Chapter 34: This Is Not A Game
The four Heroes sat quietly around a table in a secluded meeting room in the royal palace.
The atmosphere in the room was unnaturally heavy. Everyone in the room was donning a different expression on their faces. Itsuki looked angry and hostile, Naofumi looked concerned, and Motoyasu…
Well, it was hard to describe how the blonde looked at the moment. If anything, he looked… devastated. It looked like the battle against Glass had hit him really hard. There was no sign of the confidence and arrogance he had gotten on his face when EMIYA first met him anymore. Right now, the only expression he could see on his face was a weary sadness.
What the hell happened that made him like this? EMIYA could only guess that it had something to do with the spear he used before against Glass.
That spear was unlike anything EMIYA had ever seen before. Just a glimpse of it filled everyone's minds with horror. The only thing the ex-Counter Guardian had seen before with such a powerful evil aura was… the cursed mud coming from the corrupted Holy Grail. The mud that contains billions of curses of humanity. The curse of Angra Mainyu.
How in the world did Motoyasu get his hand on something like that? It might be one of the most powerful things he had seen since he was summoned to this world, but he did NOT think it should be used haphazardly.
He took a deep breath and broke the choking silence.
"So, as you already realized, we had more troubles with the recent Wave than we had thought."
Naofumi grumbled. "No shit. Never before had I felt myself closer to death back then. That Glass woman was terrifying."
Even Motoyasu and Itsuki didn't have anything they could say. Itsuki snorted in disdain and turned away, while Motoyasu looked even more miserable than before.
"Yeah," EMIYA nodded. "We were lucky this time, but if the next time she brings someone else of her level with her, we are not going to hold out if we continue staying at this level. We need to find a way to catch up or there's no way we can handle her or any Waves that come after this."
Motoyasu's hand unconsciously squeezed the shaft of his spear when he heard those words. And EMIYA's eyes didn't miss that reaction.
"Motoyasu. How did you get your hand on that spear you used before?"
Motoyasu glanced at EMIYA. It was obvious he didn't want to talk about it, but then he sighed and started speaking.
"I… I don't know, either. I got it after I… I messed up things at… a village I traveled to. I…"
His face twisted in pain when he said those words.
"And what does it do?"
The blonde shook his head. "I… don't know. I've never used it before… but…"
"I saw something like that before."
Everyone turned towards Naofumi, who had just said those words. The Shield Hero sighed.
"Remember when that bastard commander attacked me when I was on my way back from the van Reichnott territory, and Melty arrived and helped us there? The bastard used something similar to this to attack us. A sword. The aura it leaked out was pretty similar to this goddamned thing. That dark, evil smoky aura. It felt just like it was cursed or something."
He stopped for a moment to ponder, then continued. "It was much weaker, though. There was no way it could compare to that horrible feeling I felt when Motoyasu pulled his spear out on us. When that spear appeared, it felt just like… all happiness was ripped off my mind. Everything became cold, as if I were thrown into an ice cellar. And I remembered… dreadful things…" he shuddered at the last words.
So, just as I thought… a cursed weapon…
"So how did you defeat that guy?"
Naofumi shook his head. "We didn't. He was too powerful with that sword and too crazy to stop, too; no matter what we threw at him, no matter how much damage we dealt to him… his body didn't stop charging at us. The best we could do was to hold him back until he… well, he technically imploded on himself. His body got burned to a crisp after a while; no healing we put on him could help him in any way."
Everyone winced when the image Naofumi had just described appeared in their mind.
"Do you have that sword with you, Naofumi?"
The Shield Hero shook his head. "Nope. I thought it would be too dangerous to leave such an evil thing hanging around, so we ended up destroying it in the end."
Then he shuddered. "And now I think it was a completely right decision. We really don't need another cursed thing in our possession when we already have our own curse."
He threw a meaningful glance at Motoyasu when he said those words. Usually, the blonde would have thrown back a heated retort, but today, he didn't even say anything back. He just looked down on the ground, not making a sound. It felt like he didn't have the will to defend himself anymore.
EMIYA winced. Even though he liked the current Motoyasu more than his boastful, arrogant self, it was still a little heartbreaking to see the Spear Hero being a mere shell of himself like this.
