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Thread: Starless Black: From the Lunaire Archives

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    Starless Black: From the Lunaire Archives

    Author's Note: Running as a Quest on Sufficient Velocity, cross-archived here

    These were the last days of Sakura Tohsaka.

    Okay, that’s not completely true. The real Sakura Tohsaka would’ve been dead for hundreds, thousands even, of years at that point. These were more the last days of the one who’d taken the avatar designated ‘Sakura Tohsaka’.

    <<Intro Theme>>

    Those last days were spent at the Aquarius Manor Hotel, which I suppose was a pretty nice place to spend that time, I suppose. Could even be called a Castle Hotel, honestly. Anyway, she walked with who’d become the other Masters past all its gardens and up to its towering front doors, looking like they’d been carved from sacred oak. Their sheer size made Sakura bite her lip.

    The meek, black-haired even jumped back a bit when a blue light shone out of the eyes of a doorman. He quickly scanned her, before those eyes then flashed to green. “Confirmed: Player ID Tohsaka Sakura. Welcome, potential Master, to the STAR-CELL Holy Grail War v2!” his computerised voice rang out.

    “T-thank you. I- I may not look it, but I’m in this war to win!” Sakura said, her sudden display of confidence largely lost on those who walked by her, just getting the glitch check over with. She knew, everyone knew, that this was all but the next stage in virtual reality… but being reminded of that was soemthing else.

    One crimson blush later, Sakura promptly scurried in, only for the inside of the Aquarius to leave her as speechless as the outside. The whole lobby shimmered with a pinkish-gold glow, marble floor crisscrossed by black serpentine patterns, and the stairs, balconies, and glass windows above making her feel just as small as the outside did. She could’ve just said to herself that none of this was real, physical anyway, but that would ruin the game, the experience of everything, after all.

    And it wasn’t just the building alone that made her feel all scrunched up. She saw most other players had spared no expense in customising their avatars, looking more like they were here attend some fancy ball than, well, a tournament. Gents clad in suits, blond and raven-haired women in azure and scarlet gowns, valet and maid NPCs spawned by VR to show them to their rooms. Then amid all this was schoolgirl-ish Sakura, in her red blouse and white skirt. You can, well, see why she’d have felt insecure, most of us would’ve.

    She took a deep breath first, but strode over to the front desk anyway, then said with a bow, “Hello, I’m Tohsaka Sakura. Er, one of the players here, so I’d like to have a room please.”

    A hologram of Sakura’s profile popped up before her, as the clerk inputted some sort of code onto a dark green tablet hidden just under the counter. This code called in, quite suddenly too, a maid with bellhop-style alterations to her dress, who curtseyed and said, “Greetings, Mistress, my designation is Coral, tasked with addressing all your minor duties to minimal for a Servant. We can head to your room right now if you wish, you’ll find your selected inventory all materialised there.”

    “Wow, that’s great,” Sakura said, “I- I don’t ever think I’ve been treated so nicely, well, ever. One question though,” she then asked, “…How exactly am I supposed to summon a Servant? I mean, I’m guessing there’s a tutorial on that later, right?”

    Coral replied immediately. “You’ll find more detailed instructions on summoning in your room, but in short, as part of this preliminary round we’ve wiped your memories of the outside world,” she said, though tried to lighten that with a smile, “Don’t worry, this is something you and all other players agreed to beforehand. All you need to do is remember what the world outside this virtual reality is like, and you will be granted full Servant summoning access.”

    Sakura may have nodded along with all that, but it would’ve been a lot to take in all at once. It was for me. Anyway, you would’ve expected Sakura head immediately to her room-

    [ ] -and so she did. Chance to unwind, more detailed instructions, all her stuff, why not?

    [ ] -but instead, she did want to try socialising with other players, potential Masters, first. See what they knew, who she might be up against.

    [x] -yet she was aware there was a ‘Church Overseer’ acting as a grand referee of sorts. Sounded like someone she should meet with sooner than later.

    [ ] -but instead, she decided to explore Aquarius Manor itself. Get familiar with the layout, look for clues, and it wasn’t like there was any major rush to get to her room.

    “Hold on, there’s supposed to someone called a ‘Church Overseer’, right?” Sakura asked.

    “Well…” Coral began, “It’s not as if any Church itself oversees the war. I mean, we’re told that’s they used to do, way back when. But really Mistress, the Star-Cell simply uploaded the data of a Church priestess as that’s what’s expected for a Grail War.”

    With Coral rambling on a little, Sakura said, “Er, what I was trying to say was, could we meet the Overseer first, regardless of whether they’re a Church person? They really do sound like someone I should get to know right away.”

    “As you wish, Mistress,” Coral smiled and nodded, “You’ll find their chapel in the gardens, but up in the hill this time, instead of downhill to the gates.”

    Sakura breathed out and said, “Hey, thanks,” given that info was all she would’ve wanted to know from the start. Though it was funny how she now had to go right back out of the big oaken door she’d been hesitant to enter.

    The sheer size of the gardens, like the size of everything around the Hotel Aquarius, meant it was still quite some distance to walk, which left Sakura huffing and puffing by the time she actually made it out to said chapel, a dusty place of reddish brick and angular roofs. “Whew, I’m really not used to this much exercise. I mean, makes me worried I’m kind of too scrawny to be a Master,” Sakura said.

    “Since this is a virtual world, anything to keep your legs from atrophying,” Coral said, giving yet another reminder of what this world was.

    <<Chapel Theme>>

    “Trust me, you’ll get used to this little hike of ours before you know it,” said a third voice, which came from a woman standing right by the chapel’s entrance arch. This woman was unsurprisingly dressed in a nun’s robe, but also sported dark blue hair cut boyishly short.

    “Ah, so you’d be the Overseer, right?” Sakura asked.

    The nun smirked. “Well, it’s not like there’s anyone else here they could be. Yes, this Star-Cell dredged me up to make sure all you players didn’t cause any more havoc, oh, than you probably already will anyway,” she said, before she more properly introduced herself, “My name is Ciel… or no, not really. That was a name of another woman entirely, from ages ago. I’m just a program wearing her face and having sort of the same job, really, since the Star-Cell needed me to look like someone in its databanks.”

    While Sakura was normally calm if a bit nervous, soemthing about what Ciel said made her twitch. “Okay, okay, why do all of you keep going on about how this is all just VR? Like, do you just want to wreck immersion right away?”

    “Tohsaka Sakura,” Ciel now made direct eye contact with the potential Master, “I, and it seems the other AIs, do not wish to pretend we’re anyone we’re not. Furthermore, need I remind you you’re doing the same thing I am, wearing the guise of a long-ago woman?” The Overseer sighed, then tried to soften her voice, “Immersion’s one thing, but the Star-Cell has a responsibility to make sure you don’t lose sight of who you are. I mean, look at us, we already took your memories.”

    That admission of guilt at least made Sakura ease up back to her usual self, before she asked, “Er, okay then, so then could you tell me a little about the outside world? Yeah yeah, I know you can’t just give me the answer, but if you’re concerned about my identity, some clue could really help me out.”

    Ciel then smiled. “Why, I already have given you a hint. Inadvertently yes, but still. All my talk about how long ago our original ‘selves’ ought to let you know that, as far in the future as you think this is, think even further,” she said, before she leaned in closer to Sakura, “Alright, since you’ve actually been one of the more reasonable players I’ve met, your little tantrum aside, I’ll give you another. Think about why the hotel may’ve chosen the name ‘Aquarius’, beyond just its connection with cups.”

    “Ah, th-thank you,” Sakura said, then gulped and looked down, “But really, me, one of the ‘better’ players? No, that can’t be, I… got all angry with you just then.”

    “Oh I meant it, you were quite polite compared to some of the others I’ve deal with today,” Ciel said, then leaned in and conspiratorially whispered, “I can’t say much, my programming wouldn’t even allow it, but some of the potential Masters I’ve met today, much as we even have days anymore, have been a real headache. One tried to bribe me with tithes, one complained non-stop about magi not being allowed to run their own affairs, much as ‘mages’ even exist anymore, and one thought his anti-Christianity made him some sort of genius.”

    “Wow, that does sound bad,” Sakura said the first response that came to mind.

    “I am Overseer, so don’t worry. Those types are my burden, no need to shoulder yourself with their like,” Ciel grinned, but then added, “Unless they’re assigned as your opponent for a Round, they’d be your burden then I guess. And it hasn’t been all bad for me, I did meet two quite nice players. One was a blue-haired kid, hair a lighter shade than mine, didn’t get their name sadly. The other, well, he probably needs no introduction, no less than Felix de Carvalho.”

    “Felix de Carvalho?” Sakura asked in an instant, showing he did in fact need an introduction.

    “The winner of the previous Grail War,” it was Coral who then spoke up, “You may have this war be called ‘v2’, he was victorious in v1.”

    “Coral, you just spoke?” Sakura had to ask, given how Coral had stayed quiet this whole time.

    “It wasn’t really my place to speak otherwise, Mistress,” Coral said.

    “I confess, I don’t do well with maids,” Ciel suddenly said, “No idea what it is, something in my coding just has me side-eyeing them. Anyway, as for Jesse Carvalho, for a moment I dreaded all the fame had gone to his head, but he actually seemed quite nice. Hasn’t told anyone what he wished for last time, but I do suppose that’s his prerogative.”

    “Really? I thought a Grail Wish would’ve been really noticeable…” Sakura muttered.

    As Sakura thanked Ciel and turned to leave, the maid Coral then brought up, “I naturally suppose you’ll be heading back to your room, Mistress. However, if there’s still wanderlust in your veins, you may also like to check out our Museum or Library, where all our relics and documents of Heroic Spirits reside.”

    [ ] Sakura told the maid that yeah, she should be getting to her room already.

    [x] Sakura was interested in the Museum, she did want to start thinking of what sort of Heroic Spirit to summon.

    [ ] The Library sounded like a good idea, ought to study up before the War heated up.

    “Guess the Museum makes the most sense, see what’s on offer” Sakura said, but hesitated for a second, “It’s a lot to think about though, what Servant I’ll summon. I mean, they’re supposed to be the greatest people who ever lived, I just… don’t want to disappoint them.”

    “The Star-Cell is programmed to assign fitting Servants to fitting Masters, but still, it can’t hurt to have an idea of what sort of Heroic Spirit you’d like to summon,” Coral said, before she admitted, “And to be honest, a maid like me was worried about the same thing.”

    “The same thing? But, you’re not a potential Master?” Sakura asked, a brow twitching.

    “Oh, not with a Servant. More with, well, what sort of player I’d be assigned to for the prelims,” Coral said, “The Star-Cell’s less meticulous with our assignments than with Servants, expectedly. Fortunately, it looks like I got a quite reasonable mistress”.

