Disclaimer: I own nothing of Fate/Stay Night or its associated works.
Chapter 4 – Blades Drawn
Shirou chuckled nervously as he watched the Director take a few deep, deep breaths. Such exercises reminded him of the thrashing Rin used to visit him with…
"You're fucking kidding me, right?" Marie deadpanned, her hands twitching in a vaguely murderous way, her right eye twitching dangerously as she seriously contemplated blacking out again just to blast this stupid and ridiculous bone head with her best spell, "You're telling me, a third-rate magus, with no training, no history, no family-line, somehow managed to win the Holy Grail War and defeat one of the most powerful heroic spirits known to mankind? That you somehow turned into a Heroic Spirit equivalent in the future by becoming a Counter-Guardian with the ability to copy goddamned Noble Phantasms? And that Zelretch, the freaking Second, sent you here?"
"Uh…to be fair, it was really Rin who won the war," Shirou corrected, wincing at the death-glare that Marie sent his way. She took a deep breath, no doubt trying her best to not explode at the man in front of her, but it was very difficult. Marie began to mutter darkly to herself, gripping the sides of her head in frustration. Shirou grimaced in apology, having experienced many familiar responses from his lover.
"Um…so that's how you know what my shield was, Senpai?" Mash asked, her voice full of awe and respect, "Structural Analysis, right?"
"Yeah," Shirou replied, rubbing the back of his head in some embarrassment. It was such a basic Magus ability, but the way that Mash had stars in her eyes was enough to make even him embarrassed.
"Don't praise this idiotic idiot for doing idiotic things like an idiot!" Olga Marie railed, absolutely certain she had to use the same word four times just to get across how stupid her newest employee was, "His brain should be fried, and his body should be in pieces at this point! He should be a walking vegetable at this point!"
"No, she's right. I should have died a long time ago," Shirou answered truthfully, chuckling mirthlessly. Emiya Shirou should have died in that fire, but he had been saved. He had been helped every step along the way, and to this day, he hoped to someday honor everything he had received. "I've been very fortunate."
"Fortunate? More like destined," Cu Chulainn added with a small scoff, rubbing his temples in a bit of disbelief. He had seen some ridiculous things, hell even participated in some, but this was definitely up there in terms of crazy. "At least you know about this Grail War, right?"
"I know enough," the red-haired magus replied affirmatively, "You and Medusa confirmed what I had suspected. This Singularity is very similar to my own universe's version of events. There are only a few slight tweaks here and there, but the structure seems the same. Other than the sudden cataclysm…"
"No idea what caused that either," Cu said with a deep frown, clenching his fist at the fact that his Master had just been unceremoniously killed out of nowhere, "It seemed like a normal Holy Grail War. Then this shit happened. Have you learned anything from Lancer?"
Shirou shook his head, gesturing to the still unconscious woman in his lap. The curse that had turned Medusa into a corrupted Heroic Spirit had been cleansed completely by the Servant that was now living in his soul. It was a testament to her purification powers that even the surrounding area had been affected. However, the purple-haired Servant had yet to wake.
"What are the plans now?" Mash asked, "We're still not exactly sure what the cause of the singularity is."
"Actually," a familiar voice interjected, revealing the relieved face of Dr. Romani, "We are. You all almost gave me a heart attack with that battle by the way. I almost felt like I was going to faint when you disappeared for a second Emiya-san." Fou also began to yip in response, clearly worried for his adopted child. "With Emiya-san's story, we've confirmed that the origin of this singularity is without a doubt the Holy Grail. If you manage to retrieve it, the singularity should re-align itself with the timeline and self-correct."
"We're sure now?" Marie asked, some concern in her voice, "Wouldn't the Grail dissipate if it was used to corrupt the time period?" A granted wish would use up all the stored energy of the Grail, and it would disappear back into the metaphysical realm until the system began again.
"That's just the thing…We're almost certain that the Grail has been manifested. The wish hasn't been used, but it's being used as a conduit to sustain the destabilization of this time period along with the corruption there." The Director frowned in worry.
