Seeing Tina’s pleading gaze, Asterios turned to look at Grea.
“What? Was this supposed to be a secret?” she asked.
“No, I guess not. How much exactly did you tell her?”
“Everything, from start to finish. I’ve tried talking her out of it since we have no idea if it’s completely safe and it wasn’t just a lucky shot the last time, but she wouldn’t have any of it. And you know how weak I am with puppy eyes. Ugh. These should be branded as Forbidden Magic under the category of mind control.”
Asterios then glanced back at Tina, sitting by his side. “I would rather not put you in unnecessary danger. We can already meet from time to time, thanks to Umbra’s abilities.”
Tina nodded somberly. “I know, but… It’s not just about talking… There’s also that connection…”
“Grea doesn’t currently have a permanent familiar like you. We don’t know if an active contract will interfere with whatever happens when I try to do it with another person. I would rather not do it, but are you really sure? You should be aware that there are also weird things that when happen on my side, influence Grea too.”
“That situation with the mark spooked the shit out of me,” the red-skinned researcher commented.
Tina pondered for a moment and nodded again, looking Asterios straight in the eyes.
“I would still want to try. I know this might sound selfish, but please.”
“Alright.” Asterios sighed. “At least we’ll have someone to look over the whole process this time. Mind preparing a chamber for us, Grea?”
“Give me a few minutes and I’ll make sure it’s even safer than the previous one!”
She made a satirical salute and bolted towards the corridor with various rooms she had prepared for different occasions, leaving Asterios and his group alone with Tina.
“I’m sure everything will be okay, Master,” Miria said with a smile, directed at the blue-haired girl. “You are even stronger than back then. Or maybe I should say more in control?”
“I think that would be more accurate,” Selene joined too. “Master’s power is already incredible and it’s only natural that he needs time to accustom himself to it and learn how to use it properly after suddenly discovering that immense source. But, we do not know if there aren’t any more seals or barriers still placed on it.”
“Well, we are doing what we can right now, but that’s true,” Asterios agreed. “And I can start even more demanding exercises thanks to the Spellslinger.”
“Spellslinger?” Tina asked, uncertain about the word.
Asterios positioned his hand towards the ceiling and pulled the trigger hidden in his palm, releasing the black blade with crimson edges from its cage. Tina flinched, totally not expecting a sword to suddenly shoot out of Ast’s bracer.
“Woah… That’s kind of… cool…” she murmured.
He reached into one of his pouches and brought a yellow crystal token, pushing it into the empty slot in the surface of the blade. A moment later, the circuits running all along it lit up with a weak crimson hue, and the unsheathed weapon started glowing more and more, emitting white light, comparable to that of a magical torch.
“Is that… Light? So you can use your crystal sigils like that...”
“You don’t seem surprised about them that much, even though I didn’t bring them out in public that often.”
Tina giggled awkwardly while glancing away. “I… I’ve observed you quite a bit in the past… I saw how you carved those in the gardens, and also a few times how you used some of them… But, don’t worry, I never talked about it with anyone.”
“Can’t believe I had a stalker.” Asterios chuckled too, causing Tina to blush a little. “It’s fine. I wasn’t keeping it a secret or anything. Anyone can learn how to do that. The library has quite an extensive section on sigils, as you could expect.”
“People rarely check things like these. Most focus only on the bare minimum to pass the classes. Or to grow the necessary techniques connected to the type they have the highest affinity with. I’ve always been doing my best in every field, but when I saw how much effort you were putting in closing the gap created by your inability… I was… captivated...”
“Thank you for the compliment,” Asterios said with a smile, which was reciprocated by Tina.
Meanwhile, as the two chatted, a certain beastfolk duo was repeatedly giving each other knowing looks, trying their best not to chuckle. They exchanged a silent high-five, out of the sight of the other two. Umbra could only tilt his head, left out of the duo's private, mental conversations.
“Oiiiiiiii! Everything is ready! It’s time to—AH! Who brought the sun inside?! That’s my only weakness!”
