「No! Get away!」
A young man thought to himself while running for his life from a gigantic, shadowy creature. It resembled a bear fused with a griffon and was intent on catching the human squirming in front of its eyes. No matter how fast the man ran, the vast forest he was making his escape through seemed like an endless maze, without any light of hope shining through the dense upper branches of the spooky trees.
As he dashed desperately, he stumbled over tree roots many times, giving his pursuer more and more chances to catch up to him. Almost completely exhausted, he didn’t want to just give up. He never ever gave up in his life. Not even once had he wavered on his path to becoming a great Summoner, even though he wasn’t able to call upon anything stronger than a Dashing Rabbit. Not even once had his heart been feeling down with all the bullying and abuse from his fellow Summoner colleagues in the academy. No. He swore to dedicate his whole existence to researching summoning magic so that he could surround himself with legendary magical beasts and live while taking care of those majestic creatures, saving people from unfortunate events, like the raiding of his own village.
While recalling his whole life of meticulous studying and experiments, the man’s leg got caught in a vine bush, making him fall to the dirty ground. The bear-like monster quickly arrived at his side and rose on its hind legs threateningly, releasing a ferocious squeal from its griffon-like beak.
「Shit, shit, shit! Why?! Why doesn’t any strong beast ever answer my callings?!」
Envisioning his peril under the claws of the giant monstrosity, he gathered his mana, bit on his thumb, and while recollecting everything he has learned up to this day, pressed it to the ground, screaming every chant ever known to the humanity’s summoners in his mind. A green summoning circle appeared under his hand and started releasing smoke of the same colour. Seconds passed and passed, the man begged and prayed in his mind, offering even his own soul as the summoning catalyst, but nothing was answering his calls. The circle broke into hundreds of particles, leaving the poor Summoner at the mercy of the shadowy predator.
Completely spent, he raised his head to watch his final moments filled with pride. He did everything he could. He did much more research, training, studying, experimenting, theorizing than even most professors at his renowned academy. His knowledge about summoning was boundless, but his affinity for it was finite. And it was the lowest ever recorded in the history of the institution, earning him the title of the Weakest Summoner. Why was fate so cruel? Why did people who yearned only for money and fame contract powerful beasts, often using them in abusive ways without any affection or care, but those who sacrificed their whole life to understand them better and dream of nothing else than just spending their life happily surrounded by entities they would rather die than even offend, ended up without any capability to do so?
He would never know the answer. The unyielding claw of death began descending onto the kneeling man. He gave it a last look with a proud smile and opened his arms to welcome death, which failed to claim his body and soul those long 18 years ago. The monstrosity slashed straight at him from above and—
“Asti! How long do you plan on sleeping? Don’t you have an exam today?”
The assailant disappeared into the darkness, along the whole forest and world, as a kind voice of a woman arrived at the man’s ears. Only the loud thumping of his panicked heart could still be heard. The man calmed his mind and began to slowly analyze the situation. Realizing that it’s not the darkness enveloping his eyes but eyelids, he raised them and got hit by mischievous sunrays aimed straight at his face. He took a look around and noticed that he was sitting by his desk.
「A dream? Did I fall asleep over my notes again?」
Moving his gaze down, he spotted tens of pages, recognizing his own scribbles. The evidence was clear as a day. He stretched his arms while yawning loudly and trying to remember every part of this weird dream. They often carried a lot of meaning and were a great source of inspiration for magical studies.
“Asterios! You will be late!”
The woman shouted again. Asterios finally woke up completely and recalled her previous statement. It truly was the day of another examination period. He hastily glanced at a clock hanging on the wall of his room and his heart, which barely settled down, began racing again.
“Oh fuck me! I am going to be late!” he screamed in terror.
“Dress up and come down. I’ve prepared you a light breakfast that you can eat on the way to the academy.”
Without any hint of hesitation, Asterios promptly switched his clothing. He already was dressed, but he couldn’t just rush for an exam with a set of clothes he had on himself for two days. Asterios took a quick glance at his reflection in the mirror, confirming that his good-looking face wasn’t dirty anywhere and combing through his short, black hair with his fingers a few times to fix them.
He dashed out of his room and jumped over the stairs, landing in the dining room connected to the kitchen. A figure of a woman with shoulder-long brown hair and a braid lying on her shoulder entered his vision.
“Ah! Can you not use stairs like a normal human?” she said, a little spooked by his sudden appearance.
“Sorry! Every second counts!”
He grabbed the package from his mother’s hands, left a gentle kiss on her cheek and darted through the entrance of their home.
“Do your best!” she shouted after him, but it did not reach his ears as Asterios was already fully focused on making it on time to the academy’s grounds. “Gosh, he really needs to take more breaks. He’ll never find a girl while sitting in books all day and night. What kind of a man doesn’t have a girlfriend by the age of 19?” His mom shook her head with a smile forming on her lips.
Rosewind was a medium-sized merchant town, thriving off the many trade routes that passed through it. Being placed near some of the most used trails was one of its blessings. The other one was the most renowned Summoning Academy in the whole Human continent, which was currently the target of Asterios’s mad dash. The town was bustling with people and the roads were crowded to the extreme, making it much harder for him to push through.
