A.N.: Please note: this chapter is unbeta'd. I may change small details when my beta finally gets back to me, but I've kept you guys waiting long enough.
Witch Hunt Part IV: Eyes and Ears Everywhere
Bazett allowed a pleased smile to briefly cross her face. Between the previous night and today, she was finally starting to feel that she was making some kind of progress in getting back into the Holy Grail War and maybe gathering allies against that… thing that took Lancer from her. Now safely in her hotel room, Bazett pulled out a notebook and then opened her Magic Circuits.
The main problem with Runecraft was that it had the unfortunate tendency to be easy to analyze due to its formulaic arrangement and it was easier for a magus to resist their effects compared to other, more popular schools. The former issue meant that magi could quickly figure out how to counter and subvert a caster's mysteries, while the latter meant that it took substantial effort to directly affect an opponent with a runic spell. Most practitioners, like Bazett, worked around these problems by simply avoiding direct effects with their magecraft, sticking with personal enhancement spells and utility effects rather than flashy lightning javelins and the like.
One such utility effect was the rune sequence stamped on Tatsuki Arisawa's shirt: a simple six-rune array centered on Ansuz. Three other runes boosted the spell's power and focused it while concealing it from sight and another linked the array to the rest of the array on her earring. Tapping her right earring, the other half of the array briefly flickered with prana as she activated the receiver in her earring.
Magecraft was technically only able to mimic what science and nature was able to accomplish (albeit able to perform far ahead of the technological curve in certain ways), and this particular runic array was a magical listening device with a rough effective radius of fifteen feet. In spite of not picking up any sound outside its range, it had a distinct advantage of cutting out all sound other than speech.
In all honesty she did not expect the payoff to come quite so quickly, but shortly after her sparring match with Tatsuki, Orihime had received a text that had her paling suddenly and scrambling for a chance to leave quickly. Despite the barely-suppressed panic, she never wavered in being friendly and apologetic for having something come up. For an Enforcer of her skill though, Orihime's attempts to conceal her fear were useless… not that Orihime was very good at hiding her emotions to begin with.
The redheaded Enforcer picked up her pen and readied herself for anything relevant to be said around her fellow fist-fighter.
"Where did they say they were?" She heard Tatsuki's sharper tone through the Pertho and Mannaz runes working in tandem on her earring. They were speaking in hushed tones, likely due to being too public to go into specifics.
"They've gone to ground in Miyama," Orihime's softer voice replied. "We just need to follow their spiritual pressure…"
Bazett jotted down the term "spiritual pressure" for later research before settling for a long stretch of nothing. Instead of silence, she hit paydirt.
"What happened?" Tatsuki asked.
"It… it was that Servant, Archer, again."
"What?! Let me see," Tatsuki all but demanded. She didn't want to believe that her friends, each of whom could demolish buildings into powder, could be overcome by one enemy.
Orihime flipped open her phone and showed the latest text to her best friend, labeled as coming from Rukia. Tatsuki mumbled out the abbreviated message before throwing her hands up in frustration. Apparently they were holed up in the woods in western Miyama to hide out and treat the wounded. "What kind of call for help is that? Western Miyama is nothing but woods! How are we going to find them? We don't even know how injured they are!"
The bustier girl squeezed her phone and bit her lower lip briefly. "Rukia wouldn't contact me like this unless it was serious, not after the last time I used my abilities openly. Her kido can only do so much."
"…So how do we find them?" The tomboy was getting antsy as fear started coiling in her gut.
"Even if they're injured, I can still sense their spiritual pressure. When we get closer you should be able to sense them too."
Tatsuki nearly smacked herself. Of course Orihime would be able to find their friends. The girl was able to find Bazett bleeding out and dying from over a mile away because she was injured despite never meeting her before. If her actual friends were hurt, Orihime could probably track them from the other side of the planet.
The rest of the cab ride to their stop in Miyama's west side was almost painfully silent. It wasn't until they were at the edge of the trees that Tatsuki could sense the collection of powerful souls. As new as she was, even Tatsuki could tell that her friends were substantially weakened. "Hang on… do you sense that? There are two… three others over with them. Is that Rider over there?"
Orihime simply nodded and started into the woods, picking up speed the deeper they went. She was almost in hysterics the moment they found the clearing their friends were waiting in. She immediately rushed forward while Tatsuki stared at her friends' state in horror.
Chad's left arm was a limp and mangled mess. The stoic man's entire body was littered with shallow and not-so-shallow wounds, staining his shirt a dark red with his blood.
While Rukia was also stained in blood and bits of frost clung to her skin in places, she and another Soul Reaper Tatsuki didn't recognize were still tending to Uryu with their Soul Reaper magic. The Quincy was seated at the base of a tree, pale and trembling from the damage and pain. His normally pristine clothing was rent and torn, blood dying his entire front a ruddy crimson. The worst of the damage had already been patched up as much as they were able, but several still lingered and it was obvious that even breathing was extremely painful.
Rider and another redheaded Soul Reaper were watching the woods and trees carefully. The Servant was as inscrutable as ever, but nervous tension bled off the Soul Reaper in waves. It took her a minute to recognize the thuggish man as one of the guys from school before Orihime was kidnapped.
