Chapter 28 - That Which Bleeds (II)
Published - 02.01.15 - Beta: RavingScholar
When night descended upon Misaki once more, Shirou slipped silently out of the Tohno estate through the window of his room. Stealthily, he navigated through the park that surrounded the mansion until he reached the wall at the end of it.
There, with a minor application of Prana, he leapt over the wall and into the street behind. After a quick glance to ensure he hadn't been spotted, he started walking in the direction of the city.
His wounds had completely healed after not even two days of rest, which was extremely strange considering that he basically had a hole in his shoulder. Somehow, it seemed that the workings of Avalon had gotten stronger as of late, which was an oddity in and of itself.
The regenerative powers of the legendary scabbard that would house Excalibur were supposed to work exclusively for the King of Knights or for someone in a contract with her summoned form. Having it conceptualized inside his body for nearly ten years, Shirou had developed some sort of affinity for the Noble Phantasm, which granted him a slightly accelerated healing factor, but nothing that went past bruises and sore muscles. Now instead an open wound stopped bleeding as soon as he stopped exerting the surrounding area, and within two days only a faint scar was left.
What could have brought this change, he wondered as he walked toward the center of the city. Perhaps he had reached yet another "affinity level" after the prolonged exposure, or perhaps, he hoped his most recent choices had impressed the Noble Phantasm?
It was, of course, nothing more than wishful thinking, but it didn't change the fact that Avalon was acting differently.
He cut short his own musings when he arrived in the general area of the hotel. As a precaution he walked around the entire block, to see if he could spot someone still watching the building. Finding none, he snuck into an alley and came out as his Archer persona. From there he hopped onto a nearby building and entered the empty hotel through a window so as not to remove the police seals.
With only the moon as a source of light, the hotel was void of life was even more eerie than he had expected. With the silent stillness of the city outside as a background, the empty building was just like a cemetery. It was an image that was far too fitting to Shirou, who in spite of Tohno's reassurance on top of his own was still grieving over the loss of life that had taken place there.
Shaking away needless thoughts, Shirou set forth to uncover what had happened. His footsteps echoed through the corridors as he inspected several rooms on different floors. There weren't many signs of struggle, with the exception of a few pieces of décor toppled over here and there. The eeriness was mostly due to the state in which the hotel had been left in, with beds unmade and items scattered around as if they had just been dropped where they were being used.
Something had taken everyone by surprise, nearly simultaneously, before anyone could even launch an alarm. What kind of advanced Magecraft could have caused that; mass hypnosis over a general area? Shirou didn't know, but he intended to find out.
Having reached the lobby, where only a few bloodstains remained as evidence of violence, Shirou swallowed thickly and set out to begin what was bound to be an extremely unsettling experience. He kneeled on the ground, placing his fingertips on the floor, and activate his Circuits.
Immediately and violently, his brain was assaulted by information through his Structural Analysis. Usually, grasping an overly frequented place gave vague and confused readings, but the events of two nights prior had been so emotionally intense that it basically overwrote all other previous impressions.
There was no other way Shirou's consciousness could describe what he was feeling. He couldn't in all honesty understand what the creature that had ruthlessly exterminated the guests of the hotel was. For that matter, Shirou was under the impression that a single entity had not done this by itself. The readings were confused, muddled by the sheer horror of several dozen people and their final screams of anguish. All he could read was this bubbling cauldron of chaos in the middle of it all, devouring human lives with unending hunger.
"Is this… the true nature Roa Valdamjong?" he asked to himself.
"It is not."
Shirou jumped reflexively at the sound of the voice right behind him, whirling around as he did so. In his hands, almost as an afterthought, Kanshou and Bakuya materialized with a flash.
Heart hammering violently in his chest, Shirou took stock of the person who had so easily snuck behind him and shivered.
"Eles- CIEL!" he amended mid sentence. The girl in priestly clothing glared at his faux pas, but said nothing about it.
"Advanced Structural Grasping bordering on Psychometry and high-end Projections," she analyzed clinically. "It's a curious skill-set you've got there, Emiya. Then again, you are a most curious person yourself."
Shirou gulped, blades still at the ready. Having his Mysteries seen through was bad for any Magus, and he was no exception. For all his earlier placations to Medea, the truth was that he had struck a truce with the Executor that was based entirely on her whims.
"W-what are you doing here?" he asked tentatively. There was little reason for her to be there now, long after the incident had taken place. No doubt she investigated it as soon as the news reached her.
"I could ask you the same question, though our answers would surely differ. To make things short: I was looking for you."
"Me? Uh… I'm not sure how I should feel about that. Wait… what did you mean before? Isn't this Roa's doing?"
Ciel shook her head. "No. It's the work of Nrvnqsr Chaos."
"Nrvn…," Shirou stumbled over the name. "The Tenth ranked Dead Apostle Ancestor? You mean to tell me there are two of these creatures in town right now?"
"As of two days ago there were four, if we count your friend Yumizuka. Fortunately, Nrvnqsr has already been dealt with permanently."
Shirou was at a loss for words. The situation in Misaki had escalated drastically before he even noticed what was truly going on, and it had been already partially solved. A sense of uselessness crept up his stomach.
"Wait… you said four vampires. With Yumizuka, Roa and Nrvnqsr I count three. Who am I missing?"
Ciel sighed heavily, as if this latest figure was a greater burden than the other three combined.
Shirou dispelled his blades in a shower of sparks, stood up straighter and rubbed his nose wearily.
"Heh. Let me get this straight," he held up his hand, "the White Princess of the Crimson Moon is here. In this town. Right now."
"That's what I said," Ciel told him flatly.
"What the hell is going on in these goddamn city? Two normal Dead Apostles in the same place would already be an oddity. This concentration of such high profile vampires can't possibly be normal."
"I can understand your feelings. This is what happens when several old loose ends finally get tied up all at the same time."
"I take it that's why you have been looking for me, right? You need me to help out with this situation."
"Not at all. I want you to stay out of it entirely."
"WHAT? There's just no way I'm going to stay outside and wat- GAH!"
Before he could even notice she had moved, Ciel covered the distance and grabbed his neck, slamming him against the wall with superhuman strength.
"I wasn't asking, Emiya," she told him, looking at him squarely in the eyes. "You don't have the requirements to deal with the likes of us. I acknowledge that you have strength and pure intentions, but you lack the skill-set to provide any useful contribution. Between me and Arcueid hunting Roa, his days are numbered."
"Then…" he choked out, glaring at the female Executor but without struggling to get free, "why have you even bothered looking for me in the first place?"
"Because you have some strength and pure intentions, like I said. You are the kind of person I can entrust to protect someone, with your life if need be."
Shirou's brows furrowed quizzically but his attention was caught. After all, whatever the reason and regardless of the circumstances, if there were someone who needed help, Emiya Shirou would not be able to look away.
In her bed at the Tohno mansion, Yumizuka Satsuki lay fully awake. Sleep had evaded her for nearly two days now. It's not like she couldn't, but rather that she didn't need to.
Her trouble over her new condition and her future kept her awake, that much is a given, but it was also true that she was neither tired nor sleepy to begin with.
That wasn't normal. But then again, 'normal' was quite a foreign concept for her now. The only familiar thing was a sense of utter estrangement from the events that had shaped her recent life.
She wasn't fine by any measure, but with the exception of the very first night, which she recalled mostly as a nightmarish blur there wasn't anything that made her feel strange.
