“Finally awake, are you?” Mistress began stroking my hair immediately after my eyes fluttered open.
“Izzit Sunday, Mistress?”
“Yup! And good thing, too. I’ve been, uh, thinking.” She sounded more glum than I would’ve liked her to.
“Everything alright?” I asked, turning my head to meet her gaze. We were as tangled up as we must’ve been when we fell asleep.
She said nothing for a while, instead staring into my eyes, cradling my chin... all with a sad look on her face. “It’s…no. It’s not. And I know this is just fighting nature and the results of my own actions…”. Mistress heaved a deep sigh. “Hilde…our plan of keeping you the same isn’t working.”
Shit. Shitshitshit. “Is there anything I can do?”
“No. Yes? I don’t know. Look, I had the realization…I had just…removed your hand. Messed up your arm, and since that wasn’t enough, I amputated you as well.”
“Only for a moment, Mistress. And for a good reason.”
“No, Hilde. Look, when I was trying to put the hand back on, with everyone watching…it hit me then.” Her voice quavered. “It had been coming so naturally to..use you like a tool.”
“It is only natural, Mistress. What’s the issue?” My attempts to reassure were rapidly, visibly backfiring.
“I…gods dammit, Hilde! I’ve done something unforgivable! You were such a beautiful soul. A confused and lost one, maybe..but I knew the ‘you’ that no one else did.” She looked away, becoming very quiet. “Not only have I effectively killed you, I repeatedly defile your corpse. Because I’m as awful and depraved as anyone in this stupid school!”
“Mistress…having to exist in a corrupt setting doesn’t make you a bad person.”
“Yes it does!” Now her voice was raised. “I…should’ve been able to figure out something! We could’ve…run away, somehow!”
“Our brands would’ve quickly returned us, Mistress.” I rested a hand on the small of her back — the most common place for the seals showing how Sinslar claimed ownership of its students.
“I could’ve made sure we were both magi, but I was too damn vain! We both had free choice of our entire class, but…” Tears were falling, now.
She looked at me with watery eyes and a reddened face. “I didn’t want anyone else to have you. I was…possessive. I am possessive. The thought of you having your own familiar…one that wasn’t me…it terrified me.” Putting a hand on my shoulder, she added, “pathetic, right?”
I shook my head.
But Mistress continued to spiral, while I could only seem to watch. “It’s why I don’t have friends, Hilde! People know I’m clingy! And people knew that someone I got on too well with would just end up…my familiar. And, well, they were right. Emmaline didn’t seem to let it get to her, but, I just had to taunt her into doing something stupid, didn’t I!”
“Because I was still riding the high of subjugating the person who loved me! Because at the end of the day…I really am a model student.” Oozing disgust hung off the last two words.
Indecision fell by the wayside as Mistress continued to debase herself. I was…I was her familiar. Sworn to carry her will, sworn to hold her up.
But what if the latter conflicted with the former? It gave me that true rarity. A choice.
I sat up, and putting my hands on her shoulders like I had so many times, I pulled her level to me. “Lisette Chi’en. Listen to me, Lisette. This guilt you possess — which I can no longer stand to witness, as your familiar and your lover, disputes your claims w--with its being. Magi claim souls without a second thought! They don't feel guilty! And if there was conflict, complacency washes it away. So why then, do you so harshly accuse yourself of doing something so horrific? It was your only option! I challenged you! And in the moment that would have been my triumph, I instead felt…your scream. It pierced me to my very core. Lissy…who stole the agency of who? I didn’t want myself to win.”
“Because you actually cared, Hilde. Whereas I just wanted to claim my prize like anyone else.”
“Look, Lissy, there are only two ways the duel of the familiar can ever end. It was your total victory or mine. And the only thing that could change the outcome was who acted on that more effectively! I don’t know if I’m…I don’t know if this makes any sense the way I’m saying it, but…in the moment that mattered, we were equals. And when you won, it was your subconscious will that shaped the bond.” I placed a hand on her heart. “And your subconscious will is why I’m talking back to you now — why I’m even able to be pissed as hell that you’d dare say such things about yourself. I have no problem with you taking limbs off or making a rainbow come out of my mouth. But as your familiar, I will not let you beat yourself up as you are.”
Lisette looked away for a few moments. Breathed in, breathed out. Opened her mouth to say more self critical words — I shook my head. One more straggler of a tear, and a smile slowly started to cross her face.
I gave a short yelp as she tackled me in a hug, sending the two of us back onto her pillow. As it didn’t seem like she’d release me anytime soon, I matched the affectionate gesture, wrapping my arms around her like she’d float away otherwise. We were a mess of black and white hair, with two vaguely human shapes underneath, interlocking like a jigsaw puzzle.
