"HOLY HELL, WHAT IN CHRIST'S NAME IS THAT?" Walken knew he was in no danger, but put up a cursory barrier anyway.
Something was coming through the uppermost quadrant of the Summoning circle, slithering into being via a tiny corner of corroded air, growing larger by the second.
"It's a Void Being!" Wen commanded Petra to record the image while she furiously tallied the diagnostics. "My God! It's eating up the barrier's mana!"
An obsidian tentacle oozed through, obfuscated by the vivid fluctuation of eldritch energies.
"Petra! More Crystals!" Walken called out. "Gwen!"
"I am in control!" Gwen shouted back. "Keep the barrier up!"
A line of fulminating lightning erupted from Golos' jaws, obliterating the emerging mass from existence.
"SHAAA!" Caliban burst into song. "SHAAA! SHAAA!"
A tenebrous, inky gloop drooled through the invisible ceiling, resembling a monochromatic placenta.
"ROAR!" Another line of lightning eradicated the tear. Golos panted. He was a half-blood, and the impurity of his heritage limited his ability to use dragon-breath continuously.
But the Wyvern's efforts were futile. New intrusions rapidly grew until the cylindrical barrier's uppermost layer turned midnight, dispelling all heat.
"Ho boy." Gwen retrieved a bottle of Maotai and began to chug the contents like a mana potion. Concurrently, she dropped to the floor three Spellcubes chocked full of high-tier Restorations, prepared by Petra. Now that she had Enchantment as one of her schools, she could remotely trigger the spells.
"Is your vitality low?" sounded a Message from Petra.
"For contingencies," Gwen replied. "I caught a big bastard."
"This is history, Gwen. You're making history right now." Wen hijacked their conversation. "Focus! Don't let it slip away."
What her instructor meant was that she was going to make history, though Gwen took the Magister's advice to heart. Redoubling her focus, she continued to stream her Void Mana into the Summoning Mandala.
"GOLOS! Do you yield?!" she called out. "Or do you want to road-test The Thing?"
If a lizard could blanch, Golos probably would have grown lighter in hue.
"I shall crush your thing!" Golos croaked, steadfast in its arrogance, possessing more pride than sense. "Do your worst!"
"SHAA!" Caliban chorused whole-heartedly. "SHAA! SHAA!"
Gwen closed her eyes and did her best to will forth her best recollection. Yog-Sothoth was the gate and Shub-Niggurath, the mate; the two were well rounded as a pair, and not maliciously minded, a least toward inconsequential humans. As for what now spawned, her only wish was that it flew.
Above the summoning circle, the darkness began to swirl, forming a portal of sorts.
"IT'S COMING!" Wen's voice possessed the shrillness of a strangled cat. "By God! She's doing it!"
A crow-black entity descended, leading the way with a rupture of innumerable feelers, each beetle-black and clad in ooze, puckering with tentacle-pink suckers resembling lampreys' maws.
Golos slammed its spiked tail against the thing, shattering a hundred appendages and splattering the walls with tenebrous ink.
"HA!" the Wyvern howled, crouching to ready another strike. "Weak!"
The bulbous portion of the undulating globule now entered the material plane, swallowing all light and drawing the energies of the barrier into itself at an astounding rate. With each mote of Gwen's vitality, it grew larger, heavier-seeming, and more grotesque as strange boils and pustules bubbled at the surface, birthing agglutinations that hung from its bottom, resisting the call of gravity.
A Shoggoth? Gwen wondered. Or at least, a viscous facsimile.
The clamouring from the spectators grew to a feverish pitch.
"Is that…" Walken blinked twice, then ran a passive self-diagnosis to ensure that he did not delude his own eyes. "The BLACK SUN?"
"It has to be!" Wen looked as though she was about to dance a jig. "The great mystery! So that's what it was! We have to test it! We have to feed it!"
"Back! You black brute of the Unformed Land!" Golos barked, evidently growing warier. "Calamity! Why do you call this abomination?!"
There was no response from his Summoner. The moment the dark sphere had appeared, Gwen's mind delved into the darkness of the thing that spawned inside her barrier. Like Caliban, though the Void-being possessed no intelligible thought, she could feel its demands through the empathic link.
What do you want? She questioned the thing, using her worm as a template. What are you?
Do you wish to be made flesh?
Serve me, and I shall feed you.
