Chapter Twenty-three: Boy Meets Girl
Saber and Shirou walked slowly, heading in the direction that Archer had vanished. Both were exhausted and in a considerable amount of pain, but Saber knew that was not the reason for the oppressive silence that followed them.
She looked down at her armor and dress, already beginning to repair themselves from her mana. The breastplate and gauntlets were the same mirrored silver they always were, but the gown beneath them had shifted, for no reason she could explain, from its usual blue to a deep black. The color in the runes on her sword had likewise stayed the black it had shifted during the battle against Berserker, and she knew nothing good could come of this. Excalibur was a weapon forged outside of the world, in the eternal realm of the faeries. While this made it a great weapon, anyone who knew anything about faeries knew that this did not necessarily make it a good weapon. Was it possible the holy blade had somehow been altered by the curse of the Shadow coming in contact with her?
Or, more distressingly, was Excalibur changed because the one being 'altered' was Saber?
She did not approve of the implication, but the power she had used against Berserker, and the odd case of her outfit… these things could have no other explanation she could think of. And she could feel something wrong, a core of coldness within, where her Prana supply was meant to be. She could not call it outright evil; without it, she would have faded away into nothingness by now, and it had come to her aid when she had needed it to protect Shirou. But if it was truly derived from the Shadow (And what else could it be?), she could hardly call it good, either. Particularly given the fact that she could hardly deny it altered her personality along with enhancing her power. And…
From nothingness, Archer appeared, landing in front of them as silently as a cat. "Come," he said. "Rin and Ilya are this way. I believe we need to talk."
Shirou turned to look at Saber briefly, and she felt a certain pain at the concern in his eyes. He was not sure he could trust her, and that was difficult to argue with; she doubted she could trust herself. But still… it hurt. More than she would have expected.
Shirou turned from her, and nodded at Archer. "Yes. Yes, I think we do."
The worms in the pit beneath Matou Manor hissed, echoing the fury that Zouken felt roiling through him.
"Correct me if I am wrong," he said to Caster, the calmness in his tone doing little to disguise the rage in his black eyes, "but it seems to me that this night's endeavors have been, in sum, absolutely worthless."
"Appearances can be deceiving," Caster murmured, looking down at the worms with distaste. They were of no danger to her, of course, but the magic behind them was quite dark, vile, bloody stuff, even by her standards. And more to the point, it was also just kind of gross. Caster might well have subsisted on the devoured souls of the innocent, but at least she wasn't quite so slimy about it.
"Then I would consider myself quite deceived. Assassin has been destroyed, and given the nature of the incomplete product and how oddly it has been behaving, this leaves Lancer our only piece on the chessboard that is completely reliable. A status somewhat damaged by the fact he is not reliable!" Zouken snapped. "In addition, not only did we fail to claim Berserker, but it has been taken in by the Einzbern Grail, rather than ours! The power of the Servants is divided between the Grails, three to one. The situation can still be salvaged, but if the young Einzbern girl takes any more, powering the Great Grail may become literally impossible, and all of this will be for nothing!"
Caster fought the urge to smile. He didn't know, then. He had not seen the changes in Saber, the darkness taking root. Caster herself did not fully understand it; perhaps one of the curses that made up the projection of the Shadow had remained within her, growing and spreading. Or perhaps even the touch of such profound darkness had been enough to awaken some hidden, inner darkness in the pure silver knight… yes, Caster found that image far more interesting, the release of Saber's inner passions and deep-seated bitterness, tarnishing and freeing the lovely young thing all at once. Either way, it promised to be a very interesting development, yes, and one she felt no need to share with her 'associate.'
Instead, she drew on a darker and annoying thought that had been plaguing her, and narrowed her eyes. "I am not your Servant, wretched thing. Do not think you can speak to me as if I am. And in any event, you should perhaps recall that you are the one who allowed Sakura to be taken from your home, and Rider subverted against us!"
Zouken stopped to look at her, blinking a few times… before slowly smiling. "Ah, yes. I had forgotten about that. At least some of the news is good."
Caster's jaw dropped. "Good news?!"
Zouken chuckled softly, a sound with absolutely no joy in it. "Quite, quite! My dear, sometimes I feel that you do not understand Sakura's nature at all. The location of her body is of no consequence, as it hardly alters my control of her heart. I can bring her back to this place whenever I wish. Rather, this will be a helpful change for her. She has been 'saved' and taken in by a kindly new ally, and when I again reclaim her, the hope and joy this has wrought will be a poison in her soul. So indeed, consider this not a setback, but rather once again improving a product that was already nearly perfect."
