Chapter Twenty-four: The Truth

(*)

It began with the house of Einzbern.

They were an ancient house, respected among the hallowed halls of the magi. Their power and wealth were exceptional, even among the ranks of their peers, and their bloodline was pure and potent going back as far back as history could be recorded. They mastered the magics of life, extending their existence beyond the realms of humanity and creating creatures of great power and wonder.

And so, it was almost to be expected when they broke that final rule, stepping into the realm of the gods. The pinnacle of their power over life and death, the True Sorcery known as Heaven's Feel. It was their greatest achievement, a creation that would leave the Einzbern clan's place in history as the greatest of all magus families.

And it was lost.

Such an event could not be accepted. The loss of that divine power could not be tolerated by any magus worthy of the name. And so the Einzberns gathered the remains, and they did the unthinkable: they enlisted the aid of their natural rivals, allowing other magi into the circle of their research. With the aid of the Makiri, and the spiritual land of the Tohsaka, the Einzberns were able to call into being a ritual which would allow the eventual re-creation of Heaven's Feel. The Holy Grail War was born, and all that remained was for the Einzbern clan to win it and reclaim their lost prize.

Unfortunately, while their knowledge was great, their skills in combat proved to be somewhat limited. Centuries passed, and with them a pair of Holy Grail Wars that brought the ancient clan nothing but defeat and humiliation. No path to the Root was created, no infinite knowledge was gifted onto any mage of the clan. Heaven's Feel remained frustratingly beyond the reach of its own creators, and the passing of the years caused a bitterness and fury to grow in their hearts.

They no longer cared about any sensible goal. They no longer cared about their own desires. To win the Holy Grail, to prove their own superiority, this unreasonable obsession took root in the heart of the clan and overwhelmed any thoughts of gain. And to this end, for the Third Holy Grail War, the Einzbern clan shattered the rules of the War that they themselves had created.

Altering the summoning ritual, they attempted to summon as their warrior not a hero, but an invincible demon. The dark god Angra Mainyu, the ultimate evil of Zoroastrianism, would come to their call, and through him they would claim victory. No spirit that had once been a human could hope to defeat an embodiment of ultimate sin, surely.

Or rather, that was the theory.

What came to their call was nothing like a god. Though it indeed went by the name Angra Mainyu, and though it was indeed a Heroic Spirit, it was hardly the invincible demon they had sought. A weakling among Heroes, barely more than human, a miserable thing that had become a legend only for its deeds in a single miserable village. A worthless insect who had become a 'hero' not for great deeds, but for taking onto himself the sins of his people and 'saving' them by being sacrificed as the embodiment of their sins. The Servant born from such a thing had no special skill or power, and was killed early in the War, once again denying the Einzbern their prize.

And from this, the nightmare began.

Though the being known as Angra Mainyu was not a demon, it was a thing of sin. It existed as the repository of man's darkest wish, the need for an ultimate evil to blame all of their misfortunes upon. A source for their woes, the knowledge that some greater power acted against them and their suffering was not the result of their own self-destructive, petty natures. And so the people had chosen a simple man, shamed and cursed him, called him the source of all evil and cast him down to cleanse themselves.

In the end, the spirit named Angra Mainyu represented nothing so much as a wish. A wish to assign a face and a name to All the Evils in This World.

And the Holy Grail could grant any wish.

Angra Mainyu died, and entered the Holy Grail as a Servant. And within the it, the wish for the heart of evil began to fester. Like a parasite, it spread through the whole of Grail system, corrupting and turning it. Though the Grail might be a source of unfathomable mana, it was also a thing of neutrality, with no morality of its own. It had no defense against the darkness seeping through it, and so it became a thing of darkness itself. No longer a tool to grant the wishes of others, no longer a door to knowledge and wisdom. A mass of endless curses that would consume and destroy any who called upon its power, flooding the world with madness.

And within it, the true form of that selfish wish, the dark god Angra Mainyu, lay in wait. Born from malice beyond imagination, a writhing being made of curses and thoughtless hate, it slept formlessly within the Grail twisted by its power.

Waiting to be born.

