And I'm back.

So... on with the chapter.


Altrouge released another sigh of defeat.

A name like 'Shirou' would indicate that the boy was somewhere in Asia, but the fact that he was the apprentice of the Water Bottle would make his location practically impossible to get to before he was teleported half-way across the world.

How irritating.

She was doing everything she could to try and find his location, but with just a given name and the reason he was noteworthy to go off, there was very little she could truly do.

Strout had gone to interrogate Nrvnqsr about helping them but the beast was still a monster that didn't care for the game between her and Ortenrosse… just that the role he had been given was to hunt the last of the True Ancestors.

To hunt her sister.

Looking at the box she always kept on her person, she was assaulted by emotions she didn't know how to process. The hair within belonged to Arcueid, but she was the one who had stolen it.

Shaking her head, she pushed aside the thoughts of how things may have turned out if the hunt hadn't been called by Trhvmn. Would she be sitting across from her sister now?

It honestly didn't matter in the grand scheme of things.

All that mattered was keeping the balance.

A deep growl sounded from beside her and she thoughtlessly moved to pat the Beast of Gaia, his size closer to a small elephant than a dog but with fur that belonged on a Chinese dragon, wavy and long, while being near pure white outside of the red tufts that ran along its body.

They had originally been blue, back when Cath Palug was still such a small and feeble creature, but ever since he started to drink blood like her, the tone had changed.

Soon a ringing sounded and she released yet another sigh.

It was definitely from another ancestor, meaning it was likely Strout or Svelten with an unnecessary update. That had been happening ever since the hunt for 'Shirou' started, she would sit around trying to think of a deal that would make the newest Apostle of interest join her faction instead of Ortenrosse's, but without even an inclination of his personality, devising such a contract would be difficult.

Placing her hand on the communication orb, she closed her eyes before answering.

She was about to speak before realising exactly who it was that was on the other end.

"Greetings Black Princess," Van-Fem had always been at least somewhat eccentric but he was a very capable businessman, which meant that there was likely some angle he was aiming for with this.

"Greetings Van-Fem, to what do I owe the pleasure this time?" she asked, it was certainly not what she would have liked, wasting time on a call with him when she could be brainstorming ways to find her newest prey.

"I have recently encountered an individual whom seeks an audience with you," the man older than the flood stated and she frowned in response.

"Tell them that I am busy with other matters," she declared and moved to shut off the communication.

"His name is Shirou."

She froze.

No, that was too good to be true.

"And exactly who is he?" she asked, the man couldn't lie, she knew that much due to having seen the bounded fields that he used to enforce the truth, but that didn't mean he was being completely open either.

"He is the apprentice of Sumire and a person whom has replaced their original body with their reality marble," the ancient merchant said, his face screaming his joy at being able to do this.

She swallowed.

Van-Fem could not lie.

Which meant that her prey was seeking her out. Which left the question…

"And what of Ortenrosse?"

"Shirou doesn't care about the games of the factions," Van-Fem declared bluntly, "he simply wishes to meet, I quote 'the person that stands between humanity and extinction'."

She looked to her seat and the giant mutt that currently lay patiently awaiting her to return to giving it pats.

"… understandable," she acknowledged.

If she was in the position of a new apostle then she would probably want to know the type of person who was stopping Cath Palug from slaughtering everything.

"Wonderful, now, I assume you can speak Japanese?" he asked.

"Of course I can," she declared, somewhat irritated by his question. As the master of contracts she needed an in-depth understanding of every language to make sure she knew exactly what loopholes may exist for either side.

"Excellent, now, he's waiting in my Casino for you," Van-Fem declared, "oh, and remember, Svelten is barred."

She nodded.

That was understandable. The last time they met, Svelten had destroyed one of his castles. Van-Fem had promised that the next time they met, he would kill him.

She would much rather not incite a war with every one of his clients by bringing the perverted twit along.

"Are you still in Monte Carlo?" she asked, the man regularly docked there but he did occasionally move port.

"Indeed," the man closed his eyes, "I suppose I will be seeing you soon."

And with that, the call ended.

Turning fiercely she made her way to one of those new-fangled inventions of the modern era. Something called a cell-phone, before she started to press the buttons on the small contraption.

"Strout, arrange a plane ride to Monte Carlo for me, I have a meeting to attend."

"Of course my princess."

And without a moment of pause, she ended the call.

It may not have been the traditional method for Apostles to speak with each other, but it at least meant she could get communications from the human world too.

Looking at the primordial monster that she kept in check, she released a sigh before retaking her seat, waiting for the arrangements to come through.

"Sorry Cath, but I'm going to be gone a little while," she declared before the giant monster proceeded to nuzzle against her chest.

Why did the damn thing have to be such a pervert?

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Raiga sat at the bar, Shirou seated in the seat directly next to him.

It was such a strange experience to be in this ship knowing the truth. It was also strange to experience the effects of the 'bounded field' that covered the place.

Retroactively learning something was a strange experience indeed.

For so long he had been under the impression that he'd been dealing with different members of the Vandelstam family over the course of his life, but now, now he remembered all the meetings had been with the same man that he saw that very day.

Such a terrifying thing, magecraft. Capable of influencing the mind so subtly that you don't even realise that the change is there.

Taking a sip of the drink in his hands, he glanced at Shirou.

The boy wasn't showing it, but he had seen during the conversation just how agitated he was with the location and how it was hindering his normal method of sensing his surroundings.

It was almost like something suddenly finding themselves blind and trying to make their way with just their other senses.

But he was sure that even limited the way he was, Shirou's senses were likely still stronger than a normal man's.

"So Shirou-kun, do you have any idea what you are going to do when you meet with Brunestud-san?" it was an important question, he didn't truly understand who she was after all.

