Chapter Eighteen: Meetings and Greetings
The world was dark.
There was no up, no down, nothing but black, and red, and the screams of the damned as their half-devoured souls whirled in a maelstrom. This place was a world of sin, and darkness. Anyone drawn into it could look forward to nothing but pain, madness, and shortly a horrible death.
Which is why it was strange that two figures were somehow intact amid the storm, though admittedly only one of them looked like she was exactly happy.
Lancer threw his head back, screaming as tendrils of scarlet-lined blackness dug under his armor and burrowed into his skin. Blood flowed freely down his body, vanishing into the swirling chaos that made up the world around them.
"Are we learning a lesson in obedience, here?" Caster asked mildly.
"Hahahaha, not bad, not bad, though you gotta be careful. If you go down too low, there's no nerve endings, so stick close to the surfaAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!" he screamed as the bindings snapped out, ripping fist-sized holes in his chest and stomach.
"Apparently not, then. It's a shame... had I been aware of what an annoyance you would turn out to be, I would have let Saber and Berserker dispose of you."
Lancer smirked, something writhing beneath the skin of his neck. "Yeah, good thing you aren't too good at tactical thinking... and didn't really understand how our Master really thinks. You yammer on and on like you're controlling her, but deep down she's just like me. All she wants is to feed. Can't you see that? All she needs is blood and you waste your time scheming when we could be shedding it for her!"
Caster sighed, and shifted her hand slightly. Around them, the chaos shifted, forming several new razor-edged strands that wrapped around Lancer's left leg, and with a sharp twist, tore it off.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!" he screamed for nearly a full minute, before falling once more into laughter. "Oh, now... you're just being catty."
Caster narrowed her eyes. "This isn't as satisfying as I'd thought it would be," she said, watching as the limb started to grow back almost immediately.
"Not my fault you're no good at torture. If I wasn't a Servant, I'd be bleeding to death in minutes, and then were would you be? I told you to stick near the surface where the most sensitive nerves are. Inflict pain without major damage," Lancer said, his wide smile stained red with his own blood. "Trust me, I'm an expert. Let me move around a little, and I'll show you personally. Generous, right?"
Caster sighed once again. "You are aware that we are part of the same primal chaos. We are one with this infinite darkness ,and it infuses us with its endless power. As such, with my superior knowledge and control of it, I can literally torture you forever if you don't stop behaving like a wild dog and do as you are told!"
The tendrils of blackness snapped and twisted in response to her fury, tearing long gashes into Lancer's body. He just continued to laugh, even when a particularly brutal stroke cut his mask in half, and left one of the eyes behind it a bloody ruin.
"Yeah," Lancer said, one gold eye locked on her. "But you need me. By yourself, you'll just get cut to pieces. So next time it's time for our Master to feed... we'll see which of us is really in charge."
Caster sighed, and twisted her hand again.
The wailing of the lost souls blended into the screams of Lancer for some time, before both were eclipsed by mocking, triumphant laughter.
Shirou Emiya stirred.
His dreams of late had been stranger than usual. He had always dreamed of fire, of course. That was nothing new. One could not be through what he had been through in his life without having nightmares. He had always dreamed of those flames, because they had destroyed the person he was and left him nothing but ash to build a new self from.
But things had changed.
Never before had he seen that blackness behind it all so clearly. At the core of the flame where there should have been nothing but light, he could see a darkness. Not so much a shadow as a festering pit that the flames could not touch. Light and heat flowed around it, as if even the fire itself was somehow afraid to touch that blackness. It was a thing anathema to every natural force, even the destructive ones.
And never before had he felt... cold, when he was here.
This was not a complaint. This dream was common, and it always, always burned. The heat and smoke felt every bit as real as they had the day he had actually been part of this inferno. As he walked through the flames, a child again, he could barely see, hardly breathe. Felt nothing but pain, fire that seemed to melt through his flash and ignite his blood even as it flowed within his body. Now, though, there was a strange chill in the air.
A few flakes of snow fluttered down around him, unmelting despite the heat.
"I'm sorry. For everything."
Shirou's eyes fluttered open, and he looked around the familiar confines of his own room with the lack of comprehension that always follows waking up in a place one did not fall asleep.
Except I didn't fall asleep. I... I...
He had lost consciousness. But he hadn't been wounded, he had... done something. He just couldn't piece together what. Lancer had attacked, and there had been a burning sensation inside his body, something had clicked in his mind and...
Well, it probably wasn't important. He felt fine. Great, even. Like something that had been missing before had somehow fallen into place, like a missing puzzle piece being inserted.
Shirou wasn't so foolish as to think he didn't still have many, many missing pieces. But maybe at least one thing was going right, for once. Maybe.
He stood up, and was pleased to find no real dizziness at all. So far, so good. I should head downstairs, then. The sun's up. Saber will want something to eat, and Sakura is...
"Sakura is gone," Saber said.
"Gah!" Shirou said eloquently, jumping halfway out of his skin and finally taking that tumble to the floor he'd been worried about as his legs caught in the blankets of his futon. He felt his head impact with the wooden floor... not enough for a concussion, at least, but it left his head swimming and his ears ringing. "Ouch..."
"I apologize," Saber said, standing up from her position in the corner of the room where she had been sitting at attention. "I thought you knew I was here."