    “Really, you think that?” Sakura had to blush, before she slowly said, “That’s one of the nicest things anyone’s said about me. Well, by default. I get told I’m a disappointment a lot.”

    “Really, whatever for?” Coral stepped back.

    “For, well, they say they expect some grand, mysterious heiress or something, only to get some mousy recluse. Sounds silly, but I got picked on a lot for that back in school,” Sakura said and shrunk back as she did.

    Coral neither laughed nor moved in to comfort her mistress, but instead cocked her head. “Mistress Tohsaka… you’re sure those are your memories, right? Forgive me, it’s not my intent to be rude, it’s just… players getting their memories mixed up with their avatars was an issue in the Grail War prior.”

    Sakura did not how to respond to that. Easy to see, I’d have been even more stumped for what to say. But eventually respond she did with, “I guess that… even if those memories did or didn’t happen, it still kinda hurts to think about them. So, they are real, in one sense at last.”

    Coral smiled, “A most informed insight, mistress.” Sakura now couldn’t tell though if she meant that or was just required to compliment her being her maid. This was before Coral added, “And I suppose if I did end up assigned someone awful, I could always get in contact with Jeeves to fix matters.”

    “Jeeves?” Sakura asked.

    “Oh, how to explain,” Coral began, “On top of Master-summoned Servants, there are also Servants the Star-Cell has called forth on its own to handle administrative duties. The Assassin-class Jeeves is the one tasked with overseeing all us maids and valets.”

    “Assassin?” Sakura had to flinch, but then asked, “So, you mean the guy from the, er, Wodehouse stories, right?”

    “…Yes and no,” Coral muttered, “While more than enough literature has been uploaded into the Star-cell that manifesting wholly fictitious Servants is now possible, Jeeves is… not that one Jeeves exactly. He’s more a concept than anything, what everyone thinks of when they hear the word ‘butler’.”

    Sakura nodded along with that, though the idea of someone who was now more concept than anything else was, well, hard to process. Literally, given VR.

    <<Museum Theme>>

    Coral then showed Sakura back inside and into the Aquarius’ Museum, only separated from the foyer by a side-door. Sakura tensed a little on stepping in, she had expected more than a few relics, but nowhere near the cavalcade that was in front of her, all connected by a long and winding walkway.

    “Quite a lot to take in, huh?” Coral eased her in, “As it should be, really. Before it was decided to run the Grail War again, the Star-Cell created this place to be a safeguard of all of humanity’s artifacts. Same with our Library and its records.”

    Not like that helped Sakura being completely spoiled for choice. She did have to notice that, for being a ‘safeguard for humanity’s artifacts’, all the description plates had been blurred out, probably since doing so would wreck everything by revealing all the potential Servants right away. Still, that sort of thing can come off as rude.

    There were four artifacts that did stick in her mind in the end. One was sheet listing a long series of calculations for a rocket orbit, Sakura being something of a mathematician herself and, with Ciel telling her to pay attention to the word ‘Aquarius’. Space was on her mind.

    The second was a lottery ticket, which she couldn’t help but find amusing since it would’ve felt like she was in a lottery already. I imagine so, it’s a common feeling for us Masters. A surprisingly ornate lottery ticket too, much more than you’d get at a newsagents, if those were even still around.

    The third was a… certainly striking painting. It mostly depicted a bleak, barren hillside, but with a group of people all scrunched in at the bottom-right corner, which for sure drew the eye. The last was a copy of a hefty tome with its title, of course, blurred out, though she could tell it was written in Chinese and was opened to Chapter 90.

    However, it wasn’t just relics she found in the museum. Turning around, she suddenly bumped into a black-haired boy who immediately glared at her, though it looked like his face was just naturally in a glare the whole time. He was dressed largely in black and red, having donned a leather jacket, ripped jeans, and a series of chains.

    “I’m sorry, I really should’ve been watching-" Sakura began, but got cut off.

    “How feeble,” he said, “Unlike you casuals, I don’t apologise for nothing. You could never understand me anyway, what it’s like to have your heart tainted black. Like my soul.” Much as that last sentence made sense.

    I would’ve just backed off myself, but Sakura then glared right back and spoke out, “W-what? You, you jerk! I’ve got just as much right to be here as you!”

    That made this other player groan and back off, simply saying goodbye with a “Whatever”. Sakura noticed he didn’t have a valet anywhere around, though it was easy to imagine this guy going ‘Valet? Pfft, only weaklings need valets’.

    As this guy walked out, Sakura’s eyes widened she noticed something about him she really should’ve before, but had been overshadowed by his attitude. The guy seriously had wolf ears and a tail poking out of him.

    “An A-Ray, most likely,” Coral remarked, “While it’s generalising to say they consist entirely of beast-human hybrids, that is how they’re typically thought of.”

    For some reason, hearing the word ‘A-Ray’ also triggered the word ‘Liner’ in Sakura’s head, though she couldn’t tell why. Felt like those two words just fit together, for some strange reason…

    Right, at this point she really ought to be getting to her room. But from this trip to the museum, Sakura would say the relic that made the most of an impression on her was:

    [ ] Those rocket orbit calculations.

    [x] That fancy lottery ticket.

    [ ] The dark and unusual painting.

    [ ] That Chinese doorstopper tome.

    [ ] Oh yeah, she remembered another one. Dust and sand from a Syrian cave, odd choice for a museum.

    “That lottery ticket?” Coral asked.

    “Yeah, guess I thought it was, well, too fitting,” Sakura said, “Not knowing which figure of legend I’ll call upon in this tournament, feels like a lottery already.”

    Coral let out a slight chuckle, “I see where you’re coming from. Just… be careful about leaving everything to luck or seeing luck as in charge of all, wouldn’t want to neglect skill and strategy.”

    Sakura had to blush a bit. “I know, I know, I was just saying that’s how I feel right now, that’s all. Not my whole game plan or anything,” she said.

    Museum trip done with, Coral showed Sakura back to her room, something Sakura was thankful for since, given the winding corridors the Aquarius had, she doubted she would’ve been able to find the way on her own. Naturally thy passed a few people, players and service on the way there, but two that stood out to Sakura were that blonde, schoolteacher-like woman she’d seen in the lobby before, and… a black-haired, red-dressed woman that almost, almost bore a family resemblance to her. Well, so Sakura thought, but this woman like the blonde just brushed right past her.

    “Your room, Mistress,” Coral said and indicated the door behind her. From this plain white door emerged a bright blue light, which scanned Sakura over, still making her twitch even though the doorman had already done the same to her, and then flashed green as the door opened.

    She entered a low-light room with a tiled floor, stone walls, and a wood-panelled ceiling, or identical virtual imitations of such anyway. Dark burgundy curtains hung across the window, a white cupboard stood across from a fireplace, something she couldn’t remember ever actually seeing in her life. Lastly, there was a large bed whose pillows and covers were a rich bronze in colour.

    Sakura’s instinct was to crash on this bed right away. True, the only physically exhausting thing she’d done today had been that climb up and down from the chapel, but mentally I’d say she felt like she’d been through much more than that. However, even now she couldn’t get any rest or relaxation, as some pre-recorded message suddenly flared right on up. That ‘note in your room’ she’d been told about.

    Greetings, potential Master, a computerised chime rang out, before a hologram of the Aquarius itself sprung up in her room, and welcome to the Star-Cell’s Holy Grail War v2. Through the course of a preliminary and seven rounds, you shall summon a Servant, a legendary hero of humanity, and face off against another Master and Servant each round, if you keep making it through that is. A Library is provided by the Aquarius for researching other Servants, as is a Museum displaying the relics used in summoning Servants-

    Sakura breathed a sigh of relief; this was all stuff she knew and had already figured out. “Er, so they honestly didn’t expect players would check out the hotel before entering their rooms?” she had to ask Coral.

    Her maid shrugged. “It depends, but the massage doesn’t hurt to have just in case,” she said.

    -If you can remember the world outside the virtual by the end of the preliminaries, you shall qualify to summon a Servant, the message kept recapping, before it left off with, Till then, good luck!

    That left Sakura with half of her wanting to just get some rest already, and the other half thinking about what this ‘truth of the outside world’ even could be. Any time spent resting could be more time spent not figuring that out, so many Masters would think, but if you were dead tried, would you really be able to figure anything out?

    “Hey, Coral, I er don’t know if you’re allowed to say, but you wouldn’t have any ideas about the ‘outside’ world?” Sakura asked, “Um, besides the hotel’s name, apparently.”

    “I’m afraid I only know as much as you do,” Coral said. I guess she felt she should at least help somehow, maid’s duty and all, so she added, “Aquarius would have connections to fate, water and its holding, the mythologies, and the stars. Once you’re rested, perhaps we’ll find something in the library? Or another contestant might share their theories?”

    Sakura nodded, sounded like the most sensible idea. Well, it’d make more sense for the other contestants to not reveal anything, narrow the competition. But there had to be at least one willing to help their fellow players out this early in the game...

  2. #2
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    Sometime later Sakura fell asleep anyway, well less ‘fell asleep’ in this environment and more… felt the night and day cycle phase around her, to I suppose put it in more virtual reality-esque terms. She certainly felt refreshed on ‘waking up’ the next morning, at least.

    Having gotten ready for the day, Sakura opened her door to find Coral already waiting outside. “Oh hey! Er, you weren’t standing here all night, were you?” Sakura tried to say with a giggle.

    “I am an AI, Mistress, so to me it wouldn’t matter either way,” Coral said, an… odd greeting this early in the morning.

    “Okay,” Sakura mumbled, before she asked, “Suppose this place would have a café of breakfast buffet, right? Hmm, and I guess after that, we should-

    [ ] -see this Library.”

    [ ] -see if this Carvalho guy, the reigning champ they said, is anywhere around.”

    [ ] -okay, this is weird, but there’s this older woman who kinda looks like me. Maybe we should see what’s the case with her?”

    [ ] -well, there’s this older blonde woman I’ve seen, but she’s acting real standoffish. I have to wonder what her deal is?”

    [x] -I don’t know, just try wandering around again. I mean, who knows what we could find?"

    “Just wonder around?” Coral asked, eyeing Sakura closer.

    “Well, there’s like a whole bunch of potential Masters roaming around, as well as AIs, so likely we’ll just naturally find something. If we’re attentive enough, anyway,” Sakura said. Coral did nod in response, but otherwise didn’t say anything.

    <<Manor Theme>>

    Breakfast down at the cafeteria was, hmm, hard to describe. Not that the food was bad, that simply wouldn’t do for a place as luxurious as the Aquarius. More the issue was, no matter how good the food was, there was always the knowledge clawing at the mind that this was only the image and sensation of food, not actual sustenance. It would’ve also unnerved Sakura to see Coral not eating at all. Not that Coral needed to, AI and all, but still… weird.

