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alfheimwanderer
March 15th, 2011, 04:33 PM
"Fletching"

An Evangel Notes sidestory - Third Place Entry of the Type-MOON Fanfiction Contest.

Disclaimer: In this particular universe, I do not own or in any way shape or form hold a claim to any elements of the Nasuverse, or any other modern works that I may reference in this story. I will note that this story was also written in 24 hours, so if it seems like it was written in a short amount of time...it was. ^^ Without further ado, enjoy the work.

Comments and feedback would be appreciated, either here or on its home on Fanfiction.net (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6630929/1/Fletching)



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…Spirit and technique, flawless and firm…

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'Trace on.'

For most of his life, Shirou Emiya had been a man who had done the impossible, usually because he didn't know he couldn't, because he didn't have the limitations and hesitations common to every human being. Self-preservation, survival, reason—these things were utterly foreign to him, for he did not place any importance in himself. After all, he was simply a blade to be wielded in the defense of others; one who, ever since being saved from the ravaging fires of his forging, had willingly subjected himself to a tempering process almost too rigorous for the vagaries of mortal flesh.

Each night he had sat in his shed, taking his first fumbling steps towards becoming a user of magecraft, painstakingly building fragile circuits to connect the world of his imagination to the world without, where he practiced the simple technique called strengthening.

Each night, magical energy had flowed from his core like molten steel, seeping out of his body through the channels of his nerves in an attempt to "strengthen" the items in his hands, to bring them closer to his vision of their ideal state—or sometimes to create something new altogether, imposing illusion upon reality with his will.

Yet most of his conscious efforts to project the images from his mind into reality had ended in failure, producing at most the surface seeming of an object, hollow shells without any true substance backing them. Time and time again, he had repeated these exercises, and yet, unless he truly needed to tap into what little talent he had, whether for his own defense or for the aid of others, he labored in futility, as might be expected of one whose affinity was to the sword.

Swords, after all, had a certain sense of immediacy to their use. They were implements forged for the chaos of a melee, for the moment where one came into contact with the enemy and premade plans had to be adjusted or discarded. Convoluted strategies, devious plans, extra preparation? None of these mattered in the heat of battle, merely the ability to act on one's instincts and training, to survive the onslaught of the enemy and strike with the strength of one's convictions.

Without an enemy, the blade that was Shirou Emiya had never truly been drawn, his convictions never tested, and so he did not discover his true talent until he was thrust into the Holy Grail War, a struggle between seven magi and their Heroic Spirit partners for possession of the Cup of Heaven, a powerful artifact with the power to grant any wish.

"Rejoice Shirou Emiya – your wish will finally come true…"

…Including what was simultaneously his greatest wish and darkest desire, for in desiring to save others from disaster, a part of him had to wish for something to endanger them so that he could act.

"You should know. Your wish will not come true unless there is a clear evil. Even if it is not something you approve of, every hero requires a villain..."

In his brash youth, he hadn't wanted to admit at the time that his ideal was flawed, that the only way he could be a hero was for others to be in danger, and thus he had thrown himself into the war with the zeal and fervor of one fighting for his convictions, abandoning any thought of self-preservation as he strove to end the war, to end what the priest had called the fulfillment of his wish.

His allies had told him time and time again that no human could match the warriors summoned by the Holy Grail as partners to the seven magi, that Heroic Spirits, human in form, but in reality the ultimate ideal created by the dreams of man, souls elevated to near divinity due to worship and the glory of their deeds, were as far beyond magi as magi were beyond mundanes.

But Shirou Emiya had not cared about these dictates of fate, and none had dissuaded him from his path, suicidal though it might have seemed. Swords could not act from a distance, and even arrows, which could, once loosed could not change their course. In that war, his soul had been unsheathed, the forging completed and the final product quenched in blood—mostly his own, but also that of the impossible enemies that he nevertheless had managed to surmount, simply by being who he was.

Heracles, the greatest hero of legend, rendered even more powerful by divine insanity; Gilgamesh, the King of Heroes, whose arsenal of weapons was unparalleled; Medusa, the Gorgon whose very gaze alone could petrify; Medea, the vile witch whose treachery and power was remembered thousands of years after her death; Angra Mainyu, the materialized wish for a source of all the evils of the world.

These and more he had faced, standing against them in single combat. Against these he had stood his ground unflinchingly, shrugging off their blows with strength of will and lack of self-regard to rise again and again from injuries that should well have been mortal.

Stomach split nearly in half by a single swing of Berserker's axe-sword, his entrails scattered across the broken pavement as the giant loomed overhead.

But he had survived, living to fight another day, when he returned the favor, ending Berserker's existence at last.

Back sliced open to the bone by Caster's Noble Phantasm – the cold edge of the jagged dagger ripping through skin, muscles, and nerves as it sought to end his life.

But he had endured it, surviving Caster's onslaught, his reinforced bokken smashing apart her dragontooth skeleton familiars.

Body skewered, impaled, cleaved apart by an arsenal of peerless blades, each and every one belonging to the Golden King, as Gilgamesh struck him down for having the temerity to oppose the world's oldest hero with a copy of his blade.

But, his body of swords creaking all the while, he had risen once more, and Gilgamesh's next attack had rebounded upon the golden king, forcing him to retreat in anger.

Melting melting melting torn to pieces ripped asunder as one unworthy…the starting penalty is five. Hell imprinted on the brain, the darkness of all the evils of the world eating at his body and stealing every bit of warmth or joy in the world, crushing him mind body and soul as it seeped in through all five senses. He could not look at it directly, could not acknowledge it, yet could not run…for it was a curse made of every crime humanity was guilty of, whispering with hate, fear, and anger to drive him insane and break him utterly, whispering of guilt, whispering of inevitability, whispering for him to atone for every violence every crime every victim, to atone atone atone with DEATH!

…but he had not. With every nerve in his body screaming at him, with every instinct, every thought warning of the impending end, Shirou Emiya had not accepted death—no, he rejected it with all his might. His body still moved, his arm was upraised to grab something…and in an instant, he had recreated the sheath of Excalibur, the Sword of Promised Victory, defeating the nightmares of mankind with the artifact forged of all of mankind's dreams, creating an illusion so close to the original, that it was nigh identical.

These trials and more he had overcome, forcing himself forward through travail upon travail, breaking through obstacles with burning blood and a body of steel. In the end, he had won the war, but in doing so, had learned of what had given him his talent and saved his life time and again—the sheath Avalon, the hallowed scabbard of Excalibur, containing the hopes and dreams of all mankind.

Illusionary things, transient things, which by their very nature could never fully be realized, an ever-distant utopia that drew away as one drew near. His wish for a better world was no exception, and yet, Shirou Emiya had never acknowledged the limits of the possible.

How else could he have done the things he did? Confronting—and defeating— the reanimated spirits of heroes long dead, reproducing lost weapons and items from memory alone, shrugging off the collective curses of all the evils of the world, attaining the Grail…and choosing to let it pass from him. Great and terrible things, these, befitting one who wished so fervently to be a hero, to save everyone in his sight…a man whose journey was doomed from the start.

If in his actions, Shirou Emiya was like a sword, acting on instinct, his path he took towards his successes was best described by an arrow's flight: aimed away from the goal, but striking it regardless.

That was the so-called "Archer's Paradox", that in order to strike a target, one could not aim directly at it, as arrows did not fly straight. It could not, for the bowstring did not snap straight, nor did the arrow stay straight when nocked against the bow. It bent, oscillating back and forth, flexing out of the way of the bow and then back to the "correct" path as it left.

Different bows required arrows with different degrees of stiffness, for an arrow with too much or too little stiffness would fail to strike the target. Too much "spine" would force the arrow away from the goal as easily as too little, or cause the arrow to break into pieces in flight, unable to withstand the pressures of launch.

As a practitioner of archery himself, Shirou Emiya knew this, for he had never aimed when practicing with the bow, simply picturing the target in his mind, his body acting as if by instinct to have the arrow strike the target. There was no conscious thought, only the certainty that he would succeed.

And yet he did not apply this to his life, where he "aimed" too much in thought as well as deed, not noticing how every time he strove for a certain goal in his life, he fell short. That was true of when he had tried to jump a high-jump bar in his freshman year, of the one shot he had missed in archery…and of truly saving anyone.

As sword and bowman he worked best by instinct, without a plan—it was when he ceased to do so that he failed. So he had learned when later that year, his "wish" was granted once more, and the illusion of a peaceful reality became a mere delusion when the world died and civilization turned to chaos, with war breaking out upon the face of the earth.

Now, five years after the great Cataclysm, Shirou Emiya walked alone, his duster and other garments tattered and stained from the abuse of the elements, his face worn with worries and cares, his body changing as the world gasped its last.

Deceptively light footsteps crunched upon debris as a sole wanderer gingerly stepped over half-buried wreckage and gravelly, rust-colored sand towards the colossal wreck of a city in the distance, whose abandoned spires rose like vast and trunkless legs above the horizon. It was the first sign of civilization that Shirou Emiya had seen in days, and he cherished no great hopes that he would find the colony of survivors he had heard rumors about.

'I hope to be spared the sight of yet another ghost town…' the magus thought grimly as he approached, taking in the sight before him with reinforced eyes. His vision was keen enough to pick out the individual steel beams and shattered panes of glass of derelict hulks of the modern age, rendered uninhabitable without electricity, a national infrastructure that allowed for deliveries of food, and of course an ample supply of running water, piped in from hundreds of miles away. 'Perhaps some have chosen to make their home deeper in the wreck, using it for shelter from the mercy of the elements.'

The lone wanderer's mouth tightened as he made out scorch marks, pock marks, craters and other scars of the fierce and bloody conflict that had broken out in most major cities after the disaster that had brought civilization to its knees seven years ago, reminding him of that first day of autumn in the new millennium when everything had gone wrong.

'95% of the world population died in the years following the Cataclysm. Crops will not grow in this blighted land of steel, massive earthquakes are regular occurrences as the continents rip themselves apart through tectonic strain, animal life has become all but extinct, and the very air is filled with toxins.'

The sky and sea were blue no longer, but a dirty red, as if all the bloodshed and chaos in these terrible days had forever stained the dying world in its own color. It seemed a distinct possibility sometimes, as the greatest of cities had become abandoned dwellings of the dead, icons of culture and progress relegated to gravestones in the necropolises where the hopes and dreams of mankind were laid to rest, along with the authority of most national and regional governments…or religions.

After all, who could spare the effort to be loyal to an entity that was not there for them in their time of need? Taxes, offerings, prayers, entreaties – what purpose did they serve when the powers to which tribute was paid did not extend protection in return? Equivalent exchange was the fundamental rules on which human society was built, and when the social contract governing relationships between the powerful and the powerless was broken, anarchy was the result.

Much of the world had devolved into knots of sprawling chaos, pockets of depravity and lawlessness that self-destructed in the end, turning upon another with the viciousness of starving predators who had not tasted meat in far too long. By tooth and claw, by knife and gun, by slings and arrow and thermonuclear weapons, society tore itself to shreds, joining Gaia in its final agonized throes.

Yet against the backdrop of the great dying, a portion of humanity had survived, clinging to life by sheer tenacity in the new age of chaos. Of a certainty, they were not quite as populous as before, not as arrogant or complacent, their efforts and struggles tinged with a desperation that heretofore had only been seen in war-torn countries where each day was a struggle to survive. But whatever else, humanity retained its fiendish creativity and aversion to death, using their technological inventiveness to keep them alive one day at a time. First one, then another, then another, forcing themselves to rise again and again in an attempt to stave off the inevitable end, lighting fires against the encroachment of the dark, as their ancestors had done millennia ago.

So, in places where stronger vestiges of order and government remained, sanctuary cities had arisen, places where medicines and supplements were available to help people to cope with the dying world, where air and water were filtered to remove toxic chemicals and radioactive fallout, where crops were painstakingly grown in environmentally controlled geofronts hidden under the surface of the earth. In some cases like New Angel, Ronto or the Needle, they were converted from the shells of old pre-existing settlements—in some, such as the third iteration of Tokyo being built near Lake Ashinoko, they were completely new developments.

Each city had its own peculiarities, defensive structures, emergency features – the new Tokyo had buildings that could retract into the ground for safety and a large portion of the city actually underground; the structures of the Needle were largely kept off the ground, save for elevators that ran to its subterranean caverns, with elevated walkways connecting spire to spire, and only a very few—very heavily fortified—entrances from ground level; New Angel was largely underground, having neither the funds nor other resources to rebuild after a devastating series of earthquakes leveled the surface city; and others as well; and there were a handful more as well – perhaps four or five per continent, the last bastions of humanity.

Still, even these cities could house only a fraction of the survivors, and those not fortunate enough to dwell in one of these found other ways to eke out a living.

Some were part of tribes which built ramshackle structures to ward themselves against enemies they knew would be out there, centered around stocks of seed grain and other foods that had never been meant for consumption. Some sought out vital necessities like non-perishable food and drink from the broken-down stores and houses in abandoned cities, spending their lives searching for stashes hidden here and there, enough to keep a few people alive for a very long time. Some made a living of scavenging the burnt-out husks of abandoned cities for remaining non-perishables and luxury items for those in the sanctuaries, where there was actually still a market for such things.

Antiques. Artwork. Books. Jewelry and precious metals. Clothing left on the racks of great department stores, wrought in quality and quantity that mankind could no longer afford, as the bulk of what was available was directed towards self-preservation, not creature comforts.

In the past, these actions might have been called theft or looting, but in the absence of any owner, who were they really stealing from?

Of course, for who could fight, wielding blade, bow, or firearm, there was always some work to be found as mercenaries, and with his abilities and build, Shirou Emiya would have been more than welcome in any of the Sanctuary Cities (where he might live in relative comfort while the rest of the world crumbled around him), as a escort to any of the scavenging parties to beat off any brigands seeking to waylay them, or anywhere else he might have chosen.

But tempting as these options were (and they could truly be tempting at times!), he chose none of these. Surrounded by death as he was, he simply couldn't allow himself to live in luxury when so many suffered. Such would be anathema for someone with no sense of self as it was. And so, instead of seeking personal gain, the would-be hero did tough work for little reward: wandering the wastes searching for the scattered remnants of mankind which had not been fortunate enough to be near one of the burgeoning new cities, trying to see if there was anyone who could be saved.

He scavenged, to be sure, but it was for medical supplies and equipment to deliver to what survivors he found. He fought, but only to save people from natural disasters or human folly, to try and head off territorial wars. He spent some time in the Sanctuaries, but only for information and rumors of dangerous artifacts, which he would retrieve or destroy before they could fall into the wrong hands.

And so he struggled, searching futilely as he passed through cities of the dead (and the Dead), through ghost towns and abandoned farmland, lifeless save for ghouls and corpses – meeting no one who knew his cause or could help in any way. And year after year, reality weighed heavily upon him, reminding him that that he dealt in illusions, and while he could sustain an illusion of safety or strength for some time, eventually the world would crush it, leaving only the grim sneer of a world where there was no hope.

'Are there any here at all?'

Which is why he found himself in the middle of North America, away from any of the great oases of life on the continent, staring at the ruins of what had once been the city of Phoenix, with a heavy pack strapped to his body filled with medical supplies, dried rations, and letters of safe passage from communities closer to the sanctuary cities—especially the ones that could take in refugees and give them a better shot at continued survival.