“I’m sorry, Hilde,” Mistress eventually said.
“Whatever for?” I asked. A veiled challenge. I dearly hoped my gambit had worked, and she wasn’t about to sink back into the mired thought patterns I so desperately wanted her free of.
“I’m sorry I ever doubted that you were you.” She squeezed me tighter.
A sigh of relief.
“Hmmm…” I murmured. “You’re damn right you are. Mistress.” I pulled back just far enough for her to register the shit-eating grin on my face, the satisfaction in my prismatic eyes. The highlights beneath my skin signaled approval in warm shades.
Lissy’s response to the grin was a decisive one — a kiss in one swift motion, held for a short eternity. Our voices collided with each other in soft moans that danced across our lips.
“So, then,” Mistress husked once we finally pulled apart. “We’ve got a whole Sunday ahead of us.”
“I was wondering about that. What are your plans?”
“Oh, Hilde,” She purred as she looked me dead in the eyes. “The plan for today,” —she lightly poked me in the chest— “is up to you.”
“You want me to decide what we’re doing.”
“Yeah-huh,” she said dryly.
“And I suppose you will offer no suggestions.”
“Nope!” After a few minutes of silence, Mistress offered, “how did you usually spend your free time in the past?”
“Um. I usually spent it with you.”
“What about back in, like, first year? Or early second?”
I pondered the question for a moment. “If I really had nothing to do, well, I usually just slept. Or trained. Sometimes I’d go into town…”
Lisette’s face lit up. She looked away, thinking I hadn’t noticed.
“You may be interested to know that I’m familiar,” —I waited out Lisette’s chuckles at the unintended double meaning— “with some of the lesser known spots outside campus, Mistress. Things hidden underneath the facilities the academy uses to court its wealthier clientele.”
Mistress booped me on the nose, as she was so often wont to do. Not that I minded. “I’m eager to see what you show me.”
“Can I help you…ah, hello, Magus Chi’en,” a bored looking man behind a desk addressed her. I was doing two things I considered unusual — I was not clutching or hanging off of Lissy, and my feet were planted firmly on the ground. And while my standard form as a familiar had not changed, I was in one of my old hosen-and-tunic combos. I also wore the pointed apprentice’s hat (“you look so cute in it!” Mistress had said) I hadn’t worn since the duel. I tugged at the sleeve of the loose jacket I had on over the whole ensemble.
It was as if I was stepping into my old life for a day. The sentiment seemed to please Lissy, which was enough for me.
“Hey there Associate Hendrik! We’re going into town for the day,” Mistress chirped.
“Alright…um…since you are a full magus, you are not required to have a prefect accompany you,” the associate said, sounding like he was reciting by memory. “Though since a prefect is not acting as a chaperone, your brand will trigger if you exit the university town…or if you are not returned to campus by midnight. Are there any questions?”
“Enjoy your trip.”
Mistress was jubilant. We had just finished a pleasant meal at a hole in the wall I hadn’t been to in months — I had gone unrecognized until the owner herself stepped out of the back for a moment.
“Where we headed next?” Lissy asked me as we hit the cobbled streets once more. We were off the beaten path, or at least away from the paved squares with their inns and brothels.
I couldn’t help a grin. “Do you have any particular affinity for seedy pubs, Mistress?”
“Magi are definitely forbidden from drinking.” She had a mischievous look in her eye. “Unless you know something I don’t.”
We reached a wooden door that had seen better days. “I never came here to drink, in truth. Though I didn’t turn down one if I could get away with it.”
“Do they have music or something?”
“Not good music, to be sure. While school taught us how to duel, this is where I learned to fight, Mistress. After you!”
It was the same dingy hall of my memories. A bar, tables, local toughs…and the ring.
“Oh great, students,” someone whispered. Logistical needs brought all sorts of folk to the university town, and some stuck around longer than others.
“Hildegard of Siebrücken has returned to this fine den of pugilism!” I announced to my fellow ne’er-do-wells.
A grizzled barkeep came over my way. “Hilde? It’s been some time,” the man said. He cocked his head, appraising me, looking through me. And at Lisette nearby. “Did you do something with your hair?”
“She did,” I said, pointing to Mistress.
“I figured that much.” Barkeep’s eyes narrowed. “Who gave you permission to get ritual’d?”
“People keep asking me that,” I said with a shrug. “Any new faces in the ring since I’ve been gone?”
“You never told me about this place,” Mistress said.
“Couldn’t give up all my secrets,” I whispered back. We turned our attention back to the bar.
