6/19/16: ...Screw it. To mangle a line from The Sage of Toads: This story is not dead until I say it's dead, or God says I'm dead.
PRELIMINARIES: 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).
Much gratitude goes to my prereaders, Kami and Shack, for not dumping my sorry AWOL ass during the long layoff, like they really should have.
Now, sit back and either enjoy the ride, or (more likely) enjoy thinking of what you'll do to me at the end of it...
-SWORD: C18!3NT. 80 CM. GILDED WITH WHITE SILVER. ENCRUSTED WITH RUBIES AND...-
-...STOLEN FROM ROYAL TREASURY, AND USED TO...-
-...CORRUPTED FROM INTENDED PURPOSE BY M63;R-D AND...-
Why was he seeing swords?
-SWORD: A52+*I7+T. ENGRAVED BY FAE, AND NOT FORGED BY...-
Seeing swords was nothing new for him. They were the only thing he ever dreamed about, other than the fire.
But that was the problem.
He could not lose consciousness. He could not sleep. And thus, he was incapable of dreaming.
-...STAINED BLACK BY MADNESS OF ITS WIELDER. IT WAS THEN...-
So why was he seeing swords?
-...STRUCK DOWN UNARMED BROTHERS OF DEAR FRIEND G20_#N, AND...-
And not just seeing swords. He was grasping them, understanding them, and while not perfectly, still with a thoroughness he'd never managed before.
It was almost as if he was using Structural Analysis on them...but there were a couple of problems with that comparison. For one thing, his Structural Analysis was not that powerful. For another, the swords weren't actually there - there was nothing on which he could use Structural Analysis in the first place.
-SWORD: G5^29)1-. RECEIVED FROM SAME HANDS AS...-
And yet somehow, he knew them. He knew their materials. He knew their methods of construction. He even knew their accumulated history.
This wasn't from Ilya - that much was obvious - but at the same time, it wasn't from whatever was inside him, either. The feeling was similar, but it was not the same.
But given that, there was only one answer remaining:
He himself was the source.
-...DERIVES ITS POWER FROM THE SUN AND THE...-
It was ridiculous, but it was the only possibility. So it had to be true.
It was his magic. It had to be - his magic was the only way he had left to observe anything, so if he was observing the swords, then they, too, had to be a part of his magic, somehow.
But what did that mean?
There was only one way to find out: He would have to focus on his own magic with even greater intensity than he already was.
And so, he did.
And perhaps because of that, he did not notice.
-...FAIRY-FORGED, WITH WIDENED...-
The pain was gone.
He had been in agony for so long that he could no longer distinguish it. He no longer had any means of comprehending this truth.
And truth it was.
His body didn't hurt. His heart and lungs had started working again. Even the pain of his Magic Circuits had diminished, and was diminishing further.
But he did not notice any of it.
Emiya Shirou's magic was made of swords.
He had eyes for nothing else.
THE WORLD WITHOUT
A Fate/stay night Fanfic
Awareness returned to Saber before she actually awoke.
No threat had provoked her; nothing had startled her out of her slumber. Between one instant and the next, she simply came to the realization that she was dreaming.
There was no pain in this understanding - only puzzlement at the meaning of what she saw, until at last the vision ended and she found herself sitting against the wall of her Master's room.
"Welcome back to the land of the living."
Her eyes snapped over to the bed. Her Master was there, as expected, but she was fast asleep.
It was her bedmate who had spoken.
Rin's Servant lay next to Sakura. The girl's head rested on his chest, a spray of violet hair visible above the covers.
"You had pleasant dreams, I hope?"
Saber's mind returned to the vision she had just had, and her eyes narrowed. "If I did, that would be a matter between Sakura and myself."
"Easy, Saber. It wasn't my intention to pry; I was just hoping that you'd gotten a good rest. That isn't a very comfortable position to sleep in." He looked down at Sakura, then back at Saber. "Also...I noticed you didn't fall asleep right away."
Saber's face flushed. "Ally or not, Archer, I am Sakura's Servant," she growled. "My place is at her side."
"As long as she's too preoccupied to think to send you away, you mean." Archer smirked. "You're welcome, by the way."
Saber grit her teeth as she felt her face heat further. "Is there a point to this?"
"Well, this is supposed to be a regular occurrence, so I was wondering if we'd always have an audience." Archer raised an eyebrow. "I didn't take you for a voyeur, Saber...though now that I think about it, you're used to sitting back and watching, aren't you?"
Saber's eyes narrowed. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"The legends of the Round Table are pretty clear. It was the knights who went out on quests and had adventures; the king stayed in Camelot, parked on his - sorry, her - throne, and just heard their tales when they returned." Archer looked up at the ceiling. "I suppose you'd proven yourself in the wars by that point, but still...I wonder what they thought of a king who never did anything?"
'King Arthur does not understand human feelings.'
"What they may or may not have thought of me," Saber said slowly, "is irrelevant, Archer. And I will thank you to remain silent concerning matters of which you understand nothing whatsoever."
"If you say so." Archer smirked. "But still, if it isn't that you like to watch...you know, Saber, if you wanted to join in, all you had to do was ask."
"I doubt your Master would have objected. In fact, perhaps I should suggest that to Rin as an experiment? If I'm supplying you both at once - "
Saber rose to her feet, and her armor formed around her.
"All right. Point taken."
Saber glared at him. "Is mocking me the only reason you're still here?"
"Well, that's the thing." Archer tried to sit up...but he didn't get far. The covers slipped down, and Saber saw that Sakura's arm was wrapped across his chest, pinning him down. "Your Master has quite a grip. I'm not sure how to break it without waking her."
Saber blinked in surprise. "Ah. I had forgotten about that."
"So you see my predicament."
A moment passed in silence.
Archer looked at Saber.
Saber looked at Archer.
"Well? A little help, please?"
"Help? Why would I wish to do that?"
"I like to watch, do I not?" Saber smiled, and had to repress a chuckle as Archer flinched. "That being the case, I believe I will watch you for a while longer."
"You've been spending too much time around Rin." Archer gave her a flat look. "Of all the things for you to pick up..."
And then, he was gone.
Archer dematerialized with a metallic shimmer. He passed through the wall, and made his way towards Rin's room.
Saber blinked in surprise. A dissatisfied murmur from Sakura drew her attention, and she moved to pull the covers back over her Master.
Then she looked at the wall, as Archer's presence continued to recede, and shook her head.
"I'd forgotten he could do that."
She had returned to the hill.
It was not Saber's. Of that, she was by now absolutely certain. But it was too similar for it to be a coincidence; the dimensions were the same, the ugly red sun was the same - the spot where Arturia perished was even marked by a particularly thick grove of blades, plunged into the ground.
And that made her realize that the similarities were deliberate.
This place was modeled after the site of Saber's last battle. It was the work of someone who knew Saber intimately.
And more to the point - why was she dreaming of it?
Her legs began to move of their own accord, slowly and steadily bearing her through the field of blades. She looked around as she passed through, and absent-mindedly brushed her hand against the pommel of one of the swords - and then cried out in shock as an image suddenly burst into existence before her eyes.
- Blades before her, white and black, wielded by hands that are not hers. Beyond them, a man wearing a hood and shroud, with a rifle pointed at a young boy, lying on the ground and crying. The swords move -
She staggered back as the vision ended, and looked at the sword she had touched.
That...that had been a memory, hadn't it? And not like the dreams she'd had of Saber and Rider - she had been behind the eyes of whoever that was, experiencing what he - yes, that had definitely been a man - had experienced.
She looked around at the hill again.
Did that mean that all these swords were also...
Before she realized what she was doing, she reached out and touched another sword.
- Blades before her, the same blades as before, white and black, blades she knows, blades she recognizes, blades she's seen very recently. They are wielded by the same hands as before, and beyond them, a battle. Soldiers - modern soldiers, in uniform and armed with rifles - battling a small, ragged group. These are mostly children, or barely out of childhood; only two have firearms, while the others clumsily wield machetes and makeshift spears. They fare poorly; within two minutes, they will all be dead. Saving them means killing the soldiers, for he can only ally with one side here. This is recognized, and accepted; the blades move forward -
The vision released her, and she swayed on her feet.
That...had been his. There was no mistaking it; the skin color matched, and she knew those swords.
So then, this hill - and all these memories -
She didn't belong here. This was not for her. Even more than with her own Servants, this was something she had no business seeing.
But even as the thought crossed her mind, her hand came to rest on another sword.
- Hands before her, the same hands she has seen before. But this time, the hands are empty. The blades are absent, for there is no use for them. There is no enemy to fight; there is only
It's a natural disaster. A conflagration begun in a densely wooded area, already dry because of drought; the flames spread too rapidly to be stopped, consuming acres of forest and acres of grassland - and here, now, the first town that could not be evacuated in time.
She can hear the screams of those burning alive, but nothing can be done. It's too late for anyone to enter that hell and emerge alive. The hands before her clench into fists. There's no enemy to fight here; there's nothing but
"Let me make a contract."
"Let me make a contract. I shall give you my life after death; I would like the compensation now."
He wasn't - !
She can feel it. Even detached, watching through his eyes but not sensing anything, she can still feel it. In the space of an instant, he has changed, become something more, as though possessed by something. The empty hands move forward -
Sakura awoke with a sharp breath. Her eyes snapped open; beyond that, though, she didn't move.
Saber still noticed.
Sakura sat up in bed and looked at her Servant. Saber was sitting against the wall, her face colored a slight tint of red.
"Saber? What's wrong?"
Saber wouldn't meet her eyes. "How are you feeling?"
"I feel fine. Why - "
Then, she remembered.
Last night. Because of her need for energy, Archer had - and she -
Sakura's face flushed. She looked down, realized her chest was exposed, and fell back onto the bed with a panicked squeak, pulling the covers back over her.
Once she got her breathing back under control, she looked over at Saber. "Where's Archer?"
"He left not long ago."
Sakura blinked. Was it her imagination, or had there been a sense of irritation in Saber's voice?
"Saber? Did something happen between you and him?"
"Nothing of note. It is just..." She sighed as she rose to her feet. "Something about Archer bothers me."
"He seems to go out of his way to provoke me. He must know that I have realized this by now, yet he still persists in it." Saber frowned. "It is not simply that we are rival Servants; there is more to it than that. It is almost as if it were..." Her eyes narrowed, then widened. "Personal."
"When I first encountered Archer in this War, I dealt him a heavy wound, from which he has only recently recovered." Saber's eyes widened further as she continued to speak. "Looking back at it now, it was far too easy. Archer is a Servant strong in defense; his performance against Berserker leaves no doubts in that regard. And yet, he froze at the sight of me. He - " Saber's breath caught in her throat. "He recognized me."
Sakura frowned. That dream she'd just had... "He knew you in life, then?"
"He must have." Saber nodded. "Nothing else fits. It would explain why he knew enough of me to taunt me, as well; if he was one of my knights - "
"No, that's impossible."
Saber blinked. "Sakura?"
"If he knows you that well, then he couldn't have been one of your knights. None of your knights knew you, because none of them ever - ah."
Far too late, Sakura noticed Saber's surprised gaze, and cut herself off with a flinch.
Because none of them ever talked to you.
Saber had never told her that. Sakura knew only because she'd seen Saber's past in her dreams.
"Saber...I...that is..." She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have - "
"It is fine, Sakura." Saber cut her off with a quiet voice. "It is nothing for which you need apologize. Rather, I should be the one apologizing for making you see such things." She shook her head. "I should have warned you about this, but it had never happened to me before. I did not even think of it until it was too late."
