The incessant bounces of the SUV, like the rocking of a mother's tired arms, had sent the little silver-haired girl straight to the land of dreams.
With every breath, gasps of white smog escaped the girl's red lips in the cold Balkan winter morning. Stirring uneasily, her elegant eyebrows twitched beneath her long snow-white fringe, her eyes seemingly fretting to and fro as her mind wandered in outlandish realms.
The long flight from Germany had taken its toll on her young body. From Munich, like a moth leaping into the fires of the sun, they had flown east overnight with barely a pause over the mighty Alps, fabled Venice, ancient Zagreb, and broken Pristina – until they landed in their mountainous destination, a corner that the world itself had forgotten and practically erased.
Carefully cradling the head of the sleeping princess in his lap, the other passenger sitting in the back seats of the decade-old SUV leaned forward towards the driver, his voice a smooth murmur as the car trudged along the treacherous and narrow mountain passes towards their destination.
"How far is it to go, Frau Dunn?"
The thin woman sitting in the driver's seat barely glanced at him from behind her brown headscarf that partially covered the lower half of her face. With a grumble in heavily-accented English that sounded halfway like 'a few more minutes', she kept piloting the vehicle over the uneven tarmac with practiced ease and refused to answer any more questions. The inquirer sank back into his seat with a displeased grimace marring his handsome face, his brows knotted into a frown that was barely concealed under his short white hair. The early morning sunshine filtered through the dusty back window of the SUV and fell on his profile, making his crimson eyes sparkle with annoyance. Muttering in German about manners, the young man leaned back into the seat and shut his eyes in irritation.
Feeling the tension that was building up in the car, the other white-haired man sitting in the passenger's seat attempted to break the ice with a hearty laughter. With a dramatic swing of his long white ponytail, he half-turned to his companion and their sleeping charge at back, and spoke deliberately in English so their driver and local guide could feel to be a part of the conversation as well.
"Sigmund, leave Frau Dunn to her driving. We'll get there in no time."
The short-haired youth said nothing and simply opened his eyes to stare back at his fellow traveller's equally carmine irises – eyes so similar that, in fact, they could well be twins. Their chiselled cheekbones, their snowy hair, their pallid and pristine skin and their almost mirrored face – all of this spoke of an uncanny relationship between the two young men in the car, and the equally pale and beautiful girl curled up next to Sigmund's leg.
With a snort, the young man sitting in the passenger's seat shrugged exaggeratedly and turned back to face the windscreen, having given up trying to dissuade his companion from continuing to wallow in his sour mood. However, within moments, it seemed like Sigmund had changed his mind.
"… Can we trust this woman, Johannes?"
The soft words spoken in German did not escape the long-haired young man's ears. Barely giving a look towards the female driver or his twin at the back of the SUV, Johannes responded in German, his voice just a notch or so deeper than Sigmund's otherwise identical intonations.
"She's what we hired. It's some good money that the Head of the Family paid her too. Besides, who can harm the two of us?"
"It's not the two of us that I'm concerned about –" Sigmund sounded as if eager, frustrated, but caught himself just on time. Swallowing back whatever he wanted to say, he sank back once again into silence, his slender fingers periodically running through the little girl's spotless hair in tender care.
Johannes did not respond as the vehicle gradually slowed down to pass one more military checkpoint, Frau Dunn rolling down the window and producing their papers for the coat-covered soldiers to inspect over. High above them, too high on the mountains for mortal eyes to see, the German visitors knew snipers should have been placed there, ready to fire upon seeing any suspicious movement on the ground.
Further north, in the heart of this war-torn province, they knew massacres had already occurred, with innumerable lives swallowed up by the blood-stained earth.
Deeper south, at the borders of this country plunged deep into the grasps of violence, they heard rumours of tanks and artilleries gathering, of foreign aircrafts ready to launch into the air to deliver 'justice' for the greater good.
Johannes narrowed his blood-red eyes as the soldiers waved them through but spat on the windscreen of car behind them before allowing that unfortunate vehicle into the check point.
"What was that for?" Turning to look behind him, he queried in English.
"The driver spoke Albanian." Her mouth and nose concealed behind her heavy scarf, Frau Dunn muttered quietly as they set out again. "For soldiers, this land is not Kosova, but Republika Srbija… we do not speak of such things, Herr Einsbern. Not outside the city."
The SUV lurched forward as the path wound around the mountains and began to descend upon the narrow river bed, heading towards the town. Driving with the sun behind them, which was just peeking over the highest tips of the snow-capped mountains, the German visitors squinted to catch a glimpse of the city, the vehicle making sharp turns all the time.
Those turns were, evidently, sharp enough to wake the little princess from her sleep, her eyebrows fluttering as sunlight danced on her snow white skin. Slowly, hesitantly, another pair of sanguineous eyes opened as the girl sleepily gazed upon this new world.
For a moment, confusion clouded those eyes, which were identical to that of her fellows' garnet orbs.
Helping the little girl to sit up straight, Sigmund gently buttoned up her long winter coat with his long, slender fingers. "Do not fear, Lady Illyasviel. We're driving towards our location as we speak, and will arrive there shortly."
"Huh…" Evidently still drowsy, the girl allowed Sigmund to straighten her coat as well as she gave a big yawn, her long silver hair tousled into an unruly halo around her angelic face. "Ahhh… uhhh…"
"Yes, Lady Illya, we've already landed." Turning his head around to have a proper look at his newly-awakened charge, Johannes gave a small salute together with a wide grin. "You slept the whole way from Munich. Right from the moment we took off, almost. Sigmund had to carry you off the plane and into the car when we landed. Aren't you going to thank him, my lady?"
Narrowing her eyes in light anger, the girl ignored Johannes's words and mischievous smile, shifting her focus to the driver instead, blinking incomprehensively at this unfamiliar face.
Her guards made to reply, but were surprisingly beaten by the person in question herself.
"I am Agnes Dunn." Despite her heavily accented English, her name sounded genuinely pronounceable. "I'm the guide Lord Einsbern hired. We're heading to town, my lady."
Rubbing the last residues of sleep out of her eyes, the little girl edged forward, her small hand clinging to the back of Frau Dunn and Johanne's seats as she peeked out of the windscreen of the car.
"Yes, to town." With a movement of her chin, Frau Dunn motioned towards in front of her as they glided down the final hill, rounded the city's water processing plant, and had the end of their prolonged journey in their sight at long last.
There was a stunned gasp as the little girl beheld the stirring city before her eyes. Blinking into wakefulness as the sun gradually rose and pulled away the veil of the night, the red-washed tile roofs of the ancient town seemed to stretch their arms skyward and deeply inhale the refreshing, mountainous air. Strands of silver smoke wafted out of early-waking chimneys, some quickly rising up into the dawning sky while others clung to the soaring minarets that dotted the town like a mortal, reluctant sigh. Nestled between the curving Bistrica River and the looming Šar Mountains like a loyal hound waiting patiently for its whimsical master, the most beautiful city in southern Serbia glittered as its crimson roofs and creamy bricks caught the earliest golden light of the day. Reflecting so brilliantly in the January dawn, this tormented yet alluring city burnt its pristine image into the little girl's blood-red eyes as she beheld that unspoiled, quiet morning for the first – and the last – time in her life.
"Welcome to Prizren, Kosovo, Lady Einsbern."
Like a fleeting, momentary afterthought, Frau Dunn's low voice echoed in the car as they moved along the last stretch of the road.
The journey did not just start today, however.
No. This was merely the last leg of a race that had continued through millennia and consumed innumerable lives, driven only by a dogged determination that had long ago lost its original cause and vigour.
Neither Sigmund, Johannes, nor Illyasviel were alive when the feud first started. They couldn't have known – they shouldn't have understood this obsession of the Einsberns, one that was started by their ancestors aeons ago.
Yet they knew, they understood. For it was encoded in their blood, their flesh, their soul – all of which were derived from the Lady of Winter, the greatest of Einsbern homunculi, the 'Mother' of all the 'children' who came after.
It was a duty that Sigmund and Johannes had lived their whole short lives knowing. When they received the summons from Old Acht, the head of the Einsberns, they did not hesitate for even a second before answering the call.
"Johannes, Sigmund. I believe you have seen and heard of the Vessel of the Grail?"
In the frozen hall that had seen the passing of countless homunculi, a room that the little girl's parents had doubtlessly stood in before their departure years ago, Illyasviel von Einsbern had stood and listened to the Head of the House's command in silence, her head bowed out of habit and respect. Seemingly oblivious to the twins' entrance, she did not respond to their presence at all when Old Acht turned his attention to the two new comers.
Soundlessly, the twins nodded in unison. Since their birth – no, their manufacture – they had always been acutely aware of her existence. The Vessel of the Holy Grail, the epitome of Einsbern homunculi, made to receive the fountain of power that was Akasha and retrieve the lost Third Magic – and yet set in human form, born of a human womb, and lived with a human heart.
Unfortunately though, they knew that unlike those before her, her existence was not a subject of elation or even satisfaction for the Einsbern family.
She should have been a machine. Her mother should have been a machine. For a daughter of the Einsberns to have tasted love and desire was undoubtedly the root of their downfall, the cause of the Einsbern;s unforgivable failure almost a decade ago. It was the perfect opportunity, and yet, this girl's parents threw it all away for some wanton dream that they had dared to harbour. Moreover, they also somehow resolved to discard the miracle of the Grail – yes, it was a betrayal and a sin; the Einsbern elders had decided thus in vengeance and regret. A sin that the lone child left behind would have to redeem.
The Maiden of Winter had been reborn in Illyasviel von Einsbern in the past ten years. Not in flesh or soul, but in the way that she had simply obeyed the demands of her duty and nothing else. Her heart was frozen, just like the winter storm that eternally raged on outside the door. Johannes and Sigmund heard how she had been sent out into the woods to 'train' for days at a time, that wood which was rumoured to have buried mountains of discarded Einsbern homunculi deemed to be 'faulty'. The twins had once spied the small girl as she returned from one such journey, accompanied by one solitary guard. Her steps dragging, her face slack, the most outstanding homunculus of the Einsberns had traversed the icy and ancient hallway like a wraith, as if burdened by invisible shackles and chains. The two men had indeed secretly discussed this in the brief respite between their intensive training for the past year, for serving her was undoubtedly their reason of existence.
Was this empty shell what the Holy Grail should be all along?
Like a pair of poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the twin homunculi jolted and stood to attention, the soles of their leather boots creaking as they scraped against the granite floor. Lowering their heads, they stood behind Illyasviel von Einsbern and listened to the family's decree.
