Japan, Fuyuki City
The Black Sun eclipsed the True Sun, as all the evils in the world cursed the earth with fire, and a foul black mud spewed from the once Holy Grail. Women and children and men screamed as they burned for the sins of a lost people. A child cried in a burning house. A mother ran out the door, and pretended not to hear the cries of her doomed child, sacrificing him in an attempt to save the baby in her arms. The house collapsed sideways onto her and the baby, taking the abandoned child within as well, and the family died together.
A man had escaped his home, but slipped and was now flailing painfully in the black tar, slowly burning as he writhed, a choked scream leaving his throat before the tar entered there, too, drowning him as he burned.
The black mud bubbled under the heat of the flames and the dead sun, evaporating into black mist as it eroded its victims lungs from within, each breath a death sentence, a twisted parody of the First World War.
In this wasteland, my step becomes the little-death between breaths. Natural selection on a mental and spiritual scale. Things like love, like friendship, like emotions, like names, they are of no import here. Only what is necessary remains, until I am no longer a person, I am an urge to survive. A brief twitch of Fight or Flight instinct before inevitable doom. And when that too dies, I am the nomadic step of our forefathers, that traveled with the herd for sustenance.
Empathy died first. Help me! Oh god please help me! Someone! Anyone! I survived. No no no! Mommy! Please mommy I don't wanna die! Each step towards salvation, each step less than what I was before. AAAAaaarrrggghhh! There is no other path. There is no one else. There is no hope. There is no pain. There is no death. There is the step. Everything else is meaningless. It burns! It burns it burn it burns it burns IT BURNS! There is only me. Me. I can't save the others. I can only put one foot in front of the other.
Step. Step. Step.
My foot slides on the slippery black mud, and I fall backward with a splash. The darkness consumes me, eats away at me, and I laugh. Not in happiness—that was one of the first to go. I laugh because there's nothing for it to consume. There's nothing for it here. I am empty. Even the step is gone, now. It tries to envelope me in its hatred, to make me suffer like it suffered, for me to join the chorus of a thousand painful screams.
In the alternate space that composes its being I stand to the side and watch in silence, as the other souls are consumed to power it. I watch as the being shows them the depths of human evil, of torture and rape and murder. Of wars fought for madmen, and wars fought for what is right, and how both bore equal horror. And while all but I are subsumed, I hear as the golden voice responds, "Yes. As the King of Heroes, I accept this evil. The world's evil is mine to bear, as I am its king, and it is my garden." The voices ego is too strong to be assimilated, too glorious and too ancient for all the world's evil to sway him, and so it rejects him from its body as I watch.
Is that all it takes to be freed from this place? To find your own voice? This observation is interesting, but having given up Survival, it is ultimately meaningless. I have no desire to escape, because I have no desire to live. But I am interested in that voice. Maybe if I had its power, I could've been the hero all those souls wished for. Perhaps I could've been their salvation. This is interesting, from a purely clinical point of view. All other company having been consumed or ejected, I express this sentiment to the being.
I open my mouth: "Hero. I wish to be a Hero."
The being was formless as anything else but the blackness that composed this place, but I feel as the formless mass turns it's entire focus to to me. Like the king before me, it first attempts to reject the foreign mind from its body, but its will only flows through me, as I am nothing. Desperate, it pushes me in a different metaphysical direction—Not towards the world, but towards God.
I drift towards the shining sun of blue light, that to me seems the closest anything will ever get to "god". I stretch my hand out. I freefall towards it—and slam right into someone's chest. Pushing it away—which only accomplishes pushing me back—I inspect the being before me. I do not look through my eyes, for they no longer feel truly my own. Instead, I look at us from our side, an observer in my own interaction with him, watching the small red headed boy speak with the warrior guarding the sun. They stand on nothing but thought, for that is all that exists here. He is tall, with a shock of white hair and tan well-travelled skin. He wears black armor, over which he draped a red coat. His arms are crossed, and his frown is pronounced under eagle eyes.
"What are you doing here?"
I continue to stare. Was he addressing me?
The man shakes his head. "It doesn't matter." And then he smiles, "If Alaya has given me the chance to kill you, then who am I to argue?"