(*)

Saber, Rin, and Shirou sat in the dining room of the Tohsaka manor, staring at Ilya in silence.

They kind of just did that for a few minutes, though none of them really noticed the time passing, before Rin said, "Well. Damn."

"Ilyasviel, are you… are you certain?" Saber asked very softly, her tone one of despair so deep the room could have drowned in it.

Ilya arched an eyebrow. "I am an Einzbern, a direct descendant of the Grail's truest creator. Her power and memories flow through me, as they did through my mother before me. The deepest secrets of both its workings and the powers of the Clan Einzbern are at my disposal."

"So… so then you are…"

She reached up a hand to bop Saber on the nose. "Of course I'm certain, dummy."

Saber looked as though she was torn somewhere between laughing and crying as Ilya looked up at her with an expression that could graciously be called petulant annoyance. "You… lady Einzbern. You do not understand. As a Servant, to seek the Holy Grail is my entire purpose in the War. And now I have found out that it is not merely impossible, but to acquire it would end in nothing but disaster for the entire world. I… I…"

"I'd say you just had a lot of pressure taken off your shoulders, then," Archer's disembodied voice said mildly. "Victory no longer matters. Your wish was impossible from the very start, so you can stop worrying about if the Grail can grant it and focus on the matter at hand. Be happy, Saber. You're free."

Saber's entire body tensed. "If we did not have an alliance," she said, her tone barely above a whisper. "I would cut you down here and now."

"Archer, stop provoking her," Rin snapped. "She isn't the only one who's unhappy here. Unless you think I'm overjoyed to find out my family's greatest goal has an world-ending horror inside it trying to get out."

"My apologies, master," Archer said in a tone that indicated he wasn't actually apologizing. "I'm not very used to having allies, as you know. I'm not a people-person."

"I never would have noticed," Rin muttered. More loudly, she said, "Ilya…"

"Only my friends should call me Ilya, Rin," Ilya said. "But since you are a peasant, I guess it can't be helped."

"Ilyasviel," Rin said, stretching out each syllable as the expression on her face suggested she was starting to agree with her Servant on the nature of allies. "The Holy Grail. How exactly do we go about getting the devil… well. Out of it."

Ilya smirked. "Just kill all the Servants. It will consume the power of the completed Grail and emerge shortly after. Though at this point, the way this War is making it stir, even six might be enough, if someone makes a wish."

"You know what I mean, you little brat," Rin grumbled. "How do we kill it? Or at least… exorcise it?"

Ilya shrugged. "I don't know. Grandpapa never cared, honestly. He seems to think that destroying the world is a worthy price for winning the War." Shirou opened his mouth to protest, only to be cut off by Ilya saying irritably, "I just told you that he's obsessed. I don't understand why he thinks the way he thinks, I just know I've never been allowed to question him until now. I don't want the world to be destroyed. The world has you in it."

Rin coughed. "There's other people in the room, you realize."

"And pretending that I could possibly care about you isn't very attractive, Rin," Ilya said flatly. "I do like Saber, though. She's nice."

Rin sighed. "Well. At least we're all being honest. But if honesty is the policy, I'm forced to admit I don't really have a plan for this scenario. I mean, we're talking about Zouken Matou trying to, what, end the world? When he was just searching for the Root, that was one thing. I could wrap my mind around that. But why would even that loathsome old troll be trying to release some kind of demon god?"

"I doubt he is," Ilya said. "He created his own Grail, after all. He may think he has a way to beat the system."

"So if we destroy his Grail?" Shirou asked. "Will that solve things, or…?"

"Um, erm, that is to say, I don't know exactly if that will… I think we should not be too hasty on that front, and…" Ilya said, trying to skirt around the issue as best she could. It wasn't that she wasn't going to tell Shirou that she suspected the Makiri Grail might be literally one of the Makiri, and further the one he seemed to actually like. She was. She had decided to be honest with him, since discovering that he would basically forgive anything had taken a lot of the fear out of keeping things from him.

But in front of Rin was not the right place to have that discussion.

"Sorry to tell you this, Emiya, but we don't have much of an idea as to what his Grail might look like," Rin said. "And he's certain to make sure it's somewhere it can't easily be attacked, and defended by his magic as strongly as he can manage. I'm not saying it's a bad idea, we just might not be able to achieve it with the resources we have handy."