In that long, solemn hall, eternally frozen in the bleak sunlight that tore its way through the long and narrow windows, Old Acht's voice echoed out monotonously. Standing still, the only thing the Einsbern children were allowed to do was listen, and nothing else.
"Illyasviel, is the Vessel ready?"
"Yes, Grandfather. It would function well even in Fuyuki."
Acht's chiselled eyes narrowed briefly on Illyasviel's small figure, then moved away.
"I am not sending you to Fuyuki at this stage. Do not overestimate yourself, Vessel."
The girl instantly quietened down like a startled rabbit. No longer paying any attention to her, Old Acht turned his keen gaze to the two newcomers in the hall.
"I trust you had been briefed about this mission?"
Sigmund and Johannes nodded mutely, not wishing to say anything unnecessary least it angered this elder.
"Good. You are to go and retrieve the catalyst that we have selected. Ever since this valuable Vessel showed signs of Command Seals, the Einsbern house had tried its hardest to look for the most suitable Servant for her." Despite his words of apparent praise, the look Old Acht gave for the girl was one most foul, as if she was a stain that he had to put up with for far longer than that allowed by his patience. "We have since decided on one such hero befitting of the Einsberns' prestige and her power – that of Herakles… to be summoned as Berserker."
The girl's body twitched visibly with those words, yet they could see that she controlled herself. It was just one shiver, no more, as if she steeled herself against the torment and agony the summoning of a Berserker would entail. To summon the mad Heroic Spirit, to hold the reins of the crazed beast who knows nothing but slaughter – it was certainly not the choice the little girl would have made herself had she been allowed the luxury. No, she was only the Vessel for the Grail, after all.
Would those shaking fingers be enough to hold the ropes that tied the insane beast to the world of men? Would that slender flesh sate the ravenous hunger of the monster that fed and drained endlessly on prana?
And would that wounded, staggering mind hold itself together till the end?
Impervious to her, her grandfather's voice did not stop. "A stele, previously of Herakles's own temple in Greece, has been located. The temple itself is now far beyond repair, and has been deemed unsuitable for any use. We have therefore discarded the notion of travelling to that actual place of worship and settled for the most efficient choice of using the stele. You will therefore travel to the place it is kept and bring it back to us."
"And you shall bring the Vessel of the Grail with you to authenticate the stele. The temple may be useless to us now, but the association to the divine remains. Not everything with a connection to a hero can become a catalyst. Illyasviel," there was one more look of distain towards the girl's direction, "will see for herself if the catalyst is suitable for her Servant, who will most certainly win the War for the Einsberns."
With that, Old Acht walked towards Sigmund and Johannes, leaving Illyasviel to stand in his elongating shadow.
"You depart for Prizren tomorrow. Transport to Munich and then to Serbia had been arranged. The Einsberns have also hired hands on ground, a mercenary well-known in those parts, a woman who goes by the name of Agnes Dunn. She will be picking you up at the airfield and be responsible for your safety in the city until your departure at noon of the same day."
"In the same day?"
Sigmund elbowed Johannes in the stomach for inadvertently exclaiming out. Turning his granite eyes to the long-haired twin, Old Acht merely grated out a few words as an answer.
"There's a war between mortals going on there, homunculus. It would be… unwise not to do so."
The four of them had surreptitiously parked their vehicle in a dusty, ancient street, lined by buildings that had seen at least a century's worth of days and nights. Stumbling a little, Illyasviel tried her best to keep up with the group, which was walking in the war-silenced northern edges of the town with their heads bowed, not willing to gain more attention than they already had.
"Hurry, Lady Illyasviel. This way."
The girl's knee-high purple boots hit a boulder on the uneven uphill road and she let out a small gasp, her hand desperately clinging to Sigmund's. Sighing, the white-haired youth bent down and used both hands to guide the little girl along, frowning resignedly as Her Ladyship stared back at him with red eyes full of embarrassment.
"… It's alright, Lady Illyasviel. I can help you – "
His helping hands were flung away by the arms of the little lady, however, as the ashamed garnet eyes were now filled with spite and arrogance.
"I do not need your help, Sigmund. I can walk on my two legs. You're better off helping your twin and the mercenary woman. The sooner we get out of here," pulling the hem of her coat closer to her with her now free hand, she turned away from Sigmund, speaking her first coherent words since landing, "the better."
There was a brief silence as Frau Dunn, who was leading the way for the group, paused in her steps during this little show. Standing in the early morning light with the sun shining behind her, Sigmund and Johannes couldn't help but stop in front of Frau Dunn's shadow as well. With her scarf covering the most of her face, only her unblinking ebony eyes peeked out sternly at the little girl as if in reproach.
With an awkward grin creeping up his face, Johannes hurried to the rescue. "I – ahh, Frau Dunn, she didn't mean it. The flight must have –"
A cold wind blew past, sweeping up Frau Dunn's scarf and the timeless sands that had lain on the unkempt road. Johannes had to stop talking as he coughed and covered his nose and mouth. Beside him, Sigmund and Illyasviel had to do the same. As the wind briefly lifted up the woman's scarf, Johannes spied a stern mouth and lips downturned in displeasure. But when he had coughed out enough sand from his mouth to try to speak again, the woman had already turned away, her scarf once again settled against her visage to hide it from his view.
"She is right. Sooner you get out … the better."
"But –" Rubbing his eyes, Johannes took one step forward, wanting to explain. As if hearing his footsteps on the gravel, Frau Dunn turned around, her bottomless eyes staring into his face.
"The relic you want is also… wanted by other people." Her English, a little low on vocabulary, nevertheless made her point clear. "Hurry – before other people find the stele pieces." Turning back, she set off down the road once again, leading the group.
"Stele… pieces?" Sigmund's soft and incredulous voice rang out as he froze.
"The stele is already broken." Frau Dunn's voice drifted downwind to their ears. "In three pieces, hidden in three different places in the city. This way… if your enemies get one, you can still summon your Servant for the Grail War as long as you have one piece as well."
As Frau Dunn responded, Sigmund's thin brows drew closer and closer.
"Sigmund…" Seeing how his brother was walking quickly towards the front of the group, Johannes stammered. Reaching out, he tried to prevent Sigmund from making the mood worse, but the short-haired homunculus easily dodged his grasp and placed his hand on Frau Dunn's shoulder.
"You didn't tell us the stele was in pieces, Frau Dunn." Sigmund's soft, emotionless voice echoed in the narrow empty street, barely audible over the drone of small airplanes that patrolled the skies. "You could well have quartered it or more and kept some pieces for yourself… and you also know a terrible lot about what we're here for. Are you sure Lord Jubstacheit is the one who told it all to you?"
Frau Dunn didn't move a muscle as she allowed Sigmund to hold her shoulder, seemingly unwilling to retaliate. Yet the mere detachedness of her voice spoke otherwise. "… Let me go, Herr Einsbern."
"An untrustworthy guide is no less than a –"
"Quiet, Sigmund, and let her go."
Sigmund's arm froze on Frau Dunn's shoulder as both Johannes and he looked behind them to the little girl – to Illyasviel von Einsbern, who had issued this command with an authority that allowed no violation. Walking carefully in her purple knee-high boots, the little girl slowly approached the twin homunculi and Frau Dunn.
"An untrustworthy guide is still a guide." Looking right into Frau Dunn's half-obscured countenance, Illyasviel's tone did not waver on a single note despite Johannes's concerned look and Sigmund's dark frown. "It is no coincidence that Grandfather provided me with two bodyguards, both of outstanding power. Do not dare to defy us, woman. The loss of your pay would be the least of your worries then."
There was a brief silence as none of the three responded. Sigmund and Johannes simply stared at Illyasviel, not expecting such a reaction from this usually passive and silent Vessel of the Grail. Frau Dunn's expression was impossible to see – but she was the first one who broke the mute tension.
"You can find the stele on your own, Lady Einsbern?"
"Stele or not, I will have my Servant – !" As if suddenly aware of her outburst, Illyasviel bit her lip and restrained herself with a frown. Lowered her head, she quickly walked past Frau Dunn, her face briefly covered by a light veil of embarrassment and shame. Stopping a few feet ahead of the older woman, she mumbled a question.
"… Where is it?"
Johannes could have sworn that the ends of Frau Dunn's eyes tilted upward in a small smile as she moved forward to stand behind the young lady, her grating English somewhat gentler to the ear. "Higher on the hills. But we parked the car close, it is now near to us. In walking distance."
"We're in the middle of a war… and yet they are still allowing people to walk about freely in the city?" Behind them, Johannes queried, casting his eyes around.
"… We are in a war, but Prizren is not badly affected." With a nod, Frau Dunn indicated towards a few straggling soldiers lazily wandering in the street, their guns loosely clutched in their hands. Right behind them was a group of women, evidently going to the morning market closer to the Bistrica River to the south, their hair covered with colourful scarves and their long dresses extending almost to the ground. "People live normally here. There are few soldiers… no tanks."
Without so much as pause, as if determined to lead the way, Illyasviel began to walk forward. As she passed the soldiers, her white hair and cherubic appearance attracted more than a few gazes – but the soldiers did not inquire further. Perhaps it was due to the two males' presence, or perhaps it was due to the glance that Frau Dunn gave them, but all saw Illyasviel gave out a small shudder as she passed the men and their guns, which were held waist-high and their dark barrels pointed towards the street.
"… You don't like war, Lady Einsbern?"
Frau Dunn's low voice whispered as they walked out of earshot of the soldiers, as if concerned for the little girl's well being. Illyasviel shivered again when she heard these words, but her answer was evidently not what the older woman had expected at all.
"No… I… I like it."
The little girl's two hands clutched into fists as she walked, her short nails digging into her own pallid flesh. She exhaled, deeply, slowly, and with each forward step that she took; but she found just enough strength to keep speaking.
"I like it… I like it… I like it… for the sakes of the Einsberns…"
Bending down, and with a quick flick of her wrist, Frau Dunn grasped Illyasivel's hand tightly, breaking the little homunculus's self-convincing mantra, and began to march down the street with long steps.
"Hey –!" Sigmund made to protest, but he was too late. Despite her ordinary height and seemingly average physique, Frau Dunn already made quite the progress moving down the road, half-dragging Illyasviel with her. Sigmund and Johannes had to jog to catch up.
"F – Frau Dunn!"
Her hand held in an iron grip by the elder woman, her little legs doing the best they could to catch up, Illyasviel was momentarily lost for speech and simply stared, stunned, at the older woman.
