Escalation (I)

The duties of a president of the student council were as many as they were complex. It was therefore very often that Issei Ryuudou, the youngest son of the head monk at the homonymous temple, found himself working long past even the most hardcore sports club member had returned home.

It used to be a much simpler activity, back when the workload was shared with Emiya Shirou, but in recent months his long time friend had other things to worry about, and could scarcely afford to help on a regular basis. Under ordinary circumstances, Issei would have avoided asking for help, but having to allocate the budget available to each club for the current semester left him little choice in the matter. No man could do everything on his own.

Even with the help, it took him all of the afternoon and a good part of the evening to iron out a budget that wouldn't have him crucified in the courtyard by one club or the other. Mitsuzuri, for instance, would use him for target practice if she thought he had cut her short. He was physically fit enough to outrun almost anyone. Arrows were a bit more troublesome, though and since Issei had no desire of emulating Benkei's valiant last stand, he did everything he reasonably could to appease everyone.

Especially the archery club.

By the time he was done double checking everything, it had become completely dark outside. At that hour Emiya had to have returned home already, so it was up to Issei to do the last round and make sure everything was locked properly.

He started to make his way down floor by floor, checking every door and window. He was just about done when he heard a loud crash coming from the grounds behind the school. His first thought was that Emiya still around, but he quickly dismissed that notion when he heard that sound again several times in a row.

It was almost like someone was using a jackhammer, though the interval wasn't regular. If it had been slower, he'd have thought it was two people fighting, but no human being could swing something that fast.

He was understandably curious, not to mention that he had a duty to figure out what made that noise. Schools were notorious for being haunted places, but despite being a monk, Issei was a man of reason. Surely there was a rational explanation to what he was hearing, that would become apparent as soon as he saw it. He confidently walked around the building until he came into view of the track field.

That's where he stopped dead in his tracks, mind failing to make sense of what transpired before his eyes.

Two human figures clashed against each other, moving about at speeds that Issei had trouble following, even at a distance. One wore a strange blue skin-tight bodysuit and wielded a menacing red spear. The other one was ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ ⬛⬛⬛⬛ ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ ⬛⬛⬛⬛.

'What? What?' his mind asked, desperately trying to make sense of something, anything at all. He would have remained rooted on the spot indefinitely, if the eyes of the blue-clad spearman didn't meet his own.

To be precise, they were so far away that Issei couldn't possibly discern the other's facial features in any significant way, but he felt it into his bones that he was being stared at. His legs started running in the opposite direction without him having to consciously think about it. If the spearman caught up with him, he would be as good as dead.

It was awareness born out of instinct, just as the hare knows it must run and hide when a wolf spots it. Without being taught about it.

However, Issei was no mere animal. He was a thinking man and an intelligent one at that. He knew he couldn't hope to outrun something that moved as fast as those things. On a open field he'd be dead meat. Therefore, he dove inside the school through the same door from which he had exited.

The layout of the school was, for obvious reasons, pretty easy to navigate. Issei wasn't hoping that the guy with the spear would get lost inside the building, of course, but he thought that breaking line of sight would increase his chances of getting away with his life. Counterintuitively, he took the stairs up, because that was the least likely thing to do and therefore something that a pursuer wouldn't think he'd do.

That was what Issei believed, anyway and since he couldn't hear any footsteps behind him, he thought he had successfully lost the man.

Therefore, his surprise was amplified when, upon arriving on the third floor and turning around the corner from the stairs to the hallway, he slammed into a human shaped brick wall clad in blue and fell on his back from the impact. Issei looked at the very thing he thought he just got away from in mute horror. This person, this… thing had anticipated him both physically and mentally, waiting for him to arrive.

"What? Who?" he asked. Not because he really wanted to know, but because he desperately wanted to make sense of things. The spearman's mouth twisted into one of obvious displeasure.

"You know, I don't really like killing bystanders, but the rule is no witnesses. At all. Sorry kid. I hope you have better luck in the next life."

