“Wh-what do you mean, professor?” Alex stammered in front of professor Ram.
It had been weeks since his conversation with Khalik, and while he’d remembered what the prince had said about maybe telling a professor so someone could understand if he was struggling, he hadn’t done so. His own worry about force missile had remained, but it had retreated into the back of his mind.
For the first time in months, his life had fallen into a calm routine, and when things became calm and regular, people often forgot worries that weren’t immediate.
The campus itself was more tense, though.
Baelin had held another assembly—this one attended by members of Generasi’s ruling council of wizards—where they spoke of a joint investigation into ‘this act of malicious magic’.
In time, only the increased presence of The Watchers of Roal on campus served as the occasional reminder of the incident. Life continued on, and Alex was at peace.
Selina continued to improve as well, though she was a little more thoughtful than before. Quieter, with more frowns when she thought no one was looking. At other times, she was all cheer. He wasn’t sure what to make of it.
Theresa’s contact had come through, and she’d at last gained a job at the Beastarium as an assistant warden. The work wasn’t as glamorous as assisting in the construction of golems—at least, not to Alex—but she said that she enjoyed it immensely, and she got to take Brutus with her when she went to work.
The cabal had met several times since their first meeting and continued to help each other. Every member was showing improvements with reaching their goals—the close collaboration was already bearing fruit. Khalik and Alex had grown closer as friends as well, and were hanging out even more than before.
One of the few things he had to complain about in the last little while was that between his training, school and his new job—now that he’d finished the training period—sleep was getting to be a little hard to come by at times. One other thing was his progress with force missile: even with Isolde’s help, he was struggling to make significant progress with the spell. The time to hand in his report on it was drawing close, and he’d basically resolved to focus on the theoretical aspects of the spell and just take the massive loss in marks for the practical portion.
One couldn’t have everything, and he’d made good progress with his continued modifications to Wizard’s Hand and learning Orb of Air.
In short, life was good.
And then the professor for FORC-1550 had asked him to stay behind after class. Now, Alex sat in his floating desk while Professor Ram floated in front of him.
“What do I mean?” the professor said. “I mean exactly that: why are you not trying in my class?”
“Uh.” Alex’s mind raced, completely caught off guard. His eyes flicked down to the black force construct that served as Professor Ram’s prosthetic arm. “I mean…I am, professor.”
“No, you’re not,” Professor Ram countered, his eyebrows knitting close together in a frown. His voice was calm, but there was an edge to his words that was as sharp as a knife. “I don’t think you’re even close to trying, Mr. Roth.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
One of Ram’s dark eyebrows rose on his dark brown face. “I’ve heard of your performance in other classes, Mr. Roth: I’ve seen where you placed on the Honours Lists for every other course except this one.”
Alex felt his face flush. “I mean-I mean I study really hard professor-”
“I have no doubt,” Professor Ram said. “You know the theory well. Very well. Your forceball, forcedisk, and Wizard’s Hand all have excellent modifications and your force shield is adequate.”
Alex winced at the word ‘adequate’.
“But your speed is abysmal,” Professor Ram said. “Completely impractical when it comes to making use of spells in an actual combat situation which—considering force magic’s many battlefield applications and your presence in The Art of the Wizard in Combat—is where it seems you want to go.”
His frown deepened further. “So, why are you not working on your speed? And what’s this with force missile? I haven’t seen any meaningful progress from you Mr. Roth, and the report is due next week.”
“I…are you reprimanding me?” Alex asjed slowly. The heat of anger rose up in him. He was an adult, not a five-year old child to be badgered by their teacher.
“No. I’m trying to encourage you and save your life,” Ram said simply.
Alex rose up a little in his chair. “I’m pretty sure there’s students doing a lot worse than me, Professor Ram.”
“There are,” the force Professor said bluntly. “Much worse. Especially in the theory: you obviously know what you’re doing, Mr. Roth: you couldn’t have done as well as you did on the written midterm if you didn’t. You also wouldn’t have been able to modify your spells if you didn’t.”
“Then…I don’t understand the problem, professor,” Alex said flatly.
“The problem is that you can do better. Are you taking five courses, Mr. Roth? A full course load?”
“Yeah, yeah I am.”
