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

  1. #21
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    3.4

    Chapter 3, Part 4
    Mobius strip
    Solution and Stage

    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 01:19


    “No,” Ren replied. “I’m not going to do that.”
    Kyriake had made him an offer that he could have only compared to a deal with the devil.
    For a moment, he recalled Mishima’s warning that he could jeopardise the entire ritual if he touched it. It was certainly tempting to accept based on that alone. But at the same time, that didn’t reduce the definite badness of the definitely bad idea even slightly.
    There wasn’t a huge gap to bridge here between ‘she thinks I’m an idiot’ and ‘she’s right’, and he was not going to build any more bridges today.
    Well, perhaps that wasn’t entirely fair… She seemed utterly devoid of malice, so either she was an excellent liar, or she had somehow gotten the impression that joining in with the ritual he was trying to stop would somehow end well for him.
    Either way, her attempts were misguided.
    “I’ll figure something else out.”
    Kyriake looked almost pained. “That was all I could offer you. I know it was hardly a good wager, but it was the only one I could think of. A human cannot defeat a Servant. We cannot dissolve the ritual or move the Holy Grail.”
    “But if the point is to defeat the Servants, then having one of my own would just put a target on my back. It’d defeat the point,” he replied.
    “It might put your immediate life in harm’s way,” she conceded. “But then in that case, your better alternative would be to simply do nothing, to draw no attention to yourself, and to hope that no illness befalls them by happenstance.”
    “That’s fine. I appreciate the offer,” he replied. “All I have to do is make it more trouble than it’s worth. I’ll see if I can come up with something on my own.”
    “I see. And if you can’t?”
    “Then I’ll just have to wait and hope, right?” he shrugged.
    It was a disheartening notion, but it was reality. If he couldn’t do anything, then there was nothing he could do. Powerlessness was simply an unfortunate fact of the human condition. If anyone had the ability to simply do as they pleased, then God had truly manifested.
    The priestess gave a solemn nod, quietly accepting his decision.
    “As Overseer, I will do everything I can to make sure as little collateral damage occurs as possible,” she promised. “I swear it. But I cannot help you any further.”
    Kyriake stood up, stepping into the aisle and curtseying in farewell.
    “I still have duties to attend to. Please feel free to stay as long as you like,” she said. “Goodnight, Jikan-san, Miss Huangjing, Saber.”
    Without another word, she left the room, and a pregnant silence fell.
    Sofie gave a sigh of relief.
    “You really had me going there for a second.”
    Ren looked to her, silently curling his face into a question.
    “I mean, if you’d become a Master,” she said, “that would’ve made us enemies on some level. And, well… you seem decent. I’d hate to have to kick your ass.”
    “It would feel like cruelty at best,” agreed Takeru.
    Ren gave a sheepish laugh. “You guys seem decent too. I don’t think we would’ve had to fight.”
    “Saber can get a little wild in battle. It would’ve been that if anything,” she explained.
    Takeru grumbled wordless, and she shot him a knowing smirk.
    “Come on, man. You literally have the Berserker skill.”
    “I didn’t say anything.”
    “You were thinking it.”
    “What, am I a thought criminal now?”
    “Yes,” she said firmly. “You and your wild criminal thoughts will be brought to justice.”
    “Are you taunting me, Master?”
    “What if I am, Saber?”
    Ren clapped his hands together. “Alright, we’re in a spiritual place, so no sexual tension. I’ll shove both of you under a waterfall.”
    “What the hell are you talking about?” Takeru growled, but Sofie just chuckled.
    “Come on. Finish your soup,” she said. “We’ll walk you home just in case.”

    As Kyriake roamed the cool night air, she couldn’t help but feel a burden on her shoulders.
    She had not provided satisfactory solace to someone who had specifically come to her for it.
    That alone was bad enough, but all she ended up giving was her word. Even if she had been able to offer something, the boy had refused. To she who prided herself on the guidance she could give to her flock, it had been almost indistinguishable from a personal rejection.
    Believer or not, I should’ve been able to do something.
    Fear led men to dark places.
    She held out a hand into the empty courtyard, as if reaching for something invisible.
    A blue butterfly fluttered down from the night sky. Moonlight danced off its wings like stained glass as it landed on her finger.
    Indeed, it was closer to stained glass than genuine wings would have been. At first glance, it appeared completely ordinary, but the creature surrounded by an intangible aura of colour was no true living thing. Its entire body was composed of cold crystal, and not a single heartbeat permeated its tiny body.
    “Are you busy?” Kyriake asked. “I’d like to talk to you in person.”
    Not busy,” came a voice, “but I am waiting for a calculation to complete. You might ruin it if you came in now.
    It did not stem from anywhere. The words simply were, as if the air itself was their source. No, perhaps that was exactly the case.
    “I see.”
    What’s up? You seem down.
    “We had visitors just now,” she explained. “Someone who was not participating came with great anxiety. I was unable to promise them safety.”
    Oh, that happened already? What time is it…? Oh, wow. Super late. No problem, I’ll just force it to complete right now.
    Speaking as if it had already experienced this a thousand times, the voice shrugged off the happenings as though they were routine.
    “You already foresaw the outcome, didn’t you?” pressed Kyriake. “Everything that is happening is within your design.”
    I thought you didn’t approve of that? ‘Playing God’, I seem to recall you saying.
    “That is true. I have several objections to your means. But… please, tell me anything at all. I want to know if I made a mistake.”
    You worry too much, Sister,” the butterfly tittered. “You offered him a place as a Master, didn’t you? But that’s pointless. No matter what happens, that person can’t summon a Servant. It’s impossible.
    “Impossible?”
    I saw him coming, and he looked like he was going to be a pain in the neck, so I ran a ton of calculations around him,” said the voice. “But he’s harmless. There’s no future in which he can move the needle at all. Even if he tries to summon a Servant, nothing comes out. Nothing to worry about, see? He’s a background character. Granted, he’s guaranteed to suffer a little, but the thread ultimately goes nowhere, so don’t worry about him too much. You could literally remove him and almost nothing changes.
    “Nothing?” she echoed. “Surely his life must be worth something. That can’t be true.”
    Mm… Well, if I had to say something… In the long run, it makes the last battle slightly harder, because Archer’s and Saber’s Masters get along better, so Saber isn’t as tired when I fight him at the very end. It’s a small ripple that gets lost in the waves, but it’s something. Oh, and I suppose Rider’s Master will be slightly more vulnerable for his existence, even if she’s definitely going to die early anyway… Aaaaand…
    Silence.
    …Nn. That’s all I can think of.
    The faint praise was sufficient to damn his entire presence in his own hometown to abject meaninglessness. He had slightly more relevance than those who never once learned of the Holy Grail. His name was a footnote, just barely unable to be totally omitted from the future. That was all. It was a very human tragedy that he was simply irrelevant. There were just too many people in the world for all of them to have been important. Some people, precious few, were born with the ability to claw to the top of the pile, but it would not have been a pile if there weren’t countless left below.
    “I feel dreadful.”
    Why? Because you couldn’t do anything about it? Relax. You’re doing a great job.
    “I’d like to remind you that even if I consider you my friend, I am not your ally. Even if you are insistent on rigging this game with your future calculation and the abuse of your authority, my job is to ensure that this war is as safe as it reasonably can be. I take that duty seriously.”
    Uh-huh.” the voice dismissed, having heard it all before. “Isn’t there supposed to be a divine plan from your point of view? If you’re that stressed about the ethics of your powerlessness or whatever, why not go talk to God about it?
    The words were snide, but the sentiment was genuine, and Kyriake seriously considered it.
    “Perhaps I will,” she concluded. “There is never a bad time to turn to the Lord’s infinite wisdom for answers.”
    I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then, Overseer. Don’t beat yourself up too much.
    The crystal butterfly fluttered once again, and took flight, disappearing into the night sky.
    “…And you, Rulemaster, would do well to not stay up too late yourself.”

    Bright light very suddenly illuminated the kitchen, throwing Yamamoto Hibiki’s focus completely off.
    Her eyes darted to the light switch. Sure enough, Musubi was there, crumbling an empty soda can between her fingers.
    “Hey,” she greeted. “You’ve been skulking around here for a minute now. Everything alright?”
    Hibiki hastily shoved her phone in her shorts pocket. “Yeah, we’re good.”
    “You know it’s half past one, right?” said Musubi, walking over to the recycling bin and dropping the can inside. “He’s not gonna text you back at this hour.”
    “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
    “Come on,” grinned Musubi. “Don’t hold out on me. It’s a guy, right?”
    “I mean,” Hibiki grumbled, “it is, but…”
    “Youth, huh?”
    “He disappeared earlier today and never came back. Nobody’s been able to get hold of him.”
    “Oh, that’s not youth at all. You filed a missing person’s report?”
    “I think I’m about to,” she nodded. “You know him, right? That little guy I was with at the convenience store.”
    A flash of recognition crossed Musubi’s face. “Ohh… That one,” she nodded. “Yeah, I remember. Well… I don’t exactly know the guy, but I get the feeling that if it’s him, he’s alright.”
    Hibiki couldn’t help but grimace.
    Don’t tell me he’s also…
    Her mom had never told her about their extended family. She’d always avoided the question. Musubi was the first real confirmation that they even had one. The reason behind her visit was a huge question mark, as was the mysterious woman named Lancer who had tagged along.
    She didn’t have a clue what they were doing in Fuyuki City all of a sudden, but if she was commenting on his disappearance like that, then…
    “You’re sure he’s fine?” she frowned. “I’ll blame you if he’s not.”
    Musubi held up a hand. “Now, now, let’s not be hasty about who did what… I genuinely don’t know him,” she said. “But if he’s fine, he’ll probably tell you tomorrow, okay? I wouldn’t worry until you don’t hear from him for more than a day. So get to bed. It’s a school night, right?”
    Not that there was much happening in class that she needed to pay attention to still, but… “Fine. And what are you doing up anyway?”
    “Me? I’m going out in a minute. Didn’t wanna leave a mess behind, just in case.”
    “You’re a terrible liar.”
    Musubi’s expression turned to stone. “I’m not even trying to lie, kid. If I were, you’d know nothing. Matter of fact, I think there are some things that your mom should’ve told you years ago, but it’s not my place to give you the rundown on them,” she said.
    “I don’t care. They’ve got nothing to do with me. I’m glad she didn’t say anything, and I don’t want you to tell me either.”
    “It’s not your choice whether they have something to do with you. You’re next, Hibiki,” she warned. “I can smell it on you. And when it’s your turn, you’d better be prepared to run for your life. The moment that sinks in, I’ll happily answer your questions.”
    “I don’t have questions.”
    “Come up with some,” Musubi instructed. She barked it as an order, but her tone immediately softened. “Anyway, I don’t plan to force anything on you. Just a little unsolicited advice from your aunt, okay? In the meantime, I’ll be off. I might be coming back around dawn, so just think of me as a drunk old hag stumbling through the front door at dawn if you want. Catch you on the flipside.”
    “Sure. Have fun.”
    “Oh, it’s gonna suck,” she laughed, waving over her shoulder as she left.
    Hibiki’s phone buzzed in her pocket, and she quickly pulled it out.
    I think Sato probably went to sleep, so just texting to let you know I’m fine
    She clicked her tongue, shoulders loosening.
    Don’t text people at this hour, idiot. You woke me up
    She locked it again and went to bed.