Caster fought the urge to burn the hideous little troll down to ash where he stood, knowing it would be a waste of time. "So you say," she growled. "However, some of us have more immediate concerns, and as such I must note that your original complaints were largely accurate. At the current moment, our battle strength is a bit underdeveloped. The Shadow itself has grown more powerful with the devouring of Assassin, but Lancer clearly cannot be relied on and…"
"You yourself are a weakling, who has been defeated by other Servants time and again when she sought battle?" Zouken asked with a small chuckle, enjoying the sight of Caster's obvious fury. "Worry not, worry not. The Caster class is meant to carve out a fortress and defend it, not fight the other Servants in the field. Now that we have reclaimed the Temple, you can at least play to your own strengths once again. And now that I have considered the matter somewhat…"
He looked down upon the pit, a place where even the worms had fled, and the writhing darkness within, and his smile grew cold. "Yes, I think there may be a way we can salvage something more from this night's fiasco." He tapped his cane twice on the stone floor, the sound ringing out unusually loud, overpowering even the chittering of the insects throughout the cellar. Caster watched, eyes wide, as the Shadow thrashed furiously, its tendrils whipping out, tearing gashes in the stone, and Caster winced as a lance of sudden pain flashed through her mind…
A white skull appeared in the dark pool, and her eyes widened. "Assassin…?" she murmured, unsure if she should be believing the evidence of her eyes, but hardly able to deny it. The Servant had been utterly destroyed, his heart pierced and his body broken into mana, and yet….
Zouken chuckled. "Yes, and no. A facsimile only, a corpse doll with no mind or will. A complex puppet to create, and of far less value than a true Servant, but it serves to recoup some of this nights losses in a way."
And indeed, the thing that crawled out of the pool seemed to bear this explanation out. In form, it was Assassin, but it moved without the Servant's efficiency or insectile grace, more like a marionette on strings than the monstrous agility Assassin had shown. More tellingly, though, while Assassin stood in front, freely visible, she could feel no vitality at all. Just a bizarre emptiness, like the echo of a Servant's power after the life behind it had already faded away.
Caster fought the urge to shudder at the skin-crawling sensation that ran through her. True, she bore no love for Assassin due to his role in Souchiro's death, and had truly been quite cheered to learn of his own horrible fate. But that did not change that the man had been a Heroic Spirit, a being of myth and legend. Even if she had hated him, she had at least had a modicum of respect for his abilities and intellect. To simply… prop up his corpse and use it as a puppet like this seemed somehow profane, even by her standards.
Something horrible came to her mind. "The first Servant you targeted," she whispered, "was me. If you had succeeded…"
Zouken's smile told her all she needed to know on that front. Truthfully, it was a blessing… it was good to know beyond a doubt that even if he had never touched Souichirou or Sakura, she would still find ample reasons to hate him. Though, as loathsome as it was, she could hardly argue with the fact it might be useful to have this…thing… under their power, or…
She stopped in mid-thought as an idea struck her. She raised a hand and pressed it against the desiccated flesh of the corpse puppet. There was a power thrumming inside it, dead as it was, and it wasn't as though she didn't have access to quite a lot of mana at the moment. And her Temple was fully set up, a workshop in which she could create oh so many wonders, if she had only the time and interest…
She smiled like a satisfied cat. "An interesting idea," she said, "but if you will permit me to access these materials and a day or so in my workshop, I may have a better one."
The old mage arched an eyebrow. "And I am to trust you with such a priceless doll? I cannot reanimate another Servant so without months of preparation."
Caster's smile grew, and there was nothing pleasant in it at all. "Oh, trust me. When you see what I have planned, you'll be very happy you did."
Shirou stepped into Tohsaka manor's dining chamber with Archer and Saber to find Rin already there, sitting at the long dining table sipping a cup of tea. She was a shade too pale to be healthy, and he saw what looked like dried blood on her ears, but she was at least conscious again. "Emiya," she said, inclining her head to them. "Sorry about all this. I know you'd probably rather be at your home, but the boundary field here is more solid. Between that and our combined Servants, it makes for a better fortress at the moment."
Shirou sighed. "That's fine. I can't stay long, but until I know what's going on, I…" he stopped, blinking in confusion, before saying, "Wait. Where's Ilya?"
Rin rolled her eyes. "The little brat? She's sleeping, and don't think I'm not happy about it. The last thing I need after I finished bleeding out my ears is her throwing her insults into them."
Shirou blinked in open confusion. "How do you know Ilya? I know that you're in charge of magic in Fuyuki, but I didn't think you kept track of tourists visiting their families."
Rin blinked right back, before tilting her head to one side. "I… that… what?"
