Author's Note: Heya! This is my entry to the latest Beast's Lair fanfic contest, which snagged first place in the 'Action' category. I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you have as much reading.


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All things end.

This is not in dispute; it is an unassailable fact of our existence. You, everyone you know, the world beneath your feet, all of it will one day pass from existence. You will die, and no matter what you have done it will eventually be forgotten. Nothing lasts forever, except nothingness itself. In the end, all we can look forward to is the void.

So why bother?

It is the nature of all living things to spread. To propagate. To create works of great beauty and great evil. To fight with all their power to survive and cling to life for as long as possible, to leave behind a legacy. But why do we bother, then, if there is no hope of success? Why does life struggle in futility, when all are bound for the same ultimate end?

Because even if you cannot win, surrender is the act of a coward?

Because if you battle with all your heart, perhaps some small spot of hope will emerge?

Because it's just more fun that way?

Such questions are the purview of philosophers, though I tend towards the third answer in my own personal life. I merely know that it is the nature of all living things to struggle without end. Against entropy. Against fate.

Against one another. All too often, against one another. Sometimes, the only way for the species to survive, to continue the struggle, is to hurl another into the void just a little bit early.

And we'll all do it. Because we know that if we do not, the other will. And even if the fight is ultimately futile... nobody wants to be a victim.

Not even me.

-An Excerpt from the Memoirs of Kischur Zelretch Schweinorg

It was like staring into the heart of heaven.

The gems were a world of their own, a perfect pattern stretching into infinity. They sang into her soul; no real sound, of course, just the air of absolute harmony filling her with a radiance that bordered on divine. Singing without words or melody, like she was wrapped from head to toe in the idea of music and it...


If a voice could be said to sound like the feeling of sandpaper, this was it. It sliced through Rin Tohsaka's awareness like scissors through gauze, shattering her concentration. The ritual fell to pieces, the prana she had gathered dispersing uselessly.

Rin fell to her knees, the agony of the backlash leaving her unable to do more than draw faint, gasping breaths as her body was flooded in anguish. "You... you...!" She growled, when she was able to form coherent thoughts again.

"The lattice of the mana web was off-balance, the gems were improperly cut, the ritual circle was a full millimeter smaller than the instructions stated, and the red light hurt my eyes." The old man said, not even bothering to open those eyes which he claimed hurt so badly. "That last technically wasn't something wrong with the spell, it just irritated me."

Rin wiped sweat from her eyes, trying to keep blackness from crawling into her vision. "I... hate... you..."

Not for the first time, she wondered if possibly accepting the Apprenticeship under the legendary Kischur Zelretch Schweinorg was more of a punishment than her execution would have been.

There was no disputing he was an astonishing magus. The Wizard Marshall, master of the Second Magic, Sorcerer and Archmage, living legend. And he had certainly done her a fairly huge favor, sweeping in on her trial and disrupting the proceedings that would almost certainly have ended in her execution... or worse. She owed this man her life, and the training he now offered was likely worth more, judging by how many had died or killed to be taught by the man who now instructed her. He was truly an awe-inspiring figure.

It's just he was also such an incredible jackass.

"The spell..." she growled. "Was fine. The magic was flowing with more than enough strength to call the elemental. The binding circle was more than sufficient to contain it, and the mana was easily potent enough to control it! Why did you stop me?"

"I never said it wasn't fine," The old man said, smirking slightly. "But 'fine' is not the same as 'flawless', and I am nothing if not stringent. Start over from the beginning, the grimoires are on the shelf. Re-draw the circle, prepare the new gems... and use something blue this time. Nice soothing color, blue. You could do with a bit of soothing, high-strung young thing that you are."

Without looking, he raised one hand to capture the ritual bowl that Rin chucked at his head. "You... you! You have... that... the spell was not flawless? You could have burned my circuits out with that backlash, you horrible, bloodsucking old... GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

Wizard Marshall Zelretch rolled his eyes, and that sight was probably the strangest thing Rin had ever seen. She might have laughed if she wasn't so furious. "I like to think you have more potential than that, Miss Tohsaka. You replicated my sword. You have touched the face of God and were not consumed. I have not asked you to do anything I do not feel you can accomplish, and in exchange for that courtesy I ask only that you accomplish it to the best of your ability. That attempt was not flawless, and the best of your ability is. So... start. Over."

Rin stared down the ancient Magus, his scarlet eyes unblinking. In the end, it was the apprentice who broke the gaze first. "... … I don't think I have any blue stones prepared. The Tower keeps me decently supplied in gems for my scholarship, but I'm not a sultan's treasure hoard. Will green be good enough for your delicate sensibilities?"

"Good girl."

The old man leaned back in his chair, watching with mild disinterest as Rin retrieved a small pouch of semiprecious green gems from her room, laying them down in a circular pattern and beginning to draw the runes of the binding circle between them. "Is this good enough? Or will I be burning my soul out over a one-millimeter difference of opinion again?"

"You are the one with the book. Copy it exactly, and measure it a dozen times if needed."

"I will need to sleep at some point, you realize. It's past midnight and I've been up since dawn. We aren't all creatures of the night."

"Oh, come now! Surely the famed Tohsaka spirit that nearly got you killed a dozen times before you turned eighteen will carry you a few more hours."

"I hate you so much."

"That makes you the 74th straight apprentice to say so, and yet I never grow tired of hearing it." Zelretch said with a smile. "The northernmost gem is slightly less than a centimeter too far to the left."

Rin smirked. "So it wasn't good enough after all. Thanks for the confirmation."

"Unless the gem was actually in the right place, and I just made you move it incorrectly. I suppose you'll have to check the book and re-measure, to be sure."

"... you're lucky I don't have a bowl."

"Not really... don't take this the wrong way, but you throw like a girl."

"Hate you. Hate you so much."

"Saying it more doesn't make it get old! How novel."

The room fell silent for a moment, then, as Rin began to once more lose herself in the working of magic. The pain had faded, and the scholar in her rose to the surface again quickly enough as she arranged gems, lightly painted soft lines, thumbed through ancient texts. For his part, Zelretch took to the silence as he usually did, closing his eyes and smiling at nothing in particular. Rin was quite certain he did it specifically to give the impression that there was a joke being told, and he was the only one in the world who got it.

When the blessed quiet was broken again, it was once again by Rin's voice.

"So, why me?"


