Whoowee... basically, I'M BAAAAACK! Its been a rough year for me, but now things are getting back into gear with both Toyhammer and Zero Shock. A lot of the new stuff has been posted in Spacebattles (Rogue_Vector is my username there) and you can find this chapter, the bits after it and ToyHammer snippets on the story threads there.


The letter burned quickly in the night, even as the pigeon that had carried the message took wing with her own message inside. The tinderbox snapped shut, and Foquet snarled as she took stock of her loot, though she knew that it was less her greed and more her worry that drove her to seek this particular distraction. Inventory, inventory...

Damn. Damn damn damn damn!

It wasn't an assignment that she had set to crumble into ashes behind her; it was a damned death sentence! To engage him again in open battle, and to purposely draw it out so as to test him? That would be the death of her! She'd last... minutes.

But there is always a chance.

Plans began to swirl about her mind; golems, lots of golems.

That was her only hope, but at her state now she was going to need a week at least to fully recover from the willpower depletion that she now suffered from. Out of public sight, and with her get-me-up potion's effects fading, the thief began to shake and stumbled across the room to her treasures, sorting through heavy gold, glass orbs and simple engraved wands to try and keep her mind off her imminent death. Those were useless to her; they held no value but to the noble families that had donated them, and would soon be recovered piece by piece by passing watchmen as they combed the forest. It would perpetuate the myth of Foquet the Crumbling Dirt's disdain for selling noble families' heirlooms.

Others, however...

"Better get these fenced soon." She muttered to herself, tossing some valuable bauble into her case. The thief flinched as her ringing ears set a phantom whine through her senses.

Such light...

Foquet picked out a long box – one typically used to store swords of one shape or sharpness or another – and pulled it open to examine its contents. As she did, her eyes creased into surprise as she pulled the weapon free.

Was this... a mace? Unlike anything she had seen before... her hands traced over the smooth metal, and spotted the words etched onto the side – a trader's mark, she guessed. No, wait; it was not etched, like she had suspected; the words were painted on with a precise hand; she could feel the smoothness of the paint on metal; though mostly flat, it had a slight rise. There was an unbelievably precise hand at work on this piece... she rubbed her finger along it for a moment, eyeing the unknown script.

Something niggled at the back of her mind. She had seen this before. The font, the style... there, a series of symbols that she remembered. But where had the thief seen them before!? Her mind raced. Longueville. The idle secretary had seen this.

Where? Her mind racked itself, a worried frown crinkling her nose and deepening her scowl.

"Where..." She whispered to herself.

That was it! 'Where?'. That single word, growled by that man. And he was connected to the symbols because his own weapon carried those same markings!

"Oh, found something, did you?" Queried a voice at the doorstep of her hide. Foquet didn't even jump, used to the intrusion already as she threw a cloth – formerly bedsheets used during an 'improvisation' from a heist long ago – over the artifact. She turned to the man, though not without the dread that had settled into her stomach. She was still angered over how her guest had simply walked through half a forest's worth of prepared wards and alarms without tripping a single one.

"Nothing." The thief snapped, tossing a goblet wreathed in cold flame into a travelling case. "Except, maybe, that I need to improve my wards."

"You don't, though the challenge is gladly accepted. Messy ward work, though." Namely, golem-trying-to-kill-you messy. Foquet was never subtle when it came to show time, but she hated the scowl that crossed her face unbidden. The visitor nodded, smiling in response to Foquet's sudden snarl at her defences – mental and magical - being so casually dismissed. "You must remember that I know your mind, thief."

"And I yours. What was the purpose of that last job? Sure, it was going to happen anyway, but to wait and time it just as that man was passing by? And then you're sending me at him again!?" She roared. "You know that I won't win another straight fight with that man! I barely managed to limp away from the first one. This time, he'll know how to fight my golems; he did better than anyone that tried to stop me in the past had done put together, damn you!"

"It is simply because you do not poke a hornet's nest with your finger."

"A poor choice of words, I'd say. That man is a literal nest of hornets, given how his fight with the da Gramont boy ended."

"That wasn't a metaphor. You'll have to find some way of testing his limits. You have golems, don't you? Use them."

Foquet chose to glower at his dismissal of sending her towards her doom, even as she placed a jewelled box to follow the other baubles. "You seem to make it a habit of trying to tell me things I already know."

"Why should I stop?" Was the reply, infuriating as always. "I'll miss out all the fun of seeing your face twist like that. It'll give you wrinkles when you get older, you know."

"You assume I will live to be of that age, given the work that you require of me."

"Well, in that case I'll make sure to enjoy your pretty face until then." A snap of his fingers, and the thief froze in place as her body shuddered, and she fell to the ground, gasping for breath as the visitor crossed the floor to pick her up and toss her onto the cot shoved into the corner of the room.

"You do know I can take whatever I wish." Teased the visitor. Foquet snarled, but couldn't do much else. She felt her mind melting away as the figure examined the thief's wares. Priceless, to many, but most of what he saw he had seen before long ago. Ripping away cloth, he grinned, eyes alighting with glee. "Oh, I do like the looks of this."

= Louise's Room =

It was morning.

