The various fictional worlds, characters and elements that are written about in this fanfiction belong to their various creators, who I'm too lazy to list. This is purely a fan work and not intended to generate any sort of profit. I know that if it does a fair number of bloodthirsty lawyers are likely to make my life miserable. As always constructive criticism is welcome and flames will be ignored.

Well, here's the latest, it's been something of a struggle to write, but that's been due to me playing Persona 3 and 4 back to back, binging on the Mass Effect trilogy and watching all three seasons of Elementary in slightly staggered marathon. All that, plus some writer's block, made it something of a challenge to get this chapter done. The thing was that after my last chapter of God Slaying Blade Works I realized that it had been over a year since I worked on this.

Anyway I'm glad with how well received the Nemesis Beta was as an Avatar. I got a fair number of suggestions for future Avatars, and I thank everyone that made a contribution. As it turns out Brolly from Dragon Ball Z was quite a popular choice, but sadly not one I can take. When I started this fic I considered several DBZ characters since they had the right build for what I was looking for, in the end I discarded the notion for the simple fact that every character in the series was too overpowered for my taste. I mean they start at 'blast the moon from the sky' level and only skyrocket from there. Don't get me wrong, I like the series and have watched the whole thing as well as all the movies, I just think that when it comes to crossing it with other series the sheer scale of power involved makes things a bit difficult, at least for me anyway.


Now, I admit that this is something of a filler chapter, but it's setting things up for the plot that I have planned. After the last chapter being so heavy on the action I decided to take a chapter to focus on the relationships that Alex has been developing as well as give him a chance to have a break and a little fun.

Just so you know, he has managed to unlock another item from his Book of Seals, but it's a minor thing, not a weapon or an Avatar. Have fun guessing.

This chapter also reveals why I haven't had Alex deliberately trying to unlock as many things as possible. I hope it doesn't come across as too contrived, but I really wanted to ensure that he wouldn't be gaining too many advantages too fast.

Anyway, I would once again like to offer my sincerest thanks to my Beta for all his help in getting this chapter ready for general reading. Incidentally this chapter now holds the record for the most rewrites. I take a certain pride in that for the most part my work is most up to scratch on the first go; unfortunately this particular chapter gave me no end of trouble. Hence the delay in release. I hope everyone enjoys it. Now, back to the next chapter of God Slaying Blade Works.

Why Me? Chapter 12: Aftermath

"Iskander . . . you were dead! I saw you die! That scythe went right through your heart! How . . . how are you alive?!"

Louise reached out for her Summon as though to confirm that what she was seeing was actually real. Then her hand froze, trembling slightly. Real fear flashed across her face as she looked at him. Not fear of him, but rather fear for him, fear that she'd confirm that what she saw wasn't real. That it was all some sort of dream or hallucination, that he really was dead.

Such fears vanished as she felt Iskander's large hand gently press down on her shoulder. It was a simple gesture, little more than a wordless affirmation of his simple existence, but at that very moment it was more welcome than the embrace of any lover could have been.

". . . Iskander?"

"You'll not be getting out of your next session of training that easily."

That . . . that was just so stupid. It was like the lines of one of the heroes from the silly stories he was always telling to her. Right now though, she would have happily listened to a hundred of them. Iskander was alive and that was all tha-


Before she could complete the thought a reddish blur shot past her and cannoned into her Summon with enough force that he actually rocked back slightly on his heels.

"H-Hey, calm down Kirche. I'm okay, you don't need to worry. I'm fi-"


The fire mage punctuated each word with a thump to the leather armour on Iskander's chest. Even as she watched some detached part of Louise's mind noted that even though she'd seen the leather breastplate impaled and torn there was now not even a scratch on it. Well, given that her Summon was apparently perfectly fine despite having had a huge blade run straight through his heart that was hardly the biggest surprise.

"You were DEAD! I saw it, we all did! How are you alive? What was that . . . that thing? How'd you change form like that? How are you alive?!"

There was a definite edge of hysteria creeping into the Germanian girl's voice as she continued to pound on his chest. The blows themselves didn't hurt at all, but the strangely out of character behaviour from Kirche was having some effect. Louise could see it in the way that Iskander's expression seemed to somehow harden and soften at the same time.


It would seem that even Tabitha wanted to know just what was going on. The normally quiet girl has spoken with unusual force, and was gripping her staff tightly enough that her knuckles were pretty pale. It wasn't a white knuckled grip yet, but it seemed to be well on its way there.

Taking a deep breath Louise tried to find her centre of control. She was a Vallière; she couldn't let herself be so swept away by what had happened that she utterly abandoned the dignity of a noble. That was the sort of thing that you could expect from a Germanian like Kirche. She was a noble of Tristain though; she had to hold herself to a higher standard.

"Iskander, what happened? There's no way you could have survived that, and what was that monster you turned into? Was it a Righteous Pantomime?"

There, she'd said it calmly and straight forwardly. She had most certainly not climbed up her Summon so she could seize him by the collar of his mantle and try to physically shake the answers out of him. Nope, that would be most undignified, why; the thought hadn't even crossed her mind.

Apparently Iskander was somewhat less than impressed, not given that the look he was giving her was as flat as a lake on a midsummer's day.

"'Righteous Pantomime'? Are you deliberately messing up the name Louise?"

"I'll write it down a hundred times later if you want! Just tell me what in the Founder's name just happened!"

Alright, so maybe her composure was fraying at the edges.

"Let's . . . let's take care of Miss Longueville before we get into anything. I don't really feel comfortable discussing my secrets in front of someone that tried to kill us a bit ago."

Louise opened her mouth to protest, but then there was a sudden whooshing sound, a thump and then a dull thud. Looking up at Sylphid the young Vallière saw the form of the criminal mage slump forward onto the blue dragon's back. Glancing back at her group she saw that Tabitha had her staff extended and pointing at the unconscious villain's form.

"She won't hear, now talk."

Okay . . . the small wind mage could be seriously worrying when she wanted to be.


It would seem that Iskander was of a similar opinion, because he held his hands up defensively as he sat down on the grass. It made for a very strange scene; him sitting there, the bodies of the monsters in the background and the area in general torn up all over the place by the battle that had taken place.

"It's . . . I'm not completely sure what happened, but I think that somehow when I was summoned something went . . . well, not wrong exactly, but definitely weird."

"Darling, every time Louise does a spell something goes weird in a very explosive way. You'll have to be a bit more specific that that."

Kirche's comment was enough to make Louise grind her teeth, but she refrained from yelling back at the top heavy red head. She wanted to know what Iskander would say in reply.

"Maybe, but in this case I think it was a case of her going too right." He waved one arm in a vague gesture before continuing, "Summons like me have a sort of . . . presetness to them. Its like, when we gain the power of a Summon that power works in a certain way, it follows certain pre-existing guidelines. That's where the class system comes from, the class that we fit into goes some way to determining the nature of our powers and skills"

He drew Derflinger from its sheath and stabbed him into the ground before him.

"I was summoned in the class of a Rider. That's one of the more flexible classes in that I have a number of skills that aren't dependant upon me using my mount or vehicle. It lets me be strong with my swords and good with weapons of different types."

"A mount? I've never seen you riding anything other than the occasional trip on one of the academy's horses."

Kirche sounded intrigued at this new side to her romantic target. Louise made a mental note to be more on guard of her Summon once they got back to the academy, the red headed harlot was liable to try and trap him in a corner and attempt to seduce his secrets out of him. She'd have to be extra vigilant.

"You've never seen me ready to go all out," Iskander replied, "Still, let me keep some secrets, okay? It's much more interesting that way."

"Never mind that, what was that monster?!" Louise's control on her temper was starting to erode as the answers she wanted failed to present themselves.

"That . . . that was a . . . Berserker." Her Summon haltingly explained. "Berserkers are Summons that trade their reason for power. Have you ever heard stories about wild barbarians that charge into battle without armour, but don't seem to feel fear or pain? It's like that. Berserkers are dangerous wild card Summons, they're hard to control and sometimes even turn on their Summoners', but the flipside is that they're also VERY hard to put down. Even weak Berserkers can take a lot of damage before they fall; strong ones are even more of a nightmare to fight. Sometimes you have to cut out their hearts, sever their heads and burn the body just make sure they're not going to get up again.

"I don't know how or why . . . but somehow my power was set to . . . transform me into a Berserker if I ever received a fatal wound. That thing . . . the Nemesis Beta, it could survive and recover from a pierced heart."

"'Nemesis Beta', is that what that thing was called?"

"Look, we can talk about it later. Right now let's see about dealing with Longueville. I dare say that there are quite a few people that are less than happy with her. We've also got to worry about finding where she's stashed the rest of her loot, there was just the Staff of Destruction here after all, and she did steal quite a bit of stuff from the vault. We should be-"

That was it! She'd had enough! Forget control! Forget decorum! If he was going to try to change the subject now then she was going to have to get her answers out of him the hard way, even if that meant she had to blast them out one explosion at a time!



Louise didn't shout, she didn't even raise her voice. Yet somehow the single utterance of his assumed name seemed to make the rest of the world shut up lest it somehow draw her attention. In his mind's eye he had a sudden mad image of oddly animated looking woodland creatures producing little bomb helmets which they donned as they hunkered down in their holes and warrens while shivering in fear. Of course, that was just a flash of fancy, a random thought that went through his head while the vast majority of his mind focused on the fact that his small Summoner was right on the verge of losing her temper.

It was actually a rather disturbingly cute image, but that quality was detracted by the fact that Alex was well aware that he was walking on the edge of a knife.

He'd panicked, he had to admit it. Becoming the Nemesis Beta wasn't something that he could ever have expected. He'd known that he had other forms, other Avatars, but he hadn't been able to work out just what they'd be. He'd been thinking something like other Servant forms or something like that. Becoming that . . . that thing had been something else entirely. And that was just the transformation itself, he hadn't even begun to get started on the fact that he'd been KILLED! He was worried that if he really did start to think about it too seriously then he might have a panic attack right there on the spot.

So he'd tried to avoid talking about it, tried to simply put it off until he'd had some time to try and wrap his head around it. Perhaps it wasn't the most sophisticated or sensible way of dealing with what had happened, but it had been all that he could come up with on the spur of the moment.

Unfortunately it would seem that his companions were less than eager to let him go through with the plan. It was quite clear that all of them had questions and weren't willing to wait for the answers. He'd tried to deflect their attention to dealing with Fouquet or tracking down the treasure that she'd stolen, but even that wasn't enough to sway them. Damnit, all he wanted was some time, time to get his story straight in his head so he could explain things without sounding like a lunatic. Unfortunately it was looking increasingly likely that he'd have to rely on his somewhat spotty talents in ad lib performance.

"Alright then, what do you want to know?" Alex tried to centre himself as he asked the question, but even so he felt a definite fluttering in his stomach. This felt almost as bad as having to take a driving test again, he thought morosely.

"Alive . . . how?"

Tabitha beat the others to the punch by voicing her question before they could finish opening their mouths. Her calm gaze fixed on him with an odd intensity to them.

"I honestly don't know," he admitted, "Well, actually that's not quite right. I know how I'm alive, I just don't know why that is."

Seeing the clear confusion on both Louie's and Kirche's faces he elaborated.

"The Nemesis Beta is a creature with a very powerful healing ability. As in 'cut out its heart and it will grow a new one before it becomes a problem' powerful. The first Nemesis, the Alpha I suppose, it got hit with enough punishment to kill even the hardiest man a hundred times over. Shot, blown up, hit by lightning, drowned in acid, burned, blasted, stabbed; it took it all and just kept on going, relentless. I . . . I think my powers were set up so that if I ever received a fatal blow I would automatically shift into that form so I'd survive."

It was the truth, and it bothered him far more than he was willing to say. Ever since he'd seen the book that came out of his hand and read what was on its pages Alex had been pretty sure that there was someone, or maybe something behind his arrival in this world that as far as he knew was a work of fiction. The whole system of him being a pseudo Servant, the transformation of his mundane possessions into magical artefacts or powers, all of it implied that there was some sort of intelligence behind it, someone making decisions and plans.

And if that was true then it meant that him being there, what he could do and what he might do, it was all part of a plan. Or, and this might be even worse, there was no plan, he'd been equipped like this and just dropped here so that someone could watch and see what happened. He'd read plenty of stories like that on the internet, fanfiction with all manner of justifications as to why the insertion character had suddenly found himself in whichever world they were in.

"This . . . Nemesis, just what is it?" Louise asked.

Right, how could he explain bio-engineering and something like the T-Virus? Even the concept of genetics would probably be a massive culture shock to them. Well, maybe not, they were all intelligent young women, enough so that they could take in new ideas without having their conceptions forcibly shattered. Damn it, why couldn't things just be simpler?

"Imagine a . . . country . . . no, I mean a collection of countries. Ones in a far off land that you've never heard of, where merchants rule all," he began slowly. "Magic is just another commodity to be bought and sold; social standing is determined by wealth. There are wars there, and the merchants sell weapons to the various parties, weapons that are sold for huge sums. Year after year the wars come and go, some end, but another one starts elsewhere and the business of the merchants continues unabated.

"But as with all business there is competition. Those that make the best weapons get the most customers, and so they have the most wealth. Merchants that can't provide something special are left behind, their businesses floundering and dying as they fall into poverty. As such there is a race. Who can make the best weapons, who can draw the most purchases, who can survive?"

