Erin's eyes fluttered open and glanced out the window. It was still dark out. She started to roll over to find a comfortable spot to drift back to sleep, but the mechanical alarm Master Immar had placed in her room sounded a shrill ringing sound, abrupt enough to cause her to start. She reached out to silence the monstrous thing, cursing it to the depths of the 9 Hells as she did every morning. Moving slowly, with all the eagerness of a 12 year old who had chores to do, Erin pushed back the covers and dropped down from her bed.
Bare footed, she padded across the stone floor, which was pleasantly cool on her feet compared to the warmth of the summer's night. She washed her face at the wash basin next to her door, paying special attention to the creases and folds caused by her scar. Once that was done she pulled on her simple leather breeches and boots, along with her loose white shirt.
Dressed, Erin darted out of her room to get about her duties cleaning her master's laboratory. First, she dusted, using chairs and ladders to get to the spaces she couldn't reach. Following that she swept. By the time she was half done with the mopping, the rising sun's light was making its way down the wall opposite the east window. According to the system she had worked out, she had until it reached the floor to finish her chores and meet her master downstairs. She hurried her way through a cursory inventory of the available spell components, noting that they were running low on Bat Guano, Obsidian Orbs, and Birch leaves. By the time the sun reached the floor she had placed the list on her Master's desk and was darting for the spiral stairs.
Immar often reprimanded her for sleeping in too late to get all her chores done, but what did he know? Every task was complete--at least complete enough that she probably wouldn't be scolded--and she'd gotten plenty of beauty rest. Erin was descending the stairs two at a time as she rounded the final bend. Only to find Immar had gotten there first. He was looking right at her, biting the inside of his cheek the way he always did when he was annoyed with her.
Maybe she should get up earlier.
"Erin," Immar began.
"Yes sir?" she replied, sheepish.
"What have I told you about being late for morning prayers?"
"I am sorry, Master." Erin whispered, head bowed. Not so subtly, the Wizard rolled his eyes and sharpened his tone to emphasize his annoyance.
"I don't buy your false regret for an instant. If you're going to lie, make it better than that."
"Yes, Master" Erin replied, the injection of remorse mostly gone from her tone.
"Now get inside, Child. Priestess Argetta is waiting for us."
Erin did move quickly to enter the small chapel, and wondered (not for the first time) why she had ended up apprenticed to the only Wizard in all of Regalia who made time to serve the gods. Most were too busy unlocking hidden mysteries of the universe to bother with kneeling on a stone floor breathing bad incense and regurgitating the cryptic teachings of some far off deity. Master Immar not only spent time on religion, but had devoted an entire floor in his modestly sized tower, to worship. When she was a wizard, Erin wouldn't waste time on such nonsense.
Still, she was expected to chant along, so she obliged.
"Knowledge is the root which grants the fruit of power." she droned. The words had been heard so often that she didn't even acknowledge their meaning anymore. "Hidden beneath the flesh of the fruit lie the secrets--the seeds which grow and grant evermore knowledge, evermore power."
She listened half-asleep as the old crone, Argetta, told the story of the battle of Fleeth, and the lessons to be learned regarding the value of forgiving one's enemies. Erin had heard it all before, and so far it had not become more compelling as she aged the way master Immar was always telling her it would.
As the short service began to wind down, Erin heard a loud murmuring. It was like a dozen voices all shouting at one another. But the sound was muffled. It was as though the shouting was happening two rooms away, shaving the words down into indecipherable sounds. She looked around to see if anyone else had heard, but wasn't surprised to see them all still intent on the end of the service.
Argatta loudly slapped her hand over her eye, ceremonially ending the service, and with it, the murmuring.
Erin wasn't too terribly concerned about the sound. It was hardly the strangest thing she had encountered in Immar's tower. The constant use of magic had a tendency to cause random minor effects in the area. None the less, she resolved to ask Master Immar about it during their morning study.