"It never happened before?" Sakura frowned. "But you've fought in the Holy Grail War before, haven't you?"
Saber grimaced. "I have. But it is as I said last night. My Master and I were not compatible; we did not form any sort of bond, let alone one as close as that I share with you."
Anger tinged Saber's words - and, to Sakura's alarm, she didn't even seem to notice it.
"You...you hate him, don't you?"
"I never understood him. He only spoke to me three times during the entire War." Saber glanced at Sakura. "I am sure you can guess what those occasions were."
Sakura swallowed, and nodded.
"That War ended...poorly. My Master..." She grimaced again, then shook herself, and straightened. She turned to face Sakura fully, with a neutral expression that wouldn't have fooled anyone, let alone her Master. "So let me express my gratitude, Sakura, for acting as you have. You are without question the finest Master I have ever had."
Sakura didn't quite know how to react to that.
The finest Master?
Better than Saber's Master in the last War? Better than -
Sakura's face clouded over. "No, not the finest, Saber. Senpai was..."
To Sakura's surprise, Saber shook her head "Whatever his potential might have been, the only action Shirou took as my Master was to refuse to participate in the War. He..." She trailed off, and frowned.
"Saber? What is it?"
"Sakura. There is something I wish to ask you, but...I am uncertain how you will react to it."
Sakura frowned. "Go on."
"The bond between Master and Servant goes both ways. Just as you have seen my past in your dreams, I too have seen yours."
The training - the times with Nii-san - the -
"I did. But my loyalty to you remains unchanged. I am your sword, with which you will gain the Grail and Shirou's life."
With an effort, Sakura forced herself to calm down. It was as Saber had said - and even if she hadn't seen those things, Sakura's grandfather had told her of most of them. There was nothing here she should be worrying about.
And Senpai - that was what was troubling Saber earlier, wasn't it?
"Saber, what does that have to do with Senpai?"
"I saw Shirou in a memory of yours last night. But I could not understand it."
"What do you mean?"
"Taiga - " Sakura's breath caught in her throat, and Saber flinched. "I apologize. But she told me that you only began visiting Shirou a year and a half ago, correct?"
Sakura nodded, uncertain.
"The Shirou I saw in your memory was significantly younger than that. He was still a boy. I did not realize you knew him so long ago."
She should have realized. If Saber was seeing her past, of course she would see that.
"He was in a schoolyard, right? Trying to jump a high bar?"
"That was the first time I ever saw Senpai." She smiled faintly. "It was four years ago...I'd just entered junior high school. I wasn't used to the place, so I was wandering around aimlessly after class when I saw him."
She could still see him. If she let her mind wander, the scene would naturally reappear before her: the flash of red from the setting sun striking her eyes, as she passed the open door; the wait, disjointed, as her sight cleared; and when it did, the figure that had seared itself into her memory.
"He was on the track, all alone, doing high jumps." She shook her head. "It shouldn't have meant anything to me. I didn't know him, I didn't care about him, but..." She trailed off, and her smile widened.
"It was impossible. The bar was set too high. It wasn't something that could be overcome with effort; it was way over his head. Even I could tell that, so it must have been obvious to him.
"But he just kept trying. Running, jumping, knocking down the bar if he managed to touch it, resetting it and trying again...and it made me angry."
Saber blinked. "Angry?"
"Yes. It made me angry - so I stayed there, and kept watching him. I wanted to see him fail. I wanted to see him get discouraged, and give...and give up...like I had." She could feel herself tearing up. She forced the smile back on her face, and continued. "He was up against something impossible, but he was still trying. It was like he was insulting everything I'd gone through, and he didn't even know it. I wanted to take it out on him, to make him understand."
She sniffled, and continued. "So I kept on watching, waiting for him to give up...but he never did. He kept on jumping for another three hours, and even then he didn't give up. The only reason he stopped was because the sun had set, and it was too dark to see. He cleaned up and went home, and even though he must have been exhausted, he walked away calmly, like nothing had happened. And, that whole time...I couldn't stop watching him."
Sakura closed her eyes, and shook her head. "I realized, at some point, that he didn't care. He just happened to run into something he couldn't do, and he was obstinate about not losing. As if the effort was what mattered, even if the results didn't follow. He was so earnest, I even worried about him.
"We never spoke, he never even knew I was there - but I went from yelling at him in my mind to give up, to cheering him on. Not long after...Senpai and Nii-san became friends, and Nii-san introduced him to me."
"And for that, if nothing else, I am grateful to Shinji."
Sakura and Saber both started.
"Ri - "
Saber stopped Sakura with a sharp gesture. A moment later, Saber's voice echoed in her head.
"Rider, you were listening?"
Rider did not answer directly. "We owe Shirou a great deal for what he did for Sakura that day. I am hopeful that your alliance with Archer's Master holds."
In other words - she had been, and not just for this conversation.
Something was wrong, though. Rider's mental voice was flat, but there was a tension there that surprised Sakura.
She followed her Servants' lead and spoke mentally. "Rider, what's wrong?"
"I am currently over the Einzberns' castle. Sakura, I would ask you to share my sight."
Sakura settled back in bed, and closed her eyes.
Sakura's eyes opened in surprise, and Saber stiffened.
"Me?" Saber looked troubled by the request. "Is that even possible?"
"You should know better than anyone that it is."
"At any rate...try."
Rider's voice took on a hint of urgency.
"You both need to see this."
"Eh, you know how it is." Lancer smirked at Berserker's Master, even as he kept Gae Bolg trained on the Servant. "You go for a walk, you get lost in thought, and the next thing you know..."
"You should really pay more attention, then." The girl smiled. "You've ensured that this walk will be your last."
"Yeah, well...we'll see about that."
"You're going to try and fight?" She scowled. "What are you up to, Lancer? After the last time, you should know that you don't stand a chance against Berserker alone!"
"Alone?" Something in Lancer's tone must have caught her attention, because she stiffened as his face split in an evil grin.
It worked. However the hell Caster did it, the plan worked. The girl hasn't sensed anything.
"Little girl...who said I was alone?"
He pointed up. She looked up, following the gesture...and her eyes widened.
There, floating overhead, was Caster.
Five copies of the Servant loomed above them. In unison, each gestured with her wand, and an orb of energy formed, and shimmered.
One orb became five. Five orbs became twenty-five. Twenty-five became one hundred twenty-five. One hundred twenty-five became six hundred twenty-five. Six hundred twenty-five...
Lancer soon lost count.
The entire sky was filled with balls of destruction, obscuring even the slightest trace of the blue atmosphere above it. And that was just one Caster - each of the five created her own layer, overlapping the others, so that the air was saturated with impending death. The destructive attack awaited only the trigger to descend upon the clearing, and everything in it.
Lancer was in the clearing -
"That miserable - !"
He sprang back into the trees as the first bolts came down, escaping harm by a margin of perhaps a tenth of a second.
"Hey, a little warning would have been nice!"
No answer...not like he expected one, though. His Master was a little busy at the moment.
He kept his eyes on the clearing, but even with his enhanced senses, it was a futile endeavor. All he could see was the light of the blasts -
" - ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||| - !"
- and all he could hear were the roars of the giant, caught in the destruction.
At length, the lethal deluge petered out, then stopped. Berserker had gone silent some time ago; Lancer couldn't see what was left of him just yet - the smoke and debris kicked up by the bombardment still covered the clearing like a wall - but the result was not in doubt.
Lancer whistled. "You're a sorry cheat, you know that?"
Caster's mental response was flat. "Eyes forward, Lancer. This is not over yet."
"Seriously?" Lancer looked at the destruction, and raised an eyebrow. "A blast like that, and you're telling me Bigfoot over there is still kicking?" At the very least, Berserker's Master had to be -
"You're a slow learner, aren't you?"
Lancer's eyes widened at the impossible voice. The smoke cleared at last, and his jaw dropped.
The castle was battered and cracked, and one wall had been completely obliterated. The grounds looked as if they had been turned over repeatedly, where the landscape had not simply been gouged out altogether...
...all except for the area around Berserker. There, the green grass underfoot was pristine. The Master, standing directly beneath her Servant, was unharmed.
And the Servant himself was completely untouched.
"Oh, come on!" Lancer barked a disbelieving laugh. "What does it take to kill this bastard?!"
"Don't feel too bad, Lancer." The girl was actually beaming at him! "Caster did manage to kill Berserker twice with that, which is two more kills than I thought she had in her." Her eyes narrowed, and her smile turned vicious. "And now...it's our turn."
Lancer stepped back, and brought Gae Bolg up in a defensive stance.
Caster - all five of her - was out of reach. If Berserker had access to his bow and arrows, it would have been one thing; as it was, though, his only possible target was Lancer -
" - ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||| - !"
Berserker swung at the sky.
Lancer's eye twitched.
"What the hell?" Did his depth perception vanish with his sanity? "What is that - "
A choked cry from above drew his attention. He looked up - and one of the Casters fell apart in two pieces, then dissolved in a metallic shimmer.
"...You're shitting me, right?"
" - ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||| - !"
Berserker swung his weapon again.
And a second Caster popped.
Air pressure. With nothing more than the sheer force of the weapon moving, Berserker was killing Caster's shadows from a distance.
The three remaining Casters, realizing their predicament, began to rise higher up. More destructive orbs formed as they did so, raining down upon Berserker without hesitation and obscuring the clearing in light and debris once more.
" - ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||| - !"
Another Caster perished, and Lancer moved.
He hadn't really thought this contingency plan would be necessary, when they'd plotted out the attack, but Caster had been insistent - and right now, he was glad for it, because she had been right after all.
Berserker really was that ridiculous.
Lancer sprinted across the clearing as the fourth Caster died. He leaped for a particularly sturdy-looking tree - crashing into it feet-first with enough force that it was uprooted, and began to tip over - and used the trunk to brace himself and spring high into the air over the clearing, readying his weapon as he did so.
"GAE - "
Berserker and his Master both turned to look up at him.
Too late, brat.
" - BOLG!"
The Noble Phantasm left his hand, even as the last remaining Caster unleashed a fresh barrage. Both attacks struck Berserker at the same time, and the resultant explosion rocked the clearing, obscuring it once more as the momentum of Lancer's jump carried him back into the forest.
Lancer turned as soon as he landed. Dust still hid everything, but the last Caster hovered overhead -
" - ||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||| - !"
Scratch that, the last Caster had just gotten killed.
Lancer crouched, and watched the clearing expectantly. Berserker may have survived, but there was no way he was unharmed - not after the damage Gae Bolg alone had done last time - and Lancer wasn't bound by a Command Spell, now. This time, he would take the fight to his wounded opponent, and -
The dust settled, and the clearing became visible once more.
"WHAT THE HELL!"
Berserker was unscathed.
"Too bad, Lancer!" Lancer's eyes snapped to Berserker's Master, and she laughed at him. "It was a nice idea...but the same attack can't defeat Berserker more than once. You and Caster both blundered!"
More than once -
Hercules - !
Realization set in far too late to do any good. Lancer could only grit his teeth and glare impotently.
The girl was right.
They'd had a chance. He'd had no way of knowing it at the time, but there had been a possibility of victory here. He shouldn't have waited so long, and his target shouldn't have been Berserker - he should have gone after the Master in the first exchange, when Caster's attack was still effective and Berserker was down - !
Lancer kept his eyes on the pair as the Command Spell took hold and pulled him away from the battlefield.
Next time, for sure - !
