Chapter 66: The Roads and Lands Unseen
I do not own Fate/Stay Night and stuffs.
o. o. o.
Marjatta cursed under her breath.
Her sister had returned from her whimsical day with Emiya relatively pleased, albeit slightly annoyed.
That alone was more than enough to reason out that her attempt to address the Emiya problem had fallen short.
She supposed that was to be expected in hindsight. Even if she had put out an exceptionally generous price on the idiot's head through her own personal resources and contacts that Luvia didn't know about, and slipped out some more personal information of his, it would take time for anyone truly capable to make their way to this backwater hole in the east.
But at the very least, those idiots could have ruined the night for them!
Seriously, how hard was it to disrupt a date in the middle of a city?!
The girl's tightened fists clenched enough to make her knuckles pop, ironically alleviating some of her stress both physically and metaphorically, if only slightly.
Forcefully she calmed herself down with some breathing exercises she had learned years ago during training. She had always had a temper problem, so this would not be the first time that that she reigned herself in. However she had never had to do it several times a day regularly like this before. It was frustrating beyond measure, and something that she would have to live with for the time being if that equally traitorous Caster was to be believed.
The humiliation of losing control over her Servant panged at her heart and almost sent her mind spiraling out of control once again.
If only that bastard Emiya hadn't gotten in the way. It was all his fault she was like this. Why she had summoned such a temperamental and unstable Servant.
She wanted, needed restitution from him somehow. To be responsible for some misfortune in his life, or the stress she is accumulating would literally devour her from the inside.
A few deep breaths later, and a small temporary mystic code around her wrist later, she was walking tentatively outside her cell in all but name. The code she wore mimicked the effects of the room to mitigate the worst of her awakened origin temporarily while out of it.
The fact that she had not encountered anyone already was a boon.
From the voices she heard, most everyone was still in the living room of this barely passible property, though the source of her anger was notably absent. Traitors. How they could be so calm and at ease in an Apostle's home without tearing it apart was beyond her.
"What do you think Merem wanted with Shirou?" the Matou girl asked in the distance.
"More Apostle nonsense, no doubt." the Tohsaka grumbled. "And right after we had tried to take Shirou's mind off of trash today."
"You think it was smart to let them go off on their own?" the mature voice of the Enforcer probed. An embarrassment of the occupation as far as Marjatta was concerned given the circumstances.
"Saber's with them, and she shares much of our concerns. As loyal as she is to Shirou, I doubt she would allow either of them to get too carried away with whatever they do," Luvia reasoned. "She's as fed up with what's going on as the rest of us. Speaking of which, how's progress with the annoyances in the city?"
"It's going." Rin spoke up with some frustration. "Archer and Assassin have made picking off the unregistered Magi hiding in the city into a game. Boys."
Marjatta held back a dismissive snort. Of course Servants would try to compete against one another. As Heroic Spirits of unmatched skill and worth, it would be a waste to not do so when conventional battle and victory had been denied them.
"At least they're getting along." The Homunculus, Illyasviel sighed. "What of Rider?"
"Haha. She, ah, decided to address the targets outside of the 'contest area' or in more secure areas." Sakura laughed sheepishly.
"Can't blame her. Being around those two." Rin groaned. "At the same time, now we have to keep a constant eye on those two so that they don't get carried away and blow something up… I know what I said Archer. I'm not the one that comes from a family that standardizes Broken Phantasms… no, I don't want to know what the current 'score' is. Judging from how smug you sound you're winning, so I'm obligated to cut you down before your bleached head gets fat."
"He's relying on his Clairvoyance too much. It's too much of a handicap." Illya pouted, all but confirming that she was Assassin's new Master. Not all that surprising since she was a living mana generator. She was probably the only Master there that could handle multiple Servants.
On the downside, that meant that the odds of anyone wanting to sneak in Fuyuki and take up her bounty on Emiya wasn't likely going to gain much ground anymore…
"Why hello there."
Marjatta just barely managed to hold back a startled yelp and jumped away from the kindly voice that was behind her.
It was another homunculus. This one dressed in a peculiar black and gold ornate and ceremonial dress, and looked like an older clone of Berserker's Master.
At first glance, she appeared welcoming and borderline motherly despite her ominous choice of clothing…
But Marjatta couldn't help but break out in a cold sweat being near her.
This must have been the new Servant that her sister had mentioned. The one summoned by the Grail itself to continue the War. She had not paid much heed to Luvia's warning before to never approach her alone, but she was severely reassessing her decision on that matter.
This Servant possessed a danger to her that the others didn't. An intimate and critical one that put her very life at risk. It was akin to this woman perpetually holding the girl's heart in her hand at all times, and only now did the Edelfelt become acutely aware of it.
"You must be Luvia's little sister. It's a pleasure to meet you finally," the Servant continued to greet her casually as though nothing was wrong with a kind smile. "I'm Iri-ah, no. Sorry. I'm still unused to this Servant thing. Call me Caster, wait I suppose that doesn't work either with your Luvia's Servant. Huh."
Great. The monster that was terrifying her with its mere existence was also an airhead. For once she felt relieved rather than infuriated by this absurd turn of events. It still didn't mean she was out of trouble yet, but she was also an Edelfelt and this wasn't the first time she had been put on the spot.
"Could you move? I need to use the restroom."
… Admittedly it wasn't a particularly revolutionary improvisation, but she wasn't working with an intellectual audience either.
"Eh? Oh! Yes! Sorry! You obviously came out for something. After becoming a Servant, things like that aren't necessary so I completely forgot they are important at times." Iri fumbled her apology like she was a child while moving out of the way of the bathroom door.
Marjatta ignored her, or rather, pretended to ignore her as she walked past with her nose held high in standard elite dismissal and entered the restroom without a second word, locking it behind her.
"Haaah. I'm not very good at this, am I?" Iri sagged, slumped over and crying in self pity.
"No, you aren't."
From a short distance away, Lancer materialized with a none too happy glint in his eyes and spear in hand.
"You're supposed to console a woman when she's sad." Iri pouted sullenly.
"And you are supposed to keep away from the Shrew." He didn't raise his weapon, but rocked it back and forth to draw enough attention to it to indicate what his real thoughts were. "You know what would have happened had you gotten any closer to her. What you did would have been more than enough for some to get rid of you."
He wasn't stretching the truth either. It had already been long established that Iri naturally gravitated and wandered towards Sakura, Illya and Marjatta due to their positions as Lesser Grails despite Caster's bounded fields lessening the impulses that the Greater Grail had on her. She had been caught more than once hovering around their rooms or trying to get to them when alone. Nobody wanted to take a chance as to what she would or could do to them if left alone.
"She was wandering the hallways alone. What was I supposed to do? I just wanted to say hi." Iri sulked, pressing her fingers together like a child. "Kiri's busy and everyone's keeping me at arm's length. I know why, but it's still frustrating."
She was avoiding giving a concrete answer. Whether on purpose or unconsciously, it didn't matter as far as Lancer was concerned. Truth be told, she still gave him an uncomfortable feeling. Almost as bad as Medb whenever she had some new plan cooked up to make his life miserable but wasn't ready to spring it yet.
Truthfully, if it was up to him, he would have killed her on the spot. That was the sort of vibe he was getting from the woman in front of him.
That said, leaving the Shrew alone to her own devices was just as bad too. That one had a mean streak a mile long and a grudge to boot. She was normally locked up in her room, but even so…
"The others might be preoccupied with vampires and politics and all that nonsense to keep the nightmare on its leash, but I'm not. If you so much as step out of line, I will kill you and deal with the consequences later." His jewel-like crimson eyes, an indication of his divine lineage, glowed slightly in the dark.
Irisviel looked up at him with her own crimson pool-like eyes, an indication of her artificial nature, seeming to suck in the lingering light around her into its unknown abyss. "If I truly am that far gone, I hope you do from the bottom of my heart, if only to spare Kiritsugu from repeating his worst fears."
"Tch. And you wonder why the others don't like being near you." Lancer clicked his tongue and held back the urge to kill the woman right then and there. He didn't know if she did it on purpose or not, but talking to her always seemed to dredge up unpleasant memories and thoughts. His mind flashing to his own child that he murdered unknowingly for a brief moment. It wasn't a train of thought that drove him mad with grief or even distract him like it would some, but it did leave a bad taste in his mouth. "Leave. I'll deal with the shrew."
Iri pouted and crossed her arms. "Fine. I guess I'll just try and sit with the girls then."
Seeing as Berserker was near perpetually hovering over Illya, there was little risk of harm coming to them at least.
Lancer kept an eye on the woman until she turned the corner, and let out a tired sigh. He for one, couldn't wait until Caster was finished with all these side jobs that were stacked up, if only so she could put more effort into dealing with this new Servant permanently.