"You don't have to pretend that the Tohsaka Clan registers in the magical community. Japan is considered a backwater, the Clock Tower really only acknowledged us as the guardians of Fuyuki because nobody else could do it. And if it's because I replicated the Jewel Sword, you know I didn't do it alone. It can't even be stopping the Grail, because it wasn't me. I was half-dead while an Einzbern brought home the final victory." She was leaving out certain individuals, of course: she suspected that Zelretch already knew about Sakura and Shirou's role in the events, but the rest of the Tower Magi did not, and these walls had ears. "So why did you pick me? Why do you expect so much from me?"

Zelretch considered this. "To your question, a question. A nice simple one too, befitting an apprentice. Why do you want to be a Magus?"

"... well, my father was..."

"Your father is dead. Any influence he has on you is only in your head, and if you are not strong enough to step out of his shadow and become your own person, I suggest you leave."

"Then because it challenges me. Magic is something I've done my whole life, and I have never stopped before I became the best, proved to myself that I had excelled, and..."

"Power is not an end. It is a means to an end. Power for the sake of power is worthless, transient. A child's motivation. Besides, neither of those answer the question I asked. I didn't ask why you wanted to become a Magus, I ask why you want to be one. Right now. You could be anywhere in the world; why did you choose this tower?"

Rin fell silent, thinking it over. At first she'd considered this to just be the old man being obnoxious again, but it seemed he was interested in deeper answer. And to her surprise, she really did have to think about it. Frankly, neither of the rapid-fire responses she had given sounded quite right to her anymore. They were just what she had always said.

What did she reallywant?

"I want to be a Magus... because it hurts."

"... less childlike. Go on."

"I've seen firsthand what this life can do. I've seen lives destroyed. People I care about made to suffer for... for nothing of any value to anyone. Just this endless stream of pain and madness and sacrifice, and all of it could be traced back to the Magi. To the same insanity that tore apart my own family when I was just a little girl. And... I started to wonder. Does it have to be like this? Isn't there a better way? I couldn't just leave it like that. That's not me. But I couldn't change anything by myself, either. Not as the person I was.

"But maybe you can make me a different person. A stronger, better one. And that person can change some other people. And they can change others. Maybe then, the next time I see my little sister, I can look her in the eyes knowing I've done even a little to make 'Magus' a title to be proud of again." She shrugged. "Maybe it's not possible. The system might be too broken. But I'm willing to bet my life trying."

Slowly, Zelretch smiled. "And lo, in answering my question the student has answered her own as well. Clearly, my work here is done."

"... excuse me while I get my bowl."

"HA! Oh, fine, be that way. If you must know, it's because I saw that in you. More important than any magic talent, far more important than lineage. I saw the capacity to see something in the world that was wrong, that repelled you utterly, and the courage to do everything in your power and more to correct it, no matter the cost to yourself. It's rarer than you expect, and yet I find there is no one single quality that better defines a truly great Magus. The will to stare into the abyss and fight with every fiber of your being, even when every instinct tells you that it is beyond you.

"Have a seat. Let me tell you a story..."

Europe, the German Countryside, 1175 A.D.

It was obviously a presence that did not belong.

Beautiful, ethereal, and cold, the man in white could not have been more obviously out of place. Even on this bloody field, with the bodies of men and horses scattered around him and great gouges torn in the earth, he was immaculate. Not a hair was misplaced, his bare feet seemed to not even disturb the dust, and not a single drop of blood stained him. He was clad in purest white robes that swirled around him even in the absence of wind, the overall effect more like a cloud of translucent tendrils than clothing. And while his basic form was relatively humanlike, his features were decidedly odd: eyes the shade of fresh blood, impossibly golden, skin that was not merely pale but actually luminescent. He was masculine, but not truly 'male', and the appearance was more beautiful than handsome in truth. But...

But for all the grandeur of his appearance, and he was grand... he merely felt wrong. As if the world itself struggled to pretend he did not exist. He stuck out like a beacon, and yet the eye struggled to avoid him, every instinct of any mortal creature screaming not to look, to turn, to run. Beautiful, yes.

But a monster, nonetheless.

He spoke, and even his words sounded musical, gentle, and yet somehow hollow, as if the ear did not register the full range of what was being said. "Gransurg. Attend me."

The creature appeared in a flapping of wings; blacker than the night, feathered and deformed. Like the creature in white, it was obviously not human, there was no question which of the two was the greater; the black monster immediately fell to one knee in supplication. "Your wish, milord?"

"This man." The white monster said, pointing towards a fallen soldier, wounded but still alive. As far as could be told, the only living man on the battlefield, if barely; his wounds were grave, and clearly not improved by the terror that clearly filled his being. "I saw him as I was preparing to leave, and grew curious. His eyes are strange to me. Wider than they should be. Somewhat manic."

"I believe that to be fear, milord." Gransurg said. He was not terribly surprised... his Master had dwelt on this world for uncounted centuries, experimenting, learning, creating life and destroying it, and could indeed be counted a transcendent genius in most respects. Despite this, he often asked these simple, obvious questions regarding human nature. He could create many wonders from a man's body, turn him into any number of miraculous forms, but he still had difficulty comprehending the most basic aspects of the human mind. Most likely he simply wasn't capable of putting himself in a position he could empathize with something like a human. Gransurg considered this to be right and proper, as humans were indeed so far beneath the Master as to be less than insects.

But as much as he couldn't understand the answers, he never stopped asking the questions...

"He fears me, then? Why?"

"If I had to hazard a guess, milord, I would say it is likely because you slew his comrades."

"I do not understand. They were not him. Their deaths do not diminish him. If it is a case of resources, there is more to be had now that fewer draw from the total. I have done him a great service. Why fear me?"

"Most likely, milord, he has seen your power and considers it to be terrifying, as it is a common human failing to fear that which is beyond one's comprehension. Likely, he also feels you plan to destroy him as well, and fears the end of his existence." The black monster said.

"I see. Do you feel I plan to do this?"

"I... apologize for my ignorance, milord, but..."

"I had no real interest in... this..." the white monster said, gesturing vaguely amongst the corpses. "I was thirsty, and sought only a few small sacrifices. The rest attacked me when I devoured one or two among them. They pierced my body with swords and arrows, struck me with clubs and staves." The white monster's nose wrinkled, as if he were a child who had smelled something unpleasant. "I found it to be rude, and punished them."

"Then horrible death was the least they deserved, milord. The lightest offense against you should be met with a thousand years of torment. But even so, if you slaughtered every one of this young man's companions, mere pattern recognition would suggest to him that he will share their fate." Gransurg said calmly.

"Ah, yes. Patterns." The white monster said. "I sometimes forget to look for them. Tell me, young man. Do you think I am going to kill you?"

The young soldier, pale and bloodied, his armor torn and his sword split in two, could not even muster the energy to reply through his terror. He merely stared, wide-eyed, whimpering softly. Several long seconds passed.