I tilt my head. I did not understand. "Why are you so happy?" I ask.
He doesn't answer, as two swords, one black and one white, form in his hands. He takes a step forward—and hesitates. He mutters, "Something is wrong here. My luck has never been that good." He looks at me suspiciously for a second, "boy, do you remember your name?"
I do not, so I stay silent. In that damning silence, I feel something beautiful. A resonation. The longer I spend here, with this man, the more drawn to him I feel. As if both him and I are giving off radio waves of the same frequency, our souls the only antennas that can capture it. And as he can see me for what I am, now, an empty shell, I see him for who he is, a tortured soul tired from many, many battles. More battles than any one person has fought before. Centuries. Millenia. I could see the cracks, where he'd broken, but continued to be used, a toy to powers beyond our ken. He wanted release. That was why he wanted to kill me. He wanted to die. It was too much for any one person to bear.
But inside him, a world still burned, much like my world had burned. A world inside an egg, that conserved the most essential part of him. He, as a human being, was still intact, as long as that egg grew inside him. He could recover.
"I can help you." I told myself.
I shook my head, "There is no escape from Alaya's clutches. Not even a paradox will make that bitch let me go, I can see that now. Why else would she allow me to see you, unless she knew? There's nothing to be done."
I smile. "She's not omniscient, nor is she malicious. Maybe she wants you to escape." Our speech patterns begin to assimilate.
Again, I shook my head. "Not at the cost of her tool. The rest of humanity will always come first, and I'm one of her enforcers. I get stronger with each battle. That's why she wants me."
We're getting closer now. It's the influence of this place, confusing existences. Our concepts are so fundamentally the same, it doesn't see us as separate. And what it "see"'s? That's reality. But we're not one yet. I put my small hand in his big one. Palm to palm. His eclipses mine, and his fingers are long and calloused.
I finally respond, "Who said she'll lose us? She wants us to get stronger, to better protect humanity. You can get another shot. You can make things right."
"But what about you?" I ask
"I am empty," I respond. "You will fill me, like molten steel in a mold. I am not gone. I'm not anything."
Where our hands met, they shined with blue light. And like a vortex, we were twisted into it, whisked away from the Blue Sun—That I now recognized as how my mind chose to perceive something as incomprehensible as the root—and into a barren world where swords grew like trees, and continent-shifting gears turned lethargically in the sky. We stood back to back on a hill of swords.
"It's beautiful." I say.
"It's all I have." He responds.
Fire races inwardly from the edges of this infinite world as it tucks itself back into our soul, until the fire hits us and he falls into me, and I'm alone, standing in the black tar of the end of the world, armageddon still in progress. I stare down at my paradoxal hands, tan from years of practicing magecraft yet the size of a child's. Against my will darkness creeps in from the edges of my vision, and I feel the distinct sensation of falling backward before I lose all conscious thought.
A blur, materializing into the smiling face of a man I thought I'd never see again. Kiritsugu. He must have slogged through the mud at the slightest hint that someone still lived. That idiot. That magnificent, selfless idiot. He takes Avalon out of his body, solidifying it in his hands from golden light, and places it inside me without a second thought.
I was submerged in Darkness once again.
I woke up to the click of a pistol being loaded. Click.
"I know you're awake."
I tried to move my arms, but found them firmly bound. Additionally, I could smell the magecraft that characterized the creation of bounded fields, and guessed that even if I could break through using a Noble Phantasm, it wouldn't be nearly fast enough to escape a bullet through the skull, something I'd rather avoid if at all possible. So. That left negotiation as the preferred means of escape. I'd never been very good at negotiating. Probably due to my low tolerance for bullshit.
Opening my eyes and ceasing the slowing of breath I'd used in an attempt to veil my consciousness, I replied, "What, no breakfast in bed?"
The youth of my voice surprised me. I sounded—well, young. Really young.
My kidnapper snapped clearly unamused. "Answer me. What are you? I can tell you're not human. Not completely, anyway."
Now that surprised me. Not human? I was starting to get ahold of my situation, but was still dangerously uninformed. Still, I could deduce.