"Why would I know you were here?!" Shirou snapped. "We talked about this, I don't feel comfortable with you staying in my room while I'm sleeping!"
Saber tilted her head to one side. "Yes, and I informed you I would not be following this order because it is tactical suicide. You are ignoring the point."
"No, I think that the one ignoring what's going on is y-" he began, before cutting himself off mid-sentence, his eyes widening. "Wait, what did you say about Sakura?"
"She is gone. She left the house during the night. W—I do not know if she left willingly or was coerced," Saber said. She did not particularly enjoy the idea, keeping a secret like this from her Master. But her oaths of chivalry compelled her as much as any Command Seal. The Lady von Einzbern had requested she keep her involvement discreet, and unless she gave Saber some reason to believe she meant Shirou harm, or Shirou himself demanded otherwise, she would do so. It was, perhaps, not the wisest course, but she had sworn.
Luckily, Shirou was in no state of mind to notice the minor slip-up. "Okay, let me get my coat and shoes. Grab your sword."
"I do not have to 'grab' my..."
"I don't care! We're going to find her. Maybe Shinji knows something. I wouldn't put it past him anymore," Shirou said.
Saber sighed. "Shirou, I understand that you are worried, but there is much about last night that you do not know yet. It will take some time to debrief you on all that happened while you were unconscious, but suffice to say that we may be in significant danger moving about outside, even during daylight hours."
Shirou turned to her. "I don't care if I'm in danger! Sakura is like family to me, and after finding out her brother is a murderer and her grandfather is... is some kind of monster, I'm not leaving her alone in that house! Stay here if you want, but I'm going," he snapped, slamming the door behind him as he stormed out of the room.
Saber sighed, and stood up. She walked over to the door, her footsteps making no sound on the wooden floor, and opened it delicately. She stepped outside, turned, and closed it quietly behind her so as to be polite.
Then she charged.
She caught Shirou in something less than a second, leaping between him and the door through a space that conventional logic would have said was too small for her. She then planted her feet firmly, held her arms out to cover the hallway, and said, "Stop."
Shirou blinked, his mind struggling to recognize the fact that empty air had just sprouted a girl. Human senses tended to have some issues keeping up with Saber when she got really moving, and she was really moving.
Still, Shirou had gotten kind of used to surprises by now, and he took this latest in stride. "Saber, move. It's fine if you want to stay here, but I have to go."
"Shirou, you are my Master. If you wish to rush into danger, I will follow you every step of the way, no matter the risk," Saber said.
"Fine, come with me."
"I cannot do that, because you are not going. There is nothing that you can... what are you doing?!"
It must be noted that Saber had stopped to shriek in mid-sentence because Shirou had chosen to, rather than continue arguing with her, just pick her up bodily and move her out of the way. A hero of pride and power she might well have been, but Saber was also a tiny slip of a girl, barely over five feet tall and weighing in at just shy of ninety-three pounds. Shirou routinely moved packages her size or larger at any number of the many jobs he worked after school, and was able to pick her up and place her off to the side without any visible effort.
"Saber," he said to her sputtering, blushing face. "I'm going."
"Shirou, you are only going to put yourself and most likely Sakura in pointless danger if you-" Saber said, trailing behind him as he walked right on to the front door where his shoes waited.
"Saber. This isn't something I can argue about. She was here. I was supposed to keep her safe, and I failed her. I promised Tohsaka..."
"Rin is an enemy, you-"
"... And I promised Sakura," he finished, his tone one of absolute finality. "I swore I would keep her safe for as long as she stayed with me. I can't just forget that because it's convenient for me. So again... stay if you want. I'm leaving."
Saber sighed, rubbing her temples to fight off the growing migraine that she could clearly not actually have because certainly a Servant would not be laid low by so mundane a force.
And then she decided to make her point a bit more forcefully.
Once again she charged, clearing the hallway to reach him by the front door at just barely below the speed of sound. Clamping a hand like a vise onto his wrist, she spun the arm around him and pinned it behind his back at the same time she hooked a foot around his leg and pulled it out from under him, knocking him off balance at the same time she leaned into him and put all her weight against him at the same time she removed his support. It was not much weight, as he had so callously reminded her (as though it was her fault she did not have a traditional warrior's build!), but it hit him from behind at the same time he was knocked off balance by her other motions.
The entire process took slightly less than a second, and ended with Shirou on the floor, his arm clamped firmly behind him and a rather annoyed knight-king planted on his back.
"... Oof," Shirou said, his voice muffled by his face being pressed into the welcome mat. It was a fairly safe bet he was saying, "Ouch," but it was hard to be sure.
"You are going to listen now, yes?" Saber asked.
Shirou tilted his head to one side to get floor out of his mouth, and said, "I'm going and you can't stop me."
"Current evidence suggests otherwise."
Shifting his weight, Shirou moved his other arm to highlight the Command Seal glowing on it. "Check again."
Saber narrowed her eyes. "You have only two Seals remaining. You would willingly waste one for nothing than the ability to, most likely, walk into a trap?"
"I told you. Sakura is family. Until I know she's safe, I can't focus on the War anyway. So yes, if this is the only way to get you on board..."