Well, except for the fact that she had now incredible strength and speed. She used to be unable to do more than a couple pushups during P.E. without collapsing-now she could go on nearly indefinitely as far as she could tell. It wasn't all that impressive compared to ripping a couple of street lamps out of the concrete floor the night of her turning, but it did put things in perspective.
Above all, there was that dryness in her throat that never really disappeared. It could subside, be alleviated until it was barely noticeable, but it was there, always. Combined with her lack of need, she could not fall asleep.
Having resigned herself to be awake through the night, Satsuki got out of bed, changed from her pajama to her normal clothes and left from the window of her room.
She felt like a burglar, sneaking out like that, but she had been expressly asked not to roam the mansion. Akiha's brother Shiki, Satsuki's long time crush, was unaware of the Moonlit World and she wanted to keep it like that. Considering her own experience, Satsuki shared the sentiment; therefore, she abided to Akiha's request even late at night. Nonetheless, the need to occupy her mind was too strong to remain idle in her room, so she slipped out from the window and darted into the dense forest that made up the park around the mansion.
Moving with vampire-enhanced speed, she made sure she wouldn't be spotted until she was well out of sight even if someone had been looking out of a window at such a late hour. Only when she was well within the woods did she slow down to a more sedate pace.
Even though there was nothing truly out of place, the forest had an eerie quality, something that appealed to her new instincts. In the darkness, Satsuki felt incredibly aware of her surroundings. She could see extremely well even through the thick foliage, and she could even hear the breathing of small critters hiding from her and other predators.
It was ironic how she had become capable of noticing the thriving of life only after she had been robbed of it. Or was it rather fitting? She didn't know.
She did know, however, that there was a scent lingering in the air, so feeble that a human couldn't have noticed but that appealed to her new nature greatly.
It was the smell of blood.
She didn't think about following that trail all the way to its source. She just did. In the same manner as a moth is drawn to the flame, Satsuki followed the dark impulse that crawled up her throat. Her thoughts were completely clear, but curiosity and instinct sang as one and she heeded their call.
Moving through the foliage like the predator she had become, barely making any noise, she found herself standing before a detached building: not quite a shed nor a proper house. A traditional Japanese structure big enough to house one, perhaps two people.
The scent of blood came unmistakably from inside.
Carefully, Satsuki moved to the side of the building and peeked through a window. She promptly froze at the sight before her.
Kneeling on the tatami was none other than the maid, Kohaku. Her kimono was open, exposing the entirety of her torso. The curve of her right breast, completely naked, reflected the pale moonlight enticingly although not as much as the single drop of blood that trailed down from her other breast, where Tohno Akiha had sunk her teeth, drinking the life fluid with barely contained greed.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
Her heartbeat hammered in her ears, acting as the backdrop of the soft slurping noises coming from the point of contact between Akiha's lips and Kohaku's breast.
It is difficult for a still human mind to process an inhuman impulse. The dark, twisted flame that ignited deep inside Satsuki was similar to hunger and thirst, but it held a scorching hot compulsion not unlike lust.
The scene in itself was enticing to her, and powerfully erotic, as if drawn by a masterful artist.
Satsuki could not look away. She was enraptured, hypnotized, enthralled, aroused.
The pain of her teeth biting her own lower lip roused her, and finally allowed her brain to process the entire event rationally.
She ran. With the need scratching at her throat she fled from the scene, not caring if she made any noise that might cause her to be noticed. She ran through the woods, back toward the mansion and through the window of Shirou's room.
It was empty, of course. Shirou had told her that he would have gone to investigate the hotel, so she knew he wouldn't be there. She knew, but she didn't care.
She needed him. No … the beast craved blood no matter who was the source.
Satsuki on the other hand needed Shirou, because she had no way of knowing how long she'd last against the starving beast on her own.
As of that moment she came to realize with painful clarity that things would never truly be all right again.
Shirou silently followed Ciel from rooftop to rooftop. The Executor had been exceedingly vague about this mission she had in store for him. It stood to reason, since she had made it clear he was to stay out of the Dead Apostle Hunt, that this matter was completely unrelated and he couldn't imagine just what else this could be about.
More importantly he couldn't believe that there was another city so stunningly similar to Fuyuki as far as bad luck went: two unwilling receptacles of overlapping tragedies. In hindsight it was no wonder the Association felt the need to appoint a supervisor over areas like this. Too bad that Misaki had such hard luck in that regard.
Maybe, if "Miss Blue" had been upholding her duties as Second Owner, there wouldn't have been so many victims. She wasn't, though, and so it was entirely useless to dwell upon it.
They made their way to a park. The area was obviously deserted, due to the late hour, with the exception of a single figure idly sitting by the fountain.
Shirou laid his eyes on a woman with silvery hair, clad in the robes of a nun. Her serene expression contrasted heavily with her sharp eyes and the bandages peeking out of her robes.
This person was not unaccustomed to being in dangerous situations, that much was certain. Not that it was surprising for anyone involved with the darkest dealings of the Holy Church.
"Caren," Ciel spoke as she approached, "this is the person I've been telling you about."
The nun, Caren, step forward into the light her eyes scanning Shirou with curiosity and a tinge of amusement.
"So this is the notorious Archer I've been hearing about. Truth be told, I had a hard time believing in the existence of a Magus who went out of his way to help Dead Apostles out of the goodness of his heart. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Emiya Shirou."
Shirou gaped and shot a glare at Ciel. The Executor glared right back but shrugged unrepentantly. Indeed, there was no agreement between them that she would keep his secret with her organization. It was only His naivety that made him assume she would.
"Now, now, there's no reason for concern, Emiya-san," Caren said as if reading their thoughts, smiling pleasantly. "I'm sure that we can agree to keep sensitive information among us, in exchange FOR a bit of cooperation on your part."
"No," Shirou replied bluntly without a moment'S pause, returning his gaze on the nun.
"No?" Caren's eyebrows rose considerably. Ciel snorted.
"No," Shirou repeated firmly, eyeing the amused Executor. "I was told you need protection. I have no objection to providing it so long as whatever you have to doesn't require me to hurt someone who hasn't got it coming. I don't care much if you reveal my identity to the Clock Tower. My principles aren't for sale, not even if you sic the Mage Association after me."
"Oh, my," the nun chuckled. "I believe an apology is in order. Ciel-san vouched for your character when she brought up your name as prospective bodyguard, but I did not quite believe without proof that the infamous Magus Killer had raised such an upstanding young man."
"You knew my father?" Shirou asked skeptically.
"Only by his extensive reputation."
"Then you didn't know him at all. Never mind, Caren-san. We aren't here to discuss my late father's reputation. What is this business you need me for?"
Caren conceded the point with a nod of her head. "Perhaps we should take this to a more private place. Ciel, could we use your apartment as a base of operation?"
The Executor licked her lips nervously.
"I'm afraid my place in currently unavailable. I have… a guest over."
Shirou saw Caren's eyes positively glow with anticipation. Whatever caused Ciel's evident hesitation was something that her colleague was looking forward to investigating for her own selfish reasons.
"Is that so? Ah, well I suppose we can get to any public establishment still open, provided that you both change into something less conspicuous."
Shirou released Twisted Embrace and the outfit retreated into its inactive state. Caren eyed the process curiously but didn't comment on it.
"There is no need for me to tag along any further," Ciel said instead. "I have no time to spare for this assignment and now that I put the two of you in contact, my job here is done. Emiya, my last warning still holds true. Don't give me a reason to come after you."
With her threat hanging in the air, Ciel jumped on a nearby street lamp and disappeared into the night leaving the barely acquainted duo to themselves.
