[CW: mentions animal abuse and death]
Nine hundred and ninety-nine steps into the forest, there is a clearing–a perfect circle exactly eighteen feet across. The trees here are centuries old, and though their trunks and roots dare not creep into this space, the canopy of their orange-clad branches create a cave with a skylight casting the center of the clearing in a persistent glow.
There, in that natural spotlight, a familiar awaits his new master. He is tall, long, and lean; nose to tail tip is at least the length of a grown woman's leg and sitting next her he'd nuzzle her knee with ease. His fine, long fur creates an extra tuft at the tips of his ears and fluffs beautifully into a mane that could be envied by the most imposing of lions. No dirt or overcast sky could touch his beauty, as framed within that dark, dark face lay wide eyes of ice blue.
They match the eyes of the young woman standing at the eastern edge of the clearing.
She steps into the clearing with confidence. Her boots crunch the yellowed grass and first-fallen leaves, but the noise doesn't frighten him away. He is not a city stray, nor a feral woodland creature. These two, a witch and a cat, are here for each other.
Ever gracefully, she approaches him until she can kneel and extend her hand for him to sniff and accept her greeting. While some aim to enslave young or naive familiars, most witches opt to offer their heart first and allow the familiar to choose whether they accept or reject the partnership. Those are the witches whose familiars are truly loyal, many of them even choosing to be a loving companion in addition to their magical duties.
Now, with this young woman's hand gently stretched before him, the beautiful beast bends his head to take in her scent. This isn't just giving him recent answers such as where she's been, what she's eaten, or what other animals she's interacted with; he can smell her morals, her capabilities, and her weaknesses. Will she be able to protect him? Will she even care to do so, or will she value him only as an object? These are questions that old souls know to ask, and he has been a familiar for a long, long time.
Most of his previous masters had been kind enough. They kept him safe, fed, warm, and busy. They scratched his chin and, more recently, provided him with interesting things to keep him from getting bored when there was no work to be done. None of them, however, trusted him fully.
He was kept inside with no freedom, was hidden from guests like an unsightly appliance, and never allowed to sleep next to a human. One master had born a child after he'd worked with her for seven years; he'd tried to snuggle her belly as it grew, wanted to watch over the baby once she'd come into the world, but he was always pushed away.
Ever since taking his first master nearly three centuries ago he'd been a welcome familiar, but never a member of a family. Without his freedom he couldn't even find his siblings except for between masters, when he was dismissed by the witch's order or death. After his first master, cruel and cold, he has been ever careful to exclusively work with witches who were willing to accept his contract's most firm expectation: abuse or neglect is grounds for immediate void of partnership. He'd attempted to bargain for freedom as well, but lost witch after witch this way for about ten years. He decided to compromise, or he wouldn't have access to the magic that keeps familiars immortal.
But now he's had a taste of unworried freedom for some years. He'd finally saved up enough magic to survive without a witch and chosen to let other creatures take up the contract calls; he still had to hunt and keep himself safe, but time couldn't touch him for now.
He'd waited for his siblings' release from their respective contracts, praying desperately that they would hear his call to their hearts and return to their birth forest. His little sister and brother heard him, and though their replies were faint, he heard them, too.
First he awoke to his sister sniffing out his tree-root den, then years later their brother followed. He'd been so happy he couldn't eat for days each time, instead bringing his prey as gifts for them despite their being perfectly capable of hunting. The three of them cuddled and played, and they learned each others' stories.
His heart broke with the tales. They'd told him of abuse and neglect far worse than his; beatings, raised and confusing voices, and contrasting his lack of freedom, his sister had most recently been kept by a witch who refused to let her inside past the workshop and only when they were working. She nearly froze to death last winter. Thank the goddess, the witch died that spring and the little cat was released, running home to the forest where her brother called for her.
The three of them are running low on magic now, though. They'll have to go back to work or accept a new master without compromise: Father Time.
All of these memories flash in his mind as he considers this new witch, young but clearly advanced for her age. Her heart…
The cat forms a plan.
He straightens, bringing his eyes back up to meet hers.
"I would greatly appreciate your partnership," she says. He remains still. "I can tell that you are an old soul and I assume you have very high standards for your partners."
'Partner,' she said. Not master.
