"Are you ready, Illya?" Shirou asked, looking at the naked forms of his sister and her maids, who were lying in a corner of his shed in the middle of a Magic Circle so vast and complicated a normal Magus would have cried bitter tears in jealousy and desperation upon beholding it.
It had taken Shirou no less than four days to draw it, four painstaking days that had been a real challenge even for his enhanced body, but all that work had definitely paid off. The Circle was complete, and all necessary components for the ritual had been gathered.
It was time to change the three Homunculi into real people.
"I'm ready, Shirou." Illya replied tersely, putting on a strong front even though her expression was tight with worry, before making an attempt at being snarky. "Just like the previous dozen times you asked."
Shirou smiled a bit guiltily in response, but even so, he knew that he was probably going to ask that question at least five times more. How could he not, with her looking so nervous?
He understood why she looked apprehensive of course. Magi in general weren't keen on having someone cast spells over them or mess with their bodies, and Illya had a hundred more reasons to fear such things than the average Magus. That it was him, her trusted big brother, performing the ritual made no difference to her terrified subconscious, and Shirou was honestly impressed that she was still lying there.
Most people in her situation would have run for the hills already.
Sella and Leysritt on the other hand lay perfectly still, not moving a muscle. They hadn't been created with the kind of instincts that would prompt them to flee or fight against rituals, so they didn't share Illya's fear. Tools weren't supposed to be scared after all.
"Will this hurt?" Illya suddenly asked out of the blue, lifting her head slightly, and Shirou blinked once, before smiling reassuringly, kneeling down next to her to place a hand on her head.
"Not at all." He promised, before slightly amending his statement. "Maybe a tiny little bit in your limbs as they grow, but it will hurt no more than a soft pinch."
To demonstrate, he softly pinched her bicep, drawing a giggle from the little sprite.
"Promise?" Illya asked, sounding like the little girl she looked like rather than the adult she was, before holding out her pinkie.
"I promise." Shirou nodded, linking his own pinkie-finger with hers in a solemn vow.
"So I won't feel like a thousand suns are exploding in my head?" The little sprite continued, and Shirou blinked again in surprise.
"…No." He said eventually, a bit perturbed by the question. "Why would you even think that?"
"Just something I saw on tv, with the alligator and the penguins who were going to swap their brains to chase out the rat invaders."
Illya's answer did not make things any clearer, and Shirou seriously started wondering what on Earth was on tv these days. A show about heroes in a fantasy world he could somewhat understand, but penguins and alligators teaming up to fight rats? What mind had come up with that?
"It's not going to feel like a thousand suns are exploding in your head." He assured her eventually, softly rubbing her head. "At most, you'll get stiff from having to lie on the ground for a while."
"Will I get a lollipop after it's over?" Illya asked hopefully. "A big one?"
"I'm sure that can be arranged." Shirou nodded swiftly, giving her a smile. "Perhaps even more than one."
"Hehe." Illya grinned at him, before she laid down on her back again, much calmer than before. The undercurrent of nervousness was still present, but now, it was much more along the lines of a child about to receive a vaccination than someone about to be consumed by a thousand suns.
"Uhm." Leysritt was the next to speak up, turning her head sideways to look at Shirou, her expression both hopeful and sheepish. "Can I get a lollipop too?"
"Of course." Shirou knew there was a small candy shop in downtown Fuyuki, and he made a mental note to visit it as soon as possible to buy all the lollipops they had in store. If that was what Illya and Leysritt wanted, he'd get it for them.
"Leysritt." Sella sighed, though she did not move a single muscle aside from her lips and tongue. "It is improper for servants to ask for a reward."
"Sella wants lemon drops." Leysritt barely acknowledged her sister however, instead addressing Shirou again. "As many as possible."
"No problem." Shirou laughed, and it spoke to how right Leysritt was that Sella didn't say a word of protest, choosing to keep her silence this time.
Not wishing to needlessly prolong their waiting, as that was often worse than the process itself, Shirou then went over the Magic Circle one last time to make sure everything was beyond perfect.
He gently moved Sella a centimetre or two to the left, made a small cut on his arm to draw the blood he needed to make one line of the Circle a bit more pronounced, and did some other minor adjustments, going over every square centimetre with a magnifying glass.
Some might say he was exaggerating in his carefulness, but they would be wrong. With a ritual this big and complicated, it wasn't possible to be too cautious, not when a careless mistake could very well kill Illya, Sella, and Leysritt, or damage the Leyline, or blow up his whole shed alongside half the city. Perhaps even all of the above at once.
No, Shirou was doing this by the letter, something that was also reflected in his current outfit.
He had done away with anything synthetic or mechanical and wore only traditional Japanese garb that had been hand-made from purely natural resources. His outfit consisted of umanori hakama, traditional loose-fitting pants, hadagi, an undershirt, and haori, an ancient type of vestment.
He'd looked into getting himself a set of geta, wooden clog-like shoes, or setta, straw slippers, as well, but since there was no reason he couldn't go barefoot in his shed, he hadn't put in much effort.
Most likely, the traditional outfit was entirely superfluous, as he would be using an alien Ritual that didn't care in slightest about whether he wore synthetic or natural materials, but after Kiritsugu's lessons and especially Lord El-Melloi's classes on rituals and Formalcraft, taking such precautions served to lessen his anxiety if nothing else.
The outfit also looked pretty cool, if he said so himself.
During the last check-up of the Circle, which was taking many minutes, he could almost feel Illya's impatience rise again, and she wasn't the only one feeling the stirrings of anxiety.
"Is he finally going to start now?!"
The remark was made in a whiny tone, and almost prompted a smile from the redhead.
"He will start when he's ready, Ayako."
"But he's been fiddling with that Circle for hours now! Days even! Don't tell me you're not impatient too, Rin."
"Unlike you, I understand the importance of making sure that every aspect of a ritual is perfectly in order before conducting it. Even the rituals that I use for some of my research can have catastrophic consequences if I am careless in preparing them, and I have never done anything that was a fraction as complicated and daunting as this one appears to be."
As was perhaps obvious from the noise, Rin, Sakura, and Ayako were also present for the ritual, if only out of politeness and/or academic curiosity. They had been there since the start and waited with varying levels of impatience for him to begin the Ritual itself.
They were standing a good distance away from the Circle however, exactly as Shirou had instructed them. Although he had read everything that Nasu had given him pertaining to this ritual, there were still many things about it that he didn't understand. As such, it really was for the best if people who were not involved stayed far away from the action, lest they be unwillingly involved in some way.
He'd never forgive himself if he accidentally drained their Souls to power his Magic, or if he changed them into something monstrous.
As they were even-minded, sensible people, the girls had accepted his instructions without fuzz. They were standing on the other side of the shed, well out of reach of any possible volatile reactions. Of course, they couldn't see what he was doing from over there, but that was the price they had to pay for their safety.
"Shirou." Illya made a complaining noise to attract his attention again, and he promptly turned back to her. "Are you done yet?"
"You know, I do believe I am." He nodded, before getting up, automatically dusting off his hands even though there was not a speck of dust to be found anywhere nearby. "I'll start the ritual now. Make sure you don't move."
Sella and Leysritt had already been lying perfectly still, and Illya now did her best to emulate them, tensing all her muscles in an attempt to keep them from moving.
Feeling rather like a villain, with the three naked women lying before him in a Magic Circle while he prepared to cast a spell over them, Shirou picked up a green-coloured candle from nearby, freshly taken from the Vault, before lighting it and placing it right in the middle of the Circle, where it would serve as a focal point.
He ignored Ayako's excited chattering behind him, as well as Rin's short answers, holding out his hands as he breathed in deep.
"Are you ready, Illya? Sella? Leysritt?" He then asked yet again.
"Yes, we are!" Illya spat in response, a bit more aggressive than she perhaps intended. "Please just start already."
"Very well." Shirou nodded gravely, trying to ignore the nervous feelings in his gut, before he clapped his hands once.
Immediately after, all lights in the shed went out, leaving the green candle as the only source of illumination. The flickering flame cast a dark glow over the Magic Circle, making it appear as if Shirou's blood was actually coloured a dark green rather than red.
Shirou then clapped his hands again, and the Circle itself lit up, his blood starting to emit a bright red light as power started coalescing inside of it, before focusing around the candle, which started acting like a vacuum, eager to absorb any Magical Power it could find.
The redhead's reserves were sucked dry in a matter of moments, both Magical Energy and the Mysterious Power, and he hastened to draw more Mysterious Power from the ocean that lay beyond his plane of reality, while also exerting great control over the Circle to prevent the candle from completely draining the Leyline as well.
The fact that it would have drained the entire city dry in moments if he'd not stopped it was honestly frightening.
A surprised hiss indicated that Illya was also being drained, but he had warned her beforehand that such a thing would happen, and he had no choice now but to trust that she knew how to regulate her flow of Magical Energy.
For several minutes, Shirou remained still, allowing the candle to continue absorbing his power, before letting out a massive sigh of relief when it turned from green to white, indicating it had absorbed enough energy to fuel the Ritual.
Then he breathed in deep, preparing to start the chant, and sensed more than he heard how Rin leaned forward in eager anticipation.
If she was hoping to learn from his chant though, she would be disappointed. This was an alien spell, one that was not at all based on anything developed on Earth, so if Rin expected him to cast it in English, Japanese, or even Latin, she was completely wrong.
"πεφϔϖϝþæ ÞØčĦłłƃƤƦ ƺǂȣȡȶɃ Ħłłƃ ϖϝþ εφ ƃƤƦ ǂȣȡȶɃ." Shirou began speaking in a language he barely understood, a language that was absolutely not of any version of Earth in either his universe or Thor's. A language that was unspeakably more alien than anything he had ever heard before. "ØƦƤȣƤč φĦƃþφłɃæ čȡƦƤϝǂȡƤ."
The sounds that came out of his mouth were utterly inhuman, without any roots whatsoever in the languages of man that had been developed based on human vocal cords and human tongues. It was a language more fitting for a species of sapient birds with three tongues and a compressed chest-cavity instead of vocal cords, and even they would have found his utterings beyond their understanding.
For some reason, Shirou himself was able to cast the spell, but he was fully aware that any human attempting to copy him would sprain and knot their tongue in impossible ways before they had even finished pronouncing the first word. Even his throat was getting rubbed raw by the very words, and he was immensely durable both physically and metaphysically.
Even hearing it was apparently not without consequences. Illya, Sella, and Leysritt looked more dazed with every sound he produced, the alien language taking its toll on their minds, and he would have stopped immediately, had it not been for the fact that Nasu's instructions had assured him there would be no lasting effects.
"Ħƃþφł ƦϖæϔÞŒ ɺɻɷʘʞϫϗϻ."
He continued speaking, and he was only marginally surprised to find that the words did not travel through air, like normal sound, but instead through waves of pure intent, like…
He didn't even have a comparison.
He finished the chant barely a minute after starting, deeply intoning the last 'word', before gasping for air, coughing dryly.
His throat and lungs were itching terribly, his tongue felt numb as if the blood flow had been cut off, and he was quite sure that if he were to speak up now, his voice would either be a squeak or unbearably hoarse.
Being underwater for an hour didn't bother him, but this short chant had sucked all the oxygen right out of him.
There was no way he'd be able to chant another verse, but fortunately, the next part of the Ritual did not involve talking of any kind, only action.
His chant set in motion a series of events in the Inner World, and from the Circle he had drawn, countless threads of light sprouted like weeds, tightly locked together, forming a sort of three-dimensional tapestry, or perhaps a bush of immensely fine, interlocked seaweed.
These were not just mere beams of light though. This tapestry of threads was in fact nothing else than a visual display of a tiny part of reality's most basic form. God's own stitch work comprising a fraction of reality's basic form, made visible to Shirou's eyes.
Basically, Shirou was looking at the very essence of Sella's, Leysritt's, and Illya's existences, the very basic code that together formed the impression on reality that represented the entire concept of the three women. Everything was in there, from their age and their species to their experiences and their actions, and even the effects they'd had on everything and everyone around them in their entire lives.
If Shirou were to sever these threads, he would effectively remove Illya, Sella, and Leysritt from existence entirely. He would eradicate them so thoroughly it would be as if they had never existed in the first place.
But that was all theoretical. Shirou could not sever these lines even if he'd wanted to. He did not have the power or authority to interfere with God's own stitch work like that. That could not be done, not without becoming some kind of ultimate existence.
What he could do however, through the Ritual that Nasu had given to him, was coax a few of these threads to slightly alter their orientation within the tapestry, which would reshape reality, and make it so that Illya, Sella, and Leysritt became 'creatures similar to Shirou' from this point onward.
Something that would normally be utterly beyond him in any and every way, yet was now made barely possible through the Ritual.
So he started coaxing the threads, giving them immensely gentle pushes and prods in an attempt to move them elsewhere, so as to change the web itself.
It went mind-numbingly slow, minute after minute ticking by as Shirou pushed and pushed, and he wasn't surprised at all when Illya started shifting a bit, her expression both confused and exhausted.
She couldn't see the lines, nor could Sella and Leysritt, so for them, it had to seem as if he was just standing there, staring intently at nothing at all without any sort of progress being made.
He would have liked to reassure them, to comfort them with some kind words, but his throat was still raw from the chant and manipulating the threads took up all his attention, so he could only spare them a quick smile.
He wasn't able to see if the smile had any effect though, as he was reaching a critical point with his manipulations which took up every last bit of his focus, forcing him to look away from them again.
The three threads that he had to reoriented for the Ritual to be a success were starting to move a lot easier now that they had been loosened, and Shirou put them in exactly the right configuration, as prescribed by the Ritual. Once again, he took all the time he needed to verify their position and orientation, not leaving anything to chance.
The fact that he was rummaging around in the basic code of reality should have been insanely nerve-wracking, but Shirou was so absorbed in his current task that he barely even registered the sheer impossibility of what he was doing.
Only when he was completely satisfied did he let the threads go, at the same time releasing his hold over the Magic Circle, putting in motion the conclusion of the Ritual.
The tapestry flickered several times as it took note of the changes Shirou had just wrought to its structure, before it disappeared again, without any pomp or fanfare, the glow dying down and leaving the white candle once more as the only source of light in the shed, casting its shine on the three Homunculi on the ground.
It remained silent for several seconds after that, nobody moving a muscle or saying a word.
At first sight, nothing seemed to have changed, and it wasn't long before Illya hesitantly spoke up.
"Was that it-?"
She wasn't able to finish her question before the Magic Circle exploded in light, instantly encompassing both her and her maids, as Reality took note of the changes to its basic programming code and shifted to accommodate those changes.
It was bright, incomprehensibly bright, like a miniature star. Shirou did his best to keep looking, but was soon forced to close his eyes anyway, as the assault on his retina became too much for even him to bear.
This part of the Ritual went significantly faster than the other parts, and it was after only a few seconds that the bright star died down again.
With that, the three parts of the Ritual had been completed.
The first part, gathering the energy and casting the spell.
The second part, adjusting the orientation of the threads.
The third part, keeping the ritual under control while the changes in the threads were translated into actual consequences for Reality.
It was done.
The candle flame subsequently went out by itself, leaving the shed in total darkness. The candle's role was over, and it had gone dormant again until the next time that Shirou needed to conduct a large ritual.
"That was it." The redhead spoke, his voice incredibly hoarse, in response to Illya's earlier question. "I am done."
He clapped his hands again, and the lights went back on, brightly illuminating the shed, allowing him to see the results of his work.
Because of their positioning, Sella and Leysritt entered his line of sight first, showing him the effects that his Ritual had had on them.
Their previously stark-white hair had gained strong red highlights, exactly the same shade as Shirou's own hair. The highlights were rather eye-catching, probably a bit more than would be considered appropriate in Japanese society, but in Shirou's humble opinion, it looked good on them to finally have some colour.
Their eyes, previously so bright red, had dulled considerably, and were now not as much red as they were a soft golden-brown.
Their skin had gotten a bit less white, moving them away from unhealthily pale to what a natural redhead lacking pigmentation would look like.
Lastly, they had become more muscular. Their biceps were larger, their thighs had filled up considerably, and the beginnings of a six-pack were showing on their abdomens.
Their outward appearances were not what was important though. What really mattered were their inner natures, and those had changed far, far more than their looks.
Their lifespan, previously measured in a single digit, had increased by leaps and bounds, probably crossing into the centuries if they lived properly.
Their Homunculus programming, reminiscent of the code used to make computers work, had been replaced by proper brain-functions, with a solid foundation of human instincts built over millions of years of evolution.
Their bodies, which had previously contained no more than the absolutely necessary components such as the heart, lungs, and several blood vessels, had been properly restructured to include all organs Shirou himself also possessed, and several which he didn't, such as wombs and ovaries.
And at the basis of all those alterations and improvements was their change in race, having shifted from Homunculus to part human and part Asgardian.
In other words, the Ritual had been a complete success for them.
Seeing that, Shirou fist-pumped, grinning widely.
Then, he looked at Illya, just as she got up from the floor, and his grin became so wide as to be almost painful when he saw his success with Sella and Leysritt reflected in her.
