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Thread: Fate/Without Justice

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    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    Fate/Without Justice

    I've been making this story for a while now, and my friend suggested I post it here. I just hope some of you will get as much enjoyment out of reading it as I did writing it. Not finished yet, but I'm close.
    Summery: It has been ten years since the fires that engulfed Fuyuki, and the Holy Grail War is almost here once more. Shirou's Father took measures to prevent him from becoming caught up in the conflict of ancient heroes, but it would seem that his fate is entwined with that of the Grail's. Having summoned a servant, Shirou Kotomine joins the Fifth Holy Grail War.



    Prologue: The First Lesson

    #1-This world is cruel. It will not coddle you. It will not help you. It will not mourn your passing. The only way to mark your existence on this world is to forge your own path through it, no matter what stands in your way.

    My eyes slowly open, the effort impossible despite the ease of the task. What was I doing here? Who is this man, whose smile speaks of joy I’d never known? What happened? All I can remember is… fire and… screams. Faces of anguish reaching out for aid. And me, trudging aimlessly through the destruction, unable to hear. Unable to respond. Unable to do anything but move forward in search of… something. What was I looking for? My family? Who were they? They were important to me, but they were… Me? My name. I can’t remember. It’s so close, just out of reach. I am…

    The man begins speaking, his words heard but almost indecipherable. I can’t understand, but I’m certain he was thanking something. I’m a little jealous that he could be so happy, just having found someone. I wonder how the joy I see on his face can exist in this ashen wasteland.

    I watch, barely comprehending, as the man’s chest explodes outward toward me, blood splattering my face and clothes already caked in soot and more dried blood. The smile wavers before the man is brushed aside.

    Another man, his right arm red and dripping, stands in his place. He also has a smile, but it’s something much different. The same joy plays across his face, far more malicious than the other’s could have ever been. The smile fades as he lays his eyes on me, mild interest taking its place. He kicks the other man’s body further away and knelt closer to me.

    He looks deeply into my eyes. I’m not sure what he sees there, but what I see is strange. His eyes seem… empty. Devoid of purpose, emotion, or desire. No, that’s not right. Maybe at another time, but now there’s… something. A yearning. The will to seek out something true. Something worth fighting for. A wish for fulfillment. It’s… familiar and… captivating.

    The man suddenly begins to laugh, standing up and drawing his right hand over the side of his head as if he was afraid it would be shaken off by the convulsions. I don’t know why, but I want to be closer to that. That happiness.

    I weakly stretch out my right hand, reaching for something that I can’t yet conceptualize. Something to bring me that joy.

    The man looks down at me, the same smile from before dancing on his face, before drawing his right hand away from it, showing bloody smears streaking across, and reaching down to grasp my hand.

    “Tell me, my son,” he asks me, kneeling down once more to lift me from the rubble I didn’t realized I lay in. “What is your name?”

    His deep, clear voice cut through the murk of my mind, and I’m finally able to grasp the name that had slipped from my mind so easily before. A small glimmer of clarity in the fog of my past. I remember. I rasp out the words, my life forever linked to that singular name.

    “My… name is…”

    ***********

    “Can you fix it, Kotomine?”

    I looked up at Issei with a playful smile. Today, I had been asked by the student council president to see if the various appliance breaking down in the club rooms could be fixed. Apparently, the current budget was tighter than expected, meaning the replacement of said appliances wasn’t viable at the moment.

    “Shouldn’t be an issue,” I told him. “But if you plan on me fixing all of them, I may have to start charging you.”

    "Like we could spare the expense,” he replied dryly before rising from his seat. “I’ll leave you to it.”

    Issei left the room, sliding the door closed behind him. All jokes aside, charging him for the repairs wouldn’t feel right considering the ease of the task. Not a permanent solution, but all I can do for now is patch up the power cord. A little electrical tape, and it should last till the end of the semester. I can probably fix it up before we get to that point, though.

    Even muffled by the door, I could hear Issei’s tired expression through his words.

    Tohsaka. You’re here rather early. I’m sorry to tell you that Kotomine will be busy helping me this morning, so you’ll have to talk to him later.”

    You assume that passing the student council room means I wish to speak with him? My, aren’t we presumptuous, Student Council President?”

    I shook my head as I wrapped the troublesome segment of cord with tape. Issei was right. Rin didn’t usually come to school this early. She had never been much of a morning person, so I understand him seeking some ulterior motive. I was curious myself.

    As I began to carry the heater to the door, Rin spoke once more after an annoyed growl from Issei.

    I merely decided to come earlier than usual. Surely the student council president isn’t against such promptness.”

    I opened the door and placed the heater between the door frames.

    Perhaps not,” I said, giving Rin a smirk. “But when the illustrious Rin Tohsaka graces us with her presence so early in the day, we can only be suspicious.”

    Well, perhaps I wished to encourage the other students, showing them that those who excel put in that extra effort.”

    Silly me. I thought that was my job.”

    We both smiled at that.

    Ever since we were young, competition was a near constant between us. While I was far better at Bajiquan after all the years Father drilled it into me, her grades and knowledge of magecraft still exceeded mine, if only marginally in the former. Grades were the one thing we felt had relatively equal footing, so we’ve been trying to out-do the other.

    Currently, she was in the lead, but I thought I could take it by the end of semester.

    Kotomine,” Issei said after clearing his throat, drawing our attention back to him. “We can’t afford to waste any more time here if we’re going to fix the heater in the A/V room.”

    He was right, of course. I picked up the heater once more and replaced it in the student council room before following after Issei who had already begun to move.

    I’ll catch you later, Rin,” I told her as I went.

    Rin hummed thoughtfully in response, which was the most confirmation I’d be getting. With a little extra effort, I caught up to Issei.

    It is a bit odd for her to be so early,” he said, glancing back at Rin.

    She probably just set her alarm wrong,” I told him. “That, or what she said is true. We could be seeing a lot more of her in the morning.”

    Somehow,” he brought his eyes forward once again. “I doubt that.”




    Chapter 1: Ties That Bind
    #7-It is important to form relationships with other people. There are things you may only be able to acquire, whether it’s information, connections, or support, with the aid of others. Find those who have what you need, then use them to reach your ends.

    Suppose we’ll fix the art club’s stove at lunch,” I said as we entered our first class of the day.

    Unless Tohsaka steals you away,” Issei replied.

    My lunches tended to be spent with either Issei or Rin with rare occasion when all three of us were together. Though, most time in the last example was taken up by them bickering about one thing or another. Why they spent so much energy fighting about nothing truly baffled me.

    We entered 2-C, the majority of our classmates having already taken their seats. I continued speaking as I made my way to mine.

    She’ll understand. It’s not like I belong to her.”

    Well said, Kotomine.”

    I took a moment before turning to face him, banishing any possible hostility from my demeanor.

    Shinji stood there; a smug smile plastered to his face.

    After all, men like us don’t belong to anyone,” he ran his hand through his hair, blue locks charitably comparable to a mop, uncharitably to a mass of seaweed.

    If you say so, Shinji,” I replied, a small smile on my own face. “How was archery club?”

    I was excellent, as always.”

    I’m sure. You can hardly string your own bow, let alone fire it accurately.

    I was so good; the girls were practically entranced by my form.”

    Or afraid you might injure yourself.

    And how was Sakura’s form?” I asked in the most innocent of manners.

    He frowned at that.

    She performed adequately, as to be expected of my sister.”

    My smile widened a bit as his frown deepened. It delighted me to no end to see his displeasure at such inquiries.

    That’s good. I’ll have to come watch someday and see your form for myself.”

    The self-assured smile returned, as I knew it would.

    Of course. Maybe you should join the club. I could show you the proper way to mend a bow.”

    I’m not so sure about that,” I said, chuckling at the double meaning of the words. “I don’t see myself as much of an archer.”

    You never know,” he said, taking his seat at the front of the class.

    Why do you humor him?” Issei asked in a hushed tone.

    The reason was quite simple. I’m not sure on the details, but even before I got to know Sakura, I could see the way she reacts to him. The tiny, flinching movements when he moved unexpectedly, the quick glances, the unconscious hand placements. That’s why I befriended this worm.

    Lesson #22-If you have an enemy who isn’t aware of it, befriend them. The sharpest and most painful knife one can wield is betrayal because it only comes from those you trust.

    Perhaps I see potential in him. Maybe I think that, with enough time and effort, I could help him be better.”

    I believe that as much as I believe Tohsaka will come here early from now on.”

    Believe what you will,” I replied with a shake of my head, noticing the bell ringing as I did. “We better sit down. Ms. Fujimura will be barreling in about now.”

    As we take our seats, a young woman with short hair and a green jacket shoots in like a bullet.

    Yes! Right on time!”

    **********

    The rest of the school day played out rather uneventfully. I was able to repair a few other broken pieces of equipment but made sure to tell Issei they needed to be replaced as soon as the budget allowed. I never did get back to Rin, though.

    As the day came to a close and the sun began to fade off into the horizon, I found Sakura waiting for me as she always did by the gate. A broad smile greeted me like so many times before as I approached.

    Senpai,” she asked brightly. “How was your day?”

    Issei had me fixing up appliances for the club rooms,” I smiled at her in turn. “By the way, did you see Rin leave earlier? I haven’t seen her since this morning.”

    Sakura looked up thoughtfully before replying.

    I think I saw her leave around ten minutes ago. Why do you ask?”

    No particular reason,” I began walking past her onto the sidewalk, her close beside me. "I didn't see her much today, so I was wondering if she was still around."

    "I see," I thought her words sounded a little deflated, but I didn't linger too long on them.

    This was quite the oddity. First, she comes to school early, then she rushes home as soon as it’s out. She usually would have tried to insert herself between me and Issei during lunch, and yet, she was nowhere to be seen. Things were starting to fall into place, and the timing is too perfect to be coincidence. Coincidence: the poor man’s excuse not to dig deeper.

    I debated whether or not I should pay her a visit at home but decided against it. If it is what I think, then Father has already made his thoughts clear on the subject.

    Eventually, we stood before the Matou mansion, Sakura giving me a warm good-bye before disappearing behind its doors. I began to walk away before noticing a light on in one of the upper rooms. A dark figure stood in one of the windows, and I was certain they were watching me. I reinforced my eyes, my vision focusing to peer closer at the figure. Somehow, in the time between my awareness and reinforcement, the figure had vanished. I swept my eyes over the three lit windows, trying to narrow down where they went, but I was met with an empty room. I watched for several seconds more before turning to leave. Whatever had been there, it was gone now.

    The bus dropped me off in Centerville. A few minutes’ walk from the stop, and I strolled into the Hyatt Hotel. The man at the front desk gave me a nod as I headed toward the elevator. Once it arrived, I pressed the 4 and waited as the elevator slowly pulled me upward. The doors opened, and I moved out into the hallway until I reached room 215. My temporary home.

    A modern looking studio apartment with a kitchen to the right of the entry, a living room that took up most of the space, and a bedroom across from a full-sized bathroom located in a small hallway off to the side. The apartment was all whites with dark blue furniture and yellow lights embedded in the ceiling. From what I’d heard, this apartment was relatively small compared to those on the higher floors, but that didn’t really matter. It served its purpose, and that was all it needed to do.

    Father had sent me here one week ago, saying he wanted me away from Miyama while the grail war took place. I would say it was for my safety, but it was most likely so no master would attempt to use me to curry favor with the mediator. However, I’m not convinced. My father has clothed, fed, educated, and looked after me for the last ten years, but I’d be hard pressed to say if he cared for me. In all honesty, it felt more like he was fulfilling some obligation he had as a father, rather than actually being one. All the acts were there, but the motivation felt different. If I was to be used or held captive by a master, I’m not sure my father would do anything about it. Even so…

    I make and eat a quiet meal before retiring to the bedroom.

    **********
    Today was as uneventful as the last. I walked Sakura to school, spent lunch with Issei, fixed more damaged goods, and generally acted like the model student I was. However, Rin was nowhere in sight. I asked Issei about it, but he seemed just as in the dark as I was. He offered to ask around about her, but I told him he didn’t need to worry about it. He just seemed happy she wasn’t around to bother him. Yesterday was odd, but now I wondered if she was actively avoiding me. My suspicions may just be correct.

    As the sun faded to orange, I headed over to the archery club, remembering that Rin had been rumored to be going there frequently the last few weeks. And by rumors, I mean Shinji bragging that she must have been subtly hinting at hidden affections.

    I stood in front of the archery club doors, wondering what my excuse for being here would be. I suppose I could use Shinji’s offer to come watch, but if Rin wasn’t there, I don’t think I’d be willing to stay long enough to make it believable.

    Hey, you!”

    I sensed a wave of bloodlust and whipped around to catch a pole right before it could cave in the side of my skull.

    A short black-haired girl wearing our school uniform stood there with mild surprise on her face. She cleared it as she attempted to pull her weapon from my grip. I considered holding on, making it clear who was in the position of power here, but let it go. If I needed to, this girl wouldn’t be a problem.

    Two other girls stood behind her on either side. One with slightly longer orange hair on the left and another with grey hair and glasses. Her compatriots didn’t look particularly thrilled with their friend’s actions, but I assume most people would be put off if one of their friends started swinging around something meant for pole vaulting like a lance.

    It occurred to me that they looked familiar, but I couldn’t place where I had seen them.

    Quick reflexes, Shinji Matou,” the attacking girl said, holding the pole as though preparing for another swing. “You know martial arts or something?”

    Bajiquan, actually,” I said, planting my hands in my pockets. “And Shinji? You think I’m Shinji?

    Don’t try to lie to me,” she whirled the pole around with practiced ease. I began to wonder how often she wielded that thing against others. “And don’t bother sticking around either, because Rin Tohsaka isn’t going to show up!”

    That caught my attention. These girls knew Rin. Now I remember them. These three are in Rin’s class. I’ve spotted her talking to them before.

    Maki,” the grey-haired girl said. “This guy doesn’t match Mitsuzuri’s description, and he doesn’t have seaweed for hair.”

    Ayako Mitsuzuri. Archery club captain and one of Rin’s friends. The picture is starting to come together.

    The way I see it,” the girl apparently called Maki continued. “He just wet down his naturally curly hair to straighten it, and a face this stupid looking could only belong to Shinji Matou.”

    What a clever ruse you’re accusing me of,” I replied, taking my ID from my breast pocket. “And I assume I must have also created this fake student ID for just such an occasion.”

    I tossed the ID over to the girl, who fumbled with the pole before releasing it to catch the oncoming object. She appeared irritated at my attitude before looking at the ID, at which point her face fell.

    The girl who had spoken earlier walked up and took the ID from her friend who had begun to twitch slightly. A bit more of an exaggerated reaction than what I expected, but at least it shows she recognizes the name.

    Shirou Kotomine,” the bespectacled girl said. “It appears we have the wrong man.”

    The same Kotomine who fixes our gear whenever he has free-time?” Maki said, beginning to hide behind her grey-haired friend. “The guy whose known as the Homurahara Brownie?”

    And there it was. Even if people didn’t know me, they knew my reputation. Being the guy who’s willing to help anyone and probably already has as one point in time makes resource gathering much easier. After all, it’s easy to help those who already helped you. It also helps my reputation that I’m one of the top students.

    And a close friend of Rin Tohsaka,” I took back my ID from the girl’s outstretched hand. “The one whom you apparently did all this for.”

    The girl flailed around some more before kneeling down and planting her head to the ground in a deep bow.

    I’m sorry!” she said, the words slightly muffled.

    We’re all sorry,” the third girl finally spoke. “It seemed like you were waiting for someone, so we assumed you were Matou.”

    Well,” I replaced my ID in my pocket. “You weren’t completely wrong. I haven’t seen Tohsaka today, but I heard she’d been coming here as of late. Thought this was as good a time as any to find out if the rumors were true.”

    Oh, you didn’t know? Tohsaka wasn’t feeling well, so she stayed home.”

    Yeah,” the bowing girl raised her head. “Tohsaka’s sick. Can you believe such a model student can catch a cold?”

    As the grey-haired girl sat upon her rowdy companion, I thought that over. No, I don’t for a second believe that a mage of the Tohsaka line could fall ill. At least, not to any common sickness. Rin was up to something. The grail war was upon us, and Rin may have just put herself into the fray.

    The girl atop her friend was about to speak, but I cut her off. I wasn’t trying to be impolite, but no more apologies were necessary.

    Guess there’s no reason to stay any longer. Thanks for letting me know, but I’ll be going now. You three have a safe trip home.”

    I don’t pay much attention to their farewells as I headed for the gate. I met Sakura there and walked her home, finding the upper room was no longer lit up. I wondered what was so special about last night that it didn’t repeat now. Then, I headed over to the Tohsaka mansion.

    It had been several months since I last visited the Tohsaka residence. Father had increased the difficulty and frequency of my lessons, leaving little free time to socialize outside of school. This didn’t stop Sakura from coming in the morning to help with breakfast, but my evenings were filled with magecraft and combat practice. Tohsaka joined every now and then, teaching me different aspects of magecraft. Father may have impressive magic circuits, but his knowledge was limited to what Tokiomi Tohsaka had taught him in their time together.

    I pushed open the metal gate and entered the grounds before I noticed that the lights were out all over the house. I made sure of this by moving around the perimeter. I placed my hand against the buildings wall, stretching out my senses to feel its infrastructure. Sure enough, the barrier was still active. All of which told me that Rin was not only healthy, but out wandering around.

    I left the grounds, closing the gate as I went. Either I’ll speak to Rin tomorrow at school, or I’ll come by again and wait till she returns. I’d get to the bottom of this, and I prayed I was wrong about her joining the grail war. Because if she did…

    I’m not sure I could keep myself from doing the same.

    **********

    It hit me like a wave rolling onto the shore as I passed over the school’s threshold. An inherent wrongness in the air. Magic being slowly drained from the ground, air, and myself. The shock must have shown on my face because Sakura stopped in front of me, looking worried.

    Are you okay, Senpai?” she asked concernedly.

    I recovered quickly, affixing an embarrassed smile to my face.

    It’s nothing,” I lied, trying to think of something to waylay her suspicions. I then noticed the red marks on her left hand. “What happened there?”

    Oh,” she looked down at her hand, and I could see her searching for an excuse. “I… tripped and fell before you came to get me.”

    Shinji. This was the first visible proof I’d seen confirming my suspicions. I may need to do something sooner than expected.

    Alright,” I acquiesced, my next words leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. “You should be more careful. Next time could be a lot worse than just a hand.”

    Okay,” a hint of shame on her face was quickly covered up. I forced the anger down, keeping my jaw slack so I didn’t clench my teeth. She began going toward the archery dojo.

    "I’ll see you later, Senpai.”

    See you then.”

    Only once she left my sight did I allow my hand to curl into a fist. Much sooner.

    Back to the matter at hand. Something was draining the mana in the area. It was subtle, but I could feel the pull on my own circuits. What could be causing this? I had little over an hour to investigate, but I couldn’t be too hasty. If someone was doing this, I didn’t want to alert them.

    I tuned out the world, focusing on the pull of mana. I felt several areas, each pulling at my circuits, but one was stronger than the others. Logically, this meant I was closer to it than the rest. I followed it, letting it lead me to the track field. It drew me toward the equipment shed, and, behind a few mats, I found it.

    A red magic circle of intricate design with markings I didn’t recognize. This thing was sucking in and storing mana from its surroundings. Judging by the fact that it seemed multiple circles were drawing in power; I could assume they were all connected. Must be in preparation for some ritual. Bounded Field? Depending on the placement, it could be set to encompass the school, but for what reason?

    I moved away, deciding that without proper knowledge of what I was dealing with, it was safer to alert someone who can actually do something. All the more motivation to talk to Rin.

    I went to the student council room and once again spent the morning temporarily repairing malfunctioning equipment. During lunch, I tried to find Rin, but she wasn’t in the cafeteria or on the roof like usual. She wouldn’t be down at the archery club, but where else could she be? I swung by her classroom only to find the trio from yesterday eating at their desks.

    The girl called Maki noticed me standing in the doorway and gave me a confused look.

    Kotomine? What are you doing here?”

    The other two looked at me as well, awaiting my answer alongside their friend.

    I’m trying to find Ri… Tohsaka. Do any of you know where she might be?”

    The girl raised an eyebrow at my words, and a small smile crept onto her lips.

    You were about to say ‘Rin’ weren’t you?”

    I sighed inwardly. I may be too liberal with her first name. I didn’t have time to deal with gossip.

    "Never mind,” I turned to continue down the hallway when the grey-haired girl spoke.

    I’m assuming you already tried the cafeteria?”

    I glanced back to see she had placed her hand over the other girl’s mouth from behind.

    Nowhere to be found.”

    The girl seemed thoughtful as I noticed her grip tighten slightly as her friend struggled against the hold.

    Why not try the track field. I’ve seen her eating on the steps once or twice.”

    I thought on that a second before nodding. Rin tended to find quiet places to eat, away from her various admirers. Outside on the empty track field seemed reasonable.

    Thanks. I’ll check it out.”

    She nodded back to me as I left. I could hear the previously silent third girl suggesting letting the wilder of the three go, but I was out of earshot before the girl in glasses responded. I should ask them for their names next time I see them.

    I went down to the track field and found no one. Where was she? Lunch was almost over, and all I’d been doing was jumping around trying to find her instead of eating. Why was this so difficult?

    I headed to the student council room and found Issei, having already finished his food, leaning his arm on the table.

    "Any luck finding Tohsaka?”

    None,” I replied, taking the seat across from him. “I could probably find her if I asked around, but people might take it the wrong way.”

    "Hmm,” he brought his free hand to his chin. “I thought the two of you would find each other.”

    What do you mean by that?” I asked, noticing the odd wording.

    "Tohsaka came by not too long after you left. I told her you were looking for her, and she seemed very annoyed by that.”

    I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was slowly place my forehead on the table.

    **********

    I headed down the stairs to the ground floor as the sun cast fading orange light through the windows. I was able to finish repairing the various malfunctioning appliances, so all that was left was to find Rin. I’m sure her reason in looking for me was the same as mine, so if I start following the threads again, I’ll probably find her. Those thoughts were interrupted by giggles accompanied by a familiar laugh. I turned back to find Shinji alongside two girls I recognized from our class.

    I really didn’t understand why some girls seemed to find him appealing. Even when dealing with me, his arrogance is on full display. If they knew what he did to Sakura…

    Shinji,” I faked a smile. “I didn’t expect to see you here at this hour.”

    I was simply regaling these two with my achievements,” that proud smile crossed his lips. “I assume you were doing something for the student council president?”

    Just some minor repairs,” I gave him a shrug. “By the way, tell Sakura to go home without me. I’ll be doing a couple other things around here, and I’d hate for her to wait.”

    He eyed me for a moment before replying.

    Alright,” his smile broadened slightly. “Then, if it’s not too much trouble, do you think you can clean up the dojo while you’re at it. I’d do it myself, but then I couldn’t give these girls the attention they deserve.”

    I thought about it. I couldn’t just outright accept it. The way his mind works, he’d take it as a cue to keep pushing his own chores on me. Likewise, refusing will weaken our relationship, making it harder to get close enough to slide the knife between his ribs.

    Buy me some mapo tofu while you’re out, and I’ll happily clean the dojo for you.”

    Shinji laughed at that.

    Whatever you say, Kotomine.”

    With that, he went back to entertaining the girls while I continued down the stairs. If I started on the dojo now, it’d be dark by the time I finished. Suppose I’ll have to go and wait for Rin at her house. If my instincts weren’t telling me this was important, I’d think it was too much trouble to deal with.

    **********

    It was the clanging that drew me out.

    Metal clashing against metal with enough force to be heard from the dojo. I found the source on the track field. Two figures, one red and one blue, were fighting in the middle of the field. I reinforced my eyes to peer closer.

    The man in blue wielded a long red spear while the man in red wielded two small swords, one black and the other white. They collided, kicking up a cloud of dust with each attack. I could barely make them out through the dust, but, after a short time, they stopped. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the blue man shifted his grip on the spear. The spear began to bleed a red aura from the tip, mana oozing off in a flood.

    Servants. That was the only thing they could be. Their clothes, the magical energy rippling off them, the weapons and strength they display in wielding them. I wondered though. Why were they fighting here of all places?

    I got my answer as I looked around them. I saw Rin, for that coat showed it was unmistakably her, standing a distance behind the red servant.

    I was right. She was following her father’s footsteps. And to have summoned a saber servant, combined with her skills as a mage, she had a good chance of winning. Still, I could see the look on her face with my reinforced eyes. She was nervous, and rightly so. The amount of mana flowing over the lancer’s spear was staggering. It’s possible he’s about to unleash his noble phantasm. The smart thing to do would be to conceal my presence and sneak away while they were distracted. After all, witnesses to the Holy Grail War were to be disposed of. If I got caught, both master and servant would be obligated to kill me by the rules.

    Which made what I was about to do very stupid.

    I unzipped my jacket a little and reached inside to retrieve three small red handles. With an infusion of mana, long blades extended from between my fingers.

    With his relative position to me, his current stance, and the placement of the saber, he was likely to dodge backward away from his current foe as well as avoid the projectile coming at him from the side. Knowing that even then if the other two were not avoided, a lancer could easily deflect them. That bought me a few precious seconds to escape. Yes, this would likely result in my death. Yes, this was a stupid idea. Yes, I was still doing it.

    I took aim and threw the first black key directly at him. The other two followed close behind, aimed for my predicted target. As soon as the blades are loosed from my hand, I enhanced my legs and made dash for the gate.

    Fifteen seconds. Out the gate, I’m faced with a new decision. Going to the Tohsaka masion was out of the question, as that would just present the servant with Rin’s home base. Shopping district was also out. Too many closed spaces where they could corner me. That left the northern district. Old, traditional houses, many of which were unoccupied. If I could keep them from sensing me, it was possible I could hide out until they give up. That, or daybreak, but I wasn’t optimistic enough to hope for that.

    I rushed to the north, not daring to slow down. I could sense them now. Father taught me that killing intent was felt by all things in one way or another. Something unholy seeping into the world, like a drop of poison in a cup. To a normal person, the poison would be indiscernible from the rest of the liquid. But, to one who is familiar with the poison, it was as easy to identify as their own reflection.

    They were following me and gaining ground quicker than I could move. Closer, ever closer, as I dashed through the streets. I moved off into a grassy field, going for a more direct path than the streets could give me. I could hear the grass crumple behind me, my pursuer closing the distance. I risked a glance back and saw the lancer. Farther back, I could see a red figure also giving chase. I wondered absently what they’d do once the dealt with me. Right back to fighting?

    Didn’t matter. Mid step, I pulled out another black key and, after making a quick glance back, I leapt forward spinning, launching the blade toward the lancer.

    His spear flashed in front of him, deflecting the blade with a clang. I landed and found myself back on the road, wishing my attack had done more than minorly inconvenience him.

    I was beginning to see more traditional buildings coming closer. I was almost there, but I wasn’t sure it mattered anymore. Lancer was almost on top of me, and he would be by the time I got into the district. I knew this would end in death tonight.

    I got between the buildings and jumped to the side as the lancer impaled his spear where I had just been. Not bothering to look, as it would just slow me down, I leapt up to one of the shorter rooftops. My circuits were starting to tire. I hadn’t gone full force with them like this for such an extended period of time. They may give out in another minute or two.

    I leapt to another roof as Lancer was already right behind me. I pushed harder, not sure where I was going, but knowing anywhere was better than here. After three more jumps, I launched myself to the side to avoid a lunge from Lancer, consequently forcing myself off the building.

    I reinforced my body against the impact. I hit the ground hard, rolling to try and lessen the blow. I realized then that I was spent. My circuits were tired, and my mana reserves almost empty. I rolled to a stop, facing the stars as my death drew near.

    I heard him land a little bit away and walk up to me. I was breathing hard from the exertion, so it was pretty clear to him I was too weak to go farther. He stood over me, his spear resting on his shoulder.

    You’re a persistent one, but today isn’t your lucky day. Sorry, kid, but now that you’ve seen me, you have to…”

    He stopped speaking, and I saw his eyes narrow for a moment. We stayed there in silence for several seconds before he hummed thoughtfully.

    I see. Guess I was wrong, kid. Today is your lucky day.”

    Without another word, he turned around, and jumped out of view.

    I wasn’t sure what just happened, but it would seem Lancer’s master may not be on board with the idea of killing children.

    I laid there, catching my breath for a few minutes before bringing myself up.

    I stood motionless, considering my next move. If I’m careful, I should be able to find a bus stop and make my way to the church without being detected. Lancer may have given up, but it’s likely Rin hasn’t. While I don’t think she’ll kill me, she’d be hard pressed to just let me go. Refuge at the church may be my only option.

    Well, that was disappointing.”

    The sultry voice crept out from darkness of an alley. I didn’t wait to listen any further. I pulled a black key and hurled it into the shadows between the buildings. My legs protested as I once more began running, incapable of the enhanced pace from earlier.

    I heard the sound of metal rattling against metal as I felt something hurtling towards me at great speed. I dodged to the side and barely avoided what appeared to be a large nail attached to a chain.

    Running was no longer an option. My legs were too tired, and I refuse to die with my back towards the enemy. I caught sight of a particularly old gate surrounded by an equally old wall. Narrowly dodging another chain, I threw my body into the gate, the rotted wood crumpling under the force. I rolled into the front yard and dashed toward the main building.

    The building, like the gate, seemed on the verge of crumbling. The front door and walls were cracked and weak. I easily pushed through the door to find a barren hallway, dark and empty as I assumed the rest of the house was. I sprinted through and found it connected to another hallway, this one bearing open windows to the what may have once been a large garden. Perfect.

    I went outside into the overgrown grass covering the open space. Here, I could see them coming from any direction without cover to hide behind. I pulled out six more keys and wait.

    My master said it would be a simple matter to dispose of you.”

    The voice echoed out from a nebulous point, its origin indiscernible.

    It seems his cowardice is outweighed by his arrogance.”

    This servant was watching me. I could feel her eyes, peering at me like a predator. Father told me some servants consumed humans to bolster their mana reserves, and this gaze told me her intention all too well.

    Such a low opinion of your master,” my eyes roved my surroundings, waiting for her to strike. “Yet, you still follow his orders. A faithful servant if ever there was.”

    Must have touched a nerve. The servant came flying out of the shadows, chains flailing out toward me.

    I threw a key from my right hand as I brought the others up to block the attack. The chain screeched across the remaining blades, the force threatening to drive me back.

    As the weapons parted, I ducked a kick aimed for my head. I swung the three in my left hand upward, the servant leaping off its other leg to retreat. I threw the two remaining in my right hand toward her, one being knocked aside while the other flashed past her.

    I threw the last three into the ground between us, the keys widening and lengthening as I used the last of my mana to form a metal barrier between us. Following my instincts, I dashed to the left, putting a small, rickety building to my back. As I hoped, her attention was on the right, noticing her wrong prediction the same moment I flashed toward her in spite of my tired legs.

    I remembered my lessons, leading with the left of my body before twisting to the right, using every movement to enhance and direct my strength into my elbow. I drove it upward, planting a vicious strike into her right shoulder. I feel the bones break on impact, as Father said they would. As the servant was pushed backward by the blow, I realized I only managed this by virtue of catching her off guard with the advance.

    This doesn’t last as the servant is already counterattacking, slithering in like a snake low to the ground and thrusting the chained nail in its right hand upward. I attempt to dodge, but that forward rush taxed my legs more than I thought. The nail forced its way between my ribs and almost certainly punctured my lung. This was followed by a heavy kick to my sternum, launching me backward to crash through the crumbling building that, through my brain’s pain addled wonderings, I recognized to be a storage shed.

    I slammed into the back wall; the air thoroughly knocked out of me. I slid down as blood seeped from my wound, reddening my uniform as the servant calmly approached me.

    That was surprising,” the servant rubbed gingerly at the wounded shoulder. “It would seem my master truly is a poor judge of strength.”

    I coughed painfully as blood continued to fill me lung. I managed to glare at the servant as she slowly moved through the hole I made.

    I will honor your courage by ending your suffering.”

    I suppose there are worse ways to die. Killed in a dark shed by a magical being summoned to fight in a war I hand no part in. Alone, brought to this point by a foolish want to protect another. …When put like that, it almost sounds like a hero’s death. What a joke.

    As she raised her nail, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was okay dying like this. Quite anticlimactic, actually. After somehow surviving the flames from ten years ago, being adopted and trained by an executioner, and meeting a truly gifted magus, my life would end with an unceremonious murder. The world would continue onward. Eventually, my body would be found, the killer would remain unidentified and at large, and my name would go down as just another unsolved case. How… boring. No, not boring. Unfulfilling.

    I thought back to that day, looking up into my Father’s eyes. So hungry was his gaze. Those eyes told me he had found something worth living and dying for. Something to pursue with reckless abandon. I wanted that. I want that!

    I couldn’t die here. Not until I found that purpose. That yearning. That thing worth pursuing above all else. Something I can fervently declare I want to hold within my grasp. I won’t die here never knowing what that thing is. I refuse to die here! I will live! I will fight!

    I felt magic building up in the air around us. The servant seemed to feel it too. Light begun to blaze from the floor to my left, revealing a magic circle I hadn’t realized was there. I felt mana link into my soul and felt as though whatever had linked was pulling on me, using me as an anchor in this world.
    A figure materialized in the circle, charging forward toward the servant who had been about to end my life. She leapt back out the hole we’d come in and vanished in a wave of light.

    My rescuer stood in the moonlight streaming in from the hole, head scanning the yard for the servant’s presence. Then, they turned to face me.
    It was a woman clad in blue clothes covered in silver armor. Moonlight shined down on her golden hair as fierce green eyes looked at me with appraisal.

    I ask you this,” her voice every bit as strong and fierce as her eyes. “Are you worthy to be my master?”

    I don’t know how, but I felt as though I could answer her if I tried. However, I found myself considering my words. What did worthiness have to do with the summoning? To claim oneself worthy of calling a hero long dead to fight on your behalf is folly. Perhaps it is not the worth of a person, but the worth of a conviction? A will to see this battle to the end and claim victory? Even of that, I cannot claim.