"Yes, you like war, don't you? Otherwise you wouldn't be in one later, one full of blood… Yes, Lady Einsbern, that is who – what – you should be." Her eyes fixed straight ahead, Frau Dunn didn't even flinch as Illyasviel struggled feebly, trying to wrench her small hand away from the other's vice-like grasp. "I should help you to get to your weapon quicker then, no? Lady of the Holy Grail?"
With fast steps that outran his twin and soon caught up with Frau Dunn, Johannes bent down and bodily swooped Illyasviel into his arms, his powerful and calloused hands pulling Frau Dunn's fingers away from the little lady. With a frown making his handsome face sour, Johannes held Illyasviel with one arm as he chased Frau Dunn, his long white ponytail swaying behind him as he trotted with an uneven gait.
"Frau Dunn, I don't know if you hold any grudges against the Einsbern, but that was no way to treat your employer, if nothing more. Lead us to wherever you need, but don't take out your anger on her, for goodness's sake! She's been through –"
Johannes's sentence stopped abruptly as Illyasviel pinched his arm. The little girl was biting hard on her lower lip, her face flushed and her eyes downcast as she mumbled: "… I didn't ask you to defend me, Johannes. Don't meddle in things that are not of your business."
"I only know you need your Holy Relic," ignoring Johannes's words, Frau Dunn kept marching forward. "Do you want to hurry, Einsbern?"
"I do hope… it's not far…" Catching up, Sigmund paused for breath. Putting a hand on Johannes's free arm, it took the short-haired homunculus a while before he could stand on his own. His thin brows creased slightly, Johannes nonetheless silently allowed Sigmund to lean on him, despite his present burden with Illyasviel.
Lifting her hand, Frau Dunn pointed towards their right at a small building jutting out halfway up the hills. Their gazes following Frau Dunn's hand, the three Einsberns blinked at the tiny church decorated by a simple dome perched near the altar and a tower to the side, standing alone on the hillside and looking down on the quiet northern quarters of the ancient town. At the foot of the church, they could spy some ordinary folks moving about, dressed in muted shades of brown and black, some engaged in conversation while others simply hurried along the rocky and perilous path.
"You hid it in a… church?"
Merely tilting her head at Sigmund's incredulous words, Frau Dunn seemed more puzzled than anything else.
"Why not? It is a stone. Where better than a house of stone? Besides, the people who worship there is the best protection, no? They tell me what I need to know. That's enough."
The twin homunculi remained standing there for a while, stunned in shock at the boldness of this woman to hide their catalyst in one of the more famous churches amidst this town dotted with places of worship. However, as they moved up the hill, they received even more curious looks from the passersby. Frowning a little at the excessive attention, Illyasviel reached over and pulled the hood of Johannes's military jacket over his snow-white hair, prompting Sigmund to do the same. The amount of people that stared of them immediately reduced.
A few of the women had walked quickly towards them and were greeted with hostile gazes by Johannes and Sigmund – but they headed straight for Frau Dunn. Babbling in their ancient, Slavic tongue, the women conversed in hushed tones with Frau Dunn looking towards the main doors of the small church once in a while, her face graver and graver. At last, she turned and beckoned the homunculi over, while the other women scattered away like a flock of alarmed geese.
"… Ahh, bad news. Someone else is already here."
"…I knew it." With a frown on his face, Sigmund's expression darkened. "I don't know if you've felt it, but there is a… barrier right around the church, though very subtle. A skilled magus is here."
"Huh? But –"
Johannes's hand quickly silenced the little girl's startled words as he smoothly bent down and set her feet on the ground, relieving himself of that burden. Beside him, Sigmund frowned as he reached into his coat pockets and his hands were grasped something in his palms when they became visible again. Johannes had reached beneath his long coat too, searching for some weapon that he surely hid next to his person, but did not draw it and simply muttered to Illyasviel.
"… Lady Illyasviel, keep close to us. We won't be able to hold onto you anymore. Please be wary, least the enemy decides to attack. The barrier closer to the church would prevent any magecraft battles from being discerned by outsiders – which means the enemy may be very well prepared."
Hugging the long, dragging coat closer to her thin frame, the little girl nodded - first hesitantly, then resolutely.
"Yes… I will do that, certainly."
Despite her bravado, Illyasviel's heart was at her throat as she followed the other two homunculi across the dusty brown road, creeping ever closer to the main doors of the quaint Church of Holy Salvation standing aloof on the northern hills above the town.
Even though she was not a combat homunculus and was never meant to be one, she crept towards potential danger with her companions – because she desired what lay ahead.
Her hammer to shatter the chains that bind her. Her answer of defiance to the abysmal fate that will swallow her whole.
Today, she walked and moved for that purpose alone, for it was the only purpose that belonged to her – and not to her duty as the Grail of the Einsberns.
Her hands shaking with fear and anticipation, her eyes were glued to Johannes's back as the latter crept closer and closer to the tightly-shut main doors. Within the room awaited her prize. The stele of Herakles – a catalyst that Old Acht had sought for years, a fabled fragment of a mystery that time itself had buried and lost. Illyasviel had vaguely heard of how hard the Einsberns fought to secure this piece of seemingly harmless rock ever since the end of the last Holy Grail War, or of how much fortune was thrown away on the pursuit for this most powerful Servant – the Servant that would be second to none. No, not even to her.
The star of glory that the Einsberns had chosen almost a decade ago had ruined their best hope; had attempted to destroy the very existence that the family lived for, even. This time, the Vessel of the Grail must not fail no matter what – it was not only her birthright and duty, but a creed drummed into her flesh and bone, a pattern of blood-stained tattoo sunken into the deepest part of her soul. However, it meant far, far more than that for Illyasviel von Einsbern.
For which child would be willing to burden the sins of her father?
"… Watch your steps. I think there may be magecraft traps beyond this door."
Creeping up towards the front of their group of four, Sigmund crouched down and felt around the edges of the church's main door, now completely devoid of the throng of worshippers. Running his slender fingers suspiciously along the lower parts of the ancient door, he frowned slightly then motioned for Johannes and Frau Dunn to move away from him as he opened his palms, revealing a ball of what seemed to be gold and silver threads.
"Wait! That –" Giving out a stunned, almost surprised gasp, Frau Dunn moved to step forward, as if struck with disbelief upon seeing Sigmund's weapon. Johannes's hand on her shoulder prevented her from getting closer to the other Einsbern homunculus, however. The long-haired homunculus softly but sternly shook his head at her, telling her not to interfere with the other's moves.
Muttering words of German under his breath, the threads in Sigmund's hands writhed and twisted, each individual loop extending towards the door and expanding like the living head of a hundred snakes. Some of them covered the door like ominous vines as the Teutonic homunculus kept chanting beneath his breath, some sneaking into the creaks between the door and the floor like a corps of hungry leeches. The rest of the group could hear small sounds from the other side of the door, frizzing sounds as if small bolts of lightning were being released into the air inside the church. Taking an unsteady step back, Frau Dunn seemed more stunned than before – and an audible gasp could be heard from her as a deep boom, almost as if a small explosion had gone off inside the church, sounded deeper within.
With his 'weapon' still entangled with the door, Sigmund did not move but simply tilted his head, and the door creaked open with a light sound of a bolt being lifted from the floor.
Eagerly trailing behind Johannes and Frau Dunn as they rushed into the door, Illyasviel barely had one moment to grasp the general layout of the small nave before Johannes stepped in front her, blocking her from the view of the solitary middle-aged man standing near the altar.
"… well done, Einsbern. I would do better to give my defences more thought next time."
As if completely ignoring the prospect of being attacked by the Einsberns, the man at the other side of the nave simply lowered his head in a small bow. His elegant and composed manner, combined with his bespectacled pale face and the head of flaming red hair he sported, gave out nothing less than the reserved and confident aura of someone in a position of power. He was a magus. Of that Illyasviel had no doubt.
Moreover, what concerned her the most was the fact that a piece of rock was lying on the ground next to his feet – a rock that positively gleamed with power.
"Hey! That – that stele! That Divinity – !"
"Yes." Frau Dunn's voice dropped. "That is one third of the stele. He…found it."
"You – you are –" As if recognising the man, Illyasviel heard Sigmund's voice falter. Next to him, Johannes once again reached into his jacket, ready to withdraw his weapon.
"Allow me to introduce myself first, you of the Einsbern. I am not surprised that you may recognise me, for I am the current scion of Sophia-Ri family, the Head of Eulyphis at the Clock Tower in London – does that ring a bell, my competitors for Herakles?"
But Johannes already had withdrawn a short steel pole in the blink of an eye as the red-headed man spoke. As Illyasviel watched, the pole extended under a quiet spell muttered by Johannes, growing longer and longer and expanding until it settled into form, solidifying into a long halberd under the skilled manipulation of the Einsbern alchemy. Etched with intricate patterns that radiated with strength and power, the cold blade of Johannes's weapon sliced through the air with a sharp sound as Johannes pointed it towards his enemy.
"Yes, it does ring a bell – and not a pleasant one. Are you the one sent by the Magi's Association this time, then?"
"One sent by the Magi's Association? Please, Einsbern, one such as I do not need to be sent." Brushing a stray bang of hair away from his forehead, the man – the head of an ancient and powerful house that would not fall beneath the Einsberns in terms of ancestry or prestige – only grinned charmingly in response. "I came here of my own volition, seeking a great catalyst that will lead me to a similarly miraculous Servant – yes, though I do not care much for it, I have reasons to participate in the Holy Grail War that you host, homunculi of Winter. Especially since," taking one step forward, with shoes that creaked on the granite floor, the man's eyes darkened briefly, "especially since my own little sister fell by the Einsbern's hands years ago into the same war."
A collective shudder ran through Illyasviel's group as Sophia-Ri's voice echoed in the empty church, sending a chill down the spines of all four of them. Johannes bit his lip. Sigmund widened his eyes. Illyasviel took a stumbling step backwards and Frau Dunn lowered her body, her hands sneaking into her long coat in a pose ready for battle.