"Motoyasu," he looked at the Spear Hero. "I know that it is powerful, but from now on, please refrain from using that cursed spear of yours. If you keep doing that, you are just going to destroy yourself. Besides, we all saw what happened when you couldn't control its power. We don't want you to end up killing any ally accidentally, do we?"
The blonde turned his eyes away guiltily. It seemed he still remembered what happened during the battle with Glass.
EMIYA's eye twitched. What does this little brat want this time?
"And you too, Itsuki," he glared at the Bow Hero. "You still haven't realized that you messed up big time back there? You nearly got yourself blasted to smithereens. If you continued pulling things like that, soon no one would be able to bail you out anymore."
Itsuki bristled. He snapped back accusingly.
"Oh yeah? And why am I the one at fault when everything happened like that because of you?"
EMIYA's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Yeah," the Bow Hero pointed at EMIYA. "You're the one who is at fault for all of this. Don't you dare think that I didn't see what your companions are wielding! They are the weapons and armors of the Hydra series, and there's no way you could have gotten them before the late game! You must have cheated somehow to get them!"
EMIYA couldn't believe in his ears anymore. Everything that happened, and this little brat decided to pull something like that?!
"Wait, what do you mean by that?" Naofumi butted in. Itsuki glared at him.
"There is only one place where he could get those weapons and armors, and that is the Wave of Zeltoble, which is an event that you are supposed to join in later parts of the game! And he has it, so it's obvious that he cheated somehow!"
EMIYA couldn't hold back his rage anymore. He stood up from his chair. "So you knew about the Waves in the other countries, and yet you deliberately withheld that information from us?!"
The Bow Hero just shrugged nonchalantly. "Why shouldn't I? The other countries have their own Seven Star Heroes. They can handle it while we improve ourselves to prepare for later Waves. After all, we're no way near the level necessary to fight against those anyway! Are you saying that we should just charge head-first into danger?"
Then he glanced at Motoyasu. "Besides, it's not something secret, anyway! I'm sure Motoyasu also knows about that."
EMIYA directed his glare at Motoyasu. "Is it true?"
The Spear Hero didn't answer. He just looked away guiltily.
EMIYA had to concentrate every last particle of his mind to stop himself from exploding in rage. So this was exactly what Fitoria had told him; she had expected none of the Cardinal Heroes to turn up to fight in the Waves outside of Melromarc. But to think that they would deliberately ignore their duty without even mentioning it to anyone…
He knew that they had a point when they said they were too weak to handle something like that. Hell, even EMIYA himself was nearly killed in the battle against the Hydra boss of the Zeltoble Wave. Itsuki and Motoyasu obviously wouldn't have survived a minute in a battle like that, even if they joined.
But still! They could have been more responsible about that!
"Then doesn't it mean you need to improve yourself more than you have done?" said the ex-Counter Guardian coldly. "What you showed recently wasn't proof that you had trained yourself hard enough."
Itsuki bristled. "It's not my fault that the monsters are too strong! If anything, it's your fault for cheating; because you cheated, the game needed to up itself in difficulty to keep up with it!"
Then the Bow Hero felt his body lifted up. The Sword Hero had grabbed his collar and was now pulling him up from his chair. His face was full of fury.
"Listen up, you little brat," the white-haired man snarled. "You may think of this as something you can play around with, but I don't. What we're standing in right here, right now is not that stupid video game that you like to play. This is reality, and this world is in mortal danger. There's no redoing if we fail to protect it. And if I have to cheat to do so, I'm going to cheat the hell out of it."
"Just stop it, Itsuki!" Naofumi jumped in; it seemed that even the Shield Hero couldn't stand it anymore. "Enough with thinking of everything like a game! Enough is enough! It is a miracle that you are still alive until now!"
Itsuki struggled to free himself from EMIYA's grip. He glanced at Motoyasu. "Motoyasu! Don't tell me that you believe their blabbering, too?!"
The Spear Hero didn't say anything for a while. It felt just like some invisible force was tearing apart his conscience. Then, finally, when he opened his mouth…
"Yes, Itsuki, they're telling the truth. This is not a game."
