Sarah Elvres was a feared, powerful apprentice. All her life, as far back as she could remember, she had been feared, or loathed, or coveted, for her raw magical talent. Control had never come easily to her- magic scorned her each time she tried to direct it with any finesse. Her temper, it was known by all, had a short fuse. She had broken windows and chipped stones off of walls at her noble family's abode, with her bare hands. The youngest of seven, a bastard, an accident, a wild animal. The woman had no mother, and whatever poor peasant had given birth to her would assuredly run at the sight of her. She was a third year at a prestigious academy, which meant the coin flip of destiny hung every day over her head.
Rumors said that six times when she was younger, her father had tried to arrange a familiar for her, and five times the other apprentice had run away from home in fear of her. The sixth had told her what a sacrifice it was to be hers, so she snapped their legs like toothpicks and threw them down a flight of stairs. It had been ruled an accident, of course; they were from a poor family, and their family was compensated just as they'd have been otherwise. After that incident, her father gave up and sent her to school without a care about what happened to her…or so the rumors went.
Sarah emerged from her room and walked to the mess hall. The usual suspects followed her from a distance- curious magi, familiar-bait, and the odd student of cruelty looking for barbs to insult her with later. She ignored them as best she could. The looming threat of becoming her familiar had warded them off earlier in the year, but with her duel on the horizon and her motives known by the public it was rendered toothless. If she wasted it in on some random wannabe tyrant, then...she would be lost. The only person who had ever shown her kindness.
Sarah entered the mess hall. A girl named Lina, Sarah's familiar-to-be, dashed across the room and threw her arms around her. There was snickering from all across the room. Sadists, one and all, their tongues drunk on the taste of another's tragedy. No matter. She would subjugate Lina quickly, and painlessly if she could, and deny these slavering animals their treat. Perhaps she could blast through the ritual circle's walls and give a few of them second degree burns while she was at it.
It wasn't her fault if they were stupid enough to stand that close.
"Single-Spell Sarah," she'd been called in her first year. The number of spells she knew had never been impressive, and her stamina was lacking, but the sheer power she could put out in a single cast had forced her peers to begrudgingly respect her.
"I was worried you'd be late," Lina purred. Her voice held within itself an easy confidence that Sarah knew was entirely fabricated. Lina was weak, and her areas of specialization were scattershot, and few of them were of direct use in combat. The only reasons she hadn't been claimed were that the stronger apprentices had plans of their own, or didn't want Sarah to ambush them and shatter their wrists on the way to the battle, and both girls knew it. Lina, nevertheless, still had a convincing air of self-assuredness about her. Perhaps she had some trick up her sleeve that she thought would save her? Sarah could only assume that she did. It was only fair, though, because otherwise the coming conflict would be a one-sided bloodbath and nothing else.
"And risk someone else taking you? Hardly." The two girls each grabbed a light breakfast and sat down together. Sarah heard a boy laughing on the other side of the room. They had been a nuisance to the two girls all year, and seemed intent on carrying it on to the last chance they got.
"Nobody would want me," Lina grumbled and ate a salad. Sarah grunted and downed some dried fruit and meat. "I'm weak, and my family is practically broke in disgrace." The weight of expectations, already failed, ripped into each word of Lina's speech. "If I were powerful, perhaps I could take someone from a richer family, and accept a dowry."
"Pah! Family," growled Sarah. What a pathetic idea. It had failed her, and failed Lina, and it would fail everyone who leaned on it, now and tomorrow and the next day, and on the next day after that as well, in sequence forwards forever for all time. Mages were born alone and mages died alone, and the only purpose of forming bonds was to lie to yourself saying otherwise until you started to believe it. "Fuck family. What have your parents ever done for you, that you should feel so indebted for?" Lina averted her eyes. A feeling of guilt stabbed Sarah's gut, compelling her to change topics and comfort her friend. "Sorry. I'm just-stressed, y'know? Only…"
"Two hours, yeah. I know. It's weighing on me, too." Both girls spared a moment to look at the big clockwork clock that hung over the entrance to the mess hall. "We'll make it."
"We'll?" Sarah rolled her eyes. "Only one of us is making it through this, remember? Like I told you, you've made a terrible mistake."
"I remember," Lina stated indignantly. "Of course I remember. Obviously. But some familiars retain their sense of self and stuff. L-like, you know,"
"Like Kren is," Sarah finished saying for her. Kren was the first of their year to become a familiar, and they had done so before the first week was up. Sarah's beautiful eyes rolled and pointed themselves out the window. What thoughts were dancing behind those beautiful eyes of hers?