    It looked like Sakura had been one of the ‘late risers’, with more people having left since she came in (er, probably just correlation). It was likely that other players had adopted the approach that more sleep meant less time to figure out the ‘secret of the outside world’, or maybe Sakura wasn’t much of an early morning person in general.

    Either way, she did look around the room for anyone still here, likely anyone who met Ciel’s descriptions from yesterday. And well, that’s how we first met.

    I’ve been speaking for a while, but this’d be a good segue into introducing myself. My name’s-

    [x] Yakumo Amemiya (Western order)

    [ ] Shannon Conroy

    [ ] Avital ‘Tal’ Rosenbach

    -they/them, and I’ll tell you, I was quite surprised actually when Sakura came up to me and said, “Oh hey, you kinda match the Overseer’s description of a player with a lighter blue hair. Ah, sorry, I should introduce myself, Tohsaka Sakura.”

    I gave her my name and smiled, then tried to say, “Hey, pleasure’s all mine. It’s always great to meet new people,” which made me automatically worry whether I was being too forward.

    I would’ve been fine if Sakura had asked what I’d found out about the outside world right away, but it sounded like she wanted to build up to a topic like that. “Er, nice avatar you picked out,” she went with instead.

    “Guess it’s an avatar, yeah, but really I just tried to stick as close to my real self as possible. Felt less… weird that way, ah, no offence,” I said. I confess I might’ve been lying or at least misremembering due to how the VR memory-wipe worked. My virtual self was more ‘along the lines’ of how I actually looked.

    “None taken”, Sakura smiled, and seemed sincere enough. Feeling now like she could be more forward, she then asked, “So, what Magic Specialty did you pick? I went for Imaginary Numbers myself.”

    You- you just told me what magic you use? I thought, given what a potential giveaway that could be. Well, she’s only told me her basic field, nothing too specific. All I knew then about Imaginary Numbers was it could be a serious headache to use, more so than regular maths, but reportedly did have massive payoffs.

    “Oh, me? I’m just a-

    [ ] Onmyouji

    [x] Oneiromancer

    [ ] Witch

    -that’s all really, but I think it’s fun!” I said, trying to keep the positivity going. I did add, “Speaking of magic though, I’ve heard whispers yesterday about something called ‘Grain’. I learned from the library that it’s basically space-dust but couldn’t find out much more.”

    Sakura shrugged, “First time I’ve heard of it, sorry.”

    “Ah, master!” I heard a voice cry. It was none other than Jasper Carlisle, the valet assigned to me, somewhat tall and lanky and with hair a darker shade of green. He was currently rubbing the side of his head, looking like he’d run into something.

    “Is everything alright?” I asked him.

    “Perfectly fine, master! I just, er, tripped and fell face-first onto one of your used plates, that’s all,” Jasper said.

    “Jasper, I should’ve known,” I could hear Coral sigh.

    “Anyway,” Jasper said, then focusing on Sakura, “I do trust that everything’s alright here?”

    “What? Of course it’s fine, we’ve been getting along pretty well,” Sakura said, with me nodding to confirm.

    “Alright, if you say so,” Jasper said, looking more relaxed now. His eyes then darted from side to side before he added, “Do take caution with others you may speak with, this is a tournament environment after all. Or will be, anyway.” He then bent down between Sakura and I and whispered, “That ‘Rin Matou’ for instance.”

    “Rin Matou? Huh, I don’t remember meeting anyone by that name,” I said.

    “You had the good fortune to be asleep at the time, master. I had the displeasure of encountering Miss Matou while I was doing the night’s chores. She’s hard to miss, tall, lilac hair, black boots, and simply the coldest glare. I was quite rudely reprimanded by her for ‘being in her way’, dreadful experience. What she was up to that late I can’t say.”

    My first thought was Jasper may’ve been overacting or misremembering a little, but she at least sounded like someone to be a little careful of. “Ah, thanks for the heads up,” I settled on saying.

    Sakura however started muttering to herself, “Matou Rin, Matou Rin, Matou Rin…” Just before she got too trance-like, she shook her head and said, “Sorry, must’ve been déjà vu. Well, this ‘Grain’ certainly sounds like something I should check into, and it’s been nice meeting you!”

    I smiled in return, “Likewise. Well, I was gonna head to the Library again, it’s got so much that there has to be something I missed.”

    Sakura then said:
    [ ] “Yeah, I’ll come with you, that way we can search the Library together.”

    [ ] “I might wanna track down Matou, at least get the basics on her.”

    [x] “There’s another woman who kinda looks like an older me, I wanted to know her case. Her hair’s black, so she’d be someone else than Matou.”

    [ ] “I was thinking to ask Felix de Carvalho about Grain or the outside world, he oughta know if anyone.”

    [ ] “There was this wolfy boy I met, who I think was something called an A-Ray. I don’t exactly wanna talk with him, but I am wondering if this ‘Grain’ has something to do with A-Rays.”

    “Like you but older?” I repeated before I had to admit, “Eheh, got a little worried it could be a doppelganger situation, but yeah, that’d kinda be I’m jumping to conclusions this early on. Right?”

    “Well, you can never know. This is still a Grail War, prelims or no,” Jasper said.

    “Yeah, pretty sure she’s not a full-on doppelganger, whoever she is,” Sakura said, with me hoping I didn’t embarrass her, “But best to check for myself anyway. But thanks, Amemiya, it was nice meeting you. You’re the nicest player I’ve met so far.” She didn’t add ‘by default’, but I couldn’t help but feel that was the implication.

    “Hey, likewise,” I smiled back at her, myself having met probably even fewer players than her at this point. Part of me also thought, Wait, wouldn’t you want the other players to be unlikable, that way you don’t feel bad about beating them? I dismissed that logic though, too harsh for what I thought, at the time, was just a game.

    I did later get an account of Sakura’s first real meeting with her older (thirties at least) lookalike, a woman with long, brownish-black hair, a red coat and skirt and white blouse. They met by the library door no less, the older woman having just walked out. Sakura’s eyes met hers almost directly, I say ‘almost’ because of the height difference, before Sakura finally said, “Oh, sorry, it’s just… I couldn’t help but think our avatars matched, you know? Ah, I’m Tohsaka Sakura, should’ve said that first,” she bowed.

    Coral then stepped in to try handling this more professionally. “Pardon us, my mistress had simply come across you more than a few times and simply got curious. I am her maid, Coral,” she said.

    After nodding at Coral, the older woman then had to smirk at Sakura. “Au contraire, I would instead insist your avatar matches mine. Clearly I’m not so desperate to take fashion advice from a teenager,” she chuckled, but did admit with a murmur, “Still, it is a striking resemblance, almost daughterly- hmm, well maybe more niece-ish. Well then, know you’ve had the pleasure of meeting Kasaito Mikoto, but now I must away. It would not do to reveal too much of myself, secrecy is among the Master’s keys to victory.”

    “W-wait, I wasn’t trying to spy on you or anything!” Sakura tried to insist, “I was just, interested in getting to know you better, that’s all.”

    Mikoto turned around only to glare at her. “My dear, are you at all aware of what a Grail War is? What possible reason would any potential Master have to speak with another other than to plot how to defeat them?” she said, “And before you say ‘alliances’, need I remind you the Grail accepts only one victor?”

    “I imagine you would possess a tight-knit social circle, Miss Kasaito~,” Coral said, but could’ve easily spat if she had less restraint.

    “Ah, you certainly seem to take this quite seriously,” Sakura said, in a much lighter tone.

    “Well, why not?” Mikoto said, “Who wouldn’t ‘take this seriously’, knowing just what’s at stake- Oh, oh my. You haven’t figured it out yet, haven’t you?”

    Sakura was caught off-guard by those words, but then said, “You’re talking about the truth of the outside world, right?”

    Mikoto chuckled. “Why, what else could I ever be talking about? Anyway, farewell my dear. Pity you likely won’t make it past the preliminaries, but ah, tis the nature of the War,” she said, before she strode off.

    Standing there, Sakura would’ve been left thinking that if Mikoto was mother-like in any way, it was that type of mother who’d never be satisfied with anything but top marks, who’d glare at you like a hawk while you sat there doing all your homework. Well, that was the impression I got hearing about Mikoto Kasaito at least, but bringing up schoolwork does segue us to the next person to appear…

    “Irritating, isn’t she?” said another new voice right behind Sakura. Turning around, Sakura saw this was someone else she’d gotten glimpses of around the hotel. While Mikoto already gave off aristocratic airs, this pale blonde woman dressed in the darkest blue looked like she could’ve stepped straight out of a Victorian manor. Maybe she did, given how far back avatars could come from.

    “Oh ah, I get what you mean. But I kinda feel sad for her, in a way,” Sakura said, “Like, she acts like she’s happy, but with how she thinks, I can’t imagine her feeling anything but miserable deep down…”

    “Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear,” the blonde muttered, her voice as icy as her looks.

    “Er, sorry, forgot to introduce myself again, really should remember to. This is my maid Coral, and I’m Tohsaka Sakura,” she said, a little flushed.

    “…You would honestly bother introducing your AI maid? Well then, to what few equals I have I am Cainessa, but you will address me as Miss Archibald,” she said, looming over Sakura. “However, I am not here simply to impose my authority. Young Tohsaka, unlike the unfortunate Kasaito I am not blind to the advantages of alliances. I would like to make you an offer.”

    “…Offer?” Sakura just said, having reason to be hesitant.

    “I’ve obtained the Star-Cell’s permission to hold a class for aspiring Masters, which I believe you and your peers would benefit greatly from. As it’s unlikely we’ll be made to fight each other come first round, the knowledge I impart could be of great assistance against the Masters you’ll face,” Cainessa said. My words were ‘out of a Victorian manor’ before, but maybe ‘Victorian schoolroom’ would’ve fit more.

    “Did she genuinely communicate with the Star-Cell directly,” Coral, a product of the Star-Cell herself, then whispered to Sakura so Cainessa wouldn’t overhear, “or did she merely ask Ciel?”

    Anyway, Cainessa then crossed her arms and added, “Of course, I will not simply tell you the truth of the outside world, any worthwhile student ought to be able to figure that out themselves. Still, what do you say?”
    Last edited by NailsInYourFeet; December 3rd, 2022 at 02:26 AM. Reason: Music Collapse tags

  3. #3
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    “Okay, sure,” Sakura went along with this, “Er, there’s no upfront charge though, is there?”

    Cainessa smirked. “Show me that you can enter the Grail War proper, and that my time spent on you wasn’t a waste. That’s all I charge,” she said.

    “Well yeah, that is what I’m here to do anyway,” Sakura said, still nodding along.

    “So you say,” Cainessa murmured, before she leaned in and eyed Sakura, “But I wonder, could you carry that same confidence on discerning the truth of the world? Either way, we aren’t due to start for another few hours, so run along.”

