Chapter 2

Upon entering the girl's room, Saito Hiraga's face flushed a bright red as she began to strip off her clothes. He ogled, not even aware that he was staring too hard until she was nearly halfway in the nude, and then he quickly averted his gaze. The girl in question seemed to pay him little mind, however, and his voice caught in his throat when he finally thought to protest.

She was a short girl, only just barely coming up to Saito's chest, and he himself was of only average height for a teenage boy. But when coupled with her smooth white skin, large clear eyes, her strawberry-blonde hair and a pretty face, she reminded Saito of a masterfully crafted porcelain doll. That only made his current situation seem all the more surreal, for the girl's name was Louise Francois Le Blanc de La Valliere, and, if she was to be believed, he was now her "familiar."

"H-hey!" he stammered when his tongue finally loosened long enough for him to protest. "What the heck do you think you're doing?"

The girl stopped and looked at him with a puzzled expression. "What do you mean? I'm obviously getting ready to change. Wearing the Academy's uniform for the summoning is one thing, but I can't very well wear it for the party. The princess and all the nobles will be there. I'll need a proper dress."

"Yeah, well, couldn't you have given me a warning first, or something, before you decided to get naked?" Saito demanded, his cheeks so warm that they felt like they were on fire. This was his first time ever seeing a girl naked in real life. He would have thought that it would have made him more excited, but strangely all it made him feel was embarrassed, more embarrassed by far than the girl herself, it seemed. "I could have left the room to give you some privacy, you know."

But the girl merely arched an eyebrow at him, as though he had said something strange. "What a peculiar familiar you are," she finally huffed, before she resumed stripping off the rest of her clothes, burning his cheeks anew.

Saito tried to clear his mind as he turned around. Even now, he had almost no idea what was going on. One second, he had been in Japan; the next, he was here, wherever "here" was. These people... this land... no, this world. As ridiculous as it sounded, he had to face the fact that he was on a different planet now, one where magic was not just a product of fantasy but reality. He had seen the proof when the girl in the white dress had conjured up that man-slime thing out of thin air, and further proof when he saw some of the truly freakish creatures that hung around the other mages' sides, things he knew for certain were not of Earth.

The blood drained from Saito's face then, as the full enormity of this realization suddenly struck him. Oh my god, he thought. How the heck am I supposed to get back home? What am I going to do if I'm stuck here forever? How am I supposed to survive in this world?

Saito had never once considered himself to be a particularly intelligent or skillful boy. His grades in school were fairly average, at best, and he had little knowledge of any practical skills that might serve him now. Depending on what this world was like, if he was stranded here, he would not be able to survive, not on his own at least.

Licking his lips with a dry tongue, Saito glanced back towards the diminutive girl, and said tentatively, "Um... Louise?"

"What?" she said without looking at him as she finished undressing, now clad only in small, white silk and lace underwear – a fact that he was acutely aware of, but current circumstances prevented him from feeling any thrill from the view.

"Is... is there any chance you could send me back home?" Saito did his best to keep desperation from leaking into his words, and failed. "Please?"

"No," the answer came like cold water being splashed across his face. "The summoning spell is only capable of doing just that: summoning. It can't send the familiar back."

"Oooh..." Saito groaned, crouching down and rocking back and forth on his heels while cradling his head in his arms. "Then I'm really stuck here."

Louise glanced down at Saito and pointed a finger at him. "You're my familiar now, which means that you're under my care. The only thing you need to concern yourself with is how to serve me."

"I just want to go home."

"This is your home now."

No, my home is where my friends and family are, Saito nearly spat out in a sudden flash of anger, but managed to hold himself back, barely. In this strange new world, this girl before him was the only one he could rely on at the moment. It would be wise not to anger her, not here, not now. Instead, he asked, "What's a familiar, anyway?"

"They're creatures that mages contract and bind to them as their lifelong servants through the summoning spell," Louise answered promptly. "You do as I command and guard my person above all else. See those runes on the back of your left hand? Those are the proof that you belong to me."