Looking at him, it was like she was still shaking off those memory wipes at times.
"What the hell happened?" Tatsuki murmured as she stepped closer. At the very least, she was comforted to know that everyone was still alive and Orihime's healing shield was already being set over the injured. They would survive, but this little adventure she had come along for was nothing like she was expecting. She thought she was ready for action, but the reality was much rougher than she thought it would be after her training. Tracking and busting Hollows was one thing, this however… this was unreal. She had seen her friends hurt before, but never like this…
"The Archer checked us completely, but retreated when Rider and Renji arrived. I get the impression that he would have tried to take at least one of us down before fleeing otherwise," Rukia answered from within Orihime's barrier.
From his post, the stoic giant grunted an affirmative. "He recovered fast from any hits we landed, but he was starting to lose his cool the longer the fight lasted. Never got tired, though."
"Where's Ichigo?" Tatsuki asked, surprised her old friend wasn't here beating himself up over his friends getting hurt. He was like that to the point of stupidity.
Renji looked at the short-haired girl in surprise for a moment. He had seen this girl in Rukia and Ichigo's class while they were prepping for the Winter War, but she was only spiritually aware at the time and kept in the dark about the true depth of spiritual things. From the looks of things, she was in on it all now. He glanced at Rukia, who nodded silently and dispelled his worries. "Considering his power problems, I had him take our gigais to the hotel you guys are at. We don't need him to waste his energy if he can just lay low for one day," Renji explained in his normal growl. "We better hurry back though in case this fight made anyone rethink subtlety."
"Stay together from here on out," Rukia added. "If Archer or another Servant finds us we'll need all the firepower we can muster."
Every eye turned outward in silence, half-expecting Servants to prowl forth from the edges of the woods to finish them off.
In a way, they were right.
Still listening quietly, Bazett took encoded notes from the safety of her hotel room.
There were also a few birds in the tree line who were just a little too attentive of the goings on of the humans and spirits loitering in the field.
And not too far from the group, a small, innocuous Hollow in the shape of a lizard with a white mask over its tiny head stared at the group with unblinking eyes from its hiding place amidst the underbrush. The creature finally felt the presence recede from its simplistic mind, and it immediately burrowed under the chilly ground beneath it to safety.
Caster smiled from the other side of her link with the small Hollow familiar. By tonight, she would have the competition ripping each other apart, and by the end of the week she would be taking the Grail from under their noses, assuming her project was complete on schedule to help deal with any survivors. After she was done with her current project she would spend time with her beloved Master, but there was still much to be done.
One of her familiars had already sent a message to Berserker's Master in order to confirm the location of the other Masters. A few precision strikes would be enough to throw this standoff into total disarray when she was ready. That might not be for another day or so, but "stirring the pot" would play hell on the nerves of the other participants.
The low, rumbling growl drew her attention back to her work. No rest for the wicked, indeed. More bottles and urns disgorged their contents within her workshop, their essences as malleable as clay as she warped the Hollow's screaming soul into the desired form with her gloved hands. It was tiring, but the rewards would be worth it.
Soon she would have everything she wanted in this world and an army to ensure that nothing, not even the gods, could take any of it away ever again.
Rin Tohsaka's house was actually a well-known landmark in Fuyuki City: an extravagant three-story Western-style mansion that towered almost regally over the city it overlooked from atop Miyama's largest hill. Its foundations were laid well over a century ago, and the house was continually updated subtly over the generations, making it a classically charming abode from outside. Made of a tasteful mix of red and white wood, the house was surrounded by trees in strategic positions, reducing the ease which passersby could look into the property. Its roof was sharply angled and the street-facing corner commanded a panoramic view of the city thanks to the tall bay windows on all floors.
There were no walls around the estate. In the old days anyone who conceived of trying to raid the building would find themselves discouraged by an inexplicable, ominous atmosphere or forget why they were there in the first place when they got close. The truly daring and stubborn tended not to come back at all. After a while such break-in attempts ceased, the house gaining a haunted reputation that still persisted to this day.
Magical security measures were quite effective against laymen like that.
Rin all but marched up to the back door, deactivating the numerous Boundary Fields with a word and a gesture without even breaking stride. With Shirou and Archer behind her, she silently led them through the mansion into a magnificent living room. It was a soothing cream-color with mahogany framing the chairs and couches. Every piece of furniture in it was tasteful, richly carved and, probably, worth more than a month's wages at Shirou's part-time job… at minimum.
The redheaded magus felt awe just being in this house. He had visited some opulently appointed houses before, mainly Shinji's, but this was on a whole other level. This was compounded with the fact that this was Rin's house, the school idol and a beautiful girl. Her family must have quite the fortune amassed over the generations. Just what he'd expect from a prestigious line of magi.
The lone occupant of the house gestured towards the couch and smiled. "Have a seat, Emiya-kun. I'll get us some tea and reset the Boundary Fields." Rin then doubled back towards the kitchen.
"Ah, pardon the intrusion," Shirou politely returned in traditional Japanese custom. The couch was comfortable enough, but Shirou found himself sitting straight-backed at the edge of the seat, as though reclining in this den of fabulous wealth was too uncouth to be permitted.
