The main living room was filled with family members, and Ilyasviel von Einzbern was entirely alone in it. Although the room was large and opulent, nearly every Einzbern was in there at the moment, and that much arrogance, petty rivalry, and sheer, genuine magus bloody-mindedness had a way of making any room feel cramped. At one end of the room, Grandfather Jubstacheit sat in his grand armchair, almost as old as he was and, for every Einzbern who'd ever been caught playing around it, sitting in it, or, god forbid, jumping on it, almost as intimidating. The senior heirs sat on the sofas and couches, less exalted family members on the individual chairs that had been arranged in a circle around the middle of the room, and branch members stood on the peripheries.
Ilya herself stood in a corner with the homunculi maids and butlers. It had been made very clear to her over her eighteen years of life that although she was invaluable as the Grail Vessel (and was thus allowed to use the Einzbern name, since the only other possible surname was 'Emiya' and no Emiya was allowed within Einzbern territory, as backed up by the bounded fields that surrounded the isolated mountain castle), she was on no account to think of herself as equal to one of the actual members of the family. If she were ever in danger of forgetting this, all she had to do was look in the mirror – although the Einzberns were all blond and pale skinned, only their homunculi had Ilya's silver hair, and skin so white she looked like one of the snow fairies of legend. And although a homunculus was a valuable servant – not Servant, even combat-focused homunculi were no match for the weakest Servant – they weren't human. The kinder Einzberns, the ones that hadn't learned any better yet, treated them as something like a very intelligent household pet. Ilya, once her father had killed her mother, betrayed the family, and left to take care of some random boy without even bothering to come and fetch her (not necessarily in that order), was usually treated the same way, when she wasn't being groomed as the perfect Grail Vessel.
And so she stood with the homunculi, who were usually kinder to her than her family anyway, no expression on her face as various cousins, aunts, and uncles – not that she was allowed to think of them that way, let alone call them that to their faces – argued.
No-one seemed interested in asking her opinion. This struck her as odd, since the argument seemed to be primarily about her.
"-learned nothing from the debacle ten years ago-"
"-thought the plan was to summon a Berserker, no messing around with clever plots this time-"
"-and whose idea was it to have the vessel also act as the Master anyway, that defeats the entire purpose of the Heaven's Feel ritual in the first place-"
"-suppose there's no chance we can order this one to kill itself and resummon a different Servant-"
"-this is the best outcome we could have hoped for given the Master we selected-"
Jubstacheit clicked his cane on the floor. The sound wasn't loud, but it cut through the babble of voices like a gunshot. Every head turned to look his way.
"All of you will be silent unless I call on you," he growled, eyes scanning the room and daring any of those assembled to argue. "I can't hear myself think with all you children twittering on. Now. You have by now no doubt heard that we have summoned the first Servant in the Heaven's Feel ritual. However, we have had to adjust our original plans in light of circumstances.
"The temple to Heracles we were investigating as a possibility was buried by an earthquake, as you should all be aware if you have any degree of interest in the family legacy. However, I can now reveal that we believe this to have been the work of one of our rivals; or rather, a hireling of theirs. Needless to say, both the monkey and the organ grinder have been dealt with." The corner of Acht's mouth twitched slightly. A less controlled person would be grinning nastily.
"For our next relic, we were more circumspect. We considered a number of possible Berserkers, but in the end we decided on a certain Japanese monster. Supposedly, it ravaged Japan for three months straight before finally being stopped at the Seiryouen Goken temple in Tosa. Its remains were interred there, and it was these that our agents managed to recover. We also retrieved some part of the framework for the Greater Grail, allowing our Master to summon their Servant two months in advance of the ritual. This all went as planned."
Ilya felt the weight of the old man's focus settle on her, although he didn't deign to actually look directly at her.
"Perhaps the summoner could explain why, despite our including the lines that summon the Heroic Spirit into the Berserker class, we have instead ended up with a Saber…"
Despite a lifetime of controlling herself, Ilya still couldn't stop herself shivering at her grandfather's unspoken accusation. A couple of the Einzberns started muttering under their breath to those next to them. Even so, the noise carried in the tense room.
"-knew it was a mistake getting that thing to try and summon a Servant correctly, I offered up Johannes as Master but he was refused-"
"-we've started going wrong already, might as well just give up and prepare for the next ritual, hopefully we have more time this time around-"
"… but the point is moot," Jubstacheit continued. "For one thing, the Servant seems content to follow the orders of its Master, though not of anyone else. Regrettable that it has no respect for the family hierarchy, but given that we can simply order the vessel to order its Servant this is acceptable. For another thing, our original strategy is in fact still viable using this Servant."
A couple of family members, those who'd known of the original plan of simply overpowering any opposition using a berserk Heracles, gasped.
"It's that powerful, even summoned away from its homeland? I've never even heard of it!" protested one particularly rash young magus sitting on a dining chair, only to quail under Jubstacheit's gaze.
The old man was silent for a long moment, examining the boy as if he had just spit on the carpet. The offender gulped and seemed to realise what he'd just said. Those near him started to edge away slightly. Given what had happened in the past to those who displeased the Einzbern patriarch, this was possibly prudent. The term 'blast radius' was appropriate.
"… go and stand in the corner, pup," Acht said, very quietly. The young magus almost tripped in his haste to comply.
Acht raised his voice slightly to address the room. "You would question me? You would imply that I am in any way unsure about some aspect of the Heaven's Feel ritual, which, I would remind all of you, is the goal of this family? Make no mistake, I have been thinking about this ritual, and only this ritual, for the last seventy years.
