“Carenia, you’ve hardly eaten anything. You should eat, you’ll need your strength for the transformation.”
I prodded the now cold strips of chicken and vegetables that lay soggy on my plate, turned a piece of carrot over three times and then placed my fork down and pushed the tray away from me.
“I’m not hungry,” I retorted.
“Carenia, please.” “They say the familiar transformation is one of the most painful things a person can experience. I can’t watch a friend go into that on an empty stomach.”
“You’re presuming I’ll lose.”
“Of course you’ll lose! Girl, you’ve been taking familiar classes for three years, you know what they call you right?” I raised my eyebrows questioningly to show I didn’t. “Familiar Bait.”
“Right! Because I’m so weak that even a familiar could overpower me, is that right?”
“I didn’t mean any offence, but everyone knows you’ve been bottom ranked since your enrolment. You should consider the agreement we talked about earlier; Aaron is a little odd around the edges, but he’s a good man, he’s promised he’d treat you fairly.”
“I am not a slave!”
“Hun! Look around you! I count at least 20, no, 30 sharks eyeing you, waiting for that clock to hit 12. With a body like yours… I don’t want to imagine what they’d do to you.”
“Axyl, you’re a good friend, but you sure do put a downer on everything. You don’t have to worry about that, I already have someone in mind for who I plan on challenging.”
“I can’t say, if people find out before I’m ready it would make my entire life’s purpose meaningless.”
“That’s a bit dramatic don’t you think?”
“Coming from your perspective, I suppose it is.” I looked at the clock, 9 minutes left until the ceremony began. “You should go and find Samantha. Treat her well, okay? She’s really timid but everyone knows she’s liked you for the longest time.”
“I will. I hope we meet again Carenia.”
The two of us embraced in a hug, tears flowing freely from Axyl. She left reluctantly and waved one final time before departing to find her familiar to be, leaving me alone in shark-infested waters.
I surveyed my surroundings. I wasn’t sure how they did it in other schools, but I always felt Alune was a practical person. I had heard that come the 3rd year other schools threw their students to the wind; where anyone could challenge anyone over the course of the entire year, but here was different. Students were forbidden from issuing challenges in the second year and so everyone was fair game. Come the 3rd year, students would be given half a year to settle accounts, prepare themselves for the ritual and await orientation, which just so happened to be today. Come 12 o’clock challenges could be issued and it was mandatory to accept the first challenge issued to you. This made for some interesting politics within the academy. Individuals tended to find themselves in one of three groups; Unions, Independents and Bonded. Independents are self-explanatory, it was for any individual who didn’t want to align themselves with a system, I.E, me. Bonded was a term for those that had already agreed to familiar contracts in all but practice, such as Axyl and Samantha, and then there were unions. Unions were a collection of people with a shared interest. Normally they would have a central power, usually amongst the top 10 rankings and then a few other key individuals to consolidate said power. Lower rankings could join for “protection”, but often had to give up something in return. Interestingly, it wasn’t uncommon for unions to fight each other leading up to orientation day, and you’d often see individuals being passed around like they were some form of commodity. I’d go on, but honestly, the politics surrounding unions could be a story in and of its own and it’s not mine to tell.
In this large hall unions often took the more extravagant areas, the place with high rises, comfortable chairs, that type of thing. Independents tended to find themselves in the mess hall as it was easier to declare challenges with everyone being in close proximity to each other and the bonded. Well, for what it’s worth Alune did appear to have some heart; they were given special rooms to formalise last-minute dealings before they issued their challenge in private, confident no one could intervene.
2 minutes left.
I scanned the room one final time and stood up and started making my way across the room in a manner that did not indicate where I was heading. I wasn’t oblivious to the less than subtle manoeuvres of the people following a distance behind.
At the highest point in the hall were 'Alune’s angels'. This union consisting of only girls was founded around Alune, not to be confused with the saint and founder of this university. Seriously, the upper nobility had no taste for names. No, this Alune was our class’s rank number 1, a prodigy amongst prodigies. Hers was a talent 10 generations in the making and everyone knew it. At her table sat rank number 3, rank number 5, 7, 9, 10, 11 and around 30 or 40 other girls of lesser ranks. You can probably see that this was a very strong union and so the gap between their table and the rest of the hall wasn’t that surprising. Once upon a time, I had been encouraged to join this union, on the basis, that no one would challenge someone from a union if the rank number 1 was sitting so close and could counter challenge you at any time. This allowed her ‘angels’ as she called them, more power in negotiations than they would probably normally have. Being the weakest of the weak, yeah, it didn’t take them long to seek me out, I gave them the middle finger and sent them on their way.
Supposedly the first minute or two was always a standstill, with no one wanting to be the first to issue a challenge in case they showed weakness and found themselves on the wrong end of the ritual. This was good, it would give me the smallest amount of breathing room; it would be enough.
I rounded a table and sprinted towards the union.
I hopped over another table, kicking food as I went and eliciting confused noises from my surrounding company.
I reached the stairs and paced up them 3 at a time.
“Alune Mavis! I challenge you, under the watchful eye of Sinslar and the sanctity of the Circle, to the Duel of the Binding of Souls. May the worthy mage win, and claim the other as Familiar.”
The room went silent.
No one moved, some barely breathed. Everyone and anyone were looking in my direction. Some laughed thinking it was a joke, others, more intelligent, realised the situation and started making changes to their plans, intending to capitalize on this opportunity.
The table was the first to stir. Some of the higher-ranked girls, detecting the weakness that had just unfolded rushed to claim other girls at the table, presumably their favourites, with the intent of keeping them safe? Others were left to defend themselves and oh my did the sharks come. The room was in chaos. I took pride in knowing I had effectively broken 6 months to 2 years of preparation for this event in a span of seconds. In less than 5 minutes, it was over. Some students were wearing the biggest grins on their faces, confident in their position, others, such as rank number 57 were crying, knowing their life was over.
Alune looked at me hard. She took in the tears of her ‘angels’ and moved to comfort them along with others from her pact. I stood there taking it all in, waiting to get on with the ritual that would take place this afternoon. After another 10 minutes, Alune approached me, murder in her eyes.
“You’ll regret that! There isn’t a force available to you that can prepare you for the hell I will put you through. Be ready.”
And with that, she left the room as everyone hurried to get out of her way.