It was all there. The change in race, the increase in lifespan, the disappearance of her inborn deficiencies, and on top of that, her Magic Circuits, which had been so cruelly grafted onto her by her creators, had not only been preserved and strengthened, but they were now also embedded comfortably in her Soul, where they wouldn't harm her even when used intensively.
But the biggest change of all, the greatest success of the entire Ritual, was the fact that her capacity to become the Lesser Grail, the container supposed to hold the defeated Servants of the Grail War, had disappeared. In other words, Illya could no longer serve as her family's tool.
She was truly free at last.
The Ritual's success exceeded his wildest imaginations, and Shirou had to put in actual effort to stop himself from crying in relief and delight.
"S-Shirou, w-what's wrong?" Perhaps spooked by his emotional display, Illya asked the question in a nervous tone, patting herself up and down in search of any obvious changes. "H-How do I look?"
Not trusting himself to speak coherently, Shirou wordlessly Projected a large mirror, figuring it would be best if Illya saw for herself what had changed, rather than just hearing it from others.
Illya cautiously peered into the mirror, apprehension and worry evident in every facet of her expression, before she blinked in abject confusion.
Because the girl staring back from the mirror was not her.
The girl in the mirror was a fourteen-year-old girl rather than a ten-year-old. She was tall, mature-looking for her age, and with secondary sex-organs that were starting to develop properly, something that should never have happened to Illya.
The girl in the mirror had white hair, but she had red highlights too, so many that they made up almost half of her total hair.
Furthermore, her eyes, while bright red like Illya's, possessed numerous tiny golden flecks that shimmered in the light of the lamps in the ceiling, resembling stars in a red universe.
On top of that, the girl's skin was slightly darker than Illya's, though still quite pale, and she had far more muscle mass than Illya too.
If anything, this girl looked like a proper mix of Illya's different families, Einzbern and Emiya. She had many of Irisviel's traits, a few from Kiritsugu, and a fair bit of Shirou as well.
It was enough to make Illya almost jealous of this unknown girl, and she frowned deeply at her, pouting petulantly, before nearly biting her tongue in surprise when the girl in the mirror did exactly the same.
And with that, the recognition slowly started to creep in, and Illya realised why Sella was gaping at her in shock.
"The… ritual was a… success." Shirou croaked out as best as he could, ignoring the pain in his throat as he smiled down at her. "You… are healthy… now."
It took a while for his words to sink in, but then Illya began shaking slightly, her breathing becoming irregular, while Sella froze in shock and Leysritt's eyes misted over.
"You are… like me."
His words were the blow that shattered the dam that had been holding back the flood of their emotions. The maids let the tears flow freely over their cheeks, experiencing the intensity of proper human emotions for the first time, while Illya finally let her mask come undone.
Illya cried, laughed, screamed, and wailed all at the same time, starting out rather soft, before almost tearing her own lungs out at the end, roaring her happiness and grief to the Heavens above.
Sella and Leysritt, having lost none of their caring instincts, swiftly moved to embrace her, and Illya eagerly reciprocated, hugging them in return with every bit of strength she possessed.
The former Homunculi, now turned human, celebrated their newfound humanity together, sharing an experience that no one else in the world could relate to, and Shirou, even though he wanted nothing more than to embrace them as well, kept his distance for now, giving them a moment of privacy together.
On the other side of the shed, Rin was trying to bury her own feelings of delight under analytical interest in these newly created, humanish beings, while Sakura tried her best to stop her sister from ruining the mood while burying her face into Rin's back to hide the fact she wasn't able to keep her eyes dry either.
Ayako on the other hand didn't hide anything, and she went straight for Shirou himself, eagerly thumping him on the back with one hand while wiping away a few stray tears with the other.
"Nice work, Shirou!" She beamed at him, pressing a kiss to his cheek, before nuzzling her face against his. "That ritual was something else! I mean, I had no idea what was going on, but it was awesome! How are you holding up after all that?"
"I'm tired." Shirou answered bluntly. The ritual had drained him, magically, physically, and mentally, and he had to fight to remain standing. His throat seemed to be recovering, but it was the only part of his body that was getting better in any way.
"Of course you are. Well, how about you leave the clean-up to us, then you can go back to the house and crash on the couch for a while?"
"That sounds wonderful." The redhead admitted, scarcely able to think of anything better than lying down for a few hours, the brunette coming in and out of focus as his eyes struggled to continue working as they should. "Will you be alright here?"
"Sure." Ayako nodded, flashing him a confident grin. "You can leave it all to us."
"Then I think I will go back inside. Tell Illya I'll speak with her… later…" Shirou turned towards Ayako to kiss her goodbye, but stumbled suddenly as his sense of balance seemed to evaporate from one second to the next.
The redhead stumbled backwards, a sense of vertigo washing over him, and the only reason he didn't fall over was because Ayako was holding on to his arm.
But soon, even that wasn't enough anymore, and he toppled over, the exhaustion becoming too much for him to bear. Vaguely, he noted how Rin and Sakura rushed over to him, but although their lips were moving rapidly, he wasn't able to discern any sounds, aside from some short flashes.
At first, he struggled to stay awake, gaining motivation from the girls' worried expressions, but soon, his eyelids became too heavy for him to bear.
The last thing he saw before darkness claimed him were three pairs of eyes looking down at him, one brown, one blue, and one purple, and then there was nothing.
Wandering alone through the Black Forest at night would have been a scary, if not outright terrifying experience for most people. The almost oppressive darkness, the complete silence aside from the rustling leaves, and the constant sensation of living beings moving around soundlessly was a perfect mixture to put the fear of the unknown into the minds of nearly all humans alive.
To Lorelei Barthomeloi however, it was business as usual.
The Vice-Director of the Clocktower was a being that was almost without fear. She could still be afraid, theoretically, as she had the necessary functions and pathways in her brain, but in all honesty, she hadn't been afraid of anything since she was ten years old.
She'd been apprehensive since then, yes, and cautious, and maybe sometimes even a little nervous, but scared? That feeling had long since been beaten out of her.
And even if it hadn't been, Lorelei was too powerful and competent to be scared of something like the dark or the silence.
She had her magical lamp, her reflexes, and her instincts warning her of impending danger, so there was nothing for her to fear.
Nothing aside from the unknown beast she was hunting.
Over the past days, she and her team had made no progress whatsoever in tracking down the creature that was lurking in the Black Forest. It was too well-hidden, and too adept at covering its tracks.
Reasoning that it was perhaps their presence as a large group that was warning the creature of their approach, the head tracker had advised her that they would be better off splitting into smaller groups. It would be a risk, as small groups were easier to ambush and defeat, but they were getting nowhere, so perhaps taking a risk was exactly what they needed to do.
So they had indeed split up, in groups of three or four, and had wandered off in different directions. They all had various means of communication, and even several switches that would alert the others if someone died or was grievously wounded, so the chance of being picked off one by one, which had been Lorelei's biggest concern, was practically zero.
Satisfied with the precautions, Lorelei had set out on her own.
It had been about five hours since then, and Lorelei had finally stumbled, completely by chance, upon something potentially interesting.
She'd picked up a trace of Mystery from somewhere ahead of her in the forest.
She couldn't say if it was Magecraft or something else, but it was definitely not normal. It made all of her Magic-attuned senses go off, and when she set out in the direction that it appeared to be coming from, that sensation only got stronger, mainly translating into a sharp smell, as the brunette primarily detected Mystery through her nose.
It was a bit strange though that she could suddenly sense Mystery so strongly after feeling nothing of the sort before, even at the site where the creature had recently killed six men, so she took into account the fact that it might be a trap. It wasn't unusual for even the stupidest of Magical Beings to possess some measure of cunning after all, and this creature was many things, but stupid definitely wasn't one of them.
Hence, she kept her eyes peeled and her hand on the hilt of her rapier, ready to unsheathe it should it become necessary.
Her rapier was essentially a sharper version of her iconic riding crop. Both were her weapons of choice, specifically created and attuned just for her, but the rapier was capable of more power output and could be used as an actual weapon as well, unlike the riding crop, which could almost be considered a mere symbol or trinket.
She almost never used either weapon though. In her opinion, there was no reason to use weapons to strengthen oneself when one's opponents didn't warrant it, and most of her opponents didn't.
She hadn't even used them during the Purge. As momentous as that occasion had been in the political field, the Meluastea and their cronies simply did not possess the kind of strength that made it necessary for her to wield either riding crop or rapier.
That it made her feel ever so slightly proud that Fujimaru did use a weapon, his hammer, while she did not, was a secret that no one else but her needed to know about.
She did always carry both weapons with her though, just in case, and she had a personal rule that she would not hesitate to use them if she encountered anything new, something she'd never seen before. Unknown things were the most dangerous, especially in the Moonlit World, making it foolish to treat them with any flippancy.
Which meant that the current situation more than qualified for the use of her rapier.
Her hand on the hilt, Lorelei cautiously made her way through the forest, following her nose, before she arrived at a place that seemed like her destination.
How did she know it was her destination? Because there, she saw something that could not in any way be natural or ordinary.
Before her, numerous massive oak trees had been planted in a slightly curved line, the orientation of which indicated that they likely formed an enormous circle together, practically separating a part of the forest from the rest.
The distance between each of the trees was just enough for two Loreleis to walk through shoulder to shoulder, while the trees themselves were so massive a truck could have been hidden behind them.
Even though it was autumn, the oaks were still fully green, and not a single leaf had dropped from the branches as far as Lorelei could see. Furthermore, the trees were practically identical, every last one of them, and they had such a powerful aura of Mystery that even a mundane person could have felt it.
Behind the oak trees, a greater variety of plants, bushes, and trees could be seen, practically drenched in Mystery and emitting more Magical Energy every second than most Magi could produce in an hour.
It was a forest within the Black Forest, entirely separated from the area outside of the circle of trees, as if it were its own world. A sub-forest, essentially.
Upon seeing this ominous sub-forest, Lorelei immediately unsheathed her sword, keeping her guard up and activating her Magic Circuits in preparation for combat, countless fire-based spells on the tip of her tongue.
In the Modern Age, a mystical forest was a cause for great alarm, as there was only one of them left now that the Age of the Gods had fully ended.
The Forest of Einnashe. The seventh Dead Apostle Ancestor.
When the former seventh, a vampire by the name of Einnashe, had been mortally wounded by Arcueid Brunestud, he had managed to drag himself away into a forest before he died. There, he had bled out at the foot of an oak tree.
The oak tree had absorbed the Apostle's blood, gaining vampiric traits of its own, and had then changed the entire forest surrounding it into a Phantasmal Species over time.
Now, it was a sentient forest, reportedly over forty kilometres in diameter, manifesting itself every fifty years to engulf entire villages to consume every living thing inside through its roots and branches, impaling and trapping everything that moved.
It was a being that could not be killed by mundane means, that consumed all Magical Energy in its vicinity, making the use of Magecraft within its borders impossible, and that could endlessly regenerate, even when burned with solar flames. It more than deserved its position as the Seventh, as well as its reputation of being one of the strongest Ancestors to have ever existed.
Of course, what Lorelei saw before her could not be the main body of the Seventh, as it was too small. However, the Forest of Einnashe had the annoying ability to sever certain parts of itself and manifest them independently. In other words, it could be in multiple places at once, something other Dead Apostle Ancestors gleefully made use of, transporting those parts into the homes of their enemies.
The notion that this could be a partial manifestation of the Forest of Einnashe was enough to make Lorelei's hackles rise, and she had already created and discarded several dozen contingency plans in the seconds before she realised that this forest was very different from the Seventh.
She should know. She had encountered a partial manifestation of the Forest of Einnashe before, and it had looked and felt nothing like the sub-forest in front of her.
The oak trees and the forest behind it felt too calm, too peaceful, to be part of that ancient monstrosity. Also, this forest emitted Magical Energy rather than absorbing it, and Lorelei could see several small animals moving about behind the oak trees, animals that weren't being drained of all their blood.
She didn't sheathe her sword, nor did she drop her guard, but she did move in slightly closer, to take a better look.
She inched closer to the tree line, keeping a sharp eye on both the branches and the roots, ready to jump backwards should they make even one unexpected move, before-
"Come in, or go away."
A deep, echoing voice suddenly sounded from deep within the sub-forest, bringing with it a breeze that held so much Magical Energy that a mundane person would have been brought to their knees from the sheer intensity.
Even Lorelei, the Strongest Magus of the Modern Generation, felt the tips of her fingers and toes tingle slightly, indicating that whatever was hiding in the sub-forest, it was powerful indeed.
It was also clearly sapient, and it had just extended an invitation to enter its realm.
"Carelessly entering a domain of an unknown nature is against all policies and guidelines of both the Clocktower and the Barthomeloi-family." She responded promptly, though she was unsure whether the creature in the woods was even listening to her.
It was indeed listening, and it didn't appear to care much about what Lorelei chose to do. In fact, it sounded almost bored with her presence.
"Tsk." Lorelei made a displeased noise at the implied dismissal, something that stabbed right at her pride, and she promptly decided to do the opposite. She was going to enter this forest and find the creature.
Though not before taking several precautions. Through a communication-based Mystic Code, she quickly alerted her followers that she had encountered a possible danger and left a beacon at her current location for them to find. That way, even if she didn't survive, they'd be able to track her down.
Lorelei didn't plan on dying of course, but if this forest was anything like the Forest of Einnashe, entering it would be like stepping into the dragon's maw, something even she would find hard to survive.
Not that that would stop her. The possibility of dying had never bothered her before, and it didn't now. Lorelei spent nary a thought on the consequences of her possible death, the trouble it would bring to the Magus Association, and instead focused fully on the hunt before her, her lips twitching in anticipation.
Mirei Montmorency would have shaken her head in consternation, Waver Velvet would have considered it madness, and even Emiya Shirou would have scratched the back of his head in bemusement, but to Lorelei, it was only natural that she would risk her life.
Everything worth doing was worth dying for after all, especially on a hunt.
With a confidence in her own abilities that would have bordered on arrogance if she hadn't genuinely been so capable, she walked past the oak trees, entering the sub-forest proper.
The moment she did so, the world around her changed completely.
In the Black Forest, it had been almost past midnight. It had been dark, silent, and cold, exactly as forests should be at night, with nary a trace of Magical Energy to be found anywhere.
In the sub-domain however, in the forest beyond the oak trees, it was morning, as indicated by the light of the rising sun peeking through the canopy. Birds were chirping, squirrels and rabbits ran past her on every side, and the leaves of the trees and the bushes rustled merrily as a warm breeze passed through them.
The plants were perfectly green, the ground perfectly brown, the air was a clear blue, and if there was an imperfection anywhere in the landscape, Lorelei could not see it.
This was clearly not the Black Forest. In fact, it was too perfect to be any kind of natural forest at all.
It was as if she'd stepped into a forest from a children's tale. An ideal, perfect forest that should only exist in stories. The kind of forest that Little Red Riding Hood would have walked through, or in which the Sleeping Beauty had been raised, or where old Witches and wise Wizard would build their dingy shacks.
That the Mana in the air was denser than anything she'd ever felt before, even inside the Barthomeloi-manor, only supported the notion she was now in some kind of mythical wood. Something that should not have existed in the Modern Age.
Lorelei looked around with a mixture of curiosity and caution, her keen eyes tracking every movement in her immediate surroundings.
As said before, there were rabbits and squirrels, but also various birds, one of two hogs, and she even walked past a perfectly white deer, which was calmly grazing in a small, idyllic-looking clearing, not sparing her a single glance.
…Correction, a perfectly white unicorn.
Lorelei froze mid-walk, staring in abject confusion at the singular horn on the creature's head, the aura of power surrounding the beast indicating clearly that it was very likely an actual unicorn rather than a fake.
The Age of the Gods was over, everyone knew that, and all its remnants should have disappeared long ago, yet for some reason, one of the most famous Phantasmal Beings in existence was right there in the clearing, carelessly eating grass while ignoring Lorelei, as if it had every right to be there.
The brunette instinctively gulped softly, unable to tear her eyes away from the creature that by all rights should not have existed, and her hand itched towards her rapier again, when-
"Come further, your highness."
The deep, echoing voice snapped her out of her daze, and she let her hand fall down at her side, realising she was being foolish.
That it was a creature of the past did not mean she had to act against it, especially not inside its own territory. It was not a Dead Apostle or a Ghoul, and it did not deserve her hatred.
So Lorelei continued, away from the Unicorn and towards the echoing voice, walking past the trees and across the meadows, even crossing a small, picturesque bridge over a tiny stream of perfectly clear water.
That she also crossed paths with a wolf walking on its hindlegs and wearing a sharp suit was something she tried not to think about too much. Nor did she acknowledge the pig clad in a builder's outfit, carrying a large stack of bricks.
Then, at long last, she arrived at her destination.
It was a gigantic yew tree, so large that it blotted out the sun, casting the ground below it in shadow. Its roots extended for dozens of metres around, and its trunk was so vast that even the Big Ben of London would have felt humbled.
And in that tree, perched on a branch about ten metres off the ground, was an owl.
