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Thread: [OneShot?] Minus One

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    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    [OneShot] Minus One

    This is a piece I finished a number of months ago (actually looking at the dates on my computer, I started it a year ago this month and just finished it in January @[email protected]) but I've been so lazy with editing it that I never got around to posting it.

    Well, editing is done, and I'm in kind of a bind. I'm not sure I'm really satisfied with the way this story turned out, but having two other one-shots I've written fully to completion and never posted because 'they're not good enough,' I've gotten a little frustrated with myself. I figured I might as well just bite the bullet and put it out there, and let the reader decide whether it's worth reading instead of robbing myself of a chance to get constructive feedback.

    As you might guess from the title, this takes place a number of years before Fate/Zero, though that's more of a coincidence than intentional. It is loosely Fate-related, but fair warning the main character is an OC (again).

    This is intended to be a stand alone piece, though if there is a reasonable amount of interest I do have a follow up sketched out to tie up some of the questions intentionally left unanswered. Feel free to let me know if that's something you'd be interested in seeing.

    Anyway, that's enough rambling for now. Have a story. Length is about 21,600 words, estimated reading time is about an hour and a half. Any comments, criticisms, or feedback of any sort is more than welcome.


    ===================================


    Damn, I hate the cold.

    For the umpteenth time, his inner monologue complained at his current circumstances.

    Holding himself tightly in a futile attempt to keep warm, Sedd trudged through thigh-deep snow. The steel-grey sky was all but invisible over the raging snowstorm, the blizzard almost enough to prevent him from seeing at all. He certainly couldn't see his own hands when he held them up, but that was more encouraging than anything else. If he couldn't see his hands from a foot away, then there was no way anyone else would be able to see him either.

    He couldn't quite remember how long he had been out in the mountains. At the very least, it must have been more than a year. Probably closer to two, but he'd have to check his supplies to put a precise date on it.

    Either way, it had been a long time. And every day he came out had been like this, a blizzard unlike anything he had ever experienced growing up. Sure, there was snow in London, but never anything like this. As miserable as the weather was, however, it was necessary for him. He couldn't risk being outside when someone could actually see him. Even being spotted once would make all his years of hard work here for naught.

    So on clear days he stayed holed up in his shelter, a barely one room shack that stood alone and camoflauged in the forest nearby. If he got antsy he would send out a familiar to peak on the surroundings, maybe hope for a miracle breakthrough, but otherwise he could do nothing but wait. And on days like this, where the snowfall gave him sufficient cover to be outside, he would come out and continue his investigation, safe from the prying eyes of any lookouts.

    It was a trying time in his life, spent all alone up in the mountains. Even though he could safely consider himself an expert in his field, his work was like buying a lottery ticket every day. No matter how many days he had searched, he was getting no closer to finding his goal - it was an all or nothing gamble, every single day.

    He had of course known he was in for an extended expedition when he had first arrived. That's why he had brought three months worth of supplies with him, why he built his small but sturdy shelter before even starting. After stretching his three months of supplies to four months, he begrudgingly returned to civilization to restock, this time lugging a full year's worth of food with him. Once that supply had run down, he went back, procured another year's supply, and continued on undaunted.

    While he couldn't say he was happy with his current lack of success, it didn't particularly frustrate him either. He had naively hoped he would be able to finish the first stage of his expedition quickly, but even before he began he knew that wasn't realistic. After all, this wasn't just any family. This was a line of magi dating back over a thousand years, a family so old it had achieved True Magic and then lost it again. Penetrating the layered Bounded Fields concealing their workshop was not something one could expect to accomplish in a day.

    Or a year and a half, it seems, Sedd thought to himself as he sighed.

    Still, if there was one thing he had learned from his father, it was patience. Patience and perseverence. No matter how long he had been stuck up in these mountains, the thought of giving up had yet to even cross his mind. No vulture ever won a meal by being hasty, after all.

    For a moment, he stopped, grimacing under his mask. That was an ugly metaphor. He was anything but a vulture, and even if he were, though his target was an ancient family, they weren't anywhere close to being dead. In a way that was unfortunate. It would be a lot easier to infiltrate their workshop if there weren't any people in it, after all. On the other hand, if they were all dead, they probably wouldn't have what he was looking for, so he guessed it evened out.

    As he made to start moving again, he froze. Something had changed. Shutting out the sound of the gusting wind, trying to ignore the frigid cold that had slowly but surely seeped through his camoflauged coat, closing his eyes to blinding snowstorm that even now was trying furiously to bury him, he reached out with his mind.

    The Boundary Field that he had been skirting for hours, months, years, was still there. But it was different. Probing the edges, careful not to touch the Field itself, lest he signal his presence to the residents within, he tested for anything. Anything at all that might be a clue as to how he could get inside.

    For a moment, his eyes went wide. There was definitely something there. A seam, a small crack barely wide enough for a single snowflake to slip through. Holding his breath, he held his right hand up in front of him, raising thumb and forefinger, then little and ring finger, fore and middle finger, and finally little finger alone. As he made the final sign, a ribbon of almost transparent shadow wove its way out from the sleeve of his coat, stretching slowly but steadily forward.

    He had seen seams like this in the Boundary Field before. Every time prior, they had been false leads, either planted to lure in potential intruders, or unnoticed errors that had been unknowingly repaired. There was a chance, however, that it was a gap that led into the interior, and though he couldn't get through himself...

    The ribbon twisted itself into the air, slipping effortlessly through the tiny crack in the Boundary Field. Once through, it wove itself into the silhouette of a hawk, hovering unnaturally in the air. The shape complete, Sedd lowered his little finger to make a fist, and the spark of life entered into the shadow. Lowering itself to rest on top of the snow, it turned to look at him, cocking its head to the side slightly.

    "Go take a look, Parthi."

    Eerily silent, the bird spread its wings and jumped, soaring into the interior. In a few seconds, it vanished entirely into the storm.

    If it was indeed a false lead, then carelessly pressing forward would not only get him nowhere, it would also sound a blaring alarm to the Boundary Field's owner. Sending in his familiar would only give the impression that a stray bird had wandered into the Boundary Field. Perhaps odd, given the weather, but hardly a cause for alarm if it was an isolated incident. If it was an actual break, he still wouldn't be able to get his body through, but thanks to the non-material nature of his familiar, he could at least get a pair of eyes over there.

    Trying to ignore the sound of his own heart beginning to race faster and faster, he closed his eyes again, focusing on his familiar. After a brief few moments, his eyes still closed, a hazy picture of the snowstorm returned to his vision. This time, however, he was not standing still - he was soaring through the air.

    With an ethereal body, it was much easier for the familiar to navigate the area even through the howling wind and almost opaque squall. Though its vision wasn't any better than his, and the nature of the link degraded the image even further, the thing he was looking for would not require much precision to find. With a speed he could never hope to manage on foot even in the best conditions, he watched as the familiar cut through the storm, gliding effortlessly against the wind.

    After a few minutes of flight, he could see a faint glow in the distance. Reminding himself to keep breathing, he waited as it drew closer, closer, closer...and soon an enormous dark shape appeared around it.

    A building. An enormous building, with light glowing faintly in the windows.

    A castle.

    Sedd simultaneously felt like jumping and shouting for joy and collapsing in exhausted relief. Finally, after almost two years, he had finally found his way in. It was a sliver of space thinner than a sheet of paper, but that would be more than enough for him.

    Taking a deep breath, Sedd tried to force himself to calm down. As excited as he was, he knew he needed to take things slow. Think things through. Be patient.

    Cutting the visual link to Parthi, he gave it a mental command to return to the spot of the seam before turning around and starting the walk back to his hideout. He had successfully found his way in, but he needed supplies still if he was going to accomplish anything. Besides just eating, he would need enough rations to sustain himself for a day inside at least, not to mention the tools he would need. He would probably be well served by sleeping first as well.

    As much as he itched to just barrel forward, he had spent too much time preparing to take any risk that wasn't absolutely necessary. With a little patience...

    ...with a little patience, he would be inside.



    ------------------


    If there was one thing Sedd had learned from his father, it was that any risk worth taking always had to be proportional to the return.

    After returning to his hideout, eating and sleeping, the storm had lifted. No matter how antsy he was, how anxious to get started, he couldn't risk getting intercepted before arriving at the castle itself. Once he made it inside, he would have plenty of room to maneuver, plenty of space to hide. If he was stuck outside when he made first contact, however, he would almost certainly die. Being out in the open with nowhere to hide or run, within their Workshop and thus territory they were well used to, just being spotted was akin to a death sentence.

    And so, as agonizing as it was, he waited. Leaving his familiar Parthi to watch over the seam in the barrier, he spent his time preparing himself mentally for what would no doubt be the most important mission of his life.

    Most of the time, his family's work had little impact on their family itself. Professional assassins, living in the shadow of the Clock Tower, acting where bounty hunters and Enforcers were afraid to tread, or couldn't be trusted. Even a secret organization like the Clock Tower could have an even darker underbelly, and that's where his family had made its home. A family of magi whose sole purpose was to eliminate other magi. Sedd may have killed his father before the diplomatic reins were handed down to him, but that little insurrection had done nothing to quell the appetite of the Clock Tower for the services his family offered, and having no other place to turn - nor any reason to abandon his family's heritage - he had hardly hesitated to take up his father's mantle.

    Young though he may have been, Sedd was unquestionably an elite. And part of that was knowing when to strike...and when to hold your cards for the next turn.

    After an almost unbearable three days, a blizzard once again descended on the area. Within minutes of its arrival, Sedd was back outside, making his way back to the seam in the Boundary Field as fast as the snow would let him.

    Arriving back at the seam, he was greeted by Parthi, lifting its ethereal wings in the air but otherwise remaining unmoving.

    "Hold on, little buddy," Sedd muttered, his voice inaudible over the sound of the blustering wind, "I'll have you back in a sec."

    After a quick inspection to ensure the seam was still as he had left it, he took a deep breath and lifted his right hand in front of him. After a few quick signs, ribbons of shadow reached out from the folds in his clothes, entering the seam and bunching together. Bringing his left hand up to meet the right, he held them together as if in prayer, before twisting around his palms and violently pulling them apart. In answer, the gathered ribbons burst outwards, tearing the seam in the Boundary Field into a gaping hole.

    Without taking even a moment to breathe, Sedd leapt forwards through the hole.

    The clock started now.

    The Boundary Field layered around the castle was not so simple a thing to break through. It was an ingenius melding of simple illusions and suggestion with powerful concealing and mind-altering magecrafts, making entry without the owner's blessing all but impossible. But no defense was perfect - just as concrete would expand and contract, even to the point of cracking and breaking due to the weather, so too did such artificially constructed Bounded Fields decay with the ebb and flow of Nature.

    Of course, just as with any real world substance, damage could be repaired. And so Sedd's stakeout of the Bounded Field was not just about finding a flaw through which he could infiltrate, but also finding one he could make use of before it was found and repaired by the denizens within.

    While lesser Fields could be bypassed simply by destroying them, one of this caliber would require far more resources than he had available, and a magus of much greater skill than he. What he could do, however, was exploit one of these temporary flaws, open a hole just large enough for him to enter, and slip inside before it could be repaired. Of course, doing so was not without risk - the owner of the Bounded Field would no doubt notice immediately that the Field had been torn, and if they were able to bring a field of this size and complexity to bear, they would no doubt have numerous other Fields and mechanisms in place to track down the trespasser even after they successfully gained entrance.

    And that was why he needed the cover of the storm. No doubt they were aware he had broken in, and reviewing the area within with the data gained from his familiar beforehand, he knew it would take at least an hour in this snow to reach the castle itself. But with the blizzard assailing the area, it was highly unlikely they would be able to send out any sort of reasonable combat strength to stop him. Even if they did, the heavy snowfall would obscure his movements and cover his tracks, making finding and fighting him almost impossible.

