Chapter 23 – Stolen Sword
(Published: 05.17.13 - Beta: RavingScholar, twinkieman92 )
Two days before the start of the school term – April 3rd
The moon shone brightly in the skies above the city of Fuyuki.
In the old mansion, the twin tailed girl stood in front of the carefully drawn circle. Her features set in a determined frown, mind steeled for the coming challenge, she stepped forward, one hand stretched in front of her.
Within her mind, a knife stabbed her chest right through her heart. In response, a hundred Circuits flared to life, channeling a staggering amount of Prana. Arcane words rolled out of her mouth.
"Silver and iron to the origin. Gem and the archduke of contracts to the cornerstone. The ancestor is my great master Schweinorg."
The circle hummed and illuminated the room with a faint bluish hue, lightning bolts crackling at its edge.
"The alighted wind becomes a wall. The gates in the four directions close, coming from the crown, the three-forked road that leads to the kingdom circulate."
In the enclosed space a strong wind picked up, ruffling her hair and clothes.
"Shut (fill). Shut (fill). Shut (fill). Shut (fill). Shut (fill). Repeat every five times. Simply, shatter once filled."
The air simmered above the circle, twisting in preparation to receive the presence that had yet to materialize.
"I announce. Yourself is under me, my fate (doom) is in your sword."
In the empty void, she waited. Time had lost all meaning, space was but a subjective concept, but even though she could wait eternally the absolute emptiness that surrounded her was becoming unsettling.
Silently she wondered how long she would have to wait in the darkness before the opportunity came.
Then, her unspoken question found an answer.
"I announce. Yourself is under me, my fate (doom) is in your sword."
The voice was different from the last one, yet she heard it clearly nonetheless.
"In accordance with the resort of the Holy Grail, if you abide by this feeling, this reason, then answer."
And answer she would. A push came from what could arguably considered behind, propelling her toward an equally arguable forward.
"Here is my oath. I am the one who becomes all the good of the world of the dead; I am the one who lays out all the evil of the world of the dead."
A light opened before her and she could see again, hear again, smell again. The consistency of a body given shape once more assaulted her senses.
"You, seven heavens clad in three words of power, arrive from the ring of deterrence, O keeper of the balance!"
Light engulfed her.
The air expanded with the sound of an explosion and an eerie smoke filled the room.
"Did it work?" the teen Magus wondered aloud.
"I ask of you," a voice from the centre of the smoke came to answer her question. "Are you my Master?"
Slowly the smoke cleared to reveal the presence of a girl, or perhaps a boy, clad in a blue and a refined armor. Green eyes framed by regal features peered into hers, compelling an answer.
Tohsaka Rin's lips quirked into a victorious smirk. "I am."
"I am Servant Saber," the girl in blue continued firmly. "In response to your summons, I have come. My sword will be at your side from here on out. From now on, whatever fate awaits you awaits me. The accord with us has now been struck."
"Welcome, Saber," the magus said in a tone that betrayed her satisfaction. "I'm Tohsaka Rin. The two of us are going to do great things together."
It was done. She had actually summoned Saber, the best Class in the Holy Grail War.
She was a genius, of course, but that didn't mean she would get the Servant she wanted. After all, unless presented with a proper Catalyst, which she didn't have, the Grail selected a Heroic Spirit suited for the Master's character. In both cases, though, the Class would be assigned by picking one among those not yet occupied by other Servants and suited for the Heroic Spirit's abilities. With Caster and Berserker already summoned, she had had her pick between Saber, Lancer, Archer, Rider and Assassin.
The first three, the so-called Knight Classes, were arguably the most powerful and therefore the most sought out. Among those three, the Saber Class was considered to be the best and she had just summoned it. It had been a difficult time since her kidnapping at the hand of Guilford, but now that she had actually succeeded in her task she almost felt like it had been worth it. Almost.
And speaking of Guilford, it would be best to bring her Servant up to speed immediately.
"Come with me, Saber. I'll show you around the house."
The servant looked around, taking in the appearance and layout of the Tohsaka household. Rin showed her around, detailing the defenses around the mansion while she in turn examined her newest familiar. Saber was not like anything she expected a Heroic Spirit to look like.
She appeared to be a girl in her teens of average height. She could have been called cute if not for the regality of her features framed by blond locks collected in a bun on the back of her head, which made her positively beautiful. As expected from a Heroic Spirit, though, her posture was confident and proud, and her green eyes were as sharp as the blade that named her class. Her presence too was overwhelming, a kind of pressure Rin had experienced in a much-lessened way only in the presence of Caster weeks before. If she had to trust her instincts, Saber was in an entirely different league from the only other Servant she had had the chance to meet.
When the tour of the house was over, Rin led Saber to the living room.
"Would you like some tea?" the young Magus asked. For a brief moment she considered asking her Servant to prepare it, seeing as Servants were meant to serve, but she immediately realized that Saber would not take kindly to a request to perform such a menial task.
Her body language was so clear that even the dumbest moron could understand it clearly. Perhaps Rin was just being overwhelmed by the evident charisma of her Servant, but it didn't change the fact that while Saber might indeed be a Servant, she was definitely not a mere servant. Just her presence outlined that difference quite clearly.
"I would appreciate it," Saber replied with the hint of a smile. "Thank you."
Well, she was polite at least. Rin expected and was ready to deal with a Servant who would challenge her on a personal level, as it was natural from a being that surpassed humanity on all levels. Yet, while Saber seemed to be commanding in her own right it didn't seem like she wanted to hold it over Rin's head. If anything, with the formalities of the summoning ritual out of the way she seemed to be particularly collected and somewhat lost in thought, as if she were bothered by an unexpected occurrence.
Saber looked around in silence, examining the mansion. It was most certainly not the place she had caught a glimpse of when she had first been called, just as the person who summoned her now was not the one she first reached out to.
She could feel her current Master's power flow through her and she wasn't disappointed with it in the slightest. The flow of Prana was steady and intense, fueling her existence and abilities to the fullest. Still, that didn't change the fact that it was different from the feeling she had felt earlier, whenever earlier actually was.
The voice that had first reached out to her had a familiar quality to it, though she could not tell to whom it belonged. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but she had the impression that the one who had first attempted to summon her shared with her at least some compatible traits that her current Master lacked.
What had happened to that person? Had he been interrupted before he could complete the ritual? Perhaps he had been killed by one of the other Servants. She couldn't exclude that possibility.
Of course that was mere speculation. She didn't know what happened back then, and though she was curious it didn't change the fact that she had given her oath to the girl who had welcomed her into her house and entrusted her with her life.
As a Knight, she would keep her word to her death, regardless of circumstances.
Five minutes later, both girls sat at the table in the finely furnished living room, each with a cup of tea in hand.
"While I would like to know your name and your abilities," Rin began, "there is something else we need to discuss first. I am not sure what knowledge the Grail has granted you, but I know for a fact that the current war is not occurring as scheduled."
"Please, elaborate on that," the Servant requested calmly, though Rin detected a hint of something that was more than mere curiosity. "The information the Grail provided me doesn't mention any changes."
"I thought so. To begin with, according to what I could gather with the current supervisor, the actual start of the War is still months away," Rin explained, supporting her right elbow with her left hand and raising a single finger in a lecturing manner. "For some reason the Grail had an amount of leftover energy from the previous war, and is therefore starting fifty years sooner than expected. Normally that wouldn't be too much of a bother, but as I understand it one of the other founding families, the Einzbern, has tampered with the Grail so that it would allow them to summon their Servant, Berserker, earlier than expected. As a result the Grail is assigning a new set of Command Seals every six to eight weeks."
"I didn't know that tampering with the Grail was possible at all," the Servant admitted. There was a troubled expression on her face, and justifiably so. Servants pledged their loyalties to human beings, arguably much inferior beings, so that they could compete to fulfill their wish. If it were possible to tamper with the Grail in a single way, it was hard to tell in what other ways it could have been done. Fighting a war only to discover that the prize for their efforts was no longer worth it was not a nice thought.
"Neither did I," Rin admitted. "And I would have been ignorant of it all if I hadn't stumbled into Caster a few weeks back."
"You met an enemy Servant already and came out alive?" the blond Servant asked, divided between being alarmed and being surprised at Rin's survival. The Magus couldn't blame Saber for her disbelief, as she was painfully aware that the only reason she survived her encounter with Caster was because the Servant had no interest in killing her. Rather, she probably wanted her to live and escape just to spite her Master. "How did you manage such a feat?"
"It's a bit of a long story," Rin replied. "Then again, it's not like we are short of time anyway."
