With a graceful swing of his sword, Assassin deflected yet another strike from Rider's strange nail-like weapons. While he was enjoying himself, it was obvious the tall, lovely woman was simply toying with him until she could get her injured Master to safety.
Rider's teenaged Master was currently on the hard concrete surface of the school roof, clutching his severed stump of an arm and screaming in pain. It really was a shame that he couldn't steal Rider's Command Seals as he had hoped. Caster and her mysterious Master were apparently hoping to expand their team by stealing another Servant to act as their scout in Assassin's place.
While the samurai wanted to be insulted by their blatant disregard for his pride, Assassin knew there was a certain logic to their wishes. He was not a true Heroic Spirit, nor was he the true Sasaki Kojiro. This was because there wasn't a true Sasaki Kojiro. Assassin was merely the spirit of a swordsman forgotten by history whose skills were the closest the Grail could find to the mythical hero.
Because of this, the swordsman had no need for pride. Whatever he accomplished here would be attributed to another man - one who had never even existed. He couldn't even win the Grail, as that would prevent his Master from claiming it, seeing as they were both Servants. So with the little time he likely had and the little mana he had powering him, Assassin found himself concerned with one thing - a good battle.
Of course, Rider was unlikely to give him the proper duel he wanted. She was concerned with getting her Master to safety. Maybe he should let her go, before he tired himself out battling her. Assassin only had a certain amount of energy he could use in a day before he'd have to return to the temple to get more mana from Caster. If he ran out of mana when he was away from the mountain, he'd assuredly die.
Rider appeared above him, her dagger speeding at him like a bullet. Assassin sidestepped the nail-like blade as it impaled and cracked the rooftop. If that was what she could do when she was only playing around, perhaps it would be best if he let her go.
Of course, if he did that, he may never get another chance to have such a wonderful duel.
With a grunt, Rider launched herself at the samurai. She needed to force him back to the other end of the roof to make sure she had enough room to escape with Shinji before the fool bled out. It was still too bright to summon her mount, mere minutes after sunset. She wasn't even sure if it was technically late enough for a proper Grail War battle to begin. But the Assassin Class was well known for treating the rules as simply suggestions.
Like striking snakes, her chained blades lashed out with enough force to drill through the cement of the school roof wherever they struck. She had yet to land a blow on the frustratingly graceful warrior despite being one of the fastest Servants in the Grail War. Every one of her strikes, no matter the speed or angle of trajectory, had been deflected or dodged.
But it was obvious from his aura and the force of his blows that he had almost no strength to speak of. She'd likely just need a single blow from one of her nails to remove him from the War for good.
The first of Rider's chains struck out towards Assassin's left. The samurai spun away from the blow, causing the nail to imbed itself in the metal door leading onto the roof. The next chain was deflected to the right, drilling the nail into the roof's surface.
Assassin smiled. "You're quite good, you know. It's a shame that fool is your master, he's obviously holding you back."
"That may be," Rider acknowledged. "But unfortunately, I can't let him die."
With a sudden burst of motion, she yanked her left arm back, tapping into the Monstrous Strength she possessed in life, and ripped the metal door from its hinges, sending it spinning at Assassin like a discus.
The purple-clad swordsman saw it coming and dove to the right, ducking under the flying door. Rider smiled as she sprung her trap and flicked the right chain upwards, sending chunks of concrete flying everywhere. Assassin's foot tripped over the airborne chain and sent the Servant off balance.
Rider knew he'd recover in a moment, but a moment was all she needed. She rushed forward and delivered a spinning kick to his slim wiry chest, knocking the wind out of him and propelling him from the roof and across the school grounds into a high chain-link fence.
Without sparing him another glance Rider dashed to her fallen Master and scooped the bloody teen up into her arms. Shinji had lost consciousness sometime during the fight and his skin was as white as a ghost, but she suspected he could make it if she hurried him make to that thing he called a grandfather.
While Rider hated the slimeball acting as her Master, she knew Sakura loved her brother for reasons she'd never understand. She did this for her. Everything was for Sakura.
Kirei Kotomine slowly walked through the lowest levels of the Fuyuki Church's crypt. The dank smell of dust and decay wafted through his nostrils, making the middle-aged priest unconsciously crinkle his nose as he neared his destination.
The large double-doors opened, causing the stench of death and decay to rise exponentially. Though the things within the room weren't actually dead, you couldn't really say they were alive either. The few who still had eyes may have shifted them towards the door as it opened, but it was not because they could see. Their sight, along with nearly all other senses, had long since been robbed from them thanks to the priest who was looking down at them with a calm, clinical gaze.
Within the darkened room were about three dozen coffins containing the orphaned children of the Great Fuyuki Fire.