    I can’t speak for whether I am worthy or not,” I spoke slowly, each word uttered painful. “But I can say with certainty that should this war bring me into conflict with others, I will fight them with all I have. I can’t die until I find what I seek. If you find this cause worthy of your aid, then I will be your master.”

    Those eyes stared into my own, unblinking as she listened my words.

    Very well,” she kneeled before me, her right arm resting on something I was unable to see. “Then I, Saber, devote myself to your cause. May we find what it is you seek together.”

    Then I,” I pause as I painfully work my way up the wall to a standing position. “Shirou Kotomine, swear that, as your master, I will do whatsoever is within my power to see this war to its conclusion.”

    I felt bolstered by my own words, which didn’t help my legs which gave out under my weight. Tonight had been a long night, but it seemed it would be longer still.

    Saber caught me as I came down., a look of mild concern on her face.

    Master. You should rest. You are obviously weak from your fight with the servant. Do you know of a safe place where you can recover from your wounds?”

    I could think of one, but it would be troublesome. I prayed they didn’t attack on sight.

    **********
    I was feeling much better by the time we stood at the door of the Tohsaka mansion. I only needed to lean on Saber at the moment, rather than have her carry me as she did the majority of the trip. I moved to knock on the door, but Saber gently pushed my hand down.

    Master, there’s a servant inside.”

    I’m aware, Saber,” My voice was stronger than it had been in the shed, but my words still flowed out slowly. “However, this is a chance we must take. I’m in no condition to register at the church, nor can we risk the long journey to my apartment without the dangerous situation public transport puts us in. As foolhardy as it may seem, this is our best option given our predicament.”

    While Saber mulled my words over, the door opened without warning. Rin’s servant stood there, blades in both hands, staring coldly at us. Saber wrapped her arm around me and jumped backward, gently sitting me on the ground before adopting a combat stance.

    So, another master was watching our battle.” The servant walked out the door and readied himself for battle.

    You have the wrong idea,” I forced my words to come out faster. “I…”

    "Archer!”

    I looked up to see Rin leaning out a second-story window. Concern was painted across her face as she took in the scene, and, presumably, the large bloodstain on my jacket.

    Let them inside. They didn’t come here to fight.”

    Rin, these are our enemies. We should kill them now while the master is weakened.”

    Hmmm. Calling her by her first name instead of ‘Master’. That irked me for some reason.

    My decision is final. I will be coming down immediately.”

    With that, she closed the window and moved from sight.

    Archer glared at the window before bearing his baleful eyes at us. However, he moved aside, and the swords dissipated from his hands. Saber watched him warily before releasing her grip on her invisible weapon and helping me back to my feet.

    We passed through the entryway just as Rin rounded the corner that led to the stairs. She was still in her school uniform, minus her favorite red coat. She came up to us quickly, the concern still evident on her face.

    Shirou. Are you okay? How did this happen? Did Lancer do this?”

    Oh. You knew it was me,” she had probably noticed that it was a black key that had been thrown. The weapons themselves were easily concealable, as they are just handles, but seeing a blade dissipate into just a handle is a dead giveaway of the weapons origins. As a weapon of the church, only those affiliated with them would have access to the weapons. “No. This was another servant’s doing.”

    She looked like she wanted to ask more, but she noticed the obvious pain I was in. She quickly composed herself, assessing the state I was in.

    You, Saber,” she pointed a finger at my servant. How did she know she was Saber? “Take him upstairs to the guest bedroom. It’s the door on the left. I’ll be up soon.”

    Without another word, she moved off to another area of the house. Saber waited until she was out of sight before walking me to the stairs. All the while, I could feel Archer’s eyes boring into my back. He didn’t like that we were here. I felt a little relieved Rin had such a watchful servant. If this had all been a trick, Archer would have seen right through it and acted already. I think it annoyed him, though, that it wasn’t.

    We made our way up the stairs, moving quickly with Saber’s help. As we did, I realized I didn’t yet know Saber true identity. While I wasn’t going to inquire about such a thing now, it was something I would have to touch upon later.

    We opened the door to the guest room, a room very similar to Rin’s room minus the small table and books. The beige sheets of the bed looked welcoming, but I settled for sitting on the carpet. I began removing my jacket, but Saber brushed my hands away and did so for me.

    Lift your arms.”

    I didn’t argue, but I hated how much I felt like a child. I had a vague recollection of someone doing this for me a long time ago, but those memories had burned up in the fires that brought me here.

    She pulled my bloody shirt off and laid it next to my jacket. Rin walked in as she did, a bowl of steaming water with a cloth hanging on the side resting atop a medical kit in her hands. Saber stood up and moved away as Rin kneeled down in front of me and placed the items on the floor beside her.

    Taking the bowl off the kit, she rolled up her sleeves before soaking the cloth in the water, straining the majority back into the bowl, and dabbing on my chest.

    The cloth was warm to the touch and felt nice on my aching chest. The dried blood was slowly wiped away to reveal a circular wound between my third and fourth ribs. She grimaced slightly.

    A third servant was apparently following me. Strange, as I hadn’t even summoned my own yet.”

    She gave me a curious look as she placed the cloth back in the bowl, the water turning red as the blood drained into it.

    What do you mean by that?”

    What I’m saying is,” I gestured toward my servant. “I only summoned Saber by chance after the other servant did this.”

    I directed my hand toward the hole, wincing as I accidentally move the muscles surrounding it.

    She kicked me into some shed in the northern district. A magic circle had been set up there. I don’t know why, but it was there.”

    Rin hummed thoughtfully as she reached into the kit and pulled out a bandage roll.

    Whatever the case, I hope you know that was a very stupid thing to do. Me and Archer were doing fine without your intervention.”

    I smiled at her words. Even as she cared for my wounds, Rin still had time to berate me on my stupidity. I didn’t disagree that it was a stupid move, but part of me wouldn’t let her have the last word.

    I know it was,” I raised my arms once more to allow her to wrap the bandages around my wound. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing you. Who else could possibly compete with me on the same level?”

    Rin’s cheeks reddened at the words which only deepened my smile. She tore off the end of the bandage and affixed it with a piece of tape.

    Well, I hope you realize you owe me a full explanation of what happened tomorrow. For now, you should get some rest.”

    She rose to her feet, picking up the red water and kit with her, and walked to the door. She began to close it but stopped halfway. She glanced back at me, the same look of worry in her eyes she had all those years ago.

    Sweet dreams, Shirou.”

    The door shut behind her with a soft click.

    I pulled myself up and crawled under the sheets of the bed. I turned to Saber.

    If I remember correctly, servants don’t require sleep. Am I right in that assumption?”

    Normally, yes,” she said with the first look of uncertainty I’d seen on her tonight. “However, due to the circumstance of my summoning, I believe it may be necessary for me to at some point. I seem unable to dematerialize, which allows servants to regain energy.”

    I see,” I considered this new information for a moment. “This bed is big enough to fit two people. You may sleep with me if you wish.”

    Thank you, Master,” her voice regained its confidence. “But, as I have just been summoned and have expended little energy tonight, sleep is not yet required. I will stand watch while you rest.”

    I understand.”

    It had seemed prudent to offer. If my servant was too weak to battle from sleep fatigue, I would be leaving us open to attack by not offering. She would probably find time to sleep during the day, which was probably better, as the grail war was to be mostly conducted at night.

    Then, would you please shut off the light?”

    Of course.”

    She moved to and flicked a switch next to the doorframe. The light in the ceiling went out, and darkness filled the room, only broken by the minor amounts of moonlight peeking through the curtains. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

    **********

    I walk ever forward, my legs barely able to carry me as I move through the scorched remnants of the city. Bodies lay scattered and burned in my path. A few people clinging to life reach out towards me, hoping I could somehow save them from their pain. I can’t do anything. I can only walk, empty and numb. The agony and terror etched upon people’s faces, both alive and dead, forever emblazoned in my mind. I tell myself I will carry on for them. Show and bear the pain they no longer could. I will keep walking for those whose footing fell out from under them. But this hell rejects that childish notion. It consumes everything, from the people to the buildings, and it will consume me. How foolish of me to even pretend that I can walk out of this hell. I can’t bear anything. All I’m doing is walking further into its depths. My fate has already been decided from the moment I started walking.

    I awake with tears in my eyes, the flames still burning into my skin as I lay under the sheets, helpless. I want to cry out for someone. Anyone. But they were all gone. The fires had taken them. I’m all alone. Alone. Alone…

    Her arms wrap around me, pulling me in closer. Her warmth is nothing like the fires, banishing those flames like a warm breeze.

    It’s okay,” she whispers softly into my ear. “The fire’s gone now. You don’t have to worry anymore.”

    But what if it takes you?” I whimper into her nightgown, my tears soaking into the fabric. “It took everything else. It’ll take you too.”

    No, it won’t,” she rests her hand on my head. “No matter what it takes from you, I’ll always be here.”

    I want to believe her. I desperately want to trust her words. Trust that there’s something those fires can’t touch, can’t take away from me. I want to believe so badly it hurts.

    I won’t let it,” my words are shaky and still full of fear, but there’s an underlying conviction in those tiny words. “I’ll become stronger. I won’t let it take you.”

    She giggles a little at that.

    My hero.”

    **********

    I awoke to find Saber standing at my bedside, a small look of worry on her face.

    Master, why are you crying?”

    It had been so long since I had that dream. I had forgotten…

    It’s nothing,” I wiped my finger under each eye. “What time is it?”

    It appears to be ten o’clock.”

    I see.”

    Sakura would already be at school by now. I pushed back the sheets and swung my legs off the bed. I’m surprised to find I don’t feel any pain in my legs or chest. I gently touched where my wound had been only to find a small indent rather than a hole.

    Master.”

    I turned my attention to Saber and noticed for the first time she wasn’t wearing her armor. Instead, she wore a pure white shirt with a blue string tie atop a blue skirt that rested over black leggings. In her hands, she held a familiar looking shirt and jacket.

    Miss Tohsaka had Archer go to your apartment and retrieve a change of clothes. She also went out early to buy this outfit for me.”

    My apartment? How did she… Oh, yes. My card was in my jacket pocket. Though, I’m surprised she got Saber a change of clothes. Could it be she realized Saber is unable to dematerialize as well?

    Both she and her servant are waiting downstairs for us in the sitting room. It would be impolite to keep them waiting any further.”

    She was right, of course. I accepted the shirt and quickly put it on. There would be no point putting on the jacket right now. I moved to the door, Saber close behind, and prepared myself for a long talk.

    __________________________________________________ __________________________________________________ _______

    OP: Black Catcher
    __________________________________________________ __________________________________________________ ___________________
    I suppose we'll see what happens. Hopefully, I'll get more used to the posting layout as I go.
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; November 7th, 2020 at 03:36 AM.

  2. #2
    屍食鬼 Ghoul
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    My thoughts:
    * I don't think Shirou would be able to so deeply and eloquently read into the look on Kirei's face when he's a little kid who's barely conscious.
    * I'm entertained by this more calculating Shirou.
    * I initially disliked that when Lancer gives up the threat is just immediately replaced by Rider, but I like how Shirou is able to actually injure his attacker this time through a combination of bajiquan being broken, surprise factor, and Rider being severely hamstrung by serving Shinji. The fact Rider's weakness lets him fight back at all makes this go sufficiently differently from canon that it doesn't feel like the "nominally different but almost exactly the same" type of AU story I dislike.
    * I wish the narration were consistently either present-tense or past-tense.

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    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    *The narration during the prologue was to try and sell the idea to the audience. Most may find it ridiculous that Shirou would still admire someone like Kirei, so I wanted to show that. Maybe there was higher brain function than there should have been, but I think I got the point across, even if you have to stretch your disbelief a bit.
    *I'm constantly told that. I didn't realize it was something no one ever considered for this version of Shirou until after 3 chapters when I finally read other Shirou Kotomine fics and saw they just turn him into an edgelord.
    *Do you know some people make him fight Lancer off himself? They seem to forget how dangerous a Servant is compared to a human. However, with someone in Rider's special situation, there's a bit of wiggle room. Not enough to win, but enough to do some damage. I also notice you didn't ask the question of "Why did Rider seek him out specifically?" Perhaps the answer's obvious, but I never considered myself subtle.
    *I've had issue with that, yes. I do get better in future chapters, but was a bit scattered in the first few
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; September 28th, 2020 at 06:05 PM.

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    屍食鬼 Ghoul
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    I didn't think about it too hard. If I had to conjecture, I would assume Shinji had Rider attack Shirou because he's jealous of Shirou's close relationship with Rin, and maybe because this Shirou wasn't as genuinely a friend to Shinji as in canon and so didn't have as positive an effect on him.

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    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    Interlude: First Meetings

    It was eight at night when Kirei Kotomine entered my house. He told me for the time being I’d be sharing it with his son. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A son? When did this priest ever have a son?

    That’s when Shirou Kotomine walked out from behind his father.

    The moment I saw him, there was something instantly familiar about him. A certain air about him that felt like looking in a mirror. His eyes looked out at me, curious and unsure, but with an underlying sadness that was impossible to ignore. He had lost someone. Someone important to him.

    It made sense once Kirei told me he was a survivor from the fire. He had lost a lot more than one person. His home, family, and likely everyone he’d ever known, were burned away by fire.

    Kirei told me that until he could arrange better accommodations, Shirou would be staying here. I didn’t have much to say on the matter, but neither did the boy. That night, he didn’t say a word to me. The priest talked of the different preparations he was making for the boy while he stood there, silently watching me. I tried to give him a smile, but his face remained impassive, betraying no emotion he may have been feeling.

    It wasn’t till later that night that I finally saw him display a new emotion. I was awoken to muffled noises echoing through the empty halls. I thought about ignoring them, going back to sleep, but something in them gave me pause. I got out of my bed, opening my bedroom door to find that I was right. The cries were coming from the guest room. I moved along the walkway between us, the moon streaming in from the windows lining the path.

    I turned the knob and gently pushed the door open. Shirou was curled up under the sheets, his form unmoving save for the rocking of his body with every fearful sob. He looked like he was hurt, trying to close himself off to the pain. I approached him slowly, reaching out my hand to lightly touch his shoulder. He flinched away, sharply intaking his breath. His head turned to face me, and I took an involuntary step back.

    His eyes were empty. There was nothing there. It seemed the fire had taken much more than I thought. For Shirou, all that existed right now was the pain and fear of that night, my own form no more than a passing phantom in the flames. His head turned back to face the wall, his gentle sobs never stopping. I realized I’d been holding my breath when he was looking at me. I couldn’t say anything. There wasn’t a single word I could utter that could ease his pain. Even so, I couldn’t leave him like this. Alone with the fire.

    I gently pulled back and slipped under the covers. I slowly curled my arm around him, pulling his back close to me. He didn’t flinch back this time, but I wasn’t sure he even felt me. I wrapped my other arm over him, keeping him close. The sobs slowly faded away, and eventually the only sound that could be heard was his quiet breathing. I’m not sure when I fell asleep, but when I woke up, the space next to me was empty.

    I carefully propped myself up on my arms, wondering if I had imagined the whole thing. I mean, the notion was a bit absurd, after all. The son of Kotomine? Doesn’t make a lot of sense for the priest.

    I got up and headed down to the kitchen, wondering what I’d eat today, when I found the boy. Wearing an apron one size to big, he stood on a small stool in front of the burner, a pan wafting steam as he slid a spatula in it. He looked up at me.

    His eyes seemed full. Happy and content, like a child’s should be. He smiled at me. An easy smile, one that seemed impossible from the boy I found last night.

    Good morning. Breakfast will be ready soon.”

    Maybe I was the one dreaming now. This boy gave away nothing when he first came here, showed me the burns that remained from the fire last night, and now he was making me breakfast without a worry in the world. Who was this boy?

    He gave me curious look.

    Is there something wrong?”

    **********
    Kirei came by to drop off groceries and clothes for Shirou. He left soon after, promising to return to begin our lessons as soon as he got a few things sorted. The rest of the day passed along quietly. I spent my time practicing magecraft in the workshop with Shirou watching me. He seemed fascinated by the art. I thought about asking if he wanted to try. Who knows, maybe he had magic circuits. But, for now, he seemed content to watch.

    When night came, I was once more pulled from sleep by his cries. I went to his bed and laid down next to him. He didn’t move back as before. He fell asleep faster than the previous night, possibly finding comfort in my presence. I found him absent as the morning before, already down in the kitchen making breakfast. His warm, easy smile greeted me once again.

    The next day, he asked me to teach him what I was doing yesterday. I tried to show him the basics of gemstone magic. It became obvious he was somehow in possession of magic circuits, but he was terrible with gemstones. We spent the day trying to narrow down what it was he could do. He didn’t seem to have any of the normal alignments, finding no particular affinity toward any of the five elements, nor did he seem to possess any of the imaginary elements. Was it possible he had an unheard-of element?

    In the end, it became clear that the only magecraft he seemed to have any talent in was projection and reinforcement. While both useful, neither was particularly unique among the mage ranks. It was obvious he was never going to be much more than a below-average magus, but when I saw the look in his eyes when he reinforced a piece of paper for the first time, I didn’t care.

    I decided to be preemptive tonight, going to bed with Shirou from the beginning. When he began shake and whimper, I whispered calmly into his ear, reassuring him he was okay.

    The next few days followed the same pattern. I’d wake up, be greeted with breakfast and a smile, practice and teach my magecraft to Shirou, then go to sleep together to start the cycle anew.

    Then, one night, things changed. Shirou woke from the same nightmare he always had, and I told him everything was fine. That the fire couldn’t get him anymore. But this time, he responded.

    But what if it takes you?” he pushed himself closer to me, his tears hot through my gown. “It took everything else. It’ll take you too.”

    The anxiety in his words. The fear of loss so evident it was painful. When Father died, I pushed those feelings down, trying to be brave for him. It was only when Kirei gave me the Azoth Sword that I could hold them in no longer. It felt like, despite what I had lost, he was still there. Shirou didn’t have that. The fire took everything from him. How could he lose more?

    No. It won’t,” I placed my hand on his head, running my fingers softly through his hair. “No matter what it takes from you, I’ll always be here.”
    He grew quiet at my words, and I thought for a moment that he had fallen back to sleep.

    "I won’t let it.”

    His words bore all the pain and fear from before, but there was something else. Something strong and sure. A promise he would try to keep.

    I’ll become stronger. I won’t let it take you.”

    I giggled at that. I couldn’t help it. This boy whom I comforted each night, whom gave me a pure smile free from worry or obligation every morning, was promising me he wouldn’t let me go. Despite the absurdity of the claim, I found myself unable to doubt his words.

    "My hero.”

    **********
    After that, Shirou didn’t have any trouble falling asleep. I stayed with him a few nights more just to be sure, but he never awoke in fear again. What’s more, he took to my lessons with greater fervor, training harder every day at the only magecraft he was good at. He began making weapons, projecting them and practicing with them behind the house, fighting unseen foes. While I studied further into the intricacies of magecraft, he worked on reinforcing both his body and weapons beyond their capabilities.

    Eventually, Kirei began taking us away in the day to train in martial arts. Kirei was an effective teacher, though he had no patience for those who couldn’t work at the same pace as him.

    The nights after we slept separately were as they had always been before he came. But, by the fourth night, I began to feel like the bed was empty or missing something. Like I was missing something. I hugged my pillow. It seems he wasn’t the only one who drew comfort from another’s presence.

    But it was okay. Because I knew that, when I woke up, he would be waiting there. With an easy smile that warmed my heart and a delicious breakfast, he’d be waiting for me. And that was enough.

    A smile on my face, I drifted off to sleep.



    Chapter 2: Ignorance and Portance
    #10-The most important aspect of any battle is information. Whether it is the withholding, leaking, or theft, worlds rise and fall on the flow of information.


    Both I and Saber were seated across from the Tohsaka heiress. Her servant, who had brought in and poured tea for each of us, was standing behind her chair. As I delved into the events of the previous night that brought me to their doorstep, both master and servant’s eyes remained trained on me.

    Once I had finished my recounting, Rin picked up and sipped thoughtfully from her tea. Her servant, on the other hand, looked primed to ask me a question. I wasn’t surprised. The entire time, Archer seemed far more engaged than even his master. Perhaps he was trying to assess the second servant that attacked me, seeking information that could reveal their true identity.

    Which is why the questioned he asked caught me off guard.

    What is your name?”

    I eyed him, mildly confused. What did my name have to do with anything I just explained? His face betrayed nothing, his steel-grey eyes unwavering and coldly calculating. I would be lying if I didn’t say it reminded me of someone.

    My name is Shirou Kotomine, son of Kirei Kotomine, the overseer of this grail war. May I ask for yours?”

    Archer can’t remember his name,” Rin spoke up, setting her tea down. “And even if he did, I’m not sure I would want you to know it.”

    Fair enough,” We were technically enemies in this war. “But I have to wonder where we go from here.”

    Isn’t it obvious?” Rin smirked as she placed her chin in her hand, leaning on the arm of her chair. “You still need to register with the church. After that, I will be more than happy to defeat you and your servant.”

    You speak as though I don’t have a prayer.” I chuckled. The son of a priest without a prayer. “Can you really be so certain of your victory?”

    Of course. We both know I’m the superior magus between us. If we were to battle, even if our servants are evenly matched, I would defeat you and force you to surrender. Then, you’d also be my servant.”

    Is that how we’re doing this?”

    I reached down and took my own teacup from the table between us. I could see Saber eyeing me curiously as I sipped the tea, which was delicious. I’ll say this for Archer, he makes a good cup of milk tea.

    And I assume the reverse is true?”

    It wouldn’t be interesting if it wasn’t.”

    My studies of the previous grail wars had made one thing clear. Alliances between masters never succeeded. The conflict of interests over who would have their wish granted always led to a breakdown at the end of the war. That, or one of them would die before ever reaching that point. However, if one of us were to clearly assert a position of dominance over the other, it would be clear who the final master would be if we made it to the end of the war.

    Alright, Rin Tohsaka. It would also be my pleasure to defeat you.”

    I stood from my chair, reaching out my left hand toward my enemy.

    May the best master win.”

    She stood as well, taking my hand with a self-assured smile.

    I will.”

    **********
    Master, how can you be sure you can defeat her?”

    I’m not.”

    We walked north toward the Fuyuki Bridge and the bus stop nearby. The events of this morning clearly bothered my servant.

    Then, why did you make that bet with her?”

    That was hard to explain.

    What she said was true. I will never be as powerful a magus as her. The only magecraft we found I’m competent with are reinforcement and projection.”

    As an example, I projected a shortsword. When Father discovered where my talents lay, he brought me several different weapons to see what the breadth of my capabilities were. As such, I had a small catalogue of weapons to project.

    I’m also able to reinforce my body and objects I touch by analyzing their structure and strengthening them through my understanding.”

    The sword dissipated in my grip.

    Rin, however, is a rare breed among magi. Capable of harnessing all five elements of magic, her potential is far greater than mine for that fact alone. Add in that she also bears the Tohsaka family crest, one built up with centuries worth of magical knowledge, and it’s clear who is superior.”

    Saber furrowed her brows as she took in my words.

    However, I am superior in physical combat. If I’m able to close the distance before she can lock me down with her spells, I can easily incapacitate her. In the end, the deciding factor between our fight would be distance. I suppose we share that problem, Saber. If Archer can lock you into ranged combat, you’ll have just as hard a time as me.”

    Saber looked back where we came, likely trying to figure out how she’d face Archer.

    We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” I try to reassure her. I’ll likely think of something when I have time to myself. “For now, let’s cross this one.”

    I pointed at Fuyuki Bridge which slowly came into sight from behind the buildings. We could both see the bus stop now, but I knew it’d be another five minutes before the next bus came rolling by.

    As we sat and waited for the bus, I thought about what I told Saber. My reason for taking Rin’s bet was more than just the possibility of victory. In the end, I wanted to beat her. No, it was more than that. I wanted to compete with her. Wanted to show her I’m just as strong as she is, despite my lack of natural talent. I needed to prove my strength, because if I couldn’t… what?

    Forget it. The reason doesn’t matter. Today, all I needed to worry about was how we would reach that goal. To that end…

    Saber. What is your true name?

    Saber looked at me, her eyes revealing how much she was considering her answer. She looked off to the bridge as she spoke.

    I am Artoria Pendragon, King of Britain, and wielder of the holy sword Excalibur.”

    …”

    I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. This teenage girl was telling me she was the legendary King Arthur, and I wasn’t sure I could doubt her claims. History was a very muddled thing. Facts and fiction are often twisted, and even fictitious heroes could be summoned in the grail war. Then, I remembered something from the records.

    The same King Arthur who was summoned in the last Holy Grail War? The servant of Kiritsugu Emiya?”

    The church kept detailed records on all previous grail wars, from its masters and servants to the different locations the grail manifested. The identity of every servant that ever participated is catalogued and stored away for future reference, with only a single aberration during the third war. Father had me study the records as part of my training, as though preparing me for participation.

    Yes,” Saber twinged slightly at the name, a frown crossing her lips. “Is this information necessary, Master?”

    Perhaps. I can’t recall any two grail wars where the same servant was summoned. The reason I have summoned you may be connected to your previous master. Though, I am unable to think of any possible link.”

    Father was the only survivor of the Fourth Holy Grail War. Any relics Kiritsugu Emiya may have used to summon King Arthur would have likely been lost with the master. Equally strange, no catalyst had been used during my summoning, so the odds of me summoning the same servant were next to impossible. There was something I was missing.

    It’s possible,” Saber put her hand to her chin. “That we may find an answer to your question with the Einzbern Family. Emiya represented them in the previous war, so they may know how such a thing could occur.”

    The Einzberns. One of the three mage families that established the Holy Grail War alongside the Tohsakas and Matous. She was right. If anyone might be able to explain the oddity, it would be a founding family. Not to mention, the same family who likely provided the catalyst for Saber’s last summons.

    We’ll have to investigate that avenue later,” I pointed at the approaching bus. “For now, we go to the church.”

    The bus hissed to a halt before us, and we stepped aboard without another word.

    **********
    Wait out here, Saber. I’ll only be a minute.”

    Saber nodded as I pushed open the metal gate leading to the church grounds. I walked the long familiar path from the gate to the church, its form looming over me like a white giant. The Virgin Mary greeted me as I passed under the church archway, her smiling face looking down on me like an old friend.

    Good morning to you as well,” I said. A habit I picked up over the years. It was only polite to reply when greeted.

    I pushed the doors open to reveal the sanctuary of the church. Pews spread out before me in four columns leading to pulpit, where Father was carefully placing a vase of white flowers on a cloth covered platform. Light streamed in from the windows high above, the panes casting intricate shadows over the white surface of the walls and ceiling. Father turned to face me, his cassock swaying with the movement.

    Shirou. What brings you to the house of God, my son?”

    His words bore no warmth, only mild familiarity. He moved to stand in front of the pulpit, every movement like the slow prowl of a predator. It was something I was very familiar with, and something I had been working to imitate for years. Just by the presence he exuded in every step, authority and power was communicated in some primal way.

    Father,” I kept my voice neutral, working to match his own tone. “Something has occurred that I require the overseer of the Holy Grail War.”

    I see,” Father began walking toward me, slow and sure as always. “Tell me of your troubles, my son. What sort of occurrence would require that you approach me today?”

    I took in a breath and slowly released it. My Father noticed the motion, and I saw curiosity flicker across his eyes. I understood why. If I had come to ask for protection, I wouldn’t be so averse to saying so. He knew it was something else.

    I have become the master of Saber,” I presented my left hand, the red command seals displayed prominently. “Therefore, I have come to register.”

    It was for the briefest of instants, imperceptible to anyone who hadn’t spent as much time with him as I. His steps faltered for the first time I had ever seen in my life. It was all I could do to keep the surprise off my face.

    Is that so?” He looked down at my hand for a moment before speaking. “I believe it is my duty as your father to ask if you’re certain taking this path. In this war between masters and servants, it is almost expected that death will find you.”

    No concern or worry entered his tone. He was simply laying out the facts, making sure I was fully prepared for where this choice may lead me. This was how he always approached his role as father.

    I am fully prepared to face death, as you yourself are aware.”

    Our eyes locked, each silently examining the other. His expression remained impassive, carefully crafted to hide any intentions he might have. He’d been drilling me for years, training me to also adopt such a façade when necessary. However, mine always showed more cracks than his. There was something about him that seemed to make the action of giving away nothing almost like instinct.

    Very well,” he placed his hands behind his back before turning to walk back toward the pulpit. “It is clear nothing I say will sway you from your course.”

    Why did my words cause such a reaction? Was it because he didn’t want me in the war to begin with? There must be something else. Something I’m missing.

    Shirou Kotomine,” Father faced me once more. “The church recognizes you as the master of the saber servant in the Fifth Holy Grail War. Rejoice, my son, for you are about to partake in the most difficult trial of your life. May you find what you seek at the end of this path you now walk.”

    I bowed, not meeting his gaze as I turned back toward the door. If I did, I wasn’t sure I could hide my suspicions. First, he wants me out of Miyama and the grail war. Now, he seeks to subtly dissuade me from participating with his words. What was he hiding?

    Shirou.”

    I stopped without turning back, my hand on the door handle.

    Remember #20.”

    The door closed behind me with a soft thud.


    #20-Should you ever take part in the grail war, remember that there are rules that must be followed, except when they are not.
    R: So, there are no rules?
    K: They are more akin to guidelines. Useful, but able to be ignored.


    **********
    We left the Hyatt Hotel, luggage in hand, and made our way back to the bus stop. One suitcase of clothes and two bags of groceries, both of which were carried by Saber, and I was ready to move. I had turned in my card at the front desk, leaving me only two options for my new base. Luckily, they were both in the same direction.

    It was almost one by the time we were once again at the Tohsaka mansion, but Saber informed me she could no longer sense Archer’s presence. They must have gone out to do something. Not that it changed much. I took out the key she’d given me when I was staying here and inserted it in the lock. With a twist of the key and turn of the knob, we entered the empty house.

    Saber heads up to our room to drop off the suitcase while I brought the groceries to the kitchen, quickly putting them away. Good thing too, her fringe was practically empty.

    I went back to the sitting room to find Saber already waiting for me. I took a seat in one of the chairs and motioned for her to do the same.

    Are you sure this is wise, Master?” she asked as she took the seat beside me. “Rin Tohsaka is the enemy. We may very well be leaving ourselves open to a surprise attack.”

    Unlikely,” I leaned on the arm of my chair. “Rin prefers to take her opponents head-on, leaving no question to whether or not she won on her own merits. If anything, she would need to worry about me taking advantage of such a situation.”

    Saber gave me a decidedly displeased look.

    No, I don’t have any intentions of the sort,” I shook my head. “Rin will likely be willing to give us lodging on the grounds that the house becomes neutral territory. This gives us a location closer to where we have already witnessed three other servants. Servants don’t tend to wander far from their masters, logically meaning we should be able to find both Lancer’s and Assassin’s masters close by.”

    Then, what will we be doing tonight? I’m assuming you have a plan on how we’d find these masters.”

    As of then, no. I did not have a plan. In all honesty, I hadn’t given it much thought yet. However, that was not important at the moment.

    I’ll tell you later. For now, It’s time for lunch. You wait here while I go make something up.”

    She made to protest as I rose but was interrupted by a soft growling from her stomach. I couldn’t blame her. Neither of us had eaten anything today, and her strange existence seemed to require sustenance like any mortal body.

    With that, I moved into the kitchen, considering what I would make for the King of England.

    **********
    Master, that is completely unnecessary. I am perfectly able to perform my duties as your servant.”

    Saber,” I stuck my hand into the soapy water to pull out a plate. “I will not have my servant failing in battle due to fatigue. Go get some sleep.”

    And give me time to work out a strategy for tonight.

    A servant could easily attack us without anyone realizing. I must be prepared for combat at all times.”

    No one will attack us,” I began wiping the plate with a rag, the leftover debris from Saber’s appetite falling into the sink strainer. “Lancer seemed content to watch for now, the servant that attacked me, most likely Assassin, would wait until you were far too occupied to defend me, and caster servants tend to prefer battles in their own domains of power, so it is unlikely they would attack here.”

    I notice you didn’t mention Rider or Berserker?” Saber said dryly.

    I grimaced as I placed the plate in the drainboard, reaching in the water for the other.

    The Rider in every war tends to be a wild card in how they operate. The Tohsakas summoned Georgios in the third war, and he spent the majority of his time protecting both civilians and enemy masters from the fallout of Servant combat. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how the Rider in the previous war acted.”

    Saber scowled at the words. It was becoming clear that Saber disliked the previous grail war in its entirety. I wasn’t going to pry on the details, but she did lose in the end, so it likely had to do with that failure.

    And if it were Berserker, I’m fairly certain it would be impossible for them to approach without alerting us in some way. Now, with all that being said, go. To. Sleep.”

    Saber stared at me sternly for several seconds. I slowly began wiping the other plate. I regretted how unauthoritative I must have appeared as I washed the dishes.

    Very well,” she replied tersely. “I will trust your judgement. If I am required, I will be in our room.”

    She turned and left the kitchen, leaving me to place the plate in the drainboard.

    Once I had finished, I moved to the back of the mansion and exited out to the manor grounds. An extravagantly large space greeted me, brick walkways spreading out from the stone platform I stood upon. A large lawn bearing a broken structure at its center laid out before me as I moved down the steps. The sun hung high in the sky as a chilly breeze gently swept by. The silence and emptiness of the familiar scene soothed me like few other things. Here, in this place, it felt like I was the only thing alive. A feeling similar to yet standing in stark contrast to that night ten years ago.

    I moved over to the broken ornament and sat in the one oddity in the lawn. An indent, practically invisible from a distance, only different from the rest of the lawn by elevation. I laid back on the grass, closing my eyes as I simply let the world drift away. Here, I was alone. Here, there was only me and my thoughts. Here, I was at peace.

    I wandered through my mind, thoughts slowly floating by through a dark expanse. I decided to review what I knew of the grail war. The memories swept over, images and names quietly echoing as they passed. I saw something that caught my eye, recalling the memory back. It returned to me alone, gently twirling around my body as I recounted the information.

