A/N: So yeah. New update. Sorry about the wait. I really didn't intend for it to take this long to get a new chapter out.
The city was shrouded in fog as she began her hunt.
She didn't have a target, nor a clear idea of her own intentions. Even as her bare feet padded along the rough stone of the alleys, she couldn't help but wonder what she was doing.
But the black snake that writhed within her chest would not let her sit idle, would not let her rest. She needed to make someone hurt. Anyone hurt. It was palpable need, pressing up from within.
And then, as if by fate's whimsy, she found the perfect prey.
The street whore in front of her didn't notice her presence, shrouded as it was by fog. Her soft footsteps were silent as she neared, clutching the rusted razor in her hand. Within a few seconds she was standing close enough to the other woman that she could have touched her. If she reached out, she would no doubt even be able to feel the heat from the woman's very body.
For a moment, newfound hesitation and fear warred with the serpent in her chest. She knew. If she took one more step along this path, then something would change. There would be no going back. She knew that. So why…?
Why were her hands already covered in blood?
The woman was screaming. The girl's stab had been clumsy and unpractised. But she could only stare at the blood falling onto the coarse stone, onto her hands, onto her clothes. Its colour was muted by the thick mist, but it was still so vivid.
A blow struck the side of her head and she fell. Above her, the woman clutched a heavy wooden rod, glaring down at her with undisguised rage, pain and fear. For some reason, that gaze hurt more than the rod had.
The rod fell on her again, cracking against her shoulders painfully. Instinct and the snake became one and she lashed out with the razor, hate and anger fuelling her. The nightwalker fell, clutching at her injured leg and screaming. In a detached part of her mind, the girl wondered why no-one had come at the sound of the screams. Had the fog muted them? Did they think that the woman was being taken by a customer? Or perhaps they simply didn't care?
As she crawled atop the fallen prostitute and silenced her screams with another thrust of the blade, the girl considered that it didn't matter.
She stared down at the woman's body for a moment longer and then raised her blade up, blood dripping from its edge….
"I'm sorry, Mother…"
The words slipped quietly from her mouth as she began her grisly work.
Shirou awoke with a start and stared at the roof.
Another pleasant dream, he thought, sarcasm dripping from the words even as they passed through his mind. Murdering prostitutes was exactly what I wanted to be thinking about when I was sleeping.
In truth though, he wasn't entirely unhappy. He'd found himself increasingly curious about his Servant's past. And since she was unwilling to divulge it, these dreams of her past memories were his only clue. Of course, murder wasn't the most pleasant subject matter to dream of, but it didn't really matter to him. Those people had been killed long ago. He'd never known them and he couldn't change what had happened to them even if he wanted to. The important thing was figuring out who Assassin was.
He turned to look at the small girl curled up next to him. At some point, she'd managed to grab hold of his arm and was clinging tightly to it. He couldn't help but smile at her.
It was hard to think of the girl beside him as being the same murderer from his dreams. Hard, but not impossible. Even so, he found that didn't care. Whomever she'd killed, no matter how much blood was on her hands…
It didn't matter. What mattered was that she was here, beside him.
He considered that thought. Assassin was important to him. That much was clear. But he didn't know how exactly. He didn't know if he simply considered her an important comrade or cared for her in a deeper manner. He'd never really been that good at understanding his own feelings to begin with and Assassin rendered them a confused mess.
Shaking his head to clear his mind, Shirou gently disentangled his arm from Assassin's grasp. It was difficult to prise the limb free without waking her but he eventually managed.
Slowly, he slipped out of the bed and padded over to the door. Opening it, he stepped into the corridor and sighed, rubbing his brow.
He really needed a stroll.
Ilya blinked as a curious feeling washed over her for the second time that night. There was no pain, only a sense of vertigo and hollowness deep within. The very first time it had happened, she'd instinctively known what had occurred.
A Servant had fallen. But its soul had not made its way to her.
She'd dismissed the idea as absurd, as an impossibility. She was the Lesser Grail. There was no other vessel in the world that could contain the spirit of a Servant.
