Points of Familiarity

chapter five


The teachers had to order the students back to their beds. It was sort of fortunate that this happened late at night, as keeping them separate cut down on the potential mischief. Then they too were made to retire to their rooms. There was nothing to be gained by raising more fuss, the Headmaster said. The little group arrived to deserted halls. Guiche looked longingly towards the stairs heading east, and then the dormitories. The journey back left him cold, tired, every joint as if aflame, and the night wasn't done yet. He looked aside to his companions. Tabitha looked as unperturbed as ever, though her heavier breaths betrayed the fatigue that easily came to her her small frame. On the other side of him, and walking a few paces behind, Siesta followed still in numb shock.

Shinji strode ahead, but they knew that whatever cunning had guided them through the past few hours was now gone. The familiar stalked with his left fist encased in ever-burning black-green flame. Guiche knew better than to try and get in the way of a 'person' just a short bit removed from a rabid animal. Tabitha seemed content to just go with the flow, and of course the maid couldn't take the lead. Guiche gave them back a frantic look that said 'Just what the hell do you expect me to do?'

Headmaster Osmond was unsurprised when Shinji Ikari barged into his office. Waiting were Mister Colbert and Miss Longueville. Among all the staff, only these two could the Headmaster count on being discreet and useful. Kirche was there too, who sat up eagerly when she saw who'd arrived. The boy just oozed malevolence.

'Ikari? Hello? Magic bad, remember?' voices vainly echoed in his skull. 'What is this? It's like the Berserker state, but with all higher brain functions still engaged.'

"What. Happened." Shinji hissed.

Colbert looked at the flames still bursting out of the familiar runes, then nodded to the Headmaster. "Please calm down, Mister Ikari. We assure you, we are doing everything we can to ensure Miss Valliere comes to no harm."

Guiche just groaned. That wasn't going to work. Their little escapade had already shown that the boy, whatever he was, had no innate respect for the powers or authority of the nobility. Carefully he moved to the front. "That may be, but that doesn't answer the question."

"It's got to be a mistake." Kirche said with a pout. "Louise? Why would anyone think she uses the Holy Power of the Founder himself?"

"Wait, what?"

Old Osmond nodded to Colbert, who explained about the events less than thirty minutes past. The Mage Thief Fouquet's message about Louise and the Staff of Destruction, which was backed by Louise's testimony. He finished off with "Don't worry. We've already sent word ahead and the palace's elite will deal with this matter personally. Fouquet is a poweful mage, but he's stepped too far this time. Holding an innocent student hostage!" and here a strange fervent gleam shone from his eyes. "That's unforgivable!"

Miss Longueville's tone was much more calming. "From Miss Von Zerbst's testimony, Miss Valliere wasn't harmed during her abduction. As long as we don't provoke the kidnapper, the girl should stay that way."

Questions whirled around Guiche's head. He looked aside towards Shinji, and the boy stood rock-still with unreasoning fury in his eyes. The young noble decided to deal with that weirdness later. He felt like he had to claw at the edges of reason, as the mad mysteries just kept on piling on this one night. He could go mad! Ahh! He grit his teeth and wished to lie down in the lap of some pretty lass and just sleep. Oh Founder, he could... he shut his eyes and considered just not asking. Just turning around and ignoring everything until morning. He had no personal attachment to Louise, and he'd already more than fulfilled the debt of honor with helping out with that whole mess with the maid. He was fully within his rights to say - screw this. Let someone else deal with it.

Only two things held him back. The first was sheer curiosity. Like it or not, this was exciting and exhilerating in an adventure he'd never expected to experience while at school. Only now was the horror creeping in of what he'd just done back at Mott's estate, and the possible consequences that might for his family if Ikari's little scheme falls flat. But having already done that, he couldn't see any possible way things could get much worse by diving into even greater mix-ups. The worst he could lose was his life, but with his blood still roused he felt fully a Gramont of war. This was a chivalric quest, he could but feel the press of destiny on his back. He knew he wasn't as brave or powerful as his brothers but everything that made him a noble, a son of a warrior line, urged him not to look away from this chance. He'd spend the rest of his life regretting it.

The other was, ironically, fear. To turn away now would be rational, but there were those who'd sneer at him anyway for cowardice. He'd seen the wrath of Tabitha and Shinji, and to leave their company now would be to be discarded as their equal, their comrade, and he could use association with people of such power.

Guiche took a deep breath. "So... there are three important questions here. First, who is this Fouquet? Second, Louise- Does she really have the power of Void? Third, what is this Staff of Destruction? Are you going to surrender it for ransom?" He blinked. "Uh. There are four- four important questions here."

Old Osmond hummed approvingly. Often times, leadership was really nothing more than keeping one's head in a crisis. "Well, we do not exactly know if this is the work of Fouquet, since this is very much different from the thief's usual methods. We know that the kidnapper is a woman, which is too obvious... an accomplice, perhaps?"

Miss Longueville bit her lip. "But is Fouquet really a single person at all? What is really known about... him?"

Colbert, eager to show off his knowledge to beautiful Miss Longueville; and not having noticed how their little time together had bored her, launched into "Not much is actually known. No one had ever seen Fouquet's appearance up close. Nobody even knos for sure whether he was a man or a woman. All that we know is that Fouquet was an earth mage of at least Triangle class, that he leaves insulting notes, such as "I got your treasure. –-Fouquet the Crumbling Earth" at every robbery scene, and that he prefers treasures and artifacts of great magical power.

When Fouquet heard that a noble in the North had a jeweled crown, he went all the way there to steal it. When Fouquet heard that a noble in the South had a staff bestowed by the king as a family treasure, he broke through walls to steal it. In the East, none of the best pearl rings by the artisans of the White Islands remained in any mansion. Fouquet also eagerly took possession of a priceless bottle of well-aged wine from a winery in the West! The thief, it seems, is everywhere!

Fouquet's tactics range from stealthy infiltration to outright breaking in. The national bank had been attacked in broad daylight, and houses were silently frequented in the depth of night. In any case, Fouquet's tactics simply left the royal mage guards in the dust." he said with even greater volume, noting the secretary's interest. "Fouquet is identified only by the use of alchemy to enter targeted rooms, turning doors and walls to dirt and sand, then walking through the gaping holes. Nobles, not being stupid, had tried to magically "solidify" everything around their treasure in an attempt to stop the alchemy, but Fouquet's magic was simply too strong, nullifying everything, fortified or not, into dirt.