    And Sakura did so, with it helping that Cainessa didn’t seem the type she, or anyone really, would want to interact with much outside of class. It was one thing when Cainessa was just being cold, but another when she started getting all cryptic.

    The Library did seem a good place to study up for this rare lesson, since y’know it was right there. At the library computer, which weirdly counted as a computer within a computer, VR and all, Sakura searched for Roman Emperors, which given the pages of results may’ve been too broad a term.

    “Hmm, interesting search,” Coral remarked.

    “Oh yeah, well I had that old lottery ticket in mind. I was trying to think what societies from long ago were known for lotteries, and well, Rome’s the only one that came to mind,” Sakura said, but shrugged, “I figure anyway. I admit I’m no historian, but hey, that’s what this library’s for, right?”

    Searching ‘Roman lottery’ specifically, then having to confirm she did not mean ‘Roman pottery’, Sakura eyes widened when she saw the first result. “Au-Augustus, the First Emperor?” she gasped, before she had to add, “See, ‘cause Caesar technically wasn’t Emperor. So I do know some things about history.”

    Coral didn’t respond at first, but then slowly said, “Mistress, you should know…”

    “Know what?” Sakura asked, given Coral was taking her time.

    “…Know that Augustus probably wouldn’t appreciate you calling him ‘Emperor’. He did insist on ‘First Citizen’,” Coral then said, the tone in her voice changing slightly. “Of course, this is all in the event that you do summon Augustus.”

    “Yeah, like I’m not sure how people get dibs on relics for Servants,” Sakura said, “Some other player might swipe him from right under my nose.”

    “It’s possible the Star-Cell’s Summoning System may not even work that way anymore,” Coral said, “That the catalysts are just there to get players thinking of summons. On top of the museum preserving human heritage, of course.”

    Sakura then paused, before she pondered, “Using catalysts to summon? Wait, am I getting my knowledge mixed up with my avatar’s again? Like, our avatars are meant to be Masters from past wars, right?”

    “Supposedly,” Coral said, “But somehow, the sheer number of masters I’ve seen, other maids say we have almost 1,000, makes me doubt that. It doesn’t line up with how rare and exclusive we’re told the Grail war was in the past.”

    “Modding, I guess,” Sakura said about the avatars, before she asked, “Also, ‘Summoning System may’, ‘other maids say’, aren’t you part of the Star-Cell? I thought you’d know all these things.”

    “Keyword there is ‘part’, mistress. I am but a punctuation mark on the Star-Cell’s page,” Coral said.

    Sakura just nodded again, probably having become a bit too exasperated there. Only then did she and I notice each other again, given I was seated at my desk buried in some books. “Oh hey, Amemiya,” she called out.

    “Tohsaka, h-hi,” I said, before I hastened to tell her, “I found out some info about, er, ‘Liners’ and ‘A-Rays’,” checking my notes again.

    “Oh wow, I kinda know what an A-Ray is,” Sakura said, “Coral says they’re animal-human hybrids, but then said that’s not fully the case.” I’d later learn she’d actually met an A-Ray, but given what he was like, I could see why she didn’t bring him up.

    “Okay, and Liners are related to that ‘Grain’ thing I was talking about,” I said, “They’re basically people who’ve adapted to the space-dust, since it’s usually poisonous.”

    “Huh, sure sounds like something! Hey, what else have you found out?” she asked, as she had to lean in closer.
    “Well, um, y’know, things,” I said as I covered my books with my hands.

    Sakura sighed. “Hey, if you’ve been slacking off or something, you can tell me. Apart from a few topics, I’m no super-studier either,” she said. She leaned in to see the novels and comics I’d been reading, then laughed, “Sheesh, from the way you were talking, sounded like you were reading porn for a second. Huh, though does this library even have a porn section? I mean, it is supposed to be all human records…”

    I twitched. “Not a… question I expected you to ask, Tohsaka,” I mumbled out.

    She blushed in turn. “Yeah, guess I was just running my mouth, that’s all,” Sakura said, “You figure it wouldn’t be so embarrassing, like everyone our age with a computer knows porn, yet we still feel awkward talking about it, y’know.”

    “Ah, master- mistress- my liege Amemiya!” Jasper then called out, breaking said awkwardness. He was staggering back and forth, carrying a whole mountain of books, before he inevitably and sent tumbling all over my desk. “Figured these would come in help,” he said dazed and sprawled.

    “Right, that reminds me! There’s this Master, her name’s Cainessa, who offered to teach players a class,” Sakura said, right over all of Jasper’s effort. “Thing is, well, she’s kinda… intimidating,” she then whispered, “so I was hoping to have someone I knew come with me. I mean, of course there’s Coral, but she’s not a player so I don’t think she’d be allowed.”

    Jasper’s eyes narrowed hearing Sakura say that. “W-well, it’s clearly a trap then, if us attendants aren’t allowed. My liege, surely you see this too?” he asked me.

    I had to sigh. “Jasper, the War hasn’t officially started yet. Cainessa couldn’t ambush us even if she wanted,” I told him, “And Tohsaka has a point, safety in numbers.”

    “W-what? My liege, you can’t mean what you say-“ Jasper began, before he turned to Sakura and said, “Alright, fine. But you’ll bear full responsibility for anything that happens to Amemiya, you-you hear?”

    Sakura groaned, “I hear”, before she in turn looked at Coral, “Is Jasper always like this?”

    “Hard to say,” Coral said, “Both of us, along with all the other attendants, were materialised quite recently. Wouldn’t be surprised if a glitch has got to him,” she conspiratorially whispered.

    “I heard that!” Jasper bleated.

    * * *

    Later that day, we gathered into your standard amphitheatric lecture hall, a soft blue light glimmering throughout, with the much darker blue of Cainessa- ah, Miss Archibald I should be thinking, standing in the centre. Well, I say ‘we’, it was more…

    “So, only four of you could be bothered to show up,” Cainessa said, her voice staying restrained. As a bunch of late students made no sudden arrival, sure enough it was me, Sakura, a boy I judged to be that Wolf A-Ray Sakura mentioned, and… well, the last student deserved her own paragraph.

    She was a girl a year or so older than Sakura, about my age or still a bit older then. She was the tallest student by far, nearing Cainessa in height, with sure enough, lilac hair, pink jacket, and a black skirt and boots. Matou Rin, who else fit?

    “Fine, appears we’ll have to make do. From the left, state your names and schools of Magecraft,” Cainessa said.

    I shuddered a little since this meant I was first. “Amemiya Yakumo, and I’m an Oneiromancer. Ah, that means stuff with dreams. They/them,” I said.

    “Tohsaka Sakura. I wouldn’t say I’m a specialist, but I am interested in Imaginary Numerology. She/her.”

    The wolf boy snarled. “Hey, we all know Oneiromancy is, who doesn’t? Anyway, Blut Mavrik, ‘cause I’m trained in Blood Magic. It’s dark and violent, like my soul. Oh, and unlike some people here, I don’t have pronouns,” he said in total seriousness.

    “…You do know what pronouns are, right?” Sakura said, where I just would’ve kept quiet and hope it blew over. Luckily for us, Blut just snarled but said nothing.

    That left… “Matou Rin. Jewelcraft, elementalism, and theoretical interdimensional studies,” we heard her finally speak. “She/her,” she then added.

    “I see,” Cainessa muttered, before she then stared straight at me. “Young Amemiya, you do realise just how much you’ve handicapped yourself by choosing Oneiromancy in a Grail War? Unless the likes of Endymion or Zhuangzi should happen to be summoned, you are aware Servants don’t dream, or even sleep, aren’t you?”

    “I-I know,” I said, feeling the heat bearing down on me. “But Masters still do, so there’s that, right?” I also wanted to add that my interest in oneiromancy was for many more reasons than whether it’d help in this Grail War, but I could tell Cainessa only would’ve scolded me for it.

    “True, but you’ll find there are many more efficient ways of gathering intel, the likes of which may be used against you,” Cainessa said, before she moved onto Sakura. “As for you, did I honestly hear ‘Imaginary Numerology’? Why not simply say outright that you have zero faith in your future Servant?”

    “W-what? How can you just say that?!” Sakura had to speak out.

    “Quiet. Can any other student inform the class on ‘Imaginary’ Numerology?” Cainessa then said.

    I twitched upon it being Rin who stood up. “Imaginary Numerology. A branch of Ethereal Magecraft that manipulates the Spiritual, not the Physical. This would technically give a Master the power to attack a Servant directly,” she summarised, not needing to check a single note.

    “Thank you, and I’ll draw everyone’s attention to the use of the word ‘technically’,” Cainessa said, “Unless our Miss Tohsaka reveals herself to be some once-in-a-Zeitgeist wunderkind, being able to harm Servants does not entail being able to defeat Servants.”

    Still more than I could ever do, I thought. Evidence was piling up that Cainessa would’ve insulted our field of magic regardless of what we said.

    “As for you,” she looked at Blut, “You know what, I won’t even dignify you with a response. I suspect you only even showed up to disturb the lesson. Moving on, Miss Matou,” she said, only a slight smile forming, “Already the most accomplished here of you four, but even with you I find fault. Sounds to me like you’ve been spreading your specialties too thin.”

    At first it didn’t sound like Rin Matou would reply at all, but then she said, “Well, you must be quite powerful then, assuming you’ve stuck to a single field.” I winced at those words, Rin’s tone making it sound like she was the teacher, not Cainessa. Not even Blut baited her this much.

    Cainessa of course wouldn’t be shown up like this. With what to me looked like a trance-like muttering and wave of her hand, Cainessa somehow forced Rin to suddenly start talking backwards. “Dleif a ot kcuts ev’uoy gnimussa-“

    “Control over time’s current, thank you for asking. Nothing theoretical about it,” Cainessa’s smile grew wider, yet even colder.

    A-A Chronomancer? I thought. Now I hoped even harder not to be placed against Cainessa in the War. Rin meanwhile was left in a state of concealed fury, which couldn’t help but amuse Blut and even Sakura.

    “Now then, I assume you all know what a ‘Liner’ is,” Cainessa then said, something I had only just found out. “If you still don’t know, then what are you even doing in this class, this War? Hmhm, because do you seriously think that’s Mana or Odic Force you’re using to code-cast spells here?”

    Wait, she’s implying all of us are Liners? I thought. I didn’t ask to confirm, she probably would’ve only mocked me had I done so.

    “But how many of you can tell me what an ‘Ether Liner’ is?” Cainessa asked, even though she could just tell us.

    It was Rin who answered. “Ether Liners are people who have accumulated enough Grain that is has hardened into a Knight Arm, a weapon unique to them,” she said, quick to take back her esteem.