"Yes! Listen to Rin, she's smart," Ilya said.

Rin's eyes narrowed in immediate suspicion at the compliment.

"… In a dumb way."

Rin sighed. "Look. There isn't much we can do right now. We're all tired, and we just took a hit to our war potential literally minutes after our alliance came into existence. I think we can safely assume that Zouken and his creatures won't be coming again this evening, they took hits of their own and they seem to have some kind of a time limit. We should all try to get some sleep."

"I call Shirou's room!" Ilya cheered.

"What?!" Shirou squeaked.

"That will be acceptable. Berserker's death was my fault, and so protecting Lady Einzbern is my duty. It will be simpler if both of you are in the same room. Preferably if all three of us are in one large bed."

"No! Absolutely not! That is seriously not acceptable! In fact, none of this has been acceptable in any way! I have to insist that none of that happen! Tohsaka, I will need a room by myself," Shirou said, his tone indicating that this was literally needed for his continued survival.

"Well. You can work that out at your own house. You sure aren't sleeping here."

Ilya's eyes narrowed. "I never expected you to be so gauche, Rin. Have you no sense of hospitality at all? No understanding of noblesse oblige?"

Rin snorted. "Oh, so when you want me to give you something, suddenly I'm a noble?"

Ilya blinked. "What? No. I mean that I'm a noble, so you're obliged to give me everything I want. And I want a nice bedroom for the night. And breakfast in bed would be appreciated, I'm very tired."

"That isn't what noblesse oblige means, you—no. No. I'm not getting drawn into this with you," Rin said. "The fact of the matter is, that Shadow can destroy mana with a mere touch. We have to assume the boundary field around the manor isn't a defense, and that means the last thing we need is for it to engulf the mansion from the outside and kill us all in our sleep. We should probably avoid putting all our forces into one, easily attacked spot."

Shirou, his mind momentarily taken off of important matters of keeping the girls out of his bedroom by this question of tactics, blinked. "Well. I can see what you mean, but what happens if there is an attack? We'll be too spread out to work together."

"We'll meet up at sunset, tomorrow night… or, I guess it would be tonight, at this point," Rin said, looking at the clock and seeing the hands mockingly informing her it was nearly 4 AM. "Your place. From there, we'll work out a more extensive battle strategy, once we're all fresh enough to actually be able to think."

Ilya sighed. "Well, it's a bit barbaric of you, Rin, but I would like to see more of Shirou's house. Saber, gather my things, we're leaving."

"You have no things to gather, Ilyasviel."

"… Then can I have a piggyback ride?" Ilya asked. "I'm still pretty tired."

(*)

Rin leaned back in her chair after they were gone, rubbing her temples to fight off the headache.

She was woman enough to admit she was exhausted, mentally and physically. She was running on zero sleep from the battles last night, and… well, she wasn't about to admit it to Archer, but he wasn't entirely wrong when he told her that controlling both him and Rider was too much for her. It wasn't so bad when they both stayed immaterial, but as soon as either one entered combat, it was like nails on a chalkboard inside her brain. And when Rider had used her Noble Phantasm, she had felt like she was on the verge of death.

And then this.

It was strange, really. She hadn't even wanted the damn Grail. Just the chance to prove she was good enough to win it. So in that way, she and the Einzberns were actually fairly similar, and to her great surprise she found herself disgusted by that notion. Their goals were small, and meaningless, and utterly self-destructive. And what did that say about her goals? True, she was not actively seeking the empowerment of a dark god, and now that she knew about the thing, she would do everything in her power as the guardian of Fuyuki to make sure the thing never got to be 'born.'

But she had still been willing to fight, kill, or die for a motivation that was distressingly similar. So what did that say about her? And more importantly, what did her current regret for that path say about her suitability for the position of a magus; a position which often demanded a lack of the conscience that seemed to be flaring up now? She couldn't afford either guilt or regret as the heir of Tohsaka, and yet…

The door to the dining room squeaked open, and Sakura, still in her pajamas, peeked her head in. "Um… nee-san? I heard some people talking, so I wanted to know if you all wanted tea? Or some breakfast, maybe?"