The longer they kept her alive, the longer he was beginning to suspect it was a mistake to do so. He just hoped they wouldn't wait too long for everyone else to come to that conclusion, without consequences showing up at that.
o. o. o.
"Tell me, what do you know of our kind? Beyond the mad fervor that Barthomelloi normally articulates."
Shirou held back a minor reaction of distaste at Merem's use of "our" in the question as they walked down one of the local streets towards some woods that bordered the urban area he lived in. Saber kept pace quietly, knowing this was not a conversation she should take part in unless necessary.
"I assume you are speaking beyond mere strengths and weaknesses." The teen looked up at the mook floating almost innocently in the sky. "To be frank, I'm somewhat surprised you haven't gone into much detail yourself over the years… details that my employer weren't already aware of at least."
"I merely want to know what your foundation on the topic is. We both know the fine line we both tread by sharing sensitive information of this nature seeing how volatile our employers can be at times."
That was one way of putting it. Barthomelloi had grilled him intensely every time he had been on a mission with Merem. He shuddered to think of what would happened if she suspected him of being indoctrinated to another party, in one way or another.
Although, the image of Merem knocking on his door to "enlighten him on the wonders of the lord and savior Jesus Christ" was a rather amusing distraction. Albeit, one that probably had been beaten into the ground by their peers already.
"If we are specifically alluding to Dead Apostles in particular, and we skip over your origins as the underlings of True Ancestors, then not much else," Shirou admitted. "My knowledge of Apostle society is more oriented to current day events rather than its violent and erratic history. I know of the Twenty Seven and of the more active members. Their influences, circles, and territories. I know of the seven tiers of Apostles, technically eight if the Ancestors count as their own tier, and the upcoming Aylesbury Ritual…"
"I see." Merem nodded, as though reaffirming an assumption. "I suppose that this is a good place to start then."
"No, actually. The misinformation, or rather, misunderstanding you have regarding our, 'tiers' as you put it, though 'stages of development' would be more appropriate. We have nine total, not the crude 'seven plus one' that you surmised. Or rather, had."
Shirou frowned. "Had?"
"Mmm." Merem nodded as they approached the forest. "About three eras ago, roughly eight to nine hundred years back by modern terms, Humanity quietly and cluelessly crossed a critical threshold on the planet. A tipping point. Alaya became an overwhelming aspect of the surface texture of this world. It resulted in the slow, guaranteed smothering of what mystery and mysticism remains on the surface. One that is still taking place to this day. While Dead Apostles were slated to be the predators of mankind, this turn of events sealed humanity's eventual, if frustratingly drawn out, victory."
"And the potential of Apostles across the board took the hit," Shirou surmised.
"The position of Ancestor was the Ninth stage, and those that were deemed worthy to inherit those titles and the power it entailed were of the Eighth. Now, those that you deemed the "plus ones" are in truth the Ancestors that have remained since the height of our power. The ones that have lived past the thousand year threshold to retain and preserve our crowns." Merem nodded. "Louvre, in contrast, by himself was merely a middling Sixth stage Apostle chosen for his loyalty to Ortinrosse and his meticulous nature rather than his potential. It was only when with his children and the amplified benefits they gave one another that they performed akin to the Seventh, which is what is normally expected from those that inherit the title of Ancestor now. It is why most of the Ancestors that are killed these days are of the younger generation, while their elders remain in the background as the unspoken monsters that consume those that stray too far into the dark."
In short, the older Ancestors still retained a portion of their original power. Power that was beyond conventional means of combating by humanity.
"If we were to go by your natural abilities and your state of transformation, you barely qualify as an elevated Fourth stage." Merem smirked, enjoying the annoyed twitch in Shirou's eyebrow. "Save for your lack of need to drink blood to sustain yourself and your near complete lack of reaction to the sun, few would give you a second glance as far as Apostles are concerned."
"Personally I see that more as a benefit than anything." Shirou shook his head. "And when you take my personal abilities into account?"
"Seventh. Your mastery of your esoteric traits is already the equivalent of a Superior Dead Apostle. The highest tier of our kind that can manifest in the present day. What you lack is simply the body to manifest it in sufficient quantity to enable your limits to expand further," Merem flatly replied without hesitating.
"Why am I not surprised?"
Merem continued. "Between your training and experience, you started the war in Fuyuki at a threat level just shy of Louvre's, alone at least, and your body's capacity was barely that of a Nightkin, a Fourth stage, but your development has accelerated and exceeded even my curious expectations. What you lack in conventional physical Apostle abilities and traits, you make up for in literally replicating Humanity's greatest tools and weapons of lore within your own body. And that gaudy gemcraft belt of yours. It is an irony that will not be lost by others, and will only become more apparent as you further grow and develop into your own."
"In case you haven't noticed, I'm not particularly keen going down that route, Merem." Shirou pointedly ignored the comment about his belt. He knew a losing battle when he saw one.
"No. No, you aren't, but whether or not it will happen regardless is another matter entirely." They were in the forest now, walking along a small trail that normal humans would strain to see, but all three could follow effortlessly.
"Are you saying that as a foregone conclusion, or in the context that you intend to make it so?" Shirou frowned as Saber got ready to move at a moment's notice.
The elder vampire laughed. "The former. I have faith that the attention you already draw to yourself will accomplish more than any excessive scheme I could conjure up."
"Thanks." Shirou's dead and dry appreciation was exceptionally heartfelt and sincere.
"I assume you already have an idea of where I am going with this."
"The means of inheriting the title of an Ancestor." Shirou nodded. "There always was speculation as to why the Twenty Seven were limited to that number. Humanity's eclipsing of the world order eroded away at not just the power and potential of Ancestors, but the means and mediums you utilize to crown your leaders."
"Hmhm. That's quite an accurate way of putting it, my friend." Merem stopped at a toppled log near their path and sat down on it. "Our Idea Bloods, our Crowns, are the apex representation of the Twenty Seven. Our self imposed Mandates of Authority, the Hemonomic Principles that drive us and our successors to immortality in our own ways. The excuse we have for our thirst, and our drive to keep living. Crowns that have slowly been rusting away for nearly a thousand years."
Shirou found a small rock nearby and sat in front of his friend. "Gifts of Crimson Moon?"
"Surprisingly enough, no. The crowns borne by the Twenty Seven were forged by the Twenty Seven. Why they stopped at that number has been speculated upon long before Humanity's eventual weight upon us became apparent, but it has never been discovered. Or at least, divulged to a wider audience. The only thing we know for certain was that the Twenty Seven had come to be for a purpose. Whether or not it will be fulfilled at this point is anyone's guess."
"I take it some of these crowns of yours are already a foregone conclusion."
"Courtesy of the Church. And myself, admittedly." Merem smiled. "But for the most part, the lack of overt activity of our peers this past millennia is directly attributed to their efforts to maintain their legacy. There is a reason why the deaths of Tatari and Chaos in particular caused such a stir amongst the community once word got out."
"So you can no longer pass on these, Idea Bloods? This power?"
"Oh no, we can, but we discovered long ago that there are consequences and risks doing so once the threshold was passed. As the mortal saying goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown." The young looking monster did not so much as blink as he spoke of his kind's secrets. "Inheriting the Idea Blood of an Ancestor is inheriting their millenia of madness. Their souls and abilities. It is akin to that route in your father's notes where you grafted Archer's arm onto yourself, inheriting another Element and Origin strong enough to manifest a Reality Marble within your body, surpassing your limits and subverting your will. Transferring them even once in the current era degrades the Idea Blood significantly. Yet, even then the recipient must possess the disposition to handle the weight of that hunger and madness lest they instantly be overwhelmed and the power runs rampant, staining and assaulting the world around them like a natural disaster turned curse. To be deemed an Ancestor in this day and age is to say to the world that you are capable of inheriting or crafting these legacies should the world and fate have turned differently."
"Hmmm." Shirou mused, tapping his finger on the rock below him before he realized something. "... Fina's a corsair. He should be at most in his five to six hundreds."
Merem's eyes flickered, amused. "He's one of the few among our kind that inherited his crown after the degradation was noticed. One of the youngest in that regard. A successful experiment of Altrouge to preserve the spare Idea Blood she had on hand at the time, but the maligned quality is still there if you know what to look for."
Probably a bit of a sore point for the pirate. Still the fact that Fina managed to inherit his "crown" at such a young age was commendable… although Shirou strongly suspected that splitting the load of his ordeal among his men and ship played a role in Fina's success.
"You are insinuating that I may have to inherit or make one of these Crowns in the future?" Shirou frowned. "You expect me to make some sort of 'Sword' Idea Blood?"
This time Merem did laugh. "Haha. No no. Not of 'Sword' at least. That would be a disrespect to former Twenty Fifth, Be'ze. The last holder of "Sword" before she allowed herself to retire peacefully and allow the Church to dispose of it once she was confident of humanity's eventual victory. There were initially plans to weaponize captured samples for human use, however the degradation rendered that plan impossible early on. Be'ze would have been more than interested to have you as her successor had you met though. You two would have gotten along well, and I have little doubt that you would have taken to her blood in particular effortlessly. She stood on the side of humanity."