Rising from his corner of the room, Jack ignored the healer's instructions to stay down and rest as he stretched strained muscles, curled up his toes and scratched at his jaw, pausing as nails scraped over sharp spikes of hair. Okay, there was a lot of stubble there now. Too bad he hadn't gone to sleep with a razor when he had been summoned by Louise. He was soon padding out to the window and peering out to the rising sun; it crested the hill to the east a few minutes later, blinding him in brilliant sunlight. He blinked at the sudden brightness, unable to shake the memory of being lit up by a spotlight, choosing to cross one arm across his face to protect him from the rays.

Louise sat up as she too was dazzled by the sunlight, her frazzled hair giving her a halo of little dancing lights completely at odds with her current state and demeanour. She had given him quite a railing after he had been released from the hospital ward, given that he had manhandled her out the door, and left her alone and 'defenceless' against the 'Zerbst battering ram', and it was at that particular moment he saw little difference between the pink-haired girl and one of his Little Sisters. Except, maybe, for the fact that she yelled a lot more.

Said girl yawned, dressed only in a short, almost transparent nightgown.

"You, idiot. Day of Void. No classes until afternoon. Let me sleep more."

Flopping back, she was promptly lost to the they who were awake and upright.

Jack blinked, shrugged as she rolled back over, and stepped out into the hallway, abandoning Louise to the dreams. His stomach rumbled; a keening, almost crunchy sound that was followed by a hollow snarl.

He looked down at his complaining stomach.

Breakfast... would be nice.

It was some moments later that the splicer padded down the hallway, his boots pat-pat-pattering across the stones as he wound his way across the school to the dining hall. The damages from last night was still there; an inanimate golem's arm was embedded into the ground in front of him, still attached to the shoulder portion of the stone torso that he had cut through. The rest of the torso – with legs still attached – were plunged head first into a nearby wall, the legs skill comically askew where the animate earth had turned back into stone.

As he crossed a courtyard, Jack felt the stares on him as he eased the door open, and simply stepped, unchallenged, into the Alviss dining hall. The early risers tended to be dressed in servant's uniforms, or were too focused on nursing their morning mugs of steaming drinks to talk to Jack.

Except one.

"Ah, Mister Jack!" Siesta chirped, rags in hand as she wiped down a table while her other arm held up the tray of condiments usually used to suit a dish to the tastes of the eater. She quickly finished, replacing the tray and then skipping cheerfully over to the splicer. Jack recoiled at her speed; she was moving far too swiftly for someone of her dress and stature; weaving past tables and chairs without care, her long skirt fluttering in her wake, then simply flowing around passing servants as she moved towards him, all the while a happy smile on her face. The splicer instinctively reached for his weapon, the wrench drawing halfway as nightmares of butchers' hooks, scuttling feet and twisting limbs assaulted him just as ferociously as the hungry eyes and eager expression worn by the maid.

He crushed the sudden urge cave in her skull with the metal workman's mace, even as her gleaming smile sent a tingle down his spine.

"Good morning, Mister Jack!"

Jack... blinked. "Siesta."

"Sleep well, Mister Jack?"

"... yes?"

"Uhm, Mister Jack? I heard there had been an attack on the academy last night. Would you happen to know anything about that?" The maid quietly – like one conspirator to another - whispered as she stepped out into the aisles between tables, starting on another one with her rag. She smiled pleasantly as Jack lifted the tray for her, and began picking each little bottle of sauces and spices in turn, sniffing and sometimes tasting them as the maid worked away at the dust that had settled onto the table overnight. While she worked, she began to speak again. "My friend said that there was this massive golem that was made of the outer wall, and it started attacking one of the towers."

"That's right." Jack confirmed, though his voice was marred by a lisp on account of a tongue that felt like it was on fire. He tucked away the little pot of red powder, and continued with the next one. Siesta saw this, giggled, and pointed out a small jug of cold milk, which the splicer gratefully began to drip onto his burning tongue.

"So there was? I heard this magnificent crash from my room in the servants' quarter, but the matron told us to stay inside. We all could hear the sounds of fighting outside. Martieu – the head chef – said that it sounded like there were at least a dozen mages 'slinging spells', as he put it. He used to be in the armies, you know, so he knows this kind of thing!"

Jack simply shook his head. "Only two."

Something faltered in the maid's face. "So you were there? That's... wait, what? Two!?" Siesta did a double take and all but screeched her surprise, clutching at her rag with both hands as she leaped back from the splicer a good two feet before he could blink. "There were only two? But... but Martieu said the spells were being cast so fast... and they were so powerful, too... he figured that there was at least four fire mages, just from how much heat the spells were..."

"Only two." The splicer repeated, gently setting the tray back down.

"Two..." Voice catching in her throat, the maid's head shot up, eyes locking onto the splicer's charred hands. "Wait... that means... you were one of them, weren't you? That makes you the absurdly powerful fire mage... and the thief was the earth mage, wasn't he?"

"She..." The Rapturian's brows furrowed. "And...yes."

"Well... hah... look at me." Siesta giggled nervously as she looked down at her hands; they were shaking, trembling as she held it up. Her eyes went back up to Jack, who arched an eyebrow.

"... what?" He queried, nonplussed.

The girl began to laugh; soft, hearty chuckles that helped her relax. Her eyes alight, she stepped back from Jack and gently bowed. "I'm sure... I'm sure you're supposed to say 'I'm not going to hurt you', or something like that, Mister Jack."

"Really?"