It was coming easier now. He'd always enjoyed telling stories, even when he was a child Alex had told stories to anyone that would listen, his older siblings, his friends, classmates, anyone. And he'd been good enough at it that for the most part his audience was normally quite interested. That was what he was doing now really, telling a story to make what he wanted to tell them understandable.

"So more weapons are made, sharper swords, more accurate bows, portable cannons, all sorts of things. All so that war can be fought on a bloodier and bloodier scale than ever before. And this goes on for years, then decades, then centuries.

"And then one particular guild of merchants think to themselves that rather than marketing a better weapon wouldn't it be more profitable to market a better soldier. After all a weapon is only as good as the one that wields it, but a better soldier . . . that's something that can wield itself again and again and again."

The three girls were listening with rapt fascination as he continued to paint a bloody picture for them with his words. There was a definite satisfaction to it, he had to admit.

"So they start by specially training bought slaves, then they move to volunteers who become fanatics. There's all kinds of secret methods used, ways to turn soft boys into living weapons, but it's still not enough, not for them to ruin their competitors. So they need more, more edges, more advantages.

"So they start trying to make their soldiers better. Potions that increase their strength but cut down their lifespan. Surgeries that sew weapons directly into them so that they're parts of their bodies. Armour literally married to their flesh so it can never be removed. All of this and more is used, but it's still not enough.

"So they go deeper, they try to change the very flesh that makes up their soldiers. And do you know how they do this?"

The pseudo Servant paused, both for dramatic effect and to take the measure of his small audience. Louise listened as raptly as any child would in the cinema when it played their favourite movie. Kirche seemed somewhat less enthralled, but only a little bit. She was fidgeting slightly clearly eager to know what happened next. Tabitha though was the most unnerving by far. Her attention wasn't that of a spectator but rather that of a veteran gathering information. Well, he knew about her circumstances, so he could understand that.

"Illnesses are caused by the illness invading the body and causing changes that are harmful. Most of the symptoms of sickness are caused by the body fighting back and trying to return to normal, but what the illness really does is change the victim."

Alright, that was such a broad description of how viruses worked that it was almost useless, but the broad strokes at least made easier for them to understand the basic concept of a . . . retro genetic virus, was that the right term?

Ah well, who cared? It wasn't as though anyone was going to be in a position to correct him if he was off.

"The merchants found a sickness, an illness that was a plague beyond anything you can imagine. Anyone it infected died, and anyone the infected touched became infected in turn. It was a pestilence that brought death and ruin everywhere it appeared, whole cities reduced to mass graves the roads lined with rotting corpses.

"They took the sickness and thought to use it as a weapon. But then one among them, the cleverest and the maddest, came up with another idea. The sickness killed by changing people, what if he could change the sickness so that instead of killing it would instead make the changes he wanted?"

He could see both his Summoner and Kirche shudder at what he described, but Tabitha remained as focused as ever. Had he made the right choice in revealing to her the concept of bio-warfare? She was a sensible girl with a good head and a good heart, if his memories of the show and the books were right. But what if she mentioned it to her uncle? That guy was more than a few cards short of a deck, he was missing entire suits. If he was introduced to the idea of germ warfare then he might be willing to unleash a plague or two simply out of mild interest.

No! He'd have to trust that the small wind mage was sensible enough to keep quiet about it. The only alternative was to kill her to ensure her silence, and he wasn't ready to go to those kinds of extremes just yet.

"The merchant had some success. He made soldiers that felt no pain or fear, warriors that would keep fighting even as they bled or burned. You could cut off their limbs and they'd still keep fighting. You could stab them all the way through and they'd still keep on trying to kill you. It wasn't until you cut their heads off that they'd finally stop.

"But such soldiers were irrational and dangerous. What the merchant wanted was a perfect monster, one that was utterly obedient and only a step or two short of immortal. There were many failures, many monsters produced. But in the end the merchant finally succeeded . . . after a fashion anyway."

With one arm Alex gestured towards the cooling heaps of flesh that had once been the two monsters.

"That's what the Nemesis Beta is, the final creation of a mad project to create the perfect living weapon. It feels no pain, knows no mercy and questions no order. You simply give it a target and it will pursue it until it's dead. Anything that gets in the way will die, any wound it takes will heal, it doesn't rest, it doesn't eat, it doesn't stop, it is relentless.

"Now imagine a warrior like that, one with a mind as cold and mechanical as any machine, but smart enough to hunt and track, skilled in all manner of weapons, and ferocious enough to make even the most demented fanatic back away in fear. That is the Nemesis Beta."

Alex was actually quite proud of himself. He'd managed to make the bioengineered monster into something akin to the monster in a horror film, but in a narrative form. It got across the basic concept without him having to go into the awkward details like the T-Virus, advanced surgery and biomechanical augmentation.

"Alright, so that's what that monster was, but why did you turn into it?"

Right, that was another hard question to answer. Especially given that he wasn't too sure about the answer himself. As far as he could see the only link between Iskander and the Nemesis Beta was that he'd cosplayed as both of them at some point in the past. However he didn't think that would be regarded as a satisfactory or even sane answer by his pink haired Summoner.

Frantically casting about mentally for an idea Alex suddenly recalled the conversation he and Louise had had after his duel with Guiche. Something he'd said back then, something that could be useful.

"Do . . . you remember what I told you about Summons back when you first asked me about them?"

The young Vallière blinked at the apparent non sequitur, but nodded her head.

"Then you remember what I told you about Summons being like vessels?" At her answering nod he continued, "Sometime, when a new Summon has no . . . resources of their own to call on different things can happen. Sometimes the Summon will be augmented to become equal to the task, sometimes they'll develop new powers or skills out of nowhere, sometimes they're gifted with weapons or artefacts that will let them be suitable for their Summoner.

"And sometimes these 'blank' vessels will mimic other Summons that they might have some connection to."

"Yes," Louise agreed, "You said that because you shared a name with that old king that was also called Iskander and because you tried to follow his example there was a sort of link between you. That's why you can use his chariot."

Both Kirche and Tabitha were looking a bit confused now. Neither of them had ever seen him use his Noble Phantasm before, so they had no idea what he and Louise were talking about. Well, that was fine, if he was able to make it through all this without any major problems then he'd be happy to show them later.

"That's it," he agreed, tabling thoughts of explanations to the other girls for later, right now he had to deal with this. "I'm not sure, but I think that somehow I've got more than one link set up to my own 'vessel', and one of those links is tied to the Nemesis Beta."

Silence filled the clearing as the three students looked at him.

"Why would you have any sort of link to something like . . . that?" Louise asked, the fear clear in her voice. Not fear of him, but rather fear of the thing that he'd become.

Well, he had been the guy that invented the damned thing, that was a link right there, but he could hardly tell them that. He felt as though he was shovelling sand about, each answer led only to more questions, and he had to keep all his answers straight.

"I . . . studied the history of the Nemesis Beta when I was younger," he explained, "I was curious about that time, and the creation of something like that seemed to exemplify the times. Maybe it was learning so much about it that made the link, I don't know."

He watched all of them for their reactions, but the one that he paid the most attention to was Tabitha. Of the three she was by far the canniest, given her past that was hardly a surprise, if any of them were going to be able to pick his story apart it would be her. However he could tell nothing from her expression, her face was as calm and blank as ever.

In a small corner of his mind he wondered why kuudere like her never tried their hands at poker; they'd probably be able to make a killing.

Whatever the case she wasn't making any move to contradict him or to query what he'd said. For now that would have to do.

"And what about . . . those?" Kirche asked gesturing at the remains of the two monsters. "Do you know what they were?"

That was a good question, one that he wished he had a better answer for. His memories of what had happened after he'd taken the blow to his heart were hazy, but one thing he was sure of was that the armoured giants had turned into those monsters that he'd fought while in a berserk rage. Despite all that had happened he couldn't help but wish at least one of them was still alive. He had far too many questions for his peace of mind at the moment, and the only means to get any answers were currently reduced to cooling piles of inhuman meat.

The one that he'd brought down had said 'blood for the blood god', the words had been distorted, but they had been understandable. When he'd heard that he'd immediately thought of the Warhammer stories, of Chaos Gods and Chaos corrupted Space Marines, daemons and all manner of horrors from the Warp. It had been the thought of all those terrors unleashed that had thrown him off his game and left him open for the attack that had 'killed' him.

However now that he thought about it some more he wondered if there might be some other explanation. As iconic as the war cry had been it wasn't beyond the realms of possibility that it had been assumed by some warriors purely by chance rather than by some influence of the Chaos Gods. Blood was a powerful image, especially in battle, and in a culture that revered warriors was it really so unlikely that they'd have a god of blood? If you looked at it like that then maybe it wasn't so unlikely that uninfluenced tribes would come up with such a battle cry.

. . . .Oh, who was he kidding? If he'd found himself on some other random magical world then he might have contemplated the possibility, but this was a world where he knew the 'story', at least in part anyway. There simply wasn't anything that would make such a scenario likely or even really plausible.

Which only left outside interference as a possibility.

He'd have to give this more thought later, but for now at least this was one question he could answer with pretty much total honesty.

"I'm not completely sure. I have a couple of ideas, but without any kind of proof, the kind I could only get by talking to one of them, there's just no way to know."

His sincerity must have shown, because none of the girls questioned him further on it. Instead Kirche suddenly threw herself forwards and wrapped her arms around his head. Sitting as he was that left the pseudo Servant at just the right height to have his face literally buried in the red head's impressive cleavage.

Not that he had much of a chance to enjoy the experience. With an outraged cry Louise tackled her rival off her Summon and sent the two of them tumbling into the dirt.

"Hey . . . Really Louise, you don't have to be so jealous. If you want me to hug you as well all you've got to do is-"


And just like that all the tension that had been choking the atmosphere of the clearing was dispelled. To be sure the dismembered forms of the dead monsters kept it from being too cheery, but as things stood it felt as though the seriousness from before had been dealt with. Allowing a smile to touch his face Alex pushed himself onto his feet and reached out to separate the quarrelling girls.

Alright, with the other concerns shelved until he had some more time to think about them all that was left was securing Fouquet, finding out where the rest of her loot was and getting back to the Academy. That should be simple enough.

Just one thing to do first.


Their return to the Academy was met with a good deal of enthusiasm from the other students. As the three students and one Summon made their way to the central tower to meet with the headmaster a crowd of the other students in the school quickly formed to watch them pass. By the sounds of it it seemed that most of them had been sceptical of the group's ability to come back alive, let alone be successful in their mission. As Alex walked through the small throng he could hear exclamations of surprise, as well as several admiring comments directed towards Kirche and Tabitha. Even Louise was being held in a better light than normal as several people whispered to each other about how surprised they were that she'd been able to accomplish her mission. He even heard someone saying something about her being a proper Vallière now.

His small Summoner must also have heard that comment, because as they continued on he saw her standing a bit straighter, a bit more pride clear in her posture.

It was good to see her acknowledged like that. He knew that in the future his small Summoner would become a name known far and wide, but for now Louise was still suffering from years of failure and derision and would eagerly lap up almost any sort of praise or acknowledgement, so long as it was sincere anyway. Well, that was good for now, just as long as she didn't let it go to her head.

Their captive was now secured in the Academy's somewhat underused dungeon and awaiting the local authorities taking custody of her, though Alex was well aware that that wouldn't be the case for long. In both the anime and the books it had remained consistent that Wardes broke her out and recruited her to serve the cause of the Reconquista.

That was the thought that was currently occupying his mind, whether or not he should allow that escape to take place.

On the one hand preventing her escape, and hopefully catching his Summoner's traitorous fiancé in the midst of a crime, would remove two potential threats and future complications whilst hopefully putting him further into the good books of both the Academy and the royal family.

The thing was that the downsides were much worse. At the very least if he did step in to catch the pair it would no doubt lead to questions as to how he'd known they were going to try to make a jail break, questions that he wouldn't have a decent answer for. Then there was the chance that revealing Wardes' true nature might damage the friendly relationship that was developing with his Summoner given that she did hold him in high regard. And lastly, but by no means least, was the inevitable domino effect. If he did deal with them then he'd have no idea who the next agents employed by the Reconquista would be. That there would be more was a forgone conclusion given how essential it was to their plans that Henrietta's mission to Louise fail.

That was the deciding factor really, now that he thought about it. No benefit that he could gain by securing Wardes and Longueville could outweigh the advantage of knowing they would be obstacles during the trip to Albion provided. Knowing where the backstab was coming from made it infinitely easier to guard against it. If they were gone then he wouldn't know if it was their replacements that were the threat or if the Reconquista's attempt to stop them would be coming from an altogether different angle.

"The Headmaster will see you now."

Alex blinked in surprise as he realised that while he'd been lost in his thoughts he'd followed the girls all the way to old Osman's office. Unseen by the others his eyes narrowed slightly as the small group trooped inside, though his expression had calmed before he came through the door. The four of them came to stand before the headmaster's ornate desk and Alex remained silent as Headmaster Osman listened to the group's account of what happened. The old mage's eyebrows rose in surprise as they described the monsters that the giants had become. The girls explained that Alex had been the one to kill them using the Staff of Destruction, a lie he'd convinced them to use as opposed to revealing his ability to transform. Osman nodded a couple of times, but then seemed to focus on the bit that was important to him.

"Hmm . . . So Miss Longueville is Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt . . . Since she's such a beauty I did not even think twice about hiring her as my secretary."