"… I don't know," the boy admitted, "I want to know what she's like, she's in command of the first Ancestor after all."

That flew straight over his head.

"Exactly what is so important about that?" he decided to ask.

"The first Dead Apostle Ancestor, Cath Palug, also known as Primate Murder, is apparently the living embodiment of the concept of human extinction," Shirou stated and he felt his blood run cold, "if it ever decided to end humanity, there would be no stopping it."

That was horrifying.

But according to Shirou, this 'Altrouge Brunestud' had control of this being.

"This is all a bit much to take in," he admitted.

"Sorry," Shirou responded, his tone no different to normal.

"Well, it is better to know and be forearmed than to be ignorant and defenceless," he declared.

Sure, he may not be able to do anything about it, but at least he knew not to step on the wrong toes now.

"Is it?" Shirou asked, tilting his head like he was prone to do ever since he lost the ability to emote naturally.

"At least now I know to lock my door at night and tread carefully around matters I do not know the origin of," he explained before shrugging his shoulders and taking another sip.

"So, what do you intend to do with your money when we've returned?" changing the topic seemed like a good idea.

"My money?" Shirou asked.

"Yes, it was your secret that Van-Fem paid me for," Raiga declared firmly, "as such, it is your money to do with as you wish."

Shirou turned away.

"I don't really care about money. If it is useful then I'll use it, if it isn't then I'll just let it grow," the metal child declared.

It was such a sad state to be in.

Two and a half billion yen better off yet completely unphased by the amount, not out of desensitisation, but simply because he held no value for it.

"You could buy Taiga-chan a birthday present this year," he suggested.

"A new bokken?"

Raiga let out a small chuckle.

"You know as well as I do, that she would never part with the Torashinai," he took another sip before continuing, "as much as it would benefit everyone else."

Glancing at the boy, he noted the small smile tugging at his lips.

It was rare for Shirou to express himself like that, instead aiming for pure words or larger body movements. Which meant the boy had actually been speaking in jest.

And there was genuine amusement in the conversation.

"Well, I suppose I can introduce you to a few other individuals that have a close working relationship with our family," he said before noticing the slip of his tongue.

Our family.

The boy was close to Taiga, even close to him. And now he was going to be chosen as the next heir of the family.

There was one thing that was obvious to him now.

"Though before that," he said, turning to look the boy in his soulless eyes, "let's talk about adoption."

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Shirou didn't know what to think.

Everything had been progressing smoothly, Van-Fem had informed him that Altrouge would be on her way, leaving just the wait.

And then Raiga had dropped that on him.

"I'm sorry, what do you mean?" he asked.

"You're going to inherit the family," Raiga stated, his eyes closed but his tone soft, "even before now you were like a younger brother to Taiga-chan, have even played the role of grandson to me… so I am going to ask, do you want to make it official? Do you want to be legally adopted into the Fujimura family?"

It felt so strange.

It was almost like being back in the hospital the day after the fire.

Being offered a family, a chance at adoption.

But this was different. Raiga wasn't going to pretend like he mattered and then keep him hidden away, unaware of the rest of the family. He wasn't going to lie to him and treat him like a fool. He wasn't going to show him how to do something that could permanently cripple him.

This wasn't a magus playing 'ease my conscience', this was a man that he had known most of his life that was offering him an official place in the family because they believed he belonged in the family.

And with the bitterness that crept in from the Emiya name, he found himself tempted. Oh so tempted to accept.

But he couldn't. Not yet.

Not while there was still a so-called 'sister' out there. A sister that he would eventually find.

"I'm sorry gramps, but I can't accept it right now," he admitted, causing the old man's expression to fall, "it's nothing to do with you… it's just that if I ever meet Kiritsugu's daughter, I want her to know that I was supposed to be a part of her family. I want her to know what Kiritsugu did to me."

The old man's expression softened in response.

"I see," he then took another sip of his drink, "in that case, should I still be alive, I shall ask you again after your issues with the Emiya family have been resolved."

Shirou was grateful for that.

He would meet his adopted sister sooner or later.

Even if he had to tear down the Einzbern castle to do so.

She would have to answer for Kiritsugu's crimes. Perhaps not in full, but she needed to be aware of what the man did and if she was… if she knew and did nothing about it, then she would pay in full.

"Thanks gramps," he said, taking the effort to make his voice softer.

"Well then, let's not dawdle any longer," the old man downed his drink with the vigour of a twenty-year old, "it's time to introduce you to some associates."

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Altrouge walked at a leisurely pace as she made her way from the taxi to the cruise liner, a parasol protecting her ever so slightly against the sun's rays.

It was a nuisance but little more than that, she may have been a Dead Apostle but she was also part True Ancestor, the end result was that she was a bit more resistant to common vampire weaknesses than most.

Soon she found herself walking on board the boat. Strout was on his way but he would be unnecessary here, as much as he may have cautioned her to wait for him.

It was certainly an understandable sentiment and under ordinary circumstances she likely would have humoured him. But this was a race against Ortenrosse, she would not do so given that situation.

In her castle she was untouchable. The bounded fields erected by both Strout and Svelten were ancient magic empowered by their millennia of conceptual weight. And even should the bounded fields fall, they would last long enough for both Strout and Svelten to come to her aid. Then should those two fall… well, no one was getting past Cath Palug.

But in the open, travelling from location to location, she was vulnerable. Still exceptionally difficult to actually kill due to her existence being so consumed by mystery, but vulnerable still.

She wasn't a fighter or a magus after all, she was a master of contracts, the most she could do would be to draw power from the lockbox she carried with her and even that paled in comparison to what her sister possessed.

Which meant she could be overpowered and captured.

But she would risk it if it meant catching her prey before Ortenrosse.