"Is she always that caustic?" he asked was he was sure she was out of earshot.
"No, she's usually much worse during an assignment. In fact, I think she likes you."
Shirou scoffed at the absurdity of the notion. "She tried to kill me, you know."
"So she told me. If she didn't like you she would have finished what she started."
Shirou shrugged and offered no further response, opting to follow after her as she quietly left the park.
They found a suitable place in a nearby karaoke. The receptionist eyed Caren's outfit briefly and dismissed it, probably thinking it a cosplay of some sort. A true nun would have no business in that place at such a late hour anyway.
Having seen his share of weirdoes, he didn't comment and simply handed over the key to their room, silently thanking the heavens for the few customers he still had.
A karaoke was a prime choice for private conversations: comfortable, soundproof rooms with refreshments if needed be. They could discuss any manner of subjects without fear of being overheard.
"So, what is this all about?" he asked after ordering a round of drinks.
Ortensia extracted a folder from her bag, displaying the documents and pictures it contained.
"I assume you're familiar with this country's history?" she asked.
"As much as any other student my age, plus a bit of those particulars not exactly taught in school," Shirou clarified.
"Good," she tapped her index finger on a specific paper. "Two years ago, an excavation near the base of mount Fuji unearthed the remnants of a settlement dating back to the Sengoku Period."
"I'm going to go out on a limb and assume they have found something they shouldn't have," Shirou commented as he browsed through the papers. "Did something happen?"
"Not immediately, no, but several months later the members of the excavation team started suffering severe cases of… sudden death."
Still looking through the documents Shirou frowned, then cringed as he found himself staring at a picture of the desiccated corpse of a man in a business suit.
"The victims were found completely drained of their blood, which was extracted with an unknown methods. The killing wound found on the bodies was caused in every case by a single-bladed weapon which pierced the heart. Other wounds suggest the weapon is some sort of katana or a kodachi. Either way, a weapon of Japanese making is what we are looking for. "
"None. The bodies were always found in deserted places. The victims were reported to have left their homes on their own, never to return. No particular strange event took place before or after the murders, with the single exception of one victim, whose daughter reported having a heated conversation over the phone with an unnamed colleague."
"You traced the call?"
"All the way to an old public phone," Caren nodded. "Which is very suspicious."
"Hmm," Shirou nodded. "Well-regarded scholars don't go around making important calls from phone-booths unless they don't want to have the call traced back to them."
"Precisely. That's why, without other tangible evidence, our list of suspects was narrowed to the three surviving members of the excavation team. Even if one of them isn't the culprit they are still likely his targets."
"Hmm… Professor Onuki Hitomi, her assistant Noriyasu Seta and finally Professor Shitara Shizuo. Which one is in Misaki right now?"
"That would be Professor Shitara, the head of the expedition. We're still trying to locate Professor Onuki, while Noriyasu is of no concern."
"He left the expedition in the beginning stages due to personal reasons. We verified that he was overseas due to a close friend's passing. He returned shortly thereafter, but was assigned to another excavation outside of Japan. Being the only member abroad, tracking his movements was easier. He was nowhere near the country at the time of the murders."
"Fair enough," Shirou shrugged in acceptance. "So our mark is Professor Shitara. Any preference on how to approach him?"
"I suggest taking the simplest way, which would be to attend his presentation tomorrow afternoon at the 'Japanese Blacksmith throughout the Ages' exposition at the local museum," she explained
Shirou remained silent.
"Is something the matter?"
"No. I was there just this afternoon. As a matter of fact I originally came to Misaki to attend that very exhibit. Well, that and hunting for a serial killer. I guess it all comes back full circle, one way or another."
"Rejoice Emiya-san," the nun smiled. "It seems that your wish will be fulfilled, after all."
Shirou shuddered. Those words rung like an accusation and he couldn't shrug off the fact that, no matter how things turned, wanting to save someone was the same as wishing that someone needed being saved. It was the ultimate paradox of his existence and one he couldn't forget.
Nonetheless, people needed saving whether he wished for it or not, so he put the matter behind him as much as he could.
An hour later, they decided to meet again the next afternoon at the museum, an hour before the presentation. Taking his mission as her bodyguard seriously from the beginning, Shirou escorted the nun to her hotel before making his way back to the Tohno mansion.
Caren watched Shirou disappear behind the street corner after the taxi dropped them both in front of her hotel.
She was quite amused by this recent turn of events. Although she would have preferred to work with Elesia, Caren was satisfied with the current arrangement. For one thing, knowing how stingy with praise Elesia usually was, if she said he was good enough for the job then chances are that he was even over-qualified.
Secondly, she found that she liked Emiya Shirou's character quite a bit.
Since Elesia first spoke of him she was looking forward to meeting him. There aren't many people willing to die for a complete stranger like he had done with Yumizuka Satsuki.
For someone who wore a mask and walked the path of Magi, he was unusually honest and forthcoming too. More importantly, just like her, he had a genuine wish to save people.
Although she was a member of the Holy Church, Caren didn't share their politics when it came to dealing with those who aren't human or purely human. In her eyes, all were children of God and therefore they were all to be loved equally.
Therefore, she was most interested to meet a Magus that not only didn't share his fellow practitioner's single-minded pursue of higher mysteries, but also that went out of his way to help others regardless of their nature.
Oh, she was all too aware that he was far from a saint, but at the very least he was trying his best.
Working with him, she decided, would be most interesting.
She was just about to enter when she felt something wet staining the chest of her uniform. For a moment, she didn't understand what the black liquid was, nor where did it came from. She touched her face and only then she understood that it was dripping from her nose.
She rubbed the black thing between her fingers. It wasn't blood, that much was certain. It had a mud-like consistence and it burned lightly against her fingertips.
Then it began to fade, turning into black flakes and disappearing into the night. She turned toward the direction Shirou had left, narrowing her eyes at the empty street.
No… it wasn't possible. She had spent a good hour in his presence, and he certainly wasn't bleeding black mud from the nose. Yet there was no doubt that it was her own peculiar ability reacting to a supernatural manifestation of some sort in her proximity.
The question was: what was its source?
Shirou walked toward the Tohno mansion purposely following a circuitous route, along which he accidentally stumbled upon, and subsequently eliminated, a couple of wandering Dead. He caught a glimpse of Ciel at one point, but she didn't acknowledge his presence in any way. He supposed even she wouldn't object to him taking down a Ghoul or two, so long as he didn't attempt to make a move on the Dead Apostle himself.
By the time he was again in front of the Tohno estate, the horizon was showing hints of dawn.
Although he could easily enter through the back door, Shirou opted for the window once more, considering it the most safe routed to avoid the inhabitants. He barely had put both feet down from the widow-sill when he was tackled on the ground.
"Omph!" he groaned, hitting the floor hard.
He found himself pinned by the weight of Satsuki's body, who was straddling his waist while she stared down at him, breathing raggedly, face inches apart from his.
In the dimly lit room he could see only the outline of her face, as well as her wide eyes and bared teeth.
"I… I…" she stuttered.
Keeping his cool in spite of being held on the ground by a hungry vampire, Shirou placed both hands on her shoulders and pushed her back gently. She offered no resistance and sat on the ground meekly.
Without a word, Shirou projected a knife and Satsuki drew her gaze away. It mattered little, as the scent of blood reached her hypersensitive nostrils a moment later. She braced her shoulders to quell the increased trembling of her body.
"It's okay," he told her. She turned to look at him and his bleeding wrist. "Just make sure not to bite."