Now, Shirou Emiya was no doctor, (being more of a tinker, tailor, or soldier) but his talents and training let him understand the structure of things…including that of people. He could analyze how bad an injury was, and either dole out what he could, or try to "fix" things with projection, as necessary. In a way, humans were but biological machines, and he had always been a decent handyman when push came to shove.

He had saved a few lives over the years, though many a time he tasted instead the bitter tang of failure, reminded once and again of how futile it was to try and save everyone. And yet he could not help but try, because that was his purpose, impossible as it might be.

Now, out of all the rumors of isolated communities he had heard from travelers, this location seemed the most promising, as the Salt River and the Gila River were not too far away, allowing for any inhabitants to have a source of fresh water. And in a city such as this, it was possible that a few yet remained, if they had not been felled by disease, starvation, or…other, more terrible threats that he didn't want to think about.

Slowly, he drew closer, until he came upon the city itself, his eyes picking out a hastily thrown up palisade of steel wires and posts, a good sign that someone had been here recently. He approached it with caution, noting as he did that there was some sign of movement in his surroundings, the shuffling of feet in the distance.

'People…there are survivors here…'

Or so he thought until shuffling gave way to heavier footsteps and cries of "Hyuu! Hyuu!", the distinctive rattling of the Dead in motion as dozens of living corpses lit out for the wanderer, his bounty of magical energy drawing them to him like moths to a flame.

'Trace on!'

In a fraction of a second, the solid familiarity of his bow was in his left hand, gripped and held before him as the horde charged across rubble-strewn streets toward his location. While he was proficient in the use of firearms as well, ammunition for those weapons was limited in the lands in which he operated, and it was much more cost effective for him to simply use projection, since stockpiles or caches of ammo were not common. Prana could be regenerated, even if there was little to no mana in the atmosphere left to draw upon, the Greater Source having fizzled out at the time of the great disaster.

The grim warrior settled into his stance, pulling back the bowstring till it went taught—and loosing it, nine times in total, as flashes of silver rent the air with feral sounding hisses.

Nine Black Keys modified as arrows, piercing nine ghouls and evoking agonized cries of pain from their throats at they were reduced to the dust from which they came.

Nine and no more, for the horde was upon him and the bow long dismissed. In its place are matched swords, mirror images of one another.

Fsh!

A rasp of metal on bone as two corpses rushing his position were immediately bisected by a sweep of his ebon blade, their blood splattering across his duster as he whirled to confront the ten ghouls immediately following the two, the twenty behind the ten.

"Hyu! Hyu!" came the fierce snarl of rage as the Dead came closer, closer closer, their twisted and decaying forms reaching for him as if to rip out his throat, to crush his skull, to pierce his chest and devour his entrails, changing him into one of them.

'I refuse.'

Brutal efficiency. Any creature that came within a meter of Shirou Emiya was cut down by his paired blades as he stood against them, an immovable object before a tide of death. Peerless blades sang through the air, slashing, slicing, carving enemies to pieces as the knight's weapons created a killing zone with thrust, parry, riposte, remise, where anything entering would be obliterated.

Fsh—thud!

A spray of blood erupted like a fountain erupted from a severed neck, followed by a sound of a dried up head falling to the ground. Again and again his blades swept out, plunged through the chests of some…shearing through muscle, skin, and bone before punching out their spines, dropping the enemies where they stood, his face an expressionless mask as he stood his ground lopping off limbs and heads, blades flashing as his undead foes sought to break him, to rip him apart and consume him as a meal for their master.

"Guh!"

A brutal force slammed into him from behind, a bony claw plunging through his pack and knocking him off balance, almost stabbing into his kidneys before he hacked it off at the elbow joint, turning his momentum into a forward combat roll as he surged into forward motion at last.

Slice! Thud!

A thump, as a limb was severed, then two more as a body was torn in two, the individual halves falling to the ground—but not before another was skewered, a third decapitated, and a fourth disemboweled by the Faker, a cold rage filling him as he inexorably advanced, the mangled blood and viscera of his defeated foes crumbling to ashes in his wake.

More assailed him in each moment, as the undead creatures he stood against instinctively realized the danger he posed, stepping up their efforts to kill from the routine merely hunting dangerous prey to bringing him down at all costs, redoubling strength, speed, dexterity as they moved with unified purpose.

Shirou's body tightened as a dried up skull appeared before his eyes, screeching out "Hyuu! Hyuu!" with the throat like a bag of bones, vibrating in accord with the ghastly voice, its needlelike fingers plunging into his chest and ripping out his heart.

…or it would have, had the combat magus not reinforced his garments ahead of time as lightweight but effective combat armor, stunning it for just long enough for a brutal stoke of one of his twin blades to literally disarm the monster while the other lopped off its head.

He ducked forward to evade two more foes attacking him, his blades drinking in the violence of the scene to sustain itself as they carved through the undead monsters from head to torso in one smooth slash—before whirling to literally rip apart a foe hiding behind the first, spitting it on the edge of his terrible swift swords.

Eviscerate, disembowel, severing the limbs one by one, decapitating—he moved, a sword himself, eliminating his enemies as was his purpose, until after several frenetic minutes, the explosion of violence was over, leaving the clearing in which the battle had taken place packed near to overflowing with pieces of corpses dissolving into ash.

Yet there was no sense of triumph in the warrior as his swords as well disappeared, dismissed to the inner world from which he had called them, only a crushing sense of guilt and failure. Once again, he had been too late to save anyone, to bring even a shred of happiness to even one person in this wasteland of apocalyptic proportions.

It was a certain truth that there were more who desired happiness than there would those who could reach it, a truth he understood, no matter how bitterly it rankled, but this…for no one to be saved? It was a nightmare that he lived out, as the man who only wanted to see people smile, was instead confronted by the sight of suffering without end, forced to kill and kill, and kill, until at last he stood alone, head bowed, surrounded by death.



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'Empty Mirage'

Life in the post-Cataclysm world was a harsh, uncertain thing, fraught with stresses and pains, as each day one tried their best simply to endure for whatever length of time one could, trapped in an existence like that of a powerless corpses pretending to be alive, without the ability to truly live. Those who had the privilege of living in the sanctuary cities had things slightly easier, with most of what they needed to survive available from supplies, to drugs, to sex. And some of those who could did simply lose themselves in pleasure, trying their best to escape the ludicrous world that they found themselves bound in while conscious.

Most, of course, did not have easy access to such things, and so relied on sleep as their escape, hoping to see memories of a time before the suffering began, or of some paradise far away from the cold truths of reality, where there was enough food, where it was safe to walk in the open air, where grass and trees still grew—where death did not lurk around every corner, an infinitely patient, infinitely cunning predator simply waiting for its prey to lower its guard.

But for the woman who called herself Yumi Shierumiko, there was no escape from the hell that was living, as whether in dreams or in the waking world, she was surrounded by death, always alone, as she had been ever since she had first died. True, the True Ancestor whose moment of weakness nearly a millennium ago had been the ultimate cause of her suffering was dead, having sacrificed herself in a failed attempt to permanently end the threat of the Spider, but the one who had possessed her, using her to destroy everything she cared about, was not.

True to his name, the Infinite Reincarnator still lived, and as long as he was not ended, she who bore his taint could never age, never die, no matter how much she might wish it. While living in the world of humans, she lived unlike any other, under a different providence, a different time, a different life, condemned to a life of solitude by her very nature. No one truly knew how old she was, for like the Dead Apostles she hunted, she was immortal—though her immortality was a sight different than theirs, and unlike they who wished only to live, she wished to die that she might atone for every mortal sin that weighed upon her soul…but not before destroying the one who had destroyed her life.

Indeed, destroying him was a prerequisite to her own death, and her urge to crush him blazed white-hot in her soul, even as the rest of the world began to darken and crumble. She was a strange one, after all, a contradiction in terms – young and yet untimely old, kind yet merciless to those she wished to destroy, living on that in the end she might be slain.

It made her unusual amidst a group who had fled the maw of death with all their might, and perhaps had even let her cling to sanity, remaining aloof and clear-eyed, when the rest had turned to warring amongst themselves in earnest, cold tensions flaring hot at the end of the world. She did not much care for their politics or struggles, nor for the loss of life these caused – merely seeking out her eternal enemy, relentless, without pause, in an endless chase that had taken her around the world multiple times, through burned out towns and cities of the dead, desolate wastelands and long-abandoned citadels, places sometimes hidden from the view of man, and sometimes in all too plain sight.

She followed any rumors of the activities of Dead Apostles with an obsessive zeal that bordered on fanaticism, knowing that eventually, one of her leads would allow her to track down her quarry, would grant her freedom from this eternal nightmare, where even in her dreams, she retraced his steps, haunted by what he had done to her so many years ago.

This time, Yumi saw a memory of a rustic mountain village, her black robes fluttering in the breeze as she walked along cobbled streets, flakes of snow eddying about her playfully as if dodging out of her way in a game of tag. A peaceful place, with the watery light of the low-hanging moon hiding with its gentle touch the flaws and imperfections revealed by the harshness of daylight, soothing her, almost as if telling her to turn from her course, to let down her guard and enjoy this reprieve from her exertions.

But she could not, for habit made a harsh taskmistress, and she kept from succumbing to the sense of false tranquility simply by force of will, her form tensing like a drawn bow as she continued on, crunching fallen snow underfoot, something nagging at her mind, insisting more urgently with each moment she remained that her mind would not have shown her a simple dream, not after every other night had filled with visions of blood and fire.

'Wait…no. That's…'

She stretched out a finger, allowing an errant snowflake to land upon it, smearing it against her robes, where they soiled it like…ash.

'No…please no…'

And as if that was the key to solving the riddle of her dream, formerly overlooked details bombarded her mind all at once: the acrid tang of smoke and ozone lingering in the air, a chill that came not from temperature, but at the recognition of a powerful murderous will, and the violation as her Circuits thrummed in time with the manifestation of a reality marble, a forbidden ritual inscribed upon her soul, the ultimate proof that she was too much like her enemy to be allowed to live.

No..no…nonoNONONONONONOONNONONONONO!

In an instant, calmness and subtlety were discarded as the figure of Yumi Shierumiko flickered, her face contorting in rage as she broke into a sprint, Circuits flaring as prana roiled and churned within her, pushing her far past mortal limits…not that it would make a difference in the end. She had had this dream before, seen this particular memory, and knew that no matter what she did, it would not be enough. Still, hope, that worst of all evils that prolonged the sufferings of mankind, burned fiercely in her breast, and as she moved, covering immense amounts of ground in leaps and bounds, she prayed that maybe this time, she would succeed.

Fzt!

But as she neared the village's town hall, where the core of this disaster lurked, her progress was impeded by the bounded field marking the edge of the Reality Marble, a ghastly thing laced with cracking coils of lightning, flashing hither and fro like serpents guarding their master's lair. Which in a sense they were, as their master was the Serpent of Akasha himself.

The serpents hissed as they met her, encircling her in a convergence of sheer oppressive heat that roiled, toiled, boiled over, overwhelming – scorching eyes, choking lungs, searing flesh with fiery tongues that ripped the nerves from under skin, a cutting torch melting bones, sinew, and sanity as they violated her, probing her soul…and then let her pass, recognizing her as one of their own, something which was more chilling to her than if they had killed her, forcing her to revive once again, for it meant that even his magecraft could see no difference between them.

With a sickening squelch like pushing through the stomach of some vast being, Yumi Shierumikostepped through the boundary field…and entered the hell once again.

It was the same thing each time.

A putrid stench, pungent and with the sickly-sweet odor of decay.

Human bodies, torn to pieces, unrecognizable after an orgy of destruction, with entrails, organs, blood splattered all o'er the walls like a coat of fresh paint.

A pile of heads like discarded cabbages watching her with accusing eyes, eyes that condemned, eyes that cursed her, eyes that screamed for her to DIE, for it was her hands that had killed them all, stained with blood so thick that even were the green not already one red, washing her hands in the multitudinous seas would have surely turned it so.

Guilty guilty guilty you are guilty you cannot escape your past your present your sin, for that is all you are, the Serpent in another guise, one who can only harm, can only kill, can only betray and must atone atone atone in DEATH.

Limbs, half-dissolved to ash, flailing about weakly, as melted lumps of flesh twitched in vain, poking like macabre islands out of a sea of blood and garbage.

But most frightening of all was the figure on the dias, perched upon the throne of corpses—the nude figure of her nightmare self, drinking from the skull of a child as she laughed, wearing a look of dark satisfaction on her face and naught besides as she gazed upon the form of her mirror.

"Hello, me," Dark Elesia smirked, her voice like a gentle caress like a violation as murderous intent brushed against her, threatening to make her vomit with the intensity of it. "Enjoying yourself? I certainly enjoyed being you…"

Six Black Keys appeared in Yumi's hands, tossed whirr whirr whirr one after another at the figure on the throne, but a net of lightning deflected these projectiles with contemptuous ease, the rapier-like weapons embedding themselves in the wall of the town hall up to the hilt.

"My, such aggression….how predictable, Elesia…" her dark doppelganger purred as she advanced, loosing a bolt of lightning that the intended victim only dodged by seeing the assailant's hands in motion. "And such a nice body too. Tell me, me, why do you want to kill me? Is it the knowledge that however far you run, whatever you try to do, you will never escape me? After all, deep inside you are the same as me…Lady Roa."

"Never!" the hunter snarled, drawing more of the thin rapier-like blades from seemingly thin air. But this time, instead of throwing them, she slung each one forward with electromagnetic force, as if each was a projectile in a railgun.

Ozone hissed in the air, as each one streaked unerringly for the target, only for her opponent to loose a surge of lightning of her own, halting the weapons and sending them streaking back at her, impaling her limbs, her torso, her chest where they erupted into bursts of flame, consuming her flesh and killing her as Elesia shrieked.

"Never you say?" the dark doppelganger intoned, savoring her victim's suffering, the porcine scent in the air rather reminiscent of roast pork. "But don't you see it is far too late for that? You draw on the magecraft I gave you, use the weapons I helped design, joined the organization I created. You would be nothing without me, and to hunt you, you have to become me. For you, there was never any hope from the start, my dear Elesia."

Everything went dark for a moment as her consciousness died and was reborn, but in that moment, everything changed. Two figures stood on the dais, not one, and the nude figure of her nightmare self was now suspended in the air by cold metallic chains, a look of shock on her face as an arm was plunged thrust though her chest, a clawed hand ripping her still-beating heart from her body.

"You…Ar…cu…"

But her dark doppelganger never had a chance to finish, as a monster far beyond even Roa crushed Dark Elesia's heart, the crimson droplets of fresh blood splattering over the white and gold of the killer's dress almost as if to baptize her. Yumi could only watch helplessly as the killed turned from the corpse of her enemy to look upon her with flashing golden eyes.

"Will you never die …Roa?" the White Princess of the True Ancestors inquired softly, her words laced with bitter venom as the air congealed, thickened, tensed and—

Crack!

—ripped apart, with the atmosphere warping into roiling waves that engulfed all that remained of the slaughtered town, tearing apart everything like a shredder with tens, hundreds, thousands, no, an infinite number of blades.

