PRELIMINARIES: This will be a little longer than usual, so please bear with me.
None of this belongs to me. Fate/stay night, and all characters, settings, etc. associated with it, are the property of Type-Moon. Type-Moon is not affiliated in any way, shape, or form with the creation of this story (a fact for which, I suspect, they would be profoundly grateful). I have made liberal usage of their characters and settings in this story; this was done without their knowledge or permission, and is technically an infringement of Type-Moon's copyright. As this story is, at the most pragmatic level, free promotion of the Fate franchise, it is hoped that they will regard this story (if at all) with a benign ignorance.
If you paid a wooden nickel for this story, not only have you been drastically overcharged, but whoever charged you has done so illegally, and I disavow any association with said individual(s).
It should be noted once again that as far as terminology goes, I am relying primarily on mirror moon's translation of the game (e.g, majutsu/mahou as magic/sorcery) with the official release of the anime as a secondary source.
All feedback is welcome, up to and including line-by-line critiques (provided they fit in my mailbox).
I owe my prereaders, Shack, Kami, and Elf, both my heartfelt thanks for their work on this chapter, and my deepest apologies for nearly giving them all heart attacks when this popped up after so long.
And, on that note, a few words to all of you, as well.
The last chapter of The World Without was released on May 23, 2012. As I write this, it is the evening of August 4, 2013.
Needless to say, things have not gone according to plan.
Some delays on this chapter were inevitable. For research purposes, I needed to track down and decipher an untranslated portion of Realta Nua, and in getting the events of this chapter straight, I ended up having to completely outline both this chapter and the next one at the same time (and then go back and start over from scratch, when I realized that I needed to switch the positions of two characters to make everything fit).
While I was dealing with that, the situation at my workplace went into a nosedive, and it was late autumn before I could come up for air. At that point, when I began writing again, I was projecting having this chapter out by the end of November.
Then, by the end of December.
Then, by February.
Then, I threw my hands up in the air and stopped making predictions.
I have no excuse for the extra 9 months or so that this chapter took me, and can only apologize for the delay.
(The subject matter of this chapter probably won't help matters, either. This was always intended to be a "down-time" chapter after the events of the past three, but it ended up being even less eventful than I'd thought it would be - so I also apologize for this being all you get, after waiting for so long. There are two battles slated for next chapter, so things should pick up again quickly...and I mean that in both senses of the word.)
And that brings me to my final point. During the long delay, a number of people in different places have asked or speculated about the status of this story. I tried to answer these queries and provide updates when I managed to run across them before too much time had passed. I'm sure I didn't catch them all, though, and that made me realize that I have failed to make something clear in the past.
I maintain a LiveJournal, whose address can be found in my FFN profile. That is where I post progress updates, among other things, when I have them (and do my best despairing Don Music impressions, when I don't). If you have a question about the status of this story (or Leap of Faith, for that matter - believe it or not, that fic's not dead, either) that's the place to go. Feel free to ask - you will get an answer, I promise. (It may not be much more than an extended string of expletives...but that, too, is an answer.)
And now that that's out of the way - sit back and either enjoy the ride, or (more likely) enjoy thinking of what you'll do to me at the end of it...
Everything was red.
The townscape was drenched in it; everything her hands and feet came into contact with made the same squelching sound.
It seemed familiar, somehow, but she couldn't figure out why.
She advanced along the asphalt sidewalk. She felt sluggish and heavy; her head drooped, step by step, and her eyes affixed themselves to her feet without her realizing it. When she raised her head and looked around, the surfaces of all the buildings were dyed vermilion. The walls looked like gigantic nails, stabbing out of the sky into the surface.
"I won't let you escape."
Who'd said that?
She looked around, but there was no one in sight - only her, and the buildings.
And the red sun, glaring down at her like an evil eye.
It hurt. The red hue overwhelmed her eyes and made her dizzy. But something told her not to rest. Not here, not now.
Resting was dangerous.
It was too quiet. She was downtown, but there was no one around. The buildings were empty, the streets were deserted, and there were no cars or buses in sight.
No one there. No sign that anyone had ever been there.
What was going on, here? Had there been some kind of large-scale evacuation that only she had failed to notice?
Enough of this. She turned to go home -
'But isn't she waiting?'
She caught a movement in the corner of her eye. She looked over, and her eyes widened.
Wasn't that Tohsaka?
It was. Even from this distance, she could tell.
But Tohsaka ignored her. She fluttered her hair, so long it touched the surface, and walked away.
She was wearing her school uniform. Didn't that mean she was going to the school?
She ran after her. Tohsaka didn't notice - but the distance between them didn't shrink at all. Even though Tohsaka was walking and she was running, Tohsaka was gradually getting farther and farther away.
What was going on, here? Tohsaka was walking with great strides. Even though she was running hard enough to be a little out of breath, Tohsaka was somehow still quicker.
They were at the school. Tohsaka's long hair passed through the gates, and out of sight.
She entered the school herself a moment later, but Tohsaka was already gone. There was no one else here, either - no one at all. The red-stained landscape was filled only with finely made, human-shaped candy.
If the red sun were a little stronger, their original forms would melt into non-existence.
"Tohsaka? Where are you?"
She heard a girl's laughter, from inside the school.
She entered the school building, drawn towards the sound as if it were a magnet.
She stood in front of one of the classrooms. As she reached for the door, a thought occurred to her.
Just why had she been following Tohsaka around, anyway?
Then the door opened in her hand, and the white light from the red sun washed over her.
Her sight cleared, and
There were two girls inside, together.
She felt neither surprise nor disgust at the sight. The two moved as lovers, so that even the distinction of the sexes seemed meaningless - and in this red scenery, they seemed only proper.
If anything concerned her, it was the familiar blond-haired girl sitting on a desk propped against the wall, wtih her skirt hiked up and her legs spread.
In the first place, she knew that this girl - whoever she was - was not a student, so she shouldn't have been wearing their school's uniform.
But even beyond that, the girl's arms dangled limply at her sides, wrists resting palm-up on the desk. It was loose, sloppy...
Like a corpse.
Her eyes widened in sudden realization.
She'd made a mistake.
This was not lovemaking.
This was a feeding.
The predator was eating the prey, and there was nothing she could do about it.
The blonde's green eyes rolled wildly in her head. Her body convulsed without stopping, stronger, then weaker, then stronger again.
Her lips moved silently in a plea to stop. But the long
black hair below ignored her, and continued to burrow further in.
Her body writhed, and
How long did this go on? The shudders grew weaker, and weaker...until at last, the blonde's head lolled to the side. Her rib cage settled one final time, and she was still.
Tohsaka chuckled, and straightened. She brought one hand to her face; her fingers came away shiny, glistening in the red light as if with blood, and she licked them clean.
She couldn't tear her eyes away from the scene. Tohsaka continued to clean herself, noisily slurping one digit at a time. The sound resonated in her ears, sending shivers down her spine.
"You came, Mitsuzuri-san. I'm glad."
Her eyes snapped back to Tohsaka. When had she finished? The other girl's eyes were now closed, as if enjoying the ambience, and her voice was sticky with anticipation.
The dizziness was overwhelming. She couldn't move, couldn't even think.
Just how long ago had her freedom been stolen away?
When had Tohsaka gotten so close?
"What's wrong, Mitsuzuri-san? Are you afraid?"
She stared at her, paralyzed, and Tohsaka chuckled.
"Don't worry. Nobody will trouble us here. We can do whatever we want, just like always."
She vibrated in place, unable to move, and her eyes darted to the girl still propped against the wall. Tohsaka turned her head to follow her gaze, and chuckled again - a low, sensual sound that gathered in her stomach.
"Saber was delicious."
Saber - yes, that was her name - but what had she been doing here?
"She was here because I called her, of course."
Of course, she - wait.
Her eyes darted back to Tohsaka.
She was paralyzed. She couldn't speak - so how...?
"Oh, that? I can read minds."
"Just kidding. I just have good intuition." Tohsaka frowned. "It's your fault though, you know. I was waiting for you...and waiting...and waiting...and waiting..."
Tohsaka placed one delicate finger under her chin, and tilted her face up to meet her still-closed eyes.
"I just couldn't stand it anymore."
Wait a minute.
Wasn't Tohsaka shorter than her?
Tohsaka chuckled again. "But now, it's your turn." She wrapped her arms around her, leaned in close, and whispered in her ear. "This time, the one I eat...will be you."
Her breath caught in her throat. She looked again at Saber, motionless against the wall.
