Warning: The following story, Miracle of Zero: Kingdom of the Forsaken, is Rated M for Mature and contains (or will contain) mature content, including violence, harsh language, intense (but not graphic) sexual situations, implications of rape, and a number of other things. Really, anything you'd expect to see in an R-Rated movie, you'll find here at some point or another. Viewer discretion is advised.

No, really, if you're expecting the entire story to remain as light as the first few chapters are, you're in for a surprise later on. A really bad one, too.

Expect to have to put some thought into this, too. This story is aimed at an older audience - late teens, young adults, it's a Seinen, in other words, though there'll be plenty of action and fighting - so not only the content is dark, but some things won't make sense until much later in the story. This is, to put it simply, quite like Harry Potter dipped in All the World's Evils. A lot of mysteries won't be solved until several chapters after they're introduced, and some of them, not until the end.

"A girl cries out for Salvation — and receives a Miracle."

Miracle of Zero: Kingdom of the Forsaken
By:
James D. Fawkes

Chapter I: Fate to Zero
— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Sound was the first of his senses to return to Shirou a low murmur of unfamiliar voices buzzed on the edges of his hearing like a swarm of bees, speaking a strange language.

Touch came next, and through the gloves on his hands, he felt the hard ground, still warm from the magical energy that had dragged Shirou across the void, and the warm wind of a midsummer day brushed gently against his cheeks.

He took in a deep breath through his nose as smell returned, and the harsh scent of smoke mixed with the earthy smell of charcoal and burnt grass. Nearly two dozen other scents came a moment later — the sixth sense all magi had, the ability to detect magical energy used by other magi.

So he was not the only one who had been...summoned?

Yes, that sounded about right. The last thing he could remember was being pulled through some kind of void, a tunnel of sorts that had stifled everything except for the sense of being "pulled."

Then, unless it had been a group effort, whoever had dragged him away from...wherever he had been prior (and it seemed he could not remember the past day, for some reason, likely to do with his summoning in the first place) had not been the only one to perform a summoning spell.

No, now that he looked for it, the other smells were older and less defined than the strange, somewhat sour scent of the spell that had dragged him to this place.

Shirou stood from the crouch he had landed in and stretched out his senses, and immediately, the very second he flipped on his Magic Circuits, he noticed the density of Mana in the air.

Impossible, was the first thought that crossed his mind. It was too dense, too rich, and too pure — denser, richer, and purer by far than any place he'd been to before, and he'd visited most of the world's continents at one point or another.

It was more like Mana as it might have been during the Age of Gods.

Where...or maybe the better question was...when had he been summoned to?

For that matter, as a living, breathing human being, how had he been summoned in the first place?

Shirou opened his eyes as the smoke surrounding him cleared away and cast his gaze out at the crowd around him.

They were all children.

Each of the people in the crowd was only a teenager, and none of them could have been much older than sixteen or seventeen, if that. They were all peering at him curiously, taking him in as if they were measuring his worth (he was reminded of some of the uppity noble types at the Clock Tower), and by the muttering that passed between them, it didn't seem like they were impressed.

What they were expecting, Shirou didn't know, and he didn't particularly care overmuch.

Unless they were expecting a Heroic Spirit. Then, he might need to be concerned.

Either way, they were all dressed similarly in black cloaks (that looked like they were straight out of a cheap fantasy movie), white dress shirts, and pants for the boys and skirts for the girls, and each had a strange cord about their necks under their shirt collar, held near the notch of their throats by an equally strange golden broach.

And standing at the front of the group, looking at him as though the bottom of her world had fallen away, as though her prayers for a savior had gone ignored, was a petite girl with long, strawberry blonde hair that was so vivid it was almost pink and eyes the color of burgundy. She was shorter and thinner than the other girls behind her and so underdeveloped that she would have looked much younger if not for the shape of her face and the presence of the others in the crowd.

None of that was important, because the moment his gaze met hers, something jolted through Shirou's body, a thrill, a hum of Prana not his own that was fluttering aimlessly in his chest.

It was a fledgling bond, a contract waiting to be finished and solidified.

There was no doubt in his mind: this girl had been the one to summon him.

But it was strange. What he knew of the summoning process was limited almost entirely to the Fuyuki Grail system: you set up a magic circle (and glancing down, Shirou noticed the remnants of one that had been carved into the ground beneath his feet), you said the incantation, and the Grail interfered and stuffed a copy of a Heroic Spirit into a class container for you. In the process, the summoned Servant was also granted knowledge of the place and era into which it had been summoned — to prevent culture shock that might cripple the Servant's effectiveness.

None of that seemed to have happened here, because he had only been provided an understanding of the language — a somewhat archaic dialect that bore an odd resemblance to French — and he had been summoned in his entirety, both body and soul.

And beyond all of that, he wasn't a Heroic Spirit and he hadn't gone and made a contract with the World for the Holy Grail, either.

So that meant...he wasn't sure what that meant, actually. That he was dealing with some other method, maybe?

Shirou suddenly wished that he had Rin there with him. She'd probably have everything figured out within five minutes.

Okay, he told himself, think.

He'd been summoned to a strange place, apparently by the small girl in front of him, and he had been provided with knowledge of the language, but not the era or the location. On top of that, he wasn't a Heroic Spirit or a Counter Guardian and he hadn't made a contract with the World for the Holy Grail, which should automatically rule out a Grail System, and that meant...what?

He drew a blank, because the only other thing that he could think of was that the girl in front of him had somehow performed the Second Magic.

And the idea that the petite, scrawny little thing in front of him had enough power to brute-force a True Magic was...terrifying, actually.

"Louise," a member of the crowd called, "what were you thinking, calling a commoner with 'Summon Servant?"

The members of the crowd tittered in response, and the girl in front of him — Louise, apparently, and he committed it to memory — jerked from his gaze and flushed angrily.

"I…I just made a little mistake!" she shouted in her own defense. Absently, Shirou noted that she had buried the crushing disappointment he'd seen in her eyes — Rin had a similar sort of personality, covering her embarrassment with anger.

"What do you mean, a mistake? Nothing unusual happened!"

"Of course!" someone else said. "After all, she's Louise the Zero!"

The crowd laughed again, a loud, echoing sound that rang out across the clearing like the chime of a church bell.

