. Defense magic

With a contented sigh, Valerion set down his empty coffee cup - it made a gentle clinking sound as it touched the saucer. He lifted his head; at the opposite end of the table, Adrien was done with his bread and jam, and was now absent-mindedly balancing a fork on his index finger.

"I'm done. Do you want anything else?", Valerion asked.

Adrien put the fork down. "Ah -- I'm fine -- thank you".

"Alright. Then I will clear the table, and we can begin. Yes?".

"Yes -- thank you", Adrien replied with an emphatic nod.

Valerion moved his fingers, and, with a flash, everything disappeared from the table. He gestured at the flames in the fireplace to rise higher; then he sank deeper into his armchair, smiling.

"So, today you will begin your study of defense magic", he started. "The branch of defense magic encompasses some of the most basic applications of magic; essential knowledge that should be in the possession of every sorcerer, regardless of skill level. One of the reasons why I thought that this would be a good starting point for you is that the fundamental spells are very simple to draw, and require little effort to be cast. Defense magic is about reflecting energy and relies mainly on concentration, so, through your training, you will be able to direct your efforts on energy channeling while you become acquainted with some elementary shapes. But, primarily: defense magic is simply so useful - if properly understood and intelligently used, it can be life-saving -- well, that was rather obvious and you knew that, but --".

Adrien giggled softly. "It's alright - please, go on".

Valerion chuckled with him, and moved some of his black hair away from his forehead. "Thank you. Anyway, I was saying - so, it is relatively easy for a beginner, but invaluable as a skill. And, of course, it finds countless applications outside of life-and-death situations --".

"Like the barrier around the ping-pong table!", Adrien laughed.

"Yes", Valerion smiled. "You could also use it to prevent a burn while cooking, or to avoid slipping in the shower. You could even use it to waterproof your shoes".

"Oh! because that would defend them against water! That's brilliant!", he exclaimed.

Valerion smiled with his eyes. "Within the realm of magic, each spell is a tool: not like a screwdriver is a tool, but rather like a paintbrush... what you can do with it depends on the mind behind the hand, and the possibilities are truly endless".

Adrien nodded, pleased; he knew of many sorcerers who had specialized in placing defensive enchantments on commission, and were doing very well for themselves - he'd hoped this could be something that he could learn how to do, and maybe one day make a career out of it. "Yes -- that's amazing", he commented. Then his smile turned wistful: "You could also make shatterproof plates and glasses, right?".

"Absolutely; all of mine are enchanted like that", Valerion replied.

Adrien chuckled weakly. "I'd wish I'd known this stuff back when I was working as a waiter...".

Valerion laughed. "Oh, no -- I'm so sorry...".

"Ah -- don't worry -- it's behind me now", Adrien giggled.

Valerion leaned back in his seat; then he sat up. "Ah -- I almost forgot to mention: defense magic can be used for protection against anything - not necessarily just physical danger; the same concept can be applied against more abstract threats, as well".

"Really? I didn't know that", Adrien replied, his head tilted on one side. "Abstract threats, like...?".

"Like fear, for example".

"How does that work?".

"All defense magic hinges on the same principle: you need to channel a thought that will counteract your opposition. To make a more concrete example: if you were to be attacked by a fireball, you could think of being sheltered by a wall of water".

"Could I also think of dousing the fireball with a stream of water?".

"Yes - that would be a more proactive approach, which would still work".

Adrien seemed in thought for a second. "What about... if the fireball is eaten by a water dragon?".

Valerion burst into laughter. "If you can imagine the water dragon clearly, then yes - but that would be a bit excessive for a fireball, don't you think?".

Adrien giggled, his fingertips against his lips to hide his mouth. "Maybe it's a very small dragon?", he said between one chuckle and another.