For a few minutes, the only company he had was an astralized Archer, who never eased his hostility towards him even when silent. The magus breathed calmly, turning and meeting the Servant's cold gaze resolutely. Their stare-off lasted for several tense seconds before Archer suddenly favored him with a slightly sarcastic smile. "Looks like my opinion of you has gone up a few notches: you can sense hostility well enough."
"You don't exactly hide it that well. What's your problem with me, anyway?"
"I just have no respect for people who don't understand the way the world works, that's all."
"A lecture from you now, too?"
"I guess so; someone needs to lay out the facts in plain language to get past that thick head of yours. You have a Servant, it's their job to fight these battles, not yours. If you had called Saber back there, we might have actually killed a few of our enemies and captured others by now."
"Saber isn't in any condition to fight and you know it!" Shirou snapped. Something about this knight just set Shirou on edge; he doubted it was possible to get along with him.
"Even at her weakest, I can guarantee she's more powerful and skilled than you at your best. We got lucky today, but I won't keep letting your recklessness put my Master in danger. Remember that my loyalty is to her first and foremost." Archer leaned forward, his steel-colored eyes seeming to suck all the light from the room as they bored into Shirou. "And if you keep putting Saber's temporary life over Rin's continued safety, I will have no choice but to kill you as a threat to her."
Shirou shivered at that. Archer was definitely not the type to make such a threat idly. His attention then shifted to something Archer slipped in that warning. "What do you mean by 'temporary'?"
The red knight didn't show it on his face, but something in his expression still all but screamed exasperation. "Servants are just temporary tools. We exist to fill a role and complete a ritual. The moment our task is done, we are no longer able to exist. Trying to preserve the semblance of life we have has no value or meaning. Stop trying to humanize us. It'll be better for your health."
"Saber's life isn't meaningless!" Shirou denied immediately.
"Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Her existence, like mine, like Rider's, like Berserker's, is just a tool to be used, broken, and discarded. We don't even belong in this era. Only the power of the Grail and a Master anchors us here and we are ultimately controlled through the Command Spells. Saber will disappear sooner or later regardless of what actions you take. A proper Master wouldn't bother listening to their Servant's preferences and would simply use them to accomplish their goals regardless of the price. But you aren't like that..." Archer countered, growing more irritated.
"Even if you say that, I've seen her show emotion and put her life on the line for me. I can't just accept that as the way things should be."
Archer's glare intensified to a level that bordered on murderous. "And that right there is the problem. You don't care about your life compared to another's at all even when the evidence is laid out in plain language. Saber is trying to protect you, and you won't let her. How insulting must that be to a knight?"
The Servant wouldn't admit it openly, but a spark of vindictive glee settled in him when the boy flinched at that. But before the younger of the two could get a single angry word out, Archer crossed his arms and looked sidelong at the teen, never easing the pressure of his powerful presence. "So, what goals do you have that won't allow you to let a Servant keep you alive when she has the choice and inclination to do so without hesitation?" he asked.
Shirou's mind froze. The very notion of putting Saber's life at risk was anathema to Shirou's very existence, but Saber already was willing to protect him at great personal risk regardless of his wishes. He knew that fighting a Servant or those strange swordsmen was basically suicidal for him, but Saber shouldn't have to risk her life over him. No one should. Ever.
Why did he think that so strongly in spite of everything he knew?
Shirou had just about mustered the will to fire the same question to Archer, a hero with no clear desires of his own, when Rin returned with tea. Immediately, Archer relaxed and allowed the Masters to quietly drink the soothing brew she had prepared.
"I feel like I missed an interesting conversation, but we have other matters to think about," the Tohsaka sniped, having caught a fair chunk of the conversation but feeling no need to add anything. "Okay, I think first we need a recap of what happened at school today. Tell me everything you saw, including the wraiths and spirits."
With a nod, Shirou described the altercation with the spirit girl, emphasizing the way his power changed on him in ways he had never experienced before. Rin's interest piqued as he described the way his power refined itself the longer he used it.
"Show me," Rin ordered, tuning her mystic senses exclusively on Shirou.
The magus was startled by his ally's sudden shift in tone, but tried to reach within himself. "Trace On." Even after using his aria to put himself in the right state, it was like looking for a light switch in a pitch-black room. Still, he could feel… something inside him, a heat like a furnace from a distance. He tried to shape it the same way he did prana, but it refused to bend to his will, slipping through his fingers like sand.
Shirou thought back to the fight with the samurai girl. He had been fighting her with the intent to stop her from harming himself or Rin, whether he had to kill her or not. He wasn't thinking about the petty details like "how" or "why," merely the final goal: find victory without losing anything or anyone…
At that instant, he felt that distant furnace roar to life, filling his body with warmth of a far gentler sort than his usual magecraft. His palms began to release a white light, and Shirou could feel that same sensation of this energy being incomplete yet ready for use: like metal heated white hot, waiting to be forged by hammer and anvil to give it shape.
While Shirou was trying to make sense of the power rolling through his body, Rin narrowed her eyes and focused on his open hands. She could feel the prana pouring from him, but there was no sign of any light or definitive shape behind whatever he was doing like he had just described. The air had strangely grown thicker and drier. It reminded her of the feeling that had all but paralyzed her back at school, but far less intense. To the magus, it felt like a waste of energy… but Shirou showed no signs of strain. If anything, he seemed extremely relaxed. A magus using magic was usually subjected to extreme pain or slipped into a trance, but Shirou was showing neither with this new power.