Alright, Shirou amended, so she probably wasn't powerful enough to brute-force a True Magic. In that case, and taking into account the numerous animals patiently waiting behind and amongst the group, there was probably some sort of system in place.

A Grail system? It still didn't really make sense, but it was the only real frame of reference Shirou had.

"Mr. Colbert!" the girl, Louise, sputtered embarrassedly.

The crowd parted to reveal a balding, middle-aged man in a long black robe and carrying a heavy wooden staff, and among all of the others in the crowd, most of whom rated as rather weak to Shirou's more magic-attuned senses, this one man sent a shiver down his spine and left an uneasy feeling in his belly.

He was the only one Shirou recognized as a threat, not because he looked or seemed threatening, but because what Shirou could gauge of his power was on a completely different level than the kids around him.

If he had to estimate it, he'd put this unassuming man at Rin's level, and as Rin was a first rate magus who had apprenticed under the Old Man of the Jewels, the man they called Kaleidoscope, that meant this guy was dangerous.

"What is it that you want from me, Miss Vallière?" the middle-aged man asked.

"Please! Let me try the summoning one more time!"

The middle-aged man, Mr. Colbert, apparently, shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't allow that, Miss Vallière."

The girl looked frustrated, upset, angry — so much like Rin, and yet so different.

"Why not?"

"It is strictly forbidden," Mr. Colbert explained. "Once you graduate to your second year, you must summon a familiar, as you just did."

Shirou remained silent and shifted slightly on his feet as he listened in on the conversation. If he was understanding things right...

But to summon him as a familiar? It seemed like a lot of effort to go through, calling him into a parallel world just so he could serve as some girl's familiar.

For that matter, why did they bother with summoning at all? Couldn't they just go out, find an animal, and turn it into a familiar the old fashioned way? The resources necessary for a ritual like this... It would have just been a waste of magical energy, and no mage, no matter how lazy, would waste magical energy to summon something they could just go out and find in an alley or something.

Unless...

Shirou looked back over at the other animals.

"Your elemental specialty is decided by the familiar that you summon. It enables you to advance to the appropriate courses for that element. You cannot change the familiar once you have summoned it, because the Springtime Familiar Summoning is a sacred rite. Whether you like it or not, you have no choice but to take him."

"But... I've never heard of having a commoner as a familiar!"

"Springtime Familiar Summoning?"

So there was a system.

Yeah, he could see why, now. Most of the other familiars hanging around by the crowd were normal animals, but some of them were magical creatures, beasts that would or should have been called Monstrous or Phantasmal Creatures; the only reason he hadn't noticed them before was that they didn't seem to have that sort of mystical weight and power, here — none of them even came close to the feel of Rider's Pegasus, let alone something like a dragon.

Even so, messing with a dragon, lacking mystical weight or not, and trying to force it to be a familiar by hand was...laughable, really. No wonder they used a system to summon familiars — it made the process easier to accomplish and apparently subdued the wilder, more powerful familiars.

But if this system of theirs, whatever it was, was intended to summon familiars, then why was he the only human familiar?

It stank of...Shirou wasn't sure what it stank of, but it certainly wasn't normal — not by his standards (which he acknowledged freely as warped), and apparently not by these people's, either.

So he'd need to find out, because once he knew why he was summoned, then he might be able to discover how to get back home, back to the people that needed him.

And this girl, having to follow her orders, would only be a problem, a hindrance, so he should just Trace Rule Breaker, prick himself, and be done with —

But no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than did the memory of her eyes, filled with utter, gut-wrenching despair, return to the fore, and he stopped.

This girl, could he really abandon her?

"This is a tradition, Miss Vallière. I cannot allow any exceptions. He," Mr. Colbert gestured pointedly at Shirou, "may be a commoner, but as long as he was summoned by you, he must be your familiar. Never in history has a human been summoned as a familiar, but the Springtime Familiar Summoning takes precedence over every rule. In other words, there is no other way around it: he must become your familiar."

"You have got to be joking..." Louise's shoulders dropped disappointedly.

Shirou decided, then, to stay by her side.

Because she had begged for another chance, a chance to summon a proper familiar. She'd been trying to call something powerful and incredible and had gotten him instead, a success, but one that must have seemed meagre to her. She was desperate to succeed, desperate to do something right, desperately wishing for salvation.

So, he would save her.

Yes, because when he had been lost and ignorant, when he had been pulled into something far beyond him, left to sink or swim, Saber had supported him kindly, professionally, and firmly, had stood beside him as a gallant, untouchable figure that he couldn't help but admire.

And what this girl needed now was that kind of figure — gallant, untouchable, and unfailingly supportive.

So he would save her simply by being that sort of figure.

"Well then, continue with the ceremony."

"With him?"

"Yes, with him. Hurry. The next class will begin any minute. How much more time is this summoning going to take? After mistake upon mistake, you have finally managed to summon him. Hurry and form a contract." Everyone voiced their agreement and began jeering.

Louise stared at Shirou's face as if troubled.

That was his cue.

"Very well, then," he said solemnly as he took a step forward. The words slipped from his tongue naturally, like they had been waiting to be let loose. "If you're finally ready, then we shouldn't waste any more time. So, girl, upon your summoning, I have come forth. I ask of you: are you my Master?"

To'ou. Anata ga watashi no masutaa ka? The ghost of a memory echoed in Shirou's ears.

The girl looked at him as though he had grown a second head. "What?"

"Though I haven't been assigned a class nor gifted knowledge of this place and era, there is no doubt that I have been called across the void to your side," Shirou explained in the same solemn tone. "And so I ask of you, girl: are you my Master?"

"Class? Knowledge?" She was grimacing and looked like everything he'd just said had gone over her head.

"It is unimportant," Shirou insisted. There would be time to go over all the technicalities later. "All that matters is whether or not you are my Master, girl. What I'm asking is if you were the one who summoned me."

"O-Of course I am!" she scowled and put her hands on her hips.

"I see," Shirou said it plainly. But still, the contract wasn't complete. There was something missing. "Yes, it is obvious enough that you were the one who summoned me. But I'm afraid I must confess my confusion, Master. Is there something else that must be done to complete the contract?"

She flushed, grimaced again, and stared up at him with an absolutely miserable look on her face.

"Kneel, familiar," she said in a tone that was resigned, upset, and commanding all at once. Shirou, who had no reason to deny her, bent down on one knee.

"You should count yourself lucky," she mumbled to him. "Normally, you'd go your whole life without a noble doing this to you."

