Disclaimer: The works of Type-Moon and Jō Taketsuki are their own despite my most fervent wishes. This is a fan work and if anyone does pay me for it the only thing it will accomplish is to get me into trouble. This is being done purely for fun, constructive criticism is welcome, and flames will be ignored. Please be gentle though, this is the first fanfic I've put on the net.
Sorry this chapter has taken some time to get out, I'm afraid that my muse was playing the coy minx for quite a bit it, though I don't think the quality slipped only the production rate. It also kept on growing on me, which has led me to the resolution that the next couple of chapters will be shorter than my usual ones but should hopefully get done faster.
Well, the last chapter brought this fic over the 3K review threshold, and I have to say that I'm honestly amazed. I'd like to thank all my reviewers for their encouragement and suggestions. I have been very lucky in that the less polite or unsatisfied make up only a tiny percent of those that have taken the time to review.
A lot of people have noted that Guinevere was not in Manaka's vision. Well the reason for that is that I've been planning for Tiamat to be a part of Shirou's inner group for quite some time. Guinevere, on the other hand, I had intended to serve as a more peripheral character and eventual antagonist. When I was writing chapter Twelve my original plan had been for her to try and kill both Shirou and Mordred together only to fail and set the stage for the final clash between the two. However when I got to writing the scene my Muse was in overdrive and the result was Shirou saving Guinevere, Arondight awakening and the Witch Queen saving Shirou and falling under the effects of the Hero's Bride. All in all I think it was far better than what I originally had planned.
Anyway rest assured that the Queen of the Divine Ancestors will not be marginalized in any way. I have plans for her.
Something that I noticed while rereading my own work, and which I'm surprised that nobody else has pointed out, is that during my description of the Hero's Bride Authority I made a small error. I forgot to mention that Shirou is unaware of the Authority's passive effects, as far as he knows all it does is provide the minor vitality boost and allow him to exert control over one girl if he has previously saved her. He isn't aware that it makes him more attractive to the women that he has saved. This has been something that's always been in my head but that I realized I've never written down, if you look back over the whole thing you'll note that it explains one or two things. Sorry for this minor blunder.
Right, first off I hope that the way I'm depicting Shirou handling the after effects of his enslavement and rape by Venus isn't too bad. I didn't like the idea of him simply throwing the effects off, after all something like that should leave some sort of emotional scar behind, and I didn't want to go with the notion of him forgetting the whole thing due to being under her Authority, that seemed to be just too contrived. Instead I'm trying to depict a sort or repression of the events that is slowly leaking through. Sorry if this isn't too realistic, unfortunately my studies into psychology didn't cover anything like this so I'm at a bit of a loss.
Next up I imagine that some people might complain that I'm repeating myself a little bit in this chapter by having some of the characters making the same observations. The reason for this is that one of the focuses of this chapter is the different ways that everyone is taking in what has happened. Since some things are more obvious than others they will be mentioned by more characters. Sorry if it's not to some tastes, but having all the characters thinking completely different things seemed unrealistic to me.
Incidentally Tiamat's chosen clothes are inspired by a picture I found on the internet while googling 'queen ancient Babylon'. I don't imagine that it's completely historically accurate, but if Perseus can get away with that white coat and cape get-up then I think this is fair game. I wanted Tiamat to wear something distinctive and exotic when compared to the other female characters and I think this is just about right.
In regards to my Omake, it was the result of an idle thought of what would happen if instead of being raised by Kiritsugu, Shirou was raised by a Servant that survived the War. I know it's been done in a couple of other fics, but I was wondering what it would be like if he was raised by Lancer or Rider. That got me to thinking about my Omakes and what it would be like if one of the Servant Campione got hold of Shirou as a child, thus this was born.
I know that I'm playing a bit fast and loose with a few facts such as how Avalon functions and Saber being able to break Gae Buidhe as she did, but this is an Omake, not a serious chapter so I think a little leeway is allowed. Incidentally, in case anyone's wondering, Gil is still about in this Omake, having gained a body as in canon, so in the future I might write a semi-sequel where he and Doni meet, but that's just an idea right now.
I'd also once more like to offer my sincerest thanks to my Beta for his excellent work in helping me get this chapter ready for you all.
Chapter Twenty Three: The Tempest: Aftermath
Shirou didn't actually remember returning to his manor. He remembered getting into a limousine that had pulled up near the edge of the devastated area that had been the battleground, and he remembered something of a fight, as to who was going to be sat next to him, though for the life in him he couldn't remember who had been arguing with whom, but that was it.
As soon as he'd sat back into the leather upholstery of the limo's seats his exhausted mind had gently drifted away into the comfortable blackness of sleep. He'd been vaguely aware of raised voices, but that had been a faraway thing that didn't really concern him.
He supposed that at some point he must have arrived at the manor, but the first indication he had that he was no longer in the car was when he'd become blearily aware of someone pulling off his clothes. That little revelation had been disturbing enough to rouse him to a semi wakeful state, and he'd opened his eyes to make out the blurry form of Illya once more trying to undo his belt.
"Illya . . ."
The single mumbled word from him had been enough to freeze his adopted sister in place as she'd looked up at him with an expression almost identical to one she'd worn in Italy when he'd regained consciousness to find her in more or less the same situation.
"Errr . . . this isn't what it looks like."
Despite his utter exhaustion the young Emiya couldn't help but feel a certain level of amusement at how the situation seemed to be almost a repeat of his waking up in that room in Naples all those months ago. However that particular fact was of minimal importance and didn't manage to stick in his head for very long. Instead he focused on the fact that he was currently lying on something soft and comfortable, something that a blurred and muzzy glance confirmed was his bed.
Bed for sleeping.
Yes, that was important. Deciding to leave all worries about the awkwardness of the situation for later Shirou fumbled his belt open and kicked his trousers off. The shirt and tunic that still clung to his body, mainly due to dried blood and sweat, was a bit harder to get off so he took the easy route of simply tearing it off in one movement. Already torn and blasted the fabric offered little resistance and came away as though it were made from tissue.
Unencumbered by clothes the eighth Campione wormed his way under the covers on his bed and immediately began to feel the comforting arms of sleep starting to envelope him. Oh, wait, Illya was still there wasn't she?
He was home, he was safe. The comforting tides of sleep washed over him.
Guinevere sat in the room that had been provided for her by one of Sir Shirou's servants and wondered just what in the name of all the heavens she was doing.
This wasn't her plan; this wasn't what she had intended when she had decided to try to save the son of Pandora that had caught her interest. Her intention had been to save him from Venus's cruel enchantment and only stay around long enough to ensure that he knew to whom he was indebted and then make her exit. The point of the whole endeavour had been to increase her mystique in his mind, make him think of her as a powerful player in the game of Gods and Campione that should be respected.
Yet here she found herself, a guest at the house of the young King for no other reason than that she was unwilling to allow Tiamat to gain an inch on her in regards to Sir Shirou's opinion. The question now was; what next?
She wanted . . . what did she want? Well, one thing she did want was for Sir Shirou to kick the fallen goddess out of the door while loudly declaring that while he had so capable and resourceful an ally as the Witch Queen of Britannia on his side he had no need for some hanger on has-been deity. The image of the fallen goddess's helpless anguish and embarrassment brought a smile to Guinevere's lips as she thought about it. And once the nuisance was gone then it would only be natural for the young King of Steel to pay greater heed to the Divine Ancestor whose company he had accepted.
The face of the eternal child started to redden as her thoughts drifted away from alliances and mutual interests and entered territories occupied by recollections of some of the more risqué romance novels that she'd read in her spare time.
"AHHHH! No, bad Guinevere, bad! That isn't what you're here for, remember that!" Flustered by her own thoughts the blonde haired Divine Ancestor jumped off the bed on which she'd been sitting and made her way over to the room's dresser so that she could stare at herself in its mirror. "You are here to establish an alliance with Sir Shirou and to learn more about his link with your King, do not forget that."
Her expression turned a bit dreamier as her thoughts wandered back to her recent daydream.
"Besides, sir Shirou would never be so aggressive as to pin Guinevere against the wall so he could-"
Realizing the thoughts that she was about to voice out loud the Witch Queen slapped both hands over her mouth as though to physically stop the words from escaping. What was wrong with her? She was Guinevere, the highest of all Divine Ancestors and handmaiden to Artus himself. She had manipulated gods, nations and Kings before, reshaped mankind's perception of legends before. So why was she having such trouble keeping her head on straight when it came to the child of Pandora that she'd titled as the King of Steel?
Taking a deep breath Guinevere tried to regain her normal composure. Yes, half the time she might act like a somewhat spoiled child, but that was mostly an act both for her own amusement and so as to cause her enemies to underestimate her. She had to remember that, she had to hold onto it.
Right, what was it that she really wanted? A simple enough question, for the moment she wanted to secure a place close to Sir Shirou without the risk of being supplanted by Tiamat. That was the goal, now how could she achieve it?
She needed something, some argument or service that she could offer to the eighth Campione that would secure the position she wished. The problem with that plan was that she didn't know what she could offer Sir Shirou that would get her what she wished for. Well, that wasn't quite true, she had a number of things she could offer, it was just that she never would, the Holy Grail for example. The simple fact was that she was unwilling to simply hand over such a prize, even if she could call it back to her possession at a moment's notice. Such a scheme might have served to trick another that she cared little about into her service, but that wasn't what she wanted to exist between herself and Emiya Shirou.
She just didn't know enough about him, that was the problem. She didn't know what he wanted, what his future goals were or what he strove for. She was aware of some of his movements due to her intelligence gathering, for example she was aware of his deal with the History Compilation Committee to gain further reagents to summon undead servants with. She also knew that the group of businesses that was being managed by the young king's servants had become immensely successful and wealthy. Everything she knew about him pointed towards the King of Steel building a powerbase, but for what exactly that powerbase was intended she had no idea.
So . . . she should find out.
Yes, the more she thought about that the more reasonable it seemed to her. She was a guest in Sir Shirou's manor, if ever there was an opportunity to learn more about the mysterious eighth Devil King then it was now. She didn't even intend to find anything particularly secret; all she wanted was to gain some insight into his goals, the kind of thing that could be learnt simply by overhearing the gossip of the servants that served him.
Her plan now firmly in place Guinevere got up and left her room determined to find the information she sought. A few minutes after she left there was a soft knocking upon the door to her room, sadly there was no one there to answer it.
Meditation was an art that Tiamat had more or less mastered over her centuries spent as Andromeda. It hadn't been something that she'd particularly wanted to learn, but she'd found it necessary in order to keep control over her growing frustration and restlessness and her condition as a Divine Ancestor. She had been well aware that there were short cuts to regaining her full stature as a deity, methods that would allow her to quickly amass enough power to reach some level of divinity. The problem had been that none of those methods would allow her to regain all that she had lost, to return to her true self. That and the fact that almost all such methods invariably required mass human sacrifices.
That hadn't been what she'd wanted, she wished to return to her true self so that she could overcome the cruel fate that had been inflicted upon her. And she'd also been canny enough to realize that even the preparations for such a huge offering of mortals was almost certain to attract the attention of any local magic groups which would in turn almost guarantee the appearance of a Campione.
So she had forced herself to learn patience and restraint, she could not afford to take chances, to risk the resources and knowledge that she'd painstakingly accumulated as the centuries passed. That had been why she had learnt the arts of meditation, so that she could control her emotions rather than allowing them to control her.
And now here she was, a goddess once more but a sadly diminished one.
One of the first things that the Mother of Dragons had done as soon as she had been alone in the room she'd been provided with had been to turn her focus inwards to see just how much of her power remained. Initially she'd possessed a third of her full power, but the same mystical wound through which Jord had stolen the majority of her divinity had continued to leak her power even after the link had been severed. The metaphysical injury had been healed, but not before even more of her power had been lost. As it stood Tiamat estimated that her current strength was just under a twelfth of her full strength.
Taking a deep breath she allowed the anger and frustration within her to rise only to fall back like a wave that had crested, all the time retaining her composure. Again and again she allowed the pattern to repeat itself until her unruly emotions had exhausted themselves and calm ruled once more.
Yes, she was much reduced, but that didn't change the fact that she had indeed regained her godhood. Weakened though she might be she was still more than she had been as a Divine Ancestor. Her power was also slowly restoring itself, though it would likely take her the better part of a century to regain even half her strength. It was the same self reinforcing principle that she'd explained to Venus, as long as she had her power in a relatively uninjured state it would slowly heal itself. Athena might possess far more power than her but that power was crippled and static in that it was unable to heal itself. If the former goddess of earth and darkness could regain enough of her lost power then that would change, but for now her divinity wasn't growing back.
Her earlier despair was gone, a fading memory of weakness that she now felt ashamed to have ever experienced. She had regained her determination and now fully intended to recuperate what had been lost; the only question that now remained was what to do next.
Her emotions calm once more Tiamat left her cross-legged seat upon the room's rug and went to stand before the full length mirror that stood by the door to the room.
The young woman that stared back at her from the large looking glass was unfamiliar to her. This was not the immortal girl/child that she had been for centuries past, yet at the same time it was not the goddess of the sea that she had been with the return of her divinity. Though her maturity remained her features and details were different, all traces of inhumanity were gone from her now save for three short protrusions of bone that remained hidden by her hair. The horns were short immature things, but to her they were some comfort. Aside from them all other signs of her draconic nature seemed to have been suppressed, her claws were now nails, her scales were skin, even her eyes were those of a woman rather than those of a serpent. Even her hair had altered its colouration, before it had been the deep blue of the sea with highlights of red like thin trails of blood amidst the water. Now that had reversed itself leaving the majority of her tresses red with only thin locks of blue among them.
She was unquestionably beautiful, the theft of her divinity had not robbed her of that; however her loveliness was no longer a thing that transcended human limitations. It was no longer the monstrous beauty of a sea in storm or the brilliance of striking lightning; this was an exquisiteness that, though heart-stopping, was nonetheless within mortal mentality.
If she was to be completely honest with herself even her mind was not that of a true divinity. As Tiamat fully restored her mentality had been almost elemental, despite her retention of such concepts as honour and fairness. As she was now she was far more . . . reasonable than she had ever been as a deity.
A knock on the door brought her out of her thoughts and back to the present. For a moment she simply stood there, uncertain of her course of action for the first time in decades, then she drew herself up and marshalled her dignity. She was a guest in this house, therefore she should have nothing to worry about so long as she comported herself in the correct manner. Seating herself in the armchair that took up one corner of the suite that she'd been given she answered the knocking.
"You may enter."
There was a brief pause, then the door swung open to reveal one of King Shirou's servants, one of the souls to whom he had granted bodies if the power that hung about her was anything to go by. She was a woman of middle years who had the look of one that was strong willed about her. All her movements were confident and though she wore the uniform of a servant she moved as though she would expect even a queen to defer to her in this manor.
Interesting, the young son of Pandora seemed to have an intriguing subordinate.
"Greetings to you Tiamat-sama," the servant stated as she manoeuvred a trolley into the room. "Illya-sama informed us of your situation in regards to clothing and told me to provide you with suitable apparel. These have been delivered from a boutique that stocks fine examples and provides immediate deliveries round the clock. Would they be suitable?"
The fallen goddess in question blinked a couple of times before exactly what the servant was referring to finally clicked in her head. Given how one crisis seemed to have followed another repeatedly it was only now that she was becoming aware of the state of her clothes. Before losing the majority of her power the thin cloth of the robes she had worn had been made more from manifested power than it had been from natural material. Upon her betrayal the fabric had petrified into a stiff and coarse cloth, one that was also quite fragile given the rips and tears that had developed over the last couple of hours.
Yes, new clothes would be a good idea at this point. If she wished she could always materialize some out of her power, but given how low it was any action that helped conserve her meagre stores was one to be seriously considered.
"Very well, let us see what you have?" As she spoke the words Tiamat did her best to draw up the tattered remains of her regal bearing. Fallen though she might be she was still a goddess and so stood higher than any mortal ruler, she would not allow herself to be seen humbled by the mere servants of her host. Such would be a slight to not only her own dignity but his as well.
Wordlessly the undead servant drew out a number of packages from the trolley and carefully opened them. Tiamat had never been a connoisseur of garments, what clothes she had worn had been creations of her power that had served only to highlight her status above common mortals by their richness and extravagance. However even so she could tell that the revealed garments were of top class in both material and tailoring. Blouses, dresses, kimonos, gowns and robes, a variety of different styles from a number of cultures were placed before her as one after another they were unwrapped.
Clearly King Shirou knew how to spoil his guests.
After some searching she eventually decided upon a red and white silk sari style dress that wrapped about her legs and ran up in a vaguely toga style over one shoulder. Beneath it she wore a red sleeveless blouse that strongly resembled an abbreviated choli exposed her midriff and subtly emphasized her breasts. It was of a design similar to what women wore in Babylon in the years of her godhood and struck a certain spark within her. There was an embroidered shawl that accompanied the dress, its rich crimson edged with blue in a contrast that matched her own changed hair. The full effect of the new clothing was suitably exotic and beautiful. It wasn't at its best though; she'd need to procure the correct jewellery if she wanted to show herself to her best for King Shir-
The Mother of Dragons paused in her thoughts as she realized she was honestly contemplating how best to appear attractive to the young King in the clothing that he'd provided for her. Why? In what way did that advance her own benefit?