“Four-Tooth Franz is now Three-Tooth-Franz,” the Barkeep said, continuing the conversation. “Couple of first years showed up one time, but they didn’t know that trying to use magic in the ring gets you an automatic matchup with Henri Ironbolt. He’s not here today, not yet anyway, so anyone trying to use magic in the ring just gets thrown out instead.”
“Wait,” Mistress interjected. “Hilde, is that why you had two broken legs that one time during first year?”
“Uh huh,” I nodded. “Glad to see people are carrying on the tradition!”
“And the prefect just let you try it?”
“Thought it would be a valuable lesson. I just learned to fight without, instead.” A trip every few weeks to this fine locale...I heard a raucous applause as a tottering drunk in the ring was laid out by an equally-unsteady rival.
"Oi, Felix! Get over here without passing out and you'll get your winnings!" the barkeep shouted.
“And that’s when your style in the circle got…even more brutal and punchy.” Mistress pondered the revelation for a moment. “Hildie, that’s so cool!” I could see an idea forming by the look on her face as she turned towards the barkeep. “Hilde was feeling nostalgic,” she said to him.
“You’re going to want to hit up Herzog’s on a Friday night if you want to see her brawl as she is now,” the barkeep said bluntly.
Mistress wanted to see me in the ring? That sounded like...fun.
“Just…once, for old times’ sake?” I tried. Mistress was right beside me, with an excited, pleading look in her eye.
Barkeep scratched a bald head and passed a glance over some of the patrons. To me, he said, “one fight. Because you…the old you…put on some pretty good shows. But that’s only if…“ he turned to his clients. “Oi! Any’you want to face off against Hilde, even’n she’s not human no more?” He grabbed me by the wrist and lifted my arm up. The rest of me floated up a few inches as well. “That’s…weird.” He turned back to the regulars. “I dunno what magic she’s got these days!”
There was some polite deliberation among the drunks. “I’ll…I’ll ‘it ‘er so’ard her ma-master feelz’it!” One particularly inebriated patron declared.
The barkeep nodded. “Alright, we got a matchup! Place your bets!” Some of the pub’s occupants started to crowd around the upraised square that would be my arena, one last time. I removed my hat and coat, and Mistress held out her hands to take it to a nearby table. It was an odd feeling, hovering over the ropes while my opponent scrambled up from under them.
We took our corners.
“Give ‘em your best, Hilde!” Mistress chanted — commanded? — from her own vantage point where she’d managed to secure front row real estate. I wouldn’t let her down.
“Last one standing wins! Start now!”
My challenger wasted no time charging me, leading with a right hook. It was simple enough to duck under and come back up with my own swing, which hit him square in the shoulder.
He didn’t budge, and I remembered that I was Mistress’ floating crystal thing that didn’t weigh all that much. My opponent retaliated with a slug to my abdomen that did have some inertia to it, sending me flying back to the ropes. The crowd gasped from what they must’ve assumed was a painful blow…but it wasn’t.
“Is that all this fine gentleman’s got?” I taunted. He stepped forward with more momentum than he’d likely intended, going for an uppercut that connected with my throat instead.
Another brutal blow that should’ve hurt. It didn’t, but I did hear a cracking noise. The attack sent me upward, a few feet before I stopped and had to come back down of my own accord.
“Get that bastard, Hilde! Go for the head!” Mistress was getting into it. Not one to disappoint her, I collapsed on my foe in some weird, weightless tackle. He grunted somewhat, but didn’t budge. His response was to grab me by the tunic and throw me back overhead, where I quietly slowed mid-flight, instead of hitting the ropes again.
So far, a number of useless maneuvers. But the last one had given me an idea.
I sailed over him as he spun around. Diving behind his back, I grabbed him ‘round the waist and lifted — wait, no I didn’t. This guy was heavy.
So what was I supposed to do? For the time being, I decided to stick like glue and repeatedly knee him in the back of the head — just ignore the fact he smelled terrible, and that my hair was now being dragged across the grimy floor.
That last little detail, however, worked in my favor. Thrashing about and trying to throw me off, the drunk’s foot slipped on a snare of pearly locks. I gasped and swore at the oh-so-wonderful sensation of my hair being pulled, but my rival had the worst of it, sliding and stumbling to the ground.
I peeled off of him to deliver a floaty and useless kick while he was down, and then waited to see if he’d get back up. He did.
Watching him charge at me again, his audibly heavy breathing made me realize I’d just have to win by attrition. Gliding out of the way of his swing, he travelled a bit further before whirling around to come at me again. I quickly got him mired in a chase of circular futility, culminated with him falling once more in a dizzy heap.
I skirted away as the man posted himself on his hands and vomited, before collapsing within his own product.
