London, England, Two Months after what Japanese national news programs have dubbed the 'Mt. Enzou Incident.'
"You know you're going to be executed? What you've done violates so many tenets of the organization they're writing up new ones to give you more things to be charged with," the man said, which Rin Tohsaka thought was kind of rude. "The Einzbern girl might be spared because her family is European, but the Clock Tower associates have never liked the Tohsaka. The only reason you were never removed before now is that nobody wanted your land or resources, they were too out of the way. But that won't matter anymore."
"Two months ago," she said, as she walked (well, limped… she had to admit that even after a few weeks and the best healing she could manage, after the wounds Kirei had inflicted moving around wasn't as easy at it had once been) "that would have really frightened me. But the Clock Tower isn't even close to the worst thing I've ever seen at this point."
"I am quite serious. The Holy Grail War that you were supposed to oversee went further out of hand than anything in the entire history of magic. We were exposed beyond any possibility of recovery," her accompaniment said. "Thousands dead. A magical effect covering the entire nation of Japan. Hundreds of Servants just running around madly fighting monsters where anyone could look out a window and see them. The Church and the Association are running overtime to keep this buried, and they can't possibly succeed. Even if they killed everyone in Japan, knowledge has already spread beyond the borders and will only get worse."
"Considering the other option was to let the world end, I think we did a fairly good job."
"You created what can only be described as a miracle. We all owe you our lives. And frankly, the Greater Grail should have been dismantled years ago," he said. "But that isn't what matters. You're walking into a room full of powerful, bitter old men, and you've stamped an expiration date on the kingdoms they've carved out for themselves. With magic so exposed, it's only a matter of time before the Clock Tower is discovered, and when that happens, their world ends. They're already dead on the inside without this place, and now you've made them fear its loss like never before. They want someone to blame, Ms. Tohsaka. And they're going to choose you."
She smiled. "Well. They'll try."
He sighed. "I suppose I shouldn't have expected an 'Eastern barbarian' to understand the severity of the situation."
"Much like I shouldn't have expected a 'filthy Western devil' to show courtesy," she said cheerfully. "Is this the chamber?"
He grinned, despite himself. "You'd have made a good student here, if you weren't about to be killed."
"I'd have made a great student here, if I still had any interest in being one."
The man shook his head in exasperation, his long hair brushing his shoulders. "God. You may actually be worse than I was at your age. … Before you go in. Tell me, did you happen to see among the Servants… a huge man, easily twice my height. Red hair and a beard, rode in a chariot?"
"I missed most of the climax, I'm sorry. Why do you ask?"
Lord El-Melloi II sighed, a small smile on his lips. "Well. Whatever the circumstances, it would have been nice to know for sure that he'd gotten one more battle. Still, knowing that idiot, he was right wherever the fighting was worst, screaming his lungs out, and I'll take some joy in that. Good luck, Ms. Tohsaka. Try to tone down the arrogance."
"It's not arrogance if it's justified!" she said, pulling open the doors to the meeting chamber.
"Rin of Clan Tohsaka. You have disgraced this institution, violated our most sacred laws, and exposed our society to those whom have no place in it. How do you plead?"
They had her standing under a spotlight, with the judges looking her over from the shadows; an old trick to put her off balance by leaving her unable to see the faces of those accusing her, while they could study her at their leisure. It was… honestly, kind of sad. These were the greatest magi in the world, and they were acting like something out of a bad drama. And to make matters worse, she probably wouldn't have even been able to pick any individuals out due to how many there were. The chamber was massive, there had to have been room for at least a hundred people sitting in the wings to watch the was a circus, not a trial. El-Melloi had been right; what she said didn't really matter. They had already decided she was to die for this.
Well, even if the show was bad, she had to play her part, for a bit. "Not guilty, of course."
"Laughable!" snapped someone from a different direction than the first, either a very nasally man or a very angry woman, Rin couldn't be sure. "The ritual that your family managed went mad and summoned a demon! Spirits flooded the streets of mortal cities, exposure on a level we have never before experienced, and you have nothing to show for it! The fifth and worst failure of the Holy Grail War! I think we have no option save to make it the final one."
"It most certainly has been, honored elder," Rin said, inclining her head to the direction of the voice. "The Greater Grail is irrevocably destroyed, as are all materials and records that might allow anyone to recreate it. Further, I must state that the failure of the ritual was beyond the control of any of the Three Families. The supervisor from the Holy Church murdered your own representative and entered the competition in secret, and used knowledge of the Grail's construction and a surviving Servant from a previous war to tamper with it ." All of which is technically true, and I won't be going into any more details, thank you.
"Oh?" asked a new voice, because they were apparently trying to give her whiplash from looking off in every direction possible. "You came to this trial in the company of an Einzbern magus. The new head of the Matou Clan is a girl your age, and who fought by your side as an ally in the War. How are we to believe that you did not re-start old alliances? The same alliance which led to this ritual's existence in the first place?"