    Of course, that didn't mean he could waste any time. Now that he had tripped the alarm, every second counted.

    As he plowed his way through the thick snow covering the field leading up to the castle, Parthi perched on his shoulder and began to chirp silently at him.

    "Right, right, sorry," Sedd apologized, throwing a few signs with his right hand. Excited as he was to press on, he had forgotten already to dismiss the familiar. A minor, but troubling slip up. Any mistakes, no matter how minor, could be the end of him once he got inside. He was going to have to tighten up.

    In response to the signs he had made, the familiar's shadowy body began to unravel, and in short order had disappeared in the snowy gale. Now that Parthi had been returned to his resting place, he could press on without worries. He had considered sending Parthi ahead again to scout, keep an eye on any movements within the castle, but with visibility at essentially zero in the storm it would just put unnecessary stress on him.

    He had also considered using Parthi to arrive at the castle faster. With a bit of effort, he could probably find a way to use him to move at a much faster speed than just trudging boringly through the snow. But unfortunately, that would do no good either. While he was adept at hiding his presence, both as a person and as a magi, that would only work so well against such a well-prepared, well-fortified opponent. Using excessive magecraft on top of that would be like attaching a strobe light to his head in a dark room.

    As he pressed on through the snowstorm, he kept his mind occupied by repeating as many details about the target family to himself as he could. Unfortunately, that was a vanishingly small amount of information.

    He knew they were an old family, beyond a thousand years. And that they had almost no contact with the outside world, only keeping touch with the Mage's Association as a formality. Despite that, they were still famous as perhaps the last bastion of the dying practice of homunculus creation. While there were a number of families still practiced in the art, none could be said to compare when it came to the perfect imitation of a human body. Apparently.

    As far as combat magecraft went, he had almost no information. However, if the quality of their homunculi was even close to the rumors, then he suspected the magi would rely on them for combat, rather than bother with it themselves. That boded well in a way, as it meant he wouldn't have too much trouble from the magi of the house. It did mean, however, that those he would likely be facing were almost sure to be superhuman. Who knew what kind of bizarre modifications they had made to their homunculus guards?

    As far as political allies, they had very few. Though they had strong ties to a couple families in the Far East, they wouldn't be of much help here in northern Europe. Perhaps he could expect some backlash from them after the fact, but that was an issue to worry about when he had successfully made it home. Together, they were involved in some holy war ritual thing, but the next one wasn't scheduled for almost a decade, so the ritual itself was of little concern to him.

    ...and that was basically the sum of his knowledge. Compared to what he was used to working with, it was frighteningly small.

    But I guess that's what happens when the mark is a family of hermits, he quipped to himself.

    As he had predicted, in just less then an hour, the silhouette of the castle broke through the concealing wall of the storm. Taking a deep breath, Sedd steadied himself before approaching further.

    This was his last chance. Just stepping inside their Bounded Field was enough to declare himself an enemy to the family inside, but stepping inside the castle itself was the point of no return, tantamount to forfeiting his own life. There would be no holds barred - the residents would no doubt kill him on sight, no questions asked. And even if they weren't specialized in combat, there was no way they could exist as a family of magi for over a thousand years without ample means of defending themselves.

    If there was one thing he had learned from his father, it was that there was no shame in turning down an impossible mission. With so little information and such an imposing enemy, it was foolish to grade his probability of success as anything higher than fifty percent. And while he was no stranger to putting his life on the line for his work, he normally had a lot more information to go on - and normally wasn't up against such a fortified opponent.

    But even as he considered the risks he was taking on by going inside, even knowing he could just turn around and leave and the storm would shield him on his way back to safety, the idea of giving up never really crossed his mind. He had a mission to do, one that had set the course of his entire life since he took over for his father. One that would mark the end of his family's long history of being nothing but a nameless shadow.

    Flicking his right hand in a series of signs, he kept careful watch on the nearby windows as he lifted his personal embargo on magecraft. This close to the castle, the would surely detect his use of magecraft and be able to pinpoint his position almost perfectly, but they would know as soon as he stepped foot inside too, so that made little difference.

    After an unusually long incantation, the spell was complete, and four dark shadows rose up in front of him. While to an outsider they might look like shoddy work, only rough approximations of a humanoid shape, they were more than sufficient for his task. Without a word of instruction, the shadows leapt into action, running through the snow as if it was nothing. As they approached the castle walls they turned sharply, and quickly disappeared out of sight, searching for an optimal entrance.

    As they searched, he continued with another series of signs, this time whispering softly as he spoke.

    "Sorry, Parthi, but its time for work again. We'll be working pretty hard today."

    Once again, shadows wound out of his sleeve, weaving together in the form of a small bird. As the bird finished forming, it perched on his outstretched palm, cocking its head to the side as it looked up at him.

    Looking up at the enormous castle standing in front of him, Sedd grimaced. "Third floor, I suppose?" he commented to the little bird, which replied by hopping around on his hand to look at the imposing structure in front of them. After a moment of sizing up the situation, the bird jumped into the air, fluttering over Sedd's head and spreading its wings wide. Though it had originally been small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, the bird's wingspan rapidly expanded outwards to reach the size of an eagle's, its once tiny feet grasping on to his shoulders as talons one might expect from some ancient dinosaur.

    Having no physical mass to speak of, Parthi's enormous wings did little to lift Sedd off the ground. As the shadowy bird pulled on his coat, Sedd took hold of the castle wall with his own hands and began climbing. Thankfully, the structure of the castle was ornate enough that there were plenty of handholds for him to make use of. Combined with Parthi's assistance - more for balance thana nything else - Sedd was able to make a steady pace up the side of the wall, skirting the second floor window and coming to a comfortable rest outside the third floor.

    In a well practiced rhythm, after seeing Sedd was secure on the outside edge of the window, Parthi released its grip on its master's shoulders and returned to a size slightly larger than a humming bird. The now small familiar hopped its shadowy body through the glass window and turned around to look at it from the inside. After a short inspection, it once again jumped into action, throwing its negligible body weight against the latch of the window. With a satisfying clink, the lock opened, and Sedd was able to pull the window open from the outside.

    With smooth, practiced motions, Sedd rolled himself over the windowsill and landed softly on his feet inside the castle. After a quick look in both directions to double check he was alone in the hallway, he turned and gently shut the window, returning it to its locked position.

    "Which way you feeling, Parthi?" As the familiar perched itself on his head, he murmured a soft question. Though he didn't really expect an answer, after looking both ways, the bird hopped down onto his left shoulder, cheeping voicelessly. "Left it is then," he answered the birds cheeping with a smile before heading off down the hallway to the left.

    He was past the point of no return - now that he was inside, it was either win or die. After almost two years of camping out in the wilderness, waiting for his chance, his twofold game of hide and seek with the Einzbern family had finally begun.


    -------------------------------


    Crouched in a small recess in the wall of the hallway, Sedd stilled his breathing.

    Two pairs of footsteps, approaching from his right. Crisp and even, unhurried. Unprepared. A little too far away, but not for long.

    If there was one thing Sedd had learned from his father, it was that the first strike was the only one that mattered. Even if it wasn't sufficient, it would dictate the course of any confrontation. Though in his own estimation, if the first strike wasn't sufficient, that was grounds to give up and try again later.

    Slowly forming a few simple signs with his right hand, Sedd triggered his jury-rigged Bounded Field. It was the simplest of simple affairs, originally designed to ensure the privacy of those inside by blocking any sound from passing outside of it. And though his goal was certainly for privacy, it was probably not the intended use of such magecraft. Putting up a Bounded Field within another magus' territory, while not impossible, was a task of astronomical difficulty, and thus he preferred to use the simplest fields possible. Easy come easy go, or something like that.

    As the barrier slid into place, and the two guards crossed the threshold, Sedd flicked his hand again, this time just a mundane hand signal for the shadowy bird perched on his shoulder.

    Soundlessly, the bird swelled to the size of a small hawk as it jumped into the air, brazenly swooping toward the oncoming footsteps. Almost instantly, the guards began to yell - not cries of surprise, but shouts of alarm. They were well trained, but good preparation beat out good instincts.

    Before even leaving his hiding place, he cast his next spell, signing rapidly before peaking out into the hallway.

    Down the hallway were two guards - pale white skin and blood red eyes clearly showing they were just homunculi - now contending with Parthi. One appeared unarmed, and had brought her hands up as if to cast some sort of spell. The other bore an enormous halberd, looking more ornamental than functional, and while battle-ready was clearly unsure of how to deal with the approaching familiar. Neither of them had noticed him in hiding yet.

    As soon as he had finished signing his first spell, he smoothly transitioned into the second. As he continued watching from behind the wall, Parthi's shape changed, the swooping hawk suddenly becoming a striking serpent. The sudden change caught the first homunculus by surprise, and as she hesitated the shadowy snake coiled around its prey. As its tail caught the homunculus' wrist in a restraining grasp, its main body extended to wrap around the unfortunate guardswoman's neck, leaving just enough space for its fangs to sink in.

    The homunculus cried out in pain, its free hand futilely clawing at the snake's ethereal body, fingers passing uselessly through. Meanwhile, the weapon-bearing homunculus could do little more than watch, its weapon much too large and bulky to affect any sort of help, even if physical weapons could somehow harm the familiar. Having turned to watch its struggling partner, it didn't notice Sedd stepping out into the hallway behind it.

    Having finished his second spell - a rather long one, by his standards - he flicked his wrist in the direction of the tense halberdier. With slow, almost labored movements, the shadows beneath the homunculus' feet began to darken and spread. Three long ribbons of darkness rose out of the floor, finally earning the guard's attention as they spiraled around her - but not before it was too late. As it brought its weapon to bear against the rising shadows, the ribbons sprouted numerous thorns, each an easy two feet long.

    The homunculus wimpered softly as the ribbons collapsed into her, driving the thorns through her body in a dozen places. Their work done, the shadows dissipated, and the lifeless homunculus crumpled to the floor.

    With swift but unhurried movements, Sedd walked to the window nearest the fallen homunculi. Releasing the lock, he opened the window wide before picking up the halberdier's corpse and hurling it outside. Her weapon followed, much heavier than its wielder. Turning to look at his remaining victim, he briefly thought of questioning her before tossing her out the window after her partner, but quickly dismissed the idea. No homunculus desired life enough to trade it for information, and this one in particular seemed determined to resist to the bitter end.

    "Parthi, finish up. We gotta go."

    The snake, which had now grown large enough it could restrain both the guard's arms while retaining its grip on her neck, bit down harder on the guard's neck, putting a stop to its already feeble resistance. As Sedd picked up the dead homunculus and tossed it out the window, Parthi shrunk to the size of a small garden snake, wrapping itself gently around Sedd's upper arm and resting its head on his shoulder.

    Closing the window, Sedd briefly inspected the crime scene. There was, of course, no blood - neither his shadows nor Parthi's fangs were material enough to actually inflict physical injury on their victims, instead attacking their targets on a spiritual level. While an unfortunate drawback in some cases, it made cleaning up that much easier. Content nothing looked especially out of order, he pulled the killswitch on the already crumbling privacy field and continued on his way down the hallway.

    That was the third pair of guards that he had been forced to dispatch within the last hour. Either the Einzberns had a lot more manpower than he had believed, or they had already seen through his decoys and were closing in on his actual position rapidly. A little concerning, as he had no solid lead on the location of his target yet, but he had so far managed to silence everyone who had witnessed him. That didn't put him at quite the advantage he would have liked, but it was at least buying time.

    Really, what he needed to do was find a good hiding spot and send Parthi out to scout on his own. However, he had no idea how precisely the Einzberns were able to track him inside the castle, and if they found him while he was seperated from his familiar, that would be the end. Walking around on foot wasn't much better of a plan, though, and in all likelyhood was actually just a faster path to his own death. He had managed so far to dispatch the homunculi guards smoothly, but it would only take one mistake - or even, to come across more than two at a time - to put him in hot water.