She closed her eyes and waved her wand — and yes, it was an honest-to-gods magic wand.

"My name is Louise Francoise Le Blanc de la Vallière," she declared. "Pentagon of the Five Elemental powers, bless this humble being and make him my familiar."

She leaned closer to him and her earlier comment suddenly became abundantly clear; Shirou couldn't help being amused.

"Girl," he thought, "I've kissed a female version of King Arthur. It doesn't get nobler than that."

The kiss was over quickly, and then she was backing away, flushed red and embarrassed and refusing to look at him. Shirou couldn't help the smile; she and Rin would have gotten along famously.

"You have failed 'Summon Servant' many times, but you have managed to succeed with 'Contract Servant' in one try," Mr. Colbert said happily.

"It's just because he's only a commoner."

"If he was a powerful magical beast, she wouldn't have been able to make a contract."

Some of the students laughed.

Louise scowled at them. "Don't make fun of me! Even I do things right once in a while!"

"Truly 'once in a while', Louise the Zero," laughed a girl with shining curly blonde hair and freckles on her face.

Louise fumed and looked about to retort, but as Shirou well knew, this was a battle that she couldn't win, so he decided to take pity on her.

"You needn't worry yourself, Master," he said confidently. Everyone stopped and turned to look at him. "My master need not worry herself over the blithering of the common rabble when she is the strongest mage here."

The crowd erupted into laughter again.

"How's that, commoner?" someone called.

"Did she pay you to say that?" cackled another.

Shirou only gave them the smirk he had learned from Rin. "There is no doubt that my Master is the strongest because it was me that she summoned."

Another round of laughter broke out and Louise looked like she wanted to melt into the ground.

"As if a commoner is worth summoning!"

Shirou wasn't deterred.

"You can laugh if you like," he told them all calmly, "but the power of the familiar reflects the power of the mage, right? In that case, then, as I am the most powerful familiar, my master must naturally be the most powerful mage."

He said it as though it was fact.

And it was, more or less. In his own experience, the summoning ritual and any preparations made beforehand only determined what Heroic Spirit was summoned; what sort of parameters that Heroic Spirit had after being stuffed into a Servant container depended upon the capacity of the Master. If the Master was a powerful mage like Rin, then the Servant's parameters would naturally be much closer to his full potential than they would be under a third rate magus, or even an average magus.

But there didn't seem to be that sort of system, here, because Shirou had not been shoved into a Servant container. He had been pulled in his entirety, body and soul, without any loss in power. That meant that the mage's power and magical potential wouldn't need to go into supporting the familiar, so the familiar would always be at full power. In that case, the kind of familiar each mage pulled through the summoning ritual would be determined entirely by the power of the summoner.

To boil it down, the power of the familiar was a reflection of the power of the mage.

From there, he could judge the potential of each of the children around him simply by looking at their familiars. The cats and owls and toads, ordinary beasts, could immediately be ruled out as nonthreatening, and so their masters wouldn't be much better than he had been, once upon a time, before he'd been dragged into the Grail War. On the other hand, the masters of the salamander and dragon and the other fantasy creatures would be something to look out for, but...

But as he'd noted before, none of those fantasy creatures had the sort of mystical weight he associated with their kind.

If there was half a dozen of them who had summoned things like Rider's Pegasus, an age old Mystery of the Millennial Rank, then Shirou would have been worried, but with such young and weak phantasmal beasts surrounding him, that put Shirou at the top of the food chain.

And since they would need at least three mages of Barthomeloi Lorelei's caliber in order to endanger his life, that put Louise, as his master, as the most powerful mage there.

Suddenly, the foreign Prana swirling inside of his body turned hot and agitated and coursed through his veins like molten lava. It focused most intensely on his left hand, which erupted into pain as shoots of agony lanced up his arm like lightning. Shirou hissed through clenched teeth and fisted the hardy cloth that protected his chest, just over the scar that marked the wound Gáe Bolg had given him those many years ago.

He was embarrassed when a low groan slipped past his lips. This pain was nothing, he told himself. This was nothing compared to the agony of trying to compete with Heracles' world-shaking strength, of having power not his own flood his body to stop himself from being flattened beneath the roughly hewn marble slab that had rent the ground asunder. It was nothing compared to turning your own nerves into a jury-rigged Magic Circuit.

It was probably the surprise, he noted absently. No contract he had ever entered had hurt, so he hadn't been expecting the sudden burning sensation that swept through his body like fire.

As quickly as it came, the pain left and Shirou's body returned to normal. He let out a breath, opened eyes that had closed reflexively, and tore off his glove — and there, staring out at him from the back of his left hand, was a collection of runes — and oh, what a mistake it was to never learn runes.

"A swordsman," the girl, Louise, was muttering to herself. "Worse than that, a commoner swordsman."

"Oh?" every impulse in Shirou screamed in alarm, and it took all of his self-control not to leap away as the middle-aged Mr. Colbert leaned down to examine the etchings on the back of Shirou's left hand. "Those are some very strange runes…"

Shirou hadn't even heard him approach.

"Well," Mr. Colbert stood unceremoniously and turned to the rest of the class — a mistake, the warrior in Shirou insisted, to turn his back to someone who could very easily kill him without much effort at all, "let's go back to class, everyone."

Then, he spun on his heel and rose gently into the air. Shirou twitched — it was the best he could do to contain the more violent reaction that had wanted to break free, the urge to jerk as though he'd been slapped.

Levitation was Witchcraft, generally not practiced by respectable members of the orthodox thaumaturgical schools and looked down upon by "real" mages. Truly, he hadn't discounted the possibility, no matter how remote, that he had, in fact, stumbled upon a collection of mages hiding out in France, but if ever there were proof that something was entirely unordinary about this place, it was the fact that Colbert and his students all rose into the air using a levitation spell.

All except his new Master, the girl Louise.

More proof, he supposed, that he was no longer in his own world, if the general strangeness of the situation and the presence of fantasy races wasn't enough.

"Louise, you should walk back."

"She shouldn't try to fly. She can't even do a simple levitation properly."

"A commoner is the perfect familiar for you, Zero!"

Then, like that, they were alone, Emiya Shirou and the girl called Louise.

As soon as it was just the two of them, Louise took a deep breath, spun around on her heel, and demanded, "Who are you?!"