"Yes." She chirped. "It usually helps when a man promises not to hurt hisImeanta defenceless little girl, just barely of marriageable age and not attached to anyone whatsoever, who is looking forward to starting a family a..."

The maid trailed off, catching sight of a stern, matronly woman glaring at her.

"Uhm, maybe I got a little carried away there, Mister Jack. May I help you with anything? I'm going to have to work, but... well, serving you food would be working, wouldn't it?"

"Ah..." What was that food, that usually came canned, really fluffy... "Bread?"

Siesta brightened. "Bread it is, Mister Jack."

= Former Fontaine Futuristics, Floor F Fanroom =

Things scuttled through vents and swung around the idle fan blades above as two figures stalked the hallway below. Sinclair and Salvatore looked up, torches in hand as they scanned the hiding places above for their quarry. Given their target, that was easier said than done.

"I told you we shouldn't have used a spider splicer as a test subject." Muttered Salvatore. Aloud, he shouted at the ceiling. "HEY JENKINS, COME BACK HERE! WE KNOW YOU'RE UP THERE!"

Up in the tangle of pipes, wiring and walkways above the two, their quarry shouted back. "NO!"

"We'll give you a pay rise!" Sinclair appeased. "C'mon man, do this for science!"

"Fuck you! Your science got me killed!" There was a clatter and clang as someone leaped from a large pipe and swinging around to land on a catwalk above them. He stood there, in the light of the torches, and looked down at his employers.

Sinclair frowned, adjusting his waistband as the spider splicer above him sat on the edge of the walkway. He wasn't being aggressive at all – in fact, the man looked downright depressed now. "But we brought you back, Jenkins!"

Arms flailing, Leeroy grabbed the hand railing and leaped down another step, still glaring at his employers. "The point is that you got me killed in the first place! It was bad enough with you doing it on purpose, but when you kill me on accident? Remember that Little Sister's teddy bear? That was fucking traumatic, that was what it was!"

"That time was an accident!" Sinclair shouted.

"Exactly!" Leeroy shouted back.

There was some more flailing of arms. "It was a teddy bear!"

"IT WAS ON FIRE, DAMMIT!"

"That wasn't our fault! We had no idea that she would come into her plasmids then!"

"THEN EXPLAIN WHY THE BEAR WAS BITING ME! BITING! GOOD GOD, THE TEETH!"

"I swear we have no clue where Annie got a hold of real bear teeth!"

"You're fucking crazy, the lot of you!"

"I KNOW!" Sal roared, his arms alighting with Incinerate! "WE'VE ALL GONE THROUGH THAT STAGE, JENKINS!"

"And Jack brought us back from that madness. Mr. Ryan saved us." Sinclair whispered gently, letting out a small sigh. Sal tweaked an eyebrow at the portly businessman. That was just too... too idealistic of the shrewd, cynical man. Either he'd changed, or Sinclair certainly knew how to push buttons.

Time to join in. "Yeah. I remember that bit. He had to wrestle me down, didn't you know? Just to give me a tonic to save me, he nearly had his arm ripped off. Didn't just shoot me like the rabid dog that I was. I figure every spider splicer alive today owes their lives and their minds to Jack Ryan. I'm thinking that he did the same to you too, Jenkins." A sigh. "You... and not only you, we all owe him that much..."

"Asking for favors that aren't yours to call in is a dangerous game, Salvatore." Growled one spider splicer to the other, though now his voice carried the weight of resignation in it. Jenkins nodded, briefly. "I'll do it."

He glared at Salvatore, then to Sinclair, and as he looked from one man to the next, his coarse growl declared; "Not for you, not for him."

Sinclair clarified. "For Jack Ryan."

"For Jack Ryan." Echoed Salvatore, followed closely behind by Jenkins.

= Courtyard, Tristian Academy =

His longest wait had been four hours long.

"Can you shut up already? Its bad enough when its a person won't shut up, but a sword!"

It had been for an ambush. Seated in a cramped vent, chin on his knees, the air suffused with the steady thub-thub-thub of the fans circulating the scent of half-rotted fish and stagnant sea water.

"So as I was saying; an earth mage, a fire mage and a water mage walk into a bar..."

Jack had calmly waited through the entire four hours until the caged Little Sister came into sight, pushed along by her captors inside that cart turned prison.

"Jack! Familiar, make this sword shut up!"

The first to go down had been the leader; alert, attentive, he had not expected the telekinetically thrown dustbin to literally scoop him up and send him flying out the window.

"What is it with you and dirty jokes?"

He then worked on the two rearguard splicers; one burned where he stood, the other's submachinegun had frozen in her hands before a side swipe from a wrench caved in her cheekbone.

"I have a lot of them, pinkie!"

Leading the splicers had been a houdini.

"Can you stop telling them?"

Who had suddenly found a wall of shotgun pellets cutting off his escape – and most of the musculature of his legs.

"No! Look, I'm a sword, and with all these jokes... well, just look around! I'm making a killing, so to speak. Hehehehe."

The last to go down had been the carter, who was suddenly wreathed in lightning then slapped around with a wrench.

"Give 'em the good ol' one-two punch!"

"They look like they've been slapped with a fish!"

Since the arrival of the sword and pinkette, it had been two minutes. Jack was massaging his temples with a thumb and forefinger, even as Louise and Derflinger continued to hammer on each others' nerves.

"Yes, but at least it was a funny fish!"

"Why you little..."

