The world had changed since the Mage Wars had devastated the world, causing the Rifting. Since Sinsilar had instituted the Mage Duel, forcing the Conclave to accept it, or face the combined armies of the non-mage populace. Since that time, schools of magic, Academies, had sprung up, each positioned on a ley line confluence, each warded many times over. Students were accepted based on magical ability, rather than aptitude, and the Mage Duel was now the final exam. And a simple exam it was. Two students entered the Circle, challenger and challenged. One Magus walked out....the loser now their familiar. A being of magic, a non-person, bound to the Magus forever, their magic now belonging to their owner, able to boost and help their Magus. Their knowledge now a gift to their Magus. Their previous hopes and dreams now gone forever, vanished like mist in the morning sun. Parents would abandon children who were magical, or keep them at arms length. After all, better to not have ones heart broken in loving a child who very well may no longer exist in a few years. But there was a catch, since the most successful pairing was when the familiar actively supported and helped their Magus of their own will, rather than being forced. Like an unwilling horse refusing to pull a carriage, a familiar could be “whipped” into performing but it would never match the level of a willing familiar. Many magus decided it was better to cultivate a relationship at some point, rather than compel the unwilling. And with the familiars body mutable, their appearance changing at the whim of their Magii, each familiar was an expression of the needs and wants of their Magus.
First years were protected from the Duel, Second years able to Challenge with restrictions, and Third Years...Third Years looked at their former classmates with hunger or fear, depending on their strengths. The ranking system was based on classes and mock duels, and shifts happened faster than a drunk teenager made bad decisions. Unable to leave school grounds unless accompanied by a teacher, unable to refuse a Challenge, all Apprentices lived knowing that there was a good chance their lives would end before it began. Apprentices sized up their competition the first moment of the first day of the First Year, and it wasn't uncommon for multiple Duels on the first day of Third year. It also wasn't uncommon for an Apprentice to single out one person, stalk them, and then deliver a challenge.
It was a sunny day as I looked around, hiding in the shadows until I saw the Apprentice I was hunting. A Healer, the weakest class of magic there was, I knew Solona Whisperwind had overall strength, but was a pushover otherwise. Healing wasn't blasting, and I had gained reknown in our class as a blaster. Specialized in Air and Fire, I also had a small gift for enchanting, for artifice. I’d even made my own focus at an earlier age than most. Making sure there was nobody to interfere, I walked out, and smiled.
"Solona, I challenge you, in the sight of Blessed Sinsilar 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." And felt the hook of the Challenge sink into me.
Walking through one of the smaller courtyards toward a mostly unused academy side gate. Constantly hitching the overloaded pack up, due to the worn left strap. Lost in thought.
One more treatment for Goody Dalin’s son, Ernst. I’ll have to finish removing the abscess scaring.
Now did I pack enough for this time? We’ll hit Vulco just after lunch and setup there. If there aren’t many, then we head onto Chongula and stay there a couple of nights. Always a crowd there. Then off to the smaller villages on the circuit: Truxta, Grox, Bager and Dongsan, and then back through Chongula to here.
Glancing around at a few people passing through. Most concentrating on where they’re going. Until I heard words I was dreading.
More startled than angry. “Now? You know I’m leaving? We’re to go. . .” As I feel the bite of the magic as it hooks and locks in place.” Shuddering.
A deep breath later, I drop the pack and fully face Lara’lia. “Now? You couldn’t have waited a week!”
I smiled at Solana. "Solana...Solana. Why waste time? I figured that I'd just be saving you a whole lot of hiding, and myself aggravation. And no, I couldn't have waited. There's some other students who are staking out the other entrances...and not for anything, they'd be far worse than I."
Walking forward, I take a deep breath, harnessing my power. "So....which Circle do you want to use? I…I know that you dislike crowds, or people watching you. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable”, I said softly. “There's the one over by Evons Hut, that ones rarely used. So nobody can see you become my familiar. I promise not to erase you, or change you....much. Just give in, and make it easier on yourself."
Tilting my head back to meet Lara’lia’s eyes. “No.”
Swinging the pack back over my shoulder, I spoke to her. “I’m supposed to be meeting Mistress Woltman at the east side gate. And she’ll have my hide if I don’t tell her why her Apprentice Healer for this trip isn’t going.”
Zut, zut, zut.
Starting to walk toward the gate, again.
How do I beat her? She sends blasts out faster than an archer! If I could only touch her. Zut, she knows that that though. She’d just have to avoid me in the circle.
Looking back at Lara’lai. Easy enough to do with those legs. Sighing, Although she probably won’t need to.
