Text version

the comic's manuscript, without pictures

6. The strength of the porcupine

Eight days had passed since the beginning of Adrien's training in defense magic; now he could easily and rapidly incinerate any paper ball that anyone could throw at him. He had moved from dealing with one paper ball to two at a time, to three, to more; he had learned how to cast several spells in rapid succession, and even how to draw a spell with his arms against his back. With Valerion's guidance, Adrien's progress had been smooth and swift; and he felt much more confident than he did just two weeks before. While he had enjoyed drawing circles on the wall, he found himself liking this new subject matter even more; he had to acknowledge that he really did have some sort of affinity with the free-flowing motions that using a staff required, and it gave him great satisfaction to spin his circles in the practice tower.

The previous evening, over dinner, Valerion had mentioned that the next day's practice session would be particularly exciting; he wouldn't say why, so as not to ruin the surprise, but he had assured Adrien that he would love it. Trusting his judgment, Adrien found himself buoyant with enthusiasm when he woke up the next morning; there was a noticeable skip to his step as he went down the spiral staircase to the main room, and he was even fuller of zest than usual as he ate his breakfast and followed his mentor up the steps that led to the practice tower.

Valerion pushed the heavy wooden door closed. In the meanwhile, Adrien went to retrieve the staff from the corner where he had left it the previous day; he then stretched his arms above his head and turned his neck from side to side, making it snap several times. "So", he said, "what happens today?".

Valerion placed himself next to the basket of crumpled papers; with a flick of his fingers, he made two paper balls fly into his open palm. "Let's start with the usual, just to warm up".

"Aw, you're still not telling me?", Adrien chuckled. "I'm dying with curiosity, here...".

"Oh, I know you are", Valerion laughed. "But, I am so sorry, but I cannot tell you. I've already spoiled the surprise enough for you. It's coming; you'll see very soon".

"Alright, alright", Adrien giggled as he corrected his stance and readied himself for drawing spells. "It's okay. I'm ready when you are".

Valerion nodded, and threw one paper ball; Adrien drew his arc - a fireball flew out to destroy the ball. Without waiting for Adrien to catch his breath, Valerion tossed the second ball upwards; it disappeared in mid-air - Adrien saw it reappear behind his back with the tail of his eye; he drew an arc with a twist of his torso, and a second fireball turned the paper ball into ashes. In the meanwhile, Valerion had enchanted two more balls; they flew in a spiral around Adrien, then approached him from opposite sides. Adrien spun a full circle, and a wall of fire flashed around him - for just an instant, which turned out to be more than enough. He turned towards Valerion:

"How am I doing?".

"Great". Valerion gestured at two paper balls to jump from the basket into each of his hands. Adrien thought he had seen a twinkle in his eye as his fingers closed on the crumpled up papers; then, without any warning, Valerion dashed forwards and threw one ball towards Adrien as he ran past him. Startled by the sudden movement, Adrien couldn't draw his spell fast enough; the paper ball hit him on the shoulder and rolled down to his feet. Valerion turned around; "Don't worry - continue", he said, and he dashed once more towards Adrien; he ran in a circle around him, then threw the second paper ball. Adrien inhaled sharply, finding his focus again; he drew an arc, and this time a fireball did come to destroy the paper - but Valerion was in its path. Adrien yelped, but his mentor moved quickly and precisely; it took Adrien a moment to realize that Valerion had seized the fireball with his hand, and was now calmly holding it within his closed fist - a few little flames escaped from the space between his fingers.

"You must be more careful", Valerion commented with a smile, still perfectly calm. "Always be mindful of your surroundings".

Adrien said nothing, overcome by awe by what he had just witnessed; then he mumbled a "yes -- sorry", and grasped on his staff again.

"It's alright. Shall we continue?", Valerion said.

"Yes -- yes, of course".

Valerion gestured at the basket; now two paper balls were flying towards Adrien - who breathed in and drew his arc. This time, a wall of light appeared to block the attack. Adrien lifted the staff from the floor, then breathed out. "Good, good", Valerion commented. He moved his hand, and one of the paper balls on the floor flew into his palm; he lowered his head and started running towards Adrien, holding the paper ball in his fist. Adrien saw him throw, so he drew a wall of light like the one he had just made - but he didn't see the ball hit it. Now there was a simper on Valerion's face; with a chuckle, he opened his fist to reveal that the paper ball was still in his hand.

Adrien groaned, then started laughing. "That was a dirty trick!".

Valerion laughed with him. "Sorry - the temptation was too strong... But you did the right thing; better to be too careful than not careful enough. Let's continue".

The warm-up session went on for a while; many more crumpled up paper balls were thrown at Adrien, who for the most part defended himself against them. He had just incinerated three paper balls with a wall of fire and he was readying himself for more, but Valerion didn't move; instead, he chuckled. He bent down, lifted the woven basket at his feet, and turned it towards Adrien to show that it was now empty. "I suppose that this is it", he said, "You have destroyed all of my scrapped writings. Well done, Adrien".

"Really!", Adrien exclaimed. "Now what?".

Valerion pondered the question for a moment; then he smiled. "Well, you have graduated from paper balls", he calmly said, "so, let's try...". A glow of purple light began to engulf his right hand; it looked like -- it definitely was fire, Adrien realized: purple fire, its light reflected in Valerion's narrow eyes. Adrien saw the corners of his mouth curl in a mischievous smile; then he saw him hurl the fireball. Adrien gasped, and scrambled to draw an arc; water to douse the fire, he thought - a wave from a stormy sea, unstoppable, relentless, steely under a steely sky, crashing onto a pale shore. The arc turned bright, and there came the wave - the fireball disappeared within the foam; Adrien quickly retreated his arm, and the wave faded away before it could collapse onto the stone floor. He breathed heavily, his eyes wide; he heard the sound of Valerion's clapping, and he saw his bright smile.