Before Issei could even beg for his life the red spear descended towards his chest. The fatal blow never came, though, as the spear stopped scant inches from his uniform before twirling around to deflect something coming at him from behind.

There was a clang of metal and two curved swords, one black and one white, fell to the ground next to Issei's body, stabbing their points through the ground.

The blue spearman stood with his back turned to Issei, staring down to the opposite end of the corridor. The same place where Emiya Shirou stood, wielding two swords identical to the ones he had just thrown.

A dream, it had to be, because otherwise nothing made any sense at all.

At first, it appeared to be an ordinary day. Even with the shadow of the Grail War looming over them, everyone still tried to stick to their own schedule as much as possible, at least while there was still sunlight to be had. When night fell, the Tohsaka Alliance (temporary name) kept a careful eye over the deceptively quiet city of Fuyuki. Caster acted as intelligence gathering, using her Magecraft to seek out anomalies like Servants fighting, while Tohsaka's and Saber's team, separately from Shirou's and Rider's, acted as bait.

There was little use in sticking all together if the wanted to draw out the opposition.

Two or more Servants in the same place without any fight going on would give away their alliance, and thus push the remaining Heroic Spirits away and potentially into an alliance of their own. Besides, thanks to Caster's Magecraft it was a only matter of seconds before getting additional support wherever a fight broke out.

After returning from school, Rin changed into her casual clothes and so did Saber. The two of them left the house shortly after dinner and went for a stroll through the city. A materialized Servant of Saber's caliber would probably be detected by the others in a wide enough radius, so it was like lighting up a beacon in the night.

Early in the evening it was still unlikely that they'd be attacked as there were still plenty of people around, but the important thing was putting down a trail that the opposition could pick upon.

No one expected that as soon as the bait hit the water, the biggest fish in the ocean would bite.

"Tohsaka Rin? I'm Illyasviel von Einzbern and this is my Berserker," the white haired girl introduced herself with a curtsy next to the fortress of muscles that was her Servant. "Nice to meet you. My apologies, but I have little time to spend in pleasantries as I would like to kill my little brother before the night is over. I'll have you and your Servant die here quickly. Get them, Berserker."

Alas... the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

After Satsuki had left, Shirou's daily schedule had a few extra spots available. As such, he didn't have trouble agreeing to Issei's request of fixing some of the equipment from the various clubs, while the monk-in-training worked out a budget.

After a long time, Homurahara Fake Janitor was back in business. Of course, Caster would not allow him to go anywhere without protection anymore and since she was doing surveillance and intelligence gathering, the job fell inevitably upon Rider's shoulders.

The Servant of the Mount had not exchanged a single word beyond what was strictly necessary with her current Master after the intense discussion they had in his room about her character. She wasn't avoiding him, per se, but she had reverted to how she was when he first co-opted her into his service, acting or speaking only when directly addressed.

Honestly, it wasn't like she could change his mind about her just because she sulked. Of course he couldn't tell her that. Even though she had basically assaulted and threatened him, Shirou didn't feel worried about being alone with Rider, and not just because Caster had had words with her.

Shirou didn't know the content of that conversation, being more than happy that everyone walked out without injuries, although Rider looked slightly paler than usual after the event. Whatever unholy form of reprisal Caster had promised, it got to the other woman, at least to some degree.

That is how Shirou found himself working late on some broken school equipment, with the invisible Gorgon looking over his shoulder. She didn't utter a single word, but Shirou could still feel her watching his every move and not in such a way to make him feel secure. She was still pissed at him alright.

Other than the uncomfortable feeling of having an angry woman glaring at him, the afternoon shifted into the evening in relative quiet, until Caster reached from him and Rider through their bond.

'Rin and Saber are under attack by Berserker. His identity is Herakles. I am moving to assist. Rider, stay with Shirou but be ready to intervene. Shirou, no matter what happens do not come over.'

'What? No, of course I'm coming. Caster? Caster!' But Caster did not respond and Shirou was left with little choice other than look through the eyes of his Servant at the unfolding battle. What he saw chilled his blood.