In a single instant, the mediator's body disappeared, distorted, sliced, compressed, and diced apart—as the woman who had alternately been called, Elesia, Ciel, or Yumi, was torn violently from her sleep, nearly screaming as she was forced back to consciousness.

'That dream again…

The mediator's body contorted as she was ripped back into consciousness, spasms and paroxysms of half-illusory pains wracking her body, searing through her nerves as she suffered in silence, save for the harsh panting of her breath as she fought to calm her body. The agonies of dying, without the comforting embrace of death—she was no stranger to these things, having been tortured many a time in her too-long life, and yet these dreams, these tortures not devised by others' hands but her own mind, were something she had never been able to cope with—possibly because the pain was not physical but mental, a wound upon her mind, so even her nigh-perfect immortality was no protection.

The ageless blunette composed herself, rising from a salvageable mattress tucked away in one of the more structurally-sound buildings of a now abandoned London, which she had been scouring for hints of the Serpent's presence or plans. There was no doubt that when the Mage's Association had fallen to the combined might of the 27 Dead Apostle Ancestors, just after the destruction of the Holy Church, Michael Roa Valdamjong would have been nearby. Padding over to the empty window, she could imagine it now:

Swarms of ghouls running rampant through London as they had through Rome, baying with bloodlust as they ripped any who stood in their way to shreds.

Lorelei Barthomeloi's handpicked battalion of magi mercilessly hunted by Dead Apostles fresh from glutting the vaults of the Church and the Conceptual Weapons stored within, the vampires taking a savage glee in killing them slowly, corrupting them into undead servants who joined in the destruction of the Tower that had stood for far too long.

And when the Dead Apostle Ancestors and their dread Reality Marbles joined the fray, with puppet castles, endless parades of one's most bitter enemies, black beasts swarming the streets all at once, all hope was lost. The Association, like the Church before it, succumbed to the press of numbers, their trump cards, so useful in one-on-one combat, proving less useful against seemingly endless armies of undead, each armed with some conceptual weapon or other.

The fate of London and all that had been within at the time, had been sealed, just as the population of Rome had been slaughtered to the last man—well, except for the woman who had once been called Ciel, as she had never been very good at staying dead.

Thus, she thought of herself not as a human but as a machine whose reason for existence was the extermination of her ancient enemy, one who otherwise was dark and empty as the sky, for whom the future was but a mirage. Codenamed "Yumi", she was the Seventh of the late Burial Agency, a merciless killer of the inhuman who whatever it took to accomplish her goal…so that one way or another, the arrow would find its rest and her hell would be at an end.



] | [

~… strength cleaving the mountains...~

] | [


After a series of unsuccessful searches for survivors, Shirou Emiya found that people had begun to grow uneasy about the strange man went about his quixotic quest to save people without asking for anything in return. It was inevitable, really, as people in that world looked out for themselves before anyone else, so the notion of a powerful magus who didn't care about gain or loss, letting the things he picked up sift through his hands was antithetical to their worldview. If one had power, one used it as a bargaining chip to satisfy simple reasons: greed, pride, selfishness, lust, vengeance, or devotion. One did not simply wish for the people in one's sight to be happy, no matter who they were, sacrificing his own comfort to allow others he didn't even know to have an easier life than he.

But Shirou did, which was why others either thought of him as a saint or some kind of agent provocateur who worked for one power or another, analyzing the structure and defenses of the sanctuary cities for an assault that would no doubt be coming. Or perhaps the people he 'rescued' were in fact infiltrators under his employ, tasked with finding out any secrets the sanctuary cities and surrounding areas held to find the best ways of subverting them to his own grand designs.

Why else would one ask for nothing at all, save that he was already being given all he needed by one sponsor or another?

Oh to be sure, none of them had managed to uncover any scrap of evidence that this might be the case, but as opposed to reassuring them that Shirou Emiya was not in fact involved in some insidious plot or other, this only unsettled them further, as to them, this simply meant that he was very good at covering his tracks.

With no possible way to dissuade them from this point of view—and with no attempt, either, as he had not moved in those circles, he had instead had left North America to protect the few he had managed to save, travelling to Europe, the land worst wracked by the civil war of the Dead Apostle Ancestors, something that he had only heard rumors of, rumors that he had thought exaggerated, as they had claimed that both the Church and the Association had fallen.

'So the Clock Tower truly has been toppled…'

He had taken the time to walk the streets of London, or rather what remained of it, taking stock of the utter devastation that had been wrought—including the immense crater where the British Museum (which had housed the workshops and main facilities of the Association) had once been located. He found himself hoping Rin was ok, that she had not been caught in London when destruction descended upon it like a cursed wave. After the Holy Grail War, the Tohsaka heiress had gone to the Clock Tower to seek her fortune, seeing as that was the pre-determined path for a magus of the Association, and despite the discrimination, he had heard she was doing well, as one of their rising stars. But a year or two past the Cataclysm, he had fallen out of touch with her, as keeping in contact with friends had taken a low priority on his agenda, compared to the need to protect those in his sight from the many ravages of the dying days, where starvation, war, and terror ran rampant among the few survivors, when the air itself grew poisonous to breath, the ground quaked and shook and buckled, destroying countless homes, disease spread as infrastructure failed.

When things had stabilized, he had considered staying in Fuyuki, but the deaths of Illyasviel von Einzbern and Matou Sakura put a stop to that, as the city held too many unhappy memories for him. Thus he had begun travelling extensively, doing what he could to ease the pain of others, which is how he had eventually found himself London, a long-dead city like most of those he had been to. Not one other soul was to be seen wandering through the rubble, and what bodies there were had decomposed to bone and tattered remains of clothing.

'These being the few who did not rise again as Dead…'

He buried what few corpses he found before moving onto Dusseldorf, one of the few European sanctuary cities in existence, where he had heard rumors of the labyrinth of Caubac Alcatraz, the "Dead Apostle of the Millennium Lock," having been revealed in the modern world. In the course of his investigations, Shirou found himself seated in a coffee shop called Ahnenerbe (German for "heritage), waiting for one of his contacts, who was referred to simply as the "Lady Archer", a secretive but effective information broker of good repute among those who needed sensitive pieces of information before anyone else.

'An interesting place for a meeting, one respected as neutral territory by all. Few customers. Open tables and bar, but also a set of private booths in case business needs to be conducted. Somber lighting, and decorated with genuine antiques, lending an air of secrecy. And by the freshness of the food, either the proprietor is well off or has the quiet backing of the city authorities.'

His suspicions were only heightened by the sight of his server—a young girl wearing a heavy black coat over a charcoal grey dress, with a great black bow in her blue hair, peering at him with curious red eyes as she delivered his order: a well made risotto alla Milanese—a rice dish cooked with beef stock, marrow, lard and cheese to a creamy consistency, flavored and colored with saffron—served alongside ossobuco alla milanese (cross-cut veal shanks braised with vegetables, white wine and broth).

In most cities, instant foods, artificial rations, and either canned or dried foods would be standard fare for most people, with fresh produce a luxury only available to those who either had a certain degree of wealth or connections. Not much of a surprise, given that even with the advanced genetic engineering being done to crops to help them grow in post-Cataclysm Earth, as well as the vat-grown meat, supply still fell short of demand, given the lack of areas in which they could be raised.

As well, his server (who he recognized as a familiar of some kind, suggesting the owner was a magus) delivered a bottle of Blue Frankish to go along with his meal, a spicy red wine that was quite well known among wine connoisseurs as the "Pinot Noir of the East." Shirou tried to wave it off, since he wasn't good with alcohol (and besides, true wines and not the synthetic stuff were expensive), but the young girl had just looked at him until he asked if the person he was meeting had ordered it, at which point he received a nod.

He was still wondering who the "Lady Archer" was supposed to be when a snatch of spoken Japanese caught his attention—a language he had not heard in a long time.

"Huh. Well well, what have we here?" an all too familiar voice spoke, a hint of surprise evident as a woman he knew he should recognize slid into the seat across from him, her amber eyes looking over his form. "Long time no see, Emiya."

She was dressed in an ensemble not too different from his, though instead of blacks and charcoal greys, her outfit consisted of black slacks and blouse with a beige trenchcoat draped over the ensemble. A professional, serviceable outfit, with her long brown hair plaited in a French braid, pulled behind her shoulders…though there was something peeking out from the sleeve of her coat that seemed like a bracer.

"Mitsuzuri?" Shirou said, blinking in surprise as his mind produced the name of the person in question a beat later. "What are you doing here?" Then his eyes narrowed as his memories conjured up the image of the Archery Club Captain he had once known, and he made the connection. "Don't tell me…"

"Heh, you're as cold as always, Emiya," Mitsuzuri returned, a trace of a smile on her lips. "Even if you do look different from how I remember you, I see some things stay the same. You know, you never did come see my archery skills, even after I asked so nicely."

"Things came up, and you disappeared with Tohsaka," the Faker said simply, looking on with curiosity as the familiar came by with another dish of the risotto for Ayako, along with two wine glasses. "And what of you, aren't you still the type everyone counts on? Even if you are an information broker instead of a captain and you use a sealed artifact instead of a yumi."

Ayako stiffened fractionally as Shirou mentioned her weapon off-hand, but recomposed herself, arching a slender eyebrow.

"Thank you, Ren, that will be all," she said, nodding to the familiar that had brought her dinner for the night. When the blue-haired girl left, the 'Lady Archer' shot her old acquaintance a glare of equal parts curiosity, irritation and exasperation. "So that's why so many are unsettled by you. Let me ask you something – just between you and me, what is your interest in the treasure in Alcatraz' labyrinth that you are willing to risk the dangers in getting to its center?"

"People are suffering," Shirou Emiya replied simply and sincerely. "If whatever the treasure is can help them, no sacrifice would be too great."

Ayako was silent for a minute as she considered his reply, sighing after a moment.

"It's been so long that I forgot you really are like that," the information broker said, smiling slyly as she looked at the man she had once known, sizing him up. "I suppose you're still fixing everyone else's problems, then…"

"…I don't want to ask this, but you're not thinking badly of me, are you?" Shirou probed, wondering exactly what his old acquaintance was thinking.

"No, I wouldn't dream of it," she answered with a perfectly straight face. "I was just thinking objectively about the truth. It's up to you if you want to feel angry about it."

Despite himself, the man who was sometimes called the Dark Evangel, felt a wry smile tugging at the edges of his lips. It had been far too long since he'd actually sat down and talked with anyone who truly knew him for who he was, instead of knowing of him as the odd 'ally of justice' who inspired so much distrust and suspicion.

"Che…you're just like always," he noted, shaking his head, though his sharp grey-gold eyes betrayed a hint of warmth. "You haven't changed either."

"I've changed more than you think, Emiya, largely due to a little something called the Holy Grail War."

On one level, it amazed Shirou how easily Ayako could drop a verbal nuke like that so casually—yet as he looked closer, he realized that she wasn't being casual at all, that every line of her body radiated a certain sharpness it had lacked before, making him wonder exactly how good she was with her sealed bow. On the other hand…

"Wha…?" he started, her frank words catching him off guard, as the Holy Grail War was not something very well known, except in certain circles of magi.

A cold smile.

"You remember that I was attacked, right?" Ayako asked, leaning towards the Faker from across the table. "Well, after I awoke in the hospital, I began to sense…oddities in the world. Flows, fields, differences in what I later found out was prana. And when the Cataclysm hit…" She trailed off, shrugging. "I felt it, the sheer wrongness of it echoing in the gaps left in my soul by whatever fed on me that night." She looked at him speculatively, eyes narrowing. "But you'd know all about that, wouldn't you? After all, you're the one who won the war…and destroyed the prize."

It was all Shirou Emiya could do not to fall over in shock.

"How do you—"

"Let's just say that my employer is very…well informed," the information broker said, deliberately hesitating over the last two words. "Even so, I wasn't completely convinced until I saw how you reacted."

"And why did you need to know?" Shirou asked softly, a slight edge to his voice.

"Because of the information you want," Ayako returned soberly. "Caubac Alcatraz, the Dead Apostle of the Millennium Lock, built the labyrinth to protect the Holy Scripture Triten, his most valued artifact, sealing himself within it to reinforce the protections. Given the power the artifact holds, my employer has a vested interest in making sure what the labyrinth is protecting doesn't fall into the wrong hands."

"Ah."

"I'll give you what you seek—but only because I think you're reliable, Emiya," she said at last, her eyes boring into his. "Just remember, if it proves necessary…"

"…I'll destroy it," he intoned, nodding his head in weary acknowledgement.

"Then we have a deal."


] | [

It was in utter silence that two figures trekked across a broken wasteland, slowly making their way through a desolate expanse of blasted rock and rubble, with no vegetation to be seen for kilometers in sight. Nor was there much of anything else, in fact, given the presence of a thick fog that hindered progress and diffused sunlight, limiting visibility and forcing the duo to rely on their other senses to navigate the terrain.

'At least here, we have to focus on our surroundings,' Yumi thought to herself, attuning her senses to her surroundings for any unexpected sounds or scents or shadows –or any that were expected, but seemed off for one reason or another. 'Such caution is good, as it keeps me from having to talk to…the one with me.'

She was out of practice at interacting with humans, particularly men, for any prolonged period of time, given that in the years since the fall of the Holy Church, Yumi Shierumiko had kept to herself, simply hunting those she deemed her enemies as best she could. Even when she went into the few remaining major population centers to acquire information, those exchanges were marked by brevity, as she acquired what she needed and left, without investing anymore of herself than she needed to.

Elesia had been good with interacting with people, but Elesia was dead, killed by the hands of Roa and Arcueid. Ciel had had colleagues she secretly felt some tenderness towards, but Ciel had died when the Burial Agency fell. She was simply Yumi Shierumiko now, and this identity was cold, mechanical, precise—she could not afford to be otherwise, as attachments simply made her weak, distracted her from her purpose, caused her to be unable to do what was necessary. When Rome fell, she had killed her weak self, discarding all former allegiances as she raided what was left of the Vatican's armory, taking what she could to arm herself for a personal war against the Dead Apostle Ancestors.

Her only (infrequent) companion had been Seven, the guardian spirit of the Seventh Holy Scripture, one of the most powerful conceptual weapons the Church had possessed in its arsenal, expressly designed to prevent incarnation. But the spirit had become unresponsive after the great dying, refusing to materialize or carry out errands, though she would still alter form from prana-concealing robe to weapon and back again at Yumi's orders, leaving the vampire hunter utterly alone. She rarely used that Scripture though, as it was her trump card, hilts, or the odd rifle wrapped in a holy shroud that she had obtained from the restricted areas of the armory, preferring to use Black Keys for most purposes.

Black Keys hilts as she carried now, three in each hand, her gaze sweeping out into the concealing mist to search for anything out of the ordinary, for any unexpected motion she might have to react to. Still, there was nothing in the immediate vicinity, no animals, no plant life—only the rugged badlands upon which she and her companion walked.

'I would be happier if we did not have to exercise such caution, since others have undoubtedly heard of the Labyrinth,' the hunter grumbled in her mind, though brushed the concern aside, given that terrain hazards prevented her from doing so. Tectonic shifts and massive quakes had changed the topography of the land, crevasses, craters, and other treacherous obstacles that appeared on no map, so that any traveler had best beware. 'But even if I am familiar with this area, he is not.'

