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Thread: Fate\last call : night, dawn, and the birth of stars

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    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    Fate\last call : night, dawn, and the birth of stars

    Fate\last call
    night, dawn, and the birth of stars


    The earth cast a shadow, and that shadow looked up at the heavens.

    What am I, it demanded. It howled in anguish, festering with the agony of existence.

    Why am I alive?

    Why must I die?

    Why? Why?

    Bleeding with filth and pus, the vile thing curled up, weeping in preparation for itself to be extinguished.

    But the end never came. Even the ashes of the land sneered in mockery as they turned to nothing in the wind.

    If all things were impermanent, then how much longer until could stop crying? How long until it returned to the mire from which it had been born?

    There was nothing here. Not anymore. For the blink of an eye, it had known hope, and then it had blinked.

    Ruin. Hollow, meaningless ruin. And yet, it could not vanish.

    Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

    It wept and wept, and no answer came. And so, searing its own eyes, it finally looked to the sky with the loathing to burn it down.

    And in that moment, for the first time, a star responded.

    You will not vanish. Because you are loved.

    As it lay weeping in its ashes and its filth, the worst possible answer of all came, and it learned the name of hate.

    The starlight warped to meet it, and the sky became a shadowgraph.

    I despise you. So don't disappear.

    Please.

    Hate is all I have left.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
    Fate\last call
    night, dawn, and the birth of stars

    ╘══════════════════╕
    Masters
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    Recent: Ch. 5.1

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    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    Last edited by Random; December 5th, 2022 at 12:39 PM.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
    Fate\last call
    night, dawn, and the birth of stars

    ╘══════════════════╕
    Masters
    Servants
    Others
    Recent: Ch. 5.1

  3. #3
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    1.1

    Chapter 1, Part 1
    soldier and savage dark
    Zeroth Blood

    [ [ March 13
    [ [ 23:58


    A flash flew wide.
    No, it had been exactly on target, but...
    Too slow, was it?
    This was much easier when her target didn't know she was coming.
    The woman in the white kimono braced herself. A black iron shield came down like a guillotine.
    But so are you.
    The enemy’s blow struck the asphalt. It was as if a comet had suddenly woken up as a meteorite. Shards of dark grey scattered to the air, blending with the moonless dark and breaking like waves against rocks as they collided with the walls of the surrounding shops. The kunai that had been thrown and evaded less than a second ago was exchanged for dozens of crude facsimiles tearing through every direction.
    An impressive blow, without question. But it had not been aimed at the pavement.
    The woman in white unceremoniously reappeared from the empty air five metres behind her opponent.
    “Good grief. Do you have something against retreating?”
    The warrior did not respond, instead pulling herself upright. The shield in her hand was larger than her entire body, but she did not seem to have much difficulty with it. Although large in its own right, there was no way that the greatsword in her other hand was enough to balance her body on that alone.
    To put it another way, a tremendous strength completely contradictory to her appearance dwelled within a small, somewhat pudgy frame.
    Don’t honour the mountains just because they are tall, so went the saying, but the inverse was also true.
    “I was expecting an easier fight,” the woman admitted. “I’ll give you that much.”
    The warrior had not spoken until now, but met the comment with a smile. “Well, y’know. Seeing a pretty girl makes me want to show off a bit.”
    A sharp pulse of irritation concentrated like the point of a needle, and the woman’s left eye twitched.
    The praise had not been hollow. She had honestly considered this Berserker to be easy prey. After all, the idiot clearly hadn’t been paying any attention to her surroundings, focused entirely on her Master like a puppy. It was as if she hadn’t even been considering that killing intent might have been pointed her way. But not only had she seen the first attack coming, she had also been on the offensive for almost three full minutes. And on top of that, this flippant attitude…
    I can’t tell if she’s taking this seriously.
    If this was all her opponent had, then she could easily finish this just by going all-out herself. Berserker’s combat arts were expectedly unsophisticated, relying solely on sheer strength. It was not even a bastardisation of a more competent basis that she would have anticipated from a more skilled hero having lost their mind - this squat little Amazoness genuinely had not honed a single thing but raw power.
    She was either a weakling, or she was hiding some kind of trump card. In other words, was she pretending to be nothing but a musclehead just to draw out an opening for an unknown ace?

    The orders from her own Master had been simple: scout for enemies, and if there were any whose backs were open, kill them immediately.
    Indeed, that was what an Assassin-class Servant did best. The Holy Grail War was hardly so strict a game that its rules could not be bent, but there were a limited number of pieces to begin with. There were some Heroic Spirits qualifying for the class that one could consider unconventional in their methods - after all, it was not often that one made a name for oneself with stealth - but the woman in white was not one of them. She was a standard Assassin through and through.
    Unfortunately, those simple orders, in perfect harmony with the stage they may have been, broke down somewhat when faced with a target like this.
    And to make matters worse…

    “Honestly, how rude can you be?”
    The Master sitting side-saddle atop a streetlight hadn’t tipped her hand a single millimetre either.
    “Haven’t you heard of rules of engagement? I can’t stand sneaky types who think they're too good for a decent ‘hello’.”
    She had offered no support, nor even instruction to her Berserker. All she had done was leap out of the immediate splash zone.
    I’m being tested.
    That much was obvious. Because they were so clearly bluffing, she had no choice but to bluff in turn. If Assassin revealed too much too early…
    “Apologies,” she replied, “but I have no intention of introducing myself, and I already have all I need to know about you, Trithemius Gloria.”
    With a smug smirk and a flip of her long white hair, the Magus in the pointed hat narrowed her eyes. “Oho, I see you’ve done your research… So that’s why your Master knows better than to be close by, I take it. What a shame. Unlike the rest of you, I am here to make friends.”
    Assassin’s lord had already confirmed everything necessary to deal with each Master individually. Trithemius Gloria, the summoner who had contracted with Berserker, was a particularly troublesome opponent for anything less than a Servant. Simply perceiving her too well opened up even Magi to inexorable brainwashing. For Assassin’s lord, whose powers were derived from unparalleled perception, there was probably no opponent more troublesome in the entire world. And that meant that there was no support here from the person who could have easily spotted a weakness or two to exploit.
    This was infuriating. A failed sneak attack, and then nothing but evasion, but learning nothing. Every blow was too heavy to reliably parry, and the speed of this accursed lugette was far too inconsistent. Every time Assassin thought she had a handle on her opponent’s speed, she was proven wrong. She hadn’t successfully managed a single counterattack while pacing herself like this, and she hadn’t even successfully crossed blades more than once.

    In short, she had lost patience.

    A white blur.
    Berserker’s eyes widened, taking a step back. All too slow.
    There was nothing held back in Assassin’s dash. There was one thing that she could ascertain without doubt about Berserker’s speed: it was far below her own. As the peak of what this era called kunoichi, it was only natural that she would be able to outpace some common soldier.
    Berserker raised her shield in panic, and the tips of two kunai scratched against its surface with a shrieking flash.
    Not enough.
    Assassin had already vaulted over the top, tossing her fangs before the warrior even realised that her defences were useless. The two daggers whistled through the air, swifter than the wind, on perfect course to disable both shoulders. Landing on one foot, she prepared to deliver a killing blow to the back of the neck――
    The kunai clattered unceremoniously to the ground.
    Two trickling lines of dark red snaked their way from two wounds no deeper than mere paper cuts.
    Berserker looked over her shoulder. “Well, that smarts.”
    Only sheer acuity of reflexes had prevented Assassin from rushing at a window of opportunity that did not exist. If she had taken another step, she would not have been able to adjust to Berserker’s inevitable counter.
    No, even if she had, the finishing blow wouldn’t have made it through. That had been a serious attack. The bullet-like throw should have pierced right through, and yet this was the result. How absurdly tough was that body?
    And what the hell is that shield even for?!
    “Don’t look so shocked,” Gloria chuckled from atop her front-row seat. “I might get insulted. This is a Holy Grail War, don’t you know?”
    Of course. Assassin silently scolded herself. This was no mere routine skirmish, but a battle to the death: a free-for-all between history and legend’s greatest heroes.
    “What kind of hero would my Servant be if she fell that easily?” the Magus boasted.
    To survive such a thing would have been impossible for an ordinary human being. Elevated to a powerful spirit Berserker may have been, but the same was true for Assassin. The playing field remained as even as ever. It was not merely a body composed of Ether that allowed her target to survive, but her own worthiness. To shrug off what Assassin had attempted without flinching was impossible, perhaps, but those who could not embody the impossible when faced with the jaws of death were no more than mere rabble.
    She had not been taking this soldier seriously enough.
    No, more like――
    Assassin straightened her back.
    ――“My apologies. I haven’t been treating you as an enemy.”
    She wasn’t one for formalities. Assassin considered herself a pragmatist first and foremost. Affording respect to those she was here to kill was a concept foreign to her. The apology was not directed at Berserker, nor even Gloria. It probably wasn’t even directed at a specific person.
    She begged for the pardon of those who were not here.
    Her Master, who had gone so far just to summon her of all people.
    Those who had praised and feared her life, transforming her into a being that was worthy of participation in this duel.
    Her own family, for making such a mockery of their own legacy.
    Assassin - no, the Hidden Demon of Royal Grudge - had been treating all the things that led to this moment far too lightly.
    “I will rectify this at once.”

    She vanished.

    Natural instincts, honed by years of battle.
    The primordial will to survive accumulated over more than three billion years of ancestry transmitted the concept of lethality to Berserker’s brain.
    It was enough to make her raise her shield again.
    An instant later, and her entire upper body would have been reduced to a fine mist.
    That was the kind of force she felt coursing through the gigantic hunk of metal that stood as a paper-thin wall, ringing like a bell in her grip, between her and Assassin’s barehanded blow.
    No. Assassin was not here. She was not merely invisible. There was no presence whatsoever outside of the single instant in which she struck――
    Another blow, this one directly to her side. Berserker felt the ground fall from her feet.
    Crash.
    Shards and splinters of glass skittered across the floor as her body collided with some kind of shelf, sending it flying backward. All kinds of miscellany were scattered to the air.
    It did not have time to land. Assassin was already upon her prey, fists cloaked in a pure black darkness as she descended with a skull-crushing blow.
    Evasion was impossible. She was too slow. There was only one option available.
    Berserker howled, and knuckles met a heel.
    The twisting of her body was enough to throw her enemy off-course, and Assassin reeled over her―
    “Tch.”
    ―but ultimately landed on her feet.
    Berserker hauled herself up again, filled with relief that she had escaped.
    “?!”
    But as she did, a foreign sensation shot through her right leg.
    A dreadful, nauseating agony as though her bones had been hollowed out. Every cell in her leg was screaming as tendrils of nothingness took root in her flesh. Her balance almost collapsed in an instant, and only the enormous shield held against the ground was sufficient to steady her.
    “Interesting,” Assassin mused. “I knew you were hardy, but this is ridiculous. It isn’t as though you hold yourself as some pinnacle of champions either, so I suppose I should commend you for not immediately losing that entire leg.”
    “What… did you… do…?!” Berserker mustered, hissing through the pain.
    The woman in the kimono’s expression did not shift an inch. “Consider that my poison, if you like. Hollow attributes are very effective against immaterial beings like spirits. It’s just a shame that there isn’t any sort of anti-heroic element mixed in as well… If I had something like that, I can’t imagine anything other than instant death for the likes of you.”
    This was exactly why Berserker had been underestimated earlier. Assassin had not been misguided to think of her as weak.
    She had realised it with that last exchange. In terms of physical strength, they were more or less evenly matched. For an Assassin, this ninja woman was ridiculously powerful. Likewise, for a Berserker, the soldier girl was paltry. That was the only way that the two could be equal. Even still, although the balance was normally just slightly in Berserker’s favour, that shadow… She didn’t understand it, but it seemed like her worst enemy.
    On top of that, there was no mistaking it. Assassin was Japanese in origin, hailing from this land they fought in now. Heroic Spirits had their relative strength tied closely to their fame in the region they were summoned in. Berserker, meanwhile, was an obscure western warrior whose martial feats were not even esteemed in song. If Assassin was a second-rate hero made first-rate by the stage, then Berserker was a fourth-rate hero with no recourse available. The gap between them was an insurmountable canyon.
    Being underestimated, her fortuitous durability, and a lucky blow at a critical instant… Assassin never had a reason to be worried in the first place. Nothing more than fluke after fluke had piled up to keep her alive, and now there was a clear path to her death.
    With that dark hand, land just a single blow on a vital point on this one-legged enemy who cannot muster even half of your speed at her best.
    That was how simple the kunoichi’s victory condition was.

    “Good lord.”
    Click. Click. Click.
    High heels split a shard of glass clean in half as the only remaining factor entered the building through the hole where the door used to be.
    “This isn’t fair at all, is it?” Gloria sighed melodramatically. “Whatever is there to be done about this injustice? Perhaps I should complain to someone.”
    Assassin narrowed her eyes. “You are aware that my class is one that kills Masters, are you not?”
    “Forget me, you’re about to make short work of my poor Servant,” she said. “I suppose I should have seen it coming, letting someone so weak go up against an opponent without help.”
    Calling her own Servant weak… Then, she was trying to summon stronger, but failed?
    But for someone conceding defeat, her tone was…
    Something was wrong. Assassin’s legs refrained from moving. Something was telling her that if she struck now, she was going to be in serious danger.
    Gloria cocked an eyebrow, as though she was reading Assassin’s thoughts. “Yeah, you’re starting to get it. I drew this card on purpose. Berserker here is a small fry if there ever was one. If we were in an action movie, she’d get mown down without a single speaking line. But this isn’t an action movie, is it?” she smirked. “Let’s call it… historical theatre?”
    She snapped her fingers.
    Berserker jolted, crying out as though her body had been pierced by lightning from above.
    No… Perhaps as though it had been pierced from below by…
    “Aah, aaaah, aaaaaaaaah!
    A shriek of joy, of euphoria, shook the air. Magical energy surged. Something had been unshackled.
    “Even the weakest Servant can win against anyone in the right circumstances,” Gloria said. “Imagine being the right circumstances.”
    This kind of intensity was far beyond what she had demonstrated until now. This was on another magnitude entirely, so much so that it almost didn’t feel like a Servant. This gravity felt as if she had transformed into something completely inhuman. It was like staring down a wild beast… or even a demon. The Berserker class had the skill to trade reason for power, but this was no mere skill. This was…
    ...This has to be a joke.
    Did the Master forcibly activate some kind of Noble Phantasm? A legend of this degree existed for a Heroic Spirit so subpar?
    Assassin did not command it to do so, but her left foot moved three centimetres back. This was not a scenario she wanted to be in right now. She had learned something. That was sufficient. Without backup, the risk was just too high to take a self-strengthening Noble Phantasm head-on when she didn’t know its limits.
    Sorry, Master. I’m not fighting against that in this condition.
    She had done her best to avoid showing it, but her right arm had taken a strong blow from that kick earlier. Even a mad dash for the Master was too risky here.
    “In that case, I’ll take my leave before this gets any more chaotic,” she said, stepping back, letting herself fall into a shadow that wasn’t there. “I wasn’t here intending to fight a prolonged brawl in the first place, so I’ll let you off easy this time.”
    The window of opportunity had closed. In recognition of that, Assassin’s body began to dissolve, falling away as nothing more than mist in an imaginary wind.

    Gloria simply watched, taking care to keep her acute disappointment in check until the woman had completely vanished from view.
    “Talk about blue balls.”
    She snapped her finger again, and Berserker almost stumbled. It was no wonder - the instantaneous removal of pleasurable static sufficient to fry the brain was probably harder for a Berserker to adjust to than it was for an ordinary person.
    “A-ahaha…”
    But perhaps the ability to adjust to that was just another part of her Noble Phantasm. The shape of humiliation set into her expression, and her shoulders relaxed a little.
    “Easy there. Don’t get too excited,” the Magus said. “Fight’s over.”
    Berserker’s eyebrows knitted regretfully. “I really wanted to show her what I could do though…”
    “Well, we’ll go looking for a rematch some other time, I suppose.”
    Eye contact was firmly eschewed. Gloria’s attention was more focused on their surroundings. It would have been something of a nuisance to start fighting at even just an inkling of Berserker’s full power in the middle of a convenience store anyway, she reasoned. The last thing she needed was the Overseer on her ass…
    …No, scratch that. I definitely want her on my ass.
    But it would have been a little irritating to have to deal with the fallout of levelling an entire building, even a relatively small one. A half-assed restoration spell would be enough to only clear most of this damage, let alone if it got any worse. She didn’t particularly give a damn about this town or the people in it, but a pain in the neck was a pain in the neck, and the Church and Association alike sure knew how to be one.
    ...Forget it.
    “I’m gonna go find the frozen foods,” Gloria declared, sauntering off down the aisles.
    Berserker blinked, shield and sword dissipating as she trailed behind. “M-Master?”
    “What? We chased off our first enemy. That’s something to celebrate. I want pizza.”
    “You’re just making up excuses to shoplift a single pizza…?”
    “Not at all. I’m making up excuses to shoplift at least three pizzas, and maybe some beer if they’ve got any,” she shot back. “That’s what being an adult means.”
    Berserker already knew full well that her Master was an adult in age only, but didn’t say anything. “Well… I guess a feast is a feast, but…”
    “What? If you’re gonna say ‘we didn’t even kill her’ or something, I literally could not care less,” Gloria sighed. “That’s why it’s called an excuse. Go find something you want too.”
    “No, I was actually gonna say that stealing is bad…”
    The Magus stopped, and gave a bemused smile over her shoulder. “I forgot how precious you can be. Look, isn’t it far easier if we steal some stuff? If there’s a hole where the door was supposed to be and they’re missing some inventory, it’s much easier to rationalise than if nothing else is wrong. This whole thing is supposed to be a secret, remember? Now go get something you want to eat.”
    She sighed, conceding, and turned on her heel――
    ――“Ow.”
    “Oh, right. I guess that leg still hurts? Go spirit form so you don’t have to walk. Maybe we’ll amputate it at the neck when we get back,” Gloria snarked absentmindedly.
    Watching her now as she searched blankly for her spoils… she was probably the least intimidating person imaginable who could still be called a Magus. It was shocking how quickly the lethality in the air had dissipated. In hindsight, Berserker wasn’t sure if her Master had even held an iota of killing intent that whole time. Perhaps it really was just down to laziness on her part, but it crossed Berserker’s mind how thankful she was to have been summoned by someone gentle.
    But gentle or not, she could see the gears in Gloria’s head turning, and she doubted it was about pepperoni.
    No matter how quickly the battle had vanished to the wind, no matter how much her Master tried to make it out to be no big deal, no matter how little it had felt like the beginning of something…
    Just now, didn’t someone fire the first shot of this whole war?
    It felt almost… ordinary. Almost routine.
    Perhaps it was just because she was a soldier herself.
    “Save it until we get home to think about something perverted,” Gloria said, not even sparing the Servant a glance.
    Berserker almost choked on her own breath. “I wasn’t thinking anything like that!”
    “Uh-huh.”
    “I really wasn’t!”
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
    Fate\last call
    night, dawn, and the birth of stars

    ╘══════════════════╕
    Masters
    Servants
    Others
    Recent: Ch. 5.1

  4. #4
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    1.2

    Chapter 1, Part 2
    gate closing
    the Last Admission

    [ [ March 14
    [ [ 12:32


    “I think we're late.”
    Licking the tip of her finger and waving it in the air a little, a blonde woman in a leather jacket made a completely arbitrary assessment.
    Although there wasn't a cloud in the sky, that only made the air all the brisker this time of year. The frigid bottomless blue that loomed up above was a far cry from the weather in Myanmar, but that hadn't stopped Momiji Musubi from wearing even less than usual.
    At the time, she was mostly just excited, and hadn't really comprehended the meaning of ‘eight degrees Celsius’.
    That’s fine, she'd figured, I'll just go for a jog if I get too cold.
    Dragging the suitcase for both herself and the woman she was travelling with had made short work of that. She had a mind to hand off the thing to her - this was, after all, a master-servant relationship - but ultimately refrained.
    “What are you basing that on?” she decided to interrogate instead, nudging a strand of pink hair out of her face with the back of her thumb.
    “Nothing in particular,” her companion replied. “Call it a hunch, I guess. Maybe I’m just assuming out of habit, since I’m usually late to this kinda stuff.”
    “Even public transportation can't save you from missing your appointments, huh?”
    “I never miss my appointments. I just keep 'em waiting. Especially in unfamiliar places.”
    Amen to that, Momiji silently conceded.
    She hadn’t been in this country since she was young, and she hadn't been planning to come back here either. There were a lot of broken habits that she was trying to recall through the hazy friction between past and present. Even completely new customs were beginning to feel half-remembered at this point, a déjà vu of things she had actually seen before that occasionally made a fool of her. The constant revealing of tangled and malformed memories was starting to feel like a scolding from a parent.
    That said, it wasn't bad to be back. She hadn't left because she wanted to, after all - she had plenty of tangible reasons to be anxious about being back in Japan. But it wasn’t like hopping between the borders of neighbouring three countries every few years was the most stable way to live, even less so when she was in the boonies for most of it.
    Kengtung and Fuyuki more or less occupied the same part of her mind for precisely that reason: brief windows of extravagance compared to her normal, meeker lifestyle.
    “What is it?” her companion asked.
    “Nothing,” she shook her head. “Just thinking how nice the city can be.”
    “Wait, I thought you were in the middle of nowhere because that’s where the leyline was.”
    “That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t already out there.”
    The woman recoiled at the thought. “Eesh. Sounds rough. I can’t stand the countryside.”
    That figures, you sheltered little princess.
    “Hey, don’t look at me like that. The modern world is too convenient to settle for less.”
    It went without saying that people were shaped by their environment - even with knowledge from the Holy Grail, a Heroic Spirit’s fundamental attitudes probably wouldn’t change all that much - but Momiji couldn’t help but think that if this Lancer had really lived in today’s world, she would probably have been unemployed.
    I guess what makes a hero really is relative to the era after all.
    Feeling like she had made some kind of insight into ancient times, Momiji gave a shrug and began to lead the way to their destination.

    Not too far away, a bird landed on a second-floor hotel balcony.
    “Caster. The final pair is here.”
    Corvids were occasionally known to mimic human speech. They had both the intelligence and the vocal organs to do so.
    “I keep telling you to stop calling me Caster…”
    “If you raise an alternative that gives away less information, I will gladly switch to it.”
    But holding a conversation like this was, it went without saying, far outside the realm of an ordinary animal. There were, of course, talking animals of all stripes among the familiars of Magi, but Nils Herydir-Dragilaz had no aptitude for any of them - nor any need. This was a creature far more amazing than anything that one of his peers might have pulled out of a hat.
    “Isn’t ‘Master’ just fine?” he asked. “I mean, no matter how you slice it, I’m not the Servant here.”
    One thing that crows could not mimic so easily were human facial expressions, and so the bird’s disapproving stare was somewhat uncanny to behold.
    “Please take this seriously. Having summoned me, you are now Caster. I am merely your Noble Phantasm. Referring to yourself as the Master may be accurate, but it also tells our enemies far too much about who they are best equipped to target.”
    Nils silently conceded defeat. Ever since last night, his new feathered friend had suddenly become incredibly stern, and there were some debates that weren’t even worth the energy. He couldn’t complain too much. If Assassin really had started looking for things to kill, then the battle had well and truly started. There was no such thing as ‘too cautious’ at this stage.
    “What’s this about the last pair then?” he asked.
    “Lancer and Master arrived by rail a few minutes ago. The strength of Lancer’s karma is low, but she has a potent sense of Divinity about her,” the crow recounted. “That was all I was able to ascertain at a glance.”
    Nils nodded.
    “Yeah, don’t hang out too long around a demigod,” he sighed in agreement, leaning back against the rail.
    There was no telling what kind of busted powers that a child of a deity would be carting around, even if they didn’t necessarily come with the visual acuity of an Archer… No, even if she was a Lancer, there was no telling as to whether or not she equally qualified as an Archer. In fact, if she was from the Age of Gods, that was even more likely.
    “No, it’s possible that she is beyond a mere demigod.”
    The remark gave him pause, and he turned his gaze back to meet his summon’s.
    “How do you mean?”
    “I wasn’t able to quantify it precisely, but it’s possible that her Divinity is even on par with my own,” the crow explained.
    “That’s…”
    “‘Bad news’, perhaps?”
    He clicked his tongue. “Yet another opponent that my sword is gonna have trouble with. Everything I learn just makes me think that I came unprepared.”
    “You have no need to concern yourself with the tools in your arsenal. My one and only function is to expand your options.”
    Nils cocked a smile. “Well then, Mishima, it’s probably about time we got started on that.”
    The bird hopped down off its perch, and the feet of a human being landed besides his. A dark-haired girl, almost the spitting image of the young man she had been speaking to, raised her sun-coloured eyes.
    “Indeed we shall, Caster,” she replied. “In that case, you should already know what your first objective ought to be.”