"Very, very good", he said, "you reacted promptly and precisely to the unexpected; very well done, Adrien".

A weak, stiff smile appeared on Adrien's mouth as he kept inhaling and exhaling; he understood that this was part of his training, too, but he had gotten rather frightened, and he was still reeling in. His emotions must have been evident on his face, however, as Valerion felt the need to add: "Even if you had failed, that fireball would have done no harm - but you couldn't have known that, and you reacted correctly to an unknown threat".

"Ah -- I -- I see -- I'm glad", Adrien said, still quite winded. He felt the need to sit down on the floor; Valerion walked towards him and crouched by his side, an expression of concern on his face.

"Are you alright?", he asked.

"I -- I think so", Adrien said. "I'm just a bit tired".

"That last spell must have taken a bit of a toll on you", Valerion commented.

"Yeah, I think so. I could have made a smaller wave", Adrien chuckled. "Speaking of which, could I -- could I ask for some water?".

"Of course", Valerion said. He offered a glass of cold water to Adrien, who downed it in one gulp. "I am sorry if I startled you", Valerion said as he magically refilled Adrien's glass, "but I needed to catch you by surprise, and --".

"No, don't worry", Adrien said, "I get it". He smiled, somewhat flustered; although he couldn't really express it, he appreciated Valerion's consideration. He drank again, then set the empty glass on the floor, to the side of his legs.

"Do you need more?".

"I think I'm fine. Thank you very much", Adrien said, bowing his head slightly. "So, was that the surprise?", he asked.

"Ah -- no, that was spur of the moment", Valerion replied. "There's more".

"More!", Adrien chuckled as he leaned back, placing his forearms on the floor. "I'm still catching my breath, here...".

Valerion tilted his head, and smiled again. "Don't worry, it will be a while before we begin". He rocked backwards from where he sat on his haunches to seat himself on the floor, the toes of his black shoes peeking out from the hem of his dark teal robe. "I should explain the theory to you before we begin. If you recall, when you began the study of defense magic, I briefly mentioned that it can also be used against abstract threats, rather than just tangible ones".

"Yeah, I remember that", Adrien nodded.

"Well, I believe that you are ready to try your hand at that", Valerion said, smiling. "You have been doing excellently with the paper balls, but I can understand that to you, right now, the usefulness of learning how to destroy paper balls might be somewhat limited...".

Adrien chuckled, his head tilted on one side. "Well, yes, it might have been more useful back when I was in middle school", he giggled. "But -- I don't know, I thought that burning the papers was fun".

Valerion's smile became broader. "I am glad to hear that, because I found that very entertaining as well. However, as for what concerns abstract defense magic... I believe it will be of great use to you in particular. That is because... It can be used to protect you against the dangers of your own mind", he said softly.

There was a pause in which Adrien pondered what that might entail; he had a few thoughts, but he decided to say nothing.

"For example, against anxiety". Valerion's eyes locked into his, and Adrien noticed the care and the compassion in his gaze. "Abstract defense magic can be used as a countermeasure against negative energies in general - whatever their origin. For instance: historically, it has been used by battlemages to negate the work of enemy sorcerers who would cast fear spells and similar enchantments to disrupt the opposing armies".

"I had read about this, but I hadn't realized that they were using defense magic", Adrien commented, his eyebrows raised.

"It is an aspect that is often overlooked", Valerion replied. "Much like abstract defense magic itself. After the end of the age of magic-dominated warfare, abstract defense magic fell into disuse, to the point of being considered a novelty with little practical use, as some of its functions had been absorbed into other, more proactive branches of magic - for example, the effect of defense from fear was incorporated into spells that would make the target braver instead. More recently, there has been a resurgence of abstract defense magic applied to threats internal to the caster - as an aid through daily life. This would be our case. Compared to other paths to the same result, abstract defense magic has the benefit of being very safe, not to mention accessible to less experienced practictioners; as such, even people who would normally not deal with magic have been drawn towards it". Valerion took a deep breath, then continued. "Now, you might hear some purists of magic criticizing such uses of abstract defense magic as a lazy surrogate for what they think should be achieved through years of rigorous magical training, but, personally... I strongly disagree with them. I believe they only speak out of elitism and spite. I firmly believe that magic that is helpful and simple is always a step forward; that it should not be locked away to please sorcerers who want to feel like they belong to a special club". There was now an astringent note to his tone, which sounded especially sharp in contrast to his more characteristic placidity. "Detractors aside - the method of abstract defense magic involves finding the thought that is most fit to protect its caster; from a philosophical standpoint, I think there is great value to be found in that. It lets you fight with what you have; with what you are. Then you will have those who will say that it is weak and cowardly to hide behind a shield rather than to take arms - but does it not take great strength to withstand an attack? Is the porcupine more cowardly than the lion? I don't know; but while we are here discussing that, the porcupine does not care - nothing dares to attack it".

Adrien listened quietly, almost entranced. "But I am ranting", Valerion spoke again. "I apologize for the long lecture --".