Ordinarily, she had no use for others, as they would no doubt just drag her down in combat, but seeing as the information broker she'd gone to had stipulated that she would only release the information she sought if she agreed to be accompanied by someone who had "experience in securing powerful artifacts" and had "unique talents that she might find useful, given the location of the labyrinth," she had agreed…and she supposed it would be wise to ensure that he survived, even if his body was merely human.

'Not that it shows from how he manages to keep up without complaining…'

So far, she hadn't seen any hint of this from Shirou Emiya, who at first glance seemed a vagabond or ruffian of some sort, though she was familiar enough with the rumors of the man whose body was made of swords to take this with a grain of salt. Though none could blame her if she hadn't, given that with his tattered longcoat, his lack of any weapons whatsoever, and his only demonstration of talent being the ability to pack large amounts of gear into the odd "bags of holding" acquired from the broker, he seemed like the typical example of a wandering adventurer, without any distinctive qualities she would expect from one who came so highly recommended by a representative of the Second.

'Of course, I suppose he could have hidden depths, but he certainly doesn't do a good job showing it. Then again, neither do I, most of the time, even if compared to me he is too…' Soft was the word that came to mind, though that wasn't quite accurate. '…compassionate. He exists as someone who does not care about preserving himself at all. Maybe he wouldn't…'

She dismissed that thought from her mind though, as the direction suggested by those thoughts was a disturbing one. Yumi Shierumiko did not need a partner, seeing that in the end, she would be abandoned by him or her, either when the other died or else turned his back on her, betraying her for purposes of his own.

In particular, she remembered a certain treasure-collecting Dead Apostle Ancestor who had only joined the Church for access to their holy relics…the one who had abandoned the Church at the hour of their greatest need, dooming the city of Rome to slaughter. But she also remembered the proud few among the Executors, the Church Knights, the Burial Agents who their ground and faced the specter of certain death with defiance—and she remembered how they had all died, leaving her once more the sole survivor.

'It's almost as if death finds me unworthy, or that everyone I get close to will one day leave me,' Ciel recalled, a very bitter expression flitting across her face as she involuntarily tensed. It was a painful thing for someone who didn't trust easily to actually grow close to others, and then have one's expectations betrayed time and again. 'In any case, this is my fight…not anyone else's.'

alfheimwanderer
March 15th, 2011, 04:37 PM
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Shirou Emiya had been less than amused when he found out that he would have to work with someone, though after learning that within the heart of the labyrinth was a cave nearly the equal of the Torca del Cerro del Cuevon (which at 1589m was the sixth deepest in the world—and the most technically challenging, taking three days to descend to the bottom—and that was before exploring any of the side tunnels or corridors) where the Holy Scripture lay, he grudgingly accepted the necessity of it. The first rule of caving was that one should never go alone, after all, and considering that underground travel tended to be quite a bit more difficult than overland, he was inclined to agree…even if it meant making a pit stop in Paris to pick up the requisite gear for their mission: helmets, electric lights, long nylon underwear, nylon oversuits (water-resistant and resilient to abrasions and tearing), rope, ascenders, carabiners and a variety of other things that might prove useful, such as thermal packs, sleeping bags, and other necessities for low-temperature environments where prana was at a premium.

Alpine caves were limited spaces with low temperatures and high-humidity, after all, conditions which often proved wearing even to experienced individuals, and once inside, food, light, and energy resources had to be carefully monitored, lest one run out at an…inconvenient time, not to mention the necessity for hard rope work, searching for obstructed entrances, the possible danger of flooding and other such that made them difficult to penetrate. And while knowing that others sought to acquire their objective made the option of bypassing the pit stop to reach the labyrinth more quickly seem rather tempting, he knew such a thing would have been detrimental, given there were reasons that caving was a rather equipment-intensive discipline, and even reinforced bodies with abilities verging on superhuman would have difficulties negotiating the passages, as narrow or treacherous as some were.

And considering that combat would no doubt be required before—and after—entering the cave, it would probably be a wise idea to conserve what prana one had for that, instead of expending it to explore the cavern, only to run out when they found themselves confronted with one of the labyrinth's sentinels—not a minor consideration, considering that they could no longer draw prana from the world, forced instead to rely on their internal reserves, such that they were.

"Yumi", who Shirou suspected to have more prana than even Rin had boasted, could probably afford to be a little reckless, but he could not, considering that even now, after actively using all of his circuits for years, his reserves contained only about 150 units, enough for about 30 projections or quite prolonged reinforcement – not both.

But after setting out from Paris, the two traveled in silence, tolerating each other's company as they crossed different territories, moving as quickly as they dared across desolate wastelands what had once been forest and grassland on their way to the Iberian Peninsula, specifically the foot of the Picos de Europa, the peaks so named for being the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from the Americas.

Apparently, if making the primary landmark to his fabled labyrinth the Picos de Europa was any indication, Caubac Alcatraz gained something of a thrill from hiding things in plain sight, using layer upon layer of diabolical magic to conceal it from any who might nearly happen upon it. Such was standard for Dead Apostle Ancestors, who enshrouded their sanctuaries in darkness, warding them with shadows, with longing for rationally and fear towards the taboo, charging them to reveal themselves only to guests.

…unless an enemy was to tear down the outermost fields with machinations and brute power, revealing what was hidden to the world without.

The only minor exception that Shirou knew of was the Dead Apostle Ancestor Valery Fernand Vandelstam, better known as Van Fem, who had operated a casino boat in the Mediterranean (and even then, this had not been his true base, as his home prior to the chartering of the ship had been and once again was one of his mighty golem castles somewhere in Europe).

Still, the man who had inherited the name of Emiya was no stranger to harsh climes or conditions, having become accustomed to such things in his wanderings. They no longer troubled him as they might have, seeing as the illusions he wove could not change the vast pattern of the world. He knew his limits, he knew them all too well, so being unable to change the world as a whole, to stop every bit of suffering, wasn't what bothered him (mostly).

What sat ill on his mind was the woman he had been assigned to work with. Not her beauty, as he had worked with a number of very attractive women in the past; not any complaints about her abilities, as he had none—from what he could tell (and he was well accustomed to gauging the level of potential combatants) her movements and posture radiated a devastating sense of competence; simply the fact that she had terrible nightmares each night.

It wasn't as if he could ignore them, as while she slept a scant handful of hours each night, he stood watch, wide-awake and alert in case of any attacks, and so acutely noticed the whimpers and moans that issued from the blunette's lips, the way she cringed, tossed, turned, her mouth opening in silent screams as her body contorted with phantom pains.

Yumi Shierumiko never acknowledged them when she was awake, but he could see she was suffering, probably from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as was common enough among those whose occupations sent them roaming across the face of the earth—or those in either of their lines of work.

He had to do something, as he had always been weak against a woman's tears…or anyone's tears for that matter. It was the one thing in the world he could not stand, the one thing that could break him…


] | [

The vampire hunter woke up once more in the dead of the night, panting as she sought to bring the phantom pain running haywire through her nerves down to a manageable level, but this time, it didn't fade, wouldn't go away. Any motion – breathing, moving her eyes, blinking, twitching, anything at all—hurt, as once more feedback from a memory her mind was convinced was the present flowed into her body, punishing her night after night for the sins of the past.

A step, and then another. Someone was coming…the flap of her tent lifted—

Whirr!

—and the woman grabbed an empty sword hilt from beside her pillow, passing prana through it to materialize a slim, rapier-like blade, tossing it with practiced ease to skewer the attacker, or at least to delay whoever it was.

Clang!

The sound of metal on metal as the blade was deflected and Shirou Emiya hove into view, his grey-gold eyes looking at her shirt and panty-clad form with an expression she could not read, though she could tell his pulse and breathing had quickened slightly.

She tried, hard, to compose herself, adopting the air of dignity and indifference she usually wore when anyone was around, but was unsuccessful. Failing that, the blunette simply closed her eyes and bowed her head, hugging her knees close to her body in an effort to keep herself from shaking, to keep her emotions from running rampant by willing them away, by surrounding herself with warmth.

"What do you want, Emiya?" Yumi asked tiredly, her voice barely audible as she sat unmoving in her sleeping bag.

"I just wanted to see if you were…" the Faker began, but stopped, knowing how foolish of a question that was, given her present condition. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

A long pause.

"I could have killed you, you know," the vampire hunter said after a while, her voice a hollow whisper, empty as the void itself. "You shouldn't have come."

"I don't exactly have the best record when it comes to dying when I am killed," came the response, though there was no levity as Yumi would have expected, merely an earnestness that puzzled her. He was human, that much she could tell, so why did he claim to have the curse that set her and those she hunted apart from humanity? "Besides, you were suffering…and that was reason enough to risk it."

"A foolish reason, Emiya," Yumi replied, gathering her thoughts as a deep, ragged explosion of air hissed from her lips, breaking her control. "Please…"

'Leave' she wanted to say, but her mouth would not shape the word, even as the Faker took a step forward and then another, until he stood before her and touched her, setting a hand on her shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze, the warmth and feel of another human's touch nearly overwhelming to her after so many years of isolation.

It was strange to her—a foreign sensation, as the only physical contact she had known for a very long time was that born of violence or duty, not of anything tender or kind. And despite her wanting to tell him to go away so she wouldn't have to show any sign of weakness, her body had other ideas, her head moving on its own to brush against his arm.

"'Please' what?" he asked gently, but she did not reply, the two simply remaining like that in silence for an untold amount of time, before at last, the vampire hunter found herself soothed back to sleep.



] | [


These events repeated themselves over the course of the next few days, until it became something of a nightly ritual for the two of them—they would ignore each other during the day, speaking only in those isolated hours of darkness before the dawn. When she had a nightmare, he would inevitably be there when she woke up, the gentle touch of his callused hands, worn by long years of combat, reassuring her that things would be better, even if she knew in her heart that that was merely self-deception. Humans were quite adept at believing what they wanted, even if they knew it to be untrue, so for those few hours, she let herself be deceived into believing that maybe there was hope, though she quashed such feelings when the sun rose once more.

Only in the stillness of the night could she weep, with the unlikely figure of her brigand-like traveling companion there to comfort her. Rationally though, she felt a little guilty to be on the receiving end of this, wondering if beneath his impassive fašade, the man named Emiya was laughing at her—or worse, if he was doing this to gain her trust for some fell purpose of his own. No one had ever done something for her without wanting something in return, so she supposed that she had better get repayment out of the way now, since equivalent exchange was the way of magi and moonlit world.

"You are a magus, aren't you?" Yumi asked the Faker one night after she had calmed down from her nightmare, her voice brusque and businesslike as she donned her hunter persona. "Since you don't have any weapons on you and yet managed to deflect a sword…I'd say a master of projection?"

"And if I said yes?" Shirou countered, raising an eyebrow, knowing she could not see it in the dark.

"Then…um…I suppose I should do something to help you stay alive in the fight ahead," she answered, a hint of color blossoming on her cheeks. "Especially since we don't have access to the greater source anymore."

"Right, but what about it?"

"I…I suppose I could do something about that," the woman once named Ciel said tentatively. "I do have much more magical energy than the average magus."

Even as an amateur, Shirou had known of the various ways a magus could tune in with another to share magical energy, and having partaken of a prana transfer in the past, he was fairly certain that he knew what she was talking about, and so startled at her mention of this possibility.

"You mean…"

"Yes, we can create a path between our magic circuits so that you can draw upon my magical energy," Yumi confirmed, her skin feeling warmer than usual under his hands. "I understand that you might find me unattractive, but please bear it. It is simply a technique that will help us both to survive…there's nothing sexual about it. Think of it as nothing more than lancing a boil, so please…"

"Don't speak nonsense, you're very attractive," he responded instantly, before swallowing his words. Shirou Emiya couldn't think of things so simply, not when confronted with a proposal like that…because he knew that even if this were done as mere business, he'd remember it for a very long time. "But…"

Even now he could feel the heat of her body under his hands, the contour of her shoulders under that white shirt, see the outlines of her supple, lithe figure.

"Please don't worry. I'm not experienced, but I've heard that males are quite sensitive, so I think that even I can refresh you."

Shirou was about to say something, but froze at the sensation of hesitant fingers touching his half-swollen member over the surface of his pants, delicately stroking his prick and giving it the occasional squeeze. Even through his clothes, it felt better than he'd thought possible, a sensation far more intense than any he had experienced in years. Already, he could tell that the head of his prick was slick with pre-cum, and that there would likely be a stain in his trousers—something of a pain, considering no easy access to washing machines.

But laundry was the last thing on his mind as Yumi unzipped his pants and pulled down his underwear, with Shirou doing all he could to keep himself from erupting at the slightest provocation as her fingers wrapped around him and his body went crazy.

Neither remembered who made the next move, only that one moment they were apart, and the next his lips were captured by those of the vampire hunter, his urge to protest crumbling under a torrent of sensations at her touch, as awkward fumbling gave way to pleasure, all becoming a blur save the warm softness of her body, the way her ample breasts felt cupped in his hands—the moans she made as he tweaked her nipples, the moans she made as he entered her, the wet tightness of her gripping him with a pressure that was almost painful, until at last he erupted into her as she milked him dry, throbbing one-two-three times as two sweat-slicked bodies arched against one another and went limp, falling deep into a dreamless sleep.


] | [

Neither magus nor vampire hunter talked much of that night of frenzied coupling, treating it as a one-night dream that had passed, but even so, there was a slight change in the way they dealt with one another in the days after. They grew a little more comfortable with the presence of the other, with the rancor with which they had regarded one another becoming rather more muted as the days passed. Which was a good thing, given that en route to the labyrinth, they were attacked no less than four times: twice by ghouls, once by a Dead Apostle and his throng of Dead who had overestimated their abilities, and once by one of Van Fem's Demon Castles, the giant golems which served the 14th Dead Apostle Ancestor, the last barely driven off through the use of a powerful projection that had startled Yumi— Caladbolg II, the Fake Spiral Sword modified from the original Caladbolg for use as an arrow.

With more magical energy available, Shirou was now capable of manifesting Broken Phantasms, Noble Phantasms that had been overcharged with prana to the point that they would explode on impact with a target. It was a supremely deadly ability, but something that none who truly possessed Noble Phantasms would ever use except in cases of dire need. As Shirou did not truly own any Noble Phantasms, and thus simply reproduced copies of the destroyed Noble Phantasms through Tracing, he could use it as often as he wished…as long as he had the prana, of course.

Eventually, the two arrived at the entrance to the labyrinth, noting how outer boundary fields had been dismantled, as otherwise the entrance would be invisible. And once inside, they found themselves in near perfect darkness, weapons close at hand as they navigated the odd maze-like structure, disoriented by a strange flow of magical energy which apparently had the purpose of leading any who searched for the center astray, causing them to forget from whence they came.

