Chapter 26 – Darker after Dawn
(Published: 12.22.13 - Beta: RavingScholar)
The fight's extreme tension was the only reason Emiya Shirou hadn't sighed loudly in frustration yet.
As he caught his breath, picking himself up from the floor, he mused if it was a similar near-constant streak of bad luck and backfiring plans that drove Kiritsugu down the path of the Magus Killer. Honestly, could something work even remotely as intended for once?
He had wasted almost all of his energy to allow Yumizuka to escape, and what did she do? She came back to help him.
Of all the things she could have done to confirm her own sense of humanity, did she have to jeopardize her life for him? Without a doubt, she was squandering all of his effort up to that point. Did she have no sense at all?
Honestly, it wasn't like he didn't understand the driving point of her choice. He of all people understood the importance and the need of wanting to save someone, but still…
He shouldn't have been the person she risked her life for.
And yet there was no use complaining about that now. Not only was he fairly sure that she wouldn't listen to him at this point, there was also the complication that he had pretty much exhausted all of his resources.
Ciel was an experienced fighter and wouldn't fall for the same tricks twice. To begin with, The Snake was a technique that relied in killing or at least disabling an opponent before they could see through its nature and develop an appropriate counter. Not that just anyone would be able to mount a defense after seeing it once or twice, but Ciel's skill level certainly meant that she had already seen through it. Including the fact that that all external damage inflicted upon her healed nearly instantaneously, the result was a very grim one.
He needed something different: something new and strong enough to deal enough damage to open a window of opportunity for them to escape. Something to fight an opponent stronger than him by several orders of magnitude. Something…
He licked his lips. The actual feasibility was unknown, but it wasn't like things could get any worse than being killed either way it went. He needed more training, but it looked like real life battle was to be his master, after all.
"Yumizuka-san," he said with dawning realization. "Stand behind me and don't get in my way."
The vampire nodded and stood behind him while Ciel seemed to find her resolve again after a moment of apparent hesitation. She was conflicted, that much was obvious, but in the end it seemed that she had decided to perform her duties even if she found them detestable.
Now the situation was clear and a plan was made. He still needed something else, an appropriate weapon to go with it.
Monohoshizao was out of the question. The elegant blade, for all the otherworldly skill that came with it, was unsuited for prolonged combat against swords of superior making such as the Black Keys. Fundamentally it was a sword meant to cut, not to clash.
But he didn't have anything better he could use. Even though he had seen other swords in his life they were absolutely not better than Sasaki's nodachi. The alternative was using the Black Keys himself; however, his replicas suffered a natural degradation due to being products of Magecraft that made them inherently inferior to the originals wielded by his opponent.
He needed something that was clearly superior but… no… there was something he could work with, but had never tried it before. How much Prana did he have left? How many swords could he project before he ran out completely?
Not more than two, he determined. Then he would be running on fumes, and each following feat of Magecraft would reflect badly directly on his Circuits and body. Though his own wellbeing was far from his foremost concern, it was also true that he couldn't afford to suffer a progressive decrease in performance if he wanted to preserve Yumizuka's life. He had to secure victory before he started relying on self-destructive behavior.
The plan was made, now came the more difficult part: putting it into practice.
Without losing sight of Ciel, Shirou's focus turned inward. The last of his Prana went to his Circuits once more. The image he needed came forth naturally, as easily as breathing, but when he pushed the structures from his mind to the realm of Gaia a sharp lance of pain throbbed through his head.
Pain far worse than those days when he first started learning Magecraft, when he used to turn his nerves into makeshift Circuits, shot up his spine. His mind almost went blank, static buzzing over his vision like an old television with a bad signal. Even his hearing seemed to fizzle momentarily, though he was almost sure he heard the sound of grinding steel somewhere in the distance.
He didn't allow it to stop or even slow him down. He pushed and pushed until the he could feel in his hands the full weight of the weapons he had chosen.
Black as the darkest night and white as pristine snow, the curved forms of Kanshou and Bakuya shined ominously in his hands.
Ciel eyed the new weapons with suspicion, no doubt wary of his current preference of a dual wielding style as opposed to his previous use of a single, double-handed blade. All those who were experienced in fighting against bladed weapons knew that dual-wielding styles were much more insidious than single-handed ones because they could more easily juggle offense and defense.
Ciel obviously preferred to arm both hands simultaneously as well, if their earlier clash was any indication. Of course the Executor didn't know that Shirou's skill with the Married Blades was nowhere close to his proficiency with Monohoshizao. For one thing, the accumulated experience in each blade combined was not on par with Kojirou Sasaki's favored weapon, and it suffered further degradation because each blade had its own distinct user. The only saving grace was that they were meant to be used together; however, actually employing them efficiently at the same time was going to be the real challenge.
Not that he had much of a choice in that regard. Thankfully he didn't have the burden of being on the offensive.
He stepped forward, putting a few steps between the person he had to protect and reducing the distance to the deadliest opponent of his young life. Then, much to Ciel's befuddlement, he crossed his arms over his chest in the typical starting guard of the Snake.