"I permit all of you to pursue your own studies because there is a chance," he sneered, "however slight, that you might discover something that will allow us to alter the ritual to our advantage, or prevail in battle, or otherwise help us ultimately attain the materialisation of the soul. And so I let you perfect your homunculi. And so I let you spend years exploring the limits of transmutation. But if I knew for sure that there was no merit in such paths, I would forbid each and every one of you from doing anything but preparing ourselves for the Grail War!
"I am the world's expert in this ritual. And so you believe me, boy, when I say that our Servant is equal to the task I have devised for it."
Jubstacheit gestured at the vacated chair, and it dragged itself to the centre of the gathering, a coffee table moving obligingly out of the way as it did so. "Ilyasviel. Sit down."
Ilya jumped. The head of the family speaking directly to her? Asking her to sit when others of the family stood? She wanted nothing more than to turn and run from the room, but at an almost imperceptible nudge from Sella beside her she slowly walked forwards on shaky legs and perched herself on the edge of the high-backed chair.
She looked around almost guiltily. Forced to acknowledge her presence, the primary heirs regarded her with expressions that made it clear that she would never be welcome. Those who were forced to stand looked livid at the insult Jubstacheit was offering them by implicitly promoting her, the nothing, the daughter of the traitor, the homunculus, above them in the family hierarchy.
Ilya's eyes filled with tears, though she did her best to hide the fact. She remembered when she'd played with some of the youngest here as children, all laughing together and charging through the oak-panelled halls of the Einzbern castle. Then the War had come and gone, and she was left with no mother, no father, and since her grandfather had proclaimed her father's treachery, no-one willing to associate with her enough to call her friend. The closest she had were the family homunculi. As the daughter of one of their own, they regarded her as a favourite niece, never mind that she was older than any of them. Still, they never lasted long enough to get really familiar with, only living for a handful of years at most.
Her grandfather's voice snapped her back to the present. "Ilyasviel, I understand you summoned your Servant in the wilderness?"
"Yes, grandfather," she replied quietly, looking at her knees.
"How did it perform?"
"Saber destroyed everything that came close. Neither she nor I got a scratch on us. The wolves, the birds, she killed them all. Even the reinforced familiars and constructs that came after were no match. She obliterated every one." Ilya couldn't remember much of what had actually happened that night, when the family had thrown her outside the castle in a blizzard with the wolves as hungry and fierce as they'd ever been, all in the name of a sink-or-swim test for her, and to force her to summon her Servant.
Ilya had performed the ritual with the materials she could gather out in the mountains by herself. There were no chickens to give blood, but she could bleed well enough. No chalk for a circle, but the snow took shapes just fine. She had said the words, teeth chattering, and had been delighted when she had felt the pain of her magic circuits activating, felt it actually work. She could remember the howls and snarls of the wolves growing louder, and seeing dark shapes lunging out of the whirling snow towards her. But then her Saber, almost invisible in her white kimono save for her hair and pink highlights, had appeared, had done… something… and the wolves had died. More had come, and Saber had killed them too. It wasn't particularly dramatic or exciting, and in any case Ilya couldn't see much through the storm. The wolves had come, and then they had fallen over and bled out on the snow.
Other beasts had come afterwards, and the constructs made of wire that were as close as the Einzberns had come to developing combat magecraft. Saber hadn't had noticeably more trouble with these than with the wolves. When dawn came, and the storm had died down, Ilya looked out over the snow, drenched with blood and gore, and at Saber, standing over her as if nothing was wrong. It was the first time since her parents had left that she'd felt safe.
"…I do not recall familiars and constructs being part of that test," her grandfather was saying. Not to her, this time, she thought, so she stayed silent.
One of the women sitting in an armchair shrugged. "If the Servant could be inconvenienced by anything we could send against it, it was hardly worth summoning in the first place."
Acht nodded. "Very well. Ilyasviel, as the Master of Saber, do you believe that your Servant will be able to defeat all opposition in the War?"
Ilya scrunched her hands in the folds of her dress. "I don't know, I've only ever seen one Servant apart from Saber and that was Daddy's and that was years ago-"
Angry muttering had broken out in the room, many of the Einzberns looking at each other and shaking their heads.
Ilya spoke over them, "But Saber is the strongest! I can see her rankings, there's no way anyone else has a Servant as good! Doesn't everyone say it? Saber is the most outstanding class of Servant! We'll win the War, grandfather, I promise!"
Acht had raised his eyebrow at Ilya's outburst, and at her declaration he gave a dry chuckle. "Good. I trust all are satisfied with Ilyasviel's word on the matter?"
Only one person actually gave a derisive snort out loud. The Einzberns were better trained than that.
"Then on to the next issue. Can you control your Servant, Ilyasviel? The last ritual was almost ruined entirely because the Master of Caster let his Servant run wild, creating a disaster that nearly resulted in the Counter Force killing everyone involved." And every man, woman, and child in the surrounding area, Ilya supposed, from what she knew of the Counter Force, but honestly that was incidental compared to the obliteration of the ritual to reach Akasha.
"I've had no trouble with Saber so far, grandfather. She's usually happy to do as I ask. And there's always the Command Seals."
Her grandfather grunted. "Hrm. Well. We had originally had you attempt to summon your Servant so early in order to let you gain some measure of control over a Berserker, but I suppose you may use this extra time to build a rapport with your Servant and work on your teamwork. Be grateful for this opportunity, child, it is not one most Masters receive."
