Shirou party walked in the most casual manner possible, led by the temple's caretaker towards the Hourglass. Though there was the tension of an upcoming battle in all of them. The Priest and official ambassador of the King both seemed to feel the tension themselves, or perhaps the fact that Shirou's party rejected their request to leave their weapons behind when entering the holy grounds had made the men uneasy.
It probably didn't help when Fohl started talking, and alluding to the coming fight.
"Atla, when the fighting starts, I want you to leave everything to me and just stay back with Rishia." Fohl told his little sister as they walked.
Atla frowned at her brother's suggestion. "I'm just as good a fighter as you are, Onii-sama. I can fight for myself."
It was true. In a spar between the two of them, they were pretty even. While Atla had a much better control over her body and a superior ability to read the world around her, Fohl possessed the Beast Transformation ability and an entire year's worth of experience of fighting tooth and nail to survive. Both were what Shirou would call fledglings when it came to technique, but their raw abilities were incredible. It had been Fohl's desire not to lose to his little sister that pushed him to ask Shirou to open up his magic circuits as well.
Before they were unlocked and the boy gained some level of control over them, any fight between the two would be completely one sided, but with the ability to defend against her hands, they were on equal ground. Fohl might even be able to beat her, if he took proper advantage of his superior reach.
The physical age gap between them had grown as in the last weak. Fohl had aged three years and grown to the height of a young man. It appeared that his mixed human blood slowed down his accelerated aging, just like how Azu's dragon blood had sped the process up. So even though it had been a week since he had undergone Class Up at level 60, he still hadn't finished growing.
Meanwhile, Atla might have aged an extra month, much to her disappointment. Shirou didn't know if her genetics just happened to line up in such a way as to deny her the accelerated growth, or if it was the degraded copy of Avalon still in her body that was slowing the process down. It shouldn't have had enough power in it to stop aging, but maybe supernatural aging was easier to slow than the normal kind.
If the current rate of things continued, she would just be starting to hit puberty in another five months, instead of in two years. The thought left Shirou uneasy.
Still, while a fight between the two of them would be fairly even, Atla's abilities made her a terrifying force against unprepared opponents. Even with the gap in stats that they were likely facing today, a single blow from one of her hands would likely bring these people to their knees, if they didn't explode at the point of impact. Meanwhile, the ability to 'break' her arrows made her destructive at a range as well.
Fohl had come a long way in just two weeks when it came to opening his Magic Circuits and projecting out his Od, but without Atla's Pure Eyes, telling her exactly where to hit and how much power to use, it just didn't have the same effect.
If unleashed on the enemy unexpectedly, she could probably kill three or four of them before they even had a chance to realize just how much they had underestimated her.
"It isn't about being capable… I don't want you to have to dirty your hands too." Fohl told his little sister, his voice almost pleading.
"Onii-sama… I am no stranger to death." Atla said softly.
Both Fohl and Shirou winced.
Fohl probably thought she was talking about the time they had spent in the Colosseum, surrounded by the dead and dying, with her 'seeing' everything that happened, the life slowly draining out of people as well as the killing. But while her experiences in the Colosseum were more horrific than a normal person's psyche could survive, Shirou suspected that her more recent experiences had been even worse.
The dream cycle, started by the integration of Shirou's Traces into her body, had continued, and in the last two weeks, she had come to him in the night no less than four times, shaking uncontrollably and once having vomited over what she had seen. In the beginning, Shirou had worried over whether it was his or Sabers memories she was seeing, but as it turned out, he was being optimistic again about just how horrific things could be.
Not only was she seeing his and Saber's memories, she was seeing Archer's as well.
Neither Saber nor Shirou's memories were appropriate for a girl her age, but while Saber's life could be inspirational, as well as bloody and sad, and Shirou's life had some hollowing... and occasionally erotic moments, Archer's memory's were something else entirely.
Shirou remembered his own experiences with them, waking up in the night from dreams so real that he would momentarily forget who he was. On one memorable occasion, Shirou had attempted to chop Archer's arm off in order to escape it, only to be stopped by Rider.
The Servant had to use her Mystic Eyes on Shirou, trapping him inside of an erotic fantasy of her making until he 'calmed down', which was about the time she had milked him dry… the pervert.
