Miracle of Zero: Kingdom of the Forsaken
By: James D. Fawkes
Chapter XVIII: For Someone's Glory
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
It was shortly after the agreement had been set that the group dispersed. One of the maids had come forward to Shirou and Louise, bowed, and muttered a quiet, "Please follow me, Milady."
She led them back down the hallways, back into the entrance hall, and then up the stairs. As they followed her through yet more hallways, Shirou began to construct a mental blueprint based upon what he'd seen of the castle outside and realized that she was taking them to the keep, the center of the castle and its most defended part. There were only so many things that could be there.
She stopped in front of an extravagant wooden door, where Siesta was waiting for them, which could, now that he thought of it, only be Louise's bedroom. Then, she turned, bowed again, and quietly told them, "I will return tomorrow morning when it is time for breakfast, Lady Louise. Please, have a good night."
"To you as well, Isabelle," came Louise's reply.
The maid, halfway through turning to leave, stopped for just a second, a pause so short that her shoulder-length hair hadn't yet finished moving before she continued turning. It was still long enough for Shirou to see the small, genuine smile curl on her lips.
The moment Isabelle was gone, Siesta offered a quick, short bow of her own, mumbling Louise's name, then opened the door and stood aside. With Louise ahead of him, Shirou stepped in and through the doorway.
If Shirou had thought Louise's room in the Academy to be extravagant and opulent, then her room in the de La Vallière castle was positively palatial. Twice as big as her dorm, it had lush magenta carpeting that conformed to his toes when he took off his boots, a massive four-poster bed that could comfortably fit five people (complete with what he realized were silk sheets), a gilded vanity that was so well-polished it glittered, not one, but two large wardrobes (one was probably casual clothes, the other formal wear), a bookshelf filled to the brim with both scholarly texts and (Shirou snorted) what could only be trashy romance novels, and the most important part of any young girl's bedroom: a plethora of stuffed animals.
It would never cease to amaze how surprisingly modern some parts of Halkeginia were, and yet how utterly medieval others were.
It had already been fairly late when they'd arrived at the castle, and between dinner, waiting for the Duke, and the argument that had followed, it had gotten late enough, now, that when Shirou had glanced out the window as the maid, Isabelle, led them onward, he had seen the two moons, high in the sky. It had to be approaching midnight.
In other words, time for bed.
As Éléonore had said, their luggage had been brought to the room, so as Louise began to disrobe and change into her nightgown, Shirou turned away and started pulling off his armor. It had been a rare thing, since coming to Halkeginia, that he had taken it all off for anything else other than bathing, but it was the de La Vallière's seat of power — he probably didn't have to worry about needing to be ready at the drop of a hat.
Now that he thought about it, though, a bath sounded like a good idea. Three days of traveling with stops for meals and a place to sleep — yuck. By far not the longest he'd gone without, but still.
So, clad in just his pants, he asked over his shoulder, "Louise, is there a bath nearby?"
Louise, who had sat down at her vanity after changing and was having her hair brushed by Siesta, glanced at him through her mirror, flushed a little, and quickly looked back at her reflection. Belatedly, Shirou realized that this was probably the first — or if not, one of the few — time she'd ever really seen him without his shirt on.
"N-next door, actually," she said. Her voice was a little higher than usual. "Go out, first door to the left!"
Likely curious as to what had caused Louise's reaction, Siesta glanced at him through the mirror, too, then she turned a little red and actually stopped mid-brush as her mouth fell open.
Right. Right, right, right. Twenty-first century textiles, mostly eighteenth century culture. Shirtless men were not a common sight.
Play it cool, Shirou. Act like nothing unusual was happening.
"Right, thanks." He gathered up his shirt, walked to the door, and left.
Real smooth, there, Emiya.
Letting out an irritated sigh and running a hand through his hair, Shirou turned to the left and opened up the first door he came across. Immediately, every candle in the room lit up, illuminating a creamy marble floor and a rather large tub that was, once again, surprisingly modern. It even seemed to have indoor plumbing, faucet and everything.
"I don't know why I'm surprised, anymore. Of course it's a modern tub. Why wouldn't it be a modern tub? What was I expecting, an old pewter thing heated by an open flame?"
Setting his shirt on an open countertop (next to a set of towels — a good thing, because he'd forgotten that little detail), Shirou reached for the knob labelled "hot" and turned it, and out of the spigot came fresh, clean water, already steaming. Then, because he didn't want to become a lobster, he turned the cold water on and tested it with a finger.
Too much cold.
It took a few more adjustments, but eventually he got it in that golden zone of "hot enough to be relaxing," but not "you're gonna boil alive."
Once the tub had filled up, Shirou stripped out of the last bits of his clothing, which he set down with his shirt, and climbed in — and immediately let out a happy groan.
How long had it been since he'd been to a hotspring? It felt like decades, but several years, at the very least. Even this bath wasn't really a proper substitute for a soak in a hotspring, but damn if it didn't feel good.
"What I wouldn't give to own a hotspring with water that healed your wounds," he groaned.
He reached around for the cut that had nearly disemboweled him, and beneath the pads of his fingers, he felt the raised tissue that formed the jagged scar. If it hadn't been for his armor, Perseus probably would have killed him, there.
Well. No use dwelling on it, though.
With another sigh, Shirou relaxed, closed his eyes, and let his head fall back to rest against the lip of the tub. The heat of the water helped to ease some of the aches and loosen his tense muscles — being stronger and hardier than normal did not suddenly make him immune to the problems that came with putting his body under stress.
But as he reclined in the tub, which seemed built to let you do that, he felt all that stress bleeding from his body, and he was drifting…drifting…drifting…
The water really was so nice. He'd have to enjoy it as much as he could, while he still could.
Mm. Why had he never added a bathtub to his collection? Gilgamesh probably had one in the Gate of Babylon — pure gold, of course, with massage jets and spelled to maintain the perfect water temperature. The bastard had probably soaked in it every night, during the ten years between the Fourth and Fifth Grail Wars.
Maybe he could project one?
What a silly thought. The hero Emiya would probably have a conniption to think that the skill he had spent so much time and effort to perfect would be used for something so…trivial.
It was a nice idea, though.
Maybe he should build one, instead. It would make for an interesting project, to build a self-heating bathtub. To see the look on Rin's face, when he told her he'd put everything she'd ever taught him to use for the sake of making a tub he could use on his travels —
How long would it take before that stopped stinging, every time he thought about her?
Well. It was still funny to imagine the look on her face, even if it hurt, too. All the studying she'd forced him through and all the knowledge she'd crammed into his head to help keep him alive in the big, bad world, and he used it to make a bathtub. He'd have been running from Gandr shots for a week, at least.
Shirou jerked up and took a sharp breath in through his nose, rubbing at his eyes. Had he dozed off?
There was a moment of pause. Then, quietly, hesitantly, "Can I come in?"
Shirou glanced down. Fortunately for his — and her — sake of mind, though, the lighting was far too dim to give away any kind of compromising details. As long as he didn't stand up, of course.
For an instant, he thought of Saber, standing utterly naked in the middle of his hallway and coldly declaring that she was a Servant, so she shouldn't be treated like a human being. A bittersweet fondness flickered in his chest.
There was the jiggle of a doorknob, then the sound of the door opening, but when Shirou glanced over, it was still closed, so he craned his neck around to see her, dressed in only her nightgown, step through another door hidden along the adjacent wall.
"Ensuite bathroom," she explained as though she had read the question from his mind. A light flush crept across her cheeks. "I, ah, forgot to mention that?"
As his head turned back around, Shirou lifted a hand from the tub, water sloshing — and still almost as hot as it'd been when he drew his bath — to wave off her concern. "Don't worry about it."
After another moment of hesitation, he heard her feet as she padded softly across the room, and for one wild moment, he thought she was going to pull off her nightgown and try to join him, the way she would have while under the love potion. He felt more than saw, however, as she carefully sat down and leaned her back against the raised, knee-high ledge that surrounded the tub. She let her head fall back, and her hair tickled his shoulder.
"So…" she said slowly.
For a long moment, they lapsed into silence, and their breathing was the only sound in the room. Shirou thought she might actually have fallen asleep, sitting there, and wondered at how he might manage to carry her back to her bed while still wet and naked — and more importantly, how things might get out of hand if he did that and someone saw. It wasn't hard to imagine the Duchess or the Duke barreling into Louise's room, all fire and brimstone and prepared to flay him alive, with him there in his birthday suit trying to explain it was a misunderstanding.
Ugh. That would be a pain.
Not the first time he'd had to fight naked, but one of the few, and fighting naked was always uncomfortable. Always.
"So, we're really going through with it," Louise said at last.
"That's the plan, isn't it?" Shirou asked.
"Well, yes, but…it's different, now that it's time to follow through. I'm not sure I…"
She trailed off, like she wasn't quite sure what to say or how to word it, and whatever she'd been heading towards remained unsaid. Still, Shirou had been with her long enough that he figured he knew where she'd been going.