"Ilya. She's in Japan visiting relatives. I was shocked to see her out wandering tonight, but she has a bad habit of it, so…"
Rin's jaw dropped. "You… you don't know."
"I don't know what?"
"She… she was in your house, you idiot! She's saved your life at least three times, she… you didn't sense it at all?!" Rin snapped in disbelief. Archer, who had faded to spirit form after they had arrived at the house, to preserve Rin's mana, could be heard chuckling in barely disguised glee at Shirou's discomfort. Rin would have told him to stop being a dick, but she frankly couldn't blame him for this one. It was just… it was beyond belief. He couldn't be that clueless. "Saber was right there! In the room! She didn't tell you?!"
Shirou's confused expression got even more uncertain as he turned behind him to face Saber, who had the good graces to stop being worried about her own issues and start being extremely embarrassed about the fact a girl half her size and roughly one-billionth her effective fighting strength had somehow managed to strong-arm her into this deeply uncomfortable situation. "I… Master, it was not so much… that is to say, she was very persuasive, and… well, it seemed to be for your benefit, so…"
Archer's laugh rang through the old house once again, and Shirou fought the urge to start punching the air randomly in hopes he somehow hit the invisible Servant. He settled for saying, in as patient a tone as he could manage, "I am starting to feel like I'm the only one in the room who has no idea what the conversation is about. So will someone please, please explain this to me?"
Rin rubbed a hand to her aching forehead, her tone indicating she was in literal pain from having to explain something so mind-bogglingly obvious. "'Ilya,' as you so cheerfully keep referring to her. Is Ilyasviel von Einzbern. Of the Einzbern clan. And, until very recently, the Master of Berserker."
Shirou was silent for a long, long, time. Nearly minutes of straight silence without any sound at all, not even breathing as far as Rin could tell. Finally, after she started to wonder if she had maybe just rendered him catatonic, he finally spoke. And it was possibly the last thing she had expected to hear:
"Oh," he said.
That was it. Just 'oh'. Not 'oh, how could she have hidden this from me, her ally?!' or 'oh, Rin, you fool, I already knew that, I was playing dumb to throw you off balance' or even 'oh, God, I am so, so stupid for not picking up on this earlier. Just 'oh.'
"… And?" Rin asked, finally.
"Can I talk to her?" Shirou asked, after a few seconds of thought. "It's just that she'll be scared after everything that's happened, and it might help to see a friendly face."
Archer's laughter actually got louder at the expression on Rin's face.
Ilyasviel woke up, and almost immediately wished she had not.
First, and foremost, her fuzzy mind immediately latched on to the fact that the bedding was hard, cheap, and scratchy. Say what you would about Einzbern manor, the beds were glorious. This particular room, wherever it was, screamed of a cheapskate who could not be bothered to properly appoint her (and Ilya's intuition told her it was a her) guest room. Possibly because she was a barbarian who had no guests.
And then the events of the night came back to her, and the bedding was the least of her worries. Squeaking in dismay, she threw off the covers and screamed, "Shirou!" Oh no. Oh no, he had seen her, he had seen her in the War, and Caster had been there, and he knew, he had to know, and… Oh God. He had been hurt. Was he okay? Berserker wouldn't have saved him if she wasn't there to command him, and Saber had been nowhere to be seen, and…
She turned her mind inward, and felt along the channels of her magic circuits for her Command Seals. And just as she feared, they were cold and empty. The seals themselves were still there, but… but…
Tears ran down her cheeks freely, as she said, softly, "Berserker, come to me."
Nothing happened, of course.
Louder, she snapped, "Berserker, by the Command Seal, I order you to attend me!" Again, she was met only by silence, and the chill feeling in the pit of her stomach grew deeper, into something sharp and terrible as grief mingled with the existing fear despite her.
"Berserker…" she said, a sob entering her voice unbidden. This was ridiculous. Berserker was not her friend, he was her tool. A weapon in her hand, nothing more. To be upset by the loss of such a potent tool was normal enough, but tears? Grandpapa would be disgusted by this display of weakness. And yet somehow, they just wouldn't stop. "P-please. I… please don't be gone. Please. You're the only one I can… please, please just let me see you, okay? Please…please, Berserker, please…"
Nothing. Not so much as a whisper.
He was gone. Her Heracles, her invincible guardian… the last anchor she had in this chaotic mess of a Grail War, and he was gone. She shuddered helplessly, tears welling up in her eyes unbidden, and dammit all she shouldn't be feeling like this but she couldn't help it anymore, she just felt so lost, and so alone, and…
A hand touched her shoulder gently, making her jump in surprise; she hadn't heard the door open. Horror running down her spine, she looked up, knowing, just knowing who it would be, but begging whatever God might be listening that it wouldn't be him.