    There were no buses running at this time of night, so Musubi took her time strolling through the town streets and admiring the nighttime view. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t come from somewhere about as developed, but the land was largely flatter in her own hometown, and there was certainly no river running right down the middle. Generally speaking, there wasn’t a whole lot to look at beyond a bunch of lights shining under the moon, but it brought to mind a basin full of gemstones as she took in the sights and sounds. She didn’t need to intellectualise it. The eerie melancholy of streets and plazas, devoid of people, were open like an art gallery. Just like a song was better appreciated in silence, they were beautiful enough without justification.
    Maybe she was simply idealising something she could never grasp for real, but she doubted she could ever tire of a place like this, living alongside family and friends until she grew old. She had never been able to appreciate all a single town was worth. She had never been able to stay in one long enough. Her life had simply been a shell game for years. But with the Holy Grail, the cups and balls could become irrelevant. If she could finally put an end to her and her sisters’ curse, then perhaps she really could finally become a part of the gallery of jewels that she wandered through now.
    She envied her own Servant, that boundless freedom that she seemed so used to.
    I guess I’d want a fair fight with a certain someone.
    What had Lancer’s life been like, that she had been able to say such a thing when faced with unlimited possibilities? Was that really the only thing she lacked to be satisfied?
    “I still don’t get you,” she called out, stepping foot into the harbour.
    A violet skirt shimmied as the gold-haired warrior turned to look at her.
    “Oh, is that the thing to say now? Maybe the Grail’s knowledge is out of date. I thought it was ‘wassup’, perhaps ‘hi’?” replied Lancer. “I’d settle for a good old-fashioned ‘salutations’. You took a while.”
    “Sorry,” she shrugged. “I got a little distracted. Hibiki was worried about something.”
    Lancer placed a hand on her hip. “Gotta look out for your own.”
    Musubi nodded, but her attention was already elsewhere, looking out to the sea. “So what’ve we got?”
    Lancer raised a finger, pointing out to a small black shape floating on the horizon. “Rider.”
    “Interesting. A sailor then?”
    “Could be,” she said, twirling her hands. As if out of thin air, two heavy slashes disturbed the space, and a pair of mismatched spears came firmly into her grip. “Bet I could hit ‘em from here.”
    Musubi frowned. “What?”
    “Go on,” Lancer grinned. “Command Spell me.”
    “Are you serious?”
    “Sure. I could sink that thing without taking a single step, no sweat.”
    Musubi folded her arms. “I’m not letting you do that.”
    “Why not?”
    “You know why,” she lowered her voice. “You’ve heard of mutually assured destruction, right?”
    In her legend, Lancer lost her life in battle because she was unable to retrieve a weapon in time after throwing her spears. If Musubi understood the rules of Servants correctly - and she was pretty sure she did, given Tenou’s lecture - that meant that Lancer’s defences would drop to as good as paper in the moment right after recreating that attack. In that state, a particularly harsh criticism would kill her dead, let alone a counterattack from a cannon or something. All things being equal, Musubi preferred to win.
    “Well, well,” the air was broken by a voice from up above. “Someone finally took the bait.”
    The red arm of a crane was poised over the shipping crates, and there stood a blonde-haired girl in a white blouse. In her hand was some kind of cane, but it was hard to make out from this distance. She was almost certainly projecting her voice if she was speaking from that height.
    “Excellent,” she continued. “I needed someone to try Rider’s guns out on. My name is Oliphiaelé Wodime of the Department of Modern Magecraft.”
    She didn’t spell it out, but she was obviously a Clock Tower aristocrat. No, she had probably dismissed any need to spell it out. Nobody else would be so pompous, after all, and the aura of a typical high-class Magus brat was palpable even from this far away.
    “I’m Momiji Musubi,” she called, “Master of Lancer!“
    “I can’t hear you at all, but I don’t really care,” Oliphiaelé replied. “You understand why this country has a custom of naming yourself before combat, don’t you? That would be so that your lord will know who has been killed by whom at the end of the battle. So it’s pointless to name yourself to me, cannon fodder.”
    Lancer raised her right-hand spear at the ship on the horizon, ready to defend.
    “Oh, relax. It’s just a little verbal horseplay. When all is said and done, I have no intention of fighting you tonight,” the girl continued.
    She took one step off the crane, and fell――
    ――――――――――――――――――――――quite peacefully onto the asphalt, just a few metres away, without making a sound.
    “Ah, but don’t get any ideas. Even if my Servant can’t make landfall right now, you are actually staring down the barrel of a real cannon,” she pointed out.
    Musubi clenched her fists. “You’re a shit negotiator already, girl.”
    “I don’t care,” she waved a hand dismissively. “I’m not here to be friends with you.”
    “What do you want?”
    “I’m going to make an offer to you. I happen to be a… personal acquaintance of the Rulemaster,” she explained.
    “You’re here on their behalf?”
    “Hardly,” she scoffed. “Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m here on behalf of the Mage’s Association. To make it short… the Rulemaster needs to die. And I want someone to help me arrange that.”
    The words were perhaps two or three degrees ahead of Musubi’s brain. She understood them - at least, their literal meaning - but she didn’t parse anything beyond that. There was something she was missing here.
    “Explain.”
    “Do you know what death is?”
    Her eyes narrowed all on their own. This girl’s sense of humour was getting incredibly grating, incredibly fast. “Explain.
    Oliphiaelé’s eyes closed, and she turned on her heel. “The water stinks. We can discuss elsewhere.”
    If Musubi was confident in one thing, it was her ability to deal with surprise attacks. If this was leading to an ambush, it was ill-conceived.
    …But if it’s not…
    She patted Lancer on the shoulder and began to walk. Her companion slowly lowered her spear, and followed in step.

    Ren’s front door latched shut, and he switched on the light.
    Silence. Everything was exactly as he left it.
    Sofie and Saber had left him at the gate.
    He silently debated cooking something. The soup had been good, but not even close to enough.
    But he decided against it. Enough was enough for today.
    He switched off the light again, walked up to his room, fell face down on his bed, and - for the first time in weeks - dreamed of absolutely nothing.

    - Chapter 3 -
    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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  2. #22
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    Chapter 4, Part 1
    source of Flow
    first Prelude to the declaration of war

    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 08:42


    It was a new day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and Berserker had just finished doing unspeakable things to herself.
    It was hard not to. Her Master was, after all, a hot lady who was bossing her around. That alone was its own kind of dream come true. She had appreciated being a part of her king’s army in life for several reasons, and this was one of them, but being a part of a crowd of people meant that it was rare for attention to be directed at her specifically. This was the opposite.
    On one hand, she wished she had been summoned in any other class. She knew she was being weird about this, and felt no small desire to crush her own skull in shame.
    On the other, she was secretly glad that she had manifested in a form that allowed her to appreciate her dream job like this.
    On another third hand, which was basically the first hand if she thought about it - since she only had two, this made sense - she wondered if she was appreciating it too much. Their lodgings, after all, were not a place that took too kindly to this kind of activity, or so she had to assume. The Grail had given her some knowledge of the religion in this country, but she was hardly an expert. From what she recalled… Buddhism didn’t like desires very much.
    …Yeah, maybe that particular pastime was not something to be doing so openly in the middle of a Buddhist temple after all…
    She left her room, stepping into the corridor and wandering around a bit. What time was it?
    The monks seemed to be out and about, wearing their work clothes as they walked around, cleaning up here and there. There was a generally vacant atmosphere about the place.
    Seemed as though she’d missed breakfast. She didn’t need it, but…
    No, she did. As a Servant, she had no bodily requirement for food, but emotionally speaking, she needed breakfast.
    “Ah, you’re around. Good,” came a voice from behind, cutting her quest short before it began.
    Over her shoulder, Berserker made eye contact with her Master, and her body shuddered as though whimpering.
    That charm was far too powerful for its own good. It was getting harder and harder to be around Trithemius Gloria without making herself look like an idiot. That was… kind of the point, she supposed, given her own Noble Phantasm. Berserker-class Servants usually possessed the Mad Enhancement skill that exchanged their reason for power, but hers was replaced by a Noble Phantasm of the same nature - the only downside was that its effectiveness was entirely circumstantial. Really, it was more like Lewd Enhancement… A humiliating testament to her most shameful hour.
    Ah, but being publicly shamed wasn’t bad either.
    Mostly.
    Snap, snap.
    Gloria lowered her fingers from in front of her Servant’s eyes.
    “Are you listening?”
    Ah. Just the thought of being humiliated out in the open by the mockery of this woman as she poured copious amounts of charm spells into her had been enough to distract her entirely.
    It was a good image.
    “You’re not at all, are you?”
    “I-I’m listening!” she insisted, dragging herself back to reality. “Um… What did you say?”
    Gloria gave a long sigh, putting her hands on her hips.
    “I said I’ve been working on some divination,” she said in a low voice.
    “You can see the future?”
    The Magus flipped her hair with a smirk. “I can do whatever I want. I didn’t eat years of other people’s training for a joke,” she replied. “We’re expecting combat.”
    “Right now?!” Berserker spluttered.
    “No, you dolt. What I’ve been saying is that you need to get ready to start guarding the gate at night,” she replied. “I explained this, didn’t I? The temple has a Bounded Field that rejects spirits. You can only come in through that front gate.”
    Berserker nodded. This sounded somewhat familiar.
    “Our opponent is also something of a fortune-teller, so I’m sure they know that I’ve seen them coming.”
    Telling the future of someone who could also tell the future… Wouldn’t that person also tell that future too?
    “If you’re both trying to tell the future at the same time… That sounds confusing…” Berserker muttered.
    “Seems like we tell it in different ways,” replied Gloria. “But the fact is that we’re up against crazy smart enemies. From what I can tell, there are at least five of us playing divination and long-range precognition against each other.”
    Berserker winced. “That’s crazy.”
    “It’s a headache, but it’s just something you learn to expect going up against proper Magi.”
    Gloria’s tone was so dismissive that it almost sounded routine, but even Berserker could tell that this headache wasn’t so minor. She’d shrugged it off just a little too strongly for that.
    Her opponents weren’t normal Magi. Not by a long shot.
    But somehow, the Servant’s confidence in her remained unshaken. Gloria was hardly a normal Magus either. Such power and intelligence did not come easily, especially for someone with such average Magic Circuits and no ancestry to speak of.
    Her Master would simply have to make a real effort. Berserker was certain that such a sight would be beautiful. There was nothing in the world more wonderful than a shared struggle, than camaraderie.
    Well, perhaps a certain pair of legs were on par …
    “You’re still not listening,” Gloria sighed.
    “You keep saying that!” Berserker complained. “Even thigh I’m…”
    She stopped.
    “Even thigh?” Gloria frowned.
    “E-ehehe–ouch.”
    A sharp thwack to the head cleared her mind and brought her to a state of zen.

    “These new eyeballs are really something.”
    Nils found himself uttering words that he hadn’t predicted he would ever say. Looking out of his hotel room window, everything was crisp and clear no matter where he pointed his gaze. He could read the registration plates of vehicles as they passed by in the distance, and the faces of people on the ground were so easily made out that he could tell their eyes from their eyebrows even from several blocks away.
    “They would have been better,” the bird on the windowsill replied, “but your grade was passable, so you ought to benefit from at least this much.”
    This far surpassed the basic Reinforcement he had been using to see at long range so far. It was almost inconceivable how much detail he could make out. And best of all, this kind of vision didn’t even require a single sliver of magical energy to use.
    “So this is the ‘must-have’ skill for an Archer… I can see why,” he muttered. “It’s amazing just how fast you can progress my abilities if I just halfass your stepping stones.”
    “It has little to do with your effort per se,” Mishima explained. “Rather, it’s worth making an effort to strive for the best outcomes. At the moment, this Clairvoyance is of a fairly average degree because I was only able to accumulate a small portion of karma, but the fates of both that boy’s shadow and Saber were of dreadfully high density. Your brief encounters with the two gave the accumulator plenty to work with.”
    Nils nodded. “Maybe I should be paying attention to your advice a little more.”
    “Yes. You should. That is why I am here, Caster.”
    “Alright. Remind me again exactly how this whole accumulation thing works.”
    She’d given him this lecture before, but it had largely gone over his head. It was the first thing she had talked about on the day he had summoned her, so he’d been a little overwhelmed at the time. That said, he roughly had a working knowledge of what their contract was like, so he could probably get it without the hour-long explanation of the exact mechanics this time.
    Mishima sighed, but relented without complaint. “You are Caster. You understand what this means, don’t you?”
    “Right, I get that. The class container that I summoned you in ended up fusing with me through the karmic line connecting us,” Nils nodded. “Like a blockage in a river because too many plastics were flowing downstream or something.”
    “I do not particularly care for that analogy, but it is roughly the gist of things. Compared to the linear flow from Master to Servant, our connection is circular by way of my own nature. Thus, spiritually speaking, you and I are one,” she explained.
    “Right. And that makes me immortal.”
    “Only in the sense that you have transcended the state of a mortal human,” she corrected. “Nils Herydir-Dragilaz cannot die. Likewise, he is not vulnerable to ordinary blows. But the likes of magical energy and spiritual beings can harm you in the same way as they can any Servant. With sufficient damage of that nature, it will similarly flow to me, and my Spirit Core may become damaged. In such a scenario, this manifestation will end, Nils Herydir-Dragilaz will cease to be the same being as Caster, and you will certainly succumb to your wounds.”
    That much was obvious. Simply put, just because he couldn’t be directly killed, that didn’t mean he could go around freely taking lethal wounds. He already knew that one.
    “You don’t have to tell me that. But the karmic line between us shares more than damage and magical energy, right?” he recalled. “There’s also… everything else, I guess.”
    “You are familiar with the concept of ‘fate’. It is the same thing,” Mishima explained. “One’s history is more than simply what is in the past. There is an accumulation of information within the soul that persists in the present. It is more complex than the simplification to mere ‘good karma’ or ‘bad karma’, but karma is karma all the same. Once you have made a decision, so it is set, unable to be changed. That is karma. Likewise, all things that occur around you and happen to you cause disturbances in your spiritual state. This too is karma. It is a record of your being, more immutable and unchangeable than your very sense of self. Who you are is fluid, but who you were can never be moved.”
    “But it’s not always from the past, right?” Nils pointed out. “I know you can set a fate for someone that happens at some point in the future. That’s what a curse is.”
    “Karma is immutable,” said Mishima. “There is nothing in the world that can erase it. If a karma has been forced into the axis of your fate, then it shall indeed come to pass at the appointed time, and it cannot be discarded. It will remain until it has run its course. A completed curse cannot be broken. But to bend such forces is dangerous. Dig two graves, as they say. What I am granting you is similar to a curse in that respect.”
    “A blessing?”
    “In a way, Heroic Spirits are formed from karma also. Their own karma, the karma of those they save and those they kill, and the karma of those who believe in them. Benevolent and malicious wills accumulate, and it sculpts the soul like the wind and waves shape the cliffside. And I,” she explained, “can ameliorate that process. However, to indiscriminately accumulate all karma you encounter and carve it into you as deeply as a Heroic Spirit’s… would, frankly, be suicide. All your failures, however minor, would become irrevocably insurmountable hurdles. All wounds from all sources would grant you dire weaknesses. Receive a simple papercut: simple to dismiss, no? But for every paper you touch, it shall cut you again, recreating that same episode. Every time, more of the same karma aggregates within you. It will not take many times for it to double, quadruple, until you cannot even touch a book without sustaining a lethal wound. That is the price of forcibly transforming you into a Heroic Spirit while living.”
    Right. When she put it like that, it was obvious why she needed to set these irritating quests and quotas of hers, like ‘observe your enemies from a distance’. If she didn’t, and just absorbed everything… It wouldn’t go well in normal circumstances, let alone a battle to the death against legendary heroes. Even if he barely survived an attack from poison, then he would always survive poison, but always only barely - and that was assuming he accumulated no additional karma from the times after the first.
    “So the karma of ‘watching things from far away’ turned into this,” he surmised.
    “It is not so simple. Ordinary people do not possess the density of karma necessary to turn you into a proper Caster,” said Mishima. “Servants, however, do. To meet with a legendary figure, one with a grand destiny, will in turn confer to you a brush of their own potent karma. That is what is meant by a ‘fateful encounter’, you see. The web of fate is such that its threads intermingle. The companion of a great hero often becomes a hero themselves by association.”
    “Basically, a regular person is small fry, so I don’t get many experience points compared to the bosses.”
    “Your comparisons are irritating, but that is mostly accurate. You understand Servant parameters, yes? There are many factors, but broadly speaking, those of a higher Luck parameter will be worth more to my ability from a mere encounter,” she said. “Though, depending on the nature of your interaction with them, others might be more valuable. For example, to survive a dire blow from an immensely strong warrior, or even to defeat one, would also leave a heavy mark on your destiny that no mere conversation would.”
    “Oh, so that’s why you were all up in my grill about Saber…”
    “If you can entwine your fate with Saber through enough encounters, then you will certainly become comparable to him. Your basic parameters were already high for a human’s, so that is fortunately reflected in your Saint Graph. Your simplest measure of capability would put you on par with a Saber or Lancer. But parameters alone will not be sufficient to defeat a warrior of his calibre.”
    “I need to stalk this man to tie the red string between us?” he gave a sigh filled with mock derision. “I don’t even swing that way. What do we do about developing combat skills though, if fighting him now would end so poorly?”
    “That would be more difficult,” she replied, ignoring his snark, “since actually coming out of combat alive against an opponent is easier said than done as it stands.”
    But her gaze turned all the same to the west - toward the direction of Enzou, the mountain sleeping peacefully at the furthest edge of the town.
    “I do have one in mind for you, of course.”
    She had already surveyed the temple that lay close to its foot.