Saber sighed. "Shirou. I am worried about her too, but this will achieve nothing. If she returned of her own free will, then she will not return with us willingly now. If she was coerced into doing so, it means that her life will be in danger if we approach the Matou manor so boldly as this. Or do you believe that a creature such as that magus Zouken would not see her as a hostage? Use her as a human shield if it benefited him?"
Shirou stayed tense for several long seconds, before exhaling and seeming to shrink beneath Saber as he stopped (futilely) struggling in her grasp. "You couldn't have presented this argument before you threw me...?"
"I could have, but it would not have had the same impact." Saber said demurely.
"... Was that a joke?"
"I'm sure I have no idea," Saber said, and Shirou could practically feel her eyes twinkling, even if he couldn't turn to see her face.
Shirou sighed. "You can let me up now."
"You promise to remain in the house? Under my protection?" Saber asked warily.
"No, but I promise to let the Matou problem sit still for now," Shirou said. "I have some other things to worry about..."
"Ah. So you 'merely' wish to wander the city for hours unsupervised, while not telling me where you have gone?" Saber asked, eyes narrowed. Just because she knew where he had been going now did not mean she was going to let him get off the hook for that one. Honestly, going out to spend his time... doing whatever it is he has been doing with that girl, during the middle of a war! And her another Master, no less! He is lucky he hasn't already had his skull smashed in. Not that he has much inside it, frankly.
Shirou actually smiled. "Well, actually... I was planning to go to church."
Shinji Matou was truly happy for the first time in a long time.
Yes, his grandfather had betrayed him, tried to strip him of the power that was his by right. Rin Tohsaka had spurned him, and Sakura had defied him. And most galling of all, that vile little nobody Emiya had intruded on the ritual that was his birthright.
But all that was in the past, now. He walked down the halls of the school he might as well have owned, enjoying the sights; the girls tittering as he walked past, their smiles making it clear what they wanted from him. And even better, the hatefully jealous glares of the men who knew he could have any one of those girls that he wanted. And best of all...
The wraith of Rider moved silently in his wake, hidden from mortal eyes. Around him, the scent of the boundary field she was slowly but surely building around the school was like an intoxicant, driving him to greater and greater heights of ecstasy with each step he took further into it. He pictured it activating, draining the life out of every one of these insects, leaving them to fall where they stood, gasping for air, their souls being ripped out of their melting flesh to service him... the image made a chill of pleasure ran up his spine.
Not yet. But soon, he thought, knowing that particular thrill would come to him in time. That was the whole reason he had come back here, after all... to let Rider continue her progress in preparing the Bloodfort. She had to be nearby to strengthen it, and Tohsaka had kept up her efforts to slow construction. But until it was ready, he contented himself with walking down the halls like a conquering king, enjoying the lust and envy directed at him, basking in the glow of his own restored power.
It really was possible to have everything you wanted, if things just lined up right.
He turned the corner, and his good mood was instantly spoiled.
Rider? He thought, slipping a hand inside his jacket to touch the Tome of the False Attendant as he stared down the crowded hallway and directly into the eyes of Rin Tohsaka, standing in his path as bold as brass.
Be cautious, Master. Archer is with her, his Servant's soft voice whispered into his mind.
Of course he's with her, you idiot. She would have to an idiot to travel without him, and even more of an idiot to start a fight where everyone can see it. Now if you don't have anything useful to say, keep your worthless mouth shut, he replied, pleased by her falling into obedient silence. As it should be, wasn't it? She was a tool. A doll who did his bidding, and now that she was back in her rightful place under his heel, all was right in the world...
Rin strode up to him, no fear in her eyes, a fact which both annoyed him and enticed him. On the one hand, her lack of fear in light of his abilities spoke to a lack of respect, and that was something he absolutely loathed.
On the other... well, he couldn't help but admire that fire, in a way. She was a Magus. One of the chosen, the strong. It was what he'd always desired about her. Of all people, shouldn't she be the one who could approach him as an equal? The two of them were the only people in this entire school who had a life that meant anything. Like gods among insects.
Rin stopped beside him, and smiled. "Welcome back, Matou. I thought you'd be out longer... I heard you were very ill."
Okay, no, screw that hint of respect and equality. He was going to make this bitch scream. Make her into nothing but a toy for his pleasure, a broken, mindless doll just like her-
"So, I was thinking, Matou. I have a project I've been working on that I think you could help me with," Rin said, smiling the most innocent smile imaginable.
… Wait, what? Shinji thought, the sheer oddness of her words burning through the black, crawling haze that filled his mind. "Tohsaka, are you actually suggesting we should-"
She raised a hand, the smile on her face stretching to touch her eyes, leaving her the absolute image of an elegant and charming young lady in the Spring of her youth. "You see, Matou, I have recently found myself involved in an extracurricular activity. A sort of afterschool competition. You may have heard of it?" she said, giggling—an actual goddamn giggle! From Rin Tohsaka!-as she asked. "And the thing is? Well, the competition has just been a bit too much for me lately. I'm starting to think I'll need some backup, and then I thought: you know who I know that might be interested in something like that? My old friend Matou!"
Shinji blinked. "Friend?"
"Well, we've known each other for years," Rin said, sounding genuinely hurt at the prospect that Shinji might have somehow never thought of her as a true friend. It was in that moment that Shinji had to admit that whatever else Rin was, she was probably the best actor he'd ever seen. "And I always thought that if I ever needed help, you would come rushing to my aid like a gentleman. Especially since a little birdie told me that you've picked up a very reliable subordinate again...?"
