Gathering (V)


The day of Satsuki's departure from Fuyuki was drawing closer. With Caster informing them that the fifth Servant had been summoned somewhere outside of the city, they were just one Servant short from the deadline Tohsaka had given to the young vampire to vacate the city.

There were many things that had to be addressed for her to go back to her old school. Considering her performance and cooperative behavior in the past month the Church had confirmed their willingness to keep working with Satsuki. She was hardly the only Dead Apostle in their employ, anyway.

Shirou was confident that the organization, as whole, would not lie about the matter just to get a cheap shot at her. However, that would not account for what single individuals would do on the actual field, as direct experience had already shown.

Fortunately, Satsuki's training had paid off. She was no longer the defenseless creature she used to be. Physical superiority of Dead Apostles notwithstanding, she had now reliable knowledge of the Moonlit World, training and actual combat experience, and finally a passing ability with Reinforcement and Projection.

On top of all that, she was further empowered by the Mystic Codes Shirou had made for her. A full body suit that offered protection from a variety of factors, and a pair of clawed gauntlets that suited the fighting style she had developed by training in hand to hand combat against Shirou as well as her new predatory nature better than other weapons.

All of this preparation, however, didn't really help Satsuki feel more secure when she found herself cornered by the drop dead gorgeous Servant of the Mount. The Heroic Spirit was leagues above anything Satsuki could throw at her. She would have been fine with that, since she was still a rookie in the Moonlit World… but did Rider have to be above her in looks as well?

Life was just unfair.

"Uhm, can I help you?" the vampire asked, while she looked around for a possible escape route, should there be a need for it. She reminded herself that she could just go straight through a wall if necessary.

"I wish to speak with you about Master… I mean, Emiya Shirou."

Satsuki frowned. "What about him?"

"Why does he protect a monster like you?" Rider asked bluntly.

"Wh- Don't call me that! I'm not a monster." Satsuki objected.

"Yes you are, or you will become one, one day. Unless you are killed first. Surely you know this and so does he. So, why does he protect you?"

"Why don't you go ask him if you are that curious?"

Satsuki was afraid of the other woman, but she no longer was someone who would just suffer abuse and stay silent about it. Her time at the Emiya's household had done wonders for her self-esteem and, whether she liked it or not, she was still a reborn predator.

"Because I'm more interested in your answer," Rider objected.

Satsuki opened her mouth to reply, but she stopped midway. Rider was correct, Satsuki would one day become a monster simply by virtue of surviving beyond the human lifespan. She had been given an explanation that while the body could be preserved perpetually, there was no method to prevent the deterioration of the soul. Given enough time, she would lose herself and become something else. Someone else all the while her vampiric impulses grow stronger and stronger.

She had learned that much right after she had been saved by him, so she didn't go back and asked herself why he had saved her in the first place. Why had he fought against an unkillable executor? Why had he taken her into his own home, nurtured her and made her stronger when the distant outcome would obviously be a tragedy? Was he insane?

Rationally, she could understand why the Church accepted her. She was cannon fodder and they would put her down the moment she put a toe past the line they had drawn for her. She was a convenient, expendable tool that none would miss once it broke. However, Shirou had gained nothing from helping her. In fact he was at odds with his important ally in the Grail War because he sided with her.

Why would he do something like that?

"You never even thought about it." Rider concluded as the silence stretched uncomfortably.

"What is it to you?" Satsuki snapped. "Why do you care?"

Seeing that she would not get an answer out of her, Rider turned to leave, but not before replying in a hushed whisper.

"Because I, too, am a monster."

Satsuki remained there standing still long after the Servant had left, a hundred questions per second firing through her mind with no one in the vicinity who could answer them.


The forest outside of Fuyuki shook as several sturdy trees were blown to smithereens.

A short distance away, Shirou landed on both feet, skidding backward until he stopped against the trunk of an ancient oak.

