Emiya Shirou knew he was dying.
Swords pierced through his body at all angles, clawing desperately out of a barely compatible reality marble. His nerves burned with the overuse of his magic circuits, and his head throbbed from the comprehension of too many swords and the final brawl with Kotomine Kirei that left him reeling, barely able to stand.
Nevertheless, he pushed forward.
Angra Mainyu stood before him, an amorphous mass of blackened hatred and seething death. The infant god, striving to be born from the ashes of power and desire, lashed out at Shirou with its infinite curses.
He barely felt them. They splashed off of his skin ineffectually, unable to corrupt the steel that pierced him from within.
One final swell of determination filled him as he stepped forward to meet the monster that Zouken implanted within the woman he loved. Sakura was safe now; she had escaped with Rin after their fight. Ilya was most likely with them, as well as Rider, if she had not yet faded into the Grail as well. Shirou steeled himself. He could not let Avenger escape; he could not let it live.
This hell would no longer reach those he loved.
Shirou reached deep into Archer's reality marble, deeper than he had dared to grasp before. He didn't have a choice, though: only one sword in Archer's arsenal could defeat this evil.
The mana within him began to take form, synchronizing with Avalon. Shirou used the radiant sheath to comprehend the sword; to sympathize with it. His reality marble tore him open from the inside even further, but he ignored it. He had to hold out. Shirou could afford no errors.
Power solidified, steel ripped through him, and Glory was held aloft. Angra Mainyu reeled back, understanding the power that King Arthur's sword held, and what it could do to the god of evil should it strike true. It wasted little time in lashing out at the holy blade's wielder, attempting to snuff out Shirou's life before he could bring the sword down upon it.
It mattered not.
Shirou pushed every last drop of his remaining mana into the steel, desperate and determined to ignite the Promised Victory to smite the being before him. The Noble Phantasm within his hands began to thrum with power, slowly becoming alight with pristine golden hue.
The hatred and death wore upon his skin like a sandstorm, but it was soon forced back unto itself by the divine light of Glory as it grew brighter and brighter, saturating the cavern in its radiance. Avenger shrunk in on itself, unable to contend with the sword.
Shirou could hold out no longer. He had to use it now. Any more time wasted could spell his death, and he had poured as much of his mana as he could into his former servant's Noble Phantasm. He had made his peace. There was no longer another path for him to take.
As he brought down the sword, he nearly laughed at the irony of his situation. Shirou had abandoned his dream to save the girl he loved, cast aside his goals and turned his back on the ideals of Archer and his father. He had chosen not to tread their path, to sacrifice everything he held dear to save everyone, to be a hero of justice, and yet here he was. By tossing away his dream, Shirou had somehow ended up right back on the path of heroism. With this swing, he would save everyone. And it would kill him.
Those he loved would still be saved. He had no regrets.
Glory burned away everything.
Shirou woke up to the familiar feeling of his magic circuits burning. Superheated steel coursed through his veins; a sensation not dissimilar to when he first forced open his circuits.
What was unfamiliar was the room he had awoken in.
Even stranger was that he awoke at all.
Shirou found himself in a western-style bed with navy fitted sheets, rather than the pale blue futon he was used to. The room was entirely unfamiliar as well, more akin to Rin's home than his own. Peach drywall surrounded him on all sides, and the floor consisted of light hardwood. A single dark nightstand sat off to the side of his bed, accompanied by a matching wooden dresser rested against the opposing wall, next to a modest sliding-door closet.
He stretched his arms and back as he sat up, relieving the tension in his upper body before he tossed back the covers and slid out of bed. Immediately, he noticed differences in himself. He was definitely shorter than he remembered, by about a full foot. His feet would not have taken so long to hit the ground otherwise. Shirou's left arm also was normal; unwrapped and unblemished. He no longer felt the uneven weight of Archer's transplanted limb, which was already a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. The cause of his death it may have been, but Shirou would have died without its power as well.
To fight on par with servants was an adrenaline rush like no other.
Shirou shook his head lightly to clear his thoughts. He had more pressing questions; his reminiscing could wait.
He exited the room quietly, careful not to alert any other possible residents. Given his well-fitting pajamas and comfortable bed, he hesitated to assume he was in any kind of prison, though he could never be sure, considering what he had learned about mages.
Zouken especially came to mind.
He snuck across the well-lit hall as quietly as he could and slipped into the first open door he found. A spacious, recently cleaned tile bathroom greeted him, far larger than his own. The bathtub alone could easily fit two. Whoever lived here either participated in group bathing or really liked baths.