Apparently his 'important' didn't quite match up with Alex's, but he was willing to keep quiet for now.

"How did you go about hiring her in the first place?" Mr. Colbert, who was also present, enquired.

"In a tavern. I was a customer while she was a waitress there. Where I slowly caressed her from her hands down to her buttocks . . ."

"Then what happened?" Mr. Colbert asked again, though his face was turning slightly red at the headmaster's description.

"Well, because she wasn't angry at all after what I did, I asked her whether she'd be interested in becoming my secretary or not."

"Why?" The now bewildered Mr. Colbert asked.

Osman started coughing, then said sedately, "She proved to be very good at her job, and she could use magic, too."

"Yeah, magic that could kill." Mr. Colbert mumbled to himself.

Headmaster Osman coughed again then told Mr. Colbert in a prudent manner.

"Come to think of it, the reason that Fouquet allowed me to touch her all over the place, served me wine happily, and praised that I was handsome man, while I was in the tavern, was just to infiltrate the academy. All those praises were most probably just lies . . ."

For no apparent reason Professor Colbert's face took on a decidedly guilty cast for a moment, then returned to its former sternness.

"Yes. Beautiful women are deadly mages."

"I couldn't agree more with you, Colbert."

Louise, Kirche and Tabitha stared blankly at the two. For his part Alex leaned over towards his Summoner and stage whispered his opinion to her.

"The headmaster must be a political master of the highest order, wouldn't you agree?"

Blinking in pure bewilderment Louise turned slightly towards him even though her eyes never left the two faculty members.

"Why do you say that?"

"Well, that must be the case. Can you honestly think of any other reason why he'd be put in charge of a school filled with impressionable young minds?"

It took her a moment to process that, but once her slightly shocked mind had done so the youngest Vallière sister found herself nodding in agreement. Off to the sides Kirche and Tabitha nodded their own agreement as well.

Having heard Alex's comments, and seeing the trio of young noblewomen readily agreeing with him, the embarrassed Osman flinched slightly before clearing his throat and regained his solemn composure.

"A job well done for all of you, you have returned the Staff of Destruction and captured Fouquet. It's a shame that not all of the artefacts from the vault could be reclaimed, but the Staff was the most dangerous of them. The rest might have had some unpleasant items mixed in there, but there's nothing on the same scale. A list will be provided to the town guardsmen and an eye will be kept out in case any of them crop up. That aside though, you have all done an outstanding job."

The three besides Alex acknowledged the Headmaster's praise proudly.

"Fouquet will be handed over to the town guards, and the Staff of Destruction and the other recovered treasures will be returned back to the treasure vault. With this the case is closed."

The old man nodded at the girls once more before continuing.

"I have requested the imperial court to confer upon you the title of Chevalier; I believe that we should have news on it soon. And since Tabitha already has the title of Chevalier, I have requested that she be given the Elven Medallion."

The trio's faces brightened up upon hearing the news.

"Really?" Kirche said astoundingly.

"Yes. You accomplishments in this have been more than enough to deserve this title."

Louise's bright smile dimmed slightly as she turned her head to glance at Alex as he maintained his position behind the trio.

"Headmaster Osman, what about Iskander . . . won't he be getting anything?"

"Yes, I'm afraid not. Since he's not a noble . . ."

"That's not too important right now," Alex cut in, "No need to worry about it, we can leave that for later."

There was a brief moment of silence as the elderly educator processed that, then simply nodded his head in agreement.

"Oh, I almost forgot, Tonight's Ball of Frigg will resume as planned since we have gotten back the stolen artefacts."

Kirche's face immediately brightened up.

"That's right. Let's forget about Fouquet and dance all night long! Darling do you know how to? If you don't then I'm sure I can teach you something that'll let us have some fun."

"Since it was only due to you that it could take place the main attraction of the ball will be you three. So go get ready and dress up for the occasion!"

The three girls bowed, and turned to leave through the door. As they began to exit Alex hung back.


Louise stopped and looked at her Summon, only for the big man to wave her on.

"You go on ahead; I have a couple of things I want to talk to the professors about." Alex assured her.

Even though Louise still looked a little worried, she nodded and left the room.

Osman stood up from behind his desk and addressed the oddly garbed man.

"You have something to ask me?"

Wordlessly Alex stepped forwards until he was standing just before the Headmaster. Even though the elderly magic user was also standing the red haired Summon towered over him by a good head. Off to the side Professor Colbert shifted his weight uneasily.

"You know, I was less than impressed that the . . . illustrious faculty of this academy were so willing to allow three of their students to go off and face a hardened criminal with a very successful track record rather than handle it themselves."

Alex knew that the smile on his face was not a pleasant one. It wasn't an expression that he used often, not really having any reason to, but according to his older sister it bore a strong resemblance to a shark that had just scented a large amount of blood in the water.

"We did ask for volunteers," Colbert protested, "When the students chose to volunteer I-"

"Let them go on their way with the very person that planned to kill them as soon as they became inconvenient? Yes, yes you did. You sent them out after dangerous game that they weren't ready for, and it was almost them that paid the price."

That had been one thing that had always rubbed him the wrong way in both the books and the anime. They'd all just happily accepted that they could send their students to clean up a mess that should have been their responsibility. He could have accepted it if it had been a test or something like that, if there had been any indication that even one of the teachers had followed them to act as a safety net if things went wrong.

Alright, maybe he'd been over thinking it at the time, trying too hard to apply real life cautions to an anime, but now that he was here and living it . . . well, he felt his outrage and irritation was justified. There was also the fact that these girls weren't just characters in a story to him anymore, they were living, breathing people, people that were his friends, that he cared for. He wasn't just feeling irritation at incompetence, he was genuinely angry, though he did have it on a leash.

"You. Sent. Them. To. DIE!"

Each word was ground out as he let his anger show.

"I had complete faith in my students!" Osman declared defensively. "I admit that there was no way I could have anticipated Miss Longueville turning out to be Fouquet, but even so they should have been safe."

The headmaster was cut off as the large red head stepped forwards and brought his palm down on the desk with a resounding smack.

"That might be how you saw it, but all I saw was two powerful and skilled Square class mages letting three young women, whose cumulative age doesn't even come to half of yours combined, deal with a dangerous mission in their place."

"Miss Tabitha is already a Chevalier, despite her youth, and both she and her friend miss Zerbst are strong Triangle class magic users. Miss Vallière might not be as . . . advanced as they are, but as you've demonstrated her personal . . . quirk is not without application. The three of them should have been more than able to handle a fellow Triangle class, and they also had you there to tilt the odds if they were bad. The situation was hardly as hopeless as you make it out to be!"

"They weren't dealing with just Fouquet! They had Chaos to deal with as-"

As soon as the words were out of his mouth Alex wanted to take them back. He'd been hoping that the giants and the monsters that they'd become would have been glossed over, dismissed as . . . oh, he didn't know what. Exaggerations by the girls? Some sort of pair of cursed mercenaries or madmen that just stumbled into the whole mess?

He didn't want to try to answer questions about them because right now he didn't really have anything solid to answer with, so . . .

"Chaos? What do you mean?"

And they had to ask. Bloody typical.

Now, what could he say? If he told them the truth, that it was a fantasy come to life he'd look like a lunatic, even worse they might take him seriously which would lead to a whole other bunch of questions he wanted to avoid. If he told them that it was foreign gods . . . well, that was likely to embroil him in a theological debate that would either suck him in like a tar pit or end up with him being branded a heretic. Off hand he couldn't remember if either Osman or Colbert were depicted as being particularly devout to the Brimir faith, but he didn't want to risk it.

Okay, think fast! How could he explain the inherent danger of the Chaos warriors without making things worse for himself?

"Chaos . . . is the name of an . . . anarchistic faction of cults in my homeland," Alex explained, his mind racing frantically as he did so. "To put it in simple terms Chaos believes that . . . moderation, restraint, anything like that is a . . . dilution of what life should be like. To them morals and compunctions are just boundaries created by the weak minded in order to try to shelter their little worlds."

His tone firmed as the image of what he was trying to describe solidified in his mind.

"The Chaos cults are all about doing what they want without any sort of holding back or caring about the consequences. They advocate action without restraint or civilization, unless it serves their ends."

Well, it wasn't an entirely accurate description of the religions of the Chaos gods in the Warhammer universe, but it was close enough for his purposes. At least for the time being anyway.

"But the students said that the ones you fought were giants of men, and that they transformed into monsters." Colbert said. His voice wasn't exactly hostile, but there was a tinge of scepticism there.

"They did."

"I'm sure that you don't simply expect us to-"

Whatever else the professor might have been about to say was cut off as Alex reached under his mantle and yanked out the bag that had been hidden there. This had been what he'd made sure to get before the group had left the clearing, though the spells that Tabitha had put on the rag that had once been Fouquet's cloak had made it easier to carry. It had certainly contained the smell, and made the blood stop dripping everywhere.

As he dropped the large bundle onto the desk the knot on top came apart and the bloodstained cloak fell away to reveal what it had been holding. Both of Osman's bushy eyebrows rose until they were concealed by his hairline, while at the same time Colbert leaned in for a closer look, his face oddly fascinated.

The two foot length of flesh on the desk was the remnants of one of the tentacles that had belonged to the second monster he'd fought. He'd chosen to bring this particular part because it was quite clearly part of something larger, and the claws half extended from its sides only highlighted that it was part of something dangerous. Dangerous and very large.

"I trust you don't think I bought that down at the local fish market?" he commented, his tone somewhat acidic.

"This . . . What . . . ?" The headmaster looked up at him and frowned even deeper than before, "What is this?"

"Part of the monster that one of the cultists became."

"They turned into . . . this?"

The incredulity in his question was hard to mess, but to a degree Alex could understand it. If he remembered right this world had things like vampires and werewolves, creatures that could transform, but those transformations were either relatively minor, just an increase in bulk and some cosmetic changes, or more ethereal, the kind of thing that faded after time. He couldn't remember too much about it, but he remembered enough to know that this was something on a far different level. To physically change into something completely inhuman, and remain that even way after death, that was uncommon at least, maybe even rare.

"The cults of Chaos wouldn't be so feared if they didn't have power. That's why it's such a bloody mess that the girls came anywhere near them, if I hadn't been there then death's probably the best they could have hoped for."

"What kind of power?"

The question came from Colbert, his curiosity now turned towards Alex once more as the possibility of new knowledge reared its head.

"Magic of course, but not the kind of magic you know," He had them hooked, with just those words he could see that they were giving him their full attention, now all he had to do was explain this without using words like 'gods', 'souls' or 'abandon all hope, we are utterly screwed'. "Your magic is a thing of will and intellect, using your minds and internal power to enforce a change upon the world in accordance to your desires. I don't know much about it, but I think that the magic that the likes of the elves use is sort of similar in that it's based on intellect and harmony. The magic that the cults use, it's old magic, the oldest really."

"Magic older than the Ancient Magic that the elves use? Do you mean there are humans that can use such? How? Where? Tell me everything?!"

Somehow Colbert had produced a notebook from nowhere and was now leaning towards Alex, utterly ignoring the severed monster limb that was no rubbing against his robe in the process.

"I don't know if it's older," Alex said, "It could be, but I think it would be more accurate to say that it's more primal than theirs."

He gestured at the severed limb, or rather at the blood that was leaking from it.

"The power the cults tap into isn't spirits or elements. What they tap into are the most basic primitive forces that mankind tapped into in their earliest times. Back before we knew how to forge weapons or build homes or even light fires, back when the height of achievement was to use the bone of a corpse as a weapon to beat your enemies to death. It's when we ate our meat raw as the blood leaked from it. It's from when men simply picked the women they wanted, and had them on the spot. It's from a time before words were more than grunts and wails."

Huh, he was getting pretty good at this storytelling thing, maybe he should try it for fun later. Well, whatever, for now it seemed to serve its purpose as the two mages had their eyes fixed on him.

"The cults of Chaos tap into that power by giving up their reason, sometimes by the inch and sometimes by the yard, but the price for tapping into that power is your sanity and your humanity. It's what makes them such a threat, but it's also what keeps them from being truly dangerous."

Well, it would be if you didn't bring Tzeentch into the picture. For the time being Alex decided to keep him out of the picture as far as his explanations went. It simplified matters for him if he just explained the factions that had appeared, and quite frankly the thought of the scheming faction of Chaos putting in an appearance scared the hell out of him. In the Warhammer universe only absolute powerhouses like the Emperor or those with some sort of divine protection had been able to do anything about the schemes of the Changer of Ways, and even then it was always hinted that there might be a chance that it was all part of some master plan. No, he'd deal with what he knew of for now, and hope to high heaven that if Tzeentch or Nurgle turned up he could pull some sort of miracle out of his hat.

"But . . . why would anyone use such magic?" Colbert sounded honestly bewildered. It was hard to imagine that the man who sounded so naive was actually a powerful and dangerous former soldier and killer.

"Because it feels good," Alex answered, "Tapping into that power, letting it run wild, it's addictive in a way that you can't imagine. For those that follow the path of bloodshed the highs of battle become more glorious than you can imagine, so they keep fighting. They fight and fight until it doesn't matter who they fight or if it is even a fight at all. Bloodletting of any kind grows to be enough. I've read about war bands that gather, pick a direction and continue straight on and simply kill everything in their path, men, women, children, babies, pets, livestock, they even burn the crops and salt the earth behind them. Half the time these war bands turn in on themselves to satiate their thirst for battle, that more often than not, ends up being the end of them rather than military action or heroes intervening.