"I am, grandfather." Even though every moment Saber was materialized felt like hot fire running through every one of her nerves, prana forcing itself through her magic circuits, spiritual organs in a physical body that was never designed for them, protesting as they manufactured od over and over again. After an hour Ilya couldn't fathom how she was supposed to deal with two months of this torture until the Grail appeared to take up most of the slack. After two hours she was sure she would go mad. In a fit of sheer spite she tried to hurt Saber, her Saber, through the link, but when Saber didn't seem to feel it she'd given up in shame and resignation. After twenty-four hours, when the pain still hadn't gotten any better but she'd got somewhat used to it, Ilya had apologised to Saber.
The petite Servant had inclined her head. "I am used to pain, Master," she'd explained. "I went my entire life with a weak body that couldn't even live, couldn't even die. An advantage to being a spirit, I must say." Ilya didn't really get it, but even so she'd never tried to deliberately torture her Servant again. Besides, having a Servant that could plan for herself seemed like a much better idea now she could think straight.
Jubstacheit clapped his hands, and Ilya blinked. "Very well. Then I propose we leave the preparation of the War to you, Ilyasviel. We will send a staff ahead of you to prepare the old Fuyuki Castle and activate the Bounded Fields. Apart from yourself and your Servant you will be allowed to take your personal handmaids with you to take care of essentials while you focus on the War. Until then, you will continue your studies and your exercises and tests with Saber here at the castle. Perhaps you would like to be moved into your mother's old room?" he suggested with what, on anyone else, would be a warm smile.
Ilya's breath caught in her throat. "Thank you grandfather, that would be very generous of you."
"Now hold on a minute!" one of those on the couches exclaimed, an older lady with the characteristic blonde hair of the main Einzbern branch – an aunt of sorts, then. "I will accept that the vessel's Servant is competent. But there is another point of failure that we have not considered, not even begun to discuss."
"Oh?" Acht said, as though someone had pointed out that he'd forgotten to close a door.
"Yes. That," said the woman venomously, pointing at Ilya without looking at her. "It has already messed up the summoning ritual – no matter how fortunate the results might have been," she added quickly at Acht's darkening expression. "Lest we forget, all factors were in our favour during the last War – the one reason we did not ultimately obtain the Grail was the failure of the Master. The treachery of that thing's father!" The woman rose from her seat and began pacing the room. "I say, how do we know it won't fail in exactly the same way? Like father, like daughter." There were murmurs of assent from around the room – about half of those assembled were nodding, and the rest weren't voicing their disagreement.
"I won't!" Ilya shouted desperately.
"Be silent!" spat her aunt. "We have heard that this Saber is happy to follow its Master, whoever that might be. With the two months to establish a working relationship that Lord Einzbern has so kindly given us, it should be able to successfully work with anyone we might pair it with. If the vessel is really loyal to our family, it will recognise that it doesn't matter which of us wins the Grail, so long as one of us does. I understand that the vessel is well-suited to providing prana, and I have no objections towards letting it fulfil that function. However, to prove its fidelity beyond question, it should surrender its Command Seals to a surrogate Master, chosen by a family committee. One who has been fully educated. One accomplished in the noble research of the family. One whose loyalty is beyond question. My son would be a perfect-"
At this the woman was drowned out by a roar of protest as each Einzbern tried to seize their slice of the pie. Everyone sitting down stood up, no-one could hear anything over everyone else, and Jubstacheit sighed and motioned for one of his personal homunculi to bring him a glass of wine while the rest of the family argued.
Ilya watched her family helplessly. She wanted to say something, anything, that might make them let her keep Saber and go to Japan to fight the War properly and not just stay cooped up in the castle again and just maybe find that boy her father had left her for-
The room fell silent as the door was smashed clean off its hinges. Splinters ricocheted around the room and were stopped by personal shields or carefully caught by bodyguard homunculi. Every head turned to look at the ruins of the doorway, and so did Ilya, who had to turn right round in her chair to look.
Saber stood there, framed by the light from the hallway. She didn't look particularly impressive, at first glance. A tiny Japanese woman, not much taller than Ilya herself, with thigh-length dark hair that was unique in the blonde-haired Einzberns' castle, tied with a pink carnation near the end. She was dressed in a white kimono, with a pink sash and hem, along with sandals. Her arms and legs seemed too slim to support her own weight, let alone blast a reinforced door that could hold and had held up to sustained cannon fire to pieces.
Yet the proof was falling with a clatter around the stunned Einzberns, as Saber looked around the room at the frozen family.
"Oh dear," she said, her German unaccented and her voice demure. "The War hasn't even started yet and already my Master is in danger. What a failure of a Servant I am. I'll just have to remove all witnesses and hope my Master forgives me."
"You dare threaten-" began one of the larger men in the room before Saber took a single step forwards. There was an indefinable pressure in the room, as though the air was filled with blades and one twitch could cut a careless person to ribbons.
The man's warrior homunculi detached themselves from the wall and stood protectively in front of him, oversized halberds held at the ready. One gave a subtle apologetic glance towards Ilya.
Saber took another step forwards, until she was five full paces from the line of homunculi. "Oh, are we warming up? Certainly I'd be happy to demonstrate my skills. I am a little mystified as to why you have had my Master draw her sword when there are no enemies to fight, but if you wish to get her used to battle by culling the weak and stupid from the family, that is another matter." Her arms blurred, and the weapons fell apart in the hands of the homunculi. Saber laid her hand on the Einzbern magus' cheek. Ilya hadn't even seen her move. "Of course, I am new to this time period, and perhaps you simply wished to impress me with a show of valour. I am touched, but I am not looking for partnership at this time."