Shinji's eyes widened, his face reflexively turning to where he knew Rider was standing and where he knew that Tohsaka couldn't possibly have seen her...
Rin's smile turned vaguely shark-like, and she leaned in to whisper in his ear. "Really, Shinji, did you think I didn't have eyes on the Matous? Every magus in the war knows where that particular competition lives."
"What's your game, you little fox...?" Shinji muttered.
Rin took a step back, her smile shifting seamlessly back to the chipper, bubbly schoolgirl. "Why, nothing at all! I was really hoping we might be able to discuss some kind of pact, don't you know? I think the help would be in everyone's best interests. So if you want to talk a little more about it, well, I would just love to meet you for lunch. See you on the roof at noon? And remember, keeping a girl waiting is just the height of rudeness!"
Rin skipped off—skipped!-down the hallway, whistling a little tune. He had to admit, it was a bit... overdone, but Rin deserved a medal of some sort simply for the fact that nobody on Earth would have looked at her that moment and thought 'Magus'.
Shinji blinked a few times. "Noon, huh...?" he muttered to himself, pondering the implications.
Rin stopped skipping and stepped into her first class of the day, her smile vanishing. Do you think I overdid it?
The skipping was probably too much, Archer replied softly, but I doubt Shinji is cunning enough to spot the thread.
He's a bit of an ass, yes, but I can't have him suspecting anything until it's too late. I just need to get him alone for five minutes...
Rin... I shouldn't have to tell you this plan is incredibly risky. Even if Shinji reacts as you have planned –and there's no saying he will, and won't just activate the boundary field Rider's put up around the school out of blind paranoia!–the endgame you have planned out might literally be impossible for a human being.
I wouldn't have suggested it if I couldn't handle it. Rin thought irritably. Besides, even if you knew what you were talking about, how do I know you're telling the truth?
Archer sighed, and fell silent, even in his own mind. Rin's smile turned genuine, and she settled into her desk and pulled out the text for her first class of the day, every inch the diligent pupil, just as she had been an absolutely perfect little flirt when Shinji had been watching.
If there was one thing she knew, it was how to keep up appearances.
Shirou opened the door to Kotomine church, and peered inside. The place seemed to be deserted, at least of people. As Shirou had noted on his first visit, and confirmed now, there was a certain aura of creepiness that never left the place no matter what.
Shirou sighed, shutting the door behind him as he walked into the main chamber of the church, walking down the aisle between pews and looking around. "Um... Father Kotomine? Are you h-"
"But of course. Where else would I be?"
Shirou jumped halfway out of his skin, spinning on his ankle, to find the priest. The man was standing, somehow, between him and the door, a smile on his face that could only be called insolent... and only then because "mocking" seemed like a very rude term to use to describe a priest.
Shirou narrowed her eyes, instinctive loathing filling his mind. It wasn't the same as with Archer... that was more an irritability, but laced with a certain respect for the Servant's obvious, and amazing, skill. With Kotomine, he just could not hear the man's voice without wanting to hit him.
It probably wasn't a very heroic thought to have. He was a priest, after all, even if one who had a kind of... well... a sort of aura of evil about him. For lack of a better term. Then again, he is one of the people running this War that's killing people all over my town. Maybe he could use a good beating.
Kirei stepped forward, his grin never fading as he approached the young man. "Greetings, Shirou Emiya, and welcome to the Kotomine Church. Have you come here a Master? Or merely a poor sinner seeking God?"
"Do you really have to ask?"
"In a sense," the priest said, walking past Shirou and stepping up to the small altar and picking up the Bible set atop it. He opened the book up to a seemingly random page, and began to read as he spoke. "Truthfully, I already know the answer. But I would be a poor man of God if I did not leave either option open."
"I need to know more about this War," Shirou said, trying his best to avoid the small talk the man was clearly attempting to drag him into. "Especially about the families behind it."
Kirei did not look up from his reading, staring into the small book as though he'd never seen a Bible before. For all Shirou know, maybe he hadn't; he wasn't exactly the most standard priest of all time. "Would not young Rin be a better contact for this? She is, after all, a member of one of the same families. Or perhaps, there is another young lady you could ask, who might know equally as much, if not more. And my sources have indicated she is very close to you..."
Shirou narrowed his eyes. "I don't know how you found out about Sakura, but stop. A Magus family only has one heir, and that would be Shinji. He's the one who had the Servant. So Sakura won't know anything. And Tohsaka and I... are not on the best of terms."
Kirei looked up, his smile giving away less information than a blank wall. "Well, I'm sure you would know better than I, of course."
"Look, you're supposed to help the Masters. So help me," Shirou said. "I know enough about the Tohsaka, but I don't know anything about the Einzberns, and not nearly as much about the Matous as I thought I did. Especially the grandfather..."
Kirei's carefully amused smiled broke for the first time, a wince twisting his mouth. "Zouken, yes. You have met him, then."
"What is he? And... and what has he done to Sakura?" Shirou asked, his voice falling into just above a whisper as he finally allowed himself to admit the worry that Saber had by no means defused. As much as he hated to show anything like vulnerability in front of the priest, the fear for Sakura was like a glacier slowly forming in his stomach.