And yet now the empty feeling had returned, sharper and more vivid than before.
"Ilya?" Saber spoke up from next to her, a concerned tone in her voice. "Are you alright?"
"…I'm fine." Ilya replied, rubbing her eyes wearily. After the first wave of hollowness had passed, she'd found herself filled with a nervous tension that had prevented her from getting any sleep. The last eight hours had been spent wandering around the castle, eventually coming to a halt in the living room.
A merry fire crackled in the fireplace, spreading both light and heat across the room. Ilya found herself staring deep into the flames, thoughts twisting and spiraling. She needed to do something. Check on the location of the souls, if nothing else. A simple solution presented itself and she shook her head subconsciously. Not an option. She wasn't going to force the Dress of Heaven to materialise over this.
She hated that damn dress.
"…Sella." She said after a moment's further thought.
"Mistress?" The maid stepped forward from her spot by the door, bowing as she did so. Ilya frowned.
"It's Ilya. Not Mistress." People kept giving her titles. She hated that. Her father and mother had named her Ilya, and that was what people should call her. Well, technically they'd named her Ilyasviel, but she wouldn't ask people to call her that. It was quite a mouthful after all.
"Of course, Mistress Ilya." Sella responded smoothly, with all the grace of an experienced housekeeper used to a troublesome employer and determined to maintain their propriety. "What did you need?"
Ilya glared at the maid for a moment, then spoke. "Set up the ritual circle of Heaven's Eye."
Sella paused for a second, then nodded. "Of course, Mistress Ilya. But if I might ask… Ah, which one was Heaven's Eye again?"
"Number four, Sella." Leysritt spoke up from the door. "Number three is Earth's Hand and number five is-"
"Yes, I remember now." Sella said sharply, cutting across her sister. A slight blush of embarrassment covered her face. "Though why they have such absurd names, I'm sure I don't know."
"You don't like the names, Sella?" Ilya said calmly. Only someone who knew her well would have noted the hint of ice in her voice. Sella knew her very well.
"Ah…" Sella hesitated. "T-they are perfectly serviceable names."
"I'm glad you think so!" Ilya face broke into a warm smile even as her voice went artic. "Because I spent some time thinking them up."
"And your effort clearly shines through, Mistress Ilya." Sella assured her even as she beat a hasty retreat. "I will set up the circle immediately."
Leysritt watched the retreating back of her sibling for a moment longer, then turned to face Ilya. "I'll see you later, Ilya."
Ilya smiled as Leysritt trotted after Sella. The two other homunculi had been created recently, no more than two years ago. They'd been made to serve and protect her in the War and no more. Even so, they'd become her dearest friends, providing the large mansion in the forest's depth with a warm atmosphere that she hadn't felt since her mother and father's passing.
Which made the fact that she was eventually going to kill them all the more heart wrenching. Ilya gritted her teeth at the thought. She truly hated that dress.
Avenger grinned as he leapt through the trees. Within his chest, Karna's soul burned hot and bright, scorching his body from within. But that would change soon enough.
Even now, icy tendrils were beginning to creep through the very essence of the fallen spirit, twisting, changing, devouring. The barriers between his own self and the essence of the slain Servant were coming undone. A throbbing resounded through his body as images of a time he'd never seen, a life he'd never lived flashed across his eyes. He was on a great plain, he was on the peak of a mountain, he was facing a storm like no other, weapon gripped tight in hand…
Avenger shook his head to clear the visions and growled savagely. He would not be buried under the memories of a mindless soul. He would not!
As if reacting to his anger, the black tendrils redoubled their pace, burrowing into the heat within his chest. The flame under his skin began to calm, its radiance dwindling to something he could bear. Something he could use.
He cleared the trees with a single bound and his gaze was pulled to the sight of the conflict unfolding below. Caster and Berserker had already begun their battle. The robed woman floated serenely in the air even as she rained bolts of eldritch energy down on the roaring giant.