“That means you topped the Honours List for every single one of your courses except for this one,” Ram looked at him pointedly. “The reason I am talking to you, Mr. Roth is not because you are doing poorly, but because you are obviously capable of a far better performance. Far better.”
Anger continued to rise in Alex: frustration at the professor and his own situation. He was trying his hardest. He really, really was. It wasn’t his fault that The Mark made it so that—if he didn’t use caution, his meditation techniques and his full concentration when casting spells—then he probably would have blown his own head off by screwing up a spell array.
Of course, professor Ram didn’t know that…couldn’t know that, which in a way—made the situation even more frustrating: he couldn’t even explain himself.
“I…I am struggling with my speed, professor, but I’m trying as hard as I can to improve it.”
“That’s not true.”
Alex paused. “Pardon?”
“If anything, your efforts dipped when it comes to force missile.” He watched Alex for a moment. “Speed is one of the most important aspects in spell casting. Do you know how fast a crossbow bolt travels?”
“No,” Alex admitted.
“Between three hundred to four hundred feet per second,” Ram said. “That means that—if you notice an attacker with a crossbow trained on you—you’ll have one second to cast force shield before it strikes you. And that’s if they’re three hundred to four hundred feet away. If they’re closer? You’ll have that much less time.”
“I…” Alex fought the urge to grind his teeth. “Maybe…I just want to do peaceful things, I mean, professor—with all due respect—you said in class multiple times that force magic has almost infinite applications besides being used as battle magic.”
“And that is true,” Ram agreed. “How fast is the human body moving once it has been in free fall for one second?”
“Just over thirty-two feet per second, depending on air resistance,” Alex said almost automatically. There were similar questions on the written portion of the midterm.
“Correct.” Ram raised his force construct hand. Both he and Alex shot upwards until they were nearly at ceiling height. The young man’s stomach flip-flopped.
The professor pointed at his desk. “Suppose for a moment, Mr. Roth, the magic causing your chair and desk to float failed suddenly. Suppose it was dispelled or some phenomena in the air robbed it of mana, or I dropped dead suddenly and the magic circuit lost power or something of that sort. We are roughly thirty-two feet in the air. You would have approximately 1.41 seconds before you crashed into the desks below.”
Ram leaned forward. “Say you knew just the right spell that would catch and save you. At your speed, would you be able to cast it in time?”
Alex frowned and stayed silent for a moment. Beneath his desk, one of his hands clenched into a fist. “…no.”
“Exactly,” Professor Ram said. “All that brain of yours that you’re not applying to my class would be pouring out of your skull, all over the floor until an Orb of Air came along to suck it up for disposal.”
“I actually am trying,” Alex insisted.
“Are you now?” Ram said. “What’s the pass rate for most courses at Generasi?”
“I don’t know,” Alex said, trying to keep the sullenness out of his voice.
“Alright, then what’s the minimum average you need to achieve to pass a first year course here?”
“Correct.” Ram said. “And by the way, more than half of first year students failfirst year mana manipulation. It is an extremely difficult subject. And yet, you were able to challenge the exam and skip the rest of the first year course entirely.”
“I…I’m just better at it, professor,” Alex insisted. He took a deep, meditative breath to control the frustration that was building more and more. “I’m doing my best here.”
“You keep saying that.” Ram folded his arms behind his back and turned to the window. His lips pursed in thought behind his black beard. “And I would believe it too, were it not for the modifications you have made to your spell arrays for several of the spells taught in this class—fairly advanced modifications, which require a lot of detailed work. You are capable Mr. Roth.”
‘No I’m not! The Mark’s slowing me down!’ Alex wanted to scream.
“Well, I just have to keep trying,” he said instead.
“Like you are with force missile?” Ram raised an eyebrow. "…I’ve seen it year after year, Mr. Roth. Students come in, make a certain amount of effort in the first half of the semester, then—if they do well in the midterm—they slack. Then the final utterly destroys them. Or—if they manage to get through that—then they find out to their immense disappointment that the second year course is far more difficult than the first year course.”
He sighed and his face softened. “Mr. Roth, I know you are capable of more, and quite frankly, your behaviour is baffling. I think—if you truly applied yourself—you could easily make near the top of the Honours List after the final exam. To see you reach the midterm and put in less effort is…disappointing. I believe you can excel. Do so.”