Something in this timeline had changed during the fuyuki fire. My younger self somehow interacted with The Grail, which combined with Angra Mainyu's nature as an answer to mankind's wish to shirk responsibility for All The World's Evil, resulted in his proximity to the root, also known as Akasha, the metaphysical collection of all knowledge. I myself had been guarding it from any intruders who might be attempting to achieve omnipotence, as I'd done on a few other occasions. That's the kind of thing I do on my off time, when my spirit isn't being used to slaughter all humans in a given area for the survival of mankind.
It's no tropical Island, but as a Counter Guardian you take what you can get. No matter how people like to dress it up, Counter Guardians know the true face of humanity, and Alaya is a cruel mistress.
From what I understand—And I am so not the person to ask about the various laws that govern metaphysics—the resonance between our two identical souls, rapidly accelerated by the presence of the root, fused us together. Of course, I know just enough to know that goes against a whole host of laws of magecraft, half of which I'm probably not even aware. In addition, this seemed more akin to possession than anything else. At that point in his life, the existence that was Emiya Shirou was completely empty, mentally and spiritually, and as a Counter Guardian with millenia experiences, indisputably higher on the spiritual totem pole, my spirit must have simply overwhelmed his and took over.
But if Kiritsugu—and this could only be him, who else would hold a gun to what appears to be a seven year old kid?—was so sure of my inhumanity, the spiritual fusion must have carried over to my physical body somehow. That wasn't unusual: the possessed normally acquired some of the physical attributes of their possessors, and I'd seen people whose origins were awakened become almost unrecognizable.
My musings were interrupted by the feeling of a pistol being shoved none too gently against the back of my head. Ah, yes, the interrogation. I sighed aloud. The situation was still so unsure, my best bet was to tell the truth and hope to convince him of my legitimacy through the secrets I'd learned of him as his child. Things he wouldn't have told anyone else alive.
"You may call me Emiya." Ah, that got a reaction. I fought valiantly to restrain my smirk as I felt the pistol almost fall from his hands. "For simplicity's sake, let's just say I'm your son from the future."
He recovered quickly. As expected from the magus-killer, mind tricks wouldn't get me very far. "Knowing my name doesn't impress me. Tell me what manner of creature you are, and what you were doing in the Fuyuki Fire, and I might decide not to blow your brains out."
"The Fuyuki Fire? You mean where Angra Mainyu was almost born into the world through the Holy Grail?" His grip tightened. "Just listen for a second, and I'll prove to you I speak the truth. I know all about the Holy Grail War. I know the identity of your Saber, King Arturia," I couldn't see his face, but I knew my precision of Saber's sexe surprised him somewhat, "because I summoned her in the fifth Holy Grail War ten years from now. If this timeline had gone as it was supposed to, you would've found a regular human with some magical potential in the fire. Having lost all his memories in the fire, you would have named him Shirou, and offered to adopt him. From then on, he would be known as Emiya Shirou.
"I'd beg you to teach me the basics of magecraft, but you're almost as stubborn as I was. Eventually you'd give in, but by then it'd be too late to teach me anything meaningful. Three years from now, you'll die from the curse Angra Mainyu placed on you. It's faint now, but I'm sure you can already feel it corrupting your bone marrow, insidiously filling your veins with poison. Screwing with Magic Circuits. That'll only get worse over time.
Before your death we sit out on the porch, and talk. About your life. About your regrets." I hadn't actually known this at the time, but would learn of it years later, "about Ilya."
Now that got a reaction. A slightly faster inhalation of breath. It wasn't much to go on, but I'd keep talking until I had convinced him.
"She's with the Einzbern's right now. I'm not sure how long I've been out, but I bet they've already refused you access to her, haven't they? It's only reasonable, after all. You destroyed the Grail, their best shot at reclaiming the Third Magic. Magi aren't known for their forgiving hearts. You'll keep on running missions to find her, to get her back, for the rest of your life. Unsuccessfully." My words hung in the air like the sound of a gong, sucking all of his half-made plans and far flung ideas to reclaim his daughter out of existence. "You're weakened, and they've secluded her in their castle in Germany, which has bounded fields a thousand times stronger than the ones here. You can't do it alone."
The implicit offer hung in the air between us. He pulled back the gun, but it was probably still aimed at me. Cautious.