"The path of pleasure is just as bad, hell; it might be even more . . . insidious, you know? People get into it because it looks safer, tapping into it sharpens your senses, makes you more attractive, lets you have better fortune with getting laid."

The headmaster suddenly seemed much more interested, Colbert, on the other hand, was flushing slightly.

"The problem is that you keep needing more. At first water is like wine and even bread is a feast, but then you get used to it and you need to drink wine to get the same rush. Then you get used to that and you need more. It's the same with women, with art, with every joy you can have, Chaos makes them better, but you need more to keep the high it provides. At the end of it there are cultists cutting open their flesh and sewing on new limbs just so they can have new vectors of sensation while they rape a child to death even as they slowly skin them."

Any interest was gone from the mages' eyes as they both now stared at him in pure horror.

"That's what your students were facing! Men that had utterly abandoned their humanity to travel the path of excess so far into the abyss that they became in truth the monsters they were in their hearts. I trust you understand why I'm less than happy you let them go on their own?"

"Th . . . there was no way we could have known." Old Osman protested, but the conviction he'd had earlier seemed to have faded somewhat.

"You knew Fouquet was able to bring down a barrier that she shouldn't have been able to. You knew that she had a bloody huge golem at her command, one that was damned near to Square level. You knew that she'd stolen a great many artefacts, including the Staff of Destruction. You damned well knew enough!"

Alex's earlier temper had died down now, the flames of before having tamped down to smouldering coals.

"They should have been safe," Colbert insisted, all his previous interest gone, "We couldn't have known about these . . . these . . ." Words seemed to fail him as he stared down at the length of tentacle.

"They're only safe because I was there, if I hadn't been then they'd all be dead or wishing they were." Alex wondered if he was belabouring the point, but at this point he really didn't care. What he really wanted was for them to just acknowledge that they'd been wrong, that they'd been reckless and careless with their students' lives.

"But you were there!" The fire mage protested, "And we knew you could protect them because you're th-"

Professor Colbert cut off his words in mid-sentence, but it was still enough of an opening for Alex's purposes.

"So, you know." It wasn't a question, it was a statement, his tone almost corpse dead cold in comparison to his earlier heat. "If you were aware of that then I suppose your decision to allow my Summoner and her friends to go about this on their own makes a bit more sense. What was the clue that tipped you off?"

Reaching out with his staff Osman tapped Alex's left hand, "These runes on your hand . . ."

"Yes, I noticed Professor Colbert was interested in them when they appeared. So, how long did it take him to learn that they were the runes of the Gandálfr?"

His change of tone and the casualness of his question caught the two educators off guard. Colbert's eyes widened while Osman simply leaned back into his chair. A very observant watcher might have noticed that his grip on his staff had changed to being slightly more ready to sling it about if needs be.

"So then, you were already aware that those are the runes of 'Gandálfr', the legendary familiar?"

"Of course," Alex spread his arms so that the mantle fell away to reveal the leather armour and the rich reds of his garb, "I've know I'm the Gandálfr since the second day I was here, and I've known about the powers that position bestows since the moment these runes were carved into my flesh."

To be sure he'd only known that because he'd read about what they could do on his computer, but there was no reason to let them know that.

"Is that a function of being the Gandálfr?" It would seem that academic curiosity had overcome Professor Colbert's earlier unease with the change in atmosphere, "Can you tell me if there was any other knowledge imparted? Do you know anything about the other familiars of the Founder? What-"


The stream of questions from the fire mage was cut off as the Headmaster spoke with uncharacteristic sharpness. As Colbert subsided into silence once more Osman gazed at Alex with slightly narrowed eyes.

Mentally the pseudo Servant tried to centre himself. In all forms of the series it had never been fully explained just how strong old Osman was. He'd been described as a Square class mage whose element was wind, but aside from that there wasn't too much information given. Even his age was left ambiguous, being described as somewhere between sixty and a hundred years old. Then there was Colbert as well, though he was now a pacifist that didn't change the fact that he had once been an extremely dangerous fire mage. If push came to shove he might well be able to tap into that once more, and Alex had no desire to be on the receiving end if he ever did.

Still, he was committed to his current course, even though it was somewhat like walking a tightrope.

Basically, what he wanted was some respect. In the series it had been a long time before Saito was seen as more than simply Louise's unusual familiar by those in power. Oh sure, Henrietta had been fond of him and Colbert had been curious as to his knowledge on technology, but that hadn't been respect of his power. Of course Saito hadn't been able to flaunt it much, not when he'd not had much of an idea as to just how it worked. In the end it had only been after he took on a whole army by himself that people started taking real notice.

Well, that wasn't what Alex wanted. He'd initially been happy to be in the background some, but the whole mess with those possible Chaos Warriors had thrown that plan out the window. He didn't want to take over or force his authority upon anyone, that was the last thing on his mind. What he did want was to be taken seriously by those in power, namely the Headmaster and the most dangerous man on the teaching staff. If things hit the fan and all hell broke loose then he wanted to be sure that they'd actually listen to him, as opposed to dismissing anything he might say because he was 'only' a familiar.

Hence the line this conversation was taking.

"So, why have you kept quiet? I know that you have been training young Miss Vallière, but if you had told her who you are then I'm sure there would have been some indication."

"My Summoner is mature in many ways, but she is still a young girl who has enjoyed far too few successes in life. Were she to know she had at her command the same power that once guarded Brimir I am unsure of just how she would take it. More than that I'm sure you are aware of what my existence signifies for her, am I right?"

"You can't mean . . ." Colbert's voice trailed off as he hesitated to speak out loud what both he and Osman suspected but had yet to confirm.

"A mage from a family with a good history, but who cannot use any of the main four elements summons up someone with the power of one of your Founder's familiars? It isn't too hard a puzzle to unravel."

"How can you be so sure?" Osman's question was not confrontational, but rather honestly curious.

"Because I am here." Alex's answer was short and simple. It also left the two educators flummoxed.

"Young man . . . you may be the Gandálfr, but that on its own is not enough to mark your mistress as a Void user. To be sure her summoning you as her familiar does raise certain points, but-"

"But there I have to stop you," Alex said as he broke in, "I'm afraid that once more you're showing your ignorance in these matters."

"'Ignorance'? What do you mean?!"

There was definite heat in Professor Colbert's voice as he voiced the question. Some professional pride that had been slighted perhaps, also there might have been some irritation at the headmaster being called such as well. All in all an interesting combination, but one that had to be treated with care lest it boil over.

"You continue to refer to me as a Familiar. I have said again and again that I am a Summon, but you persist in thinking that that is simply another word for Familiar. You don't even try to grasp the truth; you don't even ask the right questions."

Okay, he might be laying it on a little bit thickly, but he was on a bit of a roll here playing the part he'd come up with on the fly. It was actually turning out to be something of a guilty pleasure as the part was more fun to play than he'd anticipated.

"Then just what is a Summon?"

It was a bit strange to see Osman being serious like this. In both the books and the anime he was more comic relief than anything else, the discordance between that image and his present self was somewhat jarring. Still, it worked to his advantage in this case. If he could get the normally whimsical old man to be serious in dealing with him then it meant that he was closer to his goal of being taken seriously in general.

"Summons can be many things; we can be bodyguards, teachers, lovers, confidants, assassins or healers. But underneath it all there is one thing that all Summons are at their very foundations . . ."

He paused for a moment for effect, a somewhat old ploy to ramp up the tension, but it was an old trick because it was one that worked if done right.

"Weapons! At the end of the day Summons are weapons of the highest order."

Silence greeted his declaration, but once again the atmosphere of the room changed as a subtle tension filled it.

"So you see the power of the Gandálfr as just a weapon of war?" Colbert asked, his face harder than Alex had ever seen it before.

"You still aren't getting it right," The large red head sighed, careful to keep his posture relaxed. "We're weapons because we are needed to be, that's how I know that Louise really is a Void mage. Summons like me, we're called to the sides of those that need us, those that will find themselves with places in history. We aren't weapons because we seek out war; we are weapons because brewing wars are where we are sent."

"Miss Vallière is just a student; she has no place in any sort of battle, much less a war!" The fire mage's voice was angry, as though he expected Alex to actually be planning to physically drag his young Summoner off to some bloody battlefield.

"And yet just today she found herself facing down a mage that was perfectly ready to kill her if it was convenient."

That took the wind out of his sails. As Professor Colbert slumped in place the Headmaster takes up the slack.

"You seem quite certain that your . . . Summoner is a Void mage. Do you really think that your presence is so significant?"


The use of such an informal mode of answer seemed to catch him off guard, but that was alright, that had been Alex's intention after all. He'd just set up an almost oppressive feel to the conversation, now that he'd achieved his goal of making the pair take him seriously he could let that gravity slip a bit. Even as he realized what he was doing the pseudo Servant found himself once more surprised at how easily it all came to him. He'd never been much of an actor or orator, but now it was so simple. Thank you B class Charisma.

"As I said, Summons are called because we're needed. I'm here because Louise is going to need me, and because I'm here I know that she'll find herself in the thick of things, that's just how the universe works. Rest assured, I have every intention of making sure that she not only survives, but thrives on the storm that is to come."

Yes, nicely cryptic without being too threatening. He'd initially been planning to say 'the conflict to come', but at the last minute he changed his mind. Conflict brought the image of battle or war to the front, an image too easily misconstrued to Louise being the aggressor rather than the defender. Using 'storm' instead worked better, conjuring up the impression of a natural disaster to be weathered. Powerful, but much less bloodstained.

"And you're going to help me."


His statement apparently took both the educators by surprise because their exclamations of confusion came out in a slightly eerie unison.

"She's the first Void mage to appear in Tristain since your Founder perished, neither of you are stupid men, despite recent evidence to the contrary. I'm sure you can work out what might happen if word of that reached the wrong people. On the one hand you might have some zealous idiots claiming that since she wields the same power as the Founder she has a better claim to the throne than the current royal family. Others might try to use her as a figurehead to start a civil war so that they can advance their own position. Then of course there will be the assorted warmongers that will see her only as a weapon to be used to expand the Tristainian boarders through conquest. I think we can all agree that none of us want to see any such morons enter the equation before preparations have been made, am I correct?"

There was little hesitation in either mage as they nodded their agreement. Alex contained a smile as he saw their reactions, this had been a bit of a gamble, but it had been one that he'd been pretty sure on. In the light novel it had been Osman who had convinced Colbert to keep quiet about their discovery that Louise had summoned the Gandálfr. They must have at least suspected that she was a Void user, so it followed that they'd be willing to take measures to keep that hidden as well. A Gandálfr was powerful enough to destroy armies, but a Void mage . . . once fully trained even a hundredth of the power that Brimir had wielded would be enough to give any country an almost insurmountable advantage.

"Good, because soon I'm going to need all the help I can get." Seeing them frown at his words Alex continued, "I've been able to help Louise get some control over her explosions by keeping track of how using the different elements affects her spells and then teaching her how to control those effects. It's afforded her some measure of control, but that doesn't change the simple fact that she's still not using her element. If that's going to change then she's going to have to learn how to make spells that will work for her."

"Make Void spells?" Whatever other misgivings Colbert might have had it seemed that once again his academic curiosity had managed to shoulder them aside, "But no records were ever made of the spells that Brimir used, how could we possibly do it?"

"Well, I don't think there was anyone about to teach Brimir how to use his magic, but history shows that he was able to accomplish wonders. Louise isn't stupid and she's a hard worker, I'm sure that with suitable help and resources she'll will be able to cook something up she can use."

His face broke into a smile, and it wasn't a particularly nice one. It certainly wasn't evil, but it might be the kind that you found on the face of an angry dolphin that had just encountered that shark that was always trying to eat it and found that said shark was sporting a rather large number of wounds.

"Isn't it fortunate that I have a pair of experienced and resourceful professors to aid us? Especially ones that owe the pair of us for sending three young ladies into such peril. Life can be so . . . fair, wouldn't you say?"

"Now, see here-"

Colbert was cut off by Osman as the older mage stood up behind his desk. Though he wasn't as tall as the pseudo Servant there was still a certain presence to him, something that made the normally harmless looking headmaster suddenly seem far more imposing.

"You do make some good points, and it is the duty of any true teacher to ensure that their students receive the best education possible, but don't think that I'll respond well to blackmail."

Alex's smile remained in place.

"I'm not blackmailing you; I'm not even threatening you. I'm telling you that if you don't help Louise get ready then when the shit comes in we're all going to be buried up to our eyeballs, and there won't be a shovel between us that'll keep us from a very unpleasant grave."

His sudden shift in tone seemed to catch them by surprise. At the looks on their faces the pseudo Servant allowed himself a slightly bitter chuckle.

"What, did you think it was just a coincidence that Chaos cultists just showed up to help Fouquet? Did you think that me being here was just some sort of isolated event? Summons never come alone, there are always at least two. If a Summon arrives on one side of a conflict you can be fairly certain that another will be on the other side. Now, if I'm the Summon of a young Void mage that doesn't know her true power then who do you think my counterpart might be allied to?"

It made sense, and it did explain the changes to the 'script', like Fouquet managing to make off with far more than just the Staff of Destruction or those weird pseudo Chaos Warriors. Someone else like him went a long way to explaining it, enough so that he was willing to drop some hints and suggestions. The problem was that that was pretty much all that he could do, since he had so little concrete data to work with speculation was all he could use.