Ideally, Merem would have preferred to have announced Shirou as the next Twenty Fifth instead of the Tenth when this whole mess started, however the fact that the teen had taken in Louvre's blood had dashed that hope. There was an order of priority when it came to these things that even he couldn't skirt around. They were a society founded on blood after all.
He shifted slightly on the log for some slight comfort. "These days, to truly be accepted as an Ancestor by our more stubborn and antiquated peers, prospectives must show the fortitude to be capable of inheriting Idea Blood with their minds intact, in the case that one of the remaining samples is at risk. That, or the capacity to produce an Idea Blood of their own in the exceptionally unlikely circumstance that they find themselves in a setting where it is possible. Before, it was enough to show some of your combat prowess and the resources at your disposal. However, now you will likely meet the leaders of one of the main factions among our kind. Given how intense our society can be at times, the former is often more preferred. Half measures will not suffice."
"I thought Altrouge was more lax than Ortenrosse when it came to matters such as tradition," Shirou noted.
"She is." Merem's flat response was all he needed to know the severity of his predicament.
The teen licked his lips in annoyance and tried to organize what he knew. "Do you plan to make me your successor or something? Or is Chaos' Idea Blood still saved somewhere?"
"Neither. Part of the stipulation I have with joining the Church is the forfeiture of my Idea Blood to them if or when I perish. Neither will I ever have a successor of any sort." The vampire shook his head with a dry smirk. The idea of preventing a third generation derived directly from Crimson Moon Brunstud's blood spawning at any time was blatantly at the forefront of the Church's thoughts during those negotiations. "As for Chaos, I assure you, when her majesty the White Princess commits to a deed, she makes it a point to be thorough about it."
Shirou couldn't say he was disappointed to hear either revelation. "So I'm a placeholder then."
"Yes," his friend shamelessly admitted. "One with potential, and to serve as a curiosity, but otherwise inconsequential. Or should be, had it not been me sponsoring you. Again, you have my most sincere apologies for that."
A heavy sigh escaped Shirou's nose. He was too tired to deal with this nonsense. As far as he was concerned, the world of Ancestors was completely unrelated to him. "Given how some positions have been circulating more than others, can I assume that there's still roughly around twenty of these crowns still around?"
"Less." Merem had the decency to grimace at the admittance. "The current Twenty Seven is padded somewhat due to Ortenrosse's efforts, and they consist of some of our most notable names. Primate Murder is more of an honorary member after a deal between Altrouge and Ortenrosse in the sixteenth century. Crimson Moon Brunstud's Idea Blood exists as a technicality so long as his blood flows in the world in one form or another, until he resurrects himself at least. Stanrobe Calhin's nothing more than an infuriating wraith that continues to persist just to vex the world, so his crown isn't different from your projections. Guaranteed to fade away eventually. We still don't know what that fool Enhance has done with his legacy. And I truly doubt that ORT has done anything less than digest its predecessor's Idea Blood by now."
Throw in the recent deaths of Chaos and Tatari, and the five-ish Ancestors that the Church has confirmed to have killed, and you'd have little more than half of the original number left.
Shirou was starting to see why being called an Ancestor was such a prickly affair these days despite the loosening of requirements.
… And that wasn't taking into account that, in hindsight, it was likely that the majority of the Ancestors that his vampire hating boss took down by herself were also "crownless placeholders" like himself. If she ever found out about this revelation or lessened her victories… no. No he would much rather not dwell upon that particular nightmare.
"What do you expect to see from my Reality Marble, Merem? The fact that I can fully manifest it at my age should be proof enough that I'm beyond the norm."
"I know it's a grave invasion of privacy to ask of this, but I need to witness and experience it firsthand to have a hope of convincing Altrouge to leave you be. It is rare for a lie or misdirection to slip past the Master of Blood and Contract's notice. A halfhearted answer is just as dangerous as none at all. Before, you had the luxury of time and anonymity to get by with just my word. A passing curiosity or rumor. But it isn't enough now."
Having Merem speak on his behalf was a double edged sword. On the one hand, doing so would enable the Church's Vampire to hold more over his head at a moment's notice. On the other, it would at the very least give him an opportunity to not reveal as much to the greater unknowns and threats that were Altrouge and Fina. Either way, Shirou was left in an undesirable position.
Shirou breathed out slowly again, regathering his thoughts. "... Your debt won't be inconsequential by the end of this Merem."
"I'm well aware."
"At the very least, I expect you to show me the entirety of your personal collection in the future as a down payment for me revealing mine."
"Hah." The ancient monster let out an amused laugh. "Given the hordes of treasures you now have at your disposal and the majestic locale you have them in, I consider that a bargain."
The two stared one another down in the eerily silent woods. While there would be few animals about this late in winter, the dead quiet was an irregularity that would have been noticed by even the average human eventually.
"Why did you come to Fuyuki? It wasn't for me," Shirou asked bluntly.
"No. It wasn't," Merem admitted. "Nor was it for the Grail."
"Don't play games with me. Not now. I brought your attention here when you met me, if not renewed it. You never appeared in my father's notes, but the Fuyuki Grail War was common knowledge to everyone by the time the fifth was announced. I wasn't the reason. The Grail wasn't. Servants weren't either. And virtually every participant remaining is currently in my house. Unless you had some unknown grudge against Zouken, Gilgamesh, or Kirei that was addressed when they died, I have more than reason to suspect you are a threat to my other guests."
"A bit blunt of you to come to that ultimatum, but I can see why you would come to that nonetheless," Merem whimsically mused, looking up at the sky. "You are correct in my assumed target, although my intentions are far more benign than you fear, my friend. Regardless of how this war turned out, I assure you my actions and intentions would not have crossed your machinations and end goals."
"Merem…" Shirou's temper started to wane. He knew when he was being led by the nose.
"And so I will give you this warning for Altrouge's visit," the Elder vampire continued firmly. "Do not under any circumstances allow her to lay eyes on your sister."
That alone sent a chill down the teen's spine greater than most of the ones he experienced during the War. "Illya? Why would… what did you do?"
"With regards to young Illyasviel specifically? Nothing at all. You have my word. She is as aware of this particular bit of history as you. As of this moment, there are only four individuals that have any knowledge of this matter, including myself and Kaleidoscope. The other two have as much to lose by releasing this information as you do." Looking up at the sky once more, he was soothed by the moon coming out from behind some clouds. "If left alone, you have my word that it will remain harmless, as I had intended from the start. I was speaking true when I said that I came here out of idle curiosity. Like visiting an old haunt one would frequent after a decade to see if some old stains in a corner left one night were still there. That said, should the wrong ears and tongues catch wind and spread news of these stains, I fear only further hardships would saturate your future my friend."
"You're dodging the question. What did you do?" Shirou didn't spare Merem any flowery prose and logical fallacies. He didn't have any patience for any of that at this point.
Merem let out an amused snort, as though he found Shirou's absolute disregard for his efforts to soothe him entertaining.
"After the meeting."
This time even Saber was clearly reaching the ends of her patience if the twitching of her eyes and hands were anything to go by.
He lifted his hands before the teen's temper could spike again. "I was not exaggerating Altrouge's trait of seeing past fallacies. And she is an insufferable gossip, even among our kind. If she even suspects you are hiding your sister for a relevant reason, she will latch onto it and be even more insufferable than before. While none can fault your loyalty and dedication, your ability to lie convincingly under pressure leaves much to be desired. The less you know, the less she can determine. And this is a meeting where you don't want to make a poor first impression, even if it's with that impostor princess."
There was no mistaking his frustration if the teen's tightened fists, bared knuckles, and rippling flesh on his right arm were any indication. "You're pushing the limits of my patience Merem. There's only so much of this bullshit I can stomach after everything you've put me through already."
"I had already committed myself to telling you about my distant connection with your sister once I learned of your plan to construct her another body and extend her life. If anything, Altrouge's interference delayed the conversation."
"Funny how it turned out like that."
"I'm confident it's a feeling you are well acquainted with by now." Merem's dry tone equaled Shirou's.
The youngest one there took a few moments to breathe deeply to calm himself down. A laborious endeavor given how strained his temper had been as of late.
"... Is there anything else I should be aware of that you have failed to report?"
"The Church is in the process of an expedited selection of my replacement. Whoever they choose should arrive in town within the week. Two at the latest. I am to depart at most two days after their arrival and instruct them through all the necessary details for managing Fuyuki."
That was not unexpected. Not ideal, but not surprising either. Merem was one of the Church's greatest assets after all.
Fast. It was all moving incredibly fast. And he had absolutely no choice but to adapt if he wanted to (maintain his peace) survive.