"GWEN!" came Walken's appeal from the fabric of reality. When she came to, she beheld a howling Golos half covered in the black-goo. He was snapping and tearing at the tendrils, but like an Exxon Mobile oil spill, the bubbling protoplasm was vigorously mating with his proud body.
"CALAMITY!" Golos discharged a Wyvern-wide AoE.
A sharp, stabbing pain pierced Gwen's swollen brain.
"SHAAA!" Caliban writhed below her feet.
A call echoed in the Astral space of her Mage Soul. A weakness ran up her leg and through her vertebrae as her vitality fed into the summoning circle, fuelling the existent void-energies ravaging the barrier.
Obey me. Gwen focused her will once more. Obey, and I shall feed you.
The inky-mass dropped.
"MORE CRYSTALS!" Both Wen and Walken called out to Petra as she ran to the next node.
Gwen gnashed her pearly teeth, sending back her clearest vision of Caliban growing fat after a fresh kill. She had ample evidence that the ball was a mass of hunger, a primordial appetite. If so, there was only one way to negotiate.
With a glance and a gesture, she activated a Spellcube.
Expertly manipulating the oppositional energy, she sent the entirety of Petra's Restoration into the Shoggoth.
"Golos! How about now?" She had not forgotten about the Wyvern.
"NEVER!" Golos howled, chomping at the dark sphere with furious futility as its tendrils once again molested its lightning-clad carapace, heedless of the suckers that burned and spluttered.
Gwen growled. Golos was more obstinate than she thought. She didn't want to traumatise Ruxin's unruly brother, but the Wyvern had to be pounded into shape, and the Void-Beast was her hammer.
Smoothing her hair, she quickly activated a second Spellcube.
"Eat!" she commanded the maybe-Shoggoth to make her Wyvern yield.
A flood of vitality escaped her torso, nourishing the bloating sphere of engorged flesh.
"The barrier's failing!" Walken's voice came through. "I am killing it!"
"NO!" she shouted back. "A little more!"
"Listen to Gwen!" Wen shored up the Mandala with a series of quick incantations. "Keep the barrier going for as long as possible! We need this!"
"The risk is too high!" Walken hissed. "God damn it, Gwen!"
His student's response was to pop her last Spellcube. "A minute! Half a minute!"
Abruptly, there was a sound of soft silk ripping in twain. Her vitality tanked, warning her of the creature's indiscriminate hunger.
A gash appeared on the tenebrous sphere.
A splash of grey goo fell over Golos' chromatic scales; then an enormous eye blinked open. An eyeball the size of a small building was now staring into the material world, taking in all its glory. Its six-meter pupil was black-on-black, surrounding a centre that may very well be a portal into the infinite realm of the Void, ringed by concentric circles of bruised purple. Around the iris, the sclera was ivory and slick, milky and writhing with unnamable things just below the surface.
The world grew suddenly silent.
Even the lull of the ocean seemed muted.
Thankfully, the sound came from Caliban, sweating goo from its body like a self-desiccating blood worm.
The eye turned, its aberrant form beholding all that it surveyed.
If the hunger it had earlier demonstrated was a stream, what it now channelled into Gwen's mind was a mighty, raging river swallowing all that it touched. She tried to move, to fight its will, but what flooded her head numbed all thought. The vitality from the third Spellcube disappeared in a wink as she fell to one knee, gasping for air.
"You win." Golos' voice broke the silken silence. He politely knocked on the barrier. "Get me out of here."
The final component of Planar Ally activated.
The Mandala burst into brilliant flames as its remaining ingredients ignited, clinching the compromise between the Summoner and her creatures.
Within her mind, Gwen could sense the power of its contract linking her to Golos' Astral Soul, and presumably, the one-eyed Shoggoth. At the same time, she knew that no amount of her Essence nor vitality would ever satisfy the Void-being.
If and when she called upon it again, it would feed until she dismissed it.
Walken activated the contingency Glyph, setting into motion rapid injections of mana that would quickly disrupt the pocket-space within the Mandala, ensuring its collapse and the return of its summoned residents back to their native realms.
"I'll call you," Gwen promised Golos as the Shoggoth began to fade, feeling the eye's tyrannical oppression disappear. Soon, nought but ankle-deep sludge and a dozen twitching tentacles remained. "Tell Ruxin to pass on an inventory of what you desire. No hard feelings, eh?"
Golos waited for the magic-circle to burn out.
When the last mote fizzled, he stared at her, and she stared back.