    Ding-dong.
    Ding-dong. Ding-dong.

    Jikan didn’t really want to open his eyes. They were far more comfortable shut. Thoughts were foggy, and he didn’t really–
    Ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong…
    “Shaddup…” he managed to moan, compensating for the breath it spent by turning over.
    Ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong…
    “You’re going to be late.”
    A sweet, cute voice that he absolutely didn’t want to hear forced him upright, as though a fishing hook had dug into the back of his neck.
    He looked around.
    Nothing but his own empty bedroom was here to greet him.
    Ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dong…
    Compelled out of bed and into the decidedly not-comfy world, he dragged himself over to his window. Opening it, he quickly found his answer to the question of what psychopath would come over at this time of morning.
    “Step away from the bell, Fujou Eri!”
    “Hey, Jii-Jii.”
    She was standing at his front door - decidedly not wearing her uniform, judging by the yellow shirt she had on under a light coat. A stick was poking out her mouth, no doubt some species of hard candy, and there was no schoolbag in sight as she stood with her hands in her pockets.
    “What are you doing? It’s like six in the morning.”
    “No it’s not.”
    “Yes it is!”
    “Dude, it’s nine o’clock,” she said. “I was gonna kidnap you on the way to school, but you never showed.”
    Frowning, he shot a glance back into his room, walking to his bedside to check his phone.
    9:00 exactly.
    Homeroom had already started. A bolt shot through his bones, and he threw himself at the windowsill again.
    “It’s like nine in the morning!” he cried. “I’m so sorry!”
    She grinned. “Don’t worry about it. I’m skipping, and so are you.”
    “What?”
    “C’mon, did you forget? It’s my turn with you,” she said, taking the pink lollipop out of her mouth and waving it around. “What are you gonna do with the rest of today anyway? Sit around?”
    He narrowed his eyes. He was actually quite looking forward to sitting around, particularly after yesterday. The walk home had been agonising after the level of exhaustion he’d experienced once he let himself feel it at the church. He probably would have stayed there overnight, even, if Sofie hadn’t offered to escort him–
    “Fujou… How do you know where I live?” he suddenly found himself asking.
    “Don’t worry about it.”
    “I’m worried about it. No, more importantly, you still have classes…”
    “It’s almost the end of the year. Who cares about one skipped day?” she shot back.
    “Please value your education more.”
    “Please value your cute and lively junior more!”
    Lively was one thing, but she was the furthest thing in the world from cute. Looks aside, there was no way Jikan was going to readily think of her as just ‘a cute girl’ in this situation.
    One day, she was going to reach a level beyond that of a mere nuisance, and someone was going to be worried sick about it.
    And more to the point, if he was there to see it…
    …then it’s probably going to be me.
    He threw on some clothes, collected his things, and glanced over his shoulder as he left just to be absolutely sure that there really was nobody else in his room.
    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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  3. #23
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    4.2

    Chapter 4, Part 2
    en passant
    False Cross I

    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 12:12


    Musubi didn’t like this plan. Not one bit. She didn’t have a better one, but this really rubbed her the wrong way.
    She had weighed up her options. No matter how she sliced it, this was the safest way to try something so ridiculous as this. On top of that, she didn’t think of herself as particularly principled. She came into this battle with the conviction that she’d do what she had to in order to win.
    Unfortunately, her family was the one area in which she had properly developed a conscience. It was ironic, in a way, that she cared so much about them when she didn’t care to know them at all. But since she was fighting for them in the first place, she couldn’t bring herself to just ignore them either.
    Letting her arms dangle over the side of the bridge, she stared down the river.
    “Hey, Lancer. Could you still hit that boat?” she asked. She wasn’t planning to act on the answer, but she wanted to know if it was at least possible to simply blow the source of her problems away. Maybe, she hoped, the knowledge alone would make her feel better.
    Lancer didn’t even look as she leaned further back against the railing.
    “Snap judgement?” she replied. “There’d be no point.”
    “No point? You were raring to go yesterday.”
    “It’s just a snap judgement,” she explained, “but that Rider is getting harder and harder to put down every day. I could try it, but I don’t know if it’d actually work anymore.”
    Musubi sighed. “We missed our window, huh?”
    “I wouldn’t say that. I’d still kick her ass one-on-one, I bet,” she said. “But long range combat isn’t my forte. I’ve only got one option, one time.”
    “Maybe I should’ve summoned an Archer…”
    Lancer grumbled. “Kinda rude, don’t you think?”
    Well, it probably was. She was right about that. But the fact that she just left that matter at that single comment was a breath of fresh air compared to that Wodime girl.
    “For a princess, you’re not very preening,” noted Musubi. “Put you in a room with our new friend and I’d get you mixed up.”
    Lancer shrugged. “My dad thought it was important that I got my hands dirty. Guess I picked up a few things while I did. There are more important things in life than personal insults.”
    “Oh, big shoes. I’m pretty sure there are even some knights out there who’d disagree with you.”
    She chuckled. “Well, we can’t all be adults.”
    Musubi shook her head. “Are you really okay with this plan?”
    “No. Are you?”
    “Not at all.”
    “Then I guess we wait for the right moment.”
    “Now you’re starting to sound like Hector,” Lancer grinned.
    “I’m feeling more… Patroclus.”
    The spearwoman visibly cringed at the name. “Let’s settle for Odysseus?”
    “Deal,” Musubi shrugged.

    Well, that was easy.
    Mishima’s declaration of victory came loud and clear to Nils’s mind as he stepped out of the hotel lobby and into the street.
    “Found them already?” his eyebrows rose as if on an updraft. “That was fast.”
    They’re close by. Make for the bridge. You’ll catch them if you’re quick.
    He had a few misgivings about doing this in broad daylight, but there wasn’t any time to waste if he wanted to catch his window of opportunity. He picked up his pace.
    His preparations were as good as they could be. He was armed with a Saint Graph, after all. There wasn’t much more he could do than that, but… Even still, going into this fight without truly knowing what he was up against was still nerve-wracking. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t really fielded his new powers in battle yet. If there really was an opposing Servant out there, he was going to have to watch his step.
    Really, he was hoping that he could skip that part and get straight to his real enemy - the one who he had fired himself up to defeat in the first place. After all, even if Magi were forced to treat normals poorly from time to time, a plot so obviously twisted couldn’t be overlooked.
    “I’m still amazed that Archer’s Master is planning something like that,” he muttered.
    It was a far cry from the behaviour he’d demonstrated so far, even going out of his way to heal an innocent bystander who had been injured… To think he would stray so violently from that… If Mishima was right about what she had told him - and he couldn’t imagine she wasn’t - he had to be up to something.
    Man is multifaceted, but I fear that he is not so much, she replied simply. But your plan will likely work. I can vouch for that much. If it does… you may accumulate something new as well.
    A bonus would have been nice, he quietly admitted, but it was secondary. Knowing what he did about her nature and her powers, Nils suspected that Mishima was likely among the most skilled in all of history when it came to long-range future divination - he was willing to put money on it. It was the knowledge of the future that she’d given him that spurred him on against this opponent.
    So long as he didn’t have to take on Archer, he could do it. He could win.
    He walked down the street with purpose in his footing.
    Stopping this scheme in its tracks was the first step to escaping certain defeat.

    And so, exactly as expected, Caster made his way westwards.
    Andri’s movements were so minute that she could have been mistaken for meditating as she sat on her bed. She shifted her intangible gaze back to her partner.
    “Sigmund.”
    Ten kilometres away, her employer set down a large case on the peat between the trees.
    “I just arrived,” he replied to the empty air.
    “Just in time,” she said. “He’s on his way.”
    “I suspected he might be. I do have time to prepare, don’t I?”
    “Plenty,” she replied.
    “And this isn’t illegal?”
    Andri wasn’t completely sure, to be honest. As an Atlasian, she was banned from taking weapons from outside the Pit, and creating weapons outside was also bound to get her a death sentence, but modifying existing weapons… That felt like an edge case that could have gone either way. Her modifications were minor. She didn’t think she’d get in too much trouble for them, but she wasn’t going to speak up about them.
    “I have reason to believe that it’ll be okay,” she replied.
    “I’m asking for your sake, not mine,” he frowned.
    She knew he couldn’t see it, but she shook her head. “You don’t need to worry. I wouldn’t knowingly do anything that would create excessive trouble for our team.”
    So long as everything was kept simple, they would not lose so easily.
    Not even with Saber in the mix.
    “Assassin?”
    I’m on my way. I’ve confirmed the presence of Berserker at the temple, she replied. The summoning circle is still present on the grounds, even.
    “And we can assault it fine?”
    It shouldn’t be hard. At least, not on its own, she replied. Though it could get… fussy, shall we say, if everything you’ve learned goes forward.
    “Understood.”
    Andri had confidence in Assassin’s attention to detail. ‘Fussy’ was the least of her concerns. For the first time in about an hour, she moved her hand, taking a single pellet of mint chewing gum from a packet at her bedside.

    “The temple? Ryuudou? Seriously?” Jikan raised an eyebrow.
    Fujou’s mouth opened wide in the kind of yawn that one was only really capable of when they considered themselves as good as alone.
    He blinked. “How are you already tired at this time of morning?”
    “Ah, shaddup. I don’t wanna hear jack from the guy who overslept so long I had to come find him,” she said. “Besides, you can totally yawn just because it’s cold.”
    She wrapped her arms a little tighter around the thick hardback she was carrying. The two had stopped by the bookstore on their way to Shinto at her request. Jikan hadn’t taken her for an avid reader, let alone of anything so thick. A book of unfinished Tolkien stories wasn’t something he’d come even close to expecting from her, and yet here she was, clinging to it all the same.
    “I guess I had the wrong idea about your pastimes. I thought you’d definitely get up to something sketchy,” he commented.
    “I take exception to that,” she replied. “I have a cool side too, y’know. I’m a perfectly competent miko.”
    He tried to picture her in that ceremonial garb, but it seemed… completely off. Cute, but off. And frankly…
    “Is reading huge books and volunteering part-time at a shrine really your idea of a ‘cool side’?”
    “I think being someone that people can rely on is cool,” she replied. “And besides, you read a lot too, right?”
    He forced an awkward smile. “Fujou, I’m not exactly a cool guy.”
    “Nope,” she agreed. “Not cool at all. You’re so lame that you kinda circle all the way back round. At least, I think so.”
    “What does that even mean?”
    She grinned. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
    “I’m your senior by two years.”
    Gramps
    Jii-Jii
    ,” she smirked.
    “Guh,” he flinched, pinned solidly down.
    “And what about your pastimes, huh?” she pressed. “What shady stuff are you getting up to all of a sudden, dipping on Sato like that?”
    All of a sudden, it was as if he was being held at gunpoint by a fairly simple question.
    Obviously they’d gossip about it… he silently kicked himself.
    “Well, you’ll understand when you’re older,” he shrugged back.
    “...Uh-huh,” she narrowed her eyes.
    Immediately, he realised the mistake. “Not like that.”
    “Uh-huh. Well, I already got the impression that it was more than just a joke, but you really were a slut after all…”
    “Yeah, yeah,” he sighed.
    Silently thanking her for understanding that he didn’t want to talk about it, he let the topic drift away on the breeze. The sunlight was crisp and clear against the bridge as they walked. The air was almost room temperature, pleasantly cool against the skin.
    “Spring came pretty early this year, huh?” he noted. “I haven’t checked the sakura forecast, but they’ve gotta be blooming soon.”
    “They’re supposed to open tomorrow,” Fujou said. “Meichi and Shinko got lucky.”
    “We’re probably going to be doing actual club work, you know. You’re the only one this flippant except for Pres.”
    “Psh. It’s a thinly-veiled excuse to hang out with you guys for the last time. Not my fault that I’m the only one with the balls to drop the act,” she shrugged.
    “I’m not exactly planning to leave town…”
    “You know what I mean.”
    A mild wind brushed between them.
    “I was thinking of saying this to the others, but we should all have a sakura viewing,” Jikan suggested.
    “I was kinda taking it as a given that we would,” she smiled. “I mean, come on. It’s been a hell of a year. How could we not?”
    He still remembered entering the empty clubroom for the first time, and how it had built up more and more inane crap as the weeks went by. They’d had plenty of ridiculous incidents.
    A self-proclaimed detective even more eccentric than their own club president had started tailing her.
    Somehow, they had ended up battling the student council president for their right to remain a club in a six-hour session of a real-time strategy game that Shinjirou ultimately won almost singlehandedly.
    Every one of them had performed absolutely miserably on Sports Day until the moment Sato lost her patience, but she ended up spraining her ankle, and the Culture Club ended up just retreating into town.
    Ren himself had narrowly come out on top in a mock swordfight on the seashore against a Kendo Club’s chosen champion during the summer break.
    When they all confessed to being single for Christmas Day, they ended up drawing straws to pair up and pretended to date.
    Falling asleep at Yamamoto’s place while studying, stumbling across a diary of Sato’s that he absolutely shouldn’t have seen, encountering Meichi in the wild online, getting locked in a karaoke room with Fujou, getting lost in the woods with Shinjirou…
    Everything he had shared, everything he hadn’t, everything he still didn’t know about them. Twelve months was really a blink of an eye, in the end.
    Jikan was going to graduate, and the others would spend years more in that club together, with he and Yamamoto never going beyond the very edge of their time there. When he thought of it like that, it was obvious that he couldn’t let that go so easily, passage of time be damned.
    Well, that was simple to say, but turning back time was way beyond the reach of even the supernatural powers that he could call on.