"Big, girlie! My length is huge and I'm just as broad, little miss tiny! I've seen heads with bigger bumps on them than on you!"

"That's it, you're-"

"'ey, pinkie, didn't you know that I'm speaking telepathically? Only you can hear me, y'know? That's why they're all staring at you. Cuz they think you're crazy!"

Well, the sword hammered at the pink one's nerves. She didn't seem to be scoring any points as it were.

"You... what..." The pinkette whirled around as the sword started singing a song off-key and horribly, though the slapped-by-fish expressions of the crowd gathering didn't change; perhaps most had been rendered deaf? "N-no! The sword's talking, really! Its... aaaaaah, you must think I'm all crazy! FINE! I'll just go bury you deep under the ground, rust away like the lump of useless junk you were!"

"Lying." Jack muttered.

"Jack?"

The splicer nodded 'hello'. "He's lying."

"What!?"

"Awww, c'mon! You gotta be kidding me... play along, partner, its fun watching her go monochrome!"

"You! You insufferable..."

Jack snatched up the sword before she could reach it, throwing the loop of leather over his shoulder and letting it settle onto his back.

By making movements too fast, too smooth for him.

Odd.

Scratching the itch on the back of his hand, he eyed Louise as her rage continued.

"Give it back! I want to break that impudent scrap-metal..."

"Hey, its quality metal to you, lassie!"

Angrily, Louise whipped out her wand, pointing it at the splicer, who immediately – and, she dully noted to herself, for the second time – plucked the wand from her fingers before she could even begin to chant out an aria.

The situation quickly devolved to the point where Louise was hopping up and down on her tiptoes to try and reach for her wand, hissing threats like a wronged cat as her splicer familiar dangled the stick of pearwood over her head.

Louis leaped again, screaming at the top of her voice. "Give it back! Give it back, I said! As your master I command you, my familiar, to obey me and give me back my wand!"

"Calm down." Jack said. He glanced around, and saw a mirror. "Look."

The mirror showed her with one foot planted on his hip, the other kicking in his knee as she hung off his elbow and with her left arm curled around his elbow as she tried to reach for her wand with her right. She looked ever so childish... Louise's cheeks began to burn as she realised that they were standing in a busy dining hall, with people were staring... and soon they would be whispering, and the rumor mill would turn...

She uncoupled herself from the man instantly, stepping back and staggering as she tried to regain her balance. Louise almost tipped over, were it no for Jack stepping forward and seizing her outstretched arm. He righted her, pulling her back onto her feet, and stood back.

"You... you... you're doing this on purpose!" She accused.

Jack narrowed his eyes, if only slightly. "... am not."

"Yes, yes you are!"

"Not." He insisted.

Louise's nostrils flared. "Are!"

"Are." Chimed in the sword.

The splicer standing between them palmed his face, shaking his head ever so slightly.

For crying out loud...

"See! You are!" She roared. "You think you're so clever, trying to make me say 'not'? You really are just trying to make me look childish!"

"... It seems like you don't need any help, Valliere. You're doing just fine by yourself." Giggled the Zerbst scion behind her. Again going bright red, Louise whirled around and scowled at the busty Germanian girl.

"You...!"

Jack stepped back, away from the two fiery personae as the inevitable volley fire of insults were traded, and turned around to meet the inevitable wake of the redhead, the more sedate bluette Tabitha, who poffered him his unfinished bread.

A nod, returning the greeting and accepting the bread. "Thank you."

The bluette nodded. "You're welcome."

Behind her, the shark-headed Sylphid trilled happily.

"Kyuuuii~!"

"Sylphid."

"Kyu-kyuii!"

Thunk. "No eating. His."

= Forest near Tristian Academy =

It had been some twelve hours since Foquet had burst through the walls of Tristain Academy, and with her trail still fresh the local policing forces – the Watch in particular – had been deployed to comb the forests in an attempt to track her down.

Given that she had who knows how long to prepare for her escape, it had obviously gone badly for the mundane policing forces.

Through the night, casualties had mounted. Watchmen went missing, were chased in circles by golems and bogged down by the magic-enchanted traps that were laid in he wake of the thief.

In response, a detachment of the Rangers were sent in.

A trio of such Rangers advanced slowly, cautiously, but most importantly quietly, through the woods, blending to the point where they were mere passing shadows as the clouds rolled overhead, a whisper in the wind as it breezed between the trees. The trio wore lincon greens and muted greys mixed with faded browns to blend in with their surroundings. At the hip of each one was a sword, on the other hip a well stocked quiver of war arrows. Their hands clung to the slender bows of their profession – that of Rangers – as they slipped through the brush.

One held up his hand, freezing the others.

He pointed forwards, and then to himself.

Advancing cautiously, he reached the edge of the clearing, where one of the traps had been sprung; a stone sphere that had encased a watchman inside. Ignoring the chill running up his spine, the ranger spotted the crumbled remains of a golem; one that had run out of the willpower that fueled it, after it had chased the watchman, scattering his team, and lead him into the prepared trap.

"Damn mages." The ranger muttered, eying the stone ball.

He briefly wondered about the man encased inside; he most certainly had family. What of them? Princess Henrietta had certainly opened coffers for the dependents of those that died on the line of duty, but... it was only a small comfort to those who were grieving a dead family member. He knew that such thoughts were horribly unprofessional for him to think, but he had worked with watchmen plenty of times before, and they were all local men.