If Fouquet decided on breaking the way in, a 30-mail tall dirt golem was used. Tossing aside mage guards and shattering castle walls, it let him boldly take prizes in broad daylight! Truly, a poweful Earth mage. It would be very difficult to bring him in."

"No one knows if Fouquet is male or female?" Shinji whispered. "And yet you're all assuming she is male. I think I'm beginning to understand Fouquet's motivation a little."

Miss Longueville gulped. "And what makes you think Fouquet is a woman? W-why would a woman choose to be a thief, of all the silly things?"

Shinji shrugged. "I don't know. If Fouquet was a man, then he would seek out to confound his pursuers at every turn. The hunt is the pleasure. Advance warning might be given. But Fouquet to focus more on the objects themselves, the goal is more important than drawing attention and proving others as fools. It's... practical." He nodded. "This doesn't -feel- like the work of someone like that."

Guiche stared at him. "And you're sure about this, why?"

"I am... somewhat familiar... with the ways of the phantom thief." Shinji replied evenly.

Kirche 'ooh'ed, intrigued. Guiche palmed his face.

"And the creepy revelations just keep on multiplying..." 'Shut up, you idiot. You're implicating us from earlier. I should never have listened to your stupidly violent plan.' He looked to the left from the edge of his palm. Siesta stood by the door, no one bothering to dismiss her. The maid kept her eyes downcast, hoping to remain overlooked. 'It's not like that maid's a virgin. Is she? It wouldn't have harmed her too much to delay a few days.'

Seriously, he must have been mad to agree. Ikari's priorities, so much like a commoner's, was so awry. Except now, of course, but it's become even more blatantly suicidal. He didn't even need to say it- everyone in that room silently knew the course of action demanded of them. Out there in the dark, with full force of Ikari's inhuman aura, it was so easy to believe. Here, he was but a weak student mage again, and the Headmaster was a crafty old warhorse- no way he'd be fooled by something so juvenile.

Oh Founder he was sunk. His knees we shaking, and he was the slightest prod from collapsing and begging.

"Void." Tabitha noted.

The girl stood on Shinji's left, and strangely it the flames off the runes had slackened at her approach. She was a calming influence. Or she inspired dread. Either way, it was her presence that inclined Shinji to be more reasonable and aware, even in his imposed goal-oriented state.

Kirche nodded firmly. "Indeed! Whoever this Fouquet it, he... or she... must be mistaken. There's no way Louise the Zero can use the power of Void! Is that really true?"

Colbert shrugged. "There is some... evidence... to suggest that, yes." He nodded towards Shinji. "The familiar runes on your hand... they're like what was written of the Founder's own familiar- Gandalfr. So-called the Left Hand of God." Colbert had already gathered the relevant material, and showed the page to the curious students.

"This Founder... he's the one you call God, right?" Shinji asked with a frown. "That... makes some sense."

"Oh? Do you know something of this already? "

"Only the power of a god could..." Shinji chuckled darkly and shook his head. "That doesn't matter. Someone either believes it or wants you people to believe it."

Old Osmond idly took up the scroll left behind at the scene. From all indications, it was genuine. Romalia -should- know, above all others, if someone did possess the Holy Power. Yet to do this was most tactless to the extreme. He looked towards Colbert, who raised his hands in panic.

"I-I didn't tell anyone, I swear! It was just speculation on my part so far, and I did come to you first, sir. Without convincing proof, there was no reason for me to discuss it with anyone."

"It's the first I've heard of this." Miss Longueville said.

"Hmm. Well someone must have overheard... or someone knew ahead of time this would happen." He set aside the scroll. "This is most troublesome."

The three teens shared a look; that was immaterial. The strange encounter back at the road didn't require any leak. This shared comprehension wasn't missed by Old Osmond and Miss Longueville. The Headmaster gave a thoughtful 'hmm' and stroked his beard. Beads of perspiration slid down Guiche's cheek. The young mage practically screamed out guilt, but of what the old man wasn't sure. Not Louise's abduction, there were no telltale signs whenever that was mentioned.

"I must ask that you leave this to us. A crime as serious as this is beyond the reach of students. Unkind as it may sound, you're just going to get in the way."

As expected, Shinji bristled. A slight snarl from his lips was full roaring rage from anyone else. "The only reason I'm not ripping open that vault of yours, sir, is that I don't know what this 'Staff of Destruction' looks like. My master was taken, so I have to go and get her back. I don't think you have any authority to stop me from doing this."

Miss Longueville smirked. "Indeed. A familiar's duty is to protect his master even at the cost of his own life. So... where were you? It's convenient isn't it, that she's taken so easily in the first place."

"Tied up and unconscious." the lie smoothly slid from the boy's lips. "I was out on an errand with her permission, but we were... interrupted. Tabitha-san found us just recently."

The blue-haired girl nodded and produced a piece of paper with a crude map. "Rescue." she said. "Room. After classes."

Guiche had to force himself not to look around and bit back a whistle from his lips. Chivalry demanded honor, honesty, and valor- but the life of a noble was also one of false faces and intrigue. He had to admire such dedication and for his own survival resolved to do no less.

"If it's true... it's bad enough that it's a student of the academy, is the Staff of Destruction that powerful?" Miss Longueville asked.

"Mmmhmm." Old Osmond nodded. "The Staff was given to me, some thirty years ago. I was saved by a man carrying the Staff from a three-headed dragon. Sadly, he was already wounded far beyond even my ability to heal. Knowing he was near death... yet he still used the last of his strength to save a stranger. In respect to his memory, I took the Staff here to the Academy rather than let it be used by petty nobles in their conflicts.

I don't know what the Staff of Destruction precisely -is-, but it is very powerful. To destroy a three-headed dragon in one hit. It is a terrible weapon."

"It's not worth the life of one of our students." Colbert said uncommonly firmly.

"True or not, a user of Void can't be risked." Miss Longueville added. Colbert all but beamed at her support. "Headmaster, you must give up the Staff of Destruction."

"Yes, of course." Old Osmond then looked to the gathered teens. "As for you children..."

"Volunteering." said Tabitha.

Guiche sighed and clutched at his head before nodding. "With all due respect, if you don't let us go, we're likely to sneak out anyway." He gestured aside to Shinji. "Someone has to keep him from getting too crazy." He looked further back towards to Siesta, who eep'ed at his notice. "I've got a feeling we might be... useful."

