Shadow of the Thunderhead
“It doesn’t have to be like this!” Maeve shouted. She was yelling away from me of course, a side effect of my shrouding the circle in even more darkness than the middle of night left.
“Could’ve fooled me,” I spit back, stepping left to dodge the bolt of lightning sent my way. “You’re the one who issued the challenge!” I can’t become a Familiar. It’s not allowed.
“But you’re my friend, Cynth! I thought you’d give me a chance to explain!” I watch as she puts her hands to the ground, electricity sizzling along the cobblestone toward me. With a wave of my hand, I use solid shadows to sever the lightning from its source, merely jumping over the last little fizzle as it reaches me.
“What is there to explain?? You said you hate the thought of inflicting that on someone, but your best friend fucking deserves it?” I hear her grunt as shadows start to cover her right leg, but it dissipates instantly as more lightning arcs across it. Shadow magic was generally pretty useful in night time duels, but that usefulness tended to decrease when one’s opponent could turn themselves into a walking beacon.
“No– that’s not it, I promise!” She sends out a few wandering balls of electricity to act as floating sentries, and I internally groan at the tactic. Even if I manage to navigate around them without getting close enough to be shocked, if I pass between one of them and her, she can use that to pinpoint my movements, which decimates… most of my tactics. Not all, but most. “I really don’t want to do this either, but I don’t have a choice. I’m sorry.”
“You always have a choice!” I hiss, ducking the bolt sent my way. “You taught me that! You may not like your options, but you always. have. a choice!” I make a shadow construct in a rough facsimile of my head and shoulders and move it between Maeve and one of her lightning balls, only to watch her shred through the bust with another powerful bolt.
“I guess you’re right,” she sighs, more electricity arcing through the air around her, but not nearly enough to dispel the darkness. “This is just the option I dislike least. You’re–”
“So my feelings don’t matter?” I interrupt her, and this time the lightning strikes the cobblestone inches from my boot. “I thought we were friends!”
“No!” she shouts, “I’m doing this because of your feelings!” Part of me wants to listen to her, but the rest of me creates tendrils of shadow that rise from the ground around Maeve’s feet to try and bind her limbs. “I know you love me, which is why I thought this might hurt less for you! I can become a Magus with you as my familiar, that way we can stay together. You don’t have to lose to some other apprentice, taking a gamble on whether or not they’ll actually care for you. Let me–”
“Who says I’d lose?” I shoot back, my voice laced with only a little more venom than I mean it to be. “I know I’m not the best at dueling, but there must be some Magus-bait left I can claim for myself. We could’ve been Magi together, equals even!” With any luck, she’ll follow my lead and steer the conversation away from the fact I had a crush on her. I definitely did, but that didn’t mean I wanted to talk about it or anything.
“Please, you know I would have avoided this if I could,” Maeve says. “I checked the rankings board; there’s a dozen apprentices left, and you’re the only one I know I’ll beat.” Fuck. She’s right, the outcome of this duel has already been determined, I’ve never once been able to emerge triumphant against her, but I didn’t realize I was the weakest duelist left. I’m just stalling for time at this point, trying to delay the inevitable. “Please, I’ll take good care of you, don’t make this harder than it needs to be for either of us.”
“Fuck you!” I hiss, “I’m not going down without a fight, so if you want me, you’ll have to come and get me.” She sighs and remains silent as I stealthily circle her, careful to avoid the light of her sentries.
“Have I ever told you about my sister?” she finally asks when I’m directly behind her, a blade of shadows moments away from striking. My silence is taken as a no when she continues speaking, me slinking back into the darkness. “Her name was Cordelia and she was six years my senior, the heiress to my parents’ meager title and land holdings. A thunder elemental like me, she was brought here to Sinslar to become a Magus and improve our family’s standing, but shortly after her third year began, she was challenged by a boy near the top of their class. It was a quick match, she lost after only a few minutes, but he took her. Took her and made her a slave to his every whim; nothing but a helpless bed-girl who only exists to make her Master happy. None of us knew what became of her until he sent a messenger months later, couldn’t even visit us himself, to brag about his victory and gloat over his wealth and nobility.
