The pack of playing cards felt heavy in Arthur’s hand, a beacon in the small convenience store, damning in their own right. He shouldn’t be this nervous. He had done things like this before, walking into the belly of the beast with nothing but the words of a drugged out trickster to go by. Just another day on the job.
The clerk behind the counter looked bored as Arthur placed his selection on the counter and added a single stick of icy mint gum to it. A black tattoo that resembled a stylized eye on the side of his neck told another story though. “Anything else?”
“A silver spoon under the moon.” With casual movements, Arthur waved his hand over the deck of cards on the counter and the design on the front changes from black to red. He added a little extra to the illusion and the two dimensional king on the front of the pack gave the clerk a wink.
Without breaking the air of boredom, the clerk nodded before tilting his head toward a door beside the tower of sunglasses and sorely neglected maps. “They’re in the back.”
“Thank you,” Arthur said, returning the nod. He made his way to the door as, in his peripheral, the clerk removed the pack of cards and gum from the counter and flicked a switch underneath the register. For a brief moment, Arthur’s heart clenched and he was sure he had fucked up somewhere along the line. Cedric’s instructions hadn’t been the easiest to follow and even more of a task to persuade out of the addict, but Arthur was sure he had followed them precisely.
Whether an alarm had been tripped or simply a spell dropped, Arthur was about to find out.
He pushed through the door.
Darkness surrounded Arthur but once his body had fully crossed the threshold, noise exploded around him and the darkness vanished. Instead of the dirty storage space that he had expected in the back room of a downtown convenience store, a large extravagant lounge spread out before Arthur.
Not just any lounge, the city’s black market hub for witches and their familiars.
Red velvet couches and high backed chairs filled the center of the lounge where a beautiful white wolf familiar lay at the feet of an elegant blonde female witch, a gold chain leash strung between them. Two male witches sat across from them, chatting and flirting and trying to dazzle the woman with elegant spells and artful illusions. A few others mingled about by the full bar that filled up the back wall, sipping on colorful bubbling potions, classic cocktails in martini glasses, and wine glasses filled with moonjuice. The bartender, a tall hulking male witch, poured his latest concoction into a glass stein, his eyes flashing gold over the blood red drink before he passed it across to a young dark haired witch leaning against the bar. He nodded his thanks, sliding a few coins across the space.
Arthur took a step further into the room, keeping his face neutral despite the awe and unease he felt. But he quickly step back out of the way as a familiar rushed by, shifting mid stride into a majestic bald eagle before landing gracefully on the shoulder of a stout witch as he disappeared through a doorway. Cedric hadn’t specified what sort of illicit activities took place in those rooms, but Arthur assumed it couldn’t be anything good. Why go through so much to keep this place a secret if you had nothing to hide?
A roar of shouts and cheers drew Arthur’s attention to a large cluster of men grouped around the far left corner of the room. From his vantage, they seemed to be focused on something at their feet but Arthur couldn’t make out what it was. Frankly, he didn’t want to know, wanted to spend as little time in this underground longue as he could. Nothing good could come from hanging around a place like this.
Which is exactly why he needed to be here. If Freya was here, he needed to find her and get her out before she could disappear again. He had promised her mother. And well, there was also the fact that she was paying him.
Had to make a living somehow.
Without realizing what he was doing, Arthur found himself drifting toward the group of witches as though drawn by something. Curiosity, intuition, or perhaps just a gut feeling, Arthur didn’t know but he knew better than to go against it. He wasn’t a PI just for the money after all.
The cheers got louder as he approached, swelling and falling as the spectacle before the men played out. And when Arthur reached the outer edge of the circle, he finally understood what they were yelling at.
In the floor at their feet was a small sunken oval arena, maybe five feet deep and ten feet wide. Hard packed dirt floor, steep smooth sides, and men lining the top outer edges throwing bets about and jeering.
But it was the subject of these jeers that nearly had Arthur breaking his cover.
A large rottweiler stood in the center of the arena, its body littered with claw and bite marks, one ear dripping blood. It was growling, snarling and snapping at the opponent across from it, a small cat, black as midnight with a few scratches of its own along its back. Despite its stature, it faced the rottweiler as though it wasn’t half its size, crouched on all fours, hackles raised as it hissed and spit.
