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Thread: Fate/Last Stop

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    Type-Pluto Sanrei's Avatar
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    Fate/Last Stop


    A spin-off of the popular Fate series set in a quiet village in Siberia in the year 1981. A young student suddenly begins hearing a mysterious voice in her head, telling her that she's been chosen as one of seven competitors in a death match against her will. Strange enemies and even stranger companions are brought to the fictional town of Polnoch in Northeastern Siberia in an epic struggle that pits heroes summoned from the ancient past against one another in a thrilling fight for survival and victory.

    ** Art is made by yours truly **












    Last edited by Sanrei; June 10th, 2021 at 12:07 AM.

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    Type-Pluto Sanrei's Avatar
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    Prologue

    ~Forty-two years before present day~

    Tonight, the moon's light was a particular brand of intoxicating.

    It has always had a certain...radiance to it, the mystic noted, something he never quite appreciated in his youth. Even though the hue of the moon was no longer the color he preferred, he nevertheless appreciated its unchanging majesty.

    The mystic sat, cross-legged, on a cliff's edge overlooking the sea. He perched upon a rocky outcropping overlooking the quiet dwellings of the city folk. During the day, one would struggle to even see this city beneath the industrial smoke and lights, but at night, when all production ceased, and the sounds of war were silenced, it was almost a charming place.

    In his hand, a simple brass and wood pipe, which let off several wisps of iridescent smoke. The leaves he burned did nothing for him, but he was so accustomed to this habit that the mere act of smoking his pipe brought him peace. He could not remember the last time he had an opportunity to relax like this; for there was always work to be done. Even now, he was not sitting here by choice, but by invitation.

    A rustle of grass behind him signalled the arrival of his guest, a young woman who would have appeared out of place at any location other than a court ballroom. The Westerner stood facing the mystic with . The pale moonlight reflected off her amber-blonde hair and crimson dress in different ways, akin to a ray of sunlight dipped in a pool of blood. Her black and red silk dress was elegant, yet functional, fit for walking about in the humid Chinese summer.

    "I see you have finally decided to grace me with your presence tonight, disciple."

    The mystic's words, barely louder than a whisper, elicited a huff of indignation from the Westerner.

    "It's hardly my fault that you never bothered to specify our meeting location. If one of my familiars hadn't spotted you, I may very well have wasted the night wandering about like a headless chicken."

    "A headless chicken still works on instinct, my dear. Just as no recipe will lead to the perfect medicine, no directions will lead to the perfect destination. You must yet learn to feel."

    The Westerner snorted with derision.

    "That's why your Eastern Magecraft is so far behind ours. No methodology or logic behind any of it! It's no wonder your neighbor abandoned such frivolities in favour of our own Magecraft."

    The mystic was not stirred by these inflammatory words, for even with his tutelage, it was so very difficult for her to understand.

    "Have you perhaps not considered that to reach the realm beyond understanding, one must first acquiesce any illusions of control? The very 'logic' you have built as the foundation of your arts are the very shackles that bind your spirit."

    All of this was a retread, a pointless repetition of an argument acted out many times over these two years. Normally, such a discussion was nothing more than noise, a pointless exchange of sophistry that simply helped to alleviate boredom during study. Yet tonight, the finality of the discussion loomed.

    "I...I am leaving China," the Westerner said. "I think it best to return to my home after all these years."

    It was not a subject that the Westerner mentioned often, nor did the mystic care to ask.

    "I see. Even as you are yet far from the truth, it would appear as though you have found some answer."

    "Yes, it is time I faced my house. We may have failed, but there is nothing to be gained from hiding in the East."

    The mystic took another hit of his pipe, the scent filling his lungs with lavender. He turned away from her and back towards the cliff's edge. As if to celebrate the moon's presence, the tides danced along the sides of the rock wall. Each recession and advance seemed to grow in intensity, as though the ocean were attempting to crawl its way further and further onto the surface.

    "Be off with you then. If it was by whim that your life was saved, then it must be by whim that you leave with it."

    The Westerner instinctively placed her hand down at her side. Even after two years, the scars still bothered her, an old battle injury from a farcical war. Even without looking, it was easy enough to read her body language. A slight shuffling of the feet, a shift of body weight to the back foot. Hesitation. Fear. Perhaps, slight guilt?

    "You need not mind your lessons untaught. You are still but a fledgeling." The mystic spoke, "Perhaps in your wanderings, you will find your path."

    "The path I seek can't be found with Eastern Magecraft, it seems. I never thought I would have to seek it out alone, but regardless I can't stay here forever. I simply wished to say farewell before I left."

    The mystic considered the young woman standing behind him. He had taken her in as a disciple after she had seen his dispensing of medicines, but it was not an art that would have come easily to a foreigner. And while she appeared before him dying and wounded, she nonetheless possessed a fierce vitality to her being. Even despite his indifferences, he had grown fond of her in this short time, like a stone thrown into a still lake, creating change where there was once staticity.

    The mystic strode over to face the Westerner and present a small, hexagonal cylinder with inscriptions that lay written along its six faces. Inside, the slight movement of four small spheres could be felt.

    "Is this...?"

    "Shēngsǐ, the medicine I used to stave off your death. A small parting gift."

    The mystic did not wait for her to respond after she took it and began to walk away from her towards the city.

    "I don't understand. What am I to do with this?"

    The mystic cackled, a hoarse and lifeless laugh that seemed to signal a lack of air rather than an expulsion of it.

    "Who knows? Perhaps in your wanderings, you may trade it in the lands to the west for a charm that wards away the undead, which you may then trade for a dagger that steals the soul itself, which you may then trade for a flying carpet. Or you may even consume it yourself, and become like the living dead, resilient and undying. It matters not to me."

    The Westerner opened her mouth to respond. Then stopped. Instead, she withheld her response and instead delivered a deep bow.

    "Thank you, my teacher. I have learned many secrets of the East in our time spent here. And while I cannot accept them, I nonetheless give you my gratitude."

    The mystic stopped and turned his head.

    "Your fool's journey is doomed to failure, yet you pursue it with a degree of passion that I have seen bring down whole dynasties. I had hoped to spare you of that, but you are free to do as you will."

    The Westerner shook her head.

    "My journey was over the moment we lost the path to the Root. What remains now is merely the aftermath."

    Without another word, the two went their separate ways. Indeed, that was all their partnership had ever been, a simple give and take of information. The mystic stifled the tiny flame of the pipe with his crooked finger. She walked away with her life, one that she may waste as she pleases with those fools to the West. He, on the other hand, gained something far more valuable. Soon, he too would partake in a bloody dance that will bring that tedious, trivial, and terribly boring thing known as life to an end. He would need to relocate his workshop, trace the proper dragon's veins, find the perfect location.

    The mystic supposed that tonight was no night for moongazing after all. Tonight, he had much work to do.
    Last edited by Sanrei; June 10th, 2021 at 12:09 AM.

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    Type-Pluto Sanrei's Avatar
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    Day 0: First Stop, Last Stop
    December 19th, 1981.

    If there was one thing that Katja Petrovna Molchalin hated more than sleet, history class or angry dogs, it was Post Duty.

    To keep her fingers from turning numb, even with her mittens on, Katja sat on the painstakingly cleaned wooden bench with her hands placed beneath her legs. As she sat in her misery, shivering terribly in the midnight air, she had only her bubbling anger to keep her warmed.

    "W-when I get back home, I-I'm not leaving the studio for a week!"

    Uncle Grigori always told her that everyone eventually gets used to the cold, but as far as Katja was concerned, seventeen years and counting was far too long a wait.

    She supposed she should be thankful. Even though the train comes in once a week, Katja only ever needed to be on Post Duty once per month. As much as she knew she shouldn't complain, she felt that it was her only real method of coping.

    The sheepskin coat that she wore over her unremarkable brown dress kept the worst of the frost at bay, but just enough managed to seep through the cracks to numb her mind.

    Katja was the only one sitting in the station today. Just her luck. At least when there were others around, she wouldn't have to carry as much home. Plus, the conversation would at least provide enough of a distraction to keep her mind off freezing. But no, just her tonight.

    It wasn't surprising. Looking around, it had been years since the old train station had been renovated. Bits of rebar stuck out of the floor at odd, twisted angles like angry spears, threatening to impale any who didn't have their wits about them. Because of yesterday's sleet storm, the concrete floor was covered in a thin film of frost, making it a veritable walking hazard. And perhaps to top off this misery cake, the train was late, meaning that Katja, who had been sitting on this bench since 4 o'clock, had been sitting on this bench for - Eight. Continuous. Hours.

    Yes, Katja felt she was right to complain.

    Perhaps it would be helpful to think of this task as a sacred responsibility only you can perform.

    Katja chose to ignore the bodiless voice pestering her, instead focusing on her misery. It wasn't even that she hated getting the town's mail. She had never minded carrying heavy things, and the wait itself wasn't the most unpleasant. What really made the experience terrible was the fact that she was outdoors.

    Why?

    Why in the Lord's name is this station outdoors?

    In Moskva, Katja heard tell of stations walled on three sides by large stone buildings, there to shield poor citizens from the winter's fury. How much she would give for a boon like that! Katja imagined the freedom to wear something other than this heavy and itchy coat. To walk about without fear of fingers and toes turning purple. Or even, Lord forbid, to read a book to pass time instead of sitting and staring at the frozen steel tracks.

    The thought only succeeded in making her more miserable. Thankfully, it was only lightly snowing tonight.

    If I were you, I'd be proud to know that your entire village trusts you and your family enough to manage their entire contact from the rest of the world! The very thought would fill me to the brim with joy!

    Shut up. Katja still refused to acknowledge the voice in her head. Without her input, it would keep talking, but if she responded, she knew it would never shut up.

    I mean honestly! In my day, that kind of ingratitude would have resulted in a beating. Not that such a thing would be preferred, but it certainly taught a boy respect! How soft modernity has become!

    The voice kept speaking like that, like it wasn't from here. Katja made the conscious choice to ignore it. It's not as though she could keep up with its inane ramblings if she tried. She just told herself to stare at the tracks and keep her ears open. She'd hear the train long before she saw it.

    Why by the time I was your age, I had already become a soldier! Now that's a duty one could be proud of!

    "S-stop talking like you're my dad!"

    Dammit. Katja responded on instinct. If the voice had a face, she was sure it was grinning now.

    Ah, looks like someone found their tongue after all. To be perfectly honest, I had thought that my Spirit Origin was broken. Or maybe you simply left your ears at home.

    "W-what do you think I am, some kind of robot?"

    I don't believe a robot could possibly complain more than you.

    Thank goodness. The sound of tracks. Katja stood up from her bench, her sore bones loudly complaining at the affront, and she watched as the distant lights of the train poking through the white-blue night grew closer. Every time she had been placed on Post Duty, the sight of the train had been a welcome sight. Even now, the sounds of creaking metal and steam billowing from the roof of the front car were as pleasant to Katja as any Glinka.

    Katja skipped up to the front of the train. She was so ready to be done with this chore. After a few years on Post Duty, Katja had gotten to know the beleaguered train engineer, Yegor. Though he was a surly-looking man in his fifties, he and Katja bonded over their shared misery from sitting in a single location for hours on end.

    When she turned to look into the train compartment, however, the face she saw wasn't that of Yegor's uncontrolled beard. Instead, she found herself face to face with an extremely small man with a thin moustache seemingly plastered to his face. The man yelped in surprise and fell backwards, almost tumbling out of his chair. When he registered Katja, he looked her up and down with suspicion.

    "You are...here for the package?" He said, slowly.

    Katja shrugged and handed the man a slip of paper.

    "I'm here to pick up the packages for the village, yes. My uncle is the Postmaster."

    The man snatched the slip and scrutinized it closely. Katja leaned into the train car and looked about. The engine room of a train was always a compact space, so she wasn't expecting to find anyone else in the car, but she did note that this was not the same train that came last month.

    "So...are you the new pilot?" Katja said.

    The man handed her back the paper and stepped off his chair.

    "You wait here," he said, curtly.

    Katja turned to follow him from outside.

    "Actually, I can help unload the packages," she said. "There might be a lot."

    "No!" the man ordered. "I will do it myself."

    The suddenness of the refusal stopped Katja in tracks long enough for the man to disappear into the train's back cars. Because this was not a passenger train, Katja had no way of seeing anything behind the first car. After some time, the man emerged with two bundles of letters and practically threw them into Katja's hands.

    "That's everything, now leave," the man said.

    Katja strained under the weight of the packages, needing to adjust the positioning so that they wouldn't leave marks in her skin. She waddled over to the bench where she sat and began to prepare herself for the walk home. Before that, she turned over to the man.

    "Do you know Yegor? He usually brings the train."

    The man wasn't focused on her. Instead, his head seemed to be rotating in quick, jerky movements around the roads that led up to the station. He didn't seem to have heard Katja's question, but Katja was never one to press for conversation, so she decided to leave. As she walked away from the station, her knees struggling not to buckle under what must've been around ten kilograms of weight, she kept glancing back at the man in the train car. Even after Katja moved about fifty meters away, the man made no move to leave.

    Strange, the voice in her head said. Didn't you say this was the last stop on this track?

    Indeed, Katja's village of Polnoch, located far north in the easternmost tip of Siberia, was the last stop in a series of remote villages wholly dependent on the railroad to keep them from being reclaimed by the wilderness. It was as far away from civilization as one could get without becoming a hermit, a cold and quiet existence.

    In theory, what Katja was holding should be the last of what that train contained. After all, where else was there to go except backwards? Still, Katja did not bother to ponder what caused that man's strange behavior. Even in a world full of mysteries and unanswered questions, her biggest concerns were about not getting hit by rulers at school and not freezing to death.

    Who was she to question someone else's mysteries?




    Day 0 End

    - - - Updated - - -


    Day 1: Shaped from Clay


    "Ow!"

    The crack of wood on bone resonated across the classroom. Katja watched out of the corner of her eye as the history teacher, Miss Gorky, stalked from desk to desk like a vengeful spirit. Katja was careful to keep her head down and buried in the textbook, so as not to draw her ire.

    As usual, Katja sat in the second-to-last row of the classroom as far away from the windows as possible. Even indoors, the flimsy wood and glass windows did a remarkably awful job of keeping out the cold, so Katja always made a point to always sit on the interior side of the room. Around her, her classmates seemed inexplicably oblivious to the low temperature, instead far more concerned with maintaining the vigil of looking busy. The trick, Katja found, to staying out of trouble was not to look distracted, but also not to look too intensely at the book. By appearing unremarkable, she could easily pass under the radar.

    You know, the voice in her head said. Perhaps you wouldn't need to bother to look busy if you actually, and stop me if this sounds crazy, read the book?

    Katja wouldn't dare respond to the voice inside the classroom, so she instead voiced her displeasure at the voice's remark by glaring at the outside window, as though the voice was the voice of the winter itself, taunting her discomfort.

    "Molchalin."

    Crap. That was her name. Katja jumped to her feet, her arms rigid and her response practiced.

    "Yes, teacher."

    Miss Gorky eyed her through thin eyes and small, rectangular eyeglasses. While Katja had never been on bad terms with her teacher, she had never endeared herself to her either. The eyes scanned over Katja and her black and white uniform, looking for any infraction, any excuse to reprimand.

    "Hmph. If you enjoy looking outside so much, then perhaps you wish to sit outside instead?"

    The classroom chuckled. So often, the only respite from punishment was the torment of another. Katja understood this and thus didn't resent her classmates. Still, it never felt good to be called out.

    "No ma'am. With all due respect, that would be terrible."

    The classroom laughed again. Katja bit her lip to prevent another sarcastic rise. She found herself unable to look directly at her teacher without the temptation, so she instead glanced upwards at the portrait of Comrade Lenin hanging just above her teacher's head. The balding man, a figure from Moskva that she knew next to nothing about, seemed to look down upon her and judge her from on high.

    "Well, if you are so committed to a classroom learning environment, then surely you can tell the class what the name of the famous Roman general who ended the Second Punic War was, yes?"

    Drat. Drat. Drat. Katja had her head buried in the book that didn't mean she actually read the stupid thing. History was by far Katja's least favourite subject, and any attempt at deciphering historical texts was pointless at best and downright sedative at worst.

    "I....err....well...If I recall, it was..."

    Katja flipped through every Roman name she knew. Caesar. Romulus. Julius. No, wait, that was also Caesar.

    Ah yes, the voice in her head mused, snapping Katja out of her panic. Old Publius is still mentioned in history books, is he? I'm sure he'd have loved that.

    She was being tossed a bone here. The question was whether it was real. Katja shrugged internally. It was all she had.

    "Um...Publius?"

    There was a pause in the room, almost as though the answer was more surprising than outright ignorance. Then, Miss Gorky let out a patient sigh.

    "Please sit down, Molchalin. In the future, I'd advise you to pay attention in class instead of yearning for the outdoors."

    Katja had to resist the urge to retort to that blatant mischaracterization, but sat down without a fuss as Miss Gorky walked to the front of the classroom.

    "The actual answer is of course, Scipio Africanus, whose tactics are still being used today."

    Miss Gorky had always been interested in battle formations and army movements, an interest she did not hesitate to hoist upon the class, even if it broke curriculum. And she began enthusiastically drawing on the blackboard various lines and rectangles. Grateful for the respite, Katja took a moment to whisper under her breath.

    "Traitor."

    Well, I'm sorry. If you must know, his full name is Publius Cornelius Scipio, so I told no lie.

    Just as Katja resolved to ignore the voice for the rest of the day, a movement caught her eye. She snapped her head to her right and locked eyes with one of her classmates. As soon as their eyes met, she looked away from her.

    Did she see her whispering under her breath? It was difficult to tell from this distance. That particular one didn't strike Katja as the type of person to spread foul rumors, but Katja groaned internally at the possibility. She would have to be more careful not to draw unwanted attention. Bullying was common at the uncreatively named State School 974, and Katja certainly didn't want to give anyone any excuses to target her.

    That had always been the way Katja lived her life, quiet and unremarkable. She hated the thought that she could exist in the minds of others, a version of her misrepresented and misremembered. And so, she finds comfort in being unseen. She doesn't associate with anyone besides her uncle, she doesn't look at, speak to, or go against anyone.



    --

    The sound of the bell signaled the end of class. Katja slipped her empty notebook into her pouch and slipped out before anyone else had even stood up from their desks. Thankfully, putting aside the incident in history class, today was a remarkably uneventful day. Katja supposed she could chalk that up to 'that' girl missing class today.

    Being careful not to slip on the icy road to her uncle's house, Katja elected to take a back road this time. She spotted a few metal vehicles on her way to school today, a clear sign that the Army was in town. Obviously, she should rejoice at seeing the soldiers who protect her and her family from the Capitalists to the west, but all she really felt was indifference. Unlike in the heartland proper, the reach of the Party here was weak, and Polnoch was distanced from the political roil. That was part of why Katja still loved her life here, as even the most zealous Premier from the capital couldn't be bothered with a tiny hamlet in the Arctic Circle. So when Katja saw the trucks and soldiers on the main road, she decided to take the scenic route.

    The village was hugged tightly , with the only open side facing the sea. In the past, Polnoch was a fishing village, but as more and more of the populace moved to urban regions further south, it gradually lost that specialty. Most people today lived like Katja, eking out a humble existence. In time, the children would replace their parents, while some would leave for brighter futures. A beautifully concise cycle.

    Katja tried the backdoor directly to the studio. Locked. Drat. Her uncle had repeatedly asked her not to sneak into the studio after school, a mandate Katja loved to ignore.
    "Alright Uncle, you win this time."

    Katja would find the key eventually, but for now, she'd honor her uncle's wishes.

    As quietly as possible, Katja tried to slide the door open. Unfortunately, the heavy wooden frame had been dislodged slightly, requiring a forceful shove to push the door open. After several moments of ineffectual fiddling, Katja decided to abandon subtlety and tackled the door open, causing her to tumble forward and into the living room. After quickly struggling to shut the door before any of the cold got in, Katja leaned against the door and let out a sigh of relief.

    Well, that was dramatic, the voice said.

    Katja slid down the door and let out a heavy sigh. Years of trudging through snow and carrying mail have given Katja a fair bit of endurance, but she wasn't strong by any stretch of the imagination. And this bit of physical exertion was all that it took to wind her. Footsteps sounded in the hallway just past the living room from the kitchen. Her uncle, Grigori, walked in, dressed in his normal casual garb and holding a cup of coffee. Upon seeing her sitting against the door, he raised a hairy eyebrow.

    "Well, that was dramatic," he said.

    "Haven't heard that before," Katja said, sarcastically.

    She stood up and brushed the snow off her uniform. She threw her bag onto the sofa and attempted to make her way to the studio in the back of the house.

    "So, how was school today?" Uncle asked. "Did you get today's dose of poison?"

    Katja was glad that her uncle didn't live closer to Moskva, as her uncle never missed an opportunity to badmouth the regime. Given the way that her uncle would talk about the Party sometimes, Katja was sure he'd be executed anywhere else.

    "No uncle, not today."

    Uncle Grigori grunted and sat down at the kitchen table. He was a large man, easily towering over Katja. And despite the existence of various manufactured hair products, Uncle always kept his beard in full form, creating an image of a towering stoic figure. While sitting on the small kitchen stool, he was just taller than Katja. As she moved past him, he placed a hand on her shoulder, stopping her.

    "Dinner tonight at 7, don't miss it."

    "Yes, Uncle."

    "And remember, it's your turn tomorrow."

    "I know, I know."

    "Would you please look at me when you answer instead of just staring at that door?"

    Katja tore her eyes away from the door to the studio and focused on her uncle. She didn't mean to be this way, but she'd always had a bit of a one-track mind. When she wanted something, it consumed all of her focus.

    "I'll be working late tomorrow, so just put my dinner in the fridge and I'll heat it up."

    "Late? But why? I don't even see you go to work these days."

    Uncle took a sip from his coffee, careful not to dip his upper beard into it as he did. Honestly, Katja had no idea what the appeal was for men to keep those things on their faces. All it seems to do is get stuff caught in it and make you look like a sasquatch.

    "News from back west. Some military units are being stationed here soon, I'm to arrange their mailing information. I'll probably be late for a few days actually."

    Uncle's job was mainly to keep track of people's addresses and collect their mail, so in a town like this, he didn't have to work all that hard. Usually, that meant him smugly waving as Katja went to and from school. Well, that did mean more time in the studio instead of helping Uncle out with chores, so she certainly wasn't complaining.

    "Alright Uncle, I'll take care of things here, no need to worry."

    He raised an eyebrow.

    "Of course. I'm sure the studio will be nice and clean."

    Katja laughed. Then made her way over to the studio door.

    "You know me so well, Uncle."

    "Just make sure not to leave the lights on again, y'hear?"

    Upon entering the studio, Katja took a moment to breathe in the air. That faint scent of marble and musty wood always soothed her nerves after a long day. Along the far walls of the studio lay some of Katja's previous projects, statues inspired by the artistic traditions of various ancient sculptors. One was an experiment in attempting a North African stone statue style, while another was Katja's attempt at mimicking the jade sculptures of ancient China. Every sculpture she made was a message, a love letter to a faraway discipline. It was apparent through the disparate styles that Katja had yet to truly find her own language, a set of sculptures that she could truly call her own. She had always loved shaping the stone, beckoning forth a shape from it through careful instruction. But everything she had ever done, she did from reference, from the work of someone else. The stone never seemed to speak to her as she spoke to it.

    At least, not until recently.

    Well, a charming place as always, the voice said behind her. Before you begin, how about a short game of chess? Draughts was fun, but I much prefer chess.

    Katja sighed. The walls were thick enough that sounds wouldn't carry well into the kitchen, so Katja turned around and faced marble artwork sculpted in the form of a young, armored man leaning against a small pillar.

    "Listen here, you. This is getting out of hand! Your constant ruckus almost got me in trouble today!"

    Three days prior, Katja had been toiling away at a Celtic wood carving when the voice first called out to her. Katja had been so shocked that she almost set fire to the whole house. After a brief assurance that she had not, in fact, finally huffed in too much marble dust, she simply learned to begrudgingly tolerate this strange presence.

    You give me too much credit. I cannot affect anything outside of your head. If anything, I'm the one who's surprised. You've been taking this in stride remarkably well.

    The statue didn't move when the voice spoke, mind you. That might've been a little scary. The voice just seemed to prefer sourcing itself there for some reason.

    Katja shrugged.

    "I've seen weird before. Honestly, this whole experience is, like, top five weirdest experiences at best."

    Right...well, what do you say to that game, eh? Let's say I only use pawns for this handicap, how's that sound?

    Katja rolled her eyes and glanced over to the small bedside table her uncle placed against the wall. On it was a simple wooden chess set that came from her uncle's old belongings. Katja pulled it out of the basement at the voice's insistence and one of its favorite pastimes quickly became absolutely demolishing Katja and her uncle with it at every opportunity.

    "Why don't you try playing yourself? I'm sure you'd be a far better opponent than me."

    Nonsense. What's the point if I know what the enemy is going to do every time?

    She rolled her eyes at the voice's pettiness. Admittedly, seeing her uncle's shocked expression as she completely swept over his board was a treat, even if it was a deception that wouldn't last very long.

    Katja strode over to the corner, where all the uncut stones lay, and picked out one that she liked the look of, a smaller stone, no bigger than her hand, and placed it on the work table. To prepare for her work, she made sure to put on the thick cloth apron she had hung on the wall and rolled up her sleeves. Normally, she wouldn't want to sculpt in uniform, but yesterday was Post Duty, so she was impatient today.

    "Yeah, yeah. Now be quiet for a second, I need to focus."

    Katja closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

    "In accordance with the first, the clay from which all life is shaped shall be molded by my hand."

    As Katja exhaled with these words, her hands suddenly became alight with a bright blue glow and her breath left her mouth in the form of a fine light-blue mist that seemed to sparkle faintly as it wrapped around the small rectangular black stone. As it made contact, the surface of the stone began to melt into a viscous liquid that slowly began to spread out over the table. Her magic crest, shaped in the form of branching vines extending from both of her palms and up towards her elbow, began to pulsate as Katja carefully modulated the flow of her Prana.

    "In accordance to the second, the breath of life shared by the god of fire dances across the Earth."

    The liquid stone shifted and jumped as though it were made of water. It seemed to dance between many different forms, as if it was undecided on what shape to take. At first it seemed to coil, then straighten, like a string being made taut. Then, it transformed into a tiny stone elephant that walked around the table. Katja giggled as the elephant seemed to triumphantly trumpet its nose and prance about like a schoolboy in the spring. Even as it danced, however, Katja could not help but feel a pang of sadness, knowing that the creature's spark of life was not only temporary, but a simulation, the facade stone going through the motions of life. As the elephant curled down, Her only experience with animals had been with the hunting dogs that some of her neighbors owned, so the stone elephant seemed to curl up into a ball much like a dog.

    Your Magecraft is fascinating as always, Master.

    For a moment, the stone seemed to lose its uniformity as ripples of uncertainty passed across the elephant's surface.

    "Wait, what did you just call me?"

    Katja's head snapped over to the voice's stone statue, but of course, the face remained as expressionless as ever. A silence hung in the air for a few moments, followed by a quick gasp of pain as Katja's blue magic circuits were suddenly overwhelmed by a flash of red light. Katja let out a yelp of pain and the liquid stone began to flail erratically as Katja's concentration broke. Then, the flow of magic was broken and the stone burst like a popped bubble, spraying liquid stone that instantly hardened into the shape of a black, messy spread-eagle. Katja looked down at her right hand and saw some sort of injury on the back of it.

    No wait, that wasn't an injury at all. It was some kind of tiny marking. Katja stood up in a panic and stormed over to the statue.

    "What the heck is going on‽ Did you do this? Explain now!"

    Katja swore that the statue refused to make eye contact with her.

    I....am not yet at liberty to say. It is not yet time.

    "Time‽ I don't know how, but you interrupted my magic, I want to hear an explanation!"

    Katja didn't mean to shout, but she had difficulty controlling her nerves. Nobody can interrupt her magic. It was to one place in the whole universe where she felt well and truly at peace. The only other person who could've even tried was her father. He's the one that taught her this magic. But he's not around anymore, so this magic was all hers.

    Or so she thought until now.

    "You keep saying weird things and you just called me 'Master' just now. If you keep being vague, I'm tossing you into the ocean. So you'd better start talking. If you're some sort of or something, I just want to be left alone, okay! I'm not about to be tricked into some weird ritual!"

    Katja didn't consider herself a deeply religious person, not by a long shot. The State taught that Katja should always rely on science and reason as the foundation of her beliefs, but Katja had seen enough in her life to never fully rely on the known to explain everything. She didn't consider herself a believer, not in the traditional sense. There are no churches in Polnoch, after all, so the opportunity never presented itself to try. Her uncle did believe though, and Katja always held the notion deep in her heart that if there was something, anything watching over her from above, that was comforting in its own way.

    Right as her hand reached for the door to exit her studio, it suddenly swung open. Katja froze as she stood in front of her uncle, who was holding two mugs of hot cocoa in his hands.

    "Katja?" he said, mildly surprised. "Were you about to turn in?"

    "Uncle! Don't surprise me like that!" Katja exclaimed.

    "I brought some hot chocolate," Uncle Grigori said. "I figured you would be up all night again. You'll want some sugar in you."

    Her uncle stepped inside and placed the cups down on the center table. He took a seat on the bench chair and looked about.

    "So which crazy sculpture are you working on today?" Uncle asked. "I don't see anything new."

    "Eh, I was mostly planning today, so I haven't done much. You know how it is." Katja said, shrugging.

    Her uncle nodded.

    "Yes, yes. Your strange witchcraft doesn't need tools and the like." he said gruffly.

    "I keep telling you uncle, it's not witchcraft, it's-"

    "I know, I know," he said dismissively. "Believe me, I got enough of it from my brother. I don't need to know. I don't want to, anyways, as long as you don't do anything stupid."

    Katja took a sip from her cocoa. It tasted sweet and delicious, just how she liked it. The heat filled her body and she let out a satisfied sigh. Her uncle also took a sip, though with much less external satisfaction. He wasn't a very expressive man though, so Katja was used to it. Over time, she'd grown used to picking up on his habits. Here, it seemed as though he wanted to talk about something.

    "So what's up, uncle?" Katja asked. "You never come down to watch me work."

    "Er....yes," her uncle said, clearing his throat. "Actually, there's something I wanted to ask you, Katja."

    "Okay, shoot."

    "Well, as you know, it's been a few months since you've started at your new school," he said. "And so I was wondering if you've put any thought into your ."

    Katja rolled her eyes. This again.

    "Uncle....I keep telling you that I'm too young to be thinking about that. Give me a year or two, I'll think about it. I promise."

    "You're never too young to start thinking, Katja." her uncle said. "Opportunity won't wait for you. For instance, say you wanted to go to Moskva...."

    "With all due respect uncle," Katja said, sniffing. "That sounds awful."

    "Don't dismiss this out of hand," her uncle said reproachfully. "There are plenty of opportunities in the capital, especially for someone talented like you."

    "I told you before, uncle. I like it here. I don't want to move away, especially not to Moskva."

    "And I've told you before that you'd be wasted in a backwater like this!" her uncle said.

    "That's not for you to decide. And besides, who would look after you when I'm gone?"

    Her uncle raised an eyebrow.

    "Young lady, I believe you're mistaking which side of this caretaker's arrangement you're on." he said.

    "I'm serious though! I do half the chores and half the cooking around here. What would you do without me?" Katja asked.

    "Well the first thing I would do is turn this room into a storage shed. I'm not sure how much more the attic can hold."

    "You wouldn't," Katja gasped, hugging her table. "If you're going to throw out all my things when I'm gone, then you can kiss leaving goodbye!"

    "This is your future we're talking about Katja, I expect you to take this a bit more seriously." he said.

    "I'm fiiiiiine! Once I graduate, I'll just live here and do what you do!"

    "You're going to take over the postal service?" her uncle asked, crossing his arms.

    "Yeah, sure! I mean, why not?"

    "You're going to perform mail duty every week? You?"

    "I-"

    Katja paused. Admittedly, that sounded like hell. Perhaps she ought to take her uncle's words a bit more seriously.

    "I mean....It's not as though I would only do mail....I have my statues. I could like, sell them and stuff."

    "I'm not sure if that's a good idea, child," her uncle said, shaking his head. "It's fine for you to do your witchcraft as a hobby, but as a career...."

    "What? What's wrong with it?" Katja asked, her body tensing.

    "I mean, people will ask questions and the like, and...." her uncle scratched the back of his head, unsure of how to proceed.

    "I knew it!" Katja exclaimed, putting her hands on her hips. "This is about my father isn't it? You don't want me to study magic like he did!"

    "No, no! It's not that at all," her uncle said hastily. "It's just....think about it, okay? I want you to live a normal happy life, one that's free from suffering and . If you do the same thing my brother did, I'm not sure if that'll be possible."

    "What? What do you mean?" Katja asked eagerly. Her uncle always refused to talk about her father, so any bit of information about him was something Katja latched onto hungrily.

    "Uncle, I won't know what you mean unless you tell me," she said impatiently, prying as far as she could.

    Unfortunately, her uncle would not bite.

    he said, shaking his head. "I'll explain it all to you when you're older, I promise. Just trust me that I'm only bringing this up for your own good."

    "It's been eight years since he died, uncle," Katja pleaded. "How much longer do I have to wait?"

    Her uncle didn't say anything to that. Instead, he looked Katja in the eyes and placed a hand on her shoulder.

    "The less you know about him, the better Katja," he said, his expression grave. "He delved into secrets no man should ever have known. I do not want you to go down that same path. Do you understand what I am saying?"

    It was clear to Katja that this would be the last word on this subject. And so bitterly, Katja nodded her head.

    "Alright Uncle," Katja said. "I'll put some thought into it. Is it alright if I get back to you about this later?"

    Katja finished the last of her cocoa and let the mug down on the table.

    "Sure," her uncle said, nodding. "By the way, I hope I wasn't interrupting something. You looked like you were going somewhere when I came in."

    Katja got up and threw on her coat, which she had left lying on one the empty benches.

    she lied. "I've been feeling a bit stale lately, so I figured a change of scenery might give me some ideas."

    "Heh, a walk would do you some good. You spend any more time in here and you'll start growing mold," her uncle said, chuckling. "But is it really a good time? The sun's already setting. It won't be long before it becomes dark out."

    "It's fine, it's fine," Katja waved dismissively as she began walking out of the studio. "You can't make me go out on mail duty at midnight and then lecture me about the dark."

    With what seemed to be the last laugh, Katja left the room before she could hear her uncle's response. As concerning as she found her future, there were far more immediate problems to address.

    --

    The town of Polnoch rested beside a small inlet in the East Siberian Sea where a small estuary had formed between the edge of the sea and a river delta. It was divided into five generalized regions spread out over an area roughly one-hundred square kilometers. The region where Katja lived, the residential countryside, is not too far from Old Town, where the previous town center used to be. To the north of the countryside was the Town Center, also called Rybak Square, so named despite not actually being a square, and north of that was the Wharf, though it has largely fallen into disuse, as a diminishing number of small fishing vessels were all that existed there. The final "region", if it could even be called that, was the Dvorets Kashchey, or , a heavily wooded area that encircled Polnoch on all sides ending in the far east where it was cut off by mountains.

    The walk from her home in the countryside to Old Town didn't take long, but it was certainly long enough for Katja to feel the winter chill even through her coat. She walked through a hole left behind from the stone wall that used to encircle Old Town. It has long since fallen into ruin, having evidently failed to serve its original purpose. Few people still lived in Old Town, as none of the houses here were connected to the electrical grid, but there did exist a few elderly in Polnoch that stubbornly refused to abandon their homes even to their last breath. Of these people was a man named Erel Ivanovich Odolunov, whom Katja recalled was the son of a priest long ago. Erel passed away five years ago, but the church building that Erel once lived in still stood, though it had fallen into disrepair.

    It was a large structure, roughly two stories tall, with a large stone dome that had caved in at some point in the past. The wooden sign that had been placed outside the church entrance was so rotted that the words were unintelligible. Although the place had long since been abandoned, Katja still felt a chill run up her spine that had nothing to do with the cold. If this strange voice truly was a or some other foul creature, surely this place would hold the

    As Katja stepped around the one remaining double door at the entrance to the old church, she took in just how ruined the interior of the building had become as well. Where once there had likely been stunning paintings along the walls and ceiling of the church, there was instead a thick layer of ash and rot; and the once beautiful central horos chandelier that had formerly hung from the domed roof now lay crumpled and shattered on the ground, any bits of value from its splendor stripped from its decaying corpse by looters long ago. And everything inside the church had been coated in a thick layer of ash and snow flowing in from the hole in the roof. Katja thought it was a shame that nobody took over care of the church after Erel's death. He was banned from practicing his faith here, but he still kept the building immaculate back when Katja was a child. It seems as though nobody had taken to caring for the old place after Erel passed. Katja thought that was a shame. As she stepped closer to look at the horos, she was startled to find hand streaks across a portion of the chandelier. She quickly looked down and realized that she was standing in footprints quite a bit larger than her own, footprints made recently enough for the snow coming on from the ceiling to have only partially covered them. Instinctively, she quickly brought her hands close to herself.

    There was someone else in the church tonight.

    - - - Updated - - -


    Contract

    When Katja was a child, she once dug through her home's attic in her father's house and found an old book. She had been too young to understand the text, but an image that had been burned into memory was the striking figure of a Templar Knight, painted in the mosaic-like Byzantine style.

    It was no small exaggeration to say that the man standing on the far side of the horos, right between the collapsed altar and the wreckage of the pews, was a Templar.

    Formerly with his back turned away from Katja, the man stood at the front center of the ruined church, like an immovable red and white statue, no different from one of Katja's stone sculptures. He was dressed in flowing white robes with several large red crosses streaking across the fabric in geometric strokes. When illuminated by the moonlight, the man seemed to radiate with holy energy, though that was surely Katja's imagination.

    The man himself would certainly have stood out in Katja's village. His skin was a darker shade, more reminiscent of a Mediterranean heritage, and his sharp, hawk-like eyes looked as though they sought to pierce Katja's very soul. She would have known if such a man lived here, so he must've been some sort of traveler from somewhere far west, though what century he would have come from was a mystery to her. Despite her best efforts to remain unseen, their eyes met, and so Katja stepped out from behind the horos.

    "I-If you're looking for the owner of this church, he's unfortunately no longer around."

    Katja wasn't sure if he was looking for Erel Odolunov, but she couldn't think of any other reason why anyone would come here. As she cautiously stepped forth, she could see now that the man before her looked to be a man roughly in his late thirties with neatly cut black hair that streaked to either side of his face. He gave Katja a thin smile then bowed deeply.

    "Forgive me, young miss. It was never my intention to trespass. I merely wished to pay my respects to this holy site before the coming of the great storm."

    The man spoke with an elevated level of flourish and dramatism, punctuating his language with varying shifts in tone and speed. It was as though he spoke while standing on a stage.

    "Oh...I....um....Well, I'm not the owner either, I was just passing through myself."

    Katja didn't really have any idea what the man was talking about, but she wanted to at least avoid any kind of misunderstanding. But at her words, the man let out a wide smile and spread his arms outwards in a joyful gesture.

    "Ahhh, forgive my assumptions then! You are but a pilgrim like myself, a worshipper of God's great light! I had been told that this village was devoid of the Lord's grace, but to think that even one as young as you would feel that pull towards the faith!"

    "I-I....uh...."

    Under this bombardment of words, Katja found herself unable to get a single word in. She was never good at dealing with talkative people, and so this was the worst kind of interaction for her. Upon seeing her fumble with a response, the man bowed again.

    "I apologize for my excitement, my child. It seems as though the Holy Spirit took my body for but a moment. I am . A pleasure to meet you."

    "I-I'm Katja...? I was just....um, taking a walk."

    The man cleared his throat and turned back to face the altar, his hands clasped behind his back.

    "Of course. It does my heart good to know that even in a town devoid of faith, the word of God will still resonate in the hearts of men."

    He knelt down at the foot of the ruined altar and lowered his head, allowing a silence to fill the air. Then, he stood up and faced Katja.

    "In times of troubles, it is only ever right to rely on God's forgiveness and protection. So, what troubles brought you to this place. Surely you must have a purpose in being here."

    Katja opened her mouth, then hesitated. She was tempted to explain the possible demon in her head. After all, she did hear rumors that the church dealt in exorcisms. Maybe this man could help her. Right when she resolved to speak up, the voice in her head returned.

    "I recognize eyes like that. Those are the eyes of a man who would doom his nation for his own ego. The eyes of a bastard."

    Without thinking, Katja looked into the man's eyes, and for a moment, she froze. In the eyes of the man who called himself Dante, Katja saw the reflection of a hollow intensity that shook her to her core. Each time he blinked, each time he moved, Katja felt across her skin. It had been present from the moment he became aware of her existence, yet Katja had never even noticed the oppressive aura that the man had been letting out constantly. A bloodlust and quiet insanity so potent, yet so restricted, that the only place from which it could leave was through his empty eyes. Instinctively, Katja took a step back and her foot slipped on a frozen piece of stone. She let out a yelp as she struggled to maintain her balance when a hand grasped her shoulders and stabilized her. Somehow, Dante had moved to break her fall in a fraction of a second. She broke away from his grip, though it was more accurate to say that he let her go.

    "I-I was just exploring Old Town. I've always liked the art in this building."

    Katja tried her best to meet the man's eyes as she lied, but she couldn't do it. A silence hung in the air for a moment, before the man walked past her towards the entrance.

    "I see, I will not deny that this place was once beautiful."

    He placed his hand on the remaining wooden door and turned his head around to look at Katja, his eyes now aglow with furious intensity.

    "Still, I told no lie when I spoke of the coming of the great storm. If you value your safety, you should refrain from leaving your home for a few nights. The followers of the Shepherd will be protected, but the sins of this village shall be cleansed."

    The man stepped through the doorway and disappeared into the night. And for the briefest of moments, Katja swore she saw what appeared to be a massive sword hanging from the man's back. Once the man was gone, Katja fell down as her legs went numb from the tension in her legs. She heaved a great sigh and allowed the tension to leave her muscles.

    "Haaaaaaaah~ I have never been so scared in my life! Who was that guy‽ I thought he was going to rip my eyes out of my skull!"

    Quite so, that man was dangerous, though his words were not wrong. You shouldn't have left the house tonight.

    Katja glared at nothing in particular.

    "You sure took your sweet time getting here." she said bitterly.

    Katja would never admit it, but she felt a little safer knowing that the voice was now present.

    I had thought that you wanted some privacy, so I refrained from speaking to you, but that man was dangerous, I know a warrior when I see one.

    Katja shook her head.

    "What was someone like that doing in Polnoch? Could this be related to the soldiers coming into town? He might be a wanted criminal or something." Katja muttered.

    She curled up into a ball in the center of the church. Now that the situation was over and the tension gone, Katja could feel the winter cold biting her face. She wrapped her scarf around her face a little tighter and breathed into it to warm up.

    "Hey, tell me what's going on. You know something, don't you?" Katja said out loud.

    I have already told you, it is not yet time, the voice replied. Katja sighed, not especially frustrated this time. She hugged herself a little bit tighter and began to shiver, though she wasn't sure if it was from the cold.

    ...Are you afraid? the voice asked her.

    Katja shook her head.

    "I don't know. I just want to go back to the studio and forget about all of this."

    As far back as Katja could remember, she's always hated being close to the center of attention. She'd much rather live outside that sphere, in her quiet studio away from the chaos of the outside world. As long as she had her sculptures, she'd be satisfied. As long as she could ignore the rest of the world, she'd be happy. Katja let out a sigh. She had calmed down considerably and slowly got to her feet. If the voice didn't want to tell her anything, that was fine. She didn't want to know anyway. Whatever plans that strange man has, Katja wanted no part in it whatsoever. She stepped outside of the church and began to trudge home in the snow, though with a bit more of a skip in her step.

    As she traversed along the now hidden dirt road leading away from Old Town, she found herself atop Angel's Mount, a large hill on the path home that overlooked Polnoch. When she reached the top, Katja covered her eyes from a sudden flash of light. She looked down upon the whole town of Polnoch, a small settlement composed mostly of stone and the occasional wooden structure. On a normal night, the limited electricity made the town a dark and quiet place. But tonight the town was in uproar.

    Off in the distance, the old Wharf was burning.

    --

    Before Katja even knew what she was doing, she had already started running. It didn't take very long to traverse Polnoch, though it would still take several hours on foot. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, Polnoch was dotted with large patches of uncontrolled forest that allowed anyone to slip through town relatively undetected. She ran through the forest, figuring that an indirect route would be safer, though her mind was still playing catchup to her body.

    "WhatamIdoingwhatamIdoingwhatamIdoing?" Katja mumbled as she sprinted.

    Obviously this was the wrong decision. If there was some kind of accident, then she should run home. She was an idiot and she knew it, but something - something pushed her to run, to see with her own eyes the scene that caused this. Some part of her that she had never felt before, a part of her that had been dormant her whole life, wanted to see it. Beneath her coat, Katja's magic crest began to glow and vine-like lines began to spread across her legs. All of a sudden, the landscape vanished into a dull blur as Katja's reinforced legs carried her far past normal human speeds.

    Reinforcement was never something Katja was taught. When Katja got this crest from her father, she suddenly just knew how to use it, as though the information was surgically implanted into her mind. Katja didn't like using it all that much since it had no real purpose in her life, so when the sudden burst of strength filled her legs, she almost went flying into the air from the unfamiliar force. As she ran, Katja found it difficult to control her speed and occasionally had to reinforce her arms to crash through trees she couldn't avoid. By the time she was close to the wharf, Katja was covered in small cuts and bruises, a product of her uncontrolled charge. She stopped for a moment to catch her breath, leaning against a nearby tree for support. As soon as the reinforcement left her body, she felt drained. While not necessarily unfit, Katja tended to neglect exercise in favor of her time in the studio, which made her body rather weak. As she approached the wharf on the north-eastern edge of Rybak Square, she stopped to marvel at the bright orange glow that seemed to tower over her.

    Katja had never seen fire of this magnitude and intensity before. The way it seemed to reach up towards the sky, like tongues of flame desperate to sate their thirst, was terrible to behold, yet the sight enthralled Katja. And for a moment, her artist's soul begged her to immortalize it, to sit away from the catastrophe and simply create in isolation. She quickly shook such thoughts from her mind and began to walk towards the wharf. At a stone building just behind the boundary between dock and town, Katja crouched and placed her hand on her chest. Whatever was going on, once Katja passed this boundary, she would know and she would see. Here, she felt her knees begin to tremble. The adrenaline from the sprint was beginning to fade, and it dawned on Katja just how astronomically stupid her actions were. She thought that she had resolved herself to a quiet, peaceful life, one where she would be free to create her sculptures until she grew old and died. That door was still open. The darkness of the forest off in the distance, the path back to her home and to her studio called out to her, beckoned her to come back. Instinctively, she knew that if she crossed this threshold, she would become a player in this game, whether she wanted to or not. All it would take is one step, yet at that border, she froze.

    The voice, which had been strangely quiet, brought Katja out of her thoughts.

    Well, why do you hesitate? You've come this far, why not take a look? it asked.

    "Heh, it's almost like you wanted me to come here," Katja couldn't help but laugh nervously.

    ...I don't. But there are difficult decisions that must be made.

    Katja looked away, though from what she didn't know. It was as though she could feel its presence standing right in front of her.

    "You knew this would happen didn't you? That I'd have to make this choice."

    I did.

    "...Why me? I just want to make my sculptures in peace."

    Only the gods would know the answer to that. We can never choose why we fight, only whether we do at all. Here.

    Katja suddenly found an image inside her head. No, not an image, a glyph, a circle of some sort.

    Draw that in the snow.


    As if her body were being controlled by someone else, Katja obeyed. With each stroke of her foot in the snow, Katja had to silence the voice in her head that called for her to stop, that called for her to snap out of this bout of madness. She soon found herself inside a complex circle of runes and glyphs beyond her comprehension, and she swore that she could see the faintest outline of a man standing beside her, though the details were still murky and hazy. The figure held out both hands in front of Katja.

    Right now, the voice said, loud enough that Katja almost believed it to be out loud. I hold before you both peace and war. Choose peace and walk away now and forsake me, return to your quiet, uneventful life for the rest of your days. Or, choose war and enter into a contest of glory, a battle so fierce that it would set any soul alight. Choose what you will.

    Katja looked at the figure, her heart pounding.

    "Will....will I be okay?"

    The figure neither nodded nor shook its head.

    You will not be the same. You may die, or you may live. Whatever, the outcome, I can only promise you glory.

    Every fiber of Katja's being wanted to run, to curl up into a ball and drown out the flames and the terror. But that spark that pushed her to run here, that same spark that pushed her to draw the circle, held her back.

    Katja didn't want to die. Of that, she was absolutely certain. Yet all her life, there was one thought that pulled at the edges of her mind, a thought that she had believed banished long ago. To live a life accomplishing nothing, even a quiet one, to live a life looking from the outside in, neither participating nor engaging, could that be considered living at all? Could she experience glory from the half-life she sought? Or was it right to take this chance, to find the moment that would give her life color?

    In a flash, every small detail about the voice seemed to fit into place. The words from her history text, burned into her mind against her will, were seared into her mind like a fresh brand. All of a sudden, things began to make sense. Katja clenched her fist and the red marking on her hand began to grow in luminosity. Katja closed her eyes, not trusting herself to see the choice before her, and spoke the first words that came to mind.

    "I choose war."

    Her hand released a ring of red light, before solidifying into the shape of a runic, feathered symbol, with an eagle's head at the center. The figure bowed its head before her before fading away into mist.

    The contract is complete.
    --

    The first thing that Katja noticed as she ran through the burning wharf was the smell. Burning flesh, smoke, and gunpowder all furiously fought to overwhelm Katja's senses. All around her, the smell of death and destruction sent tremors down her spine.

    Is this your first time on a battlefield? the voice asked.

    Katja suppressed a scream as she saw a twitching arm sticking out of a now collapsed stone house. She had never even seen a corpse before, much less a fresh one. The sight of mutilated and burned flesh made her tremble with utter terror.

    Then she heard the gunshots. Quickly, Katja dove behind some collapsed rubble as she took in the sounds of battle all around her. Soldiers, soldiers from the Soviet army, were firing upon a group of men closer to the ocean. They seemed to have formed a defensive line along the wooden platform built to extend over the shore and the sounds of machine-gun fire littered the air.

    "What do you think?" Katja hissed. "Do you have any idea how dangerous this is‽"

    Katja could practically feel her heart ready to burst from her chest. Her vision began to blur as the constant flood of sensation threatened to overtake her sanity. Then, she felt hands on her shoulders. At first, she tensed up, but then she relaxed. The hands were gentle, not hostile. She inhaled deeply, then stopped trembling.

    Calm down, Master, the voice said. We must analyze the situation with clarity and focus. Now, let's figure out what is actually happening.

    "I don't know! There are soldiers and gunshots everywhere." Katja whispered though she wasn't sure if anything could be heard over the noise.

    Think. Try to ignore the sounds and smells. Break the situation down into its core components. Why is the wharf burning? Why are there soldiers?

    Katja clutched her head in her hands and let out a groan. Then, against the will of every iota of self-preservation in her body, she stuck her head out of the rubble and scanned her surroundings.

    She was currently in the base of the wharf, which consisted of a wooden platform sticking out of the shore with several long wooden platforms jutting out from it, each around one hundred meters long. Immediately to her right was a squad of soldiers firing off into the night, towards the ocean. From her current vantage point, it was difficult to see who their enemy was, so rather than relying on her eyes, she instead tried to drown out the sounds of battle and listened for telling noises.

    It was the sound of intense footsteps, heavy enough and numerous enough to be felt by Katja many meters away. Then, Katja watched as a horde of spectral men erupted from the abyss of night, armed to the teeth with swords and pistols, in a wild charge against the soldiers. Each one seemed humanoid in shape, yet their flesh glowed with a faint bluish light. She watched with horror as the soldiers rained a hail of bullets down on the men, only for the strange ghost men to continue charging without even slowing down. The spectral men crashed into the defensive line cutting down soldiers left and right with long cutlasses. Sounds of laughter and screaming intercrossed in the orange-lit air. As a series of melees erupted at the base of the wharf, the spectral men began to fan outwards past the soldiers and towards the wings of the wharf as well as towards Rybak Square.

    As they ran through the wharf, they threw around explosives and flaming bottles of alcohol, spreading the fire more and more. She watched with rising panic a small group of these spectral men broke off from the battle and began to head in Katja's direction. None of them had any semblance of consistent dress, with one wearing a middle-eastern looking garb, while the other two wore more European garb, though theirs were off by several centuries worth of fashion.

    "We should leave," Katja said to the voice. "Whatever they are, they're coming this way!"

    Wait, the voice said, I believe there's still more to be learned here. We should press on.

    Katja looked at the voice, incredulous.

    "Are you insane? Did you see what they did to those soldiers? You're trying to get me killed aren't you?"

    No, and it's important that you realize that. I am your ally.

    Katja scoffed.

    "If that's true, you have a really bad way of showing it."

    The aura of the voice flickered, then she felt it solidify, similar to when she passed the boundary. It's misty, spectral form looked dim compared to the firelight.

    Do you trust me? it asked.

    "Are you asking me that based on evidence because-"

    Do you trust me?

    "....I have no reason to, but yes."

    The figure nodded, then stood. Katja instinctively reached out to grab their arm and was surprised to find it solid. The figure looked down at her.

    "Wait," Katja said. "Promise me that after this, you'll explain everything."

    The figure seemed to nod.

    Everything I know. I swear it.

    Katja took a deep breath, then clenched her fists.

    "Alright, what should we do?"

    The figure pointed out towards a collapsed stone fountain where the wharf met the land. There, a collapsed stone statue of Camniel, Angel of Strength, lay fallen on the ground, still clutching its sword to its face.

    We maintain the element of surprise, let's take this chance to see our enemy. Use that to help us.

    "Wait, use what?"

    A pause hung in the air for a moment, before Katja grasped the meaning.

    "Hold on, you don't mean-"

    We need to balance the numbers, especially since you cannot fight.

    "It's impossible, the spell wears off after a few seconds. I can't..."

    That's because you never had a purpose. Find your goal, then command it! the figure said.

    "I-"

    I'll create the opening for you. You'll only have a few seconds.


    The three spectral men were almost upon them. They stalked forward less then ten meters away from Katja and the figure. Katja looked at the figure with a pained expression.

    "Why do you believe in me? How do you know I won't fail?"

    By now, the figure had almost solidified to the point where Katja could make out the faintest of facial details. The face that looked back at her smiled warmly.

    Give it a try, and I'll answer your question, it said. Then the voice gave her a light push forwards as it ran off in the other direction, away from the fountain. Alerted to the noise, the three spectral men began to wander off in that direction.

    No time for hesitation, no time for fear. As quietly, yet as quickly as possible, Katja scrambled for the stone statue. After closing the eight-meter distance between herself and the statue, she stopped herself from tripping directly onto the stone sword, which was pointed directly at her one meter from the ground. Katja quickly reached around and placed her hand on the statue's chest.

    "Uhhh....let's see what steps were needed again?" Katja mumbled.

    Unlike her reinforcement, her stone magic was something that Katja came to herself. And while she added the spell sequence to her magic crest like her father taught her, this wasn't something that she could simply cast mindlessly. She'd never used her magic on a finished statue before, but she had to try. Katja closed her eyes and reached out to the statue.

    Whenever Katja tried to stoneshift previously, she had always used a formless rock as the base, one that she would shape herself. As she connected to the soul of the statue's maker, she felt a sense of wholeness coming from the statue, an identity that her works never possessed. For a moment, the noises of battle and death around her dulled to a faint thrum in the background. Katja felt as though she could feel the statue's life force within it. Not the literal life of the statue, but the soul of creative energy placed within it. The statue was over sixty years old, having been sculpted by an elderly artist back when Polnoch was a larger town. Katja felt the pride in the statue's creation, the angelic beauty the sculptor sought to capture.

    Move, she asked the sculpture. Please move.

    Why should I move?
    the sculpture replied. I am exactly as I want to be.

    Because...Katja paused. Up until now, Katja never questioned why the stone should move. The answer had always been: Because I want you to.

    That's because you never had a purpose.

    Katja clenched her teeth and steeled her resolve.

    Find your goal.

    You should move because right now, I need strength. I need you to give me strength!

    Then command it!

    "Accordance with the third, may forethought hone your fangs beyond all measure, to rise to the king of beasts!"

    Katja felt the Prana leave her body and she fell backwards, unable to stand. Standing before her was the majestic form of a fully animate stone angel, who gripped his sword and knelt towards Katja. Behind her, the spectral men, unable to locate the source of their attention, turned and spotted Katja and her angel. They all let out a war cry and began to charge towards her, weapons drawn. One pulled out a flintlock pistol from his belt and fired at Katja. She let out a yell and scrambled back as a stone sword intercepted the bullet. The impact sent shards of stone flying and a large indentation formed along the stone blade. Scrambling to her feet, Katja stood by the statue with confidence, for even though she wasn't touching the statue, she could feel its intentions, its voice. She placed her hand on the sword, her left arm aglow with green-blue light.

    "Second," she commanded.

    The blade rippled, then melted together, creating a complete, but slightly thinner, surface once more. The angel nodded, then turned and faced the charging spectres, blade raised. Katja nodded.

    "Go!"

    The angel charged, meeting the first spectre in combat. As it brought its blade down upon the first spectre, who blocked the strike with its cutlass, the second spectre, the one with the pistol, attempted to run around the angel at Katja. Without looking away, the angel used one of its large wings to swat the spectre away, sending it flying back. The angel kicked back the first spectre and began engaging the third, who had gone in to flank the angel. They exchanged a series of quick blows, neither side taking any damage. Then, the spectre attempted to perform a horizontal sword sweep, but the blow was quickly parried by the angel. With each exchange, Katja could see the integrity of both the sword and the angel beginning to decline. She herself was connected with the angel. And wordlessly, she had it animate. After parrying its sweep, the angel sent the third spectre stumbling forwards, its balance shaken, and the angel quickly impaled the spectre with its sword. As the spectre let out a guttural grunt, it grabbed the hilt of the sword and held it close to its chest, preventing the angel from withdrawing the blade. Then the second spectre leapt onto the angel's back and began bashing its head with the base of the pistol with strength great enough to send stone chunks flying off. Right when it looked like the angel would be overwhelmed, two of the spectres suddenly went limp. As they fell to the ground, their heads fell separately, their forms melting into wispy mush with not but a trace remaining behind.

    You asked why I believed in your success, did you not, Master? a voice said beyond the scuffle. I shall now answer you!

    The angel, now free to engage with the impaled spectre, swung its sword and sent the spectre careening towards the source of the voice, a shadowed figure standing tall against the flames. The final spectre attempted to make one final gambit and threw its sword at the shadowed figure. Before the blade could strike it, though, a massive rectangular shield formed in the figure's hands, which sent the blade spinning into the ocean. The figure then drew a short sword from its belt and cut down the final spectre, which dissolved like the rest.

    The figure that approached Katja caused her breath to catch. Dressed in flowing red robes with streaks of gold and white running through it and intricate golden armor crafted to resemble a bird's feathers underneath, the form of the voice that had been pestering Katja for days knelt and offered his hand to Katja. She looked up and saw a man in his late twenties with and an impish grin beaming down at her.

    "The reason is because so long as I, the great Quintus Fabius Maximus, Servant Assassin, fight by your side, you shall never see defeat!"




    Day 1 End

    - - - Updated - - -

    Interlude 1: Voices

    Light filled the room as a being of pure spirit manifested before Sasha. Around him, the soldiers all gasped and stepped backwards in awe at the sight, clutching their firearms like rosaries. A ghastly howl filled the room, blasting a wave of force that shook the solid stone chamber of the testing facility. Then, in movement faster than the human eye could detect, the figure pounced from its stone dais at one of the nearby soldiers, who hardly had the time to scream as his throat was torn from his body. Before the other soldiers could react, the figure hurled the body of the now dead soldier at the nearest one, sending both flying against the wall with a brutal crunch. Then, as the final soldier attempted to raise his gun, he let out a small grunt before falling down in two perfectly sliced halves down the middle. The figure, whom Sasha could now see was a tall, silver-haired woman dressed in scaled, metallic plate, with bright orange eyes that seemed to glow faintly in the darkened room, then stalked over to the nearest body and began to tear it apart, stuffing handfuls of flesh into her mouth while tossing out clean bones. After her meal, the young woman walked towards Sasha, who had not moved during this entire exchange, and knelt down on one knee.