He nodded shallowly, gritting his teeth and focusing on the ground to reorganize his thoughts. "Okay. That was bound to happen. Nothing surprising about that. At least now we have a timetable to work with."
"I do not have anything else of note to inform you of. Nothing relevant to you or those in Fuyuki at least." Being well over two thousand years old at bare minimum, there was little doubt that the ancient monster had a plethora of curious facts to regale him with if he so chose.
For a moment, Shirou debated dropping the bomb that he had invited the Vice Director to their "private" meeting in two nights, but he smothered that notion. Not out of any form of camaraderie, but out of practicality. Not only was she one of his few hidden cards to play, but the Barthomelloi would be less inclined to murder him if he didn't inform any vampires of her attendance.
"It's nothing." He shook his head, letting his shoulders sag. The sooner this entire disaster was over with, the better. "You wanted to see my Reality Marble then. You're not going to fight me once it's up, are you?"
Merem chuckled. "The temptation is certainly there, but I would postpone that particular excursion for a more appropriate time and place, if possible. You look like you could use the extra rest after spending the day with the girls regardless."
"Hmm." He didn't need to be an ancient vampire to read the amused subtext of that last bit. "How long do you want me to keep it up? I'm not doing an endurance test."
"Just a few minutes. Fortunately from what you've told me, your world is rather simple and open to view. The fewer excessive details and alterations to the setting, the easier it is to piece a judgment together."
"Fine." Leaning back, the teen closed his eyes and began to dwell upon his world before an errant thought came to him.
"Is something amiss?"
"No, just… I would recommend having your left arm out for this. Just in case you require a different perspective." Shirou evaded giving a direct explanation.
"Hoh? A new development then?" Rather asking why, Merem seemed to be more interested in being surprised if the glimmer in his eyes were any indication. Without so much as a twitch, his left hand below his robes glowed, and an instant later a familiar old man in priest robes stood behind his master with a kind smile.
"You have my gratitude for granting me this opportunity, Lord Emiya." The King of Rats bowed graciously.
Shirou shook his head at the display and calmed himself. Fortunately he was already sitting for this. It wasn't necessary for him to do so, but it was more… appropriate.
"My body is made of blades." I am made of memories.
"Fire is my blood. And Glass is my heart." I am never still, yet I am fragile.
"Through countless battles, I endlessly await on the Hill." My path is trying, but my goal is simple.
"For Hell's hands to bear. For Heaven's hands to temper." I entrust my sins to others. I entrust my wellbeing to others. Fighting for them all.
"There is no lure of salvation or victory here." My trials have no individual meaning. They were only in the way.
"Thus, there is no place I rather tend." There is no place I rather cherish.
"Surrounded by the silence on the Hill." I carry the memories past the desired end.
"I dream after the smiling end." I wait in the peaceful quiet between stories.
"This body is truely, made of blades." And remember each and every tale I see.
The world around the small group was eclipsed with a soft red glow, and they found themselves in an entirely new world.
All of them sitting on a large peaceful grassy hill of swords in the cusp of twilight. Countless weapons of all qualities standing upright in the ground, all facing the sun just beyond the horizon, reflecting its sparse rays. The full moon glowing softly in the sky among the stars.
All of them looked at the red light in the distance and the moon just above it. It was a beautiful and idyllic sight.
And Merem and Saber couldn't look away.
"... Oh." Was all the vampire could say softly as a lone tear unknowingly dropped down his cheek.
"This…" Saber was little better, as she seemed rooted to her spot, paying little attention to anything other than the horizon.
"Lord Emiya?" Oddly enough, the King of Rats seemed completely unaffected by what was transpiring, turning to his host with a complicated expression.
Shirou didn't immediately respond, sitting at the top of the hill above the others alongside copies of the blades made from his father's body, and Avalon. He too was looking at the far off light and moon with a wistful expression. "It's fine. This is a peaceful place. Nothing will happen here so long as nobody starts anything. Feel free to look around as much as you want."
A thousand thoughts a minute ran in the Rat King's mind as he examined not only his surroundings but the effects on the Vampire and Servant as well, but he did not voice them. While he was not afflicted by whatever mystery had ensnared Merem and Saber, he could still feel the overwhelming sanctity of this place. Violence was clearly condemned in this realm, and he didn't need to see the countless blades around him twitch to tell what may happen if he violated that rule.
That didn't cause him to dismiss the minor itch at the back of his mind. There was without a doubt some sort of mystery that came about from looking at that horizon. One with certain requirements that he didn't meet, but Saber and his maker did.
"Shirou, this is…" Saber couldn't seem to finish her sentence or wrest herself away from the view for longer than a few seconds.
"I know. We can talk about it later." In spite of their respective positions normally, at that very moment, the only one that gave the impression of being a King was Shirou, sitting at the apex of the hill with a listless expression that presided over this empty land of swords.
No. Not necessarily a King, but still one that presided over the lands with utmost authority.
The King of Rats swallowed heavily, but decided to remain silent and get to the task at hand. He had been allowed to roam this world freely specifically to do so in his maker's stead for this very reason, and it would not do to disappoint both host and master.
Regardless of his results though, he was certain that Merem's Solomon's impression of his friend would be impacted by this.
It had been a long time since Crown had been hit by a direct mental attack successfully.
o. o. o.
She had waited long enough, and for a punctual and efficient person such as herself, that meant that she had been more than generous.
"Have there been any immediate chores manifesting since last, Adashino?" Lorelei Barthomelloi walked at a controlled pace through the halls of the main Clocktower building. She did not have to alter her pace or direction as the faculty weaved out of her way as though it was only natural.
"There are still some concerns about a return of Brunestud, understandably." The Japanese woman kept pace right behind her easily, unflappable and immaculate in her eastern clothing in a sea of suits, uniforms, and skirts. "Several departments are raising complaints and demanding exorbitant restitutions for the experiments and rituals interrupted by the lockdown."
"The fact that you bothered at all to bring up the obvious insinuates that there actually was something worth compensating." This in spite of the fact that any experiments that should be worth anything of value performed on campus property should by all rights be taking place in facilities so secure that the lockdown shouldn't have changed anything in the first place.
"Some members of the department of Astronomy were set to leave for the Animusphere's territory for some event that they can no longer attended. They are being particularly vocal about it."
"Astrologers are always up in arms when they are away from their telescopes for more than a few days. Unless they can underscore and impress onto anyone why this particular once in a millenia event is any different than the other three dozen that take place every month, their babble is deemed as worthless as the rest of the cattle." Her callous words were both more and less harsh than normal. Truth be told, astronomy held a monumental importance to multiple fields of magecraft to the point that all of the other departments relied on Astronomy to verify and validate some of their most important experiments. However, on the other hand, the number of times that the field of research was critically important to a project was few and far in between. So much so that most of the time their lack of support could be worked around with enough time, effort, and spells… and budget.
"Duly noted." Hishiri's pleasant expression didn't change in the slightest. "I shall have them explain in detail the importance and impact of their delay along with their estimation of the costs to the Association."
Meaning that by the time the Astrology department managed to sit down and do that paperwork, Policies would have investigated and interviewed those likely affected already and have a more reasonable figure in mind to contest the complaints.
"Unless proven or ordered otherwise, have the Association resume all operations and elevate the security level to yellow and surveillance to orange." The Queen instructed. "Those monsters are whimsical on a good day. Brunstud came here for a reason and she got it. She would not bother returning here unless something else caught her attention, but that does not mean that others wouldn't linger about here to try and piece together what she is after."
Might as well use it to their advantage to route out some leaks while everything is still hot.
"Are you certain that leaving now is the best idea? That will draw as much attention as Brunstud's appearance once word gets out."
"I am merely investigating a source that may be of assistance on the matter. Which in turn may lead to another Apostle hunt to partake in."
Who she would ultimately wind up hunting was still up for debate.
"I see. Well, for such a high stakes hunt, you certainly aren't wasting any time. You aren't even traveling with a full entourage." Hishiri noted factually, though it was clearly more of a curious inquisition than anything.
"Time is merely of the essence if Lord El Melloi II is to be recovered, and there are suitable resources I can procure on site. Should I address an Ancestor in the process, all the better." The Queen of the Clocktower stated in a clipped tone that brokered no argument.
The Japanese woman stifled a small laugh as she spotted several magi listening in onto the conversation. Truth or not, Waver was no doubt going to catch hell for that statement once he returned, and her superior was unlikely going to leave him out to dry for its entirety. "I'm certain he will be most indebted to you once this is all resolved. Should he survive."
"That man has the devil's luck. And tongue for that matter. It would be most disappointing if he allowed himself to perish after the efforts put through to ensure his survival up until now." She meant it too. Between the Fourth Grail War to the disaster with Louvre, to the entire controversy regarding the Fifth war. Waver Velvet was a textbook definition example of "Failing Up", only he was also the rare sort of individual that had the intelligence and work ethic to maintain his gains despite his lack of natural ability.