The Executor's eyes narrowed. No doubt she sensed the wrongness of that stance. It was a position meant for unarmed combat, and even if the style could be adapted somehow to allow the use of blades it still left glaring holes in his defense that she could spot easily.
Exactly as he wanted.
This was Emiya Shirou's ultimate reckless bet.
Her instincts told her as much as she took in Emiya's stance. There were so many openings she could exploit where mere minutes before she had been forced to rely on the superiority of her weapons to get the best of him.
Something was clearly amiss, but she couldn't fathom what exactly. In the end, she reasoned, it didn't really even matter. She had already made her decision. Now all she had to see whether his resolve equaled hers or not. Without wasting words she charged ahead.
For a truly experienced fighter, thought is an unnecessary complication. Skill is not engraved into the conscious mind but rather into the instinctual part of the brain and into the muscles, honed to perfection by years of conflicts.
For this reason, when Ciel struck, her offense automatically targeted the openings she was able to detect. If she had stopped considering where to strike at each instance, she would have lost valuable time that could give any worthwhile opponent an opportunity to retaliate.
Due to the automatic nature of the assault, it wasn't until the third strike that her conscious brain realized that, despite her pinpoint attacks at his openings, none of her blows had managed to connect with Emiya's body.
She blinked. Her higher brain functions took hold of the battle's flow once more. It took less than a tenth of second for the shift to happen; a barely perceivable fraction of time. In that minuscule frame she found herself staring at the business end of a black falchion, coming at high speed toward her face.
She rolled with the blow, barely avoiding her left eye being gouged out horribly, but the blade still managed to carve deeply into her cheek, spraying blood on her face. Still, by the time she completed her spin the wound was gone, and her instincts took over once more.
She resumed her offence, unleashing an onslaught of blows against her opponent. Steel clashed against steel in a furious dance of sparks. This time she was much smoother in taking stock of the course of the battle. She noticed with dismay that things weren't quite adding up.
Still, even though she was targeting his openings she had yet to land a significant blow. Most of her attacks were being deflected and those that managed to slip barely past his guard were just grazes that his armament brushed off without damage.
That didn't seem possible. She was moving faster than he was. By all rights he shouldn't have been able to see his attacks, much less muster a decent defense. And yet, every time she struck, his falchions were there to stop her Black Keys.
If he was slower than her, she realized, it meant that he was moving earlier than she was. He was predicting the direction of her attacks with a high degree of precision, opting to block the most damaging blows and letting his armor take care of the relatively minor blows.
Ridiculous. He willingly left himself open to her attacks for the sake of keeping up with her? The term brave did not fit this kind of fighting style. Suicidal would be far more appropriate.
Even Ciel, immortal as she was, would think twice before actively using such a foolish approach to a battle. Despite the conscious knowledge of her inability to die, her mind still possessed its survival instincts…but Emiya didn't seem to be concerned about his own life. Thinking about it, through this whole ordeal he never once seemed to have his own wellbeing in mind…at all.
This kind of mindset wasn't normal, nor was it something that could be achieved on the spur of the moment. Whatever his true motives actually were, this man's resolve wasn't a decision born from a mere whim. He truly and thoroughly would follow his belief to the very end.
Caught up in her thoughts, Ciel failed to notice that while neither of them had yet managed to inflict any actual damage on the other, their clashing had started to take a toll on their respective weapons. Unlike their previous encounter, however, it was the Black Keys that started to show signs of giving in.
Of course, Ciel was far from letting herself be caught unprepared by this.
Relentlessly, Ciel hammered her swords against the Married Blades. The sheer power behind each blow caused sparks to light up the night, and the grind of steel broke the otherwise eerie silence.
Keeping up with the Executor was an arduous task, but surprisingly less than what Shirou had expected. The Fake Opening style he came up with not too many days before was in its early stage. Even if he tempered his inexperience at his own fighting technique with the accumulated knowledge recorded within Kanshou and Bakuya as well as The Snake, the end result was supposed to be far shoddier than how it actually came out.
Of course there were awkward and useless movements: sudden jerking and twisting of the muscle that he could have avoided, among others. And yet, in spite of that he was keeping up with his opponent. It took him little to figure out why he was faring better with a patchwork style he had come up on the spot rather than the technique he had polished for well over an year. It could be summed up with one word, actually.
It was that simple. His identical Origin and Element of Sword, which granted him his talent in Grasping the truest essence of each blade he gazed upon, was the greatest of boons he could have asked for when fighting an enemy who relied heavily on blades.
There was no feint he couldn't see through, no misdirection he would fall for. With startling realization he knew as of that moment that his highly limited, but highly specialized skill-set gave him the upper hand when it came to sword fights.
It was, admittedly in most cases, an unfair advantage but against an opponent that could not die he supposed it barely evened the odds.
After a good minute during which they fought to a standstill, the steel of the Black Keys started to give in under the superior craftsmanship of Kanshou and Bakuya. When they finally shattered Ciel wasted no time and leapt away from Shirou's reach. What she failed to understand, ignorant of the Married Blades' true nature, was that such a move was exactly what Shirou had been awaiting all along.