Itsuki pulled himself up from the ground. He glared at the other Heroes. "You are mental. You are all mental! All of you!"
Then he kicked the door open and stormed out of the room, before the bewildered eyes of the other three Heroes.
Motoyasu stood up from the table. EMIYA glanced at him questioningly.
"I… I need some time for myself," the Spear Hero answered miserably. Then he also walked out of the room, following Itsuki. The room was empty again, except for the two Heroes.
"What should we do now?" Naofumi gritted his teeth.
"There's nothing we can do now," answered the Sword Hero darkly. "There might be some hope for Motoyasu, but Itsuki… he's beyond help."
Even though his body was completely drained from the battle, he had never run as quickly as he was running right now.
Those three… they didn't know what they were saying. There's no way what they were experiencing right now was something other than a game.
If this wasn't a game, then how could all the stat screens and skill trees pop up whenever he willed them to? How could he level up and increase his power like he had been doing since he was summoned to this world? Why was he restricted to all the limits his Legendary Weapon put on him?
No. They were just making things up. There's no way what they were experiencing wasn't a game.
Then why… was he feeling so scared?
No. There's no way. Those three were just making things up; he's sure about it. There's no way what they were saying could be true.
Because if it were true…
… there was no way he would be able to handle the responsibility that was bearing down on his head.
Dinner passed without anyone speaking to each other.
Everyone was bearing the same grim expression on their faces. Even the incredibly delicious soup EMIYA made couldn't lift their mood up. They seemed still too shaken from their recent experience to enjoy the meal.
Finally, after cleaning up…
"Eclair. Do you know about the Seven Star Weapons?"
The rosette looked up upon the sudden question of the Sword Hero. Her face showed a hint of surprise. "Well, yes, I do know this and that, but…"
"That will do. So, is there anything among them that is a hand fan, or anything resembling a hand fan?"
She blinked. "Huh? No, as far as I know, there are only seven of them: the Axe, the Hammer, the Claw, the Whip, the Gauntlets, the Staff and the Projectile. There is no such thing as a Seven Star Fan, or anything like that."
Then she pondered. "Although… I've heard stories about a hidden eighth Seven Star Weapon… but it's just a myth; there is no evidence about the existence of something like that at all. The Seven Star Weapons are called Seven Star Weapons for a reason, you know."
EMIYA grimaced. Could it be that he was wrong?
No, there's no way that could be the case. His sense about weapons had never been wrong before. There must be some explanation…
"Shirou-san," Naofumi suddenly raised his voice. "Are you saying that Glass might be a Hero?"
Those words pulled everyone's heads toward the two Heroes. Eclair looked at EMIYA dubiously.
"How do you know that, Sir Shirou?"
EMIYA shook his head. "I don't know. However, I know weapons when I see them. That fan isn't a normal weapon. It… was the same as the Legendary Sword and Shield we're having here. A weapon created by the World itself."
He stopped for a moment, then continued. "Also… she just felt like it. She had an aura similar to what I felt when I fought the Axe Hero in Zeltoble. And her power… even though much weaker, was pretty similar in nature. You saw her using skills with her fan during the battle, right? That skill which manifested a second fan for her to wield? It was similar to my Synch Blade skill with the Legendary Sword."
Naofumi grimaced. "Make sense… Even I could feel it. She's definitely not a normal monster we usually see in the Waves. Even that big ghost fish wasn't that terrifying."
"But… if she really is a Hero… why did she try to kill us like that? Shouldn't she join us in protecting the world?"
Naofumi shook his head. "Hero has Hero this, Hero that. The only thing we know for now is that she wanted to take our lives. Can't rule out the case that she's someone the Church sent to take care of us," he said darkly.
No one could say anything after those ominous words. The only thing they managed to do was share a worried glance with each other.
EMIYA stood up. "Everyone has been tired today. Let's go have a rest."
Everyone looked at the Sword Hero's retreating back in worry.
They knew that everyone was tired from the terrifying battle earlier. But right now, they also knew for a fact that none of them would be able to sleep well tonight.
And obviously, if the others couldn't sleep well, there's no way EMIYA himself could.