    "Sorry about that little display," she said to him. "I sensed too much hostility in the air. I trust there is no problem,

    Sasha looked at the woman, whose grey hair seemed layered like fur, then up at a viewing platform made of stone and glass that had been set up at the far end of the room.

    "Am I done here? I would like to return to my room now."

    The amplified voice of Sasha's handler boomed from across the room.

    "Excellent work, Two-eighty one! It would seem that you have been deemed worthy of fighting for us. Fortune has favored us tonight!"

    Sasha looked down at the remains of a finger lying by his foot. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them, the finger was gone, instead replaced by a small pile of dust. He didn't respond, he wasn't allowed to, after all. Instead, he simply turned and began to walk away from the viewing chamber, towards the door on the other side of the stone dais. Before he could leave, a gauntleted hand on his shoulder stopped him. He turned and saw the woman, who was glaring up at the man in the chamber. From this distance, Sasha couldn't see him, but he could easily imagine the large man's heavily scarred and bearded face without needing to see it.

    "I don't like that one up there. Can I kill him, too?"

    If only it were that easy. If killing him would change anything, Sasha would have done it himself long ago. He shook his head, then moved the hand off his shoulder.

    "No, there's no point. From now on,

    Then, without another word, Sasha left the room to be let back into his cell. He could feel the woman's eyes on his back as he walked out, but he didn't care all that much. The outcome of a day's experiments meant nothing to him. He'll just continue to do what he's told so that the irritating voices leave him alone.






    --
    Last edited by Sanrei; June 10th, 2021 at 12:55 AM.

  4. #4
    Type-Pluto Sanrei's Avatar
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    Day 2: Arraying the Pieces


    Katja woke up as poorly as she slept. It really couldn't be helped, not after the events of last night. Unable to work up the willpower to sneak into her room, Katja instead opted to sleep on her work table in the studio. This wasn’t a terribly uncommon thing for Katja to do, so that in and of itself wouldn't've aroused suspicion. To be perfectly honest, Katja would sleep in the studio full time if her back and shoulders didn't get so sore from sleeping on the wooden table. As she came to, she groaned as she recalled yesterday's conversation.

    Quintus Fabius Maximus, famed general of the Roman Republic. While he served as Consul, the highest seat of the Republic, multiple times over the course of his life, his fame came from his tenure as Dictator of Rome, an appointed position of absolute power created in times of crisis. When Rome was at the precipice of annihilation by the forces of the general Hannibal Barca of Carthage in the Second Punic War, Fabius single-handedly out-maneuvered Hannibal's forces, buying enough time to weaken Hannibal's army and allow Rome to regroup. And while it would be a different Roman, Scipio Africanus, who would defeat Hannibal and end the war, it was undeniable that Fabius's actions saved Rome. For his accomplishments, he was given the title of "Cunctator" or "The Delayer". At first a derogatory title, it would later herald his fame as the founder of the brand of tactics known as "Fabian Tactics" or guerilla warfare.

    Not long after the voice of Fabius, who preferred to be called Assassin, fully manifested, they fought off a few more waves of spirits without arousing too much attention. From the way they were spread out, Assassin determined that these sailors must be originating from a single point. In order to learn as much as possible about these enemies, Assassin thought it best that they scout closer for more information before retreating for the night.

    "So now are you going to explain everything?" Katja asked the man crouched beside her as they hid behind a stack of crates while battle raged on around them.

    "There will be time for a lengthier explanation, but what you need to know now is that everyone around us is our enemy, and that it is imperative that they do not find us here."

    Katja resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

    "It doesn't take a genius to figure that out!" she snapped. "I'm asking why all of this is happening."

    Assassin sighed and turned to face her. As Katja studied his face up close for the first time, she could see the lines in his face from plenty of smiling, most likely from his biting commentary, but one detail she hadn't expected to find were his sharp, deep-set eyes that seemed to constantly shift across the landscape, never once stopping to rest.

    "Alright," he said. "Here's what you must know. Whether you like it or not, you have been made a part of a battle between seven pairs of Masters and Servants just like us to claim a holy artifact that is said to grant any wish. If you want to live, you'll need to fight and win. Does that answer your question?"

    He said everything so matter-of-factly that Katja almost felt silly for asking. To her, it sounded like some nonsense, like she had stepped onto a stage in the middle of a performance.

    "Not even remotely. If anything, I'm now even more confused."

    Assassin let out a grin.

    "Sorry, there's just a lot of information. Once we retreat, I'll be happy to answer every question you may have. Until then, can I just ask you to trust me?"

    "I have no reason to," Katja sighed. "But I wouldn't be here if I didn't already say yes."

    "Excellent! Now if you'll look over there..."

    Assassin pointed to a patch of ocean just off the edge of the northmost dock. At first, Katja assumed he was pointing towards the horizon, since she couldn't see anything. Then, she gasped as she barely made out the flickering, translucent form of a massive ship docked to the landing. It was still hard to make out the details, but she could tell that it was easily as large as the dock itself, a towering galleon with four massive sails. Rather than displacing water like a normal ship would, the vessel appeared to almost meld with the water's surface like a still waterfall.

    "What in the world is that?" Katja asked, stunned. "It's like....some kind of invisible ship."

    "A powerful clue," he said, nodding. "One that the enemy must be superbly confident to display so openly."

    All of this was so much to take in at once. Katja simply continued to stare in awe at the construct while trying to reorient her mind.

    "So then....the enemy's leader is in that ship, right? And we have to fight him?"

    Assassin chuckled, somehow, the sight of that ghostly ship seemed to excite rather than intimidate him.

    "Your bravery is admirable, but misguided on two counts. Firstly," he said as he pointed to an eagle shaped crest pinning his robes to his armor, "We Romans have had our fair share of dealings with pirates, and I've never known one to sit out a good fight."

    He turned his head towards the base of the docks, where the flames burned most intensely, and the sounds of gunfire and metal were at their peak.

    "Second, with our power, fighting a direct battle is tantamount to suicide. We're only going to be observing tonight, getting a feel for the battlefield."

    Moving away from the ship and closer to the center of battle, Katja, Assassin, and Katja's angel all moved quickly, but quietly. Katja could feel the drain on her Prana reserves from animating the angel, but surprisingly, the upkeep was not as intense as she was expecting. Even as her focus strained under the weight of the spell, she could still feel the emotions of the statue, the soul of creativity that lay at its core, supporting the magic, not letting the spark die out. Never had Katja attempted anything on this scale, yet in that moment, she felt as though she could shape the whole world.

    Just then, the sound of crashing metal knocked Katja out of her thoughts. She felt Assassin's arm dart out in front of her to shield her from a wave of force that threatened to push her away. Off in the distance, that bubble of force pushed away the flames and exposed the scene of a fierce battle. Everywhere, small melees were being fought between soldiers from the military and these spectral pirates, but the real spectacle was a fierce, inhuman clash at the epicenter of destruction. There, among the field of charred stone and bodies, stood two figures locked in mortal combat. They moved with barely detectable speed and each time their weapons struck one another, they sent waves of compressed air flying outwards in a chaotic, rhythmic beat. The taller figure was a huge beast of a man, easily over two meters tall, clad in a long, black coat with purple flames flickering off it, wielding a long, chipped cutlass. He fought in a reckless, wild manner like a madman, ferociously swinging his sword with no regard for where it struck. The most immediately striking thing about the man, however, was his face. He wore a long black beard that had been tied at the ends and , giving him the appearance of a truly demonic being. In stark contrast to the bearded man's imposing and terrifying stature, the other fighter, a silver-clad knight fighting with , seemed to give off almost no presence at all. Even in the night air, surrounded by flames, the glare of the silver armor made the knight a beacon that illuminated the battlefield, yet the designs on the knight's armor were sleek and austere and the knight's movements methodical and deadly. The knight fought with ferocity to match the black-coated man, using their gauntlets to make fast, precise strikes at the man's throat and abdomen. The two seemed to fight in an even stalemate, with neither side seeming to lose ground. With each exchange, the knight expertly dodged or parried each of the black-coated man's wild swings while taking time to tear off bits of flesh with its quick strikes. Yet the black-coated man never slowed or even acknowledged his injuries, instead his maddened cackles could be made out even amidst the furious battle. Their exchange was brutal, yet strangely entrancing, like watching two trained dancers move in coordination.

    "Those are what are known as Servants," Assassin said, crouching down next to Katja. "For each of the seven classes, one being from history or myth is summoned to fight and win in this ritual."

    "Wait, so then you're actually a of a Roman general or something?"

    "Something like that," Assassin said, grinning. "Though there's a bit more to it than that. It's more like I am what the w thinks of as Quintus Fabius Maximus, the great hero of Rome. We Servants have enhanced powers and abilities that reflect our reputations."

    "So then both of those people are..."

    "Indeed, they are spirits as well. And it is in our best interest to learn their identities as soon as possible."

    Katja turned back and studied the two fighters, though they were some distance away, so it was difficult to make out specific details. The knight wore a silver helmet with a rounded top and scaled plate armor. On its back was a flowing red cape with fur lining the top. It was difficult for Katja to find any significant clues as to the identity of the knight from its appearance alone. The black-coated man, however, was much more identifiable. The flaming beard notwithstanding, he possessed the look of a moderately aristocratic, yet hardened seafarer, though he had voids in place of his eye sockets that occasionally flashed red between swings of his rusted cutlass. Though she had never seen one in person, the man's look was clearly that of a pirate captain from the olden days, though nothing she knew of pirates had anything to do with purple flames and spectral sailors. As she studied the two fighters, her eyes drifted towards a third figure, one that seemed oddly out of place on this scene, like a foreign element placed into an otherwise consistent artwork. By one of the burning houses, sitting on the ground without so much as an acknowledgement of the din around him, sat a boy no older than Katja with stark white hair who was picking at loose bits of grass, wholly disinterested in the chaos around him. Just as Katja studied the boy, he looked up and their eyes met for a moment. Panicking, Katja quickly gasped and darted back behind the crates. Assassin's head quickly darted down to her.

    "What? What happened?" he asked. Katja had been so lost in observation that the sudden movement made her legs weak. She shook her head while gasping for air.

    "Nothing....It's nothing. I think someone might've spotted me looking from here."

    Assassin turned his body away from the direction of the battle, his face in thought.

    "From this distance, that sounds unlikely. Still, it's best if we pull back for now. I think we've learned all we can for tonight. Let's retreat back to the studio for now."

    Katja didn't feel like arguing, and in fact she welcomed the thought of finally leaving. But something about the sight of the man in black and the knight in white tugged at her mind, a memory that was somehow burned into her mind. Supporting her by the arm, Assassin helped Katja to her feet and she left the battlefield in a dazed state.

    The route that Katja took to come to the Wharf was not even a road, but instead just a path through the forest, so they thankfully didn't encounter anyone on their way home. When they arrived back in the studio, Katja collapsed onto her work table, still reeling from the events from moments ago.

    "Aaaaaaaaaaah~ What just happened? What did I just do?" she exclaimed.

    As she relaxed, and the tension left her body, she felt the drain on her Prana cease, and the animated angel Camniel let out a slow bow before . Assassin strolled over to the statue he had once spoken from on the far side of the studio and stood before it, admiring it.

    "Even if it is a reproduction, I do think it captures my likeness rather well, wouldn't you say?"

    The irritation of hearing his voice snapped Katja out of her consternation. Angrily, she sat up and pointed at Assassin.

    "You! Sit down, right now! I demand an explanation for everything!" she snapped. Her anger was mostly for show, but if she couldn't get a grasp on this whole ordeal, it would drive her mad. Assassin turned and looked at her with his now characteristic levity and shrugged in exaggerated exasperation.

    "I suppose a promise is a promise," he said, sitting at the work table across from Katja. "I'll be happy to answer any questions I can answer."

    Katja slammed her hands down on the work table and leaned forward. Now was finally the time for answers.

    "First of all, you mentioned that seven people are fighting for a wish or something? What is that and why am I involved in this?" Katja demanded.

    Assassin assumed a more comfortable position on the wooden bench, choosing to sit with one leg crossed over another and leaning back slightly.

    "Well," he began. "What you have become a part of is known as the Holy Grail War, a ritual designed to generate a great deal of magical power through the combat and eventual sacrifice of its competitors, generally a pair of Masters and Servants."

    As he sat, he played with the chessboard that Katja had set out the night before, fiddling with the pieces.

    "Each Master," he placed a king onto the board. "Is a mage selected by the Grail that is to be bonded to a Servant."

    He placed a queen alongside it.

    "The Master is the source of Prana, as well as the tactical leader. As such, they are given three Command Seals," he indicted towards the red crest on Katja's hand. "Each Command Seal can be used to command a Servant absolutely. Whether they are used to support or suppress the Servant, as well as whether they are even necessary for cooperation is entirely dependent on the Servant and Master pair."

    "So these," Katja said. "Will let me give you orders which you have to follow?"

    "That's correct," Assassin said, shrugging. "Though it is important to note that the broader and less immediate the command, the less effective the command becomes. Furthermore, for many Servants, the only thing keeping them from killing their own Masters due to disagreements is the threat of forced suicide by Command Seal. They are tools, just like anything else in war, so use them wisely.

    Katja's blood went cold.

    "You mean....you'll kill me?"

    Assassin could easily sense Katja's fear, and he smiled, though not with much warmth this time.

    "It's always a possibility. When a Master-Servant pair is incompatible, one side may have to die. It's why you should never blindly trust in your command seals without acknowledging your Servant's will. Some Servants might put up with it, but others won't. You don't want to find out which is which."

    Katja gulped. She looked down at the faintly glowing red insigniae on her hand, a circular pattern with two rough, overlapping shapes, and silently swore never to use them.

    "S-so then, why me? I never asked for any of this!"

    Assassin rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

    "Hmm, I'm not actually sure myself. As a summoned Servant, I only know the basics of the rules, not the intentions of the Grail. From what I know, the ritual always needs seven Masters. And while magi come from many different places to participate, if the Grail cannot find enough members, it will select from the pool of local magi, no matter how trained or powerful they are."

    "So then...this is all just a big accident? I've been chosen to fight and die for no reason?"

    "Well that's a rather dour way to put it, isn't it Master?"

    Assassin leaned in and looked Katja right in the eyes, his expression serious.

    "Do you believe in , Master?"

    "If such a thing as fate existed," Katja said. "I'm probably invisible to it, so it doesn't matter to me."

    "Ah, but you see, that's not how I define fate. In my time, when my country needed me, I was called on to defend it. While my background fit the requirements, my childhood was distinctly unremarkable. I was called quiet and slow by my peers, a dullard that would never amount to anything."

    The man's expression was hard, and though he physically looked no older than his mid-twenties, Katja could tell the man beneath was much older than that.

    "B-but, you're a famous general. I've read about you in textbooks. I'm just me."

    Fabius smiled.

    "Do you think I knew I would save Rome with my actions? Did you think that when I commanded my forces to battle, I was not sending them to their deaths? What we call fate is built upon the smallest strokes of luck and the most minute advancements."

    Assassin looked down and Katja saw that he had assembled the pieces on the chessboard. He moved his pawn forward and gestured for Katja to respond in kind.

    "To me, this war is an opportunity," Assassin said. "Not to win the wish. While I died with many regrets, a life lived is a life lived, and I have no desire to change it. No, this war is an opportunity for me to prove that I was right in the end. That my strategies can win any war."

    Katja and Assassin exchanged pieces as their game progressed. She had played several games with him before, though it had previously been through vocal direction rather than physically moving the pieces. The game initially moved quite slowly, with only minor losses on both sides. Each time they played, Katja always felt as though she was moments away from snatching victory, but she never once succeeded. This time, Assassin placed his bishop in a threatening position, but in doing so, he left his queen wide open. Seizing this opportunity, Katja pushed forward an aggressive attack, claiming some of Assassin's top pieces.

    "So long as I fight by your side, I am confident that we will never lose," Assassin said. "So I ask you now, why will you choose to fight? Why did you agree to form a contract with me, despite knowing the risks? The Grail brought me to you for a reason, and now I wish to know why."

    Then, right as victory seemed within reach, Assassin smiled, reached across the board and knocked down Katja's king. Without her even noticing, she had been placed in a perfect checkmate, one move away from her win.

    "What‽" Katja exclaimed, jumping to her feet. "You totally baited me!"

    Assassin chuckled and held up his hands.

    "I don't deny it," he said. "That was a good game though. You certainly came close."

    Katja glowered at him.

    "Why do I get the impression that you're only saying that to patronize me?" she pouted. "You were never close to losing were you? You just made me think I could win."

    "Hmm?" Assassin said, winking. "I'll never tell. Now, your answer?"

    Katja sat back down.

    "I...I'm not sure how to explain it. I just felt that....if I let this go, I would've lived the rest of my life in quiet desperation. But even still...."

    Katja sat with her knees held close to her chest. She picked up one of the fallen pawns and began to aimlessly reshape it.

    "Those were real people dying out there. You're telling me that I have to go out and fight like that? I don't see that going very well..."

    Assassin began to return the remaining pieces to the board, though he gave no indication of wanting a second game. When he was done, the board had been assembled, save for the spot where Katja's king would be. Assassin held the king up and studied it as he spoke.

    "It is certainly true that your qualifications as a Master are more a technicality than actual ability. And it is also true that when compared to most other Servants, I myself am very sensible of my own defects. Assassins are typically seen as the weakest direct combat class, and not once in my history have I assassinated anyone. Truth be told, this class is a bad fit for me, but this Grail war only allowed these seven classes, nothing more."

    "Still," Assassin said, crushing Katja's king into splinters and placing the pile before Katja. "There is no better battlefield for me than against overwhelming odds. And believe me when I say that you have the potential to be a fine Master."

    Katja looked down, unable to meet his eyes. Assassin's words were kind, neither patronizing nor pitying her. She stared down at the unformed pawn in her right hand, then picked up the pile of wood on the table with her left. This time, when she returned the pieces to the board, she placed the king down with her right hand.

    "Together," Assassin said. "We'll turn this doomed fate into a victory the likes of which the world has never seen."

    And for once, Katja felt lighter. Despite knowing next to nothing about what was to come, despite being a nobody with no place in this crazy war, she felt that they might have the smallest sliver of a chance. As Katja moved the board off the table and began to drift off to sleep on the worktable, she smiled faintly to herself.

    For the first time since she started this crazy ordeal, she felt as though things might turn out alright.


    Day 2: Starting Line

    When Katja left for school, she made sure to put on a scarf and gloves to feign a mild cold. She didn't want anyone asking about her Command Seals, so it was the best way to fly a bit under the radar. Apparently, Assassin could swap between his physical body and what he called the "spirit form", so he could accompany Katja to school.

    As Katja passed along the main road, she expected to find an uproar along the main part of town from last night's fire, but to her surprise, the town seemed as quiet and sleepy as it always had. The only difference she could really spot was the increased number of military vehicles that seemed to be patrolling the roads. Thankfully, Katja never used the main roads when she walked to school, but this increased activity did feel a little stifling to her.

    Upon arriving at school, the general tone of the classroom was unchanged from yesterday. Students chatted amongst themselves without a care in the world, completely unaware of the battle that took place the night before. Fortunately for Katja, that girl didn't show up to school again, so she was able to assume her usual spot in the middle of the classroom without anyone noticing her.

    "How come nobody cares about what happened yesterday. You'd think a fire that big would at least get people talking," Katja muttered under her breath. Assassin seems to have no problem hearing Katja no matter what volume she spoke, and his answers appeared in her head, so they could easily speak without anyone noticing.

    Hmm, according to the Grail, past Holy Grail Wars were typically overseen by a neutral third party, usually the Holy Church, in order to reduce collateral damage and keep the war a secret.

    "The church? You mean the Christian Church‽ They're magicians too?"

    Ahem. If you want to be very technical, what you and the Church does is called Magecraft, not magic. You are a mage, or magus, not a magician. And yes, though it is a bit complex. The Holy Church is an organization within the Christian Church that uses Magecraft to punish heresies.

    Katja did her best to keep her expression neutral, but it was no easy feat. All this time, she had assumed that the Christian Church was a powerless organization, easily suppressed by her government and banished from her village.

    "If they had magi- er, Magecraft on their side, why didn't they fight back? Why aren't there any Church people here?"

    That I cannot answer. Unfortunately, the Grail only gives me information that is directly relevant to the war.

    As soon as class ended and break began, Katja went and sat in her favourite alcove behind the school. A spot where the school building turned inwards, just beside the large field area that marked the boundary of school grounds. It was a wider, open area that had once been used as a sports field, though once the new field was made, this area had been left forgotten and alone. This made it a perfect spot for Katja, and her only real company was a single abandoned tool shed that stood on the other side of the large, snowy field.

    "Assassin," Katja said, still speaking softly under her breath. "You mentioned last night that we would fight to win right?"

    That's right, why? Are you having some doubts?

    "Well, not really doubts, I was just wondering what you...er, did? Like, do you have any powers to help us fight?"

    There was a brief silence in the air, and Katja felt a little silly asking such a basic question this far into the game.

    Ah, haha. Of course, that is an important thing to know going forward.

    Katja felt a light tap on shoulders, and jumped back in panic before realizing that Assassin had somehow manifested next to her without her realizing.

    "How did you do that? Don't you normally make a sound when you appear like that?"

    "It's one of the skills we Assassin-class Servants possess. It's called Presence Concealment and it allows us to remain undetectable the moment before we strike. Though admittedly, my rank in the skill is rather low, since I'm a soldier, not a spy."

    "Still, isn't that kind of incredible? You could sneak up on any Servant and beat them before they even have a chance to fight back couldn't you?"

    "I'm afraid it's not that straightforward," Assassin replied, shaking his head. "In exchange for this one ability, Assassins are among the weakest of the seven classes. We neither have the strong physical attributes of the three knight classes, Saber, Archer, and Lancer, nor the versatility of the Caster and Rider classes. It's this one trick that we've got, which makes Assassins the worst class for protecting their Masters."

    Katja had forgotten that she herself would need to be involved in this war. The thought of her standing against skilled and dangerous magi made her want to crawl back into her studio and never leave.

    "So then, if another Master finds us...."

    "Our odds would not be promising."

    Katja looked down at her feet. Of course things couldn't possibly be so simple. While she knew little of the qualities of a Master, she could guess that she probably wasn't anywhere near the cream of that particular crop. Everything that she had gone through to get to this point is nothing more than reaching the starting line. Assassin smiled as he lightly punched Katja on the shoulder.

    "Well, I am mostly speaking in general terms. I've definitely got a few tricks up my sleeve."

    Katja looked up at him.

    "Tricks? Like what?"

    "Well, what do you know of my legend?" Assassin said, grinning.

    "Well, you were 'the Delayer', right? You held off a superior force by constantly using hit-and-run and scorched earth tactics."

    "Indeed. In Rome, I was called 'Cunctator', first as mockery, then as praise. But I had another title as well: the ."

    "Hmm, I do remember seeing that in a textbook somewhere..."

    "Truth be told," Assassin said, rubbing the back of his head in thought. "I'm a bad fit for the Assassin class. I qualify because of my fame as the creator of my delaying tactics, though I believe the term people use today is guerilla warfare nowadays, but I'm still a soldier. I have no real talent for sneaking around."

    "Still," Assassin continued. "There are some perks with being the best at the other half of an Assassin-class Servant's specialties."

    "Like what?"

    Assassin winked.

    "It's not easy to describe them, so let's just say for now that I'm a bit better at protecting things than most other assassins."

    "Oh, I-I see. And what about me? What exactly do I do in all this?"

    "Well, the Grail doesn't really care what a Master does. You can choose to fight on the front lines and take down the enemy Master, or you can sit back and let the Servants duke it out. When it comes to you and me though, there's only one condition that I need you to follow."

    "Condition?" Katja asked. Assassin's expression grew harder as he delivered his line without an ounce of levity.



    Katja left her mouth to hang open for a moment, unsure of what to say. Assassin sighed and looked away guiltily.

    "Sorry, I didn't mean for that to come out so harshly....I just mean that I'll stand by you and fight in whatever battle you want. I'll give my life to protect you and win you this war. All I ask in return is that you let me do it my way."

    Assassin turned and faced Katja. She could see in his eyes a deep somberness, a wish unfulfilled, a desire to succeed. But behind that still, she sensed rage, a burning ambition that seemed to ignite the otherwise laid-back man from within. Unable to formulate any words in response to the man's intensity, Katja could only nod. The tension left Assassin's body and he smiled.

    "Thank you, Master. This time, I'll prove that I was not wrong."

    Katja was tempted to feel disarmed by Assassin's positivity. After all, on her side was perhaps one of the greatest military minds to have ever lived. Surely, that was something she could place her faith in.

    Right?

    --

    The bell ringing four times in succession signalled the end of another school day. Katja breathed a sigh of relief as she got up from her desk and prepared to walk home. She hadn't the faintest idea what she learned in class today since she'd spent all day talking to Assassin under her breath, so her grades would likely take a dip for a while.

    "So tell me more about this plan you said you had..."

    Still, Katja's grades weren't exactly impressive before all of this began, so she really didn't feel too bad.

    "Uh-huh, and you'd have me making them at the studio..."

    Honestly, it felt kind of refreshing to have an excuse not to care about her daily affairs, like a secret being kept from her classmates. Katja slung her backpack over her shoulders and began walking outside. There wasn't anyone in particular that she talked to regularly besides her uncle, so she didn't really have any business at school anymore.

    "I guess I don't really mind, though I'm not sure if I could control one from so far away...."

    Walking over the hill on her way home from school, Katja looked out over the sea. Today, it had a thick mist hovering over its surface, making it look like a giant wall had formed, blocking Polnoch from the waters. As she conversed, she made sure not lose her footing on the icy road. The snow from last night had stopped falling, having covered the once dirt path in a layer of solid ice.

    "Isn't the point of this war for you to be the one fighting? How many of these do you want me to make anyways?"

    Katja hopped from snowy patch to snowy patch, carefully jumping over the sold ice patches. Then, she lost her rhythm and her foot landed on an ice patch, sending her tumbling backwards and onto her bottom.

    "Wait, how many‽" she exclaimed out loud.

    Like I said, with a force of around fifty, we could actually begin to hold our own in a direct Servant battle. Assassin said, his wispy spiritual form floating by her head.

    "That's impossible! Even if I could transmute things into marble, do you realize how much raw material we'd need? Not to mention the fact that the Prana upkeep would probably put me in a coma..."

    We need to use all the resources we can, and I think that your abilities have a great deal of military applications. Sentient golems that can potentially follow complex orders is a godsend for someone like myself.

    Katja resisted the urge to click her tongue.

    "They're not golems, they're statues. And did you not hear the part about putting me in a coma?"

    Well if we're to win this war, we'll need to maximize both our military contributions. I said fifty, but I'd be much more comfortable with an army. Whatever the largest number you could produce would be fine, especially since you aren't very equipped yourself for direct combat.

    "Just because something is true doesn't mean you should point it out," Katja said, scowling. She knew that she wasn't exactly an asset on the battlefield, but being reminded of how weak she was still didn't feel very good."

    "Well sorry to point out the other flaw in your plan, mister genius," Katja said, pouting. "But even if I had a lot of money, which I don't by the way, there aren't exactly stores where I can buy that much clay or concrete."

    Who said anything about going to a store?

    Katja looked at Assassin incredulously.

    "Are you suggesting that we steal the materials?"

    Assassin laughed nervously.

    What? Of course not! I am an honorable Roman soldier and Pontifex of Jupiter himself, Assassin said, though Katja was almost certain he wasn't making eye contact with her. I would never engage in something so crass. Rather, I'm suggesting that you steal the materials.

    Katja's brain couldn't formulate an appropriate response to that, so she just sat there dumbfounded. The utter gall of this man! .

    "Oh yeah? Well why don't I tell you to get bent?"

    There's no need to be hurtful, Master-

    "And stop with this Master nonsense, just call me Katja!"

    ...Very well. Katja, perhaps I've done a bad job of explaining myself. This is not a war we can win with pluck alone. Many of our enemies have had years to prepare for this battle, putting us at an overwhelming disadvantage. If we don't make certain concessions and hard decisions, we will not last.

    He was right, that much was clear to Katja. Had she been a more stubborn person, she might've argued the point a bit harder, but Katja was not particularly for nor against thievery. Like with most things, Katja just didn't care enough to fight for it. She sighed. If Assassin thinks they should do it, then they should do it.

    "....Alright. Fine then. We'll do it your way."

    I'm glad you understand. Now, where may be a good place to find such raw materials. Perhaps some sort of industrial site may fit our needs nicely. After all, who would even notice if a few bags of concrete went missing?

    Katja thought about it for a moment.

    "Well, they'll likely be sending people to start rebuilding the Wharf," Katja said after some thinking. "But given how people have been acting about what happened there, I'm not sure when that'll happen....Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of construction going on right now."

    Hmm....What would suffice as raw materials? Collecting them from the local terrain sounds promising, after all.

    "Uh....Well I've never really thought about that. I just kinda....feel what to do," Katja said, abashedly. "B-but I guess the closer it is to the desired material, in this case marble, the easier it is to shape."

    Is there any reason why it has to be made from scratch? Surely animating local statues could save us lots of time.

    "I-....I hadn't thought of that."

    A part of Katja felt uncomfortable with the notion of using someone else's art. After all, this was her fight, so shouldn't she use her own work for this? Once again, Katja suppressed that voice inside her head. It didn't really matter whose work was used. If anything, the quality of the work would be lower if Katja did it herself.

    No, there wasn't room for stupid thoughts.

    Still, Assassin continued. We can't exactly go around town animating every statue we find. I doubt we'd even find fifty to begin with.

    "Actually," Katja said. "There is a place in town with an abundance of statues. Old Town's got plenty of old statues, though most of them are broken."

    Excellent! Let us head there immediately!

    "Wait, now? But school just ended."

    The days are not long here. If we do not make haste, we will be caught out past nightfall. That's a dangerous time to be exposed.

    Katja sighed. She'd been a fool to think that she'd get a few hours to herself. Fortunately, Old Town wasn't too far from her house, so as long as they finished this quickly, she could get back to the studio and maybe get a bit of work done.



    --


    Day 2: Bad Match

    Is that the last of them? Assassin asked.

    They had spent a good few hours skulking around Old Town, animating whatever they could find. Similar to when Katja animated the angel yesterday, Katja felt herself connected to the creative sparks that brought the creations to life. They seemed to move somewhat with their own energy, something that made maintaining so many connections at once. Still, they only managed to raise about fifteen statues before Katja began feeling lightheaded. She had been nearing the limits of her endurance, but at the same time, the population of statues in the area appeared to have been exhausted. Katja and Assassin both quickly realized that there weren't enough humanoid statues to fill the quota. Even after reassembling the statues that had fallen to ruin over the years, they still had no more than seven statues of various heroes, founders, and angels. The rest were of....perhaps more questionable military efficacy. Trailing behind this small swarm of humanoids were a pair of hounds, a horse, two eagles, two rabbits, and a grasshopper.

    Katja looked towards the last statue she had raised. It was of a small girl holding a bouquet of flowers in her hands. When she came to life, she plucked one off the bouquet and placed one in Katja's ear.

    "It's all I can manage without passing out," Katja said. The sky had turned dark at around 5 o'clock tonight, and though it was bitterly cold, Katja was sweating slightly. "Are you sure about this though, Assassin? Most of these guys aren't fighters. I can tell that much just by looking at them."

    Assassin appeared in his physical form before Katja, his arms crossed. Unlike yesterday, he wasn't wearing any armor. Instead, he wore a deep red and blue toga interlaced with gold trim. Katja noticed that he was still armed in this state with his gladius at his side.

    "If all it took to fight a war was a strong body and a weapon, it wouldn't be so difficult, Katja," Assassin said. "Espionage, sabotage, infiltration, and information are all integral parts of war."

    Katja looked apprehensively at the child, who was now joyfully attempting to catch one of the rabbits. Assassin noticed Katja's unease and placed a hand on her shoulder.

    "It's alright," Assassin said. "I have no intention of placing the unwilling or unprepared onto the battlefield. We Romans hold ourselves to a high standard."

    Katja opened her mouth to respond, but then Assassin suddenly placed his finger in front of her. He quickly grabbed Katja and moved around and behind a large section of wall that still remained on the edge of Old Town. The statues soon followed suit. She could hear his voice in her head.

    "Someone's here. I heard their footsteps."

    Katja tried to listen, but she couldn't hear anything. Either Assassin was making things up or he has incredible hearing. She was inclined to believe either, actually, but the thought of some stranger stumbling upon Katja and Assassin surrounded by a large number of animated bronze and stone statues filled her with dread.

    "What do we do?" Katja whispered. "I won't be able to explain this, I-"

    Assassin flicked her on the forehead, effectively cutting her off. He didn't appear to put a whole lot of force into it, but Katja clutched her forehead in pain for a few moments.

    "First of all, don't panic," he said in her head. "If you panic, you stop thinking and you'll lose in the end. Second, don't speak out loud for now. Until we know more, any stranger is a potential enemy. And if they're a Master, their Servant will easily be able to hear even small noises from a distance."

    Katja paused and began to focus her thoughts and direct them at Assassin. She closed her eyes and concentrated on their spirit link.

    "There, is this better?" Katja tried to say in her head.

    "Much. Now, we should begin planning our retreat. Can you give me a projection of this area's layout?"

    "I...uh, probably?"

    Katja tried her best to imagine the area of Old Town in as much detail as she could muster. She thought about the three roads that lead out of town towards various other areas in Polnoch, about the many buildings both inhabited and not, and how far each stood from one another. She attempted to direct this flurry of images and memories at Assassin in the same way as before. And from the way he was nodding, it appeared to have worked.

    "Hmm, I see. For now, it would be best if we layed low and waited for them to pass." Assassin said.

    "Are you sure that's a good idea? What if they find us?"

    "If we move, we'll be much more likely to be found. And if they are a Master, we may be able to learn something useful."

    By this time, the footsteps had become loud enough for Katja to hear them. From what she could tell, there was only one set of footsteps headed towards them. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed something on the ground that turned her blood to ice. Tonight, there was no snow falling from the sky. Out on the otherwise empty street, leading right to their position, was a mass of various animal and human footprints, unchanged in the snow. Panicked, Katja quickly indicated the trail to Assassin, whose facial expression also shifted to that of concerned surprise.

    "Ah, that was a slight blunder. I guess I'm still unused to fighting in the winter time." he said, sheepishly.

    "Whatdowedowhatdowedowhatdowedo? I-I could deactivate the statues and we could make a run for it?" Katja held her head in her hands. The tension was driving her crazy.

    Assassin shook his head in thought.

    "Going off the assumption that every unknown is a potential enemy, we wouldn't make it very far. Even if we ran, we'd never be able to outrun an enemy Servant."

    "Should we just they don't notice?" Katja asked hopefully, though mostly to herself.

    "Hope is not a strategy I'm afraid. We're going to have to engage."

    "Engage‽ Are you crazy? We're not even close to ready for that."

    "Oh? And when will we be ready, Katja? How much time do you need?"

    Katja had no response to this. Assassin was right. If there was an enemy before her, they weren't going to let her simply run away. She had to fight, whether she liked it or not.

    "....You have a plan, right Assassin?" Katja said.

    Assassin smiled.

    "I always have a plan. Rest assured my Master that so long as I breath, the sun will continue to rise in Rome."

    Katja nodded slowly.

    "Alright, then let's do this."

    "Good, good. If we're lucky, it'll simply be a worker or perhaps an old man taking a walk. But regardless, you're going to have to distract them while the rest of us reposition without making prints."

    Katja turned to look at Assassin, but he was already beginning to disappear into his spirit form.

    "Wait, what?"

    Katja felt a forceful shove at her back that sent her stumbling out onto the open street. Unable to find proper balance, Katja fell on her hands and knees. She was so surprised by the sudden action that she didn't even have time to curse Assassin, instead whimpering weakly in late protest at the suddenness of the situation.

    "Oh? To think that, of all people, I would be so fortunate as to find you in this place," a smooth, female voice spoke out.

    At that sound, Katja felt her legs turn to jelly and she suddenly felt no desire to look up. It was a voice that she has had plenty of time to get annoyed with.

    "Hey there, Shlykova," Katja said, grimacing. "Pleasure meeting you here...."

    Begrudgingly, Katja looked up and saw the smug expression of the only child of the Shlykova family staring down at her. While Katja was accustomed to seeing Shlykova in her school uniform, the air of noble arrogance that she gave off was unmistakable. Shlykova wore a prim white and maroon dress that perfectly complimented her tidy and long pale blonde hair. The dress she wore provided moderate winter protection, yet it appeared just thin enough as to seem out of place in the cold, giving the look of an untouchable princess, physically isolated from the rest of the world.

    Katja had thought that she'd been lucky to avoid this person at school, but fate seemed to have a sense of humor. She considered just walking away right then and there. Given their interactions at school, it would've been perfectly justified. Still, Katja remembered Assassin's hunch and thought it would probably be best to try and fish for information. She sighed and got to her feet.

    "So, what're you doing out here, Shlykova?" Katja said. She tried to modulate the tone of her voice, but the best she could have it come out was defensive. "It's weird seeing you without your groupies trailing behind you."

    Shlykova tittered in a manner that struck Katja as immensely patronizing, like a parent laughing at a child's fit.

    "My dear," Shlykova said, giving her a radiant smile. "I have told you before on many occasions that we should highlight our similarities, not our differences. You, who have been blessed with the same name as myself, should wear that with pride. Please call me Yekaterina."

    --

    When Katja first met Yekaterina Sergeyevna Shlykova two years ago, she knew almost immediately that they wouldn't get along. Not even two hours after everyone in their class had introduced themselves to the teacher, Katja was approached by Shlykova and her sycophants. Even having never spoken to her previously, everyone in her class already knew about the abhorrently wealthy and influential Shlykova family heiress. Hailing from an ancient landowning family that had, through incredible feat of negotiation, managed to hold onto much of the land surrounding Polnoch after the rise of the Party, Yekaterina Shlykova was an untouchable, blinding force within the school walls of Katja's classroom. The teachers were all utterly terrified of her, since they had little to no de facto authority over her at all, which led to at least half the student body of the school following her around like loyal dogs. And it was clear that Yekaterina Shlykova practically bathed in this attention. She fawned over her "vassals" like a queen, holding outdoor gatherings and tea parties at her manor at frequent intervals. Rather than wear the standard uniform like everyone else, Shlykova instead came to school in a custom-made silk and cotton uniform variant imported from Germany that likely cost more than Katja's house. In short, she was an haughty, arrogant, obtrusive, bourgeois princess that drew the whole room's attention when she walked into the room, easily Katja's least favorite kind of person.

    Under most circumstances, Katja would be fine if the two of them lived their whole lives without a single notable interaction, two parallel lines that are destined to never intersect. In fact, Katja rather liked it when Shlykova drew all of the attention towards herself, since it gave Katja a way to avoid attention. In theory, it would've been a nice arrangement.

    In theory, anyways.

    Quite literally on the first day of school, Katja was prevented from leaving the classroom to hide in her favorite alcove by Shlykova, who stood with her arms folded in front of her at the exit to the classroom. Katja attempted to duck around her without making eye contact, but the young heiress refused to let her pass.

    "You there!" Shlykova said, either intentionally ignorant of or completely oblivious to Katja's very obvious efforts to avoid contact. "It would seem as though we share the same name, Miss Yekaterina."

    "Actually," Katja said in a small voice. "I'd prefer if you'd call me Katja."

    Shlykova let out a huff of dismissal.

    "Nonsense!" Shlykova said. By this point, Katja became painfully aware that all eyes in the classroom were focused on her. And she hated every bit of it. "This should be taken as a sign of providence!"

    "U-um....That's great and all but...." Katja continued to say in a barely audible voice. The pulse of her rapid heartbeat felt so violent she was surprised that the whole room couldn't hear it. She felt like an earthworm caught under a boot, wanting to flail desperately to escape. "I....I'd like to go and eat lunch now if you don't mi-"

    "Ah, lunch! Perfect. Why don't you join us in the cafeteria then, Miss Yekaterina?" she said. Then she tittered slightly to herself. "I apologise for saying your name so many times, Miss Yekaterina. It is simply that it feels strange, saying my own name out loud."

    "I-" Katja began.

    "Well then, shall we be off? I'm sure there is much we can discuss together."

    Katja felt as though she needed to get a word in, but she was suddenly pushed by Shlykova's sycophants behind her as they moved toward the cafeteria like a pack of seagulls. Desperately, Katja struggled against the crowd, eventually pulling herself free from it and watched as it began to move away from her. Katja had hoped that she could slip away in the opposite direction while they were distracted, but as she turned to sneak off, she heard Shlykova's voice behind her.

    "Miss Yekaterina?" she said. Katja turned around and saw around a dozen blank stares right at her. The only eyes that seemed alert at all times were the shining blue pair that belonged to Shlykova. "The cafeteria is this way, you know? It is our first day here, so I do understand your confus-"

    "...not." Katja muttered under her breath. Shlykova had been remarkably capable of hearing Katja's words even as she mumbled them, but even she had trouble hearing Katja from this distance.

    "I'm sorry," Shlykova said. "Did you say something?"

    "I said I'm sorry, but I'd rather not."

    The hallway stood in stunned silence for a few moments, with Shlykova looking at Katja not with anger, disdain or annoyance, but rather with an expression of genuine shock, as though the possibility of rejection literally had not occurred to her. Without another word, Katja walked off in the other direction, not waiting to hear a response. It wasn't that she disliked Shlykova. Throughout that whole interaction, Katja couldn't detect a hint of malice or derision in Shlykova's tone or body language. But the thought of being placed in the spotlight as the "other Yekaterina" was not one that she could stomach. She had to put her foot down and hope that she could simply retreat back into obscurity. To Katja, Shlykova was the kind of person who couldn't help but draw attention with every action she performed, the kind of person who wouldn't hesitate to cause a scene if it meant getting her way. No matter what, the two of them would always be a bad match.

    The next day, Shlykova made no further attempts to talk to Katja during the first half of the day, and Katja was hopeful that they could spend their school days ignoring each other completely. After break, the diagnostic tests they had taken yesterday were returned to them. Katja looked at the number written on the red-inked paper.

    Dead average. Katja sighed and flipped the paper over. She never bothered to study material, so this was a decent estimate of her expected performance. Her uncle never reprimanded her for her middling grades, so there was little incentive for Katja to care. She shrugged to herself and prepared to put the paper into her bag when a voice spoke to her from her immediate right.

    "So what was your score then, Miss Yekaterina?" the voice of Shlykova said, nearly causing Katja to jump out of her seat in surprise. "I'll have you know that I myself have achieved exemplary results."

    Katja considered herself an obServant person, having done nothing but observe in class for seven years, but she didn't even see Shlykova move. The rest of the class was not-so-subtly looking at them, with the exception of the teacher, who was pointedly ignoring Shlykova and continuing to hand out test scores. Katja shrank into her seat. She had been a fool to think that one refusal would solve all of her problems.

    "I mean, my score was....average?" Katja sheepishly showed Shlykova the test score. And though she didn't really care what the number said, she still felt like a withered weed next to a sunflower. When Shlykova saw the number, her face glowed with self-satisfaction for a moment, before turning stern.

    "Miss Yekaterina! I expect a stronger performance from you moving forward. You must uphold our name with more effort!" Shlykova said. Then she walked back to her desk without another word.

    This was the first time Shlykova had ever reprimanded a fellow student, and the class made sure to discuss this amongst themselves at length, much to Katja's dismay. From that day forward, during every activity, every assignment, exercise, or examination that Katja shared with Shlykova, Katja was made an object of unintentional ridicule against her will. The other members of her class knew something was different about the way Katja was treated, and she quickly found herself isolated from her classmates. Some were like Katja herself, simply wishing to avoid the attention of Shlykova and her followers. Others were admirers of Shlykova who either ignored Katja out of some twisted form of jealousy or because they didn't want to catch whatever Katja had. Regardless of motive, the result was the same.

    Strangely enough, over time, people grew used to this dynamic. It got to the point that so long as the two of them were not in the same room, Katja could relax somewhat. This had the unfortunate side-effect of causing every hair on Katja's body to stand on end at the mere mention of Shlykova's name and, to an extent, even her own. Part of Katja resented Shlykova for subjecting Katja to this torment, but an even larger part of her was disgusted by her own weakness for being weak-willed enough to become somewhat accustomed to this paradigm. The two of them were oil and water, yet Shlykova insisted on dissolving Katja anyways. Despite no longer inviting Katja to join her group, .

    To Katja, it all felt like one long prank by the universe. Out there, the creator of the cosmos realized he had accidentally made two Yekaterinas, and now the true one had come to collect her due.



    --

    Day 2: Iridescence

    "Miss Yekaterina," Shlykova said, adjusting her long white gloves. "It is unwise for a young woman to be alone outside at this time, especially in the wintertime."

    Instinctively, Katja felt herself slowly shifting backwards, as if her body wanted to flee. Of course, she didn't exactly need her body to tell her to do something she already wanted to do, but she was glad to be reminded that she was a coward.

    "Y-yeah, well. I was just taking a stroll," Katja snapped, the cold wasn't exactly helping with her stutter. "People take strolls. Am I not allowed to take strolls?"

    Shlykova laughed.

    "Of course not, Miss Yekaterina," Shlykova said. "I happened to be in much the same mind myself. I seldom get to simply walk around Polnoch like this. It really can be quite beautiful, can it not?"

    "Yeah, shame about all the broken buildings though." Katja replied.

    "It is quite sad, is it not? I would have loved to see this place as it was intended."

    "Right....well you enjoy your walk. I'm going to head home pretty soon so...."

    Shlykova laughed again. Katja hated how melodious it sounded, for it did not contain a single negative chord. Katja could never laugh like that.

    "My dear Miss Yekaterina," Shlykova said. "It makes me quite happy to see you being so open with me. I never knew you to be quite so expressive."

    "Yeah well, we all have our secrets, don't we?"

    Katja wanted to keep retreating, but something about the way that Shlykova's eyes seemed to pierce her prevented her from moving away.

    "As I said, it is quite fortuitous that I happened to come across you tonight, Miss Yekaterina." Shlykova continued. "I had actually been hoping to visit your home to warn you of the events of last night..."

    Immediately, sirens began to go off in Katja's mind. No matter how poorly Katja understood their relationship, there was absolutely no way that they were that close. Last night....

    Katja remembered how nobody at school seemed to talk about what happened at the Wharf last night. Did Shlykova know? Katja decided to play dumb for now.

    "L-last night? Why? Did something happen?" Katja said out loud. Internally, Katja hit herself for her awful acting. She really couldn't be trusted to perform under stress.

    Shlykova crossed her arms and shook her head in dismay.

    "There was a terrible accident down at the Wharf. I am not aware of the details myself, but there was a great fire that consumed it all. I had been sure that you could see it from your home."

    "H-huh, I must've missed it. My room doesn't really have windows and all so..." Katja tried her best not to make eye contact with Shlykova, but she swore she heard Assassin groan over their psychic connection.

    "S-still, it's crazy that nobody was talking about it at school, huh?"

    Idiot! Why was Katja bringing that up now? She needed to find a way to disengage from this conversation before her shiftiness was exposed. Katja just needed to play it smooth. She'd just hear Shlykova out, then they'd go their separate ways.

    Katja, Assassin's voice suddenly appeared in her head. I've moved the statues far enough away. You should pull back now.

    Katja attempted to steer the conversation towards closure.

    "But anyways, thanks for the warning. Message received."

    Katja faked a yawn.

    "Whelp, I'm awfully tired. I guess I'll head to bed."

    Shlykova pulled out a small pocket watch and glanced at the time.

    "Oh? But is it not only five hours past noon? That seems terribly early to be turning in."

    "W-well, I guess I like to turn in early."

    Katja needed to leave before she humiliated herself any longer. She quickly hopped back, then waved to Shlykova.

    "See you at school tomorrow!" Katja said, then turned to power walk away without awaiting a response. Yup, that was the smoothest exit Katja could come up with. She didn't manage to get more than five meters away before she was stopped by a hand on her shoulder.

    "Just one moment, Miss Yekaterina,"

    Katja was jerked around in a sudden movement and she found herself face to face with Shlykova, who had somehow managed to clear the distance without making a sound. Katja attempted to struggle, but the grip that held Katja's shoulder in place was far stronger than it appeared, and found herself trembling. Shlykova took a few moments to study Katja up close, then reached out with her other hand. Instinctively, Katja closed her eyes and flinched. She then felt the sensation of something being pulled off her head. When she opened her eyes, she saw Shlykova studying a small metallic flower, the same one that had been placed into her hair by the statue girl minutes prior. Katja hoped that the expression on her face was one of calmness, because at that moment, she was too stunned to know what she looked like.

    "I-....uh, that's....um...." Katja stumbled, unable to properly form words.

    "What a beautiful hairpiece." Shlykova said, rolling the flower in her hands. After a few moments, she placed it back in Katja's hair, though in a different place. Instead of tucking it behind her ear as the girl had, Shlykova instead gathered some of Katja's messy black hair and had the flower stem act to pin the hair neatly along the side of her head.

    "I apologize," Shlykova said, patting some of Katja's hair down, albeit unsuccessfully. "I became distracted. Where were we?"

    Throughout all of this, Shlykova maintained her iron grip on Katja's shoulder, seemingly oblivious to Katja's attempts to break away.

    "Ah yes. Actually, before you left, I was hoping you could answer a few questions of mine. And please tell the truth this time."

    Katja bit her lip. So Shlykova had seen through Katja then. Admittedly, Katja was a terrible liar, but she at least held out hope that her behavior could be attributed to Katja being a complete social recluse. Those hopes were now dashed.

    Shlykova now held Katja by both shoulders.

    "You seemed visibly upset when I mentioned last night's fire," Shlykova said, her face now right up to Katja's. "Do you perhaps know something? Or rather...."

    Katja felt a sudden chill, as though every cell in her body were suddenly filled with ice. She had to get away. There was something about Shlykova tonight that set off every danger sense Katja had.

    "Any stranger is a potential enemy."

    Was Shlykova a Master too? If that were true, then that would mean that Shlykova is also a magus, just like Katja. Details suddenly began falling into place. Her unnatural movement and physical resistance, her outstanding cognitive and physical ability, her ancient family background. It all made sense.

    What also made sense was that if Shlykova found out about Katja, she would be very, very dead.

    "You know, Miss Yekaterina,"Shlykova whispered in Katja's ear. "I've thought this for a while, but you're a magus, aren't you?"

    Katja gulped. The game was up. It would only be a matter of moments before she was killed. She didn't know how, but she somehow knew that at this range, Katja would be dead in seconds. Should she call on Assassin? What else could she do? Katja cursed her own uselessness. Without her Servant, she was nothing.

    "M-magus? You mean like a magician?" Katja bluffed. "There's no such thing, right?"

    Katja closed her eyes, waiting for death. But then one of the hands on her shoulder slackened, and Katja saw Shlykova place a hand on her cheek.

    "Miss Yekaterina," Shlykova said, sadly. "I want to believe you, I really do. I enjoy our days spent competing in school. But certain responsibilities have been placed on my shoulders, and I'm afraid that if you are, in fact, a magus..."

    Shlykova wrapped her hand around Katja's throat. She held Katja's face close to her own.

    "....You will have to die."

    The grip around her neck tightened into a death grip, and Katja felt her whole body being lifted off the ground. Pain, an agonizing crushing pain combined with a sense of drowning. Her throat was being crushed. Somewhere, in the recesses of her mind, she was consciously aware of the fact, but her head felt light, as though her consciousness was only partially present. That rational part of her mind screamed for her to do something, anything, but her body wasn't responding fast enough. Katja placed her hands on the arm holding her up. Shlykova was using reinforcement on her body to hold Katja off the ground, though this was far stronger than anything Katja had ever accomplished before this. Was this the strength of a real magus?

    Katja could see the blackening around the edges of her vision, a feeling of sinking into asphyxiation. Without thinking, Katja did the only thing she knew how to do. Concentrating her Prana into her hand, she gurgled out a single word.

    "...First..."

    Immediately, a layer of grey began to form along Shlykova's arm, and with decisive action, Shlykova spun and flung Katja several meters away, sending her tumbling onto the snowy streets, gasping for air. In a daze, Katja crawled to her feet, her consciousness barely hanging on. Shlykova curiously looked down at her arm, and with her other hand, she crushed the layer of stone that had been transmuted onto her arm, letting the crumbs fall to the ground.

    "Transmutation Magecraft," Shlykova said. "Interesting. I was right after all, even if I have never seen transmutation used in such a way before. Still..."

    Shlykova slowly removed her gloves, turning them inside out as she did so. On the inner surface of the gloves were rows upon rows of glittering violet and crimson gemstones. Holding each gauntlet by the index finger, Shlykova snapped her arms outwards and the gauntlet appeared to extend into long rope-like armaments lined with rows upon rows of small cylinders. Then, Shlykova held up both hands, concentrating Prana into them and causing them to ignite with flame. She spun her whips around, causing the flames to begin climbing up the length of the rope. To Katja's surprise, only part of the rope caught fire, a small cord at the edges of the cylinders. That's when Katja realized that those cylinders were, in fact, firecrackers. Each began to flicker and burn with red and purple flame, and Shlykova looked down at Katja with a hollowed, expressionless face, one that Katja had never seen her wear before.

    "Your struggling will not save you. As long as you are an enemy, you will not leave here alive."

    Shlykova dashed forward, quickly closing the distance between them and attempting to snare Katja with her ropes. Activating her reinforcement Magcraft in her legs moments before the impact, Katja leapt backwards, just barely avoiding the ends of the rope. Both ropes were easily over two meters long and as they swept past Katja's face, they crashed into buildings on either side of the street. Upon impact, the stone walls of the abandoned buildings made a crunching sound as the rope slammed into them. Then, in nearly the same instant as the impact, a set of violent explosions erupted from the ends of the rope, sending debris flying.

    "What the hell‽" Katja whispered. This was unfair. More than unfair. All Katja ever learned to do was make statues and reinforce her body. Meanwhile, real mages were learning this‽

    When the dust cleared, Shlykova stood unfazed in the wreckage. Then, with an almost mechanical fury, Shlykova charged at Katja once more, her explosive metal whips flying by her sides like iridescent butterfly wings. She raised her arm and brought a whip down right on top of Katja, who barely managed to avoid the strike. Then, another explosion sent Katja flying backwards. With each explosion, all that remained on the ends of the whips were blasted-out shells. With a single movement of her hand, Shlykova detached the used shells and the entire row of cylinders inched forward.

    Katja didn't look back. Rolling to her feet, she quickly took off down the street, turning as many corners as she could find in an attempt to lose her assailant.

    Assassin! Katja called out in her head. I'm under attack, come quickly!

    Katja didn't hear an immediate response, so turning into a thinner alleyway, Katja turned around to check behind her. She stopped where the alley met a five meter tall stone wall. Right as she prepared to jump it, she saw a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye. Instinctively, Katja ducked as a flash of purple flew above her head. Expecting the explosion, Katja dove forward as a wave of force and a loud bang filled the room. The rush of force caused Katja to stumble, but she kept her footing steady as she leapt upwards, clearing the wall with a foot or more to spare. Behind her, Katja saw Shlykova kick off the sides of the walls of the alley, easily clearing Katja's height and sending her towards Katja from above. Before she could land, Katja placed her hand on one of the stone walls that sandwiched the two of them and poured Prana into it. She had never tried to force change upon only one section of something before, but she had to try.

    " First and Second!" Katja chanted.

    The stone wall rippled like a vertical pond, before a section of wall directly facing Shlykova shot out like a geyser and slammed into her. Unfortunately, Katja flubbed the final step, and the geyser of stone hit like water, hardly shifting her trajectory. Then, Katja decided to break off the enchantment, instantly turning the stone water back into solid stone. Shlykova, whose body was covered in liquid stone, suddenly found her movements hampered by the now solid layer of stone covering her arms and legs. Katja didn't stop to see if Shlykova would be inconvenienced by this and ran out onto the open street. Katja heard the sounds of several explosions behind her and slid into one of the abandoned buildings, this one a former store of some sort.



    This time, to Katja's relief, she heard a response. Katja fell to her knees behind a store counter, desperately trying to catch her breath.

    "I'm here. I can see what's happening."

    "Great, why aren't you helping me? I need you."

    "....I'm afraid there's a bit of a problem."

    Oh no.

    "A problem? What problem?"

    "A presence that I've detected not far from the young lady over there."

    Katja's heart sank.

    "You don't mean..."

    Katja looked up as she saw a small greenish-white orb float just above her head. Then, there was a slam as something landed atop the counter beside Katja. Shlykova raised her arm, ready to strike, but Katja quickly stuck her hand to the counter and attempted to liquify it. This time, however, Shlykova leapt off the counter before she could be caught in it and landed a few meters away. The two of them stared off at one another, each waiting for the other to make a move. The interior of the former store was lined with columns of empty wooden shelves, each of which were taller than either of them. The counter sat on the far interior of the store, opposite from the entrance, and behind Katja was a set of stairs leading to the second floor.

    "You know Shlykova," Katja said, smiling morbidly. "Since things look bad either way, I guess I'll just say this now, but I've always disliked you."

    For a moment, the Shlykova's hollow expression slackened just a little, and Katja found a small bit of clarity in her eyes, as though she had been in a trance. Then, her face returned to impassivity and she readied her whips.

    "Thanks for that. I guess that makes this easier," she said.

    "Can I at least ask why? I haven't done anything to you."

    Katja's eyes darted around the room. The only visible way to escape involved getting past Shlykova. But today had been full of first times, so Katja had to keep trying new things. Eventually, she'd run out of Prana though, so she needed to find a way to get away fully. Silently, she began spreading Prana across her whole body, a tiny amount that hopefully wouldn't be noticeable. For now, she had to stall.

    "As long as you're a magus, you have the potential to be a Master. Therefore, you have to be eliminated."

    Shlykova's voice was flat, lifeless, nothing like the bouncy, aristocratic voice Katja had grown so annoyed by. This was disturbing, to say the least.

    "A Master, huh? No idea what that means."

    Katja's heart was pounding from the adrenaline. Her hands were shaking not with fear, but with anticipation. Even as she lied, she felt steady, confident. This sensation was unlike anything Katja had ever felt before, it was thrilling.

    Still, this confirmed Assassin's suspicions. Shlykova would be one of Katja's enemies in this battle. Shlykova's Servant, however, was nowhere to be seen. It was possible that her Servant was close by in spirit form, just like with Assassin.

    "You need only know that you cannot be allowed to live. Goodbye Yekaterina Molchalin."

    Shlykova, with speed barely perceptible by Katja's eyes, lashed at Katja's head and feet simultaneously with her whips. Katja leapt upwards towards the ceiling, one of the whips grazing her leg as it passed, sending blood splattering across the floor as it slashed her right calf. Grimacing in pain, Katja stuck her hands forward into the stone ceiling, liquefying only the section in front of her main fingers while leaving the section above her thumb solid. Then, using the ceiling as handholds, she held herself close to the ceiling as two explosions sounded below her. Then, adding reinforcement to her legs once more, she kicked off the ceiling at an angle towards the wall opposite from the entrance, activating her spell as she flew. Then, as though bursting through water, Katja blew open the wall of the store and rolled to her feet outside. Then, still maintaining her spell, she quickly turned the corner and the dove towards the ground. She felt as her vision turned black and she felt as though she was wading through mud. Because only the area that her Prana could reach was affected by the liquefaction, Katja had no idea where she was going. After wading through the ground for around half a minute, Katja stuck part of her head outside to look around. Her control over her Prana was unstable and quickly draining to near nothing, so she had to get out quickly. When she looked up, she saw dozens of tiny greenish-white orbs floating around the town, identical to the one she spotted by the store counter. Katja surmised that they were likely some sort of detector that was out searching for her.

