"By the Light, they do grow 'em big where come from, don't they?"

John looked down at the tailor, who looked more than a little curious at John's presence in his store.

"I need some new clothes." John explained, tapping at his bare chest.

"Well you're in the wrong place, son. This is the women's tailor shop." the tailor shook his head.

"Unless you happen to want a nice skirt, the real place to go is Pants! Just take a left as you leave, then another left after the blacksmith, and you can't miss it."

Why have a male tailor run a female shop? John wondered, as he passed back by the smithy.

Now in the proper store, a female tailor confronted John. Pausing for a split moment to carefully consider his sheer size, the woman withdrew a measuring tape and began measuring his torso, chatting about possible styles so quickly that John couldn't make sense of what she said.

"I want something plain, functional, and nonrestrictive." John specified, moving towards a dummy advertising a shirt and vest combo.

"You like the combo? Maybe that?" the tailor asked, moving towards a shelf of cloth.

"Less, like a short-sleeved shirt, but with the same fabric." John described, rubbing the fabric of the dummy's shirt.

"Oh, that's a little expensive. Special, smooth yet stretchy." the tailor exclaimed, waving her hands around, before showing John.

Some kind of naturally occurring fiber that was the equivalent of synthetic materials, John considered. Such as thing was uncommon, but not unheard of. Steel thistle, from the colony of Safehold, grew like bamboo and yielded seventy percent more raw fiber per acre than Earth cotton. Despite how lightweight it is, it is just as strong as most of the UNSC's synthetic uniforms. This material looked similar, and with a vest, might just be the closest thing to body armor he could find on this backwater planet.

The tailor got to work rapidly, and despite her claims, was easily able to make a short-sleeved shirt, though when John described how the neckline should be, she protested.

"No no no! It won't work, you'll choke to death!"

"The fabric will stretch, allowing me to get the shirt on, and then conform back. It works."

"No, it just won't! We've never made shirts like that and we never will!"

Close to half an hour of arguing and one of tailoring later, and John now had a dark shirt that looked vaguely close to the regulation UNSC casual wear shirt, and a nice set of what the tailor called 'Explorer's Pants.' All John cared about was that the pants had a set of double-belts that he could easily rig as a holster once he acquired a sidearm. The aforementioned black shirt covered his chest, in addition to a dark-green and brown over-tunic, though the tailor kept insisting it was a vest. His leather baldric went over that, and John felt reasonably prepared, given the lack of available body armor on this world. Maybe one of the guards had something better?

And to add to that though, now John needed a weapon. He could probably a good price from his blacksmith friend, what with working there, but what to get? Unlike before, John didn't know what he would be facing, or how to counter it.

Take stock, his mind said. Weapon, ammunition, supplies? came the drilled response. Weapon was a negative. He'd sold the shoddy weapons the bandits had to the blacksmith, who had scorned the workmanship and said that the only thing the weapons were good for was raw materials. Still, he could acquire a weapon from the blacksmith or take one from a bandit. Not a problem.

Ammunition? Hopefully the blacksmith sold it as well, though John hadn't seen any powder or anything like that for sale, and if he killed any bandits, he could always take theirs.

Supplies? Anything resembling modern first aid seemed entirely absent from this place. Still, given cloth and a flint, he could sterilize bandages, and given enough time, he could learn to make use of certain plants on this planet.

Now where did that local go?

"No, I don't want to buy one bloody potion, I want to buy ten!"

Ah, thought John as he walked through the square. There she is.

Sparrow was in a small store next to the bookstore, the large sign declaring it to be an Apothecary. As John entered the cluttered building, he could hear the resident chemist grumpily arguing with Sparrow.

"No, no, no! I sell one potion per type per customer!" the chemist responded. Walking into the tense room, John was treated to a bit of nostalgia. The chemist turned to face his newest client, a smiling giant, looking pale as a vampyr and strong as a bull. Why the giant was smiling, the chemist did not know, but neither did he particularly care.

"What can I do for you?" the chemist greeted. The giant shook his head, almost as if reluctant, the chemist noted.

"I'm good, thank you." John replied, moving out of the doorway and to the side. Sparrow banged on the chemist's counter, drawing his irate attention once more. The chemist turned back with a sour look, while Sparrow restarted her fiery protest against the Chemist's retail practices.

The Chemist would periodically inject with comments on the nature of 'My business, my choice,' while John browsed the shelves and eyed the various brews and bottles on display, each colored a differing shade. Curious, John lifted one small bottle, but discovered it to be empty. The placard in front of it declared "Health Potion," but no price.

"I've had it!" Sparrow announced dramatically, throwing her hands in the air. "If you can stand this fool, then you can have him!"

She stormed out of the Apothecary's store, her loose coat billowing behind her.

"And you can stay out!" called back the Chemist, leaning over the counter.

"Sorry you had to witness that," the Chemist murmured, turning to John. "But the way I run my business is my choice, most certainly not that of a barely-adult girl from Samarkand!"