    Either way, a place to stop and think for a few minutes was probably a good idea. Approaching the first door he came across, he put a hand to the door and nodded to the snake still wrapped around his arm. Sliding down his arm, the snake pushed its ethereal head through the door, looking through to the other side. After a few moments of observation it pulled its head back and returned to a resting position around his shoulder.

    Pushing open the door, he quietly shut it behind him as he stepped into what looked like some sort of sitting room. A little spartan in its accomodations, it held a cold fireplace, a few wooden chairs, and a single small wooden table, but that was more than enough for him. Taking a seat on the floor beside the door, so that the door would hide him from any prying eyes if it were to open, he quietly sighed, pulling a protein bar from his belt pouch.

    As he munched on the snack, he mulled over what he had gathered so far. He didn't have a precise idea of how long he had been wandering the castle, but it had to have been at least a couple hours. At the very least, he had a general grasp of the layout of the castle, though that unfortunately didn't include the knowledge he was looking for. He also had had some difficulty getting an idea of how populated the castle was - he had yet to see any actual magi, but having dispatched half a dozen homunculi hadn't seemed to have put the castle into any sort of uproar.

    It seemed likely they had pulled back all non-combat personnel to a safe location the moment they had detected his intrusion through the outer Bounded Field. And though it didn't seem like they had a precise bead on his location, the frequency with which he was running into patrols was unnerving, nevermind how often they had caught him in open spaces where his only choice was to fight or be caught. And while he felt encouraged by the fact he had managed to avoid detection so far, the fact they had managed to keep him away from his target without even knowing where he was was more than a little irritating.

    Regardless, he couldn't stay here long. Finishing the protein bar - wraper discarded long before he had entered the castle, of course - he drew out a mental picture of the castle as far as he understood it. He had covered most of the third floor of the castle, and a good percentage of the second floor along the south side. None of the areas he had come across so far, however, seemed to be any more than one would expect from a mundane European castle. There were no traces of the family's lineage of magecraft, besides the homunculi roaming the halls in search of him.

    His target would not be up here, among guest rooms and visiting chambers. Especially if they had withdrawn the entire population into the depths of the castle in preparation for his arrival, he would need to find his way to the more fortified positions, into the Workshops themselves. And if the top floors of the castle were all living areas, then it made sense that the Workshops would be on the ground floor, if not under it.

    And so, his next destination would be the basement.

    No doubt it would be the most dangerous place in the castle, where the full arsenal of the Einzbern family's defensive power would be primed and ready, but wandering around the castle for ages without finding what he was looking for wouldn't be all that much safer.

    Pushing himself up off the floor, he made a quick inspection to ensure he was leaving no evidence of his presence before exiting the room. The nearest stairway down was quite a distance away, requiring him to travel almost half the length of the floor. Traversing the stairways always felt the most nerve-wracking, being places where common traffic accumulated within a building, and thus making them the places he was most likely to be seen. With a little bit of caution, though, he figured he could make it to at least the first floor without being spotted.

    As he approached a corner, he flicked his fingers into the appropriate signs to return Parthi to his bird form. That would probably be his next project, he mused - to design a body that allowed Parthi to change his shape at will. It had been a fairly major breakthrough to learn how to reweave his current form into a new one without starting over from scratch - let alone the creation of the familiar to begin with - but there was always progress to be made.

    Without slowing his pace, he watched Parthi flutter forward to inspect around the corner before he returned to Sedd's shoulder. Idly, he wondered if there was another, more central staircase that would lead down. It would likely be closer, much faster than holding to the outside edge of the castle as he had been. At the very least, it was probably worth the effort to check.

    As he stepped around the corner, he froze.

    For a moment, time seemed to freeze with him. Despite Parthi's all-clear, there were very clearly two people standing down the hallway.

    One, another homunculus, but clearly different from the others. She had the same silver-white hair, the same blood-red eyes, but her dress was more formal. Clearly she was not a soldier or a guard, as the others had been. But much more terrifyiing was the man beside her, down on one knee, holding a small submachine gun in both hands.

    Both of them were staring directly at him.

    A wave of cold dread passed through Sedd as time jolted back into motion.

    Sedd barely had time to swear as he kicked backwards as hard as possible, narrowly making it behind the corner before a hail of bullets peppered the wall where he had been standing. Skipping backwards, he flicked a rapid succession of signs, and the shadows by his feet rose up into the form of a vaguely humanoid apparition, all the while a steady stream of choice curse words dominated his stream of consciousness.

    As the hail of bullets came to an end, a latticework bird - not unlike Parthi in shape - wound its way around the corner, diving towards Sedd before Parthi leapt into action intercepting it. His ethereal body unbound by the laws of gravity and momentum, Parthi easily maneuvered around its charge, sinking his talons into the steelwork bird's right wing and redirecting its forward motion to slam it downwards into the floor.

    No time to give attention to the questions racing through his mind, Sedd continued running backwards and casting, not taking his eyes off the corner he had just rounded. With an almost unnatural speed, the trench-coated man broke out around the corner, submachine gun replaced with a sleek black pistol. Again, with an agility that seemed almost beyond human, he recoiled backwards, dodging the lunging apparition that had been waiting for him and luring it out deeper into the hallway.

    The apparition was, of course, harmless. There was no way Sedd could create an actually autonomously functioning, combat capable familiar in a handful of seconds, but of course the man had no way of knowing that. He didn't have to worry about it for long, however, as the apparition was torn apart by bolts of blue-white light the moment it stepped out past the corner and into the sight of the man's partner.

    In the brief instant he was distracted by the apparition, Sedd finished his next spell, the shadows at his feet bursting outwards like an explosion, completely enshrouding his end of the hallway in darkness. As visibility around him dropped to zero, he threw himself onto his back, just before hearing the crack of gunfire and three pistol rounds zip past where he had been standing. Though he was completely hidden, his visibility of his opponent remained unchanged.

    The man hesitated, scanning the darkness for any sign of his enemy. In that brief moment of hesitation, Parthi leapt from the floor towards his back - only to be intercepted by a second latticework bird. While its metallic body was unable to physically impact Parthi's ethereal one, the bolts of light it spat were more than capable of harming him. Zipping around at unnatural angles, shrinking and growing to dodge the incoming fire, Parthi was forced to turn his attention to his new assailant.

    Rolling backwards onto his feet again, Sedd fired off a quick succession of single-action spells, each triggered by a simple hand gesture. With the first, a single dark talon shot out from the concealed area, but yet again with seemingly impossible speed and reaction time, the man dodged around it effortlessly.

    The second, a bolt of darkness from the ceiling came down, impaling the construct chasing Parthi around the hallway, freeing the familiar to return to hunt its original prey. As soon as the dark thorn made contact with the metallic bird, the wire making up its frame unravelled, dropping to the floor lifeless.

    The third, a final thorn rose from the floor to strike the man from his blindspot. As if predicting the attack, the remaining of the metallic birds rose from the floor and intercepted the shadow, shielding the man at the last instant.

    Escape. He had to escape. As more bolts of light zipped through the air, preventing Parthi from engaging once again, it became obvious that they were outgunned. He might have been able to take one of them at a time, but the two of them together were far too much.

    Ten steps back...two more?

    Counting backwards to the door of the room he had rested in earlier, he quickly skipped backwards. The cover of darkness prevented the man from seeing him, and the padded shoes he wore prevented him from hearing his footsteps. Once again, however, being in an enemy magus' territory made it virtually impossible to maintain any sort of sustained magecraft for longer than a few seconds, and the shadow refuge he had created was rapidly beginning to dissolve, light from both the lamps lining the hallways and the windows outside struggling to reach him.

    Grabbing the handle of the door, he pushed it open with his shoulder - and once again the crack of gunfire filled the hallway.

    Sedd swore loudly as he tumbled into the room, leaving the door ajar as he rolled across the floor, the sharp sting in his upper left arm enough to tell him he had been hit. That had been careless - he had forgotten how unnaturally fast the man's reflexes were. He had counted on the fact he could get through the door before the man could line up a shot, but with his speed, he had been able to pinpoint his location from the sound of the door's latch opening, and had managed to catch him just below the shoulder before he tumbled through the doorway.

    "Parthi! Back!" Struggling to his feet, he held his right hand to the gunshot wound, shouting through clenched teeth. He knew he only had a few seconds at best to make his escape - he wouldn't underestimate the gunner's speed again - which left him very few options. Wounded as he was, he'd have difficulty casting with any efficiency, so mounting an ambush would be difficult with the time he had. He could try and leap out the room's window, but even if he just jumped through the glass, he likely wouldn't make it very far outside before the man caught up and just shot him as he fell.

    With another curse, he clenched his teeth to try and push down the pain as he lifted his left hand, forming one last sign. Fore, middle, and small fingers raised, thumb holding the ring finger down - in an instant, violet light burst from his hand and forearm, the pattern of his magic crest like thorned vines, wrapping almost to his elbow.

    At almost the same time, Parthi flew through the wall of the room, landing on his shoulder. Without prompt or action from Sedd, Parthi's body dissolved, the familiar returning to its resting place as its birdlike body dissipated into the air. Just as Parthi's body vanished, Sedd spoke the trigger to activate his magic crest.

    "Corpus Umbra!"

    A high pitched screech, dulled like he was hearing it from underwater, filled Sedd's ears as the room went dim. Shadows leapt from his feet, from every fold in his clothing, from the creases in the tiled floor to wrap him in darkness just as the man kicked the door open, two latticework birds hovering in front of him like a shield. Without a moment's hesitation, he emptied the clip of his gun into Sedd's chest, bullets punching through him like he was made of air.

    Vaguely, Sedd could tell the man was shouting, though he couldn't hear what over the howling in his ears. Though he wasn't moving, it felt like his body was hurtling around at a hundred miles per second, like he had to push against a hurricane to move any of his limbs. But that was fine, because he didn't need to move anymore. As the wirework birds rose to face him, beaks glowing with power...

    ...he let go.

    As if the ground hadn't been there at all, he fell. Streaming black smoke from his bullet wound, his previously snow-white outer gear completely wrapped in darkness, he fell through the floor, disappearing from sight.



    ----------------------



    If there was one thing Sedd had learned from his father, it was that the most important part of any mission was making sure you left no trace of having been there.

    Sedd couldn't help but smile bitterly as he looked around the small storage room. It seemed there was little chance of accomplishing that now. The stone walls and floor of the room were smeared with an unnerving amount of his own blood, far more than one would have expected from a single bullet wound.

    "And that's why I'm not a surgeon," he muttered under his breath before using his teeth to help tighten the bandage around the freshly treated wound. He had made quick work of the injury, removing the bullet and dressing the wound in a matter of minutes, but as the saying went, haste makes waste. And in this case, what was wasted was a copious amount of his own bodily fluids. Likely, with the way he had treated the injury it would not heal properly, but that was something a real doctor could fix after the fact. Right now all he needed was for it to not kill him - and if he could be greedy, to not distract him from his work.

    Finishing the last of his water ration, he swallowed some painkillers he had brought with him. He suddenly felt much less like he had overprepared, the small rations of food and water along with the medical supplies he had managed to cram onto his person proving more than useful.

    The painkillers would take a while to start working, and would only reduce the pain, not relieve it completely. Unfortunately, that would have to suffice. Taking a higher dosage, or using stronger medicine, would both run the risk of impairing his mental functions, and he couldn't risk being anything other than fully alert now that he was injured.

    Leaning back against the stone wall of the cellar, Sedd gave a long sigh. He had a lot of thinking to do if he was going to get out of the castle alive, nevermind actually finishing the mission.

    His escape had been a desperate gambit, and one that wounded his pride almost as much as it had taxed his body. If there was anything that Sedd hated, it was relying on his father's signature magecraft - and that was only in part because of how harsh the side effects were.