The man flushed, jerked back, and raised his hand and opened his mouth to chant an aria, before Jubstacheit growled, "Stand down, you fool. She could kill everyone in this room, including me, before you could get the first word out, and she's been more merciful than you deserve."
Ilya got to her feet and dusted off her dress. This was it, there was no going back now, she was standing up to the family, and the only way out was to go all-in. She took a breath, feeling vaguely like she was in a dream, and said, "I feel I should inform you all that I have requested Saber to protect me until the conclusion of the Grail War, and she has agreed. As such, I suggest you don't try and forcibly take my Command Seals as Saber is likely to interpret that as a threat. And-" she looked her grandfather in the eye for the first time since she was two, "-I won't voluntarily give up the Command Seals. The Greater Grail gave them to me, and I mean to use them to win the War and undo the damage my father caused. Saber is mine. Saber is the strongest. I won't lose!"
Acht didn't do anything so undignified as smile, but Ilya thought she saw approval in his face anyway.
"Very well. The War's preparations shall go ahead as I have described. You are dismissed, Ilyasviel."
Ilya curtsied deeply, then turned and walked slowly from the room, head held high. Saber fell into step beside her, Sella and Leysritt behind, and in silence they walked back to the tiny chamber Ilya used as her room. When they were there and the door had closed, Ilya collapsed onto her bed, shaking.
"I actually defied the family, I sat above them in the hierarchy, I looked grandfather in the eye… I think I might be sick."
Leysritt obligingly fetched a pot. Ilya didn't actually throw up, although it took Sella ten minutes of stroking her back before she felt calm enough to sit up straight.
"You were very brave," Sella said encouragingly.
"It was acceptable, for your first skirmish," said Saber. "I hope this attitude of yours changes, though. As the wielder of one of the finest swords ever produced, you should be bolder when it comes to standing up for yourself." She smiled slightly. "Not to boast, of course."
"It's OK, Saber. It's just the family, they always made me feel unwanted, small, like a tool. But you're right. Now that I have you, there's nothing they can say. You're the strongest. I'm not going to worry about them any more." Ilya stopped and considered. "Well, maybe grandfather. But everyone else can die for all I care. It's time to look forward."
"That's the spirit," Sella said warmly. Leysritt nodded.
"In fact," continued Ilya, feeling more daring than she had in years, "Ask me what my plans are for the War, Sella."
"What, um, your plans, Ilya?" Sella asked, confused.
"Yeah! My plans! I'll win the War for the family, obviously, I can't not when I have Saber, and that'll mean I'll disappear by the end of it, but I can get stuff done while I'm there. I always wondered what made Dad leave, what it was about that boy that made him decide to never come back. So I'm going to go and take a look. Extra-curricular, you might say, although I suppose if he's a magus like Dad he could be a Master. Either way, before the War's over I'm going to have settled things to my satisfaction."
Ilya paused and took a breath. For the first time in years she was actually looking forward to something. Admittedly that something was a war, and likely to be brutal and bloody and not turn out at all like she hoped, but even so it was finally something she could do herself, for herself. Why not have fun with it? She turned to her Servant, something having occurred to her. "Oh, and that'll need to happen before the fifth Servant falls since I'll stop functioning as a person by then, so try not to slaughter the other Servants too fast, Saber."
Saber inclined her head. "I will try my best, Master. Though I suggest searching for this boy near the start of the War, since I can make no guarantees as to the other Servants' actions."
"Right. Right! We can hash out the details later, about all the Grail stuff and what the plan is there, but we've got our own plan and that's what's important. Any questions?"
Two homunculi and a spirit shook their heads.
Saber put a finger to her lips in thought. "An achievement like this calls for a celebration," decided the slim Servant.
"Oh? What were you thinking, Saber?"
"… how about a haircut?"
The summoning circle, like most things Tohsaka Rin attempted, was perfect. She'd double- and triple-checked the accuracy of the diagrams, had gotten down on her hands and knees with a protractor to check the angles, had not only swept the space in her workshop clean of any dust and dirt that might interfere but also set up a larger Bounded Field around the site of the summoning circle to repel any debris that might get funny ideas about coming back. Even with all that, she'd had to start over twice, and it was only that many because she'd been practicing drawing this exact circle three times a week for the past two months.
The shape of the circle had been finding its way into her dreams for the past week. On at least one occasion she'd idly drawn it in her notebook in class, her fingers automatically sketching the lines.
Rin had considered simply carving it into the floor beforehand and having done with it, but it would be a lot harder to repair mistakes that way, and besides, she had limited space in her workshop and summoning a hero from beyond space and time was really a one-off kind of deal. At least she hoped so – she knew she had a tendency towards what some of her non-magus friends might, if Rin was so sloppy as to actually show that side of herself, call 'megalomania', but even so she'd assume one wish upon an omnipotent artefact would be enough. It wasn't like there was anywhere left to go once one had already reached Akasha, the Root of all things, after all. And it wasn't like she was planning to lose or anything.
As the heir to the Tohsaka family, Rin had had the expectation of perfection drilled into her from an early age. If she was going to do something, there wasn't much point in doing it sloppy and half-assed. With magecraft, studying, physical training, anything, there was going to be some method that was optimal, that produced maximum results with a minimum of mess, and Rin strove to find that in all things. After all, it stood to reason that any task done right had to be better than one that was merely 'good enough', and so it was worth putting in the extra effort and focus which, Rin always thought, was mostly a matter of discipline in the first place.
