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Thread: The Third Faction

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    Hey, I ain’t no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    Post Chapter 4

    Apologies for the tardiness of this chapter. Draconic's computer was damaged and lost the document halfway through. He worked his butt off fixing it back up and did an absolutely stupendous job!

    Please enjoy the chapter of June!


    Beta-ed by Draconic

    * * * * * * * * * *

    The situation was a familiar one. Beings of ancient legend and unfathomable power pitted against them, with only Saber standing between them and complete annihilation. Shirou felt the same dread that he'd felt back in the burning Einzbern Manor, facing down Gilgamesh.

    The most glaring difference was probably that Gordes guy's raucous laughter. Gilgamesh would have slaughtered him for doing that in his presence.

    Shirou cocked an eyebrow. "Really? Periwinkle? That's it? What were you so embarrassed about Tohsaka? …Tohsaka?"

    He turned to see Rin sagged and slumped over. She lamely raised her arm and pointed to the laughing Gordes.

    Shirou scratched his head. "I still don't get it."

    "Periwinkle? The Periwinkle Faction?!" Gordes chortled. "That may very well be the single most ridiculous thing I've heard in years! This… this has to be a joke. Periwinkle! Tohsaka!" he erupted into another boisterous fit of laughter.

    Ruler cringed at the Master of Black's crude behavior. Still, she turned to Shirou, and shrugged. "It is certainly a more… unorthodox choice."

    Saber scowled. "Unorthodox or not, it is my standard, and that of my Masters. I will not tolerate you disparaging their honor by mocking it."

    "Well said," Lancer of Red declared. His voice was soft, mellow to the point of seeming disinterested. Yet Shioru felt a power in his words, a conviction, that he had not felt since Saber herself had first appeared before him in the moonlight. "Periwinkle is as fine a color as Red or Black, as worthy of being borne by the heroes of your faction. It is not as succinct to speak, true, but that matters little." He raised his spear, "In the end, the only thing that matters is that you prove yourself, and your faction, worthy of the color, however you choose to do so."

    Saber of Black nodded in agreement. He looked like he wanted to do more, open his mouth and speak, but he paused just as he opened his lips. He glanced back at his still chortling master, and in the end held his silence.

    Shirou surmised that he concurred with Lancer, but some previous order from his Master kept him silent. That was alright, but it seemed silly of the mage to keep his Servant from even speaking. He was the one with actual combat experience after all, his tactical input would be invaluable.

    Saber smiled openly at Lancer. "I thank you, Hero of Charity. Your words do you credit, and I hope I can live up to them."

    "I have little doubt you will," Karna assured her. "No hero who needs to hide their weapon to conceal their identity is likely to be lacking in worth. Indeed, if your sword is so recognizable, it is likely you rank among the greatest heroic spirits within the Throne. I look forward to our battle."

    Saber blinked in surprise and then refocused herself on the Lancer. "As do I. The fact that you can discern the purpose of my Invisible Air speaks well of your combative intuition."

    "It is merely common sense. Come now, let us begin."

    Both Sabers nodded.

    Shirou quickly analyzed the enemies' weapons, his Reality Marble easily processing Siegfried's massive greatsword and armor, as well as Karna's more subtle armaments. This only heightened the shock of the disparity between their powers.

    'Saber,' he spoke through Rin's gem link. 'Siegfried's sword is Balmung, a Rank A+ Anti-Army Noble Phantasm, but it has a history of slaying dragons, so it might be even stronger against you. His armor, the Armor of Fafnir, can't be pierced by any attack with equal or less strength than Rank B, and it will take that much power away from any assault greater than that.'

    "In other words, even my strongest blows will glance off as though they were mere scratches,"
    Saber mentally lamented. "It sounds as though he's like Heracles but with the Dragon attribute. I can only hope that his skill with a sword isn't as masterful."

    'Well, fortunately for you, unlike Heracles, you only have to kill this guy once, but you probably knew that already. And he does have a pretty glaring weakness,' Shirou encouraged her. 'There should be an oak leaf-shaped mark on his back. If you can land a strike there, he'll go down fast.'

    "Excellent. This information will be most helpful, Shirou. Thank you,"
    she praised him. "What of Lancer?"

    Shirou hesitated, as he looked at Lancer of Red with growing anxiety. 'All of his equipment is comprised of divine constructs. I can barely analyze them, much less trace them. That golden armor is basically sunlight conceptualized as a defensive ability. It's virtually impenetrable, and is apparently fused with his body. Supposedly, it's so hard to penetrate that even a god would struggle with it.

    'His spear though… it's just insane. It's called Vasavi Shakti. Basically, I can already feel its power from here, and it's sealed right now. Fortunately, it looks like the only way for him to unlock its true power is to permanently destroy his armor, and the attack that comes of that can only be used once, so it's unlikely that he'll use it at such an early stage in the war. If he does though, run. Its full strength isn't even on the same scale as anything I've ever seen."

    "Hmm, troubling, but with Avalon inside me, I should able to handle him. Hopefully."


    'I wouldn't count on that, Saber. If his armor vanishes, just retreat. There's no doubt that he's the cause of that heat wave a few minutes ago, and I can't imagine what would happen if that kind of attack was made even hotter. The air will probably catch fire. Honestly, there might not even be a safe distance we can get to within the time it takes him to make that attack.'

    "Not reassuring… I suppose I'll just need to exercise caution."


    'Be careful, Saber.'

    "Thank you, Shirou. Rin, will you be alright?"


    'Periwinkle. Why, master? They'll never stop laughing now…'

    "…I will do you proud, Master."


    Saber, Karna, and Siegfried all dashed towards each other, the pavement of the road quaking beneath their steps. When their weapons met, the shockwave of the clash was so great it was if a volcano had erupted right there. Shirou had to brace himself to avoid being blow away by the burning gale that cascaded outward from their duel. He caught sight of both Rin and Gordes doing the same, with only Ruler seeming unfazed by the blast.

    None of the three Servants had any desire to sully their battle with the collateral death of a Master, so they quickly moved into the vast mountains to the side of the road. Of course, said mountains immediately exploded into complete chaos, centuries old rock faces casually being obliterated by the backlash of ferocious slashes with the power to decimate cities. Despite reinforcing his eyes, the distance and the Servants' incredible speed meant that Shirou could barely keep up with the action.

    'So, this is what Saber can do at full power,' he thought in awe. She'd spent most of their war handicapped by having him as a Master or being captured by Caster, and even when Rin had been able to actually supply her with prana, she was still without Avalon and so unable to fight in the same league she was meant to. Now she was free of those restraints.

    'Indeed,' Rin concurred mentally, seemingly having recovered from her breakdown. 'There's a reason why King Arthur is commonly considered the strongest sword wielding heroic spirit.'

    "Master of Red!"

    Shirou and Rin turned towards Gordes, who stared at them viciously, but also with a hint of pride in his eyes.

    "Didn't we just go through the fact that we are not part of the Red Faction?" Rin sighed. "Seriously, Yggdmillenia, pay attention."

    Gordes chuckled. "Oh, I did. I listened as you recited that little spiel of yours. And I also deduced that it is completely ridiculous! The Greater Grail is taxed as it is providing enough prana for the fourteen Servants plus the Ruler. It is beyond the realm of possibility that it could have the power remaining to allow a third faction to join. It would take a mage of unfathomable power just to get close!"

    'Does it count as unfathomable if he uses it for just about everything?' Shirou wondered, recalling some of the stories Rin had told him about a few of her master's lessons.

    'He's also used it to save the world on more than one occasion,' Rin added. 'So, unfortunately, yes.'

    "Which leads me to the truth of the matter!" Gordes continued, oblivious to their silent exchange, raising his hand to point a sausage-like index finger at them: "You are actually members of the Red Faction!" he proclaimed with all his boisterous pride. "Likely Berserker or Rider, attempting to put Saber off guard so you can stab him in the back! Well, it won't work! Saber is stronger than you could possibly imagi—"

    "You are mistaken, Master of Black," Ruler corrected. "They are indeed the Periwinkle Faction. I do not know how the Greater Grail was able to call their Servant, but they are indeed a separate entity from the Red Faction."

    "Wha-What?" Gordes stuttered.

    Rin sighed. "Don't you have a brain between those ears, Yggdmillenia? Seriously, why would a hero as sincere as Karna need such a convoluted tactic? Moreover, how would his honor even allow it?"

    "Silence!" Gordes blustered, his face bright red, either from fury or embarrassment. "A Servant is nothing more than a tool! A weapon to be wielded by a mage! If his Master commanded it, he would throw aside his honor in an instant!"

    Shirou narrowed his eyes at the obese man. The Servants weren't tools, they were heroes. People who had earned their place in history (granted, not always by the most admirable of means), who had earned the highest respect of all. To deride them so contemptuously… it was repulsive. He did have to admit though, Servants were bound to the wills of their Masters. Gordes was right about that much, if nothing else.

    "Ugh, you are pitiful," Rin scoffed. "With that attitude, either you or your Servant will be dead soon enough."

    A vein in Gordes forehead burst. "How dare you? I am a Master of Yggdmillenia! The greatest mage of the Musik family!"

    Rin raised a cocky eyebrow, careful to hide any curiosity behind a veil of disinterest. "Who?"

    "Argh!" Gordes raised his fists. Magic circuits glowed into being over them. "I tolerated it as a joke, but to actually take this idiocy seriously?! You disgust me! You dare ask me who I am after naming yourselves with the express intention of insulting the other Masters?"

    "Yeeeeah, we didn't—"

    "Come then, Master of Periwinkle," he interrupted, spitting the word out like he was allergic to it. "Let us battle as true mages should!"

    Rin's eyebrow twitched at the mention of their color but in the end, she smirked. "Well, at least you're not a coward. Very well." She raised her arm and braced it for a level shot. Her finger started to glow with black and red energy. "I'll show you what a mage who's worked for their power looks like!"

    Shirou raised his hand. "Tohsaka, wait!"

    She glared at him. "What, Shirou?"

    "Let me fight him."

    "Seriously? Are you really playing the chivalry card now of all times?" She glared daggers at him. "Shirou, I can handle him."

    "I know," he assured her. "But please let me take care of this."

    'You have a limited number of gems,' he reminded her telepathically. 'If this guy is tougher than he looks, that'll cost us resources we need to conserve for the future. Let me handle him and then no one needs to lose anything.'

    Rin did not soften her furious gaze, but she lowered her arm, convinced by his logic. "You better not mess this up, you idiot."

    Shirou flashed her an apologetic smirk. "I'll do my best."

    Rin sighed and took a step back.

    Gordes glowered. "So, you won't even fight me yourself? You coward! How dare you! I didn't nearly die obtaining my catalyst so I could face some inexperienced boy!"

    "You know, this just tilts the scales in your favor," Shirou said pointedly. "If anything, your odds of survival are much better against me."

    Not that Rin wasn't just as capable a combatant as him but, despite her compassion, she had no issues killing a dangerous opponent at the first opportunity. While the argument he gave her was true, he also wanted to handle the fight himself so there was a better chance of claiming victory without killing Gordes. He had accepted that the Servants only existed for the war, and that killing them was an utterly dreadful necessity of carrying out the ritual, but he refused to allow a Master who still had his whole life—or… well, most of it—ahead of him to die. Not if he could help it. He suspected Rin understood that.

    The Yggdmillenia mage apparently did not, and he charged at Shirou with a roar.

    The man was an egotistical buffoon, not some evil mastermind. No need to start the death toll with him.

    Shirou held out his hands in Archer's familiar stance. His expression clearly exhibiting his focus. "Trace on."

    Kanshou and Bakuya flared to life in his grip and he met Gordes' attack. He could already tell that this was going to be far too easy.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Razor wind sheared past Karna's face as he danced across the steadily crumbling mountainside.

    He had thought it odd when the priest had informed him of his Master's command to eliminate Ruler, but he had obliged as their contract demanded. If the mage wished to remove the arbiter from the war, that was his plan to worry about. Karna's duty was merely to serve as the tool to carry it out.

    He had anticipated a swift battle. Though Rulers received substantial boosts to their usual parameters, the Hero of Charity had possessed no doubt that he could still overwhelm whoever they were with the spear gifted to him by his brother's father, Indra, the King of Heaven and God of Thunder. Even Jeanne d'Arc's possession of Command Spells simply meant that he could not afford to hold back and give her the chance to use them.

    Then the Sabers had arrived. The warriors with eyes like his brother's. True heroes.

    No matter what factions they claimed in their titles, he knew that they would prove to be worthy foes.

    He was not disappointed.

    He was faster than them both, that much was obvious, but each possessed skill with their swords the likes of which he had never seen, enabling them to easily hold their own.

    Saber of Black, Siegfried, focused mostly on offensive maneuvers, an opulent blue-green glow radiating from his sword with each ferocious strike. Each swing left him a bit open but delivered enough power that direct blocking would have been ill advised, forcing Karna to deflect the attack outwards or into the path of the other combatant. His armor could most likely take the attacks with ease, but there was no reason to be careless in a Grail War. His opponent's supposed invincibility was proof of that, as both he and their other foe had already dealt the man numerous light wounds, though one wouldn't know by the vitality of his sword work.

    Really, he should have expected no less from a knight who had had the will to slay a dragon and then wear its near invulnerable essence as armor. Though, the fact that his wide swings left so little room to strike was testament that the knight's grand skill had not been diluted by his triumphs. And that could be one of the greatest trials in life, to not be defeated by your own victory. Siegfried's vigilance was truly a boon supporting his nature as a worthy hero.

    The other, the Saber of Periwinkle, was a different sort of curiosity. No less magnificent, but almost contradictory.

    Her skill with a blade was unmistakable, perhaps a bit less than Siegfried's, but only by the slimmest of margins if that. She was more balanced however, holding her defense close like a lion on the prowl. But when an opening presented itself, she pounced, unleashing a burst of prana that accelerated her movement by a fierce margin and gifting her with even greater strength than her already tremendous power allowed. Were she facing any other opponents, she likely would have obliterated them.

    Unfortunately for her, Karna was far from an average opponent, possessing his own Prana Burst that enveloped his surroundings in a torrent of flames. That technique enabled him enough of a distraction to either divert her blow to be nullified by his armor, Kavacha and Kundala, or dodge altogether.

    Siegfried seemed to be another matter. It was strange, but whenever his focus was on trading blows with the other Saber, it was if his strength and speed were boosted tremendously, to the extent that it almost appeared as though he had been fortified by a Command Seal. His enhancement was such that Saber of Periwinkle was continuously on the defensive when she could not put Karna between them. And when even that failed, she felt the sting of the other knight's blade.

    Yet, no matter what wounds Siegfried or Karna himself scored on their foe, the moment after they struck, whatever damage they had caused would glow and then vanish completely. Saber of Periwinkle's skin would be unblemished, not even showing signs of being singed by Karna's flames.

    It was not invulnerability like Saber of Black's defense, which was difficult to pierce and lessened the impact of the few attacks that did. No, the blows were landing with their full power, and they wounded with their full power. Saber of Periwinkle was simply healing so fast that the cuts didn't matter.

    Hmm… Siegfried's increase in power did not seem to come from a Noble Phantasm, at least not an obvious one. It could have been a personal skill, but that still seemed unlikely.

    Perhaps there was something in their legends? Heroic Spirits were often shaped just as much by the stories told of them as they were by the actual people they were in life. So, if there were something in each of the Sabers' backgrounds that interacted with each other by logical extension, it could theoretically increase Siegfried's strength circumstantially whenever they clashed. Karna was admittedly no expert on the Germanic knight's legend, but he knew enough to understand that there was only one aspect of the man that could possibly influence him so greatly without manifesting as a Noble Phantasm: his status as a dragon slayer.

    Which suggested that Saber of Periwinkle possessed the Dragon attribute.

    A strong connection with dragons.

    The power to regenerate wounds almost instantaneously.

    A sword recognizable enough on its own to require concealment.

    And according to the insight his Discernment of the Poor skill granted to him during her master's earlier rant, a complex relationship with her child.

    A child who was also worthy enough to be summoned from the Throne of Heroes.

    Despite himself and the furious battle he was in the midst of, Karna couldn't help but smile.

    Each of those factors on their own could apply to any number of heroes in The Throne. But together they, along with her knightly chivalry, painted quite the clear portrait of the mysterious Saber of Periwinkle.

    Truly, he was blessed to be called to this Great Holy Grail War.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Rin frowned as she observed the explosions from the Servants' battle. No matter how many wonders she saw, she'd never feel at ease when her friends battled Heroic Spirits. The titans of legend were more like forces of nature than mere familiars. And even if Saber stood near the top of them all, her opponents were hardly lacking in stature. Or the skill to back it up.

    Siegfried, the Dragon Slaying Knight of the Netherlands. She'd expected the Einzberns to use him if they tried to get the Saber class. Other than the King of Knights, he was one of the most noteworthy sword wielding heroes in the world, with a sword bigger than most people were tall and nearly invulnerable to boot. Not to mention the dragon slaying aspects of his legends made him a poor match up for Saber in the first place. If they hadn't recovered Avalon, they'd be at a massive disadvantage.

    Even still, the most serious problem was certainly Karna. In her research into the Throne of Heroes in preparation for her own war, she'd sifted through hundreds of myths and legends, trying to discern who the most powerful warriors would be as either allies or adversaries. Of all of them, the Hero of Charity was thought to be more powerful than almost all others. And by 'almost all', it meant only his eternal rival Arjuna and Gilgamesh, plus a handful of other ancient demigods, were thought to be able to fight him on even ground.

    Though, every text she located advised against actually summoning him as a Servant. Apparently, the downside to his astronomical power was that it required an absolutely absurd amount of prana to power him. Any Master, even a first rate mage like herself, would be sucked dry if he fought at full power for even a minute.

    That was good. That meant that even if Saber couldn't get past his armor, she could just keep the fight going and outlast his Master. After that, she only had to hold off Siegfried until Shirou dealt with Gordes.

    Though, as the night—and the battle—dragged on, and Karna didn't seem to waver in the slightest, Rin's scowl could only deepen. Why wasn't he dropping? Maybe the Black Faction could conceivably have prepared some method of giving their Servants additional stores of prana, but the Red Faction had been thrown together in a matter of weeks. Who the hell was Karna's Master that they had such ridiculous stores of magical energy?

    "Ah!"

    Rin turned back to the duel on the road and smirked. At least something was going their way.

    Shirou and Gordes stood a few feet apart from each other, the latter clutching his bleeding arm just above the elbow.

    The Master of Black panted hard as sweat rained down his brow. "Lucky shot, bastard. You won't get another."

    Rin rolled her eyes.

    Honestly, he wasn't even that bad, at least compared to other arrogant snobs she'd encountered. Despite what little she knew of the Musik Family's lackluster reputation, it was clear he had talent. Transmuting his limbs into metal to amplify their reinforcement was actually quite the clever application of commonly non-combat alchemy. Add that to his unexpectedly respectable hand-to-hand display, and it seemed his boasts actually had some substance behind them, in contrast to say, Shinji.

    The only issue was he up against Shirou, who was faster, stronger, younger, better suited to close combat, and frankly hadn't even broken a sweat the entire time.

    Not only was her boyfriend wielding a pair potent Noble Phantasms, but during his confrontation with Archer, he had absorbed his future self's fighting skills. That meant every slash, every riposte, every technique that the Heroic Spirit EMIYA had developed and honed over his countless eons as a Counter Guardian, was at Shirou's command. Add in the drawn-out confrontation's strain on Gordes' limited endurance, and it was generous to call the encounter a fight. The only reason Shirou hadn't ended it already was that he hoped the Yggdmillenia mage would be easier to pacify if he was exhausted.

    Rin doubted that would be the case, but at least maintaining his metal limbs would put a substantial strain on the obese man's prana reserves. The constant taxation had already made him slip long enough for Shirou to draw first blood. Keeping the defense up across his entire body would further expedite his defeat.

    Shirou tossed Bakuya at Gordes, the Yggdmillenia mage barely moving in time to dodge, the black blade soaring past his large body.

    "Getting reckless after a lucky blow? That's a foolish mistake, boy!" the Master of Black growled. He grinned as green light flooded his magic circuits with renewed vigor. "It will be your last."

    Shirou shook his head. He lowered Kanshou to his hip. "Trust me, I've made more mistakes than you could possibly know. And if you don't stand down, I'll have to make another."

    "Fearing for your life that much?" Gordes taunted.

    "No. For yours," Shirou smirked, his confidence so firm that it made the atmosphere almost oppressive. "Because what I just did wasn't a mistake."

    Gordes' eyebrow barely had time to rise in confusion before his face went wide with equal parts shock and pain. His crumpled to his knee as Bakuya flew into the back of his leg, drawn towards its mystical link with Kanshou.

    Shirou traced another Bakuya and charged forward. A moment later, he held the married blades at Gordes' throat.

    "Surrender," he commanded with a voice of stone. "I don't want to take this any further. If you do, you can go home after the Servants have finished their battle."

    Gordes' eyes twitched madly, his throat unable to shake lest it be cut by the swords at his throat. "You… you… I could have Saber destroy you in an instant!"

    Rin snorted. "Unless you use a Command Seal, I don't think he could get away from that mess without exposing his weak spot."

    "What? How do you know about that?!"

    "He told us who he is, you idiot," Rin rolled her eyes. "Only an idiot would go into a Grail War without studying up on the most well-known heroes in the world."

    'But Rin, didn't we know because I analyzed—'

    'Yes, you idiot! But he doesn't know that!'

    'Point taken.'

    "If you want to take an appallingly foolish risk to take out a mage that isn't even a Master, you can go right ahead," Rin lectured with a condescending grin. "At best, you'd waste a Command Seal. At worst, you'll lose your Servant altogether. I'm sure Darnic will be so pleased at that kind of buffoonery."

    Gordes' eyes froze at the mention of his leader. Good to know Darnic's own faction was well aware of the danger he posed. It was a fifty-fifty shot from what Zelretch's letter had mentioned about his political skills that he might have hidden his sins from the rest of Yggdmillenia, but it seemed they either didn't care or had been cowed into obedience. For Gordes, it appeared to be the latter.

    Sweat rolled down the large man's brow. "You… you'll kill me anyway. Or worse."

    "If we wanted to do that, we would have already," Rin pointed out. "I mean, you're good. Perfectly competent as a mage really. But, well, put bluntly, you're just plain outgunned."

    Gordes' face started falling back into his furious scowl, but a short glance at the swords at his throat, dipped that down. He steeled himself into a hard stare. "If you expect me to be your pawn, you can forget about it! I am a Master of Black. You will never turn me against Yggdmillenia."

    "That's fine," Shirou told him flatly. "We can't ask you to betray your allies."

    "Oh yes we can!" Rin protested. "We need all the information we can get!"

    "You'll get nothing from me!" Gordes roared. "I am the head of the Musik Family! I will never stain my honor as a mage by betraying my faction to the likes of vulgar interlopers like you, Periwinkle!"

    Rin's eye twitched unsettlingly. "Say Periwinkle one…more…time… dough boy…"

    "Okaaaay, let's all keep our heads," Shirou interjected quickly, oblivious to the fact that he could take Gordes at any time. He fixed the Master of Black with a hard stare. "Yggdmillenia, if you swear not to attack us, and help us defeat Lancer of Red, we'll let you go home to fight another day."

    Gordes raised an eyebrow. "Why would you trust an enemy just like that?"

    "You just said you valued your honor? Was that a lie?"

    The large man grumbled into his mustache. "How can I trust you to keep your word? Why wouldn't you attack me as soon as Lancer was dealt with?"

    "Because I don't want to kill you."

    From anyone else, that would have sounded utterly absurd. From the mouth of Shirou Emiya, it was like gospel itself. Even someone like Gordes, who didn't know him, would feel the conviction of fact behind those words.

    Indeed, the Master of Black stared at him in shock for several seconds. He gulped in horror, before nodding slightly, as much as he could manage with the blades at his throat.

    Shirou immediately removed his swords from his throat and backed away, though the fool was smart enough to keep them out. He did dissipate the Bakuya in Gordes' leg, letting the mage fall to the ground with a gasp. He clutched the back of his leg in agony, but the limb flared with the light of magic circuits, probably working double time to activate whatever healing magic Gordes' possessed.

    'Tohsaka, is this arrangement okay with you?' Shirou inquired.

    Rin thought about it for a moment but nodded in the end. Even with Avalon, Karna was not an enemy to take lightly. If they could redirect the sizable threat Siegfried posed towards him, then they might be able to eliminate the Indian demigod before he inevitably became a problem later on. After that, they'd figure out what to do with the Black Master. If he tried to have Siegfried attack them, Rin was confident that even if Saber couldn't beat him, she could hold him off while she and Shirou dealt with Gordes.

    And there would be no second mercy.

    'Saber,'
    she reached out telepathically, 'Change of plans.'

    * * * * * * * * * *

    'Shirou has convinced Saber of Black's master to help us. Defend yourself if Siegfried doesn't get the message in time, but focus on Karna.'

    "Understood, master,"
    Saber responded quickly, before barely deflecting a powerful thrust from Karna's spear, the strike's razor wind flashing by her to reduce a stone outcropping on the mountain behind her to sand.

    Lancer of Red had proven himself to be just as great a challenge as his massive power level had telegraphed. If anything, the prior heat wave had been underselling him. Not that you could tell by looking at the man. Unlike Gilgamesh who had flaunted his power, Karna only exuded however much strength was needed for any given task, with an air of calm detachment surrounding him otherwise. To call his poker face perfect was a severe understatement. If a man's intent was in his eyes, this was a man who could skewer an opponent without showing the first sign of aggression. Problematic when he moved so fast that she could barely see him act. He'd landed far too many strikes against her already. If she didn't have Avalon healing her wounds, she didn't know how long she would have lasted against him.

    Nevertheless, she needed to be careful. Her scabbard was powerful, but the divine construct was not without flaw. While it could surround her as an impenetrable fortress, that action would also prevent her from moving or counterattacking, creating a waiting game that she could not play. The regeneration was far more practical for active combat, revitalizing her each time an opponent landed a blow, regardless of its severity. Save for one glaring weak spot: Despite its miraculous abilities, the sheathe could not heal a wound dealt to her brain. Despite making her nearly invulnerable, she still possessed the most crucial weakness of any other living thing.

    To prevent her adversaries from discovering this crucial fact, she employed her defensive maneuvers as usual, parrying every strike so they would not notice any special preference for her head. The tactic seemed to be working, both her foes launched attacks at her entire body. Unfortunately, that left her in a precarious position, dealing with onslaughts from both mighty heroes.

    And while Karna was certainly a being to be viewed in the highest respect and gravest fear, it was Siegfried who terrified her most.

