Gwen felt no fear nor hesitation as she completed the Conjuration sigil, inducing the lightning-charged mana to materialise a snow-white marten; its body sleek and elegant, its fur fluffy with static.
"Eee! Ee!" It trilled like a songbird, then ran around her ankles before leaping onto her shoulder, where it perched adorably, its whiskers sparking with electricity.
"An aesthetic docile-form," Henry remarked approvingly. “A lightning-weasel, from the looks of it. I assume the mongoose is its combat-form."
“Sufina has a combat-form?”
“Oh yes.” Henry nodded sagely. “She's terrifying when she’s mad.”
“Yes, yes, a pretty pet is all well and good, but is it strong?" Gwen's Opa preoccupied himself with finding out if he got his money's worth from the Summoning Circle, he pointed to the white marten on Gwen’s shoulders. "Let's see it do some damage."
Henry glanced at Sufina, who casually sprouted two dozen roving bushes in the distance, meandering aimlessly.
Gwen sent a mental command to her marten, envigoring it with a dose of lightning mana. Her creature leapt from her shoulder, landing dextrously, transforming as it did so. Its fur became jagged shards of electrified needles, its girth expanding until it attained the size of a meter-long mongoose. It leapt, transforming into a streak of blue and purple, instantly striking three targets with electric-charged bite-attacks.
It's like a taser, Gwen marvelled. A mongoose shaped taser.
The two old men nodded in satisfaction. The mongoose' speed was formidable. However, like many attacks that favoured speed, its power left something to be desired.
Gwen tapped into her empathic-link with the creature, asking if it had any range attacks.
Heeding her command, her mongoose crouched on all fours, raising its back. With a shuddering of fur, it blasted off hundreds of tiny, lightning-charged darts, each a sliver too small for the eye to discern.
'Pak! Pak! Pak!'
A flailing tree-dummy spontaneously transformed into a cactus.
'Ee!' An impulsive demand for spellcasting engendered in Gwen's mind.
"Lightning Bolt!" Gwen invoked her latest Evocation staple, sending out a line of blue-white lightning from the tip of her fingers.
"Good girl!" Surya clapped. "Ya got to tier three!"
Lightning Bolt was one of the most iconic signature spells of Evokers beside the ubiquitous Fireball, perfected by generations of Mages that came before her. At Alesia's behest, she had spent weeks practising the incantation and invocation, training with it until she was out of mana, then recovering with HDMs.
To Gwen’s surprise, her mongoose's white bristles acted as a lightning rod much in the same way as her Guiding Bolt. Her cobalt bolt arced through the air, a blast of pure plasma, striking the cactus-shrub with unerring accuracy. The electrical blast then radiated through the bristles, creating small secondary electrical explosions between the pins. The tree glowed pure white for a split-second, then exploded in every direction.
"Eee! Ee!" The creature returned to its marten form, having spent its allotment of mana. To remain persistently in combat form would require a constant channel, to which Gwen was too inexperienced to maintain. Returning to her, it nudged Gwen's storage ring. She produced for it a small mana crystal, which it crushed like a dog biscuit.
"A brilliant Conjuration, Gwen." Surya seemed well-pleased with his investment. “Synergy attacks with Familiars are typically attained much later. Your Elemental Affinity may be greater now than your last assessment. What is it now?”
“I won’t be updating my Student Card until the Inter-High Tournament, Opa. Master says to keep my talents under wraps.”
“Do you have access to a Chamber Gwen?” Surya inquired eagerly.
“She can use the Observatory at the Tower,” Henry added. “Though I would advise discretion, many of those who work at the Tower has connections to the private schools."
They conversed until the creature had finished its meal. Gwen tried to recall her marten, but it instead ran to Surya and Henry, stood upon its two hind legs, then made a begging motion with its forepaws. The old men laughed, then each materialised an HDM for her Familiar. To Gwen's dismay and envy, the creature’s eyes glinted with mischievous delight, then stowed the crystals inside its mouth pouch.
"What are you going to name it?"
According to her Master, summoned creatures didn't have True Names until they reached higher tiers of sentience, until then, nicknames were equally, important, for they bound the Familiar to the Conjurer.
For Gwen, the moment she had seen her two creatures, she knew their names.
“Ariel,” She declared. “A Spirit of The Tempest.”
Though her instructors didn't know the inference, they found the name to be pleasing, its sound melodious to the ear.
