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

Sorry this chapter was a little late in coming, a case of writer's block and my watching the entire series of 'Kill La Kill' slowed my work a bit. Added to that my Beta has been having his own real life difficulties to deal with which further contributed to its delay. Still here it is, hope you enjoy it.

Well, it looks as though my villainess has largely gone down fairly well with my readers. I was worried that she'd come across as clichéd and too far over the top, but in the end it seems that most of those that reviewed and PM'd me seemed to like her. Given that I plan for her to be a major player in my fic (no surprise there) I'm very pleased with this.

As far as Alex's Avatars go I have filled in slots 1, 2, and 3, but slot 4, the one that needs to be a healer, remains stubbornly empty. I have a couple of potential candidates, but if anyone would like to make any suggestions please feel free, just remember that they have to fit the required parameters of Alex's body type.

SPOILERS.

In regards to Alex's show I hope that I haven't made it a bit too over the top, I was trying to go for something that was remarkable yet within his capacities as someone relatively new to his superhuman abilities. Please bear in mind that the Mark of the Gandálfr provides him with the skills he needs to pull off the stunts I described. Also I confess to having been playing Devil May Cry 4 and I just loved that scene with Nero putting out the flames and thought it might fit in well here.

As for the gun that Fouquet has been given, lots of people said that it was Fate/Zero's Contender loaded with Origin Bullets. In all truth when I wrote it up it was inspired by a book whose name I can't remember that I read back when I was 13. Looking back I can see the similarities, but it wasn't my intent to use Kiritsugu's Mystic Code. However after a bit of thought I decided that it was actually a better fit than what I had originally planned, so I'm modifying some future plots to allow for it. My thanks to all the readers whose reviews gave me this idea.

And lastly we have the newly revealed conditions in the Book of Seals. Rest assured that this is as far as I'm going to go with the whole 'the world is a computer game' concept. While I confess to being quite fond of such fics, that isn't what I'm aiming for here. Quite a few of these conditions have been revealed and I have a lot more prepared, however if anyone has any suggestion feel free to send them to me so I can give them a look over.


Chapter Nine: Escapades

The sky was a clear blue and the sun shone down upon the court where the Evaluation Fair was about to take place. In front of rows of chairs filled with members of the Academy staff and students from the lower years, as well as a small pavilion in which the seats of the Princess and the Headmaster had been set up, sat the large stage that had been assembled. A general air of anticipation hung over the assembled onlookers as they waited to see just what kind of show the new familiars would be putting on.

It was Professor Colbert that made the announcement for the entertainment to begin.

"We shall now start with this year's Familiar debut!"

With those words, and the enthusiastic cheering of the assembled students, the show began.

And what a show it was. There were simple yet entertaining shows such as Montmorency's frog familiar Robin dancing to the tune she played on her violin or Malicorne using his owl to perform simple displays of conjuring. There were less than successful shows such as Guiche lounging upon a bed of roses with his giant mole Verdandi, a display that received only dead silence as the audience tried to work out what he was doing. And of course there were the spectacular, such as Kirche and Flame's pyrotechnic display or Tabitha and Sylphid's display of aerial manoeuvres.

As the audience clapped at the small ice mage's performance Louise and Alex waited in the wings for their turn.

"That . . . might be a bit on the hard side to top." The red head commented as he watched the blue scaled dragon glide down to the earth.

"Are you sure about what you've got planned?" his Summoner asked, for what must have been the tenth time since they'd woken up this morning, "You're sure you can make it work?"

Perhaps it was his own nerves playing up at the prospect of having to perform before such a large crowd but rather than reassure Louise Alex replied with slightly cruel sarcasm.

"Nope, I've got absolutely no idea what I'm doing. I thought I'd just go out there and do what seems best; do you think the Princess would enjoy a recitation of dirty limericks?"

"Oh oh, I can help there Partner," Derflinger declared as the talking sword as it spoke from its sheath at Alex's waist, "I know a really good one about a maid, a goat herd, three buckets of milk, a forgetful sheep and a weathervane."

For a moment both Louise and her Summon could do nothing but stare down at the sword in a kind of fascinated horror as their minds involuntarily tried to put those unusual literary ingredients together into some sort of scenario. For his part Alex was slightly disturbed at the depraved and lurid possibilities that sprang to his mind. His Summoner of the other hand turned bright red, then seemed to pale at a rather alarming rate.

"WHAT?! You can't do that! What would the Princess think?! Are you trying to-"

"That was a joke, just a joke," Alex assured her, his hands held up defensively as though to ward off an attack. "Don't worry, I won't embarrass you, I promise."

His reassurances must have had some effect because the white knuckled grip that Louise had on her wand relaxed slightly until the joints of her fingers regained colour once more.

"Next we have Miss Louise de la Vallière."

The sound of her name being announced seemed to snap the youngest Vallière sister out of the nervous daze she'd fallen into. With a deep breath she squared her shoulders and looked up at Alex.

"Let's go." She declared as she strode onto the stage. Her Summon didn't reply, but rather just nodded his head as he followed after her.

The pair of them stood on the centre of the stage, the small sea of upturned faces gazing at them expectantly.

"This is my human familiar, also called a Summon, Iskander Mest Babylon!" Louise declared as she gestured to the looming form of Alex, "For this occasion he will be demonstrating his speciality, feats of strength and arms!"

As she announced this Alex made his way over to the side of the stage where a large pile of something had been covered with a large white sheet. In a single move he pulled the sheet away to reveal the pile of thick longs that had been concealed beneath it. Reaching down he seized one at least a metre long and a good six inches thick, it was of a tough wood and showed no signs of rot or weakness. Under other circumstances it was the kind of wood that a craftsman might well have been able to work into the kind of furniture that lasted for generations.

But right now Alex had other plans for it.

The log was a heavy thing, something that would normally have taken two men to move with any sort of ease, yet the pseudo Servant was able to lift it with one hand as though it were made of Styrofoam. Holding it easily he turned back to the audience and waved it at them, there were a few 'ooo's' of appreciation, but for the most part they seemed unimpressed. Perhaps a little something to highlight what he was doing would be in order.

Holding his arm in front of him with the log parallel to the stage he paused for a second just to emphasize how easily he was keeping it there, then he let it go. Gravity took hold and the log didn't simply fall to the stage, it crashed as its weight dragged it down and it made a thunderous bang as it struck the stage with enough force to crack some of the planks.

That silenced the few murmurs of the log being tampered with that had been working their way through the audience. Having seen its impact there was no way any could doubt the solid weight of the wood.

Alex allowed a grin to spread his mouth as he prepared for the next part of his trick. Hooking one sandaled foot under the log he took a deep breath and then kicked the piece of lumber straight up. B rank Strength proved more than up to the task and the cut wood was sent high into the air before the force propelling it exhausted itself and it began to fall back to earth.

Showtime!

Even as the lumber began to fall Alex reached down with both hands and drew the two swords at his waist in a single movement. This was followed by him giving them each an unnecessary twirl simply to make it more impressive. This was a show after all; therefore showmanship was the rule of the day.

As the timber came down the blade in his right hand, Derflinger, came up, catching the log at the centre of its length. Despite the thickness of the wood the ancient sword cut through it with ease, the force of the blow sending the two separate pieces flying back up. As they in turn came down Alex lashed out once more, this time using both his swords.

Before the eyes of the stunned crowd it became a chaotic mêlée, almost a dance as the two dissimilar swords flashed through the air again and again. The pieces of wood were split again and again, lengthwise, crosswise, diagonally or haphazardly, it didn't matter. This was the plan that the pseudo Servant had come up with, no attempt at finesse, no wasted effort on intricacy. He simply placed all his trust in the enhanced speed of his superhuman form, the boost provided by the Familiar Runes and the skills that those runes provided. He simply aimed to hit the falling pieces of wood repeatedly as they fell, their numbers ever growing as they were cut apart.