"Wow," Gwen awkwardly remarked. "You're still here."
"I am no mere Elemental." Golos' eyes grew suddenly cruel. He rose to his full height, bringing his clubbed tail to bear. "Prepare to suffer!"
"Ahaha, oh shit…" Gwen gestured to Walken and Wen to back her up. Around her legs, Caliban readied itself to be its master's shield. "We made a deal, remember? Don't forget, you've got Ruxin's orders, and I've got your consent. You're my guy, right?"
"A dragon shall not broker deals with puny mortals!" Golos' snubbed her. "Your feeble magic cannot bind me!"
"Do you mean to renege?" Gwen readied a shield. Now was a good time to see if that diamond-barrier worked. "If death or dishonour is preferable, then I suppose—"
A line of lightning, thicker than Gwen's entire body, fell from the sky as though a pillar of light, striking Golos across the face, punching his head so hard that his snout dug into the bubbling sandstone-turned-glass.
Gwen looked toward Walken.
Walken shook his head. "Not me."
Gwen looked up at the clear blue sky.
Golos lifted its chin, then coughed up a mouthful of sand.
"What was that?" Gwen asked.
"A scion of the Yinglong cannot go back on their word…" Golos sullenly mumbled under its breath. "Brother sends his greetings."
The disparity between the brothers was heaven and hell! Exhaling with relief, Gwen reminded herself to send the Demi-God dragon a suitable gift in the future. "If its all the same to you, Golos, I would like us to work together. Like when we fought the Naga. That was fun, right? I didn't leave you to die, and we both profited. Our working relationship doesn't need to be unpleasant. Here..."
With great effort, she exercised what remained of Almudj's Essence onto her palm. "Shake on it?"
Golos crouched in low.
"You think that a tiny mote of Essence like that will..."
An enormous pink appendage wrapped her hand.
"Hmm..." Golos licked its chops contemplatively, its ice-blue eyes rolled to the back to the back of its skull. "It's sweet... HMMPH!"
With a great bell-beat of wings, the Wyvern ascended.
"YO! Are we cool?!"
"Only if you satisfy me!" came the voice from the draconic-beast as it unfurled the impressive length of its full form, shaking off the gooey slop like a murderous, winged Clifford, splatting Gwen, Walken and Wen all over.
Upon the hill, the gathered Mages watched as Wyvern menaced the girl before turning to the inhabitants of the island with voracious scrutiny.
"Golos, NO. They're wearing pants, for God's sake." The girl stood between the Thunder Wyvern and the quivering Mermen. "Can't you eat one of Ryxi's goats? Huangshan's close, right?"
To their shock, the monster turned, growled, then lifted into the air.
"Call me sparingly! I am busy!"
A second later, it was a mere speck in the distance.
"That went well." Gwen carefully lowered herself to the floor before resting on her buttocks, not even caring that she was most unladylike. She felt drained, spiritually, physically and mentally. Golos had a strong will, and it was only the suppression of her Almudj's Essence against his imperfect draconic-soul that had sealed the deal.
Additionally, who'd have thought she could pull a one-eyed mass of hunger from the Void? Innately she knew it was in no way comparable to Sobel's Black Sun, though its appetite was true to the Void's characteristics.
"In hindsight." Walken approached, soaked from head to chest with void-goo and Wyvern-spittle. "I think that could have gone a lot worse…"
"Petra! Get down here and give me a hand!"
Not far, Wen selflessly leapt into the goo-sloshed Mandala, wading ankle-deep through gloop.
"Stasis! Stasis! Stasis! OH! Stasis!"
She happily packed every spare tentacle and tendril that Golos had severed from the Shoggoth.
Walken exhaled with wonder. "… see that? Now that's the sort of mental fortitude that makes a Meister."
Unanimously, the committee that oversaw Gwen's Planar Allies labelled her Void "Ally" a Class VI restricted manifestation. It meant that she could not summon the creature without permission from a Tower Arbitrator, and never in a tier 1 city. Until the Void Creature was thoroughly studied, it would remain classified, conjured only to further man's knowledge of Spellcraft.
As for Golos, the Tower committee requested an interview before the spell could be deemed feasible for the competition, to which Gwen reassured them of the Wyvern's grudging obedience, then redirected their doubts toward Ruxin and Ayxin. Unfortunately, considering the bureaucracy involved, the likelihood of her having her Void Ally in time for the first match was close to nil.
