On the track field of Homurahara high school, two figures stood facing each other. The one wearing a blue bodysuit held his spear in a thrust towards the chest of the one dressed in black.
They were both completely still, frozen in a situation that was hard to believe possible. The manifestation of surprise upon Lancer's face was limited to a lifted eyebrow, as he took notice of the circumstances of his trademark spear.
Caught between the knee and the elbow of the young man he was trying to kill.
"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.
It was a bold plan even to Shirou, who came up with it in the first place.
He knew he wasn't a match for Lancer, not by a long shot. He couldn't realistically hope to subdue him at his full power. Knowing that, he went for the only thing he knew he could defeat.
Gae Bolg was a cursed weapon, made by Lancer's mentor Scathach from the bone of a Phantasmal Beast. Upon having its true name invoked it could reverse causality and pierce the heart of its target with nearly absolute certainty. It was a weapon that inspired awe and fear in equal measure, but it wasn't without flaws.
Structural flaws, to be precise.
Microscopic imperfections that would require extraordinary stress even by Servant standards to turn into actual cracks. Frankly speaking, thinking of intentionally breaking a Noble Phantasm to subdue its user was a ludicrous idea.
Noble Phantasm were the crystallization of their myth, the very thing that identified them as Heroic Spirit. Anyone who thought that destroying an enemy Servant's Noble Phantasm was easier than defeating the Heroic Spirit itself was completely insane.
But every rule has its exceptions.
If one were to have, say, an inherent affinity for blades to such a degree that allowed them to immediately locate those imperfections, as well as having the skills to direct Mana into them with the utmost precision, then it was no longer such a ludicrous course of action.
It remained the issue of actually putting an hand on the thing itself, which was far from trivial, but Lancer had unwittingly given Shirou the opportunity to do just that.
Cracks appeared across the length of Gae Bolg. Lancer used all of his strength to pull the weapon away from the unconventional hold and Shirou allowed him to do so. He had already succeeded.
The cracks continued to expand, joining one another until Gae Bolg broke down in several useless red chunks, falling through the fingers and at the feet of its shocked wielder.
A hundredth of a second. That's how big of an opening hearing his true name called out by his opponent caused Lancer to give.
More than enough time for for the Magus to completely destroy Gae Bolg through means that Lancer's trained eye told him was basic Reinforcement, of all things.
That shock widened the gap to a tenth of a second. His opponent had already recovered his footing by then and was coming at him again. Empty handed, this time.
The red haired boy threw a fist at Lancer's face, way faster than the Servant expected of a human, even one like his own Master. Still, despite being caught flat-footed, Lancer barely managed to dodge.
And yet, the punch still somehow connected, but with the back of his skull instead.
Servants were as tough as they came, but they would still feel that sort of hit. Certainly it was more than enough to make Lancer dizzy for a second. A full second. One could kill a man several times over in that timeframe.
It was then that the Heroic Spirit realized he was royally screwed.
When fighting a Heroic Spirit, there were only just two possible modes. All out or all dead. Holding back anything was tantamount to suicide and whatever everyone else thought about him, Emiya Shirou wasn't suicidal in the least.
That's why the moment his fist connected with the back of Lancer's head, he pushed his own self-Reinforcement over and beyond anything he ever did. His muscles tore and his bones cracked but he achieved what he wanted. Unleashing a barrage of strikes on Lancer's arms, he dislocated each and every junction, from the tip of his fingers to the top of his shoulders, thus completely disabling his upper limbs.
If Caster had been available, he would have used Rule Breaker on him right there and then, but while he could very well sever his connection to his Master, he did not possess the expertise to steal the contract for himself.
The best he could do was crippling him as much as he could. He needed Lancer alive, but not necessarily in one piece. However, Lancer wasn't a Heroic Spirit for nothing.
The Servant spun even though he was in held in mid-air from the force of Shirou's machine-gun like punches, and used his dislocated arms like a whip, trying to take off his head.