    Perhaps it was because he was absorbed in his thoughts about them that he didn’t notice such a paranormal presence approaching until it already made eye contact with him.
    Was that…?
    No, if he didn’t say anything, then they could pass by each other. There was no need to dive headfirst into this mess once again. Ren had already decided on that much. He didn’t have a plan yet, but it definitely–
    “Hey, good to see you in one piece,” waved Nils, flashing a shining grin. “They didn’t tear you to bits up there after all.”
    Crap.
    There went that idea.
    The other half of Caster - Mishima, wasn’t it? - was nowhere to be seen, but he didn’t want to rock the boat by looking for her. Fujou was right next to him. He didn’t check to see her expression.
    Just keep it vague and don’t stop moving.
    “Y-yeah…” he stuttered. “Well, I get the feeling that they aren’t the type to really rip into you anyway, right?”
    They couldn’t have been more than ten metres away from each other. Both walking towards each other at the same time, it was going to close any second.
    “Good to know nothing dire happened,” Nils replied. “And that you took my sister’s advice.”
    “Yeah. See you around, I guess.”
    “Oh, by the way…”
    No, nothing by the way, he silently hissed. Take the hint and leave already…!
    More than that, this was beyond a hint. He was telling him to get lost, so–
    “…that girl you were with the other day, was it Yamamoto?”
    Jikan’s throat tightened. Perhaps because his heart had crawled inside it.
    He wanted this to be over.
    And yet, as Nils passed by, his gaze turned to follow him, the thorns of a hundred obvious questions curling around his brain.
    How does he know about her? How much else does he know? What is he talking about?
    He turned on his heel. His mask turned to a paper smile.
    “What about her?”
    “Nah, you’re busy,” Nils gave a dismissive wave over his shoulder, not even looking back. “I’ll ask her myself.”
    The cold sweat below Jikan’s skin crept to the surface.
    Like hell you will.
    “Nils.”
    No response. He felt the tremble of cacophonous panic beginning to form behind his eyes.
    He looked to Fujou.
    Her brow was curled in confusion as she looked between Jikan and Nils, but shrugged all the same.
    “I got it,” she said. “You have to go, right?”
    “I’m so sorry,” he muttered.
    “Second time in two days… If you text me at midnight, I’ll laugh at you,” she gave a sly smirk. “Hey, I’ll probably be reading at Ahnenerbe or something. If you’re free before it closes, meet me there. I got work later. Don’t take too long.”
    With a light kick on his shin to push her forward, she kept walking. For a brief moment, watching the details on her back shrinking, it felt like he had been asked something that he didn’t want to answer.
    Focus.
    Ren pulled himself back to reality, running for a second to catch up with Nils.
    “Hey. How do you even know about Yamamoto?” he pressed.
    The Master of Caster gave him a snide glance. “How do you think? Just so you know, I’m not planning on involving her.”
    “So, what? You just used her name to get my attention?”
    Like he’d been pricked with a needle, Ren had half a mind to turn back right there and then.
    But the cavalier affability drained out of Nils’s lips in an instant.
    “No. I used her name because the divination said she’s probably going to be in trouble, and I thought you’d want to know about it.”

    Lancer stared westwards, and quietly tapped Musubi’s arm.
    “Already?”
    “Other side of the bridge. They just passed us.”
    “Then let’s go,” Musubi said, but Lancer shook her head.
    “No, slow down. If I can sense him, he can definitely sense me,” she muttered. “Which means…”
    A flash of realisation crossed Musubi’s eyes. “You think he’s up to something?”
    It was entirely possible that he wasn’t. Maybe he was cocky. Maybe his senses were out of wack somehow. But one way or another, they weren’t being impeded from pursuing their target. Lancer couldn’t be sure if there even was a big idea, but if there was…
    “It’d be rude to not going along with it if he’s almost begging us to follow,” she commented, straightening her back and beginning to move.
    Slowly. Let’s keep our distance for now.
    She was confident in her Magic Resistance. Caster wasn’t operating like a Caster, but she could be fairly sure he was still using Magecraft all the same.
    “We might as well,” agreed Musubi. “Not like we have a choice.”
    The one extra card that Wodime held dangled over their heads like a sword. To go against her right now was futile - or at least it seemed to be.
    There was only one way to find out if it truly was.
    “Let’s see how good those predictions really are,” Lancer muttered.
    And more importantly… I want to know what you’re up to, Caster.
    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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  4. #24
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    4.3

    Chapter 4, Part 3
    Eras of violence
    counting down

    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 12:39


    Sato Mayu’s face, by the tireless and everpresent hand of Earth’s gravitation, was pressed firmly against the tabletop.
    “He’s not coming,” she sighed, defeated.
    At first she had been worried, but having come to the clubroom for lunch and taken a headcount, she just ended up getting annoyed at Fujou.
    She wasn’t here either. It wasn’t hard to draw a connection between her absence and Jikan’s.
    She had been carting around two school bags for nothing because of that delinquent second-year. It was almost as good as a personal attack.
    A hand rubbed her back, up and down.
    “There, there,” Meichi said. “I’ll set him on fire tomorrow.”
    “Don’t set him on fire…” she mumbled.
    Yamamoto raised a quizzical eyebrow from across the room. “It’s not like you to sulk, Sato-chan.”
    She raised her eyes. “It’s Wednesday. I just want to spend some time with my tiny senior before Friday ends. Is that so wrong?” she grumbled. “Jikanium reserves are depleting…”
    “Not good,” frowned Meichi. “She’s starting to talk like Shinko.”
    Heavyset glasses turned up from leafing through manga pages. “What’s wrong with that?”
    “This is dire,” agreed Yamamoto. “If this keeps up, she’s gonna turn into a gamer…”
    “What’s wrong with that?!” Shinjirou protested.
    “We can’t have her spending her life savings on whaling for gacha games,” Yamamoto folded her arms firmly.
    “I don’t whale!”
    “That’s true,” Meichi agreed. “Shinko obviously doesn’t spend money on games, since she’s a cheapskate.”
    Yamamoto frowned. “I see. Sato-chan is gonna turn into a cheapskate who can’t bring herself to spend more than ¥200 on ramune… How tragic…”
    Silence. Only the singing birds outside interjected.
    “It’s no good…” Sato whined. “Our straight men aren’t here, so it just sounds like Yama-chan is being pompous…”
    “Does Fujou-san really fit the image of the straight man better than Shinko?” Yamamoto pondered.
    “Fujou is a straight man disguised as a funny man,” Meichi said. “Since she’s so sarcastic about it. It’s the opposite of Shinko, since she’s totally serious about being the butt of the joke.”
    Shinjirou clicked her tongue, but didn’t manage to muster a defence.
    “See?”
    “I’m ignoring you.”
    Knock, knock.
    A simple yet baffling sound broke their trajectory. The four exchanged some brief glances, scanning each other to determine who was expecting a visitor.
    “Matou-sensei?” Sato suggested.
    “Yes, come in,” Yamamoto called.
    The door rattled open at the invitation, its handle pulled by a woman on the other side.
    ‘Striking beauty’ really was the term - her long dark hair and a perfectly symmetrical face really did feel almost like receiving a concussion, unexpected enough to be dazzling. Dress shirt and pencil skirt gave her away as most likely faculty, but she was unfamiliar… Perhaps just a visitor? Tall, a stern expression on her face, and a completely straight stance, she gave off the air of someone important… or perhaps someone acting on behalf of an important person. At the very least, it was clear from a glance that she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
    “Good afternoon. I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she said. “My name is Asahi Shiho. I’m here to talk to Yamamoto Hibiki.”
    Yamamoto raised her hand. “Ah, yes. That’s me. What’s going on?”
    The woman gestured with her head. “It’ll only be a moment. Would you mind stepping out with me?”
    “Not at all.”
    Getting up out of her seat, she stepped into the corridor, and the door slid closed.
    “Oh, wait, Yama-chan, before you go…!” Sato perked up, quickly getting up after her.
    She needed to check whose house they were going to later that evening to graph the data she’d collected yesterday. Lunch break was almost over, so she needed to check now just to be safe.
    Grabbing the door, she slid it open, sticking her head out into an empty hallway.
    They weren’t there.
    “Yama-chan?” she called.
    No reply.
    Shinjirou frowned. “Wow. They moved fast.”
    “…They really did…” muttered Sato.
    Yamamoto and the office lady were nowhere to be seen. Not even the echo of footsteps sounded between the walls.
    An eerie feeling settled into her chest - not at what she had seen, but what she hadn’t.

    The emerald canopy of the woods by the school shielded what lay below from the eye of the sun. Two sets of footsteps led themselves further in with haste and purpose, as if preparing to cash a cheque… or perhaps collect on a debt.
    “These… Aquarions of yours, whatever they are,” Nils said. “How long is it gonna take you to gather them?”
    Ren didn’t respond at first. His eyes scanned the earthen ground, silently evaluating something. There was nothing on his face.
    The one thing that bothered Nils so much about him was how difficult he was to read. His expressions were vague, and his body language gave away very little. Projecting some kind of train of thought onto the guy was far too easy for his own good. A casual conversation was one thing, but it was almost impossible to tell what he was trying to communicate without words.
    He got the feeling that he didn’t have too many friends for that reason, but even that was just an assumption. This guy would probably have been written off as mentally disabled if he weren’t so pretty… Not that Nils could be certain that he wasn’t. There was no deficiency behind those eyes, but something about him was surely off, like they weren’t completely living in the same world.
    And yet, with the girl he’d been walking with on the bridge, that was different too. Human beings would adjust and adapt to different situations, of course, but more than one thing adapting to another, it was almost like they were entirely different people.
    Perhaps this was the natural result of living with only one foot in the world of Magecraft? Maybe at least some of this could be chalked up to a foreignness, or even hostility…
    “Depends,” he finally spoke up, “on how much energy we need.”
    Unhelpful.
    “Well, grab all you can. I expect we’ve got about five minutes,” Nils said.
    “Where’s Mishima?”
    “Further along. She’s setting something up for later.”
    A scrutinous stare.
    “To be clear,” Ren said, “I’m here to help Yamamoto. I’m not getting directly involved any more than that. I told the Overseer that I’m not joining this fight.”
    Nils sighed. “Yeah, I got it,” he nodded, silently wondering how much that was even going to be possible.
    Ren placed his hand to the earth, and something intangible rippled. If Nils was not sensitive to magical energy, he probably wouldn’t have noticed a thing, but this was… new.
    Ethereal somethings blinked in and out of being. Creeping into peripheral vision, retreating almost immediately… It was as though hundreds of invisible will-o-wisps were responding to a roll call.
    So these were also spirits. Individually small, each was no heavier than a single heartbeat, but the space was permeated by countless tiny presences. It was like standing in a sleeping lake that had begun to stir.
    “Your Magecraft is unusual,” he commented. “What, you gather ghosts?”
    “They’re artificial,” Ren replied, not looking up. “I try to make one every day and then leave them to multiply on their own. They store functions and information, so I set them to produce more of themselves when they’ve absorbed enough power from the land.”
    Creation and design of spirits, huh… The concept wasn’t one he was familiar with - he couldn’t immediately think of anyone he knew who implemented such a technique, even in Clock Tower - but it wasn’t one he was surprised to hear existed either.
    “Lucky it ended up being right by school, right?” he noted.
    “You say that like I didn’t put them here on purpose. If you’ve got to stockpile power somewhere specific, wouldn’t you want it to be in the places you’d need it the most?”
    Huh. Nils hadn’t doubted for a moment that Ren was serious about wanting to protect everything around him, but perhaps he’d been taking that determination lightly.
    Having had so much time to make these preparations…
    Told you it was a good call, Mishima.
    …it was clear that this guy would be useful after all.
    Nils silently apologised, but he needed an extra bullet in this barrel if this plan was going to work.
    After all…
    “Sorry, did I say five minutes?” he frowned.
    Ren looked up, displeasure stretched across his lips and alarm sparking in his eyes.
    “I… get the feeling I know where this is going,” he said.
    The dull thumping of heavy feet echoed through the formless surface. A sea of spirits should not have reacted to the material plane in such a way. The two were separate, a dimensional canyon prying them qualitatively apart.
    The only thing they should have responded to like this was magical energy.
    From between the trees approached a looming figure, clad from head to toe in metal. Plates rattled as it took step by step, closer and closer. A scarlet cape rippled behind a gleaming silver knight.
    It was a sight that did not belong in the modern era. Superficially, evaluating the figure as a Servant would not have been out of the question. But it lacked the sheer density of power that the frames of Ghost Liners contained in its presence. Which meant that, rather than a summoned spirit…
    “So you really were waiting for us,” said Nils, “Master of Archer.”
    He couldn’t see the man’s eyes, but he could feel them through the dark holes in the helmet.
    “Where’s your Servant?”
    “Occupied,” came the response, echoing hollowly in the metal.
    “What, you didn’t think this might be a higher priority?” Nils frowned.
    “No. My goal is just to stall you. But you already knew that.”
    The air between them was thicker than concrete.
    “Keep going,” Caster instructed Ren, not looking back. “I’ll be quick.”
    Or at least, that was the optimal outcome. If he actually got stalled out here…
    …then it’s on you to save your own damn friend.
    Sensing the shift in the tension, the knight reached over his shoulder, drawing a blade the length of his own torso with a single hand.
    Nils opened his Magic Circuits, and grasped gunmetal from within.