    Even bloodied from the dozens of light wounds dealt to him by both her and Lancer, the Dragon-Blooded Knight stood as a towering presence on the mountainside battlefield. While the sheer size of his sword should have handicapped him, prevented him from using the complex maneuvers she herself favored, he had proven that notion completely false the moment they clashed. While his techniques were not as elaborate as those commonly found at the Round Table, they were far from the simple, yet powerful blows so often associated with greatswords. Power that should have required wide, sweeping arcs was found in quick, brutal slashes, all backed by a heavy and razor sharp blade that had pierced dragon scales.

    Truly, it was swordsmanship that had long surpassed mankind. Only from Lancelot and Heracles had she ever seen a comparable display.

    Still, she defeated them both. Or in the case of Heracles, just survived. But one had to remind oneself that not being reduced to bloody paste against one of the greatest heroes to ever live was basically the height of what anyone could hope to achieve against him. And she had one twelfth of a kill on him, that was more than most of his other opponents could claim. And if she could do that, then she could conquer her latest foe just as she had so many others.

    At least, hopefully.

    Unlike her old opponents, Siegfried was a Dragon Slayer, quite the problem for one with draconic blood such as herself. Lancelot had driven her to the brink with just Arondight, a dragon slaying sword in its own right. And Siegfried's name alone had practically become synonymous with the term 'dragon slayer.' Few dragons were more famous than Fafnir, after all. The difference between the strength of his blows against Karna and against her was immediately noticeable, even if the forms used were exactly the same. She couldn't rule out that a direct blow from Balmung at full power might even be able to kill her outright, despite Avalon's regeneration. She hoped she'd never need to test that theory.

    Still, she was the King of Knights for a reason.

    She parried Siegfried's next blow off to her side and followed through with a riposte, driving him back just far enough to allow her to attain a more advantageous position, with both her foes in sight.

    ll three of them stood stalwart in the burning ruins of the mountainside, their weapons raised for the continuing fight. If the trio hadn't been Heroic Spirits of the highest caliber, they likely would have been panting from exhaustion. As things stood, they were barely warmed up.

    Saber eyed her opponents evenly, though her eyes subtly drifted to Siegfried. According to Rin, the knight's Master had agreed to a temporary alliance. But had he been informed yet? He clearly hadn't been when he'd launched his last attack.

    Soft green light began to dance across Siegfried's form, healing the various light scratches and shallow cuts he'd received, the only proof of the Rank A attacks she and Karna had fought to land through the Armor of Fafnir. Clearly, his master had recovered enough to heal those.

    "It is unwise to concentrate on only one foe when there are others present."

    Saber bolted back, Excalibur shifting to intercept Karna's strike, the tip of his spear already inches from her forehead. She'd dropped her guard for an instant, lost her focus for but a moment, and with the speed of the sun's rays, the Hero of Charity had made to end her. Perhaps her blade was fast enough to catch the attack before it landed, perhaps it was not.

    She'd never have to find out.

    Siegfried leapt out and smashed the golden spear into the ground, the stone beneath it crumpling like paper. Smiling at her newfound ally, Saber vaulted over the dragon slayer's back and raised her sword to bring down her blade on the Lancer of Red.

    That's when Karna spoke.

    "O', Agni…"

    The power was like a match was struck and ignited a sun. Saber activated her own Prana Burst and dashed away as fast as she could, Siegfried right behind her.

    Behind them, a conflagration of unparalleled brilliance erupted from the air around Karna's body, lighting up the night sky like an infant dawn, an ironic comparison considering the faint glow beginning to shine behind the hills.

    When both Sabers turned around to face their common foe, the pale skinned man calmly emerged from the ashes of the mountainside he'd all but melted, the three now face to face on a smooth plain, the ground beneath him turned having been turned to glass.

    Saber tightened her grip on her invisible sword. Even with an alliance and the element of surprise, he'd still fended them off so easily. Truly, the Hero of Charity was a hero in the same class of the King of Heroes.

    Karna idly glanced between them both, a smile ghosting across his lips. "As impromptu alliances go, that was quite a marvelous first attempt. If you had used your Noble Phantasm in that moment, so close and without my spear to meet it, Saber of Periwinkle, you may have been able to injure me."

    Saber seethed at his words. Not at their nature, no. She sensed they were meant in earnest praise, despite their apparent taunting attribute. No, what aggravated her was that he seemed to be confident he knew what her Noble Phantasm was.

    How could he know? Was it a bluff? Or had he figured out her identity? No, she'd given no clues to her True Name.

    Had she?

    "Nonetheless…" Lancer continued. He raised his divine spear. "Whether you fight me united or divided, you shall not have the advantage in this battle."

    Siegfried raised his shoulders, his massive blade ready for combat. A barely perceptible grin played at the corners of his mouth.

    Despite herself, Saber could not help but mirror it. After all, as frustrating as her opponents may have been, they both fought with honor and respect. It was a knight's greatest joy to face such worthy foes, and even if she refused to fail for Shirou and Rin's sakes, she could not help but find exquisite pleasure in the battle. It reminded her of her first duel with Diarmuid in the Fourth Grail War, before she'd been crushed by the weight of her own foolishness.

    To the east, the first rays of sunlight began to creep over the hills, slinking across the battlefield.

    Saber raised her invisible sword. "Tell me, Lancer. Do you indeed to prattle on until the sun falls once again? Or shall we settle this matter with our steel?"

    Karna chuckled. "Not steel, Saber of Periwinkle. Fire."

    Riving crimson flames consumed his spear as he pulled it behind his shoulder.

    O' Brahma, Curs—
    "Brahmastra Kundal—"


    The flames extinguished as his words halted. The pale man sighed and lowered his weapon.

    Saber raised an eyebrow in confusion. "Is there a problem?"

    "No. My Master has simply ordered my return," Karna explained. "The Holy Grail War is supposed to be confined to the night after all, lest those outside the mage community become alerted to it."

    Infuriating mage laws…

    Still, it was a necessary precaution.

    Saber lowered her weapon. Siegfried did the same.

    "My only wish is that when next we all meet, we may fight to our hearts' content," Saber of Black decided.

    Karna smirked. "Yes. That would be wonderful. I am deeply grateful that my first battle was against you, venerable Sabers. Whether separately or together once more, I hope to face you both again."

    He said nothing else, and astralized, leaving nothing behind but a scattering of golden motes.

    "Lancer of Red!" Ruler called out from the highway, "Do not leave yet!"

    Her shout was too late. Karna was already gone.

    Saber turned towards Siegfried. Her fellow Saber was at ease in her presence, likely expecting her to keep to the alliance until their masters said otherwise. The ghost of his soft smile still lingered on his face.

    It was strange. From what Saber had observed, Siegfried was quite the stoic soul, maintaining his composure even in the heat of battle. Hell, the only times she had seen him speak were when he introduced himself to her and Karna and his proclamation at the end of their duel. Yet, it seemed the battle, in which he was the only one to have suffered any sort of wounds even briefly, had warmed his heart to contentment.

    She smiled. She would look forward to their next battle as well.

    Ruler and the masters walked towards the Servants.

    "Marvelous. What a splendid battle," Ruler said, almost appraisingly. It was a little disconcerting how detached she seemed.

    Saber looked at her Masters, who walked up behind the mage of Yggdmillenia. Gordes? Was that his name?

    Shirou smiled at her. "Well done, Saber."

    Saber grinned and nodded. She looked to Rin, but her official Master merely breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed they were both highly aware of just how poorly that battle could have gone.

    Gordes approached Ruler, his body shaking in terror as he subtly approached his own Servant. "Now that Lancer of Red is finally gone, will you please come with us to Millenia Citadel, Ruler?"

    Ruler shook her head. "Negative. I must remain impartial."

    "Yes…" Gordes made to protest, "but our lord's castle is a prime location for observing the Great Holy Grail War! Please?"

    "I appreciate your concern," Ruler thanked. "But my skills allow me to perceive all of Trifas. So you need not worry."

    Gordes trembled with fury, but seemed to accept Ruler's decision. "If you insist," he hissed through his teeth, the words almost sounding strangled. He turned to Rin and Shirou, glowering at them as he moved to stand behind his Servant. It wasn't a very dignified display.

    The next few seconds elapsed in tense silence as the Masters stared each other down. Eventually, it was Shirou who broke the standoff.

    "You're headed back to your castle now, right?" he asked. "Er, I don't mean that as a challenge; I just want to know if you'd rather continue where we left off? I'm pretty sure Saber is up for it, right?"

    The last part was directed towards her, so she nodded. She raised her invisible sword towards Siegfried, who did the same with Balmung. She didn't think she could defeat him one on one, not if his Master healed whatever slight wounds he'd received, but with Avalon protecting her, she didn't think he could defeat her in a timely matter either. Which meant that all she would have to do is hold out until Shirou and Rin felled Gordes, and that was unlikely to take very long.

    Judging from the portly mage's expression, he had come to a similar conclusion. He huffed, storming off to a black car parked on the shoulder of the highway, presumably how he'd arrived here in the first place. "Saber, let's go."

    Siegfried nodded and bowed to both Arturia and Ruler.

    Saber smiled and bowed her head in turn. "You've demonstrated that you are a knight of exemplary honor, Saber of Black, and your skill with a sword does you much credit. I hope to face you again in this Great Holy Grail War."

    Siegfried smiled. "And I you, Saber of Periwinkle."

    He turned away and joined his Master before vanishing in a shower of blue particles.

    Behind her, Saber heard Rin mutter, "Huh. Not so bad when he says it."

    "Master of Periwinkle," Ruler called. "I must speak with you."

    Rin sagged. "And… it's ridiculous again," She sighed and faced the arbiter. "What do you need, Ruler?"

    "Tell me, how is it you have entered this war as a third faction?" Ruler inquired.

    "Zelretch decided to mess around with the ritual," Rin stated.

    Ruler's eyes went wide. "The Kaleidoscope? Ah. Yes. I suppose that would be possible." She scratched her chin in thought. "Could his interference be the cause of my summoning? Or is he merely responding to the same threat as the Grail?"

    "Threat?" Shirou asked, earnest as ever. "Is there something wrong with the war?"

    She gazed at the three of them warily. In the end though, she sighed under Shirou's honest gaze. "There are… irregularities… in this Great Holy Grail War. While some are to be expected with the increased scale, others have proven disturbing. For instance, my summoning could not be completed in the traditional manner. This forced me to request assistance from a young girl named Laeticia and possess her body to perform my duties."

    "Possession?!" Shirou gasped, his disposition changing abruptly. "You mean to say you're controlling her? How can you justify—?!"

    Ruler smiled, unfazed by the sudden outburst. "I assure you, I would not have chosen this course of action had any other alternative been available to me. And I have her express permission. Be at ease. Your concern is appreciated, but you need not worry. The Grail has ensured the process has gone smoothly, and even should I fall, my spirit core will absorb any and all damage done to my host's body. Laeticia shall be safeguarded."

    "Oh…" Shirou nodded, expressing some measure of relief. "That's… good…? I guess?" He let some of the hostility fade from his tone, but it was obvious he was still rather wary of this situation.

    Saber smiled at her former Master's concern for the innocent girl. Though it could be a disadvantage at times, it was still no less chivalrous and endearing a quality.

    Rin scrunched her brow in contemplation. "And now the Red Faction wants to eliminate you for some reason."

    "Do you believe your teacher sent us with an alternative objective, Master?" Saber inquired.

    Rin sighed. "Maybe? With him, it's pretty difficult to say anything for certain. He might have sent us to win the war, or to help Ruler. Maybe it's just because he wants to see how we react to all the differences in this timeline. He can be serious when he wants to be, but even when he is, he's rarely upfront."
    A letter with Rin's name in familiar cursive poofed out of thin air. Rin snatched it up before it could fall an inch and resignedly ripped it open.

    "What does it say?" Shirou asked.

    "'You know me so well, dear apprentice,'" Rin read off disinterestedly. "'But don't think this means you're getting spoilers. I'm playing my cards close to the chest on this one. But you should really give Ruler a ride to Trifas. There is someone there you all should meet.'"

    Rin sighed. "A hint of who this someone is would helpful."

    Ruler frowned. "I'm sorry. But I cannot travel with you any more that I could with the Black Faction. Despite the danger, I must remain impartial in this war."
    Shirou nodded. "That makes sense. We can't ask you to betray your duty."

    Another letter popped into existence, this one with the name 'Jeanne d'Arc' scribbled in neat cursive. Ruler gingerly snatched the paper and opened it.


    "'I can,'" Ruler read off. "'However, I get the impression that I won't need to. You should be getting a revelation in three, two…'


    "Wait, how would— Urgh…" Ruler, apparently Jeanne d'Arc, clutched her head in pain for a moment, a soft white light filling her eyes. Saber made to steady her, but she was fine after a moment.

    "Are you alright?" Saber inquired.

    Ruler nodded. "Yes. It's just…" she glanced worriedly at Shirou.

    The boy raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"

    Ruler paused a moment. "As a class skill, Rulers sometimes receive visions of the future called revelations. We are never shown any without meaning and those who appear in them are often those to be watched carefully."

    "And you had one just now?" Rin asked. "With Shirou in it?"

    Ruler looked to the side awkwardly. "I believe. Initially, I saw two men, both with dark skin, silver hair, and red cloaks. They fought until one stabbed the other with a sword. The stabbed one then faded away and…"

    She gazed at Shirou. "…you were there in his place."

    Saber's eyes went wide, as did Rin's. Not only because of the news of Shirou's fate, but because the description of the men was frighteningly familiar.
    Shirou's eyes narrowed. "Archer…"

    Ruler plunged her flagpole into the dirt. She stood tall and noble in the light of the rising sun. "I do not know the meaning of this revelation, but for the time being, I believe that it may be best, for the sake of this war, that I keep a direct eye on you."

    "Yes," Rin agreed immediately, her worried gaze locked on the pensive Shirou. "That would likely be for the best."

    Saber agreed. Whatever Heroic Spirit EMIYA had to do with this war, it would be best if they had as many watchful eyes over Shirou as possible. And even if she would not help them against the other factions, Ruler's assistance would be monumentally helpful in keeping the outside circumstances from harming them, especially as they advanced towards Trifas and this mysterious person the Wizard Marshal wanted them to meet.

    Jeanne D'Arc would be a wonderful, if temporary addition to their party.







    Jeanne d'Arc…

    She could be any Jeanne d'Arc…



    Oh, who was she even trying to fool?

    "Ruler?"

    "Yes, Saber," the arbiter responded pleasantly.

    The King of Knights hesitated. Surely, this pure, saintly figure (with a curiously familiar face) could not have known… him.

    "It is nothing of great import," she began slowly. "But, during your life, did you ever come across someone named Gilles De Rais."

    Ruler's eyes widened in joy and her face lit up like the new dawn. "You've met Gilles? Has he been summoned to this Great Holy Grail War? Wonderful! It shall be a delight to see him again."

    "He-he has not been summoned here," Saber stuttered immediately. Seeing Ruler's look of confusion, she explained. "As far as I know, he is not present for this war. But I did encounter him during my time in a past war for the Holy Grail."

    "Oh…" Jeanne muttered glumly. "I see. That makes more sense. With all the heroes represented in The Throne, it is unlikely that one I knew in life would be summoned."

    Saber decided not to comment that as of last night, she herself was now two for three on that count.

    "Perhaps this is for the best. Having him on one of the two factions would only cause me unnecessary stress and make it more difficult for me to remain impartial."

    "I… I think I understand," nodded Saber.

    "If I might ask, how was he?" Jeanne inquired. "When you saw him? Was he well?"

    "I have come for you, my sweet and holy virgin!"

    Saber suddenly found that she deeply regretted bringing up this topic of conversation.

    "He was very… disappointed that you were not summoned as well," Saber answered as diplomatically as she possibly could.

    "I swear Jeanne, I will not rest until I have freed your soul from the terrible prison of God's cruel curse!"

    "But he remained…enthusiastic, at the very least."

    Jeanne smiled like soft morning breeze. "Oh well. That does sound like Gilles. Always pushing through, no matter the situation. But," her smile fell away, "you have no need to tell half-truths. I know what became of him after my passing."

    Saber stumbled, her cheeks reddening slightly with embarrassment.

    "Oh, I… I apologize."

    "There is no need for that either. I understand that you merely wanted to spare my feelings. But my retainer was always unstable. I could often see signs that he relied upon me more than I did upon him. I take it that a number of children died?"

    Saber nodded, beginning to feel rather ill.

    "Worry not. I've no doubt you did all that you could to save them. That's all anyone could have done. And I can see that you regret bringing up what must be a sordid topic for you. I'll not linger on it any longer." She turned back to the highway to collect her luggage. "Now then, we should be go" Only to find that at the end of the battle between Servants, the loser was her suitcase.

    It looked like someone or something had attempted to brutally murder it. And succeeded. Clothes were torn, scorched through, tattered beyond repair, and scattered all over the highway. Jeanne's shoulder's sagged. She looked profoundly disappointed with herself. The bag couldn't even be closed properly thanks to the gaping hole burned through its center. There were some undamaged articles, but not as many as would likely be preferable.

    "Let me help with that," Shirou offered before Jeanne could even think to ask as his hospitality instincts kicked in.

    As the two of them went off to reassemble the suitcases tossed about the highway, Rin walked up to the King of Knights.

    "Saber, when did you meet Gilles de Rais?"

    "The Fourth Holy Grail War, Master," she elaborated. "He was the Caster."

    "Caster? I didn't think Gilles de Rais was a mage. I thought he was just… you know… a knight who became a murderous pedophile."

    "Yes. To my immense regret, I can easily imagine that."

    Rin frowned.

    "You seemed a bit agitated when she asked you about him. What happened?"

    All at once the memories came flooding back into Saber's mind. The grotesque sea demons. The screams of the dying children as they were ripped into bloody chunks from the inside out. The boisterous, mad proclamations of a new age of blasphemous worship.

    And the tentacles.

    So.

    Many.

    Tentacles.

    She suddenly had a violent urge to commit squid-homicide. Wait… no, that wasn't a thing. It didn't even make sense, linguistically speaking. She found she didn't care: She just wanted to execute something with tentacles… and maybe eat it with some salt.

    "Trust me, Master. The less you know about this particular subject, the happier your life will be."

    "I'm going to be honest, you sound almost traumatized. Can Shirou or I do anything to help?"

    Saber grimaced, but put some thought into the question for a moment at least as a token gesture. Just in case. To her surprise, she did think of something they could both do.

    "Yes, actually."

    "Name it, I guess."

    "Never bring up this topic of conversation ever again!"

    Okay, that was a miscalculation. If anything, her Master just looked more worried now.

    That urge was getting worse.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Ah, isn't it amazing when you run into someone that knows someone you know from somewhere else?


    Draconic: Well, actually, I'm not exaggerating when I say that's basically what it means to be… actually, never mind, it might be considered insensitive.

    Moving on, I expanded several scenes in this chapter, particularly the one after the fight, most things regarding OG Saber, and most of all, Shirou's analysis of the enemy Servants. I also made a lot of adjustments to the Periwinkle gag. I was really over-persistent in trying to change that, but I don't think my respect for Saber would have allowed me to leave it the way it was.

    TheMaster4444: I really enjoyed writing everyone's perspectives of everyone else. It is intriguing to see who thinks what based on what information is available to them. Karna's deductions especially were a blast to write.


    Everyone heads towards Trifas and this mysterious person Zelretch is interested in. I wonder who it could be and what he wants them to change?


    Thank you for Reading! I hope you enjoy what comes next!


    Go Forth and Conquer!
    Last edited by Draconic; June 12th, 2019 at 11:52 AM.

  2. #22
    Hey, I ain’t no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    Chapter 5

    The chapter for July!

    Beta-ed by Draconic


    * * * * * * * * * *

    Chiron had seen many miraculous things in his life. He was the son of the King of the Titans after all. He'd borne witness to the beginnings of many skilled and wondrous heroes, nurturing them to their fullest capability. He'd tended to demigods and mortals alike, so long as they had the nerve. In the end, only the complete and utter agony of a hydra's venom convinced him to give up his immortality for the sake of peace. When he had been summoned into the Great Holy Grail War, he had not expected to find anything else so trying.

    Which was, of course, all just a really long way of saying he had not been remotely prepared for Rider of Black.

    "Chiron, is he gonna be okay? Is he? Is he?"

    Chiron sighed. When Fiore had notified him that Caster was looking for a homunculus that had escaped of its own accord, he certainly had not anticipated a giddy Astolfo showing up at his door with the boy over his shoulder asking for healing. Never one to refuse a patient, Chiron had allowed them in, though he found his patience slightly tested by Rider's pestering. The paladin's concern for the homunculus boy was touching and spoke well of his quality as a hero, but his endless buzzing about was not helpful in the least.

    "His condition is… stable, Rider" Chiron informed him.

    Astolfo slowed down, still and focused on the sickly boy lying in Chiron's bed. His lip quivered in worry. "You paused in the middle there," he observed. "Is there still something wrong with him?"

    "It is not as simple a matter as something being wrong," Chiron explained. "His flesh wounds were simple enough to heal, but the simple fact is that his body isn't used to such strain. Add to that his overuse of his magic circuits, and it is surprising that fatigue was the only thing he suffered."

    Lord Gordes had created the Yggdmillennia homunculi to act as prana batteries for the Black Servants, supplying them with large quantities of magical energy which allowed them to fight at higher than normal capacity. It also had the side effect of freeing the Masters of any burdens for when they fought the Masters of Red, who would need to split their power between combat and maintaining their Servants.

    As a consequence, though each homunculus possessed incredibly high-quality magic circuits, they were not actually meant for the purpose of performing magecraft themselves, merely to have power extracted from them. Add to that the fact that none of those acting as batteries had ever performed any physical activity, leaving their bodies extremely malnourished and their skin as soft as an infant's, and it was as much a wonder that the boy before him had managed to crawl out of the basement as much as escaping his containment pod.

    Still, that left one factor curiously vague.

    "Why is it that you rescued him, Rider?" Chiron inquired.

    Astolfo quirked an eyebrow in confusion. "I just did it 'cause I wanted to."

    "Caster seems to be looking for him, no?"

    The paladin giggled. "That's none of my business!"

    Chiron sighed, but he couldn't help the smile that floated onto his lips. Rider's motivation was similar to that of many of his students, at least when they first came under his care. In time, they grew more jaded to the reality of the world, more willing to accept ulterior motives for themselves other than pure altruism. Perhaps that was why, despite his teammate's antics, he found Astolfo endearing. No matter his immaturity, he was a hero who had lived a full life, yet still held fast to the pure, perhaps childish, concept of heroism.

    "I will be away for a bit. No one should be coming to visit, so do not answer the door, even if someone knocks."

    "Thank you~!" Astolfo waved.

    "Rider, are you going to be responsible for him until the end?" Chiron inquired.

    Astolfo's eyes harden and his grin widened. "I'll keep helping until I'm completely satisfied. I won't leave him, ever."

    Chiron shook his head. He had expected such a declaration, but he had to be sure. He had to be sure Rider wasn't just distracting himself from his Master's… unfortunate machinations and would leave the boy to him once he lost interest. Though, given Lady Celenike's… peculiarities, perhaps he would allow that anyway.

    "Ohhh…"

    Both Servants turned their attention to the bed. The homunculus boy groaned as he awakened, his unnatural red eyes strangely vulnerable in the warm light of the room.

    His eyes flickered weakly between the Servants of Black.

    "Uhh… who are you?" he whispered.

    Astolfo was on him like a new born pup on its master. "You're awake! My name's Astolfo, and was the one who rescued you, you remember? You do remember right?"

    The boy smiled softly. "Oh. Y-Yeah. Thank you. Thank you so much."

    Chiron couldn't help his grin. The boy was barely alive a moment before, and now he was smiling with a person he'd barely met. It seemed Rider's exuberance did indeed have its benefits.

    "This is Chiron. He's a Servant of the Archer class."

    And it's many, many downsides.

    "Rider…"

    Astolfo's eyes went wide. "I just said your True Name, didn't I?" He turned to the homunculus. "Ignore all that. Forget I said anything."

    The boy's smile disappeared. "Rider… Archer…"

    "He seems to be scared," Chiron observed.

    "Of course, he is," Astolfo replied. "The entire castle's gotta be looking for him."

    "Then this will only frighten you more," Chiron remarked. He faced the homunculus directly. "To put it bluntly, at the most, you only have three more years to live."

    The boy's eyes dropped. "I'm well aware."

    Chiron didn't want to dash what little hope the child had, but he was unaware how much the boy had learned since leaving his pod. It would not do to accidentally withhold information that could be crucial to his livelihood.

    "You are a homunculus, as thus, the perfect existence," the sage explained. "A blank slate that no normal human could naturally become. You ought to start thinking while you still have time."

    "About what?" the boy asked, his voice empty with puzzlement.

    "Your life is short, so consider what you want to do with it."

    "I don't know."

    "Perhaps you should," Chiron advised. "If you survive this, not changing anything in yourself would be no different than dying."

    The boy's eyes widened, instinctive terror etched into his pupils. "Dying?"

    "Like I said, you are a blank slate. If you make it through this ordeal, there will be no shortage of paths for you to—"

    'Archer. Can you hear me?'


    Chiron paused for a moment and shifted his focus onto his telepathic link with Lady Fiore. "Yes? What do you need, Master?"

    'Uncle Gordes just returned from his mission. Grandfather has called a meeting in the main hall. He wants everyone to be present.'


    Chiron nodded. "Understood master. I will be there shortly."

    'Good. See you there.'


    Sensing Fiore's presence fade from the other end of the line, the sage turned to Astolfo. "Has Lady Celenike informed you of the meeting?"

    Astolfo rubbed his head wearily, as if he was struck by a migraine. "Yep. She just finished."

    "Come then. Let's go." Chiron turned to the homunculus. "You may need time alone to process things, but I would advise you to take some time to consider your options."

    He said no more and vanished to join his master.

    "We'll be back real soon, so don't you worry!" Astolfo cheered. "See ya." He gave a quick wave before dissipating into spirit form as well. The last thing Chiron saw before he left the room was the boy's lost, hopeless gaze.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Darnic Prestone Yggdmillennia had seen many things most would consider impossible. Being a Grail War veteran and a century old soul absorber made that unavoidable. When he was planning for the Great Holy Grail War, he'd anticipated some level of unpredictability, perhaps the Mage's Association summoning more powerful Servants than he'd accounted for or more enforcers being sent while the Red Faction occupied their Servants. He'd prepared as best he could for both those eventualities.

    And yet…

    "A third faction?" he spat incredulously.

    Gordes gulped, sweat beading on his forehead under his lord's withering gaze. "Ye… yes. That's what I said."

    Had they been alone, Darnic would have spat his response back at his subordinate. That he knew that's what he said. He had ears after all. But with the rest of his faction present, it would undermine his authority to get angry over something so minuscule.