    Assassin, where the hell are you? Katja snapped mentally.

    I'm sorry, Katja. I've been trailing along with the battle, but her Servant hasn't acted yet. Until he does, I can't risk engaging. Assassin's voice seemed to reverberate through the mud.

    Well I can't keep this up much longer. A few more minutes of this and I'm going to run out of Prana.

    ....I've got it. Do you remember the building that rests on the edge of Old Town that's right next to the hill dropoff?

    Umm... I think so. The one without a roof, right?

    That's the one. If you can find a way to reach there, we can escape into the forest. The trees should make it a lot more difficult for that Master to use her weapons."

    But what about the enemy Servant? Shouldn't we try to learn more about it?

    That's too dangerous. You're injured and your opponent far outclasses you. We have to think about survival now.


    But if we could learn more, then-

    No. Like I said, we cannot risk it. Remember your promise to follow my strategies.

    ...Fine then. But why aren't you helping? This would be a lot easier if I didn't do this by myself.

    Right now, the Master seems content to finish you off without her Servant. If I step in, that might change things. It's better if I wait for an opportunity for now. I'll be watching to see if the other Servant tries anything.

    I swear if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were abandoning me.

    ...No, never. You're doing a splendid job so far. If things begin to look too dangerous, I'll step in. Until then, you're just going to have to manage on your own for a while.

    Great...


    Katja shifted forward until she confirmed she was indoors somewhere. When she crawled outside, with bits of now dry dirt falling off her, she found herself inside the lobby of someone's old house, complete with rotting furniture and a dusty, ashen fireplace. She could hear the faint hum that the green orbs produced as they floated nearby. No matter how quickly she ran, as long as these orbs persisted, Shlykova could easily catch up to her, especially since Katja wasn't entirely certain if she had enough Prana left to even reinforce her legs. The moment she started running, Shlykova would detect her. There was little she could do about that. The best chance she had was to maximize the time it took for her to be detected. For that, Katja needed to take the unexpected route. She quickly got to her feet and began to softly ascend the stairs to the house. Being sure to make as little noise as possible, Katja made her way to the attic. Once there, she slipped through the ceiling onto the roof and glanced down at the streets below. She saw as the green orbs illuminated the otherwise lightless streets with an ominous glow. Shlykova, who stood outside the store building one block away, stood absolutely motionless with her still flaming whips by her side. From what Katja could observe in their short battle, only the furthest firecracker seemed to explode upon contact, and the ones that burned near the base would not explode no matter how much time passed. Katja had no idea what kind of Magecraft this was, but it was incredibly controlled for how dangerous it looked. As long as she could stay out of reach, though, Katja was confident she would be safe. Katja breathed in and concentrated reinforcement Magecraft into her legs, she knew this would probably be the last time she could do that, so she had to make it count. Leaping off the roof and onto the roof of an adjacent building, Katja made her way towards the roofless building from an altitude that Shlykova would not think to search. After leaping this way a few times, Katja saw out of the corner of her eye a few green orbs rising, likely in response to the noise. Then, the crackling of the fireworks began to grow closer.

    "Crap, that was earlier than expected," Katja muttered between breaths. Although she could use Magecraft somewhat to reinforce her lack of fitness, she was beginning to reach her limits physically as well.

    Katja jumped and grabbed the ledge that surrounded the broken dome of the old church and pulled herself onto it. The roofless building was only two blocks away, but the pain in Katja's calf made each jump burn like a branding. As she hobbled around the shell of the broken dome, a whip wrapped around one of the pillars supporting the church and herself onto the roof behind Katja.

    "What is the point even if you run?" Shlykova said. "I know where you live, Molchalin."

    "Are you threatening my family? Were you really that low?" Katja growled. Were she in a more rational mood, Katja would have rightly been terrified of the prospect of her uncle somehow becoming involved in this whole affair, but at the moment, it only served to piss her off. Shlykova looked away.

    "If it is for the sake of victory, sacrifices must be made." Shlykova said, not meeting Katja's glare.

    "Murder isn't a sacrifice." Katja spat back. "You disgust me, Shlykova."

    Katja's words seemed to hit Shlykova like a blow to the head. She stepped backwards and seemed at a genuine loss for words. At that moment, Katja knew she had to strike back. She bent her knees and began to rush towards Shlykova.

    Katja! Assassin yelled in her head. What are you doing? Run!

    Katja ignored the voice in her head. If she ran now, then someone else would have to pay for Katja's own weakness. Katja refused to accept that she would be forced to simply turn and run while someone who threatened her loved ones with murder walked free. No, she was pissed.

    Before Shlykova even realized what was happening, Katja grabbed the base of her red whip with her hand, then crushed it like a wet rag, causing it to fall off the side of the building. Then she struck Shlykova across the face and attempted to shove her off the roof. She managed to get Shlykova right to the edge before she was suddenly stopped by Shlykova's hand. Shlykova turned and faced Katja, only her lip bleeding from a blow that would have likely knocked a regular person out cold.

    "What would you know?" Shlykova whispered. For the first time since the battle began, Katja saw emotions flicker across her face. Anger. Pain. Shame.

    Shlykova grabbed Katja by the front of her collar and held her up.

    "WHO GAVE YOU THE RIGHT TO JUDGE ME‽" Shlykova screamed. Then she flung Katja clear off the roof of the building.

    Katja tried to focus as much of her remaining Prana as possible into her arms and head in order to break her fall. When she landed, a sudden pain shot up her left arm and she heard a ghastly crunching sound as the joint on her elbow was crushed and twisted. She felt a sudden coldness overcome her as the adrenaline made way to shock. Katja couldn't even scream. As she looked up with her fading vision, her face half buried in the snow, she saw Shlykova looking down at her. Beside her, though, was another person, a larger, eastern-looking man with long, grey-streaked black hair dressed in an simple indigo and red cloth outfit with a leather chestpiece. In his hands was a long f a polished, patterned wood tipped on either end with ivory. Unable to process anything more, Katja tried to pick herself up and run away. Through the dull throbbing of her arm and leg, she heard Shlykova speak above her.

    "....Finish her off."

    Katja felt the dull thud of something hitting her, but she felt no pain. Then, as unconsciousness took her and she fell forward, she felt a pair of hands catch her. The last thing she saw before blacking out as Assassin's face as he carried her. His expression was pained. His eyes seemed to do nothing but look at Katja and ask her one question:

    Why?





    Day 2 End
    Last edited by Sanrei; June 10th, 2021 at 02:23 AM.

  5. #5
    Type-Pluto Sanrei's Avatar
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    Day 3: Dim Reflection


    They called him slow.

    A dullard. Feeble-minded.

    That he would never amount to anything.

    The young boy sat in the forum, staring down at a column of ants bringing food back to their mound. He marveled at the organized formations that were signalled invisibly, as though they could speak to one another. When one was killed, they continued to advance regardless, filling in the lost position without funerals or ceremonies. Simple soldiers following orders.

    The boy disliked unnecessary speech. When something needed to be said, someone else usually said it first. He only ever spoke to ask for things, anything else seemed unnecessary. Because of this, everyone around him thought him stupid. They bemoaned his lack of enthusiasm and labelled him dull. But the truth was simply that nothing he had been taught had succeeded in capturing his interest. And thus he stayed invisible to others by his own choice, never speaking up or drawing unnecessary attention.

    When the boy was fifteen, they threw him in the priesthood, hoping that perhaps the gods could "cure" his idleness. At least, that was the reason they gave. In truth, they simply wanted him out of the way. His family, ashamed of their firstborn, swept under the proverbial rug so as to maintain their proper image. This was when the boy first learned of the duality of men.

    In all people, there was the truth they told others and the truth they told themselves. He watched as the senators told their half-truths to the plebians and the other augurs spun portents of doom as divine favor. Only when he sat on the hill overlooking a massive field just outside the Roman walls, where a military training exercise was taking place, did the boy find any truth to mankind. It was the only language that all men spoke fluently, the language of war, that spoke no lies.

    Years later, the boy, now a man, would find command of his own. He made his way as a soldier for a time, hefting the mighty scutum, or shield, of the Roman infantry. But soon, he would find his passion in the formations of war. The arrays of unit formations and supply lines all spoke towards victory at any costs, no matter how slow or dull the process was to others. His tactics led his men to victory time and time again. He would sit and drink with his brothers-in-arms over many roaring fires, but no matter where he went, the half-truths of men who could not or refused to understand the nobility of his passion never left his side, of those who sat in positions of luxury and comfort, far from any battlefield and unaware of every sacrifice made by men on the ground.

    In time, the man would be elected consul, the highest office in Rome. There, he was met with hundreds of voices that laced the language of war with ulterior motives. To win was not enough, the victory needed to be popular. If re-election was not possible, then the battle was not worth winning. These snakes with venomous tongues spat out the lies of and divine protection to appease the people, all while callously dooming the good soldiers of Rome to a bloody fate.

    The man raged at these voices. What had once been a dull disinterest then turned to fury. What of the countless men who have given their lives to Rome? What of the leagues of farmland burned in pointless losses? The half-truths of the Senate disgusted the man, and he vowed to never compromise on his truth in the face of lies. No longer would be choose, of his own volition, to be invisible to others, to be called silent, inert, and dull, for the flames of rage and the passions of war flared in equal parts inside him.

    It was that same man who watched as scores upon scores of his fellow Romans were torn down. That same man who walked through a field of the bodies of his countrymen, some so terrified of the enemy that they had suffocated themselves in the midst of battle so as to welcome death all the sooner.

    "We chose war, but we invited death," the man lamented.

    --

    Katja's eyes snapped open, but when she went to rub them, she was reminded of the throbbing pain on her left side. Struggling to make sense of her surroundings, she turned her head and saw Assassin leaning against a doorway, his expression stormy and his body tense. When their eyes made contact, Assassin visibly relaxed as he walked over to Katja.

    "Thank Jupiter you're alive," he said. He tried to keep his face stiff and stern, but the relief was evident in his voice.

    "Aw dang, so I guess I survived then...." Katja joked weakly. She looked down and realized that she was lying in a bed in an unfamiliar room. The room seemed to be made of solid marble, was windowless, and had a small pond of sorts on the other side of the room with a small stream emptying into it. Her arm was in a sling and the various cuts and bruises on her person were closed and cleaned.

    "I hope that you've realized how foolish your actions were," Assassin said, folding his arms. He didn't look angry, more simply tired, as though he was used to reprimanding others.

    "I'm repenting for it now," Katja said, grinning. She was still in great pain, but she'd settle for being alive for now.

    "You let your emotions get the best of you," Assassin said. "From now on, I expect you to exercise more self control."

    At that, Katja suddenly realized something important and tried to quickly sit up. Then, she felt a massive ache at her side which caused her to gasp in shock. Assassin reacted instantly to catch her and lay her back down.

    "Don't move, foolish Master." he said. "You're still grievously wounded."

    "My uncle! Shlykova said that-"

    "It's alright," Assassin soothed. "I've been monitoring your house for the last eight hours. There's been no activity."

    Katja breathed a sigh of relief, then laid back down in the bed. She'd have to go back soon and warn him, but it felt good knowing that nothing had happened while she was out. Katja looked up at the ceiling and found a beautiful tapestry engraved into it and the walls. All around her, Katja noticed art depicting strange monsters and people in funny clothing. The stonework looked fresh and clean, but Katja had never seen art like this outside of a history text. Not only that, but the architecture of the room itself was Masterfully consistent, with clear-cut, clean angles along the walls and ceiling that gave the room an almost geometric perfection.

    "Where are we anyways?" Katja asked. "Please don't tell me we got captured by the enemy."

    Katja chuckled weakly to herself, but then looked up when she realized Assassin remained silent.

    "....Wait, are you serious?"

    He cleared his throat awkwardly.

    "Yes, well. About that...." he began.

    "I believe I can explain," a new voice said from the doorway. Katja strained her neck to look at the doorway and saw an older woman with graying blonde hair standing there dressed in black and white robes that reached down to her feet. In her left hand was a carved wand that more resembled a piece of stone than wood, with cut, angular edges and a sharpened point. The look she had on her face was a mixture between wry amusement and stern judgement, though despite certainly looking advanced in the years, perhaps around fifty, her features held a certain timeless grace that seemed to elevate her features beyond that of natural beauty.

    "Who...." Katja said, trying to grasp the situation. She wasn't dead, that much was clear, but how she had gone from the streets of Old Town to....wherever this was Katja had no idea.

    "Master of Assassin Katja Pyotrovna Molchalin," the woman said, her voice sharp and business-like. "Your Servant has already given me some details regarding your identity."

    Hesitantly, Katja looked down at her hand. The red insignia of her Command Seals still glowed with a hazy red aura. She still had her rights as a Master. She looked over at Assassin, who had an unreadable expression on his face.

    "That's right," Katja mumbled. Each time she spoke, she felt a stab of pain at her sides. "And who're you?"

    Seeing Katja's obvious discomfort, the woman strode over to Katja's bed and pulled the sheets covering Katja's torso off her, revealing, to Katja's horror, a massive growth of a strange, bluish crystalline substance along her left flank. The woman placed her hand on the growth and it began to pulse with light. Katja felt the tightness from moving begin to diminish. It was still uncomfortable, but she felt as though her lungs had a bit more room to expand all of a sudden.

    "I apologize for this sudden introduction," the woman said, stepping back as Katja sat up with only moderate discomfort. "I am Galatea , ."

    At the mention of that name, Katja flinched. Both the woman, Galatea, and Assassin eyed her with curiosity.

    "I assume then that you are familiar with our organization?" she said, her words measured.

    Katja shook her head. She didn't know why she reacted that way. Katja had never heard of anything called the Clock Tower before, but then why did it sound....almost nostalgic?

    "I....What happened to me? I was thrown off a building by Shlykova, then..."

    The woman folded her arms and huffed.

    "If that is the name of that Master of , then yes, that was where we found you. To be perfectly honest, it's a miracle that you are even alive right now. You suffered performations of one of your kidneys and a large portion of your intestinal tract. The blood loss alone should have rendered you vegitative at the very least."

    Katja looked over at Assassin, completely lost, and Assassin sighed.

    "You were shot," he said, pointing at his own left flank. "Archer got you twice before I managed to pull you away. I broke away from them for a while, but you were fading fast. I brought you into a cavern I happened across to find a shelter, and then ran into her."

    Katja looked at Galatea Eklunde, who cleared her throat.

    "I applied a biogenic crystal mystic code to the injury to simulate the functionality of your internal organs. So long as my Prana keeps it active, it will function as life support for your missing organs. Your broken elbow has been repaired in a similar manner, although it is much weaker than a functioning elbow."

    Katja placed her hand down upon the crystal formation on her flank. Try as she might, she couldn't analyze nor interact with the structure of the substance. It seemed to have a barrier that prevented interaction, like a storm buffeting a bird.

    "You....saved my life?" Katja said hesitantly. "I mean, thank you. But....why? Who are you in all of this?"

    In response to Katja's question, Galatea held up the back of her right hand to Katja, showing her a red, tree-like rune upon it, though unlike Katja's, a part of that rune was a dull, faded red.

    "Do not misunderstand my intentions, child," Galatea said. "As a fellow Master in this Grail War and your rival, the decision to spare your life was not done out of altruism. Under normal circumstances, I would have followed the standard protocol and stripped you of your Command Seals to eliminate you from this war."

    "Well, I'm not suggesting that you should have, but why didn't you?" Katja asked, though she couldn't help the poor phrasing of the question.

    Galatea turned towards Assassin.

    "You were right, there is a certain charm in her delivery, isn't there?"

    Assassin grinned.

    "As good a reason to keep her around as any." he said.

    Galatea turned back to Katja.

    "Your Servant was quite a shrewd negotiator. He persuaded me that your team's skills may be of potential use to us. You should thank him, you owe him your life at least twice over now."

    "Twice?"
    "Regardless," Assassin said addressing Katja, "I believe this deal works to benefit us both, Katja. Given our present problems, having an experienced ally would be a valuable asset to get us through the early leg of the war. I have negotiated on your behalf somewhat, but the final decision is yours."

    "At the present moment," Galatea said. "The only thing keeping you alive is the life support provided by my mystic code. So long as you function as a valuable asset against the other Masters, I will continue to provide the Prana needed to maintain it. You may elect to maintain our alliance for as long as you deem it convenient for you, after which I will cut off the life support system. As this is a war, I reserve the right to, at any point, . So long as you agree to these terms, you may consider us allies."

    "I...." Katja said, rubbing her bandaged head. "Can you give us some time to discuss this privately?"

    Galatea nodded.



    With those chilling words, Galatea looked as if to step out of the room, but then she stopped and turned once more. Katja wasn't really sure how facial expression she had on herself at that moment, but from the way that Galatea's brow seemed to furrow slightly, it must've been truly gaunt.

    "Are you afraid? Terrified even, at the prospect of continuing?" she asked Katja.

    Katja hesitated slightly to respond.

    "...Is that what I look like to you? Cause if so, then it must be true," she managed to murmur. "I think I have a right to feeling that way, having almost died and all."

    Galatea studied Katja for a few moments, eyes narrowing slightly before turning to step out of the door frame. Before she left though, she once more stopped and placed her hand on the door frame, her expression difficult to read.

    "If that is true, child, then I'm afraid you have a difficult road ahead of you," she said without looking at Katja. "What you've chosen to fight in is a Holy Grail War, where even quitting will not guarantee your life. If you hope to come out of this alive at all, then you'll need to give something. Because of the choice that you've made, regardless of the outcome, you will not come out the same as you went in. For better and for worse. You have been warned."

    With that, Galatea left the room, the sound of her heels clicking ever distantly down some unseen hallways.

    "Geez, usually, they give you the warning before you make the mistake," Katja said with a sigh.

    "To be fair, you did get the warning from me," Assassin said, making his presence known as he walked over to Katja and helped her balance as she tried to stand.

    "....I see you've been busy while I was asleep." Katja said. She tried to keep the judgement out of her voice. She wasn't angry. After all, it was her fault things were like this, but the fact that she had missed so much due to her own incompetence rubbed her the wrong way.

    "Given all that's occurred over the past twenty-four hours, I'd say that things have turned out far better than we deserve." Assassin said.

    "Well, this beats being dead, that's for sure. So what are your thoughts about this? I assume you're for agreeing to this proposed alliance?" Katja replied.

    "It's undeniable that the conditions presented are favorable to us. Someone with fewer scruples may have attempted to threaten us with this."

    "Is being a hostage any better though?" Katja shot back.

    "We have a choice. That itself makes it infinitely better."

    The two of them sat in silence for a moment, with Katja mulling over their current predicament. Part of her wanted to go back to her house to check on her uncle's safety as soon as possible, but another part of her knew that he would probably be safer if Katja wasn't nearby. And while Galatea seemed like a nice enough person, the last thing Katja wanted was to be a pawn in someone else's game.

    "What do you think will happen to us?" Katja asked. "You know, if we agree."

    "Hmm, having spoken to her somewhat before you regained consciousness, the impression I have is that if we fail to get results, she won't hesitate to cut us out. But she herself doesn't seem inclined towards cruelty."

    That seemed to reassure Katja somewhat. Even if she failed and died, it would only be due to her own lack of ability. In that sense, nothing had really changed. If anything, they benefit more than she would from this exchange. Additionally, that last bit of dialogue between them felt more....genuine, than the rest of it. Something about that made her want to trust this woman, even if it was only a gut instinct.

    "Alright, let's do it then," Katja said, slapping her cheeks for sensation. "And....er...."

    She looked at Assassin guiltily.

    "I'm....sorry for rushing in like that. You were right, I should've run away."

    Assassin snorted.

    "Sorry doesn't begin to cover it. I swear, you were moments from ending this war for both of us."

    Katja hung her head sadly. Assassin cleared his throat.

    "But....Well, you were consumed by the Passion of war. It's an illness that afflicts every warrior at some point, so I suppose it would be pointless to escalate the issue. Still, I hope you've learned not to give in to your baser instincts. I've seen far more experienced warriors than you ruin themselves by this."

    Katja nodded. She studied Assassin's body language. His shoulders were lax and his figure seemed humbled. When Katja thought back to his first appearance on the Wharf, he seemed larger than life, glorious in a way. Here, he seemed smaller, as though his grandeur was brought low by his own words. She thought back to the dream she had, of the man who walked among the bodies. Was it possible that he was a victim of his own words?

    "You're right. I lost my temper and got in over my head. When she said those things....I couldn't take it anymore."

    "A sly enemy will do all in their power to force a rash decision. That one moment is all that can separate victory from defeat. You must rise above such temptations, no matter how unsatisfying it may feel."

    Katja smiled wryly at Assassin.

    "You say some good things every now and then," Katja said, regaining some of her wittiness. "And to think you were just an annoying voice yesterday. I'm so proud."

    Assassin rolled his eyes.

    "If you're well enough to mouth off, then you're well enough to get moving. Let's go speak to our new ally, shall we?"

    Katja sighed.

    "I guess we have no choice," Katja said. "My life does depend on it, after all."





    --

    Day 3: Mastercraft Works


    The moment Katja stepped outside the room, she very nearly fell to her death. Right outside the doorway was a walkway that led both to the left and right with a sheer drop directly past. She marveled at the sight before her of a massive expanse of pathways, entrances and staircases that seemed to stretch the limits of geometry. The cavern resembled a spider web-like maze of branching suspended stone walkways and tunnels that went so far outwards that Katja could not see the other side, instead seeing only the bluish haze of mist off in the distance. Such a structure shouldn't be possible, its volume easily eclipsing that of a hollow mountain. Even Assassin, who had no doubt seen this view on the way in, stopped to admire the view alongside Katja.

    "What....is this place?" Katja asked, completely awestruck. "Is this a cave of some kind?"

    Assassin chuckled, then directed her attention to a small line of suspended red string that had been attached to the wall of Katja's doorway heading rightwards.

    "It should be quite obvious if you're paying attention." he said. "Though we should probably walk while you figure it out."

    Katja and Assassin set off down the right pathway. After some time, the pathway transitioned into a circular tunnel that cut off the view of the expansive chamber. The interior of the tunnel had no torches, but the entire stretch seemed to glow with a faint blue light that made it easy to see everything. Like with Katja's room, the walls were lined with various images carved into the stone. This particular image was one of a boy who flew around on winged shoes locked in battle with a massive serpent that emerged from the ocean. The tunnel made marvelous use of the horizontal space to convey the sheer size of the serpent, going into great detail to capture every scale and horn on the creature's body. The image felt so detailed, so real, that Katja half-expected it to begin slithering across the stone.

    The string took them along several unusual and varied paths, including a spiral pathway upwards and a set of stairs that split off in eight different directions. Eventually, after walking for about half an hour, Katja and Assassin arrived at a set of large stone doors with an angel's wings pattern on them. Set inside the center was a brown gemstone that glowed when Katja came near it. The chamber shook as the doors heaved themselves open by some unknown mechanism. Inside was a square room with a great square table in the center that glowed in the same bluish energy that the hallways did. At the far end of the room was a massive glowing monitor that was broken up into nine different moving images. Katja had never owned a "television" as such things would be impossible to acquire and power out in Polnoch, but this seemed to fit that description somewhat. Upon entering the room, Galatea, who had been sitting on a wheeled chair, stood up, as did a new individual sitting adjacent to her. This individual was a with scruffy cherry brown hair, dressed in a patterned polyester shirt and a sleek grey garb that would have felt equally at home in both a workshop and a conference room. Most notable, however, were the man's eyes, which were amethyst with white pupils. Both of them appeared to have been staring down at the table before Katja had arrived.

    "Excellent, you've arrived," Galatea said to Katja. "I trust you've come with a favorable answer to our proposal?"

    "That's right," Katja said. "You haven't given us much of a choice but to accept. Still, we find your conditions to be fair."

    Galatea smiled.

    "Well then, I suppose introductions are in order. This," Galatea said, indicating to the young man, "Is my Servant, Caster."

    The man, Caster, waves at Katja and smiles.

    "Nice to meet you, you managed to put on quite a show yesterday," Caster said, indicating to the table. Katja approached the table and found several screens of what seemed to be security footage of Katja running around Old Town displayed on the table, which had a monitor on it as well. Katja placed her hand on the screen, which was warm to the touch.

    "Incredible..." she whispered. "What is this thing? I've never seen anything like it before."

    Caster placed a hand on his chest.

    "You flatter me, young miss," he said. "It is but a simple monitor, nothing too impressive."

    "You made this? Wow!"

    "I made everything here. Unfortunately, I have something of a compulsive complex, and I refuse to outsource any of my assets."

    Katja looked around the room. She hadn't noticed when she walked inside, but the room they were in was filled with various tiny machines that all seemed to work together in concert with blinking lights and dials that all buzzed and hummed in a mechanical language Katja didn't understand. If the expanse before reminded her of a fantasy land, this room was straight out of science fiction.

    "Wait, everything?" Katja said, realizing the implication. "So then, that place outside, that....um...."

    "I believe the term labyrinth may be what you're looking for, Katja." Assassin interjected.

    Things finally fell into place for Katja. There was only one genius inventor associated with labyrinths, which meant that Caster's identity could only be....

    "You're Daedalus‽ The legendary Greek inventor?"

    Caster winked at Katja playfully, then looked over at Galatea, who feigned disinterest.

    "I guess that particular cat's out of the bag isn't it, Master?" Caster said, though he didn't sound particularly ashamed.

    "Hmph," Galatea said. "While we hold a temporary alliance for now, Caster, it would be best if you did not treat your true name so flippantly in front of other Masters."

    "Yes, yes, understood." Caster said, not taking the reprimand very seriously.

    "Wait, but isn't Daedalus supposed to be an old man or something? That's always how I imagined you." Katja said.

    "It's natural to assume that," Caster said. "But the specifics of Servant summoning tend to be a bit more complicated than that. The form that you see before you is my optimal state to fight the war. I've always been a genius, even when I was younger, so the Grail gave me the best of both worlds. Youth and experience, pretty sweet, right? Otherwise, all the benefits would be given to the heroes who died young. That's no fun for anyone."

    Assassin nodded.

    "What he says is true, Katja. I, too, have been summoned younger than my fame would suggest, as this form is ideal for fighting the war. The Grail is a fickle thing, and Servants will rarely be summoned in a form you may expect, so I would always prepare to be surprised."

    Katja sighed. Just when she thought she was beginning to understand this Grail War thing somewhat, she is lost again all of a sudden. Galatea, who had been silently watching this exchange while sipping tea, respectfully cleared her throat.

    "Ahem," she said, interrupting Katja's little discussion circle. "While I find your conversation entertaining, there are topics of higher priority we should discuss. Sit down, all of you."

    When Galatea spoke, Katja got the sensation of being in a classroom, and she felt herself compelled to follow directions, quickly snapping into one of the available chairs around the table. Caster nonchalantly fell back into his cushioned chair, causing it to roll backwards for a short distance. Assassin, on the hand, elected to stand behind Katja with his arms folded, eyeing the monitor with a moderate degree of interest.

    "Now then," Galatea began. "Before we lay out the specific conditions of our partnership, it is important for us to discuss the relative capacities and capabilities of each of our factions. Caster, if you will."

    Caster casually raised both his hands above the table, causing a strange, pseudo-transparent holographic interface to form. After making a few adjustments on the interface, the images on the monitor began to flash through a variety of different scenes, only some of which Katja recognized, before settling on several of Katja performing spells in Old Town.

    "Caster's Noble Phantasm functions primarily as a form of utility, allowing for the surveillance of all entities within the bounded field projection, and-" Galatea paused when she noticed Katja's blank expression. Then sighed with exasperation. "Oh my, I assume you have no idea what I am talking about?"

    Katja nodded, unsure of what questions even to ask.

    Galatea sighed again and held up a hand to Caster, who wiped away the images on the table monitor.

    "Very well, let us start from the beginning," Galatea said, interlacing her fingers together. "Doubtless you understand the , or Holy Grail War, but how aware are you of its specific mechanisms?"

    Katja looked back at Assassin for help.

    "We know as much as the Grail told me," Assassin said. "Anything about the war's history or functions weren't revealed to me."

    Galatea nodded.

    "I suppose there's no helping that," Galatea said, inhaling deeply. "To put it simply, the Heaven's Feel was initially conceived as a ritual originating in Japan that was designed to generate enough magical energy to carve a hole in our world in order to access the Root, Akasha, the source of all Magecraft and magic. The question of why such a thing would be desirable is long and needlessly complex, but suffice to say that nearly every member of the Mage's Association is deeply interested in such a goal. The Heaven's Feel is but one way that magi have tried to access the Root."

    "I...think I get it?" Katja said, struggling to follow along. Galatea had somewhat gotten caught up in her explanation and didn't slow down for Katja to follow.

    "The Grail system has been designed so that only one individual may access the Root at the conclusion of the ritual, hence the need to fight a war. Upon reaching the Root, one is said to gain a perfect understanding of all that exists in the world, including an understanding of every facet of magic and Magecraft. In a sense, one becomes omnipotent. Now, Caster."

    Caster, who almost looked bored by the explanation, activated the interface with one hand. Rather than images on a flat screen, however, this time, two vase-like oblong shapes appeared three-dimensionally on the monitor. One appeared to be a small, cup-like container, while the other was a much larger reddish structure with a swirling vortex at the center of it.

    "That which we think of as the "Holy Grail" is nothing more than a container of mana, absorbing the magical energy of defeated Servants during the war, called the Lesser Grail" Galatea said, pointing to the small golden container.

    "This," Galatea continued, indicating to the larger red structure, "Is the Greater Grail, it is what actually establishes a pathway to the Root and accumulates the Mana for summoning Servants."

    "U-uh...uh-huuuh...." Katja said, beginning to mentally check out of the explanation.

    "The system that was created in Japan used this Greater Grail and the surrounding leylines to sustain the ritual, though no such device has been located in this war. As such, have little idea where either the Lesser Grail or the Greater Grail are located, or even if the system that has been utilized here is even the same as the one located in Fuyuki."

    "How....how do you know all of this?" Katja asked, hoping to steer the conversation away to something she may actually understand.

    "The Mage's Association will always make a point to do in-depth research on any potential gateway to the Root, it is our primary goal as an organization after all."

    "Right, you mentioned something about a clock tower, earlier? What does any of that mean?" Katja said. She didn't want to get hit with another lengthy explanation, but there were certain things she had to know.

    "I can see," Galatea said, eyeing Katja with poorly concealed exasperation. "That you are not well versed in the world of magi, yet you practice Magecraft regardless."

    "Yeah, well," Katja said, shuffling her feet awkwardly. "I didn't even know it was called Magecraft until yesterday, so..."

    Galatea sighed again.

    "I can see this is going to be quite the headache for me," she said, rubbing her temple. "Now I understand why you were so willing to accept my proposal. Had I known...No, I must commit to my decisions."

    Galatea turns to face Katja directly.

    "It seems as though you require a precise cut in order to clear off your rough edges. We will leave off with unnecessary information until later. For now, let us discuss your Magecraft as well as our current situation. Now then, Caster."

    Caster, who had taken to absentmindedly sketching on a notepad during all of this, looked up and rolled his eyes.

    "Finally," he said. "I was beginning to think we'd be here all day."

    He brings back the screen that Katja saw initially, with all of Katja's displays of Magecraft, although this time, he places it on the monitor against the wall, images that made Katja feel more than a little self-conscious. It felt weird looking at herself outside a mirror. She hated taking photographs, and she almost never used herself as a model for her art. What bothered her more than anything about the still images on screen was how none of the shots were particularly flattering. Did she really have that stupid look on her face while running away?

    "Your Magecraft falls into the category that we call ," Galatea said. "Which is the transmutation of one material to another, or the manipulation of the physical properties of a material to mimic another temporarily or permanently."

    Caster expanded one of the images, which was of Katja bursting through the wall after turning it liquid.

    "Using this facility's surveillance capabilities, we were able to observe your bout with the Archer's Master," Galatea said. "And while I am confident that what you are performing is certainly alchemy, I am unfamiliar with your specific usage of it. It would appear that this is not a technique commonly known in the Mage's Association."

    "So," Katja said, looking at the image of her in mid-air. "You're saying that my Magecraft is unique?"

    "Hmm, that remains to be seen," she said. "At the very least, it is not something the Association would know to teach. Rather than simple transmutation, which I assume you can perform, you are able to freely manipulate inorganic substances to take on whatever shape, structure or density you can imagine. It is a highly versatile skill with a great variety of potential applications."

    Katja never thought of what she did as being particularly special, but to hear an experienced magus compliment her abilities like that sent a pang of pride through Katja. It gave her a rush of validation.

    "Still, it is easy to see the many flaws both in the execution and mechanism of the technique," Galatea said, bringing Katja back down to Earth. "Your control over the affected area fluctuates rapidly, and you lose the majority of the Prana you invest due to the inefficiency of your transmission. And that's not even mentioning the potential risk of burning out your magic circuits with reckless use of this. If I'm being honest, it's a wonder you didn't hurt yourself more."

    Katja hung her head. Of course things wouldn't be that simple. Though she could see Galatea's point. Considering how badly Katja abused her Magecraft in that last battle, it was a wonder nothing went wrong.

    "What interests me more," Galatea said, pointing with her wand to an image of Katja engaging with Shlykova up close. "Is the usage of your Magecraft here. You somehow managed to bypass the natural magical protections of an enemy mage's mystic code, ah- er....their magical weapon if you will, and transmute it directly. I've never seen anything like that before."

    Katja had a vague memory of that moment. In a fit of rage, Katja did the only thing that made sense to her, and she hadn't been all that concerned with the how at the time.

    "To be honest, I really wasn't thinking much when I did that," Katja said, rubbing the back of her head. "It just kind...felt right, I guess?"

    Galatea sniffed.

    "To win a war, you're going to need a lot more than a feeling," she said. "I suppose it couldn't hurt to refine you a little."

    "Wait, you don't mean..."

    Galatea nodded.

    "That's right. For you to become anything resembling an asset in this war, I'm going to teach you how to apply your Magecraft offensively. It won't be comprehensive, but you'll at least learn something useful."

    "Do I even have a choice in this?" Katja asked, masking her growing excitement at the prospect.

    "Naturally," Galatea said, smiling ever so slightly. "Though I promise you the role of frontline decoy is one you will find much less desirable."

    --

    "The essence of Magecraft," Galatea began. "Lies in three steps, conceptualization, formation, and execution. These are understood through the lens of your affinity and your origin, so learning them is crucial."

    They had moved from the room with the monitors to a more spacious chamber adjacent to the last room, though Caster was quick to point out that the rooms were not actually spatially adjacent. So long as they were in the Labyrinth, Caster had full control over the size, location, and qualities of any room and pathway, such was his special ability, called his Noble Phantasm. Apparently, what Katja had seen when she first gazed upon the wider Labyrinth was a tiny, tiny fraction of the Labyrinth's actual size, which is stated to be endless. According to Caster, the room that Galatea would use to instruct Katja was designed to be resilient to blunt and magical trauma, so she didn't have to hold back in here. Katja stood in the center of the chamber, with Galatea standing a few meters away from her holding a small pouch in her hand.

    "Conceptualization is as it sounds, a mental understanding of what it is you wish to alter about reality." Galatea said, reaching into the pouch and pulling out a small blue marble. "In this case, it will be the alteration of this marble into a new form."

    Galatea held the marble up with her right hand and with her left, she pointed her crystal wand at the marble, causing it to begin glowing faintly.

    "Formation is simply the channeling of your Prana, which is your body's internal magical energy, into the object or process you wish to affect. This, too, you should be more than familiar with."

    Galatea then released the marble from her fingertips, and it began hovering just above Galatea's hand. Under her breath, Galatea muttered an incantation in a language Katja did not recognize. In a flash of light, the marble erupted into a massive polygonal crystalline structure which began to fold in on itself while simultaneously expanding outwards, like a strange swirling vortex of pure mineral. In a few moments, standing next to Galatea was a large crystalline tree that stood almost as tall as the room itself. From its boughs hung multiple silver fruits shaped like an apple that had been twisted down the middle. The entire structure glistened with a pristine beauty that captivated Katja. Living in a world of wood, stone, and snow, she had never seen anything so serenely vibrant before in her life.

    "The final step," Galatea said, snapping Katja out of her reverie, "is Execution, which is as simple as it sounds. Oftentimes, a magus will channel their formation and execution steps through shortcuts such as incantations, catalysts and mystic codes, all of which possess the same baseline functions of strengthening, focusing or simplifying the actual spell you are attempting to cast. Incantations, therefore, have little actual bearing on the result of the spell beyond what the words mean to you personally, though a more complex or powerful spell may require a longer incantation to control the output of Prana."

    "I mean, I think I get it," Katja said, scratching her head. "But based on that explanation, I think I do all of those things already. So, what exactly am I doing wrong?"

    Galatea looked at Katja, her face impassive.

    "I don't know yet," she said curtly.

    "I'm sorry, what?"

    "I can tell you where the deficiencies in your spellcasting are, but without analysing the spell's structure, I cannot know how to fix it. I will need to study your magic crest in order to study the stored spells, if you allow it, that is?"

    Katja shrugged.

    "I mean, what's the problem?"

    Galatea coughed.

    "Hmm, this is more an issue of privacy, but it is a widely held practice in the Clock Tower to permit only one's closest associates to study one's magic crest. It is the physical representation of your family line's generations of study into Magecraft, and such a thing would naturally contain highly developed and closely guarded spells in most instances. It is not a directive I give lightly, even to an outsider."

    "I....see? I mean, I've had it for as long as I can remember, but I don't think it's such a big deal or anything."

    Katja held out her palms towards Galatea, who took them in her hands and began to study them. To Katja's surprise, she did unexpectedly feel slightly self-conscious as Galatea studied and judged the very foundation of her Magecraft, something that made up such a core part of Katja's personhood. Still, she wasn't one to make a scene over small discomforts like this, so she put up with the scrutiny as best she could until it was over. As Katja was busy thinking about this, she heard a small gasp come from Galatea and Katja's head snapped to attention.

    "What? What is it? Is something wrong?" Katja said hurriedly. She wasn't sure where this thought was coming from, but could a magic crest be wrong somehow? Was there some way that spells recorded in them could have been done so incorrectly?

    Galatea let go of Katja's hands and stepped back, apparently finished with her analysis.

    "Well, this is certainly a dense magic crest, no doubt from a family line with some degree of ability. The foundation of these sorceries seems to originate from Kabbalah, rather than Western Magecraft, yet there is a surprising amount of cross-reference and innovations made to bridge that gap. If I may, what family of mages do you hail from?"

    "Ah....um....well, my last name is Molchalin?"

    Galatea shook her head.

    "I'm afraid there are no notable magus families by that name. Trust me, I've looked. Normally, older magus families branch off and their descendants take on other names. Do any come to mind? What can you tell me about your parents?"

    Katja held her head in her hands, attempting to deal with the new bombardment of information. Everything served to remind of just how out-of-depth she was.

    "Names? Um, no other names come to mind. My dad taught me what I know now, but I don't remember him very well, he left when I was really young and I live with my uncle now. And my mom....well, Uncle never met her, so I don't know anything about her. Apparently, my dad met her abroad, but she never came to live here, so...."

    An awkward silence hung in the air for a few moments.

    "I apologize if I touched upon a sensitive topic," Galatea said, looking genuinely concerned. "Truly happy narratives are a rarity among magus families, but that is not something we should be proud of."

    "No, no. It's fine," Katja said, attempting to push the conversation forward. "Really. I hardly knew them, so it's not like I miss them or anything. Besides, my uncle's been like a father to me."

    Galatea nodded.

    "Of course," she said, though she didn't seem fully convinced. "Your description of your circumstances does explain why your magic crest is incomplete."

    Katja was stunned for a moment.

    "Wait, incomplete? You mean..."

    "I mean that it is clear from studying the ends of the crest that more was meant to be added," Galatea said, holding Katja's palm up and tracing her finger along the ends of the crest at her wrist. "Here, you can see that this particular circuit is atrophied at the tip, clearly this was meant to be another set of spells that, for whatever reason, were never added."

    "How...how can you possibly tell that just by looking?" Katja said, utterly baffled.

    "All a magic crest is," Galatea said. "Is a long line of surgically implanted magic circuits passed down through the generations. Most magi who have spent their lives studying and forming spells into their circuits can tell this much from close inspection."

    "I-incomplete...but....how?" Katja stumbled for words as she tried to understand the implications of what she had just learned.

    "The implementation of a magic crest is typically done over the course of several years at a very young age. Which means that your father must have left before the implementation was finished."

    "So then, where's the rest of it?" Katja asked, but Galatea shook her head.

    "If it's anywhere, it's with your father," Galatea said. "But it is not as though it matters right now. We must work with what you currently have, there's little point in thinking about what-ifs."

    Katja paused to think, then slowly nodded. Galatea was right, she'd worry about such things after the war.

    "Now then, I think that I've understood the nature of your Magecraft somewhat. While there isn't much we can do to change the base nature of your abilities, I can run you through a few basic exercises that should increase your range, efficiency and casting time considerably."

    "Alright! We're finally getting to the good stuff!" Katja exclaimed, perhaps a little too excitedly, as Galatea narrowed her eyes at Katja. She couldn't help her excitement though. After remembering all of the weird and awesome things she did yesterday, Katja couldn't wait to test her abilities. Could she listen to itself if she expanded her reach far enough? Could she observe the creative spark behind the formation of a building? How far could her manipulation go? All of these questions burned in Katja's mind and she was only barely able to contain her anticipation.

    Galatea sniffed.

    "I suppose at the very least your enthusiasm is commendable, though I would appreciate more attention paid to my lectures."

    Katja began lightly hopping in place, unable to stand still. Galatea sighed again.

    "Very well, let us begin," she said. "We're first going to go through a set of basic exercises designed to test and strengthen your ability to transmute stone and other common materials into more useful substances...."





    --

    Day 3: Preparations for War

    Around sunset, Katja was finally allowed to finish her exercises for the day.

    "For a day's work, that's not bad," Galatea said. "Unfortunately, we still have a war to fight, so now we can move on planning for the evening."

    They arrived back in the command room, the room with all of the monitors, where Katja was surprised to find Assassin and Caster both staring up at the monitor with various images displayed on it.

    "Fascinating," Assassin said. "To think that the invention of a semi-accurate, low skill method of rapid enemy bombardment would slow war down to such an extent...."

    "That's right," Caster said, cycling through several images of trench warfare. "This would later shift with a change in strategic wisdom by the time the Second World War came around, where the emphasis was placed on armored vehicles and rapid military advancement, which massively sped up warfare."

    Assassin nodded, not even noticing as Katja and Galatea returned to the room. Caster turned and gave them a wave, but otherwise did not alert Assassin to their attention.

    "All my life was spent mulling over formations that are now obsolete...." Assassin said. "To think that there were entire realms uncharted in my time that are now ripe for the picking!"

    Katja, too exhausted to keep standing, collapsed into her chair, causing Assassin to immediately turn around.

    "Katja!" Assassin said excitedly, like a child discovering a new toy. "Why did you not tell me of your history's wars? Centuries of untouched knowledge all ready to be studied and reapplied anew!"

    Katja didn't respond to Assassin's question, instead leaning her head back and releasing a dramatic groan. She felt as though someone took her blood and replaced it with clay. Every time she even thought about moving, her exhausted body threatened to shut down. In addition to being physically spent, Katja had exhausted all of her Prana multiple times over the course of four hours.

    The exercises Galatea had her do ranged anywhere from converting stones of various sizes into highly specific materials and configurations to following several sequences of transmutations to get from one raw material to another extremely dissimilar raw material. Katja could only move on to the next exercise if she completed every required objective in sequence. Failure at any step would result in having to start over from the very beginning, which sounded unfair to Katja, but from Galatea's reactions, Katja could tell that Galatea considered this a rather light form of punishment. Additionally, Katja attempted, and subsequently failed miserably, to apply her Magecraft offensively. Galatea instructed her to attempt to land a blow on her through any means necessary, but after trying to manipulate both the ground and other objects in order to form them into hardened weapons, Katja found it impossible to establish any sort of fine control over the materials. Each time Katja attempted to shape a stone in a , the material seemed to detect the hesitation in Katja's will and failed to maintain its form. What little offense Katja could mount hadn't even come close to touching Galatea, who effortlessly parried Katja's feeble attacks without even resorting to her crystal sorceries, instead merely swatting them away with reinforced hands. Katja tried abandoning her sorcery in favor of close-quarters combat, but a combination of Katja's own complete lack of training and Galatea's astonishingly skilled and fast movements quickly shut that down.

    After Katja's Prana was all but gone, Galatea had Katja go through a variety of physical conditioning exercises, providing her with a set of reinforced training clothes to give Katja more ease of movement than the skirt she had been wearing previously. Katja did everything from intense running, to push-ups, to core workouts. After around an hour of this, Katja laid on the ground gasping for air, and Galatea informed her, much to her dismay, that Katja would have to do this every day for as long as they worked together. If Katja didn't know any better, she would say that Galatea was trying to weaken her resolve.

    By the time Katja had finished, she didn't even have the energy to complain. Assassin began to talk excitedly to Katja about all of the developments in Earth's history that fascinated him, and Katja just nodded along. Normally, she'd find Assassin's childish excitement amusing, but she was unfortunately not in the right mind to really ponder that at the moment. Galatea walked up to the front monitor and began talking with Caster.

    "Any activity?" Galatea said, looking up at what appeared to be camera footage of various locations around Polnoch.

    Caster shrugged.

    "Not much," he said. "I would've told you if anything came up."

    "Any sightings of that ship?" Galatea asked.

    "If it's around, it hasn't breached the barrier yet. I've told you before that the Labyrinth can't go past the plate boundary."

    "U-um..." Katja weakly interjected from her chair. "Sorry, but did you mention that weird ghost ship?"

    Galatea nodded and signaled for Caster to shift their conversation towards the table monitor.

    "Right, we'll share with you what we know of the other Masters and Servants," Galatea said, sitting in her chair. "Normally, I'd prefer keeping such intelligence to ourselves, but in order to maximize our chances of victory, it's best if we fill you in."

    Caster pulled up a three-dimensional holographic model of the entire town of Polnoch, with actual elevations and heights of buildings marked with pinpoint accuracy. Katja sat up and inspected the model closely.

    "Uncanny," Katja said, marveling at the specificity. "I can recognize everything here. It's so lifelike."

    Caster laughed.

    "Again, your compliments flatter me. It's always nice when someone's impressed with my genius," Caster said, smirking at Galatea, who rolled her eyes.

    "If I fell over myself praising every flashy invention or sorcery I came across, the Mage's Association would have torn me apart," Galatea said, not even looking at Caster.

    "Here," Galatea continued, indicating to the model. "Is a projection of the territory. This blue outline represents the reach of the Labyrinth's bounded field. So long as something is within this boundary, we can detect and observe it."

    Galatea pointed to a blue line that had been drawn around a vast portion of the projection. It spanned nearly all of the populated regions around town with the main uncovered region being the boundary that separated shallow water from deep sea around two hundred meters off the coast of Polnoch.

    "We have complete control over where we place entrances and exits to this Labyrinth, making it a highly versatile workshop from which we can easily carry out scouting operations and quickly retreat if need be."

    Assassin rubbed his chin as he studied the layout.

    "What a useful ability. With this, we could lay out any number of ambushes with little risk to ourselves."

    Galatea nodded.

    "Precisely. Which is why it was so fortuitous for us to place the Master of the Assassin-class Servant in our debt. While we have immense versatility in this place, the sacrifice that was made was unfortunately a sharp loss in offensive potential. That's where you two come in."

    Caster shrugged unapologetically.

    "Hey, it's not my fault I don't have muscles. You want some huge Greek guy that can sling around boulders like paper airplanes, you should've summoned one of them. I make things, that's all I'm good at."

    Assassin nodded.

    "I will admit, I had my reservations when you first approached me," Assassin said. "But I see now how much we both stand to gain from this exchange. But this raises an important question, doesn't it Master of Caster?"

    Katja looked back and forth at Galatea and Assassin, confused, but Galatea seemed to expect such a question and smiled.

    "Naturally. I assume you are referring to the outcome in which we are the only two factions remaining?"

    Assassin nodded.

    "That's right. It's undeniable that you hold an overwhelming advantage should we be forced to fight one another. Yet you have given us not only ample opportunities to attack the other Masters, but also the potential to grow even stronger. What's your angle?"

    Galatea smiled at Assassin.

    "It's nice to find someone so shrewd on our side," Galatea said. "It is as you say, Assassin. Right now, we hold all of the cards. It would have been very easy to simply let you both die, but the fact of the matter is that without some form of external cooperation, Caster and I can affect very little in this war. Should the situation arrive wherein our alliance is broken off, I will remind you that your Master's life-support operations are still managed by yours truly. We stand to gain just as much as you do from an effective alliance here. Even if what we have to work with is...."

    Galatea eyed Katja, who shrank slightly in her seat.

    "Rough around the edges, to say the least."

    Katja knew the comment wasn't made in bad faith, but it still stung to hear directly. Galatea then had Caster shift the projections towards several amorphous blobs that floated in the air. They appeared to be paired blobs, seven pairs in total. After a few moments, several of the pairs began to morph into the shapes of people. Among the shapes, Katja could make out herself, Galatea, Assassin and Caster, meaning that this was a representation of the players in this war.

    "Currently," Galatea said. "We know of five Servants in this war, though we presently only know the identities of two. However, we only know of four of the Masters in this war. Of what we know we can conclude with some measure of definiteness that the Master Yekaterina Shlykova is paired with the Archer-class Servant. However, with these two, it is harder to tell."

    Galatea points at two figures that Katja recognized as the silver knight and the ghostly pirate. Standing next to the silver knight was the white-haired boy that spotted Katja back at the Wharf. Katja hadn't thought about that incident since then, but it made sense that the boy was a Master. Why else would he be sitting in a warzone, after all?

    "This individual, whom we will refer to as the Pirate is difficult to categorize. An easy assumption would be that he is of the Rider class due to his vessel. Indeed, most Servants associated with nautical elements tend to be of that class. His wild fighting style however, is reminiscent of a Berserker-class Servant. And he does wield a cutlass, meaning he has skill that may warrant a place in the Saber class as well. As for the knight, he doesn't seem to use any weapons himself, meaning he could qualify for any potential class besides our own. And that's not even mentioning the possibility of exceptions to the rule..."

    "Um..." Katja said, raising her hand. "Assassin explained to me why he's called Assassin, but I really have no idea what the names of Servants mean. Like, I can guess what a Saber-class Servant does, but I don't get what all the classes actually do."

    Galatea looked at Katja, who again felt self-conscious for being a total newbie.

    "It's fine if you don't know. Even among the close circles of the Mage's Association, the idea of summoning Heroic Spirits from the past to fight in a death battle sounds like a ridiculous concept. To briefly go over the attributes of the seven Servant classes, they consist of the Saber, Archer, Lancer, Caster, Rider, Assassin, and Berserker classes."

    Caster pulls down the models of the Masters and replaces them with seven chess-like pieces each presumably representing the classes. Galatea indicates to the knight, bowman, and spearman. All of whom begin posing and posturing like tiny soldiers.

    "The first three, known as the Knight classes, excel in one-on-one fights and are typically considered the three strongest classes. I doubt I need to explain what any of them do, since their names do a good job of that."

    Galatea points to a hooded man wielding a staff, whose robes flap about as though he were casting a spell.

    "Casters are highly skilled spellcasters that specialize in manipulating the terrain and crafting items and constructs to fight. They are weak in direct fights."

    Galatea then points to a man on horseback who does several laps around the monitor. Galatea rolls her eyes at this display as Caster chuckles to himself.

    "Riders are a mounted, well-rounded, and highly mobile class that can fight the knight classes on decent grounds. While their physical attributes tend to fall a bit short of the Knight classes, they make up for it with multiple strong Noble Phantasms."

    Galatea points to the individual wearing a skull-like mask wielding two daggers, who vanishes in a cloud of smoke before reappearing.

    "Assassins are weak in direct fights and specialize in striking from the shadows. They are particularly useful at taking down enemy Masters. Though notably, I had been under the impression that the Grail could only summon from a limited pool of historical assassins."

    Assassin grinned.

    "Yeah, I thought that too, but hey, I'm certainly not complaining. Guess I'm an exception or something."

    Galatea doesn't pursue the topic further and finally points at the last hologram, a beast-like humanoid that thrashed around the monitor, with chains appearing to tie the creature down, to little success.

    "Finally, Berserkers are the wild card of the Servant pool. In exchange for their sanity, they receive significant boosts to almost all of their attributes. They are the hardest for a Master to control, but also the most dangerous in a fight."

    Katja nodded.

    "I think I understand everything now," she said. "So we figure out which classes a Servant is in order to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, right?"

    Galatea nodded.

    "Precisely. Class is one of the primary determining factors of a Servant's role in a battle. The other aspect worthy of mention are a Servant's parameters. To illustrate this, I ask that you look at Caster's Servant graph."

    "His what?" Katja said, since Galatea did not point to anything other than Caster himself, who was now tinkering with some sort of metal contraption.

    "Focus on Caster and look into his spirit origin. All Masters have the ability to view a Servant's statistics, even if they do not know his true name. There are a number of attributes that a Servant is graded by, ranging from A to E rank, where higher attributes are the result of greater ability in that field. Go on, try it. It's not very complicated."

    Katja looked at Caster and narrowed her eyes. She saw something faintly flicker into view, which she focused on. A strange profile appeared in her vision, which quickly flickered out of view when she wanted to see again. This time, she pulled it up and began to read.

    "Strength of E?" Katja asked. "What does that mean?"

    "It means," Caster said. "That I'm about as strong as you are, physically speaking."

    "And what does conditional mean?" Katja asked, looking at Caster's magical energy attribute.

    Caster looked at Galatea, who shrugged.

    "It's fine if you tell them," Galatea said. "They would've found out eventually."

    Caster grinned at Katja.

    "It means I can't actually use magic," Caster said. "Some Caster I turned out to be, right?"

    "Wait what‽" Katja said. "But isn't that like....your whole point?"

    Caster held up his hands.

    "What you see is what you get, unfortunately," Caster said. "Besides, you'll find that I more than make up for my lack of innate magic. I may not be a crazy spellcaster like or Hecate, but still lived in the Age of Gods. I know a thing or two about magic, trust me."

    Katja looked at the page and noticed several other sections, only some of which she recognized.

    "Skills?" Katja asked. "Assassin mentioned those a while back, but are those different from Noble Phantasms?"

    "The boundary that separates them is a bit unclear but think of them as passive abilities that may or may not be shared by other heroic spirits. Being of a certain class can grant a skill, such as an Assassin's Presence Concealment, but heroic spirits also have their own personal skills which grant them certain abilities due to their achievements or status in life. A Noble Phantasm is different in that it is similar to a mystic code, it can be anything from a weapon, a piece of apparel, a personal item, or even a technique. It is to a skill what a stored spell is to a magic crest. It is the crystallization of a heroic spirit's legacy and can only be activated by saying its true name. As such, using one is when a Servant is at their most powerful, but also their most vulnerable, for any Servant that releases the full power of their Noble Phantasm reveals their true name, and subsequently all of the weaknesses associated with that name, to all those who witness it."

    "Wow...." Katja said, imagining the endless possibilities of what such abilities may look like. She hurriedly turned to Assassin.

    "What's your Noble Phantasm?" she asked him. Assassin seemed to shift awkwardly in his seat.

    "Er....well, it's difficult to answer when you put me on the spot like that, Katja," he said. "Even if I'm a Servant, it still feels a little weird to start describing it. I mean, you got to see Caster's grandiose Noble Phantasm before you learned what it is, why not let me hold onto a surprise or two?"

    "So you're saying you want to surprise me?" Katja said, raising an eyebrow. "That doesn't sound very strategic."

    Katja intended on pestering Assassin for answers, but Galatea coughed and placed a hand on Katja's shoulder.

    "As helpful as it would be for us to learn of Assassin's noble phantasm, especially given that Caster and I have yet to uncover your Servant's true name, I would advise you not to force your Servant to reveal something they wish to hide. The very nature of a heroic spirit's Noble Phantasm may make it difficult to discuss openly."

    Katja gulped and realized that she hadn't accidentally let Assassin's true name slip yet, and she was grateful for her dumb luck. While Katja didn't want to come off as overly trusting, a part of her didn't actually mind if Galatea knew, though Katja would respect Assassin's wish for discretion.

    "So then, back to the discussion of our actual enemies," Galatea said, eyeing Katja, who put on her best guilty look for derailing the conversation for so long. "Katja, you have seen these individuals fight from up close, as our surveillance footage clearly shows. What are your thoughts on their possible identities?"

    Katja thought for a moment about the events of that night. While she hadn't gotten as close a look at the two as she would've liked, there certainly were details that stood out to her in her mind.

    "Well, the Pirate, he uh....he was kinda, ghostly? Like, his skin was really pale and all of his underlings looked like spirits."

    Assassin stood next to Katja and backed her up.

    "It is as she says," Assassin said. "The properties of that Servant's entire entourage had distinctly undead qualities to them. Their ship also possessed similar qualities. Based on this, I believe there is only one possibility for this Servant's identity, though it gives us no clues as to their class."

    Galatea nodded.

    "We concluded the same thing," Galatea said. "Whoever this Servant's Master is, it seems as though they weren't all that concerned with subtlety. Even without seeing the hull of the ship, the identity of the Pirate is easily apparent."

    "So then, who is it?" Katja asked, on the edge of her seat.

    "Well, it's pretty obvious that it's-" Assassin began, but then Galatea cut him off.

    "Wait," Galatea said. "Katja, you tell us who this Servant is. Based on context clues, tell us who you think it is."

    Katja struggled for a moment, running through a list of famous pirates. She thought about the man's most striking feature and realized that, yeah, it was pretty obvious.

    "He's....Blackbeard, right? Edward Teach, famous pirate?" Katja said.

    Both Galatea and Assassin nodded.

    "The resemblance to his myth is uncanny. As the most famous pirate of all time, it is unsurprising that he is easily identifiable. Although there is one glaring inconsistency."

    "He....he wasn't alive, was he?" Katja said, remembering how the Silver Knight tore off large chunks of the man's body without so much as an acknowledgement.

    "In the tale of his death," Galatea said. "Blackbeard was said to have been shot multiple times, decapitated, then tossed into the ocean. And yet even after that, the body swam around the ship multiple times and, according to some stories, continued to follow the ship until it eventually sank beneath the surface along with his vessel, never to be seen again. There have since been sailor's tales about the ghost of Blackbeard, who would haunt vessels in search of his missing head. Doubtless this summoning drew upon such myths to summon this incarnation of the pirate."

    Katja shivered. She wasn't great with ghost stories. Polnoch, being one of the furthest settlements from any other populated area on the planet, was no stranger to all kinds of rural legends of spirits haunting the oceans and forests surrounding the town. Katja, being the recluse that she was, staunchly refused to ever leave the boundaries of town as a direct result of these myths. To her, ghosts were a Pascal's Wager. For all intents and purposes, they were real until proven otherwise.

    "If it's undead, we shouldn't even try and fight it right?" Caster said absentmindedly. "I mean, not that we stood a chance to begin with, but would there even be a point in trying to kill him then?"

    "There are no perfect Servants," Assassin responded, looking at the monitor depictions of Blackbeard in mid-combat. "Now that we know who he is, we can exploit that."

    "Agreed," Galatea said. "For instance, separating his head from his body may be a good place to start. He certainly doesn't seem to have much concern for his own safety after all."

    "Riiiight...." Caster said, rolling his eyes. "Because literal decapitation only might work. Though I suppose I am familiar with guys that would only be tickled by decapitation, so I guess it's not that hard to believe."

    "Well regardless," Galatea said. "Until such a time as his ship returns to shallow waters, we cannot effectively mount an offensive against him, especially considering his Master is nowhere to be found. So let us now shift focus to the Silver Knight and the Archer-class Servant."

    Two larger holograms, each depicting one of the aforementioned Servants appeared. Now that Katja had a closer look at the Archer who shot her, she could see that his features were distinctly Eastern. He covered part of his face, but it was clear he had black hair and a small bit of facial hair.

