A/N: I must say my backlog is ridiculously long at this point, but a chapter written is a chapter checked off the list... so there's that! This is where the story begins to deviate from the traditional F/SN:UBW route, so be on the look out for the new stuff! Otherwise, nothing much to add in this preface, so I give you leave to enjoy that chapter!
Don't forget to speculate wildly now!
Fate/Beyond, Chapter 2
Don't call me Shirley
Rin blew daintily across the rim of her cup, the piping hot tea just a tad too scalding for her immediate consumption. The room was comfortably warm, which accommodated her just nicely; she loved the warmth, but hated feeling sweaty and sticky. Across from her was the young red head who had, not once, but twice gotten himself nearly (or successfully) impaled on the long end of a cursed spear in a single night. He sat slouched forward, an expression of annoyance mixed with eagerness as he waited for her to finish taking her time and explain things to him. Not that she could blame his impatience. Were she in his position, she'd probably feel the same way, or worse.
Next to him sat a now unarmed and unarmored Saber, her nice blue and white garments looking fit enough to allow movement in battle and comfort when not. Her eyes seemed to wander slowly around the house, noting the craftsmanship and design of the sizable domicile. Whether it was for strategic forecasting or genuine interest in modern architecture, the young mage couldn't tell. She seemed calm, though sternly ready for any hostile eventuality, even if Rin had no intention for such. At least not at the moment.
At the third side of the table, to her left, sat Tsukiko, the young underclassman with her legs pulled up to her chest, her chin resting in the tight valley between her knees. She likewise had a cup of tea in front of her, courtesy of their fledgling-mage-host just as Rin did, though she hadn't yet touched it. Both of their Servants were absent, keeping tabs on (and their distance from, no doubt) each other outside. Neither seemed to be the social type.
A delicate slurp escaped her lips as she sipped on her drink, enjoying the hot liquid flowing across her tongue and down her throat. She set the cup down.
"All right, let's get down to business," she began looking directly at Shirou. "You don't have any idea what you're caught up in, do you?"
The boy gave a short nod and grunt of acknowledgement.
"To be blunt, you've been chosen as a Master," she continued. "Have you noticed a brand somewhere on your body?"
Shirou cocked his head at her inquisitively. "A brand?"
"She is referring to the Command Seals, Shirou," Saber pointed out, nodding with her head towards his left hand.
"A-Ah, you mean these…" He raised said hand to his face, noting the three distinct markings thereon.
"Yes. Those brand you as a Master. They're also spells to control your Servant. So as long as you have those, you can control them." It almost hurt to have to explain such a complex system in such a barebones manner, but if she did it any other way, he'd likely not understand anything, and she'd have to start all over again.
"What do you mean as long as I have them?" Shirou asked, returning his eyes to his classmate.
"Command Seals are inviolable orders. They force your Servant's obedience, even if it means bending them to your will. Saber broke off her attack earlier, remember?" He bent his head in remembrance, his eyes tracing the sigil on his hand. "Unfortunately, you only get three inviolable orders, so try not to waste them."
She idly scratched at the back of her right hand, the outermost crescent of its icon faded like old marker. She was mostly admonishing herself with that comment. "If you use them all, you'll probably be killed, so I suggest you take care with them."
Shirou's head rose in surprise. "I'll be killed?" he parroted with a start.
"That's right. The Holy Grail War is based on Masters defeating other Masters. The Master that beats the other six will win the Holy Grail, which can grant any wish."
"H-Hold on a second," Shirou stammered out, his mind trying to wrap itself around this absurd concept. "What do you mean by 'Holy Grail?'"
Unfortunately she didn't have all night to explain to him to concept of the Five Magics and the origin of the Grail's power. "Well, to make a long story short, you've been dragged into a ritual. One called the Holy Grail War, fought by seven Masters, a battle to the death between mages."
"…Do you even know what you're saying?!" Shirou demanded incredulously after a moment.
Rin let out a short sigh and a resigned smile. He was only a normal person really. He wasn't formally trained as a mage, so he couldn't know. A Magus walked with death. They'd all become… desensitized to it. "I'm just laying out the facts. Besides, it should be clear, even to you. After all, a Servant nearly killed you, not once, but twice."
Shirou deflated with her words, his tense exterior softening slightly.
"I was also chosen as a Master. Think of your Servant as a familiar, which the Holy Grail granted to you to help you survive the Holy Grail War."
Shirou gave a short glance to Saber, even as she kept her gaze on Rin. "She doesn't look much like a familiar to me."
"Of course not," Rin admitted with a short chuckle. "Technically, Servants are familiars, but they're actually superhuman beings. Heroes from the past."
"A hero from the past? Saber?"
"That's right. Servants are heroes pulled from legends, be they ancient or modern, into our time and given physical forms. It's the Master's role to summon them, and a phenomenon of the Grail manifests them afterward. Basically, a Servant is always with you in spirit form. And, should the need arise, you can materialize them and make them fight."
"So you can transform them at will between spirit and physical form." Shirou reiterated, mostly for himself. "That's how that guy in red…"
"That's Archer," Rin clarified. "For the time being, I'm having him keep watch outside. Do you understand everything I'm saying?"
"The individual words, sure," Shirou responded dryly.
"For a more detailed explanation, you should go talk to the man who oversees the Grail War. All I can tell you is that you have no choice but to fight, and that Servants are powerful familiars, so you should use yours well." Rin finished with a long, savory sip of her tea, her throat and mouth starting to dry from the explanation.
"Now then," the Tohsaka heiress began again, changing the subject, "From what Emiya-kun has said, I gather that you're in an incomplete state, Saber?" She tipped the teapot to pour herself another glass, but only drops filled it. She stood and crossed the room to where another pot sat atop the room heater, ready to be drunk.