She honestly didn't understand why so many of her classmates thought she was some kind of amazing prodigy just because she actually bothered to both pay attention to how she presented herself and crack open her textbooks when she didn't have to once in a while. Frankly, compared to what she'd had to go through while learning magecraft, succeeding at school was trivial. Rin would have said it wasn't worth the effort – except that it was something she was doing, and so she would be doing it perfectly. Like this circle.
Yes, the circle was perfect, and with it Rin would summon a perfect Servant. So it rather broke her flow somewhat that she had to wait for slightly less than an hour until it was two in the morning and her magic reached its peak. About halfway through drawing the details of the circle the second time, Rin had been running mainly on stubbornness and thoughts of how awesome her Servant Saber would be once she pulled this off. In the middle of drawing a line, she'd suddenly remembered Kirei had mentioned, in the middle of one of his lectures on how she really should be gearing up for the War by now, that the Einzberns had in fact already summoned a Saber. Rin usually tuned Kirei out when she had to interact with the so-called priest, but she had definitely taken notice of that. Still, she'd sort of gotten ahead of herself and let her fantasies run away with her, and she'd forgotten that her favoured class was taken while absorbed in drawing the summoning circle.
Rin was a gentle and elegant soul, though, so she pressed on with aplomb. Well, she had had a brief tantrum at being reminded of how despite being only the second person to summon a Servant (she'd checked with Kirei as often as she could stand to listen to him, keeping track of which classes had been summoned so she didn't get stuck with Berserker or something; she knew no-one else had gotten around to summoning anything as of yesterday morning) she'd been scooped on her attempt to summon the most outstanding class. After that though, Rin got right back to work, and had resolved to make her ritual perfect; if she couldn't get Saber, she'd at least get the best possible Servant otherwise. The floor was wiped clear and the circle restarted, being extra-careful this time. Once Rin had thought of it, there were a couple more things she could optimise as well.
She'd fetched a couple more gems and placed them around the circle, on the basis that more mana couldn't hurt. She'd cleaned and re-cleaned her catalyst, placing it in pride of place at the exact centre of the circle. Everything else seemed to be set up, and Rin had wracked her brains thinking of anything else, before realising with horror that the clocks had gone forward just that day, and she had been about to summon her Servant at one o' clock, not two. With a shudder at the near-miss, Rin had taken a lot more time with the next circle, and it was finally perfect.
Which was great. Except that she now had about forty minutes to wait around before actually summoning anything.
Rin kept feeling that there was more she could possibly be doing to increase her chances in the War, an irreplaceable chance to fix something with the summoning ritual that she could only pull off if she started right now, not a moment to waste, if only she was smart enough to think of it, and she knew she'd remember what it was about half a second after her Servant appeared with, with brain damage or something. The more rational part of Rin firmly quashed those feelings down, and instead she took a breath to calm herself down and picked up the artefact she'd found, or rather had sourced for her from Scandinavia.
It was… well, on one level it was a smooth, slightly curved cone of what looked and felt like black rock, with an impressively sharp point that had drawn blood even when handled carefully. It might have been mistaken for a remarkably well-preserved dinosaur tooth, and this was in fact what it had been labelled as in the Riga museum it had been displayed in. Palaeontologists had, Rin heard, been arguing over which particular species of dinosaur it had come from, and what that did to the previous estimates of population spread and longevity. These arguments were apparently particularly enthusiastic because no-one actually knew where the tooth had been found originally, beyond 'somewhere in Europe'. The leading theory said it was of a previously unknown species of Megalosaurus, with other experts arguing for Ceratosaurus or Allosaurus – in any case, some large therapod. All of these guesses were wrong, and Rin could feel why. Prana, raw magic, emanated from it like radiation, revealing its origin to anyone with a hint of magical sense.
The most powerful kind of Monstrous Beasts, dragons were an extension of the World itself, on a level with the fabled True Ancestors. They were capable of generating ridiculous amounts of prana simply by breathing, the origin of the fire-breathing myth – although apparently fire was only one option for a dragon's attribute.
There wasn't much information on them, even in the Tohsaka library (though admittedly that wasn't as large as it had once been, many books having been sold off to buy precious gems to further the specialised Tohsaka magecraft). From what Rin could gather, even a weak dragon would be able to destroy armies of humans with little effort, using their breath to spread whatever their attribute was over an enormous area.
A piece of a dragon, even a long-dead one, was impossibly valuable, and had a role in some of the most powerful rituals Rin could dig up. For example, using a dragon's tooth just like the one she had, she could summon one of the Dragon Tooth Warriors, like those whom the hero Jason of the Argo had fought at Colchis (Rin was not stupid, and had added a diligent study of world mythology to her training regimen as soon as it became clear she might need to fight a Grail War someday).
Well, maybe she could summon one. She'd need to research the exact ritual required, and probably supercharge the process using a couple of her gems, but given, oh, six months on the subject assuming no setbacks in locating information, she'd be able to do it. Supposedly it was possible to obtain an entire self-replenishing army of Dragon Tooth Warriors, but Rin wasn't sure if modern magi could do it, especially with only one tooth to work with. Even so, apparently they were quite formidable, and made excellent soldiers for the discerning magus.
In any case, the point was moot, because what she intended to summon instead was far, far more powerful.
Dragons were extinct, and the reason was because back when they'd been alive, the world had also contained heroes.