    Andri Vel Ordos was feeling a headache coming on. To be precise, she had been feeling a headache coming on for about twelve hours now, dangling over her like a taunting guillotine. When it really set in, it was going to be miserable.
    Expanding one’s senses was trivial for even an amateur Magus, so doing so hadn’t exactly been a dire challenge for her. It should not have come as a surprise to find that, for she who specialised in sensory Magecraft, her eyes and ears already stretched to the farthest reaches of the city. Of course, to take in all of that information for a single human mind would have been madness beyond compare, but for an alchemist of Atlas whose bread and butter was information, increasing the number of things she could concentrate on was elementary. And yet, somehow, this was still probably the hardest she had ever worked in her life.
    When faced with a large, complex problem, it was usually best to break it down into smaller parts and deal with it one piece at a time. That was where her talents lay, and the source of her reputation as the person who could contain and resolve any disaster. To monitor fifteen sites simultaneously was both firmly beyond her comfort zone and a total squandering of her true abilities. This felt like something she should have been able to leave up to a Mystic Code. She was willing to accept doing what she had to do here, but…
    He’s making light of us, isn’t he…?
    …the exchange on that balcony at the other side of the river was enough to test her patience.
    “What’s wrong?”
    A voice dragged her back down to Earth, disrupting her focus. Andri snapped back into her seat like an ant on the wrong end of a rubber band.
    The man sitting opposite her, clad in all the designer garb that would be expected from a minor celebrity, was giving her a concerned frown. His attention had been on her the entire time, even though he had been taking up the majority of looks from those around them.
    A super-rich foreigner…
    Maybe he’s a movie star or something?
    What’s he doing all the way out here?
    She could hear the fog of thoughts all around them whenever she chose to tune into them, and she couldn’t deny that they weren’t exactly randomly guessing. She had tried to at least match him in terms of her manner of dress, but she had plenty of doubts about whether she had succeeded.
    She didn’t dislike him, but the thought persisted. Of all the people I tagged along with, why did it have to be him?
    She cleared her throat. “I apologise, Mr von Drang. I don’t mean to go out of my way to stress myself out when you were kind enough to offer me lunch in the first place.”
    His frown only deepened, and he set his arm up on the wooden table. “I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about you. Even with the scuffle you started last night, we haven’t even really gotten to the war proper yet, but you’re still chomping at the bit here.”
    She shook her head. “Actually… Lancer seems to have just arrived.”
    His expression shifted to something inscrutable. “I see.”
    She could tell he was just trying to hide his excitement. He had mentioned that he was under no illusions about being able to fight a Saber, but hoped Lancer was a good enough sport to humour his wish for a duel.
    If there was one thing that Sigmund von Drang had proven himself, it was a terminal optimist, but perhaps someone straightforward enough to qualify for one of the three Knights was of an equally lighthearted temperament as to take him seriously. After all, his own Servant was…
    “In that case, it’s probably time that Archer helped out a little, don’t you think?” he suggested. “Assassin is as strong as any Knight in combat ability. You certainly lucked out.”
    “Perhaps, but we ought not push it too much,” she replied. “Remember, I was supposed to summon Assassin because my Circuits aren’t…”
    “I know, I know. We ended up going a little over our budget after all,” he said. “But if we’re quick, then a few short bursts is all we need with two Servants this strong, and it’ll be worth it.”
    She hoped he was right. “Caster is coming after Assassin now.”
    “Is Caster really in any position to be going on the offensive?” he raised an eyebrow. “Whatever happened to hunkering down on a leyline? Aren’t they supposed to be Magi?”
    Andri shook her head. “I can’t say for sure what his situation is, but I have strong doubts that the summoning was standard, given that Caster is calling himself… No, I’ll explain later.”
    While she already knew that she was the only participant in this war whose Magecraft was so preoccupied with the senses, and the Assassin who watched from the shadows was none other than her own Servant, she also knew that this was a good place to put a lid on things. Even if they were discussing strategy, some of those details were better left behind closed doors.
    “Then, in the meantime,” Sigmund said, gesturing in front of her.
    “...Ah.”
    A large white bowl of steaming red was before her. Her sense of smell had been tuned to curses rather than chemicals, so she hadn’t even noticed.
    “I didn’t want to bother you since you seemed deep in thought, but if we leave it too long, it’ll get cold.”
    “H-how long…?”
    “About a minute before I actually did. Since then.”
    Mortification struck right through Andri’s throat.
    “I didn’t thank the waiter!”
    “I did,” he assured her, chuckling, “but if it bothers you so much, you can leave a little extra in the tip.”
    “You shouldn’t tip in this country. It’s extremely rude,” she scolded, scooping up a carefully measured mouthful in the ceramic spoon and lifting it to her lips.
    One second passed in silence as she chewed and swallowed.
    A tiny ember had found an ocean of gasoline.
    Andri almost dropped her spoon, her fingers bolting up to her mouth. “H-hot.”
    She felt tears welling in the corner of her eyes as they darted to find her water, and Sigmund gave a pained smile.
    “I told you that you didn’t have to order mapo tofu just because I did… Let’s get something else for you.”
    “No, that’s perfectly fine!” she insisted hastily. She wasn’t about to squander what her companion had paid for. “I’ll finish what I started!”
    That was what she said, but by the time she had finished the whole dish, Andri had started to wonder if she had shed the blood of an enlightened being by mistake.

    A representative of the esteemed Wodime lineage would never get seasick. Seasickness was not an issue. She was simply sick of the sea.
    Oliphiaelé had decided to take her lunch on deck for a change, hoping that it would abate how cramped the inside of a boat could feel, but all that changed was that she could clearly see the skyline from here, mocking her from afar.
    Her Rider wasn’t a sailor, but had been somewhat preoccupied with the sea in life, and so she had taken the initiative of using her influence and getting the city’s harbour closed for a month. She had assumed that a backwater like this would have been easily persuaded, but it seemed as though it was no different to any other town in how enthusiastic it was to keep its docks open, and she’d ultimately had to resort to brainwashing several people.
    The amount of effort that it took to get here made it all the worse. She had been trapped on this stupid little dinghy, barely the size of a small yacht, for five days now.
    She didn’t look over her shoulder, but she called out to the Servant meditating behind her all the same.
    “How long until your protections are done, exactly?”
    “Sorry for the wait, kid―”
    Master.”
    “―but if I try to make landfall without proper preparations, I’m getting instantly bodied like you wouldn’t believe. Japan is my one weakness. It’s like a self-destruct switch.”
    Oliphaelé twitched, almost dropping her teacup. She became acutely aware, for a brief moment of lucidity, that she was going to be dealing with blood pressure problems later in life.
    Then why did you want to come by sea so badly?” she groaned. “We could have taken a flight all the way here instead of landing in Beijing.”
    Rider chuckled, standing up and getting to her feet. A sudden, violent gust came like a threat, and her mantle flapped like a flag in the wind. A lock of blonde found its way into Oliphaelé’s mouth, and she irritably brushed it aside.
    If either of the two so much as expressed the intention to move the boat toward the shore, this was the result: a wind that even Magecraft proved powerless against, getting stronger and stronger the more they merely thought about approaching. If they tried too hard, they would capsize and drown without a doubt.
    “It'd probably be even worse for a plane, right?” Rider pointed out. “Sorry. It’s so attached to my Spirit Origin that I can’t escape it. You might have wrecked the whole city if you’d summoned me in Japan to begin with. The land wouldn’t have anything to do with me back then either. I doubt the Mystery hasn’t decayed already, but that wind is Kublai Khan’s worst enemy. It’s almost like a Noble Phantasm in its own right.”
    “You’re telling me that you’re the one summoning it then?” Oliphiaelé groaned. “In that case, just stop!”
    “Trust me, I’m working on it, but it’s like asking me to stop beating my heart so I don’t risk an arrhythmia. Of course, I can do it, even without hurting myself, but it’s going to take a while. My Magecraft wasn’t designed for this, you know? Gotta look deep inside my own soul and all that jazz.”
    Oliphiaelé rolled her eyes, standing up. “Well, the problem is getting you to shore. In case you forgot, I already went there to close the harbour in the first place without any issues, so if you don’t mind, I think I’m just going to do that again.”
    “Sure thing, kiddo,” Rider sat down again, making a gesture to shoo her off. “Go have some fun on land. See the sights. Enjoy the food. Take in the culture you spent the whole trip here complaining about. Let me know if you need fire support when Assassin finds you or something. You know where to find me.”
    The words on their own seemed sarcastic, but the tone was of a genuine well-wish, and that made it all the more grating.
    “I should hope so,” the Magus replied as she stepped off the side of the boat, “since you’re not exactly going anywhere.”
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
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    Recent: Ch. 5.1

  5. #5
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    1.3

    Chapter 1, Part 3
    sober white
    A number of misshapen tables

    [ [ March 14
    [ [ 15:38


    The bell had gone almost twenty minutes ago. Teachers were calling into the staff room as students finished pouring out through the shoe lockers. Most of them had already left. A pair of boys had decided to head out to try a new cake shop, and a quartet of girls had made their way straight to a fast food place downtown in Miyama.

    Of course, not everyone had left school yet. In the dojo, someone in the Archery Club botched their first shot of the day thanks to a light breeze blowing dust into their eyes. Someone in the Track Club fell flat on their face. The discordant brassy sound of a half-tuned trumpet echoed faintly from the Music Room. And down the hall from the Art Club, past the Computer Science Club, and opposite the room occupied by the Literature Club was the disaster known as the Culture Club.
    Whispered to be one of the legendary Four Great Calamities of Homurahara Academy, nobody really knew what it was they actually did beyond their broad claim of ‘modernology’. The cabinet below the windows was topped with all kinds of exotic plants, mostly of the Cactaceae family. In the far corner was a half-finished Piccasso forgery that nobody seemed to know the origin of. The room was filled with a strong aroma of burnt toast, likely due to the unwieldily tall stack of it set atop the coffee table - which was a distinct entity from the taller and rounder tea table, as well as the kotatsu in the center of a four-and-a-half tatami mat, and naturally from the PC desk without a PC on it. Indeed, it seemed as though the culture in question was somewhere between ‘whatever ended up in this room’ and ‘whatever came out of those sketchy cardboard boxes at the back’. Any queries and complaints were directed in writing to the penguin-shaped postbox in front of the door, but the last time anyone had written anything was around a year ago.

    “I’m coming in,” yawned a voice over the rattling of the opening door.
    “You’re late!” came the enthused response.
    “For what?”
    “Nothing.”
    This exchange was roughly the same every day, and as a result, it was something of an unspoken rule that Jikan Ren occupied himself for around ten minutes before he was allowed into the club room.
    “Actually, you’re later than usual…” observed his partner in this gag. Yamamoto Hibiki pulled a somewhat puzzled frown, looking him up and down.
    “I honestly don’t know what you’re hoping for,” said Jikan.
    It was a poor choice of words. Five eager pairs of eyes immediately set on him with such speed and purpose that, for a brief instant, his survival instincts lit up.
    ―――“Oh, right.”
    That was what they were after. It was, of course, that time of the year.
    The six of them gathered around the kotatsu, and Jikan unzipped his bag, gradually assembling a small banquet of various confectionery - chocolate, marshmallows, cake, and so forth.
    “Kinda amazing how much you can fit in there,” Shinjirou Kotone quietly commented, adjusting her off-kilter glasses slightly.
    Fujou Eri gave a wry grin, biting down on the pocky in her mouth as she did so. “You don’t know the half of it.”
    “You would say that, you smuggler. Can you even eat more sweets?” Yamamoto raised an eyebrow.
    “Always and constantly. I appreciate Jii-Jii going above and beyond for a change.”
    Sato Mayu, however, was looking somewhat intimidated by the ever-growing empire of treats. “Senpai, just because they say that boys should give triple the return, that doesn’t mean you have to go this far…”
    “I’m fine with it,” Meichi Kazue shrugged. “It’s not often we get to gang up on Jii-pai anyway.”
    Jikan narrowed his eyes. “You people gang up on me every day.”
    “And White Day is no exception!” Yamamoto declared, grabbing a cookie with aplomb. “I’m digging in!”
    “Thank you for the food, Senpai,” Sato gave an uneasy smile. “It looks like it was hard.”
    Fujou scoffed, cracking open plastic packaging on some cupcakes. “Hard? It’s just a bunch of store-bought stuff. Talk about a cheapskate.”
    “Sorry I don’t have an industrial-grade kitchen,” Jikan said dryly.
    “Industrial-grade?” Shinjirou echoed skeptically. “Pretty sure everyone else manages just fine.”
    Despite his tone, Jikan really did regret not having the time or resources to cook anything himself. His cooking was mediocre at best, but this was a return for a bunch of handmade chocolate. Obligatory or not, he had been presented with a veritable mountain this time last month the moment he’d walked into the clubroom, so it had been on him to come up with at least this much.
    Well, I guess I don’t feel too bad about it, since…
    “Hey!” Fujou cried defensively as the other cake in the same packet was plucked free by nimble fingers. “The heck are you doing, taking your own tribute?”
    Jikan shrugged. “Well, since you guys ended up eating about eighty percent of the Valentine’s chocolate you gave me, it’s only fair if I reap what you sowed.”
    “There’s six of us in total,” Yamamoto pointed out. “One fifth is more than your fair share, Jii-chan.”
    “No matter how you slice it, wasn’t my fair share the entire thing?”
    “You said ‘I don’t know how I’m going to eat all of this’, so it’s your own fault,” Meichi replied.
    “Only got yourself to blame!” Fujou agreed heartily.
    Yamamoto nodded. “You could’ve gotten something-something poisoning. You know, the thing that does in dogs.”
    “Theobromine,” Meichi said.
    “Nerd.”
    “Am I a dog?” Jikan sighed.
    “I think Senpai would make a cute puppy,” Sato perked up. “You can be a pomeranian.”
    “Th-thank you, Sato-san. I appreciate it,” he forced a conflicted smile.
    “He’s soft and fluffy,” nodded Meichi in agreement. “And also small. We could totally kill him with enough chocolate.”
    “Why are you trying to poison me?! A normal amount of chocolate is fine!”
    “No can do, Jii-pai. All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison,” recited Meichi.
    “Apologise to Paracelsus right now,” said Jikan. “He doesn’t deserve to be dug up for a conversation this stupid.”
    “Oh, snap!” Yamamoto cackled. “Is that yet another encyclopedia moment from Jii-chan?”
    “Shut up, Pres.”
    “Wow! I can’t believe you’d be so mean to me,” she said, taking a bite out of her cookie.
    “Speaking of fluffy,” Sato said, “who’s on brushing duty this week?”
    Meichi raised a finger, like a portent of doom, and set it on the bespectacled girl in the track jacket. “Shinko.”
    Shinjirou almost leapt to her feet, but instead just nodded silently. “O-okay.”
    “Ah, the brush is on the bookshelf,” Sato added. “It’s a little worn out though. Juu-nii is coming home next week, so maybe I’ll ask him for a new one.”
    “New would be good,” Meichi nodded.
    “Mecchin, what kind of animal would you say you are?” she asked. “He’s a pet hairdresser, so… Actually, let me feel.”
    Fujou and Yamamoto both quietly snorted as Sato crawled around Shinjirou’s back, running her fingers through the blonde locks. It was a bright enough colour that she definitely would have been scolded already if it weren’t undeniably natural, but she seemed to have gotten away with not having to dye it black for this long at least. Not that Yamamoto’s strange pinkish mop had gotten much pushback either, and she’d insisted that was natural too.
    “Long-haired cat. Definitely,” Sato confirmed.
    “Then if Jii-chan is a puppy and Mecchin is a kitty,” Fujou grinned, “Shinko has gotta be a rat.”
    “That’s mean!” spluttered Sato.
    “Shinko is a mouse,” nodded Jikan, taking a piece of chocolate. “You’re the rat here, Fujou.”
    Meichi, meanwhile, simply leaned to one side, laying her head against Shinjirou’s shoulder. “I’ll eat you both.”
    “Then, I think Sato should be a bunny,” Shinjirou said.
    A forbidden image struck Jikan like a cannonball to the face, and he choked.
    “You doing good there, Jii-Jii?” Fujou pursed her lips.
    Rabbit. Say rabbit. ‘Bunny’ is totally different,” he insisted.
    “I know,” Shinjirou nodded. “You were just the only one who fell for it.”
    “As punishment, Jii-chan goes in the bunnysuit,” Yamamoto declared authoritatively.
    We have one?” he asked incredulously.
    “Hey, you already look alright in a skirt. I’ll see what I can get from the Drama Club,” she nodded.
    “Jii-pai in a skirt… I wanna see,” Meichi murmured.
    “Hey, so what animal am I?” Yamamoto asked eagerly before Jikan could protest any further.
    “Godzilla,” he shot back.
    “Huh?!”
    “It was that or an oni,” Fujou agreed.
    “Et tu?!”
    “Tiny kaiju,” nodded Sato.
    “Even Sato-chan. Fine! Godzilla demands tribute!” she slammed her fist on the table. “I’ll vaporise you all, so hand it over!”
    “Tribute?” Shinjirou echoed.
    “It’s Yama, so ramune is the only option,” Meichi replied.
    “Geh,” Jikan spluttered. “I knew I was missing something. I was gonna get some, I completely forgot.”
    “Go get some!” Yamamoto ordered. “Actually, I’ll come with.”
    “Be quick,” Fujou said. “Apparently, the club supervisors are making surprise inspections recently after Computer Science built that robot.”
    With an acquiescent shrug from Jikan, the two got to their feet, leaving their bags by the foot of the table. They didn’t need to say anything to agree that they weren’t leaving through the front door. It was simply a matter of convenience. After all, the clubroom was at ground level.
    Yamamoto slid the window open, hiking up her uniform’s knee-length skirt slightly to get both legs through the frame one at a time. Jikan followed suit, sitting backwards and swivelling himself around before hopping down.
    “Every time you move, I worry that I’m not feminine enough,” sighed Yamamoto.
    “If you want to be more feminine, then don’t act so boyish all the time,” Jikan shot back. “Well, not that I can really imagine you being super feminine anyway.”
    He wouldn’t have wanted to see that. Not because it sounded particularly horrifying or anything, but it just seemed so antithetical to who she was. If a little boyishness made her happier, it had its place, and it was what allowed her to brighten up the room like she did in the first place.
    And you’d just blend in with Sato if you were too girly anyway.
    “Yeah, fair enough,” she shrugged, leading the way toward the front gate. “You could stand to get a little more manly yourself though.”
    “No thank you,” he frowned.
    Taller was one thing, but the boisterous image of masculinity in his head seemed too much like hard work, and it wouldn’t have fit his pint-sized body and soft features anyway. Picturing himself that way just seemed stupid.

    Nonetheless, the ribbing continued all the way to the intersection, and had gradually morphed into random chatter by the time the pair reached the shopping district. The sky was clear today, and the weather was perfect for a walk. It would be around a week at minimum until the sakura blossoms were in full bloom, but it already felt like the throes of springtime. The topic shifted to the idea of taking a trip to the park one of these days as a club.
    The advantage of something as vague as a Culture Club was that almost anything could be written off as a club activity. On top of that, Yamamoto had given a mission statement to their supervisor that the discipline they were engaging in was ‘modernology’, a study of modern society.
    To be sure, it was a legitimate field of sociology from the early 20th century, developed originally to study the effects of metropolisation on Tokyo, but their ever-reliable club president had successfully warped a highly scientific methodology into ‘doing whatever we want as long as we can dress it up enough in the report afterwards’. Of course, that did occasionally necessitate finding something to do, but there was no problem with that - it was hardly difficult for any of the six eccentrics to cook up a harebrained scheme now and again. On this particular occasion, they were without doubt engaging in an analysis of the aesthetics of edible White Day gifts.
    Only once the two actually arrived at their destination did their conversation take a turn for the here and now.
    “Whoa, holy crap, what’s going on here?” Yamamoto cried, eyes gleaming eagerly as she hopped along to see the doors.
    The glass had been completely removed, replaced with tall sheets of beige paper, and the handles had been warped so out of shape that they resembled some kind of foreign alphabet. On another building, Jikan would have mistaken it for some kind of artistic decision, but it was horrendously out-of-place on the entrance to a chain convenience store.
    “What is this… avant-garde neo-traditionalist architecture?” Jikan pondered dryly.
    “Only one way to find out,” she replied, pulling open the door and leading inside. “Where’s Kamiya-kun?”
    Poking her head down one aisle, two aisles, four aisles, she eventually locked eyes with a young man in a green polo shirt who was halfway through stacking shelves. Kamiya Ryou was a classmate of Yamamoto’s, but looked more like an artist’s impression of one. It wasn't hard to be taller than Jikan, but standing head and shoulders above him as Kamiya did wasn’t anything to scoff at either, cutting an imposing figure that didn’t match his amicable, fiery aura at all.
    “Yamamoto. Good afternoon,” he greeted. “Jikan is with you too, huh?”
    Jikan, trailing behind, gave a beaming wave. “Hey, Kamiyan.”
    “‘Kamiyan’ is a new one,” he said.
    “I’ll come up with a good one for you eventually. Bear with it.”
    He gave a resigned but contented shrug. “What can I do for you guys?”
    “We’re just here for ramune,” Yamamoto waved a hand, “but what’s the deal with the doors?”
    “Oh, that. We had a break-in last night. From what I can tell, they busted the door down completely, then made some kinda half-assed attempt at putting it back on its hinges. I guess it still opens and closes just fine, so they didn’t do a bad job, but I called the manager and got the go-ahead to put some paper up as a patch job until the broken glass can be replaced.”
    “Busybody as usual, huh,” Jikan observed.
    “That’s Kamiya-kun for you,” agreed Yamamoto. “Don’t underestimate the dedication of a guy whose job is also his hobby.”
    “It sounds a little sad when you put it like that, Yamamoto…” Kamiya muttered.

    “Yamamoto?”
    A fourth unfamiliar voice cut in, a rich accent that Jikan couldn’t place colouring the name. From around the corner came a person he didn’t know, but looked familiar eno―
    ―――It was a sight like lightning.
    Unmistakable between what bronzed skin she was showing and where her clothes hugged what she wasn’t, a toned, athletic figure like a sculpture instantly redefined the word ‘bombshell’ in his mind. A dark sports bra and a yellow-pink jacket were the only things covering her upper body, and her below her exposed abdomen was―
    No. Don’t even look. Eye contact, eye contact.
    Pink hair, adorned with a streak of teal, flowed down one side of her head, and he instantly saw the resemblance between her and Yamamoto. Maybe it really was natural, then… Except for the teal, of course.
    At the same time, a second figure stepped into view with her - this one clad in a black leather jacket over a white t-shirt and faded jeans, making striking contrast with her white skin and golden ponytail. She was the very picture of a glamorous foreigner, immediately attaching herself to the part of Jikan’s brain that stored the idea of a ‘cool beauty’ and digging right in.
    The moment that his gaze set on the two of them, he saw something far removed from his everyday. Perhaps nobody else noticed it, but to him, they had an air about them that seemed almost beyond human.
    No, he was certain that nobody else noticed it, because…
    “Yamamoto Hibiki?” the first woman asked.
    “Hey there,” Yamamoto greeted. “I guess you must be…”
    She grinned. “You’ve gotten so much bigger since I last saw you! How’ve you been?”
    “It’s been, like, a decade. That’s kind of a big question.”
    “Did you find what you were looking for, Miss?” Kamiya asked.
    “Oh, just fine, thank you. I guess my Japanese literacy was just rustier than I remembered after all,” she said. “Nothing but Thai, Burmese, and Lao for half your life will do that to ya, I suppose!”
    “Ah, Kamiya-kun, Jii-chan, this is my aunt, Musubi,” Yamamoto introduced.
    “Ugh, don’t. I’m too young to be anyone’s aunt. ‘Onee-chan’ will do just fine, Hibiki-chan.”
    “You need to stop lying to yourself, Auntie.”
    “All your cuteness really just evaporated in the past ten years, huh?” she sighed. “Good to meet you guys, anyway. The name’s Momiji Musubi, I’ll be staying at Hibiki’s place for the next two weeks or so. You can call me whatever you want.”
    “Except Auntie?” Jikan replied.
    “Except that. Don’t look so disappointed,” she said.
    “Not disappointed at all, Momiji-san,” he insisted.
    “And this,” she gestured to the woman besides her, “is my friend and associate, Lancer.”
    “How’s it hanging?” she gave a brief wave.
    “It’s good to meet you. I’m Jikan Ren. Yamamoto-san is the president of our club.”
    “You’re being too polite, it’s freaking me out,” Yamamoto frowned.
    “I don’t know what you’re talking about, President. It’s important to be polite so you make a good first impression on others.”
    Yamamoto firmly clapped her hands together. “Exorcising you right now,” she declared. “Kappa begone!”
    “Kappa?!”
    Momiji smiled. “You pair have a lot of energy, huh? Dating or something?”
    “Eh?”
    “What?”
    “Not at all,” Jikan denied.
    “Zero chance,” Yamamoto refuted.
    Zero? That just makes me feel bad,” he said.
    “What, are you coming onto me?”
    “Point taken,” he conceded. “I’m out of your league in the first place.”
    “What?” she scoffed. “Are you kidding me?”
    “I’ll prove it,” he said, turning his gaze. “You’d go out with me, right Kamiyan?”
    Kamiya, suddenly dragged back into the conversation with force enough to snap his spine, simply stared, dumbfounded. His hands, still holding two cans of corned beef, froze in motion as he mustered a response.
    “…Jikan, you do remember we’re both guys, don’t you?”
    “Oh wow, you’re a guy?” chuckled Momiji. “No wonder that was your reaction.”
    “I am,” Jikan confirmed, leaning forward with that girlish grace that Yamamoto had made fun of him for, “but that’s not what I asked, Ka~mi~yan.”
    Kamiya’s face was like a stone mask, complete with discolouration. “I am… on the clock right now, so…”
    Jikan looked to Yamamoto, unable to hold back a cattish smirk.
    “Okay, fine,” she admitted, “but only when it comes to other guys.”
    “That’s alright, I wouldn’t make you unconditionally surrender in front of your big sister anyway.”
    “Come on, you two,” Lancer cut in. “Man’s trying to do a job. Leave him alone.”
    Jikan laughed sheepishly. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, Kamiya-san.”
    “We do need to get our ramune and get back to club,” Yamamoto nodded. “I’ll see you when I get home, Musubi, Lancer.”
    “You two have fun,” Momiji bid, and the pairs parted ways.
    Yamamoto made quick work of selecting every ramune bottle that caught her eye, and paid ¥2466 in total for the whole haul.