Rin, Sakura and Illya had screamed at Shirou for a week about his stupidity, though Rider had been more sympathetic. After all, she had smashed every mirror in the house after she had accidentally used her Mystic Eyes on herself and trapped herself in a fantasy where she was still living on her island with her two sisters. She had only stopped after she had ripped the mirrors on her motorcycle. It had taken her months to recover from that particular episode.
So when Atla had come to him in the night for the first time, completely shaken, and he asked her what she had seen, only to be described a scene where Shirou was tied down to a table and being dissected while alive and conscious, Shirou had felt all the blood drain out of him. He had known the exact memory she was referring to, but it was only one horrific origin story. Just one of several thousands of horrible deaths that had resulted in Emiya Shirou becoming the miserable and broken creature that was Archer. And it wasn't even in the top ten worst ways that Archer had died, let alone the worst things he had experienced.
Even so, Atla's soul refused to give up its hold on the Traces, leaving the dreams to continue. Shirou didn't understand it, why her soul clung to the construct in such a way, until he started to teach her actual Magecraft and started to notice the signs. What Atla had experienced at the Colosseum, watching the death through Pure Eyes as her brother was forced to lower himself to a killer in order to protect her, had broken her down to her core, and so she was creating a new one using the fake Excalibur and Avalon as a starting point, as well as her connection to Jian as one of Shirou's companions.
She was becoming distorted and the beginnings of what Shirou believed to be a Holy Origin were starting to take form, to go with her Holy Element.
Shirou felt guilty, knowing what he had managed to do to the girl, but there was literally nothing he could do about it at this point. The only thing he could do was support her as best as he could.
Every time she had a dream from Archer's past, Shirou would stay up with her afterwards, helping her to cope with what she had seen. He had started to teach her Japanese, as she seemed to like learning new languages. Something that came from her time spent bedridden, when she had nothing else to do but 'look' and listen. Her brother would purposely seek out new languages to learn, just so that he would have something to teach her.
They entered the main gallery of the building and started to approach the massive structure which was the Hourglass of the Dragon's Era, with its red sand slowly counting down to the start of the next Wave. But before they reached the center of the room, Shirou stopped and looked off to stage right.
"There's no need to hide. We know you're there, so you might as well just introduce yourselves." He said, loud and with confidence, startling the priest and politician.
It took a few seconds for the response to come, but soon the people started to funnel out from behind the curtain. A human male came out first, doing a sort of slow clap. Behind him was nearly a hundred women, most carrying firearms. The man was one of the seven high-level individuals, and perhaps the strongest of them, with the five people closest to him being some of the others.
The final one was a Shadow, hidden among the rest of the women.
Shirou had expected there to be Shadows, and had planned for either he or Atla would have to take care of the hidden elements.
The firearms were not a concern. With Shirou's party's equipment and stats, there was little threat of taking damage from bullets. Beyond the seven key figures, the rest of the people might as well not be there at all.
That was good. He would have no need to turn this into a bloody massacre.
Among the six high level women, Shirou identified what he believed to be a human Shadow, a member of the Aotatsu Clan, a black haired Kitsune, and a second human female. The last two were identified for him as monsters with human forms, a Griffin Queen and a 'Dragonewt' (False Dragon). The Dragon Newt appeared to be a lesser species that was pumped up on multiple Dragon Core Fragments, like a house cat that was inflated into the size of a lion.
All of them were powerful. Only the humans, and the fox held weapons, letting Shirou gain insight into their exact level, but each of them was over level 200. Something that was, frankly speaking, unreal. Shirou had been expecting each of them to be level 100, with some kind of growth modification, but instead they were actual level 200s and above. The only modifier they were receiving was a buff from being allied to the Legendary Whip, giving each of them +25% to all stats, or 50% if they were a Demihuman or Monster.
Shirou was curious about it and wondered where they had been hunting in order to grow those kinds of levels… then he noticed something that made the first of many alarm bells go off in his head.
Not a single person in the group gathered before them had any equipment that was more than a week old, and all of it had only ever been used in sparring practices, leaving Shirou no way of knowing where they had been fighting, or their more advanced techniques.
Why? How? The number of people in the world who knew the nature of Shirou's abilities could be counted on his fingers, and nearly all of them were standing right behind him. Beyond them, only the Queen might know about Shirou's ability to read weapons. So how would they have known to replace their equipment?
The second alarm bell came in the form of the man himself, and the weapon in his hand.
