Escalation (VI)

More than a ritual, the Fuyuki Grail System could better be called a machine or, if it wouldn't make the blood of Magi worldwide absolutely boil, a computer software.

A very elaborate piece of software at that.

Years of careful planning and research went into its making on behalf of the three founding families, with the support of the Wizard Marshall Zelretch. A software engineer would be capable of admiring how streamlined yet highly functional the underlying code was, if he could understand the language.

Several functions worked in perfect harmony to produce a result that was nothing short of astonishing.

Gathering Mana from the underground leyline.

Selecting Master and assigning Command Seals to each of them.

Picking the Heroic Spirits by interpreting the given catalyst.

Summoning them into the appropriate container.

Processing their souls into a pool of Mana more refined than the leyline's.

And lastly, focusing all of that Mana into a one dimensional point to crack open a path to Akasha.

That last point was a tad crude, yes.

The founders themselves would have been willing to admit that this method was no different from setting up finely tuned piece of clockwork to lift and then bring down a colossal sledgehammer upon reality. Still, no one could argue with the results.

Had there been any worth mentioning.

Another thing that a software engineer could appreciate, was that there is no such a thing as a failproof code. Not all circumstances could be foreseen in advance. Unexpected situations were bound to take place.

The founders knew of this, and implemented the only thing that could effectively prevent any critical errors that would lead to a system-wide crash. They set up an Artificial Intelligence to overlook the proceedings. Justeaze Lizrich von Einzbern provided the required mainframe by offering her purpose-made Magic Circuits, and her own life, becoming herself an integral part of the Greater Grail.

The very reason to set up the Grail Ritual as a War, was to select by combat which family was worthy of obtaining the prize. Otherwise, the souls of the Heroic Spirits could have been processed into Mana without going through the hassle of making them into Servants and fight.

Therefore, the Intelligence needed to be completely impartial, neutral, colorless.

The Greater Grail worked up to those specifics right up to the Third Instance.

Just like no plan survives contact with the enemy, no piece of software survives contact with the user. Especially not when the user has the means and the will to mess up with said code.

The three founding families, with the notable exception of the Tohsaka, had left their own backdoors into the system and they had used it, repeatedly, to tweak the settings to their advantage.

They Einzbern were especially culpable of this. Not once, but twice they had tampered with the Grail. The first time, in their attempt to summon a God as their Servant, they opened the roster to Anti-Heroes and Heroes with Evil Alignment.

This, and not the taint from the Hero they summoned, was the reason why these spirits could be called upon in the following Instances.

Originally, the Intelligence would have done a factory reset of the entire system upon shutting down at the end of each war. However, it had become tainted with All the World's Evils and no longer acted in the interest of holding a (relatively) fair competition for the Grail. Rather it tried to give birth to the devil the people wished for.

Thus, errors in the code started to accumulate, and with it the influence the Intelligence had on the whole system.

Then the Einzbern made another modification. Originally, the selection of the Masters was a simultaneous process for all seve, and the order by which they summoned their Servants would depend exclusively on the timing for the ritual.

For the sake of summoning precisely the Hero they wanted and in their Class of choice, the Einzbern altered the system so that to each Master slot would be given a number of priority, with theirs being the first, of course.

From that point onward, one could not summon their Servant until the previous Master in the queue had received theirs.

Normally, this wouldn't have been much of an issue. However, the third Master in the roster contracted with the second Servant, while simultaneously summoning the third, who ended up contracted with the fourth Master in turn. This generated a mismatch in enumeration right up to the seventh Master, who contracted the sixth Servant.

Any other time, the Grail would have selected the slot vacated by the deceased Master, picked a new candidate, and assigned them the Command Seal. Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned alterations, it couldn't do that. it had to cycle all the way back to the first slot, which was still in the Einzbern's name.

Now, the founders were no fools. Not that much, at least. There was no way they would allow any of the others two to summon more than one Servant, and there were procedures and checks specifically to prevent it from happening.

Thus, the subroutine of the Grail in charge of selecting the Masters found it process barred by the one preventing a single party from doing a multiple summon.

The regular workings of the Grail had been effectively stalled. A critical error that could not be resolved had finally occurred.

Several contingency procedures triggered, but none could effectively districate the matter. Eventually, the system turned to the Intelligence with two possibilities.

To interrupt the War and reboot or to proceed with only six Servants.

Due to its own malignant nature, All the World's Evil would not select a path that resulted in less violence and bloodshed, even if it was more advantageous to its own final goal. The War would continue, while the energy required to summon the Seventh Servant would be used to compensate its very absence in the final stages of the War.

Unfortunately, while this situation occurred, things outside did not precisely stand still.

A certain Magus had gone through extreme lengths to insure that the Servants would not kill each other, and whether he knew it or not, by the time the issue arose, none of the Servants from the current Instance had the desire to continue with the War.

A scenario in which all summoned Servants would not fight had occurred.

The problem with that outcome was that the founders had actually foreseen this very remote possibility, and had taken measures to resolve it. If the Heroic Spirits would not fight with each other individually, they would do so as two opposing teams.

Authorization to completely drain the leylines and summon seven additional Servants was granted.

However, the issue with the Master selection subroutine had not been resolved at all. Not to mention that someone on the outside had set up a system that prevented the Grail to accumulate energy too fast or past a certain threshold.

Selecting Masters was not possible and neither was summoning additional Heroic Spirits.

With the exception of those which had already crashed and could not do so, all subsystems started to turn authority over to the Intelligence.

The things it could do were limited in scope, both because not all systems would respond to its instructions and because it was being strangled from outside. However, as the saying went, where there is a will there's a way.

Especially for a will that burned with limitless and inexhaustible hatred.

[br]

Dojima sat in the underbrush of the forest surrounding the suspicious mansion. For this specific purpose, he had cracked out his old camo suit from his days in the JSFD, and a set of night vision goggles he bought on internet.

It was already pretty late when he arrived at the place, partially because he approached through the forest.

After inspecting the perimeter from afar, he didn't notice any obvious sign of human presence. The windows were firmly shut and the heavy looking curtains were closed. Unless somebody started a party in there, Dojima doubted he'd knew for sure if anybody was in there.

Still, he would watch out for anyone coming or going. Magi and associate people were more likely to be active at night.

He had sat down in a well concealed spot with a good view of the front door and resigned himself to a long, boring stakeout.

Then a window exploded, up on the second floor, sending shards of glass and woods into the trees. None of them reached Dojima, but he still cursed out loud and sprawled himself flat on the ground.

"What the shit?" he swore.

He laid there, trying not to be seen while checking out what had happened.

There was a sizeable hole in the mansion, but even with the night vision goggles Dojima couldn't see well inside on account of being at a lower level.

He waited to see if anything else happened, but after the echo of the explosion faded out, he couldn't hear a single thing. Minutes ticked by, during which Dojima remained perfectly still. Eventually, as nothing happened and everything stood silent, he decided that a direct intervention was required.

However, he was not an idiot. He had come alone with the premise that if anything suspicious happened, he would have called in reinforcements. Therefore, he immediately reached for his phone and tried to get in contact with Shirou.

It rang several times, but nobody picked up. That was weird. Shirou had given him this number specifically for emergencies with the promise that if it rang he would drop everything that he wa doing and answer.

Unless he was already dealing with another emergency, that is.

'Of all the fucking times,' he cursed inwardly.

As much as he wanted, Dojima had no immediate way to find out what had happened to Shirou and his friends, while this situation needed to be dealt with right there and then, or not at all.

He could either retreat or investigate on his own.

The reasonable thing to do would have been the former, but while Dojima was a no nonsense kind of man, he went along with Shirou pretty well because they had one thing in common. They were hardcore Allies of Justice that would not back away when there was something they felt they should do.

His indecision lasted only briefly, before he resolved to continue on his own.

He circled around again, but he found a distinct difference from before. The back door was wider, and there was a trail of blood that went from the house to the forest. Dojima was divided again, though for more practical reasons this time.

Should he follow the trail into the forest or check out the inside of the mansion?

He opted for the latter. The trail of blood was a few minutes old at best, but he was no tracker and even with the goggles he would be hard pressed to follow anyone in the woods. Not to mention that it was far too easy to get ambushed instead.

Reaching for his holster, he pulled out his sidearm and carefully stepped inside. There were no lights on, which suited him perfectly since he could see just fine.

He advanced on light feet, making as little noise as he could and cautiously checking around every corner and open door he came across. He didn't bother entering every room, but rather he focused on following the trail of blood in reverse, towards the stairs and up to the second floor. It led to a door which had been left wide open.

Dojima peered inside cautiously.

The room was spacious with a single bed, a table and a full figure mirror. Lastly, he could see the hole left by the earlier explosion, but more importantly he could distinctively recognize a human body strewn on the floor, face down.

He walked in, almost expecting something to jump out at him from the darkness.

The corpse, for it could be nothing else with the fist-size hole in its chest and a missing arm, was that of a foreign woman in a business suit, laying in a pool of her own blood.

"Ah, damn it," Dojima sighed and holstered his gun.

He was already too late to do anything.

Who could have done this and why? Who was the victim? Was this related to the Grail War or was it something else entirely? What had caused the explosion?

All questions to which he didn't have an answer, but he needed to figure out what had happened in this place

[br]

Earlier that day

"You are looking rather sour, Master," said Lancer as he stepped next to the woman sitting on an armchair in a corner of the room.

She was fiddling with a three-by-three sliding puzzle, but her attention wasn't really into it seeing that she kept failing at completing it.

"And whose fault is that?" she asked without looking up at him. "Who exactly am I to blame for having had to spend a Command Seal to restore your Noble Phantasm, hm?"

"Clearly, that Emiya guy. He's the one who broke it."

"Which would have never happened had you taken him seriously from the start," she said, throwing the puzzle at his face.

A rather futile attempt since even if it actually hit him, it wouldn't hurt him in any way.

Lancer caught it deftly and placed it back on the table where they had first found it.

"I took him seriously. I went for the kill right from the start, didn't I?"

"You wanted him to call his Servant."

"Yeah, which he didn't."

"And that didn't make you think that something might be off? That he was setting up a trap?"

"Sure, but what was I supposed to do? Run away? Use Gae Bolg on a human and give away my identity to anyone who might have been watching? I legit didn't expect any of the things he did. He got me completely flat footed and let me tell ya, that ain't something that happens every day."

Bazett Fraga McRemitz privately agreed with that statement, but she would never voice it out loud. Her Servant was already plenty willful on his own without her giving in to his excuses.

He could put it however he liked, but she knew that he could have acted a lot more decisively. He hadn't, and that had cost them.

"Besides, if I killed him, we wouldn't have known about the crap with the Grail, right?"

"Well, it remains to be seen whether or not he was telling the truth about that," she sighed. "I'll grant you that I can hardly see three Servants forming an alliance without extenuating circumstances but there could be other reasons. For all we know he could have fooled everyone into believing him. One of the Servants was Caster. Any sufficiently powerful Magus from an ancient era could make it look like something was really out of place. For all we know, it could just be a convoluted plot to get all the Servants in one place and kill them simultaneously."

"Yeah, I'll give you that it would be possible. Very high risk as a plan, though. One mistake and they'd have six Servants unite after them. Not sure who'll be crazy enough to try it."

"Which is why I hoped Kotomine would know more."

"Yeah, that didn't go too well either did it?"

"No," she sighed. "Just who the hell was that Servant? What kind of Heroic Spirit has that many Noble Phantasms and why wasn't any of them his trump card? Now I have only one Fragarach left."

"Beats me, but he was tough as nails. Definitely an Archer though. We're lucky I've got Protection from Arrows, otherwise I dunno if we'd have gotten out of there."

"And we don't know where Kotomine is. Did you think that Servant killed him?"

"Heck if I know, but I don't think so. That prick strikes me as the kind of guy who brags about everything he does, or doesn't do it at all. Certainly he's not the kind of person who cleans up after himself and since there was no dead body around, I'm inclined to say no. Besides, who would bother killing the supervisor?"

"Someone who's spinning a tale about the Grail being corrupted probably would."

"Yeah. That much is true but…"

"But what?"

"This is just my guts talking, so either take it or leave it but I don't think that guy would do something like that."

"Why?"

"A guy like the person you are thinking about doesn't square off with a Servant just to save an unfortunate schmuck. The risks just aren't worth the benefits."

"Perhaps," Bazett conceded. "But we still have no definite answer and we won't get any until we find Kotomine, so that's what we should be focusing on right now."

"Track down the priest," Lancer nodded. "How hard can it be? I'll get right on it."

"I didn't think you'd be up for this kind of menial task."

"Usually I'm not, but anything beats sitting around doing nothing."

"Alright then," Bazett agreed. "Let's get going."

"Where do you think you are going? You are staying right here."

"What? Don't be an idiot," she protested.

"You don't be an idiot, Master. It's been three days since you last slept. I'm not going to argue how though you are, but as long as you are human you'll have to sleep eventually."

"But-"

"Look. Either your friend is already dead or he isn't. In the first case, there's nothing you can do and in the second case, he'll keep his head down. The harder you look for him the deeper he'll burrow."

"Then what's the point of you going out at all?" she asked.

Lancer shrugged.

"Shit is going down out there, and we're gonna need eyes on it if we don't want to be blindsided. I'll keep myself in spirit form and I'll let you know as soon as I find something."

"Fine. I guess that holing up in here won't do us any good. Go, Lancer, but stay out of trouble."

"Hey. I am a man of my word, you know?"

Bazett scoffed but did not refute his statement. It was, after all, completely true.

Lancer shifted back in spirit form and left the mansion, while Bazett double checked all points of entry and warded them with runes. Nothing short of a Servant would get inside that mansion unless she let them inside.

[br]

Dojima paced the room, trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle. He wasn't sure what had caused the explosion, but there was a strange metal cylinder on the ground, with a strap meant for carrying on the shoulder. At first glance it looked like a small rocket launcher, but upon closer inspection it was just a container of some sort.

By the shape, it must have held something spherical about the size of a fist.

He didn't touch it, of course. It might look harmless but one could never tell around Magecraft.

It was frustrating. Not only he couldn't prevent the murder but all of his experience in investigation was of no use here. A magus might be more capable of finding a clue than he was.

As much as he would have wanted, Dojima couldn't certainly call upon the forensic team to figure this out.

He once again tried to call up on Shirou, but he still didn't pick up.

Resigning himself to do it alone, Dojima approached the corpse, mindful of not stepping over something that could compromised a later analysis of the scene.

Gingerly, he grabbed it by the shoulder and made to turn it around to better examine it.

It was definitely a woman and a rather young one at that. She couldn't be any older than twenty fives unless, of course, Magecraft could slow down the aging process which, in a world were vampires were a thing, was probably the case.

She could be called pretty though with a certain hardness to her features. A thing that Dojima was beginning to recognize as a common trait in Magi.

Her eyes were particularly sharp. He knew that, because they were open.

They were open, and they were staring at him.

"FUCK!" he exclaimed and instinctively pulled back. Just in time too, because her hand snapped close like a vice, right where his throat had been just an heartbeat earlier.

Dojima rolled on his back and and pulled out his gun aiming it at the not-so-dead woman who was trying to get on her feet, but her legs would not move. Not that there was anything strange with that, seeing that the hole in her chest went from front to back and had severed even a portion of her spine.

"Hey! Hey, listen up," said Dojima, who was just a hair breadth from running away. "I'm not your enemy, alright?"

Her eyes searched him, clearly gauging his statement. She didn't seem convinced. He was still pointing his gun at her, though he hadn't fired it yet.

"Look, you are a Magus, right? I know about you people. I work with Emiya, you know him?"

Mention of that name seemed to spark recognition in her gaze, though she didn't look all that relieved. She seemed to ponder something. Then she started tracing her finger along the floor. She was writing something in her own blood.

[br]

Bazett eyes snapped open.

Somebody had triggered her proximity Boundary Field.

She flung her legs off the bed and jumped to her feet. She grabbed the jacket of her suit and threw it on out of instinct. It wasn't a fashion statement, of course. Her suit had been reinforced with runes, and while not quite bulletproof, it offered greatly enhanced protection for how little it weighted.

She leaned against the wall and looked out of the window. Nothing but forest could be seen in the night outside. Such was the downside of a secluded and hidden location like this.

However, whether she saw them or not, somebody was out there. It wasn't necessarily an enemy. The mansion wasn't that far out from civilization to make it impossible for somebody to stumble upon that place on accident. Yet it was distant enough from the beaten path that it was highly improbable.

'Lancer? I've got movement in the area,' she reported.

'An enemy?' he asked.

'Don't know yet. I can't feel a Servant, but it's better if you start coming back.'

'On my way. Use a Command Seal if you have to.'

'Of course,' she agreed.

She stealthily moved from one window to the other. The room she was using overlooked three sides of the mansion, allowing her to keep an eye on an equal number of directions.

As she moved to check the rear of the building, she saw a figure come out of the tree line.

She couldn't mistake that person of anybody else.

"Kirei," she exhaled.

Her friend and mentor was the only person whom she had told where she was staying, so she found nothing strange about him showing up at her door, especially since the Church had burned down.

She waved her hand at him, and he held up his hand in acknowledgment.

She immediately rushed out of the room and down the stairs, removing the runes on the back door and flinging it open.

"Good evening, Bazett," he greeted. "May I come inside?"

"Kirei, of course. Come in. I was afraid you had been killed."

"I was not at the Church when it burned down," he explained.

"I know. We were there, looking for you when Archer showed up."

"He attacked you, I presume," he said.

"Actually.. ehm..." she hesitated.

"Yes?" he prodded.

"We talked at first, although he was every dismissive, and when I questioned him about your whereabouts he refused to answer, so I had Lancer try to get him to talk with force."

"By your tone, I assume that didn't go well."

"Ha… we barely got away with our lives and that's because he didn't seem interested in giving chase."

"I see," Kirei said dryly.