    Of course, so many glass bottles weren’t easy on the arms, even in bags, and both of them lived to regret it.
    “Delete hills. I don’t think there’s a single person in the world who likes walking uphill,” she complained a few minutes later, dragging herself back up the path to school. “Flat ground all the way. When I’m God-Emperor of Earth, I will assemble an army of road rollers the likes of which you’ve never seen. Do us all a favour and move the mountains to outer space if your faith is so damn strong.”
    “I prefer uphill to downhill at least,” Jikan said. “It’s easier to slip downhill because you’re walking too fast.”
    “You would say that, you slowpoke. You’d walk to Tokyo if you thought it’d take a second longer. Sure you don’t wanna just sit down and wait for tectonic plates to ferry you back to club?”
    “Your sarcasm would land better if you took less time to get to the punchline. Work on snappier phrasing,” he retorted. “Still, uh… Thanks for helping me with this.”
    “No sweat. Well, some sweat, but I barely trust your noodle arms with even that much,” she glanced over to the two bags in his hands, as she raised the three in hers, “let alone the rest.”
    “I could make it if I tried,” he insisted.
    “And you’d take two hours,” she replied, which he couldn’t really refute. “By the way, were you seriously checking out my aunt back there?”
    The question hit like a truck, almost enough to knock him back to the bottom of the hill. “N-no!”
    “Preeeeetty sure you were.”
    “Be less sure! You weren’t even looking at me!”
    “I wasn’t,” she agreed, “but I thought you might’ve been, and if that’s your reaction…”
    He frowned. “This feels like bullying.”
    “Don’t worry. I’ll give you a little of my share when we get back to make up for you totally being weird about my family. I’m basically paying you off.”
    “I’m not sure how I’m feeling about that many sweets all at once now that we have soda too,” he protested. “Maybe you killed my appetite, but I somehow get the impression I’m just gonna be sick.”
    “Wow, you really are a dog,” smirked Yamamoto.
    “Please don’t make this into a whole thing,” he begged.
    “Relax, I’m just messing with you,” she giggled. “Speaking of which, do I seriously come off as Godzilla?”
    “You’re kind of a tyrant,” Jikan admitted. “But…”
    “But?”
    He waved his hands wildly, as if protesting against himself. “Ah, no, it’s just… I guess if you wanted a serious answer, it’d be a bird of some kind. You… feel like if freedom was a person, you know? Like we can go anywhere as long as you’re leading the way. That sort of thing.”
    His eyes settled on the bright blue up above as he thought out loud, flecks and puffs of clear white like a map in itself, and he imagined the shapes of the stars that lay even beyond the daylight.
    “…Pfft. What’s up with that corny fuckin’ answer, huh?” she grinned, jabbing him with her elbow. “Did you read so much shoujo manga that you became one?”
    “It’s not corny! I was being serious for once!”
    “Nope, too late! I brand thee with the irons of cringe, never to fade!”
    “I’m never answering you seriously again.”
    He probably would, of course, and he knew it, but there were some things worth dangling over the heads of others when they were being unreasonable.
    “Ehhh? Come on, man! Your serious answers are the funniest ones!”
    “Congratulations! You’ve identified exactly the problem!”
    Even if Yamamoto was kind of a jerk sometimes, Jikan got the impression that she was just getting overexcited, so he could bear with it. He really had been serious in what he’d said, after all. If she didn’t go nuts every once in a while, there would be no way that his daily life would be like this in the first place.
    He supposed that made her his best friend.

    As the higher in rank of the two, Yamamoto naturally stepped through the window again first when getting back, giving a victory cheer to the four who had stayed behind as she raised the bags, and a wave of mild applause came in response.
    “Pres, I can’t get back in if you’re standing there.”
    “Ah, sorry,” she said, taking a few steps forward as Jikan stuck a leg into the room. “Hey, hand me your bags. I don’t wanna see you break your neck or something.”
    Nodding, he passed them through, and the sudden shift in weight as he let go almost made him fall backward, reflexively grabbing the window frame to keep his balance.
    It was that exact moment that the club door swung wide open without so much as a knock.
    “Alright, it’s about time I actually supervised you kids, so jus–”
    A declaration came, but immediately cut itself short.
    Sweets of all sorts - along with their packaging - were scattered around the tables.
    Plastic carrier bags of soda bottles were in the president’s hands.
    On top of all that, one of the members was in the middle of climbing into the room through the window.
    It was an ordinary scene of youth that everyone figured happened at some point, not even open breaking any explicit rules. Yet, simultaneously, it was a flagrantly hedonistic scene that had no place on school grounds no matter how one sliced it.
    Jikan’s eyes were met by a dark yet sharp glaring blue. The scales of judgement had fallen. The room froze, sealing itself in silence, as if hoping not to disturb the volatile connection that had been made. Both teacher and student knew that they didn’t have to say anything, but…
    “Good afternoon, Matou-sensei.”
    “Are you having fun, Jikan?” Matou glared.
    He thought for a moment. “If I lie and say no,” he replied, “will we get in more or less trouble?”
    Last edited by Random; August 31st, 2022 at 01:10 PM.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
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  6. #6
    世はまさにパンテオン Comun's Avatar
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    Hmm, a couple interesting names in Ren's
    harem
    club
    , but I'm not sure if they'll be anything since it's unclear how much I'm supposed to be invested in the ones that aren't Yamamoto.

  7. #7
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    Ah, trust the veteran to spot that right away.We'll get to that. But right now it's time for normal regular pacing because beginnings are very easy.
    Last edited by Random; August 31st, 2022 at 01:17 PM.
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  8. #8
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    Formatting question: is the text too bunched together between lines? Should I space it out more?

    I figure it's probably best to ask before I have too much to edit.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
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  9. #9
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    1.4

    Chapter 1, Part 4
    ideal black
    Rook and Bishop

    [ [ March 14
    [ [ 22:18


    A rectangle of light hummed in a dark room, its vibration gently testing the rickety desk and knocking over an adjacent drinks can.
    Paul Huangjing Tsz ignored it at first. The number was withheld, and anyone calling at this time of night was a maniac anyway. Continuing to hammer away at the SQL on screen, he simply waited for it to go to voicemail so he didn’t have to deal with it anymore.
    But he stopped himself. He couldn’t really afford to let things go to voicemail right now. Not with his belt as tight as it already was. Maniac or no, he wasn’t going to gain anything from leaving it hanging, so he reluctantly set the can upright and took the call.
    “Huangjing speaking.”
    “Hey, Dad,” came the reply. The voice was muffled by the shittiest audio quality he’d ever heard in his life, but even that wasn’t enough to hide his daughter’s voice from him.
    “Sofie! How are you doing? You didn’t call last week. What’s wrong with your mic? Did your summoning go okay?”
    “Chill out, Dad, one at a time,” the voice at the other end chuckled. “Sorry about last week. I had some trouble getting my hands on a decent burner phone.”
    “It’s the first time you’d missed a call in years. I was worried you’d already gone and gotten yourself killed.”
    “The fighting only started last night,” Sofie replied. “My summoning went perfectly, by the way.”
    An unrestrainable grin spread across Paul’s face. “That’s my girl. You’re confident?”
    “Confident? This is the strongest thing I could have possibly pulled. I can’t even lose at this point,” she said. “I told you last time, didn’t I? The catalyst was the most powerful sword in the world.”
    “I mean, anything could happen. Don’t get too cocky or anything, alright? Just be careful,” he pressed. “So you’ve got a good affinity with this summon?”
    “Yeah, he’s cool.”
    He?” Paul echoed. “I thought this was an it.”
    “It was. Now it’s a he,” she said. “What, you got a problem with me hanging out with boys?”
    “No, it’s just… He’s a supernatural being, you know? I just had some flashbacks to when I was your age,” he replied. A repeat of his own past seemed unlikely, but he understood the allure of that side of the world as well as anyone.
    “Relax. He’s a ghost, from ancient times. All he cares about is fighting anyway. Nothing weird is gonna happen,” she said. “We’re gonna win, and then he’s gonna… disappear, I guess? I don’t really know how it works.”
    He frowned. “That sounds like something you ought to find out sooner rather than later.”
    “Yeah, I’ll talk to him about it, I guess. Speaking of which, I really owe you one for the hotel room. You sure you can afford this?” she asked.
    “That’s what savings are for, sweetheart,” he replied. “Don’t you worry about it. You haven’t had any trouble with speaking or reading Japanese, have you?”
    “Dad, you know better than anyone that my Magecraft is about information and communication,” she said. “I could speak Ancient Egyptian if I had to.”
    Paul chuckled. The girl really took after her mother. Converting the Codecasts of Spiritron Hacking into universal linguistic translation was light years ahead of anything he would have even considered possible, but here she was dismissing it so casually as though it were elementary.
    “You’re doing well for yourself,” he said. “At this rate, it won’t even take two weeks.”
    “I’ll come visit on the way home when I’m done here,” Sofie promised. “Qióngqí probably won’t notice if I take a little detour.”
    “Try not to draw too much attention to yourself while you do then,” Paul said.
    Qióngqí didn’t seem like a bad guy though, as much as he probably wasn’t in a position to so easily admit it. He wouldn’t have been surprised if the man relented and just let Sofie do whatever she wanted on the way home. After all, he had let her go to Japan in the first place.

    The line was quiet for a moment, and then Sofie spoke again.
    “Anyway, I just wanted to update you,” she said. “I probably ought to get back to checking my prep. You know, so I don’t die.”
    “Don’t worry about it, honey. I’m just happy you called,” came her father’s tinny response. “Just let me know you’re still alive every so often, alright? Even if you’re basically as good as safe, I still worry.”
    “I will, relax,” she said. “Love you, Dad.”
    “Love you. Do well.”
    “I will.”
    Not sparing herself an extra second to hesitate, Sofie hung up as fast as she could, and clutched the phone tightly.
    It hadn’t been a lie. She would’ve had to be up against some truly ridiculous opponents to have been outclassed, whether on the side of Magecraft or the ability of the Servant. She had summoned the most perfect Heroic Spirit in the most perfect class for this fight. On top of that, she knew that she could use her Magecraft to one of the fullest extents of her generation, and probably even the previous few as well. It wasn’t mere arrogance that led her to say that. It was simply the unqualified truth that had led her life in this direction to begin with.
    I am the strongest, or else my name is not Sofie Huangjing Le-Mei.
    For her, there was very little rhetoric behind such a cliché. And yet…
    “What could you possibly still be anxious about?”
    The figure of a man shimmered into being, leaning against the wall opposite her bed. His clothing was clearly not of this era, a white hakama and a brown cloak over his shoulders. What little armour he had on seemed almost crude with how heavy it was, and his hands were tightly wrapped. Bleach-white hair framed a ruby gaze with serpentine eyes, and it felt like she was being sized up by a predator.
    No, it didn’t just feel like that. If this man ever felt for even a second just slightly displeased, he could have instantly torn her to pieces as easily as a tissue.
    But they both knew he wasn’t going to.
    She sighed. “Just wondering whether you’d up and left, Saber.”
    “Ha. Maybe if I did, you’d find yourself a little less up your own ass, Master.” The term was filled with such derision that it almost burned. “You get along with your dad, huh? I don’t think I’d ever seen you so sweet to anyone.”
    “And I got the impression just from reading about you that you didn’t.”
    “Don’t. I don’t wanna hear about whatever bullshit they put to page about my life,” he shot back, clicking his tongue. “The fact that it’s apparently positive makes me sick enough on its own. Where the hell was all that praise when I was going round killing their enemies for them, huh?”
    “Well, don’t get too worked up about it,” she replied. “It worked out for you in the end.”
    “Suppose so. So you got a battle plan, or do you need me to come up with that for you too?”
    Sofie shrugged, throwing herself back onto the mattress. She hadn’t slept in a bed like this for years before arriving here, and she had been struggling to sleep on it for the past few nights as a result, but it was getting a little easier day by day.
    “What’s there to even plan?” she replied. “Your M.O. is as straightforward as it gets, right? Walk in, beat the crap out of everyone, walk out. You’re an honest guy. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than just let you loose as you please. Worked out for you last time, right?”
    “You’re seriously making my life out to be way too easy,” he shot back. “But I guess you’re right that I’m pretty much unstoppable with my sword. This’ll be over quick, as long as they don’t have any gods for me to fight.”
    “Don’t get cocky,” she reprimanded. “You’re just a Servant now. Even if these are your ideal conditions, you’re still weaker than you were in life.”
    Saber scoffed, grinning. “Please. Just because I’m a little weaker, that doesn’t make the peanut gallery any stronger.”
    “That’s not what that means. ‘Peanut gallery’ are the spectators.”
    “It’s absolutely what it means. They’re gonna spectate me tearing them a new asshole.”
    Sofie rolled her eyes, sitting back up. “Okay. Here’s the deal. Servants increase in strength according to their fame, right? And fame is relative to where they’re summoned. So you’re definitely at your peak here in Japan. But that doesn’t just apply to you. We’re going to be seeing a lot of Japanese Servants in the Holy Grail War because of that.”
    He shrugged. “I already know all that. It’s no reason to be worried though. I’m this nation’s strongest hero, hands down. No matter how strong they get, I’m stronger.”
    “No, that’s not the point,” she said. “The point is that strength isn’t what you should be worried about, right? Just because you’re at the top of all Japan’s Heroic Spirits, that only means you’re the strongest hero that was ever produced by its historical or mythological systems, which gain a flat bonus on this field.”
    Saber frowned. “Where are you going with this?”
    “I’m saying that other systems exist, and they have different basic assumptions. Assumptions that things native to Japan, and more specifically you, might have difficulty dealing with,” she replied. “What we need to be careful with isn’t just power alone. You might have enough raw strength to break their rules, sure, sometimes. But you can’t take that for granted, understand? That’s why I’m here.”
    He quite suddenly narrowed his eyes. “No, you’re not fighting with me.”
    “I am. You can’t do anything about it.” She raised her left hand, brandishing a cross-shaped red mark in three parts on the back.
    “Sofie, I’ll say it right now before you do something so fucking stupid that you die,” he said. “You physically cannot win this argument with that thing.”
    “What, you think ‘let me support you with my Magecraft in battle’ is too vague for the Command Spell?” she said dryly. “I’m not so much of a pushove―”
    “Forget it. I’m stronger than all three of your so-called ‘absolute commands’ combined and then some,” he said. “Come back when you’ve filled up the other hand too, and maybe you could compel me a single time.”
    But I’ll definitely kill you afterwards.
    The final stipulation went unspoken, hanging in the air like a toxic miasma.
    “Jesus. I knew you were a big shot, but you really are nuts,” Sofie sighed, lowering her hand. “Fine. But all I want is for you to let me help so you don’t end up cornered by something you can’t deal with.”
    His glare did not fade, but his expression softened. “I won’t. We don’t have enough information to come up with specific counterplay right now in the first place, do we?”
    “You mean you think taking everyone head-on is the only strategy?”
    “More like being able to come up with plans on the fly is the prerogative of the strongest,” he replied. “Mistakes are costly. Being unprepared is a luxury. And I’m the one who can afford to pay that piper’s highest rates. Understand?”
    They knew nothing about their enemies - nothing worth knowing, anyway. But likewise, their opponents in this battle knew very little about them either. With everyone equally prone to error, it was only natural that Saber would come out on top, so he claimed, because he could endure the consequences of a blunder far more easily than their foes.
    “I suppose, so long as we’re on a fair playing field,” Sofie conceded.
    “Well, if push comes to shove,” he grinned, “I’ll just help myself to those top-class Magic Circuits of yours and crush them into an exotic new onigiri filling.”
    She scoffed. “Wow. Remind me never to underestimate the bloodthirst of a poet again.”
    “What’s that supposed to mean?”
    “Nothing. I guess I’ll just go to bed if you’re so adamantly against making any kind of preparations, then.”
    “Do whatever you want. It’s not like you didn’t already finish making that trump card you were working on, right?” he said.
    “Finish? Not even close. Ask me again in a century and I’ll give you an update.”
    Her retort sounded like sarcasm, but there was no hint of hyperbole in her voice. That thing he had called a trump card was something that would take generations. Such a thing would ordinarily be no issue for a Magus, who passed down their knowledge to the next generation, but for Sofie, it was a different story. Her unique interpretation of the Magecraft she used through her Philosophy Key was geared towards consumption civilisation rather than ancient tradition. Ideal though it was for the world in which she lived, passing it down was going to be difficult at best.
    On top of that, Philosophy Keys were different to the Magic Crests of the western world. If she was passing on anything, it was only the Key itself to her own future student, not her works or her interpretations. If she could have simply relied on the next generation to do what she couldn’t, she would not have needed to consult this Holy Grail in the first place. No, even if she could, the world’s Mystery declined further every day. If she didn’t do this, perhaps nobody ever would, even if they wanted to.
    If she didn’t complete the impossible task of merging the eastern and western Magecraft traditions, then it was completely possible that they would only diverge further and further until they ceased to be able to exist in a world of global mass communication.
    To put it simply, the past would be lost to the future.
    Not all forward marches progressed. If human civilisation as it existed now really was unsustainable, then it would have to change, and rolling back the destructive forces brought about by modern civilisation could well have benefited from looking to the past for inspiration.
    Sofie didn’t particularly have much opinion one way or another on her ancestors and their traditions, but she was not of the opinion that all things discarded were worthless. To preserve old things was important, as the future might have one day needed them again.
    Magecraft was no exception. No, Magecraft required the past: it was the discipline that was the least exceptional in this regard.
    And so, it was like she had resolved to climb a mountain with her bare hands, but…
    “I did manage to turn it on the other day though.”
    …her creation worked, as rudimentary as it was. The principles were sound. It was all the encouragement she needed to fight, and to make a wish.
    Saber’s expression didn’t change.
    “Then I’m on the right side for once,” was all he said.

    On the hill to the east of the river, there was a church.
    It had been there for generations. There was not a living soul in the town who did not remember its presence, standing remote and alone atop the hill.
    Below its altar, a basement contained a shrine. It was a humble room, lacking in extravagant decor or architecture, and usually remained bathed in pure darkness. It had indeed spent the last few decades that way.
    But for the past few nights, it had been gilded with bright light, so brilliant that it almost looked like a palace. To the girl on her knees before it, she could not perceive it as anything less than a wondrous throne.
    “Hail to Heaven and to God Almighty of Spirits and Flesh, to the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”
    The Fuyuki Church had one priest to watch over the town below. Priests entered and left over the years, but there was only ever one - no more, no less. There was no ironclad rule declaring so, but neither was there any incentive to change that number.
    “Hail to the angels and to the saints and to the Holy Mother, the feathers in Your wings.”
    Fuyuki City could not be left alone, especially now. Likewise, it did not necessitate any more than a single pair of eyes, even now.
    “Glory to the Lord, and the Lord alone. Praise be upon the holy fathers and upon the great teachers.”
    And so, the task fell to a certain priestess who had exhibited exemplary performance. She had, true to form, kneeled at the shrine and uttered praises every night for no less than an hour, and often more, for the past two months.
    “I, the unworthy, am nourished by grace, light, and mercy.”
    She did not pray for herself. She did not have a wish of her own to be granted.
    “Peace be upon all the living and upon all the dead. May all be good. May all be well. May peace be on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
    And so, she prayed for others. Every night, she held in her heart all the strife and suffering of which she knew, and willed for it to end.
    “Peace be upon the vicious as it is upon the virtuous. May they be saved. May they find solace.”
    Spoken with no hesitation nor apprehension, not to declare herself good or righteous, she pleaded from the bottom of her heart with such purity it felt almost desolate to witness.
    “May peace be upon the Devil. May Your light reach the depths of Hell. May it save the damned who rejected You. May the lake of fire someday finish its work and be extinguished. May we all be reunited in Your love without exception.”
    There was nothing she desired for the present but to do her duties, and to lead those who came to her to the happiest lives she could. This was her responsibility. She dedicated the organ that wished to the future, and prayed for the fate of all creation.
    “May You smile upon all Your Creation, and may it shine like the Moon with your light. Amen.”
    With her plea complete, she stood up. The seven Masters who had been called were all here now, but she did not pray for the Holy Grail. The red skirt of her habit rolled to her ankles, and she turned toward the door. She had said all she wanted to.
    She would do as she was required of her. To that end, so long as she did His will, she had absolute faith that God would support her.
    Refreshed, contented, and brimming with hope, a smile came to Kyriake Luxestiva’s lips as she departed from the shrine to get ready for bed.
    She had to be up early tomorrow. She had a guest to entertain, after all.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
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  10. #10
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    1.999

    Chapter 1, Interlude
    void of labyrinth
    omen, abyss

    [ [ ██████
    [ [ ██:██


    Ren Jikan Metanovae was in the school library again.
    That, on its own, was a contradiction in terms. Ren Jikan Metanovae did not go to school in the first place - a great deal of effort was put into preventing it, so much so that it was a paradox. The only thing remotely close to that idea that made sense was Jikan Ren’s attendance there.
    Which meant that he was here.
    He raised his head from the wooden table where it had been laying, and stared down the corridor of bookshelves. They were short. He could see over the top of them, but it was no use. He already knew that this space didn’t conform to just what he could see.
    The electrical hum of the pale lights struggling to illuminate it was the only sound save for his own breathing. He took a deep breath.
    As always, the air was stale, as if it had been motionless for thousands of years - as if this modern library had merely been built around a wasteland that had already been here.
    He stood up, taking a few steps and mustering all the resolve he could.
    This time, he would reach the end.
    One foot forward.

    To his left, the curtains were drawn over the windows.
    If he wanted, he could have walked right up and opened them to look at the sky.
    He had tried that a few times before.
    He’d died from the mere sight of the black void beyond it, and woken up with enough pain coursing through his brain that he’d howled and howled until his lungs were raw.

    There were books he didn’t recognise on the shelves, with words on their spines unlike titles.
    Isn’t dying enough?
    Why did this happen to me?
    Please, someone else, anyone else.
    Everything is cruel.
    Is anyone there?
    It hurts.
    I’m begging you to answer me.
    I don’t deserve this.
    Anguish was blending with loathing. Desperation to be saved and condemnations of a world which offered nothing to save them mingled and bled together.
    If he wanted, he could have stopped to open them, reading the bone-white lamentations contained within their black pages.
    That had been the first thing he’d done when he had this nightmare for the first time.
    He had woken up choking on his own vomit.

    There were shadows on the walls that weren’t his own, moving swiftly as if cast by a predator.
    Was he being stalked? The question itself didn’t matter. They would not catch him unless he let them.
    Forward.
    Keep moving forward, and you’ll make it.
    This space got more and more complex every time he entered it. He turned a corner.
    Another aisle of bookshelves that didn’t exist before was waiting for him, splitting down the middle. The light above the left-hand path flickered.
    He would take the right-hand path.
    No matter what, he could not look at nor touch the dark.
    He had done so twice before, and not woken up the next day.

    This place was hostile. Ren still wasn’t sure if it was real or fake, but it certainly didn’t want him to be here. The feeling was mutual, but he couldn’t stop himself from straying into it. This was what happened when he slept.
    The nightmare had not been with him long. It had been infrequent at first, with a full week between his first and second visit here. That was… in January, perhaps. But as the days went by, the library had appeared to him more and more, as though closing in around him. Every time, it got more complex, more alien, seething with malice at his continued intrusions.
    It had appeared every day for the past two weeks.
    If it despised him so much, why did it not just bar him entry? Why did it look so familiar? This hardly felt or looked like some foreign reach where he did not belong, or some sacred ground where he was forbidden to tread. Everything seemed to indicate this place as a carnivorous trap, luring him in by perverting an image close to him. Indeed, that would have been consistent with how he found himself here so often.
    It was as if this nightmare had attempted to devour him, only to do everything in its power to spit him out once he was in its grasp. It acted like it had tasted poison on him.
    It was impossible to figure this out by himself. He knew that much.
    He had to ask the one person who might have had an answer.
    And to that end, he had to find the heart of this labyrinth. He’d managed it before, a few times, near the very start. But as it tangled and knotted itself to strangle him and pry him from its innards, it became harder and harder to reach it.
    He had to focus. A single mistake, and he would be cast out once again.
    Left. Forward. Shadow. Right. Right. Spine. Forward. Forward. Left. The light blinked. Wrong turn, go back. Right. Left. Left. Forward.
    It didn’t look like it at first, but this way was off-limits: there was a table up ahead. Dead end.
    It didn’t look like it at first, but this way was lethal: there were no words on the spines of the books up that way. Turn around.
    Ren didn’t have time for trial and error. If anything was strange, even slightly, it was going to be a new hazard. Anything that took his eyes from the way forward was nothing less than instant death.
    Everywhere safe looked the same. It was all equally nauseating, equally oppressive.

    There was one exception. One thing here was darker than everything else combined.
    “Found you.”
    One lone chair, and one lone figure.
    At first, it seemed like nothing more than a shadow was present, but he had been here before. He knew what he was looking at. It was no mere illusion.
    One leg crossed over the other, one of the countless sinister books in hand, one side of her mouth poised in a smirk as she meet his eyes.
    She was even smaller than he was. Dark, shaggy hair only flowed as far as her shoulders. Her eyes were like voids, and her smile was barely more than a paper cutout. The school uniform she wore was black with a white scarf - more evocative of the Showa era than this one - and a pair of glasses with thin round frames rested on her face. She seemed so ordinary, yet so out of place, like a crease on the page to make one word look like another. Everything about her seemed so incredibly thin, as though she were one false move away from revealing herself as a mere facade. No matter how many times he saw her, Ren could only think of her as a ghost, doomed to haunt this twisted room until nothing remained, but even a sheet over a child’s head had more semblance of being than she.
    “Well, well. Look who finally made it back,” the girl sneered. None of it stopped her from speaking with a voice so caustic that it seared his brain. “You actually survived this time. That’s nice. Your corpses stink, so I’m pleased.”
    Ren was used to it. Joking or otherwise, he got enough lighthearted abuse from his friends that even her genuinely bitter dismissiveness wasn’t particularly anything new to him. That said, it was news to him that he left ‘corpses’ here. He filed it away in his mind for later, intent on not getting distracted.
    “I was meaning to ask about that,” he replied. “Why is this library so intent on trying to murder me?”
    The ghost raised her eyebrow. “Library? Is that what it looks like to you?”
    “You see it differently?”
    “I don’t see anything anymore. I saw a lot of things a long time ago. But it’s been too long. All of the dreams have long since lost all meaning to me.”
    Ren pondered for a moment, and then slowly nodded. “So if this isn’t a library, then what’s that in your hand?”
    The book between her fingers snapped shut, and she sighed. “Just a regular dying wish. A common wretch cursing their miserable fate. ‘It’s not fair’ and so on. You know the type.”
    He doubted he knew it as well as she did, but he had seen the books on these shelves. There was something of a running theme, at least. With everything here being so entwined with killing and dying that it almost made him self-conscious about being alive.
    ―――What a grim place.
    “So, what brought on the fire in your eyes?” she asked. “It’s unlike you to be so motivated.”
    Ren took exception to that - he got motivated about plenty of things - but kept his mouth shut. There was a real answer to this one.
    “I saw a Magus today.”
    That woman, Momiji Musubi… Her body flowed with an unmistakable magical energy, just like Ren’s. His was extremely low, especially compared to hers, so he wasn’t sure if she’d noticed him, but…
    “Okay. So?” the girl said.
    “It’s weird, but it’s not exactly earth-shaking,” he agreed. “But… there was a spirit with her.”
    The woman by her side, her so-called associate.
    “‘Lancer’... Well, that might just be an alias…”
    She had strained belief. It took everything he had not to react to her presence at the time. That kind of spiritual mass was absurd. She outclassed an ordinary human probably a hundred times over in density alone.
    Ren’s left eye was named Capricorn. Or, more precisely, that was the name of the magical formula that dwelled within his eye. It was a constellation derived from the Mesopotamian deity of water, magic, and intelligence. It was far from a genuine divinity itself, but even the Magecraft was a Mystery dating back thousands of years.
    That was, after all, what the name Metanovae implied. Although his family had no doubt risen and fallen over the generations, their origin stemmed firmly from ancient times and the birthplace of Magecraft.
    That’s why, even if he himself was so weak that he could have been missed by a Magus who simply wasn’t paying attention, looking at Lancer was almost like staring into the sun.
    There was so much data, so much power, that he had seriously wondered if he was going to hurt himself if he examined her too closely.
    Of course, that eye was useless in this dream. No matter how hard he tried, the girl before him remained inscrutable as ever as she raised her eyebrows.
    “Is that so…? Well, that might begin to explain why we were able to meet,” she murmured. “How sad. Seems like you stumbled headfirst into a disaster in the making.”
    A chill ran through Ren’s body. Maybe it was just because of how soaked she was in death, but there was something about this girl that made it seem almost deterministic when she promised ‘disaster’.
    “I was under the impression that it had already stopped…” she mused. “Someone really restarted that ritual? Human beings really never learn, do they?”
    His fingers closed just slightly.
    He’d had a hunch that she would have known something. It wasn’t a huge leap that two strange things were connected. And if she really was a ghost, then perhaps a powerful spirit would have been on her radar.
    And he had been right to think so.
    Apparently noticing his thoughts, the girl gave him an uncharacteristically serious look.
    “Don’t misunderstand. This has nothing to do with me. I’m not involved with whatever is happening now.”
    “What do you mean, ‘that ritual’?”
    “Huh? Why are you asking me?” she shot back. “You think I know anything about the ins and outs? Aren’t you a Magus?”
    Hardly.
    Ren was a practitioner, not a professional. He had inherited this pathetic excuse for a Magic Crest that could barely even be called one, but he'd had no formal training. He might have been beyond an ordinary apprentice, but he only assembled what was available to him. No matter how many colouring books one completed, it did not qualify them as an artist.
    “Well, excuse me for not paying attention,” she said, “but I don’t recall whether there’s even another Magus in your town besides you. Those families stayed here once upon a time, but who even knows anymore. I don’t care enough about you people to keep tabs.”
    “That’s fine. Just knowing that there’s someone I can ask is enough,” Ren said. “Thank you.”
    She pulled a face like she’d been served an unfamiliar meal. Expectant silence.
    “That’s all,” he assured her.
    “…Gross.”
    “What? Why?”
    “Shut up. Everything you say just reminds me how much of a sack of fluid you are. You’re disgusting.”
    “What does that even mean?”
    He didn’t understand, but the revulsion on her face was genuine. Something, at least, had upset her.
    The air was heavy, and his limbs weakened.