"Actually," John mentioned, "She's from Bower Lake."

"The Gypsy Camp?"


"Huh. She looks Samarkandish. Anyhow, this is my humble store, and you are welcome to it!"

John smiled, idly forgetting that his helmet no longer covered his expressions.

"And what would your name be, then?" John inquired.

"Victor." the Chemist cheerfully supplied, sitting down on a stool behind the register. With one hand he drummed the countertop, while with the other he stirred a medium-sized cauldron with a careful stroke of what look like a glass serving spoon.

John's eyebrows rose in a gesture of surprise.

"Odd, I have a friend with the same name," John said, his smile turning remorseful. "Looked just like you, too."

The Chemist chuckled.

"Hopefully not," he countered. "I'd hate for anyone else to be stuck with this ugly mug."

John joined the Chemist in chuckling, surprised again. Happy emotions weren't the most common thing during the War, and it felt good to be genuinely amused again.

"So what can I do for you?"

"I'd like to learn a bit more about these potions," John asked. "I'm not quite from around this area…"

"Of course!" the Chemist answered, shifting his grip on the stirring spoon to his off hand and grabbing a red vial from beneath the counter. Unlike the one on the shelf, this one was full of some sloshy red liquid.

"Sniff, but do not inhale." the Chemist instructed, holding the vial carefully.

"This is a basic health potion, and it is capable of…."

Sparrow brushed past a grinning couple, feeling a smile coming on.

It was wonderful! Her old neighborhood, revitalized! The premier part of town! Her old friend Derek, now the head Sheriff of Bowerstone, and personal Sheriff to the precinct of Old Bowerstone, and even better, a 50% discount on everything in Old Bowerstone!

Needless to say, Sparrow quickly found a cheap Apothecary who was all too willing to sell numerous health and Will potions to a friend of the Sheriff. She chatted with old friends, all remembering the crazy girl and her sister. Where was her sister, anyhow?

Sparrow learned to dodge these people quickly. She could not afford to be an angsty bitch right now. Defeating Lucien is much more important than her personal issues, she told herself.

Mindful that she would likely not be getting deals such as these anywhere else on her travels, she took more time to shop than she normally would. A nice set of explorer's clothing, a couple dyes to alter the color if she wanted, and a much better weapon, a nice iron flintlock rifle instead of her cracked crossbow, and she was ready to go to chase down this next Hero, the so-called Hero of Strength.

'What about John?' she thought again. She'd asked Theresa if John was the Hero of Strength, but Theresa had immediately shut down that thought, telling her strictly that the Hero of Strength was of the monastic order located in Oakfield, not a vagrant who invaded the sanctuary of the hallowed Guild, ruined though it may be.

A slightly more logical mind may have pointed out that Gyspy's are vagrants, and that technically speaking, they had invaded the Guild just as much as John had, but never mind that.

"Well of course I only sell one bottle per visit!"


"You've noticed that I haven't stopped stirring this cauldron? Yes? Well, a proper Health Potion takes approximately eight hours to fully prepare, and four of those hours are nonstop stirring. Oh, sure, I could take one potion and dilute it into many others, but the potion doesn't take well to mixing with water, so splitting one proper potion into two makes them only a quarter as effective, each. Too much wasted time. The only people who really bother to buy my potions are the desperate and the Guards, and while I could scam them, I don't."

At John's curious look, he elaborated.

"You see, when someone is desperate enough to shill out enough of their savings to buy one of my potions, then they bloody expect them to work. If the potion fizzes, I don't exactly have repeat customers, do I? As well, it builds up my reputation as a good, reliable alchemist. Yes, the bastard in Old Town dilutes his, but when they fail, his customers come to me. And then when their friends need a potion, they tell them 'Oh no, don't go to the pasty-little-bastard-breath who probably doesn't bathe, go to Victor's, much more reliable!' "

After a long and interestingly complex conversation on the nature of potions and the like, John left the Chemist's shop happy. Though he not understood all of the complex recipes that Victor had spouted, the basic formulas were similar to the chemistry classes that Deja had given the Spartan candidates once upon a time.

Well, that answers the question of Supplies. John didn't know if they were meant as placebos, but somehow a little red drink didn't strike him as something as effective as biofoam. On the other hand, the Chemist had seemed just as smart as some of the corpsmen John had worked with during the War, and those men had to know their supplies inside and out. On the whole, John was willing to try these potions, but he wasn't going to risk his death on the drink working.

It had been good to talk with Victor, John realized. Though the man himself was born anew in this strange world, it seemed that Victor's personality and drive had carried over. John had thought that it was altogether a very suspicious coincidence, when his old comrade had returned from the dead, though without the Spartan augmentations, Victor was a much shorter man. But despite his logical mind insisting that this was notVictor, every now and then during the conversation John would see a glimmer of something in the Chemist's eyes, as if the Chemist himself suspected something odd about John.