It was only a small stretch of the imagination that it was his brother trapped inside.

After all, he had seen little Aubert marching off with the other watchmen last night.

Damn.

Stepping forward, he circled around the clearing; right until he could see the opposite hemisphere of the stone ball.

A hole. It had a hole, with a head inside. One that was flailing about weakly. The watchman inside – not Aubert, thank the Founder - was still alive, trapped inside the stone sphere and crying out with dry lips and the look of a man in need of an outhouse.

It was no coffin, the Ranger sighed with relief, but a prison.

He made to step out onto the clearing, eyes fixed to the ground for traps.

But then again, there was the matter of the golem tapping his shoulder.

The ranger turned around, and eyed the silent construct as it drew back its fist for a punch.

"Well... damn."

He leaped back, into the clearing, out of the golem's reach, tripping the second layer of magic traps.

Just in time for the sphere of stone to close around him.

Task complete, the golem crumbled to dust.

William of Milean sighed, face to face with the bulging eyes of his two companions. "Uh... help?"

= Township of Milean Watch House, twenty kilometers from Tristain Academy =

Headmaster Osmond stroked his beard thoughtfully as the first casualties from the search for Foquet were brought into the courtyard of the watch house. Commander Vines unbuckled a musketeer issue sword-belt and set it down on the ground, his pistol crossbow following. Taking off his helmet, he approached the Headmaster of Tristain Academy and saluted, briefly, before returning to train his experienced eye over the mounting casualties.

There was a long, drawn out sigh escaping his lips, letting his shoulders deflate and sag. "That's two that have been brought back so far, Headmaster. We've got eight more who can't be moved, and the last patrol that came back to town reported they took another half dozen overnight. That's almost a quarter of the men seconded to me for this picnic of yours, and all in a single night."

"It was my suggestion that Foquet be sought out, that is correct." The bearded one 'hmm'd thoughtfully as he walked to the first of the casualties. "But I did request the deployment of the Manticore Corps or the Aeris Knights, who could search from the air rather than have to pick their way through the forest on the ground."

A huff of annoyance escaped the Commander's nose. It was no secret that the watch's commander disliked magic. "Oh, I'm so sorry that my men can't fly, Headmaster. Let me magic up some of those Germanian golem-hammers as well. They've been a bloody nuisance all through the search; buried underground or pressed up against a cliff, they climb out and give my men a little chase – long enough for us to lose track of where we are – and slow down another search party to find the first one. Or that damned thief just makes it look like she's put a golem somewhere – a head here, an outline there – and my men get all bogged down for the next hour waiting for it to jump 'em. Its a good thing the Queen deployed that Ranger squad; we'd have a dozen of he search parties lost and stumbling about in the woods if it weren't for them."

Osmond nodded, ignoring the continuing muttered curses of the furious Commander as he went about setting orders to the other watchmen. "Again, Commander, I do understand your troubles, but it is of utmost importance that the artifacts that Foquet has stolen be recovered. I am not about to sit around and do nothing, either; I will do my best to help your men. If you could bring me out to the casualties, I may be able to unbind them."

Some would stay, to take care of the wounded and disabled, but for the most part the rest would return to searching. The headmaster watched the watchmen's faces as they trudged back to the carriage and climbed aboard, checking and double-checking crossbows and swords as they went out for another 'dance with the dirt'.

Foquet's plan of escape had – as usual of a thief of this class – been immaculate in its way of slowing down pursuit, and yet retaining her status as a thief and mage of the highest caliber.

"All the lads are getting too wary. We're moving too slowly and can't search fast enough with all these damned traps. Foquet's going to slip away at this rate." Vines scratched at the stubble of his close-cropped hair, before replacing his helmet. "Our men don't like leaving a watchman behind, especially after they've fallen into one of these traps. Rangers doubly so. It takes four men at least to get 'em back to the house, but more often than not they're just stuck there; we leave behind two men to take care of one trapped, so that's three people taken off the search for each 'casualty'."

"Something very typical of Foquet. I've read about this particular tactic before."

Osmond nodded, even as he pulled free his wand and eyed the first of Foquet's victims. The watchman – a corporal, judging by the chevrons on his helmet – was encased in a sphere of grey stone. There were others, too; some simply had their boots petrified or turned into stone to keep them from walking, while others looked like a golem in the shape of a woman's body had curled itself around them and then transmuted into stone, trapping them in a most embarrassing cage. Mud that was normally ignored when it splashed onto them had dried instantly, filling their armor with dirt and dust, forcing them to slow and tire quickly.

It was a clever tactic; to incapacitate rather than kill her pursuers.

After all, a comrade screaming for help sapped attention far more than a dead body ever would. The use of the stone spheres also drew away from their determination to capture the thief; if a fellow watchman or ranger died, they would be encouraged and emboldened to find the thief out of revenge and a sense of duty to the fallen.

Instead it was an embarrassment to be caught in a trap of this nature; something that would also sap the will of the watchmen to venture into even more heavily trapped areas and search; after all, they didn't want to be stuck inside a sphere of stone. And for the ones that were they did not want to be left out in the forest helpless at night, and so called up their comrades to evacuate them; something that – in the tight spaces of the forest – was a time consuming and arduous job.