While he mustered all his strength and energy to move his legs, many of his colleagues passed by his side with ease. Or even above his head. The fact was, Asterios didn’t exactly oversleep. Just the route to the institution's premises took him much longer than other students, who were currently dashing around while mounted on the backs of their summoned beasts. Many tigers and wolves pounced between buildings’ walls while smaller drakes and even some pegasuses darted through the air. An everyday sight for the residents of Rosewind as everyone who came to live here already knew what they were getting into.
Unfortunately, Asterios never managed to summon and contract any beasts big enough for him to ask for a ride. All he could do was to employ the help of those that were considered critters by others, like his current partner, Mii the Dashing Rabbit. He never blamed the magical beasts for this, only himself for lacking the ability to attract their attention. Intense studies and research were his escape and hope at the same time. He never planned on abandoning his dream.
Feeling a slight mental nudge, filled to the brim with cheering intention and a lot of affection, he smiled and increased his speed.
「Thanks, Mii. I promise we’ll make it on time!」
Fifteen minutes later, the external walls of the academy’s premises appeared in his sight. It was located on the edge of the town, so the last part of the journey was much easier without having to struggle in narrow passageways.
Everyone knew who he was so the guards at the gate didn’t even bother checking his ID, letting him pass through the entrance like the wind. Asterios glanced at one of the Master’s towers which featured a big clock and smiled. He shouldn’t have any more issues with the amount of time he had left until the first written exam would take place.
Stopping the rushed pace, he switched into a quick walk and strolled to the main building while gazing around. This enormous castle-like structure always took his breath away, no matter how many times he marvelled over it. Each building was made of a pure white marble which emanated an aura of wealth, power and calmness due to the beautiful, grassy hill on which the whole complex was set up. And it was huge. School buildings, arenas, dormitories, laboratories, giant library, research and development department and many more additional facilities, including those for recreational purposes. Asterios always loved spending time in the R&D building or the vast garden while reading new books.
He checked the schedule on the notice board and headed for the correct classroom, arriving shortly before the start of the exam.
“Look, the Weakest Summoner is finally here!” Some girl pointed out his entrance and everyone turned their heads towards him.
“I call dibs on the seat behind him!” a boy quickly exclaimed.
“No fair! I’m getting the side one then!” another one whined sarcastically while standing up, readying himself to steal the spot next to Asterios.
He, used to this atmosphere for a long time, didn’t even pay attention to other student’s rude remarks or jabs aimed at him. Why was everyone so eager to sit close to the supposedly weakest one? Because while his practical grades were all the lowest, no one surpassed him in any theory subjects or exams. Asterios almost always scored perfect marks, that’s how dedicated to his passion he was. And naturally, there’s nothing better during a written test than sitting behind the smartest kid.
Mere seconds passed after he chose his place and all adjacent spots were already taken. He rolled his eyes knowing that no amount of cheating would help them. This was one of the end-semester exams and the chances of getting the same questions were incredibly low. The examiner arrived just moments after he sat down and the papers were handed out.
Asterios scanned through the questions to estimate the time it would take him to finish all of them. It looked like this year’s test was easy, at least for him. A few simple questions to choose a single correct answer from a list, a few to explain some terms, two to write a formula and draw a summoning circle related to a specific element, another bunch to talk in detail about various magical beasts, some other types of questions and naturally, the last and biggest one, full of theorycrafting task to ‘make the summoning work’ with given information which could be intentionally altered to be incorrect. He loved these types of questions.
Among the examiners, there was a certain teacher who always invited Ast to discuss his answers and they spent long hours exchanging pointers and knowledge. His life at the academy was miserable, but it wasn’t completely devoid of entertaining aspects. There existed a few people who actually broke from the crowd mentality and didn’t completely ostracize him.
After promptly dealing with the first batch of questions, Asterios dived fully into filling the last one to the brim, as much as the white space over the whole piece of paper allowed. The time given for the test passed in a flash and the bell signalling its end rang mercilessly. Many students groaned unsatisfied with their work, and so did he, but not because he didn’t finish all of the tasks, no, he still wanted to write more. There still was a little bit of white on the edge of the page left, uncovered by his scribbles.
Next was the practical exam. This year, same as the previous one, it was held in the form of a 1v1 arena fight between the Summoners from the same class. It wasn’t so harsh to instantly fail those who lost in it, which was good for Ast and also the reason he was still holding on somehow. In that little competition, a jury of examiners would watch the two opponents showcase their skill and base the score on their performance. So even if one side was being defensive the whole time, it still could be judged as a fine representation of it, taking into consideration the fact that they withstood ferocious attacks of the other one for a long time.
Before the second phase began, Ast took a stroll to the garden area to relax a bit. He always felt extremely nervous when it came to any practical exam. No matter how hard he trained his body, mind and techniques, his progress was almost non-existent. He sat on one of the benches and brought out a book which was a diary of one of his favourite Summoners from the past age.