“My parents were heartbroken when they learned my sister’s fate. My mother didn’t leave her rooms for a week, and my father took to drinking. I cannot put them through that again, and I simply know it would be worse the second time.” I can see tears beginning to form in her eyes, as the lights around the circle all begin to dim. I open my mouth to try and offer some condolences, but I’m cut off before any sound leaves it. “And now, six years later, history almost repeated itself. Earlier tonight I overheard Merciano Miidec talking to some of his lackeys, and I learned he intends to challenge me tomorrow morning. I couldn’t just sit by and let that sadistic asshole make me into his fucking pet, so I knew I had to find myself a familiar before then. Which is where you come in.”
It was my turn to remain silent as the weight of her words sank in. Merciano Miidec came from an obscenely wealthy and influential family, and was eager to flaunt that from his position of rank 1 in our year. Everyone knew he had the hots for Maeve, and he liked to boast about all the lewd and disgusting things he would have her do when he claimed her as familiar. Not if, when. As forgone as the conclusion to this duel was, so too was any duel between the two of them; my friend simply couldn’t win, no matter what she did. I furrowed my brow as a realization settled in my brain: I was dueling someone backed into a corner, with only bad options left. That was never good.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, the only indication that she heard me the slightest turn of her head in my direction. “But I refuse to just lay down and take what’s given to me. I’ve had to fight tooth and nail for everything I have, I refuse to sit back and let it all be taken away from me!”
“I wouldn’t take everything!” she offered, as if it changes anything. The air around her was starting to crackle and fizz with power, and a ball of fear settled in the pit of my stomach. It wouldn’t be long now. If she started actually fighting me, started trying to win instead of humoring my hit-and-run tactics, I was doomed. I would be in for a world of pain, and not just from her lightning. “I don’t want to take anything from you!”
Suddenly, a bright flash dispelled my surrounding darkness as a single bolt of lightning struck Maeve in the center of the dueling circle. For the briefest moment, the courtyard was illuminated bright as day, showing her the spectators that had gathered outside the barriers and watching our duel, despite the late hour. And in that moment, her eyes meet mine.
“There you are.” Her voice is velvet-covered steel, and my first instinct is to freeze. I can only watch in terror as she begins tracing a spell, my feet rooted in place.
“Oh, f–” The words haven’t even left my mouth before a massive bolt of lightning hits me in the middle of my chest, the force sending me flying backward. My body erupts in pain as my back hits the magical barrier surrounding the circle, and the cobblestone that I fall to is only mildly softer. The electricity still coursing through each of my limbs prevents me from moving even the slightest, so all I can do is remain in a smoldering heap as the Ritual readies itself around me.
The first thing I feel is dread. As my awareness expands, I feel like an animal surrounded by hunters, dozens of speartips at the ready. Even if I resist, there’s no way out, the Ritual will just respond with overwhelming force. That’s how it’s designed, to break weak apprentices, destroy their individuality so they become willing tools for their new Magus. Even now there’s a mounting pressure in my head, but before long it becomes too much. There’s the sound of someone screaming in pain, and I guess it has to be me, but I lack the awareness to actually recognize it.
“Shhhhh, it’s okay, it’s okay,” a voice soothes, and it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Opening my eyes, I see Maeve kneeling before me, and I can only whimper as she manipulates my body so my head is resting in her lap. “I’m here, it’s okay.”
“Please,” I croak, “please let me keep being Cynthia. I can’t go back to pretending to be a boy.” I’m surprised I can even speak, much less coherently, and my arm is shaking as I clutch at the other girl’s sleeve. I’ve fought too long and too hard to be recognized as anything other than who I am, and while it’s really not up to me, I pray Maeve respects that.
“I know, dear, I know,” she coos, one hand gently stroking my hair. “But you needn’t worry. I’ve only ever known Cynthia, I wouldn’t dream of changing you for what would surely be the worse. No, I’d much rather take your best traits and amplify them.”
As if on cue, the spears close in. A thousand stab wounds open all across my body as dozens of tendrils of magic energy erupt from the ground and work their way under my skin. I feel my body start to change through the pain, and the very sensation makes me want to vomit. Who knows what changes are actually happening, all I can tell is that something is changing. My vision is swimming and the world is spinning around me, but there’s one thing that doesn’t move: Maeve. My classmate, my rock, my anchor. My friend, my love, my M– no, not yet. She’ll be my master or mistress or whatever soon enough, but I want to relish my freedom for the last few moments I have it.
Moments filled with agony, that is.
While the pain is spread over my entire body, I find that for the most part, it’s not very deep. Much of the change is surface level, or just beneath. Sure, there’s the typical breast and ass growth, but even then they’re not unnaturally sized or proportioned. They look… natural, even. Right at home on my newly athletic body, taut skin pulled over toned muscle. I’d always been physically strong, but now it seemed Maeve was making me stronger, but not some absurd muscle-man. That was far from my desired look.