"Yes. As you say, I am not at full fighting strength. Shirou is not a fully trained Master, so even replenishing my mana will likely be difficult for him."
Rin stopped halfway to the heater, a look of honest surprise on her face as he eyed the heroic spirit. "…That's surprising!"
"I'd heard one of the Masters from the last war was also a normal human," Tsukiko said, speaking up for the first time since they'd begun conversing. "My grandpa was really interested in the ins and outs of the Holy Grail Wars. The Master was even a big threat during the Fourth War. How can he and Shirou-san be so different?"
Rin eyed the girl in front of her. Truth be told, she knew the girl from school and school alone. As far as a magi went, she wasn't too familiar with any besides a few of her father's colleagues. Since she knew that the girl could utilize magic, she'd thought she would be able to track along. It seems that wasn't entirely the case.
"I suppose it's worth asking, and I don't mean to pry but… How far does your family date back, Ms. Tsukiko?" she asked tentatively. Some young families, which she assumed Tsukiko's was, were very touchy about the age of their house; she didn't want to scrape any raw nerves.
The girl in question seemed to shyly smile and avert her eyes with an awkward smile. "W-Well… about three generations…"
Not one to be the harbinger of discomfort, Rin gave a disarming smile. "I see. Your family is still young, so I suppose it shouldn't be surprising if not all the basics were covered."
"My brother was always the smart one, even if he didn't care about mage craft," Tsukiko admitted with a humble grin.
Rin blinked at that, a dozen more questions raising their heads. She pushed them down; this wasn't the time or place for that. She let that can of worms drop with a simple, "I see."
She dwelled on it for just a moment more before returning to the real problem at hand. "Well then, if you want to know more, we should go and visit the man who knows all about the Holy Grail War. You do want to know the reason behind it don't you?" she said with a pointed look Shirou's way.
"Of course I do," he said with a determined look.
Tsukiko tentatively raised a hand and stood. "You… wouldn't mind if I tagged along, do you?"
Shirou gave a look. "What? You want to learn more too?"
"W-Well… That's not really the issue," she said with an embarrassed chuckle. "Truth is, I maaay have forgotten to confirm I'd summoned my Servant the other day."
Rin gave her a look of sheer incredulity, even as the brown haired girl scratched her cheek.
Saber stood quietly outside the Church grounds. Archer and Hunter's Masters were inside with her own talking with that man.
'Kotomine Kirei,' she remembered; one of the most dangerous Masters and the final contender in the Fourth Holy Grail War besides Emiya Kiritsugu. As smart and as ruthless as that despicable former Master of hers, the man had nearly killed Irisviel during Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald's battle with her former master. The man had used both Lancer and her master's fights as a distraction while he went for Irisviel, the vessel for the Holy Grail. The fact that the man was still permitted to oversee the grail wars today was worrisome in and of itself. Ordinarily she might be concerned about the well-being of her new master, were it not for her trust in the capabilities of Tohsaka Rin. Even Saber's eyes could note her skill as a magus.
"Emiya Shirou…" she whispered to herself, her attention returning to her new master. By his own admission, he was the adopted child of Emiya Kiritsugu, the magus killer. Her thoughts recalled the man's face; his hardened features, his emotionless mask, his war-borne ideals of peace…
She let out a short breath. She'd long since forgiven him for forcing her to destroy the grail, as precious to her as it was. Only in her final moments on Earth ten years prior did she realize why Kiritsugu had done it. The thing was corrupted beyond all recognition. The fire that poured from it when she'd shattered it had been proof enough of that. She'd never gotten along with the man, and his ideals, while lofty, were carried out with such merciless bloodiness she'd nary seen in her lifetime. His son however…
For whatever reason, Kiritsugu had decided not to pass on his knowledge of magecraft to his son, Shirou. Perhaps it was his way of keeping a loved one out of harm's way; out of the Magus Association; out of the way of any future Grail Wars. Lot of good that did.
But that brought to her mind another issue. Illyasviel von Einzbern, Emiya Kiritsugu's blood daughter. Though born of homunculi, she was no less human than an ordinary human, as far as she was concerned, or Kiritsugu for that matter. There may have been much she didn't know about her former master, but if there was one thing she could say for certain about that man, it would be that he loved his wife and daughter. So then where was Illyasviel now? Why hadn't Shirou so much as mentioned her? Did he even know she existed? Saber had so many questions running through her head; it must have shown on her face.
"An amusing countenance you carry there, Saber."
The blue clad spirit turned to the voice of the white haired man standing atop the church at her back. "If you have time to concern yourself with my expressions Archer, you should spend it watching for enemy Servants."
"I'm doing exactly that, Saber," the man in red countered as he leaned against the empty bell tower, his amber eyes regarding her seriously. "Surely you don't expect that just because our Masters aren't at each other's throats that we're suddenly allies. At my Master's command, I'll cut both you and yours down without an iota of hesitation."
Saber bristled at his promise. "I'd expect no less of you, Archer. However, do not expect less than equal treatment from me, regardless of my Master's naïve desires, if and when it comes to that."
Archer regarded her for a long moment before huffing with a shrug back into his comfortable lean. "More to the point, don't you think you're underestimating the Archer class just a little bit?" he questioned. "My preference for the blade does not diminish my prowess with the bow, nor my stats as an Archer."
Saber knew well enough how far and wide an Archer's gaze could reach. Truthfully she did expect something might be different about his class, since she'd yet to see him once reveal his bow, seeming to favor the two short, curved swords that were conspicuously absent.