"Oh, no, we have definitely renewed old ties. At the very least, the Tohsaka and Matou clans will be allied far more closely going forward," Largely because the Matou Clan head is living down the hall and borrowed my favorite skirt without asking. Having a sister is harder than I thought. "And while Lord Jubstacheit von Einzbern has not responded to entreaties, his current heir has also expressed interest in reclaiming those ancient bonds." And she drank all the milk. I really need to get Emiya out of the house so she stops visiting.
"That is not reassuring."
"Honored lords and ladies of the association, every one of us has lost family to this Grail War," she said, lowering her tone to convey the severity of the situation. "Sakura Matou, Rin Tohsaka, and Ilyasviel von Einzbern… every single one of us can claim the loss of everything but our own lives to this ritual. A ritual that has never even come close to success. That was doomed to failure before any of us were ever born. We're tired, lords and ladies. Though to say it might be deemed heretical by some… none of us have any true interest in it, or the magic it sought to revive, any longer. There is a point where the price simply becomes too high."
The murmuring of the crowd intensified, and she heard more than one mention of 'heresy' and 'sealing order.' A mage sought the Root. No price was too high to pay. To give up on a potential path, even one that clearly did not work, was anathema to them. Many of these magi would clearly have no problem with wiping her off the map in a storm of spells right then and there, before going to Fuyuki to burn her house down just out of spite.
About what I was expecting, sadly. Has it been fifteen minutes yet? If that brat is late, I'll be pretty furious. And possibly dead.
She would have loved to have said she offered some eloquent defense that turned them all to her side. That some wise, ancient magus came to her aid. But what actually happened was that for at least thirty minutes, they asked her slightly different versions of the same questions each one phrased so as to imply she was either incompetent or an actual murderer (She was an actual murderer at this point, but not of anyone they cared about, so that was a little unfair). And in return she repeated the exact same story, each time as truthfully as the time before it, while everyone in the audience thought up new and exciting reasons to disbelieve and hate her, before inevitably returning to the exact same lines of questioning, only even more bitter. Until finally…
"We are prepared," said one of seventeen interchangeable magi who had dedicated themselves so firmly to her death, "to pronounce sentence."
Rin did not roll her eyes, but only because she had a headache. "Sirs and ladies, I have made it very clear that I am fully intending to cut all ties with this institution. I feel…"
"What you want, child, is irrelevant. You are a part of the Association…"
Oh, sure, when I'm in trouble I'm part of the Association, but when I'm doing perfectly I'm just 'a barbarian from the Orient.' "No, I am not. And frankly, this association probably won't exist in a few years, the way things are going. I'm considering new career paths. Maybe making some overtures to the Prime Minister of Japan, he could probably use an advisor on arcane matters, after the panic from the Mt. Enzou Incident…"
"… and you are subject to our authority!" the old man snarled, clearly no longer listening. Not that any of them had And the crimes you have committed against us are beyond the pale. Magi across the world were endangered by your actions, and an irreplaceable ritual was lost forever."
"As I told you, the representative from the Church w-"
"Was also killed, further straining our already complicated relationship with them!" snapped another of the judges… or perhaps the same one, she was having a hard time keeping track anymore. "You have done more damage to the Association in the space of a few weeks than our worst enemies have in our entire existence!"
She twitched. The spotlight was hot, she hadn't drank a drop of water in half an hour, and they just. Wouldn't. Stop. "Honored Elders, my friends and I are the only reason anyone in this room is still alive. And since you can't accept that-"
"Accept the mad rants of a heretic? We have held back long enough, child. The sentence is obvious, and the sentence is death, to be carried out immediately. The Tohsaka Clan is now placed under a sealing designation. Your manor will be foreclosed, your Crest will be removed and stored in the Archives, and your remains will be preserved for experimentation."
"… I am leaving. And I am not coming back," she finished, snapping at last. "Clan Tohsaka withdraws from the Mage Association. Clans Einzbern and Matou as well. You will never hear from any of us again, and with any luck it will be mutual."
"Enforcers, take her for processing," snapped one of the judges. "If the traitor resists, kill her on the spot. The arrogance of it… plotting to create a new Association?! And so blatantly boasting of it to our very-"
"I never said that. Nobody is starting anything, and nobody is competing with you for a prize that isn't worth winning. This is an end, and we are leaving. Ilyasviel, if the Enforcers try to stop me, kill everyone in this room," Rin snapped, not even bothering to look around for who she was speaking to.
"Honestly, Rin. You're not a bad sort at heart, I suppose, but you have no style."
Someone's fingers snapped, and the darkness was torn from the room like someone had ripped the cover off a lamp. A golden sword, red lightning crackling up and down it, shone brilliantly in the hands of a woman who had leaped down from the audience to stand next to Rin protectively, a smile on her face that promised a swift, horrible death to anyone who got on her bad side.
The room went silent, save for the sudden wind. Most of the magi in the room were nobody worth mentioning, children scurrying for the favor of their elders; many were true, venerable masters of their Art and heads of great families. Not one of them could fail to recognize a Servant, and even the most arrogant of them was clever enough to stay back when one was looking at them like they were a roach infestation in her pantry.
