This is the transcript for the Holy Grail War CYOA currently taking place on OT. There is also a Matrix for Servant details (http://othertitles.wikia.com/wiki/Grail_War_CYOA_Servant_Matrix) and Master Datafile (http://othertitles.wikia.com/wiki/Grail_War_CYOA_Master_Datafile). Be aware that this CYOA is currently in progress and that the Matrix and Datafile will contain spoilers for anyone who isn't up to date with it.
You place the bloodied knife down on the marble slab, scattering crimson droplets over the pale surface of the stone. The thing that had once been a middle-aged homeless man shudders, limbs creaking as the foreign magical energy begins to seep into its joints via the medium of your blood. A low, mumbling groan escapes the corpse’s lips as locomotion returns to its body, lungs contracting, reflexively expelling the dead air inside its chest. You take a step back as the recently deceased clumsily levers itself up off the slab, swinging its legs over the side before slowly lowering itself to the floor.
After that the corpse moves no more, and will remain standing until you will it. This is the third such Dead that you have created today, bringing your total number of lifeless servitors to ten. Not nearly as many as you would like, but enough to suit your purposes for the time being. You quest out with your mind, feeling the faint, cold presences of the other Dead scattered across the city above your Workshop. Right now they lie dormant, hidden in basements and abandoned buildings, sewers and crevices, dark places from which they will emerge when night falls. Emerge, and feed.
You will the new Dead to move aside, and he shambles away towards the back of your workshop. Your current residence is the basement of an old factory in the city’s industrial district. The ceiling is somewhat low but the width and length of the room is more than acceptable for the Workshop of a Magus. A single heavy metal door set into the far wall leads to a cramped staircase which rises up to the ground floor of the building above.
On either side of the door are two obsidian gargoyle heads, bolted to the concrete wall with steel pins driven through their foreheads. If anyone should cross the whisper-thin Bounded Field surrounding the building, the heads will pre-emptively shout out a warning, giving you time enough to arm the rather more powerful defenses of your Workshop. The other walls play host to a series of shelves and cases containing various magical reagents, books on thaumaturgical theory and an assortment of other knick-knacks you have accumulated over the years.
The majority of the floorspace is covered in geometric shapes, innumerable squares and rectangles and glowing lines criss-crossing the length and breadth of the room. A newcomer would have to view the whole thing from the doorway in order to understand that the strange artwork was actually a crude scale map of the city above. Whilst it will doubtless prove useful in the upcoming conflict, it does leave empty floorspace at a premium.
With supernatural strength you lift the marble slab up off the ground and heave it to one side, clearing a space on the floor approximately two metres wide. The creation of the map and more undead was just the prep-work for the events that are about to unfold. Having cleared a space you turn your attention to the small black case that has sat inconspicuously in the back corner of the room ever since your arrival here.
You stride over to it and crack open the lid. Nestled inside within on a red silk cushion lies a bronze necklace roughly fifty centimeters long. The individual interlocking pieces of the necklace are jagged and rough, and it looks exceedingly uncomfortable to wear. The necklace terminates in a large ruby held inside a concave bronze disc. The jewel glints dully in the light reflected from your floor map. This ancient object was recently dug up from the Isle of Skye, and despite its age it is in remarkably good condition.
With great care you remove the necklace from its box. Tiny thorns immediately prick against your pale skin, but the injuries vanish before they can draw blood. Placing the necklace in the middle of the cleared floor, you quickly gather the other necessary materials – chalk, gold dust and red paint laced with human blood.
With all the materials in hand you begin to draw out the summoning circle. You inscribe the initial symbols with chalk, then paint over sections of it with the red paint. Before the paint can dry, you sprinkle the gold dust over it. You take your time, making sure that every aspect of the circle is perfect before stepping back to view the work as a whole. You only have enough materials for one more attempt if this one fails, so you make sure to check the summoning circle for mistakes before you use it.
Satisfied that the circle is perfect, you begin to mentally prepare yourself for the summoning invocation. In just a few moments you will have your Servant and be ready to enter the Grail War in earnest. The decision to summon a Caster had not been a difficult one – as a Dead Apostle few Servants would be willing to work with you, limiting your overall choices to Assassin, Caster and perhaps Archer.
Since the Grail itself performs the actual summoning, the chant is very simple. You clear your throat, take a breath, and begin.
“I announce - Thy body shall be under my command, my fate shall be determined by thy sword.”
The circle begins to glow a dull red. Wisps of steam begin to rise from the concrete floor as the gold dust heats up. The chalk runes flash once as the final word leaves your lips.
“Follow the call of the Holy Grail.”
With every word, the circle’s glow becomes more and more luminous. The red light slowly turns to orange, then to yellow and finally to a pure white shine that casts stark shadows over the entire room.
“If thou wouldst obey this mind and this reason, then answer my call!”
Space itself seems to ripple. You sense a massive collection of prana accumulating in the circle, and something shifts in the air above where the catalyst should be, as if a door was slowly opening inside the glow.
“I summon thy Servant, Caster!”
The glowing circle flares up, then flashes brightly before winking out. The sudden burst of light catches you by surprise, and you blink. A buzzing hum fills the room, accompanied by a strong scent of ozone and burnt stone. After a dozen or so seconds the light begins to die back down, the lines of your circle slowly cooling down to red, then orange, then finally a charred black.
Where the old necklace once was now stands a woman clad in black leather armour. Swirling silver runes run over the dark material and cast a pale glow over her features. She leans casually on a staff of gnarled, twisted oak, but despite her casual posture she is still an inch or two taller than you. She regards you with cool green eyes, her impassive face framed by shoulder-length brown hair. A long scar snakes its way down from above her left eye, a ragged gash that winds its way across the bridge of her nose and terminates in the middle of her right cheek. Aside from the staff she doesn’t look anything like a Caster, but that’s honestly not so surprising considering who she is.
“Greetings. I have come, as requested. I am the Servant Caster. I ask of you…are you my Master?”
“I am.” You respond simply, and your Servant inclines her head slightly. Her eyes roam around the Workshop, taking in all the details of her surroundings before focusing sharply on the Dead still waiting at the side of the room.
“…Ah, so I have been summoned by a true monster.”
“You object?” You ask carefully, unconsciously clenching your right hand. The Command Seals on your right palm will let you command her to a certain extent, but if she truly wants you dead your only option would be to order her to kill herself. It would be intensely aggravating to lose the Grail War before it has even truly begun, though.
The Servant shakes her head.
“Not at all. I myself have associated with people who might be considered monsters in the past. Of course, that said…”
Her eyes harden, and she straightens up.
“I do have certain standards, Vampire. If you are going to do unsightly things, please do them where I cannot see them.”
You nod and will the Dead to remove itself from the Workshop. The corpse shambles out of the door and up into the abandoned factory above, out of sight and out of mind. Your Servant relaxes slightly, leaning back on her staff. Not a good start, but not a bad one either. And once again, not surprising considering who your Servant is.
The woman whose presence now fills your Workshop is Scathach, a witch who lived on the Isle of Skye and trained many ancient heroes in the arts of war. Equal parts warrior and magus, her knowledge of tactics and strategy should help with your inability to move about during the daylight hours.
Of course, you are not entirely helpless. Like all Dead Apostles, you have the Mystic Eyes of Suggestion, regeneration via localized time reversal and the superhuman strength that comes with being a Vampire. On top of that you have reasonably strong magecraft, but above all there is your trump card, the thing that sets you apart from the other Masters competing in the Grail War:
1. Mystic Eyes of Flame. You were born with a special magic circuit in your eyes that allows you to induce ignitions with a look. The flames are magical in nature and can be activated instantly as long as you have enough prana.
2. Background Research. Before entering the war you thoroughly the other competitors fighting for the Grail. You will have an advantage when fighting enemy Masters.
3. The sorcery trait of Tradition-Carrier. Your family has upheld ancient rituals laid down by your Norse ancestors a millennia and a half ago. Once a month you can summon the Noble Phantasm Skofnung, a sword that delivers twelve successive strikes and causes unhealable wounds.
If your supernaturally extended life has taught you anything, it is that information is power. Many times it has been the only thing that allowed you to escape the Church’s enforcers, or those of the Association who took exception to the presence of a Dead Apostle among their ranks. Thankfully the latter were few – the Association generally cared little what its members did as long as they did nothing to compromise its secrets, and you had no desire to earn its ire.
The most powerful of your competitors is undoubtedly Lord Henry Monmouth. Lord Henry is a member of the magical elite, a blueblood Lord of the Magic Association whose family ranks alongside the likes of the El-Melloi and Barthomeloi. He can trace his lineage back over a thousand years, and his Magic Crest is undoubtedly filled with the accumulated weight of all of the knowledge of his forefathers. First and foremost, Lord Henry is a noble, and would doubtless accept nothing less that a Saber-class Servant. He expects to win the Grail War and has the power and connections to do it.
The next step down on the threat scale would be the administrator of the spiritual land, George Robertson. Robertson is something of an enigma in the Association, as he is an open player in the mundane business world as well as an accomplished magus. His business conglomerate, Destiny Inc., owns the vast majority of the land in central Blackpool where the Grail War will be taking place. Not only will he know the city like the back of his hand, he also has the connections make life miserable for anyone he discovers inside his zone of influence. In addition, the Headquarters building for Destiny Inc. is build directly over the Blackpool leyline, giving him a strong defensive position from which to plan his attack.
Next is Eudokia Hellespont, a Greek magus whose family is famous for its many branches that serve as supporters to the main successor. You are aware that Eudokia has brought a number of such relatives with her to Blackpool, and though they are not permitted to inherit Crests of any kind they will still be a force to be reckoned with. Eudokia herself has a rather unique Sorcery Trait that allows her to remove the body’s limits on the amount of prana her magic circuits can contain, increasing the strength and number of her castings significantly at the cost of increasing damage and pain.
The final three Masters you are less sure about. You know that an American magus is participating, but you have few contacts in the New World and were unable to put a name to him. Rumours of Einzbern involvement persist despite their family being on the brink of extinction. Of course, there is always the chance of a talentless civilian being chosen, but there is no way to predict that and if it does happen they would doubtless die very quickly.
“Tell me, Master. Is spacing out and staring at the wall a Dead Apostle thing, or is it just you?”
Scathach’s words jerk you out of your reverie. You look up to find that your Servant has left her summoning circle and is now rummaging through the shelves and cases set against the back wall of your workshop, pawing through their contents with careless ease.
“I was just…thinking about strategy. Uh…what are you doing?”
“Huh? What does it look like? I’m seeing what resources we have available, of course. Looks like the answer is going to be ‘not a lot, but that’s okay since it’s mostly crap anyway’.”
You feel a flash of irritation, but restrain yourself and choose only to raise an eyebrow at the insult.
“I had to move to this city rather more hastily than I would have liked. Certain parties had some violent objections to my participation in this ritual and I had to leave behind most of my materials in Oxford.”
Scathach shrugs her shoulders and continues to turn your Workshop upside-down.
“That’s not my problem, is it?”
She straightens up with a sigh and turns around to face you, the winding silver lines on her armour glowing softly in the gloom.
“Still, we can sort that out later on. Although…”
A small smirk creeps across her face.
“…I do wonder what the magical properties of a Vampire’s bones are. Would you consider donating a limb or two? You know, if we can’t find anything else?”
You snort and wave the joke aside. At least, you think it’s a joke. You hope it was a joke.
“Whatever. Aside from that, I do have a plan in mind. On the other hand…”
You imitate her smirk.
“I’m not so sure now. I mean, you might not be strong enough to do it without top-class materials. But surely you aren’t that incompetent, right?”
Unexpectedly, the witch’s smile widens. She laughs, deep peals of mirth that echo around the dark Workshop.
“Ha! You may be a monster, but you have a spine at least. Very well, then, Vampire. Tell me what you intend, and you can witness first hand exactly how competent I am.”
The cold night air slides over your exposed face like a comforting blanket as you ascend the final staircase and emerge onto the roof of the factory. Scathach follows close behind you, invisible yet still present in her spiritual form. There is little danger of discovery so close to your home base, but there is no sense in being incautious. The roof itself is a rough square shape, each of the four corners offering a different view of the surrounding area.
To the north lies the city of Blackpool, its buildings and streets lit up by an endless number of lights, street lamps and glowing neon signs. To the west lies Blackpool’s famous shoreline, a vast expanse of sand and crashing waves that drives the city’s tourism industry forwards. Several ships lie anchored in the deeper water beyond the sandy beaches, luxury yachts for the rich and famous.
“Scathach. Is this location good enough?” You ask aloud. The air slightly in front of you shimmers, golden motes of light suddenly billowing into the form of your Servant as she returns to physical form. The black clad witch strides over to the lip of the roof, peering out at the cityscape shining in the distance.
“...Wow, this is pretty impressive. I mean, the Grail gives us knowledge of how the world has changed, but still…to think that this massive thing is a city...and not even a particularly big one…”
Scathach shakes her head and turns to face you, expression suddenly serious.
“Yes, I believe this place will suffice. I can do what you ask with the materials I have on-hand.”
She smiles, not the small, sly smirk from before but a more feral, excited grin that shows her teeth.
“It’s a good plan. Risky, but good. It will certainly make things more interesting. Stand back now, Master. This ritual needs a certain amount of space.”
You nod and withdraw back to the staircase. Behind you Scathach walks over to the northern side of the roof, the face of the square which points towards the Blackpool cityscape. The witch takes slow, deliberate paces, measuring herself until she is standing in the exact middle of the northern face. She stands there for a moment, eyes closed, speaking softly to herself.
Suddenly you feel a surge of prana within your Servant. Almost quicker than the eye can see, Scathach takes a step backwards, raises her twisted oaken staff above her head, then slams it down onto the concrete rooftop. Chips of concrete and fragments of mortar explode upwards into the air along with something else, a sinuous glowing red glyph that looks like the letter ‘U’ turned on its side and bent inwards on both sides. It hangs in the air for a moment before fading from view.
Scathach turns to the western face and repeats the same process, except this time the resultant rune looks like a stylistic, leafless tree with all the branches cut off on one side. Your Servant methodically repeats this same action at the final two sides of the building, calling into being one rune that looks like a compressed ‘N’ and another that appears vaguely like a triangle.
A buzzing, humming pressure begins to build over the factory as the last rune fades from sight. Glowing lines appear on the concrete of the roof, flashing into life between the points where your Servant brought her staff down. The lines form a rough diamond shape around Scathach, who stands in the very centre, head bowed. New lines appear, forming a new diamond inside the first, and then another within that. Circles of light appear at the cardinal points of all the diamonds, so large they intersect one another, covering the roof in a dizzyingly complicated magical circle that would have taken five magi an hour to prepare.
As the pressure on the rooftop reaches unbearable levels, Scathach arches her back, raises her staff to the sky and shouts.
“Thurisaz! Uruz! Fehu! Perthro!”
At the names of the four runes, the entire circle vanishes. With nothing to hold it back, the pressure explodes upwards, punching its way into the sky above the factory. Once it reaches the clouds the power spreads out, blanketing the entire sky over the city.
It doesn’t take long for the ritual to do its work. The pale white clouds above the city turn to grey, then to ugly, angry black. An enormous storm front begins to roll in from the coast, an unnaturally swift bank of clouds that blankets the city and blots out the sky for miles around. Heavy, fat drops of rain begin to fall, each containing traces of the prana that had brought the storm clouds to life.
Scathach lowers her staff and turns to look at you. You shiver slightly, and not from the sudden cold wetness of the rain. No rune user in the world today could have performed that ritual without help. Casting something even approaching that level would require hours of preparation and multiple mages working together, and even then the effect would not have been that widespread.
“That should do it!” Your Servant calls before swaggering over to stand in front of you, her face a mask of barely concealed smugness.
“How long will this last?” You ask, gesturing at the downpour all around you.
“Well, because I’m just so incompetent, I’m afraid this spell will only last a week or so. It’s similar to a Bounded Field, and it’s anchored to the rooftop by the runes, so it’ll disappear if they get disrupted.”
She shrugs and continues in a more businesslike fashion.
“Even so, it’ll work for us. The other Masters will wonder what’s up and it’ll put everyone on edge. It means there’s a better chance of our enemies becoming paranoid and showing their hand too early, and the cloud cover should be just enough to allow you some limited movement in the daylight hours. It also means-”
Scathach’s green eyes widen suddenly, a look of shock coming over her face. She whirls around, frantically staring out into the rain-swept distance.
“Caster, what’s wrong?” You demand, alarmed at this sudden shift.
“…It has already begun. I can feel two presences inside the city; one isn’t even trying to conceal itself. They will meet soon, very soon.”
She turns to face you again, her scarred face twisting into a leonine smile once more.
“Master, this is a golden opportunity. We should observe their fight, analyze their abilities and come up with possible strategies against them. We can catch them, but only if we go now.”
You think for a moment. As Scathach says, this is an unparalleled chance to gather intel on the opposition. It would be truly foolish not to take advantage of the situation somehow. On the other hand, your Servant is probably tired from the previous ritual and is not in peak fighting condition. What do you do?
1. Go to the battle location with Scathach. It’s a gamble, but if you remain undetected then you can not only gain intelligence but if there is a clear winner you can finish him off whilst he’s tired from the fight.
2. It’s too risky to go yourself, but you could send one of your raven familiars to do a bit of scouting. You won’t be able to fight, but even if you are discovered all you’ll lose is an easily replaceable bird.
“In that case, we had best get moving.”
Scathach nods, and moments later the pair of you are soaring through the air, hurtling from rooftop to rooftop towards the southern part of the city. It does not take long to reach the point where the two presences will eventually intersect; with the power of the Raidho rune which governs travel, you arrive in the area of Hawes Side in about two minutes.
You land on the flat-topped roof of a local newsagents, giving you a good view of the surrounding area. Like most English cities older than a hundred years Blackpool’s narrow, winding multitude of streets spiral off in all directions, splitting and subdividing into smaller alleyways and isolated cul-de-sacs. The streets themselves are almost entirely deserted, most of the citizens having taken refuge indoors once the rainstorm hit. In terms of dark places where suspicious happenings will not be seen, it is the perfect environment for a battle between Servants.
“Master. If this is where you want to stand, I will cast the runes to conceal our presence.”
“This location is good enough. Go ahead.”
Scathach nods and reaches her hand out towards you, palm upraised. In the middle of her hand rests a small scrap of brown hide. A rune has been inscribed onto the rough skin, a small dirty squiggle that appears similar to the letter ‘r’. A current of prana passes from the witch, and the rune glows briefly.
“The Laguz rune will hide us for the time being. As long as we stay close together the rune will shut out the sight, sound and smell of us. Unless the enemy has specific countermeasures or an excellent instinct, we will remain unseen. Normally it wouldn’t be so effective, but…”
The witch gestures around herself.
“Laguz has affinity with both water and concealment. The rain makes it more effective. Even so, it does not conceal prana flow, so we will be unmasked if we try to attack.”
You consider the rune for a moment.
“…Caster. How many of your spells require physical components?”
“Some do. Berkano, for instance, is usually cast by inscribing the rune onto a small rock. Others need to be cast directly onto the body, like enhancing your sight with Kenaz. Ansuz can be used to enhance an existing flame or to create one spontaneously. Then there are the various combinations…but, it would probably be best to discuss this another time. They’ve arrived.”
You stiffen, then turn slowly to look down at the street below.
The two men striding purposefully along the road make no effort to conceal their presence. The first is a tall man who looks to be in his early thirties, dressed in a large red overcoat with military-style epaulettes at the shoulders. He stands at least six feet tall and walks with a purposeful, predatory stride, one of a man born to command and who expects to be obeyed in all things. A shock of dark red hair falls in waves down to the bottom of his neck, framing a face that could be called handsome in a craggy, weatherbeaten sort of way. His most striking attribute is a pair of piercing blue eyes that swivel constantly from left to right, scanning the surrounding city with a gaze more calculating than even the most invasive security camera.
The second man is slightly shorter. He is definitely older than his companion; his pitch black hair is shot through with streaks of grey and white, and he walks with a slight stoop. His crisp dark suit is immaculate, festooned with broaches and clasps of all shapes and sized. You focus your attention on him to get a closer look at them, perhaps find some clue as to who he is. With a start you realize that the second man remains bone dry, despite being in the middle of a rainstorm and not carrying an umbrella. The droplets of water seem to bend around him, moving swiftly out of his way before they can splash onto his clothing.
The pair pause at the mouth of an alley on the opposite side of the street from you, and the taller man turns to face his fellow. His voice is a deep, mellow baritone, though you get the distinct impression that it is just as used to barking out commands as it is to engaging in casual conversation.
“Is that really necessary? It’s a waste of power, you know. Logistics are a key element of war, and if we waste our supplies of prana on trivialities it will certainly hurt us in the long run.”
The shorter man snorts contemptuously.
“What’s the matter, Servant? Surely you do not believe that such a small amount of energy will make any difference in the long run? Besides, this –”
He points towards the sky.
“ – is not normal weather by any means. Only another Servant could perform such a feat, and no doubt it is the work of Caster, wherever he is. Magic Resistance protects you, but not me, and I will not risk injury for the sake of a smidgen of prana.”
The taller man sighs and lifts a hand to his head.
“…It is clearly a feint, Master. Doubtless the unknown Caster, wherever he or she is, seeks to frighten us with this display. It is psychological warfare. If the rain was dangerous then you, of all people, should be able to tell, no? I think you simply do not wish to get wet. Perhaps you should invest in a raincoat? I hear they are highly effective against such –”
The shorter man holds up a hand, cutting his Servant off mid-sentence.
“Servant. I have made my decision.”
“…As you wish, my Master.”
The taller man’s voice is calm, but a steely edge creeps into the last few syllables. The shorter man seems to think the conversation is over and starts to walk on, but his Servant abruptly flings out a hand.
“…Master. He’s here.”
As if that was the signal, a third man steps out from around a corner. He walks forwards until he reaches the oasis of light cast by one of the nearby streetlamps, then leans casually against it. His clothing is a mishmash of hides and furs and leathers, haphazardly patchworked together into a rough semblance of armour. Jagged blue tattoos cover his bare arms, stretching from the tips of his fingers until they disappear over his shoulders. His steel-coloured hair is tied back in a rough braid, but the rest of his face is framed in shadow.
“Come on, now. Seriously? Walking around without a care in the world, not even bothering to hide your presence to anyone who might be looking? I can’t decide whether you’re brave or just plain stupid.”
The taller of the original pair throws back his head and lets out a booming, rolling laugh.
“Ha…tell me, friend…what is bravery, if not a measure of controlled foolishness? What is it they say these days? Oh yes, ‘He who dares, wins.’ We have dared, and now we shall see about the second half.”
The hide-armoured man raises his head, throwing his facial features into sharp relief. He is far younger than either of the others, but his face is harsh and angular, with high cheekbones and a broad brow that seems permanently creased in a perpetual scowl.
“Enough talk. I just wanted to tell you I’m here. Let’s kill each other without the fancy words.”
The red-haired Servant looks at his Master briefly, then turns back to face his new opponent.
“As you wish, but…not here, hm? Why don’t we take this somewhere a little more private?”
He gestures towards the alley with one hand. Without waiting for a response he and his Master sidle into the opening, leaving the hide-armoured man alone on the street. Without any hesitation whatsoever he bounds forwards, crossing the distance to the mouth of the alley in half a second before hurling himself into the dark opening.
You and Scathach regard one another briefly before the pair of you leap across the street, your supernaturally strengthened limbs easily carrying you across the gap. By the time you land the battle has already begun. The taller man has shed his red overcoat; it lies in a muddy puddle to one side. Now clad head to toe in shining steel plate armour, with a crimson cloak billowing out behind him, the red-haired man lashes out with a longsword, sending a series of long flowing strokes towards his opponent.
“Aha, looks like we’ve found our Saber.”
Despite being under heavy assault, Saber’s opponent is steadily gaining ground, parrying the sword strokes with his own weapon in a whirling blaze of motion. He lunges forwards and both Servants clash together, their weapons meeting and interlocking in midair with such force that half of the windows in the alley burst into spiderweb cracks from the impact.
For a single instant, all is still, and you can clearly see the weapons of both combatants. Saber’s sword is beautiful, almost a work of art; ninety centimetres of unblemished pearly white steel that merges flawlessly with a curving golden hilt. The gilt is lined with blue inlay, two simple tick patterns that fan out to either side of the crossguard. The entire sword seems to shimmer in the air, like moonlight reflected from a rippling sea.
But if Saber’s weapon is beautiful beyond compare, his opponent’s weapon is the exact opposite in every way possible. An ugly, lumpen, misshapen thing, to call the hide-armoured man’s weapon a lance would be to insult the very concept of spears. The deformed metal pole is the colour of rust, a distasteful melange of orange-brown splotches which cover its entire length. Cylindrical metal bolts and rivets have been hammered into the shaft at regular intervals, and it is one of these protrusions that Saber’s sword is caught on. One end of the lance is blunter and lumpier than the other, bulging outwards like a club or cudgel. The other explodes into a thicket of wicked barbs, a mass of long thin jagged prongs reminiscent of a splintered tree branch.
“…And Lancer, maybe? I mean, that is a lance…right?”
Scathach’s words are lost as Lancer lets out a mighty bellow, wrenching his ugly spear downwards in a vaguely circular motion and slamming the club-end into Saber’s left flank. The taller man staggers back, but Lancer gives him no time to recover, drawing back to deliver a crushing lunge meant to stave in Saber’s chestplate and crush his heart into paste. Saber’s sword flicks up, a shining crescent of light that slams into the side of Lancer’s spear, deflecting it away from his body in a shower of multicoloured sparks.
You expect Saber to retreat, to put some distance between himself and his opponent and allow his Master to heal the wound to his side. Instead the red-haired Servant charges forwards, taking advantage of the length of Lancer’s outstretched weapon to move inside his guard. Lancer barely manages to react in time, leaping backwards and desperately bringing up his weapon to defend himself against a dozen blurring strikes, whirling his lance in rough, repeated semicircles to protect his sides. For a moment, it seems as if Saber’s attack is stalled, and Lancer stops giving ground and begins to push back, whipping Saber’s sword aside with a blazing three hit combo.
Then Saber’s gauntleted fist drives itself into his face. Lancer’s nose breaks with a grinding crack and a cloud of crimson droplets explodes outwards as the hide-armoured Servant reels backwards from the blow. Saber does not hesitate, thrusting forwards and impaling his opponent through the left shoulder. Lancer howls in pain and jerks backwards, wrenching himself off the sword and making a wild, one-handed swing at Saber with the barbed end of his lance.
Saber jumps back from the clumsy attack, the leap carrying him back to the mouth of the alley where his Master waits. The ageing magus mutters something, and the blood seeping down Saber’s left flank slowly vanishes. His armour groans and creaks as the crushed and dented metal plates straighten themselves out. After a few seconds Saber’s appearance is immaculate once again.
Meanwhile Lancer splutters and gasps, leaning on his spear. His face is a mask of blood and crushed bone, his wild eyes staring at Saber with an intense, burning rage.
“Ha…ha…So this…this is how the great Saber class fights? I thought you’d have more honour than this! And besides, what are you doing carrying around that fake sword? No Heroic Spirit could possibly be deceived by such a farce!”
Saber inclines his head, a look of slight confusion passing over his face.
“Honour, you say? What a strange idea.”
He raises his sword and begins to advance, slow and deliberate steps that convey a feeling of inevitable doom for his wounded foe.
“Honour and chivalry are fanciful things. They belong in chansons and poetry, and are only practical in reality when you can be sure your opponent will follow the same ideals. Often they are not practical even then. As for my sword…”
His eyes flick down to the blade in his hand.
“…Honestly, I am as surprised as you. I never expected that something I threw away would become my main weapon in this war. Perhaps there is a lesson in there somewhere.”
Most of the blood has stopped flowing from Lancer’s face, and his injuries are slowly closing up - his Master must also be nearby. Lancer hefts his misshapen spear up and holds it parallel to the ground, barbed end pointed straight at Saber. Seeing this, Saber comes to a halt, his stance relaxed but still wary, sword held up in the high guard position.
The seconds crawl past, and neither side moves an inch. Beside you Scathach stands rigid, staring down at both combatants, her deep green eyes coldly summing up both Saber and Lancer and filing the details away for later consideration.
What happens next?
1. In the finest Fate tradition, Lancer unleashes his Noble Phantasm in an attempt to gain a decisive edge.
2. Saber and Lancer continue to fight normally.
3. A third enemy appears and crashes the party entirely.
Just before the tension in the air reaches the breaking point, Lancer’s stance relaxes. His expression, which up until now has alternated between an irritated scowl and a grimace of pure rage, slowly smoothes itself out into a mask of ice. The spear-wielding Servant lazily draws back his weapon, shifting it lazily until the club end is perpendicular to the ground.
“If that’s the way this is going to be…”
Lancer mutters, narrowing his eyes at Saber.
“…Then there’s no point in dragging this fight out further.”
A low thump shakes the ground as Lancer slams the butt of his weapon into the asphalt. At the same time an explosive eruption of prana seethes along the entire length of the spear. The rainwater splashed across the lance explodes into billowing clouds of hissing steam as the sheer volume of magical energy heats it to incredible temperatures.
Beside you, Scathach suddenly goes rigid.
“That spear…So, it’s him!” She whispers, eyes suddenly widening in shock. She whirls to face you, panic stretching the scar on her face into an ugly, blotchy line.
“Master! We have to retreat!”
But there’s no time. The lumpy black rivets closest to the barbed edge of Lancer’s spear suddenly glows white hot, the sudden release of prana vaporising not only the rain around us but also every drop of water in the alleyway. The damp air from before is blown away, carried away by a scorching sirocco that sears away your exposed flesh. You stumble backwards, pain such as you have not felt since you were human coursing through your body until the Curse of Restoration begins to turn the clock back to before you were burned.
Immediately Scathach is at your side, one arm clamping around your waist and hauling you away from the burning wind. Out of the corner of your eye you see Lancer rip his spear out of the ground and aim the scalding tip at Saber.
“Disappear, Saber! Burn in the flames of perdition! Lúin Celtchair!!”
At Lancer’s final phrase the end of the spear detonates. A whirling maelstrom of boiling prana erupts from the barbed head, sweeping backwards around the shaft and fanning out into a ragged crimson arrowhead. The jagged blue tattoos on Lancer’s arms begin to glow softly as the flames lick against them, and you realize suddenly that they are not mere tribal markings but charms to ward off fire.
Saber immediately steps back, but Lancer is quicker, crossing the distance in less than a second. The burning lance is thrust upwards at Saber’s head, a decisive strike meant to shear through his skull and slay him in a single blow. Saber nimbly twists aside, but the searing cone of fire washes over the left hand side of his face. Flesh blisters, muscle chars and hair is burned away into nothingness, but Saber keeps moving, grimly slashing at Lancer in a wide arc aimed at his left arm. Lancer twists his weapon around, deflecting Saber’s sword and driving him back with a series of quick thrusting stabs.
By now most of your flesh has regenerated, and you no longer need to lean on Scathach for support. The Scottish witch looks on at the battle below, the cold and calculating stare from before gone entirely and replaced with one of genuine interest.
“So it was Celtchar after all. I thought I recognized the spear, but since several other Heroic Spirits have also used it I couldn’t be sure until now.”
You scrutinize the ongoing conflict, Lancer driving forwards relentlessly whilst Saber fights a desperate battle just to keep from being immolated. Celtchar mac Uthechar, a hero of the Ulster Cycle of Celtic mythology who hailed from the county of Downpatrick. Famous for ridding Ulster of three great menaces, Celtchar excelled at hunting and slaying the monstrous hounds that roamed the Irish countryside. His burning spear, Lúin Celtchair, was passed on to other heroes of the Cycle after his death.
The fight below seems to have reached its end. Lancer bats Saber’s sword aside contemptuously and aims a killing thrust at his opponent’s heart. Saber’s steel armour is a charred and smoking ruin, rent by dozens of scorched black punctures that reveal the burnt red flesh beneath. Lancer’s spear screams through the air, and Saber is no longer in any condition to block or evade the strike.
A glint of something silvery flashes further down the alley, and suddenly a gout of steam explodes out from the tip of Lancer’s spear. The hide-armoured Servant cries out in surprise, the first sound he has made since releasing his Noble Phantasm. The flames return less than a second later, but the break in Lancer’s concentration is enough to allow Saber to parry the hit. Even so, the taller man staggers back under the impact, his armoured boots crunching wetly on the partially melted asphalt.
“You bastard! Stay out of this, old man!!”
Lancer yells furiously, glaring past Saber at the man who has until now stood all but forgotten at the mouth of the alley.
Saber’s Master stands with his feet braced apart, left arm thrust skywards. A multitude of billowing, shining droplets of rain funnel down into his upturned palm, forming an orb of water the size of a car’s tire. His right arm is thrust out in front on him, five similar spheres of rainwater rotating in a lazy circle around his right hand. Both of the Master’s hands are shining with the same soft bluish-white glow that caught your attention moments earlier. You focus your eyesight on them, and realize with surprise that they are very thin translucent gloves.
Scathach grunts, a familiar smirk slowly creeping across her face.
“Mmm. Not bad. As far as magical items go, I’d give those mittens a passing grade. Just.”
Saber’s Master, who could only be Lord Henry Monmouth, slowly flexes the fingers of his left hand. The newly formed sphere above his palm floats down to join its fellows, trailing droplets of water which splatter over Lord Monmouth’s clothing.
“How arrogant, Lancer. The Grail War is a battle between Servants -and- magi. It is only natural that a Master should support his Servant wherever he is able. Did you think I would stand idly by and allow you to claim victory so early?”
Lancer’s face darkens. His spear flares up, blazing trails of prana whirling to life as another two rivets begin to glow white with heat.
“It doesn’t make any difference, I’ll burn you both to ash regardless of how much rainwater you throw at me!”
Lancer crouches low to the ground, the increased heat causing the asphalt to boil and bubble beneath his lance. Nearby piles of trash and detritus burst into flame, sending plumes of foul-smelling smoke spiraling into the air. A slightly recovered Saber raises his sword, around half of his burns having faded away. The holes in his armour remain, however, and his piercing blue eyes regard the burning lance with intense caution.
Lancer leaps forwards, jumping high in the air and angling his spear diagonally downwards towards Saber’s upper chest. Saber raises his sword high and sidesteps, bringing his blade down on top of the descending lance. The spear buries itself in the ground, crimson fire melting the asphalt into a boiling black puddle. Lancer pulls the weapon free with ease, but not before Saber manages to score a shallow cut across his chest. Lancer raises his spear to begin again, but one of Monmouth’s water spheres plunges down from above him. Lancer snarls, not even bothering to block the descending orb. He simply walks forwards, allowing it to burst on the smoking ground behind him.
Monmouth snaps his fingers, and the splattering ball of rainwater instantly freezes into a multitude of vicious icicles. The ice explodes with a resonant crack, sending a rain of vicious shrapnel towards Lancer’s unprotected back. Lancer swings his spear over his shoulder, sweeping the missiles away and vaporizing them, a look of irritation flickering across his harsh features. Seizing advantage, Saber darts forwards, sending a dozen curving blows towards the hide-armoured Servant in the space of a second.
Lancer whirls his spear, a curtain of fire extending around him in a wide circle as he parries Saber’s attacks. Two more water spheres hurtle forwards, arcing around to attack Lancer from the flanks, each orb freezing and detonating in mid air just before entering his range. Lancer focuses on Saber, ignoring the icicles that pepper his body and bounce off his patchwork armour. Even so, the missiles slightly throw off his balance, and Saber immediately capitalizes with a heavy underhanded swing meant to hew off Lancer’s left leg.
Lancer steps back to avoid the hit…and his booted foot splashes down. Monmouth snaps his fingers, and the enormous orb of water formed from his remaining three others freezes into a solid block, trapping Lancer’s left leg in a prison of ice. Lancer growls and wrenches himself forwards, shattering the ice with little effort. But the damage to his balance has been done, and Saber’s next thrust stabs deeply into Lancer’s abdomen. Wasting no time, Saber wrenches his blade free, kicking out at Lancer and sending him sprawling onto his back.
Lúin Celtchair flares up, gouts of flaming prana spurting forth in every direction. Saber is forced to jump back as a jet of fire shoots out, washing over the width of the alley, cutting Lancer off from his opponents with a curtain of flames. Lancer writhes on the floor, clutching desperately at his spear. Nearly all the rivets are glowing white now, and the tattoos on his arms have turned black. The wound in his stomach pours blood, and it is clearly a grievous injury that has decided the fight.
“Ugh…Aaargh…no…not like this…I will not…not be killed by my own power!” Lancer roars, surging to his feet and smashing the clubbed butt of his spear against the ground. The white rivets flicker momentarily, but the flames exuding from the lance do not diminish.
“There it is - Lúin Celtchair’s greatest weakness.”
Scathach murmurs softly, looking down at Lancer with something almost like pity.
“It burns and burns, and the longer it is used, the hotter it becomes. If it is unsealed for too long, or if the user’s concentration lapses, the fiery curse will burn all the way up the shaft and consume the wielder.”
You look down at Lancer, desperately struggling to regain control of his weapon. Abruptly he freezes, flaming lance seemingly forgotten as he slowly turns to stare at something in the distance. Then, with a final cry of rage and pain, the spear-wielding Servant disappears into shimmering golden motes.
“…I can still feel his presence. It is weak, but there. His Master must have used a Command Seal to retrieve him.”
Scathach shakes her head. She folds her arms and looks ruefully down at the carnage below.
The alley is in a truly sorry state. The asphalt is full of pockmarks, most of which contain bubbling black liquid which probably won’t be paving any roads ever again. The bricks of the buildings that make up the alley walls have fused together into a lumpy red mass, broken only by the dark brown of charred mortar here and there. The windows have all melted, and a fire alarm is sounding shrilly close by.
Saber sheathes his sword and carefully picks his way back towards his Master. He stoops down and searches around on the floor for a moment, then pulls up a blackened, muddy coat. There is little left to mark it as the fine red garment it once was.
“What a pity.”
The red-haired Servant sighs, tossing the burnt and dirty rag over his shoulder.
“I rather liked that coat.”
Lord Monmouth snorts.
“Hmph. Be grateful you are alive, Saber. That battle was much too close for my liking. Before anything else, you should have…”
The pair turn and walk out of the alley, and Lord Monmouth’s words are lost in the wind.
Scathach exhales and takes a step back, reaching up to pinch the bridge of her nose with her left hand.
“Ahhh, it’s all over now.”
She frowns, tapping at the rooftop with her oaken staff.
“…It’s over, but…I can still feel Lancer’s presence. I can feel vaguely where he’s gone…if you give me a minute we could probably track him using the Berkano rune. On the other hand, Saber and his Master just left. It would be really easy to follow after them and see where they go. What do you think, Vampire?”
You mull over your options. Both Saber and Lancer carry the Class Skill of Magic Resistance, so following either unprepared would be a risky move. On the other hand, Lancer was seriously injured and will be in no position to fight back, if he even manages to survive the trip back to his Master. But perhaps you’ve pushed your luck a bit too much for today. Maybe it’s time to go back to your Workshop and hammer out a strategy for the rest of the War.
After some thought, you decide to:
1. Track Saber and Lord Monmouth. They are clearly competent and powerful, and you’ll need to learn everything you can about them if you want to have a hope of defeating them.
2. Track Lancer. He’s already weakened, so even if you’re discovered he’ll be the one at a disadvantage.
3. Return home and prepare a more coherent strategy.
The decision isn’t a difficult one. You aren’t going to win this War by simply observing battles. Sooner or later you’re going to have to get your hands dirty, and this is an unprecedented chance to take Lancer out of the fight for good.
“Can you track Lancer with what you have here?”
Scathach nods and crouches down, scooping up several fragments of shattered concrete from the roof.
“I can do it. This material won’t be as good as natural rock, but we should be able to follow Lancer well enough until the spell fails.”
She swiftly drags her index finger along the surface of the largest fragment, etching a jagged ‘B’ shape into it. The rune glows red briefly, and the chunk of concrete begins to vibrate before levitating a couple of inches above the witch’s palm.
“The Berkano rune will track Lancer via his prana. Let’s go!”
The fragment wobbles in the air for a second longer, then darts from Scathach’s hand and hurtles off towards the centre of the city. Scathach leaps over the alley to the opposite rooftop and you follow close behind. For several minutes you follow the rune deeper into the city, travelling west on a path that takes you closer to the sea. The chunk of concrete spins as it flies, bobbing and weaving between the taller buildings of the city centre as it steadily tracks the progress of its quarry.
“It looks like Lancer’s Master was further away than we thought!”
Scathach calls back as she lands lightly on the glass roof of a shopping centre. You land more heavily, cracking the panels underfoot and shattering one completely when you crouch down to leap up again.
“He might have ordered Lancer to fall back to his home base after realizing he was in trouble!”
You call back, scanning the surrounding city for anything out of the ordinary. You pass into the Blackpool Football Ground, empty now due to the rain.
“If so, he was probably watching the battle from far away to begin with and then fell back himself after Lancer lost control!”
Catching Lancer’s Master in the open would be just as good as catching Lancer himself. Killing him would leave his prana-depleted Servant floundering and prevent the possibility of him acquiring another Heroic Spirit further down the line.
Abruptly the chunk of concrete jerks up sharply, flies up a little, then descends at a sharp angle, vanishing out a sight on the other side of the football ground. Your next jump takes you up over the football field’s stands. Blackpool Tower rises up in the far distance, the tall mass of spindly black girders almost invisible against the dark storm clouds above.
Marble paving slabs shudder under your feet as you land on the other side. The rune-bearing fragment lies in pieces on the ground ahead of you, slowly crumbling into a fine grey sand which is quickly taken by the wind and rain.
“Well, Master. This is it. This is where Lancer returned to.”
The Destiny Incorporated Headquarters building stretches out in front of you. The crescent-shaped building is an oddity in central Blackpool, a modern glass-and-steel fronted construction in the middle of one of the city’s oldest parts. The wings of the crescent curve around a paved marble plaza containing a large circular pool. A fountain shaped like a woman clad in a Greco-Roman style robe pours water into the pool via a large jug carried at her hip.
“…So, Lancer is Robertson’s Servant.”
You murmur, taking a step forwards. Scathach flings out an arm to stop you.