Of course it wasn't something he could keep up indefinitely, even with the power of a Servant and a Gandálfr. Eventually small bits of wood began to slip past him, but by then the once impressive log had been reduced to large woodchips. Deciding not to try to push the spectacle too far the red haired young man simply ceased his strokes and allowed the chips of timber to come raining down about him.

The entire display hadn't lasted for that long, even with the gifts available to him Alex was still constrained by the laws of physics, yet for all its brevity there was no denying its impact. There was only silence for a moment, then clapping came from the small pavilion and those who turned could see that the Princess had begun to applaud. The applause quickly spread as the shock wore off and the rest of the audience began to join in either out of their own approval or a desire to conform to the royal heir's opinions.

Up on the stage Alex smiled at the clapping, but then gestured with his blades. It took a few moments but then the audience realized he was asking for silence and sat back to see what would happen next.

"Thank you," he said inclining in a small bow, "That went quite well, but I think that this next part will prove even better."

As he spoke he'd made his way back to the small pile of lumber and selected the single largest log there. It was one of the huge logs that the kitchen staff used when they wanted to ensure the ovens could run for hours without need of being supervised. It was more than a foot thick and just over four feet in length. The thing had been cut from an oak tree and probably weighed more than Alex himself did, yet in spite of that he lifted it as easily as he had the other log.

"Right, let's go with something a bit more impressive."

Once again he hurled the log upwards, but this time as it came down his swords had more select targets.

This was a trick that he knew was within his skills, but which he hadn't had a chance to practice yet. It had come to him shortly after Princess Henrietta's visit the night before while he'd been contemplating ideas. His mind had drifted and he'd been reminded of other sword tricks that he'd seen done in various manga and anime. He'd dismissed those clearly beyond his ability, like carving a collection of logs into a self assembling wardrobe, but a number of more realistic options had occurred to him.

The thing was that he wanted something flashy, something eye-catching. His plan to do a midair mulching of a log was impressive, but at the same time it was a bit lacking in . . . colour, for want of a better term. It was a fine display, but it lacked sparkle or flash. What he needed was something like a firework, bright, intense and dazzling.

His thoughts of fire had led him to think about the various burning swords he remembered from shows, films and books. Most of them were magical or super science based, but one came to mind that gave him an idea, a swords from the manga series Rurouni Kenshin.

However he didn't have a sword that had been specifically crafted to absorb human fat that could be burnt like oil to produce flames. He had two swords of legenday capabilites and one that could pretend it did, unfortunately none of them had any attributes that would aid him in this particualr case.

However . . . with a little cunning and creativity maybe he could fake it.

This particular log was one that he'd taken special care in covering with the thick and slightly sticky liquid that the kitchen staff used as lighter fluid. The entire length of the log was coated in a generous layer of the stuff save for one spot that he'd left clear so that he could use it as a hand hold. The starter fluid also had the useful property that when left alone it thickened into a sort of tough jelly that retained its earlier flammability, meaning that he could throw the large log about and not worry about it sending a shower of the lighter liquid all over the place.

Right, everything seemed to be going smoothly. The log was falling just as he hoped it would, straight down towards him as though it would try to impale itself into the stage even if it had to go through him. There was a gasp from the audience as they saw the small tree trunk coming down. That was it, give them a show.

THHHNNK!

THNNNKK!

The two swords that he held flashed in the sun as he lashed out again, two cuts so close together that they might as well have been a single stroke. The length of his arms, the length of the blades and the boost of power his status as a pseudo Servant all combined to make what would have otherwise been impossible a reality.

The log divided along its length into quarters, four long struts that came apart in midair and came crashing down to form the points of a square around Alex as they drove themselves several inches into the stage, enough that they remained upright. The audience made approving noises, but then quietened down as it became clear that the show had yet to end.

Around the red haired giant the four wooden pillars burst into flames as the lighter jelly upon them caught fire. As the flames grew Alex allowed himself a pleased grin, there had been any number of ways that that little trick could have gone wrong, but it seemed that fortune was favouring him because everything had gone off almost picture perfect.

The trick had been to strike his swords together hard enough to release a brief shower of sparks just after his cuts were complete but before the struts could move far apart. Those sparks had ignited the jelly and as the sliced logs had come to their halt the jelly had in turn set fire to the wood. Now the red clad figure stood at the centre of a quartet of burning logs so close to him that the heat radiating from them caused his heavy mantle to gently flap about him. It was a powerful image, one that drew an appreciative murmur from the audience.

He could have called it there; he could have taken his bow and allowed one of the water mages in the staff to put out the flames. That would have been the sensible thing to do, the smart thing, but an idea suddenly occurred to him, an idea sparked by the memory of a game he'd played and a scene he'd enjoyed.

Honestly, he wasn't entirely sure he could pull this particular stunt off, but if he could . . .

Heh, why not try?

Sheathing the short sword in his left hand Alex lowered Derflinger until its point was just touching the stage. About him the fires of the burning logs was growing hotter and the stage itself was starting to singe and smoke. Twisting in place Alex brought the sword he held around in as fast and strong a stroke as he could manage. All his force was placed into the single movement. For a moment he felt as though something was pulling at the blade, slowing it down, then the restraining force broke and his swing continued unimpeded.

The effects were every bit as gratifying as he could have hoped for. One moment the logs were burning, the next a ripple ran through the air accompanied by a gust of wind and suddenly the four flaming struts were snuffed out as though some invisible giant had treated them as birthday candles.

It was moments like this, when he did what should have been impossible, that he was reminded that the world he lived in wasn't his world. This was a place where magic was real and the absurd happened every day. What he'd done was an impossibility, an absurdity, and yet it had worked.

He really should get a notebook or something so he could start keeping a record of all this. If nothing else it would make for some fascinating reading later in life, one way or another. But that was a thought to pursue at a later point.

Right now the vast majority of his mind was preoccupied with the fact that he'd managed to imitate that awesome scene of Nero's from Devil May Cry 4 where he extinguished all the flames in the burning town.

There was silence from the audience once more, but this time it was a stunned silence, the quiet of those that couldn't quite believe what they had just seen. As smoke rose from the blackened timbers about him Alex sheathed Derflinger once more and bowed to the seated nobles.

Once more the applause began in the tent that had been set aside for the headmaster and the royal guest of honour, but again it quickly spread. But this time there was enthusiasm behind it, a genuine sense that the onlookers had been truly impressed by the demonstration he'd put on.

Louise had stepped up onto the stage with him and was smiling a tight but happy smile as she took her place by his side.

"Th-Thank you very much for that impressive display," Professor Colbert stated, a slight hitch in his voice as he stepped up beside them, "That was the last of the demonstrations, we shall now move onto the evaluations."

As Alex heard those words he shifted his attention over to the tall spire that served as the Academy's central building. If everything went as he believed it would then Fouquet would soon be making her move to burgle the main treasure store of the school. In the anime Louise and Saito would have been in place to face her due to their extremely poor showing in the fair having led to Louise flouncing off in humiliation. That wasn't the case now of course, but he still had to figure out a way to draw his Summoner off so that they could be in a position to save the day.

The red garbed Gandálfr was well aware that he was being a bit on the manipulative side, but in this case he felt it was for the best of reasons. Even though their training sessions together had done wonders for Louise's ability to control and direct the explosions that her every effort at magic caused the fact remained that his summoning and branding were the only spells that she'd ever cast successfully. Consequently her ego was still a fragile and cracked thing.

What she needed was more successes, more victories to build up her self image. He might not remember too much about the animes after the first series, but he could remember something from the light novels and one thing that stuck in the mind was how during the war on Albion she'd been willing to undertake a suicide mission because she refused to go back to being the 'Zero' again. She'd actually been so desperate for some sort of affirmation to her self worth that she'd been willing to throw her life away to get it.

Alex had only a passing familiarity with the arts of psychology and psychiatry, but even so he was pretty sure that he wasn't wrong in thinking that such a mindset was decidedly unhealthy. To that end he'd set out to try to build his small Summoner up somewhat more than she had been in the original story.