Crimson eyes narrowed. A perfect, pale hand shifted slightly. The scream of the fallen soldier pierced the cold night as what blood remained in his body was ripped from it in a fine mist, which then vanished as it was drawn into the palm of the creature in white.

"He should have answered me promptly. I dislike that sort of thing, Gransurg."

The black-feathered monster, Gransurg of the Dead Apostles, Attendant of the Crimson Moon, shivered in fear and awe at the judgment of his god. Even in so tiny a thing as this, his perfection shone through. "Your will be done, my lord Brunestud."

"I believe I am done traveling. The day will begin soon, and I wish to rest. I think I should like to sleep in a castle, Gransurg. Arrange such." Brunestud said.

"I think that will not be a problem, milord. I know of no territorial disputes in this region, so I suspect this force to be scouting from a local lord. I will locate his home and clear it for you at once."

Brunestud shrugged. "I suppose. It was really just a whim, so if you can't find it, it won't be a real problem."

"Your whims are absolute law, milord. It shall be done."

Brunestud did not quite smile. "I suppose that should be true. Oh, and tell the young ones they can feed, if they wish. I have already taken my fill."

Gransurg threw his head back and let out a cry; no human sound, but the shriek of a bird of prey. Like wraiths, they began to appear on the edges of the massacre... the Dead, come to collect the blood of the fallen for their own, lesser masters. Even some of the vampires themselves chose to appear, secure in the knowledge there was no threat here, in the shadow of their master. Here and there, screams were heard as one of them found a soldier who had not quite finished dying yet, and remedied the situation.

The dead feasted. Brunestud watched for a moment, not displaying any particular emotion, and without another word, chose a direction at random and began to walk, aware that Gransurg would find him when his living arrangements had been secured and purged of vermin.

The moon shone down coldly, as red as blood.

Kishcur Zelretch Schweinorg sighed.

A man in (apparently) the beginning of middle age, he was nonetheless well muscled, with sharp, appealing features. He wore simple but well-made black robes, and a short sword was sheathed at his hip. He could have passed easily enough for forty, thirty, maybe even a bit younger if one was being generous. The only concrete sign as to his age was in the hair; largely jet-black on both his head and neatly trimmed beard, but just beginning to show a few hints of grey. He liked the graying, personally... gave him an air of dignified wisdom.

Looking over the battle... no, the massacre... however, the Sorcerer began to wonder if his supposed 'wisdom' was indeed nothing more than appearance.

It wasn't that unusual anymore, at least not the general idea behind it. Vampires were unfortunately common lately; the True Ancestors were set in their numbers, but over the last few centuries, their demented 'children' the Dead Apostles had been increasing in both numbers and activity. Zelretch had to admit that while he had found the pattern worrisome, he had not truly looked at it as 'his problem', which he could admit, now, was likely a failure of judgment. It was rapidly becoming apparent that this was everyone's problem.

It's not like this was even done for food... there are tracks for a small horde of the undead, but the battlefield carnage is all centered around a single point. One creature did this, and the others arrived to feed after the battle was already ended. There don't appear to be any signs that bodies were removed for research, either. This was just a pointless slaughter, for fun. Probable hypothesis... the vampire responsible is extremely powerful, holds significant influence in their hierarchy, and also appears to be somewhat utterly insane. A poor combination. He thought. Given the power involved, it would most likely be a Demon Lord, or Dead Apostle Ancestor. Worrisome, but not unheard of. I'll pass on the news to that agency young Valdamjong is putting together in the church, and...

Something moved behind him.

"Hee, hee, hee, hee..." The cackling was soft, high-pitched, the laugh of a woman. A woman with a screechy, discordant, obnoxious voice, yes, but a woman. "I knew it. The others went on, but I knew. There's always someone who can't resist coming to look. Do you like the Master's work, little man? You're about to join it."

"Oh?" Zelretch said, without turning around. "Then the artist of this unusual piece has a name? It would make things a little easier on me if you told me that. And since you chose to chat, rather than leaping on my neck, I assume you to be the talkative sort. Willing to share?"

"Ooooooooooh, I just like to let the food know when it's been caught, not to make friends with it. No sense speaking overmuch to the dead. Now then, won't you be a good little meal for me?"

"Not as willing to speak as I'd hoped. Shame." Zelretch still did not face her, but he could sense the vampire's smirk. Their kind always smirked. Not even clever enough to realize that maybe, possibly, the fact that he was not remotely afraid of her was a sign that she was not as in-control of the situation as she thought. Really, she attacked while the sun was in the sky, and hadn't even sent the Dead to test him. Sloppy, just sloppy. "You're sure we can't settle this in a civilized fashion? It's just these are my favorite robes, and getting them dirty would be so unpleasant. And I really am curious."

"I say again, cattle... speaking to the dead is pointless indeed. Now, then, I am very, very hungry... and you are such a fine, strong man. I do prefer to break the strong ones, so forgive me if I play with my food. "

Zelretch tried not to laugh in her face; it would have ruined the moment.

He heard her pounce, the pebbles beneath her feet rattled by her charge. She was fast; of course, they all were. Following the moment of the charge, he had less than a second to react.

Slightly more than required.

He had tensed his muscles to spin before she ever charged, not requiring a tremendous amount of foresight to assume the classical 'taunting evil vampire monster' would be attempting to hurt him in short order. He whirled on her, slashing his flattened hand across her path. A fairly meaningless gesture, were it not for the razor-thin beam of purest white light that flashed from his fingers, tearing through not only the vampire's path, but the vampire herself. Zelretch tried not to laugh once again (It was tacky) as her feral hissing was replaced by a wet, strangled screech as the light sliced through her like a dagger through cobweb, cutting her completely in half.

The archmage walked over to the fallen creature and lifted her upper body by the hair. He saw that she had actually been rather pretty, when she was in one piece. Deep brown hair, lily-white skin, rather striking red eyes... and her legs might have been shapely, but it was hard to judge when they were not attached to anything. "Well then! Now do you feel more talkative?"

"Y-you... the incantation, magi need a..."

"Ah, let's not go into that. It's really not an interesting topic. There's magic and then there's Magic, and leave it at that." He really was not terribly interested in explaining the nuances of sorcery to a being that would not be alive terribly much longer. As unpleasant as she had been, she did have one good point: enlightening the dead was wasted time. "What is interesting, however, would be your input on the events of this intriguing massacre."

"Rot, magus. You will learn nothing from-" The creature began, black blood flowing freely from her mouth

Zelretch made a small gesture with one hand. There was a flash, and the already bisected creature was now missing a finger, the digit reduced to ash. She screamed, cursed, threatened bloody death. Zelretch let her vent for a moment, before stating, "The name, please? Which Dead Apostle Ancestor?"

