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    [OneShot] Alter

    Here is my entry for Milbunk's 2018 Fanfic contest. Reposting here for archiving purposes.

    With such glowing reviews as,

    Quote Originally Posted by ItsaRandomUsername View Post
    Decisively Not-Shit/10
    Quote Originally Posted by alfheimwanderer View Post
    It's not perfect, but hey, what is?
    and

    Quote Originally Posted by Dark Pulse View Post
    ...whoever wrote this seems to not understand that after an ellipsis you are supposed to put a space before your next words...
    You know we're all in for a treat with this one!

    All joking aside, thank you to everyone who left comments and reviews on this fic in the contest thread. This was an idea I had been toying with for a while but had never made concrete, so it's nice to have had a chance to finally get it written out. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or criticisms, I'd be more than happy to hear them.

    One line summary:

    Spoiler:
    After losing her battle with True Assassin in the Ryuudou Temple, Saber finds herself face to face with the Grail she has sought for so long.


    Length is about 7600 words, around 30~ minutes average reading time.






    For a moment, she was lost within the memory of pain. Burning, stabbing, biting, slashing, from every direction and with all her senses there was nothing but agony.

    But it was only a memory.

    Blinking several times, her vision came back into focus. As if the experience hadn't even been as real as a dream, there was no lingering sensation from the intense pain she had been subjected to. And while it had been enough to make her momentarily forget where she was or what she was doing, even the memory of the pain was quickly fading from her mind.

    As her vision returned, she calmly surveyed the scenery around her. Though recollection was slow in coming, she had certainly been in the Ryuudoji Temple just moments before. Now, however, she was most certainly not in the temple. Instead, stretching out in front of her was a sea of grass, a wash of faded greens and yellows as if the ground was trying to mirror the steel-grey sky.

    Even with its washed out colours, there was no place burned more vividly in her memory than this. Even if she didn't recognize the sea of grass, the nearby fairgrounds and stables, or even if she didn't turn to see her father's castle looming in the distance behind her, she would recognize this place in an instant. No single place, no single moment could have been clearer in her memory, and as she rested her eyes once again on that stone pedestal and the sword it held, that memory came rushing back to her.

    As much as she recognized this place, it didn't make sense that she was here. Her last memory was of fighting that skull-faced Assassin in the halls of the temple, so why was she suddenly here, thousands of miles - and years - away?

    It was possible this was a dream, she supposed, though she didn't have the faintest idea why she would have been sleeping. Unless...

    "I'm afraid not," a voice called to her from a distance. Her voice called out from the opposite side of the sword planted in front of her. "A dream, that is. That's what you're thinking, right?"

    More than the newcomer's correct assumption about her thoughts, she was startled by their appearance. By all accounts, she was looking at a mirror image of herself - almost. It was a version of herself that was much younger. Though their physical appearance seemed almost identical, her plain commoner's clothes gave her away. This was an image of her from her time before she had even become a knight.

    From before she had pulled Caliburn from the stone.

    "Welcome, Artoria Pendragon. Or I suppose you've probably been going by Servant Saber recently, haven't you?"

    Saber frowned. "Who are you?" Despite their uncanny similarity - no doubt some sort of magecraft was involved with that - there was something about this...girl that seemed different. Something unsettling.

    The girl responded to Saber's frown with a raised eyebrow. Stepping between Saber and Caliburn, she folded her arms in front of her and leaned back on the sword. "You don't know? Really?"

    "If you think I would be deceived into thinking you are my past self," Saber replied flatly as she stepped up towards where the girl was standing, "then I am afraid you have underestimated me."

    The girl grinned. "Oh, don't worry, I know you're not that stupid."

    Saber frowned again. If this imposter's words could be believed - which she wasn't sure they could - then perhaps the gap in her memory was responsible for her inability to identify them. Throwing her thoughts back to the last thing she remembered, standing in the temple, she attempted to piece together what had happened before she appeared here.

    Certainly, she had been in the Ryuudoji temple. Having encountered an enemy Servant, she had split off from her Master...Assassin. That was why she had left Shirou's side. As confident as she was in her ability to fight him, it might have been beyond her abilities to protect Shirou while she did so.

    For a moment, Saber's eyes went wide with realization, before she dropped her gaze in dismay.

    "You are...the Holy Grail?"

    The young girl in front of her raised her eyebrows as if impressed, despite her condescending words earlier. "You certainly figured that out quick. Though I can't say I'm disappointed. It will make this conversation a lot easier, that's for sure."

    Just before arriving here, Saber had been fighting Assassin in the temple. She had successfully repelled his attacks, but before she could land a fatal blow of her own, she had been caught by that mysterious shadow. After that, after sinking into that darkness, she could only remember pain. And then she was here.

    In short, she had lost.

    "Yes, I'm afraid it's true," her twin spoke with an air of mocking sympathy. "You lost. Assassin proved too much for you, and now your Grail War has come to an end. Rest in peace, and all that."

    Saber closed her eyes, trying to suppress a rising wave of mixed frustration and despair. She had failed. Barely a week after she had appeared in Fuyuki city, she had already fallen, and thanks to her failure her Master was almost certainly dead as well. There was no way that he could have escaped from Assassin unaided, nevermind his Master who had likely intercepted him even before she herself had fallen.

    "A true shame, is it not?" the illusion of her younger self spoke, adding a tinge of melodrama to her voice. "You failed to hold your kingdom together in life, failed to crush the rebellions that sprung up during your rule. You were given a miracle, a second chance, to redeem yourself...and you failed again, letting that man Kiritsugu destroy the Grail while it was right in front of you. And yet once more, another miracle, a third chance! Only for you to fail again, not even able to protect the life of a single boy. Truly a shame."

