Results 1 to 7 of 7

Thread: Rejuvenation of a Bloodline

  1. #1
    屍食鬼 Ghoul Mr. Lactose's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2018
    Location
    California
    Age
    22
    Gender
    Male
    Posts
    17

    Rejuvenation of a Bloodline

    I've been writing a Fate storyline about Matou Shinji, titled Rejuvenation of a Bloodline, on fanfiction.net since May, and I've heard the people on this forum tend to be more critical. Since I'd love to get some feedback and advice on improving, I'm posting it here as well. I'd love it if you could read it and review on FF itself, but I'll also be posting the story in this thread in case people prefer that.
    You can find Rejuvenation of a Bloodline here:
    https://www.fanfiction.net/s/1295030...of-a-Bloodline

    Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy my work!

  2. #2
    屍食鬼 Ghoul Mr. Lactose's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2018
    Location
    California
    Age
    22
    Gender
    Male
    Posts
    17
    So, here's the prologue. What I've posted below this break is verbatim from what's on FF.net, so there's some news in the author's notes that's somewhat out of date. Sorry about that.

    ~~~

    Author's Notes:
    SPOILER ALERT - THIS STORY ASSUMES YOU'VE READ FATE/STAY NIGHT HEAVEN'S FEEL AND WATCHED FATE/ZERO.

    Now, with that out of the way, here's what I'd put on the book jacket if this were a book.
    I've always felt sorry for Matou Shinji. Sure, he's a terrible, terrible human being who caused half his failures with his own incompetence. Sure, there are a lot of characters in Fate/Stay Night in much worse situations. Sure, Shinji actively contributes to the suffering of even less fortunate characters.
    OK, I'm not making a great case for him. Point is, though, he was dealt a really shitty hand in life. His only family members are an immortal monster, a father who doesn't care whether he lives or dies, and a sister who, despite being a kind and caring person herself, is nonetheless a walking symbol of the reason why Shinji's life is so fucked up. Top that off with the fact that as a child he was lead to believe he was the heir to the Matou magic until he happened to walk in on Sakura in the worm pit, at which point the rug (read: his purpose for living) was pulled out from under him and his family stopped even pretending to care about him.
    Then, on top of all of that, he enters the Holy Grail War (his one and only chance at redemption) and fails immediately. He ends up being the disc one villain, there only to facilitate the hero getting stronger with his own death. No matter how much of an asshole he is, you can't deny Shinji has a terrible life.


    Consequently, I was pretty happy to read Kariya's Legacy, another story on this site which chronicled the events by which Shinji enters the Holy Grail War as a magic user working to protect his sister. Unfortunately, that story has been abandoned for about two years now, and is incomplete. So I decided to do my own version, starting from the top. I didn't think a quick chat with Uncle Kariya was enough to revolutionize Shinji's whole outlook, so my version diverts there.


    ~~~


    Rejuvenation of a Bloodline

    Prologue

    Matou Kariya's mind shattered a very short time after the lack of available oxygen induced brain death in the woman he loved.

    Kariya hadn't been stable in quite some time, of course. There was the horror of seeing his beloved's daughter turned into a breeding ground for worms in order to receive the Matou legacy; the pain of the similar treatment he had undergone to spread the crest worms through his own flesh, enabling him to bear a servant; the shock of being unable to best the man he blamed for his woes even after all his sacrifices; the despair at being blamed for that man's death by Aoi, for whose sake he'd been going through all this (or was it Sakura's sake? Fine details like that had been slipping from him for some time now…)


    All things considered, the total leave from reality his mind took after he killed her was understandable.

    Laughing and crying, muttering under his breath and barely maintaining enough motor control to do so, Kariya got up and left the Kotomine Parish, headed for his ancestral home. While the bulk of his consciousness entertained itself in the fantasy celebration of his victory and well-deserved happy ending, some small part of him that clung to the world dragged Kariya back. Perhaps he hoped to die in proximity to Sakura, at the very least. From the way Berserker was rampaging, he'd certainly be dying shortly.

    ~~~

    Matou Shinji, seven years old, woke up with in a cold sweat. He'd been having a strange nightmare; he was older in the dream, and involved in some kind of fight. Already the details were slipping, but he remembered two other adults, fighting each other, one for him and one for [Emiya] someone he didn't know. Then there had been the terrible silver gleam, and the figure fighting for him crumpled. In that moment, Shinji had been washed away by fear, and he'd woken up. Even as the traces of the nightmare faded, Shinji clearly felt the overwhelming emotions his dream self had felt. He remembered need, the need to win more than anything, because only if he won could he [really exist] feel alright; and he remembered the despair he felt when he knew he wouldn't win, that he'd die without ever amounting to anything, never proving himself to his grandfather, never becoming a magus, never beating that annoying Fake Janitor, never triumphing over his hated sis-

    SLAM


    The dream, and the strange [memories] thoughts that it had brought were driven from Shinji's mind when he heard the front door being opened. It startled him, because the Matou house never had any loud noises. Even as a child, Shinji knew that very well. Someone, though, had slammed the door open with no regard for Grandfather's preferences. Despite his fear, Shinji got up and went down to see who it was. He had to know what kind of person didn't care about his Grandfather.


    Still dreaming of picnics and happy families, Kariya hardly noticed as he slammed open the front door of his home with all his rapidly decaying strength. He didn't have much in the way of finesse now. What he did notice was the sharp note of a child's scream. Kariya was jolted sharply back to reality, and observed that he was in the Matou front hall. In front of him, frightened and not recognizing the strange man, was Sakura. Wait, that couldn't be right. Sakura knew what he looked like after the treatments. Kariya blinked, and realized it was another child. It was about the same size as Sakura, but the shape and colors weren't right. By the time he worked out that the child in front of him was Byakuya's son Shinji, Kariya had gotten as close as he was likely to get to a lucid state. He realized two things. First, he would be dead in a very short time. Second, he needed to say something to the frightened child in front of him.


    "Whattsa matter, Shinji? Don't recognize your uncle?"


    "Uncle Kariya? What's happened to you? You're all bloody, and your hair is the wrong color!"


    Kariya came to another realization. Since this whole sordid affair had begun, he hadn't seen Shinji once. His mind starting to work, he further recalled that Zouken had decided Shinji was useless as a magus, and would be kept ignorant of the realities of the Matou. He'd tried to convince Byakuya to send the child away to study abroad during the war, but it was now apparent Kariya's drunken brother didn't even care that much for his tiny son. There had been a time when (a slightly saner) Kariya had considered Shinji the best hope for a future to come to his rotten family. A normal, healthy, mundane future, with a Matou leading the family in business, putting their wealth to use and engaging with the world. Kariya no longer cared about a normal future for his nephew, though; all he cared about now was Sakura, which is why he said the following:


    "Sorry you have to see me like this, Shinji. I'm not doing too well. See, there's something happening in our family that isn't any good. No good at all. I'd explain it to you better, but I don't have much time left…"


    At this point in his ad-hoc speech, Kariya knelt down and put his one functional hand on Shinji's shoulder, looking him in the eyes.


    "Shinji, the Matou can do magic. Well, your grandfather can anyway. He didn't manage to pass the ability on to you, so they brought in another child to take it on. Your new sister, Sakura, that's why she came. They've been doing terrible things to her down in the basement for a magic ritual, so your grandfather can be even more powerful. I tried to stop him, Shinji, and that's how I ended up like this."


    At this point Kariya had to turn to the side in order to avoid getting any blood on Shinji when his speech was punctuated by a hacking cough that left a sizable blood spatter on the boards.


    "Shinji, I have to leave things to you. Your father and grandfather, they can't be trusted. If you care about your sister, and you don't want her to end up like me, I need you to follow my instructions. Get into your father's study when you're older. Learn as much about magic as you can. Then, when you understand what the Holy Grail War is, read this. It's everything I've written about how I tried to stop your grandfather."


    Kariya extracted a battered journal from his coat pocket and put it into Shinji's shaking hands. Then he turned again and added a second stain to the no-longer-pristine entryway. Tiny insects had emerged en masse from the shadows to consume the blood he'd already lost.


    "You're not ready for it now, but if you start learning soon you can help her by the time you're a grownup, Shinji. Don't ever show that to your father or grandfather, though, and don't read it 'til you're older. Maybe 12? Damn, what was I like at 12…"

    Seizing on the subject, Kariya's mind tried to wander off again to happier times. When he was a child the world had seemed like a bright place. He didn't really understand the horror of the Matou magic, yet, and just thought he had an important future and responsibility. He'd had so much hope back then...
    Kariya forced his mind back into place. He really didn't have much time left, and if he died while hallucinating about imaginary happiness it'd be one more failure on the pile.


    "Anyway, can you promise me you'll do that, Shinji? Promise me you'll learn magic, and save your sister, and take care of her? It'll take a long time, and it'll hurt a lot, but you're the only one who can do it."


    "I understand, Uncle. I'll learn, and I'll win. Don't worry anymore. It'll be okay, so you don't have to cry anymore."


    Kariya realized at this point that the capillaries in his eyes had ruptured, and blood was running down his cheeks. As a metaphor, he supposed it worked. With his nephew's reassurance in his ear, Kariya allowed himself to relax. He wrapped Shinji in a hug, thinking that in a moment he'd stand up, pat his adoptive successor on the head, and go off to die in private.


    Matou Kariya died there and then, embracing his nephew.


    ~~~

    At seven, Shinji hadn't understood most of what his uncle had told him, but a few key details had made it through. Magic was real; his uncle had been hurt badly by it, and his cute new sister hurt too. He had to learn about it, and somehow that would save her. When he'd opened his mouth to ask Uncle Kariya to explain, though, he'd suddenly been filled with the feelings of dream-Shinji. There was that overpowering need to win, to prove himself, and somehow Shinji felt like this was the moment. His chance to do just that. Shinji had accepted, and his uncle had died happy. Shinji was too young to understand death, though, so he mostly thought he'd helped Uncle Kariya rest and go to sleep. At this time of night, Shinji thought, everyone ought to be asleep.

    There was one other thing that Shinji hadn't understood. The Makiri had always specialized in the control of living things, even using that specialization to craft the Command Spells that made the Holy Grail War possible. Shinji's mother had been chosen from another line specializing in interactions between spirit, od, and the body. It had been hoped that this specialization would synergize with the Matou magic and help her Inheritor sorcery trait pass Byakuya's waning magic circuits to their child. The trait itself had been passed on, but nothing more, and Byakuya's wife had paid dearly for her failure.

    In deference to his family's specialty, one of the few mysteries of the Matou magecraft that Kariya had actually learned was the "Instinctive Geas". This was different from an ordinary Geas, in that it didn't require od from the bound party and acted at a subconscious, rather than conscious, level. In the hands of a master, it could be an incredibly powerful tool that allowed a magus to make people into unwitting puppets. Kariya had only ever been able to make it work on his family's blade-winged insects, though, so when he tried it on Shinji it had been a desperate last-minute gamble with the final ounces of prana left in his body not yet consumed by the crest worms or Berserker. The exertion had brought about his death, but the hastening was only by an hour or so.

    A human sacrifice always empowers magecraft, and with the combined enhancing factors of Shinji's blood relation to Kariya and his verbal acquiescence to the dying magus' geas-laced request, the geas had worked. Like all biologically actualized mysteries, there was a bit of life to the geas, and it made its new home deep in Shinji's immature subconscious. There it melded with the other strong impulse within him, inserting itself at the base of Shinji's mind like chemical ore in the wellspring of a river. No thought, from then on, could flow forth without the taint of the geas on it. For the rest of Shinji's life, his mind would be dominated by three subconscious compulsions. First, he would learn magic. Second, he would save and care for Sakura. Third, he would be victorious. The possibility of these things coming to pass was, of course, doubtful. Shinji had no magic talents, and certainly no caring teacher to help him. Shinji was cruel and vindictive by nature, and that nature would twist and war against the geas' compulsion to care for Sakura. As for winning, this was the vaguest of the urges; what would he win at, and how would he do it? Subsumed by the others, that urge would remain dormant until a certain event when Shinji was seventeen.
    The Holy Grail War would change everything, and it would give Matou Shinji the chance to fulfill all three parts of the warped geas dominating his mind at a stroke.


    ~~~

    More Author's Notes:
    That's it for the prologue, hope you enjoyed it enough to read chapter 1 in a week or so!
    Before I let you go, though, I'd like to outline the points where this story diverges from the canon Heaven's Feel timeline and mention updates. First, Byakuya doesn't send Shinji out of the country. It always seemed odd to me that a guy who doesn't care what happens to his son decides to send him to study abroad to shield him from the 4th HGW, and Shinji's backstory in Heaven's Feel makes it sound like his whole childhood was spent at home with Sakura. So what, did he study abroad for like 2 weeks? It didn't make sense to me, so in this story Byakuya's even more of a jerk and Shinji got to stay home during the war, resulting in his interrupting Kariya on his way to jump in the worm-pit. Second, Kariya kept a journal of the events of the HGW. He spends most of his time in Fate/Zero skulking around and watching others with Berserker in astral form, so it seems reasonable that he could have kept a decent account. This is my method of giving Shinji some incomplete knowledge of the Grail War besides what Zouken deigns to tell him later on. I think everything else that happens can be rationalized as the result of those events, and I'll do my best not to divert from canon in ways that can't be traced back to those points of divergence.
    The other thing I wanted to mention is that not all the chapters will be this short. It's a quick intro, but I'm working on chapter 1 now. I intend to make each chapter around 7-10K words going forward, and post a chapter once every week or two. Here's hoping you liked this, and will like the rest of Rejuvenation of a Bloodline! Please ask any questions you have in the reviews, and don't hesitate to correct me if I get details of the Nasuverse wrong.
    Last edited by Mr. Lactose; July 31st, 2018 at 02:35 PM.

  3. #3
    屍食鬼 Ghoul Mr. Lactose's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2018
    Location
    California
    Age
    22
    Gender
    Male
    Posts
    17
    Author's Notes:
    Here it is, Chapter One! The first actual installment of my story! I had initially hoped to get all the way through Shinji's childhood and training in the first chapter, but I realized while I was writing this that there was no way I was getting that under 20,000 words. So I decided to cut it off at a point I thought worked for the narrative. It's still a bit shorter than I intend to make my chapters, going forward, but it also came out several days short of the projected 1 week writing time from the prologue!

    One other thing to mention before I start the story off proper, I discovered that you can't review the same chapter more than once. This means I can't keep answering review questions in that section as I'd hoped. From now on I'll be posting answers to the reviews in these notes. All the questions I have right now are either answered below or would be spoilers for the story if I answered them, so I don't have any responses to post today.
    Finally, please leave a review with all your compliments, complaints, questions, and corrections, especially if you find a part of the Nasuverse canon I've messed up!

    ~~~

    Chapter One – Childhood in the House of Matou

    Shinji would have been intelligent regardless of whether a geas were placed on him. The talent in magecraft he lacked was thoroughly present in regards to mundane academia, and even at six it would have been apparent to a caring family that Shinji was a genius. Matou Shinji didn't have a caring family, of course.

    All Zouken and Byakuya cared about was that he lacked magic circuits, making him an irredeemable failure in their eyes. Without a geas warping his mind and imbuing him with artificial purpose, this combination of talent and disregard might have made Shinji into a warped soul, channeling his intelligence into useless pursuits and seeking only to prove his superiority over the "plebeian masses".

    Kariya had turned Shinji from this path, though, and ensured that Shinji's mind would be completely devoted to the study of magecraft.

    With the first precept of the geas firmly dominating his thoughts, Shinji became utterly obsessed with magic. Although he went to bed after his chat with his uncle normally enough, Shinji's brain seemed to be on fire when he woke up the next morning. He could think of nothing but magic, and pestered his father and grandfather about it all day, earning not a few smacks from Byakuya and canings from Zouken.


    Eventually Shinji had snuck out of the house and made his way to the local library, where he read everything about magic that he could get his hands on. From fairy tales to fantasy novels, and even a (very dry) biography of Paracelsus von Hohenheim, Shinji read it all. Mundane readings kept Shinji occupied for two years, but although they swelled his vocabulary impressively they did nothing for his knowledge of magecraft. In the mundane writings he found, magic was not only fictional; it was chained, tame, a tool as inert as a sword. It was nothing like the fearsome idea of a rampaging force in need of restraint that Kariya had impressed on him.


    With that in mind, Shinji decided at eight that he would sneak into his father's study and begin to learn the true secrets of the Matou. The break-in was a thing easily enough done. Shinji's father spent very little time in his study these days. On Shinji's eighth birthday, Matou Byakuya had actually slept through the entire day, sweating out the residue of a long night on a barstool, completely unaware of his distraught son downstairs. It was not an unusual occurrence for the hopeless magus.


    It was a similar day now, as Byakuya tossed and turned, moaning through his hangover. Shinji made his way into the empty study as slowly and silently as he could, still fearful that his father or grandfather would find him.


    Shinji's first sight of his father's study was a shock to his system. It was so much less forbidding than he'd been expecting! Shinji's heart had been pounding as he crept towards the forbidden room, sealed behind a heavy old oak door and forbidden by his family, but when he got in his impression changed completely. Byakuya's study was the most inviting and comfortable place in the entire house.


    Faint sunlight gave the room its grey illumination as it crept through closed curtains that hid a large picture window. Below the window, at the far end of the room, sat a massive mahogany and leather desk, the type of thing that simply radiated a feeling of luxury. The desk itself was piled high with loose notes and stacked journals that seemed not to have been touched in years.


    On either side of the desk the walls were covered by massive bookshelves, crammed floor-to-ceiling with the accumulated knowledge of the Matou family, and below them the floor was covered in a rich burgundy carpet, just thick enough to mute the sound of footfalls without being deep enough to imply decadence. On one side was a massive fireplace, and Shinji thought looking at it that a person using the study could keep warm in here in midwinter, even if the rest of the house was left totally unheated. There were also, piled around the fireplace, a variety of abandoned magical implements. Beakers, tubes, alembics, retorts, candles, brushes, chalk, a cauldron, and numerous exotic tools Shinji didn't recognize littered the hearth.


    Everything was gathering dust, left untouched by the ostensible head of the Matou as he drowned himself a bottle at a time.


    The most impressive aspect of the study in Shinji's view, though, was the sound. Or rather, it was the lack of sound. Throughout the Matou house the chittering of insects was a constant companion to all inhabitants. One could never escape the noise of Zouken's myriad followers, or evade the sight of them moving just in the shadows, barely at the edge of vision. Some nights Shinji had tried plugging his ears, but the sound somehow made its way through, and he'd gone many a day on no more than an hour of sleep. The study, however, was blessedly silent and free of insects.


    As Shinji was taking in all this wonderment and trying to decide which book he'd read first, his grandfather appeared. Shinji hadn't heard his cane on the floorboards in the hall, hadn't heard him open the door and walk up behind him. Shinji was simply alone in the silent study one moment and the next there was a withered hand on his shoulder. Shinji froze in terror. As he did so, he felt something move, almost imperceptibly, under the skin of his grandfather's hand.


    Slowly, shivering in fearful anticipation of the beating he would soon receive from Zouken's cane. Shinji looked up at his grandfather's face. There, Shinji saw something that would have shocked him into a terrified paralysis if he hadn't received such a fright a moment before. It was something that didn't belong on his grandfather's face. Something Shinji had never seen there before.


    It wasn't the twisted mask of fury Zouken had turned on Shinji after he'd killed a strange worm in the garden (the Matou never killed insects, Shinji learned that day, because everything could have a use; even "something as worthless and idiotic as you, you pathetic whelp!") It wasn't the cold, disappointed look he turned on Shinji when the boy made a small mistake, one only requiring a strike over the knuckles, or the neutral, assessing expression Zouken turned on most of the world, either. It wasn't even the wry, rotten smirk of malevolent good cheer Zouken wore when he took Sakura down into the basement. It was so alien, so impossible, that Shinji's first response was to blink rapidly to clear whatever had gotten in his eyes.


    Nothing had. Shinji was looking at a smile on his grandfather's face. It was a warm, proud, kind smile. In any other family it would have been called grandfatherly. It reminded Shinji of his uncle Kariya, as he had been when Shinji was younger, when his hair had been the right color.


    "You found it on your own! This is the first time I've been proud of one of my descendants in a long while, you know. It's your first glimmer of worth, so do treasure it," Zouken said, an actual note of warmth creeping into his usually dry and hateful voice.


    "Kariya and Byakuya didn't seek out the study, you know. With them it was always forced. I had to beat any knowledge of magic into Byakuya, and Kariya just wouldn't listen no matter what I did! But look at you, asking your father, reading about the Art in the library, even sneaking into the study while that wretch is passed out drunk! I'm proud, boy. Consider this a success in your second great test. You may never be able to use magecraft, but in here you'll at least learn of our ways."


    Before Shinji had time to respond to this hitherto unimaginable outpouring of positivity, Zouken swept him forward and sat him roughly down in the chair in front of Byakuya's desk. Then he set a heavy tome down in front of Shinji, kicking up a great cloud of dust that filled Shinji's eyes and nose for a moment.


    When he finished coughing and wiped his eyes, Shinji could see that the book was bound in a rich oxblood leather, and the gold lettering on the cover proclaimed it to be "The Five Elements: A Mystic Primer for Fresh Initiates" by someone with (in Shinji's opinion) entirely too many hyphens in his name.


    "Grandfather, thank you! This is wonderful, I swear I won't dis-" there Shinji was cut off by the tightening of his Zouken's hand on his shoulder, pressing hard enough to send a shocking bolt of pain down the boy's arm.


    "You will disappoint me, Shinji. Don't make it worse by lying to me. Still, I'm glad you're seeking out your own education. Come to me when you've finished that book and I'll tell you what to read next. Make sure you understand what you read, and don't take more than a month to get through it. That would really be pathetic."


    With those words, Zouken turned and walked out of the room, the pounding of his cane muted by the thick carpeting. Shinji sent goodwill after him with one more "Thank you, grandfather," but if Zouken heard he gave no sign.


    Shinji turned back to the book. If he had ever seen a Christian bible he might have noticed that the "Primer" was slightly thicker than one. He would be spending a lot of time reading in the near future.


    ~~~

    As Zouken made his way down from the study into the rest of the Matou home, he let out a dry chuckle. It had been some time since he'd been kind to one of the Makiri children. Not since Byakuya's grandfather, he considered. It made for an amusing change of pace, and the boy's eager attitude towards magic really had been heartening.

    It was such a pain, forcing most of them into the right kind of life. So many ended up being destroyed half by their own reluctance. This boy showed none of that, eyes shining as he devoured anything magic-related he could find. Zouken knew that something had happened during the Grail War to induce this change. That was why he'd ordered Byakuya to keep his child at home instead of sending him out of the country, after all: the hope that some aspect of that great magic ritual would make a failed experiment somewhat useful. If only the child had magic circuits, he would have made for an ideal head of the Matou family, and could have helped immensely with preparations for the next Grail War sixty years hence. Ah, well.


    At least it would be amusing watching the boy struggle to attain the impossible. Besides, who knew what the future held? Perhaps Zouken would think of a way to make use of a powerless magic researcher after all.


    ~~~

    It was almost a year after that conversation in the study that Zouken decided the time had come to show Shinji the worm room. Shinji had demonstrated a full understanding of the nature of the elements, od, mana, and the basic principles and processes of magecraft, as well as an in-depth grasp of the mysteries that had been present in the books Zouken had him read. Zouken had little doubt that if Shinji had possessed circuits, he would already be animating small familiars and experimenting with some of the Matou's simpler binding curses.