The children, if they could still be called that, looked more like mummies. Their skin was leathery and dried out, with several of them missing arms or legs. A few of them still made nearly audible noises as he walked into the small crypt. Of course, their voice boxes and general ability to articulate things had failed long ago. Ten years ago, the sounds of screaming near constantly echoed throughout the lower portions of the church.
The stronger of the children used to look at Kotomine when he visited them, begging for him to let them die. Some of them would even try asking why he was doing this to them.
The priest never answered that question because really, how could he? 'I'm slowly draining your life-force in a magic ritual to give the legendary hero Gilgamesh access to his vault of weapons,' sounded absurd when he said it out loud, even if it was the truth, but the answer of 'Because I'm an evil sadist,' managed to simultaneously be too obvious and an oversimplification.
Really though, Kirei knew that he mainly did it because it gave him pleasure.
It was a fact he had struggled with for many years. He had been on the path to the priesthood - the path of righteousness since he was a boy. Despite what others would think if they knew of the atrocities he'd committed, Kirei did actually have a conscience.
How could he not, considering how he'd been raised?
But therein lay his problem; by obeying his conscience he could never be happy. But if his conscience was counterintuitive to his inherently evil nature, why did he exist? He had always been taught the virtues of selflessness, and in a way, he truly was selfless. Kotomine was a man without any real desires of his own. He lived solely through his relations with others, but only by causing pain. A just God would never allow someone so fundamentally evil to be born, yet here Kirei was, alive for forty years and embracing his twisted nature for a decade.
One of the children staring at him with its dead, unseeing eyes began to gasp and convulse in its coffin, about to experience the sweet relief of death. Kotomine pressed a gently glowing hand to the child's rotting chest, accessing the only magecraft he was at all skilled with - healing. The gasps subsided and the convulsing corpse child stilled and resumed its breathing. Kotomine couldn't allow them to die yet; a few more weeks of mana was all he needed until the Holy Grail was summoned and the War was over.
Yet despite the Holy Grail teaching what brought him joy, the priest still had no real answers to the bigger questions. Yes, he had read the writings of many great theologians and philosophers; St. Augustine, St. Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Kant, Milton, and Sartre, but he still felt alone. Why did a creature as twisted as him exist and what was his purpose?
There was a darkness in the Grail. He had witnessed it firsthand in the last war when it mended his ruined heart and brought him back to life. Perhaps the evil force corrupting the Grail knew what to make of a broken man like Kirei Kotomine.
Perhaps Kotomine had found someone like himself at long last.
Shinji felt himself start to lose consciousness again as the worms burrowed into his skin. The burning pain as the vile little creatures bonded his severed bones and ligaments together was indescribable. Even as he regained partial feeling in his cold and gray fingers, he could still feel the worms remain where they were, wrapped around the mending Radius and Ulna bones of his forearm.
He tentatively flexed his fingers. Though they could all move, the teen could tell they were much weaker and slower than they should have been. "I'm supposed to be stronger than this," he grumbled. "How long will it take to heal all the way?"
"You'll never have full function of the hand again," his grandfather said in a slimy, mocking tone.
"But I need them for archery!" Shinji shouted, hating the desperate quaver he felt in it. "It's the only thing I'm good at."
"You should be grateful I let you keep the hand at all," the ancient man growled, "considering how easily you were defeated."
"I survived an attack from Assassin," the boy protested. "Once I get Rider some more mana, we'll be the strongest Master-Servant pair in the whole Grail War!"
Strangely, Zouken burst out laughing at this. It was a horrifying laugh that could almost be described as musty, almost like the air being released from a crypt. After a moment, he calmed down and leveled a withering glare at his descendant.
"Fool. I didn't, nor do I ever, expect victory from a failure like you," the ancient magus spat. "What I expected was enough foolish pride to challenge others in spite of your powerlessness. But you failed miserably, failing to face a single Servant before being beaten like the child you are. You disgraced the name of the Makiri. You and your father are both disgraces to our family."
"I am nothing like my father," Shinji winced, fighting back the pain in his injured limb as the worms writhed in agitation under his flesh.
"Really?" Zouken asked with a raised brow. "You're both pathetic, powerless whiners who blame your shortcomings on everyone but yourself."
As he finished, the old man had a coughing fit, sending one of his disturbing black eyes popping out of its socket to land on the floor with a wet thud. A worm emerged from the old man's eye socket and coiled up into a ball, slowly reforming the lost eye. Shinji jerked back in instinctive horror, but a boney hand grabbed his shoulder.
"The only way you'll ever be any different from Byakuya is that when you next fail me, I'll come for you when I need a new body to host my soul. At least that way you could prove yourself useful!"
Shaking like a leaf, Shinji jerked away from the wizened old man and stumbled back, falling on the damp stone floor of the crypt. The slimy, squirming form of a worm crawled over his hand.
With a terrified squeak, Shinji sprang to his feet and rushed from the crypt. The last thing he heard as the door closed behind him was his ancestor's sickening cackle.