Entering the main hall she glanced around. It was just as ostentatious as always.

If there was anything she would give Van-Fem, he knew how to decorate for high society.

Slowly she scanned the area, the ancient businessman was already old by the time the Age of Gods started its decline, so his magecraft was of an era when they could handle beings like her with minimal fuss.

Meaning she was just as vulnerable here as everyone else.

"Ah, Princess Brunestud, it's a pleasure to see you have arrived," Van-Fem's voice cut in and she released a short sigh.

"Van-Fem, you claimed to have prepared a meeting for me?" she spoke, trying to keep her tone even.

"Indeed, indeed…" the man scanned behind her, his gaze sharp, "may I inquire as to where your body-guards are?"

"Svelten is aware that he is not to come here," she stated, "Strout however… would have taken too long to escort me, so I opted to come alone."

Van-Fem's eyebrow rose.

She would admit that she understood why.

"That is certainly a strange decision on your part," the ancient man declared, "especially since you seem to have forgone bringing your dog."

"Have you arranged a meeting or not?" she snapped, the man was asking more questions than she was comfortable with now.

"Of course, of course," and with that he motioned for her to follow him as he led her to a room in the back. She was not happy with what she saw.

"There's no-one here," she declared, suddenly very concerned for her safety.

"Since I did not have a proper time for your arrival," the broker of all things said calmly, "the individual you are to meet with has been left on the main floor to socialise, it is his first time here after all."

She nodded before moving to take a seat.

She wished she had waited for Strout now.

The room was a good size, with two couches seated across from each other with a generously sized glass coffee table between them, leaving enough room behind the couches to allow for the presence of intimidating bodyguards.

"I will go and retrieve The Water Bottles' apprentice for you now," and with that, Van-Fem left the room, closing the door behind him.

She clutched the box that contained her sister's hair tightly as she continued to scan the room.

There was the bounded field that prevented hostility, however drawing on the small fragment of power from her sisters hair could potentially let her run fast enough to get out of the boat if she was lucky.

Time moved at a snail's pace as she waited for the person whom had supposedly arranged this meeting to arrive.

When the door opened, it was none too soon.

Van-Fem entered before moving to the side and presenting the person whom she would be speaking with.

"Master of Contracts, I hereby present to you, the apprentice of Sumire, Emiya Shirou."

She froze.

Emiya…

That was not good.

That was definitely not good.

"Thank you Van-Fem-dono," the figure that followed said, his tone bland and his eyes cold, "can we have a little privacy?"

"Of course, nothing that happens in that room, leaves that room without both of you agreeing for it to do so," the ancient magus declared before leaving the room as Emiya Shirou sat on a couch across the table from her.

"What do you plan to do to me?" she asked.

The creature across from her tilted its head in response.

"What do you mean?"

She took a deep breath.

"Well, if you're an Emiya then-" she started to say but was cut off.

"I would appreciate it if you didn't compare me to Emiya Kiritsugu," she almost flinched at his words.

The tone was so monotonous yet she could still pick up the complete lack of love there.

"If that's the case, then why do you bear his name?" she asked.

"The man adopted me as a child," the red-headed boy stated, "after his death I have come to discover that he played me for a fool and betrayed me practically every waking hour."

Well… that… was somewhat comforting.

Emiya Kiritsugu wasn't truly a threat to her or her knights, but the man was dangerous in his own right. Hearing that he was dead was a small weight lifted off her shoulders.

Taking a few calming breaths, she started to study the boy before her.

He was somewhat tall, certainly taller than her, perhaps a bit taller than Svelten. His skin also held the pallor of an Apostle, pale as the dead and dried up from lack of moisture. That combined with his steel grey eyes and hair a colour almost comparable to rust made him a surprisingly imposing figure.

"So, why did you wish to speak with me?" she asked. Sure Van-Fem had mentioned that the boy wanted to meet the person who kept Cath Palug on a leash but she wanted to hear it from the boy directly.

"From my understanding, you are currently in control of Cath Palug," the boy said and she felt her lips twitch upwards at that, "I wanted to see what sort of person held such power."

She shouldn't have been surprised by the matter but hearing such a young being refer to Cath by his name and not that moniker the Mages Association and Church gave him was refreshing.

"And what are your thoughts now that you've met me?" she asked.

Silence fell in response.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Shirou was conflicted.

Altrouge Brunestud was not what he was expecting.

He had expected some ancient monster with confidence and the power to back it up, someone like Rita.

But Altrouge… she had looked almost scared when she heard his name was Emiya.

Beyond that, she looked so young, certainly younger than Tohsaka, which only made her discomfort even more noteworthy.

Was this really the leader of one of the main factions within the Twenty-Seven?

Hell, she kept clutching that small box as if it was a lifeline.

When he had admitted his distaste of Kiritsugu she visibly relaxed, but even now there was an air of bravado that kept him questioning just how confident she was in this situation.

But she asked him what he thought of her and he would answer honestly.

"… you strike me as a child playing games and trying to keep up a brave face."

Her cringe was visible.

"I-I will have you know that I am nearly a thousand years old! I am no child!" she declared, her voice clearly trying to compensate for confidence. It was certainly no lie, not on a technical level given the bounded fields surrounding the boat, but she was clearly uncertain of herself as she declared it.

"I've met Rita, Sumire and Nero," he declared, causing the girl's eyes to widen, "I've grown up next door to a Yakuza leader… I'm not buying it."

"You've met Nero Chaos," she sounded concerned.

"Rita gave him a little more information on me than she did to anyone else since I apparently stole his gimmick," he declared, "so I know what a proper Ancestor is supposed to be like."

He could see her gritting her teeth and clenching her fists.

"I have one thing I have to ask however," he continued, "why do you keep Cath Palug from slaughtering humanity?"