Tohsaka, still embracing her, laughed.
"Don't worry. I know you're not ready for that yet. We can save that for next time. Today, what I want is..."
Tohsaka blew her sweet breath softly on her neck.
The cry escaped her, even though she was paralyzed. It was not a word, just a primal shriek.
Tohsaka laughed again - and in the next instant, she felt hot, wet lips pressing against the base of her neck.
The kisses trailed along her collarbone, then back up under her ear. Tohsaka slowly traced along her jawline - then suddenly darted in, and claimed her lips.
She squealed a wordless protest into the mouth pressed against her. Tohsaka pulled back, and smiled.
And then, opened her eyes.
Silver eyes, like crystals, glistening in the crimson light. Square red pupils, pinning her in place. They were beautiful. Inhuman.
And not the eyes of Tohsaka Rin.
It took everything she had to force her mouth to form the word. She had no strength left afterwards.
"Tohsaka" only chuckled.
"Very good, Mitsuzuri-san. I knew that you were strong. I made the right choice in coming to you, after all." Her smile widened. "But no more of that. For now, all you need to do is - "
Be devoured by me here.
"Tohsaka" leaned in, and sank her teeth into her neck.
It didn't hurt.
That didn't surprise her, and she wasn't sure why. "Tohsaka's" lips, her teeth, her tongue - they all felt good, even as she felt the life being pulled out of her, suckle by suckle.
Even though "Tohsaka" was still biting her and shouldn't have been able to speak, she heard the other girl's voice clearly.
"Hot, fresh...this is even better than I thought it would be. I shall need to be careful not to take too much by mistake."
Her vision was wavering. She was at her limit.
"Oh, already?" A sigh of disappointment. "Ah, well. It cannot be helped."
"Tohsaka" pulled away from her, and smiled.
"Until next time, then."
And then she was gone.
Mitsuzuri Ayako's sight broke down into static...and then, darkness.
THE WORLD WITHOUT
A Fate/stay night Fanfic
She had returned to the hill.
By this time, she knew enough to know that she was dreaming. She'd seen this place before - a red hill, lit by a sunset so vivid that it seemed to be drenched in blood. It was a place of death and the dead, filled with nothing but bodies and swords.
It was the place where Saber had met her end.
It was strange, though. The hill looked a little different. There were swords lying everywhere she looked, plunged into the ground in a cruel parody of Caliburn's debut - but the bodies were missing.
The smell of fire and battle was overwhelming, but the blood was missing. It was as if a battle had been fought, but no one had died.
No, that was not right, either. Death permeated this place. It was as if...yes, that was it. It was as if those who fought were dead before the battle ever began - not the Dead, but dead, all the same.
She'd made a mistake.
This was not the Battle of Camlann, after all. The realization came to her suddenly - as if an infusion from the dream itself - but with that understanding came further confusion.
This was not the hill on which Arturia Pendragon had died, but it was similar. Too similar. Why did it look so much like that other hill? Had another battle taken place here? Who had fought? Whom had Saber defeated?
And then, a final realization.
The dreamer was alone here.
This was Saber's past, wasn't it?
So where was Saber?
Sakura awoke slowly, and comfortably.
She felt good - better than she'd felt in some time, though she wasn't sure why.
She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and looked around.
She was in her room at Senpai's house.
Her body rose of its own accord, seeking out a change in clothes even as she continued to look around in confusion.
Why was she here? What had happened? She couldn't remember how last night had ended, though the fact she had to take out a new uniform - she found the one she'd been wearing in the hamper - suggested that she had, at the very least, gone to bed under her own power.
At least, she assumed she had. She couldn't remember actually going to bed at all.
Her stomach grumbled as she finished buttoning her vest, and she decided that the rest of her concerns could wait until after breakfast.
She stopped when she reached the living room.
"And now, a word from our sponsors..."
The TV was on, but there was no one there.
Had Saber or Fujimura-sensei stepped out for a moment? There was no sign of breakfast on the table, but -
"Mornin'. Up early, ain'tcha?"
She must have still been half-asleep. She could have sworn she'd just seen -
The sound of liquid drew her eyes back to the kitchen, and to the disheveled figure pouring itself a cup of tea.
"T - Tohsaka-senpai?!"
An incoherent grunt was the only response she got. Sakura remembered only in the nick of time to move out of the way as a barely recognizable Tohsaka Rin shuffled past her to the table, plopped down, and took a long, noisy drink.
"Tohsaka-senpai, why are you - "
She stopped at the older girl's upraised hand.
"Sakura. I hope you're not going back to calling me that now." She scowled, and Sakura shivered. "After you were so insistent last night..."
Sakura frowned. What did last night have to do with anything?
For that matter, what else would she call her? It wasn't like she could -
The blood drained from Sakura's face.
She gulped. "Nee...san?"
"Better." Rin gave a decisive nod, and Sakura shivered as her sister - her sister! - turned and faced her fully. "I'm annoyed enough as it is, without you throwing away the one positive thing from last night."
Last night, again.
"Nee-san..." Sakura had to stop and shake herself. It felt wrong to be calling her that, after all the years they'd both spent denying it, but - "Nee-san, what happened? Why are you here?"
Rin gestured across the table. "Have a seat, Sakura." She turned back to her tea as Sakura sat, and took another long drink before continuing. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"I..." Sakura frowned. Her memories were a bit jumbled, but - "After...after you showed up...there was someone else, wasn't there? It was - " The memory came to her in a flash, and she drew in a sharp breath. "It was Berserker."
"Nee-san, what happened? That Servant - we couldn't have beaten him, could we? How did we...?"
"You're right, unfortunately." Rin sighed. "Saber and Archer didn't stand a chance against him. They were getting bounced around like ping pong balls...at which point, you took matters into your own hands."
Sakura had -
"Nee-san, what did I do?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that." She scowled. "You were using some kind of magic. Damned if I know what, or how - I'd have bet half my bank account you couldn't have done anything in your condition. I'm assuming that was the Matou Crest."
"I...yes, it would have to be."
That was the only possibility. It had to be the crest worms; Sakura hadn't been taught any other kind of magic -
How she was feeling - if she'd used that magic, and drained someone -
"Nee-san, what happened? I didn't...I didn't kill someone, did I?"
"Not for lack of effort." Rin gave her a wry look as she took another drink, draining her cup. "You went after Berserker's Master, and nearly got her, too. What were you trying, there?"
"I...my memory isn't really clear, but..." Sakura frowned. Going after the Master instead of the Servant made some sense, but -
"If...if I used the spell I think I did...I was trying to drain her magical energy. She's Berserker's Master - if she lost enough..."
"...she'd have lost control, and self-destructed." Rin groaned, and put her head in her hands. "Damn it! I should have realized - if we'd cooperated, that might have worked."
Might have worked?
Now Sakura was worried all over again. If that spell had failed -
"Nee-san, what happened?"
"Berserker happened." Rin scowled. "He got between his Master and the spell, and when it hit him, it just...shattered."
Of all the ways that spell could have gone wrong, shattering was not one of them. Even if it was repelled, the attack would have taken enough from him by virtue of mere contact to at least -
But if it didn't -
Sakura's breath caught in her throat.
"I think there had to be a Noble Phantasm involved, somewhere. It wasn't like Saber's Magic Resistance; it's more like the spell was rejected altogether. And after that..." Rin glanced at Sakura's horrified expression, and winced. "Well, I think you have a better idea of what happened than I do."
The worms had to be fed. One way or another, they would get their energy. If the caster was the only source available, then that was where they would go.
And in Sakura's condition...
"Nee-san...why am I still alive?" Not just alive, but feeling better than she had in some time - and she could still sense her connections to both Servants, on top of that. Saber and Rider were both alive and well. "How did you...?"
Rin's face reddened, and she turned away. "You needed magical energy. So we gave you some."
"You gave me..." She took in her sister's blush...and suddenly felt her own face burning. "Nee-san! You didn't - "
"No!" Rin waved her hands, eyes wide. "I didn't...well...not exactly."
"I couldn't just give you my energy. That would have taken a contract, and that's a bad idea on multiple levels."
Sakura swallowed, and nodded.
"So I had to use a tool...to do it indirectly."
She didn't, really. Sakura couldn't think of an indirect method of transfer, herself; she could only imagine that it was some kind of Tohsaka family secret (and she even managed that thought with only traces of bitterness).
But that didn't feel right, either. What would her sister be so embarrassed about, if that was all it was? Something about what she'd said sounded familiar, but where -
'Sakura, a Servant is a tool.'