It was a large owl, about a metre high, coloured an even brown. It had a sharp beak, shining claws, and beautiful feathers that looked perfectly fit to stroke and pet.
It also wore glasses, a square academic hat, and a red scarf that was wrapped around its neck.
Frankly, it looked absolutely adorable.
"Welcome, oh queen." The owl spoke, confirming that it was the source of the deep voice, before it lowered its head in a show of respect. "Thank you for accepting my invitation on such short notice."
The owl was talking.
It was actually talking.
It wasn't a familiar being used as a relay by a Magus, but actually, independently talking to her.
"There was little choice after you goaded me." Lorelei showed not a hint of the shock she felt on her face however, instead giving it a reprimanding look, not giving away the conversation's initiative. "To atone, you shall tell me who and what you are."
"I am no one of importance." The owl responded humbly, and somehow, it managed to smile sheepishly at her with its beak. "I am merely the accumulation of various very similar supporting characters that appear in many myths and children's tales. I am the Wise Owl, guide of heroes and storybook characters."
"The wise owl?" Lorelei repeated in a questioning tone, receiving a nod in return from the sapient bird. "Well met."
"Well met indeed!" The wise owl looked delighted with her reaction, its feathers puffing out slightly. Then it cleared its throat, looking a bit sheepish again as it continued in a more controlled voice. "You must be wondering why I invited you here, into this fairy-tale forest, in the middle of your hunt."
Lorelei did not respond verbally, but she did incline her head in agreement.
"Because I have a rather urgent message to pass on." The owl's expression turned serious, and its voice became grave. "As you might have inferred from my presence here, Mystery is returning to your world at an alarming pace."
"Mystery is returning?" That piece of news was even more shocking than seeing a talking owl, and Lorelei's eyes widened in surprise.
Being the Vice-Director of the Clocktower, she didn't fail to realise the implications of the owl's statement, nor did she fail to understand what it would mean for her, her family, and the Moonlit World at large if it was speaking the truth.
If Mystery was indeed returning, if the decline was reversing somehow, then that would mean that all spells, Mystic Codes, Rituals, Bounded Fields, and all other forms of Magecraft would become more powerful and potent. Rather than weakening, Thaumaturgy would make a comeback, as if time had been reversed and they were getting closer to the Age of the Gods again rather than moving away from it.
That would have been very welcome news to any Magus, an occasion worth celebrating for centuries to come, if it hadn't been for the fact that Magecraft did not exist in a vacuum.
The return of Mystery and the strengthening of Thaumaturgy would also mean that the entire fabric of the Moonlit World's society, now focused on slowing down the decline, would be upended in a way that would make the Purge seem like a mere hiccup.
Magi would no longer have to hide and protect their crafts in fear of weakening them, but they could step out and use them without fear, safe in the knowledge that they would grow stronger anyway. The mindset of the Magus Association would switch from caution and preservation to a free-for-all, with all the consequences thereof.
Chaos and anarchy would reign for at least a decade as Magi desperately tried to figure out a new status-quo, and in that process, the Secrecy of the Moonlit World would be doomed entirely. Boundaries and laws that had been established at the very foundation of the Magus Association would shatter, and they would be lucky to have bits and pieces left at the end to try and put back together.
All kinds of doom-scenarios played through Lorelei's head, but she took a deep breath and pushed them aside, focusing on the creature before her again. She needed to know more before she could make accurate predictions.
"A most relevant question." The owl hummed, shifting slightly on its branch as it turned its head upwards, looking at the heavens. "It is because of the godling."
"A divine being that came from the Outer Dark, far beyond my sight. Its alien nature has so far prevented the World from banishing it to the Reverse Side like she has all other gods, and its very existence in your world now breathes new life into the Mystics of Old."
"Are you saying there is a god living amongst humanity right now?" Lorelei questioned sharply.
"That is exactly what I am saying."
That wasn't good. It was well known to all residents of the Moonlit World and a fair few of the mundane world too that gods were nothing but trouble. Callous deities that saw humans as playthings and played their games without regard for the misery they caused.
"Where is this god?" Lorelei continued her questioning, intending to pump the owl for every bit of intel it possessed. "What is its name?"
"I cannot tell you." The owl refused to answer her inquiries however, before holding up a wing when she glared at it. "I am the wise owl. It is my role and life's duty to be cryptic. I know the outlines of everything that happens in this world and all its parallel versions, but details are never revealed to me. I am sorry, but I do not have the answers you seek."
A disappointing outcome, but as far as the brunette could see, the creature wasn't lying. Then again, even if it was, there was nothing she could do about it, least of all force the truth out of it. Phantasmal Creatures were immensely troublesome opponents, and sapient ones even more so.
"The godling is not the reason I have invited you here however." The owl continued suddenly, its voice becoming even graver. "The decline in Mystery that you Magi have feared for so long is reversing, and as a result, it will not be long now until my contemporaries return."
"Your contemporaries?" Lorelei's blood ran cold, shivers working its way up her spine, as she instantly understood what the creature was hinting at. "More Phantasmal Beasts?"
"Many more." The wise owl nodded sadly, its large eyes blinking slowly. "Many of them far more savage and bloodthirsty than the unicorn, the wolf, the three piglets, or myself."
Lorelei's breathing became shaky, and she unconsciously took a step back. Though she'd never encountered any Phantasmal Species herself aside from Gremlins and the occasional enhanced Chimaera, her education had ensured that she was perfectly aware of what those creatures could be capable of.
If Wyverns, Bicorns, Lamias, and the like would return, it would present an unprecedented challenge to the people of the Modern Age, probably resulting in hundreds if not thousands of deaths every time even just one showed up.
But that was still the best-case scenario by far. If a Dragon, a Hydra, or the original Chimaera would return, it would result in disasters that would make even the most destructive of wars between Magi seem like a playground spat.
The return of Jormungand, Typhon, or Vritra would spell the end of the world entirely.
"This is why I summoned you, oh Queen." The owl's voice cut through her thoughts, pulling her attention back to it. "You are the closest thing that the Moonlit World has to a leader. Of all the people currently alive, you are best positioned to prepare for the return of the Phantasmal Beasts, to prevent the destruction that they may bring about."
"You are the Queen, are you not? You hold the highest rank in the Magus Association, and in return, you are expected to lead the Moonlit World in times of chaos." The owl spoke, its voice turning stern. "Or is that title a mere façade? An ego-trip for your family and a cheap way in which to gain political power?"
"It is not!" Lorelei snapped, unable to let the dig at her family pass. "We are the true leaders of the Clocktower!"
"Then prove it." The owl snapped back, clicking its beak. "You have the necessary power, so put it to use!"
"I haven't even decided whether to believe you yet." Lorelei countered, still not sure the owl wasn't a trickster who was just spinning a tale for its own amusement. "What is your motivation in warning me in the first place? What do you stand to gain?"
"I am the guide of heroes. My given role is to protect and support humanity." The owl explained readily. "These tasks are rooted in my very existence. I cannot stop doing them any more than you can stop breathing."
"I find that hard to believe." Lorelei was aware that certain mythical creatures were supposed to be completely and utterly bound by their nature, but she did not know how true those myths were. And even if they were true, she still couldn't be certain that this owl wasn't just lying to her, about everything.
"Still, wouldn't it be better to believe me and prepare?" The owl argued. "An ounce of preservation is worth a pound of cure after all, and you lose nothing by being cautious."
"Preparing for the return of mythical beings when such beings are not returning will cost me a lot of political clout, goodwill, and respect." Lorelei pointed out. She knew the story of the boy who cried wolf, and she had no intention of becoming its protagonist.
"Which is nothing compared to what you will lose if you do not prepare and they do return." The owl's head turned from left to right, the gesture oozing irritation, before it calmed itself down, and gestured with a wing at the forest surrounding them. "Are our current surroundings not a good indication that my claims are leaning towards truthful?"
That was a good argument, and not one that Lorelei could easily counter. Every explanation that she could think of, from having been transported to the Reverse Side of the World herself to this being a Reality Marble, did require the involvement of powers beyond her understanding after all.
"…Alright, let us say that I shall believe you, for now." The brunette spoke tentatively, eliciting a hopeful look from the owl. "What am I supposed to do then to stop the return of the Phantasmal Species?"
"I don't know."
For a few seconds after the owl's nonchalant declaration of ignorance, it remained perfectly quiet.
Then Lorelei gave it such a hard glare it took a step back on its branch.
"Now now." It spoke in a placating tone, nervously flapping its wings as it felt how Lorelei's fierce gaze burned a hole through its plumage. "I am just the messenger! Please don't harm the messenger!"
"You don't know what can be done about the return of the Phantasmal Beasts?" Lorelei asked, her tone just a tab acerbic. "Even though you are the wise owl?"
"I am merely a guide, not a strategist or warrior." The owl huffed, the feathers on its neck puffing up slightly in indignation. "I can provide you with some general information. What you will do with that information is entirely up to you however."
"How useless." Lorelei snipped, not impressed by its indignation. "You truly have no idea?"
"…Might I suggest that you inform your subjects, as well as the Church and the other Magecraft-focused associations, about the possibility that they will encounter Phantasmal Beasts on a more frequent basis?" The owl proposed after a moment.
"It is unlikely they will believe me if I tell them that Mystery is returning to the world."
"You do not have to tell them that. Even before the arrival of the godling, Phantasmal Species hadn't disappeared completely from your world, had they?" The owl asked rhetorically. "You will inform them that Phantasmal Species will present a greater danger from now on, and even if they don't believe you initially, they will know who to turn to when the chips are down and Mystery does indeed return."
"They will turn to me." Lorelei surmised, her lips twitching as she wondered whether she even wanted that. It sounded like an awful lot of responsibility.
"I have every confidence that you can manage, so don't worry about that." The owl spoke, its tone supportive, and Lorelei looked away to the side. "Your bond with the godling helps as well."
"What?!" Lorelei's gaze snapped back at the feathered animal, her voice sharpening so much it could have cut steel.
"You have met the godling who is the cause of all this, and you have forged a connection with him." The owl explained, seemingly unbothered by her glare and her tone. "That is good."
Lorelei frowned deeply at that piece of information, and cast her mind back, digging into her memories to find out when she was supposed to have met a divine being.
Logically, such a being would be immensely powerful, large and imposing, unbearably arrogant, and utterly indifferent towards human life. A creature that would definitely make an impression on everyone around it.
All Lorelei could think of though that met those criteria were the Dead Apostle Ancestors. There wasn't really anything else she'd ever seen that could be considered even remotely godlike.
"I have no idea who you are talking about." She thus replied. "I don't recall meeting any divine beings."
"All will become clear in time." The owl smiled, which was weird, considering it only had a beak and no lips to smile with. "And when it does, you'll feel quite foolish for not seeing it sooner."
There was no question in the owl's words, so Lorelei didn't reply. She had her own opinions on the matter but didn't think it prudent to share them.
"That was everything that I could tell you now." The owl went on after a few beats of silence, before shaking its head. "No no, that isn't true. I can also tell you that the creatures you are hunting now are in fact Phantasmal Beasts, and that they do not necessarily have to be fought."
"You'll see when you meet them." The owl said, waving a wing in a dismissive motion. Then, it looked up at the sky, which was suddenly turning dark. "It seems our time here is up. My power has been spent, and this place must return to the Reverse Side for now. Please go back in exactly the same manner that you came in, your highness, and don't forget to pet the Unicorn. It likes the attention of maidens."
The last syllable had barely left the owl's beak before the world seemed to darken around Lorelei, and the next moment, she found herself standing in the small clearing from before, right next to the Unicorn.
The mythical beast was looking at her with eyes full of expectancy, and Lorelei, after a split second of confusion, reached out and pet it, softly stroking the white mane.
Then the world darkened again, and Lorelei found herself back in the Black Forest, in the middle of the night, right next to the beacon she'd set earlier.
A quick look around for the fairy tale forest yielded no results. It was gone, without a trace. All she could see around her was the familiar scenery of the Black Forest, much the same as the other areas she'd been searching over the past days. Even the Mystery was gone, leaving nothing but the background traces that could be found in pretty much any forest in Europe.
If she could believe the owl, and she tentatively did, then the fairy-tale forest had returned to the Reverse Side because the owl's power had run out for now.
It could almost have been a dream. She would have believed it to be one, if it hadn't been for the few strands of Unicorn hair that were tangled around her fingers. Strands seemingly made out of pure silver, carrying so much Mystery that her hand was tingling as if she had been sleeping on it for an hour.
Those hairs made denying the truth a fool's errand, and Lorelei realised that that was probably exactly the reason why the owl had asked her to pet the Unicorn. To ensure she had physical proof of what had just happened.
The first thing she did upon realising that was to turn off the beacon and replace it with the 'all-clear' sign, signalling to her team that they did not need to rush to her location anymore. Right now, she was not in the mood for conversation, as she had a lot to think about.
Not only the sheer impossibility of what had just occurred, with her being pulled into what was almost a separate realm filled with anthropomorphic animals, but also what the owl had told her.
The news that Mystery, and with it Phantasmal Beasts, was returning to the world was absolutely earth-shattering to a Magus like Lorelei. As cool and composed as she normally was –if only in her own mind– this was something of such magnitude that she wasn't ashamed of showing various emotions in response to it.
By the Root, if she told this to her family, several of them would faint outright, cold exterior or not.
Worse, according to the owl, it would be her task to deal with them. To prevent Phantasmal Beasts from adversely impacting humanity, like how she prevented Dead Apostles from doing the same.
And as a prelude to it all, as some kind of demented introduction, she was now hunting exactly such a beast.
Not a Chimaera, not a Gremlin, not a Dead Apostle or rogue Magus, not even an ordinary serial killer, but an actual Phantasmal Beast.
Her heart was beating faster than normal again, but this time, it wasn't out of excitement over encountering something new. This was no longer new. To the contrary, it was old, old and powerful, and it wasn't supposed to have come back.
For the first time since her early childhood, Lorelei felt the stirrings of fear.
Shirou awoke from his slumber with a jarring shock.
He'd slept dreamlessly, peacefully, without any kind of nightmares, and there had been nothing in his vicinity that should have triggered such a strong reaction, yet even so, his awakening was anything but peaceful.
He shot upwards into a seating position before he even knew where he was or what was going on, startling the living daylights out of Rin, who was sitting against the wall nearby.
"Emiya-kun?!" She squeaked, looking at him with wide eyes. "Don't do that!"
Shirou didn't immediately reply though, looking back at her in a daze, still struggling to reboot his mind.
The first thing he eventually realised was that he was back in their bedroom, on their new bed.
The second thing was that it seemed to be morning, judging from the angle of the light falling through the window and the chirping of birds outside.
The third thing… was everything that had happened before he'd passed out.
The ritual, trying to change Illya, Sella, and Leysritt into humans and succeeding at it, feeling utterly drained afterwards, and…
…Oh, right, he'd fainted.
"So you know what happened." Rin concluded when she saw his expression of realisation, before getting up from the floor to walk over to him, her expression perfectly neutral.
"What? Oh right. I do, somewhat." Shirou nodded, as the haze in his mind was progressively disappearing, which both cleared some things up and raised a few questions. "How are Illya, Sella, and Leysritt? Did the Ritual work?"
He was pretty sure it had, but he couldn't be fully certain. Not when he'd fallen unconscious so quickly after the Ritual's completion.
Rin didn't reply to his questions though, and instead knelt on the bed, softly taking his hand in her own.
Then she opened her other hand, revealing three red gems, brimming with Magical Energy.
"Es ist groß. Er ist klein." She suddenly began chanting, blue lines spreading across her arms and her core, and Shirou recognised it a second later as Reinforcement Magic. "Vox God es Atlas!"
Then she dropped the gems, and twisted his arm, hard.
"Hey! What are you doing, Rin?!" Shirou protested against the sudden abuse, a sharp pain rushing through his arm and wrist. "Ouch, Rin?! That hurts!"
The black-haired girl paid no heed to his protests though, twisting his arm around and on his back, before forcefully pushing him face-down onto the bed, lying down on top of him with her full weight, pinning him in place.
"YOU IDIOT!" She then roared at him with a white-hot anger in her voice, accompanied by an extra twist to his arm to show just how displeased she was with him. "What on Earth did you think you were doing?! Who said you could suddenly faint like that!? Who said you could remain asleep for so long?! Do you have any idea how worried we were?!"
"Huh?" Shirou blinked in surprise at Rin's lecture.
"When you fainted, you almost stopped breathing! Your heart rate slowed! We thought you were dying!"
"Did all your successes go to your head?!" Rin continued her furious interrogation, really pressing herself down on top of him, as if to crush him. "Did you think you could just do anything?! Perform each ritual that any alien god hands to you?! You fool! You thrice-be-damned fool!"
"If you ever, ever pull something like that again, Root help me, I will smack you silly!" She thundered, squeezing his wrist even more tightly. "Is that understood?!"
"Is! That! Understood!?"
"I-It is!" He nodded as best as he could with his face being pressed into his pillow, giving up on his protests. "I understand, Rin. I will be more careful next time."
Rin remained silent for a few seconds, breathing heavily, before she huffed, letting him go again.