She looked puzzled by his question.

She seemed to think over exactly what he asked her before releasing a sigh.

"… I'm curious about what they'll do," she replied, a small grimace on her lips, "by Gaia I hate this bounded field."

He tilted his head.

"What do you mean by that?" it was not what he had expected.

"Well… did you know they've made portable communication devices called 'cell phones'?" she asked and if he was still human he'd probably have burst out laughing.

The Black Princess, mistress of the Beast of Gaia, one of the most dangerous beings in the world… sounded excited about cell phones.

"Have you heard of video games?" he asked and she nodded.

"Of course I have," she declared firmly, "I've been collecting them since the days of the arcades."

This was brilliant.

The so-called 'Black Princess' was a geek.

"So, I guess that means you like humanity because of their entertainment," he summarized.

The girl glanced to the side.

"Yes," she sounded almost ashamed of it.

"Well, if that's the case," he said, "then I suppose we have no quarrel."

She blinked before turning to face him.

"Why do you say that?" she was clearly confused.

"As much as I may hate the man, Emiya Kiritsugu did instil a desire to help people into me," he admitted, "had you been like Rita then I don't know what I would've done."

The girl looked down.

"Do you play video games?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"No, I don't have the brain chemistry to enjoy that," he admitted.

She frowned.

"Even if that's the case, your soul should still cause those feelings to manifest," she declared and he froze, "there is more to a person than just what their brain does."

He considered that.

Why were his emotions so muted if his soul was supposed to be where they came from?

Oh, of course.

"Perhaps under normal circumstances," he admitted, "but I am a sword first and foremost."

She blinked.

"Well, I have time to waste until my knight arrives, would you care to talk about it?" she asked.

Perhaps it wouldn't be too bad to do so.

"All right then, I will keep you company until your knight arrives."

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Raiga was concerned.

It had been over an hour since Shirou had entered the private room.

He didn't know exactly what was going on and given he was just a regular human, he would have just gotten in the way even if he was there.

Eventually a new face entered the boat and he immediately felt his stomach lurch at the man's presence.

He was tanned, looking very much Mediterranean in complexion. He was also about the height of the average Japanese male, which was a bit short for that part of the world but nothing out of the ordinary. The man's clothes were also just a neat business suit and sunglasses and his hair was a hazel brown.

However it was what was in his right hand that made his stomach churn.

It looked to be a one-handed sword but the blade was black, too black. It was blacker than anything he had ever seen in his life, as if it just swallowed up all the light and refused to let any escape. The air around looked to be twisting and he was certain he could hear screams of hatred emanating from the blade.

But the most notable trait of that blade was the pitch black tendrils that trailed up his arm and dug deep into the skin on his hand… he couldn't see further up but he was certain it did so all along the stranger's arm.

Whoever they were, he knew they were dangerous and most likely involved with magic.

Van-Fem walked up to the man with his usual easy-going posture but given what he had discovered about the man, it wasn't truly a surprise.

Their conversation seemed to last mere seconds before Van-Fem proceeded to lead the man with the black blade towards the room Shirou was in.

He just hoped nothing went wrong.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Shirou would admit, he didn't dislike Altrouge.

Sure, she had admitted to less than savoury actions, but nothing that truly marked her as sadistic like Rita's actions did.

But above everything else, what truly stood out was what she had revealed to him.

Origins were always there and always had an impact, but what he had done was more than just replace his body with his reality marble.

According to what she hypothesised from what he told her, he had 'awoken' his origin.

From what she said it wasn't a good thing to do.

Nrvnqsr Chaos replaced his body with his reality marble. That was all the mass of beasts had done.

Shirou however, had done that while also awakening his origin.

There was no telling how it would impact him over time, but he would eventually be consumed by the concept of 'sword', left as little more than a weapon that could be wielded by anyone that could pick him up.

It was certainly not something he was all that happy about.

He understood what it meant to be a blade, that much was clear… but he had always had the impression that despite his emotions dulling, he would remain who he was so long as he worked at it.

Now he wasn't so sure.

The door opened and he turned to face Van-Fem once again.

"Black Princess, your knight has arrived."

Shirou glanced at the man that instantly walked by him and towards the young girl.

"Princess, what you have done is extremely reckless," there was something in the man's voice that Shirou couldn't quite place, "please do not rush off without either me or Svelten to protect you."

"It is quite fine Strout," the girl responded without a hint of concern, "young Shirou here has proven to be rather enjoyable company."

The man looked at him but he was more focused on the blade.

He wished the casino didn't stop him from analysing the weapon, it was definitely magical, so attempting to reproduce it would both test his limits and potentially add a new weapon to his collection.

"I thank you for keeping my princess company young man," the being stated calmly, "however I must ask what your purpose with this meeting was."

"It's fine Strout, Shirou here was simply wishing to meet me," Altrouge responded easily, "now I have my own question for you Shirou… will you join me as a member of my faction?"

"No," he replied without hesitation, causing the girl to look at him in surprise, "I have things I need to do before I even consider joining a faction within the Twenty-Seven."

The girl looked dejected by his claim.

The one named Strout seemed to take offense to that and placed his blade next to his throat.

All of a sudden he could analyse the immediate area around the blade, even Strout as the bounded field was withered away by the sword.

No… whatever that thing was, it was no sword.

It certainly resembled one aesthetically, but everything about it screamed that it wasn't a real blade… to even call it Earthly was wrong.

Whatever that thing was, it did not belong in this world. It was not made of any material he recognised nor could comprehend, the way it ripped at reality itself around it screamed of something that hated the world itself and the sheer power he could feel was beyond anything he had sensed before.

Even Nrvnqsr's black mass wasn't as offensive to the world as this thing was.