    There were four locations from which the Holy Grail would manifest in Fuyuki. I pushed aside the Fuyuki Central Park, sending it spiraling off into the distance. The park was unlikely to be used again. The area was to full of malice and pain to manifest a relic such as the Grail once more. The church crossed before me, but that thought flew off as well. The church was used in the third war, and it could possibly be used again, but I thought I was beginning to see a pattern. First, it was Ryuudo Temple on Mount Enzou. Next, it was the Tohsaka mansion. Then, the aforementioned church. Finally, the area that would become Fuyuki Central Park.

    While only a theory, it’s very likely that the ley lines at each location the Grail manifested need a refractory period before they can be used again, leading to the use of a different location every war. Therefore, if my theory is correct, the next location for the Grail’s evocation would be Ryuudo Temple due to the other sites recollecting mana after their previous use. Then again, it’s just as likely it would manifest in a completely new location, but I’ll work under the assumption that won’t happen.

    If someone else were to come to the same conclusion, it would be likely they would station their base close to the site, feeding off the mana collecting for the summoning of the Grail. It was the very reason the Tohsaka’s always used their mansion as their home base, or why members of the clergy are forbidden from participating in the war. The power used to manifest something of such immense strength was an easy source of energy for servants to absorb.

    I dismissed the thoughts, letting them flow along as they were. I was about to open my eyes, but something stopped me. Something was… strange. My thoughts flowed toward some unknown destination. I followed them, intrigued by the odd movements. They snaked and wriggled onward, a wavy trail leading me forward. The thoughts seemed to collapse in on one point, a cloaked figure absorbing the wayward thoughts like a vacuum. The figure didn’t seem familiar, and I was certain I had never seen anything like it. However, something about it was wrong. It slowly turned to face me, and I froze.

    Death. It was death. It was the death I knew.

    Suddenly, the world was set ablaze, the figure the only thing untouched by the flames. The fire closed in on me, closing off every path but toward the figure. The hood drawn over the specter covered all but their mouth, strangely shaded purple. It pointed its arm toward me, its lips moving to form a single word that coursed over me like wave.

    Come.”

    My body began moving on its own, tentative steps moving toward the dark spirit. The word kept repeating over and over, each intoxicating sound drawing me closer. It was wrong, so very wrong. I tried to pull away, but my body wouldn’t listen. Another step. My eyes flicked about, searching for escape, but the only other thing in the world was fire.

    Fire.

    I hated what I was about to do. I focused on my left leg, concentrating solely on the limb, blocking out the words as much as I could. As it took its next step, I pulled it back, letting my weight continue downward. My body fell toward the flames.

    I suppose walking through Hell doesn’t appeal anymore.

    No!” I heard the figure cry out.

    My eyes flashed open, my breathing hard and fast. I found with a start that I was on my side, halfway across the lawn back to the manor. I remained motionless, taking in the world around me as I composed my thoughts.

    The sun was low in the sky, the world slowly covered in a shade of orange. Long shadows cast across the lawn, my own joining them as I sat myself up.

    What just happened? That was more than a dream. It was magic. And that figure. Caster? It seemed to be the only option. Maybe one of the Hassan had the ability to enter dreams, but that would mean the servant last night wasn’t an Assassin. Then again, a Rider with a unique ability could…

    Stop! You could stay here until nightfall, and you’d still be no closer to finding the answer asking those questions. You need to focus.

    I calmed my breathing, focusing on the soft grass under me to ground my thoughts. When my breathing finally returned to normal, I pushed myself to my feet, beginning to stroll back to the mansion.

    Now think. Don’t focus on what servant attacked you. Focus on the reason why. The fact that I’m a master could be reason enough, but why would they wait till now? It’s unlikely they would know Saber is mildly incapacitated right now unless they could view into the house through all the defensive magecraft the Tohsakas set up.

    A Rider wouldn’t normally have the skills needed to hide their presence from Saber, so that only left Assassin and Caster. An Assassin’s presence concealment was absolute, making infiltration a non-issue for their class. That leads to the question, “Why, if Assassin had already infiltrated the defenses without alerting Saber, would they try to draw me away instead of killing me?” They could end my life and fade away before Saber had a chance to retaliate. That opportunity would be too perfect. This wasn’t Assassin’s doing.

    That left Caster.

    I stepped up the stairs leading to the back door, entering the mansion before moving into the sitting room. The house was silent and dark as day began fading into night. I turned on the lights and sat in a chair.

    Why did Caster attack now? No, not attack. She was calling to me, trying to pull me somewhere. Where was she taking me? It was likely she was trying to separate me from my servant, making me an easy target. Taking that into account, her location must be within walking distance. Unless, of course, she was planning on dragging my body all the way across the city, but I decided to file that under unlikely. That, however, planted an idea in my head.

    A Caster located somewhere within walking distance, likely near a place of power. One who just so happened to perform a mental assault on a master immediately after they considered the possibility of Ryuudo Temple being an excellent location for a master to form a base. However, this was all based on the assumption that there was a frankly unlikely connection between Caster, my thoughts, and the temple. Even so, it was the only lead I had. No point in ignoring it.

    I heard a door upstairs close, which was followed by footsteps descending the stairway. I turned my head to see Saber entering through the door, her face as calm as ever.

    Master, I am rested and ready for battle. Have you decided on our next course of action?”

    I felt a small smile creep across my lips. If Caster had wished for me to come visit them, it would be rude to refuse such an invitation.

    Prepare yourself, Saber,” I rose and faced my servant. She moved aside a I moved to the door. “Tonight, we pay a visit to Caster.”

    Saber’s head tilted slightly to the side as I moved past, but she said nothing. I headed up to our room, finding the futon Saber had been sleeping on at the foot of the bed. I found my red jacket hanging from the wardrobe’s handles. A gift from Rin, the jacket was slightly darker in hue than her coat. I slid my arms into it and made my way down to the entrance.

    I locked the door as we exited. Looking to the ever-darkening sky, I predicted night would fall by the time we reached the temple. A dark blanket over a conflict of ancient power, stars watching with rapt attention as the earth shook under their battle.

    That almost made it sound like more than just people killing each other over something that isn’t theirs. Even so, I couldn’t help but anticipate seeing Saber in action.

    Tonight was going to be interesting.

    **********
    We walked up the dark stone steps, the trees rising around us like pillars of night. The air was strangely still, the forest quiet as though the world was holding its breath. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I think Saber felt it too.

    She had equipped her armor since we left the manor, ready for any trouble that we may have encountered on our way here. Now, I could see her hands at her right side, miming a grip around that invisible weapon of hers. I understood how she felt. I slipped a black key into each of my hands just in case.

    As we approached the temple gate, a figure rose from their seat on the top of the stairs. He was something pulled out of a history book. A simple samurai, sans any form of armor. The only thing I found odd was how purple the ensemble was. The swordsman bore an absurdly long sword slung across his back.

    Both Saber and I stopped one level below the man. Saber relinquished her right hand’s grip on her unseen weapon as her eyes narrowed.

    Master,” she said firmly. “I advise that you stay back. That man is a servant.”

    That was curious. The Grail was only meant to summon western heroes, but here was Saber telling me this clearly Japanese man was a Servant.

    She is correct,” the Servant said, a small smile gracing his lips. “My name is Sasaki Kojirou, and I am an Assassin.”

    Saber looked as surprised as I felt. A servant revealing their true name so willingly would be shock enough, but now I had the revelation that it was Rider who had hunted me the previous night. But if that was the case, why had she been so easily chased off? The wound I had inflicted on her was superficial to a servant, so it wasn’t too hard to imagine her taking advantage of my weakened state to force Saber into troublesome positions. Yet, she retreated without even attempting to do so. And then there was this servant. Why would an assassin reveal himself to us? Assassins have never had the power to confront other servants head on, but here he was.

    So many questions, and yet, so few answers.

    May I ask why ones such as you darken my gate?”

    His words flowed smoothly as he watched us with mild interest.

    It was my belief that I had been invited,” I stuck my hands in my pockets, further concealing the black keys in my palms. “But I seem to have found the wrong servant.”

    Ah,” Assassin turned his head slightly to look over his shoulder. “You seek the witch. I must apologize then, for I have orders to let no one past this gate.”

    So, Caster was here. Their masters must be working together in this war. Alliances are always made, but I wondered how long that would last.

    That is unfortunate,” I gave the Servant a small shrug. “It seems Saber will have to settle for fighting you. I hope you’re not adverse to the idea.”

    Not in the slightest,” Assassin shook his head as he drew the long blade on his back. Light glinted down the length of the sword as he held it at his side. “I have been curious as to how those in the west do combat.”

    His calm demeanor and nonchalance gave me pause. There must be some trick he seeks to employ. Assassins never confront their enemies head-on. There was something I was missing.

    Saber, be mindful of this one,” I moved down to the third level as I spoke. “There’s something amiss, but I’m not sure what.”

    Saber nodded as she took her invisible sword in both hands once more. When I turned back and looked up the steps, neither servant had moved. They watched each other silently, Assassin’s smile remaining on his face as Saber suddenly charged up the steps.

    What followed was an awe-inspiring display of skill and speed. Assassin’s blade flashed through the air like a ray of light, every swipe elegantly and precisely clashing with the unseen blade of my servant. The surrounding forest was filled with the melodic clashing of metal as each attack rang out through the night. Saber’s attacks, full of power and resolve, swung toward Assassin like the strikes of a hammer, each blow fully capable of ending the fight instantly. Assassin took every swing with impossible grace, seeming to effortlessly deflect and dodge Saber’s onslaught before retaliating immediately with the speed of lightening, his own blade flashing in only to be narrowly blocked by Saber’s phantasmal sword.

    As the servants continued their battle, it became clear that Saber was in a bind. No matter how fervently she attacked, Assassin continued to push her back down the steps using his elevated position. This ceased when Assassin had driven Saber back to the level below. Assassin stopped his attacks, his blade lowering as Saber watched him, and I could practically feel her raised eyebrow.

    Barely a minute had passed.

    Now, this is surprising. I should have removed your head countless times now, and still it remains attached to your body. I must admit that I’m impressed.”

    As am I, Assassin,” Saber lowered her blade as well. “For one of such slight build, your prowess with a blade is undeniable.”

    Beauty, strength, and charm. Truly, you are a feller of men. However, I do believe I now know the length of your sword.”

    I saw Saber stiffen for a second. In her position, I may have as well. She probably counted on the unknown quantity her invisible sword granted her, sowing uncertainty in her opponents. Now, he was telling her that advantage was gone.

    Now, the true battle may begin.”

    Saber raised her blade, and I could feel her determination as she once more advanced the steps toward Assassin. Their blades clashed, the beautiful dance of steel and death beginning anew. Assassin’s moves seemed to grow faster, each strike and parry surer than the last. In contrast, Saber seemed forced onto the defensive, her own attacks fewer and spaced farther from one another.

    I came to the slow realization the Saber may not win this battle. Her skills with a sword may be far beyond human capabilities, but this Assassin was something else entirely. He never seemed to repeat a move, each attack unexpected and new. Every flash of his blade followed by the screech of metal; each attack barely blocked. What kind of Assassin could surpass a Saber servant in bladed combat?

    It would seem you are faltering, Saber,” Assassin said as he deflected another swing. “Perhaps you should take this fight seriously.”

    What are you implying, Assassin?” Saber said through gritted teeth as she blocked yet another unforeseen strike.

    That it is insulting,” Assassin swung three quick arcs, forcing Saber to backpedal to the level below. An action that clearly irritated her, citing her own lack of forward progress before his skill. “To fight one who praises your skill with a blade yet continues to keep their own sheathed.”

    What an unorthodox Assassin. He was asking her to lay everything bare as he had. Even if her noble phantasm could easily dispatch him, he wishes for her to use it. This servant throws out everything an Assassin should be and, even so, probably has gotten closer to killing a Saber than any other servant of the class. I couldn’t deny that I respected that.

    Saber looked back at me, and I knew what she wanted to ask. If she were to reveal her noble phantasm, critical information could be exposed to the enemy. While I’m sure neither of us was worried about Assassin, Caster was allied with him. When I looked in Saber’s eyes, I could see she wished to honor his request, her chivalric code demanding such. My immediate impulse was to deny the request, but Saber may very well be killed if I did such.
    Assassin must have seen my indecision because he began walking down the steps.

    You place so much worry on what may happen,” Saber’s guard rose as Assassin came to stand across from her for the first time. “That you seem to forget what will if you cannot make a decision.”

    Assassin turned to Saber, her eyes trained solely on him as he brought his sword back to become level with his shoulder, his left hand coming up to grip below the other as he aimed the blade towards her.

    Perhaps, a demonstration is in order.”

    Whatever he was planning, it was most assuredly deadly. Saber knew this as well, her blade ready to counter whatever strike came. No one moved as the world seemed to crawl forward, the warriors staring each other down as each dared the other to act first. Killing intent rippled through the air like a cloud, the servants practically seething the malicious presence. All attention was fixed on this one moment in time where one of the two was promised a swift death.

    Which made it the perfect time to strike.

    I was barely able to make out the new source of malice before I heard the metal rattling, but by then, it was too late. A nail shot out of the darkness of the trees, and I tried to leap away from the attack. I managed to avoid a body blow, but the chain pierced through my leg. I cried out in pain as the chains somehow coiled and tightened themselves around my leg before the second nail flew towards me. It was knocked out of the air as Saber put herself between me and the woods.

    I released the keys and moved to pull the chain from my left leg, but I was suddenly yanked forward, our unseen enemy reeling me in. Saber grabbed my arm before I could be pulled into the trees, but my leg felt like it was going to tear from the opposing forces. I was about to command Saber to let go when the second nail came hurtling toward me once more. Saber wouldn’t be able to block from her position, so I reinforced my body in hopes of not giving the servant another anchor.

    That was proven needless as Assassin’s blade swept before me, deflecting the nail as easily as he had Saber’s sword. He then gripped the nail in my leg and deftly dislodged the offending weapon. The chains lost their grip as the nail shot back into the shadows of the trees. I gritted my teeth, letting out a grunt of pain as Saber pulled me down, standing over me protectively.

    Everyone was alert now, our eyes scanning the tree line for further attacks. After several seconds, Assassin lowered his blade.

    It appears I have been made a pawn in another’s game.”

    Assassin turned and began walking back up the steps. Saber watched him carefully.

    You would turn your back to your opponent?” she asked with slight irritation in her tone.

    This is a fight between warriors, not a spectacle for spies. I have no wish to fight for another’s benefit.”

    He turned back to face us on the level above, a confident smile dancing on his face.

    We will call tonight’s duel a draw. Should you wish to finish our battle, you need only try to pass through these gates once more. But when that day comes, I hope you are prepared to face me with everything.”

    Seconds passed as Saber fixed her gaze upon Assassin before finally nodding.

    You are a foe worthy of my full attention, Kojirou Sasaki. The next time our blades cross, I will leave no question of my resolve.”

    Careful now,” Assassin’s smile broadened as his form slowly dissipated. “Keep speaking like that, and I’ll be mourning more than the loss of such a strong foe.”

    And then, he was gone.

    Saber knelt, putting my left arm over her shoulders before pulling me up. We then began making our way back down the many steps that lead to Ryuudo.

    I do hope this doesn’t become a habit, Master,” her tone was mildly disapproving. “It would be troublesome if you were injured after every battle.”

    It seems that Rider will be a greater issue than I thought,” I looked down at my bleeding leg, annoyed that I had been caught off guard. “Her master seems to bear a vendetta toward me.”

    Saber hummed thoughtfully before replying.

    Which means it must be someone you know or knows of you.”

    She was probably right, which was bad. Likely, this meant there was a third master at the school. Unless Saber was always with me, Rider could attack at any moment.

    For the time being, we must make Rider and her master our top priority. We can’t risk them catching us off guard like that again.”

    Saber nodded at my words.

    For now, let us focus on getting to safety, Master. It’s possible there are other servants waiting to strike.”

    I scowled at the words, but we fell silent as we continued down the steps.

    Once again, I could do no more than let another carry me around. If I’m going to win this war, and defeat the enemies before me, I needed to be stronger. Smarter. I couldn’t keep burdening her with my weakness. She shouldn’t have to worry about me. I refuse to drag her down. I…

    Was getting off track. Focus. Both Caster and Assassin reside at Ryuudo. Likely, their masters are there as well. I should ask Issei if anyone new has come to the temple. Rider’s master was likely someone at the school, meaning narrowing down who it was would be crucial in removing a dangerous obstacle. I should watch those I interact with tomorrow closely. Lancer was off somewhere, doing who knows what. Archer was with Rin, making him a worry for later. All that left…

    I thought I sensed servants battling.”

    Stepping off the stairs, we looked to our left to find a small girl in a purple coat and hat standing in the middle of the wide street. The girl’s pale face and snow-white hair made her red eyes all the more noticeable. As I wondered what an albino child would be doing here in the middle of the night, I saw him.

    Stepping out from behind the girl, a mountain of a man breathed out large wafts of steam in the cold night air. The man’s muscles were like stone slabs, and his hair was a long, tangled mass. The most striking aspect of the man was the massive weapon he wielded in his right hand. I didn’t need Saber to tell me.

    Berserker.

    It seems that we’re late to the party,” the girl tilted her head to the side, bearing a smile far too frigid to be that of a child’s. “I hope you’re willing to entertain us anyway.”

    Master,” I looked at Saber as she spoke, her own eyes riveted to the new arrivals. “That is an Einzbern.”

    I glanced back at the child. This girl was a member of the family that summoned Saber last time. Looking at her, she’s probably too young to know how it happened. I doubt she’d be willing to tell me how they summoned Saber even if she could.

    Very perceptive of you,” the girl pulled up the sides of her coat and curtsied. “My name is Illyasviel von Einzbern. Not that it matters much, though.”

    Berserker began to move as the girl’s eyes twinkled with malicious glee.

    The dead don’t need to remember names.”

    Saber threw me to the side as Berserker began charging us with a mighty roar. I rolled to a stop a few meters away. The sight that greeted me when I regained my senses was very different than the previous battle.

    Every clash sent shockwaves rippling out through the air. Berserker swung his weapon with far greater force than Assassin ever did, like comparing a rifle to a warhead. Saber looked as though every strike would take her off her feet, matching every blow with equal ferocity. The road crumbled and broke under the servants’ strength as Saber danced and struck between Berserker’s brutal attacks.

    How useless. If I hadn’t been injured, I could be supporting Saber. If I could take out the Einzbern girl, Berserker would go wild and burn through his mana reserves quickly. Saber might have been able to take advantage of such a state. Damn that Rider.

    You must feel so weak right now.”

    I looked away from the fight to find the girl had crossed the distance between us. She looked down on me, a haughty look in her eyes.

    I’m not sure who you fought,” her eyes glided over my bloody pant leg. “But if your servant let that happen to you, she definitely won’t defeat Berserker.”

    I raised my eyebrow. Her words were taunting, but her tone didn’t convey it. Why was she saying this?

    You know nothing of Saber,” I began pushing myself up into a sitting position. “Yet, you already judge her effectiveness as a servant. Is it hubris or ignorance?”

    The girl giggled.

    I just know that no servant can defeat Berserker. Can you say the same for Saber?”

    I narrowed my eyes at her. What was her reason for this conversation? I’m almost defenseless, a lamb ripe for slaughter. If she decided to kill me, there’s nothing Saber could do to stop her. So why carry on like this? What was she after?

    "I trust her not to fail me.”

    She tilted her head to the side, a questioning look on her face.

    But haven’t you already failed her?”

    That was most certainly a taunt. She was playing at something.

    If you only seek to mock me, you may as well end me now.”

    I felt my anger rise slightly despite myself as she laughed at my words.

    Now, why would I do that? I’d have no one to talk to while Berserker fights.”

    I restrained a sigh at my own thick-headedness. She was a child. I was merely entertainment while her servant worked. She was literally playing with me right now. However, if this was a game, I may as well play along.

    I slipped another black key into my left palm before I got my right knee under me. I projected a spear and planted it in the ground, pulling myself up the weapon with the same hand as the key. As girl’s eyes went wide with interest, I realized my leg didn’t feel nearly as pained as it should have.

    Well then, Miss Einzbern,” I grimaced as, despite the lessened pain, placing weight on my leg sent pain shooting up its length. “Perhaps I should introduce myself.”

    I reached out my right hand. I didn’t force a smile. Even a child magus would see right through it.

    Shirou Kotomine.”

    She stared at my hand before laughing once more. As she did, I saw Saber fly backward out of the corner of my eye with Berserker chasing after her. The earth shook with every bounding step as they rushed from my eyeline. Now was the perfect chance.

    The girl reached out her own hand, and I thought a genuine smile was now on her face. The black key I had hidden suddenly felt a little heavier. I steeled my resolve. She was the enemy.

    It’s nice to meet you.”

    She took my hand, and I reinforced my leg. I couldn’t risk it giving out on me right now. I pulled her closer, releasing the spear and infusing the black key with mana. As she moved past me, surprise on her face as her hat slid off her head, I wrapped my arm around her and placed the blade against her neck. Her short stature forced me to go back to my knee, bringing me level with her.

    My perspective changed, and I could once more see Saber and Berserker fighting. Their forms clashed as their battle continued with intense fervor. Neither servant seemed aware of what was occurring between their masters.

    This is quite the greeting you’ve given me.”

    Her head turned to look at me. Even if it was only half her face, I saw there was no fear or anger there. In fact, there was mild amusement in her eye. Suddenly, she seemed a lot more mature than before.

    I don’t blame you for doing this, but I have to wonder if you thought this through.”

    I may have judged a bit too much on her appearance if she was giving me a lecture on intelligent decisions.

    I’m simply taking the course I believe will keep me in the war. Surely, a fellow master can understand.”

    This girl really liked giggling.

    And what course is that? If you kill me, Berserker will go on a rampage. You’ll likely be caught in the fallout before he disappears. If you don’t, Saber will die, and you will have lost. It’s not a good choice when both paths lead to dead-ends.”

    She was right. Saber could probably kill Berserker if his master were dead, but she likely wouldn’t be able to protect me at the same time. Which was why I was making this gamble.

    I don’t plan to die tonight. By the same token, I don’t want to kill you if I can help it. Keeping this in mind, I would like to propose a third option.”

    She watched me closely, her eye examining my face closely. Then, the same small smile she bore when she shook my hand earlier reappeared.

    And what would you be proposing?”

    Rider has been lurking around. She strikes out at me using hit-and-run tactics, always escaping before I can counter.”

    I exaggerated a little to help drive the point home.

    I released my hold on her and dissipated my black key. She took a step away before facing me once more.

    In two days, I will kill her.”

    She seemed amused by my statement. I was beginning to think that was her default emotion.

    Two days is a bit long. Do you expect me to wait?

    Tomorrow, I will set a trap for the servant. Then, the next day, she will die. Simple as that.”

    So it sounds,” she adopted a wondering look, tapping her finger against her chin. “But I can’t help but wonder from where your confidence comes.”

    Likely,” I shrugged with the words. “The same place your confidence in Berserker does.”

    That was a lie. Compared to Saber, Berserker was like a directed force of nature. If I was going to kill him, I needed time to plan. Rider was nothing to her, so she had no real reason to accept my proposal when I was the only beneficiary. To that end…

    If I cannot kill her by February fifth, then my life is yours.”

    My life wasn’t worth much anyway. I died ten years ago, leaving only a recycled soul seeking purpose. Death would simply be the Reaper collecting his due. However, she didn’t need to know that.

    She gazed into my eyes, trying to peer beyond the surface to see my intentions. I gazed back and found something I wasn’t expecting. Beneath the childlike veneer and almost icy calm, I thought I saw something… lonely.

    You don’t value your life much, do you?”

    I kept the surprise off my face. I needed to be more careful. I had forgotten to regulate my expression. However, the way she said it, it almost sounded nostalgic.

    I’ve waited this long,” she sighed and shook her head. “What’s two more days?”

    Einzbern turned to look at our servants’ battle. Instantly, Berserker stopped attacking, spun in place, and charged back toward us. Saber rushed after him, and I could see the determination on her face to prevent me from being targeted. Berserker stopped before the small girl, silently looking down at her.

    You are an interesting man, Shirou Kotomine,” Einzbern turned her head and gave me a smile. “I look forward to our next meeting. I trust I will not have to search for you if you fail?”

    I’m the son of a priest,” I wasn’t sure why, but a smile now came easily to my face. I attributed it to my relief at surviving the night despite the odds. “My word is my law.”

    Hmm,” she sounded as convinced as I was. “Then, we will be waiting at Einzbern Castle. I’m sure you’ll find your way there when the time comes.”

    Oddly, she gave me a small, friendly wave as she and her servant moved past. Saber came to my side and silently watched them leave before finally speaking.

    Master, what did you do to make them leave peacefully?”

    I believe,” I watched the figures fade into the night. “I just made a deal with the Devil.”

    **********
    I opened the mansion door without knocking, finding the lights on. Rin must have been back. My leg only throbbed dully now, so I was able to limp along at a normal pace. Saber had insisted on helping me on the way, but I could manage walking around the house.

    Archer materialized leaning against the right wall, watching us through narrowed eyes. Rin rounded the corner to the stairway, a frown on her lips. She was wearing her casual attire of a red turtleneck and black skirt, meaning she had been here a while.

    Shirou,” she crossed her arms. “Why is there a suitcase and futon in the guest room?”

    I’m moving back in,” I began heading for the stairs. “We’ll talk in a minute. I need to take care of this first.”

    I gestured to my leg and her eyes followed. She raised an eyebrow at my injury.

    Will this happen every time you come back?”

    Already accepting my presence here? I expected her to fight me a little on this.

    Not if I can help it,” I moved past Rin and gripped the handrail. “Can you show Saber where you keep the bandages?”

    Rin stared at me before letting out a sigh. She moved to another room, Saber following close behind her.

    I ascended the stairs, finding Archer waiting for me at the top, still leaning against the wall. I raised an eyebrow at that. Did he dematerialize then jump up here just to meet me?

    Taking the final step, I released the handrail and turned toward my room.

    What do you hope to gain from this?”

    I looked at Archer. His head was down, his eyes closed as if deep in thought. He gave no sign he had spoken or given me the slightest thought.

    A greater chance at victory. Nothing more.”

    His eye opened, and he stared silently at me for several moments.

    Is that so?”

    Archer pushed off the wall and walked toward me and the stairs. He passed without giving me another glance and descended the stairs. I watched him disappear around the corner, wondering the purpose of his inquiry. It was certainly about more than the reason I was moving into the home of my competitor.

    I entered the guest room and removed my jacket, hanging it once more on the wardrobe handle. I sat where I had the last night and projected a dagger into my hand. I split the pant leg, pulling the damp folds away from my leg.

    Through the blood caking my leg, I saw a hole similar to the one in my chest. Remembering the wound, I took off my shirt. Removing the tape, I began unwinding the bandages around my body. Placing them at my side, I examined where Rider had stabbed me last night. I frowned suspiciously at the scar that had taken the hole’s place. That is an impossibly short period for it to already be a scar. While this said good things about my leg, I couldn’t help but wonder what the cause was.

    The door opened, and Saber walked in holding the medical kit. She’d changed out of her armor and into her casual clothes once more. She kneeled in front of me, and I noticed a damp cloth resting on the kit. No bowl of water, but I noticed a small towel draped on her right arm. She placed the towel and kit to the side before holding the cloth toward my leg. I reached out and took hold of the damp linen.

    I’ll do it myself.”

    The only reason I didn’t do it last time was that I could barely stand, let alone treat the puncture effectively. If I could, I would do it myself.

    Saber gave me a curious look before releasing her hold on the cloth. I began wiping the blood away.

    In your opinion, do you believe you could kill Berserker?” I gestured toward the towel.

    Perhaps,” She handed me the towel, and I began drying my leg. “His strength is incredible. Even in his maddened state, the skills he possessed in life shine through, furthering the danger he presents. I could barely leave a mark on him.”

    You believe you’ll have to use your noble phantasm?” I wrapped the reddened cloth in the towel, setting both next to the small pile of bandages.

    She nodded as she opened the kit, taking out the bandage roll.

    Even then, I’m unsure if it will be enough,” I took the roll from her outstretched hand and began wrapping it around my leg.

    Seems our best option is to kill his master then,” I tore the end and exchanged the roll for a piece of tape. “All you’ll need to do is outlast him till he dissipates. With how much mana a Servant of that power must burn through, it shouldn’t take long.”

    Einzbern invaded my thoughts, her small, childlike smile daring me to make good on my plan. I pushed it aside. A magus powerful enough to control Berserker knew what they were doing joining the war. I couldn’t afford to falter.

    If that is your decision, Master.”

    The way she said that, it was clear she didn’t fully agree with my decision. I suppose a knight would rather defeat or be defeated on their own merits.
    Saber put the towel on the kit and left the room with both in hand, giving me a chance to change. I put on a simple white shirt and loose black pants. I folded up the bloody garment and hung it on my arm before exiting the room.

    I headed down the stairs and to the washing room, placing the pants on the machine for later. I frowned as I noticed a pile of clothes beside the machine, resisting the urge to throw them into the washer. I stood motionless as I told myself it wasn’t my problem. Eventually, I admitted I would be doing them tomorrow after school.

    I arrived in the sitting room to find Rin waiting for me, already seated on the sofa. I took the seat opposite her and settled down into it.

    So, care to tell me why you’re moving in?”

    Rin crossed her arms as if to say that, if I didn’t give a good reason, she’d kick me out right now. While I didn’t think she would, I still had my backup plan. In the third war, the Edelfelt sisters had set up two safe houses. One near the church, which Father took as our residence, and the other close to the Tohsaka and Matou. As far as I was aware, the other hadn’t been claimed since then. It would be an excellent backup, especially since I doubted anyone would consider investigating it.

    I want to be closer to where it seems the majority of the battles will take place. I’ve already seen all seven servants here, so it’s likely they’ll return.”

    All of them?” Rin tilted her head slightly. “I knew Caster had to be nearby, but I’m surprised both Rider and Berserker are here as well. Why wouldn’t any masters hide in Shinto?”

    So, she knew about Caster. The next question should be, “How much does she know?”

    Did Caster attack you as well?”

    An exaggeration, but not untrue.

    Archer and I found several people drained of their life force. The flow of mana led off into the mountains. The only place a Caster would hide there is Ryuudo Temple.”

    Different paths to the same conclusion.

    Wait a minute,” Rin’s eyes widened. “Caster attacked you?”

    I relayed the events leading up to Rider injuring me once again. By then, Saber had joined us, remaining standing behind me. Perhaps she was wary of Rin taking advantage of my injury to strike despite what I had said earlier.

    Caster and Assassin working together,” Rin’s hand moved to her chin. “As well as Rider waiting for her chance to kill you. The only one left is Berserker. Where did you see him?”

    Now we were getting into dangerous territory.

    Berserker attacked us after we left the temple. I was able to convince his master to let us go while Saber kept him busy.”

    And how did you manage that?”

    I held a blade to her throat. People tend to be more receptive with one meter of steel pressed to their neck.”

    Why didn’t you just kill her?”

    That was a more direct question than I expected.

    Berserker would have gone on a rampage. I’m not foolish enough to think I wouldn’t get caught up in it. Until I think of a way that won’t get me killed, I’m fine retreating.”

    I noticed Rin’s eyes flick to look behind me. Saber must have reacted to my words. I told her the deal I made on our way back, so she was probably wondering why I wasn’t telling Rin.

    And that was enough for her?”

    She decided letting me hunt down Rider for her was a good trade. I was hoping you could help me with that.”

    Got to move her off topic before she pries further.

    Why would I do that? Even if you’re staying here, you’re as much my enemy as Berserker’s master.”

    Because,” I leaned forward. “I think Rider’s doing something at the school.”

    Her eyes narrowed slightly. She knew what I was getting at.

    I expect a magus of your caliber felt the magical disturbance at the school and, if so, found the magical circles causing it. Caster would likely be more subtle than that, so unless Lancer is responsible, which I sincerely doubt, Rider is the only option.”

    Rin cared too much to let innocent people become involved in this war. On the other side, I assumed whatever Rider was planning would give her more power, something I would not allow.

    It benefits us both to work together to stop her. Isn’t that reason enough?”

    It would be,” she crossed her arms. “But I can’t help but feel your hiding something.”

    Nothing important.”

    I stared into her eyes, daring her to press further. We both knew who paid more attention during Father’s lessons on deception.

    If I help you, you have to tell me what your hiding afterward.”

    Her tone left no room for argument.

    I can agree to that,” I gave her a shrug.

    I glanced over her shoulder at the grandfather clock which read 9:22. Earlier than last night, but last night wasn’t a school night.

    Bearing that in mind,” I rose from my chair. “I believe we’ll be going to bed.”

    So early?” Rin tilted her head. “And here I thought you’d keep me company a little while longer.”

    I’ve had a rather exciting night, and I’m ready to put it behind me. Unless, of course, you want me to stay.”

    She may or may not have wanted that, but she wasn’t going to admit it now. Put on the spot like that, she wouldn’t…

    And if I said yes,” she gave me a smile. “What would you do?”

    call my bluff. The playful glint in her eyes and the slightly wider smile told me my mask had slipped. She knew she had trapped me. She may have payed more attention than I thought.

    Saber,” I sat once more. “You go on ahead.”

    Even if I was stuck here for the moment, Saber likely used up a sizeable amount of mana during tonight’s fights. She should rest as soon as possible to regain her energy.

    Saber watched me for a moment before nodding. I saw her throw a look at Rin as she exited the room.

    Your servant doesn’t fully trust me,” she crossed her legs, a smile still playing on her lips. “She may be smarter than you.”

    It seems we both drew excellent servants,” I gave her a smile in turn.

    She nodded and patted the empty space next to her. I raised my eyebrow but moved to sit in the indicated spot. The moment I settled into it, Rin lay on her back, resting her head on my legs.

    For as long as you stay here,” she grinned up at me mischievously. “You will be my butler.”

    You must be joking. I frowned down at her.

    So, what I would already end up doing,” I told her dryly. “But with a title. Please, allow me to contain my joy.”

    Think of it as practice for when you lose to me.”

    I thought ‘servant’ meant like Saber or Archer.”

    It does,” she gave a small laugh. “What do you think Archer does when we’re not participating in the war?”