"Whew," he sighed, looking at the destruction he had wrought, this time without doing himself any significant harm. "I guess that's as good as it gets."

It had taken several dozens tries to perfect this technique, if one could call it that. The destructive power of a Broken Kanshou and Bakuya, used in perfect synchronicity was much greater than the sum of its parts. Now that he could control it as he wished, he felt confident he could employ it in an actual fight. Honestly, he had an idea in mind that involved the use of additional sets of Married Blades at the same time, but something like that required a lot more practice than he could reasonably put in at at present.

The War was about to begin, for real this time. It felt like years since he first found out that the Grail War would take place now rather than fifty years in the future. Yet, more things had happened since meeting with Caster than they did in the decade before. His own involvement in the affairs of the Moonlit World increased to the point that he was on the Church's rosters as a volunteer fighter. His relationship with the institution based in Rom was mildly cordial, despite having fought with one of their top executors in defense of one of their sworn enemies.

Indeed, things were anything but straightforward in the Moonlit World.

Except for the technique he just mastered, that is. It couldn't get any more straightforward than that, to the point that he knew Caster would give him a hard time if he ever used in actual combat in front of her. It lacked a name though, and that wouldn't do. While shouting out the name of a technique sounded something straight out of a shounen manga, Magecraft-based combat skills had a component of self-hypnosis to them that was facilitated by calling them out, just like any other spell.

So, taking that into account, he had to come up with a name for this technique, and it had to be something that reflected its nature. It couldn't just be something random.

"Hmm. I think I got it," he said after some time. "Yeah, that sounds just fine."

Having successfully completed this task, Shirou packed his things and made his way back towards the city. It was Medea's turn to make dinner, and she would be quite cross with him if he was late. Having a Witch for teacher and lover made for a very daunting experience most of the time.

Nope. Still no regrets.


In the safety of her Workshop, Tohsaka Rin was flipping through the pages of an inconspicuous notebook, the likes of which she had dozen lying about around the room. Their contents detailed many different topics, ranging from the quality of jewels on the market to intricate mystic theories she had come up with by herself.

The one she was perusing was unique in its genre, though, as it contained everything Rin knew about Emiya Shirou. Since she had learned he was a Magus, Rin started gathering and compiling every scrap of information she could find about him, in preparation of making good use of his abilities, or to take him down if the necessity ever arose. She thought she had a pretty solid grasp of what he could do, until it turned out that he could join Apostle hunts and keep up with the Church's best. For the life of her, she couldn't figure how a first generation Magus could bring anything worthwhile to bear against such dangerous opponents, but she figured it out pretty quickly after he managed to land a hit on Saber of all people.

Since then, Rin had been reevaluating everything she knew about him in light of his aligned Element and Origin.

Previously, she considered his decision to use Magecraft the way he did to be a waste of his potential. She had witnessed firsthand how determined and resourceful he could be and she thought it would be a waste of an otherwise perfectly good Magus. Now, she understood that there was probably no better field of application for his talents than the one he had chosen. After all, what better place could there possibly be for a living sword other than a battlefield?

It went a great way to explain why he was that strong at such a young age despite not having inherited a crest. Such a high specialization was as empowering within its field of application as it was crippling without it. Even with Caster for teacher, he would never become a first rate Magus. His own nature kept him from that. Simply put, he was made for fighting. It was ironic since he was as peace-loving as one could get. An extremely battle-inclined Magus with a heart of gold.

Who would have thought it possible?

Long story short, she concluded that it was for the best. There could be no better combination of talent and character out there. Extreme power used in the service of others was something that Tohsaka Rin, as Fuyuki's Second Owner, could definitely live with.

With that conclusion, she suddenly became aware that he filled all the check-boxes she had made in her own mind for the future father of her heir.