The next few hours were spent retelling the events that led to the confrontation between her and Caster's Master. She skimmed the details about Yukiko's kidnapping and subsequent rescue, as they weren't strictly relevant. She also made no mention of Emiya and his participation in the early part of Guilford's plot. That was a bit more relevant considering that usual nightly escapades could cause him to witness things he wasn't supposed to, but that was another problem that had to be dealt with at another time.
She instead focused on explaining how Guilford used her friend as bait to kidnap her, how he tried to enslave her and how she ultimately escaped from him. She also confirmed that Caster was still in the game, having in all likelihood forged a contract with her Master's killer. By the end of her tale Saber was even more thoughtful than before.
"I see. That's indeed troubling news. Regardless of what her intentions for you at the time might have been, now that you're officially a Master Caster has become an enemy to watch out for."
"Of course," Rin nodded. "I am unsure as to why she never tried to recapture me. Chances are that she'll probably bide her time and wait for the competition to eliminate itself instead of proactively engaging in battle. As much as it pains me to admit it, as a Master I'm already a known factor, so it's easier for a Magus who reached the rank of Heroic Spirit to keep an eye on me from a distance without me noticing."
"This is troubling," the Servant of the Sword said with a hint of worry. "In a war, knowing the battlefield and the opposition beforehand are both major advantages. With weeks at her disposal there is no telling which sort of traps she might have laid out for us. Thanks to your capacity as a Magus, my own Magic Resistance is ranked A+ right now, so I'm not really worried about being subjected to any direct Magecraft. Of course, the same cannot be said for you and as you certainly know there is more to the Craft than simple direct offense."
"Yes, I know," the Magus admitted, recalling her bad experience with Guilford's invasive Magecraft. "Well, at least now that you are here I can rest peacefully again. It was tiring to sleep with one eye open."
"I can imagine," Saber agreed sympathetically. "You don't need to worry anymore. From now on I shall keep a vigil while you rest."
"And just in time for school as well. With you following me in spirit form, we can keep an eye out for other Servants and Masters," she said proudly, content with the course of action she had chosen. At her Servant's silence, she blinked in confusion. "… Something wrong, Saber?"
"Actually Master, about that…"
Ten minutes later, the Master of Saber was rubbing her temples in a vain attempt to quell her anger and oncoming headache.
"So, you're saying that because someone attempted to summon you earlier than I did, my own summoning ritual didn't work perfectly and now you're stuck in your physical form?"
"I can only suppose that is the case," Saber agreed.
It was a convenient lie, the Servant thought to herself. Her true reason for not being able to shift into her Spiritual Body was because she didn't actually have one. She wasn't even a proper Heroic Spirit yet, nor would she become one if she obtained her wish, but her Master didn't need to know that. It was a personal matter and the truth was not relevant to the coming war; as long as her Master knew of her limitations, there was no need for the details.
Fortunately, in one fell swoop she had managed to report the odd event she had been part of and conceal the reason for her inability to move to the spiritual plane. She didn't like deceiving her Master but it wouldn't cause her any harm, nor it was something she could change by being truthful. She also considered refraining from revealing her identity until it was actually needed, but her Master seemed to be capable enough to protect that knowledge. Not to mention that with the odd behavior of the Grail, it was paramount to prepare in advance tactics based on Saber's strengths and weaknesses.
"Damn it. Why can't anything go as planned for once? I swear, if I ever manage to get my hands on those interlopers I'm going to strangle them," Rin raged. Then she slumped back and sighed in resignation. "Well, even though I feel like I've stolen someone else's sword, at least I get to have the King of Knights as my Servant. Off the top of my head I can hardly imagine a hero more renowned than you. I'm a bit surprised that you are a woman, though. Were the people of your time blind not to realize your gender?"
"There were… circumstances," Saber said, a plethora of meanings hidden within her slight pause.
"I can only imagine," the Magus shrugged. "Anyway, this is a problem. There's no way I can go to school without taking you with me. It would make summoning you entirely useless."
"Is it necessary for you to attend at all?" she inquired politely.
"If it were just for the two weeks that the Holy Grail War usually lasts, then it would have been a nuisance but nothing I couldn't deal with afterward. With months ahead of us before the conflict is finally solved, the consequences would be too large for me to just skip it. It would raise too many questions, not to mention that I would have to repeat the year," Rin finished with finality. High school was bad enough once.
"Master, your academic career shouldn't take priority over your safety," Saber reprimanded. There was always time to study later if one lived past the war.
"That goes without saying," Rin agreed, much to Saber's satisfaction. Heaven forbid her Master was such a fool that she would put herself at risk just to attend classes. "Therefore we need to find a solution… and I think I have the perfect one."
The all too amused look in Rin's eyes let Saber know that she probably wouldn't like whatever plan her Master had come up with.
The next morning
Truth be told, Rin didn't actually think that it would work so well. Saber was certainly a girl and a beautiful one at that. Her regal features and her innate charisma would have made her the centre of the attention in any circumstance, but the young Magus never thought those traits would have carried over even when wearing-
"Master, what exactly is this?"
- her spare uniform.
They were around the same height, and even their chest size (ugh), was more or less the same. What Rin didn't expect was that Saber would look so damn cute in it. It didn't even make sense to her how astoundingly attractive Saber actually was when wearing common clothes. She looked so…
Wait, no, that was wrong. She shouldn't think of her Servant like that.
… Forget that! She shouldn't think of any girl like that! What was wrong with her?
"A school uniform," the Magus replied, holding back a smile of amusement and concealing her own inner doubts. "If I can't skip school then I have to get you in there somehow. Lucky for us you look like a teenager, so it won't be difficult to have you pass for a transfer student. I'll just have to use a bit of compulsion to have the right paperwork done under an assumed name and we are all set."
"… I cannot argue with your plan," Saber said with a nod of the head. "So long as I'm in a position to protect you, I'll abide with your decisions."
"Good," Rin nodded approvingly. "Tomorrow is the first day of the new year. In the meantime, I'd better start preparing the fake paperwork and identifications. Do you have a preference for the name?"
"I shall be fine with whatever you will decide, Master," Saber conceded.
Later that day
"I am most certainly not fine with your decision, Master!" Saber protested, looking at the ID and enrollment forms that Rin had provided and compiled for her.
"Oh? What's wrong with it?" Rin asked, far too amused at her Servant's distress. It was a bit of a disturbing thought, but perhaps having had Kirei as a teacher had affected her character somehow. Indeed, she enjoyed seeing people squirm far too much.
"The name you have chosen, Master," Saber said resolutely, undoubtedly aware of her Master's amusement.
"Why? I think it's perfect. 'Ginevra A. Dulac', British nationality, transfer student, " she read, snatching the sheets from Saber's hands.
"It is not," Saber replied, hand held out demanding the papers' return. "For one thing, why did you choose such a name? It is far too close to my true history."
"Misinformation," Rin replied, dutifully returning the papers. "No one would think you are actually the King of Knights since your legend refers to you as a man, and none of the other Masters would think we would actually use a pseudonym connected to your true history. Even if they considered it, your gender would send them for a merry chase trying to figure out who you actually are."
"Or perhaps it's because of who they were?" Rin continued, a glimmer of regret in her eyes. "Your legend says that Lancelot betrayed you, so I thought that no one would consider that the King of Knights would actually use the assumed name of his most trusted knight turned traitor. Sorry, perhaps it was out of line for me to pick those names."
"No… no, it's fine. I understand your reasoning. Sadly, the circumstances and our enemies drove us apart, but I'm not ashamed to bear their names, even if it's just a pretense. Still," she glared, "I would rather prefer it if you consulted me before deciding on something so outrageous."
"It was you who said you'd be fine with whatever I came up with," Rin pointed out mischievously. Yup, it was definitely Kirei's influence…she suddenly felt like taking a long, cleansing shower.
"I underestimated your wickedness, Master," Saber replied resignedly. "You would have made a fine witch back in my time with a character like that."
"…," Rin winced silently. Curse you, Kirei. "Anyway, that will have to do. Come now, if you're to attend school we have to get you all the things you need to blend in."
The rest of the afternoon was spent shopping for school gear, which included some spare uniforms for Saber. Of course, they didn't limit themselves to that. In preparation for the coming conflict they bought several maps of the city to annotate at will, a few jewels for Rin to replenish her stock, and lastly several medical kits. Since Rin didn't possess any outstanding healing Magecraft and the chances of being wounded were fairly high if not a given, they couldn't be too careful.
They talked at length about the war, of course, but besides dividing the city into areas to patrol each day in search of suspicious Boundary Fields they couldn't do much else. Because the majority of the other Servants had yet to be summoned, there wasn't any useful intel to work with. Much as Rin hated it, they were stalled.
Soon evening came and with it arose the issues of sleeping arrangements. Well, it wasn't exactly an issue.