Shirou turned to the mirror off to the side, and immediately noticed the problem. He was much younger than he remembered. His face was rounder, baby fat still clung to him. The barest hint of muscle definition existed in his arms and chest, rather than the well-toned body he worked hard to keep. He seemed to be still in his adolescent phase, as no obvious signs of puberty had made themselves known.
Just what the hell had happened?
Calling forth his prana, He pulled a simple dagger from Unlimited Blade Works into reality, recreating it as carefully and efficiently as he could to let off as small of a magical signature as he could. His circuits still ached, and the process was a bit slower than he was used to, but the knife was forged into existence, nonetheless.
Probably not a prison, then. If they knew what I was capable of, whoever else is here would've suppressed my magic circuits.
Shirou had to assume that whoever brought him here had little intention of harming him, but that did not mean that they had no use for him. Perhaps they were holding his older body hostage and were looking for him to do them a favor or ten before they returned it. He knew his father had some sort of temporal magecraft, so it was possible that this was an associate or relative of his, or someone that had found and transplanted the Emiya Family Crest.
The dagger dissolved into motes of blue light as he released it to Gaia.
Better find out who brought me here. I need to know what they want from me.
He stepped out of the bathroom carefully, slipping back to the room he woke up in and checking the dresser and closet for clothes that might fit him. To his surprise, though, all of the clothes fit him perfectly, even his old middle school uniform in the closet.
The fact that his middle school uniform was here in the first place was concerning, though. Did his captors plan on sending him back to middle school? What could they be looking for there?
If they expected him to help them kidnap children, they would find themselves on the business end of his blades very quickly.
Not wanting to put off his meeting with whoever brought him here any longer, he dressed himself in casual clothes and walked out of the room to face this mysterious proprietor.
The upstairs seemed almost entirely empty, though he admittedly did not wish to intrude on any closed doors, so he left them alone and headed down the stairs nest the end of the hallway once he heard faint voices rising up from the floor below.
Rounding the bottom of the stairs, Shirou first noticed two white-haired women that could plausibly be sisters, though given their differences in demeanor and dress, he wasn't entirely confident. The taller one wore an apron and tied her hair back into a neat ponytail, as would be befitting of a hardworking housewife or responsible assistant. The other girl could not have been more different, however, sporting tousled shoulder-length hair and wearing clothes nearly unsuitable for wearing in public, lying on the couch reading a manga. He imagined the two found themselves in arguments quite often.
If Shirou didn't know better, he might have said that these two were Ilya's older sisters.
Even if they were not, he could not afford to let his guard down. They were still most definitely Einzbern.
Shirou stepped forward to talk to them, steeling himself, and noticed that they were talking to another Einzbern across the room, as well as a smiling Emiya Kiritsugu.
Every theory Shirou had was thrown out the window.
He tried to speak up, but words would not come out. His throat was a vice on his voice, suppressing everything he never got the chance to tell his father. Shirou's feelings on the Magus Killer were clashing and complicated, but he still wholeheartedly loved his father. He might have cried if he still thought himself human enough to do so.
If this was an illusion, it was the cruelest thing anyone had ever done to him.
"Ah, Shirou," Kiritsugu noticed him, perceptive as always. "Good morning. I'm sorry we couldn't stay longer, but we have a flight to catch. This trip shouldn't be too long, though. We'll be back in two or three weeks."
"Mhm!" The white-haired woman at his side agreed. "So be good for Sella and Liz! And please make sure Illya keeps up with her studies!"
He assumed this woman was Illya's mother, given they looked nearly identical. Were Sella and Liz servants, then? Shirou had to imagine that the homunculi were commonly used as such among the Einzbern. Though, these two did seem a bit less formal than he would have guessed.
"Alright," he responded to the woman he had never met. He doubted he could have responded to Kiritsugu without his voice breaking. "Come back safely."
"We will!" the bubbly woman responded excitedly while Kiritsugu calmly smiled and waved to him, briefcase clutched loosely in his other hand. His father opened the door and the couple disembarked without fanfare.
The more formal of the homunculi, Sella, turned to him. "Good morning, Shirou," she bowed slightly. "Are you heading to practice kyudo early once again?"
He paused for an instant. She seemed to know him as well, regarding their interaction as standard routine rather than a new development.
"Er, yeah," he played along, scratching the back of his head. He planned to follow up his statement, but could think of nothing believable to stay, so he let silence descend between them.