A moment of stunned hesitation went by, little more than a couple of heartbeats, then she grabbed his arm and brought the deep gash to her lips, lapping at the bleeding wound like a kitten with a bowl of cream.
For five long minutes, she drank wordlessly, then slowly progressively until she stopped entirely.
Silence stretched unpleasantly even after she released his arm, while Shirou shifted his weight to get up from where he was sitting on the floor. Satsuki caught him midway through that motion and the redhead fell flat on his back once more, though this time He had the face of a sobbing girl buried in his shoulder.
Satsuki cried for a long time, long enough to soak his shirt with her tears. Shirou didn't really mind. Although he felt a little embarrassed at the intimacy, an overwhelming feeling of pity filled his heart.
There was nothing he could do for her now except hold her into his arms, pat her back lightly and whisper that everything would be fine.
The sun was much higher when the sobbing was replaced by light snoring. Not daring to move from his place of the floor lest he wake her, Shirou glanced at his wristwatch. He had eight hours before he had to meet with Ortensia again so he had all the time in the world to ponder about his own predicament.
He had initially traveled to Misaki to complete a simple business transaction, attend an historical exhibition and try to apprehend a mundane serial killer while he was at it, assuming erroneously that that it wasn't an actual Dead Apostle. He was grossly mistaken, as in the culprit wasn't just any Vampire, but a powerful one at that. Worse even, there was more than one around.
That could have been it, but no, apparently when it rained it poured. As it turned out there was actually a non-Dead Apostle (probably), vampire-wannabe with a bone to pick in Misaki as he initially believed, although the circumstances were absolutely different from what he had surmised at the beginning.
Adding to the mix two emissaries from the Church, who decided to hijack his efforts as they saw fit, and he was truly and thoroughly out of this depth. Well…more so than usual anyway.
Truth be told, if he hadn't managed to save at least Satsuki he would be feeling completely and utterly useless by now. The knowledge that he found comfort in Satsuki's situation, albeit in the measure that he helped her, did nothing to assuage the sense of guilt Ortensia had drove into him earlier, with her veiled accusation.
He sighed in barely contained disgust.
He really was a piece of work, wasn't he? Surviving when others died, only to wish more people were put in danger so that he could give meaning to his own continued existence.
So much for being a hero. Perhaps he was better suited to be a villain after all?
If he weren't certain it would wake Satsuki, he would have scoffed mirthlessly at his own predicament. Although he promised Kiritsugu and himself not to follow the path of the Magus Killer, Shirou knew he was tainted nonetheless, and following his dream in spite of it was further selfishness on his part.
Then again, there was no other reason nor meaning to his life therefore, whatever the reason, he would abide by it no matter how selfish it was. Tainted for tainted, he would follow that path to the bitter end.
Having acquired a measure of peace of mind, Shirou managed to doze off in spite of Satsuki's body still resting upon his.
Moon. Shining bright.
A circle drawn with blood.
The will to prove himself.
'I'll make them acknowledge me,' he swore silently.
His arm was outstretched; the words on lips.
"Shut (fill). Shut (fill). Shut (fill). Shut (fill). Shut (fill). Repeat five times, simply shatter once filled."
Light came from the circle. Brighter and brighter as the incantation progressed
"Come forth from the circle of constrain. Oh keeper of the balance."
The light became blinding and he fell on his back.
Before him stood a huge man, much taller than he was, with bright red hair and wearing an equally red mantle over a bronze armor.
He knew it instinctually, even before he could introduce himself, for he was now his Master.
This was Rider and together they would win the Fourth Holy Grail War.
Shirou blinked awake. He didn't stir. He just opened his eyes and he was wide awake.
He was still on the floor with Satsuki sleeping on him, but judging from the light coming from the window it must have been at least a couple of hours after he first fell asleep.
A dream. A very clear and vivid dream of Waver Velvet's summoning of Rider.
He had nearly forgotten that he had his memories inside his brain. Did it mean that they had finally begun to unravel? He knew memories weren't simple things to transfer. Contrary to popular belief, the mind is stored in the soul with the brain acting as an anchor to the body. Copying memories from one soul to another is not a simple task, more so processing them so that they may be usable by a different person. Similar as they may be from human to human, every soul is like a world of its own and therefore profoundly alien to one another.
Still, Rider. The King of Conquerors Iskander . He certainly looked impressive enough. He had certainly left an impression on the younger Waver.
Shirou was after the tactical information held within Waver's memories and he felt like intruding in something that was, in hindsight, a cherished memory.
Well, there was no use mulling over it. In fact, it was better if he did something else rather than lie there lazily.
Satsuki's sleep was much deeper now and Shirou felt confident enough to sit up and put her on his bed, where she continued resting after stirring briefly.
He rolled his shoulders and neck, trying to get rid of the stiffness. It worked to an extent, but unless he exercised a bit it wouldn't completely fade. Of course he couldn't just exercise in there with Satsuki sleeping, and he was forbidden to leave during the day. Well, he could go out of the mansion entirely if he so wanted, but since it was daytime it was better to avoid going back and forth needlessly.
There were other exercises he could do without making noises, though. As a matter of fact he had neglected them a bit lately. He could very well employ his free time with something useful since he didn't have anything else worth doing.
When Satsuki opened her eyes she was laying on a bed. Having spent most of the previous day locked inside, she could tell this wasn't her room at the Tohno's mansion, even if the furniture was the same.
The curtains were closed, keeping out most of the sunlight. Unaffected by the shadows, her eyes scanned the room, trying to make sense of where she was. She found her answer with the person sitting in a corner, cross-legged, in what appeared deep meditation, although Satsuki was fairly sure that most people didn't have luminous lines running under their skin when they meditated.
Shirou's eyes were half lidded as he stared into his lap, murmuring something under his breath. It lasted only a second, as he looked up at her and met her gaze. Seeing his golden eyes made Satsuki remember how exactly she had come to be in Shirou's room. Her face flushed slightly, although not enough to be seen in the dim light.
"Feeling better?" he asked, standing to his feet. The lines under his visible skin faded and disappeared.
Satsuki nodded. Strange, she had expected to feel awkward around him, but perhaps it was Shirou's talent to make people feel at ease around him. "Thank you," she murmured.
"You're welcome. Forgive me for asking this, but how long have you been… hungry? I mean, I assume there was a rapid buildup if you didn't mention it before I left."
"Ah, actually…, " she stuttered recalling the sight that stimulated her vampiric impulses. "Shirou… I think Akiha-san is a vampire too."
"… I beg your pardon?" he asked after a moment of pause, taken aback by the sudden revelation.
"Last night I… snuck out of my room," she explained with a bit of shame. "I just wanted to take a walk around the park. I didn't expect anyone to be there but… I stumbled into a small building and I saw… I saw Akiha-san drinking blood from the maid… Kohaku-san."
Shirou stood silently, eyes looking to the side in a pensive manner.
"It's possible," he said after a moment. "A vampire certainly needs blood to sustain its existence, but that's not the only possible reason why anyone would drink it in the Moonlit world. Blood is the most common medium to transfer energy between two living beings. I told you that the Tohno have a demonic ancestry, right? It's entirely possible that drinking blood is a necessary step to manage her condition. If anything, the fact that Akiha-san has someone willingly to provide her with the blood she needs is a relief. Besides I saw her act openly in daylight, so I'm fairly sure her condition isn't the same as yours."
"Oh," she replied after he finished her explanation. "She's not dangerous then."