A row of gravestones exploded as Saber was flung through them from the impact with Berserker's stone axe. The Heroic Spirit's raw strength was matched only by his superlative technique and instinct. Even by the standard of Servant, Herakles was a monster. The demigod lived up to his legend, to the point that even the King of Knights was forced on the back foot, strictly on the defensive. Rin could only watch as the fighting broke out.

At first, her pride told her that she could take care of it without resorting to asking for help, which is why she didn't immediately call out for support. Now, she understood that the odds were stacked against them, but before she could reach out, a shower of spells crashed down on Berserker's form, giving Saber some much needed respite.

High up above them, Caster was flying in the sky, her cloak spread open like the wings of a huge mythological bird, across which were engraved luminous patterns of pre-charged spells.

For a brief moment, the fight stopped while the two Argonauts recognized each other.

"...Medea," Berserker grumbled in acknowledgment. His voice was similar to a bunch of rock smashing together, accidentally producing sounds that remebled words.

Rin's ears perked, having her suspicion about Caster's identity revealed, but her concerns were currently elsewhere.

"Herakles," the Witch greeted back. "Please, stand down, old friend. We do not wish to fight you. There is something that we must discuss."

"This is a War. Words should be spoken only by the victor."

And with that declaration, he charged at Saber again, leaving Caster with no other option but to support her allies.

Back at Homurahara, seeing as diplomacy had fallen through, Shirou realized that he had a single choice left.

"Rider, go to them," he said, turning at the Servent.

"Caster said-"

"Forget what she said, at this rate they'll lose. Even if they could match his power, Berserker's Noble Phantasm will make him immune to everything they throw at him."

"Even if I go now, I won't get there in time," Rider pointed out.

"That's what Command Seals are for. Rider," he said, focusing power on his fist, "break through space and go help them."

Before Rider could get another word in, the compulsion of the Command Seal took effect. Whether she wanted it or not, her body was forced to move by a compulsion so powerful that she broke the laws of spacetime and disappeared.

With her gone Shirou rushed out of the classroom without wasting any time. He knew that even with Reinforcement, he wouldn't get there before it was over, but he couldn't just stay where he was and do nothing.

He was running through the corridor with supernatural speed when he heard the sound of fighting coming from the track field. A mere glance out of the windows revealed two more Servants engaged in combat.

"Why now?!" What's with this timing?"

The one dressed in a blue leotard and wielding an ominous looking red spear - Gae Bolg, Cu Chulainn - was clearly having the advantage of the other Servant.

This one, dressed in black from head to toe, was-

"Ugh!" Shirou groaned, clutching his head in pain.

The moment he laid his eyes on the black Servant a searing pain shot through his head, almost as if it was trying to rip his brains out through the eyes. Was it some kind of passive skill like Rider's Cybele?

Shirou would have soldiered through the pain, but he caught a glimpse of a third figure on the other side of the school building. It was none other than Issei.

He noticed him at about the same time the Servants did.

The black one took the opportunity offered by the distraction to disengage and dematerialize, running from the fight. However, Lancer went after the Issei who had already turned tail and escaped.

Shirou too broke into a mad sprint.

It wasn't much of a choice, between the battle he could not reach in time and the friend he could save. He jumped out of the window, even though he was on the third floor and rushed after Lancer. He had to make it in time.

Saber and Caster where tackling Berserker together and their combined might was barely enough to level the playing field, thought not really.

God Hand, Berserker's Noble Phantasm had already made him completely immune to her Magecraft and so her Mysteries were an inconvenience to him at best. However, that little inconvenience was enough for Saber to hold her own.

The King of Knights A-Ranked Magic Resistance meant that she too had nothing to fear from Caster's slew of spells, which in turn meant that the Witch could use scorched-earth tactics without worry.

It was, at beast, a stalemate. Berserker only had to get a lucky hit in, while they neither would or could kill him. Someone or something had to tip the scales in their favor, and with the three Servants keeping each other busy, Rin could change the game by taking down Berserker's Master.

