This is the second part of the transcript for the Holy Grail War CYOA currently taking place on OT. It turns out wiki pages really don't like it when you go over a certain number of characters, so a second wiki page is needed. You can find the first page here (http://othertitles.wikia.com/wiki/Holy_Grail_War_CYOA).
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 hesitate for a moment, then reach out and take the letter. Nothing happens.
But there’s no sense in being careless, so you decide not to open it right away. You tuck the letter inside what remains of your waistband and take a step back from Assassin’s shadowy form.
“I have carried out my instructions. I will now depart.”
The voice behind the mask rasps, and the Servant turns away. He takes one step away from you, then freezes. The skull mask swivels back to face you again, and a sick feeling creeps into your stomach as you realise that his body remains turned entirely away from you.
“…A strange power you possess. Remarkable that it still exists in this day and age.”
And then he is gone, his cloaked form merging with the darkness of the night. You quest out with your magical and mundane senses, but find nothing. Suppressing a shudder, you turn back to where you last saw Scathach and Lancer and begin to trudge back through the sand. It doesn’t take you long to get there, nor are the two Servants hard to find; the flames from Lancer’s spear act as a beacon to their location.
You had expected Lancer to have been severely weakened as a result of his Master’s death, perhaps even destroyed entirely, but disappointment rises up within you as you approach the battlefield. Lancer is fighting as fiercely as ever; no, perhaps even more fiercely. With nothing left to lose he must have redoubled his efforts in a frantic attempt to defeat at least one opponent before expiring himself.
As you watch Lancer roars a wordless battle cry and launches a frenzied assault on your Servant. The flames from his spear now extend fully halfway along its shaft, and the protective charms woven into the spearman’s hands and arms have begun to glow a dull blue with the stress of protecting him from the heat. Scathach parries a thrust aimed at her gut, arches her back to avoid a second thrust at her heart, then tumbles backwards from a vicious club blow to her lower chest.
A bolt of fear lances through you, but your Servant rolls away from Lancer’s finishing blow with impossible swiftness, her sword opening a long wound across his unguarded left leg. Lancer doesn’t even seem to notice his injuries and keeps pressing the attack, and Scathach’s sword is too short to consistently strike inside his guard. Your Servant’s eyes widen when she sees you and she flashes a grim smile in your direction before twisting aside from another attack. Even as she spins away, the flames from Lancer’s spear burn away a little more of her armour, cooking the flesh beneath.
The flames surrounding the weapon are the real problem. Your Servant cannot block or evade without being burned. If things continue as they are, Lancer will wear Scathach down before he runs out of prana. Perhaps if you had skill with water magecraft you could do what Monmouth did and dampen the fires a little, but…but even if you did, you’re too exhausted to do much more than stand back and watch.
Scathach has apparently reached the same conclusion. She reaches into one of her pouches during a lull in Lancer’s assault and pulls out a small vial of black liquid. The next time her opponent winds up for a lunge she hurls the small object directly into his path. The hide-armoured Servant instinctively shifts his spear slightly to block the projectile.
The glass shatters, releasing a black liquid which explodes into a cloud of impenetrable smoke as soon as it touches the blazing tip of Lancer’s spear. Without pause, Scathach crouches down, tenses, then leaps high into the air, flips over backwards and lands next to you in a whump of sand and displaced air.
She mumbles breathlessly.
“Master, I request permission to use my Noble Phantasm. I’m not sure that I can win without it.”
You consider the request for a second. Clearly she needs a decisive edge in order to pull off a win, but using her Noble Phantasm would reveal her identity to anyone watching – and there’s no guarantee that Assassin has actually left the area, or that Archer or Saber or any of the other combatants haven’t discovered that there’s a fight going on down at the beach.
But this is a risk you’ve got to take. Caster’s identity is going to come out sooner or later; given how Assassin was able to sneak up on you so effortlessly he may already know. You look down at Scathach crouched on the sand beside you and nod.
“…Go ahead. Do whatever it takes to win.”
Scathach returns your nod and rises slowly to her feet. By this time Lancer has emerged from the inky black cloud and is striding purposefully towards you, burning lance held at his side. His stride swiftly lengthens into a loping charge, and he thrusts the spear in front of himself to impale Scathach once and for all. For her part, Scathach gently pushes you to one side and then stands, feet apart, arms by her side.
“Don’t get scared, Master. We’re about to enter another world.”
She whispers. You flinch as you feel a surge of magical energy burst from every pore of your Servant’s body, blanketing the area in a sea of prana. All around you shadows begin to lengthen, twisting and melding together until the ground itself is entirely black. In the sky above the stars wink out, and the silver glow of the moon vanishes as if shut off by a giant lens cap.
Sound disappears from the world as an impossibly old and powerful force silences the gentle murmuring of the sea and the raucous sounds of human civilisation emanating from the city. In only a few heartbeats the sole source of sound and illumination is Lancer’s burning spear. The spearman falters as the world suddenly becomes a black void, devoid of landmarks.
Then an almighty crash tears through the sudden silence, the furious sound of a lightning bolt detonating against a rocky Cliffside. The pitch dark world splinters and shatters into a thousand tiny pieces, and suddenly you are in a new place that is neither void nor Blackpool’s famous beaches.