"That's the short and sweet of it, something's coming. I don't know if it's a natural disaster, a revolution, a war or an apocalypse, all I know is that if we don't do something it's going to roll right over us and leave us buried in its wake. Now me, I'm going to do my best to make sure that Louise has as much power at her disposal as possible for when the midden hits the windmill, as it were, and you two can either help or get out of the way.

Alex stepped back, giving both the educators a long look, trying to convey both his determination and his sincerity.

"You both owe me for what happened earlier, and I think that if even a fraction of what I think is coming actually arrives then you'll end up owing me more before it's all over. I could really use your help, and so could Louise. Think about it, make your choice, and for god's sake be smarter about it than you were about this whole mess."

Turning he strode over to the door and let himself out.

To his surprise they didn't make any sound of protest or called him back.

Perhaps he'd made a better impression than he'd thought.


"Do you think that familiar was sincere or just insane?"

It took quite a bit of Osman's willpower not to sigh in exasperation.

"I think he's made it quite clear that he doesn't think of himself as a familiar. Let's call him a Summon, if nothing else it will mean that he won't be correcting us all the time."

"That's what you want to focus on? I was there when Miss Vallière cast the spell that brought him; it was the familiar summoning spell, he was called so he is a familiar."

"Perhaps, but even so he still defies all the conventions that we're familiar with in regards to familiars." A small smile played across the white bearded face as Osman found amusement in his little play of words. "At this point the only thing that we know for certain is that we know very little, far less than he seems to."

"So you believe him?"

"About what? It looks like we have quite the surfeit of options before us. Do we believe him about knowing about human familiars? Do we believe him about these cults? Do we believe him about his master? Do we believe him about this 'oncoming storm'? If we believe him about one then should we believe him about the others? To be honest I'm focussing on that right now because all the other options are far too troublesome."

Colbert grimaced as he leaned on his staff.

"You're right about that, those Chaos worshippers sound like true horrors, do you think something like that is possible?"

"I wish I could tell you," the headmaster admitted, "Brimiric magic is the only recorded school that humans have ever practiced, but we do know that other forms of magic exist, such as those wielded by the First Born. If misguided and desperate humans stumbled onto something that they couldn't control some time before recorded history . . . yes, I could believe it."

Osman had seen things in the past, horrible and twisted things that he dearly wished he could forget. In order to gain power humans were willing to do much, everything from forbidden spells to consorting with the cruellest and most malevolent spirits and elementals. Such fools tended to end up destroying themselves in the end, but that generally didn't stop them from taking large numbers of innocent victims with them. He had no doubt that there were other forces out there that could do as Iskander had described.

"Then what about Miss Vallière? Do you really think we should begin help in her training?"

"All signs suggest that he has the right of it, that she is a Void mage. Can you really think of any other route we could take? We both know that he's right about what could happen if others learn about it before she has the power to enforce her own decisions."

"But she's so young; does he really expect us to teach her true battlefield magic?"

"He certainly seems to think that she'll need it. He was right that she might have needed it today."

For his part Colbert simply frowned harder as he adjusted his grip on his staff.

"Whether he is or he isn't, that still doesn't change the facts. You heard him, he sounds almost eager for conflict, for war. He might well end up drawing her into situations like that even though she has no place in them."

It took all of the old wind mage's somewhat shaky discipline not to sigh out loud in exasperation.

Colbert was an excellent teacher, despite his somewhat odd hobbies in trying to find new ways to harness fire magic; the Headmaster would have been delighted if the rest of his faculty were even half as able as he was most of the time. But even so the sad fact was that he had his own blind spots and areas of foolishness. One of the principle ones was his overprotectiveness in regards to his students being drawn into any sort of combative role.

To be sure he wasn't utterly senseless, but this situation with the youngest Vallière daughter was a fine example. Unlike Colbert old Osman had put the dots together in regards to Louise's parentage. He knew that her mother was Karin Vallière, once known as Karin the Heavy Wind' before she went into a semi-retirement. To be sure the woman wouldn't force any of her children to follow any sort of path, indeed her eldest was an up and coming researcher at the Oriz Magic Academy, but Louise . . .

The simple fact was that she was entirely too much like her mother had been at her age. Though he'd never been her teacher Osman 'the Siege' had been a respected enough wind mage that Karin had sought him out to have some discussions about the use of their element. For all her lack of talent in the use of magic there was none the less something about Louise that was eerily similar to Karin. The simple fact was that if she had any sort of power at all the youngest of the Vallière daughters was certain to want to use it to fulfil her duties to friends and country; it was just the way she was put together.

And if what this Iskander had to say was true then she would have a great deal of power in the future.

A mage of the Void, it was still a bit difficult or him to wrap his mind around the idea. Accepting that the large red haired young man was a familiar of the Void had been easier than taking in the notion that one of his student was a wielder of the long lost element that had created modern civilization. Honestly he wasn't too sure what to do. Oh, some things were fairly self evident, such as keeping her secret so that the fools that infested the royal court wouldn't try to make her into a weapon for them to use, but apart from that he was somewhat at a dead end.

Trying to be a mentor to her was right out, he had neither the temperament nor the reputation to be able to make something like that work. And that wasn't even taking into account that he'd have no idea how to help her develop any sort of Void magic. Having Colbert try to help her ran into more or less the same problems, and the less said about his thoughts on the other members of his staff the better. If he let any of them in on the secret of Miss Vallière's true affinity then it would be less than a week before the rest of the kingdom knew. They were all decent teachers and fine mages, but sometimes they gossiped worse than the students they were meant to educate.

"That's a concern for later," he said, not letting any of his thoughts show, "For now we'll keep an eye on young Miss Vallière and her . . . Summon and make sure that things don't get too out of hand. Aside from that there is an even more important matter to worry about."

His face now worried Colbert leaned in towards the Headmaster.

"Something else? What do you mean?"

"I now need to find another secretary, and where could I possibly find one as lovely as Miss Longueville? I don't want to go back to sour women in their middle age who should have been married years ago and who never wear sexy underwear!"

Yes, it was important to have your priorities straight.


"HAH! Well done Iskander! That's showing those Nobles that us commoner aren't useless!"

Alex was a big guy, but even so a backslap from Marteau wasn't something that could be easily ignored. Though not quite as brawny as the pseudo Servant the head cook was still quite tall and years of constant work in the kitchen had put a surprising amount of muscle on his frame. As it was the good natured gesture of comradely was enough to send Alex stumbling forwards slightly before he was able to regain his balance.

"Right! Once again your victory is an inspiration to all of us down here!" Agreed another of the cooks his face a picture of glee.

"Siesta! Bring our hero some of the best Albion wine! This calls for a celebration!" Marteau roared good-naturedly as he turned around to grab something out of an oven. With a flourish he deposited a whole roast chicken down in front of Alex, who could only stare at it in wonder.

The dimensionally displaced young man was of the opinion that cooking was one of the sadly underrated art forms due to its transitory nature. A master chef could create a delectable meal that was a true masterpiece, yet it would not survive the very act for which it was made. Delicious food could not be saved and placed in an art gallery for future generations to gaze upon in admiration and wonder, it just wasn't possible.

And that was a crying shame, because if such a thing was a possibility then Alex was pretty sure that the dish before him would have taken place of pride at the likes of the Tate Gallery.

The chicken itself was golden brown with a wonderful crispiness to it that hinted at delicate glazing, the sheen of cooking butter on it only broken by a sprinkling of herbs that were themselves cooked to perfection. Around the Chicken were arranged a mixture of glazed onions and fluffy golden roast potatoes. The scent of the dish wafted there was simply no other word to describe it; Alex knew right then and there that had this food been another form of art then it would probably have been an impossibly beautiful white marble carving of some god or goddess, probably with an urn or two thrown in for good taste.

"Please, eat all you want!" Offered one of the other maids as she set a jug of water down at his side.

It was at that point that the pseudo Servant realized he was drooling. Not so copiously as to look like an idiot, but enough to make him wonder why he wasn't yet tucking into the feast that had been set before him.

"Here you go Iskander," Siesta's sweet voice broke into his musings on the imminent consumption of the delicious looking chicken and brought his mind back to the room in general. The young maid was holding a bottle of red wine in one hand and a wine glass in the other; however both were of only peripheral interest to him. What was of greater concern was the look of veritable hero worship that she wore as she offered them to him.

Well, that hit him in the face like a bucket of cold water, though he strained to make sure no hint of his sudden souring of mood showed on his face.

The simple fact was that in the face of the unreserved admiration of the cooking staff of the Academy Alex found himself feeling like a faker or a cheat. He had no right to the esteem that these people were holding him in, not really. Saito might have had the power of the Gandálfr, but at the end of the day aside from that he'd been a regular guy. Alex on the other hand didn't simply wield the power of the Left Hand of God; he also had all the powers of a Servant to supplement him as well as a potent Noble Phantasm and a whole bunch of other assets.

He'd tried to explain this to them when they'd first started to get excited at his triumph over Guiche, but even then he hadn't been able to quite get it across to them. They'd asked him if he could cast magic, and when he'd admitted that he couldn't they'd said that made him a commoner like them and that was enough. Since then he'd decided to accept it, since it had become pretty clear that he couldn't get them to change their minds, but at the back of his mind he'd been hoping that they'd calm down about it.

No such luck though, and that simply left him feeling even more like a fraud as they congratulated him on his victory.

"It's a real shame that you're not being acknowledged by those nobles," Marteau commented as he leaned back against a work top. "I heard that those girls are getting some noble titles for their part in it, but that you're not even being acknowledged."

"It's okay," Alex assured him as he started to tuck into the chicken, "My Summoner knows what happened and so do the people in charge. I don't need a title. Well, not on its own anyway. If there was some land or power coming with it then yeah, I'd be a bit miffed about losing out on it. But right now it's just a title for bragging rights, that's all. I don't mind being skipped over on that."

"That's . . . that's so noble of you, Iskander!" Siesta was now clutching her tray to her chest and was staring at him in undisguised admiration.

"Errr . . . thanks?"

That he hadn't been expecting. To him not making a fuss about not getting a title had simply seemed sensible. Later in the story Saito had ended up being made into a lord or a Marquis, or something anyway. As it stood getting the title of Chevalier now would be more of a hindrance than anything else since it would probably draw more attention to him than he wanted to deal with right now. Them taking it as him selflessly turning it aside so that . . . what? So that he wouldn't overshadow Louise? So that he wouldn't get a swollen ego?

Why did things have to get complicated like this? All he wanted was to be able to savour this superbly cooked chicken that Marteau had given him, was that too much to ask?

"So, have you heard about the Frigg ball that's being held tonight? All the nobles will be dressed up in their best and those girls will be the guests of honour after helping you bring in Fouquet."

The comment didn't come from Siesta but rather from one of the other maids, but regardless of the source the ladies in the kitchen all started paying attention.

"Yes, I'm always so jealous of them. All the young ladies get to dress up in beautiful gowns, and all the young men always look so handsome as well. Don't you wish you could put on a gown and join them?"

"Well, we all know that's never going to happen. Those nobles would never let us commoners join them."

As he chewed on a mouthful of chicken and roast potato Alex found that the conversation seemed to have drifted aways from him and was now focused on the various maids commenting on which gowns they wished they could wear and which of the male students they'd like to pay them attention. He supposed that he should be experiencing some sort of outrage at the social injustice of them not being able to attend the ball, but the simple fact was that at the moment he just had too much on his mind.

The Nemesis Beta, why had he transformed into that? When he'd first read about his potential other avatars he'd assumed that they'd be . . . what? He paused in his consumption of the chicken as a thought occurred to him; he'd never really given much thought to what his other avatars could be. That was strange since it was flat out against his normal way of doing things. Being a big guy he was often assumed by others to be a bit on the slow side because he liked to be thoughtful, but that was never the case. Alex didn't consider himself a great strategist or tactician, indeed his only experience with that kind of thing was the few strategy games he'd played on his computer, but when he had to plan a course of action he always liked to take all the factors into account. Something like this, potential powers that he'd be able to unlock later, that wasn't something that he would normally forget about. Instead it'd be the sort of thing he'd focus on and try to make available as soon as possible.

He'd thought . . . something; it was at the edge of his mind but stayed tantalizingly out of reach. He almost had it, almost but-

"Will you be wearing anything different to the ball, Iskander?"

Siesta's voice broke into his thoughts with much the same effect that a landslide complete with boulders might have one the course of a moving train. The tenuous grip he'd had on that illusive memory snapped as his concentration broke. Biting back the urge to snap at her Alex looked up at the smiling maid.

"Well, I've only got one other change of clothes, and since they aren't really appropriate to a ball I guess I'll have to go as I am."

"Well, you do look very handsome in them," Siesta said, her face flushing as she did so, "It's really amazing how you keep them so clean, you must be very diligent in your . . . umm, armour's upkeep. Even after that fight at the Count's it was all fixed up the next day."

Ah, of course she didn't know about how he could swap out his clothes so that while he was bathing his Rider get up was being cleaned and repaired via the strange magic of the Book of the Sealed. It was cheating in a way, but the simple fact was that he had absolutely no idea as to how to care for the leather armour and heavy mantle of Rider. Being able to delegate that task to a magic book was a real weight off his mind.