The priest's eyes glittered, as though he was reading Shirou's mind and found it to be a highly amusing text indeed. "He has given you reason to assume he has done something?"
"She wouldn't have left without saying something. Not unless he made her," Shirou said. "And more than that, I... I looked into his eyes. His real eyes, not the facade he puts on, pretending to be a kind old man."
Kirei actually snorted, and it was a deeply disorienting sound to hear. "It is not much of a facade. Zouken Matou is the Magus who led the Clan Makiri to this land five hundred years ago, and who allowed the clan to fall into decay for his own preservation. He is a parasite latched onto his own family, exploiting them until all that remains of them is a bitter shell feeding on itself in a desperate attempt to survive their own master."
Shirou's eyes widened. "Five... five hundred...?"
"Ah, yes. He hides his age well, does he not?" Kirei asked. Then, considering his words, he said, "Well, perhaps not that well. In a better world he would be dust and ash by now, of course, but then we are so rarely lucky in that regard. Or perhaps it is fortunate! After all, his actions were in part what led to the War you yourself now compete in, and I oversee. So in a sense, we owe our very sense of purpose to a vile, poisonous slug of a man. Fortunate we are indeed!"
The priest's face was smiling, but Shirou could hear the undercurrent of loathing. "You... really hate him, don't you?"
"If you don't, it is only because you don't know it like I do," Kotomine said, brushing a hand idly against his right shoulder, as if an old wound was twinging there. "But enough. You asked about more than Zouken. You wished to know of the Holy Grail War, did you not?"
"Look, I need to know..."
"Such a small-minded young man. If you understand the roots of what is going on, you will understand that your young lady is largely unimportant in the grand scheme," Kirei said. "Matou, Einzbern, Tohsaka. The Holy Grail War is the creation of these three families, as I am sure you have heard by now. Two hundred years ago, they gathered in this land, the Tohsaka's holy ground, and built their ritual, but but that is only scratching the surface. The creation of the Holy Grail was something the Einzberns had struggled toward for long before that, and something they still struggle toward. The path to immortality was something that Zouken Matou seeks with a fervor that can only be called madness. That is what you were missing, Shirou Emiya. You assumed this to be a battle between magi over a simple wish, but it is and always has been the obsession of ancient madmen with power beyond your imagination. A struggle that has lasted for centuries on end, entire families burning themselves down to bloody bones in a mad drive to claim victory at any cost. That is what you have embroiled yourself in, young man. That is what your young lady is already a part of. And why not? You were both born to it!"
Shirou tried to fight back a growing sense of nausea. "You enjoy it. You talk about this whole thing like it's... a game. People are dying and you're having fun."
Kirei's smile did not budge one micron. "I'm sure I have no idea what you mean. At most, I appreciate the grand scale of what occurs here. Is not the Holy Grail a tool of God? Should not its creation be a momentous occasion?"
"Sure," Shirou said, his tone making it clear he didn't buy this for a heartbeat. "If all you had to tell me was that I was in over my head, I'd worked that out for myself. The three families take this seriously, fine. What I need is some insight on Matou that might help me-"
"Yes, yes. Sakura Matou," Kirei said. "Zouken Makiri owns the girl, and his laboratory is too well-defended for a direct assault by your... limited abilities. Saber, I'm certain, could penetrate the perimeter, if you do not mind the concept of Servants doing battle so close to your young friend, or the possibility that Zouken would not simply kill her the moment the battle began..."
"She's his family!"
"And you have no idea how very, very little that means to him. For the moment, Matou holds your friend and you have no leverage to gain her freedom. Perhaps if you had the patronage of one of the other great families, but Tohsaka is opposed to you, and Einzbern of course has so much bad blood with the house of Emiya..."
Kirei smiled. "You do not seem surprised. Perhaps Zouken retains his love of chatting with the opposition?"
Shirou sighed. "You don't need to know. Just get that I don't know anything about the Einzbern family, and I don't know why everyone thinks I would..."
"Oh, it's not that strange, really," the priest said, his tone of one discussing the weather. "I suppose your father wouldn't have told you about his time acting as an agent of the Einzbern clan in the last War, would he?"
Shirou's reaction this time was a bit more extreme than a blink.
Saber sighed, sitting on a bench near the entrance to the church.
As before, she had chosen not to go within. Truthfully, the building simply gave her a sense of deep foreboding. She would have preferred Shirou not go in as well, and at the greatest extremes never, ever go into the building, ever again.
At least he is not attacking the Makiri clanhold directly with a hostage on the line, Saber thought with a sigh. It wasn't that she doubted her own ability to pierce any defense Zouken had in place, but she liked Sakura. She had sworn to protect the girl. A direct assault on the old monster, if he really was still alive (And she had to assume he was, since Shinji Matou was in all ways too pathetic to extract Sakura so cleanly) would be almost certain to get the poor girl killed, one way or the other.
It was the kind of battle Saber loathed. A straight fight without innocents in the line of fire, soldier against soldier, that was her element. The cloak and dagger world of the magi repelled her...
"Pssssssssssssst! Saber! Over here!"
… Though it did occasionally allow her to see some unique sights.
Saber turned, to see a bush rustling a few yards down the street. She saw a flash of white hair behind the green leaves.
Saber wasn't sure if she should smile or bury her face in her hands. Surely she would not. It must have been my imagination. I will close my eyes, and when I open them, it will be a normal bush on a normal street.