    I shook my head and leaned back against the sofa, a comfortable silence falling over us as I stared up at the ceiling. This grail war had made these moments few and far between, even before it began. It was possible Father knew I’d be taking part with how frequent his lessons became, but that still doesn’t explain why he had been surprised by my registration. Why had…

    Shirou,” Rin called me back from my thoughts. “If you did win the war, what would your wish be?”

    My wish? I had forgotten that was the point of the war. One wish on the Holy Grail, granting anything the winner desired.

    I honestly haven’t given it any thought,” I looked down at her questioning face. “I didn’t even intend to join the war.”

    My only real motivation to fight was to defeat Rin. It was the only thing that seemed to matter in this war. Everything else was just a step toward that goal.

    I know that,” she waved my words aside. “But I assumed you’d have given it some thought.”

    And what about you?” I countered. “If you win the grail, what will your wish be?”

    She looked off to the side. I guessed she either hadn’t thought about it, or it was something private.

    I want,” she still didn’t look at me. “To undo a mistake.”

    A mistake? One that would require an omnipotent wish granting artifact? I thought about that for a moment. The only thing I could think of was…
    My eyes softened. Even if I won, I didn’t need the wish. There was nothing I… No, there was something I wanted, but the grail couldn’t give it to me.

    Well,” Rin sat up and rose from the sofa. “That’s enough for tonight.”

    She moved over to and opened the door, looking back at me as she did.

    Tomorrow, meet me on the roof after school. We’ll figure what to do about Rider then.”

    With that, I was alone again, leaving myself with only questions. How could I have summoned Saber? Were the Einzberns involved, or was it some infinitesimally small coincidence? Who was Rider’s master that they’d have enough of a vendetta to attack me twice? Why were Caster and Assassin’s master working together?

    One night, and I was already hurled straight into darkness, my only certainties being Saber and Rin. I had accepted that would be the case when I decided I would fight in the war, but I hadn’t thought I’d be confronted so quickly with that affirmation.

    Father would’ve called that foolishness.

    I stood myself up. It didn’t matter if I didn’t immediately have the answers. So long as I continued forward and watched with eyes wide open, I would see the end of all this. And that meant getting sleep so I could face the next day with clarity.

    I would win this war.
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; October 21st, 2020 at 09:31 PM.

  6. #6
    屍食鬼 Ghoul
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    I appreciate your skill in orchestrating the plot such that some canonical events still happen despite the AU, but for new reasons that are plausible and don't feel contrived; namely, Caster pulling Shirou toward the temple while he's in a suggestible state. Also, I like how he breaks himself out of it.

    You have successfully pulled me in regarding Kirei; I'm intrigued. I'm also curious about Illya, because she should have no reason to seek out Shirou in particular, and she indeed doesn't seem especially malicious toward him, but then she says, "I've waited this long; what's two more days?" Maybe she just means she's waited to defeat enemy masters and I'm reading too much into it.

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    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    Vaguely canon, because the world won't spin on a dime from this change. I really like that thing with Caster, especially since people forget she has that kind of magic.

    Good, because he won't show up again for a while. I had a lot of fun figuring how Illya would be different in this story. The moment Kirei killed Kiri is the same moment she was changed, and I'm happy with how she turned out. She had no interest in Shirou before, but now he's peeked it.

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    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    Chapter 3: Misconceptualization

    #12-A sharp tongue is a powerful weapon when paired with a sharp intellect. And like any weapon, both must be honed properly if they are ever to pierce flesh.

    This was strange. I’d never seen like this before.

    It was the night when Father found me. I saw the man Father killed tossing aside debris while kneeling on the ground. I walked closer and looked over his shoulder, seeing my younger self, motionless and dirty, lying in the rubble.

    I watched the scene play out, knowing what would come next. The first lesson Father taught me. Instead, there was a sudden flash of golden light. I turned away, blinded by the sudden flare erupting from the man. When the burst of color finally died down, I looked back to find the man as I remembered him. A smile of elation and joy on his face, unknowing of what was about to happen.

    But Father was nowhere to be seen. The man spoke, his words muted and indiscernible. He picked me up and held me, hugging me close as he continued speaking. This wasn’t what happened.

    Then, the world shifted. Gone was the dark, ashen landscape of shadows and rubble, replaced by an all-consuming white light shining down upon a rusted valley. The world was a barren wasteland, dirt and ash swimming across the air and inconsistent landscape. The ground rose and dipped, forming countless hills and valleys across the ethereal expanse.

    Where am I?”

    Suddenly, my back flared as though set aflame. My head jerked back to see the hilt of a sword protruding from my back. I also saw several dark shapes, nearly consumed by the blinding white of the sky, hurtling towards me.

    I ran, sprinting as fast as I could, dodging and weaving to throw off the weapons’ aim. No matter what I did, the blades would always hit. With every passing second, new pain shot through my body, blades embedding themselves into my back. Somehow, no matter how much the weight and agony increased, I kept running. I ran because it was all I could do.

    A sharp pain burned into my leg, and I fell as more blades impaled themselves in my back. I tried to keep moving, pulling myself forward by anchoring my hands in the rusty dirt. I didn’t know where I was going, but I had to get there.

    And then I saw him.

    Off in the distance, a lone figure stood atop a hill, gazing out toward the never-ending horizon. I could barely make them out, the skyline wrapping around them like a white sheet. However, I saw they too bore numerous swords in their back. I couldn’t call out to them, couldn’t give them any sign I was in this world as well, but they still seemed to sense me. They began to turn, and I heard a sharp whistling.

    Something slammed into me, and my eyes shot open. The world was silent save for my hurried breathes. I was in the guest room, the morning sun struggling to peer into the room through the curtains. I worked to calm myself, relaxing my tensed body as my breathing slowed.

    What was that dream? It made no sense. I had never once regretted my Father saving me, so why would I see that first half. And what about that second half? An empty world of dust and hills under an endlessly white horizon. Blades piercing my body as they had done to the only other inhabitant.

    It seems this place,” I slowly sat myself up. “Draws out strange dreams.”

    I pushed the sheets back and swung my legs off the bed. I glanced over at the occupied futon, finding Saber still sleeping soundly. I silently opened the door and slipped out of the room, heading down the stairs. I glanced at the hallway phone to find its digital clock saying 6:20. Seemed I had time on my hands.

    I moved to the kitchen, but even before I opened the door, I knew someone was already in there. The sounds gave it away. I opened the door to find Archer, dressed down in a black button-up and trousers, wearing a red apron and standing before a steaming metal pot.

    And here I thought she may have been joking,” I said with the shake of my head.

    Archer watched me as he slowly stirred a ladle through the pot.

    I suppose there’s no need for me to make breakfast then,” I shrugged and turned to leave.

    Then, perhaps your time would be better spent,” I heard Archer reply. “Working to not be a burden on my master.”

    I looked back at him, raising my eyebrow at the unexpectedly cold words.

    You believe me to be a burden? You underestimate me, Archer.”

    Not at all,” Archer moved to a steaming skillet, flipping a sizzling hamburger. “I simply understand what you are doing, Shirou Kotomine.”

    And what would that be?”

    Using my master as a crutch.”

    I narrowed my eyes at the words. This servant had barely interacted with me, but, with six words, he had somehow gotten under my skin. I couldn’t remember the last time a verbal jab actually bothered me.

    I’m only taking the path to victory. Surely, a servant understands the value of using every resource at your disposal.”

    Yes. And I also understand using others to hide your own weakness.”

    I felt my teeth clench. I mentally began calming myself. Ignore the words, focus on the meaning. He was getting at something. Otherwise, this was simply antagonization for the sake of it. So, what…

    It must have been hard,” sardonicism weaved into Archer’s words. “Growing up surrounded by your betters. How long have you depended on Rin?”

    I resisted balling my fist. Archer had control of this conversation. Anything I could say would fall short, lacking the knowledge to drive it home. The best way regain power was to appear unbothered and wait for an opportunity.

    Perhaps you should forget about winning,” Archer turned his eyes back to the pot. “Someone without drive could never hope to accomplish anything.”

    And that’s where you’re wrong,”

    You didn’t always have to wait long.

    He continued focusing on the pot, acting as though he hadn’t heard me.

    Someone without drive can do almost anything. It’s once they find drive that their options become limited. Tell me, Archer. What have you accomplished in your life?”

    I didn’t think he noticed his hand clench on the ladle he held. I might’ve hit a sore spot.

    Every hero is driven to face evil for one reason or another, but one thing always remains the same.”

    He raised his eyes, locking gazes with me. His grey eyes dared me to continue. Who was I to deny his request?

    You all die in failure. After all you accomplished in life, you die knowing you failed when it mattered most, only to be summoned back to die all over again.”

    We stared each other down, neither of us willing to surrender.

    So, tell me, Archer. What right does a failure have to judge others?”

    He didn’t respond, but he did stop stirring the pot. So did I.

    I left the room and exited out the back of the mansion, wanting to reevaluate his words in peace. What better time to do so than practice?

    Instead of pulling out the handles and infusing them with mana, I projected the whole of the black keys into my hands. Instinctual knowledge began to flow through me as I began going through the stances, unconsciously following patterns I had never studied.

    Projection was the only magecraft I excelled at. Well, aside from reinforcement. If I focused, I found I could project most inanimate objects, so long as they weren’t too complex. However, it was different with blades, as they took the least amount of mana to create. Any other kind of objects taxed my circuits far more than a weapon of any size. But it was more than that.

    When I created a weapon, I just knew how to wield it. It still required work to be able to replicate the movements laid out in my mind, but it was always clear to me how to best utilize each weapon. It was unusual, and neither Rin nor Father could explain it. All I knew was, that this was the one thing I could do that Rin couldn’t. I took a childish pride in that fact.

    I threw the three keys in my right hand out over the lawn. I called on the mana in the blades, stopping them in midair and spinning them in place. I then reinforced the three in my left and hurled them at the others. Each blade shattered one of the others with pinpoint accuracy, dissipating after the fact.

    I closed my eyes and began focusing on Archer’s words, continuing through the stances. What was Archer’s reason for antagonizing me like that? Last night, he seemed content with my presence, so it was odd he would attempt to rile me up today.

    Using my master as a crutch.”

    That was the one that actually had some bite. I didn’t need a crutch, nor was I Rin’s burden. I was her equal, maybe even her superior, and I would prove it in this war. Then, I would finally…

    Master.”

    Unconsciously, I spun and hurled a black key at the source of the sound. Saber’s eyes widened, and she barely avoided the blade which flashed past her and thrust through the open door to impale in the ceiling.

    She looked at me with narrowed eyes as I quickly composed myself.

    I apologize, Saber.” I gave her a small apologetic bow. “I was lost in thought and reacted without thinking.”

    Saber walked down the steps toward me, not taking her eyes off me for a second.

    I see,” she replied, surveying the wide-open space. “Did I interrupt your training?”

    I was actually was just practicing my magecraft,” I half-lied, looking out over the Tohsaka estate. “This place was always useful in that way.”

    You’ve known Tohsaka for some time,” she stated.

    What a blunt way of putting it.

    It won’t affect my judgement,” I reassured her. “I will do what needs to be done to win this war.”

    That was not my concern,” Saber shook her head. “However, if other masters become aware of your connection, they may use it against you.”

    I won’t let them,” I said simply, walking back toward the manor.

    The moment someone went after Rin was the same moment they met death. The only one allowed to defeat Rin was me.

    Saber followed me inside, moving off to the sitting room as I made my way up the stairs to my room. Once inside, I quickly changed into my uniform before exiting.

    Instead of heading downstairs, I moved along the walkway toward the other side where several other rooms laid on the right wall. I moved past the office and bathroom to reach Rin’s room, one room away from the master bedroom. I didn’t understand why she stayed in her room when I was younger, but I understood now that the master bedroom held too many reminders.

    I opened the door without knocking, knowing she’d be too asleep to respond if I did. I walked in to find Rin, her arm slid under her pillow, sleeping peacefully with her face toward the door.

    I moved to the nightstand and picked up the clock. 6:34. She really needed to start waking up earlier. With that in mind…

    I replaced the clock on the nightstand and laid a hand on her shoulder, giving her a light shake.

    Time to get up, Rin.”

    I didn’t try lowering my voice. I was waking her up, not lulling her to sleep.

    We have a long day ahead of us, and, so long as I’m here, they’re going to be even longer.”

    She murmured something but obviously wasn’t awake. I shook her a bit more firmly. Her left arm lifted, trying to brush my hand away. I released her shoulder, taking a step back as she stopped moving once more.

    I’m sorry, Rin,” I hadn’t done this in a while. “But you leave me no choice.”

    I projected a whistle into my hand and blew into it hard. A sound pierced the air, and Rin’s eyes flew open, her body tumbling out of bed as she flailed in distress.

    I looked down at her as she groaned in mild pain. She stared up at me, tired anger blazing in her eyes.

    Five years of blissful rest,” Rin growled at me. “Five years without that evil whistle. How could you do this to me?”

    I wouldn’t have to if you got up at a reasonable time.”

    Nothing about this is reasonable!” she batted sluggish limbs against my legs.

    Rin brought herself up, her hands balled into fists as she continued to glare at me.

    I suppose you’ll either have to get used to the whistle or waking up early once more.” I smirked.

    She looked about ready to declare war on me and all whistles in existence, but instead, she grabbed my arms and turned me around, shoving me out the door. I let myself be pushed, hearing the door slam behind me.

    I moved back toward the stairs, finding Saber waiting at the bottom.

    Master, what was that sound?”

    It may have been a declaration of war,” I said with a smile. “We should enjoy Archer’s cooking while we can. It may be our last meal.”

    Saber watched me sternly as I descended the stairs toward her.

    You would be more humorous,” she said with a shake of her head. “If I could tell when you are joking.”

    **********
    After Rider’s previous attacks, Saber didn’t want me at school unprotected. After assuring that, if anything happened, I would call her with a command seal, she finally relented.

    Rin and I left the manor and began the long walk toward the school. Neither of us spoke, mostly because she was still irritated by my wakeup whistle. This changed when I led us past the Matou residence.

    Sakura smiled as I came into view, raising her hand in greeting before she spotted Rin. Her hand froze as a confused look crossed her face.

    Morning, Sakura,” I greeted, ignoring the odd look she gave me. “Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day.”

    Good morning, Senpai,” she replied, a small smile gracing her face as she turned to face Rin. “And good morning to you, Tohsaka.”

    And to you as well, Sakura.” Rin gave a smile in turn.

    Interesting. One uses the surname while the other uses the given. I had never seen these two interact, which was honestly strange with how much time I’ve had with them both.

    Tohsaka met me on the way from the bus stop,” I lied. “We decided to keep each other company. I hope you don’t mind another person joining us.”

    Rin’s eyes flitted toward me when I used her surname, but she seemed to pick up the message. At school, the only person who knew we spent as much time together as we did was Issei, and he wasn’t the type to spread rumors. We’d carefully kept it that way as not to bring the wrath of her admirers upon me. It would be annoying to have to deal with them every day.

    Oh,” Sakura said, her smile broadening slightly. “I don’t mind. I was just wondering if this was why you didn’t walk me to school yesterday.”

    Even if it was a free day for most students, many club activities were on every day of the week. I always made a little effort to walk her to school no matter the day. I could tell it got under Shinji’s nerves whenever he saw it.

    I actually overslept,” I said, feigning embarrassment. “Father then decided he needed help at the church, so I didn’t have time to contact you.”

    I see. It’s okay. I was sure you had a good reason. I’m glad I was right.”

    I suddenly felt a twinge of shame about lying to her. I couldn’t tell her the truth, but that knowledge was hardly comforting.

    Well,” Rin moved ahead of us. “I think it’s time we got moving. Don’t want to be late, after all.”

    R-Right,” Sakura stammered, glancing back at me as she moved to follow Rin.

    I began walking as well, the two girls leading us as I thought about what just occurred.

    It wasn’t that Rin had used Sakura’s given name, but that Sakura wasn’t surprised by it. Even so, she used Rin’s surname. Both familiarity and distance between them. What was the connection? They never interacted as far as I knew, but Rin was comfortable enough to use her first name. Was that why she went to the Archery Club? It would explain it, but it all goes back to why.

    The rest of the trip was walked in silence, no one seeming to want to broach a topic. Once we reached the school gate, Sakura went off to the Archery Club, giving us both a farewell as she did.

    So,” Rin watched Sakura go. “You walk her to school?”

    Almost every day,” I replied, mildly curious as to why it mattered.

    Rin watched her for several seconds longer before turning to face me.

    I’ll be coming to talk to you during lunch. Don't go running around the school this time.”

    I frowned as she walked away. Sakura must have flustered her if she forgot I was supposed to meet her on the roof. I continued wondering what connection she had to Sakura. There was something there but pressing the issue would likely make it harder to discover.

    Nothing of real interest occurred till lunchtime, although Shinji was unusually irritated today, even for him. I thought about annoying him for that tofu he promised but decided to wait for another day. I could lord it over him when the time came. However, he also seemed to be avoiding me, having one reason or another to cut our talks short. How odd.

    Issei sat across from me, his face down on the table while his arms curled around his head. Apparently, the last few nights had been quite restless for him. Understandable. It was likely Caster siphoned mana from those at Ryuudo regularly, especially after what Rin told me. He’d be better once I dealt with the servant.

    The far door slid open, and Rin strolled in.

    I’m sorry,” Issei said tiredly with a lazy wave of his hand, not looking up. “But the student council will not be accepting requests for the foreseeable future.”

    Then it’s a good thing I’m not here for the student council,” She said, moving to take the seat beside him.

    Oh,” Issei’s arm flopped back to the table. “It’s only you, Tohsaka.”

    Truly, a greeting befitting the student council president.”

    I don’t have patience for games today, Tohsaka.”

    A knock came from the door Rin entered through. Issei let out a groan of annoyance.

    Shirou, whoever it is, tell them to go away.”

    I watched the door slide open and said, “You really want me to say that to Mr. Kuzuki?”

    Issei shot up straight, his features sorting themselves into a neutral, if a little tired, expression.

    Souichirou Kuzuki was the type of teacher most students feared. Strict, serious, and highly attentive, the man was quick to notice and correct students misbehaving in his class, not to mention the standard he held his students to. He was widely regarded as one of the toughest teachers in the school, but that was likely the opinion of those who disliked effort. The man was knowledgeable and treated everyone fairly, which I discovered first-hand when I took his World History class. This, however, did show me that his reputation wasn’t unearned, but merely blown out of proportion.

    From what Issei had told me, his father had taken a liking to the man, allowing him to live at the temple for the last two years. It was likely he too was under the effects of Caster’s mana draining, but if he was, he didn’t let it show like Issei.

    Ryuudo,” he said after glancing over both me and Rin. “I need to speak with you.”

    Yes sir,” Issei straightened his clothes as he went to join Kuzuki out in the hall.

    Once the door had closed again, Rin started speaking.

    I think Rider is using this school as a hunting ground.”

    I raised an eyebrow at that. In a lot of ways, it made sense. If her master were at this school, she would be able to narrow down which students wouldn’t be noticed if they went missing and pick them off. It’s possible I was just another victim before I summoned Saber, turning me into an enemy.

    What makes you say that?”

    I didn’t discover it until today, but several of my classmates have gone missing over the last two days. I inquired as to what happened when I discovered the absentees and was told they hadn’t received any calls to explain the absences.”

    This was bad. Rider, it would seem, was more fervent in her hunting than I thought. Her master had to know it would draw their enemies’ attention to the school, so why were they being so reckless.

    Then it clicked. I was right. Those whose absence wouldn’t be noticed. Rin probably only noticed the discrepancy because of the empty chairs. I doubt she could name a single student who went missing, let alone describe their appearance. If I were Rider, I would have also followed the targets home and taken their family with them. The school wouldn’t act on it for several days, which was likely where the magic circles came into play with whatever function they served. It all fit together, except for one piece.

    Me.

    I was a top student and close friend of the student council president. If I were to suddenly disappear, Issei would bring it to everyone’s attention, never mind Rin. Targeting me after Saber was summoned made sense, but why break the pattern before I had done so? What was I missing?

    Issei re-entered the room, moving over to his chair once more. He sat down and leaned his arm on the table, a serious, contemplative expression on his face.

    What’s the matter, Issei.”

    I had a feeling I wouldn’t like the answer.

    He turned his eyes toward me before flicking them to Rin. Rin noticed the glance and adopted a stern expression. Issei sighed in resignation. He knew he wasn’t leaving till he told both of us.

    What I’m about to say doesn’t leave this room,” he said, his tone firm. “I’m only telling you this because your friend is in the same club.”

    Rin’s eyes were riveted on Issei, leading me to suspect she also knew who he meant.

    Late last night, the faculty office received a call from a family saying their daughter hadn’t made it home from Archery Club practice. From what the other members reported, the last person to be seen with the student was Shinji Matou.”

    Shinji? How did he fit into this, if at all? The idiot was a womanizer, but he could never be Rider’s master. The Matou family had been barren of magic circuits for decades. The only member of the last generation born with them, Kariya Matou, had been killed in the last grail war. Was Shinji just another pawn, or was it simply coincidence?

    What was the student’s name?” Rin asked, and I noticed she had started unconsciously leaning toward Issei.

    Issei gave us both a grave look before answering.

    Ayako Mitsuzuri, the Archery Club Captain.”

    That wasn’t good. One look at Rin confirmed my fears. Her jaw had been set tightly, and her hands curled into fists.

    At least she had plenty of motivation.

    **********
    I think we should let it happen.”

    Rin looked at me like I had gone mad.

    School had closed early, so we had the grounds to ourselves. We had decided to talk on the roof as to avoid any unwanted attention.

    When that spell is activated,” Rin said slowly, glaring at me all the while. “A bounded field will be put in place. No one will be able to leave or enter once it has been erected. It will effectively turn the school into a killing room, and you want to ‘let it happen’?”

    Neither Rider nor her master will be able to leave as well. For once, we will know for certain where they will be, and that they won’t be able to escape us again. It will be our best chance to kill them both in one fell swoop.”

    And what about the students and faculty?” her words gained an angry edge. “Do you really think they’ll come out of this unharmed?”

    I think,” I kept my voice level. “That we don’t have a better idea. This plan will give us the best results.”

    Are you just forgetting about Shinji?” her voice rose another octave. “He was the last one seen with Ayako. He…”

    Is likely a dead-end,” I cut her off. “Shinji doesn’t have the capacity to be a master. He either has nothing to do with Rider, or he’s a pawn in the master’s plan. Neither would be of any use to us.”

    Rin growled at me and looked down through the fence at the ground below.

    These are people’s lives, Shirou. Don’t make it sound so simple.”

    I had known the moment I set myself to suggest the plan it’d be met with backlash. Rin may act like she doesn’t care, but she hated the thought of people dying needlessly. I didn’t believe in pointless death either.

    We’ll stop them before anyone dies,” I said confidently, unsure if I was lying.

    She had to understand. This was our best chance. Rider had already killed so many, and I couldn’t let her keep amassing power. If it took risking the lives of every person in the school to stop her, so be it.

    She continued gazing over the ground below. We silently stayed there for several seconds before she spoke.

    The moment it happens, you will summon Saber with a command seal.”

    It was a command, and one I could agree to.

    Understood.”

    **********
    When we got back to the mansion, Rin declared that she needed a shower. I wasn’t sure why I needed to know that, but it meant I had some time to keep my promise to myself. I immediately went to the washing room, only to find the pile was gone. Archer must have done them already. I had a feeling Archer had done a lot of things around the house. Why would Rin say I was her butler when she clearly already had an effective one?

    Perhaps it really was a joke,” I said to myself as I left the room.

    I went out back to the manor grounds, planning on practicing with my black keys. Imagine my surprise when I found both Saber and Archer waiting for me.

    Saber was kneeling on the lawn with her hands in her lap and eyes closed, the picture of regal serenity befitting a king. Archer, in contrast, was lying on his back with his arms crossed behind his head, not a care in the world. I wondered if this was all they’d been doing since we went to school.

    Saber,” I stood before my servant. “I would like to make a request.”

    Her eyes opened, and she gazed up at me questioningly.

    A request?” her head tilted to the side.

    I want you to fight me like you intend to kill me.”

    That caused Archer to raise an eyelid while Saber narrowed her eyes slightly.

    Are you certain, Master? I’m sure you’re aware the scale at which I do battle. I may not be able to hold back.”

    She sounded like Father. Alerting me to the risk without a hint of concern or worry. It was comforting in a way.

    It has to be real,” I said as I removed my jacket and placed it on the grass.

    At a certain point, it was how Father began training me. He believed the best teacher was true experience. He always stopped himself right before the death blow, but I knew that there may come a time when he couldn’t. It worked.

    Saber watched me for several seconds before standing up and walking further into the wide lawn. I followed, already projecting three black keys into each hand.

    After we passed the ruined stone stand, Saber turned to face me as her armor manifested across her form. Her hands went to her side, their grip tightening around her invisible blade. I shook my head, planting the right keys in the ground before projecting a longsword.

    Even I’m not that suicidal.”

    I held out the blade toward her, and she seemed reluctant to release her unseen weapon. However, she took the blade from me and began examining it as I stepped back, retrieving the keys. After giving it a few experimental swings, she readied it as she had her normal blade.

    I threw the key between my left pinky and ring-finger as I charged forward. Saber’s blade swept the key aside before blocking my strike with my right keys. I prepared to follow-up by slashing up with my left, but Saber parried my hand away before I could, stabbing the sword toward my midsection. I reinforced and angled my body, the blade glancing of my skin as it sliced through my shirt. I was immediately forced to arch backward as Saber slashed the outstretched blade upward. I jammed the keys into the ground and flipped off them to gain distance, pulling them out as I did.

    After I landed, I crossed the keys before me in time to block Saber’s downward strike, the force of the which cracked my projections. We remained there, Saber increasing the pressure until the keys shattered. I reeled back to avoid the attack only to find her blade at my throat.

    Saber withdrew her blade and planted it in the ground, resting her hands atop it. I took two steps back and reforged the black keys in my hands.

    Again.”

    Saber watched me briefly before drawing her blade up once more. She likely didn’t understand what the reason for this was, as this sort of training was rather absurd. I knew I wouldn’t be able to reach the level of a servant, but I wanted to see how large the gap between us was.

    We did this several times, each ending with Saber halting her blade before it pierced anything important. As we continued, I slowly began adapting to Saber’s fighting style. The rhythm of her attacks and reactions began to open before me, allowing me to last longer and predict her actions. This was fortunate, as it was the only reason I was able to keep up. Her speed and endurance outclassed my own, which was to be expected, leading me to rely on my instincts predicting how she would strike next.

    I took a few steps back, sweat beading down my face. Saber stood once more with her hands atop her hilt, waiting to see if I’d challenge her again. I patched the dents and cracks in my keys while replacing the two missing ones, knowing the next clash would be the last.

    Again.”

    I took a single step forward, tossing the keys to spin in the air above us. For an instant, her eyes followed the twirling blades as I knew they would. I launched off my foot, closing the distance immediately. Her eyes were on me, preparing to counter whatever I had planned.

    Excellent.

    The keys stopped their flailing and directed themselves toward Saber. They shot through the air as I thrust out my right palm to strike her gut. This twofold assault would give me my first landed blow against the servant. However, her armor would protect her enough that the strikes would deal minimal harm.

    I didn’t blame Saber for what happened next. I told her to treat this as a true battle, so the blame is squarely on me. However, despite my earlier thoughts, I believe there was a part of me that didn’t think this would happen.

    My right hand and half my forearm fell to the ground as Saber’s blade cleanly passed through to prevent the attack and sweep through the air to bat away the keys. Her eyes widened slightly. She may have been just as surprised by her action as I was. I gritted my teeth, biting back a scream of pain.

    I tried to focus. I needed to get this treated. I could deal with the repercussions of losing a limb once that was finished. I moved to rush toward the mansion, only to be stopped by a firm hand on my shoulder.

    Shirou,” Saber turned me to face her. “Do not move.”

    I complied. Saber clearly had a plan, using my name to call my attention. The eschewing of my position to bring authority upon herself. It was a king’s prerogative to claim such authority, after all.

    She took my wounded arm in hand, blood washing out quickly, and scooped up my misplaced limb. She placed the severed pieces together and closed her eyes in focus. Light began to blaze from the wound, magic power flooding through my arm. Within several seconds, the light faded, and the only remnant of the wound was the blood soaking into the tattered remains of my sleeve and slowly dripping off my arm.

    Saber released my limb, and I raised it to my eyes. I pulled the bloody sleeve back, turning the arm side to side. I experimentally flexed my fingers. Each digit moved as it always did, as though nothing had happened. I tore the ruined sleeve off and used it to wipe the blood from where the wound had been. Not even a scar remained.

    How…” I was baffled. How did Saber accomplish this?

    "It seems,” Saber closed her eyes with a sigh. “My suspicions were correct.”

    Her eyes opened again, seeming to examine me in a new light. What was she alluding to?

    Master,” it seemed we had returned to the status quo. “I now understand how it is you summoned me.”

    She reached out her hand and placed her finger on the center of my chest.

    As with my previous master, you bear Avalon.”

    Avalon? King Arthur’s scabbard? I was getting tired of asking so many questions without answers.

    What led you to this conclusion?” I asked as I slowly felt the pain receding from my arm.

    I’ll admit, when your chest injury healed as quickly as it had, it felt oddly familiar. However, it was only after your leg injury that I was almost certain. When we were returning to the mansion, I noticed a pull on my mana similar to when my previous master used Avalon.”

    That’s the second time she’s referred to her master in the fourth war. The piece of the puzzle that didn’t seem to fit.

    Master,” her face became inscrutable. “I believe it is time you told me your connection to Kiritsugu Emiya.”

    Discerning emerald eyes watched me carefully, awaiting my response. I would have done the same thing in her place. Coincidences don’t exist when it comes to magic.

    I can honestly say that I have no knowledge of a connection,” I said, my gaze unwaveringly meeting hers. “My knowledge of the man extends no further than his death in the grail war.”

    Silence stretched on as the afternoon breeze swept gently through the minor distance between us. I could tell my answer wasn’t the one she was hoping for. It wasn’t the answer I wanted either.

    I don’t believe you’re lying to me,” Saber shook her head. “But this does not change the fact that, somehow, you must have come into contact with him.”

    Even if she was right, how could I ever know? The only time I may have met him was before the fire. It infuriates me that we may never know how I came to possess Avalon simply because of my ruined memories. I allowed myself a moment of irritation before refocusing.

    How I acquired it doesn’t matter,” I looked down at my reattached hand. “What matters is how we can use it.”

    So long as you bear my scabbard,” Saber turned to retrieve the longsword from where she dropped it. “Any injury you receive, no matter how grievous, will be healed without fail.”

    That is extremely useful, which means…

    And the drawback?”

    Saber looked back at me.

    It drains my mana to do so. Usually, the drain is negligible, but something like a limb or a heart takes a larger toll.”

    I dissipated the longsword in her hand. She glanced down at its evaporating form before her armor followed suit.

    I’ll have to be more careful then,” I began walking back toward the mansion, looking down at the tattered red cloth in my hand.

    I had a suspicion about what Saber said before, but, even without the possibility, I couldn’t needlessly waste her energy. All the more reason to trap them tomorrow.

    It seemed Archer had stood up at some point during our fight. He watched us through his ever-analytical gaze as I passed by.

    This won’t change anything,” he said as his steel-grey eyes followed me.

    You’re right,” I replied coolly. “In the end, I will win. No matter what.”

    He didn’t reply as I continued forward. After I entered the building, I headed up the stairs and to my room. I removed my shirt, hanging it on the desk chair before delving into the wardrobe for a replacement. I settle on a solid black t-shirt, slipping into my red jacket before closing the wardrobe.

    Master.”

    I look back to see Saber in the doorway, holding my discarded school jacket.

    Put it on the bed,” I straightened my jacket, the familiar weight of the black keys hidden throughout a calming presence. “I’ll be heading out till nightfall.”

    Then I will accompany you,” Saber moved to and laid the jacket on the bed.

    No, you will not,” I moved back out into the hallway.

    This is a foolish decision, Master,” she berated calmly, following me as I descended the stairs.

    What’s foolish is walking around with a servant that is unable to conceal its presence. You would be like a beacon to any servants we might pass.”

    But you will be vulnerable. We’ve already seen what Rider is capable of. She may strike today.”

    I will not live in fear of the dead,” I moved to the front door. “If anything happens, I’ll summon you with a command seal.”

    I opened the door, and I heard Sabers steps halt behind me.

    You are far too stubborn a master,” she said with what I thought was an indignant huff.

    I’ll be back by nightfall. Tell Rin I headed out.”

    I closed the door and walked to the gate, going through it as well.

    I just needed to get away from it all. Particularly Rin. The entire walk home had been cast in stony silence, and the reason wasn’t hard to understand. She cared far too much about what could happen to unimportant factors. No amount of reasoning would be able to dispel that worry, something I knew from experience, but it didn’t change the fact that it was the best course of action. We were in a war, and sometimes, the cruelest methods were the only ones that garnered results.

    #34-If you are in a battle for survival, remember that there are no rules. Do not submit yourself to the limitations of others.


    I needed to think. Alone. Unbothered by the more intrusive aspects of others. And I knew where to go.

    ***********
    What a coincidence, finding you here.”

    I looked off to my left, finding a familiar girl in purple with a small smile on her face.

    I must have been truly lost in thought not to have noticed her. She was a beacon of color against the dull greys and blacks that made up the landscape of Fuyuki Central Park. This barren park at the center of Shinto was where the Grail manifested in the last war and was consumed by the flames that overtook Fuyuki. Of all the places that they rebuilt after the fire, this park was one of the few left unchanged. I understood why. The entire park reeked of negative feelings left over by all the souls lost that night. Humans, even if they were unable to identify why, were instinctually repulsed by such places.

    Typically devoid of people, this park was a perfect place to think alone. When I moved out of the Tohsaka mansion, I found myself wanting for another place of solitude. This park was somehow peaceful despite the encroaching anger and fear of those lost lives, though that might have just been for me.

    I don’t believe in coincidences,” I said as I continued my stroll through the park.

