Author's Note: This is a rewrite of an old fic of mine.
Henrietta paced her room with impatience exuding from every step and gesture that she made. Irritating. There was no other word to describe the current situation. She already knew and understood that as princess of Tristain she had certain responsibilities. And as superfluous as some of them may seem, it was undoubtedly vital for her to fulfill those obligations if she wanted to maintain her appearances as heiress to the throne.
That, however, made it all the more aggravating because it meant that she could not get out of said duties to take care of more pressing matters, or at least take part in more enjoyable activities.
"Your Highness," Cardinal Mazarin said, "please sit down."
Henrietta ignored him. She walked over to the window and looked outside at the servants setting up chairs and tables before a sturdy stage of gleaming white marble adorned with rich silks and velvet. Nearby, many of the students of the academy were lounging on the grass in the school's uniform, basking in the warm sunlight and chatting among themselves. Further away, beyond the Academy's limits, she could see carriages slowly driving towards the school.
"Princess Henrietta," Mazarin said again.
"What?" Henrietta finally replied, a tad more rudely than was strictly appropriate.
"It is unbecoming for Your Highness to behave this way," Mazarin said with grandfatherly patience. "Sit, and wait."
"I can't help it," Henrietta huffed, though she did as he bade and sat on a chair across from him. "We've already spent hours in here, locked up like prisoners. I would at least like to go get some fresh air."
"If it's fresh air you wish, then open the window."
"You know that's not what I meant," Henrietta snapped. "I want to go outside."
"And you already know why you cannot do that. The amount of commotion it would cause among the staff and students would interfere with the preparations."
Henrietta didn't deny those words. Though she did not like it, she could not honestly disagree with him. It did not, however, change the fact that she spoke the truth as well. They had been provided with the finest guest room the Academy of Tristain had to offer, and it made for a fine cage. With a sigh, Henrietta stood up and went over to the window again.
All this would have been so much more bearable if she had been permitted to at least visit her best friend, Louise. The fact that she was so close to her, yet unable to actually see her, was almost maddening. She had considered calling Louise to her room, but that idea had been rejected by Mazarin. A princess, he said, could not be seen to so blatantly favor one of her subjects over all the rest. The rumors would only hurt her in the long run. There was a wisdom there that Henrietta could not refute. But, again, it did not mean she had to like it.
"They look like they're having fun," Henrietta murmured longingly.
"Yes," Mazarin said. "But such is the price of being royalty. One's personal pleasure is of secondary concern when compared to the good of the nation."
"It is a fate I would not wish upon anyone. A heavy burden."
"I have no doubt you will bear that burden well, when you ascend to the throne, as your father did before you."
"Mmm..." Henrietta looked back at Mazarin. "Don't you think that this is poor timing?"
"I'm afraid I don't follow, Your Highness."
"With so much more pressing concerns at hand, do you not believe that our time would be better spent on those issues? Compared to that, attending this" – she gestured outside – "seems like a frivolous waste of time."
"It is precisely because we are in such uncertain times that we are here. It is not the act of summoning in and of itself that is important. What matters is that it is traditional for the heir to the throne to participate in the Academy's Familiar Summoning Festival. By maintaining such traditions even in the face of adversity, we reassure the people that despite the hardships that might await Tristain, its rulers will remain its infallible guardians."
"That seems... deceitful."
Mazarin smiled. "Like war, the language of politics is deceit."
Henrietta stared at the carriages nearing the Academy. They were closer now, though at the rate they were proceeding they were still at least half an hour away. Yet, such a pace did not seem at all lazy. Rather, there was a certain air to it, like a royal procession. It made sense, since each, she knew, was carrying the families of the second year students. That meant that they were all nobles of at least some importance. Such nobles had a tendency to always behave as one born of the highest pedigree, or at least put up a pretense of such when they thought that someone might be watching them.
Henrietta sighed as she watched the dust rise up. "A heavy burden, indeed."
Above the waters off the coast of Manhattan, fire with the heat of a newborn sun bloomed outwards. Its blaze boiled the ocean. Its heat incinerated the clouds. And all that suffered the misfortune of bearing its wrath were burned to nothingness.
But the weapon meant to kill millions failed. The innocent were spared from perdition's flames; the guilty went free from its retribution. There were no victims this day. No victims, save one.