“Master. Be careful. There is a powerful Bounded Field surrounding the building. It appears to be a silent alarm similar to the one you employ, but far more subtle and advanced. And I can feel others behind it, ones which will automatically activate if the first one is crossed or tampered with.”
You look at her briefly, then turn back to the building. You concentrate, trying to feel the flow of prana through the marble floor of the plaza. After a few seconds you feel it, a whisper-thin thread of magical energy encircling the entire building. You would never have felt it unless you were specifically looking for it.
“Given the proper time and materials I could disable these fields fairly easily. I can still do it, but it will take longer. On the other hand, this building is a top-quality fortress. It is built over a major leyline and the materials it is built of have been reinforced to withstand a magical assault. Doubtless the enemy Master has armed additional defences after his Servant’s loss. He is no doubt expecting an attack.”
Scathach leans on her staff, expression suddenly very serious.
“…Still, I believe it is worth the risk. If we can remove the first Bounded Field without triggering the others we will have the element of surprise. If you command it, I will begin preparing for the ritual.”
You look up at the building. Even with the leyline and a top-class magus as a Master, there is little chance that Lancer could have recovered enough to pose a serious threat. If you can corner his Master and distract him so that Caster can finish Lancer, your chances of victory are actually fairly good.
“Alright then, let’s do it.”
Scathach exhales and steps back.
“Okay then. The Laguz rune won’t be able to hide the prana currents of such a powerful ritual, so we’ll need to –”
Suddenly your vision goes white. You feel something pull you backwards and a high-pitched roaring noise obliterates your senses as an immense force hammers into your left-hand side. For a moment everything is still, and you have just enough time to wonder stupidly what is going on before your body slams down onto the marble paving slabs, bouncing and rolling across the ground before slowly slewing to a halt a hundred metres away from where you were.
You hear your Servant call your name as your sight and hearing slowly begin to return. You drunkenly try to haul yourself up but something isn’t right, your body seems off-balance somehow. Frowning, you look down over yourself. Your entire left arm is gone from the shoulder downwards, a few ribbons of flesh and gristle dangling pathetically from the bloody stump.
In an instant Scathach is in front of you, her back turned, staff held aloft and pointed somewhere above the Destiny building.
A thin sheet of energy flashes into existence in front of her, a sizzling curved blue diamond that wraps around to shield us from the front. Moments later a tortured shriek rings out across the plaza as an enormous crossbow bolt hammers against Caster’s warding. The shield holds but the bolt keeps moving, bending and deforming the blue energy around itself in a shower of bright green sparks.
Scathach’s face is a pale mask of sweat and grim determination as she forces more prana into the barrier. The missile slows to a complete halt, then melts through the shield and falls to the floor with a hollow clatter, dissipating into nothingness half a second later. But there is no time to relax, for a second crossbow bolt strikes the shield moments later at exactly the same spot.
“Ngh! I can’t hold it much longer!”
Scathach grunts and begins to retreat. She reaches out with her spare hand and reaches around blindly, most of her concentration still focused on keeping the shield powered. You reach up with your remaining arm and grab her hand, hauling yourself up with a great effort. A third bolt crashes against the shield just below the second, and this time it punches through, tearing a ragged hole in the bottom of the diamond before pulverizing the marble slab beneath.
“We have to leave, now! I’m dropping the shield, so hang on to me!”
You barely hear your Servant’s words as a fourth and final bolt splits the second down the middle, erupting into a shower of green sparks as the shield finally dies. Scathach pulls you into the air just in time to see the fourth projectile flash through the air where you once were.
“Damn! We should have anticipated something like this! Just because we have a plan doesn’t mean the other Servants are going to sit and do nothing while we carry it out!”
Another bolt tears through the air, only barely missing you as you reach the apex of your jump. The quarrel’s jagged wind stream slices into your flank, gouging out chunks of flesh despite the projectile itself missing you. Behind you you see something glimmer slightly against the black clouds above.
“Blackpool Tower…he’s sniping us from the tower!”
You choke out breathlessly. From the tower the enemy Servant would have an excellent view of the cityscape. It was the perfect sniper spot and the enemy is taking full advantage of it.
“That’s not all!”
Scathach yells as you both land in the middle of the football field.
“The Laguz rune was still active when he shot us. He saw through our concealment. We’re dealing with an enemy who has some measure of clairvoyance. He’ll be able to see us no matter what magic I use to conceal us. We’ll have to retreat the rest of the way on foot.”
The rest of your flight back to the industrial district passes by in a blur. Three more times you find yourself under fire from the sniper in Blackpool Tower’s crows nest, but each time you manage to escape by the skin of your teeth. By the time you make it back to your hideout your Curse of Restoration has stemmed most of the bleeding, but your left arm has only just begun to regenerate.
You collapse in a corner of your Workshop, a sudden hunger gnawing at your heart, suffusing your entire being down to the depths of your soul. You’ve lost too much blood. Yes, that’s what you need – more blood, more energy to support your fading existence, more power drawn from the lives of lesser mortals. Ruthlessly you reach out with your consciousness, seizing the cold, clammy presences of your Dead servitors and siphoning off the energy they have collected whilst you were off fighting tonight.
The painful hunger deep inside you slowly ebbs away. Your wounds begin to close more quickly, and your left arm shudders and twitches as tendrils of flesh, muscle and bone begin to grow down from out of the stump. The moon will be full in a few days time, and your powers are about to reach their apex, hastening the healing significantly.
“I suppose that’s one advantage of being a monster. The shock of the bolt would have killed an ordinary magus. You were lucky I pulled you away before it hit; otherwise it would have taken you full in the chest.”
Scathach mutters dryly, slowly pacing around the Workshop.
“The sun will be coming up soon. The cloud cover will block its rays for a time, but I suggest we both get some rest for the time being. Neither one of us is in top condition right now.”
She smiles then, not a sly little smirk or a feral grin, but a simple smile of satisfaction.
“Still, I would say our first night was a success overall. We uncovered a good amount of information. We can discuss strategy tomorrow night.”
Her words make sense. You both need time to rest and dig in for the next few days of the War. You close your eyes and let the darkness take you, Scathach taking up a watch position near the door being the last thing you see. After that…
1. You have a dream in which you see visions of Scathach’s past.
2. You have a dream of your flight from Oxford a few days earlier.
3. An intermission scene between Saber and Lord Monmouth.
4. An intermission scene between Lancer and George Robertson.
As you fall into darkness you find your thoughts drawn back to the past. The circumstances behind your hurried departure from Oxford suddenly come rushing back, and you abruptly find yourself dreaming of the events that took place a short time ago.
The ground shakes. A reverberating thump of impact somewhere above rattles the walls of your lair, dislodging chips of loose masonry from the ceiling and sending them clattering to the floor. Several books topple out of the large, stately bookcase you keep near the door to your inner sanctum, but you barely notice them, intent as you are on the summoning ritual at hand.
You speak the final word and the magic circle crackles to life. You pour prana into the ritual site, narrowing your eyes in concentration as you feed precisely the right amount of energy into the collection of objects laid out within the circle. A broken cup, a rusty knife, a faded photograph, and a flattened lead bullet – you fill each with your prana and then connect them to the circle with threads of energy.
The room darkens, and deep shadows begin to crawl out of the walls, down through the ceiling and up through the floor. Pools of amorphous darkness begin to form around the circle, stretching and growing until four vaguely humanoid shaped blobs of nothingness stand around you. You seize control of the Wraiths easily, forcing the fingers of your will into their beings and seizing their primitive minds in fists of prana. Immediately you order them to go forth, seek out the intruders in your domain, and feast on their souls until there is nothing left.
The Wraiths quickly depart, floating up and vanishing through the stone ceiling of the sanctum. You clear the magic circle with your foot, carelessly brushing aside the mementos you used to summon the long-dead spirits. You don’t expect them to actually kill the ones who have invaded your lair, easily penetrating your Territorial Field and forcing you deeper into the sewers you call home. As far as you can tell there are three of them, two Executors and an Exorcist, each one lethally efficient. All you can hope for now is to slow them enough to make your escape.
The ground shakes again, and an ugly crack snakes its way through the rock ceiling, releasing a shower of dust. You make a last minute circuit around the sanctum, gathering up a few essential books and materials before hurriedly snatching up the black case containing your precious catalyst and hurrying out into the network of passages and chambers that make up your lair. Thirty years worth of expansion beneath the streets of Oxford has made it into something of a maze, and for the first time you give thanks for its haphazard and chaotic layout.
The corridor out of your sanctum terminates in a crossroad. To the right lies your main scriptorium filled with the majority of your research; the left passage leads to the mortuary chambers where you prepare your Dead familiars. You pause for a second, thinking, then dart left. You run down the corridor, shoulder open the simple metal door and heave yourself inside. The rusted iron bolt screeches in protest as you ram it shut, dirty flakes of corroded metal rubbing off on your hands.
The mortuary is a dingy place, a small rectangular room lined with the same rough limestone bricks as the rest of your lair. Only the colour of the bricks are any different, the coating of three decades worth of dried blood and other bodily fluids staining the walls a dark brownish-red hue. A door on the opposite wall leads to a staircase that opens out into the sewers proper, a convenient shortcut for transporting bodies in and out of your home. Speaking of which…
Twelve marble slabs are spaced evenly throughout the room, seven of which are currently occupied by corpses in various states of decay. None of them have been properly prepared, but the mortuary contains all the tools necessary to turn these pathetic remnants of humanity into more meat to throw at your pursuers. You work swiftly, injecting each corpse in turn with a small amount of your blood, binding their rotted and decayed limbs together with magical energy and then enforcing your will upon them.
You finish work on the fifth corpse when you hear footsteps. The heavy, thumping footfalls slow to a halt outside the locked door, and for a moment all is silence. Then…
“In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!!"
A booming voice shouts out a prayer, and the door rattles on its hinges under the force of a tremendous impact.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee! Blessed art Thou among women, and Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb, Jesus Christ!!”
The door shudders and bends, a massive dent distending the metal inwards. You hiss and jerk away, then order your newly risen Dead towards the failing door.
“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will proclaim Your praise!!”
Another blow mightier than the previous two shatters the topmost hinge. The door sags, and a meaty hand pushes its way through the gap near the top, wrapping itself around the metal and putting it in a vice-like grip. With a shriek of protest, the intruder begins to peel the door off its frame.
“Incline Your aid to me, O God!! O Lord, make haste to help me!!”
One of your Dead reaches for the exposed hand, levering itself up over its fellows and clamping its jaws over the intruder’s thumb. The hand flexes and whips around, clamping over the undead’s jaw and then pulling back. The corpse is ripped through the gap, bones cracking and shattering as the body is forced through a hole far too small for it. Moments later one of the cold, clammy presences in your mind winks out.
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. AMEN!!!”
The door explodes inwards, crushing another of your Dead beneath it. The pathetic creature struggles feebly against the weight pinning it to the floor until an enormous booted foot stamps down over the threshold, grinding the corpse into paste.
An immense figure stoops down through the shattered doorframe. The man could rightly be called a giant – his bald head just barely grazes the mortuary ceiling, putting his height at around seven feet. An impressive gray beard covers his chin, upper lip and most of his cheeks, descending down into an untidy braid that reaches down past his waist. He wears the black cassock of a friar, and the silver cross of a Dominican monk hangs from a rosary cord around his muscular neck. Draped over both shoulders is a golden cloth that seems to shimmer even in the poorly lit mortuary.
The man inclines his head, gaze sweeping past the Dead clumsily picking their way towards him, not even acknowledging their existence. His eyes fall upon you, and the intensity of his stare hits you like a physical blow.
“I see you, heretic. Worry not, for soon you shall receive absolution before the Lord!”
The Executor’s voice is a heavy growl, a basso snarl that reverberates around the dingy room. Slowly, almost casually, the Blackfriar reaches into his cassock and draws out a small book – the Holy Bible. You realize what the Executor is going to do a split second before he does it. You back away, feeling your way towards the other door and ruthlessly pushing your dead into the giant’s path.
“Pater noster qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum…”
The Executor chants, and you feel him send flickering tendrils of prana into the bible. The air thickens and heats up as three dark objects rise up out of the pages, three slender black handles which the Executor promptly seizes between his brawny knuckles. He draws his arm back in one smooth motion, drawing fourth three slender Keys of Providence.
Black Keys. Conceptual weapons capable of striking through your Curse of Restoration, ignoring all supernatural defences and forcing a final death upon your soul, the thin blades clenched in the huge Executor’s fist are one of the single deadliest weapons that the Church can deploy.
Time slows to a crawl as you weigh your options. You could stand and fight here alongside your Dead slaves, but the Executor has already dispatched two of them, one with his bare hands. In the enclosed space of the mortuary he will not be able to swing his Black Keys properly, but in the event that he lands a hit it probably won’t matter. His sheer strength was enough to batter down a metal door, and that’s not even considering any of the Sacraments he might be capable of adding to his weaponry.
You turn to run just as the Blackfriar begins his assault upon your Dead. His Keys scythe upwards in a great diagonal arc, splitting one of the corpses in half from hip to shoulder. The stench of burnt flesh fills the air as the two halves spontaneously combust, crimson flames sputtering and hissing as the burning prana reacts with your blood in the Dead’s body.
“Your slaves will avail you nothing, heretic! Prepare to be judged!”
The Executor roars and stomps forwards. He lashes out with his free hand, catching another Dead in the neck and sending it sprawling over one of the marble slabs. Two more corpses rush at the giant, hands stretched into rotten, decaying claws, raking at his black cassock and biting at any exposed flesh they can find. You don’t wait to see the outcome, heaving open the opposite door and stumbling out onto a set of rough steps leading upwards. You take the stairs three or four at a time, all the while feeling the presences of the Dead in your mind slowly fade out one by one.
It doesn’t take long for you to reach the top of the stairs. You crash through the thin wooden door separating your lair from the sewers of Oxford, heedless of the splinters digging into your flesh. You find yourself in a circular tunnel wide enough for a bus to drive down, with two flat ledges cut into the sides halfway up to provide a walkway. A lazy river of discoloured water flows slowly through the bottom of the tunnel, a combination of human effluvia and rainwater mixing together into a stinking melange.
You hasten along the walkway, footsteps pounding on the ground as you make your way along the tunnel and deeper into the sewers. This section is mostly abandoned, a relic from the Victorian period that hasn’t seen any maintenance in close to a century. It was the perfect place for a lair, and you feel a twinge of regret at having to abandon it in such a hurry. It’s been your home for such a long time, you begin to reminisce about how you acquired it after you became a Dead Apostle.
That’s right, you were:
1. A fully trained magus, a reasonably respected player in the Clock Tower. They wanted you to become a Lecturer, but you turned them down to follow your own research. Above all, you desired the Root. Realizing that there was no way to achieve that goal within a mortal timespan, you shed your humanity and became a Dead Apostle via a solution developed through magical research. Your primary focus is the pursuit of the Root, and you maintain a number of connections with the Mages Association as a result.
2. Just an ordinary apprentice when the Dead Apostle Rufus ‘Grindstone’ Matchlock attacked your master’s lab with an army of undead. He killed your teacher, but chose to turn you into one of his Dead familiars. Due to your high potential you became a Ghoul, then a Living Dead, then finally a full Vampire, clawing back your sanity and reason one step at a time over many years until you were strong enough to confront Matchlock, kill him and take his place as a true Dead Apostle. Your primary focus is to survive and gain power as an Apostle, giving you a number of contacts among your fellow Vampires.
The room was old fashioned – there was simply no other way of describing it. From its mahogany wall panels to the grand fireplace set into the centre of the far wall to the red carpet and fine rugs that covered the floor, the entire chamber gave off the impression of a nineteenth-century stately home. The polished oaken table that took up the lion’s share of the floorspace was chipped and worn just enough in just the right places to give the impression that it had been in the family for generations. Which was precisely the point, of course.
“A gentleman must always inhabit gentlemanly surroundings, no matter where his place of habitation may be.” So said Lord Humphrey Monmouth, 1784 – 1865, and his descendant Lord Henry had taken his ancestor’s advice to heart. His current abode could never hope to match his family’s immense primary estate on the outskirts of London, but it was good enough for his purposes at the moment.
The Lord himself sat on one side of the table, seating himself in a comfortable (yet sufficiently gentlemanly) armchair. Spread out in front of him was a map of the city of Blackpool, the most accurate and up-to-date Ordnance Survey map that Her Majesty’s Government could provide.
“…Well, I suppose it is obvious, but…”
Monmouth fished a fountain pen out of his jacket pocket and drew a small, neat circle around the Destiny Inc. headquarters building. Next to it in small, perfectly neat writing he wrote ‘Robertson’s Workshop’. He had known it already, of course, even before the War had begun, but putting it in writing brought him a slight feeling of satisfaction. As if a small battle had been won.
“…Are you enjoying yourself, Master?”
Monmouth’s brow creased into a frown and he directed a stern look at the tall man currently seated opposite himself. The red-haired, red-bearded Servant spread his hands out in a mollifying gesture.
“Oh, no, I didn’t mean to mock you. I too understand the excitement of being on campaign. Marking your advances on a map, noting down where the enemy is and planning how best to strike at him…it is almost more exciting than the battle itself.”
Monmouth carefully set down his pen and regarded his Servant for a moment. Truth be told he had been unsure about summoning this particular Heroic Spirit. The legends and histories about him were somewhat contradictory. Some had proclaimed him to be a wild, bloodthirsty warrior with no honour or head for tactics whose sole desire was to engage in close combat forever. Others said he was a brilliant strategist and level-headed thinker who carefully weighed every aspect of a fight and only engaged in battles he was sure he could win.
After witnessing his Servant in battle, Monmouth had realized that both held true in their own ways. More importantly, it meant that he could trust him. To an extent.
“Saber, what did you think of our opponent today?”
Saber paused for a moment, thinking. When he spoke it was in slow, deliberate terms, a succinct summing up of all of his thoughts.
“He was a fierce and powerful warrior, to be sure. His weapon was unwieldy and poorly weighted, yet he fought with surprising finesse. On the other hand…”
Saber’s eyes narrowed.
“…He is too easily riled to be a true threat. A few taunts was enough to drive him into a rage and try to kill me with all his strength. He bet everything on a pitched battle and lost; an amateur’s mistake.”
Lord Monmouth’s eyebrows rose slightly.
“Is that so? I would have thought immediately attempting to crush one’s opponent with one’s full resources would be the sensible thing to do.”
Saber shook his head, his lips quirking upwards into a rueful smile.
“There is a time and place for a full-blown battle, and the opening chapters of a war are never it. If you bet everything on a pitched battle and lose, you have nothing left for later on. It is always a gamble, and rarely worth taking. Even if he had won, his reserves of prana would have been greatly depleted. That burning lance of his constantly consumes it while it’s active. He would have been easy prey for any other Servants prowling around.”
Monmouth thought for a moment. There was a certain sense in Saber’s words – if you gambled your forces and lost, your enemy could advance into your lands unopposed.
“Hngh. I suppose that’s why sieges and raids were so common in your day.”
Saber nodded, stroking his beard with one hand.
“Indeed. Raids and sieges cost little and gain you much if you are successful. And that, Master, is how I suggest we fight this War – raids and sieges. We strike quickly, see roughly what our enemies are capable of, then plan out a proper strategy against them. Or we find out where they make their bases, cut off their support and force them into the open. It’s not honourable, or praiseworthy, or the stuff songs and poems are made of.”
Saber’s eyes suddenly harden.
“But it works. We can add in the chivalry after we’ve cleaned the blood off our blades.”
Lord Monmouth opened his mouth to speak, but before he could make a sound the door opened with a gentle creak. A slender dark-haired man in his early twenties entered and swiftly trotted over to the elderly Magus. He leant down and hurriedly whispered something into Monmouth’s ear. He listened placidly for a moment, then his eyes went wide and he turned to stare at the younger man.
“Are you quite sure?”
He said, alarm clear in his voice.
“Yes sir. It has been confirmed beyond doubt.”
Monmouth exhaled slowly, briefly turned his head to look back at the map, then returned his gaze to the young man.
“…Very well. Return to your normal duties. I will send a messenger when you are needed next.”
The young man bowed deeply and retreated from the room, closing the door behind him with a soft clunk.
“Is there a problem, Master?”
Saber asked placidly. Lord Monmouth remained silent for a moment.
“…The apprentices I sent to scout out the Einzbern’s base have returned. It appears we won’t have to worry about him anymore.”
Monmouth reached inside his jacket and drew out a fat silver cigar case.
“They found him. In pieces. Apparently it looked like he had been dissected. Several of his organs and parts of his Magic Circuits were missing, along with most of his face.”
Saber frowned, but quickly schooled his face to neutrality.
“You mean to say it was done after his death? What purpose could such an action serve?”
Monmouth lit a cigar with an ornate lighter and puffed on it for a moment.
“Gunther von Einzbern was a homunculus, Saber. It’s not my area of expertise, but…perhaps that has something to do with it. Particularly since his Magic Circuits were taken. Either way it doesn’t matter; the Einzbern participant isn’t the container for the Lesser Grail this time anyway. Whatever the case may be, the Einzberns are out of the War. Probably out of everything, with their last successor dead. A pity that such an old family had to come to such an ignominious end, but that’s just life I suppose."
For a while the two men remained silent. Monmouth’s cigar filled the air with wispy silver smoke. Finally, Saber spoke.
“…And what of his Servant? Did the other Master perish before summoning him?”
Monmouth puffed on his cigar, then glanced up and met Saber’s eyes.
“…A summoning circle was laid out near the body. My apprentice tells me it shows signs of use. In other words…”
“…There’s a Master-less Servant out there somewhere.”
Saber finished. He paused, contemplating that information for a moment, then spoke again.
“By the way, thank you for supporting me earlier. If you had not done so I would have had to use my own Noble Phantasm to keep up with Lancer.”
Lord Monmouth grunted in surprise.
“I was…simply supporting you as a proper Master should. To do less would be ungentlemanly. It would be improper to do nothing when my aid could make a difference.”
Saber smiled amusedly, lazily leaning back in his chair.
“Ah, I see. In that case let us discuss tactics. Perhaps we can cover one another’s weaknesses. I do not have many, but perhaps you can think of another situation where squirting rainwater at people can help.”
Monmouth snorted, throwing Saber a dirty look.
“Hmph. Don’t underestimate a Lord of the Association. Next time I’ll bring my other Mystic Code and show you just how deadly rainwater can truly be.”
Saber nodded deeply, all traces of mirth vanishing from his craggy face.
“Of course, Master. Let us now put comedy to one side and come up with a plan to remove Lancer from this war once and for all.”
…That’s right. You were just about to finish your studies and become a full fledged magus when your life was utterly destroyed by a Dead Apostle. You don’t remember much about what happened in the intervening years; only a few fragmented memories, full of blood and gore and savagery, of cowering in holes and haunts and other dark places, waiting for the sun to go down so that you could feast upon raw flesh to sustain your failing body.
After decades of mindless aggression you finally clawed back enough of your mind to challenge your tormentor for his throne. The Grindstone was a terrible creature whose favoured spell left his opponents trapped between two slowly rotating slabs of rock, gradually tearing them apart. He knew you were coming, felt your mind return through his mental connection to you. He was confident that he could grind you into powder just as he had so many others who had thought to challenge him.
Your lips curve upwards into a feral grin as you remember the look of utter screaming despair on the Grindstone’s face as his own spell turned upon him, crushing and mangling and ripping his body until his Curse of Restoration could not keep up. You gambled all the prana you had on a single Counterspell, cutting him off from his ritual and seizing control of the conjured rocks.
Grindstone’s death did not go unnoticed. He was not a particularly popular Apostle and his death earned you a number of friends in the darker side of the supernatural world. You found a place for yourself beneath the streets of Oxford and began playing the same game played by all Dead Apostles; gaining more power and territory for yourself. You expertly concealed your presence, sending out only the bare minimum number of Dead into the city above, targeting people no one would miss.
And yet somehow it wasn’t enough. Everything you worked for these past decades is about to be wiped out. A cold fury suddenly tears through your chest, and your footsteps falter to a halt. Your lair here is doomed no matter what, but that doesn’t mean you should turn tail and run at the first sign of danger. The tunnel here is wide enough for you to move around easily, and the filthy water is so shallow and flows so slowly that it’s no danger to you at all.
You place the black case containing your catalyst against the stone wall of the tunnel, mutter a word and push. The case resists for a moment, then sinks into the stained limestone, vanishing into the wall without a trace. Ever since your return from the dead you’ve had great skill with manipulating stone – your sire’s legacy, no doubt.
A few seconds later the doorway you entered through is torn off its hinges and hurled into the muddy stream. The massive executor clamps his meaty hands around the doorframe and levers himself out into the tunnel. He twists his thick neck and looks down the tunnel at you, beady eyes full of fanatical fury. You realise without surprise that you can’t feel any of your Dead familiars anymore.
“I mislike dealing with your pathetic slaves, heretic. Are you at last ready to be baptised in fire and blood, then?”
Your only response is to raise your hands. Your fingers and nails lengthen and curve into jagged claws that can crush bone and shred flesh as easily as paper.
“Very well then! Deus vult! DEUS VULT!!!”
The Blackfriar barrels forwards, Black Keys thrust out ahead of him. You set your feet apart and square your shoulders, as if to meet his charge, then leap aside at the last moment. Your momentum carries you to the other walkway on the opposite side of the tunnel and out of the Executor’s reach. You spring up, ready to jump back over and attack the Dominican from behind, but the giant doesn’t wait for you.
“You cannot escape the hand of God!!”
He roars, and a cacophony of echoes reverberate around the tunnel. Drawing back his arm, the friar hurls the Black Keys across the gap after you. The lengths of metal tumble end over end, scything through the air with an unnatural swiftness. You try to dodge to the side, but one of the keys slices a burning hot line across your right cheek. You hiss and instinctively clutch at the wound, which quickly begins to throb and pulse.
You mutter, but there’s no time to dwell on your injuries. The Executor draws more Black Keys out from within his cassock until he holds three in each hand, then takes a few steps back before launching himself into the air. He lands on your side with a thunderous crash, and small cracks appear in the concrete walkway under his feet. Before the friar can recover from his jump you surge forwards, extending your claws to tear out his throat. The Executor retreats, but not before your talons clip his flesh, hacking off the majority of his beard and drawing a shallow cut across his neck.
The Blackfriar’s eyes widen in surprise.
“Hmph. You are swift, heretic, but not swift enough!”
The Executor draws himself back, then lunges forwards, splaying out his arms to either side and swinging his Black Keys towards you in opposing arcs. The blades in his left hand cleave huge lines through the limestone wall, the soft rock barely slowing them down. You can’t dodge to the side or the blades will catch you. You can’t move forwards to attack before he completes his swing. If you retreat then eventually you’ll have nowhere else to go. In this situation the only thing to do is to stand your ground!
The Executor’s Keys of Providence scream through the air to either side of your head, but they aren’t fast enough to outpace your claws. The blades meet your interposed talons with a dull clang, ensorcelled steel meeting supernaturally hardened flesh and bone in a shower of sparks. Your opponent snarls and flexes his muscular arms, slowly pushing your claws inwards. His strength is immense, and under the increased pressure the blades begin to bite into the bone-hard edges of your fingers.
But as strong as he is, you are still stronger. Grunting with effort, you halt his previously inexorable pressure, then begin forcing his arms apart once more. Sweat begins to bead on the Blackfriar’s face and you hear his teeth start to grind in frustration. Blood begins to flow freely over your knuckles as the Black Keys are forced deeper into your fingers by your efforts, and the black metal begins to heat up.
“All heretics will burn. AMEN!!”
The Executor mutters, and you feel prana flowing into the blades. Before he can complete the Cremation Sacrament you jerk your left hand down and fall to one knee. The blades in the friar’s right hand scythe over your head, and the sudden lack of resistance throws the Executor’s balance off. You immediately put all your strength behind your right claw, forcing the giant’s left hand to one side until it hits the wall. You keep the pressure on, grinding his hand into the wall until you hear the grisly cracking of breaking bones.
The Blackfriar grunts in pain and tears his mangled hand out of your grip. The Black Keys fall from his grip, the bloodstained hilts clattering as they hit the floor. You note with satisfaction that several of his fingers are twisted at odd angles.
“What the Lord giveth with one hand, he taketh with the other.”
You sneer snidely, stalking forwards towards your injured foe. The Executor folds his left arm against his cassock, cradling his wounded hand against his chest.
“You dare take Our Father’s name in vain? You will regret those words when you await your judgement before the Crucified One! For the Lord is a just judge and will not fail to punish the sins of the witch, the heathen and the heretic!”
The Executor swings his remaining arm down, throwing his Black Keys at you once more. The pain makes his swing clumsy and you easily evade the bladed projectiles. Your enemy is within killing range and you stretch out your claws once more to deliver a fatal strike.
They never reach him. Your body goes rigid just as you are about to connect with the friar’s body. Shocked, you desperately try to keep moving forwards, but your legs and feet refuse to respond, locking in place as if suddenly made of stone. A cold weight of realization hits you, and you crane your neck to see over your shoulder. One of the Black Keys is stabbed through the middle of your shadow, the blade buried half its length into the concrete floor. The Blackfriar hadn’t been clumsy. He had always meant to miss you.
You curse yourself for forgetting that the Black Keys can tie a man to his shadow, pinning him down as long as it remains there.
“In nomine dei…”
The huge monk intones, pulling more Black Keys out of his cassock. You can only watch helplessly as the Executor lurches forwards towards you, blades extended to pierce your heart. With a mighty effort of will you succeed in twisting your body slightly to the right, but the conceptual weapons pierce your flesh nonetheless, missing the vital organ by mere inches.
Fire gouts from the wound, filling the air with the scent of burnt flesh. A dull ache begins to spread over your body as the crimson flames wash over your side, searing and blackening your flesh. Light from the flames illuminates the surroundings, washing away your shadow. You fall to your knees, then topple over sideways and fall over the lip of the walkway to land with a splash in the stinking water below.
The burning prana slowly fizzles out, smothered by the weight of the cold and dirty sludge. A hand reaches down through the murky liquid and grabs you by the throat. The Executor hoists your limp form out of the water and slams you down onto the walkway, breathing heavily as he does so. Too dazed to do anything else, all you can think of at this point is how much of a waste your life has been up until now.
“Lord, please receive this soul into your keeping. May he be weighed, measured, and judged according to his work. Amen.”
The burly Blackfriar raises his right arm, a single key of Providence clasped upwards in his hand. The slender blade looks comically undersized in such a large grip, and you involuntarily choke out a rasping laugh at the sheer absurdity of it. Your laughter dies as the blade starts to descend towards your neck. Time seems to slow down.
Is this how things are going to end?
It’s not fair.
You were meant for better things than this.
You were meant for better things than this. You were meant for better things than this.
You were meant for better things than this. You were meant for better things than this.
You were meant for better things than this. You were meant for better things than this.
You were meant for better things than this. You were meant for better things than this.
YOU WERE MEANT FOR BETTER THINGS THAN THIS!!!
Your Magic Circuits crackle to life. Unbidden by your will a torrent of prana crushes its way through your body, straining at the edges of your circuits and spilling over into your bloodstream. The sheer volume of power is painful and you won’t be able to hold onto it for long without killing yourself. As the blade descends you draw in this new power and:
1. Divide yourself. You materialize an Ether Clump in such a way that you are literally in two places at once, with the other ‘you’ appearing behind the Executor.
2. Summon a Demon familiar, a materialized curse born from your pain and desire to survive.
3. Shapeshift. You dissolve into a pool of sentient, flesh-eating blood.
You feel yourself shift.
The prana flowing through you rises to a crescendo, then abruptly simmers down. Like a kettle that has been filled too full the excess magical energy escapes your body, flowing and melting and combining itself with your flesh. Your vision turns red and blurry, and the image of the Executor above you begins to flicker and distort as if you are viewing him from the bottom of a pool of murky liquid.
The Executor’s beady eyes widen in horror, but he never even gets the chance to cry out. A nameless, ancient hunger awakens within you and you rear up and engulf the friar with your entire being. With barbed tendrils and shining red blades you tear at his flesh, ripping open veins and pouring yourself inside. With dozens of scarlet mouths you gnaw at his limbs, biting and worrying and savaging until you reach the ochre-red bones beneath.
You do not merely take the inquisitor’s blood, but his flesh too. With crimson talons you gouge at his organs, levering out handfuls of tender meat and dissolving them in the gelatinous bloody mass that is your body. You eat and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat and eat eat eat eat eat eat eat -
With a dreadful oozing, slithering, sucking sound your body begins to reform, shifting and hardening into its familiar original shape. All that remains of the Executor is a deformed and misshapen skeleton clad in damp black rags. For a full minute you simply stare at the bizarre sight on the floor in front of you. What the hell was that? How did you do it? Neither your knowledge of magecraft nor your understanding of vampirism can account for what just happened.
Faint footsteps echo down the tunnel, tugging you back to your senses. That’s right; there are two more intruders left. Gorging yourself on the first Executor has recovered the majority of your power, but if the other two enemies are as strong as the first – or worse, even stronger – then it’s going to be trouble. You can’t count on that power saving you again, and this lair is already done for.
You hurriedly retrieve your catalyst from the wall and flee through the labyrinthine sewers, doubling back several times in order to lose your pursuers. You emerge onto the streets of Oxford half an hour later, and from that point on a race against the rising sun ensues, culminating in you stowing away inside a crate on a freight train bound for Liverpool. You vaguely remember journeying north from there to reach Blackpool, but the dream is dissolving and reality reasserts itself before you can recall the exact details of the trip.
You awaken with a start. Your dreary workshop springs into focus – but something’s different.
Where once your home base was a small, dark rectangular coffin of a room, it is now significantly wider, more open, and square. The floor is bare, the crude map of Blackpool having been miniaturised and moved to the left-hand wall. The open floorspace now plays host to a number of desks, cabinets and bookcases, all made of and merging seamlessly with the dark stone of the floor. Four dark pillars inscribed with glowing red runes hold up a vaulted ceiling that cannot possibly be low enough to avoid breaking through the thin roof of the basement .
Just as you are wondering what the hell is going on, a brown-haired head pokes itself around one of the pillars.
“Oh, Master. You’re awake.”
The rest of your Servant emerges from behind the pillar, then leans against it casually.
“As you can see, I have made some improvements whilst you were asleep. It took a lot of effort, but this place is now just about acceptable.”
You shake your head, wondering if you’re still dreaming.
“Wait, you mean you did…”
You spread your arms to encompass everything in front of you.
“…all this? In half a day?”
Scathach reaches up to her face and begins to curl a lock of hair around her index finger.
“It wasn’t much. Honestly, I’m just helping out my incompetent Master a bit. Doing this helps me just as much as it helps you. Besides, this place is still nowhere near done. It’ll be a while before we can call this a proper Temple rather than a third-rate workshop.”
Despite her nonchalance you can tell that Caster has done a great deal. She hasn’t simply expanded what was already there. Multiple Bounded Fields have been set up, each one bending the surrounding space in just the right way to allow effectively unlimited expansion in any direction without disturbing the surrounding land. Your primitive alarm system has been replaced, and the gargoyle heads have been mounted onto proper bodies which now stand on either side of the entrance, the large stone halberds grasped in their hands raised and crossed above the door.
She did all of this while you were sleeping. Which means…
“…Caster. You’ve been working all this time, haven’t you? Which means you haven’t had any rest since I first summoned you.”
Your Servant waves a hand irritably, pauses, then sighs and nods reluctantly. If you focus you can feel her reserves of prana hovering at about halfway full. Doing so much in such a short time without any material components has used up a lot of her power.
“…It has been tiring. Truth be told…I would rather spend the day recovering here. If I remain in spiritual form I can recover more energy than I lose as long as you keep transferring prana to me normally.”
You begin to pace around your new workshop, admiring Scathach’s handiwork. All of your original books and materials have been neatly arranged in the new cabinets, scrupulously indexed and alphabetised. Caster must be one of those sorts of people who simply can’t stand mess.
“Still, I would rather not stand idle whilst the War continues.”
You mutter, examining the new gargoyles. Black runes have been burned into the stone that gives them form, and the gentle hum of prana from within them confirms them to be not merely stone but Elementals.
“There are plenty of things we can do.”
Scathach detaches herself from the pillar and glides over to the map on the left-hand wall. Though smaller and less visually impressive than your previous effort, your Servant’s version is more accurate and contains a number of new annotations scattered across the city.
“I have identified a number of possible locations where enemy Masters may be hiding, taking into account visibility, relative defensive strength and proximity to the leyline.”
She points to a number of dark circles around various parts of the city.
“Out of these areas, I believe that these three are the most likely locations for an enemy Master to take up residence.”
All but three of the circles vanish. The remaining circles are centred around Stanley Park, the Queen Street Art Gallery and a Hotel on the seafront by South Shore. For a moment you pause to consider this.
“…All three are pretty public places. The Art Gallery is under new ownership, but last I heard Stanley Park was shut for an indefinite period due to extensive renovations.”
Or someone with clout used their influence to have the park vacated in order to set up their base there. It’s close to the leyline and the gardens and mazes could easily be turned into defence mechanisms against intruders. On the other hand…it’s almost too perfect. Could it be a setup? Setting up there would be like painting a huge target on yourself and daring someone to come and find you.
On the -other- other hand, there were some people in the world stupid enough to actuall do that.
“Oh, and besides that…”
Scathach pushes a fold of paper into your hands. It looks like a list of some kind.
“Here. A list of the stuff I’ll be needing in the future.”
You scan the list briefly, then stop and go back to the top. You read it again, eyes steadily widening until you finish.
“Um, Caster…what the hell is this? Just where the hell do you expect me to find all this crap?!”
Scathach shrugs and leans back against the wall. Her green eyes begin to shine with amusement.
“I’m sure you can handle it. If you can just kill a few sea monsters and bring me their bones I could make something that’d win us this war effortlessly. It should be simple for a fellow monster to do, no?”
For a fleeting instant you think you see a flicker of sadness flash across Scathach’s features, but her face quickly schools itself into a calm mask.
“Seriously though, if you can find even half the items on that list we’ll have a fighting chance of success.”
You look down at the list again. Some of the items on it you can find here in Blackpool. Others you might be able to obtain via your supernatural contacts. Either way, it looks like you’ll be taking a shopping trip tonight. Whilst you’re out and about it might not hurt to covertly check out those other locations Caster mentioned. You decide to:
1. Check out Stanley Park. It’s a large area with plenty of places to hide if things go wrong, and it’s also the most obvious place for a Master to set up.
2. Check out the Art Gallery. It’s pretty suspicious that it’s under new ownership just as the War begins.
3. Check out the Hotel. It’s the least likely spot, but a Master once set himself up in a hotel in a previous War.
“Fine, I’ll see what I can do to get your materials. In the meantime I’ll also check out the Art Gallery.”
You turn away from the map and stride over to where Caster has laid out the materials from your old workshop. You sift through the various bits and pieces until you find what you’re looking for – an old disconnected telephone, an ugly angular red thing with a dialling wheel from the previous century. You swiftly dial a number and lift the receiver to your face. This device allows you to keep in contact with your supernatural associates. Several of them owe you favours, and you intend on calling one of them in.
It takes several seconds for the device to connect, and then a few more seconds of silence before a faint feminine voice on the other end whispers in reply.
“Scara. It’s me.”
You reply simply.
“I’m calling in on the debt you owe me. I have here a list of certain materials. Some of them I can get myself, but the majority are things only you can provide.”
You run through the list briefly. Your contact remains silent until you stop speaking.
“I can get them for you…but…it will take time.”
She murmurs, the pitch and intonation of her voice never once changing.
“I need them within the next few days. If you can get them to me before the next full moon I’ll consider us square. No, scratch that – I’ll be the one in your debt. Agreed?”
Scara remains silent, and you can almost hear the gears turning inside her head. When she finally responds there is slightly more life behind her words.
“…Leave it to me. Expect them in two or three days at most.”
Then the line goes dead. You hang the receiver up and stare at it for a moment. Scara isn’t the most sociable person in the world, but setting herself up in Liverpool means she can use the city’s port to ship in the materials you need. It hurts to put yourself in her debt, but taking the Grail should make paying her back a trivially simple matter.
Caster watches you with interest, but you ignore her stare and walk over to the cages that house your raven familiars. You open the first cage and the bird hops out onto your arm, cocking its head and regarding you with a keen animal intelligence. In many ways these birds are far more useful than the Dead; certainly they are more inconspicuous. You free two more of them and the ravens flutter up to perch on either shoulder.
You turn and walk towards the door with your avian retinue in tow. As you leave Scathach shifts into spiritual form, dissolving into golden motes of light that disperse around the workshop.
You walk down Blackpool’s famous promenade, hands thrust into pockets. The rain is just as heavy as it was the previous night, and few civilians are willing to brave the storm to walk down the windswept waterfront. The sea is choppy, and the lights of the yachts out at sea are barely visible against the spray.
Your foraging has been successful for the most part. Over the past few hours you have broken into numerous jewellery shops, stealing gold, silver and other precious materials either by force or via creative use of your mystic eyes. When you couldn’t carry any more you called down your raven familiars, who would take your spoils back to your workshop for you.
With all that over and done with it’s time to start your investigation of the Art Gallery in Queen’s Street. The building is clearly signed and does not take long to find. A low, squat building made of yellowing brick, the gallery looks like a deformed hunchback next to its taller, more modern neighbours. Since opening hours are long over the whole place is shut up, all the employees having gone home long since.
Wait a minute…all the employees? No, that’s not right. There should still be a few people around – security guards, a few underpaid and overworked clerks, perhaps a janitor or two. But no matter how hard you look, you can’t see any of them. No lights are on in the building. The street in front of the grand double-doors is empty, devoid of any patrolling security officers. You quest out with your magical senses, searching for evidence of thaumaturgy, but again you come up empty. There are no traps or Bounded Fields around the building that you can sense. The whole area gives off a feeling of quiet desolation.
You consider your options for a moment. There’s clearly something wrong with this place, but…
“But simply going home now would be a waste.”
You mutter as you begin to saunter towards the gallery. A wrought iron fence around the building is easily vaulted over and you land in a small clump of bushes with a wet crunch. Once again you try to feel for any magic in the area, and this time you get a reception. A faint trace of prana emanates from the second floor, a whisper-thin thread too weak to be sensed outside the grounds.