As things stood she possessed far more destructive ability than she had at this point in the 'canon' universe. Their training and experimentation had taught her to be more capable and accurate with the explosions she created, enough so that he felt her able to foil the expected robbery attempt by the earth mage. If things went wrong . . . well, he would be right next to her so he could certainly get her out of the way if things turned nasty.

Now . . . how was he going to get her over to the court where Fouquet would make her attempt?


-()-


Matilda listened to the cheering of the crowd and knew that her time was running short.

Before her the large doors to the academy vault loomed over her. Absently she wondered just what was in there that required such huge doors in order to fit it through, had they stored one of those old battle golems that she heard tales of. She certainly couldn't think of anything else that would require such huge access, even the great wooden bar that held it shut was probably bigger than her.

Of course if all she'd had to deal with were purely physical obstacles then things would have been much easier. Wood would crack, stone would break, even metal could be dealt with. No, the real problem was the wardings and fixture magics upon the vault, she had been expecting them to be powerful, but what she'd found had been at least an order of magnitude greater than anything she'd anticipated. Under other circumstances she'd have gone outside and created one of her larger golems in the hopes of being able to overwhelm the defences through the use of sheer physical force.

However the mysterious letter that she'd received had counselled against that, and her instincts told her that such advice was best followed.

So rather than making her way outside the green haired mage instead reached into the small satchel at her side and withdrew the odd firearm that had been left in her room. She remembered the instructions that had been in the letter, this device wouldn't work to the best it could unless the protective field was pushed to use a sizable portion of its power. The recommendation had been to use one of her giant golems, but after some thought Fouquet had decided to try another approach.

A wave of her wand caused a construct of rock and cement to appear out of the floor next to her. The creation was about a foot taller than her and thickly built to the point of being hulking. Another flick of her wand produced another, and another, and another. Again and again she cast the spell until a dozen of the golems stood about her.

Looking at her handiwork the one time Albion noble allowed herself a smile of satisfaction as she paused to catch her breath. She might have been a powerful Triangle class mage, but even so the creation of so many golems so quickly wasn't something to be done lightly. At a guess she'd have to say that doing so had burnt through nearly half of her Willpower reserves. Still if this worked then it would have been power well spent.

With a gesture and a focusing of her will she directed the golems to spread out and get into position. Silently her creations lined up against the wall of the vault, some of them moving up the stairs in order to have enough room. She paused for a moment as a thought occurred to her. Another gesture brought one of them back to stand next to her while she backed away from the doors to the vault as far as she could while a second movement of her wand caused a small barricade of rock to rise from the floor.

Handing the gun to her golem, and making sure his fingers were slim enough to be able to hold and operate it, Matilda hunkered down behind the defensive wall that she'd raised. Alright, she was as prepared as she was ever going to be. Every precaution that she could reasonably think of had been observed and anything else would have been straying into the regions of paranoia. She'd made the decision to use the strange gun that she'd been given; now it was time to see if that gamble would pay off.

At a mental command from her every golem close to the vault attacked at once. Individually they might have lacked the raw power of her giant constructs, but each of them was still powerful, the magic that drove them granting them strength enough to smash stone and wood apart as though they were glass. However it wasn't a single one of them attacking the vault, it was many, their slab like fists beating against the spell reinforced walls and gates, the thunder of their blows only serving to highlight the futility of their efforts..

The only effect of their assault was a set of visible ripples running across the treasury's face as though the fists were tapping the surface of a pond. The force she was using could have reduced a commoner village to rubble in a matter of minutes and yet they were having as much effect upon the vault as they would have had they been a collection of children.

Well, maybe not quite that useless. Thought the vault was keeping them out doing so was forcing it to fully power up the various spells and wards upon it. They weren't being stretched to their limits, but plenty of power was flowing through them, hopefully more than enough for the device that she'd been given to work.

Of course she wasn't willing to trust such a gift completely, that's why she'd given it to the golem to use. If the weapon required some sacrifice of a soul or life energy then it would simply not function in the hands of a magical construct such as her creation. Granted, if it didn't work then she'd be in a bit of a tricky spot, but she was confident of her ability to escape if the worst came to the worst

Ducking behind her improvised barricade she made a stabbing motion with her wand as she directed the golem near her to fire.

She was linked to the construct to a certain degree, able to perceive the world through its pseudo 'senses' if needs be. It was a high level trick, one that allowed her to use one of her mammoth golems as armour without being blind to the world. Now, through those magically created senses, she felt the squeeze of the trigger as well as the tiny click that came before the charge within was ignited. And then she felt the recoil.

At once she was certain that she'd made the right choice in using one of her creations to fire the weapon, the recoil from the weapon's discharge would undoubtedly have shattered ever bone in her wrist as well as most of her forearm. Her golem may have been made from solid stone and weighed more than four times her weight but even so the force of the weapon firing sent it rocking back so violently it had to take a couple of steps back to avoid being toppled. Had she been the one to fire the gun she'd have been crippled at the very least.

All further thoughts on that were cut off as a sound like a titanic sheet of glass cracking echoed through the corridor. Her eyes tracked to where the bullet had struck the wards and then froze there as she tried to take in the impossibility that she was seeing. Right before her eyes the wards that had been erected by at least a half dozen square class mages working together were coming apart. The spells weren't simply breaking as though they'd been overpowered; they were unravelling like cheap clothing that had lost the vital stitches holding it together. The individual elemental threads that made it up were coming undone, each peeling away from the others and dissolving back into ambient magical power. It was an impressive and frightening sight, as impossible as a metal worker suddenly finding that the material he had used to craft a suit of armour were all suddenly soft as butter.

The entire impossible effect only lasted for a few ticks of a clock, that was all the time that was needed to utterly destroy one of the strongest vaults she'd ever seen. The wood upon which her golems were beating suddenly was just ordinary timber once more. It resisted for a few heartbeats, being both thick and old, but then it splintered and broke beneath their hammer-like blows.

A jolt ran through her as she saw the great door break open. This was it, her big score, the grand hit that she'd been hoping for ever since she first came to this country. Originally her plan had been to get in, grab the infamous Staff of Destruction and then flee as fast as she could, but that had been when she'd been working under the assumption that she'd have to break the wards by force in order to get in. Under those circumstances speed was of the essence since though she was confident of her skills she had no intention of trying to match such infamous mages as the Flame Snake or Osmond the Siege.

But that had been when she'd thought she'd have to set off the alarm in order to get in. That unravelling, that had destroyed the wards without setting off the alarms since the spells that would have sent those alerts were among the first of the mage works to be disassembled. Idly she wondered why a group of such powerful and, presumably, wise mages had set things up so that the alarm only went off if the vault was broken into. If she'd been doing it she'd have set things up so that the alarm would go off as soon as anyone even tried to break in to it. Still, their foolishness was her gain, so she wasn't going to complain.

As she strode into the vault she pulled out a pair of large sacks and passed them to one of the golems as she gestured for it to follow her. After all, one staff she could carry off by herself, but now she had time to pick up some extra, choicer prizes. Her benefactor had promised to take any additional items she acquired off her hands after all, hopefully for a very fine price.

So . . . time to go shopping at the one hundred percent discount on all magical items held in this vault. What more could an enterprising young woman ask for?


-()-


"What are we doing here Iskander?" Louise's voice was growing sharp with strained nerves. "We should be back at the Fair, not wandering about back here. What if we win and we're not there to accept? We might end up being passed over, then what would the Princess think?"

Alex nodded absently as he scanned the walls and courtyard for the slightest hint of Fouquet's giant golem. Truly he did understand where his Summoner was coming from. In the anime she would have headed this way as a means to escape humiliation and mockery, but this time he'd had to suggest they go for a walk to stretch their legs. Quite frankly if Louise hadn't been as pleased with his performance as she had been then she'd probably have insisted they remain at the Fair until the winner was announced.