"I suppose so. I'd have to look for a new quality source of entertainment if something happen to him as well." Hishiri sighed whimsically before something caught her attention.
A particularly pungent and bodily odor.
"What happened ta three days lass?"
Barring the two women's way, and everyone else's in the hallway, was a slightly annoyed Sirius McGinty. Dirty. Covered in sweat. Clearly exhausted if the bags under his eyes were any indication, and reeking of bodily fluids, ash, steel shavings, and wood.
What would be the first thing that people would notice once they recovered from the assault on their olfactory senses was the large box he was carrying at his side that resembled an elongated leatherbound suitcase.
The second thing they would notice was the heat literally rippling from his massive body to the point that many people could feel the difference where they stood, and see the air bending and shimmering around his frame.
"I decided to be punctual." The Queen to her credit didn't so much as react to his appearance or odor. "I'm disappointed. I presumed that you still had enough etiquette to make yourself barely presentable when outside your dwelling."
"Humph. Don't give me that girl. I wouldn't have hauled my reeking arse here like this if I didn't get word that you were movin' early." The old man scoffed, not at all concerned with his current condition or the way the onlookers were gaping at his disrespectful demeanor.
Lorelei didn't even consider apologizing or acknowledging her part in his actions, noting his literally heated appearance. "I hope it has not impacted the results of your project. You appear to have come straight from your private forge."
"No thanks to you." Sirius' bitter snipe earned him more looks before he lifted up the case. "Don't bother fakin' concern. Ya'd be shit at it, and it would be for nothin'. Managed ta get everythin' set and done an hauled ass here before ya could run off ta do whatever it is yer doin'. Sharpin'. Grindin'. Cleanin'. Oilin'. Polish. Grips. Mark. It's all there."
The Queen's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, the only tell that she was far more intrigued and curious about the final products than she'd otherwise claim. "... Very well then. Show me these unrivaled masterpieces of yours."
If she had demanded the rude drunk to do so in public to put him on edge, she was clearly disappointed by the cocky smirk marred by uneven teeth behind twisted thick red facial hair. In one smooth gesture that was completely unexpected from the large man, he knelt down on one knee and held up the briefcase.
"If that's what ya want."
A brief wordless spell later unlocked the container and opened it in front of her eyes.
In complete contrast to the maker's appearance, the inside of the box was nothing short of immaculate and pristine.
Laid upon a rich purple velvet silk padding were two straight short swords resting in opposite directions in lacquered oak scabbards so dark and polished they looked almost seamless pitch black had the near crimson blood ringlets that remained in the wood not seemingly glow in almost hypnotic patterns. In contrast to the dark padding and scabbards, the grips and minor ridges in the metal at the base that acted as a crossguard of each blade was a pristine metallic white that was somehow simultaneously soft and sharp on the eyes, akin to a cloud made of white steel wool from a distance.
For the briefest of moments, Lorelei Barthomelloi hesitated. The tools were no doubt quality work, but she felt something else in them. It was as if the blades were sleeping, and thrived in doing so. That disturbing that rest would result in… something.
She dismissed the feeling a moment later. Regardless of what she may presume, McGinty wasn't that great of a fool. He would not bestow on her a faulty product.
Her hands laid upon the grip of the topmost blade, and withdrew it slowly savoring the feel of the metallic edges brushed against the scabbard with a firm weight and resistance.
"Oh?" Hishiri hummed curiously upon the sight, and she was not the only one.
In Lorelei's hand was a simple double sided short sword. There were no engravings or indications that it was used or manufactured with any form of mystery.
The only outstanding factor that made it stick out from the standard blade of similar make was that it was a completely unique hue of white, as though bone was meshed with metal so thoroughly that it had become a new material altogether.
"A curious color."
"Aye. Wasn't surprised they turned out like that regardless of what else was mixed in." The old man smugly replied. "Ah named em Kaseki. Mean's "Fossil"."
In Japanese he left out, though he could tell that many figured that out instantly, including both women from Policies right in front of him.
"Fossil." Lorelei ignored the underlying bit of trivia and clinically inspected the tool. Weighing it. Swinging it. Channeling mana into it. In terms of quality as a simple piece, it was admittedly a perfect tool as a basic sword. With the air under her influence, a single swing was enough to tell that the blade of this tool was beyond exceptional. More than satisfactory to effortlessly sever flesh and bone with minimal effort if needed without the slightest bit of mana or spellwork to enhance or enforce any part of the action. She would not be surprised if a simple thrust in the hands of an amiteur was capable of piercing through steel to a degree. It was a fine blade.
But that was it.
As far as bladed tools go, it did not compare to even the top hundred produced by the Association in the past century, many of which had been ironically forged by the old man in front of her. She felt no true mystery in it, no reaction to her power.
And yet, she simultaneously felt as though the blade was analyzing and judging her as well, with little to no motivation. As though it was a lazy dog resting across the room and giving her an unimpressed glance when she called it but didn't bother to do anything else.
"A quality piece as a decoration, but I fail to see the significance you proclaimed, McGinty. What is its function?"
Sirius chuckled and slowly put down the box so he could carefully withdraw the other blade, and then stood straight up…
Pointing his blade straight at her.
For a moment, the hallway went ominously silent as those watching could not believe that the man would do something so outrageously stupid.
And then they noticed his sword changing.
White melded into crimson and gold.
The body of the blade condensed and elongated into a slightly longer rod.
The tip warped and bulked, turning into a jagged, elaborate ornate piece of metal and magecraft…
"That is…" Lorelei was momentarily at a loss of words as she recognized not a sword, but a mace.
A very familiar mace that she had last seen four years ago.
Odo, the Mace of Bayeux. A Noble Phantasm. Even the aura around it was indistinguishable from the original piece as far as she could recall.
"These beauties do one thing and one thing only." Sirius smirked before slowly moving the mace and twirling it in his hand before lightly flicking it as though he was hitting something invisible.
Nobody missed the small ripple of distorted reality quake from the head through the air and into the marble floor, causing it to shift and crack effortlessly on contact.
His words no doubt held a great deal of weight to those listening, but only Lorelei knew exactly what the old man was talking about, and the implications.
Looking at the white sword in her own hand, she pondered how she should test his words. Initially she had debated merely to make a copy of her own personal sword, but after a moment she settled on a far more appropriate weapon to manifest for the demonstration.
There were no doubt conditions required to invoke a change in the blade in her hands. However, she had been given enough clues and hints to have a strong suspicion on how it was done. A blade that "remembers" other weapons would require a significant motivation and direction to invoke its form in entirety to take another.
Copying the bastard's gesture from earlier, she pointed her own white blade at its maker, and brought up her own thoughts and memories to the forefront, establishing a connection not unlike that with a temporary familiar with the tool in her hand in the process.
The feeling it gave off. The purpose it held. It's name. Size. Shape. Weight. Maker. Owner. Though she had only inspected and held a copy of the blade itself once, she would never forget the feeling it gave off or the subtle chills sent down her spine whenever it was present.
The sword elongated slowly.
White became black.
Erratic vein-like patterns almost resembling magic circuits marred the once pristine body.
Edges shone faintly with a deep red hue.
A heavy, powerful, malevolent, yet almost tired and lamenting aura emanated from its entirety.
The Queen of the Clocktower was no longer wielding an immaculate blank white sword, but a cursed monstrosity made to murder those that wielded the mysteries of the world, and scar the rest.
Sirius only barked out a laugh and smirk, the only magus there not intimidated by the cursed weapon's aura, though that could be because he made the original in the first place. Nor was he insulted with the gall she had to point his own work at him so defiantly.
With a casual, if not outright lazy swing, he rested the mace in his hands on his shoulder, where it soon enough returned to his immaculate blank "white" state. His eyes never strayed from hers. "Well? Does it pass standards?"
The woman maintained her silence for a few more seconds before letting out an almost amused scoff and dropping her own blade, also returning it to its original state. "I suppose it will have to do."
"She supposes." Sirius sarcastically mutters while rolling his eyes before returning his sword to its sheath and gently resting it in the velvet container again. "Ya noble brats are never happy with bloody anything."
"I would be pleased if you cleaned yourself and stopped polluting the halls with your odor." The young woman quipped briskly while sheathing her own blade. Instead of handing it to the old man however, she made it a point to fasten it to her side. If there ever was a sign of approval and acknowledgement for Sirius' work, it was that.
"Humph." The gesture had not escaped the old man's eye, as he had closed the case shortly after she had finished and handed it to her, but he didn't comment on it at all. "If ah don't leave my shop in the next few days, just assume ah passed out an' drowned takin a long bath scrapin' all this shit offa me. That or ahm still out from binge workin' fer over a week straight."
"You haven't been in your workshop for that long."