'And speaking of oddities in classes…' Saber cast her eyes past Archer, to the figure that stood precariously atop the church's steeple, his crow's garb fluttering in the light breeze. His fully helmed head betrayed no sense of either amusement or interest in their banter, customary as it seemed to be between Servants. Being a manifestation via the Grail itself, though never residing within the Throne of Heroes, Archer would be more likely to recognize his identity than her. Add to the fact that firearms hadn't been invented during her time, this man was obviously of an era after hers. She could recognize Heroic Spirits of her past, but not her future.
Archer had yet to reveal his bow to her, but it was only a slight chance that it would bear any striking characteristics that would allow her to guess his identity, and his two short swords were as unknown to her as anything else about him.
At the very least, she knew that Hunter's weapons themselves, as unique as they appeared, were not immediately identifiable as Noble Phantasms like her Excalibur was. Because she no longer possessed Avalon, wherever that might be, the grail had provided her with the ability to hide her weapon via Invisible Air, a simple concealing spell. However, to be fair, few weapons were as visually famous as Excalibur. The world told story after story of heroes and their weapons, but in every instance, no matter how the weapon was described, over time, the true form was lost in humanity's mind. Excalibur seemed, however, to retain its legendary image, even through the ages. However, it gave her the advantage of hiding her weapon's true characteristics from her opponents, like its length, width, and even heft.
It was strange, even though Servants were ordinarily given information about the other Servant classes by the grail the moment they are summoned, she knew almost nothing about Hunter or his stats. She knew from personal experience that he was fast enough to keep up with Archer, and strong enough to combat her two-handed swings with a single hand. Abnormally strong and fast seemed too good to be true; every class had a distinct weakness after all. Perhaps his was magecraft. Not that either she or Archer likely had any at their disposal, save their Masters.
Archer's eyes followed hers as they landed on the solitary Servant. He gave a huff of annoyance; apparently his mind was following the same path as hers. "It doesn't seem fair does it? Abnormality or not, it's hard to imagine a class capable of brute force and speed, in addition to a powerful ranged attack. I'd call it cheating, but I don't think that's quite the case."
Hunter cocked his head toward them. "I'll admit my existence has always been abnormal, as you say. My presence in this game, however, is due to the use of a catalyst linked to me. I didn't have much choice in the matter. I'm genuinely surprised, in fact, that humans of this era were able to unearth it."
His muffled voice conveyed the honesty in his words, though whether that was a ruse or the truth, Saber didn't know. Though the Archer, Saber, and Lancer classes were always, almost without error, knights or soldiers of the chivalric medieval era, and therefore bound to a code of honor, she would be more likely to trust their words. But a Hunter? Were they chivalric? She hadn't a clue.
"I suppose then, if we're speaking frankly, that I too am surprised to have been summoned as well. Into this era again, that is."
"You mentioned that before in Emiya Shirou's home," stated Archer, having heard everything via his and Rin's telepathic link, even though he'd been outside. "When was the last time you were summoned into this era?"
Saber adjusted her yellow raincoat. Because Shirou didn't have the mana reserves to allow her to de-and-rematerialize at will, she needed to remain corporeal, which presented the issue of the necessity of a disguise. For now at least, she needed her armor and sword ready, so she simply wore the baggy, gaudy yellow thing to disguise her bulk.
Her gaze went distant, memories of that bleak time flowing back to her. "Ten years ago, here in Fuyuki." She'd half expected them to exclaim at how fast the turn-around was for the grail wars, as each of them should have at least enough residual knowledge of the Grail system to know that it took nearly fifty years to gather enough energy for the Grail to materialize. Yet neither said a word. In fact, it seemed as if they both expected it.
"My name is Kotomine Kirei," the man said, his baritone voice smooth and welcoming. "What is your name, seventh Master?"
Shirou wasn't quite sure what to say. Obviously his name, but the man standing before him was a man of God, or at least, pretended to be according to Rin, and at the very least he held a high position in the Church to be overseer of the war. So, after a few seconds hesitation, he faced the man squarely and told him.
The man took surprising pause at that, like it was name he was familiar with. "Emiya…?" But before Shirou could question him, the man chuckled deeply in his throat, something amusing obviously setting him off, though what it was, Shirou didn't know. "Then I assume that you are the Master of the Saber class, Emiya Shirou?"
"Yeah, I made a pact with Saber," the red head admitted, "but this stuff about Masters and the Holy Grail War is all nonsense to me. If a Master is supposed to be a proper mage, you real ought to pick someone else." Truthfully, he realized that the whole mage system was secretive, and the only reason he would be allowed to live un-silenced was because of his father's influence and Shirou's desire to stay out of anything important. He wasn't a practiced mage, and Kiritsugu never taught him much, even when he asked. What he knew, he learned mostly from scratch. But he reckoned he certainly wasn't a threat to the Association in any form, really.
"I see… This is serious, indeed."
"You'll need to start from square one with him," Rin said, arms crossed and an exasperated, though worrisome look on her face.
"Ho?" the priest questioned with a breath and a smile. "Very well. This is the first time you have ever sought my assistance," he said with slight amusement, as if he were eager to finally be able to help the young mage.
"Emiya Shirou, the status of Master cannot be yielded to another," he began, walking down the aisle towards the both of them. "And once conferred, it is not a thing from which one walks away. Being a Master is a trial you have been chosen to undergo." He stopped scant feet from the young man. "Until you win the Grail, you will not be freed from that ordeal. Emiya Shirou, this battle you find yourself caught up in is called the Holy Grail War."