For a long moment after the vision ended, no one spoke, mentally or out loud.
Sakura glanced at Saber, and the Servant's mouth quirked. "It appears Archer was correct about Berserker's Noble Phantasm."
"Indeed," Rider said. "Still, it is not quite as hopeless as it first seemed."
Sakura blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Did you catch what Berserker's Master said to Lancer about Caster's attack?"
Saber frowned. "At the end, you mean?"
"No, after the first barrage."
Sakura blinked again. "Wait, you could hear them? We were so high up..." She could see the action clearly - which spoke volumes about Rider's eyes (or maybe Breaker Gorgon; she wasn't sure whether Rider's mask aided or hindered her vision, and if so, by how much) - but she couldn't hear anything.
Saber shook her head. "No, but I could read their lips."
"I, as well."
"...oh." Sakura's face reddened.
"It is all right, Sakura," Saber said. "This is not a skill you would have needed before now, and in this instance, you can rely upon your Servants."
After a moment, Sakura nodded. "So, what did she say?"
"She told Lancer not to feel bad. That - " Saber stiffened, and her eyes shot wide open.
Rider finished for her. "That Caster had killed Berserker twice with her attack."
Sakura frowned. She heard the words, but she couldn't understand them. "Killed twice...what does that mean?"
"It means," Saber said with a sharp nod, "that we have a chance."
"If enough damage is dealt," Rider said, "more than one of Berserker's lives can be taken in a single attack."
Sakura breathed in sharply.
"Saber and I have the most powerful Noble Phantasms in this War. If Archer's own Noble Phantasm is added to that, I have little doubt that we can erase whatever lives remain after Lancer's and Caster's assaults."
"Do you think we should?" Sakura asked. "Work with Nee-san and Archer on this, I mean."
Saber frowned. "It would mean revealing Rider's survival. Still, at this point...Rider, did anyone spot you?"
"Neither Lancer nor Berserker saw me. Of this, I am certain."
"That..." Rider paused for a moment. "That...is not as certain. She did not see me, but..."
Saber nodded. "With Caster, that is not the greatest problem."
"Indeed." Rider sighed. "It appears that I have been careless. Caster's sensory abilities far outstrip those of any other Servant; it is very possible that she noticed my presence."
"So Caster knows." Saber closed her eyes and took a breath. "And it is likely that by now, Ilyasviel knows, as well."
Sakura's eyes went wide, and she had to make an effort not to cry out loud.
Rider's response, when it came, was clearly annoyed. "Berserker did not see me, Saber. Surely you are not claiming that his Master has better eyes than a Servant's?"
"They did not need to."
Sakura could feel Rider's reaction to that statement, and broke in before things could degenerate further. "Saber, what are you talking about?"
"I told you last night, Sakura. In the last Holy Grail War, I fought on behalf of the Einzberns. I am intimately familiar with that castle's defenses. The entire forest is covered by a highly potent sensory boundary field; even as high up as Rider was, the fact remains that she is a Servant, and she hovered over the castle itself for the duration of the battle. It is unthinkable that she passed by unnoticed."
Rider did not offer a response to that.
"So, then...who doesn't know about Rider?"
"Assassin's Master, and Rin." Saber's mouth was set in a thin line. "Everyone else knows."
"There...really is no point to keeping her hidden, then."
That was not a conversation Sakura was looking forward to. She wasn't ashamed of Rider - far from it! - but the things she had done, both under Shinji's command and apparently on her own...and the ones who had fought her the most had been -
Rider's mental voice broke her train of thought.
"I disagree. There is still value in keeping our affiliation a secret."
Saber frowned. "Rider, you are not the sort to make such a claim without justification. But I cannot see whatever advantage you are asserting."
"That is because you are accustomed to battles with only two sides."
Saber's eyes narrowed. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"Exactly what it sounds like. Judging from the records, the vast majority of your experience in life was in battles between two opposing forces - no more. I would expect that your previous Holy Grail War was the first time you took part in a genuine battle royale."
Saber scowled. "Your point?"
"My point is this: Place yourself in the positions of Caster and Berserker's Master. In each case, you have noticed me, and realized that I am still alive. But now, the question: Who is my new Master?"
"That's - " Saber cut herself off, and her eyes widened.
Sakura blinked. "Saber?"
"The Masters most capable of taking on a second Servant...are Caster and Ilyasviel. And Rider did nothing to favor either side of the battle." Saber slowly began to smile. "Each will believe that she belongs to the other - and neither will expect her to aid us. Our advantage remains largely intact."
Saber paused then, and her smile became a frown. "Still, your survival is known, and Rin is likely to discover it eventually. Would it not be better to inform her, so that we might cooperate?"
"It is as Archer said last night: To deceive one's enemies, one must first deceive one's allies. If Archer and his Master do not expect me, they cannot betray that expectation to my prey before I strike."
Saber frowned. "Your 'prey'?"
Rider did not respond. But Sakura got the distinct impression that she was smiling.
"Morning, you two."
"Good morning, Nee-san."
The older girl nodded to them, and Sakura felt a smile forming involuntarily upon her face.
Her sister still looked pretty bad - hair disheveled, bags under her eyes, body listing this way and that in a small figure-eight - but it was nowhere near the barely-human wreck she had been the day before.
Case in point: Rather than sitting at the table, clutching a cup of tea and trying not to move, Rin was standing in the kitchen, clad in an apron - the one Sakura usually used, in fact - and cooking breakfast.
"This will be ready in a second. You two can go ahead and sit down."
"Nee-san, is there anything I can do to help?"
"No, it's fine, it's..." Rin trailed off, looked away from Sakura, and reddened. "Could you get the dishes?"
Sakura felt her smile grow wider.
The food was done shortly, and setting three places at the table took only a little longer. (Sakura thought about asking whether they should set a place for Archer, but he hadn't eaten dinner the night before...and besides, she didn't think she could see him right now without having her face spontaneously combust.) Rin hesitated only a moment before joining them, and soon, all three of them had begun to eat.
The food was good - very good. Sakura hadn't realized just how hungry she was until she started eating, and as she took a second helping, she couldn't help but -
"Rin, you are not hungry?"
Sakura stopped, and looked over in surprise. Her sister had barely touched her food.
"Er, no." Rin flinched and reddened under the sudden attention. "I don't eat breakfast, most mornings."
Sakura blinked. "But then, why...?"
"You'd put out a place for me - I couldn't just...I mean, and besides, I'd only made enough for you and Saber, so..."
"You should eat, Rin." Saber frowned. "It will inhibit your growth if you skip such a fundamental meal each day."
"Oh, shut up." Rin scowled. "I don't want to hear that from someone who can eat for fifteen and still look like that."
"Still, Nee-san...you're still recovering from yesterday, aren't you? Wouldn't it be better for you to eat more?"
"No, it's fine. I'm used to this. Besides..." Rin gave Sakura a flat look. "Unlike some people I could mention, I don't have the luxury of having all the nutrients go to my chest."
Sakura blushed and looked away.
She grimaced. "Sorry, sorry. You might have noticed I'm not great in the morning. Still, I'm not planning on going anywhere until we move against the temple, so don't worry. There's nothing else I..."
Rin trailed off. Her eyes narrowed, then widened, and then she buried her face in her hands and groaned.
"Sakura, could I ask you for a favor?"
After the meal, Saber returned to Sakura's room.
Unlike Archer, she could not take spirit form. Thus, the only way she could conserve energy - both Sakura's, and her own - was to rest, and this was what it had been agreed that she would do for the rest of the day.
And while nothing had been said to Rin or Archer, there was also something she needed to try.
She had an easier time forming the link than when she'd tried to contact Rider. Perhaps it was because her eyes were closed; perhaps it was simply because she was calmer now.
Whatever the reason, Saber reached her Master almost instantly. Permission was asked, and silently granted.
And with that, scenery burst into existence before her closed eyes.
"It worked, then?"
Saber smiled. "It did."
It was a simple idea Rider had posited, in light of their successful sharing earlier: If it was possible for the Master to borrow the Servant's sight, and for fellow Servants to borrow each other's sight, could it not also be possible for Servants to borrow their Master's sight?
And so it was. Saber could see everything that Sakura did - not as if seeing out of her eyes, but from right behind her, filtered through her Master's translucent form.
"Sakura, are you in any pain?"
"No, I'm all right." Sakura hesitated, then went on. "It felt a bit strange when you were making the connection, but only for a second. Now, I can barely feel anything."
"Excellent," Rider said. "As planned, then, I will join you."
Saber could see what Sakura meant. When Rider joined their link, the bond rippled and shuddered, as it was manipulated in a way not originally intended - very similar to what she and Sakura had originally tried, now that she thought about it.
She felt Sakura pick up on that thought, and the corresponding rush of embarrassment caused Sakura's cheeks to redden.
"Is there a problem?"
There was a moment of disorientation as Sakura started, then turned to her physical companion: the Servant Archer, accompanying her for this errand.
"No, it's fine. I was just thinking about something, and..." Her face heated again, and -
Wait. Why was Saber feeling that?
"Rider, did you also...?"
"I did. This is...unexpected."
Sight-borrowing was supposed to be just that - borrowing the other's sense of sight, and perhaps sound. But touch? Did that mean taste and smell, as well?
And more importantly - did that mean pain?
"Sakura, did you feel anything when you borrowed Rider's sight before?"
"I...not the first time, no. I was just trying to figure out how to see through the boundary field - I wasn't paying attention to anything else."
"And this morning?" Rider asked.
"...We were very high up. The wind...it felt turbulent around us, and it was cold, but...it was remote. I didn't think about it at the time, but...I should have felt more than that."
So - enough to sense, but not enough to harm.
"This..." Sakura hesitated. "This isn't normal, is it?"
"No." Rider's voice was flat. "The Matou library has no records of anything similar to this."
"So why the difference, then?" Saber frowned. "It would seem to be advantageous, but if there are drawbacks, as well - "
"Master of Saber."
Sakura started, and looked over at Archer. "Y...yes?"
"You have been standing in place for the past two and a half minutes." Archer raised an eyebrow. "Taking it easy is fine, but we do have places to be today."
Sakura's face flushed. "I'm sorry, let's go," she said, and began to walk again.
"Let us table this for now," Saber said.
For the next few minutes, they walked in silence. Neither Archer nor Sakura tried to speak, and Saber and Rider kept their peace as well.
Archer, though, seemed uneasy. It was hard for Saber to put a finger on it, but there was something familiar about him - though she could not figure out what - and it seemed to her that he was waiting for something.
When he finally did speak, it confirmed her suspicions. "Rin has taken a break." He looked over at Sakura. "There is something I feel I should warn you of now, while she is not paying attention to us."
Sakura blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Your training as a mage."
Sakura breathed in sharply, and in her own body, Saber gritted her teeth.
"What about my training?"
"It took place in the basement chamber, correct?"
Sakura's eyes widened. "How did you...?"
"As I said last night, I inspected that room myself. It was not difficult for me to divine its original purposes." His eyes narrowed. "What you need to be aware of is that Rin was watching through my eyes as I did so."
"Nee-san was - " Sakura's eyes widened further, and the color drained from her face. She stumbled and fell into Archer, grabbing onto him to keep her balance.
Archer took hold of her by the shoulders. "You can be at ease. She did not realize what she was seeing, at the time." He frowned. "However, as the Matou heir, you should know even better than I just how capable a mage she is. She already suspects that your training was unorthodox; she will figure it out, eventually. It's only a matter of time."