“I know it hurts baby, I know,” she coos when I let out a particularly high-pitched whimper. “It’s going to get worse for a bit, but I’m here, I’ve got you.” I don’t know if it was the actual words or just her general tone, but I don’t even think twice as I curl inward and around her, burying my face in her stomach. “Here, let’s get you on your side. It’ll hurt less if you’re not on your back.”
She’s halfway through shifting my body when I understand what she was talking about. It feels like twin knives have been buried to the hilt in my back, just inside my shoulder blades. I’ve barely started to cry out when the knives are pulled half a meter downward and it feels like my flesh is ripped apart.
And yet, new sensations emerge from the rifts.
Sensations of growing, of unfamiliar muscles and rewiring nerves, of bones forming and joints connecting. New limbs rising and stretching, fresh skin already giving way to sprouting feathers that tickle the rest of my body. My wings spasm and flutter as growing pains continue to wrack my body, unfortunately coupling with a mounting pressure in my head to increase my torment and further my transformation. Distantly, I’m aware of what the headache means, the physical changes are winding down and the mental ones are coming up fast, but in the moment my mind is too addled with both pain and pleasure to recognize anything of the sort.
“You’re doing so well,” Maeve whispers in my ear, “you’re being so strong for me, you know that? My knight in shining armor.” Even through the pain, my heart soars at the praise. I’m doing well! And for Maeve! Someone who means so much to me, even before the Ritual. I’d follow her to the ends of the earth. If she’d let me, of course. I’d do anything she asked to see her smile; it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
“Or should I say my knight in shining feathers,” she teases, and both my heart and wings flutter in joy. “You’re going to be beautiful when all this is done, you know that? Like an angel descended from heaven, with me as your Goddess.” She presses her lips to my forehead, and for the briefest moment, the pain clears. I look up at my Miss, my Goddess, and I feel an instinctual need to be closer to her. I curl deeper into her, and I feel so safe and at home the reappearance of the Ritual’s pain feels like a punch to the gut, despite the fact it’s located entirely within my head.
The ache doesn’t last though, and before long, Maeve and I are sitting near the edge of the dueling circle, her arms wrapped around me.
The Ritual is finished.
I belong wholly and completely to my Goddess. I am my Mistress’ familiar.
“Can you stand?” she asks, and I nod slowly. As I stand, I take stock of my somewhat new body. I’m one or two inches taller than Maeve now, with a toned body rippling with concealed muscles. Not to mention the feathered masses hanging from my back. Each wing is just shy of two meters long and covered in pitch-black feathers, though that might be partially due to the late hour.
It’s harder to see through the night without my magic, but I can still see well enough to survey my immediate surroundings. The small crowd that had gathered to watch our late-night duel has mostly dispersed, save for a couple pairs of night-owl Magi and their familiars. One familiar who meets my gaze is a bat-man, with large pointed ears and leathery wings on his back. He gives me a nod of understanding, and I ruffle my wings in response.
“We should be getting back to my dorm,” Maeve tells me, “it’s getting really late and I’d like to get at least some sleep tonight.” I’d actually been sleeping before she’d showed up at my dorm to challenge me, but I don’t think she’d gotten any shut-eye since the previous night.
“What time is Miidec supposed to challenge you in the morning? Because it’s just past 4:30 now,” I respond as we enter the dorm building and head for the ornate stairs. I’d started following her, but she was having none of that, intertwining her fingers with mine so we walked side by side.
“I don’t know, seven? Eight? That gives us, what, three hours? Fuck,” she curses under her breath as she unlocks the door to her dorm. She sounds exhausted, and her side of the Bond is flooded with a mix of emotions. There’s love and anger and even fear, but beneath it all is an undercurrent of sadness and melancholy.
“It’ll be okay,” I murmur. It’s my turn to comfort her now, and I walk up behind her as she stands in the center of her room to wrap my arms around her waist and pull her closer to me. “You’re safe now. He can’t challenge you anymore.”
“I know,” she sighs, leaning her head back against my shoulder. “I just… I didn’t want it to have to be this way… Come, I think I have some night-clothes that would fit you.”
