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.
Well, here's my latest chapter. As promised it's a bit shorter than normal, but that means that I was able to knock it out a bit quicker, though some bits of it did give me some trouble.
Good news, Fate Materials is finally being released in English and I've ordered a copy. With any luck that should go a ways to helping me avoid some more obvious mistakes in the future.
I was also quite surprised at how popular my last Omake was, apparently lots of people liked my idea of a Salvatore Doni raised Shirou. As I said I'm not going to pursue it any time soon, but given how popular it was I dare say that something will be forthcoming in the future.
On another matter a couple of my readers have asked me some questions about some things that I realized I have never explicitly stated in my fic, so here we go.
Firstly in regards to Archer's soul being held by Illya. In my fic Archer's soul was removed from Illya by the Grail just prior to the Grail's misfire that sent Shirou and her into the Campioneverse. Having a full eight hero's worth of energy (Gil counts as two) is part of what led to the whole mess going as it did.
Secondly in regards to Godou getting an Authority from Sun Wukong. In the original Light Novels Guinevere stole the power of the Monkey King using the medallion granted to her by Artus. In my fic she set up the same thing to happen before she went off to try to assassinate Mordred. That means that there is technically still an Authority in her possession that belongs to Godou, something I'm still considering for future plotlines.
I've taken some liberties with the descriptions of the nature of the Second Magic. I was able to find out a fair bit about what it could do, but not so much on how it's structured or taught, so in the finest traditions of fanfic writers everywhere I've made it up and hoped that it isn't too bad. Anyway, it seemed to me that given the almost limitless applications of the Kaleidoscope it only made sense that there would be 'sub-disciplines' in those various applications and that it would make sense for people studying them to have aptitudes to different areas. To my mind Zelretch himself, as the genius that created the Second Magic in the first place, excelled in all areas, especially at the height of his power, but his students would have areas of talent and deficiency.
Other liberties have been taken with Rin's work since I confess to not knowing enough to have been 100% accurate, but I think that I got it more or less correctly.
The big reveal of this chapter is of course the upcoming mess with the Holy Grail. It's not something that will be appearing in the main storyline for quite some time, but I wanted to show it off as a teaser of my future plans. Exactly which Servants and Masters will be used and just how this War will play out is still a work in progress, so anyone with suggestions is free to send them to me, please just bear in mind that it will be a while before I can get to a point where they can be used. I also can't promise that any suggestions sent to me will be used, but I will go over any suggestions carefully.
I also know that I'm playing a bit fast and loose with how the Holy Grail actually operates, I've tried to be as accurate as I can, but there were still some holes in my info. I hope any mistakes aren't too grievous.
In regards to the artefact that the Clock Tower has, it's one of their insurances against a Master going a bit power mad, saying 'forget the war' and wanting to keep their Servant. I can't go into the details, but it seemed to me that even though the Holy Grail War isn't widely known about the upper echelons of the Mage's Association would want to have some cards on hand should a Master decide they like having a ridiculously powerful spirit as a familiar and try to escape the War and go out on their own. It should be noted that I'm not saying whether or not that trump card would actually work.
One of the main parts of this interlude was that I wanted Sakura to get a bit more 'screen time' since she remains Shirou's principle romantic interest. A few of my readers have commented that they aren't too keen on the way I have had Shirou remain true to her rather than notice the new romantic plotlines I've cooked up for him. I can understand where they're coming from, but I began this story after having spent a day watching the YouTube playthrough of the Heaven's Feel route and after deciding to use it as the basis of my fic I promised myself that Shirou would remain faithful to Sakura. Each time I need reminding why I go and watch the vid titled 'Fate/stay night - Heavens Feel - 9th Day - Rain (2 of 2)' it always serves to remind me of a key moment in their relationship.
It's also a masterfully done tear jerker, at least in my humble opinion.
Once again I would like to thank my Beta for all his hard work in making this chapter something that deserves to be put up.
Interlude Two: To Endure and Persevere
The agent was, in his humble opinion, one of the best. He'd made a career out of jobs like this, the 'acquisition' of individuals that could serve as valuable research material for his employers. Men, women, children, familiars, pets, to him it didn't really matter. A target was a target and his only concern was how easy they were to acquire and how much he could gain from selling them.
Ever so carefully he traced his tools along the edge of the bounded field that had been set up, looking for the minor flaws and imperfection that marred even fine work such as this. It was good work, he had to admit, not on the same scale as some that he'd encountered, but for the results of a few days effort on the part of a pair of girls in their late teens it was nothing short of brilliant.
But brilliant was not perfect, and nothing short of perfection was going to thwart him. There was more to this assignment than simply getting past the defences of course, but even a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. Breaking down the fields without alerting his target or her allies was an important step though. Carefully channelling Prana into his Mystic Code he slowly pried a tiny fracture in the field open until it would work to his ends. With meticulous skill the agent inserted a Mystery of his own into the crack and watched as it sat there slowly affecting the Bounded Field.
He was well aware that had his ancestors known what he would use the fruits of their research for they would probably have taken steps to ensure that he would have been strangled in his crib, but in all honesty he didn't really care. He'd come to the conclusion early in life that striving to reach the Root was a waste of time. His family might well be more than fifteen generations old, but it would still be at least that many generations again before they had the possibility of advancing far enough to reach the Akashic Record. So rather than devote his life to contributing to his family's speciality of Prana construct analysis so that his many times great grandchild could become a god he'd taken that research and used it to become obscenely rich.
The research of his family had been geared towards the analysis of Mysteries through the study of the micro currents of Prana that made them up; the theory was that with enough research it would be possible to find the single key element that linked all successful and significant forms of magecraft. Once that key element was identified and analysed the 'truth' behind magic could be unravelled and the path to the Root would open.
As far as the agent was concerned that far off goal was ludicrous, and definitely not something he planned to waste his life upon. Instead he employed the research as a tool for the assignments that he undertook. The analysing aspects of his family's magecraft might not have much in the way of combat applications since it wouldn't allow for the unravelling of a Mystery in mid-battle. What it was good for though was the finding of weaknesses in protective fields and the blind spots in sensory Mysteries, in other words surreptitious breaking and entering.
With these advantages at his disposal the agent had amassed considerable wealth and influence by providing his employers with either the subjects or the resources they wanted procured for them.
This latest assignment was going to be his most profitable one to date since the amount that he had been promised for the capture and delivery of this one girl would have been sufficient to pay off a generous national debt. Granted the girl was a student of the Kaleidoscope himself and the sister to one of the up and coming prodigies of the latest generation, but he was sure that he'd be able to overcome these obstacles.
A final push and the recurring error was successfully introduced to the Bounded Field protecting the small house in which his target was staying. The Field was still operational and would detect any intruder, well, any intruder save for him of course, the error had effectively blinded the Field to his presence. The first step was complete and the principle defence overcome. Beneath the cloth of the body-covering Mystic Code that he wore to increase his stealth the agent allowed himself a small smile.
Magi always put too much faith in their protective fields, that was one of the truths that always gave him the advantage. They were aware that protective fields could be broken or overcome but they were certain that the destruction of those fields would provide for at least some warning of a threat. The notion that someone could simply slip through them without causing a disturbance . . . it barely entered their heads.
Of course there were some Bounded Fields that gave him trouble; purely sensory ones were a prime example, but for the most part his family knowledge as well as the specialist Mysteries that he'd bought, stolen or been gifted allowed him to complete his assignments with minimal risk or difficulty. And that was how he planned to handle this task as well, though his target might be a student of one of the True Magics she was still just a teenage girl that had only been the Kaleidoscope's student for a couple of months.
How hard could it be?
The small house that the target lived in was set in one of the more rural areas of outer London. Apparently the old vampire Zelretch had wanted to spoil his latest student after she'd done particularly well in some lesson or other. Having learnt that she found the crowded centre of the English capital to be too busy for her the Magician had ordered some mage that had been nearby at the time to prepare a domicile in one of the quieter areas of the city for her. The poor fellow had had more sense than to argue with one of the most powerful creatures on the planet and had immediately set about completing the task.
The change of venue actually worked in the agent's favour. Out here it would be easier to sneak in without other nearby magi homes interfering with their own Fields, nor would there be anyone the target could turn to if she somehow tried to make an escape.
Not that he would allow that of course. One of his first steps as soon as he'd penetrated the wards would be to physically render the doors and windows that could serve as principle points of exit unopenable through the use of a fast setting industrial adhesive. A panicked young magus trying to escape her home would find the door sealed shut and would waste precious seconds trying to undo the spell holding them which did not in fact exist.
The agent had always looked up to the legend of the Magus Killer, Emiya Kiritsugu, the way that the man had used mundane weapons and tools to kill Magi many times more powerful than he was was an inspiration to him. The users of thaumaturgy were often so focused upon the use of their craft that they forgot what could be achieved without its use, a weakness that was just begging for exploitation.
Moving carefully and staying ready for any surprises the Agent moved towards his target.
"You shall not touch Sakura."
The voice was light, beautiful and soft as dove feathers.
It was also speaking right into his ear.