Saber felt a slight wave of disorientation as Sakura straightened and stepped away.
"Archer-san...why are you telling me this?"
"I'm telling you this because you are Rin's weakness."
"Her weakness," Archer said firmly. "Her worries for you interfere with her thought process, and her effectiveness as a Master drops accordingly. If she should learn the truth at the wrong time, it could lead to a disaster in combat."
"I don't understand."
"We cannot control Rin finding out. That much is inevitable. What we can control is the timing." Archer's eyes narrowed. "You must tell her yourself."
"Tell her - " Sakura's eyes widened even further, and she once again began to totter.
"Sakura!" Saber barked. "Get ahold of yourself!"
Archer caught Sakura by the arm, and held her up until she was steady again. "I don't mean right now, of course." He smirked. "That would interfere with tonight's operation."
Archer frowned. "The assault on Ryudou Temple."
Saber groaned. "I am sorry, Sakura. I had forgotten. We discussed this at last night's meeting, but you had drifted off by that point."
"You don't have any idea what I'm talking about, do you?" Sakura shook her head, and Archer sighed. "Well, no matter. Rin expected this, so please feel free to ask."
"All...all right." Sakura took a breath. "So there's a Master there?"
"Correct. That is the base of Assassin and his Master. They are the ones responsible for the 'gas leaks' around the city."
Sakura blinked. "Assassin's Master? But why?"
Saber couldn't help but grin. Sakura had picked up on that right away.
"That's what has Rin worried," Archer said. "As you surmised, there is no way that so much energy is needed to support that Servant. The Master has something else in mind...and whatever it is, she's been storing up energy for it since the War began."
"Storing up? How?"
Saber frowned. "Sakura, we discussed this last night."
At the same time, Archer answered her out loud. "I suppose you had checked out by that point in the meeting. Assassin's Master is using the fallen ley line at the temple to drain life energy from all over the city."
Sakura shook her head to them both. "No, that's not what I mean. I get that the Master's draining energy, but how is she storing it?"
"Sakura, is this so important?"
"Saber, the Matou's magic focuses on binding and absorption. We're all about draining energy - so believe me when I tell you that storing it afterward is a big deal."
"Ah. I see what you're asking now. To answer your question, she's not so much storing it as using the boundary fields around the temple to contain it."
Sakura frowned. "The boundary field? I don't understand."
Archer shook his head. "Not field. Fields, plural."
"There's more than one?" Then, mentally: "Saber, do you know what he's talking about?"
"No. This is the first I have heard of it." And considering Kiritsugu had researched the temple, that was saying something.
"I, as well," Rider said.
"Most that know of the temple would consider it only a single boundary field. But in truth, it is two fields, functioning...not together, exactly, but against one another." Archer frowned. "First, you have the larger field, which covers the entire mountain. Its purpose is to repel any spirits not of nature. That much is commonly known...among those who know of such things, at least. However, the field's effect is nullified on the temple grounds."
"The second boundary field?"
"Exactly. Think of it as a dome within a dome, repelling the effects of the larger field in the temple proper. And because the 'no spirit's land' between the two fields is so large, it serves a double purpose - just as the outer field prevents outside spirits from entering the mountain, the inner field prevents spirits already within the temple from leaving."
Sakura's eyes widened. "So when you say 'contain,' rather than 'store'..."
Archer nodded. "The energy Assassin's Master has drained is floating freely within the temple grounds - kept there by the inner field, and readily accessible to her at any time."
Sakura swallowed and nodded, and the pair fell silent once more.
"I can understand why Archer and his Master thought it was Caster who had taken up residence there. I had come to the same conclusion for different reasons when I served Shinji, and like them, I only realized my mistake upon encountering Assassin. The fact that we were wrong leads to other questions, though."
"First - how did Assassin's Master know of this? Neither Archer nor his Master knew of the fallen ley line at the temple, and none of us, save Archer, knew of the second boundary field."
Saber frowned. "I see your point. That would be another reason to expect Caster, had we not already discounted her. What else?"
"How does Archer know about the second boundary field?"
Neither Saber nor Sakura had an answer to that.
It was one more mystery surrounding a Servant who already had far too many of them.
A skilled tactician, strong in defense, who knew things about Berserker - not the Heroic Spirit Hercules, the Servant Berserker - he had no possible way of knowing.
A man who knew Saber somehow, well enough to provoke her repeatedly - something which should also have been impossible, even for someone who had lived in Saber's time and known her as King Arthur - but yet was completely unknown to Saber in turn.
A hero who had been summoned into the Archer class, yet knew enough about magic to recognize something about the temple's boundary field that no one else had.
And either his Noble Phantasm was completely useless, or even against Berserker, he had been holding back.
"Rider, do you have any idea what Archer's Noble Phantasm is?"
"No. He has been very careful." And while it was hard to tell, Rider seemed no happier about that than Saber. "As far as I am aware, he had never so much as fired his bow until he ambushed Caster the night before last, and then he...hm?"
"You noticed something?"
"I may have, but...no. No, that is not possible. He could not be so mad as to..."
Sakura broke in. "What is is, Rider?"
"In the barrage that defeated Caster's shadow, there was one projectile different from the others. You know that of which I speak."
"Yes." The arrow that had cracked Caster's barrier. Saber frowned. "You believe that was his Noble Phantasm?"
"No. Or at least...?" Rider trailed off, and an uncharacteristic burst of frustration rippled through the bond.
"Rider, what is it about that arrow?" Sakura asked.
"It was Broken."
"Broken?" Sakura blinked. "You mean there was something wrong with it?"
Saber, on the other hand, went rigid. "Rider. Are you saying that was a Broken Phantasm?"
It was hard to blame Sakura for failing to recognize the term. It was something Saber herself had only come across in life by chance, and she suspected that most Heroic Spirits did not learn of the phenomenon until they had ascended to the Throne of Heroes.
Few in this world would willingly admit that it was possible for Heroic Spirits to act in such a stupidly self-destructive fashion.
A Broken Phantasm was a Noble Phantasm overloaded with magical energy. This would cause the Noble Phantasm to explode upon contact with its target, inflicting damage a full rank higher than the treasure would otherwise be capable of delivering.
But a Broken Phantasm was just that - broken. The Noble Phantasm had been sacrificed for the attack, and could not be repaired. It was unusable afterwards.
For a Servant to employ a Broken Phantasm in the Holy Grail War at any point - let alone before even a single enemy Servant had been eliminated - was tantamount to suicide.
And Archer had used one against Caster's shadow?
"That's insane!" Saber had to control herself to keep from shouting out loud. "To Break his Noble Phantasm now - "
"Which is why I believe that I must have made a mistake." Rider clearly shared Saber's bewilderment. "Archer and his Master both knew that was not the real Caster. It is unthinkable that they would have thrown away his only weapon at this stage of the War."
"What if it was not his only weapon?"
The words were framed and the thought expressed before Saber realized she had done so. Yet once she had, she felt a cold, sinking feeling in her gut. Those words had the ring of truth to them - and she knew why.
"You have thought of something."
"I have." Saber paused, and took a breath. "The last War's Archer. Even at the end, I never figured out his identity."
"You did not see his Noble Phantasm?"
"Just the opposite. I saw too many of them."
"He was in the Archer class because he specialized in ranged combat. But his idea of ranged combat was to fire Noble Phantasms at his enemies from a distance - and he never used the same weapon twice."
"Holy swords. Demonic swords. European. Chinese. African. Greek. He had so many Noble Phantasms, from so many different times and places, that it was impossible to identify him."
"And you believe this War's Archer to be similar?"
"It is possible. At the very least, for him to have used his Noble Phantasm in combat as he did - slipping it in unnoticed among his other arrows - requires constant practice. It must be a tactic that he is accustomed to; that would not be possible if his attack on Caster's shadow was his first and last attempt."
"But was there any such hero in your era?"
In her era -
Saber grimaced. Just how long had Rider been listening in, this morning? "Not to my knowledge. One more thing about Archer that makes no sense."
And then, the time for contemplation was over. Saber's senses, even filtered through Sakura, went on end as Sakura and Archer approached the Tohsaka Mansion.
Sakura remained silent as Archer unlocked the house - both physically and mystically - and followed him up to the second floor...and to the favor Rin had asked of her.
"Matou? What are you doing here?"
"Hello, Captain." Sakura stood before the bed and bowed, while Mitsuzuri Ayako looked up at her with a bemused expression. "Ne - Tohsaka-senpai asked me to come visit you."
Saber grit her teeth. How many times had Sakura made that same slip - that exact same correction - and she had missed it? It was an inexcusable oversight on her part as a Servant.
Here and now, Ayako blinked, and looked over at Archer. "Tohsaka couldn't come?"
Archer shrugged. "She was planning to, but circumstances changed. There will be a battle tonight, and she and Saber both need to prepare."
"I see." Ayako started to say something else, but it was lost in a fit of coughs; when the fit passed, she closed her eyes, and breathed deeply.
"Captain - "
"No need to call me that, Matou. I don't know how much of the school is left, but I doubt I'll be the captain if the archery club is reformed."
"Yes, Capt - Mitsuzuri-senpai."
Ayako chuckled, then looked over as Archer cleared his throat.
"I'll leave you two alone for now," he said, then dematerialized.
Ayako looked at where he had been for a moment, then turned back to Sakura with a frown. "Matou...you're Saber's Master, right?"
"Did you know what Shinji was up to?"
Sakura flinched at the mention of her brother, then shook her head. "No. I knew Rider was Nii-san's Servant, but that was all."
Ayako, in turn, shuddered at the mention of Rider. "I don't know how you could stand to be around..." She coughed, then shook her head. "Never mind. So you weren't cooperating?"
"No. I didn't want to fight him, and..."
Saber settled back as Sakura continued to talk. It was amazing, in its own way; Sakura had had only the walk here to prepare, and yet she spoke without hesitation, hiding what needed to be hidden while mixing truth and falsehood in a blend that all but the most perceptive would have struggled to see through.
Sakura's gift for dissembling was exceptional, and Saber couldn't help but think of what a boon the girl would have been to her court, had she lived in that era.
"This is unexpected."
Saber started at Rider's words. "What is?"
"I did not think that Ayako would react to me quite this poorly."
There were any number of things Saber could have said in response to that - for one, since when did Rider know Ayako well enough to call her by name? - but she went with the most obvious. "Why should that be a surprise? The only time she saw you was when you were with Shinji, using the boundary field to consume the school."
Rider did not respond.
Still no response, and now, they had drawn Sakura's attention. "Rider, what is it?"
Rider still did not answer, and Sakura frowned. Saber watched as Sakura, still talking, took another look at Ayako - and her Master's eyes widened.
It was very subtle - almost undetectable, to anyone not familiar with Rider's power and presence. Even then, it might easily have been overlooked.
But it was there, and both Sakura and Saber had spotted it.
On top of the drain Ayako had suffered from the boundary field, there were signs of a second, more recent feeding - one with the exact same energy signature as the first.
Saber growled. "Rider..."
"In my defense, I did not kill her."
"Well...here we are."
Sakura nodded at her sister's words.
That was about all she could do.
Her head was still swimming with the aftermath of Saber and Rider's confrontation...such as it was.
The two had barely spoken as Sakura and Archer returned home. They hadn't needed to; their emotions shot back and forth through the bond at a dizzying pace - and Sakura, being in the middle, got it from both sides.
All through the walk home they continued, with increasing intensity and hostility...and through the evening meal, and through the strategy session afterwards. Sakura felt like her head was about to split in half - and the worst part was that she wasn't sure either of her Servants even realized what they were doing.
