Apologies for the wait. Hope everyone is safe and healthy during this pandemic.
Beta-ed by Draconic
Huh. As far magus lairs went, Millennia Citadel wasn't half bad. Sure the resplendent portraits of the various clan members and intricate tapestries beside them were a bit gaudy, but compared to some of the ones she'd seen that looked like they'd been pulled out of some horror movie, she couldn't say it was a poor choice. An impressive looking disguise for anyone coming to look at the upper levels while the actual mage matters (and likely the horror movie aspects) could be secluded in the workshops below.
Just as her new ally promised, the homunculi guards did not attack her or stop her. Indeed, once their female counterpart explained Sieg's intention (as well as the reason for his noticeable absence), they silently slid in line behind them. Before long, the homunculi liberators were marching down to the basement to save their kin.
Meanwhile, Rin strode down a different hall, purposefully doing nothing to hide her mystical signature as she followed her ally's directions to the Greater Grail room. Her quest served a dual purpose. One, gaining control of the wish maker was an advantage no side in the war could afford to pass up. And two, an enemy master in a faction's home base wasn't a threat Yggdmillennia could afford to ignore. Their focus on her would allow the homunculi time to free their fellows.
Though, by the time she was surrounded by empty medieval knight armors, being threatened by antiques with longswords coated in cursed glyphs, she was beginning to wonder if she'd have to use a Command Seal and summon Saber to her side to survive this plunge.
She ducked under a slash from one of the armors and flooded her body with reinforcement magic. Once she'd balanced her muscles right on the edge of what they could handle, she shot forward like a bullet, the first steel relic crumbling like papier-mache under her blow. Bastard he may have been, Kirei hadn't shirked his duties when it came to teaching her magecraft or Bajiquan. Aside from Luvia, ape that she was, there weren't many non-Servants who could take more than one blow from her if she was really trying.
The other armors rushed forward to slash at her back, but she was too fast. She leapt forward after her first foe and escaped the range of their blades. Twisting in midair, she angled herself to the side and bounded off the wall, leaving a crater in her wake. With a sweep of her enhanced leg, the suits were turned to scrap metal.
"Really? Cursed armor?" Rin called. "Everyone said you were depraved, Celenike, but they never mentioned you were tacky."
"Impudent little whore!"
Ah, there she was. When facing a sadistic, egotistical prick, trash-talk was quite helpful in getting them to reveal their position. Celenike stomped out from one of the halls, her riding crop curled back in her hands, a crimson mist of gandr curse churning around its tip.
"Oh look," Rin smirked. "Darnic let the goblin out of her cell."
"You trollop!" Celenike frothed. "You! You infected my Rider with your heroic idiocy!"
Rin cocked an eyebrow. "If you think I could infect Rider with anything, you're even more insane than he is."
"… okay, I guess you are more insane than he is. Don't you think, Gordes?"
"What?!" the pudgy alchemist exclaimed, leaping away from Rin's back where he'd been creeping up. "How did you do that?"
Rin rolled her eyes. As if she could have missed his thunderous footsteps. "A ninja, you are not."
"You… you… don't talk down to me, Tohsaka!" Gordes roared, his fists rising into a boxer's stance. "Your pets aren't here to protect you!"
"And if you were a Servant, that would be a problem," Rin replied. She was perfectly aware of her own limitations. She had more combat experience than any of Yggdmillennia except maybe Darnic. Add to that the utter madness that Zelretch's training had pushed her physical, mental, and mystical abilities to, and she was confident that she could go toe-to-toe with the Clocktower's best. Something the majority of the Black Faction were not.
Gordes fumed, but he was able to keep enough of his wits about him to hold back. Hotheaded he might be, he was well aware that she had seen his best during his skirmish with Shirou. And if she was so noticeably unworried, that meant he couldn't just charge in screaming and expect her to die.
Rin sighed, completely unsurprised when Gordes's eyes widened, and his metal arms rose in front of his face. She herself whirled around and dropped to the floor, a barrage of gandr flicking over her head.
Evidentially Celenike was not so wise. What a surprise.
The cackling dominatrix swung her crop down the hall again and again, ramshackle, half-baked, but still deadly, gandr bolts bounding off the walls. "I'll cut your veins open and flay your muscles apart string by string! And as Rider weeps over his precious toy homunculus, I'll make him plunge his hand into your chest and rip out your heart!"
"He has Rank EX Magic Resistance and you only have one Command Seal!" Rin shouted, plucking a jewel from her bag just in case she needed a shield, though so far her reinforced limbs had been sufficient to dodge the attacks. "You aren't going to be able to make him do anything!"
"That's your issue with this!?" Gordes screamed, ducking behind the ruined armors while using his metal arms to deflect gandr. "Damn it! I'm right here, you crazy bitch! We're on the same side!"
Well, that bit of information clearly wasn't relevant to her. And since Siegfried's master seemed to be straining himself just to survive, it seemed to fall on her to put the world out of its misery with this disgusting madwoman. And show her how to fire a gandr that didn't dissipate five seconds after it was fired. Seriously, that was just sloppy craft and it insulted her to witness it.
She tossed her jewel in front of her. "Gunda."
A slip of prana flickered through her circuits, the incantation serving its purpose to direct which pattern to use. In turn, the bit of power triggered the far more substantial stockpile with the gem, blossoming the stone into a rectangular shield that covered her for over a foot on either side.
Celenike snarled and fired off another round of bolts, but she froze when her magic didn't even scratch the jewel shield. Her crazed eyes widened when Rin raised her arm, a far more solid bullet of black and red at her fingertip.
"How about a taste of a real curse," Rin glared, a small window opening up in her emerald screen. She braced with her another arm to ensure accuracy and the gandr shot towards the bitch's forehead.
Where it was promptly deflected by a robotic arm.
Rin couldn't keep her disappointment from her face. "Really? For her?"
Fiore twirled into the hallway, held aloft in some four-limbed mechanical apparatus. She took a deep breath and glared at Rin, her soft blue eyes attempting to imitate hard sapphire. It wasn't the most threatening look the jewel mage had ever received, but Kirei and Gilgamesh were stiff competition. And given the knowledge that someone who could actually compete with her as a mage had arrived, the entire situation had just become quite a bit trickier.
"Mars! Jupiter! Attack!"
Rin waved her hand and sealed the hole in her shield. No sooner had the green energy repaired itself than the upper arms of the enemy's apparatus had taken aim and launched a barrage of prana bullets at the barrier. The magecraft held fast, but unlike with Celenike's assault, the concentrated fire began to splinter small cracks in the defense.
The jewel mage growled. Her barrier was powerful but not invincible. Back during her duel with Illya, she'd used three jewels to build her defense and the homunculus girl had still shattered it in a single shot.
Fortunately, few people had the sheer prana capacity of the late Lady Einzbern, and while Fiore's shots were making headway, they were not up to the strength of Illya's sword familiar. If Rin acted quickly, she would have more than enough time for a counterattack. And if she did it right, she could wipe out both her opponents in one move.
She knelt down to the floor, lowering her shield so that it covered her completely. She pressed her palm to the ground, her magic circuits flaring along her arm.
"Das SchlieBen," she incanted. "Vogelkafig… Echo!"
Red sparks crackled between her fingertips. Between her shield and her enemies, a circular crimson seal emerged and radiated out a wave of energy. The pulse encased the hall from a few feet behind Rin to either end of the branching path to the right and left of Celenike and Fiore.
The latter mage's eyes widened. "A bounded field! Celenike, you need to take this down—"
"Die, you wretched whore!"
Rin smirked. The field she'd cast would contain her foes, but the trade-off for its quick casting time was that it wasn't particularly complex. A competent mage, especially one well-versed in curses like Celenike supposedly was, would be able to take it down easily enough, though they would need their allies to cover their back as they did so. With Fiore and her mystic code to run interference, it should have been a close thing if the containment would remain up long enough for the Tohsaka head to initiate her plans for it.