    Though not comparable to the Einzbern's by any stretch of the imagination, Sedd's family had a rather lengthy history of its own. And though it had strayed from its original goal of reaching the Root many generations ago, the process of perpetual growth remained unchanged. According to family tradition, each generation would have two children. Each would compete from a young age to add something of significant value to the family's magecraft. No matter how late or early in their life, the first to succeed would be granted the title of heir.

    For example, two generations prior, Sedd's grandfather had won the heirship by inventing the process of Signcasting. By replacing vocal components with somatic ones, uttered incantations adapted into a sign language invented by his grandfather himself, he essentially rebuilt the family's entire magecraft from the ground up in a single generation. Signcasting itself had numerous benefits. Spellcasting became effectively silent, and all but the most astute of opponents would be unable to predict the coming spells even after seeing them multiple times. Beyond its competitive value, it aided in spellcasting in that it allowed the casting of complex spells even in extreme situations where speech or even breathing were impossible, like when underwater. And finally, it created a system where spellcasting could be done from muscle memory, completely freeing the analytical mind to keeping itself aware of the developing situation at hand without hindering the use of magecraft. All of these were attributes that quickly became essentials in the family's toolkit as assassins.

    And though the scope of the contribution was significantly smaller, his father's addition to the family magecraft had been no less genius. First, it created a false body overlapping the real one, created from the ethereal shadows that populated his family's magecraft in general. It then briefly linked the senses of the caster to the body, and very slightly shifted the caster's physical body out of phase with the material world. It was a state that could not be maintained for long, seeing as the material body could not survive for more than a minute or two at most outside of the material realm, but its utility could not be overstated. For a brief time, the caster would have no material body - thus making them immune to physical harm, and unimpeded by any physical barrier.

    Of course such an involved and powerful spell had its drawbacks. For one, it was easily qualified as a Greater Ritual, which would take an ordinary magus hours to perform. On top of that, creating an entire functioning body out of ether, on top of pushing the material body out of phase and retaining the ability to bring it back later, took a tremendous amount of magical energy. The first drawback could be handily overcome by snapcasting it out of the Magic Crest, where it had almost immediately become enshrined upon being created. But performing such a powerful spell instantaneously also served to massively increase the cost of the spell, both in terms of magical energy and its aftereffects on the body, while shrinking its already small duration to only a handful of seconds.

    Why his father had stubbornly refused to develop the spell under the system of Signcasting that had been put in place before he had been born was a mystery to him. But no matter how much he disliked his father, he couldn't deny the genius of his contribution - to create such a powerful spell, then optimize it to the point it could be cast by uttering two words, was beyond incredible. Unfortunately though, the costs were still real, and though it had served as a perfect trump card in making his escape, the costs could not be ignored.

    Now, sitting alone in the cold, dark cellar below the Einzbern Castle, he was exhausted. Both physically, worn down by the physical pain and loss of blood from his gunshot wound, and mentally, his pool of magical energy vaporized in an instant by his last second escape. There was little he could do but sit and wait to recover, for however long that took, and to hope he wasn't found before he was capable of moving again.

    Judging by the fact he hadn't been found yet, it seemed like his concealing charms were working after all. If they had actually been tracking his movements throughout the castle, they should have found him ages ago. Which of course begged the question, how did they find him the first time?

    As he mulled over the question, his shadowy familiar, once more in the form of a bird, fluttered down to rest on his shoulder through the stone ceiling.

    "Sorry for making you work alone, bud," Sedd murmered to the familiar, dissolving the birdlike body as Parthi returned to his resting place. Almost immediately, Sedd felt a surge of magical energy flood through him, the gorged familiar not hesitating to share its own supply.

    Parthi had been sent off with two jobs. The first was to serve as a decoy, attacking the servants and guards of the Einzbern family around the castle to make it look like Sedd was still actively lurking the hallways. The second was to bring back the magical energy drained from each of his victims, and use that to aid in Sedd's recovery. Though he admitted such a strategy was in bad taste - he wasn't fond of unnecessary killing, even if killing was his job - he was more interested in preserving his own life than the lives of the Einzbern family servants. And they were just homunculi anyways. They were made to be used and thrown away anyways, right?

    Regardless, he had more pressing issues at the moment than the morality of his present actions. How had that man found him, and snuck up on him so easily?

    Sedd couldn't help but give a wry grin at that thought. 'That man.' Of course there was no way someone in Sedd's line of work didn't know exactly who that man was the moment he laid eyes on him. There were only so many gun-toting magi in the world, after all, so if one of the particularly famous ones crossed your path it was pretty hard not to recognize them.

    Kiritsugu Emiya.

    A ruthless hunter of magi, specialized in taking down the rogues and criminals, whether recognized as such by the Clock Tower or not. Operating outside the rules of the Enforcers, his existence was closer to one like Sedd's own, so there was no way that he wouldn't know who he was. Hopefully that knowledge wasn't mutual.

    As far as what Sedd actually knew about him, he had very little information other than hearsay. Apparently from the Far East, he came from a family of magi that had been wiped out by its own failure. Often described as a soulless killer, he used any and all tactics to take down his targets, which could have been selected at random for all the sense they made. He worked as a bounty hunter, neither working officially for the Clock Tower like an Enforcer nor hiding in its shadows like an Assassin. One might have been forgiven for thinking he was just in it for the money, but his cold ruthlessness seemed to put the lie to that claim.

    Besides that, the only thing Sedd knew about him was that he had disappeared years ago. Rumors abounded that he had finally bit off more than he could chew, had finally been done in by one of his targets, but it seemed like the truth was that he had been hiding out in the mountains with the Einzbern family.

    He couldn't help but be curious as to why, but that was outside the scope of his current mission. He was here, and he was no doubt hunting Sedd down with everything he could muster. Sedd had little faith he could win in a one-on-one confrontation with the Magus Killer, and against a man who was famous for using every trick in the book, he doubted a straight up one-on-one was in the cards to start with. What he needed to do now was figure out a way to deal with him, or at least find a way to work around him. And that led back to the first question - how had he found Sedd in the first place?

    Certainly, if he could track him down so easily, he would have attacked him down in the cellar long ago. Even if he didn't go himself, he could always send the homunculi after him. But he hadn't. The only logical conclusion was that he didn't know where Sedd was hiding. Which meant...maybe he hadn't tracked Sedd down the first time?

    Was stumbling across him just a coincidence?

    Maybe, Kiritsugu had already been there, waiting, and it was Sedd that had found him. And if he was still waiting, that meant Sedd might be able to work around him. The question then became, why had he been waiting there?

    The spot wasn't a particularly central part of the castle, nor was it a significant junction. It could have just been randomly selected, but that seemed too amateurish for a professional of Emiya's caliber. Maybe there was something there that he was defending? That seemed much more plausible, especially since they must have known at least an hour before his arrival in the castle that he was coming.

    If that was true, that led to two interesting facts. Firstly, that if he was defending that spot, he might be there still. Secondly, if he was defending that spot...it meant there was something there worth defending. And that meant Sedd needed to investigate further.

    Thanks to Parthi's resupply of magical energy, Sedd was able to weave a simple spell, creating another temporary body for the familiar. In a matter of seconds, the bird-like apparition was once more filled with life, hopping around curiously on the floor of the storage room.

    "Go take a look for me, Parthi. And be careful about it. Run away if they try and fight you."

    As soon as he had finished speaking, the bird jumped into the air and flew out of the cellar, once again ignoring the walls that were no impediment to it. With a handful of gestures, Sedd linked his senses to the familiar's, and he was rewarded with a muddled view of the hallways as the familiar flew through them, occasionally turning black as Parthi flew through solid walls and floors.

    There was of course still the problem that Parthi had failed to detect Emiya the last time he had come across him. It wasn't such a mystery as to why, seeing as Parthi's ethereal perception could easily be fooled by any number of concealing magecrafts that were ineffective against plain human eyes. Unfortunately that meant using Parthi as a scout to track down his position was an unreliable method at best. Even as unreliable as it might have been, it would hopefully help to determine why exactly he had been guarding that particular position.

    With no need to follow the hallways, Parthi reached the spot of their altercation in a matter of seconds, carefully skirting the inside of the walls of the hallway so as to be all but invisible to anyone who would be walking down them. The spot was easily identifiable by the numerous bullet holes marring the wall. A cursory inspection showed that the hallway was now empty, though Sedd was well aware that that might not be the case, considering how Parthi's senses had been fooled last time.

    Continuing down the hallway where Kiritsugu had set up his ambush, he soon came across a number of homunculi guards. Though they stood armed and ready, they were not patrolling as the others he had come across were. Instead, they were just...standing around, intently watching the area around them.

    As if they were guarding something.

    Careful not to alert the guards, Sedd directed Parthi up and over their line of sight, and then into the nearest room. A short inspection showed nothing of particular note, and so he moved on to the next room. One by one, he searched the rooms along the hallway. Since they were all mostly empty besides furniture, it took little time to look through each one.

    In the fourth room, he came across something different. This time, there were guards inside the room. Five, to be precise - two with the signature halberds employed by the guards, and three seemingly unarmed, but still taking up defensive positions. Slowly, he sent Parthi across the room, inspecting it from the top down, the majority of the bird's body inside the ceiling where the guards couldn't see it.

    After a more careful inspection, Sedd's breath caught. He recognized one of the guards - the one in the dress. No doubt, that homunculus was the one that had been with Kiritsugu when they had fought. If she was here, then this seemed like the jackpot. This must have been the place they were trying to defend. Briefly, he became excited, before he realized what that meant - that this was not the room he was looking for.

    With a disappointed sigh, he continued inspecting the room. Beside the familiar homunculus was a small sheltered cradle. With a bit of maneuvering, he could peak inside to see that it was inhabited by a small baby, no other features distinguishable under its plentiful blankets.

    They were defending a baby. It seemed almost humourous, to think the great Magus Killer was hired to bodyguard a child up here in the mountains, but it certainly seemed to be the case. It was no wonder they had taken up defensive positions around this area, then. Unfortunately, he didn't care one way or the other about their baby, which meant his target was somewhere else.

    For now, he kept observing. Judging from the behaviour of the residents of the room, it didn't seem Kiritsugu was inside. It was certainly possible they had been instructed to ignore his presence, in which case he might still be hiding there invisible, but if he was why wasn't he hiding the entire contents of the room? More than likely, he had left his homunculus partner here while he pursued the enemy personally.

    That was...not good.

    If Kiritsugu was pursuing him, it would only be a matter of time before Sedd was found. And though his partner had been essential in protecting Kiritsugu in their first encounter, his fighting style would no doubt change to compensate for the lack of partner. That meant Sedd still couldn't afford to fight him in a head-on confrontation. Combined with the fact he was most likely undetectable by Parthi, that made any movement around the castle a life-or-death gamble.

    He needed a way to pin down Kiritsugu's position without being able to see him. But how...?

    Sedd's attention returned to the homunculus beside the cradle. Though his vision was muddled by the link, he could see she was uneasy - perhaps even afraid. Her gaze would dart between the door and the child beside her, as if she was waiting for something to happen. Obviously, her primary concern was the child - and more so than an average homunculus would be. Was she built with human emotions? If so...her behaviour made it quite likely that this child was hers. Sedd didn't know if it was even possible for a homunculus to have a biological child, but if it was then the Einzberns would certainly be able to pull it off.

    "And there's the key," Sedd whispered to himself, as if the room's guards might overhear him from two floors below. Leaving Parthi observing the child's room, he cut sensory link and began crafting another ethereal body. It was difficult work, injured and exhausted as he was, but Parthi's little energy boost from earlier was enough to get it done. It would be awhile before he was capable of getting up and moving around - let alone fighting - on his own, but he could at least manage a projection.

    Shadowy apparition complete, he proceeded to link his senses to it. This time, the link was more complete. As the apparition had no will, or motive apparatus of any kind, he was able - and required - to take full control of it, operating it like a remote controlled body. While difficult in his current state, he was no stranger to using magecraft in difficult circumstances. The link was established in a few moments, and then he was off.