    You must live a boring life,” the girl scurried up to walk next to me. “Where’s the fun if everything happens for a reason?”

    Why are you here, Einzbern?” I slipped my hands into my jacket pockets, feeling the black keys within.

    Don’t be so cold, Shirou,” I restrained from throwing her off as she grabbed my arm. “There’s nothing fun about the cold.”

    Who gave you permission to use my given name?” I looked down at her, smile ever present on her face.

    I did,” she giggled. “So, you can use mine too.”

    I narrowed my eyes as I faced forward once more. If she planned to kill me, there were far better ways to do it. If she planned to ally with me, she would have made it a stipulation of the deal. If she thought I would go back on our agreement, then she was as intelligent as I expected. None of these told me why she sought me out this day.

    We walked silently for several minutes before she began pulling on my arm. I looked to see she was practically hanging off it, trying to pull me toward the side.

    Come on,” She had begun to pout as she strained against my unmoving arm. “Let’s go somewhere else.”

    Child or master. An innocent demeanor and a friendly word contrasting a frigid smile and immense power. Which was the truth? Maybe neither. And I wouldn’t find out standing here.

    I allowed myself to be led out of the park and back onto the streets of Shinto. We wandered through the city, the young Einzbern dragging me by the hand as she glanced about in childlike wonder.

    I had assumed you’d already seen the city,” I told the girl. “You found me fairly easily, after all.”

    Nope,” the girl shook her head, glancing back at me. “I’ve barely gone outside the castle walls.”

    Really? Then how did you find me?”

    That’s a secret.”

    I frowned at the girl, who only broadened her smile in response.

    The sun had begun to move down toward the horizon, the bright yellows of the day slowly fading into orange as she dragged me further onward. All the while, I couldn’t figure out why this girl was doing this. I could chalk it all up to a child wanting to interact with others, but that potential was lost after our deal. This was an act, and I would find the reason for it.

    We continued our aimless journey through Shinto, the small girl scampering around to all the sights I had become accustomed to as though they were great attractions. She would zoom off to examine something, dance around with an innocent smile, or question me on what something was, always ending with retaking my hand.

    Despite myself, I found I was enjoying this little trip. I had come out to clear my head and relax, and this girl had invaded my peace, dropped my guard, and dragged me around the city. I should have been irritated, maybe even wary, but I couldn’t remember the last time I enjoyed doing absolutely nothing.

    Eventually, we began crossing the walkway of the Fuyuki Bridge. Einzbern seemed to have tired herself out on the way here and was much less fervent in her leading. Halfway across the bridge, the girl let go of my hand and moved to the look over the bars of the guardrails, barely rising above the rail.

    She looked out over the Mion River, a content look crossing her face as the sun began setting, casting rays of light to scatter across the river like an array of sparks.

    Today was a good day,” she said, her voice calmer than at any other point that day. Again, my thoughts drifted to last night when her entire demeanor seemed to change, replaced by one older than their appearance.

    I found myself moving up beside her and leaning on the rails to gaze out over the river with her.

    Why did you seek me out today?” I asked her once more.

    She didn’t answer immediately. I wondered if she even knew the reason.

    My father and mother fought in the last Holy Grail War. Neither of them survived.”

    Both her parents? But that would mean…

    I looked at the girl out of the corner of my eye. She was too old to be born right before the fourth grail war but too young to be the age she just implied. This also brought up the question of if she could actually know how I came into possession of Avalon.

    My father was a good man,” she continued. “No matter what happened, he always put me and my mother first, even before his dream. However, when it was time for the Holy Grail War, he and my mother went off to fulfill his dream.”

    She gripped the bars of the guardrails and leaned backward, shifting her eyes to the sky.

    I never saw them again. My grandfather told me they had both failed and paid for it with their lives. He told me the duty to win the grail war had fallen to me. The next few years were torture, overshadowed by the sheer isolation of those frozen castle walls. I felt empty, chilled by a never-ending cold that swept over everything I’d known. I wondered if I’d ever be warm again.”

    Every word seemed to age her further, and I almost felt the cold she had on every syllable.

    I’m not fighting this war because I want to. I won’t even be able to make a wish if I win. I have to win because it’s the only reason I exist. Even if I win, my existence ends with the grail. I’m fighting to die.”

    She looked at me, and I got the answer to my earlier question. She was neither an innocent child nor a powerful magus. She was a lonely, empty girl, who lost everything important to her except her life. I understood the familiarity I saw in her eyes last night. I wondered if she saw the same thing.

    Somehow, I thought you’d understand,” she gave me a sad smile.

    I watched as a gentle wind flowed by, catching her hair to blow behind her in a white wave. She was almost ethereal like this, more a spirit passing through than a girl.

    I lost everything to the war as well,” I watched as the sun began to fade below the horizon. “The only thing I have left from before that fire is my name.”

    I didn’t know why I was telling her this. Just because she told me her life story didn’t mean I had to reciprocate. I just… felt like I could. I couldn’t explain it beyond that.

    I didn’t want to fight in this war either. I summoned Saber by accident in response to a servant trying to kill me. The only reason I’m fighting is so I can survive.”

    That’s not true.”

    I looked away from the water to the girl. She was standing straight now and watching me, her red eyes focused on my face.

    If you were only trying to survive, I’d be dead already.”

    She was right. I would have killed her when it was clear Berserker was nowhere near us. I almost had.

    And what about you?” I asked her. “I’m sure a magus powerful enough to command Berserker could kill me easily. Yet, here we are.”

    She giggled as I had accepted was her response to most things I said, but something about this time felt more… real, like the previous times were always mired by some underlying falsity.

    I guess we're both bad masters, huh?”

    I could change that. One quick movement, and that would be the end. She couldn’t stop me. What may be my greatest threat, gone in an instant.

    I suppose we are.”

    We watched the sun disappear, the night laying its claim to the world once more. It was time for servants and masters to rise from their dens and wage their unseen war. I wondered if Rider would be coming to kill me soon.

    If you win the war, Shirou,” Illyasviel asked. “What will you wish for?”

    The grail can’t grant my wish,” I answered instantly.

    Hmm,” Illyasviel pushed off the guardrail. “If I could make a wish, I think I’d wish we’d met sooner.”

    I raised an eyebrow at the girl.

    Why would you wish for that?”

    Illyasviel gave me that same sad smile from before, turning away to move down the walkway.

    Because, maybe, we could have been friends.”

    And she left me with that. Enemies. That’s all we were. It was all we could be. When I saw her next, one of us would end up dead. That was the nature of the grail war. That’s what I told myself.

    I stayed on the bridge for several more minutes, thinking about tomorrow. I either killed Rider, or Einzbern would come for me. Whoever they were, Rider’s master would soon find himself on the edge of my blade. Rin would be told about the bet I made with Berserker’s master, call me an idiot for betting my life, and then proceed to join me against Berserker. That would leave me only three servants to worry about, none of which would be a threat.

    And nothing of worth was lost.”
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; November 7th, 2020 at 03:58 PM.

  9. #9
    屍食鬼 Ghoul
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    * I don't get why Shirou would have that dream when Archer’s not his servant. I don't think resonance covers it. I've only seen the anime adaptations, but surely Shirou canonically sleeps at Rin's house at least once while Archer’s there.
    * I like the whistle thing.
    * Ooh, Sakura doesn't call her "Tohsaka-senpai"? I wonder what could have changed their interactions to make her less polite.
    * I like how hard you're trying to get everything out in the open, between Shirou analyzing Rin and Sakura's interaction and Saber figuring out about Avalon.
    * I like the showing-not-telling about Shirou when he doesn't get that Rin says she needs a shower because she feels dirty for agreeing to the plan.
    *Oh, right. I forgot he's on a timer. Well, I hope he clears it and they can be friends later, given how well this day went.
    * [reads last line] Nooo! Shirou, don't say that!

  10. #10
    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    Actually, there's precedent for this (in the anime. I'd have to give the VN a look through). In episode 8, after never once sleeping at the Tohsaka residence, and only interacting with Archer a few brief times (two of which had Archer almost killing him), he dreams of that expanse as swords explode out his body. Now, symbolism is obviously different from mine and canon, but I believe general proximity to Archer would cause enough resonance for this.
    Edit: My friend who's currently going through the VN says he's 90% certain this occurred there as well.
    Edit 2: I have reviewed that he was unconscious in the mansion after Caster stole Saber in UBW. That happened.

    I did too. I thought to myself, "What would he do in this situation with a competitive streak toward someone he has great affection for?" and the answer became obvious.

    I'll be honest. I forgot to add senpai. I wasn't thinking. No meaning in that one. However, there is meaning in something name related next chapter.

    I honestly wasn't trying. I write with my heart, and surprise myself with what comes out. I try to write for the characters and think about what they would do, not what I want them to do. This sort of thing just happens.

    It was interesting for me to realize that Rin's the grounding force between the two. This Shirou is far more okay with the thought of people dying, so Rin's left playing a more altruistic role than she did in canon. She never wanted to hurt people who had nothing to do with the war, but now she has to deal with someone pushing for it.

    I absolutely love this interaction between Shirou and Illya. Again, I don't write with every idea in mind, and just write how I think the characters would act. This entire scene was unplanned beyond Illya finds Shirou to talk with him. I never thought they'd leave the park, didn't think they'd go around town, and didn't imagine it ending on the bridge. I just wrote, and surprised myself when I reread it and saw all the things I managed to do.

    If I may go on a tangent, I love Illya. With the thought that she literally had nothing except the Grail, which is the very thing that took what mattered from her, being her only reason for existing now, I wrote out her first appearance. I really shocked myself there with how she acted. She wasn't as childish as she typically acted in canon, but it still felt right. Having her see through Shirou was just elementary after that. While it's not a extremely prominent connection like having the same father, it's the same kinda connection Kirei had with Shirou. She saw herself in him, if only a bit.
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; October 18th, 2020 at 05:52 PM.

  11. #11
    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    Chapter 4: Inherent Flaw

    #16-Strength and power can only be measured by one’s ability to wield them.

    What makes you so sure they’re going to strike today?” Rin asked as we walked toward the Matou residence.

    They made a mistake with Mitsuzuri,” the same mistake they may have made with me. “They brought too much attention to the disappearances. Attacking such a public figure means school will likely be suspended if anymore go missing, prominent or not. With that uncertainty, this may be the last day they can act.”

    Rin fell silent at the mention of Mitsuzuri. I knew she was worried about her friend, but there wasn’t much I could say to dissuade such worries. It was entirely likely that she and all the other missing students were dead, completely consumed by Rider.

    Once we kill Rider, we’ll interrogate her master. We’ll find out what they did to her,” for better or worse.

    Rin appeared to be mildly reassured by my words, but I could tell she wasn’t going to feel better until she got her answer.

    Sakura greeted us as she had the previous day, a friendly wave and an odd look. If we kept doing this, Sakura may begin to see through the lie. Rin may get her wish of sleeping in.

    Another quiet walk to the school, but this time I thought I felt a slight tension in the air. It wasn’t often, but Sakura’s eyes would flit over to Rin before facing the ground.

    I’m not a dense person. Part of Father’s training was learning to read and understand others. If you know the reasons behind their movements and words, you can better influence and manipulate with yours. I knew Sakura had feelings for me, which was another effective way of digging at Shinji. I felt a little bad about it though because I’d never be able to reciprocate. She was a means to an end, even if I’d grown to enjoy her company.

    We arrived at the school and split off like last time, Rin telling me to meet her on the roof during lunch. I went to the Student Council Room only to find Issei asleep in a chair. I stayed with him until it was time for class, waking him up once it was.

    We walked into the classroom, and I immediately noted our resident worm was nowhere to be seen. First, he acts cold and fidgety yesterday, now he’s absent from school. Add in Mitsuzuri, and I find that pawn is likely his new occupation. It would explain why she needed to be taken as well. Shinji likely made a mistake that required her silence.

    Time passed as uneventfully as any other day, with the exception that Kuzuki seemed bothered by something during class, though he did well to hide it. Perhaps Caster’s draining was beginning to affect him. I’d have to deal her soon.

    I went up to the roof as Rin requested, assuming Issei wouldn’t mind as he was probably taking another nap. I sat down beside Rin, watching her eat a sandwich as I unpacked mine. I assumed Archer would make our lunches like yesterday, but Rin had made these herself. When I asked why, she had brushed me off.

    When do you think they’re going to activate it?” she asked, swallowing down the last bit of one sandwich half.

    Well,” I bit into my own sandwich. “If it were me, I’d attack right now, during lunch, or near the end of the day, right after school let out. The latter option is riskier, but they’d gain more mana from the parents picking up their children.”

    So, we’re either about to be trapped, or we’ll be waiting a few more hours.”

    Or, the third option I didn’t want to consider. It’s possible they wouldn’t act today, meaning I had misread the enemy. The actions spoke of an impatient master, unwilling to wait for opportunities to appear. Add in their servant’s poor opinion of them, and it spoke of one who acts rashly, only looking far enough to see what actions would bring results in the now. I didn’t believe I was wrong in my assumption, but I had to consider the possibility.

    I suppose we’ll see soon enough,” I took another bite from the sandwich.

    Several bites later, Rin spoke up once more.

    So, what do you think?”

    I think mine are better,” I said with a smirk.

    The punch to my arm was a little too hard to be playful. Despite that, I saw Rin was giving me a smile.

    I don’t hear you complaining.”

    I didn’t say it was bad,” I finished off the last bit of sandwich. “Just that mine are better.”

    Well then, I’ll tell Archer you’ll be making our meals from now on.”

    Now, why would I…”

    Suddenly, the air began crackling with magic power. I lurched to my feet, Rin close behind, to see jagged pillars of red arc into the sky and coalesce into a crimson sphere. The sphere jostled around and opened to reveal a red eye peering out over the school. The pillars of energy began to expand, closing the gaps between them until they formed a giant dome over the school, the eye at the center.

    As a red glow began to envelope the school, I felt my body begin to seize up. My breath caught in my throat while my heart felt like it was going through a pressure cooker. I was barely able to keep myself standing up.

    Shirou,” Rin put a hand on my shoulder, and I felt a pulse of mana begin running through my circuits. The pressure in my chest lessened, and I felt like I could move again. “You need to keep circulating your mana. You won’t be able to resist it otherwise.”

    I did as she said, flooding my circuits with mana until the pain became only a dull throb. My breathing eased as I stood straight once more.

    Guess it’s my turn to do something,” I said, raising my left hand to look at my command seals.

    I stretched my hand out before me, feeling the seals pulse as though preparing for my command.

    By my command seal, I summon you. Come to me, Saber!”

    Red light erupted from my hand a one seal flashed and vanished. A blue orb appeared as the air swirled around it. Saber, already clad in her armor, emerged from the sphere and kneeled before me.

    Master,” Saber rose, her face calm and composed. “I came at your summons. What has happened?”

    Rider has trapped the school in a bounded field,” Rin answered for me. “It’s more dangerous than we thought, acting as a mana siphon. If we don’t act quickly, everyone in the school will be drained.”

    Saber,” I drew my servant’s attention back to me. “Can you sense where Rider is?”

    Saber closed her eyes before turning to the door leading to the stairway.

    "Stay close to me, Master,” she moved toward the door. “We don’t want to be caught unaware.”

    Rin and I followed her as she dashed down the steps into the school. As we passed each floor, I caught quick glimpses of students collapsed in the hallways, probably on their way to eat. We had to finish this quickly, especially since I was certain that copper smell wasn’t there before.

    When we reached the ground floor, Saber turned the corner towards the science classroom. Made sense. Science class takes place right before lunch, so it was almost guaranteed to be empty during it.

    Saber slowed her pace, her hands going to her side as she walked down the hallway. We followed from a few meters away. If servants were about to do battle, we’d want to give them enough room.

    As Saber reached the closest door, a familiar looking nail and chain pierced the door and struck out toward her. She swung the unseen blade to deflect the weapon. The nail whipped to the side before stabbing down to wrap Saber’s leg. Saber immediately slashed through the chain before charging and bashing down the door, leaving me and Rin in the hallway.

    Rin made to move forward, but I held out my arm.

    If Rider’s there,” I asked her. “Where’s her master?”

    She stopped and seemed to come to the same conclusion as me. No master would purposefully have their servant draw another into an enclosed space with them. Her master was somewhere close by.

    They could have hidden themselves on a different floor,” Rin said, looking at the broken door. “Without their servant close by, it would be tricky to find them.”

    I heard wood break and glass shatter from within the room while I considered our next move. If they were hiding among the bodies, it wouldn’t be too hard to sort out who they were, except for the fact that there were too many rooms to check. If Saber couldn’t put down Rider in time, her master would be the least of our worries.

    I felt the malice crawl up my spine, and I pushed Rin into the wall while lurching back to the opposite one. Large black waves shredded through the floor and ripped past us to slam into the end of the hallway.

    Why can’t you have the decency to die already?”

    I looked at the source of the angry cry. My eyes widened as the voice matched the face I saw peering at me from between tousled blue locks.

    Shinji Matou stood there with a deep scowl on his face, a red book opened in his right hand as he stretched out his left. A black wave streaked across the wall of windows I was leaning against, shattering each pane of glass as it rushed over them toward me. I ducked down to avoid it, drawing a black key and hurling it at Shinji. I was surprised to see a shadowy wall appear before him and block the key before it hit him.

    None of this made sense. The Matou family was crippled magically. Yet, Shinji was casting some kind of spell to both attack and defend. And it was Shinji!

    You must think I’m an idiot.”

    Shinji looked over at Rin who had begun to stand up. Black waves cut through the ceiling above her, sending debris to fall on her. Rin launched herself backward to avoid the rubble as I pulled three keys into my right hand and infused their blades.

    You think I didn’t notice how you’ve been acting the last two years? I see through you, Shirou Kotomine, and I refuse to be mocked!”

    Dark lines appeared in the air and shot toward us like arrows. I raised my hand, the keys’ blades expanding to block the attack while Rin rolled over to stand behind me. The force felt like true arrows, the dark shapes screeching as they deflected above and below me to impale in the building. I wrapped my left arm around Rin as she pulled out a red gemstone and hurled it toward Shinji. We dove out the shattered window into the grassy park behind the school building as the gemstone exploded, a cloud of red wafting out.

    I thought the Matou were magically impotent,” I said as we stood up, noticing a couple students collapsed on the ground and in benches. I grimaced in irritation. They’d likely get caught up in the crossfire if this went on too long. Not that it mattered if we couldn’t stop this field.

    They should be,” Rin replied as she drew another gemstone from her jacket. “Except for Sakura.”

    Sakura. Did she know this was coming? Had Shinji warned her? If so, she would have left before the field was raised. That, or they set a counter for her.

    Questions for later. Shadows sliced through the building wall to form a square that fell outward. Rin threw a yellow gem toward the hole. The gem hung in the air, mana bleeding out to form a golden spear that streaked through the gap that formed.

    There was a flash of light and the sound of rumbling thunder as the spear crashed into a pitch-black field. Both field and spear vanished as Shinji closed the book he was holding.

    There’s something cathartic about this,” Shinji said as he walked over the section of wall. “All that mana we collected, finally being used, and how blatantly outmatched you are.”

    He reopened his book as a pompous laugh filled the air. Rin and I dodged to opposite sides as waves lashed out at us. I hurled the keys in my hand toward Shinji. Two off to the sides, and one aimed for his chest. As expected, the direct key was deflected by his field, but, as the other two passed him, I redirected them toward the master.

    Shinji quickly backstepped, barely avoiding the keys that impaled the ground where he’d been previously. When he did, Rin called up and fired a gandr at him. Shinji stretched out his hand and stopped the curse with his hand. Seeming to grab it, he drew it back and threw his arm out, a red-tinged black wave spreading out before him. I ducked down to avoid it, Rin following my example.

    This is incredible!” black lines appeared in the air around him. “It’s everything I could've imagined!”

    I projected black keys and launched them at the lines, each shattering against the dark arrows, but also causing them to dissipate. I noticed Rin drawing a purple crystal from coat and giving me a look. I projected three keys in each hand as several waves sliced toward us both. Instead of dodging like Rin, I charged the waves, weaving through a gap I saw between the attacks. I slipped through as Rin tossed the crystal above Shinji, who cast his eyes upward to follow it. The gem shattered, sparkling violet shards scattering overhead before crashing down on top of him, a purple dome forming on his body.

    What!” he cried as he was forced to his knees, the book falling from his hand.

    I dashed over the distance between us, keys spread out at my sides, ready to finish him before he could recover. Needless to say, it brought me no end of frustration when she descended from the sky.

    Rider landed between us and slammed the spiked guard of her nail into my chest. The metal spikes bit into me, causing me to drop the keys as I careened backward and slammed into an empty bench that promptly collapsed under the force. As Rider charged me, I saw Saber dashing down the side of the school, leaping off to flip through the air and land between me and Rider. Saber’s invisible blade slashed, causing Rider to dodge back toward her master. As she did, Rin rushed to my side and helped me to my feet, keeping her eyes on our enemy.

    This is where our game ends, Kotomine,” Shinji said, standing up after Rider shattered the purple dome with her nails. “A shame, really. I was hoping for a more dramatic ending.”

    This isn’t over,” I gently pushed Rin away. “Until your head is on my sword.”

    Don’t you get it?” He said with mocking laughter. “I don’t even have to kill you. In another minute, this field will do all the work for me. The only reason I’m here is because I wanted to see your face when you realize you lost to me.”

    As if on cue, Rider let out a cry of pain and clutched a hand to the mask covering her eyes. The red hue began to drain away from the world, returning once more to its original color. Shinji glanced at his servant and then at the world around him, confusion and anger intermingling on his face.

    What did you do?” he cried in outrage.

    Saber, not one to waste such an opportunity, charged the pair.

    “Rider!” Shinji exclaimed indignantly, the slightest twinge of fear mixed in.

    His servant reacted, grabbing her master and dashing quicker than I’d ever seen her move into the building. Saber followed them, leaving me and Rin alone in the park.

    I used the respite to examine where Rider had punched me, finding three shallow holes in my uniform. The pain had already begun receding, likely due to Avalon.

    I might have to start buying more if this keeps up,” I muttered to myself.

    Rin looked as though she was about to say something but was cut off by the resonating crashing that came from inside the school. Neither of us suggested going to investigate.

    Master.”

    We whirled around, me projecting a key and Rin aiming her arm, a gandr swirling on the tips of her fingers.

    Archer looked completely unphased by our threats of violence, his eyes fixed on Rin.

    I came as soon as I saw Saber being summoned away. Once I had deduced the problem, I disabled the field.”

    You what?” Rin exclaimed incredulously, her gandr fading away. “I could feel that thing’s power. That bounded field was on the level of a noble phantasm. How did you dispel it?”

    Archer gave me an odd look before holding out his hand. The air around his hand distorted, and soon, an ornate dagger of black and red with an iridescent, jagged blade appeared.

    With this.”

    He didn’t elaborate further, but, strangely enough, he didn’t need to. As I looked upon the dagger, information seemed to seep into my mind. Its structure, material, and capabilities flowed as with so many other weapons. I was surprised by this as, from what I gleaned from the situation, this weapon was likely a noble phantasm. Despite this, I felt reasonably sure I could recreate it, though I knew that thought was absurd.

    From the look on her face, Rin hadn’t known about this weapon either. I remembered that Archer claimed to not know his true name, which meant that Rin didn’t. If this was his noble phantasm, what kind of hero was he to possess such a weapon, especially if he was summoned as an Archer?

    As the dagger faded away, Saber ran toward us from around the corner of the school.

    Master,” she said, glancing at Archer before speaking. “Rider and her master escaped. Forgive me. I was unable to keep up with them.”

    I felt my irritation begin to rise. This is what I had brought upon us, having so willfully blinded myself. Shinji, how many signs did I brush aside to let you get this far?

    Rin,” I tried to keep the frustration out of my words, but I wasn’t certain I totally succeeded. “There’s something I need to check. Could you go to the faculty room and call 119?”

    Rin seemed a bit confused by my question but began moving toward the hole in the school.

    Archer,” she called to her servant.

    Archer stared at me before turning to follow Rin, dematerializing as he did so.

    When they moved out of view into the building, I spoke to Saber.

    Saber,” I pointed up the building’s side. “Take me to the fourth floor. Break a window if you need to.”

    Saber followed my finger before facing me again. I kept my face stern, not wanting to be bothered by useless questions. She seemed to understand.

    The servant took me in her arms and sprinted toward the building wall. She leaped a few meters away, landing against the wall feet first before continuing to run up the side. When we reached the fourth floor, Saber stomped a foot on one of the hallway windows. The glass shattered inward, and Saber helped me through the window.

    I didn’t waste time waiting for Saber to slip inside. I began walking to where I knew class 1-C was. Despite what he might have done, Sakura was still his sister. It’s only expected that he would’ve given her warning of what he was planning. Then again, Sakura would have likely been against something like this. It’s possible…

    I slid the classroom door open and was greeted by the sickly-sweet smell of cooking flesh. Students were slumped at their desks or collapsed on the floor; their bodies strewn in visibly uncomfortable positions. The students’ flesh were red and raw, strange inflamed scars lining any visible skin.

    Saber stood in the doorway as I began moving through the classroom, careful not to step on any of the unconscious victims as I searched. I found her, lying motionless beside a window seat. Her face and hands were lined with boils and burns. I kneeled, reaching out my hand to touch her before stopping myself. The rest of her body was probably covered in those burns. Touching her would only hurt her. I held my hand before her nose and mouth, feeling the soft movement of the air as she slowly breathed in and out.

    Despite my deliberate actions, I felt an overwhelmingly irrational anger begin to boil in my chest. Why was I so incensed? I made this choice. I chose to let Rider and Shinji enact their plan. I knew Sakura would be here. If their deaths were required to win this war, then I would push the blade in myself. They didn’t…

    Shi…rou…”

    Sakura’s eyes didn’t open. She didn’t even seem to know I was here. Her hand, red and scarred, weakly moved along the floor as though it was seeking something. Her features, pained and afraid, began to ease as I placed my hand over hers. I wondered what she saw in her dreams that caused her to speak.

    I slowly drew my hand away and rose, the anger reaching a tipping point as it faded into a dark calm.

    Saber,” I looked at my servant, her calm matching my own. “This ends tonight.”

    Saber nodded.

    **********
    We vacated the school grounds as soon as we met up, my temper leveling out as sirens blared in the distance. Rin looked as though she could tell something was wrong but didn’t bring it up. Instead, we talked about what we’d do next.

    We should investigate the Matou house,” Rin said as we made our way down the street.

    Shinji isn’t dumb enough to go back there after today,” I said, a twinge of anger seeping back in from my stupidity. “We likely won’t be able to find him till nightfall, which means he’ll be setting the terms.”

    No,” Rin told me firmly. “Not again. Tonight, we set the terms.”

    She was right. Letting him decide the battleground without resistance was what brought us here. I was self-aware enough to recognize it was my hubris that nearly cost us. Father would’ve been disappointed.

    We need a plan,” she continued. “And we need to find out what they did with the victims.”

    She still had hope that they were alive. I suppose she had to.

    Do you have any ideas, Shirou?”

    I need to think,” I closed my eyes as the mansion came into sight. “Refocus. Consider our options.”

    We might be running out of those,” Rin said with a sigh.

    We passed through the gate, Saber trailing behind us. Archer had left before us, claiming he would look around the city to see if he could track them down. I had a feeling there was another reason, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

    Once we entered the building, we both immediately headed for the stairs, splitting off at the top to move toward our rooms. I closed the door behind me before unzipping and removing the bloody jacket and shirt.

    I checked my chest where the spikes had pierced my flesh. The wounds had already begun to heal, less severe than the last few. I wiped away the remaining blood with the shirt before putting it and the jacket to the side. I lamented the loss of yet another uniform jacket, knowing I only had one left.

    I threw on a black shirt, slipping once more into my red jacket before leaving. I found Saber outside, which saved me the trouble of calling her.

    Again,” I said simply as I moved past her to descend the stairs.

    When we arrived at the mansion grounds, we found Archer sitting on the grass with his arm resting on his raised knee. As we approached, he stood up, the blades I saw that first night materializing in his hands. I heard Saber’s armor clink as she readied herself for attack.

    Shirou Kotomine,” he pointed his white blade at me. “I will be your opponent today.”

    I felt my eyebrows rise at this statement. This servant was the oddest man I’d met. First neutral, then antagonistic, and now possibly helpful. He couldn’t seem to decide how to interact with me.

    You want to help me practice?” I asked skeptically.

    I want to see,” he lowered his blade. “How far you have to go.”

    How far I have to go? What did he…?

    You saw it, didn’t you? The history of the weapon.”

    I stared uncomprehendingly before it clicked. The dagger.

    He threw the white blade into the sky as he dashed across the distance between us. His hand gripped and twisted my collar, throwing me back where he’d come from with a whirl. I tumbled across the lawn, rolling to a stop facing the sky. I got a good view of the sword plummeting down toward me.

    I rolled away as the sword dug into the ground where I’d been. I felt a kick to the gut which sent me flying a few more meters away. I began pushing myself up as Archer bent down to retrieve his sword.

    You claim that I am a failure,” he said as I rose, projecting black keys into my hands. “But you can’t even grasp your own power.”

    He rushed me once more, and I raised my blades to block his attacks. He rained several blows on me, barely giving me time to block each strike. I realized too late that the elegant blades in his hands were a bad match for my keys. Anything shorter than a longsword could slip between my defenses if I weren’t constantly aware of where the attacks came from. I needed to create some distance and project a more effective weapon, but the servant was relentless.

    You say you’re not a burden,” Archer’s blades dug into my keys, sending sparks as they clashed. “You say you’re going to win this war. You say you’re going to defeat Rin. How can you do that when you can’t even fight back?”

    The pressure suddenly increased, and my keys shattered. The blades slashed down, barely missing my body as he then whirled around, slamming the pommel of the white sword into my shoulder. Luckily, I had reinforced my body before the strike came, but the attack still stung as I was once more tossed away.

    I managed to land on my feet, rolling my shoulder as Archer watched me with his blades at his sides.

    Weren’t you the one who said you can accomplish anything without drive? Then show me!”

    He charged again, and I began to understand. He was doing as Saber had, holding nothing back as he attacked. He somehow knew what I’d seen when he showed me the dagger and was trying to push me toward it. Was he implying my earlier thought was correct? Could I actually recreate that weapon?

    Even if that were true, that still wouldn’t help me right now. I saw the entire structure of that dagger. It was worthless in combat, though I somehow knew it could nullify thaumaturgy. Rule Breaker. All information I got from a glance, none of which would save me from the oncoming assault. But that gave me an idea.

    I stared at the blades in his hands as he drew close, slicing through the air as they swung towards me. Strong, beautiful, and structured as though by an artist, these swords were a spectacle to behold as their ‘history’, as Archer had described it, opened up to me. Again, I felt that I could create these weapons and knew I had to by this point. I focused on the structure, the materials and form slowly appearing in my mind. It was close, but the image was still blurry in my mind. I found myself using my old focus from whenever I had trouble projecting. It had been awhile.

    Trace, On!”

    The image solidified in my mind, and my circuits were flooded with power. I felt the blades form in my hands, and I swung them to meet Archer’s.

    Metal rang out across the lawn as our blades collided. Our swords clashed repeatedly, each matching the other blow for blow. I felt myself marveling at the movements that flooded my mind as we continued, each appearing as though it hadn’t been considered till that moment. My body was having trouble keeping up, causing many close calls as Archer relentlessly struck.

    An idea formed in my mind as the blades’ history flowed through me. Parrying a sweeping blow, I danced backwards, letting the weapons dictate my movements as I sent Bakuya spinning from my right hand. I blocked another strike form Archer as Bakuya flew around and whirled toward his back, being called back by Kanshou. Archer spun, causing me to block his Kanshou while his Bakuya knocked mine away. That attack probably worked better when the enemy didn’t know what the swords could do.

    I began projecting a replacement, but Archer spun back toward me, driving his knee into my chest. Despite the reinforcement, I fell to my knees in pain.

    You’re farther along than I thought,” Archer loomed over me as my chest burned. “But not far enough.”

    I lifted one knee and began to push myself up as I noticed Archer flip Bakuya in a reverse grip and plunge it toward me. For a brief moment, a part of me considered letting him.

    That’s enough, Archer!”

    The white blade stopped just above my shoulder, its tip barely a millimeter away. I looked back to find Rin, having changed into her red turtleneck, glaring in our direction with her arms crossed.

    Don’t you have chores you should be doing?” she asked as she walked toward us, her tone harsher than I expected.

    Archer’s swords vanished as turned his eyes to his master.

    “You won’t go farther than this,” Archer said too quiet for Rin to hear as she approached. “If you don’t know what you’re fighting for.”

    He dematerialized as Rin drew close, leaving me to finish rising to my feet, sore body protesting.

    I thought you’d have learned your lesson after nearly losing your arm,” she said with a scowl. “But I forgot you prefer to take everything to the extreme.”

    You think that’s why I’m a better fighter?” I sassed her with little feeling as I rolled the shoulder Archer bashed earlier.

    I’m being serious here,” She grabbed my collar and pulled me down to be level with her. “You were acting strangely the whole walk home, and now I find you about to have a sword jammed down your throat. What is with you?”

    I stared into her eyes, stern and inquisitive, and I felt something inside me harden.

    "I’m perfectly fine,” I kept my voice level as I placed my hand on her wrist, though, I didn’t try to force it from my shirt. “I just need to think of a plan.”

    Her eyes flitted across my face, and I could tell she knew I was wearing the mask. She released my shirt but kept her eyes on me.

    We’re going to stop them, and we’re going to find out what they did to those students.”

    "And if they’re dead?”

    Her eyes narrowed as I said the thing she’d been trying to avoid. I kept my face unmoved, hiding anything that might give away the plan forming in my head.

    Shirou. Let go of my arm.”

    I slowly released my grip as she drew her arm away.

    I’ll be in the workshop,” she turned and walked back to the mansion. “Come find me when you’re ready to talk.”

    I watched her leave before moving over to where Saber kneeled on the lawn.

    Was that wise, Master?” she asked, glancing at the house.