He was a Magus, which implied that he had the suitable genes to pass on, while at the same time being utterly uninterested in acquiring more Mysteries, which invalidated completely the issue of which line of research an eventual heir would have to focus on. A topic that families of Magi had to deal with the few times they merged into one. In addition, he was a genuinely nice person, the likes of which were hard to find among humans at large, much less among the Magus subset. Lastly, the picture of him she had managed to get her hands on at school said a lot about his level of physical fitness.

Not that she needed to see to believe. His performance against Saber spoke volumes.

As a Magus, the perfectly logical conclusion labeled him as first-rate husband material. Which was why she started banging her head on the table as soon as she put down the pen she had used to write down those words.

"How am I supposed to ever look at him with a straight face again?" she asked herself, holding her head in dismay with her face as red as the favorite shirt.

As a result of her harsh upbringing Rin wasn't prone to emotional outbursts, especially not in public. She only let herself go in the absolute privacy of her Workshop. It was a shame that in her self-induced embarrassment she momentarily forgot that there was another person who had unrestricted access to her Atelier. It was even a greater shame that she was too absorbed by her current emotions to hear her come down the stairs, right until Saber was basically standing close to the table, looking down at her with a worried expression.

"Rin! What happened? Are you hurt?"

"SABER!" Rin very much shouted as she jumped to her feet and knocking her chair off. "W-w-what are you doing down here?"

"You were not answering. What happened to you?"

"Nothing!" she replied with far too vehemence to be taken at face value. She also betrayed herself when she glanced at the notebook, still open at the page with the incriminating sentence.

Saber had years of experience at seeing through lies and deceptions, therefore, when Rin gaze shifted to the table, so did her own. She would have had to be blind to miss the words written next to the picture of a shirtless Emiya Shirou.

"Oh," Saber said as she realized what was troubling her Master. She picked up the notebook and flipped through it. "I see. Perhaps the timing isn't exactly the best for this kind of decision, but I approve nonetheless, Master."

If Rin's face was red before, now it was actually fluorescent.

"D-d-don't jump to conclusions. It was just a consideration, that's all."

"I understand." Saber nodded unperturbed. "However, I stand by my words. Emiya Shirou would make for a good partner for you. You should not feel embarrassed about it. However, I suggest you wait the for the War to be over before making a definitive decision."

"I was planning on doing that anyway! Wait, no. I wasn't planning on doing anything at all! This is all just hypothetical!" Rin protested, snatching the notebook from Saber's hands. "Do not speak of this with anyone!"

"I won't tell a soul, Master," Saber agreed with a straight face, although a faint smile tugged at her lips.

Rin wished that a hole would spontaneously open underneath her and swallowed her whole. Never in her wildest flights of fancy, few as they were, did she ever dream of discussing this topic with anyone. Particularly not with the woman she was having a crush on.

There were truly more things in heaven and earth than she dreamt of in her philosophy.


When Shirou finally arrived home, Rider and Satsuki were both conspicuously absent at the dinner table.

"Did something happen?" he asked of Medea.

"Both Satsuki and Rider said they would not be eating with us tonight. I suppose it has something to do with the conversation they had earlier."

"Conversation? About what?" Shirou asked.

"Do you take me for someone who eavesdrops on people?" Medea said challengingly.

Shirou just arched an eyebrow at her in response.

"Well, I didn't really need to actually listen in to know what they were talking about," and Medea pouted. "There aren't that many topics of conversation that Rider and Satsuki have in common beyond drinking blood and Emiya Shirou. Which, from Satsuki's perspective, might as well be just a single topic."

"Hm," Shirou acknowledged. "I guess I should have seen that one coming."

"Probably, yes. Then again you probably don't see them that way in the first place, so it is to be expected."

"Which way is that?" he asked, frowning.

"As monsters, Shirou." Medea replied brutally.

"They aren't monsters." he objected.

"Not at the moment, no. However, Satsuki will either live long enough to become one or she will die before that, while Rider has already been one in the past and will eventually return to that state given enough time."

"The future is not set in stone." Shirou protested. "And the past doesn't have to repeat itself either."