Valerion laughed. "Personally, I would say to avoid disturbing a dragon of any size unless you have a good reason to - but this is just my personal opinion. I suppose that if you can imagine a dragon with ease, then please, by any means, conjure every dragon you can", he said with a light chuckle. "The most important thing is that you should find a thought that you can easily grasp and hold on to. The learning of magic is, first and foremost, a journey of self-discovery... As trite as it might sound, it is the truth. To understand magic, you must first understand yourself - the way you think, the way you are; which frames of thought resonate with you the most, which concepts align with your way of experiencing the world. To gain this understanding is one of the goals of your apprenticeship here".

Adrien lowered his head, deep in thought - he repeatedly bit his lip as he pondered Valerion's words. "I think -- I think I understand", he finally whispered. "How will I get there?".

"Through practice, it will become evident which notions you are most attuned to", Valerion said with a smile. "I will be there to guide you - to help you recognize the way your mind works - but everything should fall into place on its own, in due time".

"Ah -- I see. Thank you", Adrien replied. There was a pause; then he spoke again: "To go back for a moment -- just to make sure -- I don't always have to think about water against fire, right?".

"Correct. You could just as easily counteract the fireball with a gust of wind, for instance - or with a wall of fire. There are many possible answers to each question; most of the work will be in figuring out which answers fit you the best".

"I see", Adrien said, nodding.

Valerion turned towards the fire, seemingly deep in thought. Then he smiled: "I think that's enough theory for now; we can move to the practice, if you agree".

Adrien leaned forward in his seat, grinning. "Alright. So, what should I do?".

Carefully pulling up the fabric of his robe, Valerion lifted himself up from the armchair. He stretched his arms by straightening them against his back, then spoke again:

"We will start with a meditation session to clear your mind. Let's go upstairs".

*****

"I think I'm ready".

"Yes, I think so too. You may stand".

Adrien breathed out; slowly, he shifted his feet from underneath his body, straightened his legs, and stood up. He opened his eyes, blinking against the diffused grey light of that overcast day. "Okay, I'm here. What should I do?".

Valerion nodded and smiled at him. "We will start in a moment; allow me to explain a few more things. Today you will draw on the floor with a staff".

Adrien didn't even see Valerion's fingers move, but somehow, now he was holding a wooden staff in his right hand - tapered towards the end, its head carved in the shape of two interlocked vipers with shimmering gems for eyes.

"Wow, that's beautiful", Adrien commented.

Valerion smiled. "Yes. It's one of my personal staves, but since you're about as tall as I am, you can practice with this one; it should suit you".

"Wow", Adrien repeated, his eyes wide. "Are you -- are you sure I can --?".

"Of course. Don't worry, it's unbreakable", Valerion replied, his smile now extending to his eyes.

Adrien chuckled in response, and smiled. "Alright. Thank you, Valerion".

Valerion nodded. "Don't mention it. In any case... The most important shape in defense magic, is, of course, the circle - as a symbol of protection, representative of the outer boundary of your body and psyche. Allow me to demonstrate".

The fingers of his right hand locked onto the staff; sparks flew from its tip as he set it onto the stone floor. With a twist of his torso, Valerion drew a circle around his feet - an arc of soft blue light that spun around him clockwise, then closed upon itself with a flash.

Adrien watched with wide eyes, in awe. He had never seen Valerion draw a magic circle before; now that he had, he understood just why he was known as a master sorcerer. Valerion's movements were so beautiful, so harmonious; machine-like in their precision, but alive and breathing. What struck Adrien the most was how effortlessly he moved - as if this extraordinary display of elegance and skill was the most natural thing in the world; he made it seem so easy - but Adrien knew it was anything but.

"Now, if you try to cross this line, you'll see that you cannot", Valerion continued, smiling. "You can try, if you want".

Still in a daze, Adrien nodded, then walked towards the circle; as expected, his foot was met by an invisible wall. "Wow", he whispered.