An animal fight.
No, not animals, Arthur realized with horror. Familiars. They both were.
For humans, it was near impossible to distinguish a familiar in animal form from a true animal. Most witches could usually recognize familiars just by the eyes and a sort of aura they had about them. The greater intelligence behind them was telling.
A strong surge of emotion welled up in Arthur as he gazed down at the haggard familiars. He wanted nothing more than to leap down there and pull them out, to shut this whole operation down and send these vile men who dared call themselves witches off to prison where they could rot.
As a PI though, he could do nothing more than watch, listen, and take note. Later he could turn over what he witnessed to the authorities. Morgana would bring the full might of the force down on them.
Suddenly, the cat paused in its threats, head cocking before he turned his head and locked eyes with Arthur.
A muted pang of emotion hit Arthur’s senses and he froze on the spot, eyes locked with the cat’s. Nothing more than muted and dull, an echo heard from deep underwater and gone before he could decipher it.
But there was no mistaking it.
He had heard the tales. Had listened to Percival talk about how he had sensed Gwaine at the bar before he even met him, how Morgana had known Gwen was her familiar the second she walked into the room. It was said truebond witches and familiars could feel each other before they bonded. It was how they found each other. A witch’s magic called out to their true familiar, the one that would best compliment them, strengthen them, and protect them.
But no, it couldn’t be. Not here, not now. This was the last place his familiar would be, he was sure of it. He was just feeling an onslaught of his own emotions, the urge to do something, the overwhelming empathy for these familiars and he was mistaking it for a calling. Arthur had always been more sensitive to others. Intuitive, Morgana called it.
But another pang shot through him then, still subtle and muted, as the rottweiler took advantage of the cat’s distraction and pounced. The roars from the men around the arena escalated and the cat tried to evade but the rottweiler was bigger and stronger. In the blink of an eye, the rottweiler had the cat pinned beneath its front paws, nails digging into the soft shoulders of the cat. A pained growl escaped the cat as he swiped and hissed and fought with a fury to get out from under his opponent, but his movements only managed to dig the rottweiler’s claw further into his flesh.
Finally, with a relenting meow from the cat, the fight was over.
The men on the sides let out cheers and groans, money exchanged hands, and some filtered off to other areas of the lounge. But Arthur paid them no mind. All he had eyes for was the cat, limping to the far side of the arena.
He could feel him. Not the flicker of emotion from before, nor a thought or a desire of any sort. Just feel him. His presence was like a dim beacon in the back of his mind, constantly drawing his attention. It was barely there, and he could only sense it now that he was focusing on the familiar below, but there was no way he could deny it any longer.
His truebond familiar. He had found him.
The second the rottweiler released its grip, the cat familiar scampered to the side of the arena and began licking its wounds. Arthur stared for a beat, ignoring the crowd of witches around him as they argued and taunted. Everything seemed to fade away to the background, his whole focus on the familiar. His familiar.
He was jolted back into reality as a large hand grabbed the cat familiar by the scruff of his neck and lifted him out of the arena. Arthur’s focus shifted to the man as the familiar let out a pained meow, squirming. He was a crude looking large man, face marred with scars and lines of anger with short cropped hair and scruffy blonde beard. Arthur stepped forward, ready to rip the man a new one for handling his injured familiar in such a cruel manner. But before he could round the edge of the arena, the man had disappeared down a darkened hallway to the back, the familiar still in his grasp.
Arthur’s goddamn familiar. Hell no.
He couldn’t let him slip away, not after he had just found him. In all his twenty-eight years, Arthur had never thought he’d actually find his familiar. He always thought he’d just be a solitary witch for the rest of his life, relying on his mediocre spells and illusion trickery to get by. On the side of the devil, his father had said. Though he knew he could find any willing unbonded familiar and bond with them, but that path had never appealed to him. Bonding with what could be another witch’s truebond familiar just so he could be not so alone anymore, it wasn’t right.
Now, he had finally found his own truebond.
Arthur weaved in and out of the spectators, giving the metal cages being towed in for the next fight a cursory glance. More familiars, just as haggard and weathered as the last two. He didn’t like it one bit and there was no doubt in his mind now that they were unwilling participants. The cages spoke volumes.