But despite having nearly had her head perforated but a moment ago, Celenike still had a one-track mind. Perhaps her crazed mind had been reinvigorated by seeing the jewel shield crack, as she had gone back to raining down gandr after gandr with her riding crop. She wasn't even trying to go around the barrier and flank Rin, she just kept blasting the barrier with the same spell expecting it to suddenly cave.
Huh. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Guess she really was insane.
Didn't really matter. If she wasn't taking down Rin's bounded field, the Tohsaka head could still use it for her coup de grace. The containment would serve as the passageway for her attack.
She wished she didn't have to kill Fiore. Celenike was a crazy bitch who's death was necessary to free Astolfo from her final mad command but, for all accounts, the older Forvedge was a good kid. Rin had put her life on the line to save Shinji of all people, she certainly didn't want to kill someone who might actually be a kind soul just to save it.
But it wasn't just her relying on this mission. If she fell, Saber would fade away without a master and Shirou would be majorly handicapped without her prana support. Not to mention the homunculus rebellion would be swiftly crushed. She could not afford to die here. She needed to win.
So, she would.
Son of a bitch!
Rin glanced behind her, eyes wide. Gordes in the midst of launching a metal punch straight at her face, rushed forward. She'd measured the bounded field so that he would be trapped outside, but he had clearly run in before the cage could close. How had he moved so quickly?!
No matter. Metal or not, his arms were stubby, while her legs were long.
She whipped out her leg from her crouch and launched a reinforcement boosted kick straight for Gordes' chest.
Only for her foot to connect with a distinctive clang. And quite a bit of pain!
The source was instantly obvious, as underneath Gordes' obliterated jacket appeared his pectoral muscles. His completely metal reinforced pectoral muscles.
What the hell? Changing the composition of his arms was one thing, but he was barely an inch from his lungs! If he messed with those, if he overshot the spell at all, he'd suffocate himself. What could drive him to even attempt something so ridiculous?
Rin hastily raised her arm, a gandr forming at her fingertip. Gordes, having never even stopped to smirk, paled. His hands had already been reaching for her leg, probably intending to snap it in two, but with her attack incoming, he had no time.
He gripped her leg and hurled her to the side. Rin fired her shot, but the force of the throw compromised her aim. Her target had been her enemy's head, but the spell went wild and struck the alchemist's shoulder instead. The attack blasted Gordes back, the mustached man spinning out and smashing into the wall of the bounded field.
Not that Rin could capitalize on that opening. She reinforced her back with everything she had, but she still struck the side of the hall hard enough to splinter the wall beneath her. She hacked up a cough of spittle and sagged against the stone, her muscles voicing their immense displeasure.
Still, she pushed on, clawing her arm towards her and bringing her jewel shield over before her only half a second before Celenike realigned her barrage on Rin's new location.
Fiore's mystic code adjusted its aim as well, but the Forvedge mage did not limit her tactics to just that.
"Saturn! Charge!" she commanded. "Jupiter! Crush!"
The lower legs of the mystic code stomped forward, its claws breaking into the masonry and stampeding across the wall! Rin's eyes barely had time to widen before Fiore was upon her. With no time to speak the incantation of her trap, Tohsaka's hand wrapped itself around another jewel.
One of Fiore's upper arms lunged out and smashed through the sundered shield, Rin barely moving her head to the side in time to avoid getting her skull crushed as the metal claw crashed through the stone beside her. She'd have to time her counter perfectly, or she was dead.
As long as the mechanical arm was stuck through the hole in the shield, Fiore's assault avenue was limited. The Forvedge mage was powerful, but she wasn't an experienced combatant. She would take the most straightforward path to attack, pulling back her metal appendage to either get room for another strike or open the way for a prana bullet barrage. But in that brief moment of windup, the hole in the shield would be open.
The limb retracted. The gap opened. And Rin threw her gem through.
However, Fiore's limbs reacted instantly, not even requiring a command. The upper arm flicked through the air and swatted the jewel behind and away from its master.
It was an impressive display, a better defensive reaction time than even Lord El-Melloi's Volumen Hydragyrum, a surprise given that so far Rin would have called Fiore's mystic code inferior on the offensive. Of course, she had anticipated the possibility of the attack being deflected.
Fiore's eyes widened, the glowing light of the jewel she'd knocked away reaching her vision. The young girl bounded off the wall and threw herself over Gordes who was still groaning on the floor, her mechanical arms covering both of them. Rin seized the opportunity to snatch another gem from her storage, creating a new shield under her compromised one.
Celenike kept laughing, unleashing more and more gandr from her crop, her senses completely lost. She ignored the shining blue light Rin's jewel cast over her.
Rin was gifted as a mage for many reasons, but one of the most obvious was that she had a rare affinity for all five of the great elements that compromised the magical world: water, fire, earth, wind, and ether. Such natural talent in theory allowed her to cast just about any spell there was. However, her father had been an expert in flame magecraft. And despite some of the resentment that had built up in recent years, she was still a bit of a daddy's girl.
The jewel detonated and the hall was engulfed in a raucous inferno. Closest to the flames and without defense, Celenike burned first, consumed by the blaze.
The rest of the hall followed suit, Rin and Fiore bracing their defenses as the blast crashed them into the border of the bounded field.
If Sieg had just been fighting Siegfried, he wouldn't have survived ten seconds.
Despite the fact that the Dead Count Shapeshifter Command Seals gave him the same body as his rescuer, they did not endow Sieg his benefactor's skill. The instincts trained into the muscles, yes, but not the technique of one of the greatest swordsmen in history. And given he'd only survived as long as he did against Saber of Red by relying on the Armor of Fafnir, that did not bode well for his chances in this encounter.
He'd considered trying to replicate his earlier strategy, but those thoughts were dashed when an early slash from Siegfried had barely clipped his shoulder. What should have been a minor injury instead sent enough pain through Sieg's nerves that for a moment he'd thought he'd lost the arm.
The Armor of Fafnir was made from the essence of the great dragon Fafnir. Which Siegfried had killed using Balmung. Whatever hungry instinct the sword had held for the Pendragons was only amplified in the presence of its original prey, the draconic protection useless against the greatsword's edge. And given Sieg was quite helpless to do anything more than block, at best, that was significantly more of a handicap for him than his opponent. As he'd said before, if he had been fighting Siegfried alone, he wouldn't have lasted ten seconds.
Astolfo's presence was, ironically enough, the only thing keeping Sieg alive. Not that he was defending him, the Command Seal orders on him kept the Paladin of Charlemagne just as lethally inclined towards the homunculus as his fellow Servant of Black, no matter how much he might wish otherwise. However, a key factor in those orders was that Astolfo was to be the one to end Sieg's life. He couldn't hang back and just let Siegfried slaughter him, he had to strike the killing blow.
Thus, the mountless rider charged in over and over again, disrupting Siegfried's rhythm and getting in the way of the dragon slayer's advances and footwork. In theory, he could have just cut through them both, but the Germanic hero would never sacrifice an ally just to get to an enemy. Therefore, he restricted himself to perhaps a third of the attacks he could have been making, a far easier amount for Sieg to handle than the rain of blows that could have been striking him. The attacks that Astolfo did launch were easily brushed aside, both due to his lance being ill-suited to close range and, Sieg suspected, Rider fighting against the seals with every scrap of will he had. The situation was not a favorable one, but it was a scenario that could be maintained until backup arrived.
And wasn't that a surprise. When Sieg had wielded his Servant form against Mordred, he'd felt like he'd had to struggle every moment to maintain Siegfried's body, even his enormous reserves bring taxed by the effort. But now, for some reason, the burden had slackened, spent prana being replaced at an astounding rate.
Were his circuits acclimating to the transformation? Or did it have something to do with Rin healing him from Frankenstein's lightning? He didn't know enough about magecraft to know for sure. Or for how much longer his good fortune would maintain his form—
Astolfo suddenly gasped out in pain. He collapsed to his knees, his lance tumbling to the ground.