    Saber opened her eyes again, throwing an irritated glare at the Grail's image of herself. Even if what she...what it was saying was true, she still couldn't suppress a hot flash of anger from welling up at hearing the words spoken aloud. While a considerable amount of time must have passed between Kiritsugu's betrayal and now, for her it felt like only a week past. But while her Master had failed her in the previous war, her abject failure at protecting her Master in this one stung just as much.

    "What do you want from me?" Saber said in a level voice, despite her mounting displeasure. "If I died, I should have been sent back to my own time. Why am I here instead?"

    For a moment, the younger girl said nothing, the sardonic grin slowly fading from her expression. Saber thought she could see a hint of sorrow in her eyes, but with a blink it was gone, only a cold flatness staring back at her.

    "Call it a whim," she eventually said with a shrug, her expression unchanging. "You are really quite an unprecedented case. Not only summoned twice, but in consecutive Wars as well. Sending you off just like any other seemed somehow...unfitting. So before you go, I wanted to ask...I wanted to make sure."

    The young girl watched her as if looking for a reaction, but Saber gave her nothing. Perhaps she was in a bad mood, having just discovered she had been killed minutes earlier, but she had no desire to indulge the imposter in her games.

    Seeing Saber wouldn't take the bait, the girl flashed a quick smile before making an exaggerated sigh.

    "As the Holy Grail, I ask you," she spoke, a hint of iron returning to her eyes.

    "What is your wish?"

    Saber maintained her silence, now out of surprise more than exasperation. Here she was, standing before the Holy Grail itself, the omnipotent wish-granting vessel that had called her to fight for its favour.

    And she was being asked her wish.

    "Why?" Saber finally managed to squeeze out, her mouth uncharacteristically dry. Dare she hope?

    "I already said, didn't I?" she replied, a mischeivous grin returning. "A whim. Mostly."

    "Mostly?" She couldn't figure out why she was so hesitant to tell her wish. This was the Grail, after all. The one who could grant it. But for some reason, she felt she couldn't trust the person in front of her.

    Without warning, the grassy field around her was gone, the young version of herself vanishing with it. Saber blinked in surprise, instinctively reaching for her sword but finding nothing.

    A striking sense of familiarity hit her as she looked around her new environment. She was in the throne room of a castle...certainly not Camelot, but similar. Smaller. Once her eyes fell on the man sitting across from her, head propped up on one fist, elbow resting on the side of his throne, recollection came like a lightning bolt.

    Uther Pendragon.

    Staring down at her from his raised throne was none other than her father. A perfect image, more accurate she suspected than even her memories of him. And yet once again, there was something...off. Something in his eyes that told her she was still speaking to the same person, the same Grail that had been standing before her in the field moments prior.

    "Mostly," her father's voice rang out with a nod, looking down at her in more ways than one. "As the Holy Grail, it is of course my duty to vet those who seek to make a wish. To determine who is worthy to have their wish granted. Hence, the Holy Grail War."

    "Which I lost," Saber spoke with a grim expression, talking past a lump in her throat. "Twice."

    The enthroned lord regarded her for a moment before speaking. "Technically, that's not true."

    Once again, Saber's breath caught, snagged by the smallest spark of hope.

    "You made it to the end of the last War," the Grail continued, its voice cold and imperious. "True, you stood against one final remaining Servant, but while you did, your Master claimed the Grail. Technically, you had won - I had already stood before your Master, offering him victory. Right up until he betrayed you...betrayed us."

    Though the pain had long faded from her body, she could still feel somewhere deeper the scar caused by that betrayal, the wrenching of her soul as she futilely resisted the Command Spells with every fiber of her being. Without a word of explanation, without a word of warning, she had been forced to destroy the Grail she so desperately sought with her own hands.

    "Of course, you certainly did fall in this War," the man continued, "but even you must realize that Assassin did not have the skill, nor the power necessary to defeat you." A bitter regret seemed to cloud his voice as he finished. "Your untimely defeat was caused by...outside factors."

    The spark of hope grew, ever so slightly, into a tiny flame. A small candle fighting back the darkness of her despair. Before Saber could open her mouth to ask anything further, the Grail continued.

    "Of course, the rules can only be bent so far. Certainly I can acknowledge you the winner of the Fourth Holy Grail War, and give you your wish...but while so many Servants still live, my power is not sufficient. Even if I wanted to, I don't have the ability to do anything you would ask of me."

    "And yet still you ask for my wish," Saber finally found her voice again. Quiet, but sure. The flame wavered, but was not extinguished.

    "I cannot grant it out of hand," he spoke, holding her gaze, "but another chance...perhaps that is within my power." He gave a faint smile, contrasting with his ice cold eyes. "If your wish is worthy."

    Saber swallowed. Another chance. As the Grail had said, Assassin would have had no means of defeating her by himself. Perhaps the only Servant that stood a chance to defeat her was that Berserker, but she was confident she could manage even that, given the proper time to prepare. If she had one more chance...that might be enough.

    "My wish..." Saber spoke, her voice faltering barely above a whisper. Clearing her throat, she tried again, meeting her father's gaze straight on and speaking clearly. "My wish is to redo the selection of the king. To have a more competent ruler lead Britain, that it might avoid the ruin I led it to."