With an involuntary yelp of surprise the agent reached for a weapon as he leapt from his crouching position. He'd been found? How? His stealth Codes were perfect, even the most sophisticated scans should have missed him. His hand closed around the hilt of a dagger, one crafted using Mysteries of entropy which would be deadlier than any mundane poison. His other hand closed around the handle of his pistol. Whoever this was he would be ready he would-
There was nobody there. His head wrenched from side to side in an almost panicked manner as the agent tried to look everywhere at once, but could spot no signs of the one who had spoken to him. Had it been some sort of communication? Words sent directly to his ears? But if so then by who? His mind called up the image of his target's sister, a girl making quite a reputation for herself in the Clock Tower despite the stigma that her nationality placed upon her. No, it couldn't be her. The Mystic Codes he was using had been crafted by lords from families that could trace their lineage back for more than thirty generations; even if she was talented she shouldn't have had the experience to overcome them to the level where she could connect to his senses like that.
"It's no use."
He tried to bring his dagger around in a wild slash as the voice once more spoke directly into his ear, but even as he did so a soft grip with a core of steel fastened itself about his wrist and arrested his movement cold. Immediately he tried to bring his gun to bear, but in an instant it was knocked from his hand and what felt like a length of chain wrapped itself about his arm and torso, pinning it to his side.
Frantically he drew in breath as he prepared to use what magecraft he knew that had offensive applications, but even that was cut off as another length of chain wrapped around his throat and cut off his breath. Trapped and helpless, his every advantage lost, the agent thrashed like an animal as he tried to break free.
A single blow struck his temple, the strength crushing yet controlled.
Darkness swallowed his world.
Rider looked down at the crumpled form before her and had to restrain a sigh. She had hoped that this nonsense had ended but this was the third one this month. More worrying though was that this one had seemed to be more competent than the last two that she'd had to deal with, no threat to her of course, but the increase in quality was still something to be concerned over.
The Servant of the Mount had decided to keep her presence about her Master as unobtrusive as possible. When Sakura went to attend her training at the Clock Tower Rider would follow her in astral form rather than materializing. Even at their temporary home the former goddess would only materialize as much as she had to. The last Matou had told her that she was being excessively cautious, but the purple-haired Servant had stuck to her new habit.
It was both irritating and boring, she had to admit. In the months since the Holy Grail War Rider had become accustomed to spending most of her time in a materialized body. With her vast Prana reserves Sakura could have easily maintained her for centuries straight without using up a tiny fraction of the power her reserves held. So the sole surviving Servant had grown used to being able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life once more, reading, eating, relaxing in the sun, all of these were small pleasures that she happily indulged herself in.
However since arriving in this country Rider had been aware of the potential dangers that existed for her Master. Rin had been more than happy to educate her on some of the darker aspects of the research that was conducted in the Clock Tower as well as what her sister's fate would have most likely been had she not been under Zelretch's protection. Confinement and examination would have been her best possibility, though dissection and torture would have been far more likely.
As things stood though she was beneath the somewhat unreliable aegis of the magician's protection since very few were bold enough to cross the old vampire directly.
But as was the way of humanity there were those whose greed and ambition overcame their reason. Rider had been expecting something like this form the first day, and sadly she had not been disappointed.
Various families had learnt at least some of the details of what had happened in Fuyuki. The complete story might have been declared to be sensitive information that only some of the higher echelons of the Clock Tower had access to, but fractured pieces of information had made it through to the lower ranks so that some bits and pieces about Sakura had become widely known.
The first kidnapping attempt had come on the second day after the purple-haired Matou had officially become a student to the Kaleidoscope. It had been a fellow student who had stared at her with open lust and greed that had been all too transparent to the watching Servant. When the fool had made his clumsy attempt to capture Sakura using common chloroform Rider had broken both his legs and arms, cracked most of his ribs and beaten him into unconsciousness.
All in the space of five seconds.
She'd decided to take her time.
She'd left him slumped against a wall, the blood from his broken nose and split lips forming a crimson pool where his face had rested on the floor tiles. It had been done so quickly that her Master hadn't even been aware of what had happened, she'd simply continued on unknowing of the action her Servant had just taken.
As it turned out though that fool had just been the first to try, more attempts had followed, some sophisticated others crude and puerile. Rider had foiled them all with relative ease since as a Servant she was an existence that towered above any sort of average or even exceptional Magus. The first few attempts had been punished in much the same way as the first, the culprits receiving a savage beating and paying for their effrontery in pain and blood. However after the reckless and foolish had been used to test the waters the more dangerous players had entered the game.
Rider had been relatively merciful to the first few fools. In truth she would have preferred to have consumed their lives and souls for Prana, but Sakura had been very clear with her that she would have to restrain her more violent instincts while in this country. So Rider had refrained from killing the first fools, but when the more competent threats had come into play the game had changed.
The first one had come far too close to succeeding in his objective, only a last second action by Rider having saved Sakura from being taken away as a research subject.
That had been the one that broke her patience, before it had only been foolish scum drunk upon greed and ambition that she'd had to deal with, but at least they had had the excuse of youthful idiocy to assuage her. She hadn't liked it, but Rider had been able to bring herself to show them some mercy in making their punishment painful rather than lethal.
But that man had been an experienced and respected professor among the Mage's association, his plans for Sakura hadn't been spurred by passion or ill thought out avarice; they had been meticulously and cold bloodedly plotted and prepared. All tools needed to place the sole surviving Matou in a coma and spirit her away without a trace had been readied in a nearby van that Rider had found after she'd apprehended him. The precise unfeeling calculation of it had been more than she could bear, not when it was directed at her Master who had already suffered so much.
The next morning that particular professor had been found inside his van in his home's drive, inexpertly hooked up to the very Mystic Codes that he'd intended to use upon Sakura. A+ Riding had allowed her to drive the van with ease despite the security upon it, however the artefacts within had been another matter. In the end she'd decided that since she didn't care if he lived or died it didn't really matter if she used them correctly. As it turned out he hadn't survived the experience, his own Mystic Codes putting him in a coma so deep that in the end he simply ceased to breath.
Others had followed after him, but Rider had been decisive in how she dealt with them. Most she had simply consumed, their bodies being remarkably easy to dispose of once their blood had been drained away, but some she had made an example of. After a maid found her master strung up in his bed with his own intestinal track it seemed that most of the ambitious magi had gotten the hint and had learnt to stay away from Sakura.
She'd been happy when that had happened, though she has been perfectly willing to wade through blood in order to protect her young Master, Rider had found that she couldn't bring herself to like it. Oh there had been a certain vindictive pleasure to bringing down those that had selfishly tried to advance their own agendas at the cost of Sakura's life, but at the end of the day it had been a distasteful task.
Still distasteful though it had been Rider would not allow anything to harm Sakura, nor would she allow anything to interfere with her studies.
In a way it was both relieving and frightening to see the way that the adopted Matou was throwing herself into her lessons. Rider had been glad when the journal from Shirou had arrived. Before that Sakura had been . . . afraid of the world, unwilling to leave the house that had been Emiya Shirou's and more existing than truly living. The guilt that she'd carried for the deeds committed by her while linked with Angra Mainyu had been tremendous, but even they had paled next to the anguish she'd experienced at the thought that she'd been responsible for Shirou's death.
Yet at the same time Sakura had shown an absolutely unbending faith that her young lover would return to her, a faith that seemed to deny the reality of the world. For a time Rider had worried that this faith was mutating into delusion and madness. She herself had admired Emiya Shirou, she had been grateful for his saving Sakura but she had also believed there was no chance of him being alive. She'd seen him down in that cave, before the Greater Grail that had held the incarnation of all the world's evils. She'd seen the way his mind and body were being overtaken and destroyed by the power he couldn't contain or control. She'd seen the cave collapse in on itself behind her as she'd left with Sakura in her arms and she'd felt the energies being released from the Greater Grail just before it vanished.
There had seemed to be no other reasonable conclusion, Emiya Shirou was dead, a willing sacrifice to save Sakura and the world. Her Master had been crushed, yet she had held on to the promise he had given her, that they would watch the falling cherry blossoms together one day.
And then the impossible journal had arrived.
After reading it Sakura had changed, there was a resolve within her that hadn't been present before. No, it had been more than that, it had been a desire. For the first time since she'd woken up on that day after the Holy Grail War ended she had truly wanted something enough to overcome her fears.
The result of the journal's arrival had been startling to say the least. When her Master had explained her plans to Rider she had been unsure of how realistic they were. Rider had little knowledge of the state of magecraft in these times beyond what had been applicable to the Holy Grail War, but she'd been sure that the power to move between worlds could not be an easy feat to accomplish. Still Sakura had been set on her course so the pair of them had made their way to England where Rin was learning the very art that the last Matou sought.
And, much to everyone's surprise, the master of the Second Magic easily agreed to take Sakura as his fourth student and had been unusually diligent in her education, if the stories Rin told were to be believed.
All in all the situation was actually one that Rider had little trouble with. Her Master was the happiest that she'd been since the loss of Shirou and having a goal to work towards seemed to have helped her break out of the shell of regret and fear she'd erected about herself. Now she was well on her way to becoming a fine magus and Rider thought that to be an important step for her. Sakura had always hated magecraft, given that it was the source of all her suffering how could she not? But now that hatred had been cast aside as she had found something she wanted more than she hated magecraft.