Both Sieg and Siegfried's eyes widened. Neither man lowered their swords, but they pulled back from each other, concerned for the other Servant's sudden drop.
"Rider! What's wrong?" Saber of Black asked. "Are you injured?"
"Do you need help?" Sieg inquired. He only recalled that he and Rider were technically enemies after he'd spoken, but he still couldn't help it. So many people had helped him gain his freedom, but ultimately none of them would have mattered if Astolfo hadn't decided that a random homunculus he'd run into in the hallway deserved to be saved.
Now, that same manic, cheerful hero was cringing on the ground. "Eh, sort of. It's a good news, bad news situation. Good news, apparently Master just died, so that means her Command Seals lose effect, so I don't have to kill you anymore!"
"Oh, that's wonderful," Sieg replied, already terrified about how he was going to survive an unburdened Siegfried, but jubilant that his friend wouldn't be forced to fight against his will. "And the bad news?"
Rider's body began to glimmer with blue sparks, his flesh dissolving into nothingness.
Astolfo sighed. "My master's dead and I don't have Independent Action. Well, I do have Independent Action, but it's only Rank B and I've gotten beaten up a lot tonight, so I don't have enough magical energy left to stay in this world even with it."
"What? No!" Sieg shouted. He knew that logically he should be thrilled that an enemy master and Servant pair had been defeated, but Rider… this couldn't be how his story here ended. Could it?
"Saber," Astolfo said, forcing a smile onto his face. "I know I gave you a lot of grief over it, but thanks for giving him your heart. Thanks for helping me save him."
Siegfried bowed his head. "It was my honor. Both to do that, and to know you, my friend."
"Isn't there some way to help?" Sieg pleaded. "I didn't want either of you to die for me, and I certainly don't now!"
Rider merely chuckled. "Ah, Sieg, you're still learning. We're on opposite sides of a war. If you want to live, you've got to want us to die instead of you."
"I don't accept that!"
"Doesn't matter if you accept it. It's true. We're heroes of the past. Technically we're already dead." Still, the pink-haired warrior grinned at the homunculus. "But, if I was summoned here to save you, so that you would live… I'm content. That's a pretty great destiny."
Sieg's chest tightened. It wasn't his magical energy supply, that was still going strong, but… there was a tightness within him. A hard, rough, collision of… something, that made the boy tighten his hand into a fist, his grip on Balmung eating into the greatsword's steel hilt—
His hands! His hands that housed his—
"Astolfo, paladin to the great king Charlemagne!" Sieg roared, the two Servant tilting their heads at him. "Heed my words! My will creates your body! And your sword creates my destiny!"
"Uh, Sieg? What are you doing?"
"If you heed the grail's call, and obey my will and reason, then answer me!" Sieg called, praying he was recalling the words right from what little information Gordes had implanted in him about the Grail War. "Obey me and answer my call! Will you share your destiny with me or not?"
Astolfo's eyes widened, tears welling up at their edges for a moment. Then, he bowed his head to Sieg, a wide grin on his face. "In the name of Rider, I shall answer your pledge! You shall be my master! And I shall be your Servant!"
A blinding white light bloomed between the two, shooting out from the kneeling Servant of the Mount and latching itself to Sieg's right hand. He felt a portion of his prana surge out of his reserves and flow into his friend. The blue particles that had been dissipating from Astolfo instantly floated back into him, the Rider now more pristine than before, his garden of bruises from his bout with Mordred healed.
"Are you alright?" Sieg asked. "I'm sorry I didn't ask first if you wanted to make a pact, but I—"
"Woohoo!" Astolfo shot to his feet and leapt into the air. "I'm alive! Oh man, Sieg—I mean, master, that was some quick thinking. I didn't know those weird Command Seals of yours could still form a pact."
Sieg chuckled nervously. "I didn't either. But I'm here to pay your kindness forward by helping my kin. I wanted to try and help you as well."
"Oh, lucky break then," Astolfo grinned and flashed him a thumbs up. "Thank you, master. Don't you worry. I may not be the strongest Servant, but I'll stay by your side all the way to the end. You have my word as a Paladin of Charlemagne and the brand-new Rider of Periwinkle!"
"Either way, I am sure you will fill the position well," Siegfried chimed in. "Now then, shall we return to our battle."
Astolfo's body went rigid. He shuffled around until he was face-to-face with his former teammate. "Oh, hey, Saber."
"Heh…" Astolfo murmured, rubbing the back of his head. "So, you just stood there and let me make a contract with another faction?"
"You are a noble knight, Rider. The King of Knights enabled me to survive my suicide so that she could deal me a more honorable demise in combat later," Siegfried explained. "As Sieg said, I wished to pay that kindness forward."
"Oh. That's great. But you just let your enemy gain strength like that?"
"Truthfully, I do not anticipate your changing sides to have much effect on the outcome of this battle. Our last bout did not take long."
"Hehehehehe, you're not wrong," Rider laughed nervously. He raised his lance at his former teammate. "Sorry, master. I'm not what you'd call the strongest Servant."
"But there's no one else I'd rather have by my side," Sieg declared, hefting Balmung into position. "Though, I would prefer to have Saber of Blue in addition."
"Oh yeah, she'd be great for this," Astolfo nodded, before setting his face in grim determination. "He's not getting you, master. He'll have to go through me first."
"Indeed," Siegfried concurred. "That is the plan."
"Oh… it's a good plan."
"Thank you. But now we really should begin…" Siegfried paused, his eyes flickering toward Millennia Citadel, the Red Faction's floating fortress practically on top of the castle. "Master. He is in danger."
"He is? You should go to him then," Astolfo said, his gaze locking onto the flying fortress. "I mean, the Red Faction masters are probably swarming the castle for him. And since the homunculi are helping Tohsaka with the whole revolution thing, no one else is going to be there to help them. Other than you… being there… and not here."
Siegfried stared at them for a moment and sighed. "I know what you are doing, Rider."
"But I'm not wrong, am I?"
"No. No, you are not," the dragon slayer sighed. "Though, I would ask that you handle that while I am gone."
Sieg raised an eyebrow. "That?"
Siegfried pointed off into the distance, where the rest of the battles raged. Among the sea of homunculi and golems fighting dragontooth warriors, the furthest battle away was the rampant flames of the Lancers' duel, while the King of Knights's clash of swords (really more of a beatdown) with Mordred was much closer to them. And closest of all, to them and the actual city of Trifas, was Archer of Red's battle with the former Berserker of Red.
The dragon slayer knight was pointing to the last of those. The lion-eared bowman was continuously running away from the rampaging, howling blob of flesh, peppering him with dozens of arrows. When they struck home, the Berserker's flesh boiled with pink energy, his skin enveloping the wounds. But slowly but surely, the crackle of power wasn't fading away once he was healed.
"Crying Warmonger," Siegfried stated. "According to Caster's dossier, at full power, it could annihilate the entire city. We cannot let innocents be harmed by our war. Normally, I would attend to it myself, but with a pair as noble as you two on the case, I am free to go to my master's side. Thank you."
A bead of sweat dropped down Astolfo's forehead. "Yeah. No problem."
Siegfried smiled at them and dashed off to Millennia Citadel.
Astolfo turned to Sieg. "So, master… any ideas?"
Sieg furrowed his brow. They'd escaped death at Siegfried's hands, but the task they'd been given was equally as crucial. The people sleeping in the city of Trifas were ordinary humans, with no stake or knowledge of the chaos unfolding outside their gates. They didn't deserve to be killed because of an errant Noble Phantasm.
And none of his allies would allow it. Shirou especially would put himself in front of the blast before allowing it to hurt the innocent. He would do no less.
"With any luck, Archer of Red will take care of the problem for us," Sieg remarked. He glanced down at the massive greatsword in his hands. "And if not, I still have this for a few minutes."
Hopefully, it would be enough.