"I admit, your in depth knowledge of the situation of a secretive Magi family like the Einzbern's is impressive. I didn't think anyone was aware I had a daughter." Yeah, when you had enemies vying for your death, a weak spot like a daughter is something you keep on the down low. "But nothing you've said couldn't be discovered by an outside party, especially a supernatural one."
Well, that was fine. I still had a trump card, after all.
"That wasn't the only thing you told me on the porch. You told me something else, something far more marking. You told me your dream." Check and mate. "To become a superhero. To be an ally of justice. To save people. You told me, the misery that awaits one who chooses such a fate. That it's impossible to save anyone without sacrificing someone else." I smiled bitterly. It was one of the great ironies of life.
From father to son, we humans always make the same mistakes. We grow up, and our father's tell us what they discovered during their life, they give us the key, the path. And we throw it away. We think they're wrong, that we know better. That we're different, that the world is different. They convince themselves that that knowledge is somehow outdated, that their elders don't know what they're talking about. We move forward, wide-eyed and ignorant. And the world beats the truth into us, and we find as we get older that more and more of the things our fathers told us ring true.
Just in time to have sons of our own, who think we're wrong, that they know better. That they're different, that the world is different. They convince themselves that that our knowledge is somehow outdated, that we don't know what we're talking about.
And the wheel keeps spinning.
"I didn't listen." I said. "After you died, I continued to try to bring your dream to fruition. Then the Fifth Holy Grail War happened 50 years early. I won it, like you did, and me and Saber destroyed the Grail. After that I trained. I trained every day and every night to achieve my full potential. To bring my few talents to fruition. And I did. I became strong.
Then I went out into the world, and tried to be a hero. I followed in your footsteps. I made tough choices. I felt like I was doing something, like I was making the world you'd dreamed of, one tiny life at a time." I sighed. I articulated my greatest regret. "Until my strength wasn't enough, and 100 innocents lives hung in the balance. That's when Alaya came to me with an offer. 'If you promise me your life after death, I will give you the power to save this village,' she told me. I agreed without hesitation. It seemed like a win-win, at the time, not only did I get to save these people, but I could continue to save people even after I died." I paused, the silence between us soothing, somehow, like two people who'd gone through similar experiences and knew the same struggles, the same disappointments, the same happiness. It was only logical, after all. I'd inherited my dream from him.
"Needless to say, I saved the village. I died a few years later, trying to end a war in the middle-east. I succeeded, but in the process was betrayed by my allies and set up as the mastermind behind the war. I made a very good scapegoat." I remarked detachedly. "I smiled when they executed me. I had no regrets." Another pause. I'd never really… told anyone my life's story before. I don't know why I was telling Kiritsugu. I didn't need to tell him in this much detail.
But some part of me wanted to. Wanted to confide in someone my regrets, my life. Wanted to show Kiritsugu what his dream had done to me, what that one moment under the full moon had resulted in. I wanted him to know.
"Life as a Counter Guardian —If you want to call it that—is shit. They're not heroes. They're natural disasters, machines controlled by Alaya sent in when shit hits the fan so freaking hard that the world might end. And when things get to that point, there are no rules. There's no negotiation. As a Counter Guardian, Alaya assigned me the function 'to slaughter all humans at a particular location when mankind is at the threshold of complete self destruction'. This has been my personal hell for millennia. I can barely remember my life as a human. Only certain events, certain moments."
"I thought that would be my life until humanity became extinct. I hoped for it sometimes, in my darker moments. That everything would just… die. And I'd be free." And suddenly, despite myself, I heard my voice become somehow… hopeful. "But now I might have a chance to escape my fate as a Counter Guardian. When Angra Mainyu was almost incarnated and attempted to consume him, my younger self somehow skipped past the lesser Grail and came close to the Root, which I'd been guarding. And now, somehow, we've been fused. That's why you detect me as being more than just a human. Because this body is at least half spiritual. I think my human body may have died in the fire. If that's the case, then the closest approximation to what I am would be an embodied spirit."
Neither of us said anything for a long minute. I was aware that my life's story was hard to believe. Hell, I could barely believe it happened, and I'd been there. But it was the truth. Unaltered, I'd opened myself up to the man who made me who I am today. Whether he believed me or not remained to be seen.
