Gwen snuck out from the dorm bright and early Sunday morning, snug in a tapered Tee, jeans and soft white sneaker, leaving behind her sleeping companions. She had asked for permission to let Elvia and Yue in on her secret but was turned down by her mentors on the grounds of loose-lips sink ships. They had told her that if she was to have a debutante moment in the Inter-High and catch her opponents off guard, she should keep the full extent of her abilities scarce.
"Especially your Void talent," Gunther solemnly informed her. "It's a lethal element for both yourself and others. Until your mind and body grow into it, avoid using it."
Having no desire to pass out mid-channel, Gwen took Gunther's advice to heart.
She made the now familiar trip to the tableland estate up the Hunter, marvelling at the change in scenery as the warm winters of Sydney gave way to moody spring showers. The wattles were now in full bloom, the flame trees alive with pink galas feeding in packed arrays of gay scarlet. Paddocks of shivery grass burst into fields of jezebels, covering the countryside in unnamable wildflowers of every colour and hue.
When Gwen stepped off the country platform, the vista was sublime. She could sense motes of mana palpably drifting through the crosswind.
Melissa came to pick her up. As usual, the two women sharing moments of mirth as the old Mercedes rumbled down the gravelly road. When they arrived at the estate, Gwen found both her Opa and Master having tea beside the infinity water feature.
“Master.” Gwen bowed deeply, and then again to her grandfather. “Opa.”
“Gwen.” Master Henry looked unchanged, an old professor in tweed.
“Hi, sweetie!” A voice called out from the infinity pool. Gwen turned to see Sufina in the guise of a small girl, likely to save on mana. She had both stiletto feet in the pool and looked to be having a good, long soak, the water rippling around her bare legs in twin concentric circles.
Not far from the infinity pool was a raised platform of earth, upon which was an intricate system of glyphs in the form of a summoning circle. From her studies, Gwen recognised it was a medium-tier warding system used for constraining tier 3 - 6 beasts. As the cost for potency was exponential, her Opa had evidently spared no expense.
Gwen took a deep breath, calming her nerves.
“Any particular advice before I begin, Master?”
Henry smiled in that gentle, sagely manner that she had grown accustomed to over the last few months.
“Whatever comes to you naturally, my child.”
“Bah!” Surya ejected two gusts of air from his nostrils. “With the amount I spent on that circle, Gwen better summon something special.”
“Now-now old friend, let's not get too ahead of ourselves. It will do her no good to contact something she cannot control. A Conjurer’s first beast is always special, and one too powerful or unruly would only ruin their development.”
“What was your first familiar Master?” Gwen asked curiously.
Henry’s eyes moved kindly to Sufina.
“When I met Sufina, she was only a tier 2 wood sprite, too weak to be useful in combat even. But I knew though, from the moment our minds touched, that we were meant to be Summoner and Familiar. She had grown much since those days when I was a young man, more powerful than myself in many ways, and she has more room to grow yet.”
Gwen nodded. Growing together with your familiar, that sounded very nice indeed. Her master was telling her not to mind if she found something that appeared weaker than she had anticipated. Of course, she wouldn't mind! For a woman with two cats, living with a companion animal was par for the course.
“I think that’s wonderful, Master, I look forward to raising and caring for my own Familiar too. I want to raise my Familiar to become the very best; like no Familiar ever was. This summoning is a test, to raise them is my cause.”
Henry smiled warmly, satisfied with her response, Gwen had a way with words which always pleased him.
“You warm my old bones, child,” he praised her articulation. “Nonetheless, let all things be as nature intends. Clear your mind. Allow the mana to flow through the Sigil unimpeded. Whatever your Familiar turns out to be, I can assure you; you won't be disappointed.”
“Well, with the rarity of materials you requested from me, nature better provide something worth the weight in mithril,” Surya intoned sulkily.
“Surya...” Master Henry pinched the bridge of his nose. "Gwen possesses the essence of that serpent. She also possesses two elements. One of which is Void. God knows what will come out of that Quasi-Elemental Plane. For all we know, she might open a portal to the abyss."
