"Any luck in sensing them, Saber?"
"None, lady Illyasviel. I take it your familiars have had similar success?"
"Yup, no sightings whatsoever."
"Hmm...to be expected. Inbetween your lover's myriad weapons and tools as well as the dog's natural instincts we likely won't spot them until they are upon us."
Illya huffed out a breath of steam, snowflakes lightly falling upon the pale and uneven landscape as she kept her eyes peeled, scanning the treeline as Saber warily walked a few paces ahead of her.
They had agreed to have a mock battle between her, Shirou, Saber and Lancer in preparation for the inevitable Alyesbury Ritual at Shirou's insistence, stating that any practice they could gain in battling against fellow mystery would be a boon when the final battle came.
It had been a convincing argument and while the Homunculus would have much rather preferred to cuddle with her boyfriend in front of a fire, maybe have him go down on her or pound her senseless a few times...survival and preparation took precedence over immediate gratification.
Some of the time.
"Hmm hmm hmmm~..."
Blinking at the sudden and entirely unexpected happy tune from her Servant the albino curiously asked, "Erm, Saber? Are you alright?"
The King of Knights merrily nodded, responding, "Indeed I am, Lady Illyasviel~! I have long desired to engage Lancer in battle after having to abide his presence in such a domestic setting where conflict would have been frowned upon. At last, a chance to battle that mutt without distraction or diversion!"
Blinking in surprise at the eagerness of Saber's tone Illya felt mildly bashful, realizing that the Servant's restlessness was her fault.
"Sorry you've been cooped up in my castle for so long, Saber. That's probably not something you're used to as a King and Heroic Spirit, is it?"
Quickly reigning in her mildly unhinged glee the woman bowed her head, reassuring Illya with, "Pay my eagerness no heed, Lady Illyasviel. I perhaps have come down with a case of 'cabin fever' but I assure you I bear no ill will towards current circumstances, they are borne of necessity and rational decision making. Besides, today's exercise should prove marvelously therapeutic-"
The albino blinked once, a plain and unassuming sword a hairsbreadth from her throat as Saber's gauntlet held it firm, sparks still drifting to the snow from where metal had impacted metal.
"Oh. I guess they found us."
"Indeed they did, Lady Illyasviel. Be on your guard."
True to Saber's words a deluge of steel started flying at the pair in an almost solid wave, a blue-suited spearman charging a pace behind the fusillade, wild grin adorning his features.
At Illya's command alongside a swift yank of a few strands of hair the air in front of them become a snarled and impenetrable weave of glowing prana, the mundane swords uselessly bouncing off the improvised shield with a great deal of clanging and ringing.
It didn't do so well against Lancer, crimson spear tearing through the web with barely so much as a whisper of resistance.
That was fine, she hadn't been trying to stop a Servant. That was Saber's job.
With a lion's roar the King of Britain met Ireland's Child of Light in a frenzied melee, the ensuring blast of kinetic force almost blowing the Homunculus off her feet before she managed to right herself, taking a moment to observe the battle with a discerning eye.
For the purpose of this mock battle Lancer had made a temporary contract with her Shirou, pretending that it was a Master-Servant battle with all of the minutiae that entailed. And while her Onii-chan was by no means crippled in terms of mana supply his energy potential paled in comparison to Illya's, something that was plain to see as Saber made liberal use of her Prana Burst and Invisible Air abilities to ruthlessly hound Lancer—in an amusing twist of roles—that the male barely managed to keep up with.
There was more to the battle than simple Servants abilities, however.
In the blink of an eye a second crimson spear landed in Lancer's outstretched hand, an overzealous swing from Saber leaving her in a poor position to defend against the Traced weapon...and a bladed tip effortlessly slipped past her armor as if it didn't exist, gouging a deep injury into the King's side before she managed to disengage, Illya swiftly making use of her overbearing prana capacity to brute force a healing spell that restored the woman to perfect health within a second, Saber not wasting time with spoken thanks before leaping back into the melee, fighting a fair bit more cautiously as the albino took stock of the situation.