Power, that was the thing. Sakura could potentially be one of the most powerful individuals in the world given her immense reserves, but her distaste of the methods to employ those reserves had prevented her from gaining that power. Rider knew what it was like to be powerless in the face of adversity, to be unable to do anything. In a way it had been the fact hat Sakura was also familiar with that pain that had led the Servant of the Mount to be so loyal to her Summoner.
With power happiness might not be guaranteed, but at least you had a better chance at it. Now Sakura was gaining power with which she could force more options to be open for her.
Of course there were these . . . irritants to deal with, but if it was for her then Rider didn't mind. This one would need to be made an example of, the others had simply disappeared and perhaps it was the mystery of their fate that had led others to be bolder in their own efforts.
Now where could she find a ten foot long pole with a sharpened end at this time of night? She had to be back soon after all, she didn't want Sakura to become aware of what she was doing. It would . . . distress her.
Looking up from her desk Sakura reached out with her senses and 'felt' along the link that bound her and Rider together.
It seemed that her dear Servant had once again moved to protect her. Judging by the speed with which she was moving Rider must be taking the would-be kidnapper away either to experience pain and humiliation or she had already killed him and was now moving to dispose of the body.
Her bodyguard was unaware of it, but the young Matou had been conscious of the attempted kidnappings of her since the beginning. She'd had some unpleasant Mysteries, which she'd put together using a couple of suggestion from sensei Zelretch, ready for use, but Rider had dealt with those that had moved against her far more brutally and thoroughly than Sakura could have brought herself to be.
So she had stayed quiet and allowed Rider to handle the attempts as she saw fit. When things had escalated to the point where her friend began to kill some of those that sought to capture her the former Tohsaka had felt torn. She knew why Rider was doing it, she knew what those that she was killing would have done to her had they had the chance, but at the same time the guilt and shame of those deaths had torn at her. In the end she'd had to make a choice though, and she'd decided to let it continue.
She would not allow something like this to disrupt her studies, she was going to get Senpai back and if those greedy fools who tried to kidnap her interfered in that then she had no problem with them being consumed by Rider.
Yet at the same time she couldn't bring herself to reveal her knowledge of what was happening to her Servant. Rider was cunning and logical, but she also had a somewhat idealized view of Sakura in much the same way that an elder sibling would not think ill of a beloved younger brother or sister. The purple haired teen didn't want to dirty the image her Servant had of her, not out of vanity or a desire to manipulate Rider, but rather out of a wish not to disappoint her friend.
She would tell Rider the truth one day, that was something she had promised herself. And if on that day Rider looked at her with disgust or disappointment then Sakura would let her Servant go and never trouble her again even as she continued to feed her the Prana she needed to remain incarnate in this world. It was the least that she owed her for all her help and support.
But first Sakura would find a way to find Shirou.
Turning her attention back to the tome open on the desk before her the Matou heir focused her attention on memorizing the circles and formulas written on the pages before her. This was an old book, according to Sensei he'd written it more than five centuries ago, and it detailed a number of the more basic ways that the Second Magic could be tapped into. What made them of particular interest to Sakura was that the circles detailed in the tome were made for scanning the various worlds to find a specific target.
Of course they weren't exactly what she wanted. Theses circles were only meant to find things in the broadest definitions rather than in a precise way. If she had a search parameter like 'a version of me that knows how to play the piano' then the formula described would be able to do the job. However for a more specific search such as 'the Shirou that was native to this dimension but has left it and ended up in another one' it was largely useless.
But it was a starting point.
Sakura was well aware that Kischur Zelretch Schweinorg had only accepted her as a student because she was something of a novelty that had caught his interest. Well, that and that he found it amusing to mess with Rin. What she needed to do, if she wanted to remain his apprentice, was to show that she was worth it.
So far things seemed to be going fairly well, though not on par with her sister or her sister's rival she seemed to be making good time and had even found her niche in the Second Magic.
Given its vast number of applications it was only natural that there were various areas in which one could show talent. Rin, for example, seemed to be best at what Sensei call Access, the ability to draw upon the immaterial resources of alternate realties. That had been what she'd done when she'd fought Sakura in the cave of the Greater Grail, she'd accessed and harvested the Prana in alternate versions of the cave so she could match the output that the contract with Angra Mainyu had allowed her sister.
Luviagelita Edelfelt, on the other hand, was gifted in an area that the Wizard Marshal called Plundering. The heir to the Edelfelt family had gone to great lengths to keep her talent a secret so that she could reveal it at a time of her choosing. As it turned out Sakura had been present to witness the event and the resulting . . . fireworks.
It had been about a week ago when they had begun to assemble some basic Mystic Codes, Rin had been complaining about the cost of the gemstones they were using and how it was difficult to afford some for her private research. Luvia sempai had mentioned that she never had any such difficulties herself, a comment that Rin had answered by snidely remarking on how easy the lives of the rich must be.
That was when the blonde heiress had calmly revealed that due to her speciality she hadn't needed to spend a penny on jewels for months now.
Plundering was the aspect of the Kaleidoscope that allowed on to draw physical objects from one world to another. There were a multitude of limitations and provisos upon it of course, so Luvia would not be drawing alternate Noble Phantasms or priceless Mystic Codes. But when it came to finding gemstones, which were basically just a type of rock as far as the world was concerned so long as they hadn't been touched with magic, there her talent excelled.
The expression that Rin had made when she realized that her rival had access to a form of the Second True Magic that essentially provided her with unlimited jewels had been expressive to say the least. The shade of purple that she had turned as the facts had become clear had been very vivid and the sounds that had somewhat spasmodically emerged from her throat hadn't sounded like anything a human's vocal cords had been designed to produce.
For her own part Sakura was only aware of her own affinity because Sensei Zelretch had used her as a guinea pig for a test he'd come up with. The test had been of no real danger to her, but it had not been comfortable, indeed it had felt as though cold wet fingers were stroking her brain. Not that it had been anything compared to the daily 'lessons' that she'd been forced to endure as the heir to the Matou style of magecraft of course, still it had been less than pleasant.
However the knowledge she'd gained had been worth it. As it turned out her own talent lay in what Zelretch called Location, the ability to scan the various dimensions at high speed to find what she was looking for. In other words, the ideal tool with which to search for her beloved Senpai.
It was far off in the distance, many dozens of sleepless nights and hundreds of hours of hard work away, but it was there, the opportunity that she was looking for. Finding Shirou was the first step, actually getting to him was going to be the hard part. As advanced as the techniques that she'd need to use to find him were the ones required to actually generate a portal or warp to reach him were several scales of magnitude more complicated.
But it was to see Shirou once more.
With that thought at the back of her mind giving her strength, Sakura turned back to her studies.
"So, it has been confirmed?"
"Yes, the Vessel may have attempted to shut down the Greater Grail, but if so then she was unsuccessful. Exactly what happened has yet to be determined, but the power within the Grail has not faded as it should due to the irregular ending of the War. One Servant still remains, even though the Greater Grail was completed to a degree never seen before."
The report was delivered to Jubstacheit von Einzbern by another member of his clan, a young man with the prematurely white hair that marked him as an Einzbern. His name was Rüdiger Von Einzbern and he was also the one that Jubstacheit was considering naming as his successor should anything happen to him.
"And the system remains undamaged, even by the destruction of cave beneath the temple?"
After the Einzbern family had heard of what had happened in the fifth Holy Grail War they had dispatched Rüdiger to conduct his own investigation. The young Magus had been careful in his survey, especially after finding out that there was still a surviving Servant in the area. He had made a detailed study of the evidence to be found and had sent his report back to the Head of his clan.
To all appearances it would seem that Illyasviel had been all but guaranteed to be the victor of her War, all the other Servants to be summoned had not been of sufficient calibre to defeat her Berserker. The Saber might have been able to do so, however the adopted son of the traitor Emiya hadn't been competent enough in magecraft to properly supply his Servant with Prana and as a result her combat abilities had suffered. The chosen Einzbern representative had shown some poor judgement in that she had refrained from making Emiya Shirou pay for his adopted father's crimes, but such minor acts of rebellion could be overlooked if she had completed her duty and regained the Heaven's Feel for her family.
Unfortunately things had been thrown into total disarray by the introduction of Matou Zouken's hidden card.
While the details were still somewhat hazy it would seem that the old vampire had somehow changed his heir into a Second Lesser Grail by implanting her with fragments from the Grail that Kiritsugu had destroyed a decade ago. The result had been her transformation into an entity ideally suited for the defeat and consumption of Servants regardless of their powers, both Saber and Berserker, arguably two of the strongest Servants in the current war, had been consumed by it and used as weapons. It was still unclear as to how the Greater Grail had been completed while one Servant remained, but whatever the case it was done.
After that the Holy Grail War had ceased to be a competition as to who could claim the Grail and had instead devolved into a battle to try to avert an apocalypse.