"Benefits of knowin' an Emiya. Havin' your own time dilation bounded fields is addictive shit for meetin' deadlines once the backlash problem's dealt with." Without asking for permission or the like, the drunk bastard roughly handed over the suitcase to the once surprised and fumbling Hishiri. Then, he just turned and walked away. "There's a few extra notes in the box. Basic sword care instructions and' a few extra tips and' tricks lass. Have fun doin whatever ya think you're doin. And Barthomelloi or not, if ya fuck up that blade I'm reamin' ya a new one with the remains!"
"He certainly is as crude as the rumors say." Hishiri's normally pleasant and diplomatic tone was tinged with a hint of annoyance as she fumbled with the large package in her hands. "Shall I have Policies start the procedures for a reprimand? I hear that his workshop and accommodations are among the most lenient among the sealing designates."
For a moment, Lorelei debated going along with the petty revenge before thinking better of it. "Best not. Knowing that man, he will only become more unbearable if we do that. Or refuse to bathe and claim it due to the lack of accommodations."
"Ah." One could easily see the wind deflating from the Japanese woman's sails. "That does sound like something the man would do in petty spite."
"Infamy has many forms," the Queen relented, casting a quick spell to rid herself and her clothes of the lingering ash filled body odor in the air. "Come. We have preparations to make."
"And the sword?" Hishiri asked of mild curiosity, knowing that there had been two made for a reason.
"Bring it." The two women continued through the hallways to where the Vice director's private limo was waiting for them.
"No." The woman's mild mirth quickly died away into impassiveness. "Merely a formality."
o. o. o.
"Master, I believe we have traveled far enough."
Shirou swallowed a grimace. Saber only spoke this formally to him when she was blatantly mocking him, exceptionally irritated with him, or in a formal situation. Three guesses as to which one it was this time and the first two didn't count.
Fortunately, Merem had opted to stay in the forest after his demonstration, so he was no longer in earshot. He had been affected by Unlimited Blade Works' rather unique quirk just as badly as Saber had, but the vampire had in contrast not taken it as poorly. If anything, the two millenia plus year old monster seemed to be still struck mute from the experience even as they left, having the King of Rats speaking as an intermediary in the process.
"I should have warned you," he simply replied, not striking up the nerve to look at her just yet.
"Yes. You should have." Her tone had a keen edge to it. "When were you going to tell everyone that your Reality Marble possessed such a curse? It was clearly not mentioned in Kiritsugu's notes. Nor present in Archer's variant."
"When things calmed down, eventually. Certainly not like this. It wasn't an expected development either. The curse was just, there, when I fully completed it. Just as all the swords were." He turned and looked at her apologetically. "There shouldn't be any lasting damage. As far as curses go, it's pretty harmless-"
"That's not the point!" The King of Knights uncharacteristically snapped at him in genuine anger before regaining her composure. "I… for a moment, I genuinely believed I was back in Camlann. What I saw, what I felt in my very being, you know my circumstances. Better than anyone save for perhaps Archer. To not prepare me for what I would experience…"
This time Shirou did flinch. She was right, he had overstepped his trust with her in that regard. He had vainly suspected that she had become acceptable to that train of thought and hoped it would prepare her for that quirk of his Reality Marble. However, that had been a horrifically cruel overestimation on his part. Even if Saber was more open to his suggestions, she had only been with him for a few weeks. Having such a feeling and emotion forced into her without warning was bound to set off a few nerves.
"You're right." He held up his hands in surrender. "I screwed up. I thought… you'd take it better. Or it wouldn't affect you that badly."
She frowned. "What do you mean by that?"
He shrugged. "You noticed how the King of Rats wasn't affected by the curse? There are conditions to setting it off. Having a certain disposition is one of them, and looking at the horizon is the other. If both aren't met, nothing happens other than maybe some residual feelings about the place. It hits some, and completely skips over everyone else. All or nothing. Merem meets it. The Rat doesn't. You… honestly, you're in a gray area given your unique condition. Even I can't tell what would or should have happened to you, and I'm the source of the damn thing."
The Servant glared at him intensely, trying to reason out any half truth or misdirection in place of a poorly fabricated lie, but came up with none. "That doesn't excuse your poor judgment."
"No, it doesn't," he agreed helplessly. "And I'm truly sorry for that oversight. I really didn't believe it would hit you that badly."
She let out an irritated huff, allowing some of her body language to relax. "I doubt anyone would have believed you were capable of cursing me so effectively without some enchanted blade. Or anyone for that matter. However, I suppose we can just attribute that to how unreasonable you can be at the worst times."
"Owch." He laughed weakly, not at all defending his near inability to utilize most forms of magecraft.
Saber opened her mouth to chastise him some more before she thought better of it, and decided on a different topic of conversation. "... So, that is truely how you feel then? How you see the world?"
His smile softened into something almost melancholic. "Not the world, not for everyone. Just… how things are, should be, for some."
His choice of words was peculiar, but not unexpected. "Does that include yourself?"
It was a loaded question with many implications, and had they not been as close as they were, Saber would not have asked it.
"Isn't that a bit hypocritical coming from you?" he asked with a tinge of dark sarcasm.
"It's fine. It's not like you'd be the only hypocrite." He dismissed the severity of her stern tone with a casual air that she had only seen in a handful of individuals. All of whom were not insignificant in their own right. "To answer your question… yes and no. I am done. I wouldn't have been able to realize my Reality Marble if I wasn't, but that doesn't mean that I have nothing to do afterwards that isn't as important to me. It just won't be as… notable. And it shouldn't be."
Saber suppressed the ominous chill that snaked down her being. The finality that Shirou had in his tone when speaking went beyond confidence. It was almost akin to an absolute certainty that he felt that everyone should accept.
For the first time in a while, Saber realized that her Master wasn't as sane as he portrayed or believed himself to be. Only this time she didn't have Kiritsugu's notes as a welcome guide to explain and rationalize it at all.
And the worst part about it was that she completely understood what he meant by it.
Suddenly his rather extreme reaction to the Vampires' probing into his life began to make far more sense than it should.
She had not lied when she claimed that she thought she was back on Camlann for a moment. Back on that hill, dying and surrounded by friends and those she thought as friends, that she still believed as friends. Next to the corpse of the child she had slain, never truly reaching out to, nor desired, and yet all the while without question reaching out to herself in desperation.
Standing on that hill and staring at the horizon, her body was virtually paralyzed and immobilized by the euphoric sensation of finally, finally, stopping.
Of accepting the long deserved and overdue rest that her mind, body and soul craved.
Of leaving the future to those that were alive and those that would be alive.
Of moving on, and finally be and act as Arturia, instead of Arthur.
And the worst part about it all was that all these feelings were with absolute certainty her own. Feelings that she had dabbled with, played with her thoughts errantly and occasionally, but always smothered by her pride and purpose. Feelings that had rarely gained more than a single meager foothold before being quashed as mere distraction.
Until she found herself on that hill that was so similar and yet so different than the one she had died on.
It was ironic in a cruel way. She was cursed to remain on her hill until she fulfilled her goal, or gave up. But Shirou Emiya, regardless of what name or facade he took, seemed destined to make, die upon, and remain eternally on his own.
And each and every one seemed determined to get her off without achieving her dream, while they remained on their hill with theirs.
She was starting to develop a strong distaste for hills. Metaphorical or not.
"Shirou. Whatever I choose to be my fate to be is ultimately my decision." She glared at him dangerously.
"It is," he agreed without putting up a fight. "And it is my obligation as your friend to care for Arturia Pendragon and tell you when you are making a mistake. King Arthur's story has been written and concluded for centuries. As has Gilgamesh's, Medea's, Lancelot's, and countless others. There is no need or point to remake, replace, or correct it now."
"Are you truly saying that by that logic, your story has no purpose anymore too?" Saber incredulously asked, bewildered by his logic.
"Our stories have purpose, Saber. But they won't have meaning to them unless they have an end to tie it all together. Running ourselves into the ground endlessly will only discourage those that come across our legacies later. Your kingdom is gone. Your allies are gone. Your enemies are gone. But your legacy is one that countless lives and kingdoms are founded on, and continues even to this day. We make our stories, but we are not bound by them and die when they do. Whether or not we continue onward afterwards, and what we do in that time should not be dictated by those stories." He smiled and turned around and kept walking. "I did what I intended to do. What I was supposed to do. Trying to fit me into another story, to make me take a main role in some excessive plot that I should have no part in… would be a mistake."
That time, Saber really did have to put in some effort to suppress the cold shiver down her spine. The commitment and solemn certainty behind his words was almost fanatical.
"You despise the idea of summoning heroic spirits, don't you?" The words left her mouth before she even realized she had even said it.