"Therefore, please forgive me if I happen to destroy all of you today, even if you ARE the Vessel of the Grail, my Lady." Stretching his arms out expressively, Sophia-Ri did not look at his imminent enemies but shifted his gaze skyward, as if something may fall from the plastered ceiling of the church. "For your arrival, I had prepared the most exquisite of my magecraft –"
As if suddenly sensing something that he had missed all this time, Sigmund's expression shifted and he reached out, grasping Johannes's shoulder. "Wait, he's the head of Eulyphis… wouldn't that mean –"
Before he could finish his sentence, the walls of the small church exploded with a multitude of colours and shades – crimson red and blinding gold, verdant green and blue-hot azure – as tens of Magic Circles sudden sprang into life on the walls. Startled, Sigmund barely managed to command his flowing golden and silver threads to form an intricate cage around the group before the runes in the Magic Circles swirled and gleamed, and hands – feet – eyes – claws – limbs – tails emerged from each and every Circle, as a battalion of unworldly creatures stared down at the Einsberns with ravenous and insatiable hunger.
"You –" It was Frau Dunn who still had enough courage left to speak. A low, dry rasp escaped her throat as her ebony eyes bore into Sophia-Ri's face.
But that was to be expected. It was Team Einsbern's fault for not noticing it sooner – for wasn't Eulyphis the study of summoning and binding?
With one wave of their master's hand, the hordes of unwholesome familiars swept down upon the four who still stood, shocked, and were simply staring upward. With a loud curse, Johannes turn around, and grabbed Illyasviel's hand as he ran for the main doors, which were still held open by a fragment of Sigmund's threads. Behind them, Illyasviel could hear Sigmund and Frau Dunn running as well, the frail cage of the homunculus moving to accommodate their speed at the same time.
"Out!" Once again proving to be physically stronger than what she seemed, Frau Dunn gasped out a sentence as they reached the door, the familiars only one step behind them. "With the people… in daylight… and the army… he can't fight with magecraft!"
Fleeing, with Johannes dragging Illyasviel along and sprinting as quickly as possible away from the church, the four of them soon escaped from the place, leaving the main doors wide open in their wake.
"… You decided not to kill them, Lord Sophia-Ri?"
Soundlessly, the red-headed man smoothed out the light creases on the sleeves of his black suit before deigning to give a look at a younger man, who was walking out from behind the altar and speaking to him.
"Not for the moment. They – no, she – doesn't know what she got herself into the moment she stepped into this town."
With a dramatic sigh, Sophia-Ri stepped out across the nave towards the doors, letting the other trail behind him.
"After all, I will hunt her until she tasted the despair that my sister and her husband had tasted because of her, experienced the fear of being hunted as my sister had… Wouldn't that be an even greater joy than obtaining the Holy Grail itself?"
At the thought of actually fighting at Fuyuki and gaining the Grail, Sophia-Ri couldn't help but let an indulgent, sardonic smile creep up his lips.
"But if that little group actually manage to survive beyond Prizren, it won't be bad to meet the little Vessel face to face again in the future – and watch as my Herakles tears her tender flesh asunder…"
Racing down the rocky path and descending onto the city, Illyasviel had to wonder why their little commotion attracted so little attention from the outside world.
Even with soldiers roaming the road, it seemed what happened inside the Church of Holy Salvation remained undetected. Wait, no… where were the soldiers now?
The previous patrols on the street seemed to have disappeared together with the few military-coloured trucks that she had glimpsed parked near the area. As they tore through the block, sprinting in full speed southward, Sigmund and Johannes had hastily reduced the sizes of their weapons and shoved them back into their coat pockets. With Frau Dunn now in the lead once again, they were moving back towards the heart of the town in the more populated areas nearer to the Bistrica River, the waterway that flew between the Šar Mountains and the town of Prizren – and to the location where their vehicle was parked.
However, before they managed to reach their car, a figure darted out of a side alley and dragged Frau Dunn aside, disappearing into the inky blackness still occupying the narrow streets of old town. Before Sigmund and Johannes could respond, though, the figure poked her head out again, revealing the wrinkled face of an old woman under a black headscarf. Waving one hand, she beckoned the three Einsberns over. With one look at each other, the homunculi saw little choice but to follow.
Having raced through half of the small city and were now huddling under the majestic shadow of the Orthodox Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš, it took them a while to adjust their eyes to the darkness of the alleyway. When Illyasviel could finally see again, she found Frau Dunn to be deep in conversation with the old woman, their voices barely audible whispers. From the way they gestured in earnest and the speed with which they spoke in, however, not all seemed to be in order.
Gazing around, Sigmund positively sniffed at the air, as if he could catch a whiff of their pursuer's scent. Cautious, Illyasviel also reached out with her senses, only to bounce against something she did not expect.
"Another barrier! Right next to us!"
Johannes and Sigmund froze as Illyasviel gasped those words out, looking apprehensively at the grand construction looming close to them, its roof gleaming with the light of pale blue tiles that echoed the bare morning winter sky. Frau Dunn also paused in her conversation, narrowing her eyes against the five intricate domes and the myriad of Orthodox slopes as she looked up, muttering at the refracted sunrays from the brass crosses perched on top of each vantage point.
When Frau Dunn returned to her conversation, the old woman gestured straight ahead rather than pointing towards where their car was parked and shook her head anxiously. Listening to her, Frau Dunn's thin eyebrows furrowed dangerously, her almond-shaped eyes narrowing as she processed all the information that was being given. Lifting up her head to look at the Einsberns with an unusually grave expression, she said a brisk word to the older woman, who immediately disappeared into a dark doorway, and walked back towards the homunculi.
"… Did Lord Acht say anything more about your journey?"
"… Um, we're here to collect the catalyst …?" Scratching the back of his head, Johannes answered awkwardly, apparently not knowing what she was asking.
Her gaze full of mistrust, Frau Dunn beckoned them to follow her as they quickly traversed through the incredibly narrow backstreets of the old city, abandoning the main thoroughfares for good. As they walked with her through the suddenly quiet town, they heard her words drifting back to them.
"You should have been more careful… unless he wants this to happen?"
Sigmund and Johannes gave uncomfortable looks to each other, knowing what she was hinting at. Neither of them was willing to believe it.
"I… er, Frau Dunn, it's probably not what you think it is. This place is a warzone, after all. That Sophia-Ri guy could have easily bought the local troops, made some inquiries…"
Johannes's weak explanations fell on deaf ears as Frau Dunn kept walking along, her hand on her chin and deep in thought. The homunculi had no choice but to follow her. As they rounded a corner to come to the front of the large church they were circling, Johannes and Sigmund were sure that they would see their vehicle by now – and yet they found themselves pulled into the dark porch of the Church and then into the slightly opened ancient front doors by yet more local women, evidently others who knew their guide.
Sigmund heaved a resigned sigh as one of the women closed the heavy doors after them, sealing the room in dim darkness, lit only by the sunlight that filtered in through the small windows that glittered far up in the wall.
"Another old church… excellent. How many more of this does she have in store for us?"
Johannes's words were ignored by the collective. There was more hushed conversation, and Illyasviel could make out many voices, talking in a language she could only assume to be local. Portrait after portrait of old kings and saints lined the walls of this large structure, and colourful stained-glass windows cast varied hues of red and green into the vast three-naved basilica. Then there was a pattering of feet, and a brief frame of light as a backdoor opened and the women filtered out of the room. When the door closed shut and dim shadows once again claimed the area, the walls undulating with altar apses and vestibules, Frau Dunn drifted back towards Illyasviel and the scraping of wood against hard floor could be heard as the elder woman reached a pew and sat down.
"Well, you are quite certain that Jubstacheit wouldn't have sold you three out?"
Illyasviel could not see her surroundings very well. However, she sensed that Johannes and Sigmund were still close to her. There was a thump as one of them sat down straight onto the floor. When Johannes coughed from the dust in this place and his voice sounded at the level of Illyasviel's head, the little girl figured he must've been the one. Sigmund must have still been standing, for when he spoke questioningly, it still sounded at his normal height. Nonetheless, those were not her main concerns. Just then – their guide's tone –
"... Frau Dunn, your English –"
Yes, Sigmund must have noticed it as well. The Slavic accent was still there, sure, but the vocabulary, the grammar… she suddenly sounded like an adept with the language, and the pronunciation of the Einsbern head's name indicated it wasn't the first time that such a long, Germanic name had rolled off her tongue.
"Never mind about my English. Tell me, are there no chances that Jubstacheit could have pre-arranged this, and allowed Sophia-Ri to slip in like this?"
As Illyasviel's blood-red pupils slowly adjusted to the dim interior, she could now spy the inky shadow of the older woman sitting at a pew, facing them. Johannes's long white hair shimmered dimly as he settled down on the ground, his back leaning against a pew. Sigmund, now that she could see the outline of the furnishings, had walked up to where Frau Dunn sat and stood directly in front of the woman. Though he had his back to Illyasviel, she could guess that he was glaring down at their guide.
"Explain yourself, Frau Dunn. We've been played enough, even though we've just arrived in your town."
"You seem like a caster-type homunculus. Why don't you tell me what this place had just been subjected to?"
There was a pause as Sigmund was taken back. Curious, wondering just what she meant, Illyasviel tentatively tried to 'feel' her surroundings, reaching out to gauge just what she was after –
With a collective gasp, both Sigmund and Illyasviel pulled their senses back. What had seemed to be a peaceful, harmless barrier they were standing in had revealed itself to be crawling with – no, almost filled to the brim – with the aftermath of magecraft.
It was as if someone had suddenly lifted away a shroud that had covered this spot up to this moment, as if the violent undercurrents of magecraft that had been unleashed in this place had been revealed to the light for the first time. Illyasviel had no idea how many familiars were involved in digging up the second piece of the stele, which Frau Dunn had undoubtedly buried within this very church. In fact, she involuntarily edged towards Johannes and sat down next to him, and the tall man protectively wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
"He… he was already here…"
Illyasviel's shivering voice was met with a sigh as Frau Dunn's voice sank even lower.
"… That's what my friends just told me. They had noticed two foreigners entering the town, and how soldiers were slowly being moved away… It was as if someone was preparing for something. Some of the local magi also noticed traces of Magic Circles, but never managed to trace them. It was as if they could move those at will, since you certainly didn't detect their presence when he suddenly summoned the familiars back then. With such power and influence in the Serbian army… And he's doing all this without the Einsbern's notice? Even when you are claiming to have hunted Herakles's stele for so long?"
There was a bang as Sigmund slammed his hands on the wood.
"Then what are you doing sitting here, Frau Dunn? If this town is as dangerous as it seems and all your hiding places have been discovered, we should be on your car, getting out! What's the point in staying in this dar –"
"Not possible. My car already got burnt. My friends have just confirmed it with me. Had we moved further, we would have been caught by Sophia-Ri's underling, who was waiting at the spot. Currently, I'd like to stay in here for a while until he passes away."