But it didn't just end there. The blade wormed its way into Stout's body, twisting and ripping as it drained him of his life… and then Strout's body restored itself to a prior state and the process repeated ad-nauseum.

The blade was killing him and he kept getting restored to a prior state.

It was an infinite loop of what must be excruciating agony.

"How do you live like that?" he asked.

"That is none of your concern," the older man declared without a moment of thought. Sumire had mentioned the man was from the age of gods so he likely knew exactly what Shirou was doing.

"That's enough Strout," Altrouge spoke up and immediately the blade was redacted, "I apologize for my knight's action, however you must understand that rejecting to join me is considered quite the slight."

He nodded.

"Given how desperate Sumire was to avoid letting me meet you, I am unsurprised," he admitted.

"Regardless," she continued, "I do intend on having you join me."

"And I am not ready to get involved in the politics of the Ancestors," he stated, "I am not even twenty years old yet."

She frowned.

"… very well," she replied, "then we shall part ways today. I do hope you don't consider joining Ortenrosse… or Crown."

And with that, she motioned for Strout to follow as she left the room.

Soon he left the room, noting that both Altrouge and Strout were leaving through the main entrance.

"Shirou-kun," Raiga called out, "I was worried something had gone wrong."

"It's fine, but I don't think we should remain any little longer," he said.

He doubted Altrouge would do anything, but he didn't trust Strout.

"Well, then care to tell me about what happened?" he nodded as they found a table away from everyone else to talk.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Van-Fem would certainly admit he wasn't particularly pleased when Strout had appeared on his boat.

The man was probably one of the most dangerous beings in the world when under his barrier. After all, with True Demon Neardark as a weapon, even magecraft from the Age of Gods tended to falter.

At least Strout focused intently on serving Altrouge so as long as she didn't call for him to do anything, he would likely be safe enough to be around.

Glancing at Emiya Shirou he watched as the boy spoke with Fujimura Raiga.

It was certainly interesting to know that the boy would take over a Yakuza family, most apostles of his age didn't have those levels of connection.

Well, not directly at least.

Sure there were some who had their parents' resources to call on should it be necessary, but those were not their resources and could easily be blocked.

But to have a Yakuza family would certainly be a boon to his domain. It wouldn't surprise him if the boy eventually took all of Japan as his territory, the Clock Tower and Church had minimal influence there after all and on top of that, the Japanese mages lacked the resources to deal with an Ancestor.

Well, with a notable exception at least but The Blue was not something that could so easily be predicted.

He was certainly interested in the contents of the boy's meeting with Altrouge, but his bounded fields also blocked technology like cameras and microphones from functioning properly, so he would never know what was said in that meeting unless either Emiya or the Black Princess chose to share it with him.

Even so, Emiya seemed relatively open about things, so it wouldn't hurt to ask him directly would it?

"Ah, Emiya-san," he approached, making sure to not surprise the pair that were currently discussing something, "how did your meeting go?"

Emiya responded with less detail than he would have liked.

"Better than I expected."

"Oh? And may I inquire as to what exactly made it better?"

"… I was expecting a certain character type and found one far less disagreeable," the boy replied.

He internally laughed.

It seemed he'd misjudged the boy. It appeared he wasn't a complete fool.

"I see… may I ask why you are still here now that your business has concluded?"

"… I don't trust Strout."

The boy didn't trust Strout.

That… was surprising. From all his dealings with Altrouge he had never gotten the impression she was trustworthy, yet this boy made no claims about her.

Instead he was concerned about one of her knights.

Perhaps he could investigate further.

"Well then… thank you for your patronage young Emiya-san, feel free to continue using my services for whatever you should require," and without any further comment, he left the two alone.

Now… where could he start digging.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Raiga struggled keeping the bile from rising in his throat.

What Shirou had just told him was terrifying. He had never once questioned why Shirou was the way he currently was, but the concept of 'awakening to your origin' sounded rather… horrific.

Being so consumed by a singular concept that you ceased to be human and became little more than a manifestation of that ideal was a hard thing for him to wrap his mind around.

But Shirou had already been displaying such traits, the traits that made him more sword than person.

But it was enough.

"Well, I think that's probably been enough time," Raiga finally said, "if we leave it much longer, I will probably fall asleep here."

Shirou nodded.

"Yeah, I think it has been long enough for Strout to leave the city," the living sword declared as he rose from the seat, "once we're out of here, I will find Sumire and we can go home."

He nodded.

Slowly they walked, Raiga was certainly healthy for his age, but he was still old and rushing wasn't something he enjoyed doing with his tired old body.

Once they left the boundary of the floating casino, Shirou immediately turned his head.

"She's that way," he declared without hesitation. It was still strange to consider that the boy could see so far and even through objects.

"Then let's go," he prompted.

He was surprised when Shirou led them further along the docks and then frowned when he saw the sight of a woman wearing a Yukata effectively power walking along the street.

"Hello Sumire-san," he called out and the woman headed straight towards them.

"Do you have any idea how long I've been looking for you two?!" she sounded almost angry, "we're leaving… now."

And without so much as a moment to question her, her hands grabbed both him and Shirou and they were suddenly back in Shirou's home.

"What is the problem?" he asked, it was strange to watch what he knew to be an ancient vampire so focused on leaving.

"You mean outside of the fact that I could feel The Black Princess and Strout in the area?!" she responded, her voice clearly worried.

"Was Strout the one with the black blade?" he asked Shirou.

"Yes."

He glanced back at the vampire who was staring at them and he was certain that if she wasn't naturally bone-white, she would be now.

"You mean you met them?" she asked, her tone practically dead.

"Raiga's associate was Van-Fem," Shirou stated and the woman looked at the boy in surprise, "after learning who he was, I asked for him to arrange a meeting between me and Altrouge."