"Master, as a Servant I don't require sleep," Saber explained. "You provide me with more than enough energy to remain awake and functional indefinitely."
"I know that, but that's not the point. Normally if you shifted into spirit form I would have more energy to pour into my jewels, but seeing how you can't do that you're draining more energy than I'd anticipated. I need to prepare as many weapons as I can for the conflict, and I can spare a lot more energy for that purpose if you conserve what you have by sleeping at least as much as I do. Besides, not even a Servant can sneak past my Boundary Fields with the exception of Assassin, but for the next six weeks no other Servant is going to be summoned and I don't think Caster will make a move against me now since she hasn't already."
"… You make a good point. Conserving energy is always a wise choice when feasible. I shall abide by your decision," Saber affirmed with a nod of her head.
"Great. I'll prepare one of the guests room for you."
"No, that won't do," Saber protested. "Master, if I am to protect you properly then I need to be as close to you as possible. Certainly in the same room, and preferably in the same bed."
"But the guest room is just next to mine," Rin pointed out.
"It's irrelevant," Saber metaphorically put her foot down. "Even if no Servant or Magus can get past your wards undetected, they could very well strike from afar before either of us has any chance to react. Only if I am by your side at all times can I most efficiently guarantee your safety."
"Uh, well, if you're so adamant about it then I don't see why not," Rin agreed somewhat reluctantly. "My bed is big enough for two and we're both girls so even that's not an issue."
Saber was right. There was no reason to take a chance with separate rooms or beds, but it was still a foreign concept for the teen Magus. She had never even had a sleepover with other girls before. Her magus upbringing pretty much shut out all unnecessary interactions with her peers. She only started hanging out with girls from her school because she had living relatives, plus there was no way she wanted her social circle to consist of only Kirei. She couldn't fail to see how well that had worked out.
"I'm glad you see things my way," Saber acquiesced.
And that's how Rin came to have the first sleepover of her young life, even if it was at her own house. It wasn't unpleasant, and she had a good laugh at her Servant's expense when she forced her to wear one of her pajamas. She certainly couldn't sleep well if her companion was clad in armor, after all.
Saber's addition to Rin's life was surprisingly smooth. They both were highly intelligent, no-nonsense women. For the teen Magus, who only had a less than pleasant priest as a confidant, suddenly having a person of the same gender whom she could trust with most, if not all, of her secrets was a more than pleasant change. Even though she would never admit it aloud and hardly even to herself, Rin had been starving for a close and trusted companion. For a moment her thoughts went to the teenage boy who had bared his secrets to her without fears. It would have been nice to get closer to him as well.
She immediately dispelled such thoughts, returning to her perfectly cultivated Magus mindset. With the war looming just over the horizon that path was no longer an option. In fact she would probably have to approach him and erase all recent information of her from his mind, as well as dissuade him from continuing his nighttime activities. It was for his own good, after all. Running into a Servant or even just a Master would spell certain death for the young man she had come to consider almost a friend. It pained her, but it had to be done.
At the first opportunity she would invite him over for tea as a last chance to hang out as friends, and then wipe his memories.
It was for the best.
Rin walked to school with Ginevra that morning, going over the way the Japanese school system functioned as well as the social customs she would have to abide by during her stay at school. As it turned out, the Grail did provide them with enough knowledge to blend into society almost smoothly, which included a certain amount of information on school related topics. Combined with Saber's own education as a King in matters of mathematics and economy, she would be able to blend into her apparent age group seamlessly.
Of course, dealing with the popularity issues of being an attractive foreign transfer student was an entirely different matter, but Rin was certain that Saber had long since developed the skill to keep people at a distance seeing as her charisma was better than what Rin had been able to cultivate in her short life.
If they worked together, at least the male half of the school would be scared away from the overwhelming combined attractiveness that, as teenage boys knew at an instinctual level, they couldn't get close to without being crushed mercilessly by their own insecurities and- Curse you, Kirei!
"Is something the matter, Rin?" Saber asked, her keen eyes noticing the subtle shifts in her Master's almost perfect façade.
"No," the Magus replied evenly, forcefully swallowing a groan, "just thinking about the worth of my usual acquaintances, that's all."
"I understand," the King nodded sagely, "sometimes we have to deal with unpleasant characters whether we wish to or not."
At her side, Rin nodded in agreement. Having someone who understood her at such a basic level was most definitely a boon. It would certainly help her stress levels to have Saber around for a few months.
With that cheerful perspective in front of her, Rin was more than ready to face the challenges of mundane school life, certain that nothing could shake her newfound securities.
Oh if only she knew that she shared the same levels of luck as another unfortunate teenager as far as planning went, she might have not considered such thoughts and thus spared herself a serious wake up call. Fortunately or unfortunately as it was, she would soon be enlightened as to the true extent of her folly.
Compared to her times, Saber mused, the current era had a lot more people. As it stood, the population of a city nowadays equaled that of her entire kingdom centuries before. It was good to know that mankind had managed to prosper, but it was a bitter thing to know that it wasn't her kingdom that had come so far.
Used to being surrounded by adoring crowds though she was, Saber felt a little disturbed by the amount of attention drawn to her when they passed the school's gate. True, her appearance was uncommon enough in this country and she guessed that her own innate charisma, which was actually a measurable quantity by the Grail's standards, caused common people to both acknowledge and be intimidated by her more than her unusual looks would have otherwise caused.
People whispered and pointed at her and her Master, but neither of them openly acknowledged any of the surrounding teenagers, though Saber's eyes sharply scanned the crowd searching for possible threats. She found nothing out of the ordinary, no ill intent directed at them. It was unlikely that an enemy was hiding among these young people, especially since according to her Master the war was far from happening yet, but she would still keep her eyes open at all times.
She relaxed slightly, and as she did so her eyes met those of a redheaded young man.
There was something amiss with this person. He didn't break eye contact like the other boys and girls had done when she looked at them. In fact he had basically frozen in his tracks, eyes wide, a bead of sweat making its way down his forehead and along the side of his nose.
At her side, Saber could tell that her Master had noticed this oddity and the twin tailed girl stopped in her tracks as well.
As if a trigger had been smashed Saber's stance changed subtly, filling with hostility, ready to face a threat at any given moment.
Emiya, her Master said. Emiya, like her traitorous former Master; Emiya, like the man who stole her wish from right under her nose.
But… it made no sense. This boy couldn't be related to Kiritsugu, could he? He was too old to be a son conceived after the previous war, and Kiritsugu's only child was the white-haired girl he had played with so long ago. Emiya was a Japanese name, after all, and perhaps even relatively common. Furthermore, Rin seemed to be acquainted with him and while she seemed surprised at his odd behavior she didn't seem concerned by his presence.
Perhaps she was acting too rashly. It was better to wait before passing judgment, but she would be keeping her guard up at the same time.
When Rin noticed Emiya and his evident shock at the sight of Saber she couldn't help but look at the back of his hands. She saw nothing but clean skin, of course, and she was therefore surprised by his strange reaction.
"Emiya-kun," she called, "is there something wrong?"
The sound of her voice seemed to break the spell, as he blinked and turned to look at her. Only then did he seem to realize he had been staring and he blushed, a hand going for the back of his head in his trademark sheepish expression.
"Ah, ha, ha," he laughed slowly and awkwardly, "sorry. For a moment I thought your companion looked like someone I know. I didn't mean to stare."
"Geez, Emiya-kun," Rin smiled slightly, unable to hold back the need to make fun of him. "Don't you know that pretending to recognize her is a very bad way to pick up a girl? You're hopeless."
"W-what are you saying out of the blue?" he spluttered. "It's nothing like that."
Rin's new behavior was a far cry from the idol persona she had built for herself at school. Even though she still tried to keep it up, her previous interactions with Emiya had more or less revealed to the rest of the school that there was an actual person behind her aloof composure.
That didn't seem to make her peers and teachers look up to her any less; in fact her "fan-base" seemed to have increased since the "Fake Janitor" was able to interact with her like an equal. That was probably also the reason there had been an increase in the amount of love letters in her shoe locker in the past two months. People's hopes to score with her had risen considerably. Not that there was any real chance of those hopes becoming reality.
"Rin," Saber joined the conversation, "would you mind introducing me to your friend?"
"My apologies, I've forgotten my manners. Emiya-kun, this is Dulac Ginevra-san, a friend of mine from England. Ginevra, this is Emiya Shirou, a schoolmate and an acquaintance of mine."
"Pleased to meet you, Dulac-san," Emiya bowed slightly as it was custom.
"Likewise, Emiya-san," Saber returned the bow.
"Well, it's almost time for homeroom," Rin said, hearing the first bell ring. "See you around, Emiya-kun."
"Wait a moment, Tohsaka," he called out for her, then continued in a hushed tone. "Listen, there's something I need to speak with you about. Privately, that is."