Drawing his mind away from the interesting conundrum that the Chemist presented, John set his mind to figuring out this next task. He had to contact whatever government was present on this strange backwater planet, but he didn't see any signs pointing to a town hall, or an administrative building. However, the Guards seemed to be the local variant of the police/militia, so John approached a nearby Guard. The guard seemed to be scanning the market crowd, trying to pick out potential troublemakers before they started something. A good man, John thought.

"Hello." John acknowledged, nodding to the guard, who half-turned respectfully, a hand resting on the pistol in the front of his waistband. While John noted the action and analyzed how to counter it automatically, he didn't bear the guard any malice over it. The man was just doing his job, being cautious came with the territory. If anything, John as glad to see someone competent in their job.

"G'day." replied the guard easily, his eyes giving John a quick once-over. John doubted that the man could understand how many martial arts he knew with a glance, but it didtell the guard that John was tall, very strong, and very quick. All the guard needed to know to give John his undivided attention.

"I'm trying to find the closest government official. Preferably the mayor or governor, though a sheriff would do fine." John said, as the Guard hmm-ed and nodded.

"Sheriff Benjamin's in charge of the district, I suppose you could talk to him if you want." the guard offered, his easy accent slightly different from the other, more British accents. John was reminded of a member of Sergeant Johnson's core squad, an Australian by the name of Dubbo.

The guard helpfully pointed up the road, past the male-tailor in female-shop, to a small guard outpost by a set of ornate gates, mentioning that the sheriff would either be there or on his rounds. John thanked the man, and headed off.

…But something just bugged him about this place.

While this was a different world that apparently had little knowledge of their origins, they had somehow maintained an accent over their generations. But why the accent in the first place? All of the colonies had a calculated mix of ethnicities, to prevent any possible racial prejudices or language separations between multiple colonies. Of course the populations tended to drift after their founding, like the Eastern European population that had settled Reach, but the first generation was simply not allowed to be all of one ethnicity or origin.

This colony was really starting to bother him, John thought. Technological regression, but cultural maintenance, even if technical terms had vanished, was near impossible. Education would be a telling point, he recognized. Sparrow could read and write, but what was the literacy rate in a city like this? Even with strong educational programs, there will always be street orphans who cannot afford to go to school, and thus cannot pass on that importance to their fellows. This colony was impossible, really. At the very least, the ships that had brought them here would still be around; their titanium hulls lasted for near millenniums, and the locals would not have been able to salvage them without powered tools or any other tech.

And if they had, then where was the auto-buoy dropped in orbit, as was standard practice? Even a frontier colony barely a week old had satellites, communicating landing sites and resource locations to further incoming colony ships. Cortana would have been able to detect the satellite's emissions, even if it had gone cold from lack of fuel or command.

This whole situation just didn't fit, John thought. The only possible scenarios were Insurrections riding out the war secretly, or some form of neo-Luddites who hid themselves away.

The first scenario was out because the Innies never threw away tech. Their organization may be flawed morally or structurally, but they were scavengers at heart, and smart ones at that. As well, the Innies would have given all their members basic info sessions on the 'tyranny of the UNSC' and their soldiers. Sparrow would have recognized his MJOLNIR Mark Six instantly, and would have warned the-

Save that thought, John ordered himself. They might be massing to kill him. Looks like the blacksmith is the first stop. After buying an iron flintlock pistol, John felt more secure, so he bought another and put them in crude shoulder holsters. The people didn't look hostile, but they could be better actors than he gave them credit for, and who was to say that they were not assembling a fireteam to exterminate him?

The second scenario, John continued, is right out because the neo-Luddites would have instilled strict boundaries on technology, and never would have allowed future generations to build back any tech. In addition, there would be churches, and John hadn't seen a single person mention the Christian God or any other major religious beliefs. The last reason it couldn't be neo-Luddites was simple: the neo-Luddites had a colony already. Granted, it was ransacked during the war, but with enough generations for the people to forget what the UNSC was, this colony was clearly over a hundred years old, in the same timeframe that the original neo-Luddites colony was founded.

Oddly enough, the thought that the colonists/Insurrectionists might be trying to kill him reassured him. If they weren't going to kill him, he was fine. If they were going to kill him, he could categorize the threat and deal with it.

He could plan for almost any threat coming from the Insurrectionists, if that was what they were. Gunships, armored support, and all the infantry in the universe didn't scare him. Anything unknown was worse. Before the Flood, John thought that nothing unknown could scare him. Heavier artillery, faster ships, all advantages that the Covenant already had, and as Mendez would say, a man fights much harder when his back is against the wall. The only advantage the UNSC really had was the Spartans, and any attempt to take that away was dealt with simply.

John shook his head, wryly musing that it had been a while since he had this much free time. It looked like giving a Spartan time to gather wool resulted in a very distracted Spartan.