"This is too dangerous. Headmaster, you can't allow this." Colbert mustered. "It's bad enough that one student is at risk, we can't add two more."

Old Osmond considered Miss Longueville instead. "Are you sure about this, Miss Longueville? You don't -have- to take part in it. The thought of harm coming to a flower like you... ah! These old bones can't take any more tragedy."

"Your... concern... is appreciated, sir. But I need to see the end of this. You know I'm not that bad of a mage, myself." Compared to Colbert's academic demeanor, she was the very figure of calm competence. She fully expected to be pulling the weight in this 'negotiation'. She looked towards Shinji and felt a tingle run up her spine. The little mages would be easy to handle, Colbert with his obvious infantuation even more so, but the familiar was the unknown. If he was willing to go so far for a mere maid though, it was likely he cared little for the actual letters of law.

What happens to La Valliere was none of her business. She planned on grabbing the Staff and getting out. She had no desire to engage in any pointless conflicts. "However, I do say that it might be too much for students to handle." She adjusted her glasses and glared at them. "Good intentions won't protect from being expulsion. If you don't care about your own safety, are you prepared to risk -that- even if nothing happens? Disobedience must be punished!"

Guiche gulped. Then he remembered that he already risked prison anyway. It was like a game, he supposed, but the players didn't know they were playing by different rules. Audacity now, ever audacity. 'If I stop, I burn.'

"We won't get in the way! I promise!" Kirche eagerly put in. "La Valliere isn't really a friend, but if it would help dear Shinji, then count me in!"

Old Osmond tugged at his beard. While it was true that he was obligated to wait for an official response, he knew what that would be. They would just keep on delaying even more, trying to verify first if Louise really was a user of Void, comparing her with the worth of the Staff he'd protected over thirty years... a lot of hemming and hawwing while everyone other than the poor girl's parents tried to leverage this to their benefit. Much disturbance to the school, and a young girl's life would be ended or dominated by the trauma of the experience.

"You all have my permission, then." he said, ignoring Colbert's last weak protests. "The Staff of Destruction... how sad. It was never its power that was dangerous. The destruction it leaves in its wake is nothing compared to men that lust for power and glory." He sighed and looked to his thumb, where Motsognir his little familiar mouse was gently nibbling to reassure its master.

The vault back at Mott's estate was really not much more than a large steel box set into a wall. The Academy's famed treasury was a room to itself. Much to the disappointment of everyone, the inside looked much more like an old storehouse than a hoard. Here were dangerous magical items and assorted valuables confiscated from the students. Wealth in the form of coins and gems were in a smaller vault downstairs, near the Treasurer's Office. The bulk of the Academy's finances existed, like most institutions, in the form of ledgers in the care of banks.

Colbert looked around with awe, recognizing that here was the accumulated history of hundreds of years since the Academy's founding. Armor of outdated style gleamed in their stands, still proudly bearing battle scars. Sculpture, in gold and marble, were shoved together in a corner. Most of these were busts of past headmasters, though some were nymphs in the Classical style (these elicited a scornful snort from Kirche, as she crossed her arms over her own more impressive bust). Books were there aplenty of course, possibly containing knowledge too dangerous to be contained even in the Library's Restricted Section. Colbert was entranced instantly and seemed to float towards them like a moth to the flame.


Miss Longueville of course had stuck to the business at hand. All around were nothing but baubles. The others were standing around a strange wooden box with red writing on them. "Thirty years... oh my gods. It makes sense."

"It appears Old Osmond lied. There wasn't a Staff of Destruction. There were Staves of Destruction." The secretary then stared at Shinji. "You recognize them?"

'This means something.' the boy thought, the confusion temporarily dulling the urgency of his mission. 'These things aren't worth Louise. Not if those people have anything to do with this.' He smirked slightly. "Smart old man. These things aren't enough to change anything, but could still make a lot of trouble."

Guiche warily reached out to touch the staves, then drew back. Kirche eagerly plucked one up and frowned. "It's more like a cane, isn't it?" she said with a sniff. Letting it rest on the ground, the weapon only reached up to a little above her waist.

"Fouquet only asked for -the- Staff of Destruction, didn't he?" Guiche asked. "We could just take one, and not as much harm done."

"Somehow I don't think it would be that easy to fool Fouquet." Miss Longueville replied dryly.

Siesta was left outside, alone, staring at the door. She'd changed back into a maid's uniform.

Siesta wanted to laugh. To laugh and laugh until her heart burst.

In heading back to the castle, her thoughts were consumed by just how she could possibly express her appreciation. That sad young warrior, she was prepared to offer him everything. She felt stained by what Mott had done however. She'd been purchased for her mere flesh, and offering that again- it would be an insult. She had no idea how to deal with the two nobles, but they profited from the deed anyway. She didn't know them. Only one person was directly responsible for her salvation.

Her dignity could be taken from her, but her heart ony she could give. She wanted to keep him from hurting anymore. Forever.

And then, whatever meager plans she had was shoved aside in a crisis eclipsing her own.

The light within the carriage was a practical Pilot's Light set into the roof, one of those glowing crystals that eventually had to be thrown away. Until then, the light provided was steady and cool. Guiche, Tabitha and Kirche sat together, while facing them were Miss Longueville and Siesta. There was a wide space between the mage and the maid. The carriage wheels creaked, the only sound to fill the self-absorbed silence. Outside were Colbert and Shinji.

The long locked box containing the Staff of Destruction was on the floor.

She looked up slightly and met Guiche's eyes. There was a strange tingle of familiarity, and they both looked away. Siesta couldn't even begin to pretend why a noble would be ill at ease, but she felt that they both did not belong here. In her case, the only powerless one in the group; maybe because he was a man surrounded by moody women? It couldn't be that he was irritated at Shinji for her sake; for that would involve sympathy and that she'd never expect from any noble. Specially not an avowed womanizer as Guiche.

When Shinji said "She comes with us." Siesta knew that it wasn't because she was trusted as a friend and ally, but because by sheer chance she had some ability that could be useful. Now that she'd been rescued, been used by these her noble rescuers to feel good about themselves, she was barely a person anymore. She felt more like a whore now than all though her ordeal.