She looked up at Shirou, bolstering herself for his reaction. He had to know, now, and he had to be… had to…
He looked down on her, furious at her deception, his face twisted in a snarl. He would never trust her again.
He looked down on her, tears in his eyes, his heart broken. He demanded she leave, that he could not bear to see her.
He looked down on her, his eyes the cold, empty pits of darkness; the eyes of a magus. He lifted the knife, and his face showed no emotion at all.
He looked down on her. And he smiled.
"So. Ilyasviel von Einzbern, huh?" he asked, his tone shocking in its mildness. "I'm glad you're okay. Or… should I say 'nice to meet you'?"
For a brief moment, Ilya's sadness and fear and pain were blown away by sheer, unadulterated confusion. "I… that… what?"
"You probably should have told me earlier, mind you. It would have been really helpful for a lot of reasons, and I think maybe it would have saved me from getting in trouble with Saber a few times," he continued, still smiling warmly. "But I can understand why you would want to keep your family secret. It must have been really scary for you, all alone in a new city, and I guess… well. I know that the Einzberns and the Emiyas have some bad blood."
Ilya blinked. "I… that's… you're not mad? At all?"
Shirou's eyebrows shot up in open shock. "Why would I be mad?"
"Because I lied to you! I… kept secrets, and ran around behind your back, and I made Saber do silly things with me and followed you around in bushes and…"
"Saber too?" Shirou muttered in annoyance. "Am I the only one who didn't know?"
"… and I didn't tell you everything, and I… I lied! And I knew it was wrong, but I was so scared you'd push me away if I told you who I really was, and I liked you, I really liked you, you were nicer than anyone I've ever met and you treated me like I was special, and…"
"Ilya," Shirou said, his voice calm but firm. "I just told you that I understand why you were worried. So why are you so… well. Frantic? It's fine."
"But it shouldn't be fine! You should be angry!" Ilya snapped.
"Do you want me to be angry at you?"
"… … … Well. No. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be! People are supposed to have emotions, Shirou!" Ilya said firmly, a blush coloring her cheeks as she realized she had kinda backed herself into a mildly stupid corner. But still, a lady never retreated from an argument. Nobility was entitled to win these things, after all.
"Well," Shirou said, his smile growing a tiny bit teasing. "I couldn't help but notice that you probably could have killed me by now, if you meant me harm. So I confess, that probably defused a lot of any anger I might have had." He tousled her hair affectionately. "Besides, I like you too. That helps."
Ilya blinked, tears welling up in her eyes once more from a combination of relief and something that wasn't entirely unlike tiny, aristocratic fury. "You… you… you… you are such a peasant!"
"… Did I do something wrong?" Shirou asked in genuine confusion.
"Yes! You're too… too nice!"
"I thought you liked that I was nice."
"Yes, but there have to be limits! This is a Holy Grail War! If you're too nice to everyone, then you're going to get hurt, and then what will happen?!" Ilya snarled.
"… But I'm not being nice to everyone. I'm being nice to you," Shirou said in confusion. "Unless I shouldn't be nice to you?"
"… … … Stop doing that."
"Stop doing what?"
"Confusing me!" Ilya snapped. "I… you always do this! You never react like you should, and instead you're all creepily nice and ruin my careful planning!"
"You never act like a person!" Ilya berated him. "You shouldn't be so nice all the time, you should show a little selfishness once in awhile! Like… like… 'Bwahahahahaha!'" she laughed, apparently in what was meant to be an Evil Shirou impression. "'Ilya, you have deceived me, and must pay for your crimes by becoming my personal toy! Bwahahahaha!' Something like that. That's how people are Shirou, even the nice ones can't be nice all the time! It's weird."
Shirou was torn between the urge to laugh at the ridiculous display, and the urge to blush furiously at the fact a small child had just used a term like 'personal toy' in what seemed uncomfortably close to a very different meaning from 'teddy bear.' "First of all. You seem pretty fond of me. Or at least, you kept coming back to see me when you knew you shouldn't."
"… That's unrelated to my point."
"Second of all," Shirou said flatly, "you've had a rough time of it, Ilya. I know that. I can only imagine how hard this has all been for you, all alone in a strange land. I don't want to take anything from you. I want to support you, and protect you as much as I can. So don't expect me to do anything other than that, understand?"
Ilya looked up at him, her expression carefully blank in what she hoped was a disapproving manner… but in the end, the warmth inside won out, and she smiled at her knight in shining armor. "You're lucky that you're cute, you big dummy," she murmured affectionately, leaning in to hug him as best she could, enjoying the warmth of him, the sound of his heart beating against her ear.