Rin had no idea which dragon this tooth had come from, which hero might respond to the call of their long-dead foe. But, she'd thought, back when the idea had occurred, she honestly didn't care. Heroes killed dragons. They weren't killed by them, or at the very least they managed a draw. As far as she knew, no hero's legend ended with "but then he bravely fought a dragon and was roasted". If you were a hero, you had survived any tangle you might have had with a dragon, and that meant you were a monster yourself.
Any hero that had been able to kill whichever dragon had donated her artefact was just fine with her.
…but, because Rin was Rin, she'd compiled a small list of every dragon slayer that had occurred to her off the top of her head.
Most obviously, Saint George, who was most famous for taming a dragon but had killed others. Better to summon him in England or at least Georgia, his primary patronages, but that was a bit out of her budget on the off-chance it'd be him. Siegfried, or Sigurd, who had defeated the sorcerer Fafnir, who had transformed into a dragon (which considering what a dragon was, frankly sounded suspiciously close to the Heavens Feel ritual from what she'd heard of it, although she knew the Einzberns would never ever tell her anything about it). An invulnerable Servant, yes, she could do a lot with that. For that matter, Fafnir himself would be acceptable, now that she thought of it. Lancelot had slain a dragon too, right? Jason, yes, having killed the dragon of Colchis to obtain the Golden Fleece it guarded. And, she dared to hope, another Argonaut was a possibility as well – Heracles, who had outwitted the thousand-headed dragon Ladon to win from it the Apples of the Hesperides (well, by sending someone else entirely to do the job for him, but in the end Heracles achieved his aim and Ladon didn't). Now he would be a Servant worth summoning.
In any case, it was time, Rin noted. She stood and dusted herself off, made one last check of everything, gathered a handful of gems she'd set aside for just this purpose, then stood, hand outstretched, over the circle and began her incantation.
"For the essence, silver and steel." The gems, transmuted by her magic into a silvery, viscous liquid, dripped from her hand onto the floor.
"For the foundation, gems and the Archduke of Contracts." More drops.
"For the ancestor, my great master Schweinorg." The liquid began to seep into the lines of the summoning circle, and began to glow an eerie blue-green, like lichen.
"Close the cardinal gates, be bound to the circle, and follow the three columns of the Sephirot to descend from the Crown to the Kingship." This was it, she was calling her Servant, reaching out to the Throne of Heroes itself (okay, via the Grail, which was admittedly doing most of the work) and, from a point of view, casting the most powerful spell she would ever cast.
"Fill and lock, fill and lock, fill and lock, fill and lock, fill and lock. Repeat five times." With each word, another drop fell from her outstretched fist.
"But those moments should cease to be once passed. Set." The light from the circle turned orange. It was light enough to read by, now.
"I hereby propose. Your fealty shall be mine, and my fate shall be yours. If you heed the Grail's call and obey my will and reason, then answer me. I hereby swear that I shall be all the good in the world. That I shall repress all the evil in the world." Loose pieces of paper around her workshop fluttered in the wind kicked up by the power released. Rin felt it double, it was like biting down on tinfoil but with your whole body.
"One of seven heavenly beings bearing the three great words of power, come forth from the cycle that shackles you, Guardian of the Scales!" The light had turned pure, blood red, and at Rin's final command, it crackled with lightning. A shockwave blasted out from the centre of the circle, scattering light objects, taking out the lights, knocking Rin off balance and outside the circle, and kicking up a great cloud of dust.
It was exactly two in the morning.
Rin coughed on the floor, blinking spots out of her vision. As the dust settled, she looked up at the circle. Then up rather more to meet the gaze of the enormous blond man who had appeared inside it.
With a flick of his wrist, a bright white light appeared in his hand and hovered above his horned helmet. Cocking his head to the side, he strode a step forward, iron boots thudding on stone floor, and pulled a speechless Rin to her feet. After looking her up and down and apparently finding nothing to comment on, he looked around the room, taking in the strange equipment and devices as though he saw such things every day. While Rin tried to think of something to say, the man – the Servant – moved to inspect a sheaf of her notes, then toyed with one of her father's devices before moving on. He seemed… approving? The ball of light, she noted, stayed above the Servant's helmet.
Rin had never thought about the consequences of summoning her Servant in her workshop – it was only natural, after all. But the fact was that her workshop was a more private space than her bedroom, and all of a sudden there was an extremely large man in there with her.
"Um," she started, and nearly flinched when the man whirled, fixing her with an appraising stare. Rin tried to remember how she was going to continue that thought.
Finding a chair, the Servant sprawled into it, eliciting a creak of strained wood, and favoured Rin with an utterly relaxed grin, the ball of light moving to stick to the centre of the ceiling.
"Good evening, Master. I'm Servant Caster, and we're going to get on great."
Bazett Fraga McRemitz threw her bag on the hotel bed, and tried to resist the urge to come up with a rune to ward off bedbugs. Being an Enforcer for the Magus Association was an important job, one she both enjoyed and was good at, but it didn't pay very well. Even though she was the Association's representative for the Fifth Holy Grail War, and would be expected to keep an eye on things (both for information for the nobles back home and to make sure no-one accidentally destroyed a city), Lord El Melloi II, better known to her as Waver Velvet, had made it clear to her that she was doing so on her own dime. For a society of old money, with contacts at every level of British government and aristocracy, the Magus Association was a bunch of skinflints.