He could understand her eagerness; given the stunts he'd managed to pull off he honestly thought that they had a good chance of being declared the victors of the display of familiars. She had every right to want to be there to savour that victory, the only reason that he'd pulled her away was because he'd been hoping to secure her an even greater triumph.

Except . . . the guest of honour wasn't co-operating. Where was the earth mage? About now she should be summoning her giant golem in an attempt to break into the vault. Had she been delayed for some reason? Or had she decided against making the attempt? But what could have caused that? To the best of his knowledge there was no reason for her to forgo her plans; everything should still be the same.

Or . . . maybe not. He was still treating this as though he was in the anime, but his earlier experiences had been more in line with the light novels than they had been with the television series. It had only been after the events with getting Derflinger that he'd instead decided that he was in the anime, but what if he'd been wrong?

No, maybe he was over thinking this, rather than trying to fit the world into a comfortable mould he should be trying to analyse what could have made Fouquet call off her plans as a person rather than a plot device. What had changed? Well, that was easy enough to answer; he had. He was here instead of Saito and even though he'd tried to keep any ripples from his actions to the minimum there had still been some changes.

Louise was better at using what magic she had. He'd fought Count Mott in battle and the noble had fallen into a coma afterwards. He was friendlier with Sylphid and Flame than Saito would have been at this point in the story. And, of course, his battle with Guiche had been far more one sided than Saito's would have been. If he took all of that into account then what could have happened to cause the disguised secretary to change her plans?

He doubted it could have been something as simple as his defeat of Guiche, but . . . Alex's eyes narrowed as a thought occurred to him. Perhaps that had been the first domino to be tipped; maybe his victory there had caused her to pay extra attention to him. If that was the case and she'd seen him training Louise then could she have seen one of the few times that he'd used his Chariot? He couldn't think of anything else that might have given her cause to forgo her plans. But then-

"Iskander? What are you doing? Are you even listening to me?!"

The pseudo Servant was brought out of his furious contemplations by Louise putting all her slight bodyweight into yanking on his cloak. Admittedly she couldn't do too much, but she was able to startle him enough to bring him out of his thoughts.

"Huh? Wha-"

"What's the matter?" the words sounded genuinely concerned as the pink haired girl looked up at him, "You were glaring up at the walls as though you expected them to start yelling insults at you."

"Sorry," Alex shook his head to clear it and then directed a slightly forced smile at his Summoner, "I guess I got lost in thought there, not some very pleasant thoughts either."

There was a moment of silence as the two of them just continued to walk in silence, then Louise broke it.

"We'd best be getting back now, the announcement of who the winner is will be on soon and I don't want to miss it."

Unlike before there was no strain to her words; she was simply stating her opinion in a calm and reasonable way. A more genuine smile played across his lips as he nodded his head. This kind of civility from her was something he took great satisfaction in seeing. In both the anime and the light novels Louise had been almost a quintessential tsundere, a character trait that had been reinforced by her interactions with Saito, as far as he could tell anyway. However he took some pride in thinking that his own relationship with his small Summoner was both more stable and more mature than the one that she'd enjoyed with the young Japanese student.

Dismissing his thoughts of their interactions Alex took one last glance about. Well, it looked as though Fouquet wouldn't be putting on an appearance and if that was the case then there wasn't any good reason for him to deny Louise her wishes. He honestly wasn't too sure about how he'd be able to match up to Tabitha's dragon in this little competition, but he supposed that the young Vallière wanted to be there to lose gracefully if it came to it.

"I suppose you're right," he agreed, "Sorry for dragging you off like this, I suppose I needed a bit of a walk to clear my head."

Louise gave him a slightly quizzical look, but then simple nodded her head wordlessly as they turned back to return to the main courtyard.


-()-


She did her best not to let her nerves show as she stood amidst the crowd and waited. Internally she repeated to herself again and again, she was Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, she would comport herself in a manner befitting her name, her family and the history that was carried in both. She would not squirm in her place as she waited to see what result would be announced.

Still, it was hard, so very hard.

Iskander had put on such an impressive show, she didn't know about anyone else but she'd certainly been impressed and she was one of the only one to know just how far above normal human limits her famil- . . . her Summon was. Surely that had to count for something, right?

Her eyes narrowed a fraction as she honestly compared her Summon with the other familiars. It was odd in a way, at the start right after she'd summoned him Louise had always been comparing Iskander to the other beasts and monsters that her classmates had gained. However that comparison had always been from a purely visual viewpoint, how impressive he looked in comparison to the likes of them. At first she'd been disappointed due to his seemingly mundane nature, a nature that seemed to prevent her from using the normal advantages of a familiar such as using his senses. But she'd taken some comfort in his impressive stature, but for the most part she'd still mourned the fact that she'd not called forth a manticore or a dragon of her own.

Of course events had gone on to show her just how foolish her initial reaction had been. Iskander had proven himself to be strong and powerful in a way that could match or even surpass a dragon. Not only that, he had also been a gift from the heavens themselves as far as her magic had been concerned. For the first time in he life Louise felt that she at least had some control over her magic. She was still limited to explosions, but at least now she was able to have some measure of power over their strength and form. Granted she still dreamed of the day when she'd be able to cast such simple spells as levitation or silence without causing a burst of destruction instead, but for now being able to at least do something with her magic was more than she'd once believed would ever be hers.

Simply put, now that she honestly gave it some thought, she couldn't imagine anything that she'd have taken as a familiar over her Summon if she were now given the option. It seemed odd to her, that she would only come to that realization now after so much time had passed.

"Thank you for waiting," the voice of Professor Colbert brought her out of her thoughts as the balding fire mage came onto the stage and addressed the waiting students. "It's rare for us to have such a difficult time selecting a winner, but after some discussion we have come to a decision."

A surge of hope ran through Louise as she heard those words. A difficult decision, could that mean that Iskander might have won? Trying her best to keep her heart from pounding the youngest of the Vallière sisters tried to analyse her chances rationally. The only real competition that her Summon had to worry about had been Flame and Sylphid, not unless the judges all had a secret appreciation for one of the more mundane displays. That meant that she had a one in three chance of victory.

Those weren't bad odds at all, especially if you took into account that Iskander's actions had definitely pushed the boundaries of human capacity. It would be easy to mistake his abilities for spells, to mistake him for a mage, and what familiar could possibly be more useful than a fellow wielder of magic?

"The competition has indeed been fierce, but we have finally come to a verdict, a verdict that is the first ever. Will Tabitha and Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière please come forwards?"

It was as though her body were acting without her mind directing it, Louise thought numbly as she made her way to the stage. She wasn't really thinking about what she was doing, she didn't really think she could if someone had offered her a sack of gold. Right now her entire thought process seemed to be trapped in a repeating orbit around a single notion.

She'd been called up onto the stage.

Alright, Tabitha had been called as well, but at the very worst that simply meant that Iskander would be taking the silver pendant instead of the golden crown of first place. But there was a chance, a chance that she'd be the winner.

Her tall Summon was following her, she could feel the reassuring solidness of his presence behind her without having to turn her head. She drew on that firmness, on his steadying presence, to calm her own nerves. Whatever happened she would face it with the pride and dignity that her status as a noble demanded.

They had reached the stage now and Tabitha was standing beside her as they both faced the headmaster and Princess Henrietta. A flash of red in the corner of her eye told her that Iskander had taken up position at her side while the shadow that suddenly loomed over them had to be cast by Tabitha's dragon familiar. All these little details were noted and catalogued as her mind worked frantically to try to distract her from the butterflies that seemed to be throwing a party in her stomach.

"There has been some strong contestation as to who would be declared the winner," explained Professor Colbert as he smiled at his two students, "however in the end we came to an agreement. These two young women will be declared the first joint victory of the Evaluation Fair in the history of this academy."

Huh?

HUH!?

She . . . she'd won? Alright, she was one of two winners, but she had still won, right?