"But who…or what would have the power and knowledge to directly manipulate the Grail System in such a way? It took the three families to first even conceive of the system, and hundreds of magi and decades of work. Not to mention the use of Magic," Marie wondered, feeling the danger spike at the revelation that they were facing an enemy that was not only strong enough to manipulate the Grail, but was able to use it to wipe out humanity in a single afternoon. The depth of planning and knowledge required was mindboggling.
"We don't know," Romani answered seriously, clearly frustrated, "And there's not much I can do to help either. We're all flying in blind here, and it's really only thanks to Emiya-san's timely arrival that we've managed to get this far." Olga knew that all too well. She wouldn't be alive either without his intervention…
"There's nothing to do but keep moving forward," Shirou answered resolutely, doing his best to ignore the exhaustion plaguing his body. He was already planning for future encounters with the enemy Servants but would need to check with Caster to see if his strategies would hold up. "For now, we need to rest and regroup." While he had new skills and powers from Zelretch's fusion, his entire body felt like lead. Even if he had the knowledge, he was still just a human in the end.
The rest of them agreed, and with Caster deciding to start the watch, Shirou found himself drifting off to sleep, his hand still tangled in the mess of purple hair on his lap.
Stirring, Shirou knew he had yet to really wake in the real world, finding himself back in the mismatched room of the small cottage in his soul. Some anxiousness filled his mind as he recognized the presence of only one other possible being in the room with him. His previous experience of being forcibly taken over by the woman left a bad taste in his mouth. Even if it had achieved what he wanted, it was still a lingering worry hanging over him.
Swinging himself up from the comfy couch, which he still found absolutely ridiculous, Shirou stared at the tailed woman patiently sitting at the kotatsu in front of the television, idly flipping through the channels of his life-story…or stories. Zelretch's infusion of his other selves made for some interesting storytelling at least. He watched in silence, awaiting the Servant's first move.
"Do you believe the soul is infinite?" the fox woman asked out of the blue, "Does it remember everything that has ever happened to it? Or does it discard needless memories and experiences to maintain itself?" On the screen, that accursed fire raged, the sounds of suffering and cries of pain echoing darkly in the small room, even if it was a mere memory. He looked away, staring out the window at the moon overhead.
"I can't say I know," Shirou admitted easily. The woman snorted, almost derisively.
"You should know more than most," Ruler answered, her tails swishing a bit more in agitation, "Though that foolish vampire surely didn't. Or perhaps he did, which makes it all the more heinous…"
"What do you mean?" he asked, a bit hesitantly, "I haven't felt any really bad effects yet. Other than the memories…" She laughed ruefully, turning around, her eyes piercing as she stood regally, strolling out of the house, her tails beckoning him to follow. He followed, ready to back outside where he could feel the call of his blades.
The moon came back into full view, glowing softly in the sky with the stars. The light breeze was comforting, and the two stared out past the vast expanse of rice-fields glinting with steel.
Bending down the fox woman lightly caressed one blade of swaying rice, before abruptly yanking it from the ground where it stood. Shirou stared, confused. She twiddled the blade in her hand, humming contemplatively before carefully placing it back down where it magically reattached itself into the clear waters. Shirou suddenly flinched, feeling as if someone had stabbed him with a needle in the arm
Shirou could only stare, some comprehension dawning in his eyes, and with it, came fear.
"Do you now feel it Emiya Shirou? Every glade here filled with blades, steel and not, are yours," she sated with a wave of her hand, her golden eyes conveying the severity of what she had just revealed, "Imagine that feeling, and magnify it by millions." He shuddered.
"Any normal human would have died from it within hours. A soul is meant to carry only one set of memories, dreams and pains. Yet that vampire saw it fit to fit you with hundreds, if not thousands of souls, each a slightly different copy of your own." Shirou had no doubt that the only reason he'd had a chance to survive was due to his compatibility.
She plucked another rice grain, offering it to her host. Hesitantly, Shirou grabbed it.
Instantly, he was assaulted by memories of another Shirou. Having lost his arm in the Holy Grail War, he had been grafted the arm of Archer, a spiritual entity. The pain had been intense and so dangerous that Kirei Kotomine had seen it fit to gift him with the Shroud of Martin to mitigate the pain and encroachment of Archer's psyche. The burning sensation was exactly the same.