“Eee! Ee!” Ariel seemed to like its name as well. It returned to her with its mouth full of crushed crystals, dropping motes of mana dust on her shirt as it chewed. Gwen waited until it was done before invoking the banishment command, returning Ariel to its pocket dimension.
“Well done.” The gathering readied themselves for the next Familiar.
“How’s your vitality?” Henry demanded. They had to suffuse Gwen with Sufina’s life-force during the ritual. For Gwen, summoning her Void Familiar meant that she would be suffusing her mana conduits with the Negatively charged Void matter.
“I feel fine, Master.” Gwen took a deep breath, vaguely aware that Sufina had protected her. “Shall I proceed?”
“Be careful,” Surya intoned worriedly.
Gwen called out to her serpent.
"Shaaa!" Came a reply in her mind. It refused to move from its pocket dimension.
“Caliban! Heel!” She called out affirmatively, her imperial tone compelling obedience from the netherworld ophidian.
The thing materialised like a grotesque drop of black ink. It fell onto the spent summoning circle, a slithering mass of darkness, wetly coalescing until it took on its physical body.
To Gwen and the other’s astonishment, its appearance was aesthetic.
The ophidian worm's sinuous body had a dark, ebony sheen, as though it sculpted from glossy obsidian. Its carapace-dermis absorbed the light of day, changing hue as it slithered. The thing's faceless head wasn't that terrifying maw Gwen had seen previously, but an elegant configuration akin to a Prince Rupert's drop. Within its torso, inky dashes of Void matter moved in abstract filigrees.
“My word, what a creature.” Henry raised a bushy brow, entirely surprised by the difference between expectation and reality. “To think even something from the Void can be beguiling and arresting! How wondrous the unknown can be!”
“Indeed!” Surya mused, his artist's eye twinkling. There was something strangely sensual and erotic about the phallic creature. Didn't they say that Familiars reflected their Master's psyches? He regarded his granddaughter, then again at the worm-thing, wondering why Gwen had chosen this thing out of all the unknown Void-things that could have manifested.
“Shall we see what it can do?” Henry asked. “Gwen, be very careful of its life-drain. Sufina, look after Gwen.”
Gwen nodded. She mentally commanded the serpent to strike one of the moving shrubs. Below, Caliban turned toward the bush with complete disinterest.
She allowed a nip of Void-tinged mana to permeate her conduits.
Dizzying fatigue beset her body, filling her veins with ice.
Not far from Caliban, Henry and Surya were still admiring its glossy form when without warning, Caliban's carapace split to reveal a pulsating head of purple flesh. The creature opened its mouth, a lamprey's sucker lined with hooked teeth, then reared up to its full height.
“Jesus FUCK!” Surya cried out, almost tripping over himself in an attempt to back away.
“By the Magi!” Henry likewise fought back a mouthful of bitter revulsion.
Even at half the height of a grown man, Caliban was a terrifying sight to behold.
Its faceless mien searched this way and that, locking onto the old men before moving intelligibly toward the shrubs. A drop of grey goo drooled from its puckering mouth.
“Bloody oath, Gwen, I just lost ten years of my life.” Surya clutched his chest with one hand.
Caliban! Melee! Gwen willed Caliban to attack. It slithered with surprising speed towards the shrubs, leaping off the platform and moving onto the grass. Where her worm ventured, life perished, leaving Surya's lawn trails of meandering grey-grass. Upon reaching its first target, Caliban coiled its body, then struck like a spring. Without so much as a plop, it tore clean through the wooden frame of the animated shrub, bursting through to the other side.
Range strike! Gwen fought its grudging compliance.
To Henry's and Surya’s abject horror, Caliban opened its lamprey’s mouth and shot forth a flesh-barb, a harpoon-tongue that leapt from its maw to pierce a shrub.
Then, to their growing horror, it pulled the non-sentient puppet, thrashing and twitching, towards itself.
Finally, as though insufficiently traumatising, its head distended, the carapace opening until it became gigantic and bulbous. The lamprey's mouth then widened, sucking the shrub into its maw.
When the last branch disappeared, Gwen sensed a mote of vitality returning to her body, restoring a little of what she had spent.
Before Gwen could overcome her fascinated repugnance, her darkling spawn of Shub-Niggurath returned to her. Caliban had seen Ariel’s actions and thought it flattering to likewise rub up between her legs, making infinity circuits around her ankles.