Shirou ducked underneath the blow and grabbed Lancer by the throat, squeezing him tight enough to make the Servant groan. Shirou saw the glint in the other man's eyes and knew that Lancer wouldn't take this abuse lying down.
Before anything else could happen, Shirou slammed the Servant into the ground, and when he came bouncing back thanks to the laws of physics, he grabbed him the jaw and tossed with all the force he could muster.
Lancer flew, parallel to the ground like a earth-to-earth missile and just as fast, crossing the track field and slamming against and through the concrete wall of the school building. Then Shirou heard a shuffling noise behind him quickly turned around to fight for his life once more.
When the group comprised of Caster, Saber, Rin and Rider arrived on the scene, Shirou was standing with his back turned to them, holding Lancer in the air by the neck.
The struggling Servant had both his arms hanging limply at his sides, a clear sign that they had been dislocated, or he would have been using them to break free from from being choked an inch from his life.
Agglomerates of spiritual particles or not, the body of Servants was generally a system of levers not at all dissimilar from a human's. If one dismantled that lever, they could not move. It was perhaps the most efficient way to diminish the threat a Servant represented without doing lasting harm. But that a human being like Emiya Shirou had been able to do something like that to an hostile Servant was nothing short of astonishing.
A moment later, perhaps having heard their arrival, Shirou slammed Lancer into the ground and then threw him like a javelin across the track field and into the school building through the thick concrete wall, before turning to face them with his fist held in a strange position over his chest.
Shirou blinked as he looked at the newcomers. It was Caster with the rest of the team.
"Oh, it's you guys," he said, shoulders relaxing. "Are you alright? Is anybody hurt?" He asked, but received no answer other than a stunned silence. All four women wore expression of varying disbelief. "... what?" he asked.
"You… you fought a Servant," Rin said. "And you… you kicked his ass."
"What? Are you kidding? I barely scratched the guy."
A raucous laughter erupted from the pile of rubble under which Lancer was buried. The debris started to shake and the blue figure of the Hound of Ulster walked out of pile looking no worse for wear, except for the still limps arms and a small trail of blood coming out of his mouth, which was stretched into a wide smile full of teeth.
"Well kid, I don't know about barely scratched, but you definitely put up more of a fight than I would have given you credit for. Man... broke my spear, trashed my arms and then tossed me around like a rag. You sure know how to show a guy a good time, gotta give you that much."
"Shut up," Shirou grumbled. "I nearly broke my own arms pulling that stunt. You could have at least done me the favor to stay down a little while longer."
"Ha!" Lancer barked. "Sorry, it's going to take a lot more than that to keep me down at all."
"So it seems. Are you more interested in listening, now that you've had your fun, or you wanna have another go first?"
Three Servants stepped forth and flanked the redhead Magus, ready for anything.
"I'm always up for a good fight, even one I've got no chances to win. Still, you've more than earned the right to say whatever the hell you want, before we get back into killing each other," Lancer replied, then looked to the side with a slightly annoyed expression on his face. "Haah? Whaddya mean 'get out of there', Master? Look, the kid had me dead to rights a moment ago. He can downplay as much as he wants, but if he wanted to kill me, I'd be dead right now. Yeah, I fucked up that much. Thing is, he didn't and there's gotta be a good reason for that. Plus there's three Servants over there getting along just fine. I don't think it's a coincidence."
"It isn't," said Shirou. "The Grail War is a scam."
Lancer blinked several times in a row. "Alright, I definitely want to hear all about that. Got any booze on ya? I could use a drink."
Five minutes and no alcohol consumed later, still standing a safe distance away from each other, Shirou was done relying what he knew of the corrupted Grail.
"Hmm. Yeah, I don't like the sound of that. Still, you've got no proof of it, do you?"
"None tangible, but please, have your Master look into the matter themselves if they can. For the time being, we're just trying to avoid an End of the World scenario."
"No shit," Lancer laughed. "My Master heard everything you just said as you can imagine, and she sounds none too pleased. Not sure how much she trusts your word, but she's not some dumb Magus who thinks she knows everything. She'll look into this thing."