He frowned. At a glance, the fight seemed horribly lopsided. Even in her unstable state, Caster's flight gave her a huge advantage over the grounded Berserker, allowing her to attack with impunity. The giant meanwhile, was all but helpless, able to do nothing more than endure the barrage as his injuries worsened. Caster's victory was all but assured.
A sigh escaped his lips, tinged with exasperation. Against any other Servant that was. If there was anything that Berserker could do perfectly, it was turning an impossible situation to his favour. The worse the odds, the more glorious the ash giant's victory. Every wound he took simply brought Berserker closer to that.
Avenger alighted on a lamppost, the metal creaking somewhat ominously beneath him and took a deep breath. Karna's soul had been all but subjugated within him, its heat and passion bent to his will.
He raised a hand.
There was a sound of tearing flesh and a bow appeared in his grip. Archer's bow.
Few could have realised that though, as the proud weapon had been warped beyond recognition. The gold finish that had covered it was gone, replaced by black ichor and red veins that throbbed grossly. Even as he held it, the bow pulsed like a living being.
Avenger pulled an arrow from thin air, knocked it and then levelled the weapon at the grey giant. He was a lacklustre archer at best, but accuracy wasn't a requirement of Archer's weapon. The raw destruction it was capable of allowed for considerable leeway in terms of actually hitting the target. As long as you got the general direction right, something was going die in a suitably violent manner.
He opened his mouth to call its name, to unleash its power.
The word was barely halfway out of his mouth when his torso screamed with pain. He doubled over and the bow slipped from his hands as he stared confusedly at his chest. Within him Archer's soul, dormant only a few seconds ago, was now a blazing furnace of passion and renewed purpose. His control over it was breaking apart and the bow on the ground mirrored that, already beginning to rot away.
Something was terribly wrong.
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than hooks dug into his skin, into his muscles and bones. They were looking for something. And the renewed fire of Karna's soul made it quite clear what their target was.
Avenger gritted his teeth at the pain even as his thoughts raced. Not just anyone could manipulate the soul of a true Heroic Spirit. It required either rare power or even rarer privileges. There was only one person involved in the Grail War who could possibly steal Karna's soul from him.
"Einzbern…" He growled. "You bastards!"
The soft, divine glow that had dispatched Karna not moments ago returned. Except this time, Avenger directed its fell light at himself. The tendrils returned, now seeking to devour the spectral hooks that tore at his insides.
"Two can play at this game, puppet!" He grated out before returning his attention to invisible war occurring within his very flesh.
Ilyasviel paused for a moment as she felt a newfound resistance. It looked like she'd caught the thief's attention. And they weren't willing to hand their prize over without a fight. A warlike grin split her face, looking entirely out of place on her delicate features. Fine with her.
Standing in the centre of a glowing ritual circle, the young girl looked even more fey and ethereal than ever before, wrapped in powerful energies. This was a 'corrective' ritual of her own design, intended to allow the Holy Grail Vessel to claim what was rightfully theirs. That was to say, the souls of the fallen Heroic Spirits. Of course, the original intent of the ritual had been to simply steal the Servants of other Master's before the War even began, but that had proven impossible.
It's core effect was simple: It boosted her connection to the Grail, brought her closer to her nature as the Lesser Grail and so increased the pull she had on the souls of the Heroic Spirits. Given the Grail's current insidious nature, this made it exceedingly dangerous. One wrong move and she'd be nothing more than a puppet of flesh to be moved by the artefact's will.
Or so the theory went. In reality, the Grail seemed almost docile. Its corruption barely even probed at her and it seemed… uninterested in her or what she did. That was unexpected, but not unwelcome. She'd taken advantage of its bizarre nonchalance to track down the missing souls far faster than she otherwise could have.
From the side of the circle, Saber watched with a concerned frown, no doubt all but ready to drag her out of the circle. Ilya fought back a smile. She truly did value the Servant's friendship but she couldn't help but wish that Saber wasn't so overprotective all the time. Or so solemn.