He chuckled and stroked her head. "You know, you should be careful about saying things like that."
"Things like 'personal toy' and calling me 'cute' and stuff. That isn't really appropriate for a ten year old."
Ilya giggled, nuzzling tighter. "Not ten, dummy," she said, her tone fond and warm. She couldn't help it, he just made her feel happy to be around.
"Oh, sorry. Eleven, I guess? Couldn't be more than twelve," Shirou guessed. "Whatever, I guess it's the principle of the thing, really. Little kids shouldn't be talking about stuff like that."
Ilya was silent for a few long seconds… before she began to giggle helplessly. "O-oh! Oh, you poor... oh, my, Kiritsugu didn't tell you anything, did he?" She patted his cheek fondly, smiling up at him. "You're so cute and dumb."
"… I feel like I missed something."
Ilya giggled again, clutching to Shirou helplessly, her tears ones of mirth this time. "Oh… oh Shirou! Heeheeheeheehee! You really are just like a helpless little baby bird. Oh, nobody has told you anything at all! Heeheeheeheehee!"
Shirou's expression darkened slightly. "And whose fault is that…?"
"Probably Rin's, she seems unpleasant," Ilya said without a touch of sarcasm in her voice.
Shirou sighed. He had a funny feeling that while some of the time he had spent with Ilya had been an act, the majority of it, particularly how damn off-putting she could be, was all genuine. "Ilya," he said as calmly as he possibly could. "I would like you. To tell me. What I do not know about this situation."
Ilya pondered things. "I'm not sure we have time to go through all of it. You seem pretty ignorant. I mean, it's okay, because usually it's cute. I get to protect you and stuff! But…"
"Ilya! What! Is so! Funny!"
Ilya looked up at him, and smiled. "Did Saber ever tell you about the first time we met? Back when she was a Servant…"
"But she's a-"
"In the last War?"
Rin sighed. "Look, I get that he likes to play hero, but we really do have a lot to talk about. How long is he going to be in there playing dolls and throwing imaginary tea parties with little gi-"
"She's nineteen?!" Shirou screamed, running out of the room blushing furiously.
Rin blinked. "Is she?"
Saber blinked. "Is that relevant?"
"Yes it's relevant! She's… this is… I mean… she's nineteen! She's older than me!" Shirou snapped. "Don't you get what that means?!"
"… She's got some kind of dwarfism, apparently?" Rin asked.
"It means all those innocent things she did! Silly little kid stuff!" Shirou roared, his tone slipping further and further into blind panic. "They weren't innocent, Tohsaka! They were… they were… she was… those were dates!"
Rin blinked. "So. I know we have to get into information sharing and tactical plans. But I just need to make sure I have this down. The notion that this girl was the Master of Berserker and a member of a clan obsessed with winning a War that you are competing against her in does not bother you. But the fact she's a teenager does?"
"Well… I mean… yes!"
Rin took a few long, long seconds to ponder this, before sighing and saying, "Oh, wow, I may have picked the wrong ally…"
"Shirou…" Saber said, very slowly and softly. She had been oddly silent since she and Emiya had arrived, clearly distraught over something, but now she spoke and her voice had an odd edge to it. "I require clarification on your distress. Am I to understand, from this outburst, that you have been dating someone that you believed to be a small child?"
Silently, Rin turned to follow Saber's gaze and stare directly at him. Judging.
Shirou was not quite certain how to feel, then. On the one hand, he had an odd sense of relief because this reaction was…basically what he had come to expect from Saber. He had been dreading sitting down with her and finding out what had happened to her, and indeed if she even was still 'her' given her actions in the battle against Berserker and the odd changes to her wardrobe and sword, so this was a heartening revelation.
On the other hand, however, he also knew that if he said the wrong thing right now, any respect that she and Tohsaka might have had for him would die a violent death, possibly followed by him as the girls united to murder the apparent pervert they had uncovered. So he had to choose his words very, very, carefully.
"This was not," he began, "my fault."
"Yeah, I didn't tell him!" a girl's voice said chipperly behind him, and he felt his blood turn to ice as Ilya skipped up next to him and clamped onto his arm possessively, both the warmth and familiarity of the gesture having suddenly new meanings in his brain. "I was trying to keep everything secret, so I just let him think I was a little girl when we went on our dates. It was all my fault, really!"
"Oh. Oh, Ilya. That was… that was not the right kind of help," Shirou said in a dull, dead sort of voice.
"It's okay, Shirou. As a noble, it's my duty to protect my vassals. I'm sure you'll be just fine now!" Ilya said helpfully, still charmingly clamped onto his arm like a tiny vise. "I've shown your innocence, see?"