"That's all I can ask. Plus, don't kill anyone and don't get yourself killed either."
"Tch, what a cockblock. I thought I was gonna have a blast fighting this war for sure, but that's just how my luck runs, I guess. Fine, but when the Grail problem is fixed, you'll owe me a fight with one of your Servants over there. No holds barred."
"Sure, if they are up for it," he shrugged.
"I'll take you on anytime, Lancer," Saber promised, stepping forth as she she spoke.
Lancer grinned. "It's a date, then. I'll come looking for you when we found out something about this, one way or another. I'm sure figuring out where you live isn't going to be that much of a problem. Right, Emiya?"
Shirou sighed in response. He's had Lancer name, but then again so did he.
"By the way. It's already been a while. Do you think your friend already made it to your place by now?"
"Ah!" Shirou exclaimed "ISSEI!"
He had completely forgot about his him.
Issei Ryuudou arrived at the Emiya household in record time. He truly could outrun most people on any given day, and having been nearly murdered gave him more than enough motivation to run at 120% of his top speed.
Too bad that once he got there, he found the place void of light and life, the door open and the living room looking like someone had a fight in it. Emiya said he was supposed to be safe there, but it certainly didn't look like it.
He was about to leave when a cloud of black smoke formed in the middle of the courtyard and several figures came out from it. There was Emiya himself, the two women rumored to be his live-in girlfriends wearing something he'd have considered cosplay any other time, Dulac-san in pretty much the same state and last but not least the vixen, Tohsaka Rin.
He stared at Emiya and Emiya stared back at him, rubbing the back of his head.
"Remember back when I told you that I didn't have an explanation that you'd be inclined to believe, for the weird stuff that happened around me all the time?" the redhead asked.
Issei nodded, slowly and probably with his jaw hanging low.
"This is what I meant."
"... yes," Issei agreed after a long moment. "I don't believe any of this."
Then he promptly passed out, like any other reasonable man would have done at this point.
After they moved the unconscious Issei to an empty room, the group convened in the living room. A bit of Magecraft on Caster's part had the table restored to working conditions and they sat around it with a cup of tea each.
Except for Shirou, who was having his arms bandaged by Medea after she had them coated with a potion of her making. The soothing effect was instantaneous, but it would take him a little while to heal properly.
"Can't you just fix him with a spell?" asked Rin, while she pointedly looked away from the bare-chested young man.
"He has cracked his bones by Reinforcing them too much. Direct application of Mana would make things worse before making it better."
"Reinforcement? You took on a Servant with basic Reinforcement?" Rin asked, bewildered.
"Pretty much, yes," Shirou confirmed.
"You are out of your mind," Rin concluded.
"It's not like I had any other option," Shirou protested.
"Of course you did," Medea objected. "You should have called either me or Rider back."
"Yes, and how would things have turned out with Berserker then?" he asked rhetorically. "I had no other choice but to take on Lancer on my own."
"You should really value your life more," Medea told him.
"It was a calculated risk. Lancer wasn't really out to kill me. He wanted to make me call upon my Servant so that he could have a good fight. He didn't see me as a threat until it was too late and he so came at me half-assed. I had him the moment I got ahold of his spear."
"Yeah, that," Rin grumbled. "How in hell did you break a Noble Phantasm?"
"Come on, Tohsaka," Shirou chuckled. "Unmaking something is a whole lot easier than making it. And as it turns out I'm a fair hand at making blades of all stripes."
"Sword Origin and Element but… wait...," she hesitated. "Reinforcement, again?
"Oh yeah," Shirou confirmed. "There's plenty of things that can be done with a basic skill if one bothers taking it to an extreme. Also, you can get pretty inventive when something like a Servant is gunning for you."
"I… Tell me one thing, Emiya. Do you exist for the express purpose of breaking every belief I hold?"