"Oh." Saito felt like finding some corner to curl up and go to sleep in, praying that when he woke up all this would turn out to be a bad dream.

"Go fetch me my dress. It's in that closet over there," Louise said. Saito did as she commanded, walking over to the closet with a zombie-like gait. He opened it, then reached in to grab one of the many dresses that hung there at random. "Oh, not that one," Louise said. "The one next to it. That pink-and-white one, yes."

After taking the dress off its hanger, Saito went and laid it down on the bed. Then he turned and went to crouch down by the wall, pressing his forehead against it, as he groaned. Meanwhile, Louise began to change.

"I have to say," she said over the soft sound of rustling silks. "It's quite unusual to have a familiar that's able to speak the human language. Though if you're able to take a human form, I suppose it's not terribly surprising."

It took a few seconds for Saito to comprehend the strangeness of what Louise had said. Then he glanced back over his shoulder with a perplexed expression. But before he could say a word, Louise continued speaking.

"Still, I suppose in this case it's quite convenient," Louise hummed. "I do not know what you are, so I will have to have you tell me. There will be many who will be just as curious as I am to know about you, and as your master I will need to be able to answer them."

"What are you talking about?" Saito said.

"Is it not already obvious?" Louise replied. "Summoning a familiar is an important coming-of-age ritual for young nobles, like me. Therefore, it is also important that we celebrate our successful passage into adulthood. Today is our chance to meet with many of the most important nobles in the country, and to show them our worth."

"That's not what I'm talking about," Saito said. "I mean, what the heck do you think I am?"

"Are you not like the princess's familiar?"

"You mean that thing that one girl in the white dress summoned?"

"She's not 'that one girl,'" Louise scowled. "She is the princess of Tristain and you will show her proper respect, otherwise I will have to discipline you. And yes. You are like her familiar, are you not?"

"Hell no!" Saito scoffed. "I'm not like that monster."

Louise frowned and tilted her head. "Then what are you?"

Waking up was the last thing that Alex Mercer had expected to do, not because he physically did not require sleep, but because he should have been dead by now. More than that, he should have been incinerated down to the very last cell. That it was otherwise was a miracle, and a most pleasant surprise besides.

Another surprise, less pleasant than the first, was the realization that he was not alone in the room he had woken up in. As his eyes opened and his gaze moved from the canopy of a four-poster bed to his side, there in the room with him, he saw a young woman and an elderly man.

The girl sat on a chair at his bedside, reading an unfurled scroll. She had shoulder-length, light-brown hair, light blue eyes, and flawless fair skin. She wore a tiara wrought in gold and silver and bedecked with sapphires and other fine jewels on the crown of her head, and a regal silk white dress over her body. The old man sat further away, at a table at the center of the room. He was dressed far more modestly: simple dark robes made of fine cloth, whose only decoration was a gold trim, and a brimless cap to cover his thin grey hair. He was reading as well, though his choice of reading material was a ponderous leather tome.

When they heard Alex stir, the both of them looked up from their reading. The girl smiled at him, but the old man pursed his lips and studied him carefully.

"You're finally awake." The girl sighed with relief. "Thank Brimir, I was beginning to fear that you wouldn't."

"Where am I?" Alex murmured as he looked around the room groggily.

"You're in my room, in the Academy of Tristain," the girl answered. "How are you feeling?"

Like shit, is what Alex wanted to say as he tried to sit up, but failed and collapsed back into his pillows with a soft oomph. He moaned from the strain of the effort. He hadn't felt this bad since the day when he had first woken up in that morgue in what felt like a lifetime ago.

"Easy," the girl said, alarmed, as she rose halfway out of her seat to reach out to him, as though to press him back down, but then stopped midway through. She hesitated, then pulled her hand back and sat back down. "I healed you the best I could, but you are still very weak right now. You need to rest."