Shirou sighed as he entered the bathroom. After a long day of sparring with Saber in the dojo, he wasn't sure which he was more covered in - sweat or bruises.
Sakura and Fuji-nee would be arriving for dinner soon and it wouldn't do to be covered in sweat and bruises from fighting when he was supposed to be sick in bed all day. After that, Rin was supposed to arrive to discuss plans for the War and go on patrol if there was time. So if Shirou wanted to get a bath in, now was pretty much his only chance.
The bathroom of the Emiya house was fairly large, mixing old-fashioned architecture with more modern appliances. Really, the whole estate was rather like that, considering the odd patchwork renovations that his father had paid for during the early years after adopting Shirou. The old samurai mansion had multiple pathways leading across the household in an odd crisscross of hallways, rather like a hotel.
Of course, the bathroom was extra strange considering it had two entrances, one leading from the living room and one from his bedroom. If Shirou had remembered that, he may have been prepared for the foggy glass door leading to the bathtub sliding open to reveal a very naked Saber.
"Ah there you are, Praetor," she said with an easy going smile as she lowered herself into the tub. "We have business to discuss."
It took a moment for the teen's brain to reboot, but as soon as it did, he shot his head up towards the ceiling so fast he may have gotten whiplash. 'Goodness, those ceiling tiles are fascinating,' some part of Shirou's mind thought. 'I wonder how many there are?'
"Saber, what are you doing in here?" he managed to ask in a surprisingly calm tone.
"As I said, I'm here to discuss business with you," Saber said in a mildly exasperated tone.
"B-b-but, I'm bathing," the redhead sputtered weakly while counting the ceiling tiles for the third time. Maybe there'd be more than sixteen this time. "Is now really the best time?"
The blonde Servant seemed genuinely confused for a moment. "Communal bathing was quite popular in my lifetime. I thought your culture enjoyed communal bathing as well. How else do you people get any business deals negotiated?"
For the first moment since this incredibly awkward bath began, Shirou lowered his eyes from the ceiling to look at the girl in front of him. "We usually wear clothing," he said in an even tone. Frankly, if he wasn't in such an awkward position at the moment, he may have laughed at her statement. It wouldn't have been polite, and he would feel guilty about it, but some of the things Saber seemed to think were perfectly natural were so ridiculous it often made him wonder where in the world she had come from.
"I suppose," the girl sighed dismissively. "But that still doesn't explain why you're looking at anything but me. It's rather rude."
Even though his gaze was focused on the tiled wall over her shoulder, Shirou could practically feel Saber's bright green eyes boring into him with a grown indignant rage. How the hell was she getting angry at him for trying to be a gentleman and not stare?
"Sentōs and onsens are gender segregated," the teen quickly answered, hoping he wasn't offending her further. Saber had been a great partner so far and he didn't want her mad at him, even if he wasn't quite sure what he'd done to offend her.
"Really?" she responded incredulously. "Where's the fun in that?"
"I don't think bathing is supposed to be all that fun," the redhead answered even more awkwardly as he began blindly grabbing for his towel outside of the tub. He eventually felt the soft, bristly fabric and quickly wrapped it around himself, not caring that he was soaking the thing in an attempt to preserve some modesty.
"I think I've bathed enough for the night," the teen stammered as he rose from the water, feeling his face go hotter than a thousand suns. He saw way more of Saber than he'd meant to when he was getting up. "I'll, uh, leave you to wash up in peace. See you at dinner!"
Before the curvy Servant could respond to the flustered teen, he dashed out of the room and closed the door behind him.
Ilya huffed as she felt Lancer tense behind her for what was likely the thousandth time.
After spending all morning sulking in her room, Ilya decided she needed to get some fresh air and explore the city. As always, Lancer was uncomfortable with this, preferring the two of them to be cautious and stay hidden all times unless it was completely necessary.
But as always, the little homunculus got her way. After lunch, Lancer reluctantly accompanied her into the city. After aimlessly wandering through a strangely ominous park, the Master-Servant pair came upon a playground.
After her terrible night and being forced to maybe have to start reconsidering all she'd ever believed, Ilya wanted to simply have a little fun and act like the little girl she seemed to be.
Besides that, Lancer's strength meant she gave some of the most amazing pushes on the swings a girl could ask for. Now if only the blonde didn't tense up like a cornered animal anytime anyone came within a hundred feet of the swings.
Ilya had nothing to worry about of course. Lancer may not have killed her annoying doppleganger the other night, but there was no way there was any Servant stronger than King Arthur, especially King Arthur armed with two of his (her?) most legendary weapons. Even if the blonde seemed to worry about her skills, Ilya never did.
"Oh come on, another kid?" a woman's voice sighed in exasperation. "Am I the only grownup in this war or something?"