"-- No, don't apologize", Adrien said, wide-eyed, "It was all -- very interesting, and important -- in fact, thank you -- thank you for your words. And --" - Adrien took a sharp breath in between and twirled the staff in his hands as he tried to find the words to express himself - "and -- I am very thankful for your concern and for your attention. I -- thank you".

Valerion smiled and gently bowed his head. "I recommend that you meditate a little before this exercise. Just let me know when you are ready, and we'll begin".

*****

Adrien opened his eyes. He blinked once, then his eyes adjusted themselves to the light. Although it was early in the afternoon, the room was fairly dim, as the sky outside was grey and overcast, and it had been raining intermittently for the whole day. He breathed out again, satisfied, and placed his hands on his knees. "I think I am ready", he said.

Valerion, who was meditating on his own, opened his eyes and smiled. "Good", he commented; he stretched his shoulders by pushing his chest forward, then he stood up.

"So", he started as Adrien straightened his legs and proceeded to slowly stand up, "for the purposes of this practice, you will be defending yourself against a modified version of a fear spell. If you fail, all that will happen is that you will feel a little bit cold. This is for you to be able to discern whether you were successful or not, while having a very limited penalty for not succeeding".

Adrien picked up the staff that was on the floor, smoothed out his robes, then looked up at Valerion and nodded. "So... what is it that I should be drawing?".

"A circle, just like before. And just like before, think about what could defend you as you draw".

"What sort of thing should I think about?".

Valerion smiled broadly. "Since fear is, essentially, a response to a perceived threat, you must dispel it with a thought of safeness. Think about something that gives you safety and protection, and focus on it as you cast the spell. In fact, allow me to demonstrate. Could you give me the staff?".

Adrien nodded, and quickly stepped forward, passing the staff to Valerion; then he moved back again - standing a bit further away than before. Holding the staff in his right hand, Valerion outstretched his left arm, with the palm of his hand facing upward, as if in a gesture of offering; then he took a deep breath. A sort of dark mist began to rise around his hand, its particles shifting and colliding like a swarm of fruit flies, moving faster and faster as more clustered, yet strangely silent. Valerion stared at the darkness with a stern, somber expression, as if he were staring at a piece of bread on which he had just discovered a patch of mold; then, with a curl of his fingers, he threw the cloud of dark energy upwards, and spun a circle with the staff - quickly, precisely, his feet rotating in place as he turned; the bangs of his black hair bounced in front of his face as the circle was closed and he stopped moving. A bright light rose from the circle and created a wall around Valerion - a dome of light that separated him from the dark orb that was hovering above him. Adrien watched in awe; then, he saw the darkness fall down. A blast of light blinded Adrien for a moment as the black energy collided with the barrier; when he regained his vision, all had ended - the dark orb had disappeared, the wall of light had fallen; Valerion was standing in the center of the circle with his eyes closed. He then opened his eyes, and smiled; he pulled the staff back towards his body, and quickly passed it to the other hand, satisfied. "So, this is how it is", he said, his head slightly tilted.

Adrien was still staring at him with his eyes wide. "That -- that was awesome", he managed to say.

Valerion smiled. "And you will be doing this, too".

"Really? I -- I can do that?".

"I am sure you can", Valerion said in a definite tone as he handed the staff back to Adrien. "And if you need some time to think of your defense, please, let me know".

Adrien twirled the staff between his hands, looking down in thought. Then he said: "Ah -- Valerion -- could I ask -- if it's not prying too much --".

"-- what did I think of?".

"Ah -- yes".

Valerion tilted his head and smiled, his eyes narrowed in a serene expression. "Usually, I like to think about coming back to the tower after spending the day running errands. I close the door, I set down my bags, I sit down in the armchair, I light the fire, and I am home".

Adrien couldn't help but get a little fuzzy inside at what Valerion had just said. He smiled. "I see", he softly said.

Valerion nodded. "If you like this idea, feel free to adapt it for yourself", he then added.

Adrien paused for a moment as he thought about it. He imagined coming back home after a long day - in an evening after one of his shifts from when he worked as a waiter, he decided. He focused on the thought of himself walking down that small hill towards his house. He could see the light coming from the window of the living room. Now he was close enough to see that the window was open - he could see the silhouette of his mother, dark against the light; he imagined her watering the geraniums in the flowerbox. She closed the window and drew the curtains. Now Adrien had reached the metal fence; he imagined looking in his pocket for a bunch of keys with a bird-shaped tag as a keychain, and selecting the right key to open it - the smallest one of the group. He saw himself walk towards the door as his fingers landed on the key that would open it - the one with the square head. Now he put the key in the keyhole, and turned it; the door clicked open - he pushed it, and he was greeted by the scent of the fried vegetables that he had made for the previous lunch. He walked in; he could see his mother sitting on the couch, and... then a silly grin spread on Adrien's face, and he chuckled. "I really don't think it will do", he said, "I just imagined coming back home... and I can see my mom yell at me about leaving dirty pans in the sink".

Valerion laughed with him. "Yes, I agree, I cannot see that working".

Adrien nodded, a knowing smile on his face; then he cleared his throat. "A-dri-en!", he squeaked in a high-pitched voice, "Would it kill you to clean the kitchen before leaving?". Then Adrien stepped to the left and continued in his normal voice: "But there was no time!". He glanced at Valerion, and saw that he was giggling with a hand in front of his mouth. Adrien smiled, then moved to the right again: "How come you never have time for cleaning the kitchen?". Then to the left: "Mom, please, I've just come home, I haven't even taken off my shoes yet, could you at least wait until I come out of the bathroom before you scream at me?". And to the right, his voice now broken in a high screech: "Ooooh, excuse me then! I am deeply sorry for bothering you! I'll try to be more considerate when I remind you of your duties!".