Rüdiger had been privy to the knowledge of how the Einzbern family's own manipulation of the system had resulted in the irregular class of Avenger being summoned in the Third Heaven's Feel and how the absorption of that spirit by the Grail had tainted it. In all honesty he was unsure as to exactly what the result would have been had the Greater Grail been able to birth the form of Angra Mainyu that had been gestating within it, but he was willing to bet that it would not have been a good thing.
In the end he'd reported that though the Einzbern representative had failed to win the War she had at least been able to mitigate the damages caused by it. Fuyuki City might have been partly depopulated by the feedings of the Matou heir, but aside from that the rest of the world had escaped major repercussions.
It had taken some effort for the young magus to write that since his own feelings in regards to the daughter of Emiya Kiritsugu consisted solely of contempt.
The report had been received with mixed emotions by Jubstacheit von Einzbern. On the one hand his 'granddaughter' had performed her duty as the representative of one of the three founding families by dealing with the situation and ensuring that the corrupted Greater Grail was not fully realized. On the other hand she had failed; once more the Einzbern family had been unsuccessful in grasping victory in the ritual they had helped create.
It was a flaw, one that Rüdiger was aware of but would never dare to voice. In the years since the current head of the family had taken power the focus of the Einzberns had shifted from 'seeking the Holy Grail' to 'winning the Holy Grail War'. It was as though Jubstacheit had forgotten why they were fighting in the first place; his entire focus was upon being the victor of the ritual.
That had been one of the things that had made Kiritsugu's betrayal so painful, because he had to all intents and purposes won the war and then he had cast the prize aside by destroying the Grail. Of course the Einzbern clan had taken their pound of flesh for the betrayal by exiling the Magus Killer and denying him the ability to ever again see his daughter, but that was cold comfort.
Technically Rüdiger's task had ended months ago, but he had been ordered to remain in Japan in order to oversee the restoration of the Einzbern manor and to keep an eye upon Matou Sakura. After all, as the person closest to a 'complete' Grail the clan had some interest in her, if only to see how her temporary status as a Lesser Grail might have affected her.
He'd been able to learn some things, such as the fact that her Servant still obeyed her orders despite the fact that she was no longer bound by Command Seals, or that the last Matou's reserves of Prana had been increased by a significant, though as yet specifically undetermined, margin. All in all she had been the single point of interest in an otherwise humiliatingly dull assignment. On a number of occasions he'd considered introducing himself in person, perhaps even attempting to court her.
That last notion had been one that he'd found himself considering more and more as the days had passed. Certainly some of his family might have disapproved, but he doubted that even the most ardent detractors would have been able to muster a convincing argument. Matou Sakura was undoubtedly of excellent lineage and would serve to bring fresh blood into the clan. Hated though he might have been none could deny that the offspring of Emiya and Irisviel had been one of the most excellent examples of a magus that the Einzberns had produced in nearly a century. Even with the imperfections intrinsic to her due to her mother being a homunculus and even without the modifications made to her in preparation for the war she had been superb.
And of course there was the fact that if she joined the Einzbern family the traditional Matou slot in the Holy Grail War would come with her essentially doubling the clan's chances to win. For that matter there was her Servant to consider, if she could be preserved until the next War then in theory the Einzbern family would be able to field three champions rather than a single one, such an alliance would be nigh unstoppable unless a significant portion of the enemy Servants allied against them.
As the arguments had lined themselves up in his mind the option of trying to woo her had seemed more and more attractive. In addition to the obvious advantages she brought with her she was also quite beautiful and also apparently emotionally fragile enough to be vulnerable to a carefully prepared courtship. If done correctly Rüdiger was sure that she would latch onto him as her sole emotional support leaving him the veritable centre of her world.
Granted she was the lover of Emiya Shirou, the child to inherit the sins of his father. That had been a severe negative issue in Rüdiger's mind, but in the end he had decided that worth more than surpassed that flaw. The fact that she was still grieving him after his death also irritated the young Einzbern since he didn't think that the adopted son of the Magus Killer was worth such devotion, but that too could be turned to his advantage. If he presented himself as a relative of Illyasviel's and feigned some concern and grief over her and Emiya's deaths then it would provide the opening he needed to enter Matou Sakura's life.
All in all it had begun to seem more and more like a safe bet.
However a couple of months ago the girl had suddenly upped and left the country taking all his plans with her and leaving the young Einzbern without even the minor task of observing her. With nothing of any substance to do aside from what research he could conduct in the tiny workshop he had set up Rüdiger had taken to studying what he could of the inactive Holy Grail system. There hadn't been much that he could perceive given its inactive state, and what he could make out had been complex to the point of incomprehensibility. Truly it was a work beyond the abilities of modern Magi to duplicate.
But it had been due to that interested observation that he'd been in the right place at the right time to spot something critical. There was activity in the vast invisible network that made up Holy Grail system, it was small and weak, but it was there and it was impossible. Such activity shouldn't be showing itself for years yet, not until the next Holy Grail War was on its way.
He had sent another report to his family head and had received instruction and a number of specialized Mystic Codes that under normal circumstances would be kept under lock and key. He had been told to use them to determine if certain signs were appearing in the energy flows of the Heaven's Feel system and to report back in person as soon as he had his results.
And that brought him back to the present, standing before Jubstacheit von Einzbern repeating things that the two hundred year old Magus already knew but was insisting that he repeat.
"The system has compensated for the changes and still appears to be operating flawlessly."
That was another thing that he'd already informed them of in his first report.
"And your other findings?"
Ah, finally they got to the true purpose of this meeting.
"All indications are that the next Holy Grail War shall be held in just under a year."
Such a simple sentence to convey such important information.
When he'd first realized what the odd activity in the Holy Grail system indicated he'd double checked and then triple checked his findings. Every time the results had been the same, so he had begun to try to find a reason as to why such an impossibility could be taking place.
In the end it ad been a relatively simple matter. Ten years ago Emiya Kiritsugu had destroyed the Lesser Grail after it had manifested the power accumulated over the course of the war, this power had returned to the system and reused to start the War early. This time the Grail had been completed with the power of a full seven Servants and the Greater Grail manifested. Once more it had been . . . disrupted and a large portion of that power had again returned to the system.
But even if it was only a portion of the power it was still magnitudes greater than the Lesser Grail's returned power could be. The power of the Lesser Grail had cut the time between wars to a sixth of what it should have been, it would seem that the Greater Grail was going further and bringing the sixth War about in a sixtieth of the time it should have taken.
"Are any of the other signs described in the tomes I sent you manifesting yet?"
There was a definite eagerness to the voice of the Einzbern head now, a light forming in his eyes. Even his posture denoted a suppressed excitement as he leaned forwards slightly in his chair. It was all very subtle, but the young magus was well used to the habits of the elder alchemist and knew how to spot them.
"None as of yet," Rüdiger declared, "If the cycle of the system has been accelerated as I believe then such indications will only show themselves shortly before the Sixth War begins."
"Then the advantage is ours," a thin smile made its way across Jubstacheit's face as he slowly nodded to himself. "Our family alone knows of the approach of a new War, so we alone will be prepared. A single year does not give us much time, but it will be enough to gain a potent catalyst. Once the Command Seals appear the other Masters will be forced to either quickly procure catalysts at short notice or trust to fortune in which Servant they gain."
There was a pause as he seemed to measure the young Einzbern before him as though he were a steer at market.
"You shall be the representative of the Einzbern family in this War."
It took all of Rüdiger's self control not to let the elation he felt at that statement show on his face. He was an Einzbern, and as such he was not supposed to give in to unsightly displays of emotion in the presence of his family head.
Still, behind his impassive expression he hid a savage and triumphant grin. At last, he was going to receive the acknowledgement and glory that had been denied him by the existence of Emiya's brat. Though it had not been a widely discussed fact in the clan Illyasviel's appointment as the family representative had not always been assured. At a young age Rüdiger had shown considerable talent and promise as a Magus. He had lacked the raw power that the daughter of Emiya had begun to show and had not been a prodigy or any sort of genius. Instead he had demonstrated a talent for innovation, for being able to come at the use of magecraft from an unexpected angle.
The source of his inspiration had been his one and only encounter with the infamous Magus Killer while he had been living in the Einzbern castle back when Rüdiger had only thirteen. He might have disdained the Japanese magus and later came to despise him for his betrayal of the family, but that one encounter had impressed the importance of innovation upon him.
So he'd innovated, he'd looked at how things were done and had tried to see the different ways that he could apply what was known or advance it from where it was. His achievements had been acknowledged and for a time it had been discussed whether or not he should have been sent. In the end Illyasviel's superior Prana reserves as well as the poetic irony of sending Emiya's blood daughter to slay his adopted son had swayed the opinions of Jubstacheit and his advisors to choose the girl. With her they had been able to implement their plan to summon the Einzbern Servant months before they should have been able to, a feat that would have been impossible had they chosen Rüdiger.