"Sorry about that Tohsaka," Shirou laughed, "but if a third rate Magus like me is enough to make you question your assumptions, then maybe there wasn't much basis to them to begin with."
"Ahhhh," Rin sighed, taking her face between her hands. "I give up making sense of you."
"By the way," intervened Saber. "You fought Lancer bare handed?"
"When we first fought together he alternated between using the bow and a strange martial art," Rin replied without looking up. "Short range, mid range and long range. You've got them all covered, don't you?"
Shirou fidgeted. "Sorta."
"Rin!" Saber hissed in protest to that appellative. "That is no way to refer to the person who saved our lives."
"Now, now, Saber. There's no reason to get worked up over it. I know Tohsaka doesn't really mean it. Besides you are exaggerating a bit, too. I didn't really do much."
"You are mistaken," Saber denied. "If you had not sent Rider to our assistance, Rin would have been killed. Had you recalled back either Rider or Caster to your side to face Lancer the odds of everyone else surviving without losses would have been slim. The matter of fact is that you took on a Servant on your own precisely because not doing so would have doomed our campaign from the start."
"It was a foolish thing to do," Caster added for good measure.
"Aye, it certainly was," Saber agreed. "But it was also a brave one and I expect my Master to be polite enough to acknowledge that."
Rin glared to her Servant from the corner of her eyes, but then she sighed and relented. "Fine, fine. Thank you for saving my life, Emiya. I owe you one."
"No, that's not… you don't own me anything, Tohsaka. We're all in this together. We're supposed to look out for each other. That's what comrades do, right? Let's not keep count of who's saving whom, alright?"
That sentiment seemed to surprise Saber, who only nodded in reply.
"Anyway, can you tell me about Berserker? I've got the general idea but as you know, I didn't have much chance to get the details."
"That walking pile of muscles has no business being a Berserker," Tohsaka explained. "He's not just stupidly fast and powerful, he's also precise and cool headed. Plus, he's basically indestructible, as he's immune to any attack lower than A-Rank and he builds up resistance to those which are. And did I mention he's got twelve lives too? Thank goodness we don't have to kill him, or I wouldn't know where to start form."
"And he's less powerful than when he was alive," Medea added.
"Wait, what?" Rin asked, utterly flabbergasted. "How's that even possible?"
"The container known as Servant can't hold everything of a Heroic Spirit. Everything that isn't class-related is either partially or completely sealed away. Herakles as his full self was much, much greater than anything his current container could possibly hold."
"That is… something," Saber elected to say. "Indeed. I am relatively confident that I could prevail against him, but if he'd become immune to my attacks after I killed him the first time, I'm not sure where that would leave me."
"Yes, he's absolutely the worst opponent anyone could have gotten," Medea concurred. "I'll be honest, I'm glad I don't have to compete with him for the Grail. I think I'd just quit."
"At least we managed to convince them to a ceasefire for the time being," Shirou said. "Speaking of which, what do we know of his Master? Was he there? What was he like?"
"What was she like," Rin corrected. "She was an Einzbern, of course. The white hair were a dead give away. She looked to be about fourteen or fifteen years old. She introduced herself as Illyasviel, although I don't think that knowing her name is- WAH!"
Rin shouted, as Shirou jumped to his feet all of a sudden, eyes bearing into hers. "What did you just say?"
"Wha-what gotten into you all of a sudden?" she asked.
"Shirou calm down," Medea said soothingly. "What's wrong?"
"The name of Berserker's Master. Repeat it," he said, not heeding anything else.
"Illyasviel," Saber replied in her Master's stead. "Illyasviel von Einzbern."
Shirou looked at Saber for an intense moment and then slumped to his knees like a puppet whose strings had been cut. "Oh, my God."
"Shirou, what wrong?" Medea asked again, "Do you know that girl?"
Shirou let out a long drawn breath. "Yeah. I know her alright. She's my sister."
"... she's what?" the speaker this time, was Rider, who had been silent the entire time since their return.