Alex Mercer screamed as a pain like he had never known before seized him, but his voice was lost in the explosion. He was swallowed whole by the searing flames. In an instant, his helicopter was vaporized, his clothes burned, his flesh melted and slagged, and his very bones were carbonized. But he was no ordinary being. Even as the fire continued to destroy his body, his body continuously regenerated, escaping annihilation by the barest thread. It was a vicious cycle, yet not one without an end. For while he was strong, the power of a nuclear weapon was stronger still. Soon, he could recover no more.
Alex dropped into the boiling ocean. No traces of his former human-like form existed now. The fires had purged him of that. It reduced him into nothing more than a glob of slime, a stain soaking in the irradiated sea water. And when all seemed lost, when it seemed that even this remnant of the Monster of Manhattan would be erased, the fires vanished, its energy having finally run out. In its place, drifting alone along the scorching waves, only the slime remained.
Sympathy. That was what the Princess of Tristain felt for her best friend. She had always known of Louise's ability for magic – or lack thereof – but even she had never expected the youngest daughter of the Valliere family to summon a human.
Was such a thing even possible?
Strictly speaking, the summoning spell merely summoned the familiar most suited for the mage. Nowhere in that definition did it say that it was impossible to summon another person. But the fact remained that this had never before happened in history. Was that not proof that something had gone wrong with Louise's spell?
Any further contemplation was interrupted by the roaring laughter that sprang up from both the other students and their family, who comprised the bulk of the audience. Anger filled Henrietta. How dare they laugh at her friend? What right did they have to do so?
Damn them. Then damn the crown for preventing her from supporting Louise.
To her credit, Louise bore the humiliation with a dignity that Henrietta could only envy. She sealed the contract with a very confused boy and moved off stage to allow the next person to summon their own familiar. And as Louise was the last of the students, that meant that it was finally Henrietta's turn to step up onto the stage.
The princess stood from the front row table that she sat at with Mazarin and walked up a red carpet trimmed with cloth-of-gold with a grace forged through many, many, many, many long and monotonous hours of practice. As she walked past the students who stood at attention off the side of the stage, Henrietta glanced at Louise from the corner of her eye. She gave a brief smile that she hoped was encouraging before ascending to the stage proper.
As a triangle class water mage, Henrietta already had a rough idea of the type of familiar she would be summoning. It would be either some type of aquatic or semiaquatic beast for sure, which was why four pairs of servants brought up two large tubs on stage. One was then filled with freshwater; the other with saltwater. They were simple precautions. If she should happen to summon a familiar that could not survive outside of water, then these would facilitate it until it could be transported to a more appropriate environment.
Such cases were not common. Rare was the time when water mages would summon a totally aquatic animal, but it was not unheard of. Her own grandfather had summoned a shark, which promptly died of suffocation because they had not taken proper measures beforehand. Ever since, it had been the norm for water mages to have an appropriately sized body of water on hand for their familiar.
That said, she did not hope to summon a shark. She wanted something more convenient, even if it was something small like a frog. On the other hand, she could not afford to summon something so meek either. For though Mazarin had called her participation in this festival a tradition, he failed to mention just why it was tradition.
The practice stretched back to the early days of Tristain's history. At that time, the political atmosphere was particularly tense, with many disgruntled nobles conspiring to overthrow then-King Charles the First. In order to stabilize the state of affairs and prevent a civil war, a show of strength had been required. Thus, King Charles called for the worst of his detractors to his court and proceeded to summon a mature sea dragon and successfully contracted it as his familiar.
While this had not been enough to fully silence his critics and detractors, it did quiet them. To summon such a powerful familiar, the scourge of the oceans, required an immense amount of personal power and talent. It was proof of King Charles's strength, and it was one less thing that his enemies could attack him for.
Henrietta did not know whether or not that story was true, but if it was she could only imagine what a nightmare of logistics of having to actually take care of the beast was. Not only were they notoriously violent and territorial creatures, sea dragons regularly gorged themselves on nearly half their body weight and required a vast amount of water to truly thrive. Rumor had it that the lake behind the palace, the largest in the country and one of the largest in all the continent, was actually an artificial one manufactured to house the dragon.
In the end, that was what her participation in this festival was: a show of strength.