    For some reason, she felt those words sting herself. Perhaps because of the illusion of her father before her, admitting her abject failure as the ruler of Britain out loud felt like embracing a piece of broken glass. However, no matter how much it hurt her pride, if her wish could be granted...

    The long silence following Saber's declaration was broken by the sound of bellowing laughter. Uther leaned back in his throne, laughing heartily. Unsure of whether to be offended or dismayed, Saber could do little more than stand and watch, waiting for the fit to end.

    Eventually it did, punctuated by a long sigh as he tapped a finger on the armrest of the throne. Though his eyes remained as cold as ever, the rest of his face was still alive with mirth.

    "Incorrect." A single word proclamation.

    "...incorrect?" Saber parroted his reply. "Are you saying my wish is not worthy of the Holy Grail?" As dismayed as she was at the response, it seemed her anger was winning out, a hot burn swelling in her chest.

    "Oh, no! Not at all!" the Grail replied with mock concern. Leaning forward to place elbows on armoured knees, he spoke with what felt like the faintest trace of venom. "What I mean is, that's not your wish."

    Saber narrowed her eyes, keeping her mouth shut and her anger restrained.

    "You wish to redo the selection of the king," he continued, standing from the throne and descending the few short steps to stand level with her. "'Someone should be able to do a better job than I did.' Something like that?" Stopping only a pace in front of her, he crossed his arms. "Who?"

    Saber blinked, taken aback by the sudden question. "It is of no consequence. As long as they can protect Britain...protect the people better than I did-"

    "Yes, yes, but who?" Impatience marred Uther's voice as he turned around and walked back to the throne. "Who could do a better job than you did?" Standing in front of the throne, he turned again to look at Saber. "Perhaps you don't know...you can't see what I see, hear what I hear. But I think you do. I think you understand, somewhere in your heart, that what you wish for is impossible."

    "Impossible? Even for the Holy Grail?" How could something be impossible for an omnipotent wish-granter?

    "Yes, even for the Holy Grail." Raising a gauntleted hand to rub his forehead, he paused in thought. "For example..."

    Once again, Saber was outside. No longer in her father's castle, nor in the field from which she first drew Caliburn, this time the scenery triggered instant recollection. Stretching to the horizon in every direction was quiet carnage - the bodies of fallen knights, now still as stone, still-warm bodies still running with blood.

    Camlann.

    The only contest for the soft wind whistling over broken armour was an all-too familiar voice.

    "Would you then surrender the throne to me?" Turning to face the source of the voice, she was less than surprised to see Mordred, Clarent in hand, looking back at her with an expression of arrogant self-assurance that fit her far too well.

    "A meaningless question," Saber answered, not quite keeping the hostility out of her voice. "If I did not pull Caliburn from the stone and become king, Mordred would never have been born. My wish would preclude her ever ascending the throne."

    "Maybe so," the Grail replied with a smirk, plunging the point of her sword into the ground, seemingly oblivious to the bodies at her feet. "But tell me, King of Knights. How many Mordreds are out there? How many competent fighters, just waiting to take the reins of leadership, just so they could prove their mettle before the whole world?"

    Saber made a bitter expression. Certainly, she was aware. Mordred was by no means unique. While her prowess was certainly enough to challenge any foe, her thirst for combat, her love for battle was unfit for kingship. And that same love for battle was all too common among the knights of her time.

    "You understand," Mordred said, stepping towards her while leaving Clarent in the ground. "How many hundreds, how many thousands of knights are out there, vying for power? Seeking for a chance to carve their name in history with an ocean of blood, mistaking a knight's duty for a conqueror's glory?"

    Raising her hands, motioning to the massacre that surrounded them, the coldness that still haunted her eyes seeped into her voice. "This is what they would create with your kingdom! And not one final, bloody conclusion. This would be the norm. Countless Camlanns, countless dead."

    "Do you think my reign was without its bloodshed?" Saber replied, the weakness of her rebuttal showing in the slight faltering of her voice.

    "Oh I am well aware," Mordred replied with a smirk, this time remaining constant in place while the scenery shifted around them again. In the blink of an eye, they were somewhere else. A river, choked with bodies. Then a forest, the trees no less wounded than the soldiers lying beneath them. A fort, a crimson moat forming before its gates.

    The River Glein. The River Bassas. The Forest of Caledonia. Fort Guinnion. Caereon, Tribruit, Agned, Badon.

    Each a stark memory, burned into her heart and mind. Each a battle she had fought, and always overcome. Each a bloody massacre, not always started, but always finished by her own hands.

    "But tell me, Servant Saber," the Grail continued as the scenery shifted back to Camlann. "Would you have these battles take place for sport? For the entertainment? To prove your might as a commander? To win glory for your house?"

    As Saber struggled to find words to rebut Mordred's accusations, the scenery shifted once more, this time leaving Mordred behind. Once again, she was indoors, in a place that felt almost like home - the heart of Camelot, the Round Table itself standing before her.

    "But of course, it would be dishonest of me to say everyone was like that," another voice called out from beyond the Table. "True, not every knight was as bloodthirsty as Mordred. Even if a minority, there is a sizable number who would attempt to follow the same path as you."

    "Like Sir Agravain." Watching as the speaker made his away around the table to stand by her, Saber spoke quietly, a sense of dread rising at the inevitable rebuttal that was to come.

    "Like Sir Agravain," he replied, an uncharacteristic smile gracing his hard features. "Perhaps the most competent of your Knights when it came to leadership. Despite his treacherous background, one of the most loyal. A powerful, if somewhat hard leader, skilled both in the sword and politics needed to be king."