"Are you worried?"
"Of course," Shirou answered. "To be quite honest, I'd rather you never even set foot on a battlefield. But the only way to stop you is to lock you in a padded room, so if you're going to fight no matter what, then the best place for me to be is right there protecting you."
Then, Louise asked a troubling question. "And what if that's just the runes talking?"
She never asked the easy stuff, did she?
"…I don't know," Shirou was forced to admit. "It might be."
"That's what I told you before," she said. "I don't want this to just be my decision, with the runes forcing you to follow along."
"And I already told you," Shirou solemnly replied, "our goals align and our desires are compatible."
"What does that even mean?" Louise asked intensely. "No, more importantly, what if that is because of the runes, too?"
A thought he'd had a few days before that he'd never voiced. Even still…
"Tell me," he began, "you should have seen enough, by now. The me you've seen in your dreams and the me right in front of you — how different are we?"
There was a pause, and grudgingly, Louise admitted, "Not very."
"You can see the differences, then?"
"Somewhat," she said. "Looking back on it, some of the things you did here…but it's all so subtle. A lot of the time, I can't see any differences at all."
That was a bit reassuring, actually. At the very least, it alleviated some of the worries he'd been carrying around the past few days.
"That's why I'm not that worried," Shirou told her. "The runes might push me into a few decisions I wouldn't make otherwise, and they might make me prioritize your safety and happiness to at least some degree, but at the end of the day, they don't change who I am. They won't stop me from following my ideals."
She really was stubborn, wasn't she? Even her concerns and troubled thoughts were incredibly persistent.
"Louise, if I hadn't been with you, what would have happened to King Wales?"
She didn't answer.
"What about Siesta? The people of Tarbes? If I had left you alone and gone off on my own, searching for a way home, what would have happened to them?"
"They'd be dead," she muttered.
"Exactly." He nodded. "Thousands of lives, saved. So many people who are alive and safe, now, thanks to us and our presence at these events that would have killed them, and I never would have been able to save them if I hadn't been there beside you."
She didn't say anything, but he thought he was getting through to her.
"What about you?" he asked. "If I hadn't been there with you in Albion?"
"I'd be dead," she said immediately, "or married to Wardes. Probably a puppet for Reconquista."
"And Guiche? If I hadn't had that duel with him?"
"He'd still be a hopeless womanizer."
"And those maids at Mott's mansion?"
"Dead," Louise answered darkly, "or worse."
"And if I hadn't been with you," Shirou drove the point home, "I would never have even known they needed to be saved. I might, eventually, have wound up in Albion, but by then, it would've been too late. I've accomplished more by your side than I would have alone, and I can't regret that."
There was another long moment of silence, and then Louise let out a breathy laugh.
"Ah, geez," she said ruefully, "I really let Mother get to me, didn't I?"
"I can understand why," Shirou said. "She's not wrong, really. But I've been told those sorts of things ever since I was younger than you. Things like, it's hypocritical, it's naïve, it's impossible, that sort of thinking is wrong — I've heard words like that all my life. Here's the thing, though: if you let those words stop you from doing what you believe, deep down, is the right thing to do, then you've already failed."
He'd had to face that same crisis himself. The only thing someone could do when confronted with his own mistakes was look away.
He couldn't stop the little smile that curled on his lips. "In the end, it doesn't matter if it's naïve or impossible. If the dream in your heart is too beautiful to lose, then you have to chase it, no matter what anyone says."
A bit ironic that he was telling Louise to do the very thing he'd told Kirche not to about a month ago, but this and that were different in their means and ends. Plus, well, Kirche's ambition was to win Shirou's heart, and by default, she couldn't take something that he had already given away years ago.
"You know," said Louise, "you always seem to know exactly what I need to hear."
"Maybe that's part of the runes, too," Shirou joked.
Louise giggled. "Maybe. Or maybe you picked up Charisma somewhere along the way."
"The funny thing is," Shirou told her, grinning, "sometimes, I just ask myself, 'What would Saber say?' It's easier to be inspiring when you've got a great role model."
A very unladylike snort came from Louise, and from the choked laughter he could hear, it seemed she was trying not to be too loud. Probably, she didn't want anyone checking in and coming to the wrong conclusions, either.
"Somehow," she said, "I'm not surprised. That sounds exactly like something you would do."
"Imitation is my specialty, after all."
"So it is."
Her head left his shoulder and he heard the rustle of her nightgown as she stood up. He glanced back over his shoulder, but looked away immediately when he glimpsed the outline of her legs cast by the candlelight through her gown. He had to force himself not to think of that night, when he had thought she was Saber and almost committed that unforgiveable act.
Had the runes been involved in that moment, too? That thought was more troubling than almost all the others.
The sound of the doorknob being turned dragged him away from his worries; while he'd been thinking, Louise had crossed the room already.
"Shirou," she said quietly, "thank you."
Shirou only smiled and inclined his head. "It's what I'm here for."
Louise said nothing else, and the door clicked shut softly behind her. After a moment, Shirou sighed and leaned his head back, looking up at the shadowed ceiling and the flickers of the candlelight that played across it.
Like Rin, it was the quiet moments of sincerity where she left her heart on display. Like him, she put the good of others before herself, so much so that she was willing to risk her life in a war.
"That thought I had before, what was it?" he murmured. "If you and I had had a kid together, Rin…"
Maybe that was another reason why the idea of the runes twisting him towards Louise's protection and happiness wasn't quite so devastating. When he looked at Louise and saw a girl who seemed to have inherited not only significant portions of himself, but also his best friend, was it so alien a concept that he might come to think of her fondly?
A child, a daughter… He'd never really given the idea much thought, before. If Rin had asked him to help produce an heir, he might just have agreed as a favor to her, but beyond that, there was no place in his life for a kid. Caring for an infant or a toddler on the battlefield was as ludicrous as it sounded, and the idea of being an absentee father — the way Kiritsugu, for all Shirou had looked up to him, had been — gone nine months out of the year, didn't appeal, either.
That might be why he liked her so much. Finding himself in such a supportive role for a girl who could have been his own daughter, in another life…
And how much of that was the runes, again? Would he even be drawing the same parallels, seeing the same similarities, without the runes influencing his thoughts so subtly that he often didn't notice?
"Ah, geez," he said with a sigh. "Shirou, didn't you already decide there was no point worrying about it? That it didn't matter, because it wasn't important to what you'd already decided to do?"
Then, just to keep himself from spiraling into those thoughts again, he sat up and started washing. There was nothing like finding something else to focus on to keep yourself from woolgathering.
In all, he was done and drying off in about five minutes. The water that swirled down the drain was an odd and dirty color, but part of that might have been the lighting — candlelight could supposedly be romantic (Shirou had never done, so he couldn't speak on it), but it had nothing on even the meanest of incandescent lightbulbs.
Louise was already asleep by the time he returned to her room, closing the door softly behind himself. A single candle remained lit, and it revealed that he really had only two options.
One, he could climb into Louise's absolutely massive bed and spend the night there. It was probably the most comfortable bed he would ever sleep in on the entire continent, and it would probably put the mattress he slept on at the Academy to shame. He'd probably wake up in the morning, as the saying went, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Who needed coffee or tea when a good sleep in a really nice bed was available?
Two, he could sleep on the floor or leaned up against the wall, which meant he'd wake up with a sore neck and maybe a sore back, he wouldn't sleep very well, and tomorrow would be…an experience. It was nothing he hadn't done before, of course, but that didn't mean he liked it.
"Damn it," he muttered. "Of course I choose the bed."
Really, he couldn't help thinking, there was a point where the opulence and the privilege just became a little silly, and the de La Vallière had passed that point with the castle that could almost put the royal palace to shame.
Shirou quietly snuffed out the candle and made sure the lean Derf (who was actually snoring) up against the bedside table as he climbed in. As an extra precaution, he grabbed a pair of pillows and wedged them into the space between himself and Louise, just in case she tried to make him into a teddy bear in the middle of the night. Then, he got comfortable and closed his eyes, waiting for sleep to come.
It didn't, not immediately. He lay awake for maybe half an hour, the thoughts he had tried to escape in the bathroom swirling around in his head. Even with all of the things he'd said, the idea of the runes did, at least somewhat, still bother him. The conclusions he'd already reached weren't wrong or any less true, but…
No. After all, the decision he'd made had been to stick by Louise, not only because she needed him, but in honor of the way Saber had done for him, once upon a time. Even if the runes did twist him around, now and again, it was immaterial to the end goal, except in how it helped or hindered his pursuit of it.
In the end, it didn't matter. The runes were a tool, a powerful magecraft that allowed him to push past his normal limitations and fight at a level that a mere faker like himself could not normally reach. Many would gladly submit to their influence if it would mean the sorts of boosts to performance that he had received, to say nothing of what was implied to be possible with them.