Yes, that was it. That was what Saber had told her, back when she was trying to convince Sakura to use her as a means...to...
Sakura looked at Rin.
Rin looked away, and Sakura felt her heart begin to pound.
Her sister...had given her energy.
Her sister had used a tool to do so.
A Servant was a tool.
Nee-san has a Servant.
A panicked squeak escaped before Sakura could cover her mouth.
Rin's blush deepened.
She nodded wordlessly.
What did you say, in a situation like this?
What could you say?
"Nee-san...th-thank you, I - "
Rin cut her off, face still red. "Don't thank me, Sakura."
It was funny, how the same words could make her feel so much better than they had mere hours ago.
"It's not like I could have let you die," Rin continued. "We're - I mean, we're partners now, right?"
Sakura cocked her head in thought for a moment, before her eyes widened.
Nee-san accepted - !
She gave her sister a grateful smile, and the older girl blushed again.
"Anyway!" Rin coughed lightly. "I wanted to talk to you about that. How are you feeling, now?"
"I'm fine, Nee-san."
Rin gave her a flat look. "'Fine' fine, or 'Let's pretend Shinji's not hitting me' fine?"
Sakura blanched. "Nee-san - !"
Rin winced. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."
"No, it's just..."
Rin waved her off. "Forget it. But this is important, Sakura. This is an indirect transfer of energy, so I need to have an accurate picture of how your reserves are holding up, if this is going to work."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that what you took from Archer, Archer took from me." Rin gestured to herself. "And I'm not in a condition to do much more than sit upright at the moment."
Sakura brought her hands to her mouth in shock. She took in her sister's disheveled state again, this time understanding what was wrong with her, and that it was Sakura's fault -
"Don't look at me like that." Rin gave her an irritated scowl. "A day or so off my feet, and I'll be fine, and if anything happens before that, Archer's at full strength. The question is - when I'm better, what will you be like?" She leaned forward. "How fast is your Magic Crest draining you, Sakura?"
"Ah." Now she understood. "It's not that bad, Nee-san. This was more than I normally would have gotten; even as a Master, it should last me for a few days."
"And if Saber has to use her Noble Phantasm?" Rin shook her head before Sakura could answer. "Never mind, I get the picture. Anyway, to be on the safe side, no one's doing anything today. I'll check your condition tonight to be sure, and we can plan what to do from there."
"All right, Nee-san. Then I - "
"We now return to our coverage of the disaster at Homurabara Academy."
Sakura went still.
"Kirei managed to pass it off as a gas leak." Sakura looked over, and took in Rin's sour expression. "God only knows how, after what Shinji pulled. But that was about all he could do. Sakura, this...you may not want to watch this."
But by that point, it was too late. The report had already begun.
Sakura could only sit there, watching the television with mounting horror as the anchors and reporters droned on.
Nearly a quarter of the student body was dead.
Most of the rest were maimed and disfigured.
In the cafeteria, there were no survivors.
Authorities were still trying, with very little success, to identify all the victims, and distinguish those killed from those merely missing. To that end, a list of all those not conclusively identified as dead or injured had been distributed to the media. Sakura's name was on there, as was her sister's. Mistuzuri Ayako. Matou Shinji. Emiya Shirou.
And so very many others.
The police were asking for those with knowledge of the whereabouts of anyone on the list to come forward.
Unsurprisingly, Caster's Master, Kuzuki Souichirou, was also listed as missing. And there were two other teachers' deaths, apparently unrelated to the "gas": Hitorime Kirishi, who was found with his throat slit at the school gates...
...and Fujimura Taiga, found in a stairwell with a broken neck.
"And now, a word from our sponsors..."
"Hm?" Sakura blinked. Why was her sister so blurry? "Nee-san? I..." She reached up to her eyes, and was surprised when her fingers came away wet.
Sakura was crying?
Why hadn't she noticed?
Rin reached out to her, but Sakura flinched away, and she stopped her hand inches from Sakura's shoulder. Her face contorted, then stiffened; she abruptly stood and turned away, leaving the room without another word.
Sakura watched her go, hands limp on the table, eyes numb.
Saber was not surprised that Archer had noticed her approach. From this close, it was easy for any Servant to sense another; even she, the weakest in that regard, had needed only a few seconds to track down her counterpart.
Where she had found him, though, was troubling.
"What are you doing here?"
"Just admiring the scenery." Archer materialized a few feet inside the shed, and turned to her with a smirk. "This is the only place I've found in this house with more than traces of magecraft. I take it this is where your first Master practiced?"
"I would not know." Saber had to take a moment to remind herself that Archer meant Shirou, not Kiritsugu. "He broke our contract before I had the opportunity to witness his craft."
She frowned as she looked over the shed. She had been here only briefly, first when she was summoned and again when she had searched the house with Sakura. Neither of them had been here since; it was still in the same state of disarray that had resulted from Shirou's stand against Lancer.
But it was familiar, all the same.
Saber didn't like to think about that.
"I see." Archer shrugged, then grinned. "Perhaps it's just as well. If this was his idea of a workshop, I think Rin would have killed him on general principle."
"Archer." Saber fixed him with a steely look. "I have no interest in hearing you insult Shirou in my presence."
"Well, I wouldn't want to wound your delicate maiden's heart."
"Archer, you - "
"My apologies. I misspoke. That should be your delicate kingly heart, correct?" Archer smirked. "Or perhaps you prefer 'queenly'?"
"Neither." Saber ground her teeth, and glared at him.
She'd had enough of people insulting her as a king by the end of the last War. And that War's Rider and Archer had at least had the decency not to bring Guinevere - and by extension, the entire fiasco with Lancelot - into their denigrations.
And then, of course, there was the fact that Archer had reminded her - again - that he and Rin had somehow figured out her identity.
From Invisible Air alone.
That was probably the most aggravating part of all.
"Interesting circle, though."
"It's the oldest thing in here, by far. The style is quite distinctive, as well. Impressive."
He insults me like that, and then - then, he just -
Saber forced herself to regain her composure.
"It is where I was summoned. I would think that to be expected."
"I'm aware of that," Archer said dryly. "I was just past the walls at the time. That's the really interesting thing, though - this isn't a summoning circle."
"Not a - " Saber blinked. "You are sure of this?"
Archer nodded. "Summoning circles are fairly standardized, and circles for Servants even more so - they need to interface with the Grail, and there isn't much leeway there." He gestured at the circle. "This one has none of the required elements. It's not fit to summon a cat, much less a Heroic Spirit."
"Where are you going with this, Archer?"
"Nowhere in particular. I just found it amazing that Emiya Shirou managed to summon you here. Even if the Grail was doing the work, to force you in through that thing..." He shook his head. "However much credit the Founding Three got for their work, it wasn't enough."
Saber frowned again. She remembered this circle; she had carved it herself, at the direction of Irisviel von Einzbern, during the brief period when the pair had made this their base in the previous War.
"Can you tell what this circle was for?" she asked.
"Only a little. You'd be better off asking Rin...or Caster, if things really fall apart on us." He chuckled at her glare, then turned back to the circle. "As far as I can tell, though, it appears to be primarily for maintenance."
"Well, maybe it would be better to say 'emergency support.'" Archer gestured to the circle again. "This is supposed to replenish the magical energy of whatever is in it. It uses the energy of the earth to do so. It's an excellent design...but this is not a good place for it."
"What do you mean?"
"There are several ley lines in this city, as I'm sure you know. It's what makes this land suitable for the Holy Grail War." Saber nodded, and he continued. "But this property isn't particularly close to any of them, so this circle's rate of generation is very slow. It's inefficient to the point of being meaningless."
Saber felt an uneasy twist in her gut.
What was Irisviel...?
"Then why draw it here?"
"At a guess, whoever it was had no choice. Most of the major lines are already claimed, and heavily guarded. If this was the only place where an earlier Master could hole up, then they'd have to make do." Archer shook his head. "But even then, they must have been desperate to resort to this."
The unease grew.
"You're so sure of that?"
"There are better ways to charge a Mystic Code, so this must have been used by a person. But it's so slow as to be practically useless. Whoever this was for...if they were reduced to a state where they had to rely on this circle, it would have bought them only a few days, at best.
"True, in the Holy Grail War, even a few days can mean a lot - but even then, whoever used this circle had one foot in the grave already." Archer stopped. "Saber? Is something wrong?"
"She never told me..."
Irisviel had been dying.
She must have known, the entire time. But she had never told Saber.