While she may have far more energy than her Onii-chan could ever hope to acquire her abilities were relatively heavy handed. On the opposite side of the coin his mana reserves were vastly inferior but he could make Mystic Codes and Noble Phantasms of near limitless diversity.
While Saber and Lancer each had their own individual levels of expertise and skill that were superhuman the battle between her and Shirou was like a hammer versus a scalpel.
"...Oh well, a single good strike from the hammer can totally bust the scalpel."
With that thought in mind she tossed a few more strands of hair skyward-
-and a flaring of her magic circuits had the familiar spiral formation of her prana cannons form high overhead, aiming towards the treeline where she could vaguely sense her lover was residing.
"Good thing you're hard to kill, Onii-chan~."
Several CRACKS and shrieks followed by bone-rattling BOOMS coincided with several dozen meters of forestry being turned to ashen splinters as the Homunculus began to work over the local greenery like a gardener would an overgrown lawn, trusting that her assault would eventually cause Shirou injury, allowing Saber time enough to press her advantage and win the battle-
No sooner did the thought cross Illya's mind did Lancer's spears get launched heavenward, Saber exulting in her advantage as she pressed forward, Excalibur aiming to pierce her opponent through the gut...and yet another Traced sword appeared in the Servant's hands, expert twirl of the blade this time divesting Arturia of her weapon, a ferocious scowl adorning her features as Lancer visibly smirked, twirling the unassuming sword through a blindingly fast display.
"Well what do you know, Saber...I can beat you with a sword just fine, who needs a spear?"
Illya swore she heard the distant roar of a lion, emerald eyes filled with hellfire as she shouted, "Lady Illyasviel! A lance, now!"
Not even trying to convince the woman otherwise the albino simply yanked a few more strands of hair free, channeling prana through them as they snapped into the gleaming shape of a plain spear, Saber eagerly grasping the weapon as she matched Lancer's display with a flourish of her own, retorting, "And the Servant Saber need only a lance to defeat the Lancer! Have at you!"
Two snarls of challenge left the pair as they clashed with ferocious exuberance...the Lancer wielding a sword while the Saber deftly handled a lance.
"I don't even know what those two are trying to prove anymore."
Not that Illya had time to contemplate the bizarre scenario as another wave of swords flew towards her at killing velocities, the Homunculus redirecting her Angel's Web to protect her from the deluge of blades in a prismatic display of conflicting energies.
"There you are, Onii-chan!"
Finally managing to home in on her brother's location thanks to his assault the albino redirected her prana cannons, strafing the assumed location with annihilating blasts of power-
-and her ruby eyes widened as she realized what she had just done.
One of the blades that had been knocked aside by Angel's Note suddenly underwent a swift metamorphosis, shifting into the body of her Shirou as he leapt at her from a few scant meters away, the pair of swords she recognized as being his alternate self's favored weapons slicing towards her arms.
Without pause the girl leapt backwards, allowing her strands of glowing prana to form makeshift wings on her back and carry her into the air out of the reach of Shirou as she once more took aim with her cannons-
-and the Apostle rapidly Traced plain and unassuming swords into thin air, the weapons floating without assistance as he leapt atop them as improvised footing, gaining on his sister all while chucking copies of Kanshou and Bakuya at the albino without pause.
Illya didn't allow the swords to exist a second longer than strictly necessary, lashing out with overcharged strands of prana string that shattered the Noble Phantasms in showers of heated metal and sparks, the Homunculus well aware of the weapons ability to fly towards the opposite at frightening velocity.
Their midair dance continued for a frantic few seconds as Illya tried to dismantle all of the flying metal while also searching for a chance to properly blow her brother to smithereens, an act that would hopefully buy her a few seconds to think of a strategy that would actually net her a win.
With that thought in mind the albino allowed one of the wheeling scimitars to cut a crimson line across her arm, wincing at the sting of parted flesh as she instead swung one of her scintillating threads at the sword her Shirou had designated as his next platform, destroying it and causing the Apostle to tumble briefly through the air, Illya swiftly repeating the action with the next series of swords he created as she aimed her prana cannons-
-and felt her jaw fall open in plain shock as an unmarked sword adorned in bloody runes flew upwards into the Vampire's waiting grasp, the very same sword he'd gifted to Cú Chulainn less than a minute ago.