Valerion smiled. "Anyway, you don't always need to draw a complete circle to defend yourself; an arc is often sufficient. You will need to make quick decisions based on the entity of your threat. If you were to defend yourself from an incoming punch, drawing a full circle would cause you to waste time, energy, and potentially expose your back to the attacker; in that case, it would be far more efficient to draw an arc that would protect you from the actual range of your threat".

Adrien nodded. "If I found myself surrounded, instead, a circle would protect me from all directions. I understand".

Valerion swiped the tail of the glowing circle around him with the tip of his staff; the spell broke, and the circle disappeared. Adrien watched the light fade away; it went from incandescent to a dying echo, to nothing again. Then Valerion continued: "More advanced uses of defense magic will allow you to activate the spells without having to draw them at all - like I did yesterday with the table, for instance. I'm sure you have heard of other examples, too".

Adrien's mouth spread into an excited grin. "Oh, yeah -- ah -- have you read Mark of the Abyss?".

Valerion chuckled. "I have heard nothing but good things about it -- I own the first book, but I haven't read it yet".

"Oh -- well -- then -- I don't think it will ruin anything to say -- there's the main character, Theodora - she can stop anything by just outstretching one hand".

"Yes, that would indeed be possible for a master", Valerion said. "Is this where your interest with defense magic came from?", he then added, his head tilted.

Adrien giggled in a somewhat impish manner, with one hand covering his mouth. "Actually, the other way around - I got the book because I had heard that the descriptions of defense magic in it were really accurate. Then I read it, and, well - she kind of became a personal hero of mine".

"I see. Now I really have to read it, yes?".

"Yeah - it's great; I haven't met anyone who didn't like it".

Valerion chuckled, gently. "Maybe I'll read it when we return downstairs. But, now --".

Adrien's eyes widened: "-- oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to derail --".

"No, no, don't worry", Valerion said, his voice soft. "Talking is good, but we have to begin sooner or later". He handed the staff to Adrien, who thanked him with a nod; Adrien turned the staff in his hands several times, admiring its intricate decorations, before raising his eyes and looking at Valerion again.

"So, should I draw a circle or an arc?".

"You can start with a few circles, then you can move to arcs when you start feeling too dizzy for full circles", Valerion said with a light laugh. "Please draw this first circle freely and with no objective other than the drawing of the circle itself, so that I can give you further instructions. These first circles are just for testing the shapes, anyway".

Adrien laughed a bit in turn, then he nodded. He closed his eyes and took in a few deep breaths as he focused. His right hand shifted on the staff several times before settling in one spot; then he started drawing - slowly, but steadily, he drew a circle around himself. Adrien looked down: his circle was not too bad, he thought with a smile.

"Very good, Adrien", Valerion commented. "It's a very good first attempt, yes. There's only one thing: you should move your hand up a bit more".

Adrien looked at his right hand and slid it higher on the staff; now his index finger was resting on one of the sculpted snakes on the head. "Like this?".

Valerion moved forwards, closer to Adrien; he gently took hold of his hand and pushed it slightly downwards, then shifted his fingers around to adjust the grip. "Like this", he answered as he stepped back again. "I hope the staff is the right weight for you", he added.

"Ah -- it's fine as far as I can tell".

"Good. Let me know if it seems too light or too heavy - I can correct that for you", Valerion said with a smile and a nod. "Now, could you please draw a second circle?".

Adrien nodded; he shifted to the left and placed himself in position once more, took a deep breath, and drew a circle around himself. He noticed that he didn't find any difficulty in closing the circle, or in achieving a somewhat regular shape.

"Very good", Valerion said. "Out of curiosity, could you try with your left hand?".

"Oh -- sure", Adrien replied. He passed the staff to his left hand, adjusted his grip, moved to the left again, then drew a third circle - a bit faster than the previous two, but not any less precise, Adrien noted with a pleased smile.

"Beautiful. Could you continue practicing with your left hand?".