"Sweetie," Sarah grumbled. "I can't just...let you beat me. But I'll take good care of you, I promise." Was it guilt in her voice? Sadness? It was hard for Lina to tell but she knew it wasn't anger, contrary to what the school's countless waggling tongues would lead a listener to believe. She saw that dance of painful feelings almost every day that they spoke to one another...but soon she never would again. Nobody ever would, in fact, and Sarah wouldn't have to feel it either. She'd make sure of that.
As their conversation drifted elsewhere, Sarah internally reviewed her plan. What would be Sarah's secret weapon in any other contest- the one art that was well and truly her own, her ability to lace her speech with magic- she likely wouldn't employ. She said herself that she hated using it during a fight with someone, not even for verbal ones, and she probably wouldn't want to use it to win something with stakes this high. This left her with the tools that everyone else thought were all she had:
Fire, lightning, stone, even manipulating explosions or raw kinetic energy, any kind of magic which relied on overwhelming power more than skill she excelled in. She lacked restraint or skill, but what did that matter when your target had nowhere to dodge to?
Lina had practiced defensive magic. Stone pillars for shields, counterspells, a ward or two which could refract magical energy to take the brunt off of an attack. But she had...seen Sarah properly enraged. None of these parlour tricks would stand a chance against Sarah's raw destructive might. If Lina tried to dig her heels in and block, she'd be destroyed in a single cast, just like all the second years who Sarah had punished for bullying her.
That...that was a strong memory. Sarah, panting, staring off into the ruined field and over a smoking crater where three of her bullies were laid out cold. Or the time three other apprentices were jeering at her for pronouncing a spell wrong when Sarah told them off. Or when that one time last year when a second year joked about trying to take her and insulted her, and Sarah had challenged them to a mock duel over it and made them cry in pain.
Lina stared longingly at Sarah. She was the prince Lina had always wanted growing up, proud and brave and protective. She had a strong sense of honor- dulled some by the lifetime of trauma, of course, but it persisted regardless. Lina...wanted Sarah. She wanted Sarah to be herself, but also to be happy.
"You're still making a mistake," Sarah grumbled. "I'm going to be a terrible owner. I can't believe you'd actually risk...you know. But…" a sigh. "Thank you. For putting up with me, these past three years. For sticking with me in...spite of everything."
"I've never seen you angry without a good cause," Lina insisted as she always had and always would. "You never get angry at someone who doesn't deserve it, or take it out on the wrong people, and...I think that's really cool." For a moment, Sarah's mask cracked. She looked...sad, weak, vulnerable. She had likely never let another human being see her that way in her life.
Then she forced the mask back together.
"You wanna take a walk to the circle? Take the scenic route, one last time…? For old times' sake?"
It was with a heavy heart that Sarah stepped into the ritual circle. First, second, and third years alike flocked to watch the dreaded Single Cast Sarah absolutely butcher one of the weakest mages of their year. Across from her, Lina did the same. The magic circle took effect. The two stared hesitantly into each other's eyes and drew their wands. Sarah's was a crude, gnarled thing, made of old oak and partially melted near the tip from the ruinous magic forced so many times through a choke point nowhere near sufficient to contain it. Lina's, by comparison, was a slender elegant thing made of seashells. Perhaps when she won, she could make Lina a mermaid like she'd always wanted to be. It wouldn't be worth the sacrifice, nor the companionship she now had to betray, but…
"I'll let you go first," said Lina. She smiled. Well...if she insisted.
Sarah raised her wand and less recited than roared an incantation. Magic swamped through her body, down her arm, it was like her flesh was bulging from the sheer volume of energy, a molten sphere formed around her wand's tip, Sarah shrieked! Lava sprayed from the tip of her wand. Lina vanished amidst the neon yellows and oranges of the assault. When the spray was over and the duel very much wasn't, Sarah frowned. Illusions or teleportation, it seemed. Her friend's trump card was one or the other.
She heard Lina's footsteps and pivoted to face them. A weak bolt of electricity struck at her but she turned it aside with a deft flick of her wand. Muttered incantations set her entire body aglow with bright blue energy as she pointed at her friend.