She skirted out of the chapel with as much speed as she thought she could get away with and still avoid a lecture on reverence. Once outside, she dashed back upstairs to her the laboratory, and began pulling the last book of spells she had been studying off of the shelf. She was halfway through deciphering the diagrams and runes which made up the "Orb of Acid" spell, when Immar finally made his way up the stairs. Erin stood, making sure she marked her place before doing so.
"Can we study evocation today? I really think I can avoid setting anything on fire this time!"
"No." Immar said, his voice flat.
Erin's face fell a little, but she pressed on.
"Well...maybe we could do some conjuration? It's kinda similar, and it would give me practice!"
Erin screwed up her face, an expression which her scar made a just little more creepy than cute.
"What will we study today, then, Master?" Erin asked, refraining from allowing any hint of exasperation into her voice. Immar was a kind enough man, but her sharp tongue had earned her more than a few switchings over the years. She wasn't eager for more.
"We will study nothing today, apprentice." Immar said. "Today, you will leave the tower, and you will not return until you have correctly summoned a familiar."
"But sir!" Erin wailed in a tone she was starting to get too old for "I've tried that four times already! I can't do it."
"You can, and you will. It's long past time for you to get this over with. Now off with you! I've got work to do, and I can't have you underfoot." The wizard then turned and sat at his work bench, gesturing for a tome which drifted through the air and opened in front of him.
Erin wanted to argue, but she knew it would get her nowhere. She gave a deep, sarcastic bow to her Master's back, then bustled down the stairs to get ready to leave. She realized that, in her frustration, she had forgotten to mention the murmuring to her Master. But she was too upset with him to stomach asking him for any help right now. Fifteen minutes later she walked out the door at the base of the tower and into the surrounding forest. She wore a large hat to protect her from the sun, carried her tiny (and still nearly empty) book of spells in one hand, and her spear in the other. Around her waist was a belt containing what components Immar said she would need, and a few more she'd managed to slip off with in the hopes of trying them out herself.
Lacking any specific destination for the ritual, Erin decided to make the trek two miles north, to a small clearing where she sometimes came to read. Once there, she began using the red mud from her spell component's pouch to make the summoning circle on the surface of a large rock. It was an hour before she was finally satisfied that each and every line was perfect, every arcane word conjugated correctly, and every intersection at the precise point indicated as ideal by her studies.
Stepping back, she tossed a handful of dirt, a feather, a pebble, and a bit of tinder into the circle with one hand, while furiously signing the gestural elements of the spell with the other. She began to mutter the verbal component of the spell as well, but stopped when she saw the items she had tossed into the circle fall naturally to the surface, instantly destroying an hour's worth of labor as it marred her circle. Not that it mattered, if the spell was going to succeed the components would have been suspended in the air above the circle for a moment to allow her enough time to speak the words.
"Curse the Blackleafin' luck!" she shouted, relieved that Immar couldn't hear her gutter mouth.
After gathering her things, Erin began to wander through the woods again, nose deep in the spellbook she had brought. Her circles had been right, she had no doubt of that. She had checked them, and checked them, and checked them a dozen times over. That was far more precision than the spell even called for, so it couldn't be the problem. No, her problem was somewhere in her selection of material components. She knew she needed the dirt, but the rest of it was a bit of a puzzle. She'd tried making the circle out of tree sap, water, even bear feces. Nothing had channeled the arcane energies correctly to allow the other components to work.
A half hour of wandering and reading later, Erin arrived at a small lake where she sometimes swam. The sight reminded the fisherwoman's daughter that she hadn't had time to break her fast yet. She was famished. It was the work of twenty minutes to spear a fish, and only twenty more to cook it over a simple fire made with the flint and tinder in her spell component pouch.