    The assembled Black Faction all stood warily throughout the throne room. While Hyouma Sagara had yet to arrive with Assassin, the six assembled Master-Servant pairs were nonetheless imposing. Or at least they would be, if Darnic didn't know the majority of them to be complete and utter disappointments. It spoke volumes that Gordes actually was their best choice to wield the third knight class.

    "A third faction?" Caules Forvedge Yggdmillennia muttered like the pathetic scum he was. "Is that even possible?"

    "It's highly unlikely. But not inconceivable," his wheelchair bound sister, Fiore, graciously informed him. "The Greater Grail has had multiple indecisive wars to build up mana. Even with the backup system and Ruler draining its reserves, a sufficiently powerful force could in theory prompt it to summon more Servants. Though what that force could be, I have no idea."

    Darnic smiled, and for once it had an element of genuine pride in it. Allowing the Forvedge siblings into Yggdmillennia had indeed proven to be a wise choice, if only since it brought him the older one. Fiore and Caules, despite their love for one another, were as different as night and day.

    Fiore was the only mage other than himself who had spent time at the Clock Tower, and thus, despite her disability, the only other master he actually trusted to be capable of taking the Association mages in a straight fight. In the ranks of Yggdmillennia, where subpar was so often the average, she possessed magic circuits of as fine a quality as any first-rate mage. Though he would show her no mercy if they both made it to the free for all portion of the war, Darnic believed he would mourn her passing, and if she survived the conflict, he would be more than happy to leave to the newly glorified Yggdmillennia in her hands after he ascended to the Root.

    Meanwhile, Caules was a mockery of everything a true mage stood for, the price to be paid for his sister's brilliance no doubt. He had no drive or ambition, no lust for evolution. Such sloth might be excusable if he were in any way remarkable, but the boy was completely hopeless at magecraft, with only some meager skills in a smattering of niche fields such as summoning and necromancy to his name, and even then, there was nothing he could do in those fields that a truly competent mage could not do better. And then there was his disgraceful dependence on technology. He even had an aptitude for it… Worst of all, he seemed to be laboring under the obscene delusion that his sister somehow depended on him.

    Really, one only needed to look at their Servants to see the disparity. While Fiore had summoned Chiron, the teacher of half the heroes in Greek Mythology, in his preferred knight class no less, Caules had barely managed to conjure the monster of Doctor Frankenstein, a filthy artificial being that lacked even the useful qualities of a cheaply constructed homunculus, as a Berserker. The mechanical creature did not have the absurdly high power of most other Servants in her class, to the extent that her Mad Enhancement skill's function wasn't so much a boost to her natural abilities so much as it made her otherwise pathetic stats merely substandard. And with her lack of any useful skills, the pair would not be of a great help in the war.

    Ideally, Darnic would keep Fiore as one of his elite hunters for the duration of the war, while Caules would serve as a pawn to be sacrificed as needed. If all went well, they could insure that Berserker's Noble Phantasm did as much damage to the Red Faction as possible, but on the other hand, it might be more useful to leave that failure alive until the final stages of the war: Something needed to be done about Fiore's debilitating compassion. It was a fine thing for a person to have, but to be truly successful in the moonlit world, one needed to focus on their goals. Empathy could cost a mage time, energy, even his life.

    Thus, in order for Fiore to be a proper candidate to succeed him as head of the family, he would need to eliminate every trace of it within her. Presently, she deluded herself into believing she could kill without regrets, but her true nature would still show itself at some point, a truly unfathomable sense of guilt sometimes even hitting her retroactively after killing a test subject. If Berserker survived, he had no doubt she would start subconsciously avoiding her brother. He would ensure she failed in that particular endeavor. The act of murdering her own brother would break her in exactly the right way to make her the perfect head of the family. Without that insufferable whelp holding her down, and with the right words to reshape her mind in any misplaced grief she might feel, she would finally be able to realize her potential. No more silly and childish games like family and morals: Just Yggdmillennia. But for now, he had to focus on this extra faction.

    "It matters little," Caster of Black, Solomon ibn Gabirol, otherwise known as Avicebron, said, making it clear that this would be the first and last time he would waste his time on this subject. "No matter how powerful the instigating catalyst, the Grail would not have the magical energy necessary to summon a whole other faction."

    "Teacher's right," Caster's Master, Roche Frain Yggdmillennia, concurred. "It's likely the ones that Gordes and Saber encountered are the only members of this new group."

    It was a useful conclusion. Truthfully, that was the best way to describe the Caster pair: useful. Useful and competent. While Avicebron was not especially powerful, he knew how to use his specialization to its fullest effect. The first Servant summoned after Darnic's own, the Light of Wisdom's workshop had been hard at work creating high quality golems for the Black Faction, the kind that take a modern magus a year to make just one of. The thousand strong army wouldn't do much against the Servants of Red, but they would ward off any additional forces the Clock Tower might send, and if they got lucky, might even get the drop on an enemy master. Not to mention that when they completed Caster's Noble Phantasm, his Golem Keter Malkuth, the war was practically theirs. And with Roche so eager to learn from his 'teacher,' who knew what ancient knowledge Yggdmillennia would have after the war.

    "What? You mean they're all alone?! Aww, that's so lonely. And totally not fair!" Rider yelled fervently. "Maybe we can go easy on them? You know? Oh! Oh! I know! I'll fight them! That should make it easy enough for them—"

    "Be silent, Rider!" Celenike barked. "We will show them no mercy, is that understood?"

    Rider rolled his eyes. "Yes, Master."

    Astolfo was even more ridiculous than Darnic had expected. Yes, his legends had told of him being insane, but he had taken that to mean the paladin would have some form of Madness Enchantment. Instead he was… bubbly… for lack of a better term. And unfortunately, his legends did not mislead about his strength. While his extraordinary Magic Resistance and the nature of his Noble Phantasms made him more useful than Berserker, he was still far from impressive. Why Celenike sought him out specifically, he did not understand.

    Though given that Celenike was… Celenike, Darnic doubted he wanted to understand. The woman was, to be frank, disgusting. Her knowledge and expertise in curses made her a deadly weapon, but in between her duties, she used those curses to kidnap and murder civilians for fun. Darnic had, from a certain point of view, done far worse things in his life, but they were all done for the sake of Yggdmillennia's prosperity. Such wanton cruelty for the sake of mere amusement was revolting and wasteful, to say nothing of how much she was risking revealing their world just to get a cheap sexual thrill.

    Overall, the Black Faction was hardly what one would call the perfect fighting force. If this was all he had, Darnic would not have dared invoke the full wrath of the Mage's Association by seceding. Fortunately, he had much more.

    Despite the few jewels in Yggdmillennia's crown, Darnic had polished it to perfection. For sixty years, he had prepared, building up a force of homunculi and devising strategies for the Holy Grail War. He had created an army of such size that even if the Red Servants could match their own, the Masters would be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the Black auxiliary forces. Add to that the lack of time the Red Faction had to assemble and prepare themselves, and Yggdmillennia's possession of the Greater Grail allowing them to fight a defensive battle behind secure fortifications, and he was confident that they would claim victory.

    And then there was his crowning jewel.

    "Few in number or not, this new group has chosen to invade this nation just as the Red Faction has," a strong, regal voice stated from behind Darnic. "As the king of this land, I cannot allow such insolence to stand. They shall receive no mercy for daring to stand against the Black Faction!"

    Darnic grinned from ear to ear. His choice for his own Servant had been the best possible option in Romania. Vlad the Third's abilities would be boosted exponentially in Romania under normal circumstances due to the boost afforded by his fame, but with his Demonic Defender of the State skill in effect, that bonus was doubled. There was an essence of danger about him that would terrify lesser men. But those had only be the boons that were expected.

    What Darnic hadn't counted on was just how efficient Lancer would be. Though he had no illusions about a Servant being anything more than a familiar, not even he could deny that the King of Romania had a certain charisma about him, an aura that oozed overwhelming competence and confidence. Indeed, Darnic found himself liking and respecting his Servant more than he could remember any other person. Though his adamant refusal to use his second Noble Phantasm, Legend of Dracula, was worrying, the head of Yggdmillennia had no issue handing him the reins of the Black Faction. Between the two of them, he was the more experienced one when it came to commanding an army after all.

    Besides, Kazikli Bey would be more than sufficient to claim victory.

    Vlad looked to Saber. "What is your assessment of the enemy Servants?"

    Siegfried had proven himself to be the perfect solider. Powerful, efficient, and unquestioningly obedient, the Dragon Slaying Knight was a finer Servant than Gordes deserved. The fool had actually commanded the hero to be silent unless spoken to by him, as if that would improve their communication at all. Darnic had learned from experience that even if a Servant was a weapon, treating them with respect provided many benefits for the war. It had with Fionn, and so far, had done the same with Vlad.

    Fortunately, Lancer held higher authority than Gordes, which meant that Siegfried was permitted to ignore his Master's foolish order. "They were exceptional to the utmost. Of the two, I would say Lancer of Red is the greater threat, but Saber of Periwinkle is also a warrior of impressive skill. I believe she possesses some element of a dragon, but her power is such that I would consider her my equal still."

    Darnic frowned. That was worrying. Siegfried's entire legend was based around dragon slaying. If this Servant was on par with him despite that advantage, what threat did she pose to the rest of their Servants? And to think the Red Faction had a hero even stronger than that…

    Lancer remained calm, his brow furrowed in contemplation. "So, they are worthy foes… none should confront them save Saber or myself. Any other would be annihilated."

    The rest of the masters and Servants nodded their understanding. None of them had any particular wish to die.

    Fiore turned to Gordes. "What about the Masters? You said you fought them, Uncle Gordes."

    Gordes became red in the face. He scratched the back of his head nervously. "The Red Master was a coward. He didn't show himself. And the other girl didn't have the guts to face me herself."

    "And you just let her stand there?" Celenike sniped, biting down hard on the corner of her lip. "You do understand that we're supposed to kill the enemy whether they like it or not, right?"

    "You think I didn't try!" Gordes shouted. "She had some stooge with her. He had twin swords and moved like a demon! He pierced right through my metal arm. I was lucky to get away with my life!"

    Darnic's eye twitched. "You lost… to a mere swordsman?"

    Gordes' eyes went wide, as if he finally realized the depths of his failure. "He wasn't a normal swordsman! The weapons—! He-he created them out of nothing! It was like some strange form of Gradation Air!"

    "Do you mean to tell me," Darnic snarled, "that you were beaten into submission, not by a mage… but by her apprentice's rudimentary projection magic?! Even a child is capable of momentarily conjuring a weapon. How feeble is that alchemical armor spell you say you were using that it could be penetrated by a weapon that doesn't even exist! I expect you to be able to deal with a child, Gordes."

    His tone made it clear that such incompetence was not to become a habit. Failure to retrieve Ruler was understandable, indeed even preferable to antagonizing her. But to be so soundly trumped by the minion of an enemy master, a minion who sounded like he could barely even be called a mage, was unacceptable.

    Gordes backed away, cowering by Saber, hoping that the hero could defend him from Darnic's wrath if it came to that.

    Fortunately, Lancer saw fit to raise a hand before Darnic put himself out a master.

    "Being caught off guard is an understandable reason for defeat, Darnic," Lancer reasoned. "Though you should take care to avoid repeating it, as should we all. Is there anything else you can remember about this Master or her ally?"

    Gordes scratched his chin in contemplation. "Erm… let's see… Well… she called herself Toh—no. No, that must have been a lie. But there was… the boy. He had Black Command Seals on his right hand."

    "Black Command Seals?" Caules asked incredulously. "Does that mean something important?"

    "I'm not sure," Fiore muttered. "Did he have a Servant?"

    "No," Gordes responded. "His behavior would suggest that the girl's Saber was their only Servant."

    Darnic stewed in silence as his faction theorized. Most of the suggestions were wild guesswork, the fanciful tales of those grasping at straws. Unlike his family, he had spent decades studying the Greater Grail, and knew its workings better than anyone alive. Yet, he had never heard of anyone possessing Command Seals of any color but the traditional red.

    It was disturbing. First Assassin's tardiness, the Red Faction making a pointless play for Ruler, and now this extra group mocking their factions. For all his preparation, this Great Holy Grail War just kept surprising him.

    "Enough," Lancer declared. The king rose to his feet, his stature grand and inspiring. Even his constant aura of underlying dread could not thwart his honest majesty. "Another Master. Another faction. It makes no difference. Even if ten thousand Servants from one thousand factions were to be called to this war, there are none I would rather have by my side than those in this room. Our enemies may come, one at a time or all together. It doesn't matter. The Black Faction will be victorious!"

    The Servants and Masters in the room, even stoic Siegfried and mad Celenike, all smiled at the king's proclamation. Darnic himself couldn't help but join in. Even if he lacked the Charisma Skill, Vlad certainly knew how to make a grand speech.

    "And if the Red Faction, or the Periwinkle Faction, wishes to test that resolve, they will fall on our stakes!"

    Darnic's smile vanished.

    The rest of the group filed out of the throne room, leaving master and Servant alone.

    Darnic sighed. "We really must find some other way to refer to them. Periwinkle is simply too ridiculous to take seriously."

    "Nonsense, master," Vlad gently retorted as he retook his place on the throne. "No matter how preposterous our enemy's standard, it is the one they have chosen to fight under. Unusual though their existence may be, the Periwinkle Faction conducted themselves honorably during this incident with Ruler. They have earned our respect and we shall grant it to them and refer to them properly."

    Darnic felt a spike of irritation rise in him but squashed it down instantly. He bowed before Lancer. "As you say, my lord."

    At the moment, he possessed an exemplary relationship with his Servant. Though he had given Vlad far more freedom than most Masters allowed, even referring to him with the honorifics his past kingship would demand, the Hero of the Spear had never abused the position he had been elevated to, even continuing to acknowledge and speak of Darnic as his Master. And with the entire war ahead of them, including the fast approaching Berserker of Red, he would hold his tongue when he had to.

    Besides, what Master would waste breath reprimanding their Servant over something so trivial?

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Shirou Kotomine sighed. "It really is not that funny."

    "Oh…eheheh— but Master…snrk!— it is! Periwinkle!" Assassin of Red covered her mouth again to keep herself from cackling out loud.

    The Ancient Empress of Assyria, the World's First Poisoner, was partaking in her own equivalent of rolling around on the church's floor, chortling her stomach out. She sat gracefully upon one of the pews, one leg crossed over the other, clutching at her sides with the fingers of one hand as she covered her mouth with the side of the other. She seemed to have a very different opinion on the matter. Her laughter was a mere titter when it even escaped her lips which she had sealed tight, but the shaking of her shoulders and the mirth in her eyes betrayed how amusing she found this.

    Shirou shook his head in resignation. Lancer stood before him stoically, speechless since delivering his report about what happened on the highway. The final Servant present more than made up for it.

    "Yet markt I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
    It fell upon a little western flower,
    Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,

    And now purple has turned to periwinkle, and the blossoming flower heralds the arrival of a brave new faction into this Great Holy Grail War!"

    That finally stole the laughter from Semiramis. Her bright smile evaporated as if it was never there in the first place and she gingerly rose to her feet. "Must you spoil everything with your insufferable pomp?"

    Caster of Red, William Shakespeare, grinned brazenly. "What news could be more deserving of such bombast, my dear empress? The once clearly set path of fate has been overtaken by an impenetrable fog, our certain destiny lost to the winds of chaos and the whims of creation!" he spread his arms wide. "It is here the hero's mettle shall be tested, as his best laid plans edge ever closer to crushing desolation!"

    "Doubtful," Karna countered dispassionately. "Though Saber of Periwinkle is undoubtedly a formidable warrior, I should have little trouble defeating her."

    From most people, such words would sound as arrogant boasting, but Shirou knew better in Karna's case. The Hero of Charity, blunt as he could be, was not the blustering type. His words were merely his honest observation, with no malicious intent whatsoever. And with the tremendous power the Lancer of Red possessed, Shirou did not doubt him. He could likely defeat most of the Black Faction all at once if he were to face them in a straight battle.

    Thus, it was imperative that Karna did not discover his plans until such time that Shirou had seized the Greater Grail. If he lost control of his trump card, who knew if he could overcome Yggdmillennia's fortifications. The task was made more difficult by Karna's ability to detect any lie, but Shirou never liked lying anyway. With Semiramis and Shakespeare both helping him, he should have little trouble keeping the truth from the other Servants of Red.







    That is, if Shakespeare didn't tell them just to see what would happen.

    Shirou sighed. He couldn't worry about that now. Until such time as he had revealed himself, he couldn't risk using a Command Seal on any Servant but Semiramis, lest the others get suspicious. For now, he'd just have to trust the bard to be true to his word. He just had to keep going.

    He was almost there.

    "Do you have any other information about the Periwinkle Faction?" he asked Karna. "I know of Shirou Emiya, but did you learn the names of the others?"

    "I have my suspicions of Saber of Periwinkle's True Name," Karna revealed. "However, as I have no way to be sure quite yet, it could be harmful to set you upon a possible false trail."

    Understandable. If Karna revealed his suspicions, Shirou could misinterpret clues to her true identity to be leading towards the supposed heroic spirit. It was a minor concern, but still best avoided if possible.

    "As for her Master, I believe she was referred to by the name Tohsaka."

    Shirou's heart skipped a beat. His smile fell away to be replaced by a look of concern.

    "I'm sorry, Lancer, I must have misheard you. Could you please repeat that?"

    Karna sighed. "Just because you desire not to have heard it does not mean that your ears have deceived you, priest. However, it is of no object to repeat myself. The girl was referred to by her allies as Tohsaka."

    Shirou turned and staggered away from the Servants. He leaned against one of the pews, his eyes wide his shock and his mind whirling with disbelief.

    "That is impossible!" Semiramis declared with indignation. "The Tohsaka bloodline was wiped out in the Third Holy Grail War. You must have been mistaken."

    "That is possible but doubtful, Assassin," Lancer replied. "I know what I heard, and you should be well aware of what I am capable of learning with Discernment of the Poor. I am merely relaying what I know to you. What you choose to do with it, is your own business."

    Shirou rangled with himself and took a deep breath. "Thank you, Lancer. You've done good work tonight. Please prepare to provide support to Archer and Rider if their effort to retrieve Berserker spirals into something more."

    Lancer nodded. "As you wish. Though I do warn you priest, you are not my Master. It would be improper for you to command me as such."

    With that, Karna astralized and was gone.

    Semiramis huffed. "The nerve of that fool. If he only knew the truth, he would not speak with such impertinence."

    "He means well," Shirou muttered, though he was too distracted to put much effort into the reproof.

    Semiramis turned to him. She frowned worriedly. "Are you alright, Master?"

    Shirou shook his head fervently. He did his best to give Semiramis a pleasant smile. "I'm alright, I assure you. It's just… a Tohsaka. I thought they were all gone. I thought I had failed them all."

    Shakespeare walked forward and clapped the priest on the back. "You place too little faith in the endurance of the hunted, Master. For though noble Banquo was slain, young Fleance was far able enough to escape the murderers' knives."

    Shirou gathered the playwright was alluding to one of his many works, though being only halfway through the complete collection the Caster had gifted him, he was unsure which he referred to. Still, the meaning was easy enough to comprehend, even if it didn't apply.

    "I checked, Caster!" Shirou protested. He caught himself before he shouted again however, and lowered his voice, taking a deep breath. "So, did my father. We searched for the Master and his kin for weeks after the Third War. We found all of them, each one slaughtered. Even after that, Risei kept his ears open for years, praying that we'd missed something, that there had been an illegitimate child we weren't informed of. Anything to suggest that they hadn't all been exterminated."

    He felt the beginnings of tears peak up behind his eyes, but he squashed them down instantly. This news was tearing him in two, dragging his failures to the surface and amplifying them, for not only had he been unable to save the Tohsakas he knew of, but he had left the lone survivor to fend for herself in the midst of the cruel, sinful world.

    He had cast off his emotions to prevent such turmoil, and yet, as the hour neared where he would need to be composed the most, he found himself collapsing.

    Assassin gave him a sympathetic glance. "You really shouldn't tear yourself up over this, Master," she insisted. "If you found them all, you found them all. This girl, whoever she is, must be some imposter. A pretender who's using the name to make herself appear more dangerous than she is. After all, if she was a Tohsaka, wouldn't she have contacted her family's dear friend Risei Kotomine, or at least his son?"

    Shirou's eyes widened. "She did."

    Both Semiramis and Shakespeare raised their eyebrows in confusion.

    "I thought you said you'd never met her?" his Servant inquired.

    "I haven't," Shirou confirmed. "But according to Emiya, my brother has."

    Shakespeare's face lit up like the heavens themselves. "A brother?! My dear Master, I am astounded! To think the Saint of times long past possesses kin still on this Earth!" He spread his arms wide, as he shouted as boisterously as his eloquent tone would allow, "What a plot turning revelation! An unpredictable twist!"

    Semiramis glared daggers at him. "I remember that boy mentioning you had a brother, but I assumed after you didn't bring it up that the matter was unimportant."

    Shirou cringed, bashfully rubbing the back of his head. "It's not that I was trying to hide it. I just didn't have any reason to mention him until now. We were never especially close, and I haven't seen him since Risei's funeral."

    Shakespeare wriggled his eyebrows mischievously. "Ah! A case of Edgar and Edmund. But which is the legitimate and which is the bastard?"

    Shirou frowned. "Caster, this is a house of the Lord. Please refrain from such language. Besides, neither Kirei nor I have such issues with the other, we merely haven't had as much interaction as most brothers have. He traveled with our father on pilgrimages when he was young, while I worked towards obtaining the Grail. We never had the time to see each other."

    Well, that and his fear of the anomaly he sensed within Kirei. A fear he might have to confront quite soon.

    After all, if Kirei had taught this supposed Tohsaka magecraft like Emiya claimed, then he would be able to confirm if she was who she claimed to be.

    But so close to his goal, to the salvation of all humanity, could he take that risk?

    Could he not? Even with the third faction going after Yggdmillennia, he'd have to face them eventually. They'd already thwarted his attempt to eliminate Ruler. Against such a dangerous foe, did he not need every scrap of information he could get?

    After all, if this Master of Periwinkle had proven anything in the past few days, it was that she was a strategic mastermind of the highest caliber.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    "Okay, so the 'three,' in this case, the 'A,' is multiplied by itself. You do the same thing for the 'four' over here," said Rin.

    Jeanne nodded, eyes focused on the scene in front of her.

    "So now this here, can you tell me what it is?"

    "Um… it's a nine and a sixteen, so… twenty-five?"

    "And what is the square root of that?"

    "Umm… I still don't understand what that means…" Jeanne whimpered.

    "What times itself makes twenty-five?"

    "Oh! Five!"

    "Correct!" Rin proclaimed proudly, a wide grin shining across her face. "Now, just remember that A squared plus B squared equals C squared, and you'll be all set for this next part."

    Ruler gasped, her eyes widening in awe. "Incredible! You are a genius, Master of Periwinkle."

    Rin's could only smile in embarrassment. "It's nothing really. I was at the top of my class back in high-school. Solving these problems is child's play for me, but I still barely use any of it anymore. I'm actually forgetting a lot of it."

    "Nevertheless, you have my deepest thanks." Ruler narrowed her eyes at the notebook. "To think, such infernal concepts would exist in the Lord's beautiful world."

    Saber raised an eyebrow. "Do you truly hate arithmetic so, Ruler?"

    Ruler froze like a deer in the headlights.

    Jeanne's paralyzed face slowly shifted into a sullen frown. "I hate no man, woman, or child on God's earth. There is no person I do not love."

    "Just not math," Rin snarked.

    "Numbers aren't people!" she fumed, giving the chuckling Saber a half-hearted stink-eye.

    "Indeed. The moment you stat seeing your men as mere statistics is the moment one loses their humanity. As such, to defeat this beast before you, you must become a beast yourself." Saber performed the delivery with a completely straight face before letting it drop and looking away to hide her amusement.

    "Y-You would surely not find this nearly as amusing if you were the one attempting it!"

    "I agree," Saber nodded. "I will confess that I feel some measure of relief knowing that you are the one who needs to solve these problems, rather than I."

    The three women sat together at a picnic table outside a cheap motel. Inside, Shirou was preparing dinner, while Rin had decided to engage their companion in conversation under the stars. They were close to Millennia Citadel, and who knew if Ruler would stay with them once they encountered this person Zelretch was so eager for them to meet. She needed to pump the Saint for information about these revelations of hers while she still could.

    "Erm, also, what did you mean by 'this next part?'" Jeanne asked.

    "Well, what I just showed you was a very simple example of prerequisite knowledge. This thing on the page here is the actual problem. You're supposed to be applying the Pythagorean Theorem to this problem over here…" Rin sighed, pointing at the page the textbook was opened to, "Which means I have to teach you Sine Law. And Cosine and Tangent Laws."

    Jeanne's already worried expression fell away to be replaced by absolute dread.

    "Did Laeticia direct you to pack a scientific calculator?" Rin asked.

    "The object that matches that description was one of the many items that got mangled by a passing truck."

    "Abandon all hope."

    Ruler looked pale.

    "We'll figure something out. I'm sure there's a store that sells office supplies in one of the neighboring cities. Incidentally, I can't remember any of those trigonometry laws, so I'll need to borrow your textbook."

    Her way in turned out to be an assortment of notebooks splayed across the table. Apparently, when Ruler had taken control of Laeticia's body, she had agreed to do her best to keep the girl's life on track as much as possible. Since she couldn't attend her classes while performing her duties, Ruler had decided to keep her word by completing Laeticia's homework in her downtime. Unfortunately, despite her supernatural abilities and renown as a Servant, Jeanne still had the education of a fifteenth century peasant girl, hardly sufficient to conduct twenty-first century math.

    Or any math, really. At least, anything beyond rudimentary addition and subtraction. Quite frankly, it was a miracle that she had caught on to multiplication so quickly. Or rather, it was only thanks to the Grail. When one thought about it, the two were basically the same thing.

    "I've gotta say, this is incredibly basic stuff. I mean, you're still leagues away from things like logarithms or even factoring polynomials. Or even factoring in general. I'm gonna be honest, you should focus on another subject. At your current level, what you're attempting to do is impossible. It's literally going from simple multiplication to trigonometry in a single step. It can't be done."

    "But—but I promised Laeticia…"

    The Tohsaka mage chuckled at the Saint's feeble protests. "You can always focus on different subjects. I'm sure you're more than capable of writing a compare and contrast essay on a pair of books, or… I dunno, does she have a visual arts class? Come to think of it, shouldn't Laeticia be able to help you through these things? I mean she's gotta be in there somewhere, right?" she pointed vaguely at Jeanne's forehead.

    "I don't know," Jeanne answered despondently, "I feel like she's been asleep for a very long time."

