[Night of fate—The appearance of Archer]
This glass heart, covered in scratches, lights a fever I've nearly forgotten
Last stardust, climb the skies!
Dust to dust, earth to earth, into the distance;
Oh fragments of dreams, into eternity!
—LAST STARDUST, Aimer
Seventeen-year-old Arturia Pendragon absently pulled off her glove and rubbed the strange-looking bruise on the back of her right hand as she watched two of the seniors of her kendo club start fighting it out. Her cuirass felt a bit tight across her chest as she breathed hard, having just finished her own sparring match.
"Good job back there, Arturia-kun, as always," said the club captain, a tall girl with long hair in a single braid. Noticing what Arturia was doing with her right hand, she frowned. "What's that on your hand?"
"Oh, this is nothing, Captain. A little bruise." Arturia quickly put her glove back on, covering the mark. "Do you think we'll be okay for next month's tournament? Some of the juniors seem a bit out of shape to me."
"Well, actually I was thinking—"
To her relief, the club captain dropped the issue and quickly launched on an analysis of the other members' performances. At once, Arturia instinctively tightened her left hand over her right, as if trying to protect it.
She just noticed the weird reddish bruise last night while she was preparing to go to sleep. This morning over breakfast, she had successfully distracted her brothers and father from noticing her hand, but she couldn't be sure if she'll manage to avoid letting her eldest brother, Kay, from seeing it when she got home after club practice. Kay had such sharp eyes when it came to his little sister that Arturia was secretly pleased he had gone to work early today and had failed to see her go to breakfast with that on her hand. He would have assumed that she got into a fight or something and refused to let her leave the house.
As she walked home, she noticed that a heavy chill was present in the air, a strange fact. Fuyuki's winters were never this severe before. Stopping at a red light, Arturia solemnly pulled up her red-checked scarf to cover the lower part of her face and shoved her hands in her coat pockets, looking forward to the heater in their living room. However—
"Oi, that's the King of Knights."
Her eyes narrowed at the sound of the title. Turning on her heel, she scowled at the only people who had thought to call her that as an insult, rather as an honor—the gang of teenaged bullies that had been terrorizing younger students around Fuyuki. Apparently, her act of standing up to them when she caught them in the act of forcing a young middle-school girl to give up her pocket money was unprecedented, and they started calling her King of Knights after that. Arturia figured that the title was meant to make fun of her bravery rather than commend her.
"Your Majesty," the leader was saying in a mocking tone, and made a half-bow and a smirk. "What have we done to merit the honor of being graced by your presence?"
Arturia exhaled slowly, her breath coming out in a white mist. "I guess even people like you know how to speak prettily."
"What was that, bitch?" The gang leader started forward.
Arturia's hand instinctively went to her shoulder to grab her practice sword—but to her dismay, she grasped nothing but thin air. She felt herself swallow.
I must've left it at the dojo. She remembered her absentmindedness back at club practice—it wasn't farfetched that she'd forget and leave her sword behind when she changed back into her uniform and left the changing room while worrying about explaining away the bruise on her hand.
That was the last word she heard before they finally grabbed at her.
"How'd you like that, Majesty?"
Arturia opened her eyes. Above her, the night sky stretched endlessly, the wispy clouds looking almost like tendrils of smoke. The moon occasionally peeked through them, letting its light fall on her face. Her eyes shone, almost like emeralds, but they also had a shred of fear in them. Fear of the unknown.
She could feel grass and stones pressing against her back, her arms tight with pain as she experimentally moved them and felt the ropes against her wrists. They must have carried her to some empty lot, just to make her settle her debt to them. In a way, she was honored that these scum would fear her so and make this huge an effort, but in a way she was scared—she could hear Kay telling her from a memory—"Strong you might be, but you're just still a girl, Arturia."
"You awake, Highness?"
Arturia turned her head to the best of her ability and glared at the ringleader. "What are you trying to accomplish?"
"Simple. We just don't want resistance against our activities, of any kind." He spat at the grass. "We don't want our victims getting ideas about that little girl who beat up two of my men, y'see. Don't want them to think that we're that easy to fight."
"You bunch of cowardly filth."
Arturia's little statement earned her a kick to the stomach. Doubling over in pain, she coughed repeatedly as the gang gathered around her and began laughing raucously, looking almost like a pack of vultures.
"You'll have to pay for that one, valiant King of Knights."
"Mess 'er up!"
"Mess 'er up!"
"Mess 'er up!"
Their excited cheers were resounding into the night as Arturia stared dazedly up at the gang leader and braced for the next blow from his upraised fist.
They're probably going to kill me.
Her brothers' faces, especially that of doting and overprotective Kay, flashed through her mind.
Everyone's looking for me by now.
The fist slammed down, going for her jaw. Arturia whimpered involuntarily as he raised his fist for another strike—
I have to go back home. I don't want to die.
I don't want to die—bam—I don't want to die—bam—
I don't want to die.
She felt a burning sensation on her right hand. A flash of red burned her tightly-closed eyelids as she screamed—and suddenly—
"Who the hell are you?"