"Thanks, I am . . . quite . . . fond . . . of . . ."

Alex's response to her comment trailed off into silence as something sparked in his head. Clothing, that was it! The costumes that he'd picked up for his friends, that was what he'd thought his other avatars would be. Admittedly that theory had been rendered invalid by the appearance of the Nemesis Beta, but at least it was a starting point from which he could work. Now, what costumes had he bought?

. . . Ummmm . . .

He was coming up blank! Well, that wasn't strictly true, he could remember that one of them had been someone from the Fate/Stay Night series . . . or had it been Fate Zero? Hell, it might have been from Fate/Extra, all he could remember was that it was a Servant from somewhere. One of the others had been from Bleach, he was sure of that, but he couldn't put his finger on if it had been a Shinigami, an Arrancar or even a Quincy.


Some of his growing horror must have shown on his face, because Siesta was suddenly there leaning in close and looking at his face.

"Are you alright?"

Okay, this was important, but it wasn't something that was immediately urgent. There wasn't any point in worrying his friends here by letting them know how rattled he was at his apparently flawed memory. That was something he could worry about later, preferably when he had a paper and pen down so he could write those thoughts out.

"Don't worry," he reassured her as he started to cut another piece of chicken, "It's nothing, just an unpleasant memory getting stirred up."

"Oh. Alright then," the young maid seemed momentarily taken aback by his sudden shift in demeanour, but she quickly recovered as she sat down next to him. "So . . . will you be attending the ball, even with just your normal things?"

Alex smiled as he swallowed down another delicious mouthful, the taste of the meat going a long way to improving his mood.

"Well, I think it would be poor manners not to attend, if only to show my support for Louise, Kirche and Tabitha on their big night."

As he said that Siesta's face grew slightly less animated.

Ah. Right, you're Miss Vallière's Summon."

"A duty is a duty. Still . . ."

He looked about himself, at the various other servants, the maids, the cooks; there was even a grounds keeper who'd wandered in to see if he could bum a snack. As Alex looked at them all an idea started to occur to him, something that was feasible due to old Osman owing him for his help. It was a small thing, but right now he really could do with something to distract him from the unpleasant possibilities buzzing around in his head.

"You know, something just occurred to me."


Kirche was wearing her best dress. To be sure it wasn't her most alluring one, that little number was carefully hidden at the back of her closet and ready for a special occasion. Since coming to the Academy she'd only had cause to wear it once, and that had been to catch the attention of a particularly stubborn target of hers. After catching one look of her in it the object of her attentions had immediately forgotten about the girl that he'd been so enamoured with at the time and had promptly become one of her many admirers.

The problem was that on her way to meet him the sight of her in that particular dress had also caused a number of accidents, including a teacher walking into one of the fountains and a somewhat elderly earl that had been visiting the Academy at the time to have a minor heart attack. The results had been pronounced enough that the Headmaster had called her to his office and asked her not to show that particular item of clothing in public again. She could wear it in the privacy of her room, and in his office if she wanted to give him a private showing. Kirche could have taken that as a come on, but had been rather pleased to meet a Tristain nobleman that wasn't as stuffy as all the rest.

Thought that didn't mean that she had any intention of giving him a private show.

Or let his mouse familiar spy on what kind of panties she was wearing.

That dress was being kept in reserve for if she really had to do something to catch her darling's attention, but for now this more formal dress would more than suffice. It showed off her excellent figure nicely and complimented the colour of both her skin and her hair. The combined effect was to make her look both desirable and exotic, a combination that was proving to be most successful given the number of young men that were vying for her attention.

Tabitha seemed to have gone for a more conservative choice in her own gown. The colour was nice and complimented her friend's natural colourings, but that was about all that Kirche could say in its favour, really it came too close to making her look like a child playing dress up. Tabitha was a petite girl and a bit of a late bloomer, two facts that combined to making her look younger than she was. The Germanian mage had tried to persuade her friend to dress up in something a bit more flattering, but her quiet friend had remained firm in her choice.

Well, if that was what she wanted then that was fine, it simply meant less competition for her Darling.

Speaking of which, where was he? Normally spotting Iskander was an absurdly easy task given that his large frame stood out amongst her fellow students like a small mountain rising from the sea. However despite that she could see no sign of him. Where could he . . .

Ah, there he was. Rather than being in the ball proper he was standing outside on the terrace looking up at the night sky. As she approached she saw that he had a bottle of wine in one hand and a wineglass in the other. By the looks of things the bottle was about two thirds empty, so he must have been drinking from it for a while now.

"Oh, darling, drinking all alone is no fun, why not come and join me?"

He turned to look at her, and the Germanian was surprised by the expression on his face. She'd never seen such a . . . what? She really couldn't put a name to it. There was some tiredness there, as well as pain and a touch of hopelessness, yet at the same time it wasn't the look of someone that had given up and been crushed by the weights of the world. On the other hand it was the face of someone that had a lot on their mind.

"Yeah, this grape juice that you people can cook up with magic is pretty good. It tastes just like brandy, but doesn't have the same kind of kick."

At Alex's unenthusiastic response it took all of Kirche's self control not to break into laughter. She recognized the label on the side of the bottle. The 'grape juice' that her darling was swigging down was actually Southern Tristain Brandy, a particularly potent brew that was normally only served in thimble sized glasses. Given that he'd already drunk more than half the bottle the fact that he was alive, let alone conscious and on his feet, was nothing short of miraculous.

Well, given what she'd seen him do she wasn't really all that surprised. If he could shake of being stabbed through the heart then she supposed she shouldn't be surprised that he could take a particularly potent spirit. Still, it seemed he was unaware of his own resilience, given that he though he was drinking some sort of juice rather than alcohol.

Further thoughts on the matter were dismissed as the large red head sighed and leant he weight on the balconies railing.

"Sorry, Kirche, I don't think I'd be very good company tonight."

A touch concerned the fire mage approached him, the cool of the night playing across the exposed skin of her shoulders and bosom.

"So what's got you so down darling, I'd have thought you'd have been more thrilled with how things went."

"Oh where to start?" Iskander drawled as he waved the bottle slightly and caused the remaining wine within to slosh around, "I get killed because I make a bloody amateur mistake, I get turned into a living weapon that belongs in a nightmare rather than the real world, I find out that Chaos might have a foothold in this land, and now I'm having trouble remembering the important details that should be coming to me like they were my own name. Its days like this that I really think that there's something out there that's deliberately messing with me for all this crap to be going down at once."

He paused for a moment, blinked a few times then shook his head as though to clear it.

"Sorry about that, didn't mean to go off on you like that. I guess I just needed to vent some."

The smile on his face was somewhat sheepish, but Kirche noticed the ever so slight slur to his words. Iskander wasn't drunk, of that she was sure, but it would seem that he'd had enough wine to at least loosen his lips a little, maybe just enough for her to get some answers that she'd been curious about.

"Oh, that's alright darling, keeping things bottled up isn't healthy. I mean, just look at all these poor Tristainians," she said, gesturing into the ballroom, "They all act so stuffy and formal all the time, so careful to keep to their 'proper conduct' and 'dignity of a noble' for every minute of their lives. You should see what some of them get up to as soon as they think nobody's watching. I heard about one highly respected general that like to dress up like a commoner barmaid and have his wife-"

"A little too much information Kirche," Iskander cut her off, his face looking a touch redder than it had a moment ago, "I'll just take you word for it I think."

Oh, he was just so adorable. Despite being a devastatingly powerful warrior able to beat square class mages he could also be so easily embarrassed. Did it make her a bad person that she really wanted to see him blush more? Ah well, time for that later, right now she wanted to see if she could get him talking a little bit.


It seemed to be the safest topic, she already knew that he either didn't know anything about his miraculous survival or he wasn't willing to speak about it. With any luck this'd be something he was more willing to talk about.

"Yup, bloody corruption in the flesh . . . or not in the flesh, if that's what they want. Blood for the Blood God and all that. If it's them then we'll all be neck deep in lunatic fanatics and sinking fast."

He looked at her slightly blearily.

"Y'know, I think you could probably get in with a Slaaneshi cult. You wouldn't find them repressed, believe me."

"Oh? They certainly sound interesting."

"Yeah, I hear the sex is awesome!" well, it would seem that her darling was a bit more intoxicated than she'd thought if he was speaking quite so freely, "But then there's the drugs, the piercings in the weird places, the self mutilation, then the steady decline into insanity as you keep on looking for more and more extreme sensations to get high on, and before you know it you're sewing a live cat into your flesh so you can feel it struggle and enjoy its pain as it dies."

That took Kirche aback, she'd thought these 'Slanneshi' were some sort of hedonist cult, but that description sounded a bit too . . . extreme for even her somewhat libertarian tastes.

"Bloody Chaos gods, way more trouble than their worth. Idiot Eldar, why couldn't they bloody well learn to use a safe word, was that so bloody hard?"

Iskander was now leaning on the balcony and staring up at the night sky, his slightly unfocused eyes flicking from star to star. He was waving the bottle he held up at them as though trying to toast some invisible presence.

"And now they're here. Blood for the bloody awful blood god! Y'know, they're much less interesting and much more terrifying when you find out that you might actually have to deal with them in person. Hey, Kirche, have you ever wanted to be the hero in a story?"

The beautiful fire mage found herself thrown by the apparent random change of topic. Her mind had been wondering who the 'Elder' were, did he mean the first born races like the elves? And chaotic gods of blood? What did that have to do with a safe word, weren't most words safe? It would seem that alcohol was loosening Iskander's lips, but every answer she got was only serving to give her more questions.

"Ummm . . . yes, yes I have. When I was a little girl I always loved my mother's stories of Lenore the Flame Dancer."

"Ah, did this Lenore fight monsters, save kingdoms and generally deal with all the terrible things the world had to throw at her?"

His voice didn't sound quite as slurred as it had before, now there was only a slight hint of it rather than the tinge that had been there before. His question was an interesting one as well, she'd never really thought about it really, but that did describe the adventures of her childhood heroine. Seeing her nod of agreement Iskander continued.

"Did you ever wonder if she enjoyed it as much as you enjoyed hearing it? How what was exciting and entertaining for you was a bowel knotting rollercoaster for her with an additional side order of terror? I mean, we've all got our heroes, but how often do we think about how they felt? Hah! I bet Spider-Man had a few moments when he was scared, even if he didn't show it. I know Venom gave me the heebie jeedies the first time I read about him."

'Rollercoaster'? 'Spider-Man'? Kirche was beginning to suspect that her darling was making things up in order to deliberately confuse her. Still, she did understand where he was coming from, if not exactly how they'd got on the subject in the first place. How would the heroes of legend have really felt about their adventures? Oh, to be sure they had faced them with heroism and courage, they wouldn't have been able to survive them otherwise, but what had been beneath the bravery? Had they cursed the world that had forced them into the situation? Had the dreamt of safer times and places and desperately wished to be there? Had they bitterly cursed the foes that they'd faced even as they didn't let that hatred show? It was an interesting mental exercise, though she didn't really see the point.

Another breeze went by and Kirche felt the goosebumps rise on her bared shoulders. The night was getting cooler as the evening drew on, cool enough that she felt somewhat cold. Idly she noted that despite having his mantle pulled back so that his own arms were bared Iskander didn't seem to be reacting to the lowering temperature in the slightest, but that wasn't really too important at the moment. Right now she wanted to get her darling into the ballroom so that she could get some food in him and hopefully draw him out of this dark mood he seemed to have fallen into.

"Come on in darling, you don't want to be out here when Louise makes her big entrance, do you?"

That seemed to be the right thing to say. At the mention of his Summoner the big man stiffened slightly, then nodded slowly in agreement.

"Yeah, you're right. If I do miss it then I'll never hear the end of it. Don't get Lina Inverse angry, an important survival tip. She's not quite there yet, but best treat Louise like she is. Dragon Slaves to the face are a no no."

That last bit was said in more of a mumble than anything else, but Kirche was close enough to be able to make it out. Still, at this point she was just accepting that the apparent gibberish that he was spouting wasn't going to make sense to her any time soon. She'd simply have to store it up and ask him about it again once she was sure he couldn't get away. Maybe after she finally seduced him, by that point he'd most likely be too tired to run away in any case.

The thought brought a smile to her lips, even though she knew that particular goal was still a ways off. Ah well, she was patient, her victory was assured, it was just a matter of time.

But right now she had other concerns. Taking Iskander by the arm she guided him back into the ballroom.

It was a short trip, but Kirche found herself enjoying every step of it. It had occurred to her, as she had threaded her own slim arm through Iskander's, that despite her rather ardent pursuit of the young man she'd not actually had that much physical contact with him. In fact the closest she'd managed to get to any sort of physical intimacy with him had been when he'd picked her up bridal style to rush her into her room to avoid being seen with her in the hallway when she was in her negligee.

Right now though she was cursing the fact that she'd chosen to wear arm length gloves to the ball. To be sure they were most beautifully with her drown, but right now it was keeping her from true skin to skin contact with her darling. Well, it wasn't a total loss, thin as the white cloth was she could feel the heat of his arm through it, feel the hardness of his muscles as they rippled beneath his skin, smell the slight scent of leather and metal that came from his armour.

This was almost bordering on the absurd, why was she so affected by his simple proximity? It wasn't as though she was some blushing maiden that had never so much as touched a male other than her own father and siblings. In the past she'd had all manner of fun with various men, that had been what landed her in a Tristain school of magic rather than remaining back in Germania, so this . . . this should all be normal to her.