Neither was that the only obstacle to contend with, given that there were layers upon layers of traps for would-be raiders. Enchanted statues that would electrocute those who attempted to pass, for one—and if they were disarmed or destroyed, then that section of the labyrinth would be sealed and the air sucked from it; spiky pits of death that worked just as advertised, save for the mere fact that said pits did not exist until necessary, when powerful earth magecraft would cause the walls and floor to bristle with wicked spikes large enough to spit open a man, with razor wind directed at the level of any intruder's neck and above just in case someone tried flying; areas with bounded fields that sapped the magical energy from any who stepped into them, with other enchantments to alter the seeming flow of time.

And of course, on top of the traps, the maze had guardians as well: strange automata wrought of metal and earth, each heavily warded and armed with odd battle tools, with one example being a golem wielding a quantity of mercury manipulated through magecraft, with the capability of attacking (with spear, blade, or whip like a current of high-pressure enough to cut through the highest grade battle armor), defending (reacting automatically to threats by protecting the carrier golem with a thin, hyper hard membrane stretching around it as rigid as steel – though it only used the optimum power necessary to defend against the immediate threat, so it could be shattered by excessive force), and hunt for intruders with silvery tentacles with high sensitivity.

Luckily, for Shirou and Yumi, the combination of Roa's magecraft and the judicious use of what Noble Phantasms Shirou was able to reproduce were able to get them past most of the thaumaturgical obstacles, or at least enough of them that they were able to clear the above-ground areas of the labyrinth.

'Oddly enough, there was little resistance in the first few rooms, as if what arrived before us had attempted to brute force the security measures, to limited success.'

Not that the duo had gotten away unharmed—it only seemed that way due to Yumi's ability to regenerate from anything that damaged or killed her, reminding Shirou much of himself in the early days of the Grail War—save for the fact that in those days he had not known that he would regenerate and still threw himself into mortal danger, which explained in large part why his actions had so bothered his Servant and his allies at the time.

In the course of this excursion, the Faker found himself on the other end of that equation, feeling something inside him lurch each time Yumi "died", as he was never fully sure that she would rise again, even if she didn't care about herself, putting the mission before her health and well-being.

'Just as I do…'

He knew it well, the cold mathematics of their actions, the reasoning that both of them used – that the death of one could sometimes to ensure the happiness of many, that to save someone, you had to choose not to save someone else, and his hands were far from clean. The difference was which they placed a priority on—salvation or destruction, and why they did not care about themselves. He saw himself as expendable as long as others were happy, but Yumi…

'Sometimes, in the stillness of night, she curses her own existence…even if her nightmares have been less frequent since that night.'

And that deeply unsettled Shirou because in some ways, she and he were mirror images, alternately drawn towards and pushed away by each other.

But he sighed, as there was nothing he could do about that for now, for they were now deep within the bowels of the earth, climbing down into the great cave that lay at the center of the labyrinth, with the Holy Scripture Triten somewhere at its bottom. Here, the equipment they had packed came in handy, however much it had encumbered them before, as they donned the caving gear and began lowering themselves into the unexplored cavern—something that no other mortal had set foot in and lived.

'That others came here in the past is not in dispute, given the skeletons strewn about,' he thought rather wryly. 'Of course, what is also not in doubt is that those others did not fare quite as well.'

That there were skeletons at all was an indication of that, yet the state of the decrepit collections of bones was suggestive of the former owners of those skeletal remains having met rather grisly ends. Some showed signs of being scorched by lightning, some had bones melted together. Some had been smashed under rocks, or ripped open by something metallic. Then again, some were simply crushed and mangled by having taken a bad fall, since without safety harnesses and the appropriate other paraphernalia, a single mistimed grab, crumbling handhold, or loss of footing could well prove lethal. In a way, Shirou had to admire the efficiency and deviousness in the labyrinth's design, as any who managed to fight through the initial levels of the labyrinth would most likely not be geared for a descent into a kilometer and a half deep cavern, especially if they were the sort that had used heavy weapons to deal with the defenses.

Thus, it was probably for the best that the two of them were cautious in making their descent, double-checking the places where their ropes were anchored, pausing here and there to use their sensitivity to imbalances in the environment to probe for any traps…or to lower Shirou's duster on a rope as a decoy, watching as that coat was zapped, burned, frozen, impaled, and otherwise torn to pieces—something that Shirou wasn't exactly happy about, though he conceded that it was better the jacket take the brunt of the damage rather than his rather less replaceable body—or Yumi's, since while she might regenerate, it was still a rather painful process.

Down they went into the gloom, deeper, deeper, deeper still, their passage marked by ghost lights that seemed to observe their progress, will o'wisps which floated about, appearing at random times and disappearing at others, yet not causing any direct harm. Squeezing through narrow passages, crawling in places to another access shaft, proceeding onwards until at last they hit bottom, finding themselves on the bank of the confluence of two subterranean rivers whose dark waters reminded Shirou Emiya of nothing more than where Lethe joined with Styx.

A sweep of the immediate area revealed three main directions in which the duo could go, neither of which seemed more promising than the others, even with reinforced vision.

"Which way now?" the faker asked quietly, feeling slightly unsettled that there would be yet more to the maze so far beneath the earth—though he was fairly certain that they were still above sea level, given altitude at which they had entered the cave system.

"We check the direction of the airflow," Yumi answered just as softly, her cold blue eyes noting that Shirou's caving suit was flapping in a slight breeze, the source of which seemed to the tunnel from which one of the tributaries emerged.

"It's coming from one of the forks."

"Which eliminates the other one, given that air exchange should be barometrically influenced," the vampire hunter noted. Having spent a great deal of time underground rooting out the lairs of vampires, she had some idea of how to identify entrances and exits of cave systems. "Given that the main entrance is fairly high aboveground, and that Alcatraz would not want others to be able to access the cavern except by the labyrinth, I'd think we head into the wind. Unless you can map the cave?"

The last bit was a bit whimsical, but Shirou shook his head anyway.

"Heh, I analyze objects, not mountains."

He could trace the flow of electricity in something he could fully see and comprehend, or the flow of prana in an object, but mapping an entire cave system was beyond him, especially when he couldn't see all of it at once.

Thus, Shirou deferred to his companion's expertise, following as she led the way along the path. They proceeded in darkness for a time, save for the lights they wore, following the course of the meandering underground river, though eventually they found themselves departing from it, heading slightly upwards as they followed the wind, until at last they emerged into a vast chamber where the air was perfectly still.

But once they stepped into it, everything changed.

Malevolent runes and wards and sigils blazed into being on the cavern walls, as the Faker found himself forced to his knees by raw nausea.

"Ha…guh."

His stomach crawled around, his senses reversed, and his vision was filled with crimson as if blood had seeped into his eyes, everything in his vision turning red.

The temperature, still chilly and moist, had not changed, but his body felt strangely hot, weakening like an hourglass, as all the oxygen had disappeared from the cave and he was breathing out his insides with each breath.

'This…a bounded field like Bloodfort Andromeda…'

"Two raiders in my labyrinth?" a voice rasped metallically, as a specteralform hove into view. "A dog of the Association and one of the Serpent's brood have come to steal my treasure?"

"Millennium Lock," Yumi breathed, Black Keys materializing in her hands, launched at the figure with the speed of thought, but they were knocked aside by a wall of stone that tore itself from the ground blocking the way. "No…a wraith."

"Perceptive. As expected of the Serpent," the phantom sneered, the body a study in odd forms and non-Euclidian geometries, though from one angle, it could be said to resemble a demented padlock—the result of magical research into immortality. Though even that could be said to be less than successful, given that what had appeared before the duo was not the Millennium Lock's physical form but his spiritual body, haunting the place where he had fallen. "But none shall claim my Holy Terminal, not while I linger on this earth!"

As if to emphasize the point, powerful flux of prana made itself known, the entire chamber bending to the wraith's will as thick spikes of earth shot out from every angle. Coming down, from every side, and from the floor, silent and unexpected, it was a forest of death that overran this once safe haven, a spell aimed to skewer those present without mercy.

The vampire hunter jumped aside as spears of rock erupted from the ground all around her, lightning crashing from her hands to destroy some of the spires to open a route—

Squelch! "Kuh!"

—but her free arm was impaled by several spikes, piercing clean through one side and out the other, preventing her from moving, with dozens more rising to form a cage around her body.

Crash!

In the next moment, the spikes were gone, sliced away by a golden sword in the hands of Shirou Emiya. That blade, the Noble Phantasm Caliburn, the sword of selection, had once been plunged into rock without harm, so it was a trivial thing for it to cut away mere spikes of the substance as he took the offensive.

A sinkhole opened beneath his feet, but he was already in the air, kicking off the receding edge towards the direction where he knew the enemy to be, but he was batted aside by a fist of stone, slammed into the wall with sickening crack as two of his ribs gave way, the projection dissolving into dust as his concentration slipped.

"Seven!"

Steel spars filled the air as Ciel took the opening to attack the enemy, launching metal missiles at the spirit with the massive pilebunker appeared in her hands, the Seventh Holy Scripture called into its true form by her will.

"Foolish…"

One was dodged.

"…foolish…"

Another.

"…foolish!"

Yet a third.

"You cannot defeat me in my sanctum, not while I am animated by the Holy Terminal itself!"

In response to his summons, three massive stone golems, each meters tall, rose from the ground and whirled on the vampire hunter, intending to crush her, even as the chamber itself drained the intruders of their energy.

'A Wraith animated by the Holy Terminal…then he's like a Servant…' Shirou thought to himself, pouring magical energy into his body to temporarily knit his bones. What came to his hands this time was a sword, sleek, double-edged, and long, with a hilt of fine ebony and gold, with what was said to be the tear of an angel cased in the pommel. But more importantly, the silver-steel of the blade shone in the sickly light cavern with a pure, holy light, emitting a glow that cast strange shadows against the walls and spikes all around.

"Cleave stone, Durandal!" the Faker ordered, leaping forward and sweeping the blade before him, tearing through the weapons of stone that had attempted to impede him.

Durandal, the blessed blade of the Paladin Roland, entrusted to him by King Charlemagne, who in turn had been granted it by an angel. A holy sword that would never lose its sharpness, and which possessed three miracles…the first of which had been used.

The Wraith's eyes shot open in shock as it peeled backwards, sending a corrosive blast of pure prana at Shirou to reduce him to ash and bone—

—but to no avail, for the holy sword sliced apart the surge of sickening energy, as a greater mystery would inevitably defeat a lesser.

But Dead Apostle of the Millennium Lock had not become an Ancestor by being complacent in the arts of combat, and had moved the moment it had launched its attack, using the supreme speed of one of its kind to nimbly evade the Faker's blade.

When Shirou closed again, pouring what od he had into his muscles to grant him speed, the spirit sprang into motion once more as the ground opened yet again, with the ceiling above shattering into a monsoon of daggers that crashed down on Shirou's position from every side, every angle, aiming to riddle him with projectiles too numerous to defend against.

Elsewhere in the chamber, the vampire hunter was breathing hard as she was forced to deal with the golems. The majority of her church assigned weapons and rituals were meant to deal with the undead, not constructs of earth, which required a different skillset to destroy. And while she did possess the necessary spells to crush them, it would mean tapping into Roa's knowledge once more, proving to herself that she was the Serpent of Akasha in every way that counted.

'But I have no choice…'

If she were alone and in better condition, the blunette would have tried some other option, considering that she could not truly die…but there was someone else fighting alongside her, and she had lost enough colleagues.

Determination flaring in her eyes, she barked out a single word: "Square!"

An explosion of power erupted from her form, plasma crackling as it washed over the golems, vaporizing their torsos, as the rest of their pieces clattered to the ground, as she turned toward the place where the wraith had just launched his devastating attack on Shirou.

The magus gritted his teeth as a thunderous roar consumed him and the projectiles slammed into him, the sheer kinetic force of the battering alone threatening to smash him to a pulp, even without taking into account the razor-sharp quality of the stones. The outcome? Only what was to be expected, as any being of simple flesh and blood would have been instantly killed.

But not the Faker, whose track record at staying dead after supposedly fatal attacks would have raised quite a few questions if others had known.

"…what? You survived? No…just what are you?" Alcatraz hissed, now thoroughly alarmed, for while the Faker was certainly bleeding over most of his body, with enough sharp edges protruding from him to slaughter a battalion, he was not dead. He had guarded his head to prevent a concussion—and the sharp edges erupting from his flesh did not belong to rocks, but blades, growing out from under his skin.

Frozen in shock, the wraith failed to move before the sorely injured magus sprang into motion with the last of his strength, plunging his blade through the specter's center of mass, the outline of the phantom growing a sickly green-gold as it cracked, keening in unearthly agony…and then dissolved away, as if it had never existed.

"My body…is made…of swords," Shirou answered to no one in particular, as he took a step forward…and promptly collapsed.

Yet the battle was not quite over, for in the far corner of the room, where the terminal was hidden, an orb of wispy light began to coalesce, the life-force stolen from those who had previously entered the chamber weaving itself once again into the form of the Millennium Lock.

"Foolish…foolish…foolish!" a dissonant chorus of whispers intoned from all about the duo, though only one as around to hear it, an orb of ball lightning in her hands as she walked up to the Holy Scripture Triten. "Even if you destroy one shell, I will merely rise again with Triten's power, for we have assimilated it, adding the biological and technological distinctiveness of those who test Us to Our own."

"And who said anything about destroying you?" Yumi asked, removing a certain rifle from her robes and unwrapping the holy shroud from it for the first time. In another world, perhaps she would have used it to seal away a True Ancestor, but in this one, she merely channeled it to impose death upon the undying …by destroying what kept it alive.

"This power shall pass through me…and what has been suppressed, shall be returned," she intoned as if speaking a ritual phrase, raising the stock of the weapon to her shoulder, the flow of power reversed as the weapon greedily drank of her prana, drawing in lines of light and all else as the hunter's eyes glowed ominously in the darkness. Absolute darkness converged and accelerated within the barrel of the demonic weapon, crackling at the edges with chaotic lightning that seemed otherworldly.

"No…wait…it can't be," the wraith gibbered, apparently recognizing what was being brought to bear against it. "That weapon…that weapon was sealed!"

A single shot rang out, as a deceptively small point of infinite darkness slammed into and through the Holy Scripture, the power of the terminal warding it back for a brief moment before its defenses failed and it was instantly annihilated, the projectile boring through the walls of the chamber, and out into the sky, where it detonated with a blinding flash in a sphere of destruction whose vicious shockwaves caused an avalanche on the mountain outside.

The sickly glow of the runes faded, the gathered magical energy dissipating into the air with a menacing snap-hiss, and in the end, there was silence.

Yumi Shierumiko stood unmoving before the devastation for some time, simply looking at the place where the object of her quest had been. Triten had been a terminal similar to a Philosopher's Stone capable of realizing minor miracles, and like those others who had come after it, she had desired its power, that she might find and defeat her ancient enemy.

Left to her own devices, she might well have simply tried to claim it, no matter what the wraith had said, but there was already too much blood on her hands for another innocent to die protecting her. Such was foolishness anyway, for why would someone try to spare an immortal pain?

It was a confusing thing, weighed against the certainties she had held for so long.



] | [

~…Our swords split the water…~

] | [


Immortality.

Eternity.