Shirou blinked. "Oh. I suppose I didn't introduce myself, did I? Normally, I should probably insist upon the usage of my Class name as an alias, but I suppose since I wasn't made aware of my Class and my deeds and real name are almost certainly unknown here —"

"Deeds? Class? Real name?" Louise pulled at her hair. "What are you talking about?!"

Shirou paused for a moment and considered her quietly.

"Normally," he started slowly, "when a Servant is summoned, it's through the usage of some kind of artifact like the Holy Grail. In cases like that, the artifact does the heavy lifting; the mage is just doing the spell, so it's the artifact that does the actual summoning. A Heroic Spirit is copied from the Throne of Heroes and placed at a portion of its full power in a class container that most suits that hero's particular skillset and Noble Phantasms —"

"Artifact? Heroic Spirit? Class? Throne? Noble Phantom?" Louise grimaced and stomped her foot furiously. "I don't…understand any of that!"

Something in Shirou went cold.

"You…don't understand?"

To begin with, no mage worth his salt performed a spell he didn't understand. Even Shirou, who had never been better than a third rate hack, had at least understood what Reinforcement was back when Reinforcement was all he could do. To cast a spell when you didn't know how it worked...

Well, there was a reason that the first thing Rin had taught him was to never perform magic beyond his level.

"Of course I don't understand, because none of that's important anyway!" she scowled. "And besides, you still haven't told me your name, commoner!"

Shirou grimaced. If he wanted to get home, then it seemed he would have to educate his Master, and at the earliest possible convenience.

The very earliest possible convenience.

"Very well," he said carefully. "As I said, Master, I was not made aware of my class when I was summoned, so you may call me Em — Shirou Emiya."

Western custom was to use the given name first and surname last. Though he'd grown up in Japan as "Emiya Shirou," he'd been traveling for too long and had visited too many countries not to have learned that particular convention.

"Shirou…Emiya," she pronounced the words with difficulty. Clearly, it wasn't an easy name for her to remember, probably because it was so different to what she was probably used to.

"Or Apeiron, if you would prefer," Shirou added helpfully. He didn't like using that name, because it roused something that he would rather remain asleep, but it was probably easier for her to pronounce.

She scowled at him again.

"Do not patronize me, familiar!" she shouted. "Besides, Apeiron sounds like a Noble's name, which does not befit a commoner like you! Shirou Emiya!"

At least she'd gotten his name right.

"As you say, Master," Shirou agreed politely.

Distantly, he thought that Gilgamesh would've carved her heart out by now if he were in the same situation as Shirou and Saber would've…well, he wasn't exactly sure what Saber would've done in this position, but it wouldn't have been nice. Lancer…Lancer probably would've laughed and caller her "his kind of woman."

Louise huffed.

"Come, familiar!" she said snootily. "I will show you to my rooms and where you will be sleeping! If you behave, I may even see to it that you're fed before I turn in for the night!"

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Louise's room, it turned out, was rather comfortable. It was not incredibly large, but for a bedroom, it was enormous — 200 square feet to do with as she pleased. It had to be about the same size of Rin's room, or the one in the Einzbern castle Ilya had locked him in those many, many years ago. There was a window on one wall, and if that was South (he'd have to check, he wasn't sure) then the door was on the north wall, her bed was near the west wall, and a large wardrobe stood against the east wall. Every piece of furniture and all the furnishings looked like priceless antiques that most auctioneers would sell their left arm just to touch.

To put it simply, Louise's room, while not queenly, didn't belong to a member of the working class.

Of course, that should probably have been obvious, considering most of those other brats had called him "commoner" since the moment he'd been summoned.

Shirou looked down at his clothes and fingered the red cloth — didn't his clothes seem too nice to belong to a "commoner?" Really, what was their definition of "commoner," anyway?

"This is my room," Louise said importantly.

"I see," Shirou replied neutrally. "Very well, then — are we alone, Master?"

Louise jerked. "What?"

"I asked if we're alone, Master," Shirou repeated. "There are things which we must discuss — issues which must be clarified and things about this contract of ours that I need to educate you on."

Louise growled.

"There's nothing complicated about it!" she snarled. "You are my familiar and I am your master! There's nothing else to it but that, so there's nothing for us to discuss!"

"I disagree," Shirou told her calmly. "You are woefully unprepared for this situation, Master, and your inexperience shows — no Master in my experience is so foolish as to summon a Servant without Command Spells in order to ensure cooperation."

He neglected to mention, of course, that his experience only included the Holy Grail Wars, where the Matou had contributed the powerful binding magic that formed the Command Spells that could force even a Servant to obey.

Considering he had been summoned without any idea where, when, and why, let alone how, there were only superficial similarities between his current situation and the kind he had experience with.

"Inexperience?!" Louise demanded furiously. "Why you unruly familiar — !"

"Master," Shirou interrupted, "please sit. There is much we need to discuss."

He gestured to the table in the middle of the room.

Louise growled again. "I will not be talked to like that, fam —"

"Master," Shirou cut in again, "it was not a request."

It was said politely, but punctuated with a short burst of killing intent — the kind of murderous aura that Gilgamesh had unleashed upon him during that Grail War so many years ago, malicious bloodlust manifested in the air and charged with Prana.

Louise stopped suddenly and looked at him with wide eyes as her mouth dropped open slightly. Then, meekly and mechanically, she set herself into one of the chairs.

"Good." Shirou sat himself down in the other chair. "To begin with, I would have you tell me how the magic of your summoning works."

"It's a summoning," Louise muttered a little defiantly. She glanced at him, but couldn't meet his eyes, so she looked away and glared at some spot three feet to his left.

Shirou couldn't stop himself from frowning. "Yes, but how does it work?"

"It's a spell," she said deliberately. Are you stupid, was tacked on silently. "You say the incantation, cast the spell, and it summons the — well, it's supposed to summon the familiar most suited to a mage."

Beneath her breath, she added, "Except all I got was a stupid commoner swordsman."

Shirou ignored her insults and considered her quietly.

Where to start, he wondered.

Well, first of all, if he wanted to get anywhere, then first he needed to establish common knowledge. After all, since it was almost assuredly a True Magic that had brought him here, the only way to start looking for a way home was to find out whether or not anyone even knew what True Magic was.

And to talk about True Magic, you had to talk about Akasha.

"Master," he started, "does the word "Akasha" mean anything to you?"