She could hear the panicked shouting of the boys around her, moving away from her as if to confront the stranger that suddenly appeared in the scene, and a deep masculine voice suddenly pierced the night—
"What is the world coming to?"
"What?"—the gang leader's voice was loud and shrill. In spite of her pain, Arturia smiled.
The strange man was unfazed, his voice just the right mix of steady and slightly sardonic. "This gathering is clearly suspicious activity, but I don't think this is anything that warrants a Guardian."
Arturia heard the cocking of a gun. One of her assailants was clearly in illegal possession of a firearm. She tried to get up and tell the intruder that he should get out, get away from here, before anything else might happen, but her body was numb and wouldn't respond to her command—
"That's a mistake, I'm telling you."—the stranger seemed foolishly confident.
Clang. Steel on steel—and then the sound of something falling on the grass.
Arturia agonizingly turned her body to better see what was going on. Her cramping arms, tied behind her, protested in more pain, but she managed to see a glimpse of the stranger at last—and the knocking legs of the terrified gunman.
Did… did he…
Did he just destroy that pistol with a swipe of that sword in his hand? That was what seemed to be going on in the mind of every person in the lot.
Even Arturia, an expert swordsman in her own right, cannot help but feel amazed.
Seeing how the stranger just cleaved the gun in two as if slicing through butter, a fearful yell and the running of footsteps on the grass told Arturia that the gang had finally scattered and escaped. For her part, she just stared at the man before her, unaware that she was finally safe. She noticed, absently, that the moonlight has broken through the clouds again and has streamed onto his face, giving Arturia a glimpse of the strange man's white hair and serious gaze as he turned around to take in his surroundings. The brilliant red of his cloak was accentuated in silvery brilliance, while his tanned skin shone like burnished copper.
"What…" Arturia heard herself ask, her voice like the grating of nails on a chalkboard.
In a flash, she found herself pinned against the ground, a blade pressed threateningly against her neck. She could only glimpse at the man's deadly gray eyes for a moment before they passed from a state of fury into a state of shock.
"S-Saber?" Arturia gulped, but she felt the blade finally move away from her throat. "You mean… a sword?"
The red man seemed caught off-guard by her question and finally backed off, an indefinable expression on his face. "Did they bring you here?"
"Yes." Arturia flinched as her arms cramped again.
Realizing her discomfort, the red man turned her and cut her bonds off easily. He looked around at the empty lot, and then at Arturia's right hand, which had involuntarily moved to her neck to feel the slight wound left by the blade.
"A… Command Seal." He was staring at her right hand so intensely that Arturia had to look, and felt a jolt as she stared at the mark on the back. What was once a shapeless bruise was now a tattoo-like mark done in deep red, with a sword-like mark in the center and symmetrical web-like patterns at the sides. It looked a bit like a fleur-de-lis, but also not quite. Arturia's eyes admired the mark for a few seconds before going to focus on the red man again. For the first time, she noticed that his aura seemed very heavy.
"…You've got to be kidding me."
He was chuckling bitterly. He seemed like a very cynical sort of person, Arturia decided, as he threw his head back and laughed mirthlessly. "So that's how it is. This is a very ugly joke, if it is one," he finally said, sobering up. "Damn you, Alaya."
His gray eyes are very beautiful, but also very sad. Lost in his melancholy, Arturia dimly wondered who this Alaya person was. "Who are you?" Arturia asked him, trying to get up and failing as her arms shook and gave out. She placed an unsteady hand on one trembling knee.
The red man seemed resigned when he finally replied.
"It seems that I am the Servant Archer, sent to answer to your summons."
"Servant…?" Arturia frowned. "I don't understand. Explain yourself." It came out rather commandingly, to her embarrassment. And yet—
—To her surprise, the man was laughing. Not like the cynical laugh of a moment ago, but an amused one. A nostalgic one, almost.
"Ar… Archer, is it?" Arturia began, but the Servant Archer held up his hand.
"Pardon me, Master, but you look so like someone I knew a lifetime ago, I can't help but think that you're the same person."
"Why, yes." His tone was tinged with a slight sarcastic edge which was probably involuntary. "Because if I'm right, I've just been summoned to take part in the Holy Grail War… and you, fortunately or unfortunately, are my Master."
She hoped that Kay was still at work—he can be really overprotective at times and wouldn't let her hear the end of it now that she has gone home later than usual.
To her relief, the house seemed quiet when she finally got back home in the evening, except for the sounds of the television in the living room. Thinking that her younger brother Bedivere was watching his favorite show as usual, Arturia shrugged and went past the doorway—
"Arturia. Where were you?"
The guarded voice of her brother Kay, who was suddenly standing on the doorway, stopped her in her tracks. Arturia instinctively averted her bruised jaw from him, but his chilling tone had alerted her that it might be a bit too late. In her coat pocket, the hand containing the Command Seals trembled slightly.
"What's that?" Kay immediately grabbed her chin and turned her face toward him in a harsher gesture than was necessary. He squinted at the bruises, which, to Arturia's consternation, would probably look worse than they actually are—which certainly did not help her case.