More like, he couldn't even force himself to sleep. It was already midnight, and yet, even though his body was still aching from the newly healed wounds, his eyes still couldn't close themselves up.
Who the hell is Glass? Why the hell did she appear so suddenly, in the middle of a Wave, declaring that she would kill all of them?
And if she really were a Hero… the next time she comes for them, what should he do?
The moon was shining in the sky, lighting up the room through the open windows.
Somehow, he could see the shape of a certain petite blonde girl shimmering in the gentle light. But when he reached out his hand, she faded away, like an illusion.
He sighed and pushed himself up from the bed. These days, memories about the time he was with her during the Fifth Holy Grail War started coming back more and more in his head. He had thought that they had completely faded away, but it seemed the time he spent with her recently in Chaldea, while not long, was still a powerful catalyst to remind him of his past.
Even though he tried to deny it, it seemed that he had become more and more Emiya Shirou than ever.
He decided to take a walk around the village. After all, nothing could lure him back to slumber right now, anyway. Might as well do something that might make him tired enough.
The night was cool and quiet. The sky was clear, without any trace of pollution; he could see the Milky Way, or at least something resembling it, lighting up the dark celestial fabric.
It's hard to believe things could be so peaceful in the middle of an interdimensional war like this.
Then he noticed something ahead, at the clearing where they always did their combat training in.
Someone was there. A rather small person with short hair and a pair of dog ears on top of their head, dressed in a soldier's tunic and a pair of shorts. They were swinging a sword back and forth with both hands; even though the movements were weak and awkward, the person didn't give up, no matter how many times they fell to the ground, or how many times the sword flew out of their hands.
And as he got closer, he realized who that person was.
It was Keel. She was swinging her sword with a strange expression on her face. It was half determination, half frustration.
The dog girl was flustered when she saw the Sword Hero walking toward her. She clumsily dropped her sword, and EMIYA chuckled lightly seeing the girl stumbling around trying to retrieve the weapon. He picked the sword up by the blade so that the Legendary Sword wouldn't shock him from trying to use it as a weapon, and gave it back to her.
"You need to fix how you grip the handle. Don't try to squeeze it too hard with your whole hand; relax your thumb and place it gently on the hilt only and squeeze only the four other fingers. Place your right hand right below the guard, and grab the pommel with your left hand. Bend your knees and place your feet firmly on the surface, and swing the sword in a decisive motion, with the edge facing the direction you want to slash at; don't wave it around haphazardly like that. Here, try it."
Keel took the sword from EMIYA's hand with hesitant eyes. She tried swinging as instructed, and to her surprise, it worked like a charm. The blade moved across the air much easier and faster than before, and the sword's hilt didn't threaten to slip out of her grip anymore.
EMIYA smirked. Naofumi was pretty good at handling his companions, but he didn't have much combat experience to train them in fighting. Leaving Eclair with him was the correct choice.
"You're so awesome, Shirou-sama! No wonder why Naofumi-sama praised you so much!"
Keel looked at him with a mixture of awe and admiration in her eyes. The Sword Hero chuckled.
"Nah, I'm just more experienced than you. In my world, there are a lot of people who are way stronger and more skilled than me. Comparing me to them is an insult to their honor."
"Still!" The enthusiasm in the dog girl's voice didn't falter. "You are the strongest swordsman I've ever seen in my life! Just look at how you defeated Miss Eclair! And how you destroyed that boss monster earlier! Meanwhile…"
She trailed off. And EMIYA thought he could understand why she was so upset.
"Don't worry about the last Wave," he said. "This is just the first Wave for you; of course you still need to improve, but there is still a lot of time."
Keel glanced away. "I'm useless, ain't I, Shirou-sama?" she said in a miserable tone.
EMIYA shook his head. "Everything has its beginning, doesn't it? Mind you, when I first started fighting, I was no better than you at all. I only became like I am today thanks to a lot of training and real battles. Try your best to survive, and I know you will become strong sooner or later. Just don't rush it, it's not going to end well for you."
The clearing returned to its serene silence for a while. Then, Keel said.
"Your master must also be an incredible teacher to make you this strong."