How convenient, Rin thought to herself. Though she had been waiting for such an opportunity, she would have preferred to postpone it as long as possible. She frowned inwardly. Was she becoming too self-indulgent? Best to crush such behaviors before they could become bad habits.
"It's about Yukiko's case. Something… came up."
Rin's mind immediately reeled. Yukiko's case was related to Guilford, and by extension to Magecraft. Had the teenage vigilante uncovered a connection that she hadn't investigated? If that was the case, it was equally important to acquire that intel and simultaneously prevent Emiya from proceeding down that road any further.
"I see," she replied slowly. "Well, I have some time free later today. Would you mind coming over to my house in the afternoon?"
"After school?" he nodded. "That's fine by me."
"Do you know where I live?" Rin inquired. She was surprised to see a small smirk playing across his lips. There was a spark of self-confidence bordering on arrogance in his eyes.
"Please, Tohsaka," he chuckled. "I might not act on my loose ends, but that doesn't mean I don't know them well."
Of course, she thought. She was the person who had uncovered his double identity, after all. It was only natural that he had gathered some information on her. It was the same thing she would have done if their roles were reserved. Strange, and sad how in fact he was also her loose end. One she would have to deal with sooner rather than later.
"You've grow a bit too cocky in the past few weeks, haven't you?" she almost smiled, though she actually felt quite bitter inside.
"Perhaps I have," he agreed reluctantly. "Anyway, I'll see you later Tohsaka, Dulac-san."
With a nod he turned and headed toward the main building, joining Issei as he did. Around them the number of people began to dwindle and not many had seen their interaction.
"Rin, who was that person?" Saber asked. Rin could tell that her voice was tense, despite her seemingly even tone. "I get the feeling he knows you better than you let on."
"He's a friend I owe a debt to," Rin replied. "A debt I had actually hoped to repay differently."
"The thing he was talking about, Yukiko's case: that's related to Caster's former Master, isn't it?"
"Yes," Rin nodded as both of them went for the entrance of the main building, "he helped me in the early stages of that mess when it seemed like it was only a mundane criminal case. He actually is…" she looked around. "It's not a good idea to discuss this here with all these people around. I'll fill you in later at home. Now we'd better get to the classroom before we're late."
Saber nodded her agreement and the both of them headed for the first class of the year.
There was a sound of hushed awe among her classmates when Saber was introduced, though Kuzuki-sensei didn't seem all that interested in the new addition to his class. Then again, the stern but highly competent teacher had never actually shown interest in much of anything.
As predicted, Saber's charisma combined with Rin's reputation as school idol kept just about everyone at a distance where normally the attractive female transfer student would be overwhelmed by the curiosity of her new classmates.
Saber blended in seamlessly as far as schoolwork was concerned. She was highly intelligent, as expected from the king of a country, and the information supplied from the Grail allowed her to follow the lessons without particular effort.
Through the day, her arrival was the only topic of conversation among the student body, as was her connection with Rin. Somehow, someone had already dug from the school archives that Ginevra had the same home address as the school idol and already rumors about them were being made, from the simplest to the most ludicrous. Of course, neither was spoken in what the other students thought to be their hearing range.
It would be worth mentioning that Saber's hearing range was far greater than any normal human, and that a number of the suppositions about her and her Master's level of intimacy seemed to get her relatively embarrassed, though it never lasted more than the blink of an eye. Rin, for her part, was extremely embarrassed by the level of sheer immaturity of her schoolmates as well as their minds' propensity to get stuck in the proverbial gutter. The only notable exceptions among the male half were Issei, whom she hardly got along with and Emiya, whose mind would soon have to be wiped of all significant knowledge of her.
Indeed the path of a Magus was a lonely one.
The King of Knights had many thoughts in her mind. The current state of the Grail was certainly one of these, but some were directed at the events of the previous conflict. No actual time had passed for her between the time she had disappeared and her summoning, and the timeless void she had been suspended in was more like a dream now that she had substance again.
As such, her musing about the end of that war wasn't surprising. To put it simply, by the late stages of the Fourth War she knew that she couldn't trust Kiritsugu in the slightest. If betraying her meant reaching his goals he would have done so without showing the slightest remorse, though whether he actually felt it or not was up to debate. Yet in spite of, or rather because of that she knew that Emiya Kiritsugu wouldn't have thrown away the Grail without a good reason. No, considering how willing he was to damn himself and others in order to obtain it, it had to be an extremely good reason.
No, with the knowledge of the Grail's malfunctions provided by her new Master, his betrayal acquired a new light. Could it be that, at the last possible moment, Kiritsugu had seen something in the Grail so wrong that he could no longer accept it in spite of all he had already sacrificed to get to it? To say that it was just an unsettling thought for her, who had put all of her hopes into the Grail, was the greatest understatement in history.
Still, it was no use to ponder it without a way to verify whatever assumptions she could come up with. Considering her Master was already aware of the Grail's malfunctions all she could do was wait and see how the situation would develop, even if the wait wreaked havoc on her nerves.
Besides, there were other things to deal with right now. This new Emiya who had suddenly appeared before her was another matter for concern. Fortunately her Master seemed to know something interesting about him that she didn't feel safe sharing where eavesdroppers could be lurking. Perhaps what she knew could shed further light on the present situation. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing.
All she had to do now was try to blend in with the youth of this era. A task easier said than done considering that they behaved more like children than the young men and women they would have been at that age in her era.
As a Magus, her Master was a notable exception to that, something she was extremely glad of. She didn't know how she would have put up with the shenanigans of an overgrown child. She was patient like a King should be, but just like a King she had no tolerance for stupidity, a constant plague in her era as much as it was in the present times. Perhaps humanity had not grown as much as she had thought.
Holding back a sigh, Saber resigned herself to make the best out of what she had.
After school – Tohsaka household
"I see," Saber nodded after listening to her Master's detailed retelling of her friend's kidnapping, as well as her interactions with Emiya in the rescue operation. "This young man certainly seems to be an interesting person. Still, isn't it odd that he bears such a name? To be called 'Archer' in this city…Master, are you sure it's a mere coincidence?"
"… Actually," Rin put down her cup of tea, "after rescuing Yukiko the first time as well as in the aftermath of Guilford's death, I gave this matter a lot of thought and did some research of my own. As far as I know, his secret persona's name is not one of his own choosing. He indeed introduced himself as a mere kyuudoka (archer) when I met him for the first time, but in this country we have a tendency to name cool things with their English equivalent. As such, he was stuck with 'Archer' as his alter-ego's name."
"The is no chance that he's a Magus, then?" Saber further inquired, her interest piqued.
There were too many coincidences for her to brush it off: a boy with the last name of her previous Master, and carrying the name a Servant Class? Not to mention that he spent his nights doing heroic deeds. If his known modus operandi weren't so extremely unlike Kiritsugu's, she would have been certain of their relation. In fact, according to Rin's description the boy seemed to embody every aspect of the dream Kiritsugu failed or chose not to embrace. What were the odds?
"Even forgetting that I never once felt any active or residual Prana coming from him, I took some risks and inspected the outside of his house. I couldn't make an in-depth analysis unless I wanted to risk being found out, but I didn't detect any active Boundary Fields on his property. That alone would exclude him from being a Magus, unless he's so adept at making Bounded Fields that it surpasses my ability to detect them.
In addition," she continued, "his behavior is not that of a Magus at all. I know for a fact that he's far too invested in mundane activities to have any time for researching Magecraft, and his nighttime work is not something any Magus worth his salt would lose sleep over."
"Couldn't it all be a ruse, just to deceive you?" Saber pressed.
"If his behavior was limited to a short timeframe I would have considered it, but he was known around school as the 'Fake Janitor' long before we even remotely started interacting. The 'Archer' has been in action for well over a year now, as well."
"So you exclude him as a Magus entirely," Saber concluded.
"His psych profile doesn't fit that of one, that much is certain," Rin agreed, then amended with a frown. "If he was a Magus regardless of this he'd have to be a fairly incompetent and unmotivated one, but the Emiya Shirou I know is anything but."
"You seem to hold him in high regard," Saber commented clinically.
"As I said, I owe him one," Rin scoffed, turning her head to the side and crossing her arms over her chest. It gave Saber the impression that her Master wasn't usually very honest with herself. "He's a cut above the rest of my peers and I can fault neither his efforts nor his results in his fields of choosing, no matter my personal opinion of them."
"I understand," the Servant acquiesced. No need to press the subject further if it annoyed her Master. "So, what do you think he uncovered about Caster's late Master?"