Shirou remained still after that, cautiously looking back at her, and only when he'd ascertained that she was no longer furious did he sit up himself, massaging his sore wrist while turning around to face her.
Then he suddenly found himself with his arms full, as Rin threw herself at him, hugging him strongly as she pressed her face against his chest.
"I'm so glad you are okay." She mumbled, almost inaudibly, and all the pain in Shirou's wrist and shoulder melted away immediately. "I don't know what I would have done if you'd died."
"Oh, Rin…" Shirou mumbled, a flash of guilt worming its way into his gut, and he hugged her tightly in return, trying to reassure her that he was still alive and well.
"Don't you 'Rin' me." The black-haired girl grumbled with no small amount of irritation, though she made no attempt to break the hug. "Idiots who remained asleep for two days have no right to use my first name."
"W-What?" Startled by the strangled noise he made, Rin pulled away, giving him a worried look. "What's wrong?"
"Two days?!" He spluttered, trying and failing to make sense of that number. "I have been asleep for two days?!"
"Well, yes." Rin nodded, putting her hands in her sides as she gave him a cross look.
"How did that-!"
No, that wasn't the question he wanted to ask.
No, not that one either.
"Did you wait beside me the whole time that I've been unconscious?"
That was the one.
"Huh?!" Rin blinked at the pertinent and entirely reasonable question, her mouth falling open slightly, before she rallied, her tone becoming incredulous. "That's your first question?!"
"You look exhausted." He clarified, now fully noticing the bags under her eyes and the paleness of her face. "Have you slept at all, Rin?"
"Huh? W-Well, I…" Rin had clearly not expected that, and for a moment, she struggled to answer. "I-I had no choice! Sakura and Ayako offered to take over from me, b-but they wouldn't have scolded you properly for being such a fool! I-I had to do that myself!"
"So you did wait at my bedside for all that time." Shirou concluded.
"W-Well, y-yes, I suppose so." Rin admitted, the tightening of her face indicating he better not make any funny remarks.
He did no such thing. Instead, he gently took hold of her head and kissed her, deeply, trying to convey his gratitude for her concern.
It was a testament to their deepening bond that Rin didn't freeze up anymore when he did something bold like that, and instead kissed him back immediately, taking hold of his wrists as she did so.
"What happened?" Shirou asked once they separated again. "After the Ritual, I mean."
"Finally, you're asking the right questions." Rin huffed, before she took on a lecturing pose. "The girls and I did some tests while you were unconscious, and we are now all but certain that the ritual you performed has had no negative effects whatsoever on Illya-chan, Sella-san, or Leysritt-san."
"I'm glad." Shirou sighed in relief. "I trust Nasu, as much as I can under the circumstances, but it was still scary to conduct such a big Ritual for the first time. When I think about all the things that could have gone wrong…"
"I understand completely." Rin nodded, squeezing his hand. "Big Rituals always make me nervous too, and this one didn't even function according to the rules of Magecraft as I understand them. I applaud your courage for going through with it. I certainly wouldn't have."
Shirou frowned a bit at her words, and he couldn't help but get the idea that she was calling him a fool again, if not directly this time.
"What about their own opinions?" He chose to let it pass however, focusing on the more important matter instead. "Of Sella, Leysritt, and Illya, I mean."
He imagined that having their very species changed was not something that the former Homunculi could just get accustomed to in a few days, and if they had any complaints, he wanted to know about them right away.
"They are perfectly satisfied so far." Rin betrayed his expectations however, giving him a lopsided smile. "Yes, they are still getting used to their new bodies and to having access to such a broad array of emotions, but since they still have their own personalities and knowledge and they look a lot better than they did before, some temporary discomfort is a small price to pay."
"So, it's all good?"
"That's what I said."
"They have no complaints?"
"None. I'm not sure why you think they would have."
"I changed their species, Rin."
"Yes, and because of that, their ability for Magecraft improved considerably, they have longer lifespans, they are immune to most poisons and diseases, and they are a lot stronger and tougher now too." Rin listed in a somewhat exasperated tone, before she placed one hand against her hip, cocking her head to the side as she gave him a ponderous look. "You know, now that I am spelling it out like this, I am getting a bit jealous. Is there any chance you can do the same for me?"
"Huh?!" That question was so utterly unexpected Shirou was literally struck dumb for several moments.
"Well, think about it." She elaborated, leaning forward slightly. "A stronger affinity for Magecraft is something I could scarcely dream of before, and I wouldn't say no to being stronger and tougher either. It means you won't accidentally hurt me when we are passionately squeezing each other, or pulling and pushing each other around."
"When would we be doing something like that?" Shirou wondered.
"During sex of course, duh." Rin said as if it was obvious, and Shirou flushed at the bold statement. "So really, you should perform that Ritual on me too some time, and probably on Sakura and Ayako as well. Like I said, it's all advantages and no downsides."
"Even if you say that." Shirou argued, not about to just agree thoughtlessly. "If I do such a thing, you wouldn't be fully human anymore, Rin."
"Neither are you." Rin countered easily. "We accepted you despite your inhumanity. Can you not do the same for us?"
"Of course I can." Shirou assured her passionately, as that wasn't the problem at all. "I will love you no matter what species you are."
"But this isn't about me, Rin. This is about you giving up your humanity. I just want to know if you have thought about this properly." Shirou urged her to slow down. "Don't just jump into it because it seems convenient."
"Oh, cool your heels, Shirou, this is all academic anyway." The black-haired girl waved her hand dismissively, motioning for him to calm down. "I did pay attention when you were explaining the Ritual, and I believe you said it can only be used on Homunculi. You cannot alter me like you altered Illya-chan even if you wanted to, can you?"
"…No, I cannot." Shirou admitted, remembering that his ability to manipulate the threads only worked within the Ritual, and that Ritual was indeed limited to Homunculi only.
"Well then." Rin grinned, patting his shoulder. "It was just a joke, Shirou, a joke. No need to take it so seriously."
"…A joke?" Shirou blinked.
"Yes, Shirou, a joke." Rin nodded, giving him a fondly exasperated look. "You know, something you make to lighten the mood? A thing you say to cause amusement and laughter?"
"I know what a joke is." Shirou huffed. "It just… didn't feel like a joke to me."
"…Is that so?" Rin cocked her head to the side, narrowing her eyes slightly. "Why not?"
"I… I don't know." He admitted, unable to explain why Rin's request had struck him so deeply.
"That is a lie." Rin suddenly said, taking him aback. "You do know. You just don't want to say."
"I…" Shirou floundered for a moment, his mind rushing, before he realised that she was right. He did know, he just didn't want to admit it, even to himself. "I… I wanted you to be serious."
"You wanted me to be… Ah!" Rin frowned for a short moment, and then she made a sound of realisation. "You hoped I would really want to be like you."
"You, Sakura, and Ayako." Shirou nodded, taking a deep breath to gather courage. "I am not human, Rin, and you three are, and it sometimes makes me feel so distant from you."
These were not feelings he'd ever given voice to, even in his own mind, but now, after he'd changed his sister into a being similar to him, he couldn't help but wish he could have done the same for his girlfriends.
Because if he didn't, they would wither and die before he'd even reached his maturity, and he would be left alone.
"…Way to make me feel bad about my little joke, Shirou." Rin sighed, rubbing her face with her hands. "If I'd known you'd take it this badly, I wouldn't have made it."
"It was not my intention to make you feel bad. I am sorry."
"No, I was apologising… Oh, never mind." She grumbled, rolling her eyes, before she resolutely got up from the bed.
"Forget about this matter and come with me." She told him, apparently deciding that a change in subject was warranted. "Sakura and Ayako were also very worried about you, as were your sister and her maids. You should set them at ease as soon as you can. We can talk about this later."
"Ah, right." Shirou also got up from the bed, agreeing to let the matter lie for now, and he made to follow her, before he stopped, as he noticed a small problem. "Hey, Rin. Where are my clothes?"
"Hm? Oh, we took them off when we put you to bed." Rin explained, before giving him a rather salacious grin. "No need to worry, we didn't do anything untoward, mostly."
"Mostly?" He huffed, opening his closet to gather a new outfit, one that was more than just his boxer shorts. "Do I need to be worried about my purity?"
"…No." Rin waited just a bit too long with her reply, before she quickly left to avoid more questions.
Grumbling to himself about lascivious witches, Shirou put on his clothes, and when he looked presentable again, followed Rin to the living room, where he was received by the rest of his family.
He was pretty sure he could call them that by now, his family.
Sakura and Ayako happily received him back, and while Ayako also scolded him for being so careless as to land himself in a two-day coma, Sakura didn't get further than half a sentence into the scolding before she ended up tearfully hugging him.
It were Illya and her maids however who were the main focus of the conversation.
"I feel great!" Illya proclaimed when Shirou asked about her condition. "My body feels so light, and nothing hurts anymore! This is wonderful!"
"It is different." Sella muttered, the look in her eyes speaking of her confusion, as she tried to acclimatise to suddenly having a mind of her own. "It is strange to no longer feel the deterioration of my body in detail, and I am feeling emotions I didn't know existed."
"I like it." Leysritt smiled at him, ever the utilitarian. "I can taste food now, I can see colours, and my baths can be even hotter."
All the feedback they gave him was unabashedly positive, and in general, the results of the Ritual appeared to be unilaterally approved.
"I am glad you are all so happy." Shirou smiled, interrupting their storm of positive comments, before he turned serious again. "But please do remain careful. This is unprecedented territory for all of us, and we shouldn't rush things. You should take your time to explore your new selves. If you notice anything off, inform me immediately."
"Don't worry, Shirou, I'll have all the time I want to get used to my new body and do some experiments once you are at school." Illya grinned, her gaze becoming a bit distant as she imagined what she was going to do with her copious free time.
"What are you talking about?" Shirou scoffed however, frowning at Illya, who froze stiff under the weight of his glare. "You're going to school as well, young lady. I have already made all the arrangements."
The plane from Rome touched down in Fuyuki's airport far quicker than Caren would have liked.
The flight had been peaceful and rather pleasant, not in the least because she'd flown first-class. She had been comfortable for the full eighteen hours, and she was loath to say goodbye to the luxurious chairs and the excellent service in favour of stepping out into the cold and the drizzling rain.
As she exited the plane however, letting out a resigned breath, Caren had to admit that it wasn't the climate that made her reluctant to leave her first-class chair.
It was the assignment she'd been given.
She was to serve as the church's liaison to the Second Owner of Fuyuki now that the previous priest assigned to the city had disappeared following the discovery of his crimes. Essentially, she was her father's replacement, which made her dislike the city by association alone.
She was bound by duty however, so after she'd forced herself to leave the plane, she retrieved her luggage and made for the airport's exit, looking around to see if anyone was picking her up, though she didn't hold out much hope.
According to her superiors, the local Second Owner had been sent a message about her arrival, and since it was customary for Second Owners to be at least somewhat hospitable to their church-assigned liaisons, she had been instructed to wait at the airport for a while in case they wanted to pick her up themselves.
Caren frankly doubted that this 'Tohsaka Rin' would be so accommodating, but instructions were instructions, so she settled in to wait, sitting down on a bench in a corner of the airport's main hall.
It was still very early in the morning, yet even so, the airport was abuzz with activity, numerous individuals, groups, and families moving to and from, together forming a crowd that occupied every last bit of the hall, despite its immense size.
The hecticness and noise didn't bother Caren though. On the contrary, she enjoyed it. People-watching was one of her favourite hobbies after, and the more people there were, the better she could watch them.
And in this busy Japanese airport so early in the morning, there was plenty for her to see.
The businessman who had just walked past for instance was definitely having an affair in another city, as evidenced by his excitement, his visible arousal whenever he looked at a particular destination on the display board, and his shocked reaction and guilty sweating when his wife suddenly called him.
The two students who'd sat down close to Caren, one male and one female, outwardly looked like well-behaved honour students, the cream of the crop, yet their barely hidden disgust whenever they looked at someone in formal attire, the kind of videos they watched on their phones, and the magazines they put in their suitcases instead of their carry-on luggage because they didn't want to go through security with them suggested they weren't nearly as proper as one might have expected.
The spiteful, angry-looking man hanging around in Caren's vicinity was rather scary, especially since it was apparent that he wanted nothing more than to hurt someone, preferably female. So far, he hadn't done anything yet, but Caren kept an eye on him all the same, in case he snapped and went for the weakest woman around, that being her.
A family passing her by, consisting of a mom, a dad, and four children, was plagued by all kinds of family-troubles, such as toys that had been forgotten at home, phones that hadn't charged properly, and roast beef sandwiches that had been prepared in copious amounts yet didn't appeal to any of the family-members.
A young man nearby was tearfully saying goodbye to his parents, for a week-long holiday with his boyfriend, who, Caren noted, appeared to be even older than the young man's parents.
Another couple, a man and woman this time, had been about to board the plane to Hokkaido, but had missed it, because the man's other girlfriend had shown up and made a scene. Now both women were angrily berating the man, rather publicly at that.
A group of four friends, all male, were busily eating their way through their supply of candy, having been informed that it was too much to take on the plane, and they were slowly turning green as their stomachs began rebelling. Caren wouldn't be surprised if a trip to the bathroom was in order after they had finished.
A gigantic, beautiful woman wearing a prim-and-proper suit was marching from one side of the hall to the other, followed by her bodyguards, carrying such an air of power around her that everyone in her way scrambled to move aside.
And then there was the streaker, a man wearing a heavy overcoat whose perverted intentions were so obvious that he'd been arrested before he'd taken three steps.
All of that, in just a few minutes. Airports really were a prime spot for people-watchers like Caren.
The white-haired nun looked around a bit more for other interesting sights, before her ears pricked up when she heard the sound of a quarrelling couple. A man and a woman, too far away for Caren to hear what they said exactly, arguing busily in tones that spoke of their fondness for each other.
As they got closer, the white-haired nun managed to pick up a few words here and there, if she strained to listen.
"…Letter said that the representative would be here."
"…No name or description?"
"…Nothing, as can be expected of… Church is so inefficient…"
"…Second Owner… Hospitality is essential for… Continued cooperation…"
Hold on a second!
Caren sat up straight when she registered what those fragments were actually saying, and she rose from the bench when she connected all the dots.
Then, as if her movement was what they had been waiting for, the crowd in front of Caren parted, allowing two people to approach her, both of them coming to a stop when they saw her.
One of them was a beautiful teenage girl, a few years younger than Caren herself, with black hair done up in adorable twin tails, a face of a model, a red shirt, a black skirt, and black stockings that were just short enough to leave an appealing absolute zone between stockings and skirt.
The other was a very familiar figure.
"Shirou!" Caren beamed when she saw the red-haired, golden-eyed Sorcerer, and she flew at him for a hug, not wasting a second on wondering why on earth he was here, in this airport.
"Caren?" He spluttered, catching her smoothly despite his shock. "What are you doing here?!"
"I'm on the job." She replied, her voice muffled because she was pressing her face into his chest, all her worries about her new assignment melting away like snow under a summer sun.
"On the- Are you saying you are the new liaison from the church?" He asked, his hands, which were currently on her shoulders, twitching in surprise.
"Yes, I am." Caren confirmed happily, before breaking the hug and taking a step back. "What about you? Do you live here, Shirou? Please say yes."
"Yes, I live here." Shirou nodded, to Caren's absolute delight. "I have for all my life."
"Amazing!" Caren cheered. "It must be divine providence that brought us together again!"
"What else can it be?" Caren asked rhetorically, thanking the Lord profusely for this unexpected blessing. "To think I would be reunited with the man who stole my heart just when I'd lost my hope of a happy future. What could this be but an act of God?"
"Stole your heart, is it?" The black-haired girl huffed from beside him, the ghost of a smile playing on her lips even as she glared at Shirou. "Why does that not surprise me?"
"You!" Caren proclaimed, turning towards the girl and taking her hand. "You must be one of his girlfriends."
"Eh? Oh, yes, that is correct." Rin nodded, a bit taken aback by Caren's forwardness, before shooting the redhead another glare. "He told you about me then?"
"No." Caren replied bluntly. "He told me nothing aside from the fact that he has girlfriends, and that they are beautiful. Since you are here with him on top of being beautiful and madly in love with him, I deduced that you had to be one of those girlfriends. I'm glad to hear I was correct."
"M-Madly in love?" The black-haired spluttered. "I-I am not-"
"It is obvious to anyone with eyes that you would gladly marry and fuck him if he even as much as hinted at the fact that he wants to." Caren interrupted her, rather certain of that observation. "Your horniness is evident from your expression and body-language."
"Please don't be ashamed. I would sleep with him too." Caren grinned. "I suppose that makes us sisters-in-arms, doesn't it? Compatriots united in our sexual desires. We should have a threesome."
"Please don't talk so loudly about that in a public hall." Shirou hissed, as Rin was currently too flabbergasted to give a coherent reply.
"I am not ashamed of my feelings." Caren professed, not lowering her volume one bit, before Shirou placed his hand directly over her mouth.