Henry and Surya watched with bile-in-mouth as Gwen fed it a crystal. Below, the serpent's tentacle tongue snagging her fingers before swallowing crystal whole. It then turned to beg as Ariel had done, forcing both Henry and her Opa to discard a handful of shards.
Return! Gwen demanded. After collecting its prize, her ophidian worm slinked into the darkness of its pocket dimension to rest.
“Well, that was something.” Surya swallowed nervously.
“That’s one word for it.” Henry took a deep breath. “Gwen, I would use Caliban sparingly if possible.”
“He does seem a little excessive," Gwen agreed. Curiously, the goo from Caliban killed the grass but did not damage herself or her shoes.
“That thing’s a he?” Henry shuddered. “How can you tell?”
“Well… it is shaped rather like, you know…” Gwen made a shape with her hand.
“Right.” Henry coughed gently. "Familiars are sexless, by the way, at least until you acquire a Spirit.”
"A Spirit? Master?" If Henry meant a Spirit like Alesia's Crimson Caracal, that prospect would likely be in a very distant future.
“You know, I feel inspired.” Surya looked around and saw his sculpture workshop in the distance. “That thing was brutal and disgusting, but you had to admit, there was a kind of alien sensuality.”
Gwen and Henry looked at Surya blankly.
“I need to go. You two make yourself comfortable. Melissa! Tess! Work time!”
Surya stormed off. Tess and Mel apologised profusely. Gwen's Master waved his hand disinterestedly to show that he was not offended.
“So, now that we have that sorted.” Henry turned to his junior Apprentice and appraised the girl.
The schedule that he and Surya had set was militant, as much a test of her physical prowess as it was her will. It was designed to raise her foundational abilities for the Inter-high competition rapidly. There, Gwen would have to complete against prodigies from families reared on the finest of mana-rich cuisine, taught by the best tutors and instructors.
But they had made good progress. Ariel was an excellent beastie, a reliable companion with good growth potential: loyal, obedient and possessed a synergising ability.
That Caliban-beast, however, was a subject of future research. For now, it was best if Gwen avoided using it altogether. Void and Dust were two of the most dangerous Sanctioned Magic a Mage of the Tower could channel. Henry of all people knew its self-destructive power. Even a slip of the mind could lead Gwen down a path of tragedy and wretchedness.
Simply put, the girl was too weak and too inexperienced to wield Void Magic. He needed to ease her into it, ideally, have her exercise its powers under supervision. In time, her control over Conjuration and her Familiars will grow, mitigating the risks of self-harm. Unlike last time, Henry now knew the wisdom of patience.
Furthermore, there was also the matter of exposing Gwen to the other members of the Ten. Though exposure seemed unavoidable if Gwen wanted to have a career of any kind, she would be a surefire hit with the military bigwigs, desperate for an Ace to outfit their Aerial Assault Wings. Alesia had been a great Ace, but her personality was unsuited for military discipline.
He briefly recalled the heydays of the Coral Sea War, when Void Magic had so frightened the Demi-human tribes that they offered sacrificial tributes to sue for peace. The militant Faction drooled just thinking about the possibility of bringing back the 'good old days'. But their dominion had come at a personal cost to Henry. Would Gwen be able to maintain her sanity if she was commanded to wipe out a village filled with defenceless xeno-women and children?
“Master?” Gwen’s voice interrupted the ruminating Magister.
“Sorry, I was tidying up some thoughts,” Henry spoke softly, his glazed eyes once again lucid. “So, as I was saying, you should probably use Caliban sparingly. I fear he would draw unwarranted attention, perhaps even the attention of forces beyond our ken.”
“Beyond even the Tower’s knowledge?”
“Oh yes,” Henry replied. “It is rare, but not impossible for Demi-humans to be amongst the endless multitude of humanity. What I fear are secret cabals, people like Edgar, Mages who walk a darker path than we, who would take great interest in a girl like you.”
"Of course, Gunther, Alesia and I will protect you. Still, discretion is advised."
“Shall I hide Caliban then?” Gwen questioned her Master, hiding her disappointment. She had been looking forward to putting her Familiars to use, even Caliban.
“Use your discretion,” Henry replied. “If they know, they know. I'll keep you safe. Talent attracts attention. There will always be those who are envious of talent, worship it, or seek to despoil other's gifts for selfish ends, but our Credo will always be those words you so admirably uttered.”