Gwen felt her confidence deflate.
"You'll be fine dear, whatever comes out is bound to make a contract with you, if it ever wants to leave.” Her Opa grinned wickedly. "I had the warding drawn with gryphon blood; the seals reinforced with powdered mithril. The glyph themselves are your Master's own. Hell, if you summoned an Abyssal Drake, it would still take a good few minutes to turn loose. In that time, your Master here would have it beaten into submission."
"I am beginning to think that asking for your aid was a bad idea," Henry remarked sceptically.
Gwen regarded the circle. What would come out? A pair of dogs would be nice, cats even better. Please don't let it be something weird, like slimes or a slug.
"Up ya get, girl!" Surya slapped Gwen on the buttocks, sending her stumbling onto the platform. "Show this Master of yours what you can do!"
"Gwen, be careful," Henry added, shooting Surya a disapproving look. If that had been Alesia, Surya would be bereft of his eyebrows.
Gwen located the centre of the Summoning Sigil on the floor and positioned herself within the array of glyphs. She recreated the complex network of glyphs enabling the summoning of familiars within her mind's eyes, then allowed the mana from her Astral Body to permeate her physical being, forming a complex network of conduits. Below her, the summoning circle began to glow, its glyphs flashing and writhing as though alive, consuming their precious ingredients.
"Steady... steady..." Surya mouthed beside Henry, but Gwen was already within a world of her own.
First, she sent a clear stream of pure mana to stabilise the Circle, her channelling steady and without deviation. She had trained unrelentingly for the last three months under the tutelage of her Master and siblings, who had spent a small fortune on mana crystals to fortify her reserves. After double and triple-checking the spell, she was ready for the final invocation.
The space within the portal distorted, reaching out into the aether and creating a vortex that would deposit whatever being her distinct mana signature plucked out from the Elemental Planes.
Please don't be something with more than four legs, Gwen prayed. Or possess a distended secondary jaw with acidic blood.
All of a sudden, she felt a tug against her soul, overwhelmed by an all too familiar sense of vertigo. She saw within her mind's eye dark motes blending into a swirl of black mana like fish in a tidal pool. For months, the Void motes had renounced her command, refusing to be formed, moulded or employed.
But now they moved, stabbing at the edge of her mind, seeking a way out. From Master Henry, she knew that every manifestation of the Void would cost her a pound of flesh. The moment she manifests the Void in the real world, her body would flood with Negative Energy.
You want out? She taunted the ball of tenebrous energy scornfully. Obey me!
Gwen willed herself to contain the volatile mass, forcing it to scatter. The more she constrained it, however, the more fiercely it struggled, dashing itself again and again against her conduits, sending out shockwaves of pain and agony into her physical body.
Gwen grunted with exertion. She was spending too much of her concentration on containing this thing. If she fought it any longer, she would be too distracted to maintain the Summoning Circle.
Fine! She derided the thrashing blob. Out with it!
Gritting her teeth, she awaited her trial by Void. She was going to face the inevitability of using her second element sooner or later, though she would have preferred building up a stronger fortitude. Master Henry had told her that the only way to safely manifest her Void element was to sparingly use it in a manner that was offset by a vast amount of Positive Energy.
With the feeling of a valve turned loose, she opened the proverbial floodgates to the Quasi-elemental Plane, sending half of her mana into that black abyss.
A moment of silence hung in the air, then a torrent of tenebrous mana poured forth, polluting the glyphs her Master had painstakingly etched.
Outside, Surya, Henry, and company watched as sudden slivers of inky darkness burst from their ward's body, smothering the summoning circle with Negative Energy.
"Shit!" Surya cried out, "Henry!"
"Sufina!" Henry needed no compulsion to command his Familiar, who raised a dainty, sculpted hand, germinating branching vines that caught Gwen by the waist and shoulders, suffusing the girl with a viridescent glow of pure vitality. Visibly, her body hungrily consumed Sufina's life-force, marring the Dryad's flawless skin with wrinkles.