Grea accidentally glanced straight at the glowing blade after entering the room, quickly covering her eyes. Asterios shook his head at her antics and deactivated the circuits, pulling the crystal out. Since it was a low-level spell, the token should still last for some time during the next activations.
Everyone stood up and followed the professor to the chamber she had prepared. It was a little bit more spacious compared to the last one they had used. Many more formations could be spotted over the walls and ceiling, some of which Asterios clearly recognized as freshly prepared.
When all of them stepped inside, Asterios glanced at Tina.
“Is there a reason why Ori is not accompanying you? Summoners usually like to have their first familiar around, but I haven’t seen him since we arrived.”
Tina looked into the distance for a moment before moving her eyes back onto Asterios.
“He actually went back shortly before you showed up. He says that your raven is giving him goosebumps and would rather watch over me from the other side.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that.”
“It’s okay. He always was a coward.”
Tina gave Asterios an embarrassed smile and then tilted her head while closing one of her eyes as if moving away from something.
“Yes, you are. You always talk big to me but when it’s actually your turn to do something, you hide behind my back every time,” Tina said to herself and rolled her eyes, making Asterios chuckle.
Somehow, many summons shared this stubborn trait, in various forms, and it reminded him of Mii a little as she had been similar in the beginning.
Grea finished the last preparations and invited the two to step into the magic circle on the floor. Tina seemed a little anxious so Asterios picked her hands into his and rubbed them gently. While it did have a positive effect, it was accompanied by visible rosiness on her cheeks and the inability to look at his face for longer periods of time.
Nevertheless, they started the ritual and carefully went through all the steps together, the same way as before. Asterios thought about changing a few things, but he didn’t want to experiment on Tina.
It was actually a tough situation since he would rather not experiment on anyone he found close, but that would be kind of counterintuitive when the whole contracting part was meant to connect him with exactly those people.
Leaving that for later, he focused on the current moment and they soon reached the bargaining phase, with all the preceding ones going through without any issues.
Tina had no idea what to ask for her end of the bargain and Miria of course shouted to her to pick headpats, making the blue-haired girl blush even more.
In the end, Tina settled for something similar, which was hugs. While Miria again butted in by saying that she should have picked kisses instead, causing her to again turn a shade redder, the bargaining stage went through.
They quickly followed the next steps and used Ast’s ceremonial dagger to cut their fingers, letting a drop of blood fall onto the formation under their feet.
Asterios was going to draw the sigil on his forehead after making one on Tina’s skin, but she did it for him while he was taking care of hers, using her own blood. He wasn’t sure if that mattered as nowhere was stated whose blood should be used for the symbols, so he let it go.
Reaching the last part, they both looked at each other. Asterios was going to let Tina know that he would place a kiss on her forehead, but seeing her clearly embarrassed yet expectant gaze, he decided to change his plans.
Tina trembled a little when Ast’s hand brushed her cheek and brought her face up a little. Her heart was beating really fast while her mind was overcome with visions of the near future. This part she had heard about from Professor Grea was another reason why Tina was so adamant about trying to enter a contract with Asterios.
As his face slowly moved closer to hers, she watched how Ast’s white hair and red eyes moved closer, mesmerized by the combination of crimson red and moonlight white. And his charming yet overbearing vertical pupils felt like she could stare at them for days.
At last, their lips connected in a soft kiss and she closed her eyes, savoring the ticklish sensation, lasting much longer than the previous peck she had given him during their last parting.
Asterios could feel a bit of his essence making its way to Tina, who was clearly focusing on the kiss, not even noticing that her hands wrapped themselves around his waist. He did his best to hold in a chuckle to not rob her of this sweet moment.
During the kiss, he paid close attention to all the circuits on the walls, moving his eyes from one circle or set of runes to another. This time, they did not start breaking, but the main formation they were standing on gave only a very faint flicker before turning dark, instead of flashing with strong light.
Even though the ritual could be deemed as completed, Tina still kept her smooth lips over his, perhaps not aware of that fact. Asterios drew his face back, which caused Tina’s mouth to pursue him for a little bit before she lifted her eyelashes and blushed heavily after realizing her actions.