Saber had known Irisviel could recover in the circle; she had seen her rest there, and the next day Irisviel had been -
But she hadn't been, had she?
It was all an act.
She'd deceived Saber, and gone to such great lengths to do so.
Why had she hidden it? Had Kiritsugu known? When the enemy kidnapped her, and he used a Command Spell to send Saber after her -
She shook her head. "It's nothing. I apologize."
She forcibly wrenched her mind away from the line of thought. It was long past the point where she could have done anything about it, and when she stopped to think about it - she had failed at everything else in that debacle of a War.
Why should this have been any different?
"If you say so." Archer stepped past a kettle lying on the floor, towards the entrance, then stopped and cocked his head. "Incidentally, how much longer are you planning on wearing that?"
Saber blinked and looked down. She was still wearing her Servant's garb, minus the armor, just as she had since she'd gotten Sakura home last night.
"Far be it from me to offer advice to another Servant, but even if you dropped the metal, that's still a drain on your Master."
"I am aware of that." Saber shrugged. "It cannot be helped. I had borrowed some of Sakura's clothing, but those articles were damaged, and can no longer be worn."
Archer gave her a long look, and she shifted uncomfortably.
He smirked. "I suppose you have a point. Your Master is a real wildcat, after all."
Saber's face flushed. "Archer - !"
"It's a pity we cleared out all the enemy surveillance last night. I should have checked to see if there were any recordings, first."
"Archer! You - you - "
"Well, seeing as we are supposed to be allies now, I'll see if Rin can do something about clothes for you. Every little bit we can reduce the strain on your Master will help." He cocked his head. "Of course, if you wish to go nude outside of combat instead, I don't think anyone here will complain."
"ARCHER! If you do not - "
"Well, I'm off to see Rin. Have fun!" He dematerialized, and his presence quickly faded.
It took Saber several minutes to calm herself. When she did, though, she became puzzled.
Archer had done that on purpose. All of it.
Why provoke her? He was rude, but not pointlessly so. He had wanted to make her upset -
That felt right. He was hiding something - something in here, that he didn't want her paying attention to - but what?
Aside from the circle, what else was here? All she could see was junk.
What was so special about a kettle, a box, a shinai, and a knife?
Ayako couldn't say what had woken her.
She didn't recognize what had come before, or what came now, or even that there was a difference, at first. There was only a gradual realization that she was in a bed that was not her own, in an unfamiliar room.
About a minute later, she remembered why that should concern her.
A moment after that, she finally noticed that there was someone else in the room.
Her voice came out in a hoarse croak that she barely recognized as her own.
The rustling sounds stopped, though, and were replaced by steady footsteps, becoming slightly louder as they approached her.
Ayako tried to sit up, but had little success; she had to settle for craning her head upward to see who was coming.
"So. Awake, are you?"
A man in a red coat stood before her. He had deeply tanned skin and white hair, and oddly enough, seemed to be wearing some kind of body armor beneath his coat.
Ayako idly wondered why he'd need armor - and for whatever reason, that thought made the connection for her.
She abruptly realized where she was, and why, and where she had seen this man before.
"Servant Archer, at your service." He paused, then smirked. "As long as you pay Rin for the privilege, at least."
Something loosened in her gut - Tohsaka was alive; this man wouldn't be making a joke like that otherwise - and she let herself sink back onto her pillow.
"How long have I been out?"
"It's been about a day since Rin took her leave of you."
"She is all right, then?"
He nodded. "She didn't think you'd be awake yet, or...well, actually, she probably wouldn't have been here, regardless. But she would have told me to check up on you, rather than just fetching some clothes. Sorry about that."
"Apology acc...what the hell are you talking about?"
"Clothing." Archer held up a white blouse for her inspection. "Things worn to cover other things which we either don't want to see, or want to see too much of. The word is derived from - "
"That's not what I'm talking about!" Ayako broke into a fit of coughs. When she regained her breath, she saw Archer watching her in concern. (She thought it was concern, anyway. His face was hard to read, but it felt familiar to her, somehow.) "The last thing I remember, Tohsaka got some kind of ESP message from you, and tore off like a bat out of hell. What the heck happened?"
"Ah. I see what you mean, now." He crossed his arms and frowned. "Well, there's been a bit of trouble with the other Servants."
One Servant sprang immediately to mind.
"Rider?" Archer blinked, then shook his head. "No, I think it's safe to say that we've seen the last of her. With her Master dead, if she hasn't faded away yet, it's only a matter of hours before she does."
"We Servants are not natural. We're summoned from the Throne of Heroes, and it's only the bonds we share with our Masters that keep us in this world. Without those, the world would tear us apart in short order." He shrugged. "Matou Shinji was not a mage, so the summoning must have been a bit irregular. But that does not change the fact that he was Rider's Master. With him dead, she has no anchor here, and can't last for long."
Not long...but not right away, either.
"Could she find a new Master?"
"Hm?" Archer looked at her in surprise. "Ah, I see. Rin told you about Saber?" Ayako nodded, and he sighed. "It's a remote possibility...but a very remote one. All the Masters are accounted for now, which was not the case when Saber lost her contract. The only one in a position to take on another Servant is a Servant herself, and even if the thought occurred to her, I doubt Rider would go to her willingly."
"The Caster class is reserved for the great mages of legend...and they tend to have egos to match. This War's Caster apparently took the concept of Servants being dependent on their Masters as a personal insult." Archer chuckled. "She killed her own Master, stole Lancer's contract, and is acting as a Master, herself."
"I bet Tohsaka was thrilled with...wait. Caster 'class'?"
"Think of it as a 'type,'" Archer said. "Each Servant is summoned into one of seven predetermined molds, depending on their affinities: Saber, Archer, Lancer, Rider, Caster, Berserker, or Assassin."
Ayako frowned. "So 'Archer' isn't your real name?"
"As I said, Servants are summoned from the Throne of Heroes." Ayako didn't know what the hell the "Throne of Heroes" was, but she nodded anyway, and Archer continued. "The thing about heroes is that the more famous they are, the better known their weaknesses. So we all hide behind our class names." He shrugged. "Most of the Servants' identities have been revealed by now, but we still use our class names for convenience."
Heroes? Famous? So this guy is...
Did it really matter, though?
"Makes sense." Ayako coughed again. "So what happened, anyway?"
"In a word, Caster." Archer shook his head. "She decided one Servant wasn't enough for her, so she tried to add Saber to her collection."
"Saber?" Her eyes went wide, and she once again struggled to sit up. "Matou! No, I mean, not Shinji, Sakura! I mean - is she - "
"We arrived in time to drive Caster off. Then Berserker showed up, and his Master thought that the best way to thwart Caster's plans was to turn us all into bloody pancakes." Archer smirked. "Rin got so fed up with the whole fiasco that she decided the only way to keep Saber and her Master out of trouble was to put them under lock and key."
"Lock and...so then - "
"Hence the clothes." Archer gestured behind him, and Ayako followed his movement with her eyes, spotting several drawers open and garments neatly folded and stacked. "Saber has gone through her Master's entire wardrobe, and it's starting to become a distraction. Rin decided that a few outfits are a small sacrifice if it helps make this alliance work."
Tohsaka and Sakura had joined forces.
It was the best possible news. All the tension drained away, and Ayako sank back into her bed in relief.
"You should rest for now. I'll leave you a small meal before I go, and if I know Rin, barring a catastrophe she'll be by to check on you tomorrow."
Ayako barely acknowledged Archer's words. Her mind was already drifting away, and sleep embraced her almost as soon as she closed her eyes.
"Have I ever mentioned that you're a sorry cheat?"
"No, Lancer." Caster smiled at her newest subordinate, while one eyebrow twitched beneath her hood. "In the long and storied twenty-four hours that we have known one another, I do not believe that subject has ever passed your lips."
"Well, just for the record - you suck."
There was a snicker off to the side, and Caster turned to glare at its source. "Is there something you'd like to add, Assassin?"
"Not in particular, no."
"Now you see, this is what I'm talking about." Lancer shot Assassin a venomous glance. "Forget how the hell you actually managed to summon him - why did you even bother in the first place?"
"I told you, I'm - "
"'Thinking about after the War,' yeah, yeah, yeah. You gave me that excuse the first hundred times." Lancer's brow crinkled in disgust. "Seriously. You summoned him, you stole me, your Master's not a mage so there's no way in hell he's the guy who summoned you...and let's not even get started on all this."
