“Well met, Alex!” Isolde smiled at him politely as he poked his head into the new classroom.
If he thought Professor Jules’ class had gotten smaller between first and second semester, then Val’Rok’s had been devastated between first and second year.
The size of the class was maybe a third of the size of his first year class. Alex had thought the lizard folk wizard had been joking when he’d said—during their very first class—that only one out of every three students would be there by the end.
He’d said something like ‘those that want to be here will be here’. Well, that was one way to look at it, Alex supposed.
Sliding into the room he came up to Isolde as she pointed to the seat in front of her.
“Alex, have a seat here,” she said. “I would invite you to sit beside me, but I am saving those seats for two of my friends, unfortunately.”
“Ah, no problem,” he said. “I like to be closer to the front anyway.” He pointed to his eyes. “If I sit too far back, I’ll have to squint so much that I’ll need spectacles as thick as Hobb’s monocle by graduation time in a few years.”
Isolde raised an eyebrow as he took his seat. “A few years, you say? Are you not going to apply to continue at the graduate level?”
“Honestly, I haven’t really thought about it,” Alex said, sitting so that he straddled the chair and was facing backwards. He folded his arms in front of him across the chair back.
“Truly? I would think that would be first on your priority.” She leaned forward on her desk. Because the small auditorium was built on multiple levels, she was looking down at him. “Have you truly not thought about it at all, or is this one of your jokes? With your performance, I thought you were purposefully striving for such a position as I am.”
He shrugged. “I’ve seen some of the grad students working for Jules and one working for Val’Rok, and it looks fun I gotta say.”
She scoffed. “‘Looks fun’, he says. My goodness, Alex, it’s not a position that one enters for ‘fun’. Graduate studies are fundamentally different from the undergraduate years.”
“Oh? How so?” Alex asked. “Do you learn all the spell-tiers up to ninth? That’d be some serious power.”
“No, it’s not about that.” She shook her head. “Think of it this way. For the first four years of our education here, we are sponges: we absorb the knowledge taught to us like water flowing from a tap. At the graduate level, we become the tap: we create the water. Our experiments craft the knowledge that aid others. We contribute to the creation of new spells, alchemical formulae and techniques. That skill will add to one’s wizardry as we go on, and also can help guarantee appointment to courts and faculty around the world.”
“Huh, well I’ll think about it…” He looked around. “If I get there. Did you have a big class for mana manipulation in first year?”
“About three times this size. Why do you ask?”
He whistled. “Well, if the second year class is already whittled down this much, then maybe I shouldn’t be betting too hard on guaranteed graduate studies.”
“Oh, bah!” she waved a hand dismissively. “I think you needn’t worry about that. If you are skilled enough to enter this difficult class in your first year, then surely you are already on a path that should take you into graduate studies with no issues.”
“Maybe,” he said. “It’s super competitive isn’t it? Not sure if my force marks are going to help too much.”
In truth, Alex’s final Mark for FORC-1550 was fairly high—not as high as Alex’s regular standards and probably not high for someone like Isolde—but, he had done very well, all things considered. Unfortunately, ‘fairly high’ likely wouldn’t cut it.
“Graduate studies are hyper competitive, aren’t they?” Alex asked. “With how important they are and all that. You’d have to be the best of the best of the best to get in.”
“True, but high marks are only part of the process,” she said. “Since you come from so far a distance you are likely unaware of this, but connections can matter for an admissions process. There are a number of students enrolled within Generasi who would not have been able to gain entry based on the merit of pure academics.”
Alex thought of Derek, wondering if that was how the nobleman had gotten in. Though to be fair, he didn’t know how Derek performed in his classes aside from potions…and that test in The Barrens for Baelin’s class just before first semester began.
“Some enter Generasi based on connection to one of the faculty members. Some enter based mostly on the fact that members of their family are alumni, or that they were within the entourage of a former student. There is also the way of gaining entry by way of donation.”
“Donation?” Alex raised an eyebrow, looking over the fine classroom with its magically maintained cleanliness and lecture hall furnishings. “Why would Generasi be hurting for gold?”
“Wizardry, as we know, is expensive: with the experiments run here, more material is always needed. And besides, often these donations are made not by way of coin, but by way of magical items, special materials, or even services performed,” Isolde said. “Even my grandfather has undertaken exploration for the university as a trade of favours.” She sighed. “It was his safety strategy for if I turned out to be…less academically dedicated.”
“Oh,” Alex said. “Well, I guess he didn’t need to worry about that.”
“No, such a worry was-” She paused, shaking her head. “We get off-topic. The point I was trying to make is that connections are even more valuable at the graduate level: a professor chooses graduates based on their academics, to be sure, but a graduate student is a colleague and an assistant to a professor’s work. Factors such as temperament, previous relationship and knowledge of their work habits are key in such choices, as my grandfather informed me.”
“Wait.” He paused. “So all that assisting I’ve been doing with professor Jules-”
“Is invaluable,” Isolde said, finishing his sentence. “I myself will be assisting one of Professor Ororo’s graduate students with their research into spells of storm calling, which will help me build connections with the department. Understand, Alex, the opportunity that you have, many students would cut off…well, at least they’d cut someone else’s finger off for it. You should consider it.”
He shrugged. “Well, according to you, I’m already on the right path for it, aren’t I? I just have to keep doing what I’m doing then, and I can decide later.”