Valerion laughed for a good while; then he took in a deep breath, and shook his head, still smiling. "Yes, I don't have the slightest doubt that this won't work. You'll need to think of something else".

"Alright...". Adrien tilted his head as he searched his mind for a good thought to protect himself. He remembered one time in which he had gone to the beach at night with his friends. It was the summer after his last year of high school; he had passed his final exam just the day before, and now he had three whole months of vacation extending before him. He remembered walking down the dark beach, trailing just behind his friends Julia and Steffan, who had ran ahead and were already setting their bags down on the shore; his feet sank slightly in the cold sand. Now he saw himself, so carefree and delighted, taking off his clothes and flinging himself into the sea; the waters were calm and strangely warm compared to the cool night air. They had picked the perfect night to do this: it was a new moon, and the clear sky revealed all of its stars - the light ribbon of the Milky Way shimmering bright above his head. He played a bit with his friends, splashing around and diving off each other's shoulders; then their laughter died down. In the silence, he could hear the faint swishing of the water rippling against the shore. He pressed his feet against the sand beneath him, and began to float; and as he drifted with the dark sky above him and the dark sea below him, he felt like everything in life was good.

Adrien breathed out and smiled, pleased; he felt that he had found a good thought to hold tight to. "I think I have it", he finally said.

"Very good", he replied, smiling in turn. "Focus on this thought with all of your might as you draw the circle. Let me know whenever you are ready, and we'll begin".

Adrien shifted his fingers up on the staff. He slowly closed his eyes; he took in a series of deep breaths as he prepared himself, then he opened his eyes again - a resolute expression now appearing on his face.

"Ready".

Valerion nodded; then he outstretched his right arm, with the palm of the hand now facing Adrien. He closed his eyes, and, like before, a shivering mist of darkness began to collect itself around his fingers. Adrien watched, unbreathing, his hold tightening on his staff, trying to figure out when he should begin drawing the circle; then he saw Valerion's eyes open again, and he hurled the black sphere towards him. Almost reflexively, Adrien spun a circle - the image of himself floating clear in his mind; he closed the circle as the darkness neared its border, he took in a sharp breath -- a great horror took him over as he watched it trespass, and then it hit him. Adrien's eyes widened; he felt something very similar to stepping in a puddle of cold water while wearing socks, minus the dampness - a polar opposite to the warm midnight sea of his memory. Luckily, the discomfort lasted for but an instant; he shuddered, and then it was over.

"It didn't work", he said, his voice low.

"It's alright", Valerion replied, soothingly. "It's just your first attempt. Do you need some more time, or would you like to try again?".

"I -- I don't know", he said. He breathed out and rubbed his upper arms, trying to warm himself up. "I don't know", he repeated. "I'm sorry".

"I repeat, it's alright", Valerion said, stepping forwards. "May I ask you what did you think of?".

Adrien took in a deep breath. "I thought of floating in the sea at night", he said.

"That must be very pleasant", Valerion commented, smiling, "but I see why it didn't work. Is that really completely safe?".

"Well, there were no waves", Adrien replied, his forehead furrowed. "And, I -- I don't know, there were no jellyfish or sharks, either".

"But there is a danger inherent to being in the sea, wouldn't you say so?".

Adrien paused for a moment. "I hadn't thought of that".

A comforting smile appeared on Valerion's face. "It's alright. You had a good idea; however, it can't just be a pleasant idea - it has to be safe, too. Sometimes, things that are pleasant are not necessarily safe...".

Adrien giggled. "...Pretty often, really".

Valerion chuckled. "Right. Anyway, don't worry. Take your time finding another thought".

"Right", Adrien said. He lowered his head, and tried to think of something else. Something not just pleasant, but unassailable - a place of safety... Now a new image was starting to take form in his mind - his old room, his small private retreat. The corners of his mouth curled in a smile as his mind immediately went to one particularly pleasant thing he liked to do while holed up in his room - he breathed in sharply, stifling a chuckle; obviously, that couldn't be his thought of choice - if nothing else, because he couldn't tell Valerion about that. He closed his eyes, tried to get that thought out of his mind, and focused on the image of his room again. A smile appeared on his face: there was another thing he loved to do during summer nights, and it was reading. His image changed again: now he could see himself lying on his bed, holding a book in his hands. It was a cool evening, and he was only wearing his shorts; he imagined a pleasant breeze on his bare back. The chirping of the crickets reached him from the open window, and he could see a thin moon shining through the few clouds in the sky, high above the roof of the house next to his. He saw himself turning the page of the book; now he had reached an illustration of a princess with curly hair riding a butterfly, which he studied for a while before moving to the next paragraph. This thought brought back what warmth had been lost; he recognized safeness in his idea. "I got it", he said. "I'm ready to try again".

Valerion smiled, and another ball of darkness appeared around his open hand; then he flung it - Adrien watched it move towards him as he spun his circle, clinging with all of his might to the thought of himself in his room, of his book in his hands, of the smell of paper, of the summer wind against his skin; he closed his circle, but the darkness went past the boundary, giving him another shudder as it clustered around his body and dissipated.

"I thought this would work", Adrien commented, disheartened.

"What did you think of?", Valerion asked, his voice soft.

"I thought about reading in my room", Adrien replied.

Valerion seemed to be deep in thought for a while. "That seems rather safe", he said. "Was your image clear?".