    This alone hadn't prompted the decision, though, as Zouken knew from experience that most children just couldn't handle the sight of the worm room. It often left them scarred and unable to pursue their studies properly. Zouken's decision came when he found Shinji dissecting a stray cat in the woods near the manor, trying to determine whether the flow of its od could be discerned from its musculature. Zouken had informed him that it could not, and warned him to refrain from such actions in the future as they would yield no information not found in his books.


    Still, the action had been touching. While most families would have recognized the signs of a budding psychopath, Zouken regarded this as an indicator of a clear and inquisitive mind, untroubled by the pain of others. The mind of a magus, in other words. It really was such a shame the boy had no actual capability. He would have made a marvelous pawn.


    In any case, if Shinji was capable of killing and taking apart neighborhood pets he was ready for the worm room. That much was plain to Zouken.


    ~~~

    Shinji really did feel slightly bad about the cat. Its mewling had been so unpleasant, and when it scratched and bit at him he couldn't really blame it. He was trying to kill it after all. He'd tried to make sure it died quickly, though. He hadn't really wanted to kill it, anyway, but there had been a diagram in one of the books on ether interacting with biology, and they'd had such a fine diagram of the way od helped a cat move its muscles. He just had to see if it was really visible. He had to learn.

    If anyone in Shinji's family had made an attempt to teach him morality, he might have felt more than slight regret, but as things stood "conscience" was a meaningless term for Shinji. Remembering the way he'd hurt the cat was unpleasant for him, though, for some reason he couldn't explain. He was struggling to find some way to stop remembering the sounds it had made when his grandfather came into the study.

    Shinji's thoughts of his failed experiment were washed away when Zouken told him that there was another, even more secret part of the house where the Matou family magic was really performed. Shinji could hardly contain his excitement. All the wonderful things that had been in the study, and there was another part of the manor concealing even greater secrets? It was like being told Santa was real, and then invited into his workshop. Or, it would have been if the Matou family celebrated Christmas, anyway.

    Shinji happily followed his grandfather out of the study and down the hall. As he descended the stairs into the basement, though, he began to have his first misgivings. The sound of insects was louder here than anywhere else, and the air was cold and clammy. The steps were cut from the raw stone that had been below the earth here long before the Matou manor, and as it came into view the architecture of the room was no more civilized.

    Shinji found himself standing on a sort of balcony, stretching around the room above a great pit into which the stairs descended. The walls were covered with carefully carved holes, which appeared to serve as nests for strange animals, if the slime around their edges was anything to go by.

    Far more horrible than the design of the room, already so repellently alien to the rest of the house, was its contents. In the center of the great pit was a pedestal, and lying on it empty-eyed and motionless was Sakura.

    Only her face was completely visible, as the rest of her body was covered by the swarming worms that filled the pit. They churned in their mass and crept disgustingly over Sakura's defenseless form. As Shinji watched they stained her unspeakably. There she was, his cute new sister; the sister who was his responsibility as the eldest child; the sister who he had promised to save and care for.

    Shinji saw red, and as the geas flared Zouken had to restrain the child by force from leaping into the worm pit. Shinji seemed to have undergone a complete change, screaming and shouting about the horror, the injustice of what Zouken was doing to Sakura. Seeing that he was unlikely to calm soon, Zouken pulled Shinji from the worm room and began educating his grandson in the facts of life as a Matou. This education was performed primarily with his cane.

    ~~~

    Shinji's introduction to the worm room marked two changes in the course of his life. First, he would not succeed the Matou magic. After all, if the Matou magic made Sakura go through that terrible time in the basement, and did those terrible things to Uncle Kariya, it certainly couldn't be any good for him.

    Shinji had learned from his books that every family of magi did things differently. So, with all the confidence of any child, he simply decided that he would learn the magic of another family. He would also avoid all live subjects in his studies going forward; there would be no more dissected cats.

    The second major change that came to Shinji was in his attitude towards Sakura. He had been rather vague in this regard before. Of course he wanted to save her, but he didn't know from what, or how. Of course he wanted to take care of her, but in the Matou family that didn't mean much.

    In fact, Shinji's definition of "taking care" of someone mostly included petty bullying. He thought of it as a kind of show of affection, showing her he noticed she was around and making sure she noticed him.

    This changed after the worm room. Suddenly he knew exactly what he needed to save her from. It was those worms, and the way they made her make the same kind of dead face Grandfather sometimes made.


    After that, whenever Sakura finished in the worm room Shinji would go to her and comfort her. He would bring her up to the study, where he'd learned to get a fire going in the fireplace, and sit with her. He'd read her fairy tales, and give her candy, and just hold her, until finally her expression would crack and she would start to cry into Shinji's shirt, from huge, wracking sobs down to muted whimpers. Eventually Sakura would get herself under control, thank him, and go out of the study to get something to eat and go to sleep in her own room.


    Shinji always felt like a failure after these sessions. He could get her to stop looking dead, and he knew that was good, because none of the other little girls at school looked like that. He could never make her laugh, though, or get her to enjoy the stories like he had when he'd first read them.


    It didn't matter. Shinji now had an idea of what he needed to do to save Sakura, and somehow that mattered just as much to him as learning magic.


    Over time, Shinji tried other things besides just comforting Sakura after her time in the worm room. He would surprise her with candy when he came home from school, or show her a beautiful new flower he'd found in the forest, or just help with the chores.


    Gradually, Sakura's façade began to fade, and by the time Shinji was ten her eyes began to light up whenever he was around. It was a long way from a real smile, but it was a start.


    ~~~

    Matou Shinji was 11 years old today. He was also in excruciating, soul-wrenching pain. Those were the two thoughts chasing each other around his brain as he mentally chanted, I'm older now, I can't cry out, I'm older now, I can't cry out, can't disappoint Grandfather, I won't be a failure, because I won't cry out, because I'm older and so on in that manner. Shinji was undergoing an experimental type of spiritual surgery. He was on the altar in the worm room, naked, with his soul flayed open and exposed to the air. More importantly, it was exposed to the ministrations of a spiritual surgeon, whose deft fingers seemed intent on wringing as much suffering as possible out of Shinji. The one positive aspect of the experience was that the room was temporarily free of worms, as they played no part in this ritual.

    A few months earlier, Shinji had been reading a book on the enhancement of the body via the empowerment on the soul, which his grandfather had written, when he'd come across one of Zouken's early cast-off ideas. The concept was that it should be theoretically possible to surgically transplant magic circuits in the same way that a magic crest was transplanted from father to son, thereby enhancing the ability of a family of magi to compound their power over the generations. It had numerous flaws, of course, which was why it occupied the back half of a chapter on hypothetical spiritual enhancements rather than being the gold standard in inheritance practices for magi of prestigious lineages.

    The first flaw was that it was incredibly unreliable. Whereas a magic crest was from its inception an artificial alteration to the soul, and somewhat more durable than the natural soul, magic circuits were totally biological. It would take an incredibly talented spiritual surgeon to even extract the circuits without destroying them. For this same reason, the transplant process would be similarly unreliable, with the recipient's own magic circuits likely to reject and conflict with the new circuits. It would require someone with phenomenal compatibility as well as some way of temporarily suppressing their own magic circuits to act as the recipient.

    The second flaw was in the people who would be undergoing the procedure. It was one thing to transplant a magic crest, something that could persist for centuries after the death of its host, to an heir. One would still have the crest during one's own entire life. Magic circuits, on the other hand, would need to be transplanted from either a living donor or a carefully preserved and relatively fresh corpse. No magus would willingly part with the totality of their own power in order to enhance their heir, no matter how family-minded the magus might be.

    Between the two flaws, the concept had been forgotten and buried. For Shinji, though, it was perfect. He had brought it to his grandfather straight away. Zouken, who just so happened to have a preserved corpse and a living donor at his disposal, was more than a little intrigued at the idea of giving a new experiment to one of his old hypotheses, and anything that had a chance of making Shinji a more useful pawn was desirable. Zouken calmed the excited boy and went to call an old acquaintance.

    ~~~

    Vasily Petrovich Teplov got into Fuyuki about a month after a hurried telephone conversation with Matou Zouken, regarding a procedure that really shouldn't be possible. The Teplovs were a minor house of magi, but one with deep roots in Russia. They had been vassals to the Zolgen clan centuries ago, and had kept up a working relationship with the family when they changed their name to Makiri, and again to Matou.

    This wasn't out of the Teplov's ancient feudal loyalty. Rather, it was because the Teplov family was a line of spiritual surgeons, for whom biotic manipulation specialists like the Matou were the perfect research partners. If all went well, this next experiment would demonstrate the efficacy of that partnership beyond any doubt. Besides that, Zouken liked having a reliable family of magi contacts in his homeland, and the Teplov family heads over the years had all liked the fact that the Matou always had plenty of money, even when the Teplov were living hand-to-mouth. A rich patron goes a long way in any era.

    It had been just the kind of season that made Vasily glad his ancestors had kept in touch with the elder magus. Customers had been brutally thin on the ground of late, and those he could find kept telling him he was charging too much. Vasily wouldn't mind their protestations if they could pay, but too often he found out after the fact that his patients were just as short on cash as he was. Frankly, Vasily was a far better surgeon than he was a businessman, and things had just been getting worse and worse since his father had died and left the practice to him.

    That was one reason why Vasily had responded to Zouken's call by clearing his (already empty) schedule and heading to Japan as soon as he could prepare the components for a small portable surgical workshop. The second reason was the subject of that call. Transference of magic circuits by spiritual surgery was completely unheard of. To Vasily's knowledge, very few magi had ever attempted it and nobody had ever succeeded. The few results he had been able to find ranged from the circuits becoming useless in the new body to gruesome, agonizing death as the magic circuits of the host magus rejected what they saw as invaders via a sort of odic immune system. Even if the operation ended in failure it would be a great learning experience, but Zouken had seemed oddly confident it would actually succeed. If that happened, Vasily would be breaking totally new ground in spiritual surgery, and that was certain to improve his life situation. Hell, if business didn't pick up he could take the technique to the Clock Tower and start living in one of their researcher dorms.

    The third reason Vasily had come to Fuyuki was the atmosphere. It might seem trivial, but Vasily lived in a dingy, cramped apartment in the heart of Moscow, and a paid vacation seemed like a wonderful idea. Now, as he waited for his taxi outside the Fuyuki City Station (he'd had to take a train from Narita International Airport, as Fuyuki lacked its own), he definitely appreciated his decision. The warm spring breeze gently swirled the smoke from his cigarette as it sent the petals of scented blossoms from nearby flowering trees dancing through the air, as the sun shone down just warm enough to keep a chill off without making the heat oppressive. Yes, even if the job turned out to be a wash this trip was worth it on its own for the destressing he could do while here.

    Then Vasily's taxi pulled up, and he rode off to meet his destiny.


    ~~~

    The current head of the Teplovs was a mildly unpleasant man, Zouken mused. The spiritual surgeon was certainly not a tool that married form to function, as he had prepared in the Tohsaka's cast off child. He didn't seem to have shaved in a few weeks, giving him facial hair too long to be stubble and too short for a beard. His hair was in a similar state, a shaggy mass that fell halfway down his neck apparently at random, while the man's consisted of denim jeans, a black jacket made out of some kind of polymer, and a sweat-stained shirt. To top it off, the unmistakable stink of one who chain-smokes the cheapest available cigarettes clung to him as if he'd rubbed it into his skin, like cologne. Zouken was, of course, no great lover of beauty. He'd always looked down on the Tohsaka clan for their obsession with elegance. All the same, the man's singular lack of effort in preparating for his first meeting with the long-term employer of his family was rather offensive.

    The two magi sat across from one another at the Matou dining hall. Byakuya, experiencing a rare hour in which he was neither drunk nor hungover, stood behind Zouken as he'd been ordered. The corpse of Matou Kariya, preserved by a mystery of rejuvenation actualized via the crest worms that had infested him in life, lay on the table. He seemed to have expired no more than an hour ago.

    "This," Zouken explained, "is the primary donor. It was the subject's uncle, and possesses 34 magic circuits. All should be preserved and functional. The secondary donor, who will supplement the operation if all 34 do not transfer successfully, is behind me there. It has 23 circuits, which it has striven to keep from performing any possibly useful function until today. Let us hope the recipient is more responsible."

    At this point Vasily looked up from where he had been tracing the lines of the spirit representing Kariya's magic circuits. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, Gospodin Matou, but it seems your preservation is less thorough than you had thought. I've already found five circuits that are decayed beyond any possible usage, and I'm sure there are more. It seems that your secondary donor there will have to provide the bulk of the circuits. What is his relation to the subject?"

    Suppressing his irritation at the slight to his preservative abilities, Zouken replied, "That is the boy's father, sad to say. Don't hesitate to extract all of his circuits. As I said, he isn't putting them to any use." Byakuya winced. Leaning over the corpse, which certainly seemed fresh enough, Zouken began using the dormant crest worms to analyze the corpse's circuits as well.

    "Are there any usable circuits left, or did they decay on the moment of death?" Zouken was incredulous at that idea. He had theorized that a magus' circuits should remain usable for at least a few hours after his death, and his book had made the rounds at the Association in those days. He knew that a few magi had tried the procedure over the centuries, which meant they must have found something to use in the fresh corpses. He had certainly been quick enough preserving the corpse, beginning the process as soon as the child's back had been turned.

    "Actually, it looks like I was wrong," Vasily answered, his brows knitting in intense curiosity. "Only a few of the circuits decayed in the normal way. Most of them look like they were burned out while he was still alive, or damaged by your worms. This guy was certainly pushing himself past his limits. Still, there are ten circuits in usable condition. They have some minor wear and tear, but it's mostly stripped out their individualized characteristics, elemental affinity and so-on. If this guy had lived, it'd be a real blow for him, but it might actually make it easier for the subject's circuits to accept them."

    Vasily looked back to Zouken, his analysis of Kariya complete. "What can you tell me about the subject, Gospodin Matou? I'll need to know as much as possible. Number of circuits, individual circuit capacity, elemental affinity, any sorcery traits. Everything you know about his condition as a magus will help me get his soul to accept the new circuits."

    Although Zouken remained expressionless, Byakuya could hold back no longer, and let out a guffaw of derision. In a perfectly level tone, Zouken said "You've touched on the reason for my confidence, Teplov. The subject has no magic circuits. With no circuits, he of course has no elemental affinity. The only thing we've been able to determine he does have is his mother's sorcery trait, Inheritor." A smirk began to form on Zouken's withered face. "Perhaps now you have a bit of an idea of why I emphasized what a useless waste his father there is."

    Fully in work mode, Vasily let the joke slip by him, giving a somber nod. "Yes, from a medical perspective it is quite disheartening to think your son would be unable to produce an heir with magic circuits. I can see why he was branded a failure, and why you'd turn to such a desperate method."

    Vasily hefted his suitcase onto the table, roughly moving Kariya's leg out of the way. "I have everything I need in here. If the boy is ready, I can start the procedure whenever you'd like. Can you show me to the operating room?

    ~~~

    That brings us back to Shinji, splayed out on an altar on his eleventh birthday, undergoing the first of two treatments to implant magic circuits into his soul. As the pain gradually began to fade, replaced by a cool haze settling over his mind, he realized the surgeon Grandfather had hired was finished operating, and was now accelerating his healing, a hand pressed to Shinji's forehead. With some irritation, Shinji's suddenly relaxed mind realized that the man had been smoking the entire time. Didn't he know fire wasn't allowed in the worm room?

    "You can rest now, kid. We're done for the day." The surgeon flashed him a yellowed smile, and continued, "You're a real trooper, you know. All that and you didn't make a peep."

    Too weak to do anything but lie still, Shinji watched as the surgeon's withdrew his head from Shinji's frame of vision. Then he heard the man speaking to his grandfather.

    "That was great, Gospodin Matou. Your kid there is perfect material for this kind of procedure; that Inheritor trait is a godsend. There were definitely a few times there when I thought he was going to spasm right into a stroke, when all of a sudden his soul reshaped, actually altering itself to fit the new circuit, and the rejection symptoms faded right out. I told you earlier that there were only ten usable circuits from the first subject, and I expected him to reject most, if not all of them. Every one of those circuits properly meshed with the kid, as clean as if he'd been born with them. Man, after this procedure my whole life is gonna turn around! Forget running that crappy business, it'll be all-expenses-paid research from now on!"

    Then, in a calmer tone of voice, "Ahem. Got a bit carried away, 'scuse me. Anyway, at this rate we should be able to implant all 23 circuits from the secondary donor tomorrow. See to it your kid rests until I get back, and call me if any complications show up. I'm heading back to my hotel."

    Shinji heard the surgeon's footsteps ringing on stone as he climbed the stairs from the basement. Shortly after, the head of Shinji's grandfather entered his vision. It bore the same malicious smirk it did when he brought Sakura down for her training with the worms. "Well, boy, look at you! Ten whole circuits pried out a dead failure. Perhaps you'll be able to use them to fail me as entertainingly as Kariya did. Now, don't lie there all night. Get on your feet, and Sakura will be down shortly to help you up to your room. Get plenty of rest, boy. Tomorrow's session will be longer, and we can't have you passing out during the operation."

    With a dry chuckle, Zouken too receded from Shinji's view, and he could soon hear the old man's cane rapping on the stairs. Shinji honestly did want to simply lie on the slab and drift off, regardless of Grandfather's warnings. He was sure the worms wouldn't hurt him any worse than Sakura, and he was so tired. It was so easy just to lie there, and stare at the ceiling, to let himself relax…

    "Nii-san? Grandfather sent me down to get you. You shouldn't sleep there, you know."

    Sakura's voice snapped Shinji out of his reverie. What was he doing, drifting off in the worm room? He could already see the horrible things beginning to creep out of their holes, free to do as they pleased now that the procedure was over.

    Shinji rolled off the altar, his intended graceful dismount turning into an ungainly collapse as his legs demonstrated the procedure's exertion. Suppressing the shrieking of his abused muscles and forcing a smile to his lips, he turned to his sister. "Sakura, would you mind helping me up? It seems I'm a little tired out."

    Taking her proffered hand, (It's so small and cold. A hand that shouldn't carry any burdens, he couldn't help thinking), Shinji pulled himself up. Leaning on her shoulder, hating himself for every gram of extra weight he put on her, he let her lead him up the stairs. Distantly, he realized that his vision was blurring more and more, and a ring of darkness seemed to be closing in around the edges.

    "Nii-san, did the operation go well? Grandfather said he was doing something that'd make it so you could help me with," Sakura hesitated, looking for the words, "my… duties as a Matou." Resigned to her fate as she tried to be, and despite her giving nature, Sakura couldn't keep the note of pleading from her voice.

    Feeling like he was moving through deep water, Shinji moved to stroke his sister's hair. Such beautiful hair, he mused, like lavender. Sweet, calming, comforting and so delicate. You wouldn't think such ugly magic could make something so lovely. The surgeon's narcotic spell was distracting him, Shinji realized, and Sakura was waiting for him to answer. "It worked," he said with surprising effort. Shinji's throat seemed to be trying just as hard as the rest of his body to shut down and sleep. "Don't worry, Sakura. I'll make sure you never have to go back there again. Just you wait, I'll make it all better. I promise."

    Then they were at his bed, the trip through the long halls and stairways of the Matou manor having slipped by Shinji in his haze. Sakura was saying something to him, but he couldn't make it out as the sweet darkness of rest closed in.

    When he woke up, Shinji would curse himself for making Sakura a promise he couldn't keep, giving her one more piece of false hope. No doubt it had been just what Zouken wanted from him.

    ~~~

    The second operation didn't go as well as the first. That would be how Vasily would have expressed the outcome to his employer, if the creepy old bastard hadn't been watching the whole thing. Free from any need for diplomacy in the privacy of his own mind, Vasily considered the second operation a grade-A clusterfuck. The boy's father must have hated him with a passion so deep it had sunk right into his soul. Besides that, it seemed like the first donor hated the second just as much. That was the only explanation he had for the way things had gone. Implanting the new circuits had turned the boy's soul into a battleground. The circuits from the first operation rejected the newer circuits and tried to remove them with a vigor that a body part taken from a corpse just shouldn't have. That much Vasily had been prepared for, though, and with help from the Inheritor trait making the boy's soul itself practically an active participant in the surgery he'd been able to overcome that rejection.

    Where things had really gone crazy had been when the new circuits rejected the boy. That was completelyunheard of and totally unexpected. But then, Vasily mused, that's what you get when you perform experimental new operations. The boy's trait had tried to fight the reaction, but the first eight circuits had burnt themselves out trying to kill him before it could fully adapt. In the process they had bleached the color out of his hair and done something strange to his eyes, turning them from dark blue-grey to an almost colorless blue-white, like chips of ice. The boy's soft tissue had also been severely weakened, the od meant to keep his body working properly having been drained by the aggressive circuits. He would heal to a certain degree, and his vision wasn't actually impaired, but he'd never be as strong or as tough as he could have been if he hadn't gone under the knife. Besides all that, the kid had almost bit his tongue off trying not to scream, and needing to restrain him had done nothing to ease the procedure for Vasily.

    If the first ten circuits from the second donor had all reacted so violently, Vasily would have abandoned the operation as a lost cause, ruined by whatever poison the second donor had put into his circuits. On the ninth transplant, however, something shocking happened. The boy stabilized, accepting the circuit with greater difficulty than those of the first donor, but accepting it all the same. On further analysis, Vasily discovered that the Inheritor sorcery had been driving the soul to adapt to the violent circuit faster and faster on each of the first eight, and had finally managed now to take one into itself properly. This process continued for the remaining fourteen transplants, and the last circuit was taken into the subject almost as easily as the first donor's circuits had been. In the end, Vasily had successfully transplanted twenty-five magic circuits into a non-magus. If he could replicate the procedure on a subject without the Inheritor sorcery trait he really would be set for life.

    Whatever the future might hold, Vasily's work in Fuyuki was done. All he had to do now was leave the boy's aftercare instructions with Zouken, pick up his payment, and enjoy his two-week all-expense-paid Japanese vacation!

    ~~~

    Shinji slept for three days after the second operation. It was a face that he was first made aware of as he awoke, discovering that Sakura was shaking him and crying into his chest, telling him not to leave her all alone. He reached out and began stroking her hair, as he always did when she sat with him and cried after her "training" sessions in the worm room.

    Shinji put on his best comforting tone and tried to minimize the situation, saying "Hey now, I was just asleep for a little while. That operation was tough, you know?" This turned out to be exactly the wrong thing to say, as Sakura turned tear-rimmed eyes to meet his gaze with more anger than he'd ever seen her show before.

    "Nii-san, you idiot! It wasn't just a little while! You were sleeping in here for three days! You can't promise to help me, and then get all hurt like Uncle Kariya, and then… and then…" Dissolving into sobs, Sakura fled the room.

    As he listened to the door slam, followed by the sounds of his sister's small feet running down the hall, Shinji pondered on how he might have handled that situation better. When no ideas came to mind, he resolved to get out of bed and figure out why he'd been asleep for so long. Suddenly one phrase sank in, and Shinji stopped cold. "Like Uncle Kariya," she'd said. What had happened to him? He raced over to the closet and pulled it open, revealing the full-length mirror on the door.