It was uncomfortable, messy and humiliating work for the watchmen, something not helped by the macho attitude of the men around Tristain. Recovering a casualty would also take the efforts of four – or, more realistically, half a dozen – watchmen and force them to 'rely' on uppity nobles to magic them out of their prisons. That, or spend a lengthy 'sentence' in the stonework stocks as they were slowly – and dangerously – chipped out by their comrades.

So simultaneously, the thief was distracting her pursuers, demolishing morale, driving a wedge between 'commoners' and 'nobles', and generally making herself a nuisance to the watch forces.

All the while she remained hidden and relatively unharmed.

Behind him, his secretary eyed the newest of the casualties as they were rolled out into the shade of hastily erected tents. Some were understandably irate, while others were more subdued. Worried mothers, sisters and wives darted out and around the watch house, taking care of their loved ones as best they could.

"Well, let us get started then."

Osmond brought out his wand and began to pick apart the enchantments that held them in place; dirt, it seemed, had been transmuted into sand to move it up and around the man in a prison of fluid sand, then transmuted again into stone. A relatively effortless feat when one was a triangle class mage. But a terrifyingly effective one. The headmaster pushed willpower into his wand, then tapped the stone; turning it all into sand again. He stepped back as the sand flowed out, then abruptly advanced to catch the falling form of the Corporal.

He turned to Vines, who was already shouting for the healers to give the man a checkup.

The headmaster turned to the commander, and again stroked his beard. "There. I think I have the gist of it now. Where are the others?"

"Right this way, Headmaster. There's a watchman and a ranger trapped in a clearing. They're the closest ones, and we've got another pair of rangers right next to 'em with stone boots."

=Louise's Room=

Dear sister...

Louise chewed on the feathery end of her pen, not caring for the warnings she had been given as a child; its not proper for a young lady, her tutor had said, and the habit was distinctly unhealthy, her sister had said. Well too bad, it calmed her frayed nerves and let her write at night, so even though the sun was still high in the sky the paper-and-pen therapy would go on with half-chewed feathers. The pinkette glared at the blank paper in front of her, as if the words that she wanted to put on it were about to spring into view, leaving her with just the simpler task of copying the letter out word for word from her own hallucinations.

But no, that would be too simple wouldn't it?

It wasn't like whatever powers that be would let her get away with things that easily.

Jack, her familiar, was heaping one trouble atop the other at a dizzying rate. It wasn't like Louise wanted him to be an absurdly powerful mage in his own right; she only wanted a powerful familiar. Like a wolf, or a bear. But instead she got a man who attracted girls to him like moths to a candle, who cut through square-class enchanted stone with a wicked hot lance of fire and but a pause of breath to steady his aim.

Then came the sword.

Ah yes, the talkative sword who seemed to have it in for 'little miss pinky'. Name calling and teasing was one thing when it came from other nobles, her equals and superiors in rank and magic power... but from a sword? Granted, it was magically enchanted, legendary in status and centuries old at least, but it was still a sword.

Well, at least it wasn't her familiar belittling her figure.

Founder knows what would have happened if that were the case.

Louise sighed, and looked outside to the courtyard below; a grassy place for familiars to rest while their masters were around and about. It was an oddly peaceful scene as a tiger curled up with a rabbit's ears draped over its eyes, the rest of the rabbit breathing peacefully on its neck. A mole had excavated half its body volume in dirt, and had made for itself a small ditch to sleep in. A few of the academy servants walked about, refilling a bowl of water here, gingerly walking around the dragon there... and one in particular watched the lone familiar that was neither servant nor animal.

Jack... sat.

He sat with a sword in his lap, oily rag in one hand as he worked the rust off the steel blade, working the length of steel with gentle force as he went through the same motions that she had seen her mother's men-at-arms go through, working oil into rusty patches and scraping them off. Atop the larger and less oily cloth found just under his right knee sat a whetstone and a series of scraps of cloth. Hands – calloused, scarred and strong – moved with idle abandon, uncaring for the razor sharp blade on his lap as he rolled his sleeves and again attacked the rust still clinging onto the blade.

It wasn't an unfamiliar task for him; be rid of the brown, away with the green, soak the red, get it all gone and you were done. The matter of the fact was that it simply took time.

Time enough for his ears to be talked off. Jack wondered if unscrewing the little brass collar would silence the blade.

"You know, its been a very very long time since someone's who used me has gone and given me a good sharpening. I'm really glad I chose you as my partner, partner. Lots of those fancy shmancy knights in their shining armor wouldn't give a damn for the talking sword. Always gets passed off to the squire, who then hands it off to someone else. Got stolen that way a bunch of times, you know. One day you ask for your talking sword and there, poof, he's gone. Got chucked down a well."

The splicer raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

""Uh... well, I'd rather not say but it was about this fair maiden, you see..."

Jack 'accidentally' swept the rag too far, covering up the brass collar used as a mouth. The sword made a sputtering noise and choked on oil, rust and rag.

"Hey, Partner, what was that for? I was about to tell you a good story, y'know? Sit around and listen a while, and I'll tell you lots of things." He chuckles, the brass collar clacking back and twisting just enough to turn into a smile. "Stories about dungeons and dragons..."

The man moved to a rougher cloth, and began to work at a rusty patch of steel. "Derf."

"Yeah, partner?"

"Why?"

Brass met steel as the collar clacked open. "Why what, partner?"

"Talking."