    "Can't you, like, cede control of her body back to her, or something?"

    "That is impossible without me vanishing completely."

    "Okay, you're definitely in a rough spot… I can sympathize. I guess… my only advice is to try and wake her up."

    Her mouth blossomed into a catlike grin. "So, Ruler, I was wondering, since I have been helping you with this, would you be willing to tell us a bit more about your revelations?"

    Ruler sighed. "Rin, my revelations are not so easy to discuss and even if they were, I cannot disclose exclusive information to any faction. The only one I can speak with you about is the one about the silver haired men, and even that is only due to Shirou's involvement in it."

    "That's fine" Rin declared. The other visions would be useful, but the one involving Shirou was the one that concerned her the most. "I was actually wondering; did you recognize either of the men you saw?"

    "No. I can't say I did," Jeanne replied. "Other than their red garments and dark skin, I can say for certain that both men were Japanese, but nothing that might hint at their identities. Do you have a theory?"

    Rin bit her lip, mulling over whether she could risk discussing her old Archer with Ruler. But, if you couldn't trust a Saint…

    "Have you ever heard of the Heroic Spirit EMIYA?"

    Jeanne nodded. "I have. I had some limited contact with the Counter Force during my life. After my ascension to the Throne of Heroes, I looked into what Guardians I could find. That particular Hero of Justice had one of the finest records I had ever…" her eyes widened. "Wait… Shirou… is he…?"

    "No," Rin said, perhaps a little too quickly. "And he never will be."

    Jeanne looked down. "I see. So the heroic spirit was from another timeline. Still, to see that one may enter the Throne for doing such terrible things. How could he not become cynical? Is his attitude a mask?"

    "Shirou is not a cynic, and it took a great deal of trauma to shape him into the one we met in the previous War," Saber assured their guest. "Our Shirou, however, is still perhaps a little… overzealous… when it comes to saving others, but he is far from one who dwells on his own suffering to the exclusion of all else. That is a trait he can only develop after killing more people than he could cope with."

    "I don't see how he couldn't," Jeanne confessed. "While such perseverance is admirable, how could it not give out after so much—"

    "Dinner's ready!" Shirou shouted, coming over to the table with a veritable feast in his arms. Soon, the picnic table was covered with steaming, delectable dishes of both East and West.

    First to land on the table was a pan of stir-fried vegetables with beef strips, closely followed by macaroni and cheese with leeks and roasted tomato. Yotsumi yakitori was put out with a couple of dipping sauces that he had probably made from scratch. Saber was looking a little disappointed that a certain side dish seemed to be missing until Shirou went back inside and brought out a plate stacked high with rice balls, likely with various fillings, and she grinned excitedly. And it went so well with everything on the table!

    "I didn't know what Ruler would like, so I just tried to make as much of a variety as I could with the ingredients we had on hand" Shirou explained. "That alright, Ruler?"

    Ruler couldn't respond, as both she and Saber had their gazes locked on the magnificent banquet before them.

    Rin leaned into the Saint with a smirk. "You were saying?"

    "Such wonderful aromas… the taste must be euphoria itself…"

    "Welcome to heaven, Ruler," Saber said, grinning. From her perspective, it had only been a few days since she last ate Shirou's cooking, but she was already incredibly eager to have it again.

    "Dig in everybody," Shirou said.

    The words had barely left his mouth before the blonde Servants assaulted the menagerie of meals, each one eagerly stacking their selections, gobbling them up only once they couldn't fit anything else on their plates, and both were somehow managing to do it with impeccable manners. It was like watching a mirror move from both sides. If it weren't for her familiarity with Saber and Jeanne's much longer hair, Rin wasn't sure she could have told them apart.
    Shirou went back inside and a minute later came back out with more food.

    "Wohtsh jhmpph—!" Jeanne caught herself before continuing. She chewed, swallowed, and took a breath before trying to speak again. "Begging your pardon," she blushed, "I just wanted to ask; what are those?" she pointed at a bowl stacked with 'chips.'

    "French fries," Shirou said, putting them on the table alongside some tempura he had brought out at the same time. Ruler just looked more confused. "Fried potato strips. Origin debatable, but they're probably not from France."

    "I just want to know where you found a deep fryer," Rin asked.

    "The motel kitchen."

    Rin gave him a look.

    "What? A member of the staff walked by our room while I was coming out with the stir fry and offered to let me use some of the kitchen staff's ingredients if I also helped cook dinner for the guests at the motel restaurant at dinner tonight."

    "Shirou, are you serious?" Rin sighed in exasperation.

    "I can't help it if people like my food."

    "Yeah, but letting them rope you into doing the jobs of their staff is on a completely different level of ridiculous altruism."

    "They said they'd reimburse me for any ingredients I used that they didn't provide themselves, so I figured that as long as we don't have anything to lose…" he trailed off. Rin didn't try to argue. There was really no point anyway. Besides, if he was going to do someone else's chores for absolutely no reason, at least he was just cooking. It was the one thing she knew he always loved to do.

    Indeed, Rin had a pleased smirk on her face as she took some of the yakitori and rice. Shirou's cooking was often a more powerful bargaining chip than he knew, and if Jeanne enjoyed it as much as Saber, Rin might just be able to get a dearly desired favor out of her.

    Shirou smiled as everyone ate. "So, how is everything?"

    Saber nodded. She bit into the last bit of meat on her last skewer of yakitori and pulled it off the stick, sighing and grinning with clear satisfaction, having devoured nearly half the food on the table. "Yes. I'm glad to know your cooking skills remain as unparalleled as ever. I'll have seconds at your convenience."
    "Yeah, I figured you might," Shirou chuckled. "I've already got some stuff in the oven, although the hotel is requesting that some of it be served at dinner."
    "May I please have more as well, Shirou?" Ruler requested eagerly, and Rin noticed that the dishes of the other half of the meal had begun to pile up in front of the arbiter.

    Shirou's eyes went wide. "Oh. Sure, Ruler. But I only expected to feed one person with Saber's appetite."

    Ruler's face fell. "Oh, I see. You only have enough for one."

    "No, it's just—"

    "Hmm… You two may have to split the seconds," Rin piped up.

    Everyone's gazes locked onto the young Tohsaka: Ruler's was hopeful, Saber's bespoke mild panic, and Shirou just looked plain confused.

    'Tohsaka, what are you talking about?' Shirou inquired through their gem link. 'It might take me a bit more time to make another course for Ruler, but I can do it.'

    'She doesn't know that, Shirou,' Rin reasoned. 'And that means we can use it as leverage.'

    She could feel Shirou's disapproving frown. 'We are not using my food to strong-arm her into betraying her duties, Rin. Also, can't you see how distressed Saber feels about the idea?'

    To be fair, Saber did look quite distressed. Rin rolled her eyes. 'Relax Shirou. I don't want to turn her against us by trying to force her to do something against her will. This is just a way to add extra incentive.'

    'This is distastefully underhanded, Master,' Saber protested. 'I thought you above such knavery.'

    'You just don't want to share the food.'

    "Shirou made it for me!" Saber protested aloud, her sudden outburst earning a curious glance from Ruler.

    'And you left us on an out of control motorcycle. Consider this your punishment.'

    Saber crossed her arms and pouted, but she did not speak up.

    Rin sighed. She turned back to Ruler with a huge smile.

    "Ruler, I was wondering if, in exchange for Saber generously sacrificing half her food to you, you might be willing to do us a little favor."

    Jeanne's eyes narrowed at Rin, but the sudden growling of her stomach forced her to look away in embarrassment. "Erm… That depends on what you had in mind."

    Rin grinned. "Well, as Ruler, you are in charge of certain… aspects of the Grail War. So, this would include things like… just for example, faction color designations, correct?"

    Ruler raised an eyebrow. "…Yes? Yes, it would. Why do you ask?"

    "Perfect!"

    Rin's smirk widened. A few clouds overhead began gathering ominously overhead.

    "In exchange for a second helping," she said, "you must change our faction color into something that isn't Periwinkle."

    The clouds dispersed.

    Shirou sighed, resting his head in one hand. "Really? Rin, it's not that bad a color."

    "I cannot believe I've sacrificed half of my food for this…" Saber mumbled dejectedly.

    A letter addressed to Rin appeared in a tiny conflagration of prismatic sparks. For once, she eagerly opened it up.


    My Dear Apprentice,
    I confess that you are allowed to change your color as many times as you like. I am actually a little surprised that you didn't immediately see my Periwinkle joke for what it was. Credit where it is due, you normally see through such trifles. Given the fact that Red is already taken, I would recommend Blue or Green.
    Warmest regards,

    K.Z.S.


    Rin groaned.

    "Damn that old man," she whined. On the other hand, he had all but given her his word that he wouldn't interfere. That was enough to wipe the frown from her face. She had this in the bag. She would finally be rid of that ridiculous color. Not for blue though. Anything but that.

    Ruler quirked an eyebrow in confusion, then shrugged. "I doubt that anyone has ever sought to do such a thing before. Then again, I suppose it is within my power. And it isn't against the rules of the Holy Grail War. Very well, I'll do it. Do you have any preference for the new color?"

    Rin leaned back, looking very pleased with this outcome. "I don't care. As long as it isn't periwinkle, I don't care. Erm—not blue though."

    Saber blinked.

    "Why ever not?" she asked, "It seems perfectly reasonable to me. In fact, I would quite enjoy having that as our new standard."

    "Blue is Luvia's color, not mine! I am not fighting under my arch-nemesis' banner!"

    "Arch-nemesis? Is that not a touch melodramatic? Luvia is a wonderful…" Saber paused mid-sentence and sidled her way over to Shirou. "Who is this Luvia character?"

    "Luviagelita Edelfelt," Shirou whispered back. "Imagine Rin but Finnish, a little more conniving, and much more aware of her social status. To be clear about why Rin's upset, she's partial to wearing blue dresses, so she kind of associates the color blue with her."

    "So this other woman has good taste? Why the animosity?"

    "They're rivals. But the truth of the matter is that they're probably also best friends. Never let either of them hear you suggest that. They just think they hate each other because they see their own faults in the other. As I said, they're shockingly alike. Never suggest that in front of them either."

    Rin's eyebrow twitched. He did realize she was sitting right there? No matter how quiet he was, she was going to hear him.

    Saber nodded, appearing to understand. Nevertheless…

    "I still hold that blue is an appropriate banner for us to fight under," she said, speaking up again.

    "You've got no hope of me agreeing to that," Rin fired back.

    Jeanne sighed. Such a difficult woman.

    "You can't deny that blue is easier to get used to than periwinkle. And it's not like red is available anyway."

    "I know, but—"

    "Who's more important to you, Saber or Luvia?" Shirou asked firmly.

    The answer wasn't even up for debate. Regardless of the length of time spent with one another, there was an obvious answer.

    "…Saber," Rin said, not meeting Shirou's eyes.

    "So can't you try and think of Blue as being Saber's color rather than Luvia's?"

    Rin shrank back just a little. She really didn't want to, but on the other hand, if she allowed herself to think rationally, it was the reasonable thing to do: It was simple (and more importantly, not embarrassing), and it would make Saber happy. And considering that Saber wore so much blue, it was kind of fitting. Still…

    Rin scratched her head in frustration. "Fine, I'll go with Blue."

    Saber seemed happy about this decision. She took some measure of comfort in that. It was about as much as she could get.

    "Very well." Ruler stood up and summoned her flag. She slammed the pole into the earth, the magnificent banner glowing a brilliant gold against the growing evening shadows. "By the power invested in me as Ruler, True Name: Jeanne D'Arc, Arbiter of the Great Holy Grail War, I revoke the standard of this faction."

    Rin could practically feel her heart ease. No more laughter, no more mockery. She could focus all her attention on utterly annihilating the other factions. Still, it was Luvia's… No, don't think about it that way. She had enough integrity to see it as a representation of Saber, at least for a little while.

    "From now on, I declare this group, the Blue Faction!"

    A soft whine escaped from Rin's throat. "I feel like I'm just trading one headache for another…"

    "Thank you, Master," Saber lit up. "However, if you find you're unable to abide with this color, we can simply change it again. I'll not stop you."

    "No. It's fine," she sighed in resignation. After all, changing their faction name every other day would be even more ridiculous than leaving it as Periwinkle.

    Jeanne smiled at Arturia. "It does seem most appropriate. You are the only Servant in this faction, and you do seem to wear a great deal of blue. Also, it corresponds well with red and black."

    Rin found, to her continued frustration, that she couldn't argue with that.

    As the two blonde Servants got to talking about their color preferences and what came of that, Rin could barely breathe. She'd gotten rid of the ridiculous standard her master had stuck her with but now was forced to fight under the iconic standard of her rival.



    No. Blue was Saber's color before Luvia's. She got there first. The fact that she'd known Luvia for longer didn't have to mean anything. Shirou was right: She'd get used to this.

    Jeanne reached into her bag and found a book. She had to have been incredibly lucky that it hadn't burned up in Karna's initial attack. Rin only recognized the title, Les Miserables, due to its fame as a Broadway musical. She had only a few vague memories of what the story was about from a few times she'd heard people talking about it in some of her classes. Actually, if memory served, Luvia had actually mentioned it once or twice. Maybe that Finnish demon had her uses after all.

    "Do you think you could help me with this?" Jeanne asked, looking up at Rin. "Supposedly, I'm to read this with an aim to consider the themes present in the novel and compare them to another piece of literature, but I'm unsure what these themes might be."

    Rin found she couldn't help but smile. This book was thick, and it definitely looked boring, but she'd powered through harder material when she was still learning with her father, to say nothing of what she had to read for Zelretch. This would just be another challenge, but it would still be a break from some of the more trying material.

    "Okay, Ruler. You're starting from the beginning, right?"

    Jeanne nodded.

    "Then I'll just start by explaining a few basics: Themes, in this regard, are recurring plot elements or concepts that arise over and over again throughout the story. In this, I've heard that one of the central themes is Justice as a concept?"

    Shirou nodded. "Yeah, that's definitely one of them. Justice, what constitutes it, what lengths one is willing to go to in order to uphold it in their minds, and where it gets taken too far."

    Rin quirked an eyebrow. "I think? It'd be smarter to just start reading and go from there. Once you get started, I should only need to help you a little. Unlike those math problems, you should be able to catch on to this."

    Ruler grinned. "Thank you, Tohsaka. I really do appreciate this. I'm truly sorry for causing you so much trouble."

    "You've already done me a pretty big favor. No need to apologize. So, shall we begin?"

    "Of course."

    Shirou headed back inside to continue cooking, but for now, Rin had to focus on the girl she was tutoring. It was clear to her that Jeanne had a long night ahead of her. But this would be a trifle compared to the challenges Rin expected they would all have to face.

    Indeed, this was merely the first long night in a series of much, much longer ones.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    New pieces arrive on the board and the other factions react to Periwinkle's arrival, all the while unaware that Periwinkle no longer exists. Poor Rin, she went to all that trouble and the other factions have no way of knowing they've changed their name.

    [Draconic: In the original draft, the concluding line in Darnic's segment about the Master of Periwinkle being a brilliant strategist was just a segue leading into a gag in which Tohsaka explained the Pythagorean Theorum in much simpler terms. I altered the scene a lot. Besides adding the specifics about the food Shirou prepared, the conversation about it, and how he managed to cook at a motel, I also had Rin and Shirou tutoring Jeanne more thoroughly. To an extent at least.]

    Trifas draws ever closer. What will happen there, who can say (other than me, of course, but I'm not telling).


    Thank you for Reading! I hope you enjoy what comes next!


    Go Forth and Conquer!
    Last edited by Draconic; June 12th, 2019 at 11:54 AM.

  3. #23
    Knight of Joestar SirGauoftheSquareTable's Avatar
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    Can't resist, but I still wonder why Shirou didn't bring Cu into the pro-Blue argument?  Blue was HIS color as well, and all the members of the current Blue Faction would no doubt be well-disposed towards him, since he is the reason they all are still alive.
    Quote Originally Posted by Deathhappens View Post
    Really, all 3 of the romances in F/SN are 'for want of a nail' kind of situations.
    Quote Originally Posted by forumghost View Post
    You mean because Shirou winds up falling for the first of the three that he Nailed?
    Quote Originally Posted by Tobias View Post
    I speak for the majority of important people* *a category comprised entirely of myself

  4. #24
    Hey, I ain’t no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    Chapter 6

    The chapter for August!

    Beta-ed by Draconic

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Shirou found himself in a familiar world. Ever since his Grail War, he’d gone there every night, pulling new swords from the dusty terrain of the barren hill.

    But it was not his Unlimited Blade Works he found himself in. Instead of an amber horizon, the sky was blotted out with huge, billowing clouds of steam and soot. Giant gears towered above him in the distance, the massive mechanisms slowly churning about like the bellows of a mighty forge.

    Shirou couldn’t help but smile just a bit. The last time he was here, the gears had been rusted and stalled. He was glad to know that even if this world was still that of a machine, its owner had at least regained the will to move forward. He didn’t know how long it would be for, and Rin didn’t tell him what she spoke of with this world’s owner, but she had assured Shirou that this man had been sorted out.

    Speaking of…

    “I certainly didn’t expect to see you here again.”

    Shirou looked up at a massive barren hill, the only natural protrusion in the otherwise flat and desolate expanse. At its blade covered peak was the speaker, a tall, dark-skinned man with silver hair and a crimson mantle.

    Though it had been years since they’d last seen each other, Shirou could never forget him. After all, the man was him.

    He strode over to the bottom of the hill.

    “No offense intended, but I just want to confirm,” Shirou began with a wary expression, “that you aren’t going to try and kill me the moment I come up there. Are you?”

    “If you mean to ask whether I’d take issue with it, I certainly wouldn’t have any problem maiming you, but I get the impression even that would upset a certain someone.”

    Shirou realized, with some mild irritation, that he actually found that slightly amusing.

    He climbed the mild slope of the hill to join the Heroic Spirit at the top. For a while, they just stood there, side by side, gazing at the sparse rays of light that just barely managed to pierce through the soot-plagued firmament.

    “How is Rin?” Archer inquired.

    Shirou smirked. Of course he’d ask that. There weren’t all that many people he gave a damn about. “She’s Rin,” he said, “She’s brilliant. That scheming sort of clever that makes you worry about what she might be plotting and whether you’re already her accomplice. Strong. Always trying put up a front in the hopes that no one will realize she cares.”

    “Does she still stand around with a dumbstruck look on her face when certain people make novice mistakes?”

    “Thinking of anyone in particular?”

    “Whatever would give you that idea?” the man smirked, not caring whether he was caught in such a blatant lie. “And does she still get flustered by the most benign things?”

    “She’s been getting better,” Shirou insisted.

    “She’s more or less unshakable,” Archer chuckled. “But if what you’re suggesting is that she doesn’t break out in a cold sweat at the mere thought of using a cellphone, I’ll believe that when I see it.”

    “That’s an entirely different subject. But yes, she still has a gift for technology.”

    They stood together in silence. Most would consider such a situation awkward, but with the two of them it was certainly an improvement to their usual relationship.

    Neither of them could tolerate the other. Archer was living proof that Shirou’s dream would never bring him peace, while Shirou was an indisputable reminder to Archer that despite the pain it brought him, his path had not been wrong. They were perversions of each other in a way, the boy determined to save everyone, and the man who cursed the fact that he’d tried. Yet, despite their distortions, they were natural extensions of each other, the beautiful beginning and the tragic conclusion of the path of heroism.

    Perhaps that was why they were managing to tolerate each other. Though they could never wholly accept each other, they could acknowledge the other’s strengths, and through them, both grow stronger. And more importantly, there was their mutual bonds with both Rin and Saber. Even if they might never truly be friends, they were not the mortal adversaries they once were.

    Truly, there was tranquility to be had in making peace with yourself.

    Still, Shirou doubted he was here by coincidence. He didn’t know how long this dream—if that’s what it was—would last. So he couldn’t afford to waste any more time. He needed to learn everything he could, especially with Ruler’s revelation hanging over him.

    “Do you know what we’re doing right now?” he asked. “About the Great Holy Grail War?”

    Archer shrugged. “Bits and pieces. Someone has established a connection of sorts between us. I’m not quite sure of its full capabilities, but I’ve caught a few glimpses of events through your eyes.”

    Shirou sighed. “Quite the mess I’ve gotten us into.”

    “Probably not as much as you think.”

    Shirou raised an eyebrow. “I don’t remember you as the cocky type. Saber’s strong and Rin’s smart but we’re still massively outnumbered—”

    “Not that, you idiot,” Archer snapped. “Your situation is as stupidly dire as you think it is. I just mean that much less of this is likely to be your fault than you think.”

    “What do you mean?” Shirou inquired. “I was the one who agreed to interfere in this war when Zelretch offered. I dragged Tohsaka and Saber into this mess.”

    Archer rolled his eyes. “Saber could not have been summoned unless she chose to pursue another war, and Rin would have dragged you back by your earlobes if she thought this was too much for you all. Besides, the Kaleidoscope has killed beings you couldn’t even comprehend. He’s traversed worlds that would atomize you the moment you appeared in them. And despite his childish façade, he would not send the two of you here on a mere whim.”

    “Really?”

    “Okay, he would,” Archer conceded. “But despite his apparent irreverence, it’s more than likely that he had a greater purpose in mind for sending you to this war. Rin knows that whatever purpose that is, it is likely too important to risk disrupting.”

    Shirou frowned. “He just said he was bored.”

    “He probably was. He killed two birds with one stone. Though I’m not sure if it counts if one of the birds intentionally flies headlong into the stone.”

    Shirou rolled his eyes. “And this?” he raised his right hand, his black Command Seals in full view.

    Archer pulled away slightly in distaste as he saw them. “Those…would seem to be the source of our link.”

    “Do you know what they are?”

    “I have seen them across a smattering of timelines. Not very often. Suffice to say, take care not to use all of them. Our unique relationship should make the transformation a bit easier than usual, but I don’t know if it will prevent you from being affected by the usual negative side effects.”

    Shirou glared at his alternate future counterpart. “Are you actually going to tell me what they are?”

    Archer smirked, a devilish glint he must have learned from Rin gleaming in his eyes. “Dead Count Shapeshifter Command Spells. Think of them as a power up of sorts. Use them to order your body to become stronger.”

    “Stronger how?”

    The gears of Unlimited Blade Works clanged with the rhythm of a mechanical heart. Like two battleships scraping against each other. The soot filled sky flashed an ethereal white.

    Archer grinned. “It seems our time is ending. Just do me a favor. If you have to use a catchphrase, and knowing Zelretch, he’ll make you use a catchphrase, at least try to make better than his last pawn’s.”

    Shirou abruptly felt as though he were being tugged away by some invisible hand. He flew through the air, dragged farther and farther away until Archer was just a pinprick on the horizon.

    “What are you talking about?” he yelled with all his might. “What do they do exactly? Why do they make a link between us? And why the hell would you care about a catchphrase?”

    Even with the titanic distance between them, he somehow heard Archer’s snarl. “For Great Justice.”

    Shirou only had a moment to wonder what the Counter Guardian was talking about before his vision went blank.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Saber glanced to the sidecar as Shirou awoke, his perplexed gaze seemingly puzzled by the slumbering Rin in his lap.

    “For great justice?” he muttered sleepily.

    “Shirou, I hadn’t realized you were awake.”

    “I just woke up, I think,” he said blearily.

    “What was that you were saying a moment ago?”

    “I… honestly have no idea, but it sounds compelling and at the same time, terrible.”

    The party of four was close to Trifas, perhaps only an hour away. Since they couldn’t afford to delay any longer and Saber didn’t require sleep, she had offered to continue driving the group while the others rested. Thus, she found herself chauffer as Shirou and Rin slept in the sidecar and Ruler draped over her back. The Saint was tied to both Saber and the motorcycle with a collection of rope provided by the last motel’s staff, grateful for Shirou’s cooking, and reinforced by Rin. So far, it had done well at keeping its passenger from falling off in the face of the brisk breeze of the road.

    Saber had expected Ruler to be the first to wake, given her more convoluted position, though Shirou was always one for punctuality even in sleep. But that combined with the unusually grim expression on his face worried the King of Knights.

    “Are you alright, Shirou?” Saber inquired.

    Shirou took a few deep breaths and nodded. “Yeah. I’m… I’m fine. I just had a weird dream. A vision, I think.”

    “A vision? Of what?”

    “Archer.”

    Saber’s eyes widened. “Did he—”

    “No, he didn’t attack me again. I think he’s over that phase,” Shirou assured her. He lifted up his right hand, the one with his strange black Command Seals. “He said these things formed some sort of link between us.”

    “A link? Does that mean you can summon him to aid us?”

    “I’m not sure. But he didn’t seem to think so. He called them Dead Count Shapeshifter Command Spells. Apparently, they’re supposed to give some sort of power boost.”

    Saber’s eyes narrowed in concern. “You should be careful. The Kaleidoscope’s letter said there was a high probability of those seals killing you if you use them all. Not to mention whatever danger Ruler’s vision implied.”

    They had no way of knowing whether the Saint’s premonition was literal or metaphorical, but either way, it was not a warning to be taken lightly. And if Archer would not be making an appearance himself in the Great Holy Grail War, that meant that Shirou was the most likely target of the impending turmoil. The defeat at the hands of this silver-haired man.

    Could the vision have been referring to Saber of Black? No. Though his hair was certainly the right color, there wasn’t a trace of red in his color scheme as Jeanne’s vision described.

    It was fortunate. She would hate to have to snuff him out prematurely if he really was the one destined to kill Shirou. Saber had found Siegfried to be a chivalrous and honorable warrior, one who she felt she could duel again with great pleasure and respect. Indeed, even with the conspiracy against Ruler and the titanic danger afoot—not to mention Mordred making Wallachia her stomping grounds—the King of Knights found that her opponents so far had been nothing but the highest caliber, both in skill and character.

    It was an exquisite boon. In her past Grail Wars, she had met few whom she looked forward to facing. Merely fiends to be defeated like the Casters and Gilgamesh. The opportunity to have a true battle with Ireland’s Child of Light had never arisen and both of her duels with Assassin had been marred by her need to get past him and assist the others.

    And in the war before that, there had been Diarmuid and—

    No.

    She couldn’t think about that… that travesty. That horror.

    Even now, she did not know what to think of her first Master, Kiritsugu Emiya. Irisviel had believed in him, and even she could see there was truth in his desire to save mankind. When they’d argued over the worth of chivalry, she’d seen that he’d not always been the broken, merciless soul she’d known. He’d been a good man once. A man made to do desperate, monstrous things in pursuit of the beautiful dream he longed for.

    She sometimes wondered who had won out in the end: the man or the monster. Had he ordered her to destroy the Grail just to spite her, or had he learned of its corruption and refused the wish of damnation it offered? Gilgamesh’s gloating had implied the latter, but when she remembered how far he’d been willing to go, what he did to Diarmuid… she still wondered if it hadn’t been too high a price.