    “Correct. Or at least when it comes to basics. Other than Servants, Ether Liner players will be the biggest threat you face. I should know, you should already be able to tell I am one,” Cainessa said, “There are at least two more of note. The first will need no introduction to youths like you, Felix de Carvalho. The other, well, I believe Miss Tohsaka’s already acquainted.”
    Sakura twitched and said, “Wait, Kasaito?”

    “You know her?” Rin spoke up to ask.

    “It’s nothing,” Sakura said, “We just met in the hall once, found it strange how she kinda looked like me, that’s all.” This at least seemed good enough an answer for Rin, for now.

    After that intro to Ether Liners, we quickly found out Cainessa could talk for hours, or rather talk down for hours. It was a lot for me to take in, but I think one part of the lecture that caught my attention, Sakura’s too by the look of her, was-

    [x] About Spiritrons, the magic particles of data that made up the world of the Star-Cell

    [ ] About the Servant Classes, not just the standard seven but also some weird outliers.

    [ ] About the phenomenon of ‘cyber ghosts’.

    [ ] About the history of the Clock Tower, emphasis on ‘history’.

    The lecture all over, day all over really, it looked like all of us but Rin were ready to crash immediately on our beds.
    The time was drawing near to work out the ‘truth of the outside world’, which left my shivering self with no idea what to do tomorrow. Sakura however said she’d start the day by:

    [ ] Getting around to talking to Carvalho, and any other player she could.

    [x] If an ‘Assassin Jeeves’ was in charge of the attendants, then she ought to find any non-combatant Servants in charge of the Museum or Library, they ought to know some things.

    [ ] See if she could eavesdrop on some of the people who wouldn’t give her direct answers, like Rin, Cainessa, and Mikoto.

    [ ] Armed with new knowledge, find out anything more she could on Grain, A-Rays, and Ether Liners, since that way seemed to be the truth of the outside world.

  4. #4
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    I had a hard time wrapping my head around Spiritrons, which is probably what made them stand out so much to me from the lecture. We were taught they’re the essence of the soul, which… somehow allowed them to be used as computer data? It’s not that Cainessa cared that much to slow down and explain more clearly for us. Anyway, entire worlds could apparently be made up of Spiritrons, including the Aquarius’ ‘Serial Phantasm’ (Cainessa’s term, she seemed more than reluctant to just say ‘virtual reality’) we were in now.

    She then said another, older Spiritron World was created by the Moon-Cell, the Star-Cell’s precursor. She talked quite highly of the Moon-Cell, one of the few things she ever talked highly about, going on to say that the Star-Cell was merely a man-made replica. I guess, I mean, it’s not like any of us had the Moon-Cell here to judge. As for whether the Star-Cell being a replica of the Moon-Cell was the truth of the outside world… no, it couldn’t be, Cainessa made clear she wouldn’t just tell us that.

    There in my room, one mostly identical to Sakura’s, I did look over the oneirogen plants in my collection before I went to bed, that lecture having given me a thought. “Jasper?” I asked my valet, “I was thinking, maybe I could chance finding out more about the Moon-Cell by entering Cainessa’s dreams? Except… no I couldn’t.”

    “Why not? Sounds like a smart enough plan,” Jasper said, “I wouldn’t worry about the ethics of it, we are talking about someone who insulted your field of magic right to your face before you could even demonstrate it. I’d say it’d only be karmic for her.”

    Part of me was worried that Jasper only said that because he was programmed to agree with me, but if that was true, he really had to stretch to come to that conclusion. “Er, okay. But I’d still be magically spying on a potential enemy before the War properly begins, like just speaking practically, that could get me booted out before I summon anyone.”

    Jasper then smiled at me. “My liege, it shows the strength of your character, both moral and rational, that you’d even be debating this. I’m afraid most of the other players wouldn’t have your foresight, they’d simply take any apparent advantage they could get,” he said.

    I smiled too hearing him compliment me, but did my words really win him over so quickly for him to change his tune like that? Plus, it just reminded me that other players would happily use those same underhanded tactics on me if they could.

    My own dream that ‘night’ was a simple one, but still more a nightmare really. I was being shot out of an airlock into the depths of space, again simple but scary. While I was naturally trained to interpret such dreams, especially who could be sending them, I couldn’t really nail down any definitive answer. A subliminal reminder by the Star-Cell of what the outside world could be? Me just having space on my mind after thinking about both Star- and Moon-Cells? Just me be all anxious about the upcoming War? Its simplicity at least made for an easy dream diary entry.

    Sakura was quite generous in letting me recount my dream to her next morning, meeting again in the cafeteria. “Still, I don’t think I’m qualified to give my own reading of it,” she said, “My go-to response to nightmares is to just keep really busy and I hope I forget about them before long. Like, I had an unpleasant dream last night too, but you definitely had the scarier one.”

    “Er, do you want me to interpret that dream for you?” I asked, “Because I don’t wanna make you recount anything you're not comfortable with, that helps nobody.”

    “Hey, it’s fine. Bad dreams feel less bad if you have people to talk about them with. Okay, that’s more a general rule,” Sakura said, letting out a chuckle. “Mine was pretty simple too, nothing to do with space though, at least not ‘outer’. Let’s see, I was in this big fancy mansion, kinda like the Aquarius you could say, but there was barely any light and I was all alone. No maids or butlers, no family, no guests, nobody.”

    That one I again had to think over. True, most dreams I needed to think over, part of being an oneiromancer is realising just how complex they are. “My first thought was it could be a scene, a memory, from your avatar’s life, though I kinda struggle imagining me having been an astronaut. You seem to have your mind set on a Servant, so it could be a scene from their life- No, you said your Servant was gonna be Roman, and a mansion like the Aquarius wouldn’t look Roman. Hmm,” I suddenly smirked, “Maybe ‘cause Cainessa left us all in the dark with her lecture, that’s how you feel after listening to her?”

    Sakura had to grin hearing that. “Yeah, she sure did. In the dark, like my soul,” she smirked as she quoted Blut.

    Our joking around was interrupted though by what sounded like a confrontation. Two men were arguing about something by the door, one a more austere, grey military-looking type, the other a tanned, long-haired man who looked more like a sports star to me.
    It was hard to make out what they were saying exactly, with them being far enough away and the reverb in the room. Eventually the sports star type just groaned and walked away, the military type doing the same in the other direction.
    Seeing we’d been staring right at him, the sports star walked right up to us. For a second I shuddered, fearing being reprimanded, but instead he sighed and said, “Sheesh, sorry you guys had to see that. Not one of my proudest moments.”

    “That’s okay, happens to all of us,” I said the first thing to come to mind.

    Sakura however got lost in thought for a second, before she said, “Hold on, you’re Felix de Carvalho, aren’t you?”

    Felix laughed, “Correctamundo, how’d you guess?”

    “Oh, er, just a hunch,” Sakura said, shrinking down a little, “Guess it’d be like, your aura, I mean your figurative one,” she specified, “You fit what description I’ve heard, and you do kinda have the ‘star power’ presence you’d expect.”

    “Wow, I’m impressed. You’re more analytical than you give yourself credit for. Don’t you agree?” Felix then said, suddenly turning to talk to what looked like air. Unless…

    “You’ve already summoned your Servant?” I asked on instinct, as I thought he couldn’t just be talking to nothing.

    “Correct again. Normally I’d introduce you, helps he’s the social type, but y’know, I’m kinda not allowed to till prelims are over. Them’s the rules,” Felix said. He then looked downcast for a second, going against his usual nature. “Yep, figured out the ‘truth of the outside world’ alright. Normally I’d just tell you what it is, but thing is… I kinda can’t. Like, I don’t think the Star-Cell counts it if you’re told, it’s something you’re ‘sposed to figure out on your own. Dumb I know, but again, them’s the rules.”

    Sakura first mumbled, “Should’ve known,” but then said, “Oh, that reminds me. How many of those ‘non-combatant Servants’ do you think are around? Like you said, they can’t tell me, but I thought they could at least give me an idea about the outside world.”

    Felix shrugged. “Probably a question better suited to the Overseer, but I’ll do my best to answer. Let’s see, you’d already have heard about Jeeves, then you’ve got Caster Jafar running the Library. Hey, don’t let his rep turn you off him- oh yeah, and I’m not spoiling anything by telling you his name. He’s an administrative Servant, he’s required to give it out. Then, ooh boy, we’ve got Luisa Casati running the Museum. Guess she’s qualified, they say her old house became a super-famous museum itself, but boy, imagine summoning a Berserker to run a museum. There’s also Gatekeeper, not anyone you’d have met yet, but you’ll know him when you see him. I’m a little hazy beyond that, like I know there’s a Servant running a betting racket, but yeesh, I try staying away from that stuff. Also know there’s a ‘scenario writer’ on hand, and oh yeah, Metatron.”

    That name sure stood out. “The Metatron? But aren't they an angel?” I asked.

    “Oh, he was human at one point, which I guess lets him in here. He’s the ultimate record-keeper of this Holy Grail War, super-important guy, but not easy to get in contact with. Like, they say even our library and museum are nothing compared to all he knows and sees. Good thing we don’t have to fight him, eh?” Felix finished.

    Sakura just smiled at that remark, if shivered a little, before she stood up to say, “Well, I oughta meet with this Jafar and even Casati. They could help me out, and besides, I owe it to them for using their Library and Museum, the ones they’ve been assigned anyway, so casually. Thanks for the info.”

    “Hey, anytime,” Felix said, but then added, “Oh yeah, one more thing. That guy I got into an argument with? That’s Stathis Smaragdis, he’s one of those players I just can’t stand, all serious business y’know. Still, much as I don’t wanna hand it to him, he’s looking to be a serious contender, so watch out for him.”

    Both Sakura and I nodded. But still, was the Grail War something worth just taking casually? That kinda didn’t add up…

    * * *

    Sakura headed first to the Library, given it was closer. Unsure how to exactly go about speaking with Jafar, she just went up to the front desk and asked, “Hi, er, could I please speak with the head librarian?”

    There was some muttering behind the counter, but soon some nearby bookcases parted and rearranged themselves like a great unfolding curtain as the first Servant Sakura had seen walked out. The Caster class she’d been told, so that generally meant he was a mage himself, in function at least. A sceptre-carrying Iranian man in royal robes, he opened with a groan, “What is it? Some administrative error, can’t find a book, fight started up? Just get this over with.”

    Sakura stiffened a little, knowing she was actually talking to a Middle Eastern magus right out of a storybook. She immediately bowed and said, “Ah, no, everything’s fine, last I checked. I just thought with prelims almost over and me being a Master, I should really get to know all the Servants that have already been summoned. Well, publicly anyway. Er, anyway, I’m Tohsaka Sakura.”

    “Seriously, I got called out here for that?” Jafar said, but properly introduced himself anyway, “Ja’far ibn Yahya al-Barmaki.” With Sakura not quite recognising the name, he then flat-out said, “Grand Vizier Jafar.”

