Chapter Sixty Three: Contr/Act/ors
Delays are all attributed to me rediscovering why I love Disney's Tangled and Rapunzel/Eugene.
In another world, another time...
The fire that raged through Fuyuki City devoured all in its path. Under the unnaturally intense heat, stone seared and cracked apart, metal softened or melted altogether into twisted, grasping shapes.
And flesh. Soft, fragile and frail, the flesh of the living was seared and charred beyond recognition, blackened shapes strewn about bearing mute testimony to the destruction that had transpired.
Transpired, due to the words of one man.
Amidst the raging flames, a single dark shape could be seen. Had there been anyone to observe it, they might have said that it looked very much like a man kneeling on the ground.
The shape shuddered violently once, and amidst the roar of the flames, one might have heard a sound that seemed very much like a cry of despair.
No one. Not a single one alive. Even this boy...
He had seen the boy struggling feebly. A black, writhing shape barely visible through the choking smoke, one hand reaching ever forward.
He had rushed there, as fast as possible. Heedless of the danger and destruction around him, his eyes afixed on the small, dark shape.
Just one, even just one. Even if it had been... just one...
But even as he neared, he could see the reason the boy was struggling. He was crushed under a slab of rubble, with only his arm and head not covered under the rock. Even as his pace slowed, he could see the arm lower, finally lying still.
And Kiritsugu Emiya was alone, amidst the sea of flames.
“This is pretty much your fault, you know.”
The voice, spoken in a low, conversational tone, was nevertheless perfectly clear in his ears and he whirled.
A dark shape was walking towards him, heedless of the raging flames. As the figure approached, it became more apparent that it was in the shape of a man. Or at least, someone who looked like one.
“Now, I'm not saying there weren't extenuating circumstances,” the figure stepped lightly over a charred corpse in his path. “And yeah, you were working off incomplete information. But, breaking the Grail? Yeah, that was all you.”
Kiritsugu remained silent.
The figure was closer now, and some of his features could be made out in the gloom. He wore what appeared to be a cloak of deep grey. Arms that were spread open in a manner that appeard to invite open conversation revealed that his arms were bare and featureless, save for a single shining silver ring of his right hand.
The same cloak that he bore also had a hood that obscured most of his features, save for one – a unpleasant green light gleamed where his right eye would have been.
“So then,” coming to a halt in front of Kiritsugu, the cloaked figure spread his arms ever further. “What are you waiting for?”
This time Kiritsugu did look up at the figure, and although he didn't say anything, he knew that his expression made the question plain.
“What?” the person – if it was a person – shrugged, an casual made all the more bizarre against the backdrop of death all around them. “I've been watching you for a while, and unless I have your personality pegged completely wrong, you aren't particularly happy that this fire started.
“And so,” the figure crouched lower, and now Kiritsugu could see what appeared to be an unpleasant white-toothed grin under the darkness of the hood. “I am here, on behalf of our mutual benefactor, to offer you a deal.”
Kiritsugu's eyes narrowed.
“Ah, confusion,” the figure stood. “I refer, of course, to the guardian angel that sits perched on all of humanity's shoulder, always ready to mete out their harsh discipline on their more... deletorious aspirations. Alaya. Perhaps you've heard of it?'
Amidst the carnage around him, Kiritsugu suddenly found himself struggling to his feet. Struggling to stand.
“And what they are offering you is – wait for it – a genuine once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! They stop this fire, fix this mess, and make it so this stupid little Holy Grail War might as well have never. Ever. Happened.
“And, I know, I know,” the figure raised a hand, as if to forestall any arguments that might be forthcoming. “You're asking what's the catch, right? What's in it for them? Well, nothing much. You just become one of their pet guard dogs, sent to pounce on anything or anyone they find undesirable. And the way I see it, that's what you'd want to do anyway, huh?”
Kiritsugu was silent.
“Oh come on. Kill one to save ten. Kill ten to save a hundred. Kill a hundred to – Well, you get the idea. Really, it's what you do anyway,” the figure paused and shrugged. “Of course, you're not going to get the Grail to make your dream of world peace or whatever a reality, but nobody ever said all dreams come true. Right, Kerry?”
An instant of silence -
And then Kiritsugu lunged, one hand reaching to seize the hooded figure, but he was wounded and exhausted and the figure stepped back, easily evading his grasp.
“Look at yourself. Be reasonable,” the figure continued. “I'm giving you a chance here, you know. To make something out of this mess you got yourself into. Because if you say no, I'll go away. And just like that, everything you'll have done, all that hard work, all those deaths, all those sacrifices... will have been for. Absolutely. Nothing.”