It was not as if Sakura failed to understand her Servants' positions - both Rider's dedication and protectiveness, and Saber's anger over the deception - but this was hardly the time for it! It was only now, as Sakura, Saber, Rin, and Archer stood at the base of the mountain leading to Ryudou Temple, that the exchanges subsided.
Rin's Servant peered up the stairs for a moment, then nodded grimly. "It's as we expected."
"All right, then. Saber?"
"I am ready."
Saber looked back to Sakura, and caught her eyes for a moment before nodding.
Then she turned and dashed up the stairs, alone.
"All right, then!" Rin clapped her hands. "Let's get this meeting started, shall we? I...what is it, Saber?"
Saber blinked. "No, it is nothing of import. Just...those glasses?"
"Oh, these?" Rin reached up and adjusted the large, blocky frames. "I wear them for reading. It helps with my eyes." Archer chuckled, and Rin turned to him with a glare. "What?"
"You do realize that you have been wearing those since before dinner?"
"Huh? I didn't take them - " Her eyes widened. "And none of you said any - "
Rin's face turned red. She snatched the glasses off her face, then glared at the entire table, as if daring them to speak.
"Now, where was I?"
"The temple, I believe," Saber said.
"Right. Thank you." Rin nodded to her. "The last time, Archer and I had little difficulty getting up the mountain. I doubt that will be the case this time, though."
"Why is that?"
"Because the last time, we were the third party that night to meet Assassin at the gate. Almost all of the defenses had already been triggered." Archer shook his head. "We cannot count on having such good fortune again."
"What do you propose, then?"
"Simple." Rin smiled, and Saber shivered in spite of herself. "We have you trigger them for us."
It was a good plan, Saber thought, as a wave of fire rolled harmlessly over her. Her class's Magic Resistance made all such defenses useless against her, and as for the more mundane traps -
A hail of spears rained down upon her, only to be intercepted by a volley of silver flashes, and knocked off course.
- those were Archer's responsibility.
"Sakura, your job will be to stay in contact with Saber. Keep us informed of her progress, and pass along any messages."
Saber frowned. "To what purpose?"
"We'll be following you up the mountain, Saber. Don't forget, Assassin is only half the problem - we have to take out the Master, too. Given who her Servant is, she had to have set those traps herself - and that can tell us a lot."
Rin's eyes narrowed.
"Show us her magic, Saber...and you'll show us the mage."
Magical energy rippled over Saber, but to no effect. For a moment, Saber couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be - then realization set in, and her eyes widened.
Enforced transference?! Transference magic, in this age?!
She passed the knowledge back to her Master, then added: "Sakura, are we sure this is not Caster?"
Rin sighed, and gave Sakura a wry grin. "If we hadn't already met Assassin, I'd be wondering that again, myself."
Sakura could only nod in agreement.
The number and variety of traps Saber had triggered so far was ridiculous. Fire, ice, lightning, earth, poison gas, teleportation - a fresh report came in from Saber, and she winced.
"Acid, with a homing trace."
Rin threw her hands in the air. "Are you kidding me?! What kind of elemental affinity would account for all this?"
Sakura started to respond, but before she could, Archer stopped in front of them, and threw out an arm to prevent them from going past him.
"What is it, Archer? Did Saber miss one?"
"No...no, that's not it. This is..." He looked around, and shook his head. "You're kidding me."
"The teleportation trap just reset. This is as far as we can go."
Rin's reaction was clearly audible even from where she was, further up the stairs...and through her connection to Sakura, she was also exposed to it at point blank range.
"Um...Saber...did you get that?"
"I heard," she said dryly.
"I'm sorry about that." Embarrassment flowed through the link. "We aren't going to be able to support you any further. You'll have to handle all the remaining traps yourself." Frustration, and just for an instant, something darker, something Saber couldn't identify. "I'm sorry."
"No plan survives contact with the enemy. It is fine. Moreover - "
"Hmm...yours is a face I have not seen before."
Saber brought her hidden blade up to a ready position. "I have arrived at the gate."
"Assassin is a passive Servant," Rin said. "His Master ordered him to guard the gate, and that's all he'll do - when we withdrew last time, he didn't try to pursue us."
"High." Rin scowled. "His sword isn't a Noble Phantasm, but given what we saw of him against Lancer, unless you use yours, he won't need one. He can match a Servant with skill alone."
"Don't let your guard down around him," Archer said. "He may have greater capabilities in a fight than he's supposed to, but he is still the Servant Assassin. There has to have been something in his legend to justify that class."
Saber frowned at that. It was not surprising that she wouldn't know. She was not a proper Servant; she had no connection to the Throne of Heroes, and thus no knowledge of other Heroic Spirits, save what she had gained in life. She had never heard of Sasaki Kojirou.
That should not have been the case for Archer, though - and yet, he seemed just as baffled as her.
"You do not know why, Archer?"
"He's an obscure character in Musashi's legend. His oversized sword is practically the only thing we have - he appeared, he was defeated, and he left the stage. And Musashi, who defeated him, left no records of him at all. What little we know, even from the Throne, is third-hand, at best."
Archer raised an eyebrow at her response. He crossed his arms, and nodded to himself. Saber wasn't quite sure what to make of that, but before she could ask, Rin spoke up.
"Saber - one more thing. Don't talk to him."
Saber frowned. "That, I cannot do. If he wishes to parley, then as a knight, I must honor his efforts."
Archer snorted. "Your knight's honor will get you killed. Nothing good can come of talking with that Servant."
Rin nodded firmly, and Saber blinked in surprise.
"Really? Just what kind of person is this Assassin?"
Rin gave her a sour grin.
"And so, the final Servant graces me with her presence. You are Saber, I take it?"
Saber frowned at the figure before her, standing atop the gate. It was almost impossible to believe that this was a Servant; she could feel nothing from him at all - no enmity, no power, no presence whatsoever.
It was almost as if he was a plain mortal.
Victory should have been easy...and yet, her instincts were screaming.
This man is dangerous.
This man can kill you.
There was no explanation for it, but it was there, all the same. This Servant was not to be underestimated.
"Indeed, I am Saber. And you..." She scowled. "You are the one who calls himself Assassin?"
"I see that my class dissatisfies you." He smiled. "You find me lacking in some fashion?"
"Do not make me laugh. You - you, a swordsman - you are no more an Assassin than I am."
"Are you not, though?"
Saber blinked. "What do you - "
"What is a Servant, Saber? We are creatures of the night, are we not? Shrouded in secrecy, unknown and unseen, dealing death to all who cross us in the shadows."
He smirked. "From darkness we emerge, and to darkness we return, with only our Masters the wiser. How could such an existence be called anything other than 'Assassin'?"
Saber blinked as she took in his words. And then, her face turned red.
He dares -
She had her honor as a knight, and this man dared to insult her, to suggest that she would stoop to -
Like Kiritsugu -
He dares - !
Sakura's voice cracked through her mind like a gunshot.
Saber's eyes widened, then narrowed. She shifted her grip on Invisible Air, and took a slow, deliberate breath.
This...this is what Rin warned me about.
"I see that your talent for sophistry, at least, fits your class. You had almost deceived me into falling into your pace."
"Is that what you thought I was doing? You have my apologies, then." He gave Saber a knowing smirk that set her teeth grinding. "It was not my intention, but it seems my bad habits got the best of me."
Assassin leapt down to the gate's entry, and raised his sword. "Please forgive my rudeness, Saber. Our classes do not matter - only the fact that the Servant Saber shall fall in this place, by my blade." He smiled. "After all...that, too, is the nature of a Servant."
Saber did not speak in response. She only nodded, and readied herself.
Assassin's smile widened. "Then let us duel."
And in the next instant, he was upon her.
Sakura looked over at Archer, and shook her head. "All I did was get her attention for a second."
"And that was exactly what was needed. Saber had fallen into Assassin's rhythm; had she begun the fight as she was, she would have been at a decided disadvantage."
Archer started to say something else, but stopped himself after a second. Sakura noticed, though...and from the way her eyes narrowed, so did Rin.
Saber fell back with a grunt, and glared up at her opponent.
Assassin stood above her, untroubled and unruffled. Since that first attack, he had not moved from where he stood.
Every exchange was the same. No matter her approach, Assassin's sword was there to meet her - meet her, and overwhelm her.
There was nothing direct about his swordplay. He parried her attacks, sliding along her invisible blade and redirecting it, then returned a counter attack whipping toward her neck so quickly that even Saber had difficulty picking it up.
And when she managed to avoid that blow, another came for her almost instantly - far faster than should have been possible with such an oversized blade.
By the time Saber noticed, she had retreated back to her original position, out of Assassin's reach.
Assassin did not pursue. There was no need for him to do so; this was a battle of defense for him, and there was no reason for him to give up the high ground.
Saber grimaced. Especially when he is using it so well.
Assassin, though, frowned in dissatisfaction.
"It is indeed difficult. I had not thought that fighting an invisible blade would be such a challenge."
That was the other reason Assassin did not advance. Invisible Air confused his senses; without knowing how long Saber's blade was, he could not safely close in.
"But that is all it is." Assassin's frown deepened. "Merely difficult. Surely there is more than this to a Servant from the class known for unparalleled swordsmanship."
A surge of guilt came through the bond from her Master, and Saber had to struggle to keep her face impassive.
Certainly, she was not as strong as she could have been. Sakura's energy was split between Saber and Rider, and each Servant was weakened because of it.
But that was not the reason Saber was having so much trouble. Even if she was at full strength, Assassin would not have been an easy opponent. His swordsmanship was without flaw, and beyond that -
"This is the first time you've seen a katana, is it not?" Assassin's blade wavered slightly, but Saber did not react. That was not an opening; she had already realized that he had no stances, and could wield that sword from any position.
Assassin smiled at that. "My sword is a heresy, and it will slice the head of one of average skill."
"A heresy, is it? Certainly, I can understand that."
Because that was the greater problem. Assassin's style of fighting was one that Saber had never seen before. She could grasp the core of it easily enough, but that did not make it any more familiar to her, nor any less difficult to handle.
"It is your way of fighting not to meet any of my blows directly, but only to parry them. For a coward who still wields a blade, 'heresy' is indeed an appropriate term."
"Perhaps it seems as such to you." Assassin chuckled. "It must be your style to compete in power, but that is not possible for me. My sword would break if I were to lock blades with you."
Saber frowned. "It is little wonder that our fighting styles are so mismatched, then."
Assassin nodded. "The katana is always such a sword. Western swords cut with their weight and power, but our blades cut with speed and technique."
He smirked. "And now that you understand that...come, Saber. Show me your true strength!"
Archer frowned. "What was that all about?"
"He's up to something." Rin nodded. "There was no reason for him to give Saber a breather there. And that - 'Show me your true strength'? Does he want her to use her Noble Phantasm? That's suicide!"
"Perhaps. But then..." He trailed off, and shook his head.
"What is it, Archer-san?"
"Assassin's sword is not his Noble Phantasm. There's no getting around that. But he's still a Servant. He must have something."
Sakura blinked. "But what?"
Archer shook his head again, and turned back to the battle. "That's the question, isn't it?"
Saber scowled. "Assassin. Are you suggesting that I am going easy on you?"
"Are you saying that you are not?" He raised an eyebrow. "I am not so lacking in swordsmanship that I cannot tell that your blade remains sheathed. You are taking me lightly, Saber; much more of this, and my pride will demand a recompense."