While Ciel used the distance to flick another set of Keys into her hands Shirou reared his right arm backward above his head and then, taking a sharp step forward so violently that it cracked the asphalt beneath his foot, he threw the falchion at the Executor.
The black blade spun impossibly fast through the air, howling menacingly toward the girl in priestly robes. Ciel was momentarily startled by the speed, dodging the blade by mere millimeters. Her eyes however didn't remain focused on the blade for long. They zeroed on Shirou now left with a single blade in his hands.
Admittedly, he could have projected anther sword with a minimum strain, but what he was purposely trying to lull Ciel in a false sense of security. He needed her to believe she had the upper hand. He needed her to believe that he was almost done for. He needed her not to turn her attention behind her.
Ciel charged again. Whether she took the bait and thought he couldn't project any more blades or not was irrelevant at this point. She was trying to finish the match before that theory could be tested. Keeping her at bay with one only sword for long was unthinkable, but he only had to manage for a few seconds.
A blade cut deeply into his cheek, making a cut into his ear as well.
Twisted Embrace redirected the power of a slash to his leg on the ground. The ground cracked under his feet. Shirou didn't want to think about what would have been of his legs without it.
He barely deflected a blow that would have cut a much broader smile into his face, but it cost him his balance and he was left open for a finishing strike from his left side. He caught the victorious glimmer in her eyes at the last moment.
A sudden whizzing sound and the wet, splattering noise of flesh ripping open echoed through the streets.
"Grk?" Ciel froze mid-swing as her chest burst open, coughing blood in surprise. She looked dumbfounded at the black falchion protruding from her body, a flicker of understanding flashing on her face before she looked back at Shirou, just in time to see him swing Bakuya at her neck.
Ciel's head flew high in the air, blood spurting from her beheaded body like a crimson fountain. When her cranium hit the ground, bouncing in a morbid fashion, her body seemed to catch up with its condition and slumped down as well.
Shirou wasted no time and turned toward Yumizuka, who appeared to be stuck between shock and captivation by the sudden, gory show.
"Let's run," he said curtly, grabbing her wrist rather forcefully.
"She's not dead and she won't remain like that for long, she-"
The slight widening of the vampire's eyes was the only warning he received. He turned, or at least he tried to, only to see an outstretched hand reaching for his face. He was pushed to the side and off his feet, forcefully shoved face first into a brick wall. If not for his Reinforcement his head would have been splattered.
"Agh!" reddish lights flickered in his vision while he was being held forcefully against the wall. He caught a glimpse of Ciel's eyes staring coldly him at him before she turned to Yumizuka when she jumped at her with bared teeth.
"No, Shirou! Let him g-" CRACK! "KYA!"
A vicious backhand caught the vampire in the face, sending her tumbling on the asphalt like a rag doll. That kind of blow would have turned a normal human's head into a pulp but fortunately the body of a vampire was sturdier than any normal human's.
Too fast. She had regenerated way faster than he thought possible. It should have been at least a couple of minutes for her to be restored with a blade stuck in her chest. Even Gaia would have needed at least to destroy the…
'Accumulation of Anomaly? What a stupid amateurish mistake,' he thought with dawning realization as he struggled uselessly to break free. He had hoped that putting something in the way of her regeneration would have slowed down the processes. It had the opposite effect instead.
At times like this Shirou cursed his lack of proper education and talent in the field. A proper Magus wouldn't have forgotten that Gaia's rejections of Magecrafts and paradoxes is proportional to the strength of the violation caused within its sphere of influence.
Shoving a blade created by Magecraft, which is something that Gaia rejects with a considerate amount of power, into a person whose death is a paradox, generated an anomaly that was much greater than the sum of its parts.
Gaia reacted violently and Kanshou was crushed nearly instantaneously. Similarly, Ciel's body was restored in a couple of seconds, much faster than it would have been otherwise. Damn it, what a blunder.
"Y-Yumi-zuka… r-un!" he grunted out with no little amount of difficulty. Instead of trying to get free he twisted his body, wrapping his legs around her torso and grabbing the arm she held him with using both hands. "I'll… hold… her!"
But Yumizuka wasn't in any condition to move, her eyes glazed and unfocused. She was probably suffering from a heavy concussion and it would take her a few moments to get back on her feet.
In response though, Ciel pushed his head against the wall with renewed force. If he had cared in the slightest he could have heard his skull cracking under the pressure.
"You should be more concerned with yourself, Magus," the Executor hissed. "I'll crush your head into a pulp before I do anything else."
"I… don't … care…," he croaked out. Ciel's eyes narrowed.
"Do you not value your life at all?"
"That's… what I… said… isn't it?"
"You're an idiot."
"Tell… me something… I DIDN'T ALREADY KNOW!"
Forcefully producing Prana, straining his Circuits to the point of scalding his flesh from within, he reinforced his legs as much as he could and pulled at her torso. If he could gain even just a couple of seconds for Yumizuka to escape, then…
Still holding half of his face in a steel-like grip, Ciel pulled him away from the wall. Shirou braced in preparation of having his skull splattered on the hard surface but the impact never came. Instead he was flung away like a rag, causing him to lose his own hold on the girl's body. He failed to regain his balance and skidded on his back until he stopped against Yumizuka, who had barely started to regain her bearings to stand on her feet.