    There were many reasons she didn’t sleep at night.

    She glanced over at Shirou, who gazed softly at Rin as she slept.

    Saber smiled. How foolish of her. Kiritsugu could not have desired the corruption’s birth. No one who capable of raising someone as wonderful as Shirou could have possibly have been so heartless. Kiritsugu destroyed the Holy Grail to save the world. He had destroyed her for a time, but that was a small price to pay and she had healed through her time with Rin and his son.

    She often wondered if she should tell Shirou about her experiences with his father, but in the end, she always decided against it. From what she had heard, they had practically known two different men. She did not wish to sully the memory of the savior he knew with the mercilessly pragmatic assassin he once was.

    Unless he asked. Then she would be honor bound to tell him all the embarrassing stories. His cigarettes, his romantic talks with Irisviel when they thought she wasn’t listening, his adorable playtime with that daughter of his. She wondered whatever had happened to that girl. Suffice to say, Shirou would get a very interesting picture of his father by the time she was done. And she would have her just revenge on her former Master.

    The thought brought a wide grin to her face.

    “Are you okay? You seem distracted.”

    “You have nothing to worry about,” she smiled.

    “Don’t worry, Saber. Whatever’s coming, I’m sure we can face it together,” Shirou declared.

    Saber blinked. “What? Oh, yes. Of course, Shirou. I have no doubt.”

    They continued their drive in silence, thoughts of Kiritsugu swirling around in her head. Perhaps she should have known better than to dwell on the subject…

    Kiritsugu seemed intent on using the Holy Grail to save the world. Even if it had offered him some toxic solution to bring about world peace, what could it possibly have shown him, short of omnicide, that would make him abandon it altogether? And yet, did she really have to wonder? She’d seen for herself; that thing coming out of the lake. That… cancerous abomination. And a worse thought occurred to her: As the Grail herself, did that mean that upon becoming it, Irisviel had been twisted into that in some form? Was there more to it at the time than the golden chalice that Gilgamesh had so infuriatingly prevented her from reaching?

    Assuming Kiritsugu had somehow witnessed such a thing, it would be entirely possible that he would reject it. But then… how could he have done that? There was no creature during the Fourth War. More importantly though… was that what became of her friend? The price she paid for her precious daughter’s life?

    What kind of nightmare must Iri have been subjected to in that eternal instant after her death? Had she seen the Grail for what it was before she became it, or was she simply transfigured without any realization that something irreplaceable had been stolen from her? She felt her gorge rise and covered her mouth with one hand, keeping the handlebars steady with the other. This was a bad train of thought. She had to stop this. She would go around in circles, and she knew where that would lead. She took deep breaths. But she was already sweating and wouldn’t have been surprised if she looked feverish. And she had only moments ago told Shirou that he had nothing to—

    “Saber, what’s wrong?!”

    Shirou’s voice jerked her out of her poisonous reverie. She abruptly realized, looking at the speedometer, that she’d been accelerating dangerously. And keeping steady with only one hand no less! Fine if she were on her own, but with passengers? The sidecar looked just about ready to detach. She quickly took some pressure off the gas pedal and gently applied the brakes.

    More deep breaths. But it was futile for her to try and simply stop thinking about it. She had to think of something else. Anything else.

    “I…” she stammered, “I’m sorry to have worried you. You could say that I accidentally indulged in a very bad habit without realizing it.”

    It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. She already felt guilty.

    “It’s okay if you can’t talk about it right now. Whenever you’re ready, Tohsaka and I’ll be around to listen.”

    Saber felt some of her muscles relax. Not entirely, but it was a start. The ill expression she wore slowly gave way to a more neutral one.

    “Thank you, Shirou. I assure you, I’ll be fine… although, perhaps it might be best if I kept my mind occupied.”

    “Sure, I guess. Anything you want to talk about?”

    They were cruising along at a much safer speed now, and she carefully began to push on the gas again. It was surprising that neither Rin, nor Ruler had woken up. Or if they had, they were doing their best to get back to sleep. To be perfectly honest, Saber had hoped that Shirou might have brought up a topic himself. His response had been a little disappointing. However, feeling Ruler’s weight against her back, she remembered something.

    “Actually, yes. There was something that I have been wondering since dinner last night,” Saber noted. “How did you know so much about that book Ruler had to read? Les Misérables, was it?”

    “That? Oh, I’ve read it before. You could say it used to be one of my favorites when I was younger. After Kiritsugu died and I decided to be a Hero of Justice, I figured I should look into ideas about what justice was,” Shirou explained. A happy chuckle escaped his lips. “Fuji-nee was trying to read it back then, but she kept getting frustrated. She wondered why she had to read something in English that was originally written in French.”

    Saber raised an eyebrow. “I was unaware Taiga could read French.”

    “Oh, she can’t. And she wasn’t. The book was in English. But she found it so boring that she had me read it and tell her what happened.”

    “You read it back then?” Saber recalled the enormous size of the volume Jeanne had been holding. It was nearly as thick as some of Merlin’s magic tomes. Or his black book… “How did you read something that size when you were so young? In a language you were unfamiliar with no less?”

    “A lot of persistence and an inability to know when to quit? Call me stubborn, I guess. I had to keep one of Fuji-nee’s English textbooks on hand to get through it, but after a while, I just got into the story and its ideas.” A frown suddenly marred Shirou’s face. “I reread it after our war. After Archer.”

    “Why?”

    Shirou shrugged. “I guess… I was a little confused. I knew that being a Hero of Justice, that trying to save everyone, was impossible, but I also knew that it was still an ideal worth striving for. That’s enough for me, but sometimes… sometimes I wonder what I would have to sacrifice in order to pursue that dream.”

    “What do you mean?” Saber inquired. She had never known Shirou to hesitate when it came to his goals. When the chance came to try to save someone, he jumped in without a second thought. He never even considered the cost to himself, at least not during the war. Maybe Rin had been more successful at getting through to him than she thought.

    “After the fire, after I sacrificed everything I had to survive, and left everything… everyone… else behind, I didn’t think I deserved anything good. A normal life, friends, loved ones, simple things that made life worth living, I didn’t feel like I could have that if the people who died that day couldn’t.”

    “Shirou, that’s preposterous,” Saber declared immediately. “You did not kill those people, the corruption of the Grail did. Surviving that horror is not a crime.”

    As the one who destroyed it,’ she thought, ‘it might even be more appropriate to blame me for that disaster.’

    “Yeah. I know that now. What I went through with you and Rin taught me that,” Shirou pointed out. His frown didn’t go anywhere though. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I have so many things as I am right now. I have Rin, my job with Luvia, our life at the Clock Tower. And I’m happy. But I’m not… satisfied. I’m doing what I need to be doing. But I’m not chasing my dream.”

    “You… you wish to leave the Clock Tower?” Saber asked. She looked down at her Master with concern. “To leave Rin?”

    “No!” Shirou responded fervently. “No. I don’t ever want to leave Rin. It’s just… on the one hand, how can I be a Hero of Justice if I stay safe with her? But on the other, how can I be a good man if I walked out on the woman I love to go save strangers?”

    Saber considered these for a moment. “Neither of those are without merit. Though they are also not without fault.”

    Shirou let out a short laugh, soft, and devoid of humor. “Yeah. That’s what I got from the book too. The hero was a good man and kind to everyone he met, but he was also a criminal on the run from the law. Meanwhile, the policeman pursuing him kept to the law to the letter and devoted himself to justice but found that he was not doing good anymore.”

    The two friends stewed in silence, the rush of the wind and the snores of their companions serving as their only company.

    At last, Saber noted their route to Trifas, and the massive citadel that towered above it, was nearing its end. “We should rouse the others. We’ll be at Trifas soon and I don’t think they would like to be rudely awakened.”

    “Right.” Shirou made to wake Rin, then paused. “Saber, what you mean by ‘rudely awakened?’“

    “I will be approaching the castle through the forest,” Saber explained. “Even if the Black Faction may be discouraged from firing on us with Ruler present, I’d rather not give them the opportunity to catch us on the road.”

    Shirou appeared to give this some thought. He looked up at her with an uneasy expression.

    “I mean, I get where you’re coming from, but… yeah… I can see why you’d want everyone to be awake for this.”

    She nodded, feeling Ruler shift slightly behind her as Shirou gently shook Rin by the shoulder.

    “Rin, time to wake up,” he called softly.

    “Nnngh… are we there already?” she mumbled.

    A nervous chuckle. “Not quite, but you definitely want to wake up.”

    “Why?” she asked, suddenly alert and looking around. “We look like we’re still in the middle of nowhere.” Shirou had to suppress a wry grin. For someone who needed to be woken up and practically escorted out of bed in the morning, she could be on her feet in seconds at almost any other time of day.

    Saber unfastened the rope tying Ruler securely into place behind her. The other Servant blinked, rubbing her eyes and arching her back.

    “Can I trust that you can keep pace with me on foot now that you’ve gotten some rest?” Saber asked.

    Ruler nodded. “Is there a reason for us all being woken up at this time?” she inquired.

    “Indeed. We will be making our final approach using these trees as cover. As I told Shirou moments ago, I intend to give them a less viable opportunity to spot us before we engage them.”

    Rin gave her the same worried look that Shirou had given her a minute earlier.

    “Okay, I guess… I mean… you’ve got a stellar rank on your Riding ability, so I guess this shouldn’t be a problem?”

    Saber smiled reassuringly at her master. She had failed Diarmuid and Lancelot in the Fourth War, and she’d barely succeeded in the Fifth. Even with Shirou’s dilemma, she couldn’t allow such dishonorable fates to befall any of her allies in this Great War, especially not her Masters.

    Her friends.

    And of course, she wanted to see what her bike could do off-road. It was sure to be great fun for all!

    “Please take care to hold on tightly,” said Saber, grinning as she maneuvered the machine so that the front wheel and those of the sidecar were off the pavement. An absurd task for a regular human, but for one with her strength, not nearly as much.

    Rin gripped the front of the sidecar. Off at their side, Ruler took a stance as she prepared to break into a dash beside them.

    She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and…

    The engine rumbled as she accelerated, a spray of dirt flying out from the front wheel as it found traction on the softer ground. Yes, she expected she could go a bit faster until they reached the tree line.

    For a moment, she thought Rin might have said something.

    It was probably her imagination.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    “Hey, Missy?”

    ‘What, Rider?’

    “I’m bored.”

    ‘Perhaps you should have thought of that before you invited yourself on this mission. My mission, I might add.’

    Achilles sighed. You know, on paper, this whole Great Holy Grail War had seemed like a fantastic idea. He’d get to come back to life, see the modern world, fight a menagerie of worthy opponents, and maybe even achieve his dream of being a hero that he’d failed to be in life when he’d fallen into wrathful vengeance after Patroclus’ death. What he’d done to the Prince of Troy afterward, desecrating his body as he had, was unforgivable. His only hope was that fate gave him a chance to earn redemption in this new life.

    And at first, it seemed like everything was going smoothly. Sure, Caster was a tad grating, and he wasn’t sure if Berserker knew how to get through ten minutes without raving about defeating ‘the oppressor,’ whoever or whatever he meant by that… but that was a complete nonfactor compared to his Archer teammate.

    He got to work with Atalanta. The Atalanta! The Chaste Huntress herself! His father had raised him on stories of his adventures with the Argonauts, and there were none save maybe Hercules that Peleus spoke of in more glowing terms. And the follow-up tale about their reunion during the hunt for the Calydonian Boar was even more incredible, with Atalanta being the first among dozens of mighty heroes to wound the nearly invincible beast, crucially wounding it before it was slain.

    When he was a boy, before he’d been sent off to his teacher—and a few more times after that, if he was being honest—he’d played pretend that he was teaming up with his heroes, going on grand quests against monsters and saving innocents. Now, his dream was coming true in the best way possible. He felt like a kid again.

    All the more reason to rein himself in. He didn’t want to agitate present company.

    Plus, Atalanta was ten times more beautiful than even his father’s glorious descriptions. Maybe if he was lucky and persisted with his flirting, he could get a kiss from his hero before the war was over.

    That being said, she was pretty high strung. And from what he knew about her relationship with men, as a collective, she was going to make that a positively herculean challenge.

    Challenge accepted!

    But there was also that problem. As soon as he was summoned, something was already not as it should have been. His Master, whoever he was, hadn’t even been present when he’d appeared. Instead, all he got was a mental command that told him to take orders from Assassin of Red’s Master, the priest, Shirou Kotomine. And that guy was just… off. He had no idea why he didn’t trust the white-haired man—not yet—but the way he was holding him back from engaging the Black Faction wasn’t winning him any points.

    Hell, he was so bored that he’d nearly thanked the gods when Caster goaded Berserker into going on a rampage. Though Archer had been the one ordered to go after the maddened gladiator before he messed everything up, there was no way Achilles was going to miss an opportunity to both hang out with the lauded Huntress of Arcadia and maybe get to see some action while he was at it.

    Unfortunately, Berserker of Red had quickly been overwhelmed by Rider, Caster, and Lancer of Black. That last one especially. Vlad the Impaler certainly lived up to his name. Spartacus had barely had time to move, much less attack once the King of Romania arrived and skewered him, with Caster sealing him in some sort of golem. Rider had retreated back to Millennia Citadel, but Lancer had remained to guard Caster and three of the Black Masters while they did something to Berserker. Mages… always making everything so complicated…

    Personally, he wanted to charge in and rescue their comrade, but Archer had convinced him otherwise. Outnumbered as they were, engaging a foe as powerful as Lancer of Black was unjustifiably reckless. Sure, he would be fine unless the King of Romania figured out to aim for his heel, but Archer didn’t share his protection. She was incredible in her own ways, but engaging a group that strong on their home turf, especially when their most dangerous opponent got an intense boost in strength just for being there was a fool’s errand. As a huntress, Atalanta knew how to gauge the strength of her mark, so if she called for a retreat, he’d trust her judgment.

    Besides, it wasn’t as if he wouldn’t still get to deal with their pursuers.

    He had branched off from Atalanta and waited for the Servants of Black to come after him, letting his partner get as much distance from them as possible. She was a perfectly capable combatant, but if they had to choose between their foes attacking her, with her rather negligible endurance, or him, with his slight advantage of being literally invincible, the choice was obvious.

    Finding a small, but suitable clearing, he stopped running and leaned up against a tree, whistling absently. Now if only those enemy Servants weren’t taking so damn long to reach him.

    A scattering of blue sparks caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He smirked. What was that modern saying? Speak of the devil and he shall appear?

    He turned towards his opponents, a tall knight in hulking gray armor and… some girl in a wedding dress with hubcaps sticking out of the sides of her head? Huh, that was a new one. But he was trained by a horse-man, so who was he to judge, really?

    He twirled his spear at his side. “Hey there, you two! Let’s see, a Saber and a Berserker, huh?” His fingers flexed against his weapon, a familiar sensation of bloodlust welling up inside him in anticipation of the imminent clash.

    Still… “Well now, seems like I’m being underestimated. Did they really think two Servants would be enough?” a savage grin spread across his face. “I can’t help but be a bit insulted!”

    His opponents raised their weapons, a gigantic greatsword in the Saber’s case and a strangely designed mace for the Berserker.

    Achilles aimed his spear at them. “My class is Rider. But don’t worry, I won’t use a chariot. I hardly need it with only two of you here,” he boasted. “Are you both prepared? I’ll show you what it means to be a true warrior.”

    Saber of Black charged him then. He met the knight in the middle of the clearing. His spear darted towards the larger man, but he skillfully parried every stab. His strength was even sufficient to push Achilles back for a moment. Both of them were focused on attacking, to the point that their attacks weren’t so much being blocked so much as they as they were crashing into each other. He found himself laughing with exhilaration; this Servant was truly worthy of being a member of the strongest class.

    The Hero of Troy was thrilled. That just meant he had to hold back even less to make it an entertaining fight.

    He dashed back in with more of his famous speed, mixing in some of teacher’s Pankration with his bladework. Berserker of Black charged in to catch him flatfooted and swung her mace at Achilles’ head. Very slowly. He had more than enough time to dish out a flurry of swift strikes as she approached, quickly overwhelming Saber of Black’s defenses and pushing him back, though Achilles noted that his hits didn’t seem to be doing any damage.

    Truth be told, Berserker’s attack wasn’t actually particularly slow. She was still a Servant, meaning her strike was coming at him with enough speed to shatter a boulder. It was just that he was used to spotting attacks a whole lot faster. He dodged. Too quickly. From her perspective, it would have been almost as though he had dodged her attack before she even swung. If that was the best that bride could do, it wasn’t even worth his time to drag out the fight. Was she even a Berserker? If this was her speed after having her stats boosted by Madness Enhancement, how in the world did she even qualify as a Heroic Spirit in the first place? It was as though this Berserker was only a Berserker because her stats wouldn’t even qualify as a Servant’s without the boost.

    Still, toying with her would be an insult to them both. This was going to be difficult. Sparring with Heracles difficult. Now, how to make it look like he wasn’t making fun of the poor girl?

    She came in with another swing. He ducked under her attack, slowly, and kicked her aside, jetting in as though to finish off the mad Servant.

    Saber of Black took issue with that. He rushed behind Rider, taking advantage of the Greek’s blind spot to get close, and swung his sword in a heavy arc.

    Unfortunately for him, his teacher’s training had covered using all the senses, not just the eyes. Achilles felt the rush of the wind from Saber’s charge brush across the back of his neck and he whirled around, catching the knight’s wrist as he was winding up for another slash with his sword.

    “Is that all you’ve got?” he taunted. “You’re nowhere near qualified to fight against me!”

    With a victorious smirk, Achilles stabbed his spear into Saber’s shoulder with all his strength.

    And it did absolutely nothing.

    The Rider took half a moment to be surprised, which had the unfortunate side effect of allowing Saber to break free, immediately taking a swipe at him once he did, forcing him to retreat a bit to reevaluate his opponent.

    His attack hadn’t been weakened, it just hadn’t even scratched Saber’s armor. Now that was impressive. A similar technique to his own invincibility no doubt, though likely not as powerful. Still, if he and the knight before him were anything alike, and their brief clash had made it quite clear that they were, then he would be praying to meet someone who could hurt him regardless.

    After all, that’s what he did every night. Shame they couldn’t give each other the kind of thrill they were both seeking; the rush that came from knowing that your life could end at any moment—that the only things between you and the end were your skill, a thin layer of armor, and a bit of luck.

    “I see you take pride in endurance as well,” Achilles remarked. “Looks like we’re in for a long fight.”

    ‘Rider, prevent Saber of Black from moving,’ Atalanta ordered. ’He’s immune to your strength. But there’s nothing my arrows can’t pierce.’

    Achilles chuckled. Missy wanted to test the limits of Saber of Black’s invincibility. Smart move. While his brute strength couldn’t break through, her fully drawn arrows actually had more bite to them than he could manage to dish out on his own. It would be good to know if they would be sufficient or if they would need Lancer to break out that god killer of his for this guy.

    He heard Berserker of Black before he saw her as she staggered back to her feet. She snarled at the Hero of Troy, though whether for her fall or for being disregarded afterward, he couldn’t say.

    Saber however, remained completely stone faced, not a hint of joy, anger, or any emotion playing across his body. He was an experienced warrior alright. Perhaps too experienced.

    Achilles shrugged. If he was keeping the guy distracted, no reason why he couldn’t offer some advice. “Those who don’t laugh on the battlefield may forget how to when they reach Elysium,” he warned. “So, try to laugh a little before you die.”

    Saber lowered his head for a moment, seeming to contemplate his suggestion. “Laughing on the battlefield could be seen as an insult to the opponent.”

    For the love of the gods, it was like Odysseus all over again. All grim and serious. You know, for the craftiest trickster Achilles ever met, that guy really should have had more fun. Maybe pranked someone now and again. It wasn’t like anything really bad ever happened to the guy. Though now that he thought about it, he really did have to get around to looking up what happened to his old war buddies after he died.

    But that was business for later. Right now, he needed to help Saber of Black. And then kill him, naturally.

    “That’s true,” he conceded. “But it can also lead to salvation.”

    Something whistled past his ear in an explosion of turquoise light.

    Saber’s steely eyes widened as the arrow drove clear through his shoulder, and he skidded backward as its momentum carried him along with it. He grunted as he smashed into a wide tree trunk, into which the arrow had lodged itself.

    The important thing though was that Saber was bleeding and had both an entry and an exit wound.

    Achilles smirked. Not so invulnerable after all. While he hadn’t been torn in half like most would when struck by that kind of attack, he had still been wounded. That meant Achilles could take him easily, he’d just need to bust out his shield. Though it was too early in the war to use his strongest Noble Phantasm. While Saber of Black was certainly a worthy opponent to face the divine construct, if he used it so soon and revealed his true identity, every idiot in the entire war would know his weakness, to say nothing of how he’d be laughably easy prey for Vlad the Impaler.

    “A focused attack from Missy worked perfectly, as expected.”

    Berserker of Black hefted her mace and snarled at him.

    Achilles levelled his spear. “Since our side just lost its Berserker, seems only fair that you lose yours as well. Isn’t that right?”

    His comment was not taken lightly. Berserker of Black roared, the head of her mace opening up to reveal some form of mechanical chamber. A tempest of emerald electricity coalesced around the bride, sparking off her weapon in random bolts of lightning, each one powerful enough to fry a normal human like dry parchment in a bonfire.

    Achilles feigned interest.

    Suddenly Saber stepped forward, forcing himself to move. He pulled himself away from the tree, the arrow tearing at his flesh with each step until it came free of the bark. His actions seemed strangely involuntary, but that was none of Rider’s concern. Having freed himself, he raised his sword to the sky. A gem on the hilt glowed, and a tower of blazing pale green energy erupted from the blade.

    Achilles grinned. “Heh! Just try it. Show me your Noble Phantasm!”

    This was a fortuitous turn of events. While Saber’s strike would no doubt be powerful, his sword’s inability to harm the Hero of Troy made it moot. All his attack would do would force him to reveal the name of his weapon, and by extension, his own True Name. Maybe the priest wouldn’t get on their case too much for losing Berserker if they brought back such valuable intel on the enemy’s second strongest Servant.

    Saber’s face contorted with effort, furious sweat dripping down his brow. He resisted every inch his sword rose. He must have already deduced that his weapon couldn’t harm Rider of Red. His Master was likely less observant and was forcing him to use his Noble Phantasm with a Command Seal, a theory which could be supported by his jerky, forced movement.

    What a shame. Still, half of war was taking advantage of the enemy general’s stupidity. In the end, every Servant was a foot soldier, for good or ill. A shadow of the dead to be commanded by the living.

    Saber’s lips opened involuntarily. Bal—”

    The turquoise glow of the greatsword suddenly extinguished. Saber of Black sagged in relief, staggering to his knees. A few moments later, he disappeared in a shower of sapphire sparks.

    Achilles sighed. “How disappointing,” he remarked to Berserker of Black. “He may have been able to put a scratch on me with a godslaying Noble Phantasm like that.”

    Not realistically speaking, of course. But it was better they think he was just cocky instead of giving them a possible hint to his identity.

    “Now, where were we?”

    Berserker of Black snarled at him, her weapon at the ready. It was valiant. Even through her madness, she must have known she didn’t have a chance, yet she was ready to continue fighting until she drew her last breath. Whatever she was, maybe it was that dauntless spirit rather than her skill as a warrior that marked her as worthy of the title of hero.

    Pity. That wasn’t nearly enough to actually give him a good fight. Granted, with his invincibility, what could?

    An arrow streaked through the sky and smashed into his armor, penetrating all the way to his flesh.

    And… into his flesh?

    What?

    Berserker of Black took advantage of his momentary distraction and charged past him, howling at the trees.

    Achilles paid her no heed. The Berserker might have been wearing a wedding dress, but she was still a beast. Or put another way, whatever else she might have been, to Atalanta, she was little more than prey. She could handle a few lightning bolts and poorly aimed swipes from a ball on a stick. For now, he needed to focus all his attention on his new assailant.

    A hail of arrows came plummeting down on him. He twirled his spear and deflected most of them, though a few still managed to scratch him. That proved that the last shot hadn’t been a fluke. His opponent could bypass his invincibility. That meant that his bow or his arrows were divine constructs, much like Lancer of Red’s armor and spear. Either that or the Archer himself had the blood of a god in his veins. And to fire his shots with such accuracy into a dense forest from so far away…

    Achilles’ heart soared. This was the kind of opponent he was looking for! He had no doubt that Archer of Black would make for a magnificent rival in this Great Holy Grail War.

    Now if only he knew his name…

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Chiron wasted no time loading another volley of arrows into his bow. His old student had grown a great deal since he last saw him, birthed a vast legend of his own, and he had not been weak in training. If he let up for even a moment, he had no doubt Achilles would rush back to his ally’s defense and eliminate Berserker. He’d saved Frankenstein from one of the other Archer’s assaults already, but for now, she would have to deal with the second Servant of Red on her own.

    It had been quite fortunate he’d recognized the Hero of Troy when he did. Had he been even a moment slower, Saber would have revealed his identity to the enemy. He’d alerted Lord Darnic to the futility of Siegfried’s Noble Phantasm just before it had activated, and the leader of the Masters of Black had been able to cow Lord Gordes into cancelling the order. It had cost two strokes of his Command Seal, an undoubtedly heavy price, but it was better than the enemy learning Saber’s identity and knowing exactly where to aim to bypass his Armor of Fafnir.

    The dragonslayer had been recalled immediately and Chiron had stepped forward to provide cover for Berserker from the castle battlements. Being the son of the Titan King Kronos, he was, for all intents and purposes, a brother to the Olympians. He might not qualify as a divine spirit, but his inherent Divinity trait was more than enough to break through Achilles’ invincibility. He pinned down his old student easily enough, he had taught him his evasive maneuvers after all. He had a few new dodges and rolls, but nothing the teacher couldn’t figure out quickly enough.

    Eventually, he learned from Caster’s familiars that Archer of Red had retreated. Soon enough, he saw Achilles whistle and a shower of emerald lightning erupted next to the Hero of Troy. The boy’s mighty chariot emerged from the glow, pulled by a trio of mighty stallions, two of which Chiron sensed were as divine as their master.

    “Isn’t this wonderful, Archer of Black?” Achilles cheered. “Fighting against one who could best me was destined! Oh, Gods of Olympus, may you grant the both of us glory and sacred honor in this battle!”

    He hopped onto the chariot and jetted away into the sky. “Let us settle this challenge next time! Perhaps then I’ll get to see your face!”

    Chiron kept his aim up until he was sure the Servants of Red had truly fled He noted a silver streak heading into the forest but it disappeared into the trees before he could track it. He’d have to alert Caster later and have him send out some familiars to look for it.