    Lancer was getting uneasy. Rather than approaching from the eastern side of the woods, she and Musubi had moved around the school to approach from the northern side, slipping through the few streets between it and the entrance to the temple.
    The fact that these trees were so close to a school in the first place was a bit odd, but approaching its boundary was making her actively uneasy.
    The trees were close together, and joined by a sea of shadows. Meanwhile, she and her Master were out in the open like this, unobscured and unobstructed.
    This spot… was right at the killing edge of a natural firing line.
    She hadn’t said anything. Judging from Musubi’s silence, she’d noticed it too… Perhaps by instinct, rather than by any kind of battle experience.
    One way or another, this was risky.
    Archer’s Master was supposed to be in these woods, right? And the range of the Archer class’s ability to sense other Servants was further than those of the others.
    If Archer was here, this is where they’d strike.
    And so, in anticipation, trying to work out exactly what angle to best watch from, the two had been standing still for roughly two minutes.
    It was only when Musubi spoke up that the stalemate was broken.
    “Is there any point in trying to wait them out?”
    Lancer narrowed her eyes as her gaze tried to pick something out of the dark.
    Probably not.
    But Archers had a broad range of weapons. The question wasn’t whether she could wait out an opponent, but whether she could defend against the first strike.
    “Well, it’s not even like I know for sure anyone’s there,” she muttered.
    Taking one step forward into the trees, she raised her right hand to materialise a spear────
    A flash of light.
    A burning sensation shot through her arm.
    Lancer pulled back immediately. Too late.
    She had already been hit. The limb fell limply to her side, her skin and bone silently screaming in pain.
    She could see the point of impact. A hole burned right through her hand, likely ending at her elbow. The stench of seared flesh bloomed from it.
    The tendons in her right arm had probably burned away.
    By the time Lancer had realised she was under attack, it had already done its damage.
    She was familiar with high-speed blows, but this was on another level entirely. That attack was probably…
    No, she was certain that it had been instantaneous. Nothing short of future sight could have possibly seen it coming.
    An ice-cold assessment reached its conclusion in one tenth of a second. The spear she had been summoning in her right hand was clutched in her already-flowing left.
    A second shot was coming. This was a moment for a lethal strike. Disarm your opponent, then finish them off… which meant Archer’s next target was───!
    Lancer thrust at the empty air in front of her eyes.
    In the same moment, a flash of light struck the tip of her spear.
    The parry only lasted a fraction of an instant. Even for a Servant, it was an absurd feat.
    An ordinary human striking a bullet from the air had to merely contend with something three times the speed of sound. One hundred times faster than that was not even a tenth of a percent of the speed of light.
    In other words, compared to that beam, the speed that a Servant would perceive as unfathomable did not amount to so much as a rounding error.
    This was all knowledge that quietly slotted itself into the back of Lancer’s mind. Her combat experience was likely among the best of all Heroic Spirits. That was the only reason why her head was still intact.
    The swiftness of a demigod from ancient times, the superhuman agility of a Servant…
    Useless. All of it was useless in the face of an attack like that. So long as she existed within the confines of time and space, it was impossible to contend with it.
    Lancer understood all of that. So much so that she paid no mind to the magical energy coursing through her spear.
    The moment it and that light had touched, the beam had disappeared. It had not evaporated, but been devoured.
    Her right arm began to regenerate.
    If it was the same attack that had destroyed it, then the same amount of magical energy would be enough to completely undo that damage.
    Tribute - Flames of Life
    Eilitherís Dynamene
    was a divine spear that operated on that supremely simple principle.
    The entire exchange had occurred in less than half a second.

    ───“Heh.”
    A nostalgic smile crept onto Lancer’s face.
    “Archer, I take it? Not bad. You might actually be able to do me in,” she grinned. “I like that in a man.”
    She didn’t expect anything, but…
    “You’re making a lot of assumptions, Lancer.”
    From above?!
    A foot swung down from over her head.
    Striking the ground with the force of a mortar shell, a figure spun on her heel, slashing the air with glass claws in a broad crescent arc.
    So much to say that each had been narrowly evaded by their target, driven out from between the trees completely.
    Archer straightened her back, silver-haired ears perking up as her sharp eyes landed on Lancer’s.
    “Oh, even better,” the spearwoman laughed.
    Her gaze panned over the bare dark skin, covered only by what looked like ceremonial garments - dark fabric over her chest, adorned with jewels, and a pair of red sashes crossing her hips. Her figure was… invitingly maternal, to put it lightly, and far removed from what she had anticipated from a fellow warrior.
    No, maybe she wasn’t one… That burning sensation had felt familiar. It wasn’t quite the same roaring flame that had brought her life to an end, but it certainly held the same weight to it.
    Not Hephaestus. Apollo…? No, someone else.
    This woman in the revealing formal dress was…
    “A priestess of Hestia?” Lancer concluded, bemused. “Really? You sure you’re still a virgin, miss?”
    A canine tail waved back and forth behind the enemy’s back. “No comment.”
    “You don’t need one, don’t worry,” Lancer replied. “I’m pretty perceptive. For example…”
    A sniper didn’t need to be on the frontline. In fact, even if Archer could fight better in melee than at range, it was still to her own detriment that she’d be standing here. Against an opponent with spears, in a dark forest, to be able to remain out of reach and keep shooting non-stop with instantaneous attacks… And the fact she’d come from above while the beams had come from ahead seemed to indicate that she could fire them from any angle too.
    So, no matter how she looked at it, the only reason to be here was…
    “…your actual objective,” she said, “which is to stop me from advancing rather than killing me. Right?”
    Forget me. She could have shot Musubi right there. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.
    Archer was trying to prevent them from interfering. For some reason, they were needed alive.
    “Would you look at that, Master,” declared Lancer. “Looks like Rider’s Master isn’t the only one who wants to use us as pawns.”
    Archer simply gave a lopsided smile, apparently beaten. “Sorry. But I can’t really explain right now. And I know you’re not going to turn around just because I tell you to.”
    So it came down to a duel all the same.
    “That’s fine by me. I don’t have any problem beating the shit out of someone who tries to chart my future for me,” Lancer narrowed her eyes. Out of empty space, she grasped a second spear in her healed right hand. “But you’re pretty cute, so maybe I’ll forgive you if you lose.”
    One foot in front. One spear to strike, the other to defend. She would control her defence, creating single openings that would guarantee where she had to parry in advance.
    “I’m pretty good at fighting people faster than me,” she said. “Master, go.”
    It was as if Musubi had been waiting for exactly that instruction. Her heels immediately beat against the ground, turning to route herself back the way she came.
    There was definitely another entrance to the forest she had in mind.
    Archer’s gaze focused.
    “I won’t let you.”
    “That’s my line.”
    A swing of her second spear. A slash of the glass claws.
    Another beam of light.
    The window didn’t match. The parry failed.
    But it still didn’t strike its target. The beam impacted, releasing the focused heat of its blazing glare against… nothing.
    No, that space wasn’t empty.
    It was still filled by the very air itself.
    The second spear in Lancer’s right hand,
    Tribute - Snows of Death
    Piktikós Pherousa
    , had frozen it - a simple reinforcement-type curse, powered by the magical energy that the very first shot had dispersed into. If the attack was the same, of course it would be sufficient to deflect itself.
    Another supremely simple principle stopped the light short against an invisible wall that stood firmer than steel. Archer could not have possibly predicted it, just as Lancer could never have predicted that first flash.
    Musubi was already gone.
    “You see, the great thing about you being here to stall me,” Lancer grinned, “is that I get to stall you too!”
    With those words as her battle cry, a metal thrust flashed just as brightly.
    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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  5. #25
    The Hopeful Gl4re's Avatar
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    YAMAMOTO NOOOO
    It's winter in Sapporo. And as the weather stirs, so too does a new Holy Grail War.

    Fate/UpRise
    Character Compendium
    Story - Ch. 3

  6. #26
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    4.4

    Chapter 4, Part 4
    erroneous divide
    verted Contention

    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 12:42


    The booming crack of gunfire ripped through the air, shattering the silence as though it were a reflection in water.
    The turning of Nils’s Magic Circuit had accessed his Noble Phantasm.
    It was not something that had been granted to him when he had become Caster. The shard of metal inside him was something he had taken for himself long ago.
    The sword Curtana used by the royal family of the United Kingdom was not the original that was said to have been wielded by the Knight of Lamentation. The monarchical blade symbolising their authority over the isles in modern times was nothing more than a replica of the original Sword of Mercy. As such, the tip that had been lost from the genuine article also needed to be forcibly discarded from the copy, for the loss of it was the very representation of that Mercy.
    Its owners were not Magi. But such an artefact held great Mystery all the same.
    Therefore, if one were to come across the tip of that sword, whose removal was equivalent to the mercy of the head of the British state…
    The black pistol in Nils’s hand was a SIG-Sauer P226R. It was a semi-automatic firearm with a capacity of fifteen 9mm rounds, currently in use by the United Kingdom Special Forces. It was a mass-produced modern weapon that anyone should have been bewildered to see in the hands of a Servant - even one made from a living human.
    Nils didn’t know this information because he cared to research it. He simply intuitively understood its specifications as a weapon used by Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, a tool that would have been used in the establishment of martial law.
    In other words, in the hands of Nils Herydir-Dragilaz, the master of
    Withdrawing the Succeeded Quarter
    Curtana Replica Morholt
    , the gun was no mere tool, but a symbolic agent of a merciless king: it was tyranny itself. He understood it not because it was his armament, but because it was his very will.
    This was no different to commanding the man in front of him to die.
    A bullet composed of magical energy crossed the distance in a fraction of the blink of an eye, striking the plate armour with force enough that it sang a deafening note.
    Even layers of steel were as good as air before it. What he had fired was no different to a magic missile, but the strength was certainly that of a Noble Phantasm.
    That was why it was shocking.
    What the…?
    Instead of shattering, the point of impact merely darkened. The helmet turned almost a total matt black in an instant, the shining silver replaced by a blooming web of ebony. Its wearer had not budged.
    “I’m glad you led with that,” said Sigmund. “A noise ringing so loud around my head in the midst of combat would have been very disorienting.”
    It might have been nothing more than small arms fire, but measured by the standards of a Servant, that was still equal to a Rank A attack. Rank D alone would have been enough to split open a tank. To withstand that kind of power without flinching…
    What the hell is that armour?
    Nothing so thin, not even Magecraft, should have been able to take that directly and remain so totally unscathed.
    No, not unscathed. The silver turned black. Some kind of magical effect was in play here.
    “Damage transference?” Nils muttered, reaching into his arsenal again.
    “Not a bad guess.”
    Sigmund dashed forward, lunging with the speed of the wind.
    Any normal human would have been crushed in an instant.
    But right now, Nils was a Servant.
    As though the knight were a mere rock, he outflanked the shining slash in an instant.
    12-gauge shotgun Benelli M4.
    It was not aimed at the head.
    ──Bang.
    Brutal gashes like monstrous claws ripped savagely through the earth, bursting with the spray of hot lead.
    It was impossible for Sigmund to maintain his footing on the ground that no longer existed.
    For a split second, he found himself in the air, still midway through his incomplete attack.
    A harsh kick to his side sent him flying between the trees, tumbling with a harsh thud, kicking up dirt, rolling to a halt.
    Carrying his momentum, the soles of his blackened greaves dug into the soil. He pulled himself upright without skipping a beat. Nils pursued with a single leap, soaring at least a dozen metres through the air with ease.
    Giving Ren space to work was a priority. Stalling him Sigmund might have been, but he himself was equally on the defensive in that regard. Even if the Master was as weak as he’d expected, he was still strong enough to crush someone that weak in a single breath.
    Sigmund took a combat stance once again. The flank of his breastplate was blackened as well.
    ───Now that he looked at it, the way he was standing was different to before. His legs seemed stiffer, and his hips were slightly off-center. Almost as if the blackened armour was───
    “Interesting. So it responds to force rather than magical energy,” Nils surmised. “I was wondering, but I guess it doesn’t matter that I’m not a spirit after all.”
    “I’m sure you won’t find it too much of a liability either way,” Sigmund replied. “But now that I have a handle on your speed… Neither will that be for me.”
    “Oh, really?” came a scoff.
    He didn’t believe that for an instant, but didn’t care to play along either.
    Was this guy trying to taunt him? Provoke him? Attack faster, or slower? He didn’t give a damn.
    His bullets were faster than he was anyway.
    “Well, in that case,” he replied, “0.55 anti-tank rifle Boys MKI.
    Chanting the name of the weapon like an incantation, four huge guns almost the size of grown adults materialised at his sides.
    Sigmund’s right foot immediately pulled back. It was impossible to see his face, but the alarm that must have been carved into it was palpable. The swordsman had at last registered a threat.
    “That’s more like it,” the mock-king grinned. “Let’s get a feel for that steel, shall we?”