As Erin ate, she thought about the spell. It wasn't the most complex spell she had ever tried to cast, by a long shot. Yet the exact method for casting it eluded her. For every other spell she'd ever learned, everything was very specific. The gestures, the words, the materials, all were specified in exact amounts by whatever spell she was casting. The caster could vary amounts slightly, or even substitute similar gestures or materials to create different effects, but the essential elements of the spell were always there. By contrast, the spell required to summon a familiar left several important spaces blank. Supposedly the intent was for the spell to be more personal, yet Erin didn't see how it could be personal when all the items she had selected had failed.
"Wait a moment!" She shouted, causing a squirrel to flee from a nearby bush. It was obvious! The spell being "personal" was not an invitation to try any elements which struck her fancy. The components had to be personal in order for her to form a personal bond with a creature.
Leaving her fish half eaten, she found another flat rock and knelt in front of it. Using the tip of her spear she made a small cut in her palm, wincing as she drew blood. Using the index finger of her opposite hand like a quill, Erin dabbed blood onto the rock, reassembling the summoning circle just as she had created it back in the clearing. She moved much more quickly now, less concerned that she had been missing some mistake now that she had latched on to this new hypothesis.
When the circle was completed, she began to glance around, trying to figure out what materials she could cast into the circle to be consumed by the spell. She tore a strip of cloth from her sleeves, then grabbed a few bones from the fish she had just caught. Finally, she used a rock to chip off a tiny splinter of wood from the shaft of her spear, then clumped all three into a ball of dirt. She repeated her actions from earlier, throwing the ball into the circle with one hand, while gesturing with the other. This time, the ball of dirt and everything in it did not succumb to gravity. Instead, they formed into a whirlwind, obscuring her vision of the circle. Erin grew excited, but didn't allow her voice to falter as she uttered the verbal portion of the spell.
"Arcanacus chryot zho uleer!"
A sudden gust of wind blew past Erin, whipping her hair into her face. She quickly brushed it back, only to see that the wind had carried everything away. Even the circle of her own blood was completely gone, as though it had never been there. And, in its place, sat a toad.
Grinning from ear to ear, Erin knelt and held out her hand.
"Hello there, little Loattie!" Erin said, having decided a long time ago that she would name her familiar after the stuffed toy she had loved as a younger child. "My name is Erin!"
The toad obediently hopped towards her waiting hand. The moment it touched her, the murmuring returned. It was louder now, like it was coming from just behind her. And now that she wasn't in a wizard's tower, it suddenly seemed to Erin a much more serious thing. She whirled around, holding Loattie to her chest, but saw nothing there which could have caused the cacophony of sound.
The murmuring began to change. The dozens of voices became one dozen, then half a dozen. Each voice seemingly merging into another, until there was only one voice left. One remaining voice which spoke int a terrifying, rasping sound. One whose every word seemed to slice through the word before it.
"Well done, Erin." the voice said. The murmuring returned when it--'he,' she now recognized--spoke, repeating his words over and over again in tones which seemed even more frightened of the original voice than Erin was.
"Who...what are you?" Erin shouted, trembling.
"Be not afraid, child." spoke the voice. "I am here to guide you."
Erin couldn't say she was relieved by that. "But who?!" she shouted.
"I have been with you all your life, child. And with your deepening powers of the arcane, I am now able to speak to you more easily."
Erin was feeling bolder now. "To the Nine Hells with all that, I asked you who are you?" She couldn't be sure, but she thought she heard the voice laugh.
"You know me, child. I am The Whispered One, The Secret Holder to whom you offer your insincere prayers each day."
Erin's eyes widened, and she nearly dropped Loattie to the ground in shock. She let her feet drop out from under her, landing hard on her knees.
"My...my lord I am so sorry..." she began.
"Save your apologies, I have no stomach for them. Nor do I care for your prayers."
Erin nodded, speechless.
"What I want is you. To groom you, to grant you the opportunity to earn the right to be my chosen representative on the Material Plane. I will mold you, if you are worthy."
Erin remained silent. This was too much to take in. But then...the favor of a god could only help her...right? She raised her head, though the voice--the god--had offered her no form to meet eyes with.
"Yes, my lord Vecna. I will prove myself worthy of your favor."