"Don't ignore me!"
Saber sighed, and walked over to the bush. "Hello, Lady von Einzbern. I see you are well."
"Why didn't you come over the first time?!" Ilya whispered, pushing aside the branches of her hiding bush. She was not actually inside the bush, at the least, just behind it, which was... slightly better. The young girl was wearing, for no reason that Saber could see, a beige trench coat too large for her (It appeared to be caught on one of the branches; Ilya should have picked a less thorny bush), and a pair of dark sunglasses.
"I was hoping you were not the sort of person who would approach me in broad daylight while I am with my Master, who you have stated you wished to remain anonymous from," Saber said solemnly. "My hopes were unfounded."
Ilya frowned. "Do not make fun of me. I came to make sure Shirou's okay. And I knew he'd be here, so I had to do it anonymously."
"... You are a tiny person with white hair and red eyes. You cannot in any way be anonymous."
"Duh! That's why I'm in disguise," Ilya said. She actually sounded as though she thought this was logical reasoning. "Even if Shirou walked out here right now he would just see a mysterious stranger."
"I see," Saber lied. "Lady von Einzbern..."
"You can call me Ilya now that we're a conspiracy," Ilya said.
Saber winced. "I would prefer you not call it that. It makes it sound as though we intend some kind of nefarious activity, when in fact we... well, in truth, I have no idea what we are doing. Or more to the point, what you are doing and have manipulated me into keeping secret for you."
"I'm protecting Shirou, Saber. Try to keep up," Ilya said, pity dripping from her voice.
"But why? You are a Master of Einzbern, despite your youth, and your family has nothing but loathing for the Emiya... clan..." Saber said, her voice trailing off. Could it be? No, she is far too young. That girl would be Shirou's age by now.
… But she was always very small for her age...
"Ilya..." Saber said softly. "Your parents. What were their names?"
Ilya's nose scrunched up. "I don't understand. You already know Mama's name, though I have no idea how. Why are you asking things like that now?"
But on the other hand...
Magi are magi. They often do not make much sense from a logical standpoint. And... it would explain a great deal.
"Ilya..." Saber said softly. "Are you the daughter of Irisviel and... and that man?"
"I don't know any 'that man,'" Ilya said softly. "If you mean Kiritsugu Emiya, then yes."
Saber exhaled a breath she hadn't even realized she'd been holding. "I see. That is your interest in Shirou, then. He is..."
"I shouldn't be. Grandpapa wants me to kill him, and frankly, I wanted it at first too," Ilya said sadly, not seeming to notice the way Saber tensed at her words. "But I've been doing a lot of thinking. And it started to make me notice how little I really know about the world. So until I work things out for myself, I'll be handling this my own way, and Shirou... I won't let anyone hurt him. No matter what I have to do."
Saber nodded in sympathy. "Because he is your father's..."
"Because he was nice to me. He was sweet and kind and treated me like I was special when he didn't have any reason to, and he never asked for anything in return. You'd be surprised how rare that is," Ilya cut her off, a small smile touching her lips. "Or... maybe you wouldn't?"
Saber considered that. "He... is an unusual young man. Perhaps not the most... cunning individual..."
"But he is pure. He is a good man. This much, I can say for certain," Saber said, a small smile of her own taking shape. "I am proud to be his Servant, and if you are honest about your claims... I am proud to have you as an ally, milady."
Ilya blushed slightly, and pulled her coat up around her face in a vain effort to hide it. "Well. Of course you are! That's just the way it should be. A knight should always be proud to serve the princess. Hahahaha!" she laughed, a slight off-kilter tinge of totally unjustified pride to it.
Saber smiled more openly. The girl was... odd... but she could at least see why Shirou found her endearing. "I am glad you approve, Ilya. But for the moment, you have to realize that the two of us meeting in this location is extremely risky. The other Masters will have eyes everywhere, and we still have no idea where the golden Archer is based from or who is pulling his strings."
Had Saber realized the answer to those concerns was "Thirty feet away" and "the guy in the building thirty feet away", she might have had a lethal irony attack before she even had the chance to break down the door and drag Shirou out by his collar. Fortunately (unfortunately?) she had chosen once again to stay outside.
Ilya sighed. "I know, but... well, I just had to make a little check in, and I had to wait until Shirou was where he wouldn't see you, since we have to be cautious with him. He's really fragile, and kind of silly about his decision-making. But he's just such a sweetheart. I mean, he's a bit like Kiritsugu, I guess, or... at least how I remember Kiritsugu. I don't know if he was like that, I guess. But Shirou is like that way he was, only even nicer! And I'm totally sure that he isn't lying, since there was lots of times for him to have not been nice, and he was nice for all of them, and it was just the greatest thing ev-" Ilya stopped, eyes widening behind her highly inconspicuous sunglasses as something about the conversation pierced her brain. "Wait. How on Earth did you even know anything about me? You're a Servant! I know you're the right Servant, but you're just a copy. You should be just a copy. I guess you could have found out about Pa-Kiritsugu from Shirou, but my mother?"
Saber smiled slightly. "Well. If you can have your secrets from Shirou, I can have my secrets from you. Can I not... Ilyasviel?" she asked, the full name of the girl from that old castle finally coming back to her. The girl's forehead scrunched up, indicating her eyes were narrowing in confused annoyance. Saber tried not to laugh. I am allowed to be the one with the advantage in information on occasion, young lady. Alliance does not mean servitude.