    It was time to make contact.



    -----------------------



    Stalking the halls with the ethereal shade he had made for himself was significantly more difficult than having Parthi do it for him. For one, Parthi was much more accustomed to using a body with no material substance, and so was more easily able to navigate around 'obstacles.' More than that, however, was that Parthi was significantly smaller, and so could avoid detection much easier. That being said, the hallways were so devoid of life that it wasn't hard to avoid being noticed. Similarly to how Parthi had done, he clung to the inside of walls and under floors to avoid detection when necessary, continuing forward once danger had passed.

    It took more than a while before he could make his move. He needed to speak to the mother homunculus alone, or else his plan had little chance of succeeding. There was a distinct possibility she wouldn't leave the guarded room with the child, but since she had come out to fight him earlier, he presumed that wouldn't be the case. So he waited, a couple hallways over from where she was waiting, hidden beneath the carpet of an otherwise empty corridor. Meanwhile, Parthi remained perched inside the ceiling of the baby's room, watching quietly for the homunculus to leave.

    It was tense business. Every moment he waited for her to leave was a moment that his real body could be discovered in the basement below. It was a wonder they hadn't found him already, to be honest. But as he wandered the halls to find his current hiding spot, he had noticed there were almost no patrols about. Had they pulled everything in, waiting for him to make his move? Perhaps they were hoping, after he was injured, that he would just flee, and they meant to get out of his way so he could do so with as little bloodshed as possible.

    Unfortunately, that wasn't going to be an option.

    Especially not while the Magus Killer was still out there waiting for him.

    If that was the case though, it was certainly to his advantage. He needed the time to rest anyways.

    After what felt like close to an hour, the signal from Parthi finally came. She was on the move. Instructing Parthi to move on to his next task, Sedd moved his shade into action. It was a little risky confronting even her alone without Parthi - she had shown considerable prowess with her own alchemical familiars, and could quite possibly be rather dangerous all on her own. But time was of the essence, every second bought was a potential lifeline.

    After a few moments, he had found her. Covertly watching her from beneath the floor or behind the walls, he followed her as she made her way through the hallways of the castle. Her brisk pace made it evident that she was eager to get somewhere, and her severe expression showed she was anything but at ease. But there was one thing that bothered him, one thing that made him hesitate to confront her.

    ...she was alone.

    It was the perfect set up for him. Finding her alone was exactly what he needed. Even mindless homunculus guards would stand a considerable chance of blocking his objective, so her setting out on her own was practically a godsend. But...why was she alone?

    Until that point, he had never come across a single person alone in the castle. They had all travelled in groups of at least two, yet now she, who was apparently the mother of this precious child they were working so hard to protect, was walking alone and unguarded, far from where anyone could help her. Why would she do something so radical, so dangerous, while even the homunculus servants were hiding in the cupboards?

    It was a trap. It had to be.

    If he needed any confirmation that Kiritsugu was with her, had been with her the entire time, this was it. There was no way the guards would have let her wander the halls alone in a situation like this. It must have been a trap, to lure him out of hiding and into striking. Perhaps trying to tug at a desire for revenge, or maybe they thought he would jump at the chance to get one of the duo who had wounded him alone. Either way, she was obviously bait. The question was whether the trap would spring if he attacked her, or if he attacked the baby she had left behind.

    Either way, he had no intentions of attacking, so he didn't feel particularly threatened. Even so, stepping into an obvious trap seemed like a stupid idea.

    ...but maybe he could make it work in his favour.

    If Kiritsugu was half the person he was rumored to be, the trap was probably set at both locations. And there was little chance any sort of guard would leave the mother completely unattended, so that meant Kiritsugu himself was likely here, hidden behind magecrafts that his ethereal vision couldn't penetrate. But if he approached her, pretending he didn't know Kiritsugu was there...if he played his cards right, he might be able to feed him the information he needed to get him on just the right path to take him out of the way of his goal.

    Steeling his resolve, Sedd shifted himself ahead of the homunculus. After one last deep breath, he rose out of the ground in front of her.

    For a moment, the homunculus froze, in a clear panic. She stepped back, as if to run away, but soon the fear on her face snapped to anger, and she instead lunged forward, throwing an arm forward with a length of steel wire. As the wire sprang forward to restrain him, Sedd lifted his hands in the air in a show of surrender, letting the wire wrap around him and pull him violently to the floor. Of course, since it wasn't his real body, it didn't hurt at all, and in fact the lower half of his body just sank back down through the floor itself, leaving his restrained torso, arms, and head sitting on top of the hallway's carpet.

    "Hi."

    Garbled and grating as his voice was through the apparition, Sedd called out to the homunculus. Though she had reached to grab another wire of hers in an apparent attempt to continue the attack, she had stopped part way through after seeing he wasn't resisting. Anger still burned in her eyes as she looked down at him, but she otherwise remained silent and still.

    "Relax. I'm not here to fight you. I couldn't even if I wanted to in this form."

    "Spare me your lies, murderer," the homunculus spat back. Though she still hadn't shaken the fear from her posture, her voice was imperious, like a queen talking down to one of her subjects.

    "No seriously," Sedd continued with a smirk, though it wouldn't reflect on the faceless shade, "fighting isn't really what I do. If I wanted to kill you, I wouldn't be popping up so politely in front of you."

    For a moment, the homunculus continued to stare at him silently, eyes still burning. Then, as if she couldn't find a reason to doubt his words, she spoke up falteringly. "...then what do you want?"

    "I just want to talk, that's all." Sedd tried to move his shade's arms placatingly, but restrained as he was, he couldn't move them an inch. Interesting that the restraints held him bound despite the fact the shade had no material body.

    "I have nothing to tell to the likes of you," she replied, anger once again taking hold of her voice.

    "Alright then, just listen." Once again, the homunculus seemed taken aback. It seemed he was doing a good job of flouting all her expectations of this encounter. No doubt she expected him to try and kill her, or interrogate her for information. If he could keep her second guessing herself, he might be able to convince her instinct to distrust him was mistaken as well.

    "...who are you?" she spoke, the venom slowly leaving her voice, making the tense fear underneath it all that much more obvious. But even as scared as she was, she wasn't faltering. Either she was a lot braver than he gave her credit for...or she wasn't alone, as he had thought.

    "My name isn't important, it won't help you anyway. I'm an agent of the Clock Tower. No one sent me, I'm here for personal reasons." Again, a confused look passed over her face. No doubt she hadn't expected a real answer to that question, and though it hadn't contained any useful information, it had a lot more than he had needed to volunteer. If there was one thing Sedd had learned from his father, it was that the truth was just as much a weapon as any falsehood.

    "What do you want?" The homunculus spoke again, her tone once again commanding, but lacking heat. It seemed like he was succeeding. The anger was almost entirely gone from her voice - she now saw him not as an evil enemy, but as a rational opponent. If he was rational, he could be understood. He could be reasoned with.

    He could be bargained with.

    "Honestly? I just want to go home." After a short hesitation, he let his tiredness show in his voice. The truth may have been a weapon, but falsehoods had their place as well. "I'm tired. I'm hurt. I'm cold. And I'm obviously not going to win against you guys."

    "Then leave!" she almost shouted, her composure cracking.

    "I'd love to," Sedd replied dryly, "but I've got a bit of a phobia of being shot."

    For a moment it looked like she might snap back at him, but she hesitated. Maybe he was mistaken, due to his poor vision through the shade, but it almost seemed like...she had a pang of pity for him? He suspected she would be different from the emotionless, drone-like homunculi he had fought earlier, but she was almost too pure. It was more like he was talking to a small child.

    "So what, you think if you ask nicely I'll let you go?" Finally her response came back, tense but controlled.

    "Nope," he replied, once again earning a look of surprised confusion from the homunculus. "I'm not here to ask you for anything. I'm smarter than to expect charity out of someone who I've wronged."

    "Then...what do you want from me?" Her imperious tone had vanished now too, and even her tense fear seemed to have relaxed a little. Confusion and curiosity were the driving force behind her voice now.

    Taking a deep breath, as much for putting on the act as to calm himself, he spoke quietly. "First, can I ask you your name?"

    "Why would I tell you my name if you won't tell me yours?" A little bit of heat returned to her voice, earning a small chuckle from Sedd.

    "Alright, that's fair. My name is Sedd. Though like I said, it's not a name that will help you get information on me."

    As if gauging whether she could trust his response, the homunculus hesitated. Finally, in a small voice, she replied. "Irisviel. Irisviel von Einzbern."

    "Irisviel. Alright. Thank you for telling me." Slowly, he could tell she was getting more receptive to him. She obviously didn't trust him completely, but that was okay. He could work with any amount of trust, no matter how small. "Irisviel, the reason I came to talk to you is because I want to offer you a deal."

    "A...deal?" Once again, her suspicions had been clearly aroused. That was to be expected, though.

    "I know you're different from the others, Irisviel. Your a homunculus, but you're much more...human, than the others. I thought so before, but talking to you now, I can tell. While the others are like dolls, or machines, your an actual person. You can feel. Which means you'll understand what I'm asking you." Though she didn't reply, he took that as a good sign. If she wasn't arguing or taking verbal jabs at him, that meant she was listening. "I know from your perspective I'm the bad guy, and that's certainly right. But believe me...you are not my enemy. I have no desire, nor any need, to hurt you...or your baby."

    At those words, she immediately stiffened, like ice water had just been poured down her back. Before she could compose herself to reply, he continued.

    "I know you are more human than the others, so I know what you want. You don't really care why I'm here. All you want is to protect your child. I understand that, and I respect that." Now, her expression was clear, unadulterated fear. Sedd was immediately thankful that the shade couldn't replicate his facial expressions, because he couldn't help but grin as he saw that. He had her by the throat now. "I know what you want, and I've already told you what I want. I just want to get out of here alive. So I'll offer you a deal."

    He paused, giving her a chance to interject. She stared back at him, struggling to keep her fear in check. Her innocence, her naive purity was enough that it almost made him feel bad for her. After a few tense moments, she spoke quietly.

    "No matter what the terms of your deal are, I can't accept it by myself."

    "You don't have to," Sedd replied calmly. "Discuss it with whoever. You don't even have to tell me your answer. Just fulfill your end of the bargain, and I'll fulfill mine. Everyone lives, happy ending for all."

    For another long moment, she stared, as if trying to see through the shadows to the truth hiding underneath. But he was being honest - his primary objective was to get home alive. After all, even if he fulfilled his mission here, it would mean nothing if he died in the process. So technically, it was secondary.

    "...what are your terms?" Cautiously, quietly, she asked, as if afraid of the answer she would receive.

    "It's simple. From my end, I'll guarantee the life of your baby. Hell, I'll throw in as many guarantees as you want, as long as you hold up your end."

    Irisviel nodded. "And my end is?"

    Sedd hesitated before replying. This was it. This was the moment he showed his cards. He just had to hope he had gotten through to her, had earned enough sympathy from her that she would trust his word even as an enemy.

    "I won't ask for you to let me go. I won't even ask for safe passage outside, or that you let me go once I'm outside. All I want is for you..." Sedd paused, swallowing to suppress his nerves, "and the man who shot me earlier, to stay out of my way. If you and that man stay in the room with your child, I promise I won't lay a finger on any of you. I won't hurt a single person that stays in that room, as long as the two of you are in it."

    For a long minute, the two stared at eachother as Irisviel considered his words. Vaguely, Sedd noted in the back of his mind that Parthi had returned to observe the baby's room, his other task complete.

    "And if I refuse?" she spoke slowly, as if afraid of the answer.

    "Then I don't promise anything," Sedd replied, letting his relaxed, placating tone go dark. "You should know by now I can strike anywhere within this castle with the snap of my fingers. I don't like threatening children, and I have no need to hurt your child. But if it means saving my own life, I'll use any shield I can get my hands on."