There had been talk that he should accompany her to Fuyuki, to act as her support. For all that the clan might hate him none could deny that Emiya Kiritsugu had to all intents and purposes been the victor in the War. His approach of working separately from his Servant had proven to be effective to a certain degree and many had thought that Rüdiger could act in a similar way. The notion had been dismissed due to two important factors. Firstly the Berserker that had been summoned could not be passed onto a false master, nor was Illyasviel suited to such a deception. Secondly, and far more troublesome, was the fact that Rüdiger and Illyasviel had hated each other's guts. Had the two of them been sent together then there had been no doubt that Rüdiger would have been 'mysteriously' struck by another Servant's attack before the first night was out. The fact that the mystery Servant's blow would have been identical to those delivered by Berserker would of course only be a coincidence.
So in the end the white haired daughter of Emiya Kiritsugu had gone and Rüdiger had remained at the castle advancing his own research. Now though, now it was his time.
"I shall begin preparations for tools and weapons immediately." He stated.
"Excellent, I shall get in contact with the parties that supplied us with the previous catalysts, since both the previous ones are lost to us we shall need to acquire a new one. No doubt the cost shall be extortionate, but our wealth remains easily sufficient to endure such spending."
"May I make a suggestion?" This was a gamble, but one that Rüdiger felt he was in a good position to win. He had been declared the Master of the next War; he had best start to act the part.
". . . What?" there was an edge to the older magus' voice, as though he were waiting to be disappointed.
"I think it would be best if we were to attempt to gain the Saber Class as our Servant. The last time that we did so our representative nearly won the War, the Grail would have been ours without Emiya's treachery. If we can lay claim to the Class once more then our chances of victory will be greatly increased, we shall have the only Servant with a powerful catalyst and we shall also have the most outstanding Class."
Slowly Jubstacheit nodded in agreement.
"Illyasviel's Berserker was unquestionably the most powerful Servant fielded in the fifth War, however such an approach would be unsuited to work with you since the costs for maintaining a Berserker might prove crippling for you. The Saber Class would be far more suited to your talents."
Once more schooling his face to avoid showing emotion the younger alchemist simply nodded. Humiliating though it was to admit he could not deny the simple fact that as far as reserves went Illyasviel had been in a class of her own. While his own reserves were above average they were in no way suitable to supply as powerful a Berserker as his family would hope for. A more efficient Servant such as one of the Knight Classes would be far preferable, and Saber would be the most desired of all.
As his family head reached into his desk to extract some papers a thought crossed Rüdiger's mind.
If the war was coming then that meant Matou Sakura would be chosen, she was after all the last surviving Matou, if only by adoption. She already had a Servant and would gain a second one once the War began. Given that her enhanced reserves might just be enough to allow her to support simultaneous Servants that meant that she might well be in the strongest position despite whatever preparations the Einzbern family might make.
He should tell Jubstacheit, it was an important fact to know. But then again, he had mentioned it in his report, if his family head had not read the report completely in his haste to learn more about the Holy Grail War then . . .
If he did learn about her then . . . what? What could he do? Hiring assassins to try to murder her was an unreliable option at best. She had a Servant as a bodyguard, a Servant that had matched up against the Servant Assassin himself, an incarnation of the men from whom the word 'assassin' originated, and emerged the sound victor. Could mortal assassins hope to do anything against her?
And for that matter did he want them to? Far a third time the newly minted Einzbern Master made sure no hint of his feelings could be seen upon his face. His earlier thoughts upon the last Matou remained valid, she was still emotionally vulnerable and a potentially . . . recruitible factor. If she could be persuaded to ally with him then the Holy Grail War would be all but won.
Hmmmm, this would require further thought and planning.
Rin carefully evaluated the jewels on her desk before selecting a sapphire the size of her thumbnail.
For a moment she looked down at it as she steeled herself, then, with a visible wince of suffering, she drove a spike of Od into the gem and caused it to shatter. The tiny shards of the broken jewel fell to her desk, the colour leaving them as the stored prana within them flowed out into the prepared circle that the young Tohsaka had painstakingly carved onto a wooden board.
That had been worth more than her small remaining assets would be able to provide her within six months.
Doing her best to repress the almost physical pain of parting with so much money Rin reminded herself that that gem had been provided to her by the Clock Tower as part of her training rather than having been purchased with her own money. Even so, it was torture to so casually break a perfectly good jewel. Despite her best efforts she found herself calculating its value, estimating how much of her prana it could be used to hold and guessing at how much it would be worth if sold to a decent jeweller.
No, she mustn't allow this to distract her! She had to focus upon her task.
With painstaking precision the Tohsaka heir channelled the released energy so that it perfectly traced the lines and runes inscribed upon the wooden square that she held. This was her third attempt at this piece of 'homework' that Zelretch had set them, a task she was convinced he had given to her and Luvia for no other reason than to torment them. In appearance it was a relatively simple exercise in formalcraft that enabled the creation of a Mystery that would take the fluctuations of the local dimensions and translate them into a visual effect that could be seen with the naked eye. Once it was done the board would be consumed by the prana and the Mystery would be ready for use.
In theory it was an almost trivial task to accomplish, certainly when compared to some of the other things that the old vampire had forced his students to do over the last few months.
In theory, at least.
In practice the blasted thing had proven to be a source of frustration to her. Her first two attempts had failed spectacularly as the prana that she'd fed into the carved circle seemed to dissipate faster than she could safely infuse it. Her attempts to compensate by accelerating her flow of power had only caused further instability in the circle as the prana clumped rather than flowed and eventually ended up setting the board on fire. It had taken Rin the better part of two hours to get rid of the charred remains, clean her desk of scorch marks and carve another board with the circle, then she'd spent more than another hour carefully going over what had gone wrong. The second attempt had not combusted, which was a definite plus, instead, and she still had no idea why or how, it had spontaneously fallen apart into sawdust.
So for the third time she had carved the circle, mentally giving thanks to the good fortune that had led her to seeing the deal that let her buy five boards for the price of three. However while she still had another two boards to work with she had no intention of carving this circle one more time if she could help it.
So she was cheating.
By using one of her Mystic Code jewels she was able to release the correct amount of prana directly into the carved circle all in one go. Granted it was a bit tricky getting it to match up to the carved design perfectly, but such a task was well within her abilities. Of course it had cost her one of her gems, but given that the Wizard Marshall had told them that further lessons were suspended until this task was complete she viewed it as a necessary cost.
Oh if she had had a bit more time then she could have figured it out without the use of the jewel, however in this case time was of the essence. Given her own intelligence she had no doubt that Luvia would work out that this method could be used to complete the task quickly with the abundant resources at her disposal.
Involuntarily a growl of irritation and frustration made its way out of Rin's throat as she thought about the little titbit of information that the Edelfelt heir had chosen to share with her. It just wasn't fair! Not only was the blonde idiot rich but now she could also get hold of a near infinite supply of gems whenever she wanted.
Well, that was alright, Rin had her own plans for securing a supply of jewel for her own use.
Now there was a thought that brought a smile back to her face. Shirou, ridiculously lucky and bone headed Shirou. He went into a situation where the only possible outcome should have been his death and yet somehow he not only made it out alive but managed to get superpowers out of it as well. Granted he had ended up being hurled across realities and forced to fight beings that would have compared favourably to Servants . . .
Gods, she still had a hard time getting her head around the notion. A world where the gods hadn't faded into oblivion but had instead remained within their 'legends', unbelievable. Idly she wondered if the other state of existence that they resided in was anything like the Throne of Heroes, if it was then maybe there was some similarity between these deities and Heroic Spirits.
What was even more fascinating was that their Divine Mysteries, powers that could be compared to the level of True Magics if Shirou's descriptions were anything to go by, could be gained by humans if they were able to slay a deity. She could imagine what would happen if that sort of knowledge were to become general knowledge about the Clock Tower, there'd be a positive scramble to see who would be the first to find some way of getting to that world.
Granted the Kaleidoscope was by far the surest and safest way to travel between worlds, but if you were reckless or desperate enough there were other options available. The problem with them was that half the time you couldn't be sure if you'd arrive where you wanted to go or instead end up in some weird otherworldly dimension where the simple act of looking at the landscape turned your mind into half cooked tapioca. Assuming that you weren't simply flash fried into a black smear the second you arrived. And even if you did manage to get where you wanted to go there was always a chance that you'd end up sans a few important things such as luggage, clothes or assorted internal organs.
There was a good reason why the multiverse was mainly regarded as Zelretch's personal playground after all.
Still the temptation to gain such abilities might well draw several reckless fools to try it. Well not her, she had no intention of going to this world to try and harvest these 'Authorities' for herself. The Holy Grail War had been an excellent teacher in the concepts of scale and hierarchy, Shirou had written that the gods of this world were at least as powerful as Servants, weaker in some areas, stronger in others. She might have her version of the Jewelled Sword but even so she was well aware that if she went up against a Servant practically all the odds would be against her. In terms of skill, speed and durability she'd be totally outmatched by even the weakest Servant unless she got the drop on them. To make matters worse by the sounds of it A rank Magical Resistance seemed to be a universal trait amongst these gods, something that would make them a nightmare to fight even if she could use the Kaleidoscope.
Nope, the heir to the Tohsaka name had no intention of attempting such a suicidal course of action. After all why would she? Not when getting Shirou back offered the answer to all her problems.