Looking around, John quickly discovered that he was nowhere near the guard post. In fact, he had left the city itself, and was now in some kind of park. The swathes of beautiful flowers were obviously well cared for. The finely dressed aristocrats who stalked the gardens sniffed in disgust at John, but he didn't notice.

John's attention was held firmly by the large castle that towered over the grounds. Dark, inspiring, and horribly open to attack, this was a castle made to intimidate, to cow the enemy into submission with the looming threat of the man waiting within. It seemed, to John, like a marvelous waste of material and manpower. A large eyesore, if anything, he considered. Not to say that John was unappreciative of beauty, but a castle's architect was supposed to have two things in mind when planning it: practicality, and whatever is leftover. Beauty, awe-inspiring or not, is not the point of a castle. Being a well-made fortress that could survive sieges and wars is the point of a castle. ONI's CASTLE base was an underground complex related to traditional castles only in name, but it understood the first rule of castles better than almost any stereotypical castle.

"Magnificent, isn't it?"

John turned, eyeing the short chunk of flesh like a dog viewing a lump of foreign feces on his territory.

"I wouldn't know." John lied.

"Harold Albrecht," the man said, gesturing to himself. "Mayor of this fine city."


"I am John, Master Chief Petty Officer, United Nations Space Command Navy. I have been marooned here due to the loss of my ship, and I required immediate transportation back to UNSC-space."

The sack of human looked carefully at John. He would dismiss the giant as insane, but John's eyes were steady and even, no telltale twitch of madness. The vampyr giant seemed confident, very assured of the importance of his words. Perhaps this 'UNSC' even existed. It didn't matter.

"I don't care."

John's eyes narrowed, as the fat man shrugged.

"There is no reason for me to assist you. You have no wealth, few weapons, and no locations of import to me. To be fully honest, I could order my guards to throw you in jail, and no one would notice."

He turned to face John, a leer on his face.

"But you have something to offer, yes? You are a warrior who can help my guard crack fortresses, demolish the pathetic vermin that infest my roads, and secure my reign. With your support, I could declare myself King, and rule over all of Albion with an iron fist or a velvet glove. None would dare oppose me."

John decided that he didn't like Albrecht. He could work with him, but that didn't mean he had to like it.

"So how about we get down to business, yes?"

"Aye." John answered stoically.

"You'll need to talk to my Sheriff, Derek. He should be running around Old Bowerstone, he seems to love the rabble down there. He'll have some tasks for you to do, maybe even proper Guard work. But you shall understand, you are not a Guard. You will not be wearing the uniform, and I will not be responsible for your failures. That will fall on your head alone, clear?"

"Affirmative." John ground out. Albrecht didn't understand John's annoyance, or if he did, he did not care about it. Albrecht turned away, seemingly dismissing John, who strode off, intent on getting as far away from this pompous fool as he could.

"Sheriff Derek?" John hazarded, approaching the rickety old guard shed, it's peeling paint and ramshackle construction contrasting deeply with the unstained white of the Sheriff's longcoat.

"Yes, how can I help you, citizen?" the Sheriff answered, regarding John warmly, but keeping one eye on the street behind them. John paused to think about how he was going to phrase this. Better to stick to what he knew, he reasoned, rather than experiment.

"Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan-117," John introduced, saluting the Sheriff respectfully. "I've been detached from my current duty and am temporarily joining the Bowerstone Guards under the direction of Mayor Albrecht. I'm to report to you for my duty assignment."

The Sheriff, despite clearly not knowing a proper UNSC salute, returned a passable one, his hand turned more upwards, like some of the British troopers John had served alongside. They'd maintained that tradition through centuries of unified planetary government, causing no lack of annoyance in the drill sergeants of the UNSC, and had refused point-blank to call a man 'Lieutenant', only 'Leftenant.'

"Assigned?" Derek asked, clearly a tad puzzled. "Why? Are you from another city's guard corps? I've never 'eard of the You-En-Ess-See before, so why are you working with us?"

A little doubt is healthy, John recognized. It's better that we get this out of the way right now, he thought, than quarrel over this later. Nonetheless, it posed a bit of a question to John.

It was clear that the technological level of this civilization was no later than early industrial revolution, and at this point, John was coming close to admitting that this was no long lost colony or Insurrectionist bolt-hole. Every single person would have had to be an actor of the highest quality to fake his or her body language and drop all accents. Besides, in a cosmopolitan society, there would be more ethnical diversity. Asians, Hispanics, Slavs, and Africans, not just the Western European, mostly English features John had seen. Names could be changed, accents faked, and some surgery could alter features, true, but enough for a whole colony? Even if they had ten doctors working in-house on it, it would cost enough to establish two or three colonies.

So if these were just long-lost cousins to Humanity who weren't from the UNSC, then why was he working with them?

They have no FTL-capabilities, no industrial infrastructure, and almost no standardization or interchangeable parts. They have nothing to offer John, no way to help him. His best bet was to load up as many supplies as he could carry, and search for the Forward Unto Dawn, salvage her, and get an SOS beacon out.