So, here she was, in pretty much the cheapest hotel room she could possibly find in Fuyuki city proper. Bazett could have hypnotised the staff at some swanky traditional place, and lived in the lap of luxury, but that didn't sit right with her. For one thing, it was a waste of magic, and from what she'd heard from Waver about the last War she'd need every drop. For another, the entire point of her being here was to prevent the War spilling over into the non-magical world, and using magic on some poor porter as soon as she arrived in Japan didn't seem to be playing the game. No, Bazett would be doing this properly, just like she did any other mission. She'd seen the consequences when someone got bright ideas on an Apostle Hunt, and had resolved to stick to what worked.
…even if the security would be better in a large hotel. And the bedbugs could be used as familiars to gain access to her blood. And there was an unidentified stain on the wall. And it smelt, just a bit, of cabbage.
Still. Bazett had made do with worse, and it wasn't like it actually mattered given how little time she'd probably end up staying here. Bazett sighed, and started unpacking. She was wearing her usual dark suit, with reinforcement spells and strengthening runes woven right into the fabric so that it could, and did, hold up to attacks by creatures that could tear steel with their bare fingers. She had a spare, exactly the same, which went straight into the wardrobe, once she'd cleared out the cobwebs from the coat rail. A bunch of sombre-coloured shirts, underwear, and ties went into various slightly greasy drawers. A spare pair of shoes went under the bed, disturbing a cockroach which scooted under the bedside cabinet. Her gloves went down on the desk, along with the paperwork she'd brought.
Bazett would be keeping the metal cylinder, like one would use to transport a painting, on her person.
There wasn't any casual wear, which was fair enough, since this was essentially a business trip. Besides, Bazett just liked being practically-dressed, even before the runes and spells came into it. Frills and embroidery were all very well, if you were into that sort of thing, but Bazett had never been one for frocks even before she'd been an Enforcer. Far more important to wear something you felt comfortable in, and the devil take anyone who didn't like it.
And indeed she'd received more than a few odd looks as she had walked from the train station to this place. Quite apart from the fact that her short crimson hair and matching eyes marked her as obviously foreign, she was dragging a large duffel bag behind her and carrying her tube, which could have contained anything.
Still, the elderly man who owned the hotel had been nice enough, impressed with her (admittedly utilitarian) knowledge of Japanese, and had insisted on carting her bag up the stairs and along the slightly dilapidated corridor to her room. It was a nice gesture, even if Bazett could probably lift him in one hand even before using her strength-augmenting runes. In fact, so far, everyone she'd met in Japan had been unfailingly polite and deferential. She imagined that would probably change once people started trying to kill her.
Speaking of which, she needed to touch base with Waver to let him know she'd arrived. Prior to the War, once she'd heard she was to be participating and had received her Command Seals, she'd sought out the former Master, now Lord El-Melloi the Second, and had asked for advice and support.
The room didn't have a phone, but the hotel owner was happy to let her use the ancient-looking rotary phone at reception. The hotel lobby looked like it was going for a sort of pseudo-Western feel – the room was laid out like a traditional Japanese inn, and was certainly small enough that you wouldn't mistake it for an actual Western hotel. On the other hand, the floor was carpeted rather than laid with tatami mats, and the furnishings were clearly Western inspired, with a couple of squashy armchairs and little square coffee table huddled in a corner.
Bazett dialled Waver's number, grateful that, despite being a magus Lord, the man had the sense to adopt some semblance of modern technology where it was useful. If you could call a phone 'modern', it had been invented over a hundred years ago, for goodness' sake. At least he didn't have one of those mobiles, which as far as Bazett was concerned worked by pure sorcery.
"…hello?" Waver's voice came through, sleepily. Oh, right, time difference. Early afternoon in Japan, so it would be, what, five in the morning in England?
"Sorry, Waver, did I wake you?"
"Um. Not really, I'd just dozed off. I was having an all-night gaming session, to tell you the truth."
"Hmph." Bazett had never understood Lord El-Melloi II's fascination with video games, or where he had even picked up the habit. She was hardly a traditional magus, she liked fieldwork far too much, but she still didn't feel it was appropriate for someone of his standing and influence to be so… frivolous at times. Like his Mystic Code, which under his predecessor had been a perfectly respectable blob of shining silvery death, but which Waver had modified into, of all things, a maid. Speaking of the first Lord El-Melloi, though…
"Well, I'm here, safe and sound. I'll be securing the room shortly to prevent any scrying or familiars from divining my activities, and I'll be meeting with the Church moderator shortly to touch base with him. I've got all my dossiers on the known likely Master ready, and I've brought no less than six of my, ah, equalisers. Any more tips you forgot to give me as to what I need to do to be ready for the War?"
"Sure. Lighten up." Waver's voice was amused.
"You're always so professional about things. Usually that's good, because it's all on you and there are severe consequences if you fail. But here you'll have a hero watching your back. Anything you can do will be pretty much inconsequential compared to them, so the most important thing is making sure you get along with your Servant."
"Look, I understand, but I can't just relax and kick back. This is a war, Waver. Sure I'll have a Servant, but in case you forgot I'll have six others out to kill me! I need every advantage I can get-"
"And your biggest advantage will always be your own Servant. Make sure you don't squander it. My predecessor did – infighting killed his team as surely as the Magus Killer's bullet, and all because he just didn't understand his Servant. I was almost entirely useless in my War, I didn't do anything except cower behind Rider! But afterwards, as I pieced together the witness accounts and tried to figure out the story behind the great fire at the end, I realised just how lucky I was. My Servant and I got on, and it was thanks to that that I survived the end of the War."