Saber grimaced, but did not otherwise respond.
"I see that you remain reluctant. Very well, then - I will remove that sheath by force!"
Assassin lashed out at her again, whipping his blade out for her neck. Saber batted it away and lunged forward, aiming to smash his head -
And Assassin merely stepped back, allowing her invisible sword to miss him by less than an inch.
"And it is done." He smirked at the look on Saber's face. "Your blade is ninety centimeters long, and twelve centimeters in width. The shape is that of a typical western sword, and the hilt - "
"Enough. You have made your point." Saber grit her teeth. To have measured her sword, merely by parrying its blows for less than five minutes - !
"Have I? That was merely a street performance. It was not something I had expected to need in battle." His eyes narrowed. "But it has indeed proven useful. Your sheath's advantage is gone, Saber. There is no further reason for you to hold back. You understand this, do you not?"
"I understand enough." Assassin was dangerous. That was undeniable. And now that he knew the length of her sword, he could advance without fear; her position had worsened considerably. But even so, her Noble Phantasm was not an option. Not this close to the temple grounds, and especially not with Sakura -
"It seems you are still unwilling to comply with my request." Traces of anger tinted Assassin's voice, and Saber had to restrain herself from wincing. It was not by choice, but she was still holding back, and in his place, she would have taken offense as well.
"Very well, then. If you are unwilling, I will show you my secret technique first."
"And there it is."
Rin rubbed her forehead with one hand. "Of course his Noble Phantasm would be a sword technique. Nothing else about him makes any sense - why should we have expected this to be any different?"
"But what kind of - " Sakura broke off, and shook her head. It didn't matter, did it? If it was just a sword technique, then Saber could overcome that. This battle was as good as won.
So why did her sister and Archer look so grim?
Saber's eyes widened as Assassin came down, and stood alongside her. "What are you - "
Surrendering the high ground was tantamount to suicide. Assassin had been able to repel her attacks so far because he had the leverage to keep her off-balance; if they fought at the same level, that advantage was gone. With the greater force of her heavier blade, she could force an opening and cut him down.
Assassin had to know that, so why -
"Be ready. Or you will die, Saber."
Every nerve in Saber's body went on edge at his voice.
He was telling the truth.
It was not at all advantageous for Saber that Assassin had descended to her level. The same instincts that had warned her not to underestimate him screamed all the louder now - he had never been more dangerous than he was now, standing about three meters away...
And with his blade raised in a recognizable stance, for the first time in the fight.
"So that's it."
Rin gave Sakura an uneasy glance, then turned to her Servant. "Archer, you know what he's doing?"
Archer did not answer her. He continued to look up at the battle, and his hands flexed.
~I am the bone of my sword.~
Saber grit her teeth.
There was no time to hesitate. She had to attack before Assassin; if he struck first, she would be defeated.
The problem was that she wasn't fast enough. Perhaps if she were at her full strength, she could have made it in time - but she was not at full strength. Here, now, she couldn't.
That wasn't to say it was impossible. She could still reach him in time...but only if she committed everything to her attack, without holding back. Only if she accepted that evasion was impossible, and staked her life on being able to cut him down first.
If she lost that gamble, she would die. But if she won, then even in her weakened state she would end the battle in a single attack.
It was an easy choice to make.
And thus, she charged headlong at her opponent.
Even getting in close would be enough. That oversized sword would only be a hindrance if she got inside its range; its length would backfire.
It should have, at least.
But Assassin was a Servant - and such logic did not exist with this swordsman.
Sakura looked on in bewilderment as a bow formed in Archer's left hand.
His Noble Phantasm?
She glanced at her sister. Rin was frowning, but she did not say anything.
"Hidden technique: Tsubame-Gaeshi."
Even from in close, Assassin attacked, faster than he ever had before. His blade flashed like lightning, seeking to bite into her side.
But this was not an invincible attack. Even weakened as she was, Saber knocked it aside easily, and closed in.
With the attack repelled, Assassin had left an opening. She lifted her blade, ready to slice open Assassin's stomach -
And in that instant, she realized she had made a mistake.
"Master of Saber." Archer glanced over at Sakura, and smirked. "If you have a Command Spell remaining, I suggest you act quickly."
He turned back, and his expression hardened. "Caladbolg."
Command Spell? What -
A sword took form in Archer's right hand. Its shape continued to flow he as nocked it and drew back his bow to shoot, finally settling in something that looked very much like an elongated drill.
What kind of an arrow is that?
Caladbolg - she'd heard that, hadn't she? That was the sword of Fergus mac Roich - the Spiral Sword, a blade capable of destroying the landscape in a single swing.
Then, wouldn't that make Archer...
Wait. Caladbolg? And Archer was about to - ?!
'If you have a Command Spell remaining - '
Sakura clasped her hands together in a panic.
"SABER, TO ME!"
His opponent had overcommitted.
Assassin could see the instant of realization. She broke off her attack, and tried to roll back - but it was too late.
Tsubame-Gaeshi was a technique made to cut off all avenues of retreat, and then cut down the unfortunate trapped within - a prison of sword slashes that killed without fail. There was not enough space for the complete technique, but even with only two of the three slashes, it was still an attack that would devastate any foe.
(Well. Not Berserker, of course - the giant had simply let the blows all bounce harmlessly off his skin - but the principle still stood.)
Saber tried to throw herself back to safety, through the hole created by the lack of that third slash...but her body was simply not fast enough.
She would not make it.
He could see the recognition of that in her eyes, the acceptance of the result.
Well done. You face death as a warrior should.
If she had been at full strength, perhaps things would have been different. She might have escaped, to continue their battle. She might have found some other way to overcome his attack.
But injuries and weaknesses were a reality of war. They were not to be cursed or lamented; they simply were.
He did not know why Saber had held back. He did not know whether she might have defeated him, if she had gone all-out. He did not know whether she could have gone all-out.
But ultimately, those questions did not matter. They had fought as they had fought, and Saber's Holy Grail War would end here.
And then, Saber vanished.
An instant before his blade could connect, his opponent disappeared in a metallic shimmer, and the sudden lack of resistance caused Assassin to stumble forward.
Saved by her Master?
Assassin's lips quirked. It seemed that, unlike him, Saber had a good partner. Perhaps in the rematch -
But by then, it was already too late.
Assassin's eyes snapped up, just in time to see it.
The missile came screaming in. Assassin, swift as he was, was off-balance. Evasion was impossible.
The Broken Phantasm Caladbolg II detonated at point-blank range.
And the Servant Assassin, Sasaki Kojirou, became the first Servant to retire from the fifth Holy Grail War.
Being pulled to another location by way of Command Spell was not the most disorienting experience of Saber's life. (That distinction went to something she had no desire to dwell upon, save for the fact that it was all Merlin's fault.)
It was still disorienting, though. Being jerked out of combat did not help, nor did the explosion that shook the area immediately after she emerged.
Saber blinked, and looked around. "Sakura?"
Her Master was there, looking at her in...relief?
Saber shook her head as the Command Spell's hold on her receded, and gathered her thoughts. She'd been fighting Assassin - no. She'd been about to lose to Assassin. That impossible technique - his sword had literally doubled; it had attacked her from both sides at the exact same time. She was not going to be able to escape. She'd realized that.
Sakura had, without question, saved her life.
But how had Sakura realized what was going on so quickly? Even Saber, experienced knight that she was, had not understood Assassin's trap until it was too late.
If not Sakura, then...
She looked over at the others. Rin was watching her with an unreadable gaze.
Archer, though, was not looking at her at all. He was looking up the stairs, and scowling.
"Archer. What did you do?"
Archer did not respond. He continued to stare up at the gate from which she had just come.
"Archer - "
Saber's head whipped around.
A bolt of red was headed straight for them, flying down the mountain at breakneck speed. Sakura and Rin were both there, vulnerable - it was too late to -
But Archer was ready.
A shield sprang into existence. Seven petals of light formed above his outstretched hand, just as the spear - Gae Bolg - Lancer's spear?! - arrived.
Spear collided with shield in a hail of sparks.
It didn't break through - but it wasn't stopped, either.
Archer grit his teeth as Gae Bolg drove forward with a loud squeal, forcing its way through the shield.
"Saber? A little help, please?"
Saber blinked, and looked over at Sakura. Her Master bit her lip, then nodded.
Saber hefted her blade and swung at the spear, shedding the covering of wind that concealed its form as she did so.
Even though it was aimed at the spear, the backlash from her attack buffeted them all. Rin and Sakura both stumbled back, struggling to keep their balance on the steps; Archer's knees bent slightly, but he otherwise stayed in place.
And Gae Bolg, which had received the full blast, continued to drill into Archer's shield, as if she had done nothing to it at all.
The first petal shattered, and Archer grunted.
Not enough? No choice, then.
Saber stepped forward and took up a position next to Archer, as the second petal began to crack.
Sakura didn't have the energy to power a full attack. That was fine, though - even though she was further from the temple than she'd been against Assassin, Saber still didn't like the monks' chances against an unfettered blast from her Noble Phantasm. With Archer's shield having already blunted Lancer's attack, even an underpowered Excalibur would be enough.
Saber lifted her blade, glowing with holy light.
"EX - "
And then, she brought it down.
" - CALIBUR!"
In the face of the Sword of Promised Victory, Gae Bolg vanished almost immediately, returning to its master.
Saber's blast continued up the mountain. It took a narrow diagonal path, almost parallel to the steps - close enough, as its width engulfed them, as well - until it ended in another explosion, shaking the mountain once more.
Saber frowned. What did I hit up there?
Archer let the shield disappear, and his arm dropped limply to his side, blood dripping from his hand. He gave a satisfied nod. "I think that did it."
"Did what?" Saber turned and looked at him. "Archer, that was Lancer just now! What did you - "
The air changed.
All around them, the sky rippled and shuddered. It continued to vibrate, and as the seconds passed, it got heavier - and heavier, and heavier, and heavier still.
Saber was having trouble staying upright as the pressure continued to grow, and Archer seemed to be having similar problems. Rin and Sakura, though, were standing at ease, without difficulty.
"And that takes care of our pursuit." Archer smirked. "I do believe we're done here."
What did he just make me do?
Saber couldn't even bring herself to glare at him. She just shook her head, and sighed. "Very well. Let us go. But Archer?"
He looked over, and she narrowed her eyes.
"I do not appreciate being manipulated. You will render a full accounting of your actions upon our return."
Archer chuckled, even as he dematerialized.
"I'd expect nothing less."
Sakura started, and looked around. Fortunately, Rin and Archer were ahead of her, leading the way back; only Saber noticed her reaction to her other Servant. Saber did not seem to have been included in the conversation, though; Sakura shook her head, and Saber returned her attention to their surroundings.
"You have been troubled since you left the temple."
That was all Rider said.
That was all Rider needed to say.
Archer had used her - her, and Saber. Being used was not an unusual thing for her; her grandfather and her brother had both used her on a regular basis for nearly ten years. But being used without being told about it - being presented with an illusion of control, only to have it jerked away - was a new and profoundly unpleasant experience.
It didn't help matters any that it was her sister's Servant who had manipulated her.
Sakura didn't say any of this to Rider. She didn't need to; Rider understood. Instead -
"How closely were you watching?"
"Only through you. I withdrew from Saber when you borrowed her eyes."
She hadn't seen the fight, then. She had seen Archer, though.
Rider picked up on her question before she could ask it.