But no black jaguars. Not Freya. He couldn’t worry about what this new discovery meant, not now. His focus had changed, if only briefly.
He slipped through the doorway after the man and his familiar.
A darkened hallway spread out before him with several rooms branching off. Muted moans of pleasure and the fast-paced speech of an auction moderator echoed along the walls but Arthur ignored them. He slowed his pace to a crawl as the darkness of the hallway engulfed him and listened, searching for signs of where the two had sequestered off to.
There. A soft whining meow sounded down the hall within the lull of the other voices and sounds. The door to the far room on the right was open.
Arthur sped up to the open door, dim light from in the room spilling into the hallway. He was about to storm in and deal with whatever may come head on, when the sound of a door slamming shut reverberated from inside. He pulled back, sliding up alongside the edge of the doorframe just out of view. But close enough to hear.
“You worthless piece of shit!” A soft pained meow sounded from in the room and there was no mistaking the subtle flash of emotion Arthur felt then. It took every ounce of his self control to not rush in there and pull his familiar out. Only his instincts and learnings from infiltrating seedy businesses kept him rooted to the spot. Barely.
“Shift! Now! Unless you want me to treat you like the dumb animal you are.”
Another pained meow sounded from within the room but quickly bled into a very human groan.
If Arthur had thought he was angry before, he was livid now. For a familiar to shift into human form when they were hurt or injured was one of the worst pains. It was like making them receive their injures all over again, magnified on a larger more sensitive scale. Only in the most dire of situations would a familiar shift whilst injured.
It was cruelty, plain and simple.
“You already do,” a male voice responded, his tone soft but sharp. The familiar, it had to be.
The sharp slap of flesh on flesh echoed out of the room and down the hallway. “What have I said about talking back!” The silence that followed was telling enough. “I’m adding $20,000 to your debt for that loss. You lose another match and I’ll skin you alive. Got that?!”
“Yes,” the familiar responded. His words were quickly followed by another harsh slap and a yelp. “Yes, master,” came the gritted correction.
“Now make yourself presentable and get back to work. Mr. Larrow needs some persuading.”
Heavy footsteps retreated before a door slammed again on the other side of the room. Arthur stayed where he was, holding his breath, waiting until he was sure the man had left. A soft groan sounded from in the room as light, muffled, footsteps crossed the room. A faucet handle creaked followed by the splash of running water.
Just as he made to move from his hiding spot, the water cut off and the familiar spoke up from inside the room. “Didn’t your parents ever teach you it’s rude to eavesdrop?”
A shiver ran down Arthur’s spine. That was definitely his familiar. How else would he had known Arthur was there? With a sigh, he peeled himself off the wall and stepped into the doorway. “I’m an exception.”
He didn’t know what he had expected. Never in his life had he imagined what his familiar would look like. Their animal form was said to be a reflection of their witches own soul and Arthur couldn’t argue with the cliche mundane black cat that was apparently his familiar’s form. Arthur himself was nothing special, barely able to conjure a simple flame to light the fireplace. So of course his familiar would take the most common folklore form. A witch and a black cat. Classic and boring.
The shirtless man by the sink on the far side of the room however….well, no he was nothing much to blab about either. Dark hair, sharp features, and a lithe lean body that complimented his cat form. Arthur guess some would say he was attractive but with his hair falling across his forehead in unkempt dirty clusters and the threadbare trousers, he wasn’t much to look at.
Then again, this place clearly didn’t cater toward familiars. He was probably lucky to have made it out of that fight alive. The various bleeding scratches and punctures along his shoulders and back only further proved it.
“Is that right?” The familiar said, raising an eyebrow at Arthur, a wet washcloth in hand. He turned away then, giving Arthur a full view of his scratched and scarred back as he grabbed a wooden stool by the far door and dragged it further into the room. “Being a client doesn’t give you a right to be an ass.”
Arthur crossed his arms and leaned against the inside of the doorframe. “I’m not a client.”
“Right.” The familiar dragged the word out, exuding disbelief as he looked up and met Arthur’s eyes. “Just an arrogant hedgewitch”
“I’m your hedgewitch,” Arthur corrected, meeting the familiar’s eyes in challenge.