"That is… a lot to take in." Kiritsugu finally said.
"Yeah," I responded with my usual eloquence.
I felt him place a hand on the whatever was binding me in place, and it released, along with any bounded fields. I moved my arms and brought them before me, opening and closing my hand to regain blood flow to my finger. I stood up and finally took a good look around.
We were in the shack where I'd summoned Saber, all those years ago. He was using it as a workshop. I turned around and examined the man before me. He was taller than I remembered him, back straight, less sickly. I stuck out my hand in the universal sign of introduction. He stared at it briefly like it was an alien thing, before grabbing it. We shook hands.
"Emiya Shirou. It's been a pleasure." I said only somewhat sarcastically.
"Kiritsugu." He responded.
Our eyes met, steel gray and a sharp, eagle brown.
I dreamed in red and black waves of battle, swords and faces blurring into each other like impressionist paintings.
I woke up with my nose to the floor, having evidently tumbled violently out of bed. Getting up lethargically, rubbing one eye, I was only slightly troubled by Kanshou stabbed deep into my pillow. Some people have problems with sleepwalking—I happen to have problems with sleep stabbing. To each his own. I dissolved it as I exited the room.
As I strolled through the hall, I grabbed a white towel out of the compartment, absently lamenting the fact that Kiritsugu would in all likelihood not share my indifference towards my sleeping habits. Oh well. I'd deal with that when I came to it.
Still half asleep, I turned on the hot water, and as I waited for it to heat glanced at myself in the mirror. A short boy of maybe seven or eight with shocking white hair and tan, tropical skin stared back at me. His eyes were steel gray. His features were slightly sharper, slightly more delicate than I remember. On his upper cheek bones, under and slightly to the side of each eye he had a small sideways comma-like mark in a deep tribal red. His body was also marked by deep tribal red lines, like veins or ley lines but sharper, more geometric like circuits. They ran down his arms and chest, across his ribs, and I supposed they continued down his back and legs. Down my back and legs.
Though my constitution appeared to be that of a young human child, I could feel the supernatural strength ringing through every cord of muscle. My musculature was not excessive, as this body hadn't even begun puberty and the testosterone fueled muscle growth that entailed, but it wasn't anything to scoff at. I had very little fat, and could see my ribs as well as the light marks of taut abdominal muscles. My arms were well defined, and my collarbone easily visible. Yes, besides the decreased reach, I don't think this would encumber me from fighting at my best.
Still seeing what was essentially a cute, chibified version of my older self was most definitely one of the most bewildering experiences of my life to date. And coming from me, that meant something. I've seen a female King Arthur fawn over a little lion stuffed animal.
As I entered the shower, it dawned on me slowly that this phenomenon, which as far as I knew was unique, might have a lot of symptoms and side-effects I'd be exploring for a long time to come. Most likely, I'd never completely understand the mechanics behind it. Still, I wasn't completely hopeless. I knew for a fact that it most closely resembled a feat accomplished by the Third Magic, which pretty much covered anything having to do with materialization of the soul. The last Third Magic user having died centuries ago, the one who might best tell me what to expect was possibly Gilgamesh, who I knew had been materialized into a corporeal form by the Grail in much the same way I had. An embodied spirit. Anchored to this world and unable to etherize, yet retaining all the qualities and abilities of the Servant—Or in my case Counter Guardian—they had been made from.
And I was a kid. I dearly hoped that I would continue to grow, even as a spirit. I'm not sure what I'd do if I found out I'd be staying seven years old for the rest of my life, however long it turned out to be. I found new sympathy for Ilya, the mature woman trapped in a prepubescent body.
Putting a pause to my musings, I applied body wash liberally, hopefully getting rid of the smoke smell that'd been following me since my recovery. Closing my eyes, I determined that I wouldn't get out of the shower until I'd come up with an answer to my main problem, which basically boiled down to what the hell am I supposed to do now?
The shower was always where I'd come up with my best ideas, though cooking and staring into camp fires came as close seconds. I hoped its ideaphoric1 properties would aid me now.
I rejoined the musings I'd had the night before, staring into the ceiling wondering if this body even needed to sleep. There were basically two ways I could play this.