"A crazy thing where seven Masters fight to the death, right?" Of course, Shirou already knew that, at least by name, but it seemed the man had a bit of a flair for the dramatic, though the way he stressed his name with every point seemed to emphasize the importance of his words, drama or not.
"It is a ritual meant to select the one who is worthy to hold the Grail," Kirei corrected. There was much more to the war than simple slaughter. There was purpose in the violence.
Shirou however, had trouble believe much of any of it. "You keep talking about this 'Holy Grail,' but you don't mean the actual Holy Grail, right?"
"The Grail that appears in this town is, indeed, the genuine article," he affirmed, stepping aside to look out the windows at the ocean blue moonlight. "For proof, one need look no further than the unrivaled miracle of the Servants. A Holy grail capable of this can surely grant it's holder limitless power. In the face of such a fact, the item's 'authenticity' is irrelevant."
"Then why force people to go through this Holy grail War thing? If it's that powerful, why not just share it?" It sounded rather juvenile and childish out loud, but its credence was no less valid in his mind.
"A fair opinion," the man conceded, turning back to look at the young Master, "but only one may claim the Grail. We did not make that decision, but rather, the Grail itself decided it."
"The Grail itself decided it?" the boy parroted, finding it difficult to believe a cup could have sentience. But then, if it was the Holy Grail, an object of that origin shouldn't surprise him.
"This is all the work of the Grail itself. It selects its one true owner by having the Masters fight to win it. That is the Holy Grail War"
Shirou scowled down at his Command Seals. "I'm still not fully convinced. I don't like the idea that that a person has to kill the other Masters."
"Hold on," Rin quickly interrupted, grabbing both men's attention. "We don't have to kill each other, Emiya-kun."
"It's a fight to the death," Kirei countered with a knowing smile.
"Hush, Kirei!" Rin chided with a glare like he was a child before turning back to Shirou. "Listen, the Holy Grail that appears in this city is a spiritual object. If it's intangible, we can't touch it. See the implication?"
Shirou blinked in realization, "Then…"
"Right," She continued. "The point of the Holy Grail War is the get rid of all the other Masters' Servants. Which means there's no rule stating that you have to kill the other Masters."
"Emiya Shirou, if I may ask," the priest cut in, addressing the young man, "do you think you could defeat your own Servant?"
Shirou immediately knew the answer. Lancer had just been toying with him, and he'd been fighting with all he had, and Saber, he wagered, was even stronger than Lancer. But Kirei obviously had a point to make, so he remained silent.
"Servants are difficult to defeat, even if you have a Servant yourself. So, what to do? The answer is simple, is it not? No matter how powerful the Servant, if its Master is killed, the Servant vanishes alongside them. In which case…" he trailed off, leaving the obvious answer for Shirou to finish.
"Killing the Master is the quickest way…" The boy looked askance at the floor, not wanting to meet the priest's knowing gaze. It was a logical conclusion. If you wanted to break a chain, the weakest link was the first place to start, and with something like a wish granting device, one couldn't afford to walk the high road, especially not a mage, notoriously amoral as they tended to be.
"But what about the opposite case," Shirou asked, returning his eyes to the blue-clad man, "if a Master's Servant is destroyed first? Only Servants can touch the Grail, right? That implies that a Master who's lost their Servant no longer has any value."
Kirei shook his head. "Not true. As long as their Command Seals exist, so do their rights as a Master. So, if there were a Servant that had lost its Master and had nowhere to go, it would still have a chance to rejoin the battle. It is for that reason that Masters kill other Masters."
Shirou frowned in frustration. "Then, what if I used up my Command Seals right now?" he asked, raising his left hand which bore his Command Seals toward the man.
"Wait, that's…!" Rin attempted to interrupt, probably to stop him from doing something that was, in her eyes, stupid.
"True, your rights as a Master would be lost. Although," he began to walk around sanctuary's inner perimeter bypassing several pews on his way, "I cannot imagine a mage using magic as powerful as a Command Seal in so wasteful a manner."
He grinned at the boy, a harsh, cruel smile on his face. "If there were such a mage, they would be less than a novice. A coward."
Shirou grit his teeth and turned fully toward the man, almost behind him now.
Kirei gave a breathy laugh, knowing he had the boy. "Have I convinced you? Then let us go back to the beginning, Emiya Shirou. If you wish to forfeit your status as Master, then so be it. Simply break up your Command Seals and break your contract with Saber. If you do so, I shall guarantee your safety until the Holy Grail War's end."
"Why would I need you to guarantee my safety?"
"I was dispatched here to oversee the cycle of the Holy Grail Wars. Safeguarding mages that are no longer Masters is the overseer's top priority."
But Shirou had already fixated on a single phrase. "'…Cycle…?' Hang on… The Holy Grail War didn't begin just now?"
Kirei had rounded his way around the sanctuary fully, coming back to stand before the alter in front. "This is the fifth one."
Shirou's eyes widened. "Fifth…?"
"The previous one was ten years ago, making this the shortest cycle yet."
"This has happened four times before?" the boy asked incredulously.
Kirei gave a short nod. "Yes. Each time, the Holy Grail War has grown still more brutal. Driven by their desires, Masters have engaged in indiscriminate slaughter."
"Then…" Shirou paused, preparing to ask a question that, deep down, he already knew the answer to. "…What would happen if the guy who won the Grail were a complete bastard?"
"It is beyond our means to stop one whom the grail has chosen," Kirei concluded simply, if not with a bit of reluctance. "After all, it is the omnipotent wish-granting chalice. If you do not wish that to happen, Emiya Shirou, win it yourself. At the very least, if you win, it won't go to an indiscriminate killer, yes?"