"That… that is a… What have you done?" asked a woman in the front row, her face so pale Rin actually did a double-take to make sure it was her actual skin and not some kind of white fabric she had wrapped herself in. Lord knew it wouldn't have been the oddest body modification on display. She saw a man in the third row with scales.
"She didn't do anything," Ilya said, skipping her way down the stairs toward the center of the chamber, her Command Seals glowing brilliantly on full display. "Saber is my date to this little get-together, thank you. I need someone to keep me warm when I can't be with Shirou, you know?"
Saber's eye twitched. "Master. Honestly."
"She doesn't like it when I tease her, but I'm not going to stop. I've learned to accept I'm kind of a brat," Ilya said cheerfully.
"I hate her so much," Rin murmured.
"She's an acquired taste," Saber admitted.
"Anyhow! Like Rin said, we're all done with you people. Grandpapa hasn't been answering my communications, so I'm declaring myself the new head of the Einzbern family. And we're done. We're out. Japan is now off-limits to you, and any of the holdings of our family," Ilya said. "You can argue the point, but Saber does my arguing for me, and she's rather violent in her debate tactics."
"One Servant cannot repel the might of the entire…" said a slender man whose face was almost entirely hidden behind an elaborate bronze mask in the shape of a screaming man. The wind flared, something moved too quickly to see, and the mask fell from his trembling face in two equal halves.
"My counterpoint," Saber said, as the dissenter passed out.
"There's more than one," Rin said. "And of course, we have a lot of interesting equipment saved up. Obviously the three of us can pool our intellect to make something on the level of a Holy Grail if we really try. And while I can't make it on my own, did you know Marshall Schweinorg left a blueprint for his jewel sword in my attic?"
"What?!" snapped the pale woman, and when she sounded this furious Rin was able to recognize her voice as the one who had done the most bitter snarling in her general direction during the trial.
"It's true, I did that," said an older gentleman in the front row, who Rin was very certain had not been there five seconds earlier. She fought the urge to ask for his autograph as she recognized what that comment meant.
"L-Lord Zelretch?! What?! You… that… Why?!" the judge squeaked, her terror redoubling, which was a sight to see. If she got any paler she'd be transparent.
"Fun?" Kishur Zelretch Schweinorg said, his tone indicating he genuinely wasn't sure. "I have few amusements in life. Testing interesting families is one of them. By the way, Ms. Tohsaka, you have one-hundred more years to reproduce the artifact before I consider your family a lost cause."
"I don't really need it for anything, but I'll put it on my weekend schedule."
"… HA! Oh, I do like unruly children. If you were my apprentice, you'd either be the finest I ever trained or killed within a month," Zelretch said with a grin. "By all means, continue. This rebellion is the most amusement I've had in half a century."
"Are… are you endorsing this, Zelretch?!" snapped a man with a tattoo on his face that swirled and changed color with every movement he made.
The old man smiled, stroking his neatly-trimmed beard. "No, no. I'm just enjoying the show. It's nice to see new things being born, no? When you get to be my age, you see so few surprises. When my attention is captured by something new, I tend to enjoy the show. Though, I suppose, if a Sealing Designation were placed upon them, I would have to consider if I could really support it or not. This tower is so tedious, and so few of your students have any spirit at all. If your next generation had half the enthusiasm of these fine ladies, you wouldn't be caught so flat-footed about being exposed," he said.
"… … So few of 'your students?'" said a quiet, small woman that Rin hadn't even noticed in the crowd. If she had spoken before during the trial, Rin hadn't heard it.
Zelretch smiled at her. "Yes, that was an interesting choice of words I used there. I'm glad someone noticed."
The tattooed mage coughed. "M-Ms. Tohsaka. We have… we may perhaps… be convinced to reconsider our verdict."
Rin smiled, laying her hand meaningfully on Saber's shoulder. "See? I knew we could be friends if we all tried."
Fuyuki City, Japan. One week later.
A Sunny day.
"You know, as much as I hate everything else that happened, I have to admit this place is pretty nice," Taiga said.
The Emiya Household was abandoned, of course; that neighborhood had too many ghosts for Shirou to go back to it any time soon. He had been living with the Tohsaka for the two months since that night, which at any other point would have spawned enough rumors in school to ruin his life ten times over, but after what the news was calling the 'Mount Enzou Incident' and the more poetic sorts were calling the 'Night of Black Stars,' nobody was talking about anything else. When literally millions of people had seen the sky turn into a swirling black ocean, monsters killing their loved ones, and legendary heroes fighting and dying to save them, other topics rapidly became unimportant.
Except to Fuji-nee, naturally.
"Tohsaka just has such a great place! All the furniture is so cushy and western, and the kitchen is always stocked even when we don't go shopping! I'm glad we live here now," she said cheerfully, munching down on the lunch he'd whipped up like it was the only thing happening in the world. It was just a simple dish of stir-fried udon and greens, but she was treating it like the most important thing that had ever been forged by man. He almost appreciated the gusto for a meal he'd only spent fifteen minutes making for her. Almost.