"Even so." He told her sternly, and his glare was sufficiently powerful to convince her to nod obediently. "Rather than saying such outrageous things, you should introduce yourself instead. You know, like a normal person?"
"Hehe." She giggled in response to his scolding, her mood so excellent she felt like dancing in joy, before turning towards the black-haired girl. "Caren Ortensia, Exorcist of the Burial Agency and new representative in Fuyuki, as assigned by the Pope."
"…My name is Tohsaka Rin." The girl eventually responded, the name making Caren's eyes widen.
"Tohsaka?" She asked, her gaze shifting from Shirou to Rin and back. "You are the Second Owner I was assigned to?"
"Correct." Rin nodded firmly, composing herself again. "As the last member of the Tohsaka-family, Fuyuki falls under my authority."
"Oh my." Caren mumbled, taken aback at the coincidence of being assigned to the city belonging to Shirou's girlfriend.
"As such, I welcome you as an official representative of the Burial Agency, meant to oversee the local church and mediate during the Grail War." Rin continued, bowing stiffly. "Welcome to my city, Caren Ortensia. I hope you'll find it to your liking."
"I'm sure I will." Caren beamed. "Now can we have a threesome?"
"…You sure are bold for an agent of the church." Rin noted dryly, giving her a complicated look. "Is that not in violation of your vows and stuff?"
"Said between you and me, I was rather selective in my vows." Caren confessed with a giggle. "In my humble opinion, it is ridiculous to swear abstinence when God has put handsome men like Shirou on the world for us to enjoy."
"That is a sentiment I could not possibly disagree with." Rin grinned. Unlike before, the salacious comments did not unbalance her at all, likely because she was prepared for them now. "But you are a bit too early to ask to be included in our relationship. I don't even know you."
"Something I strive to change as soon as I can." Caren promised. "Once you see what a beautiful, kind, magnanimous, and charming person I am, you'll undoubtedly warm up to me."
"Magnanimous?" Shirou huffed disbelievingly, before hastily dodging the kick she aimed at his knee.
"We'll see." Rin said non-committedly. "You'll have to meet the others first."
"I'd be glad to." Caren nodded. "I am most anxious to see the women who managed to stake their claim on Shirou's heart."
"Frankly, it's not even that difficult." Rin smirked. "All you need is some confidence and he'll roll right over."
"Really? That is quite unlike his reputation at the Clocktower."
"He can be a bit rough around the edges to certain people, but really, he's just a big softy inside. I assure you."
"Girls, 'he' is right here." Shirou said, interrupting them. "And 'he' thinks it would be best to move this discussion elsewhere. Also, you should be talking less about me and more about the arrangements of the upcoming cooperation you will or will not enter."
"Right you are, Shirou. We should not forget about our duties." Rin nodded earnestly, before addressing Caren again. "Ortensia-san, please follow us to our car. Once we're on the road, we can talk further."
"Lead the way." Caren beamed.
"What do you want?"
Ciel, one of the Burial Agency's top Executors and most feared agents, bit out the question when a single hooded figure entered her private sanctuary.
"I have a report on Michael Roa Valdamjong." Was all the hooded figure had to say in response, and just like that, he had captured Ciel's complete and unwavering attention.
"Continue." She ordered.
"He has reincarnated." The hooded figure said slowly.
"That was inevitable."
"We have a name now."
The name meant nothing to Ciel, ringing not a single bell in her mind, yet she branded it into her brain, determined not to forget it until that incarnation of Roa had been destroyed as well.
"Misaki Town, Japan."
Ah yes, that place. She knew it, if only by name. Misaki Town was located right on top of one of Asia's biggest leylines after all, making it a point of importance for the Burial Agency.
"We have looked into the matter and discovered that Shiki Tohno attends Private Misaki High School."
"Roa hasn't awoken then?" If this Tohno could hang around in a school without causing a bloodbath, the old vampire couldn't have exerted much influence yet.
"Strangely enough, he does not appear to be the Shiki Tohno we are looking for."
"His link with Roa is undeniable, and he is definitely no mundane, yet he does not seem to be the Serpent's eighteenth incarnation."
"More research is required. Your new identity as a pupil of Private Misaki High School has already been created."
"Good." Rather than rely solely on the reports of others, she'd do her own investigation. Apparently, her handlers had anticipated as much, and had already taken care of everything.
"Will you be departing for Misaki Town?"
"At once." She nodded stiffly. "Leave me."
"As you wish." The figure nodded, but he did not move right away. "Be cautious. The Seers indicate that the White Princess is on the move. She likely shares your goal."
"Hm." Ciel made a noise of acknowledgement, and with that, the conversation was truly over.
Once the hooded figure had left again, Ciel started packing her meagre belongings, preparing to head out.
She threw a few clothes into a suitcase, packed her favourite toothbrush, and ate all the curry she had left in her sanctuary. It would be a waste to let it spoil in her absence after all.
Then she left her sanctuary, on her way to her superior's office, to pick up her identity papers and plane ticket.
As she had expected, everything had already been arranged for her by the time she entered the office, and before the clock's shorter hand had rotated thrice, she was on the plane to Japan.
On a mission to destroy the Serpent of Akasha, once and for all.
"Here we are." Shirou said once they arrived at the car, or rather limousine, that he'd borrowed from old man Raiga, holding the door open for the ladies.
"Luxurious." Caren remarked as she got inside, taking place on one of the immensely soft seats. "Is it yours, Tohsaka-san?"
"It isn't, I'm afraid." Rin laughed, half sincerely and half pained. "It's merely borrowed, so I could receive the church's emissary with sufficient aplomb. I do not own a car myself."
"Rin never really needed one." Shirou elaborated, taking place in the driver's seat. "Fortunately, I know someone who owns several, and since I'm on good terms with them, I can always borrow one."
"You will be driving us, Shirou?" Caren asked with some surprise, remembering from their time in Germany that he did not have a driver's license.
"That's part of the reason I came along." The redhead laughed with good humour. "To be the butler and chauffeur."
"We did not expect that the emissary would be someone who is already familiar with Emiya-kun." Rin explained further, looking a tad embarrassed. "As such, I thought it would be a safe bet to take him along as my servant."
"To serve as your secret bodyguard?" Caren guessed.
"Partially, yes, but also because… I do not actually employ any servants." Rin admitted reluctantly, aware she couldn't hide that fact anymore. "As such, I asked Emiya-kun to pretend."
"Because I can hardly admit to the Burial Agency that I am so destitute that I cannot afford to have any servants." Rin grumbled, rubbing her face with her hand. "Though I guess that cat is out of the bag now."
"I'm not sure what you are worried about. Most agents of the Burial Agency would look more favourably upon you if you told them that you did not employ any servants." Caren tried to console her. "Living frugally and humbly is one of Christ's teachings after all."
"Even so, it is also a sign of weakness." Rin argued. "Money is power, and a lack of money usually denotes a lack of power as well."
"So it's a reputation-thing?"
"Exactly, so please don't tell anyone that Shirou is my driver. I can't have the church thinking of me as poor."
"Employing a True Magician as your chauffeur will make the Burial Agency think many things about you, Tohsaka-san, but that you are poor will not be one of them." Caren huffed with some humour.
"I… suppose that's true." Rin blinked in surprise, as if she hadn't considered that before.
"What does she pay you anyway, Shirou?" Caren directed the question at their redheaded driver, curious as to why he was acting the part of the servant.
"She calls me a fool and an idiot at regular intervals." Was the response she got, his tone light-hearted and loving.
"Ah, so you like abrasive women." Caren smiled, before she dug deep in her residual knowledge of Japanese Language and Culture, left after years of not even acknowledging the country's existence. "A Tsundere, right?"
"Precisely." Shirou confirmed her guess happily. "She can be rather prickly, but underneath, she's a-"
"Chauffeurs shouldn't talk, idiot!" Rin's furious comment was coupled with a Gandr to the back of his head, but his Magic Resistance easily dispelled the small curse, making it no more than the equivalent of a light slap.
"She did the thing!" Caren gasped, pointing at her. "Shirou, did you hear that? She called you an idiot!"
"I heard." He laughed, before holding up a hand in surrender when Rin's glare became alarmingly intense. "I will shut up now."
"Good." Rin barked, before turning towards Caren, visibly calming herself down. "So, Ortensia-san, you are to be my new liaison with the Church?"
"Guilty as charged." Caren smiled, going along with the change in subject easily enough. "I'm here to replace your previous priest, and… to apologise for his lacking conduct on behalf of the Burial Agency."
"…" Rin didn't immediately reply, her mouth twitching slightly, which was understandable, as a single apology wasn't nearly enough to make up for the suffering and pain that Caren's father had undoubtedly caused over the years.
The mood in the limousine darkened, and the two girls looked at each other awkwardly, both of them still struggling with the scars that that evil creature masquerading as a man had left on them.
"So you'll be staying here, Caren?" Shirou was the one who spoke up instead, sounding as if he wanted to move the subject along a bit. "In Fuyuki, I mean?"
"Correct." Caren nodded quickly, grateful for the straw he was offering her. "I am to keep an eye on Fuyuki and its surroundings and report any relevant happenings to the Burial Agency."
"So what Kotomine was doing as well?"
"Indeed, though I hope I'll perform the job better than he did."
"Where will you be staying?" Rin inquired, her voice friendly and curious once more as she asked the practical question.
"The rectory, I assume." Caren replied, referring to the part of a church meant for the priest's residence.
"That might be a problem." Rin said somewhat brusquely. "I burned the rectory after Kotomine fled."
"Eh?" Now that took Caren by surprise. "Why?"
"Because he was also a Magus, and I have no idea what kind of sick experiments he might have been performing in there." Rin explained, crossing her arms strongly. "So I burned it, all of it, and I am exercising my authority as Second Owner when I tell you to stay away from there. I have quarantined the place, so you'll have to live somewhere else."
"Naturally, we'll take responsibility." Shirou added, his tone much kinder than Rin's. "You can live with us, Caren."
"Can I?" Caren had been a bit concerned when the Second Owner had admitted to burning down her place of residence, but that concern was promptly buried under a flood of delight over being invited to stay at someone's house.
"Of course. I wouldn't have offered it otherwise." Shirou nodded.
"Then I would be glad to." She beamed, joy and elation filling her to the very tips of her fingers and toes.
"Then do you want to go to the church first to take a look at your new working space or straight to my house to drop off your luggage?"
"According to my briefing, the local church isn't visited by a lot of people, is it?" Caren answered his question with a question of her own.
"Not a lot of people?" Rin scoffed with a half-smirk on her face. "No one at all, rather."
"Then there is no need to go to the church." Caren was a little disappointed by the lack of believers, but it wasn't as if she'd expected any different. Not in Japan and not after her father had led the congregation for so long.
"We'll go straight home then." Shirou nodded.
"Ah, but are you sure you are alright with me staying at your place?" Caren didn't want to ask the question, but she felt she had to. "Concerning my parentage and all."
"Why would it matter who your parents were?" Rin asked, cocking her head to the side in confusion.
"…You didn't tell her." Caren surmised, turning to Shirou.
"It wasn't my place to tell anyone else." He replied shortly.
"That is very nice of you." Caren smiled appreciatively at Shirou, before turning back to Rin. "But I'll just tell you now. Kotomine Kirei, your previous priest, is my father."
There were a few beats of silence following her declaration, as Rin's expression froze and her body stilled.
Then the black-haired girl leaned forward to grab Caren's hands, giving her a look filled with immense pity and sympathy.
"I'm so sorry for you." She professed, squeezing Caren's hands in a show of support. "I can't imagine how hard that must have been."
"O-Oh, w-well, he got rid of me fairly quickly, s-so I didn't live with him for long." The nun stuttered as Rin's sudden sympathy completely took her aback. She'd been prepared for a lot of reactions, but not this one. "Y-You seem to know him well."
"Know him!? That bastard was my caretaker ever since my father died." Rin snarled, before giving Caren another sympathetic look. "I was able to mostly shut him out of my personal life at least though. As his daughter, he pretty much had total control over you, didn't he?"
"N-No, not really. My mother raised me alone at first, and when she died, he sent me to relatives in Italy." Caren shook her head, before squeezing Rin's hands in turn, feeling a certain kinship with the black-haired girl. "Rather, it is you who suffered under him for the longest, isn't it? That must have been hard."
"It certainly wasn't easy." Rin nodded, the kinship that Caren felt reflected in her blue eyes.
It was a show of support and understanding between two people who had suffered under the same individual, and it resulted in a friendship that formed faster than Shirou could have possibly anticipated.
For a few minutes, the girls focused on nothing but verbally eviscerating Kotomine, loudly discussing all his various flaws in detail, and only when they'd gotten it out of their system did they return to more serious matters.
"I will be serving as the Burial Agency's agent here now, but I cannot fight." Caren stated bluntly, not wanting there to be any kind of confusion about her physical capabilities. "So I'll be relying on the two of you to do all the fighting for me should it become necessary."
"That should present no problem whatsoever." Rin straightened her back with a proud expression on her face. "Fuyuki is a very calm city. Aside from some minor incidents, there have been no issues relating to the Moonlit World whatsoever since the last Grail War."
"Speaking of which, how is that going to be arranged?" Shirou inserted himself in the conversation again. "Are you supposed to oversee the Grail War as well, Caren?"
"Nominally, yes, but I expect my superiors will replace me long before the event itself will take place." Caren replied, smiling languidly. "Really, I am more of a temporary stopgap rather than a serious overseer. I expect that after a few years, they'll start looking for an actual replacement for Kotomine."
The Holy Grail War wouldn't happen for another fifty years after all, so there was plenty of time to find a skilled replacement for Caren, someone who was in fact capable of keeping seven bloodthirsty Magi under control.
Her response didn't seem to be received well however, as both Shirou and Rin flinched.
"What's wrong?" Caren asked, worry worming its way into her breast at their wary expressions.
"I have heard, from a somewhat reliable source, that the Fifth Grail War is due to start in less than three years." Shirou revealed, making Caren's heart skip a beat in shock. "So if the Burial Agency wants to replace you with someone more equipped to handle seven Magi with their Servants, they need to do it soon."
"In only three years?" Caren asked, not even trying to hide her shock.
"Less than three years." Shirou corrected her. "And considering who it was who told me, it is entirely possible that the War will start as early as next month. It is one of the reasons I decided to come along with Rin to meet the Church's new liaison, even though I would rather stay hidden. It is very likely we'll be forced to work together soon."
"And before you ask, we don't have any concrete proof." Rin grumbled, interrupting Caren before she could ask that exact question. "Otherwise, we'd have made it known by now, to both the Burial Agency and the Magus Association."
"We did think about leveraging my reputation, but even that likely won't be enough to get people to take it as seriously as they should." Shirou sighed, his grip on the steering wheel increasing slightly. "To most people, it's only a third-rate ritual in a far-off country to begin with, whether it starts in fifty years or in five months."
"Then what do we do?" Caren asked, her mind abuzz with the new revelations, and she cradled her head in her hands in an attempt to stave off a headache.
"Fight the Grail War ourselves." Rin responded bluntly. "At the moment, our group has at least two guaranteed Masters, and possibly as many as four. With such a power block, we should be able to stall the War until we can safely destroy the Grail."
"Destroy the Grail?" Caren was starting to get the idea she was missing an awful lot of important information. "Not use it?"
"It has been corrupted." Rin replied in a matter-of-fact tone, before she held up a single finger when Caren stared at her in shock. "It all started seventy years ago, when the Einzbern summoned a Servant known only as 'Avenger'…"
"Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Caren mumbled, lying sprawled out on the couch in the Emiya-estate, a dark cloud hanging above her head. "The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work."
"Is she alright?" Ayako asked unsurely, looking at the small woman as she muttered prayer after prayer, switching at random between gospels and scriptures.
"Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."
"I don't think she is." Shirou rubbed the back of his head, giving the nun a pitying look. "The news that the Grail was corrupted and liable to destroy the entire world if handled improperly was already a shock, but when we told her that the being responsible was an analogy of the Devil, she pretty much shut down."
"Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."
"Should we help her then?" Ayako looked like she wanted nothing more than to console Caren, whose looks at least were those of an adorable girl. "We can't leave her like that, can we?"
"And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years."
"I think we should leave her be for now." Shirou shook his head slowly. "Just let her get it out of her system. I'll keep an eye on her in case she does anything drastic."
"Hm." Ayako didn't seem to agree that doing nothing was the best course of action, but for now, she went along with what he said.
As said before, Caren had taken the news of the Grail's corruption especially bad. Not just because it was liable to destroy the world, but also because of the being doing the corrupting.
Of course, Angra Mainyu and Satan weren't completely similar, and in fact had wildly different origin stories and motivations, but the results of their existence were too alike for any Christian to be comfortable with.
"To think I would have to help in the struggle against the literal devil." Caren lamented, having apparently run out of Bible verses that directly mentioned Satan. "God, You truly send me Your hardest challenges. Is this because I was planning to break my vow of celibacy? Do You punish me for my moment of weakness, oh Lord? But certainly, even You can see that some men are worth it? Besides, I am forbidden from sampling the goods, but not from looking at them. Even if it is in the shower."