The Sword Hero stared at her. Then, he started laughing.
"Really? No, actually, the one who taught me how to fight with a sword actually sucks at teaching. She's very strong, indeed, but the only thing she had ever done to me was beating my ass up back and forth until I couldn't stand up anymore. Most of the experience I have with a sword was thanks to years of fighting and figuring out by myself what was the most suitable for me."
Keel looked at EMIYA curiously. "Your master is a girl?"
What drew his attention was the sudden change in the girl's expression. She bit her lips, and it looked like she was… scowling?
"You don't believe me?"
Keel hesitated. "No, I… it's just… there's no way a girl could be as strong as a guy, not to mention being the teacher of someone like you."
EMIYA frowned. Now he remembered it; during their introduction, Keel had shown a fervent objection to being a girl herself.
"Aren't you a girl yourself?"
She stubbornly shook her head. "No, I'm not! I'm not a girl, and I'll never be a girl!"
"And the reason is…?"
"Girls are weak!" she exclaimed. "My dad used to say that if I want to protect everyone, I need to be strong; I need to grow up into a strong man if I want to protect Raphtalia-chan and everyone!"
Then she looked down bitterly. "All my life… I've seen nothing but my precious people dying in front of me… My parents… Rifana-chan… I don't want to be weak forever! I don't want to see anyone I love die in front of me anymore!"
EMIYA stared at the dog girl standing in front of him.
Now he understood why she insisted on not being a girl so much. After all, it only stemmed from a desire to protect the people close to her. It was an admirable wish, and he, of all people, understood it better than anyone.
"You know that those words you have just said are the biggest insult to all women in the world, don't you, Keel?"
The dog girl glared back at him, unconvinced. He sighed and sat down on the grass field. He patted the grass next to him, signaling the dog girl to sit down.
"Being a man isn't the only way to become strong," he said when Keel plopped down next to him. "Just look at Eclair. She's also a woman, and yet you already saw how strong she actually is."
"But she is still weaker than you," the dog girl still wasn't convinced. She shot back stubbornly. "If she were a man, things would have been different!"
EMIYA's eyes gleamed. "Are you sure about that?"
Keel hesitated. "Well… I…"
"Being strong doesn't have anything to do with whether you are a woman or not," EMIYA shook his head. "Even a woman can become stronger than any man if she puts her heart in it. In my life, I've met countless strong women, and mind you, most of them could stomp me to the ground in the blink of an eye."
Then he looked at the sky. "You know the master who taught me how to use a sword I told you before? She's one of the strongest human beings in the history of humankind in my world."
Keel's eyes widened in awe. "Wow…"
"Yeah," he nodded. His face bore a gentle, loving smile that Keel had never seen on him before. "Even though she's not that good at teaching, had it not been for her, I wouldn't be half the man I am today. Have to say, one of the reasons I tried my hardest to be the one I am today is so that one day I would be able to reach her again."
Keel stared at the man next to her. "You… really love her."
"More than anything in my life."
The clearing became quiet again. For a while, there was nothing else but the sound of the gentle midnight wind. Then, EMIYA stood up from the ground.
"I'm not saying that you need to force yourself to be a girl, Keel. However, you need to decide whether or not what you want yourself to be is actually your wish, or just a dream someone else forced on you. Who you are is yours to decide, not your parents' or anyone else's wish."
Then he patted her back. "Now then, you should get back and go to sleep. It's been a hectic day, and exhausting yourself to death is not a good thing to do."
He turned around and started walking away…
"Please teach me!"
He glanced back at Keel who had just blurted out those words.
"If that's the case, please help me become stronger!" the dog girl clenched her hands. "During the Wave, I couldn't do anything; I don't want to be useless anymore! If there's nothing that can change the fact that I am a girl, then I'm going to become the strongest girl in the world! Please help me, Shirou-sama! Please teach me how to become stronger!"
Then she raised her sword in front of her. Her eyes gleamed with firm determination. EMIYA chuckled and reached out his hand. Keel winced a little when the man's big hand rubbed her messy hair.
"We're gonna see about that. Now, how about we go back and have a rest first?"