Fiore had been caught in two explosions during the Great Holy Grail War. One was Kairi Shishigou's grenade during their battle in Assassin of Black's world, and the other was Rin Tohsaka's prana overloaded jewel moments ago in the middle of her home. Despite the obvious differences between the two objects with one being commonplace modern technology and the other being an expensive finely crafted mystic code, she found their effects to be remarkably similar.
Tohsaka's bounded field had held for a moment, but ultimately it was too hastily put together to weather the full force of the blast. The wall of red energy that had contained them had shattered instantly, the jewel mage herself flying back with only her shields to defend her from the flames. Fiore's Bronze-Link Manipulators had served a similar purpose for her and Uncle Gordes, the metal forceps forming a cocoon around the Yggdmillennia mages while not touching them so as not to burn them with heat ambiance.
One would think such a task would be difficult for just four mechanical arms, but Fiore had prepared her mystic code to go toe-to-toe with Lord El-Melloi's Volumen Hydragyrum (she'd heard a rumor at the Clocktower that he had participated in one of the False Grail Wars and she'd worried he'd be chosen for the Red Faction). While she doubted she could match the mercury maid's sheer offensive power, she was confident she could equal it on the defensive. The first and foremost function of her Bronze-Link Manipulators was to protect the user.
The surroundings on the other hand, not so much. The pristine halls of Millennia Citadel had been scorched black, smoke filling the air over top the rubble of leveled walls and obliterated antiques. And Tohsaka was nowhere in sight.
Three to one, and she'd still been able to slip through their fingers and kill Celenike. Those jewels, Darnic had told them that the Tohsakas had specialized in them, but Fiore had expected an overwhelming assault of disposable mystic codes, like she'd seen Luvia Edelfelt perform the one time she'd witnessed the Finnish mage spar at the Clocktower. Instead, she'd witnessed a focused and tactical defense, cool under pressure and capable of reversing the situation no matter what they threw at her.
Fiore's breath grew quick, the shaking she'd tried to suppress since the battle had begun taking over as she gazed into the haze of dust. It was just like her battle with Shishigou in Assassin's world. She should have been alright, she'd known she'd have to fight in this war and she had been her opponent's superior as a mage. But his tactics had been so ruthless, so reckless, and she hadn't had any idea where the next assault would come from. If Emiya hadn't intervened, she would be dead.
Tohsaka was all that, but her equal as a mage in every way. And she had that same spark Shishigou had, that reckless abandon that let her ignite a massive flame spell at close range to subvert Fiore's Bronze-Link Manipulators. But she paired it with the unflinching planning that would have allowed her to pick off Celenike and Uncle Gordes with ease if Fiore hadn't arrived when she had.
The smoke shrouded the hall, and the eldest Forvedge saw shadows slinking everywhere. Her hands shuddered in their gauntlets, her mystic code lifting her aloft.
Fiore whipped around at the groan, her upper mechanical arms rising instinctively to defend her. However, she soon realized that it was just Uncle Gordes coming to beneath her, his shoulder bleeding over the blackened carpet.
She lowered herself to his form, setting to work stemming his injuries. "Stay still, Uncle Gordes. I'll patch you up."
"Tohsaka…" he coughed, unable to muster the strength to sit up. "Where's Tohsaka?"
"I don't know. Somewhere around here," Fiore muttered, her eyes glancing into the smog despite herself. At least until her magic detected something highly unusual with her patient's body. "This… you nearly turned your lungs to steel! Why would you do something so dangerous?"
"Ugh, I am the finest alchemist in Europe. I am perfectly capable of such a transmutation… ow…" Uncle Gordes moaned. "Besides… she was trapping you in to destroy… like I was going to let her kill a mage of Yggdmillennia like a rat in a cage."
"Really? Well, well. Never would have thought there was a heart under all that bluster."
Fiore shot upward, her upper mechanical arms scanning the smoke. A shadow flickered down the hall, but it retreated before she had the chance to call out an order to fire.
It was a trap. Tohsaka was drawing her into the smoke, probably into another bounded field. She should remain by Uncle Gordes' side… but then their enemy could rain down gandr or jewels with impunity.
She had to go in. She had to face her, like a mage. She had to… kill her… like a mage. Before she killed her and Uncle Gordes and Caules.
"I'll handle this," she declared. "You summon back Saber for backup."
"I only have one Command Seal left."
"He has super speed. Just tell him to get here," Fiore argued. "Saturn, forward."
Her Bronze-Link Manipulators obeyed her orders and dashed into the smoke. She was immediately greeted by a ponderous hum.
"I've got to say, that is one impressive mystic code you've got there," Tohsaka commented, her voice seeming to come from all around. "The offense seems a bit limited, but with defensive reflexes that sharp, that isn't too much of an issue."
"Thank you," Fiore replied, keeping her eyes peeled for any shadow that was too large or mobile. "I made it myself. Though I admit, your gems are quite the powerful force on their own."
"If only they were a little cheaper," the other mage sighed. "But seriously, how'd you make that thing so good at defense? Does it sense breath like Lord El-Melloi's maid?"
Fiore shrugged. "Does your Lord El-Melloi use a Volumen Hydragyrum for cleaning too?"
"Seems he's a practical man no matter the world," Rin noted. "No… if it was breath, it would have been better on offense, hone in on me without your instructions. Maybe… oh, that could be it. Are there some kind of spirits linked to those arms? Guard dogs?"
Actually, yes. Fiore's specialties were human engineering and spiritual evocation. She'd built her mystic code by forging the metal apparatus and calling up the departed spirits of dead dogs to be enchanted within them. She could then command those spirits to move her limbs as necessary. Besides, as perverse as it might have seemed to some, Fiore felt there was some kindness in giving those canines company while they were trapped on this plane of reality.
Of course, she wasn't going to tell Tohsaka any of that. It'd be like handing her a manual on how to take the apparatus apart—
There! Fiore's eyes zoomed to the side, a flare of prana igniting just as the glow of a jewel broke through the smoke.
"Mars! Fire!" she called.
Her upper arms oriented and unleashed a volley of prana bullets at the source. The smog parted in the wake of the rounds, restoring some measure of visibility to the hall… and revealing that the only thing Fiore had just shot was a nest of rubble with a glowing purple gem in the center.
"Doesn't matter I suppose," Tohsaka's voice emanated from the gem. "We'll just have to test how fast they really are."
Fiore whirled around, casting Mars's fire all through the smog and granting her visibility in a decent radius around her.
She found Rin leaning against the burnt-out wall, clutching her bruised side with one hand while the other was planted on the floor. Fiore launched a spray of prana bullets at her, but they all bounced off a shimmering wall of red energy.
'The bounded field!' Fiore realized, a crimson sigil flaring to life beneath Rin's palm. 'The trap!'
The wall of the bounded field right before Tohsaka ignited with red and black portals. Scores of gandr, hundreds of curses blasted towards Fiore like a flock of birds ready to peck out her entrails.
"All defense!" she screamed, reinforcing the primary purpose of her mystic code. Her Bronze-Link Manipulators shifted onto one leg and unleashed three of her limbs into the barrage. Her claws flicked through the hellish storm, smacking spell after spell from the air, worked to their limit to keep her from being annihilated.
That said, there were simply too many. Her apparatus was working as fast as it could, but eventually a gandr bolt would slip by its defenses. If things remained as they were, if she kept letting her fear guide her actions or fighting like a traditional mage, she was going to lose! She was going to die here! And then Tohsaka would kill Uncle Gordes, and Caules—
No! No, she wouldn't let that happen! She hadn't been able to save Archer, but she would not let Rin Tohsaka touch her little brother!
How had Shishigou fought her? She had been the superior mage, but he'd still picked her apart. He'd made use of every aspect of their surroundings, attacking her through avenues she'd never see coming, even without Jack's hell.