Adrien nodded, and did as instructed. He spun a circle, then another; he kept drawing circles for a while until, as Valerion had expected, he started to get a bit tired of swirling around. He sat down against a wall, and, with a light chuckle, he looked around the room to admire his work. "I really like this, this is really fun", he said with a grin, "but I wish it didn't make me so dizzy".

Valerion went to sit next to him, laughing softly. "That is just the nature of the beast", he commented. "But I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying this. Had you never used a staff before?".

Adrien pulled the ribbon that tied his hair and shook his head around; he ran his hands through his hair a few times, then he tied it back again. "No", he said, "I didn't have enough space to do that".

"No?", Valerion asked, his eyebrows raised in an expression of surprise.

"No", Adrien replied as he finished fixing his hair. "My room has barely enough space for my bed", he added with a weak chuckle.

Valerion's face took a somewhat puzzled expression. "You couldn't do that in another room?".

Another chuckle escaped from Adrien. "I don't think my mother would have allowed me to draw circles on the kitchen floor", he said. "And, well, the only other room is the bathroom".

"Oh", Valerion said, in a low voice. "I'm sorry to hear that".

"No, it's fine", Adrien replied. He looked down at the staff he was holding; he tilted it back and forth to watch the golden tigerseyes on the vipers shimmer in the light. "So beautiful", he whispered. Valerion chuckled; then he got up and walked around the room, looking at the circles that Adrien had drawn on the floor.

"How am I doing?", Adrien asked.

"Excellently", Valerion replied, grinning. "I would say that you have some sort of natural affinity for this".

Adrien laughed. "Really!", he said. He put his right hand on the stone floor and lifted himself up; he adjusted his robes, then walked towards the circle in front of which Valerion was kneeling as he inspected the linework.

"Yes - they are very good circles", Valerion said as he stood up again. "Especially considering that you have been using a staff for all of thirty minutes. If I had known, I would have started by teaching you how to use the staff, instead of making you draw on the wall with the chalk... You seem to be much better suited for this - you show great potential".

Adrien chuckled; he moved some of his hair in front of his face to hide his blushing cheeks. "Ah -- I -- thank you", he managed to say.

"It's true", Valerion continued as he moved around the room. He stopped by the window and looked at the tall trees outside; then he turned around. "Are you ready to continue, or do you need more time to rest?".

"I -- I think I'm ready, yes".

"Good. Then, let's see... Would you like to try a few more circles, and then we can move to arcs?".

"Yes -- of course, yes".

Adrien put his left hand in position on the staff once more, and started drawing; he tried to pay attention to how his feet moved as he swirled around, to how his wrist turned as he drew his lines; he had read about the importance of measured movements and harmonious posture when using a staff, and he was trying to put his knowledge at work. He drew four circles in a row, then he stopped as he reached a wall.

"Beautiful", Valerion commented with a smile. "I think you are more than ready to move to the spells. Just show me a few arcs, and we'll move on".

Adrien nodded; then, quickly and resolutely, he drew a third of a circle in front of himself. "Like that?".

"Yes; well done. Now do that again, but this time, draw a half-circle".

"Ah -- so, I was doing it wrong?".

"No", Valerion smiled, "You were doing just fine; I just want to see how you draw arcs of different sizes and in different positions".

"Oh -- I see", Adrien said.

He grasped the staff again and did as asked; following his mentor's instructions, he kept on drawing arcs for a while. Valerion corrected him only once; for the rest, he let him draw freely, complimenting his work from time to time. Adrien had just drawn a quarter of a circle behind his back when Valerion stopped him, and with a gesture of his hand cleared the floor from all the lines that had been drawn. "Alright", he said with a smile, "the warmup is over. Let us move to the exciting part".

"I thought that was pretty exciting!", Adrien chuckled.

Valerion laughed softly. "I'm glad to hear that", he said, "but I'm sure that you will find the spell-casting even more entertaining".

"Ah -- I don't doubt that", Adrien giggled. "So, what should I do?".