…And yet, regrets do seem to be piling up, Rin thought, the exhaustion welling up in her even more. "What are you doing up? It's not even dawn yet."

"Well, I slept most of the day yesterday," Sakura said, blushing slightly. "And I did sleep most of the night too. And with you taking Rider, I don't have as much draining me, so…"

"I guess I can't blame you for being overly energetic, yeah," Rin admitted. "Sadly, the 'guests' have already headed out. I had to get them out of here… last thing I need is an Einzbern Master getting wind that a Matou is here, even if she doesn't have her Servant anymore."

Sakura didn't even bother to disguise her surprise. "An Einzbern master was here? And she lost her Servant, but you still let her leave?"

Rin arched an eyebrow. "Are you suggesting I'm the sort of heartless killer who would prey upon a defenseless girl?"

"Oh! U-um, no, I just… well, I mean to say it's just that you are a magus, and so… but if you don't really want to, I guess that you don't need to… or… if you… I mean…" Sakura stammered out.

Rin giggled, her falsely cold expression fleeing from her face to be replaced by a tired smile. "I was just teasing you. The fact of the matter is, I seem to have found myself in a very odd alliance thanks to you."

"To me…?"

"The girl is an ally of Emiya. And your demands stand: Shirou Emiya has to survive the Holy Grail War," Rin said with a shrug. "He doesn't want to win the Grail… and I don't think anyone should, anymore. But he's going to live if I have to drag his corpse off the battlefield myself and grow him a new heart right in his chest." For the second time, technically, but let's not bring that up now.

"Oh. Well… I guess I'm sorry, then?"

"A bargain is a bargain," Rin said. "It's inconvenient, but I'm not about to break my word just because something is harder than I expected." She arched an eyebrow once again. "Unless you thought I was going to turn on you the second it was convenient?"

"N-no! Of course I would never…!"

Rin giggled again, despite herself. "You know, if you can't spot when you're being teased, this is going to be a very long alliance for you."

Sakura pouted, her cheeks visibly flushing. "Well. It's hardly my fault if I'm not used to you having a sense of humor. In general, I'm more my life is mostly quiet and serious."

"Quiet and serious? You live with Shinji."

Sakura flinched. "Nii-san is… different at home. You don't really know him that well, nee-san. He's not as flamboyant as he acts in public."

"He's a self-centered, unfathomably prideful little monster, and I'll never understand why you didn't gut him like a carp years ago," Rin muttered with a sigh, sensing that the happy atmosphere had fled with the mentioning of Sakura's family. Stupid of me. Should have figured they would be a sore subject to her. "Anyway, I'm sorry. And I'm sorry we woke you up, because nobody is here but me now. You probably shouldn't go to school today, but there's a library in the west wing if you want to find a book to read, and… well, we don't have a TV, but if you want to go shopping or something, that should be all right. I'll have Rider follow you in astral form."

"Um…well, actually, I already finished making breakfast, so…" Sakura said, a small, embarrassed smile on her lips. "It's nothing fancy! You don't have to eat it if you're not hungry, but I thought maybe we could…"

Rin blinked in open shock. "You… you want to have breakfast with me?"

Sakura's embarrassed blush grew, though she was still smiling, the contrast making her look slightly goofy. "Well. I know it's a little weird, but if we're going to be living together for a while, I want to pull my weight. And, I mean, I know it's not something we're supposed to bring up, but we are sisters, so… if you don't want to, it's fine, but…"

Rin blinked a few more very confused times, before sighing in resignation and smiling softly. "Well. Technically it doesn't matter if we talk about it anymore. And you know, it doesn't sound like a bad idea."

"Oh. Oh!" Sakura said, apparently surprised that Rin was going along with her. "Well, it's all ready, I'll bring it in. I don't know my way around the kitchen here, so I stuck to simple dishes, but I think it will all taste good, and…"

"Sakura," Rin interrupted, "don't worry. Anything will be fine. I'm actually starving, so as long as there's plenty of it, everything is good. Though I'm also kind of exhausted, so… if I pass out in my toast, you're cleaning it up."