"Hard to say. Guilford had to have hidden his tracks well, as any decent Magus would have done, but even before he actually revealed himself we knew that the entire event was orchestrated by a third party. Emiya might have stumbled over one or more of his loose ends, but I don't think he could have found out about Guilford himself, especially not so long after his death. Either way, we'll find out soon. He shouldn't be much longer now."
On cue with that statement the phone rang, surprising them both. Rin stood up and went to answer, coming back a few moments later.
"It was Emiya. He said that he can't make it and asked us to meet him at the Fuyuki memorial park later this evening. He said that it was better if we saw it with our own eyes."
"We?" Saber arched an eyebrow. "Did he ask for me to come as well?"
"Well, no," Rin shook her head. "I told him I'd bring you along and he didn't object. Then again he already told me that he trusted me with his secret, so perhaps he doesn't consider it too much of a stretch. Besides, even if you're there it doesn't mean you have to listen to what he wants to talk about."
"You certainly don't expect me to leave you alone with him, do you?" Saber asked, a hint of a frown on her lips. "If there's even the slightest chance that he's a Magus…"
"Of course not," Rin shook her head. "If it comes personal matters I would only ask you to keep a few steps back, just to pretend you aren't listening in on our conversation."
"Fair enough. If I recall correctly from the maps you showed me, the Fuyuki memorial park is in the middle of the city. We should probably go out now if we don't intend to be late."
"I suppose it would be a good idea to be there a little bit earlier than agreed, just in case," Rin agreed, taking her jacket. "Shall we go?"
Saber nodded and stood, dutifully following after her Master.
It took them the better part of an hour to get to the park, walking leisurely a good part of the way and riding in a taxi for the rest. The sun had already set by then and the sky was illuminated by the artificial lights of the skyscrapers that circled all around the vast perimeter.
Yet even if there was enough light to see clearly in front of them the place felt darker than it should have been, and the haunted looking trees didn't help to make the place feel or look any better.
Saber frowned at the sight. The skyline had changed over the years but the layout of the city was more or less the same. She knew that this place wasn't far from where she had fought the King of Heroes during the previous war. This was more or less the place where the Grail had acquired its physical form, where Kiritsugu had forced her to unleash Excalibur and destroy her wish mere meters from its fulfillment.
Yet something was very, very wrong. Unleashing Excalibur in the middle of the city would certainly have caused a great amount of damage and a number of innocent victims, and that knowledge weighed on her soul a great deal. However, it didn't justify the radius of the damage and even less so the palpable feeling of dread that permeated the area like a twisted, dark curse.
What had happened to this place after she was gone?
They arrived a good twenty minutes earlier than intended, to see if there was anything out of the ordinary. Rin didn't seem to believe that Emiya could be up to no good, but taking small precautions like that were absolutely cost-free and generally a wise choice.
Still, even though they were early it appeared that the person they were there to meet had already arrived.
Emiya Shirou was sitting on a bench, leaning forward with his forearm resting on his knees, a can of soda held idly between his fingers. His gaze was distant, his features etched with worry and something else; something that was disturbingly, appropriately in tune with the place.
"Hello Tohsaka, Dulac-san. You're early," he greeted, turning to look at them.
"Well," Rin replied, purposely sounding annoyed, "seeing as you saw fit to move our meeting here we went for a stroll through the commercial area. I guess we got bored and got here sooner than expected. Is that a problem?"
"Not really," he shrugged, standing up and throwing the empty can into a nearby trash bin.
"So?" she demanded. "What did you want to talk about in this creepy place? What's there to see here, anyway?"
"Say Tohsaka, do you remember what I told you when we met for the second time in that alley? About why I do the things I do?"
"What has that to do with anything?" Rin asked, not really seeing the point of this line of conversation. Saber, on the other hand, was more than a little interested in knowing what he had to say. Her Master had not included his motivations when she told her about him. "However, yes, I remember. Because you were saved, isn't it?"
"More or less," he nodded. Then he started walking toward the centre of the park, motioning for them to follow. They did so, keeping a few steps behind him. "You know, this is where that huge fire happened ten years ago, where all those people died. I was here when it happened."
"That must have been ugly," Saber's Master stated the obvious with a tinge of compassion in her voice. For once her words probably mirrored what she actually felt.
"It's also the place where I was born, so to speak," he continued, his back still turned to them.
"My earliest memory is walking among the flames," he clarified, "I have no recollection of anything before that. I don't know who I was or who my parents were or how old I actually am. Nothing at all."
"The first thing I remember is walking among the flames," he repeated. "I watched mothers die trying to protect their children, only for them to die just moments later, consumed by the very same flames. I watched grown men die trying to shield their loved ones from collapsing buildings, when in the end they were all simply crushed together. Through it all I saw people turning to ash in the blink of an eye and charred bodies twisted like cheap matchsticks from the flames and the heat."
Anger seeped into his voice, his hands clenched into fists, shaking at his sides.
"Meaningless," he spat out. "They all died meaninglessly, like they didn't matter at all, as if they were small bugs caught unknowingly in something bigger than them."
He sighed, shoulders slumping forward before he straightened back up again. Rin didn't say anything. There wasn't much that could be said. Saber too was speechless, the anguish seeping from the boy's voice as palpable as the dark feeling that permeated the area.
"But somehow I survived. Somehow, I was saved. My adoptive father found me on the brink of death and dragged me out of the flames."
"I see… That's why you decided to help people, isn't it?"
"It's more complex than that," he turned to them but still looked elsewhere, as if he was still seeing the past horrors in front of his eyes. "It wasn't an immediate thing. It took me a while to put things together and figure out exactly what I had to do. Somehow I lived where others did not. There was nothing fair or right about it, no reason for me to have survived more than another. So if there wasn't a reason, then I had to find one for myself: a purpose to keep on living even though I knew that I didn't deserve it."
"Emiya-kun… you should have just been happy that you survived and enjoyed life even more."
He shook his head. "It's not that easy, Tohsaka. Some burns… they just don't heal. They accompany you; define you, for the rest of your life. I couldn't turn my back on that inferno so I could only give myself a stronger reason to look forward. I swore to myself that I wouldn't allow something like that to happen ever again."
He reached for his arm, pulling up his sleeve and revealing a small bracelet around his wrist. Bringing his fist in front of his face, he unfastened it.
"I swore that I wouldn't allow the innocent to be harmed again by something like the Holy Grail War!"
Rin had already realized, halfway through Emiya's speech, where this conversation was going. Part of her didn't want to believe it, but part of her knew that it made more sense than she wanted to admit. He had been involved with the Grail War from the very beginning, almost as early as she had been.
As he himself had said, in the wake of the Fourth War he was born. As she knew from witnessing it firsthand, in the beginning of the Fifth he had involved himself, either knowingly or unknowingly, with the plot of a sickly twisted Master and his Servant.
Therefore she wasn't surprised, or rather she shouldn't have been. The possibility had always been there and she had considered it under every possible perspective. Yet she had ruled him out every single time. Was it because it was actually reasonable to exclude him from the equation, or was it because she didn't want to admit the opposite?
Either way it didn't matter anymore now. As he removed the bracelet from his wrist and that sword shaped mark became visible on the back of his hand, Tohsaka Rin knew the truth beyond any chance of further denial.
Emiya Shirou was a Magus.
Emiya Shirou was a Master.
Emiya Shirou was an enemy.
A dark cloud erupted from behind his shoulder and the familiar form of Caster appeared from it.
"Rin, stand back!" At her side, Saber stepped forward with a burst of light, materializing her own battle raiment and putting herself between her Master and their enemies. Rin felt a Boundary Field going up around them.
So that was his plan. He said that he didn't want to involve innocents and the vast expanse of the Fuyuki Memorial Park, sealed with a Bounded Field, would insure that there wouldn't be bystanders that could be accidentally caught in the crossfire.
Rin appreciated that sentiment, but that was all she could appreciate. Even though her Magus mindset had kicked in and her own Circuits had flared to life, deep down she felt the cold stab of betrayal.
She honestly liked the person that Emiya Shirou was and the recent revelation that he was a Magus hadn't changed that, even if she hated that he had hidden it from her. All this time he had been stringing her along, biding his time. Considering his character there was probably a good, rational reason for it, but it didn't change the fact that he had lied and manipulated her to a degree.
"So it was you all this time," she said flatly, her emotions completely in check. "It's funny. Just earlier I was discussing with Saber the improbability of you being a Magus. I commend you, Emiya-kun. Even if I had you right under my nose I never truly suspected you."
"You weren't wrong, Tohsaka," he replied evenly. "I'm not a Magus. No," he held up his hand, "I know you can feel the Prana flowing from my contract and yes, I make use of Magecraft, but that's exactly what I am: a Magecraft user. Nothing more, nothing less."
