"Did you hear!? They're back! They're already back!"
Reynald could barely contain his excitement as he bounced down the granite steps, ahead of his two companions. Short-statured with fiery red hair, his energy lit up the gloomy castle corridors like a radiating torch.
"How could we not? With you reminding us every three minutes?" Parzifal replied with an exhalation. Built with the lean musculature of a runner, his legs strode into the corridor with grace. "Do you know how many we lost this time?"
"Just three from the entire school, and the whole campaign took but a season! The Holy Father has graced Weichsel with a great victory this year! Those barbaric Västergötland invaders lay crushed and humiliated, while our mates return in glorious triumph!" Reynald pumped his fist into the air for good measure.
"Three out of four dozen." Parzifal's gaze at Reynald was stiff, but the younger redhead didn't even notice. "How is six percent a good number, especially given how young they... we are? Throwing good lives away..."
"There is no glory without risk, brother! Come on! I even heard that one of our class became the youngest Captain in national history! Decorated by the King himself no less!"
"I heard about that too," added Ariadne, but in a soft, tentative voice. "The girls have been chattering about the latest news for days." She intertwined her delicate fingers with Parzifal's for some reassurance before continuing: "Anna Marie's fiancée works on the Marshal's General Staff, and he says that Pascal was serving as an adjutant for his father--"
She felt her beloved's fingers tighten, and she squeezed back while trying to hide her painful grimace.
"--when the situation changed during the Battle of Parchim, Pascal modified the orders he was sending to the Reiter artillery-mages to bombard a weak spot the enemy revealed in their line. Marshal von Moltewitz gave him due credit of course, but also publicly reprimanded him for overriding command orders. Yet when the King heard about it... he personally promoted and knighted that prick."
Both of the men groaned.
"Great, leave it to the King to undo our Field Marshal's brilliance. That princeling needs to be taken down a notch and even his father knows it..." Reynald's mood plummeted straight to grumpy, and not even a serious case of childhood hero worship for the elder von Moltewitz could rebound it. Then, as he opened the last door along the corridor and turned into the theater-like classroom: "and speak of the devil, our Runelord's new celebrity status is already taking effect."
It didn't take familiarity to spot Pascal. Even with eyes shut, he still sat with a regal poise that cleared all doubts. Framed by soft golden curls just long enough to cover his ears, his broad yet lean build gave his polished military uniform the best look a propaganda poster could seek.
But that wasn't what naturally made him the center of attention. Sitting on the front row's left wing, he was surrounded by a semicircle of girls, all of whom sat at least two arms' length away yet kept him in their sight. Meanwhile, over half the men scattered across the room, and quite a few women as well, looked toward him with scowling faces.
It was an understatement to say that Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, the only heir of Field Marshal and Landgrave von Moltewitz of Nordkreuz, stood far above the crowd. But regardless of how assured he looked, no one could doubt the ill symptoms that too often followed any childhood prodigy:
Amongst a roomful of chattering peers, he sat silent and alone.
----- * * * -----
"Captain and Knight's Cross recipient at the mere age of nineteen..."
"He took the fourth years' exams while on campaign and aced them too!"
"...I heard even common mercenaries from the Empire have heard of his name!"
"Of course! He's engaged to the Crown Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie isn't he? Didn't she teleport over to personally congratulate him..."
"...Feels like he's even further beyond our reach now."
The noble daughters that surrounded him whispered in hush voices, but Pascal's trained ears caught the words nonetheless. He did not enjoy such gossip, but no properly raised nobleman, bred for political intrigues of the court, could subconsciously dismiss what others spoke of him.
...Day after day I'm surrounded by insignificant fools, each with no greater role in the world than a mere name, barely altering the statistics of census records and enrollment sheets.
Pascal couldn't help but wish that one of those rumors was actually true, that Crown Princess Sylviane really did pay him a visit. She was one of the few girls he knew worthy of her nobility -- who not only had the beauty to match her prestige but also thought with the farsighted intellect of an aspiring ruler. Unfortunately, proper queens-in-training also lacked time, and it was all she could spare to congratulate him three nights ago through a Farspeak conversation spell.
Of course, not everyone spoke of his accomplishments with admiration. That included a number of young lords within this room. Contempt filled their voices as though ridiculing others somehow rescued their pride from the cowardice of doing nothing.
"...His father is just pulling another publicity stunt; von Moltewitz is already famous enough, so why not claim it was his son's doing and gift the amateur some credit?"
"Must be nice being awarded just for having papa as the commander..."
Pascal wasn't agitated by those who could only mock his back from afar. No, he only cared enough to track those who foolishly marked themselves a foe. Their actual complaints were beneath him, unfit for extended consideration by even a single brain cell. It was the fact that he had to waste time near such lowlifes that really bothered him.
Whining cowards and pining damsels, with the sheep-like idiocy of peasantry. At least those who joined had the valor to follow our aristocratic military heritage into war.