    Shinji stared in shock at his new self. He wasn't just like his uncle. All of his limbs still worked, no worms writhed beneath his skin, and he wasn't covered in blood. Still, the resistance was unsettling. He had visibly thinned during or after the surgery, discarding his baby fat and giving his face, hands, and other visible skin the kind of sharp, thin outlines that would normally be seen only on a teenager in the middle of dieting. His hair was completely white, a mess of waves so pearlescent that he reached up and touched it, almost fearing it had really been covered by ice. Most disturbing of all were his eyes. They hadn't just gone pale, they seemed to reflect more light. There was an unnatural blue-white gleam there that somehow brought Shinji a mental image of something that had faded under intense light – definition and clear imagery all washed away, only leaving that gleam.

    Shinji tried to concentrate on his reflection's eyes, seeing if he could work out what seemed so wrong about them. Then suddenly more of the icy color came into view. He could, when he focused, see it running through him, like light under his skin. It traveled down his arms to his fingertips, and up his neck and head to his eyes. It hit him in a flash that he was detecting magical energy for the first time in his life. This was his od, flowing through his new magic circuits. That was a delight that drew all attention from his new appearance, as his mind suddenly began to race with all the ways he could expand his knowledge.

    ~~~

    Shinji, Zouken decided, would do for a Matou heir if he should need to expend the material he'd received from Tohsaka. He had more circuits than Byakuya and more motivation than either of the previous generation of Matous. It was uncertain whether or not he could pass on the transplanted circuits to a child, of course, but Zouken imagined the Inheritor sorcery trait would aid in that regard. It seemed that the failure in Byakuya's marriage had not been Vesna after all, but Byakuya himself.

    Zouken wouldn't train the boy in magic himself, of course. He had too much else to do in preparation for the next grail war, and too much time had to be spent on training the girl. Still, something had to be done. It had been one thing to let the child study the Matou grimoires alone with minimal guidance, but now that he had magic circuits Shinji would need a guide in regards to magic. Who could Zouken call on to raise his artificial novice?

    It hit him in a flash. He had the perfect candidates to turn his potential tool into a real puppet, and he could call them up from the same place as Teplov. He would send the boy to study with his mother's family, the Prozorovsky lineage. A year or two there training his acclimation with the newly implanted circuits and Shinji would be perfectly capable of continuing his own independent studies by age 13. A few hours after the end of the second implant operation, Zouken sent one of his familiars with a message. He would have called, but the Prozorovskys eschewed anything as modern as a telephone.

    Three days later, when Sakura came running down the stairs crying and muttering something along the lines of "stupid mean Nii-san," Zouken decided that Shinji must have finally recovered enough from the operation to wake up. Good, he thought, He's rested long enough. Time to tell him about his new home.

  4. #4
    屍食鬼 Ghoul Mr. Lactose's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2018
    Location
    California
    Age
    22
    Gender
    Male
    Posts
    17
    Author's Note: The second chapter is complete! This one took a bit longer to get done, as it lays a lot of the groundwork for what will go on later. More commentary on the chapter, as well as answers to review questions, at the bottom.

    If you like it, hate it, or just have something to say, please don't hesitate to leave a review! Since this is my first publicly available story, I love getting feedback.

    ~~~
    Chapter Two – The Training of a Magus

    The House of Prozorovsky dated back to Ivan Fedorovich Prozorovsky, the 15th Century Prince of Mologa, and a magus of great renown. Ivan Fedorovich was himself a member of the still older Rurikid line, which fractured due to its large numbers of heirs.

    Like many other dispossessed heirs of Rurik, Ivan Fedorovich carved out his own dominion as a magus and proclaimed a new lineage, in his case Prozorovsky. During Ivan Fedorovich's time, the status of Russian nobility was perfect for a magus. It allowed one to live off of the land and its serf labor while devoting one's own efforts completely to magic.

    The convenience of the Prozorovskys' station diminished as time went by, for successive Russian Tsars reformed the organization of the Empire to place greater responsibilities on their wealthy noble subjects. Magus after magus of the Prozorovsky line found himself called off to command mundane armies or forced to serve in mundane state ministries, all in the service of the (thoroughly non-magical) Tsar.

    This became so consistent a factor in the lives of the Prozorovsky nobles that, upon succeeding as family head in 1829, Nikita Ivanovich Prozorovsky erased all state records of his birth and conducted a large-scale ritual hypnosis spell to cut off all contact between his dominion and the outside world.

    With Nikita Ivanovich's innovation, three generations of Prozorovskys were able to enjoy a relaxed existence of study and luxury. This changed with the revolution, however, for no hypnosis could stop that raging tide of men.

    Ruthlessly seeking out any sign of an area governed by "enemies of the proletariat," the rebellious peasantry found the village and manor of the Prozorovskys by sight alone, and when they told the serfs there of the uprising the news was a powerful enough shock to break the hypnosis that kept them unaware of the world. They surrounded and burned the Prozorovsky manor, and the noble magi were forced to flee, abandoning their workshop and whatever wealth they couldn't carry.

    In the days of the Soviet Union, fate was unkind to the Prozorovsky magi. They eked out a meagre existence, living off of the black market by spending the depleted legacy of their past wealth, hypnotizing government agents attempting to assign them mundane work, and once or twice a generation being forced to pull up stakes and flee the government's agents, progressing ever eastward from their ancestral principality.

    It was the kind of blighted existence that any Magus would have dreaded, and even harder for the Prozorovskys, as their specialization in formalcraft evocation necessitated a greater tie to the land than many magi possessed. Still, they persevered on their own. The Prozorovskys still considered themselves to be ancient and powerful nobility, even when their lack pf resources left them capable of no better than third rate magic. They would not leave Russia and rely on the Mages' Association, no matter how dire matters became.

    ~~~

    In 1985, matters had truly become dire for the line of Prozorovsky. Fyodor Aleksandrovich, 51st clan head, had two children, and supplies necessary to train only one. It was at this great low point in the history of his illustrious lineage that he received a call from his family doctor, Teplov, regarding a potentially beneficial opportunity.

    Teplov's offer of a marriage for Fyodor's daughter was surprising, but certainly seemed like a fine opportunity if the identity of the groom was to be believed. The Zolgen lineage, even older than the Prozorovskys, had long been assumed to have died out. Now Teplov revealed that they had lived on in the Far East, having changed their name to Matou. Not only that, they were wealthy and able to easily support even the most expensive kind of magical experiments.

    Fyodor was sure that a marriage to Matou Byakuya would allow his daughter to pursue the path of a magus even without being the official heir to a lineage. She certainly had enough talent, with forty high-capacity circuits and the Inheritor sorcery trait common to their bloodline. If the traditions of the Prozorovsky nobility had not required a male heir, he would have made Vesna his own student, and sent his son Nikolay off to seek a mundane living.

    "If not for the traditions of the Prozorovsky," was a rationale that had done much over the years to drive the family to ruin. "If not for the traditions of the Prozorovsky," they might have fled Russia in the aftermath of the revolution and taken their knowledge to the Clock Tower, where they would receive supplies and aid in their research. "If not for the traditions of the Prozorovsky," they might have put their mysteries to practical use, making money off of them as the Teplov magi had. "If not for the traditions of the Prozorovsky," they might have ceased their resistance to the government and worked for a Soviet living, pursuing their magical studies after hours and in secret.

    None of these alternatives had come to pass, though, and so it had come to this. All things considered, Vesna's marriage into the Matou house would be a bright spot in Fyodor's otherwise gloomy outlook regarding the future of his clan.

    ~~~

    Matou Byakuya came to the Prozorovskys' remote country hall in mid-September, as the lingering heat of summer clung unready to leave the countryside. The day of the wedding itself was perfect and cloudless, with the golden light of harvest lending the entire affair an aura of wealth and optimism rarely available to the Prozorovsky family.

    Byakuya was in his prime, then: a handsome, polite young man with a cheery demeanor that the guests all found infectious. As he entertained his soon-to-be father-in-law and the collected male guests with a seemingly endless supply of hilarious personal anecdotes, the female guests gathered around the bride to cheerily discuss how fortunate she was in her father's choice of a husband, and how wonderful her life would be when freed from her family's restrictions. Their tones, filled with mixed envy and happiness, were a greater testament to the good impression Byakuya had made than any degree of friendliness shown directly to him.

    Nikolay Fyodorovich Prozorovsky was the one dark spot in this collection of good cheer, hanging around the edges of the post-matrimonial party and glowering at the man he was already thinking of as "the interloper." Nikolay was the member of his family tasked with keeping mundane authorities away from the personal affairs of his family, while at the same time ensuring that they continued to provide the Prozorovskys' sole concession to modernity: running water.

    While he had once assumed that magic would make this an easy, trivial task, it was much harder than he'd expected. It would have been easy to simply set up a large-scale bounded field operating on a similar principle to Nikita Ivanovich's hypnosis ritual and keep people away with it. The problem with that approach was that it would cut off all the benefits of the wider world as well as its more problematic elements.

    What all this meant was that Nikolay, if he wanted the Prozorovskys to get by, had to rely on a finely honed ability to read people, grease the right palms, and lie in the right faces far more than on any magecraft. He considered himself a magic user, rather than a researcher, and he wouldn't become a full magus until his father died.

    It also meant that Nikolay was highly suspicious on first meetings, and in this case he was certain that suspicion was justified. The stink of deception rolled off of this Eastern magus in waves, like the corruption of a decaying corpse in a flower shop. He was certain that if this Matou took Vesna away, the next time Nikolay saw her she would be an abused, broken thing, laid low by the dog she was marrying.

    What made Nikolay's suspicion all the harder to tolerate was that he couldn't act on it. He had already protested the marriage to his father, but his protestations had been dismissed (quite accurately, though Nikolay would never admit this) as coming from the passion of an overprotective brother, rather than any rational concerns.

    Unfortunately, Nikolay's unjustified, groundless suspicions were quite right. The wedding, and the few days afterwards that Byakuya spend with the family, would be the last occasion for Nikolay to see his older sister smiling. After she left for Japan, he would never see her again.

    ~~~

    A great insect, the approximate size a crow, flew through the Russian night. It was on its way to a remote estate in the countryside, distant from all major population centers. The insect's wings were the approximate color and texture of old parchment, while its body had the appearance of weathered slate. Its six legs ended in cruelly barbed hooks, and its core was coated in thin, razor-sharp thorns. The whole thing had the appearance of something purpose-built as a weapon, to be fielded in large numbers.

    It was odd, then, that this weaponized insect was flying alone, with a magically inscribed scroll clutched in its barbed talons. If the familiar had been more intelligent, it might have noticed the fact that it was actively shredding the edges of the message it carried as it flew. This familiar had been intended never to venture far away from the swarm-mind of its creator, however.

    It was able to observe very little, save for its own speed, altitude, and orientation with regards to the cardinal directions. Even these navigational abilities had been last-minute adjustments, designed to facilitate a sort of long-distance communication its creator preferred to avoid. With such a meagre sensory arsenal at its disposal, the familiar was unable to avoid or even detect the bounded field.

    At the edge of the estate it was caught, still doggedly trying to reach its destination at the center of the property. Suddenly a chill stole over the insect, and as its exoskeleton first froze and then shattered the facsimile of life with which it had been imbued faded. The familiar's corpse fell together with its message, and where they landed a small circle of runes and geometric patterns glowed momentarily in the night.

    Someone would be along to collect the message in the morning.

    ~~~

    Nikolay Prozorovsky had been angry when his father married off his sister.

    He had been furious and distraught when, a scant few months after his father's death, a message arrived from Japan informing him that his sister had been "disposed of" as a result of her failure to produce a magically capable heir for the foul man who had taken her away.

    Now, for the first time, Nikolay was happy to receive word from the Matou. Of all things, they were sending him the failed heir! Apparently the surgeon Teplov, an old friend of his father's with whom Nikolay had long since cut ties, had succeeded in transferring magic circuits to the boy (my nephew, thought Nikolay bitterly,) through a revolutionary technique that would have been impossible without the Inheritor sorcery trait he'd received from Vesna.

    As a result of this the head of the Matou clan, who Nikolay was for the first time learning was not the bastard who had killed Vesna, but that man's father, had decided it would be appropriate to have the boy trained by his mother's family. After that there was the usual pleasantry about the excellence of their magecraft, promises of payment, threats of punishment if the boy was harmed, and so on, but that was all unimportant.

    All Nikolay cared about was the fact that this was his chance to put the son of the man who had killed his sister through twelve kinds of hell, and get paid for it on top of that.

    Nikolay jotted down a short reply and hurriedly evoked Transition of Information, sending his reply to the included return address by a lesser mystic circle. The reply was as follows:

    Gospodin Matou,
    Thank you for contacting me in regards to my nephew's circumstances. I will train him for two years in exchange for payment at the rate you suggested in your message. Due to the nature of his circuits, I cannot guarantee the boy's survival. If he does survive the training, he will have a full understanding of the basic principles of the Prozorovsky magic by its completion.
    I await your reply.
    Nikolay Fyodorovich Prozorovsky

    ~~~

    The fury of a great storm coursed through the riverbed, faster than a car, faster than a train. Then it had jumped its bounds, overflowed into the nearby town, and it was filling every available crevice, every drain and every sewer filled, until the water was straining at all the bonds imaginable, ready to burst whatever man had bound it with, except it wasn't water, it was-

    A howling wind tore at great buildings, breaking stone walls meant to withstand a thousand years of nature's wrath and tossing into the air the shattered remains, flattening all before it into a featureless plain with the force of-

    Stones, a nigh-infinite quantity of pebbles and gravel poured through the channel made to restrain the landslide's force, though stones flowing like water have a far greater eroding effect; the engineers hadn't taken this into account, and suddenly the stones were free, their wooden bonds snapping like kindling for-

    An inferno, too intense even to look on, raged in the brick enclosure, turning a merciless heat on all that approached its power. First the fuel burned, then the products meant to be tempered were consumed, until finally the brick itself began to sear and disintegrate into inconceivable ashes, setting the fire free to consume the world, disintegrating all that dared to exist until nothing was left but-

    A vast light shone. Its intensity was blinding, seeming somehow greater even than the sun, and yet at the same time invisible. It was as if light on a spectrum normally imperceptible to the human eye were shining so intensely that it had temporarily become visible. All about it was silence and serenity, for in the presence of that light the slightest other sensory perception would seem a great stain on its ineffable purity. Shinji was outside that light, and yet within it as well, gazing at the center of the illumination while suffused in its rays. Shinji did this bodiless, nothing more than a consciousness, a perspective alone, as nothing else could exist before this great mass of taintless energy. Shinji gazed into the core of the energy, and as he did so it began to-

    The plane touched down in Yekaterinburg, waking Matou Shinji with a jolt. The elbow of his oversized seatmate provided a further jolt, as the fellow tried to maneuver his way around a seatbelt designed for people with notably shorter arms. Shinji was flying coach, as Zouken insisted first class would be wasted on an eleven-year-old, and he was probably the only person in the section for whom the seats actually seemed to have been designed. The same, unfortunately, could not be said for the service; the stewardesses had continuously ignored Shinji's requests for water in favor of refilling his neighbor's endless glasses of whiskey, and even now they bustled about preparing the plane for its next action and ignored the child attempting to deplane in company of a suitcase nearly larger than himself. Shinji was used to neglect from his family members, but school had taught him to expect most adults to be more concerned about a child wandering alone. Evidently things were different in the wider world.

    Once Shinji had made his way out of the airport, he finally caught sight of the man in the photo he carried (actually a woodcut illustration, conveyed to the Matou house by some kind of magecraft), standing by the curb in front of an aging black sedan. The image had shown the face of a man with sharp, heavy features, shoulder-length black hair, and a beard that extended well out of frame. Adding to the man's features his bushy, prominent eyebrows and black eyes that seemed to sparkle under them like polished coal, and the overall impression was one of malevolent jollity. The man in the image had the appearance of a storybook conception of an evil wizard, rather than the kind of dry professorial tutor Shinji had hoped to meet. That Shinji had met no other magi besides his grandfather, and that his expectations had been formed wholly by the writing style of the musty grimoires he studied, had done nothing to assuage his disappointment upon receiving the image from Zouken.

    What the image of Shinji's new tutor had not shown him was the sheer bulk of the man. Nikolay Prozorovsky stood well over six feet tall, and had a broad-shouldered frame to match. His threadbare double-breasted suit did nothing to hide the overwhelming musculature wrapped around Prozorovsky's massive skeleton; judging from its visible age, it had given up on its original shape several years before. Now the black garment clung to Nikolay in feeble mockery of the way a suit might normally be fitted to enhance a man's form. Indeed, whether Shinji used as a reference his own conceptions, his grandfather's appearance, or even the magi directly described in the books he read, Prozorovsky seemed to deny by the presence he projected all aspects of the archetypal magus.

    As Shinji was taking in the details of his unusual teacher, Prozorovsky laid eyes on him and began striding over to the boy's position, a wide grin splitting his face. "There you are, you little rascal," he said, giving Shinji a heavy clap on the back, "Been waiting here over an hour! Get in the car, and let's go."

    As he was saying this, Shinji noticed that Prozorovsky wasn't actually speaking Japanese. He was speaking in Russian, and yet Shinji was somehow able to understand his words. The boy shot a questioning look at Prozorovsky as he was half-led, half-dragged over to the car, but if the man noticed he ignored it.

    Then he'd tossed Shinji's luggage into the back seat, sat Shinji down, and they were on their way. Once the car was in motion and closed to the world, Prozorovsky's whole demeanor changed. The cheer drained out of his face and his next words to Shinji came in a cold, gruff tone. "Don't get used to the 'friendly uncle' routine, boy. I put that on for the mundanes, so it doesn't look like I'm kidnapping a foreign child. If you think this is going to be some friendly vacation, you'd best forget it."

    "Yes sir, I understand," Shinji replied, and for the first time he really did begin to understand. He had previously supposed from his books that magi of the past were powerful, isolated wizards; beings that terrified all around them and lived their lives halfway between the human world and that of the divine. Since the Age of the Gods, that power had been lost, however, and Shinji had conceived of modern magi as a friendly society of academics, working together through the mages' association. He had envisioned well-intentioned old men, pooling their resources together to push the frontiers of human knowledge, working hard to publish their findings, and all the while educating the next generation through the academy at the Clock Tower.

    Although Shinji still hoped that this was how the Mages' Association in England operated, he was rapidly forming a new conception of the world of magi as a whole. While he had previously written off his scheming grandfather and the secretive Tohsakas as aberrant, he now considered an alternative. If his mother's family was the same way, could it be that this was the standard for magi? To be a magus, Shinji began to consider, might well require the muting of human emotion and the dulling of all cheer. Perhaps all magi outside of the Clock Tower were cold, joyless beings cordiality only towards their studies. It was an intriguing prospect.

    Shinji did not react particularly negatively to this new conception of his chosen career. Since his fateful discussion with Uncle Kariya, Shinji had taken little to no pleasure in anything other than his magical studies and the time he spent with his sister. Those subjects seemed, to him, to be solitary points of color in an otherwise grey world. Whether other people were friendly or gruff with him was of no consequence; all that really mattered was whether they could further his aims. If the rest of the world's magi thought similarly, that made sense enough to him.

    Of course, Shinji had been just six when his uncle had stumbled in the door, broken and bloody, seeking an inheritor for his burden. He didn't connect their conversation with the shift in his worldview that had occurred. To Shinji, placing magic and his sister above all else was simply another aspect of the many changes a child went through between six and eleven. It seemed to him not so much that his perspective had shifted, but only that he had learned about what was important and what wasn't. To put it simply, Shinji couldn't conceive of a situation in which he might not view the world as he did.

    As Shinji was considering whether or not all magi were really as cold and cruel as his grandfather, his new teacher suddenly reached down and seized the boy's wrist. His grip was tight enough to leave angry red marks in the pale flesh. His features suddenly filling with rage, Prozorovsky snapped, "Wake up, boy! You can doze off in the grave. When you're around me, I want you alert. If you're going to learn from me, I'll have some respect out of you. Don't expect me to go repeating myself if you miss details because you're counting blades of grass."

    Releasing Shinji's wrist from his painful grip, Prozorovsky continued, "I want to get our relationship straight right from the beginning. You're not here as my sister's son, coming for some happily anticipated family visit. You're here as a magus candidate seeking to learn from me the Prozorovsky arts, because we don't have an heir and you're related. Don't think you can look at me as your uncle, some kindly figure who'll forgive mistakes and disobedience because you're a child. While you're learning magic from me, I'm one thing only: your master. As far as you're concerned, I'm God, the president, the tsar, the party chairman, and the director of the Mages' Association all rolled into one. You'll ask questions when I tell you to, do what I tell you to, respond when I speak to you, and do nothing else but listen. You understand me, boy?"

    This rant confirmed in Shinji's mind a great deal of his new ideas regarding the world of magi. Having thus figured out the coldly hierarchical nature of magical cooperation, Shinji put as much subservience as he could muster into his voice as he responded, "Yes sir. While I remain in your care I will follow your instructions to the letter and listen carefully to all you tell me, that I may better carry on the magic of the Prozorovsky house." His new teacher's only response was a vaguely affirmative grunt.

    "One more thing," Prozorovsky mentioned after a few minutes of silence, "So I don't have to listen to you ask it, I'll answer your question now. You can understand me because of a mystic code I made with a bit of your hair sent to me by your grandfather." He tapped a minute silver wire around his neck to illustrate the item in question. "As long as I wear this, you'll understand me and I'll understand you. Mind you, I don't fancy wearing a choker for the next two years. I'll have you speaking Russian soon enough."

    The remainder of the four hour drive to the Prozorovsky estate was spent in silence. As the car (itself a novelty to Shinji, used as he was to everything being within walking distance) raced along secluded roads and decaying byways, Shinji found himself spellbound by the scenery sliding past. Yekaterinburg had been surprising enough, filled with its mixture of old ornamentation and Soviet functionality, but the countryside was truly unlike anything the eleven-year-old had seen before. Shinji had spent his whole life prior to this trip in Fuyuki. Whatever nature he had seen was corralled, in gardens, parks, and greenbelts. Even the forest on the hills outside the residential area, into which the grounds of the Matou manor led, had a feeling of cultivation and ingrained human presence. The Russian countryside was different. At first the road had run between agricultural land, and Shinji had gaped at the sheer vastness of the countryside. Fields stretched as far as he could see, until the sharp crest of a ridge of hills severed the horizon. Even in this cultivated land, Shinji felt that the strongest presence was that of animal life. Here, the men could guide and channel nature, but could not dominate it as the human presence did in Fuyuki.

    Then the farmland had given way to forest, and Shinji's shock was renewed. The forest was dominating, oppressive, powerful. Great trees cast their long shadows over the road, blotting out the sky, and extended their roots to disrupt the pavement's once-smooth surface. Life, inhuman and hostile, swarmed in its masses. Everything in that forest, whether moss, bird, mammal, or brush, seemed wild and untouched by humanity. It was, to Shinji's fresh eyes, as if this road represented the only part of the forest that had ever been touched by mankind.

    This impression eventually began to diminish as the trip continued. Here and there, Shinji could see aging cabins peeking between the trees, and gravel driveways from time to time branched off from the road. As he continued to observe the scenery, Shinji supposed that perhaps here, as in Fuyuki, man and nature dwelt in an uneasy peace, an asymmetrical balance. The difference was that here nature was the dominator, and it was man that led a dwarfed and limited existence in the face of his superior.