He growled, swearing that he was going to stab that bastard vampire a few hundred times with Black Keys the next time he ran into him.
"Then how am I alive?" he asked. He should have been nothing more than a pile of blood and swords now. If only the spiritual entity of one Heroic Spirit who was also coincidentally himself was enough to make him feel like he was dying every time in another universe…
Holding her hand out, Shirou paused in confusion. Returning the blade of memory, he watched in awe as she began to chant, the blade of grass transforming into a seed. Carefully, she lowered herself and tenderly planted the seed into the muddy ground, her chant continuing. Seconds later, the blade sprouted and returned to swaying in the wind with its brothers.
He hadn't felt a thing.
"Because of you," he stated, bewildered and amazed, "You planted…this? All of this? By hand!?" Ruler simply nodded.
"It is the natural way. And the only way," she answered seriously, "The Vampire is lucky that my particular set of skills was suited to helping you. Though I suspect the cur knew that." Shirou stared, trying to figure out who the mysterious Servant who had saved him could possibly be. There weren't many that were known to have fox ears and tails….
"Who are you?" he finally managed to ask, feeling his soul shudder at the question. The air stilled as the woman regarded him intensely, as if judging if he was worthy. While he had always felt confident in the confines of his Bladeworks, he knew the truth now.
It was no longer just his own soul.
"For better or for worse, I am now tied to you for eternity, Emiya Shirou," the woman answered softly, looking off into the distance, remembering something painful, "Why did I decide to save you…Even I do not fully understand." The sword-magus kept quiet, feeling the somber and serious air around them. "I am not the true face. I am but a facet, yet her desires echo just as strongly even now, thousands of years later…" She sighed uncertainly. Then she turned to face the red-haired magus, her expression searching.
"My origin is Tamamo no Mae, the accursed fox-priestess chosen by Amaterasu, the Monster of Japan slain in the golden fields of Nasu. The Original, cursed herself, and shed her nine-tails into the ether as repentance. I am the ninth tail, the one that caused her to ascend into the realm of divinity."
Shirou blanched. He now had a greater understanding of the sheer depth of power that Ruler possessed. Divine Spirits were said to be almost impossible to summon into reality, mainly due to their nature as being higher beings. They were forces of the Earth that could not be tamed. If she had so wished, Shirou had no doubt that she could have taken over his soul and body in an instant.
He suddenly froze as an assault of memories entered his consciousness. A Nameless Archer, a criminal in the eyes of the world, dying to betrayal and nuclear fire... He became a Hero just as he died, reappearing to a girl who would become his Master, even going to far as to develop an affection for the girl. Images of the Mooncell, a Red Saber, Nero, and Tamamo filled his mind.
"My name is Tamamo no Hime, the unrecognized princess of Japan, Earth and Heaven," Hime said, her power flaring as light like the sun illuminated the fields, reflecting off the water and blades of rice, "I am the tail of pride, the tail that represents divinity and Amaterasu's will. I am Servant Ruler." Then she kneeled down on the ground, bowing deeply in a dogeza. Shirou stared.
"I ask that you take care of me well, Husband."
Shirou awoke with a gasp, feeling numb as he came back to the real world, almost missing the softness underneath his head and the hand that was tenderly raking through his hair. He stared up at the soft expression of Medusa, unhappy that her face seemed to suddenly morph into doubt.
"Is it uncomfortable?" she murmured, holding up her left hand which had been transformed into a claw. It hurt to watch her familiar face, usually serene and confident, look so unsure. Shirou didn't like it.
"It's lovely," he answered honestly, having completely forgotten about the fact that her hands had been transformed after the battle. A small flitting of red flashed across her cheeks, but it was clear that Medusa was pleased.
Neither of them said another word, both of them deciding to enjoy the other's company. For Shirou, it was nice to see a familiar face again, and his memories from another life filled him with affection for the usually quiet woman.
Lancer was overcome with emotion. She wanted nothing more than to take her Master away and keep him safe forever. She had watched him die once already, but to know that he had somehow come back and had saved her filled her darkened heart with joy. He wasn't exactly the same, but he was Emiya Shirou. It was enough, and the familiarity in his gaze made her extremely happy.
Shirou was thinking though. He held back his urge to sigh a bit as he recalled what he had just learned inside of his now-shared soul.