"Two steps forward, and one step back," Walken remarked with a tone of apology. "I am afraid it happens."
"It's okay," Gwen denied her instructor's fault. "I don't mind."
"These rulings are just formalities and conveniences." Walken's next advice came in the form of an evil whisper. "If necessity calls, forget the sanction. I've left Petra with five sets of Mandala ingredients. If someone is after your life, let the Black Sun or the Wyvern deal with them."
"I still don't think that's the Black Sun."
"How about an Evil-Eye?" Walken remarked, referring to the one-eyed monsters that roomed subterranean caverns. "Void-Eye - that fits the bill."
How about Shoggoth? Gwen remarked privately.
"Speaking of regulations, is everything going to be cool with those guys?" Gwen glanced at the Magisters from the Towers as they bathed Wen with attention.
"Well, if they want to censure your craft." Walken's expression changed to one of schadenfreude. "Then complain to Gunther, that's what the fastest spell-slinger in the west is for, ain't it?"
Lei-bup gathered his tribe.
He was feeling a little crazy, but that, in his humble opinion, was a good thing.
He had been touched by divinity, and he knew it.
When the Wyvern had wanted to eat them, it was the God summoned by the pale human sorceress who had cowed it.
Lei-bup recalled the invocation vividly.
Yog-Sothoth! The key to the gate where the spheres conjoin.
And La-Shub-Niggurath! Master of the woods that wend!
Existences that Lei-bup was sure were the salvation of his oppressed people.
Though the humans had left, the evidence of their Mandala, their magic, remained on his island, along with their discarded bottles, wrappers, and bits of uneaten food. When he ordered his tribe to scour the area, they had even recovered a bit of still-writhing tentacle that had dug into the earth.
Lei-bup incoherently gibbered as he wept salty tears of spiritual rapture.
From this night forth, he and his fishy-kin shall worship nought but the One-Eyed God and its priestess of pale flesh!
Four days later, Fudan received the details of their next match.
"You'll be going to Cuzco," the Dean announced to the group after they assembled in his office. "Magister Walken and a contingent of examiners from Brussels will chaperone your journey. South America does not yet possess a Superstructural Inter-state Teleportation Circle, so it's going to be a long trip."
"So rushed!" Gwen hesitated at the untimely news. "AND our opponents have home ground?"
"Compared to us, who will be travelling non-stop for ten days." Richard frowned. "I presume, sir, that we will be taking the PLA Tower's S-ISTIC to Hawaii, then boarding a shipping freighter to Lima, then use their ISTC To reach Cusco?"
"Indeed. Well done." The Dean was impressed by Prince's alumni as usual. "As it were, we shall be updating your Multi-Pass Adventuring Permits for the Americans. Remember, the American continents fall outside the control of the Mageocracy. I'll need you all to stay out of trouble while you're waiting on your ship."
"Yessir!" the group answered.
"Gwen?" The Dean singled out their sorceress. "Am I clear? No unnecessary trouble."
Gwen blinked innocently as to suggest she would never amount to such atrocities. "None, whatsoever, sir!"
The rest of Fudan's team chuckled.
"Now go and pack!"
Outside the office, Gwen caught Richard by the arm.
"Dick, what's Hawaii like?"
"Verdant paradise, golden beaches, an active volcano, lots of Magma-aligned monsters, Mermen by the horde."
"How about resorts? Any good beaches?" Her eyes sparkled. "God, I miss the beaches."
"Gwen, what are you thinking? Beaches are annoying. There's too much sand, and it gets everywhere." Lulan paused to challenge a girl who grew up close to Cronulla, and who had spent her alter-teens hawking icy-pops at Bondi.
"Surf! Sun! Skin! Sand!" Gwen blurted out, suddenly longing to dig her toes into the surf. How long had it been since she napped under the sun? "And a good tan!"
Barring Richard, her companions took their pale-skinned companion's praise of the seaside with a pinch of salt. In Asia, fair and flawless skin was a highly desirable symbol of status. Who would actively venture into the sun so that they appeared like a peasant labourer?
"And swimsuits." Gwen wrapped a hand around Petra's waist, making her cousin blush, then winked at the trio of boys in their competitive retinue. "Imagine it, seven girls and three guys..."
"YES!" Anita punched the air. "Oh, yes!"
Jiro's orbs lit up like twin stars.
"Jiro." Bai patted the Fire Mage on the shoulder. "Your fire is sparking."