"The East Gate? I saw Dewal standing there, waiting for you. But you're in luck, since I found you first. That thug would simply issue his Challenge, then have his bully boys beat you until you accepted and then threw you in the Circle. And Woltman....", I said slowly, thinking. "I like that. You're determined. Strong. You'll make a good familiar for me, Solana. And I'll be good for you."
Any other day, it would seemed odd to be standing and discussing the Ritual, the enslavement and de-personing of the Other. But this was no ordinary day. From one of the other Circles across Campus came a scream of horror and a blast of magic, a thump that we both felt and heard. A Duel, ending as one life ended and another truly began.
"Not a problem. I"ll be at that Circle, whenever you're ready. Unless.....unless you want the more public one by the Square. Not that it matters, but I wanted to spare you that, since I know you hate attention." I shook out my focii, the bracelet with its attached rings that I'd created and enchanted myself.
"See you soon."
Snapping my head forward. I quicken my pace out of the courtyard.
Twice, thrice! More I was stopped. After the third, I roll my sleeve above my shoulder and flash the challenge brand at any that approached. They could add it, but I didn’t have to accept any and in the end, only Lara’lias would be valid.
Mistress Woltman, stoof stiffly by the cart. Sighing, I turned my arm to show her the challenge.
“I see. Since you’re here though, are you planning on joining me for the next two days? Do a bit of good before it all happens. Healing others may calm you, at least until you can no longer worry.”
Speechless, slowly blinking. “Wait, you don’t even know who challenged me.”
Slightly nodding, Woltman asked, “True. But you’re a primary healer dear. Some just aren’t meant to fight. Tell me, who issued the challenge? I may have a spot for them next trip.”
Eyes gleaming, Mistress Woltman stated, “Oh! She shows great promise. When I return, I’ll speak with her. See if she wants to join me. At least you’d not be cooped up all the time.”
Coming to a quick decision, I didn't give her my prepared healing supplies. I nodded at her. “I’ll not be speaking to you again, Mistress Woltman. Good day.”
Turning on my heel, I headed back across campus.
I watched as Solana left, and knew that other people would be trying to get her to accept their Challenge. Spellsharks, we called them. I guess that I was one, but I didn’t see it as that. I simply wanted someone that I could respect, and who had a skillset that was different from my own. Spellsharks were ones who were powerful, but perhaps not as powerful as the top-tier. They were used to picking on the lowest tier, the magus-bait. Even the apprentices who'd made a deal with some other rich apprentice, their families to get paid or some other boon in return for their own lives.
Smiling, I hummed as I walked to the Circle I'd intended on using, and then thought about it. Perhaps....Hmmmm. Changing my mind, I walked to the big Circle, a crowd still there, talking animatedly as a newly minted Magus walked out, leading what looked like a deer-centaur woman out by a leash. Cedric. He'd bought Ewunid's life and magic at the beginning of Second year, the gold paid to his family considerable enough. Well...her family now. Her former family. "Shhh, it's ok, darling", he said to her with a smile as she blinked, tottering on four legs. "it's an adjustment...but we have time now. And you're going to have the time to adjust, my Familiar."
Glaring at anyone that walked near me, I simply showed off the Brand, and waited. She had two days, before the Brand activated and dumped her here, inside the Circle with me and activated it, even if she didn't accept. All I needed to do now was be patient, and I could do that.
Almost in a daze as I headed back to my room, I heared others calling out. Ignoring them all, I continued. Until I felt a hand drop on my shoulder. They’d come up on my right, the arm opposite the brand. They spun me to face them.
Dewal, wearing a smug look and backed up by two of his lackeys.
Grimacing, half step back, balance my weight, arm back, swing from the hip.
Dewal, “Solona, I cha. . .”
Dewal’s jaw snapped shut.
A light pulse of magic <bone fuse>. I know teeth aren’t bone, but it’ll be enough to shut him up; maybe all week.
I stepped back and GLARED at his two lackies. “I’ve already been challenged.” Showing off the brand.
Some incoherent ranting emerged from Dewal. I step to his side and kicked the back of his knee, causing him to go down.
I watch as Dewal tried to stumble up while simultaneously using both hands to attempt to pry his jaw open. Smirking at the two lackies, “If you break his teeth, otherwise . . . ” Half shrug, and I hurried away before they come to their senses.
Zut. I know I could beat her in a fight, well a purely physical one.
Rerolling my sleeve so the brand is visible, I headed to the main Circle. Maybe it isn’t as large as I remember. Couldn’t hurt to check.