Shirou stopped in his tracks, but didn't look at her. "... I believe that the dead should stay dead, and shouldn't be bothered with the nonsense of the living. The fact that they exist at all, that the world deems them a necessity, only means that humanity hasn't done enough to live up to the legacy that has been left in our hands. If I do have to dedicate myself to an unreasonable task for the rest of my life, it might as well be to prevent if not minimize the odds of that rest being disturbed again."
"So back to being a hero and world peace then?" The irony was not lost on either of them.
"Hah." The young man let out a dry laugh. "Yeah, right. No, I guess I'll just... play the game enough that things don't get that bad. Push my fingers on the scale. Maybe sabotage the damn thing every now and then if it gets too bad from behind the scenes. Just enough that the world doesn't burn around me while I'm trying to enjoy it."
Saber stared at her Master's back with pity and frustration. It appears that she still had her work cut out for her. "For someone that despises the idea of Heroic Spirits summoned and tied to the world to clean up the messes of humanity, you seem to have no qualms putting unreasonable responsibilities onto myself."
This time Shirou did look back at her confused. "What's that supposed to mean? You're free to go whenever you want. You know I'd never stop you."
"And it's that sort of reaction that only cements my decision to oversee your foolishness," the King of Knights scoffed. "Rin and the others would be driven mad trying to keep an eye on you otherwise."
"You owe a steep debt for your thoughtlessness, Master," she chided firmly. "And it is because of both that I have deemed it necessary that I keep an eye on you until the debt, and my concerns, are alleviated. The last thing I desire should I return to Camlann is to be plagued by the potential disasters you would get into or worse, start, without my oversight."
"... I genuinely can't tell if you are being serious or mocking me."
"Neither can I."
Had the conversation and topic not been so grave and personal, they would have at least chuckled or broke a small smile at her admittance.
Then, surprisingly, Shirou started to look worried and shift on his feet uncomfortably. "Saber… am I, is this a problem?"
The uncertain question caught her off guard. "Pardon?"
"I'm different from dad's notes. Different from the disaster that could have spawned Archer." Shirou looked at his hands confused. "I know I'm not… that I don't think the same way as others, and I sometimes frustrate everyone but, the way I am now. Is it actually a problem for everyone?"
It was the way he had asked the question that shattered Saber's prior irritation with him. She had been at his side from the very beginning of the war, and had stood by while he had been at his worst moments. Frustration. Anger. Confusion. Exhaustion. Even his scant moments of weakness when he felt genuinely overwhelmed.
But she had never seen him blatantly scared and confused like this before.
It was such an unexpected change of pace that she genuinely faltered and needed a moment to regather her thoughts and try to formulate an appropriate answer.
Shirou wasn't stupid. Brash and headstrong at times certainly, but he wasn't stupid. His occupation required him to be observant if he wanted to survive. He was fully aware that he didn't think or see the world like normal humans did, and purposefully made an effort to accommodate for that as best he could.
However, most of the quirks he accommodated for were ones that were already known and pointed out to him by his father's notes and his peers.
Like he said, he was different from Archer. He had been steered in a completely different way than the Counter Guardian, both in goal and in mindset. Which meant that not all their quirks and twisted trains of thought aligned up anymore, or identified.
The absolute last thing Shirou desired was to cause problems for those close to him, intentionally or not. And if these new irregular habits of his that he didn't know about made things worse…
"No," she quickly and firmly answered once she regained her bearings, reaching out and grabbing his shoulder as if to steady him. "No. It is no issue, Shirou. Compared to what trials you have already undergone and surpassed, this hurdle is but a minor one that all of us had simply overlooked. I will inform the others of this revelation and we can move from there."
"I… okay. Okay. Thanks. I needed that. And sorry. I didn't, I don't… it's not wrong. For those that worked so long and hard to finally stop and leave the rest to others. But it wouldn't be the first time that I approached things in a way that rubs people badly."
Saber shook her head. The revelation that he had a new notable quirk that might cause headaches that he wasn't prepared for was without question a big shock to her Master, and not a welcome one at that with the Vampires arriving soon. Then again, the monsters may be a welcome distraction from it all to get his head back in the game.
"Let's go home and get some rest. There's still plenty of time to work this out, and plenty of people to discuss this issue with." She gave him a small smile.
"Yeah. We should do that before everyone gets worried." Shriou nodded feebly and turned around. The conversation had moved in a direction he did not expect, and it had a visual effect on him. "Thanks, Saber. And, I'm sorry for shocking you like that, again."
"You can provide restitutions later. You will have plenty of time to do so once this vampire nonsense is finally addressed." She followed behind him dutifully.
She didn't bother to press him on the matter regarding his Reality Marble any further, as it would only devolve the situation.
She had already reasoned out some of her earlier questions regarding it from this latest event regardless. Such as why he had not shown it to everyone at his home just yet.
o. o. o.
"I've made a grave mistake."
The King of Rats stood concerned at his maker's side as the latter remained sitting in place with a thousand mile stare. He had just reported his observations on Lord Shirou's Reality Marble and the peculiar curse it possessed. Rather than a curse, it almost functioned as an exorcism of sorts, only its intended targets were not daemons and non-humans. If his assumptions were correct, roughly a quarter of the Twenty Seven were naturally immune to its effects, and the rest probably could outright ignore it so long as they were made aware of the specifics ahead of time, if not take proper measures. "How so?"
"I've brought too much attention to our friend. Far, far too much attention." Merem's far off expression didn't change in the slightest.
"Forgive me, but had we not already come to that conclusion?"
"No. You don't understand the depth of this." The vampire shook his head. "Shriou Emiya is not meant to handle or be in the thick of some scheme anymore. Doing so is akin to letting loose a wild animal in an exceptionally valuable and volatile workshop. It doesn't matter how much priceless knowledge and resources are at stake, he will run rampant to get out of it as soon as he is able regardless of the damage he causes in his wake. Only the wild animal in this circumstance had a strong background in dismantling and circumventing magecraft as a whole. He has firmly stopped in his own small world and refuses to move from it unless it is at his own pace. He is not tempted or tempered by the innate curiosity that the rest of our kind possesses in the slightest, and we are only now seeing the ramifications of presuming otherwise."
In that sense, Enhance was similar to their friend. The only difference was that one wanted to tear apart everything regarding the Apostle Ancestors and their legacy, while the other just desired to be left alone.
"That is, an unexpectedly childish and immature position to take. More so for someone as mature as our friend." The King of Rats pondered warily. "If so, it's astounding he has been so patient with us. Then again it would explain his rather poor temperament as of late."
"Altrouge will only find him a curiosity, and further stir the hornet's nest. No. That idiot Fina has already done that much." Merem shook his head and sighed tiredly. "It's no wonder he and Shirou are naturally eager to tear the other apart. They are conceptual polar opposites. Their instincts won't let them be calm around each other."
"Opposites? I suppose you are speaking other than 'Sword' and 'Consonance'."
"No." The Vampire didn't bother noting the significance of the irregular themes of magecraft of the two. "I was speaking of an ironically far more common and timeless hypothetical disaster that has plagued mankind for millenia."
"The meeting between an unstoppable force (The Parade that ceaselessly proclaims) and an immovable object (The Land of Unlimited Swords where the long desired end is reverently observed)."
"Truly?" The King of Rats recognized the former, but as one that had not experienced the curse firsthand, he could not fathom the latter.
"Mmm. It makes sense. Fina's provocation of Shirou goes beyond the norm. With Servants and myself present, he knows better than to play with fire, but he persisted regardless. He innately dislikes our friend to the point of madness, and I'm starting to suspect that Shirou shared the same sentiments as well. They must recognize one another as natural enemies every time they are near one another even without knowing why. Much like the relationship between Shirou and Archer."
"For someone that naturally desires peace and security, he certainly has a knack for making enemies," the King of Rats snarked.
Merem chuckled. "Why do you think we are never bored whenever he's involved in something new?"
"Fair enough, but even I suspect you are growing weary of this rampant and unnecessary escalation."
"Hmhm." The vampire laughed, his eyes never straying from the moon in the sky. "You are right in that regard. Why do you think I let the Church do all the meticulous planning and schemes in my stead? I've found the years far more pleasant and tolerable when I allow others to worry about that nonsense."
"It appears being a good friend is harder than you thought." The disguised rat smirked.
"Or maybe I just have terrible taste in friends."
The two chuckled in the middle of the forest, unperturbed by the winter night chill that ran through Fuyuki.
It had been an exceptionally long time since Merem had felt the cumulative weight of his immortality on his shoulders. The long forgotten memories and experiences that had built him up and quietly supported him throughout the years.
It was one thing to move forward through the centuries and millennia yearning for limitless immortality… but to spend just one meager lifetime already and perpetually staring peacefully at the end itself?
Merem couldn't help but chuckle in an amused bitterness.
His friend truly was an exceptional piece of work.
o. o. o.
Omake: Desperate Measures:
"I'm home." Shirou sighed as he finally entered the front door with Saber right behind him.