The Kingdom of Weichsel prided itself on the competence of its military aristocracy. The curriculum of its noble education followed that tradition. The Königsfeld Academy of Magic was among the best on the continent of Hyperion in the arts of administration, diplomacy, strategy, and of course, sorcery.
...Or so Pascal once believed.
I've already learned everything they offered in the past two years, so why must father force me to take another two with these common nobles? I'm wasting my time here!
Pascal knew perfectly well that he had a long way to climb before emerging from the shadows of his father's renown. Furthermore, for an aspiring officer who had already felt the power of responsibility on the battlefield, a return to mere books was like being told to go back to the sandbox.
"Settle down, everyone," announced the balding professor Albert von Marienfeld, exactly one minute late as usual to his Advanced Magical Communications and Organization class.
"I realize that the return of our cadets from the front lines brings exciting news, which is why today's class will be a discussion and analysis of field experiences gathered by your peers!"
His announcement gathered most of the class' attention in an instant.
Even Pascal stared back with a hint of admiration for the adaptability shown by his advisor, who, a few months ago, insisted Pascal follow his father's wishes and continue his education on the grounds that it was somehow 'good for him'.
"But first things first, I'd like to inform everyone that all third-year classes will be canceled this Friday for your familiar-summoning ceremonies."
Eager chatter broke loose across the classroom again.
The professor turned to prepare the classroom's illusion projectors. Whistling a short tune, he patiently waited for the students to empty their minds of burning curiosities so they may receive fresh wisdom.
The only other person who wasn't excited was Pascal himself.
...As if I need the presence of more dumb animals around me.
Silently, he scrolled back through his memories, thinking of every mage's familiar he came across during his years. Some of them made for trusted mounts on the battlefield; some of them served as eyes and ears; a few even trained as valets of simple households. But not a single one -- not even the phoenix familiars of the Oriflamme Paladins -- ever showed more intelligence and creativity than one could expect from a beast.
But then... why must I be limited to mere beasts?
Pascal drew a scroll of parchment and copied down the mnemonic incantations of every core Summon Familiar spell variant he knew from memory. Within a minute, he had them broken down into a tree graph of individual spellcraft components which defined every effect -- scan, calling, summon, transport, compel, binding, connect, sharing...
He didn't need a servant. A traditional, completely obedient familiar was no better than a yes-man. Loyal, but nevertheless a fool of limited use.
Paying no heed to the conversations around him, he tapped the syllables that represented the 'animal calling' aspect of the spell on his parchment.
What I need is a person near my level and age, a companion who will always be with me to share our thoughts...
Images came of a twin who shared his outlook, and the mere prospect of mirrored words made his mind recoil. Pascal didn't want some voice of agreement and approval. His fondest memories of intellectual exploration were filled with heated debates.
...Someone with a completely different outlook upon the world; a dissimilar foundation of knowledge and wisdom, yet diverse enough to rival my own.
Moving into the future, he thought of his impending career on the battlefields of war and diplomacy, where only a balance of words and swords guaranteed survival.
...Must be capable enough to serve as my second; an advisor and analyst, but also able to fend for herself with the powers I bestow through our bond.
A brief flashback brought his thoughts back to his childhood, when he and Princess Sylviane could spend hours lounging on the shores of the Cross Lake near the von Moltewitz estate. Their conversations naturally flowed from one worldly topic to another with no regard to time, when he had all day to admire the focus and intellect that lay behind her wisteria gaze, or the vast understanding that hid under that dark-plum hair.
...And she needs to be cute too, he decided, with the perfect image coming to mind.
Twice the professor clapped, drawing the room's attention back to the fore where an illusory, three-dimensional overhead projection of the Parchim battlefield lay.
"Captain Sir Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, as you are our most honored hero of the war, it is only fair that we begin today's lecture with your... unregulated contributions to the war effort."
Muffled snickering drifted forth from the back of the room, but Pascal ignored them as though he heard only buzzing flies.
Rolling up his parchment as he stood, Pascal's determination revealed not the slightest sign of offense or hesitance. Albert's choice of words made it obvious that the professor agreed with his father. Pascal understood the reason behind the Field Marshal's reprimand -- rules were rules after all, and no army would be able to operate if junior officers could freely change the orders they received.
He just thought it was unfair that rules of the average should apply to him.
It would be many hours of late night studies before Pascal could finish the work he began. But even at its end, even after triple-checking his modifications with satisfaction, Pascal would never notice his one critical error due to sheer inexperience:
Beasts were simple-minded. It was easy to find a physically and mentally healthy critter to call forth as a familiar.
Humans were another matter entirely, and the divination scanning component he wrote into the spell was nowhere powerful enough to search through the multiverse for a precise match to his exact specifications.
Magical energy naturally diffused towards the nearest shortcut: twiddling with the first subject that met most criteria instead of seeking a perfect match. Of course, shaping minds was a difficult and dangerous business, but molding forms through sorcery could easily be achieved.