Wait… she could see something like a heat shimmer emanating from Shirou's palms… Rin leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. "It's certainly interesting, but it seems pretty wasteful. It's not that it's not worth studying, but we can't take the time to be methodical."
Then Shirou closed his hands, and the power moved. It stretched and flickered into a long bar to his eyes. "I think I can do more with it, though. I just need practice. Whenever I think of a weapon, it shifts to try and take that shape. I was actually trying to copy Archer's swords earlier, but I'm sure I could make other weapons, too. I just can't keep a hold of it. It's like I'm missing something."
Archer turned his gaze back to Shirou, his hawk-like eyes focused firmly on the "sword" he was holding. It appeared to Archer that whatever power Shirou had unlocked was nothing more than an incomplete form of Tracing that started with the spiritual impression of the weapon before the actual form. 'Now isn't that interesting?' he thought. Perhaps their resonance was being accelerated due to the fool's more direct exposure to spiritual phenomena.
"Perhaps after our lessons if we make good progress. Now though, we need to discuss Saber," Rin declared.
Shirou barely managed to suppress a flinch, and he was certain Archer had spotted it as the topic of the weakened Servant was brought up once again. "What do you mean, specifically?"
"In our current situation, we need Saber to be at full strength. We need to go over our options. First, I can try and cobble together a formalcraft ritual and siphon prana from either the leyline or another source of magical power for her," Rin began, slipping into her lecturing pose.
"Okay, so what's the problem with that?"
"Time, mostly. Since Assassin is holding the temple on Mt. Ryuudou, we can't use the leyline without alerting him, his Master and anyone else holed up there. We can use one of my gems as a possible source, but I'm hesitant to part with them unless I have to. Unfortunately, setting up the ritual to make the prana usable by Saber will take several hours of work and leave only Archer to defend us during that time. If the Emiya grounds are attacked by anyone with any sort of concentrated effort, we'll run the risk of being overpowered with no way of defending ourselves."
"Why not bring Saber here and do it behind all of the Boundary Fields?" Shirou asked.
Rin actually seemed pleased by Shirou's insight, but she shook her head. "Normally that would be my first suggestion, and you're on the right track that it would be much safer to do it here, but there are a few problems. For one, Saber is still weak, and defending her the entire time we're in the open would be extremely risky. That last fight might convince the other Masters to be more active during daylight than they have been; an ambush is too likely. There's also the very real risk of giving away both my home and yours as locations worth looking into by Masters or Servants. Anonymity is our best defense, and we've lost that edge to too many already." Rin's voiced lowered into indistinct curses leveled at the numerous fist fighters, archers and ghosts that had plagued them since the first night of Saber's summoning.
"Okay, so what are the other options?"
"The other way is a simple tantric ritual." Rin said plainly, leaving Shirou to choke on his tea.
Pounding his chest and coughing a few times, Shirou barely managed to wheeze out a reply. "A tantric ritual? That involves…" he trailed off.
"Yes, it involves sex," Rin finished bluntly. She didn't have the luxury to let herself get embarrassed over the subject after today's disastrous battle. "I get that it would make you uncomfortable, but it's by far the fastest method to transfer prana without a proper connection with Saber. We could have it done in under an hour. It's a bit inefficient, but it'll work."
The boy felt his entire body flush to match his hair at the notion. Oh, Saber was a beautiful woman, but to do something that intimate so suddenly…! It went against his principles to go that far!
"There is the last option, too: You use a Command Spell to have her eat-"
The instant the redhead realized where she was going with this, all embarrassment from the previous topic vanished, and he cut her off. "No. Absolutely not. Under no circumstances will I have Saber go that far for power, especially against her will."
Archer snorted, an amused smirk briefly flitting across his face, but he said nothing. Rin smiled again briefly and sighed. "No wonder you get along with your Servant. You're both stubborn with your principles. That's a good quality, though. Forget that option, then."
Not for the first time, Shirou felt a wave of relief and gratitude towards Rin Tohsaka. The girl was genuinely a good person under the exterior of a hardened magus.
"I'll need to gather a few things before we go back the Emiya estate, so stay here. Don't go anywhere without me, Emiya," she warned. Shirou simply nodded. Like hell he would be stupid enough to snoop around a magus's house without permission. That was like walking into a dynamite-filled mine with a lit torch.
Even if it did mean he had to put up with the constant current of animosity coming from Tohsaka's Servant.
While he waited, he looked down at his hands, the quiet letting him think back to the fight he had with the samurai girl. He could feel a change in him. Somehow he had sculpted prana into swords, even if he couldn't control it that well. It was rough, but it was like his entire body was a rudimentary Magic Circuit, but only when it came to moving his od. He couldn't shape or refine prana without his Magic Circuit in his spine. It wasn't anything he was familiar with, but his od flowed more easily through his body. In fact…
He gently coaxed his inner reserves outward, and was rewarded by the white glow seeping from his hands, images of swords, fire and steel coming to mind as he stared into the light of his personal energies.
Archer was wrong. There was something he could do. All he needed to do was hone it.