“Yeeeeah! Go Hilde!” Mistress cheered. The rest of the crowd sounded…puzzled. When my challenger failed to get back up, I was halfheartedly declared the winner.
“Either ‘e’s not going to remember a damn thing tomorrow,” the barkeep observed, “or he’s going to remember this for the rest of ‘is life.” There was some hesitation before he clasped me on the shoulder. “Weird fight, but a win’s a win. I’ll go get your payout.”
Some of the other patrons picked up their fallen comrade, revealing him to have a bloodied chin. From what I couldn’t tell, immediately, until I saw a glinting shard, an out-of-place island in the puddle of vomit.
That was…holy shit, was that part of me? Feeling underneath my top, I found something suggesting that it was — slight chips within my own flesh. Countless other tiny specks on the platform caught the light, little bits that had come off my body.
“You okay?” Mistress asked, coming up to meet me. Kneeling down, she surveyed the little field of shards, while giving the pool of barf a wide berth. “I think I should be able to replace the bits that fell off.”
“Should be fine. It was weird to…well, be here again. And it might be the last time,” I mused. I crouched down alongside her. “But I had fun. Thanks.”
“Wanna take a table and watch some of the other fights? Dunno how long it’ll take them to get it clean, but I’ll patch you up in the meantime.”
“That sounds great, Mistress.” We went to the table in the corner where Lissy had put my things, and she put her chair close to mine.
“Show me the places you got hit, please,” Mistress instructed. I complied, lifting up my tunic. There were cracks and grooves marking a small area on my stomach, as well as some mild disfigurement where my collarbone would be. “That’s not too bad. I should be able to fix it.”
Her face scrunched in focus as she placed a hand on my stomach. It was a sensation both pleasant and bizarre, almost a little ticklish. Eventually, her hand was brushing over an area I realized was once again completely smooth. When she did the same thing for my collarbone, I put my hand atop her wrist, enjoying the quiet and tender intimacy that had somehow manifested in the loud pub. I was almost sad when she finished.
“All better,” she said, bringing her hand up to caress my chin. “You were really great out there. And, uh…I’ll figure out how to give you some more weight behind your blows, it shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“If you think it’s necessary,” I said with a shrug. I saw a tall man, bearded and somewhere in his early forties, with the typical pointed hat stroll in, trailed by a violet-skinned succubus wearing…considerably less. How long had it been since I saw Henri? That duel against him wasn’t anything I wanted to relive. And the man himself was…inscrutable.
“Maybe I will,” Lissy chuckled. But her smile faded. “I’m really glad we did this today. Have…you been enjoying yourself?”
“Of course, Mistress.” She would know it wasn’t a lie. "What's on your mind?"
“I…can’t get the last night out of my head. Your last night as a full mage. I thought I was ready, I thought I understood what was being lost.” She sighed. She shuddered, at something.
“Am I really that much different?”
“I guess that depends. I don’t want this to sound like I’m making accusations, but…” Mistress trailed off, and I raised an eyebrow. “What school did you go to before Sinslar, Hilde?”
What kind of question was that? “What kind of question is that? It’s…” Shit. I knew this, right? Mistress had that look in her eye. She wanted me to know this. So…why didn’t I? This…I knew this…
“I-it’s okay, Hilde. I’m sorry. The question’s obviously upsetting you.” But the expression on her face upset me more.
“I should know this, it was…”
“Chongula Thaumaturgical Academy, Hilde. That’s what it was. And the reason you don’t know that is because I robbed you of that memory when the duel finished.”
“Maybe folks just forget their alma mater sometimes. It’s no big deal.” The tone in her voice indicated it was a big deal. But she kept going. “What was your father’s name?”
Well that was definitely a thing that I knew. Definitely. But the way she phrased it was suspect. “W-was, Mistress? Is he dead?”
Mistress’ face was ashen. “I’m so sorry, Hilde.”
“We c-can hold a funeral, Mistress, if you…want to…”
Something about that shocked her. Something put a disheartening sadness in her expression, staggered her breathing; my mind went into red alert to figure out how to fix it. “L-let’s go home, Hilde, and we’ll d-discuss this there.” Mistress stood up quickly, and I followed, but as she turned around…
“Leaving when I was just about to introduce myself?” It was a gravelly voice. Henri looked down at Lisette with a crooked smile. Unconcerned with the fact that she was on the verge of tears.
“We’re needing to get back, Mr. Ironbolt,” I said, stepping up.
“Hilde? Gods, Lev was right. What did she do to you?” Lisette tried to move past but he blocked her. “A top rank magus comes into my place of business and doesn’t even offer me a challenge.” He beared down on her. “That almost hurts my feelings.”