A sudden yanking sensation in her chest pulled her attention back to her struggle. She didn't know how the thief had managed to bind the soul to their will, but they were proving surprisingly capable of keeping hold of it. Not that it would help them in the end, but it was a gold star for effort.
"Sella." Ilya called out calmly. "Do we have a fishing rod?"
There was a moment of silence and then the maid spoke up. "I… believe so. I could find one if you'd like?"
She didn't turn her head round to look, but Ilya could hear the confusion in the maids voice as she responded. She had little doubt that it was mirrored on Sella's face.
"No, don't bother." Ilya responded. "I just thought it'd be nice for ambience."
"Ambience?" Sella asked, sounding even more perplexed. Ilya ignored her, focusing on the distant sensation of the captive soul of the Heroic Spirit.
Ilya's hands rose in front of her and she gripped tightly, like she was holding an invisible rod. She smiled viciously.
"Heave ho!" The words had no sooner left her mouth than she yanked violently at the air as if to pull it towards her.
Avenger doubled over as the hooks in his chest sunk deep into him, reaching the flame trapped within. Almost as if it had been marshalling its strength for this very moment, the soul burst into its full fiery radiance. Avenger's eyes widened as its heat grew ever greater, its light ever brighter.
"No. No, no, no, no…" He shook his head in growing panic. "Nononononono-!"
The soul was too bright for his flesh to contain any longer. It sought its escape. Through the most expedient route possible.
Avenger burst into flame.
He howled as the fire roared across his flesh. His skin and flesh bubbled away, his bones began to char and he stumbled blindly, eyes already destroyed by the intense heat. For a moment, it seemed like the fire would destroy him utterly within seconds.
And then he began to heal.
Bubbling fat was pushed aside by new growth, splattering the ground. Charred bone splintered off and was replaced in moments. New eyes formed in their sockets, granting Avenger sight in the midst of the inferno. But the fire still roared, destroying his new grown tissue with the same ease it had the previous.
For almost twenty seconds, Avenger stood there, flame and regeneration warring even as he fought to contain the Heroic Spirit. He growled in agonised fury. This was a losing battle. He could endure the pain for as long as need be, but his physical form was not so stable. Not as it was right now, anyway.
"Master!" Caster's voice resounded through the clearing. He turned his head slowly, the continual destruction and recreation of the muscles in his neck making the movement awkward and stiff. The cloaked Servant had descended from the sky, alighting next to him like some overgrown bat. "Are you alright!?"
Avenger fought the urge to slap her down. People asked stupid questions when they were panicking. He knew that from personal experience.
"I'm on… fire, Caster." He grated out with some difficulty. His vocal organs were in an almost liquid state right now, caught between burning to ash and regenerating to perfect health. It lent his voice a strange warbling note. "That's… never alright."
"Of course not." The Servant responded sheepishly. "I'll help y-"
"Do…n't!" Avenger snapped. The Einzbern homunculus didn't seem to have caught onto Caster's presence yet. If she did discover the other Servant, then he didn't trust the binds he'd put on her to hold her together to last against her magical assault. Caster's existence was only slightly less tenuous than Archer's right now. And he couldn't afford to lose her. Not now.
And if Caster tried to directly confront the Vessel's spell then he might as well announce her to the world for all the chance she'd have of staying concealed. He doubted she'd be able to help anyway. As undoubtedly skilled and powerful as magus as she was, the magics he was dealing with were… outside her experience.
A burst of renewed agony from his right arm brought him back from his thoughts and he stared with concern as the limb all but slid off of his body. This form wasn't capable of sufficient regeneration to counteract Archer's flame. Even if it had been, it wouldn't have been a real solution. He couldn't take part in the Grail War if he was on fire the whole time, after all. And the spell was only going to get more persistent. He ground his teeth in frustration. He couldn't hold Karna's soul. He couldn't win against the Lesser Grail.
But perhaps he could dictate the terms of his loss.