    "And how do I know you'll hold up your end of the deal?" She pressed. He could hear it in her voice - she wanted to trust him. She was looking for any reason to believe, no matter how small, that she could protect her child from harm. Even if it was just the promise of an assassin.

    "That's the beauty of the deal, isn't it?" Sedd answered, allowing some humour back into his voice. "If the two of you are there, do you really think I could do anything to harm the baby? The other guards are another matter, but you two have fought me already. You know I can't beat you."

    "Even if I accept, the other guards will still kill you on sight," Irisviel continued.

    "That's fine," his reply was instant. "My deal is with you, not with them. If you do as I ask, my promise still holds."

    "Even if you escape, Kiritsugu will hunt you down and kill you."

    "He'll have to find me first." And let's be honest, he added to himself, if he can't find me in his own castle, how will he find me hiding out in the entire world?

    "Even if..." she made to raise another objection, but her voice died in her throat.

    "Even if something unexpected happens, you'll just have to trust me, and trust your own ability to defend your child. I've told you my terms. Feel free to talk them over with your partner. I'll be watching - if I see you comply, then I'll comply as well."

    Sedd released his spell animating the shade, causing its body to start dissolving into the air. "Remember, the choice is yours. Either we both win, or we both lose. Think it over, but be quick. I'm patient, but my time is running out. Don't make me do something neither of us want to see happen."

    Without waiting for a reply, he cut his link to the shade, and the apparition disappeared entirely.
    Last edited by TwilightsCall; May 10th, 2018 at 03:53 AM.

  2. #2
    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    If there was one thing Sedd had learned from his father, it was that you never made a threat unless you were willing and able to follow through on it.

    Unfortunately, that put him in a difficult position now.

    With Parthi stuck in the baby's room watching to see if Irisviel would accept his deal, he was almost defenseless here in the basement of the castle. It had been a while since their conversation - far longer than it would have taken for her to simply walk back to the bedroom - so he had to hope that she was simply caught up in discussing the issue with Kiritsugu.

    If he was honest about it, it seemed like a pretty good deal for their side. Their top priority was no doubt protecting the child, so anything that might aid in that was something they couldn't ignore. What's more, accepting the terms of the deal put them in the best defensive position to protect the child. Sure, it reduced their chances of catching Sedd himself, but if his guess was right, Sedd was a small fish compared to their main objective.

    He knew better though than to expect them to cooperate fully. Kiritsugu's reputation as a ruthless, unstoppable killer was enough to convince Sedd to keep his guard up. In fact, it was far more likely Kiritsugu would pretend to uphold the terms of the deal, and try to stab him in the back at the last moment.

    But Sedd could use that to his advantage too. As long as Kiritsugu made a show of cooperating, he would know where the Magus Killer was, at least for a moment. And that would be enough to plot a route around him, getting him out of the castle safely.

    Once his job was finished, of course.

    Sedd's breath caught as, through Parthi's eyes, he saw the door opening to the child's room. With hurried steps, a flustered looking Irisviel stepped into the room, relief immediate on her face as she saw her baby safe and sound still in its bed. She ignored the handful of homunculi in the room as she hurried over to sit near the child, but Sedd's eyes were still locked on the door.

    Shortly after, she was followed into the room by an Eastern looking man in a dark trenchcoat. Gun in hand - apparently having recovered the submachine gun he previously discarded - Kiritsugu stepped into the room, eyes immediately locking on to Parthi's hiding place just slightly above the ceiling. Calmly, he strode over to stand beside Irisviel before raising a hand to point at the spy.

    And then the room was empty.

    "Parthi, back!" Shouting a command to the now blind familiar, Sedd jumped into action. With one last cursory glance around the small storage room to make sure he was leaving nothing behind - besides far too much of his own blood - he bolted through the door and into the hallway beyond.

    As hoped, Kiritsugu had at least come to the room to pretend he was cooperating. And as expected, his first action after arriving was to block out Sedd's ability to keep an eye on them. No doubt, the instant Kiritsugu had hidden them from view, he would leave the room and immediately move to head Sedd off in his escape.

    Too bad he wasn't escaping yet.

    As Sedd sprinted through the empty hallways of the castle basement, Parthi swooped down to him through the ceiling, easily keeping pace with him.

    "Go, scout ahead," Sedd ordered without slowing down. Parthi immediately sped up, cutting through the hallways at lightning speed and sending back reports as to what he saw.

    Sedd had to admit he was a little surprised with how empty the basement was. This was obviously the heart of the Einzbern Workshop, if not obvious from its design than from the contents of the rooms. This should have been the most secure, most heavily defended part of the castle, and yet the hallways were all but empty. Had they used their time to fortify the exits, to try and catch him in his escape? While that helped him now, it might prove to be a problem later.

    In the time it took Sedd to run down the first hallway in front of him, Parthi had scouted ahead the entire area and returned. The hallways were essentially empty, with a stronghold of seven homunculi - four armed and three unarmed - dug in at the center of the Workshop. Unfortunately, that would be his destination, but at least it was a small indication he was on the right track. Parthi had tracked down the location of his target while he had his conversation with Irisviel, so he knew where he had to look, but he could only pray that his objective was there.

    Though, knowing what he did about the Einzberns - how obsessed they were over this holy war of theirs - there was no doubt his target would be at the dead center of their most fortified position, the core of their workshop.

    Seven opponents, even just braindead homunculi, would almost certainly be too much for him to handle. As much as he had hoped he would have been able to sneak in and out, even at this point, it seemed that option was beyond him. In his current form, Parthi would easily be able to handle the armed guards, but any spellcasting homunculi would tear him to pieces. Similarly, Sedd could likely avoid and deflect the attacks of the spellcasting homunculi with planning and tactical edge, but once they knew where he was, the physically superior armed homunculi would skewer him in seconds.

    If he was going to get past them and make it out alive, he was going to have to break out his final trump card.

    Stopping at a door two hallways away from his target, he dropped to a knee in the corner and got to work.

    "Parthi, come home." The familiar resting on his shoulders immediately returned to its resting place, its shadowy body dissolving into the air once more. Unlike his father, Sedd had been more than happy to incorporate Signcasting into his Mystic Code, so he rapidly began signing his way through the complicated setup process.

    Like all members of his family before him, Sedd had a single sibling - a younger brother - and was instructed by his father that the heir would be the one who could create something to add to the family's magecraft first. However, even though they were supposed to be in competition, there was no hostility between them. In fact, they got along extremely well. Everything they did, everything they learned, every mistake they made, they made together. So it was only natural to them - forget the competition. They would pass the test together.

    Rather than compete with each other, they almost immediately decided to work together instead. Keeping their cooperation secret from their father, they drew up plans to create a new Mystic Code that would completely blow their father's mind. Something so good no individual person could ever come up with it themselves. And though it took them almost their entire childhood, they succeeded.

    One of the biggest advantages and disadvantages to being an assassin as they were was that they worked alone. While that made infiltration and covert operations much easier, it meant they were completely unsupported in the field, and had no hope if they were cornered by a superior opponent. And so the brothers worked to preserve those advantages while eliminating the disadvantages.

    And the result had been Parthi.

    His brother spent his time playing with the shadows, weaving them into structures, creating bodies. It was already established they could make human-like bodies as decoys, or as remotely controlled self-projections for long distance recon and communication. So his brother developed a way to create non-human bodies, be they objects, animals, or even monsters. He created a way to build them rapidly, efficiently, and flexibly, so they could be both eyes from afar, a dagger in the dark, or a companion in a fight. Of course, creating such an apparition that could perform a set of precoded instructions was not particularly challenging, but creating one that could think and act according to its own volition was almost impossibly difficult. Even if possible, it would take hours if not days to create each time, and that long process would have to be completely repeated for any modifications to the body to take place. Beyond that, the cost to the caster would be extreme - not a problem if done from home, but potentially fatal if attempted out in the field.

    And that was where Sedd came in. While his brother devloped the process of creating modular and disposable bodies, he worked on the core of the familiar itself. To match the temporary bodies invented by his brother, Sedd's goal was to develop a super-intelligent familiar that could act as a controller for whatever body they gave it. And though the process was complicated, the idea was simple. Take an actual living animal or person, extract their soul from their physical body, and graft it onto the caster's own soul. Then, the familiar could simply be shifted to and from the shadow bodies made by his brother as necessary. This would make the perfect familiar - one that was extremely intelligent and able to make tactical decisions without instructions, while at the same time could take almost any shape and have almost any physical abilities desired by the master.

    Sedd had to pause, watching the shadows weave in front of him into the new form he was creating for Parthi. That was one difficulty of Signcasting - it allowed the mind to wander if the user wasn't disciplined enough, which brought with it the possibility of distraction. After a deep breath, he continued, directing the shadows into a formation almost twice his size.

    As they had planned, their father had been completely blown away by their success. By demonstrating with Parthi, a pet dog they had trained since he was a puppy and their father had allowed them to keep for "research purposes," they had easily exceeded their father's expectations. It had been the most terrifying gamble of their life - failure would have meant Parthi's death, after all - but they had succeeded, creating effectively an ethereal familiar that could be summoned in any form and dismissed at will.

    The two of them had glowed with pride as their ordinarily strict and serious father lavished praise on them for what was truly a work that would change the entire course of their family's magecraft. Though Sedd couldn't help but think he was exaggerating, he even said it might have been the most significant advancement in their magecraft in the history of their family.

    But there can only be one heir.

    To this day, Sedd didn't know how his father had decided between them. Perhaps on the merits of what each of them had contributed to the project, or maybe because Sedd was older. Maybe even just because Sedd happened to be the one taking care of Parthi at the time, though his father must have known that his brother could have taken him at any time. But regardless of how he had made the decision, he had decided Sedd would become the heir of the family's magecraft.

    The next day, the two of them were brought into the family's workshop. Without any explanation or warning, Sedd watched in horror as his father murdered his brother in cold blood. As Sedd watched in shocked horror, he felt the shadows of his father's magecraft dig in to him as well - but instead of kill him, they instead infused themselves into him.

    Unbeknownst to the two of them, the process of transfering the family crest required a sacrifice. While most families transfered their crests slowly, piece by piece, over the years of the recipient's childhood, Sedd's family wouldn't know who the heir was until they were much too old for such a process. To ameliorate the exchange, the receiver of the crest was given special drugs to prevent the body and soul from rejecting the crest, and the crest was fed the body and soul of the non-heir child to prevent it from rejecting the body.

    Even then, the process took weeks. Between the physical shock of having the crest implanted into him so fully and suddenly, and the emotional shock of watching his father kill his brother right in front of him, Sedd was bedridden for almost a month afterwards. But when he rose from bed for the first time, this had been the first thing he had done.

    Pouring all his hate, all his rage, all his emotional pain into the construct, he created a true monster for Parthi to inhabit. Looking like a beast out of hell itself, even hunched over as it was it easily stood eight feet tall. Though its body was vaguely humanoid, it had the head of a bull filled with the teeth of a wolf, with hooved feet and clawed hands. In addition to the pair of horns protruding a full foot from its forehead, spines and thorns of the same size twisted out from its back and forearms. And unlike Parthi's other forms, the enormous claws at the end of its arms were easily capable of not just passing through stone like a ghost, but also crushing and tearing it apart.

    Spawning his own demon of vengeance, Sedd immediately took his revenge for his brother's death. His father had been good to him - strict and severe, but fair and supportive. But Sedd's love for his father was nothing beside his love for his brother. Not expecting the attack in the least, his father was slaughtered without resistance. And though he chastised his teenager self for carrying out such a hotheaded, impulsive attack, nothing he had learned about his father or his family afterward had convinced him it had been a mistake.

    Now, standing in the basement of the Einzbern castle, only a single corridor away from the core of their Workshop, that demon stared down at him once again. Calm, quiet, waiting for instructions.