"I -- I thought so".

"Perhaps you only need to focus more. Would you like to try with the same thought again?".

"Yeah, let's", Adrien replied, a smile again on his face. He knew he could do it; he just needed to try harder. He grasped on the staff again; "I'm ready when you are", he said.

Valerion nodded and created another sphere of darkness that he flung towards Adrien, who spun his circle with his mind's eye fixated on the image he had conjured, on the safeness of this thought; but, once more, fear had the best of him. He rubbed his arms again. "I -- I don't understand", he said. "I can see it so clearly: I am in my room, I am reading, and nothing is bothering me... I don't understand what I am doing wrong".

"It's alright", Valerion said. "Abstract defense magic is beginner-friendly, but by no means the easiest there is. Don't get discouraged if you need a while to figure it out; I know that you will eventually get there. I hope that I am not asking too much of you, however -- Ah!", he suddenly exclaimed, his eyes wide, "That's why! It's because of your mother!".

"My mom?", Adrien asked, thoroughly confused. "What about my mom?".

Now the smile on Valerion's face had a knowing, somewhat mischievous note to it. "When you are reading in your room, can your mom come and yell at you to clean the kitchen?".

Adrien's eyes went wide. "Yes. Yes, she can!".

"That must be why it doesn't work!", Valerion exclaimed, a chuckle at the end of his voice.

A cackle escaped from Adrien. "It's always my mom's fault!", he laughed, "First it was going back home, now this! Thanks, mom! Really, though", he added in a lower voice, "I'm making my mom sound like this terrible tyrant -- and she's not, I swear, she's -- just -- a mom, you know".

"I see", Valerion smiled. "Anyway, I suppose this means that you should look for a thought that cannot possibly be disrupted by your mom's presence".

"That's going to be trouble", Adrien chuckled, scratching the nape of his neck. "Let's see...". So, he thought, anything involving his house was out of the question; his apprenticeship marked the first time that he had been far from home for so long, which meant that most of his memories and his ideas of safeness would necessarily include the shadow of his mom, ready to come in and yell about washing underwear or whatnot. Many of his best memories involved being at the beach, which he had already tested to be an unsuitable thought for the task at hand. Maybe, he thought, maybe he should be imagining something else entirely, something not belonging to his memories at all; but this seemed too complicated altogether - how many scenarios would he have to conjure and then discard? Adrien sighed. "I just thought about climbing up a tree and sitting on the branches, but that doesn't seem safe at all, right?".

"Right".

"But, wait...", Adrien added, his eyebrows raised. "What about just being in the woods?".

"It depends on what sort of woods they are. Do you know these woods well?".

"Oh, yeah", Adrien said. "I'm thinking of the woods near home. I basically knew every tree by name", he chuckled.

"Can you think of any possible danger that would be there?".

"Any possible danger...", Adrien repeated. "Well, there were no wolves or boars or anything like that... no venomous snakes...".

"What about thorns?", Valerion asked.

"Thorns... no, no thorns".

"Bees? Wasps?".

"No... nothing like that -- not even mosquitoes".

"And no mom, right?".

"Right, no mom", Adrien said.

"This does seem like a good thought", Valerion said with a bright smile. "You should try whenever you are ready".

Adrien nodded, gathering his resolve once more; he adjusted his grip on the staff and smiled.

He saw Valerion step back, close his eyes, and once again the shadows enveloped his hand; Adrien held tight on the staff until he could see Valerion's fingers open and the darkness lunge at him. He took in a sharp breath, and he drew his circle - holding on to the thought of running down the path into the woods near his home, past moss-covered rocks and flowering honeysuckles, the grass fresh and soft underneath his light feet. In his reverie, Adrien slowed down; his hands on his knees, he stopped to catch his breath. All of a sudden, a butterfly darted by; it had dark wings streaked with bright orange and white markings - it landed on a chamomile flower in front of him for but a moment to then leave, as fast as it had come. Adrien sprung back on his feet and gave it chase, but soon lost track of it. He had followed the butterfly into a glade deeper in the forest; he knew that place well - it was there where the birches grew most beautiful, and where wild orchids would grace the earth in March. Now his steps were light and silent as he approached this green sanctuary; he found his place underneath the leaves of a weeping willow. He watched the patterns of swaying light within his eyelids as he rested himself against the trunk, lulled by the rustling of the leaves above.

Adrien felt the darkness approach him, and then a great blast of light that he could see even with his eyes closed; he held onto the staff with all his might - he could feel a stream of energy coursing through his body and disappearing as it reached his skin. He opened one eye; all he saw was light - light that moved as if it were wind, as if he were at the center of a storm made of sunbeams; he had to close his eyes again - the glow was too blinding. Then the wind subdued, the light fell, and all was quiet again. Adrien breathed heavily through his nose, his fingers still locked onto the staff, his head throbbing. He opened his eyes, and he half-saw Valerion walking towards him, his mouth moving as if he was saying something, but he wasn't sure of what. He knew he felt tired, so tired, and that all he wanted to do was to sit down; and so he did. He felt himself sink; then came the vague awareness of an arm behind his back, some more words which he couldn't understand, then a glass of water being offered to him. Adrien drank the water, then the glass was refilled and he drank again; and as he kept drinking, he felt his senses become clearer - his vision returning, his hearing no longer a buzz; now he could distinctly feel Valerion's hand supporting his back. "More water?", he heard him say; Adrien replied with a "yes", and the glass was refilled a third time, and he drank once more. He handed the glass back, and nodded again; he whispered a "thank you", then breathed deeply again. It was then that Adrien took notice of Valerion's gaze, inquisitive and concerned.