"You..." Ilya muttered. "I don't know what you are, or how you're doing this, but I'm going to find out. I don't like not knowing things. It makes me feel like I'm not knowledgeable."
"Yes, well, we have an..." Saber began.
The door of the church creaked open behind her.
Ilya squeaked, pulling the coat up over her head and actually did jump into the bush this time. Saber sighed, and walked back over to her original seating point, as her Master exited the building, and nodded solemnly at him. "Shirou. Were you able to learn what you needed from the administrator? I never finished my own debriefing from this morning, and there is a great deal of material to go over so we should probably get to someplace secure before..."
"Saber, did you know my father?" Shirou asked, blinking in obvious confusion.
Saber's eyes widened. "Oh. Well."
Shinji walked down the hall, heading for the stairs, and Rider did what she usually did when she was with Shinji: follow him very closely and stare very intently at the back of his neck.
She couldn't see, of course; the band across her eyes was not cosmetic, and it locked down her sight in addition to its other functions. This mattered little: she was, of course, superhuman, and as such her other senses were superhumanly sharp across the board. She could have, had her Master requested such, told him exactly how many students were currently in the hall with them, what gender each was, and what they were planning to have for lunch that day.
She was not going to do this, of course, because she despised Shinji in every way. The boy was, in his own way, perhaps even worse than the Zouken creature. As foul as the old monster was, at the least he was not quite so petty. Shinji was a childish, petulant, small-minded little lunatic obsessed with power and pleasures of the flesh, and had it not been for Sakura's incomprehensible affection for him, Rider would have taken dark glee in forcing him to watch as she killed him in lingering agony before eating his soul like a grape.
So instead, she followed him silently, her senses honed on the back of his neck, and thought about how easy it would be to just reach out and snap it.
"Things are finally looking up, Rider," Shinji said with an edge of mania in his voice as he turned into an empty stairwell and started up toward the roof. "I was worried. I admit I was worried. Even when I got you back, that... that giant thing! You were clearly no match for it. But Tohsaka... oh, Tohsaka! Her Servant cut it. Fought it! But she must know she can't win on her own either. If we can get her on our side, though, the two of us together! I'm the logical choice for a partner. We go to the same school, she knows me. She can't trust Emiya, she can't trust anyone, so she goes for what she knows. You see, Rider, that's the way you get a wild-hearted bitch like that to see reason. You get her desperate. Get a girl desperate enough to save her own skin, and she'll throw herself at your feet every time..."
So easy. It would break like a twig, Rider thought. Then, out loud, she whispered, "Do not discount me, Master. In a conventional battle with Berserker I am outmatched, but I have yet to use my Noble Phantasm. If I bring that power to bear..."
"Then you should have done it instead of whining about it!" Shinji snarled. "Now keep your mouth shut. I won't have Tohsaka thinking I can't control my own slave."
He could have said 'Servant,' Rider knew. It would have been less demeaning. But she was hardly shocked by Shinji attempting to make her feel controlled despite his absolute inability to do so without Rider's own consent. Still, she fell obediently silent. The boy had a crazed edge to his behavior since he had reclaimed the false Command Seal that let him act as her Master, and pushing him too far might well have led to further abuse heaped on Sakura, and if that got too intense, Rider would have to ignore her oath to the girl long enough to tear Shinji's lungs out. Sakura would be (for some reason) devastated by this, and might well break her contract with Rider in response. She couldn't have that.
Shinji smiled like a shark, and said, "All right. Show time."
He was more correct than he knew.
Shinji was not a Magus. He tried to be one, but above and beyond lacking the talent he didn't really understand all that it entailed; the pain, the sacrifice of both emotional and physical well-being, the endless hours of study and isolation for a thankless existence. He did, however, know the basics. Among them, that magic was to be kept absolutely secret from the mundane world. No Master in the Holy Grail War, he knew... he knew!... would start a battle in the middle of the day, at a public location like the school. Not unless they had some way to be certain there were no witnesses, such as his own plans for the Bloodfort Rider generated.
It hadn't really occurred to him, because respect for another's intellect was not something he had an excessive amount of, that Rin Tohsaka definitely knew that he knew this.
And it had also not occurred to him that Rin was the sort to play just a tiny bit fast and loose with the 'no witnesses' rule.
She didn't see any witnesses on the roof. That was good enough for her.
Shinji opened the door, and stepped out. She smiled at him, her grin promising much that made his skin tingle. And then she snapped her fingers and said, "Illuminierung," the trigger word for the tiny glyph she had inscribed on the roof earlier that morning, after sneaking into school at five AM to have some alone time. The glyph exploded silently, letting off a wave of light that outshone the sun by an several orders of magnitude. Rin had looked away and closed her eyes before it went off, as she had known it was coming.
Shinji, however, had issues.
"Gaaaaah!" he screamed, his eyes clamping shut just a second too late, the searing white light burning into them. He clapped his hands over his eyes, twisting around to try to get back to the stairs, only to slam into the side of the door and end up grasping blindly at his newly bleeding nose.