He immediately jumped back to his feet, guard at the ready, but the Executor kept her distance, standing in the shadows a few feet away, with her back mostly turned to them as if she had lost all interest in the confrontation. Her expression was unreadable between the odd angle and the scarce light.
"What?" he asked, more at himself than at Ciel, feeling confused by the sudden lack of enmity.
"Emiya, I don't quite understand what's going on in that twisted head of yours, but do you truly intend to watch after that person, no matter what?"
"I thought I'd made that clear by now," he replied evenly.
"If you keep shouldering other people's burdens, you're going to get crushed one day."
"Even if that's the case," he replied without losing a beat, trying to figure out her intentions, "if I can get even one person to smile, it'd be worth it."
The Executor just stared at him, as if trying to measure the true strength of his convictions. She sighed and her body relaxed if only slightly, but her eyes immediately snapped on them, steely as ever before.
"I've grown tired of dealing with the two of you. Disappear from my sight," she ordered, glaring at them. "If either of you ever give me reason to come looking for you, I won't be inclined to let you go a second time."
"Uh…. Thanks?" they both replied, not entirely able to believe this sudden turn of events.
Ciel turned away and disappeared in the darkness of the alley, not bothering with any acknowledgement. She was already gone from their sight when her parting words reached them.
"Emiya Shirou, the only thing waiting at the end of your path is Hell."
A moment of incredulity went by, during which both the vampire and the Magus stared blankly ahead. Then reality sunk in and they both fell on their knees, exhausted and elated.
Ciel soared over the rooftops, landing silently above the sleeping city.
Was it really all right to let them go like this? Her duty was to exterminate them, one for what had been done to her and the other for not allowing her to do exactly that. And yet she couldn't bring herself to do it.
It was stupid and she knew it. Whatever the circumstances, a Dead Apostle was a threat to mankind, sooner or later. It was as inevitable as the sun rising from the east and setting in the west.
It was inevitable, but still she couldn't bring herself to go through with it. Emiya's desperate struggle and well as Yumizuka hopeless clinging to her humanity had gotten at her. Like the Magus had said, she of all people could understand that plight, that wish to stay human in spite of having already lost all rights to that claim.
In different circumstances, she wouldn't have let them go. Quite honestly, maintaining a human conscience as a Dead Apostle was a curse of its own. In the end, their saving grace had been Emiya's resolve. If he lived up to his word then there was still hope for Yumizuka. A fleeting, certainly temporary hope, but a hope nonetheless.
To her knowledge all paths ahead for them could only get grimmer and darker, but then again wasn't this case the first of its kind? If humans were allowed to become monsters, could the opposite hold true as well? Even if her superiors would chew her head out for this transgression, she wanted to find out.
Because if even a Dead Apostle could hold onto her humanity, then she too could do the same.
Because if it was actually possible to fight back against a curse that eats away at you from within, then she too could…
No, that was getting ahead of herself. This way she only risked seeing her hopes burn and turn to ashes. She would watch and judge when the time came. For now she would have to return to her patrol, though she was sure that with the sun almost about to dawn there wasn't going to be much more excitement.
She was proven wrong when the stench of blood and subdued screaming reached her again, coming from a nearby hotel. In addition, two ominous presences too powerful to ignore lingered at the edge of her perception.
One of those auras was unmistakable to the former host of Roa.
"Arcueid," she hissed through clenched teeth, leaping again through the air and toward her next target. Perhaps there was still a task or two to accomplish before the sun rose.
"What…. What just happened?" the teen vampire asked with a trembling voice.
"I'm not really sure but… I guess we got through to her," Shirou replied, breathing heavily.
They sat there for a while, tired and confused. Yumizuka was the first to stand up, being uninjured and having taken little part in the battle. Shirou, on the other hand was having a much harder time. His shoulder was wounded and still bleeding, but his blood loss was much more severe than with his donation to Yumizuka, not to mention he was also still suffering from the concussion Ciel had caused him.
He was, simply put, on the verge of passing out. Yet he couldn't afford to rest. The sun was about to rise and soon people would start moving again. He had to get himself and Yumizuka out of sight before that happened, but at this point he couldn't go back to his room at the hotel.
Her clothes, particularly her skirt and black pantyhose, were dirty and torn in places. Showing up anywhere with her in that state would raise some unpleasant questions. His bleeding would cause the authorities to demand answers to said questions.
He wasn't in any shape to deal with any of that.
Still, this wasn't Fuyuki and he had no hideout to go to. As much as he disliked it, he had to ask for help, but he was no way looking forward to that, considering how their last meeting went.
Resigning himself to do what needed, Shirou sighed. With a barely audible ping, Twisted Embrace shimmered, sliding off him and back into its container on his wrist leaving him in his civilian clothes. Ruined and stained with blood as they were, they were still less conspicuous that his other getup.
He took out his phone from a pocket and dialed the number, while Yumizuka helped him back on his feet.