Shirou, in truth, wanted nothing to do with such a system. His banded hand clenched tightly, a single knuckle popping from the force. "I have no reason to fight." It was a weak argument, one he clung to, but a weak one nonetheless. Though no less true; he had no real desire for the Grail. Even if he won it, what would he ever wish for?
"Ho? So you have no interest in what the Grail holder does, even if disaster is the result?"
"That's… That's not…"
Rin gave her companion a long look of sympathy. This was a hard choice, and it wasn't often she felt inclined to agree with the false priest, but he spoke the hard truth.
"If you have no reason to fight, fine. Then you also have no interest in the events of ten years ago?" The voice was mocking, though also knowing.
Shirou perked up in interest, that particular number generating a worrisome pit in his stomach.
"At the end of the previous Grail War, an unworthy Master touched the Grail. I know not for what that Master wished. We can only see the aftermath of the resultant disaster."
"Wait a minute-"
"…are you saying…?"
"I am. The New Fuyuki fire, whose cause remains unknown, was the aftermath of the Holy Grail War."
Images… Memories. Nightmares flashed through Shirou's mind, the terrors that kept him up most of his life… The hell on earth he'd barely survived. His strength left him, sending him almost sprawling.
By a stroke of luck, he managed to catch himself on the nearest pew, holding himself up.
He raised a hand, warding off Rin's concern for his sudden stumble. Marshaling his strength, he pushed himself back to his feet. "You said this is the fifth one, right?" he asked, addressing the Grail War proctor. "Has anyone ever won the Grail, then?"
Kirei nodded. "One man did, indeed, hold the Grail, albeit briefly."
"What happened to him-?"
"-Nothing." Kirei almost cut Shirou off with the speed of his answer. "The Grail did not achieve completion. The result of a foolish man letting sentiment get the better of him… Simply causing the Grail to appear is trivial. Once the seven Masters are gathered, the Grail will appear in time."
He gestured to the girl in red. "As Rin says, it is not necessary to slay the other Masters. But, unless you do so, the Grail will never be complete. It chooses the Master who is worthy of it. That is why this man, who avoided fighting, did not win the Grail."
"In other words, the Grail is meaningless if you don't obtain it without finishing off the other Masters," Rin concluded turning to Shirou. "In the last war, the Master who was first to get his hands on the Grail was weak."
There was a short silence before Kirei spoke again, this time with finality. "That's all I have to say. Whether or not you decide to participate in the Holy Grail War, let us decide it here, Emiya Shirou."
Shirou's gaze lowered in thought, his fists tight anxiously.
On one hand, he really didn't have a place to fight in this war. He certainly had a wish he wanted granted, but it wasn't worth it if he had to fight and maybe even kill for it. That wasn't what a hero did. Heroes protected the weak and fought against evil, not commit evil for the sake of good.
But then, if he didn't, not only would he be throwing away a chance to actually achieve that dream,but he'd be forsaking a chance to use his power, the power given in the form of Saber to protect the innocents that might very well be hurt in this war, and to fight against any unjust Master who might seek the Grail.
"…I'm sorry, a what?"
If secretly hating Kotomine Kirei's guts didn't please Rin enough, then the shock that plastered the fake priest's face now certainly did the trick. The man's eyes were wide, nearly comical white saucers of surprise, an expression not often seen on his ordinarily smug face.
"He calls himself a Hunter," Tsukiko reiterated, evidently not understanding the gravity of her words.
Kirei's eyes narrowed intensely at the girl, though he didn't speak for several pregnant seconds. "I see... This shouldn't be possible."
Rin raised an eyebrow, as did Tsukiko, though both for different reasons. For Rin who understood the Grail War a great bit better than either other teen in the sanctuary, her unspoken question pertained more to the mechanics of why it "shouldn't be possible."
"Why shouldn't it be?" Shirou asked, trying to gain some bearing on his understanding of the event. "You said seven Servants have to be summoned, right?"
Kirei nodded darkly. "Indeed. And seven Servants have been summoned." The man turned his piercing gaze to the brown haired girl. "Yours makes eight."
Now Rin's eyes bugged out in shock. "E-eight Servants?! Then that means...!"
Tsukiko rubbed the back of her head, even if she knew more than the red head in the room about the Holy Grail War, there was still much she didn't know about the whole thing like-
"What's the big deal? So there's one more Servant, right? Is it really that big of a deal?" Shirou asked with a raised brow at the priestly man.
Kirei gave a conceding motion with his head, raising a hand to his chin thoughtfully. "True, though there is a customary seven Servants that are necessarily summoned for every Grail War, there have been times when an eighth outlier us summoned by the Grail itself. The Grail utilizes its own logic to sense when actions are encroaching upon its authority, and regardless of other mediators like those of us from the Church, it brings forth a Ruler servant to protect the concept of the Holy Grail War. However, the Ruler class possesses a necessary impartiality to the outcome of the war itself."
He eyed the boy carefully. "Though there have been several semi-successful attempts to imitate the Holy Grail War over the years in other countries, the Grail Wars here in Fuyuki follow a certain structure; seven Servants, unfailingly. Saber, Archer, Lancer, Rider, Berserker, Caster, and Assassin. The seven classes Servants are summoned into, each possessing their own unique talents and ambitions as befitting heroic spirits of human history."
"So, you're saying that me summoning Hunter is... what? Unprecedented?" Tsukiko asked cautiously, still trying to rap her head around the situation.
"That would be putting it lightly," Kirei affirmed seriously. "Even if he were truly a Ruler under the guise of another class, Rulers are summoned by the Grail. That is to say that the Grail is the master of the Ruler Servant, not a hopeful participant of the war." He turned to Tsukiko with a calm, but very straight-to-business gaze. "As the Master who summoned him, only you can provide information that might explain its existence. Were there any peculiarities you noticed during the ritual? Any anomalies that were out of place?"