    Ethereal shockwaves shook the sea of invisible lights.
    Ren couldn’t help but flinch as the wave crashed around him. He understood that Nils was trying to play keep away, but…
    Can’t you be a little more delicate?!
    The turbulence was only slowing him down. The magical energy roaring from Caster’s attacks was like the light from the sun - blinding, making it almost impossible to tell the sky from the clouds.
    Each of these spirits was miniscule. A sole one contained enough mana to cast a Single-Action spell… and not a sliver more. Depending on the scale of the Magecraft, it could even have fallen short - requiring two, three, perhaps as many as four others. No, perhaps even more than that. But it wasn’t an issue.
    He had left them to multiply for four years now. Their population growth stagnated quickly - there was limited mana to work with, and the Aquarions were limited in how much they could gather in order to divide at all. He hadn’t been here at the weekends, during breaks between terms and semesters, he’d skipped days to study or because he was sick. He had been here when he needed more magical energy, and had probably burned over ten thousand of them as fuel already. Not to mention, there was no way they were all full to the limit - perhaps about halfway. So, by his estimation…
    That left about fifty - give or take one or two - thousand of them remaining.
    In other words, he was drawing from a well with a depth of mana spanning around one hundred and twenty thousand units.
    For its creator, whose own reserves of life force were so poor, it was like he was extracting money from a savings account containing seven decades’ worth of wages.
    It probably wasn’t very impressive. He figured that it was pretty likely that any Magus worth their salt could have surpassed it. But for just one person, it was more than sufficient.
    The roaring river flowed into a meagre funnel.
    His body was small. Someone like him should not have been able to carry all of this. For that, he would rely on what he had inherited.
    He did not consider himself a proper Magus. He did not live according to that code. But Ren Jikan Metanovae was certainly descended from a long line of them nonetheless.
    The Astrae - the model of the stars within his body - was certainly apt as a solution to the problem of storage. When it came to magical energy, then a Magus could store it in their own Magic Circuits. It was no trouble at all to store even this much power within the vast false sky within him.
    That sky was created from his own nervous system. To try to fill it all at once would probably destroy his brain, so he supposed. He was not trying to directly siphon it for that very reason.
    Gemini for entanglement, Libra for guidance, Aquarius for carrying, Pisces for deliverance…
    The Aquarions were small. They could inhabit singular stars within the Astrae if necessary. The scale was different, but it wasn’t unlike possessing one’s own individual cells with the spiritual masses of bacteria to become one with a disease, or perhaps connecting one’s limb to a mythological being’s. No, it was even simpler than that - merely one step removed from mustering the mana in the air.
    It had been about sixty seconds. Over one hundred of them already inhabited the constellations inside him.
    By gathering enough of them, he could use their constituent Ether along with the mana they had drank from the leylines. This was enough to construct a link to the pool he had created here, one that could allow him to tap it from any distance.
    A bottomless lake, filled with energy equal to a Servant’s body one hundred times over…
    With enough strength to draw on, even something so harmless as a hill by the side of the road could explode into pyroclasts and shatter everything.
    And Ren was a little more discriminating - more focused - than that.

    That focus was just enough to avoid it.

    Sensing a riptide of power, the stars inside lit up.
    Taurus, the divine bull: incarnation of Zeus, the god of order.
    The phenomenon called Reinforcement poured through Ren’s body as he kicked the earth, flying just wide of a howling torrent of bright blue flame.
    The tree standing before it transformed into its own funeral pyre for just a single instant. In the blink of an eye, it had already scattered to burning shards.
    “I was hoping you’d block.”
    A twig broke under the foot of the newcomer. The face he’d seen once before was pointed his way. Her mouth curled, displeased.
    “I guess that’s what I get for developing a pacifist’s habits,” she muttered.
    “Momiji Musubi…” Ren recalled.
    He didn’t waste time wondering why she was here. If Yamamoto was in trouble, it was obvious that Momiji would come for her too. But…
    “I’m on your side!” he spluttered. “I’m trying to pre–”
    She didn’t wait.
    Dashing forward with blinding swiftness, she reached for his head.
    Capricorn saw it. The moment stretched.
    Circulating power through his arms and legs, with his own speed unfit for flesh and bone, he threw himself aside again.
    His limbs felt like iron, his muscles contracting like slabs of granite, but his leap flung him free of her range.
    Crack.
    A strange, almost muffled sound. Momiji’s fingers had skewered the wood of a tree behind where he had been standing just a moment ago.
    “Wait!” he cried.
    “Stop talking.”
    A crashing snap. With a single arm, she swung. The tree became a blur.
    Pain shot through Ren’s body as he was batted away like a baseball, sailing through the air for entire seconds before coming to a halt with a thud.
    It was a blow that was no doubt sufficient to shatter almost every bone in a human’s body.
    She’s not screwing around…
    He pulled himself to his feet.
    The sharp burning that had coursed through him as she had struck him had not been from the blow itself. His nerves had been firing just like Magic Circuits.
    Aries shone. The very concept of protection flowed through him like blood through his veins. The mana from the Aquarions he had already gathered was enough for this much.
    He took stock.
    He’d managed to take in 146 of them. That was enough magical energy to surpass an ordinary Magus’s od almost fifteen times over.
    But ordinary Magi didn’t fight with od. No doubt they would have relied on ambient mana in the air first and foremost. The Metanovae methods didn’t allow that. The Astrae wasn’t designed for improvised combat like this. A High-Thaumaturgy of this complexity required full rituals to use. That was the place for mana. If Ren cheated, just passing Ether through the constellations in his body for instant results…
    …143 Aquarions left, he counted.
    He closed his left eye, reviewing his state with Capricorn.
    Externalities intact. Limited internal damage to intercostal blood vessels.
    He’d been too conservative. She was strong.
    Aries didn’t harden his body at all. The effect was conceptual - essentially reducing the ‘reality’ of harm in the moment that he was suffering it. That injury wouldn’t get worse for that reason, but he needed to take this seriously too if he was going to guard against any further hits. He didn’t know if she’d mistaken him for the one going after Yamamoto or not, but Momiji clearly had no plans to listen to his explanations.
    I need to shake her off…
    No. She was too fast to flee from. He needed to defeat her.

    “Well, it seems this little grove is done for.”
    A voice Ren had never heard before came from behind.
    A blonde-haired girl - foreigner? Magus? - in a dress shirt and long skirt clicked her tongue as she looked coldly at the two.
    “Throwing around fire that casually, are you?” she glared. “Is Archer not bad enough?”
    It was almost like she was… scolding Momiji.
    “Maybe you picked the wrong person to help you with your stupid plan then,” Momiji shot back.
    Ren gritted his teeth. Two of them.
    And there’s a plan?
    They weren’t targeting him by mistake…
    He didn’t understand. He wasn’t part of this. He had nothing to do with this. He had specifically told the Overseer that he wasn’t getting involved.
    “Forget it,” the blonde girl replied, pulling a small metal ball from her pocket. “I’ll make this quick.”
    She held it toward Ren, and magical energy surged.
    Stars
    The shape of stars
    , is it? Then,
    Antrum
    celestial bodies are hollow
    ───”
    Capricorn grasped a gushing echo. The magical energy rushing toward him was tinged with an attribute to nullify his own.
    ──Wait…?!
    He knew this command.
    Not just nullify it. To nullify it… perfectly.
    That word existed to nullify the law he carried. The inside of his body was a sky. An invisible wave was coming to collapse that very idea itself. The formless spell was completely antithetical to him. The Astrae was like a drawing in the sand.
    It was a perfect argument against his Magecraft on every level.
    As if it had been made by the very same creators of the Astrae itself.
    Is that even possible?!
    It wasn’t going to cease to be, but it was going to shut down for sure. If she interrupted his spells so completely, he wasn’t even going to be able to mentally keep up with Momiji’s attacks.
    He gritted his teeth.
    ────141.
    Anima Animusphere
    God resides in empty space
    !” he responded.
    The counterargument flew, an antiphase to the antiphase. The principles stood.
    A sigh of relief escaped his lips.
    The girl’s face twisted - at first to astonishment, then to disgust enough that it was as if she had just stepped in dogshit.
    “I had a feeling you were doing something I recognised,” she muttered, “but to think that some oriental lowlife actually managed to get his dirty fingers on Animusphere’s works… Who on earth do you think you are?”
    Animusphere’s?
    Something was wrong here. This didn’t add up at all.
    She had said it as if it were a name.
    “That’s my line,” he shot back. “Who the hell are you, walking around with my family’s spells?”
    Revulsion roared into fury in her eyes. More metal found its way between her fingers.
    Unbelievable,” she smouldered. “After everything that’s happened, you have the gall?!”
    “That’s enough of that.”
    Momiji cut in from close behind. Too close.
    Ren started to t──
    Impact.
    Silence.
    The earth against his face.

    Gunfire. Shrapnel. Sigmund had run up against the limit.
    His armour had turned almost completely black. Just a few grazes from those rifles had been enough for a result this dire.
    It had extended to the joints in the metal.
    Caster had probably realised it too. The
    Nigredo
    Black Matter
    that the metal of his armour had turned to was not so easily moved.
    His arms and legs were completely jammed. He couldn’t move his neck at all. He couldn’t even turn his torso. No opponent had ever managed to completely turn the Bright Arms to Black Matter so completely before.
    The ebony shell coating his body was strong, and it would not sustain damage so easily - least of all when there was still metal to turn. But it seemed like there was very little left. There were probably some cracks where the plates overlapped here and there, but a direct hit would be enough to deal with that.
    And when it did…
    “It’s not bad,” assessed Nils. “This setup of yours, I mean. It’s like you’re wearing an entire second suit of armour under your first. Even if I punch through one, it’s not so easy to do the same to the other. But I’m guessing this is the end of the line for you, right? There’s no more of your second suit to hide behind.”
    The pistol he’d pulled out first thing was in his hand again, barrel raised.
    “I won’t kill you, but I do plan to take out your legs,” he said. “Thanks to that little design flaw, you ended up being pretty weak, but the fewer enemies the better.”
    A voice from no direction came to his mind.
    Assassin is done, informed Andri. We have all we need. Get Archer to pull you out of there before you get hurt.
    Beneath his helmet, Sigmund cracked a smile. He had not spoken throughout the battle, but he quietly raised his voice now.
    “Thank you for your concern, Andri. But I am a knight. I plan to take responsibility for any blunders in this battle,” he replied.
    “Andri?” Nils echoed. “Oh, I guess you’re talking to that other Master. Well, tell her to stay out of my way too. I suppose we probably lost her Assassin already, so I’ll be coming after them next.”
    He paused.
    The barrel was raised higher, levelling at Sigmund’s eyes.
    “You still have your Archer, don’t you? I don’t like it, but this is the Holy Grail War,” he glared. “Command Archer to commit suicide.”
    “I will not.”
    The response was swift, unhesitating. The steel composing them was as strong as his Mystic Code’s.
    “Yeah,” muttered Nils. “I was worried you’d say that, you cosplayer.”
    He pulled the trigger.
    The blackened armour that had become no better than a statue───

    A gleaming white arc severed the bullet.

    ───moved.

    Nils didn’t even have time to vocalise his shock.
    White, so pure it almost seemed to glow.
    The black shell had vanished - no, transformed.
    The rifles fired. Too slow.
    Sigmund closed the distance, slashing the guns to Nils’s left.
    He’d had no interest in correcting Nils’s assumption that the Black Matter, the key ingredient to this state, was a simple defensive measure. He had been preparing
    Albedo
    White Matter
    from the very start.
    It was not a second armour. It was simply basic alchemy.
    Purity was instilled into his armour. Its movements had become perfectly efficient. The increased speed and strength it imbued him with had multiplied even further beyond its basic level.
    Even if Nils had the parameters of a Servant, that was fine. All Sigmund had needed to do was step into that realm himself.
    The intact rifles turned. He was already evading.
    He thrust his sword toward his opponent. Nils kicked back, jumping out of range.
    There was no point in pursuing. Even now, he was still slightly faster.
    But that was fine. All it meant was that he had underestimated Sigmund yet again.
    One part of his gauntlet had not been white. A gold speck flowed up his hand, as though floating on a tide, and up the white blade of the sword.
    In a mere heartbeat, it had reached the very tip.
    Now.
    Beyond the White Matter was
    Citrinitas
    Yellow Matter
    . And beyond that…
    The golden speck flew free, flashing as though it had ignited.

    Scarlet light. Furious heat. The roar of an explosion shook the air. Caster’s body was blasted with a force on par with his own armaments, flung from his feet just as he had sent Sigmund flying.
    It was not a lethal wound, but blood was spilling from his chest all the same. How many ribs had it broken? Nils forced himself to his feet.
    “Tch…”
    “I said,” Sigmund declared, “that I would take responsibility for any blunder, did I not? Even yours.”
    He couldn’t argue. He’d screwed up.
    If it weren’t for my Magic Resistance…
    Iron was known in European folklore for anti-magical properties. The iron chain around his neck was a Mystic Code specifically to take advantage of that, and his Saint Graph had interpreted it as a skill.
    That alone was enough to reduce the damage enough that it was merely a heavy hit.
    But still…
    Sigmund’s stats were already getting too high for his liking. On top of that, that golden speck, which itself had turned red… Of course there was even more to come after white.
    This was ridiculous. He may have been alive, his Magecraft may have been subpar compared to the class’s own requirements, and his Saint Graph may have been incomplete, but Nils was still Caster. For the knight to be able to go toe-to-toe with him before he had even reached the peak of his strength…
    From that single turnabout, there was no doubt left in his mind. There was no room left for doubt.
    This man - Sigmund von Drang - was a monster.
    And the monster stepped forward, pure white shining as the scorched ground around his feet smouldered red. Some leaves and twigs had caught fire.
    There was heat from behind Nils’s head too.
    Oh, shit.
    An entire tree… No, a blue flame was spreading through the whole damn grove. Plumes of dark smoke were beginning to tower, muffling the sunlight above, and wisps of glowing debris were floating on the air.
    This wasn’t good. Their battle had been out of the way. Even a forest fire in broad daylight wasn’t too bad, in theory… But…
    Weren’t we next to a school…?!
    Judging by Sigmund’s turned head, he’d had the same idea.
    “I had planned to take the opportunity to defeat you,” he said, “but it seems that some other altercations have occurred. It would be pushing my luck to continue. After all…”
    He turned his gaze again. His eyes were obscured, but Nils had no doubt that they were directly connecting with his own.
    “You have yet to show your full strength either, correct?”
    A chill passed through Nils’s wound.
    If I had summoned any other Servant, I’d be dead.
    That was irrefutable.
    “As promised,” the knight finished, sheathing his blade, “you have been stalled, and time has been bought. I take my leave before I find myself over my budget.”
    He turned away.
    Nils gripped the pistol in his hand just a little tighter.
    If he shot now…
    The man had put away his weapon and deliberately turned his back on his opponent. That was a death sentence for any warrior. To do so with such confidence was nothing less than complete disrespect.
    …then it wouldn’t work.
    But it was no such thing here. It was not a gesture tinged with implication, but a simple statement of fact.
    Both of them could continue.
    It was an invitation to fight just as much as it was an invitation to leave.
    If they kept going, here and now…
    I’d lose.
    Nils evaluated his chances, and came to a clean answer.
    It wasn’t that he was afraid of the man. He felt no survival instinct toward him whatsoever in the way that keen warriors supposedly did when they were outmatched.
    The cumulative combat experience of the military that resided within his Noble Phantasm did not imply that Sigmund was somehow an unsurmountable titan.
    But here and now, he would──
    ──That was wrong. He had already lost the moment he was wounded just now.
    Sigmund was merely allowing him to proceed without driving that to its conclusion.
    Shaking his head, he turned to leave.
    “Ren?” he called.
    No response.
    “Ren!”
    Nothing but the crackling of building fires.
    He reached out down his karmic line, to…
    Mishima. Ren’s gone.
    The answer came right away.
    Everything is going as we planned, then?
    Even though she couldn’t see it, he nodded. Looks like it. Being able to predict everyone else’s predictions of our own divination… You’re really something else, Mishima.
    It’s nothing special at my level. Abe-no-Seimei and Ashiya Douman often fought this way, she replied. Fall back. It’s time for the next phase.
    Looking around, silently apologising to the forest as the heat and choking smoke built more and more, he started out from between the verdant trees that had yet to catch.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
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  7. #27
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    Chapter 4, Interlude
    following Epimetheus
    a brief exercise in Self reflection