Rin was going to murder him.
"You two lovebirds done yet?" an amused voice asked as he entered the makeshift shelter they had set up, "I'm a guy too you know. I'll get jealous." Cu sat down on the nearest pile of debris, smirking at the way that Medusa continued to comb through Shirou's hair without a care in the world. "Damn. If I'd have known you were such an attentive lover, I'd have made a pass sooner." Medusa glared, debating whether or not to turn Caster into a rock.
"Are Mash and the Director up?" Shirou asked, sitting up, much to the dislike of his current caretaker. She didn't complain though. It wasn't her place.
"A few minutes ago, actually. I'd stay clear of the little spitfire for a little bit longer. She's still ranting to poor shield-girl that you're a cheat. Your little Kohai had to take her out for a walk," he said with a chuckle. It had been rather amusing to watch the girl tirade to the patient but also scared Demi-Servant from her back. "Though she may be a bit upset because I insinuated that she'd rather seduce you for your secrets rather than kill you."
Shirou groaned, rubbing his temples tiredly. He had forgotten how much of a pain in the ass Cu Chulainn really could be sometimes. The man loved only three things, sex, battle and messing with people. Fishing was a close fourth…
"What are our plans for the rest of the Servants?" Shirou asked. Now that Lancer was awake, he could figure out who the Servants in this war were and if they lined up with his reality. He needed to confirm their identities. "Let's start with…Assassin? Know anything about them?"
"No idea. Supposedly he died really early in an attack against Berserker. Some dude with a skull mask." Cu answered, frowning.
"He's absolutely not dead then," Shirou insisted, looking around reflexively, "If everything lines up with what I know. The assassin is Hassan-I-Sabbah of the Cursed Arm. We need to be careful, he killed both Caster, who was one of the strongest mages ever, and her Master, an experienced assassin in one of my timelines…"
"Ehh, he's just an Assassin. What's the worst he could do?"
"In that universe, he killed you, when you were a Lancer," Shirou replied seriously, watching as the amusement dropped from his temporarily-contracted Servant, "He possesses the ability to create and manipulate a fake heart of his opponent. Then he curses and crushes it, causing the real one to be destroyed in an instant." Medusa and Cu stared, both unnerved by the sheer lethality of such an ability.
"Well shit," Cu replied, grimacing. If he had lost in his strongest summonable state, then his chances were much lower than he had expected. The ability sounded a lot like Gae Bolg, and it likely had the same weaknesses. He'd have to stay out of range if he ever found himself in a fight with Assassin. There was no way in hell he was relying on his luck.
"Let's just list em off," Caster said, not wanting to hear more ways they were likely going to die, "Tell us who was in the war you were in." Shirou nodded.
"Caster was Medea of Colchis. Rider was you, Medusa. Berserker was Heracles. Saber was…Arthur Pendragon. And Archer was myself from an alternate future where I became a Counter Guardian." They would have commented on the implausibility of that last sentence, but Medusa's defeat was enough to sway them.
Cu let off a monumental sigh embedded in his curse.
"Well fuck," the Celtic Hero conceded, "If your Grail War matches with this one…we're not looking so good. Heracles…King Arthur…"
"Medea was the most dangerous of them all," Shirou said with a frown, remembering that witch's abilities and what she had done to them, "Her ability as a magus from the Age of the Gods wasn't just a title. She cheated the system herself by summoning her own Servant, even if he was degraded. She could also steal Servants." He didn't hate her per say, and there were plenty of universes where they were friends. However, he couldn't forget what she had done to him in his own universe. The pure pain in his Servant's eyes still haunted him to this day.
"What did she look like by the way?"
"Petite. Sky-blue Hair. Similarly, colored eyes. Distinct set of elfish ears. Relatively short." Shirou described.
"Damn," Cu cursed, combing his hand through his hair, "It's definitely her then. She's Rider in this War. No idea what her mount is though."
"And the others?" Shirou pressed.
"If your future self is a dark-skinned asshole with bleached hair, then yeah it's you. Saber's a girl though so it's prob..."
"It is Saber…I mean King Arthur," Shirou cut off, unable to keep the fondness out of his voice.