As was the essence of magic, however, there was a price, a cost. Even extraordinary magecraft of the level of the Gandalfr runes did not come without caveats or sacrifices. Shirou had already known that for a long time and had simply forgotten, in this world of magic and mystery, that it must hold true here, as well.
To be a magus was to walk with death, after all.
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
When morning came, it came with the discovery that Louise had, actually, somehow managed to wiggle past his barrier of pillows and snuggle into his side. To imagine the look on Rin's face could only make him sigh — Emiya Shirou, extra-large teddy bear.
Once the embarrassment was out of the way, it was on to a tense, silent breakfast, where it seemed that the entire de La Vallière family was determined not to discuss any hot button issues over the meal, and therefore could not come up with anything to talk about at all. Well, except for Louise, who Shirou imagined was nervous about the upcoming duel, and Karin the Duchess, who steadfastly ate as though there was nothing wrong whatsoever.
If there was anything worth admiring about the Duchess, about whom Shirou knew so little, her serenity was definitely it.
After breakfast, Louise showed Shirou to the large clearing outside the castle walls where the duel would be taking place — "so that the only things they had to worry about destroying were a few trees," as she had put it.
It was a good place for a duel, Shirou thought as he inspected it. Large and open, about the size of a baseball field. Enough room two duelists to stand at opposite ends and fling spells at each other, or else for two Heroic Spirits to comfortably engage in melee. Encircled with trees to form a sort of natural boundary. Ideal conditions, if he expected to fight up close and not use a Noble Phantasm.
It said something about the Duchess, though, that she had chosen such a place to hold a duel based upon her needs, rather than his. Louise was a powerful mage, easily a first rate genius with enormous potential. Maybe she had inherited it from her mother?
The greatest wind mage of the century, Louise had called her. The Tempest? Shirou didn't think he'd heard anyone outright state it, but it wasn't that hard a connection to make.
When he was done, Shirou folded his legs and sat down to wait for the last hour and a half. After a moment, Louise stepped around and sat down behind him, back to back, letting her head rest between his shoulders.
"So," she said.
Shirou smiled. "Are we gonna have that conversation again?"
He could feel Louise's chuckle vibrating along his spine.
"No," she promised. "Just…trying to think of something to pass the time."
"Your mother, then?"
"What's there to tell?" Louise asked. "Greatest wind mage of the century, not just in terms of power, but skill. Took out entire armies with her famous 'Tempest' spell. Wardes was her student, if I remember right."
Shirou turned his head slightly.
"Mother trained him directly, I think," Louise answered. "That's probably why we were considered an appropriate match, before… Well…"
Before he turned traitor. Before he sided with Reconquista and tried to kill the last of Albion's royals.
"How are you holding up, by the way? You haven't really talked about him since Albion."
He felt her shrug her shoulders.
"I'm holding up," she said simply. "A part of me…is still angry and hurt, and I don't think it'll ever stop, even if it fades and I don't think about it all that often. But…mostly, I think I just want to understand why, and I won't get to ask him, now. I guess I'll never know."
He thought again of Matou Shinji. He'd never known what had caused Shinji to turn out the way he had, to become a monster willing to sacrifice his friends and classmates for… Shirou had never actually known what Shinji's goal had been, either. Presumably, it was winning the Grail War, but what would he want the Grail for, anyway?
Shirou had given up on finding out a long time ago. The only one who knew why Matou Shinji had become what he'd become was Matou Shinji, and he was in no condition to be sharing his reasoning.
Dead men tell no tales, as the saying went.
"I know how you feel."
"Yeah," she said softly, "I guess you do, don't you?"
"Oh, now we're talking about my problems?"
Louise laughed. "Well, you've got so many of them, after all!"
For a long moment, they fell into silence and sat there companionably. Then, Shirou asked the hardest question.
"Did you love him?"
Several seconds passed without answer, but Shirou didn't push her. He waited patiently, and if she didn't answer at all, he'd already decided he wouldn't press it.
"…I don't know," Louise said at length. "Maybe. I think he was the first person to actually think I was worth anything."
She made a frustrated sound in the back of her throat. "It's not that my family doesn't care, because they do, but they've only ever known me as 'Louise the Zero,' who couldn't cast a single spell without it blowing up in her face. They love me, but they never really thought I'd make something of myself, you know?"
"I guess so."
"That's why they arranged the marriage to Wardes. He was already connected to our family, he was in Mother's favor, he was the heir of his line and the last person with a claim to it… Really, it was a smart match, and if I'd been any less my mother's daughter, I probably would've been happy to have him."
"And you almost chose him anyway."
"And I almost chose him anyway," Louise agreed. "I think, if I hadn't managed to summon you, then…"
She didn't need to finish the thought. He well remembered that night at the inn, alone together with her, as she confessed her indecision and her desire to make something of herself before settling down. It wasn't hard to imagine that a different Louise, one who hadn't received the support he'd tried to give her, would decide instead to place her bets on the one man to ever hold her in high regard.
There was a roar off in the distance, distinctly leonine, and Louise suddenly scrambled to her feet.
"That'll be mother," she said hurriedly. "I'm gonna go…join Father and my sisters. Not that you'll need it, but…good luck!"
Then, she was off back towards the castle, walking at something between a sprint and a casual jog. Shirou watched her go as he pulled himself up and stood.
It was only a few moments later that he heard the sound of heavy wingbeats. He looked up towards the sky, shielding his eyes with one hand, and tried to catch sight of whatever beast the Duchess would be riding. Not a dragon, because he hadn't seen one in the stables the night before. Probably not a Pegasus-type horse, either. With that roar, it was probably a manticore.
Hadn't he seen one in the stables?
Sure enough, a large, winged beast flew over the clearing, flapping with big, bat-like wings. It was covered in tawny fur, complete with a thick mane that fluttered in the wind, and a long, segmented tail, tipped with a dangerous stinger, trailed behind it as it went. It was not the first manticore Shirou had seen since being summoned, but from what he could see from beneath it, it was definitely the largest. Probably the oldest, too — if this was the familiar the Duchess had summoned when she was seventeen, then it had to be at least older than Éléonore, who Shirou had pegged as being about twenty-seven.
Shirou let his arm drop as the great beast swooped low and came in to land. Rather than slowing down the way an airplane might, by bleeding off its momentum gradually, it touched down on its hind paws and flapped vigorously several times to cancel out its forward motion. Only then did it let its front paws drop to the ground.
The Duchess dismounted almost the moment her steed had landed, swinging herself off its back with practiced grace. Once she'd found her feet, she gave the manticore's hindquarters a solid slap, and it leapt back into the sky and took off back towards the castle.
The Duchess who turned to face him was almost unrecognizable. The dress, with its puffy shoulders and lace, was gone. Instead, the Duchess had pulled on what looked like an old pair of riding breeches, layered on the outside of her thigh with hardened leather. Her feet and calves were clothed in tough, leather boots that reached up to her knees. A pair of short tassets, strapped snugly to the leather, protected her hips.
It was her torso, however, where her commitment was most obvious. The burgundy mantle resting over her shoulders draped down and covered her bust, but could not hide the beveled cuirass, a pair of plates — one front, one back — edged in the middle with a wedge to help deflect blows. The thick leather gloves, the austere ponytail she had gathered her hair into, and the padded doublet she wore underneath were all window dressing in comparison.
This was not one of the self-assured nobles, who walked around in a tunic and carried a wand-sword and claimed to be knightly. This was a true knight, dressed in half-plate, prepared for battle.
It was not a perfect set — no gauntlets, no greaves, no pauldrons, and no helmet — but if he remembered right, it was exactly the sort of thing the famed Musketeers of France had worn.
After her manticore had taken off, she turned her attention back to him and nodded.
"You came," she said with something like approval. "Good."
"You thought I wouldn't?" Shirou asked.
"I considered it," she answered. "One possibility was that you would make off with my daughter in the middle of the night, rather than face me directly. I even had the night staff watching for it. You can't not have heard of my reputation, after all."
Shirou felt his lip curl into something like a smirk.
"A fearsome reputation, for sure, but…" Really, did it even need to be said? Perhaps for Karin and the others, at least. "I have walked amongst those with reputations even more fearsome and perhaps even more deserved than yours."
The Duchess stilled. A single eyebrow was raised. "Oh?"
"I've even heard a legend that one went down fighting, using his own intestines to tie himself to a boulder so that he could keep standing as his legs gave out."
Say what you will about Cúchulainn; there was no doubt that he was Ireland's greatest hero.
"Another was said to be strong enough that he could carry the weight of the entire sky on his shoulders. Yet another was a fallen goddess, transformed by hatred and violence into a monster that could turn men to stone with but a single glance."
The Duchess's lip curled. "You speak of legends, myths. Superstitions."