He gestured around them, at the courtyard of Ryudou Temple. It was mid-afternoon, and the monks were going about their business...completely ignoring the three materialized Servants in their midst.
"Is there a rule in this damned War that you haven't broken?"
"Well..." Caster tapped her lip. "No Master has fled to the church as of yet, so I've left that place alone. I suppose that would count."
Lancer sighed. "Figures."
He was getting better, Caster told herself. Compared to the trantr - Most-Emphatically-Not-A-Tantrum - he'd thrown when she first guided him here and he realized just why he hadn't been able to find her, this latest insult was hardly worth mentioning.
Caster told herself that...but sparks danced between her fingers, and the temptation to use a Command Spell to make Lancer do something painful - not to mention humiliating - was almost overwhelming.
Caster stiffened. She turned to the fourth member of their discussion, and bowed. "Yes, Souichirou-sama. I understand."
This was supposed to be a strategy meeting. She had to rein in her temper.
"Isn't it usually the guy who's whipped?"
Caster firmly bit her tongue and counted to five, then took a deep breath. Only after her heartbeat had returned to normal did she turn to Lancer. "So, Archer and Saber are together now?"
Lancer's face grew serious, and he nodded. "Archer's keeping watch, so I couldn't get too close. But I was able to confirm that all four of them are alive - Masters and Servants both - and in the same place. If they're not partners, I don't know what the hell they're doing."
That was unfortunate. After her shadow had been taken out, she'd hoped that they would fight each other. She didn't think that Archer would be able to defeat Saber, but if he softened her up it would make it easier for Lancer to capture her later on.
They'd looked to be well on their way to that end...before Berserker interfered, at least.
Ah, well. "Was there any sign of Rider? From what I saw, she has some degree of Independent Action, but she should be near her limit by now."
"...and Saber's Master resembled the punk." Lancer frowned. "I hadn't thought of that - she'd be a natural choice for a new Master, wouldn't she? But no, I didn't see Rider."
"Very well." So Rider was gone. That was good. "And Berserker?"
"Back to the forest, and may he get impaled on a root." Lancer spat to one side, then turned back to Caster. "Well, boss? When do we go after him?"
That had been the plan, after all. She would take the fight to Berserker, now that she could bring a second Servant to bear. But...
"Saber and Archer...that alliance concerns me."
Individually, they were no threat. Together, though -
"You think it might be worth going after them, first?"
"Perhaps." It certainly wouldn't hurt to have Saber in her arsenal. "But Berserker's Master knows too much. If he came after us while we were fighting Saber and Archer..."
"Or vice-versa." Lancer grimaced.
They couldn't fight all three at once, and they both knew it.
"Still," Assassin said, drawing their attention, "this simplifies matters, does it not?"
"How so?" Caster asked.
It was her Master who answered. "Your enemies have gathered into two camps. If you are flanked, it will be from only one force."
"And that makes them predictable." Caster nodded. If she only had to worry about one set of interlopers, planning would be much easier.
"Could we not wait for them to come to us?" Assassin suggested. "We're in little danger while I stand guard here."
Caster shook her head. "If they don't fight us, they'll be fighting each other. There's far too great a risk of Saber dying before I can get my hands on her."
"So you'll go on the offensive, then?"
She nodded. "Lancer and I will go. Souichirou-sama, may I entrust your safety to Assassin while I am gone?"
"Do as you wish."
"All right!" Lancer grinned. "So, who's the target?"
Berserker, or Saber and Archer. Whom would she target first? Her chances were good, regardless, but there were different advantages to both targets - and, of necessity, different risks, as well.
For better or worse, the choice she made now would likely define the course of this Holy Grail War. It was hard to tell which was the correct path, but there was one thing of which she was certain:
Waiting passively here would be a fatal mistake.
She contemplated, and planned.
And then, Caster made her choice.
"That was very good, Rin."
"I'm glad you liked it." Rin took the last of the dishes from Saber, dried it, and returned it to its place. "I'm usually just cooking for myself, so it's hard for me to get an objective view of my skills. And..."
She glanced back to the living room with a grimace. Saber followed her gaze, and frowned as well.
Sakura was still sitting at the table, staring into space.
As far as Saber could tell, she hadn't moved from that spot the entire day. She hadn't said a word about Saber's new clothes - Saber reminded herself to thank Rin again later - or about anything else, for that matter. Neither Saber nor Rin had been able to get a response out of her.
Rin had finally been forced to take the making of dinner upon herself, and while the food was very good, Sakura ate mechanically, sparingly, without comment. Her silence had spread to the others, and in spite of Rin's excellent cooking, it was a profoundly unpleasant meal.
Now, Rin sighed as she removed her apron. "Saber, could you see to Sakura? I'm going to make some tea, and then I'll call Archer. We need to talk about where we go from here."
Saber nodded, and returned to the living room.
Saber laid a hand on Sakura's shoulder. She started, then looked up. "Oh, Saber. What is it?"
"Rin told me about what happened. How are you feeling?"
It was a lie - an obvious lie - but Saber was not going to call her on it.
The deaths had to be hitting her hard. Taiga's, in particular - she didn't die from the boundary field, and that meant...
Saber couldn't even begin to imagine the conflict in her Master's mind.
But that was fine.
"We are going to hold a strategy meeting in a few moments' time. Rin and I will want your input."
"Okay." Sakura nodded...just as Saber had known that she would.
The conflict had not been resolved. It would not be resolved until long after the Holy Grail War was ended, assuming she survived.
But that did not matter. Sakura could put it aside. She could pretend it was resolved, and even deceive herself for a time.
That was what Saber was counting on. Whatever else might be said of her, this one truth could not be denied:
Matou Sakura was a consummate liar.
By the time Rin entered with the tea, Sakura was nearly back to normal.
Rin frowned, but said nothing. She set the tray on the table as Archer entered the room and materialized - and then, to Saber's amusement, she sat down while Archer poured the tea for everyone.
"All right, let's get started, shall we?" Archer set a cup in front of Rin, and she took a sip before continuing. "First and foremost. Sakura, how are you feeling?"
"I feel fine, Nee-san." Sakura accepted a cup from Archer with a nod. "I know I haven't been doing much today, but - "
"You barely ate, and the stress you were under makes up for you not moving, I think." Rin glanced over at Archer as he set a cup in front of Saber, and frowned. "Unfortunately, we're going to have to add a bit more stress to that right now."
"What do you mean?"
"I sent Archer to my place to pick up some clothes for Saber this afternoon."
Sakura blinked, then looked over at Saber, taking in the outfit Saber was wearing - a more conservative blouse than the one she'd borrowed from her Master, with no neckline whatsoever, a thin, dark ribbon in place of a tie, and a navy blue skirt - as if for the first time.
She really hadn't noticed?
Rin drew their attention back to her with a light cough. "As I was saying. Since it was on the way, I had Archer make a little side trip...to the Matou mansion."
"My house?" Sakura blinked. "But why?"
"I was bit concerned." Sakura continued to look at her without comprehension, and the older girl sighed. "Look, I know you two were lying low, so I'm not sure how much you know about what Shinji was up to. But just from his interactions with me, I can tell he was a complete idiot."
Saber sipped her tea and nodded. "That does match my impression of him."
"Recall what Rider told us, Sakura. He never even asked her name. He did not have the slightest idea what he was doing in this War."
Sakura backed down, and Rin cocked an eyebrow. "Really? Rider said that?" Saber nodded, and she frowned. "Just how closely were you two working together?"
"Rider mentioned that detail in the course of consulting with me regarding Lancer, as the two had faced off and he mentioned having fought me. This was the second conversation she and I had." Saber glanced at Sakura out of the corner of her eye. "I attempted to slay Shinji later that night."
"...and that answers that question." Rin sighed, and took another sip. "Anyway. Shinji was an idiot. He went out of his way to tell me he was a Master, and if I'd believed him, he never would have survived to activate that boundary field. My worry was this - if he was as careless with the other Masters and Servants as he was with me, and someone figured out who he was..."
Saber leaned forward. "You thought someone would attack his home?"
"I did - and I was right."
Sakura gasped, and Archer spoke up. "The house is in disarray. The wards have been destroyed, and the building is deserted. Matou Zouken is gone."
"Are you sure of this, Archer?" Saber asked. "Zouken spends much of his time in a hidden chamber - "
"I found it...or should I say, I found what was left of it."
Sakura went still.
"There was clearly a battle there, and there's no question that a Servant was involved. The place looks like a dozen missiles went off at once. I found no traces of an escape." Archer frowned. "Matou Zouken could not have survived."