Abruptly, Ilya's swing came to a crashing halt against Lancer's suddenly armored chest as a gauntlet-clad hand clasped her shoulder.
Ilya's pale red eyes widened as they came into contact with a magenta haired woman in a dark suit, doing her best to look casual as she leaned against the empty playground's slide.
"Identify yourself, magus," Ilya said in a serious tone, doing her best to sound more intimidating than her high-pitched voice normally allowed. It was very hard to be intimidating when one was four and a half feet tall and sounded like they regularly inhaled helium. It was one of the many problems that came with being a homunculus.
"Bazett Fraga McRemitz, and I've been looking for you two all day," the woman said with a grin as she straightened her pose. "Or to be more accurate, my Berserker has."
Before either of the girls could react, a screaming, blue-clad warrior materialized from his astral form and charged at Lancer with the force of a freight train.
Her silvery spear materialized in her hands and blocked the incoming blow while her boots dug into the ground enough to give her the needed traction to repel her screaming attacker.
Berserker skidded back a few feet as a feral smile twisted his otherwise handsome features. "Finally," his voice rasped in an eager tone.
A red mist appeared in his hand and quickly solidified into a wicked looking blood colored lance.
Lancer's eyes widened in shock. "Identify yourself, Servant!" she called out in the authoritative tone of a king.
"I'm the guy who should've been Lancer!" the blue clad warrior roared before charging at the smaller Servant like a bull.
Arthuria grunted as she blocked the wide swinging arc of the bloody spear.
Berserker roared again and pressed forward, changing his technique and instead stabbing at her multiple times. While she managed to block or parry every blow, she knew she wouldn't be able to meet his raw strength even with the aid of her Prana Burst technique. Perhaps it would be a different story if she had been summoned in the Saber Class, but battle was never the right time to concern oneself with what-ifs.
His lance crashed down against the middle of Rhongowennan with a thunderous crash. Even though the holy lance had been enchanted by Merlin and powerful enough to kill several men in a single throw, she still felt the silvery metal buckle imperceptibly from the power of her opponent's strike.
Lancer looked up into the faintly glowing red eyes of her opponent. Whereas before his features had been a near feral expression of bloodlust, there now seemed to be a bizarre sense of questioning in his half-crazed eyes.
"Why are there two of you?" Berserker hissed.
Despite his stilted wording, Lancer knew what the blue-haired man meant. Clearly he had also fought her infuriating doppleganger at some point during the war as well.
Lancer still didn't know who her red-clad clone was supposed to be, but the fact that she didn't appear to Berserker as a red-version of himself meant that her fears about Saber being some sort of shapeshifter were disproven.
"You're wrong," the king said, anger entering her voice. "There is no one else like me."
Sending prana into her limbs, Lancer twirled her spear around, swinging it through an opening in his defenses and slamming it down in a hammer-blow against Berserker's shoulder. The larger Servant buckled briefly beneath the unexpected force of the blow, clearly not expecting such force after deflecting her earlier, weaker strikes.
Lancer leapt back, wanting to end things quickly, before Berserker went out of control. The Berserker of the last Grail War may have been amazingly controlled despite his obvious madness, but Sir Lancelot's nearly inhuman skills had always made him an exception to most rules. All other Berserkers were known for going out of control and eventually killing their Masters. What was to stop the mad warrior from doing the same to the tiny girl not 20 feet away from him?
There was no way Arthuria would let Ilya come to any harm while she was around.
Of course, what Lancer did not know was that in their very park, two concerned parties were paying very close attention to the white haired girl she was prepared to sacrifice herself for.
All around the park the chitinous sound of writhing bugs could be heard, the usual sounds of the night. Of course, what none of the fighting parties in the playground realized was that the thousand eyes of bugs belonged to an ancient mage who couldn't keep the cold smile off his face when he saw the Einzbern Master.
Meanwhile, a witch beneath the mountain watched the scene with a curious look on her face. Even from far away, she could sense an odd connection between the girl and the Grail System.
"My my, isn't that interesting," Caster smiled.
Author's Note: I'm so sorry on the long wait for this and how dead my profile seemed. In the past year, I've worked tons of odd-job art commissions, did some art work for a video game, became the youngest board member of an international film festival and then ran that international film festival. On the less good side of things, I've been injured several times, most resently my back, which left me confined to bed for over a week. While I'm doing better now, my spine seems to get knocked out of whack super easy nowadays =(
Now that the excuses are over, I just want to say thanks to all my fans who keep reading and waiting patiently for this story's return. Despite a year of inactivity, I've still gotten one new fave or follower everyday, which is sort of overwhelming.
If I ever think that I can't properly finish this story, then I will publish the outline I wrote long ago so everyone can at least get a chance to see the ending. Thanks again everyone who's stuck with this and here's to hoping that the next chapter won't take a year.