"Now, you will try to defend yourself against a threat. Don't worry", Valerion added, noticing Adrien's worried expression, "it's nothing that will hurt you". He moved his fingers in a rapid pattern, then he opened his arms; now they were holding a basket full of crumpled papers.

"Oh, I see", Adrien said with a smile of relief.

Valerion chuckled. "These are my scrapped writings: awful, but doubtlessly harmless". Adrien laughed at that; then he saw Valerion move his fingers again, and one paper ball jumped into his hand. "I will throw these at you, and you will draw a circle, or arc, with the intent to defend yourself. When you draw, focus on what could defend you against this -- this attack", he said, his mouth twisting into a silly smile.

Adrien laughed again; then he took a tighter grasp of the staff.

"Okay. I am ready".

Valerion nodded, and there was a pause; then he flung the paper ball at Adrien, who drew an arc - by reaction more than by action. All he had time to think about was to somehow stop the ball; he ended up dodging it instead - the ball fell on the floor a meter or so behind him.

"I'm sorry", he immediately said. "I was too slow".

"Don't worry. Let's try again".

Another ball flew into Valerion's hand, and he threw it. Adrien drew an arc - he hurried to think of something to stop the ball. He thought of a bat, and of swinging the bat, and hitting the ball; the arc in front of him became bright, and he saw the ball reach the border and bounce back - it flew backwards, and hit Valerion square on the nose.

"Oh sh-- I'm so sorry", Adrien gasped, stepping towards him. "I'm so sorry...".

To his surprise, Valerion didn't seem bothered at all; instead, he was laughing. "Don't worry, it's okay. And well done; that was rather effective", he said as he scratched the bridge of his nose.

"I -- I'm sorry!", Adrien said, his voice now breaking into a chuckle.

"Really, it's not a problem. What did you think of?".

"A -- a bat", Adrien laughed.

Valerion laughed with him; Adrien could tell that he was genuinely pleased. "Yes, that makes perfect sense", he said. "You had a good idea. Let's do this again".

Adrien moved back in position, and Valerion threw another ball; he drew an arc, thought of the bat again - hoping not to hit Valerion in the nose a second time - and, as light flowed through the line he had drawn, the ball bounced back and landed behind Valerion, who nodded in approval.

"Good", he said, "very good".

"I thought of not hitting you in the face", Adrien said between chuckles, covering his mouth with one hand, "and it worked!".

"Oh, you even did that", Valerion commented. "That is excellent. Well done".

"Ah -- thanks".

Valerion smiled. "Let's do this again".

He kept on throwing paper balls at Adrien, and Adrien sent them back, each time hanging on to the thought of the bat swinging and hitting the ball; he successfully managed to defend himself - only hitting Valerion twice more in the process, and he didn't mind; he seemed to be having as much fun as Adrien, if not more.

"Good, good. Now, let's try something different. Instead of the bat, try thinking of something else", Valerion said as one more paper ball jumped into his hand.

"Alright", Adrien said as he placed the staff in front of himself. He scrambled to find another idea - maybe - a wall, he decided; a sturdy wall - a stone wall that will stop the paper ball. Valerion threw the ball; Adrien drew an arc while thinking of that wall, and, as expected, the ball hit the border, then fell.

"Well done. A wall?".

"Yes".

"Yes, that works, too", Valerion said with a smile. "Let's try something different yet".

"Oh -- okay". Adrien tried to find something to think of, but Valerion had already flung the ball; quickly, he drew his arc, and thought of a fireball that would turn the paper into ashes. He saw the ball approach him, then burst into flames - the intensity of the fire startled him; he stepped backwards, and the fire died down, leaving the charred paper remains to give off a plume of smoke on the stone floor. Adrien walked forwards again, breathing heavily, and stared with wide eyes at the result of his spell. "Wow", he gasped, "I -- I'm so sorry".

"No, don't apologize", Valerion said, a great smile on his face. "You did amazingly. Don't worry about the fire; you are safe in this tower".