How could she apply that here? She was trapped inside the bounded field on all sides. In theory, she would be able to disassemble such a hastily erected cage if she could get close enough to the edge. But with three limbs needed to survive the gandr bombardment from the front, she couldn't move forward without getting blasted… she couldn't move forward…
She couldn't move forward, but a bounded field was more than a wall. It was a cube.
Fiore's eyes widened. "Saturn! Bend back!"
The arm holding her up did just that, twisting backward and lowering Fiore parallel to the floor. Her new position made it more difficult for her upper limbs to shield her, but her surface area facing the barrage was also decreased, allowing her to still maintain her defense.
More importantly, it got her close enough to the floor that she could reach out her hands to the ground. The crimson energy of the field rippled at her touch.
Fiore grinned. She pressed her palms into the barrier, setting to work as her magic circuits glowed turquoise, analyzing the bounded field's composition, and seeking out weaknesses. There were significantly fewer than the young mage was expecting given the short amount of time used to create it. She was pretty sure she couldn't have done better, probably not even her instructors at the Clocktower either. Tohsaka really was a first-rate mage if there ever was one.
But she was far from invincible.
Fiore's incantation rang out throughout the hall, her circuits springing into action, diverting prana into the barrier's weak points. The bounded field crackled and dissipated, the gandr bombardment fading with the collapse of its support.
"Alright, Saturn, charge!" she called. "Mars, Jupiter! Fire!"
Her lower legs hauled her upright and her upper limbs unleashed her counterattack. Tohsaka knelt to the floor to avoid the opening burst and threw up a jewel shield to block the rest, cracks soon splintering across the screen.
However, Fiore had anticipated that she would attempt to replicate their earlier stalemate. Fully aware that she didn't have Uncle Gordes to give her an opening this time, the young mage stampeded in, near instantly closing the gap. Trapped against the wall and unable to attack without lowering her own shield, she could force Tohsaka on the back foot if she just kept up the pressure.
"Beschwore…" Rin whispered, her magic circuits lighting up over her arms. "Blasé nah."
Fiore maintained her charge, heedless of her enemy's spell. At worst, the jewel mage would be forced to replicate the desperate strategy she'd used to escape their last encounter. Both of them could survive another blast, but Tohsaka's retreat would cost her another gem. If it came down to a war of attrition, Fiore would win both with her Bronze-Link Manipulators and when Caules and Berserker arrived to back her up. She could win this. They could win this!
Jupiter plunged forward and crashed through the already cracked jewel shield. Tohsaka rolled to the side to dodge, but she wasn't as fast as before. The metal claw glanced off her side, tearing her scarlet sweater and drawing a thin line of blood on her flesh.
One more blow. One more blow and she'd win. She'd protect herself and her family. She'd… she'd kill her enemy.
Just like a mage.
She… she had to. She'd known that since before she'd joined the Grail War. She'd known the stakes and she'd known what would be required. She couldn't balk now, or else Archer died for nothing!
She opened her mouth. She opened her mouth to call out the final command for Mars to finish it. She never found out if she could have brought herself to do it.
Mars flicked around her head, abandoning its firing position to fulfill its primary purpose of protecting her. The claw made to deflect an incoming projectile that its master hadn't seen coming from behind, a… jewel?!
Fiore's eyes widened. It was the jewel Tohsaka had used to cast her voice from across the hall. It was flying towards her! That was the spell she'd cast, a wind spell to summon it towards her! But she knew the Bronze-Link Manipulators would intercept any attack before it reached her, and another explosion would just kill them both. What was her plan—
"Geister losen sich!"
The Yggdmillennia mage paled, the German incantation instantly translating in her head. But how could that be? Even if she had a dual affinity, she'd already used a fire spell and a wind spell!
Before she could formulate a response either way, Mars made contact with the jewel.
Immediately, the gem glowed a brilliant white light, a massive amount of prana surging out of it and into the Bronze-Link Manipulators. The reservoir of magical energy amplified Tohsaka's ether spell, overwhelming the inner workings of Fiore's mystic code and tearing apart the spiritual bindings that held the dog spirits to the metal. And without those, it was just a piece of modern art she could strap to her back.
Fiore was already tipping over when Tohsaka jumped up and planted a reinforced palm strike in her gut. She must have pulled the blow because she didn't squash the younger mage's organs, but the young woman was still thrown onto the floor, her own metal limbs pinning her to the ground amidst the rubble. Not that she could have gotten up anyway, her legs being what they were.
"You… you used an ether spell," Fiore gasped, trying to process the complete calamity she'd just experienced. "You have an affinity for fire, wind, and ether!?"
Tohsaka staggered to her feet, clutching her side, and leaning against the wall. "And water and earth. What can I say? I like to keep my options open. The bastard that taught me even included a little exorcism just in case. I'm hardly a member of the Holy Sacrament, but I can get by."
Fiore's eyes nearly bulged out of her sockets. An affinity for all five great elements? Able to store prana in disposal mystic codes to supercharge her normal spells? Enough knowledge of ether and holy practices to force an exorcism on the spirits contained within the Bronze-Link Manipulators? This woman… what kind of magical prodigy was she?
It didn't matter in the end though, she supposed. After all, Fiore had been soundly beaten. Even if she used all her Command Seals, Spartacus would resist them on principle and refuse to come to her side. She could try a gandr but even then her opponent had her enormously outclassed.
No, she had lost. Now she was just a lame dog, waiting to be put down.
Tohsaka touched her remaining cracked shield, the projection returning to its jewel form, though if her hiss was anything to go by, the damage remained. "It'll work in a pinch, I suppose. Damn, I was going to take care of Celenike and Gordes no problem. Then you show up and suddenly I'm down to barely five gems. You're one impressive mage."
"Stop mocking me," Fiore mumbled, trying to hold back her tears and hold her head high. Even if she didn't truly have the killer instinct of a mage, even if that lack of combat instinct had contributed to her defeat, she wanted to at least die with her pride intact. "Just get it over with."
Tohsaka cocked an eyebrow and shrugged. "Okay then."
Fiore closed her eyes. This was the end. She'd fought with all she had, and it just wasn't enough. She wouldn't flinch now, she wouldn't cry. Archer most certainly hadn't when he had fallen. She would not do him any disrespect as his master by holding herself to a lesser standard. She could only pray that her brother got out of this war alive when she… hadn't…
Why wasn't she dead yet?
She opened her eyes. Instead of staring down a gandr to the face, she beheld Tohsaka limping away down the hall, a hand full of healing magic pressed to her side.
"Wha…" Fiore shouted. "Where are you going?"
Tohsaka turned back to her. The eastern woman's eyes flickered past her for a moment, to the corner of the other hall, but they locked onto Fiore soon enough. "You said to get on with it. So I'm gonna get to the Greater Grail room and take care of Darnic."
"What?" Fiore choked. "Aren't you going to kill me?"
"Well, if you try to shoot me in the back, I'll put one between your eyes," Tohsaka said. "But if you don't, then I have no plans to kill you as of this moment."
Fiore's mind churned over itself. This was a trick, some larger strategy to use her to tear the Black Faction apart. It had to be. That was the only reason a mage would spare a defeated enemy. There was no other reason to leave a knife at your back like that.
But Tohsaka's confidence… Emiya's words back in Bucharest… what was going on?
"Why?!" Fiore demanded, almost begged. "You're one of the finest mages I've ever seen! You should hate my family for we did to yours? So, why? Why won't you kill me?!"
Once more, Tohsaka raised an eyebrow, this one both befuddled and… sad?
"What have I ever done that makes you think I need a reason not to kill someone?"
After that, Rin turned around and limped deeper into the castle.
Fiore's mind froze. All the possible schemes, all the hypothetical backstabs, all the convoluted, mind-bending plots that she'd theorized that she'd been caught in the middle of completely collapsed around her.
To be a mage was to walk with death. To be a despicable human being willing to manipulate and deceive anyone to get their way. And dispose of them when they were no longer of use. It was what she had strived to be since the Clocktower, out of necessity. There was no way to be a mage and not be ruthless.