Of course, with the limitations of the radio signals, unless the primary communication hub was intact (something John doubted, as cutting a ship in half tended to impede it's abilities), then c was the best speed of a radio signal.

So… why?

"I don't know sir."

The Sheriff gave off an odd noise, like a musing hmm crossed with a bulldog's growl.

"What do you have 'xperience with then?" the Sheriff questioned.

"Fighting." John answered reflexively.

"Bar brawls, or proper fighting?" the Sheriff elaborated, his eyes narrowing a little.

"Fought as a soldier in the UNSC for over thirty years, numerous combat situations. No military police work, all frontline assignments." John informed him, rattling off the details just like he would with a superior officer. The Sheriff's face expressed a little perplexity, but he smoothly hid that, raising a hand to rub his fledgling beard.

"Walk with me." the Sheriff said, as he turned down the street. John, slightly curious but dutiful as always, matched his step as they patrolled.

"Bowerstone's always had a bandit problem, but it rarely spills into the city. Guards take care of the lot before the common citizen notices. For the most part, the work of a guard is spent mostly watching, protecting, not actually fighting." the Sheriff explained, as they slipped through a crowded intersection, where a merchant yanking on his horse's reins to get his cart out of the narrow lane.

"Did you notice how the common man looked there?" the Sheriff queried John, still gazing straight ahead with the same tone.

John, guessing his intent immediately, responded with a systematic analysis of how the people looked angry, but not likely to riot, or commit a crime. Furthermore, he recommended an approach of gently relieving the tension by asking that some of the people help the merchant with his horse.

"Good thought, but yer wrong." The Sheriff mildly chided, his accent slipping back. "Don't tell the people to do that, they'll think that yer abusing yer power. Instead, help the man yer'self. Make's 'im feel grateful and happy, proud of 'is town, where the common guard will help him out without a fuss."

John frowned. While the Sheriff was correct, it rankled at John to have needed correcting. True, he had no experience with police work, and was likely never to be placed in a military police role due to the time and money placed in his training, but the abhorrence of incompetence was drilled into him from the start of said training.

"Yer not a guard. You're a soldier. A soldier…" the Sheriff muttered, testing the archaic word. As far as he knew, the last professional soldiers were those of the Old Kingdom, the warrior-mages of the Archons. Few still remembered the old stories, but the Sheriff had some old books and scrolls, preserved from the Fall of the Guild, and knew the Old Kingdom to be as real as the pistol at his hip.

They continued on for a little bit, both silent as the Sheriff thought. Finally, the Sheriff stopped, a slight smirk on his face.

"How good are you at training people?"

As John walked off to find Sparrow, an hour later, he considered the Sheriff's plan.

It was ambitious, that was for sure.

The Bowerstone Guard had traditionally been a police force. They dealt with bandits, true, but they were most effective at enforcing laws, preventing civil unrest, the usual police work. And seeing as most of the work they did was just that, it worked out fairly well. The guard could take out small-time bandits with ease, but had bigger problems with more fortified, militarized groups, such as the one that had destroyed the Rookwood Bridge to Oakfield, and had made a palisade fortress up the Inn there.

Simply put, the Sheriff didn't need guards; he needed soldiers, soldiers that had apparently not been used for the past several hundred years. Bandits and crime were rising, as the guard could not handle the increasing difficulties.

Moreover, this talk of 'Lord' Lucien concerned John. When he'd asked the Sheriff about Lucien, the Sheriff had done his best to explain, and John had supplemented that with information gleaned from his newfound friend, The Chemist.

The former Mayor of Bowerstone, Lucien had declared himself 'Lord' of Bowerstone after a successful campaign against the Black Blade bandit gang. The grateful citizens had adored him and his wife Helena, rejoicing at the birth of his daughter, Amelia. Unfortunately, Helena and Amelia had succumbed to disease eleven years before, and Lucien had spiraled into despair. After a year of depression, he fled Bowerstone to some unknown place, thought by many to be a mountain fortress.

The problem with this Lord Lucien was that he had recently reappeared, endorsing some bandit groups and generally being a nuisance. Lucien's personal apparently forces consisted of former bandits, all large muscle-bound men in strange, dark uniforms. Lucien's agenda was unknown, but his men were known to abduct travellers or raid villages for people.

Where he had been for ten years was still unknown, despite the many rumors flying around, as was the reason for his newfound slaving practices.

Simply put, it was getting much more dangerous to be living in Albion, and the Sheriff wanted John to fix that. The Sheriff didn't seem to want that much assurance of John's skill, just for him to come by the barracks later for some target practice.

Eventually, he found Sparrow on a nearby cliff, leaning against the low-lying stonewall overlooking the bustling city. The Sun was starting to set, the city's hurried lifestyle slowing as everyone wound down.