    [ [ ██████
    [ [ ██:██


    The shadows on the walls twisted in silent mockery. Cackling laughter went unheard, a procession of falling trees in an empty forest.
    The library, again. Always the library. This sadistic corridor had no end.
    The frustration was strangling.
    How did I get here?
    Right. He had been in a fight. Momiji, and… someone else. He didn’t know her, but she was obviously a Magus.
    He’d lost. Not a surprise, all things considered.
    That made this the second time that the Holy Grail War had forcibly dragged him here, between these nonsensical walls, into this place of hateful illusions and vicious surfaces.
    There was no immediate presence here. No idle conversation, no corrosive eyes to distract him from the building nauseous rot of the intangible needles in the backs of his eyes.
    Hey!” he called into the nothingness.
    “Shut up,” came a muffled response.
    He peered around the corner to his left. Another. Another.
    Today’s book snapped shut with force and violence of ballistic quality.
    “Why are you still alive?” the shadowgraph girl asked, staring coldly at the mouthful of salt who had shown up once again.
    “At this point, I don’t know either,” conceded Ren.
    She clicked her tongue. “Third time lucky. I thought you weren’t coming back anymore after you missed the end of yesterday.”
    “I had a long day.”
    “What, unlike today?”
    “Today was short,” he admitted. “I’m sure I have room for you.”
    Her face twisted, as though she were resisting the urge to vomit.
    Both of them, he supposed. At least she understood it for a change.
    Still, to see her so disgusted at him for something he could actually identify was sorely needed in a way he hadn’t appreciated until now - doubly so with the image of that blonde foreigner’s revulsion still burned into the back of his mind.
    “This is what makes me hate you,” the ghost muttered.
    “That’s fine. I just mean that this place is getting sort of comforting,” he shrugged, “in a horror movie sort of way.”
    You find horror movies comforting?”
    Her eyes met with his, and he did not experience instantaneous ego death on the spot.
    “No,” he replied. “That’s the weird part. For Halloween, we all went over to Yamamoto’s place to watch some. I nearly died.”
    Her eyes, hollow of all interest, were beginning to darken. He changed the subject.
    “By the way, if you assumed we weren’t going to meet again…” he pondered, “is that because I refused to become a Master?”
    She clicked her tongue, looking away. “The Grail has means to pick its own candidates. You explicitly rejected it, so you struck yourself from its list. Not that it really mattered, since there are already seven.”
    “You seem to know a lot about it.”
    “And we didn’t meet the night you denied connection to it,” she said. “You can do the math, right?”
    He frowned. It was obvious what she was getting at, but…
    “Yeah. I guess I can, if you ask nicely,” he muttered.
    “Believe me,” she shot back sourly, “when I say that it’s as close as you want to a real answer.”
    Perhaps it was best, Ren reasoned, to keep his thoughts to himself as usual.
    “There’s one thing that is bugging me though,” he said instead. “If it’s not rude to ask… What exactly were you doing in my bedroom this morning?”
    Her answer began with a stare, as if formulating something, or perhaps interrogating it. She couldn’t even fathom what had led him to ask, and it was painful to her that he had.
    Ren had to wonder what it was about her existence that made it so caustic. Why was it that her malice was so unbearably tangible? That was, after all, what had led him to think of her as a ghost. There was a story in that icy presence of hers. He wasn’t exactly close friends with many folks dramatically older than himself, but he knew the dry exhaustion in her every expression was not something that could be born into a person.
    “Look,” she finally said, “I don’t like you.”
    He blinked. “Y-yeah. I know. Don’t worry.”
    But,” she continued sharply, “I’m stuck with you. So, before you inevitably disappear or die, it’s my job to root for you to fail as much as you can. And you’re doing a pretty good job so far, I have to admit. I mean, turning your back on a Servant, the one chance you had at a fair fight? What happened just now is your own fault, you fricking idiot.”
    A single breath in, harsher than he’d been expecting. “Please.”
    She frowned, silently asking what the hell he was talking about.
    “I don’t want to be mean. I’m trying really hard to take you seriously,” Ren said calmly. “But you’re so… small. You’re smaller than me! I’m not… the tallest guy ever, you know? And you’re so unreasonably angry. Please just say ‘fuck’. I’m begging you.”
    Her face twitched.

    Today’s book flew from her hand with force and violence of ballistic quality.

    He narrowly ducked out of its path, a thoroughly spooked laugh bubbling up from his chest.
    “Message received! Clean language only! Mostly! I mean, I just felt like you should… Uh, that you would be more of a pottymouth than you are. From, you know, the way you talk. And are. Just in general,” he sputtered quickly. “I mean, you can talk the way you want. I’m not judging. I’m trying to not be judging.”
    She curled her lips. “Can you be a single person for five minutes?” she hissed. “I swear, you’re so fake that it’s genuinely disgusting. You act like this here, you act completely different around your friends, around the Masters and the Servants, and it gets worse when anyone talks to you. You and your fricking Origins, I can’t stand you. Be a human being, my god.”
    He frowned. “I think it’s normal to act differently in different situations…”
    “Are you kidding me?” The frost she was forming on his soul did not let up.
    Hold on, did she actually not believe him? Adjusting to the people around you… felt like a weird thing to be skeptical about.
    “Wait,” he frowned. “Do you… not have any friends?”
    The hostility in the air was brought to boil, but instantly evaporated.
    “I think I’m just going to kill you again,” she concluded.
    “I was starting to wonder,” he nodded, raising a hand. “Hey, before you do… whatever it is you think is painful enough today, can I just…?”
    Her finger, half-poised to strike the life from him, stopped short. Her gaze had barely the faintest spark of interest in its hollow depths, but it held his all the same, pregnant with the hate she’d suspended on his behalf.
    Only scraps of linguistic protoplasm slipped out. “Maybe not. It was a long shot.”
    Huh?” Anger had crept into her voice.
    “I was just gonna ask if you could, maybe, if there’s anything you know, or… can do, or something, if it would be out of line to ask for… help?” he fumbled. “With… this whole thing. Yeah, I know, just… get it over with, I guess.”
    Blank. Confusion. Irritation. Appalment. Disbelief. She started to say something, and stopped. Confusion again. Calculation. No good: confusion set into her face for a third time, and stuck.
    “Help?” she echoed.
    “You’re stuck here, aren’t you?” he pointed out. “And if I’m your only window into the world, then, you know…”
    “If you’ve absorbed that I’m stuck, then why would it cross your mind for even a moment that I could do anything, even if I didn’t despise you?”
    “Well… You were in my room.”
    Irritation was back - a sure sign that she’d been caught out. “And what’s in it for me?”
    Ren blinked at the response… or perhaps at the fact that there was one at all. This was already a lightyear ahead of where he was expecting to land.
    “I… mean…” he replied, slowly weighing the situation up. “I suppose… ‘fun’? Having my life in your hands, like a ball you can drop whenever you feel like. That’d be fun for you, right?”
    Folding her arms, she kicked one leg over the other.
    “And you’d just willingly jump into that instead of trying to survive on your own?” she raised her eyebrows. “You do remember you’re asking the girl who’s going to make it worse on purpose, right? I got the impression that you rejected the Holy Grail because you thought you were being scammed.”
    “Well, if you think about it, can’t you basically find the root of the problem with scams in that you don’t know how much you’re paying for what?” he pointed out. “If you know you’re paying ten thousand yen that you’re not going to see anything out of, that’s charity. If you pay it for something that you’ve decided is worth it, that’s just a purchase.”
    “What are you getting at, exactly?”
    “I guess I’m just saying that I trust you to make things as miserable for me as you can,” he said, “and going into that, I think that’s probably a fair price to keep the things important to me safe. I want to save Yamamoto and protect my town. It’s pricey, but I’d rather make that deal with you than with the Grail.”
    She blinked. “You’re a moron.”
    “Maybe,” he agreed. “But if I balked just because the toll was a little steep, then I wouldn’t be able to say it was that important to me in the first place.”
    Her eyes filled with something he didn’t quite understand, and she said nothing.
    “B-besides,” he continued, “I don’t think I’d mind selling my soul to you all that much if it came with that kind of certainty, you know? Kinda takes away the stress of wondering if you already know how you’re gonna die. I guess that’s the appeal of destiny.”
    “Alright, alright, stop,” she clutched her forehead, looking down at her lap. “Haven’t you ever heard of ‘too much of a good thing’?”
    “You can never have enough good things,” Ren replied. “Anyway, it might be fun, being haunted by a gloomy girl who’ll kill me dead any day now. I don’t usually care for ghost stories, but…”
    “I suppose you’d say it’s comforting,” she sighed, “in a horror movie sort of way?”
    Ren’s hand found its way to the back of his neck, and he felt himself wearing an apprehensively lopsided smile.
    “Guess so.”
    She clicked her tongue. “I knew it.”
    She broke eye contact one last time, and the library gently dissolved into oblivion.
    “You really are the most unbearable person I’ve ever met.”

    - Chapter 4 -
    end
    Last edited by Random; November 10th, 2022 at 08:44 PM.
    I may make mistakes, but at least I don't learn from them.
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  8. #28
    「Fatalist Halophage」 Random's Avatar
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    Chapter 5, Part 1
    fractalisaton of kinesis
    second Prelude to the declaration of war

    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 13:07


    The shrill howl of the fire alarm was still screaming into Matou Shinji’s ears even after he’d ceased to be able to clearly hear it.
    Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, he silently chanted, over and over.
    “Yamamoto Hibiki,” he quietly explained to the substitute math teacher besides him, “went home near the end of lunch break for a family emergency.”
    The woman he didn’t recognise nodded, marking the register accordingly.
    Fuck! he wanted to scream, just to make sure whatever piece of shit was behind this whole thing heard him.
    Encroaching like this on normal people was one thing, but to have the gall to make him, Matou Shinji, lie on their behalf was something else entirely.
    He was the first person that the three Culture Club girls had come to when Yamamoto had vanished. As club supervisor, it was only natural for him to be relied on by his students. As a former participant in the ritual that was supposedly happening right now - if Jikan hadn’t been fucking with him - he knew right away what had happened.
    Why exactly she was being targeted as a hostage was beyond him, but a hostage was the only thing that made sense.
    He had come to that realisation less than five minutes before the forest fire behind the school had been discovered, and he had put two and two together immediately.
    Because it was so obvious, he had no option but to lie. Endangering the Concealment of Mysteries, whether he was still a practising Magus or not, was going to get the Mage’s Association breathing down his neck at absolute best, and so he had no option but to come up with a convincing cover story on behalf of whoever the hell was supposed to be in charge of information management - he didn’t care to remember.
    But god, this was going to be difficult to explain to Yamamoto’s family. When they learned their daughter was missing, the explanation of a family emergency was just going to make it sound like she was kidnapped in light of the fact that there almost definitely wasn’t one. The police involvement would have to be curtailed by someone or other, in case they ran into… something they weren’t supposed to, whatever that would have looked like.
    When he really thought about it, all he actually knew about the situation for certain was that it pissed him the fuck off.
    What the hell are those dipshits up at the Church doing?!
    Wasn’t it their job to stop this from happening at all, let alone in broad daylight?! Goddammit, he was so mad he could barely even think straight…
    But the more he thought about it, the more he realised that there was nothing to even be done.
    At least when he was a kid, he’d had a chance to fail.
    This time, he didn’t even have that. This was completely out of his hands. Didn’t those pompous magical fucks give a damn about the downtrodden and powerless?!
    “Uwaaah. Sensei’s got a scary face on…”
    Meichi Kazue was staring rather blatantly at him, and he forced the boiling rage down into the pits of his belly.
    “Just frustrated,” he replied.
    “Huh. Must be pretty tough waiting for the fire brigade when it’s actually your problem.”
    Shit, that was right. Where was the fire brigade, for that matter? Wasn’t this going to be more likely to get out of control the longer they took?
    “It’s your school too, you know. You ought to show a little concern,” he said.
    “I’ll make sure to post online about it later, sensei. I’ll even start a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for the damages.”
    “Just because you speak with proper tone, that doesn’t mean it’s not sarcastic,” he shot back, quite forcibly holding you brat off the end of the sentence.
    Of course, for whatever it was worth, he silently thanked her for her attitude. It probably wasn’t healthy that the easiest way to bring him back down to earth was to give him something ordinary to complain about, but he would take what he could get at this point.
    Somehow, despite having done absolutely nothing, he was coasting too close to the event horizon of a black hole that he never wanted to even think about ever again.
    Looking to the towering plumes of smoke that were staining the clear sky, his thoughts drifted to one he’d warned about this.
    That damn kid had better not be getting himself in trouble right now.
    Perhaps he hoped for that.
    But, equally, for the kid who reminded him so much of his younger self…
    Well, if anyone in the entire world was looking out for Yamamoto Hibiki right now, he hoped it would be Jikan Ren.
    In hindsight, the Holy Grail War was the second worst thing that ever happened to Matou Shinji.
    The worst was the realisation that he hadn’t been able to fight for anything or anyone in the first place.