Sakura giggled, and Rin felt like for once that day, she'd done something right.

(*)

Shirou Emiya entered his home and tried very hard not to think about who was following him.

He was not (despite what Fuji-nee would call fairly overwhelming evidence to the contrary) a complete moron. He had mostly worked out that Ilya had something of a precocious crush on him, but he honestly hadn't really put much thought into it beyond trying to make sure he didn't appear to be taking advantage of her to the neighbors. She was a sweet kid and he liked spending time with her, and she would be going home to her own country long before she could get seriously attached and he had to push her back for her own good.

And then this had happened.

He was not precisely a romantic expert, but he knew pretty damn well that when a ten-year-old girl had a crush on you and hung off you, it was something to express eye-rolling amusement toward and just try not to encourage. When an eighteen year old girl did it, it meant she had her eyes on you and she was serious, and depending on how aggressive her personality was it very well might mean you were totally and irrevocably screwed.

"I'll want breakfast before I sleep, Shirou. I haven't eaten since dinner last night, and I'm famished," Ilya said, kicking off her shoes and stepping into the Emiya home as though she owned it. "Saber, could you show me to our room while Shirou cooks? I'd like to make some space in Shirou's closet for my clothes. Oh! That reminds me that I'll need to have Sella drop some of my outfits off, I can't just wear this all the time."

Yeah, he was screwed.

"Look, Ilya. I know that maybe I was sending off the wrong signals or… something. I didn't really understand a lot of what was going on, so I know it's my fault for not being clear. But I was really just being friendly, and…"

"S-so you don't like me…?" Ilya asked, her voice quivering as she looked down at her feet, unable to meet his gaze.

"What?! No, that's…"

"You want me to go? I understand… I lied to you, and I guess it's only natural that you would hate me after all I've done…" she continued, a quiet sob escaping her as she spoke. "Even after Saber said it was the safest thing, you just can't bear to have me around you."

"What?! No, I don't…"

"I'll… I'll just go. I can take care of myself, really. You don't have to feel bad…" she sniffed, slipping her shoes back on. "You couldn't be expected to let someone as awful as me sleep in the same house as you, much less the same room. It's only natural…"

"No! Ilya, you have to stay here, you wouldn't be safe travelling home right now!" he snapped, grabbing her shoulder and dropping to one knee to look her in the eye. "Look, the issue is that you're a girl and you can't sleep in the same room as me, that's all!"

She smirked up at him in triumph, all signs of tears immediately vanishing. "Hee hee, I knew it. You're shy. You are so adorable, Shirou."

"… What."

"Well, don't worry," she said, leaning in to peck him on the cheek, "I'm a lady. I know that these things have to be taken slowly. You only just worked out we were courting, after all!"

"Courting?!"Shirou squeaked in absolute terror, his face turning as red as his hair.

"Saber, I really would like to see my room," Ilya said cheerfully. "But I think maybe you and I should use the room next to Shirou's." She lowered her voice into a conspiratorial whisper. "He's still a bit childish. It's adorable, but it can be troublesome in some ways too."

"Quite so," Saber agreed without hesitation. Shirou had never really hated Saber until that moment. "Come, Ilyasviel. I shall direct you to your room, and will prepare a spare futon for you."

"A futon? One of those weird sleeping-bag things? Why not a real bed?" Ilya asked, following behind the Servant as she led the way. "Oh! That's right, grandpapa told me that Japanese people are uncivilized and sleep on the floor!"

"Will this be an issue? I must warn you that acquiring new bedding is not high on the list of combat priorities."

"No, no, it sounds exciting, actually. A bit like camping!" Ilya said. Then, just before she turned the corner, she looked back over her shoulder and flashed Shirou a brilliant smile, saying, "Oh, and Shirou, I wasn't joking about wanting breakfast!"

The two girls disappeared down the hallway leading toward the bedrooms, and Shirou just kind of watched them go in horrified silence.

"So," he said finally, after a few minutes of that, "I'm in a lot of trouble, then."

(*)

Rin's eyes fluttered open as the sun fell on her, and she stretched out in her bed and yawned. "Ugh. I'm more tired than I thought. I don't even remember falling asleep. I wonder if anyone would notice if I just spent another five or six hours in bed…?"