Unlike her usual manner, Sparrow was silent and still as John approached, looking expressionlessly at a large card she turned over and over in her hands. John, content to let her mind wander, simply stood upright next to her, and decided to devote this time to the defense of Bowerstone.

The city was at least protected by a large set of stone walls, but the somewhat advanced gunpowder should also easily be able to make primitive artillery and cannons, bombs at the very least, and that was a major security risk. As well, the forest was, in many sections, allowed to grow right up to the walls! John, of course, would have no problem scaling the walls anyway, (that was one of the first things he had considered when he saw the walls), but the tree line was so close someone could just jump onto the wall from a branch!

That would be the first thing to change, John decided. As well, the solitary guard towers that stood every couple hundred meters were not enough to desist any attempts to climb the walls in the first place. Under cover of darkness, a person could easily scale the walls via the trees or by climbing hook. The guards would have to patrol down the walls, which would also help stop them for getting lazy, as if they kept rotating around, they would constantly face new surroundings, and as such, theoretically always be alert while on duty.

The walls also posed a security risk in that there were no sets of barracks along them, and the main guard barracks was much deeper in the city. Due to the sprawling nature of the inner-city buildings, the guard would not be able to respond rapidly enough if any enemy force were to blow open a particular portion of the wall, and invade through the corresponding gap. A barracks much closer, if not part of the wall itself, would enable the guards to simply race along the wall until one of them made contact. The wall then would provide a vantage point as well as cover for the defenders, while the invaders would be exposed and in the open.

Cannons, as well, would augment the defenses. John took a mental image of the current shape of the walls and started to add 'bunkers,' bastions that mounted at least three cannons and enough ammunition to operate them for a time. If more ammunition or supplies were needed, the city would be facing either a full army or a siege, neither of which could easily sneak up on a prepared guardsman. Overlapping fields of fire should help counter the very low firing rate of the pre-shell cannons, and care would need to be taken to make sure that captured cannons could not be turned on the other fortifications, but that would be a simple task to do, after those other necessities.

All this preparation reminded John to investigate the level of education in this land of Albion. He'd previously pondered the general level of literacy, but what was the peak of these people's knowledge? Did they possess the intimate details of mathematics and physics? Their bridges and buildings would suggest that they at least knew the rudiments, however the applications of math apparently hadn't fully been realized yet. John severely doubted that the locals had yet even imagined the heights that unassuming mathematics could bring them, calculating trajectories and later missiles. Then again, it took Earth until Napoleon's time to understand the real power of artillery strikes before the infantry charge.

Wait, did they even havecannons?

Never mind the tree line, first job is to invent the cannon.

A slight quirk of the lips.

Rifles were present, Sparrow had some weird form of magic, and John couldn't predict what additional kinds of gear others would have on this world, but he doubted anyone would be able to match up to a cast-iron cannonball hurtling at them from a couple hundred yards away.

For a momentary span of time, John wistfully imagined that Johnson was here, or maybe Sam. Johnson would be leaning on that wall alongside Sparrow, a cigar in one hand while the other gestured. Of course, the picture would not be complete without his chattering; most likely, he would be regaling Sparrow with some grand story about the UNSC skyscrapers before the War, or maybe talk of the ODST's.

Johnson would be perfect for this, John mused. A combination of enduring strength, common sense, and charming charisma, Avery would soon have his recruits looking like ODST's, storming the barricades with professionalism and gung-ho esprit de corps. That was just who he was; a hard-ass drill sergeant one second, a die-hard grunt the next. He simply connected with all the troops under his command, regardless if they'd fought alongside him for a day or a year.

And John? He was a soldier, plain and simple. Granted, he could defeat Johnson quite easily, but John's battle here would not be a purely physical and tactical struggle, like the War, but a challenge of leadership and command. He'd lead Blue Team to some good victories, sure, but taking charge of an entire city?

For John had no doubt that it would eventually come to that. Mayor Albrecht appeared, at first glance, to be a power-hungry leader, and the city was lucky to have the Sheriff that seemed to actually be competent enough to balance the flaws of the Mayor.

And to put it simply enough, John didn't like the thought of relying on others here. He had a very strict order of confidence, and none of these people, save Sparrow, seemed remotely near to gaining his trust.

First and foremost came his family, both fellow Spartans and few outsiders such as Johnson who show themselves worthy of gaining their loyalty. Afterwards came his comrades, usually the higher command of the UNSC, who's job it had been to save the UNSC from complete destruction, and who had managed to execute that duty fairly well, as well as other members of the UNSC. Beyond that, all of the people John met filed into three large categories. Allies, whom he could rely on partially, such as the militia who occasionally fought alongside him; civilians, who did not fight, but who's protection was John's duty, and were mostly pretty decent people; and enemies, whom John killed.

Almost all of the people here in Bowerstone could be classified under Civilians, though John was starting to label the guards cautiously under allies. Mayor Albrecht, however, he was clear on. That man was a danger to the people of Bowerstone; it wouldn't be long before he stepped out too ambitiously and jeopardized the safety of its citizens.