"She was your Servant, wasn't she?" Lancer asked, feeling just a bit jealous. Unable to lie, Shirou nodded. Lancer gripped his waist in response, feeling a bit possessive all of a sudden.
"That big mass of muscle must be Heracles then…which is all of them," Cu continued, ignoring his fellow Servant's actions, more pressed on the new information that had come to light. It wasn't looking good for them honestly. The legends surrounding all of them were extremely well-known, other than Archer's. However, he had just watched his alternate-self take on a Beast and win, so counting him out was just asking to die. "I have to be honest kid, this is looking grimmer that I would like."
"There's no other choice," Shirou said with a sigh, "We can only continue. It's the only way to end this."
Marie and Mash didn't take very well to the new information. Mash was wringing her hands nervously as she mentally tried to prepare herself. While she was confident she would one day be an excellent Servant for Shirou, it was an undeniable fact that she, right now, was inexperienced and relatively weak. She could only pray that her Master would be able to see them through the oncoming trials.
Marie was having a lot of trouble trying to stomach the fact that she was going to go up against figures of legend with powers beyond her comprehension. Having first-hand experience now with the volume of destructive power that a single Servant could possess, she was wary to have to potentially fight five more. Just thinking about how easily they could die sent her into a panic.
Their trek was silent as they delved deeper into the city, the threat of battle looming over them more potent than the thickening smoke overhead. Despite their early victory, all of them knew that their trial had only just begun.
Shirou lead the group, feeling on edge as they neared the heart of the city. The monsters had increased in strength and abundance notably, and every building they passed was a potential nest of necromantic monsters waiting to pounce. Luckily, with an effective count of basically four Servants, their way forward was smooth enough.
"So, find anything new about that Servant you're hosting?" Cu asked out of nowhere as he batted away another charging band of skeletons, incinerating their remains promptly after. Shirou was quiet, unsure of what he was comfortable with revealing. While he didn't necessarily distrust any of his companions, Shirou felt as if it wasn't his place to tell Hime's story.
"Why?" he asked as they continued through the streets, keeping an eye on all the possible locations that he would have attempted to snipe from. His ears were trained on the characteristic whizzing sound of his favored long-range attack. Archer wouldn't give them a second to waste.
"Just curious. She felt a lot like my pops. Divine and whatnot…" Caster revealed lazily before a smirk appeared on his face, "Plus she was a real looker." Shirou coughed.
"You know it'd still be Emiya inside, right?" Marie asked with a quirked eyebrow. Cu shrugged.
"If they look good, why care? I sure didn't when I was alive," he said with a boisterous laugh, "Don't worry though. I'll let you have the first round with him alright?" Marie's entire face lit up immediately. Lancer growled, standing ever so closer to her Master, her gold tail hovering just over his backside protectively.
"Shut up!" Olga hissed, her entire face pink, "I swear to the Root that…"
"So, you're telling me if that if Emiya over there offered his secrets, all his secrets, for sex, you wouldn't take it?" Cu asked brazenly, an evil smirk on his face as he saw the conflict pass through Marie's eyes. As a magus, even one as unorthodox as her, she would be out of her mind to refuse. Any magus wouldn't be caught dead turning down unknown knowledge and an untapped advantage.
And unfortunately for Marie, it was enough to make her face even redder as she seriously considered the hypothetical question. Caster laughed.
"That's enough, Caster," Shirou scolded, decidedly uncomfortable with where this talk was heading. He did not want to think about the potential consequences of such a strange conversation.
"I say we just get rid of him," Lancer said with an undisguised glare, "It would be more merciful to put down diseased dogs."
The laughter and banter were a welcome change to the gloomy and inescapably dark environment that the group had found themselves in. However, Shirou knew it wasn't going to last. As they entered the main heart of the dilapidated city, the air choked with even denser malice. He felt sick as he noted the thick layer of ash that covered every single surface of the once-beautiful city, the remains of all that lived there once.
His ears heard it just in time, jumping back as a sword embedded itself into the ground with a clean stab, as if the Earth offered no resistance to the steel. Shirou looked up, finding exactly who he had known would come.