    Maybe not,” I sat across from her. “But she won’t like the plan I’m making.”

    On that subject,” her eyes came back to rest on me. “I assume this plan involves putting yourself in more danger than necessary.”

    I’m merely finishing what I started,” I waved aside her reprimand. “I let things get this far, so I have to stop them. Simple as that.”

    And you believe Tohsaka will accept that answer?”

    I believe that this alliance was temporary. I believe that, if she were to try and stop me, I would be forced to defeat her sooner rather than later.”

    I believe we will have to leave the manor.”

    And we will,” I closed my eyes and leaned back on my arms. “Luckily, I already have somewhere in mind.”

    Saber let the silence drag between us before speaking.

    You don’t have to push away your allies, Master.”

    Saber,” I didn’t open my eyes. “What would do you in my position?”

    A long pause passed between us.

    As king, it was my duty to protect my kingdom, and those who dwelled within. If it were within my power, I would settle things with mine being the only life risked.”

    I lay down on the soft grass, linking my hands behind my head.

    This is the path we will walk.”

    Even if it led to destruction.

    **********
    Rin stared at me, clearly irritated as I sat across from her in the dining room. The room was very much like the rest of the mansion, hues of beige, red, and white decorating the walls and furniture. The large dark wooded table between us stretched down a few meters on either side, a dulled yellow cloth that laid under a few candlesticks making a center strip down the middle. Saber to my right had just finished polishing off the last remnants of her meal while Archer did as he usually did and leaned against the wall behind Rin, eyes closed.

    Do you really think it’s that simple?” she asked me dryly.

    I know it is,” I answered. “This temporary truce is now null and void. Once I have killed Rider, we will return to grab my belongings. This is no longer your concern.”

    And who decided that?” she crossed her arms. “Even if we are no longer allies, I have every motivation to seek Rider’s demise as well.”

    Do you think Archer will be fast enough to stop Saber in these close quarters before she has a blade to your throat? Or me, for that matter.”

    Rin’s eyes narrowed.

    Is that a threat, Shirou Kotomine?”

    I don’t make threats. I make statements. If you intend to interfere, then I will be forced to take measures to stop you.”

    Her glare intensified as I kept the emotion from my face. What I had to do was clear, and I was feeling calmer with every step I took toward it. At this moment, she was nothing more than an obstacle in the way of reaching that goal.

    Very well,” she let her arms fall back to her sides.

    I resisted raising my eyebrow in surprise. It was unlike her to give in so easily.

    I won’t stop you,” she pointed a finger at me. “However, I will be accompanying you.”

    I immediately opened my mouth to rebut her, but she was already cutting me off.

    I don’t plan to interfere with your battle, and, to further prove this, Archer will be staying here.”

    That garnered a reaction from the servant, his eyes flicking open at her words.

    Master…”

    Not one word, Archer,” her eyes remained trained on me. “This is my decision, or do I need to use a command seal?”

    She wasn’t going to be swayed. She’d just shown me how far she was willing to go in order to accompany me. At least this way, I knew where she was.

    You really are a troublesome master,” Archer said with a shake of his head before vanishing.

    We stared at each other for several moments more before I faked a reluctant sigh, standing as I did.

    We’ll be leaving in a few minutes. You should get something warmer on before then. I have a feeling the night’s going to get a lot harsher.”

    Shouldn’t you do the same? We both know that jacket isn’t for winter weather.”

    I looked down at the jacket for a second before shaking my head.

    I’ll be warm enough.”

    I turned away and headed for the door. I couldn’t afford any distractions. Everything, from the blood in my veins to the mana in my circuits, needed to be focused on one thing.

    Tonight, I would do as I was taught.

    **********
    I was a bit surprised when both Saber and Rin came down the stairs wearing coats and scarfs, white and red, respectively. Seemed the clothes weren’t the only things Rin bought her a few days ago.

    The entire walk was quiet, save for Rin’s initial inquiry to our destination. The quiet bore no respite, however, as tension hung over our group like a thick blanket. It didn’t matter.

    We walked the whole way, serving to both allow night to sink further into shadows and give our enemy time to find us. Trying to seek them out would only waste time on a game of cat and mouse, as well as giving them the upper hand. Instead, they would find us, and be forced to confront us on our terms.

    As we crossed the Fuyuki Bridge, I allowed my eyes to wander to the place Einzbern and I had talked the previous night. I didn’t let them linger long, moving past without a second glance.

    The moon continued to rise in the sky, dark clouds wisping past to occasionally cover the pale orb as we walked through Shinto’s streets. Lights lined the concrete expanse as we made our way further inward, numerous shadows filling the alcoves and alleys that littered the city.

    I recalled a time when Rin told me how artificial the city felt now, with the greys and whites encompassing the majority creating something starkly modern and false. I could somewhat understand her opinion, though I personally found nothing worthy of such a complaint.

    As we reached our destination, the rough concrete and stone of the city transitioned into withered trees and grass. The barren limbs of the trees stretched out like talons against the sky, the moonlight flickering over them before being blotted out once more by the clouds. Saber’s eyes roved over the surroundings, obviously aware of the feelings buried in the soil beneath our feet.

    After another minute of walking, I sat down on the darkened grass, laying my arm on my leg and closing my eyes. All that was left to do was wait.

    I would just like to reiterate how much of an obstinate fool you can be,” Rin said as I felt her sit beside me.

    I didn’t respond, letting the chill of the night breeze past as I waited for them to arrive. She could berate me the whole night if she desired, and she’d be no closer to deterring me. I felt like the park around us, cold calm laid over a fierce fire of anger, and I would not allow it to be extinguished.

    Saber came to stand at my other side, her armor already equipped. We stayed there longer than I bothered to count, the icy wind from before beginning to peter out before ceasing all-together. The world seemed to become consumed by silence, as though it was holding its breath in anticipation. The clouds that had been covering the moon were cast away, allowing its light to reign across the sky and shine down on the blackened park.

    There were no such things as coincidences.

    Through a parting of dead trees, a single figure walked out from the shadows. His ragged hair glistened in the moonlight as he came into view several meters away. With every step, he opened and shut the strange book he’d been carrying around, making a rhythmic thumping sound that echoed through the empty space.

    Y’know,” he said as he continued to approach us. “There was a time when I genuinely considered you a friend. Tell me, Kotomine, when did that change?”

    Both Rin and I stood up, Rin standing markedly faster than me. I thought back to the first time we met. The first thing he did was insult me. It was an incredibly unique way to start our relationship, but I would be lying that I wasn’t entertained by how hard he tried to anger me to no avail. There was something oddly endearing about how open he was with his opinions, no matter what they were. After a time, it seemed I wouldn’t be rid of him, constantly approaching me to ‘hang out’. Somewhere along the line, I suppose he wore me down.

    One day, he invited me over to his house, and I decided it would be a good test of how far I could take this relationship. I had recently started my studies on the grail war and discovered the Matou’s part in its creation. I thought of how great a coincidence it was that he was a member of the family.

    My lessons on examining others were just beginning, and Father was taking me through the basics, leaving me still somewhat blind to the many subtleties that laid therein. However, one lesson stuck out when I visited the Matou mansion.

    You can tell a lot about a person by how their family interacts with them, and Sakura showed me just how little of Shinji I truly saw.

    Sakura,” I said simply as Saber moved to stand between us.

    The book closed with one final thump, a frown crossing his lips.

    I thought as much.”

    I felt the bloodlust and dove for Rin, driving us both to the ground. There was a blinding flash behind us through the trees, and something streaked out, slicing and smashing through everything between us. Saber raised her unseen blade, and the light crashed past it, a loud ringing filling the air as the sword deflected it.

    The light flew into the air, and I saw it begin to take form as I rose from the ground, helping Rin up as I did. I watched as the light spread out large feathered wings to each side. The figure slowly became the bright outline of a Pegasus against the starry night sky. Long waves of dark hair swept out from behind the majestic creature, making it clear who its master was. The beast let out a piercing cry as its mighty wings flapped, sending currents of air swirling out to rattle the bare branches of the trees.

    Rider,” his book opened once more, its pages unbothered by the wind cast from the creature’s wings. “I don’t want a trace to remain. I wish to finally close this chapter of my life.”

    Rin pulled me away from Saber as the Pegasus reared up before plummeting down toward her. I pushed her behind me as shadows barely visible in the moonlight shot through the air. I projected keys into my hands and widened the blades, taking the impacts.

    I should really thank you for bringing Tohsaka along,” several more, dark spears materialized around him. “Once I’m done with you, I can take my time punishing her in your stead. A fair trade, in my opinion.”

    I rushed to the side, putting more distance between us as I got a better view of the battle. The Pegasus dashed in like lightening, striking too fast for Saber to effectively retaliate. She was blocking the attacks, her own skill and instinct taking over as she waged an uphill battle against Rider.

    Where are they, Shinji?” Rin asked him angrily, calling his attention to her.

    Whoever could you be referring to?” he asked with a smug grin.

    The missing students,” I elaborated, though we all knew he was aware. I just didn’t have the patience for this right now.

    Oh,” he said, raising a finger to his chin as spears sailed toward us both. “Forgive my memory. I often forget about my trash once I’m done with it. I’m sure they’re around here somewhere.”

    Rin rolled away and fired a gandr at him only for it to splatter against his field.

    You really shouldn’t worry so much. You’ll be joining them very soon.”

    I blocked a few more spears and dodged to avoid a rippling wave almost a second too late. The shadows cast by the trees were excellent cover for his attacks, which was part of the reason I had chosen this to be our battleground. I wanted to leave no question as to who was the strongest here, which is why I hurled a key to impale itself in the ground at Rin’s feet.

    She nearly dropped the jewel she’d been preparing to use, the look on her face more shocked than I’d ever seen before. I put her out of my mind as I focused on Shinji, already replacing the used key.

    Well,” I saw Shinji’s face light up with a sardonic grin. “That’s a surprise. I guess you treat all your friends the same way.”

    I could feel Rin’s eyes on me as I slashed through a tree trunk and spun, kicking the tree with the force of my body to send it flying toward Shinji. Black waves appeared on the tree’s bark and dices the trunk to bits before it ever reached him. I frivolously threw two keys at him while I began weaving through the trees. I could see his head following my general movements, but it was clear he couldn’t pinpoint me exactly.

    He didn’t seem to need to. I watched the spears turn sideways and begin to spin like saws, flying toward me and chopping through the trees between us. I ducked under one before blocking another, the shadow grinding against my keys before careening further through the trees to cut more at odd angles. I leaped up and off another nearby trunk to avoid one cutting particularly close to the ground.

    The sound of clanging metal from the servant’s battle was suddenly drowned out by dozens of trees collapsing to the ground with a series of wooden crashes. I dodged and rolled, barely able to keep track of and avoid the ongoing attacks by Shinji amidst the clamor.

    Even after the trees between finished their cacophony, I could hear more still slamming to the ground behind me. Shinji watched me with that same smug smile I’d grown to despise.

    Why can’t you understand yet? No matter how blatantly it’s put before you, you still can’t see it.”

    He stretched out his hand, and a tidal wave of shadows rippled outward from him. I planted all six keys into the ground. My mana flowed into them, and their blades widened and lengthened until they formed a barrier between me and the oncoming wave. I placed my hands against them, reinforcing them as much as possible. The shadows struck like a giant hammer, the shadows shooting off the sides to rush behind me as the force beat against the blades. My circuits blazed as I replaced any segment of the wall that began to crack under the pressure.

    When the attack finally ceased, I immediately dismissed the blades, calling new ones to my hands. My breathing came out harder as a sheen of sweat began to glisten across my brow. My mana reserves still had a healthy amount left, but my circuits were becoming heated from the mana flow.

    I” his arm lowered. “Am stronger than you.”

    The world around me faded, unimportant stimuli sorted out till the only things that existed were me and Shinji. Black waves coiled out and sped toward me, multiplying and narrowing in where I stood. I threw the three keys in my right hand between them, searing through the gaps toward Shinji. I threw the other three out above him as I maneuvered away from the waves. The field deflected the keys, and his eyes flitted up to follow the ones sailing above his head as spears appeared and followed them.

    I began running toward him, my arms spread out as six more keys appeared. I crossed my arms and threw, three keys spinning off to either side before curving toward him. With his spears trained on the keys above, his eyes followed the blades curling toward his sides, dark waves roiling out on collision courses with them. His eyes then focused on me, and a solid wall of shadows pushed out from him.

    I pulled it from my memories, casting the blade forward the moment I felt it in my hand. The iridescent dagger shot forth, dividing the field without effort. Shinji’s eyes widened as the black field rose before him. I continued to close the distance between us as the dagger passed through the field and dug its tip into his shoulder. The blade was usually too dull to pierce flesh, but apply the Iron Plate Effect, and even that dagger can deal damage.

    Shinji cried in pain before yanking the dagger out and tossing it aside. His eyes came back up to watch me drive my fist into his stomach. His eyes bulged as the air suddenly rushed from his lungs, and I spun to slam the back of my hand into the side of his head.

    As he fell to the ground, I projected a key and slashed it through the book he was carrying as it left his hand. The two halves of the book crumbled into dust as they hit the grass.

    I turned my eyes back to the battle the servants had been fighting in the background. As Rider once more rose into the air after an attack, something seemed to catch her off guard. Though her eyes remained covered by the mask she wore, her head turned toward me, but I couldn’t make out her expression from the distance.

    Saber narrowed her eyes in confusion as Rider hung in the air for several moments, her endless barrage of attacks having ceased. I directed the key in my hand toward her master, daring the servant to act.

    A sheen of gold joined the blinding white the Pegasus gave off, and I was barely able to make out the blazing bridle that had appeared on the horse. She began to rise farther into the air, higher and higher till she was little more than another light in the sky. She then erupted like a blazing spear, rocketing downward once more. My eyes widened as the gravity of the immense magical force the attack exuded crashed down over me.

    Saber!” my head snapped toward my servant. “Can you stop her?”

    I could feel we only had seconds to act. We either killed her now or retreated. If the latter, I still had one last thing to do beforehand.

    Master,” Saber called to me as held her invisible blade before her. “Put your faith in me.”

    That was answer enough.

    I watched as the air whipped up and swirled around her, coiling and rippling above her hands. As the blinding spear continued to fall toward us, I saw as the wind was cast away from her hands, and, as though a cover was being gently removed, a blade of shining gold was revealed. She drew the blade back, magic blazing across its length as each movement cast flecks of golden light into the air around her.

    She fixed her emerald eyes on the impending doom descending overhead. Her armor burst into blue shards that seemed to flow into the blade as she opened her mouth.

    EX.”

    The world crackled as mana burst out from Saber, her sword becoming a torch of explosive power and energy as she thrust it toward Rider.

    CALIBUR!”

    Starlight shot out from the blade to burn across the sky and against the spear that had been Rider. The two forces clashed sending cascades of torturous light in every direction as they fought for dominance. I held my arm up to shield my eyes from the onslaught of color, my senses overloaded by the collision, both physically and magically.

    After several moments of intensity, the light faded from the sky, returning the world once more to only be lit by the moon. I blinked several times in an attempt to readjust to the darkness.

    Saber had fallen to her knees, her sword planted into the earth as she leaned on it. Against the chill of night, her breathes came out hard and fast, puffs of mist exuding from her mouth. I looked to see Rin was also watching Saber, a look of awe on her face.

    I turned my attention down to Shinji, having begun to recover his bearings and begin breathing. I put a stop to that by grabbing his neck and hauling him upward. I stared into his eyes, fear and pain evident in his gaze.

    Tell me again who’s stronger.”

    I dragged him along the ground as I walked to one of the trees he’d missed in his rampage, slamming him against it.

    You’re right, Shinji,” my voice seeped frozen venom. “I did think you were an idiot, and I’m sorry. I let my own feelings cloud my judgement, but I thank you for opening my eyes.”

    #11-The bane of information is emotion. Never forget this, as it is a double-edged blade.
    I began tightening my grip, seeing his face redden as his hands gripped my left arm. Raised from the ground, his feet kicked uselessly as they tried to find traction.

    This day revealed that I’ve been far too lenient in my actions as a master. I forgot what my father taught me, but you reminded me.”

    #23-Spare when necessary, kill when not, and never ignore.

    I drew him back and bashed him against the tree again, his gasp of pain muted by my grip.

    I’m sure you desire a reward for such a helpful service, one befitting someone of your obvious power. But, before that, allow me to share one small bit of wisdom with you.”

    I leaned forward as his face began to purple, bringing my lips to his ear with a conspiratorial whisper.

    The only ones who kill should be those prepared to be killed.”

    #24


    I drew back to see the terror in his eyes as his fate began to sink in. I felt a smile begin to spread across my face as the cold I’d felt since that afternoon began to be replaced by a glowing warmth as I lifted my right hand, the key I slashed the book with prominently displayed before him. I watched his eyes begin to dull as his consciousness began to fade, but he wasn’t getting out so easily.

    I released my grip and let him drop to the ground in a coughing heap. I bent down, grabbed his chin, and forced his eyes back on me.

    "Don’t try to struggle,” I felt my smile deepen as I drew back the key. “This might take a while.”

    Just as I was about to drive it into his shoulder, the ground beside us exploded, dirt flying up to shower over us as Shinji cringed under my hold.

    You cannot stand there,” I didn’t turn around as my voice returned to a level tone. “And tell me he doesn’t deserve this.”

    The battle is over, Shirou,” I heard her say, her voice sounding distant. “Rider is dead. No one else needs to join her.”

    And that’s where you’re wrong. One life, as payment for all the pain they’ve inflicted. A fair trade, isn’t it, Shinji?”

    He tried to speak, but I tightened my grip on his chin further, leaving him whimpering in pain and fear.

    What happened at the school isn’t your fault.”

    I felt my grip tighten on the handle.

    "Of course not. The only ones to blame are them. Which is why…”

    You have to be the one to stop them,” she said, her tone irritated. “I’ve known you long enough to understand how you think. What I can’t understand is why you’re taking it this far.”

    I moved my hand from his chin and wrapped it in his shirt, pulling him up with me so he wouldn’t get any ideas. I turned to face Rin; her right arm outstretched with her left hand stabilizing it.

    Issei,” I said slowly. “Mitsuzuri. Sakura. These are only three of the dozens of people he is responsible for hurting. No, it is not my fault that this wretched fool decided to kill every person he’s known to further himself, but I am the one that could have prevented it. I chose not to.”

    And I agreed to your plan. How guilty does that make me?”

    This isn’t about guilt,” I felt irritation of my own begin to work into my words. “This is about what needs to be done.”

    And it has been. It’s over, Shirou. He can’t do anything else.”

    I glanced down at the sniveling coward in my hand, his entire façade of superiority having crumbled over the last minute. I thought about Sakura. I thought about all those bodies scattered across the school, red and scarred. I thought about the fire, death and ash permeating the air.

    If I said I wanted to kill him,” I looked back at her. “Do you really think you’d be able to stop me?”

    I watched her eyes narrow, but the remained otherwise unfazed. I glanced over her form to see the truth. The slight shake of her right arm as she attempted to hold it steady. Her jaw clenched tightly shut to keep it still. Something hidden behind the stern and calm gaze. She was either concealing a seething anger, or she was afraid.

    Maybe not,” her voice wavered for the briefest of instants. Her arms lowered to her sides. “But I know this isn’t you. Shirou Kotomine is not a murderer.”

    I was certain my knuckles were white from how fiercely I gripped the key. She really thought it was that cut and dry. Death was the only constant in this war, and no one could avoid it. To fight as a master was to be ready to kill to make your wish reality. It’s the only reason.

    I have to win because it’s the only reason I exist.”

    You kill because it’s the only way to move forward. You fight because you don’t want to die. You win because it means you’re alive.

    I’m fighting to die.”

    I was doing this so I could survive. Nothing else matters.

    That’s not true.”

    There's nothing that won't be killed. There's nothing I won't do to survive. This is the only thing I can do. If that's not true, then what is!

    I won’t let it take you.”

    ...

    I threw the worm, facing him as he watched me with fearful uncertainty.

    If I ever see you again,” I drew my left arm back before slamming it into the tree I pushed him against. Directing the force of every movement into my fist, the trunk shattered before falling behind me.

    What was I doing?

    Shinji scrambled to his feet before running away without another sound. Something inside me ebbed away as I watched him go.

    Throw. Throw, and be done with it.

    Rin slowly walked up to me; her face unchanged since we started talking.

    How many more will he hurt if I let him go? Why am I asking that? It doesn’t matter! They don’t matter!

    Rin stopped in front of me, deep blue eyes staring up at me.

    They die. They fade away. They’re replaced. The world moves on. I can’t care. I don’t care!

    I stared down at her in turn, opening my mouth to speak.

    I…”

    The slap burned against my cheek, effectively silencing my explanation. I was then further surprised as her arms wrapped around me.

    Your eyes,” she said softly as her arms tightened. “There was nothing there.”

    I didn’t know what to say to that. I couldn’t even bring myself to embrace her. I slowly bowed my head, something inside me seeming to break.

    I’m sorry.”

    I wasn’t sure how long we stood there. The rest of the night became a blur. Saber had used a lot of energy in that attack, so Rin and I had to help carry her home. By the time we reached the house, she had fallen asleep. Archer was there waiting for us, and he offered to carry her up the stairs. I was about to object, but Rin beat me to it. We brought her to our room and laid her on the futon.

    Rin left me alone with the sleeping Saber as I recalled my intention to leave here. Part of me was still committed to that, but I would have to do it tomorrow. Tonight, I was tired.

    I took off my jacket, gently folding it over the desk chair before turning off the light. I didn’t bother changing. I just wanted the night to be over.

    I slipped into bed, closing my eyes as I idly wondered how I’d face her tomorrow.

    **********
    My eyes slowly opened to the sound of the bedroom doorknob softly turning. Laying on my side facing the door, I saw Rin quietly enter the room. Even in the dim light of the room, my eyes had adjusted enough to make out the small cat faces printed across her yellow pajamas as she moved to my bedside.

    I know your awake,” she said quietly, obviously trying to not wake up Saber.

    I almost didn’t reply.

    Have trouble sleeping?” I asked, though the words didn’t have the usual playful mocking I’d put in such a statement. Not after tonight.

    Just move over,” her words didn’t have much bite either.

    I moved myself closer to the window side, giving her enough room to lay down beside me. She slipped under the covers, facing me as she placed her head on the pillow. I stared into her soft blue eyes, and I felt as though a thin tension began to fill the air. Her eyes nervously flicked away, and I honestly couldn’t remember the last time she was bothered enough by something to react that way.

    Can you,” she continued to look away, the nervousness ever so slightly bleeding into her words. “Hold me?”

    I was slow to respond. I gently edged my right hand under her, lightly grasping her back as I pulled her closer. My left arm slowly raised the covers as I curled it around her body, holding her close to my chest.

    A gentle quiet fell over us as I felt a familiar comfort from her presence. My mind wandered back to those nights from what felt like so long ago. They were few, and my dreams were torturous recreations of the night I realized how cruel the world could be, but the moment I felt her arms around me, I knew I was safe. She was real, and that was enough.

    You scared me, Shirou.”

    I looked down at Rin, her eyes closed as she leaned against my chest.

    When I saw your eyes, I knew. Knew that, if you killed him, I would lose you.”

    I wanted to tell her she was wrong. Assure her that, no matter what, she would never lose me, but I couldn’t. If Rin hadn’t stopped me, I wasn’t not sure who would be standing in my place. I didn’t know what I should say to her, but I did know what I wanted to say.

    Thank you, Rin.”

    I remembered what Archer had said yesterday, that I was a burden, needing Rin to carry me. I knew why it had bothered me. It was what I feared was true. It was why I had to get stronger, be better. I could give any excuse to avoid it, but that was why I needed to defeat her. I felt that, only after I proved I could stand under my own power, I could find what I was searching for.

    Tonight showed me how far I still had to go.

    What are you going to wish for, Rin?”

    I let the silence pass between us, and I realized I didn’t know why I asked. She had avoided answer last time, and I almost expected her to do the same tonight. Even if she did, I had a feeling I already knew the answer.

    I was wrong.

    The fire…”

    The fire?

    I’m going to wish it never happened.”

    I felt my eyes soften as I gazed at the girl in my arms. I couldn’t understand… no, I think I could.

    Rin,” my words were calmer than I felt. “I don’t regret what happened.”

    You should,” the blue pools of her eyes looked up at me. “You lost everything that night. Your parents. Your home. Your past. How can you not regret that?”

    I’m not sure. Even now, that all-consuming flame was still seared in my mind, cooled by the years I’d spent with it. However, I couldn’t bring myself to regret what happened. It was beyond my control, something no one could have foreseen, let alone stopped. If I regretted what I lost, it would be a slap in the face of all I had gained. And…

    Because it’s not all gone,” I realized how true the words were as I said them. “I may not be able to remember their faces, or even their names, but I remember other things. The soft warmth of being held, a bright smile full of love, a comforting hand holding mine. The specifics are gone, but the feelings are still there. And besides…”

    I struggled for a moment, unsure of how to word this. I decided that honestly was the only way.

    Then, I wouldn’t have you.”

    She stared up at me as tears slowly rolled down her cheeks. She looked away.

    You don’t know that. We still could have met.”

    But I wouldn’t be me.”

    But you wouldn’t care,” her face pressed into my shirt, the tears soaking through the fabric. “You would be loved. You would be happy. You would be safe.”

    My arms tightened their hold on her as though she might fade away if they didn’t. I might fade away if I didn’t.

    And what about you? How could I leave you alone when you were hurting too?”

    Neither of us spoke as what we’d said sank in. Neither of us moved as a familiar warmth slowly enveloped us. Neither of us was willing to let go of the other.

    I’m sorry,” I heard her quietly mumble into my shirt.

    I didn’t reply as I held her, feeling her breathe against my chest eventually reach a steady rhythm as she drifted off to sleep.
    I thought about what we’d said. I thought for certain she would wish for her own parents back, but it seemed I misunderstood how much I meant to her. She was willing to give up her chance for anything she could possibly imagine just for the chance that I’d live a happier life.

    You can be so selfish sometimes,” I murmured to the girl sleeping in my arms.

    Then again, was I any better? I was going to give my wish to Rin all because I wanted her to be happy. I supposed I was just as much of a hypocrite.

    I closed my eyes, uncertain of where this war would go after tonight, but, through it all, I would keep her safe, and I would win this war.

    I won’t let them take you,” slipped out between my tired lips as sleep claimed me.
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; November 7th, 2020 at 03:59 PM.

  12. #12
    屍食鬼 Ghoul
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    Does Sakura ever call Shirou by his name? I guess we wouldn't know what she calls him in her mind given all the media we have are from Shirou's perspective, but it seems odd to me.

    The fight is kind of cool. I'm not sure what the point is of Shirou throwing a black key in front of Rin. I like what you did with "#24". I like how Saber's not in danger of fading because Shirou's not a magical dingus here.

    I really like how intimate the last scene is without being romantic. I was slightly taken that way by the line about "tension" and Rin asking Shirou to hold her, but then he's like, "This reminds me of when we were kids," and it was gone.

  13. #13
    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    That was my thought, but I've had another person point that out as well. Just one of those things, it seems.

    Basically his way of saying, "Get out of my way! I'll kill him myself!" After all, she literally said she would just watch, and immediately went back on that when Shinji showed up.
    I went through the motions on that. I thought it might be too jarring with the back and forth, but people seem to like it, so it must be me. I kept it though, so...
    Practicing for years with opened circuits would do that.

    I had the thought after writing the scene when I was reading over it, and it was the same one as when I first started writing the story. "Would this Shirou and Rin form a relationship? They already have one that goes beyond friends, but it's more of a connection between two people being the most important person to the other. That kind of relationship isn't necessarily romantic." I haven't stressed myself too hard on what they are, but the internet seems to have decided I must be pushing for romance. I'm sure I'll discover how they feel at the end of the war. Maybe.
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; October 21st, 2020 at 04:05 PM.

  14. #14
    Hey, I ain’t no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    I’m pretty impressed by this. This Shirou is an interesting and sometimes unsettling interpretation of his character under these circumstances. You write his voice really well, though I’ll admit that Tohsaka is the main reason I’m sticking around. Having them share a background sounds like a pretty fun concept to write. I was initially concerned that he would actually emulate Kotomine, but it was a relief that he was just sent to live with Rin. I suppose there were no other options, though. If he stayed in the church, he’d find out what happened to all the other kids who were orphaned in the fire.

    on another note, this thing is huge, and you’re saying that you’re almost finished with it? That’s honestly amazing. How long have you been working on this?
    Likes attention, shiny objects, and... a ball of yarn?
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    I joined two years too late...
    Quote Originally Posted by Hymn of Ragnarok View Post
    That makes me think of Rin as a loan shark.
    Quote Originally Posted by Hymn of Ragnarok View Post
    Admittedly, she'd probably be the hottest loan shark you'll ever meet. She'd probably make you smile as she sucked you dry.


    Oh dear, that doesn't sound like yuri at all.
    Quote Originally Posted by Techlet View Post
    Not with that attitude.

  15. #15
    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    "A fascinating story that thinks through the implications of Kotomine Shirou with care and humanity."
    This is something someone commented on my story here. This meant a lot more to me than I thought it would, because that was sorta the point. It wasn't until after I wrote three chapters that I got curious about other people's versions of the story of Kotomine Shirou, and I was less than impresses when I saw how they treated such an interesting concept. Rather than a chance to examine Shirou in a different context, they just choose to make him some OP edgelord who's into killing. That just doesn't make sense for the character, or the things that would be different because of the change. As many stories do the same, it's why I have such a complicated relationship with fanfiction. That, and the egregious grammar.
    Only for Tohsaka, huh? I am both offended and grateful.
    As you can see, Shirou really tries to be like his father. It's just that some red entity keeps making that fairly hard.

    Quote Originally Posted by Draconic View Post
    on another note, this thing is huge, and you’re saying that you’re almost finished with it? That’s honestly amazing. How long have you been working on this?
    Little over three months. Taking a break to edit for someone's Code Geass story right now.
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; November 3rd, 2020 at 12:29 AM.

  16. #16
    屍食鬼 Ghoul
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    Quote Originally Posted by Morg van Destro View Post
    I had the thought after writing the scene when I was reading over it, and it was the same one as when I first started writing the story. "Would this Shirou and Rin form a relationship? They already have one that goes beyond friends, but it's more of a connection between two people being the most important person to the other. That kind of relationship isn't necessarily romantic." I haven't stressed myself too hard on what they are, but the internet seems to have decided I must be pushing for romance. I'm sure I'll discover how they feel at the end of the war. Maybe.
    I briefly had the thought I had just because, at least in the U.S. where I am, we're primed by oversaturation of the plot development market, if you will, to see romantic tones in anything intimate, especially between characters of opposite sexes. I never had the thought before that scene and it was quickly banished by the inner monologue that follows. For what it's worth, I'm glad it's not romantic at this point and I hope it never gets romantic. The reason I like this interaction so much is because I think platonic intimacy is underrated and underrepresented.

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    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    I've always had a firm belief that you don't need a romantic relationship to be intimate with another person. I think some intimate relationships can lead to romance, but it doesn't have to be there for one to exist. In my mind, any relationship can be intimate if both parties are willing to open themselves to the connection that relationship brings, for better or worse. Romantic love is simply a step in that relationship one can choose to simply not take. I don't know if Rin and Shirou will get together. I know I've made a lot of intimate scenes between these two people that love each other, but whether or not it's romantic doesn't really matter right now. Makes me think of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas. Two people, more than friends but not lovers, bonding and connecting in a way they haven't with anyone else. If it wasn't for one ever-present thing, I actually could see them getting together, but I could just as easily see them remaining as they were.
    Man, that movie hit hard.

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    Chapter 5: Where Power Lies

    #18-The best way to win is not to fight.


    I looked out over the dusty plains as dark clouds rumbled above, golden shafts of light breaking through to reveal the world the shadows hid. Blood and death littered the landscape no matter where I turned, broken weapons rising from the earth like gravestones. Everywhere I stepped, armor rang and flesh gushed, the horrific scene leaving no space uncovered.

    As I walked over the mountain of bodies, the wind began to blow through and catch the tattered remain of flags without symbols. The clouds rolled away as the sun continued to peer through the darkness. Rays of light spread out in a wave over a sea of corpses before finally revealing what had been hidden through the miasma of shadows.

    A hill rose from the earth, fallen warriors, armor shattered and red, encompassing the slopes as a lone figure stood above it all. They leaned heavily on their sword, their blue and silver armor streaked with crimson as their shoulders rose and fell.

    I found myself climbing over the deceased men lining the hill as my curiosity urged me onward. My hands had begun to add my blood to the pile as jagged metal cut into my skin with each handhold. I soon found myself standing behind the familiar knight, her golden hair marred with dirt and blood as it fell over her shoulders.

    The dark roiling clouds pushed away as the sun cascaded over her, her head lifting from the bodies that lay at her feet to cast tired emerald eyes upward. I tried to follow her gaze, but the light was brighter than anything I’d ever seen, making it impossible to directly view, despite the knight having no such inhibitions. Her hand raised, reaching out toward the blinding array of gold.

    I accept.”

    The world became engulfed in blazing white before darkness swept over my vision again.

    My senses slowly returned to me as I felt Rin in my arms, her slow breathes telling me she was still asleep. I opened my eyes and gazed at her; a peaceful expression having settled on her face. Remembering the fear in her eyes last night, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to face her again, let alone like this. I lightly brushed a strand of hair from her face, causing her to mumble something indiscernible.

    I thought about staying there together with her for a little while longer, but I knew that I needed to prepare for today. Slowly and deliberately, I moved my arm out from under her and lightly slipped out of bed. I moved to the foot of the bed and found Saber still fast asleep in her futon. I narrowed my eyes as I recalled the hill of steel and blood I’d seen her on. I believed I was beginning to see the full picture.

    I carefully placed my steps to avoid her as I moved toward the door. I glanced where I had haphazardly tossed my ruined clothes after the school, but found they were gone. Archer really was an efficient butler.