Alex could only agree with that. With a bit of time, he would be able to repair the worst of the damage done to his body. He likely wouldn't be able to make a full recovery without consuming some fresh biomass, the wounds he had suffered being too severe for that, but soon he would once again be able to walk and run and jump... and fight, if necessary.

He settled back down, making himself more comfortable on the bed as he tried to clear the fog out of his mind. He couldn't seem to remember much of what had happened to him after he had taken the bomb out to sea. How had he gone from the coast of Manhattan to... well, wherever this place was? The Academy of Tristain, she had said, yet that name meant nothing to Alex. The only thing he could recall was some kind of light, not from the blaze of nuclear fire, and then the sensation that he was falling into a never-ending pit.

Alex sighed and rubbed his temple with a thumb. Fuck, even thinking is exhausting.

"Are you all right?" the girl asked.

"I'm fine," Alex grunted, his voice uncharacteristically soft, weak. "Just... tired." He glanced at the girl again. "Who are you?"

"My name is Henrietta de Tristain," the girl replied. She gestured behind her at the old man. "This is my adviser, Cardinal Mazarin. And you? Do you have a name?"

"My name is Alex Mercer," he answered without thinking, and almost immediately he regretted it. That was stupid. Tired as he was, it was still no excuse to have been so careless. He was an internationally wanted terrorist. Should either of these two recognize his name, there would be trouble.

"Alex." Henrietta nodded and smiled blithely at him. Behind her, there was no change in the old man's expression. Seeing this, Alex relaxed. He had gotten lucky, it seemed. They did not know who he was. "It is a pleasure to meet you."

Alex nodded in reply, and then an awkward silence passed over them as Henrietta looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to speak. When it became clear that he had nothing to say, she continued.

"In any case," she said, her smile faltering a little, "I would ask you a few questions."

"I got some questions too," Alex replied.

"Then we can take turns," she declared. "If I might go first?" She leaned in towards him with an intensely curious look on her face, as she rested her chin on a steeple made of her fingers. "Alex, I must know: what are you?"

Alex tensed again immediately. His jaw tightened and his fingers twitched and curled into a fist. Had he had any strength left in his body, he would have bolted upward on instinct, so surprising the question, and so bluntly asked.

"You know I'm not human?" Alex said warily. He had never made an effort to conceal what he was from others, except for when he needed to disguise himself as someone else, but the fact that this girl already knew what he was, or perhaps, more accurately, what he was not, surprised him. As far as he knew, he had not done anything that could have given himself away yet. "How?"

"When I summoned you, you were nothing more than a piece of slime," Henrietta explained. "But then you devoured a bird, and you took the form of a man. This tells me that you have the ability to shapeshift. Yet, of all the shapeshifting creatures I know of, none possess as powerful a regenerative capability as you – not spriggans nor lycans nor anything else. I know that you are not human, Alex, but that is the extent of it. Simply put, I haven't the foggiest idea exactly what you are. Hm? Is something wrong?"

Something was very, very wrong.

"Spriggans? Lycans?" Alex said incredulously. "You summoned me? What the fuck are you talking about? Where the hell am I?"

"What do you mean?" Henrietta said, startled by Alex's sudden outburst. "As I said before, you are in the Academy of Tristain, one of the foremost schools of magic in the world."

Alex's mind was in utter chaos. Innumerable thoughts were running rampant through his head, so many different voices screaming at each other to the point that he was starting to feel physically nauseous, though he knew that was just his weakness complaining.

What Henrietta had told him was a fantastic tale that he almost dared not to believe, could not believe, for it was a tale of magic and kingdoms – a story better suited for the realm of fiction.

According to her, he was currently in a small country called Tristain, of which she was the princess and the heir apparent to the throne, which itself was located on the continent of Halkeginia. Neither names were ones Alex was familiar with, as neither the country nor the continent existed anywhere on Earth.

In other words, he was in another world.