"Now hold on just a second there, Kirei!" Rin cut in quickly, pointing a finger at the elder male. "At the very least this information should be shared in private. It wouldn't be fair to her if she were to unwittingly reveal information that might give either of us an advantage."
Shirou placed a hand on his hip unconcernedly. "...I doubt I'd understand much of any of it anyway, so..."
"A surprisingly fair declaration. Your sense of honor is quite remarkable, Rin," Kirei said with a smile that looked a little forced. "However, so long as Ms. Tsukiko guards herself from revealing more than necessary, I don't believe there should be a problem."
As if to confirm his beliefs, the young mage waved off Rin's concern nervously. She hoped she hadn't done something illegal or whatever. She wasn't intimately familiar with the Magus Association's… preferences, but she knew well enough the kind of repercussions that might be exacted for perceived infractions against the Magus code… or whatever. And frankly, she'd rather be safe than sorry.
Tsukiko opened her mouth to speak but was quickly interrupted by Rin. "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not risk hearing something I'd regret later, so if it's all the same to you two, we'll take our leave."
She regarded the priest and Tsukiko with a look, which Shirou noticed, prompting a surprised, "Wait, 'we?'"
No sooner had he asked then Rin grabbed a fistful of his collar and began dragging him out past the tall Servant, who despite his facelessness seemed to take amusement in the situation as he stepped aside to make way. "That's right! We'll be outside when your done talking, Tsukiko. Don't feel rushed on our account."
Tsukiko felt a nervous bead of sweat drip from her forehead as she watched the young man be... essentially manhandled out of the church. There was an ironic joke in there somewhere about religion supposedly promoting the patriarchy, but she'd go searching for it later.
As soon as the church doors closed with an echoing thunk, she turned back to the priest and answered. "W-Well, I did the ritual according to the guide my father made for me (I practiced it a lot anyway), and there wasn't anything out of place with the summoning itself, as far as I could tell…"
"Was a there a catalyst used in the ritual?"
Tsukiko blinked remembering there was. "Oh, yeah! My father sent me one! It was a-" her speech stopped like a broken record. Should she ay what it was? Was it alright that the man in front of her might be able to deduce her Servant's identity? Not like she had any luck herself; Google, evidently, was not the ultimate search engine. She decided if it was appropriate to tell him, it would be best to let her Servant do it himself. It was apparently his after all.
"Well, Hunter has it now." She almost expected a disappointed scowl from the priest but found only an absence of... well, any emotion at all. Apathy notwithstanding.
"A quick learner I see. You do your young family justice," the priest praised as he gestured to the brown haired girl. "You needn't fear a deduction of your Servant's identity from me in any event. But if that's the way you want to play it, that's fine as well; I would like to speak with your Servant, Ms. Yasaharu. Would you kindly call for him?"
Tsukiko raised an eyebrow. "I thought the Church was supposed to be neutral grounds where Servants couldn't go."
Kirei conceded the point with a nod. "That is its primary function, yes. However, in this instance, it is important we unravel the nature of this unexpected eighth Servant. If he were a Ruler, his presence would imply something was amiss in this War. At the very least, I'd like to confirm whether his existence is of particular import."
Tsukiko gave a short nod. "S-Sure I'll call for him."
No sooner had the words left her lips than the double doors of the church hall opened with an ominous groan. Both pair of eyes turned to the entryway as the silhouetted form of a carrion bird.
The doors creaked to a stop and the Servant stepped forward, his heavy leather boots beating against the wooden floorboards. He stopped a few short paces from the two, allowing Kirei to get a good look at him… Well, as good a look as could be gotten with the darkness of his garb and the room itself overpowering any moonlight that filtered through the windows.
"…You do recall our telepathic link, yes, Master?" Hunter quipped with notable smile in his tone, his silver-helmed head turned towards his handler. A simple question, but it sent Tsukiko a-fluster. She was a new Master, with very little knowledge about the mechanics of Master-Servant relationships afforded by the Grail. She wasn't clueless; she obviously knew of it, since she'd used it on more than one occasion since conjuring the cloak-obscured spirit, but she was forgetful sometimes… A lot of times, actually.
"O-Of course I remember! Stupid Hunter…" She muttered the last part under her breath as she turned away from the Servant.
Hunter disregarded her insult and instead directed his attention to the priest, turning his head this way and that as he examine the structure of the building, though through what invisible eye-slits he did so was beyond Kotomine. "How nostalgic. It's been some time since I've set foot in a chapel."
"Is that so? Interesting. Based on your armaments, I presume you lived in an era where the church was prominent," the priest said, eyeing the pistol on the man's hip, almost hidden by his crow-feather garb.
"Different church. Different gods," he offered with offhanded enigma. "I understand you have a question or two for me."
Kirei blinked curiously at the man's words. He wondered if the spirit chose those exact words intentionally or if it was simply a matter of personality, but let the matter slide. He turned to the heroic spirit in front of him. Back to business. "You were summoned as the Eighth Servant of the Fifth Holy Grail War. Is there any particular reason the Grail would permit your calling to this conflict?"
"If you're asking whether I fulfill some critical function like Ruler, then no."
Kirei half expected him to extrapolate, but his deliberate silence denied any further discussion on the topic. "...I see." The priest did not comment further. He debated questioning the man heroic spirit further, but the simplicity with which he initially answered spoke volumes more than further explanations likely could.
The stoic man seemed to study the spirit with a critical eye. "If you do not perform a critical function, as you say, then what is your purpose in this Holy Grail War?"