    I closed the door softly behind me before heading down the stairs. The phone in the main hallway had a new message as I expected. It informed me that, due to recent events, Homurahara Academy would be suspending all classes for the foreseeable future. After all the missing students, what will likely be chalked up to vandalism, and the sudden, strange affliction both students and faculty experienced yesterday, I wasn’t surprised.

    I moved to the sitting room to find Archer sitting with his arms spread atop the back of the sofa and his legs in a 4 figure. His eyes opened as I shut the door.

    I assumed you’d be making breakfast,” I told the servant as I moved to the chairs.

    It’s already been made,” he gestured to the clock over his left shoulder. I noticed it showed it was eight eleven.

    I suppose that’s to be expected after last night,” I shook my head as I took a seat across from him.

    He hummed in response before closing his eyes.

    I watched him for a moment, thinking about that dagger. Those swords. The power he somehow knew I had.

    How did you know, Archer?”

    He remained unmoved by my question. He took his time responding, letting the silence draw out between us. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking about his response or if he was doing it to spite me. It honestly could be either in Archer’s case.

    I knew a boy who was very much like you. A thickheaded and foolish boy who believed that, if he was strong enough, he could use his power to save others.”

    His head tilted back to rest against the sofa.

    However, unlike that boy, I don’t believe you have such lofty goals. Your want for power stems from a similar place, and even your reasons for seeking it are closely linked.”

    He brought his head forward, steel grey eyes watching me carefully.

    But where you truly differ is your drive. That boy was chasing after an impossible dream and was driven by his ideals until they broke him. What is it that drives you, Shirou Kotomine?”

    I felt as though his gaze was inescapable, trying to draw the answer out of me with an iron grip. That night was drawn out of me, flashing through my mind.

    A promise,” Father reached out his hand to me. Rin held me closer to her chest. “That things can be better. That there’s something worth fighting for.”

    Archer sighed and shook his head.

    You may be more alike than I thought.”

    Archer rose from his seat and walked to the door.

    Well,” he looked back at me as he opened the door. “If that is what you seek, then you must imagine a world where it is possible and make it reality. That is the only way you can ever hope to reach your goal.”

    A world… where my dream is reality?

    I’ll be waiting for you outside but be prepared to fight for your life.”

    Archer shut the door, leaving me with my thoughts.

    I don’t know why I told him. I wasn’t sure why I did a lot of things over the last three days. I could hear Father scolding me for my actions, reminding me how open I kept leaving myself. Illyasviel and Shinji shouldn’t be problems, but I let them both go. I shouldn’t care about what happened to Sakura and everyone at the school, but, even now, my blood ran a little hotter at the thought.

    Father once told me the Holy Grail War brings out the true essence of its participants. With their wants and fears exposed, the masters acted only on their desires. What part of me was this war revealing?

    I pushed it aside like so many other times. I could worry about it when the war was over. Until then, Archer was waiting for me outside. Another step toward the grail.

    And I still have a way to go.”


    OP: ASH [LiSA]


    After around an hour of training with Archer, I slipped in and out of my room to grab a change of clothes, careful to remain quiet as not to wake the still sleeping girls before heading to the downstairs bathroom. I would’ve used the upstairs shower, but I remembered how noisy the pipes were.

    As the hot water cascaded down over my shoulders, I felt the soreness and sweat from fighting Archer wash away with the heat. When I left this shower, I would be working toward the grail without fail. Until then, I would push those thoughts aside and enjoy this peaceful respite, letting my mind wander.

    Was I that fragile back when the fire was fresh in my mind? No, I think I was even more so. There was nothing peaceful or restful to be found in the flames, an abyss of isolation and fear. She pulled me out of that. I tried to shake her off, but she wouldn’t let go. And worse, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to pull myself up. I wasn’t strong enough.

    I stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel from the wall rung. I dried myself off as I approached the mirror, using the towel to also wipe away the steam fogging the glass. I looked myself over, finding the circular scar had fully vanished from my chest. I tousled my hair with the towel before running a hand through it. When it finally dried, it would set itself in the same spiky way it always did. There wasn’t much point in fighting it.

    I put on the blue pants and white shirt I’d brought with me, carrying the used clothes out to the laundry room. When I left, I peeked at the digital clock of the phone. 9:23. It was about time Rin got up. We had a long day ahead of us.

    As I stood at the bedside, I thought about materializing the whistle, but thought better of it as Saber was also in the room. She may act without thinking and perceive it as an attack. Therefore, I moved over to the futon and kneeled down to give Saber a light shake. Her eyes flicked open and settled on me.

    Master,” her words came out slightly irritated, which I was a little surprised by. “Is there something you require of me?”

    Today is the day we defeat Berserker,” I said as she sat herself up. “Go down and get some breakfast. We’ll be joining you shortly.”

    Saber raised an eyebrow before looking over at the bed. Her eyes widened at the visible form under the covers.

    I see,” she said with calm understanding. “Then, I will be waiting for you in the dining room.”

    I didn’t bother trying to explain the situation as Saber rose from the futon and walked out the door. I shook my head before standing once more and returning to the bedside. I materialized the whistle and brought it to my lips.

    If you blow that whistle,” Rin said as she rolled to face me, her eyes slowly opening. “There is no servant you could summon that will save you from me.”

    I felt a soft smile spread across my face.

    How long?”

    A few minutes,” she let out a tiny yawn as I dismissed the whistle. “But the bed’s so nice and warm.”

    I went to one knee to be level with her, and she met my smile with one of her own, strands of hair lightly falling across her face.

    I think Saber has the wrong idea about us,” she said, nuzzling a little deeper into her pillow.

    Well,” I rested one arm on my knee. “Enemies, and even allies, don’t typically share beds.”

    Then, what does that make us?”

    I opened my mouth before stopping myself. She had asked it jokingly, but I never really thought about it. I’d never put a label on our relationship because there had never been a need. Even then, as I pushed the thought about in my head, I couldn’t find a way to describe it. I just knew she was someone completely integral to me.

    I’m not sure.”

    Her smile slowly faded as she realized I’d answered seriously. I rose to my feet and walked to the door, looking at her as I opened it.

    We’ll be waiting in the dining room for you. We might not be getting lunch today, so you should eat while you can.”

    I started walking through the doorway.

    Shirou.”

    I faced her as she struggled to say something, now having sat up. Her eyes and lips moved uncertainly, struggling to find the words. I may have caused her to think about it as well.

    Rin.”

    Her eyes focused on me.

    Not everything needs to be expressed with words.”

    It was the only answer I had.

    She stared at me for several seconds before sighing.

    You don’t have to say it so clinically,” her smile returned to her face.

    I smiled back as I walked out and shut the door with a click.

    **********
    Breakfast was a quiet affair, none of us really saying anything of note. I did notice, however, that Saber was a lot more focused on her food than usual. She was eating a lot more as well, and she was no slouch in that regard to begin with.

    When we had finished, I scooped up the dishes and brought them to the kitchen, placing them in the sink and idly wondering if Archer would have these done before or after I got back.

    I stepped out to find Rin waiting for me, her arms crossed behind her back with her head tilted to the side.

    So, what’s the plan for today, Shirou?”

    I walked past her to see Saber and, surprisingly, Archer standing in the sitting room. The eyes of all present were on me.

    I’m going to pay the Einzberns a visit,” I motioned with my head for Saber to head for the door. “Whatever you and Archer do is your own business.”

    Caster wouldn’t be an issue for them, so they would likely spend the day preparing to eliminate Lancer. Once Saber and I eliminated Berserker, we could deal with Caster and Assassin, leading us to our final battle. A simple and effective plan.

    If that’s your answer,” Rin walked up and pointed at the bottom of my chin. “Then you didn’t understand my question.”

    I had, but I pretended to misinterpret it. Berserker was by far the deadliest servant in this war. The best solution was to kill Illyasviel, and I didn’t want her to see that.

    I…”

    Me and Archer will be going with you. You should just accept it because there’s nothing you can say to change my mind.”

    Before I could protest, she grabbed a surprised Saber’s hand and walked out of the room. I watched after them for a second while Archer let out a soft chuckle.

    When the master speaks…” he faded away into spirit form.

    I was left alone in the room, and I felt a small smile crawl across my face.

    So selfish.”

    **********
    It didn’t take long for the taxi to arrive after Rin called for it. Saber, ever the gallant knight, held the car door open for us before slipping in herself. Rin gave the driver the directions, and we were off.

    I closed my eyes as I leaned back into the seat, knowing it would be a long drive. We’d have plenty time to plan our attack when we arrived, away from the prying ears of civilians.

    With two servants, Berserker and his master would not hold as much sway as last time. Saber distracting him would allow me and Rin to take on Einzbern. When I killed her, Archer should be enough of an advantage to keep us safe while Berserker raged.

    When I killed her. There was a strange, calm certainty in that thought. It wasn’t like with Shinji, who had brought on a freezing cold. With her, it just felt like the only option.

    My eyes opened and wandered over to the windows. People and buildings whizzed by, blissfully ignorant of the deadly ritual unfolding in their city. I wondered how they could be so complacent with everything that occurred during the war. It was the church’s duty to cover up all events directly related to the Grail, but, even then, I found it baffling how they are so ready for everything to be explained away that they will take any answer at face value. The entirety of Homurahara being afflicted with the same types of burns, droves of office employees becoming unconscious and drained simultaneously, city property being destroyed randomly. The church may be able to make excuses for some of it, but I believed the people of Fuyuki have simply accepted that the answer is worse than the lie.

    Rin moved her head forward to block my view of her window, giving me a curious look.

    Something on your mind?”

    Nothing I can say right now,” my eyes flicked to the front seat.

    Rin rolled her eyes and reached out, shutting the gap in the partition.

    Unless you plan on shouting it, we should be fine now.”

    If Saber can’t beat Berserker,” I said after a pause. “We’ll have to kill his master.”

    We could make her surrender,” she suggested, but I was already shaking my head.

    She won’t. This is the only thing she has. She’ll either win or die trying.”

    How can you be so sure?” she gave me a suspicious look.

    I didn’t tell you, but, when I went out two days ago, she tracked me down.”

    Her eyes widened, and I could feel Saber glaring at the back of my head.

    She attacked you in broad daylight?”

    "She… wanted to talk,” I faced my eyes forward, the red lights of the car stopped in front of us blazing. “She’s not going to surrender. She’s going to die, no matter if she wins or loses.”

    I thought of that sad smile on the bridge, the wind wisping through her hair.

    At least this way, she will die on her own terms.”

    And… you’ll be okay with that?”

    We both knew what she meant.

    I’ll be fine.”

    I closed my eyes and let the silence settle over us again. None of us spoke for the rest of the ride, but when we arrived at the forest, Rin told the driver to stop. She paid him after we got out, but he seemed a little reluctant to leave three teenagers out in the woods.

    Once the car was out of sight, Saber materialized her armor. I looked at the pathway leading deeper into the misty woods. There wasn’t a presence like that of Central Park, but instead actual spirits filled with remorse and pain wafting through the trees. The branches stretched out in a canopy over the forest, constricting the light to further make the mist seeping between the dark trunks an opaque wall.

    I took a few steps forward…

    Shirou, wait!”

    I placed my foot down and felt a thin shock run up my leg. I jumped back and pulled a key into my hand. Rin let out a sigh.

    Don’t act so recklessly,” she berated. “You’re lucky it just seems to be a surveillance field. It could have been a defensive barrier.”

    So, she knows we’re here,” I replaced the key in my pocket.

    So it would seem,” Archer materialized beside his master. “I don’t think it will be an issue, though. If she wanted to keep us out, that recoil would have been far worse.”

    He’s right,” Rin agreed.

    She walked up to the point I felt the shock. She reached out and placed her foot before pulling it back with a yelp. She looked over her shoulder with a slight smile.

    Well, we’ve got a long walk ahead of us. Shall we get started?”

    **********
    After walking for around two hours and seeming to be no closer to our destination among the cavernous trees of the forest, Archer held out a hand to signal us to stop.

    There are two figures up ahead. The mist prevents me from making out specific details, but they seem to be approaching us.”

    I slipped a few keys from my sleeves to my hands while Rin prepared a gem in hers. Saber took up a position in front of me while Archer continued to stand beside Rin, arms at his sides.

    We didn’t have to wait long before they came into view. Two figures dressed in white and blue dresses that covered them from head to toe approached us. They both walked with a strange purpose and ease, which was impressive, considering one of them carried a large halberd with a white and red blade. I was even more impressed as the halberd opened up to me and I realized how heavy the weapon truly was. Even if I were to reinforce my arms to their fullest, I’d hardly be able to carry the weapon, much less wield it effectively.

    The women stopped a few meters from us, and I noticed more details. Their faces were pale with red eyes like Illyasviel. Their facial structures were even similar. For some reason, I had forgotten that the Einzberns were one of the foremost creators of homunculi. Even if Illyasviel had parents, she would have to be a homunculus as well to become the Grail. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t realize that.

    Shirou Kotomine,” the empty-handed maid said. “Rin Tohsaka. Your presences have been requested by Lady Illyasviel von Einzbern.”

    The homunculus that had spoken curtsied. Her companion mirrored her, though, with only one hand.

    My name is Sella,” she spoke once more. “And this is Leysritt. We are the Mistress’s personal maids, and we have been sent to escort you to the castle.”

    I glanced at Rin who gave me a small shrug. If they wanted to keep us away, the last two hours would have been a lot more difficult, especially with their surveillance field. She wanted us to come, and she was rolling out the red carpet.

    I raised my forearms and let the handles fall back down my sleeves.

    I don’t suppose you have a faster means of travel,” I asked as I approached the maids.

    Unfortunately, no,” the maid named Leysritt replied in a monotone voice. “It makes going to the market rather difficult.”

    Now then,” Sella turned and began heading back to where she came from. “Follow us and do not fall behind. I will not waste time waiting for you.”

    Leysritt followed her fellow maid as the others moved up beside me.

    What do you think will be waiting for us,” Rin asked as we paced after them.

    If I had to make a guess,” I answered with a touch of wryness. “Tea and conversation on the sidelines of Berserker slaughtering our servants. At least…”

    I paused for a second. I wasn’t sure if the homunculi had greater hearing than a human’s, but they likely wouldn’t take to kindly to our intentions with their mistress.

    …I assume that’s what’s waiting for us,” I finished the thought.

    Rin fell silent after this, and we spent the next couple hours trailing behind the maids through the dead forest. Every step further in seemed to bring us no further than the last. The landscape of barren and withered trees over crunching dead grass stretched on as far as could be seen, the dense fog cutting off any hope of seeing the end.

    Which made it all the more striking when the mist finally cleared away to reveal the castle. A towering structure of red stone with windows and white arches lining its face and spires rising up to pierce the grey sky. There was something oddly peaceful about it, but also something very cold, like it was an image frozen from a time long passed. I had read that the Einzberns moved this castle from their homeland and reconstructed it here. If this was anything like those they had back home, I could understand Illyasviel’s isolation. This castle was too big for one girl.

    I wasn’t given much time to contemplate the view as the maids brought us into a spacious entryway. A checkered floor stretched out from us to white stairway, a crimson carpet rolled down to rest at its base.

    You will wait here,” Sella turned to face us. “While we alert the Mistress to your arrival. Please…”

    That won’t be necessary, Sella.”

    Everyone’s eyes were drawn up the stairs to the girl in purple and white who had spoken. She descended the stairs, unbothered by the stern look her maid was giving her.

    Mistress,” the maid admonished. “It is one thing to allow them into the forest unimpeded. It is another to…”

    They are my guests, Sella,” Illyasviel said as she stepped off the stairs. “And they will be treated as such.”

    She stood a couple meters away, her red eyes glinting with what I interpreted as happiness. Again, the keys hidden throughout my jacket felt a little heavier.

    It’s good to see you again, Shirou,” she said with a smile.

    Einzbern,” I gave a slight bow of my head.

    Her smile disappeared, replaced by an irritated pout.

    I told you,” she crossed her arms in a childish manner. “You can use my first name.”

    Despite myself, a tiny smile moved on my face for a moment.

    I don’t believe you’ve met my companion,” I gestured toward Rin beside me.

    Hello, Miss Einzbern,” Rin gave a small smile. “My name is…”

    Rin Tohsaka,” Illyasviel’s pout vanished, replaced by another smile. “I must say that I was a little surprised when I found out you two were working together. Then again, didn’t something similar happen in the previous war?”

    Rin’s smile froze on her face before she laughed softly.

    I hadn’t really thought about it,” she linked her hands behind her back.

    I hadn’t either, but she was right. Mine and her father had formed an alliance early on in the last war. It was why Father gained possession of Archer after her father’s death. I suppose history repeats itself.

    Well, now that introductions are taken care of,” Illyasviel bounced over and grabbed my arm, pulling me toward the stairway with Saber following suit. “We’ll be waiting in the living room. Please prepare us some tea.”

    Mistress!” the maid exclaimed indignantly as she led me past her. The girl ignored the maid’s outburst, wrapping both her arms around my left.

    I looked back at Rin and Archer, Archer watching with mild interest while Rin now frowning. They moved after us as Illyasviel continued ascending the stairs with me.

    I’ll give it to the girl. She was as shrewd as I thought she could be. If Rin and I had barely known each other before this war, these actions might’ve caused her to start suspecting foul play. However, Rin knew better, and all Illyasviel likely did was irritate her. Then again, that may have been the actual reason for it.

    As we walked further into the castle, I was surprised by the aesthetic compared to the outside. The dark and washed-out hues of the forest were in direct contrast to the warm reds, greens, and golds of the castle interior, as though the colors were meant to bring summer into a land of winter.

    The entire walk through the corridors of the castle, Illyasviel held tightly to my arm, leaning against it with a contented smile on her face. That day, when she was dragging me around Shinto, she had the same smile. I wondered how often she wore that face.

    I wondered what face she would make when I pierced her heart with my blade.

    She opened a door and led me into a large room with three windows bearing red drapes, light reflecting off the white floor before ceasing against the forest green carpet at the center of the room. Two red sofas sat across from each other on either side of a table that matched their length. Two chairs of similar design were placed on the ends of the table, all of which rested on the carpet. A fireplace sat on the far side of the room, unlit and visibly dusty from lack of use. There were even a few logs waiting to be placed within. The “living room” didn’t seem very lived in.

    Illyasviel released my arm and danced over to a sofa before plopping into it. She looked at me expectantly, patting the empty space beside her. I moved forward, and it seemed to be Rin’s turn to grab my arm, pulling me to the sofa opposite Illyasviel before letting go and sitting down. I sat and watched Illyasviel puff out her cheeks and glare childishly at Rin. She was really playing it up for her.

    Einzbern,” I started to say.

    Illya,” she crossed her arms and gave me an imperious look.

    You know the reason that we’re here,” I continued past her statement.

    Of course,” she cheerfully nodded her head. “I just thought you might be tired after your long walk. It wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying to beat you due to exhaustion.”

    Or,” Rin countered. “Your buying time while your maids prepare some form of trap.”

    Rin,” I saw Rin bristle as Illya used her name. “If I wanted to trap you, you would have never made it through the forest.”

    Rin continued to frown at the girl as I spoke.

    I would assume you already have somewhere in mind for us to fight, considering I doubt you want this castle to be torn apart.”

    Illya glanced around the room for a moment.

    "No,” she said with a shrug. “I don’t really mind. This place can’t get much colder, so a few breaks in the walls wouldn’t change much.”

    Rin tilted her head to the side, obviously wondering about the girl’s nonchalant words.

    So,” Illya glanced at Saber and Archer who had decided to stay by the door. “Which one of you will be fighting Berserker?”

    I will be his opponent.”

    Every eye in the room was drawn to Archer.

    Archer,” Rin said, just as surprised by her servant’s interjection as everyone else. “I actually think it would be better if Saber fought him.”

    Archer side eyed my servant.

    I suspected that you wouldn’t tell him. If you aren’t careful, your pride will be your undoing.”

    Saber,” my servant met my gaze. “What is he referring to?”

    She does an excellent job of hiding it,” Archer continued. “But she’s still recovering from the previous night. There’s a reason she was unconscious when you brought her home.”

    I narrowed my eyes, and Saber looked mildly ashamed. It explained the way she acted this morning.

    Besides,” he finished with a shrug. “I was growing rather bored of being a butler.”

    I sighed. None of this was going as planned.

    If you want,” Illya offered. “Berserker can fight them together.”

    No,” I told her with a wave of my hand. “Archer will be fighting alone.”

    I didn’t need to confer with Saber. It would have been enough that Archer volunteered to fight, but add in the reveal of her weakness, and her pride as a warrior wouldn’t allow it.

    The door opened and Sella walked in with a tray holding three teacups on saucers and a slowly steaming teapot.

    Thank you, Sella,” Illya told the maid as she placed the tray on the table and poured the tea into each cup. “That will be all.”

    The maid stayed a moment to glare at me and Rin before taking her leave. She was a lot more wary of us than her master.

    I am a little disappointed,” Illya picked up a saucer and sipped from the steaming cup. “I was hoping we could finish our fight, Shirou.”

    "If Archer fails,” I gave her a smirk that I didn’t feel. “I’ll be more than happy to finish what he started.”

    I could still make this work. After Archer’s exhausted Berserker, I could slip in and deliver the killing blow. Saber would be able to keep him off us until he burned out, and I’m certain Rin and I could kill the maids, though the one with the halberd may be an issue.

    Then again, maybe Archer would win, and no one else will need to die. If that happens, it’s possible I could convince Illya to join us until she becomes the Grail. A powerful magus like her would be a useful ally even without a servant.

    Wishful thinking.

    You know,” she replaced the cup on the saucer in her hand. “You’ll both be at my mercy when Berserker kills your servants. I wonder what I’ll do with you.”

    "If you believe it will be that simple,” Rin picked up her own cup. “Then you underestimate the power of the Tohsaka heiress.”

    Putting the attention on yourself to draw it away from where it should be. Every now and then, Father’s teachings shone through.

    I’m not underestimating anyone,” Illya replied in a cheery tone. “Berserker is the strongest servant. With your servants gone, there won’t be anything you can do to stop him.”

    She took another sip as I stared down into the rich brown liquid of the remaining cup on the tray. I found that I wasn’t very thirsty at the moment.

    Really, Rin,” she continued placatingly. “You don’t have to be so cold. Just because we’re enemies doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy ourselves. Right, Shirou?”

    For someone who barely interacted with people, she was remarkably effective at getting under their skin. That innocent smile she wore as she did so only served to accentuate the jabs, whether they were intentional or not.

    Einzbern,” she frowned but didn’t correct me this time. “The time for fun is over. You should know that better than anyone.”

    Her eyes drifted down into the cup in her hands. The same sadness I’d seen that night welled in her eyes. I pushed it from my mind. This was what had to be… this was the only thing I could do.

    She took one last deep drink from the cup, blocking our view of her face until she was done. When the cup and saucer were placed back on the tray, her face had frozen over, and her red eyes had hardened. My jacket was beginning to weigh me down.

    Alright,” her voice had lost its previous cheer as she rose and moved toward the door, passing between the servants. “Come with me if you’re so eager to die.”

    She slammed the door as she exited, one last bit of childishness shining through. If Emiya had survived, how different would she be?

    Shirou?”

    I realized I’d been staring at the door. Rin was giving me a concerned look.

    I’ll be fine,” I reassured her, avoiding her eyes.

    She watched me for several seconds before standing up and moving to the door, Archer already opening it.

    You can take a minute if you need to.”

    She walked out without another word, her servant following.

    I found myself gazing into the dark brown depths of my untouched tea once more.

    Master,” Saber came to stand beside the arm of the sofa. “Do you truly believe this to be the correct path?”

    I watched the steam waft into the air, an amorphous cloud that vanished before it had a chance to form into anything.

    I’m not sure anymore,” I stood and looked to the door. “But there’s no turning back now.”

    Even if it leads to ruin?”

    Her words bore a somber familiarity, as though she understood the sentiment all too well.

    There’s something my father once told me,” I walked to the door. “You must accept what you cannot control, and you control what you have accepted.”

    I opened the door, giving Saber a calm smile as I did.

    So long as it’s my choice, I will take responsibility for the consequences.”

    The King didn’t meet my eyes, looking down at the floor.

    Let’s go,” I nodded to the door. “If Archer fails, it will be up to you to finish what he started. Will you be able to carry out your duty?”

    Saber’s hand curled into a fist, and she lifted her head to show a steely resolve in her eyes.

    Without question, Master.”

    **********
    Berserker kneeled in the intersection of the courtyard, surrounded by four beds of white flowers. The castle walls rose high above us, closing us in and separating us from the outside. Illya stood on the opposite side of the courtyard, her maids flanking her on each side. Archer began walking toward the giant servant with his swords at his sides, leaving Rin, Saber, and I standing near the entrance.

    This would make getting to her difficult, but I trusted Saber to give us the opportunity. All we could do for now was wait.

    Berserker,” Illya called.

    The giant that had seemed more akin to a statue moments before began to stir.

    Kill him.”

    The beast stood, its massive blade lifting into the air before swinging down alongside an inhuman roar of challenge. Archer watched with calm eyes as mana began flooding the air, wrapping and writhing across Berserker’s form as an aura of blood red energy. Archer spun the swords in his hands before readying himself.

    The stone cracked underneath Berserker as he charged toward the smaller servant like a train, the slab of rock he held in his hand whirling toward Archer. Archer dodged to the side as the weapon slammed into the ground, shattering the stone pathway with little issue. Archer delivered a gash to the servant’s arm before dashing back to avoid Berserker’s followed-up swing.

    Archer flashed forward, swords swinging with blinding speed as he drew himself into Berserker’s guard. Berserker took two thin slashes to his chest as he reeled backward and flipped onto his empty hand, spinning his legs toward Archer before taking to his feet once more. Archer leapt forward, jumping the attack, and jammed his swords into Berserker’s shoulders before pushing off him. I was surprised to find that he left the blades imbedded in the giant’s skin and created two more in his hands.

    The servants continued this earthshattering battle with greater speed and ferocity after every clash, Berserker’s rage and incredible power somehow being matched by Archer’s methodical strikes and fluid motions.

    However, it was clear to everyone watching that Archer couldn’t fully compensate for the increasing attacks. Berserker spun the massive ax like it was weightless, his furious blows sweeping through the air and carving through the surroundings unimpeded. Archer was admirably avoiding the strikes while dealing attacks of his own, but it was visibly obvious each evasion was closer than the last.

    Even so, Archer continued to impale swords into Berserker. As he retreated back to a wall, he had finished placing two swords into Berserker’s side, with matching blades in his shoulders, one leg, and both arms. Berserker seemed unbothered by the metal jutting from his flesh, chasing after the servant relentlessly.

    Archer jumped back and launched off the castle wall, avoiding Berserker plowing his blade into it and unleashing a cloud of dust. Archer materialized a black bow as he flipped through the air, a sword projecting into his other hand. A strange blade with a spiraling design appeared, and he nocked it into the string like an arrow and drew it back, its form shrinking and lengthening, all within the span of a breath.

    Berserker’s head jerked up to look at the archer, his body spinning and leaping up toward him. Meanwhile, Rin’s eyes went wide as she pushed me behind her, a green gem in her hand expanding into a large wall of emerald energy in front of us. Saber grabbed me and pushed me behind her in turn before I could object.

    Get down!”

    Berserker roared as he flew closer to Archer, his blade already swinging to meet him. Archer didn’t flinch, releasing the projectile directly into the giant’s face.

    Caladbolg!”

    It was almost instantaneous. One moment, both servants were hanging in the air. The next, Berserker was flung backward into the castle wall before the entirety of it was consumed in a monstrous explosion of power. The foundations of the earth shook and cracked as the force rippled out from the blast. Waves of energy washed over us, and Rin stretched her arms toward the field, taking the brunt of the attack. Her face contorted from the strain of holding the field against the aftereffects of the weapon.

    When the dust finally settled, Rin lowered her arms with heavy breathes, and the field vanished. Just how much force had she held back? I moved to her side and put a hand on her shoulder. She turned her head and gave me a tired grin.

    A lot,” she said between breaths. “Harder… than I thought.”

    I chuckled a little at that as I set my eyes once more on the scene of destruction before us.

    The wall Berserker had crashed into was decimated in the most literal sense. Save for the spires connecting it to the other segments of the castle, the wall, along with the hallways and rooms within, were gone. Rubble and what appeared to be the remnants of furniture littered the ground leading out to the thick forest surrounding the estate. I could make out Berserker’s headless body crumpled into the crushed remains of tree trunks. All that power, and only his head was missing? Even the swords Archer impaled in him were still there, thought their pommels had been shredded.

    I moved my eyes over the broken courtyard, fixing my eyes on the group on the other side. The maid known as Sella had begun dissipating a blue barrier around her companion, the other maid having moved in front of Illya to put something else between her and the attack. As they gazed upon the missing section, they each had different reactions.

    The maid with the halberd looked completely unmoved, her face the same neutral mask at had been since I first saw her. The other maid, however, was obviously very displeased by the damage inflicted on the structure, which was a tamer reaction than one might anticipate. Illya, in direct contrast to her maids, was wearing an excited grin on her face.

    I continued my surveyal of the yard but couldn’t find Archer. At least, that was until I looked up. The blue shingles lining the roof of the castle were shattered by a red figure embedded in their body. Despite that, Archer managed to look relaxed, like he had planned it to unfold this way.

    Well, Einzbern,” Rin gave the girl across the courtyard a triumphant look as her breathing steadied. “It would seem your servant wasn’t as strong as you thought.”

    Illya’s giggles could easily be heard across the distance.

    Silly Rin,” she called over to us. “You really shouldn’t celebrate so quickly.”

    Rin’s smile shrank as we turned to look at Berserker’s body. The area where his neck had been shook and bulged. I couldn’t avert my eyes as a new head, long mass of hair and all, rapidly grew from the stump. His eyes burned red as they opened, and he pushed himself from the broken trees.

    The curse of resurrection,” I heard Saber say as Berserker roared, his head turning upward to Archer on the roof.

    Curse?” I asked, glancing at her.

    The rolling back of time,” her eyes were fixed on Berserker. “A noble phantasm that activates after death.”

    Could something that powerful really exist? Is this why Illya called him the strongest servant?

    Master,” I saw Archer standing up from the roof and noticed a gash in his side seeping blood. “Forgive me, but I’m about to put further strain on your mana.”

    Rin watched Archer as he jumped off the roof and landed in the courtyard, Kanshou and Bakuya appearing in his hands.

    Whatever it takes,” Rin swept her hand in front of her. “Just kill that monster!”

    Archer smirked as Berserker rushed back in at breakneck speed. With renewed vigor, the beast slashed his blade to clash against Archer’s. They danced around the courtyard with deadly velocity, the sound of metal clashing together mostly absent from before echoing out from the servants.

    Archer was blocking and parrying more attacks now rather than dodging them. Each impact drove Archer back, the servant beginning to show the wear from absorbing the attacks. Berserker slammed his sword down on Archer, growling in frustration as Archer held his ground under the weight.

    Keeping Archer pinned under the blade, Berserker swept his leg under the servant, tripping him as Berserker continued the movement and spun to kick the servant into the air. Archer tumbled into the sky as Berserker leapt above him, spinning on his side to swing the sword into the airborne servant.

    Archer was sent crashing back down into the stone, Berserker close behind him. Archer rolled out of the rubble as Berserker bashed down where he had been. Archer flipped to his feet only to immediately block a strike from Berserker. Archer was driven to the wall opposite where he’d shot Berserker, his back cracking the castle as he was forced into it.

    Berserker drew back his sword, pointing it at the trapped servant. Rin looked about ready to use a command spell to save him, but then Archer smiled.

    You may just be the strongest servant in this war,” Archer stared the beast down. “But, despite that, I find I can’t bring myself to disappoint my master.”

    Berserker let out a reverberating growl before covering the distance between them, thrusting the slab in his hand toward Archer. As he did, I noticed a large shadow shifting on the ground. I looked up to see what was casting it.

    A massive black sword plummeted from the sky and stretched from the hole that had been the wall to the servants. Its edge cut down the middle of the courtyard with its head cleaving the giant servant in twain.

    Archer extricated himself from the wall and the enormous sword disappeared as the halves of Berserker fell apart. He walked between the halves that had already begun to move back together to arrive at what had been the intersection. His movements were slower, and I could see the back of his mantle was shredded to pieces. Despite his demeanor, how much damage was he actually taking?

    Shirou Kotomine,” he said as he turned back to face the reviving Berserker. “If power is truly what you seek, then this is your ideal.”

    I wondered what he meant by that as mana began to weave through the air around him in blue waves.

    I am the bone of my sword.

    Mana pulsed out from him in waves across the courtyard. The maids stood at the ready while Illya’s eyes widened in wonder while staring at Archer.

    Steel is my body, and fire is my blood.

    As he spoke, Berserker’s body drew together as threads of mana anchored and pulled the pieces.

    I have created over a thousand blades.

    Berserker’s chest mended, and his body rose to its feet.

    Unknown to death,
    Nor known to life.

    Blue flames grew from the fissuring cracks littering the courtyard, flashing up and burning around us without heat. The ground opened further as fire swarmed across the ruined flower beds and up the broken walls.

    Have withstood pain to create weapons.


    Berserker’s head knitted together, and his eyes lit up.

    Yet, those hands will never hold anything.

    Berserker whirled on the servant, roaring in rage and defiance. He launched forward, becoming a whirlwind of destruction as he tore through the distance between them.

    So as I pray, Unlimited Blade Works.


    The world exploded as the flames erupted, carpeting the courtyard in a swirl of blue and red. Clouds of ash and dust swirled around us, causing me to cover my eyes. As I drew my arm away, I saw it.

    Dark clouds roiled across the horizon of the desolate world. Embers from dying flames flickered over the rust covered desert. Blades of every shape and size jutted from the wasteland like grave markers. Massive and ancient gears slowly rotated through the shadowy cloud expanse. And, above it all, Archer stood on a hill, overseeing his domain.

    This world. I’d never seen it before. Never once, in my most fantastical of dreams, had I witnessed anything like it. Yet, I knew this place. I intrinsically understood this world the moment I saw it, like it was ingrained deep within my soul. I knew it, I understood it, but that was impossible.

    A world of infinite weapons. A factory born of steel and fire.