…Even in her lamentations, Caren managed to engage in borderline harassment. Shirou didn't know whether to despair or to be impressed.
As this was the first time Ayako and Sakura had met Caren, they were understandably perturbed by her behaviour. Caren had greeted them politely enough upon entering the house, but she was doing a good job of undercutting every good impression they might have had of her now.
At first, Caren's state of abject confusion and despair had garnered sympathy from them, but that was slowly running out as the nun switched from Bible verses to unconcealed confessions of her many sins.
Fortunately, Rin's return to the living room provided a much needed distraction for the duo.
"Nee-san, how is mother doing?" Sakura asked, as the black-haired girl had just made a phone call to the mental clinic where Aoi was still admitted.
"She's bored, and just about ready to go home." Rin replied, struggling to suppress a stupidly happy grin. "The doctors haven't found anything wrong with her, and they expect it's only going to be a few weeks now until she gets a clean bill of health."
"Hey, that's great!" Ayako beamed, thumping Rin on the back hard enough that a normal man would have stumbled forward. "Congratulations!"
"You should save your congratulations for mother. She is the one who got better." Rin huffed, but there was no denying her happy wiggle, one she didn't even try to hide from them.
"Your mother was healed?" Caren suddenly appeared amongst them, looking as composed and dignified as any nun, making them all start in surprise. "That is most wonderful news! God must have been smiling upon you."
"Weren't you just on the couch?" Ayako spluttered, her gaze rapidly switching between Caren and said couch.
"Yes, but I realised I was drowning in self-pity, which is against Christian norms, and decided to harden my heart." Caren explained how she'd recovered from her bout of depression in mere seconds. "It didn't seem like being depressed was going to get me any hugs from Shirou anyway, so why bother."
"Pardon me?" Shirou blinked.
"Nothing. Tohsaka-san, will your mother be moving in here as well? It might get a bit crowded, don't you think?" Caren seamlessly changed the subject, asking a question that reminded the redhead that he hadn't given her a proper tour of the house yet. "Not that I'd ever advocate for kicking anyone out on the streets to make room. Least of all me."
"No one is getting kicked out on the streets." Shirou promised, rejecting the idea at once. "Though it may not seem like it from the outside, there is plenty of room in my house for all of us. I'll give you a tour later to show you what I mean."
"Please do." Caren nodded instantly, jumping on the offer.
"And even if there wasn't enough room, my mother likely won't move in here in the first place." Rin added. "Her home is the Tohsaka-estate, and that is where she will return to once she is dismissed from the hospital. A familiar environment would be better for her, especially during the first months."
"That is probably the wisest choice." Shirou wouldn't claim to be an expert on psychology, but even he could see the wisdom in bringing Aoi back to her own home. "There's no need to cause her unnecessary stress by forcing her to live in an unfamiliar place. Not on top of all the things you still have to tell her about."
"Ugh." Rin made a face at the reminder that her mother had to be updated on everything that had happened over the past eight years, much of which has been unquestionably bad, like Zouken's worms and Kirei's betrayal.
And even that would be easy, compared to having to talk about Sakura's fate. A conversation that hung above the sisters like a dagger waiting to strike.
Even though no one was saying it out loud, having Aoi live in the Tohsaka-estate was every bit as much to keep her and Sakura separated as it was to preserve the woman's fragile mental health. They all feared, even Sakura herself, that having mother and abandoned daughter living together under one roof would cause numerous ugly conflicts and arguments, and none of them were willing to deal with that just yet.
Reconciliation could happen, if Sakura agreed with it, but it would be on the plum-haired girl's terms or not at all.
"It just became really awkward in here." Caren remarked, looking around at their faces, appearing a bit puzzled with the situation. "I sense mommy issues."
"I'll help of course." As if she'd been waiting for Caren's words, Sakura spoke up, taking Rin's hand with an expression of utter determination. "I won't leave you alone in this. She's my mother too after all."
"Sakura…" Rin whispered, before she smiled. "Thank you."
"But, Rin." Ayako stepped forward, a worried expression on her face. "If your mother is going to return to the Tohsaka-manor, does that mean you will too?"
"Yes." Rin said bluntly, confirming what the other three had already feared. "I will have to. I cannot leave her there on her own."
"I see." Shirou muttered, closing his eyes in resignation. "Well, I'm not going to stop you, but I won't pretend we're not going to miss you either."
"Rin." Ayako's eyes became misty with tears, and she launched herself at the black-haired girl for a hug. "Do you really have to go-?!"
"Oh, stop that!" Rin barked, bringing her fist down on the brunette's head. "This isn't farewell, you idiots! I'll still come here, just not all the time anymore."
"That's exactly what I am sad about!" Ayako professed, still tightly hugging her. "It is a decrease in my quality Rin-time!"
"You overly clingy girl." Rin snipped, though she couldn't hide the undertone of fondness in her voice. "We don't need to live together to be in a relationship. Some time apart can be a good thing."
"I still don't like it." Ayako stubbornly insisted. "It will be weird, to live here with the three of us without you."
"Then perhaps, instead of only looking at me, you should go home more often as well." Rin pointed out. "How long has it been exactly since you've spoken to your parents?"
"Ehk!" Ayako flinched at the black-haired girl's remark, before smiling guiltily, more than aware that she was neglecting her family a bit. "Ahahaha, did you really have to bring that up?"
"She is right though." Shirou remarked. "I imagine that when school starts again, they will want you home more often."
"Which is not unreasonable for parents to want." Sakura added, giving the brunette a melancholic smile. "You shouldn't let your relationship with them go to waste. They only want you back with them because they love you."
"Alright, alright." Ayako groused, holding up her hands in surrender. "I get it. Once the holiday is over, I'll go back home. You don't have to gang up on me."
"Sorry, Ayako." Sakura pouted, looking down guiltily.
"Oh, no. No need to apologise." The brunette hastily assured her, still utterly defenceless against the plum-haired girl's pouts. "You are right after all. Neither Rin nor I can stay here indefinitely. Not when we are still minors. It's just that… I enjoyed our time together."
"Aw." Rin cooed, patting the brunette's head with a smile.
"You didn't then?" Ayako huffed, stoically, or perhaps happily, bearing Rin's pats.
"I did." Rin assured her. "But it is like you said. We cannot stay here indefinitely, not when we have responsibilities."
Rin needed to take care of her mother, Ayako was still a minor living with her actual family, and Sakura and Shirou, though they lived alone, were under the care of Taiga.
Although they'd pretended for a few weeks, they didn't actually live together nor did they live independently.
"What about me?" Caren asked, raising a hand to remind them that she was still present too.
"You'll stay here in my house, as my guest." Shirou replied, turning to her. "My house is the safest place in Fuyuki, and it will also be our base of operations when dealing with the Grail War. It is for the best if you live here."
"Many thanks!" The nun beamed at him, before placing her hands together. "I do have a question though, if I may."
"Can I inform my superiors about the fact that the Holy Grail War is due to start in a few years at most?"
"You can." Shirou nodded immediately.
"I can?" Caren clearly hadn't expected him to agree so easily, and she blinked a few times in confusion. "But if they believe me, they might send more agents, which will increase your chance of being discovered. Didn't you want to keep your place of living a secret?"
"I did." Shirou nodded unabashedly. "But I'm willing to take a few risks if it means that more people are aware of the threat and taking steps to mitigate the damage. I cannot prioritise myself anymore."
"The Church is traditionally the faction that cares the most about damage to the surroundings and the local population." Rin added. "They don't care much, per sè, but a little is better than not at all. In that light, getting them more involved is indeed worth a risk or two."
"On that note, I was actually planning to inform Lady Barthomeloi about the Grail War as well, alongside the fact that the Grail has been corrupted." Shirou suddenly revealed, getting a surprised look from all the girls. "She cares much more about innocent bystanders than you would expect, and she wields a lot of power. I believe she could really help us."
"Will that involve telling her about your place of living?" Rin inquired carefully.
"Even if I don't tell her, she'll be able to draw her own conclusions once I tell her about the Grail War." Shirou huffed in amusement. "She is not dumb."
"I never thought she was." Rin breathed in deep, her eyes becoming unfocused as she ran a thousand mental calculations, before she let the air out again. "Can she keep a secret?"
Could the Vice-Director of the Clocktower keep a secret? Shirou didn't even dignify that with an answer.
"Then you better tell her." Rin accepted his silence as the confirmation it was meant to be. "Could I join you by the way? I believe my research has finally reached the point where I can proudly approach her about an apprenticeship."
"Of course." Shirou nodded readily.
"So we're going to involve more people now?" Ayako asked, tapping her chin with a finger in thought. "I can't really think of anyone myself."
"Duh." Sakura huffed softly, before squeaking when Ayako pinched her side.
"As if you are any better connected." The brunette scoffed.
"What about Lord El-Melloi?" Caren inquired.
"I am going to contact him as well at some point." Shirou nodded. "His input will be invaluable, especially since he's already participated in a Grail War before. Plus, he already knows where I live, so that's not an issue."
In the end, as much as Shirou wanted to maintain his privacy and to have no one in either the Clocktower or the Church to be aware of his place of residence, he simply didn't have a choice anymore. To obtain help and support, he needed to show his hand to certain people and hope that they would agree to keep his secrets.
Besides, once the fighting started, it was going to get out anyway that he lived in Fuyuki. That was inevitable.
The Grail War made it impossible for him to continue his simple life. That was a fact, and he would be damned if he did anything but take it completely seriously from the very start.
The fate of the world was at stake after all.
The hour was growing late in the black forest, and the sun was reaching the point where it was starting to sink beneath the horizon.
This sunset marked the end of the seventh day of Lorelei's current hunt, the seventh day of a mission filled with twists and turns. It had started out as a simple outing to dispatch a runaway Chimaera yet had evolved into a quest that revealed more information than the brunette had ever expected or wanted to learn.
The news that both Mystery and Phantasmal Beasts were returning was sufficiently mind-blowing that Lorelei had been forced to compartmentalise in order to properly continue the hunt. She had isolated the conversation with the wise owl and stored it in a corner of her mind, so it wouldn't interfere with her thoughts and actions.
To fight a Phantasmal Beast, she needed every bit of focus she could muster.
Currently, she had arrived in a location that seemed like exactly the place she had been looking for. There had been no animals around for quite a while, not even insects, and there were massive residues of Mystery everywhere, suppressing all other sensations that should have been present in an ancient forest like this.
It was beyond doubt that the creature which had killed those poachers and had managed to elude her and her team for so long was located nearby. It could not have been clearer if it had left a sign out for her to read.
In other words, she might very well be on the verge of her first battle ever with a real Phantasmal Beast.
The prospect of facing off against such a creature would have been enough to send any Magus running for the hills, and even Lorelei hesitated to proceed, wondering if she shouldn't call in reinforcements first.
A large part of her current apprehension was caused by the fact that she had no real idea what she was dealing with. It was a Phantasmal Species, yes, but that was an immensely broad term. It could refer to Kelpi and Kobolds, which Lorelei could probably handle on her own, but also to near-Divine Beasts such as Dragons and Sphinxes, which would crush her in the blink of an eye.
In the case of the latter, her team wouldn't be of much help either, but just like when she'd entered the wise owl's forest, they would at least be able to bring word to the Clocktower if she was brought down.
With that in mind, she again set a beacon for her followers to track, and then she sat down on the ground, to wait for them to arrive.
In the meantime, she checked her equipment, mainly her riding crop and her rapier, but since they were both in pristine condition, having barely been used since their last visit to the blacksmith, that barely took a minute, afterwards leaving her with little to do.
Until a pinging noise suddenly sounded from within the inner pocket of her jacket.
Surprised as well as curious, Lorelei reached into the pocket to retrieve a small folding mirror, the one that Fujimaru had given to her before his departure and was meant as a communication device between him and her.
As per his instructions, she touched the mirror's surface with the tip of her index-finger, and watched as it rippled like water, the pinging noise stopping at the same time as two faces appeared in the mirror.
One of the faces was Fujimaru, the other an unknown black-haired girl, who Lorelei presumed to be Tohsaka Rin. They were set against a simple background, a mostly empty room, with nothing that immediately caught her attention or allowed her to make any sort of conclusions about their exact location.
Likely, that room had been chosen on purpose for exactly that goal.
"Lady Barthomeloi." Fujimaru greeted her politely.
"Fujimaru." She returned the greeting, her voice a tad frosty.
She still remembered his blatant declaration of distrust towards her upon his departure, his stark refusal to even consider telling her where he lived despite the fact they'd fought a legendary battle together, and she would be lying if she said that it didn't still deteriorate her mood whenever she thought about it.
She had never cared about such things before, not really, but with Fujimaru, his sudden distant behaviour really stung for some reason.
"Do you have a moment to talk?" He asked, noticing but not commenting on her icy tone. "Or is this a bad time?"
From the way his eyes flitted to the scenery behind her, he'd noticed she was in a forest, and he'd already drawn his own conclusions.
A part of Lorelei was tempted to refuse his request, and to demonstratively shut off the mirror, but the other, larger part of her refused to entertain the thought of doing something so petty.
Also, she genuinely didn't have anything to do at the moment.
"I am on a hunt." She responded in a clipped tone, before a sigh inadvertently escaped her lips. "But I can speak with you, for a few minutes."
"Then I would like to introduce Tohsaka Rin to you, or Rin Tohsaka, in European terms." Fujimaru appeared to recognise that a few minutes really meant a few minutes, and he wasted no time in getting to the point.
"Rin Tohsaka." The black-haired girl introduced herself, inclining her head respectfully. "Second Owner of Fuyuki, Japan."
"Fuyuki?" Lorelei repeated, the name ringing a few bells in her head. "From the Grail War?"
"The very one." Tohsaka nodded, the smile on her face perfect and unmarred as she spoke in very decent English. "My family has ruled it for generations, of which I am the most recent."
"I moved to Fuyuki a few years ago with my dad." Fujimaru added to the story, and Lorelei couldn't stop her eyebrows from twitching at the blatant revelation of his living place. "That's one of the reasons I know Rin."
"Why are you telling me this now?" The brunette asked brusquely. "Did you not wish to keep the location of your home a secret?"
"I did, and I still do, but the situation has changed." Fujimaru's expression turned unreadable, making Lorelei raise an eyebrow. "There have been some… concerning developments, which I need to discuss with you, and they involve the place where I live."
"So you judged it reasonable to reveal your place of residence to me?"
"Of course. I trust you enough to know that you will not reveal the name of my hometown to anyone else."
"…I see." Lorelei felt strangely pleased at his words, at the fact that, though rather late, he'd seen sense in the end, but she didn't show a hint of those emotions on her face. "What is it that you want to discuss? Miss Tohsaka's apprenticeship?"
Lorelei had promised him that she would take miss Tohsaka as her apprentice after all. In fact, the very reason she had the folding mirror in her possession was to one day be contacted by miss Tohsaka to arrange the details of said apprenticeship.
"That is one of the things we wanted to discuss, yes." The black-haired girl's smile widened, and Lorelei had to admit she was quite skilled at faking smiles. "Perhaps we can talk about it for a minute or two before we move on to other matters?"
"Then first, I would like to start by thanking you from the bottom of my heart for this opportunity." Tohsaka said warmly, saying all the right things to stroke a Magus' ego. "I never expected to be able to apprentice under the Vice Director of the Clocktower herself. It is nothing short of a dream come true."
"Your apprenticeship is a reward for Fujimaru's services." Lorelei informed her, feeling it was best to have that clear immediately and not let incorrect assumptions exist for any longer than they had to. "Had it not been for him, I likely would not have looked at you twice."
"I fully realise that." Tohsaka nodded, not seeming the least bit bothered by Lorelei's rather direct statement. "And I intend to repay Shirou for this completely. Nevertheless, I felt an expression of gratitude towards you was in place as well."
"Very well." If the girl was so adamant about professing her gratitude, Lorelei would not stop her.
"Then, in more practical terms, could I send you my resume and some excerpts from my research? So we can determine what my apprenticeship would look like?"
"Of course." Lorelei nodded her assent. "Send them to the Department of Policies. I shall read them and I shall prepare several lesson plans for you to choose from, depending on your preferred focus. I have never taught an apprentice before, nor have my forebears, but I am confident that I shall complete your training successfully."
"Thank you so much!" Tohsaka beamed at her. "I have never received instruction from a fellow Magus before, at least not a competent one, but I am confident too that I shall not disappoint you during our cooperation."
"You do not lack in confidence, that is good." Lorelei noted, not unhappy with miss Tohsaka's self-assured demeanour. "When you become my official apprentice, many shall hound and harass you out of jealousy and spite. Also, I shall demand nothing short of your full, undivided attention, as well as every bit of effort that you can possibly invest. Are you equipped to handle that?"
Tohsaka's answer was instantaneous and did not lack in conviction, something that rather pleased Lorelei to hear.
It seemed teaching the friend of Fujimaru might be less of a chore than either Lorelei or Lady Montmorency had expected.
The two women spent a few more minutes discussing the precise terms and conditions of the apprenticeship, going over the length, the contents, the amount of guidance Tohsaka would receive during her projects, and several other matters, before a lack of time forced them to wrap it up early.