Illyasviel von Einzbern stood some distance away, looking at the battle dispassionately, almost as if the outcome was already predetermined.

Although Rin had to admit that Berserker alone was more than a match for the two other Servants combined, the Holy Grail War wasn't just a competition between the Servants but one between Magi as well.

As a part of the walk with death tenet, every Magus was taught how to fight. The uppity ones would stick with learning how better kill through Magecraft, but the Tohsaka weren't quite that haughty. They favored elegance and style, that much was true, but efficiency was a close second.

Rin was highly confident in both her Magecraft and her Chinese Kenpo. Certainly more than enough to go toe to toe with any other Master except Emiya. With that awareness, Rin pulled away from the battlefield of Heroes towards one of her own.

Taking a the long way around, Rin approached Illyasviel from the side. The Einzbern Master didn't seem to notice Rin doing so, and in fact she kept staring at the Servants battle almost without blinking.

No, actually without blinking. Or breathing. With the exception of her hair fluttering in the winds generated by the clashing of Heroic Spirits, Illyasviel von Einzbern was stock-still.

Rin too froze in place. Was it an illusion? A decoy? Maybe the real Illyasviel was somewhere else, ready to counter-ambush her? No matter how she looked at it, Rin had no other way to find out if it was a trap but springing it.

She readied several gems, a spell already forming on her lips when...

"RIN!" Saber shouted.

Rin turned, only to find her vision blocked by the gargantuan form of Berserker with his sword raised above his head to squash her.

Tohsaka Rin had barely the time to realize that she was dead before the sword was swung down upon her.

Shirou never moved quite that fast his entire life. The corridors and classrooms were a blur at the edge of his tunnel vision as he ran next to them. He didn't so much run up the flight of stairs as flew over them. He probably took him less than twenty second to cross the track field and even less to climb back up to the third floor of the other building.

He didn't even stop taking stock of the situation when he got there. At that distance, he could tell the position of a Servant without even seeing them. Kanshou and Bakuya were already in his hands with their familiar weight, and he threw them both at the back of the Heroic Spirit standing above Issei with his spear posed to strike.

The Married Blades spun through the air, and it looked like they would hit their mark squarely in the back, but without even turning around, Lancer knocked them down with his spear. Only then he bothered to turn, completely forgetting the ordinary human boy that he was just trying to kill in order to focus to the newly arrived threat.

'Right… now, how to survive this.'

"Emiya… what. What is going on?" Issei asked, as he slowly crawled away from his almost murderer.

"Issei... It's a long story. Go to my place. You'll be safe there. I'll explain."

Issei looked from Shirou, to Lancer, whose back was still turned on him. The Heroic Spirit turned his head to look at Issei from behind his shoulder.

"Go. You've got a new lease on life. Don't waste it."

Issei stood up shakily but did not leave right away. Instead he looked at Shirou one more time, examining the blades in his hands.

"Emiya… this guy's not human," he warned.

"Yeah," Shirou confirmed. "I already know. Now go."

Issei hesitated one last time, then took off down the stairs from which he first came.

Shirou and Lancer stared at each other until Issei's footstep could no longer be heard.

"So, a Master, eh?" the Heroic Spirit asked rhetorically. "Where's your Servant? I was waiting from them to come out anytime now, but by the looks of it, they are not here."

"Yeah, that's how it is," Shirou confirmed.

"Are you gonna summon them or what?" he asked.

"I would, but she's otherwise occupied. Besides, I'd rather not fight at all. There's something we should talk about, Lancer."

"Oh? Is there? Thing is, I'm not much of a talker. So, how about I make you call upon your Servant by force?" he said twirling his spear and taking a menacing stance.

Shirou tensed. He already knew this would be the outcome. Lancer, Cu Chulainn, was a battle freak. He got that much about the Heroic Spirit from tracing Gae Bolg. Still, it was worth a shot.

Considering this he did the only possible thing.

He jumped out of the window one more time.

"Twisted Embrace: Deploy!"