    So ran Shinji's thoughts as the shadows lengthened and the drive stretched towards twilight. Soon the forest was suffused with a premature darkness, as the waning sun's rays were no longer able to penetrate the dense foliage. At last, the car broke into a wide clearing. Here alone, the straggling sunset light was visible, and it revealed the structure dominating the area: the Prozorovsky manor.

    Shinji's first impression of the house was that it was old. Not that it was aged, in the way of the Matou manor; a fine thing made finer by centuries of careful housekeeping and well-applied wealth. Rather, the Prozorovsky house was old in its visible decay. Indeed, Shinji thought it might not even be as old as the Matou manor. It had the appearance of something well-constructed, once, and given the bare minimum of maintenance to keep it from collapsing in on itself. More evidence of the power of nature in this place, Shinji concluded.

    In reality, of course, the house's condition reflected not carelessness but deprivation. In the time since their fall from nobility, the Prozorovskys had been forced to move from house to house, and hadn't the resources to maintain the kind of splendor a magus of an old family naturally expected. This was something Shinji had no way of knowing, and so he instead regarded the Prozorovskys simply as execrable housekeepers.

    Aside from its condition, the house gave the impression of a rambling construction, built to house a large family and possibly a collection of servants. The central construction had two stories, with a small pentagonal turret rising for a third floor of a single room. Out of it this central construction sprouted an east and west wing, each of which consisted of only one floor, however. The walls of the place were painted slate grey, as if its inhabitants had been used to living in stone and never quite gotten comfortable with wood. This paint was now peeling, however, so that what was mostly visible was the natural color of the wood that made up the structure. The roof was of black shingle, and seemed to be the best kept part of the house. Given the amount of moisture in the air, Shinji supposed they must get a great deal of rain here.

    Rolling the car into a separated garage, Prozorovsky got out and ordered Shinji to follow. He led him into the house, through shadowed corridors, and to a tiny second-floor room, which he introduced as "the place where you'll sleep. Don't go thinking of it as your room." Then he left Shinji, shutting the door behind him. Dinner, apparently, was not to be provided. Shinji looked around the room he'd been assigned. It was approximately the size of his walk-in closet at home, and Shinji strongly suspected it had been repurposed from such. It smelled strongly of mothballs. The furnishings consisted of a hard cot equipped with the bare minimum of a single sheet and blanket, a nightstand that appeared to have begun life as a footstool, and a small dresser. There was also an oil lamp on the stand, no doubt meant to compensate for the room's lack of a window.

    Fearing the potential punishment if he should go to complain to his new teacher regarding his lodgings, Shinji lay down on the cot, resolving to sleep and hope his situation improved somehow tomorrow. After the day's exhaustion (and the four hour time difference) he was asleep in moments.

    ~~~

    The next day did indeed start off better. His body still used to Japanese time, Shinji woke up at four in the morning instead of his accustomed eight. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, as he descended to the ground floor to find his teacher already awake, and frying eggs in the kitchen. "Good," Prozorovsky exclaimed on seeing him up, "I'm glad to see they taught you proper waking habits at least!" Sit down at the table, I've almost finished with breakfast."

    Breakfast turned out to consist of three eggs each, fried sunny-side-up and topped with some kind of sausage Shinji didn't recognize. Shinji eagerly tore into the meal after his hungry night, and whatever it might have lacked in flavor it made up in nutrition. With the eggs was hot, sweet black tea, with lemon. Shinji, who had always preferred green tea with no additions, drank it reluctantly. He did so without protest, however, lest he arouse the ire of the volatile Prozorovsky.

    "Alright," Prozorovsky announced when they'd finished, "now that you've got something in you, let's get you warmed up for the day's training. Start out with 10 laps around the house."

    What followed was two hours of grueling physical training. Whenever Shinji tired so thoroughly that he could no longer move, Prozorovsky would find a new exercise that used some part of his body which hadn't been worn down so hard yet. At the end of it all, when Shinji feared his heart would stop and every muscle in his body was on the verge of a catastrophic tear, Prozorovsky made the following proclamation:

    "Not so bad, for a kid weakened by surgery. I gave you an easy time of it today. Tomorrow I'll expect four hours out of you." Shinji could only respond to this with a pained groan. "Now, get up and get inside. We're activating your magic circuits next."

    Shinji shakily got to his feet to follow the older magus back inside. Once he managed to get to the living room on his jelly-like legs, he observed that Prozorovsky was already reclining comfortably on a large couch. He gestured for Shinji to sit down opposite him, on a large, overstuffed and threadbare recliner. Shinji sat.

    Prozorovsky leaned forward, brow furrowed in an expression of mixed contempt and doubt. "Now, boy, your grandfather told me you had your magic circuits put in by some revolutionary new treatment in spiritual surgery. They're not actually yours, and so you haven't opened them yet; there's no od running through them for you to use to actualize mysteries. Is that right, or was your grandfather feeding me a line?"

    "Well sir," Shinji replied, trepidation lacing through his voice, "most of what you've said is correct. I do have od running through my circuits, though. I could tell after the operation." As he prepared to explain his experience with the mirror, Shinji's voice grew in confidence, until he was suddenly cut off by Prozorovsky.

    "That, I doubt." The older magus suddenly jabbed a finger into Shinji's chest and muttered an aria, too low for Shinji to hear. A small circle of sigils appeared over Shinji's heart, and Prozorovsky scrutinized Shinji's body for a moment. Then he pronounced his judgement. "No, I see what your mistake was. A magus with circuits can feel the od running through his body, in a way a normal person can't. This isn't od running through your circuits, though. It's the ordinary od, the stuff of life. It's the energy that makes your muscles move, and pumps the blood through your veins, boy. You couldn't feel it before, without magic circuits. Then you get the things put into you, God knows how, and you feel it for the first time, and think it's running through them. Easy mistake. Your circuits are closed, though. That's clear enough."

    Having finished this explanation, Prozorovsky leaned back against the couch again. "Since you've got a feel for your od anyway, this should be a bit easier. Visualize the od in you, boy. See it in your mind, flowing through your veins, your nerves, your muscles. What you do then is, shift it. Reroute it like changing a river's flow, so it surges through those dry circuits of yours. Now, close your eyes and focus. I want to see some quick results out of you, Mr. Medical Miracle."

    Shinji did his best to follow Prozorovsky's instructions. He closed his eyes and visualized his od, trying to remember what he'd seen in the mirror back at home. He imagined the flow shifting, concentrating, into 25 discrete streams that travelled through his body. He saw his circuits flaring into life, preparing to actually use magecraft for the first time!

    Nothing happened. Shinji tried again, and was met with the same result. A minute of meditation stretched into five, and five into ten, and onward, with still no results. Finally Shinji's concentration was broken as Prozorovsky gave him a hard flick on the forehead.

    "Can't say I'm surprised, boy. Activating your magic circuits is never easy. Some families use potions to make the process happen automatically, but we've always said someone who needs that kind of help isn't worthy of the Prozorovsky magic. Think of this as your first big test, an entry exam for my teaching." As he said this, Prozorovsky lit a cigarette and took a long drag. Blowing the smoke out in a clean puff, like a small cloud, he continued. "If there's something or some way you think would help you to feel your od more clearly, use it. I told you how I did it, but everybody's different."

    At this Shinji perked up. "Actually sir, there is one thing. Do you have a mirror I could use? I think it would help me to visualize if I could actually see myself."

    "Not the oddest trigger I've heard," Prozorovsky said, turning a contemplative eye on Shinji. "You'll need to work out something better down the line, of course, but give it a try for now. Use the mirror in the bathroom."

    As Shinji made his way to the bathroom he was followed by Prozorovsky, who leaned in the doorway once Shinji assumed a position before the mirror. Shinji stared into his reflection’s eyes, the strange new color unnerving him as it had every day since the change. As he stared into the icy blue-white irises, the color seemed to expand, first encompassing his pupils and then his whites. Then he was through, and he saw the energy, with that same odd bright color as his eyes, flowing through him. Now, though, he could also make out fainter, though thicker lines. Twenty-five traceries of unlit grey stood out on his body, the channels through which his od would flow and be turned to useful purpose. Confident now, able to see his od and command it, Shinji willed it to change its course and pour into those waiting circuits.

    Nothing happened.

    Shinji continued to stand there, gripping the sink white-knuckled and forcing all the power of his will against his stubborn od, for hours. Sweat poured down his forehead. Veins stood out from his skin. His muscles screamed from exertion. Time and again, the od would begin to move, begin to conglomerate about the circuits, and then an ungodly bolt of fiery pain would shoot through all twenty-five lines and it would disperse, Shinji's concentration broken.

    Finally, as the hour approached ten, Prozorovsky interjected. "Boy, I can't bear to see this pathetic display much longer. Give it a rest, you're making me tired just watching you." Shinji turned wordlessly to his teacher, broken disappointment in his eyes, when he was cut off before he could begin to speak. "I'm not telling you to give up, idiot. It's plain that mirror isn't working for you, so I'll give you one more hint." Breaking into a wide, vaguely carnivorous grin, Prozorovsky continued. "Consider this a last bit of magnanimity before things get really tough. Try visualizing another trigger, and hooking it to your od. This has to be an image with a lot of emotional significance for you, and one that symbolizes opening, beginning, commencement, or activation. Something of that nature. Mind you," and here Prozorovsky's grin widened, "I don't expect a pipsqueak like you to have much in the way of important mental images. Do try, though."

    With that, Prozorovsky turned on his heel and returned down the hall. Shinji returned to the mirror, contemplating images of commencement. The lighting of a flame? An outpouring of water? A sword being drawn? He summoned each to mind, tried to trigger his circuits, and dismissed them in turn. None had the emotional force necessary to move him. Then, in a flash, the memory surfaced. His uncle, Kariya, leaning on the boy and letting out his last rattling breath. The memory surged over Shinji with the force and vibrancy of a vision, and as the last of his uncle's life flowed into the chill night air in the Matou manor's entryway, the od poured into Shinji's circuits. Unlike his previous attempts, this was not a struggle. Instead, the energy moved with a clear ease, as if it had always known the way. As the energy of his life filled his circuits, Shinji felt as well as saw its power. It was as if he were waking for the first time from a sleep he'd never known gripped him. All his senses seemed to come into sharper clarity, and for a moment it seemed he was capable of anything. Then Shinji dismissed the power, and went out to tell Prozorovsky.

    "Took you long enough. It's been another damn hour! I was starting to think about shipping you back to Japan as a failure, boy." Seated across from his teacher, that was the only recognition of his success Shinji received. "Now," Prozorovsky continued, "Let's see if you're doing it right. Activate your circuits."

    Shinji envisioned his uncle's dying breath again, and again the od flowed easily into place. "Good," came Prozorovsky's reply, "That's enough magic for today. Tomorrow we'll start on your capacity training. For now, I think I'll start teaching you how to speak."

    ~~~

    For the next two months, Shinji followed this same routine. Wake at four in the morning, eat breakfast, followed by four straight hours of brutal exercise. From eight until noon, he would practice modulating the amount of od he output through his circuits, measuring his capacity and learning to discipline his output. This would be followed by lunch, and then Russian lessons until five. From five to nine, he would clean and perform other chores demanded of him by Prozorovsky, then dinner at nine, followed by bed.

    On the 63rd day since his arrival in Russia (Shinji had been keeping careful track of the time spent in this grueling apprenticeship) the afternoon Russian lessons were cancelled. Instead, Prozorovsky had an announcement to make.

    "Boy, you've learned enough of the language to get by without me wearing that mystic code. That's enough Russian for you, unless you plan to move here on a permanent basis. I think we've also figured out your capacity. Without damaging those inherited circuits of yours, it seems like you can output a constant stream of 18 zyablik per circuit." With this proclamation, Prozorovsky gave Shinji a hearty clap on the shoulder. "It's a good number, boy! My own father could only manage 15, and he was born with the things!"

    The look of jollity quickly faded from Prozorovsky's dark features as he went on, "Anyway, I hope you know what this all means, boy. It's time for you to really learn what you came here for: the magic of my lineage. Yours too, since I don't seem likely to have a son. Come with me, up to the turret."

    Prozorovsky got up from the couch, where it had been his custom to conduct Shinji's Russian language lessons, and led him down the hall, to a spiral stairwell that ascended to the small pentagonal turret. On reaching the top, Shinji gasped. Here alone the decay that haunted the rest of the Prozorovsky home was kept utterly at bay. High in each of the five walls was a large, wide window, affording a clear view of the sky, rather than the world below. Arrayed all around the room were magical implements, tables, desks, and grimoires. There were the alchemical tools Shinji recognized from his father's study, but also stranger implements. There was a brass telescope larger than Shinji himself; a silver model of the solar system, with all the orbits rotatable and lockable to demonstrate the exact position of the planets on any given date; a larger model of the galaxy as a whole, and various other strange tools. In the center of the floor was a large mystic circle, inlaid in solid silver, consisting of numerous strange geometric shapes and runes that sent pain shooting through Shinji's head when he tried to examine them too closely.

    "Here, boy," called Prozorovsky, startling Shinji from his dazed examining. "Step into the center of the mystic circle. This will be the final test before I begin teaching you in earnest. I have to analyze your odic flow, determine your element and origin, and test for any other peculiarities about you. For most magi, this would be a difficult and time-consuming process, involving all sorts of inane tests with elements. Not for we Prozorovsky! It was my great-great-grandfather who devised this circle. It directly analyzes any magecraft conducted within it, determining the characteristics of the mystery as well as those of the magus. A fantastic tool of espionage, as well as a great time-saver!" As he extolled the virtues of his family history, Prozorovsky brightened and seemed to swell with pride. This, Shinji reflected, must be the famous pride of lineage magi always write about. I wonder if I'd feel that way about the Matou, if we hadn't degenerated.

    "Anyway," Prozorovsky said with slight embarrassment at his previous enthusiasm, "all you need to do is activate your circuits there in the circle. Output to your maximum capacity, and I'll do the rest."

    Shinji obligingly flooded his circuits with his od, and the circle began to emit an odd silvery luminescence. Then Cyrillic characters began to appear in the air, a word at a time, and Prozorovsky quickly recorded them in a notebook before they faded. Shinji maintained his odic output until commanded to cease, and then relaxed ramrod-straight posture as Prozorovsky began to read out the contents of his analysis with a bemused expression.

    "Output sustained, total 450 zyablik; we knew that already. Origin, 'Exceedance' and 'Limitation'; that's an interesting pair. You could end up breaking all your limits, or utterly bound by them! Now, let's see, Elemental Alignment: Ether, the Fifth Great Element. Damn, you're full of surprises! There's never been a Prozorovsky aligned to Ether before. Must be from the Matou. And one more detail…" Prozorovsky stopped dead, his mouth drifting open. "No, that can't be right. But this analysis is perfect." Suddenly, Prozorovsky charged forward and pulled Shinji to him by the shirtfront, staring at his eyes. "Boy, tell me, can you see something you couldn't before you had those circuits implanted?"

    Shinji's eyes widened as he realized he'd never mentioned that ability to his teacher. "Yes sir, I can see the flow of magic energy when I concentrate. I've only focused on my own od before, but I'm sure I could see others as well."

    "So it is right," Prozorovsky said dejectedly, putting Shinji down on his feet again. He looked shaken and badly in need of a drink. "Boy, I don't know how you came by this piece of luck, but you have Pure Eyes. It's an extremely rare mystic trait. Nobody knows quite how to make them appear, but it usually happens when a powerful magus passes his life's work on to another powerful magus. They let you see things that are normally invisible, like spirits or emotions. In your case, it seems you can perceive magic energy. That certainly ought to be useful!"

    Shinji supposed it made sense enough. He had, after all, inherited Uncle Kariya's goal, and Uncle Kariya had to be quite strong to control Berserker. He'd learned that much at least from his uncle's notes on the Holy Grail War.

    "Oh, and you have your mother's sorcery trait, Inheritor. Not much surprise there." Then Prozorovsky did something that shocked Shinji even more than he had already. He slapped himself across the face. Then, briskly shaking his head back and forth, he said "Well then! Can't be distracted forever when I have a schedule to keep to. Now that we know you're capable of using it, it's time to teach you about the technique we use."

    Prozorovsky pulled a chair from his nearby desk up behind himself and took a seat. "Now then, there are two types of magecraft. If you've been studying the rot published by the Clock Tower, you may not even know this, but it's true. The first type is Alteration. That's the more popular kind, the variety I'm sure you've read about. A magus uses his od, applied directly to the framework of reality in the complex manner we call a mystery, to actualize his will into the world. Of course, there are all kinds of permutations in detail, but that's the basic idea. It's the most popular kind of magecraft because it's self-contained, and magi like to keep their mysteries to themselves. Then, there's the second kind. This is the variety of magecraft we Prozorovsky use, and it's called Evocation. With this variety, a magus uses only a fraction of his own power to call forth and bind a more powerful being. This other being then does the heavy lifting of the actual mysteries. Ultimately it's a far more efficient type of magecraft, albeit more dangerous. Most magi will tell you they look down on Evocation because it's borrowing the power of another, but they're really just a bunch of frightened chickadees! The danger is certainly real, though. You may have heard of an old fellow named Faustus. He went through all the work of summoning and binding a demon to serve him absolutely, but the slippery thing managed to trick him into destroying himself! That's the kind of thing Evocation has to deal with."

    Prozorovsky stood up from his chair and strode over to one of the windows, staring out at the sky as he continued. "That's why we Prozorovskys developed a specialized technique. Rather than each magus binding his own demonic servant, summoned fully into the world for life, we found an even more efficient way. We made a familial contract with a single immortal entity, one that wants very much to manifest here on earth. Then we created a system of specialized runic circles engraved with the incantation necessary to summon just a fraction of this entity for a moment, give it a very specific task to perform, and then dispel it. We use single line aria projection spells to summon the various circles, and let the formalcraft structure and the entity do the rest of the work."

    "Now," Prozorovsky said, turning back to Shinji, "I'm sure you're wondering just what this marvelous entity is. That, I think, is the most interesting part of the whole affair. You know about Gaia and Alaya, correct?"

    "Yes," Shinji responded, and began rattling off a report, "Gaia is the greater spirit of the Earth, of which all mana is a part. Alaya is a similar spirit, formed not of the natural world but of the collective unconscious od of mankind, which came together at the end of the Age-"

    "Yes, yes, you're great at reciting textbooks," Prozorovsky said, a note of irritation in his tone as he cut Shinji off. "A simple 'yes sir, I remember' would have sufficed. Anyway, what you probably don't know is that each of the other planets in the solar system has a greater spirit, similar to Gaia. You don't know this because the Clock Tower tries to keep it a big secret. We Prozorovskys, who study the stars, have long known of the other spirits, however. They all want to come to Earth, you know. It's apparently quite lonely being the spirit of a lifeless planet. The combined might of Gaia and Alaya keep them away, though. Mostly, anyway." At this point, Prozorovsky paused in his lecture to let out a dry chuckle and light a cigarette. "Well, we made a contract about 400 years ago with Neptunus, the spirit of Neptune. Trust me, there's very little magecraft that can outdo the manifestations of Neptunus. If you want to learn it, though, it'll be hard going."

    It was.

    ~~~

    For the next year and ten months, the 166 arcane summoning circles of Neptunus were the primary subject of Shinji's studies, alongside the necessary finesse in projection to master creating them at a moment's notice and the self-reinforcement necessary for combat when one relied on short-term summoning magic. Of course, the agonizing morning training (which now added bare-handed sparring and tutelage in a brutal fighting style Prozorovsky called Systema to the mix), household chores, and occasional Russian lesson were hardly dropped from the curriculum. For the most part, however, it was projection and personal reinforcement training in the morning, memorizing and practicing sigils in the evening. The consequences of failure during the practice sessions acted quite nicely to drive home Prozorovsky's point about the dangers of evocation. At one point, Shinji accidentally swapped the order of two runes, and a sigil that was supposed to have Neptunus create a 15' circular bounded field instead became intent on siphoning all the od out of Shinji's body. He nearly died before Prozorovsky intervened and dispelled the circle.

    In addition, when not teaching him the methods of summoning, Prozorovsky focused on alchemy. Although it was not one of the ancestral arts of his family, it seemed that Nikolay Fyodorovich had a particular fondness for the alchemical school of Paracelsus, and he would often tell Shinji "A magus with no way to heal is a dead man on the battlefield. Why waste your od on healing mysteries when you can prepare a potion in advance?"

    Thanks to this pragmatic viewpoint, Shinji gained a basic grounding in numerous types of medicines, poisons, and various other alchemical techniques that functioned using mana, rather than his own od. He also gained a significant reading list, detailing alchemical tomes that Prozorovsky could not afford, but was sure Shinji could find in the Matou library.

    By the end of his two year training period, Shinji had changed significantly. He had gained a significant grounding in both the martial and the magical arts, with the assurance that he could experiment with combinations of different circles to extract greater manifestations from Neptunus (although the nature of the creature itself remained a total mystery to Shinji). Although no amount of physical training had been able to overcome the damage the insertion of magical circuits had done to his heart, he had learned to reinforce the organ itself, improving his stamina by direct odic application; not to mention the immense usefulness of reinforcing other parts of his body. Perhaps more importantly than his immediate learning was the change in viewpoint Shinji had learned from his cold, authoritarian uncle. Prozorovsky had schooled him thoroughly in the ways of magi, and stamped into him the lessons that only lineage and research mattered. For Shinji, to whom nothing was more important than saving a talented magus from forcibly becoming the heir to his family's lineage, these teachings were anathema. Although Shinji had gone to Russia hoping to find a way to escape his family and join the larger society of magi, the boy had now resolved to follow the same path laid down by the Prozorovskys of old. Once he had freed himself and his Sakura from Zouken's clutches, Shinji would cut the Matou off from the society of magi at large in order to keep his family free of the cold philosophy of the Mages' Association.

    Lastly, as a sort of graduation present Prozorovsky had even given him an heirloom. It was an old mirror, circular and made of solid silver. Baroque filigree surrounded the edges, serving as both ornamentation and a convenient handle. According to Prozorovsky, "I taught you how to project silver summoning circles into thin air. That's actually more of a last resort, though. It's much faster if you have a surface prepared that you can simply project the lines into. That mirror is a mystic code that will repair its surface after the manifestation is completed. It's served me well over the years, and you'll find it a tool with no equal in Evocation."

    Then, gift in hand, Shinji had parted from his teacher to return to Fuyuki. He still had much to learn, and more importantly had to make up for the time he had lost these two years with Sakura. As he boarded the plane departing Yekaterinburg for Narita, an oppressive unease seized Shinji's heart. He hoped nothing irreparable had happened while he'd been away.


    ~~~

    Author's Note: ...and that's that! What did you all think of the "Shinji's Magic Training" arc? Did it work? Was it boring? Maybe you're just angry we still haven't gotten to the HGW yet?