    At last, he sighed, his shoulders sagging in relief.

    Isn’t it ironic, Achilles? Destiny will even bare its fangs at those like us, who are already dead.’

    They were beings whose threads Atropos had already cut. The Moirae had no interest in them any longer. Yet it was already predetermined that he would have to be the one to face his former pupil. After all, no one else in the Black Faction would capable of taking on Achilles in a straight fight as long as he retained his invincibility. If Vlad knew where to aim, it was possible that he could hit his heel and deactivate the protection, but that would be easier said than done even for the King of Romania. And assuming that was somehow accomplished, Achilles was still perhaps the finest warrior he’d ever trained, surpassed only by Heracles himself.

    No, this was his responsibility. He loved Achilles like a son, but there was no place for sentimentality in a Holy Grail War. They were Servants, and that title was a literal one. Their first loyalty, above all, was to their Masters, and by extension, their Faction. He was willing to stretch that duty for Astolfo and the homunculus boy, but he could not in good conscience refuse to fight his old student for Lady Fiore.

    “Are you feeling okay, Chiron?”

    A kind voice cut through Chiron’s inner turmoil. He turned to face his Master and gifted Fiore a gentle smile. “Yes. It seems that the opponent I will be facing in this Great Holy Grail War has been determined.”

    His Master was a kind soul. Though her wish might have sounded selfish from an outside perspective, to walk on her own two feet without having to give up her magic circuits, he found that simple desire endearing. She had shown him nothing but respect and kindness since he was summoned, and he was grateful to fight the War at the side of a mage with a conscience. He’d even trusted her enough to disclose his own, similarly selfish wish: The reclamation of his immortality. While it might have appeared as though he were grasping at a life he’d given up of his own free will, in truth he did not regret that he had died. Rather that he had forsaken the only gift his parents had ever given him. For that, and for his Master’s happiness, he would endure any trial.

    He would deal with his old student when the time came. Until then, he would rest and indulge himself in some warm tea. That would soothe his mind and allow him to focus on the long-term strategy of the war, a matter that required his utmost attention and skill.

    “To all Masters of Yggdmillenia!” Darnic’s voice rang through the Servant’s mind. ”Rider is aiding in the escape of a homunculus. One that is very valuable to us. Make sure to bring him back alive.”

    Chiron could only sigh as the voice subsided.

    Astolfo…’

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Step One! Heal the homunculus!

    Step One-and-a-half! Realize that he, Astolfo, had the healing aptitude of a blender!

    Step One-and-three-quarters! Bring the homunculus to Chiron so that he could heal the homunculus!

    Step Two! Get the homunculus out of range of Caster’s bounded field and release him into the great, wide, wonderful world where he could frolic across grassy hills to his heart’s content!

    Hmm… it suddenly occurred to him that his brilliant plan might have been missing a step…

    Of course! How could he have forgotten?

    He needed the homunculus to choose a name! ‘Cause it’d totally feel weird to keep calling him ‘the homunculus’. Gosh, that’d be demeaning.

    The two of them dashed through the forest as fast as they could. Well, he did. The homunculus (real name TBD) mostly just stumbled forward with every step. Whenever he tripped, which was often, he would allow himself to be dragged along by the arm until he regained his footing without even voicing a complaint. Kind of creepy. Maybe homunculi didn’t get friction burns?

    The boy was desperately trying to keep a hold of the sword Astolfo had given him to protect himself. Before long, he noticed the poor kid was panting heavily. He came to a stop, letting the homunculus catch his breath.

    “What’s wrong?” he inquired worriedly. “Are you tired?”

    “Is it… really alright for me to escape?” the boy asked between hungry breaths. His eyes held nothing but confusion. It had always been there, but Rider hadn’t missed how it had really kicked into overdrive after they ran past a group of injured homunculi on their way out of the castle. Poor thing was probably questioning why he got to leave when all the others who were like him, even the ones who got hurt fighting that whacko Berserker of Red, had to stay.

    Still, that didn’t make it wrong for him to want his own freedom, so he answered immediately. “Of course, it’s alright!”

    The homunculus turned his head to the side, unconvinced. “Yeah, but… even if I do, I’m just going to die in three years. I can’t make any difference in the world or even leave a footprint behind. If I were to continue to live, would there be any point?”

    Rider cocked an eyebrow. “Are you saying you think you’re not allowed to continue living in this world?”

    “I just don’t know,” the homunculus muttered. “I don’t know… anything.”

    Astolfo gave the poor boy his most kind and gentle smile. “You’re not obligated to do any of that. Making a difference, dedicating yourself to someone, you do those ‘cause you wanna!” He raised his arms, and continued pontificating, “You don’t need a purpose; wanting to live is human nature! As long as your heart keeps beating, you should continue wanting to live from here on out!”

    “I should continue… wanting to live?”

    Oh, it was adorable how he repeated everything that was just said to him! It was less adorable that by his logic from a few moments ago, half the people on earth should just lay down and stop moving until they die, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

    Rider nodded his confirmation to the query. He had never sought out to be a hero when he began as an adventurer. He just went around having fun, helping people along the way, doing whatever he felt was best. And when he met Charlemagne, well, his path was set. Everything else just fell into place. He would have followed that man anywhere, even to the moon! Speaking of which, he should really look into making another visit there when he got the chance, that place was totally awesome!

    “Um…Rider…”

    Astolfo turned his head and followed his homunculus friend’s gaze and saw a dozen of Caster’s massive golems lumbering towards them.

    The Paladin of Charlemagne conjured Trap of Argalia. “You sure are a popular guy.”

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Siegfried hadn’t had the best day.

    True, there was nothing he could really complain about, but everything he’d been doing had been rather draining. After his magnificent duel with Lancer of Red and Saber of Periwinkle, he’d had high hopes for the Great Holy Grail War. He had not felt the exhilaration of facing someone strong enough to hurt him since he’d bathed in Fafnir’s blood all those years ago. To encounter not just one, but two foes of such astounding skill was a blessing handed down by the gods. The joy he gained from their titanic clash was nearly enough to relieve him of his concern over the truth of his wish, at least for a moment.

    He simply didn’t know what he wanted. He must have had a reason for joining the war, some desire that allowed the Grail to call him from the Throne of Heroes. But for the life of him, he just couldn’t remember what his wish was. And he needed to remember as soon as possible. Not just for his own peace of mind, but because his Master’s inability to understand his motivation was putting a significant strain on their relationship. Though Gordes’ order for him to remain silent (which he shamefully could not keep to during his battle with Karna and Saber of Periwinkle) did not help matters, but it was ultimately a symptom of the problem, not the cause. It was his responsibility to soothe that illness before another near-disaster like his duel with Rider of Red occurred.

    Gordes was quite distressed about Lord Darnic’s chastisement for that affair, so much so that he threw a glass at him when Siegfried arrived back in his Master’s private quarters. The man had collapsed into an armchair, nearly in tears. He would have done what he could to help his Master cope, he’d been unsettled ever since his loss to the warrior of Periwinkle, but he could not speak without violating the mage’s prior command, something that he knew would only aggravate the poor man.

    So he was trapped, unable to help his Master without disobeying him. A failure of a Servant. He was almost relived when the order came down to track down Rider and the homunculus he’d taken. That at least, he knew he could do.

    The two of them ran through the woods, guided by a group of Caster’s clay pigeon familiars. The rest of the faction was busy securing the captive Berserker of Red, but they would not be far behind. It was his and his Master’s responsibility to detain Rider until the others arrived.

    When they arrived, Astolfo was surrounded by the scattered rubble of a group of Caster’s golems, his lance lazily swung over his shoulder. Beside him, the young homunculus boy was bent over, keeping himself upright by pushing against his knees.

    “Now then,” Rider proclaimed, his back to the new arrivals. “Why don’t we take a little break?”

    Siegfried waited for Rider to notice his presence. It didn’t take long for Astolfo to realize something was amiss and whirl around.

    “Wait, Saber?!”

    The homunculus’s gaze followed Rider’s, his eyes wide with astonishment and fright.

    He found he didn’t particularly like having that look directed at him.

    I’ve found you!” Gordes cursed, panting heavily as he arrived on the scene. “Dammit… How dare they make me do such a stupid errand?”

    Rider grimaced, a line of sweat dropping down his brow. “Hey, uh… You should run.”

    The boy didn’t move.

    “Saber!” Gordes commanded. “Hold Rider down!”

    “What are you waiting for?” Rider questioned his young charge, “Hurry!”

    Again, the homunculus remained motionless, his crimson eyes locked onto Siegfried. So he had a front row seat when the Saber charged Astolfo, slamming Balmung into the paladin’s lance with enough strength to keep him pinned, though not enough to overpower him.

    “Rider!” the boy called out in concern.

    “I said run!” Astolfo demanded, his voice strained as he struggled to hold his own against the heavier, but far more effective weapon. “You want to live, don’t you? So go! Get out! Now!”

    Those words shocked the homunculus out of his stupor. The boy hugged a sheathed sword to his chest like a child would hold their favorite blanket and dashed off into the forest.

    “Seriously?” Gordes complained as he gave chase. “How annoying!”

    That left only Siegfried and Rider in the clearing, their blades locked in combat. They did not remain so for long.

    Valiant as he was, Astolfo simply could not stand up against Siegfried’s raw power and expertise, especially when the paladin wielded a weapon meant for mounted combat on foot. Before long, Saber held Balmung at his disarmed ally’s throat.

    Even flat on his back however, Astolfo was far from quiet. “Get out of my way, you idiot! I’m going to save him, no matter what!”

    “For what reason?” Siegfried inquired. “Because he came to you and begged for help?”

    That was the reason he had saved many during his life. After it became known that he was invincible, everyone wanted his help. After all, if it wouldn’t hurt him to do it, what had they to fear by asking? So, he’d done as he was bid, even when he was asked to perform deeds of questionable morality. If one gave their life to the whims of others, to the ideals of justice, that was the only path.

    But even then, he still felt there was something in his life that was unfulfilled, the reason he accepted the Grail’s call. Why was he dissatisfied with his path?

    “NO!”

    Siegfried’s eyes widened as his attention was drawn back to Astolfo’s defiant stare.

    “It was something I decided of my own volition!” the paladin shouted. “Is it forbidden for a Servant to want to save someone? Are you telling me to just forget the benevolence, pride, and justice that I had in my lifetime? I’m one of the Twelve Paladins of Charlemagne! I’m Astolfo! I will not abandon him! I swore that I wouldn’t!”

    Siegfried… paused. He closed his eyes and retracted his sword. He felt more than heard Rider gasp at his actions.

    The idea… saving someone because he wanted to. Not because someone else asked him to.

    Yes. That was it.

    “I remember my wish now…” he said. It didn’t matter that no one was there to hear him say it.

    The two of them raced off in the direction the others had went. What they found… was less than ideal.

    Gordes was standing before a thick tree. His right arm and sleeve were badly blackened, and his entire body was shaking with shock.

    And the homunculus was on the ground before the tree, eyes closed and unmoving, a thin trail of blood trickling down his face.

    Rider rushed past the Master of Black and knelt by the boy’s side. “It’s you. Come on, it’s time to wake up,” he squeezed the boy’s shoulder, “Hey, answer me! Come on, wake up!”

    Siegfried went over to Gordes. “Master…”

    The mage whirled around, his face panicked and his eyes wide with terror. “Had I not used my altered arm, he would have killed me for sure! It was self-defense! I’m not at fault here!”

    Astolfo cried over the dying boy. “I’m sorry. I got here too late. This is my fault…” he continued apologizing over and over, the words ‘I’m sorry,’ becoming a mantra.

    The wails of suffering innocents, the selfish yet blameless masses, begging him to solve their personal problems. Defeat the bandits in the mountains, bring this man’s son home, avenge this woman’s betrothed, slay a man to satisfy another’s envy, find the herbs the apothecary needed to heal a boy’s ailing father… they all melded together in an overwhelming cacophony of wishes. It was the final straw, not that it was needed.

    “Master, are you able to do anything to heal that homunculus?” Siegfried inquired, receiving a grunt of incredulity from his Master. “I want to save that boy.”

    “What the hell are you on about, Saber?” Gordes raved, spittle flying from his mouth as his temper boiled over. “I didn’t ask for your opinion, did I, you worthless Servant?! The only thing that you need to do is shut up and listen to my orders–uh…—”

    Siegfried stepped into his Master’s personal space. The shorter man trembled, realizing for what may have been the first time just how much taller his Servant was than him.

    “So, you won’t save him?” Saber asked.

    “I told you to shut upPFFFT—!”

    With an almost casual nonchalance, Siegfried rammed his fist into his Master’s gut, and the man passed out. He carefully caught his Master and laid him down on a patch of grass. His Master was far too stressed and plagued with guilt. Normally, he would try to console him or otherwise help him through it, but they simply didn’t have the time. The homunculus was fading fast.

    “What are you doing?” Rider muttered, his tear stained eyes wide with confusion.

    “I have once again lost sight of my path,” Siegfried explained. “He wished nothing of me, yet I nearly abandoned him. I stopped thinking for myself, and let others decide for me. I may be responsible for any misfortune he encounters, but… there is still something that I would like to present to him.”

    He needed to do this. It was going to be agonizing, but he needed to save him. Not because he was asked to. But because he didn’t want this young boy to die before he had a chance to live. Against the endless possibilities of that, what did the sparse extra time of a person who’d already lived his life matter?

    He took a moment to steady himself, to prepare for the pain. Then, he plunged his hand into his chest.

    It hurt. It hurt more than anything he had ever been subjected to during his lifetime. His own legend of dragon slaying clawed through his dragon enhanced armor and muscles. His body screamed in agony at the paradox. But he did not stop. He needed to save him. He needed to give the boy a chance.

    With a final gasp, he tore his own heart from his chest.

    That’s when the motorcycle crashed into the clearing.


    * * * * * * * * * *

    Rin was seriously starting to regret choosing a motorcycle for their group’s transportation.

    It wasn’t that Saber was a bad driver, it was that she was way too good a driver. And she knew it. The idea of racing down the highway at six times the speed limit and going off-roading through the Trifas forests didn’t frighten her one bit, since she could handle it with ease. They only widened the smile on her face.

    Unfortunately, no matter how expertly it was done, navigating at a not-so-insignificant speed through the bumpy maze of roots and hills was still hell on Rin’s stomach.

    She stumbled, panting, out of the side car into the clearing. “Yeah, like I said right from the get-go,” she breathed, “I regret that I ever agreed to that!”

    “My apologies, Master,” Saber bowed. “I merely wished for us to reach the location specified by Ruler’s vision as quickly and safely as possible. We can rest a moment before continuing.”

    Rin winced, but she had to agree that Saber was making the right decision here. Whatever chaos came from driving through the forest, it was better than the alternative of approaching Trifas from the road and being wide open for the Black Faction’s long-range defenses.

    “Um, guys?”

    “What is it, Shirou?”

    “Ruler. Saber of Periwinkle.”

    Rin recognized the voice immediately, mostly because she didn’t despise the fact that he’d called them their former color. She whirled around to where Shirou had pointed before. Her eyes widened.

    Saber of Black stood over his unconscious Master, and there, glowing in his hand, was that his Master’s—?! Rin felt a chill go up her spine as she realized that he hadn’t killed his Master. The only one among the players on this stage with a hole in their chest was Siegfried himself. Meaning…

    “He… tore out his own heart?!” she shuddered.

    Indeed, Siegfried held his own still beating heart, glowing crimson in his right hand. Across from him, an unconscious, wounded boy was leaned against a tree trunk, supported by a… girl? Boy? They had a long braid of pink hair, but Rin didn’t see any curves. It was still an even chance for either gender, but she’d go with guy until she got confirmation one way or the other.

    But this person’s gender ambiguity, as fascinating as it had the potential to be, was not important right now. Back to the more pertinent and immediate issue of why Saber of Black had apparently gouged out his own heart.

    “Saber of Black, what are you doing?” Saber demanded, horror on her lips.

    Siegfried merely smiled, though it was obvious it was a feeble attempt at concealing immense pain. “That boy is a homunculus that wishes to live his own life. I wish to give him that chance.”

    The knight staunchly strode over to the injured boy, kneeled down, and plunged his heart into the boy’s chest, shifting it into spirit form as it went so as to not destroy the child’s body.

    “He’s… sacrificing his life for him…” Ruler murmured.

    Shirou clenched one hand into a fist.

    “He’s saving him,” Shirou muttered. Rin looked at him and could tell precisely what he was thinking: ‘This is far too high a price to pay to save a single person. But that doesn’t mean we have any right to stop him.’

    Saber gaped at Siegfried, shock, awe, and disbelief sharing her visage in equal measure.

    “Master, he may be a Servant, but nevertheless, without his heart…”

    “He’ll die,” Rin noted, keeping her tone even.

    She should have been thrilled. Saber of Black was a dangerous opponent, possibly the greatest threat to Saber in the entire war. And here he was, killing himself for them. But he wasn’t doing it for them. He was doing it to save a child, a homunculus no less, and one he didn’t even know based off his vague description of him. He was dying because his life could purchase that of another.

    He was dying to be a hero.

    Rin recalled the events at Einzbern Manor from their war. Where Illya, another child, another homunculus, was butchered simply for her place in the Holy Grail War. How Shirou, brainless fool that he was, was still willing throw his life away to try and save her, or at least avenge her, even if he knew he didn’t stand a chance in hell of succeeding.

    And here she was, watching another brainless fool die to save someone. Only this time, she hadn’t been there to hold this one down, not that she could have stopped a Servant anyway.

    She could practically hear Archer shouting, ‘That idiot!

    The homunculus boy’s chest flashed a strange turquoise glow, similar in color to Siegfried’s arcane ‘scar,’ his body just barely containing the light. Seeing this, Rin realized that the only reason the heart transplant hadn’t had the exact opposite effect from the one Siegfried intended was because this boy was a homunculus. Having a heroic spirit’s heart forced into one’s body was more than enough to kill a normal human, their spirits unable to accommodate the original host’s history with the vast legend of the foreign object.

    Rin was all set to write it off as a stroke of brazen luck, except then she noticed what else had appeared on his body. There on the back of his right hand, in a shape reminiscent of a dragon, were…

    “Black Command Seals…” Shirou muttered in trepidation.

    The pink-haired boy gazed at the homunculus in disbelief before whipping his head around to face Siegfried. “But what’ll happen to you?”

    Saber of Black smiled. He staggered back and took a seat on a nearby pile of rocks.

    “One life is sacrificed to save another. That is an equivalent exchange,” Siegfried dourly noted. “Quite fair, is it not, Rider?”

    “No, it’s not,” the pink haired boy, presumably Rider of Black, retorted.

    “Why would you do such a thing?” Ruler whispered.

    Siegfried grinned at her and Saber. “I wanted to be able to fulfill my own wish, instead of only allowing myself to grant the wishes of others. Perhaps it was extremely self-centered of me, but I could not rid myself of this desire: If only once, I wanted to save someone of my own will, to be able to experience that pride. Even if no one begged me to. Even if my efforts were unwanted. This is all I have been wishing to do for such a long time.”

    “You did it,” Shirou assured the dragon slayer, not sure whether to look sympathetic or critical of the man’s selfless yet thoroughly irrational actions. “You… definitely saved him.” Rin could tell from the way he stared at the homunculus’s hand that he had intentionally decided not to mention what else he may have done to the boy.

    “Yes, you did,” Saber concurred. She stepped forward, her face set in a mask of stern determination. “Which means—”

    “Rider,” Siegfried interrupted, “relay this to my Master, ‘I’m sorry. I was not worthy of being your Servant in the end.’“

    Rider nearly gaped but managed to answer even as Arturia seethed with sheer bafflement.

    “What are you saying—that’s not true at all! It’s not!”

    “Have you taken complete leave of your senses, Siegfried?!”

    “My apologies, Saber of Periwinkle. It seems that I’ll not be capable of continuing what we began earlier.”

    “That’s—”

    “Ruler…” again Siegfried interrupted, “I am sorry to ask this of you… but I want you to grant that boy his freedom.”

    “ENOUGH!”

    Silence fell upon the clearing as Saber took a deep breath.

    “Ruler will do no such thing! You will take responsibility for your own actions, as is only appropriate. You did indeed save this boy, which evidently means it falls to me to save you from your own folly! Are you so eager to throw your life away that you would deliver your last rights propped against a log as insects crawl across your armor?!”

    Siegfried’s eyes widened, even as motes of blue light began to float of his body.

    “Saber of Blue, what are you talking about?” Ruler wondered.

    “Wait, Blue?” Rider yapped seeming to be distracted, “I thought it was—”

    “Rin, I know it is a poor strategic move, but I beg you to let me—”

    “Do it,” Rin ordered. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it.” She looked at Shirou. “No one should have to die to save someone. Especially not while there are other alternatives available.”

    Saber and Shirou nodded gratefully at Rin.

    “Besides, I just… honestly, I can’t even bear to watch any more of this idiocy. I mean look at this farce!” she continued. “The man’s first instinct after deciding to save this kid was to rip out his own heart—”

    “Well, actually, it was his second,” Rider interrupted.

    “Okay, fine, whatever,” Rin grumbled, “The man’s second instinct after deciding to save this kid was to rip out his own heart. And you heard that spiel he gave; you’d think the idiot’s laboring under the delusion that he’s the one being selfish here.”

    “Uh, actually, that’s exactly what he’s thinking,” Rider said, his tone as disparaging as it could possibly be. Which really wasn’t that much. He mostly sounded like he was having a panic attack, if anything. Rin just smacked her forehead.

    “Am I surrounded by idiots?!” she snapped.

    “Absolutely!” Rider affirmed with a brief smile.

    Why are you bragging about it?! Also, aren’t you supposed to be freaking out over your dying teammate? Honestly, in what whacked out universe does a person tear out their heart, transplant it into someone else, and then think of themselves as self-centered?! Catastrophically stupid, sure, but selfish doesn’t apply.”

    Meanwhile, the King of Knights held her hands out in front of her. A shining golden light began to emanate from the center of her body, quickly overwhelming the sapphire particles drifting up from Siegfried’s slowly dissipating form. In a brilliant golden flash, she held Excalibur’s sheath in her hands.

    “That scabbard…” Ruler whispered. “But your legend says— How is this possible…?”

    “I once knew an honorable knight who was forced to fall on his own blade due to the hideous machinations of another Holy Grail War,” Saber shouted. “I refuse to allow yet another worthy soul to meet such a disgraceful end! So I admonish you, Sir Siegfried, live! There are still many more you can save, but only if you give yourself that chance! Look onward—

    The Everdistant Utopia
    ”Avalon!”


    Saber pressed the scabbard point down against Siegfried’s chest. The moment it came into contact with his body, the divine construct sank into his chest as though it were unobstructed.

    The results were nigh instantaneous. The bright blue particles that were evaporating off of the knight suddenly changed color, turning gold and racing to return to his body. The entirety of his being, as well as his armor, flashed gold for the briefest of moments.

    Siegfried took a sharp, ragged breath, his eyes wide with shock. He clutched at his own chest, seemingly amazed to feel a heart beating beneath his skin. “Impossible…”

    Rider stared wide-eyed at the scene, his jaw hanging open just a tad. For a few moments, he didn’t move a muscle. And then…

    “You’re alive!” Rider cheered, jumping to his feet and throwing his arms into the air. Any and all signs that he’d been crying vanished instantaneously.

    Saber stepped back to Rin and smiled, a little ruefully, but no less earnest for it, “Avalon’s regenerative abilities are quite impressive. Restoring your heart, while time consuming, should be simple enough. Until then, it will at least keep you alive.”

    “Avalon… which would make you…” Siegfried raised his head and looked upon Saber with new, wondrous awe painted on his face. “King of Knights… thank you. I owe you an unfathomable debt.”

    “Think nothing of it,” Saber deflected gracefully. “You have more than proven yourself a worthy hero. As such, your death should befit one. Moreover, never do something so obscenely foolish ever again! Sacrificing yourself should be a last resort among last resorts. That is my most powerful Noble Phantasm and I do expect you to return it at your earliest convenience, and suffice to say, I’ll not save you again if you make this same mistake again.”

    Saber of Black gave her a simple nod. Not quite enough to reassure her, but for now, she’d leave it at that. Even with Saber’s identity having been revealed, Rin couldn’t find it in herself to regret her decision. Besides, after seeing what just transpired, she had come to the conclusion that she couldn’t predict how Siegfried would behave in any type of situation. He was just as likely to reveal Saber’s identity as he was to keep it a secret.

    And at that moment…

    “NGH!” the homunculus boy gasped as his magic circuits, still blazing, increased in their intensity yet again. His entire body began to glow, startling everyone in the clearing as he winced in discomfort. The light he was giving off grew to such an intensity that they had to shield their eyes. But when it faded…

    “What the heck is all this?!” Astolfo stammered

    The boy Siegfried had saved was not the same man that now lay beneath the tree. In the time since they last looked at him, it was as though he’d aged seven years in the span of a few minutes. He was taller, his features were more defined, and he was significantly more muscular—though that really only meant that there was an outline of his body beneath his clothes whereas before they’d been hanging off him as though he were a skeleton.

    Rin watched as the transformed homunculus slowly opened his eyes.

    “He’s alive too! His heart is beating!” Rider screamed jubilantly to the heavens. “Thank goodness! You’re alive! Saber’s alive! Everyone’s alive! I’m so happy! Gosh, this all worked out really nicely.”

    “What the…” the boy groaned, “What… happened?”

    “How are you feeling?” Jeanne asked.

    After a few moments of hesitation, he spoke, but more to himself than in response to Ruler’s question.

    “I’m alive… but how?” he murmured.

    “You’re here… because a kind Servant nearly gave his very life to save yours,” she answered quietly. “You’ve no need to worry about repaying a debt. He would have died, but some… strange circumstances conspired to prevent that. Specifically, another Servant from a different faction saved his life in turn,” she looked up at Arturia. “I appreciated your sentiment, Saber of Blue, as there are tasks that I must attend, but though it may require a detour, I am in a far more suitable position to aid this homunculus than your fellow Saber.” She returned her gaze to the boy in front of her.

    “Servant, Ruler,” she introduced herself. “My true name is Jeanne d’Arc. As per that hero’s request, I will protect your life—your soul.”

    The boy stared in awe, and Rin started to question if this homunculus had been worth saving. He didn’t seem particularly bright.

    It’s a miracle! You’re alive!” cried Rider. Rin squinted at the scene, trying to figure out why it was that he only got more enthusiastic the more time passed rather than following the natural order of excitement wearing off. He looked eager to continue his streak of successes. To that end, he grabbed the poor homunculus, engulfed him in a tight bear hug, and proceeded to squeeze the life out of him, snuggling him like a teddy bear.