Considering the hour, it was very surprising that someone picked up immediately.
"Tohno Mansion," the voice said into the phone, sounding somewhat panicked.
"Uh, this is Emiya. Is that you, Kohaku-san?"
"… Oh. Yes. Emiya-san? Is something the matter? Why are you calling at this hour?"
"I'm sorry to bother but there's been a… situation. I'm wounded and I need assistance. I can't ask anyone else without having to answer unpleasant questions."
"I don't think I can… Ah. Akiha-sama?"
Shirou heard sounds that he attributed to the receiver being handed over.
"Emiya-san. What happened?" the voice of the current head of the Tohno family asked.
"Akiha-san, sorry to bother but I ran into trouble. It's a bit of a long story to explain on the phone, but I'm sure you'd prefer to know about this. As I recall, your family is acting as de facto guardian of this area, am I right?"
"… That would be correct," she said evenly. "I take it this trouble you speak of is not of the mundane sort."
"There's a vampire in the city," he told her bluntly, glancing at Yumizuka who was watching him with questioning eyes, not hearing the other half of the conversation. "Two of them."
"…Two vampires?... I see. Emiya-san, please come over immediately. I will listen to your story while we treat your wounds."
"Thank you but I… have another person with me," he said, feeling the awkwardness building up.
"Who is it?"
"One of those vampires I mentioned."
"This is going to be one of those days, isn't it?"
"I'm afraid it will be, yes," Shirou replied resignedly.
"Very well. Supposing you're willing to trust this vampire in your company, I'll allow it shelter as well. Make haste, Emiya-san."
"Thank you. I'll be there as soon as possible," her said, cutting the conversation.
"Is everything alright?" Yumizuka asked.
"For the time being," he said. "I managed to secure a safe place for the day." He made to walk but stumbled and fell forward. Yumizuka caught him before he hit the ground.
"Shirou? Shirou are you alright?" she asked with panic in her voice.
"I… I'll be fine," he said as he tried to stand back on his feet. "I'm sorry. Would you mind lending me a shoulder? I don't think I can walk on my own right now."
"Of course," the vampire replied, wrapping one of his arms around her shoulders. He was just tall enough to make it not particularly awkward to walk. "It's the least I can do."
"Thank you. We have to move fast now. It's almost dawn and I don't know how strongly the sunlight is going to affect you."
"Where are we going?"
"Uphill," he pointed with his chin. "To the Tohno Estate."
Shirou was too tired to notice the sudden stiffening in Yumizuka's shoulders. The duo simply walked in silence, moving as fast as they possibly could.
Tohno, he said.
Could it be just a coincidence?
She didn't know, but it seemed unlikely. She heard Emiya call the person on the phone "guardian of the land" and he wasn't too shy to mention he was taking a vampire with him.
Maybe the rumors weren't unfounded after all. Perhaps the Tohno were some sort of protectors that fought vampires? People like Shirou?
"Shirou. Ah, Emiya-ku- SAN. "
"Shirou is fine," the redhead snorted. "What is it?"
"Who are you really? And Ciel-senpai too. What is… all this?"
"The Moonlit World," Shirou answered glancing at the sky, "that's what my father called it sometimes when he was particularly poetic."
"It's a nickname encompassing all those phenomenon that are usually hidden or kept hidden from the eyes of normal people," Shirou said, scratching his cheek. "Things like vampires, ghosts, exorcists and mages, but also human beings with particular powers or abilities."
"Oh," the teen said without real inflection. "Ciel-senpai was one of those exorcists, then?"
"Hm," Shirou nodded. "The right term is Executor; those who carry out God's will. They are the armed hand of the Holy Church, hunting down heretics and unnatural beings."
"Like me," she said, head drooping.
"Yeah. They do make exceptions from time to time if it suits their bigger goals, but as a rule they 'cleanse' without asking too many questions. I know for a fact that they employ a few vampires in their ranks."
"Oh. Are you one of these people too?"
"No," he shook his head weakly. "Technically I'm a Magus, a wizard if you prefer, though the definition is a bit stringent in my case."
"You are… that Archer, right?"
"Ah," he said, somehow finding enough blood to muster a light blush, "Yeah."
"This is all… so overwhelming. What will become of me now? What about my family?" she asked worriedly.
"I can't tell you that everything is going to turn out fine," Shirou began, trying to muster a smile. "But I'm going to help you as much as I can. It's a small consolation, I know, but I won't leave you alone in this."
"… Okay. I'm sorry if I'm being such a burden but.."
"There's nothing you have to apologize for. You are a victim and helping people is what I do. Regarding your parents, you don't have to worry. That person, Ciel, she'll probably take care of it. No, not like that," he said hurriedly, hearing her startled gasp. "She must have at least some degree of hypnotic abilities, that much I'm sure of. Standard procedure is to make family of the victims either believe their missing relatives died in an accident or that they have moved somewhere else, depending on the situation. You're alive, sort of, so I think she'd go for the latter. I'll make sure to check on them later anyway."
It was a small reassurance to Satsuki, but so long as her parents weren't worried or harmed she could be patient for a while.