The Mystic Code that had become his standard equipment materialized and wrapped around him before he even touched the ground. When Lancer landed about a second later, he regaled Shirou with a curious look, but did not comment on his apparel.

"So, you're serious about fighting me on your own, uh? You've got some balls on ya. I'll give you that."

"No, like I said, I don't want to fight. You're not leaving me much of a choice though."

"Damn right I don't!" Lacer said before throwing himself at Shirou at breakneck speed.

Shirou already knew, that if he were to fight a fully powered Servant, he'd be hard pressed to even follow their movements, much less keeping up with them. However, he was fortunate in many regards.

First, it was not the first time he battled a Servant. Training with Saber had done wonders.

Second, Lancer wasn't coming at him nearly as fast as he could. He wanted to battle Servants, not Masters. He just wanted to scare Shirou into calling Caster.

Third, Shirou had already assimilated all of Lancer's moves from tracing his spear.

But even like that, Shirou could not win. Maybe, if he could just kill the Servant he would have a chance, but he was limited to subduing. A much more difficult and hazardous task.

He threw the Married Blades in his hands at him and then two more right after those, and then another pair.

Lancer knocked them away with ease, even when they returned back because of their mutual attraction effect. His Protection from Arrows skill was in full effect. Shirou had no chance of hitting him that way, no matter how hard he tried.

It took less of a heartbeat for Lancer to be upon him, red spear held low and poised to strike. There was a slight moment of hesitation, a fraction of a fraction of a second, before he thrust his spear at Shirou's chest.

It stopped halfway there. Not because Lancer had decided to spare him, but because the tip of the lance was trapped between Shirou's knee and elbow.

"Uh," Lancer said, looking mildly impressed. "Well, that's a new one. Still, how long do you think you can keep it there? What if I do this?"

The spear flared with an ominous red flame, which reflected on Shirou's unperturbed face.

"As if I'd let you, Cu Chulainn," Shirou replied.

This time, Lancer betrayed an expression of genuine shock.


It was in that moment that the Heroic Spirit, who qualified for the Caster Class as well, recalled one fundamental thing about fighting a Mage, weak or strong as they might be.

Never, ever, be caught standing where they want you to be.

Rin blinked and drew a breath she thought she never would, several meters away from the spot where she thought she had died, and looked up at the person who saved her.

"Rider!" the three allies exclaimed, with different inflections for different reasons.

She was with Emiya on the other side of the city. For her to have arrived so fast, he had to have used a Command Seal.

"What are you doing here?" asked Caster from up in the sky "You were supposed to stay with Master."

"I wasn't given much of a choice," the purple haired Servant replied softly, "though by the look of things, it was probably for the best."

"No kidding," Rin agreed as the Servant lowered her to her feet. "Thank you, Rider."

Rider nodded and stepped in front of Rin protectively.

Berserker, instead stood next to his Master, while the other three Servants surrounded them.

If previously the scales were slightly in his favor, now they had clearly tipped towards the Tohsaka Alliance (temporary name).

"Do you feel like listening now, Miss Einzbern?" Tohsaka said, smug of the fact that they (she) had now the upper hand.

The white haired girl regaled her with a look that Rin herself usually reserved for the likes of Shinji.

"Very well. Say your piece," Illyasviel acknowledged.

"The Grail is corrupted," Caster said bluntly. "Since the end of the Third War it has been infected by an malevolent entity and has become capable of fulfilling wishes only through destructive means," she summed up.

Illyasviel looked at her.

"Do you have any proof to support this baseless claim?" she asked.

"The only tangible thing that isn't our own conclusion is the summoning of Anti-Heroes. We don't ask that you take our word for it, we only wish to put the conflict on hold at least until the matter is solved."

"What do you think, Berserker?" the snow-haired girl asked, looking up at her mountain of a Servant.

"Medea of Colchis has been many things. An exceptional liar among them," the demigod replied. "However, I have known her for many, many years and I've long since learned to tell when she does. Right now, she's speaking the truth as she knows it."