The meeting for the Wave reward was better than EMIYA had expected.
It seemed that the King actually put the threat the Queen gave him by sending Melty back to the kingdom to mind. Even though the hostility towards Naofumi and his party didn't dwindle a bit, this time the Shield Hero received 4000 silver pieces of reward just like the three other Heroes. Even Naofumi himself was surprised about this, but then he just shrugged and took the reward without any question.
The three other Heroes left the chamber with their companions. EMIYA grabbed his own bag of money and was on the way to leave, too, before he heard the King.
"Sword Hero. I want to have a word with you. Please follow me."
EMIYA glanced back. A feeling of wariness rose inside him. What does the King want with him?
"For what reason? If you want to talk to me, why not here, where everyone can hear?"
"I'm not planning to give you an order, or anything like that," the King answered. "What I want is a conversation between you and me alone, as fellow Heroes. Having others around would ruin that purpose, wouldn't it?"
EMIYA blinked. He knew that the King was a Seven Star Hero, but this was the first time since he was summoned here he had heard him talk about himself as such.
His eyes narrowed at the King's face. If anything, it only made him more wary about the other man's intention.
He looked around and decided.
"Tersia. Take everyone and go back to Erhard's. Wait for me there."
The swordsmaiden blinked. "But…"
"I'll be able to handle it," he whispered into the girl's ear. "Working alone is my specialty. But just in case, if something happens, you must take everyone and run straight to the city gate. I'll meet you all there. Understand?"
Tersia didn't look very convinced, but finally, she nodded and shushed her teammates out of the chamber. Soon, there were only the King and EMIYA left in the room. The Sword Hero looked at the other man.
"Now, shall we go?"
The trip across the palace was mostly silent. And with that, EMIYA had a chance to look more closely at the King.
He might look like a bumbling old man from the outside, but looking closely, one with experience would easily see that it wasn't the case. His form, his posture were of someone with real fighting experience. Someone who had actually risked his life on the battlefield, not just an armchair general. There was no surprise that he was chosen by the Seven Star Staff.
Not to mention, the man could be a fair and reasonable ruler if he wanted to. Even though his treatment of the demi-human witness the other day was kinda unnecessarily cruel and heartless, EMIYA had to admit that it was fair and effective. Had it not been for that assassin, he could have exposed the Church right there in front of everyone. EMIYA wondered what kind of grudge he had against demi-humans that could make him so hostile against Naofumi, who hadn't even had a clue about anything before he was summoned to this world.
Finally, the two Heroes stopped in front of a room on the other side of the palace. King Aultcray pushed the door open and stepped aside. "Please come in."
EMIYA walked into the room. Turned out there was nothing much about it; it was only a normal office with a desk, a set of tea table, and a few bookshelves on the wall. Only someone who was crazy powerful or stupid beyond belief could even think of ambushing a Hero alone in a room like this.
The King sat down on a chair at the tea table. He motioned at the chair on the other side. "Please, have a seat."
The room turned silent again as EMIYA sat down on the opposite side of the table. His eyes still locked on the other man with full caution.
The two men kept glaring at each other like that for a few minutes. Then, King Aultcray was the one who started the conversation first.
"I see you've been keeping yourself busy these days."
"Well, yes, I have," Carefully choosing the words, the Sword Hero answered. "Can't say that I could afford to take it easy when the Waves are like this."
The King's eyes twinkled mysteriously.
"Indeed you do. I have to say, you defeating someone like the Axe Hero in a battle is something not many people would expect. He is known as the strongest person in this entire land, and a person who could match his power, not to mention outright defeat him, is something really hard to imagine. And I heard that you singlehandedly destroyed the boss of the earlier Wave in one blow. That is a feat I don't think even I could have done if I had been there."
Then he looked straight into EMIYA's eyes. "Have to admit, I am curious. What did you do to become so strong?"
So that is his intention…
He could see the right eye of the King twitched slightly. "You… trained," the man repeated his words like a parrot in a flat tone.
"Yes, I trained," EMIYA repeated. "There isn't a single minute in my life that I don't. All of my life I have spent on the battlefield; I know what I need to do in a fight. Believe it or not, I'm just a normal soldier in my world, and as such, I need to do whatever it takes to push what I know, what I have to the absolute limit. That's everything."