Asterios smiled at her. “I’m glad that you are enjoying yourself, but would you let me examine you now?”
Tina nodded hastily and took a step back, retracting her arms too. He looked her all over, stopping at her right hand.
“Oh.” Both of them noticed the change and Tina gasped quietly, instantly turning fully crimson.
And the reason behind that was a small, black band that appeared around her ring finger, decorated with a miniature version of Ast’s Summoner’s Brand at the top, clearly bearing the resemblance of a tattooed piece of jewelry.
“That’s so adorable!” Miria commented after arriving closer.
“Hey. That’s not fair. Why is mine on the back of my hand while she literally got a ring around her finger?” Grea complained. “And nothing broke this time. Did it actually succeed?”
“I don’t think so,” Asterios answered. “While I can feel Tina a little better than I can sense you, it’s still very similar. I don’t think there’s much more utility to this than mental communication the two of us also share. I’m fairly sure we can’t use gates.”
Grea wanted to be completely sure and dragged Tina—who was still staring at the mark around her finger—out of the room while asking Asterios through their mental connection if he could do anything. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like it. They did confirm being able to converse, though.
If there was anything different to this besides the placement and style of the mark that appeared on Tina’s body, they would need to figure it out with time. After the two girls came back, they sat down together to talk some more about Ast’s situation and experiences since he had last met with Grea. He caught Tina brushing her new fake ring with her fingers a lot during the conversation, showing a merry smile.
“I really don’t know what to say anymore,” Grea said, rubbing her forehead. “We are hitting levels of unbelievable that shouldn’t even be possible in the first place. I’ll need to sleep on that one at least a few times. I wish I could help more, but this is tough, and I don’t feel like throwing a bunch of random thoughts and theories at you when you already have plenty yourself. I’ll see what I can do about that script and let you know.”
“You are already helping us plenty. And hopefully, your father will be able to solve our current problem. That’s currently our only lead.”
“I hope so too. I’m getting really invested in this. It’s like good mystery fiction, don’t you think? Unknown parents, unknown power, unknown purpose, and a whole journey to discover them. Let’s just hope this one doesn’t end with the destruction of the world, hahaha.”
After they ran out of things to discuss, Grea suggested Tina take Asterios on a walk around the campus before he had to leave, with her intentions pretty clear to everyone. He decided to agree quickly before the mischievous professor could have any more chances of poking fun at her.
It took a while before Tina stopped being all tense after they left the professor’s workshop. Ast’s familiars returned to their realms, with just Umbra staying in the sky to look over him.
“Hey! Watch what you are doing!”
As they were walking around while chatting casually, someone shouted a bit to their side. Asterios and Tina stopped and glanced towards the source, spotting a boy sitting on the stone pavement, clearly not by choice. A few other teenagers accompanied him and he was just being helped up by one of his friends.
“That must have been Roz,” Tina spoke to Asterios, noticing his thoughtful gaze.
“Yeah. Since the day you’ve dealt with him, he is avoiding me as much as possible. He must have noticed you and ran away, hitting that other guy in the process.”
Asterios couldn’t help but chuckle. “I didn’t expect this much, but I’m glad to hear that he’s not causing you any trouble. How is his family?”
“Not the best but also not the worst. I was actually surprised when Marquess Richtenstein revealed to the public that he had learned about Roz abusing his sister and bullying other students. He said that while he isn’t going to kick him out of the family, giving Roz a chance to change for the better, he no longer should be treated like royalty. Roz actually ended up beaten quite badly shortly afterward, most likely by friends of the people he messed with in the past.”
“What a prime example of diversion tactics.” Asterios shook his head with a wry smile.
“Hm? How so?”
“They used that shocking revelation and also the magnanimous show of pity as a smokescreen to cover a more critical issue that could definitely have had a much stronger negative impact on their name if the public picked up on it. If you excuse me, I’ll refrain from mentioning any details on this.”
“Oh. It’s alright. I wouldn’t want anyone spreading sensitive information on my family either.”