You square your shoulders before leaping up the walls of the gallery, effortlessly scaling the sheer brick walls until you find a convenient window. You grip the window ledge with one hand and smash through the bottom pane of glass with the other before wrenching open the latch and hauling yourself inside.
You find yourself in a long hallway. No lights are on, but your supernaturally enhanced vision allows you to pierce the veil of darkness and see the paintings arranged along both walls of the corridor. They appear to be mostly of pastoral scenes, paintings of farm life, forests and rolling green hills. Silently you stalk towards the source of prana, gliding silently along the narrow hallway until you reach the end.
You push open the stately wooden door at the end of the corridor and take a few steps into the room beyond. The chamber you are in is circular in shape, with three other doors leading off from it in various directions. Numerous portraits are evenly spaced around the walls, most of them depicting tall individuals dressed in formal attire with the slightly smug look of the aristocracy plastered across their faces.
Your eyes are drawn to the centre of the room. A small wooden desk sits there, a simple thing such as one might find in a classroom or an office building. The scratched and pitted surface of the desk is bare save for a single candle which gutters and dances in the breeze from the newly opened door. Up close you can feel that the trace of prana you felt earlier was from this very candle. You focus all your attention upon the pale wax column, and several details immediately become clear.
First, the candle’s wick is made from tightly woven human hair.
Second, melted wax from the candle that was dislodged by the breeze from the open door is now filling the scratches on the surface of the desk.
Third, the scratches on the desk form a magic circle.
Fourth, you are in very deep trouble.
You turn to run and make it to within a foot of the door before the ritual completes itself. A rippling green barrier flickers to life around the circumference of the chamber, cutting off all entrances and exits. You slam into it and pain sears through you as some manner of corrosive agent begins to eat into your skin and clothing. You look over your shoulder, glaring impotently at the candle and cursing yourself for being so foolish. To be caught by such a simple trap is galling, even moreso since it’s a Formalcraft ritual.
“This was all a setup. There was never a Master here to begin with.”
You growl angrily to yourself, balling your hands into fists.
“That’s not entirely true.”
You whirl around just in time to see one of the other doors swing open. A young woman steps through into the room, passing through the shimmering green wall without batting an eyelid. Her long blonde hair lies heavily upon her shoulders and falls down to the small of her back like a shining golden mantle. She is rather short, and you estimate her to be around five foot nothing in height. Her skin is the colour of olives, and she might be considered attractive were it not for the long, deep worry lines around her pale gray eyes. She looks at you for a moment, right foot tapping the floor, apparently considering something. You gauge the distance between you and her, calculating how long it would take to cross the gap and tear out her throat.
“…I suggest you put such thoughts out of your head, Apostle.”
A gravelly and distinctly unfeminine voice advises.
Golden motes suddenly swirl to life, coalescing into the shape of a man standing slightly behind and to the left of the short woman across the room. A stocky figure clad in dark grey armour materializes out of the light. His entire body is sheathed in overlapping metal plate mail, complete with a thick helm that hides the majority of his face in shadow. All you can see of his features are a hooked nose and a few wisps of white hair. He holds a short sword in his left hand and a sturdy circular shield in his right. In the middle of the latter is an emblem of a falcon in flight.
The woman lets out a startled yelp and takes a step back, staring from her Servant to you and back again with quick, nervous motions.
“A…a Dead Apostle? This…nobody said anything about this, Rider!”
The Servant places a hand on the woman’s shoulder, slowly edging her to one side in order to interpose himself between you and her.
“Please stay calm, my lady. Remember the task that was given unto you by the head of the family. His Servant is not with him. Rest assured that I will not allow you to come to harm.”
He folds his arms and remains still. Abruptly you notice that the emblem on his shield has changed; before it was a falcon, but now it shows an image of two roaring lions. His armour seems to shiver in the air, and suddenly it is no longer grey but a glossy bronze colour, and his helm gains a broad, flat noseguard. His sword has also changed, its blade widening whilst remaining the same length. What is this? Is it some kind of ability?
The woman stammers, peeking out from behind her Servant.
“…Uh…right. Greetings, fellow Master. Please accept my deepest apologies for the rudeness we have shown in setting up this deception. However, know that we wish you no harm, and simply wish to discuss a certain matter with you.”
Your mind races. This woman is very clearly not a powerful magus; her use of Formalcraft and generally scared demeanour are proof enough of that. Even now you can feel barely any power in her, and it’s no surprise you failed to notice her on the way in. On the other hand, there’s no way you’ll be able to get past her Servant in such a confined space. Unless…unless you summon Caster here via Command Seal. But it’s too hasty to do something like that right away.
“You keep saying ‘we’. Who do you mean by that?”
You ask, trying to buy more time to think. The woman shivers a little and looks away.
“Er…that is…I mean…Ahem. I am negotiating on behalf of our family’s Honoured Successor, Eudokia Hellespont. In short…”
Her eyes narrow, and her voice suddenly becomes a rush of words.
“In short, I, Irene, was instructed to offer an alliance to any magus who discovers this place.”
Your eyes widen involuntarily. An alliance? With one of the major players of the War? That would certainly be…interesting. You decide to probe for further details.
“…What would such an alliance entail? And should I agree, what would be expected of me?”
Irene frowns, pauses for a moment, then looks to her Servant. The stocky figure remains silent and unmoving, and though you cannot see his face you are certain that his gaze is fixated unneringly upon you.
“Er…well…f-first of all, it would be an agreement to eliminate Saber and his Master from the War. Surely you know that the Saber-class is the strongest? A-And, in any case, if you joined forces with us we would have three Servants under our command. Dealing with Saber should be easy then no matter which Servant you command.”
You crush the smile that tries to form itself after the woman stops talking. That was some pretty vital information she just gave away. More importantly though, it means the Hellespont faction controls two Servants already. And despite that they still aren’t confident that they can win in a fight against Saber. So either their Servants are relatively weak…
…Or they know something about Saber that you don’t. On the other hand, you have read some fairly disturbing things about Eudokia Hellespont. Her magical career is littered with supposedly mutually beneficial agreements with third parties that somehow seem to end with her coming out ahead of her partners. If you agree to this then you will almost certainly be coerced further or outright betrayed immediately after Saber’s defeat. Such an alliance would also reveal details about your Servant to the other Masters.
Of course, there’s no reason why you can’t betray them first. Irene looks at you fearfully, unconsciously chewing her bottom lip. You remain silent for a short time, mulling over your options before deciding to:
1. Agree to the alliance to take down Saber with the intent of betraying them after gathering as much info as you can.
2. Agree to the alliance to take down Saber but only so you can escape – secrecy is your best defence after all.
3. Agree to the alliance to take down Saber and keep working with the Hellesponts afterwards as long as it benefits you.
4. Use a Command Seal to summon Caster and try to kill Irene and her Servant.
No matter which angle you approach the situation from, joining up with the Hellesponts would be the most advantageous choice…for now, anyway.
“Alright, I’m interested. I assume you already have some kind of plan?”
Irene relaxes slightly, and some of the tension drains out of her face. When she next speaks her voice is calmer and more confident.
“…Yes. I myself do not know the full details of the Honoured Successor’s plan. Tomorrow at midnight my lady will be at the South Pier along with all of her associates and supporters. If you come to us then, accompanied by your Servant, she will disclose the details of her strategy to you.”
So, the Hellespont successor wants to meet with you personally? And she will be accompanied by all of her attendants and apprentices as well? Interesting. You can’t help but feel that Eudokia is putting all of her eggs in one basket. A single blast from an Anti-Army Noble Phantasm or high thaumaturgy could completely wipe them out all at once. Of course, there’s no way Eudokia wouldn’t anticipate something like that. The meeting place will likely be a stronghold full of wards and defensive magics, not to mention the presence of two other Servants.
“…Interesting. But I can’t help but think that I am too much on the back foot here.”
You gesture towards Irene’s Servant and the glowing green barrier surrounding the room.
“You’re asking for a lot of trust and not giving much in return. How do I know that this isn’t all a trap? That I won’t be killed as soon as I show up to the meeting place? Surely you understand my concern.”
Irene frowns deeply, drawing the worry-lines on her brow into thick dark cracks. She opens her mouth to answer, but a rumbling voice cuts her off.
“You have -my- word, Apostle. The land where the meeting is taking place has already been claimed as my territory, and I will not permit any breach of the agreement so long as you do not breach it first.”
You stare at Irene’s Servant, nonplussed. What does he mean by ‘his territory’? And why would that matter anyway? As strange as his words are, however, you feel as if he is telling the truth.
“Regardless, our business here is complete, is it not? He will either appear or he will not, and all that is left is to prepare for the meeting tomorrow. Let us depart this place, my lady, and return to your superior’s abode.”
Irene draws in a shaky breath, looking at her Servant with thinly-disguised relief.
“Y-yes. Just so, Rider.”
The blonde looks at you briefly, then walks over to the desk. Producing a knife from inside her coat, Irene carefully cuts off a lock of her own hair, then lowers it into the guttering candle flame. The fire glows green for a moment, then the shimmering verdant barrier around the room begins to flicker and fade away. Both Irene and her Servant silently depart through the same door she came in through, leaving you alone in the empty room.
You sigh and run a hand through your hair. A lot has happened tonight, and you need time to think. Time to sort everything out. Time to finally come up with a coherent strategy instead of dumbly rushing into obvious traps. You throw one final disgusted look at the wooden desk before departing, slamming the heavy wooden door behind you.
For a few long minutes the circular room was totally silent. The candle flame reached the end of its wick and disappeared into a glowing red ember before finally drowning in the pool of melted wax. A thin plume of smoke rose into the air, drifting lazily towards the dark patch of shadows on the ceiling that had been there since before the meeting had begun.
As the first wisps began to reach it the shadow moved, uncoiling and growing into something that might look like a person if the viewer was drunk enough. The darkness began to glide across the curved stone surface of the ceiling, reaching out with cold black hands and feet to grasp at tiny handholds and footholds invisible to mundane eyesight. After only a few seconds the spider-like creature reached the wall and dropped like a cat to the floor, twisting in mid air so that it landed on all fours.
The thing seemed to unfold into a standing position, its long black cloak flowing around it. Standing upright one could see that its limbs were hideously misshapen and mismatched; its left arm was brawny and tough, covered in scars and blotchy blemishes. The right was slender and half again as long as the left, ending in a hand with six thin grasping fingers. Its body was gaunt and impossibly emaciated, skin stretched so tightly that in many places it seemed as if its bones were about to burst out of its body. The only bright thing on its dark form was a bone-white mask of a grinning, leering skull.
The Servant Assassin drew his cloak more tightly around himself and glided out of the nearest door. He had witnessed an interesting conversation, one that his Master would be most pleased to hear about.
You head straight back to your workshop after leaving the art gallery. Caster materializes as soon as you cross the threshold and you waste no time in explaining tonight’s events to her.
“So you made an agreement with two other Masters to take down Saber? Hmm…no matter how you parse it this ‘alliance’ is clearly a trap. Even if they don’t stab us in the back immediately, this agreement is only a temporary thing by necessity. This War cannot have two winners.”
Caster’s brow furrows as she considers what you have just told her. Her green eyes narrow, and she begins winding a length of hair around her index finger. You wonder if that’s an unconscious action.
“On the other hand…it could work to our advantage. We saw firsthand how well Saber and his Master worked together. On the surface it seemed as if they were slightly at odds, but when push came to shove the old man supported his Servant with everything he had.”
“Alright. Then what about the actual meeting itself? What do you recommend?”
Scathach’s eyes narrow again, and her mouth twists into a grimace.
“…Not an easy question, but…I think we should go, at least this first time. I cast a few runes on myself to raise my combat abilities in case we need to fight, but nothing major enough to put everyone else on edge. We hear what this Hellespont woman has to say, try to figure out why she needs three Servants to take down only one. This Irene girl is clearly the weak link. If we’re going to plan on stabbing them in the back then she will be our most likely target. Afterwards we go somewhere else for a while to make sure nobody tracks us back to our base of operations.”
Scathach shakes her head ruefully.
“Of course, that’s assuming nothing interrupts our little meeting.”
That’s true. Such a meeting is unlikely to go unnoticed, and you wonder why Eudokia has chosen to hold it in such a public place. On that note…
“Would it be possible for you to simply destroy the pier and everyone on it?”
You enquire. Such a move would be risky, but success would strengthen your position immeasurably. Scathach sighs and begins to pace back and forth, her oaken staff dragging along the ground.
“With enough preparation time I could do it. If you wanted me to make it rain lightning, or raise the sea up to sweep it away, or sink the entire thing into the sand then I could do it. But magic on that scale would be easily detectable by anyone with the slightest talent. Rituals of that nature are only really good for assaulting fortified positions where the target is unwilling or unable to flee or counterattack. And my Noble Phantasm is only really useful in one-on-one engagements.”
Her gaze sweeps over the numerous bags of loot you retrieved earlier, piled high against one side of one of the pillars that supports the roof of the workshop.
“Besides, my real strength is creating magical items. Runes are excellent for imbuing materials with qualities they didn’t possess before. Depending on the materials used and the meaning of the runes in question, I could potentially craft something that has combat potential. For instance, the Pethro rune carries the meaning of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’. By inscribing the rune onto a weapon - say, a sharp spear - it would be possible to eliminate all other possibilities besides the weapon hitting the target.”
“You are referring to the demonic spear, Gae Bolg.”
Scathach smiles wryly.
“Yes. Well…it was more complicated than simply scratching the rune onto a bit of wood. I needed the right materials and the conditions for the ritual had to be perfect. I doubt I could make something quite so powerful in this day and age. Though perhaps that is a blessing in some ways. That spear never brought its wielder any happiness.”
Caster’s eyes cloud over. A strong sensation of melancholy falls over the workshop, a miasma of loss and old, bone-deep regrets. You open your mouth to speak, but your Servant holds up a hand.
“However…such a skill is too useful to not use. I will endeavour to craft a weapon capable of mass destruction if that is what you desire. But it will not be ready in time for the meeting tomorrow. This –”
She jerks her head towards her staff.
“ – isn’t suitable for the sort of combat I like to engage in, so I intend to create a superior weapon for myself anyway. I can make a start with the materials you gathered for me today, which is good. Speaking of which, is there anything in particular you would like me to create for you?”
You mull it over for a moment. A powerful conceptual weapon could really help, but on the other hand doing so would take up more materials and lessen the power of anything your Servant might make for herself. In the end you decide to ask for:
1. A conceptual weapon that focuses on wide-area destruction. (Advantages: Hits many targets at once, can damage Servants if they take the attack head on. Disadvantages: High chance of collateral damage, requires a significant amount of prana to use.)
2. A mystic code which enhances your already strong earth magic and allows you to cast petrifying spells. (Advantages: Petrification is very hard to defend against for average mages and will apply penalties for those who do resist. Prana cost is the same as ordinary spells. Disadvantages: Not nearly as powerful as Cybele, will not affect Servants at all.)
3. Nothing, Caster should use all her materials to craft a more powerful weapon for herself. (Advantages: Scathach crafts a weapon equal in power to a B-Rank Noble Phantasm* rather than something significantly weaker, raising her direct combat abilities significantly. Disadvantages: Uh…you get nothing.)
“…No. Save the materials for yourself. I’m already strong enough.”
Caster raises an eyebrow.
“Confident, aren’t we? Well, it’s your choice I guess.”
She seizes one of the bags and upends it, tipping the sparkling contents out onto the cold stone floor. Gold and silver rings, pearl necklaces, ornate broaches and glittering bracelets pile up in a heap as Scathach dumps each bag in turn. The size of the pile is substantial, and you get the feeling that the string of thefts you committed are going to be the talk of the city for many weeks to come. It’ll probably make the evening news.
“Aw, you got me some pretty presents. How sweet.”
Your Servant grins and begins to sift through the heap, separating the jewellery into smaller piles varying by material. You snort and jab your finger at the thorny necklace around her neck that once served as her summoning catalyst.
“Considering your rather suspect taste in jewellery I’m surprised you’re interested in sparkly things.”
Scathach peers down at the necklace, makes a disgusted noise in her throat and continues sorting through her loot.
“Wait, you don’t actually think -I- chose this thing, right? Ugh, it was a gift from my idiot daughter. Whatever skills she may have inherited from me, a sense of good aesthetics was not one of them.”
By the time she finishes complaining the original pile is gone. The witch immediately turns her attention to the smaller heaps, sorting through each in turn. She picks up each individual piece, examines it thoroughly, then either returns it or puts it to one side. After several minutes the individual piles are only a third as large as they were previously, and another new heap of discarded items has risen off to the side.
Scathach waves her hand at the vastly reduced collection of jewellery.
“ – are of sufficient quality to create something usable. The rest – ”
She indicates the other, larger pile.
“ – can still be used to make a few trinkets. But for now I’ll focus on getting the main forging ritual started. We won’t get anywhere without the central ingredients, but shaping the base materials will take time anyway so I may as well get started now.”
Scathach stands and shifts the pile of discarded ornaments aside with her foot. She drags her twisted oaken staff along the ground, the wood rasping as it scrapes across the stone floor in a straight line. The staff trails a black charcoal-like substance behind it, marking the floor wherever it touches. Your Servant repeats this twice more, drawing a triangular shape around the selected jewellery. At each corner she marks out a rune – you recognize the Ansuz rune at the top, but the runes at the bottom are identical and unknown to you, two tilted ‘X’ shapes with canted ends.
“Ansuz for heat, and two Nauthiz for the concept of the manipulation of magic. This is the simple bit; all it does is melt everything down and gradually add prana to it. It uses mana from the atmosphere so we can simply leave it as it is and it’ll complete itself.”
Scathach points at the materials inside the runic ‘circle’.
“Look. It’s already starting.”
Thin wisps of steam begin to rise from the pile closest to the Ansuz, a collection of gold and silver rings. A soft, low hissing sound whispers from the bottom-most section of the pile, and the surface of the rings at the periphery begins to slump and run, the metals melting slowly into glimmering pools of liquid like cheap chocolate left out in the sun.
“Alright then. If it’s a self-completing ritual then I recommend we both get some rest before tomorrow’s meeting.”
You suggest, and Caster nods in agreement. You settle down on one side of the pillar furthest from the entrance, and Scathach leans against the opposite side. You close your eyes and feel your consciousness slowly drift away, carried off into the darkness until it vanishes completely…
---Intermission – The First Dream---
You dream of a land in the distant past.
A land where magic flourished and was practiced openly, a time when Christianity had taken its first faltering steps, a place where mythical beasts still walked the land in great numbers.
You dream of an island far to the north, a rainy, windswept place just off the coast of what would later become known as the Kingdom of Scotland. Jagged black mountains rise up into the sky, accusing fingers pointing at heaven – or they would, if not for the perpetual storm clouds hanging overhead. The clouds pounded the island with lashing torrents of rain, struck it repeatedly with thunderbolts and tore at its peaks with vicious, gale-force winds. It is a land of death, a place where nothing living could hope to survive.
And yet in your dream you behold a figure standing in the centre of the chaos. You recognise her face, though several differences jump out at you; longer hair, the lack of a facial scar, slightly different armour design. But the person who stands unmoving in the eye of the storm is undoubtedly your Servant, Scathach. She raises one hand, and the stormclouds are blown away, driven back to the very edges of the island.
Your dream shifts, and suddenly a castle rests in the middle of the island, surrounded on all sides by the black mountains and crafted from blocks of the same dark stone. The storms have lessened their grip on the area, though thunder and lightning still play around the edges. Tiny boats make their way towards the island from the mainland, and though some manage to reach the shore many others capsize and sink amidst the churning waves. Those who wished to learn from the witch would have to face many challenges before they even set foot in her castle.
The dream shifts again, and this time you are inside the fortress itself. Scathach looks on as two men spar with one another, each lashing out with long metal poles. One is a tall, lean man with hair dyed blue in the Celtic style, smirking as he whirls his weapon towards his opponent’s head. The other man is shorter, but stockier and more muscular and he easily parries the stroke before returning three of his own. The taller man blocks each thrust and immediately attacks again.
Neither one can gain an advantage over the other, and you realize that you are witnessing two of Scathach’s most famous students – Cu Chulainn and Fergus of Connacht. The battle rages on for what seems like hours, but the bout ends inconclusively with both men bowing to one another and embracing as friends. You feel Scathach’s pride in her students, a certainty that they will bring honour to their respective lands and perform great deeds worthy of the title of ‘hero’.
Once more the dream changes, this time showing Scathach herself engaged in a pitched battle with another woman, a tall fair warrior clad in white. Her long blonde hair is curled into many small ringlets, and her face carries an expression of amused disdain. Both are stood on one of the many dark mountains ringing the island, with Scathach’s opponent holding the higher ground. Both women explode forwards simultaneously, exchange blows for a moment, then reel back at the same time, their faces streaked with blood.
As expected, the dream changes after that. Cu Chulainn and Fergus leave the fortress and make their way down towards the coastline towards a waiting boat, the former carrying a long thin object slung across his shoulders. Three women watch them leave from the battlements; Scathach, who now sports the familiar jagged scar across her face, the blonde woman, who you realize must be Scathac’s rival Aife, and a third woman who resembles Scathach physically but possesses a slighter, more willowy figure.
Suddenly the image begins to dissolve. The picture breaks apart, shattering like a painting made of brittle glass. The fragments dissipate into nothingness as the dream ends and reality begins to reassert its grip over your wandering mind.
---Intermission – End of the First Dream---
You slowly open your eyes, then start as Caster suddenly moves into view directly in front of you. She stares down at you intently, gripping her staff in one white-knuckled hand.
“What manner of creature are you, Vampire?”
She whispers, her face a picture of undisguised curiosity. You raise your head and look her in the eye.
“What do you mean?”
You ask carefully. It’s clear that you have seen Scathach’s past in your dream, so perhaps she has seen something of you as well. Your Servant tsks and sits down in front of you.
“No point in mincing words. I saw what happened to you in the past. You changed your form into something even more inhuman than you are now. It’s…well…”
She shakes her head.
“It’s amazing. Shapeshifting is a rare skill, particularly in this day and age. I have some knowledge of how the process usually works, and we have a few hours before the meeting starts. I think we should use that time to examine your ability in more detail.”
You don’t need to think too hard to agree with Caster’s sentiments. You nod and pick yourself up off the floor. Caster does the same and turns towards the centre of the workshop. Before she turns all the way you call out to her.
“Caster. I, uh, I also saw what happened to you in the past.”
She freezes, then slowly turns back to face you again. Her face is calm, but her eyes are a whirlpool of emotions.
“Oh? How much?"
You hesitate, then decide you may as well tell the truth.
“…Up to where Fergus and Cu Chulainn left the Land of Shadows. You were standing with Aife and your daughter watching them go.”
Scathach exhales, suddenly looking very tired. Her shoulders droop slightly, and the silvery lines on her armour begin to dull ever so slightly.
“I see. Well, I suppose it’s only reasonable considering what I saw of you.”
She laughs then, a cold and humourless chuckle entirely at odds with her usual attitude.
“Hmm. I had such hopes for the two of them, but fate had other ideas. I wonder what would have happened if I had given Gae Bolg to Fergus instead of Chulainn’s hound. Bah, it would probably have ended in tragedy either way.”
The witch shrugs and turns away from you.
“Best not to dwell on the past. We all make mistakes. We all wish that we could go back and correct them, but if we did that then we would never learn anything. And learning is what we’re going to do right now, so stop thinking about me and start thinking about how you managed to change your shape.”
Scathach seems to think the discussion is over, and you have no intention of pressing the issue. You spend the next couple of hours going over the mechanics of Shapeshifting. The process is slow going, but by the end you manage to learn how to activate the ability at will. Scathach divides her time between instructing you and inscribing runes onto pieces of jewellery from the discarded pile.
“Okay, time’s up. You performed adequately, given the circumstances. Given time you could probably transform into something other than a pool of corrosive blood, but now it’s time to go and meet this Hellespont woman. Before that, though…”
Caster holds up the jewellery she’s been working on. Most of them are gold and silver rings, but a few strings of pearls dangle from between her fingertips.
“I have inscribed runes on each of these. Wearing all of them at once will boost my parameters significantly, but there’s no way we could disguise them. On the other hand I could take only the bare minimum. I leave it up to you, Master.”
You weigh the options for a moment. If you go in loaded for bear then it might look like you’re intending to fight rather than talk. On the other hand, if it does degenerate into a battle could you really afford to not take along all the weapons you currently have? Alternatively leaving the majority behind means you can use them again later, and you have Rider’s guarantee that you won’t be betrayed first…that is, if you can trust him. After careful consideration you come to the conclusion that:
1. You should take everything along for the maximum power boost. There’s no sense in trusting these people, particularly since you were essentially coerced into this meeting to begin with.
2. Take only the bare minimum. The reward of removing the strongest Servant from the War is worth the risk of the initial meeting, and alienating the Hellesponts by showing up ready for a fight would be very short-sighted.
“We have to be seen to be willing to co-operate. The benefits of this alliance outweigh the risks, so take only what you can easily conceal.”
Scathach nods and places the vast majority of the ornaments to one side. From her original handful she picks out two rings, one of them silver and shaped like a serpentine dragon eating its own tail, the other gold with four emeralds set around the circumference.
“These should be enough to get us out of trouble. Uruz for strength and Isa for stillness. Let’s hope we don’t need them.”
Rested and prepared, you leave the Territory Field of your hideout behind and venture out into the city. The rain is still pouring down, and by now many of Blackpool’s drains are in danger of overflowing.
You steadily make your way towards Blackpool’s South Pier, crossing into South Shore via the western half of the city’s industrial estate before cutting across the beachfront promenade. South Pier juts out into the sea, a lattice of timber and girders supporting a miniature amusement park complete with rollercoasters, ghost trains and shooting ranges. The pier itself is currently shut for the night, and you begin to realize why the Hellesponts have chosen this location as a meeting place.
It’s a gloomy, claustrophobic and isolated place, but it’s also a public place and any attack made against it would probably result in collateral damage. Damage that would undoubtedly attract the attention of the city’s authorities and thus jeopardize the Grail War itself. It’s a shrewd move and you can’t help but admire the thought that went into it.
As you approach the metal turnstiles that bar access to the pier two men materialize out of the darkness on either side of you. Both wear the same black overcoat and share similar olive-coloured skin, their features clearly marking them as being of eastern descent.
“We have been expecting you, Apostle. Please follow us.”
The pair turn in unison and stride away, clearly expecting you to follow them. You and Scathach exchange glances briefly before vaulting over the turnstile and following them into the amusement park. As you pass through the rain-swept interior you notice more black-coated men and women standing around, some patrolling the sides of the pier whilst others simply stand still with arms folded, each one a magus of relatively decent strength.
“So the branches are here too…”
You mutter to yourself. As was the norm in magus families, only one successor within the Hellespont family was allowed to inherit the crest. Barring anomalies like the Edelfelt lineage, whose sorcery trait allowed the crest to be passed on to two successors, any other children a magus might have would be excluded from the succession. Spare children were a distraction and a danger and were usually kept ignorant of their heritage.
The Hellesponts felt differently. According to your research the family trained all of its children in the use of magecraft, though only the firstborn would receive the crest. The others were intended to serve as lifelong attendants to their sibling, raised to loyally support them in their research. Over the years this method of thinking resulted in the family branching out extensively, giving the Hellespont main line an enormous support network to call upon whenever the need arose.
Of course, taken another way it also meant that the family was a bloated mess of cousins, aunts, uncles and others who might eventually decide they weren’t happy with the way the ‘Honoured Successor’ was doing things. An enormous succession crisis enveloped the family ten years ago, cutting off many of the more powerful branches. The Hellesponts survived but in a reduced state, forced to rely on more obscure lines of the family for support.
“I count a dozen, with half that many more hidden via concealment charms.”
Caster whispers calmly, eyes dead ahead. You nod your head the barest fraction and keep walking. Your guides lead you through to the very back of the park, a wide open viewing platform that would provide an impressive view of the open sea during daylight hours. Now the platform plays host to a semicircle of black-coats, all standing guard around three figures in the centre. Two of the figures are people you recognise. Irene shivers in the cold and jerks her head away when you look at her, long blonde hair looking more dishevelled than when you saw her last. Her Servant stands beside her, his armour now the colour of rust and far slimmer than it was before.
The last woman is the opposite of Irene in every way possible. She is tall, standing head and shoulders above the blonde and an inch or two higher than her Servant. Her short black hair is cut back above her ears, and her face is full of the cool confidence of one born to status and prestige, one who gives orders and expects to have them obeyed. She wears the same type of coat as her attendants, but hers is completely white.
She smiles as you step into the semicircle. It doesn’t reach her eyes.
“Ah, so our guest arrives at last. Welcome to the meeting. As I am sure you have already guessed, I am Eudokia. I hope we can reach an agreement here tonight.”
Eudokia extends a hand, and you cautiously reach out to shake it.
“Likewise. I heard from your friend over there-”
You jerk a thumb at Irene, who shudders.
“-that you have a plan to take Saber out of the War. I’d like to hear the details before I commit to anything.”
Eudokia inclines her head, mouth twisting into a smile.
“Of course. I will be brief. I had my cousins infiltrate the Association before the War began in order to determine who the most likely threats would be. It came to my knowledge that Lord Monmouth was planning on participating and summoning a Saber-class Servant. Sabers have always been the strongest Servant in every previous War, so Saber and his Master would be the greatest threat. My spies have revealed the location of Monmouth’s base of operations to me.”
She pauses, and you can’t help but think that it’s for dramatic effect somehow.
“Lord Henry Monmouth has built his workshop beneath Stanley Park. It is an impregnable fortress that cannot be assaulted directly I ordered several of my cousins to try, but they were disintegrated by Monmouth’s defences.”
Eudokia continues calmly, apparently not at all bothered that she sent several of her family members to their deaths.
“Of course, a precise attack of sufficient power could break through and force them to emerge. Or a Servant skilled in infiltration could slip in whilst we cause a distraction. Or a Servant skilled in magecraft could disable the defences and allow us to attack with impunity.”
Eudokia grins, then turns to stare at Scathach.
“My cousin Irene is the Master of Rider. I myself am the Master of Berserker. Saber is our target, and Lancer is currently holed up inside the Destiny Inc. headquarters. So then…that must mean you are either Caster, Archer or Assassin.”
So, Eudokia is Berserker’s Master. That you would learn which Servant she commanded was a given, but you hadn’t expected her to volunteer the information so soon. Considering how well organized she seems to be, it would be foolish not to co-operate for the time being.
“…Correct. I am the Master of Caster.”
Eudokia’s self-satisfied smirk irks you somewhat. She’s probably the sort of person who takes too much pride in their own intelligence.
“I thought so. It was you who summoned this storm, wasn’t it? I hope you are as skilled at disabling Bounded Fields as you are at controlling the weather.”
Caster closes her eyes and exhales, looking slightly exasperated.
“Yes, yes, you’re very clever. Now if you would be so kind as to explain what your Caster-centric plan is…”
Eudokia shrugs, still looking amused.
“Oh, it’s quite simple. I want you to attack Stanley Park tomorrow night. Take down the Bounded Fields, throw some lightning around, get Monmouth’s attention. Make it so that he has to come out and engage you. The next part will be the hardest – you have to lure Saber down through the Park down to the overpass in Great Marton. Once you get there Rider and Berserker will ambush Saber and kill him together with you. Any questions?”
You start to answer but your Servant gets there first.
Caster responds, frowning.
“First of all, the Saber class has Magic Resistance as a class skill. Even if we succeed in luring him out there’s a chance I won’t be able to keep him at arms length for long enough to reach the ambush site. Secondly, Saber’s Master is a magus of no small skill. He will undoubtedly move to support his Servant during the attack. Thirdly, I am not altogether convinced that a Berserker-class Servant will not simply ignore your orders and attack whatever is in front of it, friend or foe.”
Eudokia’s smile falters for a moment, but it quickly comes back, even more plastic than it was before.
“The issue of Magic Resistance is certainly a problem. I’m afraid there’s not much else to be done except to make sure you have a good head start. As for Lord Monmouth, I will have my cousins target him once he reaches the outskirts of the park. Lastly, please do not worry about Berserker.”
She folds her arms and shoots a challenging glance at Scathach.
“Our family has lived in Greece for generations, but my more ancient ancestors were Norsemen who served in the Varangian Guard. They were among the first to be admitted under Emperor Basil Boulgaroktonos, fearsome berserkers who aided him in his subjugation of Bulgaria. The secrets of the battle-wyrd are something we are quite familiar with. Please rest assured that Berserker will follow the instructions I give him.”
Caster pauses for a moment, considering Eudokia’s words, then leans in close and starts whispering in your ear.
“Master…I think there is a lot that could go wrong with this plan. Even if we assume everything goes as this woman predicts, Saber and Lord Monmouth are not fools. They will realize they are being drawn into an ambush as soon as we try to flee the park.”
“Are you suggesting we refuse to help?”
Caster looks around quickly, then turns back to you, her expression pensive.
“…No. Sooner or later this War will erupt into a violent clash. If we follow this plan then it means we are aware of when and where it will happen. We will be directing the flow of battle, if nothing else. And battle always carries an element of risk. I suggest we agree to the plan.”
You are keenly aware of Eudokia and her attendant’s eyes on you as Scathach finishes whispering. Eudokia closes one eye and leans back lazily, apparently unconcerned at your deliberations.
“…Very well. We will agree to this plan. However, I would like to discuss a few points of it in-depth before we –”
Rider’s head jerks up, then swings around to stare out to sea. He raises one gauntleted fist into the air, cutting you off.
“…My lady. There are many unknown entities closing in from the seafront. I count forty-three presences, with more crossing into my territory presently. Your orders?”
Eudokia’s smile vanishes. She stares at Irene’s Servant, then swings her gaze around to you, a questioning expression on her face.
“It’s not anything to do with us.”
You state, then turn to look at Caster. She looks puzzled.
“Presences? I don’t…”
Her features abruptly contort into an alarmed expression.
“Oh, no, I feel them now. But their positioning…it would mean…they’re underwater.”
“And rising up.”
Rider’s gravelly voice responds. He draws his sword and walks forwards, pushing past the semicircle of black-coats to interpose himself between them and the end of the pier. The water around the struts of the pier begins to churn and boil into a white frothy mass, and pale things begin to pull themselves up into its structure.
Eudokia folds her arms again and stands stock-still as her cousins draw in close around her. She throws another brief glance in your direction before turning to face the sea. Irene shrinks back, eyes darting around, clearly looking for something nice and solid to hide behind. In the midst of this atmosphere of tension, you decide to:
1. Remain here and fight. Doing so is risky but would prove your loyalty to Eudokia’s proposed alliance beyond doubt.
2. Retreat. There’s no sense in risking yourself; the deal has been concluded favorably and you plan on showing up in any case.
You dismiss the thought of retreating out of hand. Jeopardizing the alliance so soon after agreeing to it would be foolish in the extreme. Instead you brace yourself for whatever is about to attack the pier. You don’t have to wait long to find out.
A pale, slimy hand reaches over the guardrail at the end of the pier, slowly closes its fingers around it, then flexes, hauling its owner up and over. It collapses in a shivering heap for a moment before shuddering to its feet, drawing itself up to its full height and taking a step forwards.
The thing that stands at the end of the pier is roughly humanoid in shape. It has two arms, two legs, a chest, torso and a head, but that is where the similarities end. Its arms are far longer than a normal persons, reaching down so low that they almost drag along the wooden floor, and you count at least four joints from the shoulder downwards. Its legs are similarly long and oddly jointed, and its feet are tipped with vicious-looking talons that click and scrape as it walks. Its head is completely featureless apart from a single red pinprick in the middle of where a normal person’s forehead would be. Its body is a uniform translucent white.
The creature takes another step, talons rapping on the wooden floor of the pier, then throws its head back and explodes into motion, charging forwards with an odd rolling motion aided by its many jointed limbs. It makes no sound, loping forwards in dead silence.
Then Rider suddenly appears in front of it, his sword sweeping horizontally across the creature’s midriff. White particles explode everywhere as the thing is bisected at the waist, both halves writhing and thrashing as they tumble to the floor. They continue to move until Rider crushes the creature’s head under his armoured boot, at which point the whole thing collapses into a mound of white grains.
There is no time to celebrate however, because at that moment four more creatures identical to the first haul themselves over the end of the pier. Again they charge forwards, and again Rider moves to dispatch them, but this time one manages to slip through, Rider’s final stroke only managing to sever one arm. The wounded creature scampers forwards, ducks down low, then leaps twelve feet into the air, the talons on its feet aimed squarely at Eudokia’s neck.
Three balls of fire catch the thing in midair, charring its head and upper chest into a foul-smelling black mass. Three of Eudokia’s cousins lower their hands in unison, having protected their mistress from harm. The creature breaks apart before it hits the ground, scattering fine white pellets over you and everyone else. You reach out to brush the powder off yourself, then realize what it is.
“Salt. These things are made of salt.”
Scathach nods and braces her staff against the floor as dozens of the things begin to pour over the guardrails.
“Salt Elementals, Master. An enemy magus must be using seawater to create them. As long as he has prana to maintain them he’ll have an endless supply of soldiers to slowly grind us down.”
Caster grunts, then swings her staff at an Elemental attempting to sneak up on her. It catches the thing in the head, which explodes into white mist. Nearby Eudokia’s guards lay down a barrage of fire and wind, scattering any Elementals that get past Rider’s guard. The stocky Servant swings his blade methodically, as if cutting wheat, his every stroke bisecting or maiming one of the creatures.
“But surely this enemy can’t expect to take us out with just these things?”
You ask, lashing out with one hand formed into a claw at a legless Elemental. It scuttles forward on its unnaturally long arms, but your blow catches it full in the chest and it explodes into powder like its brethren.
“I doubt it!”
Caster yells back, dispatching three more Elementals with sharp, precise jabs to their heads.
“These are probably only a distraction! We should all retreat from here and conclude this meeting at a more defensible location!”
You growl and retreat back to Eudokia’s position, clawing at any Elementals who come too close. Her guards have formed a defensive ring around her but the sheer number of enemies is beginning to tell. As you hurry forwards you see one of her black-coats go down as an Elemental leaps onto him, slashing and tearing at his neck with serrated white talons, blood spraying over its translucent legs. Another black-coat throws out a hand and chants a sentence in an odd, lilting tongue, and a bar of green lightning flashes from his palm, blasting the bloodstained creature into particles.
Everyone slowly begins to fall back, giving ground until you reach the theme park area of the pier. You shuffle into the entry station for the ghost train, and Rider turns the entrance into a chokepoint, standing resolutely in the path of the Elementals, their claws bouncing harmlessly off his body as he hews them down. The station is closed off with thick wooden walls on either side topped by a ceiling with many exposed rafters, preventing the silent white killers from climbing over. You look around, trying to take stock of the situation, then realize that something’s missing.
“Hey…where did Irene go?”
Eudokia tsks and motions to one of her guards, who moves off into the shadows.
“Ugh, that little coward. Can’t believe I have to rely on such-”
Eudokia’s words are lost as an enormous crossbow bolt punches its way through the wooden wall just next to her, skewering one of her black-coats through the chest. He falls to the ground and convulses for a moment before lying still. Eudokia stumbles away, the residual air pressure from the impact knocking her into her circle of guardians. More bolts begin to hammer through the wall, each one knocking fist-sized chunks of wood out of the panels, the fragments turning into lethal splinters that rain down on everyone.
You shout, and Scathach throws out her left hand, the emerald-studded ring on her index finger suddenly glowing with energy. A thin square of yellowish-green light springs up just in front of the wall right as another bolt smashes its way through the increasingly flimsy wood. The bolt meets the shield…
…And stops dead, suspended in mid air, its tip resting against the crackling green surface of Caster’s shield. The wooden shrapnel from the wall hits the shield half a second later and are also instantly halted.
“My thanks, Apostle.”
Eudokia groans, slowly rising to her feet with the help of her cousins. A splinter has torn a shallow gash into her forehead, and the blood seeps down over the left side of her face. She glances at Scathach’s shield, then grimaces.
“Well this is…how do you English say it? Out of the frying pan, into the fire?”
Her words are punctuated with a series of cracks as three more bolts tear through the wall, the missiles halted harmlessly by Caster’s shield. Out of the corner of your eye you see one of the emeralds on her ring go dark. You nod and try to say something encouraging.
“Still, at least we have the measure of what our enemy can do-”
Four of Eudokia’s black-coats collapse without warning, gurgling and clutching at their necks. What can only be described as long, barbed needles protrude from their throats. You let out a yell of warning as something dark and indistinct moves in the rafters above, and more needles begin to rain down upon your group. One flies straight for your heart with inhuman speed, and you only barely manage to interpose your arm between it. The needle shreds its way through flesh, muscle and bone, almost completely passing through your outstretched arm before stopping inches from your chest.
Two more of Eudokia’s cousins go down before they can rally together. Gouts of flame and bursts of energy shoot up into the rafters, revealing a gaunt black figure wearing a grinning skull mask perched on one of the crossbeams. The Assassin effortlessly dodges the magic sent his way, leaping from beam to beam, swarming up the walls and crawling across the ceiling, black cloak billowing out behind him as he rains more barbed needles down on you.
Sensing the disorder behind him, Rider pulls back from the entrance and strides into the midst of the chaos. He raises his sword and begins to deflect the needles with the same smooth and efficient motions he used against the Elementals. The Elementals themselves begin to scrabble through the doorway, clambering over each other in their haste to get inside. You step forwards to meet them, yanking the needle out of your arm and hurling it at the advancing creatures, smiling with grim satisfaction as it impales two at once.
You wade into the fight, tearing into the advancing horde with your claws. But for every one you kill, two more step forwards to take its place, and some of the ones you maul continue to pull themselves forwards. Beside you Caster’s face is drawn into a grinning richtus of concentration, her shield now holding a dozen crossbow bolts and hundreds of splinters. The final emerald suddenly goes dim, and seconds later the bolts and splinters fall to the floor as the shield dies.
“Damn. They really got us.”