    Saber swallowed as she dropped her gaze, unable to meet Agravain's cold eyes. "...but?"

    "But," he continued at her prompting, "who would he rule? What charisma does he possess to gather followers? The Round Table remained united for so long because of their hatred of him. How could he gather those same people together to rule them?"

    Though she still couldn't raise her eyes to meet his, she could feel his hard glare on her as he spoke. "The unity of Camelot may have been...tenuous, during your time. True, it fell divided against itself. But consider the years it spent united under you. Who among your knights could have kept them together at all, let alone longer than you did? Who among them could inspire such fierce loyalty as you did?"

    Saber continued to hold her silence. Camelot's fall certainly may have been caused by Mordred's betrayal, but Saber couldn't help but blame herself for it. If only she had been able to stamp out the sparks of rebellion before they had burst into flames...

    That was why she sought a chance to redo the selection of the king. Someone, she reasoned, must have been able to do a better job. What good was her success in battle if she would inevitably battle her own? Surely, someone out there must have been able to reach a better conclusion than she had...

    "...but in the end, that's all irrelevant anyways." As if to punctuate the last breath of her wish, Agravain spoke again. "Sifting through the candidates avails us nothing, because if it were not you, there is only one man who could have become king."

    Saber finally looked up, but Agravain was no longer standing before her. Nor was the Round Table, or the walls of Camelot. Once again, the scenery had shifted, and she was now standing in another place - another place burned vividly into her memory.

    Instinctively Saber reached again for a weapon that she knew wasn't there, stepping back from the gigantic form that was now before her.

    An enormous dragon, hide as black as night, dominated the room. The dim light seemed to be swallowed by its falsely glittering scales, its gigantic head swinging low to regard her with the same cold eyes as every ghost before it.

    ...no, cold wasn't the right description. She of course knew this beast, this man. The aura of cold, hard cruelty that he held in life was nowhere to be seen, replaced by this...something else. She had thought of it as a coldness, an icy clarity before, but contrasting with Vortigern's wicked form, she could see their nature more clearly.

    It was not coldness, but emptiness. A blackness void of humanity, a nothing that overpowered even the vile presence of the black dragon.

    "No matter who you might set up in your place," the dragon spoke in a deep whisper, a soft echo against the stone walls, "they will not stand against Vortigern. Who else but you could stand against such a monster?"

    "If they had-"

    "If they had!" the Grail interrupted, never opening its mouth yet still shouting with all the intensity of a dragon's roar. "Don't delude yourself, Servant Saber. Your blessings were for you alone. Only you could draw the Golden Sword of Victory from the stone! Only you were the bringer of promised victory! Only you were the light, still shining even now, at the end of the world! Put any other in your place, and they will be consumed by the brilliance that was meant for you."

    Rising from where he had crouched on the stone floor, Vortigern stretched to his full height. Wings spread wide, he easily filled the chamber.

    "And then this man will conquer. Like a plague, he will sweep across Britain, crushing the people beneath him like they were no more than insects. The kingdom will be as dust long before any foreign army reaches your shores."

    Saber had no reply. She had no need for the reminder of Vortigern's power to remember that she would have had no confidence facing him without Rhongomyniad at her disposal. And she had no confidence that any other could inherit the lance, let alone the two swords that she had born. It was exactly as the Grail had said - with no one to stand in Vortigern's way, she could hardly expect any other outcome than his complete domination of Britain.

    And what hope would her people have then?

    Lowering his head to be level with her, Vortigern spoke once again in a quiet whisper. "This is the fate brought about by your wish, Servant Saber. Darkness. Despair. And finally, death. The complete and final erasure of your people."

    Saber stared up at the dragon in front of her, a blackened mirror of her own namesake. As if the candle of her hope had been snuffed from the bottom up, she felt a cold blackness within her, Vortigern's horrendous form a fitting avatar for the despair she felt welling up inside. Even as she recognized something dark and twisted in the eyes of the dragon, something that made her want to question the Grail's claims, she could find no fault in its words.

    "That's...not my wish..." Saber's voice was barely above a whisper. "I want someone who will save Britain...save my people. Not someone who will be trampled underfoot in Vortigern's conquest."

    A sound like a great sigh filled the room as the dragon settled back onto the floor, folding its wings onto its back.

    "Is there nothing I can do to save my people? Nothing that the Holy Grail could do?"

    For a time, the dragon watched her silently as she stood lost within the growing feeling of despair in her chest. When it made no reply, she raised her eyes again to meet the creature's gaze. His gaze was relentless but not cruel. No matter what sickness lay behind those darkened eyes, she could feel no malice from them as they measured her - judged her.

    Finally, the dragon's soft whisper broached the silence. "Perhaps...there is one person."

    Saber felt a growing sense of hollowness as she stared up at him, wondering if her assessment had been wrong. His words, daring her to hope, did nothing to stem the rising tide of helplessness inside her. Was he mocking her? Taunting her with false promises of hope? To what end?

    "One person who could take your place, who could protect Britain from foes within and without. One person who could fulfill your dream."

    Seeing the Grail was making no move to continue, to specify, Saber closed her eyes with a sigh. Would his game not end until she played her part? Fine. If it would end her torture even a second earlier...

    "...who?"

    "Why, you, of course."

    Saber's eyes immediately snapped open, not at the words but at the voice who spoke them. Once again they had moved, no longer within Vortigern's keep, but back at Camelot. Standing on the castle walls, overlooking the fields beyond the castle, the strong winds bringing the faint scent of a distant battle not yet started. Above her, the clouds were thick and dark, promising rain in any moment.