"Good morning, Nee-san!" Sakura said cheerfully as the door to the room swung open and she strode in with a tray of food and a glass of water. "Well, good afternoon would be more accurate, really. I heard you moving around, so I made some sandwiches for a light lunch, if you're hungry."

"Gah!" Rin said eloquently, jumping halfway out of her skin.

"O-oh, I'm sorry. Did I wake you up after all? I thought I heard you, but I guess I was wrong, and…"

"No, no, I was awake. I'm just not used to someone being here when I am," Rin said, waving off the apology. "You don't have to worry. And you don't have to keep making things. You're not the maid, you know? You're a guest."

"Oh, it's all right. I like helping," Sakura said with a small smile. "I help senpai with his housework all the time, and the cooking is my favorite part. I was thinking of something a little more filling, actually, but then I heard you muttering and I needed to get it together quickly."

"Heard me…" Rin began, her eyes widening as she asked, "Sakura, were you listening to me sleep?"

"Oh. Um. Well. Yes, but not in a creepy way!" Sakura stammered out, blushing furiously. "That is to say, well. You almost collapsed after breakfast, and I was worried, so after I dragged you upstairs and got you into your pajamas…"

"What?!"

"Well, your clothes were all dirty and covered in sweat, I couldn't just leave you in them," Sakura said, reasonably.

"I… well, yes, but…"

"And then there was nothing to do, really, and I wasn't tired enough to sleep, so I decided to fix things up a bit. I cleaned out most of the rooms downstairs, organized the library, go some more tea leaves from the little market down the street… and you really should shop there more often, they have wonderful deals… and when I got back I obviously checked in on you, which is when you were starting to mutter, and I thought you might be hungry, so…"

"I… I get the idea, yes," Rin said, her tone a little disbelieving. "I was just joking when I said you didn't have to be the maid, you know. I didn't think you were actually serious about moving into the position."

Sakura rolled her eyes. "Oh, hush you. I just like to be useful around the house, that's all. Particularly if I'm going to be staying here until the War is over."

"Well… I also wasn't joking about you being able to stay here as long as you want," Rin said. "I know you probably just think I was trying to appeal to you so I could keep Rider, but I actually don't mind."

"… I didn't think that," Sakura said softly. "But I guess I also don't think I should really be pinning my hopes on it, either. Things don't usually go smoothly."

"No, but…"

"Nee-san," Sakura said, softly but firmly, her smile sad. "Trust me. Things rarely go as well as we plan. Enjoy your lunch, I'll talk to you later."

Rin winced as the younger girl stepped out of the room. What is wrong with me? Lord knows she has enough reasons to assume I'm using her. Like one day of letting her stay in my house and… and make tea is going to change anything?

And besides, said a dark little voice underneath her surface thoughts, isn't using her exactly what you were planning to do? Maybe you didn't mean her any harm, but you don't really care about her either. She's not your sister, she's a tool you can use to increase your power, no different than that book you carry made from her Command Seal.

That's not true.

Of course it is. And that's how it should be. You're a magus. The coldness is how your father would want you to be.

Maybe I don't want to be like him right now.

Since when?

Since I found out he was participating in a ritual to end the world, for personal gain.

So are you.

Rin looked down at her hand, perched near the tray Sakura had left with her, and the Command Seals blazing on it. And for the first time since she'd gotten them, she had the urge to pick up her dagger and cut the damn things off her skin.

This wasn't going to work out. Continuing the War like a good little drone was clearly no longer in the cards for her. She might have been a Magus, but she was also the guardian of Fuyuki. And right now, she was starting to come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the former was basically useless to everyone, and the latter was something she hadn't been doing very well at all.

Her father wouldn't approve. But was his approval important to her anymore?

Of course it was.

Should it be?

(*)

The day had been bright, and unseasonably warm for the winter, and somehow felt like a gift. A time for tired warriors to lick their wounds and rest, regaining their energy for the battle to come. Shirou and Ilya were both sound asleep, even as the daylight hours faded into evening and the sun began to fall.