"Oh, you did something, Einzbern," Rin said, her tone not entirely unlike an animal's snarl. "You have certainly done something."
"Shirou," Saber said, very flatly. "We need to have words."
"Oh my, yes we do."
Shirou felt his mind shut down in anticipation of the horror that was about to engulf him. It was a pleasant feeling.
As one, Saber and Rin opened their mouths to have words with him.
Twenty-four soul-melting minutes later…
Ilya shuddered. "Um… Shirou, I don't think you should associate with these women anymore. They're clearly barbarians."
"Eep," Shirou said. "Eep."
"Well," Rin said, with a deep sigh of relief, as though she had let out something that had been pent up for many days without much needed release. "Now that we've got that out of the way, we can move on to bigger fish that very much need frying. Emiya, Saber. How much do you know about what's going on with Caster and that… thing?"
Saber sighed. "At the moment, only what we have already discussed and confirmed with our own eyes. The creature is a mass of curses, capable of both rapid, near limitless regeneration and extreme offensive power. To make matters worse, it also appears to exhibit some ability to corrupt Servants…"
"Like you?" Rin asked.
The room got very cold, and very silent, as Shirou and Saber both looked very carefully anywhere but at each other.
"Archer filled me in on what happened with Berserker while Emiya was having his little Barbie Dreamhouse Adventure," Rin said flatly. "And even if he hadn't, I would have to be a complete idiot not to notice the obvious. Saber, your dress has turned black. The aura of mana you exude is completely different than it was the last time I saw you. Stronger, but… fierce. Violent. Not like Caster or Lancer, maybe, but not like you were. So… what happened?"
Saber's troubled expression only grew darker, and she still kept her eyes very firmly aimed downward. "Nothing of consequence. I was exposed to a small portion of the creature. It appears to have left a mark. Not entirely unbelievable, truly… it is a creature of pure mana. As a Servant, it is possible that I absorbed some of that energy. Side effects appear to be quite minimal."
"I seriously doubt it," Archer said flatly, his voice echoing through the dining room. "I've had opportunity to examine the Shadow as up close as possible. It doesn't emanate mana, it absorbs it. Even the strongest magical weapon had trouble damaging it thanks to the drain effect. If you touched it, it should have drained you dry very quickly. Or drawn you in and turned you into one of those… things. Like Lancer and Caster. Not truly a Servant anymore."
Saber's eye twitched slightly. "You obviously did not touch it yourself, and therefore cannot be certain how it would react to a Servant with only brief exposure. I must have escaped before any major side-effects could take place."
"Or," he countered, "a piece of that thing is inside you now, and we have no idea what effect it might have on you. For all we know, you could be a ticking time bomb."
"I said I am fine!" Saber snarled.
The silence that filled the room as the ringing of her voice faded was, perhaps, deeper and more awkward than that last. And unfortunately, in this case, when Ilya chose to break it, she merely made the situation ten times worse.
In a soft, gentle voice, she repeated Rin's earlier words as if she couldn't completely wrap her mind around them. "What… 'happened with Berserker?'…"
Saber's eyes widened, the shame of her uncontrolled emotion banished in favor of a far more immediate dismay. "I… Lady Ilysaviel, I…"
"Don't bother apologizing, Saber. How you did it might be worrisome, but the fact it had to be done is beyond question," Rin said flatly. "Berserker had been taken by an enemy that is clearly targeting all the Servants and the Masters. You destroying him is probably the only reason any of us are still alive."
Shirou's face set itself in a disapproving frown as he glanced down at Ilya. "Tohsaka, I don't think you should…"
"She's not a little kid, Emiya," Rin snapped. "Stop treating her like one. She doesn't have a Servant anymore, so she is already of very limited value to our war effort. If she can't keep calm through something like this, we have no reason to keep her around. Letting useless people stay involved in a Grail War is nothing but a way to get them killed."
Ilya closed her eyes and took a deep breath, squeezing Shirou's hand once to cut off his angry retort before it could start. Truthfully, she had half-expected this outcome… looking inside, she could feel the essence of a Servant inside her. She had merely hoped…
She opened her eyes, forcing her features into a predatory smirk directed at Rin. Anger was safer than sadness, at a time like this, and so she aimed her attentions at by far her least favorite person in the room. "I suppose I can trust your judgment on this matter, Rin. You've had so much practice being an underdog, if you think that you would have died, you're probably right. And I'm sure you know all about useless people."
Rin matched her smirk, and inclined her head in approval; a fencer acknowledging a point. "Good to know you're still in there. Brat."
Ilya smiled, sweetly and with a tiny hint of venom. "I've no reason to leave just yet. I still have to protect Shirou, after all. Saber does her best, I'm sure, but since she has nobody reliable to back her up, I guess I have no choice but to stay a little bit longer."