"I only live here because I haven't got anywhere else and it's closer to school than Ilya's place. And you don't live here at all!"
"I'm family, so I live where you live," she said between bites. "And there's no way in Hell I'd let you live with your girlfriend at your age! Even if she is some kind of pixie."
"She's not a pixie, she's a homunculus, and-"
"That isn't a real word."
"-and she's not even in the country right now! She went to Britain with Tohsaka, remember?"
"That's even worse! You? Alone? With a maid? You're a man, you can't be trusted around a girl like that," Taiga said sagely. "If Sakura were around I could trust her to keep you on a leash… not literally…"
"… but who knows where she ran off to. Ever since all you kids turned out to be witches I can't keep track of anything anymore," she whined. "I'm still mad at you for not sharing that, by the way."
"Sorry. But it's… well, it was meant to be a secret," he said, for the fiftieth time that week.
"I can keep a secret!"
"No, you can't. At all," he said, again for the fiftieth time that week. "But it doesn't matter anymore. Even if I wanted to keep it from you, there's no point now. That's the whole reason Tohsaka and Ilya had to leave for so long."
He sighed, pushing aside his own half-full bowl. "The world's changed, Fuji-nee, and the old rules don't apply. I just hope that doesn't mean it's falling apart, too."
"… … … Dessert?" she asked, after pondering this for a moment.
He hadn't yelled at her, but he was thinking about it, when the door slammed open. "Emiya. You are still in my house."
"Welcome home, Tohsaka."
"Why here? I know you can't go home, but why are you not living with Fujimura-sensei?" the young magus… if you could still call her that? She might have honestly found it offensive at this point… asked him, sitting down across from Taiga and looking at the empty plates in front of her with a certain aristocratic disdain. He really shouldn't have let her take Ilya, those two rubbing off on each other was bound to be a disaster.
"She doesn't have a spare bed." He paused. "Or a spare room. Or a spare couch. Or…"
"I live a spartan existence, as befits a warrior," Taiga said proudly.
"You're a teacher."
"… I don't make a lot of money, as befits a teacher," Taiga said, less proudly. "But it's a nice place, really! Cozy. Especially since I don't have a kitchen, so I don't get a lot of messy food wrappers all over."
"Huh," Rin said in a kind of horrified fascination. "Emiya, how long have you been doing all her cooking for her?"
"Too long," Shirou said. "Um… are you here alone? I just thought that…"
"Yes, your girlfriend is back in the country, and it still makes me a little sick to say that," Rin sighed. "She'll be here later. Had Saber carry her home while rambling something about how an 'aristocrat must make a good first impression when visiting the peasants.' I didn't punch her, but it was a near thing.'"
"… She's an acquired taste," Shirou admitted. "And, um, Sakura?"
"She didn't tell me where she was going either. But she'll be back. If she isn't, I'll find her and drag her here. Family's a funny thing. I thought I didn't have any and I was okay with that, but… honestly, it was more like I was just empty inside," Rin said, chuckling bitterly. "Honestly, I wanted to enter the Holy Grail War just to prove I could win. It seemed so logical at the time, but looking back… I wonder if I just didn't have any real reason to go on. There's a kick, huh? Eighteen years old and already done with life. We are a pair, Emiya."
"Don't look at me like that. You were just as bad as me. Worse, even. I at least wanted to win. You were looking for a way to die heroically, and don't deny it," Rin said. "Well, tough. You can still be a pain in the neck about helping everyone, but you have people who will make sure you take care of yourself now, too. And if you doofus it up and die, you better believe we'll drag you out of the coffin and reanimate your brain just so we can all yell at you."
"I was going to agree with you, not argue," Shirou said.
"My point still stands," she said. "… Fujimura-sensei, why are you smiling?"
"I'm happy, you dumb kids," Taiga said. "Shirou never listens to me, you know? I could tell there was something wrong with his attitude, no doubt, but he just… he could be happy on the surface, but he always seemed so empty and alone beneath it all. Even though he had me there to be his awesome big sister, he just ran straight ahead into whatever issues he saw, without thinking of himself at all. And now…" she sniffled loudly, wiping away a tear of joy. "I guess it's true what they say. You can't really make a teenage boy change unless you have a bunch of girls terrify him."
"… Well, she's not putting it the best way, but she isn't entirely wrong," Rin said with a grin. "We're all one big happy family now, Emiya, and that mean that from now on, you live a happy life or we make you lead one. Particularly…"
"A-hem!" a feminine voice shouted from the front door, with surprising volume from such a small pair of lungs. "Rin, I have gathered my attendants and am looking my most beautiful for my beloved, so I am willing once again to grace your humble abode! You may open the door and shower us with praise nooooow!" A pause. "Sella doesn't want to come in! She says Taiga is the bane of maids everywhere! She's going to go make your garden look less ugly!"