"You will suffer for this indigni-"

Another flash. Another digit reduced to fine powder. This time, the creature released nothing but wracking sobs.

"It had to have been an Ancestor. Which. Ancestor. Is. Your. Master?"

"G... G... G..." The creature stuttered, stopping briefly to cough up blood yet again. "G-Gransurg... of the Black Wing..."

Zelretch dropped the dying thing, his eyes wide with more genuine shock than he had felt in years.

He knew the name, of course. He studied nearly anything worth knowing, and most of the more powerful Dead Apostles were known to him. Gransurg was a powerful vampire indeed; not born one or turned, but a Magus who had undertaken complex research and ritual to transform his body into a blood-drinking avian monstrosity of his own free will. But he was most notable for his utter lack of any history in such events as this massacre. In fact, he rarely killed so much as a single human being, due to his... unique psychological quirk.

Gransurg of the Black Wing was well-known less for his power, and more for his refusal to take even the tiniest of actions unless ordered to by the subject of his worship, the Crimson Moon itself.

"The Crimson Moon... Brunestud did this? It was here?" Zelretch said, his voice barely above a whisper.

The creature cackled, a wet, gurgling sound. "M-magus... the master will know what you did to me... he will..."

A final gesture, and one final screech as the vampire's head joined the severed fingers as lifeless ash. Final death came upon the thing, and with it an end to the constant whining. He needed to think, and the noise had not been helping.

Crimson Moon. The Father of All Vampires, the Night King, the Purest Chaos...

The creature had been active on Earth for centuries of course, since before even Zelretch was born, and Zelretch was far older than he looked. And certainly, it had never been a completely perfect houseguest. While offering the template for the vampire species commonly known as the True Ancestors, it had wandered the earth, gathering followers, experimenting on various forms of life, and creating many powerful Dead Apostles. It had not, however, been active beyond that. Impossibly powerful, of course, and extremely dangerous if you had the bad fortune to run into it and get on its bad side. But beyond the occasional scuffle, it had been mostly passive. It kept to itself almost always, and was acceptably subtle when it did not.

This was anything but subtle. And it had not been the first such scene to have emerged recently, in remote spots throughout Europe, Asia, Africa. If they had all been Crimson Moon's doing, then the creature was quite suddenly and quite violently become a great deal more active. And given its immense power, and the number of followers it had gained over the millennia since it had landed...

Building an empire?

Zelretch did not care to think about the results of the vampire population building a kingdom and challenging humanity openly. It sounded far too much like an extinction event waiting to happen. And the Church, even the Magus Association, would hesitate to challenge Crimson Moon openly. And, well, hesitating to confront it was what had let it build up a power base to begin with.

Zelretch himself was greater, far beyond anything like a Magus... his research had tapped a power that could be qualified a 'miracle'. He could play reality like an instrument, tap entire alternate universes as a power source, granting him powers vastly beyond even the greatest of the magi. And even before he had found the Sorcery that made him a legend, he had been a veteran of combat against many monsters... it was not for nothing the youngsters called him 'The Wizard Marshall'. He would test his abilities against any Dead Apostle with confidence, even against the True Ancestors.

But this is Crimson Moon.

Zelretch sighed again. "But then, I can't just leave this one alone, can I? My word, but I am an idiot. Ah, well. I guess I never did want to live forever..."

"You chose a rather ugly castle, this time." Merem Solomon said, sitting in the windowsill and glancing out at the setting sun. "I won't miss it when nightfall comes and we move on."

Gransurg fought down the urge to tear the other vampire's head from his shoulders. For all his considerable power, Merem had been a child when Lord Brunestud had found him, tortured by villagers exploiting his unique innate ability to manifest the wishes of others as physical beings. Even following his death and resurrection as one of the lord's Dead Apostles, he still maintained a somewhat irreverent personality; he was ancient and yet still acted the child more often than not. Gransurg found his attitude, both in general and towards the Master, extremely scathing. However, Lord Brunestud had not ordered him to rip the brat to pieces, and, Gransurg understood above all else the simple truth that it was not a servant's place to take any action without his master's command.

Someday, though. The master wouldn't always want both of them around, and then...

Without turning to face the whelp or making any sort of gesture. "The lord approved of it. You know full well any human edifice will pale before the Millennium Castle, yet he chose to accept this as his keep for the daylight hours. You should do as much," Gransurg said. "Though I agree that we should leave as soon as the sun sets. One of my lesser servitors was destroyed today, hunting in the daylight. She was young and weak, but I still dislike staying here while whatever ended her is unknown."

Merem shrugged. "If Lord Crimson likes it, it's fine. Just thought that maybe you didn't put enough effort into your search? A crow will roost anywhere, I guess. Ah, well... I think I'm going to go see if he's awake yet. If he's hungry, he'll be wanting someone to eat, and the sooner we know the less likely he is to wander off on his own." The apparently young man hopped down from the window and ran off, all but skipping.

Gods, how much I would like to kill this one. He is so fortunate the lord thinks him of value... Gransurg thought. Well, in point of fact, Brunestud likely didn't. He did not truly 'value' anything; the vampires who followed in his retinue were more like decorations than anything he truly cared for. On some level, Gransurg believed the Lord could only truly place any value on his own existence and things that might prolong it; his experimental attempts to create more perfect True Ancestors, hybrids, increased breeding, anything that might lead to a body pure enough for him to possess. Again, Gransurg wasn't really upset by that, as one could not expect the thought processes of God to be similar to those of lower beings. Still, his peculiar mind made it occasionally problematic to serve him. He was difficult to predict. He was...

"Gone." Merem said, ducking his head back into the room. "He left without us. Again."

Gransurg tried his very hardest not to sigh.

It smelled like blood and power, so he had gone to find it. It was a great distance away, but he could move very quickly and it was not attempting to flee him, so it didn't take long.

It really was that simple. Brunestud knew that this planet rejected him, and he would eventually die here that was why he supported the True Ancestors and bred the Dead Apostles, in the hopes that one of the two paths would result in a being pure enough to hold his essence. Altrouge had been close, but unstable. The True Ancestors had been close, but impure. Perhaps one of them would manage it sometime after he died? He wouldn't exactly 'die' even if he was killed; thanks to his unique nature, he wouldn't be permanently destroyed unless he was killed on his own world, by a being fromhis own world. He had all the time he could possibly need.

But even if his eventual death had the threat of permanence about it, he did not think it would be tonight. The power he felt was tinged with the scent of humanity, and there was nothing to fear from them.