    “W-wow, that is… something,” she said. Having established her limited historical knowledge, she asked, “From the 1,001 Nights and those movies? So the Star-Cell really can summoning fictional characters?”

    “The Star-Cell holds the collective records of Earth, and those happen to include every work of fiction eve made. So yes, that’s well within its capabilities, that a ‘Jeeves’ is walking around right now should’ve made that obvious. However,” Jafar then said, “I am without a doubt historical, much as the world of fiction would dare try claim me. Anyway, is that all?”
    This wasn’t the behaviour one would expect from a Grand Vizier, less Machiavellian and more just fed up in general. Still, Sakura asked, “I know you can’t just tell me, but well, I was also hoping for a hint about the truth of the-"

    “-Outside World?” Jafar finished for her, “You’ve met the Overseer at least, didn’t she at least give you that clue about the Aquarius’ name? Alright, if one requires assistance, I suppose that is my task. Miss Tohsaka, you’ll note how earlier I had to specify ‘Earth’. Do keep that in mind.”

    With Jafar departing, it was Coral who turned to Sakura and said, “I suppose I should’ve given you a heads up. This was my first time meeting Jafar too, but Jeeves already warned me he could be on the prickly side.”

    “No, it’s okay,” Sakura said, “Like, I don’t think he was just annoyed or anything. The impression I got was more, well, that something was weighing heavily on his mind, like he’d been through a lot.”

    “…I suppose that may be,” Coral just said to that.

    Upon heading to the Museum to meet with its curator, this Luisa Casati, Jafar now definitely seemed the preferable type.

    “My, what an unremarkable girl,” the gothic redhead Casati said of Sakura before Sakura got a chance to say anything, “Tell me, do you honestly see yourself as Master material with fashion sense as plain as yours. You lack style, darling, true flair. That Mikoto for instance at least dresses up for the occasion, and that Cainessa, well her dark coat, pale-like, and bone-like visage at least makes an impression.”

    A flustered Sakura just said, “Hey, l-look, I didn’t come here for fashion advice or whatever!”

    “Then what on ‘Earth’ did you come here for?” Casati sighed, “Some asinine question about the outside world? Dear girl, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.” She then however examined Sakura more closely, before she beamed, “Still, such plainness does mean you could be the perfect scaffold to be redesigned through my vision. The ‘girl next door’ look is so trite, I’m picturing something far more daring, more unconventional.”

    Coral had to step in. “Thank you, but my mistress’ outfitting is mine to oversee,” she said.

    Casati’s face scrunched up, before she sighed and said, “Suit your own miserable selves. Just remember, true art is for the bold.”

    “Wait, you’re a Berserker, aren’t you?” Sakura then asked, “Sorry, but it’s just seems like a weird Servant to summon as a non-combatant, especially as a curator.”

    “Hmph, what reason the Star-cell may have for summoning one of my Class, I truly couldn’t care. All I know is I’d be dead bored summoned as almost any other class, Berserker and Avenger are the only ones based upon actual emotions, after all,” was the answer Casati genuinely gave, “not simply on whether one has a sharpened stick or a longer sharpened stick.”

    It was then Sakura went deep in thought, before she thought to ask Casati, “About this museum. I know it's the only one world like it inside the Star-Cell, but… is it the only one like it, period? Does even the outside world have a place like this?”
    Casati laughed at that, “There is no collection in existence like the one run by me! So yes.”

    Sakura then formed a grin. “In that case, between words like ‘Aquarius’ and singling out ‘Earth’, and hearing Yakumo dream of falling out an airlock, I… I don’t wanna lock in my answer right now, but I think I’ve got an idea what the outside world’s really like.”

    “You do?” Coral had to ask.

    “Hmhm, well then, no harm in hearing it,” Casati grinned, seemingly actually amused by something again.

    “Okay. Again, don’t know for sure, but I think we’re-

    [ ] -deep underground, in a virtual simulation in a fallout bunker.”

    [x] -in space, because something real bad’s happened to Earth.”

    [ ] -in a bunch of pods, being projected backwards in time.”

    [ ] …Sorry, spoke too soon. I still can’t say.”

  5. #5
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    Sakura having given her answer, regardless of just how certain she was of her theory, it sure seemed to register with the Star-Cell. Sakura then felt the floor below her shaking, the whole Museum now looking like it was phasing in and out, crackling with static if not looking like it was glitching. She could see Casati grinning at her, while Coral beside her nodded and then waved to her. Sakura then learned why, as in a flash Coral and everything else was gone.

    <<Summoning Theme>>

    A trembling Sakura now found herself in what at first looked like a black void, before white lines started appearing to outline the ‘room’ around her, her world now constructed out of what looked like wireframes. She tried calling out, only to hear nothing in return. Breathing deep, she took a step forward into… wherever this was.

    With every so many steps forward though, what started as just white lines over darkness was joined by further points of light that shone out. It wasn’t before long that she found herself surrounded by stars and nebulae. In space, just like she said.

    Then, square by square, what looked like a spaceship or some other futuristic vessel started being filled in around her. Not just its walls and floor, but also rows and rows of what reminded her of cryogenic pods.

    She then stumbled backwards when out of nowhere a giant shining door materialised in front of her, with a series of… holographic keycards or something, them bearing figures like knights, mages, chained people, masked men in hats, some sort of minotaur, all inserted themselves into gaps in the door.

    Sakura started hyperventilating as she reached towards this door, with her head moving to the side once or twice as if in hope that Coral would show up beside her again, but no luck. It then turned out she didn’t even need to pull this door open, for it then opened inward in front of her, with nothing but blinding light on the other side.

    Sakura then clenched her teeth and just ran on in, then opened her eyes to find she now stood on a circular, golden platform with seven stained glass arches around her, and countless cards rotating around in the void beyond. She then felt something in her hand, with her looking down to see that the lottery ticket she’d seen in the Museum had now appeared in her hand. A glittering light then appeared in the centre of this circle… but so did something else.

    Potential Master,” a voice then crackled, a dark-green silhouette then appearing on the other side of the platform, looking like a glitch in reality, “Summon your Servant, and I shall determine your worth. Round 1!”

    * * *

    I then stumbled into the Museum only to see Sakura vanish into thin air. “Wait, w-what just happened?!” I asked Coral and the Curator in an instant.

    “Relax, she did exactly what any of you Masters are supposed to do. Figure out the truth of the world,” the Curator, who I’d only later learn was the Heroic Spirit Luisa Casati, said yet added, “Well, enough of the truth of the world to have passed the first trial, anyway. She ought to be back with her own Servant any time now, well if said Servant’s good enough to get past our Gatekeeper.”

    “Huh, to think in just a few moments, I won’t be Sakura’s main assistant anymore. And despite her hopes, I don’t think it’ll be Augustus,” Coral muttered, then said, “Either way, I do know she will come back. S-she must, ‘cause that ‘Gatekeeper’ can’t be that powerful this early on, right?”

    I clutched my head, trying to recall any possible clue I’d uncovered about what this outside world could really be. “They said ‘Aquarius’ was a clue. Aquarius means water and cups, but it’s also the Zodiac, so gods, fate and… stars. Because we’re told that Grain and people like us Liners and A-Rays can’t show up on regular Earth, right? So we gotta be in space, right… leaving Earth, because we’re carrying humanity’s relics and knowledge with us,” I gasped, realising the truth of it all, the ‘world’ now glitching out around me.

    “Liege Amemiya!” I heard Jasper call out behind me, “Please, look around this room while you still can. Keep one of the relics in mind, or-or just think of a legendary person!”

    Too late. I’d already vanished, and unlike Sakura I hadn’t even chosen a catalyst.

    I first stumbled slowly through the wireframe corridor which turned into the cosmos, which just recalled my airlock dream and made me break out into a run to get this all over with, especially being told what Sakura could be facing at the end of this corridor. Then came the ship and its cryogenic pods, then the looming doorway, then…

    I walked right into that great platform at the end but gasped when I couldn’t see Sakura anywhere around. What I could see though was a giant green glitchy creature standing right in front of me. “Summon your Servant, so-called ‘Master’,” they said to me, “The clock is ticking!”

    GATEKEEPER, On the Day of Summoning (Tutorial Fight), those words for some reason materialised above me.
    I-I don’t have a catalyst, I wanted to tell this Gatekeeper, but feared what reason they’d have. But as a glowing light then appeared in my hands, I thought to myself, But… I’m still here, I can still summon a Heroic Spirit. Only then did my Servant appear before me:

    [ ] A raven-haired woman carrying a quill dipped in nightmares.

    [ ] A musical maid with a pistol for a baton.

    [ ] A bespectacled brunette in alchemic armour.

    [x] A horseback warrior anointed by the angels.

    [ ] A mage slayer blown in by the wind.

    <<Servant Intro>>

    The platform then shook with what to me looked like a blinding bolt from the ‘sky’, only later did I see that a white steed had leapt down from above and landed right on top of Gatekeeper. As Gatekeeper, with what looked like ‘invincibility frames’ (I think they’re called) flashing around them, this snow-white horse trotted up right in front of me, giving me the chance to finally see who their rider was.

    She, well so I assumed, carried herself with a tomboyish yet noble, I guess you’d say ‘princely’ demeanour. She wore an elegant yet still military outfit coloured in contrasting blues and reds, I’d put it around the 18th or 19th century from what I knew. Her hair was dark and boyishly short, reminding a bit of Overseer Ciel even if the two projected very different auras.

    “Oh, quit your gawking,” she then sighed at me, before Gatekeeper began readying another attack. “Summoned right into the heat of battle then? Ah, already this Grail War of yours pulls no punches,” she smirked and readied a sword and gun in either hand, “Which suits me fine.”

    “Analysis… complete?” Gatekeeper then said, “Jump attack indicates ‘platformer’, mount indicates ‘Racing’, but military equipment indicates ‘strategy’.” As they were trying to make sense of her, er, ‘gaming genre’, they were struck and jumped at from behind by another animal, a dog just as snowy-white with some brownish-black splotches. Stealth game then?

    Bien muchacho!” the rider beamed at her dog, before her attention went back to Gatekeeper. “Hah, even with this Grail updating me, it sounds like you’re simply pulling a shibboleth on me,” she laughed. Gatekeeper, seemingly fed up, simply put their hands together and shot out what looked like a blue chi fireball, only for the horsewoman and her dog to dodge to either side.

    She then opened fire on Gatekeeper’s head while her dog bit down at their legs. Gatekeeper responded by stomping the floor, which was enough to send out whole shockwaves across the platform. Both the rider and her dog were swift enough to jump over them, but I… wasn’t so lucky. They hit me full force and sent me hurtling back against that door, I could’ve fallen into the abyss beyond the platform had I been pushed any further.