Now whenever anyone looked, she put on a small relieved smile. She hated herself for expecting this little bit more, but would it have been so hard to ask if how she was feeling after all that happened? Now that a -noble- was in danger, if he really cared then he wouldn't just forget she existed. There was more kindness in the eyes of Guiche, or even Tabitha, than the one she'd prayed would come and save her. The one who -did- save her. Her fingers clenched into a fist, her nails digging painfully into her palm. These selfish thoughts... how so unworthy and ungrateful. Now she knew they shouldn't have bothered at all.

She could feel in the distance something familiar, something that shone with self-confidence. Her own meager light had the choice of shrinking until it died, or burning her body from the inside out.

A farmer's daughter understood the bounds of fealty. A daughter to her father. A landsman to his lord. A wife to her husband. A familiar to his master, even. Of course her life was worth much less than a noble. A noblewoman had power, wealth, and from her womb bring forth children with more of that terrible magic. Of course he'd lose sight of her.

"Tch." Miss Longueville hissed and tapped at the side of the carriage.

"Is something wrong?" asked Guiche.

The woman's cool gaze flicked to the crate and then up to the roof. "This is too confining. If we're attacked we can't just jump clear."

"Aren't you Old Osmond's secretary?" Kirche asked archly. "I'm surprised you show so much familiarity with battle."

"Oh, a woman has to know these things." she answered with a tight smile. "I'm not a noble anyway, so being able to protect myself... that's only good sense."

Kirche could just smell a juicy scandal. No way someone as beautiful and competent as Miss Longueville would come out of nowhere. Maybe she was looking at a kindred spirit. "Really? If it's possible, please tell me in depth how you lost your status."

Miss Longueville just smiled a bit more, unwilling to speak further. There was something vaguely contemptous in that smile.

Kirche's own smile was more predatory. She began to lean forward. "Just a little bit? Please?"

It was Guiche who let out a low groan. "Don't rake up people's pasts. It's impolite." The talk of secrets and what had happened was causing him to itch all over. Coming from a military family, he knew just how people can lose noble status without being directly responsible for it. The easiest way was through being stripped of it by the Crown for various misdeeds. The more common way was from the death of families or the destruction of lands. War made and destroyed noble titles.

Kirche huffed and sat back sullen. She was told that the exchange would happen in an abandoned shack deep in the forest past the Academy, about four hours away by horse. She was bored, and the ride over the stony road too bumpy to let her sleep. Tabitha had her eyes closed, asleep or not she was far too relaxed. Everyone else was trying to blank out their thoughts and let the time pass by. It was already past midnight.

Siesta had listened to the conversation without interest. She focused on that feeling within her. Nobles bickering over status, how foolish. For all their power, they still weren't sure just what to do with themselves. All this bickering just to find some surety of purpose.

'I'm not afraid anymore.' she realized with some surprise, and her posture while sitting was straighter than these nobles with her. 'I'm not really sad about this. Strange.' Maybe, she supposed, it still didn't feel real. Maybe it was really all just a dream. So what else did she have to lose?

And so she laughed, at first a light chuckle, then finally a belly-laugh, and she couldn't stop. The oppressive silence in the carriage going into the forest was broken; the others looked insulted, then finally had to hold her down.

"She's gone mad!" Kirche said with a huff as Seista accidentally punched her in the jaw. "Why did we have to bring this useless maid?"

Tabitha's hands on Siesta's neck moved in practiced, soothing motions that worked to calm down the maid's hysteria. Tabitha was intimately familiar with these fits. Her reply held a chiding note. "Awareness."

Outside in the cold, Colbert was driving the coach. The mission was supposed to be swift and secret. The noises inside the carriage drew his attention, but the boy beside him might as well have been made of stone.

Then the ground behind them erupted in smoke and noise. The horses neighed in terror and bolted, until the carriage struck a rock and near tipped over. There were no such thing as seatbelts for carriage drivers, usually commoners, and while Colbert could hang on with the reins Shinji was thrown clear. The boy's face remained calm even as he tumbled in mid-air, waiting for a surely painful but survivable landing.

The night lit up, trees were burned straight through, and the boy was thrown even further as a Beam Shot again struck him straight to the face. Something flashed in the darkness, and the roof was sliced off the carriage. More explosions. The horses were wailing in terror and with a flick of his wrists Colbert conjured line of flame from his thumb, cutting free the horses rather than have them cripple themselves. The carriage rolled right out of control.

The air thickened, acquiring glowing pink motes. Anyone looking from on high would have seen lines of pink fire spreading out from under the shadow of trees, in straight lines crossing each other to trace a six-pointed star.

Louise awoke to the sound of a soul in torment.

"No, stop! No more!" someone was crying. "Please stop! I can't take it anymore ..."

There was laughter, like dry brush across a wooden floor. "And THEN! This is the tricky part. After having boiled the meat, they must be stripped from the bone. Some good sized chunks you can get from the back and saddle, better left whole. The broth may be discarded. The meat may then be seasoned with pepper and salt and sesame oil and let stand awhile to acquire more flavor."


Louise watched, disbelievingly, as a young man in a tight black bodysuit with moulded armor crawled on the floor trying not to cry or vomit and not really succeeding much at either. Seated facing back on a chair, was a strange woman in a long leather dress. There was clear savage glee on her face as she tortured with a rabbit recipe.

Putting this strange overdramatic scene aside, Louise tried to get up only to find her arms were bound behind her. The old floorboards creaked loudly as she adjusted position from lying on her side to up on her knees.

"Ah, our guest joins us in the land of the living."

Louise glared up defiantly, recognizing the woman from before. "Who are you? What do you want?"

Both her kidnappers winced. "Starting off with the heavy questions, Le Blanc?" Sasaki replied. She made a show of thinking carefully. "Right now... those answers aren't important." She smiled. "But we should be polite? Like before, you may call me Sasaki. This is my protege, Roland."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance." the young blonde said with a bow as he leaned towards a window.

Unconsciously Louise nodded in return, then in realizing that may have been meant in mockery began to struggled in her bonds. "You idiots better let me go or you're going to regret it! You don't know what you're dealing with!"

"I'm regretting it already." the young man moaned. "Blaghargh." he poked his head outside and hurled.

"Oh, don't worry. You get to live today, little Louise." Sasaki brought out a small dagger from her bodice. "Of course, that doesn't mean you have to be returned -intact-."

Louise gulped and froze. Mages tended to deride simple steel as the tool of the peasants, and while the elite fought with magic and swords most were trained since birth that commoners with pointy objects were no threat to a well-prepared mage. The wand was mightiest weapon in all Helkeginia.

