My plans for school had been thoroughly complicated by falling in love.
But let’s back up, just a bit. Sinslar Academy’s invitation, or should I say strong encouragement to attend, had been a complete surprise; yes, I was magically attuned, but, well, there were some caveats. My magic was brutal. Physical. I got in close, I could fuck people up like that. I, Hildegard, lowborn apprentice, was an affront to traditional casting. I’d assumed I was destined to end up in a no-name school in the ass-end of nowhere. But Sinslar it was, despite my unique talents.
People hated me for it. My interpretation of a basic fireball ended with my hand wreathed in flame and my sparring partner on the floor. The sparring was constant, too — all in preparation for the ritual, the thing that was everything for the third years made to participate.
After all, the stakes were huge. The winners, well, their magical careers were only beginning. It started with a gift, a willing slave. A willing slave, that, naturally, was what the loser of the match would end up as. And you couldn’t turn down a challenge.
I was alone in my unkempt dorm room. It was a mess, to be sure, but if everything worked out, I’d have someone to take care of that. As well as so much else. A thrall in my image, a former human who was anything I wanted them to be. The guaranteed voice cheering me on as I introduced the world to a new kind of magic, intimate in its destruction.
It would be glorious.
I exited my dingy room. Through halls lit by cool specters of enchanted light, I walked with purpose. There was a challenge to be issued. Passerby steered clear; they knew who I was, what I was, what I was after. No one would hope to be my familiar. Except…
This brings me to the above mentioned complications.
Her name was Lisette. Lisette Chi’en, the noble scion who’d wowed the rest of the school with her raw talent, her masterful geomancy. Geomancy which, naturally, was only the tip of the iceberg. Where I was the hated rogue, she was the darling, the top of the class, and a traditionalist to boot. An apprentice who hid behind her spells, and I’d hated her for it.
Hated, not hate. Things had happened. It had been like I was gradually sliding down a slope over the course of my second year, unable to fend off my growing feelings for the number one of my class. Flitting between ranks two and three while her position was under lock and key; my own talent had been the only thing that could inject some legitimacy into my own take on the craft. And she just had to ruin that, didn’t she?
I had been so angry. So angry that I was blind to subtle changes underneath, things that went unnoticed until suddenly that too-wide smile was cute, that chirp of a voice endearing, that her too-big spectacles only improved the look.
For some reason, she liked me too. I reached her own dorm room and knocked on the door.
We’d made an agreement, of sorts.
The hotshot wasted no time in answering, surprise first crossing her face before it passed to recognition, and then a wide grin. Her silky black locks caught some small glimmer in the darkness as she looked up at me. Her smile pushed her eyes into narrow crescents.
“I suppose it’s time?” she asked, twirling an ebon lock.
“Yup. You’re gonna love being my pet, Liss.”
My soon-to-be adversary smiled. “Come in for a while, Hilde.”
“One more evening as equals? I suppose that’s fine.” I was slapped with the immediacy of it all, but…she beckoned me in, and I complied.
I joined her on her bed, and she lay her hand on mine. “You’re sure about this?” she asked.
“You know it. People are going to have to take me seriously once I’ve got the ~former~ number one under heel. Just a bonus we’ve already got a history.” I brought my hand up to cup her chin.
“You’re pretty sure of yourself. It’s cute.” Her smile grew wider. “Especially considering you’re not gonna have a thought in your head I don’t allow you to have, once I’m done with you.”
“I’m gonna parade you around campus naked and you’re gonna thank me for it.” Her family would be pissed and powerless, and I was there for it. Typical nobility, those…people.
“I’m going to do things to you that make your toes curl, every night…” She was starting to lean in.
“You already do that…” I met her halfway. “Mmmm…” We both fell back onto her bed, allowing things to go from there.
“Whatever happens, we’ll always be together…”
The Circle was outlined faintly on the cobblestones, warning of the point of no return. But really, that point had been when I issued my challenge. The Rules didn’t exactly let you back out of it.