Rider, of course, had no problems with this. But unfortunately for Rin, she also had no problem with something as simple as a flash bomb. Her blindfold may have been an annoyance in some ways, but in others it offered her an edge... ploys to blind were meaningless. It was a shame, the Tohsaka girl seemed amusing. But Shinji had to be defended, for Sakura's sake. And without a proper Master, Rider had to admit that devouring the mana of a talented young magus did sound good. Like water after being in the desert for a month...
She leaped past Shinji, materializing as she did and crossing the space of the roof to Rin in an eyeblink... and just barely avoided having her head taken off by the first arrow, spinning to swat it aside and flipping backwards to avoid the next five that came half a breath behind it.
Archer. Of course.
Rider wove between the streaks of silver, admiring despite herself the man's accuracy. Rin had burst into a sprint for Shinji as soon as Rider's first charge had been repelled, leaving her between him and the the Servant, and yet Archer managed to keep up suppressing fire on Rider while somehow missing his Master with every shot. She would have sworn some of the arrows were curving around the young Magus.
Rider sighed. She really had not wanted to do this, but she was being pushed back through sheer volume of arrows, and the Tohsaka magus was probably going to kill Shinji. Rider had no moral problem with this, but she found herself in the unenviable position of making sure that didn't happen. She reached up, going for the visor, preparing to show her eyes...
She something made a 'clink' sound beneath her legs. She looked down, seeing the gem that Rin had thrown as she ran, most likely trusting Archer's arrows to control the battlefield enough that Rider would be where it landed.
Rider almost smiled. Clever brat, she thought, just before the small stone exploded in a gale that sent her flying...
Shinji blinked, dark spots still filling his eyes, though the sheer rage was driving them out and replacing them with red quickly enough. Had he been wiser, he would have thrown himself backwards, rolled down the stairs. As long as he took care to protect his head and neck, he wouldn't have taken any serious wounds, and students below, despite the bustle of lunch hour, had noticed some of the noise above them. A boy falling down the stairs and screaming for help would have ended the fight then and there, cutting off Rin's advantage.
Shinji was not that wise. He fumbled blindly in his coat pocket, and pulled out the Tome of the False Attendant, flickers of black energy already leaping from the runes on it. He blinked once more to clear his eyes and aim...
Just in time to see his first clear sight since the trap-glyph went off. The heel of Rin's hand about to slam into the bridge of his nose.
His head snapped back, pain and shock replacing anger as the darkness behind his eyes was replaced by a flash of white. A hand like iron clamped onto his wrist and twisted...
The book...! Shinji thought through the haze of madness and agony that had become his world. The Tome, his treasure, his escape from mediocrity, slipped from his fingers...
His vision, still blurry, cleared just enough to see the absolutely malicious grin on Rin Tohsaka's face. A malevolence he had never seen in her before, more snarl than smile, but still showing an obvious joy, and that was when he knew. He didn't know how she knew, or why she cared, but somehow the instinct just clicked and he could see Sakura reflected in those glittering, furious eyes...
"Help!" Rin screamed, injecting false terror into her voice. "Matou-kun fell down the stairs and hit his head!"
And then she spun, pulling his arm over her shoulder, and threw him.
Rin picked up the book, ran toward the edge of the roof leading to the empty field behind the school, and jumped. "Archer, handle the landing, please," she said coolly as she fell, and true to form, her Servant's arms wrapped around her and carried her safely to the ground. She hadn't stopped to see if Shinji was alive, but it didn't really matter. The people would be too worried about his injury to wonder who had screamed for help, and even if he was coherent enough to talk, he could hardly explain what had happened without risking an Association combat Magus coming for his head. Even if he survived, he was neutralized as a threat for the foreseeable future.
"Rider will be back soon. Did it w-" he began.
"Hush, I need to concentrate," Rin said, the Tohsaka crest blowing on her arm. The sigil on the front of the book began to glow in sympathy, going from black to bright green. Rin screamed and fell to her knees as all her nerve endings lit up with agony, like her blood had been replaced with molten lead...
Archer cursed. "Rin, put the book down! We'll burn it, that's good enough for n-"
"No!" Rin shrieked, blue-green light continuing to flow from her crest into the book clamped into her hand. "It's working, I know it's..."
Rider leaped over the top of the school, and landed in the dirt next to them, a ring of dust kicking up around her. Archer stepped between them, Kanshou and Bakuya materializing in his hands. Rin fell forward, collapsing atop the small tome, her skin pale and clammy, her breath coming in short, pained gasps. The crest on her arm went dull and vanished back into invisibility beneath her sweater.
"You sure you want to do this, Rider?" Archer growled, making sure his body offered no easy shot at the prone Rin.
"I don't know," Rider replied softly. "Would you like me to, Master?"
Archer's eyes widened, and he turned his gaze to Rin. She looked small, and pale, and impossibly exhausted.
But she looked up at him, and smiled. "We win," she whispered hoarsely, grabbing on to Archer to drag herself shakily to her feet.
"The Holy Grail War. Archer... we win."
Author's Note: I'm sure that I butchered some of Nasu's insane magic laws in this chapter. Please don't bother telling me about them just yet. I wrote the last five pages of this in one sitting because hurting Shinji always cheers me up, and now I am going to relax.
Besides I think by this point we all know the only reason he even makes those rules is so he can have someone break them later to make them look more badass. So, y'know... might as well just break them preemptively.
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