    Ruler and Shirou walked over to the two and knelt down on beside the boy.

    “Um, you may want to let him breathe,” Shirou suggested.

    “Indeed, something like this is unprecedented,” Ruler stated. “I want to examine him, Rider, so please move aside.”

    Rider of Black didn’t seem to notice, continuing to cuddle the homunculus with an obliviousness that was both strangely charming, and objectively ridiculous.

    “Rider?” she asked.

    No response.

    “…Rider?”

    Symptoms may include hyperactivity, impaired sense of awareness, emotional outbursts, cross-dressing, liking hippogriffs even when they don’t like you…”

    Ruler narrowed her eyes at the pink haired Servant, likely focusing her True Name Discernment on the boy to find a possible weakness. Eventually, even she lost patience with this and she shoved Rider off the poor homunculus.

    “Pardon me,” she said, her courteous tone somewhat at odds with the strength she put into shoving the Servant aside.

    She placed a hand on the homunculus’ chest, a soft glow under her palm. “It seems that Siegfried’s heart is functioning properly with its new surroundings. …nothing remotely like this has happened in previous Holy Grail Wars.”

    “How can that even be possible?” Rin inquired. “A Servant is a being of incredible mystery and mystical power. How could a human body adapt to even a piece of its existence? As a homunculus, I suppose it might not be impossible, but it still seems improbable.”

    “I don’t know the answer to that,” Jeanne admitted. “A homunculus is a blank slate, a perfect existence. Perhaps it could be compared to how a blank canvas can be covered by paint… so by that line of thinking, one could argue that this boy’s hollowness allowed his body to safely adjust to the task of containing Siegfried’s power.”

    “Did you say Siegfried?” the boy asked. “The hero from the Nibelungenlied? I have— I have his heart?!”

    “One of them at any rate,” Shirou informed him, rubbing his forehead. “But don’t worry, you’re both fine. He saved you and our Saber saved him.”

    The homunculus’s gaze darted over to the dragonslayer himself. “You… saved me? Thank you. Thank you so much.”

    Siegfried smiled softly. “Think nothing of it, little one.”

    “Exactly!” Rider of Black exclaimed. “All that matters is that you’re both alive and okay.”

    Jeanne frowned. “That’s true, however… Rider…” she trailed off as though expecting something of him.

    Saber’s eyes went wide.

    “Rin! Shirou! Behind me!” Saber shouted.

    Too late. Two Servants abruptly materialized nearby. The first was a girl in a wedding dress with what looked like a horn jutting out of her head, and the other a tall man encased in golden armor and deep violet robes. The most unusual part of his attire was the faceless golden mask he wore, evidently part of his armor. Moments later, six more figures arrived. Four of them wore the same white and gold jackets as Gordes and had Command Seals on their hands. The Masters of Black.

    “Aw man…” Rider whined as he stood up, “They found us.”

    The other two figures were clearly Servants. One’s energy felt like the fresh pine of a forest, and he stood behind a wheelchair-bound girl, his Master no doubt. Though the horselike tail sticking out behind him was a mystery.

    Still, the final one was the most terrifying, beyond question. He sat upon a clay construct built in the likeness of a warhorse, his deep frown set like a knife. His long blond hair was pale and only added to the regal air about him which only magnified the sensation of menace he gave off. More than anything else, his mere presence commanded respect and fear. But unlike the others, she recognized this one. She’d seen his portrait in history books and encyclopedias her whole life. This was Vlad Tepes III, better known as Vlad the Impaler, son of Dracul. A legend who was not only world-famous, but here, he’d also been summoned smack-dab in the middle of his homeland and was backed up by a squad of other Heroic Spirits.

    Rin’s face paled. They were surrounded. They were surrounded by the entire Black Faction, and Saber no longer had Avalon. She grit her teeth in a ferocious and hopefully misleading sneer, cold sweat beading on her forehead and the back of her neck.

    “Rider, what is it that happened here?” asked the Master standing beside the King of Romania, a man with ageless features and long blue hair. His voice was baleful, yet also flat and toneless, the sound of a person who only lived for a singular purpose and could see no value in anything else. “Answer.”

    “Well, ah… y’see…”

    “I’ve not finished speaking. You have a great deal to explain: Why do Saber and Gordes appear to have been incapacitated? Who are these interlopers standing over you, and what exactly is your excuse for allowing them so deep inside our domain?”

    Rin scowled. She couldn’t be certain who this man was, but she had a pretty good guess.

    Darnic Prestone Yggdmillennia.

    So, this was the bastard that had killed off the three families. Maybe he’d get too close and she could hit him with a Finn Shot.

    And that was it for her spontaneous bright ideas. Well, at least she had one consolation: She was in the presence of a Saint. So there was always at least one plan:

    Pray for a miracle. Because only that was going to save them now.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Well... that's slightly problematic.

    Looks like the Blue Faction have done some good and as a consequence put themselves in a mess of trouble. Ruler can't order the Black Faction not to attack them after all. And without Avalon, they are just a bit outgunned.

    Draconic: Saving Siegfried was the point when I expected Beast's Lair to take notice of this fic, even if the way we did it was a bit silly.

    TheMaster4444: A huge thank you to my patrons: ArcherMcMuffin, Gregg Tracton, Keith Traction and my newest supporter, Cool guy.

    Thank you for Reading! I hope you enjoy what comes next!

    Go Forth and Conquer!

    Draconic: My main contribution here was the Saber Ruminates scene, in which her thoughts run away with her as she speculates over what must have happened to Iri. I created that passage, and slightly expanded the rest, getting them closer to the woods before the scene ended.
    Last edited by Draconic; July 13th, 2019 at 02:41 PM. Reason: Made some edits, corrections, polished a few edges

  5. #25
    Knight of Joestar SirGauoftheSquareTable's Avatar
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    Nice timing, coinciding with the Chapter 14 release on FFN.net. In any case, like how you two ultimately handled you know what, and I wonder what lays in store for a certain someone.

    Spoiler:
    Also, I guess you were right about TheMaster deciding to have Atalanta tag along with Kairi and Mordred because Mordred is actually a child (which is in a sense true), and thus Achilles also has yet to find out Chiron is dead. Finally, it was pretty much obvious what Siegfried's plan to deal with Achilles would be. He may be honorable, but that won't stop him from being as devious as his character allows.


    Also, fair warning, but after reading your fic, I was thinking of incorporating the Shirou Dead Count Shapeshifter seals into my own fic. Just thought it would be polite to let you know.
    Quote Originally Posted by Deathhappens View Post
    Really, all 3 of the romances in F/SN are 'for want of a nail' kind of situations.
    Quote Originally Posted by forumghost View Post
    You mean because Shirou winds up falling for the first of the three that he Nailed?
    Quote Originally Posted by Tobias View Post
    I speak for the majority of important people* *a category comprised entirely of myself

  6. #26
    Hey, I ain’t no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    Chapter 7

    Here's the chapter for September!
    (Sorry for removing the notice by the way, Master4444, I didn't know how relevant it still was.)

    Beta-ed by Draconic

    * * * * * * * * * *







    Okay, no miracle.

    Well, I guess it’s up to me.’

    Fortunately, Rider of Black seemed to be taking a lot more time than should have been necessary to recount the string of recent events, so that at least gave her time to think.

    There were four enemy Servants surrounding them, six if Siegfried and Rider were ordered—or willing—to attack them. She had to assume that Assassin was still hidden in spirit form and waiting for an opportunity to strike, so that meant that the remaining Servants were Archer, Caster, and Berserker since Vlad himself was Lancer. The forest-scented Servant standing behind the girl in the wheelchair seemed to be the one with the most defined physique of the three, and he certainly had the ‘Stoic Archer Look’ down. That said, where her Archer’s gaze was cool and even condescending, this man appeared completely serene. The one in the purple robes and golden armor definitely had the most unreadable stature… and the tackiest outfit, which made her lean towards pegging them as a Caster, if experience meant anything. Which, by process of elimination, meant the science experiment in the wedding dress had to be a Berserker. Wouldn’t have been her first guess, but what could you do?

    Alright, assuming they got amazingly lucky and Saber and Rider weren’t coerced into attacking them, they could work with this… maybe.

    On the other hand, she really couldn’t predict Rider’s behavior. At all.

    Most Berserkers weren’t the absolute monsters that Heracles had been, and Archers by their nature weren’t meant for close combat, so with any luck, Saber could hold them both off while Rin somehow repeated her miraculous defeat of Medea against this Caster. Meanwhile, Shirou could hold off the… four Masters…

    The Yggdmillenia weren’t exactly known for being a clan of first rate mages. Sure, Darnic may have been over a century old and you didn’t get to be that old and that ruthless without picking up a few tricks, but Shirou had Noble Phantasms! Fake Noble Phantasms, sure, but they were still identical to their originals and certainly did everything they were supposed to.

    …and he wouldn’t get a chance to use any of them if Lancer could impale him before he could finish saying ‘Trace on’… And Lancer of Black wouldn’t be able to do that; he would impale all three of them before Shirou even opened his mouth. At least, that’s what would happen if they didn’t play their cards perfectly here.

    In the end, that was the biggest problem with her ideal scenario. Lancer was simply too powerful.

    It also said a lot that her ideal scenario mostly relied on them getting extremely lucky.

    If they still had Avalon, then Saber could have just steamrolled through everyone with the exception of Siegfried without fear of damage, but without it, they were just outgunned. Vlad the Impaler was an immensely strong Heroic Spirit without boosted abilities, but with the extra power he gained from being in his homeland, he might have been closing on Karna and Goldy.

    Wait…

    Gilgamesh…

    Homeland…

    Vlad was more powerful as long as he was on Romanian soil, but if they could just remove that…

    No. That would require… but if it didn’t…

    At the very least, they’d still need a distraction… like…

    Rin’s eyes darted towards Saber’s invisible sword. She smirked.

    I know that look,’ Shirou said over their gem link. ’What’re you plotting, Tohsaka?’

    Do you need to say your full chant to summon your Reality Marble?’ Rin inquired.

    Yes. Archer might have been able to manifest it without the whole aria, but I don’t have that ability,’ Shirou put a hand to his chin. ’I used the full chant against Gilgamesh and I still didn’t have enough prana to finish the fight. I don’t think I can maintain it for long in an entire battle, especially not against so many. At any rate, without the full incantation, it’s unlikely to work. Not at my level.’

    That’s a problem. We really need to get them inside of it,’ Rin said. ’If we can do that, I’d be able to handle the rest.’

    He will need to gather the prana for the spell,’ Saber pointed out. ’With so many mages here, they are sure to notice, even if they fail to hear him. Lancer will execute him immediately.’

    Not if they’re all focusing on something else,’ Rin said. ’We’ll need a distraction. You and I are going to have to provide that.’

    Saber raised an eyebrow in bemusement, but as she followed Rin’s gaze to her sword, she quickly worked out what her Master was thinking. That would garner a lot of attention. A shame that her identity would be revealed so early, but they didn’t really have any options let. ’Very well. Creating a diversion should be child’s play.’

    Excellent. Shirou, go for it when I give you the signal and not a moment before. If they catch on to what you’re doing, we’re dead.’

    Got it. And yeah, I know, you don’t have to remind me.’

    Rin took a deep breath. If they managed to pull this off, Zelretch had better give her extra credit. The trick now was to ensure that no one heard him. So how could she go about doing that?

    “…and that’s when you showed up with everyone and said ‘Rider, what is it that happened here?’ in that scary way of yours,” Rider of Black finished, making his voice deep and gravelly in a poor, but vaguely amusing attempt to mimic Darnic.

    To absolutely no one’s surprise, the glare Darnic shot at the pink-haired Servant was so baleful that not only did it look like he was trying to bore a hole through him, but for a moment, Rin almost thought she could see smoke coming from Rider’s chest.

    The woman with messy silver hair and glasses right next to him looked even less pleased. “Rider, if this is another one of your ridiculous tall tales, I swear—”

    Something about that woman was just creepy. She seemed elegant and poised at a glance, but her presence alone was giving off some sort of inherent wrongness. A tense sensation, as though something intangible but absolutely necessary could break at any moment, and everything would be that much worse for it.

    “It is nothing of the sort,” Siegfried spoke up. He seemed to be leaning on his massive sword to keep himself standing. Avalon’s work was obviously incomplete. “I assure you, Lady Celenike, everything Rider just reported is true.”

    Celenike? This was the batshit insane woman Zelretch had warned them about?

    The woman just snarled at Siegfried’s assurance, her mouth set in a twisted scowl. So judging from her reaction, it would be bad if he had lied, but she was even angrier that he hadn’t. Yes, Rin decided, she could easily see this woman wearing a dominatrix’s corset. She shook her head to remove that image. This was not the time to be unearthing unexpected bisexual tendencies, least of all towards this probable lunatic. After all, if even Zelretch of all people found her to be too crazy…

    “Whoa… you’re actually serious…aren’t you?” a male Master of Black gasped. He was handsome, and certainly looked smart in his unassuming but stylish glasses, but Rin could tell that he wasn’t particularly talented as a mage just from a glance. Nevertheless, he was standing protectively in front of Archer’s wheelchair bound Master. He didn’t look much older than Rin and Shirou had been during their war. “I guess we really dodged a bullet. If these guys hadn’t been here—”

    “We would have lost our Saber,” Darnic snarled. He glared at Gordes’ unconscious form. “And over something so trivial…”

    “Darnic,” the suspected Caster of Black spoke up. “If that homunculus truly does possess Saber’s heart, he would serve quite well as a reactor core.”

    The blue haired mage’s eyes turned back towards the homunculus boy, the glint in his gaze not the ambivalence of inconvenience but the avarice of desire. “Rider, hand him over.”

    “No way!” Rider shouted defiantly, his frivolous gaze suddenly showing unyielding determination in the face of his superior. Rin would have never expected such resolve from the obviously eccentric hero. He really was a noble Servant after all.

    Darnic narrowed his eyes. “Very well, you’ll be appropriately dealt with later. Saber, retrieve him from these interlopers in Rider’s place.”

    Saber of Black bowed his head. “I apologize, my lord, but I cannot allow that.”

    Darnic’s eyes narrowed. “Do not make me waste Command Spells on this.”

    Celenike raised her right hand, as if to reinforce the threat.

    Rin smirked. She had no idea how Darnic intended to use the unconscious Gordes as a threat against Siegfried, but Celenike raising her hand likely meant she held Rider’s Command Seals. Ugh, to have such a peppy person stuck with a woman even Zelretch considered unstable, maybe she should cut the pink-haired kid some slack.

    Nevertheless, even with the price they would have to pay just to get out alive, this encounter was not without profit. Already she knew three of the Master-Servant pair ups, assuming her assumption about the Archer was correct.

    Shirou glared at Darnic, his hands closing into fists. “Do you honestly think we’re just going to let you drag him away to use as some power source against his will?”

    “From where I stand, you don’t appear to be in any position to suggest that we need your permission to do anything, boy,” Lancer of Black remarked evenly. “You have trespassed on the king’s land.”

    Shirou! Cut it out! No heroics! We need them to overlook you!’

    “That is quite enough!”

    With that brief command, Ruler silenced the entire party. She looked upon the Black Faction with immovable certainty. “Forcefully involving this boy in the Great Holy Grail War will not be allowed.”

    What?!

    In that single word, Rin found a sudden appreciation for how frightening this Caster could be. The sound of his tone was actually funny: He managed to sound utterly dumbfounded while remaining completely disaffected. But no sane person could sound so dead. This man was a lunatic hiding behind a thin veil of serenity and a faceless mask.

    “Even Holy Grail Wars have rules,” Ruler continued. “And one of the most important among those is that those involved must not involve outsiders. And this boy did not choose to participate.”

    “But he is not unrelated,” Caster argued. “After all, he has inherited Saber’s heart.”

    “Regardless, possessing it does not make this boy a Servant,” Jeanne fired back. “Putting aside the fact that this chivalrous knight still lives, no faction has the right to forcefully involve innocents, no matter how potent their magecraft might be. Caster, I’m sure you knew that.”

    “Yes, that is correct,” the man replied, unfazed even after being called out on his false claim. “But he is still a homunculus, and that is all that matters to me.”

    And now the sociopath was talking to Ruler like she was mentally deficient. What was he trying to do here?! Provoke her into using a Command Seal on him?!

    “This homunculus was an asset we created for the Great Holy Grail War,” Darnic interjected. “No personality, or past; he was created solely to fight for us.”

    The homunculus boy cringed, looking at the ground, shame etched across his face.

    Shirou scowled at Darnic.

    “That doesn’t—!”

    What did I just say, Shirou?!’

    We can’t just do nothing!’

    We’re not. We’re letting Ruler handle it. She has a better chance at saving him than we do anyway.’

    “I accept that may be the case,” Ruler continued. “However, he wished to live and thus took action. And indeed, there were others who wished for him to live,” she turned to Siegfried. “Saber of Black, you were willing to give your life for this boy. Was that sacrifice not to give him the opportunity to live?”

    Siegfried nodded. “It was.” He turned to Vlad and Darnic. “My lords, please permit this boy a chance to live as he sees fit.”

    Darnic glared at his Saber, but he did not get the chance to speak.

    “Really, Saber,” Vlad sighed. His voice dripped with frustration, but it was more a parent’s irritation with a willful child than someone truly furious. “You are a truly valiant hero. Perhaps to the extent of foolishness. Do you truly wish to give that mere homunculus a chance at life?”

    “I hold to that as I hold to my honor as a Heroic Spirit, my lord.”

    “It is the wish of a Heroic Spirit, and more importantly, the will of a human being,” Jeanne stepped forward. She twirled her flag and pointed the spear tip at the Servants of Black. “Upon this flag, I swear—”

    Lancer hid it well, but his eyes widened a touch as he heard her rebuke. “Could you be… the Maid of Orléans?”

    Jeanne, the girl Rin had tutored in math just days ago, stared him straight in the eye, her gaze unwavering against a man so terrifying that he’d inspired one of the most vicious monsters in fiction. Even with all the wonders and horrors she’d witnessed in her life, Rin couldn’t help but feel a growing admiration for the Saint.

    “On my True Name, I will never turn him over to you.”

    That was as much a confirmation as anything. Surprising, but on the other hand, Ruler had a significant advantage over other Servants.

    Rin noticed the boy in the glasses whispering something to the Archer, but couldn’t make out what was said. That gave her an idea.

    While the Yggdmillennia’s attention was elsewhere, Rin drew a small glyph in the air behind her and spoke a brief incantation.

    Verstumme!
    Möge nicht Stimme, nicht ein hauch deine lippen verlassen, die klingen deiner stimme soll nie wieder erschallen!”


    That should do the trick,’ she said silently, projecting her voice directly into his head. ’You should be able to shout and no one would hear you.’

    Shirou tested this and seemed not to realize that he wasn’t making any sound whatsoever.

    You’re completely silent, Shirou,’ Rin assured him, ’I can’t hear you anymore. It’s working, so don’t worry. Just focus on doing what we need you to do when we give you your opening.’

    Shirou nodded.

    Vlad smiled ever so slightly at Ruler’s resolve before shifting his gaze to Rider. “Rider, Saber’s actions could be viewed as acting on a desire to keep one of our assets alive. His actions were undeniably foolish, and indicative that he may undervalue his own person, but he remains loyal all the same. Your behavior on the other hand can only be described as deliberate actions taken for the purpose of undermining the Black Faction. Do you consider what you have done here tonight to be a blatant act of betrayal?”

    “Not at all!” Rider shot back, a wide grin on his face. “Because I truly believe that helping that boy was the right thing to do!”

    Celenike looked moments away from losing her composure, but her cool glare held.

    Vlad scoffed. “Needless to say, I cannot simply let you go without punishment. The same goes for you, Saber.”

    Siegfried bowed his head. “That is only natural. But my lord, the boy?”

    “He will have his freedom.”

    What?” Darnic exclaimed.

    Vlad shrugged. “We will find another reactor core. It is of little consequence. Saber, please take your Master back to the castle. It would be unwise to allow him to linger so close to our enemies in such a state.”

    Siegfried nodded, but first glanced back to Saber. “Saber of Blue, you may retrieve your Noble Phantasm now.”

    Saber sighed. “No, I cannot. Your heart is likely still being regenerated. To remove it now would kill you within seconds, rendering a full half of this squabble utterly pointless,” the King of Britain looked up at the King of Romania, her gaze cold, “A ruthless tactic, Lancer of Black.”

    Vlad smirked. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean, Saber of… wait. Our Saber referred to you as ‘Blue’ just now, but earlier reports stated your factioncolor to be—”

    “It was a case of miscommunication!” Rin loudly interjected. “We are the Blue Faction! Not… that other thing. Ask Ruler if you need confirmation.”

    Ruler raised an eyebrow at the display. “Um, yes, that is true. They are now the Blue Faction.”

    “Now?” Lancer noted. “So they were formerly the Periwinkle Faction?”

    Rin’s shoulders slumped. “Yes. We were. But not anymore.” At the very least, Lancer was managing to make it sound more dignified than even Siegfried could.

    The boy with glasses looked to the wheelchair bound girl. “Changing your faction color? Is that allowed?”

    “I don’t know,” the girl replied. “I don’t think there are any rules against it.”

    “Most would not think to,” Archer explained. “After all, the designation affects nothing in the actual war.”

    Celenike chuckled. “How juvenile. The little girl wouldn’t tolerate not having her favorite color.”

    That patronizing piece of… Okay… she just moved up on the blacklist.

    Outwardly, Rin cringed. Inwardly, she smirked. The more they were focused on her, even for such an embarrassing reason, the more they weren’t focusing on Shirou. The more she played up her reactions, the better.

    “It doesn’t matter what their name is,” Darnic snarled impatiently. “Saber, return Gordes to Millenia Citadel now, and remain there!”

    Siegfried’s gaze divided itself between Gordes and Saber, obviously torn on not returning the King of Knights’ Noble Phantasm. Both he and Rider had been quite generous in not exposing Arturia’s identity during their explanation. For whatever stupidity it might invoke in him, Siegfried was honorable to the extreme.

    Saber smiled softly at him. “Do not worry, Saber of Black. Your Master’s safety is paramount above all else. Do not let your debt to me impede your oath.”

    Siegfried paused a moment but nodded afterward. “As you say, Saber of Blue.”

    He walked over to Gordes and slung his Master over his shoulder. “If you do not survive this, I shall carry your regards to Lancer of Red.”

    A smirk graced Arturia’s lips. “I thank you for your concern. But you know who I am. You should be more worried about your allies.”

    Siegfried nodded and leapt away into the forest. Several of the Black Masters and Servants tilted their heads at Saber or showed similar signs of confusion, obviously concerned about the dragon slayer knight not refuting her assertion.

    Rin grinned. It looked like Saber was doing her part in taking attention off Shirou as well.

    Still, it was a clever move by Vlad. While Siegfried would likely have fought them if pressed, he was a knight after all and no matter how indebted he may have felt to them he wouldn’t refuse such a direct order, he likely would have insisted on returning Avalon before he engaged them, even if it meant his own demise. This way, the dragon slayer knight would be taken off the board entirely, and the Noble Phantasm that could regenerate a lost heart with him.

    The King of Romania turned back to Ruler. “Ruler, as a fellow believer of God, will you not join forces with us?”

    “No,” Jeanne refused. “I must remain impartial. As long as each side fights for the Holy Grail with honor, I will not interfere with anything.”

    “A shame. You are a credit to the Throne, Jeanne d’Arc,” said Vlad. “However, am I to take it that you will not intervene in our interactions with the Blue Faction? Gordes reported that you refused his invitation to travel here with him, yet Rider claims you arrived in their company.”

    Jeanne exchanged a regretful look with the three of them, but Shirou and Saber each shot her a reassuring smile. The Maid of Orléans sighed.

    “I was traveling with them for investigative purposes only,” the Ruler explained. “I am no more allied with them than with either of the other factions.”

    “Investigative purposes? To discover how they appeared in this Great Holy Grail War no doubt.” Lancer turned to them and glared. “Something I admit to being curious about myself.”

    Once more, the gaze of every Servant and Master present fell on them, some focused, some wary, others simply curious.

    Rin almost sneered. When in doubt, just tell the truth: “Would you believe it was a homework assignment?”

    A stake longer than she was tall shot out of the ground right in front of her. She leapt back in shock as Saber moved to cover her, however it was clear that the attack had only been intended as a warning. If he had wanted to kill her, Rin had no doubt she would have been dead before she even realized she’d been impaled.

    “I’ll just take that as a ‘no’,” Rin remarked. Funny thing that it kind of was. Hell, it wasn’t even the wackiest thing Zelretch had assigned her.

    Darnic glared at them. “My lord, I would advise that you execute these interlopers immediately. We have enough to deal with already.”

    “Let’s not be hasty, Darnic,” Lancer overruled. “They did just save Saber’s life, at a rather significant loss to themselves. And he spoke well of their conduct when Lancer of Red ambushed Ruler. They would make valuable allies in this War. What say you, Master of Blue? Will you join forces with us against the Servants of Red?”

    Yeah, no. Putting aside the fact that such an arrangement would give the Yggdmillennia every opportunity to use them as cannon fodder, Rin did have certain standards for her allies. While she actually couldn’t say she’d mind working with Lancer of Black and even Caster of Black’s desire to use the homunculus as a power source could be forgiven from a mage’s point of view, she didn’t want to touch Celenike with a ten-foot pole until she knew exactly what they were dealing with. Plus, her personal issues with Darnic… Wait…

    Hello distraction!

    “An interesting proposal, Your Majesty,” Rin replied to Vlad. “But perhaps you should know who you are dealing with first. Saber!”

    The King of Knights smiled, stepping forward on cue and raising her sword above her head. Invisible Air dissipated in a rush of wind, filling the air with ambient prana and causing all but Lancer, Archer, and the wheelchair bound girl Archer held to stagger. When all of them recovered, their collective gaze locked on the golden blade above Saber’s head.

    Erggh!” Berserker of Black grunted.

    “Wait, what is that?!” the boy with glasses exclaimed.

    “So pretty…” Rider drooled, his hands reaching out for the glowing sword.

    Shirou took his opportunity and began chanting.

    I am the bone of my sword.”

    She didn’t hear the words so much as she felt them, recognizing the sensation that permeated the air whenever he began invoking the reality marble.

    Vlad stared at the blade in shock. He looked back and forth between Saber and her weapon. “Archer, do my eyes deceive me? Is that really—”

    “It can be no other,” Archer confirmed. His awe didn’t last as long as the others though. His eyes narrowed in contemplation.

    Steel is my body and fire is my blood.”

    His Master seemed more impressed. “The Sword of Promised Victory…” she mused, her eyes wide with reverence.

    “Excalibur…!” Darnic finished, a tinge of fear on his lips.