Runescript flared to life as wind ensconced her Shirou's body, flying towards her like an arrow as she frantically tried to orient herself to fight him properly in a midair battle as a few concentrated prana blasts removed his legs...and it wasn't even close to enough to stop the Ancestor, his shoulder ramming into her gut before orienting their bodies downwards, streaking toward the ground at killing velocities.
A split-second before they would have hit the Earth and turned the Homunculus into jelly Shirou arrested their momentum, legs already regrown as he made sure Illya was held steady in his arms, the mock battle coming to a swift conclusion as a jarring blow rattled her teeth, the force of their landing anything but gentle.
Ruby eyes spotted Lancer and Saber also approaching their impact zone, the Irish hero sporting a victorious grin despite the lacerations adorning his body while Saber looked as if she'd just sucked on a whole tree's worth of lemons despite the pristine condition of her body.
They all knew that if Illya had died right then and there the battle would have gone Shirou and Cú Chulainn's way.
"Are you unharmed, Ilya?"
Huffing out a frustrated breath at her brother's inquisitive tone the albino regained her feet, pouting at his placid expression as she responded, "Fine, Onii-chan...but it's still frustrating to lose so cleanly!"
Lancer snickered, affixing Saber with a smug look as he stated, "Yeah, what tiny over there said. Didn't think the King of Knights one to overlook the value of teamwork in the midst of battle...kinda sloppy, don't you think?"
Looking as if she'd rather forgo eating for a whole week than abide by her fellow Heroic Spirit's teasing for another second the King of Knights cooly replied, "Allow us another match, Lancer, and I shall endeavor to show you just how well I fare in a more...tactical scenario."
The scary look she sent Illya had the Homunculus wondering if maybe the Servant had, despite her words to the contrary, actually gone off the deep end a bit while staying at the Einzbern castle.
...Or maybe Lancer was just that aggravating. She knew her Shirou was perfectly capable of giving her headaches and he barely even talked all that much. Someone that ran their mouth as much as Cú Chulainn would probably drive her insane if she had to deal with him on a daily basis.
"So did you learn from this match, Illya?"
Shirou's words snapped the albino out of her meandering thoughts as she rose to her feet, puffing out a cheek in chastisement.
"Don't neglect others you're working with, I know...but it's not fair having to fight against you, Onii-chan!"
"Neither will it be fair during the Aylesbury ritual, that's what I'm hoping to prepare you for."
Huffing out yet another sigh Illya settled for a sullen nod, kicking aside a patch of snow as she bemoaned the facts of life.
While she may have nearly unlimited prana reserves—even while powering a single Servant engaged in their own battle—her combat experience was...lacking. She was by no means unprepared or a novice but her time among the Einzbern clan and the tutelage involved in such arts such as fighting had been formulaic and geared towards beating down other Magi in a reasonably structured engagement.
Nothing her brother did was formulaic or reasonably structured. She could understand why most Magi bothered to keep Enforcers around, having been on the receiving end of one who prescribed to their methodology.
It was one thing to study an aspect of mystery and appropriate it into something that could be used for battle...it was another thing entirely to take that mystery and use it exclusively for fighting and killing, as her brother and papa had done.
"Well it looks like the little lion over here is still rarin' to go. How about it, anyone feel up for another round?"
Illya smacked her cheeks to stave off some of the chill as Lancer posed the question of the day, ruby eyes resolute as she nodded—suspecting Saber would probably have a fit if she decided to back out—before stating, "Okay...but this time I'll work with Lancer and Saber can work with Onii-chan. We'll keep switching teams until we can't go any further, deal?"
The group nodded, Illya delving deep into the depths of the Third Magic as she rearranged the connection between Servants, Shirou now supporting Arturia and her with Cú Chulainn as she allowed a fair bit of competitiveness to color her tone.
"Get ready, Onii-chan...by today's end I'm going to get at least one win over you!"
"Gah! It's so unfair!"
"Milady, please do hold still."
She hadn't managed to get a single win over him and now had to suffer through the dignity-shattering process of Sella slowly and carefully bandaging and healing the variety of cuts and bruises she wore, soothing bath water stinging and smarting like a thousand little ants.