"My sister," he repeated. "Emiya Kiritsugu's biological daughter. But… she should be almost twenty by now."
"She didn't look anywhere close to that;" Rin said, treading carefully on the subject. "Maybe she's a relative from a side-branch with the same name."
Shirou shook his head. "There is no side-branch. The Einzbern are all homunculi. They must have done something to her body."
"Oh," said Rin. "Oh, Emiya. She… she said..."
"What? What did she say?" he asked.
"She said that she wanted to kill her little brother. She said she wants to kill you."
"Damn it. I'm sorry, dad. I'm sorry, I didn't make it in time."
"What are you talking about?" asked Saber.
"The Einzbern they… after the second War, in which the Lesser Grail was destroyed before it could activate the Greater one, they decided to make a version that could defend itself at least a bit. So… so they purposefully engineered one of their own to act as such.
"That… doesn't sound any good," said Rin.
"Because it's not. When the time comes for the Greater Grail to activate, the host of the Lesser just… melts away. That's what happened to Irisviel, Illyasviel's mother and that's what will happen to her if this War goes through."
"That's… why would anyone do something like that?" asked Rin.
"Oh, Tohsaka," said Shirou, regaling her with a gentle smile. "The fact that you feel that way speaks wonders about your true character. But you do know what it means to be a Magus. To walk with death isn't just accepting that one could die in the pursuit of the Root, but that one must also kill. There is no mercy even for one's own children."
Rin did not answer but looked away instead. There was no deny that what Shirou had said was a factual truth.
"I'm sorry everyone. Especially you, Saber. I know you were hoping for a chance to get the Grail once it had been purified but… I'm blowing this thing to hell. My father couldn't save his wife, but I won't let it take his daughter as well."
"I… understand" said the Servant of the Sword. "Yes. I wouldn't want this Grail either if this… travesty is necessary to have it. You have my support."
"Thank you. You have no idea what it means to me."
"What a mess," lamented Rin. "Nothing in this conflict has been going the way it should have."
"It hasn't for at least a hundred and twenty years," replied Shirou. "It's high time to pull the plug on it."
"No kidding," Rin agreed. "My family built this thing and it's my responsibility to see it dismantled. I wasted ten years of my life preparing to fight for the Grail. I'll take it down to the last piece."
"Glad we are all on the same page," said Caster. "Now, what's our next move?"
"We should look for the Servant that Lancer was fighting with. I forgot to ask him whether it was Assassin or Archer, but I think it's the former."
"Oh? Why do you say that?" asked Saber.
"I didn't get a good look at him, but I got an headache just by seeing him. I think it's some kind of passive ability and it sounds like something you'd expect an assassin to have."
"I'm not sure about that. That seems the kind of thing that would draw attention, which is not exactly something an assassin would want. On the other hand, an Archer that makes it difficult to look at him could be a good defense against return fire."
"Hm. I didn't think of that. Either way, we'll find out once they'll show up again. So, tomorrow I'm going to Einzbern Castle to talk with Illyasviel."
"What? Are you mad?" Rin bellowed. "She said she wants to kill you. She might be willing to put the War on hold, but her intention to murder you has nothing to do with that."
"I don't need you to tell me that. That's why I'm going."
"Shirou, there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness," Saber warned. "You tread upon it far too often."
"Even I believe that is not wise, Master," Rider pitched in, unusually.
"You don't understand. She thinks she has been abandoned all these years."
"Hasn't she?" Rin queried.
"Yes, but not willingly. Kiritsugu, he… the curse of the Grail almost completely destroyed his Circuits. He was barely still a Mage after the War. He went to the Einzbern Castle several times trying to break in and take Illya back with him, but never succeeded. Why do you think she wants to kill me so fervently? She must believe dad chose me over her."
"I get that, Emiya. I get that but…"
"Tohsaka, what would you do if you had a sister, and for years she thought you and your father abandoned her? Could you just sit there like it never happened?"
Tohsaka made a face like he had physically struck her, complex emotions flashing across her face. She looked down in her lap and said nothing else. Shirou took it as her agreeing with him and asked no further.