Another heavy thud sounded as Sigmund sat down on the floor in dramatic anger. Despite the darkness, Illyasviel could imagine Frau Dunn narrowing her black eyes at Sigmund.
"No need to make ourselves so obvious either, Einsbern. I'd appreciate it if you don't try to get them to find us."
Silence reigned in the spacious church for a few more minutes as Sigmund restrained himself and didn't reply. Holding her breath, Illyasviel stiffened every time she heard someone walking past the door on the street outside, but no one burst in. After a long while, Frau Dunn finally muttered her proposal.
"I could hardly imagine two pieces out of the three already been taken… but things are now a little out of my hands. You have two choices, Einsbern. One, we retreat at noon according to your Lord's original plan, and leave the stele for Sophia-Ri and try to take it from him later. Two, we fight – though I can't imagine we'd have much chance of winning."
The twin homunculi didn't respond immediately. Hesitantly, Sigmund opened his mouth: "Perhaps we should reconsider –"
She wanted to hold back. She wanted to listen to Sigmund's safer decision. But a desperation had suddenly taken hold of Illyasviel's heart and the little girl couldn't stop herself from crying out – crying out with stubbornness, with audacity, with desire.
"No! I have to have him – I have to have my Servant!"
There was a long exhalation from Frau Dunn as she replied.
"Lady Einsbern… I had thought you to be better than this. Do you really desire war this much? Do you truly desire such glory and power?"
"I – I"
Words cluttered around Illyasviel's throat and couldn't get out. Not giving her time to pause, the other woman kept talking.
"This land had seen enough warfare, Einsberns, even if much of it were fought over matters far more trivial than the Holy Grail War. Really, what is the difference between an Albanian hill and a Serbian mountain, or a Christian river and an Ottoman creek…? And yet millions have been slain for just such a definition. I have read some files, and I know you have other Servants lined up after Herakles. If you leave now –"
"No, you don't understand! I have to have Herakles – I have to have the strongest Servant!"
The room was completely silent after Illyasviel's second outburst. Suddenly ashamed, Illyasviel drew her legs to her chest and buried her face in the long drape of her jacket.
Gently, Frau Dunn's voice sliced apart the heavy silence.
"… You want to fight, Lady Einsbern?"
Thousands of words swelled up within Illyasviel, but she could only pick one thing to speak.
"I just… want to be strong for myself."
Burying her face deeper into the fabric, Illyasviel mumbled, her voice only audible because of the claustrophobic quietness.
"I want the strongest Servant… I want him so I won't ever be beaten again. I want to show everyone that I can control him, that I can fight as well as anyone else. I want to… I want to…"
"Are you… trying to prove yourself?"
Illyasviel lifted up her face. Frau Dunn's voice had sounded – sad, gentle, and understanding.
"Lady Einsbern, the Albanians have a saying. Nuk ishte ankthi më parë nuk kishte njeri – There was anguish before there was man. That is who we are. That is the reality humans cannot escape from. We should not let anguish overwhelm us or attempt to act upon it. Nor should we attempt to fight and remove it from the world, for it will persist even long after we've faded away. Is fighting to your death… what you really want?"
Biting her lip, Illyasviel could only make an affirmative noise as she emphatically nodded.
She needed that power. She needed that strength. If she does not gain it, if she does not have that strength, then she'll just be like –
But even her mother had failed with the greatest sword by her side.
No, perhaps she had been lying to herself. Proving herself and getting the Grail was only one part of what her heart wanted.
Even if she has absolute power in her hands in the form of her Servant, she still would not be able to escape her fate. But she would be given that power nonetheless. What would she do – how would those short days of power relieve her of all the anguish that she had suffered through, revenge all the agony that she has yet to suffer…?
Was there truly… no escape?
However, she was not given any more time to think as the door violently burst open with no warning whatsoever, and the first thing Illyasviel's eyes beheld was the silhouette of a twisted, grotesque spirit familiar.
An exploded eyeball. A squashed limb. A severed head.
Sounds of gun fire echoed as the blood-stained halberd swung and cut, as alchemical threads tightened and enveloped, as pieces of flesh scattered and flew out like a most morbid flower.
Illyasviel, shielded securely by her fellows, could only blink in fear and wonder as the battle turned the open nave into a river of blood – and somehow, with a barrier that she had just realised to have been reinforced, the city remained oblivious to it all.
Just inside the doors of the church stood the man who had orchestrated this scene of horror, his lips muttering continuously as he cast Magic Circle after Magic Circle and summoned familiars after familiars. With sweat almost dripping down his brow, he skilfully manipulated his army of spirits, which had now surrounded the Einsbern group in the spacious church.
Single-handedly, Johannes exerted a mighty swing with his weapon, cleaving two familiars mid-flight. Next to him, without so much as moving his little finger, Sigmund's low humming made his threads weave the most intricate cages before collapsing into itself, reducing its prisoner to little more than pulp. Lastly, while evidently not a magus, Frau Dunn showed her worth. With a light, semi-automatic firearm in hand, she had stopped wave after wave of enemies, the sound of gunfire ricocheting off the walls – and yet there was no end to be seen.
They had no doubts now about the unique magecraft Sophia-Ri specialised in. They detected no signs of the magus approaching, and there were no Magic Circles already drawn within the church. The only explanation would be that the barrier moved with the man – and the Magic Circles were drawn instantaneously and with words alone.
The enemy they currently faced was not Sophia-Ri himself, but undoubtedly a student of his, at the very least. This man, younger than his master and of a darker complexion, was nevertheless as good a fighter as Sophia-Ri. Had her guards been of a lesser calibre, Illyasviel would not have stood a chance.
Even so, the amount of familiars summoned seemed to be endless. Just as they defeated one wave, more sprang into being around them, some so close it caused Illyasviel to jolt back in fear. Gritting his teeth, Johannes stood in front of Illyasviel, shielding her from the view as he struck them down with a single blow.
"This is never going to finish!"
Johannes's exasperated cry was echoed by the grunts of his fellows. Wiping his brow, Sigmund cursed loudly as three enemies rushed him all at once. Had it not been for Frau Dunn, who rapidly fired half a dozen bullets towards their direction, Sigmund would have suffered a grievous blow.
Muttering words of thanks, the short-haired homunculus barely had time to rest before he had to face more foes. Irritated, Johannes swept away two enemies with his large halberd, his long white ponytail swaying behind him as he took one step forward to yell at the lone magus who never ceased from summoning.
"Who are you? Are you a lackey of that Sophia-Ri's? You'd be wiser not to provoke the wrath of the Einsberns – you'll regret it one day, I swear it!"
Their opponent only gave a thin smile as he chose not to answer and drummed more prana into his Magic Circles instead. It was quite obvious by now that, if this magus was not defeated as soon as possible, the Einsbern group would have a very difficult time fighting their way out of the church.
Sigmund made the first move, sending two strands of his weapon whipping towards the magus while two more assaulted from the side. However, one of the familiars raced back to its master, and swept aside those four threads with its claw. Unrelenting, Sigmund proceeded to entangle the intruding familiar into his web, dismissing it for good. But as his attention was diverted elsewhere, his weapon, usually a defensive and not an aggressive device, proved to be too slow in such melee conditions. With one swipe of its claw, one of the other familiars landed a blow on Sigmund's right arm and blood gushed out from the cut, flowing in unwholesome cobwebs of crimson over the homunculus's immaculate white skin.
Sigmund sank to one knee with a sharp cry and his threads suddenly went slack as his attention shifted to his bodily pain. With the triad protecting Illyasviel now lying broken, two familiars seized the opportunity to rush at the Vessel of the Grail, who had no choice but to stand there, having no means to defend himself.
Having stepped a little away from the collective, Johannes turned around with a roar, angrily rushing back to her lady's aid. Yet he was stopped by more enemies, forced to fend for himself first.
Before he could finish even one word, Frau Dunn's black-form had already appeared between Illyasviel and her enemy, her body resolutely shielding the little girl. Pulling out a pistol and shifting her semi-automatic weapon to a single-handed hold, she fired both gun in front and behind her in a circle, eliminating as many enemies as possible. As she turned, the weight of the semi-automatic still showed as her right arm sank just a little lower, and she shifted her body weight accordingly to accommodate it.
That was not ignored by the last two familiars left in the room. As their master proceeded to summon the next batch, they rushed towards Frau Dunn's right side in a blur of movements and bit into her flesh simultaneously with two sharp, shrill cries.
The semi-automatic flew off in an arc as Frau Dunn flung the familiars off her shoulder, her blood spluttering a sanguineous pattern on the pale flagstones. Her face contorted with pain, she nevertheless gathered enough strength to swing her left hand back and fired two sure bullets, ending the existence of these familiars.
Cradling her arm, Frau Dunn muttered more than a few curses as she, too, knelt on the ground. Growling, cursing furiously, Johannes finished the last familiar who was fighting him and rushed, headlong and heedless, towards the opposing magus. Eliminating his enemy was the only thing on the combat homunculus's mind as he dashed past numerous Magic Circles, ignoring their inhabitants as they slowly formed and heading straight for the summoner instead.
Sounds of frustration slipped from his throat as more enemies materialised right before his eyes, blocking his path to the magus. Swinging his weapon in a wide circle, he chased back some of them and wounded one, but still could not get much closer to his original target.
Then, gunshots could be heard amidst the cacophony of this place.
Crouched next to Illyasviel, Sigmund had again set up a protective cage around the rest of the Einsbern retinue, and Frau Dunn was firing her pistol through the gaps at the enemies surrounding Johannes. The taller homunculus did not miss this chance. Bodily shoving some enemies out of the way, he leaped forward in lightening fast speed and jumped up, ready to cleave the magus in half.
More claws and tails entangled about his weapon, trying to stop him, but he couldn't care about them anymore. With a mighty yell, he swung his weapon down with all of his inhuman strength. The magus dodged, but was too slow – evidently not very used to physical combat in close quarters – and Johannes's halberd made a solid hit into his leg.
The man screamed with pain, crumbling down onto the floor as Johannes, bringing his halberd back around, sliced his head straight off his neck.
Illyasviel made a small sound when she saw Johannes's weapon first hit the man's legs. Next to her, as if sensing what was coming, Frau Dunn quickly wrapped her good arm around Illyasviel right before their enemy's head left his shoulders and shielded the little girl's eyes from the gory scene.
Sigmund panted loudly, his cage collapsing as all of the familiars around them shrieked and disappeared. Frau Dunn also let go of Illyasviel, breathing heavily as she fought the pain. Running back to them, Johannes rummaged through his backpack to bring out their first aid supplies and hastily bandaged the wounds on both of his companions.