"Please be safe, then," Sella responded as if nothing was amiss. "And be back before sunset."
"I will," he responded simply, not wishing to cause any friction before he figured out exactly what sort of situation he had found himself in. If they noticed anything amiss, he had no way to assuage any of their suspicions. He needed information, and these people apparently knew him well enough that anything out of the ordinary would not go unnoticed.
Shirou found what he assumed were his shoes at the door, a pair of black and white sneakers, and slipped out the wooden front door as unobtrusively as he could manage.
The bright blue sky was beautiful today. Scant few clouds drifted lazily by, accompanied by the flitting of small sparrows and the amusingly indignant cawing of a pair of crows. The sun shone clearly upon the lush grass and modest trees peppering the cheerfully normal neighborhood.
Shirou had no idea where he was.
He knew he had to be within Fuyuki, given the uniform in his closet was for Homurahara Middle School, but Fuyuki was not a small town, and he was only particularly familiar with the areas he stayed within, as well as the major city landmarks. He had no clue where the other residential areas were in relation to those landmarks, and all he could presume was that he was somewhere within New Fuyuki.
Emiya frowned. He needed a map.
He could not return to the house to ask for one; the maids would immediately question why he had forgotten his way to school, and he could not provide a reasonable explanation. Telling the truth was obviously unreasonable. Shirou would have to find one out in public.
Shirou stepped forward onto the sidewalk before he bent down to stretch his legs. He would likely miss his kyudo practice, but his body was not quite as in shape as his previous one, so he would have to work on both of those problems starting today.
If he was going to spend a good amount of his day wandering, he might as well spend it running.
He took off eastward at a moderately fast pace for his size, though it was nowhere near what he was used to. It irked him a bit, honestly, suddenly downgraded from a man that could go toe-to-toe with Heracles himself to a mildly athletic child. Though, he found this a rather small issue compared to the fact that his father was somehow alive.
It could not have been something as simple as temporal magecraft, or even the Fifth Magic, given all of the differences between his memories and whatever place he currently was trapped within. The Second Magic was certainly a possibility, though Rin still had his projection of Zelretch's Jeweled Sword, which was the only connection he could think of. Illusion magic would make little sense, as he would just be dead and not subjected to illusions. He rather vividly remembered dying, at least.
Shirou nearly stumbled over a curb when two more possibilities formed in his mind. One was Alaya herself, who had possibly sent Shirou to another reality using the arm of his Counter Guardian self, as well as Archer's reality marble, grafted onto his own. He would have to test the hypothesis once he had access to a personal workshop.
The other possibility was the woman: the wife of Emiya Kiritsugu. Ilya had mentioned something about the Einzbern homunculi serving as hosts of the Grail. It was possible that she, using the Grail's power, sent his spirit here. He considered this the less likely possibility, but he could not discount it without evidence.
Either way, his lack of memories likely meant that the Emiya Shirou of this world had died. He might have even been the cause.
Shirou shivered. That was an unsettling thought.
Once he had escaped the residential districts and moved into the business districts, Shirou had some idea of where he was. Mount Enzou could be seen in the distance, and the scent of seawater drifted in from the north. He could just barely see the ocean between certain buildings when he looked to the right, and the progressively stronger smell of salt meant he was getting closer to the Great Bridge.
Unfortunately, this did mean that his school was now on the complete opposite end of the city from where he lived. Oh, well. More exercise, he supposed.
Running through the city, Shirou found, was a very refreshing experience. It was, however, much more exhausting than it would have been in his original body, and already he found his side aching as he crossed the Great Bridge into Old Fuyuki. He refused to reinforce his body, though; it would defeat the point of physical training. He could work on his thaumaturgy later.
Eventually, after pushing any thoughts of magecraft out of his mind to focus purely on proper breathing, he eventually made it to Homurahara Middle School, panting, sweating and out of breath. Practically dragging himself into the locker rooms, Shirou rinsed the sweat off his body, relishing in the cool water, before he quickly toweled off and pulled on his archery uniform and headed towards the dojo.
If running was refreshing, then kyudo was calming, almost meditative. Shirou lived and breathed the eight stages of shooting, even applying the principle to his magecraft, and had long since mastered archery as a result. If he wished, he could compete at and beyond an Olympic level. Distance shooting, arrow-splitting, Shirou was nigh-untouchable in his favored field. He could land bullseyes at two hundred meters from a spinning freefall if necessary. Because he was the best, however, there was nothing he could improve upon, not without magic circuits and supernaturally enhanced targets.