"Okay, fine. But I can't imagine I'll have a problem getting on with my Servant either. I mean, I'm related to him." Bazett looked at her tube, which she'd leant against the hotel desk, as if to confirm that it was still there.
"Oh? You found that earring at last?"
"…no. I searched and searched but every lead I found led to a dead end. Eventually I just decided to go ahead and try without it. I'll use my blood as the catalyst, probably, or, you know, one of those."
"Why so coy? We both know you're talking about Frag-"
"Shush! The line could well be being monitored, and I'll thank you not to talk about my trump card where anyone can hear!" There was such a thing as information security, even though Bazett had already scanned the area for eavesdroppers, magical or otherwise, and even though if a listener had known English there was still no guarantee they'd be able to understand Bazett. She usually adopted a more standard English accent when dealing with her superiors at the Clock Tower since it felt a bit undignified when the elderly and respected noble magus you were giving your report to interrupted every couple of seconds to go "Pardon?" and "I'm sorry?", but Waver hadn't seemed bothered by her proper Irish lilt.
"Alright, alright. Well, in any case, I wish you luck. Just… don't be disappointed if he isn't as you expect. I know my Servant wasn't." Waver's voice had turned just slightly wistful, as it often did when he talked about his experiences in the Fourth War.
"If it's him, we'll be perfect together," Bazett said firmly. "I'll be going now. I'll not keep you from your important work any longer."
"Ha ha. Oh, Bazett, on that subject, something's come up in one of my students' projects, and we're not sure if it's gone exactly as planned or horribly wrong, and we won't find out until we actually get to Vilcabamba and locate the pyramid… anyway, I know I said I would help you out with this, but they've requested that I be on hand to deal with any problems, so I'll be out of touch for the next couple of weeks."
Bazett spluttered. "Oh, these same couple of weeks I'll be fighting a War? Don't worry about me, I was going to be counting on your support and advice, I mean I'll only die if something goes wrong, but it's fine, you go ahead and gallivant off with your students, I'm sure that's much more important than whatever I've got going on, it's only seven heroes fighting over a wish-granting artefact!"
"Yes. It is." Waver's tone was dead serious, and Bazett stopped immediately. "This ties back into what I was saying before, and it's something Rider told me towards the end of the War. All of this? All the spectacle, the grand ritual, the fact that it's using fake heroic spirits as weapons? Despite all of that, it's not going to be the most important fight of your life. Like me, you've gotten into this because it's something you wanted to do, not because it was something you had to do at all costs.
"Make no mistake, it'll be tough, but if you lose and survive, you'll carry on pretty much the same as you were before. You'll find something to devote your life to, some path you maybe never thought of before, and the battles along that road, the one you choose yourself, those are the battles that matter. The Grail War is only grand because of the heroic spirits taking part, or more precisely the Servants, since they're not quite real heroic spirits. Despite that, you'll see displays of power and skill that no-one has seen in hundreds of years, you'll be inspired to try and match the figures of legend, and unless you have a really interesting life it'll be the only chance you ever get to talk to a true hero, but that aside? The Grail War doesn't matter. At most it'll help you choose a path, like it did for me.
"If I hadn't fought in the Fourth War, I'd have stayed obsessed with making other people respect me rather than becoming someone worthy of respect. I found my focus and my drive, and I found people willing to follow me on my journey. Because it's a path I'm forging myself, rather than one I've let people decide for me, I value every victory along the way more than the entirety of the Fourth War. And that's why when they ask me to drop everything and bring twenty gallons of petroleum jelly to Peru, I'll prioritise my students over you. Sorry, and all that."
Bazett didn't quite know what to say. Everyone knew about Lord El-Melloi II's legendary drive and passion for seemingly unconnected things, the way he'd pursue one path and take its lessons into furthering another, never stopping, as if he was approaching some ever-distant horizon or chasing an unknown goal that stayed out of reach. Everyone knew, too, that his students were almost fanatically loyal to him, and always ended up being awarded all sorts of accolades and honours for whatever area of study they chose to pursue. Since she'd started to work with Waver Bazett could even sort of see it herself, and had a professional respect for the man, eccentricities aside.
As far as Bazett knew Waver hadn't told anyone just why he was going so far, or what he was trying to achieve. Hearing his speech, though, she got the impression he might say the journey was more important than the destination… and she'd be lying if she said she didn't feel the slightest spark of interest in seeing just where this impossible man was heading. After a five-minute phone call. No wonder his students were devoted to him.
"I see," Bazett said, realising the pause had stretched on just longer than was comfortable. "Well, in that case it can't be helped. I'll have to cope without you, then, I suppose. Thank you, honestly, for all your help up until now."
"You're very welcome." Waver yawned. "I'll see you when I get back, I suppose. And, if you're interested, I might just have a couple of interesting jobs for you."
"We'll see. I might have other plans," Bazett said.
"Hah. That's the spirit. I mean it though. Come back alive. You have far too much potential to waste on a meaningless contest like this. Although of course I hope it all goes well for you and you're able to summon your ancestor."
"That is the main thing, after all. Goodbye, Waver."
Another yawn. "Bye, Bazett." He hung up, and Bazett followed suit, putting the old handset down on the counter of the hotel reception desk.
"Sorry about taking so long," she said to the owner. "Calling my boss, changes in schedule, you know how it is."
"Nope! I've been my own boss for fifteen years, heh. Don't worry about a thing, miss. Is the room okay?"
Bazett thought about mentioning the stain, and the grime, and the cobwebs, but decided against it. It wasn't important.
"Yeah, sure. I'll enjoy my stay here."