Well, if she was able to seduce the King of Steel than her security would be guaranteed, on the other hand she was aware that he already had a lover, and one that he felt strongly enough for that he'd been able to overcome even the Authority of a goddess of love for her. No, seduction was a path that would end in ruin for her; she had to be less obvious, less . . . simple.
Even as she considered her options Tiamat didn't notice how one of her hands was clenched into an enraged and frustrated fist.
Scarlet lips pressed down on him, hot and demanding.
The nails on her fingers raked down his chest, their pressure just shy of breaking the skin and drawing blood.
She uttered a word and his hands tangled in her hair as he responded to her desires.
Her teeth bit down on his throat hard enough to thrill witho-
The bed sheets flew away as Shirou surged up, a sword Tracing itself into his hand without him even thinking about it, as his eyes darted around looking for a target.
Seeing he was in his room the young Emiya relaxed after a moment, allowing the sword in his hand to fade back into ambient Prana once more.
That was when the pain hit.
Since becoming a Campione Shirou had really come to appreciate the enhanced vitality and durability of his renewed body. His personal theory was that since no mortal body, however trained or gifted it might be, could either possess the magic reserves to power an Authority or even support the power of such divine might then becoming a Campione had imparted semi-divinity to his flesh. That certainly explained how his durability seemed to have escalated to levels that some Servants would have envied with the same being said for his magic reserves.
Another positive side effect of the change to his body had been the enhancement of his recovery ability. Be it wounds or exhausted prana reserves normally it only took him a single night to heal up from anything that ailed him. Even the exhaustion of almost all his mental, physical and magical reserves after his battle with Mordred had been largely dispelled by a good, if slightly delayed, night's sleep. Once that was done he'd woken up almost fully returned to a complete state.
Now though . . . in all honesty he felt amazed that he'd been able to move as he had, let alone Trace the sword he'd wielded. Every Magic Circuit in his body felt as though it had tried to burn its way out of his body. Prana was flowing through them in a healthy quantity, but the metaphorical 'bruising' on the circuits told him that not too long ago they'd been drained dangerously dry.
As for his physical state, if anything it was almost as bad as his mystic one. If any of his muscles weren't suffering and letting him know it then they were being drowned out by all the others that had no trouble in voicing their displeasure. In the past he'd felt something like this in his arms when he'd over-practiced at archery, he'd even felt something like this after his incorrect attempts to use Magecraft when he'd been jury-rigging his nerves as substitute circuits. But this was the first time that he'd ever experienced the sensation coming from every part of his body at once.
With a groan of pain Shirou slumped back onto his bed, privately blessing Yusuke for insisting that his king purchased the western style four-poster bed as opposed to simply sleeping on a futon. Right now it was akin to resting on a cloud, its soft mattress wonderfully comforting to his aching body.
Lips so red . . . hands so hot . . .
Shirou shook his head as . . . something tugged at the edge of his mind. He didn't know what it was, but for some reason he felt his hands clench into fists.
Shaking his head, or at least trying to given that his neck ached as much as the rest of him, the red haired teen tried to work out exactly what had happened. The last thing that he could remember with any degree of coherency was entering the train station to rescue the trapped civilians. After that it all became blurred and confused. There had been flashes, broken memories that tried to string themselves together but seemed unable to hold any sort of cohesive line and simply fragmented again. Bits came and went, he could remember remembering, but not remember what it was that he was remembering.
The first thing that emerged from the fog of his fractured memories was his moving to save Tiamat. Before that there were other flashes, more complete than the unremembered ones but still only shards as opposed to complete memories. The exertion and pain of battle, the clash of weapons and swords, so many swords all awaiting his call, unlimited swords and weapons . . .
That was something he needed to consider, something to take his mind off the forgotten recollections that none the less managed to stir feelings of pain and anger. Unlimited Blade Works was now unquestionably his, he could feel the words in his mind, the aria that would allow him to manifest his inner world upon existence to create the terrain that existed within his soul. He had achieved something that less than ten humans had ever managed in all recorded history.
Honestly, he didn't know how to feel about that.
Oh well, it wasn't as though the Clock Tower didn't already have plenty of reasons to want to take him apart all the way down to the cellular level, and probably beyond if they could manage it. His Authorities or just the changes they'd wrought upon him and his Magic Circuits would have been more than enough to have the vast majority of the mages there reaching for their scalpels and drooling like dogs faced with fresh cut steaks.
The absurdity of the image brought a small smile to Shirou's lips, several of the memories he'd inherited from Archer supplying some faces to further furnish the amusing daydream.
Alright, the next thing that he had to think about was just why he was so tired. Given his current state as well as what he could remember he guessed that he'd been in some sort of combat, but apart from that the facts and recollections eluded him. Who had he been fighting? Why had he fought? How had the battle ended? All these questions occurred to him, but his brain refused to give up any answers to them.
This . . . this was pointless. He could make clever deductions or speculate until the bed decayed around him and he wouldn't be any closer to being sure. If he wanted to know then he'd have to ask someone.
Shirou moved to sit up . . . and then thought better of it as every muscle in his body seemed to scream out in pain. This wasn't simply a case of being sore, the fibres that made up his muscles were torn something to hell, at this point moving about wasn't simply difficult, it was almost structurally impossible.
Under most other circumstances the young Emiya might well have found the absurdity of the situation to be humorous, instead it was nothing short of vexing. Here he was, one of the most powerful people in the world, and he couldn't even get out of bed. With a sigh he leaned back into his pillow and did his best to get as comfortable as he could without actually moving. Someone would be along in a bit; all he had to do was wait. The recovery abilities of a Campione were superb, he'd be able to regain mobility in fairly short order, and once he did he had a good idea of what he could do to accelerate his recuperation.
All he had to do was wait.
A guttural moan on her lips as he tugged at her hair almost to the point of pain, her voice ordering him to hurt her, to take her, to-
Beneath his covers his hands closed into fists as his heart thumped with sudden fear and anger.
And he had no idea why.
The first things that Kusanagi Godou saw as soon as he woke up were the violet eyes of the Heretic God Athena.
The fact that they were only about a foot from his own eyes was the reason for his somewhat high-pitched squawk of surprise as he shied back so much that he ended up falling out of the bed that he'd been sleeping on. Clad only in boxers and a t-shirt the seventh Campione blinked up at the childlike divinity that was now sitting upon the bed and gazing down at him.
"Hello Kusanagi Godou." He voice was soft as ever, the same feather-like tone that he'd heard when he first met her back when Erica had set up a match with her in order for him to prove his worth to the heads of Italy's magical orders.
Involuntarily his mind flicked back to the night before.
Flashback to just after Jord's defeat.
The small form of the fallen goddess stood before Godou and his companions. Before she had been acting as a guard, protecting them from the dragon's attack, but what now?
"Honoured Athena, though we are grateful to you for your protection I must ask as a knight for my King; why have you aided one that has been your enemy?"
Once again it was Erica that was the first to regain her wits and find her voice. The Crimson Devil still looked more than a bit shaky from the attack that she'd had to endure, but that didn't seem to detract from her elegance and poise as she once more got to her feet. Not for the first time the first King of Japan couldn't help but wonder why such an amazing girl had chosen to follow him with such devotion.
"Kusanagi Godou is my foe," Athena declared as she turned to face the King and his entourage, "He has been the one to defeat this goddess and yet he spared her. I shall permit none others to defeat him; Athena is the only god that may claim to defeat Kusanagi Godou."
It had taken him a bit to sort through what she was saying, his mind still being a bit foggy from all the explosions and his head a bit awhirl due to all the sudden changes and twists that were taking place. He'd beaten her so now he wasn't allowed to lose to anyone but her? Well there was a certain logic to that, if you took into account that he was dealing with an entity whose ego and rationality were in no way constrained by the human norms. If you looked at it that way then you could see from where she was coming from.
"So you do not wish any harm to our King? You will not threaten him?"
Liliana was firm on the heels of her friend/rival, the blue knight valiantly fighting to her feet and standing shoulder to shoulder with her childhood friend.
"The fruit is not yet ripe, nor have I regained my full strength. When Kusanagi Godou has sharpened his fangs in battle against others of this one's Heretic kin and once Athena has regained her full divinity, only then shall it be time for our final battle. Until then none shall be allowed to interfere with that future."
It was almost frightening, the certainty in her voice as she explained her reasons as well as her plans for the future. As far as she seemed to be concerned what she'd stated was a fact, an utterly immutable future.
He didn't know how to take that, his fight with Athena after she'd absorbed her power which had been sealed away within the Gorgoneionhadn't been the most desperate or difficult battle that he'd ever endured, but at the same time he'd always had the feeling that it could have been. Athena had been almost drunk upon her returned power; she had underestimated him and used the power she'd regained inefficiently due to overconfidence. Had she been more humble, had she taken the fight serious, then there was little doubt in his mind that things might have gone very differently.
"So . . . what now?"
Alright, that hadn't been the most sophisticated question he could have asked, but at the time it had been the best he could do. All things considered and given that there were patches of his clothing that were still smoking he thought it wasn't all that bad.
"I shall . . . guard you, at least until your strength has returned." It was probably a trick of the light, but the seventh Campione could have sworn that he saw a slight hint of red on the pale cheeks of the goddess as she delivered her ultimatum.
"Oh Athena . . . what do you mean that you will 'guard' our King?"
Yuri was leaning against Ena in order to stay on her feet, but she was none the less up and facing the Heretic Goddess.
"Until his strength returns, until he is ready to begin sharpening his fangs once more," There was a pause as her eyes flicked over to where Guinevere was arguing with . . . was that Tiamat? Between them sat an exhausted and bemused looking Shirou, "The King of Steel has invited the God of Steel's handmaiden and Fallen Tiamat to rest the night in his home. The same invitation has been extended to the elder God Slayer and yourselves. You shall sleep there tonight, it is far more defended and guarded than your own home and shall see to your safety."
It wasn't even an order, because an order had the possibility of being disobeyed, this was a statement of fact, a dictation of how the world was going to be.
Godou could have protested, he could have but up some sort of objection, but the fact was that by that point he was feeling pretty exhausted himself and the thought of resting at Shirou and Illya's positively luxurious manor was very appealing. On top of that he really didn't want to get into a disagreement with the fallen but still powerful goddess while he was down several Authorities, low on magic reserves and physically worn out.
"Sounds like a good idea?" Despite it being an agreement the words came out as more of a question.
Athena simply nodded, as though his agreement had been foreordained.
By the time they'd all arrived at the Emiya Manor practically everyone had been on the edge of falling asleep to one degree or another. Godou had been to all intents and purposes sleepwalking by the time they got there. He'd been vaguely aware of Erica and Ena having a half hearted argument with one of Shirou's servants about not being able to sleep in the same room as their King, but that point he'd simply been too tired to care. In the end all he'd cared about was that he had a serviceable bed to collapse into and the covers to keep him warm as he drifted off into sleep.
Right now though he was starting to consider, possibly for the first time, that maybe having one of his female companions next to him in bed wouldn't have been such a bad thing. At least then he wouldn't have had to face Athena on his own.
"Err . . . what are you doing?"
It was times like this that Godou found he really envied Shirou. The eighth Campione always seemed to know what to say and how to say it, he never had the words stick in his mouth or found his tongue all tied up so only weak responses would come out.
"As I stated, I shall guard my most dear prey until you have regained your strength. Keeping vigil over you while you rest is naturally a part of that duty."
"And just how long have you been keeping 'vigil'?" the young Kusanagi asked, although he had worrying suspicion that he already had a good idea of how she'd answer.
"Some seven or eight hours. I have been very vigilant; you have not left my sight once."
Perhaps she'd meant that as a reassurance, but quite understandably her statement failed to assuage his nervousness. Watching him sleep for seven or eight hours straight, that was straying dangerously into yandere territory.
Yandere territory? What was he thinking? Although . . . it did seem strangely appropriate given that the child-like goddess had both kissed him as well as tried to kill him.
A growl from his stomach brought Godou out of his thoughts and back to the present. Food, that was what he needed, his slightly light head and somewhat tilted thoughts could be explained away by him being damned hungry right now. Glancing over to the side of the room he saw that it had its own en-suite bathroom complete with shower and tub, he could see both through the half open door.
"I-I'll just go take a shower." He stated as he got to his feet and shuffled away from Athena and towards the bathroom.
Much to his rising worry she followed him.
"Errr . . . I'm going to have a shower you know?"
"Yes," the fallen goddess's voice was a calm monotone, "I shall accompany you."
It took a couple of seconds to realize that she was completely serious; she was going to follow him into the bathroom and watch him the whole time.
"Eh? Hold on, you can't do that!"
"Your Authorities have yet to fully recover," she declared her voice and stance soft yet both holding a steely resolve within them. "The bathing areas are where Kings have been found to be most relaxed and unwary, to that end in ages past many Kings have brought guards and protectors to watch them while they bathe, until Kusanagi Godou has regained his full strength I shall fulfil this duty."
Perhaps a simple rinse of his face and upper body would do for now.
Illya hadn't had too much sleep, but then she hadn't really needed it. Out of everyone involved in the royal mess that the battle with Shirou had degenerated into she'd been the best off out of the mortals when the dust had finally settled. Her reserves of magic were relatively full and her puppet Berserker had been able to shield her from most of the physical damage. Certainly she'd ended up using a substantial potion of her Prana to regenerate the damage to her torn up creation, but that had really been her only major cost.
So, while all the others had followed her onii-chan's example and collapsed into sleep, she had begun her analysis of the battle and tried to work out what long term repercussions it might have.
And boy were there plenty of things to think about.
First and foremost was the fact that Shirou had unquestionably faced two other Campione, both of them more experienced than him, and undoubtedly been the victor. Granted both Godou and Luo Hao had both been fighting to subdue rather than kill, but even so her adopted brother had managed to place them in a situation where the only reason they were alive was because he had allowed it. All it would have taken was one more wave of swords and they'd all have been dead, none of them had the available energy left to successfully deflect such an attack.
On the other hand many Campione had some Authority that could allow them to cheat death. She was aware that Godou had one, though she was unaware as to the specifics of its use, and given that she'd survived so long as a God Slayer it was most likely that her Eminence had a similar ability. Of course had the final use of Unlimited Blade Works reduced them to dust then it was unlikely that all but the most powerful resurrection Authority could have saved them.
The next issue was Unlimited Blade Works itself.
Illya hadn't honestly expected Shirou to be able to use it any time soon, like within the current decade. She was aware of how integrating Archer's arm into himself by becoming a Campione had allowed her brother to access the memories stored within it of both the Servant himself as well as the other Shirous that Archer had come into contact with. In theory that would have allowed him to tap into the same Reality Marble as them, but in practice Shirou's own internal world was too different due to the changes his distortions had undergone when he chose Sakura over his ideals. His eventual ability to fully manifest it was something that she'd been sure he'd manage eventually, however the distortions that Venus's control had placed upon him had resulted in him doing so far earlier than she'd believed possible.
Well, now that was no longer the case. Having manifested Unlimited Blade Works once, the next time would be far easier, the only real limitation being it's high Prana cost, though for a Campione that wasn't much of a limitation at all. This meant that Shirou was now in possession of what could arguably be described as one of the highest peaks of magecraft.
There was more to worry about than that though. A frown crossed her face as she sat at her desk and looked at the notes she'd written, the name of Shirou's Reality Marble stared back at her from the page. Three simple words written in black ink upon white paper, yet the trouble they represented was enormous.
Mortal magic could not defeat a god; this was an absolute fact in this world. The few spells that allowed mortals to even harm gods were those that tapped into the power of other deities or similar sources, and even they were in no way reliable as to what damage they could inflict. It was the reason that no mage, no matter how powerful, could ever do more than endure in the face of a Heretic God. And since this was true of the gods it also applied to the Devil Kings that had usurped their power.
Unlimited Blade Works was different though, this was a form of magic which was unquestionably of mortal origin but which was also capable of defeating and slaying both Heretic Gods and Campione. In other words it was an impossibility that had appeared in defiance of all that humanity held to be true.
What would the introduction of such a magic affect the various societies and organizations around the world? She could think of a number of paths, such as frantic efforts to recreate Shirou's Reality Marble, maybe even ill advised attempts to force him to divulge the secret behind such a power. Certainly there would be some fools that would be convinced that their 'genius' had allowed them to somehow copy Unlimited Blade Works. Such dolts would no doubt then try to challenge a Heretic God in hopes of becoming a Campione, and probably die pitifully in the attempt.
And that wasn't the end of it. Right now Shirou was playing host to not only two other of his fellow Kings and their allies but also to not one but two fallen goddesses and the Queen of the Divine Ancestors who was herself attended by yet another god, though he wasn't fully materialized upon the mortal plane.
Campione were supposed to slay gods, not invite them home and offer them tea and hospitality.
Then there was the fact that both Tiamat and Guinevere seemed to be intent upon trying to forge some kind of alliance with Shirou. Alliances between deities and the Devil Kings were extremely rare but not unheard of; however they almost invariably ended in not only disaster but wholesale destruction.
With a sigh the young Einzbern underlined her last note and leaned back in her chair so that it tilted backwards slightly. So much to worry about and there was also so much to do.
There was the trouble of simply dealing with the inevitable fallout of last night's adventures, and given all the factors involved she had no idea how easy or hard that was going to be. There was dealing with the new 'guests' in her home, both of whom she didn't trust, whom she didn't dare to trust.