The familiar paused for a beat before he let out a laugh, humorless and sharp, and gently sank down onto the stool. “Oh, someone hexed you good. Scrambled your brain to mush.”
Arthur frowned. He had expected the familiar to be happy or at least agree. He honestly had expected the familiar to have called him out on it first. If Arthur could feel him, he should be able to feel Arthur. That’s how truebonds worked. They should both sense each other. “You don’t feel it?”
“No, I don’t.” The familiar said with a casual air as he began wiping the blood and dirt off his skin to clean his wounds. Arthur longed to help, wanted to take care of his familiar. But the familiar’s next words stopped him in his tracks. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m already bonded. Big guy, cropped hair, heavy hand. Runs this whole operation. So, I’d scram if I were you before he finds out you tried to proposition his familiar.”
Arthur felt like he’d been shoved head first into an icy river. His breath froze in his lungs, his heart stopping as his gut clenched in anguish. The connection with his familiar was the only thing he could feel, amplified in the midst of the crushing reveal. Taunting him.
“You’re bonded?” he finally managed to breathe out. It hurt to say the words and he shook his head in denial. “But, that’s impossible. I can feel you.”
The familiar laughed again and twisted his body so the left side of his neck was on full display. There, right above his collarbone on the side of his throat, was a dark, raised tattoo, all sharp edges and harsh lines. To Arthur, it looked more like a burn scar than the magical tattoos he was used to seeing on bonded familiars. Almost looked painful, if Arthur didn’t know any better.
The familiar straightened his body but kept his face turned toward Arthur, meeting his gaze once more. “That’s the moonjuice, honey.” His words were pitying, mocking in tone and delivery. “Best go easy on it. Strong stuff.”
At the fringes of his senses, Arthur could feel a subtle pounding, a pulse, like a heartbeat. His familiar’s heartbeat. It had retreated back again, far away, merely an echo, dulled and dim but there nonetheless. Arthur was sure if he were to reach out and lay his hand over the familiar’s heart, it would be in tune with the pulsing echo on his senses. In tune with his own heart.
But he couldn’t stand here and argue with this familiar all night. It wasn’t going to get him anywhere. As much as it pained him, he knew he had to set aside his own personal desire and focus back on the reason he was here in the first place.
Perhaps he had imagined it after all. The potion fumes of this place must have fucked with his senses.
“Fine,” Arthur relented with a wave of his hand. He turned to go but an inkling, a gut instinct made him stop. He knew it was risky, talking to the familiar of the witch who ran this whole operation. One wrong word and the familiar could alert his witch with nothing but a thought. Then Arthur would find himself with more pressing problems than a missing jaguar and a snitch familiar. But if anyone knew anything, it was this familiar. It was a risk, a big one, he knew that.
But his gut was telling him it would be worth it.
Arthur stepped further into the room and lowered his voice. “Maybe you can help me though. I am looking for a familiar by the name of Freya. Takes the form of a black jaguar. Seen her lately?”
A flicker of emotion flashed across the familiar’s face but it was gone before Arthur could decipher it. “Who are you?” he asked, eyes narrowing as he looked Arthur up and down.
Shit. Maybe his gut was leading him astray. First time for everything. But it was too late to back out now.
“James Knight,” Arthur lied using one of his many aliases. Though he was far from well known in the magical community, a simple search would have done the job. It was always best to not use his real name if he could help it.
Plus, his father was well known, and definitely not a friend to the magical community.
The familiar stared at him, unamused. “No, try again.”
“I’m a friend.”
“Not in a place like this, you aren’t,” the familiar said with a shake of his head. He looked bored, unfazed at having just called Arthur out on a lie.
Arthur sighed. The minute Cedric had mentioned rumors of a black jaguar familiar residing in an underground black witch market, Arthur had known the case wouldn’t be easy. From what Freya’s mother said, she wasn’t the type to hang out seedy places like this. The only way she would be here was if she had been taken here. Unwillingly.
And this unrelenting familiar who, from his initial reaction at hearing Freya’s name, had at least heard of her. Dodging his questions and being an all around nuisance. He had definitely been mistaken. There was no way this infuriating familiar was his truebond.