So Zouken's boasts of having protection from the Servants were empty, after all.
"It sounds as if we were fortunate to have left for this place when we did." Saber looked over at her Master. "Sakura? Are you well?"
"I'm...I'm all right, Saber. Grandfather was..."
"There's never a good time for it, but at least it all happened all at once." Rin smiled. "And even better, you seem to be bearing up well, Sakura. That's a good sign. If your energy levels hold steady, we might actually have a chance here!"
"If only we weren't opposed by Servants, you mean?"
Rin gave Archer a flat look.
"Glare at me all you like. Our capabilities are only half the equation."
"And I was just getting to that," Rin said through gritted teeth.
"If you say so."
Rin sighed. "Well, let's start with the easy one."
"Rider, you mean?" Saber asked.
Rin frowned. "That's right, but how did you know? You two fled before our battle with her even started."
"Rider approached us while we were in hiding, with news of Shinji's death." Saber looked between Rin and Archer, and narrowed her eyes as she recalled her exchange with Archer in the shed. No...they are still hiding things from us. We should not let them know about her just yet. "I was stronger than her, though, and she realized this, so she left without a fight."
"I see." Rin nodded. "Well, we can safely say that she's dead."
"Why so certain?" Saber knew better, but she was curious as to Rin's reasoning. "You thought the same thing of me when Shirou ended our contract."
"And I would have been right, if I hadn't forgotten about Matou Zouken being the one who created the Command Spells in the first place."
"Ah." So Rin thought Shinji had summoned Rider, and that Zouken later crafted new Command Spells for Sakura to take on Saber. "And since Zouken is not an option this time...What about Caster, then?"
"We thought about that, too." Rin grimaced. "But no one even knew that was a possibility until she stole Lancer's contract. Rider had fled before that, and Archer was watching the fight. He'd have spotted her if she came back."
"So Rider would have no means of knowing..."
"And that leaves her without a Master, fading away." Archer nodded. "And that brings us to Lancer and Caster."
Rin scowled, and Sakura's grip on her teacup tightened, spilling a bit over the side as her hands shook.
Saber frowned. "Caster...I still cannot believe that she did that."
"She and Berserker seem to be occupying opposite poles in this War," Archer said. "Caster has the least power of any of the Servants, but the most ways to make up for that."
"And she is using all of them."
It could be worse. There were no demonic summonings from this Caster, at least.
...at least, not yet.
"What about her Master?" Saber asked.
"Rider didn't tell you?" Rin frowned. "It's Kuzuki-sensei."
Sakura stiffened, and Saber blinked. "She did" - in a manner of speaking; Sakura had learned it through the boundary field, and that was Rider, technically - "but we found it hard to believe. Yet another Master at that school?"
"Hard to believe...but true, all the same," Archer said. "This one's not a mage, and unlike Rider's Master, his family has no magical lineage for him to draw upon. However Caster managed the feat, he isn't the one who summoned her. It's safe to say that her original Master is dead."
Saber nodded. "Caster said as much."
"Don't underestimate Kuzuki-sensei, though," Rin said. "That man is dangerous. He was fighting Lancer bare-handed, and holding his own. Not to mention that he blew Shinji's head off with one punch."
"Nii-san?" Sakura's eyes widened. "Kuzuki-sensei was the one who...?"
Sakura closed her eyes and drew a shuddering breath. "I'm all right, Saber."
Rin watched with concern, but only returned to the topic of the Servants. "We don't know where Caster and Lancer are holed up right now. Archer and I hadn't managed to find either of them, even before they teamed up."
"So we do not know the condition of Lancer's former Master?"
"We don't even know who the guy was, let alone if he's still alive."
Archer chuckled. "I don't think we need to worry about that particular problem."
Saber frowned. "What do you mean, Archer?"
"I mean that Lancer hated his former Master, with a passion. You heard him yourself - he's happier serving Caster. I believe we can safely leave this loose end to him - if that mage isn't dead yet, now that there are no Command Spells in the way, it's only a matter of time."
Rin nodded. "We wouldn't even know where to begin looking, anyway. Beyond keeping our eyes open for an attack, there's not much we can do about those two right now."
"Agreed," Saber said, and Sakura nodded as well.
"So next up is...Berserker."
They were already tense. But the air itself seemed to darken at the mention of his name.
"Hercules." Saber shook her head. "To think that such an overpowering hero would be summoned - and in that class."
Archer nodded. "If Caster is the Servant best able to make up for her weaknesses, Berserker is the Servant with no weaknesses for which he needs to compensate. Even knowing his identity does us little good."
"How were you able to drive him off last night?" Saber asked. "Was your Noble Phantasm - "
"I didn't use my Noble Phantasm."
Saber blinked. "You did not? But you said..."
"To deceive one's enemies, one must first deceive one's allies." Archer smirked. "It also left Berkserker and his Master less prepared for what I actually did."
Rin gave her Servant a sour look. "This genius sent up a signal flare to draw the police, and gambled that those two would retreat, rather than kill all the witnesses."
Archer shrugged. "The Einzberns are one of the three original families. If anyone could be counted on to obey the rules, it would be Berserker's Master."
Saber nodded. "I see."
"And speaking of which..." Rin smiled, and Saber instinctively stiffened. "Saber, you seemed to know that girl."
"Would you mind sharing with the rest of us?"
"Very well." Saber sighed, and drained the rest of her cup. "You are already aware that this is not the first time I have participated in the Holy Grail War." Rin nodded, and Saber continued. "In the last War, I fought on behalf of the Einzberns. I recognized Ilyasviel from that time."
"Wait. That makes no sense." Rin frowned. "She's younger than I am - she had to have been just a newborn, back then."
"I do not understand it myself," Saber said. "Her identity is unmistakable, but she appears to be nearly the same age now as she was then. She should more closely resemble her mother by this time."
Saber nodded. "Irisviel von Einzbern. She was my partner in the last War."
"Your partner...but not your Master, correct?"
Saber blinked. "Archer?"
"I noticed you shaking your head when Rin called that girl a Master, Saber. And you looked stunned when she confirmed it. You must have had a reason for that belief, and if you worked closely with her mother..."
"You are correct." Saber sighed. Archer's perceptiveness was alarming. "My Master and I...were not compatible. Rather than risk a disagreement in battle that would lead to our defeat, he had Irisviel accompany me as a decoy while he acted behind the scenes."
She frowned. "Irisviel was a homunculus. Ilyasviel, being her daughter, would be the same. I did not believe that an artificial life could be selected by the Grail to be a Master."
"I see." Rin frowned. "A homunculus...that would certainly explain how she could control Berserker so well." She shook her head. "Einzbern...you were based in their castle?"
"I was, for a time." Saber nodded. "I see what you are thinking, and I would indeed be capable of finding it again with little difficulty. However, you should be aware that we would be under surveillance from the moment we set foot in those woods, and it is a long journey to the castle. It would be impossible for us to ambush the Einzberns on their home ground."
Saber turned to Archer. "Archer, you had a better look than I. What do you make of Berserker's capabilities?"
"He's a monster." Archer shook his head. "I don't think any other Servant could match him in speed and power, and his defenses are ridiculous. Your sword, my arrows, our Masters' magic - none of it so much as scratched him. He simply can't be hurt."
"Is it a Noble Phantasm?"
"Without a doubt. Some manifestation of the lion's pelt, most likely. But that's not the most alarming thing."
Rin leaned forward. "What is?"
"Berserker's Master let Lancer go."
Rin blinked, then frowned. "I see how Lancer's survival would be bad for us, but what does that have to do with Berserker?"
"Think about it, Rin. Lancer's Noble Phantasm is Gae Bolg - a cursed spear that will always pierce the heart. Yet, even knowing that he was allied with Caster, Berserker's Master let him escape without even trying to kill him."
Saber frowned. "You mean that Gae Bolg is no threat to Berserker?"
Archer nodded. "The most famous symbol of the hero Hercules is the bow and arrows with which he slew the Hydra. We didn't see those, though. And his next most famous aspect - "
Rin gasped. "The Twelve Labors!"
"Exactly." Archer nodded. "Legend says that he earned his immortality with those deeds. Translate that to the Holy Grail War..."
Saber finished the thought. "Stacked resurrections."
Archer nodded again. "I think it's safe to say that Berserker has twelve lives. At best, he has nothing to fear from a sure-kill Noble Phantasm."
Saber's eyes narrowed. "And at worst?"