With a vague sense of unreality she knelt before the princess beside Tabitha as the heiress to the throne produced two small ornamental crowns and placed one upon each of their heads.

"Louise Françoise, your familiar put on such a display of swordsmanship that even the captain of my guards was struck dumb. Tabitha, your familiar's flight was a marvel to see and a pleasure to watch. Both of you are truly worthy of the respect and acclaim that these small prizes represent. I ask you; could we all have another demonstration from both of your marvellous familiars?"

"Summon."

The single word was spoken very quietly, so much so that Louise doubted anyone else had caught it. Honestly, Iskander just couldn't let it go even once. Still, at least he'd had the sense not to correct Henrietta right here in front of everyone. She made a mental note to do something nice for him later as a reward for his somewhat rare show of good sense and decorum.

No, wait, she was going to have to give him a huge surprise as thanks for this. He'd succeeded in gaining her a first place, and more importantly as far as she was concerned, he'd let her beat Kirche!

The youngest Vallière sister felt a somewhat maniacal laugh start to bubble up from within her at that thought, but forced it down as she remembered where she was. Plenty of time for gloating later, right now she had to show proper reverence and gratitude to the princess. She'd asked for a further demonstration of her fam- ah, Summon's abilities, best to tell Iskander that he should do just that.

"Say Tabitha, Louise, do you feel up to trying something . . . daring?"

The so-called 'Zero' felt her stomach drop as she saw the smile on the face of the large man that she'd summoned. She knew that smile and had come to know that it usually only meant trouble. The first time she'd seen it had been when Iskander had told her that he'd come up with a new exercise to help train up her casting speed and accuracy. Shortly thereafter she'd found herself facing a barrage of wooden blocks, spoiled fruit and old bars of soap while she frantically dodged and tried to cast as fast as she could. In the end she hadn't been able to argue with the results, but even so she still tended to twitch violently every time she heard the word 'incoming' or saw a tomato.

Oh dear Founder, what was he going to suggest? Her treacherous mind was already coming up with possibilities that could end with her humiliation or possibly even execution, the scenario where he kidnapped the Princess and flew off on Sylphid was particularly disturbing, especially given the demented cackling her imagination was supplying.

". . . What?" Tabitha asked in her normal quiet tone.

"What say we go for a combination stunt," her red haired Summon suggested, "Nothing too over the top, not without some more practice anyway. But if Sylphid can carry me and a couple of logs up fairly high then I can-"

Whatever he was going to suggest was cut off as a sudden crash of breaking stone and glass shook the ground with its force and volume. For a moment all that Louise could do was blink in incomprehension as she tried to locate the source of the tremendous sound. Then she saw the cloud of dust and debris rising up from the other side of the academy, over where she and Iskander had been walking earlier.

"That does not look good." The calm voice of her Summon should have made her jump, coming out of nowhere and so close to her as it did, but for some reason it failed to startle her.

"What do you think it is?" she asked, unconsciously drawing nearer to the comforting bulk of her Summon.

"Off hand I'd say that it's someone that's somehow managed to smash their way into the academy treasure vault."

"WHAT?!"

Louise's exclamation of indignant outrage escaped her lips before she had a chance to properly prepare herself.

"Come."

By contrast to her own exclamation of shock Tabitha's invitation was the barest trace above a whisper. The pink haired mage blinked a few times before realizing that both her classmate and her Summon were already upon the dragon's back and were only waiting for her.

"Eh? But . . . wait, what?"

"If someone's trying to break into the vault then I think that stopping them is a good idea, right?"

Before she could come up with a suitable response to the question Iskander reached out and picked her up by the back of her uniform. Louise just had time for a single startled and indignant squawk of protest before her Summon deposited her to sit just in front of him.

"Wha-What do you think you're doing?!" Louise managed t choke out as the large blue dragon took wing and ascended into the sky. As it did so she couldn't help but compare it to riding in Iskander's wondrous chariot, the sensations were somewhat similar, but she definitely felt a bit safer in the mystic vehicle than on the dragon's back. Though oddly enough she couldn't pin down why.

"Scout." Tabitha declared as her familiar began to curve around the large tower that made up the centre of the academy.

It didn't take long to spot the cause of the disturbance; the wall of the tower facing away from the court where the Evaluation Fair was taking place had exploded outwards with enough force to send bits of masonry flying all the way to the far outer wall. Even as the blue dragon wheeled around Louise saw the ground rise up into the form of an enormous golem that held its arm out to the hole that had been broken. The construct was absolutely huge, by far the largest construct that she'd ever seen. Grass clung to it in patches along with a couple of bushes while stone made up the vast bulk of a body that was easily more than five stories tall.

As she watched a trio of figures emerge from the building, run along the golems arm and perch upon its massive shoulders. Two of the figures were unquestionably golems as well, their massive frames impossible to mistake for humans. Each of them was carrying a bulging sack while the sole human, definitely a woman given her grace and curves, carried a single long box while her features were obscured by a long black cloak.

"Thief."

Ever sparing with her words Tabitha was able to sum the situation up in a single calm word.

"W-Well, let's stop her then!" Louise declared, only a slight quaver in her voice giving her nervousness away.

"Difficult. Powerful."

"J-Just watch, I'll blow her away with an explosion."

Even as she spoke the words Louise felt like hitting herself over the head. She was going to blow that . . . that colossus away? Certainly Iskander's training had let her control the unwanted side effects of her magic to a considerable degree, but the focus of that training had been on speed and accuracy. She knew she could produce large explosions; one of their experiments had resulted in a large clearing being blasted into the forest they'd been practicing in, but she wasn't sure if she could take down something that huge.

No, she couldn't let doubt enter her, she was a noble and it was her duty to use her magic to enforce the laws of the land. Taking a deep breath she raised her wand and aimed its tip at the now retreating golem.

"Ren. Le-"

"As if I'd let you!"

Before Louise could finish her incantation the woman's voice rang out and the gigantic earth construct suddenly turned in place and raised one arm to point at the flying dragon. For a moment the Vallière daughter's mind was filled with horrifying possibilities of boulders being hurled at them or crystal spears being shot like bullets. Tabitha must have had similar thoughts because suddenly Sylphid banked hard to the right; almost jarring the riders upon the dragon's back from their place, and dove down and out of the potential line of fire.

However rather than launching some projectile the entire arm that had been pointed at them instead exploded into a thick cloud of rock dust. The fog of debris enveloped them as Sylphid's flight path took them right into it. Immediately Louise had to cut off her attempts at casting as the dust invaded her throat and sent her into a coughing fit, but even as she tried to clear her lungs more of the drifting rock powder seemed to force its way up her nose and down her throat. Black spots appeared in her field of vision as she fought to get her breath, it was no longer merely convulsive coughing, this was more like being choked.

Then suddenly there was something thick and red wrapping itself about her, cutting off the dim light and leaving her in darkness. At first she struggled, thinking that she was losing consciousness or something of that nature, but then the gentle but firm pressure of a familiar large hand upon her shoulder calmed her and she realized that though she was still coughing she was now able to gulp down at least some air in between. As soon as her eyes were clear of the tears that had filled them as the dust had stung them she looked about her and took stock of the situation.

By the looks of things Iskander had wrapped his cloak-like mantle about her to form a sort of simple tent. It was small and close but at least it served to give her a space in which she could catch a few breaths of air that weren't choked with rock powder. As soon as that thought crossed her mind her next was to think of how the others were handling it. Given that the dragon she was on seemed to be flying levelly and not floundering around she guessed that both Tabitha and Sylphid were handling it better than she had. She did find herself wondering how her Summon was handling it, leaning back against his chest as she was she could tell that he wasn't coughing or even breathing hard. Maybe his superhuman constitution allowed him to deal with the cloud of stone dust in ways that the unprepared couldn't.