“How cheeky and lackadaisical,” she huffed. “I suppose it is your future though.”
“Yeah, yeah it is,” Alex said.
Honestly, he hadn’t thought much into the far future recently.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go on to graduate studies or wanted to dismiss them or didn’t take them seriously. It was just that there were so many other more immediate, pressing things on his mind. He still needed to work out that golem power source, he still needed to continue with his analysis of the dungeon core’s remains, he still needed to figure out what was going on with Thameland’s previous Fools and also try to contribute to getting rid of The Ravener. He also needed to continue helping his little sister, get through Ram’s second semester, perfect his defences, explore the Cleansing Movements more…
…all in all, he had a lot to do. Graduate studies that were more than three years away seemed like such a distant thing at the moment. He hadn’t even decided what he wanted to do as a full-fledged wizard. He supposed it’d have to be something alchemy related unless he found a way to permanently get rid of The Mark at some point.
All in all: what came after graduation was far, far away and other things were of a more immediate concern.
Val’Rok’s first class for the semester had a bit of a sinister tone at first. The cheery lizard man wizard made a comment about ‘losing more people who didn’t want to be in the course anymore’ and the way he spoke about them was like they’d somehow met an unknown fate on the way to the school cafeteria.
His revelations on what the class was going to learn for the semester were anything but sinister, however. What sounded really exciting to Alex was a new, more advanced mana regeneration technique, and mana manipulation with more advanced magical items.
The class after Val’ Rok’s was professor Ram’s.
Alex was sure that—as he’d walked in—the professor had given him a slightly distant disappointed look, all the while nodding, smiling and even catching up with his favourites.
“This semester will be a little different from the last,” Ram said as the class was finally seated. “Last semester I taught you what are often termed the basic force spells. Spells for attack, utility and defence: the beginning for any aspiring force mage. We also spoke of what force truly is. However, this semester we will be going deeper into that. Any wizard can throw around force missiles, but the force specialist learns how to direct, redirect and amplify.”
He raised his force constructed arm and concentrated. The class gasped as the arm transformed, growing and extending until it was a long, thin blade of black force. Several students gaped openly.
Alex couldn’t help but stare with envy.
That was one of the coolest damned things he’d ever seen, and he was about 120% sure that The Mark would never, ever let him make a force-constructed weapon.
“We will start out with spells that make force-constructed weapons,” Ram said.
‘Oh, you piece of shit,’ Alex thought, having nasty flashbacks to his failure with force missile.
“But,” Ram continued. “They will not be for striking your enemies. At your level, making solid mana constructed weapons that can last through clash after clash with an enemy is not a good idea. You will start to get into that when we move to second-tier spells at the end of the semester. The spell we will be talking about is called: ‘Protective Force Weapon’.”
With a twitch of his brow, Ram conjured several black swords to rotate around his body. Another twitch of an eyebrow created a black force missile which manifested in front of him and shot out over the class.
The force missile arced through the air, turned around, and immediately shot back at Ram. The professor, his posture erect, stood with one arm behind his back as one of the force swords spun in midair and parried the force missile away, sending it shooting up and out of the open window where it dissipated.
Alex found himself leaning over his desk in rapt attention during the entire display.
“Force shield takes blows directly, while Protective Force Weapon deflects them. Note that—while the latter might seem superior—it requires far more mana, and force weapon constructs are broken far more easily than a force shield. Like so-”
With a single cut from his force arm construct, he shattered one of the weapons.
“The key to maximizing this and all other force spells is to direct, redirect and amplify in order to direct your force to the place where it can have the greatest effect. So, take redirecting enemy force for example: plate armour is sloped to deflect blows, but warriors are still taught to avoid the full brunt of weapon strikes by dodging and rolling with blows. That redirects force so that a warrior isn’t just taking the full force of an enemy’s strike.”
He tapped his chest. “That training is given to knights even though a good set of castle forged plate armour can make one pretty much immune to most sword blows. One still needs to roll and defend. With amplify: the goal is to learn ways to create efficiency in your spell arrays, requiring less mana from you while empowering your spells with greater force. When we have refined what you have learned, then you will be ready to graduate to second level spells while sloughing off your bad habits.”
Alex twitched as he absorbed Ram’s words.
Redirection of force and energy? That sounded familiar.
The Cleansing Movements were built on that concept.
His eyes narrowed. What if he combined those defensive movements with the extra protection of his force armour: he could redirect a lot more when he was in less danger of losing an arm to an incoming blow in the process.
There was also the deflection of spells like Ram had just demonstrated. He thought back to force shield. He was sure The Mark would become highly agitated at him for trying to conjure weapons made of force—whether to defend himself or not—but if he could get his force shield to pivot and parry on command, like the Protective Force Weapon spell, then his defences would become that much more efficient.
Experimenting with that level of control over force shield might even give him an edge when it came to learning future force spells. Perhaps, there were things to love about Ram’s class after all. Alex thought of the possibilities with cautious excitement.
His thoughts turned to what he’d be doing after class.
Since last semester, he’d been meeting up with Thundar sometimes after force class to join his group in practicing the Cleansing Movements. Today, when they met up, he could start combining his force shield with the movements and see how things went.
If things worked out, that would be a great way to up his protection.
The next time for Baelin to lead them into The Barrens was coming soon. And—according to what the Chancellor had hinted at at the end of last semester —they were in for a big challenge.
Maybe he’d have some new force skills ready for it.