Illyasviel let out a soft sigh.

"I see. Very well, I shall agree to cease hostilities until I looked into this matter. Of course if I find out you have wasted my time, I will kill you all."

"...if you can," Rin pointed out.

"Miss Tohsaka, you seem to believe that I was willing to hear you out because I was afraid of your combined forces," Illyasviel said, looking at her with a mixture of pity and amusement.

"You're mistaken. I was merely curious as to what could get nearly half the Servants of this conflict to cooperate without having met my Berserker first. As a matter of fact, you could very well bring all the other Servants together against him and still not have a chance of victory. Show them, Berserker."

The gargantuan figure slammed down his axe into the ground and reached for the bow behind his back. An elegant white contraption that ill-suited its user except for its enormous size.

Caster's eyes widened and she moved as fast as she could.

"Shooting Hundred Heads."

If a bow could have the precision of a sniper rifle, the rate of fire of a machine gun and the power of an artillery piece, it would still fall short of the power unleashed by Berserker in that moment.

Saber deflected the rain of projectiles with her sword but for each arrow she batted away she was forced to take a step back.

Rider and Rin survived only because Caster materialized in front of them and layered one protective spell after another, but they were shattering faster than she could put them up, even with her High Speed Divine Words. In the end, she was forced to get Rin and Rider and teleport away before the last layer of defense was destroyed.

They reappeared behind Saber, and after layering more shields in front of her, they grabbed her too and left the battlefield completely.

Only Illyasviel and Berserker remained in the completely ravaged graveyard and only after the dust caused by the rain of arrows settled down, did Berserker put away his bow. He retrieved his sword and dematerialized, disappearing with a quiet that belied his size and power.

Illyasviel turned around and walked away leisurely, almost as if sending three Heroic Spirits running for their lives didn't rank any higher than going out for a casual stroll.

Caster, Rider, Saber and Rin appeared from a cloud of black smoke above the table of Shirou's living room. The piece of furniture was smashed to pieces when the mass of bodies crashed gracelessly upon it.

"Ooow!" Rin moaned from under someone. Her vision was entirely obscured from something warm pressing on her face. Something which tensed right away at her moan.

"Rin!" Saber said with a bit too much squeak in her voice from right above her Master. "Hold still. Rider, remove yourself."

"My hair is stuck," the other Servant replied.

"You three... get off me this instant," Caster complained from the bottom of the pile. It took a moment of awkward movements, but the foursome managed to untangle themselves from each other.

"Is everyone unhurt?" Caster asked. Everyone replied affirmatively. Saber had taken all of Berserker's fury with only her pride coming out of it somewhat injured.

"Good. That was a close call. Why did it have to be Herakles of all people?"

"Never mind that," Rin replied. "We managed to come out of it alive and whole, and we've got the Einzbern Master to agree to a ceasefire. That's a victory in my book."

"Agreed," said Saber. "We managed to achieve our goal and we didn't sustain any injury in the process. I don't think we could have asked for a better outcome. I must thank you for your intervention, Rider. Without your timely arrival, Rin would certainly be dead."

"I cannot take credit for that. I was acting under the compulsion of a Command Seal."

"Well, that was a good call on his part," said Rin. "Speaking of which, we should let him know we are at his place. Caster?"

"I'm on it," the Servant said, closing her eyes. She immediately stiffened and opened them wide. "Shirou's fighting Lancer!"

There was no need to discuss strategy. Medea held out her hands and the other three women took hold of them. They were soon gone in a cloud of smoke. They reappeared in the on the track field, weapons out and ready to intervene.

However, none of them could move, shocked as they were by the scene playing out in front of their eyes.

The battle was already over and the victor determined. It was far too late to help anyone.



Now, this is what we all came here for, right? There you have it. The Grail War has begun. I felt that there would be no better way to compare to canon than to re-enact Shirou's meeting with Lancer. How will it play out this time? You'll have to wait until next month to find out, or you can take a peek at my page on "pa treon [dotCOM] / neoalfa"

That's it for now. See you around.