    Fortunately, the horse rider noticed this, and with command to her dog in Spanish, sent him to cover me while she dealt with Gatekeeper. However, she may not have needed to, as what some sort of ‘ether bullet’ made of compressed numbers, well that’s how I’d describe it, then sniped Gatekeeper from the side. Looking where this ether bullet had come from, I could see…

    “Sakura!” I called out, seeing her still alive, if right now hanging by one of those stained-glass window frames and scrambling to get back onto the platform. I would’ve rushed over to help her… but would’ve put me right in Gatekeeper’s line of sight.

    Luckily that wouldn’t be necessary, as no less than a third Servant now entered the fray “Taste divine judgment, plebeian!” a girl called out from atop one of the glass arches, having somehow been agile enough to get up there despite Gatekeeper’s shockwaves. With a cry, she then threw down an entire ancient shield like a discus right at Gatekeeper, and with them now flashing red, this girl now pirouetted right down onto Gatekeeper with what looked like a mana-fuelled starburst emanating from her kick.

    “So, trying to copy my tactics without a horse, are we?” the rider had to comment.

    However, as Gatekeeper now slumped to the ground, a triumphant jingle sounding from him somehow, this girl, with star-decced long caramel hair and wearing a glittering gold dress, then shot the widest smirk at the rider and said, “More like I actually made your stupid tactic work, thank you~. I got the finishing blow, after all!”

    The rider did wince a little at that comeback and said, “Look, what matters isn’t who kills the enemy, what matters is that this enemy’s killed,” before Gatekeeper then, with ironic timing, suddenly vanished. She then rapidly looked around for where they could’ve gone to, before she just said, “After them! We can’t afford the enemy to escape!”

    “I don’t think we have to,” I said, “They were summoned to test how good our Servants are, and whew, looks like the test was passed.”

    That caused rider to stare at me, before she breathed in then said, “Regardless of their motive, they still attacked all of us. You’d just let someone like that go free?”

    “Eh, course I would,” the new girl said, “They were just some jobber who couldn’t even scratch an empress like me, so who cares?”

    “Empress?!” That word for some reason stung the rider.

    “Besides, I don’t think we could go after them if we wanted to. They were summoned by the Star-Cell directly, so going after them anymore than we need could be against the Grail War’s own rules,” Sakura said.

    “…You do know a War by definition has no rules, don’t you?” Protocols, maybe,” the rider said, but then started to calm down, “Still, you have something of a point. I can see how chasing after this Gatekeeper could risk wasting records. Alright then, amigas, I believe introductions are in order,” her voice then perked up quite a bit, which eased my nerves what with how scary she’d been coming off, “I’m of the Rider class, as you’ve probably guessed.”

    “You can call me Saver,” said the girl, “That’s with a V, not B, so it’s totally different. I mean, being summoned in one of these ‘standard classes’ would be so boring,” she had to shoot a glance at Rider. “Obviously I won’t just tell you who I really am, but anyone who’s done their history and theology would be a complete doofus not to know who I am.”

    I didn’t want to say this directly to her, but my first thought was, Er, isn’t ‘Saver’ said to be the messianic class? This… isn’t what I think of when I think ‘messiah’.

    Rider held back less, muttering to me, “She’s practically a walking advertisement for secular government.”

    “I-I think I do know,” Sakura said as she approached her, “You’re Augustus of Rome, right? Or maybe Lydia then I guess?”
    Saver simply stared at her a while, before she burst out laughing in Sakura’s face, “Augustus? You seriously think I’m that stuffy old has-been? Hah, boy did I get you good!”

    “Just as well,” Rider said, “Had you been correct, camarada, Saver’s identity would’ve been given away immediately. True, planning how to deal with Octavian would… sure be something, alright.”

    “I-I know that!” Sakura insisted, then said, “Guess I just got excited about summoning my Servant, that’s all.”

    “Huh, ‘your’ Servant?” Saver said back, “Come on, what makes you think some squeaky little mouse girl like you could possibly summon a divine Empress like me?!”

    “Sakura, ah, sorry to rub it in,” I said, “but Saver does have a point. Rider and her were summoned pretty close together, so yeah, we can’t be sure whose Servants they are.”

    “No, that’s okay Amemiya, I get where you’re coming from,” Sakura said, “We could find out through using one of our Seals, but yeah, that’s kinda extreme this early on.”

    [x] “I’m pretty sure I’m with Rider and you’re with Saver. That lottery ticket of yours makes me think this Saver more than Rider.”

    [ ] “Yeah, could be you’re with Rider and I’m with Saver. I saw Rider first before Saver, and since you got here first that could mean you summoned her.”

    [ ] “I… don’t think I summoned anyone. I mean, I didn’t even use a catalyst.”

    “Lottery ticket? Yep, that’d be me then,” Saver said, though it meant turning around to acknowledge Sakura really was her Master.

    “I see. Well met, camarada,” Rider said as she no less than knelt on one knee before me, “Let us realise a grand dream together then, something neither of us could in the world outside.”

    “Oh, ah, thanks,” I had to blush, before I brought myself to say, “But… I’m not sure if I have a grand dream. I mean, I’m an Oneiromancer yeah, but I just entered this War because everyone else did.”

    Rider then cocked her head at me. “Are you sure you mean that? I’d say everyone has a grand dream, or at least a dream. You wouldn’t have made it this far if you didn’t,” she said, but then had to look back at Saver and muttered, “Verdadera, things might actually be better if certain people didn’t have such dreams.”

    Saver, rather than give a real response to Rider, simply stuck out her tongue and pulled down an eyelid. This Divine Empress then asked Sakura, “Okay, well if I’m stuck with you, you better make yourself useful. So like, what do you all do for fun around here?”

    “Ah, well right now it’s… just the Grail War, really. Guess we’re all stuck in sleeping pods in, of all places, space otherwise,” Sakura said.

    “Really, that all? Boo!” Saver said, crossed her arms, then sighed, “I suppose I’ll just have to make my own fun, y’know, like always.”

    “Wait, I guess there’s probably a mini-games collection or something, maybe Gatekeeper would know,” Sakura then tried to reign Saver in, then hesitated a bit to say this next line, “Or hell, a casino even. Felix did mention some betting tables for a sec.”

    “Casino? Pfft, I’d wanna be the one running it, not stuck at a table like any normal person,” Saver kept groaning.

    “Ah, liege Amemiya, you’re alright!” Jasper’s voice called out, and by now we were grateful that anyone could distract us from Saver. My old valet running right onto the platform, he took one look at Rider and his eyes widened. “Of course! Naturally I knew Amemiya would summon a more than capable Servant,” he said and bowed.

    Rider had to smirk at him. “Getting a bit hasty in your assessment, heh? You’ve barely even seen me in action,” she said, before she showed off a little by tossing up then catching her own sword.

    “Well, ahem, it’s a valet’s intuition, really,” Jasper said, before he glanced over at Sakura, then had to say, “Admittedly, it might’ve been easier for you if Miss Sakura hadn’t made it. If you two remain undefeated, you would have to eventually face off against each other.”

    “Jasper!” I had to protest.

    “What? All that would’ve happened to her is she’d have simply gotten a game over, that’s all,” Jasper then said. That just raised the question of why it’d be such a big deal that us two would face off, but well, anyway.

    “Well, if Saver here’s up to it, we could simply have it out right now,” Rider turned to look at her, “It’s not like that Gatekeeper could muster a scratch on either of us.”

    “Hah, bring it on! I’ve already seen you in action, I can totally predict what you’re gonna do,” Saver said with a catlike grin.
    However, a voice from seemingly above then said, “I’m afraid not. The Star-Cell Grail War is no mindless free-for-all.”

    “Ciel?” Sakura then said, seeming to recognise the voice.
    Last edited by NailsInYourFeet; December 3rd, 2022 at 02:28 AM. Reason: Music Collapse tags

  6. #6
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    In a flash of light, the five of us found ourselves standing outside the hilltop chapel again, Ciel there to meet all of us.

    “Seems I need to explain just how this Grail War works to you two,” she sighed as she looked at rider and Saver, “Each week, the Star-Cell will assign two Master-Servant pairs to face off against each other, till a single pair remains. On the Saturday they’ll be granted access to the battlefield, from which only one pair shall proceed onwards.”

    Sakura and I expected Saver to speak up against that format, but to my surprise it was Rider who protested. “Que demonios? My apologies, but I was told I’d be summoned for a War, not some polite little gentlemen’s game. Do you honestly think real War has tournament brackets or conflicts on schedule?”

    For a second, Overseer Ciel fumed and didn’t reply, but she then said, “Well, that was Earth, this is an interstellar virtual reality. What goes in one environment doesn’t in another, I’d have thought one as adaptable as you should know that.”
    I twitched. “You… already know who Rider is?” I asked.

    Ciel nodded and said, “Oh yes, Saver too. It’s a perk of being the Overseer.”

    Those words did get Saver riled up. “Are you spying on us or something? Because y’know there’s still stuff I wanna keep private!” she said.

    “Er, weren’t you talking about how everyone should already know who you are?” Sakura had to ask.

    “Well, y-yeah, but not like everything!” Saver said, her face going red.

    “Anyway,” Sakura then said, trying to take the heat off Saver, “I take it we’re not just doing nothing till Saturday, right?”

    Ciel smiled, “That’d be where the Gauntlet comes in,” she said. “We divide the Aquarius into two main parts, the Sanctum, the safe zone you’ve been in so far, and the Gauntlet, a hazard-laden trial area meant to give Servants practice before the Day of Battle. What you really have to be looking out for in the Gauntlet is the ‘Stage Pass’, whoever finds it will have the Battlefield that week tailored to their Servant's strengths.”

    “That all? Pfft, this’ll be a breeze, only real problem is I gotta to drag this loser around,” Saver said looking at Sakura, who couldn’t help but glare back. “Plus, if we do face Rider, I’ll trounce her prissy self. From what I can tell of her, she’s from a much later time than me, ergo she’s gotta be way weaker,” Saver ignored Sakura and kept saying. Which is weird, because wasn’t Saver the same person going on about ‘old fuddy-duddies’ before?

    “Ah, that. Yeah, about the whole ‘weight of age’ thing,” Ciel then said, “For the Grail Wars of the Earth and Moon, it was generally true that the older the Servant, the stronger. However, thanks to the Star-Cell’s innovation and extensive modifications to Servant parameters, that is no longer the case.”

    “W-what?!” Saver gasped, shivering as she looked at Rider. She then approached Ciel and growled, “So, you’ve also been messing with my Parameters behind my back, hmm?”

    Ciel responded to this with a shrug. “In your case Saver, it’s not like your stats were strong enough that we needed to adjust them that much. Oh, but the Star-Cell was careful not to adjust stats too much in the other direction, so it’s not like say a pharaoh will be instantly mowed down by a gangster’s tommy gun.”