It was obvious to Asterios that Roz had been turned into a scapegoat specifically to let the public focus on him while the Marquess dealt with the problem of their family seal being used in illegal trade. He actually hoped that things had turned out good for them as he didn’t feel like the Marquess was exactly a bad person.
“This kind of makes me wonder, how are you doing with your summoning recently?” Asterios asked.
“Pretty good. I have two familiars right now. You’ve met both of them. Ori the Shearwater and Firo the Water Serpent. The one that… healed Mii back then. Ori specializes in Wind Magic and is a good scout while Firo is great with Healing and Water Magic. The professors keep telling me that I should be able to summon another one without any problems, but I just don’t know what to do… After seeing your companions…”
Asterios plopped his hand onto Tina’s head and started gently brushing through her hair. “I honestly wouldn’t use them as a good gauge. They are quite… special. But, I’m sure you can find powerful allies too. Because if not you, then who else?”
Seeing that his words didn’t have much effect on cheering Tina up, Asterios thought up something different.
“Want to try Joint Summoning with me then?”
“Eh?” Tina stopped walking and looked up at him. “Isn’t that mostly done… by Summoner couples…?”
“If you don’t want to, then it’s fine. It was just a random idea. Maybe I could help you even more than usual with that connection between us.”
“No, no, no! I… I would like to! If you are fine with it…” Tina twirled her fingers with a slight blush.
“I guess we need to find a place for it then. Should we go back and use Grea’s lab?”
“Ummm… Maybe we can ask the Principal? I think she wouldn’t mind lending us one of the private summoning chambers for this… It’s not that I dislike Professor Grea, but…”
“It’s alright, I get it. You’d feel uncomfortable with her around. She’d definitely insist on staying nearby. Let’s see if Principal Teireshia is busy right now. Ah. What about your classes?”
“Excluding the current one that Professor Grea took me away from, which still should be continuing for about an hour, I don’t have anything else in the next three hours.”
Asterios nodded and they headed to the main building together. There weren’t many people around since as Tina had said, most attendees should be at their lectures or another activity right now. It was a good thing for them.
Tina knocked on the door to the Principal’s office and they both walked inside after receiving a verbal invitation. Principal Teireshia’s eyes slightly widened at the sight of Asterios, but a soft smile soon appeared on her face. She hadn't expected to see him again this soon, even though she had heard about his last visit to the R&D department some time ago.
“Welcome, you two. I hope you aren’t here to steal my precious student before her graduation, Asterios,” she spoke in jest.
“I wouldn’t break my promise, Madam Teireshia. I’m only accompanying Tina around. And checking on Professor Grea.”
“Yet, you wouldn’t come to check on me? Oh, how sad.”
“I didn’t want to cause more problems than I already had. Who knows what will happen if I run into one of the professors that aren’t too favorable towards me after leaving your office, Madam Teireshia.”
The woman waved her hand dismissively. “I’m just joking. That’s a good decision. So, since you actually did come here, how can I help you two?”
“Ummm… Could we… borrow a private chamber for a moment?” Tina asked, fiddling with her fingers in front of her clothes.
“Hmmm… I wouldn’t mind letting one of the best students use one outside of the usual hours, but could you tell me the reason?”
“I… We… We wanted to try Joint Summoning…”
The Principal raised her eyebrow and looked between her and Asterios. He nodded at her, keeping his usual calm expression, while the girl by his side couldn’t help but avoid her gaze. She chuckled inwardly. Tina was just too obvious.
“Alright. I’m sure the two of you can end up with something amazing. Just let me know the details afterward. Are you going to attempt a single or a double?” Principal Teireshia glanced at Asterios.
“Single for Tina. I currently have three companions and I’m still thinking about the catalysts and materials for the next one.”
“Three already?” The Principal didn’t hide her surprise. “Did you conceal one the last time? That’s quite fast to earn the service of three beasts.”
“No, I didn’t. I guess I am pretty lucky. If Madam Teireshia can promise to keep this a secret from the other professors, I don’t mind calling my familiars here.”