No matter how much the two words were conflated, they had rather less in common than most though, given that while some things in existence had reached the first, nothing had reached the second. Not even vampires, occasionally spoken of in legends, were immortal, as they were defective in requiring stealing from others to exist. Mostly, they needed to prey on humans to prevent the excesses of time from destroying their bodies via accelerated decay, so in truth, they were not versatile creatures at all, and though they call themselves the transcendent race, they had not transcended anything, only degenerated.

They who so painstakingly pursued the path of immortality found that in the end, their ideal was stained, as maintaining the sense of self made eternity unattainable, with long years destroying the body and wear away the flexibility of the mind.

That is, if one was still…human.

When Shirou opened his eyes, blinking away the puzzlement of a conversation heard in a dream, he found himself nestled inside a sleeping bag, looking up at a set of bright blue eyes, peering down at him coldly as residual pain lanced through every part of his body coupled with a bone-deep weariness that reminded him that he had been engaged in rather brutal combat not too much earlier. He had even been forced to reinforce his body too much for comfort, unwittingly calling upon his body of blades to survive the vampire's onslaught.

'That is the first time I've had to fight such a powerful foe in a long time…' he thought to himself, grimacing, and yet there was an odd thrill that ran through him. Not since the Holy Grail War had he been pitted against foes which tested him so, breaking the dull routine of combat against ghouls and other humans, forcing him act less like a machine. 'Of course, it is said that a Dead Apostle Ancestor is roughly on par with a Servant…'

He sighed, wincing as he sat up, looking evenly at the one who had fought beside him and then down at his body—unmarked save for the scars he'd worn prior to this battle.

"You healed me?" the faker asked quietly—croaked, rather, as his throat was still dry, with the raw feeling of sandpaper.

"Yes," his companion replied, extracting a canteen from a pack at her feet and bringing it to Shirou's lips. He drank greedily, taking two deep swallows to wash away the gravel in his mouth.

"The terminal?"

The vampire hunter's eyes hardened for a moment before she looked away, her expression unreadable even to him.

"Destroyed," she said at last, the slightest tremor of fatigue in her voice. "Along with the Wraith of the Millennium Lock."

Shirou grimaced slightly at this, closing his eyes and laying back heavily.

'Damn.'

He had agreed to destroy it if necessary, but still…

'What's done is done. Such a thing could not save the world in the long run, as even it is limited in what miracles it can accomplish.'

Given the areas involved, it would have been the ultimate protection for perhaps one city, as it had powered the protections of the labyrinth, or, within a certain radius, breathed a semblance of life into the long dead soil, allowing crops to grow with greater ease, so fewer might starve to death each year.

…but it would also make whichever place received it a tempting target for the Dead Apostles, inviting a storm against which they could not long endure, as normal humans could not live in the fortresses of delusion that vampires so commonly used. Given how many humans—the vampires' prey—had already died, and how the terminal could sustain an echo of life, no doubt it would have been the spark of a war, with so many desperate for any scrap of power.

"So it is," he said heavily. "I suppose we couldn't have taken it with us anyway."

"Too large for that, and the Millennium Lock had made it something like his phylactery, so that he would not die if it yet remained." Yumi readily agreed, though her eyes were shadowed. She hadn't had time to try to exorcise a spirit bound to an artifact like that, if such was even possible without nullifying the very properties that made the artifact so very potent.

Emiya started for moment, opening his eyes again as he regarded his unlikely partner. There was something in her tone that reminded him of…

"You had something you wanted from the Holy Scripture Triten, didn't you?" he inquired shrewdly, picking up on the way the vampire hunter's posture stiffened. "What was it?"

Silence fell in the tent once more, allowing Shirou to pick up on the sounds of running water from outside. Seconds, minutes…he didn't know how long…ticked by.

"I need to find someone," the former Seventh of the Burial Agency said at last, choosing her words with great care. "Someone very well hidden."

"From your past?"

"…you could say that. Didn't you have a wish?"

"No—I just wanted it to be able to help people…"

Yumi's eyebrows shot up at that, with the blunette startled that she could detect no tract of a lie in her companion's words. She peered at him, trying to see why he would do the irrational things he did, caring nothing of personal gain, uncaring of loss.

"You used Noble Phantasms in that fight…and now that I think of it, you used something strange against Van Fem's golem, didn't you?" she said after a while, frowning as she recalled the two peerless blades that the faker had summoned to his hands. Impossible blades, as both had been sundered, with one wholly lost to time, while a fragment of the other remained in the former commune of Rocamadour, France. "I didn't think Gradation Air was capable of such things, reproducing only the shapes and basic substances of objects—not their true essence."

As someone who had once had access to a vast armory stocked with a great number of Conceptual Weapons and Noble Phantasms, the vampire hunter was well aware of how powerful such things were, and how much time each had needed to accrue certain amounts of mystery. Blades such as those could not be reproduced, for even if one were to craft a replica of one such weapon, perfect in form and material, it would lack the history that made it so powerful—that made it the crystallization of a divine mystery.

"Others have thought the same, but it is my one true talent," the self-acknowledged Faker admitted, recalling how Rin had been flustered by his power. "Putting shape to my mind."

Every gear in the former Burial Agent's mind ground to a halt at the words Shirou's last five words, as she knew better than most the implications of such a thing.

No mere magecraft could simply allow the perfect reproduction of artifacts of that degree of mystery, or even the semblance of such an artifact without a catalyst or template. If Shirou had used no template at all, simply putting shape to his mind, then his magecraft would have to be…

'…the taboo of taboos, that forbidden thaumaturgy wielded only by the greatest of magi, infinitely close to True Magic.'

An image that eroded reality, distorting, no, remaking the world as the magus wished, imposing illusion upon the real.

"…Reality Marble," the vampire hunter breathed, fighting to keep her face expressionless.

Or possibly a reoccurrence of the First True Magic, but even she was not prepared to admit that that might be a possibility, even if one with Denial of Nothingness, the power of creation itself, would be infinitely well suited to operating in this world.

But even if it were just a reality marble (and here mentally snorted at the thought of someone's ability being "just" a Reality Marble), how had he managed to achieve such a thing.

To her knowledge, only the Dead Apostle Ancestors and perhaps a handful of other magi had ever been able to use such a thing, so how had this man…?

"Reality Marble?" Shirou repeated quizzically, then shook his head. "No, I can't do such a thing."

It didn't seem he was lying, though this reassured Yumi not at all, since all it meant was that…

'…he doesn't even know, which is perhaps the most terrifying thing of all.'

Yumi's smile took on a rather brittle cast as she considered this, mulling over what she had learned in the last few moments, so deeply immersed in her thoughts that she nearly didn't hear his next words.

"Since you did save my life, sacrificing your wish to do it, I suppose the least I can do is join you," the Faker resolved, looking at her speculatively. Then his voice took on a somewhat wry tone. "It would be…equivalent exchange, right?"

Perhaps it was a consequence of blood rushing to her brain to sustain its frenzied pace of thought, but the vampire hunter's cheeks grew hot in the dimness.

"…I suppose…it would be," she said at last.


] | [

In the aftermath of that incident, the two traveled together for the better part of a decade, finding a way to pursue both their goals while using each other to deal with the loneliness within, two weapons who were solitary by nature but did not wish to be alone, whatever excuses they might make about equivalent exchange, prana restoration, or using one another to justify their actions to themselves.

Even an existence outside of time, bound up in a paradox was not completely unchanging, and while her body remained eternally youthful, unaging as it would remain until the day she struck down the Serpent of Akasha, her thoughts were a different matter, as she had begun to think less of dying, finding that there was something in her mind besides killing vampires and carrying out her mission.

'But more than that, around Emiya I have fewer dreams of the past…'

Fewer nightmares certainly, and during those rare one or two she had, he was always there to give comfort to her at night, a sword that cut away some of her uneasiness. Around him, especially when she slept within the circle of his arms following one of their 'prana transfers', she instead dreamt of swords and battle, of a desolate, rust-colored world like the lands on which they walked, save that it was strewn with blades stretching as far as the eye could see, like an endless graveyard of swords, with its exact bounds unknown, due to the thick haze that obscured the horizon.

The only other features of note were the immense interconnected gears suspended in the sky, grinding and clanking against one another as they gyrated, with wisps of black smog floating on light zephyrs throughout this world, and embers rising from the ground as if from a forge– a desert forge rife with the odd scents of steel, smoke and leather, reminding her of him, and how he was a machine as well, living only on a borrowed ideal.

As the years went on, the world changed, with the gears descending towards the ground and the world becoming grimmer, reflecting how Shirou himself had changed—what remained of his red hair was now bleached white, the gold had faded from his eyes leaving only a cold slate grey, his skin permanently burned bronze from overuse of projection and the strain upon his circuits, no matter how potent Yumi's healing magics could be. Such thaumaturgy only healed the body, after all, and was unable to restore the spirit, which was where the Faker was most sorely wounded. And in a sense, his change in appearance was simply an outward reflection of the damage to his inner world, as he saw his ideals twisted again and again, almost as if much of what the man believed had been burned away by the flames of war and destruction that graced the world in which they lived.

If one could not be saved, then was it better to kill one to save ten, killing ten to save a hundred, kill a hundred to save a thousand (even if only by allowing them to die, which he saw as the same thing)? And what if none could be saved? What if, despite his best efforts, everyone around him die, just as they had in the fires of his youth?

That was the reality that Shirou had been forced to confront in the wastelands, as the man who only wanted to see those around him smile, to save those in his sight, was plunged into hell over and over again, surrounded by crying faces and lamentations.

Hence he clung to Yumi, grasping at her presence as a man about to be swept over a waterfall would clutch at a lifeline, at any scrap of hope that he had not truly failed—that there was someone he could still protect, someone his purpose might serve. He never admitted it verbally, hiding it in layers of byplay and action, but he needed her…just as she needed him, the two coming to know each other quite intimately in their brokenness. Time and again, after long and weary days, they sought one another for brief moments of physical comfort, nights of exhaustion in which they used each other roughly, coupling with an almost brutal intensity in an attempt to exorcise the demons that so plagued them…or at least that for a few minutes, they would not have to deal with the world which so tormented each of them.

Nights like tonight, where they had been even more forceful with each other than usual, and matching sheens of sweats covered them both, their bodies completely spent from the frenetic passion of their coupling. The life they lived made for a harsh existence, but in the few moments they lay helpless as they recovered from the orgasms that had ripped through their bodies like a storm, none of that seemed to matter.

"Emiya," Yumi murmured after a while, once she had regained enough of her energy to trust herself to shape words.

"Mm?"

"I have something for you," she said after a while, disentangling herself enough from the Faker enough to reach over and snag the pack resting on top of the pile of discarded clothes near their sleeping area. With a sigh, she removed a two part crimson mantle she had crafted from a holy shroud, one of the few things that she had managed to keep of her old life, besides her weapons. Indeed, it was the cloth that had sealed away the rifle in her possession at one point. "Your overcoat is getting rather tattered from the abuse you put it through, so I thought you could use these instead."

Swords were meant to be used, but even they needed care to prevent them from rusting, and hopefully this armament would help him to stay protected from the ravages of the world's toxic environment.

Shirou turned his head slightly to glance at the items she held, smiling for a moment before his expression froze, his body growing rigid once again as he laid eyes on the mantle, the exact crimson hue sparking memories of asarcastic red and black clad warrior who he had not gotten along with in his youthful inexperience, yet one who had given him the advice he needed to fight…to win.

For the first time in years, the Faker felt himself trembling as he reached out and touched the fabric, murmuring eight words that were seared into his memory even to this day.

"If you cannot defeat it, imagine what can…"

So had said the "nameless" Archer, the man who had done the impossible by single-handedly taking half of Berserker's lives, buying time for a desperate plan to be thrown together, for a hasty restoration in a forest shed…for the moment in which Shirou had first projected a Noble Phantasm, starting down this path.

"Make something that will not lose to anything," he spoke in the silence, the unexpected stimulus of the mantle causing him to recall that battle so long ago. "Always imagine the strongest. Imagine the best imitation that will deceive everybody, even yourself."

…even himself indeed.

A strange sound was heard—one that the bitter, battle-hardened Shirou Emiya recognized after a moment as his own laughter, something he had not done in years. An ironic laugh, self-deprecating at its core, half-amused and half-resigned as everything finally clicked: the one who he had not been able to stand, and yet whose words were something he could not deny, was none other than he himself.

Looking at it from angle, one could even say that the one who had defeated Berserker, the greatest hero in all of Greece, first destroying half his lives as "Archer" and then the other half with Saber's sword was none other than …

'Heh.'

…the nameless hero whose true name not even he remembered, as Shirou himself did not remember what he had been called before the fire that had orphaned him. He didn't want to admit it, but it fit all too well for him to simply brush it off as a string of likely coincidences.

An Archer indeed, and by that identity bound to a paradox.

'Just as I am bound to one now, in the person of Yumi, whose very name means bow…' he thought, not altogether unkindly as he regarded his partner. 'Just as I am bound to one now.'



] | [

~…Our names drifting to the heavens above…~


] | [


Time, the eternal predator, had never been particularly known for kindness, not to people, not civilizations, and particularly not to artifacts of man, even after such an interval as paltry as a single decade and a half. So it had been in the past, and so it was now, even in a place where magic held sway. This was especially evident when one considered the abandoned ruin that had once been called Fuyuki City, where the boy who would one day be called Archer had once lived—and where he now returned, having tracked the Dead Apostle Ancestor named Michael Roa Valdamjong to that place where he had fought his first battle…and now might very well fight his last.

Silently as shadows, he and Yumi had moved through the cracked, derelict streets of the town, heading for the Ryuudou Temple, where the leylines of the region met, making it easier to perform large-scale thaumaturgy…and where fifteen years ago, he had fought a desperate battle against the King of Heroes and All the Evils of the World for the power of the Holy Grail.

Around them the air rumbled ominously, winds high above howling as if the hounds of hell had been unleashed, baying at their heels, but they were undeterred, as each had their reasons for fighting, reasons that would not allow them to turn away from this battle.

Here, Yumi took the lead, for this close to the Serpent's lair, she could feel his presence, his corrupted soul resonating more violently with the sliver of it he had left in her as the two drew closer, leaving the road for the forest on the slopes of the temple's mountain. There are no trails here, no signs of passage, so the Faker and the Vampire Hunter simply pushed past tree branches, climbing down rock walls as they kept watch for anything that could be an opening, an entrance into the mountain itself, where the hunter's senses felt the enemy to be.

"There," Shirou pointed out, indicating a stream glinting in the light of the full moon. The water had to come from somewhere, and if it was from one of those subterranean rivers he knew of.

The former Burier nodded as the two followed the course of the stream towards the sound of water, until they arrived at a rocky outcropping, comprised of decently sized boulders that seemed to form a natural gate.

"The water is coming from behind that structure, isn't it?" Yumi asked, as Shirou nodded in confirmation.

As they drew closer, the two could see that the stones were piled atop one another, leaving a crack only big enough for one person to slip through at a time, with an oversized boulder sealing off any access further into the mountain.

"There's a small cave here, but—" Shirou cut himself off as his hand went through the boulder and his eyes narrowed, his visage going grim. "There's a boundary field here…this is definitely the place."

Needing no further hint, Yumi squeezed past Shirou and through the boulder, into the darkness beyond. Taking a deep breath, Shirou followed, knowing that there was no turning back.