"I see," she finally conceded. "What about these people we're going to?"
"The Tohno? Well… they are a bit complicated. They are human mostly, with some demonic ancestry, though I ignore how much of that blood still runs in their veins."
"Isn't that bad?" She asked worriedly.
"It could be, depending on the situation, but I don't think there's much to worry about. They live normally among normal people, after all. They do keep themselves a bit isolated from the rest of society, but I think half of that is due to their enormous wealth rather than their ancestry."
"Oh. That makes sense, I guess. One of… one of them is my classmate. I guess that explains it."
"Tohno-kun always gave me a strange impression, like there was something that made him different from most people, more… dangerous? But not in a bad way. He's always kind and polite but he felt like…"
"Like a drawn knife left around. Like you'd get yourself cut if you got carelessly too close, " she concluded, surprised at her own sudden clarity. She always had a hard time telling what was so different about him. Was it because she was now part of that 'Moonlit World' too?
"I'm not really sure what to make of that," Shirou admitted. "But you never had problems with him, have you?"
"N-no," she squeaked. Besides having difficulties making him notice her and telling him her feelings, none at all. "We never interacted much, anyway."
"I see. Does he live here? I mean, I was there just yesterday and I didn't meet him, and I know that a large number of people have left the mansion after the elder Tohno's… death."
Satsuki noticed the pause and careful choice of words when addressing Tohno Makihisa's recent passing. Was there some secret behind that as well? She chose not to push the subject and answered his question.
"Actually, I think he just moved back in from another relative's place. I know it because yesterday we walked part of the way back home together for the first time."
"Uh," he shrugged. "I guess I must have missed him then."
Further discussions were suspended as they stood in front of the gates, where the two maids were waiting for them. It was Satsuki's first time seeing real-life maids, and she was surprised that neither of them, the younger one especially, looked surprised or terribly perturbed by Shirou's evidently wounded state. They did look warily at them, though. No, not them…just her.
"Welcome back, Emiya-san" the older greeted. "We shall see to your wounds immediately. And this is?"
"I'm Yumizuka Satsuki," the girl bowed after Shirou removed his arm from her shoulder. "Thanks for having me."
"You're quite welcome, though, forgive me for saying this, I've been made aware of your condition. I trust that it won't be a cause for concern in this house."
"I will be on my best behavior," she promised with a quivering voice. "I'm sorry, but I'm new to this vampire thing. I don't really know what to expect, even from myself."
"I'll explain everything inside," Shirou intervened. "Please, Kohaku-san. I'll take responsibility for everything."
"If you say so, Emiya-san," the maid allowed. "Please, follow me this way."
Walking past the gate, Satsuki shot a glance at the other maid, who remained at the entrance as if waiting for somebody who still had yet to arrive. Perhaps…
At night the Tohno Estate was even more eerie than during the day, Shirou noticed. How anyone would live there willingly he couldn't understand, but then again he hadn't grown up there either.
Kohaku led them through the hall and to a small side door, taking them to a small room adjacent to a well-furnished kitchen. The head of the household, Akiha Tohno, arrived just a moment later. She was dressed just as she had been the day before, so Shirou assumed it was her school uniform. She didn't appear to be affected by the early, or was it late, hour.
"Tohno-san," he addressed her respectfully, "I thank you for assistance."
"Emiya-san," the girl acknowledged, "that's the least I can do. It would be simply irresponsible if I ignored your request for help since this situation happened on my territory. Kohaku-san, please treat his wounds."
"Of course, Akiha-sama," the cheerful maid replied. "Emiya-san, please remove you clothing and sit here," she said waving at a stool.
"Er… Okay," Shirou said, feeling slightly embarrassed. This was of course nothing short of a medical procedure, but still he had to undress before three young women. With a few awkward movements he removed his jacket and shirt, baring his torso. He then sat on the stool, pointedly avoiding all stares.
"Oh my," Kohaku said, "that's a very nasty wound. These scars on you back and stomach look relatively recent as well."
"It's nothing to be worried about," he replied evenly. "They have been treated properly."
"If you are sure. I'll clean and bandage only your shoulder, then," she nodded. "Please hold still."
Shirou didn't flinch while the maid washed off the hole and bandaged his upper arm and shoulder. It was a flawless job and he was impressed by her proficiency. She had to have some experience with treating wounds.
"There, all done," Kohaku chirped, putting away her tools. "You should be fine now, if you don't push it."
"Thank you," he bowed as he stood up. "I'm in your debt."
"Think nothing of it," she said amusedly, patting his unwounded shoulder. "Though, I suggest you get dressed quickly now."
"Eh?" Shirou blinked. Looking around he paled even further. Tohno-san had her arms crossed over her chest, pointedly looking elsewhere but with a faint blush on her cheeks. Yumizuka had her face hidden behind her hands, though there was evidently enough space between her fingers to look through, making the gesture an exercise in futility.
Shirou coughed and put his shirt back on.
"I see," Akiha said after Shirou explained the events that transpired earlier. "It is certainly quite a problem. Are you sure that this person from the Church will be able to solve the issue?"