Even as she completed that thought the arm that had been holding the cloak over her moved and the heavy cloth fell away to leave her in the daylight once more. The wings of Tabitha's familiar had brought them up and above the cloud of dust and the air here was blessedly clean. Glancing over at her fellow student she was in time to see a wind shield fade from about her, no doubt having been used to protect her from the dust.

"Gone."

"She is pretty good isn't she?"

It took Louise a couple of seconds to realize just what Iskander and Tabitha were talking about. In that time her eyes had darted around trying to find the huge golem that the thief had been riding on . . . and failing since there was no sign of it.

"Wha . . . ? Where did she go? She can't have just disappeared, not with that enormous golem of hers." In all truth her voice sounded more petulant than anything else, as though the impossibility of what she'd seen offended her more than anything else.

""It looks like she used the dust as a smokescreen to cover her escape and then switched to a faster mode of travel while out of sight." Iskander commented from behind her. "I suppose she might even have gone underground and travelled that way, she seems gifted enough in the use of the earth to be able to pull it off."

"Report back." Said Tabitha as her dragon turned back to where the crowd gathered for the Evaluation Fair was still milling about.

"Can't we go after her?" Even as she asked the question Louise already knew the answer.

"I doubt it," Said Iskander voicing the conclusions the youngest Vallière sister had already come to, "She's obviously made a clean getaway and I confess to having no skill as far as tracking goes. Right now the best we can do is head back and let everyone know what we saw; with any luck the teachers will have better luck than us."

As they descended Louise couldn't help but feel a surge of anger at what had happened. This had been her great moment of triumph, her time to prove that she wasn't a zero, to show off her marvellous Summon. Yet right at the moment when she was about to bask in that achievement this happened.

Did the world have something against her?


-()-


It was all Matilda could do not to burst out laughing with glee. Never had a theft go so well for her, never had she been able to make off with such a haul. Originally her plan had been to grab the single most valuable item that she could carry, something that her careful and subtle interrogation of the headmaster and the other professors had revealed to be the powerful Staff of Destruction. But this . . . this was so much more than she'd ever thought she would manage.

As a thief she was successful due to her ability to undermine wards by destroying their physical components in the same act that allowed her to breach walls and ceilings to get into vaults and treasuries. However that style almost always triggered some sort of alarm, so by necessity most of her jobs were swift affairs where she seized the single or few most valuable loot available and then was gone before anyone could arrive to investigate.

But not this time.

This time she'd been in much the same state as a child left alone in a sweets store and for once she'd had the time to be discerning in her choices and had the back up to take lots. Now she carefully went over the artefacts and treasures that she'd been able to purloin.

There was, of course, the Staff of Destruction, what information she'd been able to gather had certainly held her interest. Any weapon able to slay a dragon large and powerful enough to threaten Old Osmond himself with just one attack was a weapon that would be valued. But besides that there were all the other things that she'd been able to get.

There were a couple of magic mirrors, several staffs of varying design and composition. There were books that were regarded as too valuable to be kept in the library, jars of the rarest and most valuable reagents, even a number of enchanted shields and weapons. A good number of cursed or blessed talismans rested within their protective boxes along with an enchanted helmet or two as well as a small bushel of wands possessing interesting or dangerous characteristics. There was even a genuine crystal ball with all the scrying spells still intact. Idly she wondered why that had been in the vault rather than in the headmaster's office where he could use it to spy on the female student baths. Oh well, who cared, it was hers now.

So much loot, she couldn't keep the grin from spreading over her face as she took in the haul.

This was the big one, she was sure of it. With her connections it wouldn't be at all hard to find various fences and underworld dealers that would be willing to pay healthy prices in order to get their hands on some of these. Even the lesser prizes such as the wands would go for a fine sum to the right people, while more valuable prizes, like the crystal ball or some of those reagents, would on their own provide enough money to buy a small castle if she wanted.

Of course . . . there was still the mystery individual that had supplied her with the tool that had made this all possible. In their letter they had described themselves as; 'something of a collector of magical rarities', but just what did that mean? Would they expect her to just hand over the pick of the crop to them for free? Or were they instead planning to ambush her so they could do away with the infamous thief Fouquet and claim all the loot for themselves?

That last thought made a worrying amount of sense as it was a good way for whomever had given her the gun to keep their own had clean and themselves out of danger while giving them the opportunity to acquire considerable valuables.

But if that was the case then Matilda couldn't afford to let her guard down. The attack could come at any time and from any direction. She had-

"Well, that is quite the haul you've managed to make off with. I'm pleased to see that my gift was so useful and that your reputation is so well deserved."

It took all of the thief's considerable self control not to jump like a scalded cat as the calm and slightly amused voice sounded from behind her. HOW? She'd placed wards and charms around this clearing as well as setting up a few golems to serve as lookouts, even if someone could bypass them they should have at least have given some indication of their presence. Instead it was as though she'd appeared from nowhere, simply impossibly there.

With a great mental effort Matilda calmed her racing thoughts and instead tried to concentrate on the situation at hand. So, this must her mysterious benefactor, it wasn't unexpected that she'd be contacting her so soon so as to claim her share of the goods, in all truth the only surprising thing about her this was the method of her appearance.

Well, she'd been wondering what the price would be for the use of this marvellous tool as well as what the chances of her keeping it would be. Its possession had made her heist magnitudes of work easier, if she could hold onto it then there were all kinds of future opportunities that she could take that had once been beyond her reach.

Alright, best put her best calm face on for this. The negotiations were about to begin.

Turning she faced the woman that had spoken to the earth mage and got her first look at her. She was younger than Matilda had expected, no older than she herself was, maybe even a year or two younger. Or at least that was what Matilda could tell from the features she could see, though her mouth and jaw were visible as well as her long black hair the majority of the newcomer's face was concealed.

She was dressed in black, black dress, black gloves, black boots, black shawl; the only colour to be had in her garb was the blood red lining of both her dress and the shawl which stood out in vivid contrast. The dress she wore was a close fitting sleek one that clung to her body and highlighted her figure without being vulgar or obscene. Her boots reached up to her knees and were clearly of an excellent make, though their high heels were utterly unsuited to being out in the countryside. Her fingerless gloves were sheer and thin silken affairs that ran past her elbows and all the way up to just below her shoulders. Every item of clothing she wore was clearly of expensive, fashioned from silk or satin and of the finest weave and cut, but that wasn't what caught Matilda's attention.

Every finger had a ring; each ear was thrice pierced and decorated with at least three earrings. Two bracelets adorned her left wrist while three more were on her right, all of them of different design and style. Two necklaces and a pair of pendants were about her throat and a trio of metal belts and thin girdles decorated her waist. She probably had some sort of tiara or coronet upon her brow, but that and her face was concealed by the shawl acting as both hood and veil.

The combined effect should have been almost comical, like a child getting into her mothers jewellery box and trying everything on at once without concern for moderation of fashion. It should have . . . but it didn't. Instead a subtle aura of menace, of danger only barely held in check, surrounded the figure like a second cloak.

This wasn't someone to be taken lightly, of that the earth mage was absolutely sure. This young woman might have the appearance of some young noble trying to play at being a shadowy villain, but that impression was merely another disguise to fool the careless. Whoever this was they were someone with blood on their hands, someone to be handled like the other criminals and assassins that Fouquet had been forced to deal with during her interactions with the criminal underworld.

This was someone dangerous.

"I trust that you are the 'friend' that saw fit to provide me with this?" The thief known as Fouquet asked, her voice as cool and steady as he could manage, while she made a non-threatening gesture with the strange gun that she'd found in her room.

"Of course," the woman confirmed easily as she leaned casually against a tree. "Had I not lent you my aid then the best that you'd have been able to make off with would have been the so called 'Staff of Destruction'. However now look at the bounty that you've been able to liberate from that stuffy vault. So many new toys just waiting to be played with once more, rather than simply mouldering on a shelf for year after year."

"Your letter implied that you'd be willing to pay well for taking some of my haul, and that you'd be interested in further business in the future. Shall we deal with establishing an agreement between us first?"