"How on Earth did you receive this level of injury, milady? I would have thought that your lover would have attempted to mitigate this amount of harm to your person, given his usual protectiveness..."
"He was the cause of most of this, Sella. Onii-chan can be really merciless when he wants to be and making sure I know how to handle myself in a fight apparently brings that out-owie!"
Sella ran a bar of soap over a shallow but significantly sized cut that stretched from Illya's left shoulder to right hip, the handmaiden incredulously muttering, "What in the name of Archmage brought about this level of harm? It could have sliced you in twain were it but a bit deeper."
"I...may have tried to take advantage of the battle between Saber and Lancer at one point."
"One of them did this?"
The albino wryly smiled, remarking, "Don't come between a lion and its prey, Sella. Or else you'll get clawed."
Sure, Saber had been nothing but apologetic after the fact...but the Homunculus wasn't going to be forgetting the ferocity of her two Servants anytime soon, nor would she be attempting to interrupt any bouts in a surprise attack.
"If you say so, milady. I've done all that I can to repair the damage inflicted upon you and would only recommend a hearty meal and a good night's sleep."
Illya grumbled deep within her chest as she sank beneath the calming waters, complaining, "Dammit again...I'm going to be hurting too much to have sex with Onii-chan tonight. Hey, Sella, is there any kind of stuff you and Lancer do that's low energy but can still make you cum really hard?"
The handmaiden almost slipped on the tile floor before whirling around to face her charge with a scandalized and flushed expression, hastily stating, "M-milady, that's not a question a girl of your pedigree should be asking!"
Still blushing atomic red the other artificial Human weakly protested, "Milady, surely you know more about this sort of thing than-"
"Onii-chan and I have only gone at it hard before, all I'm asking is if you know something that doesn't take much effort on my part. Geez, Sella, aren't we friends?"
"...I tell you this only under the condition that you understand that Lancer and I are by no means or method in a romantic relationship, our trysts are purely for physical pleasure and release and nothing else."
Illya tilted her head.
"Ok, but what does that have to do with-"
"Anyway! There is a position that requires little effort on the woman's part...Lancer called it the 'spoon', if memory recalls."
"Ooh, tell me how it works!"
The handmaiden hid her face behind her hands, shame and embarrassment overwhelming the Homunculus as she whimpered at her lady's incessant desire for information that was humiliating beyond belief.
"Lady Illyasviel, I cannot even begin to apologize for my earlier actions!"
"Yeah, what blondie said. Guess I never really got over my battle lust, even in death."
The Homunculus waved her hand in idle forgiveness as the pair of Heroic Spirits sheepishly faced her lounging form, lazily stating, "It's fine, Sella already fixed most of my wounds and other stuff. Besides, the main culprit is already making up for his heinous transgressions~."
The albino smirked as she allowed one of her legs to lightly brush across her Shirou's chin, the other currently being massaged by aforementioned Shirou as she hummed in contentment.
"Ahh...having a Dead Apostle Ancestor being my personal foot masseuse...nothing is better than this..."
Sella walked into the living room with a tray of steaming mugs handy, sighing as she affixed her charge with a reproachful stare.
"Rampant hedonism is a terrible vice to fall into, milady."
"And it was well earned, if I do say so myself."
Lancer shrugged, throwing his proverbial hat into the ring with, "Yeah, shorty put up a surprisingly good showing today and deserves a bit of downtime."
Saber seemed to relent in her fervent apologies long enough to add, "Lady Illyasviel did indeed impress me today in how dogged and brave she was in attempting to amend her mistakes and habits during the crucible of battle...even if she paid in blood for it."
All eyes turned to Shirou as he calmly worked his fingers into his sister's calf, tone contrite as he replied, "She did quite well, considering her combat training before this seems to have been rather abysmal."
"More like yours was just kinda crazy. And I say that having been trained by one mean bitch of a teacher."
Lancer's comment coincided with Sella finishing passing out of a collection of teas and hard drink-
-and he promptly hooked a leg behind hers, unbalancing the Homunculus and causing her to yelp as she neatly landed next to the Servant, an arm being laced over her shoulders as the Heroic Spirit crowed, "And take a load off already, lady! Life's too short to spend it all working and no playing!"