"Why... waddaya mean? Y'know, it really helps if you actually communicate, partner. It really helps with the whole 'swordsman and sword' thing."

"You... ramble."

"Y-yeah, I do. So what's it to ya, partner?"

"Why?"

"Ah, I get it. 'Where there's a will, there's a why', ain't there, partner? Lemme give it to you straight: Because its hard being a talking sword. You humans have it easy. Walking, talking, fighting and eating, it all takes the same things for you; five fingers on each of four limb, three joints on those, all stuck to one big squishy bit with a hard head on top, barring that one time when I cut off this guy's..."

Derflinger paused, the blade shifting around a little in the splicer's lap as it 'stared back' at Jack.

"Right. Anyways, try to imagine this, partner; you aren't born, but made. You're forged in some magician's lab somewhere, given life by the will of not a mother but a mage. And you have only one purpose in your life. Killing. You're made to kill, maim, burn. Enemies of your creator just melt away as you cut through them. Other constructs too, just like you, are killed by you, but not by your hand; its by someone else's.

Someone is controlling you, telling you who to kill. Doesn't matter to you, because its what you were made to do. You don't know anything else. But you have a will, even when you're killing. Men, women... and if the person who picked you up out of the last guy's hand was particularly nasty, children as well.

Kids who just had the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Always shouted for those guys. Think you're sneaky? Well, only until the legendary sword on your back starts singing when you're halfway up a castle wall. Use me on a kid, and I'll scream who you are and what you did at the worst possible moment, whether your past deeds earned me or not.

But here's the important question, partner: can you imagine that? Being someone's weapon, someone's tool?"

Jack sat, very still, for a long moment. He closed his eyes, breathed, and opened them again. "Yes."

Derf clattered lightly. "Well, partner..." The sword made noises typical of breathing in, then letting said breath out slowly. "I just gotta say, its the first time I've known that there's someone that understands you. Its been a long six thousand years, and... it feels damned good, Jack."

And in the edge of the courtyard, green hair swirled in the breeze. Longueville frowned:

That man wasn't normal.

The woman as Longueville had realized this a long time ago. Matilda even more so. He wasn't a noble; his clothes were too ragged around the edges, scuffed and stained. Even brand new, they would have been too plain for the fare of nobles; there were no patterns, no embroidery, no show of craftsmanship. It was clean, for sure, but to her eyes she could see the telltale signs of a working man's clothes. Even so, clothes would be changed, and while he scraped rust off the blade she confirmed her theory as she saw that his hands were too calloused, scarred and worn to be a noble's.

"So... fewer jokes now?" Jack of Rapture asked.

"Naw, its too fun to stop, partner." Derflinger the Spelldrinker, legendary sword, spoke in return. The previous ten minutes of 'conversation' had seen the blade speak more words than she had ever heard from the one who was cleaning it. In short, the verbal situation should have been quite the opposite for a typical man and a typical sword..

But then again, neither sword nor man had ever been anything typical.

"Not Louise."

A shuffle, a clink. "Careful of your sleeves, partner." Jack soon shucked his heavy woolen tunic to reveal a long-sleeved shirt, rolling up his sleeves to expose a pair of markings on his wrists. Interesting... a barbaric practice, Perhaps something to do with the magic that he performed? She had seen a wand in the form of a glove before, and even a bracer. But what if the materials necessary were put under the skin...?

Apparently satisfied with his work, Jack stood and began to swing the sword around, experimentally. She shuddered briefly at the thought of that sword simply smashing her heavier golems apart. Nightmares had stalked her dreams for a while afterwards; the Spelldrinker slipping between her ribs and through her heart. There were more than one myth surrounding the legendary blade, not the least of which was the one which named it souldrinker.

Shaking her own confusion from her head, she watched as Jack settled back down and the blade squawked out advice on how to use him. Advice that usually encouraged stabbing people in the face with his tip.

"So what about that pink haired girl, partner? Whats your deal with her?"

"Helping."

"Aww, what's the matter? Want her all to yourself?" Teased the blade. Somehow, it was even worse than Old Man Osmond without needing lecherous eyes or wandering hands. For many people – herself included – this fact alone would have given pause, but the man was unblinking.

"Angry."

"Oh. Right. Angry little pinkie, ain't she?"

The man's voice, while monotone nevertheless managed to put soul-rattling empathy into that one short, single. "Yes."

Founder damn her, but he seemed the type – were he more expressive and his attitude likewise different – to egg it on, and mock it for not doing enough.

Derflinger clacked unhappily. "Only when you're not around to get caught in the blast?"

"... no."

"But everybody else is fair game?"

"No."

= Somewhere... =

He steps through the portal, and heavy boots designed for plodding across the ocean floor crush delicate blades of grass with a wet crackle.

Jenkins looked around him, and breathed a sigh as the bright sun bathed him in light. It had been so long. So very, very long since he had felt the sun on his skin. He worked his way up a hill, sure steps chewing up distance and elevation like oh so much canned bread as his eyes looked through the sealed porthole of his helmet.

Grass was growing, trees rustled in the wind.

The man in the heavy diving suit succumbed to temptation as he reached the top of the small hill, and gripped the sides of his helmet. He lifted it off his shoulders, and took in a lungful of fresh air.

Smiling, breathing, he let the pale skin of his face soak sunlight and let his lungs fill with dry air.