"Like I said, you don't see it that way, which is totally fine by me. I wouldn't be here if you were someone whose opinion of others was colored only by their history. It is not something exclusive to you, I admit that, but it's uncommon enough that rare existences such as Rider might have never run into someone like you. In short, Rider believes you have an ulterior motive and she's trying to figure you out by prodding at your surroundings."

"Ah. Yes, I suppose it makes sense." Shirou replied, considering his past interactions with Rider. So she was actually provoking him. "Well, there's nothing I can do about it."

"Oh? I thought you would be more upset about it," said Medea sounding mildly surprised.

"I don't think there's anyone who wouldn't be upset about having their character being misunderstood, but if I did anything to convince her it would only make it look like I'm trying to reinforce a deception that isn't there."

"There is that." Medea agreed. "Besides, not worrying about what other people think and just doing your own thing is exactly like you."

"If you put it like that, I sound like a jerk."

"You know what they say, dear." Medea grinned. "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck."

"... and I love you too." Shirou deadpanned, eliciting a peal of laughter from her.

This. This scathing woman was the one he fell in love with.

'Eh. Totally worth it.'

They then proceed to eat dinner just the two of them, exchanging playful banter and mildly embarrassing innuendos.

It was a good time. The last they would get to experience for a long time.


Perhaps knowing that it would be an awful idea to sneak upon a Magus that was largely regarded on par with some of their top-tier executors, and who had the backing of more than one Servant, the emissaries from the Church straight up knocked at his door early the next morning.

"Emiya Shirou?" they asked, though they knew perfectly well that it was him who opened the door. Surely the apron he was wearing didn't throw them off that much. "We would like to talk. Would you allow us inside your house?"

"Sure," he replied, wondering what was it all about. Whenever they wanted him to work, they just called him by phone. For several, grim-looking men to show up on his door, something big must have happened. "Please come on in."

The group stepped past the gate (and its many Boundary Fields) with a barely concealed look of unease. Although not a member of the Clock Tower, Shirou was still a Magus and that was more than enough for them to be wary of him.

Which begat the question of what could have happened to make them come to find him in person.

"Would you like some tea?" he asked, after he showed them to the living room.

"Thank you, but no," said the burly man who was clearly the leader of this group. "I will go straight to business if it's all the same to you."

"Alright. Lay it on me," Shirou agreed.

"Have you seen or heard from sister Ortensia recently?" he asked.

"Ortensia-san? The last time I saw her in her person was when she approached me with the invitation to join the Church. Why, did something happen?"

The guests looked at each other, seemingly having an entire conversation through glances.

"Caren Ortensia is wanted for having stolen a priceless relic of the faith a few nights ago. With her knowledge of our organization she was able to escape our facility and elude capture. We are not sure of her whereabouts."

"She what?" Shirou very nearly shouted. "That's ridiculous. All the wickedness that woman has is in her tongue. She would never do something like stealing. Especially not from the Church."

"That is why we are led to believe there are extenuating circumstances to her actions. Which, in turn, is why she's wanted strictly alive for questioning. However, the fact remains that she has stolen a relic and that we're looking for her."

"And you came to me, why?"

"She's the person who put your name forth to join our organization, and the one who vouched most strongly for your character. That means she possesses a great deal of trust in you."

"So, of course, she would come to me for help," he concluded.

"It's one of the possibilities, yes. Until we understand her motives we are covering all the bases."

"Also, you're telling me that should she ever shop up around here, I should arrest her and give you a call," he added.

"That goes without saying. I understand that you are merely an… external consultant, so to speak, but your cooperation in this would speak volumes of your reliability."

"Right," he sighed. "I suppose there's a file with my name on somewhere in your archives, and I bet that all you read it before coming here."

They all nodded, reluctantly. "That is correct."

"Good. And according to that file, what do you think I'll do in the event that Ortensia-san will show up at my door?"