"Henry!" Sufina retorted, her tone worrying and peevish. "Are you sure about this?"
"Keep her fed, whatever it takes," Surya commanded Sufina. "Use the life-force from the Grot."
Sufina expanded into her adult form, from where she stood in the water of the infinity fountain, lilies and sedge rapidly sprouted.
A pinpoint sphere engendered in the Summoning Circle. A small obsidian tendril wiggled from it, a hole that seemed to exist in no space, slithering forth to form an ebony serpent a meter in length, its girth thick as an arm.
"What the hell is that?" Surya asked as Sufina blasted Gwen with another jolt of vital energy.
"No idea... but it looks like trouble." Henry pulled out his staff, a length of Heartwood shaped from Sufina's Spirit Tree. "The Void is a place of infinite hunger and nothingness."
"Nothingness?" Surya demanded, doubtful of the Tower's officious knowledge of the Plane. "I think we just proved that something exists there, after all."
His question was answered by the snake lashing out towards Gwen, stopping when it bodyslammed the barrier, sending silver-white sparks of mana flying in all directions.
"It's mindlessly hostile." Henry sighed disappointedly. "Maybe it's best to terminate. A creature has to be sentient to be partnered, and that thing looks like a solid mass of pure, life-draining malice."
"Bah!" Surya spat, producing a wand that would activate the Banish function of his Warding Circle. With a clink, the metal extended to become a full-sized sceptre, its business end adorned with a model cage housing an egg-sized Creature Core.
It was Sufina who interceded.
"The serpent is sentient... I can feel... hunger, anger, rage... perhaps give Gwen a chance."
The old men regarded each other.
As an elemental being of the upper tier, Sufina could communicate with lesser elemental creatures. If the serpent can indeed 'feel', then perhaps it was worth keeping.
"Whatever it is, it's too dangerous." Surya raised his staff to smite the damned thing.
A sudden blast of lightning cracked across the Summoning Circle's interior. The duo watched in amazement as a solid beam of Elemental Lightning materialised into a second serpentine form.
The obsidian snake turned towards its new companion and hissed, its maw opening disgustingly and revealing a barbed tongue. Heedless of its warning, four short limbs sprouted from the second Familiar, its body elongating and twisting until the distinct form of a mammalian snout formed and a short tail could be seen.
"What now... " Surya hefted her wand.
"That creature... I think I recognise it," Henry mouthed.
"What is it?" If that dark serpent creature was some unnamable beast of the Void, what could Gwen possibly have summoned to suppress it? Was it a celestial being? Elemental lighting brought to life? Perhaps a pseudodragon?
The lightning retracted into the thing's body, forming into strands of buzzing, electric fur.
"My God... it's-" Henry squinted to see.
"What is it?!" Surya was beside himself. "Out with it, old man!"
"I think... it's... a badger.”
Gwen's Master was wrong, for her creature was less so a badger and more so a mongoose.
When the Void matter had manifested something grotesque and terrible, Gwen channelled the rest of her mana into her Lightning summon, calling forth a serpent's natural enemy.
Unlike Henry and Surya, who could only see the snake as a dark mass of malice, Gwen had a front and centre close up of its wretched state. The thing was less a snake and more of a slimy, slithering leech. Under its smooth carapace, its head was like that of a faceless lamprey, possessing only a mouth. In Gwen's opinion, disgusting and revolting were words too weak to do her revulsion justice.
Thus in her mind, in that moment of abject terror, she envisioned a vivid conjuration of a video on Youtube where a Mongoose had skilfully taken down a King Cobra.
Surya and Henry watched with interest as a blur of white fur encircled the dark serpent. The snake appeared far more dangerous, but every time it tried to attack, the mongoose would evade before nipping away a chunk of its dark mana.
"What's happening now?" Surya demanded of his old commander.
"A white badger is duelling a black snake..." Henry replied matter-of-factly. “…In a summoning circle."
"..." Surya said nothing. So much for the wisdom of the Ten.