He was an unsuitable host for the soul of a Heroic Spirit in his current state. But there was someone who held a claim to it that was perhaps greater than even that of the homunculus. And if he directed the fallen soul to its true vessel…
Avenger grinned. If he could not contain Archer's soul himself then he could at least deny the homunculus her prize.
The ethereal light from his hands flashed once.
Ilya gave a satisfied nod as she felt the Servant's soul finally pull free from whatever had caged it. Though she doubted there was much of its cage left. Her spell had not been gentle.
She stood still, waiting for the soul to make its inevitable journey towards her.
Shirou splashed the water in his face, enjoying the cool sensation against his skin. He was, quite frankly, exhausted. And that made it hard to concentrate. His walk through the church grounds had been less effective than he'd hoped at clearing his head.
Staring into the mirror, he couldn't help but smile wryly at himself. The Grail War was everything he'd hoped for and more. New experiences, bountiful mysteries and all the excitement he could desire. He'd just never thought that it would all come at once. There was so much on his mind that it was hard to focus on just one thing.
Best to think about it about it in the morning, Shirou thought. He gave his watch a cursory glance and then snorted in amusement. 'Morning' had been about two hours ago. Or whenever I wake up again anyway.
He turned to leave but then staggered as a feeling of vertigo overtook him. His torso felt uncomfortably hot and his footing felt unsteady. Vague images blurred in front of his eyes, too fast for him to decipher them.
Not again! He growled mentally, supporting himself against the wall. Despite his fears though, the moment of unsteadiness and the visions passed quickly, leaving a sensation akin to satisfaction. Shirou felt… whole. As if something he hadn't known had been missing had been returned to him.
Shirou blinked confusedly, then sighed. "Just one more thing to mull over, I suppose."
As he stepped through the doorway to the hallway, he could have sworn that he felt something sharp brush against his skin, like a needle or a hook. But a quick check revealed nothing and he dismissed it with a shrug.
Ilya was frustrated.
Somehow, someway, whoever had stolen the soul of the fallen Servant that was rightfully hers had managed to hide it away somewhere, just as she thought she had seized it. That should have been impossible, but then, capturing the soul of a Heroic Spirit was also supposed to be impossible.
The soft light that had bathed her only a few moments ago was now a tempest of sound and energy. She was pushing herself now, extending her senses to cover the whole city. It was risky, but the Grail seemed to be no more interested in her than it had been before. That was worrying in its own way, but she wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
A momentary twinge on the edges of her perception drew her attention and she spun violently, staring off in the direction of the sensation.
"Gotcha." She raised a hand and the circle shone ever brighter. Reaching out her magic, she gripped around the distant cage. It was surprisingly difficult. Even compared to before, whatever was holding the soul was considerably more durable.
Ilya's lips drew back into a most unladylike snarl and her body shook with the exertion of her efforts. But slowly, ever so slowly, her magecraft slid into place and wrapped around her target.
With a triumphant smirk, Ilya sunk her hooks into it.
The following explosion sent her into the wall.
For a few moments, Ilya lay on the floor, stunned. She was faintly aware of something soft beneath her, but the ringing in her head and lights flashing before her eyes were somewhat distracting.
"-ya!" Whatever had cushioned her impact appeared to still be alive however and rolled out from underneath her. "Ilya! Are you alright!?"
Ilya's eyes blinked rapidly. Turning her head slowly, Saber's concerned visage slid into view.
"I… I think so." She murmured. She slowly pulled herself up, aided by Saber's arm supporting her. As she did, she noted the rather impressive dent in her living room wall. "Did I do that?"
"Technically, I hit it first." Saber replied dryly. "What happened? I've never seen you fail a magecraft so… spectacularly before."
"I didn't fail." Ilya murmured softly, pulling herself to her feet. The ritual circle in the centre of the room was now a crater and everything not nailed down had been thrown haphazardly around the room by the force of the detonation. "Where are Sella and Leysritt?"