"So little. So helpless." Sasaki whispered huskily. She drew in and licked up Louise's cheek.

Now Louise had one more reason to be utterly terrified. She hurled herself away and roughly toppled over on her side. "You- you filthy commoner! Stay back!" Louise began screaming as she was rolled to lie face-down. "Stop… please. Don't…!" She felt a tug on her thigh-high stockings, and a pinch as the garter snapped back.

"Your zone of absolute territory… how irritating." That whisper was too close! She looked up to see that the other kidnapper was resolutely facing the wall. Louise couldn't help the tears the clouded her eyes. A noble's third child; she was just a spare, as a mage she was a failure, but before all of that she was a young woman. This was her most basic fear, the consequence of being helpless.

Then she felt shoulder muscles long tensed from the position suddenly relax. Her arms were free. "Oh, get over yourself, LeBlanc." said her kidnapper. "If I wanted to molest someone who had no chest, I'd get a pretty boy."

Louise flashed through the boundary between terror and rage. She spun around and punched out. Her fist cracked upon a smirking face.

"Ow." Louise squeaked. It was like punching a rock.

"Go ahead and get your aggression out of your system." Sasaki said gently. "There's no reason we need to make this a pain until your familiar gets here." She tilted her head to the side, puppy-like. "Unless you like pain?"

'This woman's insane!' "Uh. No. No pain!" Louise replied hurriedly.

"Are you sure? A little humiliation can feel good too."

"No! None of that!" 'Founder damn you, Shinji! Where are you?' "I won't make trouble! Just… stay away!"

"Good!" Sasaki answered cheerily. "Roland, get the tea."

The black-clad teenager shuffled over to a pot over a charcoal-fired stove. "If not the carbonized flesh of dead animals, it's bitter boiled leaf juice. I just don't understand you people."

Sasaki brought out a long piece of card and held it up to the large red jewel on her ruffle collar. A source atonal voice commented "MODE: RECOVERY" as the oblate gem lit up. "CONTENT DOWNLOADED".

She tossed it aside, and a magical circle sprang into being. The card spun in mid-air and shone a light down out of the oval shape on its back. Misty shapes began to appear below. Then with a flash a round table with three chairs were just suddenly there. The furniture were richly-decorated, with ornate bands of gold and ivory on dark hardwood.

"You're a mage!" Louise gasped. She didn't want to, but that bit of knowledge was slightly comforting. A look of maternal disappointment crossed her captor's remaining eye.

"Sit down and be civilized, Le Blanc." Sasaki smoothly slid onto one of the seats. "No. I am extremely proud to say, I am not a mage. I am…" here a card suddenly flicked into existence between her fingers, then gone again. "A summoner."

"A what?"

"Interested in knowing the styles of magic before Brimir made popular all this wand-waving? Unlike wanded magic, it's all about mental preparation then feeding runes with brute power, something you shouldn't have as much difficulty evoking." She chuckled. "All magic is summoning magic at some level."

"Ye-.. I mean, no! Now you're a heretic too?" Louise pointed straight with her right index finger while her left fist was balled up at her waist. "I won't be tempted that easily!"

"Technically, she's an apostate." Roland mentioned chidingly as he set down a bowl of green tea in front of Louise. The young noble wrinkled her nose in disgust.

"LeBlanc, do remember the conventions of a hostage-captor relationship." Sasaki said while taking a sip to show the proper way of drinking. "Behave and you might learn something about your familiar. Make trouble and I'll just knock you out until he arrives."

Louise very reluctantly took a seat, staring at the steam rising from the porcelain cup. The glaze was brown and rough, but deliberately so.

"You're thinking of throwing that hot tea in my face and making a break for it." Sasaki added idly. "You won't succeed. Cooperate or be educated some other way."

"I'm not sure I believe you, but fine." Copying Sasaki's gesture, she brought the cup to her lips. "Ugh. No sugar even?" She got back a look that implied 'Better be grateful this is the worst torture you get for now, or I might have to give you something to complain about.' Louise considered her situation. Her question hadn't been answered at all. "So what do you really want? Money? My father can pay, he's a Duke you know, but don't be too greedy."

In some way, Louise found this rather thrilling now. What was she really worth to her family? Her father proving his love and care for his youngest daughter, it would be nice to be the center for a change. Then she realized she was due for a big scolding from her mother and eldest sister anyway for bothering her father and froze up.

Sasaki put down her cup and made a thoughtful 'hmm', with her hands to her chin. "How shall we pass the time, I wonder?" She blinked. "Ah!" She made a small circle in the air and then laid her palm down. Then she flipped her hand up and there was now a deck of Tarot cards on her palm.

"I want you to pick out five cards, little Louise." She made a show of shuffling and reversing cuts of the deck at random.

Louise regained her senses. "You can't be serious." she said with a narrow gaze. "Card tricks. Nobody does that anymore."

Sasaki clapped her palms together in a praying pose, the deck held between them. "My servant that exists somewhere in this vast universe, my most divine, most beautiful, most wise, most powerful servant, heed my call! I wish from very bottom of my heart, Pentagon of the Five Elemental Powers, Heed my summoning... and bring forth...my familiar!" she crooned mockingly. "You just had to change up a sacred chant to suit your own desires, didn't you? Fate gave you –exactly- what you asked for.

Louise bit her lip. "He… he's not beautiful."

"Ahaha. Ohh… you have noo idea." Sasaki laid the cards face-down on the table. "You've thought it before, haven't you? An animal may have no choice but to obey, or will show loyalty if you treat it with care… but what would the perfect servant have need of such a master as you? What do you really –have- that can compel him to obey?

This is what I want. Only you can tell you where you're going."

Louise blinked, bewildered, then huffed. "Fine. I'll play along." She took out one card, but before she could flip it up to look at what it was, Sasaki pulled it from her hand and laid it on the table. At the gesture to continue, Louise continued to pull out cards and they were laid out as such:

- 5 -
4 - 1 - 2
- 3 -

"Turn, the wheel of Eliphas, and uncover the mists of time." Sasaki chanted, but in a flippant tone. "What strange new worlds do we behold upon in the sea of probability?"

She put a hand over the center card, and said "This is the present, which shows influences upon… the present or event. Ooh. I wonder why you're trapped in a dark forest cabin with two weirdos?"

Off to the side, Roland sighed. Fact was fact.