When that thought first occurred to him, he did not believe it. He did not believe when Henrietta told him she was a mage, and he did not believe that he was here because of her. She had "summoned" him through a spell, she said. Ridiculous, he had replied. This was a set up.

When he expressed these doubts, Henrietta merely nodded, picked up her crystal scepter from where it laid on the nightstand, and conjured a sphere of water and sent it flying around the room in whimsical patterns before making it disappear, with hardly a drop of liquid left behind. After that, he had no choice but to believe, no matter how unbelievable all this may seem to him.

"Alex," Henrietta said worriedly. "Are you sure you're feeling all right?"

"Yes," he replied curtly. He was not looking at her anymore. He had one hand over his face, turning his eyes to darkness so that he could try to concentrate. "I'm just... thinking."

"I understand," Henrietta said congenially. "This must be a lot to take in."

Alex nodded, finally removed his hand, and once more made the struggle to rise. Having rested for some time now, he was already feeling much stronger. While it was still difficult for him to move, he could at least manage to sit up without falling back down. Henrietta looked concerned, but did not protest when she saw that he was able to prop himself up against the bed's headboard.

He glanced at her again, and suddenly he felt a wild urge to consume both her and the old man behind her. More than the fact that he needed to restore himself back to physical health, he needed to know more about this new world that he found himself in.

At one point in time, in the early days after he had woken up in that Gentek morgue, he might have followed through on that visceral pang of hunger. But that was then when he had been a much simpler beast, driven only by a desire to know who had infected him and to punish them for it. To that end, he had consumed many people and stole many memories. In the process, he had learned. Through their lives, he had grown. He came to know what it meant to be good and evil, able to discern right from wrong, like having eaten some kind of sick fruit from a fucked up Tree of Knowledge, over and over and over again.

Now that instinct passed almost as quickly as it had come, and would have been easily repressed if it had not. He had no desire to hurt this girl. She had done him no wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact. If she spoke the truth, then by summoning him when she did she may very well have saved his life. But there in lied the most important question, the one thing Alex needed to know before anything else.

"Why did you summon me?" he said, his voice not without a hint of suspicion.

"I did not choose to summon you," Henrietta answered. "I was summoning a familiar, and that you appeared before me is simply how it happened."

"So you're saying that I just got lucky?"

"I would not say it is due to luck," Henrietta replied. "No mage has control over what comes through the summoning gate, certainly, but the spell itself chooses the most appropriate familiar for the mage."

"And the spell chose me to be your familiar," Alex stated, to which Henrietta affirmed with a nod.

Yes, he could see why the spell would bring him to the princess. He could imagine the many different ways the future ruler of a country would want to use him against her enemies, if she learned what he could do. Infiltration. Assassination. Sabotage. War.

All these things, he could do for her... if he was so inclined, and of that he was not. He had just gotten out of one hell of a war. He had no interest in jumping into another one as the personal weapon of a little girl.

It seemed to him that this spell was a dangerous one. Henrietta had gotten lucky that he was actually grateful to be summoned. But somehow he doubted that others in his position would feel the same, unless the spell happened to rescue each and every one of them from some unwanted fate. What happened when a mage summoned a familiar that was both stronger than them and hostile to them? Was that risk and any losses that came from it something that was simply accepted by the mage population as a whole? If so, what were familiars that they would be so valuable to them as to warrant such losses?

Or perhaps the spell only ever summoned a familiar that was weaker than the summoner. Looking at Henrietta, though, Alex found that hard to believe. Even now, weakened as he was, he could not see how he would lose to her in a fight. Then again, he was judging her based on her physique, while she was a mage. Who knew what the extent of her power was?

But even if that was true, it wasn't as if the familiar needed to be stronger than their summoner to kill them. Even if these people were sorcerers, they were still humans, surely. They must have the same basic needs of food, water, and sleep, and so there existed many opportunities for a vengeful familiar to kill their summoner and escape.