"Here, Mistress." Sella responded, stepping forward. Apart from her clothes being somewhat ruffled, the homunculus seemed unhurt. Next to her, Leysritt was in much the same condition, staring curiously at the new hole in the floor.
"It's Ilya." Ilya corrected absentmindedly. She walked toward the crater and stared at it.
She thought back to the moment before the explosion. Just as her magecraft had begun its attack, there had been a feeling of absolute rejection. To the soul of the slain Servant, she had been the interloper, the thief trying to take what was not hers.
But that should have been impossible. She was the Lesser Grail, the right and proper vessel for the Holy Grail War. Magecraft strong enough to enchant a soul into thinking she was anything less didn't exist. Or shouldn't exist.
A thought struck her. A terrifying thought. What if someone else had made another Lesser Grail? Another her? She shook her head violently as if to dismiss the idea by force of will alone. That was just as impossible. The Einzbern hid the secrets of their homunculus creation jealously. The chances of anyone being able to steal them away, let alone attune any creation of theirs to the Grail, were miniscule.
And yet one of those two impossibilities had to be true.
It occured to her that she'd been thinking about the word 'impossible' a lot tonight.
Ilya sighed morosely, sinking down onto a newly tattered sofa. She needed something to distract herself from this mess, so that she could think straight. Maybe breakfast.
At the very least, Saber would like that suggestion.
The light faded from his hands, and Avenger gave a relieved sigh. That had not been a pleasant experience. The homunculus was as formidable as he'd expected. But at least now Archer's soul was out of her grasp.
It was unfortunate that he'd been forced to give it up though. Its power would have made his confrontation with Berserker easie-
Avenger froze. Berserker.
He spun round violently, even as the giant's roar split the air. The ash-skinned Servant crossed the distance between them in less than second, bisecting Avenger's body with a single swing of that monstrously huge sword.
His torso flew through the air, trailing his insides behind him like some sick flag, before smashing into a tree. His neck snapped from the impact and a dull groan slipped from his mouth. Even during his impromptu flight however, his body had been healing. New leg bones jutted out from his lower half, red muscle crawling over them like a sea of ants. He tried to pull himself to his feet, only to smashed down again.
Berserker released another primal roar as he hammered down on Avenger's prone form with his blade. Each lightning fast slash severed bone and muscles alike, the sheer speed of the blow making up for the blade's dull edge.
With a howl, the giant reached down and plucked the tattooed man from the ground. He lifted the ruined body high, then smashed it into the ground again and again. Blood splattered across the plants as Avenger's helpless body was broken against the stony surface.
"Master!" A hail of eldritch bolts broke the dawn gloom, carving into the flesh of hulking Servant. Berserker gave a pained roar, then turned, his attention captured by Caster's attack.
Avenger didn't waste the opportunity.
"Verg Avesta!" Avenger spat the words from his mouth with all the fury he could muster. Berserker's grip slackened instantly as his very soul screamed in agony and Avenger tumbled to the floor of the copse.
Avenger's limbs were already all but fully healed again, his forced shutdown of his regeneration finally ended. Of course, that meant that Berserker's wounds would soon heal as well, but he had no intention of giving the gian the time he needed to recover. The ethereal light appeared around his hands for the third time that morning. A deep, painful throbbing resounded through his body as it did so, beyond the reach of even his potent self-healing abilities. He frowned. He'd pushed himself too far today. If he had to fight much longer, he'd simply fall apart. This had to be ended soon.
It's little dull to do the same thing twice in a row, but beggars can't be choosers, Avenger thought viciously. He hurled himself onto Berserker's back and gripped the giants head tightly as the radiance flared. Berserker roared in agony and spun furiously, his arms crashing into Avenger's form. The tattooed man merely gritted his teeth and endured it. While the very fact that the ash-skinned giant could actually endure the magic unmaking his very existence for any time at all was astounding, there was no way that he could do so for long. This fight was already won.
As if the behemoth has heard his thoughts, he stopped moving. His muscles seemed to relax and for a brief instant, the Servant seemed to stagger.