Rin took his words into consideration. Her prodigious mind didn't need much to make the comparison with the true significance of being Magus, which was more than putting Magecraft into use. In fact, making use of a given spell was entirely irrelevant compared to knowing it, preserving it and discovering more spells. No, he was right and she had been correct in her estimation. The Emiya Shirou she knew could not be called a Magus by any stretch of the imagination.
Even the hypothesis that his observed behavior of over a year was just an elaborate ruse was too ridiculous, unless he was able to divine the future and foresee in advance their interactions, as well as the extremely unanticipated Fifth Grail War.
Somehow, knowing that she hadn't been mistaken eased her anger, but she was still pissed at him for hiding it from her and with herself for missing the truth.
"I can see how the definition of Magus would hardly fit you," she conceded, feeling somewhat mollified by that admission. "But I can hardly believe you didn't know about Guilford. Why did you storm his mansion and kill him if you didn't?"
He frowned and tilted his head to the side in honest confusion.
"He kidnapped and wanted to enslave you like he did to Yukiko," he replied in what could only be called a 'duh' tone of voice. "Did I need any more reasons than that?"
Oh, Rin thought. Oh!
In her mind she had filed the two events separately. Being kidnapped by Guilford and Guilford being killed were two unrelated events in her mind that just happened to take place at the same time. She had been too preoccupied with Yukiko's well being, in the immediate aftermath of his death, to feel any gratitude for the person who had killed him and freed them both from Rule of Blood's power.
Thinking about it now Emiya had, well, saved her. … No, no, no. He hadn't saved her, he merely hastened the process of breaking the spell she and Yukiko were under. She had gotten away on her own after all… because he had provided her with the distraction she needed.
Ugh. Even if back then she thought she was able to slip away from that sick Magus' grasp and free both herself and Yukiko from his power there was no way to prove it, even to herself, and it didn't change the fact that his intervention had at the very least simplified things and increased her chances a great deal.
Being honest with herself, which she usually wasn't, considering that Guilford had a Heroic Spirit at his command and she hadn't at the time, her actual chances to get away and counter his Magecraft before he sent Caster after them were extremely slim. And that didn't take into consideration surviving and remaining free for the nearly two months it took her to finally summon Saber.
"I don't think so," she finally agreed, much to her dismay. The only thing that pissed her off more than having been saved was the annoying feeling of actually being pleased that he had cared enough to assault an unknown Magus' house. "I owe you one for that. Well, I suppose in return for that I can listen to what you have to say instead of having Saber cut you down like I probably should."
"You're assuming that it would be simple as that, ojou-san," Caster spoke coldly for the first time behind Shirou's shoulder. Her presence spiked at her words and it filled the air ominously. Yep, Rin considered, Emiya wasn't keeping Caster on a leash as short as Guilford had.
"Let us all calm down for a minute," Emiya cut in. "Tohsaka, despite what the situation looks like I have no intention of fighting you. I think you already figured that out."
"Of course I did," she scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest. "This entire setup works completely against you from a tactical standpoint while you held all the cards until a moment ago. I assume you have a good reason for throwing away your advantages. What is it?"
"By now you already know that the Grail isn't working properly, but there's more to it than that."
"Oh? And how do you know about it, Emiya-kun?"
"This place," Emiya pointed at the ground where he was standing, "is where the Grail materialized the last time, ten years ago. This is where my father obtained it, refused it and commanded his Servant to destroy it."
"What?" Rin hissed and in front of her Saber held her invisible sword tighter. "You father was a Master too? And why would he refuse and destroy the Grail? Unless…" Rin frowned, "unless the Grail was already not working properly even back then?"
"Nineteen years ago my father was hired by the Einzbern to act as a Master on their behalf in the Fourth War. I'm not going to elaborate much on his methods, which were pretty ruthless, but his wish was to create a world without conflict where people could live in peace."
"Hmpf. It seems like you owe your father more than just your life, doesn't it?"
"Much more," he agreed, "but that's not the point. Kiritsugu was as ruthless as he was methodic. He wouldn't have bet his dream on something like the Grail without investigating it in detail. For the nine years between his entrance into the Einzbern family and the start of War he investigated the creation and the workings of the Grail as thoroughly as he could, both within and without the Einzbern. He didn't come out with much, or at least not with anything that by itself made him think that the Grail could be anything but what was promised to be, but it all changed when he actually reached the Grail."
After a moment's silence, he said, "Say, Tohsaka, do you know how the Grail actually accomplishes a miracle beyond the scope of Gaia's?"
"By the simultaneous return the souls of the Servants killed in the war to the Akasha, opening a road to it," Rin answered warily.
"That's correct, but how many Servant are required to be defeated in order to fully activate it?"
"What do you mean? Obviously since there can only be a single Servant as a victor then they must be six."
"It's seven, Tohsaka," Emiya shook his head slowly. "The wish of the Servants was never meant to be fulfilled."
Saber's teeth gritted. Beneath her gauntlets, her knuckles whitened under the strain of clenching her sword as tight as she could.
Seven Servants needed to be sacrificed for the Grail to work properly, Emiya said. The wish of the Servant was never meant to be fulfilled.
His words echoed in her ears like a curse. She had been lied to. She had been deceived. The Grail was not able to make her wish come true because she wouldn't be in a condition to express it when the Grail had the power to make it real.
All of her efforts… all of her hopes…
"Are you saying that the system of the Command Seal is intended not only to uphold the Masters authority over their Servants, but to force the last one standing into committing suicide?" She all but growled out. Normally she would let her Master do the talking but this wasn't a matter she could or would delegate. She had accepted the subordinate role of a Servant in exchange for the possibility to make her wish become real. If that premise was a lie then her reason to be here, her reason to fight was gone as well.
"That's exactly so, but even then it's not all there is to it," Emiya replied. "Not that it isn't important, but this deception aside, the Grail isn't working as it should. I have no actual proof of it, but my father thought it had been tainted in the course of the Third War."
"Tainted?" Rin asked from the security of Saber's back. "How do you even begin to taint a ritual like the Grail War?"
"When he investigated the Grail before and after his conflict," Emiya answered, "the only relevant thing he managed to uncover from the Einzbern's archives, as well as the few still living participants of the third war or their descendents, is that the Einzbern had manipulated the system to summon a Class not counted among the original seven. I don't know the actual identity of that Heroic Spirit, but the Class that replaced Berserker was called Avenger."
"Avenger," Rin mulled the word for a moment. "Even assuming that what you say is true and knowing for a fact that the Einzberns like to meddle with the Grail to their own advantage, why do you think that this mysterious Servant has tainted the Holy Grail's System?"
The answer came, surprisingly, from Caster.
"For one thing, after the Third War ended the Grail became able to summon Anti-Heroes, where it was originally intended to exclusively summon so called 'proper' Heroes. If the Grail was working as intended, I would not be here."
"So you're an Anti-Hero, uh?" Rin asked, her voice moderately pleased. "Good to know. What else?"
The conversation returned to Emiya. "When Kiritsugu reached the Grail it offered to fulfill his wish for global peace by killing everyone but him, his wife and his daughter. He said it called itself Angra Mainyu and when he obviously rejected its offer, it cursed him, destroying almost all of his Circuits. The same curse finally took his life almost five years ago."
"Angra… Mainyu?" Rin's eyebrows furrowed. "The devil from the Zoroastrian religion?"
"Yeah. I'm not sure If it was Avenger's actual identity or if there was something about it that called this entity to invade the Grail, but ultimately this curse started to overflow from the Grail and Kiritsugu used two of his Command Seals to force his Servant to destroy the Grail. The great conflagration resulted from that and while that partial manifestation of the Grail was destroyed by an Anti-Fortress Noble Phantasm its curse still ligers heavily in this place. Look around. It's still so thick that even normal people give a wide berth to this place, and the vegetation can't grow properly no matter how much care is put into it. Whatever the actual cause for this taint, it's certainly not something I made up and I have no reason to believe it has yet been cleansed either."
"… I agree with you that the current situation is abnormal," Rin agreed after a moment of thought. "But your so called proofs are circumstantial at best."
"You don't believe me," Emiya concluded. There was more than just sadness in his voice.
"No, I actually think you're being honest, but your information is sketchy and from a third hand source. It's not exactly something to build a course of action on. Still, I believe you already have a plan or you wouldn't have bothered revealing yourself just yet. What did you have in mind?"
"Going with the assumption that currently the tainted Grail can only realize wishes through destruction, we intend to stall the war as much as possible."
"Stall? How would that serve any purpose?"
"The Grail has more power the more souls are returned to it," Caster supplied, stepping in front of her Master. "I am of the opinion that it can be cleansed or at the very least isolated properly."
"Do you think you can do it?" Rin questioned the Heroic Spirit.