"Now, I didn't say that," he chuckled. "She's the head of the Tohno conglomerate, and that isn't a position a harmless person can hope to achieve and maintain. Demonic ancestry notwithstanding, I'd rather not give her any reason to be angry with me."
"I didn't think of it like that," Satsuki admitted. "Now that you mention it, I can't believe she's a year younger than I am."
"Yes, I think she's pretty awesome," Shirou agreed, "though I don't want to image what she had to go through to reach that standard. The murder of her father couldn't have helped things either."
"… Murder?" Satsuki blinked in surprise. "But the news said he died of natural causes."
"Right, I forgot that's what the media said. Well, that's just more proof of the power of the Tohno Conglomerate that Akiha-san now controls."
"Was the world always this scary?" she asked, hugging one knees to her while her other leg dangled off the bed.
Shirou shrugged; he had no answer to give.
"Sorry if I get back on this but has your hunger been giving you any issues? Besides the obvious, I mean."
Satsuki shook her head. "Until last night I felt nothing more than a prickling in the back of my throat. I think I could have gone a bit longer if…"
"If you weren't provoked, I get it. Well, I'm unsure how good of a timeframe it is, but if it doesn't worsen then it should be manageable."
"If you say so," Satsuki replied without conviction. See couldn't be as optimist as he was. "Hey, Shirou, what it that you were doing before?"
"Hm? Oh, that. Well, perhaps knowing a bit more about Magecraft will be a good thing for you."
And so Shirou spent the next couple of hours explaining what he knew of the intricacies of Magecraft. Satsuki jumped at the chance of focusing on something that wasn't her own condition and time passed with a measure of peace.
Caren was waiting for Shirou in front of the museum. Although he was supposed to be her bodyguard she didn't expect anything to happen in a public space in broad daylight. The murderer, whoever or whatever he was acted in absence of witnesses so she was perfectly safe in public during the day.
A taxi pulled over a few meters from her and Shirou got out of it. He waved at her and approached wading though the growing crowd. She attentively examined him, and herself, as he got closer.
"Good afternoon Ortensia-san. Sorry, I'm a bit la- WHA!"
The nun had forcibly grabbed the sides of his face, and pulled him forward until their foreheads were touching.
"What are you doing?" he hissed with his face growing red from embarrassment, looking at the passersby who him turn where giving them odd looks. Caren on her part was entirely unaffected by the attention they were gathering, focusing entirely on Shirou's eyes.
"Have you been unwell recently?" she asked flatly.
"That's what I should be asking!" he whispered. "What's gotten into you?"
"Nothing," she said releasing him. "I had to be certain."
"Of what?" he asked, adjusting his clothes.
"It's not important anymore," she shook her head. "Come now, Emiya-san, the presentation is going to start soon."
"About that, Ortensia-san," he stopped her, by grabbing her wrist. "I think it's better if we act separately."
"Oh? Why would you think so?"
"The threats to your person at this time are realistically scarce," he explained, "and whether the professor is the next victim or the culprit, we are more or less certain that the actual culprit is going to be around here at one point or another. If that's the case, it's better if they can't get a good grasp of whatever opposition they have. If you are going approach Professor Shirata at any point in time and confront him about the death of his colleagues, you are going to paint yourself as a target. In that case I'll be advantaged if the culprit doesn't expect me."
"I see," she nodded. "That's an intelligent course of action, but…"
"I think I might have just ruined that possibility a moment ago."
"Well, it's still worth a shot either way," Shirou sighed. "Not everyone noticed our… exchange, I hope, and until either of us act suspiciously around the professor we are just two nobodies."
"It's agreed then," the nun nodded. "Still, could you please release me now? I didn't think you were the forceful sort, Emiya-san."
Shirou quickly let go of her wrist with a glare and a light blush, moving past her and into the museum. Ortensia followed after him with an amused smile.
Shirata Shizuo was a man well over his forties, relatively tall by Japanese standards and with prematurely graying hair.
From his position at the far end of the hall where the presentation was being held, Shirou could tell that the professor had a certain amount of charisma, that stemmed from his passion for his job and which was expressed in the way he spoke of his findings.
Admittedly, there were more people attending than Shirou would have imagined, although it was probably because of the nature of the professor's discovery. From what he could gather, the expedition had found proof of metal-forging processes that were capable of achieving a level of purity within the metals that rivaled some advanced modern methods. The discovery, per se, wouldn't bring cause to rethink history as a whole, but it raised several questions among the experts, such as why the method apparently disappeared for a long time and why it disappeared before it could spread. The prominent theory was that the turmoil of the Sengoku era and its countless conflicts cased this art to be lost to the ages.
The presentation went on for well over an hour, trying to explain the various possibilities that were in contrast with the currently known history of that period.
It was, even in Shirou's opinion, a very interesting lecture but he was unable to focus on it entirely. His interest was divided between the character of Professor Shirata himself, Caren Ortensia sitting casually with the rest of the audience and finally a man with long black hair dressed in Chinese clothing standing several meters to Shirou's left near the back wall of the room.
From his look and the way he held himself, Shirou pegged him as a martial artist of some sort. In itself that wasn't really worthy of notice, since archeologists and professors weren't the only members of the audience, but the man turned to look at Shirou every time he sensed his gaze lingering; that certainly wasn't expected from the average martial artist.
Therefore, either Professor Shirata himself or his discovery had caught the attention of a number of odd people. Who could this person be? Besides the Holy Church there were a number of groups and people who could have taken an interest in this, the murderer of Professor Shirata's colleagues being only one among them.
Well, that was also jumping to conclusions, Shirou thought privately. Although rare, there were people who didn't really fit the mold of the average human-but that wasn't an indication of guilt. Still, he would keep his eyes on this mysterious fellow while he was there.
The lecture continued for another fifteen minutes and ended with a well earned round of applauses, after which the audience started to trickle out. The man in Chinese clothing was one of the first to leave, being the closest to the exit, without giving any further acknowledgment to Shirou's persistent interest.
Shirou stayed behind. His job was to protect Ortensia, so he kept his eyes on her while she approached Professor Shirata. They exchanged words, though Shirou couldn't hear what from his position, though he saw a flicker of surprise on the professor's face. A few moments later Caren bowed and left him to his colleagues. The professor still appeared mildly surprised by having been approached by a nun, but he gave no particular signs of discomfort.
In line with their earlier decision to appear as if they weren't together, Shirou waited a couple of minutes before leaving the room as well, sparing a final glance for Shirata, who didn't appear to be aware or concerned of the dangers that clouded his life.
With the influx of visitors who attended Shirata's lecture, the halls of the museum were noticeably more crowded than the previous days. It didn't make moving particularly, difficult but there were much more people to keep track of.
He found Caren standing in front of a glass case, examining its contents. Shirou approached casually, pretending to be interested in the same piece rather than her.
"Impressions?" he asked without looking at her.
"Professor Shirata is an awful liar," she commented offhandedly.
Shirou didn't ask for further clarification. They would debrief elsewhere later, where they wouldn't be heard.
"Look around here for anything out of place. It's all connected to the excavation, so there could be a clue around here somewhere. We'll meet again outside in two hours."
"Got it," he acknowledged, stepping away without ever glancing at her.
Look for something out of place, she said. Shirou wasn't precisely a historian and the whole point of the exposition was about findings that were out of place, which made the entire ordeal like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Still, no better options were available for the time being and his tour the previous day had been interrupted, so he welcomed the chance to make up for lost time.