Despite the raging fire all around him, the world seemed to have stilled and fallen into silence.
“Or you could make something of it. Save some lives. Be the hero,” the cloaked figure took one deliberate step forward and stood directly in front of Kiritsugu. “All it takes is one word.”
The hand bearing the silver ring was extended, the universal gesture for an invitation to a handshake.
“Well? What do you say?”
For a single, endless moment, nobody moved.
There were times where Kiritsugu wondered if the universe had gone out of its way to play a giant, sick, cosmic joke on him. Times where, as he stood and surveyed the bodies strewn all around him, he wondered if this was actually a hell of his own personal making.
They'd called him the Magus Killer, back when he had still been alive. And he didn't know if it was a sick joke on the part of the powers-that-be, or just the natural tendency of magecraft-practitioners to go poking where they had no business doing so, but it appeared most of his assignments were against those ilk.
He was also pretty sure he'd once killed the exact same person twice.
“Only makes sense, doesn't it?” the cloaked figure never appeared very often, which Kiritsugu considered a small mercy in a universe with far too few of them. “You know how many different universes are out there with with complete and utter screwups that occur every single day? Having you police a single one would be a waste of your prodigious talents, and believe me, you have quite a few. Mostly involving murdering people. But hey! It's for the greater good!”
This is what you wanted, isn't it?
“Who are you?” once, in a moment of lucidity, standing on the rooftop of what had been some sort of dark ritual just minutes before, he'd seen the figure crouching there again, cloaking billowing about him in the night sky.
“Who, me?” the figure had shrugged. “I'm a go-between. A message delivery boy. Nobody special in the grand scheme of things.”
“And yet you come here to mock me,” he was taciturn most of the time, but once in a while, the bitterness and bile spilled out.
“Oh, you wound me. Sometimes I just like to do a check up on the people I've helped. What can I say? I'm a bleeding heart.”
Silence, but for the wind in the distance. And Kiritsugu tensed as he felt the unmistakeable sensation at the back of his head.
“Oops. You're being summoned,” though the figure's face was hidden, Kiritsugu could not shake the impression that it was grinning at him. “Well, what are you waiting for? Time to go play hero.”
Moon Cell, Proving Grounds
This assignment was new.
For one thing, he was left mostly autonomous to fulfil his objective however he wished. A far cry from Alaya's usual MO of 'burn everything to the ground. Yes, including that.'
Secondly... well, for once, he wasn't too sure what his objective was.
He could guess, simply by the fact that he had been called here, that there had to be something catastrophic for humanity's future waiting in the wings if he failed to prevent whatever was going to happen.
Of course, the more information he drew in about the circumstances he found himself in, the more he found himself wondering.
A Holy Grail War. Yet another blasted one. Once again, he revised his estimation of the universe playing a sick joke on him up another notch.
This one was different from most, though. Here the War was held in a digital landscape. Here, unlike the magi' that he was familiar with, most appeared well-versed in the ways of technology.
Still this was all largely irrelevant detail. The first real issue was getting to participate in the war.
And that meant finding a worthy Master.
He would have laughed at the horrible role reversal had he not mostly been very upset with it instead.
Still. There was work to be done.
Yes, he mused grimly. Work.
Most of the candidates he discarded out of hand. Selfish dreams of glory, chasing ethereal visions and grandiose plans to reshape the world – he'd have sooner shot himself again than work under them.
Of course, he reflected with a somewhat bitter smile, King Arthur might have once thought the same about him.
One candidate, however, caught his eye. Not due to her wish for the Holy Grail, but her lack of one. She seemed to treat participation in the War itself as a goal, something that would help her further her true desires.
And that made two of them.
The introduction hadn't been a particularly warm one. In fact, Kiritsugu had gotten the distinct impression that she had been rather unimpressed.
Kiritsugu hadn't bothered to reply. She well knew his Servant class, and he saw no reason to indulge her in repeating facts they both knew.
Marie – his Master – had sighed and flopped lazily onto a chair once they were safely in the privacy of their own room.
“So, going to be on the level with you here,” the woman had said. “I'm not particularly enthused by the whole wish-granting grail thing. Sure, it'd be nice to have, but...
“I'm actually bothered way more by looking for someone,” she made a face. “Something? Someone. Haven't found out much yet, but what I do know is that I need to make it pretty far into this mess before I'll even get a shot at reaching my target. As in finals-round far.
“Now, if that's not your cup of tea, then... honestly? Feel free to break the contract,” Marie had shaken her head. “It won't kill me, by the way. And I'll miss out on what I'm looking for, but only for this round, I guess. I'll get another shot at it soon enough.”