Adrien watched the last bits of the paper ball turn into ash and sizzle away. Then he realized: something had been different about this last attempt - unlike the bat and the wall, the fire had been perfectly visible; and now that he was thinking about it, he recalled that, for a split second, he thought he had even seen the fireball fly towards the paper ball before it touched it and ignited it. "Ah -- Valerion", Adrien began, "was there a visible fireball, or am I just imagining --?".

"No, I saw it too", he answered. "You did make a fireball".

"But then -- how come this fireball was visible, but the bat and the wall were invisible?".

Valerion smiled. "You must have imagined the fireball more vividly; that means that the concept of the fireball is easier for you to bring into reality than the bat or the wall".

"I see", Adrien nodded. "So, what happens now?".

"Could I ask you to think of the fireball once more?", Valerion gently asked.

"Oh -- of course". Adrien placed himself in position. A paper ball flew into Valerion's hand; he made it bounce once in his palm, then threw it. Adrien drew an arc, thinking of the fireball again; this time he could distinctly see it fly from somewhere within his circle towards the boundary, where it met the paper ball and set it on fire. He reflexively stepped back; the ball of paper and flames fell on the floor, where it kept on burning for a few seconds before leaving only ashes behind.

"Well done", Valerion commented, clapping his hands. "Well done. However, you should not step back; try to stand still when the paper starts to burn".

Adrien gasped. "I know -- I know I should, but -- it just seems so --".

"I understand that it looks dangerous, but, really, don't worry: I repeat - you are safe in this tower", Valerion said with a soothing smile.

"Alright. I'm sorry", Adrien said, sheepish.

"Don't worry; you are doing amazingly. Would you like to try that again?".

Adrien smiled and nodded. Another paper ball flew towards him; he drew an arc and thought of the fireball. He saw the fireball fly and engulf the paper ball; he planted his feet on the ground and stared through the paper ball as it burned in front of him. This time, the fireball fully consumed the paper ball in mid-air; he watched the ashes fall just past the glowing border of his spell, then he lifted the staff from the floor and breathed out. "I think I did it", Adrien said with a smile.

"Yes, you did", Valerion nodded. "Well done - well done, Adrien".

"Thank you", Adrien chuckled. "How strange -- making a fireball was easier than standing still in front of it".

Valerion's eyes turned in a kind smile. "There's something to be said for that", he commented. "Anyway, let's move on from the fireballs for now; we'll get back to them later. Now, could you imagine something different yet?".

"Alright", Adrien nodded. One more paper ball flew towards him; Adrien drew an arc and imagined a force - a gust of wind pushing the paper ball away from himself. The arc glowed with light, and there was a quick burst - the wind he had imagined moved the paper ball, making it hit one of the stone walls, bounce, and roll away.

"Was that wind?", Valerion asked.

"Yes", Adrien said, smiling. "How was that?".

"Very good", Valerion nodded. He gestured at a paper ball to bounce into his hand. "Now, let's move to something else".

Valerion threw the paper ball; Adrien drew his arc, and imagined blades - a wall of blades; knives, or maybe circular blades rotating, shredding the paper. He closed his eyes. The paper ball hit him on the forehead. "Oh", he said, crestfallen.

His disappointment must have been so evident on his face that Valerion felt the need to step forwards; "It's alright", he said in a soothing tone. "What was it?".

"A wall of blades - shredding the paper", Adrien answered. "But I couldn't really visualize them, I guess. I'm sorry".

"Don't worry", Valerion said with a smile. "Besides, that's quite excessive for just one paper ball, wouldn't you say?".

Adrien chuckled; he felt a bit better. "I was just trying to make sure to destroy your drafts", he laughed.