As he moved through the halls, Shirou caught sight of the man in Chinese clothes two different times, the last of which when the stranger was leaving the museum.
Well, that was one less concern for the time being. The man had been an odd presence but nothing of him betrayed any form of malice or ill intent. Shirou put him out of his mind.
As time went by, the visitors started to dwindle to the usual numbers. It was then that Shirou saw Aihara-san looking around as if in search of something or, more likely, someone.
"Good afternoon Aihara-san," he greeted as he approached her. The woman's eyes moved onto Shirou without recognizing him at first.
"Ah, Emiya-san, you're back," she smiled. "You came to attend Shirata-sensei's presentation?"
"Exactly. What about you? Are you looking for Kenta-kun again?"
"Yes," she sighed wearily. "I completely lost him in the crowd. Have you perhaps seen him, Emiya-san?"
"Can't say that I did, sorry. Do you want a hand looking for him?"
"Emiya-san, I couldn't-"
"I mean it," he cut her off. "It's no bother, really."
"Well, if insist, how can I say no," she replied bowing in gratitude. "Here, take this. It's an assistant's pass. Put it on your clothes so that the security staff won't bother you if they see you looking behind stuff."
"Ah, is this alright? I mean, you don't really know me."
"It's fine, it's fine," she waved off his concerns. "So long as you return it afterward it's not going to be a problem."
"Well, thank you then."
"No, thank you, Emiya-san. Would you please look for Kenta on the ground floor while I search for him around here? Security on the upper floor is tighter, so Kenta won't go there causing trouble."
"I'm on it," Shirou promised. "We will find him in no time, you'll see."
With that promise, Shirou went back to the ground floor in search for the missing boy. Although he had another task to fulfill, Shirou saw the opportunity as killing two birds with one stone. Unlike him, Aihara-san probably knew everything worth knowing about the museum and the current exposition. If he helped her find the little troublemaker, which was a good thing in and of itself, he could later ask a few mild questions that would simplify his mission.
Of course, that too was easier said than done. There was a reason Aihara-san was having a hard time looking for Kenta. A kid in a crowd is easy to miss, more so when he doesn't want to be found.
Shirou looked everywhere for a good half hour, catching glimpses of Kenta every now and then only to lose him immediately afterward. He tracked the rascal as much as he could without pushing bystanders out of his way, but the kid was good at hiding. It was turning out to be a fool's errand as much as the other option. At one point Shirou was sure that he had completely lost him, but then something caught his gaze, making him pause.
In the corner of the hall he was currently in there was a narrow corridor blocked by two stanchions chained together with the sign 'authorized personnel only" dangling from it. The chain, far removed from anywhere the visitors might have been wandering, was oscillating slightly, as if someone had just recently touched it.
Shirou looked at the darkened corridor, which turned abruptly to the right, precluding the sight of what was at its end. Then he looked down at the sign and immediately after at the badge on his chest. Sparing a glace to either side out of caution, Shirou stepped over and beyond the chain.
There was a grey metal door around the corner, which closed slowly as he laid his eyes upon it. Shirou pulled down the handle silently, unaware if his quarry knew he was being chased. The door opened to a dark flight of stairs that wound down beneath ground level. Shirou pushed the switch on the wall a couple of times, but no light whatsoever turned on in response.
"Creepy," he muttered under his breath. Shaking his head he stepped inside and slowly down the stairs, while behind him the doors automatically swung close with a clack.
With his back against the wall, more out of habit that any conscious thought for caution, the redhead slid down the stairs slowly, giving his eyes time to adjust to the little illumination provided by the emergency lights.
He found himself into a storeroom, filled with big wooden crates, some of them open and clearly empty, piled up seemingly at random. An unpleasant smell of mold and rot drifted up his nose and made him frown. Even if it was just a storeroom for empty crates, Shirou expected better conditions from a museum.
He pushed that thought aside as it was honestly none of his business. He was looking for a kid and this maze wasn't going to make it any easier for him.
Carefully, trying to make a little noise as possible, he begun searching around and inside the crates. He wasn't sure whether Kenta knew that Shirou was looking for him, and therefore whether he was actively hiding or not.
A loud metal noise echoed somewhere close. Too close to be the door he came in from.
The same noise again in two rapid bursts. Shirou forwent stealth and ran toward the source, finding Kenta trying to open a worn out metal door that led to the boiler room, according to the sign stamped on it.
"Why is it locked?" the young boy wondered aloud, failing to notice Shirou approaching from behind.
"Probably to keep brats out," Shirou whispered in the boy's ear, simultaneously putting a hand on his shoulder.
Kenta didn't jump out of his skin, but only because he was being held down. He did, however, let out a blood-curling scream that made even Shirou wince.
"Wha-wha-wha-wha…" the boy stuttered in shock, shakingly turning his head to look at Shirou. "Don't do that! W-wait, you are that villain from yesterday."
"Villain?" Shirou blinked owlishly as Kenta slipped out of his hold.
"AH! You made your last mistake fiend. You're going down!" he declared reaching for his toy bow and suction-cup arrows.
Shirou smiled bemusedly, deciding to indulge the kid's antics, and tilted his head out of the projectile's path and catching another in midair with his fingers, silently observing that Kenta did have good aim.
"How are you doing that?" the boy asked with equal parts amazement and frustration, shooting yet another arrow at the redhead.
"The arrows of a fake hero like you will never reach me," Shirou said darkly with a twisted smile, playing the role of the villain and approaching his retreating target.
"F-fake hero?" the boy stuttered in outrage. "I'll show you who's a fake hero."
The boy tossed away his useless bow and charged at Shirou with a roar and swung his fists at the redhead. This, of course, failed to connect as Shirou planted a hand of Kenta's forehead to keep him out of reach.
After a solid minute of futile swinging, the youth was finally out of breath.
"You done yet?"
"Damn you, don't look down on me."
"Eh, that's kind of difficult for me when I'm standing up."
More pointless swinging of fists voiced Kenta's protest to Shirou's remark about his height.
"Now that you got that out of your system, how about going back to Aihara-san?"
"No way," Kenta protested, short of breath. "She's the final boss' lieutenant. If she gets her hands on me there'll be no one left to fight against evil."
Shirou give an inaudible sigh. Even at his worse he was never that bad with the hero bravado. Then again, he didn't have to make up stories about mysterious evils. He knew plenty enough as it were.
"So? At your level there might as well be no one left fighting. You couldn't even hit me at close range."
"T-that doesn't count! The Optional Boss is usually stronger than the rest."
Optional Boss, Shirou mused, was a title he didn't have yet. Better not let Medea or Tohsaka know or he wouldn't hear the end of it. Optional Boss, indeed.
"How about it, this Optional Boss will give you a few tips for that bow of yours and in exchange you'll stop giving Aihara-san a hard time for a while. Consider it as making them, whoever they are, believe you went over to their side and then you'll hit them when they less expect it."
"… Hey, that sounds like a good plan," Kenta observed appreciatively. "As expected from a great villain. Wait a moment though, are you any good with bows?"
Shirou chuckled "How about we find out, hm?"
Fifteen minutes later Kenta had learned a couple of basic things about practical marksmanships such as aiming at where his target would be as opposed to where they were. It seemed to be enough to break through the boy's shell, and he warmed up to his former nemesis.
"Hey, Aniki," Kenta said as the climbed up the stairs.
"Aniki, is it now?" Shirou asked. "Guess I got promoted."
"How comes you know so much about archery anyway?" Kenta continued unperturbed.