Progress was slow, painfully so, as the two moved down the main passageway, using a small amount of prana to be sure of their footing. The ground sloped steeply downward, and weight of the darkness was oppressive.

There was no conversation, no unnecessary sound, for they were entering a land of death, and losing any tension would probably cost them their lives. The two could not even see each other in the dimness as they followed the spiral path towards its inevitable end. Both of them could feel the wrongness of the place intensifying as they came closer to the source, and just as Shirou began to think about the winding paths and hell, the cave changes, the dark and narrow passageway opening up into a great cavern, a place less a cave than a desolate land.

It was massive in scope, at least three kilometers across, with a monolithic wall in the distance and a crater above the cliff – a system that has merely been gathering energy for two hundred years. That massive rock was the surface on which the magic circle of the Great Holy Grail was carved, a ring of black fire surrounding it to prevent anyone from entering.

The altar of the beginning, where a path was to open to Akasha itself, appropriately named Heavens Feel, created by an incomplete application of the Third True Magic.

Magical energy has been stored here for fifteen years since the last war ended without successful use, with the victor destroying the Grail as his father had before him, magical energy enough to summon seven heroic spirits from the Throne…or to empower the figure standing before it to inhumanly powerful levels.

A figure of black and white standing alone, with the pure black of pants, shirt, and duster, contrasting the unruly white of his hair, as crimson eyes stared out at the two with lips twisted in an expression that could technically be called a smile.

Whirr! Whirr! Whirr!

At the sight of him, Black Keys materialized in Yumi's hands, weapons that she hurled at him with all her might, invoking the power of the cremation rituals bound within the holy steel to burn her foe to dust. But a powerful surge of lightning was loosed in response, detonating the blades prematurely.

When the sound of the explosion died, the two could hear a demented laugh, as Michael Roa Valdamjong, the Serpent of Akasha, stood unscathed, focused on the one who had attacked him without provocation.

"Hahahahah…ah, so that's it? Why you've tracked me across six continents?" the figure intoned, his smooth voice sending shivers down Yumi's spine from hatred and revulsion. "...I know that body. I remember it well. To think that it had enough capacity to resurrect from such a state! Well done!"

Yumi's body trembled, as killing intent beyond anything Shirou had ever felt spilled from her in torrents—and he'd been in the presence of some truly murderous foes.

"So you've come to kill me, then?" Roa grinned manically, gathering fistful of lightning in one hand, taking a knife in the other. "Then try your hand at what even the White Princess could not do!"

With a crack of displaced air, the vampire hunter shot forward like a bullet at the vampire that had been her "parent", intending to skewer his heart and end his existence, but he was already in motion in a truly death-defying show of acrobatics, his form hissing through the air like electricity itself,

Eyes blazed silver, as the Burier too was launched into the air, leaning forward slightly, as—

Whirr! Fsh!

— a massive surge of heat and light rippled outward from a dislocation in space, tearing through the place her head had vacated scant moments earlier, continuing onward to smash into a heap of rubble, throwing up dust and molten slag.

Fzhing!

Another blast, forcing her to the left as she dodged by tossing a Black Key to alter her momentum. Another from behind, but this one she blocked and neutralized with current of her own, sending it ricocheting across the chamber, where it cut a swathe in the broken ground ahead of her.

Blam! Blam! Blam!

Three bullets of light shot out in a second, each carrying enough magical energy to blow a body to pieces, aiming for the Burier's heart, gut, head.

But these missed too, as warned by her instincts, Yumi evaded them by ducking forward to touch down on the ground, such that all of them sped over her—and doubled back, speeding for her as—

Vrr—Vrr!

—Crossing her arms, she leapt into the air, her lithe form spinning around as she hurled her blades at the oncoming projectiles—

Boom! Boom!

—the Black Keys catching two of the projectiles in midflight, causing the attack spells to activate against the knives instead of her, with the resultant explosions prematurely detonating the third.

With the speed of the wind, the vampire hunter rearmed herself, retrieving two more blades from the many hidden inside her uniform and redoubling her speed towards her enemy.

'There.'

Breaking through the vampire's defenses, she slashed her weapons down upon him.

She missed, only tearing his coat, as a roar of primal berserker fury tore from her throat and she charged again, the motions of her and her mortal foe tracing brilliant arcs about the cavern, far from the ground, bounding and rebounding off the cavern walls as their clashes of steel and magic occur at higher and higher altitudes like a circus of death.

So it seemed to the Faker at least, though at the moment, his attention was otherwise preoccupied by a number of ghouls seemingly without end, led by a slim brown-haired berserker dressed in nothing more than a bloodstained blouse and tattered blue skirt, her lips twisted into a pout at having to deal with more annoyances like some parody of a schoolgirl forced to take care of a chore before returning to other activities she would much prefer. Which was, after all, what Yumizuka Satsuki had been before she had been reforged into monster by death, taken and violated in every way her limited mind could conceived, then enslaved to his will.

'A powerful Dead Apostle as his watchdog?' he thought, bringing his hands up as if by instinct, as a fist comes at him like a bullet—and is blocked by the twin swords the faker favored: Yang-sword Kanshou and Yin-sword Bakuya, moving almost of their own accord to ward off monstrous blows that would destroy him if they hit.

Wham! Wham! Wham!

Fists flew at Shirou like the hammer of a maiden scorned, with the Faker thinking for a whimsical moment that perhaps there was more to the old adage of hell having no fury like a scorned woman. He blocked her hands as they struck out, using the speed of his reinforced muscles to match the Dead Apostle before him.

"Guh!"

But it wasn't enough, as even swifter than his motions, a toned leg thrust into his stomach, slamming him across the cavern floor into a pack of ghouls, which responded to their mistresses will like priests of the cult of violence sang hymns to their dark god, worshipping him as they tore at his flesh, intending to stab him, rend him, tear him to bits.

He retched, nearly vomiting as the blades in his hands faded as concentration failed, but steadied himself, drawing on his resolve.

With a powerful burst of prana, Shirou exploded into motion, his muscled form surging upright as the Kanshou and Bakuya appeared once more in his hands, tracing silver arcs of motion as he tore through the undead familiars like paper, plunging into flesh, ripped from flesh, or slicing the air itself in a whirling dervish of dismemberment and destruction, actualizing inescapable inevitability with inhuman calm.

A powerful chop, severing a limb, then two more as a body was bisected…but no more, for the Dead Apostle Yumizkua Satsuki flew through the space the creature had occupied, the mangled blood and viscera crumbling to mere ash in the wake of her passing, the bloodstained pink and blue of her garments almost disturbingly hypnotic as she slammed both hands forward and down to crush the Faker's skull.

"Aaahh...!" She missed, as Emiya Shirou evaded her, her deadly fists slamming into the ground, creating a crater where they hit. But she didn't stop there, kicking off at him again like a creature whose only purpose was to destroy, driven mad by bloodlust and the yearning to taste fresh human flesh.

'This is not good.'

Wild arcs, slashes of claws, shockwaves of wind…the attack pattern was seemingly random, but all the more effective for it, as Shirou found himself unable to predict what the enemy's next move would be as she charged him recklessly, heedless of her safety, heedless of the safety of the ghouls that were purportedly her servants.

In the air above Yumi and Roa continued their deadly duel of magic and steel, with Ciel barely evading as three concentrated pulses of heat and light sped for her, narrowly missing her core, though the molten plasma still seared her flesh like an iron.

Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!

Four bullets of light raced down from above, homing unerringly down upon Yumi's position, too many to counter at once…so she didn't even try, instead throwing everything into offense as she rushed at the cloaked figure of her enemy, whose eyes were wide at seeing her suddenly before him, having closed the distance in an instant.

"Shut…up," she snarled, eyes flashing silver as she plunged three Black Keys through Roa's chest, ending the battle.

"Pity."

Or should have, but failed, as a palm met her face, with a bolt of lightning more powerful than any before it lashing out and vaporizing her head. Yumi's body fell backwards, plunging many meters to the ground below, where it landed with a sickening crack-splat, as bones, organs, vessels were all ruptured, blood leaking out of many wounds, weapons falling all around her as if imprisoning her in a ring of steel.

"Fufufu…such a disappointment from one who was me," Roa intoned, landing lightly on his feet near the headless corpse, where he pulled out the rapier-like weapons thrust into him and dropped them on the ground. "Black Keys? Truly an ancient weapon for use against vampires, but this demonic body is…unique. After being hit by an attack once, it adapts so that the attack is no longer as effective the next time. Did you really think I had never encou—"

An unopposable force slammed into him, slashing off his hand at the wrist and knocking him aside, though he retaliated with a fistful of lightning that caught his assailant from behind, searing off the right leg of the revived Yumi Shierumiko at the knee, as momentum carried her body forward, spilling to the ground.

"What?" the Serpent of Akasha murmured, momentarily taken aback by his foe's revival from death. "You have returned from death? No, not time reversal, nor regeneration as a result of magical power, as I cannot feel your magic circuits in operation, no matter your absurd amount of prana. Ah…so that's it."

A nasty, chilling sneer crossed the lips of Michael Roa Valdamjong as he peered down at the woman who had dared to challenge him.

"You are my reincarnated existence then…my 'daughter'," he concluded, smirking down at the beaten form of his enemy.

"UOAHHHHH!"

But the smirk vanished from his face as quickly as it came as dozens of blades shot towards him, Black Keys lifted into the air by currents of electromagnetic force and slung forward, as if each was a projectile in a railgun, slamming into him in a conflagration of steel and lightning. After so long, the woman who had been called Elesia, Ciel, Yumi, and many other names didn't care anymore, intending to use every scrap of knowledge she possessed to defeat the one who had destroyed her existence.

…even if to do so, she must use the power that was the proof of her taint.

The blades hissed through the air too quickly to avoid, utterly destroying the body of the Serpent as every single ritual inscribed on them activated, dehydrating him, burning him, turning the ashes to stone.

'It's over…'

"Using my knowledge to attack me, Elesia?" a voice rang out from behind her. "What an insolent child."

'No…it's impossible…I just killed him…'

Three Black Keys were drawn as she whirled in an attempt to strike, but was skewered through the heart and throat with a set of identical blades, the edges of the weapons burning like napalm as they pierced her, hungry flames erupting from them to searing into her flesh, lick at her skin, consume her from within.

"Did you forget? It was I who founded the Burial Agency long ago," Roa said almost conversationally, feeling a flicker of disappointment that she would not scream for him. Scream his name perhaps, or scream in pain… "I whose knowledge you bear…do you think that you, a mere copy, can surpass the original?"

The Serpent laughed, cackling as he watched her burn, only for her mouth to croak out one innocuous word, changing the world.

"Overload."

Once more, Shirou found himself engaged in a battle against a superior foe, a foe quicker and stronger than he, and so, to counter it, he drew from his blades yet again.

Swish! Crunch!

Downward slashes like the power of a waterfall, horizontal slashes like a raging cyclone—against these blows, the faker defended with all his might, for if he didn't, it would be his end.

Blows without pause, a streak of red against an overwhelming wave the color of flesh. Their strengths, speeds, ranges are different—for now, the only thing that Shirou could do was to use his swords to parry the Dead Apostle's attacks, using his steel-hard skin to ward off the furious scrabbling of the others who assailed him.

Sparks flew as blades of yin and yang crashed into vampiric claws, their wielder defying death once and again, knowing well enough the disparities in between his merely human strength and those of his enemies, yet betting on a chance of victory with a great violence surpassing human possibilities. Defending until an opening appeared, then seizing it with a final blow - that was his only chance.

And yet, would it be enough? Everything was in slow motion as the enemy's fists were swung with more and more power, aiming for vital spots each time, a shot doubling him over, nearly breaking an arm as he sought desperately to evade, to buy himself an extra second or two of time.

You do not need outside enemies, or to concern yourself with the pattern of the world. For you, your enemy is simply your own image.

Right. He knew that, but with his current limits, it wasn't enough.

If it is an opponent you cannot match in real life, beat it in your imagination.

But how?

If you cannot beat it yourself, imagine something that you could beat it with.

With that said, it's obvious. There was only one thing he could do.

"Trace…on!"

As the foe attacked once again, he danced backwards, creating symbol that the Archer that had started him down this path had wielded for all his life: twin steel blades.

This time, he takes the offensive, a slight shift in the flow of battle that had interesting implications as he threw away defense and kicked the ground, closing the distance once again as he swung the yang-sword Kanshou with all his might.

Clang!

The attack was parried, and one following it ignored, as the vampire warded off the attack harmlessly, and her claws lunged to rip his head from his shoulders.

But Shirou's body reacted on its own to move out of the way, his blades flashing like lightning as his mind read ten, no, twenty steps ahead in battle, ensuring precious extra seconds of survival for each attack that was beaten back, seconds for him to rifle through the history of Kanshou and Bakuya, to extract the true nature of the twin blades both he and his alternate self had favored.

Two curves.

Long ago, he had fleetingly considered asking his Servant about an ultimate that could kill any enemy, but had dismissed it in favor of asking for training, as he knew it would be a foolish notion.

Yin and yang – the taiji – two and one, apart yet joined.

A Servant's ultimate attack was a Noble Phantasm, after all, and he did not own a single Noble Phantasm.

Not a single. Many. Consecutive projection.

That was his one ability, to reproduce, to fake things. Judging the concept of creation, hypothesizing the basic structure, duplicating the composition material, imitating the skill of its making, sympathizing with the experience of its growth, reproducing the accumulated years, excelling every manufacturing process…taking the illusion and making it reality.

"Spirit and technique, flawless and firm…" he intoned, recalling the anti-demon charms inscribed upon the blades as he charged them with as much magical energy as he could draw and threw them, targeting the enemy's neck.

The two blades carve a silver arc in the air as they bear upon the enemy, slamming down with enough power to penetrate steel!

But these are blocked with the speed of the wind, meaninglessly deflected into the distance, and seeing her opponent finally unarmed, the Dead Apostle redoubled her speed, closing in on her unarmed opponent.

"Our strength rips the mountains," he continued, a second set of the yin-yang swords appearing in his hands, pulling the thrown blades back towards him as the enemy is forced to stagger back and block, her arms like the whirlwind as she knocked everything aside.

"Grahhhhh…!"

"Our swords split the water…"

These blades were launched as well, as all four of them converged on the startled Yumizuka. As Roa's servant, no doubt she had come across mages, hunters, assassins of all sorts in the years she had been undead, given that the Serpent had many enemies, but this…this was something she had never encountered. Blades flying in accordance to rules her bloodlust-addled mind could not fully comprehend, seeking her out, no matter how she evaded, how she dodged? Yumizuka managed to avoid them by godlike reflexes, but now it was only a matter of time.

"Our names drifting to the heavens above," Shirou recited with finality as he traced the last copy of the yin-yang swords he would need, crossing the swords behind him and flooding them with his prana. "Yet never reaching that ever distant utopia…"

In his hands, the swords changed, reinforced into their final form, twice their original size, but cracked and shattered, the metal of them splintering endlessly till they resembled nothing more than a pair of wings with metal feathers—crane wings, after the bird that was seen as the symbol of immortality…and which were master of killing snakes.

"—Two lonely souls…one path!"