    …No, it wasn’t that his limbs were weakening.
    The atmosphere had literally become heavier. A dark miasma was beginning to well within the space, clinging to his arms and legs. His skin was normally dull to the touch from modification to his nerves, but now a thousand, a million needles were suddenly biting mercilessly into his flesh all at once.
    Unease creeping into him as the pain began to worsen, Ren raised his right hand to try to shake the crawling shadow off.
    In the next instant――
    Snap.
    It turned on his wrist one hundred and eighty degrees.
    “Ah…?”
    The sound from his mouth was not a howl of agony, but a formless breath of confusion.
    “I said ‘shut up’.”
    Something was leaking from his throat. It felt like it was bleeding. Something was dripping down his neck.
    He didn’t dare raise his other hand. He couldn’t touch it. But something cold was just under his chin, nothing came in or out through his nostrils,.and――
    ――Oh.
    Of course. His throat was liquefying, and air was drifting inside.
    Was it the shock of such a thing, or just because he was used to the brutality of this place? He couldn’t even bring himself to panic.
    The floor suddenly flew up to meet his chin, and his skull shuddered like gelatine as he made contact. Had his legs melted too? Something metallic was spilling out from between his lips - the remains of his tongue, he suspected. Dark spots were beginning to cover his vision. He couldn’t move.
    It had probably only taken a few seconds for every muscle in his body to turn to this iron-tasting fluid.
    It was probably red. He couldn’t look at it to check. The world seemed to split as his eyes wandered in separate directions.
    “Yeah, I thought so,” he heard the girl muttering.
    He couldn’t see her anymore, but his hearing was still enough that he could make out her words. The crisp leafing of paper graced his ears as she spoke.
    “I figured I’d try out that, see what your Origin is. This is basically what I was expecting. Difficult as you are, you sure are predictable at your core, aren’t you?”
    Ren couldn’t even tell where his body was anymore. Where did he end? Where did the room begin? Holes were starting to appear, but he couldn’t tell where.
    In his thoughts, perhaps.
    “Ugh. Your insides really do stink. Maybe drink some soap every once in a while or something,” she scoffed. “Don’t worry. I’m not actually killing you. I’m not that heartless. I was just curious.”
    The words were beginning to lose meaning.
    “This is just a dream. So go to sleep.”

    Sleep?
    Wasn’t he sleeping?
    There
    was sa
    ...Oh. Something just disappeared.

    Thud.
    A splitting pain rushed through Ren’s nose.
    …At least he had a nose, he noted.
    Blinking, he raised his head, trying to get a feel for his surroundings. His room was sweltering, and his body was drenched in sweat. His legs were tangled in bedsheets from the mattress that loomed above him.
    Fell on my face, huh, he observed, pushing on the wooden flooring to right himself and sit up. Groping around for the cable leading under his pillow, he dragged out his phone, tilting it to check the screen.
    05:37, it noted, with a single notification: a message from Sato Mayu, received five hours ago.
    Let’s do our best tomorrow!
    He’d fallen asleep without replying. That felt a little rude.
    Unlocking, he sent back the first thing that came to mind.
    I’ll meet you at the gate after classes
    Might be a little late, so feel free to get a snack or something while you wait (ᵔ◡ᵔ)
    Jikan wasn’t going to bother going back to sleep just to get another thirteen minutes. It was, for better or worse, time to get up.
    Rubbing his eyes, he stood up and went to wash his face.

    - Chapter 1 -
    end
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
    Fate\last call
    night, dawn, and the birth of stars

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  11. #11
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    2.1

    Chapter 2, Part 1
    sundown draw
    open the Amber Hunt

    [ [ March 15
    [ [ 17:04


    She didn’t want to admit it, but Archer was getting bored. She had been looking down this makeshift periscope of lenses and mirrors all day.
    The view was great from up here. Sitting atop the tallest building in the entire city, she had a clear impression of just how much the world had grown. Seeing an ordinary town boom to reaches that even the capitals of her own era would envy, she had idly pondered about the economics of such a thing for a few minutes… before realising that she’d had no idea about the field even in her own time.
    Peoplewatching had been interesting at first as well, but it had gotten dull after a few hours, especially since she couldn’t hear the conversations to learn about their lives. She considered a little magical eavesdropping, but had ultimately resolved to mind her own business.
    And so, there was nothing to do but stare at a certain pair until her eyes started to hurt.
    “Master,” she sighed, “I really think we’re done here. I’ve been waiting since dawn. Saber isn’t letting his guard down at all.”
    I apologise, came his voice. But we do really need to take that shot as soon as we can. Andri overheard them talking, and it sounds like Saber isn’t a joke. We need to deal with him as soon as possible.
    “Saber is supposed to be the strongest class anyway, I know, I know.”
    You’re a sniper, aren’t you? he pointed out. And not even a Servant can move at the speed of light to deal with your attacks. So just wait for him to materialise and it’ll be over right away.
    Well, she couldn’t deny that her synergy with Assassin was flawless. With both close-range and long-range attacks that it was impossible to react to until they had already landed, Berserker had proved that the only thing that one could really do to defend was endure the blows head-on. Dealing with two Servants at once who could neither be seen nor struck…
    Perhaps some truly exceptional Magecraft could have done something to make their lives more difficult, but Archer was no pushover even in that department, and modern Magecraft from the Age of Man would never be able to compete with its ancient ancestor from the Age of Gods.
    In short, all their bases were covered. So why did she still feel anxious about this plan?
    She shook her head, trying to take her mind off it.
    “So, Master.”
    Hm?
    “This Holy Grail grants wishes, doesn’t it? I already told you mine,” she said.
    She had been quite open about it, in fact - it was the conversation that they’d had when she had first been summoned that day. Nothing good, she reasoned, would come from concealing her intent. Archer’s desire was simple: a blessing on today’s world. She wanted to observe it, identify its struggles, and then help to mend them. After all, she felt somewhat responsible for it, like a mother for her child.
    Perhaps she didn’t know exactly what she would give yet, but she would learn that through their enemies. That was why she had adamantly refused to target Saber’s Master, only Saber himself.
    But she had not learned her own Master’s wish to be granted. He’d had nothing to say at the time. Her words hung in the air, awaiting the fire that drove Sigmund von Drang.
    So you want to hear what I want from the Grail? Nothing, I’m afraid.
    But there was no answer.
    “Nothing? Then why are you here?”
    It’s not the Grail itself I want. It’s about the journey, isn’t it? he replied.
    “That’s a lovely cliché, but we’re talking about a trophy that can do anything,” she frowned. “At least come up with something.”
    I’m afraid I just have no interest in it. I’m here because I was asked to be. And, well… as a knight, how could I turn down an invitation to the most glorious battlefield of all?
    “Is that why I’m going to be sniping Saber from a kilometre and a half away from anything resembling a duel, while Assassin waits in the wings to stab him in the back and her Master listens in on the strategy discussions of every single opponent simultaneously?”
    A beat.
    I’ll take what I can get.
    She sighed. “Well, I agree pragmatism takes priority when we’re talking about a life-and-death situation like this. But, you know, I’m not actually a sniper or anything…”
    She understood that sitting around like this with nothing to do was most of a marksman’s job. In fact, waiting was essentially the entire task. Unfortunately, the mental endurance to do such a thing… Servants, as a rule, did not have enhanced psychological strength in the same way that their bodies were superior to ordinary humans. There were, of course, standout individuals of iron will among Heroic Spirits, and Archer would even have estimated that the majority of them had stronger wills than normal people by necessity.
    But she was not a warrior. She was a princess. She had never done anything like this in her lifetime, and she certainly didn’t have the kind of cognitive stamina that a sniper needed.
    Sorry. Just this once, I’m going to have to ask you to stick it out a little longer, Sigmund apologised. I swear we’ll take the other Servants on properly, but this is the one opponent we can’t beat in a fair fight.
    An involuntary smile crept onto her face as she noticed the pang of genuine disappointment in his voice. She supposed that for her Master, only here to test his mettle as a swordsman, the fact that they had to resort to these tactics to deal with the Heroic Spirit of the sword was probably heartbreaking.
    “I’m sure you’ll get a chance eventually.”
    It was obvious that a Servant would obliterate a human with ease, and a mere alchemist was no exception, in spite of his hobbies. Confident he may have been - perhaps it was even earned, but - without a proper time and place, she didn’t plan to let Sigmund jeopardise the both… no, the four of them. Assassin’s Master was effectively the team leader, but he was her client, and the Master-Servant contract with Archer herself went without saying.
    But, if possible, she wished for a situation where he could actually fight like he came here to do.
    “It isn’t like you were flooded with opportunities at home, right?”
    As part of a family who already gave up research in favour of coasting by on the backs of their ancestors? Not really. That’s why I took up the sword in the first place.
    “I guess it’s true that men only want what they can’t get, no matter the era.”
    She supposed that it was also true that if they could get it, they would have had no reason to want it so badly.
    I’m sorry to interrupt, Andri cut in, but please don’t get yourselves distracted.

    “Still, huh?”
    “Yeah.”
    Sofie was getting frustrated enough that she almost started biting her nails. She knew better than to dismiss Saber’s intuition. Nobody survived what he had without at least knowing if they were being watched.
    Their only goal today had been to just look around the city for potential battlefields, but they were walking around the financial district in broad daylight right now. It seemed that whoever had their sights on them, at the very least, they weren’t planning to act while she was in a crowd of people. That was a good sign.
    But it also implied the converse. If they left this area for somewhere more secluded, there would be no more reason to hold back. Saber was in spirit form right now, tailing close behind her, but if he moved to try to hunt the hunter, then she would be wide open by herself.
    The sun was setting. If they didn’t figure this out soon, then this was going to end real soon, and real badly.
    That was why she had been tapping away at the keypad of the flip phone in her pocket for the last ninety seconds.

    The purpose of such a thing was twofold.
    The use of numbers as a form of high-speed incantation wasn’t uncommon in the least no matter the region, and Sofie was no exception in that regard. Actually for someone who was so intent on compatibility with the modern age, numbers were quite possibly the ideal way to shorten the ‘code’ of the thaumaturgies she invoked.
    Secondly, it also wasn’t unusual to store a formula inside a Mystic Code for later casting to begin with. The only thing unusual was that she had made it out of a mass-produced electronic device.
    It wasn’t only that Magi were generally antiquated and out-of-touch that they did not engage with modern technology. Rather, the fact that culture existed at all was for the same reason as any culture.
    Magecraft drew from Mysteries, and thus valued two things: scarcity and history. The consumption civilisation of the present era thwarted both. There was theoretically no reason that a communication device from twenty years prior would have been unacceptable to use in the modern day, for the same reason that a firestriker from centuries prior still had plenty of value.
    In practice, however, the rate of technological advancement had outpaced that of human lifespans many times over, and so the world and its tools were barely recognisable if compared to just one too many decades in the past. The quality of goods and tools rapidly and continually rose. The creators of those goods and tools would encourage replacement of the old with the new, and the average person would acquiesce when financial strain was not a factor. It was no mere vice, but simply a case of maximising one’s own autonomy by increasing the quality and versatility of the goods and tools available to them. Thus, disposal of things that had accumulated too many years was a necessity - the opposite goal to a Magus’s. Both the rarity and the lifetime of almost everything produced by modern civilisation was massively reduced; a state of affairs that would make the Magi of five hundred years ago fall into despair. Even her teacher was no exception to that.
    But Sofie Huangjing Le-Mei was. From her point of view, nothing about this was unsalvageable.
    Only a fool would deny that consumption civilisation was capable of creating masterworks. The reason that it was so incompatible with Magecraft was that its ability to create them was too high. But mass production and mass disposal, logically speaking, could cancel each other out. If replaced goods were disposed of as a matter of course, did that not mean that a kind of scarcity would come to exist among the rare survivors?
    Those of faint heart had tended to dismiss her as delusional for pointing out such a thing. Indeed, they would have probably been right if they had been talking to anyone else. But Sofie knew she was gifted, and more importantly, she wasn’t a coward. A twenty-year-old cellphone was not going to have the output to compete with more orthodox Mystic Codes, but it didn’t need to: it only needed to have functional utility, a qualitative measure of worth rather than quantitative. After all, if her Magecraft was a bullet, she was personally serving as the barrel of that gun, and she wasn’t giving that role up to mere equipment.

    All that said, it was going to be a moot point if she didn’t know where she was going to be shooting real soon.
    She was standing in a crowd, that was for sure, but it wasn’t that dense. She suspected that she had to be being followed, and yet nobody here seemed to have their eyes on her.
    They must be hidden somewhere.
    That much was obvious.
    Assassin, then? No, it was possible that someone was simply concealing themselves. Invisibility Magecraft required far too much magical energy, more than enough to sense it - akin to how wearing black at night only made one more visible to thermal imaging - so that was out of the question, but if they had something more advanced and more subtle, then it was possible…
    She was getting a headache. Sofie knew better than anyone that execution was everything, and it was almost worse than meaningless to speculate on the mechanics of spells that she had yet to encounter, but she was out of other options. She had to take some kind of guess as to what she was up against to even start to fight back.
    So, no matter how she―
    “...?”
    Someone was approaching. Amidst the crowd, there was a small, pale girl walking right toward her with a visible sense of purpose, silver-white ponytail shaking back and forth. No magical energy that she could immediately sense either… She looked a little strange, but nothing that seemed to go below the surface.
    “Saber, is this…?”
    This wasn’t their stalker. That much was immediately obvious. In the first place, there was no subtlety in her presence or movement, and this kid was smaller than Sofie herself. She very clearly posed absolutely no threat at all.
    “No chance,” Saber agreed. “There’s no killing intent at all.”
    But she was making eye contact, so it was clear that she had some kind of bone to pick.
    “Hey there, missy. Something wrong?” she asked. “I’m a little busy right now, so can it wait?”

    Archer furrowed her brow. “Oh, that’s new.”
    What is it? Sigmund asked.
    Saber’s Master had been approached. Just by looking, it seemed that the white-haired child who had suddenly strode up to her wasn’t a Master, but all the same, there was clearly some sense of urgency in their behaviour as they talked to the girl.
    They exchanged a few words, and they started to walk.
    “I think she just met up with someone.”
    Magus?
    “I can’t tell, but there’s no Servant…”
    The lenses and mirrors shifted in the air, the image on the glass following the two as they moved toward the buildings around the edge of the square. They didn’t go far, just stepping into a quiet alleyway before continuing to talk. Saber’s Master sat down on a box, and the outline of a third figure began to――
    “Saber materialised,” Archer said.
    Then the new person is in the loop about Magecraft? concluded Sigmund. Maybe they’re in league, or some kind of informant…
    “Impossible to say, isn’t it?”
    Well, we can say one thing for sure. We don’t have any unwanted witnesses. This is our window.
    “You’re sure?”
    Quickly. This could be our only chance.
    Centering the mirrors, Archer raised her index finger at the image of her target, and took the shot.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
    Fate\last call
    night, dawn, and the birth of stars

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  12. #12
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    2.2

    Chapter 2, Part 2
    Formation Connected
    conceiving tenacity

    [ [ March 15
    [ [ 15:36


    For fourth-years like Jikan, there wasn’t much to do during the school day this week.
    Everyone had already taken their university entrance exams just over a week prior, and they were expecting to get their results later today. As such, the study hall at the end of the day had just turned into playtime, but it seemed like Homurahara Academy was serious about its students continuing to attend up until graduation regardless. Perhaps it was an act of kindness, intended to keep classes together as long as possible.
    But as he weaved through the corridors of his departing fellow students to track down the room he was looking for, he couldn’t help but consider Matou-sensei to be a little merciless.
    The school isn’t hosting social clubs! Why don’t you spend some time doing some actual modernology for once, you bunch of louts?! he’d barked when he saw the mess yesterday, and so it was that the final week of Yamamoto Hibiki’s Culture Club would be spent on actual club activities.
    It wasn’t out of reluctance or anything. It seemed like a nice way to send off their two graduating members, so they would form different pairs with each of the two seniors every day until the weekend.
    Today, Jikan was paired up with Sato, and they had decided to head into Shinto together to take notes on the people there until sundown.
    Well, he secretly had some additional plans. He wanted to treat her to something, and hopefully make a memory while they were at it, but he planned to surprise her on the way home rather than telling her outright. She was, after all, the calmest and kindest in the club; far too good for the bunch of oddballs and UMAs that the rest of them had turned out to be. He was going to miss seeing her every day.

    It didn’t take too long to locate the classroom Matou was still packing up in. He tended to hang around for a few minutes after the end of his classes, and he made his way into the room with a quiet knock on the open door. A few students were still in here - he made eye contact with Shinjirou, and shot a smile her way as he stepped in.
    “Jikan,” Matou greeted. “Aren’t you supposed to be outdoors right about now? Did you need something?”
    “Nothing much. I just wanted to talk to you for a minute when you’ve got one.”
    “Ask away.”
    “I’d rather go somewhere quieter, if that’s alright.”
    “Fine, fine.”
    He hadn’t said anything to indicate it, but he knew Matou understood what this was about, and so he finished packing up and led the way.
    Briefly heading in the direction of the library, they ended up heading for the roof instead at Jikan’s mild protests. Those bookshelves were not where he wanted to be right now.
    “Good grief,” Matou shook his head as they stepped out into the open air. “Well, I’ll say this much right away. If this is about you getting accepted into the Clock Tower or something, I’ve got no advice to give you.”
    “I don’t really have any interest in going there anyway,” Ren replied. “I don’t think I’m going to become a proper Magus.”
    Matou’s expression was complicated, but the teacher seemed to almost crack a smile at that. “Well, I suppose I can keep letting you talk my ear off about this and that, in that case.”
    Ren shook his head. “Thank you, by the way. For always hearing me out about this stuff.”
    “Yes, yes, don’t waste my time with platitudes. I’ve got a lot left on my docket for today, so hurry it up.”
    Matou Shinji wasn’t a Magus anymore. He apparently was once upon a time, but he’d allegedly sworn off Magecraft for good almost two decades ago. Despite that, he had always made time to talk about whatever concerns Ren had that he couldn’t share with those unaware of Mystery, even if he made a show of how unreasonable he thought it was.
    Given how infrequently his older sister was in town, that made this overly-fussy history teacher the first port of call whenever there was something that he was worried about like that. He genuinely did appreciate it, and it probably wasn’t going to change even after graduation.
    Ren shrugged. “Well, it’s just a shot in the dark, but I thought I might as well ask just in case you knew anything about it,” he said. “But honestly, now I’m here, I guess the answer is probably ‘no’. I just wanted to be sure you’d never heard of a spirit called ‘Lancer’. I mean, spirits are my whole thing, and I’d never heard of it, but…”

    It was a simple question, but the answer was complex, starting with a few seconds of silence.
    Matou’s face blanched completely. His features wavered, as though his face itself was trembling. Sweat started to bead on his brow, and he raised a shaking finger almost accusatorily.
    “O-oi. You’re not funny, Jikan.”
    The man’s voice came out like a whimper.
    Ren could only tilt his head. This was… obviously severe, but he had no idea how to even broach the question.
    “Yeah… I’m not joking around,” he agreed.
    “Yeah! There are some things you don’t joke about, alright?! This is one of them!” Matou cried, voice suddenly cracking through whatever facades it had been hiding behind. “So don’t do it again!”
    Ren had never seen him like this. It was as if he had somehow… regressed. It was making him nervous just watching it.
    “Matou-sensei. It was a serious question. If this is a big deal, shouldn’t I know about it too?” he asked lightly. “I mean, if you’re not a Mag–”
    “I know! I know I’m not a real Magus, so shut up! I don’t want to hear it!” he shot back. “This… Why are you asking this?”
    “I just met a spirit in town yesterday. Apparently, she goes by Lancer, but she stood out a lot, so I thought I should ask you…”
    “You’re lying! Tohsaka already took it apart ten years ago!” he cried.
    There was… desperation in those words. Real desperation.
    Ren felt his breath becoming short. He had never heard a man beg for his life before.
    “Matou-sensei! Please calm down for a second!” he pleaded. “What are you talking about?”
    Snapping back to Earth like a rubber band, something that had disappeared suddenly returned to Matou’s countenance.
    “Jikan. Whatever you do, just leave it,” he said. “I’m serious. Don’t get involved with this.”
    He’d come back somewhat, but he still wasn’t making sense.
    “With what?”
    “That spirit. Other spirits like it. I’m serious about this. If you’ve ever listened to anything I’ve ever told you, listen to me now,” he insisted. “I don’t know how this is happening again, but don’t touch it. Nobody who gets tangled up in that ritual can stay human. And that’s if they’re lucky enough to survive at all.”
    The way he said it sounded so completely sincere that Ren almost felt bad for doubting him.
    “Aren’t you still alive?”
    “I got lucky! And the fact I can even call what happened lucky just proves how twisted Magi really are!” Matou snapped. “You know I quit Magecraft, right? Do you ever wonder why? What pushed me over that line? My… my sister, my grandfather, my best friend, my teacher, me… It turns you into a monster, and then guts you like a fish. We’re talking about a body count in the hundreds, maybe thousands. Nobody comes out of it in one piece. Even if they didn’t take part directly. Nobody. So stop. Asking. About it. Ignore it. Stay away. Understand?”
    The words were ringing like a bell in Ren’s head. He had never once seen Matou get so agitated, so insistent, about anything. The look in his teacher’s eyes was a spark of genuine terror like nobody had ever shown him before.
    A thousand thoughts were whirling in his brain. Without realising it, he’d balled his fists, and he could feel the sweat building between his fingers.
    “Okay. Sorry, Matou-sensei.”
    He loosened his grip.