LIGHTNING surged straight through Lina and impacted the wall of the duel, where it billowed and screamed and danced into a giant expanding cloud of plasma. Sarah's second spell ended. Impressed cheers from the outside told her that her watchers were thoroughly entertained. She was an animal in a pit, and her friend a pit fighter fed to her for their viewing pleasure.
It was enough to make her sick.
Lina ran up to her. Sarah countered with a blast of concussive force strong enough to rip a tree from its roots. Lina was not there, and a second later neither was the ground, which instead lay in a heap against the barrier.
At this point Sarah's head was starting to hurt. Other mages got tired when their mana ran low; she started to feel pain.
Lina was reciting a spell. Srarah thrust her wand in the direction of the sound and roared some magic words. The ground in front of Lina sparked bright red and then an explosion like a bomb tore the ground from the earth and made a crater a two feet across and four deep. Smoke billowed from its center and the barrier cracked and whistled. Some of the first years cowered behind professors or trees. As if that would save them.
Lina was in three places at once, all behind her. Illusions it was. Focusing her will along the edge of her wand, Sarah forced into being a plane of magic energy some nine feet long. It was the most complex spell she'd ever mastered before this year. She swung wildly and cleaved all three of the approaching Linas in half. The plane faded. Her breaths heaved.
Her mana was low. Low by her standards anyway, with how bad she was at rationing it. Her head pounded from spending so much of it so fast. She stumbled from side to side. Staying up was a struggle. She breathed. Grounded herself.
"Hey. Sarah." Lina was standing in front of her. Ten feet away. Judging by her face, she was tired too. "That just now...it was impressive."
"I won't…" panted Sarah, "...lose." fighting and hurting people was all she'd ever been good at! She raised her wand and pointed it at Lina. Her breathing was ragged now.
"Sarah…" Lina swallowed. She stared at Sarah. "Remember the day before I issued this challenge? You called yourself a wild animal."
"Yes," Sarah growled. "And?"
"Well I just-" Lina paused. "I refuse to let that slide. You're so protective, and when you get angry it's always at terrible people! You have a RIGHT to be angry, and I've seen you do wonderful things with it!"
"..." part of Sarah wanted to listen. To be seduced by Lina's pretty words, and step out of the ring, and let herself be robbed of all the self doubt. Lina would probably make a decent owner, after all. But. "No."
Sarah closed her eyes, closed her mind, closed her heart. She could feel something in front of her: a living body, a breathing heart. She let her anger come flooding back.
Fire burned her mind. Fire engulfed her stomach.
She was angry at her mother for abandoning her.
Angry at her father for impregnating someone with her.
Angry at her siblings for ignoring her when she was small and scared.
Angry at Lina for challenging her to this duel.
Angry at the fucking world for this cruel, awful system.
Angry at this ring of vultures watching her kill her friend.
Angry at HERSELF, for KILLING HER FRIEND.
Magic circles on magic circles on magic circles appeared, swirled, multiplied all around her. Light built up inside her until her hair pulsated gold and her veins looked like lava. Her eyes were monotone masses of sheer, soulless white light. The circles spun and moved into a line before her, like they were making a funnel. She stepped back. Pulled her wand against her like a fist getting ready to punch.
"Come on," said Sarah's opponent. "Show me all of it. I can take it."
No, thought Sarah, no you cant. At this point the wind was reacting to her, the sky was darkening, even the third years were getting scared. A part of Sarah thought she heard the professor telling them to hold onto something.
Sarah's adversary stepped forward. Once, twice. Closer. Sarah drew more and more magic into her body, resonated it with her anger to multiply it over and over and over. Her skin felt like it would peel apart trying to restrain her. Sarah was a bomb. That was all she had ever been, and it was all she could ever be, even as a familiar.
Her eyes snapped open with violent intent. She lunged forward and stabbed her wand violently through wave after wave after wave of concentric magic circles, all cracking with wild energy-
Lina caught her hand. Lina was weaker than her, so...why?
The magic which had coursed through Sarah's arm hung suspended like fluid stretching a container far beyond its fill. She had the perfect shot. All she had to do was...not even fire, but finish what she'd started, and the mere kinetic force of the blast would launch Lina clear out of bounds (since the magical barriers didn't affect people), forcing her to forfeit the ritual and making Sarah the winner.
But that didn't happen. She couldn't...do it. The moment, lost in a tidal wave of manufactured outrage, was lost. She couldn't bear the thought of hurting her precious Lina.
Lina stepped closer. Put her arms around Sarah.