And yet, Rin Tohsaka and Shirou Emiya both actively avoided killing their enemies. And they were some of the greatest mages Fiore had ever seen.
So, what did that mean for her? She had been defeated by Kairi Shishigou, a mercenary spellcaster who'd been willing to kill her at the first opportunity, and by Rin Tohsaka, a true mage who hadn't been willing to finish her even when she was helpless. Was she missing something, some intrinsic element to achieve victory in the war or merit as a mage?
And if she was, what was it?
Caules gulped, pulling himself back behind the wall, Berserker grunting right next to him.
Tohsaka had seen him, he was sure of it. Sensed his Servant's prana signature and then stared right at him. She'd turned her back to him without fear, as if the threat of Berserker was nonexistent. Of course, given that Berserker had been soundly defeated by Saber of Red even with backup, and Saber of Red was currently having her ass soundly kicked across the battlefield by the King of Knights who was only a Command Seal away from Tohsaka's side… yeah, he really couldn't do anything to her.
Though if she'd made a move to kill his sister, he'd turn her to ash anyway, even if he got sliced up by Excalibur right after.
But, she hadn't. Even before she'd sensed him, she'd already been walking away. Fiore had been pinned under her Bronze-Link Manipulators, helpless, very much alive, and she hadn't taken the opportunity to kill her.
What did that mean for his plan to have her kill Darnic? Would she go through with it? He had killed her family in this world, but would she care about that when she'd never known these versions?
He had to be sure. The healing spells on Uncle Gordes would make sure he was up on his feet to attend to Fiore. He had to get to the Grail Room.
Just in case.
Fire everywhere. The ruins of a concrete building turned black and crumbling. Hundreds of charred bodies fueling the flames even higher, so much smoke filling the air that it was impossible to tell if one was actually seeing the night sky or not. The dying, and perhaps even the dead, crying out for help, for a savior.
Shirou had heard the cries before, Caster of Red was drawing them from his memories after all. When he'd heard them the first time, when he'd limped through the flames as a child, he'd blocked them out, thrown them away along with his memories and everything he was. When they'd echoed through his nightmares, he'd apologized, professed his limitless guilt at leaving them for dead so he could save himself. He'd let their screams, his failure, fuel his dream to save everyone in front of him.
But now? Now, he found them insulting.
"Is this really the best you've got, Caster?" he sighed, barely keeping the fury from his voice. "You're a few years late to the party if you think this is going to be enough to break me."
"Break you? Ha! Your humor continues to brighten this despairing atmosphere, ensuring the audience does not lose interest in the characters' fates. Truly, you are a natural talent, Mr. Emiya."
Shirou whirled around to the sound of Shakespeare's voice, expecting to find the playwright cheekily standing atop the corpses. Shame on him for forgetting Taiga's many mentions that the man was also an actor.
He was a burnt corpse, or at least he looked like one. His legs were half gone, barebone sticking out from ruined muscle. The side of his face was melted, his blackened skin sagging off his flesh as his eyeball liquified in its socket. And yet, his manic grin was still ever-present.
"I see you have a makeup department in your Noble Phantasm," Shirou glowered.
"Oh yes! Though the writing is the foundation of any production, the contributions of the cast and crew to the quality of the work cannot be understated," Shakespeare declared. "Why, just look around at what they've done to yours!"
Another random corpse picked itself off the ground with the Servant's face. "The extras!"
Another, this one with its skull split open by rubble, looked up. "The set design!"
"The lack of dialogue," Shirou growled. "I don't know what you're trying to do here, but this…" he waved his arm over the flames. "This won't help you. This was a tragedy, my tragedy. I regret that I couldn't save anyone else here, but I am fully aware that there was nothing I could have done. I was a child. I am not guilty of anything for surviving this night."
Worryingly, Shakespeare nodded, his melted eyebrow near spilling out of his socket. "Oh, I concur, my dear impossible man! What fault can be found in you for being forged in this hellish fire?"
Shirou frowned. What was going on? Shakespeare was going to all this trouble to go over the most traumatic moments of his life, but he kept denying any of the obvious goals of breaking him or swaying him to Amakusa's side. Was he lying? Was this elaborate charade even more convoluted than he originally thought? What was the point of all this?
"Though I am curious at your phrasing," the Servant mused, rubbing a charred finger along his melted chin. "Why in the world would you say you survived this night?"
Shirou raised an eyebrow. What the hell did that mean? Of course, he had survived. He was currently alive.
"He's alive! He's alive!"
Shirou froze. That wasn't Shakespeare's voice. It was a voice he hadn't heard in years. At least, outside his dreams.
He turned, and suddenly he was there, looking down on the scene that had defined him for as long as he could remember.
"Dad," he whispered.
Kiritsugu Emiya, clad in a drab black suit, clasped the hand of a half-dead child, sobs racking his body as he babbled through his tears.
"He's alive! He's alive!" the feared Mage Killer cried. He pulled the dying boy's hand, Shirou's hand, to his gaunt cheek. "Thank you. Thank you."
It wasn't real. Shirou knew it wasn't real. But to see his father again after all the turmoil he'd had about him since Kairi Shishigou's revelation, to see him crying over having saved just one person, to see the look upon his face that Shirou had sought after for so long… he wasn't sure if nostalgia was appropriate given the surrounding circumstances, but it was the closest thing he could think of—
A gunshot ripped through the night, blowing the side of Kiritsugu's head off.
"Dad!" Shirou screamed. For a moment, all rational knowledge that he was inside an elaborate illusion vanished and all he could do was dash to his father's side. His shoes stomped over the boy Kiritsugu had stood over to get to the man himself.
He knelt beside his father, scooping his broken body into his arms. Kiritsugu's eyes stared blankly off into space, a sizable hole neatly plugged in his forehead. Which was strange in and of itself, as a head shot of that size should have blown his skull open like a watermelon.
Nevertheless, Shirou's gaze instantly whirled towards the direction the shot had come from, his circuits flaring to summon Kanshou and Byakuya even as he knew the blades would not come.
He saw the shooter, a tall, thin man draped in crimson robes, a mask of red cloth hiding his face, only a few scraps of tan skin peeking through.
"Archer?" he whispered. That didn't make any sense. The clothing resembled the Counter Guardian's in color and style. Even the body was rigid and machine-like, his movements completely without wasted energy. Anyone else could see that it was his alternate future self.
But the weapon was wrong. Archer didn't use guns, if only because his blades were far more efficient in his hands. So who was this guy? Shakespeare wouldn't have conjured him without reason.
Who had just murdered his father?
He growled and ran towards the bastard, completely unheeding as he stomped over his own corpse…
… and suddenly he was sitting down on a picnic blanket.
"What?" Shirou stammered, glancing around.
The scene had completely changed. Gone were the fires of hell. Now, he sat atop a pristine grassy hill surrounded by sidewalk. The noonday sun gently dusted the emerald slope, creating a picturesque contrast with the pale blue sky.
"Emiya? What are you spacing out for?"
"Is everything alright, master? Is Caster attacking you with magic?"
Shirou turned into the picnic blanket. Rin and Saber both sat over the cloth, a platter of delicious-looking food between them. The most prominent of them all was a large plate of sandwiches, though Saber already had two in her hands and a third halfway in her mouth.
"This picnic… I remember it," he muttered. "During the Fifth War, Rin was trying to cheer me up after I messed up my circuits tracing Kanshou and Byakuya for the first time. Didn't realize it was a first date until after everything was over."
Rin raised an eyebrow and smirked. "Are you sure you're alright, Emiya? You haven't even tried the food yet."
"You really should, master," Saber nodded. She inhaled her held sandwiches and pushed the plate towards him. "They are truly are delicious!"
"You don't have to worry about helping anyone right now," Rin smiled, reaching over to take his arm. "Right now, you can just enjoy yourself."
Shirou couldn't help his smile. "I know. I did enjoy myself back then. Honestly, it might be my favorite memory of the entire war."