Technically, he didn't lie. Most of his power literally came from hard work; his trademark Magecraft was developed unknowingly by himself from a very weak form of Magecraft which other magi usually deemed useless, and was cultivated literally through pain, blood and sweat. He deemed it not necessary to point out that he had in possession something that separated him from normal magi, though.
The King stared at the Sword Hero, completely flabbergasted.
"I… see," finally, he said. "Still, other people also train, and yet to reach your level is something I don't think anyone else could achieve. You really are a special person, Sword Hero. Your world must be something else if it manages to produce such a brilliant warrior as you."
"I'm flattered," EMIYA answered. It was hard to hide the sarcastic tone in his voice.
The room fell into silence again. Then, finally, the King stood up and turned toward the bookshelf behind him. He took something off it and placed it on the table, in front of EMIYA.
"Do you know how to play chess?"
EMIYA blinked. He actually saw Eclair play chess with her demi-human vassals the other day. The game was basically the same as chess in his world, except for the Queen piece replacing the King as the most important piece (the equivalent of the King is called the Archduke piece) and the Knights being filolial heads instead of horse heads. He suspected that Zelretch had a hand in bringing the game to this world; after all, the Wizard Marshall was an avid chess player himself.
Personally, EMIYA preferred shogi as a leisure activity more, but if needed, he could also play a decent game of chess.
"A little bit, yes," he answered. The King nodded and opened the chess set he had just placed on the table.
"Then please play a game with me."
Ah, so that's what he wants…
To smart people, chess wasn't simply a game. A very good chess player could understand the mind of his opponent after only a few moves. The intention of the King was clear; he was planning to test EMIYA through this game of chess.
What should he do now?
He could just pretend he was stupid and a bad chess player and to hell with it. However, there was something inside him telling him that he shouldn't do that. After all, this was also a chance for him to understand more about the King. There was still a lot he hadn't known about him, after all.
He nodded. "Very well then."
The chessboard was set up in a minute. EMIYA noticed that the King chose the white side for himself, and left the black for him. It wasn't simply a choice, it was a declaration. I'm going to attack you. Prepare to defend against my assault.
And sure enough, the King started by pushing his center pawn to d4, one of the most common opening moves that leans toward attacking. EMIYA's eyes narrowed, and he answered by pushing forward the knight on his left side, starting the deployment of what was usually known as the King's Indian Defense in his world, one of the strongest defensive openings in chess.
It didn't take long for EMIYA to realize that the King wasn't known as a brilliant strategist just for show. Even though he had deployed a very firm and airtight defense, the relentless assaults from the King's side soon started to overwhelm him, and didn't leave any opening for him to throw a countermove. In a fight, it was possible for a fighter to read his opponent's movement to deduce a way to counterattack, but in a chess game, where you need to read ahead at least three or four moves to be considered a good player, it was a completely different matter. Therefore, it was no surprise that he soon saw his board being put under absolute pressure coming from all sides. The only thing he could do was to keep up his frantic defense and try to reduce casualties to the minimum.
"You seem to have gathered quite a lot of companions, I would say."
That sudden statement from the King distracted EMIYA a bit from the game. "Yeah," he answered while retreating his bishop back to the second-to-last row, blocking the white archduke from checking his queen. "The more people fighting against the Waves, the better it would be."
"Why those demi-humans, though? There are more than enough powerful Melromartians who would be more than glad to join you in your journey. Why did you choose those demi as your companions?"
EMIYA's eyes narrowed. It was obvious that the King was trying to hide the hatred in his voice, but he could still hear clearly the hostility of the other man when he started talking about demi-humans.
He calmly picked up a pawn and traded it with another pawn of the King, not looking up from the board. "I don't care about your discrimination against demi-humans, or anything like that. As someone summoned here to protect the whole world from the Waves, I'm going to recruit anyone I deem trustworthy and strong enough. No matter whether they are humans, demi-humans, or even beasts."