"No," Louise said petulantly. "Stupid familiar," was muttered beneath her breath. "What does that mean, anyhow?"

Shirou frowned at her and she looked away again, flushing with angry embarrassment.

"Akasha is the wellspring of all creation," he said slowly. "As it was explained to me, it contains all knowledge of all things in the past, present, and future — all things that are, will be, or once were. The end goal of a proper magus is to perfect his magecraft in order to reach Akasha and the infinite knowledge located therein, and if that isn't possible, then to pass down the knowledge gathered by himself and the past generations of his family to his descendants in the form of the Magic Crest."

Uncomprehending confusion was her first reaction, then some part of his spiel registered in her head and something seemed to click. Horror suddenly stretched across Louise's face and her skin paled and she blanched as she glanced at his clothing — at last, the quality of the Fae-made armor was recognized, he thought sardonically.

"You," she began fearfully, "you're not the retainer for some wealthy Noble, are you?"

"No," he assured her simply.

She gave a relieved sigh and sank back into her chair. Her question made some sense, he recognized. If his stint at the Clock Tower had taught him anything, it was that belonging to nobility meant playing a high stakes game of blackmail, power grabbing, backstabbing, and politicking. In that case, if Louise had done something like summon another Noble's cherished retainer, it would've led to a lot of political backlash and probably would've resulted in a feud.

Luckily for her, he wasn't.

But that assurance seemed to also bring back her fire.

"Well, I don't know what kind of mages you've met," she said snidely, "but no proper Noble would bother with something like that!"

Yet another nail in the coffin — if he hadn't already been sure that this was some sort of parallel world, the oddity of these magi would be another clue. That meant he was stranded in some parallel universe at the behest of a young mage who had lots of power but little talent. He had no immediate method of going home and no idea just what kind of world he'd been pulled into.

On the plus side, it seemed that he finally had some idea of the social structure. But really, what kind of culture was this that the only requirement for noble rank was the ability to use magic?

He could figure that out later. For now...what?

What next?

Perhaps...Right. The summoning.

"In my experience," he changed the subject, "the summoning of a Servant, what you might call a human familiar, is done using an artifact to call upon a Heroic Spirit, a human who is deified after death through the worship of the people. These human spirits, elevated to a status akin to godhood, are then copied and placed into a Servant class and bound to the Master that summoned them."

Her face twisted with fury and she threw herself halfway across the table as two splotches of angry red colored her cheeks.

"There is only one god," Louise cut in, "and to say otherwise is blasphemous, familiar! To even hint that a human could reach His level, even a mage, is heresy!"

Shirou shrugged, completely unbothered.

"If that is what my Master wishes to believe," he said patronizingly, "then I shall do nothing to persuade her differently."

"You —!"

"As I said," he steamrolled on, "summoning a Servant is achieved through the use of a summoning spell, which then invokes a very powerful artifact to copy a Heroic Spirit and call upon them as Servants. From there, they do battle against each other so that the last one standing may have his wish granted. Without the usage of that artifact, you'd need at least a million mages all working together in order to summon just a single Servant. That's how much power we're talking about."

Which means, he didn't say, there has to have been something helping you.

But she didn't take it that way. The steam left Louise and her mouth dropped open — the number seemed to have thrown her for a loop. Shirou could understand her surprise; it was, after all, a ridiculously large number, and he wasn't even sure that many mages existed in his world. The idea of needing that much raw power to perform something that looked relatively easy from the outside was staggering.

But after she had a moment to get over it, she didn't seem to interpret his intent with that statement. Instead, she saw it as an implication of her own power and ability; that such an act would normally take so much effort meant that she had done something that should have required more power than even the best mages she knew possessed, and she had done it without even meaning to.

That was when the tentative pride began to show on her face and in the lift of her shoulders.

"Wait," she began, "so summoning just one Servant would mean that you're an exceptional mage, right? And you…you're one of them? One of those…what did you call them…pseudo-gods?"

The hope in her voice, the desperate need to have done something right, to have done something worthy of notice, it was almost painful to look at.

"No," he said and watched her face fall. "And that wasn't my point in the first place. My point was that summoning requires a lot of power in my experience." He thought briefly of the Command Spell he had used to call Saber to his side, bending space to achieve something like teleportation. What had Rin called it? Something like, an effect on the level of True Magic? "In that case, how does your Springtime Familiar ritual work?"

She grimaced.

"...It's a yearly ritual," she told him grudgingly. "Every year, Second Year students at the Academy etch out the magic circle and perform the summoning spell under the guidance of one of the teachers in order to summon the familiar most appropriate to them. I've never heard anything about any super powerful artifact."

"So then, the teachers would know?"

"No!" she huffed. "It's a tradition! No one knows how it all works, except maybe the Church! Why would you need to, anyway? It does it's job, doesn't it?"

She glared at him again. "Or it was supposed to, at least."

Shirou frowned.

No known artifact to do the heavy lifting, no knowledge of its functions and how they operated, and no one who had any idea how it all worked. What kind of mages were these people?

No, no, that wasn't the important part. She'd said that she didn't know anything about a Grail system, and the Einzbern's Grail would never have been powerful enough to summon so many magical creatures on a yearly basis, let alone have enough power left to brute-force the Second Magic, so...something like a Grail system, maybe?

On the other hand, the Grail system had been built with the ritual in mind — with the idea that people would be fighting over it, that Servants would be killed and fill the Grail, and the whole thing wouldn't last more than a couple of weeks. There was none of that here, so it couldn't be exactly like the Grail system, but there was also no way any of those students had the power to bend space so casually or brute-force the Second Magic — none of them had the sort of magical energy needed for it.

But then, why didn't anyone know about it? Everyone who'd ever intentionally entered the Grail Wars had known that they didn't have the raw power necessary to actually summon a Servant themselves, that the Grail system was doing the heavy lifting. So why...

Damn, he wished Rin was here.

Shirou sighed. "Well, I guess I'll be your familiar for now. I'll do my best to protect you."

"Protect me?" she parroted disbelievingly. "Hmph! You're not good enough for that, commoner! There's no way you could beat a noble!"

"Hey now," he began, "don't underestimate me. I'm not a Heroic Spirit, but I'm also not an ordinary human, either. Let's see…"

He glanced around and found the western wall — if he understood the structure right, nothing but more castle lay beyond it.

