She sat in the center of a magic circle, pink chalk dust on coating her hands and knees. She’d tied her long, curling hair back in a loose, bushy ponytail. A bright purple bow held the barely controlled hair more or less in place. At the least, it kept enough of it out of her face and workspace, even if the ponytail trailed on the ground behind her kneeling body.
She’d discarded her outer robe, its wide sleeves having the unfortunate tendency to brush away the designs she was very carefully drawing on the floor with her chalk. It now hung dejected over a chair in the corner of the room, the heavy black fabric with its pink buttons and lace decorations waiting patiently for her to finish this step.
They called her a foolish child. They laughed at her curls and her ribbons. They rolled their eyes at her questions and dismissed her dreams. Always, they asked what business a girl like her thought she had attending the College of Magic.
She tried not to think about them too much as she crawled around her circle, putting down the finishing touches and double checking the runes.
Traditionally, the College of Magic had been a man’s space. It had barred its doors to all women for generations. Only within the last twenty years had any women been allowed through their hallowed doors. Only within the last twenty years had any woman hoped to learn the craft of mage.
But there were expectations of a female mage and they were doubly true of a female student. Dress like a man. Dark clothes only. Short hair or hair tied up in tight, utilitarian ponytails or buns. No frills. No lace. No heels. Make up should be natural, the colors subdued.
A female mage should have a taste for horse races and sporting events. She should have only a passing interest in dance or theater, and she certainly should have no interest in participating in either.
After all, only a frivolous, airheaded woman had interest in colorful clothing, or long flowing hair, or dance. A proper mage had no time to consider fashion. No time to waste on a woman’s hobbies. They must remain dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. They must prove that dedication at every turn.
She wiped the chalk off on her dark pink skirt as she stood, looking over her handywork with pride.
The parcel she had been expecting had arrived today. Sooner than she’d expected, but she’d been ready anyway.
As she’d expected it contained an old key and a list of instructions to use it. She placed that key in the center of her circle. It was no key a layman would recognize as such. It was not made of metal, nor shaped to open any mortally built door.
Rather, it was a piece of black stone, as smooth and sharp as glass. And the door it opened was a rift between worlds.
She took the remaining catalysts, placing them around the circle as the instructions dictated. Roses in the north position, sugar in the south, silk in the east, a freshly slaughtered rabbit in the west. She lit her candles and dimmed the room’s other lights.
One last time she reviewed the instructions. One last time she looked over her reference tomes. One last time she checked her catalysts.
Only then did she put her robe back on and lift her staff. The staff was boring tool. Not what she would have picked out for herself, but too expensive to just replace and too particular of a tool to have modified casually. It was a slender rod of silver, runes of channeling etched in spiraling patterns up its surface. A single red jewel shone like blood from its head.
She took her place at the foot of the circle and took a deep breath.
They would undoubtedly call her foolish for this too, had they seen her catalysts, had they seen the pink chalk, had they seen the flower shaped candles. They’d say no familiar summoned in this way was worth the price of the central catalyst. They’d say there was no beast on the obsidian plane which would come to the call of a foolish girl like her, not with offerings like these.
The obsidian plane was one of the most dangerous realms. Familiars summoned from that land were some of the strongest. Only the toughest of mages succeeded in summoning a creature from those dark lands, and only the absolute best managed to form a contract of master and servant with the being summoned.
And it went without saying,
But that was why she hadn’t told her father what her key was going to be when she’d ordered it. Why she’d only told him the price and hoped he wouldn’t ask any further questions. It was why she hadn’t invited her peers to watch her summoning. Why she alone had checked and double checked her circle.
Because she didn’t need more doubts than the ones already bubbling in her chest. She didn’t want someone with more sense than her to talk her out of it. She wanted to hold the fragile confidence in her research tight. Wanted to attempt this even if everyone else would tell her she was going to fail.
Banishing her doubt, brandishing that foolish pride, she slammed her staff down against the stone floor, beginning the ritual. The words of summoning poured from her lips, each in the ancient language, each dark and thrumming with power.
Her candles flickered. The air around her swirled. Slowly, then faster and faster, rising in tempo with the speed of her chanted words. Magic sparked around the circle, lighting the runes, infusing her offerings, igniting her key.
There was a popping sound in the air as the last word of her spell left her lips, accompanied by a burst of smoke. Her candles’ flames took on a pink hue as the rest of the magic lights dimmed.
As the smoke cleared, swirling up and away unnaturally, a figure appeared in the center of her circle. It was feline in shape, with fur as black as the obsidian key. Eyes red like rubies shone through the dark.
“Such an interesting set up, child,” the beast said, its voice low and purring. Almost masculine, almost serpentine. “Curious enough I had to see who called.”
“And I thank you for coming,” she said, silently pleased she managed to keep both her voice and gaze level. That none of her fear or anxiety managed to leak into the simple words.
A deep chuckling rolled through the room. “Indeed. Now tell me, girl, what is it that you want? Power? Wealth? Prestige? What reason do you call a denizen of obsidian to your realm?”
She gripped her staff tightly. This is was where the real test began. She’d brought it to her, despite all odds, now she just needed to get it to stay.
“It wouldn’t be wrong,” she said, measuring each word with careful deliberation, “To say I want power or prestige.” It wouldn’t, and it would be dangerous to try and lie to the creature before her. “But I don’t think that I would claim to have summoned you for that reason. Rather, I wish to grow as a mage…”
The beast stared at her, the light in its eyes darkening. A bad sign. A sign it was already growing bored with her. A beast of obsidian was plenty powerful. Strong enough that if it so desired, it could break her circle holding it on this plane and return to its own as it chose. If it decided she wasn’t worth its time it would just leave.
Her words were straight from the guides on summoning she’d read. They promised the greatest success. Most summoned creatures liked humble masters, those who pursued pure research rather than worldly power.
But she hadn’t summoned this beast according to the logics of the standard guides. She had picked catalysts which reflected who she was, what she liked. She’d placed compatibility with herself over common sense. And if that had paid off, if this beast had come for her, then her best strategy wasn’t to bow to the usual script, but…
“I’m looking for a partner,” she said simply, putting a hand to her hip, a smile spreading across her face. “I’m looking for someone to support me. I don’t have a grand goal. I don’t have a revenge to chase or anyone in particular I want to prove myself to.
“But I don’t want compromise on who I am. I don’t want to conform just to live anymore. I want the strength to flaunt their traditions and their expectations.” She cocked her head, her eyes shining in the pale pink candlelight. “And if that sounds interesting to you, I’d like you to come with me and see it happen too.”
If the panther could raise an eyebrow at the strange girl before him, he would have. He’d listened to all kinds of requests over the millennia. Desires to be king, to be loved, to worshiped. Dreams of wealth or of power. He’d aided quests to protect the weak, to punish the cruel.
He chuckled again, nodding. This was the first in a long time who wasn’t begging for his help. This girl she would do it, whether he came along or not. She would not let her society snuff out who she wanted to be, not for anything.
That society was going to try. Oh, they would try. And that did sound like a show he wanted front row seats to.
She lay on the forest floor letting the sun's light dance through the foliage and onto her face. She held one hand up, palm outstretched, half blocking the sun from her eyes, half staring at the gold band around her ring finger. She sighed and dropped her hand to her side, running her hand throug...