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9. Little flames

Adrien stretched his legs and stood up, having just completed that day's meditation session. He took in a deep breath and spread his arms as far back as he could, then went to lean against the stone wall of the practice tower.

"So, what happens today?", he asked.

Val was still sitting on the floor, his legs bent in front of him. He stood up and smoothed out his finely patterned robe with his gloved hand. "Yes, the next section of your training will be on energy control. To work on that, we'll have to go back to standard defense magic for a while. I hope you won't mind".

"Not at all", Adrien smiled. "What should I do this time?".

"Are you acquainted with the theory of energy control?", Val asked.

Adrien's forehead wrinkled. "I know a couple things, but -- no, not really. Sorry", he muttered.

"You don't need to apologize - you're here to learn", Val smiled with his eyes. "Then, let me start with a question: what do you think control means, in this case?".

"I assumed it was things like -- controlling your movements".

"Yes, that is an aspect of it", Val replied. He went to stand next to the window, leaning against the windowsill as he spoke. "The core concept is control and awareness of all means through which magic expresses itself - your motions, your emotions, and your intentions. The latter two apply equally to every branch of magic; the first is of particular relevance to shape magic, as your body becomes the channel through which energy is expressed". He took in a deep breath. "To better control your magic, you must gain a deeper understanding of yourself. Among the other things - and of great importance to you - this means learning where your limits are".

"Right", Adrien chuckled.

"You want to reach a balance between pushing your limits and respecting them. There can only be growth by doing both", Val said. "To respect your limits, you must acknowledge where they are; and to push them, you must be fully ready to do so. That is what control means", he explained.

Adrien looked down, allowing these notions to wash him over. "I think I understand", he then said. "Well -- the theory, at least...".

"I am sure you will understand the practice, too", Val said, smiling. "If you ever notice that you are becoming tired - let me repeat it one more time: you must stop. We will continue whenever you are ready. This is part of your training, as well. Please remember that there is no shame in asking for a pause. Alright?".

"Alright", Adrien nodded. He played with his fingers a bit. "Though -- you know, I've never heard of this approach before. I have heard of people training to their limits without stopping...".

Val tilted his head and sighed. "Yes, people do that", he said, morosely. "Personally, I don't see how hurting yourself to reach a goal is ever a good thing. It teaches you to disrespect your boundaries and, by extension, yourself".

"Yeah, that makes sense", Adrien nodded to himself. He stood in silence for a while. "It makes sense, but I only ever heard the opposite. Even when I was in school, the teachers would say that students must always give their all, and that nothing less than that is acceptable... And -- yeah, people did hurt themselves to meet these expectations. To prepare for exams, I've gone without sleeping, skipped meals... So did most people".

"It's not right", Val said, shaking his head. "You were being taught that you matter less than what is asked of you".

"Yeah...", Adrien mumbled. "But why do you think it happens so much?".

"I suppose there is an underlying belief that a reward needs to be proportional to some kind of suffering", Val said, his eyes dark. "Suffering becomes the proof of deserving... But that is not how it is. Besides, you shouldn't ever need to prove that you are enough. You shouldn't ever need to prove that you deserve existing as yourself".

Adrien lowered his gaze. "Right", he replied.

Val was silent for a while; then he smiled. "I am glad that you agree. I am well aware that not everyone thinks as I do... However", he continued with an impish smirk on his face and one index finger raised, "you are in my house, and I won't have any apprentice of mine fainting left and right on my watch. Understood?".

"Understood, your highness", Adrien giggled.

"Good", Val smiled. He handed him the staff. "In this exercise, I will throw fireballs at you. You will defend yourself as you've done before. When you cast your spell, focus on the energy flowing through you while you channel it. Try to understand where and how it runs. Know that it might take a while before you find anything, so we will do this for as long as you need".

"Alright", Adrien said. He passed the staff to his left hand and shifted his fingers in place. He took in a deep breath. "Alright, you can begin".