"If I punched this wall as hard as I could," he gestured to the wall behind her bed, "I'd probably destroy the wall, the room beyond it, the room beyond that, the room beyond that, and any rooms above them."

A-Ranked Strength was enough to destroy a house with a single punch, or lob an 80 ton boulder up a hill. B+ Strength was nearly twice as powerful. If he were honest, Shirou was probably being conservative in his estimation of the damage he would do should he actually punch that wall with all his might.

After all, Heracles had had B+ Strength without Mad Enhancement, and with that level of power, even the wind swept aside by his sword could do damage. It was incredible to think that Shirou could be capable of such a thing that had amazed him when he was younger.

But that seemed to be the final straw. On top of everything else, that was what broke the camel's back. Even if she had grudgingly accepted everything else he had yet told her, this one thing, she could not.

"Do you think this is funny?!" Louise snarled, hackles raised. Angry red splotches stained her cheeks. "Is this some kind of joke to you?! Saying something so ridiculous — what, are you playing a prank?! Did Zerbst put you up to this?! You thought it might be fun to tease the Zero, is that it?!"

"Master," Shirou tried.

"Get out!" she roared. "Get out, get out, get out! Stupid familiar!"

He should have stayed. He should have refused. He should have waited for her to calm down and continued the conversation — there was much they still needed to cover, like the runes carved into the back of his left hand and what he had been summoned for — but he didn't.

They didn't have heroes, here. He'd surmised as much from the fact that she didn't understand the concept of a Heroic Spirit. They didn't have heroes who accomplished the impossible — heroes like King Arthur and Lancelot, who slew dragons, or Heracles, who killed a nine-headed Hydra, or Cúchulainn, who could reverse causality to enact his heart-thrust, or Gilgamesh, who had collected all the worlds' treasures for himself.

She didn't understand that there were heroes like that, who did the impossible and who had strength well in excess of ordinary men. Until she saw such a thing for herself, she wouldn't be able to believe it, believe him, so there was no point in trying to convince her otherwise.

That was why, wisely, Shirou retreated. He stood from the table and silently walked to the door. Louise didn't bother to watch him; her eyes were transfixed unblinkingly on the table, and tears were beginning to well up in the corners. Her shoulders shuddered and her mouth was wobbling.

She was a girl with a lot of confidence issues. Anyone who looked could see that. If left on her own, if she never accomplished anything that could raise her self-esteem, then it was entirely possible that she might do something as outrageous as end her own life. She teetered on the precipice even now, and he was the one who should reach out and pull her away from the cliff's edge.

But not now. Now, they had just met. Now, he was nothing more than a stranger who was probably deceiving her for one reason or another. Now, he had to prove himself to her, had to prove his sincerity to her, before she could trust him, before he could save her.

Yes, he would save her.

But not now.

"I'll return in the morning, Master," he said solemnly. She stiffened, and her fists clenched at the edge of the table, knuckles white, but she didn't react otherwise. "Until then, goodnight, and pleasant dreams."

He closed the door behind him, and as soon as the latch clicked shut, he heard Louise break down into muffled sobs. For an instant, for a short handful of seconds, Shirou paused and hesitated. For that single moment, he thought, perhaps, he should have gone back in to comfort her, to wipe away her tears and save her from the crushing depression of failure.

But he squashed that desire. Now was not the time.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Shirou's feet carried him seemingly of their own accord out of the Academy and back across the courtyard. Above him, twin moons glared down mockingly, as if to taunt him, "Can't you tell? You definitely aren't in your world anymore!"

Yes, two moons. Unless Zelretch had managed to pull the mother of all pranks (who ever heard of duplicating the moon, damn it?), he was most certainly in some kind of parallel world.

Shirou came to a stop in front of the scorch mark that he had stood in a few short hours ago. He knelt down and touched his fingers to the blackened grass — it crumbled away beneath his touch and left a dark, ashy gray residue on his fingertips. He rolled it about between his thumb and forefinger — it was just normal ash, nothing more, nothing less.

There existed traces of Prana all around him, and especially radiating from the mark that had been burned into the ground, but it was too muddled — too many people had summoned since he had first been here, so anything that remained was too faint and too mixed to decipher.

He sniffed. A multitude of scents burst to life in his nostrils — too many. Again, too many. There were too many people who had cast magic in this spot for him to pinpoint any specific one, so there was no way to try and determine the nature of the spell that had brought him here.

Frustrating, certainly, but not the end of the world. If magic existed in this world that could bring him here from his own reality, then magic must exist in this world that could send him back.

The trouble, then, would be finding it. Fortunately, the limits of a human lifespan did not apply to him, so even though he would rather leave as soon as possible, he could afford to wait a few years if he absolutely had to, and if it came down to it, then he could wait until Louise grew old and died.

What was another sixty years to him? His hair was already almost entirely white, and his body had stopped aging nearly forty years ago. Another sixty years would mean very little in the long run.

But by the same token, a lot could happen in sixty years.

His brow furrowed.

Sakura and Rin would almost certainly be gone, then. Issei…Issei might make it another twenty or thirty years from now, if he was lucky, but he was already an old man — already going grey, already losing teeth, already gaining weight and slowing down. Rin was a genius — she could simply prolong her own life using magecraft, and she could undoubtedly do it without the pitfalls Zouken had fallen into. Sakura…

How long had it been since he'd seen Sakura?

No, he needed to get home as quickly as possible. He would never forgive himself if he lost the chance to say goodbye to his few remaining friends.

And just as importantly, there were still things he had yet to do.

"Trace…on."

The seven steps were accomplished quickly — practice and experience had reduced the required time by nearly half. The blueprint etched into his mind was made real, and in his hand appeared a crooked, jagged dagger that had almost no killing power. That was fine; this particular weapon was not designed to kill or maim, but to accomplish the negation of all contracts.

All it would take was a single, short prick.

That's all it would take.

All he had to do was stab his hand just the slightest, just enough to break the skin, and those runes etched just beneath his knuckles would disappear as Rule Breaker negated the contract that bound him to Louise. So very easily, he would be free, and he could search out a way back home at his leisure without having to waste his time following the whims of a young girl amongst a bunch of mages who didn't even know what Akasha was.

Shirou sighed, let his grip on the dagger slacken, and dismissed the Projection — Rule Breaker faded and vanished into motes of golden light that winked out like fireflies.