Shirou rushed in, bearing these swords in hand…these overedged swords, which shattered as they slammed down upon the unlucky vampire, the feather-like fragments flying as a separate projectile that lodged itself inside the brown-haired bloodsucker and detonated with a massive explosion, the four blades of earlier hemming her in, leaving no safe exit.

"AWOUGHHHHHH!"

Dust and ash was thrown into the air as Yumizuka was hit with a fatal strike, the blades meeting and shattering as one to splatter her organs, crush her spine, rip out her heart. She was on the ground, her body hacked into pieces, missing her limbs and everything from her stomach down. Yet, all was not lost, as Dead Apostles were of the transcendent kind, bestowed with the curse of time reversal…and tonight the moon was full, meaning that in a minute at most…

…but it didn't matter, as the crimson knight crushed her head with the sickle-sword Harpe, the divine blade blessed with refraction of immortality, which inflicted wounds that regeneration could not cure.

Seconds later, the form of Yumizuka Satsuki crumbled to dust, with the ghouls under her personal control dissolving away as well, baying and howling to the last, as Emiya Shirou fell to one knee, Harpe still in his hands, drawing in what energy he needed to refill his reserves, only to stare in horror as the world changed.

The instant the word "Overload" was spoken, a ripple of darkness washed across the world as a innate bounded field was made manifest. Black lightning crackled from the point of origin, running across the chamber like a boundary line, replacing the cavern with a strange world of congealed darkness, with the crimson moon shining overhead.

It was not often that Michael Roa Valdamjong was surprised, after his 800 years of existence, but twice this night he had been jarred by the unexpected. First, he had learned that the woman who wished to kill him was one of his past incarnations, kept alive through paradox…and now, he had learned that she could even use the greatest of his techniques—the Reality Marble Overload, applying a spell amplifier to the spells of the user.

…but that was a mistake.

'You forget, Elesia…the only reason that you have these gifts is because Akasha sees the two of us as one, which means that in this Reality Marble, it is not your soul that is dominant…but MINE.'

Lightning flashed between the two combatants in greater fury than before, both of them using the same techniques, the same weapons, the same magics, boosted to insane levels by the Reality Marble and the other factors in the great cavern.

She had surprised the Serpent, but still proved no match, as this time, just as every time before, he was ready for her. The magecraft she used just as much her enemy's—no, more—than it was her own, since the knowledge had been carved onto her soul by his long ago.

Whatever she used, he knew how to counter.

Black Keys, deflected by bolts of lightning.

More powerful arcs of hurled electricity, parried by his own lances of electric force, with the Serpent of Akasha using subtlety where brute strength failed.

Even the Seventh Holy Scripture was useless, as Yumi could not spare the precious few seconds it took to summon it, lest she be incinerated, torn apart, impaled or worse…perhaps even re-enslaved to Roa's will, the worst of all fates she could possible imagine.

Against him, she used everything she had, every ounce of hate, every ounce of anger, every trace of despair or grief, drawing them forth that she could use them for strength against the root of the nightmare, separating her fate from the one responsible for her immortality, the one who had stained her hands in blood.

But it wasn't enough.

None of it was enough.

Here, within this alien world of darkness, she was losing…and it was only a matter of time until he broke her in the end.

Watching these furious exchanges of blows, Shirou Emiya realized just how outmatched he was as a magus, for what he witnessed were titans clashing in their element, using powers nearly as great as Caster herself, the epic spirit of magic. Fireballs, lightning bolts, spikes of earth, of wind, transmutation of simple metal into wire sentries that whirled about, attacking on their own?

They were on a whole other level in terms of ability, compared to he who had but one talent: to put shape to his mind. And yet, as before, when he had been caught within Alcatraz's boundary field, Shirou instinctively felt a sense of wrongness as if something were putting spiritual pressure on his body, a dizziness assailing him, exacerbating the pain of cracked ribs and broken bones. In the wake of his over-edging of Kanshou and Bakuya, each of his circuits was awake, and his soul screamed in rejection of the energy here.

So far, all of his exercises and training to materialize a Reality Marble had been in vain, much like his practice with reinforcement in the shed all those years ago. But now, things were different, for he was in the heat of battle, in the very element in which he had first awakened his talent long ago. A sword certainly had a sense of immediacy to it, and so, focusing his mind on a poem someone had once written of him, he began to call up the image he wished to put shape to in order to cut away this world.

"I am the bone of my sword…"

In the distance, the two figures continued to strike at one another, though it was obvious that Yumi was on the losing end, being beaten back no matter what she did. Roa was just too powerful in this place, though with speed born of desperation, the vampire hunter did manage to close and decapitate the Ancestor, releasing a fountain of high-pressure blood that coated her garments.

"…Steel is my body, and Fire is my blood…"

Shirou could only watch in shock as the Serpent then regenerated and snapped his fingers, with the blood on Yumi's garments crystallizing into jagged blades that skewered her from both sides, ripping through her insides with an almost perverse efficiency.

"…I have created over a thousand blades…"

His reinforced hearing picked up a few words as his partner gasped for breath, crashing upon the ground powerlessly with the Serpent following in her wake.

"I see…you simply won't die, will you? Well, let's test that immortal body of yours…" Roa intoned, pulling one of the bloody blades from the body of the blunette. "You see, I have gained an exquisite ability by coming so close to death so many times. The power to bring an end to any living thing...even God. So wallow in your dreams and die!"

The blade was stabbed downward with great precision, and Shirou felt a jolt as Ciel's life force simply…ceased, a great cold fury igniting inside of him as he saw how Roa had simply put an end to the one he had traveled with for so long, as if she were but a doll to be discarded.

"…Unknown to Death, nor known to Life…"

In the aftermath of the killing, Roa bent down to Ciel's still warm corpse, scooping up some of her lifeblood and drinking it with delight, trembling with ecstasy at the power flowing through it. Rich, so very rich in prana, though…

He heard something and turned to where the other intruder into his domain had stood, seeing the Crimson Knight continuing to mutter under his breath.

"…Have withstood pain to create many weapons…"

A spell of some kind? No matter, for inside Overload, the will of the Serpent was supreme, and drawing on outside prana was useless. And even if this magus had the od to power a great attack spell, nothing could truly hurt him, not here, and not in this world, where he was the supreme of the supreme.

"…Yet, these hands will never hold anything…"

Roa frowned, as the spell, if that was what it was, was long, and should have affected the surroundings, or at least have attempted to. Magecraft, after all, was a tool to influence the world. But the spell of the enemy, who had apparently killed his servitor and ghouls, did not affect the world, but instead…

He hesitated only for an instant—but that was enough time for Shirou Emiya to finish his chant.

"…so, as I pray, 'Unlimited Blade Works.'"

Fire ran.

It raced across the world of darkness with an incandescent flame, bright—too bright, sweeping away from the figure of Shirou Emiya in an ever-widening circle with impossible speed, and like a tumor within Overload, displaced it, filling the vision and repainting the canvas of reality itself. Where the fire burned, the world changed. No longer were swirls of lightning and darkness evident in the air, or crisply drawn runes. In its place, a field of swords without owners extended to the horizon of a boundless broken desert, a wasteland like the world above.

But this wasteland was host to an almost infinite projection of weapons, with the knight in red reigning over the center of this kingdom of rubble.

"Wha…at?"

For the first time that evening, the Serpent of Akasha was struck dumb, unable to speak as he tried to make sense of this impossible spectacle before him. Oh, intellectually he recognized it for what it was—a Reality Marble—but…how?

'Burning fire and turning cogwheels. The ground littered with legendary Noble Phantasms, as if they were trifling swords…what on earth?'

But they were not on earth, but in the world of Shirou Emiya's soul, where dawn would never come, and the illumination was that of dusk, with embers from an eternally hot forge adding to the atmosphere, and ponderous gears turning in the distance, intermeshed in an intricately wound clockwork that defied description.

"You…" he said in disbelief. "A mere human displaced my Reality Marble?"

The voice of Emiya Shirou was as cold as the steel he forged, as the red knight addressed the Dead Apostle Ancestor at last.

"That's right, Serpent of Akasha," he bit off, a black bow of synthetic material appearing in his hands with nary a thought. "This world is my soul."

He nocked the curved sickle-sword in his hand to the bow, his mind reshaping it to be more aerodynamic, sleeker, more ominous.

But Roa had no time to react to this, as hundreds of swords levitated themselves from the ground and shot themselves at the ancient vampire, forcing him to run, for he did not know what abilities his enemy's weapons held…and here, he was cut off from using anything but his limited stores of prana.

Durandal. Caliburn. Vajra. Merodach. Gram.

These and many more shot from the sky in a deadly rain of silver, aimed at Roa, around him, behind him, before him, striking at him, forcing him to defend, narrowing his range of movement little by little.

"How…impossible. I have existed for far longer than a mere human…!" he snarled, sending out a spray of blood blades and needles to counter the barrage as best he could, preventing Shirou from pinning him down. "I am a concept! I strove for eternity!"

"And your soul has suffered it, Michael Roa Valdamjong," Shirou answered with ice in his tone. "Thus, an inferior illusion becomes a delusion."

Becoming a parasite, depending on reincarnation, Roa's soul had truly degraded, meaning that a Reality Marble drawing from that decayed spirit could be overwritten by one based on a soul that was hale and whole. At higher levels, a duel of magecraft was not a battle of power, but a struggle of concepts – of which thaumaturgical theory had fewer flaws, and Reality Marbles were the highest level of all, nearly reaching the rank of True Magic.

"You…!" Roa shrieked, losing what control he had at being confronted by a power not his own, killing intent flaring from him as he stopped defending himself, gathering every scrap bit of prana he had with the intent of forging it into a titan slaying lance of lightning—an attack meant to leap from vampire's hands towards his enemy at half the speed of light itself, intending to prevent any retribution.

But it was too late.

A split second before he loosed, Shirou had already fired, sword-arrow catching Roa in the chest and exploding, blasting out the lower half of his torso and felling him. In short order, the other swords sent his way smashed into him one by one, reducing the Serpent's body to a meaty paste, with his head rolling to the Faker's feet.

Thump!

—where it was impaled by the bayonet of the Seventh Holy Scripture, and Roa's many incarnations were brought at last to an end.

Shirou raised an eyebrow, feeling a deep, impossible hope well up inside him at the sight of just what had ended Roa's existence. He was not the one who had fired that last shot, after all, which meant…

Steadying himself, Shirou took a deep breath as his Reality Marble dissolved from lack of prana, and the adrenaline that had carried him through vanished.

"So…you're alive?" he spoke, not daring to turn around in case Yumi was nowhere to be found. He couldn't feel the trickle of prana she normally supplied him with, and his senses were dazed from the cacophonous daze of blades crashing against one another.

Yumi Shierumiko stood a distance behind Emiya Shirou, bloody, battered, drained of prana…and very recently mortal. For a moment she considered not answering, as all she wanted was to pass away and free the world of Roa's taint permanently. While Roa himself was gone, there was something remaining that he had touched – her. Her very survival was a testament to Roa's sins – and her own, as she had not been able to stop him from making her murder everyone she knew.

It would have been easy…too easy, to just walk out into the wasteland and never return, or to simply end her life now, but something held her back.

She remembered the sensation of rough hands holding her with surprising tenderness, and thought of the one who had walked beside her for so long, never asking for anything verbally, the one who had made her feel like more than just a machine. Alone in his suffering, he would break…just as she, too, had nearly broken, in this place at the end of the world.

"Yumi?" Shirou asked again, more hesitantly this time, wanting her to answer.

Quiet footsteps filled his hearing as they approached him from behind, with a weight and rhythm he knew full well by now.

"I'm here, Shirou," the blunette said at last, breaking the spell.

The Faker turned around to see his companion standing there, a faint smile crossing his lips as he did so.

"So I see," he noted, his fingers reaching out to trace the curve of her cheek just to be sure she was real. They came away wet. "You're crying…is it that terrible that I survived?"

"Only in my native tongue."

Shirou blinked, frowning at the odd reply.

"I'm not sure how to take that, as I don't know what your native tongue is."

She just smiled at him a little crookedly, her cheeks ever so slightly red as she stepped closer to him.

"I'm sure you'll find out someday," Yumi said impishly, as she closed the distance, slumping against his chest as he took her in his arms.

They were a curious pair, Shirou Emiya and Yumi Shierumiko (sometimes called the Archer and his bow), two beings living parallel lives that pretended not care, though in the end all they had was each other. As he had walked with her, so she would walk with him, until the end claimed them both in the fullness of time.



] | [

~…Yet never reaching that ever distant utopia…~

] | [


Robes fluttered in the morning wind, as silhouetted figures of shadow and blood stood upon a ridge stark against the setting sun, looking down at the vast evil-shaped form on the plains below. A crystalline monstrosity about forty meters tall, resembling a spider, it was the being whose awakening after aeons of slumber had brought about a terrible disaster, resulting in a fierce explosion, death of the last True Ancestor, and mortally wounding the world in the process. Covered with a skin that was harder, more flexible, more temperature resistant, and sharper than any other substance known, it was undisputed that it was a being more powerful than any other on the face of the earth.

Around it, much of the land of steel had been transformed into a crystalline landscape of non-euclidian geometries, beautiful, but horrendous and disturbing at the same time, a spider's web with crystal towers formed from trees, resonating with the wind in a symphony of screeching nails and rent metal. The air itself was saturated with a diffuse black glow harboring deep and ancient enmity, jagged spires of some mysterious substance rising towards the sky akin to broken bars of a cage for a titanic beast.

"Dies irae, dies illa calamitatis et miseriae; dies magna et amara valde."

The final enemy was before them, as humanity moved to retake their world. They were the vanguard of the attack, opening the way for other Knights and those with powers beyond compare, the soldiers of this lost time adapted to the world. It was rumored that to win would be impossible…but wasn't the impossible what Shirou had done for all of his life anyway? Living as a vessel of dreams and hopes, to do the impossible?

Yumi stood beside him, lips shaping near silent words as she confronted this terror to all humanity, but she did not flinch from her duty, from this specter of the end. The Black Barrel was already in her hands, and she stood ready to act at a moment's notice.

The two looked at one another, a glimmer of something in their eyes, and nodded, lips curving up for a moment in silent recognition of words that would never be said, not between them at least.

They waited in silence as the sun finally set, and the appointed time came about at last.

"Trace…on."

And with that, two nameless heroes ascended into legend…


] | [


…Two lonely souls, sharing one path.

FIN

Kieran
March 15th, 2011, 07:16 PM
Still looks good - and still a lot to take in at one go.

alfheimwanderer
March 23rd, 2012, 06:31 AM
Mm, wonder how this would have stacked up against this year's entries...

mangafreak7793
March 23rd, 2012, 07:01 AM
Mm, wonder how this would have stacked up against this year's entries...

Still would would have been in the top ranking and like Kieran still a good read.

ZidanReign
March 23rd, 2012, 11:19 AM
Still one of the best reads I ever had.

EnigmaticFellow
March 23rd, 2012, 12:43 PM
Still as good as the time I first read it at FF.net.

Neir
March 23rd, 2012, 12:44 PM
Even better than when I first read it in the TM fanfic contest.

Ergast
March 24th, 2012, 03:31 PM
I don't get tired of reading this. One of my favorite pieces of fanfiction of all times.