Rin's grin turned slightly sadistic as she gazed upon Shirou's blushing face. "I want to take a moment to drive home to you that you chose this."
"No. No, I didn't pick a lot of things that happened to me lately. But I'm unhappy with them, either," Shirou said, his own smile so annoyingly guileless that Rin almost added him to the list of people to punch.
"Oh, go say hi to the brat, you dork," she said, rolling her eyes. "Don't forget that you pay for her groceries if she eats here."
"And mine!" Taiga declared, rummaging through the fridge.
"You're a teacher! You can buy your own food!" Rin snapped.
"I can, but I'd rather make Shirou do it for me! He loves helping!"
"It's the principle of the-"
Shirou ran out the door before that could get going again for, he was pretty sure, the fiftieth time. Exposure had gotten Fuji-nee past her phobia of Rin pretty quickly, he'd found, and now they were going at each other pretty much every time any talk of money came up.
Besides… he was in a hurry.
"ShirouShirouShirouShirou!" screamed a tiny white comet that slammed reassuringly into his stomach. "I missed you so much, London was foggy and ugly and it rained half the days and nobody could cook and Saber would barely even cuddle at night."
"I don't actually enjoy it like you do, little affectionate whirlwind," Saber said, stepping forward and pulling the girl back like scruffing a cat. "Honestly, Shirou. I understand the Mages' Association would have never let you into the Tower anyway, but I do wish you had come. This little monster has not let me sleep alone in weeks. And… well…" she gestured at her clothes, revealing the two girls were in matching blue sun dresses, though unlike Ilya, Saber also had a wide-brimmed hat. "I do not know why she insists on matching outfits."
Ilya batted her hand away and lunged in to wrap her arms around the Servant's waist, grinning the whole time. "Because we're sisters now! Or at least that's what it says on your passport, 'Altria von Einzbern.' And besides, it makes us look adorable. Don't we look adorable, Shirou?"
"Sisters don't wear matching clothes."
"Maybe in Camelot they didn't, but here we look great."
"Shirou. Please take this lunatic off my hands while I go get something to eat? … Shirou?"
Shirou did not say anything, mostly because he was still picturing the two girls cuddling at night. He was vaguely aware the idea should have made him jealous on some level, but Saber was so generally perfect that it was very hard to be jealous of her, and so instead he just felt very… very teenaged.
Saber sighed, and pushed Ilya off her and toward her boyfriend, where she latched on happily. His face was so red it might have burst into flame at any point. "Men are idiots."
"She's just jealous that I didn't let her bathe with me, even if she asked nicely," Ilya said, sticking her tongue out.
"Urk," Shirou said.
"I love you too," Ilya said cheerfully. "Let's go find a cozy chair and catch up! I have so much to tell you about the Association! I hate them so much, you were lucky you didn't have to come, but the old vampire was fun. Oh, and I want to hear about everything that happened while we were gone. Was Taiga just awful? I bet she was just awful. Sella hates her. You probably knew that. Why do you let her stay? She eats all the food and she smells like alcohol and underachievement. And…"
Saber sighed, stepping past the cuddling whirlwind and the boy she had hopelessly wrapped around her finger, and stepped into the kitchen, sitting beside Rin.
"That woman," Rin said, pulling a thin slice of sanma off the wall, "is a demon. I told her I would throw her out the window if she touched the refrigerator one more time, so I think she went off to find the wine cellar."
Saber grinned. "I would say she is an acquired taste, but honestly I have not acquired her yet. Her swordsmanship is impressive for a human, though. She came very close to making me dodge, once."
"Do you want lunch? There might be something in here that doesn't have tooth marks. Or we can go out, I guess, but I'm honestly still kind of jet-lagged, so…"
"She hasn't told him, yet."
Rin stopped, sighing. "Of course she hasn't. She wants him to be happy. She thinks the best way is to let it happen quick. When things reach their end, she can die quickly and he can mourn her, instead of spending the next few years trying to save her pointlessly."
"Is it pointless, though? Between the three of you, don't…"
"It isn't simple. The transfer of a human soul can be done, of course. Zouken did it. But she isn't human. Her soul and body are both artificial, and both have been heavily modified. She's… a living collection of magic circuits, more than a person. A normal human body, even a perfectly crafted doll or golem… she would burn them out," Rin said. "The only option is a body like her own. A homunculus, made to the template of Justicia von Einzbern, and it has to be perfect. Able to properly contain and focus the power that's burning her out. And that… that's beyond my skill, or Sakura's. Even if we combined our research and resources, by the time we actually pulled it off… ten years, easily."
Saber sighed. "I… there is no hope at all? Not just for her, but for her mother, I would offer my aid. Avalon… it did not help Irisviel enough to protect her, but…"
"A few extra months, maybe, but… look. She's not built to last. She's not going to age, or even really 'die.' She'll hit the critical point and her body will shut down. There's nothing we can do," Rin said, softly. "But that said, if she's as stubborn and crazy as me, we still have one option."