"I'm a Magus from the Age of Gods, little girl," Caster sneered slightly. "While even I have to admit that this Grail is considerably complex and finely made for a product of this dull era it's absolutely not something above my ability to comprehend. The only reason I haven't yet grasped all of its secrets is because its creators foresaw the possibility of summoning a Magus superior to them and took appropriate countermeasure to keep me out. Without having actual access to its depths under Ryuudo Mountain, I can only examine the active parts of the System remotely."
"Let me guess," Rin stopped her, "the tainted part of the Grail, the one that receives the soul of the Servants and sends them back to the Root is not going to activate until all seven are summoned. Is that about right?"
"Indeed," Caster replied, sounding a bit surprised at Rin's insight. "The Lesser Grail that holds the soul of the defeated Servants is not here in Fuyuki yet, and is unlikely to arrive until the war starts properly. Without it, the Greater Grail will not activate in full and is therefore beyond my ability to interact with."
"Che!" Rin scoffed. "For a Magus from the Age of the Gods, not being able to bypass a modern Boundary Field is not a credit your ability."
"For your information, little girl," Caster stressed that particular appellative, "it's well within my power to bring down the protection around the Grail. If I were willing to turn this entire region into a smoldering crater to prove myself to you, that is."
This time Rin knew better than to run her mouth needlessly.
"Let us all cool down a little bit, shall we?" Emiya, apparently the peacekeeper of the lot intervened again. "Tohsaka and … Saber, right?" the King of Knights nodded, if barely, in response. "I understand that you consider my arguments lacking, and I suppose you're going to look into it yourself from now on."
"Now that I don't have to watch my back all the time, yes," Rin replied with narrowed eyes, "that's what I'm going to do."
"Good. I too would prefer if you looked into this matter on your own. There might be things my father was unable to find or even overlooked entirely. It's better if an unrelated third party takes a look into it independently."
"I'm surprised, Emiya-kun," Rin smirked like she usually did when she was about to make a dig at someone's character. "I thought that someone as painfully honest and straightforward as you would have preferred to be trusted right off the bat."
"What are you talking about, Tohsaka?" Emiya's eyebrows furrowed. "Trusting me and trusting my sources are two different things entirely. Besides, I'm sure that if you didn't trust me at all you wouldn't have given me the time of day in these circumstances. The Grail War is a very nasty business and if you didn't check things through I would have been seriously concerned about asking your cooperation."
"Huh, you're not as dumb as I had thought you were, Emiya-kun," Rin replied, slightly taken aback.
"Then I propose an pact of non-aggression for the time being," Rin continued, not dignifying him with a response to his doubtful sounding gratitude. "Is that what you had in mind?"
"Essentially," he nodded, obviously relieved. Acknowledging the agreement, Saber eased her stance, letting her arms hang at her side, but still keeping her eyes set on the duo. "I have a previous engagement I have to attend to, so I'll be leaving Fuyuki for a couple of days at least."
"Wait, how are you going to maintain Caster outside of the Grail's range? You can't be telling me you have the Prana reserves to support a Servant outside of Fuyuki."
"I'm not," he told her flatly. "Caster isn't coming with me. She'll be staying here in Fuyuki."
Rin's eyebrow twitched.
"The problem is the same. The Servant needs both the power from the Grail and a Master's to remain in this world."
"Please, ojou-san," Caster replied, using a more polite appellative but still in a mocking tone. "I'm more than capable of providing the means to sustain myself, without doing harm to anyone if that was what worried you."
Rin nodded. "Nevermind, then. That being said, Emiya-kun, even if I might know the answers there are some questions I have to ask."
"Go ahead," the redhead shrugged.
"Why did you wait until now to reveal yourself to me? I have been without a Servant for weeks, so why wait for me to summon one to make your move?"
"What would have been your answer if I came up to you and asked for your cooperation with a Servant at my side while you didn't have the protection of one as well? Regardless of what your true intentions might have been at the time, could you have refused?"
"Not likely," Rin admitted, sounding satisfied. She had probably already arrived at that conclusion during the previous conversation.
"There you have it," he spread his arms. "It's not an actual alliance if one of the parties involved has no choice in the matter. Speaking of long term cooperation, it's better if everyone involved is involved of their own free will and not any form of coercion."
"How nice of you," she mocked, in a surprisingly good-natured manner as far as Saber could tell. "Next question. What would you have done had I refused your request this evening?"
"It depends. In the unlikely eventuality that you decided to fight I chose this area to avoid innocent casualties. Not that I think you would have made that choice with the circumstances being what they are, but I preferred to play it safe with the lives of other people. Further, had you decided to just walk away I would have let you do so. Although, seeing as I intend to stall the war as much as possible while Caster works on the Grail, we would have had to interfere with all of your coming battles, forcing you and your opponents to either retreat altogether or coming to support the losing party until a stalemate was reached," Emiya said with an even tone.
"Well, even if it's annoying to hear you say that so bluntly, in light of your stance in this War I can see your point. Last but not least," Rin eyes turned even more serious than they already were. "Emiya-kun, do you really trust that woman? She has already betrayed her first Master. What's to stop her from doing the same with you the moment it becomes beneficial for her?"
Saber expected Caster to protest Rin's accusation, if only for appearances' sake, but the purple clad woman didn't utter a word, simply turning to look at her second Master from behind the hood that concealed her features. There was a sense of trepidation coming from her body language that hardly befitted a Heroic Spirit, or even just the impression of aloof confidence she had exuded until that moment.
"In reverse order, Tohsaka," Emiya started answering slowly, "there's nothing preventing her from betraying me. The Command Seals don't insure loyalty at all, just short term compliance. As for trusting her," he turned to look at the Servant at his side. "Yeah, I trust her absolutely."
Now, Saber didn't really know Caster all that well. The impression she had gotten from her coincided with that of her Master's from their previous encounter. She was undoubtedly a woman used to hiding her intentions, as her overall appearance and demeanor suggested. Saber had seen just a few expressions on what was visible of the other Servant's face, and they were either the half-smirks or half-frowns of a detached and generally uncaring person.
Yet in spite of that the small, definitely feminine smile caused by her current Master's declaration could only be called… radiant.
Yes, Saber knew instinctually that she couldn't trust Caster in the slightest, but her instincts also told her that Emiya Shirou had no reason to fear the same. At her side, Rin's huff told Saber that her Master had reached a similar conclusion and was not all that pleased with it.
Everything about this situation was annoying to the Tohsaka heir. Starting a month earlier, annoyance had been a constant companion for the young woman.
She was annoyed with the Grail: while part of her inheritance, it was also the cause of her being orphaned. She was annoyed with herself, for having been thrown around like a ragdoll by the unexpected events surrounding her. She was annoyed with Emiya, for his deep albeit unintentional involvement with the Grail.
But right now the vast majority of her annoyance was with Caster. That woman's existence had been the cause of many sleepless nights in the past eight weeks. Seeing her smile so beatifically at Emiya's declaration of trust made Rin want to smack her face more than ever.
None of this showed outwardly, of course, save for a barely contained huff. Naturally, that too annoyed her.
"Well then, I guess there isn't much else I can say if that's how you feel. For the time being I will investigate your claims, discreetly, of course. There's a chance that such irregularities might have been overlooked purposely, especially by the Einzbern."
"Agreed," Shirou nodded. "Most Magi wouldn't care much about how many people died so long as they could reach Akasha. If the true purpose of the Grail got out to the Clock Tower, Fuyuki might get invaded by an army of Magi."
Further annoyance. "If you felt like that, why did you think it was a good idea to seek an alliance with me? You are aware that I'm the Second Owner of Fuyuki instated by the Mage Association, aren't you? If you don't trust Magi, why seek an alliance with the highest ranking officer in the area?"
"Ah. I think you've got things a bit mixed up Tohsaka," he actually had the gall to chuckle.
"What do you mean by that?" Rin demanded to know with narrowed eyes.
"I didn't ask the cooperation of the Magus that happens to be Tohsaka Rin, but rather that of Tohsaka Rin that happens to be a Magus," Emiya pointed out a bit amusedly.
"I fail to see the difference," Rin declared.
"Strange. I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer but it's pretty obvious to me. To put it simply, Tohsaka, the former wouldn't have lost a minute of her time searching for a missing girl who was ignorant of Magecraft while the latter couldn't find any rest until she knew that same girl was safe and sound." Emiya's smile was genuine as he said, "If I really have to spell it for you, I asked your help because I know for a fact that you're a good person, Tohsaka."
"…" Rin didn't say anything in response to that. Emiya was so annoying that it made her cheeks flush red with anger. Yes, of course anger. What else could it have been beside that?
"By the way," he continued, disregarding her lack of words, "this is yours, right?"