And when that happened, John would protect the people, as he had before.

It was his job, after all.

Sparrow didn't notice the giant behind her, lost in her own thoughts as it were. She twirled the card around her fingers, contemplating her new task.

To collect the Hero of Strength from Oakfield… it sounded so simple, but Sparrow had a very bad feeling about this. Didn't Derek mention that the Rookwood Bridge had been destroyed? If true, that would put a major hindrance on her mission.

And what of John?

The enigmatic giant had explained his purpose clearly when they had met, so she doubted that he would still accompany her. He had to talk to the Mayor, find some way back to his home or something like that. As nice as he had been, he simply had somewhere else to be.

Sparrow sighed, and hung her head a little, gazing down at the twilight before them.

She had liked it when it wasn't as complicated.

Far away, under the lake, an old woman sat and pondered. Drips of water tinged musically, echoing through the otherwise silent chambers, as Theresa contemplated her scenario.

The pale, yet not albino warrior was unexpected. After almost six hundred years of preparing the board, including eleven years of personally being involved, grooming her chosen, this manhas to come along and upset the board.

Well, never mind. Theresa could still plan quickly, though it had been some time since she'd had to.

Lucien did not stand a chance against this man, of that Theresa had no doubt. The man may have talked oddly, with a peculiar accent, but he moved with grace and the leashed power of an experienced warrior. That first impression was only reinforced after Sparrow's account of the man's performance in the fight against Thag and his goons.

Curiously, Sparrow had said that the man was terrifyingly strong, cutting through limbs like paper. Even worse, the man had apparently had superhuman speed, dodging bullets, in addition to hitting his attackers accurately. While he had demonstrated no sign of any knowledge of Will, that did not mean he was not a Hero. Such strength and speed were the clear signs of the blood of Heroes, and the precision of his shooting symptomatic of a trained talent.

But Theresa did not know where the man could have come from. Sparrow claimed the man had appeared from a hole in the cave ceiling, but Theresa knew that such a 'lucky' event could easily be arranged.

What was more, there was simply no way to predict what the man was capable of doing next. He'd thrown off her attempt to enthrall his mind in the ancient ways with the ease of a trained Will user, yet moved in shock at the sight of Experience being absorbed by a Hero, which Sparrow had described as a humorous sight.

Theresa, obviously enough, did not trust this 'John.' Furthermore, she doubted the man's name was really John, given how reluctantly he had volunteered the information.

Combining these clues, it was fairly easy to divine that 'John' was here to alter her plans, to throw her off balance. The real question was who had sent him after her. None of the old Heroes remained, and out of the remaining human cattle in the world, Lucien was the closest to challenging her, and Lucien was in her pocket. The possibility of a foreign power, perhaps Samarkandian in nature, was very real, but Theresa dismissed that quickly. Without actually living in Albion, the man or woman would be forced to resort to a local Albionite for intelligence, and her experience was that the people of Albion tended to be stupid, ugly, and unobservant. It was no wonder that they needed saving so often.

The only foreigner she felt skillful enough to oppose her would be Garth, the Samarkandian scholar. He was the brain behind Lucien's mad desire to take the Spire, resourceful enough to find the clues scattered across the world and smart enough to piece them together. But Lucien had been prodded by Theresa, and Garth's precious journals and clues had been specifically placed by Theresa so as to be found by him. Garth might be able to play the Game, but that did not mean that he was.

John himself could not be her antagonist, she felt. While the man was clearly sharp, as well as having a well-honed intuition, to be able to single her out as the most capable enemy quickly, he did not show any recognition of her. That, Theresa thought, was the 'tell,' to use a plebian phrase. Anyone who had put any intelligent thought into taking of Albion either via external forces, such as invasion, or internal forces, such as subterfuge.

There was nobody who could manipulate these events like they had been. No one with the mindset, the powers, or the connections… except…

Theresa, her problem finally resolved, stood up from her comfortable chair in the ruins of the old Guildmaster's Quarters in the underground remnants of the Guild. Sweeping out her carefully tucked robes, Theresa pulled up her hood before striding over to the dimly glowing Cullis Gate set in the masterfully worked marble. The Guildmaster's Quarters were originally s spartan, sober setting for meditation on Quests, but the degeneration of the Guild had brought around numerous changes to the Guild, the least of which was the mosaics depicting the 'Heroic' actions of her brother.

Theresa let loose a low chuckle, considering her brother as the Cullis Gate transported her to the Chamber of Fate. Heroic, maybe; foolish, more like. Even then, despite her youth, she had played Twinblade like a fiddle, and manipulated her way around the Guild like the one-eyed man in the land of the blind. Thinking back on those heady times made her smile at the nostalgia, as her shoes clicked on the worn stone of the vestiges of the once-proud Guild. What idiots! The Guild had hundreds of years to seize power, but instead was overthrown by peasants with toys. Power was there for them the entire time, but they did not show to initiative to take it, though many possessed enough moral detachment to be capable.