    If you're wondering about Pure Eyes, or why Shinji has the Ether element rather than Water as is common to the Matou, know that I do have explanations for both, fully justified using the rules of the Nasuverse. Before I post those, though, I'll give you folks until the next chapter comes out to speculate. If nobody's figured it out in the reviews by then, I'll explain. Speaking of magic rules, zyablik is the Russian word for finch, and it's an old measure of magical energy. Supposedly it's the amount of od a finch goes through in its lifetime, but like "hands" in reference to height and "feet" in reference to length, it's more symbolic than literal. For comparison, Rin can output 25 zyablik from each of her 40 circuits without sustaining damage, while Shirou damages his 27 circuits when outputting 10 per circuit.

    To any Russian readers I may have, I hope I didn't offend you. I'm not Russian, have never been to Russia, and don't speak Russian. Shinji's family is originally from Russia, though, and I wanted to work with that; I did try to do as much research as possible, but I'm sure I messed some things up.

    Now, on to answering review questions from last chapter:
    Giuseppe, you were right in guessing that he isn't relying solely on transplanted magic circuits. Although I won't spoil more, the Pure Eyes are quite a useful tool for an enterprising magus, even if their ability seems simplistic.
    Cinder, I appreciate the suggestions! As for whether I use your ideas, I guess you'll just have to wait and see...
    I think I can answer a couple questions as to the plot holes. It's mentioned a few times in F/SN that Kiritsugu was quite talented at making hidden bounded fields. The one he constructed around the Emiya estate is specifically designed to be impossible for the Tohsaka to detect. As for Kirei not stirring up Rin's hatred to the Emiyas, he knew that the grail's curse would kill Kiritsugu, and it's pretty clear that it came as a total shock to him when Shirou turned out to be a master. As for Rin not noticing Shirou's magical repairs, I have two reasons. One, Rin hates machines, thinks all magi hate machines, and can't imagine a magus using magecraft to fix machines. Two, Rin is... not the best at detecting magic. It's mentioned a few times that Shirou is far better at noticing the presence of magical energy than Rin is, so if he was trying to make sure nobody noticed his reinforcement I highly doubt she'd catch on.

  5. #5
    屍食鬼 Ghoul Mr. Lactose's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2018
    Location
    California
    Age
    22
    Gender
    Male
    Posts
    17
    (For some reason, Chapter 2 was posted twice. To save space, I've truncated the post into this line.)
    Last edited by Mr. Lactose; July 31st, 2018 at 04:28 PM.

  6. #6
    屍食鬼 Ghoul Mr. Lactose's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2018
    Location
    California
    Age
    22
    Gender
    Male
    Posts
    17
    Author's Note: Another chapter, done at last! Chapter three, here, was a lot harder to write than the previous chapters since it's more focused on character building than the mechanics of Shinji's growth. I really tried to make sure Shinji stayed the same character deep down as in the original work, while also incorporating the changes to his personality that come from the changed events. I think I did a pretty good job, but since this is my first major fictional project I'd love your feedback! Do you think I managed to ride the line, or has he changed too much to still be "Shinji"? Now, without further ado, please enjoy…
    ~~~

    Chapter Three – Returning to the Mundane

    April, 2000

    Matou Shinji had hardly expected to return home to a cheery welcome from his grandfather. Even so, he had been unprepared for his family's sheer volume of disinterest. Shinji arrived at the airport in Narita alone, negotiated his own train fare home, and found that when he called home to inform the old man of his return nobody bothered to answer the phone. Naturally, no-one waited when he arrived at Fuyuki station, and Shinji was left to make the walk home alone as well.

    When Shinji finally did arrive at the Matou manor after his two-year departure, he found it still and silent. Despite the sunny spring afternoon, shadows crowded around the eaves, and the trees that grew on the grounds seemed placed more to hide than to decorate. Put simply, the Matou manor was ominous. Shinji had, during his time away, grown used to the thoroughly inhabited feel of Prozorovsky's home. Though it was decayed, the building managed to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and every part of it bore the telltale signs of constant human life. Even looking at his old home from outside was enough to remind Shinji that the same was not true of the Matou house. Every inch of it was pristine, without an out-of-place roof tile or a spot of damaged paint. Every inch of it was shut, curtains and blinds shielding each closed window. The house seemed to forbid approach, condemning even those born there as intruders. And of course, Shinji knew that come nightfall he would hear the omnipresent sound of the insects.

    Nevertheless, Shinji steeled himself and advanced on his home. He had returned, and even unwelcomed he would make his presence known. The bounded field that surrounded the home made no complaint as he approached the door, and when he tried it he found it unlocked. Matou Zouken was satisfied enough with his own security measures to disdain ordinary locks. The door opened before Shinji silently, turning on smoothly oiled hinges, and revealed the front hall of the Matou manor. The dimness was just as Shinji had remembered. No light flared anywhere within the building, and the only visibility came from those choked remnants of the outside sun that managed to penetrate the curtains.

    Since his family had not deigned to acknowledge his return, Shinji decided, he would ignore them as well. Making no effort to call out to his sister or grandfather, Shinji made his way through the shadowed corridors, between the opulent wine-purple walls (the color given by a tooled leather wallpaper that had been the height of decorative style in 1884, when Zouken had imported it from Britain), and up the stairs to his own bedroom. It appeared to have remained completely untouched since he had departed. There was his four-poster bed; his baroque nightstand and rococo bedside lamp. There was the aged clock, hanging on the wall, and the closet still full of clothing which no longer fit him. There was the full-length window, as thoroughly covered as the rest of the house's portals to outside.

    In a moment of meaningless frustration, Shinji threw open the curtains to let the light stream in. This was his home, and he wasn't going to simply fade into the past, returning all things to the manner they'd been in before he'd left! For one thing, Shinji had had enough of moving about in darkness. He'd seen the sun while away, and he wasn't going to tolerate these oppressive shadows filling his manor.

    Then, reflected in the window glass, Shinji saw his grandfather. He froze, and would have gone pale if the operation hadn't left him with a constant pallor.

    "Gave you a bit of a scare, did I?" Zouken's voice was like sand flowing through an hourglass, and the dry chuckle he let out reminded Shinji of wind on old paper. "Welcome home, boy. I hope you learned something useful from that uncle of yours. It'd be the first good thing his family's done for me." Chuckling again, Zouken turned to go. Then, as if remembering a minor, unimportant detail, he cocked his head back towards Shinji and said, "By the way, I'm sure you'd like to see your sister. You'll have to wait; she's with my familiars right now; and no, you can't come and watch." Then he left, cane rapping on the stairs all the way down to the Worm Room.

    For Shinji, that was when the reality of his homecoming sank in.
    ~~~

    Shinji's reunion with Sakura came later, as Zouken had promised, and was far more pleasant. When he heard her come up the stairs, and shortly after heard the shower as she cleaned herself, Shinji went to Sakura's room to wait for her. He was there waiting as she emerged, wearing a pale lavender blouse and cream-colored skirt. Seeing his sister for the first time in two years, Shinji's breath was taken away.

    Sakura had grown, while he'd been away. She had always been a small child, and he hadn't been ready for her to change, but now she was showing the first signs of the adolescence to come. She had gained height, lessening the gap between them, and her figure had begun to show the first telltale signs of the curves it would eventually develop. In one essential way, though, she was exactly the same. It was her fragility, in Shinji's eyes, like a vase of porcelain no thicker than paper. She looked, to him, like the slightest offense would destroy her, and he felt the overpowering need to protect her from all the world's iniquities well up inside him again. After so long, it was almost like a physical force, hammering in his brain.

    At the sight of him, Sakura's emotionless visage cracked. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes, and she began to speak. She only got as far as "Nii-san," when Shinji had rushed forward and pulled her into an embrace. They stayed like that for some time, wordlessly holding each other as Sakura's silent tears soaked into Shinji's shirt.

    After the two had calmed a bit, they sat together on Sakura's bed, and Shinji told her the story of his time in Russia. He carefully omitted the negative details, the pain of being run ragged, his cramped room , and so-on. Instead, he told her only about the happier things. How it felt to harness his od for the first time; the different ways he had learned to evoke Neptunus, creating heat or cold, force, manifesting pressure, and so-on; the many beautiful birds he had seen in the forest around the Prozorovsky estate; the strange Russian food he learned to eat, so different from cuisine at home. As he narrated the (somewhat idealized) story of his training, Sakura slowly brightened as she had when he used to tell her fairy tales and comfort her. Her tears dried, the red faded from her eyes, and she gradually developed a look of intent curiosity, and even delight at times. Shinji was particularly moved to see her break into a radiant smile when he projected a small silver sparrow for her from thin air. To Shinji, that momentary smile gave him more satisfaction than all the magical achievements he had made in Russia and all the other delights he'd found in his childhood. It was more satisfying than anything he could imagine. Except, perhaps, for her secret tears; tears, like the smile, which Shinji knew she showed only to him.

    Eventually it grew dark, and Shinji finished his tale. The two went down to share dinner, prepared by one of the three maids their grandfather kept to maintain the home. It was the first time in a year that Shinji had eaten a meal Prozorovsky hadn't forced him to prepare, and although it was delicious, he felt somehow defeated; as though by allowing this maid to prepare his food, Shinji had in some way admitted weakness. But then, Prozorovsky had been very hard on the subject of self-sufficiency.

    Unusually, Zouken was at the table, taking his dinner with Shinji and Sakura. Shinji didn't know if the old magus had developed the habit while he'd been away, but in Shinji's memory his grandfather always ate alone, having his meals brought up to his room on the second floor.

    In a conversational tone of voice, Zouken said "Byakuya's dead. I thought you might like to know." Shinji looked up from his food in stunned bafflement. True, he hadn't seen his father since returning home, but he'd assumed the man was simply passed out in his room, remaining in his continuous alcoholic stupor. To think he had died! Sakura, on the other hand, made no reaction to the news, her face remaining in the impassive mask she maintained whenever she and Shinji weren't alone. "It happened about… eight months ago now, I'd say," said Zouken, a smirk beginning to crack his withered features. "The wretched idiot fell down the stairs and broke his neck. A fitting end, don't you think, boy?" Shinji could only stare. It was true that his father had never played as significant a role in his upbringing as his grandfather, but he'd always been there, at Zouken's side. In Shinji's earliest memories he even recalled occasional sober moments, when Byakuya would try to play the role of parent on his own instead of simply following Zouken's instructions. Now, ignominiously and out of Shinji's sight, his last parent had expired. For a moment, Shinji had the brief thought that he should have felt grief at his father's passing, but it was quickly dismissed. Instead, an unsettling confirmation of his own mortality washed over him, and with it a fearful thought: If I should die, Sakura would belong only to Grandfather.

    With a struggle, Shinji got his shock under control, and compensated by projecting the same callous disregard he saw in his grandfather. "I suppose it's hardly surprising that a drunkard like my father would go in such a foolish way. Still, I suppose I ought to visit him. Where is he buried?"

    With the air of a cruel joker revealing his final punchline, Zouken answered, "I saw no need to bury the fool. I fed him to my familiars. If you're keen on visiting him, feel free to go down and join him."

    "Now, on to more current matters," the old magus continued after a final dry chuckle at Byakuya's expiry, "Aspiring magus or not, you must have a mundane education, if only for the sake of appearances. You let your first year of junior high school pass while you were off in Russia, and the new year has already begun. You'll be transferring into Miyama-cho Junior High as a second year student tomorrow. I had hoped I could leave the mundane parenting of you two to your incompetent father, but, well…"

    As Zouken's voice lulled, Shinji interjected. "Grandfather, you can't mean I need to attend a mundane school with ordinary people! How could that further my studies of magecraft?" At this unexpected resistance, Zouken's face set in an expression of cold fury. "I can, and I do mean it, whelp! I don't know what that Prozorovsky fool taught you about magus society, but generations of Matou have masqueraded as normal humans, researching magecraft in secret. That is the existence of a magus, and attending an ordinary school is essential to that existence. Now, you will do as I say and not question my decisions again!"

    The remainder of dinner was spent in silence.
    ~~~

    That night, as Shinji lay in bed, he heard his door quietly open, and the soft padding of feet approaching him. Half-waking, he opened his eyes to see Sakura standing over him. "Sakura," Shinji mumbled, "What are you doing in here?"

    The girl's reply was soft and hesitant, her fear of rejection plainly audible. "Nii-san," she said, "I don't want to sleep by myself with the insects all around. I've always been alone since you left. Just for tonight…" She trailed off, the plea clear in her eyes.

    Shinji couldn't help but offer comfort to his adoptive sister. By way of reply, he pulled back the covers and moved over to make space for her on the bed. As she gratefully crawled into bed beside him, Shinji wrapped his arms around Sakura's small, shivering frame.

    Indeed, the sound of Zouken's familiars was particularly loud tonight. Everywhere in the house could be heard the mingled noises of buzzing wings, skittering chitin legs, and the strange chirping sounds the creatures used to communicate. After two years with the natural sounds of the Russian forest around Prozorovsky's home, the noise reminded Shinji of an infernal parody of crickets. As the two children held each other, though, concentrating on the sound of one another's heartbeat, the noise of the insects seemed to fade. Gradually, the two were overtaken by a sweet and dreamless sleep.
    ~~~

    The next morning saw the beginning of a new daily routine for Shinji. He awoke at five, giving himself an extra hour of sleep compared to his time in Russia. After rising, taking a cold shower, and attending to his teeth, Shinji finished dispelling his sleep with an hour of morning exercise. Push-ups, squats, running, and sit-ups were all done in large quantity, followed by practice in the various forms used in Systema. Since the art required a sparring partner, Shinji wasn't really sure if this would help him, but he figured it would at least reinforce his memory.

    Exercise completed, Shinji went inside just after six to make breakfast for himself and Sakura: fried eggs and toast, since Zouken lacked the kolbasa sausage Shinji had gotten used to. He had to chase the maids out of the kitchen to do it, but Shinji felt it was important to stay self-sufficient.

    While Shinji was frying the eggs, Sakura descended the stairs. Seeing her brother in the kitchen, a look of surprise washed over the girl's face. "Nii-san, you can cook?" she asked incredulously. Focused as he was on magic, Sakura couldn't imagine Shinji taking the time to learn how to prepare food. She assumed that servants had handled such things in Russia, just like at home.

    Shinji turned a self-satisfied smirk in Sakura's direction. "Just enough to get by. Uncle Nikolay said it was only right for an apprentice to feed his master, so he made sure I learned. Just you watch, though. In cooking or anything else, eventually I'll make sure nobody can top Matou Shinji!"

    Listening to her brother joke about his cooking abilities, a kind of warmth stole over Sakura that she'd been missing these two years. Though she'd been able to keep ahold of herself under Grandfather's tortures, survival had been the extent of her ability to resist. The time since her brother had left had, for Sakura, been a sequence of constant misery; she'd had shut out more of the world around her each day, just to keep her mind from going. Now, after last night's wonderful stories of Russia and her first untroubled sleep in years, Sakura was starting to feel alive again.

    This shift in Sakura's heart escaped Shinji, as he concentrated on ensuring the perfect mix of crunchy surface and runny yoke in the eggs. He wanted to be sure Sakura enjoyed the breakfast he made, after all. "Well, if you're so confident," Sakura replied, a smile forming on her lips, "I'll expect nothing but the best! Don't you let the maids outdo you after going all the way to Russia to learn cooking, now." Then the food was done. Shinji served it onto two plates and melodramatically placed Sakura's portion before her. "Now," he said with a grandiose flourish, "taste the fruits of my training!"

    Their banter completed, the two sat down to eat. Just as she was preparing to dig into the eggs, however, Sakura noticed an official looking envelope sitting at the place Zouken had occupied the night before. She picked it up and, after glancing it over, handed it to Shinji, saying as she held it out, "It's addressed to you, Nii-san. Grandfather must have brought in the mail earlier and left it here for you."

    Shinji looked up from his rapidly vanishing breakfast to take the letter. After polishing off the last few bites of egg and beginning to feel as if he'd replenished properly from his exercise, he tore open the envelope to see an official document from Miyama-cho Junior High School. It was a form letter signed by the principal, accepting his transfer into the school (from, Shinji noted with some amusement, "Prozorovsky Private Academy" in Yekaterinburg) and welcoming him to the youth community of Fuyuki. Attached was a schedule listing his homeroom, classes, and the school hours. As Shinji read this last detail he realized that he had barely enough time to walk there. Fortunately he had thought to put on his school uniform (found this morning in his closet) after his exercise routine, and Sakura had apparently dressed before coming downstairs.

    Grabbing her hand in his haste, Shinji frantically said "Come on, Sakura! I'll be late if we don't leave now." After last night's outburst, Shinji feared what might happen if he angered his grandfather again on the subject of school. Sakura wordlessly finished her eggs and they headed out the door.

    The walk to school was quiet. Shinji had more or less run out of things to tell Sakura about his time away, and she was loath as ever to talk about any aspect of her life aside from her time with Shinji. He'd attempted to find out how she was taking school (as the school year had started a few weeks prior, Sakura had already begun her first term of junior high), but he'd only gotten short, non-committal answers. No, she wasn't having trouble in class. No, her classmates weren't bullying her. Et cetera. So the two walked to school in silence, content to simply bask in the companionship they'd missed.

    Shinji just made it in time to be ushered in as the new transfer student. He was hoping to keep his social interactions with the plebeian masses to a minimum, and so gave the simplest, least outgoing self-introduction he could think of. "My name is Matou Shinji. I was originally from Fuyuki, but had to spend two years undergoing medical treatment in Russia. Now I've returned home. Studying is my only hobby."

    Unfortunately for Shinji, he had no idea how junior high students would think. His curt introduction, combined with his refined features, shocking white hair, and the faint Russian accent on his pronunciation, made him an instant curiosity. He was swamped with questions during every break period for the rest of the day, and had to do his utmost to fight off the curious students. Eventually, though, the school day finally came to an end. Shinji hurriedly collected his things and rushed out, meeting Sakura outside her classroom.


    As the two walked home, it seemed to Shinji that they would do so in silence again. Then, hesitantly, Sakura spoke up. "Nii-san, do you think you could teach me to cook? If you're going to be making food for us, I'd like to help you."

    "Of course," replied Shinji. "I could always use some help." Shinji didn't much care whether or not someone helped him prepare food, but he figured it would be good for Sakura to develop a hobby, and so he agreed quite readily. They stopped by the shopping center on their way home to pick up ingredients. Later that night, after his practice and studies in magecraft were completed, Shinji started teaching his sister how to make borscht.
    ~~~

    For roughly the duration of his time at Miyama-cho Junior High School Shinji went about his days in much the same way. In the morning he would exercise to keep his body trained and prepare breakfast for himself and Sakura only after he was finished. Then they would head off to school, where Shinji worked to maintain his distant, aloof reputation. It was far easier to concentrate on the material when there weren't a hundred irritating fools clamoring for his attention. Unbeknownst to him, Shinji's aloof attitude had done nothing to dissuade his fans. As his reputation as a frail, quasi-foreign, handsome rich boy had spread, Shinji had accrued plenty of adolescent crushes from the girls and resentment from the boys at school.

    Shinji's counterpart in this regard was Tohsaka Rin, a similarly beautiful and wealthy student who'd become something of an idol to the boys. Unlike Shinji, however, she maintained a kind, cheerful, extroverted persona and actively expanded her circle of friends. Because of their contrasting personalities, the two even developed nicknames that would follow them into high school and (perhaps) beyond. Some unnamed wit had, when describing their reputations to a friend, called the pair the Ice Prince and the School Madonna. The name had spread and stuck. Shinji even overheard it occasionally, and the failure of his attempts at anonymity grated on him. Deep down, though, he did enjoy it. After all, his peers were unconsciously giving him the respect a magus deserved, weren't they?

    Just as prestigious as their looks was the academic performance of the pair. At school Shinji had found that he deeply enjoyed competition. Specifically, the feeling of victory over his peers, a sensation that had been totally absent both at home and in Russia due to his constantly overwhelming family. Shinji had not discovered this feeling of victory through clubs, as he avoided them in order to avoid making Sakura wait. Instead, he had discovered it through academics. His first term after returning from Russia, Shinji had studied frantically in order to catch up with the school he had missed and avoid disappointing his grandfather. His reward for this effort was scoring second-place in the school on the first major round of tests. First place had been taken by Tohsaka Rin. At that moment, Shinji had felt a strange mix of elation and anger fill him. The world had seemed to take on bright colors, the way it did when he made Sakura smile, or dried her secret tears, or when he made a great breakthrough in his magical studies.

    With renewed academic vigor, he had managed to score first place in the following major round of testing, and been rewarded with the sight of Tohsaka biting her lip and stamping her foot in frustration. This rare display of emotion from the School Madonna shocked the surrounding students, although not as much as when the Ice Prince walked confidently up to her, smirked widely, and said in a voice laced with condescension "Congratulations on your performance in this and the last test, Tohsaka. It's a real pleasure knowing there's another excellent student here. Let's both do our best in the coming term, shall we?"

    Tohsaka had looked about ready to throw a punch, and Shinji was delighted at her barely withheld fury. The real enjoyment of the situation came from proving his own superiority, but inflicting frustration on the girl who had abandoned Sakura was certainly a bonus. As he turned to go, Tohsaka cried out "Don't think you'll be smiling like that next term, Matou!" and stamped her foot one more time for good measure. The motion made her twintails flutter adorably, and Shinji couldn't suppress a chuckle. "I look forward to seeing whether you're right," he called behind him as he headed back to his classroom to collect his tings and head home. "There's nothing like a good competition!"

    On returning home, Shinji would spend a few hours studying magic, experimenting with alchemical potions and recombination of Neptunus' Sigils. Shinji's primary magical studies during these years consisted of the search for an efficient mana potion (a basic and well-understood alchemical product, which for practical functionality required either a massive quantity of vegetable matter, a small quantity of extremely rare materials, or an entirely new technique); and protracted attempts to design more complex mysteries of evocation by combining the 166 basic sigils in new ways. Although he'd been taught a wide variety of summoning circles for Neptunus, they were mostly different grades of basic spells, such as healing, reparation of a broken object, construction of a bounded field, or manipulation of cold into projectiles and curses. Shinji was certain that if he could attain sufficient mastery of the interactions of the sigils and geometric bounds that made up the summoning circles he could encode more complex effects into his evocations, significantly increasing their functionality.

    He also spent a good deal of time in meditative training, straining his magical circuits to output even a few extra zyablik. Although Evocation was far more efficient than mysteries of Alteration when it came to od, there was still a requirement to project the circle, open the gate, and maintain the connection to Neptunus. Since more powerful applications of Neptunus' power required a physically larger summoning circle, a metaphorically larger gate, and a longer sustained connection, the cost to Shinji did mount with effectiveness. For this reason, training his output remained an important, albeit hitherto futile, element of his studies. Besides, even though he would be sixty-six when the Holy Grail War written of in Uncle Kariya's notes came around, Shinji hoped to participate. Kariya had needed to give so much od to his servant to keep it battle-ready that it had drained his life, and Shinji didn't want to meet the same fate.

    After his magic studies, Shinji would head into the kitchen to prepare dinner and experiment with new recipes together with Sakura. Although Shinji had begun by teaching her what he knew of Russian cuisine, he was no great chef. Within a few months Sakura had surpassed him, and he would have had to end one of the few activities that could reliably put a smile on her face. Would have, that is, if not for his brilliant idea. Fearing the loss of his bonding time with Sakura, Shinji had spent an evening brainstorming solutions and finally decided to start renting cookbooks from the library. After that, it had become routine for the two of them to do so together, practicing all sorts of different dishes and cuisines


    So, for three years Shinji and Sakura were able to settle into a comfortable routine. With each other's help, they lived an almost normal life. Sakura's time in the Worm Room became a black spot in her existence, rather than its focus. Shinji trained to become a proper magus worthy of his position as the son of the Matou. Things seemed to be looking better.