He pulled out a small leather satchel from inside his jacket and threw it at her in a high arc. She caught it effortlessly and emptied the contents onto her hands. It only served to increase her annoyance.
"All this time," she almost shrieked, "you've been holding my gems? Do you have any idea how hard of a time I've been having without these?"
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he clapped his hands and bowed apologetically. "I couldn't have returned them earlier without blowing my cover."
"What are you saying?" Rin continued, voice still slightly high-pitched. "You could have returned them anonymously or something like that."
"… I honestly didn't think of that," he confessed, scratching his head sheepishly. "Sometimes the most simple answer eludes us, right?" It was only for appearance's sake that Rin refrained from palming her face, settling for calming herself instead and sighing in resignation.
"I can't believe how dumb you can be at times, Emiya-kun. At least you made the right decision in contacting me. It would have been a disaster if you went about this on your own."
"I'm not that bad," he sweatdropped.
"You kind of are at times, Master," the mostly silent Caster agreed.
"Not you too, Caster. I get no respect at all," he practically moaned into his hand.
It surprised Rin how lighthearted the relationship between the witch in purple and the hero-wannabe was. Caster hadn't given her the impression that she was a very open individual.
"Well, since you are so hopeless that even your Servant is worried about you, I guess that I can spare a bit of information too."
"What is it?" he asked, returning to his completely serious self.
"I know for a fact that at least another Magus has tried to perform the summoning ritual. I don't know who they were, but I know for a fact that it either didn't work or they were interrupted before they could complete it successfully."
"Is this related to Saber's inability to shift into her astral form?" Caster asked, though it felt like a rhetorical question.
"It's precisely like that," Rin agreed. "I see you catch on quickly."
"I already made a few hypotheses along the lines of a poorly made ritual when my Master informed me of a Servant pretending to be a normal human, instead of hiding on the spiritual plane," the Servant of the Spell elaborated with a shrug.
"So neither of you had any part in it?" Rin further inquired.
"Admittedly I could summon a Servant myself," Caster confessed, "if I got my hands on an unutilized set of Command Seals. That would mean tracking and killing a Servantless Master, but I neither had the time nor the resources to do so."
"Time?" Rin blinked. "It's been almost two months since Guilford died. What have you been doing in the meantime?"
"Oh, a bit of this and a bit of that," Caster said mysteriously, "Neither my Master nor I have been exactly idle in the past few weeks."
"Caster, please don't give her any more reasons to worry," the redhead sighed. "Don't worry, Tohsaka. Despite how she made it sound we haven't been doing anything out of place. I'll bring you up to speed as soon as I come back from my trip."
"I waited eight weeks, I suppose I can wait a couple of days more," Rin nodded.
"Thank you. In the meantime, Caster?"
"Give Tohsaka access to my father's notes. There might be something in there she could use. Also, give her the tomes I took from Guilford's mansion."
"Wait, what tomes?" Rin cut in.
"Ah. I sort of ransacked Guilford's Workshop on my way out of there. I've already read all of them and most of what's in there is not compatible with my brand of Magecraft except for a few books on runes. You can probably make better use of the rest than I ever could."
"Seriously?" Rin had to whisper in disbelief.
"Consider it compensation for leaving you hanging for all of this time," Emiya continued, further proving that the title of Magus didn't suit him at all. Giving away knowledge so freely, no matter how useless, was almost heresy for any Magus worth the name.
"Are you sure, Master?" Caster asked. "Those books are worth more than just a little money."
"It's fine," Shirou said, brushing her concern aside. "I'm not short on cash and I'd rather make the best out of all our resources in preparation for the war."
"I'm not sure if working with you is going to be a blessing or a curse, Emiya-kun," Rin said with a shake of her head. "Well, at least I get something out of this trouble. Was there anything else you needed to discuss?"
"Nothing comes to mind right now. When I come back we can discuss in detail what happened at Guilford's mansion, just in case I missed something relevant."
"Then I suggest we call it a night. Saber and I have a lot to work on. I'd better get back to my own father's notes about the Grail War as well. There might be something in there that has a different meaning in light of what transpired here."
"Good luck," Emiya wished. "If you need anything while I'm out of Fuyuki don't hesitate to contact Caster at my place."
"You are far too available for your own good, Emiya," Rin grumbled. "Someday that is going to come back to bite you in the back."
"Didn't you tell me something like that once already?" Emiya asked rhetorically with his usual annoying smile.
"Yes, I did. I can see you made no use whatsoever of my advice."
He shrugged. "Like I told you back then, I'll take my chances. Goodnight Tohsaka, Saber." He nodded to the both of them and then walked away, disappearing into the darkness that shrouded the park.
"Master," Saber finally spoke, turning to look at her with a piercing gaze. "Did you know anything about this?"
"The Seven Servant requirement? No, I didn't, but I have no way of proving it to you."
"… In my life as a King I have learned how to discern when I'm being lied to," the Servant of the Sword declared, staring at Rin. "You most certainly aren't."
It took more than a bit of effort not to sigh in relief. Certainly Saber was bound by the Command Seals, but like Emiya had said, the prodigious binding served to only ensure short term compliance and didn't bring any loyalty. Ultimately, the relationship between Master and Servant had to be based on mutual goals and mutual respect. Otherwise the fate of Vincent Guilford awaited any Master so foolish as to step upon a Heroic Spirit's pride.
"Thank you, Saber. What do you make of Emiya and Caster?"
"I could not detect any lie in the things he said. That doesn't make his knowledge correct, as you said, but I don't believe he's trying to mislead us. Caster, on the other hand… it's better not to trust that woman much, if possible."
"So your impression is the same as mine. That's something, at least." Rin could not help but let out a small sigh. "Saber, I'm sorry about this but for the time being I have to ask you to trust me. I'm going to get to the bottom of this situation. I know this has nothing to do with the terms of your summoning, but can you please support me until this mess has been taken care of?"
"I have indeed accepted this contract in exchange for the Grail, Rin, but now that I'm here, as a knight I cannot disregard a threat to the lives of innocent people. If this Grail can't in fact be used without causing harm, I'm honor bound to see it destroyed. "
"Thank you. I appreciate it and I promise: if there's a single chance for you to have your wish fulfilled properly, I will support you to the best of my ability."
"In return, Rin, I will do the same," the Servant smiled. "Is this a satisfactory amendment to our initial agreement?"
"I say it works just fine" the Magus replied with a smile of her own. "Let us go back now. I'm afraid there's a lot of work ahead of us."
"Of that I have no doubt," Saber agreed, following after her Master.
On their way out of the park, Saber stopped and turned for a moment to look in the direction that Emiya had disappeared minutes earlier. Something about him had struck her. Something familiar she couldn't quite put her finger on.
Perhaps it was his goal, his ideals or perhaps his moral compass that, while not precisely that of a knight, wasn't very far from it. Perhaps in such a suboptimal situation, this alliance could prove to be a blessing. In a conflict like the Grail War, where everyone was out for everyone else's blood, having a reliable ally was perhaps the best advantage one could hope to find.
It was perhaps too soon to consider the other duo of Master and Servant as trustworthy, but Saber had the feeling that the son of Kiritsugu had taken the best parts of the deceased man that used to be her Master.
"Is something the matter, Saber?" Rin asked, having noticed her sudden stop.
"No, just thinking. That young man is… intriguing."
"… There's certainly more to him than meets the eye. Have you perhaps found a kindred spirit in him, Saber?" her Master asked with a raised eyebrow.
"It's far too soon to decide that," she replied evenly, not rising to her Master's bait. "The true measure of any person is determined in times of hardship, not during peace."
"I can't fault that reasoning," her Master agreed. "Besides, whether we like it or not, both his and our characters are going to be tested."
Of that there was little doubt, Saber privately agreed. The challenge ahead of her appeared to be far more daunting than what she had estimated and the prize for it was most likely already lost.
A bitter feeling rose up into her chest. How long until she could keep her promise? How long until she could make up for her mistakes?
She crushed those thoughts as well as her uncertainty with the firm resolve of a King. There was no use in losing herself in negative musings. She would seek the best possible outcome from this situation, and if this Grail couldn't fulfill her wish she would certainly move toward the next, as her contract with Alaya would ensure.
That, of course, after smashing to pieces the artifact that dared to deceive her. One way or another she would put an end to the tragedies caused by the Grail of Fuyuki.
AN: Man, this sure was a though chapter to write. Trying to stay true to Rin's and Saber's characters in a new set of circumstances was very difficult, especially for Rin. Like I said in the forum she's a triple layered character who isn't honest even with herself, making writing in her POV a daunting task.
Well, this is it for now.
As usual my thanks go to RavingScholar for a job well done and also to twinkieman92 for helping out several times.
If you enjoyed this chapter is also thanks to them.
That's it for now. See ya.