And so he walked through the across the plains of France, seeming even more insubstantial than before while bathed in the fading light of the sun. There were no sounds; animals could sense his presence, and fled from him. Even the wind seemed to prefer silence where Crimson Moon walked. But there was one thing that wasn't fleeing... the power he sensed stood its ground, beckoning him closer. He grew more amused; it had been awhile since such a bold challenge had been given. It might be diverting, if nothing else.

He came upon the clearing, and stopped, even his own unusual thought processes caught somewhat off-guard.

Zelretch sat on a stool in front of a small, but good quality wooden table. Two simple wooden plates, each set with a roasted pheasant, a ceramic bottle of wine, and two stoneware goblets were set on it. "Good evening." He said pleasantly. "It took me longer than I would have liked to find you, and then to find a place isolated enough for us to have a private conversation. So much work, I found I was positively famished when I finally managed it. So I thought, why not settle this in a civilized fashion over dinner? Simple fare, but filling. I loathe standing on ceremony."

Brunestud blinked several times without a word. If it was possible for such a creature to be 'confused', that was what he appeared to be. Finally, he spoke a single word. "... acceptable."

The Crimson Moon sat across from the Wizard Marshall, and stared into his eyes intently.

"You're not eating." Zelretch said merrily.

"I will eat after you have spoken." Brunestud said meaningfully.

"Aaaaaaaaah, yes, you have a liquid diet. My, I feel silly." Zelretch chuckled. "Well, I assume you already know I am, of course, possibly here to kill you."

"... Bold, for a mortal. I approve," Brunestud said. "But... possibly?"

"Well, I need to ask you something first. Depending on your answer, that's when the killing starts." Yours, or mine, we'll work that out as we go. "Lately, there has been an increase in activity of a vampiric nature, all over this continent. Now, by itself this wouldn't be quite enough to make me step in personally, but a rather charmless young lady dropped the name of one of your retinue before I burned her alive."

Brunestud shrugged. "Replaceable."

"... charming. In any event, the conversation left me a bit concerned. You see... you, at least, had never really been all the interested in the more vicious tendencies of your 'children' and 'grandchildren'. You helped them out occasionally, played around with them more often, and were generally on the benign side overall. You were never the 'bloody murderous' sort of monster. Didn't seem terribly interested in the world as a whole. So... what has changed?" Zelretch asked.

Brunestud considered this. It wasn't something he put a lot of thought into, really. "Well... I might have started wanting things. I came here because the earth asked it of me. And I saw the struggle. The lust for power among the lesser creatures. And I didn't really understand it, because they are so small and meaningless, but it appealed to me somehow. I thought that if they could find satisfaction in ruling such meager holdings, perhaps I would do the same. I began to travel with others, and had power over them. It didn't truly please me, but it was still somehow compelling. I crushed those who opposed me, and it was almost amusing. So I've begun experimenting with it on a larger scale. It isn't like I go out planning to do such things... I'm just less cautious, less willing to hide myself. It doesn't really make me happy, but I don't hate it either."

"I... see." Zelretch said, a tight feeling in his stomach. This was not promising.

"I feel the sensation deserves further study, so I've begun other experiments. I am gathering the dead to me as a court, putting on the trappings of the human royalty. But it isn't enough. I need to think on a grander scale." The creature said. The white tendrils around him were moving more quickly, excitedly. "I think I could master this entire world, if I wanted to. Turn the humans into cattle, make it a world for my creations. Devour Gaia and make her a part of me. The moon will shine forever. I think I can do this, don't you?

"I confess, it isn't quite as amazing as the little tyrants make it look... sometimes, I don't even remember that I'm doing it, and I just wander like I always did. Yet I keep coming back to it, like an itch I can't quite reach, a meaningless game I nonetheless feel somehow compelled to finish. Perhaps I have caught some human disease?" Brunestud asked.

"You have. I believe it is called... well, humanity." Zelretch said. Fantastic, the Horror from Beyond the Stars has gazed upon our species, and decided the worst parts are worth emulating. I suppose we should be proud.

"Ah. Well, whatever the cause, you have the knowledge you sought. Is that the answer that makes you want to kill me?" Brunestud asked. And God, he really did sound nothing but curious.

"I regret to say that yes, it is."

"Ah-ha. And why would that be?" Again, Zelretch wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry at how the only genuine emotion in the thing's voice was curiosity.

Zelretch smiled, casting his gaze across the plains. The rolling hills really were lovely in the sunset. He hoped this wouldn't be the last time he saw them. "I don't know, really. I could make some grand speech about justice and slaying monsters. But that isn't me. Oh, I don't like the way you operate, but it's not really about do-gooding. I mean, it's evil, certainly, but people are a renewable resource. I guess... yes, I guess you could call it ego. I look at the world you're building, and I don't see myself on the top of the food chain. You are ending my world, and I am offended by this. I don't like to be prey, Lord Brunestud, not even yours.

"And I really, really don't like you."

The creature on the other side of the table closed his eyes, lifting a goblet to his lips and drinking deeply. "I don't care for solid food, but the wine is good. Well chosen." It said.

Then he opened his eyes and the world shattered.

Gone were the red irises, replaced by eyes that spun in a thousand otherworldly colors. They would have been beautiful if they hadn't also been so very utterly wrong, seeming to burn into the minds of any who saw them, see into their souls and find them so, so utterly devoid of worth. Eyes that said, 'You are nothing. You have no value. Your life is meaningless, and your death will be equally so. And that death is now.'

And more than that, the space where his eyes focused...

The air around the Magus distorted and warp inward, as if reality itself were shifting solely to crush him. The gravity in the space he was sitting increased ten, a hundred, a thousand times in the space of an instant, the insolent worm to be crushed into a smear on the grass...

If he had actually been there.

Brunestud's eyes widened as the man sitting across the now-flattened table from him did not only not collapse in a puddle of gore and shattered bones, but simply vanished. He heard the gravelly voice in the air around him, emanating from nowhere and everywhere:

"You probably should have noticed that I wasn't eating anything either. Not very observant."

The bolt of light slammed into Brunestud from behind, from an origin point nowhere in the range of human vision; not a razor line as he had used on the lesser vampire, but a blast of blinding incandescent white nearly as wide as the vampire was tall. The whipping white tendrils were shredded, the creature slammed forward as if by a giant fist. The Crimson Moon was pushed along nearly a mile, thrashing wildly as the bolt of raw magic ate away at its body. But the vampire's reaction was, if anything, more impressive.

Silence. Utter silence.