    All the while, Zouken waited, watched, and made his plans for the two children.
    ~~~

    September, 2001

    Shinji sat in his classroom, working on a particularly difficult problem their physics teacher had given as optional study material. He'd rather be walking Sakura home, working on his magic, or any number of other things, but he knew Tohsaka would be studying the damn problem and he wasn't about to lose to her when test-time came around. That was why Shinji was still there, hanging around at school at sunset.

    Giving himself a momentary break, Shinji looked out the window, curious to see if any of the clubs kept their practice sessions going this late. Apparently not, as the schoolyard was deserted aside from one red-haired boy and a high-jump setup the track team kept. The boy looked like he might be in Shinji's year, but Shinji didn't recognize him.

    Curious about this lone athlete, Shinji watched as the boy limbered up, got a running start, and leaped the high jump… only to get clip the bar on his way up and send it tumbling to the ground with him. Unperturbed, the boy set the bar back in its place and jumped once again. Shinji watched as this time the boy turned horizontal too early in his effort to raise his feet out of the way, and actually went under the bar.

    Again, Shinji's redheaded schoolmate was seemingly unmoved by his failure. He simply went back to his original position and tried to make the jump a third time. This time he clipped the bar with his feet and brought it down. As Shinji watched this, he became more and more intrigued by the strange high-jump failure. Shinji couldn't help but be reminded of the words of his own teacher. "You'll be either someone who surpasses all limits or someone who tries pointlessly to challenge a limit you can't break," And now here in this schoolyard was a textbook example of someone failing to break through his limits; Shinji found the sight oddly mesmerizing.

    After a while, Shinji realized he'd been staring at the boy long enough for him to try and fail to make the jump ten times. This was getting ridiculous. If he was going to get his studying done, he figured he'd just have to go out and set the boy straight.

    As Shinji made his way out to the school's track, he was unaware that someone else was watching the goings-on out there. Sakura had been waiting passively in her classroom since the day's classes had ended. She knew that her brother must be taking care of something important, because he always came by Class 2-C at the end of the day to pick her up. The concept that he might have simply headed home didn't occur to her, and so she'd been content to wait and stare out the window, although threads of nervousness and irritation had begun to form in her as she realized the clubs had finished their practice. He'd been keeping her waiting for over an hour already!

    The jumping boy had been interesting enough to take her mind off her wait a bit, though. His behavior was different from anyone else she knew. He wasn't acting like Nii-san, who could do anything he set his mind to, or the other students, who simply didn't try to do things that were beyond them. Instead, even though the jump was obviously impossible for him, he just kept trying and failing. Sakura realized that the boy reminded her of herself a bit, the way he kept struggling against the impossible. She might have continued this train of thought, perhaps even drawing some inspiration from the boy's stubborn refusal to give up, but then she saw Shinji walk up to him. For the first time, Sakura felt real anger flare up for a moment. While she waited patiently for him to meet her, Nii-san was out playing around with the sports clubs?

    Shinji, oblivious to his unseen audience, arrived at the high-jump station just as the red-haired boy failed for the umpteenth time, this time by striking the bar comically in mid-torso.

    "You'll never get over it that way, you know," he announced. The red-haired boy leapt to his feet, a look of defensive shock and embarrassment flushing his features. "What do you know, Matou," came his angry defense, "You don't even do any sports!"

    By way of reply, Shinji backed off from the high-jump bar, did a few quick hops to loosen his joints, and got a running start. He was reasonably confident he could make the jump, but gave his legs a bit of reinforcement as he leapt just in case. Shinji cleared the bar by a wide, easy margin, and landed next to the red-haired boy, who hadn't moved from the cushion set out for landings. He'd been too shocked.

    Shinji turned a brazen smile on his schoolmate. "I have a weak heart, so I can't do sustained exercise," he lied, finding it an easier excuse than caring for his sister, "but I've done plenty of training for quick stuff like this. Now, do you want me to tell you how to do it properly?"

    The redhead wasn't swayed that easily, though, and Shinji's triumph seemed to fuel his own determination rather than the awe Shinji had been hoping for. "Look, Mr. Perfect, I can do it on my own. I may have missed that last jump, but I'll get it eventually. A hero overcomes his own limits!"

    Shinji sighed heavily. Some people you just couldn't talk to. Nonetheless, he decided to prove he had the stronger will in this clash. Getting up from the cushion, he pointed to the bar. "Look, whatever your name is, you're not that far off. Most of the time you just miss the bar by a few centimeters and clip it with your feet. There's nothing wrong with trying to push your limits, but this is just past them. If you want to improve, you need to put it right on the edge of where you can jump. I'd recommend moving it down just about five cm or so. Then you should be able to make the jump once in four or five tries, and actually figure out how to improve. If all you do is fail every time, you're never going to get any better."

    Now, Shinji knew he wasn't drawing on some hidden potential as a sporting coach here. Most of that little speech had been quoted (and translated) straight from Prozorovsky's copious lecturing as he had tried to shape Shinji into something that wouldn't blow away in a light breeze. The effect on his schoolmate was just about what he'd hoped for, though. The boy stared blankly for a second, plainly taken aback by this direct attempt at help. Then his manner did an abrupt about-face. He broke into a bright, honest smile and put out his hand to introduce himself.

    "Look, I'm Emiya. Emiya Shirou. Sorry for calling you a jerk before, it looks like I had you wrong. You're not a villain at all! I'll give it a try at a lower height. I still plan to improve on my own efforts, though!"

    Shinji felt himself flush a bit in irritation at the other boy's unpredictable behavior, and turned to look away as he gave his reply. "Fine then, Emiya. Of course you should take credit for your own improvements. It's not like I was doing this to help you in particular, anyway, understand? I just couldn't stand watching an idiot making a fool of himself out on the track any longer!"

    Emiya laughed heartily, and slung an arm around Shinji's shoulders in a gesture that was half hug and half pat on the back. "That's okay, Matou! I can see you're good deep down." Struggling his way out of Emiya's (surprisingly strong) grip, Shinji pointed at the high-jump bar once more. "Look, why don't you hurry up and put what I told you into practice? Where's your enthusiasm from earlier? Anyway, I need to get home. I'll see you later, Emiya."

    Not waiting for his schoolmate's reply, Shinji turned and beat a hasty retreat. Studying at school today was a lost cause for today, so he hurried to meet up with Sakura and get home.

    That term, Shinji fell to an unprecedented third place in the school-wide tests, although to his satisfaction Tohsaka's score dipped below her average as well. First place was taken by the usual occupant of the third spot, one Ryuudou Issei.

    The afterschool meeting between Matou Shinji and Emiya Shirou would mark the beginning of a turbulent friendship that would nevertheless persist into high school. Shinji often met with Emiya to chat about new training methods, after that, and derived some satisfaction from seeing his quasi-pupil rise to the top of the various clubs he tried his hand at. It seemed to Shinji that Emiya was living out the sporting record he would have achieved if he'd had the time, and in that way his sporting achievements were one more form of victory for the always glory-hungry student.

    Sakura, on the other hand, clearly disapproved of their friendship for reasons that remained a mystery to Shinji. It never failed to darken her expression when Shinji mentioned spending time with Emiya to her, and she occasionally went so far as to make pointed remarks about how spending time with "someone so obviously beneath you" must be hurting his academic and magical studies. Shinji brushed off her criticism, but coming from Sakura, who had previously never had an unkind word for anyone, it was a shocking new side to her character.

    School days went by, and the children continued to grow.
    ~~~

    October, 2002

    On the other side of the world, in a castle whose foundations had been laid by the Roman senator Canius Primus Ecferus, a girl's clear voice rang out, piercing the silence like the chorus of a nightingale.
    Fülle

    Fülle

    Fülle

    Fülle

    Fülle

    In the shadow-haunted room where the ritual had been prepared, the girl's endless od poured into the silver mystic circle carved in stone, and the darkness seemed to acquire a weight and solidity that had not before been theirs.
    Lassen Sie jede fünf Mal umdrehen und brechen Sie einfach die erfüllte Zeit.

    Lass Silber und Stahl die Essenz sein.

    The ritual circle sprang into life as the first stage of the incantation was completed. Its lines gave a wintry light, like the morning sun on crisp snow, and the shapes and sigils that constructed it seemed to writhe in their stone channels.
    Lassen Sie Stein und der Erzherzog der Verträge die Grundlage sein.

    Lass den ersten Menschen, Askr, der Ahnherr sein.

    Erhebe eine Mauer gegen den Wind, der fallen soll.

    Schließen Sie die vier Haupttore.

    Komm aus der Krone heraus.

    The still air of the ritual chamber stirred, and then began to move faster, until it spun about the ritual's center in a storm, howling and tearing at the girl's hair and clothing.
    Drehe die dreiarmige Straße, die das Königreich erreicht.

    Ich werde hier erklären. Dein Körper soll meinem Willen dienen. Mein Schicksal wird auf deinem Schwert getragen werden. Einreichen auf die Einladung des Heiligen Grals. Wenn Sie sich diesem Willen und diesem Grund unterwerfen, dann antworten Sie!

    Ein Eid soll hier geschworen werden! Ich werde über alle Tugenden des Himmels herrschen. Ich werde über alle Übel der Hölle herrschen!

    Aus dem siebten Himmel, erfüllt von drei großen Worten der Macht, komm aus dem Ring der Zurückhaltung, Beschützer der Gleichgewicht!

    All at once, the wind ceased, and the light faded. With deafening silence the ritual was complete, and the darkness of the chamber took a form. It was the black giant who would serve the girl; would protect her; would slaughter at her command.

    Across the world, beneath the earth of Fuyuki, the Greater Grail began to stir. The lesser grails felt its call, the harmony of their purpose tugging at their souls.

    The worm beneath Matou Sakura's skin grew hungry. To feed the new emptiness within her, it would need more prana, and quickly.
    ~~~

    November, 2002


    As Shinji watched his custom-designed summoning circle fizzle out for the fourteenth time he began to get discouraged. Many of the evocations of Neptunus he'd been taught used ice or low temperatures for their techniques, so he'd reasoned it would be simple enough to invert the process and call on Neptunus to create fire and heat. So far, though, all his attempts had yielded no results, and he was starting to think that rather than fine-tuning the application of sigils, he needed to scrap the whole idea and start over.


    Just then, he heard the rapping of his grandfather's cane on the boards behind him. Shinji hated the way Zouken simply materialized with nothing to announce his presence, especially when he did so in the study, Shinji's sanctum sanctorum. For his grandfather to not only silently appear directly behind Shinji, but then get his attention by tapping the cane against the floor was simply infuriating. The old man was an absolute force in Shinji's life, though, and seemed to take an active pleasure in giving him discomfort.


    "How can I help you, Grandfather?" Shinji asked with feigned subservience. As was his habit, Zouken prefaced his reply with a dry, papery chuckle. "I have a special surprise for you tonight, boy. Why don't you come down to my workshop."


    Shinji couldn't suppress the shudder that ran through him. The last time he'd been invited to see a "special surprise" in the worm room it had been the true nature of Sakura's "training". He did not relish the prospect of a return. Still, he knew the consequences of disobeying his grandfather would be worse yet. He got up from his desk, leaving his notes open behind him, and made to follow the old man.


    Zouken's workshop, derisively referred to in Shinji's mind as the Worm Room, was just as horrid as he remembered it. The stairwell from the house exited onto a wide balcony, and it was under this balcony that the alcoves, serving as the homes of Zouken's numberless horde of familiars, began. From the balcony one could look down and survey the entire hideous expanse of the Matou workshop. The area was a cavernous hall, at least half as large as the entire house above it. The size of the area did nothing to freshen the air, however. The blood and death that had gone on in this room for so many years had sunk deeply into the stone, and the place carried the overwhelming stench of decay, mixed with the equally putrid smell of the worms' excrescence.


    Carved from solid limestone, the room felt more like a cavern than a civilized place; and yet the design was hideously baroque. The alcoves dug into the lower walls were the approximate size and shape of coffins, giving the impression that the hall had once been a mausoleum. Between the innumerable alcoves were frescoes of pillars supported by capering satyrs, glaring devils, and other, less identifiable beasts. Even the floor had been carved into the shape of tiles, in a hideous mockery of a Roman bath.


    In the center of the lowest level stood an altar, carved in the same pointlessly intricate style as the rest of Zouken's temple of self-worship. It rose just high enough to elevate the person who lay upon it above the seething mass of worms that usually lay four feet deep at the base of the room. It was here that generations of Matou magi had been sacrificed to Zouken's familiars, giving their flesh, bones, and their very souls to his gruesome arts of longevity, and that altar bore all their accumulated hatred, resentment, and despair. It was a mystery to Shinji why the curses that had accrued on that slab didn't leap forth and destroy Zouken where he stood.


    Today the lowest level was empty of Zouken's familiars. They crowded in their alcoves, unneeded for the current ritual. The slab was occupied, however. Sakura lay there, flushed and breathing heavily. Even from above, Shinji could see the sweat standing out on her brow, and almost rushed to her unconsciously. As he had years before, however, Zouken restrained him. With a word, this time.

    "Look there, boy. Take a good, clear look at your sister. You can see she's unwell, I'm sure. But can you see anything else wrong with her? Anything that might remind you of Kariya?" Shinji had to admit that he didn't. At this, Zouken's malevolent smirk widened a bit. "No, it's quite invisible. Nevertheless, there is another component to Sakura's training as the Matou heir which I have kept from you. In addition to having those larger familiars swarm over the surface of her being, as you've seen, there is another creation of mine which dwells within her. It may be my finest work; I speak of the Crest Worm, the magical crest of the Matou family. You see, unlike other families which pass a single crest down painfully from father to son upon the death of the father, we Matou have a biological crest. The Worm bears a single heir, just as the family does, and it passes to the Matou heir when the inheritor is still a child. It grows with the child, wrapping itself around veins, nerves, and the body's other essentials. Despite its incredible length, however, it is quite thin. Thinner than one of your hairs, in fact. As you can see, it's impossible to perceive anything beneath the surface of her body. Not like with that fool Kariya. With him I had to use defective worms, fat, short, and great in number, if he was going to manage a servant. All because he was too idiotic to accept his role when he was younger. You could see them wriggling through him all the time, you know. Quite a disappointment. The true Crest Worm almost never moves, because it has grown throughout the body by now. It's almost more like a plant than the other familiars I raise."


    As Zouken droned on with his explanation of the horrific violation he'd inflicted on Sakura, Shinji's rage mounted. He'd always thought it was just a matter of the worm treatments she underwent here, and that if he could only get her away from the old man it would be enough to save her. Now he knew the truth. Zouken had tainted the very depths of Sakura's body with his parasites, and unless Shinji could find a truly unparalleled genius in the arts of spiritual surgery it would be quite impossible to free her completely from the magic of Matou.

    Zouken noticed as Shinji began sinking into the red haze of his rage, and sharply jabbed the point of his cane into the boy's foot. He still had more to say, and couldn't have Shinji getting lost in idiotic revenge fantasies.


    "Are you listening, boy? You really aren't looking at this the right way, you know. After all, once I die you, the son of Matou, may end up commanding these familiars. I told you the crest worm is wrapped around Sakura's nerves. With its power, everything she feels would be yours to control. I'm sure that's an exciting prospect for you." Shinji flushed, in mixed embarrassment and anger, but gave no other reply. His expression elicited an unusually vigorous chuckle from Zouken as he anticipated the results of this chat with cruel glee.

    "You know, there was a time when I was quite worried that my grandchildren wouldn't be able to get along, what with one of you being adopted. The thought that a seed of resentment might grow between you concerned me. After all, you both have what the other lacks; you have freedom, and Sakura has talent!" At this poor jibe, an actual laugh broke from Zouken's throat: a single rattling "Ha!" like the croak of a crow. "But I'm glad to see you two have grown so close," he continued explaining, "as it makes this situation much easier for all involved. You see, the Crest Worm feeds on prana; od, to be precise. Mana won't do for it. Up until now, it has fed only on Sakura's od, but it has now grown to the point where it isn't enough. The symptoms you can see down there are the result of a deficiency in the od necessary to power her bodily functions properly. If she doesn't receive supplemental od within a few weeks she'll simply break down and die."

    The light of understanding dawned in Shinji's eyes. "So you want me to give her that od, since I have magic circuits now, right? How do I transfer it?" Shinji would do anything he needed to in order to help Sakura, and the words poured out of his mouth with no consideration of consequence.

    Zouken's smile now widened even further, and the fear started to creep back into Shinji's heart as he saw the expression. "Quick study, boy. That's the one way you surpass your father and uncle, I suppose. It's simple, really. You just need to pour the od into her in physical form. The crest worm will process it and do the rest. Now, a male magus has two bodily fluids that are laced with od: blood and semen. Since Sakura doesn't have the necessary physiology to absorb prana from human blood, well… You'll just have to give her treatment to her in bed, as it were. I believe your health classes at that mundane school you go to have covered the reproductive act by now, so it shouldn't be much trouble. Her condition will make sure she enjoys it thoroughly no matter how incompetent you are, so you needn't worry about that." As if to punctuate this last point, Zouken prodded Shinji in the gut with the nob of his cane. Shinji, looking thunderstruck, made no response.

    Continuing his instructions, Zouken explained that Sakura's treatment would have to be performed once every three weeks now, but that timing would vary as the worm grew or if she used her od for other things. He cautioned Shinji not to perform the "treatment" in his workshop, as it would likely rouse the worms in their alcoves and give Shinji an exceedingly gruesome death. He warned Shinji that he had 24 hours to give Sakura od before her depletion would start doing permanent damage. Then, seeing that he wouldn't be getting any more entertaining reactions from Shinji through the boy's fog of shock, he started heading back upstairs. As he ascended, he turned back to leave a final comment behind him. "By the way, I suggest you make yourself some dinner beforehand. You'll need the energy."

    Eventually Shinji collected his resolve and carried Sakura up to let her rest in a proper bed. Then he went and made himself a proper dinner, as per his grandfather's instructions.
    ~~~

    Later that night, Shinji returned to Sakura's bedroom and sat down on the bed, staring at her flushed complexion. Not for the first time, he was struck by the beauty in her fragility; like an exotic hothouse flower, meant only for the most perfectly maintained environment, it seemed a horror that anything should be less than perfect for her.

    She woke at his presence; her eyes were clouded with tears and fever, but Zouken must have explained the situation to her, because she reached for his hand and said "Please… Nii-san, I'll be alright if it's you. I don't mind… with you…" Trailing off, she gave a low whimper of pain. "I'm sorry you have to do this. Please help me, Nii-san." She looked up at him, teary eyes full of pleading, and he could hold back no longer. Desire overwhelmed Shinji, and he sank into her eyes. He kissed her, embraced her, and soon they were together completely.

    Physically, what they did that first night was clumsy and forced. Neither of them had experience, and they had no real knowledge of timing or position. Emotionally, however, it brought a kind of intimacy that they had never before experienced. In the face of the cruelty inflicted on them, the two melted into one another, drew strength from each other, and their hearts found comfort despite Zouken's machinations. For Sakura, the act seemed to create a bond with Shinji to stand in for the blood relation they lacked, and took a secret pleasure in that new bond. As they lay together afterward, wrapped in darkness and each other's arms, she felt as if she could almost forget the self-loathing that otherwise consumed her. Later still she would be overcome with guilt, and would shed secret tears alone at the thought of Shinji laying with a contaminated thing such as herself. As the pain faded from her, though, in the black moments before sleep stole over her, she was very nearly at peace.
    ~~~

    Author's Note: And that is that! This chapter has had a lot of the major early moments I've been looking forward to writing, so I hope I did a decent job. Sorry there wasn’t any magical progress this chapter, but there's a fair bit to cover in Shinji's time in high school before the Holy Grail War starts, and I wanted to keep that all in one chapter.

    Review answer time!

    Cinder, Shinji was eleven when he went to Russia. When he comes home, he's thirteen and Sakura is twelve. Since Japanese junior high starts at age twelve, Shinji transfers in during the second year. That's why he gets the "mysterious transfer student" treatment. Regarding ages in general, although the original VN never directly states anyone's age I'm working with the idea that Shirou, Rin, and Shinji are seventeen during the Fifth Holy Grail War. This is because they're in their second-to-last year of high school in Fate/Stay Night. As for Sakura's prana output, it says in the VN that her basic talent is the same as Rin's. Since her od is being consumed by the Crest Worm, though, it doesn't really matter. Illya is a mystery!


    Gura Kruor, I know I promised I'd explain the Ether affinity and Pure Eyes in this section, but I'm just not ready to yet. That said, I'm currently working on a new segment called "Shinji's Notes" that will have excerpts from Shinji's notebook explaining all kinds of magical rules. Think of it like the status screen in the original Fate/Stay Night VN.

  7. #7
    屍食鬼 Ghoul Mr. Lactose's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jul 2018
    Location
    California
    Age
    22
    Gender
    Male
    Posts
    17
    Author's Note: Long time no see! After two weeks of being unable to write due to overtime at work I've finally managed to get the next chapter posted. I also ended up editing chapter three, removing the parts I had used for an ending, and expanding them into the beginning of this chapter. I wanted to go into more detail on Shinji's time in high school here, and I also think what I have for Chapter 3 now is a better end point emotionally than what I had before. Don't worry, though, this chapter isn't all just redone events that I previously glossed over! At least 2/3 of it is actual continuation. Without further ado, please enjoy chapter five of Rejuvenation of a Bloodline: The Call of Fate!
    ~~~

    Chapter Four – The Call of Fate

    May, 2002

    Blades in the darkness

    A violet serpent flowing through the night, all elegant speed and untrammeled grace

    Blunt force

    A silver gleam

    A flash of light

    A burst of wind

    The sound of steel, snapping like cheap plastic

    Death, brutal and unavoidable, rushing forward in searing light-

    Shinji woke covered in a cold sweat. It was the same dream he'd been having for years, but it terrified him no less for its familiarity. He had the feeling it was getting less clear, though. He could remember that when he'd been a child the dream had been all solid figures and specific images. Now it was all vague, hyperreal impressions, like a blurry painting that only becomes clear when you stand well back.

    Shinji was sure of two things, though. First, that he was dreaming of a Grail War. The figures fighting moved too quickly to be human. Second, he was seeing a vision of real events. Shinji'd been having the dream since before he'd known about magic, so he was certain it wasn't simply the product of his imagination. He also knew it wasn't a memory of Kariya's, since he had his uncle's notes on the Fourth Holy Grail War. That meant Shinji was dreaming an ancestral memory, seeing the last moments of one of his own forefathers who'd fought in the First, Second, or Third Holy Grail War, the wars Zouken had forbidden Shinji from reading the records of. Shinji couldn't help feeling sorry for the man, and had to suppress a shudder as he thought of that terrible, all-consuming light.

    As Shinji lay in bed, feeling the sweat soak into his sheets, he tried to recall all the details of the dream. If only he could unlock the secrets of his predecessor he was sure it would help him in his own Holy Grail War, far in the future when he was a true magus free of Zouken's clutches. It was no use. Try as he might, Shinji could remember no more than the powerful sensory impressions of battle.