Val nodded, then closed his eyes. He lifted one hand: he drew a Fire symbol in the air with his fingers, and a fireball appeared from his palm and shot forwards to Adrien, who drew an arc in front of himself - thinking of a wall of water to douse the fire. As he drew it, he focused on the feeling of his arms moving, of his fingers grasping on the staff; and, for a split second, he could see a flash of a waterfall, and the fireball sizzling away into steam as it was swallowed by the water.

Adrien breathed out. "I -- I'm not sure if I felt anything".

"Then we try again", Val said.

Another fireball came into being from Val's hand, and Adrien spun again. Breathing in rhythm as he moved, something washed him over as the arc appeared in front of his feet; he could not grasp on it fully, but he could tell it was there - within his arms and his throat, a strange weight that seemed to blink into existence as he spun, to disappear shortly after.

"There's something", Adrien muttered. "I'm not sure how to explain, but there's definitely something...".

"Could you feel it flow?".

Adrien shook his head. "Not really, no".

"Then we will try again".

"...How long do you think this will take...?", Adrien said, his voice low.

"I cannot say", Val said. "This is a journey that is unique to each sorcerer. I can advise and guide you, but I cannot help you any further than that. I'm sorry".

"No, it's okay. I get it", Adrien said. "I'm just getting a bit antsy, as usual", he then chuckled, playing with the tuft of his ponytail. "Let's continue".

Adrien continued casting his spells for the next few hours. When he put all his focus on his fingers, he could feel something trembling through them; when he focused on his arms, he felt that same pulse run underneath his skin. He understood he had to follow it upstream and find its well; but he could only catch brief glimpses of this flow with the corners of his senses, and it always faded before he could name it. He came to accept that. When he no longer considered his fingers and arms one at a time, no longer thought of himself as separate from his motions, his senses shifted to the weight of his body, to the space that was him; when he breathed, something would course from underneath him, towards his core - it sparkled away from his boundaries, yet ran solemn and silent within his body. As it moved upwards, it seemed also to pull him down - as if pinning him in place within himself, binding him to his skin and bones.

Having found his answer, Adrien stopped searching; he looked at Val, a grin opening on his face. "I've got it!".

"Well done", Val said, smiling. "How was it like?".

Adrien paused to consider the words that could describe that feeling. "Yeah, it did feel like -- like a flow. From beneath my feet. It -- it went up, then through my arms. But it also felt -- heavy, somehow".

"Heavy", Val repeated, pensive. "Yes, I see. Very well done".

Adrien smiled. "What happens now?".

"Now you need to learn how to measure this energy", Val said. "As you cast your spells, focus on this flow. Understand it as a part of yourself, and direct it as you would do with your own motions and words. Imagine yourself as a great river; allow this water to trickle from your branches - while knowing that you hold much more within".

"I think I understand", Adrien nodded. "I'll try".

Val nodded; then he cast his fireball. Adrien drew an arc; he scrunched his eyebrows as he tried to gauge his motions and limit the flow of his magic.

"Try not to tense up so much", Val remarked. "Keep your body relaxed. Work together with your breathing, not against it".

"Alright", Adrien nodded. When he saw the next fireball shoot out of Val's palm, Adrien took in a deep breath and pulled the staff close to his body; as he breathed out, he spun around, only grazing the floor with the tip of the staff, letting his torso twist to follow his shoulders. The light of his line glowed fainter than before as the fireball disappeared within a wall of translucent waters.

"There you go", Val nodded, smiling. "The less energy you use, the more spells you can cast. The more spells you can cast, the more you will practice how to channel your energy, which will enable you to cast more spells more efficiently".

"I see", Adrien said. "Somehow it's harder to do this than to burst out all at once", he then chuckled.

"For you, at least", Val giggled; and Adrien couldn't help but blush a little hearing that. "...But it will become easier as you keep doing it. It is just like training for a marathon: the beginning is always the hardest part".