Kiritsugu had simply shaken his head once, which Marie had apparently taken as consent, because she nodded in reply.
After all, they both had jobs to do.
Moon Cell, Digital Tsukimihara Academy, Storage Shed
He settled back, taking a lazy drag from his cigarette before stubbing it out.
He had to be honest – he missed being able to do this. It had been a very long time since he'd been in a position to just honest-to-god enjoy a smoke.
But now he had the downtime to do so, so... why not?
And on the note of downtime...
He raised his knife and began cleaning the blood of it.
The body of the Master whose throat he'd slit had faded into nothing shortly after he'd disposed of him, but for whatever irritating reason, the blood on his weapon had remained.
Probably just to make life more difficult for him, he supposed.
“Assassin!” he heard Marie's call. In response, he stepped slightly further out into the sunlight, letting her catch sight of his robes.
“I thought you were supposed to be looking for – oh,” her voice trailed off as she caught sight of the blood on his knife.
A silence settled on both of them for a long while before Marie spoke again, her voice noticeably catching in her throat.
“So... did he give you any real trouble?”
The Master had been an idiot who had decided to walk out here to an isolated area of the compound without even bothering to bring his Servant along. Kiritsugu simply shook his head once and left it at that.
Marie seemed to gaze off into the distance for a while before she sighed.
“Fine. Whatever it is, I just need to progress in the war. I guess this is how an Assassin would do it or something? Just let me know if there's anything you need me to do as a Master that a Servant can't.”
Marie's back was turned, so she hadn't seen Kiritsugu raise a single eyebrow.
What may have been a sad, humourless laugh was forced out the back of his throat.
Saber hadn't been half as accomodating, all those years ago.
Then again, neither had he.
He stood up, and without a word, began to head back to their shared room.
There was still work to be done.
Out of five completed rounds in the Grail War, Kiritsugu had only had to face an opponent in the Coliseum once. On all the other accounts he had managed to live up to his name by employing judicious use of explosives, traps, ambushes and general combat pragmatism before it ever came to a deathmatch with the actual Servant.
Of course, now he was forced into another straight fight.
Against Saber. King Arthur.
Because the universe, as far as Kiritsugu could tell, really had done all this as a sick joke.
The one advantage of fighting in such an enclosing space as the elevator that was intended to take them to the Coliseum was that King Arthur would not be able to use her Noble Phantasm in such a tight spot. Kiritsugu, meanwhile, was free to use his own.
Of course the unfortunate corollary was that quadrupling his combat abilities would barely allow him to keep pace with King Arthur as it was. His body was enhanced far beyond what he had been capable off during the Fourth Grail War so long ago, but still.
Facts were facts. The rules didn't change no matter how unfair they were.
King Arthur was just better in a fight than him. Kiritsugu wouldn't be able to beat her in a straight fight.
It was that simple.
Equally simple: He didn't need to defeat her.
At this point, Kiritsugu had to assume that Leonard was the only one left who posed a large enough problem that Alaya had forcibly injected him into the Grail War. If only because all the other Masters (his own included) seemed utterly ambivalent towards the Grail itself. Meanwhile the boy had gone on and on about becoming king and providing 'order' and all that nonsense.
So, defeating King Arthur would not be the goal. She was an obstacle, to be maneuvered around.
Unfortunately, Leoanrd had proven to be slightly harder to kill than he would have liked. He possessed some sort of magecraft that enabled to boost his speed vastly for a moment – enough that he could avoid a point blank shot from Kiritsugu.
Given the look on the boy's face, however, the spell had obviously been a taxing one.
One more shot... if I can get one more clear shot...
For now, though...
Twisting, and barely avoiding a strike from King Arthur that would have cut him in half, he fired. Not at Leonard – King Arthur was doing too good a job of placing herself between the two of them and she'd have blocked any shots that Kiritsugu could have made.
But at the doorway. The bullet, coded with a disruption signal, did two things – firstly, it jammed the doors closed. And secondly, the elevator began its long descent to the Coliseum.
The three people within the elevator paused for a brief moment. Slowly, with deliberate movements, Kiritsugu began to reload his guns.
King Arthur made no move to stop him, save for tightening the grip on her own weapon. Her eyes were narrowed in concentration as she stared at Kiritsugu.
Different world, different time, he almost shook his head. Same old honourable idiot.
Well, so much the better if she let him get away with that.
He had a job to do.
He raised his hand.
And then battle was joined.
Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoyed it, and comments are welcome.