You growl, crushing an Elemental’s head even as it tears your stomach open with its talons. You risk another look back, but the situation doesn’t look good. Rider is busy fending off Assassin’s endless projectiles, you yourself are struggling to hold back the Elemental tide, Caster is now batting crossbow bolts out of the air with her bare hands, the serpent ring on her right hand shining with golden light, Irene has been missing since before the battle began, and Eudokia…
…Eudokia stands motionless, an island of calm seemingly untouched by the storm raging around her. Her eyes are little more than thin slits, her brow creased and folded as if deep in thought. Abruptly she breathes in, a long shuddering gasp as if she had just been burned. Her eyes widen to their fullest extent, and an ugly blue lattice spreads over her face, bulging, throbbing lines that cover her features and funnel down her neck to disappear beneath her clothing. She bares her teeth and raises her arms up high-
-And the wooden floor beneath the scuttling Elementals bulges and cracks upwards. Enormous hairy claws tear huge chunks away as a bear the size of a Humvee hauls itself up from beneath the floor, scattering the Elementals around it. Enormous muscles contract as the behemoth pulls itself into the station. Splinters cling to its pitch-black fur, and its eyes are pools of silver fire. Its head swings ponderously from side to side, testing the air, then it rears back on its hind legs, roaring furiously, revealing teeth as long as carving knives before charging forwards into the white horde.
The Elementals are crushed, broken and tossed aside as the bear smashes its way through them. Those that escape its huge bulk are seized in its massive jaws and shaken to pieces, and those that avoid that fate are obliterated by great swipes of its massive claws. In seconds the entire army of Elementals is gone, reduced to a thick carpet of salt covering half of the station’s floor.
The bear turns to face you, and you shiver involuntarily. The black-furred colossus bares its teeth and growls, then jerks its head upwards abruptly, eyes suddenly focused on the Assassin above. The masked Servant takes one look at the creature below it and flees, spidering its way up the wall and leaping out of one of the charred holes caused by Eudokia’s black-coats in their attempt to bring it down.
The bear roars and smashes its way through the wall, apparently intent on chasing Assassin off for good. Seconds pass, but no more Elementals appear and no more crossbow bolts pierce the wall of the building. Silence falls, save for the crackling rasp of several small scattered fires.
Eudokia breathes out slowly, and the ugly lines sink back into her face. You realize that she must have been using her special ability to turn her blood vessels into magic circuits – those lines were actually her veins. She wipes her hand across her face, then grimaces as she realizes she now has blood on her palm.
“Well. That went rather poorly, wouldn’t you say?”
She spits, bitterly looking around at the destruction around her. Nine of her black-coats are dead, with three more lying injured on the floor. Eudokia’s white coat is now stained with blood in dozens of places, but she doesn’t seem to be seriously injured.
“It looks like we aren’t the only ones allied with one another. Somehow they knew we’d be here, and planned their attack accordingly.”
You say carefully. Eudokia ‘s face darkens, all pretenses of civility gone.
“They’ll pay for this…”
She snarls, eyes wide with rage. A gauntleted hand clamps itself over her shoulder, and Rider’s armoured form emerges from behind her.
“My lady. Do not let rage overcome your senses. We lost much, but not everything. I advise sheathing your anger until Saber is dealt with. After that we can deal with whoever it was who attacked us this night.”
Eudokia swivels her head to look at Rider, eyes still wide. She stares at him for a moment, then closes her eyes and sighs. When she opens them again her face is serene, though just barely.
“…You are right, of course. Revenge can wait. For now.”
Caster walks over to you, her boots crunching on the piled salt. She quirks an eyebrow at you, as if to say ‘Well, that was interesting’. Thankfully Eudokia doesn’t seem to notice. Surveying the carnage around you, your thoughts drift to your next move. Where do you go from here? It would be safest to return to your hideout and wait until tomorrow, but is there anything else that you could do tonight to help your position in the War?
1. Enough is enough. Go back to the hideout and prepare for tomorrow. No sense in taking risks now.
2. Offer to escort Eudokia back to her own hideout. If she agrees you’ll learn where she is basing herself. Of course, she probably won’t stay there for long afterwards, but you never know what else you might discover on the way there…
3. Offer to look for Irene. She is the weak link in the Hellespont faction, and if you get to her now then it could make a later betrayal far easier.
---A Few Minutes Ago---
Irene stumbled through the darkened pier, running as fast as her short legs would carry her. The sounds of battle erupted behind her but she did not look back, fearing that if she did so she might not live to speak of it.
“This isn’t real, this isn’t real…”
Irene muttered under her breath, her vision clouding over with tears of sheer terror.
Why was she here? Why had she ever agreed to come to this cold, windy, wet country? That’s right, because Konstans had asked her to come with him. Konstans, who had asked for her help, who had told her that she could make something of herself, who had said that he needed someone to help him with his rituals and that her skill at Formalcraft would aid the Hellesponts in this enterprise. She thought of Konstans, who she had always looked up to, telling her that even her wretchedly degraded talents could finally be of some use.
She tried not to think of the last time she had seen Konstans, his sightless eyes staring at nothing in particular, pinned to the wall with an enormous barbed needle. She tried not to think of that disastrous attack on the Einzbern magus’s workshop that had left everyone but her dead, but the details kept forcing themselves into her mind.
It had been the Honoured Successor’s plan, to strike at another Master before the War even began. Konstans had led them into the place where the Einzbern was supposed to be, an abandoned building on the outskirts of the city. They had encountered no defenses on the way in, no familiars or Elementals guarding the entrance. They had penetrated the inner sanctum to find the silver-haired Einzbern dead, his body torn open, his face a bloody ruin that made her throw up at the sight of it, and on the floor a half-completed summoning circle.
Then all hell broke loose.
All she had seen was a black flicker out of the corner of her eye and then half the group was dead, impaled by those awful needles. Blood was everywhere, everyone was screaming, Konstans was trying to tell her something but she couldn’t take any of it in, then she was on the floor, the summoning circle only an arms length away. A strange sort of calm settled over her then, the kind of serenity that a cornered animal feels when it has nothing left to lose. Her hands didn’t shake at all as she completed the circle, placidly using the death of her friends and family as a cover to finish her work.
Then a bright light had enveloped everything, an armoured figure had stepped forth to drive the foul shadow away and everything went black. She had awoken back in the Honoured Successor’s headquarters, the tall and stocky Servant standing by her bedside. She later learned that the bodies of Konstans and the others had been removed and incinerated in case anyone else discovered the Einzbern workshop. She hadn’t even had the chance to say goodbye.
Now here she was, desperately running away, as if the Honoured Successor wouldn’t simply drag her back afterwards. She was a Master now, no longer a mere assistant but an active participant in the War. The thought of it made her want to burst into hysterical laughter. Her, a two-bit witch from Athens whose magic circuits could be counted on one hand, was a Master alongside the Honoured Successor. Surely it was a dream.
Irene kept running, past the ghost train and the roller-coasters and the other rides until she reached the line of maintenance sheds halfway along the pier. The narrow passages between them were dark and gloomy and full of deep shadows, and she half-expected something horrible to jump out at her at any moment.
Irene levered open the door to the nearest shed and dashed inside. She closed the door behind her and leant against it, breathing heavily. As her eyes adapted to the darkness the shapes of spare roller-coaster carts slowly emerged out of the shadows. She could hide here, hide away from the chaos and destruction and death. She could hide away from reality and hope that she awoke from the nightmare of her own existence.
---A Few Minutes Ago End---
A cursory glance around reveals that Irene is not in the immediate area. Since her Servant is still around and hasn’t raised any complaints it would seem she is still alive, but that doesn’t mean she’s safe.
“Ms. Hellespont. Irene still hasn’t returned. With your leave, Caster and I will look for her.”
Eudokia clicks her tongue irritably and turns away, slipping one hand inside her white coat.
“Do as you please. That girl has been nothing but trouble ever since she came back from…nevermind.”
Reaching into an inside pocket, Eudokia pulls out a small clear bottle full of oval-shaped white tablets. She shakes two out into her palm and swallows them without turning around.
“It’ll save me the trouble, at least. And when you find her, impress upon her the importance of not running off like a coward the moment trouble appears. We’ll be waiting at the front of the pier.”
Eudokia motions to her subordinates and they begin to gather up the dead and wounded before withdrawing from the station. Eudokia is the last to leave, flanked by two of what seem to be her most trusted guards.
“That woman isn’t going to get very far in this conflict.”
Caster mutters darkly after they’ve all gone. You raise an eyebrow questioningly.
“You think so? She seems fairly capable to me.”
Scathach exhales and slowly shakes her head.
“Eudokia is capable in her own way, but there are many flaws in her personality that make her unfit to lead. During the battle back there she never once took charge – we would still have been fighting out in the open if you hadn’t suggested we fall back. She treats her followers like disposable pawns and didn’t join in the fight until she absolutely had to even when it was clear we were quickly becoming outclassed. Her plan itself makes sense on paper but it hinges on a lot of variables turning out favourably for us.”
Your Servant frowns, her green eyes distant.
“Honestly, she reminds me of that damnable Medb - selfish and severe, with eyes bigger than her stomach. She’s good at giving orders but are those orders the right ones?”
Scathach pauses and regards you coolly.
“Of course, that’s just my impression from this one occasion. I could be mistaken.”
Her tone seems to indicate that she does not think she is, but you wave her off.
“Okay, but we have a more pressing concern here. We have to find Irene before Archer, Assassin or anyone else gets to her. With luck she just went and hid somewhere and didn’t run straight out of the pier.”
You begin to search for Irene, starting back at the end of the pier and then moving steadily back towards the entrance. The constant rain has washed most of the salt away, and by the time you leave there will be little evidence left of what went on here. The holes in the station wall and floor will probably be passed off as the work of drunken hooligans.
You are in the process of investigating the maintenance sheds past the roller-coaster when you finally find her. You try to push open one of the doors but your efforts meet with resistance, so you slam the door open with your supernatural strength. A strangled yelp accompanies your efforts and an indistinct figure is sent sprawling into the dark interior as the door bounces open.
You step over the threshold and pause for a moment. If you come in with Caster Irene might get the wrong impression. Your Servant apparently agrees since she stands off to one side, not following you into the building.
“Irene? Is that you?”
You call out, keeping your voice friendly. Your vision immediately adapts to the darkness and you see that it is indeed Irene.
“Wh-who is it? Is it a-all over?!”
Irene’s voice is shaking with fear, and she slowly begins to retreat further back into the shed. You hold up your hands and try to look nonthreatening, then take one step into the room.
“It’s me; Caster’s Master. Eudokia sent me to look for you.”
Irene freezes in place, and in the darkness you see her expression become downcast.
“The Honoured Successor…of course…”
She shivers and folds her arms around herself as if trying to keep out some imaginary chill.
“Of course…I knew…I wouldn’t be able to escape…so easily…”
Slowly, as if in a trance, Irene begins to walk forwards. Head bowed and feet dragging, she bears the look of someone whose spirit has been utterly broken.
You clench your teeth. There’s no way you could possibly rely on someone like her to stay calm in the middle of a battle between Servants. You realize with a cold certainty that she will break and run during tomorrow’s operation. If she runs off and dies or worse, gets captured, the entire plan will fail and you will likely be killed. You won’t let that happen.
You strike just as Irene begins to brush past you. You seize her by the shoulders and spin her around to face you. Before her look of shock can transform into fear you place one hand under her chin and force her to look you in the eye. Prana surges through you as you activate your Mystic Eyes of Suggestion. For one moment Irene tries to resist, but a magus of her caliber could never muster the power necessary to resist the eyes of a Dead Apostle. The look of surprise on her face slowly fades away, replaced with a blank, slack nothingness.
“Irene. Tomorrow you will be taking part in an important operation to remove Saber from the War.”
You begin, selecting your words carefully. Implanting suggestions can be tricky – if you tell her to do something that contradicts her basic nature it won’t work. The next part will hinge upon whether or not being a coward is part of Irene’s very being.
“During that time, you will not run away. You will find a reason within yourself to stay in the fight. You will remain where you are supposed to be and carry out the duties that are given to you. Do you understand what I have just told you?”
Irene nods slowly, eyes still blank. A whisper of prana plays over her as the command settles into her mind, hidden deep inside her brain until the time came for it to activate. You start to break the connection, but then hesitate. Despite her weakness Irene is an important asset for the Hellespont faction…and you can implant suggestions into her with absolute impunity. Why not add some more while you’re at it?
“In addition, you will answer some questions for me while you’re here. Firstly, what is the identity of Eudokia’s Servant? What is his true name?”
Irene answers in a slow, flat voice without any intonations.
“I don’t know. I have…never seen him.”
You shrug and continue.
“What is the identity of your Servant?”
“…I don’t know. I haven’t asked.”
You grit your teeth in frustration, but maintain eye contact.
“How many subordinates did Eudokia bring with her? How many cousins?”
“Twenty seven. Of those, seven are dead.”
Seven dead from before plus those who died tonight brings the total to sixteen dead. Plus three injured. That means Eudokia has only eight combat-capable followers at the moment, assuming one of those is Irene.
“I see. And where is Eudokia basing herself? Where is her workshop?”
“…Airport. Beneath the Terminal building.”
You feel like smiling and frowning at the same time. The Airport is very close to your own lair, which is both a good and bad thing.
“One last thing. If Eudokia should plan to betray me, and if the plan involves you, I want you to run away and take your Servant with you. Do not take any hostile action against me whatsoever. Do you understand what I have told you?”
“…Yes. I understand.”
Ideally you would have told her to kill Eudokia if she ever tried to betray you, but you doubt it would be in Irene’s nature to do such a thing. Even so, depriving her of one of her key assets is good enough. With everything done you deactivate the circuit in your eyes, cutting the connection. Irene slumps forwards bonelessly and you throw out an arm to catch her, then haul her over your shoulder and carry her out.
Caster looks at you questioningly as you exit the maintenance shed.
“Good news, Caster. We now have our very own Manchurian agent.”
You incline your head to indicate Irene’s unconscious body. For a moment Scathach looks confused, then the realization dawns on her. She raises a hand to her mouth and adopts a pose of exaggerated shock.
“Oh, how terrible of you, using such harsh persuasion a vulnerable young girl. No wonder you’re single. You have no idea how to treat a lady.”
Her expression becomes more serious.
“Honestly, it’s probably for the best. Eudokia practically deserves to have this happen to her since she was stupid enough to send a Dead Apostle with date-rape eyes out to fetch the most mentally weak of her followers.”
You smile in agreement before setting off towards the landward end of the pier. When you get there you find Eudokia’s subordinates loading their dead and injured into a procession of three black sedans. Despite the clearly unusual sight the few pedestrians mulling around take no notice – probably Eudokia’s work.
“We found her passed out in one of the sheds. Apoplexy brought on by fear, most likely.”
You say as you hand Irene’s limp form to one of the black-coats, who dutifully stashes her into one of the cars. You note with idle interest that Rider is sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Thank you for going to the trouble. By the way, did you run into Basil on the way? He’s the one I sent after her earlier. I forgot about him until he didn’t show up here.”
Eudokia inquires, staring thoughtfully back at the pier. You think back to your searches carefully, but you don’t recall seeing anyone else.
“Odd…Basil was always diligent. Perhaps he was killed? That would be irritating. He always gave me good advice.”
Her mouth twists in frustration.
“Well, if he is still alive he knows where to find me. Speaking of which, the meeting place before tomorrow’s operation is under the same overpass we’ll be using as our battleground. Be there at ten o’clock or I’ll consider the alliance annulled.”
Eudokia turns and swings herself into the lead sedan without waiting for you to respond. You step back as the convoy departs, Rider handling his car with such deftness it’s hard to believe he wasn’t born in one. All that’s left is you and Caster and an empty windswept pier.
“The pieces have been set.”
Caster mutters, eyeing the departing vehicles. The rain makes the silver sigils on her black armour shimmer and glint in the night air.
“But the rules have not been.”
You reply, following her gaze. Scathach chuckles dryly.
“That was terrible, Master. Never try to say anything cool ever again.”
You give your Servant a reproachful look before considering your next move. You want to be fully rested for tomorrow, so perhaps returning to the hideout would be a good idea. On the other hand, Archer is quickly becoming a problem. Judging by the direction of his shots he was sniping from the top of Blackpool Tower again, so perhaps you should investigate there to see if you can find any clues. Or maybe you could try and track Assassin down via runes – the most dangerous job, certainly, but it could pay large dividends. After much thought you decide to:
1. Pack it in for the night.
2. See if you can find out anything about Archer.
3. Try to track down Assassin.
Eudokia Hellespont laid back in the passenger seat of the sedan, her brow lowered in a solemn glower. She paid little attention to the streets flashing past, barely even noticing that she was already halfway back to her home base. The Greek magus had more important things to think about.
Like the headache that was slowly crushing its way through the inside of her skull.
A vein began to throb in Eudokia’s temple. She exhaled through her teeth and placed one palm against her forehead, but the pain refused to go away, hovering in the back of her head like one of those irritating ‘friends’ who just don’t get the message that you want nothing to do with them. It was an old pain, a pain she had felt many times before with varying intensities, a pain she was used to but still hated having to bear.
Using your blood vessels as makeshift circuits necessitated a certain degree of pain.
But at least it wasn’t as bad as the pain she had felt ten years ago. That time the physical pain had been mixed with another, worse kind of pain; the raw agony of betrayal. Eudokia could still recall the cold, cruel sensation of her brother’s knife plunging into her upper back, its pitiless steel tip seeking her heart.
She still bore the ugly scar where Nikeophorus had tried to murder her, an ugly line just below her left shoulder blade. But fate had not allowed her to die. Perhaps her brother had hesitated at the last second, or perhaps the knife had slipped aside as it carved through the layers of muscle, but either way Eudokia had survived. Survived to see her family tear itself apart. Aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters she had known and trusted all her life flocked to her brother’s side. Her own flesh who had treasonously tried to murder her, purely so he could have what was hers by right.
It had been a terrifying time. Eudokia had been seventeen when it happened, and all the magus training in the world could not have prepared her for the horrifying reality of her family’s civil war. Only a few branches sided with her over the traitor, and the opening months had been a gruelling time where everyone’s loyalties were suspect. Eudokia had learned to trust nobody but herself, to send unreliable or incompetent allies into dangerous situations to rid herself of their idiocy, to use her mental abilities to compel her enemies to fight for her and to always avenge any defeat she might suffer.
It had made her cold and cruel and distant, but by God it had worked. One by one the traitorous branches were hewn down until only her brother remained. Eudokia’s expression softened slightly, and she smiled faintly as she remembered crushing Nikeophorus’s mind with her thaumaturgy, driving white-hot pokers of agony into his pain receptors until he died of heart failure. It was a pittance compared with what he had inflicted upon her, but it had made her feel ever so slightly better.
Four years of fighting and a sea of ruined branches had left Eudokia with only one conclusion; her family’s system didn’t work. For hundreds of years it had allowed for exponential leaps in magical research, but it had only taken one dispute to erase nearly all of it. Even those branches that had remained loyal to her throughout might one day regret their decision and turn on her as well.
She had two options. Strike first and nip the potential traitors in the bud, or prove herself so obviously superior to them that the thought of challenging her would be the most ridiculous thing ever.
“With the Grail War, I could do both at the same time…”
Eudokia murmured unconsciously.
She had gone through the Hellespont family records and dredged up every possible lineage available and brought them with her to Blackpool. A pitiful bunch, all said, but it gave her a good excuse to get rid of them all and have plausible deniability. And if they survived they would bear witness to her victory and confirmation as the true successor to the whole family.
Eudokia shifted in her seat, turning to look at the armoured figure driving the car. Though he had never driven a modern vehicle in his life the Servant handled the steering wheel, gearstick and peddles like a professional, weaving in and out of traffic with little effort. His Riding skill was a useful one, and Eudokia found herself thinking about how it could be used to her advantage.
Of course, any such plans would have to take her weakest cousin into account. Eudokia’s lip curled at the thought of Irene, at how she would probably ruin everything with her cowardly ways. She was exactly the sort of person Eudokia wanted to get rid of, but somehow the little rat had weaselled her way into the Grail War as a Master rather than a disposable tool. No doubt her lack of talent was holding her Servant back and one of her other cousins would make a better Master for him. At some point Eudokia would have to do something about that.
The car pulled into the airport, rolling smoothly past the terminal building and into the multi-storey car park opposite. Though she would never admit it to herself Eudokia felt a slight tingling of relief that she was back inside her own territory. The meeting had been an absolute disaster but at least the Apostle seemed willing to help, staying behind even when running would have been the more sensible option. Perhaps she could find a further use for him after Saber’s defeat. She would have to kill him eventually, of course, but for now he had proven a more reliable ally than Irene.
The sedan came to a halt near a maintenance door set into the concrete wall of the car park. The other cars in the convoy rolled to a stop behind it and Eudokia’s followers began piling out, carrying their dead and wounded with them. Eudokia paid them little heed, swinging herself out of the car and marching over to the door without so much as a glance over her shoulder. Placing both hands against the door, the Greek magus muttered a sentence in her native tongue.
The coiled magical energies within the door drew back at her words, slinking into the concrete around the door. The metal door slid inwards on creaking hinges, revealing a dark corridor stretching off into the distance beyond. If anyone else with magical talent had tried to open the door the spell would have triggered an intense mental assault that would most likely leave the potential intruder a drooling vegetable.
Eudokia passed through the door and past several other similar defensive measures. Other doors split off from the main corridor, opening out onto living chambers and storage spaces, but Eudokia wasn’t interested in those. She kept walking straight down the corridor until she reached its end. A stone staircase plunged down into deeper darkness there, and she steadily began to descend. Every so often she would come to a landing, similar to those found in normal car parks, but she kept descending until she reached the very bottom.
Eudokia’s echoing footsteps suddenly came to a dead halt as she reached her objective; an enormous metal door set into the rock wall. Nine feet tall by the same wide, the door was peppered with locks, chains, bars and other things designed to keep it shut. It looked like the sort of door one would expect to see in a nuclear shelter, only stronger. Eudokia placed one hand against the cold, flat surface of the door.
A cacophony of clicks, clanks and the grinding of gears sounded out as the door unlocked itself, then slowly swung open to reveal a small square chamber beyond. All that was required to open the door was the touch of a human being. There was no need for defensive mechanisms here; the door was meant to keep its occupant in, not other people out.
The interior chamber was a work of art. The walls, floors and ceiling were covered in angular Norse runes, the smallest less than a centimetre, the largest over two metres long. They pulsed with a sullen blue light, alternately illuminating the chamber and then plunging it into utter darkness.
Seated in the middle was a figure. He was cross-legged, his huge arms tightly folded across a broad chest so thick with muscle that it seemed they might burst from his skin at any moment. His skin was an odd black-bronze, swarthy and scarred with the weight of many battles. His hair was mat black, as was his enormous shaggy beard, and his savage face was drawn back in a silent snarl. Despite that the figure remained completely motionless, never moving an inch even when Eudokia walked into the chamber and stepped right up next to him. The handle of a broad-bladed battle axe was thrust upwards from behind his right shoulder, its blade bedecked with similar runes to the ones that dotted the walls, though these were dull and without illumination.
“Soon we will have to put you to good use, Berserker.”
Eudokia murmured, slowly making a circuit of the room. She had tested his power once already, and it had proven difficult to control, but not impossible. The runes on the walls would keep him docile for as long as he stayed inside, but she would have to personally exert control over him in order to utilize his Noble Phantasm. She would have to Redline herself in order to overcome the savage fury that permeated the very fabric of his being.
Still, events would proceed according to her plan. She had survived her family’s civil war, and she would survive this war as well. Survive, and prove once and for all who the true successor of the Hellesponts really was.
You decide that the best course of action now is to return home and rest until tomorrow’s operation begins. Chasing after Archer or Assassin would be foolhardy in your weakened state, and both have shown themselves to be experts at setting up ambushes. Returning home now would be the safest thing to do. You say as much to Scathach, who nods in agreement.
The journey back is uneventful. The streets of Blackpool are still relatively empty, and nobody challenges you on the way home. Your Dead have finished hunting for the night, and the strength you draw from them is enough to keep your senses sharpened to their fullest extent. Certain that nobody has tried to follow you, you cross the industrial estate and return to your lair.
A bizarre apparition reveals itself as you open the door. Within the triangular ritual site Scathach set up yesterday now floats a twisting, swirling piece of modern art. Threads of silver and gold rotate lazily around a central core of sparkling gemstones, weaving and twisting themselves into complex patterns. Pearls orbit the strange formation like miniature moons around a galaxy of glistening strands. The whole thing hovers five feet above the ground, slowly rotating over a pile of reddish-brown particles.
“Ah, it’s nearly done.”
Scathach pushes past you and strides over to the ritual site. She examines the strange apparition for a moment, then nods approvingly.
“The materials have unravelled nicely. Once the rest arrives it shouldn’t take too long to create something usable.”
“Unravelled? What do you mean?”
Caster cocks an eyebrow.
“The metals, of course. Gold, silver and other noble metals conduct magic well, but most of what you got for me wasn’t pure enough.”
She stabs a finger towards the rust-coloured pile on the floor.
“I had to get rid of the impurities. Copper, palladium, nickel…even a tiny fragment can cause problems later on.”
She raises her hand and indicates the cluster of gemstones sparkling in the center.
“Jewels, on the other hand, are good at storing magic. I separated them out for later use. In some cases you can carve runes onto them, too.”
You pull your eyes away from the spinning creation and pull the door shut behind you.
“Do you have anything specific in mind? For the weapon, I mean.”
Your Servant looks pensive.
“I have a few ideas. Though I won’t be able to create anything like Gae Bolg again, I do like the idea of a cursed weapon. But it won’t be ready before tomorrow night, so for now I’ll get to work on a few disposable tools.”
Caster turns away and strides off into the depths of the workshop. You eye the floating piece of modern art for a moment longer before following her. After a few hours of memorizing spells, making sure that all of your familiars are up to standard and practicing your shapeshifting you decide to rest up. You slump down against your usual pillar and close your eyes…
---Intermission – The Second Dream---
Once again the dream takes shape.
The picture snaps into focus inside a room lined with stone on all sides – the inside of Scathach’s fortress in the Land of Shadows. Flickering candles on the walls are the only source of light, the flickering fires revealing Blonde-haired Aife resting on a crude bed of straw. The woman is clearly in labour; sweat beads her brow, and her ragged breathing echoes around the dark chamber. Scathach and her daughter are also there, each with a hand on Aife’s shoulders, doing their best to help with what looks like a rather difficult birth.
The image blurs, and suddenly you are in a different room, where Scathach is sparring with a young child. Well, it’s not really ‘sparring’. The witch repeatedly disarms her young opponent, never even taking one step back, whilst the boy keeps swinging his own weapon headlong into obvious feints and traps. Despite this he refuses to give up, picking himself up off the floor and charging back into the fray. The room is as dark as the previous one, but you can clearly see the resemblance between the child and his father Cu Chulainn. With a strangled cry the youth finally manages to lock swords with his teacher for more than a few seconds, and Scathach smiles approvingly.
Scathach’s grin abruptly vanishes as the image blurs again. When it returns she is standing on the roof of one of the towers of her fortress, staring out to sea. Her face is blank, but you sense a deep sadness welling up inside her. She clutches a crumpled letter in one hand, the spidery scrawl covering it bringing news of the death of Fergus at the hands of Cu Chulainn. The two friends, her greatest and most talented students, had been forced to fight to the death over a matter of honour worth far less than their friendship.
Suddenly a second person climbs the ladder leading up to Scathach’s perch, and a fair-haired young man hauls himself up beside her. The witch’s thoughts slowly begin to brighten once more as she regards her latest student. Cu Chulainn being forced to kill his truest friend was a grave tragedy, but Scathach would do her utmost to ensure that his son Connla was strong enough to face any peril that might stand between himself and his father. He was already almost his sire’s equal in combat, and it would not be long before he was ready to wear the ring of gold left for him and venture out into the world.
The dream shifts again. A thundering explosion of anger and sorrow tears into you as the scene resolves itself; Scathach and her daughter trying to console a weeping, shrieking Aife. All semblance of dignity and nobility is gone from her, leaving behind only a shell of naked, primal agony. Scathach’s face is ashen as she tries to stop her former rival from tearing at her own face, the missive bringing news of Connla’s death lying in tatters on the floor behind her.
“Why?” Her expression seems to say, “Why did things turn out like this?” She had taught her young charge all she knew to keep him safe, to ensure that he would be able to meet his father despite the dangers of the Irish mainland. But that training had been the cause of his demise, as her student had stirred up trouble in Ulster, forcing Cu Chulainn to intervene. Connla’s oaths meant he could not reveal his name, and his great skill at arms forced his father to unleash Gae Bolg upon him. The spear that Scathach had given Cu Chulainn as a gift and proof of his future heroism instead took the lives of all he held dear.
The scene vanishes before you can see or feel any more, and when it returns Scathach is alone once more. She wanders aimlessly through her fortress of rock and stone, ambling along with no particular destination in mind. News of Cu Chulainn’s death reached her yesterday. All her dreams and high hopes for the children of Ulster and Connacht had been dashed with the unsealing of that fateful message.
Scathach is alone on the island. She has had no more students since Connla’s departure so long ago. Aife died shortly after news of her son’s death arrived. Her daughter left seeking fame and fortune in Scotland about a year ago, and the witch had heard nothing from her since. She was entirely alone, with only the crashing of waves and the peals of distant thunder for company.
Years pass, but no more warriors come to her island. The Land of Shadows begins to drift away from reality, becoming a cursed realm neither in the world of the living nor the land of the dead. It is a place where only Scathach is allowed to exist, alone and cut off from the rest of the world. Her knowledge and power are too great, her influence on the course of history too prolific, her existence too heavy to be permitted to die as a normal human. In the end she was unable to even take her own life.
Eventually she fades away, her very being becoming a concept, a part of the world itself. Her soul is pulled into the Throne of Heroes where it rests forever in perpetual stasis. Scathach’s entire being rests there, perfectly preserved, an eternal record of her life. And with it lies her one true regret – that she had failed all of those who had learned from her, outliving all of them despite being the cause of their demise. That she had not been allowed to die as a normal person, as a result of her own errors.
The dream cracks, splinters, then tears apart like wet tissue paper in a blender.
---Intermission – End of The Second Dream---
You slowly open your eyes. The workshop snaps into focus, the four pillars and vaulted ceiling now seeming positively familiar. You don’t see Scathach anywhere, although if this dream was anything like the other than she must woken at the same time as you. You lever yourself up off the floor and give yourself a brief dusting down before stepping out from behind the pillar.
Scathach is hunched over one of the four desks in the middle of the room. As you watch she straightens up, holding a gleaming object up to the light. It looks like a long, thin needle shot through with smooth, round bumps every few centimetres, and it takes you a few seconds to realize that the shapes are actually pearls. The needle is made of what looks like copper.
Your Servant recites a phrase in Celtic. At her words miniscule runes etched into the pearls glow briefly before disappearing. She nods approvingly before lowering the strange implement to the table, where she places it next to a line of similar items.
“So, you’re awake.”
She says without turning around. You stand still for a moment, then shrug inwardly and walk forwards.
“I’m up. Uh, about-”
Caster straightens up and turns around to face you. Her face is a carefully sculpted picture of calmness.
“I can guess what you want to talk about. But it’s not the sort of thing we should be discussing right now. We can talk about the past after we’ve concluded what we have planned for the present…right?”
Scathach looks calm, but you can sense a layer of tension beneath her placid visage. She really doesn’t want to discuss her personal life when there are far more important matters to attend to. Well, that suits you just fine.
“Of course. It looks like you already have a strategy in mind.”
You indicate the row of odd needles neatly laid out along the desk. The tension drains from Caster’s body as she tilts her head to look at her handiwork.
“Something like that.”
She picks up one of the needles and examines it carefully.
“These things won’t be much use in a serious fight, but used if used correctly they might buy me a few seconds to escape. I also have a few other tricks.”
Your Servant steps away from the desk, allowing you to see more of what she’s been working on. Several copies of the rings she used yesterday are laid out on its surface, as well as a number of flat silver plates with several runes inscribed along the circumference and one large one embossed into the middle. You only recognise the big one; Ansuz, the rune of fire.
“If our only job is to bait Saber then these implements will give us a good chance of surviving.”
She looks at you seriously.
“Even so, please do not hesitate to use a Command Seal if it looks like things are about to go wrong. If Saber’s Magic Resistance is too high then this plan will die in the womb. We’ll be facing the strongest Servant and the strongest Master together. I’ve made my preparations, and I urge you to do the same.”
Scathach makes a good point. She’s prepared herself to the best of her abilities, so you should probably do likewise. You should probably:
1. Not hold back. Summon all your Dead to the battleground and consume all of your raven familiars for strength. This is going to be a bloody battle no matter what happens, so fully committing yourself is the right course of action.
2. Be more cautious. Take half of your Dead with you in case you need a distraction and disperse your ravens above the battlefield for reconnaissance purposes.
3. Don’t take anything because you’re doing a low-level run or something.
Without further deliberation you stride over to the cages that hold your raven familiars. You lever open the doors to the first and reach inside, grasping the animal by the scruff of its feathery neck. The magic circuits you implanted within it long ago begin to pulse and heat up at your touch, and you will them to return to you, to become a part of you once again. The bird makes no sound as its jet black body begins to deform and deflate. Its shape loses its solidity and collapses into a lumpy, liquid mass that burrows into the flesh of your arm, worming its way under your skin. Without waiting for the raven to fully assimilate you grasp two more of the birds and repeat the process.
You feel the effects immediately. The world takes on a slightly reddish hue and suddenly you can see and hear everything that moves with perfect clarity. You can hear the slight clicking sound of the links in Caster’s necklace, and the whisper-soft heartbeat of the final raven. Your eyes can pick out the individual fibres on its feathers, can see the tiny mites that crawl along them. At the same time you send your will questing out to each of your Dead. You select the five closest to the meeting point and compel them towards it. Enough for a distraction or a diversion, but not so many that you lose your main source of sustenance should all of them perish.
You unhook the door to your last familiar’s cage and allow the bird to hop out onto your wrist. This last familiar will be your lookout, circling above you at all times and alerting you should a anything not go according to plan. After a final check to make sure everything is prepared both you and Caster leave the building, striding out into the cold, rainy night towards the meeting place.
The monolithic edifice of the Blackpool overpass looms overhead as you stride between the enormous concrete pillars supporting it. With your enhanced hearing you can pick up the sound of traffic up above, although there isn’t much of it this late at night. The underside of it is a wasteland of junk, with rusting shopping trolleys, mildew-encrusted old crates and the battered remains of an old Ford Focus with the words ‘For Sale’ displayed in fading letters below the windscreen. To one side lies an odd little house constructed out of bits of discarded wood and corrugated iron, probably built by the homeless.
You stride out from behind another pillar and the Hellespont detail emerges from the shadows. Eudokia stands at the front, this time wearing a dark grey overcoat. Irene hovers behind her, expression surprisingly resolute. It looks like your suggestion did the trick after all. There is no sign of Rider or Berserker, but all eight of Eudokia’s remaining followers flank her on either side.
“Glad you could join us.
Eudokia smiles, though her eyes remain cold. She spreads her arms to indicate the surrounding area.
“This is where we will spring the trap. I have made sure the area is clear of any witnesses. Lure Saber here and my Servants will strike at him. Hammer and Anvil.”
You nod slowly.
“That sounds fine, but…getting him here will be the hard part.”
Eudokia inclines her head in assent.
“True. Therefore I will be providing you with reinforcements.”
She indicates the eight black-cloaks standing around.
“My cousins will accompany you. Should matters degenerate to the point where the plan becomes unfeasible, send one back to inform me and we will retreat to fight another day.”
You peer at Eudokia’s cousins. They look to be a tough bunch, stony faced men and women who all possess at least average magical talent. You nod again, more firmly this time.
“Alright. Where will you be, then?”
Eudokia points. You follow her finger to the roof of a building just outside the cavernous space below the overpass.
“I will be observing the battle from over there. Irene will be over there-”
She points to another building, further away from the first.
“-awaiting further instructions.”
You pause to think and run through what might happen, but quickly realise that it’s fruitless. This plan will either work or it won’t, so you may as well get on with it.
“Alright. If there’s nothing else, my Servant and I will depart for Stanley Park. With luck we will be back here soon.”
Eudokia shuts her eyes, and for a second a look of fatigue passes over her, but it vanishes as soon as she opens them again.
“Very well. Good fortune, Apostle. We will await your successful return.”
Your journey towards the park is uneventful. It’s a straight line down South Park Drive to the playing fields that border the park. The field is surrounded by a wrought iron fence about nine feet high all the way around, with an old-style metal gate barring access. Past the gate lies a small triangular area with fountains, a small play area for children and several food stands, all currently shut. Beyond them lies a second, larger gate into the field itself, with a large gravel path leading between them.
Neither the fence nor the gate present an obstacle. You and Scathach simply vault over it, whilst the black-coats clamber up and over, landing right behind you in a spray of gravel. Scathach looks around interestedly, then pulls out one of the metal plates you saw her working on earlier.
“Hm. This looks like a good spot.”
She walks forwards, crouches down, then buries the glinting object under the gravel. She repeats this process a half dozen more times, burying the metal plates seemingly at random along the gravel path leading up to the second gate.
“What’re you doing?”
You ask, catching up just as she buries the last plate. Scathach smiles tightly.
“Giving myself some future breathing space.”
Straightening up, she turns to look out over the playing field. It’s dark, but your enhanced vision picks up the spray-painted white lines of a football pitch in the distance. There are no magical defences within the field, though, and you soon cross over to the border to the Italian Gardens. You are blocked off from the main garden by an enormous hedge that pulses with magical energy. Bounded Fields are layered upon Bounded Fields, each one crisscrossing and intersecting with the next to form an impenetrable wall.
“Here is where Monmouth’s defences start.”
One of the black-cloaks whispers, scanning the hedge with his eyes.
“The fields attack anyone who steps into them without exception. Monmouth’s apprentices make sure they are maintained and check their integrity every few hours. There are also probably even more defences beyond what we can detect here.”
Scathach pushes past the black-coat and examines the barrier of plant matter in front of you.
“The defences are quite capable, but I’m confident I can take them all down. Give me a moment.”
Your Servant places her palms against the tangled, twisted branches of the hedgerow and slowly pushes them in. For a moment nothing happens, but then a ripple passes through the entire hedge. You feel the Bounded Fields begin to resonate with one another, shifting out of alignment until they no longer support one another but instead begin to cancel each other out. In just under a minute the entire network is completely gone, the last two fields winking out of existence at exactly the same time.
The black-coats look on in awe as Caster mutters a word and the hedgerow parts, splitting down the middle and pulling itself back to form a hole just wide enough for a grown man to slip through. She flashes everyone a leonine smile before darting through, and you scramble forwards to follow her. On the other side lies a bizarre sight – a clearing roughly a hundred metres in diameter, inside which lies a small nineteenth-century style mansion. Lights are on in some of the windows, and you can see small figures moving around inside.
“Well now. This certainly is impressive.”
Caster remarks, staring at the house with unbridled curiosity. She turns to face you, her face framed half in shadow.
“Can you feel it? The whole house was made with magic. Every brick is impregnated with it. They must have flattened everything that was here previously in order to construct it all.”
She shakes her head, admiration and worry warring on her face.
“There’s no way he can maintain it for long, though. Sooner or later it will collapse back into the gardens and everything will revert back to the way it was before. Still, it is very impressive. It will take a great deal of force to put a dent in it.”
You fold your arms and stare at the house. The hum of magic surrounds it like a buzzing cloud. Compared to George Robertson’s headquarters this place is an order of magnitude stronger and more resistant to damage, despite its inferior position away from the leyline.
“Do you have any ideas?”
You ask, probing for any weaknesses in the house’s design. You quickly come up empty.
“…Yes. As I see it, we have three options.”
Scathach holds up three fingers, then lowers one.
“Our first option is to stealthily disable the fields protecting the house, then have everyone infiltrate the interior and do as much damage as possible to draw out our targets. It will be slow going, but we probably won’t be discovered until we’re ready and overall it’s the least expensive option in terms of resources.”
The witch lowers another finger.
“Second, we could simply destroy the building with raw power.”
She points up at the sky.
“We use the power of the storm to rain lightning down on the house. The destruction will be immense and we may succeed in killing our targets outright. However, doing so will drain the storm of its energy and cause it to dissipate quickly, and the ritual will definitely be detected by those inside.”
Scathach lowers her last finger.
“Lastly, I can use runes to greatly hasten the collapse of the magical field keeping the house stable. Honestly…there’s no telling what might happen if we do that. It would draw Saber out, but an uncontrolled collapse might do strange things to the surrounding area. That might work to our advantage or make things more difficult.”
Her mouth twists into a grimace.
“I leave the decision up to you, Master. I have no real preference.”
You think about your choices for a moment. Each carries a certain amount of risk, but in the end you decide to:
1. Go in quietly. Disable as much of the security as you can, then go in and cause as much destruction as possible from the inside.
2. Blow it all up. The strongest pairing calls for the strongest possible response.
3. Unpick Monmouth’s magic field, then beat a fighting retreat after the dust settles.
You look up at the black storm clouds billowing out overhead. The power contained within them might be useful at some other time, but not at the moment. It’s not worth alerting Monmouth to your presence when it could mean Saber charging out and killing you all before you can get the spell off. You turn to look at Caster.
“Collapse the spells maintaining the house. It seems like the safest option.”
Scathach nods slowly, her expression neutral.
“Very well. I recommend we all get back, though. We won’t alert our enemies, but there’s no telling what side effects the unravelling might have.”
The black-coats have already withdrawn back to the edge of the area, placing their backs flush against the encircling hedgerow. You step back and do likewise, leaving your Servant to do her work. She draws a few lines in the dirt with her staff, then begins to chant in a low, guttural tongue. A clammy coldness falls over the area, and the raindrops begin to turn into slushy blobs halfway between water and ice.
You feel Caster slowly gathering the magical ties that keep the house from collapsing, the tethers that anchor its foundations to reality. Each one contains enough magical energy to kill a man should it be handled carelessly, yet your Servant seizes dozens of them in fists of prana, gathering them up like so many strands of string. You peer through the slimy not-quite-hailstones at the house, but as far as you can tell no one inside has noticed.
After less than half a minute Caster grabs the last tether. She slams her staff into the ground, kicking up a small spray of mud, then makes a cutting motion with her right hand. Every one of the threads breaks at once, the severed ends whipping around like berserking serpents and bleeding ethereal clouds of prana into the atmosphere. The image of the house ripples and distorts. The walls and roof begin to bend, bulging outwards like an overly inflated balloon.