"I don't know, I'd say every part of doing a marathon is the hardest part!", Adrien said.

Val burst into laughter. "A fair point", he chuckled. "In my defense, I never said that any of this would be easy... However, trust me: after some training, you will begin to do this effortlessly. It will become second nature for you".

"I hope so", Adrien said, a little frown on his forehead.

"Trust me", Val smiled.

*****

Adrien's training in energy control lasted about two weeks; afterwards, he resumed learning abstract defense magic. His training had worked: casting spells no longer left him drained, and he no longer felt tentative and stumbling. He knew where his feet would step and how his arms would move, and how to let his energy flow through his body and outside of himself. Most importantly, this all came with a feeling he had rarely enjoyed before, one that he hoped would last: the feeling of being adequate to himself, of being able to achieve his goals without struggling, of having competence that even he could believe in.

Adrien adjusted his fingers on the staff and took a deep breath, then began to draw. He closed his eyes as he spun, every fiber of his being turned towards the soothing memory of that forest that had sheltered him; he could conjure the sunlight dancing past the leaves with his mind's eye. The darkness collided with his shield of light, and fear could not take him. He withdrew his arm, then stretched his neck from side to side.

"That makes ten times today", Val proudly declared. "I think we can safely say you have gained mastery of this spell".

Adrien scratched his cheek, smiling. "I have, huh...".

"Do you feel in any way tired?".

"No, not at all. Actually, maybe this is getting even too easy", Adrien chuckled.

"I see", Val smiled. "Then, what about starting with something else?".

"Like what?".

"Since you have achieved better control of your energy", Val started, "I think you are ready to learn the fundamentals of elemental shape magic".

Few sorcerers were as knowledgeable as Val on the topic of elemental shape magic. Anyone interested in this field had surely heard his name and read his books; and it had been this way that Adrien had learned of his work, and eventually sought out an apprenticeship with him. At the time, this decision had been somewhat of a gamble. Although Adrien thought Val's work was impressive, he found his books to be a mess of brilliant conclusions delivered in a frustratingly obscure way; and he wasn't particularly excited to learn from someone who could make such interesting material sound so boring - but, as he had already been rejected by the sorcerers that he would have most wanted as his mentors, he was willing to compromise and ask anyway. Yet, with every day he spent as his apprentice, Adrien found himself more and more surprised by how unlike his first impressions Val had turned out to be. He was not the dull writer of the books he'd slogged through, but rather a kind guide who always knew what to say and how; and Adrien loved to listen to him talk about anything, and especially about magic and his thoughts about it - and now, he was looking forward to hearing Val share his personal approach to his favorite branch of magic.

Val sat down on the floor. "Forgive me if you already know this, but I want to make sure we are on the same page. Elemental shape magic is the magic of channeling fundamental energies through movement. As you follow the shapes associated with these energies, and as you impress your intentions in your motions, your body becomes a conduit for magic, allowing you to cast spells. You already know of one shape that is essential to magical geometry: the circle, representing a boundary. The next important shape is the triangle, representing change, which forms the base for the symbols of the elements". He drew with his finger on the floor: with the light that flowed from his fingertips, he drew six triangles within circles arranged in two rows of three each, the top row with their point up and the bottom row with their point down. He gestured at the first column - "Fire", he said, pointing at the upright triangle; "Water", he said, pointing at the inverted triangle. He drew a little line crossing the tips of the two middle triangles: he pointed at the top one - "Air" - and the bottom one - "Earth". For the last column, he added a dot within each triangle's apex: "Light" and "Darkness".

"The cosmos can be thought of as a balance of these fundamental energies. You will learn one basic spell for each element; through this course, you will learn how these energies relate to your sensibilities, and how can you harness them. Let us begin with the energies that are most linked to the physical plane: Fire and Water. Which one would you rather start with?".

"Fire", Adrien answered.