"I can't think of anyone more suited than her," he nodded. "In fact I think she is the only one who can solve the situation permanently without being compromised."
"Is there nothing else that can be done to speed things up?"
"Well," Emiya sighed as her run a hand through his hair, "killing his thralls and cutting his source of nourishment is the right way to go about it. Other than that, the only thing left to do is find his lair, but that too is being handled. Honestly there isn't much else I or anyone else could do to help."
"Hm," she nodded. Though her appearance was calm, inwardly she was barely controlling her panic. There was a vampire in town; a monster that feasted on humans, and her beloved brother was out there somewhere. She knew he had to be fine, wherever he was. Connected as they were, she would have noticed if something permanent had happened to him. The fact that her condition hadn't changed meant that he was likely fine.
The sun had already risen, so according to Emiya the vampire had retreated to whatever hole he was using to hide. She trusted his judgment on the matter, as she had no actual experience with vampires.
Well, if her condition, or rather the treatment she had for it ever came to light one might have been inclined to call her a vampire, but it wasn't nearly the same thing. On the other hand, her other guest was another matter altogether.
"Yumizuka-san," she called. "My apologies. Though we consider ourselves to be the guardians of this land, the truth is that there isn't much we can do in cases like this. It is probably of no comfort to you, but please allow us to make amends by offering you a place to stay for the time being."
"Ah. Uhm. Are you sure it won't be a problem? I'm… a vampire too now."
"Not at all. Though Emiya-san here is honest to the point of appearing a tad slow," she said, ignoring Shirou's spluttering, "I had the opportunity to evaluate that he has a good head on his shoulders. If he doesn't consider you to be a threat, then he's likely correct in his assumption. Of course," he glared at him, "as your guardian he will be held responsible for the behavior of both of you."
"I'll try my best not to be a burden to anyone," Yumizuka replied, bowing in gratitude. "Thank you very much."
"It's fine, really. Now it'd be best if the both of you get some rest, that is if Emiya-san he's really sure he shouldn't have to see a doctor."
"I'll be fine," he waved off her concerns, "I heal faster than normal people. I just need to… lay down for a while." He yawned. "Make that a long while."
"Very well," Akiha nodded. "Kohaku will show you to an unused room in the servants' quarters. I have to ask you not to leave them during the day, if you can, and not to leave the wing at all. Not everyone in this house is privy to our… circumstances, and I would prefer that it remain that way."
"Is this about Tohno Shiki-kun?"
Akiha's head snapped to the fledgling vampire fast enough to give her whiplash. "You know my brother?"
"Ah, uhm, we're classmates, actually," the other girl said, almost shrinking into herself at Akiha's reaction.
"I see," Akiha replied as she narrowed her eyes at her. What was this girl's relationship with nii-san? "Yes, my brother has lived away from the main family for years, and he has no knowledge of things such as this. I would rather keep him away from it all, if possible."
"I understand perfectly," Emiya answered. "We will keep to our rooms as much as possible."
"You have my thanks," she nodded, relenting her glare. "Kohaku or Hisui will bring your meals to your rooms when it's time. Assuming that Yumizuka-san can eat normal food."
"Ah," the vampire stuttered. "I don't know?"
All eyes shifted to Emiya, who scratched his cheek sheepishly. "Uh, as far as I know there's no reason you couldn't, but you'll probably get little nourishment from it, unless it's raw meat. I suggest you keep eating normally all the same. In fact it would be better if you did as many normal things as you possibly can. A good part of being a vampire is developing a non-human mindset. The longer you hold on the things that makes you human, the harder it will be for you to fall prey to your new instincts."
"Oh," Yumizuka said, apparently pleased with this revelation. "I will."
"Well, then, off to bed, both of you," Kohaku clapped her hands, as if to catch everyone's attention. Akiha watched them leave, ushered through a secondary door, but not before Yumizuka sent a last thankful bow in her direction. Only when she was left alone did the girl allow herself to sigh.
Vampires, Magi and Executors. As if she didn't have to worry about.
'Stupid nii-san,' she grumbled in her mind. He would get the earful of a lifetime when he returned. No way she would let him get away with it.
With that decision made she went back to her room. It was far too late to get any sleep, so she might as well get started on her daily routine. At least it would help her take her mind off things for a while.
Unable to take a shower with a hole in his shoulder, Shirou cleaned his body with a wet towel and some soap. By the time he was finished, the sun well above the horizon. With some effort he closed the blinds to cut off the light, and then proceeded to fall on his bed with all the grace of a crumbling brick wall.
He was tired, disappointed, sore, disappointed, hurt and ultimately disappointed.
What had he been doing until now? For close to ten years he had pushed himself to his limits every single day and he still was little more than an ant compared to some of the entities that roamed the world.
While it was true that his efforts had gotten him past Ciel, changing her decision to execute Yumizuka, the truth was that in the end it had been her choice and not his abilities. Adding to that point the fact that he wasn't anywhere near capable of providing any help in the hunt for the Dead Apostle, the result was a very unsatisfied teenage Magus.