    "The Silver Knight has no obvious features to give away their identity but given the geographic prevalence of full plate mail at the height of its use in the middle ages, we can at the very least assume the Servant to have strong European ties. Beyond that, there are very few myths of armored knights fighting barehanded, so we do not have much to go on. As for the Archer Servant, his appearance is similarly subdued when it comes to clues of his true identity. He is very obviously Eastern, but that does not narrow things down. Unlike with the knight, there are almost too many tales of Eastern heroic spirits wielding bows."

    The images on the monitor disappear, and Galatea places both hands on the monitor and faces the group.

    "Unfortunately, this is all that we currently know about these two Servants. It is important that we spend the next few days carefully tracking their locations in order to gain more insight into their abilities. As for their Masters, I believe the best approach would be-"

    The room suddenly began to flash red. Caster, who had been lazily fiddling with various spare parts, suddenly snapped to his feet, instantly alert. Rushing over to the front monitor, he began frantically typing on the keyboard that stood just beneath the huge screen. Galatea walked over to where Caster worked.

    "What is it, Caster?" Galatea asked calmly.

    Caster pressed a few buttons, then a video feed appeared on the large monitor.

    "The sensor detected a Mana spike a few seconds ago," Caster said, more focused than Katja had ever seen him. "We're looking at the live feed right now."

    The sight that appeared on the screen almost caused Katja to gag. Gore and carnage slewn all across a snow expanse on what appeared to be the eastern edge of town. It was less as though they had been killed by men, but more as though they were crushed without notice, like a pile of ants, oblivious to an impending boot. From the scattered, bloody remains of the victims, Katja could tell that they were of the military, but all that appeared to be left of their killer was a bloody trail in the snow that went deeper into the forest. Katja couldn't handle the sight for long, and was forced to look away, though none of the others did so.

    "Do you think it was human?" Galatea asked.

    "Barely," Assassin responded, his eyes narrowing. "I've only seen such ferocity a few times in my life before, and I'd hesitate to call those responsible humans."

    Galatea nodded slowly, rubbing her chin.

    "Caster," she said. "Can you search around for anything nearby?"

    "Already on it," Caster said, inputting a few keystrokes. "There's a cluster of lifesigns around one and a half kilometers outside the town boundaries. Based on material scans, it's likely some sort of military bunker. Unfortunately, it's got a bounded field of its own and my scanners can't get live footage. Whoever's inside must be on guard against magical threats."

    "Bunker? Could this be where that Silver Knight might be?" Katja asked. "He was with the military, right?"

    "It's certainly possible. We've suspected for some time that the Soviet Government has trained magi under their employ, likely as a hidden branch of the military," Galatea explained to Katja. "The moment they caught wind of something like this ritual out here in Polnoch, they probably came running to try and take it for themselves."

    "Is the Grail really that useful to them?" Katja asked. "Why would the Party care about reaching the Root?"

    "It's possible they believe the Grail really can grant wishes. Perhaps they wish to make it a military asset in their ridiculous posturing match against the American government. The wish notwithstanding, the Greater Grail contains a near limitless source of Mana drawn from the Earth itself, any magus could do some very nasty things with that kind of resource."

    "Can it?" Katja asked, staring up at the monitor, which had thankfully shifted to an aerial view of the spherical field that obscured the bunker.

    "Excuse me?" Galatea said.

    "The Grail, can it really grant wishes?" Katja clarified.

    Galatea shrugged.

    "I have not actually considered whether or not the Grail has any wish-granting properties. It may, for all we know, be guided by some sort of intelligence that can utilise the massive amounts of stored mana, but for most serious mages, such a question is irrelevant. We approach the Grail from the perspective of academia, meaning we consider only the properties of the Grail that we have observed, in particular those of relevance to our research."

    "But wouldn't it be nice to wish for the end goals of your research?" Katja said, tilting her head to the side. "You know, to save you the trouble?"

    Galatea smiled.

    "My dear," she said to Katja. "What would be the point in accomplishing anything if you didn't know how it was accomplished?"

    With that statement signalling the finality of that discussion Galatea turned Caster.

    "Can you find any live activity?" Galatea said, but Caster shook his head.


    "No can do, I'm afraid," Caster said. "There's nothing pinging the sensors outside that bunker. So either it's all over or it's happening in a place I can't reach. That's the price we pay for breadth, I'm afraid."

    "I suppose there's nothing to be done. Katja and Assasin, you two are up."

    Katja looked at Galatea, dumbstruck at the implication.

    "Wait, you're kidding. You're sending us out there‽" Katja exclaimed. "I knew it! Your plan was to torture me, then throw me to the wolves!"

    "There's no need for alarm," Galatea said, not reacting to Katja's distress. "You're not going out to fight. A simple infiltration and scouting operation will suffice."

    Katja, seeing that there was no room for protest, looked to Assassin for help with pleading eyes. Unfortunately, Assassin didn't seem to share Katja's trepidation.

    "I see, so this is why you proposed an alliance in the first place," he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Neither of your skillsets are geared towards on-ground operations, which is why you needed us, someone who'd be willing to cooperate but with a more direct form of interaction."

    "A very astute deduction, Assassin," Galatea said. "Indeed, the ability of Servants from the Assassin-class to infiltrate and disrupt the workings of enemy Masters is an invaluable asset when used properly. As versatile as Caster's abilities are, he is ill-suited to perform the kinds of field operations that can accumulate incremental advantages for us in the long-term. You two will be the crack force that will carry out these operations."

    Katja bit her lip. She wanted to argue against Galatea's points, but she couldn't find much. The points were sound enough reasons why Katja and Assassin should go out and gather intel, and she found herself struggling to speak her mind. Assassin gives Katja a strange look, then addresses Galatea.

    "If there is anything that I am left to wonder," Assassin said, clearing his throat. "It's why you would approach a second non-combatative class. Surely a Lancer-class Servant would be an ideal partner in this particular instance?"

    "Ah, well. To be perfectly honest, this particular meeting was mostly out of convenience. It's not every day when you hold the negotiating power of life itself over an enemy Master, so it was an easy decision to make."

    Assassin nodded, as though he had expected this answer. Katja's shoulders slackened, and she let out a big sigh.

    "Fine, you win," Katja said. "We'll go out there and see what's going on. I just hope Shlykova's not there so she can't finish what she started...."

    Caster put his hands on Katja's shoulder and gave her a thumbs up.

    "It's alright, young miss," Caster said, grinning. "You're looking at the greatest inventor of all time, so you'll have the best support you could ever have."

    "Admittedly, that does sound reassuring," Assassin said from behind Katja. "With the proper support from a strong Caster-class Servant, we could easily fight on par with other Servants."

    Katja nodded along. She did feel that having some form of magical safeguard would make her feel a lot safer out there, but then she thought about all of the famous inventions Daedalus ever made. Excluding the Labyrinth, there was one famous invention that Daedalus was known for, but Katja felt as though it may be a bit insensitive to bring that up now.

    "Precisely, now let us head off to the armory," Galatea said. Katja snapped out of her daze and turned around to find that the other three had begun walking off towards the exit of the command room. As she scrambled to follow, she realized that this was the same entrance as the one to the training room. When she thought about it some more, she realized that this was also the entrance to the command room that Katja had entered through for the first time earlier today. She caught up to Caster and walked beside him.

    "Hey Caster," Katja said. "How do you make the entrance keep leading to a different room?"

    Caster winked at Katja.

    "Trade secret, I'm afraid. You'd find the explanation tedious anyways."

    "Aww come on," Katja said, genuinely curious. "Tell me, I promise I'll pay attention."

    Caster studied Katja for a moment, then smiled.

    "I guess I can give you the simplified version," he said. "My Master tells me that you can ensoul statues, right? When you do, do you hear their voices, the thoughts of their creators?"
    "Yeah," Katja said excitedly. "I do."

    "Well, this Labyrinth is my creation, and its soul reflects my own. As long as my will continues to change, the Labyrinth will always change to reflect it."

    "Wait," Katja said, thinking. "But that sounds an awful lot like magi- Magecraft. I thought you said you didn't have any magic circuits!"

    Caster smiled and wagged his finger at Katja.

    "I said I cannot cast spells, I never said I don't have any magic circuits," he said, enigmatically.

    "Wait, then how-"

    "Young miss," Caster interrupted. "I lived in a time where the impossible was the mundane, where that which you would today call miracles occurred so frequently as to be boring. Do you not think, that in such an age, that someone like me wouldn't have a few oddities?"

    Katja didn't respond. She couldn't. Katja realized that their worlds were so far apart that Katja probably couldn't begin to understand Caster's way of thinking. She decided to stop thinking about it for now, there was enough to understand as is.

    The armory turned out to be a long, rectangular room that, in contrast to the training room, was absolutely crammed with metal parts, tools, work benches, and various artifacts of unknown function. The room smelled so strongly of oil and ash that Katja had to resist the urge to burst into a coughing fit, electing instead to cover her mouth with the cloth around her collar. As they walked in, Caster raised his arms cautiously at Katja and Assassin.

    "For your own safety," Caster said. "I recommend you don't touch anything without asking me what it is first. I can promise that some things can and will explode at the slightest touch, so please only explore with your eyes."

    Katja decided that sticking close to Assassin would be the safest option, and therefore chose to trail behind him while they stepped through the room. As Katja looked around, she marvelled at all of the objects contained within the room. It was questionable, though, as to whether or not the term "object" was an accurate description of some of the things contained within the room. While she found a fair share of intricate weapons, ranging from simple, yet beautifully crafted sabres to futuristic-looking guns and cannons mounted on the walls, there also contained a variety of strange objects hanging from the shelves that lined the walls, such as pieces of armor, vials of unknown liquids, and even jars filled with twisting, warping colors that seemed to bob around the glass cases like tiny, formless fireflies. She found herself staring at the strange lights, slowly being pulled into their entrancing, addictive glow....

    "Whoa there," Caster said from beside her, yanking on her shoulders away from the lights and out of her daze. "I meant to cover that up. Sorry about that, when I said explore with your eyes, I meant except for those particular things right there."

    Katja shook her head, her sanity returning to her.

    "What...what the heck were those?" she asked Caster.

    "Just an experiment I've shelved for now," Caster answered. "I was exploring an urban legend about sailors at sea getting drawn in by ghostly lights. Thought it had potential, but I've kept it on the backburner for later."

    Galatea stopped at one of the workbenches, one lined with a half-dozen or so pieces of golden metal the size of Katja's pinkie digit shaped in the form of ants. Each one had tiny red jewels in place of their eyes that had been cut to resemble compound eyes. Galatea picked one up and held it in front of Katja and Assassin.

    "This is going to be the key to your mission," Galatea said. "Instead of simply observing the enemy, which tells us little of their motives or identities, I'd like you to attempt to plant these bugs on their person, allowing us to trace their locations and detect fluctuations in their magical energy levels. They've been designed to integrate themselves onto whatever surface they can reach upon the recitation of their incantation. They follow simple commands up to a range of twenty meters."

    Galatea handed two of these golden ants to Katja.

    "Take these and be careful with them," Galatea said. "I had Caster make these bugs to my exact specifications, but this was as small as they could be. In order to accommodate the proper spells, they had to be made of pure gold, making them rather fragile."

    "Man, it sure was fun playing around with some of your modern tech," Caster said, admiring his work. "Making everything smaller seems to be all the rage nowadays, so I thought I'd try my hand at it. I did make improvements here and there, but..."

    Katja daintily held the two metal insects and realized to her embarrassment that her school uniform didn't actually have pockets, and her school bag had long since been discarded somewhere in Old Town. She reached around the hem of her black skirt, looking for any sort of gap to place them, but with little success. She looked at Caster sheepishly.

    "You wouldn't happen to have a spare bag lying around, would you?" she asked, turning red.

    Caster chuckled.

    "Finds herself in the workshop of the possibly the most brilliant inventor of the ancient world and asks for a bag. This girl...." Caster says, shaking his head.

    Caster strolls over to a different workbench and begins rifling through the piles of belongings on and around it. For all his virtues, Caster didn't seem to be very organized. After a few seconds of Caster muttering to himself, he eventually returns to Katja with a small, shoulder-slung pouch.

    "Here, this should do the job," he said, handing it to Katja.

    "Is this bag....normal?" Katja asked, taking it apprehensively.

    "Well....normal is a relative term...." Caster said, not making eye contact. "Let's just say that if it starts growling at you, it's no cause for concern. It's perfectly safe, you can even use it as a shield. It's nigh indestructible."

    Katja slung the surprisingly heavy pouch around her shoulder and slipped the golden ants inside.

    "So," Assassin said, returning from a brief exploration of the workshop. "Of the items in this room, how many of them have battlefield applications that we may potentially use?"

    Caster looked to Galatea, who took a brief look around the room. Katja wondered if Galatea even knew what everything here did. It didn't seem possible, but she knew so little about what Galatea could do that she'd believe anything. Then, as if in unison, the two begin to rattle off items to each other.

    "The spheres are likely a good place to start," Galatea said.

    "A bit on the older side," Caster replied. "But it is a classic, so sure, why not? How about the assault suit?"

    "Rejected. This is a stealth mission."

    "Fine, then. The incendiary apples? Could be useful in a pinch."

    "That's fine, but we'll entrust those to Assassin. They are high explosives, after all. What about the shield?"

    "Not done yet, I'm working out a few kinks."

    "The pocket mirror?"

    "Oh sure, that's fine. It's still a prototype, but it should work at least once...."

    After a few minutes of back-and-forth discussion, a small pile of items was placed in front of Katja. Galatea, who gave Katja a lengthy explanation about the use of each item. After recovering from that experience, Katja stuffed all of the items into her pouch, which was now at maximum capacity. Galatea also handed Assassin a bright red apple and explained to him the directions on how to use it. Assassin saw the look on Katja's face regarding the storage of the apple, but he just smiled and caused the apple to vanish in a puff of light.

    "Possessions of mine can be converted into their spirit forms without too much difficulty," Assassin explained. "Otherwise, we'd never be able to carry around items except while manifested. Pretty convenient, huh?"

    After they had assembled and prepared to leave, which took around ten minutes since the alarm was first raised, Galatea and Caster led them back to the command room.

    "Now remember," Galatea said. "We do not know who is responsible for what yet. For all we know, the incident may already be over. Just do what you can and use your proper judgement. We'll be monitoring you through the command room, but once you cross the bounded field, we cannot assist you nor retrieve you until you step outside again. Good luck."

    Galatea's face betrayed no emotion beyond stoicism, so Katja wasn't sure how to feel about leaving the relative safety of the Labyrinth towards what may very well be her bloody death. She could feel the sweat on her hands and forehead telling her that she was scared, not that she needed to be told. But what Katja couldn't be sure of was if the beating of her heart as she stepped past the boundary of the command room into the snow surface was due to terror or anticipation.





    --


    Day 3: Belly of the Beast


    The first thing that special stealth operative Katja did upon stepping into the snowy battlefield was fall flat on her face. As it turned out, a layer of ice had somehow formed over the entire battlefield, something that wasn't immediately obvious from the camera footage. Unfortunately for Katja, she had to find out the hard way.

    As she rubbed at the slight bruise that had formed on her forehead from the impact of the accident, she was once again reminded of why she hated the cold. Even under her winter hat, Katja's skin felt that familiar feeling, being simultaneously numb and in pain at the same time. The Labyrinth had spoiled her with its humid air and room temperature climate control. Now that she was back out in the unforgiving Siberian winter, Katja's mood immediately began to plummet. As they approached the array of body parts strewn across the battlefield, Katja began to feel nauseous. Now that she was physically present there was a tactile and olfactory sensation that made being here almost unbearable. Assassin, on the other hand, held no such reservations, and began calmly walking through and examining the bodies.

    "Hmm, these corpses appear to be partially submerged in the ice," he said, looking at one of the bodies. "It's not by much, but there definitely must have been some shallow body of water that momentarily formed here."

    Apprehensively, Katja approached the body Assassin had been examining. What she saw almost made her throw up right then and there. Submerged partway into the ice was half of a human's upper torso, with what remained of the victim's frozen head capturing one final scream that would last for an eternity. The lines that butchered the body were jagged and chunky, like someone had cut up the bodies with a large saw. From their uniforms, it was clear that these men were soldiers, but their skin had now been dyed a deep purple, showing the onset of cellular necrosis due to frostbite. Fortunately for Katja, many of the more visceral details had been obscured by the layers of white frost that had formed over the bodies not long after death. Colors, gore, and identifiable parts all mixed together to form a mass that, while still nowhere near pleasant, was at the very least tolerable. Still, something caught Katja's eye on some of the bodies. With great disgust, Katja carefully approached one and peered past the frost layers and at the victim's skin. While it was extremely difficult to make out after so much time had passed, Katja swore that the markings on the bodies reminded her of-

    "Burn marks?" Katja said, causing Assassin to quickly examine the body Katja was beside. He studied the markings carefully and began nodding.

    "How fast would a large shallow body of water take to freeze?" Assassin asked Katja.

    "Not long, maybe a few minutes at most," Katja replied, coming to the same conclusion.

    As they stood up to look at the surrounding landscape, Katja saw that the ice stretched across the battlefield for a good hundred meters or so.

    "This definitely seems like the work of a Master and Servant," Assassin said. Katja had to agree.

    "So, I guess this means we're going to the bunker then?" Katja asked.

    "It's our only lead, so we don't have much of a choice." Assassin replied. "Come on, let's get going."

    Careful not to slip on the ice this time, Katja followed Assasin into the icy leading to the bunker.

    The walk through the forest was largely uneventful, with the only notable event being the onset of sunset. As she walked behind Assassin, Katja couldn't help but recall that just two days prior, he was nothing more than a voice in her head. And yet now, how has her experience with him the Grail war been? Despite having spoken with him near-continually over the course of the last two days, she still felt as though she couldn't fully grasp Assassin as a person. He was terribly excitable, but also stoic and resolved. His actions and words spoke of a tired existence from a lifetime of war, yet with each new discovery of a resource or strategy, his mind couldn't help but think of war. Katja had been so busy trying to get her own bearings straight during this whole ordeal that perhaps she had neglected to get to know her Servant a little better. She thought about that strange dream she had last night. That man she saw was clearly Assassin in life, yet what caused his melancholy? What caused his grief?

    "Hey Assassin," Katja said in a low voice. "This may seem a bit out of nowhere, but what's your favorite food?"

    Assassin looked at Katja, confused.

    "This is certainly odd timing, to say the very least," he said, smiling. "Are you perhaps thinking of how we shall celebrate our triumph later today?"

    "Well, no....I mean, maybe?" Katja said, feeling silly for blurting that out. "I just....I thought I'd ask you something that didn't involve war, y'know? Especially since this is all going to end eventually..."

    There was an awkward silence in the air. At least, Katja thought it was awkward. She was about to tell Assassin to forget about it, when he said:

    "You know, for the longest time, I thought it was , if you'll believe it." he said, slowing down to match Katja's pace.

    "No way," Katja said, genuinely surprised. "What does that even taste like?"

    "Oddly enough, it doesn't taste like you'd expect," Assassin said. "It's heavier, closer to beef than chicken. I had it once when I was having dinner with my uncle's good friend Quintinius, who was a tribune at the time. He was a rich man with expensive tastes, and he made it a point to import all sorts of exotic foods from all across the Mediterranean. The richness and juiciness of the cuts I ate that day were partially why I rushed so headlong into soldiery. I had hoped that my foreign conquests would eventually take me to North Africa, to taste that meal again, only this time, from the source."

    "Did you ever end up finding it?" Katja asked, enthralled.

    Assassin shook his head.

    "I ate it several more times later in life, but I never went to North Africa. By the time I was finished with my ten years of military service and had returned to Rome, I was so tired that I didn't even care anymore. When I returned to my home, my wife made us a very common Roman dish, boiled eggs in pine nut sauce. It may sound silly to say out loud, but in that moment, after eating the same vegetable soup and bread for the last ten years, I almost wept for how good it tasted."

    "So your favorite food is boiled eggs?" Katja asked.

    "In pine nut sauce, yes," Assassin said. "You soft-boil the eggs and grind down the pine nuts into a paste after leaving them in water overnight. It's simple, yet the taste is exquisite. It's nice to have exotic tastes, but nothing beats the taste of home."

    "....That sounds nice." Katja said, looking down. She felt down for some reason. Something about the confidence with which Assassin spoke, the surety of his convictions, and his Mastery over his likes and dislikes made Katja feel like a half-measure, like less than a person compared to him. Sensing Katja's mood, Assassin smiled and patted her on the back.

    "Tell you what," Assassin said. "How about I make some when we get back. It won't be as good when I make it, but I guarantee it'll be a new experience for you."

    Katja gave a small smile and nodded. Katja didn't want to bring the mood down, but she had a habit of doing that around people. Katja was never the type of person who could skillfully read a room and maneuver their way around conversations as naturally as she breathed. She tended to get lost in her own thoughts too often to pick up on subtle body language, which was partially why Katja had so few acquaintances at school.

    "So," Assassin said, bringing the real world back into focus for Katja. "You've taken your first near death experience well. How's your body holding up?"

    Katja looked down at her waist and remembered that for the past day or so, she had been walking, running, and casting spells with some of her own organs missing. What was amazing was that Katja had felt no discomfort at all throughout all of that. She poked at her skin adjacent to the crystal formation, and while there was some light soreness, Katja felt no pain.

    "It's kinda scary how normal I feel," Katja said. "I guess Galatea's Magecraft is just amazing huh?"

    Katja couldn't fathom the level of sophistication a spell must have to be able to replicate life functions, but it was a world far beyond her understanding.

    Hmmm, or was it?

    Katja placed a hand on the crystal formation, trying to get a feel for its composition. She didn't want to disturb anything, God forbid she turn something off during such a crucial operation, but she wanted to know if she could feel analyze the flow of Prana inside the construct. Katja could feel....something. Whenever she felt her heart pump blood through that region, some kind of force would send it to the other side. Each little node where an organ or blood vessel ended had been capped off by the crystal, yet the connections and loops had been preserved somehow, as though the crystal were some sort of portal that transported the blood wherever it needed to go. Katja removed her Prana from the crystal. Any more may run the risk of disturbing the spell sequence, Katja would have to do some more studying on this later tonight.

    "Katja," Assassin said, stopping. "We've arrived."

    Assassin quickly darted behind a mass of fallen trees not far from the supposed bunker, yet Katja could not see anything beyond the skyline formed by the snow-covered treetops. If there was supposed to be some sort of structure here, Katja couldn't see it. Regardless, Katja figured it was best to follow behind Assassin as she had been doing and crouched down alongside him.

    "What are we supposed to be looking for?" Katja whispered.

    Assassin didn't respond. Instead, he began to quietly stalk forwards for about ten meters. He stopped at a spot where the snow seemed to shift in color ever so slightly. Assassin crouched down and picked up a small handful of snow, which he then tossed out in front of him. To Katja's shock, the moment the snow crossed the boundary between the two shades of snow, the clump vanished before it hit the ground.

    "Hmm, very clever," Assassin said.

    "What just happened?" Katja asked.

    "It's the nature of this particular bounded field," Assassin said. "I reckon that whoever passes through this boundary will be instantly transported to the other side, none the wiser about what lies within."

    "So then how do we get in?" Katja asked.

    "It's actually simpler than you think," Assassin replied. "You see, most of the trick behind large Bounded Fields is that most rely on going unnoticed to work right. Think of it like spreading out a large sheet of finite material over your base. The larger and wider you make it, the thinner it ends up being."

    Assassin held out his hand and several glowing yellow lines ran up his forearm and hand, an activation of magical circuits. When he saw Katja's surprised expression, he smiled.

    "Surprised to see I have circuits?" Assassin said. "You shouldn't be. My family traces its lineage directly from . If I couldn't cast spells, it would reflect poorly on the quality of my ancestors' blood."

    As his hand touched the boundary, it seemed to come up against some sort of surface, which caused the air around it to ripple like a pond. Then, as if pushing through syrup, Assassin's hand slowly pushed its way into the barrier.

    "As long as you run Prana through your circuits, your body should be able to resist the effects enough to pass through." Assassin said, preparing his own body to pass through the field.

    "Is this that innate resistance thing that all mages have?" Katja asked. During her long day of exercise, Galatea thought it would be productive to explain the rudimentary facets of Magecraft while Katja was practicing. If Katja misunderstood or didn't listen to a particular explanation, she had to perform the whole exercise from the beginning. Needless to say, Katja learned a lot in a very short time.

    "Yup, now let's get going," Assassin said. "I don't know how long it takes to storm a military base, but let's hope we can at least catch the tail end of it."

    The two of them passed through the barrier carefully. When Katja's face passed through, she initially felt the strong sensation of drowning. Thankfully, the feeling lasted for only a few moments, and when Katja emerged on the other side, her body felt a little sluggish, as though she just stepped out of a lake. She stumbled on a fallen branch that hadn't been visible from the other side of the field, but Assassin caught her by the shoulder.

    "Careful there," Assassin said. "I guess what we saw back there was an illusion after all."

    He looked up and Katja followed his line of sight. There, she saw a massive square-shaped structure with a domed roof and four pillars that stood at the corners. The pillars had several windows along its length, but the bunker itself, if it can even be called that, had none. The structure itself looked to be a cross between a military base and a medieval castle, giving it a menacing presence as it loomed heavily over the two of them.

    Katja and Assassin began to creep closer to the base of the structure. Katja couldn't see nor detect any activity from the outside, so she relied on Assassin's superior senses to watch for any patrols or lookouts. Fortunately, or perhaps ominously, there didn't seem to be anyone searching for them. They spotted a few security cameras jutting out from the walls, but they managed to avoid them without issue. When they turned the corner towards the entrance to the base, instead of a door, they found a massive hole where the door once was. The hole was cut out of the stone in a manner similar to the way the bodies had been cut up, with hardened magma lining the boundaries. Scattered all across the floor were bits of rubble, scorch marks, and bullet casings. The inside of the facility was lit, but the lights were damaged and flickering, as whatever battle caused this destruction appeared to have cracked the bulbs and inner walls.

    They entered the hallway, which seemed to split off into multiple directions, though it was easy to tell which direction the assailant went due to the scorch marks. As they made their way inside, alarm sounds blared from the ceiling-mounted speakers.

    "Is it really a good idea to approach this guy from behind?" Katja asked. "Wouldn't it be better to sneak around and spy from a safe distance?"

    "I'm inclined to agree," Assassin said. "But until we know the layout of this building, we can't afford to take any other path. Could you try and find a path for us with your ability?"

    "I can try, but I can't see very far ahead if I don't want to use all of my Prana," Katja said.

    "Even a few dozen meters or so is fine, we'll want to secure a vantage point close to the action."

    Katja nodded and placed her hand on the ground. Placing a small amount of Prana into the structure, Katja managed to sense the general structure of the surrounding area through the stone. As long as it was part of the whole known as "this building" Katja could tap into its structure and properties to an extent. She opened her eyes.

    "There's a pathway that leads to a raised platform. That looks promising," Katja said.

    "Lead the way," Assassin said, nodding. "I'll be on lookout for hostiles."

    Together they walked forward until they were met with a pathway that went forward, but with an upward-slanted hallway that broke off to the right. The sounds of clashing metal could be heard reverberating down the hallway ahead of them. Arriving at the top, Katja and Assassin found themselves on a metal platform with a guard rail overlooking some lower floor and an empty guard station to the immediate right. The moment they arrived at the top, Assassin grabbed Katja and brought them back around the corner. He held a finger to his mouth and indicated to the rail, which had by it around half a dozen or so soldiers with rifles trained on the floor below. The sounds of metal clashing had ceased and Katja could hear voices speaking down below. Katja couldn't quite make them out, so Assassin had to quietly relay the words to her.

    "Surely you realize your position by now," a voice said. "Bring out your Servant or die where you stand."

    "Why of course good officer," a different voice responded. "I most certainly intend to resolve a battle among the ancient ones, but surely you do not expect to idle while they compete? Are you not willing to personally fight to secure your profaned artefact? Surely you've realized by now that I needed no assistance in coming here myself."

    Assassin signalled for Katja to follow him as he snuck inside the guard station. Before he resumed his eavesdropping, he whispered to Katja:

    "I sense a Spirit Origin nearby," he said. "It's hard to tell what it is, but it's huge."

    "Oh no," Katja said, curling up slightly. "They'll definitely find me like last time."

    "Not so," Assassin said. "This time, we're unencumbered, so as long as you stay within ten meters of me, they shouldn't be able to detect you."

    "Hold on," Katja said. "Is that how your Presence Concealment actually works?"

    "Kinda," Assassin said, smiling. "After all, what good is a guerilla commander if all he can conceal is himself?"

    With that, Assassin returned to the conversation.

    "....ough of this," the first voice said. "If you will not reveal your Servant, then you will die a normal man. Saber, kill him."

    "Just one moment, good officer," the second voice said. "Perhaps it would interest you to consider the reason I have decided to encroach your fortress alone."

    All of a sudden, Assassin turned to face the hallway entrance they had arrived from. He brought Katja and himself beneath a desk inside the guard station and he began eyeing the entrance with his teeth clenched. Something had set Assassin on edge. Katja looked at him curiously, but didn't say a word, instead following his gaze.

    Then, Katja heard the footsteps.

    "While I was never one to fight a battle in my head, I am no fool. And for tonight's battle, we thought it prudent to follow from the wisdom of Troy."

    The vibrations caused the metal platform they were on to shake, softly at first, then violently as the sounds of something large and fast came crashing towards them from the hallway. Then, a roar sounded through the entrance right as a massive shape crashed through the entrance way, greatly expanding the entrance way and sending rubble flying outwards, some of it almost hitting Katja. Then, the sounds of screaming and gunfire which had begun to sound were suddenly silenced by a loud crash and the sound of rending metal. The platform shook violently as Katja watched a large beast-like creature tear the front half clean off, sending spattered corpses and metal chunks crashing to the lower floor. Katja wanted to scream as the guard station was slanted downwards, threatening to fall below as well, but Assassin had the foresight to cup her mouth before the impact and silence her. Assassin didn't lose focus for even a moment. In fact, he seemed to have his breath held in quiet anticipation, his eyes wide. The sounds of heavy battle, but no more gunfire, began ringing through the room.

    Assassin and Katja peeked out of the now horizontal door frame to the guard station. The moment Assassin looked out, Katja saw his shoulders shaking. Then, he began chuckling to himself like a madman, with a manic grin plastered on his face. Katja looked out as well and the first thing to catch her eye was the massive form of a great grey beast that had smashed its way to the center of the room. If Katja had to accurately describe the form of this creature, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to do so. It had scales like a reptile, but upon those scales were thick, wiry strands of bluish grey hair. It possessed a distinct neck with a long, crocodilian-like snout, a single horn on the right side of its face that curved out and inwards, and a long trunk. It looked somewhat like a cross between a dragon and an elephant, standing on its hind legs like an otherworldly dinosaur. Assassin's eyes weren't focused on the creature, however, but on the person riding it. He was a large, older-looking gentleman with tanned skin and a thick beard. His outfit consisted of a long orange and beige furskin cape and bronze plate. In many ways, his outfit resembled that of Assassin's, though there were clear and marked differences between them. The two most notable things about this man, however, were the incredibly long spear that he held, almost two meters in length, and the eyepatch he wore over his right eye, which covered a large scar.

    "As I live and breathe...." Assassin said, inhaling deeply. "To think that I would have one more chance."

    Katja studied the man, then Assassin.

    "Is that....who I think it is?" Katja said, causing Assassin to turn and grab Katja's shoulders, his expression joyful.

    "Yes, it's him!" Assassin said. "The most brilliant tactical mind I've ever known. The man who both ruined and elevated me. You have my eternal gratitude for summoning me in this war, Katja. For now, I have the chance to finally settle the score against

    --

    The battle began in earnest as one of the men standing on the ground, a man dressed in pure white plate mail with an extremely large broadsword and a long red cape covered in gold symbols, lifted his weapon into the air as it began to glow.

    "Rider," he shouted. "Show them no mercy! By the burning zeal of the returning king, I ask for the strength to banish the heralds of discord! Crucem Sanctam Subiit!"

    As the man spoke those final words, the sword suddenly erupted into flames, almost doubling the length of the blade. He brought his sword back behind him then charged at the second man who, from the looks of it, appeared to be a soldier dressed in a green uniform wielding a sheathed sabre and a hand pistol.

    "Wait," Katja said, looking out at the battlefield. "I recognize that sword. It's him! I saw him in the church two days ago."

    Assassin, who had been intensely focused on the Rider-class Servant, looked at Katja.

    "Now that you mention it," he said. "He wasn't wearing armor, but I do recall his voice. Well, I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that he is a Master, given that appearance of his."

    The two men engaged in a fierce sword fight while Rider and the Silver Knight both began their duel. This was the first time that Katja had seen a true battle between Masters and Servants, and it was truly a sight to behold. For its size, the great grey beast moved with uncanny grace and precision, able to weave its way between large vehicles and avoiding the quick strikes of the Knight like a dancer despite being easily five meters tall even while hunched over. In combining the sheer speed and strength of the beast with Rider's incredibly long reach, the two were able to keep the Silver Knight on the defensive, parrying thrusts and dodging out of the way of the beast's stomps and bites. Despite the bulky-looking armor the knight was wearing, his movements were graceful and unbelievably fast, able to weave around the creature without being cornered and pinned but unable to close the distance. The feeling Katja got when watching the battle was akin to a dragon-slaying knight. It was strangely beautiful to watch.

    Not far from this mythical battle occurring between the two Servants, the broadsword-wield man, who Katja remembered introduced himself as Dante, charged straight for the officer, who did not draw his breath and instead kept his hands clasped behind his back.

    "Two-eighty one!" he shouted. Katja noticed as a figure she had previously missed suddenly flashed past the officer. It was that white-haired boy that Katja had seen back at the Wharf. He ran past the officer and pointed what appeared to be a handgun at the knight. The moment before the boy pulled the trigger, the knight's eyes widened, and he immediately sidestepped as the area where he stood just moments before was reduced to a crater of dust. The knight hefted his blade at the officer.

    "You would have a child fight in your stead, coward?" Dante bellowed. "It would appear that you are far more depraved than I would have ever imagined!"

    "I had not expected to hear such hypocrisy from murderous zealots such as yourselves?" the officer said back, laughing. "Who was it that sent you then? If the Orthodoxy had people like you, it wouldn't have been so easy to stamp them out!"

    Each time the boy pulled the trigger on the gun, a part of the landscape was reduced to dust. Rather than aiming for Dante specifically, the boy instead reduced the entire terrain around the knight to dust, effectively cutting off any escape routes. When it looked as though the knight had nowhere else to run, the boy pointed the gun at him. Despite the trigger being pulled multiple times, Katja did not notice anything leaving the gun. There was no recoil from the weapon, nor was there any visible form of magical energy.

    "I suppose it does not matter in the end," the officer said. "No matter how many members of your silly faith we have to send to oblivion, the outcome will be the same. Two-eighty-one, fire."

    The boy released the final sphere of destructive force, and the area became shrouded in a sphere of light. When it dissipated, Dante stood in a circular patch of concrete, completely unharmed with his cape held in front of him like a shield.

    "Orthodoxy? Catholicism? I care not for the petty squabbles of blind men pretending to see," Dante said, releasing his cape. "There is only the true path guided by Him! Foul sinners who have desecrated God's lands and peoples, who have deafened the citizenry to God's voice, tonight is when you shall meet your end!"

    Dante charged towards the pair, clearing a good twenty meters in a single leap. As he brought his flaming broadsword down upon the boy, he was suddenly pushed back by an invisible force. Dante landed as the officer pointed the pistol at him once more. When he fired, Dante swung the sword and something seemed to catch the blade mid-swing. Then, as if a bubble of air had burst, streaks of white energy were thrown outwards past the sword, causing the surrounding area to erupt in long streaks of dust-filled craters.

    "It would appear that your demonic powers cannot stand before my holy arms!" Dante shouted. "I shall now cleanse you!"

    He swung the sword in a horizontal arc at the boy, attempting to cleave him in two, but the boy managed to fire off two shots in quick succession, causing both parties to be knocked back by the force of the blast. The officer impatiently clicked his tongue.

    "The output is too low," he said, reaching into his uniform pocket. "I suppose I'll just have to make adjustments."

    He pulled out a metal cylinder filled with glowing green liquid with a small circular dial on its side. When he turned the dial, the boy suddenly screamed and began clutching his head. The Silver Knight, who had been fighting Rider to a stalemate until that point suddenly jerked its head towards the boy.

    "Master!" a female voice shouts from beneath the helmet.

    In that moment of distraction, the grey beast swings its snout at the knight with all the force of a falling greatwood, sending the knight flying backwards and into a jeep, completely crushing the vehicle and leaving behind only a pile of scrap metal. Dante, while visibly unsure of the current situation, points his sword down at the now kneeling boy.

    "It pains my soul to see the suffering of a child forced into war," he said, sadly. "May you find peace in the kingdom of God."

    He lifts his sword and prepares to bring it down. The boy was going to die, right in front of Katja. In that moment, a flood of thoughts hit Katja all at once. Up until now, Katja had been watching all of this occur in a dazed state, never really considering herself as anything more than an observer. All her life, Katja viewed herself as nothing more than a camera on a stick, a person who exists only to observe the reality around her without ever affecting anything or anyone. It was a solitary existence, but one that felt personal and intimate to Katja, who had always hated when circumstances forced her to be noticed. Katja knew what she had done when she agreed to be in this war. She knew that, to an extent, the war would require her to affect others and be affected in turn, but did that really give her the right to simply watch as a human life was taken right before her? In moments like this, Katja didn't want to have to ponder these kinds of questions by herself. She didn't want to have to think about an answer. She'd rather be told what to believe was right than have to decide for herself. If there really was a higher power out there, why couldn't they tell her what to do already?

    The moment would soon pass, the window to act would soon be over. In the end, no voice came to guide her actions in that moment. If only things could be that convenient.



    Katja remembered the exercises Galatea had her do. She focused her Prana not as an outward unfocused wave, but as a line that linked itself to the room below. Then, as subtle as she could manage, Katja caused the area beneath Dante's left foot to liquify ever so slightly. The sudden shift in balance caused Dante's to stumble to the left, sending his downward crashing into the ground immediately next to the boy, missing him by a hair's breadth.

    "What the-" Dante shouted, before the area around him was suddenly enveloped in white light. The boy got onto his hands, his body glowing with magical energy. Then, with a scream, he sent out a wave of energy in a ten-meter sphere around him, causing the entire region to be reduced to dust. Dante yelled and threw his cloak over himself which somehow acted like a repellant force to the energy wave and caused him to be sent flying backwards. The boy's face returned to being expressionless, but Katja could see the smallest hint of another emotion, though whether it was anger or fear was impossible to tell. He reached for his gun, but Dante quickly recovered his footing and began to close the distance once more. As he swung his blade for a second time, a glint of silver appeared, and Dante's blade was knocked away. The Silver Knight had placed herself between the boy and Dante, shielding the boy from further assault.

    "You will not take a single step closer to my Master," the knight said, flashing her clawed gauntlets.

    Behind her, the boy pointed his gun at Dante. This time felt different, however. Katja noticed that the moment the boy pulled the trigger, cracks ran along the sides of the gun causing it to splinter. Wait, was that gun made of plastic?

    Dante braced himself for the impact, but when none came, he quickly looked over himself. Then, he noticed as flakes began to appear at the edges of his shoulders and torso. To his shock, he realized his body was slowly being disintegrated.

    "Rider!" he shouted. "Is it ready yet?"

    The grey beast landed alongside Dante, its rider calm.

    "It has been ready for some time, my lord," Rider said. "This building's foundations have proven themselves sturdier than expected. I suspected it may need a bit of a jostle."

    Dante smiled.

    "Well, what are you waiting for then?" he said. "Do it, Rider."

    "My lord, I believe the plan was for us to retreat before-"

    "I said, do it." Dante commanded. "That's an order."

    Katja noticed as Assassin growled slightly under his breath. Rider, looking as though he would protest, sighs and nods.

    "Very well," Rider said, acquiescing. Then, he thrust his spear downwards.

    "Surus Fil!" he shouted.

    The grey beast let out a mighty roar and its size began to expand rapidly. Rider rolled off the creature's back just before it hit the ceiling. As the entire room shook violently, large cracks began to appear all across the room. At the same time, everyone else in the room suddenly came to the same horrifying realization. Time slowed down as the officer began shouting and the Silver Knight knelt down towards the boy. Dantes began laughing like a maniac in the middle of the room, reveling in the madness of the situation. Acting quickly, Assassin scooped up Katja in his arms and leapt off the vertical guard station onto the remains of the upper metal platform.

    "It's time to leave," Assassin said.

    "Put me down! I can run on my own!" Katja complained, struggling about in his arms.

    "Too slow. I can't afford to humor you this time," Assassin said.

    Assassin made a mad dash down the hallway as the shaking became more intense. Behind them, the thunderous roaring seemed to grow in volume even as it receded, making Katja wonder just how big the creature could get. A rumble ran through the halls, then the ceiling began to cave in the ceiling behind them, creating an avalanche of rock and rubble that barreled its way towards them.

    "We're not going to make it!" Katja shouted.

    The hallway stretched on with no end in sight. Even as Assassin sprinted, the collapsing rock continued to increase in speed and magnitude. Then, the entrance appeared before them in the distance. Katja could see the doorway getting larger as they ran with all their might. Just then, the ceiling in front of them collapsed, cutting off their escape and trapping them between two cave-ins.

    There was no way out now.

    Katja briefly considered liquefying the surrounding area to prevent the inevitable crushing, but the sheer amount of mass on top of them would be far too much given her current Prana reserves. They were doomed. Katja felt her back hit the ground as Assassin lets go of her. Then, before Katja has a chance to speak, Assassin falls alongside her and in his hands is a large rectangular greatshield. He grits his teeth and places his knees behind the shield for support just as Katja's vision goes black. Katja closes her eyes, fully expecting to feel a sharp pain. Then....nothing.

    One second goes by....

    Then two....

    Katja coughs. She opens her eyes and realizes she is still alive in a pitch-black hole. Beside her she can hear the straining voice of Assassin.

    "Assassin!" Katja says, "We're alive!"

    "Praise the gods," Assassin said through gritted teeth. "Now help me before that suddenly stops being the case."

    Katja gulped as she realized that Assassin was supporting the entire mass of rocks above them both with just his shield. She didn't know how long Assassin's strength would hold out, but she certainly didn't want to find out.

    "Oh...." Katja said sheepishly. "Um....right, let me see what I can do."

    Now that the mass of rock was being held in place, all Katja needed to do was liquify a small column near them and slip through it upwards. As she began weaving her spell, she wondered if she could even transport other people into her liquid stone.

    "Just go on through," Assassin said. "Then I'll follow in spirit form."

    Katja smacked herself in the head. The impact of the rocks must've rattled her brains. As soon as the rock above turned liquid, it began to pour downwards. Doing her best not to cover Assassin with it, Katja began dragging herself out and through the rubble towards the surface. When she emerged on the other side, she found herself on a flattened pile of rocks elevated about fifteen meters above the ground. Her Prana reserves hadn't fully recovered from her exercises and her whole body felt sore. She laid on the rocks looking up at the moon, which now brightly lit the sky, waiting for Assassin to come back, when a tall shadow approached her.

    "Took you long enough," Katja said, leaning her head back. "Can I be the first to say that this whole experience has soured me on dudes in armor? I just want to go back now."

    "Hmm, what an odd assertion," spoke a voice that most certainly did not belong to Assassin. "That makes me sad to hear, my dear child. But not as sad as I am to see you here."

    Katja's blood went cold as she heard the sounds of shifting metal. She looked up and was met with Dante's gold and silver blade.

    "A-aha...." Katja said, trying not to scream or burst out crying. "I-I thought you were someone else. I...uh, I didn't mean that."

    Dante looked down at her. He did not wear a helmet, so Katja could see his face in the moonlight.

    "Indeed," he said, shaking his head. "I had hoped that one as innocuous as yourself would not have been a wolf in sheep's clothing. But it would appear that the corruption that seeps through this rotten country extends even to the freshest leaves."

    Katja wanted to run. She wanted more than anything to get as far away from this man as quickly as possible, that was what her instincts told her. But the hand that held the blade was steady, Dante's pose neutral. It was as though he was silently daring Katja to move. She didn't dare.

    "Corruption?" Katja asked, hoping to stall for time. "I'm not sure what you mean. Sure, we're a little poor here, but people are good to each other."

    "No, no, no, my dear child," Dante said in a patronizing tone that irritated Katja. "While living in a savage, edenic paradise is peaceful, those who know not the Holy Scripture are doomed to forever repeat sin. It's the nature of man."

    "Wait, are you serious?" Katja asked, baffled. "Are you actually implying that without Christianity, we're doomed to be terrible? That's ridiculous!"

    "I am not implying such, I am stating it outright, my dear child," Dante said. "A lack of sin is not the same as a transcendence of it. Without proper moral foundation in God, no good behavior has any meaning behind it. It is why we baptise our youth. Without God's forgiveness, humankind is born into sin."

    Katja bit her lip. He was wrong, she just knew it. She couldn't explain how or why, this man clearly has experience in debating this, but Katja just couldn't accept the man's statements as truth. An act of morality should not gain or lose meaning simply because someone or something else says it does. Katja refused to accept that reality.

    Then, the ground some distance away from Katja erupted and the grey beast emerged from the rubble. Also stepping from it was Rider, who was covered in dust and rubble, but otherwise relatively unharmed. Dante looked down at Katja, his brow furrowed.

    "Well, it appears that the time I spend humoring you has come to its conclusion," he said. "You are a bright child, I can see that in your passion and tenacity, which is why this will be painful for me as well."

    He raised his sword up in the air.

    "While it is unlikely to occur, I will pray that your soul reaches the Gates of Heaven at the end of days. Farewell, misguided one."

    When Katja looked up, she expected to see the face of a solemn man, someone who performed evil acts because it was for his cause, not to cause suffering. But the face she looked upon in that moment sent a wave of cold fear down her spine. What Katja saw in that instant, was the face of a reveler, a gleeful, murderous joy unable to be suppressed in the moment before the kill. Katja closed her eyes, but before the strike lands, Dante's blade is caught by the end of a spear. Katja looks up and sees Assassin standing against Dante. With a quick movement, he knocks the sword away from the armored warrior. Assassin stands tall against the enemy, but his eyes are not focused on Dante, but on the Rider.

    "That we would face each other on the battlefield once more is proof that the gods indeed watch over us," Assassin said, his expression hard. "Would you not say, Hannibal of Carthage?"

    Rider stepped forward and stood face to face with Assassin. Though Assassin was the taller of the two, Rider stood with an unmistakable confidence and poise that made him appear equal in stature. From the ground, Katja had difficulty making out his expression, but Katja could barely see the hint of a grin beneath the older man's beard.

    "Hmph, you Romans never knew when to call it quits," he said. "With your entire civilization crushed and gone, do you even have a reason to be here, old Fabius?"

    "I do not fight for Rome in this war, I fight only for myself and my Master."

    Rider narrowed his eyes.

    "That you would show your face now of all times means that you must already be confident of victory. What schemes are you plotting, Fabius?"

    "Ha! To be called a schemer by you of all people is both an honor and an insult," Assassin said before pointing his spear at Rider. "Are you willing to test me tonight, Carthaginian?"

    In the midst of this conversation, Dante had taken to listening to the two men banter with a mild degree of amusement. Though he appeared outwardly relaxed, Katja could tell that the man's whole body was tense, like a predator waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Dante's eyes were locked on Assassin, studying him for a single moment of vulnerability, and Katja decided that this would be the best time to act. While the two men bantered, Katja touched her pouch with her right hand. Then, using the uneven rubble to shield the light of her magic crest, Katja felt the inside of her pouch. One of the golden ants was broken, but the other was thankfully intact. Katja liquified the intact ant and had it flow out of the pouch like a golden earthworm. With as much focus as she could muster, Katja guided the golden globule of matter beneath the gaps in the rubble and towards the ground where Dante stood. Then upon making contact with the bottom of Dante's foot, Katja had it slither along the outer plate of Dante's greaves until it nestled itself into a small crevice in his armor. When Katja relaxed the liquefaction, the ant regained its form, securely fastened to the man's leg. Unfortunately, when she realized her spell, she exhaled a little too loudly and both Dante and Rider's heads snapped down to look at her. Katja quickly covered her mouth and tried to look as non-threatening as possible. Rider, seeing no immediate threat, looked back at Assassin.

    "It would seem that in this war, I am not the one with the Master who is lacking this time," Rider said, indicating towards Katja.

    Katja wanted to protest this assessment, but she was being compared to the large, armored man with a flaming broadsword, so Katja bit her tongue. Assassin, however, chuckled at Rider's words.

    "On the contrary," Assassin said. "I couldn't have asked for a better Master. It would be unwise to judge her as inadequate so hastily."

    Rider uncrossed his arms.

    "That remains to be seen..." he said, then placed his hands on his weapon.

    "You intend to fight then?" Assassin said, smiling. "Knowing full well that I placed every variable under my control, you still intend to fight?"

    "Doubtless this may be one of your schemes," Rider said, his voice calm. "But my instincts tell me to press forward. As far as I see it, we hold the advantage here."

    "Katja," Assassin's voice suddenly appeared in Katja's head. "On my signal, turn the ground around them into water."

    "Wait, what?" Katja said, trying to keep the confusion off her face.

    "Hah!" Assassin exclaimed. "Advantage? Your mind is still stuck in the world of mortals, my old foe!"

    In a dramatic sweeping gesture, Assassin spun and slammed his lance into the ground, shouting some Latin phrase that Katja didn't understand.

    "Now!" Assassin said in his mind.

    Katja squeezed her hand and let out all of her remaining Prana in a wide burst that caused the entire area in front of Assassin to explode into muddy paste. Dante cursed and began falling in, too far away to reach a foot or handhold. Katja rolled backways and onto her feet behind Assassin just as the great shadow of the gray beast stormed forwards and allowed Rider to hop onto its back before he could fall in. The beast then allowed Dante to grab onto its body and climb out of the pit, everything below his lower torso covered in muddy stone. Katja, trying her best not to let her exhaustion show to maintain the bluff, then released her Second Accordance, causing Dante's body to be encased in a thin layer of stone.

    "I see," Dante said, tearing his arm free from the stone with minimal effort. "So, the disturbance that prevented me from finishing off the demonic child was you, Servant!"

    Assassin grinned and pointed his spear at the pair, who were now separated from Katja and Assassin by a five-meter-wide pit of liquid stone.

    "Absolute control over the battlefield," Assassin said with exaggerated bravado. "Do you still think you have the advantage in this terrain, Rider?"

    A silence hung in the air for a moment, and Katja's breath was caught in her throat, waiting to see the outcome of Assassin's bluff. Rider eyed Assassin suspiciously, then looked around the rubble-filled terrain, innumerable scenarios likely playing in his head. Then, as he inhaled, he growled with unhidden frustration.

    "Lancer-class, eh?" Rider said. "I wasn't aware you had the fame for that."

    Assassin grinned and spun his spear skillfully.

    "Admittedly, it's not my strongest class," Assassin said, shrugging slightly. "But my skills are the real deal. So I repeat my question to you, Hannibal Barca: Are you willing to test me?"

    Rider looked at Assassin as one might look at a fox that had stolen away his prized rooster. His iron-like gaze took in everything, every possibility and stratagem. Then, he exhaled.

    "Master," he said, slowly. "I believe it would be best to retreat for now."

    Dante looked at Rider, incredulous.

    "You mean to allow these sinners to go free‽" he demanded. "I refuse to comply with the threats of cowards and charlatans!"

    Dante grasped his broadsword with both hands and hefted it onto his shoulder.

    "Tonight, you will learn what it means to face an emissary of the Almighty!" he bellowed.

    His sword began to erupt in flames and Katja saw a single bead of sweat beginning to form on Assassin's temple. Before Dante could charge, however, Rider stepped in front of him and blocked his path with his spear.

    "My lord," he said through gritted teeth. "I implore you to listen to what I have to say."

    Dante glared at Rider, his eyes filled with murderous rage.

    "Rider," he murmured, his voice low and barely controlled. "Are you standing against the righteous will of God?"

    "My lord," Rider said, his eyes never leaving Assassin. "The enemy has shown the ability to manipulate the very ground we stand on. Surely your god would not wish for you to fall here."

    "Foolish words!" Dante shouted. "Those are the words of a nonbeliever! The faithful shall be rewarded with promised victory. It is providence granted by God!"

    "If your god would promise you victory," Rider reasoned patiently. "Surely there would be a sign of your blessing? Surely your god would not wish for you to purposefully fail?"

    "You know not the scripture, Rider. I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause, who does great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number."

    "I would hope that your god keeps his chosen safe," Rider said. "Should we retreat now, I solemnly swear to guide you to a fair and righteous victory. We simply need more time to regroup and recuperate. We know not their tricks."

    Dante looked at the ground, his shoulders shaking with barely withheld rage. He took a moment to steady his breath, reining in his fury and calming down somewhat.

    "Do not forget your place in this holy conflict, Rider," he said in a low voice. "Your strength has been called here to assist in the reclamation of our land and our faithful, but your right to make decisions about the world ended with your death and purgatory."

    He glared at Katja and Assassin.

    "I hope you spend your brief reprieve praying for your own salvation. A turn even at the point of death will still warrant the ascension of your souls."

    Dante stood upright and turned around, his cape flowing in the night wind. Rider placed his hand on his grey beast, which dissipated into grey and white dust. Rider looked upon Assassin, who stood tall even under the threats of Dante, and nodded slowly. The look upon his face reflected a mixture of emotions, ranging from frustration, to solemnity, and possibly even the slightest hint of expectation. Then, the two of them were gone, and it was just Assassin and Katja standing in the field of rubble. Katja fell backwards and sat on a rock, exhaling.

    "I thought we were so dead...." Katja moaned, mentally drained.

    Assassin chuckled.

    "Haha, I'm glad you were able to adapt to my bluff so quickly, Katja," Assassin said, though his body did not relax just yet.

    "Please never do that again," Katja said, glaring up at Assassin. "I thought I was going to faint!"

    "I'm afraid that deception is just another aspect of war," Assassin said, unrepentant. "This will be far from the last trick we will pull to win out in the battles to come."

    Assassin motioned that it was time to leave, and they began their descent down the rubble pile. When they got to the bottom, they found themselves standing before a massive spherical pit that had been carved from the rubble. Katja wanted to take a closer look at the hollowed-out space. What kind of object or being could cut something so cleanly? But as she stepped closer to inspect the entrance, Assassin placed his arm out, blocking her way.

    "Come out, knight," Assassin said, directing his voice into the darkness of the entryway. "You cannot mask your presence from us."

    The sound of shifting metal accompanied the form of the Silver Knight as she stepped forwards and faced Katja and Assassin. Though the armor appeared slightly dented from the knight's earlier duel with Rider, the knight appeared otherwise unharmed, if a bit dusty.

    "You...." the Silver Knight said. "Are not a presence I recognize. An enemy Servant come to finish the job, are you?"

    The Silver Knight stood with her gauntlets outstretched, like claws ready to tear into hide. Neither side made any moves, but both sides were ready to retaliate at a moment's notice. Assassin smiled.

    "That depends on the will of my Master," he said, never taking his eyes off the knight. "I could detect that your presence had not left, even though you had ample opportunity to do so. I simply wished to see the situation for myself, whether we capitalize on this moment is up to my Master."

    The Silver Knight turned her head towards Katja, looking at her for a few moments. Then, her body seemed to relax somewhat. She slackened her clawed hands and reached for her helmet. When the knight's helmet came off, Katja was met with the sight of a young woman with short grey hair. Her features were graceful in a wild sort of manner, a ferality that highlighted the beauty and danger of nature itself. Her eyes were sharp, like a hunter, though she currently wore a softened expression.

    "That scent," the knight said. "It would appear that I owe you my gratitude. It was faint, but the moment before I thought my Master would be struck down, you intervened..."

    Assassin shot her a look, which caused Katja to wince slightly. The look was not one of anger or judgement, more a kind of exasperated acceptance. Katja did her best to not let her discomfort show and rubbed her hands together for warmth.

    "H-how did you guess?" Katja asked awkwardly. "I thought I was being subtle about that..."

    The knight's lips curled upwards into an amused smile, though not one of condescension.

    "Let's just say I have an inclination for sniffing out hopeless individuals," she said, though not unkindly. "I'll tell it to you straight then. I'm here because my Master is currently recovering from having a building dropped on him. It'll be a while before we can move again."

    Her eyes drifted towards Assassin, as if daring him to challenge her.

    "That's the situation I'm in. It's a free meal for you guys," she said. "That is, if you're able to get past me."

    The knight released a wave of magical energy that caused Katja to stumble back and the area around them to rumble. She could feel that this, while certainly being a show of force, was also not an idle threat. This Servant was powerful, of that Katja was certain. Assassin stood vigilantly against the knight, his body poised as if he were saying: 'Just give the order, Master'.

    Katja looked past the knight and into the darkness of the pit beyond. Using reinforcement on her eyes, Katja could vaguely make out two humanoid outlines, one smaller and one larger. Both were laying down, unmoving. While Assassin didn't say anything, their spirit link allowed Katja to understand how he felt, to an extent. A mass of thoughts littered the edges of her mind. Thoughts about the risk/reward payoff, about how easy it would be to finish off a weakened rival, about dealing with the fact that Katja was actively sabotaging their war effort. Wait, what was that last one?

    Katja took a deep breath.

    "No, we didn't come here tonight to make enemies," Katja said. "We're not about to pick more fights than we can handle."

    Assassin stood upright from his tensed position and stood next to Katja.

    "Well, you heard her," Assassin said. "I guess you're safe for now."

    The knight also seemed to relax, though Katja got the impression that neither side was actually dropping their guard.

    "So it would seem," the Silver Knight said.

    Assassin sighed and rested his lance on his shoulders.

    "Alright, I guess we should be off," Assassin said. "Come on, Master, let's go."

    Katja turned to follow Assassin, but before she turned away from the Silver Knight, she gave a sort of awkward wave.

    "Uh....I guess, see you around?" Katja said, immediately feeling silly for even bothering. The knight, however, chuckled.

    "Wait," she said.

    Katja stopped. The knight stepped forward and Assassin moved in front of Katja in a flash, but the knight raised both arms.

    "Regardless of what happened tonight," she said, smiling. "We'll still be enemies. However, that doesn't change the fact we owe you guys one for this. So thanks for that. We'll be sure to remember it."

    Katja wasn't sure how to respond, so she just nodded.

    "Uh....no problem, Miss knight" Katja said.

    The knight smiled.

    "Call me " she said. "Just so you don't walk away completely empty handed."

    Katja smiled back. She didn't really know why, but she liked this person, even if they were an enemy. They seemed strangely reliable and straightforward, unlike a certain Roman....

    Assassin cleared his throat and Katja snapped to attention.

    "R-right, no problem, Saber," Katja said, and followed Assassin into the forest. After walking some distance, Assassin led them to a tunnel that appeared strangely out of place in the snowy taiga landscape. When they stepped inside, the air was humid and warm, with familiar labyrinthian runes and murals along the walls. Behind them, the entrance of the tunnel was slowly coated in mist before being replaced with a flat wall of stone.





    --

    Day 3: Why We Fight


    The moment the entrance closed, Assassin sighed and leaned against the wall.

    "I swear, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you weren't taking this war particularly seriously," Assassin said, giving Katja a withering look. "Not only did you spare a weakened enemy, you actively sabotaged another Master's attempts to win the fight? What were you thinking, Katja?"

    "I...well, uh, I didn't realize that the fights in the war would be so....deadly. I panicked, okay?" Katja said, weakly defending herself.

    "And what will you do if that very Master will be the one that kills you later in this war?" Assassin pressed.

    "A life was going to be taken right in front of me!" Katja argued. "Did you expect me to just sit there and watch that?"

    "Everyone who has chosen to participate in this war must accept that death can strike at any moment! You must accept that lives will be lost in this war, Katja!" Assassin said flatly,

    "I don't have a decade of battlefield experience, Assassin," Katja snapped. "Just because I know I'm fighting a war doesn't immediately make me okay with watching people die!"