"He is not Fergus. That hero was a contemporary of Lancer; he did not live in King Arthur's era. I do not know how or why he altered Fergus' blade, but that was not something of which the King of Ulster was capable."
"Was that the same arrow you saw him use against Caster?"
"...I believe it was."
Something about that seemed to trouble Rider.
"So Saber was right, then?"
"No. You misunderstand - it was the exact same arrow."
"What do you mean?"
"A Broken Phantasm can only be used once. Breaking it destroys it; it cannot be repaired, and it cannot be reused. Archer Broke that arrow against Caster's shadow. Yet he used it again tonight. That is not possible."
"Then...what does that mean?"
"I am not certain. Every new revelation about Archer seems to introduce only further contradictions. I will have to think upon this matter."
The gate of the Emiya household came into view, and Sakura shook herself.
"Please keep an ear open while you do. And...could you tell Saber what you just told me?"
"Is that an order?"
Sakura had to stop herself from tripping over her own feet.
Rider was asking her that? Just how badly had her Servants angered one another?
"Does it need to be?"
Rider's mental voice subsided. Saber glanced over at her a moment later, but other than that, betrayed no reactions as they entered the house.
Sakura moved towards the kitchen, but Rin stopped her.
"I'll make the tea."
"Nee-san, it's fine. You don't have to - "
"Yes, I do." Rin threw a sour glance back at the living room. "The genius over there has imposed on you enough for one night; it'll be flab on my mind if I don't do something to make up for it at least a little bit."
Nee-san hadn't known?
"All...all right, then."
Sakura returned to the living room and took a seat next to Saber. Her Servant's hostile gaze was fixed on Archer, who leaned casually against the wall.
"Saber, did Rider tell you...?"
"She did." Saber frowned. "And she is right. What he did is impossible."
"Do you think we'll ever find out?"
"That remains to be seen. We are supposed to be cooperating, but..."
She glanced over, and Sakura flinched.
Both sides were still keeping secrets.
The mental conversation subsided as Rin emerged from the kitchen. She poured a cup of tea for everyone (except Archer) then sat down.
"All right, let's get started. Archer? The floor's yours."
Archer, still leaning against the wall, smirked.
"Very well, then. Where should I start?"
"Let us begin," Saber said in an acid tone, "with what you left out of our meeting last night."
Sakura winced. She wasn't sure whether Saber was angrier at Archer or Rider.
"She is angrier at me."
Sakura blinked, but before she could ask Rider for clarification, Archer chuckled.
"So - noticed that, did you?"
Saber only glared at him.
"Well, I didn't leave out anything I knew for certain. But I did have my suspicions about Assassin."
"It is as you noted last night, Saber. The Assassin class itself is the catalyst for Hassan Sabbah; any normal Master would have gotten one of his nineteen impersonators. Something else had to be going on for Sasaki Kojirou to be summoned instead, but I couldn't figure out what...that is, until Caster stole Lancer's contract."
Saber's eyes widened. "You mean - "
Archer nodded. "An irregular Master for an irregular Servant. Caster was the one who summoned Assassin. She was his Master all along."
"So...you knew that Caster was based in Ryudou Temple."
"And you sent me, alone, against Assassin, Caster, and Lancer."
Sakura's eyes widened. All of them could hear the unspoken accusation.
You sent me to die.
Archer, though, smirked and shook his head. "That would have been a waste of a resource. We still have Berserker to finish off, after all."
Saber stilled. "What do you mean?"
"I knew that Assassin would face you by himself. He was Caster's public mask; as long as he was at the temple gate, no one would imagine that another Servant was holed up inside. He would receive no assistance against you - and once he was defeated, it was too late for Caster and Lancer to do anything."
"Archer. I repeat: What do you mean?"
"You were looking for something."
All eyes turned to Rin, as she cut Archer off.
"Even after Sakura pulled Saber back, you were still looking up there. You were waiting for something." Her eyes narrowed. "Archer - What did you do?"
Archer opened his mouth -
- only to be cut off again, this time by Saber.
"At the end, it grew far heavier," she said. "And as we left, the pressure continued to grow. Archer...that was your doing, was it not?"
Saber's eyes widened. "What - "
"I'd thought my arrow would do the trick, but it didn't do quite enough damage. It took your Noble Phantasm to finish the job."
Saber slammed her hands on the table, and Sakura had to reach over to keep her tea from spilling.
"Archer. What. Job?"
"I'm getting to that." Archer crossed his arms. "I spoke to your Master earlier today, about the boundary field at the temple. Did she pass along what I said?"
Saber blinked. "You mean about it actually being two fields?"
"Exactly. The larger field over the mountain is natural. It exists because the mountain exists, and it will continue to exist as long as the mountain exists. But the smaller field, the one nullifying the first field's effects on the temple grounds - that one is manmade. And the keystone of that field was the temple gate."
Saber breathed in sharply. "You mean - "
"I've said this before. To deceive one's enemies, one must first deceive one's allies. Caster and Lancer thought you were going after Assassin, because you thought you were going after Assassin. And because they thought you were going after Assassin, they didn't realize our true objective until it was too late."
"And that was...?"
"To destroy the gate - and collapse the inner boundary field."
"So...Souichirou-sama..." Caster broke into a fit of coughs. "Are you well?"
"I am well. Concern yourself with your own state."
"Not much she can do about that." Lancer snorted. "Damn, but that asshole got us good."
Caster resisted the urge to fire a spell in Lancer's direction, because he was right - she didn't have the energy to spare for that.
She also resisted the urge to make a rude gesture in Lancer's direction, for the same reason.
The three of them stood at the foot of the mountain, just outside the boundary field...well, Lancer was standing. Caster's Master was seated against a nearby wall, and Caster herself lay next to him, her head in his lap.
In any other circumstance, she'd be thrilled...but there was nothing romantic about this. She simply didn't have the strength to move.
When Caster first arrived at the temple, having slain her original Master, she had been on the verge of death. Only Souichirou-sama carrying her inside the protective fields had saved her from fading away before she regained consciousness, and afterward, she had needed to use a tantric ritual to jury-rig a new Master's bond with him.
That bond was still not stable; it needed more energy than he, a normal human, could provide. But, fortunately, that had not been a problem. It was a simple enough matter for her to tap into the ley line, and drain all the energy she needed.
Energy enough to sustain herself.
Energy enough to perform any magic she desired.
Energy enough to summon a Servant.
Energy enough to steal other Servants' contracts without consequence.
It was never a problem. A thousand Masters could not have supplied her so richly; it was, for all intents and purposes, limitless.
And now, thanks to Saber and that conniving bastard Archer, it was gone.
When they destroyed the gate, they destroyed the inner boundary field. The temple grounds were now just like the rest of the mountain - hostile in the extreme to any spirit not of nature.
Caster and Lancer had been flushed off the mountain...and all the life energy Caster had gathered over the past weeks, stored within the temple grounds, had been flushed off the mountain with them, out into the open air. It had dissipated in short order, leaving her with only her own reserves to support both her unstable bond with her Master, and her stolen contract with Lancer.
And as a consequence of that, she could barely move.
"You know you're not going to last long at this rate."
Caster glared at Lancer. Of course she knew - she had less than a day, at best; even making it to dawn would be impossible without drastic measures.
She forced herself to speak. "Go. Hunt."
Lancer sprang away, and Caster let her head fall back onto her Master's lap.
While draining the city, she had done her best to leave her victims alive. It was wasteful to kill a renewable energy source, and she didn't want Souichirou-sama to think of her as a murderer.
Now, though, she had no choice.
"Even if they kill people and feed on their souls, Caster and Lancer won't be able to sustain themselves for long."
Rin scowled. "And I suppose that will make their victims feel so much better."
Archer raised an eyebrow. "It's impossible to save everyone, Rin. You know that."
"Of course I do. But that doesn't mean we should be making things worse! We talked about this when we first found the boundary field at the school - I thought you agreed with me!"
"I do. But sacrificing a few to guarantee victory is hardly making things worse."
Sakura looked over at her Servant. While Rin was glaring at Archer, Saber had gone rigid.
"Saber? Are you all right?"
Saber shook her head. "What he just said...I can't recall, but...something about it just..."
She shook her head again, then spoke aloud.
"What did you mean by 'guaranteeing victory'?"
"As I said, whatever measures Caster and Lancer may take are, of necessity, temporary. They have no choice now but to try to end the War as soon as they can. And that means that while they still have the most energy, they'll go after the toughest enemy first."
Archer nodded. "Berserker. I doubt they'll manage to defeat him...but they'll still throw everything they have at him. And I have no doubt they'll take at least a couple of his lives with them when they go down. And from there, it's just a matter of us moving in to mop up."
Archer fell silent, and for a long moment, no one spoke.
"It was not a bad plan."
Sakura carefully kept herself still as her other Servant spoke into her mind.
"If we did not know that Caster and Lancer have already exhausted their attacks on Berserker, I would expect them to act exactly as Archer does."
"They have, though."
Sakura's breath hitched at the unexpected voice. She hadn't realized that Rider was speaking to Saber, as well.
Saber continued. "What do you think they will do instead?"
"That is difficult to say. I doubt they will attack you; Caster no longer has the means to sustain your contract if she were to take it, and defeating both you and Archer at once would be a difficult proposition." Rider paused for a moment. "You are aware that there is one other matter that needs to be addressed."
"I am," Saber said, and then out loud: "Archer. There is one more question you need to answer."
Archer quirked an eyebrow, and grinned. "Oh?"
Saber scowled. "You are aware of what I am about to ask."
"Perhaps, perhaps not." His grin widened. "Only one way to find out, though."
Saber sighed. "You had Sakura use a Command Spell to pull me back right before you shot Assassin."
"I have ensured that her marks are hidden. How did you know she had any Command Spells left to use?"
The grin never left his face.
The others all stared at him - first in shock...then in anger.
Rin was the first to break the silence.
"I think you need to explain yourself, Servant."
"As my Master commands." Rin growled, and he smirked at her. "There were two possible outcomes, Rin. Both were beneficial."
"If Sakura had not had a Command Spell remaining, I would have fallen alongside Assassin," Saber said. "How could that be beneficial?"
"You already know the answer to that."
"You were defeated, Saber. Assassin had captured you within his technique; you would have been struck down in the next second."
"You...that may be true. But you had no way of knowing that."
"So sure of that, are you? Well. Even if I grant that, you still would have retired from the Holy Grail War, and that is unquestionably to your benefit."
Again, there was stunned silence.
And again, Rin broke it.
"Archer, what are you talking about?"
"Surely you've noticed by now what a strange Servant Saber is."
"You mean her memories? Well, sure, but - "
"Her memories are impossible, Rin. No Servant is capable of remembering a previous Holy Grail War as she does."
Sakura broke in. "Archer-san, what do you mean?"
"A Servant is a disposable copy of a Heroic Spirit. It is not the Heroic Spirit itself. Whether this War ends in victory or defeat, it makes no difference - either way, that will be it for me. I will not then go back to the Throne of Heroes, having remembered what I did here. It is the same for every other Servant, as well."
Rin frowned. "But Saber does remember, so..."
"So Saber is not a Servant...at least, not like the rest of us."
"What do you mean?"
"Her memories aren't the only unusual thing about her. There is also her inability to dematerialize."
Rin blinked. "What's so special about that?"
Sakura, though, noticed that Saber had gone completely still.
"As I understand it, Saber explained this to be a result of her original Master's ineptitude." Archer smirked. "She was, of course, lying through her teeth."
"What?" Rin spluttered. "But that's..."