"You heard him, Sella...just relax and take the night off, okay?"
Appearing to be at war with herself the other Homunculus protested, "Such an act is-"
"Completely justified if it is one's lord giving out the order, is it not?"
Saber's easygoing comment coincided with her dispelling her armor, calmly sipping on the tea provided as she regally perched on the edge of an armchair.
"I guess she got all of her frustration out earlier when she and Lancer got to fight. Good to know, I can just tell them to beat each other up and everything will be fine for...well, at least a couple hours so far."
The albino released a truly satisfied sigh as her lover went to work on her thigh, allowing her eyes to drift closed as she let the peace of the moment suffuse her very being.
Amidst all the chaos and rushing of everyday life...times like these made it all worth it.
"It is exactly as I said, milady. The twenty-sixth Ancestor and the newly emergent Third Magician have allied with the Association and seem to have amicable ties to the Church, if Solomon's words—what little was heard of them—are to be believed."
Altrouge Brunestud fought down the rare flash of fury—and slightest pangs of fear—that threatened to color her expression at the latest news to reach her ears, instead inclining her head a fraction before stating, "Very well, this information is appreciated. You may go."
The nameless servant who attended to her needs scurried away, the self-proclaimed princess of Vampires waiting until they had well and truly vanished from sight and sense-
-before hissing in displeasure, smashing aside a decanter of perfectly preserved Human blood as she paced back-and-forth in front of her throne, the steady gaze of Primate Murder never once leaving her form.
"Dammit...what horrific twist of fate is this newest development?"
The youthful seeming Ancestor tried to keep her cool but failed, the most recent set of rumors and hearsay about the latest addition to their ranks and emerging Third Magician—never mind their allegiances—leaving her feeling more stressed and apprehensive than she could remember in recent centuries.
While solid information and eye-witness reports were exceedingly hard to come by in regards to the pair just the few concrete parts her faction's vast network of informants could find was damning enough...and now this.
The twenty-sixth Ancestor was some kind of Magus...a Magus that carried the name of none other than the damned Magus Killer, a notorious figure even among Apostles due to his unconventional style of craft. And they evidently were just as skilled, surviving the fifth Grail War that had necessitated the intervention of the Church's Burial Agency,Merem Solomon and the Sixth Sacrament.
And as for the Third Magician? That was news aplenty all on its own...but to think that they were none other than an Einzbern Homunculus, that old family obviously meeting some kind of success with their efforts to revive the Third.
And yet it seemed, against all odds, somehow...that the emergent Third and newest Ancestor were close. Romantically involved, even. It seemed a safe assumption that the actions of one of them would naturally carry the added benefit of including the other.
And that was merely the concrete knowledge...rumors abounded of Heroic Spirits surviving well after the war had ended, of the Kaleidoscope and Blue taking the Third under their direct tutelage and the twenty-sixth battling Barthomeloi Lorelei to a standstill among other stories.
But this? The two of them having joined hands with the Association? And having close ties to the Church?
"...That is a force multiplier that cannot be allowed to stand."
Mind made up Altrouge whistled sharply, Primate Murder smoothly rising to its feet and matching her pace, ever loyal since she had instructed it on how to avoid the gaze of the Counter Force.
It seemed a meeting among her faction was required...one that would ideally do away with this newest threat before the ritual commenced in earnest.
Oof. Apologies about the long absence, the reasons for that are in the latest chapter of my Last Lion story. Suffice to say it was what we'll call a 'teachable moment'.
But with that delay and other stuff coming up on the horizon I've decided to make this story two distinct parts, this one that works as a sort of introductory and Grail War arc while the next will feature the Aylesbury and everything that comes afterwards. Basically giving me time to properly begin writing the next chapters while not leaving this one in limbo or with an unclear ending.
So on that note thanks to all who favorited and followed, this became my first story to crest a thousand followers which is 'whoo' level so awesome and I'll see you all in Fourth Route Part 2: Electric Boogaloo!
Still working on a title for it.