Saber arched an eyebrow. "… Rin, what did you do."
"Like you said, there was no hope at all," Rin said, smiling slightly. "Apparently, some people just can't take that as an answer."
Germany. Nowhere that has ever been on any maps.
"I do not know why you have come. There is nothing here for anyone."
Sakura sighed. "Please, let me in. It was very, very hard to find this place, and it's constantly cold here."
"I do not know why you have come. There is nothing here for anyone."
She fought down another sigh, just to avoid seeming passive-aggressive; the silver-haired young man answering the door was clearly not a true human, or even a very well-made homunculus, and his mind was obviously not quite up to snuff. "Please, I realize you're meant to drive people away, but this is important. Go, and inform Lord Jubstacheit that the head of the Matou clan wishes to parley with him."
Something flashed behind the boy's eyes. "… You are a welcome guest, but Lord Jubstacheit has passed beyond the waking world. The Einzberns slumber forever, the Grail eternally lost to us. I live on alone, only to tell others…"
"… That there is nothing here for anyone. Magi and their madness… it really does never end," she said sadly. "I'm going to wake him up. It's important to someone I care about. Don't try to stop me."
"I could not if I wished to. But he will not wake. The others sleep in the darkness and dream of the Grail forevermore, and this is right and proper. There is nothing here for you. There is nothing here for anyone."
She stepped past the young homunculus into the darkened Castle Einzbern, her footsteps echoing in the silence. At this point, hoping he was wrong was the only thing to do, but she wasn't an optimist by nature for obvious reasons.
And the setting hardly helped.
This place had never been made to any sort of modern standards, not even by magus standards. As awful as Matou Manor had been, a dilapidated, rotten nightmare, it had at least felt like someone could live in the upper floors. This place… there was no heat and no light, just empty fireplaces and unlit oil lamps. She hadn't seen anything that resembled plumbing. She suspected it had been built in the 1600's, if not earlier, and not changed in any meaningful way since… and to make matters worse, it most certainly had not been lived in for several weeks, save a single, half-sentient homunculus who had no purpose but to tell intruders to leave.
She wandered the halls, hearing nothing save her own breath and her own footsteps, as she searched for the basement. In her experience, the true mages, the ones who had no hearts for anything save their craft and ambitions, tended to prefer basements.
When she finally found a descending staircase, it was neither hidden nor warded; in fact, the door wasn't even locked. This told her a great deal about Jubstacheit von Einzbern. As she descended the staircase, she found it also included the only sounds of running water that she had heard in the entire household, which told her even more. This was a man who placed the proper running of his laboratory over the comfort of everyone in his household, and also a man who knew that everyone who lived here was either too obedient or too afraid to ever enter that sanctum without permission.
She wondered, briefly, if he and Zouken had been friends once, or if they had repelled each other by simply being too similar.
The door at the bottom of the staircase similarly slid open, no security or anything keeping her out. Pure confidence or pure apathy, she couldn't be sure.
Then she looked inside, and wished there had been something after all. Fighting her way in would have been preferable.
God. Better than the worm pit, but not by much.
The basement of Castle Einzbern was not a laboratory, in much the same way that Zouken's catacombs had not been one. But it was not a torture chamber like that hellhole, either.
This was a crypt.
The sounds of running water was from a small waterfall, mixing together with steady droplets of a pale green liquid to fill a massive pool that filled the majority of the chamber. And within the pool, suspended in the mixture and illuminated by a pale emerald light that seemed to come from nowhere at all, were homunculi. At least fifty, one every half-meter or so, simply floating with their eyes closed. Beautiful young women with long silver hair extending around them in a pale cloud, and handsome young men still coated in esoteric servant uniforms or even suits of chainmail to denote house guards. Each of them looked similar enough to all the others they could have been siblings, and indeed they most likely were in a technical sense. The pool's pale glow left each of them with a shimmering aura that cast flickering shadows over their perfect features, and shone out through the surface of the pool to paint a beautiful pattern of shimmering green upon the walls and ceiling… which Sakura noticed was not the uncut stone of the outer hall, but polished marble that carried and reflected the light perfectly. Had Sakura not known that each one was an actual person, she'd have almost mistaken it for some kind of art exhibit.
… No. No, that's exactly what it is. Anyone who manages to find this place will see the faded glory of the Einzberns and know they were once great, she thought, a mixture of sadness and disgust flooding her mind. This isn't a crypt, it's a museum. Each homunculus a beautifully crafted and impossibly valuable artwork, each of them dedicated to failure, surrender, and clinging to the last scraps of ruined pride against all reason. This is an expensive showpiece, meant to be seen by no-one at all, and to share nothing but faded glory with those who might find it by accident. Shining, beautiful, worth more than most people will ever see in their lives, and telling of nothing but complete defeat.
It's lovely, in an ethereal way.
I would burn it, if I could.