No, the Guild deserved their end, she thought as she strode through the tunnels. But that is not to say it did not contain occasional Heroes who did understand power, and how to gain it.

Theresa took one glance at the large rise of rock that blocked her movement. Beyond it, faintly visible, light poured through the ceiling.

Hmm. Theresa concentrated, channeling Will energy through her Guild Seal. If she remembered properly, then a Cullis Gate to the base of Maze's Tower was right… around… there!

With a flash, she reappeared past the twisted rock chunk, next to the blindingly bright pillar of light. Fortunately, her vision had long since been changed thanks to Twinblade, and she had been forced to adapt.

In her six hundred odd years of life, she had seen plenty… but this, however… this was something unusual.

Theresa knelt next to the hoary pool of blood and dipped a finger into it, her eyes blazing with light underneath her hood. One of her long honed abilities was to detect the Blood of the Archons, and that was how she had detected Sparrow. A combination of the presence of their Will capabilities, combined with a physical touching of the blood allowed her to identify that person's relation to the Archons of old.

With enough generations (and given how the debauched later Archons functioned), everyone in Albion had some relation to the rulers of the Old Kingdom.

This 'John,' however, did not. In fact, he had no indication of Will energy at all, a phenomenon that Theresa had never seen before.

The chest was open, she noted. The clothes were gone, and she vaguely remembered the 'John' wearing them. With a slight stab of annoyance, she considered that perhaps 'John' had taken the It. While she had fixed It in place, the man had already demonstrated superhuman strength, equal to a Hero's. It was not inconceivable, then, that he had taken It.

But that was not to be, as she moved beyond the chest and saw It, firmly anchored, as always, to the bare rock face. If one looked carefully enough, they would see the remnants of the walls of Maze's quarters, where she had carefully hidden It, for irony's sake, after the Guild fell.

It instantly recognized her presence, and she felt It's hate directed at her, a mental spike of rage and pain that It intended to skewer her with. It, of course, had never realized the importance of subtlety. It sought to control via brute force, by taking possession of a host's mind, and eventually his body. It rewrote the limitations, changing a host's form until it was It's, a form long perfected during the dark times, before the Archon and his liberation.

She casually dismissed It's attempt. A pitiful effort, indicative of the long years of It's imprisonment. It'd fallen out of practice. Well, Theresa thought, time to change that. With one step to bring her closer, Theresa greeted It.

"Hello, Jack."

Rage. Pure, boiling rage.

"I suppose that you have not had many visitors, so I'll be succinct, so as not to confuse you."

Hate you… hate you so much…

"Oh, so you can speak, after all this time."

A predator's grin, like a shark moving after it's prey. Her teeth are too white; indicative of the cleaning spells she created long ago after bemoaning the lost time. Jack's tone is moaning, in pain, as if he has a sucking chest wound.

"However, I believe you have had one othervisitor recently."

The rage bubbles down; though it's still present, it is eclipsed by Jack's curiosity.

Maybe… I'm curious… bitch…why you'd visit me… after only five hundred years…

"Ah, I see your sense of sarcasm is as undiminished as ever. So to get straight to the point, the intruder you no doubt met a few days ago is in my way."

And… I should care… why?

"Because I am freeing you."

Shock, now. The pain is ignored, as Jack's disbelief manifests itself clearly.

Bull… shit…

"Oh, but I'm completely serious."

Why… on earth… would you free…me?

"Are you so comfortable with your imprisonment that you do not want release from this bondage?" comes the soft sardonic tones, the manipulative quality that she's perfected over time.

Jack hates it. For all he tried to work on his trickery, the arts of body language and tone of voice eluded him, inadvertently telling all who looked of Jack's real inhumanity.

What… do you get out of this, woman? Why should I believe you?

"Because you want another shot, don't you? You have always wanted power, so why should this be any different?" Theresa chided Jack.

"The public power in this day and age resides with a man known as Lord Lucien Fairfax. Former Mayor of Bowerstone, he is currently in disgrace, and is taking control of Albion with force of arms. However, what you will most be interested in, perhaps, is the project he is devoted to, known to him as the Tattered Spire. You might remember it better as the name the Old Kingdom gave it: the Dark Tower."

Intense interest. Indeed, it would be hard to dissuade Jack, Theresa mused wryly. Exactly what she wanted.

"Lucien has always been a man of unusual drive; his original reason for researching the Spire was to return his beloved wife and child to life. Given your… track record, Lucien should be easy to control."

Satisfaction. Were Jack a cat, Theresa was sure that he would be purring with contentment now.

I think that this is… acceptable, for now…

"Oh, do not be fooled into thinking that this makes us allies, after all, this is merely a delay in our conflict. But then, neither of us expected anything different, did we?"

No, we didn't...