"Accompany Fujimaru when he returns to the Clocktower this winter." Lorelei ordered the black-haired girl. "These matters are easier to discuss in person."
"I will." Tohsaka nodded eagerly, her smile becoming a bit more sincere. "I look forward to meeting you in real life."
"As do I. Now, Fujimaru." With the matter of the apprenticeship over for now, Lorelei switched her attention to the redhead. "What else did you want to discuss?"
"The Fifth Holy Grail War will happen sooner than expected." He revealed, his expression grim, as Tohsaka took a small step back to give him more of the screen. "Rather than fifty years, it likely won't even take three for it to begin."
"Is that so?" Lorelei hummed noncommittally, not sure why that was relevant to her. "I will inform all parties at the Clocktower who are involved in the Grail War of this once I return, though I suspect they would have learned of it by themselves soon enough."
It remained silent for a few moments after that, as Fujimaru and Tohsaka kept looking expectantly at her, but since Lorelei still did not know why she should care about their ritual, she kept her quiet too, waiting for them to continue.
Eventually, they did.
"You… seem to be taking this rather well." Fujimaru remarked carefully.
"I do not know much about the Holy Grail War, certainly not enough to be concerned about it." Lorelei shrugged ever so slightly. "It is a minor Ritual designed in order to gain access to the Root. According to the records of the Barthomeloi-family, it has been in progress for centuries without yielding any sort of result, aside from decimating several important Magus-families. The Barthomeloi and all its branch-families are forbidden from participating in it, and it has been designated as irrelevant and inconsequential."
"Ehk…" Tohsaka's mood appeared to deteriorate at the implied criticism, as she slumped so much she almost disappeared from view.
"Harsh but true, I suppose." Fujimaru laughed uncomfortably, rubbing the back of his head, before his expression turned serious again. "But I am afraid the Grail has been corrupted, and if it is allowed to manifest in the upcoming War, it will affect the entire world."
"Affect it how?"
Now that sounded like something Lorelei should care about.
Fujimaru obeyed, and Lorelei listened with growing astonishment to a tale of heroes, Masters, Servants, Homunculi, and Dark Gods. A tale that was yet unfinished, that had swallowed numerous great names such as Emiya Kiritsugu and Kayneth El-Melloi and might very well result in the total destruction of humanity if it ever came to fruition.
But even though the situation was apparently dire, there was one thing that had to be said immediately.
"You realise, do you not, that very few Magi will believe you?" She replied once Fujimaru had finished his tale. "This sounds exactly like a fad that a deceptive participant would spin to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies, to sow chaos in their ranks, and to give themselves an advantage during the war."
"I realise that." Fujimaru nodded. "But I assure you I am telling the truth."
"I believe you." She responded at once. A Sorcerer wouldn't make up a tale like that merely to get an advantage in a minor ritual, and even if one would, she did not believe for a second that Fujimaru would be so deceptive. "Though if you expect me to remedy the situation, I must remind you that there are limits to my power. Even if I forbid the Magi of the Clocktower from participating in the Grail War, which would already be an overreach of my power, there is not much I can do once they ignore my orders and leave for Japan. The Magus Association wields little power in your country, as you are probably well aware."
"Of course, I don't expect that you will be able to change much about the situation." Fujimaru nodded, not surprised by her warning. "Nevertheless, I wanted you to know, and to be prepared in case we fail to stop the completion of the ritual."
"Then consider me warned." Lorelei nodded. "If there are other ways I can support you, do not hesitate to let me know. Although I cannot guarantee anything, I will do my utmost to assist you in your suppression of the Grail and Angra Mainyu."
"Thank you, lady Barthomeloi." Fujimaru smiled, and while those words were pleasant to hear, she couldn't help but think she would have preferred him to use her first name, for some nebulous reason. "Not just for the help, but also for believing us."
"I do not know you to be a liar." Lorelei responded, as that was naught but the truth.
"If there is anything I can do to repay you, you only need to ask."
"Then…" Lorelei hesitated for a single moment, before continuing. "I hope you will believe me as well, when I tell you that Mystery and Phantasmal Beasts are returning to the world."
She was blunt in telling him, feeling it was best to bring the message as clearly and concisely as possible, like ripping off the Band-Aid in one go.
Since the moment she had been evicted from the Wise Owl's domain, she had wanted to inform Fujimaru about the return of Mystery and involve him in the matter of combating the Phantasmal Beasts and the other negative consequences that this return would bring about. That he had contacted her now just allowed her to do it sooner rather than later.
During their competition, he had shown himself to nearly be her equal in combat, and he was sincere and noble enough to actually care about the world above his own interests. When it came to difficult situations, there was no one she'd rather have beside her than lady Montmorency and him.
They had fought together, he had always been honest with her, and her every instinct told her she could trust him, so trust him she would.
Likely, he wouldn't immediately believe her, but she could-
"Are you hunting one right now?!"
Lorelei blinked once at the question, partially because of the contents, but mainly at the tone it was asked in. Rather than disbelieving, it was almost urgent, hasty.
"Are you hunting a Phantasmal Beast right now?" Fujimaru repeated his question, leaning in closer to the mirror, his voice becoming even more hurried. "You are in a forest, so maybe a wolf? If it's a boar, you need to get away immediately, because Demon Boars are really bad news. In fact, why are you out there at all? Hold on, I believe I can-"
"Shirou." Tohsaka stepped back into the frame, giving him a small push. "Calm down. Lady Barthomeloi wasn't asking for your help. She just wanted to tell you about the return of Phantasmal Beasts."
"A return you appear to already be aware of." Lorelei noted curtly.
"Oh, yes." Fujimaru nodded, his voice a bit calmer again. "I already know that Phantasmal Beasts are returning to the world, and also that Mystery is returning."
"Of course. I should have known that a Sorcerer would already be aware of such a momentous happening." Lorelei inclined her head in a polite apology, feeling no small amount of relief at the fact that he was already aware of the issue. "And to answer your earlier question, mister Fujimaru, I am out here, hunting this Beast, because it has killed people, and will likely kill more if I do not stop it."
"Right, it's hard to argue with that." Fujimaru let out a slow breath, nodding in agreement, before he fixed his jaw. "Do you have any idea what kind of beast you are hunting?"
"No. The wise owl did not provide any details when he informed me of my opponent's true nature."
"The wise owl?" Fujimaru asked, before he shook his head. "Never mind. Alright, Lady Barthomeloi, I have fought and defeated a Phantasmal Beast myself when I was weaker than you are, so victory isn't impossible, if this particular Beast is below you in power."
"Better hope it isn't a Sphinx or Dragonkin then." Tohsaka added from the background, as she had walked out of view a few seconds before.
"The Beast I am hunting prefers stealth, and although it is mighty, I have seen no evidence it commands any Magic of its own or possesses any quantity of Divinity." Lorelei summarised her findings so far. "It is small enough to make its way through dense forest without breaking any branches or leaving any traces, and it does not appear to act violent towards prey animals. Predators however are hunted down without mercy, human poachers included."
"Let's see then." Tohsaka reappeared on the screen, holding a pile of books she had just fetched from somewhere off the screen. "Where are you currently, lady Barthomeloi?"
"I am in the Black Forest, in Germany." She replied.
"The Black Forest, in Baden-Württemberg, Germany." Tohsaka mumbled, promptly throwing aside all but one of the books she been carrying, before opening it on a random page. "The Celts called it 'Abnoba mons', the Romans 'Silva Marciana'. It's a forested mountain range. Let's see if I can find some local legends."
"Do you need-?"
"Alright then." His offer for help rejected, Fujimaru turned back to Lorelei. They both looked at each other, staying silent for several seconds, before he cleared his throat. "So, how are you doing?"
"I am surprisingly nervous." She replied honestly, casting a look around. "I have never dealt with Phantasmal Beasts before."
"As long as it is a low-ranking one, I'm sure you can handle it." He tried to assure her. "Like I said, I fought one and won, so you should be able to as well."
"What manner of Phantasmal Beast did you fight?" Lorelei asked, genuinely interested in his answer.
"A Nokken. It's an aquatic creature of German myth that lures unsuspecting people to its lake in order to drown and eat them." He replied, scratching its temple. "Huh, it also came from Germany. I wonder if there's something special about the place."
"There could be. I would have to look into that."
"Lady Barthomeloi, what time is it over there with you?" Fujimaru suddenly changed the subject, narrowing his eyes.
"Near sunset." She gave him an estimation, as she did not know the exact time. "Why?"
"Because I can see the sun setting behind you, and it's giving me a very bad feeling." He replied, narrowing his eyes as he looked over her shoulder into the distance. "Please stay on your guard, my lady."
"My guard was never down." She assured him, casting another look around, keeping a very careful eye on the treeline, wary of ambushes from the shadows.
"Alright, I'm back!" Tohsaka chose that moment to reappear, holding a small list in her hand and wearing a proud grin on her face. "I have found several creatures from German mythology that might fit your description."
"I am listening."
"At first, I thought it might be an Askafroa or a Bahcauv, as those are genuinely dangerous creatures from German folklore, capable of killing groups of people while not being on the level of Divine beasts, but I discarded them, as they would never leave prey animals alone. After that, I considered the possibility it could be a Drude, but those creatures don't actively kill people. Fänggen live exclusively in Tyrol, and Lindwurms are near dragonkin in power, and thus absolutely lousy at stealth." Tohsaka quickly described the options she'd discounted, before looking straight at Lorelei. "That only leaves one option."
"The Wolpertinger." Tohsaka replied, her expression tightening. "And Shirou was right about sunset being a bad thing. It is a crepuscular creature, active primarily during the twilight period. If you are in its territory, it was probably waiting for exactly this moment to ambush you."
"Can you describe the creature?" Fujimaru asked.
"It looks like a rabbit." Lorelei spoke up before Tohsaka could, drawing surprised looks from both teenagers. "But it is the size of a male adult boar, and it has deer antlers and the wings of what I believe is a pheasant."
"Correct." Tohsaka nodded, giving her an impressed look. "Were you already familiar with the beast, my lady?"
"No, I am looking right at it." Lorelei corrected her calmly, before turning the mirror around, showing the two what she was seeing in front of her.
There, just outside the shrubbery, stood her opponent.
Huge as a boar, with mighty front paws and massive hind legs, the beast could not possibly be mistaken for a normal rabbit.
On top of that, the enormous antlers, ending in razor-sharp tips, and the powerful wings currently folded on its back gave it a certain foreign, alien air, as if what Lorelei was seeing was not actually real.
The head, oddly small for its size, was angled to the side, so a beady black eye could look straight at her with an intensity that rivalled that of Dead Apostle Ancestors, and the lips were pulled apart slightly, baring teeth that seemed too large for its mouth.
Lastly, its plain brown fur was stained heavily with blood, blood she was willing to bet was human.
There was no doubt that this was her quarry.
The monstrous Phantasmal Beast had shown itself at last.
The squeal from the mirror, in a voice Lorelei did not recognise, instantly broke all the tension that had been accumulating, and the brunette promptly turned the mirror back around to look into it.
There, standing in-between Fujimaru and Tohsaka, was a purple-haired girl, with flushed cheeks and a wide smile, who appeared delighted with the fact Lorelei was now facing off against a giant rabbit.
"Sakura." Fujimaru identified the interloper, taking her by her shoulders. "This is not the time."
"But Senpai! It's a rabbit!" She protested. "A cute baby rabbit!"
"I am rather certain it is an adult." Lorelei corrected her.
"All rabbits are babies!" 'Sakura' argued back with such conviction however that the brunette was left without anything to say in response. "Can I have it? Please?!"
"That seems to be unwise." Lorelei immediately gave the rational reply, before raising an eyebrow when both Fujimaru and Tohsaka, who seemed like rational people themselves, hesitated to respond. "It is a dangerous Phantasmal Beast."
"Yes, of course, but you see, Sakura wants it." Fujimaru argued, with Tohsaka nodding fervently in agreement. "So I have to try at least."
Lorelei's eyebrows went up so much they almost disappeared into her hairline. What kind of power did 'Sakura' hold over these two for them to be so willing to accommodate her even when her requests were utterly impractical and far beyond the reasonable?
"It is my duty to kill it." She reminded the three, keeping a careful eye on the creature, which seemed strangely content to wait for now.
"Can I convince you to capture it instead?" Fujimaru tried. "I'm willing to negotiate. Name your price."
Lorelei opened her mouth to refuse the audacious request, barely above the level of a poor jest, before closing it again, reconsidering.
While this whole situation was entirely ridiculous, and Fujimaru's request even more so, the brunette could in fact see the practical side of keeping the 'Wolpertinger' alive.
Phantasmal Creatures were after all beings that belonged exclusively to the Magical side of the world. They were creatures of Mystery, fully separate from the World of Man. That made them invaluable as research objects in the Modern Age.
Furthermore, Phantasmal Beasts were also great sources of Magical materials. While Lorelei doubted it would allow itself to be dissected, its hair and samples of its blood would already be priceless resources, especially since the amount of Phantasmal Creature-based supplies were dwindling at an astounding pace.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, capturing the Wolpertinger alive and giving it to Fujimaru would mean the redhead owed her a favour. A favour from a Sorcerer was something more valuable than a thousand Phantasmal Beast-corpses, and if her family ever learned she had passed up an opportunity to obtain such a favour, they would be wrother with her than ever before.
The fact that the Beast had killed people became utterly irrelevant in the face of such an prospect.
Even her hatred for all things inhuman was no hindrance, as it hardly applied here.
She hated Dead Apostles, Wraith, Ghouls, and all creatures like them because they were mismade parodies of human beings. They mocked the simple perfection of the human form, a perfection the Barthomeloi took pride in. As such, all Barthomeloi despised such creatures with a vengeance, and Lorelei most of them all, unable to bear the experience of being mocked by the mere existence of those horrid monsters.
Phantasmal Beasts on the other hand were just animals, beings that had existed since before humanity did. There was nothing mocking or degrading about them, and as such, Lorelei felt rather neutral towards them, unable to summon the searing hatred that she normally felt during her hunts.
"I can make an attempt to capture it alive." She thus allowed, before holding up a finger when Fujimaru made to reply. "But you will owe me a considerable favour."
"Of course." He nodded without a second thought, giving her a beaming smile. "Thank you, Lady Barthomeloi."
"Hm." His words of gratitude were pleasant to her ears, and Lorelei had to forcibly suppress a smile of her own. "Then I shall part with you for now. I have a 'Wolpertinger' to capture."
"Good luck!" The purple-haired girl clenched her fist in front of her face, a warlike expression on her face. "Please be gentle with it!"
"…I must ask, Fujimaru." Lorelei found herself saying, giving the purple-haired girl a perturbed look. "Who is this girl?"
"This 'girl' is Matou Sakura." Sakura spoke up before Fujimaru could, pouting angrily at Lorelei. "His girlfriend."
It was more than a little odd that that pout was one of the cutest things Lorelei had ever seen.
"Don't take unnecessary risks." Tohsaka said, proving herself more grounded in reality than the other girl. "Capture it if you can, but if it is too dangerous, kill it before it can kill you."
"Indeed. While I would prefer it if you could capture it alive, nothing is more important than your survival, my lady." Fujimaru agreed, causing another pleasant tingle in Lorelei's stomach. "I'll be waiting for you to contact us again after you have won."
"I shall." Lorelei nodded, pleased even more by his confidence in her victory. "Goodbye."
She then dismissed the image in the mirror, before returning the object to her inner pocket.
Then she fully focused on the Beast, crouching down slightly in preparation for the battle.
The Wolpertinger, which had been strangely passive so far, also crouched, narrowing its black eyes.
But even though it had already shown itself willing to kill before, even though it had slaughtered several groups of people, it emitted strangely little killing intent.
In fact, Lorelei almost got the sense that if she were to turn around and walk away, it would let her go without attacking or pursuing.
Though ultimately, irrelevant.
"You'll be coming with me." She said, unsheathing her rapier and preparing her spells.
The rabbit merely grunted in response.
Then the battle began.
"Greetings, Fuyuki flight-control, this is flight RA3212, requesting permission to land."
"Hello flight RA3212, this is Fuyuki flight control. It is five past three, the sky is cloudless and the wind force is two. You may land at landing zone three."
"Thank you, flight control."
The plane that landed at Fuyuki's airport, only a day after Caren had arrived, was just one of many that day.
It hailed from the Indira Gandhi International Airport, in Delhi, India. It was carrying about a hundred passengers, fifteen of them being Indian, with the rest coming from all over the world.
The Indira Gandhi International Airport was one of the biggest airports in Asia, and a site where a great many transfers took place. Its location made it an excellent midway point for people travelling from Europe to East-Asia and vice versa, something that was usually not done in a single flight, and because of that, more than half of its revenue came from people and goods in transit.
However, since Indira Gandhi International wasn't tremendously strict on checking passports and identities, it was also a very popular point of transfer for people who had nefarious goals in mind, people who appreciated the fact that they didn't have to use their own identity to board one of its planes and who made grateful use of the customs agents' penchant for being bribed easily.