"Nothing." Arturia tried to pry his fingers off her jaw, but Kay was too strong.
"You've been fighting those blasted boys again. I swear, Arturia, if you don't stop picking fights with them, you'll—"
"But they were hurting the kids!"
They both paused in shock at this sudden outburst from the normally dignified Arturia. Breathlessly, Arturia shook her hand from Kay's now-slack grip and just stood there on the hallway awkwardly, embarrassed at her outburst.
"What is it?" Arturia's eyes were down, but at Kay's patronizing tone, she blazed back up. "Don't you ever tell me to stay away from those bullies, Kay. They don't have the right to do that to someone who's weaker than them…"
"There you go again with this chivalrous knight bullcrap." Kay's voice was rising too. "These are dangerous times and you're just a girl. Those gang kids will mess you up real bad if—"
"I'm in the kendo club. I'm next in line to be captain, they tell me." Furious, Arturia started edging away from her brother and in the direction of her room. "I'm not just a girl who—"
"Who what?" Kay started towards her. "You're not some superhero, Arturia! You're a normal girl! You can't just expect to get away unharmed every time— Arturia!"
—Fed up, Arturia had run upstairs to her room and slammed the door behind her, shaking with bridled emotion.
He was underestimating me again…
What does my gender have to do with being able to protect myself?
"Arturia!" Kay was banging on her door, but Arturia had already twisted the lock.
"Shut up!" Arturia can feel her bruised stomach stinging again as she sank to her knees on the floor, but dealing with her angry tears was far more important. I am not weak. She wiped them angrily with her good hand. "Leave me alone!"
Kay had finally given up when their other siblings had come out and demanded to know what was going on, leaving Arturia in relative silence. Considering that it was finally safe, Archer finally materialized again, having been silently observing the little family drama all along.
"Seems like you have some complicated matters as well."
Arturia looked up at Archer, startled.
"My apologies. But you really have got to get used to my comings and goings soon." Archer sat on the bed, while Arturia just remained seated on the floor, clutching her stomach and face. "Are you alright, Master?"
"Yes." Arturia sniffled. "I've had worse."
Archer scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I'll bring you some ice if you want. When they're all asleep."
Arturia shook her head. "It's okay. But more importantly, this Holy Grail War… was all what you told me true?"
"I'm afraid so. Those Command Seals aren't just for show." Archer looked thoughtful. "I've already told you the basic whatnot about the War, but you'll just properly appreciate them once the battle actually starts." He scowled. "Actually, what's puzzling me more is the fact that you have Magic Circuits. Otherwise, the rest of your family looks normal people to me. I can't sense any mana being used in this house other than what you're giving me right now."
"Oh." Arturia sighed. "I was actually raised by a family friend when my parents died. You could say that we're not actually relatives at all. My surviving paternal uncle is some sort of eccentric who didn't like children so I was shunted off to my father's best friend, but I didn't think…"
For a moment, Arturia felt Archer gravely look at her, but then he shrugged. "So you think that your uncle and your dad are Magi. That makes sense then."
Arturia nodded. "Because of my circumstances, I didn't really properly study magic. My uncle tried to teach me once when I was younger, but I'm afraid I didn't really see the point of it so I neglected my studies."
"Well, as long as your Magic Circuits are intact and functioning, maintaining me shouldn't be a problem… But if you don't know any functional magic, that could be a huge difficulty in the long run. There are times when we can be separated and have to act on our own, you see. A Master like yourself is practically a sitting duck." Archer cocked his head at her. Arturia can feel herself become indignant.
"I can fight."
Her quiet, determined voice made Archer smirk.
Arturia took a long cloth-covered bundle that was resting on brackets mounted on the wall. She unwrapped the cloth and took out a simple, elegant Japanese sword. "I can't bring this to school because of the rules, so normally I just use the practice swords in the dojo. However…" Archer saw a glint of cold steel as she slowly slid the sword out of its scabbard. "Kendo becomes surprisingly fatal when one does not play around."
Archer gave her a long, calculated look, which Arturia returned steadily. Finally, Archer sighed.
"You're a strange woman."
Archer laughed. "I meant what I meant. You're fundamentally different from the woman I knew—and yet you're very similar to her. Till now, I'm not sure if the world is just playing me for a fool."
"So, Archer, have you accepted me?"
"Yes." Archer held out his hand, and Arturia gingerly shook it. "The pact has been sealed."
"The last Master has already contracted with the Servant Archer." The overseer's voice was deep and echoing, and as he faced the empty church, he couldn't help but place a hand over his chest, as if one irresistibly toying with the scab of a long-healed wound.
"I see." The Servant suddenly materialized out of thin air, and the moonlight streaming through the window hit him square on his comely and proud face. On his hips, a pair of demonic swords was slung on each side, glinting with a subdued power. "My lady thanks you."
"Oh, no matter." Kotomine Kirei smiled. "Tell her that I send her my regards, Saber."