Sasaki flipped it over. It was a sun, with a stylized face. The label was upside-down to Louise. "Ah. The Sun reversed. You may be unhappy or lonely. Life may seem to have come to standstill? Relationships… may be going through a though time. Failures may happen; leaving you depressed."

Louise hid a wince. No, that had to be a coincidence. Fortune-telling was for those with lack of faith in Brimir's grace, that was why while not really outlawed it was thought of as the pastime of the weak-willed and gullible.

Sasaki lifted and eyebrow and moved to the card to the right. "Waning Influences, LeBlanc- those that led to this events or those that have been overcome." She flipped it over. "The Card of Judgement, reversed. Interesting." She spoke evenly, as if reading from a manual. "This is a period of stagnation. You may fear failure and thus try to delay it by taking no decisions. Your health may not be too good. You may also develop a fear towards death. You also suffer from a feeling of guilt for your actions."

Louise was very, very careful not to show any reaction whatsoever.

The third card directly below the first "Hidden or Unconscious Influences… are hidden or unknown influences, I suppose?" That too was flipped over. "The Devil." Sasaki looked genuinely surprised. "Your dark side may be trying to take over your good side. Do not give in to materialistic decisions that may spoil your life. Give up habits that are doing you harm. There may be an unexpected failure or loss; you may feel frustrated and oppressed."

Louise snorted. "T-that may better apply to you."

"It's not the first time I've been called a demon." Sasaki replied evenly. She moved to the card to left of the first. "Emerging Influences, those that may affect or influence your current problem." She flipped it over to show a chariot with ten eyes painted onto the side. "The Chariot. You may see success soon. Have a positive outlook towards life and keep away from negative people. Perseverance is the key to your success. You will be able to overcome your adversaries due to you decisiveness." She couldn't help but chuckle. "This is a good time for travel."

A cold tingle travelled up Louise's spine. Much as she distrusted this reading, that was pretty much her entire life principle. Never giving up, never show any weakness, someday… she would prove them all wrong.

"And the last." Sasaki's tone was deadly serious. "Synthesis. The meaning of all these influences. Not the future, no- nothing so crude. Your fate will be yours to endure." She turned it over. "The Tower." A red tower rose high over a barren wasteland. "There may be a sudden change or disruption in your life. A relationship may end. Monetary security reduces. Your routine is thrown out of control. Things may not happen you way, make the best of the situation.

Louise gasped, realizing she'd been holding her breath. She stared at the assembly of cards in front of her and then angrily slammed her palms on the table. "Just parlor tricks!" she hissed out.

Sasaki shrugged. "I'm not asking you to believe in this. Believe in what you want to believe, that is what will define you."

There was distant rumble and the ground shook. The cards all slid off the table.

Sasaki tilted her head to the side and smiled. "Oh? So they're here already?"

"What was that?" Roland asked, while laying the back of his left hand over the large red gem on his belt buckle. He stared at his mentor's catlike expression. "What did you do?"

"I've been here a couple of days. I… may… have set a few traps to test the resolve of our… good friends."

"I thought you said we should avoid violence?"

" Yes." Sasaki tilted her head to the other side. "But that wouldn't be as much fun, would it?" She pointed to the wall with her left hand and licked her lips. "Bang." she whispered. "Educate thyself."

More explosions.

Guiche coughed and felt strong hands helping him back up. He blinked and rubbed dust out of his face.
"You? The maid-… uh. Siesta, is it?"

"Yes, sir Gramont."

"Ah. Well. Thank you." He rubbed at his shoulder and looked around. "What just happened?"

Siesta shrugged. "I don't know." she replied softly. "I don't know where the others are either." She kept her face down and shyly folded her hands onto her lap. The white of her maidservant's dress was stained by grass and dirt. Guiche could see these clearly because everything around them seemed to be on fire.

Guiche blinked again, and tried to knock the numbness out the side of his head. He looked around to see that they were inside a circle of strange pink fire. He could feel the heat, and the flames were taller than the trees but seemed to be burning unceasingly from nothing more than bare dirt. There were gaps in the circle of fire, three long corridors burned clear of foliage leading deeper into the forest.

He saw the remains of the carriage. "I suppose the others already went ahead? But why would they do that?" It was most impolite, not even to try and wake him up. As a gentleman it was his duty and privilege to walk ahead of the ladies and towards danger. He sighed. And it had started out as such a nice day. "I suppose we'll have to go in after them."

"Um… begging your pardon, sir."

"Oh, right. Yes. I can hardly expect a commoner to try and deal with a mage problem. You can stay here instead. It should be sir."

"Sir!" Siesta added firmly. "I'm not going to run away." She waved over to a large fallen box. "But... it would be pointless if we don't bring along what this is all about."

"The Staves of Destruction. I suppose they could be useful." Guiche flicked his wand and the heavy box rose into the air. "Stay close. You-" Guiche halted suddenly. His eyes became unfocused, and slowly he turned towards one of the passages. The young mage began to shamble off, cocking his head aside as if listening to a music only he could hear. The box dropped back to the ground with a loud bang.

Siesta yelped and belatedly put her hands to her ears. "Um. Sir Gramont?" She was now alone in the clearing. "Mister Ikari? Anyone?"

She took deep breaths and put a hand over her chest to feel her heartbeat. It surprised her to find out that while her pulse was increased, her heart didn't know fear. The maid went over to the large box and experimentally tugged at the straps. It was too heavy for her to lift, but maybe if she pulled? She had no power of her own, except perhaps the strength that was the birthright of a farmer's daughter. It may not be easy, it may not be quick, but there was no one else around and it was something she could do.

Siesta closed her eyes and felt the hot winds caress her face. There, in the distance, she could feel a strange cold tugging. And there, she was sure, she would find him. She was but a commoner, but damn it all she had her own will, and as she snarled - dragging the weapon box behind her – she would have answers too!

"It's a nice night." said Sasaki, while baring her teeth wide. "Don't you agree? Such beautiful weather." She dragged Louise out into the open and relished the young girl's fear.

"This is unreasonably conspicuous!" Roland shouted, waving his arms around. "Have you gone mad, teacher?"

"It's coming. You've never experienced weather before. You've never experienced the storm. How it starts so softly, light, the stars, fading away. First there is silence. Then the first weak patter of raindrops without the wind." Louise was bound in rope. "And then- the fury. The untamed power. I –will- see it again, one last time. And for you… little ones… learn."

