.

.

.

He paced with a kind of evil deliberation, years of feverish obsession boiled down to the essentials; a glint in the eye, a showing of teeth, a breath that hissed with anticipation. The walls were lined with six years' work – work that looked back as he looked at them, shuffling and gurgling deep in their throats. No accidents these, nor things of nature; Earth would have cringed to birth them, Gaia burn with shame to have allowed them to occur. These were his masterpieces, perfected versions of those earlier, clumsier makings that he had produced in the early years, when their hunting grounds had been only in the neighboring regions of his home. Unnatural as they were, it could be said that they too had grown through Darwin's principle, though the irony of applying the most famous theory of life to his 'little creations' brought a twisted smile to his face. But it was true; the faults and failings of the earlier attempts had led to their fall – while he, learning from their flaws, had made them better. Those left now, glaring at him from the walls, were all products of the last two or three years. Better, far better beings, for the far more challenging task ahead. Until now the only difficulty was secrecy, which he arranged and controlled by controlling them. But for this, the final stage, they would need strength. They would need speed, and endurance. They would need to help him do what he had failed to do fifteen years ago. And what his ancestors had failed to do since completing their great work.

Claim it.

Finally, it was almost time…

...

Shirou leaned, shivering, against the rough brick wall of the alley. Not at the sight of the body, though that was bad enough. Badly ravaged, dead for less than two hours, his killers clearly had not been human. But he had seen far worse during the War. No, it was the lingering sense of the perpetrators that affected him, a faint miasma just familiar enough to make the unnaturalness that much more horrifying. Whatever had done it had once bore some connection to humanity…but it was long gone now.

Rin, kneeling by the body, looked up. "Oi, Shirou, pull yourself together," she said quietly. "We still have to do something about him."

Shirou shook himself. "I know. I'll take the head."

Rin nodded, and moved around out of his way. "It's not your fault, you know."

"Of course I know. But it's the third time, Rin!"

Rin's face was grim. She bent and took hold of the feet; Shirou lifted from the shoulders. If they left him somewhere closer to the streets, he would be found and taken care of. "I know," she replied as they moved. "But I can't do anything more without a piece of who or whatever's doing it. I can't guess where they're going to be when I don't have a clue what they are. I can't even tell if they're made from magecraft or a natural force."

"They aren't a natural force," Shirou said grimly. "Trust me. I've never sensed anything so wrong in my life. Someone made them."

"And you're very familiar with the line between evil and unnatural, aren't you?" Rin murmured.

"Yes," the destroyer of the dark grail said wryly. "Though it hasn't helped find them so far."

"It hasn't yet, but thanks to you there's a chance. I wish I knew where that nose for magic comes from. You track these things like a bloodhound tracks criminals."

"Thanks for the flattering comparison."

"You're welcome."

"I might make you change that to wolfhound if we catch them though."

The corner of Rin's mouth twisted. Three times, five deaths…yes, she felt very sorry for whatever it was, when they caught it. She was possibly the strongest mage in Japan, but she would have avoided a serious fight with Shirou at all costs, as a friend or otherwise. There would be plenty of pieces to examine when he was done. That was for sure.

...

The plane cruised to a stop with the usual slow grinding maneuvers as it aligned with the bridge to the station. There was a faint scattering of applause from those not too dulled by the long overseas trip. Arturia Whittington, toned to the standards of England's SS, joined in politely, though she did not understand the practice. Even allowing for all of the comparative differences in circumstance, airplane accidents were far less common than car crashes. Did you applaud every time someone successfully parallel parked? Still, appreciation was hard to come by, so she supposed the pilot was entitled to it. Besides, a little light cheering was a pleasant way to end the flight.

She had been interested in Japan for a long time. She didn't take vacations very often, but the latest streak of failed missions had made her so tense that she had more or less been ordered to take one. She was too practical to argue when she knew they were right; at the rate she had been going, she had been very likely to hurt herself. Still, it galled her – still not so much as a glimpse, but so many victims…

She shook herself. That was now an ocean away, where she could do so little about it that it was actually feasible for her to forget and relax. Which had been the entire idea of taking this trip to start with. So she would.

Two busboys, three desk receptionists, and a taxi driver later, she reflected with satisfaction on the success of her Japanese from the back seat. She had even been complimented twice. It was the mannerisms that counted, she'd been told: few foreigners ever really got comfortable with the bowing and such. If that was true, it explained the compliments. The genteel, humble nature of the Japanese social language appealed to her innately. It rang well with her personal sense of honor – what her squad would have laughingly called her 'chivalry'. Well, they could laugh – when you danced with death as often as they did, you laughed quite a bit at strange things – but here it seemed to go well, and all in all she was pleased with her experience so far, not to mention her choice of port. It was much nicer here than it would have been in the capital, she was sure. She had wanted to experience Japan, not Tokyo tourist traps. She had looked for a smaller town and this one had caught her eye; she seemed to have chosen well. She eyed the view out the window thoughtfully. There was still an hour of light left, and even then it would be early, what with it being winter here. She had heard that the Japanese took tea nearly as serious as the English. She would ask the hotel for directions to someplace nice nearby and find out. She could get her first taste of life here, and friendly fellow patrons could advise her on what to do the next day. It would be a nice, relaxing start to what she intended to be – now that she had taken the time to go through with it – a well-enjoyed week off. If she was lucky, she might even find a mage here. She never had in England, not since old Marvin had stopped his wanderings long enough to teach her some basics of mana drawing and manipulating. It had served her well, and she had made something of an art of it, but more instruction in the practice would be very welcome; a side dish of accomplishment would help round off the experience. She really did prefer to be doing something.