    "Well wars aren't won with sentimentality, Katja. I know it's a hard truth to accept, but you cannot do what you did tonight again. Even if you saved the boy, would you have also saved that psychotic knight? In order for one side to win, the other side has to die."

    Katja grit her teeth. She didn't know how to argue with Assassin. He was clearly a well-versed orator and was able to see the logical flaws in whatever Katja could say to shut her down. It was true that she didn't have some grand plan when she did what she did, but it felt right at the time, and that was what mattered to her.

    "I apologize if I am interrupting something here," a voice said. "But there is important business we should attend to."

    Both of them looked down the hallway and saw Galatea standing there with her arms crossed. Assassin stood up from the wall.

    "Galatea, I trust you managed to collect some good data?" Assassin said.

    Galatea smiled and began walking away.

    "We certainly have much to discuss," she said. "Come, let us return to the command room for now. Katja looks as though she's ready to faint at any moment."

    Katja hadn't realized just how long she had been running on fumes, but the moment Galatea said that, a wave of exhaustion swept over Katja and Assassin had to catch her to stop her from falling over. Assassin pursed his lip guiltily.

    "I was harsh earlier," he said, putting Katja's arm on his shoulders. "We'll talk about this later. For now, let's get you seated."

    Katja was too tired to reply, so she simply nodded as Assassin helped her towards the command room. When they arrived at the monitor table, Katja fell backwards onto the chair and had to actively resist the sleepiness that was threatening to overcome her eyes. Galatea stood in front of the wall monitor and had Caster display several images.

    "Katja, Assassin," Galatea said. "Excellent work tonight. Admittedly, I had my doubts about your ability to perform under intense danger, but you both have met my expectations splendidly. Thanks to you two, we can begin gathering intelligence on an extremely dangerous foe. But before that, please give us your field report."

    Assassin nodded, though he looked at Katja, confused.

    "Uuuh," Katja tried to say, her head fuzzy. "I slipped the ant thing into Dante's boot while you were talking to Rider."

    Assassin broke out into a wide grin and clapped Katja on the shoulders.

    "Well done! An impressive way to take advantage of the enemy's distraction, Katja!" Assassin said.

    "I'm sorry," Galatea said, her eyes narrowing. "Did you perhaps meet an acquaintance of yours out there?"

    "O-oh," Katja said, "Well, he's not really an acquaintance, more of an enemy. It was the Master of Rider. I met him a few days ago and he introduced himself to me as Dante....umm....Svi-Svenheid? Svinhein? He had a flaming sword and a bunch of crosses all over his armor."

    Galatea's expression stiffened at that.

    "Caster," Galatea said. "Run a scan on the Prana signature from the ant and cross-reference it with all active agents of the Holy Church."

    "Already on it, Master," Caster said, his hands already on the keyboard. "Whoa, that's....an extensive career history."

    "Show me," Galatea said, and Caster took the data and threw it up on the wall monitor. A series of images of Dante, many depicting a much younger Dante, appeared on the screen.

    "Dante Svidheim Faarlithe," Caster said. "Officially inducted into the Assembly of the Eight Sacrament at the age of fifteen. He was an orphan that the church took in and trained as an agent of the church. He specializes in being a guard and escort for holy relics and important church figures. However, that's only the official narrative. In truth, he's apparently been all over the place, working as an Exorcist, then Executor, then Eight Sacrament. However, the last record of activity under his name is associated with these guys."

    Caster indicated to the symbol of a red and white cross that was the same length on all sides.

    "The Order of the Knights Templar, whatever the heck that means." he finished.

    Galatea cleared her throat.

    "The Knights Templar is an entity that exists linked to but separate from the Holy Church proper. They're a group of zealous, vainglorious fools whose minds still exist in the 12th century. In their minds, the Crusades never ended, and that all land that belongs to God must be fought for to cleanse it of pagan sin."

    Galatea shook her head.

    "To put it simply, if the Holy Church has sent him, then it means they very clearly do not care about collateral damage in this war. This man is dangerous, though I suspect that you have found that out for yourself."

    Katja tilted head to the side.

    "Wait," Katja said deliriously. "What the heck are executors and stuff? And why is the Christian church training guys like Dante? I thought Christianity was about peace and love?"

    Katja looked around, and both Assassin and Caster shrugged noncommittally.

    "Don't look at us," Caster said. "We don't know the first thing about Christianity. We were dead long before that time."

    "The Holy Church," Galatea said. "And the Christian Church as a whole are two distinct, but not separate entities. The Holy Church is a militaristic branch of magi from the Christian Church whose sole purpose is to carry about the will of the Christian Church that many would find distasteful. This includes everything from the punishment of heretics to the reclamation of lost relics. They've been the greatest enemy of the Mage's Association for centuries."

    Katja sat up, startled.

    "Wait, when you say 'punishing heretics', you don't mean murder do you?" Katja asked.

    "Ha!" Galatea scoffed. "Murder, torture, imprisonment, experimentation, nothing is off limits."

    "B-but doesn't that go against everything the Church should stand for? How can people allow this?" Katja asked.

    Galatea placed a hand on Katja's shoulder, her expression genuinely tender.

    "Katja," Galatea said. "You are still young. There is much in this world that you have yet to see and accept. The sad reality of the world of Magecraft is that atrocities are far more commonplace than you could ever imagine. We mages have the laws of reality and common sense essentially at our fingertips, and we have grown to crave that knowledge. To both preserve and accumulate such power, the boundaries of morality that honest people live by are nothing more than obstacles to be overcome. I'm sorry if that is a truth that alarms you, truly."

    Everything she had known about Christianity, which albeit was not much, screamed that the Holy Church, as Galatea described it, was an entity that shouldn't exist. Is this....is this the world that Katja had stepped into?

    "You sound so unbothered by this," Katja said to Galatea. "Why?"

    Galatea looked down and placed a hand on Katja's head, making it impossible to see her face. The hand felt warm to the touch, a pleasant and comfortable feeling, like sitting next to a warm fireplace after a long winter night...

    "Because," Galatea said in a low voice. "We aren't much better."

    Galatea walked slowly around the table monitor, which showed the 3-d projection of Polnoch.

    "Assassin," Galatea said. "Please present your field report."

    "Of course," Assassin said, his language formal and militaristic. "We successfully infiltrated the military compound and encountered two enemy Servants and Masters. The Saber Servant was a human female with grey hair donned in silver armor, and her Master appears to be a young boy with white hair. The Master of Rider is this Dante individual that we have encountered previously, and we have confirmed that the identity of the Rider class Servant is none other than Hannibal Barca."

    Galatea raised an eyebrow at that report, and asked Assassin a few more questions, listening closely as Assassin detailed out the observed fighting styles and abilities that they had seen in the bunker.

    "That reminds me," Katja mumbled. "I thought Hannibal rode an elephant, what the heck was that thing he was riding back there? If that was an elephant, then picture books have lied to me."

    She was exhausted, so much so that her words barely came out as murmurs. Still, the sight of that massive behemoth stood out in her mind.

    "Thing?" Galatea asked. "What did you see? I had assumed that the heroic spirit of Hannibal Barca would indeed ride on an elephant."

    "Well, it had a trunk and tusks," Katja noted. "But its form was larger than an elephant, reptilian with a thick hide and sharp teeth. What's up with that?"

    "It is difficult to draw conclusions," Galatea said, stroking her chin. "From what little I understand about the process by which heroic spirits gain noble phantasms, contributions from both fact and myth play a role in determining such abilities. Perhaps it relates to some tale of Hannibal's."

    "Ah, then I may be able to proffer an explanation," Assassin said. "Based on that conjecture, we can assume that the beast he rides on fills in the same role an elephant would have performed back in the ancient times. But nowadays, elephants are so common that they're normal. The tales of the massive grey beasts that terrified Roman soldiers just wouldn't live up to expectations if he rode in on a normal elephant, regardless of any increases in size and strength. The mount of Hannibal Barca should be monstrous, alien, and terrifying, no matter the age. That's my theory, anyways."

    "No, if the creature you had seen can be described as monstrous, then perhaps there is some validity to such a thought," Galatea remarked, nodding. "The weapons and appearances of heroic spirits are often somewhat enhanced from their actual lives, so it is not a large leap in logic to assume that the same can be said for a Servant's associated materials such as mounts."

    The topic was allowed to hang in the air for a few moments, punctuated only by the sound of soft breathing.

    "Well regardless, thank you for your report Assassin," Galatea said, clearing her throat. "With this, we can now study our enemies for patterns and weaknesses, allowing us to formulate a plan of attack. However...."

    Galatea glanced over at Katja. Not long after Assassin had given Galatea his report, Katja had fallen fast asleep and was snoozing peacefully in the chair.

    "Perhaps it would be best to discuss the rest in the morning."

    Assassin also looked at the young mage whose body and mind had shut down completely from a long day's battle. Though Assassin liked giving her a hard time, even he had to admit that the tenacity and vigor that Katja had shown over these past few days had been nothing short of remarkable. He grinned as he gently picked up her sleeping body.

    "Good night, Master," Assassin said. "For your sake, I hope your dreams are more believable than reality."





    Day 3 End
    Last edited by Sanrei; June 10th, 2021 at 04:14 AM.

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    Day 4: Aesthetic Appreciation


    The man stood atop the hill overlooking a field of corpses. Mountains upon mountains of good young men now to be nothing more than carrion. Too many to burn, let alone bury. Someone came up to the man and addressed him.

    "Sir, we've found no traces of him. He must have fled the area not long after the battle."

    The man nodded.

    "Thank you, Marcu-"

    The man paused.

    That was right. Marcus Minucius was dead. No doubt his body laid out in that field somewhere, just another corpse to be picked over. The man turned to see who had addressed him. It was a young man, just a runner, but in a different life, this young man could have been a soldier just like all of the other dead men.

    "Thank you," the man said. "That will be all."

    "Umm....sir?" the runner said, looking at the man hesitantly.

    "Yes?"

    "Does....does this mean the war is over? Have we lost?"

    The tone of the runner's voice was frail, like a statue on the verge of collapsing. Looking out over the field of the dead, it was easy to see why. Nearly one-fifth of the male population of Rome, that was the cost that had been paid in this war. So many lives lost, and yet victory had never felt so distant. The man couldn't help but clench his teeth as he thought of the arrogance of the men who threw these soldiers away like dirt. The fools! In order to sate their own ego, they threw recruits into the abyss. Of course their foe knew of this weakness, and thus baited them, played them like instruments then cut them down when they served their purpose.

    The man sat down on the grassy hill. In times like this, when there was too much sensory input, the man liked to sit quietly and think. In the past, his mind thought faster than his mouth could speak, so he chose silence of speech. As he grew in wisdom, so too did he grow in confidence. The days when people called him dull had passed. Now, they could not understand him for a different reason.

    "What's your name, young man?" the man asked the runner, gesturing for him to sit. The young man stiffened and gave the man a formal salute, not noticing the invitation.

    "M-my name is Marcus Lucilius Vespasianus, sir!" he said loudly.

    The man sighed. Once, there was a time when the man was welcome around hearty meal fires to eat and drink with the common soldiery. That time had long since passed, and the man could nary address someone without them falling over themselves.

    "I can't say I recognize the name, Marcus," the man said, smiling. "Are you new?"

    "Y-yes sir!" Marcus replied. "Just three days ago, sir! I joined the cavalry unit under the command of Publius Maximus, sir!"

    "Cavalry, eh? That's not an enviable position, especially now of all times. What compelled you to join?" the man asked.

    "T-there's nothing more honorable than fighting during Rome's time of need, sir! There's nowhere else I'd rather be!"

    The man studied Marcus for a few moments before standing up.

    "Vespasianus, eh?" the man said. "You wouldn't happen to be familiar with Titus Vespasianus would you?"

    "Y-yes, sir, he's my uncle!" Marcus said, his eyes lighting up. "I've very much admired him and wanted to follow in his footsteps. That's why I-"

    Marcus froze as he realized he had dropped his formal tone. He then held up a salute. Before he could say anything, however, the man chuckled.

    "Ah yes, I knew Titus well," the man said. "We were in the same cohort together many years ago."
    "Y-you were?" Marcus asked curiously.

    The man nodded.

    "That's right, we shared many a hearty meal over a roaring flame," the man said fondly. "Does he still drink his wine like a drowning fish?"

    Marcus laughed.

    "Ahaha! You'd think Bacchus himself had descended seeing him at dinner parties!" Marcus said excitedly. "One time, he got so drunk that he actually thought he was and began declaring parts of the home as sections of Rome!"

    Both of them shared a good laugh at that.

    "It sounds to me like he's been doing well for himself," the man said. "Send him my regards, if you could."

    Marcus nodded; his earlier tension gone.

    "Of course, sir!" he said. "It fills me with pride knowing that my uncle was connected to such a great man!"

    "Greatness only occurs in hindsight," the man said. "You'd do well to remember that. I think I've kept you long enough, you should be off, lest you get a reprimand from your commander."

    Marcus gave a confident salute.

    "Yes, sir!" he said and began walking off.

    "Oh, and one more thing," the man said, causing Marcus to turn. "You asked if we had lost the war, yes?"

    "Uh....yes sir!"

    "Do you consider yourself a proud Roman?" the man asked.

    "Absolutely, sir! And I would swear that upon Jupiter's Throne itself!"

    "Do you trust your fellow Romans?"

    "Absolutely, sir!"

    "And the Senate?"

    "Absolutely, sir!"

    "What about me?"

    "S-sir?"

    "Do you trust me? And my leadership?"

    Marcus saluted once more; the man honestly wondered if he had ever done that so often in his youth.

    "You are the great Shield of Rome, sir!" he said emphatically. "I would trust you with my life, sir!"

    The man smiled and placed a hand on Marcus's shoulder.

    "As someone who knew your uncle, I am compelled to tell you to value your life. I am compelled to tell you that if you ever find yourself being given a foolish order to march to your death, you should choose to live. However, each soldier must do their part, otherwise there wouldn't be a Rome to protect. So, I will not tell you any of that. Instead, I simply pray that the fates will continue to favor us, even in these dark times."

    The man clapped him on the shoulders and then walked off.

    And that was the first and last conversation the two of them ever shared.

    --

    Katja immediately sat up. She quickly looked around and found herself alone in that same room she had awoken in yesterday with a blanket over her body. She crawled out of bed, feeling like a dusty machine forced to operate after decades of inactivity. There had been a recent addition to the room since Katja's last visit here, a simple bathroom, basin and mirror had been placed in a small room that extended from Katja's own. Standing before the mirror, Katja gasped when she saw the disheveled figure that greeted her.

    Katja was never the type to care much for her appearance. It wasn't uncommon for Katja to be sent home early because she had forgotten to change out of her clay-covered apron from the night before. While there were some in Katja's class, especially those who came from well-off families, who liked to accent their appearances with imported Western beauty products, Katja felt that such endeavors were only a waste of her time. After all, what was even the point in maintaining one's appearance if it was nothing more than a deception anyways? But when Katja saw her appearance in the mirror, she could be forgiven for assuming that she had died, been buried, and then thrown onto the bed the night before. She ran her finger across her face and was shocked at how much dirt could accumulate on it after two nights of not washing. Her eyes were baggy and puffy from days of mounting stress, and her messy black hair was halfway between exploding outwards and twisting inwards. Her uniform as well was a sight to behold. It had never been the cleanest under her management at home, but part of the fabric, which was normally a glossy white, had been stained a dirty brown from all of the falling and tripping she had done over the last few days.

    Katja sighed and leaned her head against the mirror. When had her life spiraled so far out of control? She had always liked it when things were quiet and familiar, words that felt so laughable in her current situation that Katja wanted to burst into tears right then and there. Looking around the room to distract herself, Katja marveled at how the architecture of the room came together so naturally, despite having no consistency in anything but color and design. The way the doorways and corners curved was like standing in the gut of a serpent, a strange and alien feeling that somehow didn't disorient Katja. Off to the side was a large circular basin that appeared to be a bathing area of some sort. Stepping closer, Katja found lettering engraved into the stone floor that read:

    Control dials for water. Clothing can be washed in the container to the left.

    Katja turned and spotted a large green vase that was about as large as her torso with a wooden lip slightly off-center atop it. Painted onto the vase's surface was an image of tumbling storms with a large, bearded man holding a trident standing in the center of it. Peering inside the vase, Katja found a spherical metal contraption at the base of it. Approaching the bathing basin, Katja found two dials and a set of long metal tubes shaped in the form of a nine-headed serpentine creature. Turning each of the dials caused the serpents eyes to light up either blue or red, corresponding to the temperature of the water. In just a few minutes, the basin was filled with steaming hot water. Leaning over the water, Katja marveled at everything she saw like a child. Polnoch had never been large enough to warrant a bathhouse, so like every other resident in the village, Katja and her uncle would collect water from the nearby river and either heat it up with a stove or bathe in cold water. As she dipped her hand in the water, Katja wondered if these kinds of bathing basins were common elsewhere, or if this was some form of ancient Greek innovation that had been lost to time. The idea that there was so little she understood excited her in a way that was difficult for her to explain. Rather than mull on that feeling, however, Katja shrugged and decided that sitting and staring wasn't going to accomplish anything. As soon as the water was ready, Katja stood up and closed the bathroom door.

    --

    After finishing her bath and getting dressed, Katja stood in front of the mirror looking much better, almost human in fact. When she had closed the lid over the vase after putting her clothes inside, the sounds of rumbling and running water sounded from the vase for a few minutes. Then, after finishing her bath, Katja looked inside and found her clothes looking almost brand new, with a fragrant, herbal smell now attached to them. Lined along the smaller basin on the counter below the mirror were a variety of glass bottles and wooden toiletries that Katja hadn't noticed before. Likewise, when Katja was bathing, she found a series of labelled glass bottles filled with various soaps and shampoos which Katja enthusiastically used. Picking up the wooden comb, Katja began straightening out her hair. Because it was naturally curly, "under control" was more a hopeful ideal than any sort of realistic goal. Still, after a few minutes of trying, Katja felt that her appearance had at least become passable enough to where she could stand to be seen by others again. Before Katja left the room, she remembered to pick up her shoulder bag. Looking inside, Katja realized that they hadn't actually needed to use any of the items last night, meaning she should probably return them to Caster if at all possible.

    Stepping out of her room, Katja was careful this time not to go tumbling off the edge. Assassin had yet to appear, so there'd be nobody to catch her if she went and did something stupid again. Looking down the familiar hallway to the right, Katja saw the red line that led towards the command room of Caster's Labyrinth. Looking out over the vast expanse of pathways, tunnels and bridges, however, Katja felt a tinge of sadness that she would never get to see the majority of it. She looked to her left and right. There didn't seem to be anyone else in the area. Letting her curiosity overcome her for just a moment, Katja started off down the pathway to her left. After walking that way for a few seconds, Katja looked out and a five-way split pathway suspended over a vast nothingness below. Each of the five paths looked completely identical, save for slight changes in elevation, width, and direction. It was fascinating to consider that while they all began from this same point, one may lead to an exit, another to a trap, and another still to a fearsome beast. Sighing and accepting that going any further would be foolish, Katja turned back and followed her original path back towards the command room. Unfortunately, when she stepped back into presumably the space that would lead to both her room and the hallway with the red thread, Katja found herself inside of a cylindrical tunnel with no open area in sight.

    As Katja paced backwards and forwards along the length of the hallway and back, she found her pace was becoming increasingly impatient. Each time Katja travelled from one location to another, she found that going back almost always led her to a new area, one that she had never seen before. To avoid panicking, Katja made sure to take deep breaths, resting her hand against the walls, at least when there were walls, whenever she felt lightheaded. In her mind, Katja was slapping herself in frustration. She had been given express warning by Galatea not to go wandering off in the Labyrinth, that following the string was the only path she should take. Why didn't she listen? Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

    Katja told herself to stay calm. Eventually. Galatea, Caster and Assassin would realize that Katja is missing and they'd find her and bring her back. She tried her best not to think about all of the stories of people starving to death while wandering in this maze. She especially tried not to think about what kind of horrible and violent monsters may be lurking in this place as security. Just as she began to lose herself in the mire of her own thoughts, she bumped headfirst into a stone wall. Rubbing her head in pain, Katja looked forwards and found herself facing not a wall, but a set of stone doors. Cautiously, Katja pried the doors open and snuck a look inside. The sight she found was one that reminded Katja of her own studio, it was that of a large stone room filled with statues and paintings. Stepping inside, Katja heard the sounds of chipping stone off in the corner of the room.

    "Ah, I see that Assassin was right after all," a voice said.

    Sitting next to the statue of a young man was Caster, dressed in his usual robes. He waved as Katja approached him.

    "Caster!" Katja said, breathing a sigh of relief at the sight of a familiar face. "I-....how did-"

    "We were warned," Caster said, placing his tools down. "That you have a tendency to ignore directions when left on your own. So, I put in some countermeasures in case you wandered off too far. I simply gave you a higher degree of access into the labyrinth, which pretty much makes it impossible not to find your destination."

    "I'm....not sure I understand what you mean," Katja said, stumbling backwards into a wooden chair.

    "It's quite simple really," Caster said. "Different individuals are granted different levels of authority over my Labyrinth, allowing those with higher access to control it to an extent. I'm sure you've heard of the Minotaur, yes? Well, he has one of the highest levels of access, allowing him not only to always know where he is, but also control the layout to some extent."

    "And what level did you give me?" Katja asked, nodding slowly.

    Caster chuckled.

    "Well, I thought it only fitting to give you the same level that Ariadne had," he said, grinning. "She was a nice young lady, just like yourself. Though perhaps she was a little taller.... Well regardless, your access allows you to find your destination after some time. You can't control anything, but so long as you think about where you want to go, you should find your way there eventually. I also set it so that you're allowed to wander around for a little while to reflect upon your actions. It's just a little practical joke of mine."

    Katja made a face at Caster.

    "You sure have a twisted sense of humor," she snapped, not appreciating the joke.

    "A lot of humor is inherently esoteric," Caster said, chuckling. "Still, I suppose I do owe you an apology for scaring you. Regardless, the fact that you have found yourself here means that you must have some business with me then."

    Katja thought about it for a moment, then snapped her fingers.

    "Oh right!" Katja exclaimed, reaching for her pouch. "I came to return the items you lent us."

    Before she could pull them out, however, Caster raised his hand.

    "Keep 'em," Caster said. "As a point of business, I never accept returned goods. One-hundred percent customer satisfaction, that's what I always promise. Besides, the war's far from over, so you may need them later."

    Nodding, Katja closed her pouch. Caster smiled and picked up his tools, returning to his work on the statue. As she watched him work, Katja started giggling. Caster paused and gave her a curious look.

    "What's so funny, young miss?" Caster asked. "You never seen a guy carve a statue before?"

    "No, it's not that," Katja said between laughs. "It's just....well, you're so different from how I knew you, Caster. Pfft. You're a lot weirder."

    Caster crossed his arms.

    "Well now, that comment seems a little uncalled for," he said, crossing his arms, though he didn't really look offended. "I may be different from how you may know me, but I don't feel that I deserve to be laughed at for that. What brought this on?"
    "It's just," Katja said. "You just feel....a lot more familiar than I thought you'd be."

    Caster didn't respond at that, though he signalled for Katja to continue.

    "I mean, you're a genius, right? Someone so famous that even a bumpkin like me knows who you are. I always thought that such people just thought differently from someone like me, that there was just something that made you guys special. But as it turns out, you're actually a pretty petty guy."

    "Can't say I love the phrasing of that," Caster said, smiling. "But I get your point. We geniuses are just like everybody else, at least in the ways that don't matter."

    Katja rolled her eyes.

    "You're not exactly helping your case," she said. "But still, I guess I expected you to be a bit more....I don't know....stoic? Worldly? You know, more of a silent genius type."
    "Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you," Caster said. "Sadly, I've never been the kind of person to shut up when people tell me to. People always seemed to have a problem with that. It's gotten me into a fair share of trouble, that's for sure."

    "Were you like this as an old man, too?" Katja asked.

    "In some ways, things got worse as I got older," he said, chuckling. "The less I had to lose, the less I cared what I said. Still, I suppose if there's any time that I'm quiet, it's when I'm working."

    Katja realized that the entire time they had been talking, Caster's hands never stopped moving. They worked almost like a machine, with precise movements that did not contain a hint of hesitation. Even as splinters of stone were carefully shaved away from the statue, the transition between art and stone was completely and utterly seamless. These were the workings of a true Master of their craft.

    Katja shifted her chair closer to Caster.

    "I-is it okay if I watch you work?" Katja asked hesitantly. "I-I also make statues and I was wondering if I could just observe you. Not that the things I call statues are necessarily the same thing that you call statues and-"

    "Young miss," Caster said, cutting off Katja's rambling. "You may do as you please, as long as you do not touch anything I'm using. I am more than used to having children around my workspace."

    Katja thought it better not to dignify that last remark with a response, so instead she just watched Caster work. The ease with which Caster was able to shape the stone was captivating to watch. Katja soon found herself in a trance as she slowly fell into the rhythm of creation that Caster was weaving. There was no magic being used, no Prana in the air. Through sheer skill, Caster was able to craft works that rivalled the gods, that was the extent of his genius. When he was done, the details on the statue were so lifelike, so precisely crafted, that Katja was worried the statue may hop off the pedestal and begin to walk. When Caster stepped back, Katja tentatively reached out towards the statue.

    "May I?" she asked.

    "Hmm? Oh, yes. Galatea told me about that thing you do." Caster said. "Go ahead."

    Katja placed her hand on the young man's shoulder. The statue wasn't life-sized, but even still, even the smallest details of the hair and face had been formed with perfect accuracy. Katja had to read the soul of this creation, to understand the spark that gave this statue life. She touched it, connecting the statue's origin to her Prana. And what she felt was....nothing.

    "Huh?" Katja said out loud.

    She looked into the creator's soul of the artwork, but there wasn't anything there. No will, no drive, no purpose. It was as though the statue was no more than a rock that happened to form into the shape of a statue. An empty void where art should have been.

    "I....I don't understand," Katja whispered, sinking to her knees, unable to fully comprehend the reality before her.

    She looked up at Caster.

    "What were you even thinking about when you made this? It's so perfectly made, but it's like there's nothing behind it at all...."

    Caster smiled and placed his hand on the statue's head.

    "So, you can tell that much just by touching it, huh?" Caster said. "Even Aphrodite couldn't tell that much. She had to read Pygmalion's heart directly. Though in fairness, she's not exactly an artistically minded soul, just an aesthetic one."

    "Is there a difference?" Katja said, confused.

    "Not for most people," Caster said, shaking his head. "But that's neither here nor there. I guess you're probably a bit confused by what you sensed."

    Katja nodded.

    "Well," Caster began. "The way that I like to make art is to remove myself entirely from the artistic process. Rather than weighing down my work with my own ego, I instead allow the work to stand on its own. It's not a very common practice, but it helps me remain neutral in my work. Does that help clear things up?"
    Katja hesitated for a moment, then nodded slowly. Caster smiled, then patted Katja on the head.

    "Good," he said. "Now then, my Master and Assassin should be in the command room. Shall we go see them?"
    "Yeah," Katja said, remembering that they were in the middle of a war. "We should probably do that."

    Caster put his tools away and the two of them began to walk towards the door. Like in almost every other room in this place, there was only one way in or out.

    "You know," Caster said as they walked. "At some point, I'd love to see your creative process. Perhaps there's something that I could learn from watching you as well."

    "What? Noooo...." Katja said, dismissing the notion. "I mean, that's impossible....right?"

    "Don't put yourself down so hastily," Caster said, wagging his finger. "The world is much too vast for any one man to truly know everything. So long as there exist differences between people, there can always be something to learn."

    "Now you sound like how I thought Daedalus would sound," Katja said, smirking. "I'm guessing you're the sort of teacher who acts all lazy but is secretly very passionate about their students?"

    Caster laughed.

    "Bold of you to assume that any students stuck around. Most last a week, maybe two at most. They don't have the spine for the way I teach, young miss. They think passion's all that matters, so they quit when things begin to look tough."

    "But you did have students, right?" Katja asked. "I mean, even if other students would quit, wouldn't your own so-"

    Caster froze mid-step. Katja cupped her mouth with her hands. She couldn't believe she mentioned something so sensitive. She got too lost in the conversation.

    "Aha," Caster said awkwardly. "Icarus uh.... he never really had a knack for craftsmanship. He always preferred running about and exploring to being stuck indoors...."

    "S-sorry about that...." Katja said, looking at the ground in shame.

    A silence hung between them until they reached the command room. Katja hoped that Caster wasn't mad about mentioning his son. Katja didn't really know how touchy Servants were about that sort of thing, but going by logic, it probably isn't a pleasant memory. She just hoped he wasn't mad about that.

    When they arrived in the command room, both Galatea and Assassin had their backs to the door and were facing the wall monitor. Both turned when Katja and Caster entered the room.

    "Ah Katja," Assassin said, grinning. "Someone's looking fancy this morning! I see you finally found the baths."

    "You know, because I'm in such a fine mood after that bath, I'm going to let that remark slide, mister," Katja said, rolling her eyes. "So, how're things looking outside, any news?"

    "Fortunately, not," Galatea said, shaking her head. "Most Masters tend not to act during daylight hours. We mages have strict laws regarding visibility, so the majority of any given Grail war will occur at night."

    Galatea turned back towards the screen.

    "Thanks to you, we're currently tracking the movements of Dante Faarlithe, and we'll soon get started on analyzing the nature of his Prana. As for the other Masters....well, let's just say that there are always traces, no matter how small. By finding specific clues, we could learn vital information, such as knowledge regarding their bases of operation and the like," Galatea said.

    "I could tell you where Shlykova's mansion is, if that helps," Katja said. "Knowing her, I doubt she'd make her base anywhere else."

    "Hmm, that's the Master of Archer, yes? You did mention you knew her," Galatea responded. Then she shook her head.

    "Thank you, Katja," Galatea said. "That information will certainly be helpful, but not presently. Attacking an archer-class Servant in a fortified location is almost as dangerous as doing the same with a caster-class. There are too many risks and unknowns to consider. Better to wait and ambush her on the move."

    Katja nodded.

    "So, I guess it's back to training then?" Katja said, sighing.

    "That's right, although this time, Assassin will be supervising, as I will be busy working with Caster to find traces of that Dante Faarlithe" Galatea said. "I have already given him the instructions you will follow."

    "Don't expect mercy just because I'm your Servant," Assassin said, grinning. "No then, no time to waste. Hop to it, Katja!"

    Assassin grabbed Katja by the shoulders and began marching her out of the room. As Katja began stretching to prepare for her physical exercises, she chatted with Assassin.

    "I just realized," Katja said, sitting down and attempting to touch her toes. "Where did you end up putting all of those statues we collected? It feels like it's been forever since we did that."

    "I managed to get them pretty close to your house," Assassin said, sitting cross legged some distance away from Katja. "But they kinda stopped moving after a while, so I just left them in a small clearing a few dozen meters away from your place."

    "Hmm, I guess they lose their animated qualities once I run out of Prana," Katja said, leaning backwards and forwards to stretch her front and back muscles. "That's probably useful to know. I haven't had much of a chance to experiment with my spells yet. Things have been kinda non-stop lately, haven't they?"

    "You said it," Assassin said, grinning. "It's been a great time."

    "I don't get how it's possible for you to have fun during all this."

    Assassin shrugged.

    "'Fun' is probably not the word I'd use to describe the feeling. It's more like a kind of.... . It's kinda hard to describe."

    "Try me."

    "Hmm, I guess to illustrate, have you ever been doing something, but then all of a sudden you get this gut-wrenching feeling of hopelessness? Like you realize you're wasting your life and there's something else you could be doing?"
    "Ha," Katja said, sarcastically. "That describes most of what I do, sadly."

    "Well, the feeling I get when I'm in a war, when I'm out there making decisions that put lives on the line and pit my wit against those of brilliant foes, that makes things feel....right. Like that's what I was born to do, you know?"
    "I....kinda get it," Katja said, nodding slowly. "That sounds really nice. I'm kinda jealous actually, that you have something like that."

    "How have you felt about this war then?" Assassin asked. "I know I kinda pushed you into this war early on, and I do kinda feel a little guilty about that. So, I should probably ask if you're enjoying yourself."

    "Is it right to enjoy something like this?" Katja asked. "I mean, people are risking their lives fighting for this holy Grail, right? I'm not sure how to feel about it."

    "Try to think out loud for a bit."

    "Hmm, I guess I did kinda get swept up in the moment when I summoned you and everything," Katja said, stroking her chin while she performed squats. "Since then, I've almost died, started working with an enemy Master under duress, and been forced into hiding. All things considered, I suppose I should be more upset."

    "Is....is that all you feel?" Assassin asked, raising an eyebrow.

    "At the moment," Katja replied, jogging in place. "We'll probably have to deal with Shlykova and Dante at some point, and I guess I'm a bit worried about that, but other than that..."

    Assassin cocked his head to one side.

    "You know Katja, sometimes you worry me more than the rest of the war combined."

    "What's that supposed to mean? I can't tell if I should be insulted."

    "No, I meant that seriously," Assassin said. "I suppose I don't have much of a right to say this, but I do worry about how little investment emotionally you seem to have in this affair. You seem to be taking things in stride remarkably, and I'm personally glad that's the case, but most normal people in your circumstances would have either broken down or quit long before this point."

    "I....uh, I'm going to need you to explain a bit more," Katja asked, stopping her exercises and turning to face Assassin.

    Assassin scratched his head and looked down at the ground.

    "Well.... I guess I'm just worried that you might not be feeling the right mix of emotions given what you've gone through...."

    Katja gave Assassin a blank look and Assassin held his head in his hands.

    "Argh, why is this so difficult?" he said, sighing. "No amount of military service could've prepared me for this conversation. Look. I can't explain it right now, but if you ever feel confused or distressed by anything, you let me know, okay? We Servants aren't just here to knock stuff around."

    "Um....okay, sure," Katja said, unsure of how better to respond. "Is....is there something wrong with me?"
    "What? Noooo....It's just, uh....I'm just talking in general terms," Assassin said, chuckling nervously.

    Katja gave Assassin a worried look. Even Katja, being the social caterpillar that she was, could tell that Assassin was hiding something. But she was never the type to press others for information, so if Assassin didn't feel like sharing, then Katja would just let it go.

    "Look, just promise me, alright," Assassin said, his eyes serious.

    Katja nodded slowly.

    "Good," Assassin said, smiling. "Now then, let's get back to warm-ups! I've trained plenty of fresh recruits in my day, but none have looked as sorry as you! So, let's get to it!"

    Over the course of the next few hours, Assassin listed off a list of exercises that Katja needed to perform, both physical and magical. Unlike Galatea however, who generally allowed Katja to work in relative peace as long as she was focusing, Assassin preferred to bark directions like a drill sergeant at Katja, taunting her at every corner and pushing her to go beyond her limits. Assassin came from the "piss-them-off-so-much-that-they-work-harder" school of encouragement and suffice to say that it was highly effective on Katja, perhaps too much so. Around an hour and a half into the training, Katja was ready to wring Assassin's neck, the only thing holding her back being her complete and utter exhaustion. While Assassin had once claimed that he was no spellcaster, he was certainly adept at teaching Magecraft. After seeing Katja go through a single iteration of her Magecraft exercise, he immediately figured out the intended purpose of the exercise as well as where Katja fell short. Though Katja found his style infuriating, Assassin nonetheless proved to be an extremely effective teacher, with Katja noticing marked improvements in practically all spheres. By the time 3 o'clock rolled around, Katja was lying on the ground, too tired to do anything but gasp for air.

    "You did great," Assassin said, crouching down and looking over Katja. "I must say it's refreshing not to be attacked with a spear after training the new recruits."

    "Haaah....I ain't....no recruit...." Katja gasped between breaths. "What's....next on....the list?"
    Assassin clapped his hands together.

    "That's the last of it," he said. "I must say, Katja, if you get used to these, you'll be a real asset on the battlefield. And that's not an empty compliment either."

    After sufficiently recovering, Katja heaved herself off the ground. Assassin offered her a hand, which she gladly accepted.

    "I admire your work ethic, Katja," Assassin said as Katja stumbled to her feet. "You managed to finish a rigorous training exercise without complaining once. Still, with the right strategy, you wouldn't need to expend even half this effort."

    Katja rolled her eyes.

    "You say that like it's easy to just come up with a strategy," she said. "Not everyone's a genius tactician, you know."

    "My dear Katja," Assassin said, wagging his finger. "I told you didn't I? 'Genius' is retrospective, as is 'greatness'. Strategy is actually simpler than you may think.

    "Oh? How so?"

    Assassin grinned.

    "The way I like to think of it is like a trick. Whenever anyone wants something, it's almost like they stop thinking straight when that thing is in sight. As long as you can know what that thing is, and they don't think you know, you can lead them around by the nose into every trap you set."

    "Is that what you did back at the bunker? When you lied to Rider about your powers?" Katja asked, though she already knew the answer.

    "I'm almost certain that Hanni-, er, Rider thinks along similar lines. Strategists aren't so complex when it comes down to it. Half of what makes us so smart is that we make everyone else dumber. I just made him overthink a little."

    "And what's the other half?"

    Assassin gave Katja a giddy grin.

    "Showmanship."

    Katja didn't feel like responding to that, but Assassin's words compelled Katja to stick her nose into her clothing. She took a sniff, then made a face.

    "I guess I'm going to have to take another bath...." Katja lamented.

    During training, Galatea had Katja wear special training clothes that were flexible and easy to move around in. Apparently, Caster made them according to Galatea's specifications, although how Caster knew Katja's sizes was a question Katja didn't want answered. Katja knew that she'd want to bathe again before changing into her regular clothes, and that's when a thought occurred to her.

    "Oh God," Katja said, horrified. "I haven't contacted my uncle for three days!"

    Assassin raised an eyebrow at this.

    "I mean, that's true, but what took you so long to come to this realization?"

    "I was just thinking about how I should probably grab some more sets of clothes back at home, and then I realized that I've been out for three whole days."
    "Truly, you are the model child of families everywhere," Assassin said, suppressing a chuckle.

    Katja slapped him lightly on the chest.

    "Why didn't you tell me? I get why I've been distracted, but why haven't you said anything?" she scolded.

    "I've been a functioning adult for decades," Assassin said, shrugging. "I haven't needed to tell my parents anything for a long time. So you can forgive my lapse in judgement."

    "Oh God, I am so dead," Katja said.

    Murderous classmates and psychotic zealots aside, the one thing that could actually deter Katja from participating in this war may be a stern grounding by her uncle. Katja found that thought humiliating, but at the same time painfully realistic. Her relationship with her uncle was generally quite amicable, but that was only because Katja hardly felt the need to act in ways that went against her uncle's rules. As long as she was allowed in the studio, Katja would follow basically any rules, and as long as Katja followed the rules, her uncle basically gave her free reign. It was a nice little arrangement.

    But how exactly was Katja going to explain this? It was not like she had any friends that she could rely on to back a made-up story, which meant she had one of two options: either come clean or fake insanity. The former absolutely wouldn't fly and the latter would probably be met with an eye roll and a stern grounding. Her uncle was never the type to enforce physical punishment, but that may be because Katja never crossed that line. She shuddered at the thought.

    "I mean, surely you have the most basic hypnosis Magecrafts should it come to that?" Assassin said, which caused Katja to give him a glare.

    "I am not hypnotizing my uncle," Katja said. "If worst comes to worst, I'll just sneak out of the house. Lord knows that me staying there would only put him in danger."

    "Hey, I trust you to deal with this situation," Assassin said, shrugging.

    "I guess I'll just have to get Galatea's permission then." Katja said, sighing.

    When the two of them entered the command room, Katja saw Galatea and Caster sitting across from one another in their chairs before the table monitor. The moment Katja walked in the room, Galatea immediately stood up.

    "Katja, excellent timing," Galatea said with a distressed look. "We've been tracking Dante Faarlithe's location ever since it started moving roughly seventy-two minutes ago."

    "Okay?" Katja said, tilting her head. "What's so bad about that?"
    Galatea brought Katja over to the projection of Polnoch. On it, Katja could see that a singular red dot was moving across the map at a remarkable speed, which Katja figured was Dante. Upon looking over the general region and trajectory of the movement, Katja let out a gasp.

    "As I thought," Galatea said, sighing. "I am unfamiliar with the area, so I had only made assumptions, but it is as I feared...."

    Glancing over to the bottom right corner of the map, Katja saw the disheartening truth.

    The dot was moving towards her house.





    --


    Day 4: Harbinger of Ruin

    There was no time to prepare, not even to change clothes. Immediately, Katja bolted for the exit. She didn't really have a plan, but she knew that she at least had to be there. Before she could get far however, Assassin grabbed her by the collar and held her in place.

    "Let go of me Assassin!" Katja yelled, struggling in vain to escape his grip. "My uncle's in danger!"

    "Katja! Calm down," Assassin said, his expression hard. "I understand this is difficult, but if you rush into this without a plan, you'll just be falling into the enemy's trap. Do consider that one of our enemies is one of the most gifted tactical minds ever to walk the Earth. Hasty decisions only lead to defeat."

    "I must concur," Galatea said, walking around Assassin to face Katja. "The enemy should have little idea that we are tracing their movements. If you act now, we'll lose that tactical advantage."

    "If I don't go, my uncle will be killed!" Katja exclaimed, trying to hold back tears. "Assassin, you saw what Dante was like. He'll kill him!"

    As Katja struggled, Galatea placed a hand on Katja's side, specifically on the side containing the crystal growth. All of a sudden, Katja felt a wave of clarity rush over her. It was less that she felt calmed, but more that her feelings of panic and distress had been forcibly suppressed somehow. As she took a ragged breath, Assassin tentatively released her from his grip.

    "Katja," Galatea said in a slow voice. "Please try to understand. Running headfirst into a trap will only serve to endanger your uncle's life further. No one here is telling you to do nothing, but we must act with a plan. Is that clear?"

    Katja nodded, looking down. Galatea placed her hand on Katja's shoulder.

    "Good. Now, I'm going to need you to give us information regarding your house in order to come up with the best approach. An enemy is at their most vulnerable when executing their strategy, so we may possibly be able to turn this situation into a victory if we are careful."

    "They may already have anticipated our tracking," Assassin pointed out. "So, it would be in our best interests not to engage in a direct battle. We'll need to be ready to retreat at a moment's notice."

    "We will analyze the extent to which the enemy has exposed his vulnerability. Should the opportune moment arise, we must seize our chance." Galatea responded.

    "I guess so," Assassin said, crossing his arms.

    The two of them looked at Katja, as if asking for her input.

    "Err....um, well....my house is close to a hill that overlooks the town. That might be a good place to approach from." she said nervously.

    "A good start," Galatea said. "But give all every detail you can spare. Possible interior hazards, secret entrance ways, is there a basement, anything that could give us an edge."

    Katja glanced over at Caster for help, who looked as though he was completely uninvolved.

    "Do....do you really need me to tell you those things?" she asked him.

    "I'd love to help young miss, I really would," Caster said, shrugging. "But the Labyrinth doesn't look into people's homes. That'd be an invasion of privacy. Even I have limits."

    Katja really didn't think that Caster had his priorities straight, but she resisted the urge to question his strange morals in front of Galatea.

    "Oh!" Katja realized. "The backdoor to my house! We can use that to sneak inside. Err....but the problem is that it's locked...."

    Assassin smiled and rolled his eyes.

    "You say that like it'd be a problem for literally anyone in this room." Assassin said. "Though I suppose it wasn't that long ago that a lock would've been a problem for you huh?"

    "Alright, alright," Galatea said. "That's enough joking around. Katja, can you lead us to this entrance without giving our position away?"

    "I mean, yeah sure, I do it all the-.....wait, us?" Katja said.

    Galatea nodded.

    "This will not be a scouting operation, but an offensive. If we mean to seize victory, or at the very least learn the abilities of Rider's noble phantasm, then it would be unwise to send you alone."

    As tense as she was, Katja couldn't help but feel a bout of relief upon hearing that.

    "Wait, but if something happens to you, then the spell you cast on me...." Katja began.

    "Naturally, it would be dispelled upon my death, should that occur." Galatea said flatly.

    "Wait, isn't that really bad for me then‽" Katja asked, beginning to panic again.

    Galatea raised an eyebrow.

    "Is it not more than a little bold for you to assume that in the event that I die, you would somehow avoid that same fate?"
    Katja shrank back a little.

    "Well....err.... I'm, uh, good at getting out of trouble?" she said weakly.

    "Worry not, Katja," Galatea said. "I am not recklessly risking my life. While it would be impossible to claim that I would be safe, I have no intention of dying here. Having analyzed Dante Faarlithe's background, I have a decent understanding of his abilities and limitations and have prepared accordingly."

    Galatea began walking towards the exit of the command room, and Katja and Assassin began following her. Katja turned towards Caster.

    "Aren't you coming as well, Caster?" Katja asked.

    "Believe me, young miss, you don't want me to," he replied. "I'll be your eyes and ears here in the command room, ready to pull you guys out at any time. I won't be able to do that if I go with you guys."

    "Umm.... Alright then," Katja said. "But what happens if we can't shake them off when we escape?"
    Caster grinned.

    "What else? Pull 'em into the Labyrinth. If they're smart, they won't follow you far."

    With that, Caster turned back to the wall monitor. Not wanting to get left behind, Katja ran to catch up with Assassin and Galatea.

    --

    "Checking communications. Caster, do you copy?" Galatea whispered while holding two fingers to her ear.

    The three of them were standing near the exit to one of the Labyrinth's tunnels. Just past them was the snowy expanse of the hillside and near it, Katja's house. Katja breathed into her coat sleeves. Though the fabric had been torn in places over the course of the last few days, it still did a decent job of keeping Katja warm, at least for now.

    "Is that one of those radio comm things I've heard about?" Katja asked Galatea. "I guess you and Caster really do things on the cutting edge, huh?

    "Not quite," Galatea said. "You may not have known this, but we mages have a general aversion towards modern technology. Call it a.... categorical disagreement."

    "I don't get it," Katja said.

    "I'll be happy to explain it when we get back," Galatea said. "For now, let's try to focus. Now please, lead the way."

    "Oh, right," Katja said sheepishly.

    Stepping outside, Katja immediately felt a blast of icy wind hit her from the east. The gust was strong enough to send Katja stumbling leftwards and onto the ground. After wiping the snow out of her skirt, Katja got up and began making her way towards her house, with Assassin jogging slightly to catch up to her and Galatea trailing behind. Her long robes seemed ill-equipped for the terrain, but Galatea paid it no heed.

    "This way," Katja said, pointing to a cluster of trees. "If we go past here, we'll end up at the back entrance."

    "Ah, I remember this," Assassin said.

    Stumbling into a small clearing in the center of the trees, Katja found a familiar horde of statues lined up into some sort of marching formation. When Galatea stepped inside, she raised an eyebrow at Katja.

    "Our surveillance cameras saw you collecting these," she said. "But I must say that you've been quite busy."

    "Yeah...." Katja said, scratching her head. "Seemed like a good idea at the time. But I guess they won't be too useful against the kind of enemies we'll be up against."

    "I suppose if you used them without creativity, that may be true," Galatea said. "But there can be advantages to one of these over a more traditional familiar."

    Walking over to the bundle of statues, Galatea reached down and plucked a small bronze squirrel from the group, then handed it to Katja.

    "This one may prove useful to you," she said. "Remember your training."

    "Wha-" Katja began, but Galatea had already moved on.

    As both Galatea and Assassin left the clearing, Galatea suddenly put her fingers to her ear. Then, she froze.

    "What?" she said. "Is this true?"

    Galatea turned to Katja.

    "We must hurry," she said, her eyes hard. "The situation has taken a turn for the worse."

    "What‽" Katja exclaimed, pushing past Assassin and Galatea and out of the clearing.

    In front of her was the back side of her house.

    And it was on fire.

    --

    Sprinting up to the door, Katja hurriedly placed her hand on the large lock.

    "First!" she shouted, causing the lock to fall to the ground as a puddle of rusty silver.

    Before she could rush inside, she felt Assassin pull her back by the collar.

    "Don't try to stop me!" Katja exclaimed. "My uncle's in there!"

    "And what, dying of smoke inhalation's going to save him?" Assassin said. "At least reinforce your lungs before you rush in."

    Calming down slightly, Katja took a deep breath. Beside her, Galatea watched as Katja drew in ambient Mana and incorporated it into her body as Prana. One of the key lessons Galatea had Katja learn was the difference between external and internal sources of energy. When there was plentiful magical energy in the air, called mana, it could be used to supplement the body's own internal source of magical energy, called Od. Prana, being the refined form of both of these sources, is what is necessary to cast spells. As the condensed Prana effused through her lungs, Katja let out a deep breath.

    "A little slow," Galatea said. "But acceptable. Now remember, your primary duty is to remove your uncle from the combat zone. Leave the fighting to me and Assassin. Is that understood?"

    Beside her, Assassin stretched his neck and readied his spear.

    "I wouldn't call myself a primary combat type," Assassin said, grinning. "But as far as Assassins go, I can least hold my own in a brawl."

    "Got it, I'll make sure to get him out then," Katja said, nodding.

    The three of them exchanged looks. Then, without another word, Assassin kicked open the door to the studio and the three of them rushed inside.

    The first thing that struck Katja, aside from the blistering heat of the flaming walls and roof, was the way the flames warped the area. Her studio was her home within her home, a place she knew every inch of as though it were an extension of her own body. And yet as the fires burned, they warped the air around her studio, making it completely unrecognizable, like a portal to Hell itself had been opened in her home. Rushing past the studio and into the living room, Katja, Galatea, and Assassin were met with empty room after empty room. Katja could feel herself getting lightheaded. If not for her reinforced lungs, she would likely have already passed out.

    "They can't have already left, have they?" Katja shouted amidst the sounds of burning.

    "Unlikely," Galatea responded. "I have Caster tracing all movement into and out of this building."

    Katja looked up the staircase between the living room and the kitchen. The only rooms up there were her and her uncle's bedrooms and the attic. Without hesitation, Katja threw herself up the flight of stairs and past the bedrooms, which were empty. Looking over to the ladder at the far end of the hall, she could see that it was already open. Before she reached the ladder, Katja quietly breathed life into the bronze squirrel and placed it in a small crevice between the walls and the ceiling. Her enemies may be stronger than her, but nobody knew this house better than she did. If what Galatea implied when she handed Katja the squirrel was true, then she had a plan. Making her way up the ladder, the moment Katja stuck her head out of the attic entrance, she could begin to hear voices.

    "Cornered at last, my good sir," a voice Katja recognized as Dante's said. "Now please come with us quietly. While you are not of God's people, I do not relish causing excess suffering."

    "Feh! There's nothing for you church types anymore! You've already taken everything my brother ever owned!" her uncle's voice said.

    "You misunderstand our purpose I'm afraid," Dante said, calmly. "We are here for the one called Katja. A little bird simply pointed us in the right direction."

    "Katja‽" her uncle gasped. "Leave her out of this! She has nothing to do with you!"

    "I see that you are unaware of the situation in which your niece has found herself," Dante said. "It matters not. For our purposes, we simply need you alive."

    Katja found in the burning attic the looming figure of Dante Faarlithe standing before her uncle Grigori, who lay on the ground leaning against a set of boxes with blood trailing down the side of his head. He was clutching his arm, which appeared to be broken. Beside them was Rider, who stood by Dante without his mount. Standing as a normal man, Katja could see that while he was tall, as in taller than Katja, Dante was the larger man by a significant margin. Without his mount, he seemed....subdued. Almost as though the mount made him larger than life. As her uncle leaned his head back, he locked eyes with Katja. Her uncle's eyes widened, and he opened his mouth, but managed to stop himself from saying anything. Unfortunately, Dante was quick enough to see the movement and quickly turned around just as Katja got to her feet.

    "Well, well," Dante said, his lips curling into a cruel smile. "I had heard that you had found herself a new base of operations, but it appears that information was wrong. I see you've spoiled our little surprise, dear child."

    "Katja!" her uncle exclaimed. "Get out of here! This man's from the hidden church! He's extremely dangerous!"

    "I know, uncle," Katja said, her eyes not leaving Dante. "I have a lot of explaining I need to do, but we'll need to save it for later."

    Dante let out a revelrous laugh.

    "Later?" he said, unsheathing his sword and pointing it at her uncle. "I don't believe you understand the position that you are in. Now that you are here, I see no reason why I would need to preserve your dear uncle's life."

    Katja felt the same wave of sadistic psychosis emanating from Dante as he let out a wide grin.

    "Sinners should die together, after all," he said, and raised the sword above his head, coating it in flames as he did so.

    As he brought the sword down, however, Rider's eyes widened.

    "Master!" he shouted just as Dante's sword was knocked away and Dante was sent tumbling backwards.

    Assassin stood between her uncle and Dante with his spear in hand and shield in the other.

    "Spearman! You would deny me a mercy killing for a second time‽" Dante roared, furious at being denied his kill.

    "Sorry about that," Assassin said, grinning. "I just felt a little lonely down there without my Master."

    "I had a plan," Katja said, smiling in relief. "But thanks."

    Assassin jerked his head at Uncle Grigori.

    "Get him out of here Katja, we'll handle this." he said, turning to face Rider.

    "We?" Dante said.

    Just then, the flames that had been engulfing the room froze in place, almost as though time itself was frozen. Then, the flames began to turn into a light blue crystal growth that spread across the room. Behind Katja, she saw Galatea emerge from the attic hole upon a platform of blue crystals. Without a word, Katja nodded and rushed past Dante towards her uncle. Dante, seeing this, attempted to slash at Katja with a large swing of his greatsword, but before the blow could connect, a crystal javelin erupted from one of the frozen flames and shot at Dante, who was forced to parry away the blow. Dante glared at Galatea and let out a low growl.

    "Your opponent," Galatea said calmly. "Is me."

    Dante let out a thundering war cry and his sword began to glow with a burning, radiant energy. Grasping his sword in both hands, he readied himself.

    "Rider!" he shouted. "Kill these heretics! Hold nothing back!"

    Dante then charged straight for Galatea, his sword pulled back for a strike. Rider lifted a short sword into the air.

    "Surus!" he shouted, and a ray of light shot into the sky, burning a hole in the ceiling. A large thud rang through the room along with the sounds of crushed wood and glass. And standing where Rider once stood was a large, four-legged beast. While it seemed in all respects to appear like a bull, it was closer, perhaps, to refer to it as a four-legged minotaur, a massive, musclebound behemoth of a creature with two curled horns that were doused in flames.

    "Not using your grey beast this time, Carthaginian?" Assassin said, readying his spear.

    "I thought this much more appropriate, Roman," Rider replied. "Surely, you haven't forgotten your old folly?"

    As the two battles began, Katja grabbed her uncle by the shirt and heaved him onto her back. Thanks to her reinforcement, she was able to cleanly lift her uncle and dash towards the window. Thanks to her practice, she was able to wordlessly invoke the first accordance and as she leapt towards the window, it burst like a popped bubble, causing both Katja and her uncle to careen out of the window and towards the ground below.

    "Katja! What are you-" her uncle shouted.

    "Just trust me, uncle," Katja said. "And brace yourself!"

    Closing her eyes and feeling the scattered Prana around the liquefied window, she reshaped the falling glass into a smooth, rounded ramp that caught Katja and her uncle and caused them to tumble harmlessly into the snowy ground. The impact did cause some discomfort to her uncle, however, as he groaned in pain from the impact on his broken arm. Getting to her feet, Katja quickly set her uncle up against a tree and formed cloth from the snow to create a makeshift sling for his arm.

    "Katja!" her uncle gasped. "What is happening? Where have you been for the past three days?"

    Katja's normally calm, stoic, and only mildly snarky uncle was trembling, a fact that made Katja experience a combined feeling of both sadness and guilt. She hugged her uncle tightly, allowing herself a brief moment of relief that he was alive, then looked him in the eyes.

    "I've.... I've been caught up in some business," she started slowly. "I didn't come back because.... well, I was worried you'd be put in danger. I guess that didn't turn out so well, did it?"

    Her uncle put his good hand on Katja's shoulder.

    "Listen to me, I don't know what the circumstances are, but you need to stop this. That man is from the Church. They're killers. They won't have any qualms about killing a child."

    "I know, uncle," Katja said. "But I can't stop this. I made a vow."

    "What vow‽" her uncle exclaimed. "This is your life we're talking about! I won't allow this. I can't!"

    It broke Katja's heart to see the desperation in her uncle's eyes. From pretty much any logical standpoint, her uncle was right. What she was doing was insanity, plain and simple. But even still, she wanted to see this through to the end. She couldn't really explain the feeling she felt when she first agreed to fight, but she understood it a little better now. Right then, she stood at the crossroads of all sorts of amazing people, some horrible, some kind, that all shone with a radiance that she never had. If she walked away from it all now, if she proved too weak to stand in the light with them, then she never would again. And if she died, well.... Katja didn't really want to think about that.

    "I'm sorry uncle, but I.... I have to do this. It's a bit difficult to explain, but.... I've come too far to turn back now."

    Her uncle said nothing for a few moments. Then he bit his lip.

    ".... the same."

    "What?"

    "That look in your eyes. It's the same as his was all those years ago."

    "His? You mean my father? You mentioned him when you were talking to Dante, what does he have to do with this?"

    Her uncle shook his head.

    "It's not safe here. I'll explain everything later."

    "...You keep saying that, but you never do."

    "I will this time, I promise."

    Katja stood up and was ready to turn around, ready to go back and support Galatea and Assassin however she could, when her uncle grabbed her by the arm.

    "Katja," he croaked, as though each word took a toll on him. "Remember what we talked about three days ago? When I talked about your future?"

    "Of course."

    "I.... I knew about this side of the world. But I didn't want you to be a part of it, not when you could be safe and happy. Nothing good will come from associating with men like my brother. His magic.... it broke him."

    Desperately, so desperately did Katja want to sit down and ask every question she ever had about her father. Why did he have to die? Where did he come from? What did he study? But Katja held herself back. Now was not the time.

    "What are you trying to say, Uncle?" Katja asked in a controlled voice. Such questions would have a time and place.

    "I know that look better than anyone, so I know I cannot stop you. But at least answer me this: Is this what you truly want? If you do this, you'll never be able to live quietly again."

    ".... I thought I wanted a quiet life, Uncle. I really did. A part of me still kinda does."

    "Then-"

    "But I realized, uncle, that there's a difference between a life of quiet satisfaction and a life of quiet desperation. This war is my one chance to decide which is which."

    "But that's something that you decided yourself! You don't know if that's true!"

    Katja smiled.

    "Maybe. But how often am I going to get a chance to be involved in something like this? It just.... feels important, you know?"

    Her uncle didn't respond. Instead, he simply let out a sigh and let go of Katja's arm, seemingly resigned to Katja's decision. Looking around, Katja spotted the hill that housed the tunnel back into the Labyrinth. Before she left to go help the others, Katja should at least make sure her uncle was out of harm's way. Just as she prepared to sling her uncle's arm around her shoulders however, she spotted what appeared to be two shadowed forms emerging from the hilltop.

    Then the roof of Katja's house exploded.

    --

    Assassin rolled to the side as the charging bull-like creature barreled across the room and into the wall, sending waves of tremors throughout the room. The creature charged with such force that its head became embedded into the wood attic walls.

    "Ha! It looks as though this place is too small for your little pet eh, Carthaginian?" Assassin taunted.

    Vaulting off his spear, Assassin launched himself into the air and swung his spear at Rider. Without a single command, the beast dropped to the floor, causing Assassin's strike to go wide. Using Assassin's momentum, Rider grabbed Assassin by the front of his robes and attempted to throw him to the ground. Assassin kicked off the roof and shook Rider's grip from his clothing, landing smoothly on the ground. The bull tore itself from the side of the house, leaving behind a large hole.

    "This is certainly not an ideal battleground," Rider admitted, readying his long spear. "But what serves as a minor inconvenience for me will serve as a fatal scenario for you. You will only evade me for so long."