"I -- I'm fine, I think", Adrien managed to say; and Valerion seemed to smile slightly as he heard him speak. "Yeah, I think -- I think I'm coming back. That -- that was -- that was something...".

"If it is too tiring to speak, please - you don't have to".

"No, I -- I think I'm fine", Adrien said, smiling weakly. "Thank you".

"I am glad", Valerion said, and Adrien could hear in his tone that his relief was thoroughly sincere. "Do you need anything? Do you need to drink more?".

"I don't know, maybe", Adrien said; but Valerion had already refilled the glass and handed it back to him, so he sipped a little bit of water again. "Ah -- thank you".

Valerion moved his arm away and leaned back. "Don't mention it", he said. "I am so sorry that it went this way; we should have worked more on energy control before doing this. I am so sorry; I am to blame for this". Valerion's head had been low as he spoke these words; and Adrien thought he heard a crack in his voice.

"No, no", Adrien rushed to say, "I am fine. I just -- got a bit carried away; I didn't know when to end the link, and I must have kept the barrier up for too long". Adrien sipped from his glass again. "It's just -- it's just that -- let's be honest, I -- I am just an overachiever", Adrien chuckled.

"Oh -- yes -- yes, you definitely are", Valerion laughed. "I should have accounted for that, and told you in advance to hold the staff for two seconds at most".

"How long was I in there?".

"Ten seconds, at the very least", Valerion said.

"Seriously?", Adrien said, bewildered. "It -- it felt both like no time at all, and like forever...".

"Yes, your perception of time can become warped in such cases", Valerion explained. "I really should have told you...".

Adrien smiled. "Well, if that's how it is... I mean, even if I had known to stop at two seconds, how could I?".

Valerion looked at Adrien with a somewhat puzzled expression - peering at him through narrowed eyes, as if he were looking at the workings of a strange mechanism; then he laughed. "I suppose you couldn't have", he said. "Perhaps I could have revised the safety measures of the room so that any spell would be automatically stopped after two seconds; as of now, the limit is set at fifteen --".

"It's -- it's alright", Adrien said with a nod. "I -- you're already doing so much for me; don't -- don't beat yourself up over this".

There was a moment of silence in which Valerion lowered his head again, one hand against his mouth, pensive. Adrien stared at him and wondered: how could someone like him, whose kindness and thoughtfulness were seemingly endless, place such a heavy weight of blame on himself over the smallest of mistakes - if any mistake had been committed at all? Valerion had done so much for him; he had taken his problems to heart to the point that he had framed this entire lesson as a surprise for him - a gift that would help him fight against his own monsters, which so many others had dismissed as a sign of weakness or, even worse, as a quirk of his character. And yet, Valerion was reproaching himself mercilessly over this tiny misstep. Adrien's eyes widened; he felt something clench within as he realized that Valerion's unwarranted harshness towards himself was not all that different from the treatment that he reserved for his own mistakes.

"Valerion", Adrien spoke again, "It's okay. I am alright. And -- I succeeded. Thank you so much for letting me do this".

Hearing his words, Valerion lifted his head; he looked at Adrien with confused surprise in his eyes, but then he smiled - and his smile was bright. "Yes. You are right -- and I should congratulate you; what you did was nothing short of amazing. The mere fact that you were able to hold the link for so long is astounding. But -- next time, please --".

"Yes, of course", Adrien chuckled. "I'll do my best". He took another sip of water, then paused. "What should I do now?".

"Now?", Valerion replied. "Now we go back downstairs. Can you stand?".

Adrien placed his hands on the stone floor and lifted himself up; he felt a bit unsteady on his feet, but he was alright. "Yes", he said.

"Good. Let's go", Valerion said. He made the glass he was holding disappear; he placed the staff in a corner, then walked out of the room and closed the door. As they slowly descended the spiral staircase that led downstairs, Valerion spoke again: "You should eat something warm and energetic; you need to recuperate. Perhaps some kind of soup".

"Ah -- I'm not really feeling like soup right now...", Adrien replied.

They had now reached the end of the stairs; Valerion closed the door to the practice tower. They walked through the main room to the living area by the fireplace. "That's alright", Valerion said. "Then, what about... scrambled eggs and ham? Potato frittata, maybe?".

"Hmm", Adrien said, his forehead furrowed, "I don't think I want anything savory".

Valerion sat himself on the couch; he dropped his head backwards, causing his dark hair to fall on his eyes momentarily before he swung forwards again. He moved his hair out of his face with his fingers, then turned towards Adrien, who was standing in front of him, leaning against the side of the table. Valerion smiled: "How do you feel about hot chocolate?".

Adrien jumped slightly on the spot, and he grinned; Valerion chuckled in response. "That surely looks like a yes", he commented.

"It is!", Adrien laughed. "Thank you so much".

Valerion made a mug of hot chocolate appear in his hand; he passed it to Adrien, who seated himself by his side. "Ah, that smells delicious", Adrien said; he picked up the long-handled spoon that was in the mug and stirred the chocolate, noting its dense, smooth texture and its dark color. Valerion had magicked up a second mug for himself; he leaned back and took a spoonful of hot chocolate. A delighted expression spread on his face; then he turned towards Adrien - "You can eat it; it won't scald you", he said as his spoon sank into the chocolate again. Adrien nodded, and so he ate a generous spoonful; his eyes widened, and then closed - it was beyond exquisite; this was dark chocolate with a hint of hazelnut, warm, wonderful. He took a second spoonful, then a third; the flavor seemed to improve each time the chocolate touched his tongue.