"And yet, they walk among you," Shirou retorted. "One was responsible for the fleet that nearly sacked Tarbes. The man before you stopped that fleet with a single swing of his sword. Another slew Albion's previous king and nearly slew your queen, wielding a weapon that inflicts wounds that can't be healed by magic. These are Heroic Spirits, wielding Noble Phantasms. Legends come to life."
The Duchess didn't respond, but her expression tightened and her lips thinned into a line.
"Your disbelief is understandable," Shirou went on, not unkindly, "but it's also not something you can afford to hold onto."
"Because they will feature in this coming war, yes?"
"Exactly. And if you allow yourself to dismiss your enemy's strength and power as nothing more than myth and superstition, without any substance, then you've already lost."
In a single, fluid motion, practiced and graceful without any excess or unnecessary flourish, the Duchess drew the sword at her hip — a wand-sword, just like Wardes. Looking at it, comparing it to the others like it he had already seen, there was a distinct lack of style or ornamentation. It was austere and functional, a tool and a weapon and nothing more.
Taking that as his cue, Shirou slowly unsheathed Derflinger.
"Then," said the Duchess, "you will show me the strength of these legends, and I will judge their merit myself. On this, we stake Louise's future."
"That was our agreement," Shirou acknowledged.
They lapsed into silence, and Shirou was not surprised when the Duchess said nothing more. The night previous, she had struck him as someone who preferred to be upfront and direct. She tended to say what she meant, rather than talking in circles. She was the kind of woman Saber would have appreciated.
As far as the Duchess was concerned, no more words needed to be said, so no more were said, and for a long moment, they simply stared at each other across the distance, weapons drawn and held loosely at their sides. It was a standoff that Shirou might have compared to one of those old Westerns that had once been so popular in America, or perhaps the samurai equivalent in Japan. Neither made any move to attack. Both, it seemed, were waiting for the other.
Then, suddenly, Karin lifted her wand-sword, lips forming around the beginnings of an incantation. As a mage of the wind element, undoubtedly it would be either a hammer blow or a razor-edged vacuum blade, and as Karin was one of the rare Squares, it would also undoubtedly be a spell of incredible power.
Shirou did not wait for her to finish. Bracing his legs, he pushed off the ground and raced forward, the wind howling in his ears as he moved with all the swiftness of a speeding bullet.
Once, many years ago, and then again, the same moment lived twice, Heracles had leapt in his direction. As Shirou had, at that point, been only a third rate magus, barely able to see the lightning fast movements of Servants, Heracles had moved so quickly that he had seemed to teleport — one instant, he was by Ilya's side, and in the next, he was in front of Shirou, sword in motion, ready to kill him before he'd even realized what was happening.
Now, it was Shirou who moved so swiftly, eating up the distance as though it were nothing. It was he who appeared before Karin, dashing with such speed that he had already reached her before she could finish her incantation. It was he who got to see the startled look on her face, the widening of her eyes, the stumbling of her tongue as her surprise jolted her concentration.
She recovered better than he had. He watched almost in slow motion as her open mouth curled into a snarl, as her teeth gritted together, as her eyebrows knitted, but if he had seriously been trying to kill her, it would have been over in that moment.
He wasn't, though. When Shirou brought his sword around, he made sure it was slow enough and powerful enough only to deliver a glancing blow on her breastplate as she jumped backwards and out of range of his weapon. Stumbling when she landed, she managed to put ten feet between them.
Nonetheless, as he straightened, he frowned. Karin, eyes still wide, pressed her free hand to the long, thin cut scored into her armor.
He'd meant to break it.
He gave her an approving nod.
"Your armor is enchanted," he stated the obvious. "If it wasn't, I would have shattered it, just now."
Karin the Tempest didn't respond, except for her lips to draw into a thin line.
"To move so fast…" Slowly, her arm lowered from her armor and back down to her side. "Tell me, what kind of holy artifact affords you your strength and speed?"
Shirou smiled. "None."
"Don't lie," she barked back.
"It's not a lie. I could fight you naked with my bare hands, and it wouldn't make me any slower or weaker."
Good thing Rin had never heard him say that; she would never have let him live it down.
Karin's response was to thin her lips even further, and her eyes narrowed as her brow knitted together. Then, suddenly, without a warning or an incantation, she flicked her wand-sword towards him and unleashed a spell.
The abruptness of it caught him off guard, and he had only enough time to shield his face with his arms as the blast of wind pushed him back several feet and howled past his ears. When it had dissipated and he let his arms fall, Karin had put another thirty feet between them and was already making her way through another incantation.
A Dot or a Line spell. A simple blast of wind, quick and easy to use, overcharged to give it more oomph. Blunt, nonlethal, not even enough to bruise, on its own. It was a distraction to give her enough space to get through another spell.
It would seem that her reputation was well-deserved, indeed.
She finished her incantation and flicked her wand-sword again, but nothing immediately visible came out. It was only the distortion in the air as the vacuum blade flew that let him see what he was up against, and Shirou had to purse his lips as the trajectory forced him to dodge. He could only watch as it tore through the ground where he'd been standing, cutting a gouge out of the dirt and grass.
He could maybe have blocked that with his armor, but it was better not to take risks like that.
"Derf," he murmured, "time to go to work."
"Aye, Partner," Derflinger said back.
The next blast of wind, just as sudden and easy as the first, was batted aside, flashing blue as Derflinger drank up the magical energy in the spell. The next vacuum blade was similarly dismantled with a stab, but Shirou could only frown as the Duchess put more and more distance between them.
He could have pursued her. He still did not know exactly how powerful Square mages were, though, and Karin was supposed to be the most powerful in recent history. It would be useful to get a read on the limits of the foes he and Louise would soon face in Albion.
In that case, he'd allow her to bring her best. Much as she'd said, he'd judge the merit of her reputation himself.
Suddenly, the magical energy surging from Karin doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled, to the point where it reached the same level as what Louise had been using to destroy those airships. No, could it be even more than that? Was this where Louise's prodigious strength and magical talent came from?
She was going to use one of her best spells.
Almost the moment he realized it, he saw the air around her wand-sword swirl and distort, and for a single second, he was a teenager again, watching as Gilgamesh hefted his monstrous not-sword and waves of compressed space-time spewed out between the spinning segments. He'd taken a step back almost on reflex, and he had to snap his mouth shut because he'd been gaping.
Damn it, he'd underestimated her.
The Duchess pulled her arm back, and at the same time, Shirou thrust his free arm forward.
I am the bone of my sword.
The wand-sword came forward, and the spell was unleashed. Over the howling of the compressed wind, he could not hear its name.
A luminescent pink flower with seven petals bloomed in the space in front of him. The air itself distorted as seven barriers, each as strong as a fortress wall, sprang into existence. This was the Noble Phantasm that had blocked Hector's spear, which no other shield had blocked.
Then, the Duchess's spell slammed into it.
There was truly no describing the exact sound. The noise made by a drill comprised of compressed air and vacuum blades slamming into a barrier as robust as the Aias was like nothing else, but if Shirou had to put words to it, it was like taking a belt grinder to a massive piece of high carbon steel.
It hung there for what felt like an eternity. A single instant stretched out for hours, whole hours crystallized into a single instant, the drill made of air tried to bore its way through one of the most powerful defensive Noble Phantasms Shirou had ever known.
Miraculously, impossibly, it made it through the first layer, and a single petal shattered as Shirou felt the hammer blow against his ribs. Not cracked, but he'd have one hell of a bruise, come the next morning. For one wild second, he thought the spell might actually managed to pierce through another layer, maybe even three or four. The only two spears he knew that could reach even that far were Hector's spear and Cúchulainn's Gáe Bolg.
He needn't have worried, however, because the spell lost its momentum and petered out. The compressed air unfolded and washed over the Aias like a gentle summer breeze, lashing at the surface like a bicycle rather than a speeding car.
Shirou let out the breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding and dismissed the Aias. Across from him, Karin's face was frozen in a rictus of surprise — no doubt, that spell had never failed her before.
He wasn't going to let her get off another shot like that, though.
Six swords appeared in the air above him, then soared through the air like bullets. The Duchess had only a moment to regain her wits, but even then, she wasn't fast enough to dodge — and Shirou had never intended for her to need to.
The first two blades slammed home on either side of her legs, boxing her in. The second pair, which were greatswords longer than she was tall, hit at a slightly higher angle and trapped her hips almost perfectly. The third pair was even bigger, and they flew past her shoulders to embed in the ground behind her, preventing her retreat.
She could go forward, if she tried, and just walk out of the trap, but preventing any move had never been the point. The point was to make forwards her only option.
Derflinger was left to fall ("Hey!") as Shirou lifted his arms and drew back an invisible bowstring. In a flash of light, he held his bow, the bow Archer had once wielded in the Grail War.
A sleek form appeared on the bow, wound back like an arrow. It streamlined into a thin rod.