Throughout the house shouts of alarm and distress begin to arise, and you feel a powerful force reach out and try to tie the tethers back together, but Caster beats it back contemptuously. With a sound like fabric tearing the entire western half of the building explodes outwards. Dark green coils flow out of the opening, arcing high into the air before burrowing down into the muddy soil, throwing up plumes of soggy dirt. The hedges, rose beds and trees displaced by the house spring back into reality with a vengeance, tearing through the roof, walls, windows and front door before embedding themselves in the ground once more. Finally the ruined house collapses in on itself, shattering into confetti-sized fragments that fade away into nothingness as reality asserts itself over Monmouth’s magic.
The writhing plant matter shudders, spasms, then halts. After a few moments everything inside the clearing is back to how it was before Monmouth set his base up there. Waist-high hedgerows form a neat little path through rose beds, lavender bushes and other flowers whose names escape you. In the centre of the garden stands a blue-white half dome of translucent ice. Deep scratches and pockmarks mar its otherwise smooth surface, and your enhanced eyesight picks out shadowy figures moving around inside. A hairline crack appears in the ice facing your group. It widens with a slithering snap, and more fractures begin to spiderweb their way across the dome’s pearly surface.
The dome explodes outwards with a reverberating thump, sending viciously sharp fragments of ice hurtling towards you. Caster raises her hand, five of the special shield rings glinting on her fingers, halting the frigid shrapnel before it can harm you. The black-coats deploy their own shields, deflecting or disintegrating the fragments harmlessly.
A cluster of people emerge from the shattered remnants of the icy shelter. Five young men and women have the look of apprentices about them, and one of those is a bloody wreck held up by two of his fellows. Lord Monmouth himself stands slightly ahead of them, his crystalline gloves still glowing faintly with power. In his right hand he holds a short silver sceptre capped with a greenish-blue orb. He shoots calculating glances at every one of you, his gaze lingering slightly on Caster.
Beside him stands Saber, clad once more in silver armour, sword held in the guard position. His craggy features are set in a fierce grin, and his lion’s mane of red hair gives him the appearance of a lean and hungry predator.
“Hoho…you certainly are audacious. I admire your bravery in coming here, but surely you must understand how foolish it is. Master, with your leave?”
He raises his sword and points it at Caster, who braces her staff against the floor. Monmouth hesitates for a moment, then nods.
Saber explodes into motion, leaping over the hedges and flower beds between Monmouth and your group in a single bound. His blade sweeps down to cleave Scathach’s neck from her shoulders, a blurring line of pearly white steel that parts the air like a thunderbolt. Quicker than even your enhanced senses can track, Caster raises her left hand and deploys her shields. Saber’s sword meets the ethereal barrier with an explosion of white noise, the blade striking multicoloured sparks from the sizzling surface.
The barrier begins to flicker and fade, but your Servant pays it no mind. She draws back her other hand, balls it into a fist, then drops her shield and lashes out at Saber’s midriff. The rings of power on her fingers shed an intense silver light as her fist smashes through her opponent’s plate armour. Saber’s look of confident superiority instantly turns to shock as your Servant hooks her fingers around the hole in his breastplate, then spins on her heel and throws him bodily into the tall hedge surrounding the garden.
Saber hits the hedge like a red and silver missile, his body impacting explosively against the scraggy leaves and branches. He tries to get up, but Caster blurs next to him, lashing out with a bone-shattering kick. Branches rip and tear as the red-haired man is driven through the hedge and out the other side. Your Servant glances at you briefly before sprinting through after him.
Lord Monmouth looks blankly at the hole in the hedge for a moment, then shakes his head slightly and turns to face you.
“Hngh. I didn’t expect to be attacked so soon.”
He runs a hand through his iron-grey hair, the thin gloves covering his hands rasping slightly.
“It took a great deal of effort to trick the world into believing my house had always been here. I will have to pay you back for undoing all my hard work in full.”
He raises the sceptre into the air-
And the world immediately explodes. Innumerable lances of highly compressed rainwater slice into your group, finger-thin beams gouging out huge chunks of soil and tearing effortlessly through the hedge behind you. Instinctively you leap backwards, your jump taking you back over the black-coats and onto the ruined top of the main hedgerow. As you fly back you see funnels of rainwater cascading into fat spheres that hover twenty metres overhead, each one supporting one of the high-pressure beams.
Below you see one of the black-coats, a hard-faced older man with sandy blonde hair, go down screaming, his body nearly bisected at the waist by one of the beams. The majority manage to shield themselves in time, but the highly pressurized lances explode into stinging particles wherever they strike them, throwing up a fine mist and making it difficult to see. On your lofty perch you see two of Monmouth’s apprentices sidling around the edge of the garden, stealthily approaching your team from the side.
The black-coats are just barely holding on; an attack from the flanks would be catastrophic. You spare them one last glance before swinging down from the top of the hedge and clawing your way along the side. Neither Monmouth nor the apprentices notice you until it’s too late, the latter far too focused on maintaining his assault to see the peril his subordinates are in.
With a mighty push you launch yourself off the hedge at the lead apprentice. You land in front of him with a jarring thud, your hands forming into claws and ripping into his chest before he can even register surprise at your sudden appearance. A few paces behind him the other apprentice cries out in alarm, but his companion’s warning comes too late. A fountain of blood erupts from the puncture wounds in his upper body, staining his decorative uniform a deep crimson. The apprentice looks mildly confused for a moment, then collapses against you, his body twitching as his life fades away.
The other apprentice, a young woman who looks to be in her early twenties, snarls with rage and raises her hand, and flickering purple energies gather in her palm. Her spell goes off like a firecracker, a ravening blast of violet light that springs from her hand and leaps across the ground before coiling in on itself and whipping out to strike at you. In one motion you grasp the dying apprentice’s shoulders and spin him around, placing him squarely in the line of fire. The twisting column of energy punches into the middle of his chest, blowing open a charred circular hole just to the right of his heart. A small amount of residual energy washes over you, but it does little more than singe your clothing.
The second apprentice prepares for another attack, but you aren’t going to let her do it. You take one step forwards and hurl your impromptu shield at the girl. The dead body soars through the air, limbs spinning out at odd angles to strike the apprentice in the head, snapping her neck back and knocking her to the ground. You started sprinting forwards immediately after ending the throw, and in no time at all you reach the downed woman. You draw back your arm to strike, then stop. The twisted neck and the glazed, sightless eyes tell you everything you need to know.
Behind you some of the black-coats have become confident enough to attempt to fight back. Flickering gouts of fire, needles of crackling white energy and small thumps of exploding earth fill the air between them and Monmouth, but every one is intercepted and smothered out by a wall of fog that the aged Lord directs with his free hand. Suddenly Monmouth snaps his fingers and the fog erupts into a billowing cloud of scalding steam that descends upon the black-coats. The superheated cloud washes over them, billowing over their shields and prompting a chorus of pained yells as the hot vapour roasts any exposed flesh.
You grit your teeth. The steam won’t be enough to kill, but it will make it nearly impossible to drum up the concentration needed to cast spells. If things keep going as they are Monmouth will destroy the black-coats within the minute. What can you do to tip the balance? Is there anything you can do to turn the tables and put your opponent on the back foot?
1. Order your forces to retreat. Fighting in this enclosed space is letting Monmouth dictate the rules of the battlefield. By falling back you make him come to you and might be able to regain the initiative.
2. Attack Monmouth now whilst he’s focusing on the black-cloaks. He doesn’t seem to have noticed you take out his apprentices, and you may never get another chance to take him by surprise.
3. Use a Command Seal to summon Caster back and have her neutralize Monmouth’s magecraft.
Monmouth has you all at a disadvantage. In this enclosed space he can easily keep you on the defensive and wear you all down at his leisure. You have to get outside and into a more open area where your mobility isn’t hindered. Plus, this is a delaying action, so you want to keep Monmouth busy for as long as possible and not give him a reason to summon Saber back to deal with the lot of you.
First, you’ll need to disrupt his attack a little. You crouch down, then thrust both hands into the muddy earth at your feet. You sink your wrists into the soft, wet soil and begin to chant, quietly so Monmouth doesn’t notice you.
“Terra, Terram, Terrarum, Terra, Terram, Terrarum…”
Your shoddy Latin, meaningless under most normal circumstances, now aids you in your self-hypnosis. You feel the earth beneath your fingers, feel it as if it were a part of you. You feel the soggy, waterlogged ground, the rough conglomerates and mudstones beneath the topsoil, the shales and limestones and other layers of rock too numerous to count. You pour prana into those layers, slowly focusing the energies welling within them until they are all perfectly aligned right in front of Lord Monmouth.
You release your spell just as Monmouth raises his sceptre once more. The energies you trapped surge upwards, passing through the hard, firm rock and up into the pliable soil. A wall of mud explodes from the ground in front of Monmouth, a tidal wave of stinking dirt that blots out his vision. You tear your hands out of the mud and sprint back to the black-coats, desperately motioning them to fall back through the hole in the hedge. You dive through the opening just as Monmouth tears down your barrier. The mud suddenly freezes and shatters, sending clods of frozen earth skittering all over the ruined remains of the garden.
You find the black-coats huddled on the other side. Only six of them remain and all bear visible injuries, not least the blotchy red burns that cover their faces. It’s obvious that you can’t hope to defeat Monmouth in a head-on fight.
“Alright. Here is where we draw Monmouth away. When he comes through, retreat around the hedge. Try to keep it between you and him. Focus on defence but try to be threatening enough that he doesn’t decide to run off and join his Servant. As long as we keep them separated, this mission is a success. Okay?”
Eudokia’s cousins all give varying signs of assent. They spread out to the side of the opening, taking up defensive positions on either side of you. You consider calling out to the five cold presences that have been following you slowly ever since you left the overpass, but quickly dismiss the notion. They would not be of much help here.
Monmouth stoops through the gap in the hedge moments later, sceptre held in front of him like a sword. His hard gaze falls upon you and the shining blue orb whirls around to point in your direction.
“So, you are the leader of this attack. I can’t say I recognise you from the Association. But the men with you…they are the Hellespont woman’s people, are they not? Which means you are her ally, I suppose.”
A cloud of cold mist begins to form around Monmouth’s feet. The ground beneath his expensive black shoes begins to crackle and pop as a fine rime of frost begins to spread outwards in a circle from where he stands. The temperature drops sharply, and suddenly the raindrops are no longer light and wet but hard, dry hailstones.
“That’s a nice toy. Must have taken a while to make.”
You remark, pointing at the sceptre and hoping that he’ll keep talking. Monmouth smiles and bobs his head graciously at the compliment.
“It is good enough for my purposes. I never really understood the desire some magi have for overly elaborate and fanciful Mystic Codes. A simple amplifier and the removal of incantations goes a lot further than most people realize.”
He drives the butt of the sceptre into the icy ground with a dry thump, his lips curving into a humourless smile.
“As you will shortly find out.”
A high-pitched whistling noise is all the warning you have. You scramble backwards as dozens of two-foot long blades of ice hurtle down out of the sky. The translucent missiles hammer down where you used to be, burying themselves in the frosted white soil and leaving behind a porcupine-shaped mass of ice. Monmouth shifts position, tracking your movement with the outstretched sceptre, calling down more blades to strike at you. The black-coats rally to your defence, attacking the Lord with fire, bullets of pressurized air and crackling blasts of entropic energy.
Your opponent doesn’t flinch and simply stretches out his free hand towards his attackers. Hailstones congregate around his gloved fingers, forming themselves into a perfectly smooth shield the size of a dustbin lid. Monmouth holds the shield up and advances, and though each deflected attack blows fist-sized craters into its surface the damage quickly mends itself by dragging in more hail. Your opponent doesn’t bother attacking the black-coats, focusing solely upon you.
You give ground, twisting to avoid more projectiles and following your own advice to try and keep the hedge between yourself and Monmouth. One of the ice blades comes too close to comfort and you shatter it with your claws, wincing as the fragments cut into the skin of your face, temporarily blinding one eye. The curse of restoration immediately repairs the cuts, but the injury causes you to stumble and allow Monmouth to keep up despite his slight limp. His eyes widen slightly at the sight of your regeneration.
“You are an Apostle, then? Hmph. You’re lucky I’m not like those Barthomeloi. Their latest successor harbours a particularly intense distaste for your kind.”
Out of the corner of your eye you see three of the black-coats slowly drift together, each chanting in low whispers you can barely hear even with your enhanced senses. You feel the faint beginnings of a thaumaturgical ritual begin to form as the three synchronise their prana output. A plan begins to form in your mind, and you resolve to keep Monmouth too distracted to notice whatever your followers are doing until it’s too late.
“Is that right? I suppose that means she’s tougher than you, then, since I’m still standing and all.”
You sneer, trying to sound unconcerned. Monmouth’s brow furrows with annoyance, his dark hair glistening wetly in the rain.
“Hmph. Yes. A bitter pill. One I will soon no longer have to suffer.”
He hefts the sceptre once again, pointing it at you over the raised shield.
“But that’s no concern of yours. I see no reason to converse any further.”
Monmouth starts forward, prana welling around the tip of his sceptre.
“No. Neither do I.”
You whisper, then twist to one side. You feel the ritual complete itself just as Monmouth takes his first step forwards, his foot coming down right as the magic circle surrounding the three black-coats blazes to life. You vaguely recognise symbols that might be ancient Greek characters. A pulsing sphere of purple energy rises from the middle, floating upwards until it hovers above their heads. Heat radiates from it in waves, sublimating nearby hailstones into wispy streamers of vapour. An electric hum slowly begins to rise, and your hair begins to stand on end. Without warning the orb contracts in the centre, contorting into a figure-eight which revolves in midair so that one end points directly at your opponent.
Monmouth reacts instantly. He immediately takes three steps back, drops to one knee and thrusts both shield and sceptre into the ground. The aged Lord barks three harsh words and slams his palms against the back of the shield. A semicircle of ground in front of him freezes solid and a blizzard of hailstones converges on his position. The fragments of ice merge with his shield, expanding and thickening it until it is as thick as a brick wall and as tall as a city bus.
The purple figure-eight pulses one final time, then explodes into a beam of searing light that illuminates the area like a magical floodlight. The ravening beam of pure energy lashes into Monmouth’s shield, shearing off massive chunks of ice that fall to the ground with a cacophony of thunderous clatters. Rivulets of water flow down the front of the frozen barrier as the intense heat begins to melt even Monmouth’s magically reinforced ice. Cracks quickly spread out from the impact point, and puffs of particulate snow begin to vent from them.
Six seconds in and one half of the shield collapses with a tortured groan. The beam punches completely through the ice half a second later, growing thinner and dimmer as the three magi sustaining it run out of prana. It winks out with a sharp crack of displaced air, leaving a line of burnt grass between the black-coats and the shattered remains of Monmouth’s shield. The three black-coats fall to their knees, their breathing laboured, brows beaded with sweat. They must have poured all the prana they had into that spell.
The fragmented icy rubble shifts, shivers, then erupts upwards in a plume of white. Lord Monmouth staggers up from the ruined remains of his barrier, his expensive jacket and fine trousers now charred all down one side. Blood runs from a number of deep gashes in the side of his face, and a particularly nasty one runs over his left eye. The Lord leans heavily on his sceptre, the shining blue orb now marred by a single ugly crack.
You try to remain calm as you take stock of the situation. That searing blast of energy was almost strong enough to harm a Servant. Monmouth’s shield must have blocked most of its power, but he had had to utilize an active chant to reinforce it rather than rely on his gloves. Blocking so much power must have drained him at least somewhat. On the other hand, three of your allies are now out of the fight, and you have no idea how well Caster is doing against Saber other than the fact that she isn’t dead yet.
Monmouth reaches into a pocket on the uncharred side of his jacket and pulls out a white handkerchief, unfolding it and then carefully dabbing at the blood on his face.
“Hmm. A good hit, a very palpable hit.”
He mutters, returning the now dirty handkerchief to its pocket. Though his movements are casual you can feel prana gathering inside him. The translucent fragments of ice littering the ground begin to melt, the thin streamers of water running from them not pooling on the ground but floating up into the air, gathering into a single sphere of water the size of a small car. Monmouth snaps his fingers, and the water begins to bubble and froth, hissing and spitting like a teakettle left too long on the boil. Monmouth gazes at you impassively, but your augmented eyesight can pick out several veins throbbing at his temple.
“Allow me to return one of my own.”
As if to mock the black-coat’s previous spell, the sphere of water contorts into the shape of a figure-eight. The crack in Monmouth’s sceptre begins to bleed blue sparks, but the Lord seems not to notice. The scalding water screams as it is compressed into half its original diameter, ready to be fired out at you with overwhelming force. There’s nothing you can do; you’re too far away to reach him before the spell goes off, too close to run away, and even if you managed it the black-coats never would-
A plume of smoke and fire erupts far to Monmouth’s right, and a tremendous flash of light briefly throws the whole park into sharp relief. Half a second later the soundwave hits, a colossal thump that shakes the ground and jars you to the bone. The part of you not paralyzed by fear realizes that the detonation occurred at the park entrance – in the direction that your Servant was meant to be leading Saber.
Monmouth is just as surprised as everyone else. He instinctively looks towards the source of the explosion, and for a vital second his concentration lapses. This is your chance! Time seems to slow down as you furiously think up a plan…
1. Use your shapeshifting ability to attack Monmouth while his guard is down.
2. Alternatively, use your shapeshifting ability to escape from Monmouth’s attack.
3. Summon your Dead, apply reinforcement, then sic ‘em.
Special Option 4: OT’s choice. You guys come up with a plan! Resources at our disposal:
1x Raven familiar flying overhead.
5x Dead lurking nearby.
6x Black-coats, three of whom are low on prana and unlikely to be much help.
A mostly full tank of prana.
Shapeshifting power that may be getting an upgrade due to certain pre-existing circumstances.
No more than a few seconds of time before Monmouth recovers, not long enough to cross the distance to him without shapeshifting or reinforcing your legs with magic.
Your plan can modify or combine the pre-existing options or be something entirely new. If one particular plan gains a lot of support I’ll go with that one, but if not I’ll go with the one that I like best. This is an experimental option and if it goes well I’ll do more like it in the future.
Having reviewed all the plans presented so far, I’ve decided to go with Enclosure’s strategy. I like how he reasoned out every step.
What can you do in this situation, with so little time to think? Simple. You create more time for yourself. You drop to one knee and thrust your hands into the damp soil. There’s no time for anything like what you did back in the gardens, but all you need is to disrupt Monmouth’s concentration a bit more. The ground in front of you ripples, and the earth bulges upwards slightly around you. A football-sized hump of soil rises up between your hands, shivers for a moment, then hurtles towards where Monmouth is standing.
The elderly Lord’s head snaps back towards you half a second too late. The lump of soil explodes into a cloud of muddy droplets less than a metre from him. The car-sized sphere of boiling water wobbles dangerously as Monmouth growls and tries to wipe the filth from his remaining good eye. At the same time you call out to your Dead, willing them to come to you with all possible speed.
Monmouth grits his teeth and gestures in your general direction with his sceptre. The sphere of water contracts, spitting out a lethal stream of pressurised water, but Monmouth’s aim is sloppy and you easily dodge to the side. The three remaining battle-worthy black-coats follow your lead, attacking Monmouth with coruscating energy blasts that leave charred craters in the ground wherever they land.
The water is nearly depleted when your opponent finally manages to clear his vision. He raises both hands and the remaining liquid freezes into a shield similar to the one he used before, only rougher and somehow less sturdy-looking. It shudders and cracks after every deflection, and Monmouth has to use his failing sceptre to keep the whole thing from breaking under the black-coat’s barrage.
For the first time since the battle began, Monmouth begins to give ground. His face is a picture of steely determination, but he clearly realises that he is now the one at a disadvantage. He obviously intends to retreat back inside the gardens and wait for us to come to him.
And then your Dead materialize out of the darkness behind him. Five corpses in varying states of decay roll forwards, somehow able to run at a speed that would make a sprinter envious despite joints swollen with necrosis. The lead corpse, a tall man dressed in patchy, threadbare clothing suddenly pulls ahead of the pack and leaps at Monmouth’s unprotected back, his slimy, bony hands reaching out to claw and rake.
Your opponent reacts far more swiftly than a man of his age should. Monmouth spins on his heel and jabs his sceptre into the Dead’s upper chest. He lets go of his shield, which floats up behind him to block the sporadic attacks from the remaining black-coats. A bluish-white glow envelops the Dead, then the frozen, shattered remains of the corpse hit the floor around Monmouth’s feet. The white glow remains for a second, then spasms and leaps to the next Dead. The strange energy flash-freezes the corpse but its momentum carries it forwards, skidding and tumbling onto the floor where it too breaks apart into fragments of frozen meat.
Monmouth’s sceptre fails as the glow jumps over to the third Dead. The light inside the orb stutters, glows brightly for a single second, then dies completely. Your two remaining Dead shoulder past their partially frozen companion, knocking the corpse to the floor where its left side smashes open. Monmouth clenches his fists and begins to form another shield out of the water on the ground, but it’s too late. Your last two thralls plow bodily through the half-formed ice like undead bulldozers, their combined weight bearing Monmouth to the ground. Monmouth snarls and twists around, grasping the neck of one Dead and trying to haul it off, but the corpse has his arm in a death grip.
Suddenly, the back of Monmouth’s right hand begins to glow a deep crimson. His glove mutes the light somewhat, but your eyes pick out a blood-red mark just above his wrist, a sigil composed of angular red lines that form a shape similar to a medieval kite shield. On the shield are three stylized animals, though you can’t make out what they might be through the gossamer fabric of the glove.
You don’t really need to, though – it’s obvious what that mark is. A Command Seal. With a thrill of horror you realize he’s going to summon Saber back here to protect himself. You can’t let that happen! You break into a sprint, but you know in your heart that you’ll never make it. All Monmouth has to do is activate the seal and say the words. Your opponent’s magecraft has turned this part of the field into a quagmire, and the ground in front of you is a churning swamp of mud and icy sludge. Even with your vampiric strength and speed, you can’t beat Monmouth to the punch.
It’s obvious that you can’t make it, but you wade through the filth anyway. You see Monmouth’s mouth open, watch as his lips form the words that will spell your doom. If only you could bypass this cloying, squelching, dragging mud…but it’s too wide to jump over from where you are. You’d have to be able to fly in order to get over it in time…
Something moves inside you. The cold presences of the remaining two Dead are shouldered aside by three new ones, but whereas the Dead feel slimy and clammy, the new ones are dark, hot and somehow predatory. A cacophony of shrieking caws fills your senses as the three raven familiars within you regain their awareness somehow. Just like before in the tunnels beneath Oxford you feel yourself shifting, changing, your form becoming soft and malleable.
But this time is different. This time your mind anchors itself to those three presences, and your mind is overwhelmed with an image of a raven. You see the whole bird in exquisite detail; a solid black beak, tip flecked with fresh blood. A sloping head perched atop a firm, muscular neck. Two great wings spread out on either side of its body, ebony feathers stretched skywards. Two thin leathery legs ending in a set of viciously curving talons.
You hold the image in your mind as you transform, and suddenly it is no longer merely an image in your mind. You are that bird, only bigger, half again as tall as a grown man and with a wingspan to match. Instead of black, your body is a deep ochre-red, and stringy, fibrous rivulets of blood cling to your feathers. Without hesitation, you spread your wings and surge forwards, the muddy ground no longer an impediment.
Ahead lies Monmouth, one arm braced across his face to stop the Dead from tearing at it. The other still glows red with the power of the Command Seal. He begins to speak, the words coming out in a panicked rush.
“Saber! I sum-ngkh!!”
He never finishes, because you land next to him and seize his neck in your massive beak, knocking the Dead aside. Monnouth’s voice becomes a choking gurgle that dies in his throat. You see confusion in his eyes as he stares up at you, and something nags at you in the back of your mind, but you couldn’t care less. Killing him now will make killing Saber much easier. All it would take is one twist of your head to break his fragile neck and end things once and for all. You increase the pressure, and the aged Lord’s eyes roll back into his head. Your neck muscles bunch and shift as you prepare to crush the life from your prey-
A blow like a thousand sledgehammers smashes into the side of your head. Your whole body is thrown back twenty feet through the air and comes down hard in the mud. Through a mist of pain and bewilderment you see two sharply-dressed men run up to where Monmouth lies unconscious on the ground. Cold realisation sets in, and you curse yourself for forgetting about the other three apprentices you saw earlier.
One of the men hauls Monmouth over his shoulders whilst the other thrusts his hand out towards you, power gathering at the tips of his fingers. Moments later he whispers a word and the water all around you sublimates into a cold, wet mist. Your vision becomes a wall of whiteness as the fog envelops you, deadening all of your senses. A wave of frustration washes over you as your body contorts and shrinks back into its original form. You try to stand, but whatever spell the apprentice hit you with makes it difficult to regain your balance. Perhaps it carried a curse of some kind?
By the time you get back on your feet the mist is starting to fade away. The nagging sensation you felt back when you nearly had Monmouth dead to rights returns in force, and you understand now that it was your other raven circling overhead, trying to warn you about the two apprentices you hadn’t seen creeping up on you. You transfer your consciousness to the bird briefly, and from the lofty height above the field you spy the pair retreating into the darkness, each with an arm under Monmouth’s shoulders.
Wet footsteps splash behind you, and you turn to see one of the remaining black-coats slogging through the mud. When she sees you her expression grows tight, but her stride falters only briefly. She looks relatively unscathed save for a small gash across the edge of her chin. The other five follow after her, though their movements are more laboured and their faces are tight with exhaustion. Their leader hesitates briefly, then grimaces and opens her mouth to speak.
“Sir. A few minutes ago we received a messenger familiar from the Honoured Successor. She wished to know how matters were proceeding, but we could not respond due to the intensity of the battle.”
The dark-haired woman reaches into her sodden coat and pulls out a rather bedraggled dove.
“How do we respond? Do we pursue Monmouth?”
You shake your head wearily.
“No, it’s too dangerous. We’re all pretty much spent, and Monmouth’s apprentices are fresh. Tell Eudokia that we have accomplished our part of the mission – Monmouth has been incapacitated and can no longer support Saber, who should be en-route to the ambush site now. We’ll pull back to support her as best we can.”
The woman nods and presses two fingers against the dove’s neck. The bird’s head jerks up, all signs of weariness suddenly gone. It takes flight and flutters into the night sky, winging south back towards Eudokia’s position. You turn to follow it, but a coldness suddenly washes over your body. Your vision wavers, and your throat suddenly feels very dry. You turn back to look at the lead black-coat, your eyes drawn inexorably to the small cut across her chin. It’s still bleeding a little.
Blood. Warm, wet, fresh blood. You breathe in, and the scent of it fills your nostrils despite the distance between you and her. A very large portion of your power went into changing your form, and unlike last time you couldn’t get any of it back by devouring your victim. The five remaining Dead under your command have yet to find any prey tonight, so you can’t draw on their power either.
The hunger gnaws at you, demanding to be satiated, demanding that you fall on the weakened cattle before you and take their lifeblood for yourself. This alliance was always going to be a temporary thing, they have served their purpose, and they saw you transform. You can come up with an excuse to tell Eudokia later, plus you’re in need of new Dead anyway-
1. Slaughter the remaining black-coats and feast on their lives, restoring you to full power.
2. Resist the hunger for now, but find some poor sap on the way back to Eudokia and feed from him/her, restoring part of your power.
3. Deny the hunger altogether and wait for your remaining Dead to find prey, restoring no power but removing any chance of you pissing off anyone or being discovered.
These followers have outlived their usefulness. Though they served you well in battle and you would probably not have survived without them, ultimately they are not on your side. Sooner or later you will face Eudokia in battle, and you would rather not do so with six fully trained magi supporting her. The only matter that concerns you is the exact details of the message the female black-coat sent back, but you can find that out easily enough.
You let yourself sag down a little, playing up the genuine exhaustion you feel. You motion the black-coats to move on ahead of you and wait until the last one has passed you by before straightening up and deciding where best to strike. All of them are injured and tired, but so are you and it doesn’t pay to take risks. So you walk behind them, waiting for your chance.
As you cross the field the line becomes more ragged. Three in particular begin to lag behind the rest, the same ones who conjured up the eye-searing lance of power that nearly ended Monmouth outright. The last one in the line stumbles and almost trips, but recovers his balance in time to prevent himself falling.
You strike then, in his moment of weakness. You put an arm under his shoulders, as if to steady him on his feet. If the other black-coats were to look back now, all they would see is their leader graciously aiding one of their own. The man barely makes a sound as your clawed index finger slides into his heart, killing him almost instantly. You slowly lower him to the ground, careful to ensure that no sound alerts the other black-coats to what you are doing.
You needn’t have bothered. The others are either too exhausted or too eager to return to their mistress to notice your betrayal. You ghost over to the next in line, covering his mouth and slitting his throat before laying him out on the ground. The hunger inside you twists and contracts like a living thing, but you can’t feed yet, you have to kill them all before they discover what’s going on.
The third black-coat halts and doubles over, placing his hands on his knees. He breathes heavily, trying to regulate himself, but those breaths become choking gasps when you clamp your arm around his neck and crush his windpipe with raw strength. You wrestle his weakly thrashing body to the ground and keep the pressure up until he stops moving.
The other black-coats will be more difficult. Rather than stringing themselves out in a line, the remainder walk more or less together, the woman in front with the two men walking slightly behind on either side. An attack on one of them would never go unnoticed by the other two. You’d like to wait for them to spread out but the hunger is nearly too much to bear and they could turn around and see what you’ve done at any minute. There’s no other choice; you have to act quickly and hope for the best.
You gather what remaining strength you have and break into a sprint. You aim for the man on the left, the shortest and presumably weakest of the three. He hears you coming and starts to turn, but you tackle him before he can fully face you. The man goes down hard, his head smacking wetly into the soggy ground. Before he can understand what’s going on you reach down, grasp his head in both hands and give it a sharp, vicious twist.
The sound of snapping bone echoes over the park like a gunshot. The other man cries out in alarm and shouts a warning to the female black-coat in Greek, but you are already off the floor and running for him before he can defend himself. You spin on your heel and drive your left foot into the side of his head, and he crumples bonelessly to the floor. The lead black-coat’s features twist as you turn to face her, fury and terror warring for control. In the end fury wins. She reaches inside her coat and pulls out an enormous revolver, one of the silver-barrelled and wooden-gripped ones used for hunting big game. The massive gun looks almost comical in her comparatively small hands, but as jokes go it’s really not very funny.
Time seems to stop as the tiny part of your mind that’s not yet overwhelmed by the hunger assesses the situation. Fact number one – she pulled a gun on you rather than attempting to cast a spell. Ergo, she must be low on prana. Fact number two – that gun looks big enough to chamber a .50 caliber magnum round. One hit from that will seriously ruin your night even though you are a Dead Apostle. Fact number three – such a huge gun would be unnecessary against a normal human target. Eudokia must have given it to her as insurance should you turn on them.
Or it could be the opposite - that she was given it to dispose of you afterwards. You nudge the body of your most recent victim with your foot, and you feel something hard and elongated beneath his coat. So, they all had firearms. Then why not use them against Monmouth? Even his shield could not have repelled eight massive rounds smashing into it at once. Unless they were saving them for another purpose...
Enough. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are less than twenty feet away from the business end of a weapon that will kill you if it hits you in the head or heart, Curse of Restoration be damned. There’s no choice, you’ll just have to try to avoid the shot!
You start to sprint. You see everything in front of you in perfect clarity. One step, she pulls the hammer down. Two steps, she aims along the barrel. Three steps, her finger tightens on the trigger. Four steps-
The gun goes off, the superheated gasses expelled from the cylinder giving the weapon flaming wings for a split second. The end of the barrel erupts with fire and smoke as the huge round blasts its way out. You twist to the side as you take your fifth step, but the bullet is travelling at more than four hundred metres per second and in your weakened state you can’t make a clean dodge.
The .50 caliber round creases your right flank, tearing a massive furrow across your side. You feel your lower ribs crack from the shock of the impact, and a shower of blood and chunks of meat burst from the wound. The black-coat’s aim must have been off from fear, or fatigue, or the simple recoil of the huge gun, but whatever the case may be she didn’t score a fatal injury.
Two steps later and you’re in range. The woman tries to fire but you knock the gun out of her hand before she pulls the trigger. As the silvery gun goes skittering away into the darkness you follow up with a heavy backhand to the side of her head, sending her sprawling onto the ground. She blinks repeatedly, clearly stunned by the blow. This is it; your chance to find out what she knows.
You crouch down and press your knee into her chest, preventing her from rising. Her gaze meets yours and you activate the circuits in your eyes, just like you did with Irene last night. The woman’s face slackens, and her expression goes blank.
“What was the content of the message you sent back to Eudokia?”
You ask, the hunger giving your voice a harsh, inhuman edge. The woman’s mouth moves, but no sound comes out. You frown, then relax your knee’s pressure on her upper body.
“What did you tell Eudokia? Tell me the details of the message!”
The female black-coat opens her mouth – and bubbles of frothy foam flow over her lips. Her eyes roll back in her head and she begins to convulse violently, her whole body rocking with epileptic spasms. A low gurgling sound tears its way out of her throat, a rasping death-rattle from deep in her lungs. The foam around her mouth turns red with blood, and her convulsions slowly begin to subside.
You check the side of her neck with a finger, but her pulse is already gone. You clench your fists and stare at her corpse for a moment, then the hunger finally takes over. You tear open her throat with your bare teeth and drink in the glorious life-giving essence of life. Power begins to flow through you, but it’s not enough, not nearly enough! You drink until it’s all gone, then sprint back to the other corpses and do likewise, taking their cooling lifeblood for yourself.
The gunshot wound in your side vanishes completely after the second feeding, and by the time you are completely finished your strength is entirely restored. You stretch languidly and flex your limbs, marvelling at how good it feels. Sending your Dead out for sustenance is safer, true, but nothing compares to personally taking it from another living being.
You wander back over to the female black-coat and stare at her for a moment, thinking. Eudokia must have implanted some sort of defence mechanism against mental control inside her followers. She didn’t bother with Irene, though. Maybe she overlooked her, or perhaps she simply hadn’t had the time. Either way, it’s irritating that you couldn’t get anything out of her.
A silver glint catches your eye, and you stroll over to where the enormous revolver landed. You stoop down and pick it up, dusting off the mud to reveal the maker’s mark. Smith and Wesson Model 500. A gun meant for hunting African game known to shrug off rounds from smaller caliber weapons. Also, super illegal to have in the United Kingdom.
You crack open the barrel and peer into the cylinder. As expected, the cartridges are .50 caliber. The end of one of the cartridges is bent inwards from the force of the firing hammer, leaving four rounds left unfired. You think for a moment, then snap the cylinder back into place. Such a weapon could prove useful as a trump card in the future, so you retrieve the holster from the deceased black-coat woman and conceal the revolver beneath your jacket.
Alone on the cold, empty field, you begin to consider your next move. As far as you know Caster is still alive, and it would be advantageous to hurry to her side in order to observe her and co-ordinate a retreat if necessary. On the other hand, you are sorely in need of new Dead servants and there are an abundance of fresh corpses here. Gaining new servitors is going to be a high priority for you after losing half of your supply tonight, and this is a good opportunity to gain back all of what you lost plus one. Doing so will delay you, however.
1. Bury the corpses with your earth magic and go after Caster. With luck you’ll be able to come back for them later…but you’ll have to do it alone, because Caster won’t approve of it.
2. Stay behind and raise the corpses as undead, then send them to the north of the city where it is unlikely Eudokia will run into them.
You settle on a compromise.
You stretch out your left arm and will one of your raven familiars to separate itself from your body. The bird bursts from your flesh with a wet ripping sound and drunkenly takes wing. Once it rises higher than the distant buildings it wheels off to the south towards the overpass where Eudokia’s trap lies. This time you’ll make absolutely certain that nothing catches you out.
With that done you get to work on the bodies. As you suspected, all of them carry the same hunting revolvers, though none appear to be carrying more ammunition beyond the five rounds already chambered. None of them possess any written orders or anything else that might give you some idea of Eudokia’s intentions. No personalised mystic codes or other weaponry besides the revolvers, either. It’s pretty clear Eudokia only ever saw these people in the same way that you yourself see your Dead; useful but disposable tools, given what they required to perform their tasks and nothing more.
It doesn’t take long to gather all of the bodies together in one place. Of the eight you started with, two are too damaged to be of any use. The remainder should be easy to animate, being mostly intact when they died. Oddly the bodies of the two apprentices you dispatched earlier were gone when you returned to the garden, but even so you have more than enough to be getting on with.
The process of turning dead bodies into undead servitors is similar to that needed to turn normal animals into regular familiars. The difference is that blood is used instead of magical energy, and no magic circuits are transplanted. Ordinarily you would use a knife to open a vein to add your own blood to the corpse, but sharpening one finger into a claw and using that is good enough.
You begin by discarding the corpses of the short man whose neck you broke and the sandy-haired one whose body turned out to have been completely bisected rather than partially as you first thought. You place one palm to the ground and whisper another nonsense Latin phrase, and the bodies slowly sink into the soil. The spell will bury the remains under at least a dozen feet of earth, so there’s no chance of anyone uncovering them by accident.
Once that’s finished you begin preparing the remaining bodies. Every now and then you survey your surroundings to make sure you aren’t being watched. You switch your consciousness to the raven circling above you, then to the one winging its way back towards the overpass. The roads and streets below look quiet and normal, and nothing jumps out at you as being particularly out of place. You guess that means everything’s going smoothly, but you remain ready to reconnect with the bird at a moments notice.
It takes about a minute to revive the first corpse, and around the same for the second. Both are men just on the cusp of becoming middle-aged. The third corpse is that of the woman who shot you, and you only just finish raising her when a mental cry of alarm sounds out from the bird over the city. Immediately you force your consciousness into the bird’s mind. The bright lights of the city below dazzle you for an instant, but the flashes of cold steel in the street below quickly draws your attention.
You see Scathach and Saber fighting along a narrow street about half a mile away from the ambush point. Saber’s armour is perforated in dozens of places, and his skin is marred by many discoloured blotches. He is bleeding from a number of small cuts but doesn’t seem to be injured too badly, parrying and countering the blows from Caster’s staff without exerting too much effort.
Caster herself seems to be adopting a hit and run strategy, attacking in short bursts before retreating backwards, forcing her opponent to come to her. Every now and then she breaks off completely and runs full-tilt towards the ambush site, but Saber’s superior speed means he quickly catches up and the battle begins anew. Your Servant is holding her own for now, but her armour has been laid open in several places and her injuries are clearly more severe than her opponent’s.
It’s clear that Scathach is tiring. As you watch, Saber’s sword flicks out almost imperceptibly, the very tip of the blade licking across your Servant’s midriff and opening another thin gash in her armour. Scathach retaliates by smashing one end of her staff into Saber’s head, but he rolls with the blow and simply keeps coming. At this rate she might not make it back to Eudokia’s position.
You make up your mind in an instant, abandoning the raven’s perspective and diving back down to take control of your own body once more. The three reanimated bodies stand before you, glassy eyes staring into nothingness. You order them away with a curt mental command and they slink off into the darkness to hide in the northern half of the city where Eudokia will be unlikely to find them.
You dispose of the rest of the unraised bodies in the same fashion as the two unusable corpses, burying them in the dirt so deeply they won’t be found by accident. Perhaps if you have need you can come back for them later on, but for now eight Dead will have to do. Before you bury the last corpse you take a second revolver off his body just in case you need a spare later on.
With all that done you hurry out of the playing fields. The gravel pathway between the two gates leading out of the park is strewn with blackened rock fragments surrounding what looks like a blast crater, and you feel a slithering sense of residual magic that sends a shiver down your spine. In the distance you hear the wailing sirens of a fire engine, and you quicken your stride so as not to be caught at the scene by the mortal authorities.
At the first possible opportunity you climb up the side of a building and begin to ghost across the rooftops, occasionally shifting your consciousness up to the ravens circling overhead to check how Caster’s battle is progressing. So far the stalemate seems to be just barely holding, with Scathach continuing her slow retreat down the road. With luck you should get to her just before she reaches the ambush site.
You grit your teeth and proceed onwards with all the speed you can muster.
George Robertson paused the video feed and rewound the recording. His beady eyes stared hungrily at the footage captured from one of the security cameras positioned at the entrance to Stanley Park, pointing inwards across the playing fields so as to record any trespassers. For all his power and magical talents, Lord Henry Monmouth still shared the usual blindness towards modern technology held by most of the Association and had not thought to remove them from the perimeter of his base of operations.
The light from the computer monitor combined with the darkness of the security room gave the CEO’s features a sterile, washed-out look. Despite Monmouth’s mistake in overlooking them, the cameras had not told Robertson anything he didn’t already know – until now, that is. His meaty fingers stabbed down at several keys and the recorded footage played out once again, showing a line of shadowy, indistinct figures marching across the playing fields between the city and the gardens.
One by one the figures were dispatched by another, this one moving too fast for the camera to fully track. After a short scuffle all the other black-coated figures lay dead, and the survivor began to perform what Robertson recognised as a rite to revive them as Dead familiars.
The implications were clear – there was a Dead Apostle loose in his city. A Dead Apostle who had appeared on the territory of one of the Masters in the Grail War, who had murdered several individuals who might be said Master’s apprentices and who had begun the process of turning them into his thralls. Coincidence? No. As far as Robertson was concerned there was no such thing as coincidence. The Apostle was one of the other players in the War. And even if by some miracle he wasn’t, he was still a menace that had to be rooted out before his foul influence could spread any further.
Robertson cupped his chin in one hand and thought. There were several options available to him, but under the circumstances it would be best to go with the solution that carried the least risk. He reached over into the shadows past the computer monitor and grasped the security room’s wireless phone with his meaty hand. He paused briefly, then dialled a number and waited for the call to go through.
“Hello? Yes, this is Robertson. I’d like to speak to Harold White.”
As expected, you reach Caster just before she reaches Eudokia’s ambush site. You hit the ground just outside the monolithic concrete structure just as Scathach spirals away from a vicious upwards swing directed at her head. She dances between the concrete pillars, keeping the obstructions between herself and her opponent, and her face briefly brightens when she sees you standing outside unharmed.