On top of the highest tower, a lone man stood, his face impassive as a large black bow was held in his hands. However, Shirou couldn't help but notice his lack of action. Archer wouldn't have hesitated to blow them all up with Caladbolg II, an attack of his own making. Yet, he had only fired a simple sword at his feet. Tracing told him it was nothing more than an ordinary blade made in the twentieth century by some relatively unknown smith in Europe.
Shirou held up his hand to stop his comrades, noting their tense faces. The Servants had likely sensed the attack, but Mash and Marie were more than on edge as the sword disappeared into blue motes of light.
"That's him," Shirou confirmed as Lancer and Caster readied themselves for battle. With some trepidation, he watched the Servant of the Bow jump from his position, landing gracefully right in front of them, his face empty. "EMIYA."
"So, you do remember," the man snarked, his face grim as he folded his arms, "Leave brat."
"You're not affected?" Lancer asked, her brows quirked in surprise, "Then you know what has been done to the Grail." Archer growled, his fingers flexing noticeably around intangible blades.
"Of course, I know, but I have been infected," he pointed out, tilting his head at the slight wisps of black that were leaking from his shoulder, "I'm not stupid, but even I have my limits. I was forced with a contract."
"Rule Breaker?" Shirou pointed out with a stare, knowing that it was one of their shared trump cards.
"You think it's so easy?" Archer spat out, irritation on his face as he thought of his proverbial chains, all of them, "The corruption is deep. The being that caused all of this to happen is powerful, stronger than you have ever faced, kid." Weariness seemed to encapsulate his entire body as he stared down the group of Heroes. "I've tried to escape you know. But I'm sure you know how well my attempts at getting out of unbreakable contracts are." His voice was dry, but even Shirou could feel the pain in his voice. Despite all of their differences, Archer was Emiya Shirou.
"Then how come you're not attacking?" Caster asked, suspicious. Archer had never been one for chivalry. Sneak attacks, poisons, long range attacks in the dead of night…they were all on the table for the ruthless Servant.
"I promised her," Archer answered, an unhappy expression on his face as he was reminded.
"Rin?" Shirou asked. EMIYA didn't even listen to her on a good day. Hell, he had betrayed her explicitly in multiple different universes. True to his assumptions, Archer scoffed, a wry expression on his face.
"Hardly," he answered, "I would have killed you all where you stood if I had my way. Leave. Find another way to the Grail." He began to turn around, uncaring of how his enemies would react.
Caster, however, stared at the invisible line that Archer had drawn, and with a bold step, passed it. Instantly, he ducked, finding the sharp zing of metal whizzing through the air in his ears, the White Married Blade barely missing his head.
"So, you are compelled," Caster said, observing the eruption of black miasma from Archer's shoulder and arms. The Servant grit his teeth, willing his body to obey him once again. With noticeable effort, the black mist began to dissipate, leaving the bowman in control of his body once more. He frowned. "A different form of control but controlled nonetheless. A gatekeeper of sorts perhaps."
Cu had an inkling that any other way to the Grail would be fraught with traps, monsters and likely any other number of hindrances that would prevent them from realistically reaching the Holy Cup. It would be like telling a human to climb to the top of a mountain, starting from inside of it and digging up. Essentially impossible…
"Do you want us to leave, Archer?" Shirou asked, his eyes sharp as he stared at the slightly shaking form of his alternate self. Never had he ever seen the infuriating man allow himself to show such weakness. Even when he was suffering and dying, he would continue to fight, resolute in his purpose. Archer stared at the mirror image of his younger self and smirked, his hollow, pained eyes conveying his wishes.
"Do whatever you want, you misguided fool," he said, shaking his head. Two pairs of Bakuya and Kanshou appeared.
Then, they stepped over.
We're back at it. Been prepping this one for a while but had to figure out how to break up the fact that the first singularity doesn't really allow for much side-stuff. It's basically, one fight after the other in a place basically equivalent to hell after all…
Anyways, we're getting on to it soon. Hopefully, I can deliver some good action scenes and story for the upcoming Archer fight.
Thanks for reading and reviewing!
-Woona the Cat
P.S. Also a great shout out to everyone whose favorited, followed and reviewed. I'm amazed and humbled by the support. Hope to keep you all on in the future! And a belated Happy Thanksgiving.