“A secret? Is it that serious? Hmmm… You are making me very curious… Fine. I’m no longer your superior, so let’s say that we are dealing with private matters right now. What’s so special then?”
A thick shadow rose from Ast’s feet and traveled around his body until it reached his shoulder, where it broke off and formed the shape of a raven with glowing purple eyes. Then, two crimson gates appeared behind Asterios and two women with animal characteristics walked out of them.
Even though it was her first time seeing the cheerful girl with black hair, Principal Teireshia instantly recognized the spiritual signature she had sensed in the past and realized that the humanoid-looking entity standing in front of her was none other than the black panther from their previous meeting.
All three familiars that appeared in the room emanated a strong spiritual presence, with the shadowy raven towering over the other two. Principal Teireshia thought that the panther was already amazing, but the weird entity sitting on Ast’s shoulder was out of the feline’s league, judging by spiritual standards at least.
“You are really full of surprises…” she commented, still astounded.
“And mysteries…” Asterios added, slightly somber.
“I have countless questions, but I understand that you don’t want to overstay here. You guys can use chamber thirty-seven. Here’s the pass.”
“Thank you for understanding, Madam Teireshia. And I’m sure Professor Grea wouldn’t mind answering at least a few of them. I’m afraid that she would try to pull at least a few favors for that, though.”
The Principal sighed. “But of course… Alright. Go now. Before my curiosity gets the better of me. Don’t forget to bring me the pass back, Tina.”
“I won’t. Thank you, Principal Teireshia.”
After the duo left her office, she slumped in her comfy chair and sighed again, much heavier this time.
“Did those geezers doom this academy? You should pray to the gods that he never comes back for revenge…”
Meanwhile, Asterios and Tina were heading towards the building hosting the private chambers, mostly used by the professors and some students as a reward for certain achievements. These were equipped with much more advanced safety mechanisms, similar to the ones Grea had created in her small lab, and also offered a good environment for uninterrupted summoning.
“Was it really okay letting Principal Teireshia know?” Tina asked shortly before they arrived at their destination.
“She had always supported me so it should be fine. Besides, the rumors are already circulating around from how I dealt with Roz after getting expelled, or with his family, even if not everyone can make the connection there. She had definitely heard about the situation and realized the truth about Miria and Selene. And anyway, the whole academy will know in a few months.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You’ll see,” Asterios answered with a smile. “Now, tell me one thing. I, unfortunately, didn’t pay as much attention to you as you did to me.” Tina chuckled awkwardly. “What’s your combat role?”
Not every summoner was the same. That much was obvious from the very beginning and brought up different classifications. Asterios, for example, was a mixed type leaning more towards support. He preferred to watch over his familiars while focusing on boosting their performance.
But, that wasn’t the only path a summoner could take. Another very distinct and popular one was based on a completely opposite approach. The summons would be the ones supporting their master while he or she would fight on the frontlines, using abilities borrowed from them, like Asterios sometimes used Miria’s vision.
Many focused on one of the paths instead of pursuing perfection in all areas, which was natural since one person liked fighting enemies face-on while another preferred standing back. The latter approach was a bit more popular since it generally was considered much safer.
Asterios enjoyed empowering his companions, so he usually stuck to supportive techniques, but he had also learned a lot about all the other paths. Yet, thanks to his companions being very powerful and versatile, he didn’t really have many occasions to use them, and he didn’t mind it in the slightest. It also fit their current team composition much better.
“I’m a frontliner,” Tina answered. “A balanced one currently. Ori’s techniques and magic are more suited for offensive use while Firo specializes more in defense and healing.”
“That’s surprising. Girls rarely choose this role. Not that it matters to me, personally.”
Tina chuckled softly. “I know. It’s not really feminine to throw yourself at the enemy. But I always felt like it suits me better than standing in the backline. Even with all the support techniques, I couldn’t stop thinking that I’m just not contributing anything, not helping Ori the way I should, and how I’m only putting him in danger.”
“I see. I must say, I really like your mindset. You do care about your companions.”
“Thank you, hahaha.” She blushed a little. “I’m glad you don’t think that it’s unbecoming of a noble lady like me. Many of my friends think I’m silly or even crazy.”