    And standing beside her was a knight clad in silver.

    "You united the knights of Britain under your banner, and forged the Round Table. Why not again? You overcame the threat of Vortigern once. Why not again? You resisted the Saxons, the Picts, and the Scots until Camelot fell under its own weight. Why not again?"

    Saber met the Grail's eyes, standing now in the form of another of her loyal knights. Though Bedivere's expression was as ever, a look of unwavering loyalty, unfailing faith in his king, it did little to dim the shadows that plagued the Grail's eyes.

    "I united the Knights of the Round," Saber spoke up, her despair lending a bit more strength to her voice than her crumbling hope could manage, "but I also failed to keep them united. What difference would it make if I went back and tried again?"

    Bedivere broke his gaze away, turning to search the horizon. "Perhaps you can't see it from where you stand," he said, his voice barely more than a murmur. "But I can. I can see you, your past...the past of many heroes. A history of humanity more ancient than you can imagine."

    Turning back to return her gaze straight on, Bedivere's voice was clear and strong. "And I can say this with certainty. You were not wrong."

    Saber stared back as if frozen, the wave of cold washing over her almost enough to make her shiver.

    "To be more precise, your methods weren't wrong. Of course you made mistakes, but such is the case for all rulers - all humans. But your mistake was not one of kind. It was one of magnitude."

    "...I don't understand," Saber whispered, eyes dropping once again, trying to deny the truth now forming before her. Trying to deny the cold collecting in her chest.

    "I think you do," Bedivere spoke with a knowing smile. "From the very beginning, from the time you pulled Caliburn from the stone, you understood what it meant to be king. You understood that being a leader meant sacrifice, and you met that expectation with unmatched fervour. You gave all of yourself - you sacrificed your own heart and soul, your own body, your entire life at the altar of Britain. You held nothing back, and thus had nothing left for yourself. But it wasn't enough."

    Whatever space there had been in her heart for hope was now gone. Realization of the truth had crushed it, replaced it with something different, something colder. Something more certain. Even now as she raised her voice to argue, she knew - perhaps not consciously, but nevertheless - that her words were lies.

    "Not enough?" Saber said, straining to keep her voice from quivering. Despite the coldness she felt, it did nothing to soothe the anger welling up at the Grail's accusation. "You say I sacrificed everything, but that wasn't enough? My entire life was consumed by the needs of the kingdom. Even after its death, I am still here fighting to win back what was lost, over a thousand years later! What more could you ask of me?!"

    "Correct," the Grail replied, a twisted grin marring Bedivere's face. "Sacrifice was the correct choice. If you wanted Britain to flourish, to survive, it required sacrifice of the greatest order. But you failed, because your sacrifice was too small - you sacrificed only yourself."

    No, that wasn't quite right. Her words weren't lies. Though they may have been uttered in denial of the truth, they were each an indispensable tool, each a step forward towards it.

    "It was very noble of you, but foolish. How could you think that a single person's sacrifice would be sufficient to sustain the entire kingdom? No matter how much of a hero you were, no matter how blessed you were with supernatural gifts, by trying to carry everything yourself, you had doomed your kingdom to failure from the start."

    Even as the truth of those words stung her, Saber's unfettered anger demanded she respond anyways. "I was not the only one who sacrificed. I gave everything I had for Britain, everything! And many others did, both before and along with me! Hundreds of knights sacrificed everything in my name, wagered their lives on our success. To say I carried Britain alone is a grave insult to each of them, one I will not let stand!"

    For a moment, Bedivere was speechless. His look of surprise at Saber's hot rebuttal soon turned to one of contempt. "Yes, many knights sacrificed everything for your cause, and many more offered besides. But you did not accept. Anything you could fit on your shoulders you guarded jealously. You bore every burden you could get your hands on, blind to the fact the only reason you could hold it all up was because of the sacrifices of those under you. Made all the more clear as, despite your manifold blessings, you and your kingdom around you collapsed the moment those under you stopped supporting you."

    "But what else could I have done?" Saber's voice at last faltered as the coldness reached out and took hold of her anger. Though her despair at having the truth of her dream laid bare had frozen solid, an icy core within her heart, she had wrapped it in anger as if to hide it. Now that anger too was freezing, turning solid - turning permanent.

    "Should it not be obvious?"

    The scenery shifted again, but this time not to a place of distant memory - but a very recent one. Within the gardens of the Einzbern castle, just outside Fuyuki. Across from her sat the King of Conquerors, almost a match for her height despite sitting cross legged on the ground while she stood.

    "Rider told you as much in the Fourth War, did he not? Of course, you refused to listen then." Taking a drink from the goblet in his hand, he gave a loud, satisfied sigh before continuing. "You brought your kingdom to ruin because you tried to rule like a hero. You tried to carry the burden by yourself, hold everything up alone, and thus a hero's end was the only possible ending - and what is a hero's ending but overwhelmingly tragic?"

    Saber's gaze turned hard as memories of that meeting came back to her. "'The king serving the people is backwards. It is the people that should serve the king.' Are you trying to tell me I was not greedy enough?"

    "No Saber, not greed. Wisdom. As I said, no one person can hope to carry the burdens of a nation. That is why the hero's tale is a tragic one. Instead, you must rule like a king - guide your kingdom as it carries its own burden. Sacrifice of your own will be necessary, but even more so is the sacrifice of those below you. Their role is to bear the weight of your demands, not the other way around, for your demands are the ones that shall lead them to prosperity. Embolden the strong, cull the weak. Reward the loyal, crush the dissident. You need not seek your own interests first, but you must lead as a ruler - not a hero."