Ichigo knew his friends were alright. He honestly should be used to them all having bad days and escaping by the skin of their teeth by now. Rukia had even sent him a text a few minutes ago stating that they were on their way back to the hotel. Inoue had already treated them on site, so the worst they had to deal with was a drag on their spirit energy reserves. Between Renji, Rider, and Orihime, he knew that logically they were in good hands and should make it unscathed as long as they were careful. On top of that, he knew that his friends weren't the type to rest on their laurels; even after the Winter War they had continued to grow stronger, so he should put his faith in them taking care of themselves
He and logic had an understanding though: if his friends were involved or someone tried to pick a fight with him, logic went out the window in favor of direct action.
So here he was, pacing the room like a caged tiger. He could sense the dense clump of familiar spiritual pressures heading back towards the hotel, but there was still a long way between them and their hotel room. Anything could go wrong… 'Stop thinking about it, Ichigo. They'll be alright. They're tough,' he reasoned, and the cyclic argument with himself continued.
"Is he always like this, nyah?" the substitute soul in Renji's body asked his fellows from his sprawled position on the coach.
Chappy, inside Rukia's gigai, shrugged, bouncing on her heels behind the couch as she tracked the boy with her eyes. "I dunno, hop. Lady Kuchiki tells me that he takes his friends' safety very seriously, hop." Frankly, the soul was a little nervous: Ichigo's nerves were causing his spiritual pressure to spike and plummet erratically, all but making him impossible to predict. It really was like watching a caged tiger.
"Do keep in mind that this is the boy who challenged the entirety of Soul Society over a single one of them. To say he 'takes the matter seriously' is a gross understatement." Hearing such a stately accent and speech coming from Hantaro's gigai was enough for Ichigo to pause and glance at the short boy reading a book at the dinner table.
In Ichigo's honest opinion, none of the substitute-souls he had encountered resembled the person they were supposed to imitate at all. The smug Ginnosuke in Renji's body, scholarly Pupples in Hanataro's, or the ever-happy Chappy, none of them could act their way out of a wet paper bag, especially with their painfully obvious verbal tics. At least they weren't trying to go through school back in Karakura…
"Is there something the matter, Kurosaki-sama?" Pupples asked, quirking an eyebrow and frowning stiffly. The expression looked terribly out of place on Hanataro's face.
"Uh, no. Just thinking." Ichigo resumed his pacing until he sensed his friends reach the hotel far down below. Instead, he simply stared at the doors leading to the elevator, his scowl all but threatening the elevator to get them up here faster or it would face destruction.
His success at intimidating a machine was nil, but the doors did eventually open, letting the spirits and humans trudge into the living area. Unharmed but exhausted, the pack of spirits and humans all but flopped onto the various coaches and chairs, with only Renji and Rider still standing. "Alright, give it to me straight: how bad are we talking?" Ichigo finally asked.
"Bad," Uryu replied morosely with a groan. With a clinical calm, he recounted his and Sado's fight with the red knight, and the picture was grim: Archer seemed to have an answer to every tactic and weapon aside from sacrifice ploys: getting that one clean hit had almost cost Sado his arm even with his armor. Worse, even though he used more magic weapons, he never once invoked a Noble Phantasm, so he had completely hidden any clues on who he might be, never going all out.
"So we've got a perfectly adapting juggernaut who doesn't stay dead, someone almost tailor-made to kick our collective asses and Queen Arthur on top of the Hollow mess. Fighting Lancer to the death doesn't seem so bad anymore," Ichigo groaned.
"Speaking of the Servants, I think it's time we got caught up now that everyone's accounted for," Renji said as he took a chair at the table. "I skimmed the reports, but do you even have a plan aside from fight when they decide to pop up?"
"Even that much is easier said than done," Rukia sighed. "Masters apparently don't display any outward sign of their nature until they use their abilities. Even their spiritual pressure is weak and ordinary until they cut loose. If Ichigo is any indication, any spiritual pressure beyond the norm they might have is used by the Servant and hides them further."
"What about the Servants?"
Rukia just shook her head. "That's not much better. Every Servant we've dealt with pretty much drops off the map to the point we can't sense them until they choose to manifest and fight. They are present and we can see them, but it's like they have no spiritual pressure at all."
Stories bounced around the table as the newly arrived Soul Reapers were brought up to date on the details. Strangely, neither of the new arrivals seemed terribly surprised by the idea of magi like the others were initially. When Ichigo brought it up, Renji simply shrugged. "Give the Soul Society some credit. The higher-ups already know about magi, but it's usually only really open knowledge to the seated officers. We keep records of most dangerous magi to us and our duties and a chunk of the Stealth Force dedicated to watching them."
Rukia looked up at her childhood friend in quiet shock. "Why keep it from the rest of the Soul Reapers? These people are incredibly dangerous, and the majority of Soul Reapers watching over the Living World are unseated to begin with!"
Renji simply shrugged. "Turns out most magi aren't even spiritually aware, and their magecraft doesn't affect spirits save one discipline, and those that practice it have the eyes of their bosses and our Stealth Force on them. Hell, if we run into one legitimately dangerous to us and the dead, we have full rights to take them down ourselves, and the magi are usually pretty good at policing the worst offenders in that front to avoid dealing with us. Our patrol rotations are set up to keep the unseated officers out of the territory of known magi, too."