He pressed on anyway, hoping to appease to the familiar’s better nature. If he had one. “Her mother is looking for her. I was told she might be around these parts.”
The familiar stared at Arthur long and hard, searching for something, letting the silence fill the room. Arthur didn’t break it. He wanted an answer from the stubborn familiar and he’d wait all night if he’d have to.
Suddenly, the familiar winced, flinching back as though expecting to be hit. Concern washed through Arthur and he took a step toward the familiar, to see if he was alright. But the familiar shot him a glare before straightening up and throwing the washcloth into the sink.
“No, never heard of her.” he said, his tone casual and dismissive, all trace of the sudden pain he had felt gone. He stood then, pushing the stool back up against the wall before turning toward the far door. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”
Determined, Arthur made one last ditch effort. “She’s been missing for weeks. Her mother is worried sick. She just wants to know if her daughter is safe and bring her home.”
The familiar paused by the door, one hand on the knob. The muscles on his back tensed. He turned his head and met Arthur’s gaze, a hint of sorrow in his eyes.
“I’m sorry. Wish I could be more help but alas, you can’t divulge what you don’t know.”
And with that, he disappeared through the door.
Arthur mingled around the market for a bit longer donning the guise of a fellow arrogant client and interested in a powerful familiar. No one had seen or heard of a jaguar familiar coming through these parts, most mentioning the bear that would be up for auction the following night or the white wolf that Lady Morgause flaunted about on a gold leash. The lady he had seen earlier in the lounge, no doubt. She was apparently a regular around the place, always here for business, never for pleasure, but very highly regarded. And feared. According to the thin male witch nursing a good fortune potion at the bar, if anyone knew about powerful familiars, it would be her.
Her and Jarl, the man who ran the place.
But Lady Morgause had disappeared by the time Arthur made his way out to the main lounge after talking to the cat familiar. And she had yet to make a reappearance in the hour or so he had mingled about.
Arthur sighed. There was no way around it then. He’d have to return another night to do more digging.
Excusing himself from the man’s company, Arthur made his way to the back door and out onto the streets. The sky was dark and cloudy, blanketing the city in a light drizzle. Arthur pulled his coat around himself tighter, turning his collar up against the rain and took off in the direction of his apartment.
He really should have taken a cab, but the convenience store had been just shy of too far for a walk and Arthur figured he could use the exercise. Morgana was always teasing him about not getting enough steps in the day despite the physical requirements and long hours his job sometimes demanded. All she ever seemed to catch him doing was research and paperwork in his office.
Then again, as an officer of the LAPD, Morgana couldn’t know everything he got up to. It would only make it harder and limit the work he could do. And she would be forced to keep secrets from her boss.
Granted, being a Seerer probably meant she already knew most of what he kept from her but they both maintained the ruse for practicality sake. It was just easier.
Arthur made his way further into the city, avoiding puddles and ignoring the boisterous laughter and drunken cheers from the bar on the corner. He shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched down as a particularly strong wind battered his back. A shiver ran down his spine.
It wasn’t until he had gone another block that Arthur realized he was being followed. The spider amulet around his neck was humming softly against his skin, and giving off a faint glow from beneath his shirt. It had been a gift from Morgana, several Christmas’ ago and so far, it had only gone off a handful of times.
Arthur tensed, senses on immediate alert. Without breaking stride, he gradually began building up what little magic he had into his hands for a protection spell. It wouldn’t be able to stop a full bonded witch and familiar, but it would be better than nothing.
He should really invest in a few protection charms and hexes.
It wasn’t until he had walked another block that Arthur realized he could feel the person. A faint pulse at the back of his mind, beating in time with his own heart.
And it was just the one.
He released the hold on his magic with an exasperated sigh and slowed his pace. The intention was still a mystery, but now Arthur knew his tail was no immediate threat. Didn’t mean he was about to lead him straight to his apartment. That would be unwise.
But he was curious to see how long the familiar would follow him before he made a move.
Arthur walked along, turning left here and right there, leading his tail on a leisurely stroll through the city with no real destination in mind. Despite the drizzle it was a nice night and Arthur allowed himself to get swept up in the tranquility of it all.