And then he howled.
No. The word 'howl' could not capture the nature of the sound that ripped from the Heroic Spirit's throat. It was beyond the concept of sound. It was more than the simple vibration of matter. It the very essence of destruction itself. The air split, the earth shattered, the clouds parted… The world itself gave way before that howl, that denial of the concept of defeat. The howl of a victor. The Howl of the Wounded Beast.
Avenger's form broke. It was nothing as petty as the destruction visited upon him earlier. He did not merely lose limbs, or have bones broken. His very flesh fragmented and came apart. Bones became dust. Blood became steam. What little remained of him descended like rain upon the copse of trees.
Berserker moved away from the still falling remnants of his fallen foe, setting his sights on the stunned witch no more than a hundred feet from him. Even within his maddened mind, he understood that there was no possibility of Avenger returning from this state. He was dead. That was a simple conclusion to reach.
And yet a single broken piece of shredded muscle twitched. And then grew. In but a single second, it had become a heart. By the time that heart beat but once, it was surrounded by a cage of bone and flesh. By the second beat, the cage was concealed by pink, fresh skin. By the third, a man stood and faced the back of the mad giant.
"Where are you going, Berserker?" his voice was quiet, but it resounded throughout the grove easily. "I did not think it in your nature to grant mercy to fallen foes."
Berserker turned slowly. The giant stared down at the newly risen man, and frowned. His figure… was different from the tattooed nemesis that had opposed him. And yet curiously similar. Avenger seemed to realise the source of his confusion.
"Ah." His flesh rippled and darkened. The intricate tattoos returned, winding around his body like snakes. In an instant, the other figure was gone, replaced by the ever-confident Avenger. "Forgive me. It appears that I've overestimated my own abilities once again."
Berserker hesitated. The few remaining vestiges of his sane mind were saying something, telling him to stop, to think. His opponent was unnatural, unlike any other in the Grail War. Perhaps unlike any other in all the world.
The hesitation lasted only the briefest of moments before the giant's primal nature took control once again however. Berserker released another roar and charged.
Avenger avoided his assault, kicking off of the ground and rebounding off of a tree like a pinball to circumvent the raging Servant. He took off at a sprint the moment he'd landed and headed towards Caster.
"Caster!" He shouted. "We're leaving!"
Whether due to compulsion of his words or her own good sense, the cloaked Servant took to the sky instantly. Behind Avenger, Berserker had turned on heel and was pursuing him furiously.
"Coward!" The giant shouted. "Fight me! Show me your power!"
Avenger leapt into the air, ignoring the Servant's angry cries. Caster's slim hand gripped his wrist, drawing him close to her as she took off into the night sky. Beneath him, Berserker dwindled away, eventually passing from sight. Slowly, Avenger felt the tension begin to drain from his body, to be replaced by a painful ache.
Fighting Berserker had been a bad idea. Destroying Archer and repulsing Ilya's magecraft had taken more out of him than he cared to admit. The ash-skinned giants sheer endurance, coupled with his ability to turn his own suffering into a weapon to crush any foe, made him among the most formidable opponents in all the Grail War. The fact that Archer had been handling him so easily was a testament to Karna's power, not Berserker's lack of such.
Frankly, he'd been lucky to escape the situation. And luckier still to have Caster escape with him.
He flicked his gaze at the Servant. With the loss of Karna's soul, the lilac-haired witch was now integral to his plans. More so than any other, perhaps. If she perished too early, then he wasn't sure what he was going to do.
And he'd have to watch the Einzbern homunculus from now on too. If she began searching in earnest, she might well find the actual physical location of Archer's soul. And he would not allow her to lay a hand on Kotomine Shirou.
Even if he had to end her life personally.
Shirou slipped quietly back into his room. And then blinked. The bed was empty. After a moment, he gave a weary sigh and then called out. "Assassin."
"Yes, Shirou?" He turned. She was standing right behind him, staring calmly up at his face.
"How long have you been following me for?" He asked. He had a sneaking suspicion that he already knew the answer.