Even as those thoughts passed through her mind Kirche tightened her grip on the arm she held ever so slightly and pressed herself in closer to Iskander's side. Confusing or not one thing that was for sure was that she definitely enjoyed being so close to him.


Looking up the Germanian fire mage saw that their course had brought them to the buffet table where Tabitha was calmly eating her way through a large meat steak that she'd cut from the joint that had been prepared. Honestly, Kirche had no idea how her friend could still be so petite given her somewhat voracious appetite. Much like her character Tabitha's hunger wasn't something loud or obvious, but if one paid attention they would see that whenever she had the opportunity the small wind mage would serve herself large portions, then set about quietly consuming it all.

"Hello Tabitha, how are you enjoying the ball?" Kirche asked.

"Good food."

"You've got that right. Marteau really is awesome at his job. The man should start a restaurant; he'd make a killing once word got about."

"Marteau?" Tabitha asked, clearly wondering as to whom Iskander was talking about.

"He's the head cook, the guy ultimately in charge of getting all the food ready so we can eat so well every day." Her darling explained, idly reaching out to spear a carved slice of meat on a fork and popping it into his mouth. "Does good work, doesn't he?"

Kirche blinked at that. She knew that Iskander was friendly with one of the maid, the one called Siesta that was always hanging around him, that much had been made clear by his effort in getting her out from under Count Mott's thumb. However it honestly hadn't occurred to her that he might be on good terms with the other servant staff. In a way the thought was somewhat startling to her, Kirche didn't consider herself one of the nobles that looked down on the commoners, indeed in Germania it was possible for commoners to become nobles if they gathered enough wealth. Yet at the same time the various cooks, maids and gardeners that kept the academy running didn't really impress themselves upon her notice. Siesta had broken that paradigm by being close to her darling, but as for the rest, well, they just sort of faded into the background, kind of like pieces of mobile furniture.

"Very good." Tabitha agreed as she helped herself to another bite.

"Yeah, but would you believe that this isn't a patch on his special roast chicken? I swear, the man should get some sort of prize for cooking something that good. I still don't get how he gets the skin so perfectly crunchy without drying out the meat inside. Once I work that out I'm going to try my own hand at it."

"Darling, I didn't know you enjoyed cooking."

It really did take Kirche by surprise. Iskander had such a large physical presence, such a sense of contained power that the image of him working in any sort of kitchen just didn't really fit into her mind. She could imagine him striding around some small castle or keep. She could imagine him hunting out in the forest. She could imagine him exercising in some courtyard or other, probably lifting heavy stones or swinging around some sort of heavy weighted sword. He'd of course be bare to the waist due to the heat, and the sweat from his exertions would be trickling down the rock hard contours of his sculpted body as he tirelessly continued to . . .

. . . Perhaps she'd gone a little of topic with that. Now, what had she been thinking about?

Oh yes, the point was that while she could imagine the large red head cooking some sort of wild boar or bull over a roaring fire with a spit she just couldn't reconcile the image of him working in a kitchen while wearing a chef's hat and apron with any sort of reality. It was just too surreal for her to accept.

"Of course," Iskander answered, blissfully unaware of how his response was colliding with her preconceptions, "I've been cooking for myself since I was twelve years old, how else am I going to get my steaks just right? And do you know how hard it is to find someone else who can make a decent pasta sauce? It's like nobody else knows the correct ratio of onion to garlic to use. And they never manage to get the tomatoes right, you have to use fresh ones, not tinned ones, those never . . ."

Kirche could only stare up at him as he continued to ramble on. It just didn't . . . fit, the notion of him cooking. Turning she tried to catch Tabitha's eyes, hoping that her quiet friend might have some way to deal with this. Unfortunately her attempt was interrupted by a maid arriving carrying a big bowl of green leafs.

"Thank you for your patience. Here's your hazel leaf salad."

The Germanian mage could swear that for an instant she actually saw Tabitha's eyes light up with an internal gleam as she focused on the newly arrived greenery. In the next instant she had abandoned her plate of meat and was enthusiastically devouring the plate of salad.

"Oh, Kirche, you look beautiful tonight!"

"Absolutely gorgeous!"

"Please, dance with me!"

"No, me!"


Ah, it would seem that her admirers had arrived to try to beg her favour. She almost proceeded with her normal response, to brightly thank them for their compliments and then set them off against each other to see how far they would go to outdo one another, but something gave her pause.

Normally she enjoyed basking in the attention of the various boys and young men that she had attracted. Aside from being quite entertaining in and of itself it was also a sort of affirmation of her own desirability. To have so much attention directed to her, especially at a ball like this, where so many other girls were dressed up in their best and looking to attract men of their own, it gave her a sense of . . . significance? It wasn't something that she'd ever given much thought; it was just a habit that had naturally developed as her beauty had become more and more apparent as the years passed.

The thing was that right now she wasn't feeling it. Rather than being pleased by the attention being lavished upon her Kirche instead found herself feeling slightly irritated that her admirers were interfering in her time with Iskander. Their sudden appearance seemed to have broken the mood of casual intimacy that she'd been trying to develop as she led him into the ballroom. Why did they have to show up now? Couldn't they read the atmosphere? Right now she didn't want to deal with them; she was focused on her darling.

This . . . this was unlike her. The thought occurred to her even as she opened her mouth to try and dismiss the gaggle of admirers. She'd never really concerned herself with just one man, not since her first crush had ended in such disaster. Why should she limit herself in such a way? Her passion was more than enough to keep all her admirers happy, and if they couldn't deal with that then that was their problem.

'Passion is bright, but it burns out fast', Iskander's words to her back when she'd had Flame bring him to her room came back to her. It nagged at her, made her take another look at just how she was dealing with her suitors.

They were . . . uninteresting, there was no other way to describe it. Their flatteries, their attentions, all of them seemed dull, shallow, unimaginative. It was just the same flowery compliments and platitudes that she'd heard in various versions so many times before. And as for passion . . . was there really anything worth it here?

Another of her admirers said something, but by point Kirche wasn't even paying attention. She simply nodded in vague acknowledgement and glanced over at Iskander. He hadn't gone far, but the small distance that he'd opened up between them was telling none the less. The buxom fire mage blinked in surprise as she realized that the fact that he'd made that distance was more important to her than all the pointless platitudes being offered by the various young men about her.

There was something happening here, something she couldn't put her finger on, but for now she had other things to think about. Once she was alone she'd give it some thought, but for now she-

"Presenting Miss Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, daughter of Duke de La Vallière!"

The loud announcement echoed through the ballroom as two ushers pulled aside the large curtain that covered the entrance for the guests of honour.


Alex felt a certain level of pride as his small Summoner made her way onto the main floor. All around her the various boys of the academy were finally cottoning onto the simple fact that for all her petite stature the youngest Vallière sister was by no means a child. The gown she had chosen was in white and light pink and complemented her hair and complexion magnificently, and its cut served to make her look more stately and mature. Quite simply it was the gown of a young woman rather than that of a child, and Louise was wearing it with all the dignity and class that her stature as a noble demanded.

"Well, I am impressed." Derflinger's metallic voice sounded out from his place at Alex's belt. "That young mage of yours certainly cleans up well. I suppose the saying about fine feathers making for a fine bird does hold some weight after all."

"Be nice, it's her big night," He admonished the talking sword. "She's more than earned this with both courage and effort. You saw what that spell of hers did to the clearing; do you really want toirritate her?"

"Errrr . . . you might have a point there partner." Derflinger agreed. "It's never a good idea to piss off the mages that can make with the big booms, that's a piece of wisdom that six thousand years has taught me."

"Definitely sage wisdom." Alex agreed.

As he watched Louise approach him the pseudo Servant raised his goblet to his mouth and took a deep swig. It wasn't wine this time, just plain water, and the cool feeling of it running down his throat helped dispel the lingering fuzziness in his thoughts.

Alex had never been much of a drinker, beer and wine were alright in moderation, but the slow feeling of intoxication creeping up on him when he drank to excess had always unnerved him. In his whole life he'd only been properly drunk twice, and neither occasion had been a proud moment in his life. Fortunately he wasn't a 'mean' drunk, something that had been a personal fear of his for years, but he did tend to go through with bizarre ideas that were both perplexing and embarrassing once he regained sobriety. Him drinking enough to get buzzed as he had been wasn't something he did often, but after finding out that he apparently had some holes in his memory that shouldn't be there . . . well, he felt it more than justified at this point.

The thing was that he was already starting to put a theory together, and it wasn't one that he liked.

In the original story Saito had had mental blocks placed on him by the Familiar bond between him and Louise. Alex wasn't too sure as to the exact details of it, but if he remembered right then those blocks were intended to suppress the memories that would have led Saito to want to leave Louise's service. Memories of home and family had been muted to the point where he hadn't really thought about them much after the whole mess with Albion's first invasion.

Alex was pretty sure that he wasn't suffering from the same sort of thing. As far as he could tell his memories of his family and his home were all intact and fully available to him. He still missed them and did experience a certain level of home sickness. The difference between his situation and Saito's was that Alex was aware of what was to come. Saito had been dragged into this situation without any sort of foreknowledge or understanding of the world he was stuck in. By contrast Alex knew a fair bit about not only the people here but also about what was going to happen. Keeping them safe, forestalling some of the greater disasters that were to come, these goals gave him a focus that Saito had lacked, a firm foundation on which to build his resolve.

Oh, to be sure he still had every intention of trying to find a way home. The difference was that he also planned to spend that time productively. There was simply too much to do here, and he was stuck with having to deal with it.

The problem was that the memory block hadn't disappeared; instead it seemed that they had instead been repurposed by whatever force had provided him with the powers he now held. Judging from what he'd been able to work out from what the Book of the Sealed had revealed so far he knew that what he'd purchased at the convention was directly related to exactly what powers and avatars were now sealed in the Book. The problem was that he could only remember vague generalities about what he'd bought and picked up.

And that was very unusual for him. When it came to possessions and entertainments Alex's memory tended to be uncommonly sharp. He could remember what books he'd bought at a second hand sale three years ago with ease, even if it had been as many as twenty different books. He could remember the toys and games he'd received for every Christmas since he was four years old. It was somewhat idiosyncratic, but Alex had often joked that he had a bit of dragon in him and his entertainments were his hoard. For him not to be able to remember something like that, it was almost as disturbing as waking up one day and not being able to remember your home address or phone number.

Was it really a surprise that he wanted to get a bit wasted?

Well, however reasonable the desire might be he knew that he wasn't going to go through with it. Partly it was because that wasn't who he was or wanted to be, but mainly it was because he really didn't want to wake tomorrow to find that he'd thought it would be a good idea to use his Noble Phantasm to carve a giant swearword into the local landscape. Nope, there would be no getting drunk for him any time in the near future.

The water felt good as it ran down his throat, a cool line drawn from his mouth to his belly. Already he could feel the cotton that had obscured his thinking earlier fading away. As Louise drew nearer he smiled and offered as courtly a bow as he could manage his left arm across his stomach as his right extended outwards to raise his mantle in a sort of curtain.

"My lady, I must say that you look nothing less than utterly radiant tonight." Yes, that sounded like something that a sworn knight would say to his charge. The fact that it was completely true only lent more weight to his words.

Evidently his young Summoner felt the same way because she blushed slightly as she ducked her head. Then her chin rose and she directed a stern, but not unfriendly, look his way.

"Thank you for your kind words. Do . . . do I really look that good?"

The question was asked with a little trepidation, almost like a child seeking reassurance. In response Alex simply smiled and gestured back into the ballroom and at the many young men still unable to look away from her.

"Well, if you won't take my word for it then maybe that fact that those poor souls seem so utterly blown away by you should speak for itself."

Louise glanced back and even though several of the boys tried to appear innocent of the fact they'd been checking her out they really weren't fooling anyone. Her face split into a pleased smirk as she turned back to face her Summon.

"I . . . I wanted to say 'thank you'," the flush was back on her face, but this time it was from something other than simple embarrassment. "This . . . me being a guest of honour, winning the Familiar Debut, bringing in Fouquet, it's all thanks to you!"

Her words had a rushed quality to them, almost as though she were trying to get too many things out at once.

"So I wanted to say thank you, thank you so much. I . . . I'm really happy that I got you as my fami- I mean as my Summon."

Alex actually found that he was quite touched. Louise was quick to anger and often had quite the sharp tongue, but he'd been working on that since he got here. Unlike Saito he'd not been ready to put up with her tsundere tendencies, and if he did say so himself he felt that he'd made fair progress in establishing himself as more than just her familiar. That she now almost always referred to him as her Summon instead was a good sign of this. He'd been able to earn considerable respect from her when he showed her how get at least some control over the explosive nature of her every spell and he'd been able to earn some affection from her by being an emotional support and a clear ally. Though neither of them had said it outright Alex did consider the younger girl a friend, maybe even something of a surrogate younger sister.

Louise though was a bit more guarded in her feelings, probably the result of years of having to endure her reputation as the 'zero'. As such displays of affection and frank admissions of her feelings, such as this, were very rare.

In the background the music picked up and couples began to make their way onto the dance floor. Glancing behind her Louise looked to the assembling dancers and then back to Alex.

"Would you care to join me for a dance, kind sir?" she asked, her manner almost exaggeratedly polite, though the small smile on her face undermined its seriousness.