"I am clad in the justice of the three heavens."
I am the archer.
I shoot myself the arrow to hit myself the target.
The Duchess had no room to maneuver, no time to dodge. By the time she thought to lean one way or the other, the silver streak of Durandal had already passed her, slicing open a long, thin cut on her right cheek. In the background, several trees snapped, cracked, and exploded as Durandal passed through them like a tank shell.
Of course. Shirou had never intended to kill her. This had always been about illustrating a point.
That was the kill-shot that had neatly decapitated the Reconquista leadership of the second Tarbes invasion, and if he'd meant for her to die, there was nothing she could have done to stop it. The greatest mage of the wind element in Tristain, perhaps the entirety of Halkeginia, the vaunted Karin the Tempest, and in the face of a fighter on the level of a Servant, she could have done nothing but die.
At first, Shirou said nothing. He took one hand off of his bow and swiped his other arm to the side, and by the time the movement was finished, both the bow and the swords he'd used to pin her in place had vanished into motes of golden light, gone a moment later. Derflinger was picked back up.
"The speed and strength you saw at the beginning was that of a Heroic Spirit," he told her, closing the distance at a casual pace. She had still not moved. "The sword that just sliced open your cheek was a Noble Phantasm, a specialized armament elevated through the admiration and exultation of the people into a weapon stronger than any magic."
Twenty meters, fifteen meters, ten, seven — he stopped there and met her wide eyes, watched as she lifted her hand to the cut on her cheek and looked down at the red blood that smeared along her fingertips.
"This is the enemy that now faces Tristain. This is the gap that simple magic and steely resolve cannot overcome." He said it with the weight of experience and ironclad truth. After all, he had once been as she was now. "There are some obstacles that even Karin the Tempest, greatest Wind mage of the century, can't overcome. There are some enemies that even the mightiest of magic can't defeat."
Shirou paused a moment, then turned and started back towards the castle.
"I can still fight," the Duchess said strongly, with only the slightest hint of a quaver in her voice.
Shirou stopped and turned back to look at her. "You lost," he said simply. "I drew first blood."
"That was never part of our agreement."
"No." Shirou acknowledged the point without concern. "But you should be able to tell when you've lost. To have pierced even one layer of the Aias is a feat worthy of praise, but Durandal would have taken your head off, if that'd been what I was aiming for. In that first attack, if I'd been trying to kill you, you'd definitely be dead."
Her hand jumped suddenly to her breastplate, again, smearing blood along the cut he'd scored into it. When she realized what she was doing, she scowled and dropped her hand.
"Perseus won't afford you that kind of curtesy. If he bothers to attack you in your armor rather than your bed, he'll take your head off instead of aiming for somewhere more protected. The swordsman will force you into close range and hammer you with blows until either you or your wand lies broken on the ground. Neither will give you the time to cast a spell, the way I did."
Her grip on her wand-sword tightened, and for a second or two, it seemed like she might actually attack him in anger. But no, the Duchess was more composed than that. The only other sign of her displeasure was the expression of tightly reined fury on her bloodied face. At what, he could only imagine. Him? The circumstances?
"As I told you, Duchess," Shirou said. "This is the enemy Tristain now faces. This is the enemy that your mages cannot defeat without me. You are outmatched."
"Perhaps, then, you might prefer to fight someone rather more on your level?" a voice called.
It came from nowhere and seemed to echo out from the empty sky, and Shirou spun around in enough time to see a dragon swoop overhead, its large wings spread wide and casting a long shadow. It made a circuit once around the courtyard, flapping once or twice to adjust its altitude, before it slowly drifted down and landed gently on the grass, trotting forward to bleed off its momentum.
It was a different dragon than Tabitha's Sylphid — smaller, for one, about the size of a particularly large horse and just big enough for a single grown man to ride comfortably. Unlike Sylphid, too, it had a saddle strapped to some kind of harness that wound around its chest and a strange sort of bridle in its mouth. Its scales were a darker, navy blue color, with a creamy underbelly and claws like an eagle's talons. The beady little eyes were what sold the real difference, for they were narrow and with a fierceness that bordered on wild. Whatever magic had tamed this dragon had only just managed it.
It looked familiar, too. He'd seen the like before, somewhere, but… No, Tabitha had been the only one to actually summon a dragon. The rest of Louise's classmates had called incredibly common things, like owls and sparrows, and it was only Kirche, with her magical salamander, and Tabitha, with her dragon, plus a few scattered others with less impressive magical beasts, who had managed to summon something of real note.
Dragoons. That's where Shirou had last seen a dragon like this. This was the kind of dragon Albion's dragoons had ridden, back during the Second Battle of Tarbes. Those had been mostly green, though, and undoubtedly, each of the major nations had their own chivalric order of dragonriders, so this newcomer could almost literally be from anywhere —
And all of that ceased to matter the moment the dragon's rider flung back his cloak and swung himself off of his mount's saddle, drawing his sword almost as an afterthought.
Golden blonde hair, a handsome face, and familiar green eyes — his aunt's green eyes, green eyes that Shirou had not seen except in his sleep for nearly fifty years. Tall, with long, lean limbs that gave him excellent reach and prodigious strength. A unique stance, regal features, and a perfect mouth that many girls had likely dreamt of kissing pulled up into a small smile — everything about him screamed "Sir Gawain."
"Well, now," the knight said, still smiling. "It seems to me that the Lady is a little out of her depth. Would you allow me the opportunity to defend her honor and offer you a more fitting challenge, good sir?"
Except his sword.
It was a Noble Phantasm, without a doubt. It was definitely an item of such quality, there was no disputing that.
But it was not Galatine.
It was a well-made sword, and the craftsman had painstakingly sculpted it to resemble the real Galatine. To casual observance, to those who had never felt the majesty of Excalibur, Arondight, and the real Galatine, this fake would be enough to deceive nearly all of the senses. The resemblance was too great to see through it by something as basic and inane as a marking in the wrong place or a color that was just a tad off.
To Shirou's eyes, however, which had seen Excalibur itself firsthand and the sister swords through the dreams of Saber's life, which were capable of recording and cataloguing any sword they even glanced just once, the thing before him was papier-mâché. The blade did not have the same glorious sheen, its majesty did not have the same transcendent weight, and its performance was simply too lackluster.
It was a Noble Phantasm, without a doubt, but it was not Galatine.
Shirou's eyes returned to the intruder's face. That meant that this man was probably not Sir Gawain. A disguise? Maybe. An illusion? Perhaps. Even with his keen eyes, Shirou was not capable of piercing through disguises with nothing more than a single look. Galatine was obviously a fake, a ripoff, but the same could not be said with certainty about the one holding it.
Only one way to find out.
Taking only a short moment to mutter an incantation beneath his breath, Shirou burst suddenly into action, racing towards the intruder. Derflinger came down in a terrible overhand chop, utilizing every ounce of Shirou's prodigious strength as he grasped his sword with both hands.
The secret Shirou had made sure to keep secret was that he wasn't as strong as advertised. He was most certainly beyond a normal human, yes, and his overall performance could definitely rival the likes of Cúchulainn and King Arthur as they had been in the Grail War. However, that was all; in a contest of strength, he would come about equal to them, and in a contest of skill, Shirou could only think he would come out on the bottom.
The secret to the world-shaking power that could even compete with Heracles was not a sham, though. It was merely a trick — there was a kind of advantage in allowing people to think you could so casually match the greatest hero of Greece. The truth of the matter was exceedingly simple, and anyone who had known Shirou's limits from his youth, before the Grail War, should figure it out easily enough.
If he had been a normal human, then he could never have gotten to the same level with simple Reinforcement, no, but the burden his body carried as a result of his contract was of a higher quality than ordinary human flesh. It wasn't that his skill with Reinforcement had gotten exponentially better, it was simply that what he was Reinforcing had different limits, and therefore could be pushed farther.
Sir Gawain also possessed that kind of strength. As Shirou knew, even just by himself, the strength of Sir Gawain's body was the greatest on the Round Table, so much so that he could definitely block Shirou's attack without flinching.
But that was just on his own, with the simple strength of his arms — it didn't account for the unique skill belonging solely to the Knight of the Sun. The special attribute of Sir Gawain was to grow in strength with the sun's rise and to return to normal with its setting, to the point where his abilities tripled, and right now, the sun was high in the sky and it wasn't yet noon; the real Sir Gawain would be at his absolute best, a juggernaut so fast, so strong, and so durable that even Heracles would be driven back effortlessly. A hurricane, a tornado, an earthquake, a force of nature so inevitable that it could not be fought, only weathered.
Then, the real Sir Gawain would block, throw Shirou's guard open by pushing him back, and only then counterattack. He would not need to deflect or avoid the blow at all.