Now Val's smile had gained a note of mischievousness. "Of course", he said; Adrien's face became redder, and he replied with a little chuckle.

Val continued: "If you think of the element of Fire, what are the first things that come to your mind?".

Adrien breathed in as he pondered his answer. "It's powerful. It's -- well, burning", he said with a nervous chuckle. "Sorry if this sounds obvious --".

"-- no, no, please, continue".

"-- it's -- intense -- raging -- it burns and turns everything into ashes. It's -- consuming, all-consuming... Is it right?", he then said, raising one eyebrow.

"Of course it is", Val said, smiling broadly. "I did ask about what it means to you; there is no wrong answer".

Adrien breathed out and chuckled a little. "Oh, good", he said, still half-chuckling as he released his tension.

Val lowered his head. "All-consuming", he repeated. "Yes, that is a good description; it wishes to turn everything into itself -- by devouring it". He looked up at Adrien. "Do you find this positive, or negative?".

Adrien paused for a moment. "Well -- it can be both, isn't it? It really depends on what is being burned".

Val stood up. "I see", he said. "If you'd like, we can start".

"Let's", Adrien said. He readied the staff. "What should I draw?".

"A Fire symbol within a circle. As you draw it, visualize and try to channel something that is related to this element - for now, I recommend starting with a fireball".

"So, just like defense magic?".

"Yes", Val replied. "However, do keep in mind that this might be harder than your previous exercises. Defense magic is easier for a beginner because it relies on mirroring energy that is already in flow; in the case of elemental magic, all the energy that fuels it will need to come from within you. To do so, you should try to focus on something that makes you feel all those things that you described Fire as".

Adrien nodded. "Alright. I'll need a moment to think, though".

"Of course. Take your time".

The first thing that came to Adrien's mind was the burning of anger, the feeling of rage swelling up in his chest; it was very much like fire, searing and scorching - but, as he wasn't angry about anything at the moment, he couldn't summon that fury on command - and he didn't feel like digging for old wounds within himself. Then he had another thought - behind his eyelids, he saw the shape of a naked body bent in front of himself; Adrien swallowed - he felt a wave of redness flush his cheeks, and another lower; he breathed out and pushed the image away - while he recognized that it would probably serve him well as a concept of Fire, he thought better than to have to practice magic like that. He tilted his head and scrunched his forehead, trying to think of something else. Then his eyes widened: his mind landed upon the idea of the fire of ambition and of wanting to achieve - a notion which was close to him in that moment; and he smiled.

"Determination -- would thinking of determination work?".

"It should", Val said. "Just keep in mind -- not only thinking; you must summon it with all of yourself".

Adrien nodded. He adjusted his hands on the staff, then he closed his eyes - he frowned as he tried to feel the rush of his intention; he spun around, drew the circle, then the triangle. He did not feel the magic coursing through his body as he did so; and nothing happened. He breathed in through his nose and he closed his eyes a second time: he spun another circle - and failed again.

"Take sharper breaths", Val said. "Don't forget to focus on the flow of magic; imagine the fire as it rises through you and as it leaves your body".

"Alright", Adrien said. He placed the tip of the staff on the floor again; he breathed in as he began drawing the circle - visualizing a fire rising from his feet and towards his arms. The circle lit up, and a small flame flashed upwards. Val clapped his hands.

"Well done", he said, smiling broadly.

Adrien chuckled. "Thank you", he said, shifting his hair away from his face. "Though -- well, I was expecting --".

Val's smile turned impish. "Don't you dare say it was underwhelming", he interrupted him, one index finger raised. "You have only just started, and I did tell you this would be harder --".

"-- Alright", Adrien laughed, caught. "I'll keep trying".

*****

When that day's practice session ended, Adrien found himself glad to go downstairs and have dinner; and even he was aware of how uncharacteristic that was for him - but that first day of shape magic had proven itself more tiring than he had anticipated, and it had brought results less exciting than he would have wanted. Even if Adrien trusted that he'd make progress in due time, he couldn't help but feel somewhat disappointed for the time being.