And of course there were her own preparations. If anything this battle had shown her how far she had yet to go before she was able to stand near her brother's side. Oh, she had no illusions of ever becoming his equal, she might have immense Prana reserves and be a far more talented mage than he'd ever be, but that didn't change the fact that as a Campione he was as far beyond her as the moon was beyond the mountain top. However at the same time she had no intention of being helpless.
Her puppet Berserker was proof that she could reach that moon, perhaps she'd never be able to do more than scratch it with her nail tip, but was determined to do that much at least.
"Heh heh haa-a-aa-aaaaaahhHHH . . ."
Her chuckle quickly became an exclamation of alarm as she realized that she'd overbalanced and was now tipping backwards. For a moment she hung there, her arms wildly wind milling in an attempt to regain her equilibrium.
Then gravity won and the back of her chair thudded into the ground with enough force to knock the wind from her lungs.
As she lay on her back and stared up at one of the anime posters that she'd attached to her ceiling she mentally went over her last thoughts. 'Reach the moon and scratch it'? Maybe Shirou really was onto something with his comments about her reading too much manga.
The gentle knocking brought her out of her thoughts and back to the matter at hand; rolling sideways she was off the downed chair and on he feet in a single scrambling motion. Settling her white dress about her legs Illya turned to the door.
The door opened to reveal the familiar and friendly face of Yamada Yusuke. The expression on the face of her adopted brother's undead servant brought a smile to the snow haired girls own face, he had to be bearing good news, he wouldn't be smiling like that otherwise.
"Shirou-sama has awakened," he told her with a grin, "You said to be informed as soon as he woke up. Well, Annette went into his room to make sure he was comfortable and he asked for some water. She's just getting it right now; I thought you might like to be the one to deliver it to him."
"Thank you Yusuke." The words echoed back to him, they had to given that Illya was already most of the way down the hall and picking up speed.
Her Eminence Luo Hao had only availed herself of the soft bed provided to her for a handful of hours before becoming restless. The few hours of sleep that she'd taken due to her exhausted state had been all that she'd needed given that her body was so trained in the art of circulating her internal strength it quite literally could do it in her sleep. When she had awoken her physical injuries had been healed and her stores of Qi were beginning to rebuild themselves.
Seeing that the sun had already risen the Ruler of the Martial Realm had made her way onto the spacious balconied patio that her room's window looked out upon and took in the sight before her.
In his usual courteous behaviour the eighth Campione had provided her with rooms suitable to her exalted station. The bed and other furnishings were of excellent quality while the decorations were both lavish and elegant. Even the patio was a nice touch as it overlooked the garden where she and the other Kings had been joined by Guinevere for the fine Feast that King Shirou had hosted.
That was where she stood right now as she enjoyed the feeling of the sunlight on her bare face and arms. Under her bare feet was the familiar feeling of gravel crunching as she moved, a sensation that brought to mind her early days as a martial artist when she had travelled from temple to temple seeking instruction. Without paying it any attention her body began to go through the movements of the Eagle at the Setting of the Sun, an exercise she knew as well as her own name.
As her muscles worked through the familiar routine the Chinese Campione's mind focused upon other matters.
She had been defeated.
There was no two ways about it, no confusion of the issue. King Shirou had broken her defences and downed her with his final attack. She had been able to survive it, but that had only been due to his resistance to the enchantment he'd been under. Had he been more accurate in his bombardment or more forceful in it then she would have been impaled and torn to pieces before she'd have been recovered enough to offer any sort of defence or retaliation.
It had been her loss.
It was an odd thought, one that she was honestly surprised she was dealing with so calmly. This hadn't been a loss like her battle with her Sworn Brother where she had deliberately handicapped herself and provided an opening due to her own overconfidence. Nor was it like the competitions that she'd engaged in with King Shirou where he had managed to bring her to a draw. This had been her using her full strength without reservation and still being brought low.
Well, perhaps that wasn't quite true. She might have used her full strength in battle but due to both the presence of her allies as well as her own desire to simply incapacitate the King of Steel as opposed to killing him she hadn't used some of her devastatingly destructive Authorities. There were some in her arsenal that would have been sufficient to destroy not only her target but the vast majority of the city of Tokyo as well after all.
No, that was simply an . . . unrelated factor. She was aware that King Shirou had his own larger scale Authorities that he could have brought into play, indeed some such as the Bloodstained Fields had been used, but for the most part he had kept to powers and tactics suitable to use against groups or individuals rather than armies and cities.
Also King Shirou hadn't been in full control of himself, his sister had commented on how his controlled state had allowed him to use skills and abilities he'd yet to perfect such as that 'Broken Phantasm' trick that had caught her unawares and inflicted such damage to her.
And of course there was the way in which he had claimed victory, the impossibility known as Unlimited Blade Works.
Merely thinking about that . . . that impossible magic made her fists itch. A magic of mortals that could surpass an Authority, she could scarcely believe it and yet had seen it with her own eyes.
And she wanted it.
A power that surpassed the gods and was not born of them, a power born of humanity. The thought of it made her blood sing, a song of heat and exhilaration as possibilities and ideas bubbled in her mind as she conceived, dismissed and refined them.
That was why she was so unshaken by her loss, because that loss had revealed something that thrilled her. It had occurred to her during the battle, but then it had only been a thought, an observation that she'd mentally shelved so she could focus upon the fight.
For a brief moment the notion of confronting her ally and demanding the secrets behind his impossible magic crossed Luo Cuilian's mind, but was then swiftly dismissed. She didn't want to imitate her fellow King, such a path was beneath her after all. What she wanted was to attain what he had with her own efforts and brilliance. Magic that could match an Authority; already some ideas were occurring to her, methods by which she could create Daoist spells that were self reinforcing. It would hardly yield the results that she wanted, but the Ruler of the Martial Realm was certain that it was a step in the right direction.
And of course she would have to train in her Martial Arts as well; such spells could be integrated into her art after all. Indeed perhaps a combination of her Qi and magical energies would be another path that could lead her along the road she sought.
Even as her arms deflected phantom blows, and retaliated with smooth grace, a delicate smile traced its way across the God Slayer's beautiful features. It would hardly do for her to simply beg the aid and instruction of her junior upon the path of Kinghood. Instead she would make her own way to such heights now that she knew they existed. King Shirou had found his own way there, in time she would do likewise.
Hmmm, perhaps she should see about increasing the rate of her young Eagle's training. After all if she were to develop such magic and arts it would behove her as an instructor to see that her student was at least grounded in the basics of such an advance. Yes, while Lu Yinghua would never be able to match the mammoth reserves of a King such as herself with sufficient training he might be able to utilize some of the more basic techniques that were occurring to her.
But a new training regime was definitely in order. Her young disciple had best be suitably grateful to his master for her taking such time to see to his development.
In his room the Chinese martial artist in question stirred in his sleep as he broke out in a cold sweat. Truly his master had trained him well, even asleep and across the manor from her the intuition of Lu Yinghua sensed his future suffering and tried to warn him.
Sadly he was too deep in slumber to do more than stir restlessly.
Luo Hao's movements slowed as she came to the end of her exercise. Her muscles felt pleasantly limber after the short and light exertion of the routine and her pervious stiffness was now completely gone.
As she turned to re-enter her room she felt a flicker at the edge of her awareness. It was small and tremulous, like a candle that had only just been lit and would go out if disturbed, but it was bright none the less.
Ah, Emiya Shirou was up and about. His store of magic was still at a pitifully low level, but it was strong enough to allow him some mobility. For a moment she considered going to greet him immediately, but changed her mind as she moved to wash herself in the en suite bathroom.
She had best allow her fellow King some time to make himself presentable as well as get some food into his belly. He would hardly be at his best now and a true King always preferred to put his best face forward.
Tiamat stood in the small study and gazed up at the mounted dragon's head that seemed to stare down at her.
It was a mighty monster to mortals, but to her who had birthed some of the mightiest and most ancient examples of the race it was a small specimen, clearly the runt of its clutch. She was well aware of how powerful her host was and doubted that such a puny example was much of a challenge to him.
She felt no particular sympathy for the slain beast, nor any outrage at its fate as a decoration. Dragons were solitary beings by nature and were just as likely to kill each other if forced to share the same territory as they were to simply leave, and when one dragon slew another the remains were simply meat to be consumed. In fact the fate that this one had suffered was probably more dignified that what it could have expected had it tried to attack her.
What was of interest to her was that the mounted head still retained some of its power despite clearly having been dead for some time. Tiamat knew that when gods or divine beasts died their bodies normally disintegrated into particles that would themselves fade away leaving nothing behind. However on rare occasions some artefact or remnant would endure the disintegration and become an object of power in its own right. Such things were known by titles like Dragon Bones or Angel Remnants and held in high value by the various mortal magic users who knew of them and were often regarded as powerful artefacts.
This head was unusual in that it was still intact and had lost none of its flesh or scales or bones. Under normal circumstances she'd have expected at least the meat to fade and leave behind only the bones and teeth. Perhaps it was due to the weakness of the head's power that it remained so complete she thought. Rather than decomposing into a single small thing with great power it had instead remain a large thing with nothing more than a remnant of its old supernatural aura of menace.
Had it perhaps been slain under odd circumstances? That was the only explanation that occurred to the fallen goddess as to why it had remained intact in such a way. Ultimately it was just a passing thought, a mere distraction. Putting it from her mind Tiamat turned her attention back to the matter at hand.
Since she had abandoned the notion of seduction as a means by which to secure Emiya Shirou's alliance she had instead opted to investigate his library or study to see what kind of knowledge he was amassing. She had been aware that he'd been collecting many books of mystic knowledge; her spying upon him in the weeks before Venus descended had made her certain of that. However she had never learnt the nature of the texts, tomes and scrolls that the King of Steel had had sent to him. After the goddess had joined her cause Tiamat hadn't seen any reason to continue her surveillance, not with such a powerful ally aiding her, and so had never acquired that bit of information.
What she was doing right now was trying to correct that error.
It was a simple idea, but one thing that she'd learnt over the centuries was that when simple was an option it was always best to take it. Simple had less that could go wrong, simple was more reliable. All she intended to do was take a look at the subjects that he seemed to be focusing upon and then use that information to try to deduce what he really wanted.
Turning her back upon the mounted head she looked upon the shelves that lined the walls of the study. Finding the room hadn't been hard, when she'd queried it with the servant that had delivered her clothes to her the undead woman hadn't had any reluctance in divulging the location of the room she sought. At a guess the Mother of Dragons would say that what was here were the less valued tomes, the truly valuable ones were no doubt inside some locked and sealed vault, but that didn't matter too much. What knowledge she could gather here would hopefully be enough to at least give her a place to start from.
'The World Beyond the Veil', 'The Netherworld', 'What Planes There Are To The World', 'The Boundary of Life and Immortality', 'The Boundaries of Faery'. Hmmm, it would seem that Emiya Shirou had considerable interest in the various areas of the Astral Plane. This was confirmed as she glanced to the large desk that sat beneath the dragon's head and noted the report spread out upon it.
The pages were in clear view so she felt no guilt or compunction about reading them over, such things were merely mortal sensibilities anyway, hardly something to concern a goddess like her. Apparently it seemed to be as in depth a report as possible upon the Authority of the Campione Lady Aisha called Fairy's Corridor, the usurped divine ability that allowed her to travel in both space and time. There were several pages spread out across the work top, many of them with hand written notes upon them in red ink.
It would seem that her guess about the subject of his interest was accurate, but that didn't bring her any closer to divining the reason for his investigation into the outer planes of this world.
Well, that wasn't something that she could do anything about without a more invasive investigation, and she had no desire to earn her host's ire with such an action. As it stood all she had done was admire his collection of tomes and scrolls and taken a look at what he was working upon, largely minor actions that could easily be accepted. Such was less likely to be true if she went rooting through his papers and desk like some common thief.
She would have to be satisfied with what she'd learnt and begin work on how best she could turn it to her advantage. She still had her own stores of knowledge, caches of tomes, tablets and scrolls from dozens of different cultures of ages past waiting for her in a number of places around the globe. Even reduced as she was her power was still sufficient to have her mortal agents deliver them to her. With such hoards of ancient knowledge at her disposal Tiamat was certain that she could provide valuable aid to the King of Steel in whatever enterprise he was engaged.
The problem with that plan though was Guinevere.
As things stood at this point in time the blonde Divine Ancestor was in a better position to offer aid to King Shirou in almost all departments that the Mother of Dragons could think of. In terms or resources the fallen goddess knew she was outmatched, she might have caches of wealth and knowledge, but the Queen of the Divine Ancestors held sway over several Arthurian cults and circles that venerated her and obeyed her every whim with almost fanatical devotion. Through those cults she had access to worldwide networks of informants and suppliers that provided Guinevere with all her needs. On top of that she also had the Holy Grail, a resource of immense power and value and not something that Tiamat could match.
Wealth, followers, resources, all of these were areas that the fallen goddess of chaos could not hope to match her rival in, that left the arena of personal power. There, at least, she was secure in her position in regards to the Witch Queen. A Divine Ancestor she might be, and even one of the most powerful, but even so she wasn't an existence that could match a true goddess, even if she was much reduced. Of course this advantage was offset by the fact that Guinevere had the absolute loyalty of Lancelot to call upon. Incomplete though he might be the Knight of the Lake was still a power that towered above Tiamat in her current condition, meaning that even in the power she could offer Guinevere could overmatch her. Granted Lancelot was her bodyguard rather than her servant, but it was widely known that the armoured god of Steel spoilt his charge liberally.
Simply put there was no way at this point in time that she could offer more to any sort of alliance than Guinevere. The only card that was firmly in her hand was the promise of future power since it was certain that once she regained her lost divinity she would be a power surpassing anything the Witch Queen of Britannia could offer. However that was an offer that would not reach fruition for decades yet, at least not without some very dramatic development.
A grimace crossed Tiamat's features as these facts lined up in her mind. She was at a definite disadvantage in this contest between her and the Divine Ancestor; however she was unwilling to abandon her plan. No, unwilling wasn't the correct term, perhaps it was more accurate to say that the plan was unwilling to let her go.
Closing her eyes the fallen goddess tried to bring her whirling thoughts back under control, she had to be rational; she had to be cunning if she wanted to win-
Tiamat's dark green eyes snapped open as a realization struck her. Win? Why did she have to win? The entire point of this alliance wasn't her bringing anything to the table, as it were, but rather it was about Emiya Shirou taking responsibility for convincing her not to give up on her life. When had she forgotten that?
She knew when, if she was being honest with herself. As soon as Guinevere had turned up there had been an instinctive competitiveness between them, neither being willing to give up King Shirou's attention to the other.
And why was that? Why was the attention of the eighth Campione so important to her that she'd risk antagonizing an individual that could easily feed her alive to her Grail? It was because . . . she didn't want to have to share Emiya Shirou?
It was all the red haired deity could do not to voice her frustration out loud. Introspection was not something that she normally invested much time in; after all she had spent the last few centuries ruthlessly pursuing a single goal. When one was that focused upon something self analysis was largely superfluous. Now though she took a moment to wonder why exactly it was that she was so determined to remain close to the red haired teen that had saved her life from Jord and from her own despair.
There was the safety that came from such an arrangement, but that was a purely intellectual realization, it lacked the emotional impetus that was driving her. There was an alchemical mix of emotions within her when it came to the young King, gratitude, disdain, fear and guilt were all in there but as potent a concoction as it was, it was too unfocused to be the cause.
Was it simply because she liked his company?
The very notion was absurd, but the more she thought about it the more things seemed to slide into place. She did find him to be physically attractive, he was a handsome young man in his own way after all, but it went beyond that. He was . . . impressive, that was the only way that she could frame the thought. He had battled free of the charms of Venus, had saved her when by all rights he should not have even been able to move and had managed to break through her despair to give her a new hold on life. She remembered how he'd looked to her when he'd asked her if she was unable to face what mortals faced every day, when he'd berated her for giving up so easily.
That had been the first time anyone had spoken to her thus for millennia. She had been cursed at, pleaded with, faced polite disagreement, but none had had the sheer gall to berate her for her own good in such a manner.
Why did she find that so attractive?
. . . Had she really just thought that?
The expression that the fallen goddess now wore was quite to sight to see, a volatile mixture of astonishment, horror and incomprehension. However the visage was only there for a moment as Tiamat swiftly regained her mental equilibrium.
No! No, she was not going to succumb to irrational emotions like this! Her only interest in the King of Steel was in how he could aid her; this momentary attraction was simply the result of her gratitude to him for his aid combining with her weakness due to the sudden and brutal loss of the majority of her divinity. It was simply a temporary thing that would soon pass.
Though, some treacherous part of her mind noted, it had been a long time since she'd been with a man. Having been trapped in a child's body for all these centuries the Mother of Dragons hadn't had much of an opportunity to seek out lovers or romantic companions. Those that had been willing to enter such a relationship with her had . . . not been what she was looking for, not with such appetites. Indeed, the last to proposition her for such a relationship had died screaming for mercy.
What would it be like to have a lover once more, to feel their hot flesh pressed against hers? To feel their arms encircle her form even as their mouth pressed down on her own. With a shake of her head Tiamat tried to dispel the images bubbling up in her mind. One advantage to being an eternal child was the absence of the drives and cravings of adulthood, the joys of which she was now becoming acquainted with once more as she enjoyed her adult form. The simple fact of the matter was that it had been a long time since she'd had any sort of lover, man or woman.