    For a moment, Saber looked out over the garden around her. To lead as a ruler, to put the well-being of the country above not only her own, but above the well-being of the individual people that made it up...

    "The cost would be...extreme," Saber spoke softly, her expression bitter. "Many lives would have been lost if the people were forced to shoulder that burden...that is why I tried to carry it alone. So that they did not have to."

    "And yet look at the reward for your 'selflessness.' Your kingdom in ruins, destroyed by internal conflict. A powerful exterior brought low by a rotten, crumbling interior, all because you could not bear the consequences of letting the people fight for their own future. Because you couldn't let the people bear their own burden."

    A new feeling began to grow, slowly but surely encompassing the frozen core already there. As it did, the scenery shifted again, to a place Saber didn't recognize. A wide underground hall, tiled floor below her feet and countless fluorescent lights above her head. Otherwise, the space was featureless, a blank, boring emptiness in all directions.

    "That was your previous Master's weakness," the Grail spoke with a new voice. A voice that caused her frozen anger to flare up, to come within a hair's breadth of breaking from its cage. But the ice held fast, indeed grew colder and more solid for it as she turned to face Kiritsugu.

    "He could not bear the logical outcome of his wish," he continued. "The wish to sacrifice the few to save the many...of course, there was no other way it could end, but still he shied away from that truth. Betrayed us both once he realized the magnitude of his desire."

    Saber looked down at Kiritsugu, not bothering to restrain the ice cold rage in her expression. "Sacrifice the few to save the many...that's not correct. That is not what I wish for...not what I wished for when I was alive."

    Kiritsugu stopped, an unreadable expression on his face. Silently waiting, watching. Judging.

    Despite being inside, the faint sound of rain began to reach Saber's ears.

    "My goal is not to save the many, but the few. To save the people, the nation of Britain, no matter what the cost. Even if that means sacrificing everything else. Even the world."

    At that, Kiritsugu laughed. A sound wholly unfitting from his figure, certainly one Saber had never heard from him in their short time together.

    "It seems you've made a decision, of sorts." Normally, Saber would have been wary of the smile Kiritsugu now showed her, so evidently pleased in her anger, in the harshness of her words. But as if her instincts, her caution were trapped within the frozen core in her chest, she couldn't bring herself to care.

    "No," Saber replied flatly. His evaluation of her was wrong. She hadn't reached a decision. "I have only learned something new. Learned where I went wrong, and what I must do to fix it."

    The scenery shifted one last time.

    Once again, Saber was standing in that grassy field by the fairgrounds, a castle in the distance behind her, the stone which held Caliburn ten paces ahead of her. It was now raining, raindrops black as ink soaking into the yet-dry ground.

    Saber glanced up at the sky briefly. It was unnatural, that was certain. Never before had she seen such ominous rain, so it definitely didn't come from her memories. Yet as it ran down her face and soaked into her clothes, it felt like any other rain. Looking down at herself, she watched the blackened rivulets run off, the traces they left behind creating the illusion that they were staining her armor as they did.

    Yet no matter how unnatural it was, she found it difficult to care.

    "Then, in my capacity as the Holy Grail, I ask you..." Dragging her attention from the rain was another new voice, strangely fitting for the ominous weather. Standing behind the stone pedestal was Merlin, his heavy white robes seemingly impervious to the black rain.

    "Servant Saber...what is your wish?"

    Stepping closer, she approached the stone pedestal, meeting Merlin's eyes without hesitation. "I have no wish." Merlin raised an eyebrow, but made no comment as she continued. "I have no wish for the Grail...only a promise."

    Stopping a few paces from the pedestal, she ignored the sword resting on it and faced the Magician. "I will save Britain. I will save my people, and I will do it with my own hands."

    The last layer settled, the chill running through it turning it to ice. A frigid determination now cloaked the core of rage and despair in her heart, determination enough to smother whatever small fragment of humanity might remain to threaten her.

    "I will save them, and if it takes the Grail to do so, I will use it. And if the Grail fails me too, then I will simply find another way."

    "Even if it means an ocean of blood?"

    "That would be no different from what I did before."

    "...even if that blood is the blood of the people you are sworn to protect?"

    At that, she faltered for a moment. But only a moment. "I will crush any who threaten my people and my nation. Even if that threat comes from within."

    "Well then, I have good news for you, Servant Saber." Merlin spoke, the mischeivous grin on his face so natural she forgot for a moment this wasn't the true Magician before her. "A new master calls for you. Your second chance is here, if you are willing to take it. All you must do..." his voice trailed off as he motioned to the sword in front of him.

    Saber had been pointedly ignoring the blade up until now, but at his instruction, she turned her attention to the stone pedestal only a few paces away. Though this was the rightful resting place of Caliburn, it was obvious that this was something else. And though its form was completely different, almost the exact opposite...or perhaps because it was so thoroughly opposite, she could tell at a glance that it was Excalibur.

    No trace of the sword's holy aura remained. Its clean white blade and golden shine were gone, replaced with a suffocating darkness. The sword seemed to glow with barely restrained energy, the red detail of the weapon being the only light able to overcome the black surrounding it. The black rain running off the sword reflected its crimson light, lending it the colour of blood as it streamed down the stone pedestal into the dirt below.