It was a shame Saber could not do the same.

Her eyes were closed, but no rest came. A Servant could not dream, but visions could pass before their eyes; normally, those were the memories of their masters, passing through the bond between them.

But now, Saber found her dreams haunted by something entirely unlike Shirou's dark past. She had been alone, walking through a forest in the dead of night, a chill in the air that ran to her bones and dead trees surrounding her. She walked forward, uncertain of where to go, or why she was even in this place. She knew it not at all, but somehow it was familiar all the same. The paradox did not escape her, but there was little she could do about it, compelled to walk forward.

In the shadows, a pair of golden eyes gleamed. But no matter how far she walked, stepping deeper and deeper into the shadows, dead branches tearing at her dress and scraping at her flesh, the eyes in the darkness remained stubbornly distant.

"Who are you?" she called out. "Why have you brought me here?"

No answer came, nor any sound at all. The dead world only grew dimmer as she walked deeper and deeper into the woods, unwilling or unable to stop; she herself didn't know for certain. Blood dripped down her cheek as a grasping branch slashed it open, but she felt no pain. Only a deep, deep, chill. She brushed the droplets of blood from her face and continued her march.

After what seemed like forever (if time had any meaning here) she brushed aside another thorny branch, and the golden eyes faded from her sight. In their place, she found a clearing, a single beam of light shining down through the gloom, illuminating a sword standing in the middle of a lake, held out of the water by a feminine hand. The weapon was one she knew well; the legendary blade she had carried for most of her life, gifted to her by the Lady of the Lake. Was she reliving that moment? But the shores of Avalon had been nothing like this, and the Lady's hand had not been so pale, nor…

The woman emerged fully from the water, untouched by it, and smiled at her, the expression of a hunting fox. Her long, black dress flowed into the lake, as if she was wearing the inky depths themselves, and in her eyes glimmered a malice that Saber had thought she was long past.

"Arturia," Morgan said, her raven locks swirling about her like a living thing, as she held Excalibur. The blade began to darken, black mist running from her hand into the sword, staining its gold and silver a sickening, empty black. "I have missed you, sister mine. I am so glad you have finally come to join me, and take up the blade that sings with my soul. Such a short, pained life, fighting war upon war for a light that would never be yours.

"Come into the shadows, sister mine, and let them make you strong."

Saber opened her mouth to protest, as the thorny branches wrapped around her, and the waters of the black lake began to rise up her legs, but she could not speak.

The last thing she saw before the cold, black water covered her face the light from the skies fading away, and the reflection of her eyes, glowing a sickly yellow, reflected in the perfect darkness of Excalibur…

(*)

Saber shot awake, a cold sweat upon her brow and her heart pounding in her chest. She held a hand out desperately, her sword appearing in her hands, and what she saw filled her with dread like little else she'd ever felt.

The blackness that had replaced the sword's normal azure inlay was spreading. The golden blade was slowly darkening, as if it was liquid and black ink was being poured into it.

She growled her refusal, and poured forth what mana she could into the sword. The sheathe of the Wind King roared around her, sending the contents of her bedroom flying against the walls, but she barely noticed; all her power and will bent upon the sword, upon the blackness that flowed through it. Slowly, painfully, the black stain began to recede, drawn back into the runes that lined the blade.

She fell to her knees, gasping for air, and looked upon the weapon that clattered to the floor in front of her. It was with some relief that she saw her eyes were their normal vibrant green, reflected in the silvery mirror of the sword, but the blackening of her dress, and the shadowy taint upon the sword's ornamentation, remained stubbornly present.

What had happened to her? What was this? Was there nothing she could do to expunge this twisted fingerprint of the Shadow? She could not even sleep, now, for fear of that darkness spreading further, turning her against her true self and leaving her as… as…

She did not know. And indeed, that was the problem.

She rose shakily to her feet, intending to head to the dojo and train, hoping physical exertion might drive the worry away…

And halted, blinking in confusion, as the bedroll blasted against the corner of the room began to wriggle.

"...Ouch…" Ilya said, poking her head out of the tangled sheets, an expression of childish fury on her tiny face. "Saber, I know I slept a long time, but did you have to be so mean waking me up?! You're even worse than Sella."