"Heavenly", Adrien commented, sighing.

Valerion giggled. "No", he said, "Such pleasures are not allowed there. This is what they call a sin", he said with his eyes closed in an expression of satisfied glee.

Adrien laughed, and he took another spoonful of chocolate - the excess dripping down in the mug. "I guess I am a sinner then. Well, big deal -- I knew it already".

Valerion's eyes widened for a moment in amused surprise; then he burst into laughter. "I am glad that you are enjoying the chocolate", he said.

"And I am glad that you had this idea - thank you so much".

They finished eating their hot chocolate, and then they talked a bit; Adrien had some trouble following the conversation - although he thought he was feeling better after having the chocolate (and it had doubtlessly helped), now the exhaustion was beginning to settle in. "I know it's just half past four, but I could sleep right now", he said as he sank deeper into the couch; his body felt heavy, and his head wooly. He tilted his head on one side, then closed his eyes.

"You can, if you want", Valerion said. "In fact, if you feel tired, please, do sleep; it would only do you good after what happened".

"But I don't want to go upstairs...", Adrien whined, a chuckle at the end of his voice.

"If you'd like, you could sleep right here. After all, this couch is so big, it might as well be a bed. Should I get you a blanket?".

Adrien sprang back in an upright sitting position, as if Valerion's words had pricked him. "I -- I was just -- I don't want to impose --".

"You're not imposing", Valerion said with a smile. He stood up and, with a complicated gesture of his hand, he pulled a neatly folded blanket out of thin air - of a red darker than that of the couch. "Please, make yourself comfortable".

Adrien nodded, and he started taking off his shoes. After removing one, he lifted his head and looked up at Valerion with wide eyes. "Are you sure I can --".

"Of course you can", Valerion said as he unfolded the blanket and shook it to smooth it out. "Please, make yourself at home - feet on the couch and everything", he added with a smile of his eyes.

Adrien looked at him and smiled a bit in response, then he bent down again and took off his other shoe. He carefully lay down on the couch; as he placed his head against the armrest, Valerion stepped forwards and placed the blanket on him. "Let me know if it's too hot or too cold".

"I -- I think it's alright", Adrien replied as he pulled the blanket over his chest. "Thank you so much".

"Don't mention it. Oh, and -- do you need a pillow?".

"No, this is just fine. Thank you".

Valerion nodded. "Alright then; let me know if you need anything. Have a good sleep".

Adrien shifted around a bit under the blanket, and he nestled the back of his head against the corner of the couch. With one hand, he held the blanket near his face; it was soft, and it had a scent which he liked - lavender or rosemary, he couldn't tell which at the moment. Meanwhile, Valerion had seated himself on his usual armchair, and he was now hunched over the table as he wrote in a leatherbound notebook; sometimes he would bring the cap of his fountain pen to his mouth and suck on it for a while before writing his next words. Adrien smiled and closed his eyes.

When Adrien woke up from his nap, the sun had already set; now it was the light of the fireplace and of the many torches around the walls to illuminate the hall. His eyes focused on the figure of Valerion, who was still sitting by the table on his armchair; he could see an assortment of open books in front of him around the journal on which he was writing. Adrien moved the blanket away from his face; as he did so, Valerion turned towards him, acknowledging his awakening with a smile on his face.

"Welcome back", he said. "Did you have a good nap?".

"Yes -- thank you very much". Adrien sat up, stretched his shoulders a bit, then turned towards Valerion, who had gone back to writing.

"Ah -- please wait a moment", Valerion muttered, "allow me to finish this thought...".

Adrien nodded; he stood up, grabbed the blanket that now lay disheveled on the couch, folded it neatly, then set it against one of the corners of the couch. A few minutes after that, Valerion closed his journal, satisfied; then he gestured dismissively at the open books on the table, which closed with a loud snap and took flight in a disorderly manner, eventually careening to their places on the shelves that lined the walls of the room. Adrien chuckled as he watched one of the books wobble its way in the space between two other tomes; then Valerion turned towards him, smiling.

"All done", he said. "Ready for dinner?".

"Ah -- yes, thank you". Adrien stood up and seated himself at the table. "What is for dinner today?".

"May I suggest potato frittata again?".

"Yes -- now I want it", Adrien replied. "Thank you".

Valerion smiled and flicked his fingers at the table, which was set in an instant. Now in front of Adrien there was a plate with a warm, fragrant potato frittata; just looking at it made his mouth tingle - he hadn't realized how hungry he was until that moment. He picked up knife and fork and started taking apart the frittata; he sighed as he ate his first piece - it tasted just as good as he thought it would. Valerion smiled at him from the other end of the table, where he was leisurely eating his slice. "I take you're feeling better", he commented.

"Yes, I'm fine now", Adrien replied. "Thank you".

Valerion ate another small bite of frittata, then took a swig of wine and wiped his mouth with a napkin. He looked at the flames dancing in the fireplace with a thoughtful air to his expression, then he spoke: "Before attempting abstract defense magic again, we'd better return to regular defense magic with a focus on energy control. We'll stay on that chapter for a while; I want to make sure that what happened today does not happen again. I hope you understand".

"Of course", Adrien nodded. "It's alright. I am very grateful that you allowed me to try. I -- I will do my best to improve".