"You… you mean you brought them there?" she asked, her voice strained.

"I made it perfectly clear to her that you refused to let me meet her," Shirou declared.

"… do you have any idea how bad doing that was?" she asked.

"It was significantly better than I thought it would be," Shirou declared and Sumire froze, "I actually find Altrouge significantly more likable than Rita."

Sumire turned away.

"Though I think part of the matter may have been getting her flatfooted at the start," Shirou stated.

"You got her flatfooted?" Sumire sounded unconvinced.

"She was unaware I was an Emiya and came without her entourage," Shirou informed her, "combined with Van-Fem's bounded field and I think she failed to present herself the way she intended to."

Sumire stared in disbelief.

"… what are you talking about?" Sumire sounded confused.

"Well, I discovered why she stops Cath Palug from slaughtering humanity," Shirou stated.

"Because she needs blood to survive," Sumire stated bluntly.

"Is that what she tells everyone?" Shirou's question confused him.

"… are you telling me there's another reason?" Sumire asked.

"Yes… though I'm not going to tell you what it is, just know… her reason is why I don't hate her."

Sumire looked flabbergasted at that prospect.

"Well… I am going to retire for the night," Raiga chose to cut in, "good night Shirou, Sumire-san."

"Goodnight gramps."

"See ya."

And with that, he proceeded to leave the Emiya residence.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Strout walked his mistress back into her hallway as Cath Palug greeted her upon her return.

"Do not do this again," he said. It may not have been his place to command her, but she was vulnerable and both Ortenrosse and Solomon had reasons to aim for her.

"Yes Strout," she responded without hesitation.

It did not ease his concerns.

"I am serious about this mistress."

"I am aware," she replied, "my introduction to young Shirou was… not pleasant."

He narrowed his eyes.

"He bears a name that worried me," she said after noting his expression, "it appears he was adopted by Emiya Kiritsugu."

The boy was dead.

"Strout, leave him be… he holds no love for that man," she commanded.

Very well, the boy was not dead.

"Did he harm you in any way?" he asked.

"Oh no… as much of a fright as I may have received from him, he was… nice, to talk to," she declared and he frowned.

It was rare for the Princess to express such sentiments, even he and Svelten were simply her knights. The only being that she seemed to display any actual affection towards was the Beast of Gaia.

And yet the boy had refused to join.

"You… like him?" he asked. It felt strange to ask the girl.

"I would not be averse to meeting him again," she declared before returning to her throne.

"And what if he joins Ortenrosse?" he asked.

"He's already met Nero," she stated, "and I doubt he will ever join Ortenrosse. You may leave now Strout."

He nodded.

This was the only room that he and Svelten were permitted to enter, so leaving her with the primordial beast was perfectly normal.

Silently he wondered if she would have allowed Emiya Shirou access to other parts of her castle before dismissing that thought.

Even if she was interested in the boy, the mere act of moving to go deeper into her castle was forbidden.

There was no way she would allow some freshly made Apostle back there.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Altrouge released a sigh of relief as Strout left.

Keeping up the façade could be tiring… and she had gotten quite the reprieve with Emiya Shirou.

It was nice to discover that he didn't think less of her for who she actually was behind all the games and pretences… the fact that he seemed to like the fact that she wasn't who she pretended to be was an even nicer touch.

Sure he lacked her interests himself… but the fact that she could talk with him about them was a welcome change.

"Well then Cath, I suppose I can get some downtime now," she said to the ancient beast.

Rising from her throne, she walked to the door that led to the private wing of her castle… the place where she kept all of her stuff.

Several rooms filled with Arcade cabinets, televisions, computers and consoles. She refused to let any other Apostle know she collected all of this human stuff, most magi would laugh at her for such a collection and Apostles were even more technophobic than them.

At least now she knew that Shirou wouldn't join Ortenrosse. The 'pinnacle of Vampirism' was the exact type of monster that Shirou indicated he didn't like.

So now she could relax and wait until Shirou had done what he intended to and see if he would be willing to join then.

But at least she now had an idea of what sort of contract she could offer to tempt him.

She just hoped it was within her ability to enforce.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

The following day started just like any other for Tohsaka Rin.

Struggle to get out of bed, make coffee strong enough that it was barely drinkable, sort herself out for school and then travel there.

Even feeling Shirou's analysis wash over her had become a welcome event.

Meeting up with him on the road to school, she readied herself for whatever small talk would happen that day.

"Good morning Shirou," she said and he nodded.

"Good morning Rin," she smiled as he used her given name.

"So how's your training going?" she asked, keeping it vague just in case anyone was nearby."

"… well, I was introduced to gramps' broker," he said and she nodded, it made sense that a Yakuza family would have a broker that they used.

"Is he any good?" she asked.

"He's Van-Fem."

She choked.

"What?!" she couldn't stop herself from shouting. She shouldn't have been surprised, Van-Fem dealt with all types of people from all over the world… but for Shirou to have been introduced to the man during his Yakuza training was not what she was expecting.

"Yeah, I was surprised by that too," he responded.

"So… you now have an official connection to Van-Fem too…" she muttered.

"Yeah, it was useful," he declared and she raised an eyebrow in response.

"You make it sound like he's already proven useful to you," she declared.

"Well, he paid me a couple of billion yen and arranged a meeting with the Black Princess," he declared and she stared.

"Y-you have a meeting with the Black Princess?" she stuttered out.

"Had a meeting with the Black Princess," he corrected.

Oh shit… he'd already met the Black Princess.

"Please tell me you didn't try to kill her?" she asked, "or pissed her off?"

She really didn't want Primate Murder showing up and slaughtering her city.

"No, I actually don't dislike her," he responded and she nodded before freezing.

"… you're joking right?"