    Ah, well. Dream or no dream, Shinji couldn't lie in bed all day. Today was, after all, the entrance ceremony for his first year of high school. He couldn't show up still groggy for his first meeting with his rival since the end of school last year!
    ~~~

    After a hearty workout and his usual breakfast with Sakura, Shinji broke from his morning routine for almost the first time since his return to Japan. He wasn't walking to school with Sakura this morning, as he was headed to Homurahara Academy alone. Without his sister by his side, Shinji couldn't help but think his mornings would be missing something important for the next year. He had no doubt she'd follow him to Homurahara in 2003, though, and then things would return to their natural order.

    As he walked up the hill leading from the manor district toward Homurahara, Shinji admired the lovely spring weather and thought on how things had gone in junior high. It had certainly been a different kind of educational experience from his lonesome tutelage in Prozorovsky's forest home.
    ~~~

    The combination of his naturally fine features and the effects of his surgery had given Shinji a truly ethereal countenance. With white hair, ice-blue eyes, and a page-white complexion, Shinji's appearance called to mind glaciers floating in an icy sea. It was hardly a wonder people at school called him "The Ice Prince".

    Shinji's legend among his fellow students hadn't stopped there, though. Ever since his first confrontation with Tohsaka had shown the other students a new, passionate side of the "School Madonna", rumors about them had been constant. She was the only person to catch his interest through his icy exterior, and he was the only one who could ignite the burning emotion within her! They were tied together by fate as enemies and soulmates, like the dragon and the phoenix! That sort of thing.

    Nor was fame limited to Shinji and Tohsaka. As a close friend to the supposed prince, chivalrous helper of those in need, and hot-blooded athlete, Emiya Shirou also developed a nickname. He was dubbed "The Prince's Knight," a faithful and devoted bodyguard dedicated to ensuring his frail master survived the trials of young life.

    Yes, Shinji's schoolmates spun a merry mythology around him. Shinji himself didn't know all the details, as the other students usually tried to keep quiet around the objects of their fantasies, but ye'd heard enough to get a general idea. It irked him to no end that, hard as he worked to surpass Tohsaka at every turn, the rest of the school had disregarded his obvious superiority and seemed to view them as equals. In his heart, Shinji vowed that in high school he'd prove himself the undisputed victor.

    One person who mysteriously escaped a role in the imaginary court of Matou Shinji was his sister. She was so unenthusiastic, distant, and silent that people simply tended to ignore her. When the students thought of her at all, it was only as "Matou's sister". That they can have failed to notice the one person who really did dominate Shinji's fate could certainly be viewed as a judgement on the worth of rumor.
    ~~~

    As Shinji was reminiscing on the way his junior high school career had developed, he arrived at the front gates of Homurahara almost without noticing it. He quickly noticed one more thing: the grounds were almost devoid of students. Lost in his thoughts, Shinji had taken a rather leisurely pace on his way to the school, and he now discovered he would be late for the opening address from the principal if he didn't hurry.

    Fortunately, Shinji was able to rush over to the gymnasium in time to crowd in with the rest of the students, having noted his class assignment on the board as he passed. He'd barely avoided besmirching his perfect record with lateness, but noted with frustration that Tohsaka was several rows ahead of him in line. She moved with serene grace, followed closely by the troop of friends and minions she'd gathered to herself, but Shinji could see the self-satisfied smirk lying underneath as she saw he'd barely made it. Shinji mentally bookmarked this as one more indignity heaped on a Matou by a Tohsaka, to be repaid in kind when the time came.

    Finally all of the students made it to their seats, and the principal began his droning speech about their duty as the future of Japan. After he finished there was a noticeable stir among the students as the freshman speaker came up to the podium. He was a student with sharp features, perfectly trimmed black hair, glasses, and a stern expression on his face, radiating his disappointment at his fellow students' lack of interest in the words of their administrator. This was Ryuudou Issei, the last of the four famous students in Shinji's year.

    Unlike Tohsaka and Emiya, Ryuudou's fame was quite disconnected from Shinji's legend. He had been well known even before junior high for being the heir to Ryuudou Temple, and his fame had been cemented by three consecutive terms as student council president, as well as by his consummate manifestation of both these roles. During junior high he had racked up such titles as "Iron Minister" and "Unshakable Bureaucrat," in stark contrast to the more fanciful names given to the other three. Still, there had been no one at their school who hadn't respected Ryuudou Issei, and it was assumed he'd be a shoo-in for student council president at Homurahara as well.

    All his praiseworthy qualities did nothing to make Ryuudou's speeches resonate with the common student, though. He managed to inject quite a bit more youthful passion and righteousness into his words, but in content his speech was quite similar to the principal's. He spoke at length about the gratitude the freshmen felt towards previous generations of Homurahara students for welcoming then into their ranks, the duty they bore towards future generations to be upstanding students and citizens, and similar topics. Homurahara's students, new and old alike were torn between being impressed at Ryuudou's charisma and oratorical skill in delivering such a boring speech so well and boredom at the speech itself.
    ~~~

    Shinji in particular sought any other item of interest to distract him. He didn't see a duty to anyone but Sakura and himself, after all. As he was casting his eyes around the room he caught sight of the one person totally riveted by Ryuudou's pedestrian message. It was Shinji's old friend Emiya, seeking the just path as always. He sat ramrod-straight, staring right up at Ryuudou with a clear and undisturbed gaze. It was the same gaze he would soon be giving the targets on the archery range, although Shinji wouldn't discover that for a few weeks. Even from a few seats away, it was obvious to Shinji that Emiya was carefully taking in Ryuudou's words and measuring them against his internal barometer of "justice", seeing if they matched up with his goal of becoming a hero. From the intensity of his gaze, it seemed they were at least acceptable.

    Shinji mused on Emiya's strange ideals as Ryuudou continued to lecture the assembled students on the discipline and dedication necessary in academics. Shinji had been hanging out with Emiya for long enough now to know that he was serious about the pursuit of heroism, not just an overly enthusiastic kid. He actually valued the life of any random stranger on the street more than his own. Although this made him a convenient friend for the ever-selfish Shinji, he had tried at length to talk Emiya out of the ridiculous idea. Or had been like talking to a wall, and the most Shinji had been able to do was convince Emiya to focus on the immediately possible rather than the impossible. That was why Emiya had started going around helping anyone who needed it, earning his chivalrous reputation.

    The impossibility of convincing Emiya to drop his absurd goal was so frustrating that Shinji had almost simply cut him off, telling him "good luck" and leaving it at that. Only the presence of Shinji's own impossible goal, saving Sakura from Zouken's machinations, changed his mind. After all, if he could help this normal person pursue his ideal, wouldn't that be kind of a good luck charm? Besides, even someone as dedicated to magecraft as Shinji needed at least one normal friend to do normal things with. So Shinji decided that he was just using Emiya as a tool to relax and take his mind off his problems. He certainly wasn't feeling anything like friendship towards such a ridiculously foolish non-magus. That would be ridiculous. For that reason, the rumor about Emiya's status as Shinji's "knight" irritated him even more than the rest. It made him so angry, in fact, that he flushed red whenever he overheard people discussing it.

    Eventually the tiresome lecture from Ryuudou came to an end, followed by an even less interesting speech from the senior representative. The students were led out to their classes by their new homeroom teachers. Once they arrived, Shinji fell into despair anew. He recognized just one person sharing his class (although everyone knew him). It was Tohsaka, who looked about as irritated as he felt. Shinji had noted his class as he came into the school, of course, using it to find his place in the seating arrangement for the orientation speech. He'd also noticed that he was uncomfortably close to his enemy during the speeches. Somehow, though, his brain had clung to false hope and spared him the horrible truth until now.

    To make matters worse, his seat was immediately to her left. They were next to each other. As he took his seat, Shinji felt the envious stares of his male classmates boring into him as they lamented the good fortune of the "prince". Rather than elation, though, Shinji had to suppress an involuntary shudder of revulsion at the proximity of his mortal foe.

    Summoning up a smile with all the friendly cordiality of a glacier, Shinji turned to Tohsaka and said, "How lovely to see you again, Tohsaka-san. I missed you at the orientation speeches, but I'm glad to see now that you also had no trouble entering Homurahara Academy."

    Homurahara had rigorous academic standards, but was by no means one of Japan's most difficult high schools to enter. At the level of study the pair maintained, this was nothing more than a veiled insult. Tohsaka returned Shinji's smile, radiating friendliness far better than he had. If not for the vein bulging in her forehead, it would have seemed like a smile of truly angelic warmth.

    "Thank you, Matou-kun. I suppose you mustn't have noticed many of the other students on your way in, since you were in such a hurry to get to the orientation in time. I hope this doesn't set a new precedent for your attendance."
    Expertly targeting Shinji's morning failing, Tohsaka had given him a perfect riposte. The damage of their seating had been mutual, though, and neither student could stomach further "pleasantries". Fortunately, class began in time to put an end to the conversation.

    When lunch came around, Shinji quickly stood and headed for the roof. Although he'd always eaten in class before, he didn't think he could sustain an appetite if he tried to eat next to Tohsaka. Besides that, he hated the swarming crowds and unpleasant noise of the cafeteria and school store. The only place he could relax and enjoy Sakura's cooking would be the roof.

    When he arrived, however, he got a terrible surprise. Somehow Tohsaka had beaten him there. A look of pure hatred passed between the two as they realized they'd followed the same train of thought. Still, both were too stubborn to give up on their chosen place to eat. To retreat before the hated foe would be an irreparable blow to one's honor.

    That was how, despite their mutual distaste, Matou Shinji and Tohsaka Rin ended up eating lunch alone together on the roof, sitting across from one another.

    At first, as Shinji sat down and resolved to eat, Tohsaka refused to look at him. She seemed to have decided that if she couldn't make him leave she could at least pretend he wasn't there.

    Then he unwrapped his lunch. Sakura had insisted that his entrance into high school was a special occasion, and had prepared a gorgeous multi-tiered deluxe lunchbox. Shinji had no idea when she'd managed to buy the ingredients or cook it, since she'd sprung it on him that morning as a surprise, but whenever she'd managed to make it the thing was a work of art.

    Tohsaka had brought a convenience-store bento, and couldn't disguise her shock as Shinji began to eat.
    "Matou-kun, aren't you overdoing it a bit? For something as simple as school lunch, that seems like a bit much. Especially since you aren't in any of the sporting clubs."

    Although Tohsaka had intended this to come across as condescending and disdainful, she wasn't quite able to keep the jealousy from her voice, giving Shinji his chance.

    "I'm surprised, Tohsaka-san," he replied, pushing as much false concern as he could into his voice, "at the thought of this as overdoing it. If you don't eat this kind of food, could it be that your finances aren't what I thought they were? If you haven't had the chance, I suppose I could spare some for a less fortunate student."

    Glaring daggers at Shinji, Tohsaka responded, "Unlike some people, the Tohsaka family has always believed in conserving our wealth, and spending it on worthy things. If you're so eager to fritter away your family fortune on daily meals, I pity your descendants."

    By this time, both students had managed to strike a nerve, and they lapsed into irritable silence as they finished. With less to eat, Tohsaka completed her lunch quickly and headed down to class. Shinji, on the other hand, stayed on the roof for a while longer, admiring the view of the trees on the school grounds. Homurahara's ornamental cherries were far more impressive than those of Miyama-cho Junior High, and in the light spring breeze the petals drifted down like snow. Shinji would certainly look forward to walking through that flower-strewn path next spring, when Sakura would be by his side.
    ~~~

    January, 2004

    Shinji's first two years at Homurahara Academy had meant less in the way of change from his junior high daily life than he'd hoped. His academic rivals, Tohsaka Rin and Ryuudou Issei had both gotten into the same school, and in his second year he even shared his class with Emiya and Ryuudou! The only modest blessing in placement was that he hadn't been forced to share classes with Tohsaka and Ryuudou in the same year, but there was always the third year to wait for. More frustrating than the lack of new faces was the fact that the student body's obsession with Tohsaka and himself had only grown over the years. A number of individuals, presumably insane, had even proclaimed them to be dating! This rumor had shadowy origins, but there were a few key moments students tended to point to as evidence. First, that Tohsaka had been the first person Shinji had actively pursued conversation with at school. Second was an event in which, a week before the final round of testing for the first year, the two rivals had been the last two students to leave the school on several occasions. The fact that they spent this supposedly intimate time furiously studying at opposite ends of the school library had gone undocumented. Lastly, there was the fact that during their first year Matou Shinji and Tohsaka Rin had been frequently seen travelling separately to the roof, but eating there alone with each other. In an absurd cycle of mistakes and mistiming, each of the two had refused to eat in the classroom with one another, been confronted on the roof, decided to find some other place to eat the next day, and then returned to the roof after deciding it was safe. Their minds simply ran too closely when it came to matters of school.

    This comical lunchtime habit had come to an end in Shinji's second year, when Sakura had quietly insisted that he should eat lunch in the archery club with her and Emiya, despite the fact that Shinji was not a member of the club. Shinji had introduced Emiya to his sister during his first year of high school in the hopes of diminishing her irritation when he and Emiya hung out. Sakura had never warmed to Emiya, however, apparently seeing him as something of an intruder. After entering Homurahara, Sakura had even gone so far as to enter the archery club, of which Emiya was the captain, and openly antagonized him; at least to the degree that Sakura could stand to oppose anyone, which seemed fairly low-level. Shinji couldn't decide whether to be happy that Sakura had finally developed some ability to talk to people other than himself or concerned for the future of his well-meaning friend. In any case, her proximity to Emiya as a club member enabled Sakura to keep a much closer eye on the two; there was rarely a time any more when Shinji and Emiya spent time together without Sakura present.

    Of further concern to Shinji was Sakura's reaction to the rumors about him and Tohsaka. Whereas she flared up to defend her time with her brother from his interloping friend, when it came to her biological sister Sakura simply shut down. She never revealed any resentment of Tohsaka to Shinji, and once went out of her way to tell him that she wouldn't stand in his way if he wanted to be with Tohsaka. Shinji had been horrified by the idea, but more importantly he'd seen the grief she attempted to hide as she forced herself to say it. He hadn't left her side that night, and had whispered comforting words to her until he was certain she'd never put any more stock in the rumors. Even after that, though, Sakura would freeze up whenever she heard people talking about the Ice Prince and Academy Madonna in school.

    All things considered, aside from the shift in the care he provided for Sakura's condition, the changes in Shinji's life since entering high school had been relatively minor, and had acted to push him away from the mindset of a magus. He'd fallen into the rhythm of a mundane life, and although he continued to further his thaumaturgical knowledge in his spare time his existence as a magus had begun to fade into the background instead of occupying the forefront of his mind at all times. After all, the greatest test of magical skill Shinji would ever face would be the Fifth Holy Grail War, and that wouldn't be happening until 2054. Even someone as dedicated as Shinji could relax with that much buffer time.

    New Year's Day put an abrupt end to this relaxation, however. As Shinji was relaxing with his sigils after taking Sakura on the year's first shrine visit, he once again heard the distinctive rapping of a cane behind him. It was the first time in almost a year. Since he'd explained the shift in Sakura's condition to Shinji, Zouken had spent more and more time shut in his bedroom or workshop, sealed off completely. Shinji had wondered on occasion if Sakura had reached some kind of point in Zouken's treatment wherein her condition would progress on its own, not requiring Zouken's intervention.

    He was here now, though, and the fact that he'd appeared silently in Shinji's study told the young magus the matter was important. Shinji spun to see what new horror had urged Zouken to visit him in daylight, and found the old man's face a stone mask of austerity, making a stark contrast from the usual sadistic amusement that creased his face when he had news for Shinji.

    "It's time, boy. This grail war is beginning early, likely as an effect of the anomaly at the end of the ritual ten years ago. Berserker, Caster, and Lancer have already been summoned. You have two weeks to gather your knowledge and supplies and complete your own summoning for the Matou family. I know you've read enough about the past wars in our library to complete the ritual summoning without my help. I'll remind you of one more thing, boy. If you win the Holy Grail War for us you can change everything. Become the heir, free your sister, and of course you'll be bringing us the ancient goal of our family. Matou Shinji, for centuries your forefathers have tried and failed to achieve the Third Sorcery and attain true immortality. Don't join their number."

    At this last line, Zouken's eyes seemed to flare like burning coals. Then, without giving Shinji time to respond, he spun on his heels and left. Once Zouken left the light of the study and entered the shadows of the corridor, Shinji didn't hear the rapping of his cane on the stairs. There was only the chittering of the insects to mark Zouken's disappearance.

    For the next fourteen days, Shinji worked furiously. He combed through every page of his uncle's notes on the fourth Holy Grail War, although they were infuriatingly spotty. He would devote pages on end to describing the ridiculous shining power of Tohsaka's servant and then completely gloss over the means the Einzberns used to destroy the El-Melloi workshop! How had it happened? Kariya hadn't been around to see. The man hadn't even bothered to jot down the name of the freelance magus working as the Einzberns' master, just calling him "that gunman" or "the mercenary". Fortunately Shinji was able to get more use out of the formal writings by previous masters of Matou in the family library. These chronicled every detail of the binding of the servants and the function of their command spells, as well as having detailed instructions for the summoning ritual itself, as well as its permutations. There were also familial records of the first three Holy Grail Wars that more resembled grimoires than the beaten journal his uncle had kept, but Zouken had repeated on multiple occasions that Shinji was never to read those.

    Shinji couldn't summon Berserker to compensate for his own low number of circuits, as his father had; nor could he count on a catalyst to bring him a powerful servant. Zouken had vanished after informing Shinji of the Grail War, and he hadn't seen the old man since. Without the aid of Zouken and the family finances, there was no chance of Shinji getting ahold of an archeological relic of significant enough importance to be a catalyst.

    Fortunately, there was a second option when it came to summoning servants. With no catalyst dominating the ritual, it would naturally call forth a servant with a personality similar to that of the master. Shinji was confident that his personality was well-suited to be a hero of the highest caliber, and so was sure that even without a catalyst he'd be able to bring forth a servant that would be able to easily win the Holy Grail War. Hell, he might even summon Saber, agreed upon by all his predecessors to be the strongest class of servant.
    ~~~

    The fateful night came for Shinji. January 14th; he'd pushed his two weeks of grace time to its limits, using every spare moment for preparation, but he was finally ready to conduct the summoning perfectly. He'd disdained the Worm Room as a location of summoning. Even if he hadn't hated the place already, it had borne witness to the summoning of four losing servants. Even the slightest modification of fortune could shift the will of the Grail in selecting his servant, and he wanted to be sure he avoided the energy of weakness that had collected there. Instead, Shinji would be conducting his summoning in an old gazebo in the forest on the outer boundary of the Matou estate. It was quite scenic, and more importantly seemed to have been forgotten and allowed to decay at some point in the home's long history. Whatever the reason, the gazebo was one of the few places on the Matou land that was quite free of Zouken's prana.

    Since he was using his own character as a catalyst, Shinji used a solution of mercury and his own blood to paint the summoning circle. Fortunately a properly laid out circle had very thin lines, so he hadn't needed to bleed himself dry. With the circle complete, reflecting the moonlight in its own mixed crimson and silver tint, Shinji began to pour his od into the circle and chant. He chanted in Russian, the language the first master of his lineage had used in the first Holy Grail War, and as the wind began to pick up and the circle began to glow independent of the moonlight, the following words rang out into the silence of the winter evening. The incantation he chanted was not the same as those of his predecessors, however. He incorporated elements of his own affinity, as well as elements of the Prozorovsky summoning incantations. With the incantation playing such a major role in the summoning, Shinji couldn't simple leave things up to the Matou ritual. He had to perform a ritual unique to Matou Shinji, and thereby ensure a perfectly matched hero.
    Заполнить. Закрывать. Заполнить. Закрывать. Заполнить. Закрывать. Заполнить. Закрывать. Заполнить. Закрывать. Заполнить. Закрывать. Заполнить. Закрывать.

    (Fill. Close. Fill. Close. Fill. Close. Fill. Close. Fill. Close. Fill. Close. Fill. Close.)

    Семь раз мертвые заполняют судно.

    (Seven times the dead shall fill the vessel.)

    В семь раз содержимое должно быть приложено моей привязкой.

    (Seven times the contents shall be enclosed by my binding.)

    Кислород и кровь должны быть сутью ритуала.

    (Quicksilver and blood shall be the ritual's essence.)

    Камень и Мистик Звезды станут основой ритуала.

    (Stone and the Stars' Mystic shall be the ritual's foundation.)

    Пусть великий мастер Рюрикъ, мой прародитель, станет надзирателем ритуала.

    (Let the great master Hrøríkr, my progenitor, be the ritual's overseer.)

    Я приказываю бушующим ветрам, чтобы они стали связующей стеной.

    (I command the raging winds, that they shall become a binding wall.)

    Я командую четырьмя кардинальными воротами, чтобы они были закрыты для всех, кто их пробовал.

    (I command the four cardinal gates, that they shall be shut to all who try them.)

    Я командую множеством маршрутов, которые они должны вести от универсальной короны.

    (I command the multifarious routes, that they shall lead hence from the universal crown.)

    Я приказываю троллейбусную дорогу царства, чтобы она вращалась и открывала путь отсюда.

    (I command the three-forked road of the kingdom, that it shall rotate and open the way hence.)

    Теперь я сделаю свое заявление. Ваше тело будет нести мою волю. Ваш клинок должен нести мою судьбу. Отвечая на призыв Святого Грааля, если вы подчиняетесь этой воле и этой причине ...

    (Now I make my declaration. Your body shall bear my will. Your blade shall bear my fate. Answering the call of the Holy Grail, if you will submit to this will and this reason…)

    Послушайте меня!

    (Hearken to me!)

    Здесь я клянусь! Я добьюсь всех добродетелей Десяти Сфер Небес. Я буду властвовать над всеми зол Девяти колец ада!

    (Here I swear my oath! I shall attain all the virtues of the Ten Spheres of Heaven. I shall have dominion over all the evils of the Nine Rings of Hell!)

    Из Царства Эмпирея, на котором присутствуют три великих слова власти, я призываю вас.

    (From the Empyrean Realm, attended to by three great words of power, I call you forth.)

    Теперь, соскользните с вашими узами и передо мной, герой прошлых лет!

    (Now, slip your bonds and come before me, hero of ages past!)

    The wind exploded outwards, nearly knocking Shinji back into the dirt. The light flared to a blinding white, Shinji threw his hands over his closed eyes to keep his sight. There was a deafening crack, as if of thunder. Then all faded, and in the aftermath of that terrible flash the night seemed to be pitch dark, moonless and starless.

    Still blinded, Shinji heard a voice in the night. It didn't strike him as the voice of a warrior, but that of a beautiful woman. Indeed, one so refined and ephemeral that one could recognize her beauty by ear alone. Her voice carried a soft harmony and melodic tone that reminded Shinji of the final strains of a violin concerto. After the roaring wind and thunderous crack that had come a moment before, this voice washed over Shinji's ears like a soothing balm.

    "Servant Rider has answered your call. Magus, please answer me this question. Are you the one who has called this blade forth across time's stormy gulf: my Master?"