    Pressing one hand to his head to suppress a dizzy spell, Sedd used his other hand to steady himself against the nearby wall. He had managed to recover a significant amount of magical energy thanks to Parthi's hunting earlier, but had spent even more than that to create this form for him. This form was much more corporeal, much more durable than most others he had Parthi use, so it took a much greater amount of time and energy to prepare it. Ideally, though, that would be the last magecraft he would have to use. Now that stealth was no longer an option, he would have to rely on Parthi's brute force to both fight his way into the Workshop and out of the castle, so it made sense to put as much power behind the familiar as he could.

    On top of that, the still throbbing bullet wound in his arm was a constant reminder that his time was already running out. As soon as he engaged the guards in the basement, the Magus Killer would know that his "plan" of making a break for it was all a ruse. He didn't know how Kiritsugu would find out, but he had to assume he would. And once he did, Sedd's window of opportunity to escape would be measured in minutes at best.

    As the dizziness subsided, Sedd pushed himself off the wall and up to the door, steadying his breath. Turning back to look at Parthi, he saw the shadowy familiar still waiting patiently, calmly waiting for instructions. With one last nod, more to himself than to his partner, he threw open the door in front of him.

    "Go!"

    Barely waiting for Sedd to get out of the way, the monster that Parthi had become tore past him, reaching the final barrier before their goal. Without haste, Sedd slowly walked after him, watching from a distance as Parthi plowed through the iron door and into the room on the other side, sparking a series of alarmed shouts from the guards within.

    From a safe distance away, Sedd watched as Parthi tore into the unexpecting guards' line. Though they had arrayed themselves in a defensive formation for his arrival, they had no hope of guessing what was going to come through that door. Ignoring the pair of guards that blocked his path, Parthi continued his forward motion, horned limbs spearing and ripping through the unfortunate homunculi just as their halberds pierced his ethereal body. Unperturbed, the demon pressed on through a hail of blue-white light from the familiars of the unarmed homunculi behind the dispatched halberdiers.

    Even as chunks of shadowy flesh were torn from the beast, its charge continued undaunted. Despite maneuvering their familiars into position to defend against the coming onslaught, Parthi's claws ripped through the wirework birds like they were made of paper, and through the homunculi controlling them almost as easily. At the same time, the two remaining halberdiers that had been waiting in ambush lunged forward, ornate blades punching through Parthi's back and back out through his chest. Parthi whirled around with a dizzying speed for a creature so large, horned limbs and razor claws tearing apart one of the guards that had been too slow to retreat. Before the final remaining guard could recover, Parthi leapt forward, jaws clamping down to crush the guard's throat, shoulder, and chest in a bloody mess.

    Before Sedd had even made it halfway to the room, the fight was over. The threat within neutralized, Sedd picked up his pace, jogging into the room as his familiar devoured what spiritual matter remained in the guard he had chomped. Careful to avoid stepping on the wide pools of blood slicking the stone floor of the chamber, Sedd quickly scanned the room, barely noting the figure still standing in the middle of it.

    "Who are you to dare intrude in our inner sanctum?" The figure spoke in a voice that was both imperious and full authority, while simultaneously being dry and boring. "What wrong has the Einzbern family committed against you to warrant vengeance such as this?" While he looked like an old man, long white hair and wrinkled face speaking of many decades spent, he looked just enough like the homunculi Sedd had already encountered that he didn't trust it was an actual person. Even before that, his grainy image and blurred, indistinct features made it clear he was no more than a projection, a hologram not unlike the ones he himself used to scout for information when Parthi was indisposed.

    "Oh, no one really," Sedd replied absent-mindedly, inspecting the alchemical arrays around the room. One in the immediate center held a golden chalice, situated behind the old man still watching him with cold eyes, while seven less complicated arrays lined the back wall of the chamber, holding nothing for the material eye to see. "I just figured it would be faster to piggy back off your work than to start from scratch by myself."

    The old man sniffed in disdain. "You come into our castle, sowing murder and destruction, for the sake of stealing our work. You expect me to believe you are no more than a common thief?"

    "Murder is a bit of an exaggeration, don't you think?" Sedd spoke with a half smile as he approached the raised platform the old man was standing on. "I mean, they're just homunculi. This is vandalism at worst." The old man glowered back at him, apparently not taken by Sedd's sense of humour. His anger at Sedd's irreverence did nothing to change his contemptuous tone, however.

    "You are not the first to think you can pilfer the Einzbern's great legacy for your own ends," the old man continued, unphased by Sedd passing his hands through the body of his projection. "As head of the Einzbern family, I have brought countless would-be thieves and assassins to their end. Even if you escape this room, your fate will be no different."

    "You couldn't stop me from coming inside, you couldn't stop me from killing your pets, you couldn't find me when I was hiding in your basement, and you couldn't stop me from barging in here," Sedd counted off on his fingers as he made each rebuke. "What makes you think you'll be able to stop me when I leave?"

    "Your pride will be the end of you, thief. Even if you kill every last one of us, we will not allow the Holy Grail to fall into the hands of an outsider like you."

    "Oh, that's okay," Sedd answered, flicking his hands into a series of signs. "I'm not that interested in the Holy Grail anyways."

    For a brief moment, the old man's brow furrowed, his contempt for Sedd briefly letting a hint of confusion peak through. But before he could even open his mouth to reply, one of Parthi's clawed arms reached over Sedd's shoulder, shattering the illusion of the the old man. As much as a simple projection wasn't a threat to him, Sedd had no reason to let the old man continue spying on his activity, nor did he need the distraction of the man's old, boring voice while he was on such a tight time constraint.

    Looking briefly over the golden chalice sitting on a pedestal before him, Sedd rolled his eyes with a smirk as he walked past it. It was clearly supposed to be the 'holy grail' that the old man had mentioned, but it was very obviously just a decoy. The lack of magical safeguards on the door to the room, the considerable but surmountable guard posted inside, the intricate and complicated yet easily detectable traps layered around the 'Grail' itself, all of these spoke of time-buying tactics more than actual defenses. No doubt they had hoped he would fight a long, protracted battle against the guards within, then waste his time trying to disarm magical traps around the 'Grail' as the rest of the castle moved into position to box him inside. The chances that the object at the center of a bunch of decoy traps was the genuine article was basically zero.

    Unfortunately for the Einzberns, Sedd was a bit too used to dealing with magical defense systems to be fooled by a decoy like this. And beyond that, the Holy Grail itself wasn't really an object of interest to him in the first place. Instead, he stepped down off the raised platform at the center of the room and approached the alchemical arrays lining the back wall.

    The majority of them were dormant, and while functional seemed out of use. Two of them, however, were active. And while to the naked eye they seemed empty as well, Sedd was too well versed in dealing with ethereal bodies like Parthi's to miss their contents. With the flick of his wrist, he sent Parthi off to secure their exit while he set about extracting the treasure inside.

    While there were also multiple layers of defenses around these alchemical arrays as well, they were more aimed at preserving the contents than they were at repelling an outsider. As such, even in his exhausted state, it wasn't difficult for Sedd to pick them apart one by one, dissolving the layers of the array to expose the contents within. Unfortunately, as quick work as he was making of the array, the sound of fighting breaking out in the hallway outside the chamber reminded him that time was not on his side at all.

    After a minute or so of chiselling away at it, the protective layering around the construct inside the array finally broke open. Taking a deep breath to steady his mounting nerves, doing his best to push the sounds of fighitng from his mind, he began signing one last spell.

    The contents of the array consisted of an empty spiritual body, an ethereal construct with no motive force. It was superficially very similar to the shadowy bodies inhabited by Parthi, but many orders of magnitude more advanced. Sedd didn't know much about the theory or purpose behind it - only that it was involved in the Einzbern's holy war, a battle to the death populated by magi with Heroic Spirits as familiars, for the sake of obtaining the "Holy Grail," whatever that was. The details weren't really all that important though. What really mattered is that the Einzberns produced these vessels, these containers, for the Heroic Spirits to inhabit.

    As a spiritual body, it of course had no material presence, and so wasn't something he could just pick up and put in his pocket. Nor could he rely on it to survive in the open air while it still lacked the source of power that an inhabiting Heroic Spirit would provide it. Luckily, manipulating spiritual bodies happened to be his area of expertise - or rather, because it was his area of expertise, he had decided he needed to get his hands on what was likely the most powerful spiritual body he could find short of a live, active Counter Guardian.

    Similarly to how he had grafted Parthi's spiritual core onto his own in his childhood, Sedd carefully knit the spiritual matter of the container onto and through his own magic circuits. While not as thorough a job as Parthi's had been, it would allow him to safely bring the container back to his own Workshop where he could work with it without fear of being overrun by gangs of angry homunculi. A few short minutes after he had began working on the array, the container within was safely in his possession. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Sedd immediately turned back and quickly made his way out of the room.

    While there was still another container in the room, one was plenty for his purposes. Or perhaps more importantly, he only had the time to take one before the old man's threat of burying him would come true. As powerful as Parthi was in his current form, he didn't have the staying power to fight the battle of attrition the Einzberns were no doubt playing out right at this moment. And beyond that, with the Magus Killer roaming the halls of the castle, now that Sedd's own position was obvious, it would only be a matter of time before a swift and utter defeat came knocking.

    Putting the central chamber of the Einzbern Workshop behind him, Sedd quickly made his way back through the halls of the castle basement, mapping out in his head the three most efficient escape routes. No doubt the guards would know those routes better than he, and have plenty of resistance built up along the way, but as long as they moved quickly, the brute force Parthi could bring to bear would likely be enough to just punch through them. As far as Kiritsugu was concerned, he had to hope that his misdirection with Irisviel would buy him enough time to get out of the castle before the Magus Killer could find a safe vantage point to put a bullet through his skull.

    It didn't take long before he had caught up to Parthi, standing alone amongst the broken bodies of another half a dozen homunculi. His flickering, hazy form was evidence enough of the toll the battle was beginning to take on him. While even complete destruction of the body wouldn't harm Parthi himself directly, it would be a lot more difficult to escape without Parthi's aid, and Sedd didn't have the magical energy or the concentration to rebuild another body for him, let alone one of that caliber.

    Despite his injuries, the moment Parthi saw Sedd catching up he bounded off down the hallway, leaving a smoke-like trail behind him as he went. The Einzberns had a lot more manpower than Sedd had bargained for, and treated it much more disposably than he would have hoped. He had no choice but to take the most direct route out of the castle - any other and he would risk losing Parthi before making his escape.

    Feeling the pressure of the time even more keenly than before, Sedd increased his pace to a light jog as the sounds of battle commenced again in front of him. As he rounded the corner to the stairway up to the first floor, he was greeted by the smashed body of a homunculus tumbling down it, half-formed familiar tangled around its arms. Parthi was already out of sight, having punched through whatever barricade had been set up at the door. Though he could still hear the combat occurring just on the other side of the threshold, he wasted no time climbing the stairs and moving in support of his partner.

    Not that he could offer much support. On top of his magecraft being basically tapped out, perhaps only a few single action spells worth of magical energy remaining, Parthi was more than capable of handling himself. Sedd arrived just in time to see Parthi catch the halberd of one homunculus on the horns of one outstretched arm, then with a twist and a yank, he pulled the halberd's wielder into being impaled by the horns on the other.

    Stopping to get his bearings, Sedd pressed a hand to his still-fresh bullet wound, trying to mentally suppress the pain. Unfortunately, the stairs they had taken to get to the first floor came up in a fairly central location in the castle, not close to any windows to the outside. The most direct path out of the castle would take him out through the front door, which was an interesting debacle. While the entranceway was large and easily defendable, it would be the least likely choice for an escape. That would make it the least likely place to be defended...which would make it the best place to escape from, meaning it would need to be defended, ad infinitum.

    In the end, with his own injuries not getting any better, and Parthi's growing much worse, he didn't have the luxury of playing such mind games. The fastest way out was the only option for them, and so that was the route they would have to take.