"So why not tell everyone?"
Renji gave a grunt that somehow conveyed his long-standing frustration with the matter. "One word: politics. We apparently had to sign a treaty a few centuries ago to limit the influence we have on their affairs in order to get the same from them. The last thing either of us needs is for magi and the Soul Society to start actively fighting. Unseated officers are generally not strong enough to deal with dangerous magi and aren't experienced enough to take them seriously, which is why our standard policy is to outright avoid spiritually aware humans.
"The problem is that we have no evidence that the Servants and Masters are stepping over the line except for what you say they could do if they wanted. Aside from us keeping the souls of the dead safe from them, we can't exactly call down the full weight of the Thirteen Squads for this since it involves magi affairs. On the other hand, we have as much firepower as almost half the Thirteen Court Guards. We have more than enough to clean up this mess."
Renji would later swear that his past self was a blithering idiot for that assertion.
Though she had no way of realizing that half of the conversation she had just heard had come from the mouths of normally ghosts, Bazett felt a chill as she listened in through the rune array.
As a magus, Bazett was brought up with a view of the world that disavowed the notion of an afterlife: according to magi, when you died your "soul," the spark from the Root that stores the sum total of your experiences, returns to its origin. It is cleansed of all information and then returned to be reincarnated completely free of the faintest trace of your previous life. There was no great reward or punishment for anyone, which was one of the reasons why magi never felt the need to concern themselves with things like morality or ethics aside from professional courtesies and self-discipline.
These people in the hotel spoke as though there was indeed something beyond death, and that the Mages' Association was forbidden from interacting with it in exchange for their research. Did this mean that choosing the path of a magus damned a person, forbidding them from experiencing some form of paradise? Did the suffering magi and their ilk bring to the world mean that Gaia was rejecting them completely after their death instead of letting them pass into another realm? It was a chilling concept.
That said, Bazett wasn't the type to give in to despair over anything, even her own death, fighting tooth and nail to follow her orders and dreams. She had the chance to turn away from the life of a magus long ago, and she had chosen to follow it regardless of the risks. Her commitment as an Enforcer wasn't something she could simply throw away out of fear for something that she might have no control over anyway. She would analyze evidence as it became available, make inquiries, and even use her magecraft to extract clues if it became necessary for her missions.
Bazett forcibly brought her mind to the present and listened further, penning down terms and key phrases. The Enforcer realized that she was far more vulnerable than she liked, and it might be time to consider a diplomatic approach to this group if they really weren't after the Grail at all. She would also need to keep Lancer appraised of this group's movements and motives when they met up next.
She almost cursed again when she heard a familiar voice respond to the name "Rider."
Renji then turned to the Servant in the room. "One thing that I noticed when I was being briefed for this was that, while we know that all the Servants are legendary folk heroes and all, you haven't said who you are yet. If we're gonna plan on taking the Servants down quick, we need to know what you can do, 'Rider.'"
"That is something I do not need to reveal my identity to do," Rider replied as smoothly as ever. "Unless you are immune to mental attacks, I do not wish to risk telling my name to someone who is not capable of facing a Servant."
Startled by her bluntness, Renji almost lost his balance and just barely kept his chin from slamming onto the table. "Say what?"
Rider then looked the lieutenant square in the eye behind her false glasses, her tone as calm as always, but with a faint undercurrent of disdain towards him. "If you were to join any battles ahead aside from against Hollows, you will likely be the first casualty."
"You haven't even see me fight yet; what makes you think that?" Renji tried to keep his tone even, but he couldn't help the spike of irritation her casual dismissal left him with.
"I saw how you moved when we attacked the Archer. You are too slow to fight a Servant," Rider stated. It was true: compared to every combatant present she had seen fight, Renji was by far the slowest. Every Servant she had seen, including herself, was several times faster than him even with his ability to use Shunpo.
For his part, Renji gave the statuesque woman a cool glare. "That right? I might surprise you when the fighting starts for real."
Rider said nothing, but her posture somehow conveyed her doubt. It was strangely more infuriating than pushing her point.
"Rider," Ichigo called out evenly. He locked eyes with his Servant and shook his head slowly. "Trust me: Renji's stronger than he's letting on."
"Very well. Although if he insists on joining us against Servants, I would like to see where he stands if possible."
So she wanted a sparring match? Renji was a hothead, but starting a fight with a woman, especially over being underestimated, was a trashy move worse than dying. Oh, he didn't see himself as a chauvinist: he was perfectly willing to finish such a fight, but never start one. A spar wasn't exactly a fight, so it might be a good way to test a Servant's abilities without doing much damage, like back at the Academy. "Maybe later. First things first: After that last fight, we're on the back foot. Seventh Seat Yamada's already spent almost all of his spirit energy healing everyone. He won't be able to recharge Ichigo significantly after that even with time to recover, assuming he can't just fix the issue."
The plain-faced healer fidgeted. "Sorry, but Lieutenant Abarai is right. I'd need my full spirit energy to make any kind of progress restoring everyone's reserves," he elaborated meekly, leaving the words "especially Kurosaki-san's" out. Unlike Orihime's rejection of physical damage, kido healing worked by using a healer's spiritual pressure to jumpstart and encourage the natural restoration of spirit energy and accelerating the healing process by extension. A seemingly weak Soul Reaper could fill the reserves of a much stronger Soul Reaper with sufficient practice.