Within Gwen's Summoning Circle, the battle was titanic. As with an IMAX documentary, she witnessed every detail: the horrifying lamprey face, the barbed tongue, the throbbing flesh. The mongoose, in turn, fired off synaptically bolts of electricity that teased and irritated the deranged serpent, dashing to and fro, too quick for the snake-worm.
Come on Sparky! Kick its ass! She commanded her mongoose.
'Ee ee!' The mongoose emitted a sharp trill, signalling its master. She implicitly understood that it was calling for her to supply more mana.
"Alright... here it goes." Gwen squeezed out the last ounce of mana she had held in reserve, channelling it through her Conjuration Sigil. Instantly, the mongoose grew in size.
The snake hissed and lunged, its maw going for the throat. Now empowered, Gwen's mongoose strafed the serpent as it passed, dashing it to the floor violently. A burst of purple-black ichor sprayed from a neck wound, causing it to twitch in agony.
"Shaa! Shaa!" It screamed, and Gwen felt it's trepidation and panic. It too demanded mana from her. With a haughty glee, Gwen refused, demand it submit instead to her mental contract.
The thing quailed, becoming pliable.
But now the ophidian's Master felt herself the victim of an immediate dilemma. Did she really want to form a contract with this thing? This alien abomination? Is it okay to say no? In what world could a xenomorph-cum-Lovecraftian horror be a companion? What kind of twisted Path would she embark upon if her chosen companion was the darling spawn of Cthulhu?
Another part of Gwen, a pragmatic part of her, informed her that this was the creature that showed up when she had injected her void mana into the circle. Something in the universe had compelled this thing to come to her, who was she to deny it?
Furthermore, the creature belonged to her. It was her responsibility. Moreover, it wasn't as though she had to fight the abyssal-horror, that was her opponent's problem.
Gwen sent forth her consciousness again, touching the weakened alien mind and feeling it caress her own.
Beast! Obey me! Are you willing to become my Familiar? Gwen whipped the worm with her will, lashing it with command and compulsion, just as her Master instructed.
"Shaaa... Shaa. Hsss..." The serpent responded compliantly, bleeding ichor all over the glyphs upon the floor. In the next moment, its consciousness meld into her Astral Body, generating a pocket dimension where summoned creatures resided and establishing an empathic link.
With the worm-thing gone, Gwen now faced the triumphant mongoose. Gwen cooed at the magnificent creature, coaxing its cooperation.
"Ee! Eeee!" it replied. Gwen again felt a melding within her Astral Body, engendering a second pocket dimension.
"Heavens, she's succeeded in taking the snake." Henry breathed out. "I am surprised it chose submission. Sufina was right, it was sentient after all."
In the next moment, the mongoose likewise dissipated into motes of lightning.
"How curious," Henry observed. "Looks like her elements are oppositional rather than cooperative. That was two completely distinct Familiars. She's going to have her hands full trying to wrangle them. Maybe one will counter the other?"
The Summoning Circle glowed for a moment more, then spluttered and died. With all of its magic spent, the priceless ingredients turned to dust.
The two old men waited for Gwen to gather her wits.
"I've done it, Master!" Gwen returned, skipping forward proudly. "I have tamed both the Void and the Lightning beast!"
At the edge, her knees gave out. With a yelp, she tumbled from the platform.
A dozen helpful tendrils from Sufina caught Gwen before she struck the floor.
"Congratulations, Gwen." Henry moved to remove his Apprentice from Sufina's makeshift hammock. She had met all of his expectations and more.
Surya motioned to Melissa, who materialised a mid-tier mana potion.
"Drink this," her Opa commanded.
Gwen thanked him before swigging down the expensive restorative, feeling energised as the potion restored her mana reserves.
"Take it slow, let it infuse you," Henry advised, then smiled encouragingly. "We eagerly anticipate a demonstration of your new Familiars."
Gwen nodded. She sat cross-legged beside Sufina and mediated until she could distinctly feel that her Familiars stabilising.
"Alright." She took a deep breath, turning to her fatherly mentors. "For my next act..."