"I appreciate your help, but I don't know if they deserve an entire wall of blades", Valerion giggled. "But let's move on from that". He picked another paper ball, and threw it at Adrien; this time he thought of a hole - something like a black hole; a void where the ball would be trapped, with no escape. The ball hit the boundary, and there was a flash - a flash of black, as if all the light of the room had suddenly been sucked away; Adrien lowered his head and held still - in but an instant, it was all over. The paper ball had disappeared, and Valerion was now staring at him with his eyes open wide.

"What was that", he said, "a void?".

"Yeah", Adrien said. "That was weird -- I can't believe it worked".

"It's not an easy thing to imagine", Valerion whispered. "That was astounding".

Adrien smiled, and turned around; he felt his cheeks flush red. "Thank you", he said in a low voice. "I am not even sure how I imagined it -- I mean -- I didn't really see it".

"No, that makes sense", Valerion said. "While the word 'imagine' implies that you need to form an 'image', in this case that is not always true; you can grasp a concept with your other senses just as effectively. The most important part is that it needs to be a clear and vivid representation of that concept - and you evidently succeeded in this case".

"I see", Adrien commented, rubbing his mouth with the side of one hand. "What next?".

"Let me throw another ball", Valerion said, and proceeded to do so. Adrien drew an arc and smiled - he had just had an idea. He looked at the woven basket next to Valerion's feet and imagined an identical one, right in front of him, catching the ball; the line became bright, and the basket appeared in front of him. The ball approached the boundary, then fell vertically into the basket. Adrien lifted the staff and the basket disappeared, leaving the paper ball behind. Valerion giggled at the scene.

"Very clever", he said, "and very effective".

"Since there was already one basket right there, it wasn't hard to imagine a second one", Adrien said, grinning.

"See, that was brilliant", Valerion commented, smiling proudly. "And that is another important quality for a magic practictioner: a bright mind. Well done, Adrien - really well done".

Adrien smiled; then he chuckled - a bit flustered, but pleased. "Thank you".

"Let's continue, yes?".

"Yes". Adrien placed himself in position once more. "Alright, I'm ready".

"Think of what else could catch a paper ball", Valerion said as he pulled up one. Adrien started laughing; he had another idea, and wondered if he could pull it off. He stared intently at Valerion; when he threw the ball, Adrien drew his arc and thought of when the first paper ball was deflected off of his mentor's nose. A second Valerion appeared for an instant in front of Adrien, catching the paper ball on his long nose and yelling "Ow!" before disappearing. Adrien burst into laughter - an explosive sort of laughter that led him to tears; through the mist of his eyes, he saw that the real Valerion was now sitting on the floor, laughing, with an expression of disbelief on his face.

"I'm sorry!", Adrien gasped between fits of laughter, "I'm so sorry!". He cracked up once more.

"You're not sorry at all!", Valerion laughed.

Hearing that, Adrien laughed even louder. Then he blurted out: "It's just that your nose makes such a nice target!". He covered his mouth with his hands as soon as he realized what he had said; then he sat down on the floor in fits of side-splitting laughter.

"Adrien!", Valerion cackled. "Adrien, you're awful!".

"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!", Adrien shouted, his face hidden behind his hands.

"It's a very good thing that I like my nose!", Valerion laughed, "Someone else would be already making a nose-shrinking potion, after what you said!".

Adrien keeled over in great laughter. "Oh -- oh, no...", he gasped.

Valerion took in a deep breath. "But, in all seriousness, that was brilliant", he said. "Congratulations. I suppose".

Adrien giggled some more. "Thanks", he said. His lungs made a whistling sound as he exhaled; then he placed one hand on the floor and lifted himself up. He felt a bit lightheaded. "Wow", he commented, stumbling for a moment before regaining his balance. Valerion looked up at him from the floor where he was sitting. "I think we can stop here for today", he commented.

"Really?", Adrien said.

"I told you, I'm not a slavedriver", Valerion replied with a kind smile. He stood up and smoothed out his robes. "You won't learn any better by getting deadly tired in the process. Leave the staff here, and let's go to dinner".