    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 20:13


    Yamamoto Hibiki was currently experiencing for the first time a brand new and very exciting flavour of headache.
    Bleary-eyed, thoughts stuttering, she pulled a heavy head upright. It took a moment for everything to slot into place and for her to realise exactly what she was looking around at, but…
    No, now she thought about it, she still had no idea what she was seeing.
    It was dark. The sun had probably set a while ago.
    It was bright. Huge glaring cones of white illuminated the room, like a quarry or a filming set. The walls were decrepit, the floor covered in dust and debris. The bed she was laying on… She didn’t particularly want to think about it.
    She felt the efforts of a single space heater, humming away dutifully in the centre of the room. Around it, in various spots, were four figures engaged in different tasks.
    A man in a suit was polishing something metal, occasionally pouring a few drops of peculiar green fluid from a glass vial onto the shining surface.
    A dark-skinned woman was holding a piece of cut glass up to the window, staring through it with an intense expression as her eyes fixated on the trees outside.
    A girl in purple was bathed in the light of a bright screen, rattling away relentlessly at a keyboard.
    The lady who’d led her out of the clubroom - Asahi something - was wearing a white kimono, punching a hole in a cup ramen lid with some kind of knife.
    “You know there’s a tab on the side,” the man said, looking up.
    “I want to feel at least slightly like it’s earned,” she replied, looking up. Her eyes instantly flicked from him, adjusting their angle just slightly to meet Hibiki’s. “Ah.”
    The room went quiet, four stares settling on her at once - frozen, waiting, expectant.
    She felt obligated to at least acknowledge…
    “So have I been kidnapped?” she found herself asking, a tone so calm she even shocked herself.
    The man with the metal and the girl at the keyboard locked eyes, as if they had simultaneously remembered they’d left the oven on.
    “Yes,” the woman with the glass replied bluntly. Something twitched on top of her head. Hibiki had assumed she had some obscene bedhead at first, but they almost looked like… dog ears?
    “But,” the girl in purple immediately jumped in, “you’re here voluntarily, in the sense that you’re free to go.”
    “We’re required by… law, I suppose, to explain as little as possible,” the man added.
    The girl nodded. “Indeed. So I apologise that we were unable to just ask you to come with us.”
    Hibiki had never been kidnapped before, so she didn’t really know what to expect, but she hadn’t anticipated being told that she could just go home. Her brain, ever patient with its own confusion, turned its gears before coming to the conclusion that she really had no idea what was going on.
    “If I can just go…”
    The dog-eared girl - no, that had to be wrong - nodded her head. “I’ll be escorting you. We’re in the woods southeast of town at the moment.”
    Hibiki raised her hands. “N-no, just if. I just… don’t really get what kind of abductee I’m supposed to be if you bring me home. That makes for a bad ransom, right? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it, but…”
    The situation’s gravity was obvious, and yet somehow she found herself gravitating to facetiousness. If she had anyone to blame for that, it would’ve been him.
    She wasn’t sure how she was supposed to act, but when it came to the sense that there was something going on that she wasn’t supposed to know about, there were two people in her life right now who encompassed that more than anyone.
    Her aunt from far away, Momiji Musubi.
    And the one who even she had taken for granted the presence of in that forbidden space, Jikan Ren.
    Hibiki idly wondered if she was acting here as she would have if they were him, or if she was acting how she imagined that he would have in this scenario.
    The fact she could ask that question at all was a little strange, but she tried to focus.
    “We’re not holding you hostage,” the man corrected. “There’s something we need you to see, and it’s important, so this is us asking for permission. I just hope this way best communicates the weight of what we’re asking.”
    Well, the room certainly was heavy. Honestly, she felt almost buried under their gazes. Who wouldn’t have; with four pairs of eyes, all dripping with expectation, bearing down on them? Weight was communicated, but weight itself communicated nothing.
    “This… still means nothing to me,” Hibiki conceded, “but… I can still go home in one piece after this, right?”
    There was no reason to even ask such a thing, because there was already a completely obvious correct answer.
    She shook her head, opened her mouth, and said the opposite.

    A sea of dried leaves crunched underfoot as the five stepped out of the derelict shed of a building.
    It was cold – colder than Hibiki had expected.
    “I didn’t bring a coat,” she complained. “It was nice this morning.”
    “I’m afraid we can’t do much about it,” the dog-eared woman gave an apologetic smile.
    She looked her up and down. Aside from the red sashes and what looked like a fur scarf, she was wearing very little: it could have been mistaken for a swimsuit, in fact, with how much olive skin was openly on display. Not even her entire chest was contained in her strangely ornate top.
    “I guess not,” Hibiki conceded.
    “Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m always warm thanks to my blessing,” she said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders for a moment.
    ‘Warm’ was an understatement. It was like home.
    For that fleeting second, it was as though she were sat in front of a burning fireplace, wrapped in a blanket and sheltered from the night. Like a dream calling for a memory, part of her expected to be able to glance behind her to see her mom serving freshly-cooked dinner―
    “Okay,” she said, hastily pushing her arm away, “that’s freaking me out. Please don’t do that. What is that?”
    The woman shrugged. “Just a little hearth-to-heart.”
    Hibiki almost groaned on instinct at the pun, but this wasn’t the clubroom, and it certainly wasn’t Fujou.
    “Just let me know if you get too chilly,” the woman said, turning her attention aside. “By the way, Master, is that important?”
    The man was crouched down by a fallen tree, looming over a glittering blue something.
    “It’s rare for something so unusual to not be,” he replied.
    Hibiki inched a little closer, glancing over his shoulder to get a better look.
    “Is that a butterfly?”
    “It certainly looks like one, doesn’t it?” he replied.
    A snap echoed through the air. A heartbeat-sized scream.
    Hibiki paused, and realised it had been her.
    The butterfly had split in two, the pieces floating through the air of their own accord, suspended on invisible strings, until finally landing in the gloved hands of the girl in purple. Staring intently at them, she toyed with the halves as though they were shards of…
    “…glass?” muttered Hibiki.
    “Not quite,” the girl replied.
    The dog-woman nudged Hibiki’s side. “Not gonna ask what that is?”
    “I’m queuing it up for when I’ve finished dealing with… everything else,” she replied.
    “You’re doing well for a first-timer,” the man commented.
    “I had a lot of time to prepare, I guess,” she replied. “Besides, asking questions about literally everything I see isn’t going to get any useful answers, right?”
    “You’re not panicking, so you shouldn’t hold back too much,” the woman recommended.
    The girl in purple sighed, still examining the pieces. “You two, please stop encouraging her. I’d like it if she was able to return to her ordinary life after this.”
    The woman’s strange doggish ears twitched, and she folded her arms.
    “With all due respect, Miss Ordos, you know that it isn’t that simple,” she shot back. “She’s doomed to join us eventually. I know it, she obviously knows it, and I know you know it too, because it was part of why both of us agreed to involve her in the first place. Best practice or not, it doesn’t help her or anyone else to be so paternalistic about it.”
    The purple girl’s eyes rose to meet the woman’s for a moment, then fell to meet Hibiki’s. A silent apology was exchanged.
    “Whatever this is,” Ordos finally said, holding up the remains of the glass butterfly, “it wasn’t made in a day. This isn’t just glass, it’s photonic crystal. There’s a whole supercomputer in here, structured like a genuine nervous system. Someone sculpted this down to the nanometres.”
    Hibiki raised a hand. “How can you tell just by looking?”
    “I’m psychic.”
    “I’m serious, how?”
    “So am I.” The response wasn’t harsh, but it came like unyielding metal all the same.
    “Photonic crystal,” the dog woman folded her arms. “I’m not an alchemist, but…”
    “It’s exactly that,” the man nodded. “The philosopher’s stone.”
    “But why?” squinted Ordos. “If you can make a philosopher’s stone, why do this with it? This isn’t practical, this is… art. It’s good. This is definitely someone’s magnum opus, but why bring art to a war, and why use it for something as precarious as reconnaissance?”
    Hibiki blinked. “Wait, you just broke someone’s ultimate… something?”
    Ordos frowned, slipping the pieces into her pocket. “I really, really hope so, yes.”
    “Did you say ‘war’?”
    She shook her head. “We’re on a very tight schedule, so please ask later if you absolutely must.”
    Without giving Hibiki an instant to respond, she turned and led the way through the woods.
    A pat on the shoulder from the man. “Don’t mind Andri. She’s trying to play around five other people at once. It’s very stressful.”
    Hibiki had no retort. A game with so many players did sound difficult, and she was just pleased that she wasn’t one of them.
    Very briefly, her mind drifted, and she hoped that he wasn’t one either.
    Wherever you are, she silently willed, just be okay, you dumbass.
    He had a bad habit of not recognising stupid ideas when he was having them.
    “Where are we going?” she asked.
    The man’s gaze remained forward, affixed by purpose.
    “Ryuudou Temple,” he replied. “As long as we make it in time, that is.”
    Hibiki picked up her pace a little. She got the feeling she was about to fall behind any second now.




    [ [ March 16
    [ [ 17:53


    Sofie raked her fingers through her hair, tussling it as the hairdryer roared next to her ear. It was a little difficult, what with the marker in her hand.
    Maybe that’s it.
    She put its tip to the tablecloth-sized paper sheet in front of her again, drawing a few more connections between points and circles. The web of signs probably would have looked incomprehensible to anyone else - the lovechild of a software architecture diagram and a taijitu wasn’t exactly ordinary symbology, even by her standards, but this was just another means of interpretation. Her Hétú was functional enough for her expanding space trick, and getting it to function in the first place had been the hard part. Now that it did, the possibilities–
    “Sofie.”
    Saber spoke up from across the room, reclining on the bed against the wall.
    She switched the hairdryer off, looking over her shoulder to him. “Trouble?”
    “I’m bored.”
    Her immediate instinct was to tell him to suck it up. But she held herself back. Boredom, for Yamato Takeru, was indeed troublesome.
    “You wanna go out hunting?” she sighed.
    He shrugged, evoking an almost childish image for a moment. “You don’t have to come.”
    “I’ll come. I wanna test this model anyway.”
    Keeping him cooped up in an apartment was a terrible idea, and she recognised how lucky she’d gotten to have been able to do so for this long. It was only by deliberately remaining on good terms with him that things had turned out so conveniently so far, and it was only because he was so obviously unfamiliar with equal treatment that she was able to get on his good side so quickly in the first place.

    It was then that a shrill, crisp sound trilled loudly out of her pocket.
    An impossible noise came just a little louder than was comfortable. Sofie reached into her hoodie, and pulled out the source.
    The flip phone that she had converted into a Mystic Code was ringing.
    “Answer it already,” Saber grumbled.
    “I don’t know if I even can,” she frowned.
    “It’s a cellphone.”
    That wasn’t the point she was trying to make.
    It was ringing, sure, but that was supposed to be impossible.
    This was a cell, but it wasn’t her cell. If she was calling someone, it was with her other phone, not this one. It had a receiver, but no SIM card. It couldn’t connect to telecommunications networks from any commercial providers. There was no way it could possibly have gotten signal, and there was no way that anyone could have called it.
    Tentatively picking up, she pressed it to her ear.
    “Hello?”
    “Master of Saber, I assume.”
    An unknown voice came from the other side, tinny to the point of sounding almost uncanny.
    Sofie frowned. “That’s me. I’d ask how you got this number, but it doesn’t have one.”
    “Oh, please. Modern Magecraft was an absolute chore of a course, but one thing I did learn is that the 21st century will give a name to every grain of sand in the desert if it’d make money keeping track of them. In the internet age, everything has a number. I assumed you would know that, you hack of a numerologist.”
    So this wasn’t a call to a phone number associated with telecommunications protocols, but a call to a kind of… metaphysical serial number associated with the phone itself?
    Astonishing. She couldn’t help but grin.
    “God, your divination is on some kind of crack if you can pull that off,” she shook her head. “Who am I talking to?”
    “Master of Rider, Wodime,” came the reply. “Representing Clock Tower. I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of me though, given your… background.”
    “Background?” she echoed. “How much do you know about me, exactly?”
    “Not much I’d care to dwell on, but you’re an oriental, and that tells me plenty.”
    Oh, okay, Sofie silently sighed, feeling her enthusiasm draining away at the remark. The fact that she’d been contacted like this had gotten her hopes up for someone a little more acclimated to a global world, but apparently not.
    “I’d like to talk. Meet me at the city temple by 9pm,” she said. “I’d recommend against trying anything funny, because I’ll be bringing your friend from church.”
    Everything turned to salt. Sofie didn’t answer. She just hung up.
    She supposed this meant that she hadn’t managed to pay off that debt after all.
    It was a shame, in a way. If that Wodime woman hadn’t said anything about him, she would have happily gone to chat. Instead, she had been presented with something personal.
    She didn’t know anything about Ren besides what he’d told her. She didn’t even consider him any more than a one-off acquaintance. But she’d put a lot of effort into making sure that he was safe, and now because he’d been mistaken for a friend, he’d been put in danger once again – and once again, it was Sofie’s own fault.
    The very fact that Wodime had tried to personally agitate her was bad enough. To make her a liar was crossing a nasty line indeed.
    “Good news, Saber. I found you an ass to kick,” she declared.
    The bedframe creaked. Boots on the carpet. “Is that so?”
    “We’re going to stop by the hobby store and the laundromat on the way,” she said. “Not in that order.”
    “…You gonna tell me why?” he asked blankly.
    “I’ll explain later, but the short version,” she said, making her way across the room and grabbing her jeans, “is that I’m fighting too, so we’re stealing some washing machines.”
    “Why?”
    “So I can put a bunch of fridge magnets in them,” she replied, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
    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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    Recent: Ch. 5.1

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