His eyes flickered open, and that moment of fragile peace vanished. He looked around, his senses enveloping the space around him. In the distance, he saw a cake of a city; a bastion layered one ring of white stone atop the previous one in concentric circles, of stone wall, with a massive formation jutting out like a massive axehead coming from the earth.

But the portal pulsed behind him, reminding him that it was time to leave.

Another glance around.

No sign of Jack.

Too bad.

Ripping the package off his hip, he dropped its contents – an audio diary and a small hand-written note – onto the ground and then turned, striding down the slope and back towards the rip in reality he had helped create.

Helmet snapping to its proper place, Jenkins thrust one foot through the portal and without ceremony returned to Rapture.

= Courtyard, Tristian Academy =

"Nope, don't think so."

Derflinger murmured quietly (for once), as Jack scraped the whetstone against the blade's tip, sharpening it to a razor's edge. The tip, he had been told, was the true killing part of a sword; its length and the reach it afforded was made to be used, otherwise all you had was 'a heavy knife with some bits added on'. The sword hummed again, vibrating the blade, and the brass 'mouth' clacked again. "Feels alright to me, Partner."

"Good."

He reached for a small jar, filled with oil.

"Ooh, oil time!" Grasping the sword with the rag in his hand, Jack poured the oil over the freshly manicured steel, and then drew his hand along its length with a clean rag and carefully scrubbed off the rest of the oil, leaving behind a thin layer to coat the singing steel blade and protect it from the elements. In his hands, Derflinger purred, catlike, as Jack carefully gave the blade another once-over, to pick out any more flaws. Nicks, patches of rust and even burrs in the metal had been slowly and carefully smoothed over, scrubbed off and taken out.

"Magic's all fine an' that for keeping the rust off, but nothing beats a good clean, partner. Wooo-ee I feel like a new sword already. And this is coming from me."

Jack's lips widened into a small smile, and he chuckled softly as the sword playfully hummed and made small swishing noises whenever he twisted or turned it in the light, or otherwise waved it around, punctuating each motion with soft cackling as steel sang.

"Enjoying this." The splicer observed, placing the scabbard on the grass and then resting the sword on it, keeping it off the afternoon grass.

Derf chuckled, and his brass fittings clacked as Jack began to pick up the tools and rags and pottles of oil. He'd have to return them to Siesta, as soon as he found a decent sword-belt...

A cough, somewhat polite, drew his attention.

It was far too close.

Jack whirled around, Derflinger whipping along with a yelp, and his tip sang through the air to a guard position. The runes on his left hand blazed as his heart raced, flooding his body with adrenaline and...

Jean Colbert lowered his fist, eyes riveted to the razor-sharp tip of the blade a scant five inches from his face.

"W-well... uh..."

Derflinger 'ah'd.

"Hey, baldy! Don't I know you from somewhere?" He inquired.

The teacher adjusted his glasses. "Y-yes, you should. I used to clean you whenever I was doing inventory in the Vault..."

"And a damn fine job you did!" Roared the blade, shaking in metallic fury. "Do you know how bad that rust itches!? I spent a good damn decade with that thing growing on my strong, and unlike you meaty bastards I can't just reach down and scratch it!"

"R-really? I... I meant... uh... wait..."

Derflinger 'snorted'. "Meh. I'd ask Jack to paddle you with me but that might still be illegal around here. Learn to thin your oils, you loony, it was so thick if I had hands I could scrape it up into a ball and knock a hole in the wall with it!"

Jack blinked, turning from Jean to look at his sword with a short, flat, "What."

"You'd be surprised at what they outlaw here, Partner."

The splicer shook his head. "Not that."

"Oh. Yeah, really; this guy was so bad at swords. Mage, I reckon." The little fittings at the tips of the crossguard shifted, as if they were shoulders shrugging. "An' partner; you reckon that maid girl w-"

Jack interrupted the blade with the soft click of a sword slipping home inside its scabbard, and after a strangled squawk Derflinger fell silent.

Colbert coughed politely into a clenched fist, and stowed his staff away."Well... I suppose you'd like to know what I was doing here?"

"Yes." Jack nodded, before quickly adding on a brief "Please."

"Well... I was just wondering; the letters on your wrench, I took a rubbing of them, you do remember?"

"Yes."

"I compared them to some runes in our library and found an exact match. Its an artifact that we had in the vault, a powerful device of some kind. Would you happen to recognize this?"

The paper was unrolled. It was a sketch of a smooth tube, a section of piping, though more importantly it was of the letters on the side, copied out a half-dozen times on the paper alone. Jack stared at it, the breath catching in his throat and his heartbeat quickening yet again. He read, reread and then double checked the writing on the pipe, and nodded, briefly.

"Yes."

Colbert made a sound not unlike that of a 'squeee'.

"C-could I ask you to translate? Its been quite the academic mystery over the years, and I would like to know what it meant!" Flustered, he adjusted his glasses and pointed at the first line. "Academically, of course, there's been a lot of conjecture as to what it could possibly me-"

Jack continued to stare, but this time it was at Colbert with an incredulous expression.

"... sorry. After you, Mister Jack."

The splicer shook his head, perhaps in disbelief, and read aloud the first line of the text.

"Made in Rapture."

"... and...?" Prompted Jean Colbert, eyeing the rest of the short text.

His brow furrowed. "High explosive. Handle with care."