Idly she wondered just what kind of a lover Emiya Shirou would be. Despite her dissatisfaction with him due to his being under her control Venus had commented on how . . . generous his stamina and other attributes had been in the bedchamber before she had left for her battle. At the time the Mother of Dragons hadn't really cared about such details, but now the recollection of the Roman goddess's shamelessly lurid descriptions echoed in the vaults of her mind despite her best efforts to ignore them.
Enough of this!
She was a Goddess not some love-struck young chambermaid who'd just met the royal prince! She was not going to abandon her pride because of some temporary attraction that would no doubt fade in time. For now she had to concentrate on making sure that King Shirou remembered to take responsibility for his actions, that was all.
It wasn't as though she was recalling just how he'd been able to overcome Venus's Authority after all.
It wasn't as though the name 'Sakura' was echoing in her head.
It wasn't as though her hand was once more clenching into a fist.
Something at the edge of her senses caught at her attention and brought her out of her thoughts. It looked as though the subject of her confusion had recovered enough to be up and about. Very well then, she'd have to see about talking with the King of Steel soon, however she didn't want to appear overeager by effectively ambushing him as soon as he was out of his room. She'd be gracious and give him some time to have some food and rest, once he had gathered some more of his strength and felt more secure then she'd present her . . . her what? Demands was too harsh a word and suggestions was too weak.
Arrgghh, why was it that everything that had anything to do with the eighth Campione led to nothing but more problems, frustration and headaches? He'd best appreciate all the effort that he was costing her.
And she wasn't doing it because she liked him or anything.
That was something she was telling herself repeatedly as she walked back to her room
She wanted to look her best when she saw him after all.
Guinevere was caught in the rather undignified activity of stuffing her face when King Shirou entered the kitchen.
It hadn't been her intention, far from it in fact, but it would seem that fortune was conspiring against her.
After leaving her room the Queen of the Divine Ancestors found that her plan was somewhat more difficult to put into practice that she'd anticipated. Contrary to what romance novels had taught her, as well as her own vague recollections from her previous incarnations, the servants of the manor didn't congregate into easily spotted groups that could be eavesdropped upon without difficulty. She felt slightly betrayed that reality hadn't lived up to her expectations.
As things stood she'd only been able to meet with one servant, the same one that had been serving drinks at King Shirou's famous Feast of Kings, Yamada Yusuke. The resurrected soul had been friendly enough, but had been frustratingly evasive when it came to answering her questions in regards to his King's activities. Guinevere supposed that she couldn't really hold that against him since holding the trust of liege was an admirable act, but it was still a source of irritation for her.
In the end he'd suggested that she might want something to eat. It had only been then that the witch queen had realized that a couple of hours had already passed since she'd begun her unsuccessful interrogation of the resurrected soul, to so easily dodge her questions and yet keep her talking so that she lost track of time . . . impressive to say the least. Clearly Sir Shirou had some fine servants.
Then they had arrived at the kitchen and thoughts of intelligence gathering had fled her mind.
Ever since the Feast the Queen of the Divine Ancestors had found herself hungering for the delicious food that she'd sampled from King Shirou's table. She'd tried many times to find a chef that could recreate the sumptuous dishes she'd enjoyed that night, but had been unsuccessful. Faery spirits summoned up with ancient rituals had worked in her mansions kitchen to produce the most delicate and exquisite of foods, yet when it came to tasting them Guinevere found them to be unequal to her memories. Trained cooks with years of experience and dozens of secret recipes in their heads had been procured into her service through the use of her networks of servants and informers. So far she'd had three try out for the position, eager to try to claim the extremely generous salary that she'd been offering. However none of them had been able to produce a dish as full, as delicious and as filling as those served at the feast of Kings.
Then she'd walked into the kitchen of the King of Steel's manor and been assaulted by the mouth watering aromas of a half dozen cooking dishes that were being tended by the constantly moving form of Suzuki Asuka.
There had been the traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, miso, fish and vegetables, all still steaming and smelling delicious. There was a more western breakfast of fried eggs, sausages, bacon and mushrooms, golden toasted bread buns sat beside them next to pots of butter, honey and jam. There was a Chinese breakfast made up of multiple small dishes such as noodles, dumplings, rice, sliced tofu and various others. In addition to the three main meals there was a large amount of beautifully cuts and prepared fruits, some of which she was well aware were neither native nor in season, yet there they were waiting for someone's attention. And all set out in a buffet style so anyone could pick and chose whatever they wanted.
The resurrected soul had said something to her, but for the life of her Guinevere couldn't have remembered what it was. The entirety of her attention was focused upon the feast that had been set out on the table, upon the still slightly sizzling meat in its own juices, upon the still steaming rice.
It beckoned to her.
After that she seemed to lose a few minutes of time since she somehow went from standing in the door next to Yamada Yusuke to being next to the table with a plate half full of various foods, a stomach with a pleasantly full sensation in it, a mouth full of delectable half chewed Chinese dumplings and a recollection of positively godly tastes. This wasn't the first time that she'd experienced such a phenomenon, something identical had happened at the Feast of Kings when she'd first sampled the food that had been on offer, so she as a bit better prepared for it. As such she didn't miss a beat as the memory of those delicious missing minutes began to trickle back to her, but instead reached out to help herself to some more of the sumptuous fare.
It had been just as she was enthusiastically digging into the fried eggs and sausages that Sir Shirou had come into the kitchen.
The Witch Queen had tried to plan for how she was going to approach the King of Steel once she saw him. A number of scenarios had run through her mind, including offering him temporary custody of the Holy Grail as a way to earn some favour with him. In the end she had decided to forgo any attempts at manipulation or deception and simply utilize the truth as a way to build a rapport with him. There were so many questions that she had for him, the origin of Arondight, what that black Excalibur he'd wielded had been, the nature of the impossible world that he'd call Unlimited Blade Works, whether he'd consider forgetting this 'Sakura' and settling down with someone more available, how had he-
Wait . . .
She was certainly not going to ask that last question. What would Sir Shirou think of her if she were to be so forward?
. . .
About prying into his personal life. That was it; he would be disappointed and insulted by her poor manners in prying into his relationship with his mysterious lover.
Well, whatever she was going to ask him she certainly hadn't been expecting to meet him while her mouth was so stuffed with delicious food that her cheeks were bulging like those of a chipmunk's. That was hardly the image that she wanted to project, was it?
But that was exactly what he was seeing.
Emiya Shirou didn't look at his best, not by any stretch of the imagination. Physically he was almost completely healed from the previous night's battle. The burns and cuts upon him had faded to little more than pink lines and splotches upon his skin which would in time fade to nothing. He was leaning on his sister, a somewhat incongruous sight given their size difference, but she seemed to be holding up well despite the mismatch in their heights.
He was dressed in jeans and a simple sweatshirt, one with a white body and blue sleeves; idly Guinevere noted that he seemed to have a lot of those. Perhaps they held some special significance to him.
Any further analysis on her part was cut short as the full impact of the situation hit her. The Queen of the Divine Ancestors felt her face grow hotter and hotter as her embarrassment led more and more blood to flood into her cheeks. This wasn't fair! She'd wanted to be sophisticated and elegant; she'd wanted to give a good impression to show how valuable she could be. Instead Sir Shirou had caught her shovelling food into her mouth like a child let loose in a sweets store.
No, she could recover from this. She just had to be calm, be-
"Ah, good morning Guinevere."
Any thoughts of cunning or connivance melted into a pink goo as soon as the King of Shirou smiled at her. Deep within her the witch queen's inner maiden made a noise that could only be described as 'squee', while on the other side her inner puppet mistress was banging her metaphorical head against an equally metaphorical wall.
Shirou was feeling at least a bit better. Of course given his state that only meant that he'd up rated his condition from 'road kill' to 'severe invalid'. As things stood the only thing that was keeping him from toppling over in a rather undignified manner was the support that Illya was providing.
This wasn't good, that thought kept repeating itself in his head as he'd made his way to the kitchen. The simple fact was that right now he was weak, and that wasn't an impression he could afford to allow to persist. Granted he was now aware that unlike in his home world there weren't entire organizations waiting for the slightest hint of weakness to be shown before they pounced en-mass in an attempt to capture and dissect him. But even so the experiences he'd inherited from Archer urged him to do something to shore up his reputation.
Intellectually he was well aware that he was being somewhat irrational, just last night he'd managed to take on two of his fellow God Slayers and been the victor. If anything his reputation was soaring on wings of fire rather than suffering in any way, but that still didn't change the fact that he felt he needed to do something.
Well . . . he didn't think it could hurt. What he had in mind was a bit reckless, but if he could pull it off properly . . .
The sight of Guinevere standing next to the buffet that Asuka had set up and enthusiastically stuffing her face was both unexpected and oddly adorable.
"Ah, good morning Guinevere."
Perhaps the most sophisticated thing he could have said, but for now it would have to do.
"Oh, ah, good morning to you too, Sir Shirou."
The queen of the Divine Ancestors tried to curtsey, swallow her food and speak all at once. It didn't work out too well for her since even though she managed to get her reply out with admirable coherency immediately afterwards she began to choke as some of the food went down the wrong pipe. Normally seeing her, or anyone else for that matter, going into such a violent coughing fit would have prompted the eighth Campione to go to their aid, however right now if he tried that he was liable to not even make it past the third step. As a result Shirou had the dubious privilege of watching an immortal witch apparently try to cough her lungs out. Idly he wondered if it was even possible for her to choke given that she was an immortal. Perhaps having her lungs irritated like this was just an inconvenience, as opposed to the very real danger that it would have been to a mortal.
A bit more spluttering and a glass of water later the blonde Witch Queen had recovered some of her earlier poise, though now it was marred by her somehow projecting the image of a kitten that had been pulled out of the bath just before it could drown. It was the hair, Shirou decided; all the coughing had thrown her initially pristine locks into disarray giving her a comparably more bedraggled appearance. When that was combined with her expression of mortification then the effects were . . . potent.
In fact it took a deliberate effort of will to stop himself from thinking of how to get her a pony so as to cheer her up once more.
Pushing aside thoughts about how adorable the childlike immortal looked Shirou instead turned his attention to the spread that his talented housekeeper had prepared. As soon as his eyes settled upon the buffet available and took in both its size and variety his body reacted on its own and voiced its desire for food in the form of a loud rumbling of his stomach. The sound of it was so forceful that even Asuka, who had been at the other end of the kitchen, turned to look at him.
"Let's have something to eat onii-chan!" Illya declared as she started to gently pull him over to the buffet.
Yes, that sounded like a good idea. Get some food, then sit down before his legs gave out on him, that was a plan he could work with. Once he'd given his body some resources it could use to finish healing him up then he could move onto the plan that had been forming in his head. But first . . . eggs and bacon looked good.
He was half way through his second serving, this time of delicately browned butter fried mushrooms, toast and sausages, when he was distracted from his food by the arrival of Godou and his companions. Interestingly the other goddess that had insisted on accompanying them the night before, indeed she was following the seventh Campione so closely it was almost comical. Apparently both he and his other companions were less than thrilled with this given their own somewhat put upon expressions.
Still, despite the situation it would behove him to be wary of the youthful goddess. As things stood right now she was probably the most powerful individual in the manor given the exhausted state of all the Devil Kings. Illya, Guinevere and Tiamat might all have power of their own or be able to call on powers, but this white haired child was a divinity with a substantial portion of her power intact, not someone to underestimate.
However he was already feeling stronger, not up to a fight certainly, but just getting some food and water into his system had left him feeling invigorated. Shirou still felt as though he'd been run over by a succession of vans, but compared to earlier it was an improvement.
Well, this goddess was a guest in his home it would seem. So he'd better play the part of the host, it was the kingly thing to do after all. Turning in his chair he faced the small group and offered a nod of his head.
"Good morning to you, Kusanagi Godou," Right, that sounded good, he couldn't keep his tiredness out of his voice but at the same time he didn't sound weak or anything like that. "I trust that my guest rooms were suitable?"
"Err . . . yes, they were very comfortable." Godou nodded his thanks as he took in the sight of all the food arrayed on the table.
"I don't believe I have been introduced to your new companion, might I have the name of the goddess that graces my home?"
"I am Athena." The words were spoken softly as her purple eyes fixed upon him. There was power there, but even worse than that there was intelligence coupled with wisdom and cunning. No doubt about it weakened though she may be this goddess was dangerous, fortunately she didn't seem hostile which was one saving grace at least.
"Well then Athena, I bid you be welcome in my home, but be aware that if you violate my hospitality there shall be . . . consequences." That sounded about right, an affirmation of his own position as well as a threat that was fairly non-challenging.
The fallen goddess was silent for a moment then inclined her head slightly in assent.
"I am here simply to guard Kusanagi Godou until such time as he has recovered his strength. Once my prey is restored I shall leave."
Prey, was she talking about Godou? A somewhat odd relationship, but if the Seventh Campione wasn't objecting to it at this point then there was probably some story behind it. He'd have to look into that later, but right now he had other things to think about, Chinese dumplings for example.
"Well, since you're my guests please enjoy the food. I'd say it is humble fare, but I'd be lying through my teeth. It was made by Asuka here, and anything that she makes is automatically the kind of food that the cooking at palaces dreams it can grow up to be one day."
There was a general perking up from the girls accompanying his fellow King at his words, clearly all of them remembered the delicious food served at his banquet and were eager to re-experience his housekeeper's expert cooking. Only Athena seemed unmoved her eyes taking in the obvious enthusiasm of her 'prey' and his companions and her head tilting to the side in apparent confusion. Catching her eyes Shirou glanced over at where Godou was now assembling a traditional Japanese breakfast and then nodded at the buffet meaningfully.
With a slight frown on her face Athena picked up a pair of chopsticks and carefully took hold of some grilled fish meat. Her movements were slightly clumsy, she was obviously inexperienced in the use of eastern dining implements, but her natural abilities compensated for that and she easily lifted the morsel to her lips.
Shirou watched with interest as her teeth closed around the paled meat and her jaws worked delicately. Then the fallen goddess froze as still as if she had been turned to stone. Well, that wasn't quite true; her jaws were still moving in an almost mechanical fashion as she slowly chewed her small mouthful. Then she swallowed and for a moment stood rigid in place.
Then, in a slow but deliberate manner, she reached for a plate, her eyes never leaving the buffet set out before her.
As Shirou chewed on another dumpling he watched as Athena proceeded to pile her plate high with an almost obscene amount of food.
Yep, Asuka's cooking was just that good. Mentally he decided that he was going to accelerate his plans to get her to give him cooking lessons. By the time he got back to Sakura he fully intended to be able to cook her a meal that would be worth the wait.
The battlefield was silent even though it was almost midday.
Normally at this time the riverside would have been bustling with people walking to and from their businesses, children coming to enjoy the park, maybe even a couple of vendors hoping to find customers for their wares. Now the once vibrant area was closer to a desolate wasteland than anything else.
The History Compilation Committee had needed to work hard in the past to cover up the wreckage left behind by the battles of their two Kings. Godou Kusanagi in particular had been difficult to deal with given his propensity for massive destruction. By contrast the King of Steel had been easier for them to deal with given that to date his sole battle had been with Mordred. Admittedly the field in which they had battled had been reduced to a cratered wasteland, but it had been out of the way and relatively easy to cover up and repair. That and the tunnel blasted into the side of the mountain by his exit of the Monkey King's cave had been all that they'd needed to worry about from him.
By contrast since his ascent to the role of a Devil King the seventh Campione had reduced two parks to scorched craters large enough to hold small apartment buildings, made another such crater in the middle of a camping spot, been responsible for the destruction of two national landmarks including Tokyo Tower, and that had all been in less that three months. Among those of high enough rank in the magical organization there was a betting poll as to what the next national landmark to suffer in one of his battles would be.
This battleground had been the site of the battle between three God Slayers, two goddesses, a partly manifested god of Steel and a powerful Divine Ancestor; in retrospect it was hardly a surprise that this particular battle was causing headaches left, right and centre amongst those tasked with its cover up. Already vast amounts of resources and manpower had needed to be employed.
First of all there was the battlefield itself to worry about. The fair sized park and stretch of riverside pavement that had served as the site of the combat had been utterly decimated, concrete smashed, trees toppled, and streetlights shattered, even the pipes and wires buried beneath the earth hadn't survived intact and several of the nearby apartment blocks were having trouble getting electricity, gas or water. The simple act of repairing it all and getting it fit for the general public was daunting enough, but they also had cover up the cause of it as well as come up with a convincing lie that would explain it all away to the public's satisfaction. So far the best that the top brass'd been able to come up with was a collision between an out of control fuel tanker and some construction equipment setting off a gas explosion from a faulty pipe. It was a weak story to say the least, one that wouldn't stand up to any sort of concerted scrutiny, but for the time being that was all they had.
There was the slightly more esoterical problem of explaining away how several hundred cubic metres of river water had spontaneously transformed into salty sea water. One would think that that type of problem would be the easiest to deal with, that it would literally run away, but sadly life was rarely so accommodating. Various departments of the cities health and safety had sensors and monitors in the river to check pollution levels and the like. Likewise some fishing enthusiasts kept an eye on the condition of the river as did environmentalists and conspiracy theorists.
All of these would need to be tracked down and 'persuaded' that they hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary, normally through the liberal application of hypnosis or memory alteration.
And on top of that all there was having to deal with the fallout of Emiya Shirou having used his Authority of the Bloodstained Fields.
They'd received information from Mariya Yuri on the King of Steel's Authorities, information that had been provided by the eighth Campione himself for use in such a situation. It had detailed the effects and possible uses of his usurped Divine powers and so had given the History Compilation Committee at least some warning as to what they might have to handle.