    Before he could regain his sight, Shinji felt the pressure to respond as if it were a blade at his throat. This was the raw power of the Grail's summoning, detectable only by those with the most perfect awareness of Ether. It was a very different contract ritual from that which the Prozorovsky magi used; there the power was wheedling, always seeking to manifest that much more, or in whatever new way it could. Neptunus seemed to be constantly seeking to escape the bonds of its contract, and it was up to the summoner to ensure that it did not. In the Grail's summoning, however, the Master was as thoroughly bound by the power of the grail as the Servant. Shinji felt that if he didn't answer in moments, the power of the grail would crush him under sheer weight of prana, like a diver under too much water pressure. Still blind, Shinji answered that beautiful voice and fulfilled the first terms of the contract he had bound himself to ten years ago.

    "I am your Master," he replied, summoning up as much confidence as he could muster in his blinded and shocked state, "Servant Rider, I have called you forth to bring victory to the Matou in the upcoming Holy Grail War. Together, we will crush all those who challenge our right to the Grail without remorse."

    When Rider's own reply came it seemed oddly conflicted. As she said "As you command, Master. I will follow your orders and dispatch whomever I must," her voice sounded listless and mournful. And yet, when Shinji had spoken he'd felt a blast of killing intent from her, clearly not directed at him but at the unknown foe. Observing the odd combination, Shinji wondered if he hadn't summoned something like a Berserker after all.

    Then Shinji's eyesight cleared, and all thoughts of Rider's personality went out the window. Simply put, she was inhumanly beautiful. In her complexion and refinement of facial features, Rider reminded Shinji of the marble statues of feminine perfection that had been created by the ancient Romans and later Renaissance sculptors. Her eyes were limpid violet pools; almost the same shade, Shinji noticed, as Sakura's, albeit slightly darker. Her figure was a model of restraint; tall, without ungainliness; slim, without forsaking curves; feminine, without being so overly voluptuous as to mar the grace of her proportions. Shinji was again reminded of artistic production; she appeared as if some artisan of the era of Da Vinci had mathematically worked out the perfect proportions of a woman's body, and set out to prove his point in sculpture. More than her body or face, though, what really drew the eyes first was Rider's hair. Her hair had an almost celestial shine, clearly maintained by the immense quantities of od that saturated it; in color it was an odd pearlescent shade that shifted its appearance depending on the way the light caught it; here it was ice-blue, there it was opal-white, and over there it appeared a shining seafoam teal. The range of effects given by the moonlight were all on display, as it swept all the way down to her calves in a silken cascade, its shape somewhat reminiscent of wings.

    The overall effect of Rider's appearance was not so much that of a hero out of half-legendary history, but rather an angel descended from heaven. This was reinforced by the prominent motif of feathers on Rider's gauntlets and thigh-high armored boots. Despite the gleaming protection covering her limbs, Rider didn't wear body armor. Instead, she wore a short black dress, steel half-corset, and seafoam ribbon. The overall effect was oddly reminiscent of a black sailor uniform, although Shinji could hardly imagine comparing this radiant creature to the girls he'd seen wearing such outfits before. The whole assembly was completed by a blue-tinted silver hair ornament wrapped around the top of her head, resembling a cross between a laurel wreath and a pair of feathery wings.

    For the first time in several years, Shinji found himself completely at a loss for what to do. Free of his temporary blindness and the oppressive compulsion to complete his contract, his brain seemed to have slowed to a crawl. He felt like he could probably just stand there, drinking in the sight of his Servant, all night. If his bond with Sakura hadn't already been so deep, he would likely have fallen in love with the heroic spirit right then and there. Exacerbating the matter was the fact that Rider seemed totally content to passively wait for orders. Almost three minutes of their bizarre staring contest passed before they were interrupted by an irritated cough.

    Startled, Shinji spun around to see Sakura, wearing a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "So, Nii-san," she said, walking up to him, "I was wondering just what kind of ritual it could be that had you rushing off straight away after dinner. Imagine my surprise, discovering that you've summoned a Servant for the Holy Grail War. Discovering that you've hidden the start of the War from me, not confiding in your own sister about something that could send you marching off to your death. I wonder why you'd do something like that…"

    "Look, Sakura, I had planned-" Shinji was silenced by the hurt, teary-eyed look Sakura suddenly sent him. :I don''t care what you had planned," she almost cried, her emotions getting the best of her, "I care that you didn't tell me. That you would keep anything from me this important isn't just hurtful. It's frightening, too. What if you go out there and die? I couldn't go on alone with Grandfather, Nii-san." By the end of this outburst, Sakura had grabbed Shinji's shirt and was crying into his chest. By now, Shinji felt he had a pretty god idea of how to comfort her. As he made to embrace her, though, Sakura suddenly pushed off him and forced a smile back to her face, as if denying the emotions of a moment before.

    "Well, what are we waiting for? Aren't you going to introduce me to your Servant?"

    Shinji found himself taken aback at the sudden brightness in Sakura's tone. He'd never known her to recover so quickly from tears before, and had expected to spend the rest of the night comforting her. He reasoned she must be putting on a brave front for Rider's benefit.

    "Of course," he replied, still hesitant from his surprise at the shift in her manner. "Sakura, this is Rider, who I've summoned to bring us victory. With her summoning, only Assassin, Archer, and Saber remain not yet summoned. I'm sure the War will begin soon." As he ran through this introduction, Shinji regained his confident demeanor, and he held up his left hand to show Sakura his command spell. It looked a bit like a stylized rendering of a spearhead wrapped in spiraling chains, and the design left little of the original skin on his hand visible. He'd have to start wearing gloves to school, although considering his well-known frailty that would be unlikely to arouse much suspicion.

    Suddenly Shinji realized one important detail that had slipped by him in the excitement of the ritual. "Rider," he called, half-turning to look at the heroic spirit. She hadn't moved from where she'd been summoned, apparently not seeing the need. "What is your true name? I'll need to have an idea of your capabilities if we're to fight effectively."

    Rider levelled a calculating look at Shinji, considering whether he could keep the secret. After a few moments, she softly replied, "Very well, Master. I am Brynhildr, a Valkyrie fallen from grace. Please do not be too kind to me."

    Shinji couldn't hide his shock and excitement. He'd thought she looked like something more than human, but hadn't really dared to hope. To think he'd summoned a legendary Valkyrie! With a celestial being by his side, he doubted if any human hero could compete. He didn't know the legend of Brynhildr, but made a mental note to read up on her story. Her request seemed particularly odd; he'd be sure to look into whether she'd been betrayed by a benefactor, or something along those lines.

    As Shinji was running all this through his head, he neglected to respond to her introduction. Fortunately, Sakura was more conscientious. She gave a polite curtsy, and said, "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Brynhildr. I am Matou Sakura, your Master's younger sister. Please forgive my brother's poor manners."

    Taking the hint, Shinji fully turned to Brynhildr and gave a slight bow. "Matou Shinji, the fifth Master of Matou in the Holy Grail War. Pleased to meet you."

    Before they could discuss matters further, another idea suddenly shot into Shinji's mind. Now that he'd summoned his Servant, he needed to report to the administrator appointed by the Holy Church, Kotomine Kirei. Although Zouken had given Shinji no instructions on how to proceed, Kariya's journal and the older Matou books on the Grail War had both made it clear that this should be carried out without delay.

    Shinji returned his gaze to Sakura. "Before I'm done with tonight's preparations for the War, I have one more thing I need to take care of. I have to head to the Kotomine Parish Church and register there with the administrator of the Grail War, sent by the Holy Church. I'll have to head over there right now, since he probably detected it when I summoned Rider. Please wait here, and I'll be back soon." Then, turning to rider, "Fade into spirit form. We're heading through town in order to reach the parish and register there, and it'd be better not to have you attracting attention."

    Although Sakura opened her mouth to protest the evening's continued disruption, Shinji's expression made it clear that this had to be taken care of. She said, "Please hurry, Nii-san. Even with the War not yet started properly things could be dangerous," and watched him stride off towards the road.

    It was a long walk from the Matou house to the church in Miyama-cho, and as he walked Shinji consulted the information he'd received on Rider's abilities when he summoned her. She seemed to be a good all-around fighter, and although she specialized in agility she had no real weak points aside from her abysmal luck. Shinji wasn't sure how luck manifested in a Servant's combat abilities, but he hoped it didn't play a major role. For her part, Rider seemed content to silently follow him in spirit form, and seemed to have no interest in starting a conversation.

    Shinji couldn't just leave things quiet as they walked down the empty midnight streets, though. Using the silent communication available to Masters when the Servant was in their spirit form, he asked, What is your wish for the Grail, Rider? I'd like to know whether our goals are compatible. There was a period of silence that lasted long enough for Shinji to doubt the effectiveness of the thought-based communication, before he finally heard the soft, melodic tones of Rider's reply appearing directly in his head. In life, I lost what I desired thoroughly enough to no longer desire it. All I hope for in this War is to fulfill my duty by returning great warriors to the afterlife. Shinji's suspicion that Rider had experienced some kind of tragic betrayal was confirmed. Whatever had happened to make her cast away her desires, it was clearly a touchy subject. As Shinji was trying to decide whether pursuing the matter would help or hinder his war effort, they arrived at the Kotomine Parish. The wrought-iron gate to the grounds stood open, inviting lost souls no matter the time. Yet, as Shinji entered he couldn't help but remember the way Kariya's journal condemned this same Kotomine as a vile manipulator obsessed with the Einzberns' mercenary. An oppressive feeling of ominous danger settled on Shinji as he approached the chapel and pushed open the unlocked double doors.

    The church within was as silent as a crypt. It was not empty, however, but lit and occupied. Rejecting electric light, the room's decorators had placed numerous candelabra about the room. Each was filled with flickering white candles, suffusing the hall in an omnidirectional orange glow. The church's ceiling was too high for the candles' light to reach, however, and it faded away from Shinji's sight in smoky darkness. Despite the candles, long shadows dwelt also between the pews, as if their rows were filled with wraiths kneeling to pray. In the dim firelight, the church's white stone walls took on the impression of natural, rather than artificial stone, and for a moment Shinji had the impression that the place resembled perdition more than the celestial refuge it had been designed to represent. If Shinji had known that the Matou had once been parishioners of this church, until Zouken decided his long life would make for trouble in church records and renounced Christianity, his unease might have deepened still further.

    The sole occupant of the church was a tall priest, bent low over his notes and standing behind the lectern, as if making a few last-minute edits before the first attendants arrived for his sermon. He had long brown hair, and at Shinji's viewing angle it fell over his face in a curtain, giving the priest an impression of being veiled. At the sound of Shinji's entrance, however, he straightened, regarded the boy coolly, and greeted him.

    "How can I help you, young man? I don't recognize you from among my flock. Have you perhaps come for a sudden conversion?" Although the words Kotomine spoke were quite normal for a catholic priest greeting an unknown citizen visiting late at night, the tone of sardonic mockery underlying his baritone voice made it clear that the priest had thrown the greeting own more as a farcical gesture than an honest question.

    Hearing that voice and seeing the smirk playing across the man's lips confirmed the matter of the priest's identity for Shinji. This could be no one but Kotomine Kirei. "Good evening, Father Kotomine," he said, nodding his head in a shallow bow. "I've come to formally announce myself as the representative of Matou in this Fifth Holy Grail War." When Kotomine made no move to respond, Shinji held up his left hand. "As you can see, I have been selected by the grail. I summoned a Servant this evening, and as the magus representing one of the Founding Three Families I thought it would be appropriate to see you immediately." With that he turned to leave, but was stopped by Kotomine's words.

    "I had heard," Kotomine announced, "that the Matou blood had faded, and the only biological son of the Matou was born a useless thing with no magic circuits. How can it be that you, self-proclaimed Matou magus, are able to support a Servant despite your thoroughly manifest deficiencies?" As the priest heaped insults on Shinji, his smile widened from a barely perceptible curve into a truly condescending smirk. Each of his barbs had struck home, and Kotomine was plainly enjoying it.

    As he was lambasted, Shinji found that anger was seething and boiling up from the pit to fill his mind. How dare this unknown priest, barely a magus himself, belittle Shinji and ignore all the work he'd done to overcome his condition at birth? How dare he make light of the constant struggle Shinji went through in order to stand on an equal playing field with his fellow magi? Shinji knew that he was playing into the man's hands, probably giving him just the reaction he was looking for, but it didn't matter. Shinji turned back to the lectern and fixed his eyes on Kirei's, ice-blue meeting ash-brown. In a low, fury-soaked voice, he said, "Clearly your sources of information are deficient. I will warn you, Kotomine, not to try to manipulate the War as you and your father did ten years ago. You speak from a position of protective neutrality now, but if you step out of it I will crush you without reserve. Take care not to be swayed by my uncle's example into underestimating the Matou. We will not go down in disgrace again." Disregarding Kotomine's unfazed smirk and trying to ignore the chuckle escaping his lips, Shinji spun on his heel and stormed out of the vile church. He had attempted to make an impression of danger on the war's administrator, but it had apparently failed. All he could do now was resolve not to return until the time came to claim the Grail.

    As he walked out of the churchyard, Shinji faded into himself and began planning for the upcoming conflict. Once he knew all seven servants had been summoned, he'd begin with Tohsaka. He knew she'd be chosen as a Master, but since it was known in the magical community that the Matou line had faded he could safely bet she wouldn't suspect him until it was too late. Rider's prodigious speed meant that an ambush should be easily achievable. Before he could begin fleshing out the details of his plot, however, Rider suddenly materialized in front of him. "Master," she began, "there is an enemy quickly approaching-"

    Then she was cut off by the clash of steel on steel, as she deflected a crimson lance with her own polearm. It was Shinji's first time seeing his Servant's weapon, and he marveled at the ease with which she moved the seemingly impractical thing. It had the length of a lance, but in place of a spearhead there was a massive heart-shaped blade, wide as a battle-axe and as long as an arming sword. The thing was thick, too, and had to be enormously heavy. Strangest of all was its composition, seemingly made of an unidentifiable metal. Although it had the shine of finely honed steel, the blade was a deep violet in color, again reminding Shinji of Sakura's eyes. Despite the polearm's great weight and ridiculously lopsided balance, Rider had swung it fully around herself, pivoting the haft on her center of gravity so that the blade traced an arc around her, to deflect a straight thrust coming from what should have been a blind spot on her left side, and had done so with nigh-invisible speed. She was clearly at ease with the weapon, impractical or not.

    The force of the clash sent the assailant backwards, and he landed lightly on his feet about two meters away. Getting a clear look at him, Shinji realized from his weapon that they must be facing Lancer. He wore some kind of tight blue jumpsuit, possibly leather armor, plated at the shoulders and feet with gleaming steel. His hair was also blue, and if not for the brilliant crimson of his eyes and spear, he might well have faded into the darkness. The spearman plainly had no intention of doing so, however, as he fixed the pair with the hungry gaze of a hunter meeting his first quarry in a month. Bringing the point of his spear forward into a battle stance, he spoke.

    "The War may not have started yet, but I don't think anybody'll mind if we have it out now, do you? I've got a real understanding master, and I just had to get a taste of your abilities. After all, you're the first Servant I've seen since being summoned, and I've never been able to hold back when it comes to women, fighting, or food!"

    Lancer apparently had eyes only for Rider, as he spoke directly to her, ignoring Shinji completely. Then he lunged, the point of his lance becoming a luminous streak punching towards Rider's heart. Even reinforcing his eyes, Shinji could barely see the movement, but Rider apparently had no difficulty following it. Again, she easily spun her lopsided blade around herself in a two-handed rotation and met the oncoming spear point with massive force. Again the combination of Rider's strength and the steel's momentum knocked Lancer back towards the woods that surrounded the Church. Taking a recognizable battle stance for the first time, Rider brought the tip of her blade low to the ground, raising the haft high over her shoulder. It was almost the same stance Lancer had used to approach, save that the weapon was rotated slightly to favor slashes over thrusts. Then Rider turned her eyes back towards Shinji and asked, with no more concern than Sakura used when asking if she should pick up ingredients on the way home, "Master, shall I cut him down?"

    Less than a minute, perhaps not even 30 seconds, had passed since Rider had deflected the first blow. Shinji had to take a moment to still his nerves before he could answer, and in that split-second of hesitation Lancer struck a third time at Rider's heart. This time, however, was a feint, and Rider's deflecting blow caught only air. Unbelievably, Lancer's thrusting speed redoubled, and the tip of his spear seemed to split into ten or twenty striking blades, all unerringly piercing towards Brynhildr's vital points. This was Lancer's speed utilized to its greatest extent without invoking his noble phantasm, and Shinji was almost unable to follow what happened. He pushed his eyes to their limit, however, and bit by bit the movements became clearer.

    Waiting for her Master's order to attack, Brynhildr could only defend against the skilled warrior facing her. Fortunately, she had brought down many spearmen on the battlefields of Valhalla, and though he was undoubtedly a fighter worthy of the title of hero, his speed was insufficient to challenge her. She swiftly twirled her spear about herself, timing each slash to meet Lancer's thrust in a perpendicular arc and knock away his weapon. The clashes doubled and redoubled in speed until to an outside observer it would have seemed as if a torrent of crimson were being poured horizontally onto a dome of violet. Not so much as a speck of the red light from Lancer's blade could break through, however, and the difference in endurance between them was greater than the difference in speed. He began to tire, and Brynhildr could tell that she would soon be able to slip through an opening in his offense and decapitate him with a stroke. She grew excited at the thought of executing another warrior after so long, confronting this unknown hero with the inevitability of his death and sending him off to Valhalla. Her cheeks flushed, and her breathing grew heavier, not from exertion but from the anticipation. If only her Master would give the order! Although she felt a pang of guilt at the presumption of insisting, Brynhildr called out again.

    "Master," Shinji heard Rider call and suddenly realized he hadn't thought to affirm her request to kill Lancer. Of all the reasons, was that why she was only defending? He'd have to be quite detailed in his commands, if this battle was any indication of the Master-Servant dynamic Rider expected. This was concerning, as he heard a tone of desperation in her voice. Clearly the fight with Lancer was wearing her down. Before she could finish reiterating her request, he called back, "Rider! That warrior is my enemy, and an enemy of the Matou. Cut him down without remorse!" He'd tried to inject a bit of ceremony into it, as Rider clearly wanted some formality in these matters. Hopefully it would be to her satisfaction, as a Servant brooding about the manner in which she was given orders was not something Shinji wanted to deal with. As he watched Rider shift subtlely to attack, however, something strange happened to Shinji. Time seemed to slow, and it was suddenly as if Rider and Lancer were moving through honey. Shinji saw an outline of himself, traced in the same ice-blue color that prana took on when he focused his eyes on seeing it, and Shinji felt irrationally that he needed to be occupying the same space as the wraith-like figure. He moved to follow it as it stepped forward and left, but he was moving at the same slowed pace as everything else. With a herculean effort, Shinji strained to get normal motion out of his trapped body.

    Suddenly the wraith was gone, and everything sped back up. Shinji was hurling himself forward and left with all his muscles reinforced, and his magic circuits were burning up from the strain of reinforcing his entire body at once. In a fraction of a second he saw Lancer spin away from Rider and shoot towards him, a bolt of red lightning in the night. Lancer's spear pierced the space where Shinji's heart had been before, but sank into Shinji's right shoulder instead. Then Brynhildr was coming for him, an angel of death seeking his neck with an unerring blade. Muttering what sounded to Shinji like curses against his own Master under his breath, Lancer drew a rune in the air and the world exploded into light.

    When the light cleared, Brynhildr saw that her blade had sunk into the pavement rather than the spearman's neck. Lancer had fled, using the light of his rune to cover his escape. Worse, he's succeeded in harming her Master before he'd done so. Although she was bound to him only temporarily and had vowed to bear no feelings towards the magus who summoned her, Brynhildr could feel the beginnings of camaraderie for the young man. He was brave enough to stay close by a battle between Servants without flinching, quite unlike Lancer's master, who skulked in the shadows and observed from afar. More importantly, he'd shown great skill in partially dodging the spearman's inhuman strike. It was possible, Brynhildr mused, that he might have the makings of a hero in him. She wondered if it wouldn't be kinder simply to decapitate him now and return to the Throne of Heroes, but after some consideration decided that to do so would be an act of treachery regardless of the nobility of her intentions. Instead she slung the boy over her shoulder and quickly headed back to his home, hoping his sister would be able to heal his wound.

    As she leapt across the rooftops of Miyama-cho's suburban homes, Brynhildr pondered on the spearman. Although he'd been pushed to his limits, he hadn't used his Noble Phantasm, preferring flight to the revelation of his identity. Perhaps he had some well-known weakness, and feared its exploitation. Lacking a great knowledge of the heroes who had lived after her own death, she thought it best to bring the matter up with her Master after he'd recovered. Then there was the matter of the rune magic he'd used. Although it was an ordinary human rune, and couldn't hold a candle to the magic Odin had taught the Valkyries, Brynhildr had to acknowledge his skill in timing its usage. She'd never before seen such a skillfully executed retreat. Of course, being a Valkyrie Brynhildr had seen few retreats in her life. She'd borne witness to many triumphant slaughters and many heroic last stands, but very few successful retreats. There was also the matter of the rune itself. Although it had clearly been rune magic, it had been no letter of the Norse alphabet. That meant the man had to be a Celtic hero. Brynhildr tried in vain to recall a Celtic hero noted for the use of runes, but could remember only that the Celts were a hardy race of warriors noted for their use of chariots and spears, rarely raided by the servants of the Aesir. Not for the first time, Brynhildr was filled with frustration at the fact that heroic spirits were unable to observe the progress of the world from the Throne, but were summoned with memories only of their own lives, as well as some pedestrian knowledge of the modern world. If only she could have seen the turning of the ages and watched the great sagas of the heroes who had been as yet unborn when she had died! That, though, was the province of Gods, and was a privilege Brynhildr had lost when she'd left Odin's side. So Brynhildr made her way back to the place she'd been summoned, and hoped the Matou family had a private library.

    Status Updated

    January 15, 2004

    As Shinji awoke, the first thing he noticed was the pain. There was a searing, burning pain deep in his shoulder, as if someone were trying to cut his arm off starting from the inside. He had to bite down heavily on his tongue to keep from crying out at the feel of it when he awoke. On consulting his memories, he realized that someone had in fact done almost exactly what he'd been visualizing. This prompted the question of why he was in his bed, and not lying on the gravel outside Kotomine's church, bleeding out. Brynhildr must have gotten him home after he'd passed out, he supposed, since he could feel her presence in spirit form by the window. Sitting beside the bed, holding his hand and dozing in her chair, was Sakura. He supposed she'd bandaged him and watched over him in the night. He'd have to thank her when she woke up. For now, though, he projected a small Circle of Neptunus out of silver, wedged in under his shoulder, and called on the Stars' Mystic to heal him. As he poured his od into the circle, he felt the foreign prana pouring back out to him, knitting together the crushed bone, severed muscle, and cut skin. After a few minutes, Shinji was whole again. Then he began trying to work out how he'd have his revenge on the bastard who'd nearly killed him.
    ~~~

    Author's Note: We finally got some action! I hope you folks enjoyed reading that fight scene as much as I enjoyed writing it. I guess I don't have much else to say about the chapter other than that it was great getting back to writing. Also, don't forget to head back and read the new info in Shinji's Notes. As always, please leave your thoughts in a review, whether you liked it, hated it, or you're just plain confused!
    If you like Shinji, check out my story, Rejuvenation of a Bloodline, featuring Fate's most pathetic villain trying to become a magus and save his adoptive sister after a life-changing event in 1994.

Tags for this Thread

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •