AN: Watch out. I published one chapter right before this but the notification for chapter 24 was not sent. Read the previous chapter first.
Black Cat's Luck (III)
Night had fallen over the city, and with it the thrumming of life had dwindled to a bare minimum. It was all the more quiet on top of the hill overlooking the urban area. The elevation and the trees went a long way to make it so silent that it felt it was almost a separate world.
The inn turned dormitory appeared seemingly abandoned. Not a single light could be found in its many rooms and corridors. But that did not mean it was empty, yet.
A lone figure shrouded in darkness stood in the lobby, hands in his pockets, scanning the building without finding what he was looking for.
"She's not here," he said to the empty building. "It must be Haruka's doing."
He turned around and left. He did not close the door on his way out, just as he hadn't bothered knocking as he walked in. He descended the stone stairs to the city without glancing back even once.
With him gone, the only source of sound was the wind rustling the surrounding trees. Only a long time after he had left did the wind stop abruptly and everything stood perfectly still.
The door which had been left open slid close ever so slowly and ever so deliberately. A light flickered briefly, illuminating a shadow behind the rice paper door.
Only when it blinked out one last time, and some time lapsed, did the wind tentatively resumed its dance with the trees, like the awkwards servants ready to cease playing around the moment the master of the house made its presence known again.
Nothing else worthy of notice happened until dawn.
Kanako sat on the couch, looking out of the window and into the forest that surrounded Haruka's cottage, a couple of hours drive from Hinata city.
The lights were off, as most of the girls from the inn were sleeping in the futons they had gathered in the small building's only room.
Shinobu and Kaolla were sharing their bedding, both because there weren't enough futon for all of them, and because being the youngest they had been the most shaken by Illya's abduction.
Well, Shinobu was the one who looked actually upset. Kaolla's way of being shaken was an unusual quietness and a lack of her otherwise inexhaustible energy.
As per usual, Naru's way to express distress was getting in the face of the people she thought responsible, whether they were at fault or not. Since that person was not with them all she did was seethe in anger until she tired herself out enough to fall asleep.
Kitsune had been silent the whole time, her vulpine eyes cracked slightly open as she seemed to mull over things, biting her nails every now and then, until she too retreated for the night.
Motoko and Haruka didn't even try to sleep. The sword-maiden was standing next to the only door with a hand resting on the hilt of her sword. She had appointed herself as the protector of the group, both because she had the means and because she felt at fault for allowing Illya to be taken. She did not feel that having saved Kanako excused her for that failure.
As for Haruka, she had other things to worry about other than sleeping. She had spent the past several hours on the phone, going through her contacts within the Urashima Zaibatsu in an attempt to find the location where Illya had been taken. So far all she had to show for her efforts were were a sore throat and a slightly cracked cell phone.
Kanako watched all this without a word.. Nothing she could say would make any difference now. She already knew that going against the main branch was a pointless endeavor. The only reason why the status quo had lasted to this day was because of Granny Hina's stalling and because there was no contender left to the Urashima inheritance.
They were all dead, or should have been, at least. Urashima Keitaro's return from the grave had stirred the hornet's' nest and they came looking for blood.
Kanako's own return from abroad had only accelerated matters further, but would have not changed anything, in the end. Her quest to tie the knot with Shirou was a last ditch attempt at reversing the predetermined outcome, but even then it was arguable whether it would have made a difference or not.
That is not to say that her interests were entirely selfish. Before the fire in which he had allegedly perished, Shirou, or rather Keitaro, was the Urashima family member to which she was closest to. He also did promise to marry her, knowing full well what that entailed.
Of course expecting anyone to uphold a promises they had made when they were kids, without even recalling what it was about, was a stretch on her part. However, she didn't have any other card to play.
If her fate was to be wed to the heir of the Urashima empire, she'd rather it was Shirou. That he didn't remember the true reason was just icing on the cake. An additional insurance.
All that had gone out of the window on this day. Her plan had not come to fruition and her only hope would die along with him. For good this time.
She felt guilty that Illya had been caught in the crossfire, she was afraid of what would happen to Shirou, but all of that was trampled by the fear she had for herself.
"He won't lose," said Motoko who was looking at Kanako from the corner of her eyes. "It's written all over your face."
"I know he's strong," she said in a little voice," but he's just one man. And even if he was invincible they can get to him through the people closest to him."
"I know that. I also know he won't lose."
"On what basis?"
"Just my instinct," she replied. "The person I'm worried about is Illyasviel-san. There's not knowing what they'll do to her if she's not found it time. There is no guarantee she'll be released even if these people achieved their goal. Who are they anyway? Do you know, Haruka-san?"
Haruka sighed. "All I managed to figure out from my contacts is that they are mercenaries. I don't know where they are from, nor where they are hiding."
"Mercenaries?"asked Kanako, perking up slightly. "Why would they hire mercenaries? The Urashima family has enough people in their ranks without resorting to someone from outside."
"It's because of Granny Hina, certainly. Since she has appointed Shirou as the heir, the other elders must have decided to watch things unfold. Without their approval, the Omnitsukido won't mobilize."
"Omnitsukido?" asked Motoko.
"You could consider them the rule enforcement division of the Urashima Zaibatsu… or should I say Urashima Clan, instead. Either way the members of the family that specialize in combat."
"Then… then does this means that the elder council has yet to speak on this matter?"
"Yes. I suppose there is a silver lining to this disaster, which explains why it has come down to these methods."
"Please excuse me, but I think you've lost me," confessed Motoko.
"In short, right until Shirou returned, the matter of who would be the next heir was already decided, but the moment he showed up, with Granny Hina's backing the case was blow open again. The elders in charge of the Onitsukudo must have refrained to help either side, so outside help had to be called in."
"And… that is good?" asked Motoko.
"Yes It means that this is not an action endorsed by the family."
Kanako felt her heart leap in her throat. If that was the case… if that was the case there was still hope. It wasn't her against the entire family, but only against them.
She stood up abruptly and made for the door.
"Where do you think you are going?"
"Onii-sama. I must go to Onii-sama."
"Why now? And do you even know where he is?" asked Motoko as she barred the way.
"No, and I must find him. Get out of my way."
"Kanako. There is nothing you can do to help him at this point," sighed Haruka
"I don't care! Let me out!"
"Hmmm? What's going on?" asked Naru, woken up by the commotion.
"Nothing," replied Motoko. "Just go back to sleep."
As the sword turned her attention to the other girl, Kanako pushed past Motoko and threw the door open, rushing out of the cottage and into the night.
"Kanako! Stop! You'll just get lost in the forest," cried Haruka as she run after her with Motoko in tow.
None of them went far, for Kanako had stopped halfway to the treeline and so had Haruka and Motoko.
There was a woman standing in front of them, a few meters away. A pale beauty with raven black hair wearing a kimono loose enough on her shoulders to show a hint of her cleavage. She couldn't be more than thirty years old by the looks of her. The most surprising aspect was how much she resembled Haruka.
"Hello, Kanako. Leaving already even though I just got here?" the woman asked with a smile that didn't reach her eyes. "That's no way to treat your dear aunt, is it?"
The flame of hope in Kanako's heart died as quickly as it had been kindled. It was too late. Her time had already ran out.
Everything had a price.
That is not to say that everything could be bought, but that everything came at a cost; that sacrifices were required to achieve anything.
Magi knew this better than most and Illyasviel von Einzbern was especially aware of the truth of this matter.
Bringing about the Grail had cost her mother's life. Breaking it had cost her father's.
Bringing it about again had cost countless lives, breaking it a second time took Saber's.
She would have survived one year at best after that, if Sakura, Rin and most of all Shirou hadn't made great sacrifices to extend it.
No, Illyasviel was not a stranger to the cost of living. She knew all too well that one never stopped paying the price in one fashion or another. Her ability to perform Magecraft, for instance, was the price that she had too keep on paying to draw breath.
The organs that had been implanted in place of her own were constructs similar to artificial familiars. They were a product of Magecraft and like any other such feat they were steadily eroded both by influence of Gaia and even by her own inner resistance to foreign energies.
It took all of her Mana at all times to keep them functioning and even so it was a losing struggle, as they were constantly degrading little by little until until the day they would not longer function.
That was fine, really. She didn't mind not being able to do any Magecraft other than keeping herself alive. To her it was already a miracle on par with True Magic. She never once regretted it even for a split second.
Until now, at least.
Waking up bound and gagged to a chair inside of a dark room, Illya immediately realized what had happened.
She had been abducted. By whom she did not know, but for whih purpose she could imagine. As an Einzbern Homunculus she would be quite specimen for any Magus that wanted a crack at their craft, but clearly, this wasn't the case.
The means by which she was restrained were crude. If she'd be willing to redicrect her Magecraft from self-sustenance to them, she could easily break free. It would risk killing her by organ failure but she could do it. If her captors were a Magus he would not use more elaborate methods.
No, this particular threat did not come from the Moonlit World. However, outside of those circles there was hardly anyone who had a grudge against her, or that even know what she was.
Clearly, this wasn't about her. She was just a mean to an end, and that end could be none other than Shirou.
Far from being reassured by this conclusion, Illya felt even worse. These people, whomever they were, could not hope to contend with Shirou under normal circumstances. However, she knew better than most that the source of Shirou's strength was also the source of his greatest weakness.
His unrelenting wish to save others.
In the right circumstances, Shirou could contend with some of the most powerful entities out there, Gilgamesh could attest to that, but all it took to make him capitulate was reducing the conflict to something as mundane as his own life versus that of someone else.
Of course he wasn't so stupid that he would give himself up the moment someone was taken hostage but if it really came down to that, he wouldn't hesitate.
Illya could not tolerate that.
Although she had accepted that one day he might die just ike that, for these reason, she could not accept that it would be for her.
After everything he had already done, already sacrificed, Illya could take no more from him. She couldn't even tolerate the risk that he would do something like that.
She needed to get out of there, one way or another, even if it wound up killing her. She would not have Shirou die on her account.
At least, she had a few advantages. Looking like a defenseless teenager, her captors didn't seem to thinks she had the skills to free herself. Hence, they had not left a single guard in the room with her. which meant she had all the freedom to do as she pleased without interference.
The first order of business was breaking free of her restraints. Her wrists were bound behind the back of her chair, while her ankles were tied to the legs.
Try as she might, it didn't seem they would come loose easily, at least now without some pain on her part.
It was fortunate that she was well acquainted with it. She twisted her arm around, flexing and then relaxing her delicate muscles.
One, ten, a hundred times. Her breath didn't even hitch when the rope started cutting into her fair skin and blood started dripping along her slender fingers.
This much pain couldn't be compared to that of sustaining Berserker
Eventually, through a combination of the rope loosening and her wrist getting lubricated by her own blood, she managed to slip her hands out.
After that, removing the gag from her mouth and freeing her legs was a trivial thing.
She stood up and assessed herself. She was largely unharmed if a bit sore from being forced in an uncomfortable position for what she assumed were several hours.
Having completed the easy portion of her escape complete, she had to face the hard part. Getting out of wherever she was being kept.
There was a bit of light coming from the gap under the door. More than enough to make out her surroundings, at least.
unfortunately, other than the chair there was nothing that she could use to her advantage and the door was locked as well.
Now, she could definitely cause a commotion and have someone come see what was happening, but then she'd have to face an enemy. Unlike that Eastener barbarian, Rin, Illya could not fight with her bare hands.
Her best bet was sneaking out completely unnoticed, but that was easier said than done. She could accomplish everything easily if she only used a bit of Magecraft, but her chances of dropping dead increased with every second of use. She would exhaust all other possibilities first.
Maybe she could fashion a crude wean out of the chair? A broken wooden leg could puncture through the eye socket and into the brain of a grown man but her modest height didn't really facilitate that approach.
it was a lousy plan.
Unfortunately, there was nothing else in the room that she could use other than a grate high up on the wall
A grate big enough for the ventilation shaft behind it to crawl through.
Without missing a beat, she pushed the chair against the wall and climbed on it. Standing on the tip of her toes she managed to she managed to slid her small fingers inside. However it was screwed in and did not budge.
"Come on!" she lamented.
Far from giving up, she planted both feet against the wall and pulled with all of her strength. The metal wire that comprised most of the grate cut into the plae skin of her fingers, adding even more blood to that which she had already spilled.
The grate came off all at once, and given Illya's precarious position she was in no condition control her fall. She hit the ground flat on her back, knocking the wind out of her lungs and hitting her head hard and sending the metal cover clattering on the floor.
Pain tolerance was a great thing, but did nothing about a concussion. Her vision swam nauseatingly, but even through the haze she heard the sound of several footsteps rushing in her direction.
Her break out had been discovered and there was no time for her to sit and recuperate. She got up on shaky legs and made for the chair, reaching out for opening that she had created with so much effort.
Someone was fiddling with the lock as she pulled herself up into the ventilation shaft. Light flooded the room and she was almost completely inside.
At that moment, someone grabbed her ankle and pulled her back.
"Let go!" she cried, kicking back with the other foot and smashing the face of the person outside.
Cartilage and teeth gave in, but more importantly the hand around her leg came loose and Illya managed to completely inside the vent.
Her captors gave the alarm, as they scrambled around to find where the shaft led to. Illya did not bother with being cautious at this point. So what if she hit her head or her clothes got caught in something and ripped in places? Now it was not the time to worry about such things.
Eventually, after some twists and turns, the shaft came to an end. Through the opening she could see the world outside. Judging by the wagons parked all around, and by the sounds in the distance, it had to be some kind of train deposit
She kicked down the cover and jumped out. However, her skirt got caught in a piece of leftover metal and remained up there on the wall like a white flag, while the rest of her had safely reached the ground.
Illya blinked only briefly at her immodest state but quickly realized that there was nothing she could do about it.
"There she is!" shouted one of her captors.
It was fortunate that there were so many train wagons laying around, plenty of places to hide and plenty of covers against the bullets that were suddenly ricocheting around her.
Illyasviel ran, stumbled, fell and got up again. She bumped into corners and hit her head when she rolled under the wagons. Yet nothing seemed to slow her down in the least.
Light meant civilization and civilization meant protection, usually, therefore that's the direction she headed for. It was a good plan and as such, she realized upon being backhanded across the face when she turned a corner, an utterly predictable course of action.
She fell to the floor tasting blood into her mouth. She tried getting up only to be kicked down and being held with her face in the dirt by a booted foot. The humiliation of such an act burned so much stronger than all the cuts and bruises she had acquired in her short, failed escape.
"End of the line, kid," said the man holding her down.
Yes. Yes, it was the end of the line. She could no longer thread carefully. Now she could only put her life on the line.
'I'm sorry, Shirou. Thank you for everything.'
And with that thought, she reached for her Circuits in what would probably be the last time in her short life.
"Get your hands off her!" shouted Naru at the man that was dragging a sobbing Shinobu out of the cottage.
The price of her defiance was a blow to the back of the head with the butt of a gun from another goon. There were about a dozen of them, masked and armed with firearms. They had come out from the woods surrounding the small building and cutting off all possibilities to escape.
Motoko could have craved herself a way out with her Shinmei-ryu, but it wasn't certain that she would succeed and even if she did that would mean abandoning the others. She was quickly forced to drop her sword and kick it away.
Then they started dragging out the other girls as well, rounding them together in one place.
"There's no one else inside," said one of the mercenaries.
"Kyoko, why are you doing this?" asked Haruka. "These girls have nothing to do with the inheritance. They are just bystanders."
"Well, if it isn't Haruka. It's been a while, darling."
"I could have gone without seeing you ever again," she replied. "I was planning on it, in fact. I thought we had a deal."
"The deal was that you would have been left alone if you stayed out of the competition. That doesn't seem like something you have been doing today, isn't it? Not with all those questions you have been asking around."
"That girl you have kidnapped has nothing to do with the infighting of the Urashima family, so looking for her has nothing to do with it."
"Oh, but she had something to do with it from the moment she chose to associate herself with the bastard child of that whore."
"Don't talk about her that way. Don't talk about her at all!"
"Stubborn as ever, I see. Blind too. Does it look like you are in any position to make demands?"
"... How did you find this place, anyway?"
"Oh, dear, I've been keeping track of all of your assets just for a day like this."
"You had no intention of letting me live anyway, did you?"
"No, not at all," the woman named Kyoko laughed. "Though I was willing to wait until my son had been sitting on the Urashima throne for good before cleaning house, so to speak, but both you and Kanako have forced my hand."
"Fine! Fine, kill me and be done with it" growled Haruka. "Just leave the rest of them out."
"But darling, letting witnesses go is such a bad idea isn't it? What if they talk to someone?"
"Oh, don't give me that crap. You know as well as I do that the Urashima has enough clout to make any accusation go away easily. They are no more a threat to you than a random person in the streets."
"Well, yes. You are right about that," agreed Kyoko. "But are going to die anyway."
"You bitch! Don't you have any compassion at all? They have done nothing to you or your son."
"That is true, but thing is that I want to burn down everything that old bitch has ever cherished. That guy, that inn and even these useless little girls. Kanako too, but have still a use for her, and besides we both know how that's going to go."
"... you are not going to get away with this," said Motoko quietly. "Sensei will make you pay."
"Sensei? Oh, yes, right. You are his disciple right? Took his name and everything. Too bad that's not going to happen. That little mongrel won't be doing much of anything ever again. I've already seen to it."
"Wh-What do you mean?"
"What I mean is that Urashima Keitaro is dead. For good this time."
"You lie!" shouted Motoko. "Sensei would never lose to the likes of you."
"Is that so?" asked Kyoko, smiling wickedly. "You can see it for yourself once you meet with him in the other world. "Kill her. Kill all of them except Kanako."
"No, stop it!" shouted Kanako. "I'll come with you! I'll do whatever you want. I'll never run away. Just leave them be."
"Kanako, Kanako," reproached Kyoko gently. "The sooner you learn that you are just a powerless tool the better it is. Kill them, but don't make it quick. I want them to bleed out slowly."
"No! Please don't do it," sobbed Shinobu, whom Kitsune had hugged to her chest.
"Bitch," said the vulpine woman with her eyes uncharacteristically wide open and full of spite. "I'm going to haunt your sleep and drive you insane even if I have to burn in hell."
"Is that so? I'll wait for you then," replied Kyoko, not at all impressed or afraid.
The mercenaries raised their weapons and took aim at the group. The sound of several gunshot echoed in the night, ringing out their death sentence, until that too faded away and the forest was bathed in complete silence once more.
AN: Let the bodies hit the floor! Let the bodies hit the floooor.