Most of the Authorities that he possessed were largely focused in nature, at least when not specifically used to cause mass destruction. His armour Authorities, the Dragon Slaying Hero, Rule of the Underworld, even Curses without End, all of them focused upon the target in battle. The stand out in this regard was the Bloodstained Fields since the Authority had a vast range and was also largely indiscriminate in regards as to whom it drew in.
When King Shirou had used it in his battle its reach had been wide enough that a couple of the nearby apartment buildings had been caught in it. Those buildings should have been evacuated, but even during an evacuation conducted by users of the mystic arts there were always some stubborn or paranoid types that chose to stay and were sneaky enough to manage it. It was these types that had been caught in the area of effect of the Authority of madness and who had been feeling belligerent enough that the Authority had swept them up.
After the Authority had collapsed at least three of them had immediately begun posting on the internet about how they'd been abducted by aliens and taken to some strange landscape that resembled a farm field. Simply more work that had to be handled.
So, given all that they had to do and the short amount of time they had to do it in, it was hardly a surprise that the 'damage control' division of the History Compilation Committee had only left minimal guards to watch over the smashed and blasted battlefield. Those guards had of course set up several wards to ensure that the mundane public wouldn't become too interested in what had happened here, wards that gave off a sort of 'nothing interesting here, let's move along' mental suggestion to anyone who came near them. However once they'd done that the exhausted sentries had succumbed to fatigue and simply taken the assignment as a chance to catch their breath and relax a little. After all it wasn't as though there was anything really important here to guard, right?
They were correct to a certain degree; nobody of any importance was interested in the blasted ruin of a battlefield.
But the energies that still permeated the area . . . that was a different matter entirely.
The god slipped by the inattentive guards with insulting ease. It didn't really matter if they were alert or unconscious, it wasn't as though their mortal skills would have been enough to detect him, after all stealth and theft were parts of his legend, almost as much as his cunning and his travels.
But he wasn't here to entertain himself by evading sloppy guards; he was here in order to find the next step of his journey to freedom.
The time since his arrival upon this land in the Far East had been frustrating for him. The energies he sought were here, but the task of tracking them down was proving to be both delicate and tedious. The traces of the power he was looking for hung in the air like drifting threads of spiders' webbing, only infinitely finer and more fragile. He had to follow them slowly and carefully for if he went too fast or used too much power then the thread would snap and he'd be forced to spend days or even weeks finding the drifting end once more.
Also, just to add to his difficulties, the threads tended to gravitate towards each other and then latch onto a location where large amounts of their power had been employed. Months of careful tracking had eventually led him to a field out near to one of the country's tourist attractions. There had been power of the sort that he sought there, but it had been old, stale, lacking the vitality that he needed to complete the force he was so carefully assembling. The disappointment of it had almost broken his resolve and caused him to give into his frustrations and engage in a rampage of violence.
Reason had prevailed over anger though, so he had swallowed his dissatisfaction and returned to his tracking. Once again he'd followed the thin lines of fragile power, slowly making his way back to the great city in which he'd first arrived.
It had been the night before when the god had sensed the vast amounts of power being used somewhere within the metropolis. The sheer scale of the might involved had rippled outwards like a series of tsunamis to those with the senses to perceive such things. There had been an immense release of power, more than even a god could hope to achieve on their own. And what had been of greater interest to him had been that even as he'd felt the waves of power rolling over him he'd also sensed the thread that he was following shift in the direction from which the floods of might emanated. It had taken all his willpower, but the god hadn't given in to temptation. Though he'd dearly wanted to abandon the thread and travel directly towards the source of the power he had instead remained doggedly following the threads even as they began to shift direction. On and on he'd followed them until he was finally certain of where they pointed.
And here he was, at the site of the titanic battle that he'd sensed the night before.
It was quite the sight to behold, in his time he'd seen heroes and gods wage war, he'd seen the wreckage and ruin that was left in the wake of such clashes. By contrast this battlefield was comparatively small as opposed to the cities and fields that he'd seen decimated in the past. Still there was a . . . thoroughness to the destruction here that he could only admire. It was as though rather than being spread out across the entirety of this city the ruin caused by the battle had instead been concentrated into this smaller location thus leaving everything here devastated and torn into desolation.
But that was not why he was here. As impressive as the destruction was the reasons for his presence here were more subtle in nature.
They hung in the air like the threads of a spider's web that had been blown into the air by a gust of wind and had yet to settle to the ground. This power, these fragments of the magic that he so desperately sought, ran through the ambient mana in the area like veins of gold amidst stone. The god had no idea as to how such a thing could come to be and in all truth he didn't really care. The mysteries of magic had never been of any great import to him; he'd only learnt what he needed to for his adventures and had then left the rest to those with greater aptitude for it than himself. All that mattered to him was that the energies that he sought were there ready to be claimed.
Carefully he reached into himself and drew forth the fragment of power that he'd taken from the ruined streets in Naples. It was still incomplete, missing the majority of the key elements that would make it something that could be used, but it was no longer the remnant of a remnant that it had once been. The god's diligent and patient work had paid off well in that regard, the miniscule amounts of power he'd been able to harvest had slowly built up. It was a tiring and tedious task, one made more difficult by the fact that what traces of the energies he did find had been old and 'stale' by the time he'd found them. Even so he had fed them into his tiny fragment and bit by bit it had mounted up. After all a grain of sand was a tiny thing, but if one massed enough grains then one could bury a city.
But these strands that he was now gathering were different from anything that he'd encountered before. They were thin and tiny, yet they possessed a vibrancy, a vitality, that had been lacking in any of his previous acquisitions. He could almost see them filling up cracks and reinforcing the fragment as he drew them in.
Why? Was it because they were so fresh from the source? He knew that it would never be complete until he tracked down the other fragments of it that were somewhere in this land, but these new strands that had been added . . . they were definitely 'a better fit' for want of a better term.
And it confirmed his theory, the one that he'd been developing as he'd followed the paths of the power he sought.
The fragment that he was searching for, the one that would complete the power that was key and lock and gate, resided within a person rather than drifting through the world under its own power. And the person within whom it rested was a Campione, a bastard child of Pandora. There was no other explanation for how the gossamer strands of power that he had tracked could exist within the floating magic that remained in the aftermath of a battle. No-one other than a God Slayer could vent such vast quantities of magic that their presence would linger even after the passage of time.
This made the situation more difficult since he was aware that two of the Devil Kings resided in this land. He was confident of his ability to deal with either of them; after all he was a god of cunning and trickery in addition to his strength. However if he were to face one then the other would be alerted to his presence and might come to aid his fellow God Slayer, and the prospect of facing two of Pandora's children was daunting enough that the god would not place his chances of success as high in such a situation.
And he was certain that battle was the only possible outcome. After all what Devil King would be willing to submit to a god drawing power from his body? The god was unsure of how the fragment he sought was integrated into the body of the Campione it was a part of, but he doubted that its removal would be simple. Indeed, there was as strong chance that such a removal might well require the Campione's death. Well, he didn't have a problem with that, but he imagined that the God Slayer in question might have a few objections.
The problem was that even if the god managed to swiftly defeat his target it would still alert the other, and at a time when he was unsure he could afford such a distraction. Then there was the problem of which to target, if he was in error and struck at the wrong one then he might well be sowing the seeds of his own ruin.
No, this was too . . . delicate a situation for rash action. He needed time to scout, to evaluate the situation and to see about gaining an ally.
Other gods might allow their hubris to blind them, but even as a Heretic God he was a cunning one and saw how useful another to aid him might be.
Perhaps . . . her.
Yes, that had possibilities. They had parted on less than favourable terms, but even so there was a connection between them. Something less than love but more than friendship. It was something that could cut as easily as it held, but it was something. She had descended to the mortal plane some decades ago, but since she hadn't caused too much of a commotion none of the God Slayer had been drawn into conflict with her.
The more he thought about it the more the idea of gaining her aid appealed to him. This was a situation in which her talents would be of great aid, both as a comrade upon the battlefield and as an ally in trickery and stealth.
Nodding to himself he drew in the last of the threads of energy that had been drifting about the ruined landscape and hid the fragment away once more. He could feel how it was slowly approaching completion and deep within him his inner nature screamed in frustration and anticipation.
Freedom, that which he craved most was so near and at the same time so far from his grasp. Patience, he reminded himself, all he had to do was maintain his patience and not give in to his raging desires. Soon he would have the means to leave this world and journey to lands and seas utterly removed from those he knew so well. He must not endanger that opportunity by acting rashly.
Now, how to track her down and how best to convince her to aid him?
Shirou leaned against Illya once more as they made their way out of his manor and towards the shed that served as his workshop. The food he'd eaten had done him some good, he no longer felt quite as limp and wrung out as he had been, but even so his adopted sister insisted upon acting as his support, a fact he was grateful for.
"So what is it that you wish to show us, King Shirou?" Luo Hao asked as she strode beside him.
The Ruler of the Martial Realm seemed to be in considerably better shape than he was. She still moved a bit more stiffly than she normally did, but apart from that her motions were largely unhindered, truly a testament to the efficiency of her self healing techniques.
Similarly Kusanagi Godou seemed to be moving around quite freely, even if his own movements were also a bit stiff. Shirou might not have been particularly talented at sensing the powers of others, but some resonance between him and the other God Slayers gave him a hint that both of them were very low on magical power and had only regained some during the night. It wasn't accurate or clear but it did give him a general idea.
By contrast Shirou was only a step or two above the status of invalid and his Prana reserves were so low that he doubted he could have employed even the least of his Authorities. There was just enough power there to keep his resurrected souls from fading, but that was about it.
It made sense in a way. Though Luo Hao and Godou had been doing their best to defeat him the night before they had been in control of their actions. According to what Illya had told him Shirou guessed that he'd been in some sort of 'no breaks' mode. He had recklessly and relentlessly used his power in order to fulfil the orders given to him squeezing out more power where a more rational man would have tried to conserve it.
Maybe that was part of why he'd apparently been victorious over two of his fellow Kings, by going all out in such an unexpected way as Unlimited Blade Works he'd overwhelmed them before they could compensate?
No, that didn't ring quite true. He'd have to think about it a bit more later, now wasn't the time to be caught up on that.
Still he had some trouble believing that he'd been controlled like that. The worst thing was that he couldn't fully remember the Heretic Goddess that had enslaved him, and that didn't seem right to him. Surely he should-
The hot sense of her sweat slick skin pressing against his. Her fingers digging into his chest as she leans against him, her scent filling his world as she-
The King of Steel almost lost his footing as his train of thought was scattered. What was that? It was as though he remembered something and then couldn't remember what it was that he had remembered but could remember remembering it.
At Illya's hesitant question he abandoned his turbulent thoughts and gave his full attention to the matter at hand. He could think about that later as well, right now he had a plan to see through.
"What is it that you are so eager to reach, King Shirou?"
Tiamat's question centred him, brought his mind back to the task at hand.
In all truth he'd been somewhat stunned by the arrival of the fallen goddess when she'd walked into the kitchen just as he'd finished his breakfast. It had been strange in a way, he'd been aware of her presence in his home, had remembered having talked her out of suicide and inviting her here, but for some reason in his exhausted state he hadn't connected that with the notion of her actually being here.
The sight of her had certainly been something of a shock. By that point his kitchen had been filled with quite the number of beauties. Every one of Godou companions was an example of loveliness in their own way while both Illya and Guinevere were more childish beauties that had yet to mature. Luo Hao, who had joined them only shortly before goddess arrived, possessed a more refined exquisiteness. She was perhaps the most perfect example of Chinese beauty that Shirou had ever seen, eclipsing models and movie stars with casual ease.
Tiamat, however, was a creature of an altogether different sort of attractiveness. Her beauty was sensual, not overtly so or shameless, not the raw magnetism of some harlot that sought to seduce all that even gazed upon her; it was something as natural to her as breathing. The rolls of her hips as she moved, the sway of her shoulders and torso, it all was as much a part of her as the sinuous movements of a cat were to a tiger. Her sensuality had been heightened by her choice of garb, yet at the same time remained oddly modest.
Shirou couldn't help but mentally compare her to Rider, who in many ways remained the single most physically sensual creature he'd ever seen. Sakura's Servant had in many ways been an almost physical incarnation of some of the darker aspects of lust, at least as far as her appearance had gone. Her clothing and her blindfold had evoked thoughts of a distinctly lustful nature, though any foolish enough to think that was all there was to the Servant of the Mount would soon learn how catastrophically wrong they were.
It was odd, though Tiamat's current garb was actually more concealing than what the purple maned Rider had worn she none the less exuded an aura of sensuality that somehow remained calm rather than overwhelming.
Simply put Rider was currently in danger of losing her throne at the top of Shirou's mental list of 'sexy women'.
The thought had been so absurd that it had brought a brief smile to his lips before he'd become serious once more.
Damn it but he missed Sakura.
Still the Mother of Dragon's question did give him an opening, so he'd best use it since it would let him set the 'tone' of the events that were about to unfold.
"When I first came to Japan after becoming a Campione I was under certain . . . misconceptions," he said as they approached his workshop. "Due to my isolated education in magic I thought things were going to be far more antagonistic than they really were so I prepared a few trump cards in case they were needed."
That was all true, though what he intended to use wasn't one of the defences that he and Illya had erected in anticipation of their home being stormed by enforcers determined to carry them off for dissection and research. However the item he spoke of hadn't been intended as a trump card, it was merely an experiment that had been just better than a failure. He'd kept it about, but he'd never expected how much of an asset it could become.
Having reached the large shack Shirou painfully sat himself down on one of the small boulders that rested beside it as part of the garden's landscaping. His adopted sister already knew what he wanted, since he'd told her earlier, and at a nod from him she entered through the defences that were keyed to allow her entry.
It didn't take her long to retrieve what she was looking for; the eighth Campione had told her where it was hidden as just one sword case amongst many. In less than a minute she was back and handing it to him. As he took the long case in his hands he could see slight flickers of confusion in the eyes of the others. Luo Hao, Guinevere, Tiamat, Erica, even Athena were all gazing at the case and wondering what its significance could be.
He could understand their puzzlement, if the item inside was significant then they should have been able to sense its nature relatively easily. The thing was that the bounded field that Illya had placed upon the case was a form of magecraft that they were unfamiliar with. Had any of the more powerful amongst them focused their attention upon it then they could probably have broken through the field, but without that concerted effort they were unable to determine what lay within.
What was needed now was a little showmanship, after all this revealed artefact was meant to dispel any notion of his weakness.
With a single flick of his fingers he undid the catch that held the lid closed and opened the long case. There were a few gasps then, the act of opening the case had undone the Bounded Field and now all with the right magical senses could feel what was inside, pulling aside the black velvet that wrapped it he drew out what he'd come here for.
The Gem Sword.
Its presence definitely drew a reaction from those about him, but Shirou wasn't paying too much attention to them even though he knew he should have been. His plan had been to keep a subtle eye on them while he revealed his Mystic Code since their reactions would tell him much that could be of use. It had been a plan the came from what he thought of as the 'Archer' side of his brain.
What he hadn't anticipated was the effect that holding the sword would have on him. He could feel his own energies within it and he could feel how empty his own circuits were. He had planned to make a show of it, to try and give a mistaken impression of how easy it was to use the sword, just another bit of harmless misinformation that might prove to be of critical importance in the future.
Instead what happened was almost instinctive. The Od stored in the gigantic sword-shaped jewel flowed into him almost impossibly smoothly. Some absent part of his mind wondered at the ease with which the Prana returned to him, but the vast majority of him was experiencing the joy of a man dying of thirst who has just found a spring of clear icy water.
To Shirou it was an endless moment of relief, but in truth it must have only been a few seconds. When he came back to the present he was amazed at the difference in how he felt. His body was still sore and his Magic Circuits continued to ache but that was it. The weakness that had been dogging him was gone and though they still hurt a bit his channels of Od were no longer painfully empty. Instead they flowed with a healthy current of power and with a start the young Emiya realized that his reserves were completely full. Several of his Authorities were still unavailable to him, but that was due to them not having passed the time needed for them to recover.
Unbelievable, it was hard to imagine just how useful a creation that had almost been a failure was.
Shirou had intended to use the Gem Sword as a Prana battery, at least that was the best use that he'd been able to come up with for it after he'd made it. However he hadn't anticipated its sheer storage capacity. It was very inefficient; if he put in 100 units of Prana it could only store 35. He'd been able to improve that over time and with Illya's help. It retained about half of the energy put into it.
Of course by the standards of the Tohsaka family that was a criminally flawed creation since one such Mystic Code created by Rin would have absorbed and stored every scrap of Prana placed within it. But even so the quality of its material gave it a single aspect that it excelled in, and that was capacity.
The Prana reserves of a Campione towered over those of even the most gifted magus as a mountain did over a molehill. If a brilliantly exceptional magus like Rin could produce 1000 units of power if she pushed herself then a Campione could produce a thousand times as much if needs be. In addition to that the superhuman vitality of a King allowed them to recover from such an output far faster than any normal mortal mage could ever hope to. Consequently Shirou had been pouring titanic amounts of power into the Mystic Code every day for several months. Even if half of it was lost it was still a colossal amount.
He wasn't entirely sure just how much power was stored within the Gem Sword, but he guessed it to be at least two dozen times his own natural reserves. Right now he'd drained some of its power in order to refill his own depleted stores and the drain hadn't had any sort of appreciable impact on the power it held.