Almost fifty years ago, he had been dragged into the Fifth Holy Grail War — twice, as a matter of fact — and that first time, when he had been clueless and ignorant, Saber had patiently (and sometimes impatiently) supported him. Even though he hadn't had any idea what he was doing, she had stood beside him, his sword, his shield, a gallant figure that never abandoned him and never gave up.

In honor of that, in honor of Saber, he could not so heartlessly abandon Louise. That was why Shirou didn't sever their contract. That was why Shirou resigned himself to a future here, in this world, until Louise no longer needed him. That was why he sighed, closed his eyes, and tilted his head back as the cool night air washed over his skin.

"Sorry, guys," he murmured to the wind, "it looks like I'll be gone for a while."

It was supposed to be an apology to people who couldn't hear or reply, but unexpectedly, the wind answered. A whistle ghosted into his ears — the faint hiss of air being swept aside by something thin moving fast — and his eyes snapped open just in time to catch the shadow of a large figure passing across the distant moon high in the sky.

"Trace…on."

His eyes suddenly sharpened and the figure in the sky became clearer — a dragon, pale (it was impossible to tell its exact color in the moonlight, only that it was "pale"), with the body structure befitting a Western dragon rather than an Eastern one, and ridden by a small girl about Louise's age astride its neck just above the wing joints.

"An observer…?" he mumbled to himself, and felt a vague sense of satisfaction.

Everyone in this academy, all of these pampered noble children who didn't understand the inherent danger of the skill they flaunted at every turn — none of them had taken him seriously or thought of him as a threat. None of them had considered that maybe there was a reason he'd been so confident, so sure of just how strong he was.

None, except this girl, apparently.

Among all of her classmates, she was the only one who had deemed him threatening or dangerous, so here she had come, high in the sky on her dragon and very nearly silent, to observe him. It was good planning, well thought out, and if he hadn't heard the wind in the dragon's wings and opened his eyes at the right moment, even Shirou wouldn't have noticed her.

She was still a bit naive, though, to think that he wouldn't, couldn't see her, even under the full moons hanging in the sky. And in the first place, distance only mattered between equals — no Servant would have had any trouble reaching her, Shirou least of all.

"Clever girl," a voice in the back of Shirou's head said appreciatively, "but you could still get her if you wanted to."

Shirou frowned and lifted one hand, index finger extended, and mimed drawing a bowstring back. From here...0.46932 kilometers, wind speed of 5 kilometers per hour, accounting for gravitational drift and flight path, the dragon's flight speed — 35.097 knots — and flight pattern...Yes. He could make that shot.

"Child's play," he agreed.

At this range, even a mundane arrow would be enough to knock her off her dragon and out of the sky. She wouldn't realize she'd been killed until after she was dead.

Shirou let his arms drop instead of Tracing his bow — it didn't even need to be said that simply having the ability to kill her didn't mean he should. In the first place, this was not the Grail War, he was not a Servant, and she was not an enemy Master. She was simply a little girl who happened to be a bit smarter and a bit less arrogant than the rest of her classmates.

It seemed that Louise wasn't the only one here with potential, though.

But something he did seemed to have spooked her, because she and her dragon turned back around and headed back towards the castle, disappearing behind one of the battlements. He opened his mouth as though to call out to her and apologize, but the words never made it out of his throat when he realized exactly how stupid and pointless that would have been, and his mouth closed again with a click.

Well, nothing to do about that, he supposed.

Besides, he should get some sleep. Hadn't he learned from Saber? A warrior's life was always in motion, so it was wise to get sleep whenever you could.

Yes, that was a good idea. It had been a tiring day, and sleep would do him good.

He turned around and started back towards the school, but had not gotten more than three steps before he had a thought and paused. Frowning, he spun back towards the blackened mark where Louise had summoned him and scorched the ground with the force of her spell. If left on its own, untouched by mages or spells, it would probably take at least a year and some quality fertilizer to give life back to that spot, and perhaps even several more before it recovered enough to match the grass around it.

Well…maybe he could help it along a little bit.

Magic Circuits flipped on and Prana hummed through them — a brief lurch tried to rise up in the back of Shirou's head, but was quelled — then he whispered a few words in a foreign language his tongue had still not gotten used to speaking. After a moment, he gave himself a brief, satisfied nod, turned his Circuits back off, and made for the castle again.

Behind him, the blackened spot where Louise had summoned him had been replaced with lush green grass, freshly grown.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

CONTINUE?

[YES/NO]

Tiger Dojo

"Welcome!" A figure, dressed in kimono and hakama, with short brown hair and a bamboo practice sword. "To the first Tiger Dojo! I'll be your host, the darling, dashing, amazing, stupendous —"

"They get the idea, Fujimura-sensei." A small girl, in a sweatshirt and bloomers, with long, silvery white hair and bright red eyes.

"— Fuji-nee!"

A sigh. "And I'll be the co-host, Ilyasviel von Einzbern. Please take good care of me," Ilya said.

"Right!" Fuji-nee grinned brightly. "Without further ado, let's begin this, the first Tiger Dojo of this wonderful story, Miracle of Zero —"

"HOLD IT!"

A boot came out of nowhere and slammed Fuji-nee straight in the face, sending her stumbling backwards and onto the polished wooden floor. A girl with long, wavy black hair and blue eyes stomped onto the scene.

"Rin!" Ilya exclaimed.

"Tousaka-san, why?" Fuji-nee moaned.

"Get out of here, you two-bit hack!"

Rin wound her foot back, then swung it forward and punted Fuji-nee away into the distance, completely and totally off screen.

"Fujimura-sensei!" Ilya cried.

"And stay out, you washed up old hag!" Rin gestured angrily in the direction Fuji-nee had flown. "What's with that youthful look, anyway?! Shouldn't you be, like, eighty years old?!"

"Rin! Why did you do that to Fujimura-sensei!"

"You had your turn, in the original story!" Rin went on, ignoring Ilya. "Now, I'm taking over this show! It's my turn to do something like this!"

She turned to the whiteboard and angrily crossed out "Tiger Dojo," then scribbled another name beneath it.

Tousaka-sensei's Lecture Corner, it read.

She slammed the marker back onto the desk and spun around to Ilya.

"And you!"

Ilya squeaked.

"You're supposed to be dead!" Rin said vehemently. "Shirou went through a lot of grief when you died, so you shouldn't be alive right now! In fact, I'd be doing him a huge favor if I just exorcised your ass! But I need an assistant, so I'm resurrecting you! Got it?!"