    Whether they had given up or their supply of cannon fodder had been exhausted, they encountered no more homunculi as they made their way to the front entrance. Rather than comforting however, that was almost more concerning - after the amount of effort they had expended in trying to stop him so far, Sedd had a hard time feeling they would give up now. The other option was that they had misjudged his path of exit, and were simply out of position. He supposed that would be ideal, however unlikely.

    As he had expected, that hope was dashed as they broke out into the main entranceway. At first, he was relieved. Only a single homunculus stood before the grand double doors leading to safety, barely a threat to him alone if all he was interested in was escape. With Parthi, she might as well have not even been there. But as if his brain was straining too hard to make the connection under pressure, almost a second too late, he recognized her from the too-human expression of determination on her face.

    Irisviel?

    "Parthi, on me, now!"

    Though he had already begun his charge against the lone homunculus, the shadowy monster immediately reversed course, hurling itself backwards onto Sedd and curling its enormous, though crumbling, body around him. A fraction of a second after, a hail of bullets ricocheted off of the familiar's hardened exterior, the small handful of bullets that managed to penetrate through Parthi's already-present wounds deflected barely enough by the impact to go wide.

    While Irisviel herself may have been a threat - she had certainly shown herself more capable of combat than most of the other homunculi guards - there was no way she would be here without Kiritsugu.

    As the rain of gunfire stopped, Irisviel raised her hand, the steel wire wrapped around her wrist coalescing into the form of a large eagle. Without hesitation, Sedd launched himself towards her, prompting Parthi to do the same. At the same time, Sedd signed away one of the last precious bits of magical energy he had left.

    While Kiritsugu's presence in the room tempted him to keep Parthi on him as a shield, that would leave him as a sitting duck to be attacked - and potentially restrained, depending on how well she could manipulate her familiar - by Irisviel's magic. Not to mention the possibility Kiritsugu had more up his sleeve than his signature SMG. As before, his best course of action was to simply escape as fast as possible, rather than defending himself or standing and fighting.

    As the Shadow Prison wrapped itself around Irisviel - a simple field that blocked most light from entering her eyes, leaving the homunculus effectively blind but still visible - Sedd signed one last spell to the sound of another gunshot. Unlike the sharp stutter of the submachine gun, this was more like the crack of a cannon. As Sedd continued his mad rush to the door, he winced in advance, waiting for the bullet to take his life - but it didn't.

    Instead, out of the corner of his vision, he saw the bullet smash through the back of Parthi's head before punching an almost crater-like hole into the castle floor.

    For a moment, Sedd lost vision as his last spell went into effect, the loss of his last bit of magical energy throwing his senses into disarray. But still it succeeded, the field blocking all light from exiting the far side of the room, making him and Irisviel both invisible to the gunman.

    It was a stroke of luck he wouldn't have bet on in a hundred years. Kiritsugu showed impeccable aim and unprecedented speed in his marksmanship - but he had prioritized saving Irisviel from Parthi over killing Sedd. Of course, though the bullet had gone straight through where Parthi's brain should have been, the shadowy body had no such internal organs, leaving Parthi effectively unharmed from the shot.

    And that was that. With that one mistake by Kiritsugu, Sedd was home free. Concealed from both Kiritsugu and Irisviel, he would have no problem jumping through the glass window in front of him and escaping to safety. Without slowing his stride, he quickly threw a glance backward to ensure, one last time, that everything would go as planned.

    As expected, Irisviel was standing frozen and confused. Unable to see anything, she was unable to instruct her familiar where to attack, and so it simply hovered in front of her protectively, staring down Parthi with sightless eyes. Meanwhile, Parthi's attention had turned from the now blind homunculus, looking for the source of the bullet that had punched through his head.

    And at the back of the room, standing brazenly in plain sight, was Kiritsugu, swiftly reloading what looked like a small hand-held rifle, and leveling it at Sedd.

    There was no confusion, no searching look in his eyes. Just a dreadful determination as he stared directly at him, gun aimed directly to take his life.

    For a moment, time seemed to stop. It was clear, just from the look in his eyes. Kiritsugu could see him, even through the Shadow Sanctuary.

    If Sedd had had the time, he would have swore. Of course he could see him. This may have only been the second time he had used this spell against Kiritsugu, but the man certainly lived up to his reputation. Twice was once too many - he had already come up with a counter measure to overcome the concealing magecraft that Sedd used. While the Sanctuary should have been a perfect defense against any sort of light-based tracking method, if the method didn't require physical vision - like tracking the traces of magical energy left over from Sedd's casting, or the imprint left on the Einzbern bounded field by Sedd's Magic Crest, or even something as simple as looking for his body heat - the Sanctuary would offer no protection.

    All at once, time began to move again.

    With one last stride, Sedd leapt towards the window, wrapping his arms around his head to protect his face from the glass.

    Kiritsugu pulled the trigger, the crack of the handcannon firing signalling Sedd's failure at the last possible moment.

    ...but at the same time, Parthi leapt sideways.

    In the blink of an eye, the shadowy behemoth threw itself in the path of the bullet, his unearthly speed a fitting comparison to the Magus Killer's own. As before, the bullet punched through Parthi's armor-like hide with ease, but this time, it hit at such an angle that the trajectory of the bullet was deflected slightly upwards. While passing through the familiar with little effort, the slight misdirection caused the bullet to fly just inches over Sedd's hunched back, smashing through and shattering the window he was aiming for.

    As Sedd soared through the now broken window, he felt a sharp...something, in his chest. He was sure the bullet had missed him, and this didn't feel like pain anyways. But just before he passed under the edge of the window and out of eyesight of the room, he caught one last glimpse of Parthi convulsing, flailing wildly at the floor below him.

    And then he hit snow.

    Without stopping to think, he immediately picked himself up out of the huge snowdrift and plowed forward, heading at an angle that would prevent him from being seen from the main entranceway of the castle. Dully, he noted that it was now dark, another boon that would aid in his escape on top of the still furious blizzard that had wrapped itself around the mountain.

    In his head, he knew that they couldn't pursue him in the blizzard, let alone in the dark. And yet still, he didn't stop moving until the castle was well out of sight. Though it was slow going through the large snowdrifts, walking in random directions to avoid being easily tracked, the blizzard quickly concealed his passage, making following him impossible. And luckily, the wards against detection sewed into his clothes didn't require a supply of magical energy to function, meaning even if they could tell he was still within their territory, they would have no way of finding out where.

    After a long half hour of trudging through the storm, Sedd collapsed into the snow. His legs were exhausted, his bullet wound felt like it was on fire, and his lungs screamed for rest.

    "Parthi, come back!"

    Through ragged breaths, Sedd called futilely into the storm. Parthi certainly could have heard him - no physical distance or interfering noise had ever impeded their communication before.

    But even so, even as he allowed his routine of calling the familiar back to go on, he knew there would be no response.

    Pushed out of his mind by his need to escape, the last image of Parthi taking the bullet for him pushed itself back into his mind, forcing his failing mind to remain conscious. He had been in shambles, shadowy body barely able to keep itself together, an enormous bullet hole through the center of his head. But that was fine - even if the shadow vessel had been completely destroyed, Parthi would have been able to safely return as long as Sedd was within a few hundred meters. It would have been no problem, after taking that last bullet, for Parthi to have retreated to safety in his resting place bound to Sedd's own soul.

    But his body hadn't just been destroyed.

    Having created the body Parthi had been using, he knew it almost better than the familiar did. Unlike most bodies Parthi inhabited, this one had a material structure - allowing it to physically injure people, break down doors, or block bullets. And it certainly had the ability to feel, in some primitive way, or else it would be difficult for it to even walk around. But it did not have the ability to feel pain.

    That last bullet...the way Parthi had convulsed and flailed after being hit by it. The sharp sensation in Sedd's chest, replaced now by an empty dullness.

    He had no idea what had happened, or how Kiritsugu had done it. But Parthi was gone. Somehow, that last bullet had struck directly at his spiritual core, killing him from the inside out.

    As those words passed through his mind, Sedd felt his entire body grow heavy. His partner, the only connection he had left from his family, was gone.

    For a long few minutes, Sedd lay in the snow, feeling the winter cold slowly seep through his gear and into him. And though he recognized how dangerous that was, he couldn't bring himself to move, the hollowness inside him too heavy to lift, the brutal realization of his solitude like chains holding him down as the snowstorm buried him alive. Even though he knew he would freeze to death if he stayed here much longer, that bitter despair mixed with his exhaustion on every front pulled him rapidly into unconsciousness.

    His brother had been murdered in cold blood by his father, and his father of course killed by Sedd himself to avenge him.

    He had no idea how his mother had died, but after disappearing one day when he was still a few months shy of ten years old, he had expected the worst. Surely enough, after taking over the family from his father, he found the word 'deceased' next to her name on the family register.

    And though he had started as only a pet, Parthi had become an invaluable companion, both for his work and outside of it. The only family Sedd had had left.

    And now he was alone.

    Just before Sedd's eyes closed, he stirred. With sluggish, tired movements, he pushed himself up off the ground, shook off the layer of snow that had settled on top of him, and rose to his feet.

    If there was one thing Sedd had learned from his father, it was that the greatest reward required the greatest sacrifice.

    Parthi was not replaceable. Even if he were to create a new familiar, it would take years to do so, and years more to train it to even a level comparable to Parthi's.

    But Parthi's sacrifice was not in vain. He had sacrificed himself, knowingly or not, but in exchange Sedd had escaped. Not only with his life, but with the Container as well. His mission had been a success, all carried on the familiar's back. And no doubt, if the Mystic Code - it must have been a Mystic Code of some sort - had so much as grazed him, he likely would have met the same fate.

    In reality, he was lucky that Parthi had been the only casualty. With the Magus Killer there, his chances of succeeding had been all but zero. Perhaps in a one on one battle, Sedd and Parthi together would have been able to hold their own, to at least escape alive. But with Kiritsugu on defense within his own territory, with the entire Einzbern family supporting him, it was a miracle Sedd hadn't been shot dead the instant they laid eyes on each other.

    And he couldn't even feel bitter about Irisviel's 'betrayal.' He had expected as much, so the only surprise was that she had come to face him down personally, as ineffectual as she had been. And he couldn't hold it against Kiritsugu for killing Parthi either. There was no way of painting the picture in any other way - Kiritsugu was on defense, and Sedd had been the bad guy. Thinking of it in any other way was just being delusional. While he was tempted to go back to the castle and attack their little child out of revenge, he knew doing so would be suicide. And besides that, he already had everything he needed from the Einzberns - revenge wouldn't add to that at all.

    He had succeeded.

    Parthi was gone, but he had succeeded.

    Pushing himself to move forward, Sedd ignored the tears that had finally started welling up in his eyes as he began the long walk back to his hideout. It would take another hour at the least to get there, and he would only have a few hours to rest there before he would have to flee from there as well. Luckily, he had food and medical supplies prepared there, giving him a chance to recover slightly before he would have to set out back to his actual residence in London, and then to his safehouse in the countryside.

    He had succeeded at obtaining the Servant Container, despite the tremendous cost. The most difficult part of his plan had been accomplished. Losing Parthi meant that staying safe while he finished the rest would be a challenge, but he had confidence he could make it. He had to. He wouldn't let Parthi's sacrifice go to waste.

    One last time, Sedd turned to look back at Einzbern castle. Of course, through the blizzard, he couldn't have seen it if it was ten feet away, let alone after thirty minutes of walking. But even so, staring into the black-white darkness, he whispered.

    "Goodbye, Parthi. And....thanks for everything."

    Wiping the ice from his eyes with his right hand, he returned to putting pressure on the still burning bullet wound. After taking a deep breath, he turned back towards his hideout, still over an hour away.

    In silence, his thoughts as free of words as his laboured breathing, Sedd vanished into the blizzard.

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