    “Good afternoon, senpai.”
    Sunny as usual, Sato greeted Jikan at the gate.
    “Hey, Sato-san,” he replied. “I said you didn’t have to wait the whole time, right?”
    “You did, but…” she trailed off. “Well, I wanted to go to the convenience store or something, but…”
    He shook his head. “You don’t have to say it. It’s alright.”
    Sato was neat, polite, and sweet, all to a fault. It seemed like she felt a lot of pressure to stay that way as well. Just from how cute she was, she would easily have been a school idol despite being a first year, if only she weren’t so weak to social situations. Jikan doubted that she was trying to be something that she wasn’t, but just being herself didn’t really help with her nerves.
    “We can stop by and get something on the way past together,” he said. “It’s not a big deal.”
    “Thank you… Sorry for being like this… I should try harder.”
    “Not everything is about effort, Sato-san. You didn’t do anything wrong. Doesn’t this just mean I get to buy something for myself too?” he pointed out, starting down the hill.
    “I would have gotten something for you anyway!” she insisted, hurrying to meet his pace.
    Their heads lined up as they made their way along the sidewalk, bobbing up and down at almost the same height. She was one centimetre taller. They had checked.
    Once upon a time, at the beginning of the year, he had thought of her as being something like a lonely puppy who didn’t want to do anything by herself, but he’d gradually come to understand that she was trying her hardest to exist just like everyone else. Most people expected a nouveau riche young lady spoiled rotten by her huge family to come out the other end as a deeply unpleasant creature, but Jikan could only be thankful that she had so many people so eager and able to support her. Perhaps the Culture Club being full of so many strange people also helped her in its own way. He hoped he had been able to grant even a little bit of confidence in the short time they’d been together.
    “Hey, senpai. About graduation…”
    “What’s up?”
    “I heard there was this tradition of asking for the second button from the boy you like when he graduates.”
    “Aha, you want me to put in a request for you? I think there’d be some misunderstandings if I were to ask someone myself, considering how I act…”
    “There would,” she agreed. “You need to stop hitting on other guys, senpai. It’d be one thing if you didn’t look like a girl anyway, but you do, and people will start getting the wrong idea.”
    “I do prefer girls, but I don’t particularly mind the idea of a guy taking me seriously either…”
    “That’s not the point! You should only flirt with people you’re serious about! Don’t lead people on! As your junior, I’m worried for your future!”
    “When did you become such a buzzkill?” he laughed.
    She sighed, exasperated. “A-anyway, stop getting me sidetracked. I wanted your button.”
    He blinked once, then twice. “Come again?”
    “Don’t overthink it,” she said. “I just thought that I was going to miss you, and you’re the only guy I’m friends with, so…”
    “...Right.”
    “Don’t tell me someone already got in before me. I won’t believe you.”
    “You’re… pretty assertive today, Sato-san.”
    She gave a refined smile. “I have to practice if I’m not going to be able to hide behind you any longer.”
    He was pretty sure she would just hide behind Meichi instead, but avoided actually saying that.
    “I thought you were a good place to start, since even I know you’re a secret pushover. If anyone actually flirted with you for real, you’d definitely cry, or marry them, or both,” she explained.
    Jikan threw his hands up, a mock wounded look on his face. “I can’t believe my junior wants me to marry her while crying.”
    “No, it’s not that I…”
    “Right, of course, you just want me to give you my clothes.”
    “Don’t say it like that…!” she spluttered, anxiety growing in her eyes.
    He shook his head. “I’m just messing with you. I don’t mind giving it to you or anything, I was just surprised you asked.”
    Sato breathed a sigh of relief. “You really had me going for a moment, senpai…”
    “It’s called bullying,” he replied. “You should try it sometime, it’s fun.”
    “In exchange for that behaviour, maybe I will!”
    “A-ahaha… I was just messing with you, I’m sorry, you don’t have to do anything…”

    The weather was nice again today, so the pair’s trip down to Shinto felt more like a day out than a stakeout. Today, they were doing data collection on the clothing of commuters - Yamamoto and Fujou were on the other side of the river in the residential area, so Sato and Jikan were near the station front, logging their observations on their phones as they sat at a café table nearby.
    Since it was pleasant, they ended up sitting outside under an open-air shelter in the middle of a wide plaza. Apparently, there had been a huge fire some thirty years ago, which meant that all of this had to be built up from scratch in less than a decade. Some people seemed to consider it ugly and artificial, too brutalist, too sterile, but Jikan actually liked it. There were a few trees here and there, perfectly fine by him, but he generally preferred big public spaces to be more like blank canvases than works of art. A place too ostentatious would end up imposing itself on the people, at least in his opinion. Granted, it’d feel a little eerie if totally devoid of people, but that was like complaining that the food on an empty plate was neither filling nor nutritious.
    Speaking of which, these sandwiches weren’t too bad. They had come here on the spur of the moment, since they’d only ended up getting something to drink at the convenience store, but it was a pretty good decision. It did kind of deflate his plan to surprise Sato, but she seemed to be enjoying herself to the point where he wasn’t sure if she was even collecting any data at all.
    Well, whatever. It’s not like there’s much to record right now anyway.
    She noticed him looking at her and perked up.
    “So what are you going to do after graduation anyway, senpai? Did you get your results back on your entrance exams yet?”
    The edge of a cliff came shooting towards him like a speeding train.
    “A-aha, I didn’t actually take one.”
    “You didn’t? But you’re really smart. You could get into a university no problem,” she frowned.
    “Well, yeah, but… I don’t know what I’d want to study, so I ended up a little paralysed.”
    “Hm. That’s true. You don’t really have any special talent or passion for anything in particular, do you…? I never really thought about it, but I guess you’re just like that. Me neither though, so I get it.”
    “I guess we’re both broad overachievers,” he nodded, pretending that he had the fire in his belly to overachieve.
    He probably could have made it if he tried, but he was content to slack off and pass with middling grades.
    “But Sato-san, you’re still in your first year, so you’ll come up with a passion eventually,” he pointed out. “Really, I’m in this position because it’s my mistake for not trying any harder.”
    “Not everything is about effort, senpai,” she pointed out.
    He gave a sheepish titter. It was sort of unfair, using his own line against him, but it made him feel a little better if nothing else.
    “So I guess you’ll be working until you figure it out?” she said.
    “Yeah. I was thinking of asking down at the library,” he replied.
    “Being surrounded by books suits you.”
    Jikan wanted to agree; reading was a common pastime of his. This had been his plan for a while, even if he hadn’t gotten around to it. But recently, he was starting to get a little nervous around bookshelves, and he wasn’t sure if that was going to get worse.
    “Maybe I’ll come down there to study more often in that case,” she smiled.
    “You shouldn’t be studying in your room anyway. Bedrooms are for sleeping. It’s bad for you to mix them up,” Jikan said.
    “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that kind of philosophy,” Sato replied. “I suppose the other option is that we change your name, dye your hair, put you in a girl’s uniform, fake your age and transfer you into my class next year!”
    “Stop trying to sneak that by me. I’m not going to put on your uniform even if you ask me every day until you die.”
    “Tch…”
    “Don’t give me that. You tried to make me wear a sundress too. And you put your hoodie on me when we all went to the beach for summer break,” he recounted. “It’s almost been a full year. Accept that I’m a guy already.”
    “You’re already eighteen years old…” she grumbled. “This isn’t what ‘pretty boy’ means, senpai… Either grow into a 180cm heartthrob or just become a bride already…”
    “It’s never going to happen. Face reality.”
    He quietly wondered how much of Sato’s eleven notebooks that everyone pretended not to know about were dedicated to this.

    As Jikan shook his head, something caught his eye.
    Or rather, nothing did.
    Something was absent where he could see a presence. There was clearly something there. A huge amount of magical energy was present, but it was like it had no form or substance to it.
    A spirit. And not just any kind of spirit. Its mass was tremendous, a far cry from the likes of mere ghosts. When did this plaza suddenly become a shrine?
    Lancer had been enormous in scale, hundreds of times an ordinary spirit, but this was even larger. It was the difference between a jet engine and a rocket engine.
    We’re talking about a body count in the hundreds, maybe thousands.
    Matou’s words rang in his mind.
    Like I can leave it alone when you tell me that.
    Before he knew it, his body was already moving. He stood up from his seat, looking for…
    There.
    A black-haired punkish looking girl was walking with the presence in tow. She must have been its user. She was wearing a Western High uniform, but he doubted she actually went there. She was gleaming with magical energy, burning so strongly with it that he almost started to worry that ordinary people would realise it.
    At the very least, there was no doubt. She was the person that Ren was going to have to talk to.
    “Senpai?”
    “Sorry, Sato-san. I’ll be back. I don’t know how long I’ll be, but it probably won’t be more than twenty minutes, so can you keep an eye on my bag?”
    Sato looked confused, a little worried, but nodded. He didn’t know what kind of expression he was wearing right now, but he doubted it was anything good from that alone.
    He steeled himself, and made a brisk pace towards the girl.

    One step. Two steps.

    The spirit made eye contact with him.
    It did not have eyes, of course.
    It was a formless mass of magical energy, nothing more.
    And yet, in that moment, there was a distinct sense of connecting.
    I’m impressed you’d approach us so brazenly. There was no real communication, but that idea was conveyed through gazeless gaze alone.
    Ren did not slow down. If he faltered even slightly, it was going to lose its patience.

    The girl stopped walking, apparently catching him in her peripheral vision. Her mouth moved slightly, she paused, and then turned to face Ren directly.
    “Hey there, missy. Something wrong?” she asked. “I’m a little busy right now, so can it wait?”
    He lowered his voice, skipping any semblance of preamble. “I want to talk about that thing that’s been following you.”
    The muscles in the girl’s face seemed to turn to steel for a second, a flash of apprehensive hostility.
    “It’s connected to you, isn’t it?” he said. “I can see it.”
    She turned her head to look at thin air. The thin air looked back, but didn’t give any obvious response.
    “Show me your hands,” she instructed.
    “What? Why?”
    She paused. “Never mind. The fact you had to ask is enough for me. Saber, stay on guard.”
    No response, yet again. At least, not that Ren could tell.
    “Come on,” she said, beginning to walk again, filled with purpose beyond her lax strides from a moment ago.
    He followed along, feeling lost in his own hometown.
    Last edited by Random; September 12th, 2022 at 02:48 PM.
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    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    2.3

    Chapter 2, Part 3
    Conversation on Death
    fangs

    [ [ March 15
    [ [ 17:13


    “I’m Sofie, by the way.”
    “Ren.”
    The girl had picked an alleyway, apparently at random, and then sat herself down on a crate.
    Since the boy had nothing to sit on, it felt a little awkward, doubly so since she was already tall enough to see the top of his head. He suspected that was the point.
    “And this,” she said, gesturing to the air next to her, “is Saber.”
    On cue, the figure of a man shimmered into existence, the magical energy coalescing into a proper form. He was leaning against the wall, arms folded, an expression on his face where boredom and displeasure mingled: standing in a way to encompass standoffishness.
    What stood out more than that, however, was his clothing. Lancer had been dressed in a fairly ordinary outfit - albeit one that made her seem more like a wealthy foreigner than a regular person - but Saber was the exact opposite. The reds and browns of his overclothes opened to reveal a white hakama underneath, and jagged pieces of iron armour were strapped to his limbs. Bandages wrapped his body, concealing anything that might have been underneath, leaving only his face exposed.
    Like Ren, he was also clearly albino, but his eyes were visibly abnormal - winter cherries engulfed vertical pupils, burning into him.
    “Mystic Eyes?” Ren asked tentatively. He had heard of some Guardian Spirits developing them if they possessed a form that would allow for it. Saber seemed to have a material corpus, so there didn’t seem to be any obstacles in the way of developing them.
    “Something like that,” he replied gruffly. “Ask me again in a different class.”
    “...Class?”
    He didn’t respond any further, so Sofie sighed and cut in herself.
    “Saber is a Servant class,” she said. “Well, more specifically, it’s a Saint Graph Designation, but the difference probably doesn’t mean much to you.”
    “I know what a Saint Graph is,” Ren replied.
    He wasn’t all too familiar with their Designations, but what he had inherited dealt in spirits first and foremost, so he understood the underlying principles of their genotypes. His own Magecraft typically fell under what was apparently designated as Caster, but there were exceptions among his spells, and he could assemble them in such a way as to produce unfamiliar ones that he didn’t know the proper terms for. His perception of them resembled colours and shapes more than it resembled values and names, after all.
    So this one was called ‘Saber’. ‘Lancer’ seemed like another. How many of these spirits were there? Was there also a Caster Servant?
    He shook his head. Too many questions, and all of them were tangents. There was something specific he came to ask.
    “Well, with introductions handled, what are you two doing here?”
    Sofie frowned, tilting her head a little. “You must have some idea, right? You’re… a Magus? No, maybe just a regular person who knows a few things you shouldn’t, since your magical energy is…”
    “I’m a Spellcaster,” he replied. “Just not a very strong one.”
    It seemed like the most accurate assessment of himself. He couldn’t call himself a Magus in good conscience. He knew techniques, not the way of life.
    She grinned. “Huh. I like you better already.”
    He wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, but silently urged her to answer the question.
    “You seriously don’t know what put Fuyuki City on the map?” she raised an eyebrow.
    “I know about Inou Tadataka.”
    “Is that not an expression in Japanese?” she muttered. "Doesn’t matter. If you’ve never heard of the Holy Grail War, then…”
    He shook his head. This was… certainly a new combination of words.
    “Is this something to do with the church on the east side of town?”
    If that place had anything magical about it, then it had certainly escaped his notice… but then again, he had never been into a church before.
    “Yes, actually,” Sofie confirmed. “You know the new priest?”
    “No.”
    “Oh, wow, okay,” she said. Her voice was getting increasingly dry. “You’re, uh… We should… I’m just gonna take you to church, I think. I feel like there were supposed to be negotiations with the locals. It’d be kinda, uh, fucked up if they didn’t even ask the Magi. Who owns this land?”
    “That’d be this Tohsaka lady, I think,” Ren replied, “but she hasn’t been in this country for about ten years or something. I don’t know her.”
    Sofie frowned. “There should be someone she left it in the hands of, at least…”
    “Sofie,” Saber cut in irritably. “How long is this going to take? Do I need to be here?”
    She turned her gaze to him, raising her eyebrows. “What, d’you have something better to do?”
    “Don’t you?”
    “Okay, fair point,” she conceded. “But escorting a noncomba―”
    The world stopped. Silver flashed.
    A splatter of red bloomed across the ground.

    About a kilometre away, there was a clear view into the alleyway from the rooftop where Nils Herydir-Dragilaz was sitting. It was a little beyond the reach of any naked human eye, but Magecraft more than qualified as clothing.
    He was watching the exchange between the dark girl and the light boy with curiosity at first, but his eyes were currently on the Servant that had appeared by the former’s side.
    “Oho… So that’s Saber…” he nodded. “He’s no joke, is he?”
    The crow circling overhead responded with silence. That he is not. That man is… How to put it…
    There was something mixed in with the telepathic correspondence that made Nils uneasy.
    “You know this guy?” he asked. “Well, I guess he’s visibly Japanese. It’d be hard for anyone from Japanese history to escape your notice.”
    I did not make any attempt to deal with him personally, thank the gods, she replied, but I knew those who did, and they universally failed. That man is possibly the single worst calamity that this country has seen since the serpent god.
    She paused.
    No. More than even that. At the very least, that serpent was a simple predator. Eagles do not hunt hares because they hate them, but rather because they love them, so they would never entirely exterminate them. In that sense, the threat posed by that man during his lifetime was even more severe. You understand?
    It was kind of a stilted metaphor, but he basically followed.
    “You’re saying to stay on my toes then.”
    Saber is your strongest opponent. I have no doubt whatsoever. I cannot fathom a more dangerous Servant to have manifested for this battle.
    Nils pulled his legs back up from the edge of the roof, vaulting over to the side of the railing it was supposed to keep him on.
    “I don’t suppose I could just snipe him from here? Because I’ve got an anti-materiel rifle in my pocket. Hey, it’s not a war crime if it’s a Servant, right?”
    No. You are not strong enough to survive even five seconds against him as you are now.
    He stopped, and nodded slowly. That was phrased like hyperbole, but he knew full well that Mishima was a little too literal for that.
    “So… why did you call me up here, then?”
    I want you to watch. You are about to witness the prowess of your enemies for yourself, she replied. Carve it into your mind so that you don’t forget the power you must amass to be victorious, Caster.
    He shrugged, leaning forward with his arms folded over the railing, and waited for the show.
    “Who’s he up against?”
    Archer, nominally.
    “Nominally?”
    This will be over quickly.
    A quiet instant passed. The next, magical energy surged.
    It passed like a flash of light. The process was too quick to truly appreciate. Nils had gained the speed of a Servant, but it was beyond even his ability to keep track of so quickly.
    Only the result was visible.
    “...What the hell?”
    Was he dead? It was impossible to say, but a mortal wound had certainly been inflicted in the blink of an eye.
    “Mishima, what the hell was that?”
    Overhead, Mishima continued to circle, changing trajectory just slightly to get a better look.
    …I… don’t know. That… isn’t what I….

    The world had almost stopped, but not quite.
    It rarely entirely halted. This was the closest Ren had even been to a true exception.
    And yet, Saber was still moving. In his hand was a huge silver sword, teal light adorning its blade: one with an ancient form that he vaguely recognised. His movements were sharp, powerful, aggressive; an obvious warrior even to those who had never seen one before. But to Ren, they were at a speed that he would have most closely associated with someone getting out of a chair and walking across the room.
    That alone was insane. It defied comprehension. The world was going slower than he had ever seen. The only thing he could tell was moving at all was Saber. That meant that Saber was the lynchpin of the slowed world - or rather, Ren’s own accelerated perception.
    This was Magecraft, of course. It was entirely internal to its user, but his left eye was of tremendous acuity all the same. This was not an unfamiliar sensation to him. The constellation of Capricorn was associated with intellect, and so his perception would accelerate to understand what he was seeing so long as it dwelled within his eye.
    But that did not extend to the rest of his body. He could understand what he was seeing, and he could even react to it, but his synapses could only fire so quickly. He could measure the rate of acceleration fairly intuitively just by waiting to see how long it took his body to react to his will.
    It had not even started. No, perhaps it had, but he had yet to witness it.
    Saber was moving at such a speed that it appeared to Ren as though he himself was frozen in time.
    He lifted the sword up to his head, as though moving to block some kind of invisible blow.
    A moment later, that invisible blow arrived.
    A stream of bright light suddenly appeared - still as instantaneous as ever. It was as though a torch had been switched on. It was full of bizarre angles, flashing around the alley in all directions before suddenly turning toward Saber. It reflected off the shining blade in his hand, dissipating into dozens of dimmer rays as it did.
    The magical energy from that light was overwhelming. The heat had not arrived at Ren’s body yet, but he could tell it was searing. If that beam had actually contacted Saber’s head, it would probably have blown it away completely. At the same time, it was a genuine beam of light. How had he managed to react to that? Even if he had broken the laws of physics, moved faster than light somehow, he would not have been able to perceive it until it had already reached him.
    Precognition of some kind, perhaps? It seemed like the only explanation.

    Something else moved in the corner of his eye.
    …That should not have been possible, but he saw it all the same.
    Something else was moving in the world of godspeed in which mere perception was not enough.
    There was a shadow behind Sofie, raising a blade no larger than a knife. He could not describe it as anything more substantial than that. This was not the same kind of shape that Saber took before he had materialised his body. This was something even thinner, no more tangible than a fingerprint in water. If not for Capricorn’s concept of understanding, Ren probably would not have even comprehended its presence. That was how much nothingness there really was in its form.
    But a wetted finger could pierce through paper. This was no exception. It seemed almost like it was about to pierce through as though from the other side of a page.
    He had seen this before. He recognised Imaginary Numbers when he saw it.
    It was obviously going to kill Sofie. There was no other reason for it to raise its blade to her. The moment it reached here, this side, she would be pierced through the left temple by a knife faster than a bullet and die instantly.
    That wasn’t his problem. This whole affair was none of his business. That was the proper train of thought for a Magus.
    We’re talking about a body count in the hundreds, maybe thousands.
    She, a stranger to this town, a participant in this ritual, would become one of its casualties, and it would be entirely her own fault for picking this fight.
    Saber was deflecting a lethal attack of his own. He could not turn to save her from the shadow if he wanted to survive the blazing light. Ren doubted he had not noticed it, but there was very little he could do about it.
    That meant that the person who was going to save her was none other than Ren himself.
    It went without saying, didn’t it?
    After all, he was here to at least try to stop people from dying because of this. That was the reason he had chased after this stranger in the first place and left Sato waiting for him. He wasn’t going to watch someone die in front of him and then go back to her like nothing had happened.
    He wasn’t a proper Magus, after all.
    So what was he going to do about it?
    He had to think quickly. The knife wasn’t getting any slower, and he wasn’t getting any faster either. He mentally ran through his options. He needed to use Magecraft - his body wasn’t fast enough.
    His magical energy reserves were… frankly pathetic. He could cast perhaps a single spell, maybe two. No, he didn’t even have time for two.
    Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Hebitsukai-Za…
    The immediate thought was a barrier, some kind of armour to prevent the knife from piercing. Aries could take care of that. It encompassed the concept of protection, after all.
    No, that would be worthless. His own paltry magical energy, even if he used all of it, was not going to be enough to protect from a blow so powerful that it could move in this realm of speed. A spiritual armour would simply not be strong enough. Even if it also encompassed the self-enhancing concept of kingship, that enhancement would probably not hold.
    Taurus, then? It was a more generalised reinforcement, using the concept of order that it had taken from the god Jupiter. The establishment of order was essentially the same thing as reinforcement, so it could even enhance his own body’s speed to reach this realm as well… No, even simpler than that, he could simply draw on Jupiter’s lightning to strike at the shadow itself with tremendous speed of his own…
    It wouldn’t work either way. He couldn’t attack once and then simply let it be. He didn’t have the stamina for a protracted battle, and if this thing was like Saber and Lancer - a Servant - then he obviously wouldn’t be able to win in the first place even if he had all the mana and od in the world.
    The knife was already millimetres away from its target. He couldn’t afford a plan longer than a single step.
    Gemini… Entanglement, duality, overlap. This was it. He had to use this one. A bargain with the stars of Castor and Pollux could do the trick somehow. He could exchange Sofie’s concept for another, and exchange her position in turn.
    But he would be exchanging it with his own.
    Maybe there was a better way.
    I don’t have time for a better way.
    It was fine. If Sofie died, then he probably wouldn’t find a way to save anyone. He doubted that the other participants were as open to him as she had been.
    If Ren died…
    Well, better to save one person for sure than have a good chance to save absolutely nobody.
    Ren was never a fan of the trolley problem anyway.
    His flesh burned. His muscles tightened, and pain shot through his body as he made his decision.
    Open, he commanded his Magic Circuits, and the world turned on its axis.

    Assassin’s kunai pierced deeply through something she hadn’t expected, and she stopped it the instant she realised.
    Too late. The boy opposite her target was here. The Master of Saber had fallen to the ground where he had been standing a moment ago, staring in shock.
    Magecraft, was it? He had thrown himself in front of the knife and taken a blow meant for a stranger.
    So it wasn’t her fault. She couldn’t have done anything about his stupid decision.
    Brushing it aside with that logic, she pulled the knife out of his throat, and let the warm body fall to the pavement. A small red splatter bloomed on the ground from the hole she had made. No noise. He couldn’t cry out in pain with a hole through his windpipe, after all.
    Still, she hadn’t killed him immediately. He would suffocate, but she had intended to give a quick death. But her target had been sitting, he had been standing, and the two were facing in opposite directions. When they swapped positions, her knife had found the wrong part of his body.
    “That’s unfortunate,” she commented. “Hold still. I can put you out of your―”
    “Hey,” the Master spluttered, grabbing the boy’s arm. “Hey! Hey! What did you do?!
    Assassin shook her head, brandishing her kunai. “It’s polite to thank your rescuer, but worry about yourself first so that his kindness doesn’t go to waste.”
    She said that, but it was too late now. Her kunai descended once again――

    ――and she was struck by a blast of invisible force.
    Assassin’s side scraped across the ground as she flew, but she barely managed to reorient herself, landing upright. Wound was superficial. Nothing to worry about on its own.

    The swordsman approached.
    One step. Two steps.
    “I agree. Worry about yourself first,” he said.
    A wide smile lacerated his lips, and his eyes burned with killing intent.
    His knuckles whitened around his sword.
    That sword…
    That sword was――
    “You’ve got guts,” he laughed. “A human-killing abomination showing her face around me like that? Are you stupid? Too illiterate to know who you’re dealing with? Or are you just mocking the meaning of ‘Yamato Takeru’, oni?
    Everything went ice cold. Even her bones shuddered.
    “Master, I need a Command Spell.”
    What? came the reply. What do you need a boost for? You have him outnumbered two to one.
    “No, that’s not it,” she begged, “please, I need you to call me back!”
    “Your voice is annoying. Shut the fuck up,” snarled Saber.
    What’s gotten into you?
    “Master, I’m serious, get me out of here right n―!

    The snake sprang forward.
    Last edited by Random; September 15th, 2022 at 09:49 AM.
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  14. #14
    夜魔 Nightmare TQG Imaginatorious's Avatar
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    Well someone is confident here to just reveal his true name just like that, not that I can blame him.

  15. #15
    世はまさにパンテオン Comun's Avatar
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    When the opponent is an oni, the intimidation advantage you get from dropping Takeru's name far outweighs the cons of revealing your hand imo.

  16. #16
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    2.4

    Chapter 2, Part 4
    Storm at Dusk
    A canyon’s opposing sides

    [ [ March 15
    [ [ 17:15


    Pain pulsed through Assassin’s skull as she felt the concrete beneath being pulverised to dust.
    Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit!
    Flinging a wild kick at Saber’s arm, she channelled a burst of shadows through her leg.
    His hand drew back. Perhaps he’d sensed it was dangerous. He had seen through the beam of light that Archer had sent as well. In that case…
    Some kind of foresight skill…?!
    She kicked off the ground, leaping several metres down the narrow alley and taking a defensive stance. Her balance was poor. Her head was bleeding. Her vision swam as he stepped closer and closer.
    There was no way she was going to survive a direct confrontation with Yamato Takeru. His name did not even bear explanation. The greatest slayer of gods and monsters in all of Japanese history had her in his sights.
    Even as an oni, she would have preferred to fight Minamoto-no-Yorimitsu.
    Calm down.
    She could get out of here. She herself had an anecdote of escaping from certain death using her proto-ninjutsu. If she could just step back and out of his range, she could recover completely. That was the nature of her Disengage skill.
    It was a perfect match for her Noble Phantasm. As supernatural beings, she and her sisters each were attuned to specific elements.
    In her case, she had the attribute of Imaginary Numbers. Her Noble Phantasm,
    Transcending the Void
    Kyogoe
    , allowed her to transform into that kind of phenomenon and back again freely. She could hide from the World itself, functionally ceasing to exist without even having to invoke its name.
    It was her only Noble Phantasm, lacking in both flair and power, but it was a trump card like no other when used properly. If she could just get him to back off…
    She dashed for him at full, blinding speed, and dived into nothingness. She would pass through him, and launch an attack from inside his body.
    A teal arc split the shrinking distance.
    She didn’t even think to evade until――
    “Gah?!”
    Assassin’s body was forcibly pulled from the shadows, lighting up as the cold metal drew a hot road through her flesh. It was only her reflexes that prevented her from being slashed in two as she vaulted over the rest of the blade. Gravity dragged her back down, and a heavy blow from Saber’s bare hand sent her sprawling across the ground.
    Her white kimono was gradually turning red. She had avoided a lethal wound, but barely. An enormous gash had opened up, cutting from her shoulder to her hip, seeping profusely.
    Another flash of light. A beam scorched the air, but Saber had already deflected it once again.
    So that was why he had punched her instead of running her through. Still though… She supposed it made sense that such a sword wouldn’t falter just because her existence was diluted.
    “You saved me, Archer.”
    Don’t sweat it. You doing okay?
    “Not even slightly.”
    Right. Master, I’m taking the fight to him.
    Von Drang’s voice came with an acknowledgement. I’m on my way too.
    “You can’t be serious.”
    Keep Saber pinned, he instructed. I’ll deal with the Master.
    Saber took another measured single step. “Slow, huh.”
    She gritted her teeth. What did he mean, ‘slow’?!
    “I was prepared for a quicker opponent. A demon, a kunoichi, and an Assassin-class Servant at that,” he said. “But this is a joke. You just ended up being a run-of-the-mill piece of shit to smear against the pavement. Today I learned I can parry light, so I guess the speed of dark isn’t any faster.”