In just a few minutes, Maeve has me in a mostly-backless nightgown I probably wouldn’t have picked for myself, and I’m sliding into her bed after her. My wings create more hassles than I expected, limiting both my choice of clothes and the position in which I sleep; it’s a good thing I used to sleep on my stomach before my transformation, because now I’m restricted to either that or on my side, facing my Mistress.
With a flick of her hand, shadows consume the nearby candle and the room is plunged into darkness.
“I’m really sorry,” she whispers, and I nuzzle deeper into her, burying my nose in her shoulder.
I don’t know what time it is when I’m woken, but light is trickling under dark curtains pulled over the room’s window. I’m spooning Maeve, and my face heats for a second before I remember the events of the night before. She isn’t just Maeve any more, she’s my Mistress, my Goddess.
A rapid knocking at the door pulls me from my thoughts, and Maeve stirs in my arms. I silently curse the interruption, but Maeve is less quiet with her condemnations. Of course, we both know who it is, and that he won’t stop until he’s issued his desired challenge.
“Gods-damned son of a fucking shit-bitch,” she grumbles, and I can’t help myself from chuckling at her frustration. “I fucking hate that bastard, I want to cut his fucking dick off and force feed it to him while I fuck his sister.”
“I know, Miss,” I respond solemnly, and we’re both laughing now, totally ignorant of the repeated pounding on the door. “Do you want me to answer the door instead? So you don’t have to see him?”
“No, that’s fine,” she tells me, already clambering out of bed. I watch as she grabs a robe from the nearby armoire and ties it around herself, her face one of grim determination. My position on the bed doesn’t grant me a view of the door, so I have to listen for the ensuing conversation, but the sound carries well enough I don’t have to strain my ears.
“What do you want?” My Mistress’ voice, terse and filled with exasperation.
“Well, good morning to you too, beautiful,” a male voice, one I unfortunately recognize as Merciano Miidec, ranked #1 in our class. “You’re looking ravishing as usual today.”
“What do you want, Miidec?” I can hear the venom with which she says his family name, but I can only imagine the look on his face.
“I’m here to claim what’s mine,” he responds, a dark tone in his voice. “I hope you’re not wearing anything under that dressing gown, because you won’t be allowed clothes once you’re my familiar.” It’s around this time that I decide maybe I should be there to support Maeve, so I climb out of bed myself and wrap a blanket around myself.
“Oh fuck off,” she tells him. The doorway comes into view just in time for me to see her try to slam the door in Miidec’s face, only to be stopped by his boot caught between it and the wall.
“I don’t think so,” he says, forcing the door back open. “Maeve Calrens, 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.”
“Hm. Good luck with that,” Maeve said after a beat of silence, again moving to close the door but being stopped once more.
“No, you belong to me! Why isn’t it working?? Maeve Calrens, I–”
“I hear it works better if you challenge people who are still apprentices,” I interrupt him, stepping into view behind Maeve. His eyes narrow once he sees me, and I smile broadly as I wrap my arms around my Mistress.
“And who are you supposed to be?” he asks, his voice a mix of intrigue and disgust.
“She’s my familiar,” Maeve responds fiercely, before lifting one of my arms and pressing it to her lips. To emphasize her point, I shrug the blanket I grabbed off my shoulders and unfurl my wings. I don’t know if he can see my wings in the dark room, but it at least makes me feel bigger and more intimidating.
“Fucking bitch,” Miidec spits at Maeve before storming off down the hall. She wastes no time in shutting the door behind him and turning to me with a grin.
“That was… really hot,” she tells me, stroking my cheek, “and I’d love to… act on that, but I’m still exhausted, so can we go back to bed?”
“Of course, Miss,” I say, leading her back to the bed and sitting on the edge. “I’m not very tired, but I’d gladly keep you company while you sleep.”
“Mmkay, see you in the morning,” she mumbles, already half asleep under the covers. Within seconds, her breathing has evened out and I know she’s already deep in slumber.
With my Goddess asleep, I’m left alone in the dark with my thoughts. And to think; not twelve hours ago I was fighting against this very idea. Why? Maeve let me keep my memories of my life before the Ritual, but I was so much better now. I have a Mistress I love and who loves me, I no longer need to worry about class rankings, and I have a beautiful body with no dysphoria of any kind. Not to mention my big, beautiful wings, whose feathers quietly rustled to my every movement.
Perhaps this change was for the better. Now I could lay down next to my Mistress and cover her with my wing, basking in the intimacy that wouldn’t have been possible shortly before.
“Mmmmmm, your wing’s so soft…”