His hand flashed out and gripped Rin's wrist before she could touch him, his eyes narrowed. "But I let my guard down then. I let my guard down, and Medea kidnapped Fuji-nee and took Saber. I'm not about to give you an opening just because you try to parrot my best memories, Caster—"
Two more gunshots. Rin and Saber both fell back, dead, their blood splashing over Shirou. His eyes widened, his hands flinched, his instinct to rush to them conflicting with his knowledge that none of this was real. So, he just sat there, watching two of the people he cared about most in the world bleed out onto the picturesque hilltop, the emerald grass stained crimson.
He just sat there, useless. Nothing at all like a Hero of Justice.
His breath grew short, only the clenching of his fists and his nails cutting into his palms keeping him from howling in despair. That was wrong. Ever since the fire, he'd been desensitized to violence on this scale. He hadn't even flinched when viewing the aftermath of Rider's attack on Homurahara, the monstrosity the grail truly was, or Jack the Ripper's world. Even Gilgamesh's murder of Illya had only invoked righteous fury within him, not paralytic shock.
What was happening to him? What was Shakespeare's Noble Phantasm doing to him?
"Nothing at all, my dear fellow!"
Shirou looked up from Rin and Saber's corpses to find the Caster of Red standing over him, his face as healthy as it had been on the battlefield and dressed in the same flamboyant medieval clothes he'd been in before. The sword mage shot to his feet, but when he made to take a swing at the playwright, his muscles simply wouldn't move.
"Ah, ah, ah," Shakespeare scolded, wagging his finger. "No violence in the theatre, remember?"
"Fine," Shirou hissed, still trying to get at the smug bastard. "This mishmash of yours can't last forever. And when it drops, I'll tear you apart."
"Oh, my impossible man, such vitriol," the playwright mused. His manic eyes glanced down to Rin and Saber. "Such lovely visions. I can see how you've allowed yourself to be drawn into their illusion."
"Don't talk about them!" Shirou shouted. "Don't even look at them!"
"Because you can't look away?" Shakespeare queried. "You can't look away from what you cannot be."
"And what would that be?" Shirou growled, already knowing the answer.
He had been through this song and dance before. That's what this was, he was sure of it. The playwright was going to demean his dream of being Hero of Justice, going to try to break his conviction. Bah! If Archer couldn't do it, then this hack didn't stand a chance—
Shirou blinked, his head twitching back as if he'd been slapped. "What?"
Caster of Red grinned. "What I've been telling you since we met. My impossible man. Impossible for a man such as you to exist. Because a sword, a Hero of Justice, is elevated beyond the mere mundanity of a man."
Shakespeare gestured down to Rin and Saber's bodies. "They are your hope, the alluring Delilahs to your stupendous Samson!"
"This isn't them," Shirou bit out. "They're just illusions."
"And yet, you still want to hunt down their killer," Shakespeare pointed out. He pointed over Shirou's shoulder. "Who just so happens to be right over there if you care to look."
The sword mage could recognize an obvious lead-in when he heard it. He already had a good idea who Rin and Saber's 'assassin' was. The red-robed not-Archer that had shot his dad, his girlfriend and his former Servant both having the same neat holes in their heads.
But if Shakespeare wanted a scene change, there wasn't much he could do to deny him. He'd ride this show to the end, and then show the playwright why he wasn't someone he wanted to play amateur psychologist with.
He followed Caster of Red's finger and beheld exactly who he'd thought to see, the red-robed man standing atop the peak of the hill, his smoking pistol still drawn…
… and suddenly he was gone. Shirou stood at the entrance to a large building, maybe an apartment complex. The metal frames of the glass doors glittered when any stray light touched them, practically brand new.
Shakespeare shuffled up beside him, an all too pleased smirk on his face.
"Looks like set design isn't your specialty after all," Shirou mocked. "I knew the other two locations instantly, but I've never seen this place before."
"Oh contrary, my impossible man. Every place my Noble Phantasm conjures comes from your memories," Caster explained, pointing at Shirou's head. "You see, at the risk of boring the audience with bland exposition, the human mind never truly loses any memories. It simply forgets, through intentional repression or otherwise, how to access certain memories. And my First Folio is not hampered by such biological limitations."
Shirou's eyes narrowed. So this was a place he'd been before? That wasn't too hard to believe. He could hardly remember every building he'd ever been in. But Shakespeare had taken special care to play with some of his most treasured memories. Why would he choose to show him some random apartment complex—
"Mama, I said I was sorry. And Temari started it anyway."
Shirou cocked an eyebrow. That voice… he knew that voice. He couldn't remember, refused to remember, whose voice it was, but he remembered that he knew it.
He turned to face the owner and was greeted by a trio of people. Two adults, a man and a woman in casual business attire, their bright red hair neatly combed back and professional. And in between them, clutching onto the woman's hand, was a small boy. A small boy who shared their auburn hair color and had golden-brown eyes.
The woman turned back to the boy. "Shirou, I've told you before, you can't pick fights over every little thing."
"But she was hurting that frog," the boy protested. "She wanted it to go 'gero, gero' but frogs don't really say that. She was going to squish it."
The man patted the boy on the head. "You throwing the first punch at her didn't stop that, now did it?"
The boy glanced aside. "No."
The woman sighed and knelt beside the boy while the man went and opened the door to the building. "Standing up for what you think is right is important, honey. But you can't just rush in or you're just going to get yourself hurt."
"That's what Goku always does," the boy whined. "He always kicks the bad guy's butt."
"Goku can also bench press a planet," the woman replied. "Can you bench press a planet?"
The boy bit his lip. "No."
The man chuckled. "No worries, Shirou. Keep at it and you'll be lifting planets in no time. Now come on, I'm making Katsudon for dinner."
The boy's eyes widened, a massive smile blossoming across his face. "Really?"
"Well, my little man needs a hearty meal if he's going to grow strong."
"Awesome!" the boy cheered. He rushed forward and engulfed the man's leg in a hug. "You're the best, dad!"
The man smiled, sharing a look with the woman, who could only laugh at the scene before.
Shirou found himself speechless.
"This place is… those people are…"
"The boy named Shirou and his parents," Shakespeare smirked. "Alas, taken from this world too soon."
This was his home. Or was his home. And these were his parents.
The ones he'd cast aside in the fire.
Cast aside so he could live.
He had come to terms with his guilt over surviving the fire when so many did not, over ignoring the cries of others desperate for help so he could live. But life with Kiritsugu had been good, had been satisfying. After those first few months, he'd stopped returning to that burned field and locked his parents away with the rest of who he was before the blaze.
He'd known he must have had them, but… he'd never given it much thought. Didn't want to give it such thought. Pushed them down and crushed them underfoot.
"You said you can access memories that I can't," Shirou said. "Do you know their names? My original family name?"
"I do," Shakespeare confirmed.
Shirou bit his lip, unconsciously noting that it probably looked the same as when his past self had done so. "Tell me."
"I could," The playwright mused. "But the tragedy of it all is so much more visceral if they remain a mystery to you. Especially because you could know so easily, but don't. Because to know it, to willingly accept it, would be to bring you closer to being a person. The forbidden fruit forever out of your grasp. So long as you remain true to your path, impossible man."
Shirou scowled. "I've gone over a decade without them. What makes you think I'll be any more affected by not knowing them now?"
Shakespeare chuckled. "Because you've never wanted to remember before now. You have hope, to reclaim the boy you once were, if not the man he might have become. And there is little crueler than for a character to glimpse hope of peace before having it ripped away."
Shirou's eyes widened, reading between the lines of the Servant of the Spell's words. Half knowing it was pointless, he ran for the family he'd lost, reinforcing his legs to shoot forward as fast as possible.
The red-robed figure appeared before them in the blink of an eye, his gun raised and fired as Shirou's mother and father fell to the floor. With clinical precision, the assassin turned his pistol on the young boy, the barrel aimed right at his face.