"Hm? I'm the captain of the Archery club at my school, back in Fuyuki city."
"F-Fuyuki? Seriously? Did you ever… did you ever see Archer, you know, the real one?"
"I caught a glimpse of him," -in a mirror-, "a couple of times. He didn't stay for a chat though."
"That's so awesome. I want to meet him some day."
"Well, you never know what could happen in life."
"Emiya-san, did you… Kenta!" Aihara-san exclaimed as she came to meet them on the first floor. "There you are. Do you have any idea how much trouble are you giving everyone, you little rascal?"
"Feh!" the boy scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest. "A hero has no time with such petty concerns."
"A hero," Shirou intervened squeezing Kenta's shoulder, "shouldn't make people worry needlessly."
"Aniki?" Aihara asked, glancing between the two of them.
"Remember our deal, now," Shirou winked at him, unseen by Aihara. "You won't go back on your promise, right?"
"Fine…," Kenta said resignedly. "I'll behave. I'll go back to your office, Nee-san."
"N-nee-san?" the woman choked in disbelief as she watched the boy leave, at a quiet pace for a change. "Emiya-san, please tell me what you said to him to make him behave like that?"
Shirou shrugged. "I've been through that phase once. Not quite as bad, but I still can relate to him somewhat."
"I guess boys will be boys," she replied, rubbing her temples. "Maybe I'm just not the person he needs."
"You aren't his mother," Shirou agreed, "but you genuinely care for him. I don't think that there are other requirements besides that, Aihara-san."
"I… thank you, Emiya-san. Your help has really been invaluable."
"Glad to be of assistance."
"Well, I think we both deserve a break after this errand. Please, allow me to treat you."
"That's not really necessary."
"I insist. Not once but twice have I bothered you, now. Please, it wouldn't feel right if I didn't repay you somehow."
"Well, if I can't really convince you otherwise…"
Nothing. As far as Caren could tell there was nothing really anomalous about professor Shitara, besides lying badly about not knowing of his colleagues disappearance, which was of public knowledge. The discovery of their corpses, however, was a carefully concealed piece of information-especially considering their state of unexplained mummification. No mundane means had been able to explain how the bodies were turned into such a condition, and that oddity was what made one of the Church's sleeper agents within the law enforcement flag the case to their attention.
Although her talent lied with living beings, she had been able to pick up a lingering maliciousness about the mangled corpses, and as such she had been assigned the task to determine what sort of heresy was at its root.
The current theory was that Shirata's group had unearthed something even more peculiar than what his presentation let on, whether they knew it or not, and that caused someone or something to go after them. It wasn't unheard of, or even just rare for that matter. Resting places often held lingering curses or entities that struck those who perturbed their rest.
That was the reason why she had been sent specifically. Although it came at the cost of great personal pain, for which she cared little, she was uniquely suited for the task of tracking such unnaturalness.
Yet, Shitara himself had no trace of such malice on himself. The man had lied, yes, but he could have feigned ignorance to protect himself. Even if the deaths of the archeologists wasn't known to the general public, it didn't take a genius to figure out that there was a nefarious intent behind their sudden and unexplained disappearances.
As the last surviving members of his party, Shirata was likely to be either the next victim or the culprit, but there was no proof of him being the latter aside from being still alive. It wasn't yet something anyone could hold against him.
Of course she had omitted sharing this knowledge with her impromptu bodyguard, so as to not sway his own personal view in the matter. What she needed, besides protection, was another set of eyes with their unbiased view of the case, and his usefulness as co-investigator would have been diminished if he too relied on her talents.
Therefore they were still at square one, without a single clue as to where to look next, so she prayed that Emiya was having better luck than she did.
As expected, God heard and provided that she wasn't surprised when she saw him in the company of one of the staff members, chatting amiably, while sporting a staff's badge of his own.
Their eyes met briefly and she gave him the faintest nod, acknowledging that their roles had suddenly switched and that she was now the secret observer while he took the front line of the investigation.
She followed them at a distance to the relaxation area of the museum, where they sat at a table. Caren herself took a seat at the table directly behind the woman, with her back turned to them so that she could listen in without being obvious.
Hopefully the woman would give them something to work with.
It was a given that Shirou didn't mind listening to other people's problems and concerns, but it was somewhat annoying paying attention to mundane concerns while his mind was worried with more pressing concerns; even if it was necessary to his task.
When it came down to it, Shirou was a hands-on approach guy.
He was currently sipping a cup of tea at the relaxation area, drinking in silence. Or rather, Shirou was silent while Aihara-san talked about the management of the museum and how difficult it was to keep everything in proper order, especially with a child like Kenta to watch over. Despite her words being of frustration at the boy's antics she was obviously very fond of him. It reminded him of his relationship with Taiga, with the roles being inversed.
"Thank you for listening, Emiya-san," she finally said. "I don't know what came over me. I'm not usually this chatty, especially with a man I barely know. I must have been building it up for some time."
"That's quite alright."
"But enough talking about me. What university do you attend Emiya-san? Oh," she said seeing his dumbstruck expression, "did I put my foot in my mouth again perhaps? I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I thought you were still student by your age."
"I am a student alright," Shirou he laughed. "In fact, I'v just begun my second year in high school."
Aihara-san's mouth hung open as she looked at him all over once again.
"T-then you are…"
"Fifteen. Going on sixteen if that helps any," he provided helpfully, still smiling. "Do I really look that much older?"
"Oh, dear," Aihara-san replied baffled, a faint hue of embarrassment on her cheeks. "No, in fact I thought you looked a bit young, but you behaved so composed earlier and you are much, ah, stockier and taller than the average high-schooler that I assumed…"
As a matter of fact, Shirou considered, he was taller than the average Japanese fifteen year-old and he had developed a firm musculature that was just as unusual, except maybe for the most hardcore members of some sport related school clubs. Of course, he wouldn't call himself 'composed' as Aihara-san had put it. In fact he considered himself quite the passionate person in many regards. However he had been trained not by one, but by two assassins, one of which was a Magus, to keep his cool under all circumstances. Still, this was the first time someone had mistaken his age by such a margin.
"I lead a healthy lifestyle," he offered amicably.
"I… I imagine," she said eyeing him over. "Oh, dear. I keep making a fool out of myself. I'm not usually like this."
"Don't worry, I have been told that I'm of the unusual sort."
"I'd say," she agreed. "If you don't mind me asking, Emiya-san, why are you not at school right now?"
"Ah, I there was a family business I had to see ot here in Misaki, so I had to take a few days off from school."
"You're not from here?"
"I'm from Fuyuki, actually."
"Ah. So your visits these past two days were a matter of happenstance?"
"Pretty much, yes. I developed a certain interest in history lately, so I was able to combine business with pleasure."
"I see. Say, Emiya-san, how much interested in history are you really?"
"Very much so, Aihara-san."
"Well, then I guess that as repayment for you help today, I could give you a sneak peek of the new collection on the fourth floor," she said with a wink.
"Isn't that closed to the general public?" Shirou asked concealing his interest. 'Score', he thought thought privately.
"Yes, but you are a member of the staff for today, aren't you?"
"I suppose I am," he replied, toying with the staff badge still pinned to his chest.
They stood up, and Shirou gave a meaningful glance at Caren who had been listening in on them the whole time. She did not make a move to follow, as there was no way she could do so unnoticed.
She tapped her table twice, signaling that she would wait for him there, a public place with lots of people was relatively safe even with vampires and assassins on the loose.