"... you will likely listen to her story and decide if her actions were right or wrong according to your own morals. Depending on that decision you will either support her or oppose her, regardless of the position that will put you with our or other organizations."

"Yeah, that's pretty much on point," he agreed with a nod. "Dunno where that puts me in terms of reliability with you guys, but there you have it."

The man let out a slow breath through his nose. It wasn't quite exasperation, but more like a quiet resignation to an expected outcome.

"Well, regardless of that, it was our mission to inform you of the circumstances. Now that we have done that, we shall remove ourselves from your home."

"Are you sure you don't want to stay for breakfast?" Shirou offered. "I don't mind cooking for a few more people."

"That is… very kind of you but we must decline all the same. It's against standard protocol to accept food or drinks from a Magus, you understand."

"Shame, though I suppose that's to be expected. Anyway, thank you for coming all the way here just to inform me."

He showed them to the door and they left quietly, but not before the man in charge gave him some parting words.

"I understand that nothing I say will change what you'll do about this matter, but know this. It's extremely difficult to find a man of virtue among Magi. It would be a great shame if you ended up being flagged as an enemy of the Church because of it."

"Thank you, but we must all shoulder the consequences of our choices, whatever they may be," he replied.

"That we do," the other agreed. "Farewell, Emiya Shirou. I'll pray that next time we meet, it won't be as enemies."

"That makes two of us," he agreed, before closing the gate after them.

Caster returned to corporal form next to him in that moment.

"What do you make of it?" he asked to his lover.

"I don't have a clue, Shirou. All I know of that woman is what you've told me. Do you think she'll come to you?"

"I don't know," he replied. "She's a weird one, but in a good way. Someone like her would not steal for her own profit. Without knowing what prompted her to do something like this, I have no idea what she'll do."

"Are you going to look for her?" Caster asked.

"I wouldn't know where to start from. My network of contacts is nowhere near as extended as the Church's. If they can't find her with all the means and resources at their disposal then I certainly won't fare much better. In other circumstances I would still give it a shot, but not with that Grail War looming over us."

"I'm sorry, Shirou," Medea said with a hint of sadness.

"Don't be. That woman knows how to fend for herself. I'm sure she'll be fine. Whatever can be said about her, she's very cunning and knows how to manipulate people to do her bidding."

"Sounds like a my kind of woman." Medea said approvingly.

"Now, now. She's nowhere near that bad," he joked, which earned him a severe ear-pulling by Medea's hand. "Ow! Ow! Message received. I yield! I yield!"

"Hmph!" Medea harrumphed, letting go of him. "If you are quite done saying things that make me want to hurt you, there's a breakfast waiting to be completed."

"Yes, ma'am," Shirou replied dutifully, returning to his appointed task, but inwardly still worrying about the devious nun.

'Stay safe out there, Caren.'


Snow.

The land was covered in white.

The castle deep inside the forest was as cold as it was silent. Though there were many people inhabiting it their numbers were not enough to make it feel like anyone lived there at all. If not for its pristine conditions, a random visitor could be led to believe it was abandoned.

Sounds of footsteps broke the silence. Long, determined strides echoed through the corridors on the third floor of the west wing. Soon, a figure appeared. A girl that could be no older than fourteen turned from behind a corner, walking toward the room at the end of the corridor.

She was a creature with doll-like features. Long, white hair framed a porcelain-like visage in which were encased red eyes that shone with confidence, power and deeply rooted resentment.

Illyasviel Von Einzbern. Forgotten daughter of the Magus Killer. Sacrifice born for the glory of the Einzbern. Vessel of the Holy Grail.

Her life had been forfeited so that her family could fulfill their centuries-old dream of reacquiring the long lost Third Magic. However, her tragedy had only happened because the wretched Magus killer hadn't kept his word and had turned his back to them all.