Once she got her sister's boyfriend back then soooo many options would be available to her. Hah, the blonde haired idiot was so proud of her ability to call small gemstones out of alternate worlds, just wait until she saw what Shirou could do. The journal that he'd sent to Sakura had been pretty comprehensive in regards to his abilities; by the looks of things writing in it had become a way for him to sort out his thoughts at the end of the day. As a result there were plenty of notes and theories about what he could do with the Authorities that he'd gained.
And some of the descriptions of what Rule of the Underworld could do had caused Rin to physically salivate when she'd read them.
Jewels the size of her head? In any cut or type that she wanted? The mere thought of what she could do with something like that had been enough to make her rub her hands together and break out into somewhat unhinged sounding laughter when she'd read it.
Yes, getting Shirou back was definitely a priority, and not simply because he would be a source of infinite jewels for her. Sakura needed him, there was no other way to describe it, she didn't just love him, she didn't just miss him, she needed him. It was hardly a surprise really, after all that she'd been forced to endure her entire life it wasn't exactly a surprise that she'd be unwilling to let go of her saviour. In the end Shirou had been the one to save her, there had been mistakes and errors, so many and so painful, but in the end Shirou had been the one to cut the cord that had bound her to Angra Mainyu and had at last delivered her from the last loathsome touch of Zouken.
Her sister had been . . . broken when she realized what had happened to her beloved Senpai, for Rin it had been one of the hardest things she had ever had to witness. Sakura had been unable to move forward, had been unable to even leave the house that had once belonged to Shirou. Yet, even as she had grieved his death she had also faithfully waited for him to return to her.
It was a paradox that had left the elder sibling worrying about the soundness of her sister's mind. Sakura had grieved Shirou's death and yet at the same time had had unwavering faith that he would return to her.
In the end she'd had to leave her in the care of Rider. Her own responsibilities hadn't allowed her to stay at home, not when she'd been chosen as one of the students of the Wizard Marshall himself. Truly she had wanted to stay with Sakura, but given that it was only Zelretch's authority that kept the Clock Tower's metaphorical axe from coming down on them Rin couldn't afford to offend him.
Well, now Sakura was no longer waiting in the house. Now she knew that Shirou was alive, and she was unwilling to simply sit back and wait for him.
If all truth were to be told Rin would have to admit that she found this new version of her sister to be somewhat . . . unsettling. When it came to magecraft she was well aware that she was more talented than Sakura. Both of them possessed unusual affinities and excellent quality magic Circuits, but when it came to sheer talent Rin was well aware that she was unquestionably the superior of them. The same could also be said of Luvia, though the Tohsaka heir was loath to admit it. Both of them were natural geniuses, the kind that were rarely seen more than once in a century.
And here were two of them.
When looked at from that perspective it was hardly a surprise that Zelretch's third apprentice had found himself lagging further and further behind them even before Sakura had joined them. When she had done so Rin had been completely prepared to help her sister in any way she could, but had not expected her to be able to catch up to them, not given the difference in talent and the large lead they had on her.
That had changed though.
It didn't take the elder of the siblings long to realize that something wasn't quite right; Sakura had been advancing at a far faster rate than she'd been expecting her to. It wasn't anything superhuman or unnatural; it was simply far more rapid an advance than should have been possible given what she knew of her sister.
In the end it had been remarkably simple, Sakura wasn't stopping. She learnt, she ate, she slept, she took care of the needs of the body, that was it. Aside from the few get-togethers she had with her sister outside of classes and the times that she spent reading the journal that Shirou had sent to her every single spare instant was spent advancing her studies in the Kaleidoscope.
It went beyond anything Luvia or Rin could have done, talented as they were they still got bored or tired or distracted. If they kept studying like that then probably sooner rather than later they'd go crazy. It was a simple limitation that was part of being a 'correct' human being.
Sakura, however, could not be considered a 'correct' human being, having endured what she had for so long that had she held onto the fragile definition of 'correct' then she'd long ago have fallen to either madness or despair. Instead she had endured, year after year, violation after violation; she had endured and continued where any other would have fallen apart.
And now she was applying that same endurance to her studies, continuing to work and learn at a rate that should have left her exhausted or broken. But she endured. She learned one set of lessons and then immediately moved onto the next, each one not a task in and of itself but rather simply stepping stones along the way to her goal. Sakura had no interest or care in the magecraft itself, she didn't care about family legacies, achievements, prestige or condemnations.
All she cared about was being reunited with Shirou.
To put it in the simplest possible terms Rin and Luvia were geniuses, they could grasp lessons and concepts with ease that others would spend days or even weeks trying to get a handle on. Sakura, by contrast, had some natural talent due to being born to a proud and established magi line, but that alone wasn't enough, there was something else.
Sakura was relentless.
She pursued her ignorance in the knowledge she wanted in the same way a wolf would a deer, a continual chase without respite until the prey was run to ground by sheer exhaustion. And once one lesson had been run down she simply moved to the next and then to the next.
Had their father been alive Rin was pretty sure that he would have been proud of the way his younger daughter was steadily ploughing through her studies to catch up to her elder sibling. However as much as she admired the sheer tenacity of Sakura's study there was something unsettling about her single-mindedness. All day without any breaks that weren't absolutely necessary to keep her going. There were even some days where she'd elected to forgo sleep in order to finish a task. It wasn't healthy, in some ways it couldn't even be called completely sane.
But . . . was something sane really what Sakura needed? With all that she'd suffered and endured was it really a surprise that she wasn't coming at this in any sort of normal way?
Ahhhggghhh, Rin had to repress the urge to tug at her hair in frustration as her thoughts found themselves running in circles. She was a magus, not a psychiatrist or psychologist, trying to figure things like this out was going to do nothing but leave her with a headache.
Her good mood at having completed the 'homework' that had been vexing her spoilt the young Tohsaka heir decided that now might be a good time to call it a day and head to bed. Still, as she changed into her sleeping clothes she couldn't help but try to raise her spirits by imagining the kinds of jewels that she'd be able to 'convince' Shirou to provide her with once he got back.
Her last thought before she slipped into the gentle embrace of sleep was; a . . . ruby as . . . big . . . as . . . my . . . head . . .
She went to sleep with a smile on her lips.
"Things are not going as planned."
It was a simple statement, yet it sat in the air between the four men as though it were the cast iron lid of a coffin.
"The appropriate rumours have been started, and steps were taken to ensure that the girl and the Wizard Marshall would both have heard them."
The response came across as somewhat defensive, the words of a man trying to shield himself from his failures as he glared at the slightly older man sitting across from him. The four of them were once more in the carefully protected room to discuss the advancement of their various goals and agendas. For the most part the shared news had been good, several bothersome rivals had been humiliated or otherwise dealt with, and other enterprises had yielded profit in one form or another. This last bit of business was the proverbial fly in the ointment.
Seeing that the mood was growing tenser the third member of the group spoke up, his voice cutting through the tension.
"We were always aware that conventional methods stood a poor chance of success, this is Zelretch that we are dealing with after all."
Silence greeted that statement as the same thought ran through each of their minds. It was a simple truth; the old magician was never involved in the various political manuvering that went on within the Clock Tower. It wasn't because he was in some way immune to them, indeed with the right words it was actually quite easy to stir him, the problems arose once he started moving since no-one could ever predict what he was going to do. The vampiric Magic user was unpredictable in a way that defied all common sense yet somehow always managed to serve him in the end; those around him didn't tend to be as lucky.
"What about the sister? Has there been any success driving a wedge between them?"
The girl simply doesn't socialize with anyone aside from her sister," the fourth member of the group stated, "It's doubtful that she's even heard of the rumours that we implemented for her to hear. As for the ones directed at the Tohsaka heir . . . the Matou's lack of socialization has rendered them implausible before they were even heard, how can she be insulting her elder sibling behind her back if she's never in contact with anyone she doesn't need to? That strategy lost credibility before it even reached the Tohsaka girl's ears."
"She also remains practically unassailable," the second said as he leaned back in his chair and contemplated the glass of wine he held, "I confess that at first I thought the notion of leaking her unique status to the rest of the Clock Tower was a foolish move. I feared that some other researcher would abduct her and employ her as a tool in their own experiments. But after seeing how her familiar has dealt with the likes of Nikoli and Vas Demetara I'm forced to admit that it was the correct course."
"I have also profited," the first to speak commented as he filled his own glass with the dark red wine being served, "Since Belladonna tried to kidnap the girl her reputation has been in shreds, certainly not in any shape to contest my ascension to the head position of our department. It would have been more convenient had she died, but as things stand she is no longer a rival to myself and she may have uses in the future."
"That may be, but it doesn't change the fact that we are no closer to being able to have her declared a Sealing Designate than we were when she first arrived." The third member held no glass, instead he had his fingers clasped in front of him, "She has already shown herself to be a superb student. All of you know how Zelretch is, he will always hang on to those that interest him until they break or he loses interest. Right now he's having an entertaining time teaching those girls his magic, seeing how far he can push them. Each day that they survive his lessons and prove their worth to him is another step for them all to be beyond our ability to restrain or influence."