That said, the amount of power available to this bunch meant that getting everyone up to full strength would take some time, to say nothing of Ichigo's apparent difficulty restoring his own energy.
With Renji bringing his experience as a squad lieutenant to the table, the group spent the next couple of hours reviewing the battle sites and the known abilities of each Servant. It looked like the only option was to start laying siege to the Masters with all of their strength the moment they found even one of them. The tension was terrible out there, and they couldn't keep putting off fighting on the off-chance one of the magi had a decent wish to use the Grail on.
The knowledge that they might have set off the ticking time bomb that was the Holy Grail War's full potential with their daylight battle was a heavy thought.
For the time being though, the order of the day was to rest up for a new plan. With the Masters and Servants still keeping themselves hidden, Renji finally decided to assess the overall plans of the group. "So your entire time here, you only tried to draw the Servants to you once?" he asked flatly. "And even though it worked, you never bothered to try again?"
While most of the battered group took the criticism in stride, Ichigo looked outright offended. "Been a little busy on that front in case you skipped that part."
The Soul Reaper lieutenant wasn't impressed. "I read that, but it's been what, three days since then? There's no reason you shouldn't have taken out at least one Servant by now. There's seven of you for Soul Society's sake!"
"Hey, this isn't exactly easy! These guys aren't like Hollows or arrancar: they won't even show up unless their Masters order them!" Ichigo shouted back angrily.
From her seat, Rukia picked up from there, barely keeping her own frustration from leaking through. "From what we know, the magi are paranoid as well as extremely cautious with their Servants since they don't have sufficient reserves to power them constantly like Ichigo can. When they go to ground, they leave no trace. They aren't the type to make the same mistake twice. You are right though: we can't just keep scaring the magi into their strongholds or we'll be fighting a much bloodier battle when the tension finally blows. Do you have a plan in mind?"
Crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair, Renji considered their options. Fighting in a free-for-all like this was a whole different ballgame from his usual experience with clear sides. "Having someone out there obviously worked, especially if you can sense each other like you say. Why not try different bait this time? Rider's supposed to be looking for a fight, isn't she?"
"Perhaps, but my association with Ichigo will make it difficult to draw them out now that we have demonstrated our power. It might also provoke an attack from temporary alliances," Rider interjected.
Ichigo tried not to wince at the memories. He still felt a literal soul-deep ache if he thought too hard about trying to face Excalibur or getting by Berserker's God Hand again.
The lieutenant simply nodded and adjusted accordingly. "Alright, makes sense; we'll keep you two back until the trap is sprung. Anyone here could probably draw out a Servant if they can sense their souls like you say." Renji then turned to Ichigo. "It might also be a good idea to let that substitute soul of yours take over your body and walk around instead of leaving it dead like this afternoon. It's risky, but if you're seen in one spot, they won't expect you in the trap miles away. Ishida can watch him with Sado and Inoue for protection if he wants to leave the hotel and have him stick to populated areas." While the high rise hotel made a decent defensive position, it was obviously not wise to leave such a valuable target as Ichigo's body in a place where there was nowhere to run.
The substitute Soul Reaper gave a long-suffering sigh but agreed. "Kon'll be happy with that. He's been whining about not getting out enough." Having Kon keep his body out of the way of the Masters and Servants was infinitely better than leaving it lying around these days. The last thing he needed was for some sneaky bastard like a possible Assassin to run off with it when his back was turned. In exchange he had to deal with the soul's uncanny ability to ruin any reputation he might have amongst normal people.
"Wait," Rukia's voice suddenly cut in with a pensive frown as she glanced around the room. "Where is Kon?"
'How did I myself get into this mess?' Kon asked himself again, probably for the fifth time in the last half hour while he valiantly fought off the urge to move the stuffed dog off of his face. Moving while buried midway down a pile of stuffed animals would draw more attention than he needed.
Contrary to popular belief, Kon was not a coward nor did he always revel in sitting out of dangerous situations. If there was one trait he prided himself on, it was always being ready to act on behalf of his friends.
He just lacked any form of killer instinct and his preferred body was… rather limited. Sure he had moments of weakness, but everyone has times when it feels like the universe just wants to see you suffer and you need a break from it all.
So, having decided to make himself useful outside of just waiting for Ichigo to need out of his body, Kon snuck out of the penthouse with the aid of his supreme skill, the laundry chute, an umbrella, the day's newspaper and a luggage cart. Going out the front door was obviously out of the question, and Kon ended up backtracking to jump out of a second-story window onto a power generator behind the building. From there, it was no different from skulking around Karakura. Being small, soft and superhumanly agile allowed him to silently make progress towards the city center. His goal? Spy on the magi of course. Who would suspect a stuffed animal to be a spy?
And the fact it got him out of the penthouse's gilded cage and down to where the new city's beautiful women were walking around was worth it, of course.