She hated him for that. She hated him because he threw away her mother's life; the previous vessel. She hated him because he threw her away, his own daughter, forgetting her very existence. She hated him because he took in another child and grew him in her place. However Emiya Kiritsugu, ever the disappointment, had died on his own for reasons unknown, thus escaping her vengeance before she could act on it.

He was dead but his son was not. If anything, she hated Emiya Shirou, the boy she never even met, more than she did their shared father. Without shame or remorse he had taken what belonged to her by birthright. He had stolen her papa.

For that reason she would not forgive him. For that reason she would see him dead. She didn't know for sure if he had been chosen as a Master or not. Either way, before the end of the War, she would see him splattered against a wall. Her Servant would make sure of that.

With those dark thoughts in mind she stepped into her room, an abode worthy of a princess.

It was just another insult to her, because she was anything but. In the eyes of those who raised her, she was just a disposable tool. They have never hesitated to twist her body for their purpose, putting her through one infernal procedure after another, the most painful of which had been the summoning her own Servant. His presence always loomed invisibly behind her, tearing her apart with his mere existence.

Upon entering the room her eyes fell upon her maids, Sella and Leysritt. The closest people she had to family and friends. Loyal to a fault and always caring, to the point of being annoying at times. If Illyasviel had any shred of humanity left in her it was largely because of them. It pained her to know that they would not survive the conflict, just like she wouldn't

"It's time to go," she declared. There was no hesitation in her voice just as there was no fear in the eyes of the other two homunculi. They all long since accepted and resigned themselves to their fate. No, resignation wasn't the right word. They were built for a purpose, therefore fulfilling it was the natural course of action. Even if it would spell their deaths.

"Everything is ready, Milady" Sella confirmed, snapping close the last of the suitcase. "We can depart anytime."

"Very well. Bring the luggage to the cars. I'll be there shortly."

Receiving confirmation from the maids, Illya was left alone in her room, with the exception of her invisible protector. She took a moment to look at her room, her gilded cage, since it was the last time she would ever see it.

Her eyes fell on the mirror and her own reflection.

She looked like she was in her mid-teens, though her actual age was approaching twenty. Her body had been twisted to fulfill its role as the Vessel. Another crime to lay at the feet of Kiritsugu and his son. Because of them, not only she had to give up her life, but she had also been denied her the full blossoming of her womanhood.

But that was no cause of concern anymore. All debts would soon be paid back in full. It was the only wish she had left for herself and she would see it fulfilled, no matter what the cost.

"Are you ready, Berserker?" she spoke to the seemingly empty room.

He appeared behind her with a mystical sound. His towering height almost caused him to touch the ceiling, and his frame was so big that it just could reflect completely in the full-figure mirror.

In his hand there was a weapon made out of rock as big as two full-grown adults. Its jagged shape was more reminiscent of an axe than a sword.

His gargantuan mouth, big enough to rip a man's head off in one bite, cracked open.

"I.. have been…ready... for months," he replied in a rumbling voice closer to a growl than actual words. A testament to how badly the Mad Enhancement he was under affected him, despite his god-like willpower.

Illyasviel gave a single firm nod and left. Her Servant followed suit, shifting back into spirit form after a couple of steps. If there had been anyone else in the room when they left the last thing they would have seen of the gigantic Heroic Spirit was the equally gigantic bow strapped to his back.

The door closed behind them, never to open again.


XXX


AN: DUN DUN DUN!

Illya and Berserker are on the move and the Servant doesn't seem to be mad this time. Isn't that bad? Especially since he can use a bow? You bet your ass it is. The Grail War is rolling in faster and faster and shit is about to hit the fan very quickly.

I wonder who'll come out of the other side alive and whole? Let me know in the reviews.

That's it for now. I'm currently focusing on writing Promises of a Wandering Hero and On Wings of Steel so Path of the King will be updated sporadically for a while.

However, if you want to read early up to chapter 54 you can visit by Pa treon page at "pa treon [dotCOM] / neoalfa"

See you around!