Derflinger came down. The fake Galatine came up. The intruder stepped forward once, caught Derflinger's blade with the fake Galatine's, then twisted, angled fake Galatine, and sent Derflinger skidding off towards the ground. It was a familiar move, though Shirou could not say where he remembered seeing it.
A parry rather than a block.
That wasn't enough, though. How did the saying go? Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and three times is enemy action.
Shirou stepped and solidified his footing, then brought Derflinger careening around again. The intruder widened his stance, leaned to one side, and caught Derflinger with his fake Galatine again, this time angling the fake Galatine so that Derflinger was pushed slightly up and away, scraping along the blade as the intruder ducked under the razor sharp edge.
Another parry. Sir Gawain would have blocked.
One more test, then.
Shirou planted his feet, pulling Derflinger around as though to carry his momentum into a stab, then, without warning, twisted around and fired off a punch directly at the intruder's face. The intruder sidestepped, leaning out of the way so that Shirou's fist passed through empty air, and then he turned and nearly danced around it to give himself enough room to back away.
But that was the last piece of evidence. Sir Gawain would have been fast enough and strong enough to intercept the punch and take hold of Shirou's fist, which would have given him enough leverage to attack Shirou with impunity. In every way, Sir Gawain would have been strong enough and fast enough that he didn't need to back away, and Shirou would have been defeated soundly.
Then, the only proper conclusion was, "You're not Sir Gawain."
The imposter's stance relaxed, but contrarily, his eyes narrowed and his lips pulled into a frown. "You know me," he said. "You recognize this knight's face and technique well enough to know I'm not him. Tell me: are you one of Mordred's traitors?"
Shirou's stomach squirmed. Oh damn.
"Heh," he scoffed with a confidence he didn't feel. "Now, that would've been a neat trick, wouldn't it? No, Camlann's a few centuries too early for me."
More like 1500 years.
"You might as well drop the disguise, though," Shirou retorted. "You basically just told me your name, Sir Lancelot."
For a moment, there was no reaction — and either way, there wouldn't have been. If he was wrong, the imposter wouldn't react to the name drop, because his secret was still safe, but if Shirou was right, Lancelot wouldn't react, either. A large portion of his legend had been spent earning glory and infamy while wearing the armor and wielding the weapons of his enemies and allies; it would not have become a Noble Phantasm if it were an act so easily disrupted.
After a few tense seconds, however, the visage of Sir Gawain distorted and melted away, like a cloud of thick steam being blown off by a sudden wind. What lay beneath the illusion was a tall, lean figure with long, dark hair, clear blue eyes, and a face that had likely charmed many fair maidens, though he had only held affection for one. And there, now, Shirou could read the parts of the fake Galatine that had been hidden from him, before, the property that said, "Sir Lancelot's Noble Phantasm."
Shirou's lips curled into a grin. It was not a nice smile.
"Of all the rotten luck."
There were many heroes he might have difficulty with, although he was sure there was some Noble Phantasm in the Blade Works that could give him a solid edge against most of the ones he knew. Heracles was one, if only because of his incredible power; even without Mad Enhancement, he was one of the top Heroic Spirits in existence. Gilgamesh was another, mostly because Gilgamesh on the warpath was just short of unstoppable. Artoria, the girl who held his heart, for that exact reason. Sir Gawain, because the combination of overwhelming strength, supreme skill, and powerful Noble Phantasms made for a knight that was almost impossible to match. Cúchulainn, the fastest hero ever, with his spear that violated causality.
At the top of the list, however, the one he absolutely did not have the skill to defeat on his own, was Sir Lancelot.
It should not need to be said. It was only natural that someone who fought utilizing Noble Phantasms almost exclusively would be a poor matchup against someone whose power was to turn anything he grasped into his own Noble Phantasm. For that matter, a swordsman of Shirou's caliber was naturally inferior to the swordsman who had once been referred to as the best of his era.
Like a bolt of lightning, realization struck Shirou's brain.
"You were the one who saved Queen Marianne."
It seemed so obvious, now. Perseus had been stopped from dealing an instantly fatal blow to the Queen by a brave knight, who had never been named, but no ordinary knight, not even the greatest of Henrietta's mage knights, could force a Heroic Spirit back. That Perseus had left instead of fought could only mean that he'd come face to face with a warrior who he didn't have even the slightest chance of beating.
The Knight of the Lake was just such a warrior.
Lancelot only frowned, brow knitting together. "No, I did not."
Now, it was Shirou's turn to frown. "What?"
"What you're speaking of, I don't know anything about it," Lancelot explained. "I'm here at the request of His Holiness, the Pope, to investigate the claims of a Void Mage. To verify his existence and to ascertain the identity of Gandalfr, those were my orders."
That would make him, what?
Lancelot inclined his head. "Just so. I am His Holiness's right hand, the Grandmaster of the Knights of the Temple of Brimir, and the Sacred Familiar, Vindalfr. I alone am most trusted."
He said it with a solemn, almost sad lilt to his voice, and the irony did not escape Shirou — it probably didn't escape Lancelot, either. The traitor that myth and legend had immortalized as the catalyst that caused Camelot to fall and King Arthur's reign to fail, entrusted with a position not at all dissimilar to the one he'd once had on the Round Table… Heh.
"And you, Stranger?" Lancelot asked. "As a Heroic Spirit, you must be the Gandalfr, but though you appear to know myself and my comrades well enough to see through my Noble Phantasm, I don't recognize you."
"There's a kind of irony, meeting you of all people," Shirou replied. A strange sort of grin worked its way onto his lips. "My name is Shirou Emiya. As fate would have it, you and I both fell in love with one of Camelot's rulers, you with one and me with the other."
Surprise flashed across Lancelot's face, then it morphed into confusion. "You…and King Arthur?"
"During the Fifth Grail War." Some of the confusion smoothed away. "Me as a Master, and her as my Servant. Looking back, maybe it was inevitable, what happened between us. 'Two sides of the same coin,' might be a good way to describe it."
"I see." Shirou really doubted that he did. "Then, to have ascended to the Throne as a modern hero and garnered the King's affections, you must be a great knight, indeed."
Shirou couldn't help it. He laughed.
Lancelot didn't seem to know what to make of that.
"Sorry, but I'm not a knight or a Heroic Spirit," Shirou said. "Just a hopeless kid who got lucky enough to chase his dream. Things like pride and honor don't mean anything to me. A code like chivalry just gets in my way. What Saber and I had in common was neither of those things. The reason we connected so well was because we were both chasing the same dream."
A vast oversimplification and wholly inadequate to truly capture what had bound them together, but it was not untrue. Saber wanted to save all of Britain, Shirou wanted to save everyone in the world. Neither was wrong, both were beautiful. The distant utopia waited at the end of both paths.
"That said, I understand such things as sentiment, so at the very least…" Shirou sheathed Derflinger and pulled out Gavilain, settling into his ready stance. "If you've come here to fight, I'll do you the honor of defeating you with my own Noble Phantasm."
It was only partly a bluff. Ordinarily, Lancelot would be beyond Shirou's skills to defeat in a contest of swordsmanship, and in fact, it was likely he still was; however, the power of Gandalfr was to utilize weapons with the skill of a master. If it could allow him to do something as miraculous as the ultimate sword technique, Tsubame Gaeshi, then it might also allow him to fight evenly with one of the best swordsmen to ever live.
Lancelot's eyes turned immediately to Gavilain, and if possible, the furrow of his brow became even deeper.
"That sword…" The fake Galatine was put away with a single, fluid motion. "I see, now. Yes, it only makes sense. If you had the King's favor, then it's natural that you would gain that woman's, as well."
His hand dropped to his side, and then, a moment later, a deep, blue sword formed in his grasp, fading into view like a mirage. It had, at once, a beauty and a wrongness to it, befitting the grief, the rage, the madness that had stained it following Lancelot's betrayal, and yet also befitting the majesty of one of the few Noble Phantasms mentioned in the same breath as Excalibur.
"Only once before has Arondight been turned against one of its sisters."
Shirou understood the implication immediately: Lancelot had no intention of holding back.
"I'm honored," he said, only somewhat sardonically.
He let the enhancement of his Reinforcement fade and honed his mind upon the single task before him. The Gandalfr Runes shone brightly.
As had already been said, Shirou was not a knight bound by chivalry and honor. Duels with both warriors putting their pride on the line were things he avoided as unnecessary, unless it served another purpose, like the duel with Guiche or the duel with Wardes.
However, few swordsmen were the equal of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Two of those who could give him a challenge were also members of the Round Table. What Shirou knew about the function of the runes on his hand said that the gap in their skill levels should be rendered insignificant, and any competition between the two of them on a purely swordsmanship basis should be close.
In that case, if ever there was a Heroic Spirit that would allow Shirou to test the limitations of the runes and the ability they gave him, to see just how far they enhanced his own skill in combat, it was Lancelot.
A chance like this, to test those limits in relative safety, would likely never appear again.