'How hard could it be to find superhuman spirits, anyway?' he had wondered. Either they would look off in some manner or would radiate power like any other empowered soul as far as Kon knew. His skill at sensing souls was pretty low, but in a sea of normal humans anything with a potent soul would stick out like a sore thumb, and it wasn't like he was tracking a specific individual. Any signature that didn't belong to one of his associates or Hollows would do.
The plushy lion quickly took to the alleys and ducked under what he could find, trying his damnedest to stay out of sight of the populous. It wasn't easy, but the times he wandered the streets of Karakura had given him plenty of practice knowing when to move, when to hide, and when to just drop limp like an abandoned toy. It was slow going, but thankfully it was a cool day and most people were in a hurry to get home and warm up rather than be out in town. He had to make sure he was on the rooftops by the dinner rush or he might get stuck out in plain view with nowhere to run for hours.
Unfortunately, this wasn't Karakura, and he had very little exposure to these city streets despite being here for days. Unfamiliar with the layout from the ground, he at some point had bumbled too close to an arcade, one of the worst places to end up on a Saturday for him. Even more distressing, there were people milling around the front and more turning the corner behind him! Kon almost panicked and dove into the nearest bit of cover he could find, which was a nearby prize chute … for a crane game.
He had managed to wedge himself just above the prize chute's door, hopefully high enough to evade easy notice and deep enough in the chute to avoid being dragged out by someone who did spot him. Kon prayed that whoever did see the stuck toy and assume it was out of order until someone dislodged him.
Naturally, the universe did not heed his heartfelt prayer, and a young woman wearing a green and yellow shirt walked up to the machine, perused the prizes and started it up enthusiastically. Oh, he tried to resist, but a few prizes stacked on top of him and one good kick sent him tumbling to the bottom of the chute.
So here he was, buried under the stubborn girl's loot and being swung jovially about. Blind and helpless, Kon knew he'd have to escape the moment she turned her back. He wasn't sure how long he lay in the bag, but eventually he came to a stop and he felt the bag come to rest on a table.
Completely limp, he heard voices over his head as the bag's contents were laid bare. Soon enough, he was brought out of the pile and set beside another few odd toys. Before him was a teen about Ichigo's age with rust red hair holding a plush mask that was presumably another of the girl's myriad winnings, a dubious expression on his face. He was giving off a bit of spiritual pressure, too! 'This is bad this is bad this is bad.'
"Aren't these a hundred yen a game, Fuji-nee?" the teenager asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Yep! It took forever, but I finally managed to get that mask for you! Your room's always empty, right? This'll make your room warmer!"
Kon tuned out the conversation from there, thanking every deity he could think of that his plushy body couldn't sweat; he'd be soaked through if it did! He desperately wanted to get some bearing on where the heck he was. Even just looking out a window would help! But first he needed to wait until he was out of sight. That option disappeared when he felt another presence behind him.
The voice was soft but underscored by something… grand. "Taiga, are these puppets yours?"
"Yeah, do you want any? I can give you some if you want. It's the least I can do to make up for troubling you this morning," his captor replied with a light chuckle.
"Please." Slim, small hands wrapped around Kon's body and turned him around. "I appreciate this, Taiga. Thank you."
"Never took you for the type," another female voice tossed in, sounding a lot like Rukia when she was acting innocent.
Kon didn't see the source of that second voice, focused as he was on the person holding him gently.'…Wow. This girl is…' Kon found himself facing a golden-haired girl with emerald eyes, her youthful features regarding him almost blankly. Something about her made him feel like he was safe and warm in gentle sunlight. Her features were youthful and unblemished, reminding him of Rukia-neesan with her relatively small stature and regal air. For a moment, the mod soul saw a brief flicker of a small, devastatingly beautiful smile cross her face. She squeezed him to her modest chest gently. '…heavenly…'
Maybe he would stick around for a little while. It had proved a long day, after all.
"I'm actually kinda surprised. You like this kind of thing, Saber-chan?"
Wait… Saber? As in one of the Servants everyone was fighting?
The regal beauty nodded, shifting Kon enough for him to see her face. "Yes. I've longed for something small and cute."
He barely fought down the impulse to whimper. 'Please, please let the name be a coincidence. Saber could just be a nickname for a perfectly ordinary person, right?' he all but begged the cruel, unforgiving world.
Then she squeezed him lightly to her chest again, and suddenly Kon found it hard to care.
A.N.: I'm baaaaaack! Thank you all, new and old readers, for reading this story. I've been away for a long time, far more than I ever expected, but one month became two, two became three and I just couldn't pound out pages like I used to. It took me a while to realize why:
I had given up.
When I was first starting out, I was very new to a lot of conventions of truly good writing, but was arrogant enough to think my first fic would be in the top 1% of fanfiction because I had some technical skill. Boy, looking back on it, I was a complete moron back then. My early chapters are crap compared to now, and looking at them makes me twitch. Moreover, I started losing interest in BLEACH at some point, and that alone nearly killed this story completely.
However, I like to think I'm a man of my word, so I'll keep at it, and I do have the plot largely mapped out in my head even if the fine details aren't there. I think I'm finally over this slump now that I've gotten other stories I'm happily working on by myself or as a collab. Check out the P4/FSN fic "Fate Reach Out," for example. I guess I just needed a change of pace before I could start the engine again.
Thank you all again, and I'll see you next chapter, whenever that may be.