Even as she posed the question Matilda prepared herself for a surprise attack. If one was coming this was the most likely time. This opulently dressed young woman might put on a show of negotiating with her to try to put her off her guard, but it was far more likely that any sting in the tail would show itself now, before such discussions would begin.

"But of course," the black clad woman agreed, her tone light and her smile easy, "I would like the chance to sort through your recent acquisitions and find those that are most suited to my needs. You will of course be repaid handsomely for any that I wish to take, as will be the case with any future transactions that we have."

"And just how generous would 'handsomely' be?" Alright, if ever there was a queue to start off any hostilities that was it.

In response the young woman flicked her wrist and a small pouch thudded into the ground between them. Matilda tensed as she saw it, but there was no bang of an explosion, no flash meant to blind. Cautiously she waved her wand and had one of her golems reach over to pick it up.

"Sensibly cautious, excellent." The black clad noble commented her head nodding approvingly.

Keeping one eye on the mysterious woman the thief known as Fouquet watched as her creation tipped the contents of the small pouch out onto its palm and held it up for her inspection.

Gems.

Not just any gemstones either, these were high quality ones that had been delicately carved by both tools and magic until they were practically miniature works of art. This . . . this was far beyond anything that she'd been expecting. These were real jewels, not cunningly worked glass or temporary magical creations, her own magic confirmed that for her. These were the real deal, and just a trio of them would have been enough to fairly purchase more than half the hoard she'd stolen.

And the pouch had contained more than a dozen of them.

Matilda's throat was suddenly so dry that she had to gulp a couple of times before she could get her voice to work.

"Th-That's very . . . generous payment," the understatement of her words would have made her laugh at any other time, the contents of that pouch would have been able to buy an entire castle, complete with servant staff and appropriate furnishings, and still had money to spare. "B-But surely you know that even everything I have here wouldn't be worth that much."

The smile on the woman's face remained easy, yet at the same time there was a sudden hint of cruelty to it.

"Oh, the sum there isn't simply for my pick of your acquisitions, there is a task that I'd like to hire you for."

Instantly Matilda knew that the sting in the tail of this little deal was coming.

"What might that be?"

Before I say anything else why don't you try the gem of your theft, the Staff of Destruction?"

Thrown by the sudden change in topic the earth mage glanced at the long box that she'd personally carried out of the vault. Why the sudden interest in that? Granted it was probably the most destructively powerful of the treasures that she'd acquired, but still . . .

"It is relevant, trust me on that."

Being careful to keep the distance between them as well as having her golems ready the onetime noble opened the box. What was in it had NOT been what she'd expected. Rather than the intricately carved and ornate mage's staff that she'd been anticipating the item within was short and thick, composed of metal and a material she wasn't familiar with and had a strap as though it were meant to be carried on one's shoulder.

But the thing that puzzled her was the utter lack of any sliver of magic within it. All wands and staffs had at least a hint of the magic they had channelled, it wasn't anything that a student would have been able to sense, but more experienced mages tended to gain the knack of it over time. But this staff that was said to possess considerable destructive power seemed to be utterly dead, as possessed of magic as a tree branch.

No, that couldn't be it. Old Osmond had been quite free in his tales of how his mysterious saviour had slain a dangerous dragon with but a single attack. This was the same weapon s there must be some trick, some way that its power could be released.

And this strange young woman had been aware of this; she'd known that the Staff of Destruction could not be easily employed. The mysteries and questions were starting to pile up, there was definitely some kind of game being played here and Matilda had the worrying feeling that rather than being a player she was in fact a pawn.

Well to the abyss with that.

"You know why the Staff is inactive." The words were a question but they were spoken as a statement. The black clad woman's smile widened slightly as she nodded in agreement.

"That particular item can only be employed if used in the correct fashion by one trained in its use."

"And I suppose you know how? And what would that knowledge cost me?"

"Actually I only have the broadest knowledge of how it can be used," she admitted, her smile never wavering, "Certainly not detailed enough that I'd risk using it. If I did I'd be as likely to blow my own feet off as I would be to strike my target."

"So it's useless?" Fouquet wasn't able to keep the anger and disappointment from creeping into her voice as she asked the question. Damn, the pride of her haul, rendered impotent without the instruction of its use.

"Oh, there's no need to be so down hearted, there is a way to learn how to use it. And it so happens that that method ties in nicely to the little errand I was hoping that you'd be willing to run for me in exchange for the extra jewels you've got there."

As the black clad woman talked Matilda found herself nodding in agreement to the plan being laid out. It sounded like a solid concept, one that could well work. Some of the details were a little distasteful to her, but they were nothing that she hadn't had to do in the past.

". . . and lastly I think that a little back up may be in order, just to make sure you have it if needs be,"

That immediately got Matilda's hackles up. This noble intended to leave some of her flunkies to watch over her shoulder? No, that was utterly unacceptable. The only time Fouquet didn't work alone was when she had a sacrificial patsy with her. She had no intention of being slowed down by some low rent thugs that-

Her thoughts were cut off as two figures emerged from the woods behind the noble in black. They made no noise as they moved, which was ridiculous given their size.

Each of the new arrivals was well over seven feet tall and so grossly muscled as to look unnatural with their skin stretched as though under internal pressure, both had the same eight point star tattooed or carved into their foreheads. Yet despite their shared strangeness the differences between them stood out in sharp contrast.

The one on the left was horribly scarred on his bald head and face, the lips of his mouth half torn off to reveal the sharpened teeth within his jaw. He was clad in thick plates of armour that were decorated with brutal spikes and inlaid with crudely wrought skulls. His hands held a huge axe that looked perfectly capable of hewing a bear in two with a single swing. Yet the most disturbing thing about the brutal giant was the look of barely retrained bloodlust in his eyes, as though he longed to slay everything about him for no other reason than to see the blood flow.

By contrast the one on the right wore armour of a more elegant design, the smooth curves that ran into almost elegant hooks and needles had an almost sensual feel to it. The exposed face of the giant was handsome, almost beautiful, with long flowing hair and clean aristocratic features. The armour was decorated with a short cloak of a vivid purple that caught the eyes and languorous inlays of nymphs and sprites adorned the armour itself. In his hands the towering figure carried an enormous and wickedly curved scythe with a serrated edge. His eyes were bright, yet at the same time had a slightly glazed and otherworldly quality to them that suggested the giant was under the effect of some sort of drug.

Both figures moved with a strange grace totally at odds with their huge dimensions, a grace that spoke of lethal skills deadly potential.

"Allow me to introduce you to Sodom and Gomorrah, they don't speak much since the orders they belonged to cut out their tongues as part of some initiation rite, but they're some of the best fighters you'll ever lay eyes on. They'll be here to lend you a hand should anything . . . stray from the plan."

The threat in those words was clear enough, but Matilda decided not to make any fuss. They could be of some use after all, and should they prove to be troublesome . . . well, that was when she could show them how even commoners with such size and weapons should be wary of nobles with magic.


-()-


"Well, that was certainly a surprise," The rays of the setting sun coloured the courtyard in shades of red and gold as Kirche voiced her thoughts, "The teachers are saying that this is the work of Fouquet the Crumbling dirt. Hey Tabitha, did you get a look at her face?"

The small wind mage didn't even look up from her book as she replied.

"Hidden."

"Oh, well that's boring. How about you Louise, did you see anything?"

Alex allowed himself a slight smile at the startled look on his small Summoner's face as she reacted to the civil question from her mortal rival. He knew that the two of them eventually became friends in the 'canon' story; by the looks of things his own presence seemed to have sped things up a little.

"Well . . . that huge golem of hers as well as those smaller ones means that she must be a Triangle class mage at the very least, maybe even Square class since she was able to break into the vault as she did."

"Really? Well I suppose it isn't such a surprise that she was able to make such a clean getaway then."