Then, with the added strength of his Reinforcement fading, factoring in the respective boosts of the Gandalfr Runes and Arondight's power as a Noble Phantasm, all of the important parts should be equal. It would, truly, be a battle of skill.
For a long moment, an eternity condensed into three seconds, they only stared at each other, gray against blue. Even those watching in the background seemed frozen, able to watch and nothing else.
In a single instant, heeding an unheard signal, they dashed towards each other, surpassing the speed of sound. The ringing echo of their swords meeting was like thunder, and the splotches of land where they had each kicked off the ground had been overturned and mauled, throwing chunks of dirt and grass all over. They moved so swiftly that the sound of their departure and the sound of their collision seemed to overlap and occur simultaneously.
If there had been any doubt before, it would have been dispelled, now: these two warriors were beyond the limits of human beings.
For another moment, they stood there, swords crossed and staring out at each other, unblinking. Then —
— in the span of three seconds, they exchanged over thirty blows, moving so quickly that it appeared that both had grown extra arms. The roar of Arondight clashing with Gavilain resounded in such quick succession that it blurred into what seemed to be only three sounds.
It was as Shirou had expected.
Lancelot was the epitome of what swordsmen strived to become. As a swordsman, surpassing skill of the body until he had honed his mind and spirit and engraved his swordsmanship into his very instincts, the only achievement he had not accomplished was the development of a sublime sword technique touching upon True Magic.
With another, echoing clang, they traded one more blow, then kicked off the ground and separated. The distance between them increased back to seven meters. Neither of them had been injured.
Shirou took in a deep breath through his nose and let it out through his mouth. He felt his lips quirk upwards on one side — the runes on his hand had done as well as he'd hoped they would. At no point in their exchange of blows had either of them been truly pressed, in spite of the fact that Shirou had been giving it his all, and he expected Lancelot had, as well.
Amazing was the only word that could properly describe it. With nothing more than the boost in performance applied by the runes, he had been able to match a Heroic Spirit that epitomized swordsmanship.
Across from him, Lancelot's lips quirked up, too.
"'Not a Heroic Spirit,' he claims," said Lancelot.
"No," Shirou agreed. "As a magus and as a swordsman, all I'm capable of is imitation. I will only ever mimic those grand existences I admired when I was younger. But…there is nothing which says that an imitation can't surpass the original."
Lancelot smiled a strange little smile. "Indeed. There are many heroes who might be insulted by such a sentiment."
"Not me." His grip on Arondight, tainted and blackened, tightened. "I gave up the pride of a Heroic Spirit long ago. I sacrificed it for my own selfishness. I have no right to lay claim on it."
"A Heroic Spirit filled with regret…" Shirou grimaced a little, thinking of the hero Emiya, who wanted to erase his own existence, of the Saber who had first appeared before him, wishing to undo her life so that a more worthy king might lead Camelot into the future. "I seem to attract them like flies." He let out a slow breath through his nose. "Are you satisfied, then?"
"Your mission," Shirou clarified. "You said it was to determine whether or not my Master was a Void mage and discover the identity of the Gandalfr."
"Ah — no, I am not." It was a lie, blatant and unhidden. "I'm afraid I have not quite determined your identity as Gandalfr to my satisfaction. It will take a little bit more, so please indulge me."
It wasn't hard to imagine the reasoning. Even Shirou found himself somewhat excited at the idea of a battle with a Heroic Spirit like Lancelot — to test the limits of the familiar runes, to test the limits of his own skills, to see how far he still had to go…
Had he not thought, back on that night when Perseus first appeared, that he might lose his edge if he didn't have something to challenge him?
For Lancelot, the most skilled swordsman to sit at the Round Table, the desire for a good fight must be even greater. If he hadn't encountered any of the other Heroic Spirits, if he hadn't crossed blades with Perseus or Not-Lancelot, if he hadn't traded shots with Francis Drake, then this fight with Shirou might be Lancelot's first real fight since he was summoned.
Without warning, Shirou kicked off the ground, swiping with his sword as he came into range — and Lancelot blocked it, stepping backwards smoothly. There was no sign of strain or surprise on his face, no tightening of his lips or furrowing of his brow, no widened eyes.
Then, they began the dance, the two of them racing back and forth across the courtyard, blades flashing. The ground shattered in their wake, buckling beneath their footsteps and torn apart by the force of their blows. The air quaked and howled as they cut through it and slammed their swords together. There were no Noble Phantasms used, no special, secret, or ultimate techniques unveiled. It was a contest of swordsmanship and nothing else.
It might have looked like a duel to the death to an outside observer, but they never actually tried to kill each other. Lancelot never swung at Shirou's head, never took aim at anything vital, and Shirou, in turn, never played dirty, never resorted to the cheap tricks and foul play that he had picked up from the hero Emiya.
Thirty seconds passed, forty-five, as they dashed to and fro, and at last, they separated, breathing a little harder, but unscathed. The distance between them had returned to seven meters.
"Indeed, your skill is formidable," Lancelot praised. "However, not all of it is yours, is it? It is the power of Gandalfr which allows you to fight beyond your normal limits and close the gap."
Shirou grunted. Against an opponent like this, there was no point in trying to hide it. "What gave me away?"
"The light from your runes." Lancelot smiled, a muted thing that barely warranted the term. "As I know from experience, they shine brightly when in use — so brightly, in fact, that I can see them through your glove."
Shirou glanced down, unsurprised to see that it was true. He took a quick, surreptitious look at Lancelot's hands, but if he bore any similar runes, they weren't visible, so either they weren't active — no way to know that one without knowing what Vindalfr's power was — or Lancelot had some way of hiding them, even when they glowed.
After a moment, Lancelot straightened and nodded. Arondight vanished into black smoke, gone again in an instant.
"I am satisfied," he said somewhat formally. "Based upon my investigations, I have concluded that you are indeed the legendary familiar, Gandalfr. Therefore, your master, Louise the Zero, must naturally be a mage of the Void."
"Like yours?" Shirou asked shrewdly.
Lancelot inclined his head briefly, but made no other sign to answer the question.
"I will report as such to His Holiness, the Pope, regarding my findings. I cannot guarantee his response, but it is likely that he will declare the rumors of Tristain's mage of the Void to be legitimate and that Reconquista is committing heresy."
Lancelot turned away so that his left side was faced towards Shirou, then looked up to the sky and let out a keening whistle. For a moment, Shirou wondered what he was doing, then the dragon he had rode in on — which he hadn't even realized had left somewhere along the line — dropped out of the sky and landed in a trot, the same way it first had.
Lancelot gave the dragon what might have passed for an affectionate pat on the neck, although the dragon only snorted impatiently, and turned back to Shirou for a moment.
"I am certain that we will meet again," said Sir Lancelot. "Whether it is on the battlefield or a more peaceful venue, I cannot say. Until then, however, I bid you good day, Sir Shirou Emiya."
"See you later," Shirou found himself mumbling.
But Lancelot had already turned away, giving a yank on the reins, and with a great running leap, the dragon took off back into the sky and was gone.
Shirou could only frown after him.
Another familiar of the Void. Had he really not considered it before?
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
The de La Vallière family appeared shortly after Lancelot had left, all gathered together and in varying states of shock. The Duchess's mouth was set into a grim line, every part of her writ with tension. The Duke was pale-faced and open-mouthed and seemed to be trying to find the words to describe what he'd seen, but failing. Éléonore's brow was furrowed and she chewed at her bottom lip as she wrung her hands nervously. Cattleya looked like she might actually faint.
"So," the Duchess said without preamble, "that was another Heroic Spirit."
"It was," Shirou confirmed.
"Not that his legend would mean anything to you," Shirou said, somewhat sardonically, "but that was Lancelot of the Lake. He's the greatest swordsman of the Round Table. Not the most powerful knight, but definitely the most skilled."
"Did he…?" Louise asked.
"Are you sure?"
"In terms of pure swordsmanship, we both held back, because neither of us was aiming to kill," Shirou said. "But he didn't use all of his Noble Phantasms, either. If I remember the legends right, he even has access to a castle."
Louise made a sound in the back of her throat, and in the background, Éléonore shrilly asked, "A castle?"
"Could you have beaten him?"
"Maybe," Shirou hedged. "In a swordfight, it'd be a lot closer than I'd like, but it's not impossible. I'd have better luck from range. Caladbolg or Hrunting. I have a feeling that if I tried to hit him with Durandal, he'd just pluck it from the air and start chasing me with it."
It was not an unfunny image, to imagine Lancelot running after him with a pilfered sword.
Louise hummed what might have been an agreement.
"What about that guy in blue, from Albion? Not-Lancelot?"
Shirou grinned wryly. He'd have to think up another name for that guy, now that the real Lancelot had shown up.