Wrapping the sword in the black velvet and settling it back into its case the eighth Campione snapped the lid shut and stood up.
Yes, that had definitely been what he needed. With the infusion of Od now running through his system his body felt surer and invigorated. Granted he still felt as though he'd been put through the wringer by some particularly vicious drill sergeant, but that was still one hell of an improvement on how he'd been five minutes ago. Looking about him he saw that the display of his Mystic Code as well as his apparently miraculous recovery had had the impact he'd been hoping for. Luo Cuilian looked about as close to stunned as he'd ever seen from her, Guinevere had a frozen poleaxed expression on her face while Tiamat and Athena both shared looks of barely controlled astonishment. Even Godou's 'harem' seemed to be stunned into silence while their King simply tilted his head slightly in apparent confusion.
Yes, quite satisfactory.
At first he hadn't been to sure as to the wisdom of revealing his Mystic Code, after all a rump card that nobody knows about has double the value of one that is known. The other side of that argument though was that a trump card that was known was also one that could be feared. Despite the fact that he'd managed to defeat two of his fellow Kings and gain a new Authority the fact remained that he had been controlled by a goddess. Certainly it had ended in her death, but he had been under her sway.
Shirou wasn't entirely sure how the mages of this world would react to that since despite his months here and his frequent talks with Kaida and Manaka he still didn't feel that he had a complete grasp on their mindset. Well, perhaps that wasn't quite true. He did understand some things, such as the apparently absolute divide between deities, Campione and regular mortals. Every book on the subject that he'd read had emphasized the fact that no mage, regardless of how skilled they might be, could ever stand against even the weakest King or Heretic God.
Yet the red haired teen simply couldn't believe that that was a universally accepted truth. Humanity always had its rebels, its malcontents, that would challenge any rule presented to them through sheer bloody minded stubbornness, arrogance or stupidity. Those idiots from the Circle of the Chosen that were now Illya's minion were a clear example that there were those that would move against him if they thought they could get away with it. The absolute way that his snow haired sister had utterly crushed the last attempt had no doubt gone a long way to forestalling any other such incidents, but now . . .
He had no doubt that if some idiots tried to match themselves against him that he could defeat them, the certainty of that was as clear to him as was the colour of his own blood, but he really didn't want to have to deal with the aggravation of such attempts as well as the off chance that they might injure Illya or one of his other companions.
That meant that a further show of strength was needed so that the single show of weakness would be buried beneath the revealed strengths.
In that regard the Gem Sword was almost ideal for the task. It would allow him to recover to an almost complete degree and the vast level of sheer power within it made for an obvious spectacle that none could miss or not comprehend. To them it was as though he'd pulled a crushingly powerful game changing card out of his hand and shown it to them all before putting it back. They now knew that he had it and could use it at any point he chose.
And to all appearances it was a powerful card to hold. The masses of power within the sword would allow him to immediately replenish his magical reserves meaning that he could recklessly use his costliest Authorities again and again without restraint. Likewise any being with even mildly developed sensory magics could tell the sheer scale of the power that the sword held. Shirou wasn't entirely sure of the specifics, but he was confident that if that power were to be released in a single destructive blast then the unleashed devastation would be beyond anything imaginable. Even if Japan was still there after such a release of power it would be a wasted and ruined shadow of its former self, a land unable to support life. Even beyond that there were the possible effects that releasing so much ambient power would have, mutations, invocations, the genesis of completely new monsters born from the formless power, the use of the Gem Blade as a weapon might well signify the end of the current world.
A powerful card indeed.
Or at least that was how it appeared to be. In practice the Gem Sword was somewhat less impressive due to a number of limitations. He was unable to draw Prana from it if his Circuits were in any sort of an agitated state, only when he was calm and relaxed. If he tried to use it while the Od in his body was in motion, invigorated by the physical aspects of his body such as an accelerated heartbeat and adrenalin in the blood, then the Prana wasn't absorbed but simply returned to the sword. He wasn't entirely sure why this was, but it meant that any mid-combat refuelling applications for it were impossible until he learnt some way of instantly assuming a completely calm state of mind and body in the midst of battle.
As for using the Mystic Code as a weapon; well, that had its own problems. Since it was an all or nothing function he supposed that he could conceivably use the Gem Sword as a doomsday weapon, if he was out somewhere where the blast wouldn't endanger innocents of course. The only problem with that though was that he wasn't entirely sure of how to detonate it. Due to the way the Mystic Code had been put together he wasn't sure if simply breaking it would cause the energies within it to be unleashed as a purely destructive blast or if they would simply dissipate into the atmosphere like gas escaping a cracked canister. The same went for simply using Rule of the Underworld to return the gemstone that made up its form back to the Underworld and leaving the mass of power it contained without a container. Would it explode or simply dissipate, he had no idea.
He supposed he could have asked Illya, but even though he was well aware that it was irrational he didn't want to involve her in the workings of a weapon that could at best be devastating and at worst apocalyptic. If needs be he would seek her help, but for the time being he was more interested in the Mystic Code as a reserve power source than as a weapon.
But regardless the important thing was that the revealing of the Gem Sword would have the effect that he hoped for.
And if the tightly controlled but still slightly expressive faces of his audience were anything to go by then the results of his gambit had been quite satisfactory.
What was that?!
What was that?!
What was that?!
What was that?!
The question repeated itself in Guinevere's mind over and over again as she stared at the slim case in Sir Shirou's arm and tried to make sense of what she'd just seen.
That sword . . . when she'd first seen it she'd thought it to be some sort of magical weapon. Certainly a gemstone of such enormous size must have been worth a tremendous amount of money, so for it to be carved into the form of a weapon must have had some sort of significance. Then she'd sensed the power within it and all thought had fled from her mind.
She had no idea how she had missed it, it was as though someone had pulled a sun out of a cooking pot in defiance of all common sense. The sword-shaped jewel held power, enormous, titanic power.
Without even thinking about it the Witch Queen tried to calculate just how great that power was when compared to other vessels such as grimoires that held the power of gods and goddesses. The Gorgoneion had sealed away much of Athena's divinity as well as her Authorities of the Earth and the Snake, while the Heraneion had contained the sealed power of the goddess Hera, yet both of them had only held portions of power. The sword made of a gemstone held no Authorities, of that she was certain; all it contained was the raw unformed magic that mortals, Campione and gods all used to fuel their magics.
But the scale . . . it was massive in a way that shook her to her core. She couldn't see it all, that was what daunted her, like a child standing at the foot of a mountain the power within it was so vast that her senses couldn't completely encompass it.
Her eyes widened further as a thought scorched its way across her mind.
The Holy Grail!
It was like the Holy Grail!
To be sure there were differences. In the quality of the container, the quality of contained power and even the quantity of that power her San Graal was unquestionably superior. It held not merely the power of more than a dozen Mother Goddesses; it also held their divinity and their very lifeforce. It was a tool to create miracles and to empower her beloved King of the End.
And yet this artefact of Sir Shirou's was comparable. It was not the equal, but it was peer to her sacred vessel.
How!? How could this possibly be? It made no sense that such a container for power could exist without her knowledge, the Holy Grail had been created using the willing sacrifice of a goddess of exceptional power along with a ritual of quality now lost to the mists of time. If such another creation had been made then surely she would have felt it, surely she would have known. So how-
"What is that, King Shirou?"
The question that was plaguing her was voiced by her Eminence Luo Hao.
"This is the Gem Sword, a vessel that allows me to store the energy that I pour into it, energy that I can retrieve later if needs be."
As he spoke the King of Steel stood. His movements were still stiff, but there was none of the weakness that had seemed to weigh him down earlier. Instead he stood tall and stretched as though he'd only just climbed out of bed.
"That's definitely better," even his voice sounded different, still tired, but it was the fatigue of a warrior that had come off the battlefield alive and well, "Being out of Prana really leaves you feeling empty."
"I would not know, King Shirou," the Ruler of the Martial Realm declared, her stance haughty but the smile upon her face that of a teacher gazing upon a diligent pupil, "This Luo Cuilian has never been in a position where her strength has been spent to such an extreme."
"Well, given that I was facing you and Godou at the same time I think it's hardly a surprise that I ended up emptying my reserves to the last dregs." Sir Shirou's defensive tone was belied by the smile upon his lips as he jokingly defended himself.
"True," The Chinese Campione agreed with an authoritative nod of her head, "Had it not required such a concerted effort for you to defeat us then I would have no recourse but to hang my head in shame and then slay all witnesses to my disgrace. Fortunately your victory over me and my sworn brother was both costly enough and grand enough that this Luo Hao shall wear it as a badge of honour rather than a scar of shame. Rest assured King Shirou, the next time we find ourselves in conflict I shall surely emerge as the victor with my renewed martial magnificence!"
King Godou said something after that but Guinevere wasn't really paying any attention at that point. Instead she was focused upon another notion.
Could this Gem Sword be of use in the revival of the King Who Manifests at the Worlds End?
The Holy Grail had been created by her 'mother' to facilitate the return of her most beloved King, it would lend strength to his mighty Authority Excalibur and grant him strength beyond that which he had accumulated by resting within the earth's embrace. If that was true then could the same be true of the power within this Gem Sword?
Her King was a god of Steel, indeed he was the Strongest Steel of all, and given Sir Shirou's own impossible affinity to Steel could it not be possible that the vast amounts of power stored in the jewelled weapon could also be compatible enough for her Lord to absorb?
Yes, the more she thought about it the more plausible the notion became to her. She already knew that the eighth Campione was in some way related to her dear King of the End; the fact that he had Steel in his soul and could wield Excalibur was proof of this. If you accepted that then it opened up a number of possibilities, and one of those notions was now germinating in the mind of the Queen of the Divine Ancestors.
Could it be that some part of her King had connected to Sir Shirou even while he slept? But if so then why? The only notion that made sense was that the King of Steel was meant to serve as some sort of herald, even though he himself wasn't aware of it. Could that be the origin of the Gem Sword? Was its intended function to accumulate power that the King of the End would take into himself when he rose once more?
It was a neat theory that came apart due to a single inconvenient fact. God Slayers were the Strongest Steel's natural enemies, he existed to subdue those of great power that caused chaos and strife, be they gods or the children of Pandora, but the Devil Kings were his principle prey, why then would he empower one of those that by nature he fought against?
There was something here that she wasn't seeing, something that was eluding her.
Well, she'd simply have to find out, that was the only thing to do, investigate, observe, research and deduce. Though she might often act childishly Guinevere was the Witch of Britannia, a consummate schemer whose plots had spanned decades and nations. Her intellect was sharp and her wits were keen, if she devoted herself to unravelling this mystery she was sure that she would find some way of using it to benefit her King.
Of course that would mean that she'd have to spend lots of time with Sir Shirou, wouldn't it?
Any thoughts about investigation or uncovering secrets disappeared in a puff of pink vapour as the Divine Ancestor's imagination treacherously conjured up images of her spending whole days at his side. Eating together, researching together, taking baths together, have-
. . . What was that last thing she thought?
Against her will the thought of sharing one of Japan's famous hot springs rose up in her mind. Of him washing her back, then her washing his . . . his tightly muscled back with corded muscles moving under the skin as she cares-
No, no she had to stay on course, not allow herself to get distracted again.
Although . . . wasn't there meant to be some hot spring that guaranteed a couple becoming happily joined if they shared a bath in it?
Aaaahhhh, she was doing it again! Truly she was thankful that Sir Knight wasn't privy to her thoughts or else she'd never be able to escape 'his' teasing. Why did things have to be so complicated? Why couldn't Sir Shirou be an arrogant and easy to dislike fellow like the Black Prince? If he was like her home country's Campione then she'd have had no hesitation in using him like a rag and discarding him with just as much lack of a care. It really wasn't fair that the one Campione she could manipulate and control was the only one that she didn't want to.
Taking a deep breath Guinevere willed herself to calm down.
Unfortunately her fluttering heart was being less than co-operative.
Tiamat watched in stunned silence even as her mind raced.
The Gem Sword that King Shirou had just revealed was perhaps more significant than the King of Steel was actually aware of. Certainly its ability to contain a vast amount of magical power was impressive, but the Mother of Dragons was fairly certain that she'd been the only one to spot a small but extremely important fact.
The jewel-born weapon was not some artefact made by a god or a trophy birthed by the defeat of a deity, it was something made by a combination of the eighth Campione's Authority and his strange magecraft. And if he was capable of creating something of this high a level then what else might he be able to create?
So, not only was the King of Steel possessed of a number of dangerous and powerful Authorities but he could also use a strange mortal magic that defied all that was known of the hierarchy of power, could cast off the mental influences of a goddess famed for her power in such and he could also forge artefacts of a calibre that could previously only be created by using the death of a god as a catalyst.
More and more the fallen goddess was beginning to wonder if there was something else at work here, something that she wasn't seeing.
Tiamat watched as the King that she hoped would be her host packed the sword back into the case it had been sealed in. As it disappeared back into the long case she was struck by how the waves of power that it had emanated faded to nothingness once more. Intriguing, she wondered just what manner of enchantments would allow for the concealment of so great a power, they certainly weren't any she was familiar with. Since she had firmly employed stealth as one of her principle tools during her time as a Divine Ancestor she was well-versed in spells of disguise and warding. Over the course of millennia her expertise in those disciplines had grown, but still the spell that King Shirou had used to conceal his treasure was unknown to her.
Filing the thought of the odd magic to the back of her mind the fallen Goddess decided that if she wanted to cement her alliance with the King of Steel then she'd have to make the first move. As things stood the worst that could happen would be his denial of her offer. With her as a guest and with others that were his peers in his presence it was unlikely that he'd make any move to hurt her. When looked at from that perspective it was now probably the best time for her to make the suggestion.
She waited until he returned from storing the cased Gem Sword back in the humble shack from which it had been taken. No doubt its humble exterior hid some impressive security if he was willing to leave it there, but that wasn't any concern of hers at this time, she had more important things to think about. As he came back out she stepped forwards, carefully keeping her body language unthreatening even as she stepped into his path.
Chaos curse it, why was her heart fluttering like a frightened bird? It was taking all her will to maintain her composure, but she was managing it.
"King Shirou," her voice was calm, giving no indication of the unrest and trepidation that churned within her breast, "After the battle had ended you asked me to make a promise to you in exchange for an alliance between us for the duration of my weakness. I am now ready to take that oath, if you are still willing to accept it."
That hadn't been quite what they'd agreed to, but given that the King of Steel had been more unconscious than awake when they'd had their discussion it was acceptably close to what had been said.
By the looks of things King Shirou himself was having a bit of trouble recalling what had been said, but by all appearances he at least remembered the spirit of their brief words if not the words themselves.
"Your actions saved my life when I was betrayed by my ally. I now stand before you a shadow of my true self, yet you have convinced me to continue along the path that is before me, to strive to regain my lost self. Well congratulations, I have taken your advice."
". . . and now I have to take responsibility." The words came out of King Shirou's mouth apparently against his own volition. Good, it seemed that memories of the previous night were returning to him.
Right, this was it. If she wanted to secure the alliance she wanted she was going to have to place her pride on the line and make this as ceremonial as possible in order to lend it weight. The simple fact was that he didn't need her though, everything she could offer he either already had in abundance or could gain with only some degree of effort. Yet at the same time she didn't believe it impossible that he would accept her offer, what she had seen of him seemed to indicate a young man who favoured the collection of resources.
It was time to make both her move and her gamble and hope that fate favoured her efforts.
She didn't bow, nor did she curtsy, both were acts of submission she refused to make. Instead she faced him squarely and met his eyes with all the dignity she could manage. She was aware that as things stood they were not equals but even though she knew that she would be the lesser partner in this arrangement if she was accepted she was unwilling to be a subordinate.
"Emiya Shirou, titled the King of Steel by the Witch Queen Guinevere, I am Tiamat, goddess of chaos to the lands once called Mesopotamia. I come before you to propose an alliance between us and offer the full use of all my power and resources in exchange for shelter and protection."
Her words were almost brutally honest in their description of her circumstances, but she refused to try to hide the truth behind eloquent wordplay or double meanings. She would state the facts of the situation and what she sought. If she was reading the young God Slayer correctly then honesty was by far the better path as opposed to cunningly selected language.
". . . Any oath that you take to me will be enforced by more than merely words and promises," King Shirou's words were not confrontational and lacked any sort of challenge. He was merely stating a fact as delicately as he could. "I have in my possession an artefact that can . . . enforce oaths taken upon it. It is said to be able to even enforce the pacts of gods or Kings, would you be willing to exchange an oath upon it?"
Exchange oaths? Did he mean like in a weddi- No! She was not going to allow herself to get lost in petty daydreams at a time like this. She had to focus on the important matters, these oaths, what were they? She had no desire to find herself bound in service due to a carelessly spoken vow.
"What oaths do you speak of? What would you wish me to swear to?"
"Merely to act as an honourable guest in your time here, to take no willing action that would be to the detriment of myself or my people, and to aid in the defence of my home and allies if we should come under threat. I will require no oaths of fealty or promises of service. In exchange I shall vow to welcome you as a guest to my home for as long as you abide by your own oaths, I shall protect you from unjust threats, though any that I deem to be of a legitimate nature shall be subject to possible exception."
"Are you certain there is no blood of law keepers in your family?" Tiamat enquired in a light tone as she mentally went over the terms offered to see if she could spot any loopholes or hidden traps, "What do you mean when you speak of threats of a 'legitimate' nature?"