'Good,' Caren thought sipping a cup of tea of her own while she watched the duo leave for the elevators. 'Emiya-san is onto something.'
Ultimately, it was obvious that the solution to this case lay with Shirata's excavation. The more they knew about it, the sooner they would be able to wrap this up and spare innocent lives.
Ciel hadn't been mistaken when she put Emiya-san's name forward. He was resourceful in a manner she thoroughly approved of. Most of her colleagues were inclined to kill first and ask questions later, which she found hard to deal with. For someone who yearned for everyone's salvation, a partner like Emiya-san was the best she could hope for.
All she had to do now was trust him and wait for his return. Fortunately, faith was not something she was in short supply.
The elevator stopped on the fourth floor and Shirou along with Aihara-san found himself in front of a set of large wooden doors.
The woman picked a key card form her pocket and swiped it on the terminal by the doors, punching in a set of numbers on the keypad, causing the doors to unlock with a loud clack.
"Emiya-san," she said grabbing both doors' handles and pushing them open as one. "Welcome to the Hall of Armors."
The name, Shirou though flabbergasted, was quite fitting.
Three rows of ten armors for each side of the room, placed on three stands of increasing height, loomed on the visitors that set foot into the room.
"These… are all these armors from Shirata-sensei's excavation?"
"Correct. We haven't disclosed it to the general public yet, because Shirata-sensei wanted to put more focus on the metal forging process they discovered, but in truth his excavation has been one of the most bountiful in history."
"What were so many armors doing in a single place? Was it a military settlement?"
"As a matter of fact, we don't know. There is no recording of any settlement in the area in any of the documents we possess of the era: nothing to justify so many resources in a single place. We believe it had been a settlement of blacksmiths and their families, gathered together to develop this technique we found traces of."
"What happened to them?" he asked as he examined each piece of armor with keen interest.
"We don't know yet. The village had been burned to the ground, but we found a single human body among the remnants."
"An attack from the outside?"
"It's unlikely. We are inclined to believe that this group of blacksmiths… split up at some point and that they tried to destroy every trace of their work."
"How did all this survive, then?" he gestured at the armors.
"Ah, that's the interesting part. That human body I said we found? It was in an underground room locked from the inside but blocked with a pile of rocks from the outside Our best guess is that this one person didn't want to give up on this research and blocked himself inside with his creations, and that his former colleagues buried him inside before burning down everything else."
"They killed him by burying him alive?" Shirou asked, eyes wide.
"They buried him alive alright, but that's not what killed him. He died from a wound to the heart, self inflicted with the sword we found still buried in his chest."
"… Where is that sword now?"
Aihara inclined her head toward the end of the end of the hall, where a piece of cloth was covering the rectangular shape of a glass case.
Shirou walked up to the case and slowly pulled away the cloth, revealing what lay underneath. A thick bead of sweat made its way from his frowning eyebrows.
A sleek, black blade, with an equally black hilt, reflected the sunlight light ominously. A single kanji was grafted at its base, where the blade met the hilt.
"The Hina Blade," Aihara-san said behind him, "that's how it's called."
Shirou gulped, forcing himself not to turn and look at Aihara-san least he betray his inner turmoil. Did she know? This blade was…
"Strange," he said with a steady voice that surprised even himself. "Black isn't a common color for a sword."
"Another mystery to solve, in fact. We don't know how the color was obtained yet. It didn't affect the purity of the metal, yet it's not a pigment."
"I see. Thank you for this opportunity Aihara-san. I learned a lot."
"Not at all. It was a pleasure to share my work and passion with someone who appreciates it."
"I think I've taken advantage of your hospitality far too long. I should go."
"Will you come visiting again before going back to Fuyuki, Emiya-san? "
"I will, Aihara-san. I most certainly will."
Caren heard the sound of the elevator coming back not fifteen minutes after Emiya had left. The duo walked back out and Emiya parted ways with the woman from the staff.
He was smiling while they spoke their goodbyes, but his smile melted away as soon as he turned his back. Emiya's face was set into a firm line as he walked past Caren, eyes meeting again for the briefest moment.
The nun paid the bill and went after the redheaded Magus.
She found him at the corner of the street, waiting for the light to turn green in order to cross. She walked by his side.
"Found something?" she asked.
"Aihara-san told me an interesting tale today. The tale of a man betrayed by his peers who took his own life in a dark, cold prison, surrounded by the creations he sought to protect with his own life. How does that sound to you?"
"Like the beginning of a ghost story."
"Yes, I..," Shirou turned to look at her and stopped mid-speech. "What happened to you? Are you hurt?"
"Uh?" Caren raised her hand to her face, where Emiya's was staring. There was a trickle of blood dribbling down her nose, not from her nostrils but from a thin cut across the bridge.
"Emiya-san I… have not been exactly forthcoming with you."
"What do you mean?"
"I have an… emphatic ability that mirrors upon my body all the wounds and pains suffered by a person possessed by an external entity, particularly demons. It's called 'Masochistic Pneumatic Automatism Diathesis', and it gets stronger the closer I am to the afflicted."
"You mean that wound on your nose is…"
"Yes, I believe so," she confirmed. "Emiya-san, if what you found is true then there is a person who's being manipulated into killing, probably even without their knowledge. I thought Shirata-sensei could be the one, but my ability did not react in his presence. Have you seen anyone with visible bleeding wounds around today."
"No," Shirou answered immediately. Of course he would take notice of someone of a bleeding person. "No one besides you. Wait, is that why you grabbed my face earlier?"
"That's not important right now. Emiya, if a person was able to make a grudge survive through the centuries with enough power to manipulate someone against their will, then this curse must have latched onto something physical; an item with a strong relation to the caster. Have you-"
"Yes, I have," he replied anticipating her line of thought. "And that's our problem. Aihara-san showed me a sword earlier, one of the most cursed things I ever seen. The sword that the betrayed blacksmith used to take his own life in grief."
"Then that's most like our-"
"No. Ortesia-san, listen, I too posses an emphatic ability, geared toward blades, and I know without a doubt the sword on the fourth floor is indeed a cursed thing that has been bathed in blood during its very forging process. The problem is… it's a fake."
"A fake? But…"
"A masterfully done fake, as a matter of fact: a perfect replica…but still, just a replica. That's not the sword they say they found at the excavation site. Somebody took the true blade and made a nearly indistinguishable fake, identical in every aspect except its history, to put in its place."
"Doesn't your ability tell you who it was?"
"Urashima. That's the name of the person who made the fake blade that I was able to glean from the sword itself. However, that is also the name of the person who made the other items on that floor, items that are not fake. Do you get what I mean?"
"The spirit of the blacksmith has already taken over, and it's covering its tracks."'
"Or more simply it's doing what it was prevented to do in life: practice a cursed art that needs the life of the unwilling."
"We need to find the afflicted, Emiya-san. It's the only way to stop this."
Shirou nodded resolutely.
They had a clear objective now; yet, they weren't even remotely close to figure out where to look. The more time it took them to find the culprit, the more lives would be lost.
It was a price that neither of them was willing to pay.
Sorry for being late with this chapter. I hope you enjoyed it.
Now, in this chapter you might have recognized characters and circumstances from series that don't belong with the Nasuverse. If you did recognize them, then I want you to know they are exactly what the they seem to be, but don't consider them any more than shout-outs at this point of the story. If you did not recognize them, don't worry. When the time comes for them to be relevant I'll explain things in detail.
As usual my gratitude goes to my awesome RavingScholar, who delivered us this chapter free of errors.
Thank you all.