Archer's mouth tightened. "At worst, he has nothing to fear because Lancer has already used his Noble Phantasm against him."
Saber breathed in sharply. "Archer, you are sure of this?"
"I can't think of another explanation for that scar on his chest."
At that, Rin began to curse.
Sakura looked between the three of them in confusion. "Um, Saber? Nee-san? What's...?"
"Think about it, Sakura." Rin scowled. "Twelve lives, awarded for twelve different labors."
Archer nodded. "Different lives...requiring different deaths."
Sakura paled. Now she understood.
Saber looked at Archer. "So, even if I were to kill him with Excalibur - "
"As long as he had a life remaining, when he revived, your holy sword would from that point on be useless against him...just as I fear Gae Bolg now is."
Twelve lives. Six Servants. And Saber doubted any of them were like the last War's Archer.
"So, for all intents and purposes, defeating Berserker is impossible." Rin frowned. "In that case, the logical target would be his Master...but Sakura tried that last night, and we all saw how well that worked."
"Berserker would have to be restrained, first." Saber closed her eyes in thought. "Perhaps there is a window of vulnerability while he is reviving?"
"At any rate," Archer said, "the best thing we can do right now is wait. If his Noble Phantasm treats different spells as different weapons, then Caster is our best bet to whittle down his lives."
"And if it treats all her magic as one weapon?"
"Then she takes one life, and Berserker removes her from the Holy Grail War." Archer smirked. "Either way, we benefit."
"All the more reason to leave them alone, I guess. So that just leaves..." Rin grimaced. "Assassin."
Saber blinked. "Rin?"
Archer smiled. "I see you have not encountered him as of yet, Saber. But that makes sense, if you and your Master were hiding until yesterday."
"We met him a few days ago," Rin said. "He confronted us openly, and identified himself without hesitation."
Saber frowned. "Confronting you openly is odd, but for Assassin, identifying himself would not - "
"He identified himself as Sasaki Kojirou."
"Your hearing has not deceived you, Saber." Archer crossed his arms. "Someone other than the proper Assassin was summoned to fight in this War."
"How? How is that even possible?" Saber shook her head in disbelief. "Assassin has to be Hassan Sabbah. The class name itself is his catalyst! How could someone have subverted that?!"
"We asked ourselves much the same question." Archer smirked. "I think Lancer might have been the only normal Servant summoned this time around. But it really doesn't matter, in the end. False Assassin or not, he is the seventh Servant, and we must defeat him."
Saber frowned, then nodded. "This is truth. But Archer. Assassin employs the class ability of Presence Concealment. Finding him would be no easy task."
Rin shook her head. "If we were talking about the normal Assassin, yes. But this one is just standing guard at Ryudou Temple."
"Ryudou Temple...I see, the boundary field."
Archer blinked. "Ah, yes. That's right - you've fought before. You would know about it."
Saber nodded. "So Assassin's Master is holed up there, and he is guarding the only entrance?"
"We'd originally thought that was where Caster was based." Rin grimaced. "Someone is draining life energy from all over the place, and it's all going there. With the temple being on the outskirts, I thought only Caster would be capable of reaching out so far..."
"No." Saber shook her head. "Even for a mage of this era, if one takes that temple, such magic is naturally possible."
"So there is something, after all? There are no practicing healers there, so I'd thought it was just for show until we found that boundary field." Rin leaned forward. "What's going on up there?"
"Ryudou Temple is a fallen ley line."
"A fallen - wait, what?" Rin jerked back, eyes wide. "My house is a fallen ley line! Why are there two foci of ley lines in one area?!"
"That, I cannot answer." Even Kiritsugu's preparations had not been that thorough. "But that temple is a place mages can call sacred. From what I understand, it is one of four possible locations for the Grail to manifest itself at the end of the Holy Grail War. The life of the region flows there, so it would be a perfect base for collecting souls - a mage need only intervene in the natural flow to drain life energy from the entire city."
"...Well, I think we have our target, now."
"Archer and I tried Ryudou before, but we retreated when we ran into Assassin. We know what's going on now, though - and whoever's up there worries me."
"Assassin is a very weak Servant." Rin held up one finger. "He shouldn't take that much to maintain. Whoever's draining all that energy needs it for something else, and since it's not Caster, that means whatever they're up to won't be effective against the Servants."
Saber's eyes went wide. "Meaning the target is the Masters."
"Exactly. And something this big...I doubt it's just going to hit five people."
Rin's face hardened, and she went on. "We'll move tomorrow night. Between you and Archer, we should be able to take out Assassin and put an end to this threat."
"Rin, are you sure you wish to wait? I am ready to go at any time."
Saber followed Rin's gaze - and saw Sakura sitting there, as if dead to the world. Her attention had slipped at some point, and now she merely stared forward without actually seeing anything.
"I see your point. Tomorrow, then." She rose, and laid a hand on Sakura's shoulder.
Sakura started, and looked up. "Saber?"
"The meeting is over. Come, you should bathe now."
Saber pulled her unresisting Master to her feet, and led her out of the room.
Rin and Archer watched the pair go, then turned to one another.
"Archer. How is she, really?"
"From what I could see, she is telling the truth. There has been some drain, but not that much more than you'd expect with a Servant who can't take spirit form. Saber and I should both be able to fight tomorrow."
"I see." Rin's brow furrowed. "That's good...I guess."
"Rin, what's wrong? Does something about Saber's Master concern you?"
Rin nodded. "Sakura is my sister."
"Yes, I believe everyone is aware of that fact by now."
Rin gave him a flat look. "Archer, Sakura and I were born to the same parents. We should have a similar number of Magic Circuits, and similar capacities as mages. Looking at Sakura as she is now, do you really see nothing wrong?"
Archer frowned. "When you put it that way..."
"Sakura's supposed to be the Matou heir. That's why my father allowed her to be adopted in the first place." Rin clenched her hands tightly in fists. "Even accounting for differences in the family magic, it doesn't add up. If Zouken were really training her to succeed him, there's no way she'd be so...so weak."
"She does have the Magic Crest, though."
"Yes, the Crest." Rin scowled. "Tell me, Archer. Where is it?"
"...I'm not sure I follow."
And this guy is supposed to be a mage who became a Heroic Spirit?
Rin's eyes narrowed. "The Magic Crest has to be physically grafted onto its recipient. Even if it's normally invisible, that's not the case when it's being used. You could look at me using mine, for example, and know that it's on my arm. So tell me - after the show Sakura put on last night, why can't we tell where her Crest is?"
Archer frowned. "You believe that was not the work of the Matou Crest, after all?"
"I don't know. Maybe the Matou do things differently, and I'm just reading too much into this." Rin shook her head. "But my gut says that Zouken was up to something. If he wasn't actually training Sakura, then what the hell was he doing?"
"Should it even matter, now? Zouken is dead."
"I'm not so sure of that, either. You found no signs of escape, but you didn't find a body, and even Kirei is wary of that old man. Better safe than sorry...especially in the middle of the Holy Grail War." Rin sighed. "Did you notice anything about Sakura when you were with her last night?"
"...I thought you told Saber you weren't into that."
Rin felt the blood rush to her face. "You know what I meant, you jerk!"
Archer chuckled. "Very well. As my perverted Master commands - "
"Fine, fine." Archer's grin faded. "I didn't notice anything with regards to her Magic Crest. There was one thing that caught my eye, though."
Rin glared at him, face still hot. "And that would be?"
"Do you remember the bandages on her wrist?"
"The ones hiding her Command Spells, right?"
Archer nodded. "There is a matching wrap on her other arm."
Rin blinked, then smiled. "Well, now. That is clever."
When attacking a Master, it was always best to try to finish him or her in one hit. If an immediate kill was not possible, though, then the next most logical target would be the Master's Command Spells, in order to cut off the Master from the Servant.
By wrapping both wrists, Sakura had introduced an element of uncertainty into the situation. If an enemy guessed incorrectly and targeted the wrong arm, she could summon Saber before they had a chance to attack again.
No Master of even middling intelligence would take a risk like that.
"I believe this is Saber's handiwork." Archer shook his head. "You would do well to adopt this tactic yourself. Its usefulness is exhausted against us, but it should still be effective against others."
Rin nodded. When she'd asked Sakura to expose her arms yesterday, Sakura had started with her left arm. If she was using the off-arm as a decoy, that meant that Saber's Command Spells had to be on Sakura's right wrist.
"We don't know how many they have left?"