"We need to move."
Grimacing, Frau Dunn indicated with her head towards the door. "We can't stay here for too long."
Once they staggered out of the church, the elder woman motioned them to move south, towards the river and away from town.
"There. The Kaljaja Fortress is on the hill to the south of the town and across the river… you'll be able to find it easily… you won't need my guidance to reach it. Get there, hurry, and leave."
Illyasviel's face fell as she trudged along after her guide, reluctance written all over her countenance.
"… Frau Dunn, we're not retrieving the last fragment of the stele after all?"
Sigmund's voice sounded at long last, when Illyasviel looked like she was on the verge of crying.
Shuffling along the street to avoid detection, the mercenary woman paused and gave a look at Sigmund as he stopped after her on the empty road.
"I was under the impression that I should protect your safety above all else. Am I mistaken?"
An awkward look passed between Sigmund and Johannes. To lose Illyasviel, or to lose Herakles – they were not sure which one would displease Old Acht more.
"I won't be surprised if Grandfather allowed this to happen, Frau Dunn." Behind them, in a subdued voice, Illyasviel mumbled. "After all… he can always create me again."
With a baleful look at Johannes, who had just exclaimed out loud regardless of their current situation, Illyasviel then turned and gazed away. "You know the only thing he wants is the Grail, Johannes, not anything else. If doing something can make him one step closer to the Grail – then he would do it, no matter what it is. Creating me, destroying me – if is for the greater good of the Einsbern's pursuit of the Grail, then I won't be surprised, not at all.
"I am, after all, just a tool of the Einsberns… a fragment of the Lady of Winter, a mere section of a whole."
Illyasviel did not respond immediately to her companions, her face impassive as she continued gazing southwards towards the river, where a string of minarets stood under the grim shadow of the silver-topped mountains.
"I hear where you're coming from, Frau Dunn. Perhaps my grandfather did plan this, and really did allow Sophia-Ri to set himself up. After all, this Sophia-Ri seems such a powerful man… Grandfather would surely gain something from appeasing him, no?"
"He is a strong man indeed." Lowering his head, Johannes muttered. "But it doesn't mean he cannot be defeated. Heck, even though he seemed to be able to walk with a barrier around him, he's still there in this town. Lord Acht sent Sigmund and I with you for a reason, Lady Illya. Frau Dunn," turning to the older woman, he continued, "I respect your decision, but we still want the stele no matter what. That is the desire of the Einsberns."
Frau Dunn did not reply at once. Instead, her brows were furrowed as she followed Illyasviel's gaze southwards across the river.
"You make a point, Herr Einsbern. That man, Sophia-Ri, does seem to have perfected his craft to a level where he's able to have a mobile barrier surrounding him, preventing us from spotting him at all times. He is probably eager to find the last piece, so eager that he gave up his apprentice for it. But he forgot that he wasn't the one who hid it, that the person who hid it in the first place also knows of his destination…"
Something sparkled in Illyasviel's carmine eyes as she blinked, suddenly realising what Frau Dunn had said. "Then – does that mean you approve of it, Frau Dunn? That I can still get my Servant?"
Though none could see Frau Dunn's face thanks to the scarf obscuring her nose and mouth, Illyasviel got the distinctive feeling that the other woman was smiling kindly, as if a mother to a child.
"We're not going to be so spent with this small wound, are we now? Go for it, Lady Einsbern. His barriers also emit a small amount prana. I know you Einsberns are excellent casters – so where are we headed for?"
Her eyes wide open in elation, Illyasviel eagerly pointed her finger towards a minaret that soared on the banks of the Bistrica River, its bleached roof shining dully in the sun.
"There! There's a small amount of prana! It's very small so I dismissed it earlier, but that's probably because he's shielding it with his barrier! He's probably in there!"
Narrowing her eyes, Frau Dunn's eyebrows knotted together.
"Xhamia e Sinan Pashës – you're correct. That Sophia-Ri really has guts, daring to go into one of the most famous mosques in this land…"
There was a pause as all three of the Einsberns looked at her, waiting for her to continue.
"… Well, shall we head there, then?"
She didn't need to repeat it twice, not when Johannes and Sigmund had both started southwards and towards one of the many bridges that crossed the river, trying to reach their new destination as soon as possible. Trying her best to catch up, Illyasviel's childish legs nonetheless could not match her fellows' on speed. As she fell behind, however, a hand unexpectedly stretched towards her.
"Lady Einsbern, come with me."
Blinking, Illyasviel looked at Frau Dunn before her, and hesitantly took her hand. Her eyes narrowing softly, the mercenary woman straightened and pulled Illyasviel along.
"… Here, Lady Einsbern. I had thought that, being who you are, you would be more passive about this choice. But now that I have seen your resolve… let me assist you…
"… let me help you gain your Servant from the Sinan Pasha Mosque."
Illyasviel in hand, Frau Dunn quickly led them down to the river's edge, slipping in and out of the mosque's view using the relatively thick crowd around the shops there as cover. As they lowered their heads and crossed the Bistrica using one of the less famous bridges to get to the southern side, Sigmund checked his watch and muttered.
"It's eleven o'clock now. We've got one hour before we have to leave."
"No need to remind me." Frau Dunn grumbled uncharacteristically, leading the party away from the main thoroughfares and going around the block to approach the Sinan Pasha from the south. "I only hope he hadn't found the last fragment and already took it with him."
Illyasviel's hand clenched Frau Dunn's even tighter. "No, he's still there. At least, the barrier is there…"
- and I still want my Berserker.
Frau Dunn needed no sound to hear what Illyasviel wanted to say. The little girl's nails dug into the older woman's palm, and the way Illyasviel bit her lip needed no extra deciphering. As if in reassurance, Frau Dunn responded by holding Illyasviel's hand even tighter.
"We'll get him and the last piece then, Lady Einsbern, and make it out by noon."
Gazing up at Frau Dunn, Illyasviel's eyes widened at the reassurance in the other's voice, but she did not slow down, her short legs doing their best to catch up to the other woman's strides. Circling around the back of the block, they soon approached the back wall of their destination, the place where the last fragment of the stele rested.
There was no back door. Edging carefully along the barren brick wall, hiding out of view from the windows that peered out from three different levels, the four of them shuffled towards the ruined porch. Instead of a door, the front entrance was nothing more than a black, gaping doorway and the group did not dare to look in and crouched down next to the wall instead – even though they knew they had hit the right spot.
"We're inside the barrier now." Sigmund whispered. "They – or, I think, just him – is probably inside right this moment, getting his spirit familiars to dig the last piece up…"
"You think we can surprise him?" Johannes continued, his hand clutching the pole within his coat. "Even with his spirits, he is still just a man."
"What we need to do is to get rid of his moving Magic Circles. We'll have another never-ending wave of enemies otherwise." Sigmund looked down on the ground. "We took down his apprentice, true, but Sophia-Ri is the best at this craft… and being such a good magus, Frau Dunn wouldn't be able to touch him even with her aim…"
At that, the elder woman's eyes looked downward and did not speak again, her hands shuffling in her coat, no doubt fingering the rest of her ammunition. With a sigh, Johannes stood up a little, and moved closer to the door.
"Nothing we can do about that, Sigmund. We'll just have to take it as it comes. You try to stall his familiars for as long as possible, and I'll try to rush him… Honestly, how many spirits can one magus control at a time anyways?"
Wearily and with one last, cautious touch on the wound on his right arm, Sigmund stood up from his crouching position and moved to stand next to his twin, his elegant brows briefly furrowed as his arm grated against the gritty stone walls. Just a block away, they could still hear the subdued sounds of this city, hear the steps of soldiers and the quiet chatter of shoppers mixed with the lulling, slow flow of the winter river. However, as they had already experienced twice already, the air around Sinan Pasha – the most famous mosque in this city – was eerily quiet and still.
What now remained of the mosque was nothing more than a stone cube, its elegant arched porch demolished half a century ago. Its dome roof, used to be clad in tiles of an alluring indigo, now laid barren and pallid under the sun. It had been many years since its century-old stone floor felt the hands and feet of a worshipper, even more years since anyone had preached on the podium near the door. Standing on the outside of this bare front wall, Johannes and Sigmund couldn't help but feel naked and vulnerable, as if something was able to burst out of the windows that peeked out from the walls. With one look at Sigmund, Johannes gave a curt, yet decisive nod.
"… You ready, Sigmund?"
Behind Sigmund, Frau Dunn sat on the ground, gingerly massaging her right shoulder. Next to her, Illyasviel also sat, her eyes opened wide in worry as the older woman hissed under her own touch. As if feeling the twin's gaze, the girl looked up towards her guardians, yet it wasn't a beseeching look that filled her eyes. She was worried, she was concerned, and yet… she did not falter.
Her hands clutched into fists, her short nails sinking deep into her palm, she mouthed one word to the twins.
Please defeat him.
Please get the stele.
Please, help me – help us – get the Grail.
As if it was the voice of the thousands of homunculi sisters created in the past eon echoing together upon her lips, Johannes and Sigmund felt her words. It was the one wish of the Einsberns, the only wish they harboured as they pursued their lost treasure in their castle frozen in time. With one last look at Frau Dunn, Sigmund pursed his lips. She had been a good guide, a brave woman, one who evidently had some unpleasant dealings with the Einsberns in the past but still decided to help them – yet they couldn't count on her time and time again.
Taking out his tangled threads of metal out of his pockets, watching as Johannes's pole emerged and was grasped once again in the other's hands, Sigmund gave a decisive nod back.
"Let's go, Johannes."
Moving as one, they took one step forward – then leapt into the interior of the small mosque with extraordinary speed.
Unhindered by melee enemies this time, uneven stone briefly touched the duo's feet as they crossed the small distance from the front wall to the back in the blink of an eye, paying no heed to the Magic Circles that had started to glimmer on the peeling plaster of the ancient walls or of the ominous figure that was already coming into shape in the podium area. All they saw was the red-haired man, who was hunched over a gaping hole on the ground, his entire attention devoted to that one task as some unknown creature periodically flung up some dirt from deep within the hole, evidently digging. Gritting his teeth, Johannes swung his shaped halberd towards the man's neck, hoping to end this as quickly as possible.