Louise wanted to spit in her face, but was more concerned with trying not to choke from the rope around her neck. This was beyond humiliating. Yet it was clear there was no spite in the strange woman.

"You still don't understand, do you?" Sasaki continued. "If it had been anyone… literally anyone else… you and this world could have continued a while longer in ignorance. But now there's literally only two choices- salvation or extinction. Angels or demons." She took a deep breath. "You all burn so bright…."

Siesta stopped and put her hands to her knees, heaving for breath. She was getting closer. She could feel it. She could hear it. She could see it.

Somewhere out there was Mister Colbert and Miss Longueville, and though she didn't know them she could feel a certain fondness towards them. Very much like a student to her teachers, but that didn't make sense.

Serpent of flame in the grass
Crumbling manor made of sand
Ah! If they're not careful, they make mirrors of glass.
And windows into the secrets of their past.

She could almost see them recoil as the words drifted through the winds, then with Miss Longueville intentionally stepping a few steps back. The bald mage would look back, friendly inquiry on his face. His smile would be deliberately disarming, for Colbert had sworn never again to overlook little clues that would lead him into another tragic mistake.

Red devil, blue devil
Fire and ice, betrayers of each other
The Ardent Flame withers in time, beauty and passion into dust
And only the dragons will remember the child without a home

She thought about those two young mages. It didn't take much dig up her own feelings of envy. Yet, there was also pity. Why? These two were almost perfect examples of female nobility- self-assured, powerful, able to take and hold whatever they wanted. But as she could sense two figures step out of the shadows, Siesta was forced to realize that such powers were of course finite. True power was something deeper, clawing out naked and screaming into the sun through violence and loss.

Legends in time, but one
Stands alone, trying to understand
Reach for power! Be hungry for it! There are many kinds
Clutch them all! For that is the only way you'll survive

Guiche screamed like a mouse when he realized where he was and what he was facing. Among the students, Guiche was the figure of nobility Siesta loathed; weak but utterly convinced of their own entitlement. A commoner was beneath the notice of this womanizer, which was something of a blessing. But she was afraid. Something about Guiche scared her on a fundamental level.

And then, her vision cleared. She could see him now, looking so young and so lost. Shinji got up and was hit again by a bright yellow beam from the shadows. He was thrown to the ground, the skin from his elbows scraping off in bloody chunks and his shirt bursting into flame. Gasping bent around wormlike until could get to kneeling position. Slowly he tried to push back to his feet. His shirt seemed to re-knit itself, like burning in reverse. For a moment, Siesta thought of someone poking the tip of his little finger into a fishbowl. If he could talk with the fishes in the bowl, wouldn't the fishes think that this they could see was the being they were conversing with?

Why do you even bother to get up again?
You deserve to be hated
You liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar.
Don't pretend you actually care!

The boy clenched his fists, grabbing at the soil. Still kneeling, he threw his head and screamed. Tears bubbled into steam on his face.

That does it. Deserved to be hated? Whoever was saying that, she didn't care, deserved a kick to the teeth. Siesta grit her teeth and grabbed at the straps of the weird otherworldly box and began to haul. She took bow-legged giant steps and with the haze of outrage over her being time began to lose all meaning.

She could hear his whimpering, and the delight of someone in the distance. She didn't have much, except the peasant's strength in her limbs, and she wanted to put her hands around someone's neck.

Sasaki looked at the passage cut through the forest by flame and overpressure. "The players arrive."

First to appear were Miss Longueville and Mister Colbert, who kept a careful distance and regarded each other with wary understanding. The edge of the former's dress looked slightly singed while there was mud all over the teacher's shoulders. Their eyes widened at seeing Louise with a hangman's rope over her neck.

"Release her, now." Colbert said in an uncommonly firm tone. He held his wand out and pointing slightly downward. Longueville had took the same combat posture but her wand held closer to her hip.

"Ah, ah." Sasaki grabbed Louise in a neck lock and began to stroke down the side of the girl's neck with her index finger. With each pass, the fingernail lengthened and sharpened until it was like a small dagger. "Have patience, honored educators."

The two tensed and lowered their wands. Before they could speak however, they were distracted by laughter coming from behind. Kirche and Tabitha had arrived. "If more people were enlightened as you about sharing, there would be any need for- hello." Kirche took in the strange sight before here. The two people she didn't know, wearing clothes of tight black leather, couldn't look more stereotypically evil if they tried. Or, she mused, highly-regarded experts at bondage games.

"This looks interesting."

Tabitha lightly tapped Kirche's shoulder with her staff. "Dangerous."

Guiche was not having a good day. And it had started out so well. He saw what waited ahead and gave out a loud half-moan half-sob. "Damn you, Ikari. What more is there?" He floated into the clearing carried by a large silvered female-shaped suit of armor with brilliant white wings. He sighed and pointed towards Sasaki and Louise. "Virthandi… EXTERMI-"


The golem let out a yelp and leapt aside.

Guiche grunted, feeling his body as a mass of bruises. He clambered to peek over the construct's shoulder's to see Shinji shuffle into view. "Oh. It's you." Whatever additional complaints Guiche wanted to deliver shriveled on seeing just how more beaten and tired the boy looked.

Shinji looked up. His eyes were red and puffy, his cheeks were sunken, as if he hadn't slept for days. "Louise-sama…" he whispered. He blinked. He looked at Sasaki and began to clench and unclench his fists. "Leave her out of this. If you want to beat me up, I'm here."

Sasaki smirked. "Don't flaunt your masochism at me, Ikari-kun."

"wait, really?" aside, Kirche cooed with enthusiasm.

Shinji looked at her intensely until, impatiently, Louise cried out "What are you standing around there fore, familiar! Rescue me! I don't-… I don't know, this is your fault somehow."

"I'm sorry." Shinji sucked in his breath. "Why are you here? What do you want from me?" The night air grew thick.

Sasaki smirked "I want you to answer this:

Beautiful am I, brightest star
Worshipped by lovers and sages
My rainment is heavy, my body is hot
I hide my face from my twin
So much does she fear me that her children
Would rather seek shelter with my husband
Whose is mantle is war

Who am I?"

Tired and annoyed, Shinji took a few moments to gather the required answer. The others were being led to the wrong answer by the sixth line. "Venus." Shinji whispered. His eyes widened with realization.

'Why Venus?' Colbert was thinking. The saint didn't have a twin, and her husband was not a better succor to her children. The opposite, in fact.

