“Naphtali, 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.”
Had his heart stopped? No, no, it was racing. He was going to die, he was going to fucking die. He hadn’t expected a challenge, not so soon, not when there were plenty of more powerful apprentices for the ambitious to challenge and magus-bait for the cowards. His first instinct was to punch Asher, but that was a bad idea, Asher would own him soon and he would… What would he do? Naf didn’t know and Naf didn’t want to know. Naf wanted to throw up.
“What the actual fuck! Why didn’t you choose someone who at least had a chance at beating you? Don’t you want a powerful familiar and all that bullshit?”
“Naf, I can explain, look can we talk privately for a moment?”
“Fuck you! You’ll be able to talk to me all you want once you’ve remade me in whatever twisted image you’ve chosen!”
Naf ran, holding back his tears till he got to his room.
The first thing Naphtali had noticed about Asher was his eyes. Asher always looked like he was on the verge of tears or had just been crying. He tried to mask that with an illusion, but Naf was good at seeing through those; the rest of his face was schooled to impassivity. The second thing Naphtali had noticed about Asher was the thing everyone noticed about Asher: he was insanely powerful.
Asher seemed to have limitless reserves of power, and he knew how to use them. By the end of the first month of his first year, it was a given that no one would challenge him when he entered his third year. People mostly avoided him, likely in the hope that he wouldn’t remember they existed when it came time to choose his familiar. But Naf hadn’t avoided Asher. Because the third thing Naphtali had noticed about Asher, and that no one else seemed to have realized, was that he was hot as fuck.
Not that Naf had ever tried to seduce Asher, but he found the other man too attractive to avoid; it had been easier to explain why he was constantly looking at him if they had a conversation, and Naf enjoyed those conversations.
Alone in his room, Naf tried to work out where he’d gone wrong. He’d thought Asher liked him, he’d thought Asher would challenge someone stronger than him, he’d thought that he had a crush on the bastard. Naf didn’t like Asher anymore, though. Sure, he was hot, but apparently he was also a snake in the grass, willing to turn on his only friend for… but why? Naphtali was reasonably strong, but Asher could have challenged—and easily beaten—a much stronger apprentice. Beating a stronger apprentice meant a stronger familiar, meant a stronger magus. And yet…
A knock on his door.
“Naf, please let me in,” Asher’s voice, pleading.
“Fuck off and die!”
“Don’t you get it, that’s the point!”
His door opened, Asher must have broken the locking spell, and Asher walked in.
“Will you let me explain?”
“It’s not like I can stop you.” His voice was dull, listless.
“I’ve never talked about my family, have you noticed?”
Naf couldn’t give a flying fuck about Asher’s family right now, but back when he’d thought Asher was worth caring about he had noticed that.
“When I was three, my oldest sister went to Sinslar. She’s a familiar now. When I was ten my oldest brother was sent, he’s also a familiar. I have, had, five older siblings. Each and every one of them went to Sinslar and each and every one of them is a familiar.
“I read all of the letters. When I was five I didn’t really distinguish between ‘Serena isn’t home anymore’ and ‘Serena doesn’t exist anymore.’ By the time it happened to Dorian… but even then I didn’t understand. I remember the first time I watched a duel, I don’t think we were friends yet, and watching the loser just fade away from existence… and it wasn’t Dorian or Serena or Jessica or any of them but… but it was. That had had happened to them. They had existed and then… then they didn’t, then they were nothing and no one and no one but me and our parents would even know what had been lost; no one cared about the person a familiar had been.
“But of course, that wasn’t going to be me. I’d assumed it would be, had dreaded my death but also accepted it, or thought I had but… I’m actually good at magic. I’m really good at it. At the end of my first month I realized there was no chance I was going the way of my siblings, no way I would be free of the pain. And I’d have to do it to someone else, too.
“They won’t let you kill yourself here, did you know that? They don’t want to risk having an odd number of students. That was my plan when I first understood my fate wasn’t death in the ritual. Didn’t work. Not the first time, not the twelfth. I gave up.”