Now is the moment you’ve been waiting for – the time for Eudokia to spring her trap. You don’t have to wait long.
The drumbeat sound of hooves on concrete echoes around the underside of the overpass as Rider emerges from the shadows on the opposite side of the area. He sits astride an enormous black charger, its flanks layered with thick slabs of muscle and tightly wound sinews. It is laden down with dull grey armour the colour of old iron, and Rider himself is clad in a full suit of chainmail of the exact same colour. Instead of his usual short sword he carries an immense cavalry lance, a twelve-foot long pole of smooth wood tapering out to a vicious tip. At first glance it looks like a jousting lance, but instead of a fragile blunt end Rider’s lance is tipped with cold, sharp steel.
Without warning Rider’s mount ripples in the air, and suddenly it shifts to become a mottled brown and white stallion every big as large and powerful as the previous horse. His armour changes as well, transforming into blood-red plate armour with angular black patterns on the pauldrons and greaves.
Saber looks from Scathach to Rider and back again. His gaze returns to Rider, and he freezes, a sudden comprehension dawning on his craggy features. Scathach immediately slinks away from the two men and hurries back to your side, her face pale and drawn from the strain of combat.
“Can it be? Is it really you, old friend?”
Saber asks, his voice tinged with both anticipation and sorrow. Rider says nothing for a moment, then slowly raises his gauntleted hands up to his face. He unclasps the buckles holding his helm in place and lifts it off, shaking out a stringy mass of wispy white hairs as it clears the crown of his head.
The visage beneath the helm is old and worn, so creased and wrinkled that it resembles pale old leather rather than skin. A slightly hooked nose and eyes sunken deep into his skull gives the impression that Rider must be at least sixty or seventy years old, but there is nothing weak about his gaze or posture. He reminds you of an old and twisted oak, enduring against the elements and remaining defiantly upright despite the ravages of nature.
“It is I, my King. Though I wish our meeting were under better circumstances, regrettably I must challenge you to battle here. I serve another master now, and will do so even if it means facing you in dishonourable combat.”
Rider swings his long lance around so that the tip points at Saber’s head. Saber frowns in confusion.
“Dishonourable? What do you – oh.”
He casts his gaze over towards the ramshackle ‘house’ over to the side.
“I see. Hmph.”
Saber rolls his shoulders, a sardonic grin rising to his lips.
“Outnumbered, far from home, with no hope of support and only my own skills to help me achieve victory?”
His grin grows wider.
“Now where have I done that before, hmm? Perhaps I will do better this time!”
The house explodes into splinters just as Rider’s horse rears up and begins to charge forwards. An enormous black bear hurtles out of it like a clawed, fanged cruise missile, roaring and bellowing in incandescent rage as it thunders towards the red-haired swordsman. The bear and the horseman approach Saber at sharp angles, their charges forming a V shape with him as their point of intersection. For his part, Saber simply waits, sword poised, his face set in a grim smile.
A sudden burst of mental alarm screeches out from one of the ravens overhead, and you quickly take control to see what the problem is. The overpass blocks out the view of the battlefield below, but that’s not where the bird’s attention is focused. Instead its gaze is directed west towards Waterloo Road. A man wearing hide armour is leaping from rooftop to rooftop and making a beeline for the battlezone beneath the overpass. You recognise the thorny, clubbed spear in his hand; Lancer is heading your way.
Whatever happens next you need to get clear of the ambush site. But…should you tell Eudokia about Lancer appearing? He could ruin the whole plan, but…you’ve done your part already. Perhaps you should just let the mayhem play itself out without risking yourself any further. On the other hand, if the plan goes out of whack then Saber could survive, and he’s not the sort of Servant you want Scathach to face again after he gave her so much trouble. What do you do?
1. Find a safe place and simply watch the battle unfold.
2. Warn Eudokia of Lancer’s approach.
3. Make sure Irene’s still under your compulsion and not running away.
Eudokia must be informed of this. Lancer’s involvement could throw off the entire plan depending on what he does next. After that your best bet is to retreat to a safe distance. Your Servant is in no condition to fight another of the knightly classes so soon after taking such a beating.
You retreat from the combat zone just as Saber meets Rider’s charge. The swordsman raises his blade to block the heavy lance screaming towards his head. The steel tip of the lance lands on the flat of Saber’s sword, and the momentum of the charging horse drags it up and along, metal wailing against metal in a shower of silver sparks. Saber staggers back under the force of the hit, but Rider simply raises his lance and gallops past him.
Then the slower, heavier but far more massive bear thunders into the overbalanced Saber, shouldering him to the ground. The beast’s claws dig jagged furrows into the concrete floor as Saber twists and writhes on the ground. Its huge jaws snap and bite, trying to fasten around the swordsman’s neck and tear out his throat. Despite the great bear’s efforts Saber manages to roll out from under its bulk, though an errant swipe from one of its claws shreds what little remains of his breastplate.
You tear your eyes away from the battle and hurry over to the building Eudokia said she’d be on top of, then swarm up the side and swing yourself onto the roof. You see Eudokia’s white-coated figure staring down at the battle below, her brow drawn down in intense concentration. The rain plasters her short black hair against her scalp, and her face appears more gaunt than usual. She briefly turns to look at you, her expression wary, then jerks her head back down towards the fight.
“What is it? Is something the matter?”
She asks, sounding vaguely irritated. You pause for a moment, considering how best to proceed, then decide to simply not mention the matter of the missing black-coats.
“One of my surveillance familiars has sighted Lancer closing in on our position. I thought you would want to be informed.”
Eudokia hisses softly under her breath, her eyes never moving from the battle below.
“However, we may be in luck; it is likely that Lancer may hold a grudge against Saber. We witnessed a battle between them several days ago, and Saber insulted Lancer’s honour several times.”
You continue, trying to watch both Eudokia and the fight beneath the overpass. The sounds of the conflict are lost in the rush of traffic overhead, but you don’t need to hear anything to tell that Saber is hard-pressed to defend himself.
“So you’re saying that he may aid us here?”
Eudokia shakes her head slightly.
“Either way, it’s another complication. By the way, where are the rest of my cousins? Anastasia reported six survivors. Did something happen on the way back?”
You try to think up a convincing lie, but Eudokia waves you off before you can even open your mouth.
“No, no, don’t explain. I have to concentrate. Tell me later.”
A thin trickle of blood begins to run out of her left nostril, and her eyes seem to be slightly more bloodshot than usual. You surmise that she must be Redlining herself again, and you wonder what the reason for it could be. She did the same thing when that bear appeared yesterday on the pier. Come to think of it, that bear seems to be roughly as strong as a Servant itself. It must have some sort of connection with Eudokia’s Berserker.
You turn aside and jump across to another building with a better view of the fight below. As you watch Rider wheel his mount around for another charge you remember that Irene is supposed to be hiding nearby. You send a mental call out to one of the ravens circling overhead to check that she is holding position. You don’t think she’ll run off after you compelled her to stay put, but it doesn’t pay to take chances.
Saber and Rider exchange a few blows, pulling away from one another whenever the bear begins one of its frenzied assaults. Saber moves conservatively, always trying to keep one of his opponents on the opposite side of his current one, as well as using the pillars for cover whenever possible. Despite the bear’s size and ferocity, however, it is clear that Rider is the more dangerous of the pair.
Before you assumed that the rather short and stocky Servant was a competent but unimaginative fighter, potentially strong but held back by the limitations of his Master. But on horseback the leathery old warrior is transformed into something greater than the sum of himself and his mount.
“The mounted knight is exceptionally talented.”
Scathach remarks, her eyes focused on Rider. Though her face is tired and drawn, your Servant’s eyes are as alert as ever.
“No wasted movements. No hesitation when delivering strikes; the man does not even blink when his lance meets his opponent’s defence. Even though he is of the Rider class, the way he and his mount move as one is truly amazing. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that his legend must be centred around his prowess as a mounted warrior more than anything else.”
It’s true; every time his lance meets Saber’s blade it is the latter who staggers away, clutching at fresh wounds. Despite his skills the swordsman proves incapable of landing even a single hit on his mounted foe, and the shorter man seems far stronger, faster and more focused than he ever was whilst fighting on the ground.
“What about the swordsman? What do you think of him?”
You ask, still focusing on the battle. Scathach smiles and runs a hand through her hair.
“He is also very strong, but in this situation he is outmatched. As a swordsman his skill is second to none, but I managed to lay a curse upon him that is inhibiting his combat potential. And against two opponents like this…”
She sighs and shrugs her shoulders wearily.
“Sooner or later he will become tired or make a mistake, or else be ground down into dust. Unless he has some trick or other up his sleeve the Lionheart will not survive this encounter.”
It takes a second or two for you to realise what Caster has just told you.
“Wait…Lionheart? You mean that Saber…”
“Is England’s Crusader King, yes. Or at least, that’s my educated guess. He carries what appears to be the sword Excalibur, but it carries no fairy script on the blade and thus it must be a replica of some kind. King Richard was said to have possessed such a copy. Then there is the red hair, the ferocity of his fighting style…and I’m sure you saw how his Master’s Command Seals were shaped like three lions on a red shield?”
You think back. You couldn’t quite make out what the animals on Monmouth’s hand were, but they may indeed have been lions. You’ll just have to trust your Servant’s superior eyesight for the time being.
But if the red-haired swordsman really is Richard the Lionheart it would make a great deal of sense. King Richard had fought in battles since he was a teenager and was famed as one of the most excellent warriors, tacticians and strategists of his age. As a devout Catholic he had sworn to reconquer the Holy Land for Christendom and had led the Third Crusade to Outremer alongside King Phillip Augustus of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
With Barborassa’s death by drowning before his armies reached the Holy Land and Phillip Augustus’s disputes with Richard causing him to abandon the Crusade, Richard had been left in sole command. Thanks to his leadership the Crusaders retook the entire coastline for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, winning a string of victories over the great Sultan Saladin, and his armies had marched on the Holy City itself. He used every tactic available to secure victory; diplomacy, armed combat, terror tactics, supply lines maintained via ships, and even an offer of a marriage alliance between his sister and Saladin’s brother.
But circumstances forced the King to turn back, and he was compelled to return home to stop his treacherous brother Prince John and King Phillip, who conspired to conquer his lands in the King’s absence. He spent the rest of his life trying to retake his French lands, prematurely meeting his end at the hands of a crossbowman during the siege of a minor fort.
Suddenly the fighting comes to a head as Rider’s mount hurls itself into a head-on charge. Its hooves leave shallow imprints in the concrete floor as it gallops forwards, closing the distance between it and Saber in seconds. Just before Rider comes within striking distance the horse ripples and changes, becoming a much taller and altogether heftier animal. As Rider’s lance plunges down at Saber’s head one of his mount’s front hooves lashes out with earth-shattering force, striking towards the swordsman’s now unprotected chest.
Saber knocks the lance aside with his blade but is too slow to evade the blow from Rider’s warhorse. The hoof connects with a sickening crunch and Saber is sent flying backwards half a dozen paces. He crashes against one of the many pillars holding up the road above and slides to the floor in a heap. The bear roars in furious triumph and plunges towards the fallen warrior. The beast’s silver eyes shine brightly as it seizes Saber’s sword arm in its jaws and shakes its head from side to side, shredding armour and flesh with equal ease.
Saber roars with pain and fury and swings his free arm into the bear’s face, punching and gouging at its eye sockets with his gauntleted hand. A feral and ferocious glint appears in the injured swordsman’s eyes as he wraps his arm around the bear’s enormous neck and hauls himself to his feet, using the bear’s own body as leverage. He reaches over to his pinioned arm, transfers his sword over to his free hand, then hacks at the ursine monster’s body, wildly chopping at whatever he can reach.
Saber’s attack is sloppy and unfocused, but one of his swings succeeds in hacking off one of the bear’s ears. It roars with pain, inadvertently releasing Saber’s arm. The red-haired Servant quickly retreats around to the opposite side of the pillar, his right arm now hanging uselessly at his side.
“You certainly keep interesting company these days, old friend.”
Saber pants, his voice shot through with pain and fatigue. Blood soaks into his clothes and armour, but the swordsman remains upright despite his terrible wounds.
“I apologize, my King. But I serve another Master now, however much I may regret it.”
Rider directs his mount in a slow circle, cantering around the pillar to face Saber once again. The bear growls and snorts, trying and failing to lick at the stump of its sensitive ear and pawing at the ground in frustration. Saber smiles good-naturedly and awkwardly raises his sword. Rider levels his lance at his opponent and shifts forwards in the saddle, then freezes abruptly, his eyes darting over to the opposite side of the area.
A split second later a slow clapping sound begins to echo around the concrete structure, and a tall grey-haired man wearing rough hide armour emerges from a shadow behind one of the pillars. His eyes are fixed on Saber, and his mouth is quirked upwards into a satisfied grin. A misshapen spear is slung across his back.
“Now isn’t this a pathetic sight. I come here to run you down like a dog, and yet I find others have already done the work for me! I can’t decide whether I should be angry or pleased.”
Lancer’s mocking words draw no reaction from Saber, who simply stares at him blankly. Rider turns slightly to face the new arrival, then bows slightly in his direction.
“Greetings, Servant of the Lance. If you have business with Saber, I am afraid I must deny you. As you can see, he is already engaged for the moment. Afterwards if you wish to cross swords with me, I will graciously accept your offer.”
Lancer stops in his tracks, the smile slowly fading from his features. He looks from Saber to Rider and back again, a thoughtful expression on his face. Finally his features contract in distaste, but he returns Rider’s bow nonetheless.
“Of course, I have no intention of trespassing upon your duel. But I will gladly do battle with you after the dog is no more. Until then, I will simply observe.”
Lancer turns to go, but mocking laughter stops him in his tracks. He turns a murderous glare on Saber, the source of the laughter.
“Ha, ha, ha…so you wash your hands of me, Lancer? I’m hurt. But I suppose it’s only natural that you fear to face me, even wounded as I am. After all, you-”
Saber grimaces and spins to the side as the bear tries to swat at him from behind the pillar. Lancer’s right hand twitches slightly towards the spear on his back, and when he responds his voice is dangerously calm and slow.
“’After all, I…’ what, Saber? Are you calling me a coward?”
Saber grins as he awkwardly fends off another spirited assault by the bear.
“Calling you one…? Oh, I have no need. The fact is self-evident. You want to see me dead, but lack the talent to do so and rely on others to do it for you. By the way, is it true that Magach unmanned you in your own home? You truly are fit for only slaying dogs-”
Lancer hisses with rage, teeth bared. He grasps at his spear and swings it down to point directly at Saber.
“Shut up, you miserable piece of offal. Forgive me, sir Knight, but this animal must answer for his insults.”
Saber quirks an eyebrow, somehow managing to look amused despite the copious amounts of dried blood caking his face.
“Ah, so now you join the fight. But is it really alright to fight me like this?”
He gestures towards the raging black bear.
“You called this a ‘duel’, but how can it be when the match is two against one? And one of the two is a ravening beast, at that. This creature is a wild thing that does not belong in a battle between men. The legends say you defeated many savage beasts during your lifetime…could you defeat this monster? Or are those stories lies?”
Saber’s smug tone only enrages Lancer further.
“That has nothing to do with anything! Do you think I am stupid, Saber? That I don’t realise that this is a trick?!”
Lancer’s words are heavy with fury, but he advances towards the bear unconsciously. Saber simply shrugs.
“Think what you will. But if that thing kills me you will never have a chance to prove your bravery, nor avenge your defeat at my hands. I do not mind dying upon a knight’s steel, but that monster…”
Saber trails off as the bear begins another attack. For his part Rider simply remains still, eyes flickering from Saber to Lancer to the bear and back again. Waiting, watching, conserving his strength.
Lancer’s teeth begin to grind so hard you can almost hear them from where you stand. His spear wavers first towards the bear, then back towards Saber. He is clearly torn over what to do next…
1. Remain silent and watch events unfold. This fight no longer directly concerns you, and you will profit no matter the outcome.
2. Call out to Lancer that it’s a trick. You’ve supported Eudokia’s plan so far, and now you have to see it through to the end even if it means giving your position away.
You maintain your silence. There is no profit to be had by revealing your location. If Lancer decided to engage you Caster would be hard-pressed to defend herself. Plus letting things play out will almost certainly lead to at least one of the Servants below being killed or maimed, which can only benefit you in the long run.
Lancer growls, turning his body to face the great bear.
“I’ll remove this creature from the battlefield. But if you die before that, it’s not my concern.”
The bear seems to sense Lancer’s gaze. Its blunt head swivels to face him, its silver eyes blazing with barely controlled fury. The spearman doesn’t flinch despite the intensity of the glare, instead calmly swivelling his ugly lance until it is parallel with the ground, its wicked tips pointed directly at the ursine monster. The bear takes a step forwards, a grating growl building deep within its throat, its jaws opening to reveal row after row of glistening teeth.
Saber turns back to Rider, Lancer’s presence seemingly forgotten.
“Shall we continue? This is far better than before, is it not?”
Rider inclines his head slightly.
“Indeed, it is far less insulting.”
He agrees, lifting his lance once more.
“And I see your tongue is still as silver as ever, even if your temper is somewhat calmer.”
Saber laughs, though his injuries add an edge of pain to his mirth.
“Ha! Well, words are just another type of weapon. As for my temper, perhaps you would see more of it if I had been summoned as a Berserker. But enough talk – let’s make an end of this, shall we?”
Rider simply nods, and then suddenly his body is in motion as his mount hurls itself at Saber once again. The injured warrior raises his sword and charges forwards to meet him with a yell, his blade clashing against Rider’s lance with such intensity that the flash forces you to blink.
Meanwhile Lancer and the bear have begun to circle one another. The muscles of Lancer’s face are stretched taut over his skull in pure concentration, the kind of expression worn by veteran hunters stalking a particularly tenacious quarry. The stalemate cannot hold, however, and after the third rotation the bear digs its claws into the concrete and springs into a loping, lumbering charge. Lancer freezes in place, as if rooted to the spot by fear, but steps to one side like a matador half a second before the bear’s jaws would have closed around his throat.
Everything seems to slow down as Lancer whirls his lance in a circular arc, slamming the club-end of the spear down onto the bear’s body. The grey-haired spearman is clearly aiming for the bear’s neck, trying to shatter it with a single blow, but the beast apparently senses his intentions and hunkers down, taking the hit on its muscular shoulders instead. The bear grunts in pain and bats at Lancer with one of its claws, but the agile Servant parries the hit with the shaft of his spear and hastily ducks away from a second swing.
Lancer’s glancing blow only serves to further enrage the beast, which dives after him with a furious bellow. It lunges forwards and snaps its jaws closed around the spearman’s weapon, then shakes its huge head from side to side in an attempt to rip the rust-coloured lance out of its wielders hands. Lancer hangs on grimly, the angular blue tattoos on his arms deforming as the muscles beneath bunch and contract. With a snarl he flings himself to one side, places one foot against the side of the bear’s head and twists his weapon as hard as he can.
The misshapen lance is torn free of the bear’s jaws in a welter of blood and rancid saliva as the bumpy rivets catch on the beast’s teeth. A number of them are torn out entirely, accompanied by a sound similar to that of breaking ice. The bear howls in pain, a high-pitched screech that no normal animal could possibly produce, but Lancer doesn’t wait for it to end before attacking once more. The hide-bound warrior uses the momentum of his previous manoeuvre to attack the animal in its flank, dragging the barbed end of his spear along its entire right flank. Flesh and muscle tear open and a river of crimson blood splashes down to stain the concrete floor a deep red.
The ringing sound of metal against metal distracts you from Lancer’s fight, and you find yourself drawn back to Saber’s bout with Rider. Rider attacks with repeated charges, spurring his mount forwards to deliver one hit before rushing past and whirling around to strike again. Saber is forced to remain where he is and parry every single blow, unable to retreat in any direction due to Rider’s superior speed and mobility. Though he puts up a valiant defence, it is clear that the swordsman’s strength is failing, and every parry is a little weaker and sloppier than the one before it.
The fact that Saber has yet to fall speaks highly of his abilities, but you can tell it’s only a matter of time now. Blocking not only Rider’s lance but also the kicking, lashing, trampling hooves of his warhorse whilst holding his sword with only one hand simply can’t be done, and on Rider’s next charge the inevitable happens. Saber parries Rider’s lance but is too slow to evade his charging horse, and the red-haired swordsman goes down hard beneath the mount’s thundering hooves. His body is sent tumbling end over end, eventually coming to rest near the same pillar he propped himself against earlier in the fight.
Saber’s once-proud figure is left in a battered heap on the floor as Rider canters around to deliver the final blow. Just before the lance skewers him, however, the fallen Servant slithers aside, crawling around to the other side of the pillar in a totally undignified manner. Rider is forced to pull up and back away, warhorse snorting in contempt. Saber coughs wetly, then tears off his gauntlets and wraps his bloodsoaked hands around the hilt of his sword.
“So, this was the best I could do, hmm.”
He mutters, then frowns and gives his shredded right arm a shake. The fingers of his right hand twitch slightly, but no more than that. He heaves himself to his feet, back braced against the pillar, teeth set in a rictus of agony.
“I suppose I can’t expect mercy from you this time, though. I thought tonight’s altercation would be a simple skirmish, but it turned into a pitched battle before I knew it.”
Rider’s expression doesn’t change as Saber continues to talk. He nudges his horse in the left flank and it begins to circle around the pillar. In response Saber simply edges around in the opposite direction, always keeping the six-foot wide obstruction between himself and his opponent.
“Well…if it’s going to be an all-out battle, there’s little point in holding anything back.”
Saber fumbles with his sword, eventually managing to grasp the hilt with both hands. He closes his eyes and exhales, the noise oddly loud despite the raucous sounds of battle emanating from Lancer and Berserker’s side of the area.
“…Almighty King of Beasts. Coeur de Lion.”
Silence descends beneath the overpass. Lancer and Berserker freeze in place, their eyes suddenly transfixed upon the injured swordsman. Rider’s eyes widen with sudden apprehension, but he too remains absolutely still. Saber’s eyes remain closed, pain lines marring his features, and at first you think his Noble Phantasm has failed to activate.
A flickering something begins to dance around Saber’s feet, a shimmering in the air that suddenly blazes into a golden aura that envelops the battered Servant from head to toe. Smooth at first, the golden glow becomes more ragged as it expands, boiling into innumerable flickering edges that evoke the image of the mane of a great lion. Saber’s body straightens up, his blue eyes suddenly blazing with life as the pallid grey markings on his flesh dissolve away beneath the glistening golden light.
Caster draws a sharp breath beside you, clearly taken aback by this. She purses her lips in contemplation, her brow knitted into a thoughtful frown. You have no time to ask her what she’s thinking, because at that moment Saber steps out from behind the pillar and rushes at Rider, sword outstretched. Rider reacts immediately, jabbing his mount in the sides sharply. The warhorse wickers and steps lightly aside and out of range of Saber’s spirited but clumsy lunge.
Saber simply smiles.
Then laughs triumphantly as the golden aura flows along the length of his sword and over the tip, immediately doubling its length. The ethereal edge bites into Rider’s horse, passing through the plate armour covering its flanks without marring the steel. The warhorse shrieks as Saber’s charge drags the golden sword out of its flesh, trailing a billowing cloud of bright red particles behind it.
The length of the blade that passed through the horse is the same shade of red, a pulsing, swirling mass that reminds you of fresh and bloody meat. As you watch the redness is drawn down the blade and into the aura surrounding Saber himself, dissolving and diluting into the main mass of energy. Rider lets out a shout of frustration and tries to spur his mount forwards before Saber can turn back for another strike, but the swordsman turns with impossible speed for one so injured and lashes out at the horse’s flank once again.
Once more the aura flows along his blade and phases through the horse’s armour, and once again the resulting redness is absorbed. As Rider and his mount gallop out of Saber’s range you notice that Saber is standing taller and more confidently than before, despite the fact that he was on the verge of death less than a minute ago.
“So that’s how it works. Prana absorption…he stole some of Rider’s energy to strengthen himself.”
You cast a questioning glance at Scathach, who remains intent on the battle below.
“That must be what his Noble Phantasm does. It creates a ‘shroud’ around him that pillages the prana of anything that enters it. He used it to unravel the curse I placed upon him, then channelled the energy into charging at Rider, gambling that he could acquire more from him. It seems he can control the size and shape of the field too.”
You look down at the red-haired Servant. The Saracens had legends that Richard the Lionheart devoured the hearts of his fallen enemies to gain their strength, and some European myths spoke of him killing and eating the heart of a literal lion. Prana, the heart, and blood are all intimately linked, as you well know. When Saber’s aura strikes, it must siphon prana directly from the enemy’s body, bypassing all physical defences.
Even so, Saber’s own injuries aren’t disappearing. His right arm still hangs uselessly at his side, and the gouges in his chest and abdomen continue to bleed a little. The added prana is clearly strengthening him and preventing him from dying, but he doesn’t seem to be able to heal himself with it. A powerful strike to the head or heart could still kill him.
Of course, such a disadvantage mattered little against Rider. The aged Servant’s Master is a weak magus who probably cannot supply him with a great deal of prana. Though his movements up until this point have been almost perfectly conservative and efficient, the fact remains that he is still using up power that might be difficult to replace. An opponent who can take what little he has is the worst possible enemy he could face at the moment.
Suddenly the scales are evened out. Neither Saber nor Rider can afford to make any reckless moves, and both Lancer and Berserker are tied up in their own battle. Looking down at Saber’s fearlessly grinning face, part of you wonders whether he was planning on this from the moment Lancer entered the area.
The aura around Saber vibrates slightly, then expands outwards like a rich yellow fog, extending to cover an area of ten metres around him in every direction. Rider frowns and grips his lance tightly, clearly weighing up whether or not he should charge through the rippling field of energy and strike at Saber.
Saber’s creation of a safe haven for himself causes you to realise something – the rooftop you are on is dangerously exposed. As you are now you would be easy pickings for Archer or Assassin. The overpass blocks a direct line of sight from Blackpool Tower, but that doesn’t mean Archer couldn’t simply reposition himself to take a shot at you. On the other hand, moving to a more out-of-the-way location could hinder your observation of the battlefield. It would also leave Eudokia and Irene exposed, although in the latter case your raven should alert you to any danger.
What do you do?
1. Remain where you are and watch the battle, trusting in your ravens to warn you of anything that might hurt you.
2. Remain where you are and watch the battle, but ask Caster to shield you from view like she did at the start of the War. (This will cut you off from your ravens, however.)
3. Fall back to a more defensible location and observe the fight from a safe distance.
You decide to remain where you are for now. If Archer and Assassin are skulking around then moving to a more distant location would simply isolate you and make you an easier target. Overall it’s simply safer to remain here and trust in your familiars to keep a lookout for any suspicious happenings further afield.
Eudokia bit her tongue in frustration as Lancer pirouetted away from the charging bear yet again, spinning aside after opening up more shallow wounds along its flanks. Every fresh wound jolted her control over the great beast, threatening to unravel the already tenuous shackles preventing it from going truly wild. The ferocious beast’s mind seethed with images of primal savagery from a simpler, more brutal time beneath the mental chains that kept it more or less under her command. Now, though, it was fighting back.
The predator spirit raged against her control, crying out for blood and guts, for splintered bones and crushed marrow. Keeping it in check was as easy as flying a microlight through a hurricane and if it broke free there was no telling what would happen. It had taken Eudokia months of preparation to craft the intricate spells and rituals needed to allow her Servant to use his Noble Phantasm, carefully delving past the immense mental block that was Mad Enhancement, and if her control failed now the results would almost certainly not be pretty. At best her Servant’s Noble Phantasm would deactivate and leave him disadvantaged. At worst…
Eudokia shivered, and not from the cold. She reached into her coat with trembling hands and drew out the small bottle containing her heart medication. She fumbled with it for a moment before succeeding in shaking out three or four white pills, which she swiftly swallowed down without water. The Greek Magus did her best to regulate her breathing, but her heart continued to pound against her chest. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Saber surrounded by some sort of golden glow, but could not spare him any but the briefest of glances.
Below her Lancer reversed his grip on his spear and swung the blunt end into one of the bear’s front legs. Bone splintered with a sickening crunch, and the bear bellowed in agony. It lunged forwards drunkenly, but its jaws snapped closed on empty air as Lancer jumped back out of range. The bear’s predator spirit shuddered and pulsed, and this time it did not die down. Eudokia hissed in despair as her spells began to fail, torn apart like wet paper in a gale.
She could not maintain control. Her enchantments would fail and the bear’s savagery would be let loose, undirected and uncontrollable. It would be a disaster, it would be…
A sudden, desperate plan began to form in Eudokia’s mind. All along she had been fighting her Servant’s savage nature, suppressing it with all her strength and directing what remained with her own will. But perhaps there was another way. Perhaps if she stopped trying to suppress the bear’s rage and simply stood back and focused on directing it she could turn the situation on its head. If she worked with the beast’s anger and simply nudged it where it needed to go…
It was a risky plan, but it was all she had. Eudokia took a deep breath, then another, then released nearly all of the shackles around the beast’s bloodthirsty spirit.
You notice the change immediately, though it’s hard to describe it. A sudden feeling of dread descends over the battlefield, similar to the cold, sinking sensation in the pit of one’s stomach whilst falling from a great height. Beneath the overpass the bear suddenly freezes in place, its blazing silver eyes closing for the first time since the battle began. A spasm ripples through its body, and a choking gurgle escapes its throat. Lancer seizes on the apparent opportunity and closes in, thrusting the thicket of barbed thorns at the end of his lance towards the great beast’s head.
It happens so fast you don’t see it.
Lancer flies backwards through the air, his spear flying out of his hands. A dark blur smashes into him mid-flight, and the next moment the bear smashes the spearman into the floor with its single remaining good paw. The concrete shatters under the force of the blow, sending stone chips flying all over the battle area. Lancer coughs up blood as the bear presses its weight down upon him, pinning him to the ground like an insect in a specimen case.
The bear roars in triumph and rakes at Lancer’s prone body with its claws, easily ripping through his patchy armour and tearing deep furrows into his chest. Lancer thrashes wildly, but without his weapon there is little he can do to prevent the animal from savaging him. It is only when the bear rears back on its hind legs to deliver a fatal blow that he is able to roll aside, escaping certain death by mere inches as the beast’s claws smash a six-foot wide crater into the concrete. Lancer scrambles to his feet, but the bear is between himself and his spear. All traces of confidence are gone from his face, which is now pallid and strained.
On the other side of the battlefield Rider seems to have finally decided to act. He kicks his mount forwards, the horse rippling and changing into a sleeker, swifter pure white gelding. As he enters the shimmering golden field surrounding Saber tiny motes of red begin to float out of both he and his charging horse, but the mounted warrior pays them no heed. Rider’s cavalry lance thrusts forwards at Saber’s head, but the swordsman simply wilts backwards and turns the steel tip aside with his own weapon.
This time though the red-haired King manages a return strike. His blade rips into the side of Rider’s horse as it passes by, rings of mail popping and tearing as it shears through the chainmail protecting its flank. The attack fails to draw blood and Rider swiftly exits the golden field surrounding Saber, then wheels his mount around to face him again.
Rider glances down at the torn section of mail, frowns, then shifts in the saddle. The armour covering the horse shivers for a moment, then vanishes entirely, replaced by a thicker, sturdier and altogether stronger-looking set comprised of many overlapping metal plates. Saber exhales and hunches his shoulders, eyeing the mounted Servant warily.
“...Do you plan on pulling out a new set of armour every time it gets damaged? New horses, too? If so this could become rather tedious.”
The old warrior simply smiles.
“Consider it a compliment, my King. For you, I bring out only the finest.”
Saber chuckles and readies his sword once more.
Off to the side you see that Lancer is in deep trouble. In the intervening time he appears to have recovered his weapon, though at great cost; blood runs down the entirety of his left leg, which is riddled with tooth and claw marks. The bear circles around him, silver eyes unblinking. Lancer tries to back away, but his wounded leg buckles beneath him and he falls to the ground.
The ferocious predator leaps at the opportunity. The bear becomes a furry black meteor roaring across the battlefield, its paws hitting the concrete floor hard enough to leave a multitude of cracks in their wake. The spearman vanishes underfoot as the bear slams into him, disappearing under three tons of rage given form. A nauseatingly wet crunching noise accompanies the impact, and though you cannot see Lancer himself the quickly-spreading pool of crimson flowing out from beneath the great beast speaks for itself.
“Well, that’s the end of him.”
You mutter, turning your attention back to Saber and Rider. Now all that’s needed is for Berserker to resume his attack on Saber and two of your Servant’s most dangerous opponents will have been eliminated from the War. With a bit of luck you might also be able to get rid of Eudokia too-
Scathach’s hand clamps down on your shoulder with a vice-like grip, and she roughly turns you back to face the area where Lancer and Berserker were fighting. You open your mouth to ask what the problem is…then stop as the scene below burns itself into your mind.
The barbed tip of Lancer’s spear glistens wetly in the half-light. The ugly lance thrusts up from between the bear’s shoulder blades, bursting up and out of its black fur like a bed of crimson thorns growing out of a field of dark grass. Abruptly the spear twists viciously and pulls back, vanishing into the bear’s body with a horrible sucking sound. The beast lets out a soft, low groan, then topples onto its side with a thump that sends sharp vibrations through the ground.
Lancer pulls himself up from where he had lain beneath the creature, looking tired and haggard but triumphant. He leans heavily on his spear, his enemy’s blood still dribbling gently down through the rivets until it reaches the ground. He peers at Saber and Rider’s battle for a moment before turning around and slowly walking towards the sidelines, gingerly favouring his good leg.
So he doesn’t notice the enormous body of the great bear begin to stir. The giant creature silently rolls back onto its feet, blood still pouring from its massive wounds. You are shocked that the bear could survive such colossal injuries, but even so it’s obvious that Lancer’s final strike was a mortal blow. The bear hauls itself forwards and drunkenly swings its good claw at the spearman’s back.
Lancer moves like a snake, just barely managing to slip around his spear and interpose the weapon between himself and the bear. His expression is one of pure shock as a series of desperate bites and claw swipes force him back across the floor and towards one of the overpass’s main support struts. The bear’s fatal injury seems to be pushing it to attack even more ferociously and recklessly than before, and the only question now seems to be whether it will manage to kill Lancer before dying of its own injuries.
The familiar mental shriek of alarm from one of your ravens pulls your attention away from the fight. You upload part of your consciousness into the bird in question, the one currently keeping tabs on Irene. You see her down below, standing on top of a fairly tall building about half a street away from where you are. It’s a flat-topped building, probably a shop of some kind, with a dark iron fire escape allowing access to the top. You breathe a mental sigh of relief upon seeing her still there, but then you notice what the bird did – that there is someone else on the roof with her.
A man wearing a black coat.
One of Eudokia’s black-coats.
But she said the eight she sent with you were the only ones left who could still fight.
…What could this mean? Well, the most obvious answer is that Eudokia was lying to you and had some forces held in reserve. It could be simply a precaution to protect Irene, but then why has this black-coat only appeared just now? Is there, perhaps, more to Eudokia’s plan that she didn’t tell you? Perhaps it’s simply you being paranoid, but the appearance of this unknown black-coat seems just a little out of place. You focus on the scene more closely. The black-coat appears to be saying something to Irene, who responds by nodding and walking over to the fire escape.
Is she about to leave? But that’s not possible, you compelled her to stay and…and carry out the duties that were given to her.
…What duties did the black-coat give to her?
You think furiously. You could go and confront Irene and the black-coat directly, but that might mean walking into a trap if there are more like him lurking unseen. It would also mean leaving Eudokia unprotected, although if she really is planning on getting rid of you now it would be to your benefit to leave her here. Adding to that, venturing out would leave you vulnerable to Archer and Assassin if they happen to be creeping about.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s time to simply get the hell out of here. You’ve done your bit; let everyone else fight it out. You could return to the safety of your lair and gather your strength for tomorrow.
In the end, you decide to:
1. Remain where you are and simply monitor what goes on.
2. Investigate the mysterious goings-on where Irene is.
3. **** you, got mine, let’s get out of here.
You remain where you are. Irene vanishes down the fire escape, disappearing out of view behind the building. The black-coat cranes his neck to look up at the sky, and you catch a glimpse of his face; a dark-haired man in the final years of his middle age. You tense a little as his gaze sweeps past your familiar, but he seems not to notice, his face swivelling away without changing expression. The man finishes scanning the sky and begins to pace back and forth around the rooftop, hands thrust into his pockets. Since it doesn’t look like he intends to leave any time soon you withdraw from your familiar.
Down below it looks like the battle between Lancer and Berserker is winding down. A heavy blow knocks Lancer’s injured leg out from under him, and the spearman goes down hard. He twists his spear to deflect another blow, but the bestial strength behind it nearly tears his weapon out of his hands again. On the floor and barely holding on, Lancer grits his teeth as the bear’s jaws descend to tear out his throat.
A sound like the hissing of static fills the area. The killing stroke never falls as the bear freezes in place, blood still flowing from the massive hole through its body. Its silver eyes shudder and shrink into tiny pinpricks of metallic light, then wink out, leaving nothing but empty blackness behind. The beast’s body shimmers like a mirage, and the hissing noise grows louder. Hairline cracks begin to run through its black fur, and eerie silver light pours through them.
The sound of static rises to a crescendo just as the silver light grows too bright to look at. An instant later the light fades, and the bear simply falls to pieces, its glossy black fur reduced to shards of dark pottery that collapse into dust as soon as they hit the floor. Stillness falls over the battlefield, Saber and Rider having paused their battle to regard the death of the great bear.
Lancer nudges the pile of dust with an outstretched foot. The motes scatter into the air and vanish into the night, borne aloft by a sudden wind. The spearman pushes himself to his feet with a look of slightly confused relief, then scatters the rest of the dust with the butt of his spear.
Looking down at the scene below, you can’t help but feel that something isn’t right. One would expect Berserker to dissolve into golden particles of spirit as his existence was erased from the world, but the bear disintegrated into physical dust instead. You say as much to Caster, who nods and surveys what little remains of the bear with narrowed eyes.
“…It certainly is strange.”
Scathach remarks. She reaches out to delicately catch one of the scattering motes between forefinger and thumb, then rolls it between her fingers, giving it a calculating gaze.
“…This is not spiritual debris. These grains are the remnants of an ether clump.”
You frown. Ether clumps are generally the result of the improper materialization of true ether, where the fifth imaginary element is manifested without first being combined with wind, fire, water or earth.
“That makes no sense, though. Servants aren’t formed from ether clumps. Besides, everyone knows ether clumps are useless. They fall apart as soon as you stop putting prana into them.”
You object. Scathach nods slowly, though she looks uncertain.
“True. A magus might be able to shape such a clump into a low-grade familiar, but there wouldn’t be any point…”
“…since he could get better results by using regular ether.”
You finish for her. Scathach murmurs her assent and flicks the tiny grey mote away.
“Either way, that thing was absolutely not a Servant.”
“Which means…the real Berserker is still out there somewhere.”
Eudokia’s world was a red haze of pain and confusion. It was also sideways, and it took her some time to realise that she was lying on her side.
She tried to speak, but only blood came out. She tried to roll over, but her limbs felt as if they were full of lead. After much effort Eudokia rolled herself onto her stomach, then clumsily hauled herself into a sitting position.
What had happened? One moment she was urging the great bear on, willing it to tear out Lancer’s throat before it succumbed to its injuries. The next she found herself lying here on the floor, the rain soaking her to the bone. The only transition had been a snapping sensation, the feeling that something in her head had been forcibly severed.
Eudokia suddenly realised that she could no longer feel her Servant’s presence in her mind. Panicking, she focused harder and tried to find the tethers that bound him to her will. She strained past the pain and fatigue to grasp at the reins that directed her Berserker, to bring him under her power once more.
She found nothing. Which could only mean that the ritual holding Berserker back had been disrupted somehow. If Eudokia had been in command of her wits she would have cursed Irene for not guarding her Servant well enough, but the pain that lanced through her as her Servant began to take what little prana she had left prevented her from thinking rational thoughts.
Desperately she tried to stand, but her legs refused to move. Streams of blood ran from Eudokia’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth, staining her pale face scarlet. Her heartbeat was thready and uneven, and her stomach heaved with nauseous convulsions. The Greek magus’s breathing was sharp and irregular, her pupils dilated until they completely obscured her irises. A single thought made its way through the pain and frustration.
Her Servant was on the loose, and she was in no condition to do anything about it.
Your raven alerts you to the approaching figure mere seconds before he appears on the scene. A swarthy giant crashes through the chain link fence around the bottom of the underpass, the woven metal failing to slow him even slightly. His skin is a dark bronze colour shot through with flecks of black, and a shaggy mass of coarse black hair frames a snarling face full of blunt, blocky teeth. The axe he grips in his left hand is enormous; the handle alone must be four or five feet long, and the actual blade is the size of a car door.
You draw a sharp breath. Suddenly everything clicks into place. The bear, the ether clump, the barbarian’s human form…Though many berserkers are said to have embodied the spirits of raging beasts, one in particular stands above the rest. One man had such a strong connection with the animal world that he was able to summon forth a great phantasmal bear spirit from the ethereal realms, a beast that he could control and direct as if it were his own body.
Bödvar Bjarki. One of the twelve berserkers who followed King Hrólf on his adventures, and the last line of defense when his liege was threatened. In the Bjarkamál Bödvar stonewalled an entire army whilst in the form of a bear, directing it with willpower alone whilst his body lay in a deep trance.
Bödvar’s sudden appearance seems to shock those already present, but the muscular barbarian pays them no heed and simply lashes out at the closest Servant. His axe blade blurs into a haze of steely white light that quickly turns red as it cleaves through Rider’s mount, neatly severing its head from its body. The stocky Servant yells in surprise as his horse crumples to the ground, scrambling away to avoid being flattened by its headless body.
“Care to explain what’s going on?”
Saber asks dryly.
“Something has gone wrong. Berserker has escaped his restraints somehow. Lady Hellespont no longer commands him, else he would not have attacked me.”
Rider frowns, and the oversized lance in his hands shrinks down to become his usual short sword.
“Saber. This man is mad, and will surely cause much destruction unless something is done. I am loathe to ask it, but…will you aid me in defeating him?”
The red-haired Servant remains still for a moment, then walks forwards to stand next to Rider.