Those words struck home as they hit a sensitive spot for all the men present. Each of them was powerful on many levels, personal power, family lines, political connections to others with power of their own. These were the men that could pull strings in the night and have respected professors or researchers dragged off to become subjects to others. In the Clock Tower the number of people that stood outside their influence could be counted on one hand without the thumb. It was a position that they'd become comfortable with, a position that they were secure in.
To them the thought that there was this girl, this child, that could offer so much to the advancement of magecraft and yet they couldn't touch her . . . it was a torment worthy of the ancient Greek gods.
But more than that it was an offence to their pride. The likes of Barthomeloi Lorelei, the Director or Zelretch were titans that moved in ways as unstoppable as the Moon itself, their power and prestige such that rumours and public opinion held only as much sway over them as they allowed, not an inch more. And if anyone tried to manipulate or force them . . . well, there had been that foolish noble a couple of years ago that had become so arrogant that he'd insulted the Queen of the Clock Tower. Rumour had it that Barthomeloi Lorelei had annihilated him so thoroughly that nobody could even remember his name anymore.
Individuals like that could be accepted as being beyond the reach of this group; it was like setting one's self up against a force of nature, there was no shame in it.
But this girl, this Sakura Matou, she should not be so untouchable. If they wished it she should be on their dissection table before the echo of the command had faded.
"The fact still remains that she is far too valuable a resource to be allowed to slip past us!" The first declared, "The potential advancement to magecraft that she offers is simply too great."
"You keep parroting those lines as though repetition will somehow make it easier for us to gain authority over her." The second stated, a noticeable sneer in his voice. "As things stand she is as beyond our reach as the sun."
"Then perhaps things should be changed." The words were punctuated by the third member of the group putting his glass down hard enough to make it ring like a bell but not crack. The action drew the attention of the others to him as he sat back in his seat.
"Our strategy thus far has been to try to separate her from those that could protect her by driving wedges between them. However what we forgot was that we aren't dealing with the normal masses in this case, we are dealing with eccentrics and unstable geniuses. Such individuals do not react to the normal pressures that would affect others in any way that can be called normal. Quite frankly the girl could act as both a harlot and a disgrace and Zelretch wouldn't care as long as it didn't affect her worth as a student."
"And you have a better approach?"
"Yes, if we cannot make the girl's protectors abandon her then the logical next step is to make the girl abandon her protectors."
The fourth member leaned forwards slightly the interest on his face easy to see.
"We are all aware to the motivation behind the girl's studies; she seeks to be reunited with her lover, the adopted son of the Magus Killer."
That had been a hard piece of information to attain. Many details regarding the fifth Holy Grail War had been declared 'top secret' by the agents of the Director, but the relationship between the adopted Matou and the adopted Emiya had become known to them when they began to investigate the reason behind the girl's sudden entry into the Mage's Association. To all of them it seemed a childish and petty reason to delve into the mysteries of the Kaleidoscope, but that was what seemed to propel her.
"What we need to do is play to that desire. At the moment she is untouchable because Zelretch and her familiar protect her, what we need to do is trick her into casting that protection aside."
"Zelretch may be irreverent and covetous of his students, but even so he follows the laws of the Clock Tower," left unsaid was that he generally only followed those laws when it wasn't inconvenient for him to do so, "If one of his students commits an infraction severe enough he will retract his protection and allow the laws of the Association to run their course."
The other three slowly nodded their heads in agreement, such things had happened before so it was known to be true. The Wizard Marshall might protect his students to some degree, but if they abused that protection he took a certain pleasure in leaving them high and dry and watching as they got their comeuppance.
"How though?" The first asked, taking a sip of his wine after asking.
"Simplicity itself," there was no mistaking the smugness in the third's voice now, "If she is so desperate to be reunited with her lost lover then all we need do is dangle something that might offer the possibility of aiding in that before her. Then, once her interest in it has been confirmed, we shall move it into the vaults of one of the departments we control and declare it a Sealed item. She will try to get hold of it, but it will be easy for us to block such attempts. Eventually she shall become desperate and try to steal it, an attempt that will succeed given her own abilities and those of her familiar. However once she had been confirmed as a thief from one of the Sealed vaults Zelretch will have to withdraw his support.
"It will, of course, have to be done precisely. We will need to place subtle pressures upon the girl, minor ones that she won't notice, but which will mount over time, in order to push her to make a poor judgement choice. She is not foolish after all, at least not in this regard. However given time and the correct strategy I'm confident that we can manipulate her to take the actions we desire.
"Then she'll be ours."
Slow nods greeted the suggestion as all the other members of the group gave the proposal some thought. It made sense, rather than playing against the girl's strengths it instead targeted her weakness in such a way that she could be tricked into casting her strengths away.
"There is still the matter of her familiar," the fourth member noted, "that one has proven to be exceptionally loyal and efficient in her protection. With her powers and skills it would still require several dozen specially equipped and prepared enforcers to bring her down, and doing so would only be achieved if everyone of them was willing to sacrifice themselves to bring her down. And that is even if we can gain authority to command enough to go through with the mission.
"Her current activities in protecting her Master have drawn some attention, but given that the girl is under the old vampire's protection it's generally accepted that those she deals with are operating outside the law and as such are outside its protection as well. Her bodyguard has quite the reputation now; even though very few are aware of the kind of being that is involved. The act of getting the needed numbers to undertake the task will alone be a challenge, never mind actually bringing the familiar down"
That brought another pause as the members of the small cabal pondered the problem. A Servant was not something that could be taken lightly. Their colleague's assertion that even several dozen Enforcers could bring her down was . . . optimistic. Certainly it was possible; those Enforcers would have to be some of the best of the best and equipped in such a way that the cost of preparation would be ruinous at best, and they'd have to have the element of surprise on their side. If all those factors worked in their favour then it was possible for them to bring her down.
The trouble was that if anything went wrong then they would have what amounted to an infuriated demigod coming for their blood. None of them had made it to their current positions by taking foolish gambles, and that was not a good one by any stretch of the imagination.
"I may have . . . something that could be of aid there," the first said slowly, "There are rumours that there is some sort of artefact kept in my Department's vault, some Mystic Code or possibly even a Noble Phantasm, which can be used against spiritual entities like Heroic Spirits. However unless I can completely secure my position as the head of the Department and gain the acknowledgement of the other heads then there'll be no chance that I can access it."
"Couldn't we call in some favours to gain it? We still retain considerable political capital from the aid we provided with keeping that incident involving the senior board member that tried to turn himself into a Dead Apostle quiet."
"Not for something like this, if it were any more heavily guarded it would be under the direct purview of the Queen herself."
That explanation brought silence. The suggestion that it was at such a level of security lent credence to the notion that this artefact might be one of the very few Noble Phantasms that the Clock Tower had been able to take into custody. And if it was then it might be just what would be needed for them to eliminate the girl's frustratingly powerful bodyguard.
"Could it perhaps be used to capture the familiar?" the second enquired, "Such a rare specimen is only a slightly less valuable subject than the girl herself, her nature as a fallen divinity alone could open whole new avenues of research."
"I do not yet know the full details of the artefact, so I cannot tell you one way or another," the first admitted, "Its very existence was a secret that I had difficulty uncovering and only scant information on its functions or use was available despite my best efforts. Still, it seems like a worthwhile pursuit, can I count upon your aid in this matter?"
There was a pause as the other members of the cabal mulled over what had been said. Under any other circumstances they would have assumed that this was simply an attempt by their colleague to manipulate them into helping him advance his own position. His suggestion was almost laughably transparent in appearance; a nebulous goal that he could always claim didn't pan out as soon as they had expended their efforts upon his behalf. However here, amongst their small number, they could be certain of his honesty.
The only way a gathering such as this, one of the powerful and the ambitious, could function was with certain guarantees that it would not be torn apart from within by its members working against each other. Consequently membership could only be obtained after certain promises of honesty and loyalty were made and then backed up by a number of powerful geas. Thus they could be assured that they were not being deceived, that their fellow member was suggesting a course that he honestly believed would advance the cause of the cabal.
Of course that didn't mean that he couldn't be wrong, it was quite possible that his suggestion would turn out to be nothing but a costly dead end. But with the honesty of the members assured and all of them working together the likelihood of such happening was low at most. That was the strength of this group, the reason that for more than a generation they had acted as one of the secret guiding forces behind the Clock Tower. All of them brought their strengths and each of them covered the others weaknesses.
The artificial camaraderie was not perfect, but it was effective.
"Then it would seem our course is set," stated the fourth, "We shall only have one chance for this to work though, so we will need to set it up perfectly. First we must acquire the means by which the girl's bodyguard may be overcome with some degree of certainty. Once this is in our hands our next step is to prepare bait that she will not be able to resist, one that will goad her into foolish action. Lastly we will need to set up a crime for her that not even Zelretch can simply brush aside, but which will also be free of any hint of interference. You all know what would happen if he gets even the slightest hint that he is being manipulated, he'll abandon any veneer of following Clock Tower law and simply take the girl back.
"One chance is all we get; we have to do it perfectly."
Wordlessly the other three members raised their glasses in assent.