“I’m literally with someone who often ends up splashed with all the monsters’ insides during the fight due to using dual shortswords.” Asterios could hear an embarrassed giggle in his mind.
“Oh, right. You and Miria... are m-mates…”
“Yeah. Well, there’s Selene now too.”
“Too?” Tina glanced up at him with wide eyes. “Does that mean that you now have… two girlfriends?”
“Uhhhh… I guess so?”
After meeting his gaze and staring Asterios in the eyes for a brief moment, Tina’s face turned completely red. He wasn’t sure what was the reason behind that reaction, and couldn’t very well know that some very specific images floated in Tina’s mind when she recalled her last conversation with Miria, this time featuring the white-haired fox lady too.
“Cough. Anyway, why do you ask?” She quickly tried regaining her composure.
“To get a better grasp on what we should be aiming for. Since I’m going to be helping, it’s only natural that I do my best too. I need to think a bit about the materials and catalysts.”
“Are you going to use your own resources on me?” Tina asked, slightly surprised.
“What do you have currently on you?” He smiled at her.
“Ah. Ummm… Nothing….”
Asterios chuckled. “Then let it be a treat from me. Come on now, we have a lot to prepare.”
Tina nodded, a little bit embarrassed that she had forgotten about such a crucial part. She shouldn’t be getting so distracted but her mind was constantly wandering off to Asterios. For today, she decided to follow his instructions as it would be the best way out.
After finding the correct room and entering the chamber, they couldn’t help but stare at it in awe. Even the material used to erect the walls, floor, and ceiling was of the highest quality, being able to withstand quite a punch, both magical and physical. They didn’t have to worry about causing damage to their surroundings with this, and there were still many formations that enhanced the safety, just ready to be activated.
Asterios talked with Tina about all the crucial aspects. Her greatest affinity was with water, even though her first summon controlled Wind Magic. As she had previously stated, she preferred to be the one taking direct action, so it would be best if they could find an entity that would further support her.
Tina wasn’t against contracting something with good defense or combat abilities either since both Ori and Firo weren’t really the types to hold the opponent off with their small bodies. Ori was literally a bird and Firo was a kind of a water snake the size of an overgrown chicken, more or less.
They discussed their options, and with the help of Ast’s girls, they went through his collection of materials, choosing ones that corresponded with the water element as a base for the magical formation.
For the catalyst, they couldn’t really decide and Asterios chose to leave it to chance. He also hoped that his assistance would be able to influence Tina’s summoning, and the last time he hadn't used a catalyst ended up as quite the successful attempt, with Umbra joining their team.
Tina agreed and they moved on to the preparation phase. Miria and Selene returned to their realms to leave the duo alone, even before Asterios asked them to. He was starting to slowly realize their hidden intentions, already experiencing a similar treatment when Miria had been trying to support Selene.
Nevertheless, the two of them drew the summoning circle together. Asterios chose the design of the outer rings while Tina picked one for the inner areas, showing him one of her family’s prized formations.
Although he wanted to respect that trust she was showing in him and not delve too deep into the patterns, his extreme curiosity for something that he hadn’t yet seen was extremely hard to resist.
Seeing how badly Asterios was trying not to pry into her family’s secrets, Tina giggled to herself and informed him that it was okay since he was also showing her some of his personal designs, so they were pretty much even.
With that permission, he proceeded to analyze the structure and they spent a few minutes discussing their respective parts, actually deciding to change a few things in them to make the circuits complement each other much better. It wouldn’t be possible if Asterios hadn't noticed some fine details in her family’s pattern.
“Well. The base is now done,” Asterios announced, looking over the whole circuit in dark blue color.
“So… Now comes that part… Right?” Tina asked, sneaking embarrassed glances at him.
“We can skip it if you mind. It’s not really necessary, just something that helps two people become one.”
“Since we are already doing it… we might as well do it properly…” Tina answered and started slowly unpinning the buttons of her blazer while a heavy crimson blush began surfacing on her cheeks.