“…If anyone else had asked, I would have refused. But since it is you, I am willing to declare a truce for the time being.”
He raises his sword, then levels it at Berserker in a duellist’s challenge.
“How surprising. So even you have some small measure of honour? In that case, allow me to help as well.”
Lancer limps forwards to stand on Rider’s other side.
“Besides, we’ve been fighting for so damn long it’s about time one of us falls.”
Saber chuckles and inches forwards.
Bödvar explodes into motion, dashing forwards whilst swinging his axe in sweeping arcs in front of his body. Saber and Lancer dart to either side and slash at the brute’s flanks whilst Rider braces himself against the giant’s incoming strike. Lancer’s spear scrapes the flesh from Berserker’s left flank whilst Saber lays his right arm open from wrist to elbow, but their attacks do little to stop Berserker from hammering into Rider.
Berserker’s axe shears through Rider’s short sword and snaps the blade off near the hilt, then carries on and bites into his armour. Metal screams as Bödvar’s axe tears into Rider’s breastplate, but the old warrior’s expression remains set in a steely mask and he refuses to take a step back. The broken hilt of his sword ripples and becomes a longsword which Rider thrusts into the giant’s chest.
The bronze-skinned barbarian growls deeply, the first sound he has made since the battle began. His free hand balls itself into a fist and lashes out at Rider, sending him stumbling back. Bödvar raises his axe over his head, but Saber impales him from behind, his sword wrapped once more in his golden aura. The giant whirls around, shaking himself from side to side, but Saber manages to hang on, twisting his embedded weapon around in his opponent’s guts.
Berserker grunts and reaches around with his spare hand, his grasping fingers fastening around Saber’s damaged arm. He growls again before yanking the swordsman off his back and then hurls him bodily into the rising Rider, sending the pair clattering to the floor. Berserker raises his axe to his mouth and bites down on it, his beady eyes full of rage and hate and pain, then stomps forwards towards his fallen foes.
Berserker’s head whips to the side, his shaggy hair flying all around. Lancer stands to the side, the end of his spear wreathed with deadly flames. The giant growls and turns to face the new threat, but Lancer is already moving. Berserker’s axe swings down to cleave the spearman in half, but Lancer evades with a spinning hop to one side, wincing as he lands on his injured leg. Nevertheless he follows through, striking under Berserker’s guard with an upwards thrust into his chest.
The ugly spear bites deep into the brute’s flesh. It chars and cauterizes the wound as it bores through, and the backwash of fire spurting back out sets his hair and beard alight. Berserker bellows and tries to rip the spear out of his body with his free hand, but Lancer digs in his heels and keeps pushing forwards. The flames begin to spread out from the wound, crawling over Bödvar’s flesh like a thousand flesh-eating insects. Only then does Lancer wrench his spear free.
The burning giant goes into a frothing, bellowing rage, swinging his axe in random directions. Berserker claws at his face with his free hand, trying to put out some of the flames, but this only succeeds in transferring some of the fire to his unburned arm and enrages him still further. He blindly lashes out with his axe, striking one of the supporting pillars and causing it to explode into a hailstorm of fragments.
As the barbarian takes a step back after the swing, Rider ducks in low under his guard and thrusts his longsword into Bödvar’s heart. Blood gushes forth and stains the old warrior’s silver armour a deep russet colour, but he simply grunts and pushes his blade in further. Berserker looses a hooting grunt and, with the last of his strength, swings his axe down at Rider’s body.
It never reaches him, because Saber’s sword takes Bödvar’s burning head off at the shoulders. The swordsman flips off the giant’s back just as his body begins to totter and fall, landing with cat-like grace several metres away. Berserker’s headless body hits the ground and explodes into golden spirit particles. The motes of light flare brilliantly for a moment, then fade away into nothingness.
A small red point of light launches into the sky from somewhere within the cityscape. It arcs high into the air, then explodes into a fountain of red sparks. An observer would think the dancing lights to be a firework of some kind, but you know better. The Grail War Coordinator has confirmed that the soul of a Heroic Spirit has entered the Lesser Grail. Berserker is well and truly dead.
Silence descends in the wake of the giant’s death. Their temporary truce at an end, the three remaining Servants eye one another warily. Lancer shifts his weight over to his uninjured leg and grasps his still-burning weapon with both hands. Rider’s battered armour morphs into a lighter set of unbroken chainmail, and Saber’s aura continues to flicker up his blade like golden flames.
The silence stretches on for an agonizing half-minute before Saber finally lowers his sword.
“Gentlemen. Might I propose something? None of us are uninjured, and if this battle continues it will simply add to the wounds of any survivors. We would be easy prey for Assassin or Archer. Therefore, I recommend that we all agree to a mutual withdraw from this location. What say you two?”
Rider hesitates for a moment, then lowers his sword as well.
“This is acceptable to me. I must see to my Master’s safety as soon as possible. If the Knight of the Lance will agree, then I would like to take my leave now.”
You expect Lancer to object to Saber’s proposal, but he simply nods and lowers his lance. The flames surrounding the tip flicker a little before guttering out entirely.
“I have no issue with it. Besides-”
Lancer smiles an arrogant, confident smile.
“Now I know that I can kill you, Saber. Now that I know who you are…”
He trails off with a chuckle, then turns around and reverts to spirit form. Saber raises an eyebrow, then shrugs and turns back to Rider.
“I suppose I’ll be seeing you again sometime. I hope you didn’t damage too many of your best weapons and armours back there.”
Rider sighs and looks down at the ground.
“Nothing I wouldn’t have ransomed back. Except the horse, perhaps. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
He bows to the swordsman and walks away. Saber shakes his head, then turns to stare up at where you stand. For a moment you feel a thrill of apprehension wash over you, but the Lionheart breaks eye contact, shakes his head, then dissolves into spirit form a breath later.
You find yourself alone on the roof with Scathach. The witch is no longer leaning on her staff, but you can tell that she’s still very tired and needs rest. Going home immediately and avoiding being drawn into any further battles would be a sensible choice. On the other hand, Eudokia is probably alone and unprotected right now. Your raven is currently flying over the opposite side of the area so you can’t see what’s going on where she was standing last, but it wouldn’t be hard to jump over and see what’s become of her.
But even more interestingly, a brief glance through your other raven shows you that Irene is now back on top of her roof – and Mr. Extra Black-Coat is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps you should go over there and try to work out just what she was up to during the time she wasn’t where she was supposed to be.
1. Go home.
2. Go check on Eudokia.
3. Go check on Irene.
With most of her followers dead and her Servant eliminated Eudokia’s position in the War has been severely weakened. There’s also the possibility that the failure of the plan was due to internal divisions within the Hellespont family, particularly considering Irene’s suspicious behaviour and the presence of an unknown black-coat at the scene. The timid blonde didn’t seem capable of such a brazen betrayal, but…
Regardless, the balance of power has shifted; the Greek magus is now exceptionally vulnerable. Under the circumstances it would probably be best to try and maintain your alliance for the time being. But this time, you will be the one directing it. For that to happen you’ll need to make sure Eudokia is safe.
It doesn’t take long to return to the rainswept rooftop where Eudokia is. She stares up at you from the floor as you approach, her gaze dull and unfocused. Her face and the shoulders of her coat are stained red with streaks of blood. You reach down and haul her to her feet, wrapping an arm around her waist to keep her from falling over.
You ask quietly. Eudokia coughs wetly, and when she speaks her words are rough and hollow, delivered in short and painful phrases.
“…Berserker…woke up. Disrupted my link. Went out of control.”
She closes her eyes and shudders. A fresh trail of blood begins to leak from her left eye.
“Not meant to happen. Irene…Irene was meant to guard him. Alert me if anything happened.”
Eudokia falls silent. You think back to how Irene left her post towards the end of the battle.
“We were monitoring Irene from where we were standing. Towards the end of the fight she met with one of your cousins, then left the building via the fire escape. Could that have had something to do with it?”
Eudokia’s head jerks around, confusion written all over her face.
“What…? But…but there aren’t any more cousins. I sent all I had left with you, Apostle. Unless you count the injured, but…but none of them are in any state to…”
Eudokia trails off, a sudden gust of wind causing her to sway drunkenly to one side. Caster moves around to the other side and puts an arm around her shoulders to steady her.
“Master, this place is too exposed. We can discuss what happened here later.”
You nod and together with Caster carefully carry Eudokia down to the streets below. Whilst you wait for Eudokia to catch her breath, two shapes emerge out of the shadows, eventually resolving themselves into the form of Rider and Irene. Irene looks bedraggled, her long hair hanging in lumpy wet clumps, and her face turns pale when she sees Eudokia’s bloodstained state.
She stammers, putting one foot forwards and then jerking it back as if she can’t decide whether to approach or not.
“We were rather hoping you could tell us.”
You remark. Irene flinches as Eudokia favours her with a wintry glare.
“I…I just did as I was told. ‘Berserker’s strength is insufficient. Wake him so he may bring his full strength against the enemies of the Hellesponts.’ Those were the Honoured Successor’s orders…w-weren’t they? Cousin Basil said so.”
Eudokia straightens up, though she still leans against you for support. When she responds her words are tinged with the heat of anger.
“I gave no such order. Nor would I ever have. Bödvar’s strength is far greater whilst in his primal form. Lancer would have been killed had you not interfered!”
Irene shrinks back from Eudokia’s rebuke. Silence hangs in the air, broken only by the incessant pattering of rain against the tarmac.
“...It might be just a cruel twist of fate.”
Scathach murmurs, frowning at Rider and Irene. All eyes turn to stare at her, but your Servant simply carries on.
“In the legends Bödvar held off an entire army whilst in the form of a bear, but died when one of his companions woke him from his trance. I believe the intent was the same, too; the waker believed Bödvar was stronger in the flesh, when the opposite was true. Without the bear, King Hrolf’s position was overrun and his whole army perished. It could be just an ironic coincidence…”
Scathach closes her eyes.
“…Or it could have been intentional. An intentional recreation of the events that led to your Servant’s death in life could well have weakened him.”
Eudokia growls, but her expression quickly turns thoughtful. You run through everything that’s been said so far, trying to puzzle everything out – and then something Irene said previously sets off alarm bells inside your head.
“Irene, did you say the black-coat who spoke with you was called Basil?”
“Yes. Um…is that important?”
You frown and turn to look at Eudokia.
“Wasn’t Basil the one you sent to look for Irene back at the pier? Did he ever come back?”
Eudokia’s breath catches in her throat.
“…No. No, he never came back. But that would mean-”
Eudokia’s face contorts with rage and she swears violently in Greek.
“Basil…Basil was one of my main aides. He helped come up with this plan…he would have known exactly how to disrupt it. I knew there were still traitors within my family, but…”
She turns her head and glares harshly at Irene.
“And you. Were you involved as well? Were you also sneaking around whilst my back was turned?!”
Irene turns even paler and takes several steps back. Scathach sighs and raps her knuckles across Eudokia’s head. The Greek magus stares daggers at her, but your Servant simply raises an eyebrow.
“The girl is too spineless to be a traitor. Besides, she is too weak to take up the mantle of your family’s succession. Your cousin was used as a scapegoat, nothing more.”
Eudokia stares at Scathach, a whole range of emotions contorting her features into a variety of interesting shapes. At last she looks away, exhaling heavily.
“…Yes. Well. Either way, I am in your debt, Apostle.”
She shrugs her left arm out of her coat and holds it up for you to see. A swirling grey sigil is branded upon her skin, exactly halfway between her wrist and elbow. It is composed of three interlocking rings that meet in the middle, resembling a somewhat misshapen Venn diagram. You realize that the circles must be Eudokia’s Command Seals, grayed out and inert due to the death of her Servant.
“Without my Servant, though, I’m not certain why you would bother to save me. If I were in your position I would have killed me immediately to prevent me from forming another contract later on.”
You think back to your earlier reasoning.
“Simple. It is to my advantage to keep this alliance intact for now, and removing you would jeopardize that. Losing you denies us a potential resource. And we’ll be needing all the resources we can get after tonight.”
Eudokia slips her arm back into her coat and nods once, though she doesn’t look happy about it.
“I understand. I don’t like it, though. And you might wind up regretting it, in the future.”
You give her a frosty smile.
“Maybe. But then I have a lot of things I might wind up regretting. And I’d rather regret them in the future than the present. I recommend laying low for a while; we’ll contact you once we have a solid plan for what to do next.”
You reach into one of your jacket pockets and pull out a small white disk about the size of your thumb. A single black line bisects it in the middle, and the disk itself feels like it weighs more than it should. You press it into one of Eudokia’s free hands.
“I assume you have a communications device. We’ll be able to keep in touch as long as you have this.”
The Greek magus stares at the disk flatly before pocketing it. She pulls away from you and walks several steps before stumbling, but Rider strides forth and props her up before she can do more than wobble a bit. Eudokia, Irene and Rider stride off into the night, with Irene casting nervous glances back at you the whole time.
“So. You gave Little-Miss-Control-Freak your number.”
Scathach smirks, her scar deepening until it looks like her face is about to crack open.
“You like assertive ones, do you? Oh, but is it alright to cheat on Irene like this? How scandalous! Master, don’t you know how these tumultuous stories always end?”
You answer your Servant’s grin with a crooked smile of your own before turning to follow Eudokia back into the city.
“By the way…”
Your Servant begins in a tone that suggests an upcoming question.
“Now that the first Servant has fallen and the Grail has begun to fill…what’s your reason for fighting in this War? What do you plan on wishing for, should you win?”
You cast a brief glance at Scathach, wondering how best to respond. After mulling it over for a few seconds you decide to be honest. Your reason for desiring the Grail is:
…Well? What is the reason, OT? Why do you desire the Grail? Is it power? A return to your prior humanity? A suppression of the vampiric blood thirst? Or something else entirely? Operate on the presumption that the Grail will function as stated and isn’t inhabited by a Zoroastrian jackass.
You slacken your pace until Caster catches up with you before answering her question with another question.
“Caster, how much do you know about True Ancestors?”
Scathach pauses for a moment, eyeing you questioningly before responding.
“…Powerful nature spirits linked to the World. As I recall they were imperfect copies of the Crimson Moon, secretly meant to help him conquer the planet. It didn’t pan out for him, but then it’s rather hard to declare yourself king when an irate Sorcerer drops a big rock on you. Oh, and the first Dead Apostles were their servants, I guess. Honestly, I don’t really know much more than that. There were never very many of them and I didn’t ever meet one.”
You shake your head slowly.
“All correct. But you missed the most important part, Caster. The True Ancestors didn’t need to drink the blood of others to survive. They had the thirst for it, but it wasn’t necessary for them to keep on living. We Apostles don’t work that way, though. If we don’t take in the blood of the living every so often our bodies start to break down.”
Your Servant nods impatiently. ‘Yes, I know all of this,’ she seems to say. ‘Get to the point.’
“My wish…my ultimate wish…is to become one of those True Ancestors. Or something like them, anyway. At the very least I want to get rid of the blood thirst that makes life so difficult for me.”
A strange expression flits across Scathach’s face, something midway between a smile and a grimace with a raised eyebrow thrown in for good measure.
“That’s…quite ambitious. And very much unlike a monster, to wish that he did not have to harm others.”
You shrug and keep walking, staring straight ahead.
“It’s nothing so noble. It’s just being pragmatic. Not needing blood means not needing Dead. No Dead means less chances of attracting the attentions of the Bible-Bashing squad. I would have eternity to do whatever I wanted without having to worry about scoring a fix to keep my body together. It would mean having all the benefits of Vampirism with none of its drawbacks. The rest is just a happy coincidence.”
You exit the narrow street leading to the overpass and cross over onto Waterloo Road. A few cars plough their way through the pouring rain, and a handful of pedestrians go about their business. Scathach mutters something under her breath, and her black and silver armour distorts, its image fuzzing like a badly-tuned television. Moments later the image clears, and your Servant is wearing a smart black top and skirt that reaches down to her knees.
You look down at your torn and ragged clothing and realise with a sinking feeling that you probably look far more suspicious than she does right now.
The road is lined with large commercial stores, and as you walk by a glass-fronted electronics shop you notice one of the display TV’s in the window is broadcasting a news story. The subtitled display reports a rise in break-ins and vandalism in the Blackpool area, with the police on the lookout for suspects in a series of burglaries in jewellery shops across the city. The top news story however is about an explosion in Stanley Park, which city officials are treating as a potential bombing. You raise an eyebrow at Caster, whose look of innocence is just a little too perfect to be true.
“Anyway, that’s my wish. Mind telling me what yours is? You said we could talk about it later, and it is later.”
Caster casts you a calculating gaze, but quickly looks away with a slight shrug.
“I’d ask for the gift of mortality.”
You glance at her briefly.
“You want to live again? That’s pretty reasonable. I’m sure lots of Heroic Spirits would like to have a second life-”
“No, that’s not it.”
Scathach interrupts heatedly. You stare at her, surprised by the intensity of her objection.
“That’s not it, Master. I do not simply want to live again. I want to live a boring, normal, everyday life. And at the end of it, I want to die as a normal person.”
You look at your Servant incredulously.
“You want to die? Are you serious?”
Scathach folds her arms, her face downcast, her expression melancholy.
“I suspect my wish seems strange to you. You want power, and the Grail can grant it to you. But beware, Vampire. If you gain too much power, if you leave too big a footprint upon the world, and if you do too many terrible or wonderful things, you may very well find yourself in the same position as me. Isolated and alone, unable to die, but not really living, wasting away for all time until you are subsumed into the World. It is not a fate I would wish on anyone. Even a monster.”
You recall the image of Scathach in your dreams. A sad and lonely figure trapped on her island, frozen in place as the world marched on around her. A fading bubble of eternity that became her prison of her own making.
You shiver and look away. Trapped alone like that would be a fate worse than death.
But even so…
Even so, your position differs from hers too greatly. You’re confident that, no matter what path you tread, you won’t wind up in the same place as her.
“It looks like our wishes are complete opposites.”
You say quietly, still partly lost in thought. Scathach says nothing and simply keeps walking.
“…Anyway. How are your injuries? Anything serious?”
Your Servant shakes her head.
She remarks, her voice suddenly business-like again.
“If I had to put it into numbers I’d say I’m at about 65% strength. Saber gave me a few cuts, but I managed to avoid damaging any tendons. I should be back to my usual strength if I rest for a while.”
A sudden thought hits you.
“Will you be rested enough by tomorrow? It’ll be the night of the full moon.”
Scathach hesitates for a moment.
“…Maybe. I have an idea of what you’re thinking, Master. After tonight’s battle nobody will be anticipating a second attack so soon. But the only Servant whose location we currently know of is Lancer. And Lancer’s Magic Resistance would make him troublesome to fight.”
You stop at a street corner, wait for a battered Volkswagen to trundle past, then cross the road into the industrial district.
“…It seems like it’s been nothing but bad luck so far.”
You remark acidly. Scathach barks out a short laugh.
“Ha! That’s true. But at least it wasn’t only us suffering it. Berserker is dead, Lancer and Saber were both pretty torn up and Rider…well, he’s not in a better position, that’s for sure. As far as tonight went I’d say everyone lost. Except Archer and Assassin, who didn’t take part at all.”
A cold feeling begins to spread throughout your body. Scathach’s words bring some important questions to mind. Where were Assassin and Archer during all of this? You briefly consider whether they might simply not have known about the details of the fight, but dismiss it out of hand half a second later. No, both Servants have proven themselves to be excellent scouts and infiltrators. At least one of them would have to have noticed what was going on.
Perhaps they simply waited and watched the fight unfold. If so they would have discovered much about Saber and Lancer, both of whom proved their identities via their Noble Phantasms. And afterwards, perhaps they would stalk one of them back to their hideout, waiting for the chance to finish them off…Suddenly the darkness of the industrial district seems much more threatening. You shiver and slowly increase your pace. Scathach senses your disquiet and does likewise, and together you hurry back towards the blocky concrete factory that lies above your lair.
Despite your feelings of unease nothing jumps out at you on the way back. You release your third and final familiar to join the other two already circling overhead, but they fail to spot anything that might be considered a threat. But as you stride towards the exterior downwards staircase leading to the basement level you notice something amiss.
A familiar energy hums through the air to the right hand side of the stairway. With your enhanced eyesight you see that the rain appears to be pooling in mid air at around knee height. You reach down and dip your fingers into the floating puddle, and suddenly the invisible object beneath it melts into view, a rectangular packing crate about a metre in length.
A slow smile creeps across your face as you recognise the familiar ‘S’ shape burned into the side of the box.
“Finally. Some good news at last.”
You stoop down and pick up the crate, effortlessly tucking the heavy box under one arm. You turn to face Scathach, who looks inquiringly at the crate.
“Your shopping has arrived, Caster. Express delivery.”
Scathach breaks into a smile that mirrors your own.
“Good. Perhaps today wasn’t a total waste after all.”
You carry the box into your workshop and set it down on one of the stone tables, then crack open the lid with your bare hands. Inside lies a selection of oddments, including bones and cured hides, clear plastic packets containing dried and pressed plants, a selection of sharp talons from an eagle or other bird of prey, all carefully labelled and placed in neat rows inside the box, which is itself lined with felt padding.
Your eyes are drawn to the very centre of the crate where a small space has been cleared. Inside is a small jewellery box, the sort that might hold a precious ring or set of earrings. You reach for the box, and an electric current of magical energy causes your fingertips to tingle. Carefully, you flip open the lid and peer inside.
Within the confines of the box lies a pearly white object roughly the size and shape of a human’s little fingernail. Though its surface is dull it seems to be shedding a soft light over the inside of the box. Slowly, you reach inside-
-And jerk your fingers back as Scathach snaps the box shut.
“Careful with that.”
She cautions, placing her whole hand over the jewellery case.
“What is it?”
You ask, the electric feeling still coursing through your fingertips.
“A fragment of Dragon bone. Even in death it still produces a prana current. I advise you not to touch it as it is now. I will have to carve runes onto it in order to make it safe.”
Caster’s eyes sweep across the remainder of the crate, sizing up the contents.
“Hmm. Your supplier is quite good. I have everything I need to craft a weapon of reasonable power. I already have a design in mind. If you wanted I could get started now and have it ready in time for tomorrow. It would allow us to assault Lancer’s base tomorrow night. If we call in Rider for help our chances of success will be fairly good.”
Scathach begins to sift through the contents of the box by hand, picking out an object here or there and setting them down on a free part of the table.
“On the other hand it means less time for all of us to rest and recover. And our time might be better spent gathering intelligence on how the other Masters are reacting to tonight’s fight. But that would potentially mean squandering the advantage granted by the full moon. It’s your call, Master. I have no objections either way.”
1. Order Caster to go ahead with making the weapon in preparation for an assault tomorrow.
2. Allow Caster to rest and take her time with the weapon and gather intelligence tomorrow night.
“Let’s go on the attack tomorrow. It’s the last thing anyone will expect, and simply going with the flow hasn’t worked out for us too well. It’s time to get more proactive.”
Caster nods and reaches down into the crate, pulling out a pearly white bone roughly as long as a man’s arm and nearly twice as thick. It’s all one piece and clearly far too big to have come from any land mammal. Your servant examines it carefully for a moment before making a satisfied noise in her throat.
“Alright. This should make a good base. The bones of a Whale aren’t as good as those of a true Leviathan, but they’re close enough for me to know what I’m doing.”
Scathach motions you away, so you step back to give her some space. She pushes the crate to one side and lays the bone lengthways upon the table, taking care so that it doesn’t touch anything else. A silvery knife appears in her right hand, the gleaming blade slightly curved and engraved with swirling Celtic script.
You watch with fascination as Caster begins to whittle the bone down, her knife peeling away strips of ossified matter as easily as if she was skinning an apple. Every so often she pauses to run her hands over it, muttering to herself in her native Gaelic before continuing to carve. In less than ten minutes the lumpy and misshapen bone has been transformed into a slim yet sturdy-looking rod, surrounded on all sides by the discarded fragments. Scathach runs her hands over it one final time, then sweeps her hair out of her face with a smile.
“Hm. It’s been so long since I’ve done something like this, I feared I might have forgotten how. But it’s all coming back to me now.”
Your Servant clears the worktop of the remaining fragments before rooting around in the crate once more. With a flourish she pulls out a length of animal hide folded into a lumpy square. The hide is pale and translucent, shot through with greenish-purple veins that give it a distinctly reptilian look despite the lack of scales. Scathach smoothes it out on the table before using her knife to cut the square into a dozen thin strips. She wraps them around the bone rod at regular intervals, aside from the very top and bottom where she leaves conspicuous gaps.
“Bones and hide are good reagents for runic rituals.”
Caster murmurs, carving out notches in one side of the rod in the areas between the strips of hide.
“Runes are effectively rituals in themselves, so it’s easier to scribe them upon living things or objects that were once alive. Makes it easier for prana to flow through them. If you’re good enough you don’t even need reagents…for normal spellcasting, anyway. Trying to make something like this simply by holding the runes in your mind would overload your circuits before you even got halfway.”
You remain silent, content to simply watch her work. After finishing the notches Scathach begins to carve runes along the entire length of the rod. First she engraves the lines with the very tip of her knife, then inks them in with a foul-smelling solution drawn from a small black jar labelled ‘Manticore Bile’.
Scathach works throughout the night and into the day. The rising sun compels you to rest even though you can’t see it, and you settle down to sleep for a time…
Grail War Coordinator Mathias Barnaby put the telephone receiver back in its cradle with a sigh, then rubbed his hands together as if to rid them of some invisible dirt. The blast in Stanley Park was proving rather difficult to explain away; no convenient gas pipes ran beneath the entrance and even the barest hint of terrorist activity would result in a full-scale investigation.
Not that Barnaby was unused to handling such things. In fact, he was rather good at it. In the past he had hunted down and disposed of several rogue magi whose research threatened to bring down the veil of secrecy the Magic Association insisted that everyone remain beneath. Perhaps that was why he had been chosen to oversee this strange ritual imported from the Far East.
On some level it made sense to have someone with his skills involved. After the disaster that was the Fifth Grail War it was determined that the Church alone could not be trusted with sole arbitration, and after much debate it had been decided that a magus would also be present to balance matters out.
Officially it was to provide a check on the power of the adjudicator, to safeguard against potential corruption as had occurred during the Fourth and Fifth Wars. The Church observer would safeguard the Lesser Grail whilst the Association observer would protect the Greater, and the locations would be kept secret from one another.
At the time the farce had made Barnaby chuckle. There would be no corruption this time…because such underhanded measures simply weren’t needed. A Lord of the Association was competing, and it would take a miracle for the Grail to fall into any other hands but his. It was, Barnaby had thought, a foregone conclusion that Lord Henry Monmouth would win the War and claim the Grail.
Barnaby’s chair scraped on the floor as he stood up from behind his desk. He was a tall man just shy of six feet, but his thin and lanky body made him look slightly shorter than he really was. His dark brown eyes peered out at the world from behind a pair of wireframe spectacles, giving his narrow face a somewhat scholarly look. His dark auburn hair hung in a flat sheet to just below his shoulders, carefully combed and brushed until not a single spare strand stuck out.
Barnaby believed appearances mattered, and he kept a small comb about his person just in case the unthinkable happened. Dressed in a long brown coat over a smart grey suit, Barnaby had the appearance of a visiting professor, perhaps from a prestigious institution like the University of London. In point of fact, that was his cover here in the Blackpool Maritime museum.
Yes, he had thought that Monmouth would win with little effort. Even if an alliance formed against him, the strongest Master and the strongest Servant would be able to handle them. Until now, that is.
Barnaby wasn’t sure quite what had transpired at Stanley Park earlier that night. Only that Monmouth’s workshop had been destroyed, at least two of his apprentices had been killed and the man himself was now nowhere to be found. On top of that one of Barnaby’s familiars had spotted Monmouth’s Servant fleeing the scene of battle beneath the underpass, pursued by a malign shadow.
And at the centre of it all, the Dead Apostle Master who had been at both Stanley and the underpass.
Barnaby was about to sit down in his recliner – it was marginally more comfortable and better suited to resting in than the wooden chair behind his desk – when a series of staccato knocks on his office door interrupted him. The Coordinator glanced at his watch and sighed. There was only one person who would bother him at this time of night.
He rumbled, and the door swung open to admit his visitor.
A short, wizened old man stood in the doorway, clad in the white robes and ecclesiastical pallium of the clergy. A gold cloth was draped across his shoulders, falling down across his back like a burnished metal cloak. The man himself was balding, a thin strip of wispy white hair encircling his head the only remnant of what must once have been a truly impressive mane.
But the most striking thing about the newcomer was his eyes, which were the colour of tropical shallows, blue and gentle. Barnaby thought they looked perpetually on the verge of tears.
The priest nodded once to him before stepping over the threshold and carefully closing the door behind him. He turned back to face Barnaby with a serene yet serious look on his face, the sort of look he probably adopted whilst giving sermons lecturing against the vices of sin.
He said, simply. Barnaby raised an eyebrow when his guest did not elaborate.
“Harold. Is there something you wanted?”
Harold White, Barnaby’s opposite number in the Church and fellow arbitrator of the Grail War, slowly closed his eyes.
“…Mathias, I am very disappointed in you. A blood-sucking devil is attempting to profane the Grail with his sinful hands, and you do nothing. You did not even inform me that such a being was a participant. I must say, I am deeply upset by this.”
Barnaby simply nodded, never taking his eyes from the man in front of him.
“Certainly I knew. And it is for precisely that reason that I chose not to share that information with you, Harold.”
White folded his thin arms across his chest and stared reproachfully at Barnaby.
“But Mathias, surely you must understand the danger such a creature poses! Though you are not a believer, surely you see that allowing this Apostle his continued existence poses a threat to this ritual? What if he wins and takes the Grail for himself?”
Barnaby turned around and paced back behind his desk, then sat down heavily. He had known from the start that this conversation was inevitable, but had hoped it would happen later on, towards the end of the War.
“Harold, I don’t care what the Apostle does as long as it doesn’t jeopardize the secrecy of the War. I will tolerate him to the same degree that my Association tolerates his kind. I
Know it’s difficult for you to hear, but we have to remain neutral in this. If he wins then I will hand him the Grail as I would any other competitor.”
White shook his head slowly, his face a picture of regret.
“In that case, I am afraid I cannot continue in my position as an arbitrator of this War. I have reason to believe that this particular heretic is one I have encountered before, in the deeps below Oxford.”
The priest walked forward and placed both hands down on Barnaby’s desk. Barnaby had met several Executors in the past, and each had possessed the same look of burning intensity in their eyes, a fiery fanaticism that shone through no matter how thorough their masks of composure.
Harold White’s gaze was different. His watery blue eyes shone with absolute conviction, but the self-destructive fervour was missing. In its place was an icy cool certainty that was a thousand times more intimidating than any fanatical glare. What Harold White had was Belief, the Biblical sort that warrants the use of a capital letter.
“I came here to inform you of my resignation. I felt it would be unfair not to tell you beforehand.”
Barnaby cracked a wry smile.
“I suppose I won’t be able to convince you otherwise.”
The other man shook his head.
Barnaby shrugged and raised his hands in a gesture of defeat. White nodded deeply and reached inside his vestments. He withdrew a plain white envelope and placed in upon the desk.
“Here is the location of the Lesser Grail. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to gather some trusted friends together. It will probably take a day or two, so if you need me in the meantime…”
Barnaby nodded and tucked the envelope inside his coat. White left the room, closing the door softly behind him as he went. After he was sure the priest had left Barnaby cracked open his desk’s drawer and pulled out the file he maintained on each of the Masters. It had been tough going, but he had collected intel on all of them, even Assassin’s Master, who had taken truly extreme measures to ensure his identity was not discovered.
Barnaby flipped to the pages that held the Apostle’s details and scanned them. In some ways he pitied the Vampire; though apparently old and decrepit, Harold White was known inside the Church as the Missionary, an Executor who specialized in penetrating the lairs of Apostles and bringing the light of God to their dark places.
Barnaby snapped the file shut and put it back in his desk. In the end it wasn’t his concern, and would never be so long as the secrecy of the War remained uncompromised.
You awaken to find your workshop wrapped in an ethereal glow. Tendrils of red light play over the walls, floors and ceiling, all emanating from the middle of the four pillars where Caster works. You scramble to your feet to get a better look, and that’s when you see her, standing in the middle of a square-shaped ritual zone. Runes reside at each of the four corners, all glowing with the same red light. You recognize Thurisaz, the curse rune, and Inguz, which represents the release of energy, but the other two are glowing so brightly you can’t see them.
Each rune is feeding red energy into the rod in Scathach’s hands. The runes and other materials she added to it seem to have partially fused with the central bone, which now looks like lumpy, half-melted candle wax. A dry and dusty grinding noise shudders through the air as the components begin to fuse together in earnest, your Servant’s magical energy opening new pathways into the materials and linking them together on a level so simple and basic that they will never be able to come apart again.
Just before the red light vanishes completely, Scathach raises the rod above her head and whirls it around to point at the swirling collection of metals still gently rotating nearby. The construct pulses for a moment before surging towards the rod, the individual strands of metal spiralling as they unfold and separate from one another. The metal flows over the rod, twisting around it and enfolding it in a lattice so complicated you can’t even begin to understand it.
The room darkens still further, the metal covering seeming to suck the very light out of the air. For a moment the room is plunged into a blackness not even your supernatural eyesight can penetrate. Then the veil lifts, and you see clearly the weapon Scathach has forged for herself. Your first thought is that it’s a sword, but that’s just an elementary description that in no way manages to actually describe what it is. It has a hilt, a crossguard and a blade, but…
The hilt is simple enough, just a cylindrical length of black metal with a leather grip. The crossguard is stranger; it curves upwards on both sides into a crescent moon, and the upward edges are sharpened into blades. Speaking of blades, the sword carries only a single edge, not smooth and flat and flawless like Saber’s sword but jagged and serrated, clearly meant to rip and tear rather than cut cleanly.
The blunt edge of the sword is full of perfectly square-shaped notches, the same ones your Servant cut into the bone earlier on. They remind you of the notches found in medieval swordbreakers, weapons designed to lock down an opponent’s blade so the wielder could strike with a dagger in their off-hand. The entire sword is jet black and glassy, like obsidian.
It also feels…hateful, somehow. Spiteful. Vindictive.
“…Well. That went better than I thought it would.”
Scathach breathes, running one finger along the flat of the blade. Her brow is beaded with sweat, but from her posture you deduce that her exhaustion is mental rather than physical. She swings the sword in a graceful arc, the grace and power behind the cut easily a match for both Saber and Lancer.
“Yes, this is a far better weapon than my staff, useful though it is. I shall name it Caim Frithir, Pain’s Blessing.”
Satisfied, Caster reverses her grip and slides the weapon into a sheath at her side that she must have made whilst you slept.
“Are you good to go?”
You ask quietly, and your Servant turns to face you with a smile.
“I believe so. With this and my Noble Phantasm I am confident that I can defeat Lancer at least.”
You are glad that she is confident. Whilst you watched her work you also ran through a few plans of your own, and you have decided that your next move will be:
1. Call up Eudokia and ask for her to help you assault Robertson’s stronghold directly.
2. Call up Eudokia and ask her to cause a distraction so you can sneak into Robertson’s stronghold and ambush him.
3. Allow Eudokia and her team to rest and use the fading power of the storm to break through his defences with sheer force.
“Caster. I think now is the time to use the power of the storm. There’s enough energy left to take down Robertson’s defences, isn’t there?”
Caster grins, one hand resting on the scabbard at her hip.
“More than enough. No matter how strong a fortress is, the right amount of force directed at the right place will break through it.”
You smile in turn. An overt magical assault on the Destiny Inc. HQ would be impossible due to its location in the middle of the city. That’s probably one thing Robertson is counting on – being a public figure in a public place protects him from an open attack to some degree. A freak lightning strike would raise eyebrows but still be seen as a ‘natural’ event by those who don’t know any better. Only those involved in the Grail War will understand its true significance.
Glancing briefly at your old phone, you consider calling Eudokia and asking her to back you up. After a moment you dismiss the notion; they need more time to recuperate from last night’s disaster. Besides, Caster seems confident she can handle the situation on her own. You thrust your hands into your pockets, feeling the weight of the two huge pistols against your chest. Even without Eudokia, you still have some trump cards left to play.
With that thought still clear in your mind you stride out of your lair, Scathach following after you in spiritual form.
It doesn’t take long to reach Robertson’s HQ. The Destiny Inc. building sits slightly apart from the other buildings around it, particularly from the front where the large concrete plaza extends outwards from the entrance. From your vantage point at the top of a nearby building you can clearly see the craters that Archer’s quarrels hammered into the pavement from the last time you were here. The foot-deep holes have been cordoned off with bollards and security tape.
“Archer isn’t on his perch this time.”
Caster whispers, materializing next to you in a billowing cloud of golden motes. You glance up at the silhouette of Blackpool Tower, but the rain makes it difficult to make out anything specific. You’ll just have to trust your Servant’s superior eyesight.
“Is Lancer inside? Things will be much simpler if he’s not.”
Scathach closes her eyes for a few seconds, a frown creasing her brow. A moment later she sighs and rubs her forehead.
“Yes, he’s in there. Along with some weaker presences that might be elementals or evil spirits or any number of other low-level magical beings. Our opening stroke should take them all out, though. Shall I begin?”
You stand still for a moment, then look past Scathach towards Robertson’s headquarters. The crescent-shaped building is a solid mass of glass, steel and concrete, tall enough to look intimidating yet low enough to give the impression of squat strength and solidity. Even from here you can feel the thrum of ambient magical power given off by the Bounded Fields woven into and outside of its structure, each carefully placed to reinforce and support one another.
In terms of magical ability Robertson is probably better than you, having actually completed his training at the Association, and he’ll have the advantage of home ground and whatever backup he can pull from the leyline. But you have the advantage of surprise and the power of the full moon behind you. If Scathach can lock Lancer down…
You give your Servant a curt nod.
“Go ahead. Show the good CEO he can’t hide away in his office any longer.”
Caster smiles and reaches into a small pouch on her hip. She pulls out a ragged piece of tree bark and bounces it on her palm for a few seconds before turning it over, revealing a rhomboidal rune painted on its undersize. You raise an eyebrow questioningly.
Scathach nods, then flings the shard of bark high into the air. It spins a few times before vanishing with a brief flash.
“That’s it. With the materials we have now there’s no need to worry about lengthy preparations that risk us being discovered. The show should begin in just a moment…”
You peer up at the stormclouds above. For a moment you don’t notice anything different, but then your eyes are drawn to a darker patch of cloud just above the Destiny building. The iron grey colour of the surrounding clouds slowly turns as black as the night sky they conceal, and the inky darkness begins to spread out and cover the area directly above Robertson’s hideout. Rents and tears in the cloud cover begin to appear further out towards the edges of the city as more and more energy is drawn from the outskirts, revealing the starry sky for the first time in almost a week.
The rain intensifies tenfold, falling so thickly that the droplets meld together into what seems like a solid sheet of water. The same pressure you felt when Scathach first called the storm begins to build once again, far more rapidly this time, and as the final tattered remnants of the outer clouds begin to drift away you see a flicker of bluish-white light illuminate the remaining blackness from the inside…
The skull-masked Servant known as Assassin glided down the empty hallway, his misshapen and mismatched limbs no impediment to the grace with which he moved. His long black cloak billowed around him soundlessly, never once rustling or flapping noisily even when parts of it touched the walls on either side of the narrow corridor. His footfalls were similarly silent, and though the floor of the hallway was carpeted with a thin layer of rubble and detritus his passage stirred nothing.
It did not take Assassin long to reach the sturdy metal door at the end of the corridor. The six spidery fingers of his right hand flew over the keypad mounted on the wall next to the door, which swung open soundlessly once the correct password was entered. Assassin ghosted inside.
The new room was dark and full of broken machinery. Two huge mechanical constructs that might have been furnaces and might have been generators rose up from its centre, vanishing into the concrete ceiling in a mess of pipes and rusted wiring. The only sources of illumination were a set of flickering candles placed evenly along the walls, as well as two ornate candelabrum set on either side of the small gap in between the two gargantuan machines. It was to this slender opening that Assassin stalked, but a voice suddenly rang out, stopping him in his tracks just short of the gap.
“You’re late, Assassin. Did something happen?”
Assassin stopped and dropped to one knee, arms extended across his chest in a low bow. When he spoke his voice was the rustle of dead leaves on a dirt path.
“My apologies, Master. The events of last night delayed me considerably, but I believe you will be pleased with what I have discovered so far.”
Silence ruled in the graveyard of machines. Then footsteps echoed around the room, and Assassin’s Master stepped out of the pool of shadows beyond the two candelabrum. He was a youth no older than twenty, dressed in nondescript clothing. Nothing particularly stood out about him; if you passed him on the street you wouldn’t give him a second glance. The only feature about him that stood out was his eyes, which were blank and cold. They were the eyes of a dead fish, staring and unfeeling.
The youth smiled, the expression slithering across his features with unnatural slowness.
“I see. Did you retrieve the Hellespont woman’s circuits, as I requested?”
Assassin lowered himself further to the ground until he was fully prostrate.
“A thousand apologies, Master. I was unable to harvest the circuits as you requested. There were eyes in the sky above the field of battle, and I was forced to take a more cautious approach. Nonetheless, I was able to ensure that her Servant was eliminated. The next time she raises her head I will take it for you, Master.”
His Master’s dead gaze somehow managed to turn even colder.
“No excuses, Assassin. I must have those circuits, and soon. The Einzbern failure’s circuits have proven too temperamental to be of much use.”
He frowned, nothing more than a slight twitch of his brows, before continuing.
“But you say you have news that would please me. Explain.”
Assassin slunk back up to his full height, though his head still tilted downwards in obeisance.
“Indeed. Though my attempts to take the circuits were hindered by the Apostle-Master, I was able to tail Saber for a time. I fought with him briefly, allowed him to think he had driven me off, then stalked him back to where his Master now lies injured and senseless. Along with two others they proceeded to flee the city and take refuge in a forest to the north.”
His Master nodded and motioned impatiently for him to continue.
“I have also determined the location of Archer’s Master. He is currently on board a ship just off the coast. The vessel’s name is ‘The Grey Albatross’. I took the face of one of the crew members whilst I was there. Archer’s Master can be dealt with at any time.”