“Leave her alone,” I said with whatever menace I could muster.
“What the hell are you gonna do? She’s made you a shadow of your former self. Surely you wouldn’t mind me knocking her down a peg to honor your memory.”
Stepping out from behind her master, the succubus gave me a curious look with heavily lidded eyes.
“Your bar will be destroyed if we duel in here,” Mistress warned. The peanut gallery had taken notice of the altercation, and were gradually stumbling over.
“That’s why we’re going outside,” Ironbolt growled. With that, he unceremoniously hefted Mistress up by her lapel.
He was manhandling Mistress. He was…How Fucking Dare He!
With a gasp, I launched myself into her assailant, but a backhand sent me flying aside. One of the local toughs wrapped his greasy arms around me, making it my turn to uselessly thrash about while Ironbolt dragged Mistress through the back door. My captor and several other patrons filed eagerly behind.
We came out to an alley that definitely didn’t have the space to facilitate a duel. Ironbolt, however, had an answer for that. After tossing Mistress on the ground — somehow, I was going to murder that man — he snapped his fingers, and space distorted, a circle forming on cobblestone in an area now wide enough to hold it.
“You wanna duel? Fine! I’ll beat you and then we’re leaving!” Mistress had picked herself up and was now squaring off.
“That’s what I like to hear. Never gonna pass up a chance to beat a cocky school kid down.” Ironbolt stood with a domineering lean, raising a hand that arced electricity between the fingers.
“Let me go!” I demanded of my captor. “My place is in there with her!”
“No familiars,” Ironbolt said, and spat in my direction. “We keep this straightforward.”
By the time I was released, the ward had already risen. It was the probable reason for the fact I fell to the ground instead of keeping airborne like I’d expected. Once I was back on my feet, the duel had started.
Mistress had a ring of crystal spears bearing down on the man in an instant, but he conjured a whip of lightning that caught each and every one before they could make contact.
Keeping the momentum, the whip struck out in Lissy’s direction, but she was prepared, petals of ice catching and diverting the bolt until it dissipated. Those petals aligned in a bitter salvo that rained down upon her foe, but he took the attack with no more than a nod. Shimmering on his skin…a barrier like the one I had used.
Another stream of crystalline needles was sent at Ironbolt, but he sent a coursing arc along them that connected with Lisette, partially blocked but visibly effective. She retaliated with fissures racing along the ground, but Ironbolt needed only to sidestep them, holding his ground against what tremors did threaten him.
Then Mistress tried something I hadn’t seen her do before. Two platforms of crystal forming under her feet, Mistress skated forwards at a blistering speed. Ironbolt evaded but she redirected, and caught him in an uppercut delivered by a rocky gauntlet.
It had caught Ironbolt by surprise but he righted himself quickly. Two whips clashed with Mistress between, twin blows, equally direct. She was knocked back but stayed standing, and I saw that the shimmering had taken her skin as well. Keeping her earlier speed, Mistress zigzagged forward, her gauntlet now one of magma.
The fight became an out-and-out melee, the magi two deadly objects crashing against each other. Mistress flanked Ironbolt with more of her crystal sentries, dividing his attention to get some good hits in. But…
I could feel the blow even through the barrier. As if he was sending his whip up from the ground, Ironbolt sent it upwards, sending Mistress flying. She collapsed just short of the boundary with a sickening thud.
“Get up, please get up…” Ironbolt coiled his lightning as he advanced. Mistress was struggling to her feet, all too slowly. Not far from me, his familiar was watching, rapt.
Mistress was upright, but Ironbolt charged. One lash struck her across the chest — I groaned — but she stayed standing. Ironbolt was almost upon her, the only thing in his way being seven colored bodies which stepped forward, overlapping; Ironbolt passed through all of them and I finally could justify something resembling a knowing grin. He reached her, but his whip was gone, and her outstretched arm held him in place. Encasing her foot in crystal, she drop kicked the fucker, sending him back, and down, and on the ground. And he didn’t get back up.
The circle vanished with Ironbolt no longer able to sustain it, leaving two battered mages mere feet from the crowd. Mistress had a fierce glint in her eye, and was standing but shaky; nothing could keep me from her any longer. I helped her stay upright by taking her in my arms. Nearby the succubus was at her own master’s side, kneeling down next to him, quietly weeping.
“Hilde…lesget zefugoutta here,” Mistress slurred, and I wasn’t about to disagree. Turning to go back the way we’d come, a passing glare at the sea of drunks was enough to get them to part. The pub was silent as we passed through, and I shelved my idea for a nice dinner, instead taking Mistress straight home.