"There," Lina whispered. "Let it out. I can take it."
The magic had to go somewhere.
Sarah screamed. Her body struggled to contain the inhuman amounts of magical energy ricocheting uncontrollably within it. Electrical sparks of power danced all about her skin, her hair, lashed at Lina and her clothes. Lina squeezed tight, and she whispered soft words of encouragement as she did.
"It'll be alright dear," she cooed, "Just let go." Sarah couldn't! She'd hurt Lina! Tears oozed from her face as her white hot regrets were replaced by icy blue regret, cold and wet and saturated with disgrace. She was going to hurt her friend. She was going to hurt the ONLY person who had EVER cared for her, the only one who had ever seen who she truly was and not recoiled in disgust or horror, the one person who had the most RIGHT to turn away from her, her precious gentle Lina, the girl she had just tried everything in her power not just to kill but to unmake,
"AAAAAAGH!" The magic ripped free of the last of Sarah's grip. It all billowed up to the surface and for a moment, everything was calm.
Then there was a deafening noise like a dozen bolts of lightning striking the same place at once, and a flash of light, and another deafening roar as power surged free, and the ground shattered and winds blasted out from the sight that sent onlookers sprawling. One blast after another exploded out of Sarah, billowing and pulsing with destructive magical might.
The professor planted a staff in the ground and tossed up wards around the students present. They would still be tossed about but they would be spared from serious injury.
One last burst of Sarah's final reserves shot out from her not as the primal explosions of wild fury but as a bright blue beam of noble light that shot straight up above them. It stood tall for a while and then faded away. What remained in the ruined crater was two figures. Lina stood tall, completely unharmed.
Sarah collapsed against her, her clothes tattered and her body burned.
Sarah retreated inwards. This was...the end. At the end of the day she simply couldn't do it. Lina was too precious to her. She would die now, even if something else would live on. Perhaps she could come to peace with that. Whatever Lina would turn her into, it would make her happy. And...that was enough, Sarah thought to herself in her last moments truly alive.
"It's gonna be okay," she could hear Lina whispering. She wanted desperately to cling to her, to cry and plead to be gentle, but she hadn't the strength left in her and besides, what RIGHT did she have, as the brute who had hurt so many people, to beg to be treated with kindness? Fear came and went in waves as her exhausted mind struggled to grapple with the finality of her imminently coming unwound. "I'm here, and now I will be forever."
Perhaps Lina could strip away her anger? Help her find peace. That wouldn't be so bad.
"You're a kind girl, Sarah. And you'll still be."
No, Sarah wanted to say, I am not kind, I am anything but kind, haven't you heard what people say about me? Sarah felt Lina...her presence, her essence, slowly reaching into her. The process was underway. Sarah knew it was best to embrace this finality- Lina would sculpt her in her own desires, and Sarah would happily accept it, not herself but whatever Lina saw fit to make her, and this one would vanish and perhaps it was for the best.
But she was still...so...scared.
"I wann...live…" she barely managed to say in a whimper what she was screaming inside. Tremors stretched weakly across her weary limbs.
"I know, darling, and you will, shhh, you must be so tired," cooed Lina in her ear. She clutched Sarah close. Sarah could feel Lina's soul inside her, it had found her, found her *essence*, and it was all over.
But...Lina didn't turn away in disgust. She didn't smash Sarah's ugly core to pieces to put back together. She...cradled it, lovingly.
"I'm honored to have a familiar as kind and noble as you," whispered Lina. "You were powerful, and hurting, but you only ever used it to hurt people who treated the weak poorly." She squeezed Sarah tight. Sarah struggled to reject the kind words but Lina's soul wouldn't let her. It was scary. It was terrifying. Lina KNEW, she could SEE clear as crystal that Sarah was a monster, a whirling mass of venom and teeth, so why...WHY. WHY!?
"Why….?" She croaked, tears flowing.
"Because I love you." The last of Sarah's defenses eroded. Lina's soul consumed her, but she wasn't erased. Her shame, her fear, her insecurities, all just...faded away. She was...good.
"You're going to be my guardian now, just like you have here," whispered Lina. "And not just me- all who are weak, you will be the strength that they were denied, because that's who you ARE, not a bomb, not a sword, but a shield, understand? A loyal companion." She ran her hand over Sarah's body. Sarah's wounds healed, and she grew a pair of fluffy dog ears and a similarly poofy tail. "You are mine now, Sarah. And I love you."