    Archer leapt. Her agility carried her free from the top of the Center Building, soaring briefly as though she had transformed into a woodpecker.
    But that was wrong.
    She was a wolf.
    The weight of her body dragged her to the earth like a meteorite. Saber and Assassin were still in sight, and she rained a few rays of sunset down to keep the demon-killing prince at bay.
    Her body was already beginning to phase into its spirit form, and by the time she reached the ground, she was nothing more than a gust of wind blowing between the people below. There was a confusion about them from the noise of the battle that was hidden not far away from them, but she had no time to concern herself with such a thing. Darting in and out in her immaterial form as though solving a labyrinth, she escaped the sight of the common folk in time to catch Saber in her sights.
    Her body gathered mass once again as she lunged for him.
    Magical energy welled in her limbs. A glass sword appeared in her hands, swinging to parry a mercilessly heavy iron slash that had been poised to take Assassin’s head.
    Naturally, such a weapon was delicate. It could not withstand such a blow, instantly reduced to sparkling dust.
    Light scattered off of the shining debris in all directions. Saber leapt back a mere instant before dozens, possibly hundreds of beams filled the space he had been standing just before. The concrete where he had been standing was already glowing from the tenth of a second that the scattershot had existed, drawing a literal battle line between them.
    “Huh. Not bad,” he observed.
    Archer had never gotten in a real fight before. This was new to her.
    But she could easily come up with a dozen tricks of that calibre. She figured that half of it was just her natural creativity. As for the other half…
    She took a stance that she had never taken before, but came to her as if it were intimately familiar.
    “I think the martial arts of a war god go a little beyond ‘not bad’,” she replied.
    Assassin took a step forward, meeting her side with the footwork of preparation.
    Saber clicked his tongue. He was holding himself in no such way. His sword was gripped in reverse, but his body was relaxed. Just looking at him, he had more openings than Archer could count on her fingers, but something was telling her that the opposite was true.
    Just because he had openings, it didn’t mean he was open.
    Experience that wasn’t hers poured into her head. Her opponent’s fighting style was unorthodox, but not amateurish. His movements were fluid, his weight thrown into every blow. It was by no means a martial art like her own or like Assassin’s, but something that came more naturally to him than even that. It was as though this style of combat belonged to his nature first and foremost, as intuitive to him as hunting was to any other carnivore.
    Saber’s fighting style did not belong to him. He belonged to it.
    “So you really are a snake.”
    His gaze sharpened at the words――
    “──░▒▓▓▒▓▒▓█████▓▓████──────!”
    An inhuman hiss-like roar bellowed from his throat, drenched in spiteful demonstration.
    Mad Enhancement too?!
    A swing of his sword summoned a screaming wind. There was nothing to block. The alley was too narrow to evade. It was as though they had been standing inside the barrel of a cannon, and were blasted off their feet as though they were bullets.
    The alley was insufficient to contain their flight. The two Servants impacted the pavement, shattering the concrete and carving gashes in the ground with their bodies.
    If they had been flesh and blood, that would have spelled the end for them. It was only because they were spirits that the cement, devoid of Mystery or magical energy, had given way rather than reducing the both of them to a single dark splatter. The latter half of his attack had been meaningless against Servants.
    But what of it?
    The winds surrounding Saber’s body did not let up in the slightest as he walked out from between the buildings. He was unscathed, and half of a lethal wound was half-lethal all the same.
    “Okay, Master, can you see my point now?!” Assassin winced, getting to her feet.
    No. Where are you?
    She paused, glancing about as much as she could afford to. “What are you…?”
    Nobody was here. They were out in the open, but not a single person was even here to see them. The buildings remained, but the entire street was entirely devoid of witnesses.
    It didn’t take a genius to figure out why.
    “Fucking mages,” she growled.

    “Come on, come on, come on,” Sofie murmured, crouching over Ren’s body.
    He had lost consciousness almost immediately, and it looked like he was set to die of shock. No, maybe he already had.
    Trying to directly hack into someone’s soul with a cellphone was difficult on the best of days. She wasn’t a healer. She didn’t have any healing spells immediately available to her. So she had to invent one right now.
    The soul contained a replica of the body. She could use that as a basis. By reflecting that information into the material world, she could repair the damage done as if it hadn’t been done at all by just numerologically transforming magical energy into substance. But his soul was already on the verge of dissipating, and accessing it was like trying to actively pry into a moving car as it drove into the sea.
    And to add insult to injury, she was having to maintain this space.
    Saber was going berserk. With the power of his attacks, she couldn’t imagine him not accidentally killing someone in the crossfire, so she had to activate the most complicated Magecraft she knew.
    To create a replica of the Hétú Diagram in the modern day was just another feat that would be ridiculous to any other person. It had taken years of work already, and it was still barely functional, but she could extrapolate certain functions from it all the same.
    For example, the creation of this battlefield.
    There was once something named ‘xírang’. It had been used in the Age of Gods to stave off a great flood in China, which had stemmed from the same Yellow River that this Diagram mapped. It was an Authority belonging to the highest power in heaven, the Shàngdì, that had been stolen by human beings. Its nature in legend was a soil that would expand infinitely, preventing the people from drowning by constantly causing the earth to rise to the level of the waters.
    Preposterous, of course, at least in literal terms. The xírang that Sofie had created by Magecraft was not a mere soil, but the expansion of space itself. She had extended the ‘empty space’ of the alleyway out into the plaza beyond, creating a replica of the next few blocks in the gap between its own buildings. To old-timers like her teacher, it would have sounded like an unresolvable paradox, on par with Magic; under Sofie’s logic, it was no different to a video game that contained an entire artificial world within just two dimensions.
    And it was one wrong move from causing the blood vessels in her brain to explode.
    Even without trying to invent a new spell at the same time, this was insanely complicated. It was far beyond the computing power of just her Mystic Code alone. She couldn’t outsource even half of it to a mere cellphone from two decades ago. Her Magic Circuits, her Philosophy Key, and even her nervous system were working overtime to handle these two ridiculously intensive tasks at once. Scalding heat was coursing through her body as though she were bathing in boiling water. Her skin was turning red from the pain alone.
    Why did you jump in front of it, you idiot?!
    She didn’t know him, but he had saved her. She couldn’t let that slide.
    But holy shit, she was really wishing she could.
    ───100 100 100 001 110 101 011 100 101 010 100 111 111 101 010 001 010 101 011 110 101 110 011 011 000 000 000 011 011 011 011 011 111 111 000 011 101 001 001 111 011 100 100 100 001 110 101 011 100 101 010 100 111 111 101 010 001 010 101 011 110 101 110 011 011 000 000 000 011 011 011 011 011 111 111 000 011 101 001 001 111 011 100 100 100 001 110 101 011 100 101 010 100 111 111 101 010 001 010 101 011 110 101 110 011 011 000 000 000 011 011 011 011 011 111 111 000 011 101 001 001 111 011 100 100 100 001 110 101 011 100 101 010 100 111 111 101 010 001 010 101 011 110 101 110 011 011 000 000 000 011 011 011 011 011 111 111 000 011 101 001 001 111 011 100 100 100 001 110 101 011 100 101 010 100 111 111 101 010 001 010 101 011 110 101 110 011 011 000 000 000 011 011 011 011 011 111 111 000 011───
    “Come on, you stupid bastard, show me your…!”
    It was like it was deliberately trying to struggle against her. No matter what she did, it was like trying to touch iron filings with a repulsive magnet. No matter how much she tried to grasp it, its form remained ambiguous. This was not normal. She had been using spiritron hacking since she was young, and she had never seen a case like this. His soul was like a quantum wave-function that refused to collapse.
    Could she have pinned it down even if she had brought all her resources to bear? She had no idea.
    She didn’t have time to think about it.
    Footsteps were coming.
    No, no, no, you’ve gotta be kidding me!
    There had been someone else in the alley?!
    Who was it? A civilian? Another Servant? Or…
    A tall man turned the corner, aviator sunglasses to complement his red hair and a white coat affecting the impression of a nouveau riche.
    There was a sword at his hip.
    She could sense magical energy on him - in no small measure either. He looked down at her as she crouched, and took a large case off his shoulder, setting it down besides him with a thud.
    He’s a Master.
    It was obvious just from looking at him. Whose? Archer, Assassin, someone else? She couldn’t tell.
    She no longer had the faculties to ask. All she could do, with her body and mind straining, was stare back in a cold sweat, looking up at him like an ant looking up at a boot.
    Her focus was starting to strain to its limits. Her Philosophy Key burned, searching for some kind of defence, and Sofie felt her Magecraft beginning to falter with the desperate attempts of one of its most critical tools to escape the machinery of its automata.
    Her body was numb. Her brain was stretched to a breaking point.
    She couldn’t even find her Command Spell to call back Saber.
    The Magus approached.

    Archer’s and Assassin’s attacks did not let up. Near and far, the two of them had apparently decided that relentlessness was the path to victory. Perhaps they thought they could exhaust him?
    Morons.
    The dragon core in his body, even without his Master, was enough that he could keep this up indefinitely. He was catching his breath faster than he was losing it. After all, this was nothing but a warm-up.
    Indeed, the only thing running short was his patience.
    He gripped his sword.
    “Alright. I’m done with you.”
    He channelled his winds into the shining blade, raising it above his head.
    A vortex of light began to churn around it, tearing through the air. The sky trembled, as though heaven itself were straining under the weight.
    Archer gritted her teeth.
    Master!” Assassin yelled.
    Sofie. I’m finishing this, so lend me your Circuits, he said.
    The response was instant and fierce. Fuck off, get your own!
    Fine. He would. His core blazed.
    He didn’t need to say the name of the sword. It was as if his Noble Phantasm declared it just by existing.
    Grass-Cutting Sword
    Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi
    needed no introduction. It was literally a part of him. That was why declaring it was pointless.
    A red flash crossed Assassin’s body, and she grabbed Archer by the hand.
    A Command Spell, huh? Too little too late.
    The storm fell like a guillotine.

    The man opened his case, bringing out a vial of clear liquid, then knelt down next to Sofie.
    “Here.”
    He poured its contents out into the wound, holding his hand over it.
    Viriditas.
    At his command, the red began to shine a vivid green. After a brief moment, the light began to dissolve, disappearing along with the blood and leaving behind unscathed flesh.
    She stared at him, dumbfounded, as he got to his feet. The man simply went to put the vial back in the case.
    “I had been hoping to fight you on even terms, but I can’t challenge you in good conscience with someone dying right there,” he said. “We’ll do this another time. Andri, have you put out a retreat order yet?”
    Sofie didn’t know who he was talking to, but she didn’t have the resources to care. She released her invasion, and felt her body relax as the weight of her xírang spread out evenly through the emptied space. A sigh of relief escaped her grip.
    “Uh… Thanks. I guess. You.”
    “Sigmund von Drang, Master of Archer,” he introduced himself, picking up his case again. “Think nothing of it. It’s just basic chivalry.”
    He said that, but he had saved both her and Ren like it was nothing. Her patient was already looking much better, breathing evenly and heavily through his mended throat as though peacefully asleep. She knew that he would have died otherwise. She wasn’t even a tenth of the way to completing her formula, and given how his soul was retreating from her, maybe she would never have even reached that tenth percent.
    But Sofie wasn’t going to look that gift horse in the mouth. She was still maintaining the space, after all.
    No, wait. She was losing her grip on that too. Was it the shock of a suddenly reduced intensity? She could feel the alley flickering.
    The deafening sound of an explosion roared through the gap, and a burning teal light filled the evening sky. Saber was really starting to pull out the stops if he’d fired off his Noble Phantasm…
    Dammit. It was just a Command Spell, how’d they get away from…? he grumbled telepathically, mostly to himself. Oh.
    “Yeah, sorry,” she apologised. “Command Spell, that Assassin’s weird power, and unstable space. Guess it added up.”
    You don’t even have an excuse, huh?
    “Oh, screw off. If you wanted to win so badly, you’d stop holding back so much.”
    “You see?” said Sigmund, walking back the way he came. “What goes around comes around. Doing the right thing always ends up working in your favour somehow. Archer, how are you doing?”
    Without looking back, he disappeared around the corner again.
    Sofie clicked her tongue, shaking her head. A smile crept onto her lips.
    What a showoff. Who did he think he was, saving the day and then riding off into the sunset like a cowboy who didn’t want to let the townsfolk linger on his good deeds?
    Aren’t you a grown man? she silently scoffed, feeling the last of her space dissolve into nothing.
    The sounds of the city echoed faintly from outside.
    She appreciated the help all the same, of course. She couldn’t complain about this turn of events.
    She had materially achieved nothing, but still.
    …No, that wasn’t quite true. She and Saber had actually achieved a lot from this. They’d learned that Archer and Assassin were in league with each other, for a start, and had proven that Saber could take on both at once. It wasn’t a major milestone or anything, but she had a feeling that the results of this battle were going to affect a lot going forward. She didn’t know enough about her opponents’ personalities to be sure how, but this was far from a meaningless encounter. If nothing else, she could at least be confident that the stalking tactic wasn’t going to be trained on them by this pair again any time soon. And on top of that…
    “So,” said Saber, materialising next to her, “what do we do with our paper friend here?”
    She looked at him, standing up. “Get that scowl off your face.”
    “I’m not scowling.”
    “I can see it!”
    “Be more careful with your damn battlefield.”
    “Oh, shut up. I know you were having fun, but I was fighting for my life over here,” she grumbled. “I think the inside of my face is bleeding or something, I swear…”
    Sighing, she looked down at Ren as he lay on the ground.
    “Well, we can’t just leave him,” she concluded.
    “Nobody’s stopping us,” Saber pointed out.
    “Just for that, you’re carrying him. I’m gonna put in my earphones if you complain.”
    “Ugh. Slavedriver.”
    Last edited by Random; September 17th, 2022 at 06:59 AM.
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  17. #17
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    2.999

    Chapter 2, Interlude
    twisting
    before insight

    [ [ ██████
    [ [ ██:██


    Nausea.
    “Do you have brain damage?”
    “Ask me again in five minutes.”
    The library was the last place Ren wanted to be right now.
    “No, I can’t hold in my laughter that long,” the girl replied. “I hear it’s poor form to mock the disabled, so I have to make sure. I’ll laugh anyway, but it’s a matter of principle.”
    He opened his eyes. The ceiling was crawling with shapeless darknesses, and the ghost was looking down at him with a mocking look on her face. It wasn’t any different to usual, but…
    I actually arrived where she was this time?
    “You showed up in a random place as usual,” she replied instantly, dashing his hopes as quickly as she could. “I just went out of my way and came here to make fun of you.”
    “I think that’s also poor form,” he said, sitting up. “It’s called ‘spawn-killing’.”
    “Is that what they call it these days? I prefer ‘seventy-fifth trimester abortion’.”
    Ren stared at the smug expression on her face, narrowing his eyes. He wasn’t totally sure if she had intended him to be amused or revolted - knowing her, probably the latter - but he honestly felt neither.
    “...Is it seventy-fifth?” he wondered out loud. “How long is a trimester? Pregnancy is forty weeks, but that doesn’t neatly divide into…”
    “Shut up. Stop talking. I don’t care. You’re annoying.”
    He shook his head, unable to hold back a small smile as he finished counting.
    “What?”
    “Nothing,” he replied, standing up. “I was just thinking that you’re funniest when you’re not trying to be.”
    “Why is that your sense of humour?” she recoiled. “Freaking gross.”
    Clicking her tongue, she fell backward, landing limply in a chair that certainly wasn’t there before.
    “But seriously, you are an idiot. Teleporting into an assassination attempt?”
    “It’s not teleportation. I can’t teleport. It was actually a pretty complicat–”
    “Who cares? Nobody cares,” she interrupted.
    “You’re in a surprisingly bad mood considering I just died,” he observed. “I thought that would make you happy.”
    “You died, but you’re not dead,” she pointed out. “If you were dead, we wouldn’t be speaking, would we?”
    “Would we?” he echoed.
    “Hmph. If you’re planning on moving here for your afterlife, be my guest. What did you say this was, a library?” she replied. “Feel free to become a worthless pulp novel. I’ll have plenty of fun flipping through your pages and chewing on your misery.”
    As usual, there was no joviality in her voice. Every single word was dripping with genuine malice. Wasn’t there a limit to how awful someone’s personality could be?
    “Nobody is going to be your friend if you keep talking to people like that.”
    “Good,” she waved dismissively. “You can all go to hell. Not that you seem to need any encouragement.”
    “It was a snap decision! I had a tenth of a second or something to figure out what I was doing!” he protested.
    “It was stupid.”
    “I agree!”
    “Then get over it.”
    “I am over it.”
    “So you just don’t want to look like you’ve lost the argument.”
    “We’re not arguing!”
    “Sure we are.”
    “No we’re not!” he cried, then sighed. “Well, we are now, I guess.”
    “Mad?” she smirked.
    “I’m not mad.”
    “Tch,” she clicked her tongue. “I’ll work on it.”
    “Please don’t.”
    The girl shrugged, gaze wandering. Her languid movements were enough to convince Ren that she wasn’t really planning to try that hard.
    “So,” she said, “what are you going to do now?”
    He couldn’t help but tilt his head a little at the question. “What do you mean?”
    “Well, you’re alive, aren’t you? Good for you. Since you’re the only one who can be simultaneously in here and out there, you’re also the only point of view I get to peer out myself,” she explained. “Basically, the only things I have to do are laying about stewing in my own misery or hoping that you’re about to do something entertaining enough that I can feel some schadenfreude from it.”
    “That doesn’t sound healthy,” he commented. “What do you mean, simultaneously?”
    “Huh? Why do I have to explain this to you?” she snapped. “It’s not difficult. You’re in two parts, aren’t you?”
    “Am I?”
    Do you have brain damage?” she repeated.
    “Are you just asking because it’s been five minutes?”
    “Who the frick is counting?!”
    Ren paused, holding back his reaction to the best of his ability, and feeling an almost cattish curl in his lips all the same. “‘Frick’?”
    “Shut up. I’ll seriously kill you,” she said, frost on her words. Maybe that touched a nerve somehow. “Anyway, I asked a question. What are you going to do now? Just go home?”
    He was getting very close to clutching his head. “No. Of course not. I don’t even know where I’m going to wake up, right? I’ll need to get my bearings, and after that,” he figured, “I guess I’ll keep trying to figure out just what this ritual is supposed to be, and try to get them to call it off. Maybe they’ll do it in an open field or something.”
    It went without saying that he wasn’t going to just stand by and let his hometown be plunged into a pit of Magecraft. He had known since the day he was born that the practice was pain given shape. This was not something he could allow to engulf those he cared about. So, even if it killed him…

    …Even if it killed him again, he would do everything he could to prevent that future from coming to pass.

    But he was increasingly aware of how little he actually understood of what he was up against.
    “It definitely involves spirits,” he muttered, half to himself. “And I know for sure now that it kills people, even if they’re taking part in it themselves…”
    It wasn’t that he had any particular distrust for Matou, but it had seemed pretty personal when he’d asked. It was good to get confirmation firsthand.
    The ghost cackled. “You got stabbed through the throat and you’re looking for a silver lining? God, you’re unbearable.”
    “There’s no point complaining about it if I’m fine,” he replied.
    He wasn’t completely sure he was fine, of course, but he was good at healing spells. He would be alright by the time he finished recovering his magical energy enough to cast one - two days at absolute most. They weren’t that costly, after all. That said, if this ritual was so dangerous, he’d need to start stockpiling a lot of magical energy, just to be safe…
    “I’ll need to check up on my Aquarions in the woods near school,” he concluded. “If I get to school, I can harvest what they’ve managed to accumulate and make more if I need them.”
    These ‘Servant’ guys were no joke, after all.
    “You’re actually going to fight?” the ghost grinned.
    “No, not at all,” he shook his head. “But protecting myself is hard enough with magical energy.”
    “Huh. I’d assumed you were talking about some kind of weapon.”
    “They’re not weapons, they’re containers. Aquarius is the cup-bearer. I have a bunch of them roaming around to gather as much energy as possible,” he explained. “Last time I touched them was a few months ago, so they should be at their limits by now. You gotta spend money to make money, right?”
    “That’s not what that means.”
    “…Yeah, I guess not,” he conceded. “Anyway, next time I’m at school, I’ll just…”
    Wait a second.
    “Sato!” Jikan cried. “I left Sato behind! I told her I’d be right back!”
    The ghost girl cocked an eyebrow. “Your priorities are amazing.”
    “I need to apologise,” he said. “What if I’d actually died with her as the last person who saw me? I can’t put that kind of burden on her!”
    She folded her arms, meeting his eyes with a sinister grin on her face. “Oh, you can’t? Interesting.”
    She hadn’t even done anything yet, but the air froze all the same. Her sickening presence hadn’t faltered in the least, but now it was swelling up. There was a dark gleam in her eyes.
    She had figured something out. A pit opened up in his stomach.
    He instinctively knew what she was about to say.
    Don’t.
    “You know, when I think about what you’re doing from that point of view, it actually makes sense.”
    Stop.
    His fingers trembled.
    “It’s strange to think you have an actual conscience,” she commented. “Maybe that’s the root of your duality, huh? As if. More like it’s because you have two parts that you can live with yourself like it never happened.”
    Tiny, involuntary tremors shot through Jikan’s body, but he couldn’t move. It was as if his limbs simply refused to answer him.
    “Oh, don’t tell me. It never went against your conscience in the first place. You only noticed you did something wrong far later, didn’t you? I get it now. It’s a puppet show to you!”
    Shut up. It’s not true, so shut up.
    “You don’t care about these people, do you? If you did, you’d stay far, far away,” she sneered. “This is a life you know you don’t deserve. That’s why you can’t think about the future, isn’t it? For the same reason that you want to chase this Holy Grail business out of town in the first place. It just so happens that it conveniently takes the form of a ‘good deed’ you can be proud of this time. Ah, it’s all coming together.”
    It felt like there was a worm burrowing into his head. He knew it wasn’t true. He knew for a fact that this wasn’t how he felt. So her words shouldn’t have reached him at all.
    They shouldn’t have.
    He gritted his teeth. “You’re not making sense, so it’s not going to work. Stop trying to get into my head.”
    “I’m not getting into anywhere. This was all already in there, I’m just reading your book,” she replied. “You’ve made one hell of a sweet dream for yourself, haven’t you? No wonder you don’t want to wake up, you murderer.”

    The lights shut off, and everything went black.

    “Okay, now I’m really going to enjoy what comes next,” the ghost's laughter echoed.

    - Chapter 2 -
    end
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
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  18. #18
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    3.1

    Chapter 3, Part 1
    sleep paralysis
    Reading, Righting

    [ [ March 15
    [ [ 23:43


    Ren was already clutching his neck tight with both hands when he opened his eyes. He bolted upright, feeling beads of cold sweat fly free from the shock.
    He couldn’t breathe, but if he released his fingers now, he was going to vomit.
    Calm down.
    She was lying. He knew she was lying. He knew what his feelings were. He had thought about them every day for years. The girl’s words were poison ivy; painful and strangling, but nothing more.
    Think about it from her point of view.
    She wanted him to hate her. She’d made that clear enough. So she would say whatever she thought would reach that result, no matter if it involved actually understanding him, because she hated him too. No, she probably would have been repulsed by the thought of actually understanding him.
    I’m not rationalising it away.
    It was true. He wasn’t making up excuses. That was a fact.
    I’m not rationalising this either.
    …He couldn’t know that. He could swear that he wasn’t lying to himself, but he had no way of proving that he didn’t believe it just because it was convenient.
    His grip tightened――

    “Don’t do that. We went out of our way to save you from your own stupidity.”

    ――A face he recognised was glaring across the room.
    Saber was leaning against the wall again, eyes commanding him to let go.
    A wave of self-consciousness washed over him, and his nerves retreated as if embarrassed. His fingers lost their strength, and he took a deep breath. There had been something compelling about the man’s distaste for the sight, but he couldn’t precisely put his finger on what.
    No, maybe that was just the natural air of royalty? Ren didn’t think there was a single person with a history education in all of Japan who wouldn’t recognise that sword, after all.
    Shaking it off, he looked around the room. It was completely unfamiliar, but he could glean a few things here and there. A closet, a desk, two lamps, a digital clock at the bedside… He had been splayed out across a double bed, and there were light switches right next to him just like the ones besides the door. A second door was on the other side of the room, with the faint sound of a shower running on the other side. A heap of worn clothes were scattered haphazardly at the foot of the bed - possibly two or three days’ worth at a cursory glance. Not much else of note. There was a lot of magical energy in here for a normal room, but not so much that he would have called it a workshop.
    ―――A hotel room, then.
    “You’ve got keen eyes,” Saber noted.
    Ren gave a sheepish smile. “Well, it’s not like I’m coming to any special conclusions…”
    “It’s not what you learn, it’s how you learn it,” the swordsman replied. “You think I didn’t notice you spotting Assassin earlier?”
    He felt his body deflate a bit. “So you saw that.”
    “I’ll thank you for doing what I couldn’t, at any rate. I knew we were being watched, but my instincts weren’t sharp enough to realise we were outnumbered.”
    “Don’t mention it.”
    “I didn’t think there were people with reflexe―”
    “No, really,” he said, “please don’t mention it. I can’t… handle that right now.”
    He almost kicked himself. How had that girl managed to make him feel guilty and ashamed about helping someone?
    “At least she returned the favour,” he muttered, fingers straying to his neck again.
    Saber chuckled. “Sofie was bitching the whole time. I don’t think she was expecting you to wake up until tomorrow. Sucks for her, she was fifteen minutes off being technically correct.”
    Despite the vulgarity of his words, Saber made sure to properly enunciate them all the same. The sneer on his face as he said it was enough to make Ren feel a kind of incomprehensible solace in her existence.
    But he put his feet on the floor all the same, picking up his shoes.
    “I appreciate the help, but I need to go,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to make myself any more of a burden.”
    “You just gonna up and leave?” Saber frowned.
    “Are you planning to stop me?”
    “Psh. You’re not worth that much effort, little lamb.”
    A flash of embarrassment prickled across Ren’s face. “W-who are you calling a lamb?”
    “Huh. Maybe you are a woman after all.”
    “Is this just a thing now? Am I gonna get this from everyone I meet?”
    “Blame yourself. If you really want to put one foot in shit that badly, wish on the Grail to look more like a man,” he replied. “Don’t get assaulted out there.”
    Ren sighed, making his way toward the door. “Tell her I said thank you.”