"Well, then, reliable girl," Rin said, her tone indicating she and Ilya were best friends until Ilya turned her back and then out the knife would come, "maybe you should let us know what you've divined about what's going on."
Ilya shrugged. "Unfortunately, I'm… not totally sure. I know the basics. Zouken Makiri has constructed a second Holy Grail, in which the souls of Caster, Lancer, and Assassin have been caught. The soul of Berserker is safely in the true Grail constructed by my family, however, which suggests his model has a flaw; it can only catch the Servants it directly draws in through its extended energy."
Shirou looked down at her, his face suggesting he was still having trouble grasping that kind of talk coming out of her mouth. Big cute dummy. "Oh. Um. Well, that's… good."
"Not really," Ilya said sadly. "Because that flaw isn't as much of a flaw as I'd like, and it seems to have a much larger advantage."
"The blackened Servants," Rin murmured. "I had thought that was something Zouken was planning for from the beginning. If anyone would know how to break the rules of the War, it would be someone from one of the three families, right?"
"Yes and no. The thing is, Servants broken down into energy for the Holy Grail should simply be gone. No trace of their existence or humanity should remain at all. And yet, the Makiri Grail can either… preserve or recreate them, while still keeping their power as part of itself. You've noticed, right? The Shadow is getting stronger, even though technically the Servants it devours still exist. It doesn't make much sense," Ilya said.
"Could it be because they're… well. 'Alive' when they go in?" Shirou asked. "I mean, it sounds like the real Grail, Ilya's Grail…"
Ilya winced at that, and he didn't notice.
"… can only take a Servant into itself when they're killed in battle, or fade away after their Master dies. But this one is able to attack and absorb them while they're still alive," Shirou said. "And I guess… I don't know. Zouken must have added something to his Grail that makes it different from the real thing. I mean, he helped make the original system, and all…"
Rin's eyes widened. "What?!"
"… Didn't you know? I mean… I heard it from Kotomine. He said that this Zouken is the same one who founded the Matou clan and moved them to Japan in the first place, and he's been using some kind of magic to stay alive all these centuries. He isn't exactly the most trustworthy guy in the world, but I figured he had no reason to lie about something like this. He seems to really, really hate Zouken, so I figured anything he could share to hurt him, he would…"
Rin's eyes went from wide with shock to narrow with a wrath that Shirou would have felt intensely horrified of if it had been aimed at him. "Oh, sure, he's happy to share all kinds of knowledge, just not with me. That conniving little weasel! I should have known he was holding out on me. When I see him again I'm gonna shove that fake priest robe down his throat and pull it out his-"
She took a deep breath. "Right. Right. Sorry, Archer. This does change a lot. If it's true, then Zouken isn't just one of the three families, he's one of the people who put the Grail system together in the first place. He knows more about it than all of us put together, no wonder he's been able to keep a step ahead of us all this time." She sighed. "But I'm not sure what good this does us. Nobody can understand the Grail better than him, if this is true. Unless there's another centuries-old Magus who was in Fuyuki at the time wandering around?"
Ilya winced. Technically speaking, there was a small portion of her own memories, and Lord Zelretch in London, but she wasn't sure either one of those would be all that valuable at the moment. She had only sporadic and not at all reliable access to Justicia's memories, and Zelretch…well, one did not ask Zelretch for help with one's problems. It wasn't that he couldn't solve them, it was just that asking him to do so was the worst possible way to actually convince him to do so. In fact, he might make things worse just to be a jerk. Justicia had thought he was amusing, but her creators had most certainly not.
"It's… possible," Ilya said very carefully. "But I'm not sure. Zouken could make a Holy Grail by himself, if he had the right materials. I know that. But the Great Grail is a life of itself, something almost divine. It has its own will, its own sense of self. It's the consciousness that summons the Servants forth. Breaking a Servant down into energy and giving them physical form again from within a Holy Grail… that sounds like something the Great Grail would be needed to do."
Rin raised an eyebrow. "If the Great Grail is on Zouken's side, then haven't we already lost? Wouldn't it just give him what he wants in the end anyway?"
Ilya shook her head. "The Great Grail is neutral. It has a will, technically, but it's more like a computer, programmed for specific functions. In this case, it serves the winner of the War, and nobody else. Once a magus claims the Holy Grail, the energy within will activate the Great Grail and allow their wish to come true…or to reach the Root, if used as inten-"
A chill ran down her spine. Unbidden, the thought, But what if something inside it has another agenda?
"You've thought of a possibility," Rin said into the sudden silence. This wasn't a question; Ilya looked as though she'd seen a ghost.