"Simply that I will not stand in the way of those that have a justified reason to seek you harm," His vice was firm now, not unkind but definitely unyielding, "I offer protection from greedy fools or ambitious killers, I will not allow that protection to be abused to defend you from those you have wronged. Do you think such a condition unfair?"
"You would have me place the judgement of my action in your hands alone?"
"No, I simply wish to make sure that those hands are not tied. If you feel my choice is unfair or incorrect you can always just leave, I shall make no move to hold you. However I will not let my choices be cut off in this, I trust that you know why."
The Mother of Dragons could understand his reasons for such a condition. If he granted her a more blanket protection then it could potentially be abused so that he'd be forced to defend her from those with true grievances against her. As things stood right now she didn't think there were any that had such axes to grind with her. The years of her acting in the shadows had meant that she'd had only minimal interactions with others outside of a select handful, none of which had any reason to wish her harm.
These oaths seemed acceptable. The matter of acting as an 'honourable' guest might be somewhat open to interpretation, but she could work with that. Of course there was no point in taking chances.
"Define an 'honourable' guest King Shirou and what aid would you ask in the defence of your home and household?"
"An honourable guest is one that comports themselves with good manners and doesn't abuse the hospitality offered to them. If I accept another guest that is your enemy you will not pursue any vendetta while they share my roof and hospitality. If either of you have a problem then you will take it up elsewhere once one of you is no longer affiliated to me.
"As for defending the manor if needs be, I don't expect you to lay down your life in its defence, but neither do I expect you to not lift a finger in the defence of the dwelling that shelters you. I shall trust your sense of honour and duty to find the balance between the two; I trust that to be acceptable?"
More than acceptable, the terms being offered were generous in the extreme. Protection and shelter, two things she was in desperate need of given her circumstances, and they were being given to her for practically nothing. A promise of good behaviour, a vow not to work against him and a pledge to aid in the defence of the home in which she stayed, that was all he asked.
About her she noticed the others reacting to the small drama playing out before them. Kusanagi Godou seemed to be interested but largely unconcerned with the exchange. Unsurprising she supposed, by all indications the seventh Campione was completely uninterested in the power balances and politics involved in the various magic societies and associations. As such it was more likely he was intrigued by the drama of the situation rather than any political ramifications.
By contrast the young women that attended him were all watching the exchange with sharp eyes. Well, all except for the Hime Miko with long black hair, she was watching as though she were the spectator at some outdoor cinema. Had she been holding a tub of popcorn it wouldn't have surprised the fallen goddess. The others were more studious in their attentions though; more aware of the implications of what was happening.
For her part Luo Hao seemed oddly intrigued by what was happening. Somewhat to her own surprise Tiamat had realized that of all the God Slayers present the oldest and most egotistical of them was the one she had least to fear from. Given her titanic ego the Ruler of the Martial Realm would never raise a hand against her in her current diminished state, not from any sort of sympathy but rather because she felt it unworthy of her to battle a weakened foe. Her Eminence was the kind of King that would let a weakened foe escape simply so they could gain strength and provide a greater battle at some later point.
No, they were of no particular danger to her. That particular distinction went to the blonde Divine Ancestor that was currently glaring venomous daggers at her.
Quite clearly Guinevere was not in the least happy with the Mother of Dragon's latest move. The fact that King Shirou seemed to be agreeable to the alliance that she'd offered, indeed that he was offering her all that an alliance could provide without demanding anything in return, clearly infuriated her.
Despite her resolve not to allow her emotions to direct her path Tiamat couldn't help but feel a surge of vindictive pleasure at her rival's displeasure. Still, she mustn't allow herself to be distracted, the deal was excellent and she would be a fool not to take it. Taking a deep breath she gravely nodded her head.
"Your terms are most generous King Shirou. I accept them gladly and will strive to be a worthy guest."
Returning her nod with one of his own the King of Steel gestured to a nearby wing of the manor that apparently served as some sort of storehouse.
"The item I spoke of is housed just there. I'll have it brought out and then we may both swear our oaths upon it."
"By all means." Tiamat agreed, after all there was hardly any point in delay, was there?
'Comports'? 'Legitimate nature'? It was all Shirou could do not to burst out laughing at his own words.
The fake King persona that he occasionally needed to employ had become something of a minor hobby of his. Sometimes when he was tired with his research and wanted a short break he'd browse the internet looking up scenes from movies and the like depicting regal rulers. Some of the clips he'd watched had been so over the top that he'd actually chuckled at the thought of how Saber would have reacted to them, especially the ones where the actor was playing the part of King Arthur. Still the viewings had given him some material that had been useful, that and a somewhat extended vocabulary.
It seemed to reflect in the role that he played, that was for sure. The use of the unnecessarily high sounding words did lend the short exchange a certain gravitas that it might have otherwise lacked, but that still didn't keep it from being a bit on the amusing side.
Well, all things considered his only options were really to laugh or cry. This was a role that he'd locked himself into when he'd put up a false face for the Committee back when he'd thought they were like the magi associations back on his home world. The sad part was that it wasn't a mask he could abandon since it was now so established as a part of his image.
So, it was either laugh or cry, or maybe wait until he was alone in his room at which point he could engage in the therapeutic act of banging his head against a wall.
Allowing a small smile to break out across his face Shirou dismissed his somewhat foolish line of thought and turned his attention to the matter at hand. Getting that altar out was certainly in order, but doing it himself wasn't a suitable part of the image he was trying to project. The fact that even though his Od levels had recovered his muscles still felt rather like overcooked noodles was also a relevant factor.
Fortunately with his magic levels restored he had other options available to him.
As unsteady as he'd been when Illya had helped him to get out of bed and struggle into some clothes engrained habits had still asserted themselves as he'd pulled his trousers on.
Ever since he'd developed a decent collection of warrior souls to call upon the young Emiya had taken to always carrying a good luck charm around in his pocket. However the charm's appearance was deceptive because its true function was to simply act as a pouch for the carefully cut shards of metal, stone and bone that served as the reagents that he needed to use his Rule of the Underworld. Though small the false charm had enough fragments within to summon up a good sixty souls, all of them fearsome warriors that had helped him train in the past.
The fake talisman had been in his pocket when he'd gone to aid in the fire and had remained there for everything that had followed. According to Illya it had been in his possession during his fight with Luo Hao and Godou when he'd used it to summon up undead servants to attack his fellow Campione. That and the small cell phone that he'd been carrying had been somehow managed to survive the battle intact, if slightly scuffed. The charm he could understand given its small size, but the phone was another matter. It had survived his battle with Mordred and now this, in all honesty he was half considering taking it apart to see if there was some sort of protective ward built into it.
Both of these items had been inside the ripped and soot-stained remnants of the clothes that he'd worn yesterday. Clothes that he'd ordered burnt as soon as he'd extracted his belongings from them. There had been a scent on the shirt and undershirt that he'd had on, one that had survived under the smells of dust, smoke and blood. It had been faint but as soon as he'd smelled it he'd-
Her tongue ran along the side of his jaw as one arm tightened about her lower back and the other around her shoulders. Her legs tightened their own grip as he-
-he'd felt an overpowering sense of revulsion that had actually made his stomach heave despite its empty state.
Now he focused the Authority he'd usurped from Hades and focused upon the souls that he could reach through the fragments within.
Many of them couldn't answer his call, the damage they'd taken last night having made it so they would require time to recover before they could be summoned once more. Mentally Shirou made a promise to himself that he would apologize to each and every one of them, he might not remember his actions and orders to them but he could imagine that they had been far from kind or respectful. While contemplating the possible uses for his Authorities he'd come up with a number of methods that were too cruel and inhuman for him to ever use, however in his controlled state he doubted he'd had the same restraint.
For such a minor use of souls that he was familiar with there was no need for him to use the chant of his Authority. As he channelled the magic a group of five men immediately shimmered into being before him, they were from different races and cultures but all of them shared the same robust physique of large size and toned musculature. All of them were in full bodies rather than the skeletal forms that he normally employed in combat, it was more costly in power but it was more respectful to those that served him.
He didn't need to speak his orders; that was taken care of by a development of his power that he'd noticed recently. When interacting with souls that he was familiar with he found that he could send an idea straight into their minds via the same link that he supplied them with the Prana that gave them form. For his undead servants it was as though they suddenly simply knew what it was that he wanted them to do, all five of them offered respectful nods and then headed off in the direction of the storeroom.
As they moved away Shirou couldn't help but wonder at how convenient the power was. To instantly be able to convey relatively complex requests and plans to newly summoned servants, the potential it held was staggering. Idly he contemplated the possibility that the Authority would continue to develop over time, such a thing was not unheard of after all. Indeed several documents that he'd read had stressed that a Campione couldn't use the full power of the Authorities they'd gained unless they had a high natural compatibility with them or alternately simply had years of experience. Perhaps in time he'd develop the ability to share his servant's senses? In a way it was the logical progression of an ability to wordlessly give them commands.
It didn't take them long to return. The altar that they had been ordered to retrieve had been disassembled into its component parts when it had been stored away. Those parts consisted mostly of a few stacks of blocks that were easily moved, the main challenge was the single large slab that made up the altar's top. But these were men whose strength had been honed well in life since it had meant the difference between survival and the grave; two of them were able to carry the length of rock that would normally have required a small team to move.
In short order the altar was reassembled on the patio before his workshop and the resurrected souls faded back into their waiting afterlives.
"What is required?"
He had to hand it to Tiamat; despite all the factors of the situation that were weighing against her she neither flinched nor hesitated. Tracing a knife that was more like an oversized needle he put it to his finger tip an, pricked himself. The dagger was a Noble Phantasm, one of low rank but none the less potent enough to break the reinforced flesh of a Campione and deal him the minor wound needed, a tiny puncture from which a thick drop of blood welled up. Letting it fall upon the grey stone of the altar he spoke the oath that he'd been thinking up. It was short and simple and would hopefully not leave any room for loopholes.
"I swear that in exchange for swearing upon this altar the oaths you have promised I shall welcome you as a guest to my home for as long as you wish so long as you abide by your own oaths, I shall protect you from threats that I deem unjust and see to your needs as honour dictates."
As he spoke the words he could feel the magic of the altar reaching out through the connection of the blood and coiling around the words he had just spoken. After a moment the magic, for want of a better word, wrote itself into him, taking the words to which it had bonded and making them a part of him, as much so as his own skin. At first it was very fragile, something that he sensed he could have broken as easily as a thread of spider's silk if he so chose. But once it sank into him, once it became a part of him, he felt the . . . certainty there. The oath he'd made was written into his bones and he could no more break them than he could eat spaghetti through the soles of his feet. Yet at the same time it didn't feel restrictive or uncomfortable.
He knew that for the members of the Circle of the Chosen that Illya had forced to be her minions the oath of obedience was both a leash about their throats and a sword hanging over their heads. He could wonder why it might be so for them, but for him it was different, or at least that was how it felt. Perhaps it was simply because the only compulsion had been for him to keep his word rather than have him give up his freedom as they had.
Well, whatever the case it was considerably more comfortable than he'd feared it might be. Looking up he found Tiamat looking at him with an expression that could only be called 'thoughtful'. After a brief instant she gave an almost imperceptible nod, which he felt was directed more to herself than it was to him, and reached out to take the dagger he held. An instant later drops of her own blood joined his upon the altar's surface as the magic weapon pricked her skin enough to draw some drops of blood.
"I, Tiamat, goddess of chaos to the lands once called Mesopotamia; do swear to act as an honourable guest while I live beneath your protection. I shall take no willing action that would be to the detriment of you or your people, and shall aid in the defence of your home and allies if they should come under threat while I live here. This I so swear by my blood and my name."
Once more he felt the surge of power as the altar reacted to the oaths that had been made upon it. Shirou could not see the magic as it worked, but he was able to guess at what was happening. As a faint shiver ran through the Mother of Dragon's slim form he guessed that the oaths had settled into her.
So, it would seem that he now had a goddess as a semi-permanent guest at his manor, exactly why things had come to this he was a bit unsure, but surely he coul-
"Sir Shirou, Guinevere would also like to declare her own oaths and join you in your household."
Huh, so it was possible for one's thoughts to make a screech within one's mind if they came to a halt savagely enough. You learn something new every day. That was the sentence that ran through the cold and rational part of Shirou's mind while the vast majority of it was occupied with a single repeating thought.
"What are you saying Lady Guinevere?!"
In the end it hadn't been him that had voiced the question; instead his new houseguest had beaten him to it.
Renjou Kaida had not been up for too long. After last night she'd found herself feeling quite exhausted despite her relatively low level of engagement in the hostilities of the night before. Even if most of her own contribution had been to serve as backup to Manaka during her own battle with Shirou-sama's undead servants, the tension and general scrambling of the night had been enough to leave her physically spent. However she'd also had to deal with being subjected to her King's final attack, and that was something she knew she was going to have nightmares about for the rest of her life.
The memory of her helplessness, of her knowledge that there was nothing she could do save hope that the next sword to come down wasn't the one to take her life, was seared into her recollections now. It was strange, she had always been aware that her King was an existence that towered over her, one that she could no more stand against than an ant could divert a hurricane, but never had she imagined that the gap between them was truly so vast. To have it demonstrated so clearly and so brutally just how her own modest gifts stood in comparison to his . . .
Helplessness was not something that she was in any way familiar with. Her powers were potent and dangerous to the point where they had made her life difficult to manage, but for all their inconveniences they had always meant that she was never without some sort of protection.
But in the face of Shirou-sama's strange magic that protection had served as well as a sheet of rice paper.
Still when she had awoken this morning she had forced herself to face what had happened and asked herself a difficult question.
Did she still wish to continue to serve her King?
There was fear in that thought, a memory of the night before and of just how puny her efforts had been when compared to what she faced. Yet Kaida had not felt repelled from her King due to that fear, she had felt no urge to escape from the manor that had become home to her in the past few months. Instead the black haired Hime-Miko had felt . . . regretful?
That was the closest word she could think of to describe her feelings. She regretted that she hadn't been able to help more. She remembered the pain that she'd experienced as her body was beaten by the force of the swords exploding about her. But at the same time she remembered the expression of absolute pain that had crossed her King's face in the instant after Venus had crumbled into golden sand but before he collapsed. Strange as it was she wished that she could take that pain from him.
And there it was, she might fear her king's power but she did not fear her King.
So she had risen from her bed, despite the aching of her limbs and the still healing burns on her skin, and carefully donned her maid uniform. She had no idea what would be happening today, but she was sure that it would be important, and she intended to offer what support she could to Shirou-sama.
It wasn't any sort of romantic emotion that drove her, of that she was sure. The eighth Campione was a handsome young man, but she found herself unable to view him in that sort of light. Rather it was a combination of duty and respect, a desire to honour the oath of loyalty that she'd privately sworn when she entered his service.
Manaka she left sleeping in her own bed. Her friend had taken quite a beating the night before, more than she had since her friend had shielded her with her own body. Kaida was pretty sure that she'd get an earful from her self-appointed bodyguard about it later, but for now she left her friend sleeping.
As it was she made it outside the manor, after asking directions as to where her King was from one of the former Circle members, just in time to witness the eighth Campione exchanging vows with the Heretic Goddess Tiamat.
Honestly she wasn't entirely sure how she felt about that. A Campione accepting a Heretic God as a guest? The very notion was ludicrous, yet here it was taking place before her. Of course she didn't have too much time to ponder its ramifications because just as they finished Guinevere stepped forwards and dropped her own bomb into the situation.
With slightly wild eyes Kaida continued to watch as the situation developed.
"What are you saying Lady Guinevere?!"
"Guinevere wishes to become a guest of Sir Shirou's hospitality as well." The child-like immortal declared, her face calm despite the obvious rancour of the Mother of Dragons.
"You have your own bases of operation!" Tiamat declared, her hands clenching into fists at her sides, "For what reason could you possibly wish to intrude upon King Shirou?!"
"I feel that working closely with Sir Shirou may well prove to be beneficial to us both," Guinevere declared calmly, "it is already clear that his majesty can restore Sir Knight's waning power by lending him his sword, Guinevere wishes to study this so that she may ease her protector's burden."
"And for that you seek to become a guest in his home?"
"No, I also wish to propose an alliance of interests with Sir Shirou himself so that we might exchange knowledge about the vessels that we possess. Also Guinevere wishes to study Sir Shirou's unique nature of Steel."
"So your reasons for asking for this alliance are entirely self centred? You bring nothing to aid him but instead seek to take advantage of his generous nature!"
The look of genuine outrage upon the chaos goddess's face would have been enough to terrify most mortals but the Queen of the Divine Ancestors faced it unflinchingly.
"Just as you yourself bring nothing?"
"I am here at an invitation; King Shirou has agreed to take responsibility for his actions in preventing my death by sheltering me until I may regain my lost power."
"If by 'invitation' you refer to your demand that he house and protect you then yes, that might be the case. If that is so then Guinevere has just as much of a right to be here as you!"
Luo Hao might have been a God Slaying King for more than two centuries but this was the first time that she had ever been faced with a sight like this. Two beings of divine origin arguing like squabbling school children. In a strange way there was a certain comic value to it, so the Ruler of the Martial Realm chose to remain silent as she watched the drama unfold before her.
". . . as though you can offer anything of any value." The Witch Queen was saying, her features marred slightly as she glared at the taller goddess.