1. I could kill myself, as I'd originally planned if I ever got the opportunity, and hope to create a big enough paradox to erase my existence as a Counter Guardian.
2. I could try to enter the Throne of Heroes through natural processes, and escape my existence as a Counter Guardian that way.
I knew from what I'd observed in that place that though Alaya often used Heroic Spirits as Counter Guardians, she only ever copied them for her use. As a result the Heroic Spirit would stay pristine, never receiving the memories of the copy.
That sounded… blissful.
But now I encountered a more complex problem: How would I become a Heroic Spirit, in this day and age?
A Heroic Spirit is a being that accomplished some great achievement in life, such as saving the world and, after their death, became the object of worship and lore. Now the great achievement part had never been a problem. As a sixteen year-old brat I'd basically already saved the world once, by stopping Angra Mainyu incarnation onto the earth, though admittedly that'd been with the aid of Saber, a Servant. Throughout my life, I estimate I'd saved… wow. I actually had no idea. My memories from my actual life are blurry, but from what I could gather… maybe 10 000? 100 000? How could I count how many had been saved by stopping that war at the cost of my own life? Plus however many countless people I'd saved by killing Dead Apostles?
I didn't regret the amount of people I'd saved in life. If I had to, I'd probably do the same thing. I'm an idiot that way, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. It's just that damn contract with Alaya that I regretted, that betrayal of my ideal in order to abide by them, it was… torturous.
So no, modesty aside, it wasn't the great achievement criteria that was difficult. It was getting recognized for it. With the secrecy of magecraft in place to conserve mysteries, and the upswing of scientific discovery and almost proportional upswing of skepticism towards superstition and the supernatural, someone like me who's main "extraordinary" skill utilized magecraft would have a hard time getting recognized for it.
On top of that, the nature of a "hero" in this day and age has changed a lot from the glorious warriors they had once been. Ever since the advent of the Cold War, wars were no longer the messy, glorious battles they had been. This was the age of the shadow wars, of highly trained, highly secretive agents using powerful technology to hack, to sabotage. Information was the name of the game.
I myself had fought mostly from the shadows. I'd combated supernatural threats, rogue magi and Dead Apostles, things which the majority of the population didn't even know existed. Sure, I'd built up quite the reputation among magi, but they were such a tiny community, I doubted even the greatest among them could ascend into legend. When I did fight in the public eye, I flittered from battlefield to battlefield, never giving information about myself, always trying to keep publicity at a minimum lest foreign governments try to look deeper into my activities. And the one time I'd really gotten myself involved and drifted slightly into the public eye, it hadn't exactly worked out well for me.
But even on the front line, when was the last time a soldier ascended into legend? Had stories told to children around a campfire based on their exploits?
No, most heroes of that sort were from times long past. The heroes of today were great scientists, recognized as uniquely brilliant and changing the lives of billions, or else they were great leaders, who'd altered the face of the map.
Neither of which were my my areas of expertise. I mainly specialized in blowing up shit that should be impossible for me to blow up.
Still, it was far from impossible. One of the greatest heroes of the 20th century was Che Guevara. That was the type of fame I had to aim for, if I wanted this to be a sure thing. Che Guevara was a saint in the majority of South America. His face was a symbol of revolution around the world. He had tales told of his exploits, of his generous heart and great passion for justice and equality. He was a Revolutionary. He changed the fate of a country, and altered the political state of the whole of South America.
If I wanted to ascend, I needed to be on his level. And I'd have to do all that while hiding my most powerful gift and ability, the little potential I'd refined through endless drive into something almost unique. Something only seven others of my species had achieved, in our entire existence. It was something I was proud of, justifiably so, and admitting that it may not be my most useful tool in this particular situation was… difficult, to say the least. But I could deal. It just meant I'd have to be more subtle about it.
One option had a low probability of success, and the other was almost impossible but a sure thing. I knew which one I'd pick. I'd always had more faith in my ability to change things then my understanding of metaphysics, and that's what I would stake my afterlife on.
And now that I'd decided, my destiny was unmovable, my will imperturbable. My objective was sure, and I could feel the future in my weary hands, ready to be molded by an impossible will. It took a millenia of hell for me to admit the last time I was wrong.
I had always been a very stubborn man.