A clawed hand caught his weapon mid-way, however, and a grotesque, devilish face appeared right before his eyes. Leaping backward to avoid a swing of the creature's other hand aimed at his abdomen, Johannes steadied his feet before knocking the creature back with the end of his halberd, landing a solid blow on the familiar's face. His enemy wobbled but did not fall and growled inhumanly before diving down and clawing at Johannes's leg. Stabbing his halberd downward, Johannes grimaced as he pierced his enemy through and it screeched, sending a shiver down his spine. However, he was offered no respite, as two more similarly unholy creatures leapt at him from both sides, forcing him to swing his weapon to defend himself. As a third familiar joined the fray, Johannes had to move aside to avoid being clawed – and lost his sight on Sophia-Ri as he left his position in the middle of the hall, concentrating on his fight with the three familiars.
Just slightly behind him, Sigmund wasn't faring much better. He already stepped aside when the first enemy attacked Johannes, only to hear the sound of something swooping down towards his own neck. Muttering a spell, he sent his threads lashing outwards, sending the creature flying out towards the other wall. Not giving his enemy a moment to catch its breath, his threads whipped out again at its neck with enough force that it took the creature's head off its torso. As he gathered his threads and made one forward step towards Sophia-Ri, he once again heard wheeze of a heavy weapon slicing through the air – and didn't manage to dodge as a mighty blow found his ribcage. With a scream, the short-haired homunculus' body flew out towards the side wall, away from the centre of the room and where Johannes was fighting. Gasping for breath, barely managing to open one eye against the torrent of pain that tore through his chest, Sigmund saw a behemothian shape looming over him, its limbs dangling off its sides as it growled in a tongue out of this world… it was the dark shape that Sophia-Ri had first summoned near the podium. Struggling to his feet, Sigmund readied himself for a tough fight, all thoughts about Sophia-Ri temporarily forgotten.
And amidst the fighting, Sophia-Ri still stood near the far end of the mosque, next to the deep hole that his familiar had dug. Reaching down, ignoring the screeches of his dying familiars and Johannes's enraged growls, he took a large, uneven slab of stone from a clawed hand that reached up from below, cradling the last piece of the stele as if it was the most important thing to him in the world.
"Why, thank you, Einsberns. Thank you for finding and completing this priceless Holy Relic for me, for I surely wouldn't have been able to chase it down on my own funds…" Muttering in admiration, yet projecting his voice so that even Illyasviel and Frau Dunn, who were still crouched outside the front wall, could hear him, Lord Sophia-Ri ran his hands slowly over the surface of the ancient stone, tracing the barely perceivable Greek letters etched into it. Bending down, he placed the heavy stele down on the floor, propped it up next to his leg, and casually cast his eyes over the small room.
"… And to think that your homunculi would put on such a fight against my familiars – isn't it the best treat? However, there is one last problem to be dealt with…"
As Sophia-Ri raised his hand, the familiar that had been digging the hole emerged. Shaped almost like a mole, with a protruding mouth and curved claws, the familiar crouched next to its master, ready for a command.
"The problem of the Vessel of the Grail, of course. Guarded only by a wounded, puny human. Aren't you careless, Einsberns?"
Both Johannes and Sigmund's eyes widened, yet they were unable to disentangle themselves from their battles. With a shrill laughter, Sophia-Ri pointed his hand towards the front door and his familiar ran, almost faster than the eye could see, towards its target.
"Now wallow in despair, Einsberns! Fools you are, thinking that you can defeat all my familiars with just the two of you. Stricken by anguish, I'll slaughter all of you, one after the other! And when I get to the Holy Grail War in Japan, you shall experience even more anguish as you're forced to wait for more millennia –"
The mole-like familiar all but leapt in all fours towards the front door, its claws and teeth bared as it prepared to tear its target to shreds. It could almost see them now – the little girl with the white hair, sitting on the ground with eyes filled with fear –
Wait, just the little girl?
Before the familiar could respond, a flash of black swung past him and a hunting knife, thrust with an accuracy and power honed after a lifetime of bloody battles, planted itself squarely and surely into the back of its skull.
With a gurgling sound, the familiar disintegrated into dust as it collapsed at Illyasviel's feet. Between Illyasviel and Sophia-Ri, just inside the mosque's small room, Frau Dunn's coat still fluttered in the aftermath of her movement as she half-crouched, blood dripping from her right arm as her right hand reached into her pocket.
Startled, Sophia-Ri was taken aback. Just as he started on another spell to summon another familiar, Frau Dunn's hand emerged, her blood-drenched right hand tightly grasping a shotgun.
A brief panic fluttered past Sophia-Ri's eyes as he tried to take a step back, only to be stopped by the heavy stele that he himself had rested against his leg. Two familiars abandoned Johannes, trying to save their master, only to have their legs taken out by the long-haired homunculi. Aiming the heavy gun with her damaged arm, blood flowing freely towards the ground from her black sleeve, Frau Dunn pressed down on the trigger.
"… There was anguish before there was man, Lord Sophia-Ri. Don't underestimate that."
The bullet traversed the fourteen metres between them in a heartbeat, sinking deeply into the man's abdomen. The magus writhed in pain, but bit his lip and did not scream. For a moment, Johannes grudgingly admired the man's willpower, as a Magic Circle could be seen forming around Sophia-Ri, slowing healing his wounds.
"Therefore, don't expect to avenge anguish by causing more anguish. Because that will only send you to the same end…"
The flesh around his wound bubbled, contorted, and split apart. Then, sinew after sinew, tendon after tendon, radiating out like a lethal flower coming into full bloom – all the tissues of his abdomen exploded outwards, moving towards his chest, his groin, his back. His eyes wide open in pain and incomprehension, Sophia-Ri's lips hung open as he let out a pure, animalistic roar of pain, his hands madly clawing at his abdomen, the Magic Circle around him shimmering even brighter in his attempt to stop his body's morbid transformation… but it was to no avail.
"… the same end that your brother-in-law had faced."
With one last, ear-piercing shriek, Sophia-Ri fell to the floor, his entire body swathed in spasms as his limbs twisted on themselves, his blood ran reverse, and all the Magic Circuits in his flesh imploded onto itself, sending torrents of prana to run rampant in his mortal body. Around him, the Magic Circle dimmed and disappeared. All around the room, the familiars screeched in unison as they, too, started to shimmer and disappear, reduced to piles of ash and goo as their summoner met his demise. Blinking in incomprehension, Johannes and Sigmund slowly shifted their eyes towards Frau Dunn, who still stood there with her weapon.
She swung the long barrel downwards as if throwing off a blood stain. The empty cartridge flew from the opened magazine into the air with the momentum, falling onto the stone floor with a faint trace of sulphur.
It was a scene that was enacted almost ten years ago, in the upper corridors of the Einsbern Castle in the winter of Fuyuki.
Drop by drop, Frau Dunn's blood flew down the Thompson Contender. With a sigh, the woman looked down on this weapon, completely ignorant of her companions' startled, disbelieving gazes.
"Ahh… I was once entrusted with this gun by its lawful owner. I did not think I would end up keeping it for all of eternity."
"– Hey, Maiya. Why… do you fight for Kiritsugu?"
A lifetime ago, someone with those same beautiful red eyes and silken silver hair had asked her this question.
"The person who picked me up and kept my 'life' was Kiritsugu; therefore, he can use my life in any way he wishes…"
And she, holding her gun, in the storeroom at the Miyama district of Fuyuki, had answered and then inquired in return.
"Then, madam, don't you have any wishes of your own?"
Barely able to talk, barely able to move, that Lady of Winter had replied.
"This is already the fourth time, and I wish for this to be the last Heaven's Feel. In terms of homunculi sacrificed as vessels of the Grail – I hope I will be the last one.
"If Kiritsugu and I fail, that child will become the experimental specimen for 'the Dress of Heaven'."
Yes. It wasn't a grandiose goal. It was not far-reaching dream like that of the man they both loved. It was the plainest, most ordinary anguish – the love of a parent towards her child.
"Then, if such a world can really be changed… no matter how Kiritsugu chooses to use my life toward that end, I will not utter a single word of refusal."
What Hisau Maiya had not expected was being able to outlive them both.
In another life, she may well have died in that attack by Berserker, aimed to kidnap Irisviel. In a different universe, the child soldier who devoted her life to Emiya Kiritsugu would have died right there, her body going cold in the man's arms as she told him not to mourn.
But that was not how this story happened.
"… Maiya, may you… excuse me a moment? I want to be alone with my thoughts, if only for a little while…"
She had stepped out of the storeroom then, and moved back to the main house. As for why she didn't stay next to the storeroom on guard – she did not know. Perhaps she should have, perhaps she would have, but she could not turn back time and go through it again.
She didn't manage to save Irisviel when Berserker attacked in the guise of Rider. Helpless, she could only chase the fleeing enemy with her mortal legs as they flew, Irisviel in their arms.
Hisau Maiya had then sank to the ground and cried. It was the first time she did that since she could remember.
Kiritsugu did not utter a single word of blame when he heard the news, yet Maiya could see it in his eyes, that brief moment of absolutely bleakness and despair before cold nonchalance quickly overwrote them.
He also didn't let her follow him into the final battle with Kotomine Kirei. She had watched from distant Shinto, alone, as the suburbs beside the Municipal Hall burnt with Phlegethon fire. She watched as the Holy Grail burnt – and there was nothing she could do.
She found Kiritsugu at long last as he staggered back into the house in Miyama that they had brought, as he spoke of finding an orphan in the ruins of the smouldering town. He had changed since they last met. He had aged, wizened, and shrunken.
He was defeated.
Even so, she wanted to stay beside him, but he did not wish for that. As if his soul was lost, he had looked at her with those empty eyes and asked her to go, asked her to find a life of her own.
"You must search for your family and your own name, and the whereabouts of your child. They are things that shouldn't be forgotten. They are things that should be remembered."
Remembering her words as well as his, she had then set out with reluctance, changed her name, changed her passport, and went forth into the world.
And she had stayed here, in this remote corner of the Balkans, in this land that had claimed her son's life – for more years than she cared to count.
And she was no longer Hisau Maiya. She was Agnes Dunn. She no longer spoke Japanese, or English, but adopted the native Albanian and Serbian tongue – though she still could not speak either of them with great fluency.
Yet she did not care. For what is a name, if not simply a symbol? Getting what little money she could as a mercenary – serving the world of magi as well as the world of men – she had survived in this war-torn land, creating a name for herself, creating what passed as an illusion of life.
Then, at long last, a parcel from Kiritsugu arrived in her hands, having been passed through many close and trustworthy contacts. She had opened it in elation, expecting news, any news – only to find his beloved Mystic Code, the rest of his Origin Bullets, and a curt note explaining briefly his defeat under Kotomine's hand and his current condition.