"I know you will", Valerion said, smiling with his eyes.

Adrien chuckled, a bit flustered. He ate another piece of frittata, then he paused to think about the events of the day, and about how mortified Valerion seemed to be about the whole incident. The faint somberness that seemed to shroud him that evening told Adrien that, in spite of his previous attempts to reassure him, he was still blaming himself over what had happened. He needed to let him know that everything was alright. Adrien took a deep breath, then another; then he spoke again. "And -- really, I -- I'm really very grateful for everything you've been doing, everything -- I -- I really can't thank you enough". Although Adrien couldn't help but stagger as he attempted to give shape to his thoughts, each word that he did say was spoken clearly and resolutely. He breathed in again, then continued: "I -- I just wanted to say -- we all make mistakes! -- I don't think that what happened today was your fault at all, but, even if it had been, we -- we all make mistakes -- and you can trust me about that; I'm pretty well-versed in mistakes, I am somewhat of a collector", Adrien interrupted himself with a dark chuckle, "so, please, believe me -- it's alright; and, besides, nothing really bad happened - I'm perfectly fine now".

At the other side of the table, Valerion seemed somewhat surprised for a moment; then he smiled, then he smiled as well, his head tilted in gentle agreement. "Adrien", he replied, "Thank you. I greatly appreciate your words. You are absolutely right, and I'll try to keep that in mind. You should do the same, too".

"I know, I know", Adrien chuckled, "I don't practice what I preach, but --".

"It's alright", Valerion smiled, "Neither do I, as you can see. And I really should. Thank you". He took a sip of water, then he continued: "This is the first time that I teach, outside of conferences and the like; I only have two weeks of teaching experience, so I... I worry. I hope I can be a good teacher, but --".

"You've been doing just fine!", Adrien exclaimed, leaning forward. "I have met bad teachers, and really, you -- you're not one of them. If I -- if I can tell you a bit of a story...".

"Please, do".

Adrien took in a deep breath; he paused a moment before starting again. His fingers went to play with the embroidered hem of the napkin. "So, three years ago now, I went to university; I took mechanical engineering. I thought it would have been of my interest, and, well, the subject matter was -- still is -- but... it turned out that I couldn't do it. The setting was so... so impersonal. Most teachers just showed up, delivered their lecture, didn't wait for anything or anyone, then left, and if you had any questions, that was your problem. I've had teachers with which I haven't even spoken once! And since I couldn't ask anyone, I was afraid that I wasn't understanding things right, and I'd get so stressed out, and my grades weren't so good, so I had reason to worry, but nobody would tell me what I was doing wrong!... Then, there was -- that exam...". Adrien placed his left elbow on the table, and brought a hand to his forehead. "That day, I was -- so nervous, I hadn't slept at all, I was shaking and -- and almost crying, and -- I was taking my exam, and the teacher came to my seat and asked me, 'Are you really that scared?'. I said yes, and --", Adrien's hands clenched into fists as he was retelling the story, his eyes shimmering with barely-restrained tears, "-- and you know what he told me? He told me, 'Then you're not cut out for this. You might as well leave now'".

Valerion stared back at him, his eyes wide, his mouth slightly opened, an expression of horrified disbelief on his face. "And you...?", he whispered.

"And I -- I just -- took my things, and left. I just -- left!", Adrien said, shaking his head.

"I am so, so sorry", Valerion whispered in a broken voice. "I can understand why you'd do that".

Adrien took another sip of water, and his throat seemed to unclench a bit. "Yeah... Now I regret not having said something, but -- I was so... so...".

"You were stunned and speechless, right?".

"Yes, and... so mortified, because -- well, I already doubt myself enough without anyone's help, then I'm told I'm a failure and I better quit, and what do I know? Anyway, not long after that, I dropped out", Adrien said, his tone dry and factual. He sighed, then looked up at Valerion and continued: "So, okay, what I wanted to say was -- if you think that you're not a good teacher, fuck, then what was he? You -- your pinky finger is a better teacher than -- that entire -- den of assholes. So, really, believe me; you're just fine".

Valerion stared back at Adrien; there was now a faint smile on his face. "Thank you for telling me this. And I am so sorry that this happened to you. To discourage you like that... Frankly, what that teacher did to you should be considered criminal. Den of assholes, indeed". He shook his head and leaned back in his armchair, the shock at what he had just heard still visible on his face.

"I wish I had said something and I hadn't quit, because -- after all, I've proven him right", Adrien said with a weak shrug.

"I don't think so", Valerion replied. "I can absolutely understand that being told something like that has an effect on you. I think that all this proves is his failure as a teacher".

Adrien pondered his words for a few seconds; then his mouth opened in a smile. "You're right", he said. "Thank you". He ate another piece of frittata. "Besides, if I hadn't dropped out then, maybe I wouldn't be here now -- and I am very happy to be here, so I can't be too sad that things went like that".

"That's the spirit!", Valerion chuckled. "And I am glad to hear that".

They finished eating their dinners, then sat in silence for a little while, watching the fire dance in the fireplace.

"Thank you again for your words", Valerion smiled, and he lifted himself from his seat. "Now, if you excuse me, I'll be going. Thank you once again", he nodded.

"It's alright; it's me who should thank you", Adrien giggled. He stood up and started walking towards the door to the west tower; Valerion did the same in the opposite direction. Then, right in front of the door, he turned around.

"So, goodnight, and see you tomorrow, Adrien. Have a good sleep".

"You too. Goodnight".