She stepped toward the pool, and upon further inspection, saw a small path of raised platforms within it, arranged between the bodies in stasis. They were transparent, made of glass or some kind of green gem that blended with the water, and the slightly waving top of the pool lapped at them from the small waves created by the trickling of the liquid from above. "I shouldn't be shocked," she murmured, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in the eerie chamber. "A mausoleum for the entire clan, but they still left a way to access anyone inside it. Nobody is ever intended to leave this place, but just in case…"
She stepped out onto the platforms, her boots finding easy purchase; wet, and glassy, but somehow not slippery. Magic did have uses. Slowly stepping from one to the next, she proceeded deeper into the pool, stopping to look at each floating homunculus as closely as she could. She would remember their faces forever.
She felt that someone should, though she wasn't truly certain why.
In the center of the pool, not floating but interred at the very bottom of the pool in a coffin of glass, she found who she was looking for.
"Wake up, Old Man Acht," she said, putting the whisper of mana into her voice. Her words echoed to every corner of the massive chamber, stirring the water and calling up wind in the dead air. "Your clan is not yet dead, and not all dreams out of reach. Your work isn't finished yet, so stir and listen to my voice."
Several of the homunculi closest to her stirred in their slumber, their eyes twitching as if in a fervent dream. The flow of the liquid into the pool slowed, and yet the gentle waves lapping at the stepping stones grew more rapid. The coffin holding Jubstacheit seemed to move slightly, as if unseen hands were pressing at the lid from the inside.
She waited in silence for nearly two minutes, and he didn't actually wake up.
She sighed, and raised a hand.
A ribbon of black and violet energy erupted from her hand, the lines of her magic circuits igniting with power as it passed through them. It burned down to the bottom of the pool in an instant, smashing open the lid of the coffin, and Jubstacheit's eyes shot open as he suddenly found himself snared by the magical tendril, dragging him to the surface with far greater than human strength.
The ancient lord of the Einzberns, eyes wide in confusion and soaked from head to toe in the strange potion, gasped at her in a clear and total lack of understanding as his intended eternal slumber turned out to actually be about a month and a half. "V-vas is…"
She shrugged. "I'm in a hurry."
Jubstacheit was a bastard, but he was a formal one. Even in a dead castle with all the servants placed in chemical comas, it took him less than twenty minutes to have tea prepared for a guest, even an unwelcome one. She could even smell something cooking in the kitchens two rooms over, above the scent of smoke from a wood fire in one of the ovens.
"Waking me was pointless," he said, a slightly dripping maid laying the tray between them and pouring them each a cup of steaming liquid. "The Einzbern clan has chosen to die. There is no purpose for us in this world anymore. Rather than drag out the inevitable, the Makiri should show some dignity and join us."
"You're awake now."
"Some small part of my soul is human. I am but a pitiful copy of Holy Justicia, but I am still capable of curiosity. A last conversation before I die is not unpleasant," the old man said, taking a sip of his steaming drink. "When you leave, these servants and I will return to our rest. We will deactivate our minds permanently and become an exhibit telling of Einzbern's glory and fall. Beautiful and eternal proof that we have done all we could and could go no further."
She sighed. "I do understand, if it helps. To find yourself so devoted to an idea that you can't see the world past it. But we need your help. And you still have a place in this world. Your granddaughter needs you, sir."
"My gr… Ilyasviel?" he asked, his tone indicating that just saying the name left him mildly sick. "It yet lives? Then it is even more of a failure than I thought. Our last hope for victory, and it failed despite a perfect Servant and perfect preparation. By surviving, by failing to fight to the death, it proves that it lacked the Will of Einzbern."
Sakura did not kill the old man on the spot, but it was a near thing. "She is a child who came into this world because of your efforts. Born from a child who you created. Whatever else you may say, she is the blood of your blood, in the most real way you can manage. I could argue you have an obligation to help her if she needs it."
"And you would be wrong. Is a man obligated to a cup he sculpts from clay, after it has proven that it does not even properly hold its contents?" the old man asked. "Of course not. He throws it away, because it has no purpose. It is a waste of materials."
"You should have properly constructed it, then," Sakura said, her teeth grinding together involuntarily. He was Zouken. Less visceral in his methods, perhaps, more dignified in his appearance, but on the inside the two old mages were no different at all. The only reason he did not have a den of carnivorous monsters in his basement that he sent out to despoil and devour helpless women was that he didn't need to have them. Austere and calm as he may have looked, Old Man Acht was a monster. "The craftsman does not get to blame his results if he doesn't put his full effort in. You are more than capable of creating a homunculus with the lifespan of a human, or greater. Homunculi that grow naturally, or are created as adults. You chose to leave Ilyasviel half-finished, because you knew she was going to die young."
"And," Sakura half-snarled, "I want you to fix her."
He shrugged. "It would only be possible at this point by transferring her soul into another body. Even if I could, I would not devote the resources t-"
"I'm not asking you to justify it, I'm telling you to do it," Sakura snapped. "She's a little girl that you destroyed. If you don't even care enough to fix your mistakes, then you're right: you really don't have a reason to live."