Perhaps it was for that reason that she found the entire ordeal to be downright bothersome. She did not care for showing off whatever power she might have, though she could not deny that it was important that she do so, especially with her reputation.
Henrietta was not a deaf woman. She knew exactly what the people said about her. They called her the "Flower of Tristain." They hailed her as the most beautiful woman in all the country. They also knew her to be a weak princess, and if she wanted to have a successful reign as queen one day, then, like King Charles, she needed to change that thinking here and now. She needed to begin earning respect.
Henrietta raised her crystal scepter and spoke the sacred spellwords.
He was drowning. Dying. The water burned his flesh and strove to pull him beneath the waves. He did not want to die, but what could he do? He no longer had the energy to even move, let alone regenerate from his weakened state.
With nothing but a little time left to him, Alex began thinking back on his life. No, not his life. He himself was but three weeks old, and nearly all of it had been spent fighting. Fighting to regain his memories, though they were not truly his; fighting to take revenge; fighting to obtain an identity; fighting to save lives. So much fighting. So many struggles. But there were memories within of more peaceful times.
David had been a happily married man with two beautiful children. With a good job and excellent relationships with his friends, colleagues, and relatives, his future had been bright. His children adored him. His wife loved him. His had been a life anyone would envy.
Alexandra was a septuagenarian, and though she, like Alex, had been nearing death, she had not feared. She had found comfort and strength in her friends, her husband, and her belief in God. Her days were full of peace and prayer and quiet joy.
Sung-woon was foreign exchange student who had come to America with big dreams and ambitions. He was going to graduate from medical school, become a successful doctor, and earn a large enough income to support his aging parents and his girlfriend back home, who he intended to propose to once he graduated and began his career. Eventually, after saving enough money, he would retire and travel the globe with his wife and write a book on their travels.
Even Alex Mercer – the real Alex Mercer – had at least a few happy memories. His science experiments was one. The times when Dana managed to drag him away from said experiments in order to go skating or watch movies or do whatever else normal kids their age did was another.
Those memories, along with hundreds of others filled Alex's mind. They were not his, true, and the fact that he had them at all was proof of the fact that he had been the one to murder those people, but even so he allowed himself to wallow in their memories; to share in a peace and joy that he had never known.
Was this, he wondered, what it was like to have one's life flash before their eyes?
Damn. He didn't want to die. He truly did not wish to die. Was it wrong of him to think so when he had been responsible for so many deaths? Perhaps, yet it did not change his feelings. To live. He wanted to live.
Light blazed forth like the rising of the sun. With what little sensory organs Alex had remaining, he noticed the shimmering gate that appeared before him. Was it a hallucination? A mirage? Or was it something else? He did not know, but the water flowed towards it as if it was an open drain, carrying Alex with it, through it, down it...
All around him, light vanished. Heat vanished. Sound vanished. Everything vanished, save for the awareness that he was falling and falling and falling. And when light burst forth once more, he found himself on solid ground.
It was wet.
That was the first thing that Henrietta thought upon seeing her new familiar: A piece of ruddy black-and-red slime soaked foul with sea water. She could not make heads or tails of exactly what this thing was, and in fact questioned whether it was an animal at all. Suddenly, she became acutely aware of the deafening silence that had seized the atmosphere around her. She did not need to look up to know that everyone was staring at her. She could feel it like a physical force.
This was not what she had intended to do when she came here this day. She was supposed to have summoned a decent familiar, one that could garner a quiet respect, and go about making niceties with some of the most important nobles in the country. Near the back of the audience, a single muffled snicker resounded like thunder. More followed, and Henrietta's face flushed a bright pink. Was this how Louise felt, she wondered? If so, then she had to commend her fortitude. It was taking all that she had to not simply flee in shame.
From its perch upon its master's shoulder, a crow fluttered to the stage and began picking at the slime. The scavenger had found an easy meal.
That was the trigger.
Though none dared to laugh as openly as they had to Louise – Henrietta still being the princess, such an action would be enough to charge them for lèse-majesté – quiet chuckles and snorts began coming from all directions. Henrietta swallowed a lump down her throat and kept her gaze affixed upon the slime, her familiar, and the crow pecking at it.
It was why she was the first to notice that something was off.