The cat doesn't move, and the witch's confidence begins to falter as she stands and backs up to give him space. She clears her throat and continues, "Well, I know the decision might take some time. I'll certainly leave you the time necessary to think it over, but could I at least have a sign that you're considering it?"
She holds her breath and prepares for disappointment. Maybe this is actually just a normal forest cat, oddly confident in the presence of a strange human. Perhaps he is just sitting in the center of the clearing because of the small circle of cloudy light that warms his fur just slightly more than he would be getting in the shade.
Then, a single slow blink of those beautiful icy eyes.That is the only indication she gets that he was listening. She realizes that this is the first time he's blinked at all since their meeting. The silence and stillness of it conveys a very clear message: "I am undecided, but will consider your request."
She nods. "I'm returning to my home, then. I hope to see you soon." She turns and takes nine hundred and ninety-nine steps directly west, where she finds her bicycle propped against a tree exactly as she left it hours ago.
The next day passes, then another. The witch's heart sinks with each hour that goes by without sight of the cat from the forest. She pores over the spell she wrote the day before her trek after waking from a dream with a clear message: Paw prints appearing on the floor as she passed through her home, stopping in front of her working altar. There was a not-so-subtle side message there, of course, so she made sure to diligently sweep and dust her house while she crafted the perfect spell.
It is time, this is true. My soul's familiar is awaiting me, this is true. I treat this soul with the reverence and care that I treated my family from whom I am separated, this is true. My intentions for this familiar of mine are clear, and by the new moon, I have found the soul that is meant to sit beside me in my craft in its entirety, this is true.
She wrote the spell–simple and to the point–and cast it that very night.
She dreamt of the forest across a wide river three miles from her house. The dream was simple but commanding. She knew that this was her instruction and that it was to be done without delay.
So she prepared to visit the sacred areas she'd come to love: A deep, dark deciduous forest and the river that keeps it dammed from the humans that feel a hint of what it truly is, unnerved by a power they can't explain.
In the two years since she set up here she'd been going into that forest monthly or more, defying the locals who told her it was dangerous. She knew the likelihood of something in that forest being more dangerous than her, especially after making herself familiar to the forest's spirit. She knew this forest as deeply as a witch could after two years of living nearby, and she knew exactly where she was supposed to go to meet her familiar.
Now, she wakes up on the fourth day, prepared to be disappointed again. She rolls over and meets icy eyes, framed by void-black fur on a regal face. "You came!"
He is sitting on her desk across the room from the window she'd left open for three nights, spelled to only allow him to enter.
"Does this mean you've agreed?" The hope in her voice brings the cat comfort, bolstering his belief that she is a good woman and that this is a good plan. He paws at a piece of paper on the desk.
The witch steps into her slippers and approaches the desk, once again stretching her hand out for his approval. He pushes a pen toward her; his intent is so clear it's almost unnerving. As she's never had a familiar of her own, she's only seen a hint of the intelligence and power that these beings share with their witches.
She sits, takes the pen in hand, and waits. Something presses the words into her mind–not quite a voice, but a message nonetheless.
"Oh, well, duh." The cat's eyes narrow and he presses his paw onto the paper, firm. "Sorry, sorry…" She writes out the demand, though it breaks her heart that he feels the need to express it so fiercely.
"Okay," she says as she writes. "Can I add a caveat? If I need to take you to the vet, they'll likely require you to be in a carrier before I can bring you in."
The cat cocks his head. "Wait, do you know what a vet is?" She takes his stillness as confirmation. "A vet is a doctor–a non-magical healer–that is specific to care for animals. If something happens that I can't fix myself I'll have to take you to a vet."
He straightens and shakes his head. "That won't be necessary. Remember that I am not only an animal, but a magical being. Each time we work together I will take a small portion of the magic we use. That stored power is what I pull from to heal myself and maintain youth."
"Please?" The witch looks at him with clear emotion in her eyes, which catches him off guard. "I'll also add that you have to consent in the moment before we take that route." He doesn't respond, so she keeps talking.