“Might as well join me up here,” he finally called over his shoulder, stopping under the overhang of a small bakery closed up for the night.
The soft pattering of paws on wet pavement approached, morphing into splashing footsteps to cover the last few meters. Arthur turned to face the familiar.
He had cleaned up since the last time Arthur had seen him, wearing clothes more befitting a man of his lean stature, full of clean lines and structured edges that hugged his body in all the right ways. Looking more the part of a crime bosses familiar than something the cat had dragged in. No pun intended.
He stopped before Arthur, pushing the hood of his heavy coat off his head. Dark locks stood up in disarray upon his head. Well, some things couldn’t be tamed it appeared.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” the familiar said, brow cocked.
Arthur shifted his weight, crossing his arms against the cold. “I could feel you following me since the bar on Broadway.”
“You really can feel me then?” the familiar asked. His brows furrowed, head tilting to the side as he gave Arthur a once over. Arthur tried not to shiver under his scrutiny.
Arthur shrugged, meeting the familiar’s eyes in challenge. “Or you’re not as stealthy as you think.”
“Right,” the familiar chuckled, eyebrows raising in disbelief. “A black cat at night. Very noticable.”
Arthur shrugged again. He still wasn’t entirely sure what it was, but he could still feel the familiar. It was as though the familiar’s magic called to him. It didn’t make sense. He was bonded to another witch, mind, magic, body, and soul, for the rest of his life. Arthur shouldn’t be able to feel any part of him, whether they were truebonds or not. That passage should be closed.
As if to mock him, the connection gave a slight pulse. Arthur frowned in annoyance.
“Was there something else you wanted other than to antagonize me on my peaceful walk home?” he asked, his tone a little harsher than he intended.
The familiar’s face hardened, body tensing. “What makes you think I want anything?”
Arthur raised his eyebrows in response. The familiar had followed Arthur for a little over half an hour through the alleyways and backends of Los Angeles. Of course he wanted something.
“Fine,” the familiar relented. He shuffled his feet, hunching his shoulders and stuffing his hands into his pockets. Anxious, uncertain, and wary. Whatever he had to say, it was important. He looked up, his eyes meeting Arthur’s. “I might have known her. Freya, I mean.”
Arthur straightened, uncrossing his arms as he stared at the familiar. He had guessed as much back at the lounge. But that still didn’t diminish the flare of hope that surged in him. Nor the flare of annoyance. “And you didn’t feel the need to tell me this before because...?”
The familiar hissed. “Because I value my life and am not fond of ending up at the bottom of the river. There are eyes and ears all over that place.” The familiar glanced off to his right, body suddenly tense and wary. “Hell, I’m risking a lot just to come out here and talk to you now.” He shivered, pulling his jacket tighter around his body.
And yet he had wasted valuable time following Arthur around the city when he could have just approached any time after he left. Curious. “So why are you?” Arthur asked instead.
His instincts told him the familiar wasn’t here under orders. He was here of his own volition and against his better judgement. The lines of his body and the way he shifted around, nervous and wary were evidence enough of that. He truly was risking a lot just being out here.
The roar of a car startled them both as it sped past on the empty darkened street and without a word, they stepped further into the shadows of the overhang.
“For Freya,” the familiar said, voice low and earnest.
Arthur nodded. He understood well enough. If Leon or hell, if Morgana had gone missing, he too would risk everything to find them and get them back. Any one of his friends. He gestured for the familiar to continue.
The familiar sighed, running a hand through his dark hair, mussing it up further. “She was brought in two weeks ago. Assessed and marked for auction.”
Assessed and marked for auction. The way he said it, so casual and matter-of-fact sent icy chills down Arthur’s spine. Just how common of an occurrence was this? How many familiars had gone missing only to show up on the auction floor of the black market? And what were they doing with them?
Arthur filed the questions away for later. He had to stay on task. “Who brought her in?”
“One of Jarl’s men.” The familiar shivered, shifting his weight, uneasy. Whether it was due to the man in question or the cold, Arthur didn’t know. But he had a feeling it was the former. “They call him the Witchfinder.”
Arthur waited a beat, sure that the familiar was fucking with him. His facial expressions didn’t change though, no hint of any humor and he made no move to correct himself.