Naf stared. Somehow, this was worse. This was so much worse. Being stabbed in the back by his best friend had been horrific, had nearly broken him, but now… “You want to lose.” And he would. Naf didn’t want to kill Asher any longer, although the rage and adrenaline still coursed through his body, but he was damned if he was going to die. The prospect… well, he had been prepared to do this, but not to Asher, not to someone he liked. And he’d also been prepared for the possibility of losing, of a struggle to the death that was kill-or-be-killed. He wasn’t going to lose. Except he was. He would lose everything; he would lose nothing.
“And there’s no one I’d rather lose to than you.”
Naphtali arrived at the ring first and sat down, legs crossed. Asher entered an eternity later and lay down with his head in Naf’s lap.
“Look at me, Asher, this is going to be all right.”
Naf looked back at Asher, his own eyes reflected in his opponent’s. “It’s all been so hard for you, so much pain, and now… I’m going to take it away from you.”
Asher smiled. “I’m ready, take me.”
Naf began to drain Asher’s mana, to take away his ability to fight the ritual. He felt Asher push back. Had Asher changed his mind? Had this all been a trick?
“No, don’t stop. It hurts but… but it’s okay, I still want this.”
“Okay, just breathe, try to relax, it should hurt less that way.”
A minute passed in silence, their eyes locked together, the room around them forgotten. “I wish you hadn’t done this, but… thank you for choosing me.”
“You’ll take care of… but it won’t be me, will it?”
“No, I’m going to remake you, you’ll be free. Just… can I have one favor before you go?”
“Can I kiss you? While you’re still you, I mean.”
Asher nodded. “I’ll need your help to sit up, I’m weak.”
“Come here, hold on let’s get you up.”
The kiss was light, a brush of the lips, a brief taste. Then Asher’s body began to shake.
“Naf, I’m scared.” But it was too late, the ritual had taken hold and neither could back out if they wanted to.
“Shh, don’t fight it, let it wash over you. I’m here, I’m with you.” Asher didn’t resist, he gave Naf what Naf didn’t want but had to take. Asher screamed as his body began to change and shrink, taking on a form better suited to his new existence, for what Naf wanted from him, for what Naf could give to him.
Naphtali didn’t know exactly what that shape would be, but the ritual understood some of his own thoughts, of the need for symbolism. This was a binding, but it was also liberation. It wasn’t total surrender because Asher wasn’t surrendering anything he wanted, because Naf wasn’t gaining anything he wanted.
Naf was a fire raging through Asher’s mind. Burning away pain, grief, and—as the ritual got stronger—Asher’s sense of self. He continued to speak softly, soothingly, to Asher as he burned away everything that forced Asher to suffer, everything that made him want to die.
fledermaus was calm. he was also confused; he had woken up with someone’s, with his Master’s, hands around him, his voice quiet, the incomprehensible words for fledermaus’s ears alone. fledermaus tentatively flapped his wings and was filled with joy. he was going to fly! Flight was the great joy his Master gave him, freedom from all the burdens he suddenly knew—and then forgot—Master carried. Master was sobbing as he watched fledermaus take flight, crying for something fledermaus would never know or need to know.
he noticed the people in the stands around himself and Master. They were silent, perhaps confused? But fledermaus shook off this inquiry; he only needed to worry about Master. he alighted on Master’s outstretched arm and hung down from it. “Are you okay?” his Master asked, “Is knowing language all right? I can take that back if it’s too much.”
fledermaus shook; he didn’t like knowing language. Language was just something that separated him from his ecstatic union with Master, an unneeded barrier. Master spoke again, but fledermaus didn’t understand. he squeaked with the bliss of ignorance and took flight. Master smiled, Master smiled and fledermaus let out another squeak of joy.
The fire of Naf’s presence continue to burn through fledermaus. Maybe someday he would reintroduce fledermaus to knowledge, but right now fledermaus needed to be free of everything that had held him down. Naf would never know the bliss he could give his familiar, would never know the perfect freedom of existence without thought getting in the way. But he was glad he could give it to his friend who had needed the release so badly.
As tears rolled down his cheeks, Naf watched fledermaus fly higher and higher until he would forget everything, even his own existence, and only flight and his Master would remain.