Now it's the King's turn to frown. He moved his knight to take the pawn EMIYA had just offered to trade. "And those two hakukos…"
"Got them in Zeltoble. That boy is a diamond in the rough, and if trained well, he's going to become one of my biggest assets in fighting the Waves."
And with that, he moved his own archduke to capture the last white rook. It was the endgame now, with both sides having the archduke and three pawns.
The King looked at him with a very strange light in his eyes. Then finally, he said.
"I see. Then I must warn you, among even the demis, hakuko is the most wicked and untrustworthy species. If you put your trust in them, sooner or later they are going to stab you in the back."
This time there was no mistaking it; the hostility in the King's voice was so intense it felt just like some kind of menacing aura started leaking out of him. Could it be that the King himself had some kind of grudge against the hakuko race?
"Thank you for your caring words, Your Majesty, but I don't think you need to worry about that," the ex-Counter Guardian answered calmly. "I know more than enough about my subordinates, and I believe that I understand them enough to put all of my trust in them."
He glanced at the chessboard. The pawns of the two sides had been eliminated one by one, and now there was only one pawn left on the white side. Even after he tried his best, victory was still imminent for the King. He closed his eyes.
"And also, I have a promise that I made to them. Even if they're going to backstab me, I'm going to fulfill that promise. That's my way of working."
The two men glared at each other for exactly thirty seconds. And at the thirty-first, the King picked up his final pawn and advanced it one step.
No matter how EMIYA looked at it, it was clearly a blunder. The pawn was right on the way of his archduke, without any protection. In chess, a position where each side has only their king and queen left is a draw.
"Good game, Sword Hero. Thank you for your time."
He could have won if he continued pushing. So why did he make that blunder move?
That question haunted EMIYA all the way back to Erhard's shop. What did the King want to tell him by doing that?
"Ah, sensei! You're back!"
Tersia cheerfully waved at EMIYA as he pushed open the entrance to Erhard's shop. Naofumi and his companions were also there, and they smiled when the Sword Hero walked into the house.
"What did that trash king want with you, Shirou-san?" the Shield Hero asked curiously. EMIYA shrugged.
"Nothing much. Just a talk, and he asked me to play a game of chess with him, that's all."
Naofumi raised an eyebrow. "Huh. Who knows that trash is a cultural guy?"
Eclair shook her head. "His Majesty is one of the best chess players in the whole kingdom, maybe the whole world, Sir Naofumi. To think that playing a game with him took you so long… you must also be a very good chess player yourself, Sir Shirou. Can I have a game with you one day?"
EMIYA chuckled. "I'm not that good. Besides, chess is not that much of my interest, anyway; I prefer others…"
Then he realized something. "Hey, where is Farrie? Didn't she go back here with you all?"
"No, sensei," Welt answered him. "She told us to go back ahead because she had something to do at the Church. We asked to go with her, but she said this was something she needed to do alone, so…"
A feeling of dread suddenly churned up in EMIYA's stomach. He turned around and rushed out of the door, but not before yelling back.
"Everyone! Pack up and go to the entrance of the town immediately! I'm going to meet you all there!"
Everyone was bewildered at the sudden outburst of the Sword Hero. Tersia raised her voice. "Uh, sensei, why-?"
"No time to explain! I'll go get Farrie, and we need to get out of here as soon as possible! We're all in danger now!"
Running at his full speed on the streets of Castle Town, there was only one thought in EMIYA's mind.
Farrie, you stupid girl… Don't die on me before I arrive!
So, the talk between the Heroes... and more.
There is one detail that I want to make clear about the previous chapter. Maybe you all have wondered where Motoyasu got the Spear of Despair. And to clear the confusion, it is not something he pulled out of his ass. To sum up briefly, the Spear of Despair is the initial form of the Curse Spear of Sloth, just like how the Shield of Rage is the initial form of Naofumi's Shield of Wrath in canon. There are a lot of different ways to interpret the sin of Sloth in different cultures, and one of those ways is dejection or despair, because people who fall into deep dejection will lose interest in life. Motoyasu unlocked the Spear of Sloth through utter despair and regret after the event of Ryute Village, therefore the initial form of his Curse Series is naturally going to be based on hopelessness and despair itself.
Until next time.