As the beam finally faded, Brunestud rolled with the impact, and rose smoothly to his feet. One moment, his body was smoking, his back nothing more than smoldering charred tissue... the next, he looked as though he had never been wounded at all, his body simply 'reset'. He smiled, slightly. "Interesting. I shall have Gransurg examine your corpse, later, to determine how it was done."

Gravity meant nothing to him, and he was fast to the point that normal vampires seemed to be moving in slow motion. He covered the distance he had been hurled in a heartbeat, and was halfway to the source of the blast in the same time. More bolts of energy flashed at him from the horizon, but Crimson Moon lightly side-stepped each one with a dancer's grace, even as he moved faster than the eye could follow. He didn't bother seeking with his eyes... the scent of the energy was easier to follow, the path of least resistance for his will to look down.

There is no hiding from me.

The Magus was on the other side of a small hill, out of direct sight, weaving his spells over the top of it. Brunestud extended one arm, a blade appearing his outstretched hand. It was thinner than a razor, thinner than the eye could see, visible only by the sparks of angry blue running along the length of the weapon where the blade sliced apart individual air molecules as they touched it.

Crimson Moon looked upon the hill, swung his blade, and the world screamed.

Earth's reality wavered, stretched, and split, becoming a cold black void along the path of the blade's swing, reduced to absolute nothingness by the Knight Arm of the Crimson Moon, Real of the World. A blade that could sever the universe, take all things back past the point of beginning, beyond even their true origin, to a world where time, space, and matter did not yet exist. The black wave consumed everything it touched; grass, rocks, the hill itself and everything behind it, leaving a trench in the earth as smooth as glass. Even when the strike itself had faded, the very space it had passed through was grey and distorted, a wound in reality that might never fully heal.

Crimson Moon gazed up on the scene in satisfaction... until another bolt of pure white light slammed into its left side, shredding that half of its body.

As Brunestud sat motionlessly in the ditch, its left arm and leg growing back, it heard the voice of the magus in the air again, "You have two weak points. The first is obvious... you drank the wine. If you were smart, you would have considered that magi don't play fair."

"... a potion." Brunestud ventured.

"An elixir of True Sight. I know exactly where you are, at all times, and my magic can follow you wherever you go, from whatever angle I wish. There is nowhere you can hide from me."

"... hide...?" Crimson Moon said. In an unnaturally fluid motion, he rose to his feet, once more fully healed, and swung the blade again in the direction of this new attack. The wave of oblivion as reality shattered was many times wider than before, the power channeled through the sword nearly a dozen times greater than before. Brunestud was no longer playing; the darkness consumed a vast swathe of the countryside, extending for miles. If the magus was in that direction, he was dead. No question.

A bolt of light struck the Crimson Moon in the back, burning a hole completely through his chest.

Twenty miles away, in the center of a ritual circle, glowing with projected magic, Zelretch smiled as he saw the Lord of Vampires torn apart for the third time in his mind's eye.

And that, milord, is your second weakness, he thought.

Ultimate One. The most powerful of all beings on his home world, the apex predator. He had never once faced something that could challenge him, never had to adapt, never faced anything that had forced him to evolve. He doesn't know how. So I can keep pulling the same trick on him over and over again.

He reached his mind out into a world that touched his own, drawing on the mana and manifesting it in a solid point, adjusting, directing...

Burn, you abomination. He thought, as the piercing light lashed out yet again from a point that was, in fact, nowhere near Zelretch. Attacks of this level wouldn't kill the Crimson Moon outright, but they cost it power, and cost Zelretch nothing. This would be a battle won by his mind, more than his magic.

Unless, of course, Crimson Moon was smarter than he imagined.

The skies went jet black, and the sorcerer began to wonder if perhaps he had underestimated the Ultimate One's adaptability...

Brunestud cast his will into the sky, and made it roar for him.

The clouds gathered, the wind howled, the natural weather patterns of the world were distorted beyond recognition. The skies for miles around went black as they were filled in the space of seconds by a storm that made a hurricane appear as gentle as a summer breeze in comparison.

If the Magus sought to hide, then Crimson Moon would simple have to leave him nowhere safe.

"Alt Nagl."

With Crimson Moon at the eye, the storm descended, a pillar of wind that covered the entire region, as far as the eye could see. The storm was visible from the next country over and if the human was actually caught within it, he would soon be very, very uncomfortable...

Zelretch was very, very uncomfortable.

He had once, on a trip to the Indian Peninsula, seen a typhoon. This was far, far worse. The winds threatened to shred his body simply by blowing, and that was to say nothing of the vast quantities of rock and dust being hurled against his defensive shields like a hail of hypersonic arrows. The sorcerer was hurled about like a dust mote, buffeted, bruised...

Torn from his protective magical circle, and open for the world to see.

He could see it, even through the black wind: the shining white speck flying at him totally untouched by the storm. The wind didn't even ruffle the Crimson Moon's hair as it flew towards him, those eyes still utterly emotionless despite the rapidly deepening killing intent that swirled around it even more viciously than the wind.

The creature flung out one hand in a clawed grip, and the cloud of tendrils that surrounded it lashed out like whips, wrapping around the flailing magus and hurling him to the ground. Hard. Zelretch was no amateur; he had entered the battle wreathed in enough defensive enchantments to stop an army. He felt the impact rattle his teeth through each and every one of them, the force of it blasting a crater into the already shattered earth beneath him. A rib snapped; he ignored it. It wouldn't kill him. The Crimson Moon gazed down upon him, its Mystic Eyes already turning the Rainbow they took on when about to shatter reality.

As the air around him warped, Zelretch clapped his palms together, brought them apart, and vanished.

Brunestud's rainbow eyes widened in shock. He'd had the Magus in his grip, the real, solid man himself, no illusion. Teleportation? A mortal cannot...

His train of thought was cut off, then, by the mortal in question reappearing behind him from the alternate reality he had temporarily jumped too, and once more tearing his body to shreds. Beams of light scythed from his fingertips, slashing the Ultimate One apart; both arms, both legs, and head all sliced cleanly from his body.

Brunestud seemed not to notice. The severed pieces simply... drifted back together, and the cloak of tendrils lashed out again, this time not so much whips as spears. Most of them skittered harmlessly off Zelretch's shields, but one lone blade pierce through, stabbing deep into his shoulder. The magus hissed in pain and gestured sharply, burning the offending tendril out by force before it could lop off his arm. He drew the same arm back and slammed his open palm at Brunestud, releasing not a concentrated beam, but a wall of force that slammed into the creature and hurled it away into the howling winds. Brunestud slammed into the ground with enough force to crumple plate steel like paper.

He, again, seemed not to notice. That inhuman sword appeared in his hand, and even as he lay in the shattered earth, he swung it and released the wave of oblivion without the slightest change of expression.