"I'm sorry about your church. I promise I'll pay back the damage," she said apologetically.

"You needn't worry about that. The Holy Church has enough gold in its coffers to rebuild it without batting an eye. This type of collateral damage is well within our expectations."

As they talked, she had led him to the main room.

"Thank you. I really mean it. So… make yourself comfortable. Lancer is on his way back. It won't be long before he's here."

"Good. I am looking forward to meet him."

"He's a bit rough around the edge, so please don't take it personally if he says something offensive."

"I'm sure we'll get along just fine," Kirei said easily.

"Great. I'll prepare some tea, you just wait there."

She turned, took a couple of steps and then felt the hair on the back of her head stand up.

She didn't have time to turn back that Kirei's hand burst out of her chest, holding her still beating heart.

"Ghk!"

She coughed up blood as she stared at the mortal wound and weakly looked behind her shoulder at the man who had betrayed her.

He was smiling, and his smile stretched further as he took in the look of betrayal upon her face.

He pulled back his hand, taking her heart away with him and Bazett fell forward. He grabbed by her right arm. The same arm which held her Command Seal. He did not bother remove it and just severed her arm clean at the shoulder. Then he dropped her.

As she fell, Bazett thought weren't of self recrimination for having allowed someone to have the drop on her so easily, nor she contemplated the reasons behind her only friend's betrayal.

She just clenched her last remaining fist, and reached out for the dormant Noble Phantasm a few feet away from her.

'Fragarach!'

She couldn't voice its true name, but it was a part of her so it still reacted to her call.

It shot out of its container and, direct by her fist, flew at the traitorous priest.

"Kh!"

Kirei grunted as he desperately dodged. Although he was no longer in his prime, Kirei showed exactly why he used to be one of the Church's finest Executors. Few people bar none could hope to dodge Fragarach, even if it had only barely activated, but he did it.

The Noble Phantasm missed him by the tiniest of margins and tore open the wall behind, disappearing into the night sky. Kotomine didn't stay around to see what other tricks she had up her sleeve and he threw himself out of the room and down the stairs.

Bazett ended her fall up with her face on the floor, as blood poured out her chest and the stump of her arm. Her crest would keep her alive until she ran out of Mana, but it was only a matter of hours, at best, before she died.

Still conscious, she tried to come up with a way to stop the bleeding and survive somehow, but there was nothing in the immediate vicinity that she could use.

A few minutes rolled by and then she heard the sound of soft footsteps approach. If Kirei was coming back to see if she was dead for good, she'd tear out his face the moment he got in range.

So she waited, laying perfectly still, and hoping for a chance to enact her revenge.

[br]

Kotomine

Betrayed

Lancer

Taken

She wrote fours words, which drew a pretty clear picture of what went down.

"Kotomine did this to you? I was actually trying to track him down. He's on Emiya's shit list too. Look… look… can you heal yourself or some shit? Because if not, then maybe that Caster woman could."

She gave him a look, which he really didn't know how to interpret.

"I know that Magi don't really trust each other, but Emiya is a good guy and I don't think you've got something to lose at this point."

She kept on staring, because frankly that was the only thing she could do. Eventually, she gave him a weak nod.

Dojima sighed and finally put away his gun.

"Alright. Alright, I'm gonna pick you up now," he warned.

He approached and scooped her up in his arms. She was extremely light, but missing an arm and a good amount of blood would account for that. He felt relieved, seeing that she didn't resist in any way.

He swiftly turned around and marched out of the room and down the stairs. He didn't know how long she could survive like that, but he had been taught that any running Magecraft would last only until the Magus who cast it ran out of juice or died.

Either way he had a time limit and he needed to make haste.

He walked out of the house, from the front door this time. The last thing he needed was running into Kotomine and a Servant, so going in the opposite direction was a sound plan. Plus his car was in that direction as well.

He walked out without bothering to close the door behind himself and marched toward the main path as fast as he reasonably could with a wounded person in his arms.

He stopped only because she yanked him by the shirt.

"What?" he asked, looking down at her.

She pointed her finger behind him, high above his shoulder. He turned around, almost expecting to see Kotomine on the roof of the mansion, but that wasn't where she was directing his attention.

She was pointing at the sky.

"... shit. There's no way that's anything good, is there?"

Where the moon should have been, there was a pitch black hole in the otherwise clear night.

Indeed, even someone who knew nothing about Magecraft could tell that nothing good could possibly come of that.

[XXX]

AN: Hi everyone. I am not dead. Right now I'm posting advance chapters on my public Discord Server

Feel free to join me at: / Vwkz2dt47Z