"What I'd like to know is how she managed to get into the vault at all," Alex commented from where he stood, "From what I've heard it should have taken a half dozen Square class mages to break in there, and even then they couldn't have done it without alerting half the academy. So how did one mage manage to break in without anyone hearing a thing?"

Even as he voiced his questions the red haired young man felt like tearing his hair out in frustration. How could this be happening? He'd gone over every little thing he'd done since he'd become Louise's Summon and couldn't come up with anything that should account for such a grave shift in the chain of events that he was familiar with. Was it due to something he wasn't aware of? Had one of the later volumes of the light novels revealed that there was a spy in the academy all along? That was the best explanation that he could come up with, the only one that made any sense at least. If there was an informant in the school then they could be passing on information about him to Sheffield and what's-his-name, Tabitha's evil uncle. If that had happened then maybe they'd decided to contact and help Fouquet earlier than they had in the original timeline?

That was the only explanation that made sense, certainly more so that the universe being out to get him anyway.

For his part Alex was keeping to the background as he tried to get his racing thoughts into some semblance of order. With half an ear he heard Princess Henrietta coming over to check on Louise, but he hung back with Sylphid as a part of the background rather than putting himself forward. Under other circumstances he might have tried, but at the moment his head was buzzing with too many stray thoughts. Aaarrrghhh, it was all so stupid, there was no way that he could possibly be sure. His thoughts could just chase each other round and round in circles forever for all the good it would do him.

Feeling a headache coming on he reached up to massage his temples as he tried to calm his frantically filtering thoughts.

Those thoughts came to a screeching halt as he noticed something that he'd missed up until now. The thin lines that made up the outline of a book upon the flesh of the back of his right hand were glowing with a soft blue light. What was this? He'd felt none of the slight twinges that had alerted him to the times that the book had glowed red when he'd gained his new Noble Phantasms or unlocked his new abilities. Did that mean that this was something different?

". . . you as well, mister Summon."

The princess's words brought him out of his thoughts and back to the situation at hand. What had she just said? Damn it, his full attention had been on the glowing lines. Oh well, wing it.

"My thanks for you kind words." He offered as he inclined his torso in a slight but respectful bow.

In short order the heiress to the throne was escorted to her carriage and swiftly departed the academy grounds. Louise and many of the students and faculty gathered at the main gate to see her go, but Alex had plans of his own. It didn't take him long to excuse himself from the slightly distracted Louise, who had been among those to watch the princess's departure, and find a quiet spot in which to investigate the latest development with the strange book that existed within his right hand.

"Alright, come out."

The Book of seals appeared in his hands as the pseudo Servant gazed down at it curiously. As before the book opened itself and the pages began to flick past on their own. Alex watched with interest and they riffled by until the book had nearly reached the end.

He blinked at what he saw, his mind taking a few instants to fully comprehend what was on the pages.

Unlock Conditions List.

Unlock Condition: Complete or reveal fifteen other conditions.

-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-

Acquired Noble Phantasms: 2/?

?

?

Devoured/Negated/Broken Triangle or higher class spells: 3/?

?

Enemies rendered unconscious: 1/?

Dot Class Mages defeated: 1/1

?

Triangle Class Mages defeated: 1/?

?

Earth Mages defeated: 1/?

?

Water Mages defeated: 1/?

?

Berserker foes defeated: 1/?

Songs sung: 7/?

Stories told: 3/?

?

?

Damsels in distress saved: 1/?

Kisses of gratitude received: 1/?

?

Strip naked: 1/1

?

Spells cast at your inducement but not at you: 10/10

?

Public performances to an audience of more than 20: 1/?

?

Conditions completed/revealed: 15/15

?

That was the first page, the other one was covered entirely in the question mark lines that he guessed were conditions that he'd not yet even begun to unlock. He could feel his mind racing as he tried to sort out all that he'd seen.

Quite obviously this was a list of conditions that he had to fulfil in order to unlock other abilities or weapons from the book. Several of them already seemed to have been completed, and from what he could tell they were the conditions that had unlocked his clothing ability as well as the Electronic Notebook. There was also the condition that had apparently unlocked his ability to see the conditions that he'd managed to clear so far. Honestly, the whole setup was a bit . . . mismatched in his opinion. After all this was a fantasy world he found himself in, yet this book seemed to be set up in a way similar to a computer game of some sort.

No, never mind that, right now he had to focus upon what was more important, namely what this list told him about how he could unlock more powers and abilities.

Some of the conditions made a certain level of sense such as how many Noble Phantasms he'd gained or how many enemies he'd defeated. If you looked at it from the point of view of a game then it made sense that certain weapons or skills could only be attained after certain conditions were passed, but on the other hand some things seemed out of place. Singing songs, telling stories, performing before crowds? Those didn't sound like the unlocking conditions for any sort of weapons.

But . . . he hadn't just had weapons in his bags had he? There had been his manga, his ipod, his mobile phone, what kind of unlock conditions might those have, and even if he did get them back how long would they last with just their batteries to keep them going? On the other hand his Electronic Notebook had just been a simply paper pad with a circuit board cover, and that had become a useful supernatural tool. Who was to say that the same wouldn't be true of his other possessions? Could there be other more exotic conditions upon the access to them?

For a moment his thoughts drifted to the Godzilla toy that he'd purchased, the one that had turned into a stone idol just before it had been sucked in by the book. What conditions would there be upon that? For that matter what kind of power or weapon would it bestow upon him? For a brief moment the pseudo Servant entertained the thought of it actually summoning up the King of Monsters himself. Well, that would be a game breaking ability and a half, of that he was sure.

Shaking his head he did his best to dispel the oddly attractive image of unleashing a full sized Godzilla upon the fleet of air ships that invaded Siesta's home town at the end of the first series. Heh, radioactive fire breath for the win.

All of this seemed too . . . structured for it to simply be a coincidence, some random accident. He'd read various 'self insertion' fanfiction before, and as bizarre as his situation was they were the closest things he could think of to the predicament he'd found himself in. It was both laughable and pitiable; his life was echoing the writings of the hobbyists of the internet. Idly he wondered if he was a self insertion, then dismissed the idea since he was well aware that though he had his talents writing wasn't among them.

No, all existentialistic ponderings aside the Book of Seals was proof that he hadn't simply stumbled into this situation by blind chance. Had he arrived and been marked as Louise's familiar he could have accepted that this was all just some sort of cosmic joke, a ridiculously long odd being realized. But his gaining the powers of a Servant, the Book of Seals, his shopping all becoming the real deal, that all spoke of some sort of interference or influence, an intelligence directing things.

But if he was to accept that then that begged the simple question; why me?

Surely there were others more suited to the position, others that could provide Louise with superior support and guidance as her familiar. For that matter surely there were those that knew this series inside and out, who could manipulate events far more surely and safely than he was doing. The simple fact of the matter was that Alex could think of no reason why he would have been picked by any entity to serve in this role.

So, why him?

Bah, he might as well ask why he'd been born or why bad things happened to good people, chances were he was as likely to get an answer if he did. If he kept up this train of thought there was a good chance that he'd think himself into a coma without achieving a single useful thing. Far better to focus on the more immediate concerns.

Alright, if what he knew still held then tomorrow Fouquet would use her guise as the secretary Longueville to pass on false information about Fouquet's location. If he remembered right her plan was to trick the Gandálfr into showing her how to use the Staff of Destruction since she was unable to work out how on her own. Assuming that all went according to script then there should be no real problem.

He could handle Fouquet and her golems, of that he was quite certain. The tricky bit was working out how he wanted Louise to get involved since in the 'canon' it had been one of the elements that had served to build the relationship between her and Saito.

As he felt the throbbing in his head starting to ratchet up a notch Alex decided that he was basically kicking a dead dog. He had a basic plan and really that was all he could work with since anything more detailed would be based solely on guesses and suppositions. Yes, bed sounded like a good idea.

With any luck the world would make more sense after a good night's sleep.