Not good enough. He was nowhere good enough. But that didn't mean he would give up.
With that resolve he closed his eyes to sleep. He was certainly tired enough not to have trouble sleeping for at least twelve hours. He probably needed it as well.
That is, of course, when someone chose to knock at his door.
Groaning he pulled himself up to a sitting position. "Yes?"
"Em- Shirou," the feeble voice of Yumizuka called from behind the door. "Can I come in?"
The door opened and she walked in. The vampire had changed into a simple pajama courtesy of their host. It was the same model as the one he was given, a simple button up shirt with a pair of pants with a reticular pattern. It was apparently the same size as the one he had, as she had to fold both the sleeves and the hem of the pants. Her hair was still partly damp from the shower she had to have taken and while she looked better than she did earlier, she still wore a haunted expression.
"Is something the matter, Yumizuka-san?"
"I'm sorry to bother you but I… I'm scared. Can I… can I sleep here with you?"
"That would be…," inappropriate, he was about to say. An unmarried couple sleeping in the same room was something that his upbringing had a hard time accepting, but the pleading look in her eyes killed any and every retort he might have had.
He wasn't able to reject people in need of help, moreso when said people happened to be girls that looked like puppies abandoned under the rain, looking for shelter. As he was already naturally inclined to provide help, if one added the natural instinct of protection that almost every male harbors toward frail looking girls he was basically fucked from the get-go.
"Of course," he finally said with a strained smile, repressing a groan of frustration at his own mental weakness.
Yumizuka fidgeted, clearly embarrassed by the situation. She really had to be troubled for her to even think of doing something like sharing a bed with a man of her age.
It was to be expected, though. She had been forcefully thrust into a world she hadn't known existed, in which she didn't truly know anyone, least of all her own self. In such difficult times, who would want to be left alone?
Shirou scooted a little more to the side, toward the edge of the bed, leaving more space for her to sit. Slowly, as if advancing toward a lion's den she reached the mattress and sat on the opposite side. Shirou didn't think that her reticence was due to her thinking he'd take advantage of her, but rather it was a struggle against ingrained social customs much like his own.
"I'm sorry to be bothering you so much," she said apologetically. "It's just…"
"I understand," he interrupted. "I won't pretend to know what it feels like, but I can imagine. Being in a strange place with people you don't really know while suffering from a condition you don't understand. Anyone would be upset. If there's anything I can do to make you feel better, don't be afraid to ask."
"Thank you," she said in a barely audible whisper. "Hey, Shirou?"
"Hm?" the exhausted teen muttered, lying back down with eyelids weighted by sleep.
"I've been wanting to ask, why have you been helping me so much?" she asked. "We were complete strangers just three hours ago. Even now, I don't really know anything about you."
"A long time ago… I made a promise…"
"What sort of promise? ... Shirou?"
But the redhead was in no longer in any condition to answer. He had finally fallen asleep and was snoring lightly, mouth slightly ajar. For a good minute Satsuki stared at his unconscious form, unable to understand her own feelings.
Everything was far too confusing, more than what she could process on her own in a relatively short time.
She stood on the edge on an abyss of unfathomable depths, at the bottom of which waited a terrible monster who wore her own face. Freefall was only a hair's breadth away and yet she was safely rooted on the spot, held in place by nothing else but the trust this person had put in her.
Yes, in the swirling maelstrom that had engulfed her, threatening to drown her in the raging waters, she had only one thing she could safely hold onto: the young man sleeping soundly at her side. Knowing that, she finally flipped her legs over onto the mattress and curled up into a ball on her half of the bed. Then, with the courage known only to cornered rabbits, she reached out and grasped his hand with hers.
She fell asleep soon after, in a slumber surprisingly devoid of dreams. It would be a long while before either of them would awake.
They slept peacefully, ignoring the extensive of nightmares that roamed the city of Misaki. They couldn't imagine that even if the sun had risen, the darkness had not relented at all.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
The girl's eyes glazed over, while the blood escaped her body, drop after drop.
Doing things like this was a bit of a pain, the person mused in the darkness, but on the other hand it was also an excellent precaution. With a murderer who left his victims bereft of blood already on the loose, no one would think much of another's dead body and certainly they wouldn't imagine another culprit. The girl was, after all, chosen completely at random much like the serial killer was thought to be doing.
It was a crime hidden in the shadows of another crime. Now that he had what he needed, the only thing left was to dispose of the corpse. It was a bit of a distasteful thing to do, and his conscience would likely suffer for the rest of his days, but sacrifices had to be made.
He was so close to the truth now, he couldn't afford to let something as paltry his own morals get in the way of the discovery of a lifetime. Just a few more days and he would be done. The ancient mysteries would be unveiled and his name would be carved into stone as the man who revealed the truth to the world at large.
The ambition of a lifetime, fulfilled.
Yes, he could definitely live with the weight of his crimes if he could achieve that. He just had to bear with it a little more.
Just a little bit more.
AN: Well, here we are folks. This is my Christmas gift for you. Many thanks to RavingScholar who has delivered again punctual and flawless editing.
This is it for now. I wish you all very Happy Holidays.