"No."

"How?" she did not understand, from what she was aware, Altrouge was one of the most dangerous beings in the world, a vampire so great that monsters like Rizo-Waal Strout or Fina-Vlad Svelten followed her.

"I get the impression, she'd rather keep that point a secret," he declared.

Rin felt her eye twitch in response.

"You know what, forget it… I'm not dealing with this shit today," she declared.

Emiya Shirou had met the Black Princess and was now actually in her camp… could it possibly get any worse?

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

"You seem distracted," Arturia nodded as her new mentor made that claim.

"I apologize," she started, "however I do have obligations in the world of the living and-"

"You have spent some time here," the purple haired teacher finished for her.

"Yes, I do not wish to stop my training but…" the ancient master closed her eyes.

"Very well," she declared, her eyes opening, "I shall permit you to return to the land of the living, however, upon your return you must make your way to me once again."

She nodded.

That was certainly fair.

She had already fought her way through the shades of warriors past and had already undergone at least a small amount of training with the mistress of war, fighting her way through again should be good practise and exercise.

"Thank you for your understanding," she said as she bowed to her new mentor.

"… upon your return, either set all of your obligations in order or arrange a schedule with which to fulfil them should they be persistent," the godslayer commanded.

"Yes master," she agreed without hesitation before focusing on her chest once again.

Slowly she withdrew the sheathe that kept her young, that kept her healthy and most importantly, that had revived her.

When the Fey artefact sat firmly in her grip, she focused on it once again.

Slowly she tried to force her way through the barrier between the human world and the reverse side of the world, yet found the veil too firm to pierce.

She frowned as she tried again.

"Master," she called out to her new teacher as she was walking away, "I… cannot return."

She was worried now. Was she trapped in this land for eternity? Would she miss her chance to compete in the next grail war because she had chosen to train under the legendary teacher?

Scathach simply raised an eyebrow.

"Do you genuinely believe that the veil between worlds is so flimsy everywhere?" she asked, "you need to be at a nexus in order to shift between the lands, otherwise the division is too strong for all but the most powerful of beings."

She took a deep breath of the rancid air.

So she just needed to find the location she had arrived from. She frowned at that.

She couldn't remember where it was, not with all the fighting she had gone through so soon upon arriving.

Which meant she would likely have to fight her way out of this land as well.

Of course it wouldn't be easy. But then again, she was seeking tutelage from one of the greatest teachers in legend, nothing should be easy.

A small smile graced her lips at that thought.

It would appear that simply traversing the worlds itself would prove to be its own form of training.

Setting out, she prepared to face the challenge.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

It certainly took longer than she would have liked but at least it was over now.

Breathing fresh sea air, looking out to the Atlantic and seeing the green grass and blue sky, she found herself smiling. She had almost forgotten what it felt like to breath properly.

The stench of decay, the feeling of death that pervaded every inch of the Land of Shadows failed to so much as leave a hint in its human world equivalent.

Now, what was she to do now again?

Ah, yes.

Rummaging around her pocket she pulled out a now rather battered device before cringing.

That… was not good.

Hopefully Lord El-Melloi wouldn't be too angry with her for forgetting to take her phone out while training… assuming it had lasted long enough to even still be functional given how violent her initial foray into the castle had been.

Well… hopefully she could ask to borrow someone's phone. Assuming she could even remember the phone number she needed to call.

Releasing a sigh, she started walking. At least she now knew for next time.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

Please be the right number… please be the right number…

"Hello, Waver Velvet speaking, who is calling?" yes!

"Hello Waver Velvet, it is Arturia," she said while attempting to keep her relief from her tone.

"… did you forget to turn your phone off during your time in the Land of Shadows?" he asked.

"No, it was… a little rougher there than I anticipated," she admitted, "the phone you gave me was broken during my training."

Silence reigned on the line… wait, no, not silence.

She could barely make out him cursing under his breath on the other side before he released an audible sigh.

"I guess I should have gotten you a Nokia then," the man said, his tone intentionally light.

"… is that a joke?" she asked, she honestly couldn't tell if it was a joke or not.

"Kind of… kind of not," the man responded, "anyway, I'll send for a taxi to pick you up and a flight back to London."

"Thank you Waver Velvet," she responded, "once I have returned, I must speak with you about further arrangements."

"Shit…" this time he didn't even try to hide his displeasure, "there's more?"

She nodded before remembering that phones didn't show her doing so.

"Yes, there is," she verbalised, "I have not yet finished my training, so I must return at some point."

"Okay, okay, we'll talk about it when you return," he cut her off, "I'll get everything sorted for you to return now, I'll arrange for the taxi to pick you up where they dropped you off."

"Thank you for your aid," she said, "goodbye Waver Velvet."

"Goodbye Sa-I mean, Sir Arthur."

And with that, she put the phone down.

Turning to the people she was imposing herself on, she offered a smile.

"Thank you so much for this," she said, "my friend should be arranging for my taxi at this moment."

"Uh… sure…" the occupants looked confused.

It was only when she was waiting for the taxi that she realised how strange her conversation must have sounded.

XXX Tainted Steel XXX

This was the location.

The stench of blood and howl of beasts screamed it to him even through the barriers that protected the castle that lay beyond them.

He did not bother rushing, nor did he bother trying to dismantle the barriers.

The barriers fizzled the moment they touched him, their magic failing at the presence of his parasite.

Defences that would have been immediately fatal to most living beings were bypassed with a casual stroll. Then one of the Beasts appeared.

Massive by the standards of most predators but not quite big enough to match an elephant, with teeth the size of arming swords and claws the size of longswords.

It lunged, teeth tore through his flesh and crushed his bone as it ripped his arm from its socket.