    Somewhere on the fringes of her awareness, the question of what could possibly have coloured the holy sword so dark fluttered briefly before it disappeared, as if washed away by the rain. Her cause for hesitation removed, she approached the pedestal and reached out, taking the sword by the hilt.

    "Are you sure?"

    Merlin's voice caused her to stop before she pulled the sword from the pedestal. It took her a moment to realize that it wasn't just a memory, but the Merlin before her was speaking as well.

    "Pulling out that sword will be the end of you. There will be no joy, no happiness. Just hardship and suffering. Hatred and anger will be your only companions. Can you bear that weight on your shoulders?"

    Somewhere deep inside, beneath that core of ice, a memory glimmered. A similar question, from the same man, when she had first pulled the sword from the stone all that time ago.

    "You have fulfilled your duty as king admirably. You bore the burden of king greater than any other, accepted a destiny heavier than any man could bear while you were but a child. No one can blame you for your end, and even if they did, it is an event more than a millenium past, swallowed up and all but forgotten by history."

    Saber didn't remove her eyes from the sword. Something felt different. The words Merlin were speaking felt somehow more real, yet somehow less. The words resonated with her, as if one last fragment of light inside her was struggling to be heard.

    "Servant Saber. Artoria Pendragon. This is your last chance. Lay down your burden here and rest."

    For a long moment, Saber remained motionless. Hand still holding the hilt of the blade, she stared at the sword.

    Her last chance. To lay down her burden and rest. To accept the end of her journey, and finally be free of her responsibility to her people.

    Somewhere deep inside, beneath layers and layers of ice, something inside her screamed. Begging her to let go of that sword, to disappear into the darkness without another word.

    The sword in her hand trembled. Whether with anticipation or fear at what was to come, she did not know.

    The black rain continued to pour down, soaking through her clothes and armor and drenching her skin and hair. As if the world itself were mourning.

    ...mourning what?

    Long ago, when she was but a child, a similar question had been asked. A similar dilemma had faced her, posed by this same man. 'You will not be human once you take hold of that sword. You will be resented by all humanity and die a miserable death.'

    What had been her answer? What conclusion had she come to, fingers on that golden sword, having seen the future that lay before her?

    Many people were smiling. I don't think it will be a mistake.

    Though her eyes had never moved from it, Saber looked again at the night-black sword in front of her. What future awaited her, if she took up her burden once again? What lay at the end of that path, so assuredly drenched with the blood of both friend and foe?

    Was there hope at the end of her path this time as well?

    The blade had no answer for her silent queries. All she could see was an all-consuming darkness, marred with traces of crimson. No matter how sure, how determined she was, she had no guarantees things would improve.

    But none of that mattered.

    "I have already sworn my oath to protect Britain and its people," Saber spoke, her voice strong and clear. "As long as my hands can still hold a sword, my oath remains eternal."

    Saber stomped down with an iron heel, crushing the last shred of weakness in her heart telling her to give up.

    The sword in her hand stilled. Resigned? Satisfied? She no longer cared.

    The black rain ran down the length of her body, carrying her doubts into the dirt below.

    "Then rise, Servant Saber." She barely heard Merlin's voice over the sound of the rain, over her own focus. The faint trace of emotion in it was lost on her. "Go forth and claim the Holy Grail."

    Saber pulled the sword free of the pedestal, and the world around her vanished into darkness.

  2. #2
    闇色の六王権 The Dark Six SpoonyViking's Avatar
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    This fic definitely deserved the win and all the compliments it got, Twilights! I honestly don't have much to say - it's harder to talk about things you've liked without getting repetitive.

    Well, I suppose I have one question: how would you reconcile Saber willingly (or "willingly", depending on your point of view) accepting the darkening with the hints in the original VN that a part of her was still aware, understood what she had become and hated it? Buyer's remorse, perhaps?
    Last edited by SpoonyViking; May 29th, 2018 at 08:06 PM.
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    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    Thanks for the comments!

    I suppose you could call it a kind of buyer's remorse. Alternatively, you could express it as kind of a "necessary evil," where she understands (and hates) how warped she's become but still believes its the best course of action.

    Though I might be more tempted to leave it as an unresolved contradiction in her character. That could open the way to some interesting developments if she had had an opportunity to develop much as a character before the end of HF, but more likely it would serve to show how far she has fallen - where hating what she has become and what she's doing isn't enough to actually stop her from doing it, showing a separation between her actions and her internal monologue. This allows her to maintain some semblance of her previously noble character while still being a horrific kind of evil, perhaps even worse than just a fallen personality - and adds a highlight of despair in that redemption for her would be all but impossible, since she can't (or at least won't) stop herself even if she knows she's wrong.

    I guess it would depend on where the story wants to take her from that point, but that's probably the direction I would take. There's probably something a bit more in depth one could do with Sakura's involvement in the affair as her Master, but again the relevance of that would depend on where the story goes - and as HF develops in canon, Saber's internal thoughts and feelings are basically irrelevant to the plot, and so don't get explored very much.

  4. #4
    闇色の六王権 The Dark Six SpoonyViking's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TwilightsCall View Post
    Alternatively, you could express it as kind of a "necessary evil," where she understands (and hates) how warped she's become but still believes its the best course of action.
    Hmmm... I don't know. If so, wouldn't she employ her full power against Shirou, for example? And why would she hate Shirou if he fails to kill her?
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    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    Well that's just because at that point she hates everything :P

    While I would tend to agree with you, and would expect that canonically Saber's transformation would very much be treated as something against her will (in contrast to being, at least on the surface, her decision in this fic), I think pressing someone who has been grail-mudded for that kind of consistency or logic is a bit misguided.