Kyudo was not a sport to Shirou anymore. It was simply a ritual.
While he collected his arrows from the target once more, immersing himself in the repetition of archery, he heard the door to the dojo slide open slowly. He turned to look at the traditional rice-paper door, one hand still on the large wooden target, and noticed a surprisingly familiar face, though not one he would have expected to see at the archery range.
Glittering blue eyes stared at him curiously, framed between black twintails that swung freely as Tohsaka Rin's head tilted cutely to one side.
Shirou was surprised to see her here. To his knowledge, she did not visit the archery range often, only coming to see their mutual friend Mitsuzuri. He was less surprised, however, to know that she also came to school on weekends. Rin had always been academically competitive, so it was little wonder she studied harder than most of the class. Issei had always complained about her test scores, given how easy she always made schoolwork look, but she always was more dedicated than his friend thought.
Even her presence at school so early on an off day, despite her hatred of mornings, spoke volumes of her commitment.
"Good morning, Tohsaka," Shirou greeted her with a smile.
"Emiya-kun," she nodded at him, mildly distracted by him pulling the arrows out of his target before walking back to the firing line and setting them back in the quiver.
"Are you looking for Mitsuzuri? I don't think she's here today, unfortunately," he asked as he readied and raised the bow, an arrow between his fingertips.
"No, I know she isn't. I guess I was just curious. She always goes on about how you dominate at tournaments and you're the best thing to happen to the Kyudo Club or whatever. I figure if I see you in person, I can tell her and she'll shut up about you," Rin answered breezily, perhaps a bit defensively, but not unkindly.
"I'll try not to disappoint, then," he smiled at her for a quick moment before he drew the bow, stretching out to full draw, breathed out, and released.
The arrow struck dead center, as always.
One of Rin's eyebrows raised just a bit. Clearly, he had exceeded her expectations already, but that did not mean he had impressed her. Perhaps the next shot would.
Ayako was going to chew him out for destroying arrows again.
Shirou flowed through the eight steps again as if he were born to do so, and when he released the arrow, it landed exactly where he wished it to. The first arrow was split perfectly lengthwise by the second, which rested neatly in the bullseye. Whether the tip of the first arrow was also split or merely driven deeper into the target was a mystery. Hopefully he could dig it out and find out. Rin would notice him using structural grasping in such close proximity, so he could not simply feel for it.
He had not missed her quickly concealed expression of shock upon seeing the initial arrow split, either.
"Mitsuzuri always gets mad at me when I do that, since we have to use the club budget to replace the arrows," Shirou smiled fondly as he reminisced about Ayako, her expression torn between amazement at his precision and anger at his destruction of club property. The scenario had played out often enough that Shirou eventually began making small donations to the academy to help recoup the losses.
That all seemed so long ago, now.
"Emiya-kun? Emiya-kun?" Ah, Rin was closer to him, now. He must have missed her response.
"Ah, sorry, I guess I'm a bit out of it. Could you repeat that?" Shirou asked her, scratching the back of his head sheepishly.
She stepped back and crossed her arms, her expression setting into a displeased frown. "Honestly, Emiya-kun, if you aren't going to listen to me, I don't know why I should bother."
He bowed shallowly; his bow still clutched in his hands. "I'm sorry, Tohsaka, I didn't mean to space out like that. Could you please say that again?"
"Fine," she huffed after glaring at him for a second, tossing one of her twintails behind her shoulder and shaking her head. He finally noticed that all of her hair was wrapped in her pigtails, and her hair was short in the back, unlike her style in high school. "I was asking if you ever planned to go national with archery. You seem to be good enough for it."
Shirou shook his head, looking back out at the split arrow. "I don't think so, no."
"How come?" Rin's brow furrowed in confusion, as if not trying to be the best at something was completely alien to her.
He had to hold back a snort. Knowing her, it probably was.
"There's no point. I've already perfected it," he gestured to the target, before grabbing another arrow and launching it at the target, slicing the previous arrow cleanly in half. "There's nothing more I can improve on."
Rin blinked slowly, almost cat-like. "So why not go to the Olympics and take home the gold?"
"Because that's not what kyudo is," he responded. "The competitors practice archery for competition and glory. They simply use their bow. They get better, but they can't be perfect. They don't understand. Kyudo is the practice of emptying yourself, becoming one with the bow and one with the target. Once you can connect yourself with both, you'll always land your shot."
"Huh," Tohsaka said thoughtfully. "I've never thought of it like that. So is kyudo a ritual to you?"