    Saber lowered herself into a ready stance. “An impressive blade, but nothing more. It promises victory. It does not grant it. Between my sword and my own person, I am the one you should be most concerned about.”

    I have created over a thousand blades.”

    Vlad smiled upon Saber, a joyous grin though still somewhat frightening. “King of Knights, it is an honor to meet a hero of your caliber. I believe an alliance between our two factions would be to both our benefits.”

    “I thank you for your praise, King of Romania,” Saber replied politely. “However, it is not my decision whether to join you.”

    Unaware of loss, nor aware of gain.”

    Archer’s eyes narrowed. He looked at Saber with suspicion for a bit, but then his eyes seemed to wander, getting far too close to Shirou.

    No, no, no! If they caught on, they were all dead. She just needed to keep their attention for a bit longer!

    Time to look like a crazy person and hope Zelretch never let Luvia find out. Oh, to hell with it, she was probably watching right now, but she would rather be humiliated than let Shirou die. Not to mention… how would she be able to look Sakura in the eye ever again?

    “Indeed!” Rin agreed, stepping forward boldly to cut off Archer’s view of Shirou. “While Saber here is as fine a Servant as they come, you should really be far more concerned about me!”

    The Black Masters’ reactions ranged from confused curiosity to irritated exasperation. Darnic in particular seemed to champion the latter.

    “What are you playing at, girl?” the leader of Yggdmillenia growled.

    Withstood pain to create weapons, waiting for one’s arrival.”

    Archer’s eyes widened. “My lord—!”

    “I mean that I haven’t introduced myself, Darnic Prestone Yggdmillennia,” she stared him right in the eye and let her smirk fall away to be replaced by a look of disgust. “For what I’ve heard, you’re intimately familiar with my family.”

    Darnic narrowed his eyes.

    “What are you getting at, girl? Say what you mean rather than wasting our time.”

    “Okay, have it your way. My name is Rin… Rin Tohsaka!

    Every member of the Black Faction’s eyebrows shot up like rabbits, even Lancer and Darnic. Especially Darnic.

    What?” the man who stole the Holy Grail spoke very softly and very slowly, his gaze cold and venomous, like a viper that had come across a mouse that had dared to bite back.

    “Well well. It looks like you missed one,” Rin leered up at him. When in doubt, lie.

    She also noted that the corners of Celenike’s lips curled upward ever so slightly. So, schadenfreude was important to this woman even if it was to her own detriment by proxy? Twisted, but useful to know.

    “Tohsaka?” the boy with the glasses gasped. “But—but they’re dead! Right, Archer?”

    I have no regrets. This is the only path.”

    “They are,” Archer concurred, “But if she was really… then why would she— The boy!

    Shit!

    Archer’s bow was immediately in his hands, an arrow fully drawn.

    “Archer!” Lancer shouted.

    My whole life was…”

    Rin absently noted that Shirou’s voice was suddenly audible again, indicating that her spell had worn off. But it didn’t matter anymore.

    Unlimited Blade Works!”

    “Too late!” Rin shouted triumphantly.

    Even as Archer of Black fired, the whole world went white.

    And deep in the woods beyond Trifas, a lone arrow with no source whistled through an empty clearing.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Fiore blinked rapidly as the glare faded. When she could see properly again, her jaw dropped.

    She’d tried to keep her mind open when Grandfather Darnic had told her she’d be entering the Great Holy Grail War for their family. She’d been sad to leave her friends at the Clock Tower and a little nervous about having to fight, but she’d known there was no point in trying to say no to Darnic. A mage who’d managed to live as long as he had was not to be trifled with. Still, she hadn’t been sure what to think about the absurd tales that were told of the past wars. Even with magecraft, some things were just impossible.

    Then she’d summoned Archer. Obtaining the catalyst had been difficult, but it had all been worth it when she’d met Chiron. Her Servant was simply wonderful. He was so kind, and gentle, and wise. He truly felt like a figure of myth that had stepped out of legend. Just the fact that he existed, that he’d spoken with her, that they’d drank tea together, it proved that the wonders of ancient times could still exist through these Servants. Anything was possible with them in this world.

    Even… she dared to dream… for her to walk. To walk without giving up her path as a mage.

    But even with the knowledge that such miracles were possible, she hadn’t been able to understand why Archer had been so uneasy when Saber of Blue had revealed her sword. True, it was a wonder to behold the legendary sword of King Arthur (though she was a bit confused why she was a woman), but Lancer was practically unstoppable within Romania. His stakes could strike almost anyone before they had time to react. No matter how powerful Excalibur was, it couldn’t hurt them if it never went off.

    She’d been shocked when Archer’s attention had turned to the redheaded boy next to the Master of Blue, the girl who claimed to be a Tohsaka. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly remarkable about the boy. He was kind of handsome, and he had the same Black Command Seals that Rider had mentioned having appeared on the homunculus they were chasing, but he wasn’t something to worry about. Uncle Gordes had reported that the boy had bested him, but as much as Fiore loved and respected her Uncle he was far from the most… agile combatant.

    So when Archer had drawn his bow on the boy, she’d been more worried that negotiations would break down. The thought that she was about to be thrust into the most impossible situation hadn’t even crossed her mind. And what greeted her was indeed an impossible sight.

    They were no longer in the Trifas forests. There wasn’t a tree in sight. It wasn’t even night time anymore. The sky was covered by billowing clouds of soot, smatterings of light sneaking in through the few cracks.

    And on the ground… swords. Thousands upon thousands of blades, stretching as far as the eye could see in all directions. Each had a different make and style, a different power resonating through the air. They went on past the furthest horizon, an endless arsenal beyond anything that Fiore could have ever imagined.

    All around her, the other members of the Black Faction, even Lancer and Grandfather, gazed around their new surroundings, awe plastered across their faces.

    “What is this?” Celenike hissed, fear evident in her normally domineering voice.

    “Is… is it some kind of illusion?” Caules stammered.

    Fiore sighed. She loved her brother, she really did, but he really wasn’t that skilled as a mage. Part of her was glad because it meant she wouldn’t have to kill him if they both made it to the individual stage of the war, but it could be rather vexing at times like these. Though given that the spell they’d been entrapped in should have been impossible, she supposed his disbelief was understandable.

    “It’s a Reality Marble,” the elder Forvedge sibling corrected. She looked up to her Servant. “You sensed it. Didn’t you, Archer?”

    Chiron nodded, even as he marveled at the boundless armory before them. “The boy was gathering a rather large amount of prana. Saber of Blue’s release of her sword’s cloaking filled the air with ambient magical energy, masking the process. I assumed he was building up for a powerful spell, but I never imagined he would be capable of something like this. Hephaestus himself would be humbled by this place.”

    “It is really pretty, isn’t it?” Rider grinned, his eyes darting to each sword with ever-growing glee. “I wonder if we can touch them.”

    “Don’t bother, Rider,” Caster drawled sardonically. His mask hid his facial expression, but his gauntleted hands curled into fists. It was the most emotion Fiore had ever seen from the nigh heartless Servant, even when Roche was fervently praising him. “This place… it is a mockery of God’s creation, his painstaking labor that constructed Eden. To have the power to create an entirely new world, and to make something so lifeless.”

    “Lifeless? Oh, so you’re saying it’s just like you, huh?” Astolfo answered cheekily.

    Fiore cocked an eyebrow at the golem maker. Reality Marbles were an ancient magic among ancient magics. They hadn’t been seen since the Age of Gods. To create one was to take a step closer to The Root than anyone had gotten in centuries and would surely earn someone a sealing designation from the Clock Tower. Who was this boy that Uncle Gordes said could only use Gradation Air, that he could perform such a feat?

    “Hey, eyes up here!”

    The Black Faction’s eyes all turned to a small hill at the… center of the world? There didn’t seem to be any borders so orienting themselves in the new setting was difficult, to say the least. But there was a small hill nearby in the plain of swords, a larger concentration of swords seeming to riddle the softly rising slope. Ruler and the homunculus boy stood at the side of the hill’s base, their eyes as wide as everyone else’s.

    And at the top stood the Blue Faction. The King of Knights and the redheaded boy flanked Rin Tohsaka, who grinned at the Yggdmillennia like a cat. “We still need to finish our negotiations.”

    Darnic growled. “What is this place, girl?”

    “I think your Archer’s Master already said it,” Tohsaka declared, flashing Fiore a respectful nod. Fiore recoiled slightly from it. Whether this woman really was some long-lost survivor of the family that Grandfather wiped out in the Third Holy Grail War or not, she was definitely dangerous.

    “That is impossible,” Darnic insisted. “No modern mage could possibly manifest a Reality Marble; the Mage’s Association would seal them immediately.”

    “You mean the Association you just royally pissed off,” Tohsaka purred, as if she was relishing playing with her food. She turned to the redhead. “Shirou, a demonstration if you would?”

    The newly named Shirou nodded.

    “Lancer of Black,” he spoke up, “If you wouldn’t mind providing me with some stakes.”

    Vlad raised an eyebrow but promptly caused a trail of stakes to erupt from the ground. They weren’t as nearly as fast as they had been when she last saw him use them.

    Instantly, a series of sapphire motes sparked above the Blue Faction, condensing and coalescing into two dozen swords of various makes and sizes. The only thing they all had in common was that they radiated power. Power Fiore recognized after weeks of spending time with Servants. But those blades were just conjured out of thin air, they couldn’t possibly be—!

    The moment the next stake shot upward from the blasted earth, a sword flew at it, exploding upon impact only to be replaced by more blades, lingering above Shirou’s head once again.

    “Hey, that’s Hauteclaire!” Rider cheered, pointing eagerly at one of the swords. “Where’d you get that? Is Olivier hiding somewhere around here? Ollllliver! Helllooo! It’s me! Ast—er… well, you can recognize me by my voice, right?! Where are ya?!”

    Fiore cringed. Well, that was confirmation that the swords really were Noble Phantasms at least. Rider wouldn’t have recognized the signature sword of his fellow Paladin otherwise. And if their power was real…

    Oh, this was bad.

    “Archer, what are our chances here?”

    “As poor as you imagine them to be, Master. Though not likely for the reasons you believe,” Chiron informed her. “While I do believe that each of those swords do contain the power of a Noble Phantasm, their full power will only be unleashed if they are wielded properly and their True Names declared. While they are dangerous as a barrage, we should be able to dodge them without too much difficulty. While Berserker and Caster might be in some measure of danger, Lancer, Rider, and I would be able to overwhelm the boy.” the Trainer of Heroes narrowed his eyes. “The real problem is the King of Knights.”

    Fiore gulped, her eyes laser focusing on the stunning blond woman in silver armor. She might have deferred to Tohsaka, but there was no doubting the iron grace and authority that radiated off of her, no more than one could deny the more frightening version that rolled off of Lancer. And occupying her grip, lax but still at the ready, was the legendary sword given to her by the Lady of the Lake.

    Excalibur.’ Since she knew Saber of Blue’s identity, Fiore could see her Noble Phantasm’s statistics. They were… quite terrifying.

    Archer nodded. “Indeed. It is a weapon that would have been feared even in my time. If she activates it here, she can annihilate us all in a single shot. Perhaps Siegfried’s Balmung could have stalemated it, but…”

    “He isn’t here,” Fiore finished. Grandfather’s plan to get the King of Knights’ healing Noble Phantasm away from her had unintentionally left them all vulnerable. “Can we do anything to stop her?”

    “If we were still in Romania, Lancer could easily strike her as she charged her attack. But as long as we are in this world, he will not receive the bonuses from either his fame boost or his Demonic Defender of the State,” Chiron explained. “Even so, I could shoot her as she did the same, pin her down while the others closed in. Except…”

    Fiore glanced at the floating array of swords, hanging over the Black Faction like the famous blade of Damocles. “They have more than enough ranged defenses.”

    “I’m afraid so, Master. We’ve been outmaneuvered. They can wipe us out at their leisure.”

    Fiore frowned. “So why don’t they?”

    “Because this mage, whether she is a Tohsaka or not, is clearly no fool. She could destroy us right now, but then that would leave the Red Faction with no united opposition. Even she came to an accord with Lord Gordes and Saber, even if she tracked down Assassin, her group would still be massively outgunned by the remaining Red Servants. She has already seen that their Lancer can stalemate the King of Knights at her full power. Though it is unlikely, imagine how she would face them if the other five, or as she believes six, Servants of Red were his equals in strength?”

    “They’d die,” Fiore realized. Even with the King of Knights, even with this Shirou’s Reality Marble of endless swords, the Blue Faction could not defeat the Mage’s Association’s team, even if none of their remaining Servants were comparable to Karna. It was unlikely that all the Masters of Red had called Servants as mighty as the Hero of Charity, but as demonstrated by Chiron’s own disciple Achilles’ presence, it was not impossible. If they killed off most of the Black Faction now, at best, they’d have Siegfried by their side to face the enemy. But knowing Uncle Gordes’ pride (and the fact that he did actually care about her and Caules—he let them call him ‘uncle’ after all), he would put everything he had into taking down the ones who defeated Yggdmillennia, so they wouldn’t even have that.

    Whether they liked it or not, the Blue Faction needed Yggdmillennia alive to throw against the Mage’s Association. They needed both sides to whittle each other down so they could swoop in and wipe out the weakened survivors, or they’d just paint targets on their backs.

    It was still a staggering amount of leverage, but as long as negotiations went well, they would all leave this encounter unharmed.

    Lancer seemed to have figured out the same thing. While Darnic was seething with impotent rage, the Son of Dracul stared at the Blue Faction with a steely gaze, riotous irritation, and grudging respect. “What are your terms, Miss Tohsaka? I promise you, you will not be taking the life of my Master if that is what you’re after.”

    Tohsaka smiled. “I would never ask a Heroic Spirit to stain their honor in such a way. Trust me, I’ve seen it done. The results aren’t pretty. Rest assured, your Master is going to get what’s coming to him, but so long as you comply with my offer, it won’t be today.”

    Darnic’s glare was positively toxic. “Then as Lancer said, imposter, state your terms.”

    “No need to be so touchy, Darnic,” Tohsaka mocked. Fiore cringed at her words. Either out of respect or fear, no one talked to Grandfather that way. Between the King of Knights, a mage who could conjure a Reality Marble, and this scheming young woman, she was honestly considering that this third faction was a real-life case of Deus Ex Machina.

    “My terms are simple,” Tohsaka declared. “You allow us to leave this place unharmed and promise not to come after us for three days. And in exchange we’ll do the same for you. We’ll also be needing Saber’s scabbard back.”

    “I’m afraid that is impossible,” Vlad replied calmly. “Forgive me, but I have little knowledge regarding this Noble Phantasm, or how it functions. I have no way of knowing if our Saber’s heart has been completely restored, or if removing the artifact will reverse what healing has been done. I will not risk Siegfried’s life by returning the item to you.”

    “The item is Avalon, as I’m sure you know,” Saber of Blue said, her tone making it quite clear that she knew an explanation wasn’t necessary. “My sheath possesses regenerative and protective capabilities beyond any magic in this world. At the very most, it will take a few more minutes to permanently restore Siegfried’s heart.”

    “I have no objections to the first half of your proposed accords. If it is all you demand, then you have my word as the King of Romania that you shall not be harmed,” Lancer assured them. “But I cannot promise to relinquish a Noble Phantasm in good conscience, when it keeps my comrade alive even as we speak. Moreover, you freely granted us possession of a tool that can heal fatal wounds. I would be betraying my comrades if I allowed you to simply retrieve it.

    Tohsaka’s eyes narrowed. Fiore understood her frustration. While Vlad did have a great deal of consideration for every member of the Black Faction, it was clear he was using it as an excuse in this case. He knew that if Saber of Blue reclaimed her sheathe, she would become exponentially more difficult to defeat.

    Excalibur lit up with a golden glow.

    “You do know that Excalibur doesn’t have to be used at its full power. We could narrow the blast, just take out some of you,” Rin threatened. “Maybe we take you out and negotiate with the next person in the chain of command.”

    “If you don’t aim for all of us, those you spare will tear you apart before you even have a chance to defend yourselves. If I fall, my comrades will avenge me,” Vlad countered.

    Archer, Berserker, and Rider all nodded in agreement at that declaration, but the King of Knights remained unmoved.

    “There is no longer a question of ‘if,’ King of Romania. Here in Shirou’s world, every advantage you gained from being summoned within your own domain has been stripped away. You have no hope of surviving should I use my Noble Phantasm.”

    “We are warriors, King of Knights. We both know that there is always an ‘if’,” Vlad’s gaze narrowed. “And if you do manage to murder any of my captains, pray that heaven will have mercy on you, for I will not.”

    It was a stare down. The girl from the dead family, and the Lord Impaler. Both of them were terrifying in their own way. Both were warriors, through and through. Both had wills of iron tested by the bleakest of odds.

    But only one had slaughtered thousands. Only one had planted living men on spikes and left their still bloody corpses as a warning, even blunting stakes so that they would scream for three days and nights, begging passersby to kill them before they finally died. Only one had burned the world to make his enemies fear treading on the ashes.

    There was no doubt in Fiore’s mind that Rin Tohsaka was a force to be reckoned with. But there was a reason Vlad Tepes III had inspired a monster. It would only take one crack in her armor, and she would falter.

    A single bead of sweat rolled down Shirou’s forehead.

    “Tohsaka,” he hissed urgently, far more strain in his voice than Fiore would have expected from his stoic outward appearance.

    She supposed it made sense. No matter how incredible it was that he could summon a Reality Marble, he was still maintaining an entire world. That must have required an absolutely enormous amount of prana, especially since he’d conjured the realm without uttering a word. The longer the negotiations went on, the closer the pocket dimension came to collapsing from lack of energy.

    Lancer wasn’t a mage, so he might not understand that was happening, but surely Grandfather had realized they just needed to wait. Right?

    She glanced over at him. Darnic wasn’t paying Shirou the slightest bit of attention, his furious gaze locked only on Rin. Her name and her jeering had worked exactly as intended and thrown the leader of Yggdmillenia completely off balance, preventing him from seeing the big picture.

    That left it to her. If she spoke, the entire power balance of the negotiations could shift back to them. They could just wait the Reality Marble out and defeat—kill, she reminded herself—the Blue Faction back in the real world. But on the other hand, Tohsaka could still decide her best choice was to cut her losses and just unleash the Sword of Promised Victory.

    Regardless of which way it went, Fiore didn’t particularly like either of those outcomes. The Blue Faction had just saved Saber. Were they going to thank these people for their goodwill—goodwill that wasn’t just unprecedented, but if the girl’s claim was true, completely undeserved—by executing them? She didn’t want them to die for stopping to help, even though they were enemies.

    She held her silence.

    Tohsaka growled in frustration. She broke her stare with Vlad. “Alright, fine. You have a deal, Lancer of Black.”

    The King of Romania smirked. “Excellent. Once again, I grant you my sincerest thanks for saving Siegfried from his own foolishness. I look forward to facing such honorable opponents as this war continues.”

    Tohsaka sighed. “Yeah, sure, whatever. With your Saber’s code of honor, we’ll get that scabbard back sooner or later. I would just have preferred it sooner.”

    Darnic scowled. “What concern should I have for the desires of a dead little girl?”

    “Excuse me? In my twenties here. I’m not young, you’re just a fossil. And at the risk of mistaking your intentions for something incredibly foolish, I can assure you, I’m very real. You only have to look at any of your companions’ reactions. Pay more attention, old man, or your followers might think you’re going senile.”

    You—!

    Vlad held out an arm.

    “I commend you for having the capacity to unsettle my Master at all, let alone make him lose his composure, but if we continue at this pace, neither side is going anywhere.”

    “…Indeed,” Darnic ground his teeth, “If we’re quite done, let us leave this place.”

    Rin shrugged, then nodded.

    “Fine. Shirou, we’re done here,” she ordered, then more quietly, added. “Sorry to work you this hard.”

    But the apprentice’s reaction wasn’t one of relief, as Fiore had expected. Instead, a stern expression spread across his face.

    “Actually, no. We’re not done,” Shirou stepped forward. “Before I let any of you go, I need you to answer a question.”

    Darnic’s eyebrow twitched. “What is it now?”

    “When you stole the Greater Grail, was it corrupted?”

    Huh?

    Fiore’s eyebrows shot up in confusion. She exchanged a glance with Archer, but for once the wise sage looked just as befuddled as her.

    “I haven’t the first idea what sort of delusions you’re raving about now,” Darnic spat. “The Grail, corrupted. Corrupted by what, exactly?!”

    Shirou narrowed his eyes.

    “I guess you’d call it… All the World’s Evils.”

    For a moment, Darnic looked ready to laugh in Shirou’s face, but Ruler’s gasp gave him pause.

    “All the World’s Evils? In another world, it is true that Angra Mainyu was summoned and became trapped in the Grail… Could that be the cause of these revelations?”

    “Angry Man You? Is there somebody trapped in the Grail?” Astolfo wondered out loud. “Uh, we should probably do something about that.”

    “Can you please just… stop talking?” Rin asked. “You’re really nice, but honestly, every time you open your mouth, you give me a terrible headache.”

    “Angra Mainyu was the entity—a god, really—in the ancient Zoroastrian culture that we would equate with Satan,” Jeanne explained to the fidgety Rider.

    Astolfo paled.

    “Okay. That’ll sure keep me awake at night,” he stammered.

    “In truth, I highly doubt that the Heroic Spirit I mentioned was the actual god, but even sharing its name would have unspeakable ramifications. An Avenger class Servant… A creature such as that would sooner be forcibly erased from all existence than let go of its anger even for a second. Even a powerless Heroic Spirit would be unspeakably dangerous if it could prevent itself from dying out of sheer desperation to share its own suffering. Especially with all the powers of the Holy Grail at its disposal.”

    Fiore noticed Celenike raise an eyebrow, as though she was intrigued by the prospect. Not a good sign. The curse specialist had been acting a little strange ever since Rider had run off.

    However, this was nothing compared to the volcano poised to erupt to be found in Darnic. Several veins in his forehead were pulsing, visibly standing out against his skin. He seemed so agitated that Fiore worried his heart might give out. Slowly, his lips parted to speak.

    “There is no one… and nothing… in the Grail.”

    “Are you completely sure about that?” Shirou asserted. “Because if there is, whatever wish anyone tries to make on it will cause a disaster. The kind of nightmare you couldn’t even imagine. Thousands upon thousands of curses will pour out of the Grail and create Hell on Earth. Your castle will melt. Metal will turn to slag and the earth will turn to ash. Trifas will burn, and nothing will be left but charred debris and thousands of crumbling skeletons that were innocent people before you tried to make a wish. Nothing will live on this patch of land ever again, and that’s if it doesn’t spread further. And no one, not even the Mage’s Association will be able to explain what happened.”

    “That’s… oddly specific,” Caules remarked, but Shirou’s tone had made sweat bead on his forehead.

    “…uuunnn,” Berserker nodded in a rare show of agreement.

    Shirou nodded as well.

    “I agree. It is. But it’s something you need to at least be aware of. Are you prepared to risk that?”

    Happily! There is nothing out of the ordinary in the Grail,” Darnic snarled, “I was very thorough about assessing its condition during the summonings. Perhaps you should do something similar with your head. Moreover, I’ve never heard of any such Servant called an Avenger. In the previous Holy Grail War, the Einzbern clan did summon an eighth class, but it was the same as that of the girl that Rider claims you arrived here with.” A grim leer split his face, “And even then, their Ruler class Servant could not save them from me. Are you satisfied yet, boy?”

    “That doesn’t really inspire much confidence,” Astolfo interjected. “Boss, are you sure that Avenger thing isn’t stuck in the Grail? Because I’m no genius, but I don’t have to be to know that if it is, from the sound of what we just heard, this story isn’t going to have a very happy ending.”

    “You’re going to stop speaking above your station, Rider,” Celenike hissed. “Next time you attempt to give orders to a Master, I’ll use a Command Spell to seal your mouth shut.”

    “Huh? But I didn’t—” a glare from his Master silenced him. “Uh… okay.”

    Shirou sighed, shaking his head at Astolfo’s antics before turning to look at Darnic. “If you’re telling the truth, I suppose that’s a relief. But if you’re lying, I won’t be the one who gets hurt.” Fiore suddenly realized that he was sweating. He wasn’t speaking out of paranoia. Something had happened to this man. Something horrible. And she wasn’t sure she was at all prepared to hear any more about it.

    “Wonderful,” Darnic spat. “Now, if you would kindly dispel the Reality Marble, I have a Rider that needs to have its fingers broken.

    “Yeah!” Rider of Black exclaimed. “That Rider needs to—wait what!?” he bristled like a startled cat. And then immediately got distracted; “Oh, hey, look! That’s my sword!” He pointed at a weapon embedded in the ground that was obviously a replica of the sword that the homunculus now carried. “Can I—whoa!

    Fiore saw Shirou nod, and then saw no more as her vision whited out, and the world of endless swords disappeared.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    And with a little bit of improvising, the Blue Faction comes out alive.

    They aren’t in perfect condition, they had to use every trump card they had to get away, but they did get away. Just, without Avalon. Slightly problematic, but not a deal breaker. They’ll need to regroup and come up with a new plan.

    For those curious, Rin’s incantation roughly means: “May not voice, not a breath leave your lips, the sound of your voice shall never resound!”

    Draconic: And I would just like to take a moment to thank Break for helping me make it more grammatically correct on the German side of the translation.

    A huge thank you to my patrons: ArcherMcMuffin, Gregg Tracton, Keith Traction and Cool guy.

    Thank you for Reading! I hope you enjoy what comes next!

    Go Forth and Conquer!

    Draconic: So, just to be clear, Master4444, Saber did make a reference to one of Ganondorf’s lines near the end of Twilight Princess, right? As for what I did in this chapter… Actually, I don’t think I did anything. I remember brainstorming how we were going to deploy Unlimited Blade Works, so that was partially me. I was also the one who got in touch with Break, but aside from those, I just did a few corrections.

  7. #27
    Knight of Joestar SirGauoftheSquareTable's Avatar
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    I noticed the tiny changes from the FFN version, so nice. Also, can't wait for Chapter 15.
    Quote Originally Posted by Deathhappens View Post
    Really, all 3 of the romances in F/SN are 'for want of a nail' kind of situations.
    Quote Originally Posted by forumghost View Post
    You mean because Shirou winds up falling for the first of the three that he Nailed?
    Quote Originally Posted by Tobias View Post
    I speak for the majority of important people* *a category comprised entirely of myself

  8. #28
    死者 The Dead
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    Hey!
    This is good story, and it is rare that Shirou x Rin story is updated this often nowdays.
    I read recently chapter 17 on FFN and hope you will post the rest of it here as well!
    Last edited by Newbie99; January 27th, 2020 at 05:50 PM.

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