Perhaps he was looking at this the wrong way. Henrietta said that the spell summoned "the most appropriate familiar." Did the word "appropriate" here mean a familiar whose temperament and personality meshed well with the summoner's? But it wasn't as though one's disposition or opinion of someone else couldn't change.

Alex sighed and shook his head. His entire situation was so bewildering that he was inadvertently trying too hard to make sense of it all. He was making too many suppositions without enough information to back them, and that only resulted in confusing him even more. He needed to take a step back and start from the beginning.

"You say that I'm your familiar," Alex said finally, "but what does that mean?"

"It means that you would be my lifelong companion," Henrietta replied, smiling gently at him. "Look under your shirt. Do you see those runes on your arm there, just beneath your shoulder?" Alex glanced down at his body and saw that he was wearing clothes not formed of his own biomass. Henrietta must have had him dressed in it while he was unconscious. He rolled up the sleeve of his right arm until it was bunched up around his shoulder and saw a series of strange characters tattooed around his upper arm. "That is the sacred proof of our bond."

"Are you saying that you summoned me... to be your friend?" Alex gave her an incredulous look as he rolled down his sleeve. That was not an answer he was expecting, nor one that he could readily accept. It was just too absurd.

Then again, everything thus far had been one absurdity after another. What was this compared to what had come before? To the fact that he was in another world?

This last point, Alex felt, could not be stressed enough.

"Does that truly seem so strange to you?" Henrietta couldn't help but to look wryly at him now. She shook her head. "Yes, I suppose it must. You could not have known, but being a princess can be a terribly lonely thing. Friends whom I can trust are a rare and valuable breed, yet my enemies are many and critics more numerous still. Truth be told, I would have been happy with any familiar that could have given me some company whilst I exist in that gilded birdcage they call a palace. But instead of giving me some base animal or unthinking beast, the summoning spell gave me you, someone with truly human intelligence, instead. This is almost unheard of, but this too I believe is a blessing from Brimir. You are someone I can converse with instead of merely talk to, and all the better for it."

"I see." Alex paused for a moment to absorb her words. "So this summoning spell usually only summons non-sapient animals?" That would answer a lot of his earlier questions.

"Yes," Henrietta said. "In fact, until today, I have never heard of a familiar so human in quality being summoned. Now there are two."

"Two?" Alex frowned. "Who's the other?"

"He is the familiar of my good friend, Louise Valliere," Henrietta said. "He is much like you, I think."

"I doubt that," Alex said. "If he looks human, then it's probably because he is a human."

"That cannot be," Henrietta shook her head. "The spell has never summoned a human before. It is not possible."

"Yeah?" Alex shrugged. "Either way, he's not like me. There aren't any others like me." He had made sure of it on the USS Reagan.

"Is that so?" Henrietta said, not really understanding but nodding anyway. "Then, now that we've answered some of your questions, I hope we might return to mine. You have yet to tell me: what are you?"

Alex shook his head. "You wouldn't understand."

"You need not hide anything from me, just as I plan not to hide anything from you," Henrietta said gently. "We are mage and familiar now. I want us to be able to trust each other."

"It's hard to trust someone I just met," Alex said, and instantly knew that he had made a mistake when he saw the hurt expression on Henrietta's face. "Sorry. Didn't mean it like that."

"No, it's fine," Henrietta said stiffly. "I should apologize as well. There is much that I have presumed upon, and I forgot that you must still be confused by your presence here." She stood up and grabbed her scepter. "It is almost time for the party now, so I must be leaving. I'll have a servant bring you some food and water shortly. Come, Cardinal, let us leave."

"Yes, Your Highness," the old man said as he stood up and followed after Henrietta. But when she got to the door, she suddenly stopped, one hand on the knob, and hesitated. She motioned for the old man to go out first. When he was gone, she glanced back over her shoulder and said softly:

"... but perhaps we can speak more at length later and get to know each other better then?"

"Yeah, sure," Alex said, and then after his own moment of hesitation, tentatively added, "I'd like that."

Henrietta smiled at him again, and she closed the door behind her.