"Since you left the room." Assassin responded. Shirou sighed again. Yeah, he'd expected that.
"Guess I was hoping for a bit too much to sneak past you, huh?" He joked idly.
"Yes." Assassin said. She smiled slightly. "…Assassins are somewhat known for their stealth."
"Yeah, I guess so." He said, sitting down on the bed. "Well, it wasn't like I was trying to hide from you anyway. I just didn't want to wake you up."
Assassin was silent for a moment, and then quietly spoke.
"…Shirou, are you alright?"
Shirou gave her a surprised look at the question. "Yeah, I am. Why do you ask?"
"…When you left the room, you wandered the church for a time. You seemed to be thinking about something important… but could not reach a conclusion." Assassin replied after a moment, her voice as quiet and reserved as ever. "I was worried."
"Oh." Shirou said sheepishly. "That."
Shirou hesitated. He'd been mulling over this earlier and he wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to tell her about his dreams. After a moments thought, he shook his head. Assassin had made her reluctance to share her past with him known. And despite the fact that he didn't know of any way to stop them, his dreams of her past were telling him things that she didn't want him to know. She deserved to know about them, if nothing else.
"I've been having dreams." He began. Assassin's watched him stoically. "Dreams about you. Or more specifically, your past."
Her reaction was instantaneous. Her face took on a panicked expression and she stepped back from him, as if afraid. Her hands were clenched tight. Shirou gritted his teeth at her reaction, but continued on.
"I've been seeing who you were. What you did. How you lived." Shirou closed his eyes. She deserved to know that he knew. "The people you killed."
Assassin's face grew even paler than normal and she shook her head from side to side, as if trying to deny his words. He could see something glistening in the corner of her eye.
"I… don't know who you are yet. But it's only a matter of time until I find out."
Assassin stood frozen. She looked almost like she was ready to flee. It pained him to watch her like that. He didn't want her to be afraid of anything, least of all anything he did or said.
"But, y'know, even when I do found out, nothing will change." He continued. "The way I think about you won't change."
Assassin's gaze rose slightly to meet his. Her eyes were frightened and wet. "…What do you mean?"
"I don't know why you killed." Shirou said. "I don't even know how many you killed. But I know you, Assassin."
He smiled at her. "You had your reasons, and I don't need to know them. Because I trust you. "
The girl in front of him was beginning to shake. "…You… don't hate me?"
Shirou nearly laughed. "Never. That will never happen. There's no way I could hate the cute girl who's been eating me out of house and home." He grinned. "I mean, the nights get cold around here. I need someone to keep the bed warm."
The next moment, Shirou was almost bowled over by Assassin throwing herself at him. Her slim arms curled tightly around him and she buried her face in his chest, sobbing loudly. He didn't even need to think about his next action. His arms wrapped around her and he pulled her close.
"You don't have to tell me anything right now, if you don't want to." He said calmly, rubbing her back with slow motions of his hands to comfort her. "I'll wait as long as you want and as long as you need. But you can tell me anything, anytime."
"Shirou… Shirou… Shirou… Shirou!" Assassin sobbed his name over and over as he talked, tightening her grip.
"And whoever you are, I'll accept it." He said gently. "Because to me, you'll always be Assassin."
Assassin gave another sob and pulled even closer to him. He rubbed her back and hair, letting her cry as much as she wanted.
Assassin's sobs continued for almost half an hour before she fell asleep, still tightly clinging to him. Shirou lay on the bed, staring at the early morning light slipping through the curtains.
It was odd to think it, but everything he'd said was true. As much as he wanted to know Assassin's past, as much has he wanted to know more about her and the people she'd slain, he was willing to wait. Her comfort, her happiness, mattered more to him than his curiosity.
And his feelings for her, confusing and nebulous as they were, wouldn't change. No matter who she'd been, Assassin would always be this quiet, gluttonous and affectionate girl to him.
With a yawn, Shirou turned over and slipped into dreamless sleep.