"Are you sure, then?" asked Rider. "Will you go to your sister, even though it might kill you?"
"Yes. Besides, I think she'd be more inclined to hear me out if I go to her of my own volition, rather than trying to explain myself once I'm at the business end of Berserker's sword."
"That's probably the case, yes," agreed Saber. "What about you, Caster? You have been completely silent on the matter."
"Hmm? Oh, I've long since given up trying to change his mind once he's made it. I'd rather not waste energy that would be better employed getting him out alive of whichever foolish endeavor he sets himself up to."
"Thanks," said Shirou.
"Thank me by giving me less headaches," Medea grumbled.
"I'll do my best, but I won't make any promise."
"That's great and all," said Tohsaka, having seemingly recovered. "but what are you going to do about Ryuudou-kun?"
"I'll deal with him once he wakes up. Don't worry about it."
"You aren't going to make him forget what he saw, are you?" she asked.
"He deserves at least some explanations first. He was nearly killed after all. I'll decide what to with him do depending on how he reacts."
"You know the rules," she stressed out.
"You know I don't care about them," he replied.
"Oh, Caster," said Rin turning to the Servant. "Make him stop giving me headaches too."
"I am Mage from the Age of Gods, Rin, but even I cannot perform actual miracles."
"Sure, gang up on me, why don't you?" complained Shirou.
The two female Magi regarded him with a look full of frustration and pity, like they wanted to smack him over the head, but just barely didn't for whatever reason.
It was par for the course both for Emiya Shirou and the people around him.
The fight of Shirou against Lancer is a parallel of that of Kuzuki vs. Saber in canon, with some twist the fit that difference in objectives and fighting styles. Before anyone asks why Shirou did not Rule Break Lancer, the answer is that he couldn't. He could have severed his contract to his Master, but without Caster he could not steal it (him) for himself. Also, there's the problem of actually keeping him running on Shirou's meager reserves.
So, that's it for now.
See you soon.
ADDENDUM ON THE TOPIC OF SHIROU BEATING LANCER THE WAY HE DID.
I'm posting here the answer I gave via PM to a reviewer who has issue with what happened:
Shirou was in a more favorable position against Lancer than Kuzuki ever was against Saber.
Shirou was better equipped, similarly Reinforced and knew in advance the angle from which Lancer would strike, having read it from Gae Bolg itself. Unlike Saber, Lancer wasn't trying to kill his opponent, which made it all the much easier for Shirou, who could actually see the weapon. An advantage that Kuzuki did not have.
All of this was to show how a single moment of carelessness can spell the doom of even the most powerful and experienced warrior. The destruction of Gae Bolg was similar studied well in advance (ever since I started writing this story, actually) keeping in mind everything I know of the Nasuverse lore.
Death exists into everything that has form from the moment of its inception. This is a fundamental tenant of the Nasuverse. Temporary exemptions exist (such as Arcueid final form), but they never last. It means that nothing is without flaw and it's en route toward its own demise. Absolutely everything.
Noble Phantasms are not indestructible by any stretch of the imagination. Reinforcements breaks them all too easily even when the person applying it is extremely careful about it. Imagine, if you would, what would happen if someone used it expressively for the purpose of breaking them.
Not to mention that Gaia is actively breaking down both the Servant and the Noble Phantasm, and it's only staved off by the combined effort of the Grail and the Master.
Let me stress that nobody other than Shirou would have been able to make it happen so rapidly and without making it explode. And that's just because he understands perfectly the weapon with a single glimpse.
It should be of no surprise that a guy who can literally think swords into existence against the natural laws of the world, might also be capable of taking them out of it in accordance to those same laws.
In fact, everything points out that what Shirou did here is far easier than Tracing a NP. Really, the only challenge was not getting killed by Lancer in the process.
If you can see Kuzuki beating Saber, as he did, but not Shirou beating Lancer the way he has, the problem is with your eyes.