Sasaki smiled and took her hand away from Louise's neck. She held it out palms-up, and a large blue glowing globe sparked into being in the air above her palm. It grew larger and acquired variations in color until it was a slowly spinning blue globe, a planet with two moons. "Greetings from the world of Death Fog."

There was a high-pitched scream, and everyone felt cold down to the bone suddenly. One of the moons began to drift out of orbit, slowly plunging towards the planet. Then, the scream returned and for longer. Everyone felt their own teeth shake within their skulls. Out from the blue planet there was a spot of red, which quickly expanded to devour almost half the north hemisphere. Six pairs of bright wings erupted from the hellish epicenter.

The moon slammed onto the emerging bright-white giant.

The shockwave rippled through the world, and what was once blue was consumed by blood-red fire.

Sasaki closed her hand and the spectral display vanished. Shinji, sapped of strength in will and muscle, dropped to his knees.

"Where am I?" Sasaki asked then.

"... here ' the boy mumbled numbly. "You're here-."

"What -was- that?" Colbert asked in academic interest. Those on airships could clearly see that the horizon curved away when from on high. The classical explanation was a dome supported by… something… but there recently the theory was the world was indeed a sphere. It was no less a workable hypothesis as the old model, specially since it didn't need to explain why those nearer the rim didn't just slide down the dome. "Are you saying you're from another world? Astounding."

Sasaki sighed. Of course, Colbert didn't understand what part moons played in planetary development and climate. Not yet, at least. For all he knew, all other worlds had or even required two moons to be habitable.

"I've had enough." Miss Longueville snapped from beside him. She gave the teacher a gesture with her left palm, implying 'don't interfere- I won't endanger your students unnecessarily' and got reluctant agreeing nod in return. "I don't care who you are or what you want." She mumbled a long chant and gestured with her wand. Instantly a massive earth golem rose from the ground to impressed 'oooh's from the students. "You can either stand down and release Miss La Valliere, or you can be beat to submission. Harm her, and you'll be beat to death."

The golem knocked its fists together for emphasis. She wasn't kidding. She was no stranger to death, but outright murder tended to complicate things. For instance, killing any noble students would likely provoke a massive outcry from public, provoked the assorted parents and a rabid (wo)manhunt would erupt. The name Fouquet become anathema, as Tristain would try and recover the great insult to its security and esteem. Security and willingness to use lethal force would increase even in other nations, even if they figured out she was a woman. If necessary a thief like her would threaten death to her targets, but escaping was always of more urgent importance. Killing, though it made escapades more difficult, would only hamper her efforts in the long run.

Criminals tended to be fair game however. She smirked. They had to know that.

Sasaki looked around pointedly. "Oops. It looks like the Staff of Destruction isn't here. That's too bad. There isn't anything to gain from all your posturing, Fouquet the Crumbling Sand."

Miss Longueville's cheek twitched in irritation. There was a dramatic gasp from Kirche, but like most of them there she didn't particularly care. After what they'd already gone through just to get there, such a little revelation was nothing special.

"Are you angry, Ikari? Are you in despair?" Sasaki said with a demeted grin. "Shall I shout to all of them your sins, all the death and suffering that follows in your wake?"

"Shut up." the boy ground out. "What do you want from me? Leave them alone. I don't even care w..."

"YOU LIAR. You may not care for yourself, but so what? You are not beyond the touch of suffering! You who spent so long denying everything, what did you think would happen when you allowed this little pink-haired spore into your heart? She is a conduit! An escape hatch! For all the old horrors you've devoured! There are other beings, who have long been circling waiting for the chance to feast upon even a creature such as you."

The boy made no reply.

"You sounds as if you know quite a bit about my dear Shinji." Kirche said, raising her wand. She didn't like seeing the boy so small and defeated. So weak. It was unsightly. This dark woman was killing the fire, the otherwordly charisma, that drew her attention in the first place. "Speak clearly now. Will your surrender?"

"Fuh fuh fuh. Surrender? There is no fate but that which we make! Or rather... what HE makes." Sasaki lowered her head. "Ikari. The world will end. When you came here, you doomed us all. It can be prevented here, right now, by removing your chains. Break free. Leave. Never come back."

Tabitha stepped forward. "Unacceptable." she said flatly.

Sasaki laughed. "He has begun. He will destroy you all. Your lives will be used up, your souls burnt into nothing."

"I won't let anyone die for my sake." Shinji said suddenly. He clenched his fists. "If there is no fate, then I simply refuse your scenario."

Sasaki laughed some more. It hurt her insides in a way that she thought she couldn't feel anymore. "It has already begun! You have made people wear masks made out of your own flesh. Do you remember the old question; what can change the nature of a man? YOU can! You have the power. You transform humans.

Look around you! See who you gathered by accident! You have brought to this forest FIVE TEENAGERS WITH ATTIDUDE. You have also brought two reasonable authority figures that would nevertheless bend the rules to serve a greater good.

Do you not see it yet, boy WHO ONCE PILOTED A GIANT ROBOT?"

"... cyborg alien quasi-transcendant entity." Roland, a Red Tower devotee, reflexively corrected.

He was ignored by everyone, of course. Horror was starting to spread across Shinji's face.

"Yes!" said Sakaki, pumping her right fist in the air then bringing them both to her hips. "I have come from the distant future of 2004 to tell you that trying to escape your destiny will only end in ruin! For me the world ends in a Twos-day, but for you - "

"Oh gods no." Shinji moaned.




... yeah I'm just going to stop it right there. Let's pretend this whole thing never happened.

Sadly, I'm going to have to classify this fic as a failure. I messed up by introducing even more voices in the head, it should have been just invisible observer Asuka; like in RE-TAKE. Adding further complications for later plot tweests just further ruined it. I should probably re-write it to focus less on generic 'awesomeness' and play up more the unholy abomination angle... emphasis on unholy. The AT-field might start messing up magic, because under its domain they was no other power that may exist unless it was greater than itself. I originally planned on writing a 'death of magic' storyline, but eh. Louise in rewrite would be getting a familiar that reinforces her assorted psychological issues as a screw-up.

... or I could just go totally crazy and have them really need to form a sentai squad. Earth! Fire! Wind! Water! Hea- Void!

By their powers combined- he is Captain Pla-... Ultrama-... uh... LASTMAN!


Incidentally, I did an IRL tarot reading for this and what's up there really is what came out on the first attempt.