"Yes, ma'am," Ilya obliged meekly.

"I didn't hear you!"

"Y-yes, Tousaka-sensei!"

"Good!" Rin huffed. "Alright, then. Let's get this started. First up…"

On the board, she wrote, Familiar Runes.

"For those of you who don't know," Rin adopted the famous Tousaka Lecture Pose Number One™, "the Familiar Runes are a collection of old Halkeginian runes that are automatically inscribed upon a familiar once the mage-familiar pact has been properly established. Depending upon what the familiar is and what sort of mage that familiar is contracted to, the runes will also assign a sort of "class" to the familiar."

"Like Shirou and Gandalfr," Ilya added helpfully.

"Like Shirou and Gandalfr," Rin agreed. "However, rather than taking an already existent creature and squeezing it into a container the way the Fuyuki Grail System did, the Familiar Runes act more like clothes: they take what's already there and add onto it. As a result, the familiar is always summoned at full power."

"So that's why Shirou was summoned in his real body instead of being removed from the Time Axis and stuff like Saber was?" Ilya asked.

"That's right. Shirou was summoned using the Second Magic, in a way, so it's his real body, not a copy like with the Grail Wars' Servants."

"But I don't understand. Shirou said he could fight my Berserker evenly as long as Mad Enhancement wasn't on and Noble Phantasms weren't accounted for, right?"

"Right."

"How could he do that?" Ilya scowled and stomped her foot. "I don't get it! Even Shirou's Saber couldn't fight Berserker in a straight up fight during the Grail War! He was tossing her around like a ragdoll in every fight! How could a normal human compare to something like that?"

"First of all," Rin began, "the words 'normal human' cannot be used in the same sentence with 'Emiya Shirou,' even if it's just the implication of his name and not his actual name. It's just not possible. It's grammatically incorrect."

"Granted," Ilya allowed easily.

"Secondly," Rin continued, "Shirou made a deal with the Fairies back in Fate/Revenant Sword, remember?"

"So?"

"So," Rin drew out the word, "that deal was for his sword, his sheath, and that awesome clothing. In return, Shirou was supposed to become…well, that's spoilers, so I won't say exactly what was supposed to happen. I will say, however, that as a result of this deal, Shirou gained a Burden of the Body — kinda like the Divinity skill some Servants have."

"Like Beserker," Ilya concluded.

"Exactly," Rin replied. "But he didn't get it the moment he agreed to the contract. He had to Invert, first, so to speak. Remember that moment at the end where he went sorta crazy? That whole thing where a black bar replaced his name?"

"That happened in the Good End, too," Ilya affirmed. "It was kinda creepy, to be honest."

"Yeah. That was when Shirou became, for just a single moment, an Elemental, one of the Transcendent Kind. Basically, he became a huge-ass Fairy with a tactical nuke aimed at the Grail."

"And then he went back to normal, right?"

"Of course. We can thank Saber for that. But the increased abilities, the inhumanly strong body, all that stuff that changed when he became an Elemental for that single moment? It stayed behind. Basically, he became a human with monstrous strength, a humongous HP bar, enough Prana to make a weak dragon jealous, and the kind of luck that just borders on ridiculous."

"Wow," Ilya said, "Shirou's really overpowered, isn't he?"

"Of course," Rin agreed. "But then, you have to remember that there's a human character out there that Nasu, the creator, made up who is capable of casually warping reality as we know it. And that's all True Magic is, either: reality warping. It's just much more limited in scope."

"That's pretty amazing, Rin," Ilya said. Rin lanced her with a glare. "Um, I mean…Tousaka-sensei. But, ah…shouldn't we get back to the main topic?"

"Sorry, we're out of time," Rin declared unapologetically.

"What?! But we're not finished, yet!"

"We'll just have to cover it next time."

"But I still don't understand how —"

Tousaka-sensei's Lecture Corner #1: END

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

To be continued

Disclaimer: I don't own Fate/Stay Night or Familiar of Zero.

Story discussion and massive spoilers here: The Creator's Room (www fanfiction net/ forum/ The-Creator-s-Room/ 118200/).

Props to GB for Hill of Swords, but for those reading this expecting it to be pretty much the same, you're going to be disappointed. There will be some obvious similarities in the beginning, but the story as a whole will be on an entirely different level than Hill of Swords. The GAR and the despair will be orders of magnitude greater. Especially since [Spoilers] is trolling around in Gallia.

A reminder: this is Fate/Revenant Sword Normal End Shirou, not regular FSN Shirou or FRS Good End Shirou. If you haven't read FRS, that's okay; this works fine as a standalone, you just have to extend your suspension of disbelief a little further.

The whole estimate about mages needed to summon a full Servant is probably inaccurate, but I ballparked it based upon what factors I'm currently aware of. Don't take it too seriously.

The Void Familiar classes will be referred to by their closest modern-English equivalent (Mjodvitnir, Gandalfr, Vindalfr, Lifthrasir), not their technically correct forms (Mjöðvitnir, Gandálfr, Vindálfr, Lífþrasir). It's easier for you guys to read, and easier for me to write.

Yes, Louise's misuse of the Nasuverse terms was intentional. I didn't mistype them or anything like that accidentally.

If you're wondering what Shirou looks like, the cover art should show you. Be warned, however, that his apparent physical age is misleading, so he's a lot older than he looks.

Last thing: I will, for the most part, be using the LNs as references for this story, with the anime to fill in some events in the later parts that Yamaguchi couldn't cover (and that haven't been translated in the LNs) before his death. Expect most of the outside characters to act like in canon (which means sticking to whatever plans they had in canon) except where Shirou or the other Void Familiars affect a difference. But we will be diverging quite a bit by the time we get to Saxe Gotha, if there even is a Saxe Gotha. Or a Battle of Tarbes, for that matter.

No, this is really the last thing, and it's a warning more than a note: if the original Light Novels were like the Fate route of Familiar of Zero, then Miracle of Zero is essentially the Heaven's Feel route, for those of you who have actually played FSN's VN all the way through. While we won't get quite as dark as HF did, nor will there be anywhere near as much sex (if at all), and while the story will start off relatively light, expect things to get bleak in several places. That warning I put at the top wasn't added for the hell of it.

Read, review, enjoy.