Shirou screamed in defiance and rammed into the mysterious figure right as he fired the final shot. He pushed the gunman through the glass doors of the building, bursting through the cascading shards and smashing him against the wall.
"I've had enough these games, Caster!" he roared. He reached forward and gripped the head coverings tight. "Who's your extra special guest… star?"
He pulled the red robes away and his eyes widened. He had been right. It wasn't Archer.
"Dad?" he whispered, his hands instinctively releasing his prey.
Kiritsugu's face stared back at him. But it wasn't Kiritsugu, not the one he'd known. His messy mop of hair, his sharp nose, his unshaven stubble, it was all there. But his eyes were dark and focused. His face, normally so playful and carefree, was set in a dark scowl, promising no mercy.
His father wasn't present. The Mage Killer stared back at him.
"To create a weapon, one must have fine ore to work with," Shakespeare proclaimed. "And once a blade is forged, it must be polished, remain practiced at its purpose."
"You promised me that you would become a Hero of Justice, that you would save everyone in front of you," the Mage Killer said. "Yet you have done nothing. You lounge about in London playing house while people are out there dying. People you have the power to save."
"You still have your dream, don't you?" Shirou turned to the side, Archer standing to his right, glaring at him in judgement. "You wouldn't shut up about becoming a Hero of Justice. Or have you given up like a smart little boy, found something actually useful to do with your time with Rin?"
"I haven't given up! I'll never give up!" Shirou shouted at the both of them. "But I'm not some suicidal idiot! I'm not going to stop taking care of myself just so I can protect others—"
"Then why are you here?" Archer demanded. "Why accept the Kaleidoscope's offer to come to a world you have no business interfering in? Why discuss heading off to the Middle East with Lord El-Melloi without telling Rin?"
"Or rather, why hadn't you left already?" The Mage Killer accused. "You swore to save whoever you can. Why aren't you fulfilling that vow?"
"Your path is not wrong," Archer said. "But you're a fool if you think it's different from ours."
"It will be!" Shirou objected. "I will make it different!"
The Mage Killer frowned. "How?"
Shirou gritted his teeth. The same question he'd been asking himself for months, thrown back in his face by the source of his ideals. Ideals he'd once thought were so pure, so beautiful, that he still thought were wondrous… but now understood that they were always mired in death and blood.
He wanted to follow them. He wanted to find a way to make them work, to at least work towards his dream and save everyone he could. He was willing to walk the path and fail, especially if it meant he didn't drown himself like Archer had.
But Kiritsugu had told him that he had failed to become a hero. And now that Shirou saw what shape that failure took… how did he find a way to follow his ideals when success and failure both resulted in him becoming the Mage Killer?!
"Our dream has an expiration date. You're not a kid anymore, Shirou," the Mage Killer said. "Are you going to wait around pretending to be a person until it's too late?"
"I am a person!" Shirou yelled.
Archer scoffed. "You are a sword. The sword of Emiya. Forged from a corpse, a body without swords."
"No!" Shirou rejected. "I kill when I have to! No more than that! If I can save someone, then I will!"
"Then why didn't you save me?"
Shirou opened his mouth to shoot back another furious response, but his mind froze as no words sprouted from his lips. It took only a moment for his ears to register that neither of the two shadows of himself had spoken. And only a moment more for him to pale and realize exactly who had.
He turned around and was met by the golden-brown eyes of the boy. Of the boy he was. Of the boy he'd abandoned, the bleeding wound from the Mage Killer's pistol accusingly staring back at him.
"Why didn't you save me, Emiya?" the boy, Shirou, repeated. "Why did you step over my corpse?"
"I didn't have a choice," he, the him that was a sword, protested. "I had to throw you away. I had to survive."
"But you didn't," Shirou pointed out. He glanced down at the corpses of his parents, their blood seeping over the building. "You threw me away. You threw them away so you could survive but you didn't! You just let him turn you into his sword!"
"My sword…" the Mage Killer, Kiritsugu, murmured. "My son."
"I didn't let him do anything to me!" the sword insisted. "I chose this! I want this! I want to save everyone I can!"
"Then why won't you save me?!" Shirou demanded. "All you have to do is live! Live as the man I might have been! Just be happy!"
"I won't be satisfied!" The Wrought Iron Blade roared back, roared in the face of the child he once was.
He marched up and glared at the boy, his father standing over his shoulder with a proud smile. He looked at his hand to find the pistol had been slipped into his grip.
Knowing precisely what he needed to do, he raised the barrel to the boy's head.
"I'm sorry. But I have to save everyone that I can," he proclaimed. "Your life versus all those I could rescue. It's not a question."
Archer stayed back and sighed sadly. Shakespeare grinned.
Shirou stared on ahead, completely unflinching in the face of the gun at his head. "Fine. If you care so little for the past or present, then follow your future to its end, Hero of Justice! Give in to the current and drown!"
He pulled the trigger…
… and a dozen swords skewered his body.
The apartment building had disappeared. He was left atop a familiar hill riddled with weapons, staring off at a bronze sunrise. Shirou and Kiritsugu were gone, as dead and buried as they always were. And Archer…
He glanced down at his own body, his flesh dark and tanned, his armor black leather.
He practically was Archer. For all his striving, all his posturing, all his desperation to find another way… he was his father's son.
He was Emiya, the sword. The Hero of Justice atop his hill of blades.
Shakespeare strode up the slope, his manic smile bigger than ever. "You were curious to what I wanted, my dear impossible man?"
"The thought had crossed my mind, yes."
Caster of Red thrust his hands out to the horizon, the dawn beaming down to bathe the playwright in a glimmering halo while Emiya himself was trapped in the man's shadow.
"A hero is only as great as the villain that opposes them," Shakespeare declared. "My master is an excellent protagonist for this Great Holy Grail War, but his opposition is sorely lacking. Darnic has some personal connection to him, but he is such a dreadfully dull character. Ruler has the gravitas, but her reasons for opposing him are bound in duty, not desire. It makes her so much less compelling. But you?"
The playwright whirled around and beamed at Shirou. "You are perfect! A man who will never give up, never give in. A mind of steel. Hard. Cold. Unchanging. And most importantly, brittle, never altering even as you strike the rocks of the eternal shore and shatter! Oh, for a saint like my master, there can be no finer adversary!"
Emiya frowned. He clenched his hands, the barest sparks of prana finally breaking through to his palms. "If he really was trying to save the world, I wouldn't need to be his enemy."
Shakespeare cocked an eyebrow and burst out laughing. "Always with the excellent comedic timing. My master wishes for all humanity to be saved! Who could be his greatest antagonist, but the sword devoted to the act of saving it?"
Emiya's eyes hardened. He reached around his back and ripped out two of the swords impaling him to the hill. He let out a guttural roar and charged the playwright.
Shakespeare smirked. "Incapable of moderation, he cannot be a sword unless he gives up being a man, and he cannot be a man without giving up his devotion. Please do your best to survive what comes next, my dear impossible man. It would be so dissatisfying if the ultimate villain were to be killed off before the climax."
"Caster!" Emiya screamed.
He swiped his blades through where the Servant of Red should have been, but the playwright disappeared just as the steel should have struck him. Then, the weapons, both in his hands and impaled through his body, followed suit.
And after that, the hill of swords, and the precious dawn above it.
"Caster!" Shirou roared, swiping Kanshou and Byakuya all over. "Where are you? Show yourself to me! Caster of Red!"
He had returned to the world, returned to the Trifas soil where he'd dueled the false priest, the Apocryphal Saint. But he could not recognize it, too embroiled in his own turmoil and rage, Shakespeare's Noble Phantasm affecting him with its aftermath status of 'absentmindedness'. Even as he swung his blades, he could not see what was right in front of him. He was defenseless.
And the Hanging Gardens' bombardment of pink prana was falling down upon him.
I do enjoy Shakespeare. He's always so entertaining to watch work.
Thank you for Reading! I hope you enjoy what comes next!
Go Forth and Conquer!