    The corridors were long enough to be daunting before he’d even started walking. Ren didn’t even know what direction he was supposed to be walking in, and managed to find a dead end before anything else.
    Unable to track down an elevator, he opted to take the stairs instead. Six flights was enough to get him to the bottom, and he opened up the door into the lobby.
    The room was empty. Nobody was even behind the desk, and there was a straight run to the exit…
    “Hey.”
    …with the exception of two figures sat on a couch nearby.
    Dark brown hair, obvious foreigners…European? The girl was dressed in a striking red kimono, with expensive-looking ornaments in her hair, sitting primly and properly. It was a far cry from the guy beside her, wearing a striped shirt and jeans with one foot on his knee and his arms spread out over the back of the seat.. A chain was around his neck from where his long curly hair ended, and the single earring made him look delinquent. Maybe they were just American.
    And, of course, it went without saying that there was a strangely dense spiritual aura. Just looking at them, they were obviously a Servant and contractor. In fact, that was the reason it was strange. He recognised the shape called ‘Caster’ about them - finally, one that he actually recognised.
    Neither of them lacked it.
    Ren squinted, just to make sure, but just looking at their spiritual masses, he couldn’t tell the difference. Almost as if…
    They’re the same being…?
    “You’re thinking something incredibly rude right now, aren’t you?” the Caster girl frowned.
    “I… I don’t think so,” he protested weakly. “I… don’t know what counts as ‘rude’ in this situation, honestly…”
    “It’s fine, she’s just a little cranky after today,” her companion said. “Don’t sweat it.”
    “I still think you should have gone to meet Saber, not this waif,” she grumbled. “You will not accumulate any measure of karma this way.”
    “We can meet Saber any time,” he shook his head. “I’m interested in the kid.”
    Ren winced. “I’m sure you’re not much older than me.”
    “You’re short. No offence, but I can never tell the age of Asians by their faces,” he waved a hand dismissively. “And, frankly, you’re even more ambiguous than most. You are a girl, right?”
    He almost turned to dust. “No.”
    “Damn, you should try it sometime. You’re cute.”
    “Please tell me you’re not here to tell me to wear a skirt. I get enough of that already.”
    He laughed. “Yeah, I bet you do. Name’s Nils. This is Mishima.”
    “Mishima?” Ren echoed, looking to the girl beside him. “...No offence, but you don’t look, uh… No, I mean, your clothes are very pretty, but…”
    Mishima sighed. “My appearance is directly rooted in my summoner’s sister complex.”
    “I keep telling you, I don’t even have a little sister!” Nils protested.
    “Wait, wait,” Ren stopped him. “So, Nils summoned you, Mishima-san?”
    “I don’t get an honorific?”
    “Foreigners prefer it that way, right?”
    “No, I think it’s cute.”
    “Alright, you’re not getting one,” he sighed. “So… you summoned Mishima, and then you became Caster? Am I following?”
    “Oh, you’re pretty sharp.”
    “So I’m told. And what do you want with me, exactly?”
    “Yes, please explain,” Mishima pressed.
    “Nothing in particular,” Nils replied defensively. “I’m just curious. I mean, teleporting with just a Single-Action spell…”
    “It wasn’t teleporting.”
    “Ah, don’t split hairs,” he said. “It’s still way beyond what you should be able to do so casually. You barely even used four units of magical energy for that, and you used it to take a bullet for someone else entirely.”
    “I’m happy for you that four units is what you’d consider casual, Nils,” Ren grumbled, “but I was unconscious for… a few hours at least, and I still haven’t properly caught my breath.”
    “Oh, yeesh. Are you one of those types? You can do something amazing, but not very often?” he said. “I knew a few like that back at Clock Tower.”
    Clock Tower was a haven for western Magi, so Ren wasn’t surprised to learn that he had come from there. “If you’re with them, can’t you get them to shut this thing down?”
    “‘This thing’? You’re talking about the Holy Grail?” he echoed. “No can do. This isn’t their mess. Actually, I’m pretty sure the folks who even care about this back there are split down the middle as to whether or not it’s a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, everyone is pretty pleased that it’s up and running again, but the new management is a little, uh…”
    God, what had Matou said? Everything that had happened so far was filling Ren’s brain to the point of overflowing. Something about Tohsaka and taking something apart… this Holy Grail ritual?
    Nils apparently spotted the headache forming on his face, because he waved a hand. “Don’t think about it too hard. I’m pretty sure you’ll learn about it.”
    Mishima frowned, gaze fixing on Ren. “If I may, however…” she said. “I would recommend that you do not involve yourself any further. I understand your desire to know more about this city and its situation, but once you have learned what you wish to know, I must ask that you leave it be.”
    “That depends on what I learn,” he replied instantly. “I’m not making any promises until I know what I’m about to find out.”
    “It isn’t because of the situation that I ask you to abstain,” she replied. “It’s because there is a dire karma on your back.”
    Ren’s heartbeat reached up to his head. He took a deep breath.
    “I cannot say what it is. Perhaps you know,” Mishima said, “or perhaps not. I do not know where or how you picked up something so abhorrent, but no human being could ever accumulate such a vile mass on their own power. I do not recognise it, and I dare not examine it too closely.”
    There was an odd sense of relief mixed in with the ill omen. She wasn’t talking about that, but…
    No, focus. What she’s saying is just as bad.
    Maybe it was…
    “Like a haunting?”
    “Hm. It seems like you have some notion of what I’m referring to,” she said simply, “but I cannot diagnose any further without endangering myself… and I have hardly taken a Hippocratic oath. Please understand.”
    He shook his head. “I appreciate the observation. I won’t ask anything from you.”
    “I cannot stress enough. Do not bring that darkness near us. You may jeopardise everything if you were to touch the Grail.”
    …That…
    A thought sprang to his mind at her instruction, and he did his best to conceal it. It was only natural, if she said something like that, that he’d…
    “I’ll keep that in mind,” was all he said.
    So you’re really that dangerous, huh?
    He wasn’t expecting a response, and he didn’t get one either. That was fine by him. He didn’t need one.
    “Good for me though, right?” Nils grinned. “What was that you said about me not being able to accumulate karma from this?”
    “Your retorts are of little merit,” Mishima said calmly. “After all…”

    Ding.
    Oh, so there was an elevator here. Ren had figured there was, but he would have appreciated knowing where it was a little earlier.
    “Ah, great. You’re all ready to go,” smiled Sofie.
    Ren’s gaze shot over her shoulder, locking eyes with Saber accusatorily.
    You said you weren’t going to stop me.
    He gave a half-assed shrug. I’m not doing anything.
    “‘Ready to go’?”
    “Sure. I said I’d take you to church, right?” she reminded him.
    “Taking him to the Overseer?” Nils cracked from across the room. “Not a bad call.”
    Sofie blinked. “You’re… Caster?”
    “Turns out we’re in the same hotel. Shocking, huh?”
    “I knew that already.”
    “Yeah, so did I, but it felt a little dickish to just say it,” he replied.
    Saber’s eyes settled on Mishima. “Oh. It’s you.”
    “I was hoping you would not recognise me,” she sighed. “Greetings, Yamato Takeru. I was hoping that I would never have to encounter you again for the rest of time.”
    Yamato Takeru? Ren repeated silently.
    It wasn’t as if it didn’t add up. He wielded Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, after all, and his sheer power was immense just by being in his presence. It just hadn’t occurred to him that such an intensely exalted spirit could have been here.
    Then, was that the nature of a Servant? A spirit of the past, drawing power from tremendous worship? That was called… a Heroic Spirit, wasn’t it?
    “We all have bad days,” Saber replied.
    “I’m surprised you didn’t strike me down the moment you learned of my presence. Does the weakening of your Spirit Origin in this state weigh on you so much?” asked Mishima.
    “Weakening? I see, I’m weaker,” he said dryly. “And that makes you stronger, does it?”
    “Touché. You will never recover the power you possessed in life, at least not in this era,” she said, “but neither will any of us. The Servant container is not so effective an equaliser that I could ever defeat you on your own terms. We are of the same mountain, and you are the peak. The only danger to you is a false step on unfamiliar soil.”
    “Sofie said the same thing,” he said simply.
    “If you were to slay me now, I would not blame you, but leave my contractor alive.”
    He folded his arms. “Is the concept of remorse that foreign to you, you glorified chicken? I’m waiting until you’re cooked. If I happen to turn you and your miserable pet into mist after that, who cares?”
    She seemed surprised, thrown off by his harsh words, but closed her eyes in a smile that looked like relief. “I see. Perhaps you have grown somewhat.”
    “If you talk down to me like that again, I might change my mind,” he said, eyes turning to Nils. “And you must be the fighter.”
    “Evening,” he greeted, speaking a little quieter than he had a moment ago.
    His bravado was still present, but a mere ember compared to what it was before. It was no surprise. With the fierce blaze before him, it was probably impossible to maintain one’s confidence entirely. It was a simple exchange between weakness and strength, one almost indistinguishable from nature’s.
    Almost.
    “Well, we’ll see you around, Saber and Master.”
    “Sofie,” she introduced herself.
    “Nils. And I didn’t get your name, straggler.”
    “I’m Ren,” he waved meekly.
    “Ren-chan it is,” Nils nodded sagely, standing up and heading for the elevator..
    “I’ll seriously call the police,” the boy beamed.
    “I’m just kidding. Have a nice night,” he grinned, patting Ren on the shoulder as he passed.
    Sofie watched, bemused, as he and Mishima disappeared into the elevator.
    “What was that all about?” she asked.
    “Nothing much. He just wanted to say hi, I guess,” replied Ren. “I get the feeling he’s kind of a weirdo at heart.”
    “Aren’t we all?”
    “Speak for yourself.”
    “Oh, you’re not?”
    “…Legally speaking, I don’t have to answer that.”
    She smiled, strolling over to the door. “Put your shoes on.”
    He wordlessly complied, then hurried his pace to catch up as she left the building. A chill brushed past as they stepped out into the street.
    “Should’ve brought a coat,” Sofie muttered. “You alright there, school uniform?”
    Ren did up an extra button. “I’ll live. What’s this about an Overseer?”
    “The priest at the church is in charge of making sure we don’t do anything bad,” Sofie explained. “I’ve only met her once, but she’s cute.”
    “Is ‘cute’ really the best quality to have in an arbiter for a deadly ritual?”
    “You’d be surprised. It’ll make sense when we get there.”
    “It’s not,” Saber cut in.
    “Just because you only respond to people who can beat you up,” Sofie frowned.
    “Ah, I see,” Ren nodded. “I understand now. Emotional blackmail.”
    “You’ll see when we get there. I’m not poisoning any wells over here.”
    Ah, speaking of emotional blackmail…
    He checked his phone.
    Eight missed messages, six from Sato and two from Yamamoto.
    It was more or less what he expected. Sato mentioned that she was going home around six o’clock because it was starting to get dark, and that she was taking his schoolbag with her.
    He started a response apologising, thanking her, promising to pick it up, and coming up with an excuse, but…
    …What can I even tell her?
    If he had espoused some idea or fact that ordinary people wouldn’t commonly know, he’d usually attributed it to his bookishness, which was a perfectly fine fallback in some form or another most days. Magecraft was usually ‘reading’ or ‘studying’ when he was pressed on it. What was he going to tell her? That Sofie was part of his book club? And having run away from possibly the last time he’d ever get with Sato by themselves at that…
    “I’m the worst, huh?” he found himself muttering.
    He couldn’t imagine not doing what he’d done. This was important, and he didn’t regret it either. But even still…
    He decided that he just wouldn’t explain himself.
    I’ll make it up to you over spring break if you want, he promised, and left it at that. Send.
    Even if she asked, he had plenty of time to make up a real excuse in the interim. It was past midnight, after all.
    “You’re kinda soft-handed in your love life, huh?”
    Sofie’s comment came far too close to his ear, and Ren almost screamed. On instinct, he locked the screen, immediately blacking out the messages she’d been peering at.
    “S-she’s not my girlfriend,” he replied. “She’s from my school club.”
    “Uh-huh,” nodded Sofie.
    “No, really. She’s three years younger than me.”
    “Is she cute?”
    “Well, yeah, but…”
    “Then it’s fine.”
    “No it’s not! That’s kind of immoral!” he protested.
    “Three years won’t matter in three years, if you know what I mean,” she smirked.
    “Stop that!” he cried. “She’s not even my type anyway.”
    “Oh, so you have someone else in mind?”
    Ren sighed. “I just met you earlier today. Do you mind at least breaking the ice with some normal conversation before you start sticking your nose in my business?”
    “Pretty sure you broke the ice when you saved my life, kid.”
    “How old are you?”
    “Seventeen. Why?”
    “So I’m a year older than you!”
    “Oh, you don’t look it,” she commented. “Want me to call you ‘onii-chan’? That’s popular, right?”
    He immediately leapt to deny it, but looking her up and down… A girl with dyed black hair, mascara, piercings, a black hoodie, and denim shorts… The destructive power behind her earnestly calling someone ‘onii-chan’ seemed to be some kind of untapped miracle resource on par with unobtainium or the philosopher’s stone.
    Is this what they call ‘gap moe’?
    “I’m not doing it,” she said.
    “Yeah, good idea.”
    She slipped her hands into her pockets, apparently out of things to say, and the three walked in silence for a moment or two. Stale, awkward air was building up, irritating his building discomfort like an unreachable itch.
    No, actually, this was a very reachable itch indeed. He’d been sitting too long with this kind of tension building up. He was going to lose his mind if this kept up much longer.
    “Well, if you really want to get to know each other…” he pondered out loud, “there’s a game we play at club every year when we get new arrivals where you say three things about yourself, and one of them is a lie… It might be a little stilted, but…”
    That was enough to pull Sofie’s eyes back to him for a moment, and she smiled again. “I get the feeling you’re something of a social butterfly when you wanna be, aren’t you?”
    “We can wait my turn to find out if that’s the case. Why don’t we start with Saber? I’d like to know a little more about the Yamato Takeru while I have the chance.”
    “Huh?” Saber baulked, apparently taken aback by his sudden inclusion. “What’s this all of a sudden?”
    “Don’t sweat it too hard. I’m just sick of being anxious,” he replied. “Go on, you can start. Two true things and one lie. You must have done enough crazy stuff that it’s almost impossible to guess. You can win this easily.”
    He met the ancient warrior’s baffled stare, not letting up, silently urging the man. This was a battle where victory was in his grasp, an opening to break the guard of a hero of old.
    Takeru averted his eyes, and sighed resignedly. Ren grinned, bubbling with anticipation.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
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  19. #19
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    3.2

    Chapter 3, Part 2
    a tangle of Words
    There are several games that can be played with a Gordian Knot

    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 00:08


    Yamato Takeru didn’t have many good memories.
    That which formed the keystones for the recollection of one’s life were most often born from novelty and from strong emotions.
    His was lacking in both.
    The conquest of the lands was long. There was little to do but kill. With the sword in his hand, very little posed a threat to him. There were years, a stretch throughout the middle of his journey, where he had simply stopped thinking.
    And what little he possessed…
    War. Hatred. Loss.
    Even that which was important to him… He paid so little attention to it, not even realising that he was grasping it so tightly, until it was already snatched away from him. It was enough that he barely remembered why he had cared about it at all.
    He was a serpent destined to eat its own tail: no matter what he devoured, he remained withered and starving. His heart and soul took in no nourishment from the massacres he enacted each and every day for years and years.
    It was as though he was trapped in a cage of his own making. He never once felt free. But likewise, he never once thought of freedom. He was hollow inside, but he could not think of anything to wish for. The void was never once filled, and so he did not know what would fill it. He could not be sure if it even existed at all.
    He had the power to do as he wanted, and simultaneously could imagine nothing to want. He was born into a wasteland with nothing holding him back, but was that sufficient to name him as a free man? He did not know.
    Regardless, there was one light he recalled vividly through the haze of poison that filled his life. A smile like the stars was burned into his mind even now. He would not allow himself to forget it. No matter what, he could not forget it, because the memory was the final scrap of it still in his grasp.
    “Once, I was hungry, so I caught a wild rabbit and ate it alive,” he recounted.
    Sofie and Ren visibly recoiled, but he paid it no mind.
    “Nobody approached me while I ate. Most people avoided eyeshot of me entirely,” he continued. “Except for Ototachibana. She came right up and took it out of my hands. I almost drew my sword on her for interrupting me.”
    “Ototachibana was… your wife, right?” asked Sofie.
    Takeru nodded. “She scolded me for eating something dirty, and I’d never felt more insulted in my whole life, but she told me she would make me something proper and moved me to sit with everyone else. She came back with two bowls of millet, and ate one sitting next to me.”
    “Was it good?”
    “It was worse than rat shit,” he replied. “I don’t know what this crap is about things being ‘cooked with love’ or whatever, but love tastes like garbage.”
    Ren gave a strained smile. “Ahaha… That sounds like it went well.”
    “I ate it all without complaining,” he replied. “I’m not a baby.”
    “Hmmm? Well, that was way more than three things, but I guess that means that the lie was… ‘I was hungry’, right?”
    “How do you figure?” he muttered dryly.
    “It’s just a hunch,” Ren replied. “It was a mealtime and you wanted to be part of it, but if everyone else around you hated you, wouldn’t you not want to be around them? It sounds like Ototachibana noticed that. Or maybe I’m just being presumptuous…?”
    Takeru closed his eyes. “No, you’re correct. She had a bad habit of sticking her nose where it didn’t belong.”
    “Dang, I was gonna guess ‘rabbit’ as the lie,” Sofie said. “Didn’t think that would be to your tastes.”
    Ren beamed. “I guessed it faster than the contractor, huh.”
    “Don’t get too excited,” Takeru frowned. “It can’t have been that difficult if you got it so easily. It being so obvious is plenty humiliating already.”

    Giving up on an ordinary facial expression, he settled his eyes on Sofie with a blank look. It took her a moment to blink back, suddenly alert.
    “Oh, my turn now?” she said. “Eh, what is there to even say…? I guess I’ll follow your lead and do it as a story.”
    “This has really escaped even the most basic rules,” Ren commented.
    “Well, what can you expect around this guy?” she shrugged. “You point him in a direction, but all you can do is let him loose. Might as well follow his lead.”
    You, of all people,” Takeru replied stiffly, “have no right to complain about anyone else’s interpretations of rules and instructions, no matter how loose they may be… But now I’m starting to sound like my mentor.”
    She snapped her fingers, apparently struck with sudden inspiration. “Oh, I can talk about my teacher. He’s a real bastard. He hoards all kinds of junk, me included.”
    “You included?” Ren echoed anxiously.
    “Human trafficking!” she declared.
    “You’re just going to shout those words in the street, in the dead of night, on a weekday?” Takeru muttered.
    “If anyone comes to complain, I’ll apologise,” she quickly dismissed. “At any rate, he’s got all sorts of stuff lying around in storage. He once let me into his stash, and I swear he had more than a dozen baobei lying around.”
    “Baobei as in… Noble Phantasms?” Takeru raised an eyebrow.
    “Right. It’s not too uncommon for a sage from India or China to create or procure a tool-type Noble Phantasm if they need to descend to our level and do something,” she explained. “Probably solidly outside both your wheelhouses, but it’s a thing.”
    “I see…” Ren frowned thoughtfully.
    “Apparently, if he ever gets assassinated, I get all the stuff to play with, so he says,” she continued. “Anyway, I was rooting around in there, and there was a robot.”
    “Robot…?” Takeru echoed. “A machine?”
    “A machine shaped like a human,” Sofie nodded. “A girl, actually. I don’t know if it was in disrepair or something, but I couldn’t find a way to turn it on or crack it open. It was seamless, like a real person.”
    Ren tilted his head. “Then how did you know it was a robot?”
    “Well, that’d be all the obviously mechanical parts making up her limbs and neck where there wasn’t any skin,” she replied.
    “So it was seamless except for the seams?”
    “You know what I mean,” she said. “It was super lifelike. I seriously wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference with just the face. And then, I woke up that night because I noticed that there was something at my bedside. It wasn’t breathing. It was just standing there, like it was watching me. There was no way in hell I was going to move, so I just played dead. It stood there for… hours, it must have been, just watching me. And then I felt cold fingers gently squeezing my wrist.”
    Ren gave a nervous chuckle. “Ah, you mean… that was…?”
    “I didn’t look. It stayed there for a while, and then it left,” she recounted. “It made clanking noises with its footsteps and it left my room. I couldn’t find the robot in storage the next day. But sometimes… Maybe it’s because I was so scared at the time, but when I’m in the city, it feels like it’s really still following me. In the back of my mind, it’s still there, whenever I hear something clanking. Creepy, right?”
    Takeru and Ren were silent for a moment.
    “You’re not a great storyteller,” commented the warrior-poet.
    “Well, excuse me for trying to tell it like a classic Japanese ghost story for your sake,” Sofie grumbled.
    “I’m gonna go with ‘you think it’s still following you’ as the lie,” he said. “I’d have noticed by now.”
    “I think it’s that there was a robot at all,” Ren wagered. “This… sounds like you made it up for the sake of telling a creepy story. It’s a little cliché… Not that that’s a bad thing, because at least you recognise it as what it is that way…”
    “You’re trying too hard to give me a silver lining, but thanks,” she gave a forced smile.
    “I doubt it was entirely fabricated. There’s too little substance to it. It’s not sensational enough,” Takeru pointed out.
    “That’s true… Isn’t the punchline usually ‘and then the narrator dies’?” replied Ren.
    “If I died, how could I be here to tell the story?” Sofie pointed out. “Anyway, you were both wrong. The lie was ‘human trafficking’. I willingly became his apprentice.”
    Huh?” Takeru’s expression looked like something had just snapped inside his face.
    “No fair. That wasn’t part of the story,” Ren grumbled.
    “That’s not in the rules. It’s two true things and one lie. The story was true, and so was all the other stuff about my teacher,” she said. “I thought you were gonna guess something about his storage. I honestly don’t know how he got all that stuff, and he won’t tell me, but I wouldn’t have believed it in your shoes.”
    “I don’t really have the expertise to comment on that…” admitted Ren.
    “And I was alive during a time when that would’ve been no big deal,” Takeru pointed out.
    “Huh. So neither of you fell for my red herring, and both of you insulted me… I see how it is,” Sofie gave a mock sigh.
    “By the way, where are you from?” Ren asked. “In terms of affiliations, I mean. Nils back there said he was from the Clock Tower, but that’s not the case for you, right?”
    She nodded. “My teacher Yuan Ma is from Xuánjiào, which is a branch of Luó-Xuán Guan. It’s the main Magecraft organisation on the continent,” she explained. “Guan, that is. Xuánjiào was a state-sanctioned order of Taoists, created by Kublai Khan after he conquered China and founded the Yuan Dynasty. I guess he wanted to use Magecraft as well as science in advancing the nation, but it eventually ended up becoming irrelevant, so it packed its bags and retreated out of the court long before the modern age. It still meets up in the ruins of Xanadu every so often, but it’s generally pretty small compared to Guan at large, and it doesn’t have much prestige or anything anymore since it wasn’t even founded a thousand years ago. Doesn’t stop them from being super elitist though, since they used to be big shots, and there’s a bunch of xians in their ranks.”
    Ren nodded. For a country like China, whose cultures and traditions dated back almost to the cradle of civilisation itself, Kublai Khan might as well have lived yesterday. It was a far cry from Japanese history - in his mind, that was the Kamakura period, an age still shrouded in the mists of myth and divinity. If he had to compare it to the west, he intuitively grouped that era together with the Trojan War, even though he knew for a fact that they were millennia apart.
    “That’s the lie,” Takeru said. “There’s no way there’s a single xian in its ranks, or else you’d be in a very different position right now.”
    “You got me that time,” Sofie conceded.
    “Eh?” Ren spluttered. “We were still playing?”
    “Your mistake if you think you can drop your guard around someone who uses Magecraft,” she chided smugly.
    “Correction: this has nothing to do with Magecraft,” Takeru cut in, “and everything to do with you.”
    “That’s just rude. I’m not that bad.”
    “Coming from Yamato Takeru,” said Ren, “I think that’s a compliment…”
    “Stop reading into it and take your turn already,” Takeru replied sharply. “I never agreed to this ridiculous game in the first place.”
    Sofie distinctly recalled him claiming the first turn for himself, but she didn’t say anything.