Hunter's tone took on an amused tone. "My purpose? That's simple," he stated with arms crossed over his chest. "To acquire a certain chalice of course."
"Then you're saying you are as much a participant of this Holy Grail War as any of the other seven Servant?" Kirei's eyes narrowed critically.
Hunter gave a simple nod. For several long seconds Kirei appraised his guest, trying to get the measure of him. At least that how it appeared to the young mage's eyes. But presently the man gave a short upturned nod and his scowl turn to a grin. "I see. Then that answer is good enough for me. Nevertheless I will continue looking into this issue. For the time being, I will not take any action against your participation in the war. That is all I require of you at this current time." He gave the two a gesture toward the doors behind them. "If that's all... Servant Hunter, Miss Yasaharu."
Tsukiko gave a brief glance to her Servant before bowing politely at the man of the cloth. "Thanks for all your help... father?" her questioning upward inflection was brushed off by a wave from Kirei as he gave a reciprocal bow. Hunter for his part kept his gaze, or at least his face-plate, leveled in the man's direction until Tsukiko turned and walked down the aisle. As Tsukiko opened the door to leave Hunter stopped and turned to regard the priest one last time.
"Arithmetic has never been my strong-suit... but perhaps if the Grail plus mage equals Servant, then your answer surely lies somewhere in the equation."
Kirei blinked in surprise as he digested that hypothesis. By all measures Yasaharu Tsukiko was an average mage (extremely so) and there was no reason to assume this error, if that was even what this whole debacle was, was her cause. But that would mean, by that logic, that the Grail was at fault. To an ordinary person, they might reason, "What's wrong then? If the Grail want's eight servants then who are we to argue?"
And Kirei, as well as any informed mage, would counter by telling them that they clearly didn't understand; if Grail plus mage equals Servant, that was like saying four plus three equals seven. And it always did.
Unfailingly, it always equaled seven.
Now it equaled eight.
...This would take some considerable thought.
The doors closed behind her, the clunk much quieter outside than it had been in. Tsukiko let out a breath of relief. She'd never been exceptional at dealing with figures of authority, especially when she wasn't sure she was in the right. But she supposed in this instance she was still innocent, even if she wasn't necessarily "in the right." It's not like meant to break the rules. Did she even technically break any rules to begin with?
"There's a difference between rules and expectations master," Hunter interjected, intruding on her introspection as he walked beside her.
There might come a day when she came to treat his knowledge of her thoughts as commonplace, but today was not that day. "Do you mind not reading my mind, Hunter? I know you can, but it's kind of creepy when you answer questions I haven't even asked yet." She threw him a sidelong glance which he returned.
"I can't read your mind. True, I can read any thoughts directed at me, but as far as telepathy goes, I'm actually more of an empath."
"Empath? You mean telepath?"
"Empath," Hunter repeated, emphasizing the word for clarity. "An empath can read emotions, not specific thoughts. It seems the Grail provides this by default; in any event you are in danger, I can sense your distress immediately, without your conscious effort to contact me."
"Oh, so in case I'm knocked out you can still know I'm in trouble?"
"I suppose so."
Tsukiko thought about that, realizing how useful that might end up being one day. She was confident in her abilities, but her family pedigree wasn't impressive like, apparently, Rin's was, and she was sure there were other, more skilled mages out there too, many probably working in or for other mages in this very contest. At the very least she knew distress could be subconscious, so even if she weren't aware of the danger she was in, Hunter might still be able to pick up on it.
Still though... "Well, that was a very specific answer to a 'distressing' feeling," she pointed out accusingly, crossing her arms over her chest as they exited the gate to the churchyard.
Hunter scoffed. "Oh dear, it seems Hunters are innately intuitive. Who'd have thought it?"
She glared at him mutely, his derision wholly unappreciated, but in a way, it relieved her. Of the few times her and Hunter had exchanged any significant words, she'd known him only to exude and aloof seriousness and a general lack of personality. His sarcasm was refreshing in that sense; it showed there was more to him than bland gravity.
That being the case, she let it slide this once.
She was about to speak again when an emanating, yet distant boom roiled over to her ears, and she turned to find the direction it came from. "What was that? Did you hear it?"
"Hm? I suppose I did," he answered with unnatural dryness.
"What do you think it was? An explosion?" It was then she realized that neither of her classmates or their Servants were present. Alarm bells went ringing in her head. "Hunter, are any Servants fighting nearby?!" She didn't want to believe that they might be fighting each other, and held out hope that perhaps they'd been found by a third party; perhaps a gathering of so many Masters and their Servants was too juicy a target to a more confident foe to let slip by uncontested.
He didn't speak for a few seconds, but when he did, he seemed wholly uninterested in finding out. "That depends. If I said no, would you return to your home?"
She narrowed her eyes at his blatant deflection. He wasn't even trying to hide it. "Hunter," she began, drawing his name out like a suspicious parent. "Are you hoping they kill each other out there?"
The heroic spirit gave an honest, shrugging nod. "It's best to let things be sorted without our interference," he stated simply. "It's simple strategy. Getting in the middle would for me to reveal more of my abilities to our enemies, and as strong as I am, I'm not confident I can fight off two Servants if they joined against me, let alone three."
Tsukiko's eyes widened. "Three?! Then are Rin-san and Emiya-san fighting another servant... Come on, we should make sure their alright!" she waved the spirit to follow as she began to run in the general direction of the increasingly frequent sounds of battle. She was stopped nearly as soon as she began with a clawed gauntlet gripping her shoulder. She stopped in her tracks, her questioning gaze wondering why her Servant was stopping her.