    More practically speaking, my end goal was more aiming at developing a GO rendition of Saber Alter than a strictly HF version. If I were to stick strictly to what we see in the VN, I probably would have played more into developing a sense of disgust towards...well everything, and trying to push a more Gilgamesh-esque viewpoint out of her. That would probably have developed her character more in line with what you (and thus the VN I suppose) are talking about.

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    闇色の六王権 The Dark Six SpoonyViking's Avatar
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    Then I guess your decision made for a much better story, in the end. :-)
    My fanfics:
    The Gift (a Fate/Stay Night one-shot)
    - A duel between Cú Chulainn and Scáthach.
    Passion Acknowledged (a Fate/Stay Night one-shot) (Lemon) - Shirou and Shinji finally acknowledge their feelings.
    He Was a Good King (a Fate/Stay Night one-shot) - A short exploration of Beowulf's character as a hero and a king.

  7. #7
    Don't @ me if your fanfic doesn't even have Shirou/Illya shipping k thnx ItsaRandomUsername's Avatar
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    As I've said before, I thought that this one was a baller read, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to give it a gander. It certainly deserved to win those top marks, so a big congratulations to you is in order.

    Congratulations!
    McJon01: We all know that the real reason Archer would lose to Rider is because the events of his own Holy Grail War left him with a particular weakness toward "older sister" types.
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  8. #8
    死徒二十七祖 The Twenty Seven Dead Apostle Ancestors
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    This was a very interesting look into Saber becoming Alter.

    What was the toughest part for you when writing it you would say?

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    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by warellis View Post
    This was a very interesting look into Saber becoming Alter.

    What was the toughest part for you when writing it you would say?
    Hmm...it's hard to say. Writing through the first draft came pretty easily, but the part where Saber finally turns (internally, so around the Kiritsugu conversation) took a good few rewrites before I was convinced her change of heart was believable...which I'm still not sure I'm completely satisfied with. While I feel like writing her into falling into despair wasn't so hard to do, it was less simple to switch her motivation from giving up to turning dark, as it were.

    I tried to resolve this by having her reason for turning being still in character for her - doing so out of a sense of obligation to her people, rather than out of any desire of hers to be evil - but even then I feel like the switch might have been a bit too sudden and not quite justified. I originally actually had another scene planned, in which the Grail impersonated Shirou, that would have happened right before switching to the Merlin scene, but in the end I cut it before I even wrote it because it wasn't doing anything for the story. Now that I look back on it, it might have been a good chance to slow her descent and make the transformation itself a bit more believable.

    Or maybe it would have just added extra useless fluff. I guess we'll never know

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    死徒二十七祖 The Twenty Seven Dead Apostle Ancestors
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    Hmm if you had used Shirou instead of Kerry, would the tone of the Grail's argument have been different in some way compared to it using Kerry's image?

    I just wonder how using different characters might've changed the experience for Saber even if the outcome is the same.

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    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    I guess it might have. In all likelihood, if I had included Shirou I would have included them both, so it might not have changed all that much, but the general idea of the Shirou scene was going to be convincing Saber that turning dark was not only the logical thing to do, but also the morally correct thing to do. While the current version has her change being a thing of bitter resolve - determination to save Britain whether that's the morally correct option or not - Shirou's scene would have added a sense of false hope, trying to convince her that even if she became evil in the process, she could still create a net good by turning.

  12. #12
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    I think a Shriou scene would have been a good idea
    Have him impersonated with his stomach and intestines hanging out when he was attacked by Herc trying to save Saber
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    That's exaggerating my point.

  13. #13
    死徒二十七祖 The Twenty Seven Dead Apostle Ancestors
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    Quote Originally Posted by You View Post
    I think a Shriou scene would have been a good idea
    Have him impersonated with his stomach and intestines hanging out when he was attacked by Herc trying to save Saber
    Sort of showing Saber if only she had been stronger (blackened) she could've prevented the events that led to that?
    Quote Originally Posted by TwilightsCall View Post
    I guess it might have. In all likelihood, if I had included Shirou I would have included them both, so it might not have changed all that much, but the general idea of the Shirou scene was going to be convincing Saber that turning dark was not only the logical thing to do, but also the morally correct thing to do. While the current version has her change being a thing of bitter resolve - determination to save Britain whether that's the morally correct option or not - Shirou's scene would have added a sense of false hope, trying to convince her that even if she became evil in the process, she could still create a net good by turning.
    Might've also been sort of creepy if after she came back blackened, she would possibly be telling Shirou he helped convinced her and all?

    Would there have been little things that showed Grail Shirou wasn't the Shirou she knew? Like what was done with "Kiritsugu" and his laugh?
    Last edited by warellis; June 4th, 2018 at 02:31 PM.

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    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by You View Post
    I think a Shriou scene would have been a good idea
    Have him impersonated with his stomach and intestines hanging out when he was attacked by Herc trying to save Saber
    That's an interesting thought. I was originally thinking of using the scene where they were outside the church, where Shirou first decided to join the Holy Grail War, but that angle would have added a nice twist to that conversation.

    Quote Originally Posted by warellis View Post
    Would there have been little things that showed Grail Shirou wasn't the Shirou she knew? Like what was done with "Kiritsugu" and his laugh?
    It probably would have been a bit more subtle than Kiritsugu's, as Saber would have been more or less entirely fallen at that point. And it's not like she didn't know from the start that they were all impersonations. It would probably just end up being something where the reader would know "Shirou would never say that."

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