    Assassin clicked his tongue. He had to admit that Rider was right. With so little room to maneuver, it took most of what Assassin had just to avoid being trampled. On the other side of the room, Dante was being continually forced back by a constant barrage of crystal spears seemingly formed from the very flames that Dante produced. Assassin didn't want to intrude on their battle, but if he continued to use only half of this tiny attic, he'd be done for. Ideally, he'd love to find an opportune moment to skewer Rider's Master in the back with his spear, but Rider always somehow managed to place himself between them. Assassin wanted to close the distance, but Rider seemed hesitant to engage in a prolonged exchange, likely cautious of Assassin's "ability". Assassin grinned.

    Letting his spear slip from his hands and vanishing into mist, Assassin readied his gladius. In a battle in close quarters, his spear would only get in the way. Charging at Rider with superhuman force, Assassin slid underneath the bull and slashed at its underbelly. The blade cut across its flesh, but not deeply enough to spill blood. Whatever this creature was, its hide was extremely thick. Rolling out from the other side Assassin brought up his shield to block Rider's spear thrust.

    "Tremble!" Assassin shouted, slamming his hand against the ground.

    Immediately, Rider's beast leapt backwards stepping out of Assassin's range. Rider leveled his spear, in one hand and grasped his saddle with the other, bracing himself.

    "Got you!" Assassin said, summoning his spear.

    Given the beast's body position, Assassin predicted that there was only one possible direction the creature could back away, and that was into the corner of the room. With nowhere left to evade, Assassin flung his spear at the creature's side. It attempted to twist its body to blunt the impact, but the lance still embedded itself deeply into the creature's flank, causing it to groan in pain. Rider grunted and glared at Assassin.

    "Why do you hold back in this battle to the death?" he asked. "Surely more ground would have been gained that way."

    "Do you truly believe that I would use an ability my enemy already expects?" Assassin gloated. "You expect little of me, Carthaginian!"

    Rider smiled.

    "Oh, quite the contrary," he said. "I expect you to be the ideal shield of Rome."

    Tearing the spear from his mount's flank, Rider commanded the creature to charge. Assassin was tempted to roll his eyes. While the creature was certainly fast, within the confines of this small room, Assassin had no problem avoiding it before it could build up speed. Preparing to leap into the air, Assassin was suddenly struck with a sense of impending danger. Turning around, he silently cursed his hastiness. Galatea stood right in the path of the bull's charge, too distracted to notice the approaching threat. Assassin raised his shield and planted it firmly into the ground. Bracing his shoulder and back behind the shield, he let out a shout of fighting spirit as the beast crashed into Assassin's bulwark.

    The force of the impact almost caused Assassin's legs to break through the wooden floor, but with the strength of a Servant behind him, Assassin was able to barely stop the beast's charge. Assassin then felt a sudden easing of the applied force. In a single smooth movement, the bull turned its massive body and kicked outwards at Assassin's greatshield with its hind legs, knocking it away from Assassin's chest. The beast then turned and raised its front legs and brought them down towards Assassin, preparing to crush him underfoot. Assassin hurriedly rolled out from under the beast and onto his feet. Rider thrust out his spear in a series of skillful blows that forced Assassin onto the defensive. Despite the great area of his shield, Assassin could not find an opening to retaliate. With each blow, Assassin took another step backwards. Eventually, he felt his foot catch on uneven ground, wood that had been crushed by crystal debris. Seizing this opportunity, Rider aimed a decisive blow at Assassin's upper right shoulder faster than Assassin could move to block it.

    Across the room, Dante's increasing frustration at the lack of blood being spilt grew more and more apparent on his face. Letting out a feral roar of rage, he charged forth once again and slashed with his greatsword, once, twice, then three times. Each time, his blows were rebuffed by crystal growths that erupted from the walls and ceilings. Galatea, standing amidst a semicircular array of floating blue and violet gemstones, calmly directed her wand like a composer. With each movement, the crystals moved like vines, blooming and growing outwards to protect their Master from Dante's fierce attacks.

    "Coward!" Dante roared. "Why must you filthy mages disgrace honorable battle?"

    He tore his sword from a crystal growth, sending shards of blue flying across the room. With each swing, more crystals were stuck to his sword, increasing the weight of the blade and the intervals between strikes. Continuing as things were, the outcome of this duel would be inevitable.

    "What would the Holy Church know of honorable duels?" Galatea scoffed. "The number of church assassins exceeds that of the Mage's Associations enforcers by a factor of more than double."

    "Ha! All the better to hunt down the increasing number of heretics in this world. The day will soon come when the last of you will be but bloodstains on my blade. And I, for one, cannot pray for that day to come sooner."

    Preparing an array of arrow-headed crystal spears, Galatea launched them in a staggered formation towards Dante. Staggering backwards from the attack, Dante was unable to block all of them with his sword, causing chunks of his armor to go flying off his body as the crystal spears sheared off his metal coating. Glancing over to the side, Galatea spotted Assassin leaning against one of her crystal spears that had embedded itself into the ground. The two exchanged eye contact for a moment, then Galatea nodded and caused the spear to shrink in size. The spear, which had initially been the size of a small pillar, reduced to become no larger than Assassin's own spear. The sudden reduction in size caused Assassin to fall backwards and allowed him to evade Rider's decisive blow. Then, spinning and embedding his gladius into the ground, Assassin grabbed the crystal spear and threw it at Rider. The sudden attack forced Rider to lean to the side of his mount, placing him in a precarious position. Seizing the opportunity, Assassin picked up his gladius, ran up the length of the bull's body, around a person's height in length, and tackled Rider off his mount. Seeing this, Galatea brought her wand downwards in a sweeping motion, filling the room with mist. Then, a crystal growth began coating the floor, causing Dante, Rider, and the beast to all become partially submerged in the crystal. The beast roared as it attempted to tear itself away from the crystals, but each time it freed itself, new growths latched onto the creature's legs and pinned it down.

    "Looks like this is check," Assassin said to Rider, pointing his gladius at his throat.

    Rider, who lay on the ground prone, half buried in crystal, let out a bark of laughter.

    "So it would certainly seem," he said, smiling. "Well played, Roman. You have shown impressive coordination with one who isn't even your Master. Still, our primary combat objectives have been achieved."

    Assassin froze.

    "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he said quietly, his grip on his sword tightening. "Talk."

    Fighting off the crystal growths, Rider grabbed Assassin by the collar.

    "You know as well as I do that Hannibal lacks the strength to take Rome alone. And so, what does he do?"
    Assassin paled.

    "Oh no...."

    "That's right!" Rider laughed. "So long as Rome stands, it will always have those who plot against it."

    Assassin raised his gladius.

    "Bastard!" he exclaimed.

    "It appears you've grown soft, old foe," Rider laughed. "For you to fall for such a simple ruse."

    Assassin thrust his gladius towards Rider, but before the blow could land, Assassin felt a wave of impending danger. Jumping backwards, Assassin just barely managed to avoid the charging bull that swept past him and towards Rider. Tearing away the crystal growths surrounding its Master, the bull allowed Rider to latch onto its body and climb onto its back.

    "Surus!" Rider shouted. "Show your true majesty!"

    As the bull let out a mighty roar, Dante bellowed to match the vigor of the beast.

    "It would seem as though you have played your final card, magus!" he shouted at Galatea. "Indeed, were I alone, your formidable Magecraft may have overwhelmed me. However, I have the blessings of the Almighty to aid me! Now, Elohim! Release!"

    Dante raised his sword in the air, and it began to glow brighter than it ever had before. Such force emitted from the golden blade that it blasted away the crystal fragments on his sword, as well as the growths that ate at his feet. When he brought the blade down, its sheer intensity began dissolving nearby crystals.

    "Kh!" Galatea said, shielding herself from the energy. "That blade! It's readings far exceed that of a mystic code. They're approaching that of a Noble Phantasm!"

    "Hahahaha! That's right! While it was never possessed by a true hero, our family has passed down this sacred blade since it shed heretic blood in the First Crusade! Be grateful that you shall see this blade's light as your final farewell from this plane!"

    A whirlwind of energy amassed around the sword, sending crystals and debris spiralling around the blade in a large column of tempestuous energy that blew open the roof of the attic. The glow of the blade grew brighter to the point where Galatea could even look directly at it. It was as though the fury of an archangel had been condensed into a single, wrathful smite. Behind Dante, the bull-like beast began to expand at a rapid rate, providing a terrifying backdrop to Dante's display. Their collected force completely destroyed the interior of the attic, opening up the second floor of Katja's home completely to the elements.

    Assassin hopped back next to Galatea just as the tempest surrounding Dante began to level out.

    "Can you defend against that?" Galatea asked.

    "Well enough," Assassin replied, biting his lip. "I'm more worried about Katja, right now to be honest."

    Assassin hefted his shield and stood in front of Galatea.

    "Still, I guess I'll trust her to keep herself alive. She's resilient like that." he said, grinning.

    Dante, still pointing his sword into the air, clutched it with both hands and brought it downwards upon Assassin and Galatea.

    "With my zeal as the spark, may His might split the skies!" he shouted as shot out from the sword like a whip, crashing down upon Assassin and Galatea with thunderous force.

    --

    As Katja marvelled at the singular beam that rose and parted the clouds overhead, she kept herself poised against the two figures approaching from across the hill. Planting herself between them and her uncle, Katja inhaled deeply. Whoever they were, Katja needed to remain calm. She was not the same trembling girl who would flee from combat anymore. This time, she could put up a fight.

    When she saw who it was, Katja began laughing, though whether it was out of grim amusement or manic desperation Katja couldn't tell.

    "Oh, this is too perfect," Katja said. "It looks like we meet again, Shlykova. I guess you could call this ?"

    Yekaterina Shlykova did not return any such greeting as she stood beside her Servant. The man stood at roughly one-hundred and seventy centimeters tall, which while taller than both Katja and Shlykova, did not strike a particularly imposing figure. Still, Katja knew better than to underestimate the man responsible for destroying many of her internal organs. In particular, Katja eyed the man's bow, which he held in his left hand.

    "I did not think you were still alive," Shlykova said coldly, glaring at Katja. "You're resilient like a roach aren't you."

    "I guess someone up there likes me."

    "No matter. We had simply intended to finish the job this time. There will be no more second chances."

    "You won't seriously pit your Servant against me, will you Shlykova? That'd be low, even for you," Katja said, glaring at her.

    "I'm not here to duel. How you die is irrelevant to me."

    "Oh really?" Katja asked, planting her feet firmly. "Is that why you decided to walk right up to me instead of shooting at me from across the hill?"

    That seemed to get a reaction out of her. Shlykova's normally expressionless face furrowed slightly, but it quickly went away.

    "A difference of a few seconds makes no difference," she said. "I just wanted to watch you die from up close."

    Internally, Katja was doing her absolute best not to lose it. Thankfully, she already had a hint of how best to irritate Shlykova, but she knew it wouldn't last long. She needed to find some way out, some way in which not to die instantly. That's when Katja had an idea.

    "See? Now you're just coming up with excuses," Katja said, putting on a cocky face. "Face it, you didn't want to take the coward's way out. You wanted to finish this yourself, especially given how our last fight went."

    For a moment, a bit of light returned to Shlykova's eyes.

    "First of all," she said, her eyes narrowing in rage. "I'd hesitate to call what you did then a 'fight'. Second, who do you think you are? Claiming to know anything about me!"

    Good, good. It was working.

    "Ha! What else is there to know? You've come to finish the job because you failed to kill me last time. Your pride wouldn't let you do it any other way!"

    "You fool!" Shlykova shouted, showing a genuine burst of emotion that Katja had never seen before. "You know nothing about the costs of shouldering this war! This may be just a game to you, but to me this is everything!"

    "Oh really?" Katja said, trying to egg her on. "Let me guess, your family wants the wish from the Grail?"

    "How little you truly understand Yekaterina Molchalin," Shlykova said, shaking her head. "The Grail is not simply a wishing device, but a source of near-infinite mana. With it, we secure the eternity of our legacy. My acts will place our family into prominence once more, instead of rotting away in this backwater."

    Katja could feel the rising anger inside herself now, a feeling she needed to suppress. No matter how much Shlykova insulted her home or intelligence, she needed to bear with it for now. It wouldn't do if both of them lost their cool. She needed to push Shlykova over the edge, but only just.

    "I see, and little miss heiress is going to tell her big strong Servant to fight her battles for her," she said.

    Archer stepped forward.

    "Master, I no longer wish to tolerate this brat's childish taunting. By your permission, I wish to end her life and restore the honor I have lost."

    ".... No."

    "Master?"
    Shlykova stepped forward, removing her sleeves. Her eyes alight with murderous fury, a far cry from the expressionless face she wore previously.

    "Do not assume for one moment that you have me fooled, Yekaterina Molchalin," she snarled, lighting her firecracker whips. "You wish to taunt me into a duel knowing you cannot defeat my Servant. Allow me to teach you how pointless your struggle was from the beginning. Archer, you are not to interfere. Prevent all outsiders from doing the same."

    Archer placed his hand to his chest and bowed deeply.

    "It will be done, Master."

    "Looks like you've got your Servant on a pretty tight leash," Katja said, crossing her arms. "Wish mine would be half as respectful."

    "For someone so inexperienced with Magecraft, you certainly seem confident," Shlykova said coldly. "Perhaps you think you've gotten stronger, but you could not possibly compare to a lifetime of training. If you think I was even remotely serious before, you're dead wrong."

    "Maybe," Katja said, outstretching her hand. "But I'm trickier."

    Katja rushed leftwards directing Shlykova's attention away from where her uncle laid. Rushing through the mess of trees, Katja briefly placed her hand upon each one, causing them to partially melt in the middle. As Shlykova charged, the trees began to fall down upon her, throwing up a thick cloud of water vapor and snowy mist. Rolling out into the clearing, Katja knelt down and picked up two of her bronze sparrows and flung them into the air, animating them as she went. Because of Shlykova's whips, Katja could easily make her out, even through the obscuring mist. She sent her sparrows flying straight towards Shlykova, small as they may be, they could still cause a concussion if they managed to strike her head. As they closed in, Katja realized that their senses were linked, and Katja could see Shylova's form moving in the mist. Before the sparrows could land, however, Katja suddenly felt herself being wrenched out of her sparrow's bond. Stumbling backwards from the shock, Katja watched as two tiny explosions buffeted the smoke cloud. Then, a spiralling pillar of orange and violet erupted from the mist before exploding outwards and scattering the clouds. Shlykova stepped down from the trunk of a fallen tree and casually walked towards Katja.

    "Tch," Katja said. "I guess that wasn't enough."

    "I hope you're beginning to realize how outclassed you are," Shlykova derided. "Your tricks are nothing before my family's Magecraft."

    "You took away my control," Katja said. "How?"

    "Our family line's Magecraft, Kingslayer, is based upon the thaumaturgical system of Corruption. With it, we usurp the spells of other mages and turn them into focused, high-yield explosives."

    "Is that so? Sounds complicated," Katja said, her eyes darting around the area. "For such an important thing, you sure are talkative about it, aren't you?"

    "Hmph. I had hoped to dissuade you from this pointless farce. Within a certain range, all Magecraft of a low enough level will bow to my will. Needless to say that your pathetic creations are no exception. You cannot hurt me."

    "If it's so easy for you, why not just kill me now?" Katja asked with a wry smile.



    "Well forgive me for not playing along with your little game," Katja said, stepping backwards.

    "Oh? More tricks? Very well then. Play out your best hands. I will crush each and every one of them to show you where you stand."

    Katja grit her teeth. Shlykova was seriously intent on letting Katja do whatever she wanted. She didn't believe for a second that Katja had anything that could hurt her. Well, she wasn't exactly wrong. If Shlykova could indeed hijack all of Katja's animated creations, then a direct attack was doomed to fail. She needed to come up with a new plan.

    Retreating back into the thicket of trees, Katja watched as Shlykova wordlessly walked past her statues, not even bothering to destroy them. Katja bit her thumb, she needed to learn the full extent of Shlykova's abilities. Right now, Shlykova wasn't taking this battle remotely seriously. Katja guessed it was time to expend a bit more Prana.

    After making sure that Katja was out of sight, she placed her palm on the ground and reached out to her statues, animating six of them and having them spread out around the area. Seeing a flash of orange, Katja dived out from the tree she was hiding behind just as the top half of it was sheared off and reduced to splinters. Seeing her pieces all arranged in position, Katja rolled to her feet and, still on one knee, slammed her hands on the ground and commanded the earth to move. Immediately, the area encompassed by her six statues formed a hexagonal pool of liquid earth that fell away below everything contained within.

    Katja watched Shlykova closely this time, looking for triggers and signs of spellcasting. Using her whips as a rope, Shlykova slung herself to one of the falling trees and began running up the length of it. When she reached the top, Shlykova pointed her hand down at the pool of earth below.

    e shouted. " "

    Katja once again felt a familiar feeling of her spell being invaded. She studied the feeling, trying to figure out the strength and speed of the 'corruption'. This time, she let her enchantment be dispelled without resistance. Immediately, the pool of earth began to ripple violently and erupt like a geyser. As Katja braced for the impact, she paused. The earth had been frozen mid-explosion, the liquefaction enchantment dispelled before the incendiary force could be converted.

    But Katja didn't have much time to ponder on that. Behind her Shlykova landed and readied herself for Katja's next attack.

    "Are you done?" Shlykova asked. "I find myself growing bored with you."

    Quickly reaching into her pouch, Katja slung one of Caster's golden spheres as hard as she could at Shlykova. At first, Shlykova raised her hand, preparing to corrupt the item as she had done with Katja's spells. But then her eyes suddenly widened, and she dodged out of the way, with the golden sphere smashing into a tree behind her.

    "A mystic code?" Shlykova thought out loud. "And a dense one at that. Still, it's worthless if it doesn't hit me."

    Katja grinned.

    "Hah, it wasn't meant for you," she said.

    Shlykova turned just as a mass of long golden wires shot out from the sphere and out across the mess of trees, creating a thick nest of wires surrounding both Katja and Shlykova from all sides. The wires had the consistency of rubber and as they wrapped around the trees, they seemed to pull them inwards slightly, creating a resonant creaking noise throughout the wooded area.

    "And? What exactly is this meant to accomplish? If anything, all you've done is make killing you easier. Have you finally given up?" she asked, looking around and studying the golden wires.

    "Hardly," Katja said, fishing around in her bag. "I guess you could say I'm throwing stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks."

    Katja pulled out two objects from her bag, a bottle of golden liquid and a small white branch. In her mind, she struggled to recall what exactly they did. Caster's explanation had been a little overwhelming and Katja only caught the beginning and end of it. All she knew was that she needed to break the branch and absolutely not drink the liquid. Shrugging and taking the chance, Katja split the white branch in two in her hands. After a second had passed, nothing seemed to happen.

    "Enough of this," Shlykova said. "You soil the good name of mages everywhere. Goodbye, Yekaterina Molchalin."

    Clasping her hands together, Shlykova spun and brought her two whips down upon Katja, who barely managed to raise a pile of earth in order to block the impact. When the two made contact, an explosion nearly twice as large as any Katja had seen Shlykova use previously erupted from the point of contact, sending Katja flying backwards and onto one of the wires. Looking down at her body, Katja saw that the explosion had caused burns to form across her arms and shoulders. Grabbing onto the wire and swinging around it, Katja leapt backwards and into the shadow of the trees. Clutching her shoulders in pain, Katja hustled around to Shlykova's flank, her breathing ragged. Not taking her eyes off of Shlykova, Katja grabbed a handful of snow and rubbed it along her arms. The immediate pain went away and was replaced with a cool numbness, though it still hurt. That attack proved that Shlykova was no longer playing around. As she went to stand up from her kneeling position, Katja suddenly lost the strength in her legs and fell forwards, creating some noise as her hands hit the ground. Katja braced herself for Shlykova to turn, but to her surprise, Shlykova began to calmly walk in the direction Katja had been blasted in, away from Katja herself.

    Playing a hunch, Katja slammed her hand into the ground, a noise that would surely alert Shlykova, except it didn't. The branch, Katja realized, seemed to eliminate the noise that Katja herself made.

    Pulling out the small vial, Katja experimentally poured a drop of it into the snow. When it made contact, a hole began forming and expanding where the droplet reached. At first, Katja was tempted to assume this was some sort of acid, but something about the way the hole expanded made her think otherwise. Tentatively, Katja dipped the tip of her pinkie into the hole. She felt her finger hit something liquid, and when she pulled it out, the tip of her finger was gone. Smiling, Katja took the bottle and poured its contents on her head. Sure enough, when Katja looked down, she couldn't see her hands. Katja then picked up a small stone and smiled.

    Now, she had an idea.

    --

    Back on the now newly leveled roof of Katja's house, Dante lowered his sword from its raised position, his breathing ragged.

    "Tch. Still alive, I see," he said, disappointedly.

    Before him, Assassin knelt with , panting. Behind him, Galatea stood and placed her hand on Assassin's shoulder.

    "You have my thanks," she said. "I was caught by surprise. It will not happen again."

    "Hah! After witnessing the power of the Almighty, you would still fight?" Dante laughed.

    As he brought the sword down for his attack, a wide beam of light flooded from his blade and sent a wave of energy towards Galatea and Assassin that easily eclipsed the size of Katja's house. The blast of energy was so powerful that a once cloudy sky had been cleared of all impurity. Yet despite the force of the attack, Assassin's shield never broke.

    "I have heard of ancient lines of magi possessing Noble Phantasms without a true owner," Galatea said. "While not quite on that level, it would appear that what you possess contains a great deal of mystery. I'm impressed that such an item has been entrusted to you, Dante Faarlithe."

    "Entrusted? Nobody in the Church would dare take from me a family heirloom they possess no ability to wield." Dante exclaimed.

    "Under normal circumstances, no human should be strong enough to wield a Noble Phantasm-tier weapon. If a single use is enough to drain you, it is not worth using in combat."

    "Hehe.... HahaHAHAHAHAA!! Foolish heretic!" Dante said, his expression growing unhinged. "Drained? I've never felt more alive! What you have witnessed is only Elohim's awakening!"

    As he spoke, the light of the sword began to pulse. With each wave of light that washed over Dante's body, he grew more and more upright, until the exhaustion from earlier seemed like nothing more than a distant memory.

    "Elohim is a blade that responds to its wielder's zeal. As long as I possess the strength of heart to crush my enemies, my blade will never let me fall," Dante shouted. "Others may use the blade, but without the strength, they will die standing. Only I can withstand the endless crusade!"

    Dante took a huge step forward, shifting his whole body weight into his stance and sending tremors across the room. Behind him, Rider's mount, Surus, had grown into the familiar and massive grey beast Assassin had seen previously, which threatened to collapse the entire house down. All around them, the flames from below threatened to trap them inside, ready to devour their freshly made corpses. Assassin held his shoulder, which had been bruised in containing the impact of Dante's attack.

    "Things might be looking a little bad for us," he said to Galatea. "And I'm worried about Katja."

    "Hmph, if what Rider said is true, then going outside would only serve to place her in danger," Galatea said. "The fact that you're still materialized means that Katja is holding her own. The last thing we want is to get caught in a battle against two Servants."

    "Well then what do you suggest we do?" Assassin said. "Just so you know, my Noble Phantasm's out of the question."

    "Well then," Galatea said, wiping away a strand of hair from her face. "I suppose that means we'll have to call in some support. Can you hold them off until it's ready?"

    "Who do you think you're talking to?" Assassin said, grinning. "I practically invented wars of attrition."

    --

    "Have you decided to run? Not that I blame you, but that leaves me no choice but to have Archer track you down," Shlykova called out.

    Looking over at the many lengths of rubbery wire, Shlykova snapped her wrist and had one of her whips wrap around the one blocking her path. With a second flick of her wrist, the ends of her whip erupted with several colored explosions. The impact of the blast sent violent ripples scattering across the forest along the lengths of wire, creating a deep and ominous humming noise. Shlykova looked around in shock, the place where she had blasted appearing entirely unharmed.

    "Surprised, Shlykova? These wires can apparently be used to bind phantasmal-class beasts, whatever that means. I guess even you can't break these so easily, huh?"

    Katja's voice rang out from everywhere, almost like she was talking through a speaker. Shlykova turned about, searching for the source of the voice.

    "So, you're still around. I guess I should be commending your bravery, or should I call it foolishness?" Shlykova said, her lips curling into a smile.

    Without warning, Shlykova was suddenly struck by a sharp impact along the side of her head. Then she felt a blow to her stomach that knocked the wind out of her, followed by a sharp strike to the flank which sent you flying backwards and onto the ground. Looking towards the source of the pain, Shlykova saw only a few particles of scattered snow. Then, the snow all around her began to lift up into the air at once, almost as though they were frozen mid-fall, exposing the grassy ground below.

    "You're much more talkative than when we first fought Shlykova," the voice of Katja taunted from all around Shlykova. "To be honest, I much prefer you this way. That whole expressionless killer thing really didn't work for you."

    "Well, this is certainly an interesting trick," Shlykova said, wiping the blood from her lips. "Let's see how long you can evade me!"

    Shlykova held out her hand and collected her Prana once more.

    "Padenne!" she commanded.

    Immediately an area of snow in a sphere around her fell to the ground, completely inert.

    "I see," Katja's voice said. "The range of your ability is no greater than five meters away from you."

    "Hmph. Learning that tells you nothing," Shlykova said.

    "I've learned several things, actually. I know that your ability only works on lower thaumatergies, otherwise you wouldn't have dodged the golden sphere. I also know that you cannot maintain the original properties of the corrupted object, seeing as you couldn't ignite the snow just now."

    Shlykova felt her collar being pulled. Then her body was lifted off the ground and she felt herself being thrown. Reinforcing her body, Shlykova turned herself back upright and landed on her feet. Once again, she felt her body being struck in several places. Relying on her instinct, Shlykova turned and kicked forwards causing movements in the mist.

    "I definitely felt something this time," Shlykova said. "It would appear as though you have somehow hidden all traces of your existence. The same trick will not work on me anymore."

    Some distance away, Katja silently cursed. Shlykova had proven more durable than she had expected. Katja guessed that trained magi like her always reinforce their bodies against damage, even subconsciously. By transmuting various stones in specific ways, Katja was able to mimic and project her voice all across the forest clearing to disorient Shlykova, but she still needed to get close in order to hit her. Now that Shlykova was on to her trick, Katja was in trouble. Moving quietly around to Shlykova's flank, Katja leapt and landed a solid kick on her flank. Shlykova grunted in pain, but then grabbed Katja's leg and flung her forwards, creating a vacant arc in the snow cloud. Just after landing, Katja rolled to the side just as Shlykova blasted the ground next to her. Having lost the bead on Katja's position, Shlykova returned to her neutral form.

    "I grow tired of this. You will never muster up enough power to harm me."

    Readying her whips, Shlykova spun them about sending small, individual firecrackers tumbling in all directions.

    "Now that I know you are here, I will destroy everything in this area, including you!" Shlykova shouted.

    Simultaneously, all of the firecrackers began glowing violently before exploding with enough force to match a payload of missiles. Trees, splinters, and dirt were sent flying in all directions as a massive shockwave flooded across the landscape.

    When the dust settled. Shlykova knelt in the center of a wide crater, a single untouched point amidst a field of destruction. The explosion had destroyed a good portion of the clearing, but several of the golden bindings remained wrapped around the few trees that had survived the blast. Though winded, Shlykova stood up, unharmed from the blast itself. Twisting a notch by the handle of her whips, all of the empty cartridges fell off the length of the whips and were replaced with a brand-new set, which began to crackle and pop with flames. Stepping down from her perch into the crater, which was only around half a meter deep, Shlykova stood before a mound of earth. She held out her hand and the mound began to ripple and tear apart before freezing mid-explosion as a solid pile of rock, exposing a battered, but conscious Katja, now visible once more. Shlykova snapped her whips forward and placed them on either side of Katja.

    "I never did get to see your Servant, Yekaterina Molchalin," Shlykova said, looking down at Katja. "I suppose that is fitting, given that I do not consider you a true competitor in this war. I will kill not as a Master, but as a fellow magus. Even that may be too good for you though."

    "Don't act like this battle is over," Katja said, panting. "I'm not dead yet."

    "I think not," Shlykova said, gripping her whips. "Just try something. You'll be obliterated before you have time to regret it."

    "Heh, I guess that's true enough. Well miss victor, since you're so confident, why don't we talk for a bit. Surely a few seconds won't inconvenience you."

    Shlykova glared at Katja, studying her and trying to determine the trick behind Katja's words.

    "Very well," Shlykova said after a minute of pause, apparently determining that there was little Katja could do to affect the situation. "I'll humor you. Consider it a parting gift from me. Talk, but be warned. If you intend to bargain or beg for your life, I will obliterate you where you stand."

    "Like I'd do something so lame," Katja said, scoffing. "You've got to have more faith in me than that!"

    "I don't. Now get to the point. The simple act of not killing you is proving to be surprisingly draining."

    "Well, if I had to know anything, since you hate this place so much, why are you here at all? I mean, your family's rich, isn't it? Why not just leave?"

    "Hmph. The fact that you need to ask such a question is proof of your status as a third-rate magus."

    "You know, I could do without you insulting me every other sentence...."

    "The better question would be why anyone would want to live here at all. While Russia at one point in its history may have been a great nation, this place has since become nothing more than a backwards wasteland for magi, devoid of any notable scholarship for centuries."

    "You mean there aren't many magi here? In all of Russia?" Katja asked. "I find that hard to believe."
    "The only options any magi have are to work under the thumb of the Party or leave," Shlykova scoffed. "There's no future to be had here, that's why I cannot stay. My family refuses to recognize this fact. They're perfectly willing to rot here in self-imposed exile, holding onto the last dregs of their nobility while contributing nothing to the greater world."

    Shlykova spat out these words like they disgusted her to even ponder. She spoke with such vitriol, such disdain, that Katja almost wanted to sympathize with her.

    "Is that why you want the Grail?" Katja asked. "To wish for a fresh start somewhere else?"
    Shlykova's expression darkened.

    "....I don't want the Grail. I never did." she murmured. "This is simply my duty as the heir of the Shlykova line. Because the Grail manifested on our land, we have laid claim to it. That's all there is to it."

    "You make it sound like there's more to it than that." Katja said, for once prying out of genuine curiosity.

    Shlykova shook her head.

    "I've already said too much," Shlykova said, looking down. "You'll have to die now, I'm afraid. Since this is the last thing you'll ever hear, I guess I should confess that I never really disliked you. I did genuinely believe we could've been friends, if you had remained uninvolved, that is. More's the pity...."

    Shlykova raised her whips, undoubtedly preparing to finish Katja off. Katja, however, held up a hand.

    "Wait," Katja said. "Is it alright if I say my final piece?"

    "Why not? But make it short, it would not do to waste too much time here."

    "To be perfectly honest Shlykova, I never liked you in school. But I think I finally get why now. The way you always acted like everyone in the room loved you disgusted me, but even I could tell that you were just putting up a front. But what made me dislike, what seriously pissed me off, was how each time you bugged me, each time you showed off in front of the class and flaunted your grossly flamboyant attitude, you looked like you were having so much fun."

    Shlykova stepped back, shocked.

    "Wha-"

    Seeing Shlykova momentarily drop her guard, Katja immediately pounced upon Shlykova, grabbing her by the collar. Before she had time to respond, Katja activated the Magecraft she had slowly squirreled away while Shlykova was distracted, causing the few remaining trees with golden wires wrapped around them to liquefy momentarily. The sudden loss of tension caused the wires to rocket towards Katja and Shlykova's position at a tremendous speed. Just before the wire slammed into the two of them from all sides, binding them, Katja leapt towards Shlykova. Katja allowed the golden binding to slam into her back and propel her straight for Shlykova. Then, leaning her head back and casting reinforcement, she swung and smashed her head into Shlykova's with everything she had. An audible crack resounded through the clearing as Shlykova's bleeding head slumped backwards. Their bodies slammed together with significant force, but because Katja was prepared for this moment, the impact caused her minimal pain. Then, after making sure that Shlykova wasn't moving, Katja, with the help of a few well-placed solidifications, wormed her way out of the golden bindings and struggled to her feet. The effort of getting up actually caused Katja to stumble backwards, unable to fully muster the strength to stand. She was spent, almost completely.

    Katja let out a weak chuckle and leaned over Shlykova.

    "You wanna know why you lost?" Katja asked.

    Shlykova didn't respond, Katja doubted she could. Shlykova just took the impact of a small vehicle right to the head. Even if she managed to put up a reinforcement in time, it likely only blunted the impact moderately, not enough to block it.

    "I'll admit, even if you don't need me to, that you're better than me in every way," Katja said, grinning. "Had you come at me with the intent to kill from the beginning, you would've won, no problem."

    Katja looked down into Shlykova's slightly open eyes.

    "But you didn't, did you? Each time you had the chance to kill me, you didn't," Katja said. "I don't know your circumstances. I don't know what expectations are placed on you or whatever you call it. But I know that you're too soft to carry that out. Deep down, you didn't feel like winning, and I took advantage of that. That's why you lost."

    Unable to maintain consciousness anymore, Shlykova's eyes shut. Katja crouched down and poked her cheek. It felt cold and stiff. Briefly, Katja considered moving her to a warmer place, but she decided against it. She had to get back to her uncle.

    "That will be quite enough," a voice behind her said.

    Darting around, Katja found Archer standing behind her. Katja leapt back instinctively. Archer didn't bother to move, and Katja noticed he was unarmed.

    "If I wanted you dead, you would be," he said in a deep, level voice. "You know this, surely."

    "I wouldn't have held it against you," Katja said. "Considering what I did to your Master."

    Katja said this while glaring at Archer, ready to react to anything. Unexpectedly, Archer actually laughed. It was a gruff sort of laugh, hearty, and unexpected from Archer's more refined manner of speech.

    "It was a fine battle. My Master accepted the risks," he said. "I would not stain a victory with a cowardly blow."

    "Heh, I wouldn't exactly call the fight honorable," Katja said, grinning.

    "Once the battle has begun, taking whatever means possible to win is not cowardice, but respect," Archer said, shaking his head. "It means you respect your enemy enough to fight with not just your body, but your mind."
    "I guess I can get behind that," Katja said. "So then what'll you do now? My Servant's not exactly here for you to fight."

    "My Master is injured. I will not allow the cold to claim her life, so we will retreat for tonight. You have earned yourself that respite. Take it as a gift."

    "Fooey, I guess that means you won't tell me your true name as a reward for winning," Katja said sarcastically.

    Archer cracked a small smile.

    "My name is irrelevant. I am simply my Master's Arrow."

    Kneeling down, Archer picked up Shlykova in his arms and walked off. Katja made no move to stop them, not that she could've anyhow.

    "Right," Katja said, still struggling to come to terms with the fact that she was still alive. "I should go and get Uncle now."

    Right as she prepared to leave, however, Katja looked down at her hands and noticed they were oddly pale, even for this weather. She took a few steps, but felt strangely numb, as though she was walking, yet not. Then, the strength suddenly left her legs and she fell forward into the snow. Looking down, in a lightheaded daze, she saw a growing pool of blood forming at her flank.

    The crystal formation holding her body together was gone.







    --

    Day 4: Shifting Tides


    Dancing swiftly between mounds of fallen rubble, Assassin managed to maneuver out of the grey beast's rampage. Around him Katja's house had been reduced to ground level, with little remaining of the structure beyond the smoldering piles of wood and stone. Even those, however, would soon be swallowed by the swirling tide of crystal formations that captured the flames within its reach and turned them into spearheads that began orbiting the battlefield. Dante stood in the center of this storm, constantly buffeted by these sharpened shards without giving a single inch.

    "Ha! Is this little trick all you know how to do?" Dante shouted. "If so, I'm done humoring you, mage."

    Dante maintained his grip on Elohim, which still glowed with a bright golden light that shone through even the obscuring cyclone of wind and crystal. While he couldn't see Galatea, he still stood with an absolute confidence.

    "No matter how much you damage me, I will never lose my spirit," Dante gloated. "So step forth from the shadows and allow yourself to be slain!"

    Raising his sword into the air, Dante released another pillar of light into the sky.

    "Turn the wicked, Elohim!" Dante roared, bringing his sword down and cutting a massive opening through the swirling crystals. He let out an exhausted gasp before the sword glowed and Dante stood up firmly once more. Looking forward, Dante saw Galatea standing firmly on the other side of the now parted storm.

    "There you are! Now, face your demise!" he shouted before charging at Galatea with his sword in tow.

    Before he could close the distance, Galatea raised her wand and her form was once again obscured in the thick winds. Dante roared with frustration.

    "Again and again, you charge headfirst towards the enemy, despite knowing nothing about their abilities," Galatea's voice rang within the enclosed space. "You truly are a bigger fool than I had expected."

    Dante's eyes looked around for any sign of the source of the voice. He grinned.

    "What need do I have to protect my body? As long as I fight for the Lord, I cannot fall. This is the gift bestowed upon me by Elohim," Danted sneered. "As long as I stand tall, victory shall favor me in the end. Caution is for those without the Almighty's divine protection."

    "Indeed, your sword's ability is certainly formidable. Were it in the hands of a more competent wielder, it may even be something considered unbeatable."

    "You would continue to mock me?" Dante growled. "Your death will not be an easy one, I promise you this, witch."

    Dante took one step forward, when all of a sudden, he found himself completely encased in crystal. From head to toe, Dante could not move a single muscle as a massive crystal appeared almost instantaneously around Dante's whole body. With what little movement he had, he grunted and gripped Elohim's hilt. A violent burst of white energy erupted, shattering the crystalline structure as Dante stood and gasped for air.

    "I would not call it mockery. Only observation. That is what always sickened me about you of the Holy Church. You condemn and you judge, but you never seek to understand. You wear your god's name like a badge that gives you all the right to torture and kill as you please. What a twisted farce. How many innocents have suffered and died at the hands of your collective arrogance?"

    Dante's sneer had long since faded away and was now replaced with a murderous glare.

    "You would dare insult the entire Christian faith?" he said in a low growl.

    "No. I insult you, Dante Faarlith. As well as every other member of your disgusting Eighth Sacrament. I thought it academic to read your Bible years ago. And I can say without hyperbole that you have thoroughly desecrated its values."

    "YOU DARE‽" Dante shouted at the top of his lungs.

    He charged forwards and swung Elohim around, carving out large swaths of the skies and nearby countryside.

    "Look at you, nothing more than a murder-hungry beast in armor. Your delusional belief in your own righteousness only serves to make you more pathetic."

    "I will not tolerate these insults any further!" Dante hollered. "Show yourself before me and face me, you snivelling magus coward!!"

    Just as Dante prepared to let loose more blasts from Elohim, a crystal growth formed on his hand and Dante grunted in pain, momentarily unhanding the sword. In that instant, a flash of crystal formed around Dante's body instantly, immobilizing him with his finger a mere sliver away from his sword. His head stuck out of the structure unfrozen as Galatea appeared from the mist.

    "Is there anything going through that head of yours besides that sort of nonsensical drivel?" Galatea asked, her body glowing with active Prana particles. "Have you so little understanding of your own abilities that you do not understand its weaknesses?"

    "Hah! What do you mean, witch?" Dante laughed. "Elohim has no weaknesses. It is my family's covenant with God himself. As long as I do not fall, the sword will never fail me."

    "A primitive description," Galatea said. "With each release of your blade's magical energy, it scatters extremely dense clouds of what I suspect to be true ether into the air, which the sword rapidly reabsorbs in order to maintain itself and its wielder. It is highly similar in concept to a perpetual motion machine, a theoretically limitless form of movement."

    "Oh? That certainly is new information. But what benefit do you have in telling me such a thing?"

    "Force of habit," Galatea said. "I am simply too accustomed to explaining things."

    "Well, I hope you don't regret it!" Dante roared, as Elohim flared without Dante having to touch it.

    With another blast of force, Dante caught the falling blade and leapt forward with his sword overhead. Galatea calmly pointed her wand at him once more.

    "Cocytus" she said.

    Dante's body froze mid-swing. After a few moments, the crystal formation shattered and Dante emerged.

    "Enough! How are you able to encase my body so readily‽" he shouted, his breathing heavy before being immediately restored.

    Galatea sighed.

    "Even a monkey would have understood by now," she said. "Have you not noticed that each wreath of crystals I form is generated from the flames around you?"

    "What of it?" Dante spat.

    "The explanation would likely only be lost on you," Galatea said, shaking her head. "But to oversimplify for you, the principle of our Magecraft is centered around Inorganic Proliferation, inanimate crystal that grows as though it were alive. As long as there is energy to be fed upon, the crystals grow like plants. Thanks to your reckless scattering of highly energized particles, this entire battlefield has become my garden."

    As if to prove her point, Galatea pointed her wand at Rider's great grey beast. Immediately, the lower half of its body was encased in crystal. Rider yelled out in surprise and Assassin took the chance to leap onto the beast's body using the crystal as a foothold and engage Rider on equal footing. Making three rapid strikes with his gladius, Assassin forced Rider on the defensive in an awkward seated position.

    "Nice assist!" Assassin yelled.

    Galatea looked at Dante, who remained rooted in place. With a flick of her wrist, Galatea encased his legs in crystal.

    "As I already said, a formidable ability rendered useless by its wielder." she said.

    Galatea raised her wand arm in the air and a large spear of crystal formed instantly above her.

    "Normally, I much prefer to lay the proper foundation for my crystal sorcery, but thanks to you, that became unnecessary." she said.

    Galatea launched the spear towards Dante at full force. However, just before the spear impaled the fallen warrior, it struck some sort of invisible barrier and shattered on impact, spraying the air with crystal fragments. Galatea took a step back in surprise.

    "Hehe.... HAHAHAHAHAAA!" Dante erupted in manic laughter.

    He stood up, his body suddenly aglow with radiant energy that began to coalesce around him in a mass of light rays.

    "Had you faced a normal man, you may have claimed victory," Dante said slowly. "However, my true power only comes in response to a great need. Now that it has arrived, you are finished."

    Reacting instantly, Galatea raised her wand and Dante was encased in crystal. However, the energy that surrounded him acted like a barrier that kept him from being frozen. With a single wave of his hand, Dante shattered the barrier.

    "Sorry, but we're done with that now," he said, holding out his sword. "For I have transcended the limits of flesh. Prepare to pay for your foolishness."

    Dante held the sword up to his chest, and with a swift movement, he impaled himself with his own blade. The glow of the sword faded, and the blade slipped from his hands and onto the floor, an inert metal sword. Dante's eyes rolled backwards, and his body began to spasm and twitch violently. Suddenly, his neck bent to the left at an inhuman angle, creating a loud cracking sound. Dante's body continued to twist and curl about, as though some sort of invisible force was wrenching his body like a misshapen marionette. As his form continued to writhe and shift, it began hovering in the air, rising slowly until it stopped around ten meters in the air. When Dante finished transforming, he was wholly unrecognizable. Where once a human man stood, instead there was an otherworldly with four misshapen wings still covered in a thin layer of gooey film after having torn itself from Dante's back. One of his hands was much larger than the other and had long thin claws at the ends of his four fingers. Where his head once was, there instead two heads, one that resembled Dante, only with holes where the eyes would be and the other appearing as a monstrous facsimile of Dante with bloodshot red eyes and a wide, unhinged jaw lined with rows of sharpened teeth.

    "Now, you shall face judgement," the right head of Dante said in a voice that seemed to convey sadness. "Please, don't resist. The end will come soon."

    "Kuhahahaha! Die! Die! DIE!!" the other head screamed erratically.

    Galatea, while surprised, did not appear to show it on the surface. She simply pointed her wand into the air.

    "Lethe!" she announced.

    Several massive towers of crystal, three meters in diameter, formed like vines around Galatea and stretched outwards the floating Dante. In a single motion. Dante charged through all of the crystal towers, shattering them like glass and appeared behind Galatea.

    "Harder than diamonds these crystals may be, but they are but dust in the wind before God's light." the right head said.

    Dante's form had grown to be over two meters tall, with a hulking monstrous form that accompanied his now semi-seraphic appearance. He raised his misshapen hand to the side, then turned and swung it full force at Galatea. Instinctively, Galatea knew to place a strong barrier between the two of them and, even though his hand never made contact with the wall, several huge gashes were carved out of the crystal.

    "Rip! Stab! Murder! Kill!" the left head screamed joyously.

    Galatea was forced backwards further and further, with each wall she made doing little to impede the monstrous warrior. Just as it looked as though he was upon her, Galatea stood her ground and waited for the moment when Dante was too close to escape. Right as Dante cleared the final barrier, Galatea created two towers of crystal on either side of Dante which turned and slammed into him on both sides. Using just his hands Dante stopped both towers and, with a swift rotation, caused both to go careening past him and into the ground.

    "Cocytus!" Galatea shouted.

    Before Galatea, a huge block of crystal formed from the air, encasing everything in one hundred square meters in a mineral prison. Galatea let out an exhausted gasp. Though the Mana in the air was plentiful, the "seed" of a crystal growth is formed from her own Od, meaning that even with the dense magical energy in the air, her abilities were not inexhaustible. With this, hopefully, she could stop his rampage. Just then she heard the sound of crunching footsteps behind her.

    "I am truly sorry, but that ability is now too slow for me," the right Dante said.

    And Galatea was struck with the impact of a clawed hand going through her chest.

    Not far from this, Assassin was finally thrown off the grey beast, but not after managing to slash Rider on the arm, leaving behind a sizable wound just below the upper shoulder. Rider briefly studied the wound before ordering his beast to burst forth from its crystalline prison.

    "It would seem as though your blade is dulled, Roman," Rider said. "Your concern for your Master is impeding your focus. With such an opening, you should have been able to easily take my arm."

    Assassin grinned and readied his gladius for another bout.

    "Heh, who are you to be insulting anyone's focus, Carthaginian? Are you so concerned that your backup has yet to arrive that you've grown distracted? It's not like you to be placed in a corner like this." Assassin taunted.

    Surus charged towards Assassin in a full sprint. With the house now collapsed, there was little risk of falling off the side, giving Rider's beast complete freedom to run about with impunity. Assassin managed to nimbly dodge out of the way, but with a wide sweep of the beast's tail, it caught Assassin's shield at a bad angle and sent it flying away. Cursing in Latin, Assassin dodged the beast's snapping jaws and, kicking off a pile of rubble, leapt into the air and carved a deep cut into the beast's hide, drawing a small amount of blood.

    "You have the gall to call me cornered?" Rider said. "I would suggest that you reevaluate your position. Both you and your ally are facing imminent defeat, while your inexperienced Master must take on an enemy Master and Servant by herself all while protecting an escort."

    "Sure, when you put it that way, it looks bad," Assassin said, grinning, though his smile was slightly strained. "But you'll see, the sun will rise on the Republic as it always has."

    "Hmph! Do not think I will allow you to escape as you always have. This victory will be the final one." Rider announced.

    Together with Surus, Rider charged towards Assassin. However, when Assassin attempted to dodge out of the way, Surus used its tail to latch onto a piece of firm rubble and turn to catch Assassin, slamming into him with its large head and knocking him backwards and onto his back. Then, just before Surus could crush Assassin between its jaws, Assassin reached for his shield, which he angled himself to land near, and placed it between the creature's jaws. Leaping to his feet, Assassin jammed his gladius up beneath the beast's jaw, lodging the sword halfway deep before diving away. Surus let out a roar of pain as Assassin avoided Rider's spear thrusts. One managed to catch Assassin on the thigh before he rolled and reclaimed his lost spear, using it to knock away Rider's attacks.

    "I've gotten used to your beast's speed, Rider," Assassin said, panting. "That'll be the last time I get hit by it."

    At this, Rider let out a smile.

    "Very well done. You have certainly managed to outmaneuver my footsoldier."

    He let out a wide grin, then placed his hand on Surus's back.

    "But what will you do about the cavalry?"

    "Wha-"

    "Surus Numidiae!!" Rider shouted.

    A bright flash surrounded Surus, and the creature's form began to shrink rapidly until it was only two and a half meters tall. While it maintained its vaguely grey and two-legged reptilian appearance, its bulky form had been replaced with a thin, sharp and agile form with spine-like hairs running down the back of its neck. Its head was long and ended in a more typical snout, and its arms were bulkier relative to its body, thick with muscle that allowed it to just as easily run on four legs as on two.

    "What better mount for the fall of Rome," Rider smirked.

    Sending up a flurry of rubble, the beast took off at a speed that matched a Servant's. Assassin barely had time to raise his shield before a sharp impact slammed into him from the right. Though not as oppressively strong as the larger beast, Assassin had little room to breathe as the nimble Surus immediately swerved around to his exposed left flank and latched onto Assassin's shoulder. Rider thrust forward with a much shorter spear, similar in length now to Assassin's own, and Assassin just moved his head away as the spearhead flew past him, cutting him on the cheek. Assassin inserted his spear between the creature's jaws and his arm, using the leverage to wrench his arm free from the beast's grip.

    "It would appear as though you've still got a few tricks up your sleeve," Assassin said, holding his bleeding shoulder. "I guess I won't be needing this."

    Assassin slammed his tower shield into the ground, planting it upright as he held his spear in two hands.

    Rider pointed his spear at Assassin.

    "Come!"

    Assassin expertly spun his spear around him as he ran forward. Thrusting forward twice, he watched carefully as the beast hopped about, avoiding his strikes. Spinning around to catch the beast as it flanked him, his spear swing was blocked by Rider's own weapon. Before he could launch another attack, Assassin was forced away by the beast's snapping jaws. Even with the versatility of two-handing his spear, Assassin could not handle two intelligent opponents at once. He had to take one out of the equation. This time, as Rider went forwards to engage Assassin, he held his spear lower to the ground, allowing Rider to approach him. Just as the beast lunged to strike, Assassin spun his spear and bent down low, sweeping his spear at the creature's feet. As the creature leapt into the air, Assassin, still maintaining the angular momentum of the spear's rotation, slammed his spear into the beast's flank. Thanks to the much lighter body, Assassin was able to knock the beast away and send it tumbling to the ground. Rider rolled off the creature's back and Assassin began to pressure him with a series of powerful spear strikes. Without his mount, Rider's physical abilities were a step below Assassin's and so he was hoping to use these few moments of vulnerability to land a critical blow. With a few precise strikes, Assassin managed to knock away Rider's spear. Thrusting outwards again, Assassin managed to shear off a portion of Rider's forearm with a powerful blow. Rider let out a low grunt of pain.

    "A pyrrhic victory it is then," he said.

    "What are yo-" Assassin began, when out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of bronze brown.

    Assassin dodged to the side to avoid Surus's tackle. As the beast sped past him, it swung its tail at Assassin too quickly for him to dodge. Assassin braced himself for the impact. He was confident that he could at least take the blow.

    "Surus Punicas!" Rider shouted.

    Mid-swing, the Surus's tail transformed from a lighter, whiplike form to the larger, ramlike form of Surus's massive transformation. Barely able to get his arm up in time, Assassin realized the foolishness of abandoning his shield as he was battered away by the force of the blow. Landing some distance away in a pile of rubble, Assassin clutched his arm and grimaced as Rider approached him.

    "Didn't realize you could change him so fast," Assassin grunted as he held his broken arm. "I guess I got a bit greedy there."

    Rider pointed his spear down at Assassin.

    "You always were a decisive one only when it came to seizing victory. Unfortunately, the rules of this war were a bit different from the war we once knew. I will not question your judgement, only your haste. You lacked information, and now you will suffer defeat for it. Any final words?"

    Out of the corner of his eye, Assassin spotted a small movement amidst the rubble. After a few moments passed, Assassin grinned at Rider.

    "Sorry, but how could I possibly lose without my Master by my side?" he said.

    Then all hell broke loose.

    --

    Katja felt numb, so numb that the cold no longer felt real to her anymore. It was as though everything that her body deemed unnecessary for immediate survival had been pared away. The world looked grey. She didn't feel any pain from her lifeblood leaving her body, not that she could tell how bad it was. She didn't have the energy to look down.

    She was dying, Katja could tell that much at least. The warmth would soon leave her body and she knew that in seconds she could slip away into unconsciousness. Weakly, Katja felt around her own body as though it were one of her sculptures. She could tell what was missing but didn't have the knowledge on how to replace it. Unlike Galatea, Katja didn't have the years of experience and knowledge pertaining to the human anatomy to reconnect the lost blood vessels and restore lost organs. Without it, Katja wouldn't have long to live.

    In her delirium, a string of questions appeared in Katja's mind. Would the cold kill her first, or the blood loss? Perhaps the blood would freeze over and form a layer to stop the bleeding, like an inverse cauterization. Could blood freeze? Katja remembered learning in her history class about the men who walked in space. She learned that their blood could boil if left out in the vacuum. Did that mean blood could also freeze? She wasn't thinking straight, probably not enough blood going to her brain.

    Suddenly, she heard footsteps approaching her. They stopped right in front of her and Katja felt something being placed in the snow.

    "Sorry, but letting you die here isn't part of the itinerary," the voice said.

    Katja weakly opened her eyes and saw in front of her a tiny cylindrical glass bottle filled with a light purple dust. With the last of her strength, Katja grasped it with her hand.

    "Drink it," the voice said. "It'll buy you some time."

    Katja tilted the liquid slightly. The dust flowed with the viscosity of water, and she allowed it to tip over into her mouth. Katja wasn't sure what she expected it to taste like, but whatever she expected this was far, far beyond that. Immediately, Katja perked up. She tried to sit up but a pair of hands stopped her. Looking up, she saw Caster kneeling down over her, although he looked nothing like he did when Katja last saw him. Whereas before, Caster had lazily worn an outfit with little ceremoniality or regality, Katja could only describe his current appearance as polished. He wore a simple set of robes that resembled a toga in aesthetic, if not in coverage, dotted with a simple array geometric lines running along its length that went down to his feet. The top left corner of his robes had the texture of a starry night, almost as though it were not fabric, but void matter itself. On his left arm was a set of six bands each encrusted with a single jewel of different colors, and he wore a pair of sleek, futuristic glasses that had upon them a tiny interface.

    "Hold on there, young miss," he said in his familiar reclined voice. "You move around too much and your intestines will fall out of your body."

    Katja looked down and noticed the blood flowing out of her body had stopped entirely, even while the hole in her side remained wide open. Placing her hand near the wound, her body felt numb and cold, as though she were touching a corpse.

    "W-what did you do to me?" Katja asked. "I was dying just now, and yet...."

    "When you become a god, ," Caster said. "Same goes for those that partake of a god's essence."

    "So then...."

    "The effects are temporary, mind you," Caster prefaced. "I wager you've got about five minutes before your body consumes all of the Divine Ambrosia. But until then, you can move about as though you weren't dying."

    Katja snapped to attention.

    "What happened to Galatea?" Katja asked in a panicked voice. "One minute I was fine, but then the next, her enchantment was gone! Did something happen to her?"

    Caster placed a hand on Katja's shoulder.

    "I appreciate the concern you have for my Master," he said calmly. "But perhaps you should be more concerned that you're missing about a fifth of your internal organs. The moment your temporary immortality ends, you'll probably drop dead instantly."

    "How did you get this stuff?" Katja asked, inspecting her body. "This seems like it would be really convenient to have."

    "Unfortunately, that was the last of it," Caster shrugged. "Getting it requires cooperation from an actual god. Fortunately, I have friends in high places."

    Katja looked down.

    "Sorry you had to use something so valuable on me...."

    "Don't sweat it," Caster chuckled. "It was a reagent. If you can be helpful in some way, consider the debt paid."

    Katja nodded bashfully then looked down at her side. The injury Archer had dealt her was far too complex to be resolved in five minutes. Katja doubted she could repair such damage even if she had a full year. Still, there was a way to jury rig a solution.

    "Are you serious?" Caster asked as Katja grabbed a handful of snow and held it to her side. "Listen, I'm no doctor.... I mean, I am, but....pretty sure that's not going to work."

    "I can live without a kidney for a while," Katja said. "For now, I just need to redirect the blood back into my body."

    Holding the snow to her body, Katja grimaced at the sudden sensation of cold onto her bare skin. She knew that this was nothing more than a stopgap to her current predicament, but she was sure that she could ask Galatea to help patch her up again once this was all over, provided that Galatea was alright, that is. Closing her eyes and focusing her transmutation, Katja attempted to synchronize the compositions of the snow and her flesh, attempting to meld them together. It wouldn't be pretty, Katja didn't have enough skill to make anything resembling proper human flesh, but she could make a semi-organic gel that caught and redirected open blood vessels to where they needed to go. After a few minutes of intense focus, Katja looked down at the ugly reddish-purple mass that filled in the open wound. It would haunt her every time she stepped in front of a mirror, but she would at least live long enough to see one now.

    "A simple solution, if not an elegant one," Caster said, looking at a small stopwatch in his hand. "Time's up."

    All of a sudden, Katja felt a wave of lethargy flood her body, and she almost fell forwards before righting herself. She felt a stab of intense pain strike her side and Katja let out a weak whimper.

    "Mortality sucks," Katja said, rubbing the wound ineffectually.

    Caster laughed.

    "It's not all bad, young miss," Caster said. "Trust me, immortality tends to make beings reeeaaaallly annoying. They think because they can't die, they're better than you."

    Caster places a finger to his ear.

    "Got it, on your mark," he said.

    Katja cocked her head to the side.

    "That reminds me, why are you out here anyways? I thought you preferred to support, not fight."

    "Circumstances have changed," Caster said in a serious voice. "I just got my cue, so I have to leave now. Sit tight until then, will you? The Labyrinth is open whenever you need it."

    Caster walked past Katja and waved her goodbye. Katja attempted to stand, but she couldn't muster the strength in her legs. From this distance, she couldn't tell how Assassin was doing. He was still alive, that much she could tell, but she felt totally blind in every other way.
    "Ah, right!" Katja exclaimed.

    Closing her eyes and reaching out towards the current drains on her magical energy, Katja felt several smaller presences as well as Assassin's larger one. Cutting off all unnecessary connections, Katja reached out to the small squirrel she had placed in her house at the beginning of the battle. Transferring her senses across the magical bond, Katja found herself inside a mound of rubble, with loud noises all around her. Worming her away out of the rubble, Katja watched in awe as Assassin and Rider were locked in combat. She made it just in time to see Assassin getting slapped away by the grey beast's tail. His body crashed through several piles of rubble, and he ended up lying crumpled not far from Katja's position. Moving slightly to get within his line of sight, Katja reached out to him with her mind.

    Assassin!
    she thought loudly. It's me!

    Katja watched as Rider came in on his gigantic beast and pointed his spear at Assassin.

    Katja! Thank the gods you're alive! he said back to her in his mind. I see you've caught me at a bad time. I assure you I was winning for most of this fight.

    Caster said he's on his way. How's Galatea? I can't see her.

    Well, I'm fine, thanks for asking,
    Assassin grumbled. Galatea's in a bad spot, last I saw. But then again, who am I to talk?

    How can I help? I can distract him and give him an opening.

    No. Leave Servants to fight each other. I've got this, so go help Galatea.

    But-


    I don't know what you've gone through, Katja, but whatever it was, we'll have to talk about it later. Don't push yourself. Galatea needs your help more than I do.

    .....Alright. But this better not be a self-sacrifice thing.

    Heh. Do I really look like the type to do something like that? I play to win.

    With that, Katja's squirrel darted off towards Galatea, following Assassin's directions. Every now and then, the squirrel's form stiffened and jerked awkwardly. Katja's magical connection was weak and tenuous. She didn't know how much change she could affect, or even how long she could maintain this connection over such a distance, but it was all she could do.

    As the small bronze animal darted out of sight, Assassin looked to his immediate right. A sudden flash of gold shot out and hit Surus in the flank before expanding into a swirling mass of strings that entangled the beast's legs.

    "What!" Rider roared, immediately turning Surus into its Numidian form to escape the entanglement. He leapt out from the jumbled mass of golden wire and landed some distance away. Assassin rolled to his feet and jumped back next to the approaching robed figure.

    "Another warrior of ambiguous ability," Rider remarked cautiously. "Given your build, I suspect you are not of the knight classes, nor are you a berserker. Which would make you either an Assassin or a Caster-class Servant."

    Caster brandished a long, elegant glaive with a solid red shaft and an emerald green blade with teeth-like indentations at the end of it. At the back end of the weapon, a short, silver chain hung from a small hole drilled into the top.

    "Got me in one, Rider," he said. "Servant Caster at your service."

    "What took you so long?" Assassin asked, chipper, despite his broken arm. "Were you just waiting for the perfect chance to reveal yourself?"