"I... Understand your desire to intervene on their behalf. I even respect your desire to utilize them as allies." Well that was a shrewd way of putting it. "Even in my time I possessed allies that aided me in my times of need; I know their value is immense." His hand left her shoulder as she turned her body to listen to him. Even as muted as it might have been behind his helmet, she could pick up on the way the tone of his voice shifted from knowing to melancholy. She had no doubt there was a story or two there.
"But in this contest... this game... there can only be one winner. Those you would seek to aide now as allies will inevitably turn against you in the end. If theya re to fall, better they do so at another's hand, than your own. It's not with pessimism I say this," he assured her, "it's simply the truth."
Tsukiko frowned at him, but made no motion to argue. It wasn't like she didn't know that... perhaps she'd been trying to avoid facing that fact, consciously or unconsciously burying those thoughts deep within; she did not want to hurt people she knew, however minimal her interaction with them was.
"...I'm aware of that," she finally said, bringing a clenched fist to her chest. "However, if and when that happens, I will be prepared; I will do whatever I can not to hurt them. I won't be weak. I can't afford to be..." She looked up at her Servant, her fiery green eyes blazing at him from behind her spectacles. "I compete to win, I promise you that, but I won't win at the expense of those I consider my friends!"
Hunter looked down at her in silence, her trailing words permeating the air. For a moment, he stood there, motionless. Finally, he spoke. "I understand, Master," and walked past her. "But I would share with you a piece of hard-earned wisdom..." he turned his head to look behind at his charge, for as weak as she was in comparison to him, she couldn't be anything else.
"It takes more than knowing someone's name to be a friend."
She remained silent in the wake of his words, and she made no attempt to comment or counter. A silent moment of introspection. But just a brief one; "Come. If you wish your friends' safety, then we must make haste."
Putting aside her reflection for another time, she gave a determined nod and followed after her Servant.
The full moon of a cloudless night sky was one of his favorite sights... Add to it the cool breeze of a summer's night wind and the clarity of a cold winter's horizon. The stars were alight and danced and twinkled in the sky. It was so strange to think they were actually distant suns, like his very own that burned so violently and affectionately during the day and illuminated the night sky in the reflection of its light on the surface of the moon.
He lay atop the roof of the skyscraper, his arms resting beneath his neck as he took in the peaceful moment. It wasn't often he could afford to relax and just... take in the sights these days. He was always busy with work and his many extracurricular obsessions. But he was never bored. On the contrary, every day he learned something new he hadn't known before; such was the process of the accumulation of knowledge
But he was not alone up on that tower of glass and steel. He had a companion who also breathed in the cool night's air with calm appreciation. He cocked his head over to her. "Pretty, isn't it?"
The woman's eyes didn't divert from their lock on the moon's silvery glow, even as she nodded. "Yes, it is. It's been some time since I could appreciate it."
He smiled, not bothering to mention he wasn't talking about the moon... wasn't just talking about the moon.
"I imagine so, if what you've told me is true. That's gotta be some crazy PTSD."
She didn't answer. He wasn't even sure she knew what PTSD was. Instead of explain it, he simply closed his eyes and let them rest, his skin basking in the moonshine. They remained comfortable in the following silence for many minutes until both eyes opened narrowly, their senses sharper than any outsider might expect.
"So the war is underway I expect." He looked askance at the woman. "Are you sure about this?"
She eyed him softly, her mouth neither fully smiling, nor frowning. However, the upturned twitch at the corner of her moth bespoke of her delight at the thoughts running through her brain.
"I am. Those things which we seek, we will find in the same place."
She stepped away from her lean against the wall and walked toward the edge of the building as he rose to sit up, both their eyes scanning the skyline for their quarry. He gave her another look. He loved the way her pale skin shone in the equally pale moonlight. He looked down at his right hand, opening and closing it. So many things had changed for him in the past few years. Ever since his parents had shipped him off to school in another country. Of course, he was thankful for that now; else he'd have never found the thing that had brought himself and the woman together. He reached into his pocket, fiddling with the object in question quietly.
She noticed, smiling softly in a teasing manner. "Oh? Am I that stunning to your eyes?"
He gave her a wry glance, catching her implication but said nothing. Whether she knew if she was or not was up for grabs; it was much a game of cat and mouse at this point. He withdrew the trinket from his pocket, holding it up in his hand. "It's amazing. Really," he said, directing their attention at it. "So much knowledge and so little retained over the course of..." He shook his head unable to fathom just how wasteful and regardless humanity was of history and the preservation of knowledge. "Centuries? Millennia? I can't begin to imagine…"
"To be fair," she countered as she reached down, closing his fingers over the thing softly. "I believe it was meant to be this way. Some things are better left forgotten."
He emphatically disagreed. "We can't avoid the mistakes of our past if we don't know our past. Whatever his intentions might have been... It may have been the right choice at the time, but now...?"
She placed a hand on his shoulder comfortingly. Indeed, so much had changed from what she remembered. The world was different. Humans were more concerned, more... interconnected with each other.
"Come Shin, it's time we continued on."
The young man gave a sigh and nodded, pushing himself to his feet and turning toward the door that led down from the roof. With a mock bow and a gesture, he guided her away from the edge. "After you, m'lady."
The look she gave him was what he craved the most; he made it his mission to elicit it from her at every oportunity. "I've told you before, young man. It's Maria."
Shingetsu have a muted laugh and acquiesced. "Fine, fine. Maria."
She smiled at him with that... indescribable smile that only she could give and vanished through the door. He turned, taking one last look at the moon, the pale white light reflecting crimson and blue.
Like the dying light of the sun.
Like the roiling depths of the sea.
He followed after her.