The short relief from the pain was appreciated before the arm rewound itself back into place, ripping itself from the beast's jaw with unrivalled ease.

He marched forward.

If the beast tore him apart then that just offered a minor reprieve from the agony that consumed him.

Eventually the beast seemed to grow bored, unable to feed nor play with its prey, and left.

Unfortunate but expected.

It took roughly half an hour to finally reach the drawbridge that led to the Alchemist's lair, the bridge currently raised defensively.

He swung Neardark, forcing all of his magical power into it before his reserves reset.

The result was the birth of a new demon.

Weak, feeble minded and unable to resist the commands of the man that held control of its parent.

"Lower the bridge," he commanded, his voice even, and the demon obeyed.

Soon the bridge was laid out, awaiting his arrival as he strolled across it.

The doors to the castle were bland, little more than planks of wood nailed together with basic craftsmanship. Nrvnqsr was never one who cared about architecture or design when it came to his castle.

Opening the doors, he walked inside as an unfamiliar face rushed up, weapon in hand, ready to fight.

Wait, no… not unfamiliar.

"Do you truly intend to fight me Louvre?" he asked.

"L-Lord Strout," it appeared the apostle hadn't recognised him. But then again, they had never actually met, "my apologies for my rudeness… but, may I inquire as to why you are here?"

"I am here to speak with your master," he stated bluntly, "where is he?"

"Lord Chaos is currently in his room… feeding," the younger apostle said, his tone indicating a clear discomfort towards his master's actions.

He nodded.

"Take me to him," he commanded.

"Y-y-yes… of course lord Strout," to think that this snivelling coward was Nrvnqsr's chosen heir. Were the modern rabble all so weak that this was the best that could be mustered?

Louvre walked ahead, that apostle was far more familiar with this castle than he was. The last time he'd entered these halls had been roughly five centuries ago. Even by his standards it had been a long time, Louvre hadn't even been born by that point, let alone become an apostle.

He refused to rush, forcing Louvre to keep to his pace as they carried further along the corridors. He was the Ancestor and he would not allow some child to dictate his pace.

"We're here," Louvre declared before swallowing uncertainly.

"You shall announce my arrival," he commanded and the younger apostle cowered before nodding.

Louvre moved with grace befitting a child whom had yet to learn how to walk as he pushed the doors open.

"Lord Chaos, we have a guest," and the boy moved out of the way, motioning with his arms towards Strout, "Lord Strout."

The only noise that could be heard was the crunching of bones and the ripping of flesh.

Unsurprising, Nrvnqsr had always been a messy eater.

"You may leave now child," he stated to the boy who immediately rushed out of the room.

The eyes of the Alchemist shone in the dark, he casually counted seventy pairs of eyes in the darkness before the mass of soil spoke.

"Why are you here Black Knight?" Nrvnqsr's tone indicated a definite distaste, "you know full well I have no intention of aiding your princess."

"It has come to my attention that you know where Sumire's apprentice lives," he stated bluntly.

"You would be wrong," the mass of beasts replied without delay, "I know where he used to live, however I doubt he is still there given his encounter with me."

He narrowed his eyes.

"Is there anything at all that you are aware of concerning him?" he asked.

"And for what reason should I tell you?" the beast king asked.

"My mistress has taken an interest in him, it is my duty to retrieve him for her," he declared without hesitation.

The mass simply chuckled.

"And why should I care?"

He swung Neardark near a beast that was sneaking up on him. The beasts very existence started to unravel as the blade passed through it, leaving little more than a lifeless pile of sludge.

"Is that reason for you to care?" he asked.

"The Rose Prophecy has not yet sounded for me," the alchemist declared, "even should you try, you shall not succeed."

He nodded.

"Indeed, but has the Rose Prophecy not sounded because I could not kill you, or because you gave up the information I seek before I kill you?"

It was a simple question, something that Ancestors always had to consider. When the Rose Prophecy sounded, there was always a grace period of at least a few hours to get your affairs in order, but if it didn't sound and an ancestor was place in a situation where they had the potential to die, there was always that question of what it was that would allow them to survive.

And Nrvnqsr knew that it wasn't a simple matter of figuring out why it hadn't been called.

"… I cannot tell you where he is," the beast king declared, "however, should he have any sense, then he should be in the area of Fuyuki during the next Grail War."

He frowned.

"And why would he be there?"

"Because being there could prove beneficial for him," the mass of darkness declared. It would be pointless to question any further, the magus was clearly choosing his words carefully.

It mattered not.

He would simply have to investigate the Grail War and determine when he should be there for it.

"Thank you for your time Tenth," he said. Even if he couldn't act on the information immediately, he could at least get a plan in place.

"Now leave, my patience only lasts so long," he nodded and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Slowly he walked through the corridor and towards the main hall, eventually coming upon it and Louvre waiting patiently near the door.

"Louvre, come," he commanded, causing the younger apostle to jerk in obvious surprise before rushing over to stand in front of him, his eyes warily glancing at Neardark, "tell me everything you know about the Grail War in Fuyuki City."

"Y-yes, of course sir," and with that Louvre started to explain everything he knew about the ritual.

And a ritual it certainly was. Apparently it summoned servants and used them as fuel to power a device capable of forcing a wish to materialise through sheer power.

He glanced at his right hand.

Was it possible? Could this Grail War potentially be an end to his pain? Altrouge's contracts couldn't work, the Curse of Time was too strong for them to take hold.

But with enough power it could be possible.

There was no guarantee.

But did that matter? Competing in such a war would be no risk to him, the possible prize was worth the time and if Nrvnqsr was correct, Sumire's apprentice should be drawn to it for his own personal reasons too.

Yes. It was decided.

He would compete.

Rizo-Waal Strout would be a master in the next Grail War.


And that's all for today.

Shadow out.