Shirou shrugged. "It's a meditative practice, I guess. It helps keep me calm. I can think more clearly after I practice."
"I can't really relate," Rin mused offhandedly, still staring at the arrows Shirou had split. "I've always wanted to be the best. I suppose I'm too competitive for my own good."
He smiled. Tohsaka always had a drive to succeed unlike anyone else he had ever seen. It was inspiring. He didn't know how he would have survived the war without her.
"I admire that competitiveness, though. It makes you really stand out, you know. I can tell you'll be great someday," he confessed easily as he nocked another arrow, this time aiming at one of the adjacent targets. His fingers released, and the arrow embedded itself into the bullseye as expected.
Shirou blinked. Tohsaka had been silent for longer than he would have expected, usually she had some kind of witty response by now—oh.
Tohsaka's face is really red.
A fierce blush had spread across her cheeks, all the way to the tips of her ears. Her sharp eyes glared at him angrily as her clenched fists shook at her sides.
Did I say something wrong? Is she angry at me?
"Tohsaka, I—" Shirou started, but was immediately cut off.
"Idiot! Don't just say things so thoughtlessly! You'll give people the wrong idea!" She shouted, turning away from him and running off hurriedly. By the time he had even taken a couple steps, she was rounding the door to the entrance and out of sight.
"Tohsaka, wait!" he shouted as he stepped out the door to chase after her, but she was too far away for him to catch, not without reinforcing himself.
Still can't take a compliment, I guess….
He left the range after de-stringing his bow, heading back to the locker room to change into his everyday clothes.
There were a few things he still needed to investigate.
The hike up Mount Enzou's stairs was longer than he remembered. Or maybe he was just shorter now. Shirou supposed his memory wasn't good enough for him to tell the difference. Regardless, he found himself lost among the verdant foliage and winding natural pathways beside the main stairway, trying to remember where the cavern that led into the heart of the mountain hid itself.
This was far easier when he could trust his nose to sniff out the infernal mana the Greater Grail emanated.
Rounding one of the larger trees a bit further off of the beaten path, Shirou finally sighted the vegetation giving way to rigid stone and immutable earth. Behind one of the larger rocks, a yawning entrance sat innocently, the darkness deeper within reminding him of the unending curses he had faced the last time he was here.
Shirou was relieved that he could not smell any magic from the cave. The Grail was still dormant, and still would be for years to come. He would have no better opportunity than now to destroy it.
Hopefully my circuits can handle it.
Excalibur would kill him if he tried to project it, but the Grail would still be weakened. It would be another three to five years before it could draw enough mana from the intersected ley lines to initiate another Holy Grail War. Shirou frowned as he looked down at his hand, grasping the empty air.
Durandal will have to do.
He hoped it could accomplish what he needed it to.
Shirou ventured forth into the darkness as he projected a flaming gladius, some mystic code that Archer had picked up from a relatively new mage upon his travels. He doubted the sword was designed to be used as a simple torch, but most mages lacked ingenuity anyway. Every problem seemed to require a new solution.
Shirou snorted derisively at himself.
Archer's memories might be affecting me more than I thought.
The memories were still scattered and incomplete, most of them only able to be recalled because of the swords that each reflection was connected to, but Shirou was sure that they would fill in as his own reality marble developed and merged with Archer's. Hopefully then the manifestation of his magecraft wouldn't attempt to kill him.
Shirou progressed steadily down the winding passageway, finally reaching the central chamber of the cave after becoming lost in his own thoughts again. He held the sword aloft, but its flames were not strong enough to light the entire cavern. Stalactites cast large, looming shadows across the open earth, and the crude dais could just barely be made out, but he would need to get closer.
He shivered. He had no desire to be anywhere near that malevolent mass of curses again. The sooner he destroyed it, the sooner he could leave.
In his left hand, Shirou projected the Holy Sword Durandal. Gifted by the angels themselves, the heavenly blade held three miracles within, and he might need all three of them if he were to purify an evil this powerful yet again.
Striding forth confidently, Shirou held the Invincible Sword parallel to himself, as a righteous knight would.
Once the dais was clearly in sight, lit properly by the mystic code in his other hand, he froze. He should have noticed earlier. He knew something was off, he should have felt something, but he was too relieved by the lack of suffocating malevolence in the air to think on it further. It was a stupid mistake; one he should have learned not to make by now.
Durandal slipped away, fading into motes of light.
At the center of the chamber, the dais sat empty.
The Greater Grail was missing.