"That's some senses you've got there, Mr. Hero." The man said, his voice dripping with smug sarcasm as he walked towards them, the Legendary Whip bouncing against his hip, its blue crystal seeming dim and dead.
"Not at all. You just weren't hiding yourself properly." Shirou quipped, almost mechanically as he evaluated his enemy.
The man was confident in his stats to the point of wearing little more than a biker's leather jacket and jeans for armor, which didn't have a very impressive defense value. His blond hair was covered in a bandanna, keeping his hair out of his blue eyes. All and all, he looked like he belonged on the cover of some kind of magazine for motorbikes, or starring in a movie as the 'bad boy'.
None of that really registered all that much with Shirou. He was too busy looking at the man's weapon...
[That does not belong to him!]
Jian's sentiments were echoed within his own heart as he saw the whip. It gave him the same feeling he had gotten when watching Gilgamesh throwing around his treasure trove of weapons. Yes, they were his belongings, but he was not their true master and did not have the right to their full powers. If anything, they resented being used by him.
It was the same way for this man and the Legendary Whip, only it felt more wrong. There was such a huge disconnect between him and his weapon, that the Whip was incapable of telling Shirou the man's identity, and like with all other Legendary Weapons, its history was wiped clean for him each time it switched forms.
Somehow, though some unnatural power that the man had, he was able to suppress the Legendary Weapon System, which would have normally shocked him to submission for trying to wield a Legendary Weapon not meant for him, letting him force the Legendary Whip to let him wield it.
His forced mastery was imperfect, with him only gaining access to its most rudimentary of powers; the ability to transform the Whip, its Skills, and its unique effects as a Vassal Weapon. He was not gaining the power from any of the other functions that the Vassal Weapons shared with their Holy parents.
Yes, parents. For each of the Four Holy Weapons, there were two Vassal Weapons which were extensions of the former, born from their power. The Vassal Weapons were theoretically weaker, but didn't have the same weaknesses as the Holy Weapons did.
For starters, they didn't have a connection to the World, making them more self-sufficient, and letting them team up with each other and the Saint Heroes without repercussions. Second, they didn't reset with each new Hero, meaning they were free to accumulate power and weapon forms over several generations. Which was why the King could wield power equal to an A+ rank anti-army Noble Phantasm.
Not that this man could do the same thing.
It explained Jian's reaction earlier. The Legendary Whip was one of the two Vassal Weapons with a connection to the Legendary Sword. She must have felt kinship with it, and seeing it being forced to obey someone perceived as being unworthy was sending her into a rage.
Though Shirou could feel more than anger coming from her. As strange as it was, Jian was frightened.
[Hero. Stop him. Kill him. Don't let him take me.]
With the ability to suppress the Legendary Weapon System rules, and being able to force minor contracts between himself and the weapons, the man was basically capable of stealing a Legendary Weapon and forcing it to work for him.
For Jian, it must have been as frightening as slavery.
Shirou allowed his hand to be lowered to Jian's hilt which he patted slowly. 'I won't let him have you, and if he wants to try, he will have to beat me first.'
Shirou assure the sword, causing her to slowly calm down.
[A Legendary Sword places its faith in its Hero.]
"So, what do you have to say, Faker?" The man said, the familiar word drawing Shirou out of his thoughts.
"Hm? What was that?" Shirou said, blinking in confusion. "Sorry, I wasn't listening. What were you saying?"
Everyone around Shirou looked at him with dumbfounded shock, and Fohl broke into laughter. "He wasn't even listening to your dumb ranting, you smug bastard." Fohl said with one hand on his stomach. The Aotatsu in the man's party took offense at Fohl's comment and shouted about how a mere Hakuko would dare disrespect 'the Great Takt'.
Well, at least Shirou know had confirmation of the man's identity. No money for guessing though. It was pretty obvious.
While Fohl got into a shouting match with the hundred or so girls in the room, Shirou turned to Yami. "Would you mind filling me in on what was said?"
"It would appear that Prince Takt is questioning whether his country needs your assistance at all and is demanding that you prove yourself in a duel with him. He also says that if you deny his challenge then you will have revealed yourself to be a False Hero." Yami said, omitting her normal tell as she spoke.
"Hm, is that so?" Shirou said, looking to Takt for confirmation.