"Finally!" Rin chided, already standing in front of him with her arms crossed.
"... Were you standing there the entire time waiting for me?"
"Yes! And now you're going to make up for that right now!"
Shirou blinked in confusion and turned to Saber. "Did I miss something?"
"If you did, so did I." The Servant shrugged.
"Rin? What's going on?" Shirou owlishly blinked, completely lost.
The teenaged girl stomped over to him and poked him harshly in the chest. "Since today was a mess, the girls and I have had no choice but to use our last resort! You better be grateful for this you pain in the ass!"
Shirou's mind on the other hand went into overdrive as he noticed both the blush on Rin's cheeks and her verbal abuse tick she developed whenever she was embarrassed.
Unfortunately, before he could ask Saber for some backup, Rin had already grabbed his shirt and was dragging him deeper into the house.
"W-wait! Hold on a second Rin! Let's talk things out first before you do anything!"
"Stop squirming like a child! You're supposed to be an Apostle Ancestor aren't you? Why are you acting like I'm taking you to the Vatican?"
"Because your "spontaneous acts of generosity" have a tendency of backfiring! Remember the birthday party?"
"How was I supposed to know that Ryudou was allergic to pineapple?"
"And those attempts to try and be civil with Luvia?"
"It's not my fault she can't shut up and take a compliment and go away without her head inflating to the size of her cow tits!"
"And that time you tried to be nice to Shinji?"
Rin paused and looked at Shirou warily. "... Are you saying he didn't deserve what happened to him that day?"
Shirou looked at her expressionlessly. "Are you saying that you intended for that disaster to happen?"
"Disaster?" Saber blinked and tilted her head to the side in confusion.
""It's a long story."" Both teens replied at once almost ominously, waited three seconds, and resumed with Rin dragging him across the house.
Right until they were in front of the bathroom.
"Finally!" With a huff, Rin used her free hand to open the door.
"Wait? Here? I don't get it. Caster already updated the bathroom, and it's really nice so why… uh."
Shirou's confusion evolved into a pure dumbstruck expression as he witnessed that the Greek themed bathhouse in his home was not vacant.
Rather, it was very, very occupied.
And in use.
"It's about time you arrived." Luvia huffed, wet and donned in nothing but a towel.
"Onii-chan really needs to stop taking his time with those vampires." Illya smiled, sitting on a bench, also donned in a towel.
"He looks rather harrowed." Rider smiled slightly from the side, also in a towel but donning mystic eye killer glasses as well.
"He does. It'll probably take a while to clean him up." Sakura giggled, pretending to be innocent, wet and in a towel.
"... Huh?" Shirou's eyes were wide open and he did not put up any further resistance.
So preoccupied with the sight that he didn't notice Irisviel desperately shouting something about wanting to join in too for family time in the backyard, only for Bazett to literally fall from the sky elbow first and drive her into the ground, knocking her out. The enforcer then dragged the downed Servant away by one of her legs out of sight.
Saber noticed. She didn't say anything though.
"Hurry up will you?" Rin yanked him into what most red blooded males would consider a top tier wet dream. "I've been itching to get cleaned up all night but decided to hold out because someone needed to drag you in here."
"Don't listen to her. She just lost drawing straws." Illya grinned like the devil she was.
"I hope you pruned." Rin's pace grew faster as she left Shirou at the entrance and made her way to the changing area.
"One can dream!"
"Uh. Rider?" Shirou looked at the Servant almost hopefully. "Did you by any chance…?"
"Fufu. No. This isn't a dream, nor a product of my Noble Phantasm. This is all very much real." The Gorgon laughed knowingly. "Although I am up for requests if you so desire."
"Now now. Let's do this one hurdle at a time, shall we?" Sakura seemingly appeared behind her Servant with a smile that gave the latter horrifying flashbacks of her family.
"Come now Shero! Don't be shy!" Luvia, clearly enjoying her host's mental blue screen of death, grabbed his hands and dragged him deeper into the room while taking off his coat. "I have yet to enjoy this country's famous mixed baths. While the theme is a bit inaccurate, it does not take away from the novelty of the experience of enjoying it with close allies!"
She made a point of pressing her chest against his back and began working on his belt.
"Wouldn't you agree?"
"L-Luvia! Hold on a sec! S-Saber?! A little help?!" The man of the household tried and failed spectacularly to get some backup out of this mess.
Unfortunately for him, his backup was with Rin in the middle of undressing herself. With a small smirk, she gave him a knowing look. "... Do I look like a squire? Take off your own threads."
Shirou bit his tongue to hold back a remark about how, yes, her young barely fifteen year old appearance could indeed lead someone to that conclusion despite the fact that the King of Knights was actually in her mid thirties.
It was hard enough to toe the line with Illya's condition given that she had a habit of throwing Berserker at her problems. Didn't need a holy sword going off on top of that.
"Hey! No fair! It's my job as his sister to make him uncomfortable for my personal amusement first! Elder sibling privileges take precedent!" Illya stood up angrily and stomped over to him as though she meant to start a fight.
"Sakura? Help?" Shirou turned to his last bastion of aid with actual tears in his eyes. He didn't bother going to Rin for help. The girl was eyeing him like dinner with drool to match.
"Oh Shirou." Sakura sighed with the kind and gentle affection he had known her for, and waited as she walked over and gently rested a hand on his shoulder.
And proceeded to grab the material of his shirt.
The Second Magus Killer suffered his greatest defeat to date that night, while the girls in contrast achieved their greatest victory.
Despite the odds, Shirou Emiya finally managed to relax and, eventually, get a full night's rest.
o. o. o.
Thanks Wayfarer for Betaing. And Happy New Year everyone!
Sorry for the late delay everyone. Vacation stalled this chapter getting out sooner on both our sides.
So we finally get the FFD UBW out in the open, and it has a little bit of an unexpected tweak to it. I won't go into the details, but truth be told, it isn't much of a game changer for those that are prepared for it. Since Shirou's always on the hill itself and everyone else more or less is facing him when it manifests, all they have to do is keep looking forward to not get hit by the curse.
As for who gets hit and who doesn't, most Servants and Dead Apostles would be affected by it, but there are plenty of exceptions. A Servant without a Master does run the risk of completely dematerializing if they are hit by the curse though, and it does affect some Heroic Spirits harder than others. Rider in particular would be the least affected of the OG FSN rouster. Monsters like Altrouge, ORT, Fou, Dragons, most Phantasmal and Monstrous species, and Arcueid are completely unaffected by it though, as are most conventional Magi and humans.
As for why it's there at all, it ties to Shirou's minor freakout later in the chapter. It's sort of a case of, everyone tried to steer Shirou into a less suicidal path to focus on to avoid canon, but he inadvertently went onto a third route that nobody was really aware of until just now because it rarely shows its quirks.
As a result, when Saber recognized it and pointed it out, Shirou, who is self aware enough to know that he's not mentally sound but not aware enough to see how or why it might be expressed, has a minor panic attack that he might be pulling an Archer.
It's less a case of "oh, am I doing something that might hurt those around me" and more "holy shit have I been driving on the wrong side of the road this entire time?!" from his perspective.
Granted his mental state isn't that terribly self destructive compared to canon, but the way he truly sees things is unexpected enough that it's caught everyone that does know him and his history by surprise.
As for Merem's revised history of Apostle Ancestors, basically this universe is about 85-90% Fate, and the rest is primarily a mix of both Tsukihime universes. In case anyone forgot, this fic was started LOOOOOOONG before much of this lore came out, and instead of rewriting or retconning the entire damn story, I'm making shit up again. Basically, what made the Human dominated timeline in Fate is still there, but just has a delayed effect on the Apostle side of things, leading to the Tsukihime stuff from both versions still being a thing, but not in full force.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Anyways. Light hearted stuff is over. Things are picking up again in the next chapter.
In real life news… my new years sucked. Christmas and the holidays were fun and all, but my flight back home was on new years eve at 5.
… My plane didn't take off till fucking 11. I was still in the air when the ball dropped. And before anyone asks, the delays started at the time boarding was supposed to take place.
Regardless. I'm back. Rampaging. Writing. Working. Stuff-ing. Etc. And that's about it. Here's to 2023 not sucking… please?
Oh. And yes. The Omake is more or less canon. And Shirou did finally get laid. By who is up to you guys, except Illya for obvious reasons. The others had to put in an effort to stop her. Fortunately, Berserker wasn't listening to her for once. Even with the mad enhancement state, he isn't that insane.
SO REVIEW! WORSHIP THE LOG! THE BARTHOMELLOI RENT THEIR PERSONAL PLANES AND DON'T OWN THEM BECAUSE THEY DON'T WANT TO BOTHER MAINTAINING AND SERVICING THEM BECAUSE OWNING PLANES IS EXPENSIVE AS FUC! AND REVIEW AGAIN!