Alex’s mind was racing and his heart was slamming in his chest. Rage—at Uldar, Ram, The Mark and himself—flooded him utterly.
“Are we done now?” Alex said, looking down at his desk. He didn’t trust himself to look up at the professor. “I have things to do.”
He heard a sigh, which caused him even more frustration.
“It appears that we are,” Ram said.
Alex stalked through the campus, with his hands balled into fists. He really, really wanted to hit something and it must have showed, because students he passed took one look at his face and very quickly moved out of his way.
A big part of him wanted to go back and shout at Ram for minimizing the insane amount of effort he was putting into school. The Mark made things extraordinarily difficult, and he was coping with that as best he could.
Another part of him wanted to tear his sleeve away, show the professor The Mark and tell him exactly what he’d been dealing with. A calmer part of his mind clamped down on the idea.
For one, he couldn’t trust Ram. That wasn’t to say that Ram had done anything untrustworthy, but this conversation was literally the longest he’d ever had with the man. Also, a part of him realized that telling Ram might not have even helped him at all.
If someone wasn’t familiar with The Fool or if they weren’t close to him, there wasn’t really a way to conveyexactly how hindering The Mark was. Khalik’s reaction had been…muted. Respectful, understanding, but muted: without being Thameish or knowing the history of The Heroes, he just couldn’t comprehend the full significance that being branded with The Fool truly carried.
What would Ram’s reaction have been like? Probably not one full of understanding.
Alex shook his head. That was something else to consider before he told Baelin. Or anyone else.
He cursed viciously beneath his breath.
Nothing would have pleased him more than to be able to cast force magic as quickly as he’d been able to before he’d received The Mark. He would have loved to learn force missile without trouble and then graduate to other more combative force spells.
Or even other combat spells.
He’d be lying if he said that Isolde’s lightning spells weren’t cool.
But all he could do was do his best, and sometimes that wasn’t enough. His mood dropped lower and lower, the more he thought about it. He stopped, taking a deep, meditative breath. Slowly, he focused inward to calm himself-
“Hey! Alex!” a deep, familiar voice called from behind him.
He turned to see the horned form of Thundar walking toward him across the grass, his hooves leaving imprints in the muddy parts. “How are y-whoa.”
“Hi Thundar. What is it?” Alex asked, continuing to take deep breaths.
“You look like you want to strangle somebody. What happened? Something happen with your sister? Theresa? Class?”
Alex shook his head. “Nothing big.”
“Ah, come on, you can tell me,” Thundar said, shifting his bag on his massive, furred shoulder.
“Uh, well…” Alex told Thundar an abridged version of the conversation with Ram, leaving out his frustrations with The Mark.
Thundar snorted. “Well that ain’t right, I’ve seen you trying hard with force missile.” The minotaur looked at him carefully. “As the leader of the cabal-”
“Thundar, not right now, man,” Alex said. “Not in the mood.”
“Fine then, then as your friend…I say you could use something relaxing.”
“Yeah, I’m working on that.”
“Mmm,” the minotaur wizard looked at him carefully. “You got class now?”
“No, not until later this afternoon,” Alex said.
“Good. Come with me,’ Thundar jerked his horned head toward the south end of campus.
“Why? What’s up? Grabbing some wine?” Alex asked.
Thundar snorted. “It’s the middle of the day, who do I look like, Khalik? No, it’s a club that me and some of the students from body enhancement are into.”
“Hm? What’s it about?”
Thundar then struck a pose that caught Alex off guard: he set his hooves wide apart and began to move his arms slowly, as though passing them through water. “It’s a kind of body movement and meditation exercise from Tarim-Lung. It helps loosen the body up, relax it and redirect force.”
“Huh,” Alex mused. “I like meditation, another kind of medi-”
“Wait…” he said slowly. “Did you say ‘redirect force’?”
“Yeah.” Thundar continued to slowly move his arms. “Redirect the force from within and outside force too. It’ll help calm you down and feel better.”
“Well, yeah, it’s an exercise, but it’s based on a fighting style that lets you redirect opponents: don’t get too excited, though, this version’s movements are a lot slower and broader. It’s just to loosen the body up: helps a lot after you’ve used a lot of body enhancement spells.”
Alex could already feel his anger fading, rapidly being replaced by excitement. “Just an exercise that loosens you up and redirects force? That sounds like exactly what I need right now.”