Assassin’s Master smiled without opening his mouth.
“Oh? With this we know the locations of every Master in the War. You were right; I am pleased. Now we can finally begin in earnest.”
The youth reached inside his jacket and pulled out two blank white envelopes. He flicked them at Assassin, who plucked both out of the air with a casual motion.
“Deliver the first one to Archer’s Master. The usual drop-off point; he’s expecting it. As for the second…”
His Master’s lips curved upwards further, to such a degree that Assassin was sure they would tear apart in the middle.
“Deliver it to our friend the Apostle. Make absolutely sure he gets it. After that...see if you can’t gather a few more faces. And keep working with Archer until he gives you an opening. He’s a good ally, but his Clairvoyance is entirely too powerful to be comforting.”
Assassin nodded wordlessly, then spun on his heel and glided out of the machinery chamber. As he did so he slipped one hand into the folds of his cloak and shook out a flimsy oval of pale, soft material that glimmered in the candlelight. With his other hand he grasped the grinning skull mask that covered his face, jerked it downwards, then slipped the oval into its place without ever revealing his own features.
The Servant’s flesh began to crawl. Lumps rose and fell beneath his dark flesh, his sinews twisting and unravelling like poorly tied whipcord. With every step he lost height, his chest became broader, and his limbs looked more and more normal. After four such steps he no longer resembled the patchwork nightmare from before but a dark-haired man in his late forties; even his clothing was different, his flowing cloak replaced by a stout black coat.
It was true, Assassin thought. He really should obtain a few more faces. One could never have too many, in his experience.
To call the surge of electrical energy that leaps from the clouds and thunders towards the ground a lightning bolt would be to do it a great disservice.
It is far, far more than that.
A jagged beam of incandescent white light crashes down into Robertson’s hideout, a roaring pillar of lightning that crashes against the crescent-shaped building with unfathomable violence. For a split second every window in the façade is lit up from within, beams of light shooting out from within the glass and making the building look like a deformed disco-ball. An instant after the strobing light fades every single window blows out, shattering into thousands of pieces amidst a deafening roar of thunder.
A pressure wave hammers into you, bursting both your eardrums and pitching you over onto the ground. From your position on the floor you feel the searing magical energy from the lightning strike scouring through the building, eating through Robertson’s wards with contemptuous ease. His Bounded Fields collapse one after another, unable to withstand the raw power surging through them.
As swiftly as it came, the light fades away. And then the clouds above disintegrate into nothingness, revealing the full moon high above.
As soon as it appears, sound returns to your world. Power surges through your limbs, and you find yourself back on your feet so suddenly you can’t even remember the act of getting up. You look up at the silvery orb hovering over you and ponder, for a brief moment, how beautiful it looks. Perhaps some long-buried memory of the Crimson Moon, a reminiscence passed down to his many descendants.
But as beautiful as it is, you can’t just sit here and stare at it forever. You nod your head at Caster and leap from the rooftop. Broken glass crunches underfoot as you land, turning into a chorus of cracks and pops as you break into a sprint. In no time at all you’ve cleared the fountain in the middle of the plaza and are about to crash through the front of the building itself.
A confrontation between you and Robertson is now inevitable. Laying waste to his strong place in such a spectacular fashion will demand a response, and no matter how much of a businessman Robertson is his pride as a magus will demand he respond with as much force as he can muster. Which means all that’s left to decide is where the battle will take place.
Several options spring to mind, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. You decide to:
1. Seek Robertson out in his office. You go to him and therefore give him less time to prepare himself, but that would mean fighting him in what must be the very heart of his power.
2. Fight Robertson in the lobby. It’s a wide open space that favours magecraft and ranged attacks, as well as giving you the option of retreating or running deeper into the building should the situation warrant it.
3. Fight Robertson in the underground car park. There are plenty of places to hide and the cramped quarters favour hand-to-hand combat.
The news was so sudden, so shocking, that at first people didn’t think it was true.
The story was repeated in every Royal court across the Western world. The Kurdish Sultan Saladin had gathered the realms of Syria, Egypt and Jazira under one banner and marched on the Crusader States. He had trapped the armies of King Guy of Jerusalem at the Horns of Hattin and crushed them utterly. The Sultan’s forces had swept across the Levant, capturing city after city and driving the Latins before them like so many frightened sheep. Jerusalem was in the Saracen’s hands, and the whole Christian world seemed to cry out in anguish. Pope Gregory VIII called upon the peoples of Europe to rise up and take back Christ’s patrimony.
Three men answered the call.
In the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In the land of the Franks, King Phillip Augustus. And in the Kingdoms of England and Aquitaine, King Richard I. The three swore to retake the Holy Land for the glory of Christendom, and gathered their armies for an attack on the Mahommetan infidels.
King Richard was a pious man. He believed God would grant him victory, but all the same he was not a fool. He knew that such an undertaking would be long and perilous. To prepare for the journey he levelled crippling taxes upon his subjects, sold off titles and Royal offices and even levied taxes against the clergy. He gathered all the food and supplies he could before setting off, making the journey by ship so as not to have to feed the mouths of the thousands of parasitic pilgrims who had been a millstone around the necks of the past two Crusades.
Along the way King Richard proved his guile. He tricked Tancred of Lecce into supplying him with war galleys by handing him a counterfeit copy of Excalibur. He conquered the island of Cyrpus when its ruler Isaac insulted him, and when he begged to not be clapped in irons had him bound with chains of silver. The King went so far as to sell the entire island to the Knights Templar, forging a friendship between himself and the Order that lasted until his death.
The King’s entrance to the Holy Land was spectacular. With his mighty siege engines and disciplined troops he conquered the city of Acre and struck fear into the hearts of the Saracens. His followers urged him to push on, but the King saw further opportunities. In the aftermath of the battle he offered Saladin an exchange; the soldiers of the garrison could go free if the Sultan returned 1,500 Frankish prisoners and the True Cross to him.
The days dragged on, but the relic was not returned. Even after Richard extended the deadline by two weeks, the Sultan did not return the True Cross.
“He is stalling for time!”
The King thought.
“And all the while I must feed and guard these prisoners of his! I will tolerate these games no longer…”
So the King decided to send a message to the Sultan. All 3,000 prisoners were marched out of Acre’s gates and massacred in Saladin’s sight. Though the Sultan responded in kind with his own prisoners, the implication was clear. Delaying tactics would not be tolerated. The momentum of the Crusade could not be checked by anything short of outright defeat. But the King was wily enough to know that diplomacy was always an option, so he made sure to keep an open channel with the Sultan for future negotiations.
Despite Barbarossa’s death and Phillip’s departure, King Richard continued on. At the plains of Arsuf his forces met Saladin’s in open battle. Richard led from the front despite his usual pragmatism, knowing it would inspire his men to fight harder. When the Hospitallers lost their discipline and charged without orders the King turned defeat into victory by ordering his entire army to follow, hammering the Saracens into the sand and driving Saladin from the field.
Again and again the King emerged victorious. When Saladin undertook a lightning raid on Jaffa and seized the city, the King launched a devastating amphibious assault to retake it, personally wading ashore alongside his elite guard to take the fight to the enemy. The chronicles called him a second Achilles, a second Alexander, a second Roland. So great was his ferocity and valour that he became known as Richard Coeur-de-Leon, Richard the Lionheart.
At last the King stood in sight of Jerusalem, the Holy City. His armies stood ready to assault the walls and retake the Holy Sepulchre. Richard could take the city, and the glory of doing so would surely elevate him above all the monarchs of Europe. Christendom’s defeat at Hattin would be avenged; he would receive remission for his sins and perhaps even be made a Saint for his efforts. All he had to do was give the order. It would be a hard fight, but eventually they would emerge victorious once more. They could take the city.
“We could take the city…but we could never hold it.”
The King thought the situation through dozens of times, but the answer was always the same. The Crusaders would take the city, then head home. They were under no obligation to stay; their task would be done, their pilgrimage completed. They had wives and lands and families to return to.
And their departure would leave the Holy City defenceless.
The pragmatism that had aided the King so much up until now betrayed him. Though he accepted the deaths of his men in battle as necessary, their sacrifices would be wasted once Saladin inevitably retook the city.
“My heart tells me to continue, but my mind demands that I stop…is there nothing I can do?!”
The only way to succeed would be to break the Saracen’s power so thoroughly that they would never be a threat again, and to do that the Crusaders would have to attack Egypt. Taking the great wealth of the Nile delta away from Saladin would cripple him forever, and Richard made plans to take the country.
But the Crusaders refused to listen.
“We are here for Jerusalem, not Egypt!”
“We will not be diverted from our goal when it is so close at hand!”
The King was unable to persuade them otherwise. As a ruler he had to think in the long term, rather than the short term as his soldiers did. Worse still, rumours began to filter back from Europe that the King’s brother was planning to steal Richard’s lands whilst he was away. Unwilling to throw away the lives of his men and under pressure due to events at home, Richard negotiated a truce with Saladin and dissolved the Crusade.
Though his heart was pained that he had not done what he had set out to do, the King did not regret his decision. He would make the same choice again if he had to. On the voyage home he swore to himself that he would return to the Holy Land to finish the job once his affairs in Europe were sorted out.
And for a time it seemed the King would have this chance, for scarcely three months later news arrived of Saladin’s death, and that his mighty empire was now splintered among his sixteen sons. King Richard smiled at this news. All he had to do was retake the lands stolen from him by his worthless brother and the snake Phillip and he would be free to finish what he started. But fate intervened, and the great Crusading King was felled by a crossbow bolt in a minor siege in southern France.
As the King lay on his deathbed, gangrenous poison spreading through his body, he had but one regret. That he had never made good on his promise to himself. That he had never able to complete his pilgrimage, never been able to kneel before God’s Grave in the Holy Sepulchre.
Lord Henry Monmouth slowly opened his eyes. An unfamiliar ceiling stretched above him, constructed from interlocking stone blocks braced with wooden beams at regular intervals. Rustling, crackling sounds thrummed from somewhere nearby, and Monmouth turned his head to try and see what it was.
Monmouth blinked, and the world swam into clearer focus. He realised that he was lying on top of a mattress covered by fine silk sheets. The walls and floor of the room he was currently in were composed of the same stone as the ceiling. The crackling sound from earlier on were coming from a grand fireplace set into the wall to the left of the bed, and the rustling came from a nearby window. The scenery beyond was obscured by dozens upon dozens of trees, their leaves rustling gently in the breeze.
Pain immediately lanced through his body, drawing forth an involuntary hiss of discomfort. His body felt stiff, and though he still had feeling in all four of his limbs they were sore and slow to respond. Unbowed, the elderly Lord attempted to prop himself up on his elbows, but a hand appeared and gently pushed him back down again.
“Stay still, Master. Your have been severely injured.”
Monmouth sank back down, and the pressure relaxed as Saber withdrew his arm. The Servant sat with his back to Monmouth and had pinned him down without turning around. He was seated on a handsomely-crafted wooden chair, his body hunched over a small table upon which lay two lit candles, a bundle of papers and what looked like a map of some kind.
“Saber…? What’s going on…?”
Monmouth croaked. Saber inclined his head slightly, then swung around in his seat to face his Master. Monmouth drew in a breath, shocked at how haggard his Servant looked.
“You’ve been unconscious for half a day, give or take. Your apprentices were worried you might not wake up.”
Saber nodded to himself, tapping one finger against his scabbard. He regarded his Master with a questioning gaze.
“I’d like to know what happened whilst I was fighting Caster. I’d particularly like to know how you fractured your neck in three places. Your apprentices weren’t very clear about any of it.”
Fractured neck…? Memories slowly began to trickle back. His stronghold had been destroyed, and he had done battle with those responsible…and then…
“The Dead Apostle…”
Monmouth wheezed, pain rising in his neck as he remembered the savage twisting that had nearly ended his life.
“It…must have been…the Apostle. I was about to call you back…but he turned into a nightmare creature…and then…”
The elderly magus’s words dissolved into incoherence as a fit of coughing overwhelmed him. Saber grimaced and raised both hands in apology.
“I am sorry for asking. It seems you are not yet well enough to talk. Lie still for a while and allow me to explain our situation.”
The red-haired Servant plucked the map from the table and held it up for Monmouth to see.
“I met up with your apprentices shortly after disengaging from my prior battle. An enemy whom I assume to be Assassin hounded me for a while, but I was able to drive him off. Our current location is here.”
He indicated a heavily wooded area directly north of the city.
“Since your previous staging area was destroyed I took the liberty of acquiring a replacement. The home field advantage allows me the use of a small but defensible castrum, in which we now reside.”
Saber placed the map back on the table and smoothed it out calmly.
“Your apprentices did their best to heal me, but I am still not in top form. And I judge that you will need all the strength you have to recover from your own injuries. With that in mind I plan on remaining here until you are well again – or until we are attacked. With luck more of our opponents will kill one another in the meantime. Oh, next time, try to make sure you have an escape route.”
Monmouth’s eyes flickered over to the bundle of papers on the table. Saber raised an eyebrow and followed his gaze, whereupon he broke into a tired smile.
“Ah, no, these aren’t battle plans. These are my cansos.”
He picked up the top page and gave it a flourish. Monmouth found himself surprised by how neat the handwriting was.
“I was dismayed by how few of my songs survive to this day. In my day they were sung by troubadours all over Europe! Therefore, I have decided to rewrite them all from memory. Admittedly they are all in Occitian, but I am sure there’s someone out there who can read them. And I find writing them out again calms the mind. Let it never be said that Richard contributed nothing to culture! I will-”
An enormous flash of light from outside the window scoured the every shadow from the small room. A second later a distant, rumbling boom shook the air, a far louder and longer than any normal thunderclap. Saber surged to his feet, his hand on the hilt of his sword, knocking the table away from him in his haste. It fell over with a sharp clatter, and many of the loose papers fluttered through the air and into the fire.
Saber stood stock still for a full half-minute before relaxing. He exhaled slowly and turned back to the table – only to see the shrivelled and blackened remnants of the cansos falling apart in the fireplace. For a moment nobody said anything.
“…Third time’s the charm, I suppose.”
Saber remarked. Monmouth thought he looked crestfallen.
As you crash through the front of the ruined building and into the central foyer, you quickly come to the conclusion that none of those ideas are particularly clever. Fighting Robertson in the heart of his power, whilst appealing in an old-fashioned romantic sort of way, isn’t really all that pragmatic. This whole area is his home base and it would be a foolish idea to challenge him in terrain that is so familiar to him.
The foyer itself must have been an impressive spectacle before the lightning bolt reduced most of it to a charred ruin. Like the building itself the lobby is crescent-shaped. Slender columns rise up from the floor at regular intervals around its perimeter, each carved from white marble. The tips of the crescent end in shallow reflecting pools, their tranquil waters now filled with broken glass and other debris. The ceiling rises up to the top floor, cutting a neat cross-section through the entire building, the empty space criss-crossed by walkways and support wires.
A vacant reception desk sits opposite the entrance, adorned with the smouldering remains of three slimline desktop PC’s. Sparks occasionally fall from a pair of speakers set into the wall behind the desk, presumably some sort of radio or PA system. As you approach, one of them warbles to life, blaring out a tinny tune distorted almost to the point of gibberish.
“WWWwweeeEEE ddddiiiiiiiiiiDDDDNNNttt staaaaaaaarrrt thhhhhe ffffiIIIrrRReEE…iiiIIIIiiTTTT wwAAAss ALLLLWWWAAYYYSSS buuuurrrnnnnIIIING siiiinnCCCEEEeee THEEEEEEE WWwooOOrrRllLLdD’s bEEn-”
The voice gurgles and dies as smoke begins to pour out from behind the speaker. The acrid stench of burning metal fills the air, and a light bulb switches on in your mind.
“Big bolt of lightning strikes a building. You’d expect to see a few sparks after that.”
You gesture vaguely towards the smoking speakers.
“It wouldn’t be surprising if a fire started. All that paper and delicate electrical equipment…all it’d take is one spark for the whole building to go up in flames.”
Scathach grins and pushes around to the other side of the desk.
“It would certainly be a terrible accident.”
She agrees, catching on. Your Servant reaches into her pouch and pulls out a slender, stubby stick about three inches long. She holds it between her middle and index fingers, then mutters something under her breath. The end of the stick glows a sullen, angry red, and wisps of smoke curl up from it and float lazily towards the ceiling high above. With a lazy, almost casual motion, Scathach flicks the burning stick at the polished granite wall behind the reception desk.
The stick bursts into flames when it hits the wall, leaving behind a blazing scarlet symbol that sears itself into the speckled granite, leaving behind a deformed ‘F’ shape that can only be Ansuz, the rune of fire. A blast of superheated air explodes outwards from the rune, immediately igniting the wooden reception desk and melting the computers into sticky pools of molten plastic. The rune suddenly glows white hot, the intense heat cracking the wall beneath it. The symbol begins to swim across the granite surface, flitting over the stone and burning its way through a nearby service door before vanishing out of sight.
Flames spread out from its path, flickering tongues of yellow and orange that burn voraciously even when there is nothing to fuel them. In less than a minute the entire foyer will be ablaze, and after that it’ll only be a matter of time before the whole building burns down.
You leap backwards and allow your momentum to carry you out of the broken front windows. Moments later Scathach emerges from the flames, and as she moves you see three or four more scarlet runes crawling over the walls and vanishing out of sight further into the building. The pair of you pull back and watch the Destiny Inc. Headquarters burn. After a few minutes sirens begin to wail in the distance. You frown and cast a wary glance towards the surrounding streets.
“It won’t be long before the fire brigade arrives. Can you track Lancer and his Master once they leave the building?”
Caster nods and bounces a small pebble on her palm. The rune carved into its surface glows a dull blue, and on the final bounce it doesn’t come down but hovers in the air at eye-level.
“Not a problem, Master. I still have Lancer’s prana signature from the first night. No matter where he tries to run, we can find him.”
You smile darkly and return to looking at the burning building in front of you. Flickering tongues of fire lick through the upper windows, their heat warping and shattering any panes that weren’t broken by the initial lightning strike. A small crowd is gathering to one side as passers-by stop to gawp at the terrible tragedy unfolding before their eyes. You don’t think any of them have seen you yet, but the sirens are getting louder so perhaps a change of position is in order…
Just as you think that, a window on the third floor on the opposite side from the crowd explodes outwards with incredible force. A dark shape ploughs through the fragments of glass moments before a gout of flames bursts forth from the same window. Lancer’s jagged blue tattoos blaze in the darkness, their power shielding both himself and the man he carries from the impossible heat. The spearman hurtles down to the ground, smashing a shallow crater into the smooth stone slabs of the plaza. His passenger dismounts, shaking his head drunkenly, but Lancer steadies him with an outstretched hand.
The floating pebble wobbles in the air and orients itself towards Lancer, but the Servant is already in motion, fleeing west in the direction of the Blackpool promenade. His Master stumbles slightly, and something shiny falls out of his hands; he scrabbles around on the floor for a second before snatching it back up again, then takes off after his Servant.
“Alright. No screw-ups this time.”
You growl to yourself before setting off after them. The blue glow of the runestone illuminates your path, through a series of dingy back-streets and byroads. The overhanging roofs make it impossible to track the fleeing pair from above, so you are forced to make the journey on the ground for once. The entire area is a rabbit warren, with innumerable dead ends and cul-de-sacs, and many of its alleys are only wide enough for two people to walk abreast.
It becomes clearer and clearer as you continue to press on that Robertson must have planned out an escape route through here ahead of time, else you would surely have caught up to him by now. The illumination shed by the runestone reveals that you are running along the backsides of a strip of old terraced housing. Only about one in three have any lights on, and most are extremely dilapidated, the whole block a relic of Blackpool’s distant industrial past.
Abruptly the sound of crashing waves grows louder, and the surroundings become less dismal. You exit the maze of sideroads and stumble out onto a main street less than a block away from the promenade itself. The soft blue light of the runestone is drowned out by the harsh yellow glow of multiple streetlights, the sudden glare momentarily disorienting you.
Your eyesight quickly adjusts. You cast your gaze around, but neither Lancer nor his Master appear to be in the immediate area. The runestone wobbles in midair and floats across to the other side of the road; you shrug your shoulders and follow it over.
“Any idea where they could be going, Master?”
Scathach asks from somewhere over your shoulder. You give it some thought.
“…Well, if you ask me this looks like an escape route that was set up beforehand. From here the only places you can really go to are the promenade and the beach.”
Caster considers this information for a moment.
“Hngh. Neither seem particularly conductive to a battle. Too many witnesses on the promenade, and there’s no cover on the beach.”
The tracking stone keeps moving regardless of Caster’s musings, and you follow it forwards onto the Blackpool promenade. The avenue that cuts across Blackpool’s entire waterfront has changed little since the last time you were here. The same decorative street lamps provide enough light for the few late-night tourists and other passers-by to walk past without tripping over one another, and the same silhouettes confirm the existence of the three great piers that stab out into the ocean like the prongs of a trident. The only real difference is the rain, which has almost completely stopped. The storm clouds above have dissipated almost entirely, leaving behind only a few flecks of greyish haze that the winds are quickly driving east and away from the city.
The runestone bobs in the air for a moment, then floats across the width of the decorative road and disappears over the guard railing on the opposite side. You shoot Scathach a meaningful look.
“So, it’s the beach after all.”
She sighs and runs a hand through her hair.
“The sand might be tricky to fight on. Make sure to watch your footing, Master. I assume you’ll duel the enemy Master whilst I take care of Lancer?”
You smile and nod.
“Same as usual.”
Your Servant chuckles dryly.
“Because it worked so well last time, huh.”
You put on a faux-reproachful expression before briskly crossing the street to peer down at the beach below. The guardrail ends just above an earthen embankment that descends down at a sharp angle for a distance of about twenty feet. Stone staircases are set into the embankment at regular intervals, and the earth of the slope itself is loose and full of the scraggy-looking grass that often grows near the shoreline. Straining your senses to the limit, you can just about see your quarries down below. The pair appear to have stopped halfway between the promenade and the crashing waves, and neither of them are moving.
With no effort whatsoever you swing yourself over the guardrail and slide down the embankment. All that’s left is to decide how you’re going to open this battle…
1. Begin with a surprise attack from your concealed revolvers. If you time it just right you could cripple or even kill Robertson before the fight even truly starts. (Gunfight option)
2. Nope, you need to kill fast AND BULLETS TOO SLOW!! Trust in the regenerative power granted to you by the moon and tear Robertson’s head off in close range combat. Kill him with bear (sic) hands. Living up to your family name and facing full-life consequences optional. (Hand-to-hand option)
3. Dead Apostle used Sand Attack! Scathach said fighting on sand would be hard, but that reckons without your earth magic. Use it to manipulate the sand to your advantage and crush Robertson in a duel between mages. (Magic option)
You hit the sand at the bottom of the slope with barely a whisper of disturbed sediment. Out of the corner of your eye you see Scathach land even more lightly about fifteen metres away, her lithe figure silently loping off into the darkness to circle around the enemy’s flank. By the light of the moon you can just about make out Lancer and Robertson’s silhouettes against the pitch black waters of the sea.
You prowl forwards, keeping your body pressed flat against the sand, trying to get as close as possible before starting your attack. You already know how you’re going to do it; the sand is an excellent base for your earth magic, particularly when the humble granules can become a howling hurricane of abrasive particles at a moment’s notice. As you close the distance you begin to pick out the sound of angry whispers coming from Lancer and Robertson. Lancer’s voice in particular sounds distinctly perturbed.
“…haps your headquarters would still be standing if we had gone on the attack as I suggested! Instead you sat on your laurels and did nothing, and now one of our foes has come to us instead! It is foolishness for a hunter to allow his prey to dictate the flow of the hunt-”
“It was a calculated risk, Lancer.”
Robertson’s cold voice interrupts, a sluice gate effortlessly cutting off the flow of Lancer’s words.
“A risk that failed, but one worth taking. Let our prey dictate the flow of the hunt? Far from it. To use your own metaphor, we were simply allowing our prey to thin out their own ranks. We can only profit from them killing each other. The gambit did not succeed, but it is not the end; I have other plans that can be put into motion. Now, there should be a motor boat around here somewhere…”
From his tone of voice Robertson clearly doesn’t expect a response and his shadowy silhouette turns towards the shoreline, but Lancer flares up angrily as soon as he finishes.
“So you will not admit your mistake, even now, when it stares you in the face? Those who attacked us are probably still nearby! If we take the fight to them now then we can avenge our defeat here and claim a real victory! Especially if the enemy is Saber, then I can-”
Robertson’s silhouette whirls back around to face Lancer, fists clenched at his side.
“Lancer, be silent. I tolerated your little escapade last night only because it gave us more information on who our opponents are. And I know I encouraged you to hunt down Saber however possible. But this obsession of yours is becoming a liability!”
Robertson rubs his hands together for a moment, then continues in a more conciliatory tone.
“Lancer, we come from very different times, I know. But please try to understand my position. I am a businessman. Hurriedly rushing into things without first observing the forces at work within the market is a good way to lose your investment. And sometimes you wind up losing it anyway. You want to avenge our defeat, but in my mind we have yet to be defeated.”
Lancer’s silhouette folds its arms and taps one foot against the sand.
“…As you wish, Mr. Businessman. But our next opponent will be Saber. It’s not only a matter of honour, but also the observation you seem to love so much. Now that I know his identity I am sure I can kill him. One strike is all it will take, if I use my Noble Phantasm’s other ability. After that I will do as you like.”
Robertson begins to respond, but by this time you are within striking distance. You make a fin with your fingers and use it to carve a shallow trench into the sand in front of you. You open all of your circuits at once and slam both palms down on either side of the line you have dug, filling the sand beneath you with magical energy. At the same time you stare ahead, carving the place where Robertson and Lancer are standing into your memory. Both men turn at the same time and Lancer shouts a warning, but it’s too late.
You force the image in your mind downwards, down until it somehow intersects with the sandy trench between your palms. With a great effort you focus on both the reality and the image, fusing them together until the world is forced to accept them as one and the same. The ground shakes and reality screeches in protest as the ground between Lancer and Robertson splits apart, a snaking crevasse that grows wider with every second. Robertson falls over and just barely avoids being sucked down, rolling aside in a manner completely bereft of dignity.
Lancer simply jumps backwards, landing lightly several meters away. His eyes immediately rivet to your position, but just as he starts forwards a dark shape emerges from the shadows to his side.
“Lancer! I challenge you to a duel within the Shoal of Forked Branches! By the power of Ath nGabla I compel you to face me, Celtchar Mac Uthechar!”
Lancer freezes in mid-stride, a look of utter shock engraved upon his features. A red glow slowly suffuses the ground around him, revealing Scathach standing off to one side, her newly forged sword held at the ready. Four runes are carved into the sand at her feet, the four runes of the Ath nGabla curse used by the Knights of the Red Branch to initiate a fight to the death. The spearman slowly turns his head to look at your Servant, and his eyes widen still further when his gaze falls upon the runes.
“…What is going on?”
He murmurs, looking Scathach up and down, his perpetual frown slowly reasserting itself. Caster simply smiles and inclines her head in a slight bow.
“You were quite correct, Lancer. Running away now will do you little good. However, since your Master seems to be quite craven, I took the liberty of forcing a deathmatch here and now, to prevent any cowardly actions on his part.”
Lancer looks thoughtful, and glances over his shoulder to where his Master is now in the process of pushing himself off. Robertson looks completely dishevelled, his soot-stained suit now also covered in sand. He cups his left hand and a flame suddenly springs to life in his palm, its flame adding to the illumination already provided by Caster’s runes. Robertson looks around carefully, but his expression darkens when he sees you standing on his side of the trench.
“…Well, it looks like we’re going to have to stand and fight after all, Master. You’ll just have to fend for yourself.”
Lancer remarks sourly, reaching back around to unfasten the straps holding his misshapen spear to his back. Robertson slips a hand into the inner pocket of his suit, but you don’t wait for him to complete the motion, instead flinging a handful of sand in his direction. The scattering granules should never have been able to reach him, but imbuing them with your prana links the individual grains together to form dozens of razor-thin blades that effortlessly cut through the air.
Robertson jerks away, his left hand whipping across his body in a slicing motion, leaving a trail of flames that hang suspended in the air. Your sand hits the burning barrier and immediately vanishes, but your body is already in motion. You run across the beach as fast as you are able, kicking up as much sand as possible and weaving it into an obfuscating cloud of sediment that conceals your location and prevents Robertson from drawing a bead on you with whatever offensive spells he might possess.
This turns out to have been a wise move, because seconds after you begin to conceal yourself a needle-thin beam of searing heat slices through the air mere inches above your head. The superheated air sears the skin of your head and sets your hair alight, but the baleful light of the full moon overhead quickly repairs the damage. You thrust your right hand out towards where the beam originated from and chant a phrase in Latin, sending a burst of prana into the sandy mist around your arm.
You imbue the grains with motion and twist your hand in a half-circle. The cloud of sand and dust shudders and thins as a large portion of its mass billows forwards towards Robertson’s position. You see the enemy magus retreat back a few steps towards the sea and raise his barrier of fire once again, this time using both hands to strengthen his defences. A cruel smile creeps across your lips.
“The same trick won’t work twice, fool.”
You hiss under your breath. You put more prana into the swirling cloud and the tip of the billowing column begins to rotate rapidly, flattening out and concentrating itself into a rotating lance of sand as thick as a tree trunk. The air shrieks as the projectile hits Robertson’s burning shield, and the brownish-yellow colour of the sand begins to blacken as more and more of its volume turns to soot.
You keep up the pressure regardless, using the suction generated by the spear’s rotation to pull in more sand to replace the grains lost to Robertson’s flames. The sand has enough force behind it to strip your enemy’s flesh from his bones, and though his shield is preventing the maelstrom from harming him it also prevents him from moving or counterattacking.
Which leaves you free to attack from a completely unexpected direction.
You summon up your remaining prana and send it into the ground through your legs. The loose grains conduct your magical energy over to where your lance of sand meets Robertson’s wall of fire, right beneath where the enemy magus is standing. With an effort of will you crush the sand downwards, hammering the granules down until there are no empty air pockets between them.
The ground beneath Robertson’s feet vanishes downwards as several feet of loose sand is compacted into a single foot of sandstone. The enemy magus clearly realises what you are doing since he tries to sidestep, but the pressure of the rotating sand drill robs him of the swiftness he needs and he topples down into the pit. His burning barrier splutters and winks out as his concentration lapses, and the spear of pressurized follows him into the hole in a howling surge of pressurised air.
You exhale slowly as the magical energy thrumming through your circuits slows to a trickle. Using so many powerful spells in quick succession has drained you somewhat, but as the twisting spear of sand burrowing into the depression begins to scrape loudly against the compressed sandstone at the bottom you must admit that you can’t complain about the results. Flecks of redness begin to colour the rapidly rotating sand, and surely it cannot be long before Robertson is reduced to paste, but you maintain a small link to the swirling cloud just in case.
Something glints within the hurricane of sand, a tiny golden light that shines through the nearly opaque cloud. You feel a flicker of magical energy brush against your senses-
-And suddenly you are smashed flat to the ground as an immense pillar of blue fire erupts from the middle of the cloud and punches its way skyward. The displaced air hammers you down even as it blows away the sooty remnants of your sand drill, the pressure wave flattening out the sand dunes for twenty metres in every direction. A sound like a hundred train engines all roaring to life in unison drowns out the distant sounds of the city behind you.
What little sand that was not incinerated outright is blown away as air is sucked in to replace that which was consumed by the pillar of fire. The sudden clarity reveals Robertson, most of his suit reduced to tatters and the skin beneath not much better, a fluted golden rod about a foot and a half in length clutched in his upraised hand. The very tip of the rod glows a smouldering yellow-orange colour, and a wisp of smoke curls into the air above it. Robertson opens his mouth, coughs, then turns his head to one side and spits out a mouthful of sand.
“Urgh. Damn you, you wretched Apostle, for making me resort to this.”
You carefully pick yourself up off the ground, but freeze when the golden rod swings downwards to point at you.
“At least it makes things simple. I suppose the good Father White won’t need to take action after all.”
The tip of the rod begins to glow brightly once more as light shines along the fluted section nearest the end. About fifteen metres separates you from your opponent; if you really sprint you might just be able to reach him in time. On the other hand, that rod is clearly a Mystic Code of immense power, and a hit from it would severely injure you at the very least. You still have your pistols, and attempting to evade is also a possibility…and, of course, you could try to change your form.
How should our main character react, OT?
You are so focused on trying to think of a way of evading the next attack that you almost don’t notice a tiny shifting of sand beneath your feet. A tiny beach crab, its tunnel lair collapsed by the pressure wave, has finally managed to dig its way out of its sandy prison, and its armoured carapace brushes against your foot as it tries to scuttle to safety. As the glow from Robertson’s Mystic Code becomes too painful to look at, you crouch down and scoop the struggling crustacean up with one hand. It flails madly, and one of its pincers scratches your palm, leaving a string of red beads across your punctured skin.
Your blood trickles out and flows over the crab’s crusted shell.
A terrible feeling of dread sweeps over you, the abyssal cold of the deep sea. The icy cold of the lightless depths of the ocean smothers you, robs you of conscious thoughts, then swallows you whole. It is nothing like the intense heat you felt when you changed your form into that of a raven, the triumphant euphoria of a hunting bird that knows its prey is doomed.
Chitinous ridges burst from your flesh as your skin hardens and thickens into a tough exoskeleton. The fingers of both your hands fuse together and expand, then split apart into huge pincers that could comfortably grasp a small tree trunk. You stumble and fall to the ground as the transformation stiffens your legs to the point of immobility, but you fight back, forcibly willing the chitin back into proper flesh and muscle.
The blackness of the sea rages against you, but you refuse to give in, and eventually the coldness recedes, leaving you as you are, partially shapeshifted into a hunch-backed crab-like form.
Robertson bellows, the glare from his Mystic Code apparently preventing him from seeing what’s happened to you. The tip of the rod explodes, sending a sheet of blue-white fire cascading towards you. You grit your teeth and jerk to one side, shielding your newly armoured body with both arms. The searing gout of flames digs a ditch through the sand, slamming hard into your left flank despite your attempt at evasion.
Chitin blackens and melts under the thousand degree flames, filling the air with a noxious stench. Within seconds your armour plating blisters and cracks, then disintegrates completely. You fall over backwards, your entire left side utterly destroyed. Above you the beam continues onwards before hammering into the sea, sending a geyser of steam blasting into the air.
You lie still on the ground until the ray of fire above you thins and winks out. Your entire body feels numb, and acrid smoke begins to waft up from the cauterized crater that used to be your left flank, arm and leg. Only the fact that you have not yet disappeared entirely tells you that your heart somehow managed to escape damage. You try to push yourself up with your right arm, and the ground cracks beneath you. You look down and discover that you are lying on a bed of glass; the heat must have been so intense that it fused the sand beneath it. If you had taken that beam head on you would surely have died.
The smoke begins to thin, and you catch a glimpse of the full moon through the gaps. A sudden strength surges through you, and all the remaining muscles on your left hand side spasm in unison. Ribbons of flesh and spears of bone force their way through your charred and blackened wounds, knitting and reforming the lost portions of yourself. The full moon empowers your Curse of Restoration to the point where it can repair even this normally fatal damage, returning your body to the point in time before it was injured.
You see a humanoid figure striding through the glassy channel dug by the fire – Robertson, coming to check for your remains. He seemed to put a lot of faith into his Mystic Code, so he probably expects you to have been killed by it. In that case it would probably be best to feed into that mistake. Rolling aside, you swiftly cover yourself in a layer of sand, then lie in wait for your opponent. You can feel his footfalls through the sand, tiny little vibrations that slowly become more and more pronounced the closer he comes.
Even through the cloying mass of sand you can just about hear the crunching of glass beneath Robertson’s smart black shoes. The sound cuts out only a few feet from where you lie buried, and then there is a long pause. Robertson is presumably scanning the shoreline, making absolutely sure you didn’t manage to somehow escape that way. You remain absolutely still, waiting for the telltale scraping sound of him turning on his heel to walk back the way he came…
The sound comes after about ten seconds. You burst from the ground, spraying sand in every direction. Robertson turns sharply, surprise written in perfect clarity across his features. He tries to bring his Mystic Code to bear once again, but he’s too slow to evade your ambush. The golden rod flies from his hand as your left claw whips around and slaps his right arm aside. It skitters across the sand and into the darkness beyond. You twist your body and follow up with your right claw, which you clamp around his right forearm.
You put all the strength you have into increasing your grip, and something crunches inside Robertson’s arm. You increase the pressure still further, and Robertson screams in agony as his right arm is severed midway between wrist and elbow. Blood fountains out, seeping into the joints of your claw. Robertson staggers away, his face very pale, clutching at the stump and trying desperately to stem the bleeding.
“Looks like you’ve taken on a debt of pain, Mr. CEO.”
You hiss, stalking forwards. Your opponent grits his teeth and mumbles something under his breath, and fire blooms in his remaining palm. He presses the guttering flame against his wound and grunts in pain as the fire sears it shut. His tortured grimace turns into a snarl as he flicks his remaining hand up, sending half a dozen golfball-sized spheres of fire flickering towards you.
You simply smile and walk through the attack. The fireballs burst harmlessly against your exoskeleton, lacking the penetrating power of Robertson’s Mystic Code. Robertson’s eyes widen and he begins to panic, his left hand blurring as he hurls dozens of fireballs in your general direction. None of them make any difference.
“Urgh…damn you…! Why won’t you die?! What the hell is that strange power of y-ngk!”
Robertson’s voice chokes off as you slam a claw around his neck and hoist him into the air. He manages to get his remaining hand inside your grip, but it’s no use, you’ll just wind up cutting through it as well-
The beach behind Robertson’s dangling form abruptly lights up. The forms of Lancer and Caster are illuminated as the former’s spear bursts into flames. The sudden flash leaves you momentarily blind, and you reflexively jerk backwards from the glare.
Facing away from the light, Robertson has no such problem. You feel his weight shift, and then a stomping impact hammers into your chest. Chitin plates twist and crack under the blow, and you rock backwards from the force of it. Moments later a second crushing blow destroys what’s left of your armour and drives the splintered fragments into your body.
You swear and put all your effort into crushing Robertson’s neck, but an inhuman strength forces your claw apart before snapping it off for good measure. You scramble backwards, blinking furiously to restore your eyesight. A noise like an octopus being run over by a truck slithers through the air, and pain shoots through every inch of you as your body reverts to its normal form.
As your vision returns you see Robertson’s fist flying towards your face in a forward jab. You dart backwards to avoid the strike, but the magus takes two lightning-fast steps forwards and smashes his fist into your chin anyway. The bones of your spine creak ad your head snaps back, but Robertson isn’t done. The CEO slams his stump into your chest, and you feel several ribs fracture from what should have been a weak and lacklustre blow.
As you reel backwards you realise that Robertson must be using some kind of Reinforcement magic on himself. As a former boxer, the CEO definitely knows how to throw a punch, and with Reinforcement the physical advantages you have over him are decreased significantly. The part of your brain still fuzzy with pain and disorientation ponders your lack of luck when going for the neck, but you crush it down and force yourself to concentrate on the matter at hand.
You jerk your head back into position just in time to see your opponent swing in with a vicious left hook. You just barely manage to get an arm up to block the hit, but the impact jars you and numbs your arm all the way up to the shoulder. Robertson’s eyes are wide, his pupils tiny dots, and sweat runs down his face in glistening rivulets. He must be putting literally everything he has into killing you before you can regain the initiative and finish him off.
You backpedal and try to put some distance between yourself and your opponent, but Robertson matches your speed and unleashes another stomping kick at your midsection. His foot connects with a metal clang, and a frown briefly passes across his manic features.
You don’t hesitate to capitalize on his confusion. With one hand you tear off the tattered remnants of your jacket and throw it away like so much trash. With the other you pull out the broken, melted remnants of your first revolver and hurl it at Robertson’s head with all your strength. His fists come up in a perfect block, and the lump of twisted gunmetal bounces harmlessly to the ground. So he doesn’t even see you pull the second, undamaged revolver from its holster on the right hand side of your body. You take a breath you don’t need, relax your whole body, then empty the chamber into Robertson’s centre of mass at nearly point blank range.
A scarlet mist billows around Robertson as the huge rounds smash into him. Most take him in the chest, and the CEO collapses bonelessly to the floor. He lets out a choking gurgle, twitches a little, then goes limp. You crack open the revolver’s chamber, load a fresh round, then walk over and shoot him in the head.
Just to make sure.
Fatigue washes over you. You slump down on the sand next to Robertson’s corpse and stare back towards the city. Flashes of illumination in the darkness show where Caster is still fighting with Lancer, and you wonder how long he can last with his source of prana cut off.
Not long, surely.
You try to get up, but a chill down your spine freezes you halfway through the motion. You slowly crane your neck to look back at the sealine…
…And feel your cold heart turn even colder. A misshapen figure swathed in a black cloak stands not six feet away from you, its back to the sea, its pitiless eyes boring into you. Or at least, you assume they are, since its entire face is concealed behind a bone white mask resembling a grinning skull. How the hell did you not notice him before now?!
Wordlessly, the figure reaches inside its cloak with an impossibly long and thin hand, and you tense, but all it does is draw out a small white envelope. The figure tilts its head to one side, like a bird considering how best to snatch up a worm, then offers the envelope to you.
“From my Master.”
The figure’s voice is the sound of dead leaves in autumn. It lowers its head and sinks into a shallow bow.
“He bids me give you this invitation, Master of Caster. I urge you to accept it and give it your consideration.”
You stare at the letter, then back at the figure. In your current state, Assassin could easily kill you. Hell, he could probably kill you even if you were in top form. So why hasn’t he?
“…And if I refuse to take it?”
You ask, trying not to let your nervousness show. Assassin straightens up, the letter still held in its outstretched hand.
“…Then I will leave you to your devices. And my Master will be disappointed.”
You consider Assassin’s offer for a moment. He has no reason to lie right now, does he? If his Master really wanted you dead you would be on the floor bleeding out right this second. But the letter itself might be a trap or trick of some kind…
In the end, you decide to:
1. Reject the letter, it’s not worth getting involved with Assassin and his Master.
2. Accept the letter and read what it has to say.
3. Accept the letter, but don’t open it until Scathach has had a look at it first.