"She claimed that she had trouble getting energy from him, and as a result she could not easily turn into a spirit. Correct?"
"Yes, that's what she said. It - " Rin stopped, and her eyes widened.
Archer grinned. "Go on."
"Wait, that's - but - how the hell did I not - "
She continued to stammer for another full minute, growing more and more flustered, before finally trailing off.
"To cause Archer to dematerialize...I cut off the flow of energy to him. If Saber wasn't getting enough energy from Emiya-kun..."
Archer finished for her. "The problem would not have been turning into a spirit. It would have been ever taking material form to begin with. The fact that this inability remains, even with a new Master, confirms her deception."
Saber remained motionless.
Rin gave her an uneasy glance. "So it's something else, then? But what?"
"Do you recall how the Servant system works, Rin?"
She frowned. "The Grail impersonates the world, doesn't it? That's how it has the standing to claim Heroic Spirits, and borrow them for the War."
"Exactly. And because it impersonates the world, that means that the world itself can also interfere with the process."
"Interfere with the - " Rin cut herself off with a sharp hiss. "Archer, are you saying what I think you're saying?"
"The reason why she retains her memories is that she did not come from the Throne, but rather has someplace to return to. The reason why she cannot take spirit form is that she does not have one. The reason why she is a Servant in spite of these things is that the world itself has intervened to place her in that role.
"In short: Saber is still alive."
Sakura and Rin both looked at Saber.
Saber did not move.
"...Saber? Is that true?"
For a long moment, Saber did respond.
Then, she closed her eyes and sighed.
"It is as he says. I am handled differently, but I am still classified as a living being. I am unable to become a spirit because I have not died yet. It was the same in the previous Holy Grail War, as well. I apologize for having deceived you."
Her eyes opened, and she glared at Archer.
"However. Archer. You have yet to explain how this would render my defeat here a service to me."
"It would be a service because you came here through the world's intervention." Archer's eyes narrowed. "The world is not a charity, Saber. It does not grant favors. If it has brought you here to compete for the Grail - repeatedly - then you have offered something that made it worth its while to do so."
"Offered - " Rin whipped around. "You contracted as a COUNTER GUARDIAN?!"
Sakura flinched at the sudden shriek.
Saber, though, glared back. "And what if I did? That was my choice to make!"
Archer snorted. "You think so. But then, we have already established that you are a fool."
Saber came to her feet. "Archer! You dare - "
"Answer me this, Saber. Why are you here?"
"What are you talking about? You just explained - "
"I explained that the world is not a charity. It does not act unless it has something to gain - and it had nothing to gain here."
Saber opened her mouth to reply, but whatever response she had prepared died stillborn.
"Surely you must have realized it. Stories of your reign have endured for over a thousand years. You became a hero of unparalleled renown in your own lifetime, by your own power. There was no reason to make you a Counter Guardian - you were headed for the Throne anyway. And yet, here you are. The world accepted your contract."
Saber sank back down, mouth still hanging futilely.
"The fact that you are here in this state means that your contract is not yet complete. You have not received the compensation for which you offered your afterlife. The fact that you've turned up repeatedly in the Holy Grail War suggests that the Grail itself is your compensation. Am I mistaken?"
Saber continued to stare at Archer for a few more seconds. Then she shook herself, and settled back in her seat.
"No...you are not mistaken. The agreement I made was that I should obtain the Holy Grail while I lived. However, this agreement was made at the end of my lifetime; hence, my repeated summonings to other times and places. When I obtain the Grail, I shall return to my own time. I shall use the Grail. And then I shall die, and become a Counter Guardian."
"Then the question is this: What do you intend to use the Grail for?"
Saber bowed her head. She did not look up as she began to speak.
"I became king in order to save my land. But I failed in that duty. I failed so completely that in the end, I destroyed my kingdom with my own hands."
She shook her head. "I had long wondered whether there had been some mistake. Whether the sword should have chosen someone else. And by the end, I no longer had any doubts. There had to have been a more suitable king on the field that day. There had to have been someone there who would save my kingdom where I could not."
She looked up, her face set. "My intent is to use the Holy Grail to redo the selection of the king. Then I shall wield my sword after my death, in reparation for my failure in the role I so arrogantly seized."
"And that would do it." Archer sighed, and shook his head. "The world not only still gets King Arthur on the Throne of Heroes, it gets Counter Guardian Arturia thrown in as a bonus. No wonder it accepted the contract."
Saber's head snapped over. "Still gets - "
"It is as I told you, Saber. You are a fool." He scowled. "You speak of arrogance. Did you truly believe that Camelot could have lasted forever, if it were only better managed? You reigned for twenty-two years. How many of your knights ascended to the Throne? So many Heroic Spirits, all living in the same place, in such a brief span of time - there is no such thing as a realm that would not be torn apart under such strain. Your kingdom's demise was inevitable, Saber, no matter who ruled it...and you have sold your soul for nothing."
Saber's face had grown progressively whiter as Archer continued to speak. Now, as he finished, the blood had drained completely away.
Her voice trailed off. Saber's mouth continued to move, but she no longer made a sound.
Sakura looked over in worry. "Saber?"
Rin reached over and shook her lightly. "Saber? Hey, Saber!"
Still no response.
Rin turned to her own Servant. "Damn it, Archer! What the hell was that?!"
"I'm afraid you're going to have to be a little more specific, Rin."
"Don't give me that crap! You knew exactly what you were doing just now, didn't you?"
"I did?" Archer raised an eyebrow. "How could I possibly have known that?"
"How could you have - you - you - "
Rin broke off with an incoherent growl.
Sakura turned back to her own Servant. She placed her hand on Saber's shoulder, and closed her eyes.
"Saber? Saber, please answer me!"
Saber did not answer.
"She cannot hear you."
Rider, however, did.
"She has withdrawn into her own mind," the Servant continued. "There is nothing we can do for her now; Archer was most thorough in his work."
Sakura glanced over at Archer, who was still watching as his own Master stewed, then closed her eyes again. "Nee-san was right, then? This was deliberate?"
"But why would he...?"
"I could only speculate." Rider paused for a moment. "Archer was not alone in having suspicions about Saber. The irregularities were undeniable. But I had not worked out the solution, as he has."
Her mental voice took on an edge. "Nor would I have used it to break her, as he did. However...even if I had wished to do so, I would not have been capable."
"What do you mean?"
"I know Saber, now. But I still do not know her well enough. My understanding of her would be insufficient for me to be able to drive her to such a state. But it would seem that the same cannot be said for Archer." She sighed. "More impossibilities."
Sakura frowned. "Rider, is now really the time to be thinking about that?"
"It is all I can do, for the moment. I cannot help her; Saber was never as open to me as she is to you, even before this afternoon. And after that..." She sighed again. "If you wish to know of Archer's motives, you will have to ask him. There is no other way."
Rider was right; asking Archer was the best way to get answers - probably the only way.
But getting answers from Archer was what led to this in the first place. Did Sakura really want to...?
She opened her eyes, and looked at her Servant.
Yes. Yes, she did.
Sakura released Saber's shoulder, and sat back.
Rin looked over at the movement. "No luck?"
"No." She took a deep breath.
Now or never.
"Archer-san...why did you do this?"
Archer shook his head. "I doubt you'll believe me any more than your cynical sister over here does - "
" - but my motives were just as I said. This is all for Saber's benefit."
"Right," Rin said dryly. "Reducing her to that was really beneficial."
"Saber is stronger than you know, Rin. She won't be like that for long. And that still doesn't change the fact that she will benefit from this, in the end."
'Stronger than you know'?
He was doing this on purpose, wasn't he?
But then, why...?
"Archer-san, what do you mean by that? How will Saber benefit from this?"
"She'll benefit from this because now, she has a chance." Archer glanced over at Saber. "It's as I said before - her contract is incomplete. It's not too late; if she abandons her search for the Grail, she can return to her own time, and die in peace. That is what would be best for her."
He paused for a moment, then chucked.
"Perhaps Kiritsugu saw that, as well. If he realized that - "
None of them saw her move.
Saber abruptly returned to life. She bolted to her feet and barreled into Archer, slamming him back against the wall.
"Archer! What did you just say?"
Archer grinned. "Welcome back to the land of the living."
"Answer me, Archer! I know I heard you!"
Sakura looked on in confusion. Saber's face was still pale, but her eyes were wild; they were fixed on Archer, but not on any one part of him, instead darting up and down and around, as if searching for something - anything -
"Saber, what is it?"
"Emiya Kiritsugu." Saber's voice came out in a growl.
Emiya? Senpai's -
"Not once," Saber continued, voice growing more and more ragged with every word. "Not once have I spoken the name of my former Master within the hearing of anyone now present. And yet, you know it. You know it, and you speak of him as if you knew him."
Sakura's eyes widened.
So did Rin's.
Archer's expression, though, did not change at all.
"I have overlooked a great deal for the sake of this alliance. I have overlooked your repeated attempts to bait me, as if I were a bear chained to a post. I have overlooked your impossible knowledge of the Servants we have faced. I have overlooked your profligate use in battle of Broken Phantasms that aren't even yours. I might even have overlooked your actions tonight." Saber's lip curled. "But my tolerance has reached its limit."
She seized Archer by the lapels of his coat, and shook him. "How do you know of that name? How do you know of his association with me?"
She jerked him down to meet her eyes.
"Archer - who are you?"
Archer blinked, then smirked. He opened his mouth to respond -
Both Servants looked over in surprise.
"I..." Rin sighed. "Look. I screwed up his summoning, okay? I was an hour off of my peak energy; he didn't show up in the circle, and when I found him, his memories were a mess. He didn't remember who he was."
"And he still has yet to recover?" Saber asked in a voice dripping with skepticism.
Rin glared at her. "Look, if you have something to say, then just say it!"
"Then I will gladly take you up on that offer - "
Sakura could only look on as the argument escalated.
Sakura blinked. "Rider? What is it? Have you figured something out?"
"I have, but..."
"What is it?"
"We have been operating under a faulty premise about Archer's origins from the beginning."
"What do you mean? He knew Saber in life, so he has to be from her time - "
"No. That was the mistake. Only Saber comes from her time. All other Servants come from the same place."
Her time...right. Other Servants were copies of Heroic Spirits, residing on the Throne of Heroes, located outside time -
Outside time - !
Sakura was dimly aware that she had recoiled from the table, coming to her feet as she staggered back, and that the living room had gone silent. But she paid no attention to that. Her heartbeat sped up as her mind raced.
She'd thought that Archer's knowledge of Saber was impossible. No one knew her that well.
But that was a mistake.
There was one person who knew Saber that well:
Sakura knew Saber better than anyone. She had seen her past in her dreams. Had lived her life.
And she had been able to do so because she was Saber's Master.
"Sakura? Are you okay?"
She was beginning to hyperventilate. But she couldn't bring herself to care.
Archer was not a woman. That eliminated one.
By her own words, Saber had never formed a bond with her first Master - with Emiya Kiritsugu. That eliminated a second.
And that left...
Sakura started as a hand came to rest on her shoulder. She looked up, and saw her Servant.
"Sakura? Are you well?"
Sakura slowly pushed Saber's hand away.
She closed her eyes, and took a deep, shuddering breath. As she did, she forced herself - just for a moment - to forget everything she knew, or thought she knew.
Then she opened her eyes, and looked at Archer again.
INVENTA AUTEM UNA PRETIOSA MARGARITA
ABIIT ET VENDIDIT OMNIA QUAE HABUIT ET EMIT EAM