Beneath the grounds of Fuyuki the vast network of spells that made up the Holy Grail system continued their work. Ambient energy was gathered in from the prana rich land and funnelled into the system to facilitate the build of power that would lead to the beginning of a sixth Holy War.
Only this time things were different.
The huge cave known as Ten no Sakazuki had collapsed, and the portion of the system engraved there had been lost. Further damage had ensued when the spiritual form of Angra Mainyu had almost completed its transition into a corporial form and been wrenched out of the Greater Grail during the 'misfire' event. Likewise the presence of not one but two powerful 'Lesser Grails' during the war had placed further stress upon the system, compounding the tiny flaws and metaphysical cracks in it that had been present ever since the Einzberns had used their knowledge to force the selection of the heretic Servant Class Avenger.
Simply put, though the Heaven's Feel system was a masterwork without compare, it was damaged.
Under normal circumstances the spellworks that made it up would begin to unravel as the damage slowly mounted and caused the entire system to destabalize and fragment. In the best case scenario the Holy Grail would simply disintergrate, coming apart into ambient prana that would become mana without any fuss as the last shreds of power burnt out the last of the system and left no trace that any save the best magi could ever find. In the worst case all the vast accumulated energies that powered the Heaven's Feel would be released in a destructive blast comparable to a giant volcano erupting.
But this was the Holy Grail War, a ritual that had been the crowning achievement of three old and powerful families, had been touched by both the Heaven's Feel and the Kaleidoscope and whose core was formed from the willing sacrifice of the Winter Saint herself.
Though not alive or sentient the Holy Grail was intelligent to a certain degree. It could make decisions and cast judements when needed, this was done to select Masters or which Servants were Summoned if no catalyst was used. It also had enough intelligence to recongnize what was wrong and to act. Rather than allowing itself to fragment and disintegrate the Heaven's Feel system fought on, it used its vast power to patch the damage, to work around the lost components. Alternate routes were made to compensate for those lost and new 'organs' for the system began to take shape. Little by little the Holy Grail healed even as it prepared for the upcoming War.
However something was different, one specific area of the system had been severely damaged and even as it was repaired it remained inactive.
The Sixth Holy Grail War was coming, the mana was being drawn into the system and the well was almost as full as it needed to be. Soon the War would begin once more.
Some things remained the same despite the changes wrought upon the ritual by the last war. Angra Mainyu might no longer nest within the Grail, but some of his taint remained. It was a mindless directionless malice, not something that could ever grow into a true threat as the Avenger had in the fifth War. However that taint was significant enough that the summoning of 'evil' heroic Spirits remained a possibility once the War began.
But this War would be different due to the single part of the system that had been most damaged by the manifestation of All the Sins of Humanity and its abrupt and violent removal from the Greater Grail.
The limitations placed upon the Holy Grail War.
Oh they were not completely gone, but the limiters, the restraints upon the system that were meant to keep the ritual from spinning out of control, they were severely weakened. The exact result of that weakening had yet to show itself, but had the Grail had the sentience to do so it would have been eager to see what this change would allow it to do.
Sakura lay on her bed and stared down at the book clutched in her arms in the same way a child would hold onto a beloved teddy bear.
She had been reading it again before she had turned the lights out in her room. She didn't really need to, she'd already read every page in the tome several times over, to the point that if she needed to she could probably recite the entire contents of the book word for word.
As she closed her eyes and tried to let sleep take her the last Matou found her thoughts wandering lazily. She thought about her Senpai, of the things he had done, of the trials that he'd faced and of what had been done to him.
Hot anger spiked through her as she thought of Venus, Shirou had not known it immediately, but over time he'd come to learn of what the Roman Goddess had done to him during the time that he'd been in her thrall. He'd written about it in the book she held, had described how he'd pieced the fragmented memories together until the final ugly picture had been there for him to see.
The first time that she'd read it, back in the Emiya household when the book had first arrived, Sakura hadn't really been able to grasp what had been written there. She'd been so overwhelmed with relief that her Senpai was alive that she hadn't really been able to take it all in. It had only been later, when she'd been carefully rereading the book in painstaking detail, that she'd realized the full implications of what had happened.
Senpai had been raped.
In a way it had been a gentle violation, nowhere near as cruel and brutal as the defilement that she'd had to endure at the hands of her adopted brother, but a violation it had none the less been. Venus had tainted and controlled the mind and emotions of her Senpai, then she had done the same to his body. Sakura's teeth had ground together as she had read about her lover's realization of what had happened,
Hatred was not an emotion she was all too familiar with despite her past. Hating her adopted grandfather had always been an exercise in futility as far as she was concerned; it was like hating the tide or the sun. No-one could stand against him, that was a lesson indelibly imprinted upon her, though she could not remember the lesson that had seared it there. For Shinji she had only felt pity, despite the wrongs he visited upon her. pity that she had what he could never have, pity that his only outlet of frustration was the cruelties he inflict on her, pity that he was at the end of it such a poor excuse for a human.
She had never hated her parents for sending her to the Matous, if anything she'd felt a certain pity for them as well. And even in her darkest moments she had not hated her sister, resented, envied, even become angry at certainly, but never hated.
Now, though, she most definitely hated Venus.
How dare she? How dare she!? To use Senpai like that, to defile him, to hurt him . . . never had Sakura thought that she'd ever miss the dark powers that she'd wielded while connected to Avenger, but at this moment in time had the goddess that had hurt Shirou still been alive she would have dearly wanted the corrupt abilities back. She would have drowned the harlot deity in curses, made her beg for mercy, made her scream, made her-
No, Sakura cut off that line of thought as she shook her head against her pillow. Senpai had been willing to give up everything to free her from that, she would not throw away his sacrifice by letting herself sink into the darkest aspects of her psyche once more. If she did there would be no Angra Mainyu to save her from, it would simply be the anger and resentment that she'd buried over a lifetime of suffering.
Suffering . . . that was a thought. Shirou had suffered an experience that she herself was sadly intimate with. They were the same now, in a way, both victims that had been violated by others. Did that mean that there would be more of a connection between them if they were reunited? Could it be something that would bring them closer together?
Almost as soon as she had the thought the adopted Matou felt a surge of disgust with herself. How could she even think that? Senpai had undergone something terrible and here she was thinking of how it would let her get closer to him.
There were times like this that Sakura wondered why Emiya Shirou had chosen to return her feelings.
Unbidden her sleepy thoughts reached into her memories and pulled out a recollection that was both treasured and shied away from at once. It was the memory of that night in the rain, so soon after losing Saber and learning the truth about her, he had looked at her defiled and lewd body and heard her tell him of how she was violated and unworthy of him. he'd listened to her confess to how worthless she felt herself to be, how weak and cowardly she saw herself as, how she couldn't even find the courage to end her own life despite her despair.
She'd told him to abandon her, told him to treat her as a stranger. She'd told him how weak she was, how she would inevitably hurt him because of that weakness. She'd told him of how stupid she was, how she had tried to keep her role as a magus of the Matou clan and a Master in the Holy Grail War a secret even though she knew its discovery was inevitable. She remembered feeling as though she were drowning in her misery at the knowledge that she was going to lose the last light in her life of darkness that had been swallowing her since she was six years old. And despite all that she hadn't been able to stop talking as for the first time in her life she had been able to share her mounted self hatred with another in an almost masochistic declaration of the truth as she tried to give him an excuse to leave her, as she tried to drive him away.
And he had accepted her.
In the night, in the rain and in the light of an old street lamp he had taken her into his arms and told her that he saw she was a bad person. She'd been so confused, but then he'd said that he'd protect her, that no matter what happened he would protect her. That he would be her hero, hers.
She'd told him then that she would probably hurt him, she'd told him and he had still held her.
Well she had hurt him in the end; she'd been weak and had fallen prey to both the resentment in her heart and the influence of Avenger who nested within the Holy Grail. But even after everything that happened, even after she took Illya and raised Saber as her Servant, even after Rin had resolved to kill her, Shirou had still been determined to save her.
And he had.
Down in the dark next to the Greater Grail that was ready to give birth to the end of the human race and with the dying form of her sister lying at her feet, when Sakura had finally given in to despair and cursed everything; the world, the past and most of all herself.
And he'd saved her.
He'd forced his way through the shadows she could not control, had kept going even when she'd screamed at him not to come closer because she'd hurt him. Then she had lost all faith and thought he was coming to kill her, only for him to once more tell her that he was going to save her. Then she'd told him that she wasn't worth saving, even that she shouldn't be saved, that she shouldn't live after all the lives she had taken.
He'd told her to take responsibility.
And then he had saved her.
Why? Why had he gone so far for her, her who had been so weak and defiled and worthless? But then again, to him she never had been any of those things. 'Sakura is Sakura', he'd said that to her many times, such simple words but she kept them treasured in her mind. To Senpai, Sakura had been worth something, she had been worth everything.
Tears stung her eyes and her arms tightened around the book once more even as sleep stole gently over her.
She would find Shirou again, and when she did she would have made herself worthy of him. He had loved her, and she knew she loved him, that was all the reason she needed.
As her eyes drifted shut some detached corner of her mind noted that the back of her right hand was itching in a strangely familiar way.