"That about sums it up." Takt said with an air of confidence. "So what will it be? Will you fight me, or are you just going to tuck your tail between your legs and run away?"
"...I see what's going on here. Your plan is to try to beat me and then use that ability you gained from questionable sources to steal the Holy Sword from me. Then you would claim that the Legendary Sword jumped to you because it recognized you as being superior." Shirou said with a short nod. "Does that 'sum it up' well?"
"Wha… how do…" Takt stammered, unable to find words. But the Priest certainly found them.
"Stealing the Legendary Holy Sword!? That… that's heresy!" The man shouted in disbelief.
"It's only heresy if he loses. If he manages to beat me, then he would be this nation's hero while I would be the Fake Hero, and therefore the heretic. After all, history is written by the victor." Shirou said, remaining calm. "Very well, I accept your challenge. We will have a one on one duel. The winner will be a hero and the loser a heretic. Now, have you set up a location for this? I'm a rather busy man, and hate waiting."
"Do you have a recording of the prior conversation? Proof of him being a heretic will come in handy later was dealing with this political mess." Shirou asked Yami as the party gathered at the entrance to the arena.
"Yes, Hero-sama, the feed has already been sent to the Queen, degojaru." Yami told Shirou. "She won't be happy about how public this is being, degojaru. Your identity was supposed to remain secret, degojaru."
"The people in charge will just blame everything on Takt. I'm not even entirely sure that it isn't true." Shirou said with a sigh.
"Why the hell are we doing this one on one stuff anyways? We should have just taken care of all of them back at the temple." Fohl said, crossing his arms under his chest.
"It's politics. It's rarely about what you accomplish and more about how you sell it. By fighting by their rules and at their request, no one can complain later. Besides, I don't want to accidentally break the Hourglass." Shirou explained to the boy. "Besides, him having the Legendary Whip is providing all his allies with a sizable buff. Take that away and it would lean the odds in our favor while we are cleaning things up."
"Are you not being overconfident?" Eclair said with crossed arms. "Takt is rumored to be a genius in combat. Last year, he won a major tournament in Shildfrieden just before becoming the Star Hero of the Whip."
"It doesn't matter. No one can beat Shirou-sama." Atla said with a shake of the head. "The fool might have a lot of power, but he isn't Shirou-sama."
"Sensei has sparred against you, Firo, Yami, Fohl and me all at once, and we couldn't beat him, even though our stats were higher. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think that this Takt guy can compare." Rita said with a sigh.
"It is entirely possible that I can't beat him." Shirou admitted with a shrug. Shocking the others. "If things go south, we ditch the high and mighty route, kill the False Dragon and the Griffin Queen before they have time to react, and teleport out as soon as the territory magic is down. Then we come back later and assassinate whoever is left."
"You… you aren't serious, are you!?" Eclair said, her voice portraying horror at Shirou's sheer lack of chivalry.
"I assure you, he is serious, degojaru." Yami said with a sigh.
"That's just how Sensei is." Rita agreed.
"You can't do something like that! You're supposed to be the Noble Hero!" Eclair objected.
"I'd rather be the one who lives." Shirou said with a shake of the head. "It is only the last resort. I will give it my all to try to beat him flat out. But we need to make sure to leave at least one of them alive. I need to interrogate them as to how they managed to get to such a high level, and how they knew to replace all their equipment so that I couldn't read it."
"The Queen is not responsible for that, degojaru!" Yami shouted before anyone could even make an accusation. "I… I never told her Majesty the exact nature of the Hero's magic, degojaru. She knows that you can copy weapons, but not about the reading of history, degojaru."
"I never figured that the Queen was involved, but it still begs the question of how he could possibly know. ...And if he knows who I am, how he could be so confident in himself." Shirou said as the signal for him to enter the stage came. "Doesn't matter. You all stay here and use this as a fortified position. Rishia, as soon as my match starts, start cycling buffs on the others. After I beat Takt, the others will make a move, and when they do, that is when you are free to attack."
"Understood." Both Atla and Azu said with short nods. Azu was ready for her revenge. And Shirou didn't have the right to tell her that it wasn't worth it.
They were too dangerous to be allowed to live anyways, if they were the kind of people who would go around pissing off extremely powerful dragons in populated areas for personal gain.
Shirou took a deep breath and walked out in front of the small crowd, made up of Takt's unnaturally large harem. "Come on Jian, let's get your Vassal back."