Adrien neatly cut a piece of cutlet, which he then stabbed with the tines of his fork. "Besides, it wasn't easy coming up with a good thing to do on the spot", he explained. "At first I thought about anger, but -- it's not like I can just suddenly get angry at nothing in particular! And then" - he laughed, flustered, wondering if he should tell that part of the story; but his mouth ran off before he could stop himself - "then -- well, I thought about sex, and it seemed like it would, uh -- work, but -- you know, practicing magic with a boner...".

At the other side of the table, Val burst into great laughter. "If you wanted, and if it worked for you...", he eventually said between chuckles.

"Nah, I don't think it would be a good idea", Adrien giggled, playing with his hair in front of his face in an attempt to hide his red cheeks. "I mean -- uh -- even if it worked, how am I supposed to -- uh -- keep it up for the whole practice session...". Adrien cracked up at his own words, and Val did too - giggling and snorting with his face behind his hands.

"There is training for that, too", Val replied with the smallest voice; then they burst into laughter again, and it was a long time before they regained their composure.

"But, even if I could -- even if I could keep it up", Adrien said, "then what, I spin around with a staff and a boner?".

"That would make it two staves!", Val exclaimed - and then they lost it again.

Adrien took a sip of water to drown the last of his giggles; then he paused. "Is it alright that I told you all of this?".

Val chuckled. "Do I seem bothered?". He picked up knife and fork and cut himself a piece. "Besides, it is important to discuss your thoughts and approaches to spellcasting. Your logic is sound, after all. On the other hand", Val said, a little smirk at the edge of his mouth, "I don't think I will be writing about this particular exchange in my reports to the Council of Magic".

Adrien giggled, then resumed eating. Val had been about to bite into a morsel when he put the fork down - "Oh, I almost forgot -- I have a letter for you".

"For me?", Adrien gasped.

"Yes. Your mother wrote back".

Val retrieved an envelope that was sitting on top of the fireplace and handed it to Adrien, who tore it open and unfolded the paper inside.

September 19th

Dear Adrien,
It's so good to read that you're doing well. I'm happy that you're happy and that things are going well for you. It's such a relief.

From the way you speak about him, I am sure that your master must be a great person. But don't forget that, even if he's close in age to you, you are a guest in his house. No matter what, always be polite and courteous. I'm sure I don't need to tell you, but...

Home is feeling a bit empty without you. It's strange to wake up and not see you making breakfast in the kitchen. I keep thinking that you overslept, and then I remember that my boy is so far away. Adrien, I miss you so much. So work hard, but don't get too tired, and remember that your mom is always rooting for you. Give my best regards to master Valerion as well.

I gave a hug to Giselle for you. She says "co co co"! I think it means "I miss you too".

Love,
Mom

Adrien smiled, taken by a feeling of inner warmth. He re-read the letter several times - and each time, his smile grew bigger.

"How are things at home?", Val asked.

"Good", Adrien said, still beaming. "My mom sends you her best regards".

After that, Adrien didn't speak for a while; he continued to eat his cutlet as he thought about his mother's words. When he had first told her that he wanted to become a sorcerer's apprentice, she had expressed concern about his idea - not out of disapproval, but out of worry that he had made a rushed, impractical decision that was unlikely to lead anywhere; and Adrien had much feared she had been right. Now, almost two months into his apprenticeship, Adrien felt confident that this had been a good idea; and his mother's words gave him a pleasant reminder that, in spite of everything, she was nothing but supportive about his choices, and wished for nothing but his best - for nothing but for him to gain fortune and happiness, no matter how far he'd have to go.

"I'll need to write back later", Adrien said. "When I wrote the first letter, I hadn't even succeeded at my first spell yet. She'll be happy to hear about my progress".

"I'm sure she will be", Val smiled.