There was already a crowd when we reached the courtyard. Other apprentices getting glimpses of the future, and swaggering magi with familiars in tow. It had been an anticipated matchup, and I could already hear the incoming heckles.
“Teach that bitch some respect, Liss!” And variations.
The chatter died away, however, as we took our places. A ward arose around us, separating us duelists from those who’d otherwise be in harm’s way.
“The duel between Lisette of Family Chi’en and Hildegard of Siebrücken begins now.”
They were the last words that we heard from the outside, provided by the prefect attending. No sound could cut through. For however long this fight took, it would be the entirety of my world. And afterwards, things would be irreversibly altered.
There wasn’t that much I’d really change about Lisette, what she was at her core. I wasn’t about to strip away the girl I’d fallen for, but —
A crystal spike whizzing forward heralded the beginning of the end. I brought up my personal barrier just in time to shoulder the projectile aside, smirking at my opponent as the crystal crashed harmlessly like a wave against a rocky cliff.
Starting with the weak stuff? Mistake. And now, my turn. My barrier was a woven field of my energy, and a spare thought focused it in my hands and feet. Like an errant bolt I struck forward, weaving around more colorful spikes to reach her, bring her hand up, and lift the scrawny apprentice with an ethereal extension of my hand, only to slam her down.
The crowd took notice, and the shock fueled me. Lisette crumpled at my feet. Was it already over? Was that—
“Shit!” A cluster of prismatic death erupted from the ground below me. My very being reeled, my focus still in my offense. My head spun and my body ascended, but I still managed to kick just aside as a follow up growth tried to catch me in its vice.
Lisette had picked herself up, and a ring of crystal around me signaled her intent. I let the thing ensnare me, because I knew I’d easily break free — the binds shattered, but reformed to my quiet surprise. They localized around my limbs.
No matter. I landed without much trouble, ready to redouble my assault. Crystal cuffs around my wrists threatened to pull together but my stance held firm, until chill centered in my palms brittled them enough to break. Taking the momentum I already had, I sent a shock of ice to the ground in front of me to post over, to speed my charge, while a second icy whip extended from my free hand, ready to snap across whatever it could reach.
That’s when the cuffs that I’d forgotten hugged my ankles pulled together. I fell to the ground at Lisette’s feet, and to make matters worse, that which restrained me started to drain me.
Her technique, something she hid between pretty rocks and pretty lights. The second my reserves expired, I was done — but that was no reason to surrender. She —
Sent me flying once more. A crystal pillar sent me skyward, a repeat sequence this time firmly connected. I could see that grin as she witnessed her handiwork, that...eeeee, she was pretty... But that was no cause to be concerned. I had an ace up my sleeve, and it started with the cuffs burning away. I settled back on solid ground, letting an intoxicating fury take me as my skin started to heat up. One second later I was a walking pillar of magma, my entire being coated in Lisette’s doom. The crackle and hiss became me, a hard counter to colorful rocks.
Swallowing my anxiety — Lisette had held firm so far — I approached slowly, absorbing crystal spears that couldn’t hope to slow me. I raised an arm which was summarily a stream of molten fluid, striking Lisette across the face and tearing a scream from her lungs. Another hit like that and she was…mine.
What if I was a bad owner?
The scream pierced my armor, rogue thoughts disrupted the battle furor. It was just long enough for Lisette to recover and split into seven colored copies, occupying respective hues of the whole damn rainbow. The doubles collided with me, each sapping a bit more of whatever was left until my skin cooled into obsidian, and then paled as it reverted to its usual state. My eyes had been twin stars, but now the heat scorched my face as it pooled out of the sockets, leaving only my normal eyes behind. I couldn’t reignite, but falling seemed like an option.
Red, green, violet, and I was suddenly…so tired…
No more than a spark escaped my palm in the wasted last gasp of my freedom. I was descending into inevitability, a detached crystal pulling from behind to slow my collapse. When I was fully prone, it encased and restrained once more.