    Saber was kneeling next to me, asking me if I was alright. Wait, when did I fall to my knees? Why did my head feel like it was going to burst? I tried to push myself back to my feet, but the world spun like a carnival ride.

    So, this is your noble phantasm, Archer.”

    Rin hadn’t noticed my weakened state, which I appreciated. She was focused on her servant who now stood a distance away from the rampaging Berserker.

    Heh,” Archer shook his head, a smile still on his lips. “I have no such thing. However, if a noble phantasm is the symbol of a Heroic Spirit, then this would be mine.”

    Through the pain of the hammer banging on the inside of my skull, I forced myself to watch the battle. Archer wanted me to see something, and I’d be a fool to ignore him.

    Berserker bounded toward the red servant, but his assault was hampered by a barrage of swords and spears launching from the ground toward him. His pace was slowed, but his weapon bashed the projectiles aside as he continued advancing on Archer.

    Weapons rose and fired from every direction at the unstoppable monster, piercing his flesh and forcing him to the ground before he rose again, continuing his mad charge. Four times he fell before finally reaching the foot of the hill from which Archer watched upon.

    As Berserker raced uphill, Archer readied the twin blades in his hands. The servants clashed once more atop the hill, every furious strike from Berserker threatening to smash it back into the earth. Every swing of Archer’s blades sent weapons cascading down upon Berserker.

    There was a moment where his enemy stopped moving, and Archer dove between his legs, swords slashing through them as he did so. The servant rolled down the hill as Berserker was revived, swerving as he reached the bottom before flipping back, facing his enemy.

    My head pounded incessantly with every second I watched the exchange. Archer was dying. I think Rin could see it too. The fight had been moving so fast, it would be impossible to pick up every detail.

    Wounds spilled blood over his armor and mantle, gashes littering his limbs and body. His white hair was gaining streaks of red running down its length and matting to his skull.

    His smile remained fixed on his lips.

    Berserker rushed him, and Archer hurled his blades at him. The swords spun past him, and Archer mirrored his charge while creating two more swords in his hands. Berserker swung his sword, but Archer allowed it to deliver a glancing blow this time. Archer reeled for a fraction of a second before slipping into the servant’s guard. He impaled the swords in Berserker’s chest, quickly followed by the swords that had sailed past the servant jamming into the giant’s back. Berserker’s free hand whipped out and smashed into Archer’s chest, driving the servant away.

    Archer landed on his feet, coughing blood, but still materialized two more swords in his hands. He charged Berserker again, his blades elongating and widening into something more akin to longswords as he ran. Berserker roared as his weapon swung to meet the servant, but the blade in his right arm, barely visible after all the damage compounded on the servant, suddenly grew wider, severing it at the forearm. The hand and blade dropped from Berserker, and Archer slashed the blades across his chest.

    The swords in his hands vanished as Archer watched Berserker regenerate. Just as the beast’s eyes flared to life, the swords in his back burst through his chest before disappearing. Next were the two he’d placed in Berserker’s chest shooting out the back. Then, the two in his right-side divided Berserker into a top and bottom half. All the while, Archer kept himself standing within arm’s reach of the hulking beast, staring it down every time it came back.

    When Berserker came back again, the last five swords imbedded in him burst. The two in his right leg tore into the dusty ground while the ones in each shoulder separated his arms from his body. Finally, the blade in his left arm anchored it in the earth after it fell.

    Berserker howled and, despite missing two limbs and having a third limiting his movement, forced his body forward as though in an attempt to crush Archer beneath him. A longsword with a gold and black handle appeared in Archer’s hand, and the blade met Berserker’s neck.

    The world was drained of sound as the giant fell to the earth. His head tumbled a few meters across the rusty dirt before coming to a stop next to a grave marker. Archer stood still for several seconds before his knees started to give. He planted the sword in ground, leaning heavily against the weapon to stay on his feet.

    I can’t believe it…”

    I was somehow able to make out Illya’s quiet words. I glanced over to see a look of utter shock on her face as she gazed at the slowly fading form of Berserker. Her maids, however, were watching him carefully, aware that their defense against our servants had just disappeared.

    So, Master,” Archer looked over his shoulder at us, unbothered by the blood running down his face. “Did I meet your expectations?”

    Archer,” Rin was breathing heavily. The pull on her mana must have been strong to cause that. “I can honestly say you have surpassed my expectations.”

    Well then,” Archer turned his face to the dark sky. “I suppose there’s no point in keeping this world together.”

    As he spoke, the winds whipped up and the gears cracked. The landscape began to fall apart as some fundamental aspect of the world was stolen. Its collapse was a direct contrast to its emergence. A silent vanishing without fanfare, dusting away with the wind.

    We were once more in the destroyed courtyard of the Einzbern Castle. My headache almost immediately lessened as a pressure was lifted, but it wasn’t gone. At some point, Saber had looped my arm over her shoulder, pulling me up to my feet.

    Saber,” I winced from the pulse of pain. “Walk me to Einzbern.”

    Huh?” Rin turned toward me, noticing my condition for the first time. “Shirou, what happened to you?”

    Master,” Saber gave me a curious look. “I don’t believe that is necessary.”

    I looked over at Illya. Tears were running down her cheeks, but no cries escaped her lips. She just stared at Archer, unable to pull her eyes away.

    Take me over there.”

    Rin looked on worriedly as Saber helped me across the crumpled remains of the courtyard. Illya’s maids put themselves between us, ready to fight. Illya shifted her gaze to me, and the sadness and fear in her eyes made my next step clear.

    I must say, I’m impressed,” a pompous voice filled the courtyard. “That was wonderfully entertaining.”

    Then, everything exploded.

    Saber jumped and danced around, everywhere she stepped immediately impaled with a different weapon. I tried to find where they were coming from, but my head spun too much to narrow it down.

    I was thrown through the air and I tumbled till I hit one of the three walls. I wasn’t sure which until I pushed my back to it, keeping myself upright. Even through the haze my head was in, I was able to see what was happening.

    I was against the wall opposite Rin, and I confirmed that Illya and her maids were to my left, meaning the hole in the wall was to my right. I watched Saber dodging and blocking a barrage of weapon with every shape and size, the high velocity projectiles smashing everything they touched. Rin was sprinting toward me, weapons and debris rushing past her as she crossed the battlefield. Archer was nowhere to be seen, and I got the feeling he wasn’t just repositioning. Then, there was Illya.

    I recognized the servant that pulled his spear from her maids. Illya screamed something, but I wasn’t able to make it out. Lancer was in front of her, and his hand flashed over her forehead before she could even flinch. Her body fell, and the servant threw her over his shoulder.

    I followed the servant as he jumped up the wall and landed next to someone dressed in black and white.

    Archer?” Saber cried incredulously; her eyes set on the two figures. “How is this possible?”

    Archer?

    Saber,” the modern looking man said. “After ten long years, that’s the first question you ask? And here I was expecting so much more.”

    Shirou!” Rin kneeled down next to me. “Are you alright?”

    My back was sore from the hit to the wall, my head pounded with a furious rhythm, and I just watched a girl I barely knew lose everything once again.

    "Where’s Archer?” I asked, putting a hand to my head.

    He… he’s dead,” Rin looked down at her left hand, the seals symbolizing their connection having vanished.

    I would love to stay and catch up on old times,” The golden-haired man on the roof spook once again. “But this is not a battleground befitting kings. Besides, I have important business to attend to.”

    A large golden portal appeared in the air, and something in my head itched at the sight. Lancer placed Illya on the roof, and the portal descended over her before vanishing.

    However, this place is perfect for a dog. Don’t disappoint me and die before we have our time to dance once more.”

    The man then turned and leapt off the other side of the castle with Lancer returning to ground level. The servant strolled casually toward Saber, his spear resting across his shoulders.

    I began pushing myself up the wall, my headache continuing its slow ebb. Rin stood as well, looking over at the two servants.

    Lancer,” Saber spoke to the man in blue. “Why are you working with that servant?”

    My master seemed concerned about my ability to battle two servants alone,” Lancer said with a shake of his head. “Imagine my surprise when it was not Berserker, but Archer who was left standing. Gotta admire him for that.”

    Then you were coming here to finish us off?”

    Believe me, if it was up to me, we would have met a lot sooner. My master’s a bit of a coward though, so I was surprised when he gave me permission to do this.”

    Lancer’s spear left his shoulders and he flashed forward, the weapon becoming a red blur as it struck toward Saber. Saber parried the strike and counterattacked immediately, but Lancer ducked the invisible blade and slid to her side, striking once more.

    They bounced around the rubble, a discordant harmony of metal ringing with every move. I began sliding myself along the wall toward the fallen maids, Rin close behind.

    The blows dealt in this battle were less earth-shattering than the fight with Berserker, but the speed at which the combatants dueled was dizzying. Lancer streaked around, chasing Saber with the ferocity of a wild animal as his spear attempted to weave between her guard. Her sword was always there to meet it, retaliating with powerful swings.

    I stared down at the maids, their white clothes now stained red. Lancer had made it quick, each maid only bearing one wound. The one called Sella had taken it directly to the heart while Leysritt’s neck had been pierced through, severing her spinal cord. It happened so fast, they barely had time to react.

    Leysritt’s perpetually neutral face showed mild shock, unable to process what had happened. Sella, on the other hand, showed the pain and anger from her final moments. Sella had known she had failed.

    Rin,” I pushed myself off the wall, and a wave of nausea almost sent me to the ground. “How are you doing on mana?”

    Archer took a lot to pull off that reality marble,” Rin moved closer, linking her arm under mine to help keep me up. “But I still have six gemstones left.”

    Which wouldn’t be enough to let her escape, not that she would accept leaving me here. It was all up to Saber. However, that didn’t mean I couldn’t bolster our chances.

    Saber,” I held out my left hand. “With the power held within this command seal, fight beyond your limits.”

    The seal flashed and faded from my hand as the mana ran along the its bond to Saber. Golden light enveloped Saber, and she suddenly went on a greater offensive. Lancer was now being forced back by her onslaught of strikes.

    You’re everything I hoped you would be,” Lancer said as he leapt away, putting several meters between him and his opponent. “After watching you for so long, I knew you would be a worthwhile opponent.”

    Lancer spun his spear, locking it in his right arm and crouching low to the ground.

    Come now, King of Knights! Show me everything you have to offer!”

    Saber readied her unseen blade and charged.


    Interlude: An Old Ideal


    It’s faint, but I can sense mana residue.”

    I watch my master stare up the closed off building. I was surprised when she told me we would be investigating the strange occurrences around Fuyuki, but I believe it to be a wise decision. During a grail war, any unusual occurrence tended to be connected in some way to mages. You can always discern something of a magus through their use of magecraft, so any information gleaned even after the fact was valuable.

    Meaning the gas leak explosion was no accident,” Rin’s hand clenches at her side. “I can’t believe they're involving outsiders.”

    I hold my tongue from mentioning her actions the previous night. Whether he was a master now or not, the boy had been an outsider when we chased after them. Allowing Lancer to dispatch him would have been preferable. Not that it mattered, as we still managed to lose sight of them.

    Rin slips under the yellow tape and into the building with me following close behind. Despite the light streaming in through the windows, the building manages to be dark and oppressive. Paths lined out in the tile floors lead deeper into the building, and Rin begins to walk along them.

    The boy is going to be an issue later,” I say as I stretch out my senses throughout the shadowy complex.

    So you keep telling me,” Rin says dismissively. “As though I’m not already aware of that fact. The moment he arrived on my doorstep; I knew he would be an issue.”

    Yet, you still took him in. We could have removed a dangerous obstacle easily. A Saber can be a most troublesome adversary.”

    "Are you afraid, Archer?” she asks in a somewhat mocking tone.

    I am simply advising my master on the best course of action,” I calmly reply. “Whether or not she acts on it is up to her.”

    I’m certain it’s impossible to raise an eyebrow in spirit form, but I feel I did when she let out a small laugh at my words.

    You sound like him,” she says as she begins ascending a set of stairs.

    I fall silent as we continue forward, Rin becoming solely focused on investigating the building.

    **********
    The flow is towards Ryuudo Temple?”

    Yes,” Rin says as she gazes down at the emergency personnel. “All that life force is flowing towards the mountains. Caster is most likely behinds all of the comas.”

    So, there’s a witch at the temple.”

    We’ll have to be more cautious in how we play our hands. If Caster can draw in power from such a distance away, her influence must be spread out across the city.

    Then,” I voice aloud. “It’s likely she witnessed our battle with Lancer. We are fortunate it ended before we revealed too much.”

    It seems Shirou’s intervention helped more than we thought,” she says thoughtfully as she turns to face me. “You are still able to sense Caster?”

    I am,” I say as I narrow my eyes. “But I believe it would be wise to pull away for the moment. If she has already established herself so firmly, it will take more than power to defeat her.”

    Maybe you’re right,” she walks past me. “But I cannot stand by and allow her to do as she wishes. We’ll track her down and finish her before she can run back to the temple.”

    You won’t be satisfied until you pick a fight with her,” I stand and face her. “But when a wounded master is at your doorstep, you welcome him in and care for him.”

    I will not continue to have this argument with you, Archer,” she glances over her shoulder at me. “To defeat him then would have been a poor excuse for victory.”

    And had it been Lancer’s master or Caster’s master, would you have done the same,” I retort.

    She moves her eyes back over the rooftops.

    “You’re letting emotion cloud your judgement,” I take a few steps closer. “Don’t forget that he is just as much an enemy as Caster.”

    I know that,” her hair waved in the wind. “Which is why I will defeat him on my terms.”

    I open my mouth to speak further but close it immediately. Now is not the time for this. I walk up beside her and pick her up, leaping from the roof. Rin faces forward as I dutifully follow the trail Caster left leading us toward Ryuudo Temple.

    Shirou Kotomine. Such a small change, yet, I can already see the differences for myself. The boy and Rin weren’t nearly as close from what little I recall. He didn’t even receive the pendant on that night.

    I bound across the rooftops and eventually the bridge as the trail of mana leads me onward. As I suspected, we are too late to stop Caster from retreating to safety. However, there is still merit in investigating the temple. Any information we can glean about the witch will be useful.

    Imagine my surprise when we find the boy and his servant descending the stairs leading to the temple. Landing on a building a short distance away, I place Rin on the roof.

    Why is he here of all places,” she muses aloud.

    Perhaps the same reason as you. Is he capable of sensing the flow of mana as you are?”

    Not to nearly the same degree,” she places her hand to her chin. “Something as subtle as Caster’s draining should be beyond him.”

    As she continues watching them make their way to the street, something odd brushes against my senses. An additional presence skulking about the area. They’re doing an excellent job at concealing themselves, as I’m barely able to register them. That presence proceeds to be overshadowed by the immense pressure coming from the road.

    I direct my eyes toward the source and am suddenly filled with a familiar dread I have not felt in a long time. Seems there are some things not even time can sweep away.

    A young girl in purple stands next to what would have been a behemoth of a man. The servant towers over her easily, remaining motionless like a statue save for the wafts of steam curling from its mouth.

    Rin takes notice of the new figures as well, but I remain focused on finding our hidden observer. The overwhelming power the new arrival is giving off, though, makes this a near impossibility.

    Surrendering to the inevitable, I push that strange feeling from my mind, and the servant that could only be Berserker lets out a bellow as it charges.

    The boy is tossed aside by Saber before she is overtaken by the servant. The shockwaves blast over the distance between us, Rin drawing an arm up to her eyes. Under her arm, she focuses her eyes on the boy, her lips becoming a thin line.

    Without a word, I project my bow and draw an arrow back, taking aim at the dueling servants.

    No,” Rin lowered her arm, hair still whipping around behind her. “Not yet.”

    My vision narrows, but my hands let the bowstring return to its starting position, remaining there in anticipation.

    The girl is now standing over the boy as the combatants ravage the street around them. She’s saying something, but I’m unable to make out anything more than that. The boy’s face is calm in spite of his precarious position, and he appears to be holding conversation with her. Rin’s neutral expression twitches slightly when the girl appears to let out a laugh.

    The warriors rush past them as the boy creates a spear and pulls himself up. Rin appears unsurprised by this, meaning this isn’t an unfamiliar sight. He’s farther along than I thought.

    The boy reaches out his hand to the girl, with her responding in kind. She then finds herself being yanked forward as the boy releases the spear. They spin, the boy wrapping his right arm around her as his other holds a long blade to her neck.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d think the boy was intentionally trying to mess with me.

    Rin stares with unabashed interest at the exchange, her eyes transfixed on the two masters. I have to wonder what’s going through her head as she watches.

    Then, as quickly as it had occurred, the hold was broken. The girl steps away before turning back to face the boy, exchanging a few more words we are unable to hear.

    The servants still battling a distance away ceased as Berserker suddenly turns and rushes over toward his master.

    Archer!” Rin commands, a tremor of worry lining the word.

    I bring the bow up and draw the arrow once more. I take quick aim at the Servant that stopped in front of his master. My fingers begin to slip from the string before another presence washes over me. I whirl and loose an arrow to my left. The arrow flies through a strange shimmer in the air, and the presence vanishes. It wasn’t the same presence as before. How many Servants were watching this fight?

    What were you firing at?” caution and annoyance mix in her words as she briefly glances where I had fired.

    We aren’t the only observers tonight,” I nock another arrow and take aim once more. Both Berserker and his master are walking past the boy and Saber, the latter of which loops her master’s arm over her shoulders. I’m tempted to fire but know I can’t mask it behind collateral damage.

    I release both bow and arrow back into my marble.

    Not that it matters now,” Rin turns her attention back to the duo making their way down the road. “Unless you can follow them.”

    Whoever they are, they’ve concealed themselves well,” I cast my gaze across the rooftops. “Perhaps Assassin was planning to take advantage of the conflict.”

    Rin doesn’t reply, continuing to watch the two figures walking away. Finally, she speaks.

    Let’s go home, Archer.”

    **********
    I open an eye as Rin shuts the door to the sitting room.

    You are far shrewder than I anticipated, Master,” I tell her as she walks past. “I did not expect you to lie so directly to him.”

    He didn’t need to know we were there,” she continues toward the stairs. “It would have only made him more cautious of what he shared. Like his father, he seems to enjoy informing others of what they are unaware of and, conversely, concealing what they could be aware of.”

    I glance at the closed door as I follow Rin to the stairway. Without Kiritsugu, just what had been imparted to that boy?

    I suppose you speak from experience,” I keep a few paces behind her. “From what I understand, he raised you as well.”

    That man didn’t raise me or Shirou,” she places her hand on the banister, her tone gaining a slight edge. “He acted as our guardian and played the role accordingly, nothing more. We raised each other.”

    Her grip tightens slightly before she moves up the stairs.

    Even so, sometimes I see too much of him in Shirou. If it weren’t for his heart, I’m not sure they’d be any different.”

    I remain at the base of the steps as Rin turns at the top toward her room.

    I expect something to be waiting for me when I wake up,” the sharp undertone vanishes from her voice. “Don’t disappoint me, Archer.”

    She disappears down the second-floor hallway, leaving me alone once more.

    Rin’s view of the boy may be skewed, but what she said still intrigued me. The boy seems to take after his father, no matter who they are. Yet, there is still a chance he could walk down the same path and perpetuate the cycle. Perpetuate the suffering. Even knowing that, a part of me falters at the thought, urging me to hold my blade.

    I’ve waited so long, and now, all I want to do is wait longer.

    What a hypocrite.”

    **********
    I stare carefully at the placid looking school. The bounded field is beyond anything a magus could create, barring a select few. The power and intricate weaving of magic flowing through the barrier separating the school from reality could only be the work of a noble phantasm.

    I could think of two ways to bypass this issue. Rin could call me into the field with a command spell, however, Saber has already been summoned by her master. It would leave Rin with only one command seal, and it’s possible I may be unneeded. Even so, I find I cannot simply stand by and wait while my master remains in danger. That only left one option, but that brought on its own issue. Namely…

    Having trouble, Archer?”

    I turn halfway to the origin of the sultry voice. A woman wrapped in deep purple robes that hid her form stands a few meters away, a small smile on the only visible part of her body.

    I project the married blades into my hands.

    No need for such unpleasantness, Archer,” she coos reassuringly, magic lacing her words. “Not when I’ve come to offer assistance.”

    I have no patience for your tricks, witch,” I point Bakuya toward her throat. “Take your aid elsewhere.”

    Such hostility,” she glides forward and brushes a gloved finger across the sword’s length. “Yet, you have the patience to leave your master in danger.”

    "Be grateful it takes priority over you,” I face the school, leaving my back exposed. “Now leave before I’m forced to change that.”

    I await the attack, already preparing the possible counters I could use. Instead, the servant continues speaking.

    Such a powerful bounded field,” the magic faded from her tone. “It’s almost a Reality Marble, but its anchor in this world prevents it from reaching such levels. How disappointing.”

    She silently moves up beside me, running a finger over the unseen barrier surrounding the school.

    If that anchor were to be destroyed, this entire field would collapse. Unfortunately, it lies beyond this boundary line.”

    I glare at her out the corner of my eye.

    I see you’ve taken my meaning. It would be quite difficult and time-consuming to break through the field here, but if one were to destroy the anchor…”

    I assume you have more to offer than words,” I give the servant a scowl, knowing what was coming next.

    Caster flows over to me, drawing her hand over my shoulders.

    "It’s possible I would be able to deal with your little issue, but…”

    Her lips draw closely to my ear.

    I would need something in return.”

    She moves away, floating along the boundary line.

    It wouldn’t be anything inconvenient for you. I simply desire a favor to be redeemed at my discretion. Nothing that would place your master in harm’s way, of course.”

    She stretches out an arm from her robe and, with a minor visual effort, passes it through the barrier.

    Saber is already within the field,” I tell her, wanting to see her reaction. “I doubt Rider is capable of defeating such a powerful opponent.”

    Perhaps,” she replaces her arm in the robe. “But are you aware of what Rider has been up to the last few days? With the mana they have stored up, I worry for the safety of the children within. Will Saber be able to protect them both?”

    I fall silent as I consider her words. Her hood peers at the clear sky above the school.

    You had best decide quickly, Archer,” the corners of her mouth rose slightly. “I believe something troublesome is about to occur.”

    The witch has me in a bind. Even if I reject her offer, she will continue to watch me. I can’t very well give away such an advantage so easily. Then, there was Rider. Absorbing mana from civilians would certainly boost a servant’s power, but would it be enough to engage a Saber in direct combat? No. There are plenty of open spaces within the school for the servant to evade such frontal conflict. This led to the power of Caster’s position. Under these circumstances, could Saber protect them both, or would she prioritize her master? More accurately, could I take that chance?

    Either choice would be to our disadvantage down the line, but one offered more opportunities than the other.

    I assume you have a favor in mind,” I probe the servant.

    "Not quite,” her body blurs momentarily as she moves past the barrier. “It could be today, could be tomorrow, but soon, I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

    Caster vanishes in a cloud of purple dust.

    I’ll be watching, Archer.”

    A soft laugh fills the air as the dust faded into nothing.

    I’m certain you will be,” I can’t stop a smirk from lighting on my lips. “But how much will you miss?”

    **********
    You want to help me practice?”

    I want to see,” I lowered Bakuya. “How far you have to go.”

    The boy gives me a curious look. I don’t expect him to understand what I mean. It wouldn’t matter if he did.

    You saw it, didn’t you? The history of the weapon.”

    I watch as the words work through his mind until I see comprehension cross his face. I act in that moment, tossing Bakuya into the air before charging. I wrap his collar in my hand, hurling him back toward where I had been. The boy rolls to a stop under the blade, dodging away as he realizes the danger.

    I bound over the distance, slamming my boot into his stomach to send him careening further over the lawn. I retrieve Bakuya from where it had been impaled.

    You claim that I am a failure, but you can’t even grasp your own power.”

    To prove my point for me, he projects more black keys into his hands. Even with it laid out before him, he’s unable to grasp the truth.

    I cross over and continue my assault, striking quicker than he could reasonably be expected to block. I can see the mana pulsing in his arms with every clash, barely allowing him to keep up. The moment it becomes clear how unsuited his weapons are for this battle, I drive the blade in.

    You say you’re not a burden,” I slam the married swords into his keys, digging them into the steel. “You say you’re going to win this war. You say you’re going to defeat Rin. How can you do that when you can’t even fight back?”

    I drive him to his knees before shattering his blades, spinning to bash Bakuya’s pommel into his unguarded shoulder and send him tumbling across the grass.

    Weren’t you the one who said you can accomplish anything without drive?” I taunt him further. “Then show me!”

    No matter his origin, Shirou will always be pushed by his own weakness. The only way he can become stronger is if he’s shown how lacking he is. It’s the only way he knows how to learn.

    Your greatest enemy is yourself. Your only option is to overcome him.

    I rush the boy once more, blades gleaming as I bring them down. I know the moment he says the words.

    Trace, On!”

    Mirror images of the swords in my hands clash with mine in a barrage of light and sound. Blow for blow, the blades move in tandem with each other, meeting and parting in a deadly dance of steel. His immediate understanding of the blades is proof of his progress, but his eyes would have been enough.

    It soon fades back into the cold calculation that pervades his eyes the majority of the time, but I see it. The determination to overcome. The will to reach beyond human limits for a goal. The very thing that would always be the ruin of Shirou.

    Even in this cracked mirror, one thing reflects perfectly.

    The boy parries a strike and bounces back, throwing his Bakuya whirling past me. Aware of what he’s attempting, I slash my Bakuya, causing him to block the attack. I spin with another slash from Kanshou and knock the offending blade from the air before it could find its place in my back. I ready my knee as I turn back and drive it into his chest, forcing him to collapse to his knees.

    I look down at the boy, his jaw clenched with pain. I feel it well inside me. Now was the time. Saber couldn’t stop me, not before it was too late.

    You’re farther along than I thought.”

    He looks up at me, eyes strangely unconcerned.

    But not far enough,” and you’ll go no farther.

    He starts pushing himself up, but Bakuya is already poised over him

    I tighten my grip and prepare to end this cycle, but, for the briefest instant, I hesitate. He stares me down as I act, and the calculation is gone. For a moment, I see something not even the eternity that swallowed me could wipe away.

    His eyes are voids, uncaring of life or death, simply consuming anything they could. The will, the essence of he who would become a Hero of Justice, was there, but it was without guidance. It pushed forward, drove him to become better, but had nothing it sought. It continued without purpose, a machine that worked because that’s all it knew. A machine that would eventually drive itself into the ground.

    Without a dream, Shirou is just a machine. I know that better than anyone.

    Then, it’s gone, and his eyes tell me he’s determining if he can avoid my attack, but he can’t. Bakuya plunges toward him, the white blade finally about to find its way into his flesh.

    That’s enough, Archer!”

    I halt the sword a hair’s breadth before it pierces his shoulder. I raise my gaze to Rin a few meters away, glaring coldly in my direction.

    Don’t you have chores you should be doing?” she asks as she walked toward us, her words making it clear it wasn’t an actual question.

    You won’t go farther than this,” I dismiss the swords as I speak. “If you don’t know what you’re fighting for.”

    I enter spirit form and trail silently off toward the house.

    That hesitation was enough. It would be over if I hadn’t hesitated. Why does a part of me insist on holding back?

    Dammit.”

    **********
    How did you know, Archer?”

    I consider whether or not to answer his question. By this point, the truth would serve no purpose. Even if he knew, it would be through the looking glass, separate and meaningless. Still, I find myself speaking.

    I knew a boy who was very much like you. A thickheaded and foolish boy who believed that, if he was strong enough, he could use his power to save others.”

    I tilt my head back, the hazy remnants of memories flitting through my mind.

    However, unlike that boy, I don’t believe you have such lofty goals. Your want for power stems from a similar place, and even your reasons for seeking it are closely linked.”

    I open my eyes and stare at the boy who in turn watched me carefully.

    But where you truly differ is your drive. That boy was chasing after an impossible dream and was driven by his ideals until they broke him. What is it that drives you, Shirou Kotomine?”

    I keep his gaze as he considers my words.

    A promise,” his eyes aren’t looking at me anymore. “That things can be better. That there’s something worth fighting for.”

    I sigh, shaking my head.

    You may be more alike than I thought.”

    That same childish idealism…

    Well,” I rise and move to the door. “If that is what you seek, then you must imagine a world where it is possible and make it reality. That is the only way you can ever hope to reach your goal.”

    A curious look is fixed on his face, but this is something I can’t answer for him.

    I’ll be waiting for you outside but be prepared to fight for your life.”

    I shut the door behind me, walking to the back door.

    He won’t become a hero. All the groundwork is there, but he’s missing the one thing that would set him on that path. Even if I did kill him, nothing would change. I’d still be trapped in this cycle.

    How cruel. The only thing I’ve ever truly wanted for myself dashed against the wall, just as before. That seems to be the fate of EMIYA.

    But what of Kotomine?” I muse to myself.

    A promise that things can be better. The part of me that had been so hesitant before speaks aloud for the first time.

    I think I’d like to see that.”

    **********
    Off to visit Berserker, are we?”

    I glance across the roof to the servant that had just appeared. I was sensing someone following me, but it isn’t her.

    I hope you’re not planning on dying to get out of our agreement,” she looks down at the taxi Rin is in. “I may have to take it out on your master if that happens.”

    The taxi starts moving again, and I begin leaping across buildings to follow.

    Not that I believe it will be an issue,” she flies alongside me, her robes billowing through the air. “After all, what self-respecting hero would go back on his word?”

    The other presence following me is almost certainly Lancer, as I doubt Assassin would be perceivable. It’s impressive one of his class can conceal himself so well.

    However, I believe in protecting my investments.”

    She moves to hover in front of me, staying an arm’s length away as I continue forward.

    Simply ask, and my power could be yours.”

    As tempting as that sounds,” I land on the roof’s edge as the taxi comes to a red light. “This offer I must decline.”

    There’s no need to be concerned,” she orbits around me slowly. “Just a few minor improvements, that’s all. I won’t even ask for another favor.”

    Of course not,” I say dryly to the witch. “After all, you’d only be helping yourself.”

    You make it sound like such a bad thing,” she brushes a finger against my shoulder as she circles, mana rushing through my circuits.

    I bat the hand away, glaring at her mildly surprised face.

    I will be the one to kill you.”

    She lets out a small laugh at my words.

    I’m certain you’ll try,” she glances down at the taxi. “But that’s for another day. Don’t disappoint me, Archer.”

    Purple shards fell through the air, and she was gone.

    I’m fairly certain that was enough, and Lancer proves me correct by moving away as well, his vague presence vanishing.

    Whether Caster was aware of him as well didn’t matter. If Lancer was following her, it meant his master was finally making his moves. If they were acting, the end of this war was near.

    I had one more part to play. After that, it’d be up to them.

    Be prepared, Shirou Kotomine,” I begin leaping after the car heading towards my second battle of the war.

    **********
    My world is made out of swords.

    A world of rusted and broken steel under an endless white horizon. My Hell between Hells.

    Nothing changes in this world set outside of time, tucked away beyond sight. A ruined canvas that forever teeters on the verge of collapse. The only monument to the one called EMIYA.

    And yet, this time, something feels different. Neither tangible enough to be seen nor ethereal enough to go unnoticed. A feeling of something new, something small. That’s all it is.

    It is likely this feeling will either fade away or become routine to the point it once more goes forgotten, but, so long as it remains, I take comfort in the knowledge that there was change in this eternal world.

    Then, I feel the familiar pull. The calling that I cannot refuse. The burden I am unable to bear but must. Perhaps, another time will come when I can escape, but, until that day, only one thing is certain.

    The cycle turns. Fate repeats. Only I remain stagnant.

    What greater hypocrisy is there?
    Last edited by Morg van Destro; October 29th, 2020 at 09:57 PM.

  19. #19
    屍食鬼 Ghoul
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    I think the setting descriptions are pretty hammy. The dramatic language could stand to be toned down.

    I like the catalyst for potential character development in Saber when Shirou says his line about accepting the consequences.

    How is Archer cutting Berserker with his usual, sub-A-rank weapons? Though, I like when the plan comes to fruition at the end.

    Given Rin and Shirou apparently know Kirei took over her dad's Archer after Tokiomi died, I expect Saber's explanation will quickly cause Shirou and Rin to realize Kirei is active in this war. I'm curious how Shirou will react.

    I like the throwaway "you sound like him" line. I like the trope of revisiting past scenes from a different point of view we didn't know is there and seeing why they don't interact with what we previously read. Caster being involved is ominous.

    Overall: Shirou's more calculating, manipulative personality seems superficial at this point. Maybe it's a matter of "high-pressure situations reveal true character," or the whole point is that Kirei being Shirou's role model doesn't change who Shirou truly is, but it feels like the first impression is a bait. Don't get me wrong: I like that Shirou is about to comfort Illya (I think). But, that's because I care about Illya, which is an entirely independent matter from Shirou's personality. Maybe I expected too drastic a change. I can see the arguments in favor of this presentation.

  20. #20
    リビングデッド Living Dead Morg van Destro's Avatar
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    Let it never be said I believe I am subtle or not overly dramatic.

    So many things, so little time.

    I don't do them often, but this is a small liberty I decided to take mostly for the awesomeness of that bit at the end.

    I suppose we'll see.

    Caster will sadly never see her plans fulfilled in this timeline. However, maybe in another...

    The point of his personality is more of a showcase of Kirei's influence on him. It has him looking into situations beyond simply wishing to help people, and often bringing rationalizations of why he's doing this thing for a person when he gets little out of it. With Illya, he wasn't going over there to comfort her. At least, not in a straightforward manner. With how he's been taught and acts, he would've laid out how she's out of the war, but there's no reason they have to keep fighting. Instead, he'd ask if she instead would be willing to join him and Rin, as she was still an incredibly powerful magus, and one that may have been able to help his own issue with Saber, with the obvious other side being that she stay out of there way and go as far away as possible. From a logical standpoint, the former is better than the later, but both remove an obstacle in the path. From a more emotional standpoint, either can be seen as him trying to protect her, with the first option aiding him in doing so.
    All in all, he hasn't changed too much beyond somewhat recognizing that his actions may be spurred on by more than just self-serving motives, with the only person he recognized those before was Rin (mostly because he didn't think about them).

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