    "Well, you know the thing about us heroes, we show up when we're needed most," Caster said back. "But for real, do you just, like, not have a Noble Phantasm or something? I feel like it would've come in handy."

    "It's not yet time," Assassin said, shaking his head. "Certain conditions have to be met."

    Rider watched the two of them closely, unwilling to initiate an engagement.

    "What are you gonna do with that, start dancing?" Assassin asked, indicating to the glaive. "I didn't figure close combat to be your style."

    "It's not," Caster replied. "I was never the warrior type. But I do like to let my inventions do the talking. Just be ready to step in when you see an opening."

    He took on a battle stance, holding the glaive over his shoulders and pointing the blade downwards. Both parties stared at each other for a moment before Caster lunged forward. Letting go of the glaive with one of his hands, he thrust the weapon forwards, allowing the weapon to fly out of his arms towards Rider, who easily parried away the strike. As the weapon flew outwards, Caster allowed the weapon to slip past his fingers until he reached the chain. Immediately after the weapon was parried, Caster grabbed the chain and swung the weapon around him. Rider stepped forwards with Surus and attempted to spear Caster with two attacks. Before the blows landed, however, Caster reached down to his waist and threw out a long golden ornament of some sort into the way of the attacks. The scarf-like object wrapped around the spearhead and began to climb up the length of Rider's weapon.

    "What is this?" Rider exclaimed as he shook his weapon.

    The object, which had the appearance of a long, draconic creature lunged at Rider's face with its claws outstretched. At the same time, Caster's weapon, which he held from the chain, suddenly changed trajectory and inserted itself into Surus's flank. The beast let out a roar of pain and stumbled backwards. Catching the small dragon by the neck, Rider looked down and to his shock, noticed that where the strange emerald weapon had struck, a rough, hollow wound had been made, as though the attack tore rather than cut, leaving behind a deep wound. Rider threw the dragon at the ground and swung his long spear at Caster's head. Reacting as though it had a mind of its own, however, the emerald spear intercepted the blow. Rider backed off so as not to get overwhelmed.

    "What strange sorcery is this?" he asked Caster.

    He placed his hand on Surus's wound and, after a few moments, the injury sealed itself. The small dragon scrambled across the ground chasing after Rider. Before the creature could strike a second time, Surus stepped on it with its foot and tore it in half with its great jaws.

    "Not sorcery, just science," he said, wagging his finger. "This spear is made of Stymphalian metal, while that model dragon over there was my attempt at weaponized apparel."

    The spear fought against his grip on the chain, like a feral dog struggling to tear itself free. Caster let out a mischievous grin and dug through the inner pockets of his robes.

    "Sorry, but I'm going to have you field test some of my inventions for me. You're welcome to break them, though. I have their blueprints back home."

    Rider leaned back slightly on Surus.

    "I too, am sorry. But I have little interest in such games. Now that I know it is dangerous to attack you at a distance. I will simply change my approach."

    Surus reared back its large head and then let out an enormous, trumpeting roar. The sheer force of the sound sent a wave of sonic force charging at Caster and Assassin's position like a herd of charging bulls. Assassin tensed his legs, ready to retreat, but noticed that Caster held his ground. With his hand still in his robes, he continued to calmly rummage about until his hand finally stopped on something. He threw out a transparent scroll that unfurled itself in mid-air before the blast. It began to expand, slightly distorting the air around it. When the wave collided with this transparent film, Assassin raised his arms and braced, but no impact came. Looking up, Assassin watched as the waves of sonic energy appeared to be sucked into a single point, which coalesced into a small glass sphere that Caster caught.

    "Here, you can have this back," Caster said, and lightly tossed the ball forwards.

    The sphere shattered as it hit the ground and exploded into a wave of force straight at Rider, who hurriedly ran to the side of the blast with Surus's Numidian form.

    "It would seem as though you are a heroic spirit of some repute," Rider said, studying Caster. "I expected you to avoid Surus's blast somehow, but to redirect it back at me is no small feat. I am beginning to wonder if there is any end to your versatility."

    Caster smiled.

    "I'll let you in on a little secret," he said, winking. "As far as heroic spirits go, I barely count as above human. When it comes to strength and durability, I'm no better than one of them. So it goes with the cost of genius."

    Rider paused for a moment, rubbing his chin. Then, he laughed.

    "I see! Then the clues of your true identity fall into place," he announced. "We have not once met, yet you are aware of me. Your inexplicable knowledge of our movements and identities, as well as your references to the relics and materials of Ancient Greece paint you as none other than Daedalus, inventor of the Labyrinth!"

    "Congratulations, you got it on your first try, Hannibal Barca," Caster said, clapping. "It would appear that your intelligence is not to be underestimated, even by me."

    Caster's grin turned slightly sinister as he released his grip on the Stymphalian spear, allowing it to fly out of his reach. Reaching into his robes with both hands, he pulled out a sleek black console around the size of a tray.

    "Now that we all know each other, I hope you don't mind if I get a little serious."

    Rider had Surus engage in a defensive stance, unsure of what to expect. Just then, the ground around the battlefield began to shake violently, and Rider soon found himself on top of a set of rising stone and earthen spires. Rising out of the ground like a horde of eels, these man-sized pillars all turned and began diving across the ground, charging through it as though it were made of water straight at Rider. Quickly shifting to Surus Numidiae, Rider deftly dodged and weaved between the charging pillars, managing to completely avoid getting caught in the storm of stone. In between his dodges, Rider momentarily transformed Surus into his grey form and fired a wave of sonic energy at Caster.

    "You gonna throw that back in his face again?" Assassin asked, grinning. "I bet he'll love that now."

    Caster chuckled nervously.

    "Yeah, about that," he said. "You can carry me with one arm, right?"

    Assassin's grin faded.

    "You only brought one of those things?"

    "I only brought one of those things."

    Cursing in Latin, Assassin grabbed Caster and tucked him under his shoulder.

    "What were you thinking‽" Assassin yelled as he ran with Caster in tow. "What, did you think he could only do that once?"

    "I didn't know he could do it at all!" Caster shouted back. "I could only bring so much and it seemed a bit presumptive to bring more than one!"

    A long slab of stone rose out of the ground in front of Assassin, using it as a platform, Assassin ran up and leapt over the wave, which only stood around ten meters tall at its peace. Landing on the ground with a thud, Assassin grimaced and unceremoniously dropped Caster.

    "Ow! Do you need me to stick a 'handle with care' sign on my forehead?" Caster complained, rubbing his backside.

    "Eyes on the battlefield, old man," Assassin said. "He's coming."

    Caster looked up to see Rider almost upon them, with the pillars not moving fast enough to catch up. Caster inputted a few buttons into his console, then a large tunnel sprang forth from the ground in front of Rider's charge, swallowing him inside of it.

    "That's a pretty handy device," Assassin noted with a thoughtful smirk.

    "Sorry, only works for me," Caster replied.

    The ground in front of them erupted as Surus tore itself out of the ground. The Stymphalian spear spun violently towards the creature, slashing at its eye. The moment the metal made contact with flesh, in a single instant, the blade appeared to reach out and bite the beast, tearing out a sizable portion of its head. The beast howled and fell forwards, its body twitching. Rider stepped off the creature's back and placed his hand on its head. Muttering a few words under his breath, Rider pulled back his hand and Surus's body dissolved into a pile of dust.

    "Is the beast finally dead?" Assassin asked Caster, but Rider let out a snort.

    "Of course not! As if a wound that trivial would kill my mount. I am simply allowing him time to recover." he said.

    "Glad that happened when it did," Caster said, looking down at his console. "I was beginning to run out of tricks."

    Rider let out a small smile.

    "It would seem as though we've both ground each other down to the bone," he said. "A fine battle."

    "You talk like this is all over," Assassin said, reaching for his gladius. "Don't think we're just going to let you walk away from this, Carthaginian."

    Rider pointed over to the far side of the battlefield.

    "This battle is already nearing its conclusion," he said.

    --

    A few minutes earlier

    Katja ran past a series of crystal sculptures that jutted out of the ground like frozen explosions. At some point, the dirt and snow gave way to a shiny blue crystal flooring that wound its way above and around Katja, like a veritable crystal palace. The structure was massive, easily several times the size of Katja's house, though much of it was destroyed, with places where the ceiling had caved in as well as where the floor and walls had melted off. Because this wasn't her thaumaturgy, Katja had no way of inspecting it for signs of life, so she was forced to wander aimlessly. Every now and then, Katja swore the hallways shifted slightly or rustled out of the corner of her eye. Eventually, Katja began to hear the sounds of heavy breathing. Slowly approaching the source of the noise, Katja found herself looking down at the form of Galatea, who was lying down and seemingly in pain.

    In jumping down next to her, Katja alerted Galatea of her presence. Opening her eyes in surprise, and then soon after understanding, Galatea placed one finger on the crystal ground between them.

    Are you safe? The words appeared in front of her out of the crystal.

    Because she had barely enough Prana to maintain this squirrel, Katja couldn't afford to waste the energy transmuting a voice. So instead, she just nodded.

    I see. I apologize about the enchantment. I sustained a near-fatal injury that disrupted the flow of my Prana.

    Katja couldn't verbally express her shock, so instead, she had the squirrel place a concerned paw on Galatea's arm. She wasn't exactly sure what she was trying to convey, but Galatea seemed to understand.

    My life is not in immediate danger, but my lungs have been damaged, so I cannot move. I have managed to trap Dante Faarlithe in this crystal maze, taking inspiration from Caster's abilities, but I suspect he will soon destroy all of it. It embarrasses me to say this, but it would appear that I have underestimated my opponent. Can I count on your assistance?

    Katja nodded vigorously, but then paused. She wanted to help, but all she had right now was a squirrel body. If she transmuted anything, she'd lose even that. She attempted to pantomime such to Galatea, who remained as level-headed as ever.

    I understand. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a limit on his current ability. He has achieved an abnormal form that has granted him immense speed and strength. As it stands, there is little I can do to slow him down.

    Katja didn't exactly find this reassuring, a sentiment she did her best to convey to Galatea.

    I cannot suggest a course of action for you to perform. I simply trust your judgement in this manner. In this situation, I cannot ask you to take any more of a risk than that. Find an opportunity to defeat him, even if it involves my death.

    Katja violently shook her head and lightly headbutted Galatea on the forehead, causing her to chuckle weakly.

    You shouldn't get too attached to your allies, Katja. That's not how you would survive in the Mage's Association. It was only one suggestion.

    The squirrel then began running about in a circle, attempting to convey Katja's panic as elegantly as possible. Galatea was leaving Katja's involvement to her, and Katja thought that was a terrible idea.

    If it helps, I will tell you what I know.


    A loud boom echoed through the chamber, as well as the sounds of something beating, almost like a giant pair of wings.

    We do not have much time. After consuming his own blade, he has become a winged abomination with two heads. His destructive capacity lies in his near-limitless stamina and ability to concentrate and fire destructive beams of energy similar to what he could do with his sword previously. I am unsure if a way to kill him is even possible, as he regenerates from every injury he is dealt.

    Each sentence made Katja feel more and more demoralized. If this was Galatea's assessment of Dante, then how exactly could she do anything to this monstrosity? Sensing this dejection, Galatea scribed a new message.

    Do not lose focus Katja. Every enemy, no matter how powerful, can be defeated. Now go, before he sees you.

    Still completely stumped on what to do, Katja ran off, leaving Galatea behind as she heard voices talking.

    "The time for murder has come. Judge the sinner!" a crazed voice screamed.

    "This chase is over, witch," a similar, but much calmer voice said. "There will be no more running away. Please do not make this any more difficult than it has to be."

    Climbing up the side of the jagged crystal walls, Katja could see as Galatea lifted her wand and the entire room began to shift about violently. Galatea herself moved about on a platform made of crystal, while elements from the room attacked Dante with a variety of projectile and direct attacks. All of these attacks converged on Dante at once, whom Katja could now see in all his twisted glory, but before they could land, he let out a thunderous roar that blew away all of the crystal, blasting it to dust. As he charged forward he began tearing through the crystal barriers as though they were made of paper. It would only be a few moments before Dante reached Galatea.

    Katja considered her options. She could liquify the crystal around Galatea and move her out of harm's way, though only for a few seconds. She could instead try to turn the squirrel into a heavy enough metal and try to knock Dante unconscious, though Katja doubted she could generate enough force to do that. Briefly, Katja considered taking advantage of Dante's drop in guard after he kills Galatea, but she quickly shook such thoughts out of her mind. If she wanted to do this, she wouldn't accept any losses.

    Out in the forest, the real Katja slammed her head into the snow in frustration. Why couldn't Dante just have the stupid sword? That way she could just destroy it like she did with Shlykova's whips. That's when she got an idea.

    Down on the ground, Dante stood before Galatea, having wiped away all of her defenses.

    "It truly pains me to carve out another human life," the head on the right said.

    Dante brought up his left arm, which began to glow with radiant energy.

    "Time to wash the altar with sinner's blood!" the left head screamed.

    Katja waited on the ceiling above them for the perfect opportunity. At the moment when Dante allowed himself the luxury of dropping his guard, Katja decided to strike. Dropping down from the ceiling, Katja's squirrel angled itself like a skydiver aimed straight at Dante's head.

    "DIE!" the left head screamed out as Dante prepared to launch his attack.

    The glowing golden energy coalesced to a point on his hand right as Katja slammed into the left head. Concentrating every last bit of Prana into the squirrel that Katja could, she slammed into Dante's head with all the force of a thrown stone. In that brief moment of contact, Katja could feel two distinct presences in Dante's body. One was that of a tumultuous tempest, raging around a faintly glowing light. Calling upon every bit of energy she had left, she ordered her Prana not to liquify, but to shatter. A dull thud sound echoed through the room as Katja's squirrel smacked Dante's head. She looked up and, to her horror, realized that Dante's two heads were now looking down at her.

    "Well, what do we have here?" the left Dante taunted, picking up the struggling metal animal.

    Out in the forest, Katja started coughing violently. Her body was beginning to fail her. The sheer degree of stress she had placed on her magic circuits was finally beginning to catch up to her. She couldn't understand what, but something had blocked her Magecraft, something powerful. She had thrown everything she had into that final attack. And now they were both at Dante's mercy. Katja had failed.

    Dante's grasp on the squirrel tightened, causing the metal to crumple.

    "I had assumed you were killed by that Archer," the left head sneered. "If only you had not come here, to watch your allies fall."

    Katja hung her head dejectedly. She looked over at Galatea, trying to convey her apologies. Katja wasn't sure what emotion she expected to see. Disappointment? Anger? Or perhaps a feeling of solemn acceptance?

    Instead of any of that, what Katja saw on Galatea's face was a look of shock. And it was not directed at her.

    Cautiously looking over at Dante, she recoiled in shock upon seeing that Dante's left head was beginning to melt. It almost seemed to have the appearance of a half-shrunken head, a decaying, eyeless thing with sagging, rotting flesh and hollowed out bone ridges.

    "Wha-.... what's happening to me‽" Dante said suddenly, dropping the squirrel on the ground and clutching his left head.

    Katja's squirrel had no more energy to move, so it was all Katja could do to maintain her sensory connection.

    "The voice, the voice is gone! I'm finally free!" the right head shouted out ecstatically in a voice that sounded similar, yet not identical to Dante's original voice.

    Dante began laughing hysterically, like a madman returned from a lifetime of exile.

    "Free! Free! Free! I can finally hear silence! I ca-"

    He froze. Then he began clutching his head. He held it harder and harder, until blood flowed from his fingertips digging into his own skull.

    "Ah.... ah....AAAAAAAGGGGGGHHHHH!"
    Dante let out a scream so forceful that it blew the entire room away, crystals and all. Reacting instantly, Galatea quickly moved Katja and herself behind some cover, but not before the entire crystal palace was blown away, exposing the now setting sun above. When the dust settled, Katja could see Dante, now with only one head, leaning on his once-fallen sword embedded into the ground before him, panting. Where once the metal had dulled, it now faintly glowed with a white energy once more. With considerable effort, Dante struggled to his feet. Clearly, whatever endless font of stamina he had previously tapped was no longer present.

    "You," Dante gasped, his old voice returning, pointing at the squirrel. "What did you do to me?"

    Katja did not have the energy to even move, much less acknowledge the question. So she simply allowed the squirrel's crumpled body to lay there. Dante let out another gasp of breath, still clutching his head, and sheathed his sword.

    "We will settle this another time," he growled, his facial features twitching seemingly against his will. "Consider this a mercy before your execution."
    Dante began to walk away, and neither Katja nor Galatea exercised any desire to pursue him. Rider appeared next to Dante and the two of then disappeared into the darkness of the approaching night.

    Out in the forest, Katja rolled over onto her back and groaned in pain. Every part of her body ached to high hell, and she was now completely out of Prana. Struggling to her feet, Katja attempted to limp back to the edge of the forest as quickly as she could. Falling over just as she passed the last of the trees, she called out for her uncle.

    "Uncle! I'm back!" she said, "Still alive, somehow."

    She looked around and waited for a response, but none came. All that sounded through the night air was the sound of the wind gently blowing the tree branches. Katja was filled with a sudden and intense sensation of dread. She heard footsteps approaching her.

    "Wow, you really look like crap," Assassin said, looking down at her.

    Katja grabbed Assassin by the leg.

    "My uncle! He's gone!" Katja exclaimed, weakly attempting to struggle.

    Assassin let out a tired sigh.

    "I suppose I shouldn't find that surprising," Assassin said, grimacing. "Hannibal was never one to act without a plan. I suppose this must've been their aim from the very beginning."

    "We have to find him! We need to-" Katja began.

    "No. As we are now, we'll die. We need to regroup and formulate a plan," Assassin said, shaking his head.

    "B-but what if they do something to hurt him?" Katja stammered.

    "He's of no value to them dead," Assassin replied. "At the very least, we can assume he's still alive. For now, anyways."

    Helping Katja to her feet, Assassin allowed her to rest her arm on his shoulder as the two of them headed back to Katja's long destroyed house. There, they met up with Caster and Galatea and together they made their way back to the Labyrinth, battered, but alive.





    --

    Day 4: Wish Upon a Fallen House


    Katja and Assassin stood outside of the operating room, both of them tensed up in different ways. Katja nervously paced back and forth along the narrow hallway leading up to the room, playing with her fingers and occasionally stopping to mumble to herself. Assassin, meanwhile, leaned against the wall in a seemingly casual manner, though from the slight tensing of his lower jaw and upper forearms, it was clear that this was mostly a front. The two of them stood in silence for a while, waiting for news on the other side of the door. Eventually, it was Assassin who broke the silence.

    "You shouldn't move around like that," he told Katja. "Caster said that you still needed time for your body to adjust."

    "Well, I can't exactly sit still, now can I?" Katja said, still pacing nervously. "I've never seen that much blood before. Do you think she'll be alright?"

    Assassin crossed his arms.

    "I would like to point out that that was only the second highest amount of blood I've seen this war," he said, through gritted teeth. "Though granted, you weren't conscious for the first one."

    Katja stopped pacing and looked at Assassin, annoyed.

    "That's not the point here, Assassin," she snapped. "We're talking about how Galatea might die from this!"

    Assassin scoffed.

    "Need I remind you that, while we are allies, the objectives of this war are to eliminate everyone? One could argue that you're showing a disproportionate amount of concern here for a competitor."

    Katja couldn't believe her ears. She got right up to his face and glared at him.

    "How can you be so cold-blooded?" she demanded indignantly. "Do you have any idea how difficult this war would have been if we didn't team up? I would've died!"

    "I have every idea, Katja," Assassin replied coldly. "I am deeply aware of how advantageous this alliance has been. But that's just it. It's advantageous. Galatea has made it quite clear that everything done to assist us is done because she stands more to gain than we do. At no point was this an alliance of altruistic justice. Don't forget that."

    Katja bit her lip. She couldn't deny that. That's one thing that pissed her off about Assassin sometimes. His arguments were seldom hard to deny outright.

    "Why are you being like this?" Katja asked.

    Assassin looked into her eyes.

    "I heard from Caster what happened out in the forest," he said, his fingers tensed.

    "Yeah, and? I only did what you did to win," Katja said.

    "You were reckless, that's not what I do," Assassin said, shaking his head. "Charging headfirst against a superior enemy, even with a trick up your sleeve is not what I would do. It's what-"

    He stopped short. Katja furrowed her brow.

    "It's what, Assassin? What were you about to say?" she pressed.

    "It's.... it's what Hannibal Barca would have done," he admitted.

    "So what? Strategy is strategy, and I won, didn't I?" Katja asked.

    "You don't understand, I plan in order to minimize losses, not force victories. Hedging a potentially devastating loss on your own cleverness isn't wise."

    "Isn't that what Hannibal did, though?"

    "You're not Hannibal. He was a once in a millennium genius, unrivalled in every aspect. Not even Scipio.... Regardless, please do not place yourself in needless danger in the future."

    "I had no choice! Shlykova and Archer were right there!"

    "I acknowledge that, but if you had the cleverness to win, then you had more than enough to escape."

    Assassin was being stubborn, more so than usual. Katja could tell this wasn't the root of the issue, she needed to work harder to draw it out of him. Unfortunately, Katja was also stubborn, so she instead preferred to stick to her guns.

    "I'm sorry, didn't you break your arm not three hours ago?" Katja said, looking at Assassin's recently recovered arm."

    "That's different, Servants recover faster than humans. A broken arm isn't much compared to missing organs," he replied, stretching his arm. "See, I've already recovered."

    "Yeah, using my mana...." Katja grumbled. "And besides, I did what I had to do to win. What's your problem with that?"
    "That's not what I had issues with," Assassin said. "I'm just saying that you put your life in unnecessary danger, and for what?"

    "Weren't you the one who told me I might not survive when you first dragged me into this war?" Katja said indignantly. "Why backtrack on that now?"

    "Because when I said that I assum-"

    The door swung open.

    "I'm done," Caster said, stepping out into the hallway. "You can go see her now."

    Katja hesitated for a moment. She wasn't sure whether or not to pursue this topic further. She sighed. For now, she'll drop the issue and go see Galatea, that was more important anyways.

    Stepping through the doors, Katja saw Galatea lying on a bed at a slight upward angle. She was dressed in a more traditional surgical gown-type apparel as compared to her magus robes. Her arm was hooked up to a clear bottle of fluid and she had bandages around her chest area, but she was otherwise alert. The moment she saw Katja, her eyes narrowed.

    "What are you doing here, Katja?" she asked in a thin voice, glancing down at Katja's side. "You should be resting."

    "What? I'm fine," Katja said dismissively. "Besides, I was too worried about you to relax."

    "I appreciate your concern," Galatea said. "But my condition is relatively stable, thanks in large part to the enchantment that was removed from you. In my current condition, I can only maintain one at a time now, unfortunately."
    "It's alright," Katja said. "I'm sure you need it more than me."

    "Caster," Galatea said. "Have you given Katja a medical examination?"

    "Not a thorough one," Caster said, shrugging. "But preliminary data shows that she's got maybe a few weeks of life before her organs begin to fail. At least if nothing's done."

    Katja smiled and tried to ignore the holes being bored into her side by Assassin's glare. Galatea sighed.

    "Come here, Katja," she said, beckoning her over. "Show me the injury."

    Katja glanced over at Assassin and Caster nervously.

    "Here?" she asked.

    Caster chuckled.

    "It's not something I specialize in, but I am something of a doctor," he said. "No need to put up walls around me."

    Assassin rolled his eyes.

    "If it helps, I'll turn around," he said with a wry smile. "But if you think I need to, you're flattering yourself."

    He turned his back towards Katja, who then showed Galatea the injury and subsequent replacement.

    "My goodness," Galatea said reproachfully. "What have you done to yourself?"

    "I mean, I can stand, right?" Katja said.

    Galatea placed her hand on Katja's body, and she immediately felt the strength leave her legs. As she hung onto the bedpost for support, she began gasping for air as her side burned with an aching pain.

    "You have been reinforcing your body ever since you had the Prana to do so," Galatea said. "If you continue like this, your systems will fail."

    "Well.... what do you...suggest I do?" Katja said between breaths.

    "For now, you rest," Galatea said. "Sleep, and we will discuss this tomorrow. I too, must rest, for my lungs need some time to adjust to the enchantment. I have a solution for your problem, but now is not the time. Assassin."

    Turning around, Assassin knelt down and picked up Katja, who was too tired to protest. She hadn't realized how much reinforcement she had unconsciously been using over these past few days. Galatea was right, she was burning out.

    Before they left, Katja grabbed Galatea's hand.

    "What's going to happen next?" Katja asked, failing to keep the trembling out of her voice.

    Galatea gave her a reassuring smile. A rarity, coming from her.

    "There is still much to do," she said quietly. "But no good will come from discussing hypotheticals in our current states."

    "Agreed," Assassin said. "We should all take time to recuperate."

    Assassin turned to leave with Katja in tow, nodding to both Galatea and Caster as he did.

    "Oh, and Katja," Galatea said as they were about to step out the door.

    Assassin turned to let Katja see Galatea.

    "Good work tonight. I am impressed with how far you've come," she said. "Were you an actual student of mine, I'd have given you a strong passing mark."

    Katja didn't have the energy to respond, so she just smiled and nodded, and the two of them left the room.

    After walking some distance through the quiet hallways of the Labyrinth, Assassin laid Katja down on her bed.

    "I'll probably be in the command room when you wake up," Assassin said. "Unlike you, I don't need sleep, so I'll be trying to figure out our next move."

    He turned to leave, but Katja grabbed him by the arm and stopped him.

    "Wait," she mumbled. "What were you trying to say earlier, when we got interrupted?"

    Assassin bit his lip.

    "Best if you don't ask that," he said. "I didn't mean to bring that up."

    "Tell me anyways," Katja said deliriously. "There's a good chance I won't remember tomorrow anyways."

    She released her grip on his arm, too weak to maintain it, but Assassin didn't leave. After a few moments, he turned around.

    "Katja, no. Master, I'd like to ask you, what wish would you make on the Grail?" he asked solemnly.

    "Wish? You mean like when we win?" Katja asked.

    "Yes, the purpose for which you fight. What would you ask of the Grail?"

    "I could've sworn I told you this already," Katja mumbled. "I did this because I felt it would mean something. That this was something I couldn't afford to miss."

    "Yes, you did say that," he said. "But is that still the reason you fight?"

    Katja sat up, her presence of mind gathered enough to focus on the question.

    "What are you trying to get at, Assassin?" Katja asked quizzically. "Why would that change?"

    Assassin avoided eye contact for a few seconds, before sighing.

    "I'm just worried," he said shiftily. "That perhaps you and I may have different priorities in this war."

    "What's that supposed to mean?" Katja asked.

    Assassin rubbed the back of his head awkwardly.

    "I just mean that when it comes to some of your actions," he started. "They've been a bit.... inexplicable?"

    "Like what?" Katja demanded. "Name one thing!"

    "Well to start, there was that time you saved the life of an enemy Master."

    "He was going to be killed right in front of me! What did you expect me to do?"

    "I wasn't finished. You did that twice."

    "You weren't even sure if you could've taken that Saber!"

    "Not the point. Then there was that time you charged headfirst into combat with a superior opponent armed with a Servant when I wasn't there...."

    "Well I-"

    "Twice. You did that twice as well."

    "Well now you're just trying to make me sound bad," Katja huffed.

    "And thirdly, this 'alliance' we've been a part of is feeling less and less like an alliance and more like an apprenticeship."

    Katja opened her mouth to retort that point, but she couldn't. It was true, Galatea had done nothing but help and teach Katja, and that was highly disproportionate to the utility that her side offered. There had been moments when Katja wondered what Galatea's end goals were, but she always pushed such thoughts out of her mind. She didn't like to doubt people. Katja supposed that was a weakness in the Grail war.

    "What's your point?" Katja asked.

    "I just don't see you fighting to win in this war. To me, your actions speak to a lack of self-preservation that goes beyond mere inexperience. I'm just...."

    "Yeah?" Katja asked.

    Assassin looked down, his expression unreadable.

    "I....I'm just worried that I may have pressured you too strongly to fight in this war. That maybe you're only fighting because I wanted to."

    "What? That's ridiculous!" Katja exclaimed.

    "Is it?" Assassin asked, facing her. "Then what would you wish of the Grail? You clearly don't enjoy fighting and killing, so why struggle so hard? Why shave off years of your lifespan just to keep fighting."

    "How did you know about that?" Katja asked, instinctively touching her wound.

    Assassin rolled his eyes.

    "Of course, Caster told me about that," he said. "That's why I'm mad. What were you thinking, Katja?"

    "What? It was the only choice I had!"

    "No, it wasn't. There are plenty of far safer ways to stop the bleeding until you could receive medical help. And what's more, you kept fighting after that, stressing out your body even further."

    "I had to keep fighting, or you and Galatea would've died! And besides, it's not like you were all that sad to see me there!"

    "I didn't know you were literally dying! I assumed you had retreated back to the Labyrinth!"

    "I still saved your butt, didn't I?"

    "First of all, no you didn't. Caster did that. Secondly, if you die before your Servant, then what's even the point��"

    "Why do you even care anyways!"

    Katja shouted those last words, and immediately buried her face in her pillow. Assassin put his hands on his hips and sighed deeply. After a few moments of painful silence, Assassin awkwardly patted Katja's shoulder.

    "I'm.... I'm just worried about your health is all." he muttered.

    "Really?" Katja said through a muffled pillow. "Didn't you say once that Servants will try to kill you once they think they can?"
    "Some. I said some may try that," Assassin said. "I'm, uh.... I'm not about that kind of thing."

    Katja took a deep breath, then nodded. She looked up from her pillow and wiped away some tears she didn't want to admit existed.

    "I guess you can be nice sometimes," Katja said. "Like with that Marcus guy. You looked so sad, but you still kept up appearances for him when he was scared."

    Assassin gave her a look.

    "How do you know about that? I don't recall that conversation or that man in any historical records."

    "Oh, it was in a dream I saw," Katja said, shrugging. "I wasn't sure if it was real or not, but it sure seemed that way. Must've been some Servant-Master thing."

    "Curious indeed," Assassin said, nodding. If he found Katja's observations of his past at all unusual, he didn't seem to show it.

    Moving a small wooden stool over to Katja's bedside, he settled down next to her.

    "I guess that's just what a leader needs to do, encourage his men to fight on, even when things appear hopeless."

    Katja nodded and looked down.

    "He looked like he respected you a lot," Katja said, smiling softly.

    "Yeah well, it wasn't all laurels and triumphs for me," Assassin said with a wry smile. "Oh I remember how the Senate wanted my hide after a few months of campaigning. Bunch of old geezers they were, too stubborn to do things any other way but their own. But still, they all came around in the end." His eyes looked off to a distant age, though whether it was with nostalgia or mirth was unclear.

    "Yeah, didn't they call you slow when you were younger? You certainly seem fine now."

    Assassin shook his head.

    "I wasn't slow. I never was, not even back then. I heard what they called me, but I.... well, I didn't much care. I just.... never had much to say is all. I didn't particularly like the idea of being observed as I was and not as I wanted to be, so I kept a low profile and stayed out of people's way."

    "I know what that's like..." Katja mumbled in assent.

    "Besides, I figured there wasn't much of a point in speaking up unless I made something of myself first," Assassin said with a grin.

    "I guess it must've felt pretty good when you proved them all wrong, huh?" Katja said.

    "Haha, that it did. After years of slander, insults, and verbal harassment, all of Rome admitted that I was right. Of course, that upstart Scipio took all the glory for himself, but I suppose conquering Carthage itself will earn you that fame."

    "So then.... what are you trying to prove? If Rome recognized you in the end, why are you fighting now? You said you only wanted the opportunity to prove yourself."

    "Because no amount of post-campaign laudation can compensate for what was lost."

    "What do you mean by that?"

    Assassin sighed.

    "At every turn before I was vindicated, they called me every name under the sun. I was a coward, a fool, a dullard, a spy, any insult you've heard, it was slung in my face. But none of that bothered me. The only accusation that I truly despised with all of my being was that I was wrong. That my tactics were the wrong ones and that I would be the doom of Rome."

    "Why did it matter what people said?" Katja asked. "You were right in the end, weren't you?"

    "I was. And I know I am now, but there was one thing I hadn't been able to resolve, one black mark that would stain me forever."

    "And that was?"

    "Despite everything I did to slow Hannibal Barca down, despite the denial of every important resource he needed to maintain his army, I never truly defeated him, never avenged the losses at Cannae, Trasimene and Trebia. It was Scipio who got that honor."

    "Are you.... jealous that Scipio did what you couldn't?"

    "That's not what I said!" Assassin snapped, causing Katja to shrink back. "Sorry about that. But no, that's not it. It was true that I opposed his plans, and that he was right, in the end. However, I was stymied at every turn from proving that I was also right. It was after my death, but I heard that Zama was a splendid battle, one that placed Scipio in the annals of history as one of the greats. I merely wished to prove that I should be right there alongside him."

    "Is.... isn't there an entire branch of tactics named after you? You're still famous, so famous that they've written books about your ideas. Shouldn't that have been enough?"

    Assassin smiled.

    "For a lesser man, perhaps," he murmured. "But not for me. Not when I could've been so much more."

    "Is that really all you want? Fame?" Katja asked.

    "It's not fame I seek, Katja," Assassin said, shaking his head. "It's glory, the chance to bathe in Minerva's radiance. If you are born a star, why not try to shine as brightly and as brilliantly as possible? What more could life be about than that?"

    "Living quietly and peacefully with a stable income?" Katja sheepishly suggested.

    "Bah. The rays of light raining upon the summit of a conquered peak are warmer than any fireplace one can sit beside." Assassin said esoterically. "Life should be spent chasing what you love, not what you need to survive."

    "You make it sound like an easy decision," Katja said, hugging her pillow. "Nowadays, most people can't just get up and start walking down an adventurous path. We have obligations to ourselves and others."

    "That is one thing I suppose I can be thankful for," Assassin said wistfully. "I may not have died as I wanted to, but I did so knowing that I lived a life, one of thrills, triumphs, and failures."

    Katja didn't respond. How could she? It wasn't as though she had a right to speak on the subject. Taking Katja's silence as a sign of drowsiness, Assassin stood up.

    "Now don't think I don't see what you did there," he said, chuckling. "You managed to spin the conversation onto me instead of you. Don't think I haven't noticed. You did the same thing with Galatea. I want us to have a serious talk about this, alright? So, think about it properly next time."

    On that note, Assassin turned and left the room, being sure to close the door behind him. With Assassin gone, Katja was left alone with her thoughts, something she found distinctly unpleasant at the current moment. So, without even so much as changing out of her damaged and dirty clothes, Katja fell back into her bed as her consciousness drifted off into the world of dreams.





    Day 4 End
    Last edited by Sanrei; June 10th, 2021 at 06:15 AM.

  7. #7
    Type-Pluto Sanrei's Avatar
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    Interlude 2: Silence


    How long has it been since the sound of silence, sweet, blessed silence, has filled the air?

    How long has it been since he could admire the beauty of a midwinter's night?

    He stood silently in the center of that snowy field, staring up at the field of stars above him. He watched with an almost childlike glee at the way his breath, visible at the moment of exhalation, was quickly swallowed up by the cool air. At his side, his armor lay neatly placed, cleaned for the first time in years.

    It was a ritual he thought he had abandoned many years ago. Every morning, he would wake up with his brothers at the crack of dawn. Together, they would attend to their morning duties, sweeping the grounds of their temple and exercising their bodies. In the brief hour between his duties and mealtime, he would sit and clean his armor and weapon. Though his time as a brother-in-arms was not one that afforded many moments of material joy, to him, the act of cleaning his armor until it shone as radiantly as the sun was one that never left him.

    Tonight, his silver plate reflected the pale moonlight, a beautiful halo of pure light. He sighed as he gripped the weapon at his side. Elohim, his guiding light. When it was handed to him for the first time at the age of six by his father, he was told that it would give him the resolve he needed to perform his God-given duties, a resolve that he lacked on his own.

    Those who wield the Lord's blade shall find themselves his avenging angel, one who shall find himself at the lord's side much sooner than most.

    He knew this peace would not last. This silence that he experienced would soon pass and the voice would return. To him, it was the Lord's voice, his directive upon this earth to punish sinners and smite the wicked. Yet somewhere at the core of his being, a part of him refused to comply. That small voice of resistance had been smothered by the Lord's voice for many years, but when that strange object collided with him during his last battle, it silenced the voice.

    Come Dante Faarlithe, assume your position as the hand of the Lord's mercy and the Lord's wrath. Silence the sinners, punish the wicked. Kill, kill, KILL!

    He closed his eyes, momentarily extending his brief respite, for he knew that when he opened his eyes, he would return to how he once was. In that brief moment, many thoughts crossed his still lucid mind.

    He thought of that girl who had opposed him. He thanked her for the brief respite he had been given, but also apologized for what he was about to do.

    He thought of the Lord's teachings, of how he has failed to understand their meaning.

    He thought of his fate, and how in reaching to be his Lord's right hand, he became his left instead.

    Soon, the voices drowned out what was left of the man who thought these things. Returning once more was the true Master of Elohim, the true avenger of God. At that moment, a figure approached Dante.

    "Master, the preparations are ready," Rider said, kneeling before Dante.

    "Excellent work, Rider," Dante replied, not turning to face his Servant. "This time, we fight to kill. I will not forgive you for playing around with your opponents this time. Is that understood?"

    Rider lowered his head, not revealing his frustrated expression to his Master.

    "My lord, I was merely being cautious so as not to potentially fall victim to the enemy's-"

    "Silence!" Dante barked. "Whatever your reasoning may be, the fact remains that you were unable to defeat that lance-wielding servant."

    "Were it not for the interference of Caster-"

    "Enough," Dante said dismissively, waving off the remark. "You have your orders, Rider. Carry them out."

    He turned to look down at his Servant. As he did so, he was overcome with a slight sensation of sorrow, a voice calling down from deep below that expressed pity towards the kneeling spirit.

    "Master?" Rider said, his sharp eye detecting that ever so slight change.

    "Go," Dante muttered, his expression quickly returning to its stoic vigil.

    If Rider had any thoughts to spare, he did not voice them. Wordlessly, Rider walked off to fulfill his duty.

    Dante shook his head and roughly retrieved his armor from the ground, his steel gauntlets leaving scratch marks strewn across the once polished steel. As he walked away, a distant voice sounded in his head, one that had slumbered for many years, only to awaken with renewed zeal.

    It told Dante: If there is a Hell, surely, he would greet those he sent there.

  8. #8
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    Day 5: A Curse in Disguise

    The scene opened up on an old man leaning back on a long, cushioned seat which, like the rest of the large tent it was in, was made of finely detailed craftsmanship of the highest quality. Beneath the silk cushions was a wooden frame inscribed with ray-like patterns that all converged upon a lion's head at the front end. Beside the seat sat a young scribe on a wooden stool, penning away the words the old man spoke onto a sheet of papyrus in practiced strokes of fresh ink.

    "....And thus it is with great regret that I must stand opposed to this venture, even if I am the only voice to do so. I acknowledge the success that Publius Cornelius Scipio has achieved in his campaigns in Iberia. However, I must caution that reckless usage of Rome's few remaining assets, even skillfully used by a sharp mind as his, could very well lead to a crisis that may rival Cannae. I cannot, in good wisdom, support an offensive that would risk so much."

    The scribe penned down the final strokes of the old man's words before looking cautiously over at the man.

    "Will that be the full message, sir?" he asked, rolling up the scroll and placing it into a small box containing several other scrolls.

    The old man nodded and reclined deeper into his seat. The years had not been kind to his old joints, and he found himself increasingly uncomfortable even despite the many luxuries he enjoyed. As the messenger stood to leave, the old man grabbed him by the arm and pulled him closer with a surprising amount of strength.

    "Uh, s-sir?" the young scribe asked, uncertain of how to react.

    "When you deliver the message to the Senate, find Publius Cornelius and tell him privately: May the gods bless you on your foolish venture, for only they can do anything for you now. Were it not against everything I had ever known to be true, I would wish you good fortune against Rome's greatest enemy. Instead, I merely wish you favorable winds in your travels."

    The old man released his grip, and the young man stood, bowed, and left the room. The only noise that remained in the room was the crackling of the torchfire as it burned away its precious coal. Sipping wine from a silver goblet placed upon the nearby table, the old man stared up at the ceiling, too tired to even stand. It hadn't been many years since strode across the smooth stone of the Senate floor arguing with his opponents with the fervor of a man half his age. Even in quiet times like this, he had previously enjoyed poring over ancient records of war and correspondences from his associates. Now, he was far too tired to do any of these things.

    Instead, he found himself sleeping more often than not, dreaming of the what-ifs that may have very well placed him on that very boat sailing to Carthage. Had his life been a failure or a success? Only in times like this, wherein there was nothing he could do but contemplate, could he ever truly ponder such a question. In the end, Rome would triumph over Carthage. In his heart, he knew this to be true. However, it would not be by his hand that Rome would win. He had saved Rome, and with it, the lives of many promising young soldiers, some of whom would accompany the young scion of the Scipio family to finally face Hannibal in the battle that he was so denied in Rome, that much was undeniable. Would that be enough? Could he finally be satisfied with this outcome?

    The old man flung the half-filled goblet across the room, causing the red liquid to spill all across the floor and carpets like a murder scene. No, he would never be satisfied, not until he could finally be proven right. The old men of the Senate, with their bloodthirst and their foolishness, had spent decades of his life stymieing him at every turn, and now all he could do was sit in a room and rot while others took the victory that was rightfully his. The man clenched his fists in rage, but then slackened his grip. His body was beginning to fail him. Excessive anger would only accelerate the end.

    He wasn't satisfied. He wasn't at all. However, he could rest. In the quiet fields of Dis, where the resting souls know no war or strife, surely, he would find peace there. If the man were honest, a world without war, one without competition, sounded like a boring place indeed.

    He felt his eyelids growing heavier.

    He would rest. But should the gates of the underworld ever be wrested open, to let loose the masses of dead in the name of conquest, he would be right there at the front, leading the charge.

    He felt his eyes close and his mind begin to slip away into Mors' grasp.

    And for the last time in his life, the man prayed.

    --

    The first sensation Katja felt upon waking was a dull, throbbing pain at her side. Letting out a groan, Katja slowly sat up and inspected the region. Her skin, which bordered along the gel-like substance covering her wound had grown inflamed and painful to the touch. Katja rolled out of bed and hobbled over to the bathing area to prepare for the morning. Looking into the mirror, Katja could see the toll that yesterday had taken on her body. With each passing day, she could feel more and more of herself being left behind. Soon, there would be nothing left of her to drag out of bed. Still, Katja had to push such thoughts from her mind for the time being. She splashed her face with a handful of water and started cleaning herself up.

    Stepping into the command room some time later, the first thing she saw were a set of complex readings on the wall monitor. After taking a closer look, the best she could surmise was that levels of ambient Mana were being traced across Polnoch, with a hotspot buried deep within the forest on the edge of the map. Assassin, who had his back turned from Katja and towards the monitor, greeted her as she walked in.

    "Your complexion's looking better than it did last night," he said, nodding. "Good. That means you'll be prepared for tonight's campaign."

    "Well, Uncle isn't going to rescue himself," Katja said, adjusting the collar of her uniform. "So, anything happen while I was asleep?"

    "Actually yes," Galatea said, turning to face Katja. "One of our feeds picked up this footage not long after last night's battle. You should watch it."

    Galatea sat by the table monitor some distance away from Caster and Assassin. Physically, she looked no different from usual, but Katja could tell somewhat that Galatea was not sitting there by choice.

    "Should you be here right now? You know, given your health and everything?" Katja asked, popping down into the adjacent seat.

    "There are few issues with my current health," Galatea dismissed. "Though Caster insists that I not stand or walk for too long. Unfortunately, I will be unable to operate in the field for at least another full day. But enough about me, Caster if you will."

    The readings on the wall monitor were pushed to the right, and a box appeared displaying a snow-covered forest. Stepping into the frame was an armored figure, which was clearly that of Dante, thrashing about as he walked. By his side, Katja recognized Rider attempting to assist his Master. After walking some distance, Dante fell to his knees and began to writhe on the ground in agony. A bright glow overcame his body and enveloped the entire scene, leading to the end of the footage.

    "What.... what was happening to him? Was it because of what I did?" Katja asked.

    "It seems to be an abnormal reaction to his fusion to his mystic code, Elohim," Galatea said as the monitor shifted to a rotating model of the sword.

    "We analyzed the ambient Mana released by the sword," Caster said, moving up to the table. "We figured that the composition of the sword would be True Ether, which is the stuff gods are made from. Powerful enough holy relics can emit True Ether as part of their functions, so we wanted to see what we were up against."

    "The results were.... surprising, to say the least," Galatea said. The monitor displayed a single orb of light and placed alongside sets of esoteric measurements.

    "What.... does any of that mean?" Katja asked, pointing to the readings.

    "We thought the particles would be divine in nature, but it turns out that the opposite is actually true."

    "You mean.... ?" Katja gasped. "But I thought Dante was with the church!"

    "Yeah, we thought it was odd too, so we did a little digging," Caster said.

    "The days of the Crusades were those of suffering, war, and death," Galatea said. "In such a maelstrom of chaos, when negative human emotions are at their peak, it is not uncommon for darker forces to prey upon those consumed by madness and zeal."

    "Wait, wait, hold up," Katja exclaimed. "Demons are real?"
    "The classification is broad, but yes," Galatea said. "They are a paranormal phenomenon that prey upon humanity, but in some cases are also born from it. Although, if you are instead wondering if biblical demons exist, then perhaps not so. It is unknown if demons follow any sort of hierarchy, or if there is anything resembling a metaphysical Hell."
    "Well thank goodness for that," Katja said, sighing. "I was worried I was already doomed."

    "Regardless," Galatea said, clearing her throat. "Given our observations, it can be clearly surmised that this artifact has been made only to resemble a holy sword by a malevolent entity. I suspect that continued use of this weapon has led to adverse effects on its wielder's mental state, leading to more violent and erratic behaviour."

    "So then.... Dante wasn't always like that?" Katja asked.

    "It is difficult to say," Galatea responded. "The rituals and upbringings of Church followers, particularly the Order of the Knights Templar, are not known to us mages. It is possible that he has been raised to inherit the blade from youth, fully understand what would occur."

    Katja thought back to the confusion on the man's face after Katja erased the second head. Did those seem like the eyes of a killer? Katja wasn't sure.

    "What happened to him after that?" Katja asked, indicating to the video. "Do we know where he is? My uncle should be there as well."

    "Whatever happened to him destroyed that relay point, so we have no visuals on the ground," Caster said, pressing a button on the keyboard. "But thankfully, it looks like we won't need it."

    Caster displayed a 2-dimensional projection of the map of Polnoch. It was colored blue, except for two locations which were gradients of red, yellow, and green. The first was a massive spot out in the forest which appeared to pulse with color at regular intervals, while the second was a smaller spot located inside one of Polnoch's older districts.

    "That spot's been fluctuating wildly in ambient Mana all night long," Caster said. "Our distant cameras have identified the presence of some sort of structure there, one that wasn't originally built in that location."

    "A structure? You mean like that giant crystal thing Galatea made?" Katja asked.

    "Something like that," Galatea said, nodding. "But the scale of Magecraft is completely different. This building practically radiates energy. Undoubtedly, it is some form of enemy Noble Phantasm."

    "Seriously?" Katja asked, squinting her eyes at the projection. "Servants can summon an entire building? Doesn't that seem a little ridiculous?"

    "Right," Caster said, rolling his eyes. "Because the city-spanning Labyrinth you're standing in was within your expectations."

    "It is certainly not common," Galatea said, ignoring Caster's remark. "But Servants with associations to specific structures, such as buildings attributed to their name, may, under the right circumstances, summon them to the battlefield."

    "So then.... this thing was summoned by Rider?" Katja asked.

    "That certainly is the most likely scenario, unless this is the work of that Archer, since we know they have formed some sort of alliance," Galatea said. "Assassin, you knew him personally, yes? Do you have any thoughts about this?"

    Assassin turned to Caster.

    "Can I see these camera shots of the structure?" he asked, stroking his chin.

    Caster shrugged, pressed a few buttons and the screen shifted over to what appeared to be live footage near the edge of Polnoch, with the tip of a large structure poking out from behind the treeline. It was difficult to tell at this distance what the general shape and color of the building was, at least for Katja, but she could tell that it didn't seem to be a particularly tall building. Assassin huffed and turned back.

    "It would seem as though Rider has inherited his father's legacy," he said.

    "His father's legacy?" Galatea said. "I only have a passing familiarity with Hannibal Barca's history. If you would explain...."

    "It's in the name, isn't it?" Assassin said. "When Hannibal Barca's father, Hannibal Barca, left Carthage after they suffered a major loss to Rome, he travelled to the Iberian Peninsula to set up a European foothold and secure the silver mines there. Naturally, he founded a settlement, which he would name after his own family."

    "Barca.... You don't mean...Barcelona?" Galatea asked. "Then his Noble Phantasm is to-"

    "Mostly likely only a single building," Assassin said. "But yes, the ability to leave one's homeland and populate an entire peninsula, all for the sake of war. A fitting Noble Phantasm, wouldn't you say?"

    Assassin sat back in his chair, and looked up at the projection, his eyes so focused they threatened to burn holes into the monitor. Seeing him like this, Katja was reminded of last night's dream. The expression the old man had just as he passed from this world, the eyes were exactly the same. Glancing over to his side, Assassin spotted Katja's worried expression and smiled.

    "Don't worry, I'll come up with a plan to save your uncle," he said, misunderstanding Katja's concern. "For now, you should focus on fixing your body. You'll need to be in top condition if we're to take on them again."

    "Fixing my body? How, exactly?" Katja asked, turning to Caster and Galatea.

    "Hmm.... It may be good for your training if I guide you through that," Galatea said. "Come with me then, Katja. We'll be going to the workshop for today's training."

    As Galatea went to stand up, Katja noticed that Galatea was struggling to maintain her footing. Katja immediately dashed beside her and attempted to help her.

    "What are you doing? I am more than capable of walking on my own," Galatea said curtly, removing her arm from Katja's grasp.

    "W-well, I'm sorry, I just f-figured that.... you know....since you were injured and all...." Katja stammered.

    "It's quite alright," Galatea said, rubbing her temples. "But please, allow me the dignity of walking on my own."

    Her reprimand was stern, but it had no teeth behind it. Katja didn't feel especially comfortable with leaving her mentor to walk alone, but she trailed behind her to the workshop as directed.

    Just as they stepped through the stone double doors of Caster's workshop, Katja was hit with the strong smell of oil and metal. Normally, such a sensation wouldn't bother her, but the suddenness of the sensation caused Katja to stumble forwards as her body lost the strength prop itself up. Galatea caught her before she could fall.

    "Honestly," Galatea sighed, her usually stern eyes soft with concern. "You hardly have the right to be concerned about my condition."

    "If it helps, I'm still young," Katja said, leaning her body on a low table. "I'm sure I can bounce back from this."

    Katja smiled, but her thoughts were clouded. It was getting difficult for her to hold onto a thought for more than a few seconds.

    "My dear girl, it is precisely because you are young that this is such a serious matter," Galatea signed, shaking her head. "Caster's prognosis of a few weeks does not mean a few weeks of prime condition. Your body is already beginning to break down, even if it is not yet close to immediate death. I fear that some of the damage done to you may be irreversible."

    "I guess I really messed up, didn't I?" Katja said, hanging her head. "I really lost control of myself when it counted."

    "While I can only hazard a guess at the circumstances you were in, I too share responsibility for your condition," Galatea murmured.

    "You? But you weren't even-"

    "I was responsible for maintaining your life, even if it was for my own goals. Had I not lost hold over my enchantment, you would have never found yourself in such danger. For that, I am sorry."

    Galatea placed her hand on Katja's side, where her messy crystalline flesh melded with her real flesh. As usual, Katja found it difficult to read Galatea's expression, but she could still at least pick up on her somber tone.

    Stepping away from Katja, Galatea turned and stepped in front of a flat metal table that rose up to her waist. Its surface was covered in various magical and mechanical parts, which Galatea swept off with a wave of her arm, clearing the table of clutter. She reached inside of her robes and pulled out a small vial half-filled with fluorescent aquamarine liquid that flowed with extreme viscosity.

    "What I am about to show is not something you were ever intended to witness," Galatea said, pouring the liquid onto the table, where it coalesced into a near-spherical bubble. "Had you been nothing more than an ally, there would be little reason to do so."

    Galatea raised her hands before the puddle, which stiffened and began to morph into a series of branching wire-like projections that pulsed faintly with light. Katja could not help but be mesmerized by the sight of it.

    "What is it?" Katja asked, resisting the urge to reach out and touch it.

    "My own family's most treasured technique," Galatea whispered. "Ars Hominum."

    As the branches expanded into a complex network of interlaced blue strings, they began to form closed loops and circuits, with the light flowing in a pattern through it all.

    "Are those.... blood vessels?" Katja asked, incredulous. "Then that means-"

    "It is as you see," Galatea explained. " , one can survive even the most fatal of wounds. However, that is not the primary function of this technique. I'm sure you have an idea by now."

    The closed circuit of artificial blood vessels slowly begins to liquify and eventually returns to its spherical form, Galatea having presumably removed her Prana supply from it.

    "Artificial life.... you mean like, homunculi?" Katja postulated.

    "Indeed," Galatea said, nodding. "Though unlike the Einzbern house, who have perfected the art of instrumentalizing the creation of homunculi in their fruitless pursuit of the Third Magic, my family sought after that Vitruvian man, the creation of the perfect life form."

    "Uh.... huh....?" Katja said confusedly, cocking her head to one side.

    "Perhaps a different explanation may be helpful," Galatea said, sighing at Katja's confusion. "Imagine the possibilities of an unageing, undying, physically impeccable magus with extraordinarily powerful magic circuits without needing to resort to undeath, an individual without the constraints, weaknesses, and contradictions of normal humans. Now imagine an entire race of such beings. This is what the idealized homunculus was, a beautiful living portrait of mankind's genius, a magnum opus that would usher in a new era of perfection."

    Galatea's words were eloquent, but she spoke them with a noticeable degree of disdain.

    "In a sense, it is not dissimilar to your Magecraft Katja," Galatea continued. "All that differs is the starting point. With the fundamental goal of 'granting life' our families simply took opposite approaches, with yours choosing to imbue the lifeless with life from the outside in and ours attempting to generate life organically from within."

    "It sounds to me like you weren't particularly fond of what your family was doing," Katja observed. "Is that why you came all the way out here to Polnoch?"

    Galatea smiled softly with a look that seemed at once pitying and wistful.

    "Sadly no. I'm afraid it's not quite that simple. If distance was all one needed to separate from the Clock Tower, I'd suspect that the population of towns like Polnoch would be quite a bit higher," Galatea said, shaking her head. "I am merely the dregs, leftovers that my family would have little to do with anymore. Sending me off to potentially die in a pointless war is something my family was all too happy to do on behalf of the Association."

    "I.... I'm sorry," Katja said, unsure of how else to respond.

    "There is no need for apologies, you are hardly the one responsible for my current circumstances," Galatea said.

    "But.... what did you mean when you said you were leftovers? Isn't having the magic crest really important for magi families? Surely they wouldn't let you go so hastily?" Katja asked.

    Galatea gave Katja another thin smile. Opening the vial and with a flick of her wand, Galatea returned the liquid to her vial.

    "Unfortunately, we do not have the leisure of speaking for too long. While I understand your curiosity, we should focus on the issue at hand."

    "I think I get it, we're going to use this to replace my missing organs right?" Katja asked hopefully, though her face fell when she saw Galatea's expression.

    "Not 'we', I'm afraid, but you, "Galatea said, her expression hard. "This is unfortunately far more complicated than repairing a simple wound. There is no telling what may happen to either of us as this war continues, and so it is far better if you are the one to reconstruct your body than me."

    "B-but I....I mean, this is insane, right?" Katja stammered. "I mean, if I mess this up, I'll actually die, right?"

    "It may sound unreasonable, but right now, only you can flush out the crude stopgap over your wounds and replace them with a functioning circulatory system, only you can properly visualize where to place each nerve and tissue."

    "Can't you, you know, do what you did last time?" Katja asked, beginning to sweat slightly. "I don't think I can do this."

    "Were you simply wounded, I could easily do so. But your reckless attempt at self-repair has placed your body in a precarious state. I cannot remove the artificial material delicately enough without killing you, which means that only you can heal yourself."

    "I....how, though?" Katja asked, desperately.

    Her legs were beginning to tremble as the weight of her situation was beginning to dawn on her. She had let herself lose control over her anger twice now, and both times it led to a fatal outcome for her. This time, however, she may actually die from it, and that was a silencing thought.

    "First, we will ," Galatea said, holding up the blue liquid. "It is a substance that takes on the qualities of human tissue under proper guidance. Once it is in your bloodstream, it will eventually reach the ends of your natural blood vessels and accumulate at the entrance to the artificial flesh you have made. You must manipulate this substance in your own body in order to slowly rebuild your lost organs and tissue while flushing out the false flesh."

    The very thought sent shudders down Katja's spine, a sensation that only caused Katja's side to ache. Every step sounded like it had disastrous consequences for failure, and Katja was already wondering what her last words should be. It was a morbid thought, but one that sounded just ridiculous enough in her mind to amuse her ever so slightly. This helped keep the looming despair at bay, at least for now.

    "I can see that you are hesitant," Galatea said. "But rest assured that you will have plenty of practice and study before attempting the real thing. I doubt that Dante Faarlithe will act in a significant way until we approach him, though we should not keep him waiting for too long. I doubt he will wait more than 48 hours, so let us resolve this by then."

    Galatea turned and began to walk away, presumably to collect educational and practice materials. Before she could get far, Katja, who had been in stunned silence, reached out and grabbed her by her sleeve.

    "I...um," Katja mumbled, "Will, um.... will this hurt?"
    Galatea sighed and released Katja's grip on her robes, gently cupping her hands in Katja's.

    "They say that the best medicine has the most bitter taste," she said wryly. "It will be excruciating, but that should be a comfort to you, Katja. That pain is the universe reminding you that you are still alive."

    "Wow..." Katja said with a grimace. "The universe has such a way with words...."

    Galatea let go of Katja's hands and gripped Katja's shoulders with a not insignificant amount of tension.

    "It is alright Katja," she said, locking eyes with her. "Should the worst come to pass, I will step in and try to preserve your life. I promise you that. Besides, you will have time to practice before we attempt the real thing. Not much time, granted, but hopefully enough. Now then, let us enter the training room so that we may begin."

    Once again, Galatea turns to step away.

    "Um-" Katja stuttered.

    Galatea turned.

    Katja looked down, unable to meet her eyes.

    "Wa-.... I-....um....You mentioned earlier that I was not quite an ally, right?" Katja stammered.

    "I suppose I did say something to that effect, yes."

    "I guess I just wanted to ask, since you're telling me all of this, why are you so good to me?"
    Galatea turns to fully face Katja, her expression one of mild confusion.

    "I am afraid I do not quite understand the question."

    Katja shuffled uncomfortably on the spot.

    "I....well, I mean, I haven't exactly been very useful, have I? I'm kinda useless when it comes to fighting, and you've done way more for me than I've ever done for you. I was just kinda wondering why you've been so kind to me, even though you said when we first met that you didn't care if I lived or not."

    Galatea sighed, but not unkindly.

    "Had you been even remotely similar to a typical magus, I had every intention of carrying out my word."

    She gave Katja a weary smile, one that seemed far older than her face would imply.

    "Should you ever find it useful as a learning tool, I would recommend you take a visit to the Clock Tower someday. There, you will find countless examples of the absolute wretchedness that Magecraft can bring, countless cautionary tales of moral depravity. It is something you will doubtless face should you continue your current path."

    "I...can't tell if you're trying to sell me on this place," Katja said weakly.

    Galatea shook her head.

    "The Clock Tower has a way of draining the humanity out of even the most earnest souls. It hardens you, but at the cost of every bit of true nobility you once had. It is why I have distanced myself from it so in my later years, as well as how I ended up here, fighting this war."

    "I don't get it, isn't this supposed to be a big deal? Aren't mages trying to fight to get True Magic and reach the Root like you said?"