"Two, at most." Archer smirked. "Having seen Rider's Master for myself, I doubt Saber could have been prevented from killing him by any lesser means."
"...I really wish I could disagree with you there."
"We could, of course, simply ask them...but I doubt they would take kindly to us prying."
"Well, it's not like we've told them about your memory loss, either." Rin shook her head. "We'll just have to keep our eyes open."
"Agreed." Archer turned his head and frowned. "I believe Saber and her Master have just left the bath."
"My turn, then." Rin rose to her feet. "I'll leave the rest to you."
Archer smirked. "I shall do my best to live up to your expectations."
Rin blushed. "Just go, already!"
Sakura felt a little better after the bath.
Not much better, but a little.
Saber had done almost everything for her. She had undressed her, and washed her, and later dried her; the tub was only big enough for one person, but Saber had stayed with her while she soaked, silently watching over her, and made do with only a shower herself. When Sakura emerged and returned to her room, Saber had trailed behind her, a faithful shadow.
It had been different. Sakura wasn't used to someone else taking care of her like that, and while she didn't think she would want that to be a regular occurrence, she could admit that she had probably needed it tonight.
Now, she walked into her room - and stopped dead.
Saber bumped into her from behind. "Sakura? What is wrong? Why have you..." She looked past her, and frowned. "Archer."
Rin's Servant nodded to them. "Good evening."
Saber nudged her from behind, and Sakura moved fully into the room, allowing Saber to come in after her and shut the door behind them.
"Do you have some business with us, Archer?"
"I do. Or rather, my Master has business with yours."
"Then why is Rin not here herself?"
Sakura frowned. That was odd. What could her sister want, that she would send Archer instead of coming hers -
Her eyes widened, and the blood rushed to her face.
Archer smirked. "I see that your Master has worked it out, Saber."
And now Saber was blushing, as well. "There is no need for that tonight, Archer. Sakura and I are still fine from last night."
"But for how long?" Archer frowned. "We have only one day's evidence from which to work. We enter battle tomorrow; if you are not at your best, our chances of success will plummet."
"My point exactly. Replenishing Sakura through you left Rin immobile all day; we need her for tomorrow's battle, as well."
"And that is precisely why I am here now."
Saber frowned. "I do not understand."
"Consider this an experiment, Saber. Last night, your Master had been almost completely drained. She was desperate for magical energy; she devoured everything she could take from me, like a wild beast with no care for the well-being of its prey."
Sakura shrank in on herself, and crossed her arms protectively over her chest.
Saber saw this, and growled. "Archer..."
"This was the cause of Rin's dishevelment today." Archer took her glare in stride. "But consider this, Saber. We are humans, not animals. Rather than only gorging ourselves when starving, it is our nature to instead take smaller meals at regular intervals."
Sakura's head snapped up.
Regular - !
"You...you mean...Nee-san wants us to...every...?"
Archer nodded. "That is indeed what Rin is thinking. In this way, you might be sustained, while the drain on her at any one time is limited to a manageable amount."
It made sense - a lot of sense. As long as Sakura didn't think too hard about what they would actually be doing, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
But on this subject, even Sakura could not deceive herself for long. And while her thrice-bedamned body was already quivering at the prospect, she had too many memories of her brother to be at ease with this.
Last night was one thing - it was an emergency, and she was completely out of it - but to do that every night?
"Archer...Archer-san." She stopped and swallowed. "Is this...do you really want to...?"
"Master of Saber." Archer crossed his arms and looked at her with a frown. "A Servant is a tool. My wishes should have no bearing whatsoever on this situation."
It was so similar to what Saber had told her, Sakura couldn't help but glance at her Servant out of the corner of her eye. She couldn't meet Saber's gaze for more than a second, though, before returning her attention to Archer. "Even so."
"I have been summoned for the purpose of winning the Holy Grail War for my Master. This will increase our chances of victory; I could not possibly be opposed to it."
Sakura frowned. "That's not an answer."
"Isn't it?" Archer shook his head. "Then consider this. Your well-being is of great importance to Rin. If I can help you, then I have no reason whatsoever to hesitate."
"Archer. My Master is asking about you - not Rin."
"Saber. You are the last person who should be talking about a Servant's desires."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing in particular."
Saber maintained her glare for a moment longer, then looked away. "It is important to Sakura."
"And now, you're using my own lines against me." Archer sighed. "Fine. If it will settle this matter, let it be known that I am a heterosexual male, that I was not celibate in life, and that I find your Master quite attractive. This is hardly a chore for me." He gave Saber a flat look. "Satisfied?"
Sakura had began to blush again. She stared at Archer, mouth agape. "Y-yes...that is, I..." She closed her eyes, and took a breath. "I agree with Nee-san's proposal, Archer-san."
"Very well, then." Archer pulled off his coat, and began to remove the body armor beneath. "Let's get started, shall we?"
It was night, now.
At least, Shirou thought it was night. He had no sense of light or darkness, or of the passage of time, that might have led him to this belief.
He had only the knowledge of one undeniable fact:
Ilya was sleeping.
And with that fact, there came another:
Ilya was suffering.
It was not related to the strain of maintaining Berserker - Shirou was familiar enough with that now to recognize it. No, this was something else. He did not know what she was seeing, what she was dreaming, but even so, he could tell. Whatever it was, it was deeply distressing to her.
Shirou was still in ever-growing pain - his body still in a state of living death, his Magic Circuits still constantly breaking and re-breaking - but that did not matter to him. He'd grown used to it.
Instead, through the link they shared, he watched Ilya.
Now, the girl awoke again with a start. Her eyes flew open, and her body tensed; she stared at nothing for a moment before scowling and forcing herself to relax, closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep once more.
But he could see it. Seeing without seeing, Shirou "saw" it - the tightening of her jaw, the grinding of her teeth, the burning around her eyes as she suppressed her tears with sheer force of will.
This was a regular occurrence for her. Shirou had witnessed it time after time. And each time, he felt an ever-mounting, impotent frustration.
He couldn't help her.
Shirou had always wanted to be an ally of justice - a hero. Kiritsugu had given him the term, but even before then, it had been his goal. "Hero" was just a convenient label for the wish he had always nurtured.
His dream was not to create a world without conflicts. He was not that ambitious. The only thing he had ever wanted was for those in his view not to cry.
Now, though, only one person was in his view.
And that person never stopped crying.
The fact that this person was the Master of Berserker was irrelevant. It didn't matter to Shirou what she had done to him. That was something he didn't care about.
He realized that this was "off." He'd been told so often enough, if not in so many words. Fuji-Nee, Neko-san, Issei, Mitsuzuri - every one of them had expressed their worries about him at one time or another, in varying forms, and Shirou knew their concerns.
Even if he didn't care, he knew...though it wasn't until now that he fully understood. The fact that he could worry so much about a girl who had only killed and then tortured him drove the point home in a way that was undeniable.
He still didn't care, though.
Ten years ago, he had died in the great fire. Everything but his body had been burned away, and the person he was before then had, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. When Kiritsugu found him that day, Shirou had been a blank slate.
At that time, the first thing Shirou had received from Kiritsugu was admiration. It was happiness at the idea that there was someone there to save him.
That was his core. That thought was the root of "Emiya Shirou." Everything else was built upon that foundation.
But there, Shirou realized, was the difference. It was a small distinction, so minute it was almost impossible to detect...but it changed everything.
The cause of his joy had been that someone was there to save him.
It was not the fact that he himself had been saved.
His own well-being had not been important to him, then. Nor had it been important to him on any day since.
Nor was it important to him now.
Where others would, in deciding on a course of action, first think of themselves, for Shirou, he himself never even entered into the equation.
Compare a person's mind to a royal court. It is filled with ministers, with courtiers, each with their own functions and their own priorities, jockeying for influence. And reigning over them all is the king - that person himself, ruling everything and valued before all else.
But that was not the case for Shirou. Ever since that day, the throne in his mind had been empty.
Now, a girl sat there.
A family he'd never known that he had. A sister, baring her teeth to the world, but screaming in the darkness where no one else could ever know.
And more than anything else, Shirou wanted to save her.
No - he would save her.
It was impossible. He knew that. She had never asked or wished for his help, and even more than that, Shirou understood the state he was now in.
But he didn't care.
It was an absolute, predestined fact: Emiya Shirou would save Ilyasviel von Einzbern.
He just didn't know how, yet.
INVENTA AUTEM UNA PRETIOSA MARGARITA
ABIIT ET VENDIDIT OMNIA QUAE HABUIT ET EMIT EAM