"At least I can offer my loyalty," Tiamat shot back, "Yours belongs only to your precious King of the End, can you ever offer the assurance to King Shirou that he need fear nothing from you should those loyalties clash?"
"Sir Shirou has nothing to fear from my King!" Guinevere declared hotly, "His divine majesty has only ever sought to do battle with those that inflict chaos and suffering upon the helpless masses or has sinned heavily against the mothers of the earth. Since Sir Shirou is blameless of either of these my King shall have no quarrel with him. Indeed I think that they might even be friends."
"The Strongest Steel, friends with a Devil King? Absurd! He exists to hunt them down, not-"
"And the children of Pandora are the natural enemies of deities that rebel against their fates or immortal witches that were once goddesses. That is true, and yet here we are, a goddess and an immortal child seeking to be taken in as guests. It would seem that as far as Sir Shirou is concerned no rule is absolute. Even King Kusanagi Godou does not immediately leap to attack Athena even though they were once enemies, does he?"
The last words were delivered with a hint of smugness as the witch of Britannia seemingly cut her opponents argument out from under her. Before the Mother of Dragons could martial another line of attack the blonde haired child immortal was at the side of the altar and had used the small Noble Phantasm there to prick her finger. As her own blood joined that of the King and the goddess she began to speak.
"Guinevere vows that if Sir Shirou consents to allow her to stay as a guest in his house she will abide by the same oaths that Tiamat has sworn. I swear to act as an honourable guest while you consent to have me beneath your roof and your protection. I vow to take no willing action that would bring harm to you or your people, and Guinevere promises that she shall aid in defending of your home and your allies if they should be attacked during the time that she lives here. By my name as Guinevere and by my honour as the servant of my King and the bearer of the Holy Grail I do so swear this."
And so for the third time Luo Cuilian felt magic reach up from the artefact that the undead servants of her fellow king had brought out and wind its way about a third individual touched with divine powers.
So many interesting things had been revealed so rapidly. First there had been that remarkable gemstone sword, then there had been Tiamat's declaration, and then there was this strange altar that seemed to be able to enforce the oaths sworn upon it even if the ones swearing the vows should have been immune to its magic. At a guess the Ruler of the Martial Realm would have said that the altar was some sort of remnant of a deceased divinity, something that was called a dragon's bone by the magical organizations. Something like that anyway, she didn't really pay too much attention to it.
What was of interest was the novelty of the situation she found herself faced with, Guinevere had been right in that regard. Campione were the natural enemies of Heretic Gods and Divine Ancestors, yet here there was an example of each who were not only willing but in fact eager to share the home of a King. Never in her life had she seen something like this and she had no intention of disrupting its flow.
Tiamat had a distinctly murderous look in her eyes as she took an angry step towards the shorter Guinevere; however her advance was arrested by a single hand laid lightly upon her shoulder.
"I have accepted Guinevere into my home and it would be rude to assault your housemate, indeed given the oaths that have been sworn it is actually impossible."
The Mother of Dragons made a visible effort to calm herself and after a few deep breaths succeeded in regaining her poise.
"Might I ask why you chose to accept her request?"
"Lady Guinevere has come to my aid twice when I was in dire straits and were it not for her sending Sir Lancelot to aid us yesterday then both you and I would have been meals for . . . Jord, yes Jord. If she wishes to become my guest then I have little reason to refuse her and plenty of reason to accept."
It was clear that the fallen goddess wished to protest, however it was equally clear that she was aware of how weak her own position was. Luo Cuilian knew that Guinevere had aided King Shirou in the aftermath of his battle with Mordred by providing healing when the eighth Campione had been in dire need of it. She had also attended his Feast and come to his aid during the recent crisis. By comparison the reduced Mesopotamian goddess had only an offer given when the young King had been more unconscious than not. If looked at from that perspective then the blonde Witch Queen undoubtedly held the advantage as far as the strength of the relationships went.
"Both of you are welcome in my home," King Shirou's voice broke into her thoughts as he addressed both of his new guests. "We can discuss how we'll be setting things up later though, at the moment I fear that despite having refilled my reserves of magic the events of last night are still taking their toll upon me. I suddenly feel myself becoming hungry once more. Let's return to the kitchen to see if Asuka has been able to produce some more of her marvellous fare, shall we?"
That last comment forestalled any possible dissent since none of them were willing to chance missing the opportunity to sample some more of the wondrous cook's creations, even if they had only been eating them about an hour ago. Even so it was a surprise that the red haired King found himself hungry again so soon, he had eaten . . . generous portions of the food that had been served. On the other hand his body was still recovering, given the vitality of a Campione the flesh could quickly heal but would consume its stores of materials to do so. With his magical reserves filled no doubt his body was now entirely focused upon its physical restoration and was demanding more fuel for the task.
The Ruler of the Martial Realm smiled to herself as she remembered a feast that her disciples had held in her honour some fifteen decades ago after her defeat of a particularly troublesome Heretic God. She recalled how her appetite had been great then, how she had devoured dish after dish until some thoughtless fellow had complimented her on her hearty appetite. Naturally she'd punished him for his over familiarity, but since she'd been feeling magnanimous at the time she'd simply had him run up and down a mountain a few times rather than executing him on the spot.
Shaking memories from the past from her head the Chinese Campione turned her attention back to those with her, especially her two fellow Kings and the divinities that accompanied them. As they all made their way back to where the breakfast had been served Luo Hao uncharacteristically held back so that she could observe all of them. All in all this was interesting, something new that she was going to have to keep an eye on in the future.
It was only late afternoon but Shirou felt as though it were three o'clock in the morning. It would seem that after refuelling with all the materials that it needed his body was demanding to go straight back to bed so it could finish healing up in peace.
Honestly the young Emiya was a bit surprised that he was free, he'd been expecting things to be a bit more complicated as far as saying goodbye to his fellow Devil Kings went but in the end it had been almost anticlimactic. Once the second meal had been finished Luo Hao had declared her need to return to her homeland. She'd exchanged brief goodbyes with him and Godou and then departed with her student in a cloud of flower petals. Shortly after that Godou had also said that he needed to get back home to let his sister know where he'd disappeared to for the last few days.
So it was that in a shockingly short time most of the guests had departed leaving him and Illya with only his two newcomers to worry about. That hadn't lasted long since with glares at each other both of the immortals had told him that they needed to go and collect belongings that they'd left at their last place of residence. Before he'd been able to get a word in both of them had disappeared leaving just him and his adopted sister.
It had been at that point that Shirou had realized just how tired he really was and had excused himself to go back to bed.
Which led him back to the present.
The problem was that though he felt tired he didn't feel sleepy, so after more than an hour of lying in bed and waiting for a sleep that would not come he went to his desk and grabbed a pen and his journal. If he was going to be stuck in bed he was at least going to do something worthwhile.
Turning to the last blank page he put pen to paper and began to write.
The last few days haven't been easy. Actually they've been pretty bad. It all started when . . .
Omake: Could it be Worse?
Kariya forced his limbs to work despite their pain and weakness. Up ahead a large portion of the city was burning, and he just knew that his Servant was somehow involved.
In all truth the Holy Grail War had gone far better for the damaged Matou than he'd been expecting it to. Despite the loss of the Crest worms in his system he'd still been able to generate some Prana, not much but enough to maintain his contract with Berserker. As it turned out though Berserker didn't need much in the way of maintenance since, most unusually for his class, his Mana reserves were enormous.
The first Servant to be slain had been Assassin, cut down at the Feast of Kings that Rider had called. Berserker hadn't had too much to do in that battle, though he had expressed his eagerness to fight the legendary army of the King of Conquerors. At first the other Kings present hadn't known quite how to take the so called King of Swords and his careless rule of leaving his subjects to handle things themselves, but in the end Saber had declared him a fool and Gilgamesh had stated his intentions to annihilate Berserker for the temerity in calling himself a King. Oddly enough the Mad Servant had taken no offence at their opinions but had instead simply said that the fight would be something he'd look forwards to.
Caster had been the next to be slain. An alliance of all the other Servants had been arrayed against him, but when the Mad Servant had seen that Lancer was getting ready to destroy one of his own Noble Phantasms to heal Saber Berserker had stopped the Irish hero's act by unleashed the full might of his own Noble Phantasm 'A Campione's Authority' and sliced Caster and his monster apart so thoroughly that there'd been no way for them to recover.
His reasons for doing so were revealed shortly thereafter when he'd somehow managed to kidnap the masters of both Saber and Lancer. Exactly how he'd accomplished such a feat was unclear to just about everyone else, including his victims, but Kariya had quickly come to realize that such petty things as 'common sense' and 'rationality' had only a passing acquaintance with his Servant.
Everyone had expected it to be a surprisingly cunning move to eliminate two enemies by slaying their Masters, however as it turned out nothing could be further from the truth. When the two knights had arrived at the docks where they had tracked Berserker down they found themselves at the very spot where the first battle of the Holy Grail War had been held. Both of their Masters had been securely tied to chairs with a somewhat embarrassed Kariya for company and Berserker himself had been calmly fishing nearby.
At their confused outrage he'd explained that the reason for this was that he wanted to ensure that the two of them could have their duel without any outside interference. To show his sincerity he'd asked Kariya to use one of his Command Spells to ensure that Berserker wouldn't cause harm to either Master, as long as they made no move to interfere in the battle, or take advantage of either Lancer or Saber during their battle or while they were recovering.
When asked for his reasons for going so far the Servant of Madness had explained that he really disliked it when people interfered with his fights, so he was making sure that no-one interfered with theirs. Besides this way he'd be able to fight the victor later in the war, and that was something he was looking forward to.
So the match between the two Servants had gone down without any intrusions. With both Emiya Kiritsugu and Kayneth Archibald El-Melloi unable to do anything for fear of being rendered unconscious by application of a large blunt object to the head, they hadn't had any choice but to watch as their Servants duelled.
It had been a magnificent fight, both Saber and Lancer were consummate warriors, each a veritable artist with their weapons. The initial advantage had been Lancer's since the Servant of the Sword was still hampered by the unhealing wound his golden lance had dealt her. With her most powerful offensive Noble Phantasm sealed to her by the lack of two fully functional hands the King of Knights had to fall back on her sword skills and Prana Bursts. However now she knew the abilities of the spears she faced, and that distinction made the difference. Kariya wasn't quite sure how she managed it, but somehow Saber deliberately took a wound from the golden spear that allowed her to strike it at full force with her strongest blow as she released her Invisible Air Noble Phantasm and break it.
With the shorter spear broken Saber was able to heal herself and fight with her full strength. The Servant of the Lance put up a magnificent fight, but in the end he proved outmatched.
Still there was not a trace of shame on his face as he faded. There was regret that he had been unable to bring his lord victory, but he had given it his all and fought as chivalry dictated and lost honourably. His face was that of a man fulfilled as he disappeared from the world.
And so there had only been four left, Saber, Archer, Rider and Berserker. King Arthur, Gilgamesh, Iskander and Salvatore Doni.
It had been at that point that Kariya had been unable to go on. Though he'd done his best his body had begun to fail on him. He wasn't in any sort of mortal danger, but the amount of Prana that he'd forced himself to produce had left him bedridden for the last couple of days. He should have known better, but he'd been just so tired, that was why he hadn't picked up on the importance of the last thing his Servant said before he left.
"Don't worry; I know what I'm doing!"
Why? Why hadn't he picked up on it? Berserker might be a magnificent warrior, but that didn't change the fact that he had the common sense of a lemming and probably about as much brains.
Was it really a surprise that the city was apparently burning to the ground?
So Kariya ran, or at least hobbled as fast as he could, in the direction that he sensed his wayward Servant to be. Berserker was still alive, of that he was certain, but there was something different about him, something had changed.
There he was, out of the flames Kariya could see a form making its way out of the fires. His Servant was carrying something, no, make that two somethings. As they drew closer to where the Matou Master stood leaning against a wall and gasping for breath, he saw that one form was an adult man draped limply over one of Berserker's shoulders while the other was a young boy tucked under his arm.
"B . . . Berserker, what happened?"
"You know what? I'm not quite sure." Doni confessed shamelessly as he lowered the two that he'd been carrying to the ground. The young boy made a slight moan as he was laid out, but the adult form remained silent.
"I mean one moment I'm just beating Rider after a real fun battle, then next there's fire everywhere, a big black sun in the sky and all this black gunge rolling over me. I think it was trying to tell me something, but I wasn't too interested so I just ignored it, next thing I know I've got a body and I'm naked in the street. So I grabbed some clothes from a smashed store and came looking for you. And look who I met on the way!"
The Servant of Madness gestured down at the two forms. The boy was unknown to Kariya, but he could recognize the other one quite easily. Emiya Kiritsugu the infamous Magus Killer and the Master of Saber.
"What happened?" he asked as he leaned down to take a closer look at the man's corpse. There seemed to be no obvious wounds on him, no cause of death, but there was also no hint of him breathing and his skin was far too pale to be anything other than a dead body.
"I found them on my way when I was trying to get out. Emiya-san managed to save Shirou-kun here, but I think that whatever curse he was under must have done him in because he died asking me to save Shirou-kun." The blond Berserker nodded in approval as he looked down at the dead Magus.
"I think that he could have saved himself, but instead he saved someone else, that was splendid of him."
"Wh-what happened to the Grail?" In a way Kariya felt small and petty for asking that, here the city was burning and god alone knew how many were dead or dying and he was asking such a selfish question.
But he needed to know; the Grail was his only chance of being able to live to see this time next year, his only chance to be there for Sakura as she needed him to be.
"The Grail's gone," Berserker assured him, is voice as infuriatingly casual as ever. "I think Saber blasted it to bits, that's the only thing that makes sense. I saw her Excalibur and then I felt the Grail vanish and then everything was burning. I'm pretty sure Archer's gone too. Pity, I was really looking forwards to fighting them. Ah well, what can you do? Anyway, congratulations Kariya, since I'm the last Servant standing you're officially the winner."
For an instant Kariya couldn't do anything other than gape at his Servant in stupefied incredulity.
"The Grail is gone, Fuyuki is on fire and I'm probably going to die in less than a year."
He felt he had to make those facts completely clear, to ensure there was no chance that Doni had forgotten about them.
"Yep, but you've definitely won."
He hadn't forgotten them, he just didn't care. There wasn't anything malicious in it; it was simply a case of him dismissing the negative consequences as irrelevant to him. In a way there was an almost Zen like quality to his blithe carelessness.
". . . Sakura . . ."
The name came to his lips almost against his will. What would happen to her now? He was going to die and she'd be left to his idiot brother's tender mercies. Admittedly that was a vast improvement over being in Zouken's care, but then just about anything could achieve that.
"Oh, don't worry about Sakura; you'll be there to raise her for a long time yet."
"Wh-what do you men?"
"When I found Kiritsugu here saving Shirou I also found this."
As he spoke Berserker held a beautiful blue and gold sheath. There was no way that it could be mistaken for a mundane object, the power and magnificence that it radiated simply would not allow it. This was a Noble Phantasm, there was simply no way it could be anything else.
"Is that . . . ?"
"Yep, this is Avalon. Kiritsugu was using it to heal Shirou when he died so I helped it finish up. It was taking too long to heal Shirou-chan so I gave it some of my power, it didn't like it too much but it was able to heal him up pretty quickly anyway. We'll just use it on you to heal you up, then we can stick it back inside Shirou-chan where it belongs."
Kariya's head was spinning at this point; too much seemed to be trying to climb into his mind via his ears for it all to make sense. Avalon? Healing him? Shirou-chan? Kiritsugu dying? Berserker using someone else's Noble Phantasm?
Wait, hold on a minute, Berserker was always going on about what Shirou-kun had said. He was the one that had told him about how skilled a warrior Saber was and how strong warriors always gathered for the Holy Grail war, what did that have to do with this six year old child that the blond Servant had carried out of the flames?
Uhhh, he could ask that later. Right now there were only two things on his mind. The first was that there seemed to be a chance that he might get healed, that he might be able to survive to look after Sakura. Hell, he would also be able to look after Aoi and Rin as well. Tokiomi , had died somewhere along the line, at least that was what Kariya guessed since to the best of his knowledge Archer had been partnered with Tokiomi's apprentice for the last fights. He honestly couldn't see the dedicated Magus giving up his chance to reach the Root if he was still alive, so odds were that he'd left the mortal coil one way or another.
The second thing was this young boy. Berserker didn't tend to pay much attention to those that weren't of some sort of interest to him, so what could his interest in this boy be?
"I'm going to raise him of course."
Huh? He hadn't asked his question out loud had he? No, it was just the rather unsettling tendency of his Servant to show some rather disturbingly accurate flashes of insight at just the right time.
"You're . . . what?"
"Yep, obviously I can't let Shirou-kun get raised by someone unsuitable, if that happens then he'll never reach his full potential and then I'll never be able to fight him. So I'm going to take charge of raising him into a great King."
You . . . are going to raise him?" Kariya was becoming a little worried about how halting his speech had been of late, but Doni had that effect on him, especially once he got up to steam on his nonsense.
"Of course, just imagine a King raised by another King. Shirou-kun raised by me. Hah, I'll teach him right; he'll be just like me when he grows up. Then once he's got his strength back we can have a fun fight all over again!"
As his Servant knelt down to pat the unconscious boy on the head the Matou Master couldn't help but feel a certain horror at the thought of anyone being raised by Berserker. Was stupidity infectious? What kind of notion would his 'child rearing' impart upon a young and impressionable mind?
Oh no, this was not going to end well.