    Galatea let out a dry chuckle, a rare expression of amusement from her.

    "From the rafters of the high and mighty ivory clock tower, a Holy Grail War is a pauper's affair, a degenerate ritual performed only by madmen and outcasts. No mage of true status would normally lower themselves to such a cheap method of reaching the Root. No, I am only here as the barest acknowledgement of the ritual's existence, simultaneously a hopeful death sentence for an unwanted tool and a reminder to whoever made this ritual that the Association is watching."

    Katja detected the slightest hint of bitterness in Galatea's voice, and for the first time realized that she may have misunderstood her mentor in more ways than one. She wanted to comfort her, as Galatea had done for Katja so many times, but she did not know how. Instead, she simply nodded and smiled.

    "Sorry for asking stupid questions. I guess I was just stalling. We can go practice now."

    Galatea raised an eyebrow at that but said nothing more as the two of them left Caster's workshop.

    --

    Katja slammed her forehead against the pile of medical texts that had been placed in front of her.

    "There has to be a faster way," Katja groaned. "My uncle is literally going to die if we stay here!"

    Sitting not far from Katja near the edge of the training room, Galatea took a sip of tea from her glass.

    "Need I point out that should anything go awry here, so will you?" Galatea asked calmly. "Even a small mistake may cost you decades of your natural lifespan. I suggest you take this matter seriously."

    "Can't I, like, make a clay body and just live in that? Then I'd never die," Katja suggested hopefully.

    "What you have described is one of the possible applications of the Third True Magic. If you find some way to perform this act, please tell me. I am sure the Clock Tower would be very interested in vivisecting you to find out how it works."

    " " Katja said, laughing nervously.

    Galatea didn't respond, which made Katja gulp. Without another word of complaint, she returned to her studies.

    After a few hours, Katja stood up, holding a book in one hand. In the other, she held the small fluorescent vial that Galatea had given her. Katja poured the liquid onto the floor and began attempting to shape it into the images she saw in her books.

    "Now remember Katja," Galatea instructed. "Getting the shape and orientation correct is only part of the answer. You must also remember that scale is essential. Should you make something too large or too small, your body would rupture where it is deficient, and you will experience an agonizing death."

    "You know, the constant reminder of my tenuous mortality is not soothing my nerves very well," Katja snapped.

    At some point, Assassin came by to watch Katja work. According to Caster, Assassin had been pacing nervously in the command room for hours before eventually cracking and coming down here. Now that everyone was in the training room, Katja felt more than a little self-conscious performing magecraft with everyone watching her. Still, she decided she couldn't let such petty concerns distract her for long, so she forced herself to continue trying.

    Periodically, Katja would use her Magecraft to inspect her body, feeling around her wound to see where certain blood vessels ended and how much of a certain organ remained. The wound was sore to the touch, which didn't make concentrating any easier, but thankfully, it didn't otherwise cause her discomfort. Soon, she knelt in the center of the room with only the vial in her hands. Caster had dragged Assassin out of the room and only Galatea remained by Katja's side.

    Upon changing into an outfit vaguely resembling a hospital gown, Katja took a deep breath as she stared down the fluorescent vial.

    "I... I can do this....I think." she mumbled weakly, more to herself than at anyone else.

    "Too much preparation is also a danger," Galatea said. "Try not to think too hard. Allow yourself to rely on practice."

    Katja nodded and handed the vial to Galatea.

    "Alright, do it," she said.

    Galatea took the vial and formed a thin needle out of crystal with a small opening at the base. Galatea poured the contents of the vial into the needle and then placed the tip close to Katja's exposed flank.

    "I will inject this into your Descending Aorta, so it will take a few seconds to reach the ends of your blood vessels. Use your Magecraft to sense the flow of blood in your body."

    Nodding, Katja closed her eyes as she felt a small jab of icy pain around her abdomen. Concentrating on the foreign matter making its way through her arteries, she began to slowly manipulate them into the necessary shapes, like forming puzzle pieces that would fit into her fragmented body. As they approached the false flesh Katja had previously made to cover her wounds, she began to slowly reconvert the false flesh back into water, replacing her body bit by bit. Each time the conversion took place, there was a brief moment when a pocket of empty space inhabited Katja's body. These brief pockets of nothing sent waves of cold across Katja's body, almost causing her to shudder violently. As she continued to rebuild herself, she fell back on Galatea's words, trying to use her practice to guide her rather than her thoughts. Each vein connected to an artery; each cluster of vessels replenished a tissue. As long as there was a connection, Katja could complete it. Everything was progressing smoothly, soon Katja would be whole again. Right as she was about to finish, a sudden icy sensation began to burn at her side. Her blood, which she had held back in order to prevent leakages, was beginning to accumulate where she held it. Additionally, her newly restored cells screamed for oxygen, causing an immensely sharp pain to erupt from her side as her newly formed pain receptors began to work in full force. Each wave of pain caused her to hesitate, which in turn caused her to freeze and cause even more pain.

    With what little lucidity Katja had, she swore at herself. Galatea had warned her this would be immensely painful, yet she had forgotten about it until this crucial moment. The accumulating sensations of pain threatened to black out her vision. She knew that if she lost consciousness here, she would never wake up again, so she fought to stay awake with everything she had. Next to her, she could hear a dull voice, though she couldn't understand a word it said.

    Damn it. Can't...focus....

    Her thoughts began to drift away as even the sensation of pain began to dull....

    Katja?

    Her mind sharpened for a brief moment. That was Assassin's voice, perfectly clear inside her head.

    Katja! I don't know how things are over there but remember that surviving here isn't the real victory. We still have much work to do.

    What.... what did that voice mean?

    As soon as we're done here, we're going to rescue your uncle and kick that Rider's ass. You hear me?

    Heh. He's trying to be nice. It's a nice change of pace from his usual irreverent attitude. Sometimes, Katja forgot who was supposed to be the Master here.

    So just.... please be sure to succeed okay? I don't want to be the last one standing again. Never. We'll win this, but we have to do it as a team. Is that clear, Katja?

    Win? Why was winning so important to him anyways? He doesn't even want the wish. Then again, neither do I.

    So, uh.... what would be good to say here....If you want to prove your mettle as a Master, you'll have to prove you're better than this. Otherwise, I'll go and find a better Master than you and win all on my own. I'll bet the Master of that Archer servant that you dislike so much might be a pretty decent Master herself.

    Now he's just saying whatever he wants. She'll have to give him hell for that later.

    Later.

    With just that thought of the future to grab hold of, Katja fought through the pain, which fought against her with every move she made. She reformed her kidney and the missing chunk from her large intestine. She reconstituted the nerve endings, muscles, ligaments, and fat, just as she had studied. Just as she covered her newly formed and now functioning flesh with a layer of skin, she was met with the strangest sensation of warmth, like putting on a thick woolen coat in the middle of winter. With that, Katja fell to the ground in an exhausted heap, her vision and hearing rushing back to her like a flock of annoying birds.

    Looking over her with a genuinely concerned expression, Galatea slowly helped Katja back up to a sitting position, where she wobbled weakly for a few seconds before falling forwards onto Galatea's shoulder.

    "How do you feel?" Galatea asked, shifting slightly to allow Katja's chin to fit snugly.

    "It huuuuurts," Katja said, grimacing. "It's like my pain receptors are celebrating their rebirth by having the world's worst Mardi Gras."

    Galatea tenderly placed her hand on the back of Katja's head.

    "You did wonderfully. Now rest. Once you are ready, we will decide how to rescue your uncle."

    Comforted enough to relax her still-tensed body, Katja was overcome with a wave of fatigue. She felt herself drifting off to sleep, but this time, she knew it wouldn't last.







    --


    Shining Star


    "Alright, you can come in now, Assassin."

    Katja opened the door to let Assassin, who had been standing outside to allow Katja some privacy, enter her room. Setting down a tray full of nutritionally balanced foods on the bedside table, Assassin gave Katja a moderately concerned look.

    "So, how does it feel to return to the world of the living once more?" he said, trying in vain to force a smile.

    Katja rolled her eyes.

    " " she said, sitting up and eagerly digging into the food with a word of thanks. "Still, I could be worse."

    Apparently, coming back from near-death was an energy intensive endeavor. While Katja never had the biggest appetite, she managed to clear the entire tray of food and still found herself unsatisfied.

    "If you hadn't already downed the entire tray," Assassin remarked, his shoulders dropping in tension slightly. "I'd have told you to slow down. Shouldn't a lady eat with more elegance than that?"

    "Do you see a lady around?" Katja snapped. "Get with the times, old man. You should've seen the cafeteria at school. There's not an elegant soul in sight. Well, except for , anyways."

    "Oh, how times have changed," Assassin lamented, giving an exaggerated sigh. "The sands of time have swept away even the most enduring beauties of the world. Truly the tragicomedy of life is a cruel set to act upon!"

    Katja gave Assassin a look.

    "You didn't just come in here to judge me, did you?" she said, turning one of the empty bowls of soup on the tray upside down as though that would somehow create more food. "Cause if so, I'd kindly and politely ask you to get out."

    "If only I had such time," Assassin said, shrugging. "Messing with you is fun in its own way, but that's not why I'm here."

    " ? And why would that be then?"

    Katja wasn't precisely sure what she hoped to achieve with this line of questioning. Given what she knew about the Master-Servant bond, it seemed only natural to her that some servants would express concern over their Master's safety and visit them while they were recovering. Katja supposed that, given how her last private conversation with Assassin went, she was still a bit unsure how to talk to him.

    Sensing the moment of hesitation in Katja's eyes, Assassin let out a genuine sigh and sat down across from Katja, pulling up a chair from the nearby desk and sitting on it s.

    "Look, you don't have to be so on edge, Katja. This isn't going to be an interrogation. I get that you don't want to resume our conversation from last time. We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

    Katja looked down, unable to maintain eye contact with Assassin. There was an unpleasant feeling that had been welling up in her chest, one that had been present even before the operation at her home. Even now, when her body had been restored, a part of her still felt.... weak? No, that wasn't the right word for it. Katja couldn't quite pin down this feeling of unease, but she knew it had to be brought up now.

    "I.... I think it's fine if we talk about it," she said, still not looking at him. "Since we might die before we have another chance."

    "Well, that's a rather pessimistic viewpoint," Assassin said, trying to maintain a casual tone of voice. "But true, nonetheless."

    Katja opened her mouth to speak, but then hesitated. How could she phrase this question? However it came out, it would sound bad. She supposed such concerns were a foregone conclusion at this point, so what did she have to lose?

    "Hey Assassin," she said, continuing to stare down at her feet. "Why did you end up being summoned by a Master like me?"

    There was a moment of silence between the two, one long enough that Katja eventually looked up. The expression on Assassin's face was a mixture of concern, hesitation, and mirth, a strange mirror to the expression Katja herself probably wore.

    "What? That many reasons?" Katja asked him with a low chuckle. "You can tell it to me straight, Assassin. I can take it."

    Assassin shook his head.

    "No, that's not it," he said. "I guess I was just taken aback by the question. I didn't think you saw it that way."

    "I don't see why you'd find that surprising personally," Katja said dryly. "I mean, it's only been five days and I've already almost died twice. If it weren't for Galatea, I'd have already been killed. I'm basically useless in a fight compared to her or Dante or Shlykova. All I do is hold you back."

    Assassin's expression turned thoughtful.

    "'Hold me back'?" he said, putting his knuckles against his chin in a thinking gesture. "Is that what you've been doing? I can't seem to recall that."

    "Don't patronize me, Assassin," Katja snapped. "I'm a bad Master and only a fool would say otherwise."

    "You don't think I'm a fool?"

    "Of course not! You're a legendary tactician, a master of warfare! You've done things in your life that would take me a thousand lifetimes to achieve. You-"

    Assassin stood, cutting her off mid-sentence. It was in anger, but more so in defiance.

    "Precisely. And that's what makes me the biggest fool of all."

    Katja was at a loss for words. She couldn't formulate a response to that, so Assassin continued.

    "You asked me why I chose you to be my Master, yet you also claim to have seen my past and my aspirations. Can you not tell the answer already?"
    "I.....I mean....-"

    Katja struggled to respond still, her thoughts flowing through her head faster than she could process them. Almost as though to put a stopper on that stream of thoughts, Assassin placed his hands on Katja's shoulders, shocking her into focus once more.

    "Katja, no.... Master. Are you aware of the requirements of the summoning ritual for the Holy Grail War?"

    "I.... kinda, I suppose. I needed to make a circle and a chant and stuff."

    "The ritual you performed that night was but the skeleton of the real thing, an incomplete ritual that lacked both a proper understanding of symbology and a necessary sacrifice. Think of these components as aspects of the summoning that allow a summoner to align their magical signature with that of the servant they are trying to summon."

    "You mean....kinda like invoking the constellation of say.... could better summon servants that were related to horsemanship or something?"

    Assassin smiled at the comparison.

    "Ahem. Not exactly, but the general idea is the same. These things are meant to help bridge the gap between you and your servant. The larger the disparity, the more that is needed. This is why a catalyst is a common aspect of summoning rituals, it invokes a specific Heroic Spirit better than most anything else."

    "B-but, I didn't have anything like that at all. You kinda started talking to me first."

    "Precisely, Katja. That's precisely it. The moment you were selected by the Grail to become a Master, that bridge in compatibility had already begun to be filled."

    "I.... I mean....I guess we're kinda similar sometimes, but wouldn't someone like Caster have been a more compatible fit then? We seem to get along just fine."

    "Compatibility isn't about rapport, Katja," Assassin said, shaking his head. "Caster may be an artist like yourself, but he's finished picture, a man who's known himself and his outcomes long before he became a servant."

    "But then, what does that make you?"
    Assassin looked at her with eyes that expressed countless emotions, rage, regret, anticipation, fear, all boiling just beneath the surface.

    "You know what I ended up doing, as well as what I ended up not doing. Those regrets defined my death, but they only did so because I allowed them to. Because I made the choice not to stay inside of my own head and instead to step out into the world."

    Katja thought back to the dream she had of that quiet boy who sat in the forum of a nameless Roman street. , to pass through life as an invisible entity to those around. That boy had been simply content to exist as though he were air, a bundle of silent thoughts that would go unexpressed and unnoticed.

    "So.... you're telling me that I summoned you because we were once similar people? I fail to see how that makes me a good Master."

    "Were once, perhaps. But we still are too, if you think about it. You're hardly the same person you were five days ago."

    "B-but, you're a hero. There are only a handful of people who've done as much in all of history, while I'm just a common mage."

    "Common? Katja, I'm one of thousands of Heroic Spirits. Meanwhile, there is hardly an abundance of Masters in recorded history are there? You're a part of something special and unique, even if you don't realize it yet."
    "Even still, I'm not like you. I can't commit to anything without messing it up. I mean, you saw what happened to me."

    "Success is easy when life hands you opportunities," Assassin said, shrugging. "You'll find that a common theme among Heroic Spirits. Many are born kings, nobility, or godlings, beings destined for greatness. Even I was born primed for a successful career in the Senate and Legions. With all of their advantages, it's hardly surprising that most Heroic Spirits end up being important."

    "I mean, I guess. But you can't deny that someone born into better circumstances would've been a better Master for you."

    "Hmm, maybe. In terms of raw specs, you are rather on the lower end in almost every category, but you possess something far more important to me than that."

    "And that is?"

    Assassin didn't answer right away, instead settling back into his chair.

    "Do you ever think about what you look like when you manipulate your sculptures? The expression you wear?"

    "Well, no. Not really. But it's concerning when you put it that way."

    Don't worry, it's not bad or anything," Assassin said, shaking his head. "It's actually the exact opposite. In it, I see the way that you're completely entranced by the one aspect of your life that gives it color, the one way in which you want to contribute to the world. It's not dissimilar to a flower in bloom, a brief moment of beauty that is enchanting precisely due to its finality."

    Katja felt herself turning red at the unexpected compliment. She hadn't ever felt self-conscious when she made her sculptures, but she certainly thought she would in the future thanks to this.

    " ," Assassin continued. "That was enough to begin the summoning ritual, incomplete as it was. That was why it took me a while to fully appear in your mind. The pieces were all in place, all you needed to do then was say the words to acknowledge me."

    "B-but art and war-"

    "Mean the same thing to each of us personally. People like you and me, Katja, we see things differently from other people. We're consumed by the spirits of passion to such an extent that it borders on requiring an exorcism to remove. Once I made the choice to pursue my life's work, I accepted every regret and failure that came along with it. As will you, if you choose to follow a similar path."

    "Even if failing means we both die?" Katja asked.

    "If I recall correctly, you asked me a similar question once, back when I first manifested," Assassin said chuckling. "My answer has not changed."

    "But didn't you say I won't fail because you won't fail? That has nothing to do with me."

    "On the contrary, Katja, it has everything to do with you. Once you find your shining star, that light on the horizon that guides you forward, even failure is a step forwards, not a step back. Soon, you'll see things the way I do, you'll follow your star."



    Assassin gave Katja a wry smile.

    "Perhaps. But remember, all I needed to succeed was for people to believe in me. If we trust each other, as Master and Servant, we will be invincible."

    For a moment, Katja wondered if trust was all that was lacking in the life of Fabius Maximus, but she didn't really want to bring that up at the present time, so she pushed that thought out of her mind.

    Assassin stood up and began to walk out of the room.

    "I apologize for taking up your resting time, Katja," he said as he placed his hand on the door frame. "You don't need to assuage my concerns about your willpower anymore."

    "Assassin, wait," Katja said, holding out her hand to stop him from leaving. "What if.... what if I can't do it? What if I can't find my shining star?"

    Assassin stopped and smiled again though this time with some seriousness.

    "The tapestry of the Parcae has been woven to completion since the beginning of time immemorial. Where it shall be cut or elongated is not something within a mortal's business to ponder. If you fail, then it was always your destiny to do so. Likewise, if you succeed, then it was your destiny to do so as well. It's best not to worry too much about what may be, and instead you should just do what you can. If we die, it just means we lost the battle of wills."

    With that Assassin left the room, leaving Katja alone with her thoughts and an empty tray of food.

    --

    When Katja returned to the command room after asking Caster for another round of food, she found herself in the middle of a discussion between Assassin and Galatea.

    "This is not a strategic point that Katja and I are willing to compromise on, Galatea," Assassin said, barely acknowledging Katja and Caster's entrance into the room. "You don't know Hannibal like I do. If he's sending out an invitation to battle, then he's already seen the outcome."

    "That doesn't change the fact that sending you two out alone is tantamount to surrender under those circumstances. At the very least, you cannot expect me to allow you both to simply walk in through the front gate." Galatea responded.

    Katja, who had been nursing a small bowl of Greek yogurt, cocked her head at the discussion.

    "Wait, did I miss something here? I can't tell what you two are talking about."

    Galatea sighed and turned to face Katja, her expression grim.

    "We've received some troubling transmissions while you were asleep, Katja."

    Turning to face the monitor, Katja saw what appeared to be a series of Mana readings that were sequenced as sets of defined amplitudes in a rigid order.

    "Is this.... some sort of code?" Katja asked, squinting.

    "Morse, from the looks of it," Assassin said, nodding. "We picked up this magical signature from Hannibal's fortress a few hours ago. I would've mentioned it to you sooner, but I wasn't sure if you were healthy enough."

    "Well, what's it say then? It could be about my uncle," Katja replied.

    "The message it seemed to repeat was, 'Come alone. You have until nightfall.'" Caster said. "Impressive stuff, really. Morse Code isn't knowledge the Grail gives you, which means Rider must've learned it all on his own. I guess he's not a genius for nothing, huh?"

    "Alright, when do we attack then?" Katja asked without missing a beat.

    Galatea and Assassin both gave her the same surprised look.

    "....What?" Katja asked, looking back and forth between them. "Why're you looking at me like that? Do I still have bedhead?"

    "Well, no. It's not that...." Assassin said, choosing to speak up first. "It's just that... knowing you. We expect you to be a little more shocked."

    "Shocked? I've never felt better!" Katja said.

    She wasn't lying. Though she definitely knew she felt some degree of intellectual fear, at that moment, her mind felt somewhat calm. She wasn't afraid. Not yet, anyways.

    "Need I remind you," Galatea said as she massaged the bridge of her nose in exasperation. "That not only will you be fighting on enemy turf, but also that you may potentially be fighting two enemy servants at once?"

    "I get that you're eager, Katja," Assassin interjected. "But also remember that we have no idea how powerful that Archer Servant even is. Facing down the both of them at once is a tall order. I think the best way to approach this should be to go in and get your uncle as soon as possible then bid a hasty retreat. I can very effectively after all."

    "It's alright guys," Katja said with a playful smirk. "Aren't you forgetting who they're dealing with?"

    The two of them sat in stunned silence, a cue that Katja took to continue.

    "You're going to love this plan I have..."





    --


    Day 5:Breaking Ante


    "So, you're not even going to put on a coat?" Assassin said with a raised eyebrow.

    "I want to ensure maximum range of movement," Katja said, rotating her arm about her shoulder. "We've only got one shot at this."

    The two of them stood alone in the middle of the snowy pathway that led to Rider's fortress. Though a blizzard raged on around them, Katja couldn't feel the cold. It was as though the fresh blood flowing through her veins gave her warmth. She felt restless, ready to spring into action at any moment.

    "Remember not to give anything away," Assassin remarked at her fidgeting. "The enemy will expect us to come with a plan, so don't let our intentions slip."

    "Yeah, yeah," Katja said, twisting her body in a stretching motion. "How do you know they won't just execute us? I feel like we forgot to consider that."

    "Hannibal is many things, but cruel is not one of them. He'll at least give us a chance. His master, on the other hand.... maybe he will. We'll just have to take that risk."

    "Didn't you say earlier that hope isn't a strategy?"

    "We'll be going in blind, Katja. We should account for an element of chance when going into enemy territory like this. We'll just have to play it smart. Get him to monologue. He seems like the type to enjoy doing that anyways."

    "And if that fails?"

    "If that fails, we can always retreat. Remember that I have the highest level of D . If we need to withdraw, I promise we will."

    "We retreat only when we have my uncle. I doubt they'll keep him alive for long if we leave him now."

    "Heh, I'm starting to wonder which one of us is the tactician here."

    "I am technically the Master here, Assassin."

    The two of them now stood before a set of large stone gates at the foot of the massive dome. Up close, Katja was able to admire the stonework of the massive structure. At this closer distance, it was clear to Katja that the term "dome" was something of a misnomer as, while the building was indeed circular, it lacked any sort of vertical curvature. Instead, a dome-like shape was approximated by a series of ring-shaped elevations not dissimilar to the structure of a wedding cake. Supporting the structure from the inside were rings of pillars which both resembled Roman pillars and very much did not. Overall, the building looked out of place when compared to the terrain, with its open-air terraces and many wind-exposed pathways finding much more utility in a warmer region. This was evidenced by the observation that all but one of these openings had been walled off with stone, a jarring addition that Katja suspected was to cope with the harsh Siberian winter.

    As they approached, the doors of the structure slowly opened, moved by an invisible force. Standing a few steps above them and looking down was Rider, though he was without his mount.

    "I see that our demand has not gone unheard," he said calmly. "Good, then it would seem that the life we hold in custody will yet live a little longer."

    Rider stood before them with neither his mount nor his weapon, completely exposed. Without the massive beast beside him, Katja actually found that he was not much taller than Katja herself.

    "Nice of you to greet us at the front door, Carthaginian," Assassin said with a smirk. "Will your Master not be joining us tonight? I seem to have noticed his absence."

    "My Lord awaits in the inner sanctum of my fortress. I am to escort you to him where you will meet your final fate."

    Without another word, Rider ed inside, clearly implying that they should follow. Katja and Assassin exchange nods and go inside after him.

    The moment Katja stepped through the boundary into the building, she noticed the sudden change in temperature. Not even a milimeter away from the entrance, where the biting winter storm could freeze skin in minutes, the temperature suddenly felt.... tropical. It was as though Katja stepped into another, much warmer country.

    "I see that you carry no weapon with you, Carthaginian," Assassin remarked. "Do you truly view us as so irrelevant a threat?"

    "Hmph. It would be unbecoming of a man to be armed in his own home," Rider responded, glancing at Katja out of the corner of his eye. "Even if you attempted something, it would not escape my attention for long. Your Master appears to have come to that same conclusion."

    Katja flinched at the sudden address. Rider had very quickly caught on to Katja's attempts to read the Prana flow of the building through her feet. She wanted to feel how much of this structure was of Rider's spirit, but it seemed as though the threshold of detection was incredibly small. She'd have to be extra careful.

    "Still, even you cannot slay us without a weapon," Assassin said. "What is it that you are planning to do with us?"

    "That is not for me to decide, Roman," Rider said, shaking his head. "I will take you before my Master and he shall decide your fate."

    The three of them stepped into a larger room, a square one with a flowing waterway that housed in its center a circular island connected to the mainland by two stone paths. Beyond it was a set of double doors even more ornate than the ones at the entrance. Lying in front of these doors slumbered the massive grey form of Rider's mount, Surus, who stirred upon the return of its master.

    "Surely you won't feed us to that, will you, Carthaginian?" Assassin said half-seriously. "Because that would certainly be an unfortunate way to go."

    "Fortunately for you, we are not as crass as to feed others to animals, Roman," Rider said as he patted the creature's massive snout. "And besides, human bones tend to get stuck in Surus' throat. Your Master would do more harm dead than alive."

    Katja gulped. Seeing the creature up close, she felt an indescribable, primal terror that froze her completely in place. An elephant she could probably handle, but this.... beast was unidentifiable and terrifying. She wondered how Assassin never lost his nerve fighting against this thing.

    Assassin moved to the central stone island and sat down cross legged on the floor. Though he projected an air of calmness, Katja could tell that he was a little on edge himself. As a tactician, this was probably the worst possible starting condition for a battle, and it was likely that every natural instinct he had was telling him to retreat as soon as possible.

    "Well, where is the prodigal madman then?" Assassin asked impatiently. "Surely he doesn't intend to keep us waiting, does he?"

    "My master is still resting in the inner sanctum. Until such a time as he chooses to present himself, you are to remain here." Rider said stoically.

    "Huh, I never took you for a lapdog, Carthaginian," Assassin said with a smirk. "Doesn't really fit your image, does it?"

    Rider's face flushed with visible anger, but his body made no moves to attack.

    "You'll do well to watch your tongue, Roman, as difficult as that may be for you," he said through gritted teeth. "To follow your lord's orders is paramount to keeping discipline. As a general, you should be aware of the importance of this."

    Assassin sat cross-legged on the floor, giving off an unguarded, almost casual air.

    "Never really been one for taking orders. Giving them, sure," he said, shrugging. "Still, you'd think he'd show more respect to someone of your fame."

    Rider shook his head.

    "According to this.... Christian theology, we Servants are worth little more than ghosts. Shadows no more human than a dog."

    At this, even Assassin's expression turned to one of distaste. A moment of silence hung in the air, as though for an instant, the two men found common ground.

    "Well, guess there's nothing to do but wait then, isn't there?" he said as he raised his hand into the air.

    The air shimmered for a brief moment as Assassin appeared to reach into a pocket of empty space. When he pulled his hand out, he was holding a small wooden box in his hands.

    "Hey! When did you have time to take that‽" Katja exclaimed, pointing at Assassin. "Actually, how did you even do that? I have several questions!"

    Assassin chuckled.

    "As it turns out, we can store a few things with us when we go into our spirit forms. Most servants store modern clothes or other utility items, but I decided to fish this out of the wreckage of your home last night."

    Rider slowly approached with an eyebrow raised. He appeared guarded slightly upon seeing Assassin fish out an unknown object, but his alarm seemed to have died down upon sensing no magical energy from the box.

    Assassin smiled as he unfolded the wooden box, revealing thirty-two carved wooden pieces on a gridded wooden plane.

    "I invite you to sit, Carthaginian," he said as he indicated the spot across from the chessboard while arraying the pieces in formation. "Have you had a chance yet to experience modern games during your summoning?"

    "Unlike you, I have had little time to remain idle, Roman," Rider said as he stood before Assassin.

    Though his words were harsh, he spoke them without bite, as his curiosity outweighed his hostility. Sitting down across from Assassin, he picked up one of the pieces and studied it closely. After a brief inspection, he placed it down with a huff.

    "Hah, I would hardly call this game new. I recall from my knowledge provided by the Grail that this game has existed for over a thousand years."

    Assassin smiled.

    "Forgive me, I still have a habit of calling anything beyond my time as modern. A common error. I am certain I am not the only one guilty of it."

    Rider crossed his arms and eyed Assassin as he picked up the piece Rider had studied and placed it back into its proper place.

    "Be that as it may," he said. "Am I to take this as a challenge, Roman? Your strategic mind against mine?"

    "Take it however you wish, Carthaginian," Assassin said with a chuckle. "This is simply one of my favorite pastimes. I am inviting you to partake in it as well. I take it you're familiar with the rules?"

    "Of course I am," Rider declared flatly. But then his stoic expression twitched slightly, betraying a hint of uncertainty. "But perhaps a brief reminder would not be unwelcome. It would not do to suffer a defeat to a Roman on the grounds of a poor understanding of the rules, after all."

    Assassin grinned and began explaining the basics of chess, as well as, at least to the best of Katja's understanding, its more complex goals and proper mindset. The explanation went far deeper than was strictly necessary to play the game, instead diving into a philosophical discussion about the way in which chess acts to demonstrate the very soul of each tactician who plays the game, with each move revealing their willingness to advance, retreat and sacrifice. Katja felt as though the sheer depth of the explanation was giving way too much information to Rider, but apparently, she was the only one who thought so, as Rider was hooked onto each word. Perhaps this was an act of respect on Assassin's part, an understanding that this was not to be a contest where anything other than their own intellect and abilities should hold them back. Any handicap would be seen as an insult to either party, or so she thought anyways. Up until this point, Katja felt as though she could somewhat relate to Assassin more but seeing him and Rider obsess over this silly board game with all the seriousness of actually riding into battle made her sigh with exasperation. She wondered if maybe this was something of a commonality between strategists, or maybe it was just a men thing. Come to think of it, her uncle never did concede a game against Assassin until his king was knocked over....

    "Well then, shall we?" Assassin asked, having seemingly finished his explanation while Katja zoned out. "According to my Master over there, this sport is normally a timed event, but I would hate to turn a pastime into an overbearing competition."

    Rider studied the board carefully, his mind likely carrying the full brunt of Assassin's explanation. Katja could only imagine the countless thoughts that must be running through the man's head as he studied the eight-by-eight grid. Eventually, his mind seemed settled, and he nodded slowly.

    "Yes, I believe so. Best of three, then? We can flip a coin to determine who starts."

    Assassin grinned and looked towards Katja. Reading between the lines, Katja placed her hand on the ground and extracted a small piece of the floor to fashion into a disc with distinct designs on either face. The ground felt viscous, more like heavy mud than water, a sensation Katja suspected was due to the high Prana density of the stone. She handed the disc to Assassin, who tossed it towards Rider. He studied the disc for a moment, eyes briefly narrowing at the helmeted Roman head on one side but cracking a small smile at the cartoon elephant on the other, then threw it back to Katja, who fumbled to catch it.

    "Well balanced," he said. "We'll have your master flip to decide. It should be obvious which side determines turn order."

    "You don't want to flip it yourself?" Assassin asked. "How trusting

    "I wouldn't trust either of us to do it," Rider responded. "We're far too dexterous not to have control over the outcome of the flip. A normal human couldn't hope to do that without trickery."

    Katja's dismissal briefly rubbed her the wrong way, and she gave Assassin an insulted look. Assassin shuffled uncomfortably, then shrugged, seeming to say, I mean, he's not wrong. Katja sighed, then flipped the coin into the air, allowing it to clatter to the ground in between the two. The Roman head pointed upwards.

    "Well, that's my symbol," Assassin said, rubbing his hands together. "I suppose I'll choose white then, I've always been an impulsive one after all."

    Assassin began to advance his board, achieving an early presence on the field. Over the course of the next few turn cycles, Assassin and Rider scrambled for board dominance, with Assassin taking a few minor victories here and there.

    "A rather conservative approach for you, is it not, Carthaginian?" Assassin said as he gleefully took another pawn. "I didn't expect you to give up your numerical parity so easily."

    "You don't need to understand my methods, Roman," Rider replied, eyes never straying once from the board. "Though I suppose you could say I am getting into the proper mindset."

    Assassin continued to press his advantage, seeming to enter into the same sequence of captures Katja had seen and experienced many times before. She really only had a surface-level understanding of what was happening, but it looked as though Assassin had the game in his hands.

    "So how does it feel to be working with soldiers under your command again, Carthaginian?" Assassin said with a smirk. "It feels strange not to fight with an army at your back, does it not?"

    "I will admit that Servant manifestation does not favor tacticians such as ourselves," he replied, stroking his beard. "But to point to such a handicap as the reason for a failure would be to whine like a wounded gazelle."

    Rider made his move. Assassin took another pawn.

    "Of course not. A strategist should work with what is given to them, not demand more," Assassin agreed, rubbing his chin in a similar fashion. "However, it is undeniable that the calculus is different now than it was then. Never has our own physical ability been placed in the forefront such as this at any point in our natural lives."

    Assassin moved in to steal a bishop, but surprisingly lost a pawn as he positioned to strike.

    "Hah! Speak for yourself, Roman. Unlike some of your kin, I would rather take charge of the lives of my men than flee to die another day." Rider spat.

    Assassin extended his arms in a conciliatory gesture.

    "Admittedly, not every member of my nation can be said to have inherited will," Assassin admitted. "But surely the same can be said for your nation, can it not?"

    Assassin took another pawn, leaving Rider with only three.

    "Perhaps it can, Roman," Rider said, his eyes shifting away from the board for the first time to look at the ground before him. "However, we will never have the chance to find out, now will we? Not when my nation lies forgotten below earth so infertile that even its greenery will never return, while yours flourishes all around you."

    "I'd hardly call Rome flourishing," Assassin laughed. "Not when there exist no proud Romans to embody it."

    Rider lost one more pawn.

    "Is it not alive in the republics of the world?" Rider asked as he moved a piece forward. "Is it not alive in the laws that survive to this day? Is it not alive in Rome itself, a city that continues to stand tall?"

    Assassin grimaced, saying nothing.

    "You speak of Rome's downfall, yet from where I stand, there exists nothing but Rome in all the West," Rider said, his voice low. "My nation and I stand with nothing more than the memory of what once was, while the torch of your civilization set my world alight with a fire so bright it consumed all traces of resistance. It never had a chance to be anything else. Your descendants made sure of that personally."

    Assassin reached out and knocked over Rider's penultimate pawn. Assassin's board had remained virtually untouched, yet despite the clear advantage he was in, he had yet to take any of Rider's upper pieces.

    "I see, I suppose I can understand some of your feelings now," Assassin said as he looked up at Rider. "Is that the reason why you pursued Rome with such fervor? Why you continue to hate us?"

    Rider let out a sigh. He didn't seem to do so out of annoyance or anger, but simply out of melancholy.

    "Do not misunderstand, Roman. These are the actions of men beyond your time, beyond your control, even. I am not so irrational as to hold every Roman responsible for the actions and decisions of a few men. My desire to defeat you and win this Grail war is simply for my own pride, nothing more."

    Assassin moved to take the final pawn, but then paused at Rider's words.

    "Nothing more? You mean to say you intend to make no wish upon the Grail?" he asked, leaning in curiously. "I had imagined you would attempt to rewrite your defeat. Restore Carthage to the world. Or is your bitterness towards the fate of Carthage merely empty words?"

    Rider's knuckles clenched.

    "You have a talent for prodding where you shouldn't, Roman. Has anyone ever told you that?" he said with a scowl.

    ".....There would be no point anyways," Rider continued. " I cannot and will not hold back the sands of time with my own hands like a vengeful wraith, unable to move on from my nation's demise. I lack such loyalty."

    "Then why fight at all, if you fight for nothing?" Assassin asked.

    "Why, for the of course. Does it not intrigue you? To face the greatest heroes of the ages in vicious battle, unfettered by politics and fools?" Rider said, though his voice sounded oddly hollow to Katja compared to when Assassin spoke similarly.

    "I suppose in that, we can find agreement, Carthaginian," Assassin assented, seemingly ignorant of Rider's delivery. "It strikes me how much our thoughts align on this matter. Perhaps, had we spoken like this in life, a different outcome may have come about. And the fall of Carthage avoided."

    Rider gave Assassin a strange look, one between mild amusement and sadness, then slowly shook his head.

    "No, it would have made no difference. The men who controlled our destinies, the foolish elders of Carthage and the Roman Senate would have never allowed it. Barring even that...."

    Rider reached down and placed a finger upon the head of his king, seeming to reminisce about something in the distant past.

    "....I am oathbound to never be a friend of Rome. It is for that reason that there would never have been true peace between Rome and Carthage for as long as I drew breath, and it is for that same reason that I cannot allow you both to leave here alive."

    Rider looked up at Assassin with a thunderous expression.

    "I believe the match has stalled long enough. Take the pawn, Assassin, as you intended."

    Assassin's confident smirk went away as he studied Rider's words. Unable to parse them deeply enough, he cautiously raised his arm and claimed Rider's final pawn for himself. As soon as Assassin did so, his eyes widened.

    "Damn," he cursed as he stared down at the board. "I didn't see that until just now."

    Katja craned her neck to look over the board. She couldn't claim to be any expert on chess, but it did look as though Assassin was primed to lose his knight, maybe even his bishop, but the disadvantage didn't look too bad to her.

    "Your words do ring true in one aspect, Roman," Rider said as he pressed forward with his attack. "In some regards, we are indeed not dissimilar. However, in life, I knew your tactics better than most anyone. I had my suspicions as to the type of man you were. And this meeting has only sealed my suspicions in stone."

    Instead of taking the obvious move of capturing Assassin's knight, Rider instead moved one of his bishops forward directly into enemy territory, in a position that directly threatened Assassin's rook. While it would have normally been a simple matter of evading the bishop, directly behind the rook, in the bishop's line of attack, was Assassin's queen.

    "Allow me to teach you the difference between us," Rider said as he leaned back to allow Assassin to scramble to save his board. "While we play the same game, our objectives differ greatly."

    Rider moved in with more pieces to threaten, seemingly leaving his own king exposed.

    "You fight so that you lose nothing, an attritional war with only minor costs."

    Assassin, rather than pressing the attack, moved to keep his Queen out of harm's way. In a clever move however, he positioned his pieces such that, should Rider press his offensive, he would lose his other bishop.

    "I fight," Rider said, ignoring the threat to his bishop. "To win, no matter the sacrifice."

    His pieces began to form a perimeter around Assassin's. Despite Assassin having nearly all of his pawns, their forward directional movement made them useless on the defensive.

    "Each piece, a resource to serve a purpose."

    In an almost reckless offensive maneuver, he pressed forward, losing several key pieces in the process. Assassin, who studied the board with a degree of intensity that Katja had previously only seen in the heat of battle, raised an eyebrow at the notice of an opening with which to escape with his rook and queen.

    "For you, this game may be a test of pure tactics, a neutral space in which only the mind may shine."

    Assassin began a counterattack, removing Rider's last rook and taking his queen on the far end of the board. For a moment, it seemed to Katja as though Rider's offensive had lost steam, and that Assassin may have taken back the advantage.

    "However, for me," Rider said as he moved his final piece aside from his king, his bishop, forwards. "Even your genius is a tool at my disposal. And that is why this game is mine."

    Katja stared down at the board in disbelief. Despite having far fewer pieces numerically to Assassin, Rider had positioned his offensive such that all it took to claim checkmate on Assassin's king was one singular bishop deep in enemy territory.

    "Tch. A misdirection," Assassin cursed. "You never had any intention to take my queen, did you? I should've seen that."
    "Capturing the queen does not win you the game, Roman," Rider said with a hint of amusement in his voice. "Your failure to understand that all pieces serve the king is what cost you victory."

    Assassin stared at the board for a little, not in anger but in deep thought. Then, he broke out into a joyful laugh, something which caught even Rider off guard.

    "There never was anyone else like you in all of Carthage was there? If there was, I would truly have feared for Rome's future," Assassin exclaimed.

    ".... Is your loss truly that amusing to you, Roman?" Rider said, not sharing Assassin's elation. "I did not expect you to be the type to break under pressure."

    "You do not understand," Assassin said, shaking his head. "In the time of the Republic, and even after that, we Romans lived for war. It was our purpose and our fate to master the battlefield. And yet despite all of our boasting and our pride, we were so thoroughly crushed by you, a Carthaginian. Your people were merchants, your soldiers mercenaries, and yet despite your lack of unity, you broke our pride so thoroughly that we had to burn Carthage to the ground just to save face."

    "Are you trying to claim that the fall of Carthage was my fault?" Rider whispered, his eyes narrowing.

    "I meant it not as an accusation, but as a testament to your brilliance," Assassin chuckled. "We had every advantage, yet we floundered, teetered on the edge of oblivion for years under your thumb. That is until-"

    "Until you. Is that what you mean to suggest?" Rider interrupted. "Or do you intend to willfully ignore your own title, 'Shield of Rome'?"

    Assassin looked down, his brow furrowing and expression darkening.

    "That was never my intention," he said quietly, some of his energy leaving him. "I never intended to stall, to be the opening act for someone else. I meant to defeat you and bring an end to the war myself, not to play second fiddle to some young upstart with too much vengeful anger!"

    Assassin's outburst was unexpected, especially given what Katja saw from her dreams. But then again, he had been an old man then. Here, he was younger, the height of his ambition and glory. If Rider was at all moved by Assassin's words, he didn't show it.

    "You speak of Scipio Africanus, the man who defeated me?" Rider asked, crossing his arms. "You mean to say he outdid you? That you could have achieved similar greatness? What arrogance."

    Anger briefly flashed across Assassin's face, but then it quickly turned into a smirk.

    "Arrogance? I hardly think so. You yourself admitted that my tactics prevented the fall of Rome. How long before your army would have broken?"

    "Irrelevant, as we will never know," Rider said solemnly, shaking his head. "Diving into the realm of possibility to sate loss is a fool's errand."

    "You mean to say that you feel no rage?" Assassin demanded, rising to his feet. "That your cause was denied to you by your own countrymen? So fearful of their own small lives that they refused you the victory you so deserved‽"

    .

    "Is that why you fight? To prove yourself the genius you believe you are?" Rider said dismissively. "What a childish vision."

    "Bah. Genius exists only in hindsight," Assassin said, waving off Rider's criticism. "I simply wanted to break free from the bonds of weak men, to prove to myself that victory can be achieved by my hand."

    Rider raised an eyebrow but did not seem to respond. The tension left Assassin's shoulders and he sat back down.

    "You did not answer my question, Carthaginian," Assassin continued, fire igniting in his eyes. "Do you not feel rage against the old fools of Carthage who turned their backs on you in your hour of need?"

    Rider remained silent for a moment, closing his eyes as though recalling the very moment of his demise, before saying, "Do not so boldly project your rage upon me, Roman. Unlike you, I make no presumptions about the intentionalities of the men whom I obeyed. I do not possess the arrogance to think those men purposefully conspired against me to bring about my downfall."

    Rider picked up his own, unfallen king piece and held it up to Assassin.

    "Even the head that I have been duty-bound to protect is not above inclusion within my plans. Those men were driven by self-preservation and fear. And so I do not resent them for it. What they did was natural."

    "Natural or not, they lacked faith in you and your abilities," Assassin responded. "They chose to die slowly rather than win. How can you accept that?"

    "Once again, you misunderstand, Roman!" Rider said, his eyes flaring with a sudden intensity. "Do not think for one moment that I was cowed into abandoning my quest for vengeance. When the order came to return to Carthage to defend it, I chose to obey that order. I chose to fight to the last rather than abandon my nation to pointlessly satisfy my pride."

    Assassin winced at that final line, but Rider continued without mercy.

    "Your words ring like the wails of a child, Fabius Maximus, one who never moved past his boyhood dreams of becoming a great warrior. You claim to fight for Rome, to defend it, but the way I see it, you fought only for yourself. You may have been more competent than Varro or Marcus Minucious, but you are no different in your tireless hunger for personal glory. No different from any Roman, it would seem."

    These words hung heavily in the air for a time. Katja worriedly leaned over to read Assassin's expression, but before she could interpret it, Assassin seemed to return to his jovial self, though with noticeably less vigor than before.

    "Well, that was then and now is now, I suppose," Assassin said as he set about re-arranging the pieces on the chess board. "Game two then, is it? I think I'll go black this time. Change things up, why not?"



    --

    Day 5:Midnight Reversal


    "Psst. You know Assassin, I don't mean to tell you how to play chess, but the game isn't going to end unless one of you makes a move," Katja whispered.

    Despite the game having gone on for the past half-hour, neither side had made more than a handful of moves. Both stared down at the board like statues, perfectly content to remain still for minutes on end. Meanwhile, Katja, who had far less patience for this, had been pacing about nervously before finally addressing her Servant.

    Unfortunately, it really did feel as though Assassin had turned to stone. Not only did he completely ignore her words, but he also barely seemed to notice her presence. Sighing, Katja looked over at Rider, who was in a similarly still .

    "We've been here for almost thirty minutes now. Is Dante going to come out at all? Even I wouldn't spend this long getting ready," she said, fully expecting to be ignored.

    "He will arrive when he chooses. We do not exist for your convenience, child," Rider said unexpectedly.

    The two of them appeared at parity with one another on the chessboard, with both sides having collected a handful of pawns. This time, neither side seemed to want to make the first move which, while a cautious and strategically valuable move, took way too much time for Katja to handle. Throwing her hands up in frustration, Katja walked over to the far side of the room and began pulling tiles from the ground and fashioning them into stackable rocks.

    "Your Master lacks patience, Roman," Rider said after finally making a move. "Her immaturity may cost you dearly in this battle."

    Assassin chuckled.

    "I'm not sure if you have any right to talk about other people's Masters, Carthaginian, not when yours is a piece of work himself," he replied.

    Rider's already present scowl deepened slightly at the mention of his own Master.

    "My lord has his vices, but he is a seasoned warrior. You would do well to recognize that, especially when compared to what you possess. With both an Assassin and a Caster on your side, you lack any form of offensive utility. There is little you can do against us."

    "Ah yes, if I recall correctly, you've allied yourselves with that young lady and her Archer Servant," Assassin mused. "Tell me, are they also present here?"

    "There would be no point in revealing that information to you, Roman," Rider responded. "And if I were you, I would focus on the match. You just lost your knight."

    "I'll admit that you may be just a little better than me at this," Assassin grinned as Rider captured his piece. "Though I can't say I find that very surprising."

    "It is an amusing game, but not one that simulates real battle," Rider said. "If real soldiers allowed themselves to be so easily sacrificed, the world would be a more peaceful, yet colder place."

    "Agreed," Assassin said, nodding. "Plus, not every war is so equally distributed. Sometimes, you need to work with what you've got, even if she is a fixer-upper."

    In the corner, Katja crushed a stone into a puddle. Assassin was really taking this opportunity to mouth-off, but she kept her anger in check. She'll give him hell for that later.

    "The world has certainly changed. Never did I expect to find myself in a secret war," Rider said. "That is check, by the way, Roman."

    "So it is, Carthaginian, so it is," Assassin replied, seemingly unbothered by the move.

    "Hmph. Have you decided to give up the match? That would result in my overall victory."

    "Hah! Those are big words coming from someone who hasn't won yet," Assassin laughed. "There. Your move."

    "Again, that is check. You are merely forestalling the inevitable."

    "Sorry, old habits die hard," Assassin said, pulling another piece back. "Besides, I have no intention of losing here, Carthaginian, not when my hapless Master is relying on me to do my part."

    Katja breathed in sharply. The 'hapless' label was unnecessary.

    "Even if you could defeat me in single combat, your Master would still be killed by my own. I suggest you make peace with your loss sooner rather than later."

    "All in good time, Carthaginian. All in good time," Assassin said.

    Assassin's calm mood must have given Rider cause for concern. Rider studied his opponent for a time, suspicion evident on his face. His eyes darted about the room, attempting to find signs of a trap or ambush. After a few moments, his tension eased up slightly and he returned to the game.

    "Do not think to attempt any subterfuge within my own domain, Roman," Rider growled. "Should you even attempt such actions, Surus will tear your Master in half."

    Assassin didn't even seem bothered by Rider's threat, instead keeping his eyes planted on the board.

    "Tell me Carthaginian, are you aware of the plethora of different formations and strategies this game contains? Katj- er, my Master's uncle owns quite a few books on the subject. Should you have time, I recommend giving them a look," Assassin said.

    "A pointless recommendation," Rider said dismissively. "Not when our incarnations return nothing to the Throne of Heroes where our legacies are stored. We Servants are not made to learn and grow, only to fight on behalf of those that do."

    "Tsk. Tsk. So quick to reject, Carthaginian," Assassin said, shaking his head. "How can you hope to win a war with that mindset?"

    "Oh? Are you suggesting that you could somehow bridge the gap in our abilities through mere days of study?" Rider asked with a raised eyebrow.

    "Well, perhaps not," Assassin admitted, shrugging. "But it can be the reason why I'm about to win here."

    Rider's head spun down towards the chessboard, studying it closely for signs of a well-laid trap. His face scrunched up in annoyed confusion, however, as he found nothing that appeared immediately suspicious.

    "This is either a novel strategy I am unfamiliar with or a bluff," Rider said. "Regardless, there is no reason I could not see such a thing coming."

    As the next few moves were exchanged between the two men, Assassin's boyish grin grew with each round just as Rider's scowl deepened.

    "Impossible. You possessed no strategy here. Yet how were you able to-"

    "Predict your moves?" Assassin asked as he claimed Rider's last rook. "It's simple really. I figured it out during our last match."

    "I made no errors in our last match," Rider returned. "There must have been some other reason."

    "Nope, that was all I needed," Assassin said. "You're right. You didn't make any mistakes. And that's exactly what I knew to expect from you this time."

    After a long pause, with Rider staring down at the chessboard while stroking his beard, he sighed and flicked down his king.

    "It is your victory, Roman," he said, closing his eyes. "Now explain yourself."

    "It's quite simple really," Assassin said, smirking. "It's because you're Hannibal Barca."

    Rider did not respond, his eyes focused on Assassin and expecting an elaboration.

    "Sorry," Assassin said abashedly. "I'd been waiting to say that for half the game now. Let me explain. Every move you made was done with the singular purpose of winning. At no point did you hold back with your genius when facing me. You fought with the intensity one would expect from the legendary general."

    "You say that as though it were some kind of mistake," Rider said, eyes narrowing at Assassin.

    "It's not. Or at least, it wouldn't normally be one," Assassin responded. "But while you claim to know my tactics, I can also say the same thing. I know every strategy you've ever applied, but I also know that those strategies are all you'll ever apply. You claim that I'm the one stuck in the past, but the truth is: so are you, Hannibal Barca."

    Rider closed his eyes and remained that way for a brief moment, showing no other visible reaction to Assassin's words. Eventually, he began to move the pieces on the chessboard back into their original positions.

    "Hmph. Another game," Rider demanded. "I shall prove that your posturing is meaningless."

    "Are you so sure you want to play another, Carthaginian?" Assassin laughed. "Based on what you know about me, what do you suspect our plan was when we came here tonight?"

    Rider tensed up, then stood, summoning his lance in one hand and pointed it at Assassin. The great grey Surus also stirred from its slumber to look towards its master.

    "Of course, I have anticipated that you did not come to simply accept death," Rider growled. "Do not think that you can deny me a full battle tonight. I have seen to it that all your means of escape have been cut off."

    Assassin laughed.

    "You know me so well," Assassin said, shrugging. "That was what I wanted to do at first. Still kinda do, as a matter of fact. But unfortunately for you, I don't always call the shots around here."

    Immediately, Rider's eyes shot towards Katja, who sank a bit under the intensity of his gaze.

    "You think the plans of a mere child would pose a threat to me, Roman?" Rider demanded. "Unpredictability means nothing without wit behind it."

    Rider's words were spoken with a thunderous force, not a shred of doubt behind them. In his facial expression, however, Katja could see the tiniest sliver of uncertainty, a fact that became evident as his eyes slid towards the door behind which his Master lay. Without another word, he began to turn towards that door, when Assassin grabbed him by the shoulder.

    "Afraid I can't let you do that, Cartha- no, Rider," Assassin said with a grin. "Your fight here is with me. We'll settle our tiebreaker with steel."

    "Hmph. Foolish," Rider spat as he shrugged off Assassin's arm and turned to face him. "Fine then. Neither of you shall leave this room alive. Surus!"

    Rider pointed his spear at Katja, and the grey beast let out a mighty roar that sent tremors throughout the room. Without verbal command, the beast began to charge at Katja from across the room, sending tiles and debris flying around as it ran.

    "You were foolish to choose this place as your battleground, Roman!" Rider shouted over the sounds of smashing rock. "Here there is nowhere for your Master to flee!"

    Assassin smiled as he glanced over at Katja, who, with reinforced limbs, slipped beneath the jaws of the beast and across the artificial river onto the stone platform the two Servants stood upon.

    "You're wrong on two counts, old man!" Katja shouted as she landed next to Assassin. "First of all, Assassin wasn't the one who chose this battleground. I did."

    She placed her hands upon the ground and, with considerable effort, sent a hail of rocks flying towards Rider, who deflected the shots easily with his spear. Using that moment of distraction, Assassin charged in and attempted to slash at Rider with his gladius, which he manifested instantly along with his greatshield. Rider caught the blow on the shaft of his spear and deflected it away, leading to the two men engaging in a brief but frenzied melee. Without missing a beat, Katja slid in behind Rider just as Surus clawed its way atop the stone platform after wading through the water. This time, Katja formed several tiny stone men who leapt and clung onto Rider's clothes, attempting to weigh down his arms and legs to give Assassin an edge. Then, with a combination of reinforcement and stoneshaping, she pulled a stone rod from the ground and attempted to strike at Rider's head. Unfortunately, even with reinforcement increasing her speed beyond human limits, Rider's Servant reflexes easily dodged the attack and caught her by the throat, hoisting her up into the air. Assassin attempted to strike Rider's unguarded head, but his attack was once again caught on the Servant's spear and the two were temporarily held in place.

    "My parameters are higher than that of an Assassin-class Servant, child," Rider said as he slowly began to crush Katja's throat. "You would do well to know your enemies in your next life."

    Katja tried to wrench away the hand that was holding her neck, but no matter how hard she pulled, she could not struggle free. For a moment, it looked as though she was struggling for breath, attempting to find breath before she lost consciousness, but then she went still.

    And, much to Rider's shock, Katja began to chuckle.

    "You know, if I had a voice box, this would've been really uncomfortable," she said with a smirk, hardly struggling to speak despite lacking air.

    "What‽" Rider exclaimed as he attempted to let go of Katja. However, before he could break away, Katja grabbed onto Rider's wrist.

    "Second reason you're wrong old man? It's because I don't need to leave this room alive," she Then, as though the liquid itself came to life, it suddenly enveloped Rider, combining with the clay men already on his person and forming a concrete binding that restrained his arms. Assassin grinned as he turned his gladius into a spear and charged forwards.

    "Looks like I'll be taking the first piece in this battle, Rider!" he exclaimed as he thrust his spear outwards.

    Rider yelled in pain as the point of Assassin's spear drove itself deep into his shoulder. However, just before he could reach the man's heart, Assassin was suddenly tackled from the side by the great snout of Surus, sending him flying out of the stone island. With a spin, Assassin landed gracefully on the outer stone boundary just as Rider tore himself free of the hardened stone and, with a grunt, tore Assassin's spear out of his body and threw it to the ground. Blood splattered across the floor as Rider clutched his wound. While not a fatal injury, it was enough to put Rider's stamina on the clock. If the battle went on for too long, Rider's wound would eventually wear him down.

    "A trick!" Rider exclaimed. "Your Master was never here to begin with, just this facsimile!"

    He kicked aside the stone debris left behind by Katja's trap.

    "Looks like you lacked foresight, Rider," Assassin said, smiling. "You thought my Master was so insignificant that her plans would never be chosen above my own. That will be the start of your undoing."

    "You mean to tell me you knew of this? You?" Rider growled. "Even though you could not then claim victory over me in this battle by your own hand‽"

    At that, Assassin grimaced. With a bit of hesitation, he admitted, "I.... don't like that I'm forced to relinquish command of the plan of attack. But because it was you we were facing, I knew this was the only way."

    "How?" Rider growled. "How did that sorry excuse for a warrior bypass my detection? Where is she now?"
    "We've been testing your detection abilities since the moment we stepped inside. My Master read the Prana flow of your Noble Phantasm at different intensities, finding just the threshold where you could detect changes. And once we knew how to infiltrate, it was just a simple matter of stalling for long enough to enact our plan," Assassin said as he pointed with his thumb towards the door behind him, leading to Dante's chamber.

    "You were so numb to your own Master that you never even stopped to question why he would take so long to leave his room. Our conversation told us everything we needed to know."

    "So, you mean to tell me that your Master has chosen to engage with my Master on her own? She wishes so badly to die by his hand?" Rider spat. "If this is all your 'plan' amounts to, then I was concerned for nothing."

    "Spare me the false courtesy, Rider," Assassin exclaimed as he resummoned his gladius. "I see now that everything Katja had been telling me in my head has been true. You are a broken man who cares not for whom he serves, a hollow shell of the brilliant strategist you once were, propped up only by the label the Grail has given of 'Hannibal Barca'. One such as you who is no longer capable of growth or innovation cannot possibly stand against us!"

    Rider was silent for a moment. Then, his shoulders began to tremble before he broke out into a laugh that sounded almost manic, like tears that were unsure if their purpose was for joy or sorrow.

    "Growth? Innovation? We're Servants, Roman! Shadows! Memories! No matter how many battles you win, no matter how many times you fight and die for the whims of arrogant spellcasters, it makes no difference! The past is over. And with it, every hope, dream, or aspiration immortalized into myth, never to be fulfilled. That is the destiny of people like us. To live in the eternal torment of our failures, never to move past them and find peace. If you think even for a moment that the Grail will bring you satisfaction, then you are a bigger fool than I could have ever imagined, Fabius Maximus!"

    Rider's once stoic expression had contorted into one of abandonment, his calm acceptance giving way to a sorrowful anger. With but a single hand gesture, Surus lowered its great head and allowed Rider to leap atop its back.

    "Until now, I had restrained the might of my mount to the form you see before you. However, to crush you beneath the weight of your false hopes, I shall reveal to you the true power of the last beast of my army."

    Assassin tensed as Rider's body began to glow in ephemeral light. Particles of gold, like tiny fairies dancing about, began to swirl around the rider and his mount. Even Assassin with his poor grasp on the finer points of Magecraft could feel the density of the Prana being gathered. He held his breath, ready to react to anything.

    "March undying into the jaws of death itself, freed from all but the beating drum of war! Become the terror that shall crush all opposition! Noble Phantasm release! Surus!"

    A blinding flash of golden light enveloped the room. When it dissipated, the terrible grey form of Surus, once a bipedal, reptilian beast with a great toothed maw, had been replaced with a hulking four-legged behemoth nearly twice the size of the original Surus. Where once its skin was gray and scaled, it was now coated in a mantle of violent shadows, obscuring its true form and leaving behind only the imposing outline of a dark and massive beast. Sitting atop this shadowy blackened form was a similarly shadowed humanoid figure, obscured in every way with the one exception of his right eye, which shone a stark white, like a lightning bolt through the head.

    "Now then, Roman," Rider said in a warped, echoing facsimile of his normal voice, one which seemed to bounce around the chamber as though it were being spoken by a chorus. "I suggest you implement the full power of your own Noble Phantasm. Otherwise..."

    The beast let out a terrible roar that resounded with such force that cracks began to form in the ground itself, sending waves of air pressure that forced Assassin backwards.

    "You'll die," Rider said, as he pointed his shadowy spear at Assassin.

    With another thunderous roar, the beast and its rider began to charge at Assassin with all the force and fury of a legion of men.

    "Well, Katja," Assassin muttered grimly under his breath. "I certainly hope things are better on your end."





    --
    Last edited by Sanrei; June 10th, 2021 at 09:14 AM.

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