    Not like that stipulation didn’t keep Saver from storming away, Sakura being made to rush after her. “Er, sorry, you can see I’ve gotta go. Here’s hoping we don’t have to fight first up,” she said back to me.

    “Wait, Sakura, one more thing,” I then said as I ran up to her, “You’re… gonna ask your Servant her identity, right? Because… I’m actually not sure if I should even ask Rider’s.”

    Sakura then said to me:

    [x] “Yeah, course I will. I take it Saver will probably blurt out her name anyway even if I don’t ask.”

    [ ] “No, I don’t know if I should do that. I already made a bunch of wrong assumptions about her being Augustus, so knowing her real name could just make me assume more.”

    Hearing her thoughts made me decide:

    [x] “Yeah, I’ll ask Rider for her’s. It sounds like something I should know, and while she’s more… refined the Saver, I’ll probably find out sooner anyway.”

    [ ] “I don’t think I should actually. My own magic, er, stardust thing, is primed to spy on other Masters. It just makes me fear if I know, they’ll find a way to know.”

    Sakura had to giggle at that. “We both thought the same thing, huh?” she said.

    “Yeah, which I weird when you think about it,” I said, “Given how different Rider and Saver are.”

    “Or that they insist they are,” Sakura threw in.

    It also went without saying between us that we ought to ask our Servants in the privacy of our own rooms, rather than y’know out here in the Aquarius’ gardens where anyone could listen in.

    Sakura now off with Saver, I went up to Rider and started with, “Er, hi again Rider. Got a kind of major question to ask, so major that I probably shouldn’t ask in public.”

    “Naturally, my liege,” Jasper then spoke up, “I will of course escort the Lady Rider back to your personal quarters.”

    “Er, thanks,” I said to Jasper, “…But is that necessary? Like, I know where my room is, I can just show her myself.”

    Rider then smirked at me. “I take it you’re not that used to having a valet,” she said, before she whispered to me, “Just let him, it’s better to make him feel useful.

    So Jasper showed us the way back, my own quarters luckily not being as deep into the Aquarius’ corridors as Sakura’s was. Along the way Jasper was quick to detail the layout of the manor hotel, “Over there’s the Library, very useful, and that over is the Museum, which of course contains your catalyst, er, well what would’ve been your catalyst. Now here we have the cafeteria, which for Masters at least is a common meeting ground…”

    I was tempted to ask Rider whether she already knew all of this, basic things like this I’d figure were stuff the Star-Cell would’ve filled her in on. But her own words came to me, best to let Jasper feel useful.

    On entering my room again, I stood still on impulse when I saw its design had completely changed. Originally interchangeable with most personal rooms on the Aquarius, its walls were now painted a dark yellow with lines of red and blue, the furniture and wooden blinds were now dark brown, there were a lot more terracotta tiles on the floor, and at one end of the room there was now a desk with a large map spread out on it. Or what I first thought was a map, only for it to turn out to be mostly blank.

    “Oh yes, should’ve mentioned,” Jasper then said, “After summoning your Servant, your room is altered to match their own background. I mean, I thought that was common knowledge, but I really should’ve double-checked.”

    “N-No, that’s okay,” I said. It’s not like I was ever super-attached to my room, I’d only been in it a couple of nights, just came a bit of a surprise was all, “Actually Rider, that kinda brings me to what I wanted to ask.”

    “You wish to know who I really am?” Rider said for me. She then laughed, “Don’t worry, I have no fear of my enemies exploiting my weakness. For they knew who I was in life, yet my revolution triumphed all the same. Alright, eventually triumphed, but still.

    No, it’s more…” she then paused, before she sighed, “More that I don’t want to be ‘put through the wringer’ again, as they say. When I left this world there were more than a few people who had, ahem, nothing but ire for me. I’ll let history be the judge of whether they were right or not.”

    As her words sunk into me, I’ll admit I went from being a little cautious about asking who she was, to downright afraid. I, I didn’t want to imagine I’d summoned someone so hated, both for my own sake, and for hers.

    Rider then brightened up and said, “Ah, might as well, I’ve already said so much. Camarada, Yakumo Amemiya, hah, it’s funny I’ve been summoned by someone Japanese; the whole country was closed off throughout my life- perdoname, I’m rambling.”

    “No, it’s a point worth making,” I then said, “I am ethnically Japanese, yeah, but I can’t really recall ever having been to Japan. Guess I’ve spent my whole life in space and stuff.”

    “I see, that does sound worth discussing,” Rider nodded, before she cleared her throat and said, “But back on topic. Camarada Amemiya, I am Simon… er, Simone? Jimena? Ahem, regardless, I am Bolivar the Liberator!” she bowed rather than curtsey. Pointing to one end of the room, where no less than a kennel and one-horse stable had suddenly appeared, she added, “The horse and hound you saw at the summoning were none but my own Palomo and Nevado.”

    This was… quite a bit to take in. I obviously knew who Bolivar was, the liberator of the most countries, but no more than anyone else did really. South American history was not my forte, but I guess that’s what the Library was for. And this princely tomboy I’d been talking with all this time, that was her…

    “Ahem, you are…” Rider said but paused, starting to blush, “You would naturally be wanting to know why I’ve been incarnated as, well, as a woman, no?”

    “Not really, I confess,” I told her. I looked down at myself for a moment, before I said, “Gender’s, well, something I try to stay out of, really. I can’t really say who I am, and I don’t wanna be forced to choose. I try to think the same about others.”

    Rider, Bolivar, Rider smiled at that, “Then you are quite fortunate to be born in this new age. Back in my time, I’m afraid my society wouldn’t have granted you the same luxury. Wouldn’t have granted me a similar luxury either. But anyway, to answer why I’ve incarnated as a ‘Simone’,” she then said anyway, despite my words, “I… honestly cannot say. My best guess is it’s part of some grand cosmic irony, bordering on retribution, sounds the most sensible explanation.”

    I took her in words, before I raised the question, “Still, ah no offense, but I’m trying to figure out how I summoned you. I didn’t get to use a catalyst, so the other explanation is we’ve got something in common? But… I’m an oneiromancer, that’s it really, I’ve never liberated anyone or anything in my life.”

    “Oneiromancer? That would be a dream mage, correcta?” Rider said, “Because I know quite a bit about dreams, if more in the romantic sense than the literal one. Though, ugh, that reminds me…” she then stared at the empty map, “When you summoned me, the desire that drew me in was my wish to see Gran Colombia whole and strong again. But now I’m told our Mother Earth is gone, argh, what’s the point?!”

    It took a while for me to know how to respond, but then said, “Hey look, whatever starship this VR world is on must be going somewhere, or trying to find somewhere to go to, right? Yeah, South America’s gone, all the continents are gone, but its people are still around!” Well, I said that, but the only non-spirit South American I’d met was Felix, who was likely Brazilian, but still, “So, ah, we can all make a new Gran Colombia on the new planet we’ll land on!” Again, I said having no idea whether a ‘new Gran Colombia’ would be a good or bad thing.

    Still, that had made Rider smile. “Gracias, camarada.”

    * * *

    Sakura finding out who Saver was, I was later told, went… less smoothly.

    First off, there was the issue of even opening her door. With it somehow stuck, it took Coral coming in to shove the door right open, Saver somehow being too lazy to do it herself. They immediately saw what the problem was on pushing it open, Sakura’s whole room had become knee-deep in petals.

    “Ah, was wondering where they’d got to!” Saver said, as she skipped her way in right past both Sakura and Coral, her first instinct upon seeing Sakura’s bed, which now had a sunburst pattern over it, was to immediately jump all over it.
    Sakura gritted her teeth and pushed through all the petals. “Hey look, I’m trying to ask you something important. Would you calm down a second?” she spoke up.

    Saver, on the edge of the bed, folded her arms and crossed her legs. “Fine. What?”

    “I was, well if it’s okay with you, I was going to ask your identity,” Sakura said. “Who you are as a Heroic Spirit.”

    Saver then giggled. “You mean you can’t tell? Sheesh, beyond thinking I could be Augustus, you sure know squat about history. Really, how could anyone not know who I am?” she said. Beckoning Sakura closer, Saver told her, “I was the last Pharaoh of Aegyptus, the human avatar of Isis, goddess of all magic. My land was rich, fashionable, and powerful, and I had access to the Wonders of ethe World, and more knowledge in a single building than mankind would ever collect again.”

    Sakura’s eyes shot open, even as Coral’s narrowed. “You’re- you’re Cleopatra?” Sakura gasped.

    Her words promptly sent Saver into fits of laughter. “Hah! Oh man did I get you good, you should totally see the look on your face!” she said right at Sakura. Finally, finally, Saver got to the point, “I’m Elagabalus, you moron! Geez, you seriously couldn’t figure that out? Okay, I went by like heaps of names, but Elagabalus works best.”

    “I see,” Sakura said, trying to keep quiet somehow about really not recognising the name.

    “Relax, you’ve totally summoned the best ever Servant,” Saver said, before she pointed out, “You know who else thinks so? The Sun itself! I was chosen by its divine radiance to magically save Rome, ya know?”

    Sakura just nodded in response, not wanting to say anything less this turned out to be another prank. At least Saver being some divine instrument of the Sun’s Will explained her Class. Somewhat.

    “Either way, it’s so good to see you back from the summoning grounds in one piece, mistress,” Coral said to Sakura, then muttered, “Pity I haven’t had the chance to tell you till now.”

    “Oh right, you. Completely forgot about you,” Saver than said, pointing at Coral. “I’d normally have way more people serving me, but alright, you’ll have to do. Lessee, totally need an update on what the latest fashions, where people go for dates around here, the best places to throw a party, what other Servants and Masters the best-looking…” she kept going on. “Oh, and I don’t wanna hear ‘but didn’t the Grail fill you in?’ As if! Yeah, if the very basics count as being filled in.”

    “I shall see what I can do,” Coral said, “Though I figured my first task should be to clean my mistress’ room of all these petals, with how arduous it’s been to move around in them.”

    “What? H-hey, don’t touch them, those are mine!” Saver blurted out.

    “Yeah, and they’re cluttering up my room,” Sakura said, once again bringing herself to be forceful.

    Incensed as Saver had been, once Coral started promptly clearing away the petals, the Servant could only slump down and find her eyes welling up. Seeing this, Sakura sighed, sat down, and tried placing an arm over her Servant’s shoulder. “Hey look, as soon as I can, I’ll head to the library and study up as much as I can on you.”

    “W-what? No, don’t do that!” Saver suddenly said, “I know what historians are like, they’re just gonna say a bunch of mean things about me! Whatever you wanna know, just ask me. I am Elagabalus after all, so I know everything about me!”

    Sakura said, “Okay,” but still couldn’t help but a fidget a little.

    Well, so ended our last free day, before the War truly began.

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