"My lady, I would be delighted, though I hope you'll forgive me if I'm a bit clumsy. It's been a couple of years since I last danced properly."

Yes, that had been at his sister's wedding. It had been a simple dance, not much more than a modified waltz, but it had taken him several lessons before he had it down well enough not to be constantly stepping on his partner's toes. From what he could see the ballroom dance was similar enough to what he knew that he could probably fake it.

As Louise led him out and began their dance Alex was struck by what an odd sight they must make. Louise, petite, formal and in her lovely gown dancing with him; large, slightly wild looking with his hair and beard and dressed in barbaric finery by comparison. They clashed almost completely, and yet so far they'd managed to compliment each other pretty well.

Perhaps this really would work out in the end.


Glass shattered against stone as the jar came crashing down. In the corner of the room a small black cat let out a yowl of fear as it leapt through the rooms open window and made a dash to get away.

"Not enough! The reaction wasn't enough!"

The voice that snarled the words was almost inhuman in its tone, frustration and anger distorting the voice due to the sheer potency of the emotions. A slim black gloved hand seized up another vial and shook it slightly as its owner watched intently as the liquid within slowly changed colour. Bit by bit the pale yellow of the solution shifted to red, then darkened as though it were putrefying until it was a rotted greenish brown.

"That's even worse," the woman muttered as she placed the vial back on her worktop, "More reaction, but too much to be endured, too much to be useful."

"My lady?"

Her thoughts were interrupted as a young man opened the door to her workshop and stepped in. He was a handsome specimen, the kind of guy that could turn heads on the street or make young noblewomen recall torrid romance novels about wild flings with virile young peasants.

However his looks were lost upon the mistress of the workshop as her eyes focused upon him. It took all the willpower the young man had not to shudder as they did so. He was used to being the object of attention for almost all the young women he met; he knew he was charming, good looking and generally charismatic. Oh, to be sure every now and then he met some who just didn't see him as their type, but even they tended to at least give him a once over.

This woman though, she was good looking, a year or two younger than he was, intelligent, resourceful, generally all that he liked to see in a women. Had she been interested in him he might well have chosen to have a short relationship with her, nothing long term of course, but something. The thing was there had never been lust, attraction or even interest in her eyes when she'd looked at him, if that had been it then it would have been something he could understand. It might have been a bit unusual, but it would have been something he could understand.

No, what truly terrified him about was the way that there was nothing in her eyes when she looked at him. It wasn't that she was emotionless, he'd seen her laugh, get angry, get frustrated, that was human enough about her. No, the thing about how she looked at him that scared him was that she didn't look at him as though he were human. It was a subtle thing, not something that could be easily picked up on, but reading people and noticing small things was part of his occupation, it was one of the skills that kept him alive.

That was why he'd seen it, the way she looked at others. To her they weren't humans, beings with thoughts and feelings of their own. Her eyes looked at others and had no more connection to them than they did to the furniture in someone else's house. He'd seen it when she first looked at him, to her he was simply material, something that could be used if she so wished but was of little consequence otherwise.

And she looked at everyone that way.

Well, that wasn't quite true. When she spoke of her master there was a hint of a connection there. Sometimes, when she was observing those that had undergone her treatments there was a certain kind of almost affection, like a workman's regard for something they had made.

"Madeus, what bring you here?"

He was shaken from his thoughts as she addressed him, those terribly uncaring eyes noted his existence and then dismissed him as nothing more than a moving part of the landscape.

"Ah, L-Lady Tisiphone. His holiness Lord Cromwell asks that you attend him as soon as possible."

It was a very telling fact that the leader of the Reconquista rebellion didn't simply demand that the young woman attend him on his pleasure. Given how many of his circle served him with near fanatical devotion, and that was to say nothing of the resurrected dead that had been reanimated by his Void magic. With such support Oliver Cromwell should have been able to call whom he liked when he liked, but he never did more than request of Lady Tisiphone.

In Madeus's opinion all that did was highlight the fact that his current employer was both a sensible man, and a sane one.

Lady Tisiphone was not a woman to be taken lightly. Even if one could dismiss her unnerving view of the world, a suicidal proposal in his mind, it didn't change the fact that she was a powerful magic user as well as highly influential in her own right. Madeus wasn't certain of her element, though he suspected it to be earth, but he did know that she was masterful in the use of mystic items. The sheer speed and control with which she could use many at a time was both breathtaking and intimidating. Then there were the cults and societies that seemed to spring up around her like mushrooms. The hedonists, the blood crazed berserkers, the body modifiers, the doomsday worshipers, all of them could trace their origins back to her and all of them remained both obedient and loyal to her

And that was to say nothing of her . . . experiments. He didn't consider himself a man with a weak stomach, indeed some of the things that he'd had to do in the past would have no doubt left other men heaving up their meals where he had remained stoic. Even so, the things that he'd seen her do . . . nightmare fuel was the only way he could think to describe it, especially since his sleep hadn't been easy since he'd first seen some of her work.

She frowned at him slightly, as though he were a clock that had just chimed to let her know of an inconvenient appointment that had to be kept, then sighed and put down her vial. Glancing over to where the glass shards still littered the floor she sighed again before snapping her fingers.

"I suppose it would hardly do to keep him waiting. Let's go, the sooner this is finished the sooner I can get back to work."

Madeus didn't say a thing in reply; he simply nodded his head and stepped to the side to allow her to walk past him. As he felt the slight wind of her passage he reminded himself that he wouldn't be here much longer. His assignment to Tristain would soon be coming up, a nice and simple infiltration and dissention mission, nothing too complicated, just a bit of subtle rabble rousing at the right time. And all of it somewhere a nice long distance away from this madwoman with far too much power.

Repressing another shudder he closed the door to her workshop and made to follow her.

Had he stayed Madeus would have seen the small cat that had fled return. The cat had been able to smell something good in this room and despite having been frightened off before it had come back to try to find the source of the delicious smell now that the volatile owner of the workshop had left. Leaping back in through the window the cat landed on the floor and began sniffing about.

Its search was interrupted as the shutters over the window it had entered through suddenly slammed into place, cutting off the influx of sunlight. To the cat the loss of illumination was a minor thing only given its night vision, but the sudden sound of the wood banging into place caused it to yowl in startlement and leap up onto the chair nearby. Then, as it stood upon the piece of furniture it heard a soft but growing noise.

The cat stood in place, confused at this unexpected and unfamiliar sound. In a way it sounded like the chirping of crickets in the midst of summer, but this noise sounded different. The individual noises were shorter and sharper than those of a cricket. That and there were simply more of them.

A lot more.

The shadows moved as a black carpet of tiny gleaming bodies seemed to flow into the room as the chittering grew in volume.

The cat just had time to see the black mass sweep over the fragments of the shattered vial, consuming them as though they were bits of meat rather than shards of glass, then the chittering horde climbed the chair and swept over its feline occupant.

Just down the hall the woman who now called herself mistress Tisiphone allowed herself a small smile as she felt a bloom of sensation unfurl at the back of her mind.

It would seem that she wouldn't have feed her newest pets tonight. Supper had seen to itself.


The night was done. The students were gone and not a noble was to be seen.

And despite that the tables still had food on them; the instruments were still laid out on the stage, wine and juice still rested in pitchers and bottles and decorations still hung about. Though the hour was late there was still a sense of incompleteness to the ballroom, a sense that appealed to Alex as he leant against one wall and waited.

The first to arrive was Siesta, though that was hardly a surprise. She was dressed in a long light blue skirt and a white blouse; she wore some very simple jewellery, a pendant and some earrings, and carried a bowl of toffee apples. It was actually a little odd to see her like that, save for that one time at Count Mott's manor he'd only ever seen her dressed up in her maid's outfit, and even then that had only been a sensuallized variation on that same theme. Seeing her without that maid's hair band/tiara thing whose name he could never remember . . . it was a bit odd.

Still, she definitely looked pretty. Her garb wasn't the elegant and beautiful finery that had been on display earlier, that was for sure. This dress was clearly sewn with more utilitarian uses in mind, uses that a country girl would encounter every day. Still there was a kind of earthy pleasantness to it, something that made him think of warm summer days on a meadow and warm autumn evenings beneath the stars.

Others were arriving now, each of them dressed in the humble best of the commons, but each of them sporting a grin as they each looked about as they came in. Soon the ballroom grew crowded as more and more arrived, until it was even fuller than it had been when all the noble students had been there.

"Iskander! You did it! I really never thought that you'd manage it, but here we are!"

Marteau's voice boomed out as he strode into the large room. Seeing him out of his chef's uniform was almost as jarring as seeing Siesta out of her maid's get up. Instead of his familiar white and red he now wore what seemed to be black cloth leggings and a loose white shirt that was unbuttoned enough to show off his impressively hairy chest. It also showed off the surprising amount of muscle that he normally kept hidden beneath his uniform. Judging by some of the rather thoughtful looks being directed at him by some of the women about him Alex wasn't the only one that had noticed that.

"The headmaster owed me a favour, several favours actually. When I suggested this might be a way to clear at least some of his debt he was more than happy to help." The pseudo Servant answered easily.

"For all this? I mean, you don't just get us the use of the main hall, you also get us all this food that we didn't have to cook, wine that we can have as much as we want of, instruments for music and even some spells cast so we can be as loud as we like without having to worry about waking up any of the students? How in Brimir's name did you do for him to manage that?"

"Well, the favour wasn't the only thing I had on the headmaster. I also showed him an item I had that he really wanted, you know how these nobles can be about their collecting habits."

It had been a rather simple exchange. Alex had grabbed the so called 'Summoned Book' that he'd traded to Count Mott in exchange for Siesta's release from his service. Perhaps it hadn't been the most ethical thing to do, but in the wreckage left by the count's mad attack he'd grabbed it so he could try to get a handle on when exactly it had arrived in this world. In all truth he'd just stuffed it into the same sealed space that housed his Spare Clothes. He'd actually been a bit surprised that the magic had accepted it, but rolled up as it had been the magazine was apparently small enough to count.

When he'd made his request to old Osman he'd thrown in the old porn as a sort of afterthought. Given the way the old man's eyes had almost popped out of his head after seeing one of the photo shoots inside Alex had to guess that it was something that he'd . . . appreciate. Anyway, in exchange for the wonderfully explicit magazine the headmaster had sound proofed the hall, provided additional food and drink and promised to hire temporary staff to take care of things the next day. All out of his own pocket.

The ultimate upshot was that the serving staff of the academy could now have their own late night ball and enjoy a one day holiday the next day.

And they all intended to make the most of the opportunity.

There weren't any musicians to be had, but that was alright. Several amongst the staff had their own familiarity with some of the simpler instruments there. They might not be up to providing the same sort of grand ballroom melodies that the students had enjoyed, but they did know more than enough folk tunes and country pieces to ensure that anyone that wanted to dance would have something to dance to. Fiddles were taken up, pipes were put to lips and soon the notes of lively music echoed through the great hall and were soon joined by the sounds of tapping and stamping feet as more and more people took to the centre of the hall to dance.

For his part Alex stood by the food table and helped himself to another portion of roasted beef. True, it might not be quite up to the same standard as the roasted chicken that Marteau had served him earlier, but it was still a damned good eat.


He turned to see Siesta standing next to him. She also had a plate in her hands, but hers was home to a generous slice of the large lemon and cream cake that took up a large portion of the end of the table. Her face had a small smudge of white cream decorating her upper lip which somehow contrived to make her look all the more adorable and attractive at once.

Nodding to her Alex gestured to his own face where the smudge would have been, the maid frowned for a second then realized what he meant and dabbed at her face. As the cream was wiped away he gestured at the ongoing party.

"I'm glad to see everyone's enjoying themselves, are you having a good time?"

"Oh, this is wonderful!" Siesta exclaimed as she put her plate down. "I've always wanted to come to a ball in here, but of course I never thought it could happen."

Self consciously she tugged at her dress as she stared down at it.

"Of course I always dreamed that I'd be dressed in a fine gown like all the noble girls."

"I daresay that what you're wearing is a good deal more comfortable than what some of the noble girls stuffed themselves into," Alex smiled as he spoke. In this case he didn't even have to exaggerate the truth at all since the unvarnished reality had been quite accommodating in providing anecdotes for future use. "There was one poor girl that couldn't do more than take these mincing little steps because of the way her gown hugged her thighs, if she'd tried to dance I think she would have fallen over. There was another that was trying to look a bit more . . . umm, alluring for her companion. Half way through she fainted and they had to cut her corset in order to let her breath again."

Serious as the situation had been at the time in hindsight it was rather amusing, sort of a re-enactment of that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean. The tale seemed to do its job, because the country maid smiled as her mood clearly lightened. Another song picked up, this one apparently about the moon before a harvest. It had a nice tempo to it, not too fast but not too slow, and was pleasantly rhythmic. In other words it was something he could dance to without too much trouble.

"Might I have the pleasure of this dance, milady?" he asked with exaggerated courtesy as he offered his arm to Siesta.

For her part the maid's face suddenly flushed a deep red as she reached out to take the offered arm. Her posture was a bit stiff, but she was clearly doing her best to emulate the manner of nobles that she'd seen in the past. Idly he wondered just how many times she'd dreamed of something like this, being treated like a member of the nobility and being able to behave back in kind.

"O-of course kind sir. I would be more than h-happy to."

Grinning in reply Alex led her onto the dance floor.