"… I knew your grandfather. We have not met personally in some time, but I knew him when he was a young man. The way you lose your temper reminds me of him, but not the way you display it. Tell me, what does a Makiri care for an Einzbern daughter? Do you want to use her as a worm nest?"
"I don't care for her. At all," Sakura said flatly. "In point of fact, I don't even like her."
"Because she's like me. We were taken from our family… and no, you are not her family… and tormented. Broken. Had our bodies and souls warped by monsters, who wanted to turn us into monsters," Sakura said. "My Grandfather tried to make me into his tool. No more than a half-mindless demon he could command, with no humanity left to me. If I'm able to turn my back on a girl who went through something similar, just because I don't like her? Then he succeeded."
"Hm. Interesting… I confess, not the answer I was expecting. You are not a traditional Makiri," he admitted. "But you must know, I will not help you. My curiosity is fulfilled. I will be returning to my slumber."
"… That's it?"
"I told you. I never planned to give you any aid. I was merely curious. I no longer am. Your actions are irrational, to be sure, but you are still young. Children rarely make any sense," he said. "The Einzbern Clan is dead. Ilyasviel dying with us is right and proper. The most mercy I would be willing to give it would be to inter it in the family crypt with its brothers and sisters. If it should choose to embrace reason, a place will await it in our shared slumber despite its failure. Beyond this, I care nothing for its fate."
She sighed. "Heaven's Feel. I know how to do it."
The old man's tea fell from his hands as they went slack, his eyes wide in shock and his skin going a shade paler than its already snowy complexion. "W… wh…"
"I had hoped you wouldn't need to be told this. I had hoped I could talk you into behaving like a decent person," she said. "But the Third Magic, the power the Einzberns lost so long ago… I know how to replicate it. My mind was part of the Greater Grail and I know the contents intimately. I know the construction of the homunculus at its core, the perfect being who could manipulate the souls of the dead. And I have seen Akasha, even if I failed to touch it beyond the merest brush. I can, with a few years of research and effort, create anew the lost treasure of Einzbern. Does that interest you, old man?"
"You lie. You must be…"
"Can you risk that? For so long, the Einzberns lost their way. They cared for nothing but victory in the War, without even remembering the prize. But though the War is lost, the prize remains. Will you remember your clan's true heart, Jubstacheit? Rather than the lord who cost them everything, you could be the one who led them back to their original path, and took them along it to new golden age. Is this fair compensation for your services?"
"If I said it was not? If I said… said we abandoned that long ago, and only War remained in our souls?"
"I'd say," Sakura said with a small grin, "that you are very clearly lying to me, given how excited you appear at the notion."
"… Then if I pointed out you are alone in this house? If I could just take what you know from you?"
A violet shadow disconnected itself from the wall, pressing a clawed hand against the side of his neck before anyone else could even blink following his statement.
"She didn't come alone. Threaten her again, and I will rip your heart out and leave Sakura to awaken and discuss her offer with whichever of those frozen dolls is your successor," Rider said softly.
Sakura winced. "I apologize. I figured it was wise to bring a bodyguard, but she really isn't in a good mood. I don't think the cold weather agrees with her ever since she got… you know… part snake. I also used up all my Command Seals on her during the War, though, so if she decides to kill you I genuinely can't stop her. Please be polite."
"… Hmm. Well. You have some elements of a true magus to you, after all. At least you are not totally beyond my ability to respect," Jubstacheit said.
"Don't worry," Sakura said. "You're far beyond mine."
Not so very far away, a rather silly girl who was very much in love dozed off in a boy's arms after babbling excitedly to him for far too long about tiny, inconsequential little things. She did not think about the future, content with the end she had found and the time she had left.
But in a grand castle that would have been little more than a crypt if not for the efforts and bonds they both had made, the future began to think of her.
Because the smallest choice can change the world forever. Each choice leads to a thousand more, branching off infinitely in a web of pain and reward, playing for better or worse against the choices of every other person whose heart they touch.
Because the most important choice of all, the one all other changes are born from, is the choice to take one more step forward along the path you see before you, and to face whatever may challenge you along it. And that is always easier if you have those you can trust, to walk beside you.
There is very little difference, actually, between most alternate universes. But sometimes, if the right people make the right choices, and the right small, seemingly meaningless little changes take their course…
Some of them can shine.
Author's Note: I don't have a big, fancy note like I did when I finished Infinity. I spent quite a while analyzing the issues in the story, and honestly a lot of them still apply to this piece (if to a somewhat lesser extent), so if you want to see me tear myself a new one, by all means go check out the epilogue over there. But now… I'm very tired. I feel like I walked a very long way indeed, and hitting the end of it has definitely brought equal parts sadness, relief, and a bone-deep tiredness I truly wasn't expecting. So I'll keep this simple: You guys are great. Thank you to everyone who read, because putting words on a page is pointless if someone doesn't see them. I hope that most of you enjoyed it, and I hope you stick around for future projects.
They'll be shorter, I promise.