“Yes.” Henry gave a small cough. Behind her Master, Sufina stirred. “You have another three months, cough, and that should be plenty of time to master the use of these two. I would think, cough, that you will be ready to work with Paul... cough…”
“We had best get going, Henry,” Sufina grumbled as her Master's coughing persisted. The Dryad produced a small pool of mead in her hand and allowed Henry to drink directly. Gwen aided by massaging her Master’s back as his chesty convulsion eased.
“Yes, best we get back to the grot,” Henry agreed. “Gwen, all the best to you, listen to your Grandfather, don’t be afraid to ask your brother and sister-in-craft for help. That’s what they are there for.”
“Thank you, Master.” Gwen bowed.
There was a flash of Conjuration mana, then they were gone - Teleportation, without the need for Circle or beacons. A tier 7 spell.
Gone looked around at the infinity pool, somewhat surprised to find that she was utterly alone. There were still dozen-odd animated shrubs that were wandering around the place, reminding her of a hypothesis that needed affirming.
She summoned Caliban again, her Familiar full of enthusiasm that it had been invoked twice instead of that upstart mongoose. Gwen portioned to it another mass of Void tinged mana, fighting back the sick in her chest. She watched as Caliban transform into that Lovecraftian nightmare, then gave it a mental command to ravaged the shrubs. With each animated bush that it destroyed, she could feel a bit of vitality returning to her, restoring a little of what she had spent. Before long, Caliban's cargo of Void mana depleted, returning to its aesthetic form with an air of satisfaction.
Interesting, Gwen smiled weakly to herself. If Caliban could somehow sustain her like this, then it was possible to have prolonged periods of usage. She sent for a mental command for Caliban to return, and the happy abomination returned to her, coiling up her waist and rubbing up against her cheek. In its docile form, the carapace was smooth and cool, like a serpent sculpted entirely from precious stone polished to perfection. Gwen tried to feed it another crystal, but the overexcited thing smeared grey goo all over her chin. Suddenly nauseous, she banished it into the pocket dimension.
“I guess I better head back…” She said to no one in particular.
Her subsequent three months of schedules were about to begin, and her next milestone was working odd-jobs for this 'Mac', Surya and Henry’s ‘war buddy’.
Like a child with a new toy, she couldn't wait to exercise her powers as both an Evoker and a Conjurer.
* * *
Back in the Grot, Henry lay in bed, cradled by his Familiar.
“Henry… my saplings are all gone,” Sufina reported to her master.
Henry sighed sadly.
“She's a curious one.” He shook his head. “I wonder if she'll be like her.”
“She won't. I like Gwen,” Sufina sulked cattily. “If you recall, I never liked that witch, not from the first day we met.”
“I suppose,” Henry remarked sternly. “But Gwen's Path is her own: one that can only be walked by oneself. If she possesses the means to overcome the fate of her kind, then she will do so without our interference. It's is not a problem of power or magic Sufina, this is…”
“The Human Condition,” Sufina finished for him. “So you keep saying.”
Henry unleashed another chain of hacking coughs. Sufina produced another dose of the Golden Mead - the distilled liquid of her life-force, drawn from the Wild Land grot of her heart tree, then fed it to her Master.
"Master, are you-"
“I am fine, a little over exerted by that Summon Circle.” Henry coughed. "It's been a while."
“You must be careful.”
“Still, Gwen worries me. My mind is not still.”
“I fear they will take her, Sufina. The Void talent is too precious. To them, she could be a priceless wellspring.”
“We'll protect her."
“What a dilemma.” Henry laughed bitterly. “Give her too much power, and she becomes a monster. Shelter her too much, and she becomes the tool of another. How hard it is to be free! Hiding her talent was wrong, Sufina, we didn’t know- how could we have known?"
Henry was almost in a trance now, half his consciousness taken by the mead, the other half treading the dark waters of some distant memory.
“It’s not the same…” Sufina stroked Henry’s hair. "Gwen is strong."
“Yes… not the same, not the same…” Henry’s speech slurred. “We won’t lose her, not like before… not like before- Oh, poor Lizzy! How we failed her!”
“Shu… sleep now," Sufina winced as the name broke Henry's lips. Entering her Master's unprotected mind, she drugged him to sleep, tapping into her Dryad's powers. "Henry… you need rest.”
As agony on Henry’s face slowly faded, Sufina laid her head upon his chest and listened to her Master's rhythmic breathing. As a Sprite, she knew not the meaning of sleep, and so she could sit beside Henry and warded his dreams against the past, thinking sweetly of Gwen; thinking bitterly of that woman who had hurt her master long ago.