The only man she had ever loved was dying – no, he would have been dead by the time this arrived in her hands.
Agnes Dunn had cried again.
There was nothing else left for her.
Just like when she was born, she would live in this world alone – and die from this world, alone.
If it wasn't for her son's bones resting in this land, she would have left this place a long time ago. That, and all the local women who helped her over the years, those poor but trusting and genuine faces that aided and sheltered her for more times than she could count.
Funny how the things that she never used to care – the intangible ideas of family and companionship – would end up binding her so.
The feel of hot, sticky blood running down her arm brought her back to reality, where she has just killed one more magus with the weapon that Illyasviel's father left her.
A reality where his daughter was standing before her, together with her other created brethrens, as Hisau Maiya's knees gave out and she crumbled to the ground, the Contender falling with a clang.
Hah, she was getting too old for this. No doubts about that.
"You… you are Hisau Maiya?"
Looking up at the girl's quivering voice, the older woman sighed and removed the headscarf with her still intact left hand. Her short hair fluttered as she tore the headscarf aside, revealing her Asian features and her ebony eyes, which were narrowed wearily in response to Illyasviel.
"Yes, I was."
Behind her, Johannes tended to more important matters. He walked up to Sophia-Ri's mangled corpse and retrieved the last piece of the stele. Looking around, he then moved to a sack lying next to the far wall and found the other two stone pieces lying within. Putting them all in the same sack and heaving it over with his augmented strength, he planted it heavily next to Illyasviel and cracked a lopsided grin, trying to divert the girl's attention away from the older woman.
"Lady Illya… hey, Lady Illya, all three pieces are here. What about we head towards the mountain top to catch –"
Putting up her arm, Illyasviel stopped Johannes, her face not leaving Frau Dunn's at all.
"… I've heard rumours that you're still alive, Hisau Maiya… but I did not expect to meet you here…"
The older woman grimaced at the tone Illyasviel was putting on. "And I would not be surprised at all if Old Acht had staged all this just to remove me… though I had done my best to keep my past a secret." Looking down at the Contender lying near her hand, she shook her head. "Of course, I completely did not foresee the need to use this…"
A shadow fell across the doorway of the mosque as Illyasviel took a step closer to her, looming over her, the girl's carmine eyes narrowed in an altogether unfriendly way. Looking up, the Asian woman raised her eyebrows wryly.
"A sudden change of heart, Fraulein Einsbern?" Her voice lowered on the name. "Thinking you should have left this guide for good back when we first meet?"
Illyasviel did not respond. She only edged closer to the Asian woman still.
"… You know what happened to my parents?"
The Asian woman paused, gazing back into Illyasviel's intense, sanguineous stare.
"What if I do?"
Before Johannes and Sigmund could respond, Illyasviel reached out and grasped Frau Dunn's coat collar, her small hand pulling the older woman closer to her. Startled, the veteran fighter gasped slightly as the small homunculus pulled roughly on the cloth, causing her head to roll forward, putting Illyasviel's blood-red eyes directly in her vision.
Illyasviel's lips moved, but no sound came out of the girl's throat. As if staggering, struggling with the emotions that were welling up inside her, she simply cluttered her teeth, not knowing what to say or how to say it. Blinking, pushing back the nameless tears that suddenly started to gather in her eyes, the girl took deep breathes and tried again, opening her lips to speak – only to feel Frau Dunn's arms around her, pulling her into a tight, gentle hug into the older woman's long black coat.
"… It's alright, Illyasviel. It's alright…"
As the older woman soothingly caressed her back, the little girl broke out into sobs in Frau Dunn's arms, her tears drenching the Asian woman's coat as she drew in one shuddering breath after another. All those years of pain, of loneliness, of incomprehension – yet when she finally met one who had been there, who had known the end of that previous war and the last day of her parents' lives – she could not utter a single question, could not give a single accusation.
She wanted to know, she wanted to understand. Most importantly, she want to – even if only by a little bit – feel that they had indeed lived, fought, and loved.
That they had not left her behind to rot in Castle Einsbern.
"Your parents… fought and died bravely, my lady."
Illyasviel froze as Frau Dunn spoke, the older woman's low voice gently filtering into her ears.
"Your mother… fought until her last breath, fighting to protect you. Your father fought as well, for you, for your mother, for his ideals… They did not throw away the War, no matter what others may say.
"… I'm sorry for having failed at protecting them, my lady. I'm sorry for still being alive when they both died, leaving you all alone in this world. I –"
"That's alright, Frau Dunn… That's why I'm here for my Servant."
Pushing the older woman away from her, Illyasviel wiped her eyes, snuffling to regain her composure. Looking at the sack that stood next to Johannes, she lowered her head – and then uncharacteristically screwed up her face and sneezed.
"You didn't catch a cold, did you, Lady Illyasviel?"
Shaking her head at Sigmund's startled question, the little girl rubbed her nose and mumbled to Frau Dunn.
"… You smell like blood and gunpowder."
With an apologetic expression, Frau Dunn gently patted Illyasviel's shoulder with her left hand, her words mixed with a sigh.
"I'm sorry… I shouldn't let you smell those things."
Shaking her head again, Illyasviel shook off Frau Dunn's hand and gave the older woman a weary – aged – smile.
"No, that's fine… that's what my parents would have smelt had they returned to me."
With the three slabs of the stele resting safely in Johannes's backpack, they had set out on the road home towards the hill to the south of the town, towards the crumbling and wind-tousled Fortress of Kaljaja set into the mountaintop.
The loss of their car made the journey more difficult as they had to move up the hill on foot, the frost on each leaf of the grass not making it any easier. The twin males had little difficulties with their physically augmented bodies – even with Sigmund's wound – but Illyasviel had more problems than she would admit as she climbed up the steep path under the flaccid winter sun.
Amidst the ruins of the ancient fortress, they could already see the lone pilot waving his hand at them at the top of the hill. According to Frau Dunn, there should have been snipers on duty – but apparently the reaches of the Einsbern had even affected that as it was now replaced by a single helicopter laying silently in wait on the windswept grass.
Heaving and panting, Johannes ran the last few metres up the hill to reach the helicopter first, unceremoniously dumping his heavy backpack into the cabin. Next to him, Sigmund quickly moved up to rummage out the helicopter's first aid box, and sat on the grass to gingerly reassess his wound.
"I'll help with that, Sigmun – where are you going, Lady Illya?"
"… Nothing. I'm just looking down upon this city, that's all."
And what a city this had been.
Moving to the edge of the hill, the little girl cast her sight out over the town that she had spend the day in, ignoring the wind that roared past her face and tousled her hair, her eyes slightly narrowed as if deep in thought.
"Let me tell you about your parents, my lady. I believe… such an explanation is long overdue."
Inhaling a long breath that reached all the way into the bottom of her lungs, the little girl closed her eyes, letting her rampant thoughts slow down. With her heart beating like a little drum in her chest, she forced her brain to digest all the information at a lesser pace, shaking her head slightly to clear her thoughts if only for a bit.
"Your father did not tell me everything about what happened at the end of the last Holy Grail War, and therefore I am unable to provide you with the truth of the last battle. What I can tell you is just who he was – and that alone."
"The Magus Killer… huh."
Flexing her fingers, Illyasviel's skin remembered the feeling of holding her father's gun in her hands, a weapon that she did not recall ever seeing him holding – but was now the only thing that connected him to her.
"… And what does it matter even if I knew who he was? It won't change a single thing about my life, won't change what I'll have to do, what I'll face in the coming war…"
"I just want you to know and understand, my lady. To suffer and not to know – is a torment indeed."
To know that her parents had made a bid for world peace and failed? To know that her father, a man whom she both worshipped and reviled, wished for something that would sacrifice his beloved wife and would not benefit himself in any manner?
How could he ignore his own anguish as a man and seek such an impossible goal instead?
"I… will only ever fight for myself…"
Whispering into the wind, the little girl allowed her words to be carried downwind into the meandering highway below, not bothering to brush away the strands of silver hair that had been blown over her small face.
"I won't fight for other people's sake. Even if I can't get out of my duty… I would still fight, no matter what."
A weak smile had emerged on the older woman's face as Illyasviel said this, much to the little girl's confusion.
"Kiritsugu said that… as he looked into the Grail, he realised what he cared for the most should be your mother and you. If anything, I don't want you to live for an empty ideal like he and I had… for when the ideal is no more, we realised had nothing else to live for.
"Your father was caged by humanity's anguish. As a man, he did not fight for himself. He did not live for himself. He only sought to dissolve others' pain… he did not realise it when his own started to swallow him whole.
"Though you are who you were created to be, my lady, you have pride and a sense of self in the sea of pain that is humanity – just like your mother had, all the way until the end."
Hisau Maiya no longer knew if she was still looking at Illyasviel or if the image of Irisviel's face that surfaced in her eyes was actually true. She blinked, unaware of the tears that had slowly started to gather in her own dark eyes, as the little girl looked away in silence.
"Lady Illyasviel… Lady Illyasviel!"
"… What, Sigmund?"
Running up to her on the hilltop, Sigmund paused uncertainly a few feet behind her. "So… Frau Dunn is not coming with us after all?"
"No." Illyasviel muttered. "She said that her own life now sleeps in this land… whatever that may mean."
"And…" Sigmund didn't know whether he should ask, but curiosity got the better of him, "what did the two of you talk about in private, after you got Johannes and me out of the mosque?"
"… Nothing." Unmoving, standing like a statue in the lisping breeze, the little girl's voice carried weakly on the wind. "Just some history about a man."
No longer answering Sigmund, the Maiden of Winter only cast her empty, sanguineous eyes down on the city. Like the waters of Prizrenska Bistrica, which had timelessly flown westward into the sea for millennia on end, it seemed for a moment that Illyasviel herself had also become a fixture in this broken landscape, this mortal world where none may transcend pain.
"There is nothing I can do to help you against your fate. No one can, for none can escape the end. I just don't want you to throw your life away like we had, living a life that only caused endless pain for yourself… I only wish that, before the Grail claims you, you would fight for and gain some happiness for yourself – for that is what we live for."
"… Let's get going, Sigmund. We shouldn't let the Holy Grail wait."
Turning away from the city for the last time, she briefly recalled the Asian woman's last few words as her short legs ascended into the hull of the helicopter with Johannes's help and the engine whirred, ready to take her back home, back to preparation for the inevitable war and unrelenting agony.
No matter what happens, my lady… I will be here, wishing you the best of luck.