Most of the passengers on flight RA3212 were perfectly innocent. They were tourists, business people on legitimate business trips, or people visiting relatives. There wasn't a single terrorist or smuggler among them.
There were, however, two people in the plane with less than honest intentions.
One of them was a Spanish man, the other a Polish woman, although they'd both moved to London over two decades ago, making them actually English.
They were, in a word, mercenaries, people dedicated to selling their services to the highest bidder. Both of them were capable of utilising Magecraft, but neither were actual, dedicated Magi. In that sense, they were similar to Emiya Kiritsugu, though not nearly at his level.
These mercenaries were not assassins though. They were specialists at gathering information, but not killers-for-hire. As such, they were generally used as scouts and reckon-agents, obtaining the intelligence that their masters needed to launch an offense of their own.
Most Magi had no use for them, for people who wouldn't even kill when commanded to, but there were a few individuals and families who made grateful use of their services.
Among those families was the Edelfelt.
The Edelfelt largely preferred to fight their own battles. They were almost all warriors and assassins, and never shied away from doing their own dirty work. They were very prideful when it came to matters like that and considered it shameful to hire outsiders to kill their enemies.
However, the Edelfelt were also very recognisable, if not by their looks then by their attitude, which made covert information gathering rather difficult for them. Scouting an enemy's stronghold was near impossible after all when you had distinct blonde hair, a typical laugh, and an insurmountable need to flaunt your wealth at every opportunity.
For tasks like that, and tasks like that only, they tended to employ outsiders.
The two mercenaries had been in the employ of the Edelfelt for quite a few years now, and when they had been told to go to Japan, they had obeyed their masters without a second thought, only pausing long enough to obtain proper disguises and forge fitting identities.
During the long flight, interrupted once at Indira Ghandi, they practised their backstories and new personalities, and fully prepared for any questions that might be asked by overzealous busybodies.
When they exited the plane in Fuyuki, they appeared to be nothing more than a normal couple on a normal trip to Japan, profiting from the fact they had no children to have their vacation at the very end of the summer holiday, when most tourists had already left.
The Spanish mercenary wore short yellow trousers and a yellow short-sleeved shirt, coupled with sandals and white socks, creating a deliberate image of a dumb, fumbling tourist who had no idea of what he was supposed to do now that he was no longer at the office every day.
The Polish mercenary on the other hand had the image of an exasperated wife down to a T. She wore a white sundress coupled with a wide-brimmed hat and high-heeled open shoes, with in her hand a somewhat expensive purse. The typical sneer, inherent to every exasperated wife, was also on her lips.
Their luggage consisted of two of the most standard suitcases on the market, and once they had retrieved those from the luggage bands in the airport, they headed outside and called for a standard taxi to take them to their standard hotel.
"Good morning." The female mercenary said once they were inside the hotel, addressing the receptionist in clumsy Japanese. "I have reservation under name Gwen Stacy. This is husband Flash Thompson."
"Stacy-san… Yes, I have it right here." The receptionist, a cute brunette with a button nose, replied happily after checking her logbook. "I'll go and get your key cards at once."
"Why do I have to be Flash Thompson?" The man, Flash, grumbled in English once the receptionist was out of earshot. "Couldn't I have been Peter Parker?"
"No. Peter Parker is too well-known, even here in Japan." The woman, Gwen, replied without ever dropping her beaming smile. "They'd know we are using fake names right away."
"Does it matter if they know?"
"It does. They might report us to the police, and if the Second Owner has an informant posted there, we'll get found out immediately."
Of course, Flash knew that as well, but he was bored and in the mood for a little arguing, so he pretended to be ignorant. Gwen was perfectly aware that he was being petulant for the sake of it, but since she was bored as well, she answered his questions sincerely, if with a little annoyance.
Fortunately for them, the receptionist returned with their key cards before Flash could feel the need to complain more, and after Gwen had paid the remaining sum for their room, the duo headed upstairs with the elevator.
"This is a pretty good room." Gwen remarked once they entered through the solid oaken door, spinning once to take in everything inside. There was a double bed, a table against the wall, two chairs and a poof, and a door leading to a decent bathroom with a bath and a toilet.
"I had expected more for the price we paid." Flash grumbled, putting the suitcases down in a corner.
"Staying in Japanese cities is expensive." Gwen shrugged. "Besides, the Edelfelt are paying the bill, so you have nothing to complain about."
"True." Flash nodded with a sigh, before he stretched a little, groaning as he did so, feeling how the kinks in his spine, caused by the long flight, disappeared one by one. "Shall we get to work then? With the salary the Edelfelt are paying us, we better have something to show for it soon."
"Yes, let's." Gwen nodded, before unfolding the map of Fuyuki that she had taken from the receptionist's counter. "It seems we found ourselves in a rather big city. Fortunately for us, the Tohsaka never made a secret of where they live."
"Seems a bit foolish for a family in such an isolated position." Flash remarked, smiling confidently as he glanced at the map as well. "But it helps us now."
"Don't get too excited, the Tohsaka manor is probably very well defended." Gwen cautioned him, following a few streets on the map with her finger until she arrived at the correct address, provided by the Edelfelt themselves. "Here. This is it. The manor."
"It may be defended, yes, but our goal was never to get inside, was it?" Flash grunted, retrieving a telescope, binoculars, and a long-distance camera from his suitcase. All of them were of the highest quality available and had been enhanced further with Magecraft. "We just need to keep an eye on the Second Owner and log everything she does."
"Yes." Gwen agreed, retrieving her own equipment. "And we need to pay particular attention to anyone coming by her house who seems like they are involved in business dealings with Tohsaka. Doubly so if gems are involved."
"Ah, the good old Edelfelt, always trying to muscle in on other people's business." Flash sighed with no small amount of fondness, more than aware of why their employers wanted them to focus so much on gems. "Better make sure then to log everything that seems like possible blackmail material as well."
"Of course. That's included in the job description." Gwen nodded.
Blackmail material was incredibly convenient to have. It made negotiations run that much smoother and ensured that you could always get your just due. In both the mundane world and the Moonlit World, proper blackmail material was worth its weight in gold and then some.
'But hold on', a layman might say. 'Isn't collecting blackmail material on Magi easier said than done?'
Magi were heartless people after all, without any personal connections, and they tended to care little about their reputation or the people around them.
A picture of a Magus committing adultery would have very little worth as blackmail material for instance, and threatening relatives was rather useless if they didn't give a damn about their relatives in the first place.
Flash and Stacy had done jobs of this kind before however, and they knew, better than most, that Magi in remote areas tended to... soften, by lack of a better word, over time.
With very few rivals and an abundance of peace, these Magi sometimes formed connections with some of the people around them. These people could be police officers, business owners, local politicians, or even just neighbours.
Of course, these kinds of connections weren't on the level of friends or loved ones, but one would have to be a complete sociopath in order to remain isolated completely for all their lives.
If Tohsaka had a few people in her neighbourhood whom she was close to, it would only be normal.
Those people were the ones whom Gwen and Flash were supposed to find. The Edelfelt would pay good money for their identities, as they had numerous times in the past.
Then all it took was a few pictures of those people, preferably inside their own homes, and the most elegant hyenas above ground would have another tool in their toolbox for the upcoming negotiations.
A simple plan, but proven strangely effective time and again.
Their preparations finished, the duo left the hotel, kindly waving goodbye to the cute receptionist, and set out for the Tohsaka-manor, using the map to navigate through the streets.
As the hotel had been specifically selected for its convenient location within walking distance of the Tohsaka-manor, it was unnecessary to call for a taxi. They just had to follow one of the major roads in the city for a while, and then enter a residential block, in which the manor was located somewhere in the middle.
However, that the two locations were close to each other as the crow flies did not mean that getting from one location to the other was automatically easy, and once they were inside the residential block, they had to make frequent stops to orient themselves.
"Alright, in about twenty metres, we need to take a left turn." Gwen said, her eyes flitting between the map and the road in front of her.
"All these streets look alike." Flash made the complaint that had been uttered by countless men all over the world who first entered a new city, looking around grumpily at the houses that to his eyes looked nearly identical. "You'd think they would introduce some variety, but no, they just have to make it difficult for us."
"Turn left here." Ignoring his whining, Gwen led them around the corner, and onto a street that indeed looked very similar to the one before. "In another fifty metres, we turn right."
"And who made this maze?" Flash continued his complaining, gesturing around. "Left, right, left, right, left, right, and so on, curving from one side to the other. What's wrong with straight roads?"
"If you want straight roads, go to America." Gwen huffed, not taking her eyes off the map. "Alright, we take a right here."
They turned right onto a new street, which again looked very similar to the one before.
"Another red car." Flash huffed, pointing at said car, standing in an open garage. "There were red cars in the previous streets too. I didn't know the Japanese liked red cars."
"Uhm, I think we need to turn left here." Gwen muttered, less certain of herself than before, peering at the map with a hesitant look, though she did lead them onto the next street with hesitation.
"Another red car?" Flash was getting more and more confused, before looking at another house. "And another green window? In the previous street, the house in that location also had a green window."
"Red car, green window, yellow slide." Flash counted the same things in this new street as well, beginning to notice more and more details as he kept seeing the same picture over and over again.
"Red car, green window, yellow slide, white fountain."
"R-Right? No, left."
"Red car, green window, yellow slide, white fountain, weirdly shaped chimney."
"Red car, green window, yellow slide, white fountain, weirdly shaped chimney, front door ajar…"
"SHUT UP!" Gwen snarled, finally fed up with all the chattering beside her while she was trying to concentrate. "You're confusing me!"
"I'm confusing you?!" Flash spluttered. "What about this place!?"
"I don't know!" Gwen screamed, throwing the map onto the ground, her expression a mixture of rage and confusion. "I have no idea where we are anymore!"
"I do." Flash huffed, trying to put on a strong front even as sweat poured down his neck. "We never left that first street."
"Every time we turn a corner, we end up at exactly the same street again." Flash explained, looking around at the mundane, ordinary street that had seemingly become their prison. "We are trapped in a loop."
"What?" Gwen repeated, her eyes so wide they almost came tumbling out of their sockets, before she looked around. "Bullshit!"
"I'll prove it! Take a good look around and remember what you see."
Gwen did so, imprinting her surroundings into her mind.
"Now come." Flash grabbed her wrist, pulling her along. "We turn the corner over there."
They did so, they turned the corner, and they saw…
"It's the same street." Gwen breathed, goose bumps breaking out all over her skin, especially when they came across the map they'd supposedly abandoned earlier. "It's the same fucking street!"
"I told you." Flash nodded, unable to take any satisfaction out of being proven right. "We're fucking trapped!"
Gwen then promptly turned back, retracing her footsteps, and found herself again on the same street, almost walking into Flash's back, as he was still looking in the direction she'd gone a moment before.
Multiple other attempts to leave the street proved just as futile, and eventually, the duo had to give up before they needlessly exhausted themselves.
"We must be trapped in a Bounded Field." Flash hissed, wiping the sweat from his brow. "The Second Owner knows we are here."
"Damnit." Gwen swore, realising that that was indeed the likeliest explanation. "How did she figure it out? We didn't use any Magecraft whatsoever."
"Rather useless to think about that now." Flash grunted, looking up at the sky. Then, in an impulse, he placed his hand around his mouth like an amplifier. "OI! SECOND OWNER! IF YOU'RE THERE, PLEASE LET US GO ALREADY! WE'RE SORRY!"
"What are you doing?"
"WE ARE SORRY FOR COMING HERE WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION! WE PROMISE WE'LL GET OUT OF YOUR CITY IMMEDIATELY IF YOU LET US GO!"
"Stop that!" Gwen smacked him over the head, glaring angrily at him. "We've got enough problems without you trying to make me deaf!"
"It was worth a try." Flash argued.
"It was stupid!"
"You got any other ideas?"
"Thought so." Flash huffed, before he started heading for the corner again. "Let me just check if it worked."
"It didn't." Gwen insisted, but she nevertheless followed him, rounding the corner at the same time as he did…
Before they both had to step aside to dodge a running salary man going in the opposite direction.
"Pardon me." The salary man apologised, and then he was off, leaving Gwen and Flash to look around and realise that...
"The hotel!" Flash almost cheered, pointing at the large building. "We are back! We are out of the loop!"
"How?" Gwen mumbled, her eyes again wide as saucers, not just at the fact that they were out of the loop but also that they had been seemingly teleported back to their hotel. "Don't tell me it was the apology."
"Who cares?" Flash huffed, turning around and grabbing her wrist. "Come on. Let's get our stuff and get the hell out of here. Job's a bust. We'll tell the Edelfelt to send someone else."
"That would ruin our reputation and our working relationship with them." Gwen protested. "To give up after a single day-"
"It's better than dying." Flash countered, not able to muster much care about his reputation at the moment. "Let me remind you, the Second Owner knows who we are, knows why we are here, and is powerful enough to trap us in a Bounded Field before we can even realise she is doing anything. We cannot win."
"But we can try to talk with her." Gwen came up with a new plan on the spot. "We can send her a letter, meet up with her, and try to learn about her that way. At the very least, we won't be going back without having tried multiple avenues of attack."
"No." Flash refused her immediately however. "No. I can see where you're coming from, but the way I see it, we've been given one single chance to get the hell out of her city, and I don't intend to pass up on that chance."
"No." Flash struck down any notion of protest. "We leave or we die, it is as simple as that. Are you so loyal to the hyenas that you are willing to give your life for them?"
"...No." Gwen grumbled, having to admit that their masters inspired little personal loyalty, before blinking as the looked at his leg. "What's that in your pocket?"
"Hm?" Flash looked down at his pocket, noticing it was bulging outwards ever so slightly, before reaching into it and retrieving a piece of paper in a very distinct shape. "A letter?"
"What does it say?"
"Let me see."
Flash opened the letter, his eyes flitting across the lines of text, before he lowered it again.
"What is it now?" Gwen asked in a mixture of apprehension and exasperation.
"It's from the Second Owner." Flash mumbled, looking rather out of it. "She, uh… She wants to talk to us before we leave the city."
"We never should have taken this job." Flash lowered his head, a dark cloud of depression forming over him. "Never should have taken this job."
And that finishes this chapter.
Next chapter wraps up the rabbit hunt, deals with the mercenaries, and some other stuff. With some luck, we can start speeding things up a bit.
Yes, I know I've been saying that a lot, but for real this time.
The first part is a bit weak, I know that, but it's basically a deus ex machina. You can essentially condense it to 'Shirou does ritual, Illya now better'. I tried to pad it a bit, but there wasn't all that much I could do.
So, Illya, Sella, and Leysritt are now mostly human, with a part Asgardian in the mix. I explained a bit about the Ritual in the story, but not everything, nor do I plan to. The more I explain things, the more I paint myself in a corner, so I won't do that.
I will say however that the whole thread-thing, with the girls being represented by a web of interlocking threads that Shirou had to alter, was based on the Tapestry of Fate that Rune King Thor pulled apart in his comic. Like I said, it's God's stitch work, and being able to alter it means you can alter reality.
As for how Nasu made the Ritual, he borrowed a bit from Rune King Thor, and also used the expertise of great weavers such as Enitharmon. He's a Marvel 616-character.
Lorelei also has a unique encounter with several Phantasmal Species that you probably didn't expect. I had to include them however, to account for our modern beliefs.
I mean, who doesn't know a story with a wise owl? Who hasn't heard of the three piglets or the big bad wolf? The way I presented them does have a Dutch tint, but that's because I am Dutch. Please bear with it.
Before Shirou got Mjolnir, it didn't matter that everyone knows of the three piglets. Even if eight billion people knew their story, they weren't going to manifest now that almost all Mystery is gone. With the Mystery returning however, they can very well make an appearance, especially since they are rather low on Mystery-value to begin with. Nothing like a Sphinx or something.
So yes, more modern myths and legends are fair game now. That is only logical if you think about it. I'll have to think about what more to include, but perhaps the Yeti, the Monster of Loch Ness, and Slenderman can be next. They would be easier to manifest than Fafnir for example.
Back to the story itself. Caren arrives in Fuyuki and immediately makes a nuisance of herself, at least until she hears what is going to happen soon. As she is still a proper Christian, the news that a devil-analogue is trying to break free is not welcome by any means, and it takes her a few moments to cope with it.
Rin is moving back in with her mom. That will cause some friction and some issues. I don't know if you guys are the type of person to enjoy that, but if you are, you have something to look forward to.
Then, it turns out Lorelei is hunting a Wolpertinger. Those creatures are one of my favourite mythical animals in existence. I mean, it's a rabbit! With antlers and wings! What's not to like?!
In all seriousness though, they are not that impressive as Phantasmal Beasts go. In FGO, they'd barely be the filler of the first round of enemies. Nevertheless, they were supposed to be gone, but now they're back.
Next chapter has the battle between woman and rabbit.
The Edelfelt also sent some spies, but Shirou's defences easily caught them. Sorry, guys, but just trying to keep a low profile isn't going to cut it this time.
That is all for now, thank you very much for reading, and stay tuned for the next chapter.