“Really?” Arthur asked, tone low and full of disbelief.
“Hey,” the familiar said, tone immediately defensive. “I didn’t come up with it and I sure as hell am not about to call him anything else.”
“Is she still there?”
He shook his head. “No. She was moved a week and a half ago. Sold in a private auction.”
Sold. A familiar was sold. To another witch, no doubt. Arthur thought he was going to be sick. It was revolting, a deplorable act done by a heinous person. And not just to do to a familiar, but to do to any human being, witch, familiar, or otherwise. To degrade, humiliate and dehumanize someone in such a manner was inexcusable. It was absurd that most of the magical community looked down upon familiars, labeling them the lesser beings to witches simply because they could not perform magic themselves. Some more monstrous types even saw them as merely vessels for magic, to be used and abused as they saw fit, taking the bonding ritual as nothing more than a way to gain more power and boost their magic.
Arthur wasn’t an idiot, he knew a good portion of the magical community still looked down on familiars. Even with the recent update to the accords and the expanding of familiar rights, society wouldn’t shift it’s views overnight. It would take years, decades to see any real change.
Arthur vowed to himself that when he found Freya and her case was closed, he would return to dive deeper into this trafficking world and bring it down. No matter how long it took.
Taking a few deep breaths to calm himself, Arthur pushed thoughts of dismantling and demolishing to the back of his mind and forced himself to focus once more. “Who bought her?” The words tasted like ash in his mouth.
“I don’t know,” the familiar said, shaking his head with a helpless shrug of his shoulders. “I’m not allowed in and Jarl keeps the names of his VIP buyers very private.”
Jarl. His witch. Arthur’s eyes shifted to the raised bonding tattoo on the familiar’s neck. In the shadows of the overhang, he could barely make out the top of it. But just knowing it was there made Arthur’s heart clench.
He looked up at the familiar’s face again, catching the man’s eyes watching him, brows furrowed before he quickly smoothed it away. Arthur cleared his throat, suddenly self conscious. “So you have no idea where Freya went or who with?”
The familiar shook his head. “No. I’m sorry. I wish I did. She was—” he paused looking off into the night, face drawn and worn, the shadows throwing his features into sharp relief. “She was a good friend.”
Arthur didn’t know what to say to that. He wanted to continue questioning but he feared pushing the familiar too far in one night. In his experience, most people tended to clam up or spout lies if pestered for too long. Best to stop while he was ahead and come back at him another time.
Instead, he acted on instinct and reached out to lay a comforting hand on the familiar’s shoulder. The familiar for his part, didn’t startle like Arthur had expected. Instead he seemed to melt under Arthur’s touch. “I’ll find her,” Arthur said, meeting the familiar’s eyes and trying to convey all the determination he felt, “you have my word.”
“Thank you.” The familiar’s eyes danced in the dim light of the street lamp, open and sincere. Arthur noticed how blue they were.
With a nod and a final squeeze of reassurance, Arthur let go of the familiar.
The familiar blinked owlishly for a second before he looked around at the darkened city as though coming out of a daze. “I should go,” he said, tone wistful. “Before someone notices I’m gone.” He glanced back at Arthur briefly before turning to head back down the street.
“Wait,” Arthur called after him, curiosity peaked. “What’s your name?”
The familiar stopped, his coat billowing around him on a strong breeze and turned to meet Arthur’s gaze. “Merlin,” he said with a dip of his head.
“It’s nice to meet you, Merlin.” Arthur nodded in response. “I’m Arthur.”
His real name was out of his mouth before he could think better of it. But it felt right. Merlin had been honest with him, it was only fair Arthur was honest as well.
And some part of him, at the back of his mind, refused to believe they didn’t share some sort of connection. Truebond or not, Arthur could still sense him, feeling him. There was just something about him that his magic called out to.
Merlin smiled, knowingly. “That’s better.” He turned back to face the darkened city streets.
“Why’d you decide to trust me?” Arthur shouted after him, curiosity unable to let it go. “Like you said, people like me in a place like that aren’t friends of familiars.”
Merlin glanced over his shoulder with a smirk on his lips. “Just a feeling.”
Then he shifted form and scampered off into the night.