Thin tendrils of the slime stuck to the crow's beak. It chirped and flapped its wings as it tried to hop away from the offending material. In doing so, its feathers lightly brushed against its would be meal. More tendrils attached themselves to the bird's pinions like glue.
That was when the bird realized that something was amiss and began squawking in alarm. It struggled more vigorously, striving to escape, but the slime's hold on it was strong. Slowly, it dragged its prey closer to its main body, the formless mass that now seemed to tremble in excitement.
Henrietta was dimly aware that the laughter had ceased as they, like her, watched in almost horrified fascination at the act of predation happening right before their eyes. In a rational part of her mind, the princess couldn't help but wonder just how, if at all, the slime planned to consume its prey. From what she could tell, it had no mouth. How would it eat something even larger than itself?
That question was answered in short order. It did not eat the crow like other living beings would. Instead, like a swarm of ants, the slime began crawling up the crow's body once it had been brought close enough. All the while, the bird unrelentingly screeched in panic. It was only when the slime had encased the bird perfectly within itself that the sounds ceased abruptly. For a second, the slime stood still like a clay model of the bird it had seized. And then it shuddered and collapsed in on itself, once more returning to a formless mass, the crow gone.
But it was different now. Having had a meal, the slime was much larger, at least as wide as the width of Henrietta's own shoulders. And the gurgling. There was a sound like that of a ravenous stomach rumbling from the slime, coinciding with the bubbling of its surface.
Everyone watched with bated breath as the reaction continued. Henrietta herself leaned in with curiosity. She almost fell backwards with an alarmed cry when something burst out of her familiar, almost as if it had been deliberately trying to scare her.
Not that it succeeded. No, of course not. A princess never allowed her emotions to seize control of her like that, not even for an instant.
It did come very close, though.
Henrietta took a second to recompose herself with a deep breath and then took a careful look at the protruding thing. To her great surprise – and disgust – it was a human hand. A hand that had been flayed of its skin and left with only rotting meat attached to the bones, certainly, but a hand nevertheless.
The bony fingers clacked together and slapped down on the marble stage with a loud wet sound. Splunk! Using that as an anchor, it pushed itself upwards. Then, just like a person pulling himself free from a pool of water, a man rose.
The head came first. Like the hand, it too was rotting and grotesque. Distantly, Henrietta heard the sound of screams and some weaker stomached nobles hurling up whatever snacks had been provided for them earlier. Eyeballs rolled in the slime creature's lidless sockets while its jaw opened and shut in short, rapid succession, uttering a death rattle like the hiss of a snake as it took great gasping breaths. Its nose was missing and cheek-flesh ripped apart to show the white of the bones beneath.
After the head came the body, if it could be called that. Less than flesh and blood, a veritable skeleton struggled to rise. As bare as it was, one could see the distinct lack of organs that all living things had. It made Henrietta question whether this thing was truly alive, though rationally she knew that it must be.
The body itself was supported by a spindly pair of legs, which threatened to give out at the passing of the slightest breeze. Predictably, the skeleton fell to its hands and knees. And that was when the creature... man... whatever it was surprised Henrietta once more.
It began healing.
What little flesh remained on its form began spreading. It stretched over its skeletal structure and covered it in a pale, almost transparent membrane. Thicker flesh and new organs began forming under this skin until its body was not simply a skin covered skeleton, but an actual human body. And then it stopped, as if unable to continue further.
It was not a perfect recovery, anyone could see that just by looking, but it was a vast improvement. Where once the man before her had been a mere skeleton of rotting flesh, he was now an emaciated wastrel. For all appearances, he was a man on the verge of death by starvation. His skin was stretched taut along his form, his features sunken in. Only the shallow breathing indicated that he was still alive, though unconscious.
For a moment, Henrietta stood perplexed on how to proceed. It was clear that this man needed medical attention, and fast. Yet, he was also her familiar. That meant that she needed to seal the contract. But it seemed somehow... wrong to do so to an unconscious, perhaps even dying, man.
Or was it even a man? Men, after all, do not suddenly grow from slime.
Henrietta glanced towards Mazarin. He noticed and nodded faintly at her. With a sigh, Henrietta knelt down beside the stranger and bent her head over his. She placed her lips on his for a mere moment, but that moment was enough. The contract was sealed.