Oh. She had rather forgotten about her new roommate, in all the commotion. This was… awkward.

"I… that is to say… laziness, is… the enemy," Saber said, as firmly as she could manage. It wouldn't do to worry Ilya with something she herself barely understood, after all. "Come. I will awaken Shirou, and we should begin planning for the night. Please head to the kitchen."

It was lucky, Saber thought a bit bitterly, that if there was one thing her life had prepared her to do, it was keep up a facade.

(*)

Kirei Kotomine was not happy.

This was not as rare as it looked, actually. He smiled quite often, but he was almost never truly happy. The unfortunate result of having diametrically opposing personal morality and upbringing, and nothing he could do much about. But lately, he was less happy than usual.

"Something," he said to the empty church as he lit the candles on the altar, "is being born."

There was no reply, but he felt like thinking out loud, so he continued. "I do not know what it is. I do not think fully understanding is possible. But the nature of it is dark. Unusual. It is something that stands outside our view of the world, and it will not be accepted."

Silence.

"I find that bothersome, do you know?" Kirei said. "That notion. That a creature can be judged before it has even come to exist. That all things are set in their nature and nothing can draw them away from it. I have always wondered if that was the case, because a truly loving God would clearly not make a creature beyond redemption, and yet the evidence supporting it… ah, but I'm rambling again. The truth remains that this wondrous and unknown presence is being born under the auspices of Zouken Makiri. And so, like the rest of the world, I fear I cannot accept it as it is, either. I suppose that counts as irony."

"Yes," a voice said, and the air in the cathedral shook with the words, dust falling from the ceiling. "You are rambling."

Kirei chuckled, a bit of genuine amusement leaking into his somber mood. "You have been rather tense, lately. Usually you enjoy a bit of philosophical debate, but the last few days..."

"The debate has lost interest to me, Kirei," Gilgamesh intoned, fading into view beside the empty pews, staring thoughtfully into the stained glass window. "I already know the answer to the question, after all. I think I just allowed myself to forget it, wrapped as I was in the joys and pains of walking among the mortals."

Kirei felt a slight chill in the air, and that was an accomplishment. As a man who genuinely cared nothing about his own life, fear was not a sensation he often felt, and yet, something about the Servant's tone… "Do tell," he said, his voice lazy and amused, betraying nothing of the shiver down his spine.

"The gods are impotent, amoral dolts who have no say in the affairs of this world," Gilgamesh said, his tone soft, and yet the church continued to oddly vibrate with the words, as if his power was leaking forth and making the ground itself quake. "The nature and judgment of all things are mine, and no one else's. This world is my garden, and I am the king. Nothing has the right to be born if I deny it. Nothing has the right to any nature I do not allow it. All living things capitulate to my throne, and that is the final truth."

Kirei chuckled. "My, my. It's not as though this is a new viewpoint for you, but you are not usually quite so direct about it."

Gilgamesh turned to face him, and Kirei felt a slight twinge of fear for the second time. Gilgamesh was smiling. Widely. Ear to ear, an expression of almost childish happiness. But something in his eyes…

Kirei Kotomine was, by most standards, a monster. A mass murderer, aficionado of torture and pain, one who derived nothing but joy from the suffering of those around him. Agony was his sole source of satisfaction, and inflicting it on the world was his calling. And yet, he felt like in Gilgamesh's expression, there was something that even he couldn't quite define. "Ah. May I ask why you are so… well…"

"It seems I smile when I'm truly angry," Gilgamesh said, his smile still in place. "Oh, don't worry. I'm not going to kill you. You've been a valuable partner to me, and as a possession, I can't fault anything you've done. But you're right to be a little scared, I think. After so many years of satisfaction, of reveling in the treasures of my world, I have found something that absolutely infuriates me. I smile because my soul sings with the madness of it, do you see? The loss of my own will in favor of the emotion that surges through me, like I was some mindless savage no better than the rabble beneath my feet. It's very invigorating, actually. So do not worry about the machinations of your Makiri, or the tiny things that fight for the Holy Grail. Because I am feeling violent, I think.

"And I am very much in the mood to explore this further."