Ilya rolled her eyes, trying very poorly to hide her obvious discomfort as she tried to reconcile this painful gut feeling with what she hoped was not happening. "Rin. I can't be sharing Einzbern family secrets with you like that unless I haven't got any other choice. Particularly since we both know you won't be giving me anything in return."
"Other than letting you take shelter in my house?"
"Which is really more of a punishment."
"Oh you little…"
"Rin. Focus." Archer said again.
Rin sighed. "Emiya. Use her creepy obsession with you to worm information out of her, please?"
Shirou winced. "Can you phrase that differently, please?"
"Lady Ilyasviel," Saber interjected, softly. "I understand the desire to keep your family's secrets. But… above all else, above even our own wishes and desires. Zouken Matou must not gain control of the Holy Grail. No goal that abomination possesses could possibly lead this world to anything other than disaster."
Ilya looked over at the King of Knights, coolly assessing the woman. She was clearly under outside influence, the darkness was wafting off her like a foul odor. And on a more personal level… she had killed Berserker. Yes, she might have had a good reason, and yes she had probably saved Ilya's own life by doing so. But…
Saber, sensing her hesitation, walked across the room and fell to one knee before her. "Lady Einzbern. I have done you a great wrong, and cost you your protector. If you seek vengeance upon me, I understand. If I request Shirou use a Command Seal to destroy me, will you agree to tell him and Rin the information they seek?"
It was not entirely certain, just from looking, whose jaw dropped hardest at this statement.
"What?!" Ilya squeaked.
"Saber, are you insane?! You are a million times more useful to our cause than that crazy little brat!" Rin snarled.
"No! Nobody is dying! Ilya, I understand if you need to keep your family's secrets, but that doesn't mean I'm willing to let Saber just-"
"I believe," Saber said very calmly, "that this is my choice to make. As you yourselves have noted, it is very possible I am… compromised. If a sacrifice is required to earn Ilyasviel's trust, then I should be the one to make it. It is possible that all of you may be safer without me, in any event."
With the same utter serenity, she drew her sword and pressed the edge against her throat. "My lady? If you swear to do everything in your power to help Shirou and Rin, I will do you this service. Will that be acceptable?"
"You… you… you…" Ilya stammered, tears welling up in her eyes for some reason she couldn't even fathom, "… You… idiot! How can you even say that?! How can you even think that?! That's… that's not repaying anything, that's… that's… crazy stupid talk!"
Saber blinked. "My lady? I was only acknowledging the possibility you might desire retrib-"
"Of course I'm not happy about Berserker, but that doesn't mean chopping your own head off will repay me you dummy!" Ilya snarled. "If you really want to repay me then… then… I don't know!"
Shirou smiled down at the two girls. "Take Berserker's place."
"… What?" Ilya and Saber asked in perfect unison, only making Shirou's smile grow wider. Honestly. Both small, both beautiful in an almost otherworldly way, both kind of… weird in the head. If he didn't know better, it wouldn't be unheard of to mistake them for sisters.
"Ilya. To make up for taking your Servant from you, Saber and I will take his place," Shirou said warmly, putting his hand on her shoulder. "And you don't have to do anything you truly feel uncomfortable with, but… if you would be willing to help us… really help us… that would be wonderful. Does that sound okay?"
Ilya blinked away tears once again, looking back and forth from the painfully serene face of Saber to the innocently smiling face of Shirou and back again.
Oh, this is cheating. They are such a pair of big, dumb, noble puppies.
"I… I… I…" she stammered out, before finally letting loose a helpless giggle and wiping a tear from her eye. "Oh, you two are the worst. Fine. I don't really care too much about the Glory of Einzbern anyway. And I suspect Grandpapa won't be having me back at home no matter what I do. I might as well tell you everything."
Saber smiled, and it was dazzling. "My thanks, Lady Ilyasviel. Know that I will guard you with my life from this moment on."
Shirou smiled, and it warmed her soul. "Thank you, Ilya. I really did mean it when I said you didn't have to, so this means a lot."
Rin sighed, and it was like nails on a chalkboard to Ilya's otherwise brightening mood. "Can we please share dark secrets of magic before I'm sick to my stomach?"
Ilya cast a glare that could have melted steel at the girl, but starting a fight now would only make her new Servants' lives harder (And yes, Shirou counted as a Servant. Ilya had unique definitions for these things). She sighed, sat down in an empty chair, and composed herself. "Not that it's any of your business, Rin, but I was just about to. Though, once I'm done, you might wish I hadn't. It's a touchy subject to the Einzberns, but… it's more than touchy to anyone who becomes a Master.
"Now. Let's talk about the devil."