"The real deal has more…grace, more finesse. That guy I fought in Albion felt more…direct, I guess. Less form, more function. It's hard to describe, exactly, because the reason I called him Not-Lancelot in the first place is because he's a swordsman of that caliber."
"In Albion?" the Duchess asked sharply.
Shirou glanced at Louise. "You didn't tell them?"
"I told Cattleya," she replied, and everyone suddenly looked in Cattleya's direction.
"Ah…" Cattleya said nervously. "I, ah…didn't…think to mention it?"
Heh. Covering for her younger sister. So, Cattleya actually had kept Louise's confidence for most of it, and she only told her parents once Louise had made mention of joining the war.
The look the Duchess gave Cattleya promised that there would be words about her deception later, but then she turned to Louise, and in a voice that brooked no arguments, she demanded, "Explain."
"Princess — Queen Henrietta needed a favor," Louise replied with a surprising nonchalance. "There was a letter she needed me to retrieve, of a, ah…sensitive nature."
"Idiot girl," muttered the Duchess, and Shirou wasn't sure whether she was talking about Louise or Henrietta.
"While we were there," Louise went on as though she hadn't heard, "we were attacked by Heroic Spirits. Twice."
"Three times," Shirou corrected her. She glanced at him. "Perseus, at La Rochelle."
Her eyes traveled briefly to his side, where Harpe had nearly disemboweled him.
"Three times," Louise agreed. "The first two times, they attacked us and were driven off." A creative interpretation of that first meeting with Perseus. "The third, they attacked the Royalists at Newcastle. It's only because Shirou and I were there that King Wales is still alive, or even that so many Royalists made it out in one piece."
"And this is your experience with these…Heroic Spirits?" the Duchess asked. "Three skirmishes in Albion?"
"No." Louise shook her head. "Francis Drake was there when Fouquet attacked the Academy and stole the Staff of Destruction."
"I remember hearing about that," Éléonore mumbled.
"Her Noble Phantasm was a fleet of ships. She later used it to try to invade Tarbes, that first time, when Reconquista came here under the flag of peace. Shirou destroyed it and killed her with his own Noble Phantasm."
"The rumors are true?" Éléonore asked faintly. "An entire fleet?"
"I think that was…"
"No," Shirou added, "there was one more. The man we've been calling Not-Lancelot was there at the second invasion of Tarbes, although he only stayed long enough to distract us while Perseus tried to assassinate the Queen."
There was still the question of the Zero Fighter. Where, exactly, had it come from? The only Heroic Spirit Shirou could think of off the top of his head that would have anything approaching a modern fighter jet was the Red Baron, and he was a Heroic Spirit from World War One.
Could it be a Heroic Spirit from this world, some time in the future? Or was it someone from yet another alternate world?
Louise nodded. "Right."
"And you expect me to let my daughter go into battle against that?" the Duke demanded.
"Laurent," the Duchess began.
"No!" the Duke shouted. "No, Karin! I was willing to let this farce continue, because I thought you had this well in hand! I will not, however, remain silent while my daughter makes plans to go to war against those…those…those monsters!"
He waved his hand frantically in the general direction of the ditches and craters that Shirou and Lancelot had made in the course of their fight.
"Look at the damage they did!" he cried. "Look, Karin! Just from fighting with a pair of swords, holding back so that they didn't hurt each other, holding back their…their Noble Phantasm things! Look at the destruction they've caused!"
He was not wrong, exactly. The flat field had been turned into a warzone, now mottled with patches of gouged earth and mauled trees — the scars of battle. Chunks of dirt and grass had been thrown about all over, long slivers of wood were embedded in the ground like spears — Shirou hadn't even realized they'd been doing so much damage while they were fighting.
"You can't actually tell me you intend to let our little girl go out and fight against —"
"Shirou," Louise's voice cut in, silencing him with its suddenness, "do you still have any of those training dummies we were using?"
In lieu of replying, Shirou lifted one arm, and in a flash of gold light, he held one of those dummies up by the scruff of its collar. Louise nodded and eyed it critically, then glanced at her mother.
"Can you reproduce Mother's chestplate?"
It only took a moment. If he'd been trying to recreate it from memory or pull it out of the Blade Works, it might have taken more effort, but it was still there, right in front of him, so it was like having access to the blueprints of a building's nooks, crannies, and secret passageways. Mapping the breastplate onto the training dummy was child's play. He'd even managed to replicate all of the enchantments on it.
Again, Louise nodded. She gestured to the opposite side of the clearing.
"Could you put it on the other end of the field, over there?"
Ah. So, that was her plan.
Shirou didn't offer a verbal reply. Instead, he picked the dummy up and marched over to where she'd pointed, a distance some seventy or eighty meters away from where she and her family were standing. Then, he went a bit farther, to the very edge of the clearing, and thrust the stake that formed the dummy's spine into the ground. Once he was sure it would stay upright, he marched back.
"Louise," the Duke began, "what…"
"Mother, Father," said Louise, focusing on the dummy, "you asked to see Void magic. Well, now I'm going to show it to you."
Éléonore didn't seem to have any words. "Louise, you…"
Shirou watched her pull out her wand and take aim with a secret smile, like he was the only one in on a great, big joke. He could see the way she centered herself, the shift in her breathing, the change in her stance, and the squaring of her shoulders, and the moment when she shed everything unnecessary to the casting of the spell was almost a visible thing. For the first time, Shirou got a glimpse into what he probably looked like when he was shooting an arrow, how he had probably looked when Mitsuzuri had watched him land perfect bullseye after perfect bullseye at the school's archery range.
Then, magical energy surged from Louise and into her wand — a lot, way more than she needed for one dummy, but less than half what she'd used against Reconquista's ships. It was almost difficult to imagine that so much power could be shoved through that tiny stick and not burn it from the inside out.
A new sun bloomed where the dummy had once been, large, brilliant, and menacing in its size and intensity, and the thunderous boom of the explosion shook the trees, the ground, and even rattled the Duchess's wand-sword in its place at her hip. The flash of bright light tore into the shadows, erasing mid-tones and etching into the world a sharp contrast between light and dark.
Then, in the wake of the blast came the rush of the displaced air, washing over the group and, since they were closer than he and Louise had been at Tarbes, whipping their hair about. Shirou's coat, the Duchess's mantle, and every piece of loose fabric fluttered about restlessly.
After another moment, it passed, and all that was left of the dummy was the ashy residue that coated the grass. There was no great crater in the ground to mark the explosion, but apparently, there had been enough magic in the dummy and the traced breastplate to gouge a shallow groove into the earth — five feet in every direction, with the dummy as the center, Shirou estimated, about three feet deep at the lowest part.
"That was about a third of the power I used to destroy Reconquista's ships at Tarbes," Louise said into the following silence. "It was a lot more than I really needed, but I thought it might make my point better if I put a little more effort into it."
There was no immediate response. Cattleya was wide-eyed, and her eyebrows had disappeared up into her hairline. Éléonore's face was ashen, her brow furrowed, and her mouth just slightly open. The Duke was gaping outright, trying and failing to find the words to reply.
But it was the Duchess whose expression was most interesting, because the thinned lips, the wide, intense eyes, and the angry slant to her brow could be mistaken for tightly-reined fury. Shirou remembered seeing something like it in Saber's expression, but he could not, for the life of him, remember the exact moment he'd seen it.
"By the Founder," the Duke finally said, his voice faint. "By the Founder."
"It's all true," Éléonore whispered, turning to Louise with something like awe. "It's all true!"
At last, the Duchess spoke.
"Yes, Mother?" Louise asked.
"I will hold to my word: you may join the war against Reconquista without further protest from us," the Duchess said quietly. "If you are prepared to go this far and you feel that strongly about it, then we will not stop you, no matter how much we might want to."
She stared intently at the sight of the blast, at the craters that pockmarked the clearing where Shirou and Lancelot had fought. Shirou caught a faint tremble in her right hand, although he doubted it was fear so much as the fact that her world had just been turned upside down and she didn't quite know how to handle it, yet.
He remembered that feeling well.
"If you had been adamant about going, despite of our wishes," the Duchess admitted, "then I doubt we could have stopped you, regardless."
Louise closed her eyes, took in a deep breath through her nose, and let it out slowly.
"Thank you, Mother."
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
Tousaka-sensei's Lecture Corner
I know it's been a while, but remember, every four chapters, TLC skips! And Interludes don't count!
We'll be back again next time, and who knows when that'll be? Keep up, everyone!
What? I shouldn't have said that?
But it's in the script!
Eh? We're still recording? Egh — cut! Cut! Turn it off before —
Tousaka-sensei's Lecture Corner: End
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
To be continued
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Talking points, this chapter:
* Did you catch the hints I gave about the social dynamic of the de La Vallière's home this chapter?
* What did you think of the bathroom scene?
* The Karin fight — do you think it went well?
* The Lancelot fight — was it epic, or were you hoping for something a little more?
As always, read, review, enjoy.