"Does nothing kill you?" Zelretch snarled, despite knowing he would be unheard over the wind. With an effort of will, he stepped into another world even as the void devoured the space he had once been, the creature's own storm dissipating as Real of the World tore the heart out of it.

He stepped onto the soil of an alien Earth, barely taking time to breathe the air, but long enough to gather the prana of it in the palm of his hand. With another minor effort of will, his native world blurred into existence before his eyes...

And four sharp, white spears slammed into his wrists and ankles, pinning him to the ground, as Crimson Moon struck him without even turning to look.

Yes, definitely underestimated his adaptability. Zelretch thought. It was vexing to think that, because for some reason other thoughts were not quite getting through the haze of agony. The otherworldly white blades stretching from the cloak shifted, stirring fresh pains in the mage as they pinned him.

Crimson Moon stood over him, and smiled very slightly. "What is your name, Magus?"

"Y-you... want to... know... now?" Zelretch snarled.

"Before, it didn't matter. You were mortal, flawed, meaningless. But now..." Brunestud said, gesturing at his cloak. And then, something very disturbing began to happen. The white tendrils embedded in Zelretch's body began to change color, turning from luminescent white to a very pale pink.

As if a bright red liquid were flowing up the inside of them.

"But now... you are soon to be family."

Zelretch fought the urge to scream. It wasn't easy, because at the moment his entire being was suffused with terror and an awful sense of violation as this... this thing trespassed in the territory of his soul. He wanted to scream, he just knew it wouldn't do any good. He still had a vast deposit of mana stored; he needed to do something with it. Anything. Anything to get this abomination off him for even a few moments.

A plan formed. The urge to scream became the urge to smirk. The pain and humiliation was worth it for a moment this good.

He internalized the power, drew it into his own magic circuits and ignored the burning. This was not his own mana, and under normal circumstances it would never enter his body in such a way; the only energy that actually came from him in his Sorcery was the tiny spark needed to open the path to the alternate worlds. The mana he stole from them never touched his circuits... until now.

He could not send the power out, could not focus enough to weave it into a spell. So he drew it inwards, pouring the magic harvested from another world indiscriminately and wildly into his own magic circuits, and from them, into his blood. The siphons drawing the blood from his body lit up brilliantly as raw energy ran up them and into the creature's body, striking directly at the core of Crimson Moon's essence as it fed.

This got an interesting reaction.

The Ultimate One screamed, truly screamed. While tearing his body apart had been utterly worthless, striking him through the blood he fed upon gave Zelretch a channel directly at the beast's true self, bypassing his alien 'Concept of Death' and limitless regeneration. He poured power down it, not merely that stolen from the other world, but his own, emptying his Circuits to strike at it again and again, burn the vile thing from the inside out, incinerate its soul...

The living cloak burst into white flame and burned black, the luminescent white skin went dull and gray. The inhuman eyes went from rainbow, to red, to a dead, lifeless brown, and still the creature thrashed and screamed as the Wizard Marshall threw every last erg of his power directly into the essence of its being.

Zelretch fell back, exhausted and anguished. He had taken worse than wounds, though, he could feel that much in his blood already. In the absence of the burning magic, something cold and dark was spreading through him. Something empty, alien, and twisted writhing under the skin. And he was so, so thirsty.

I wonder what blood tastes like...

Still, at least he could say that he was better off than Crimson Moon. The living cloak was lifeless ash. His skin had gone beyond merely appearing dull to actually turning gray and cracking in places, sickly white light shimmering from within. The golden hair hung limp and dead. But more than anything... the sense of intangible, 'unreal' power it had once possessed was simply no longer present.

It felt so much smaller.

Crimson Moon gazed upon its darkened, cracking limbs, as if willing them to knit themselves together. When they didn't oblige, the creature did possibly the one thing Zelretch had not expected.

"Ha... hahahaha... HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Brunestud threw his head back and laughed, a distinct edge of madness to the sound. "This... this... this! I knew... I knew this world would... but to think it was a human! To think it was you! Some... some mindless insect without even a name! To wound me! To break this body! I don't... I hate you, but... to think the only thing on this world that I could respect would be the mortal who took my life! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

"Kischur... Zelretch... Schweinorg..." The magus said. "My name. You should... know that."

"... Zelretch." Crimson Moon said. "I shall remember that, when I am reborn. I may even make a grave for you, in the new world."

Zelretch's eyes widened. "What... what do you...?"

"I cannot die forever, Kischur Zelretch. My essence will live on in my children, even if this body is destroyed. The Earth births them to purify and heal it, and one of them will eventually be strong enough to be my new body." Brunestud said. "... Particularly once the source of my own existence is part of Gaia, corrupting her, injecting my purity into every atom of her. The True Ancestors born after that should be far better constructed, once she has a more accurate template. Don't you think that makes sense?"

It was then, Zelretch noted, that although it was not yet full night and the sun had not yet fully descended below the horizon, the moon was already very brightly shining down over them.

It was much, much larger than it should have been. And rapidly growing larger still...

"Of course, humanity and the Dead Apostles will likely not survive to see the new world, but the True Ancestors react poorly to their blood in any event. This was not my first choice of plans, but in the end... yes, it's probably for the best." Brunestud said. "Come, die with me now, Kischur Zelretch, be burned in the pyre of this broken body as I abandon it and prepare to claim a better one. You have earned this honor, for forcing me to use my plan of absolute last resort. For a mortal to so inconvenience a god... die proudly, in the grandest display this world will ever see."

The moon was ten times larger than it should have been, and getting larger. Zelretch could see it turning from silver, to red, beginning to burn as it touched the atmosphere, the shattered landscape beginning to flow upwards as gravity drew it in... the moon was falling. More than falling, it was actually going to land directly on him.

Ha, ha, ha... I was a fool, wasn't I? To think I could stop him. This is... this is how a mortal who faces a god fares, I suppose... I will be crushed under the hammer of divinity. I suppose... if I have to die, this is... this is...

Die. Here and now. And let this thing get everything it wants.



"NO." Zelretch said. Slowly, painfully, he stood. His legs shook, but after some time, they held his weight.

"You say that as though you have a choice, Kischur Zelretch. You only defeated me by fortune, and it cost you all you had. You think you can turn aside a world? This is the end of days... accept it, and end."

Zelretch smirked, blood flowing from his mouth. "You obviously haven't been paying much attention to this world while you've been here. I'm a sorcerer, a wielder of the True Magic."

The magus drew the blade at his hip. The hilt was wrapped in plain black leather, but the blade was transparent, crystalline... and it burst into magical light as soon as it touched the air.