"My dad's familiar chose him unexpectedly when he was only sixteen. Their bond was like they were the missing half of each other's souls. She greeted him at the door every time he came home and sat in his lap every evening for as long as I can remember. I couldn't hear her voice, of course, but the love she had for my dad spilled into the love she had for the rest of our family." The cat sees that her eyes have become wet. "When he was under the weather, she was lethargic and didn't eat as much as usual, and the inverse was true as well.That's how we knew that something was very wrong with her when my dad started to have excruciating pain in his abdomen one night. He could only describe it as the feeling he assumed came with being shot. After a quick energy reading from my mom confirmed that there was nothing wrong with his body, we all raced outside."
"I found her panting and stumbling toward the house. Mom and Dad were still coming as quickly as they could through his pain. I picked Sasha up and she and Dad both screamed. Mom told me to take her to the workshop as gently and quickly as I could, and I heard Dad tell her to leave him and go with me. He was begging her to save Sasha."
"Mom followed me. She cleared the table and I placed Sasha down as gently as I could. First there was the painkiller potion and a poultice under her chin and around her nose to draw oxygen into her lungs. She stopped panting, but her breathing was still shallow. I was crying while I watched my mom work. There was so much blood on my arms and chest."
The cat lowers himself into a curled position but keeps his eyes on her downcast face.
"Ultimately, my mom couldn't save her, despite being a well-practiced general healer. She did her absolute best and we all cried around Sasha in her last moments. The work that Mom was able to do at least eased her pain, so Dad was able to hobble to the house and join us. We gathered around her, crying. Dad sobbed a little bit harder and asked her if she had any magic left to heal herself, and later he told us that it had taken nearly every speck she'd saved up over the forty years she was with Dad just to come home. She used her last bit to tell all three of us that she loved us."
"It was October and she was a black cat like you. Someone had shot her. People do that to black cats because they're cruel and think it's a funny prank. What they don't think is that people can love animals so hard that they're never the same after losing them."
"I had to watch two of my beloved family members suffer excruciating pain for something that Mom said could've been mended if she'd had the modern tools that a dedicated vet does. She's a doctor in her day job so she knows there are some things that magic just can't do without the medical advances made outside of traditional healing. So I knew then that I would always make sure I could rely on modern medicine as a backup, for myself and for any lives I become responsible for."
This time she allows the silence to sit between them.
"Okay. I accept that caveat."
The witch sighs with relief and continues writing out the contract.
The cat contemplates everything she'd just told him. She grew up in a household where the familiar was loved, looked after, and cherished. That is her understanding of what the relationship should be between a familiar and its master. Or rather, a familiar and its partner.
No, not even that. She expects her familiar to become part of her family.
"Okay, what next?" she asks. The corners of her mouth lift as she forces a weak smile.
As he stands, the cat's response is pressed into her mind once more:
"My siblings come with me. This contract serves for all three of us."
There's a beat of surprise on the witch's face, just for a moment.
"Yes. You will be giving three times as much of your magic as you would with just one familiar, but trust me," the cat steps toward her. "We will make ourselves worth it."
The witch's brow furrows, clearly suspicious. He doesn't move. She trusts her gut, and writes it down.
"Okay. They'll need to agree to and sign the contract as well."
"They will. Unspell your window and they will join us. They have been waiting outside, listening."
The witch snaps. Two smaller, sleek black cats jump through the window and join their brother on the desk.
"Now, I believe I get some say in this contract as well, yes?" She taps the pen, thinking. "I expect my familiars to respect my space and belongings. You have to use a litterbox or go outside to relieve yourselves. Only scratch on and play with items I designate for those purposes." She adds, in a smaller voice, "Which I promise to get you lots of."
The cats give no objections, so she continues.
"If you plan to go far from home, you have to tell me where so I know where to go looking for you if I feel something has gone wrong. With there being three of you I don't know that I'll always be able to sense you clearly. I suspect that there will be some cloudy communication, at least at the beginning of our relationship."
If the cat could smile, he would. His heart has been warming with each step of this contract and this last part ties it all up in a bow–she strikes a firm balance between respect and protectiveness. He's been passing these feelings to his siblings, and now they are seeing firsthand the kind of home they can expect.
"Okay, lastly, I think we should agree on the right to revisit this contract. We should be able to make revisions or add sub-contracts as life changes around us."
The cats blink, almost simultaneously, accepting this.
"I can't think of anything else to add. Are we ready to sign?" She has her pen poised above the page.
Without a verbal answer, each cat presses a magical paw print onto the page. So she signs, and they're an official group–a witch and her familiars.