    Ren silently pondered what to talk about. He could tell a story about his everyday life, but force of habit blocked him from bringing ‘Jikan’ into this too much. It wasn’t a matter of duplicitousness, but hygiene. Those who lived with one foot in Mystery and one foot out needed to live the same kind of double life that he did. He hadn’t met many like him, but he knew that he wasn’t exceptional in that regard. So to think about one life only when living it, and to mute all thoughts of the other… It was just the cleanest way to lie.
    He’d proposed this game in the first place, so it’d be a little unfair to abstain now, especially when getting to know each other a little better was the point. Then, in that case, perhaps the thing to tell about was…
    “I study some kinds of Magecraft that I can’t use myself,” he explained. “There’s this little girl called Akiko who uses Jewel Magecraft who goes to the elementary school on the same side of town where Homurahara is.”
    “Homurahara is your school, I take it,” Sofie said.
    “Yeah. At least for the next four days,” he nodded. “This land is owned by the Tohsaka matriarch, but she’s usually out of town… I guess she has a lot to do overseas or something, like my sister. Tohsaka’s daughter is about six years old, but her mom seems to have decided it’s better for her to grow up here. I thought she probably got lonely, having nobody to talk to about the stuff she was learning, so I started studying up too.”
    Takeru cocked an eyebrow. “How exactly did you meet this kid?”
    “Ah, my history teacher, Matou… He used to be a Magus when he was younger, but he gave up. It seems like he was friends with Tohsaka or something, so Akiko sometimes comes to bug him whenever I’m talking about Magecraft stuff. I guess she took a liking to me or something.”
    “Sounds like you don’t have many people to talk to either,” Sofie pointed out. “You don’t have a good relationship with that sister of yours or something?”
    “Ah, no, it’s not that,” he shook his head. “My sister is… Well, she’s not really my sister, so she doesn’t know much about the stuff I inherited from my dad. On top of that, she’s a missionary or something, so she’s never in Japan for very long.”
    “Oh, you’re a Christian?”
    “I’m not. I don’t think she is either… It’s complicated, so I don’t really understand what she does even when it comes to the parts I actually know…”
    “So you two bonded over a common neglect.”
    “That’s a bit strongly worded.”
    “It’s true though, isn’t it?” said Sofie. “I have my teacher to talk to every day, and I call my dad every week even though I don’t live with him anymore. You’ve got a regular teacher who doesn’t want anything to do with the reason you talk to them, and occasionally a small child who you keep secrets with.”
    Ren squinted. “You make it sound sketchy.”
    “It is.”
    “It’s not. It’s not like we hang out alone. We have Magecraft practice every month or so at Akiko’s place, and her maid is always there. Apart from that, she visits our club every so often when she gets bored, and we all play with her. She’s decided that Sato and Meichi are her wives at some point too, which…”
    Takeru rolled his eyes, and Sofie smirked.
    “You must be pretty disappointed at not being given special treatment, huh?” she commented. “From how much you’re talking about her…”
    Ren sighed, but not at her. “No, Shinjirou and I tried to explain to her once that polygamy isn’t legal in this country,” he recounted. “Akiko didn’t really get what that had to do with her, decided that we were jealous, and told us that we could be her wives too… And then Yamamoto said that she also wanted to be Akiko’s wife, and Akiko didn’t really get what that had to do with her, so Yamamoto sulked for the rest of the day…”
    “I was right, you really are a social butterfly,” she smiled.
    He shrugged, and then… “Ah, I broke the rules…”
    The coy curl immediately drained from Sofie’s face. “No.”
    Takeru nodded in agreement. “You’re not getting away with that.”
    “Eh?” Ren blinked, confused.
    “You just tried to hit us with a ‘this sentence is false’ kind of paradox, didn’t you?” Sofie frowned. “The lie is ‘I broke the rules’ because that’s the untrue part. But if that’s the case, then it would be true, which means you’ll always win. Your win condition changes depending on whether we pick it.”
    Busted, he rubbed the back of his neck with a giggle. “You got me. But I still win even though you called me out. I said that Akiko didn’t have anyone to talk to about Magecraft, right? But she actually has someone. Matou’s sister is a Magus, just of a different kind. Akiko could talk to her about it, but she doesn’t.”
    “So that’s two lies,” Sofie pointed out.
    “It’s a half-truth, since there’s definitely a reason that she doesn’t,” Ren replied. “And that makes ‘I broke the rules’ into a half-truth too, because I told half a lie. Half and half make a whole. You’d have had to guess the whole lie between you with both guesses, but I got the feeling that you two would deliberately jump on the obvious trick. But the paradox is only a paradox if you assume that I was totally honest with the rest of the story. So it actually wasn’t one, and you just lost normally.”
    Sofie glared. “Wow, that sucks.”
    Takeru, on the other hand, just folded his arms. “Going by that logic, you’re already disqualified before we guessed. Your trick relies on you conforming to the letter of the rules, since you’re definitely not conforming to the spirit.”
    Ren couldn’t argue with that, but… “So?”
    “When you say ‘the rules’, you’re referring to them as written… Or spoken, in this case. You relied on the ambiguity of language, but you forgot something important,” he explained. “The letter also specifies that you say two true things. None of us stuck to that number, including you. Your claim that you broke the rules is true no matter what, which means that you only have half a lie no matter how you look at it.”
    “Oh, that’s true,” Ren nodded. “I guess it’d work better in a more standard game… But still, you did both pick the wrong answer, so I’m satisfied with that.”
    “Hmph.” Takeru gave a wordless grumble.
    Sofie shook her head. “I’m still mad at it too, but I can’t complain too much. I guess being used to computational logic means you make too many assumptions in a situation like this,” she said. “When you’re not lost and confused, you’re actually pretty smart, huh?”
    “What do you mean, ‘actually’?” Ren huffed.
    “More like manipulative,” said Takeru. “That kind of ‘cleverness’ creates more problems than it solves.”
    “Didn’t you once kill a guy by tricking him into trying to draw a fake sword you made out of wood?”
    “I’m a pragmatist.”
    “Then we’re both pragmatists.”
    “Don’t compare yourself to me,” Takeru scolded. “It’s not worth it.”

    Chatting like this, the trio reached the top of the hill so quickly it almost felt like it hadn’t taken an hour to arrive.
    Now they were here, it almost felt like a plateau. It opened up into a flat field, with a tall spire looming over it. Decorations on the facade of the unusual building cast long shadows over each other in the light of the almost-full moon.
    The lights were on inside. A long paved path was on the other side of the open gate, beckoning them inside.
    Saber stopped short. “Remind me. Am I allowed in?”
    Ren frowned. “Is there a reason you wouldn’t be?”
    “The church is the outpost for the ritual’s Overseer,” explained Sofie. “It’s neutral territory, and part of their job is to shelter dropouts, so it’s possible that they don’t want Servants coming in.”
    “They shelter dropouts, but they won’t do anything about the people who live here?” he frowned.
    “Well, they’ll do what they can, but it’s hard to protect everyone…” she said. “Well, it’s also because the main reason to protect the masses is for the Concealment of Mysteries…”
    Magi weren’t special in that regard, he supposed. Even he knew that the best way to motivate anyone to do anything was to give them a selfish reason. People could be kind; the cold gears of systems and institutions were anything but. They were formed out of rules and regularities, after all, rather than the suspension of them. It was easy to think them cruel, but cruelty and mercy were both.equally foreign to mere structures that followed their own logic and nothing else.
    “Well, I’m coming in anyway,” Takeru decided, throwing caution to the wind and taking the first step inside the gate. “Not like they can physically stop me.”
    “Yeah, I guess that’s true,” Sofie shrugged. “Who can physically stop you?”

    The three entered a large chapel, well-lit and with refreshingly simple decoration. From the outside, Ren had been expecting something gaudier, but the interior was actually quite simple. White walls, dark wood pews, with some frames and what looked like religious implements on an altar at the front.
    Despite its simplicity, there was a strange atmosphere around this place. He could picture clearly all the people who must have come during the day for sermons, maybe over a hundred people filling its aisles. He’d never attended one himself, so he had never really been able to imagine what it was like to simply sit and listen to the words of a pastor or priest, but he was starting to be able to picture it.
    “Remember,” Sofie muttered quietly to her Servant, “no killing anyone if they try to boot you out, okay?”
    “How little restraint do you think I have,” Takeru hissed.
    The sound of footsteps echoed in the empty room.
    “Oh no,” came a calm and clear voice. “The church is open to all, day or night. Even Servants are welcome on these grounds. I wouldn’t even think of removing anyone if they come to me in need.”
    For a brief, transient moment, Jikan Ren forgot how to breathe.
    Through a doorway at the back of the room stepped the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life.
    Last edited by Random; September 21st, 2022 at 03:08 PM.
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    3.3

    Chapter 3, Part 3
    the way out
    Rise from the living Grave

    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 01:03


    The priestess in red gave a humble bow, folding her immaculate hands in front of her as she did.
    “Good evening, Miss Huangjing, Saber,” she greeted, examining the three with shining blue eyes. “I see you’ve brought a guest this time.”
    She gave a kind smile as she approached. It was like Ren’s thoughts had crashed into a brick wall.He tried to offer some kind of response, but nothing came out.
    “Sorry to bother you at this time of night, Sister Kyriake,” said Sofie. “We would’ve come earlier, but there was, uh…”
    “A scuffle, wasn’t there?” she nodded. “So I hear. You’re lucky to be alive, young man. Not many can claim to have survived a lethal blow from a Servant, let alone an Assassin.”
    Perhaps it was because she was a foreigner, but she was tall. Even if Ren was short, his eye level was at her shoulders. She fit neatly in-between Sofie and Takeru, in fact.
    Nuns aren’t supposed to be showing this much cleavage, are they?!
    He tore his attention from her exposed chest, silently wishing he was even a little taller that it wasn’t so close to his face.
    Eye contact.
    Her expression was soft, filled with grace and serenity. “You don’t need to be shy. What can I help you with? I can’t do anything if you don’t tell me why you’re here.”
    Something about her voice, filled with comfort and warmth, almost coaxed him inside out. As she spoke gently, he thought back to everything that happened, trying to articulate it. It was as if the anxiety and fear building up these past few days was finally coming to the surface. A light fell into the deep dark abyss that had been growing, and he finally saw just how deep it really was.
    The ritual. The collateral damage it promised. The proof of it that he had experienced through the pain of a fatal blow. The nightmares that had been building up, and the warning that he had been given about them.
    What if his friends or their families were hurt? What if his way of life was destroyed? What could he even do to prevent that in the face of beings so powerful?
    And now, an authority of the thing that had brought him worry and uncertainty - so much so that he hadn’t even realised its true depths - offered her ear with a smile of compassion.
    He was melting. Strength was leaving him completely.
    Release.
    Something hot fell down his cheeks.
    “Oh,” the priestess whispered, taking his hands in hers. “Oh, you poor soul.”
    Ren hadn’t even realised how much he had dreaded this meeting. He was expecting to find an opponent to confront, to bicker and argue. This was so far from it that the tension he had used to keep himself going simply… evaporated.
    Magi were not supposed to feel too strongly. Their world ran on subjectivity, which had to be parsed objectively. The heart of Magecraft was the declaration of one’s perspective as fact.
    He was not a Magus. He was merely playing at being one. He had no real convictions or ideals to live up to. He possessed neither reason nor means to turn his mind to steel. He had, he realised, merely been feigning strength, and that strength had proven unnecessary.

    The priestess guided him to a pew, sitting him down as he started to crumble, resting his head on her shoulder.
    “Bless you. Your path must have been fraught with all kinds of unease,” she said gently. “It is a mercy that it was not any longer than this. Thank you, Miss Huangjing, Saber. I don’t want to think about how he would have been if you had delayed in bringing him here.”
    Sofie, apparently overcome with awkwardness, could only raise her hands a little. “Uh, no, I… didn’t even realise… I guess he was trying pretty hard…”
    “You err in your judgement of others yet again, Master,” Takeru said simply. “Even I could see that you were overestimating him.”
    “What, are you going to wail on him for crying while being a boy?” his Master frowned.
    “For someone who calls himself a man to have such little fortitude is something to be ashamed of,” he replied, “but don’t take that as a rebuke. There’s a difference between genuine fortitude and a mask. And the mask is far worse than shame, because shame is harmless. But ignore your true nature for too long, and it dies. If you lose who you are by pretending to be someone else, and then all you have left is a lie.”
    His tone was firm, with a weight behind his words far beyond just parroting someone else. He was not speaking from the conventional wisdom of his time, but from personal experience.
    “When was the last time you ate something?” the priestess asked softly, getting up. “Have you had anything to eat or drink since you got hurt? I’ll make you some soup, so wait right here, okay? Would you two mind keeping an eye on him for just a little while longer?”
    Sofie gave a lopsided smile. “Well, I can’t exactly run off now, can I?”
    He was no longer her responsibility, but… No, he had never been her responsibility in the first place. Perhaps, on some level, she had realised his fear after all. There had been a kindness to that casual face she had been making this whole time. Even if she hadn’t grasped the full extent of the pit in his stomach, she had avoided touching it all the same as she took it on herself to do what she could for him. It wasn’t out of some duty. She had just met someone who was asking for help, and had shielded his wounds until he was safe. She could have called it repaying a debt for saving her, but she didn’t.
    This wasn’t a transaction. It was merely who she was, and nothing more.
    “Sorry for the trouble…” he murmured.
    “I did it because I wanted to,” she replied. “At times like this, if you say something, you should say ‘thank you’ instead of ‘sorry’. Beating yourself up for no reason is pointless.”
    To even thank her for that seemed to belittle it, but…
    “Then, thank you for your help.”
    “No problem. Besides, I’m sure you could have made it on your own.”
    Ren doubted that. He knew that he wasn’t strong enough to take on a Servant. He could tell by looking. If he had found himself in a situation where he had panicked, or he had needed to defend himself…
    Of course, he didn’t actually need to speculate at all after what had happened earlier.
    “I know what you’re thinking,” she said, “but I saw what you’re capable of. You could be a pretty great Magus if you put your mind to it. What was that, anyway?”
    “My Magecraft?”
    “Yeah. I’ve never seen anything like that. That was western-style, right?”
    Ren nodded. “I don’t have any surviving relatives that I know of, but my clan goes back a long time. We’re pretty weak, since we’ve always been pretty terrible at following our own codes, so every generation apparently turned into power struggles,” he explained. “I heard that a lot of astrologer families formed from the members of our clan who split off and tried to develop normally, instead of the methods we use.”
    “And those methods are what let you do that?”
    “Right. Have you ever heard of that thing about unfolding your organs because they’re actually really big? The circulatory system is more than twice the circumference of the entire planet, for example,” he explained. “If you use the nervous system that covers the interior of the body, even though there’s only about seventy kilometres of it, there’s technically enough material to create a model of the whole world, depending on what you include.”
    “So if you’re an astrologer,” Sofie noted, “does that mean you have a model of the sky in your body?”
    “Right. There’s only about nine thousand stars visible to the naked eye, after all. There’s some number of trillions of neurons in the body, so you can make a star chart easily enough… It’s called the Metanovae Astrae,” he said. “Since nerves are also structured similarly to Magic Circuits, you can use the Astrae to add to whatever you have naturally. I only have a few real Circuits… Four or five, I think. For the rest of it, I use the Astrae.”
    “So it’s like your entire body is a Mystic Code like my Philosophy Key,” she surmised. “It’s pretty amazing, being able to do that.”
    “Fake Circuits aren’t as good as the real thing though,” he muttered. “I can’t process much magical energy at all, so I can only cast one spell every four hours or so. I can stockpile a lot though, since the Astrae has storage functions. I just usually don’t get the chance.”
    “That makes sense. If your natural magic points cap at five, then just adding space for two thousand more or whatever isn’t enough to make your body get to work filling it up just like that,” she nodded.
    Did she just make a reference to…?
    “Metanovae… Where have I heard that name from…? I guess it makes sense if they’re old, but…”
    “Beats me. I don’t know much about my family history anyway,” he replied. “All I know is that my mother’s dead and my father had a Sealing Designation. We don’t even have photos.”
    All he knew for sure was what his ‘sister’ had told him. Even if he wanted to carry on the family’s legacy, he had nowhere to even start. That was why he was perfectly fine living a mundane life away from Magecraft. Those who stood within it too long were doomed for death. So rather than pursuing an invisible ghost, he was fine with the idea of living a quiet, mundane life, even if he didn’t know what that would look like just yet. The ordinary world was all he had. He had no choice but to cling to it.

    “So sorry for the wait,” Kyriake apologised as she stepped into the room again.
    She offered Ren a large white mug of steaming miso soup, chunks of vegetables and what appeared to be pork floating in the broth. A strange aroma declared some unusual ingredients that he couldn’t quite place, but it was by no means bad.
    “Do forgive my cooking. I’m not very familiar with Japanese cuisine, so I fell back on my home country’s common wisdom in a few places,” she said.
    That explained the sheer quantity of the stuff. He was familiar with the idea of westerners tending to mix all their portions onto a single plate - he usually was cautious about stereotypes, since he knew that a lot of them were ill-informed or distorted, but it seemed that this particular one was correct.
    He couldn’t complain. As the scent of the soup filled the air, he realised that the pit in his stomach had not been purely emotional.
    “Thank you very much,” he replied, bringing it to his lips.
    An unfamiliar flavour filled his mouth; starchy, yet strangely sweet, with a sharp taste on the tip of his tongue.
    Potato and onion seemed like an odd choice for miso soup, but it wasn’t terrible. Ren doubted he was capable of eating such a concoction regularly, but it was interesting enough to make up for the lack of rice that he would have usually had alongside a dish like this. He found himself gulping it down far faster than was even remotely polite, and took it from his lips with haste the moment he realised.
    “I’m glad you like it,” Kyriake only smiled, taking a seat. “How are you feeling? Have your nerves settled somewhat?”
    “I suppose so,” he muttered.
    “Nothing like a little nerding out to get you back on your feet, eh?” Sofie laughed.
    “Lured him in with passion, did you?” giggled Kyriake.
    Sofie pulled a strange face. “Sure, but don’t say it like that.”
    “Hm? Whatever do you mean?”
    She stared at the nun for a moment, and then put her hands in her hoodie pocket. “Nothing. I think I just accidentally got a glimpse of your true strength is all.”
    Kyriake seemed confused, but turned her attention back to Ren.
    “I’ll introduce myself properly. I am Sister Kyriake Luxestiva of the Holy Church. I’ve been assigned to this parish for about a year now,” she said. “I am ordained as a pastor, although I would prefer you call me ‘Sister’ rather than ‘Mother’.”
    Ren nodded. “Is that… unusual?”
    “The ordinary term of address is ‘Mother’, although I find that to call a priest by the name of a parent has been somewhat off-putting to non-believers in the past,” she explained. “Many outsiders to the Church misconceive it as a kind of lordship over our flock, but we are in truth equals under God. So, even if relinquishing proper formality, the improper title helps communicate fellowship and guidance to outsiders, rather than authority.”
    “I… see…”
    “Ah, but please don’t misunderstand. This is my own eccentricity,” she hurriedly clarified. “Insistence on ‘Sister’ or ‘Brother’ to someone else of my position might well get you off on the wrong foot…”
    She wasn’t doing a very good job of selling it with her hasty addendum there, but he filed it away in his mind all the same. He hadn’t met many priests - she was his second, in fact - but Kyriake seemed like she was rather strange, at least by their standards. Although kind and welcoming, she also seemed somehow… removed from the proper image of a ‘Christian priest’. Granted, he vaguely recalled some internal separation between those of the Church who dealt with Mystery and those who didn’t. Perhaps that alone was enough to explain the disconnect, but he somehow doubted it.
    “And yourself?” she prompted. “Who might you be?”
    “A-ah.”
    He’d forgotten to actually introduce himself, he realised. He wasn’t doing a very good job of this whole ‘duty to the host’ thing.
    “Sorry. Uh. My name is Jikan Ren. I’m… a Magus, here on behalf of…” he paused, “myself, I suppose… I’ve come to ask about the Holy Grail.”
    “Are you worried?” she tilted her head. “You’ve come to the right place. I am the Overseer of this Holy Grail War, and it is my duty to handle the relationship between those who take part in the ritual and those who do not. I take care of everything that the Rulemaster does not. What troubles you so?”
    Holy Grail War?
    That was the first time he’d heard it referred to that way. Granted, he already knew that it involved some kind of violence, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise, but to learn that violence was the entire point…
    He was beginning to realise what Matou had meant when he was talking about how destructive it could be.
    “Well, it just kind of… started,” he replied. “I don’t really know what’s going on.”
    The priestess’s eyes widened slightly, and she gave a solemn nod with a troubled look of her own
    “I see. That is indeed cause for concern. Perhaps I was misinformed, or perhaps I simply misunderstood. I was under the impression that all Magi in this town were already aware of the Holy Grail War and its proceedings… My sincerest apologies. This is my responsibility,” she said. “Allow me to explain the fundamentals of what is happening at the moment. I should have already properly accounted for all such things, but just to be sure, there are no unusual marks on your body?”
    Ren shook his head. “Not that I’m aware of.”
    “Good. Then you are not a Master,” she explained. “Or to put it more simply, you aren’t a participant in this battle. All the more reason that I should apologise on behalf of Assassin. Perhaps I will consult with the Rulemaster to find a way to penalise them… But that is business for later.”
    Well, he already knew that he wasn’t part of this. That was the problem.
    “As the name suggests, the Holy Grail War is a battle between Masters who have been selected by the Holy Grail,” she continued. “To that end, they wield spirits named Servants against one another. Saber, Archer, Lancer, Rider, Caster, Assassin, and Berserker… You have met some already, haven’t you?”
    “I take exception,” Saber spoke up, “at being talked about like a weapon. I went out of my way to leave that life behind me.”
    His tone was careful and calculated, but there was something seething behind it. Without so much as changing his expression, he bared his fangs at her.
    Sofie nodded. “He and I are partners. We already sorted this out between us,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what you call the roles. We’re here out of mutual alliance.”
    “Of course. I meant no disrespect, Saber,” she apologised. “All of you Heroic Spirits have rich histories, and have left your marks on humanity. I would never deliberately belittle that.”
    “So,” Ren raised his hand, “the Servants really are all Heroic Spirits?”
    “That’s right,” Kyriake confirmed. “All of them are of tremendous power. Although the Servant container can’t hold their entire strength, they do still remain far superior to any modern human in terms of ability, and many wield Mysteries comparable to the gods. For example, their Noble Phantasms.”
    Crystallisations of human history… He had heard about them. So they really did actually exist.

    “Then, what are they fighting for? The Holy Grail?” he asked.
    “The victor will be able to take it for themselves,” nodded Kyriake.
    That was fairly simple. One needed to be victorious to take the trophy. The principle was understandable, although he was fairly sure the exact mechanics were a little more complicated than that. But even if he understood such a simple concept, it was still like an unscratched itch. This still didn’t sit completely right with him.
    “In that case, what’s the Holy Grail?”
    Heroic Spirits were called ‘Servants’. Their contractors were called ‘Masters’. Special terminology was being bandied about as if to obscure something, like some kind of deceptive marketing gimmick.
    “To put it simply, it’s a wish-granting device,” Kyriake replied with something completely absurd.
    “I’m sorry?”
    “Once you understand the exact principles behind it, the answer doesn’t seem so outlandish,” she assured him. “To put it simply… Well, in previous iterations, this was once a subject about which the hosts of the ritual would blatantly lie, but the idea is that the Servants will return to the ritual implement called the Holy Grail once they are defeated. When all but one Servant is contained within it, then it will have sufficient magical energy of extremely high purity, and will be able to cast a spell to generate a result while skipping the process. That’s what we mean when we say ‘wish-granting’.”
    Well… She wasn’t wrong. That did make a lot more sense than something like ‘it’s magic’. Not that it wasn’t magical, but still.
    “Why would that be something you’d lie about? Wouldn’t it induce more skepticism if you went with some weird cover story…?”
    “You’re clearly quite sharp, Jikan-san. I can imagine you would catch on quickly,” said Kyriake. “I suppose you did already catch on… I’m sure there are many past Masters who also noticed something amiss in the premise of the ritual. That was why something so bold as calling it the Holy Grail was necessary when it was originally established, you see. This all was intended to dupe not only the Masters, but also the Servants, as the intention was to have the winning Servant commit suicide and bring the ritual to its full power. The Master possesses a certain degree of compulsive power over their Servant through the mark the Grail bestows them with on top of the Servant’s dependence on them to continue to exist.”
    Saber scoffed. “I’d like to see them try.”
    Sofie nodded. “Right. Some Servants, like Saber here, would be able to resist that power. Magic Resistance is a common skill among Servants. Only three of them aren’t guaranteed it by class.”
    “If Magic Resistance is so strong, then how…?” Ren frowned.
    “Most Servants, even most Sabers, don’t have the power to resist the Command Spell,” Takeru explained simply. “It’s not a small thing, since it’s derived from the Grail’s systems. I, however, am not ‘most Sabers’.”
    “It’s true that the Holy Grail War has summoned some truly exceptional figures in the past,” Kyriake nodded. “King Arthur, Heracles, Alexander the Great, just to name a few. It’s that level of power that means that we of the Church must involve ourselves to prevent disaster. After all, the Second Holy Grail War of the previous generation did not have such supervision, and it was nothing but a massacre with no survivors… Truly a lamentable affair, even if it was long ago now. And the Great Fire after the Fourth as well… Dreadful. We must do better.”
    No survivors.
    The words turned in Ren’s head, burning, like alcohol swilled around in a cup.
    “Previously, because the original form of the Holy Grail was styled after the artifact of the same name, only western figures were permitted. As you can see, the new iteration possesses no such limitation, which allows for figures with a great affinity for the land to manifest,” she gestured to Saber. “That is why, more than ever, it is important for the Rulemaster and I to work closely together. Indeed, the Rulemaster was a position specifically created for this iteration of the Holy Grail War.”
    “Can you choose different land?”
    “Hm?” she blinked.

    Jikan had blurted out the words with far more force than he intended. His grip was tight around the mug, painfully so. He loosened it.
    “For the Holy Grail,” he said. “Is it possible to move this war somewhere else? Somewhere with, well… less potential for casualties?”
    “Ah…” Kyriake looked somewhat downcast. “I was worried you would ask for that… I’m sorry to say that it isn’t our choice to establish it here. Fuyuki City happens to be built on possibly the only land left in the world that is a viable site for the Holy Grail’s establishment, you see… All the others are under the ownership of the Mage’s Association. The spiritual potential is–”
    “But this is the Tohsaka’s land, isn’t it?” he pressed.
    “It is,” she replied, “but the Tohsaka clan were one of the three clans who created the original version of this Holy Grail… The Rulemaster has gone to great pains to properly reestablish it…”
    “That doesn’t make sense… Matou said that Tohsaka dismantled the Holy Grail…”
    “Indeed, the old model had completely fallen into disrepair. Fortunately, we of the Holy Church had several viable relics to act as replacement cores on hand to help reconstruct it.”
    This didn’t add up. No matter how he looked at her words, something seemed wrong.
    She wasn’t lying. Kyriake was being completely sincere. He could tell that much. But…
    Wasn’t it taken apart years ago?
    Why wait so long to rebuild it then? And why would the Holy Church willingly hand out something of such value to Magi of all people? He didn’t recall them being the fondest of Magi… And on top of that, to allow Mysteries like Heroic Spirits to run rampant, wasn’t that counter to their goals in the first place?
    “You seem quite understandably worried about this whole state of affairs…” Kyriake observed thoughtfully. “But I cannot halt the ritual now that it’s begun. Even the Rulemaster likely couldn’t… And it would be impossible to police the Servants’ every action for any of us alone…”
    She trailed off, a thoughtful frown on her face.
    “Sister?” Ren urged.
    She nodded. “Hm, hm… Perhaps that is one possibility. If you were to allow it, I could consult with the Rulemaster, and I’m sure we can make it so…”
    A satisfied look came to Kyriake’s gaze, and she looked upon him once again with her soft, welcoming smile.
    “If you were to summon a Servant of your own, then you would certainly be able to defend against them more effectively,” she said. “And if you were to seize victory, then your wish could even make up for any errors you made in the process. It would give you every chance to succeed. Perhaps that would even be quite a good fit for you, hm? You have a love for your home, and for the people in your life. It’s a noble motivation. Any hero would smile on you, I’m sure. If you proceed with love in your heart, God will certainly bless your struggle, and the Holy Grail will certainly accept your resolve.”
    The beautiful priestess’s tender voice felt like it was thawing something as she spoke. On the dark, twisted stage, a heavenly light shined down from her extended hand, offering a staircase out of the abyss.

    “If you want to protect that which is precious to you,” she said, “then would you like to become a Master, Jikan Ren?”
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
    Fate\last call
    night, dawn, and the birth of stars

    ╘══════════════════╕
    Masters
    Servants
    Others
    Recent: Ch. 5.1

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