"Doing the impossible and spitting in the face of God is part of the job."

Zelretch raised his Mystic Code, and the Jewel Sword's light became impossibly brilliant, so bright that even Brunestud felt discomfort looking upon it. And yet, he could not look away, even as the glare got brighter, brighter than the falling moon itself, as Zelretch used the Sword as a crutch, replacing his own exhausted magic circuits, to draw in mana from a hundred other worlds, a thousand, a million. So much power his body felt as though it would shatter just from being near it...

He raised the blade and released enough power to crack the firmament directly up at the falling moon.

The white light slammed into the falling celestial body, and Zelretch felt his mind would explode. The power he channeled now was more than he had ever used at once, more, he knew, than he could safely draw on. He could feel his body changing... his muscles burning down, his hair graying, wrinkles forming in his skin. His body was wasting away even as he worked.

And he couldn't even tell if it was working. The moon was... was impossibly huge, and it didn't seem to be getting closer, but it also didn't seem to be getting any further away, and...

More. I need more. He touched his mind to other worlds, new and untapped worlds brimming with power, and drew it into the sword. More. More. A million became tens of millions, hundreds of millions, billions, an endless line of worlds, more power than he could have dreamed of wielding in a thousand lifetimes. He could see each and every one of them flashing through his mind's eye as he took power from each, an endless parade of images, people and places that he knew he would never remember, his mind simply unable to hold and process the sheer data pouring through it, the images whirling like some impossible kaleidoscope...

The falling moon, pressing against this wall of power and will...

Slowly... so painfully slowly...

Was pushed back.

The light faded, leaving the scene bathed in nothing more than the normal, quiet light of the moon, hanging in the sky.

Crimson Moon looked upon the Magus, his body worn and ravaged by magic and the already-encroaching vampirism. Years of his life torn away by the power he had channeled, his eyes already turning the blood-red of a Dead Apostle...

Brunestud saw this broken man, and for the first time in his existence, felt something that might have been fear.

The magus turned his gaze upon the Ultimate One, and there was nothing in his eyes but utter, impossible cold.

Crimson Moon smiled. "I think... yes, I think I finally begin to understand you, human. Only now, at the end."

In a movement too fast to be human, the old mage clamped a vampirically strong hand around Crimson Moon's neck. "I understand you too. Watch."

The Jewel Sword glimmered one last time. The world blurred around the Ultimate One, and when it stopped, he found himself in Hell.

The world was desolate, and dead. He could no longer feel Gaia at all, could not feel his children, could not feel any life at all. And in the sky above him... his own home. The moon. It was dead as well, he could not hear it singing to him, and...

And it was falling...

"I saw this in my mind, just a few moments ago. I couldn't wait to show it to you." Zelretch's smile was terrible to see. "A whole world for you to conquer, just like you always wanted. Enjoy it."

And then the magus was gone, and Brunestud was alone.

And the moon fell.

Gransurg of the Black Wing set down in the devastated land, his heart sinking.

Lord Brunestud was... was gone. He had fought here, released his powers to their greatest extent, and he had been defeated. His presence, the shining light of his divinity, was gone from his Servant's mind.

There was no reason to live. There was...

The old man appeared next to him, as if from nowhere. "Which one are you?" He asked.

"G-Gransurg." The vampire said, blinking his inhuman eyes in shock. "You... who are you? You smell like the Master, and..."

"We knew each other briefly, yes. When he was alive." Zelretch said, and the words shattered Gransurg's heart. "And it seems he left his mark on me after all. I suppose if I were going to become the Dead, it would have happened by now..."

"The Master's touch creates nothing so flawed as a Ghoul," The Dead Apostle hissed. Even if... even if the Master was... appearances should still be maintained. "All those he feeds upon rise as Dead Apostles. A sign of his divinity."

"Ah. Ah-ha. Well, I suppose that saves me a few centuries of shambling. I take it you were his attendant?"

"His worshipper. His personal magus. His..."

"Seek a new career. I'm in no position to deal with you right now, and... and I'm just tired. Of all of it." Zelretch said bluntly. He wasn't lying, either. His magic circuits were burned out, and likely damaged; he would never be able to utilize power to this extreme level again. On top of that, his body had lost much of his remaining youth, and he could already feel the vampiric curse beginning to burn in his blood. It had not fully taken root yet, but... it was only a matter of time. He very much wanted to curl up in a ball and die, but he doubted that would even be possible anymore, so he would settle for the chance to sleep. For a month. "I'm going home. Don't let me hear about you again."

And as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone.

Gransurg sat alone for some time, before taking wing. Merem was loathsome, but he had served the Master. He deserved to know. After that...

After that, he just didn't know.

England, The Clock Tower, Present Day...

Rin sat in silence, unsure of what to say, if anything.

"... I call bullshit on the part where you stopped the moon." She settled on.

Zelretch chuckled. "Believe it or don't. The moral is really what matters, after all."

"There was a moral?"

"There are things out there, little one. Horrible things. Things that will repel you to the core of your being, and that you as a magus and as a person will feel compelled to oppose, at all costs.

"And when you're doing that... won't you be glad that your form was flawless?" The old Sorcerer smirked. He pointed to his scarlet eyes, the mark of a vampire. "Wouldn't I have been better off not underestimating a God?"

He touched one hand to her stomach, where the scars from that last battle with her corrupted sister rested. "Wouldn't you have been better off with a more thoroughly considered plan than a half-forged Jewel Sword and a vague desire to kill you never really believed in?"

Rin sat in silence, lost in thought. Shadows everywhere... a black hole in the world, screaming with impossible evil... and at the heart of it all, a girl with white hair and red eyes, so eager to kill her, even as her eyes begged for salvation.

There were, indeed, things that the Magus Rin Tohsaka felt very, very compelled to oppose at all costs.

"Never again." She said, pressing one hand to her scar. "Never."

"You can't decide that, sadly." Zelretch said softly. "You can just make sure you're prepared to deal with it when it happens."

Slowly, Rin smiled. "Well... that's what I'm here for, right?"

The old mage smiled. "Good girl." He leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. "Now! I believe the lesson has sunk in. So, if you would be so kind as to complete the ritual? You had most of the circle left to draw, I recall? And the gems aren't in the proper arrangement, so re-set them. And..."

He was cut off, then, by a rather heavy ceramic bowl, intended for the holding of ritual potions, striking home on his forehead.

Rin smirked wickedly. "Flawless."

Zelretch smiled, rubbing the tender spot on his forehead. "I'm going make your training a special kind of Hell for this, you realize."

"Bring. It. On."

And the lesson continued.

Outside, a bright and beautiful full moon shone down.