You find yourself on top of the keep of a mighty fortress hewn from rough stone blocks. Massive ramparts with thick merlons and impressive crenellations overlook a vast expanse of water whipped into a maelstrom by the gale force winds that hammer every inch of the tiny island the fortress is built upon. Black storm clouds billow overhead, disgorging an unending tide of fat raindrops which splatter over every surface. Jagged lightning bolts flash down to rake at the land every few seconds, though some strange force prevents them from hitting the castle. Scathach and Lancer stand off to one side, separated by a twenty metre gap. Lancer’s expression is one of utter shock, but he quickly sets his jaw and puts one foot forwards-
-Then stops, staring down at his lance. The ugly spear, which had until this moment been burning with ferocious intensity, now guttered and hissed. The burning shroud flickered for a moment, then went out, as if someone had suddenly slammed shut a magical sluice gate.
“Welcome to the Land of Shadows, Celtchar.”
Scathach says calmly.
“This land came to define me, and eventually became part of myself. Or perhaps I became part of it, I’m not quite sure. In the end, it’s not really important.”
She begins to walk towards Lancer, slowly, letting each step punctuate her words.
“Many young warriors came to learn from me here. Most already had weapons, and thought themselves well-versed in their use. None were. That was the first lesson – teaching the newcomers that they knew nothing, that their skills were insufficient, that they could not hope to learn anything unless they abandoned what they already thought they knew.”
Scathach shakes her head, a sad smile twisting her scar into something ugly, and at once you realise what’s going on. This ‘Land of Shadows’ must be some kind of Reality Marble that conceptually replicates Scathach’s old home. In this land, newcomers forget how to use their weapons for anything beyond normal combat. Any weapon Noble Phantasms will have their activated effects disabled, forcing the user to rely on skill alone.
Of course, by inference that means Noble Phantasms that aren’t based on weapons might not be affected.
Lancer cursed and tried to reactivate the lance, but the spear refused to be relit.
“I’m afraid it’s useless. Without the proper knowledge that spear is just a normal spear. Now then!”
Scathach suddenly lunges forwards, her sword flicking past Lancer’s guard and biting deep into his right shoulder. Lancer grits his teeth and counters clumsily, but Scathach simply tugs her blade out with a wet ripping noise and takes a swift step backwards. Lancer struggles to regain his composure as his numerous wounds begin to slow him down, but even injured and with his weapon put out he still has the power to kill her if a blow connects.
Lightning splits the sky once again as Lancer and Scathach continue their deadly dance of steel. Lancer is more wary now, focusing more on defence and prioritising guarding himself over attacking. Caster’s Reality Marble is strong, but it won’t last forever, and if he can hold out until it collapses…
Just as you think that Lancer catches Scathach’s sword on his lance in a shower of sparks. The weapons lock, the swordbreaker and rivets tangling together with a grinding, wailing screech of metal on metal. Scathach tries to tug her sword free, but Lancer shifts his weight to prevent her from doing so. She tries to push forward, to orient her sword forwards to pierce his chest, but the spearman remains as immovable as a rock. The pair remain deadlocked, with neither able to overcome the other.
Lancer is smiling again, clearly believing that he has the upper hand, that soon his spear will burst into flames again and burn Scathach to ashes. Scathach herself has a neutral look on her face, neither angry nor particularly worried. She sighs, closes her eyes, then whispers, in a voice almost too faint to hear.
“…Caim Frithir, Avenge.”
You see it as if in slow motion. Scathach’s sword unfurls, the single blade splitting into six. They curve around Lancer’s spear like some horrible black rose, striking with terrifying swiftness at his right leg, right arm, gut, chest, head and collarbone – the same six places that Scathach herself had blocked Lancer’s spear from hitting her throughout their fight.
Lancer wrenches his spear backwards and tries to block, but he only manages to stop the blade aimed at his head. The others burrow into his flesh like ravenous termites, serrated edges ripping through flesh and armour as if they weren’t there. Blood splashes to the ground and is immediately washed away by the sheeting rain, and a moment later Luin Celtchair slips from Lancer’s fingers and clatters to the floor. The spearman remains upright for a heartbeat longer, then slumps to the ground as Caim Frithir’s six blades retract and become one once more.
Lancer’s body shimmers and starts to disintegrate into golden particles. At the same time the world around you shudders and groans as normal reality begins to assert itself once more. The Reality Marble’s bounded field cracks and collapses, and you once again find yourself on Blackpool beach. The golden remnants of Lancer spiral into the air, then vanish as the Grail captures them.
Scathach breathes out heavily and awkwardly sheathes her sword. The weight of exhaustion finally settles around her shoulders, which slump down tiredly. You trudge over to stand by her side.
“…Are you alright?”
You enquire, wondering if perhaps you haven’t both overdone things tonight.
“…Yes. I’ll be fine…given some rest.”
She sees you eyeing her sword questioningly.
"...Oh, right. The sword."
She runs a finger along the scabbard.
"It carries a reversed blessing. The Inguz, Gebo and Fehu runes ordinarily come together to form a blessing of goodwill. Gebo, for fair exchange. Inguz, for storing power. Fehu, for transferring that power to another. Together they form a boon that repays kindness tenfold. However...if one were to add Thurisaz, the curse rune, the blessing of goodwill becomes a curse of vengeance that reflects malice back at the malicious one. Of course, you can store only so much. And it requires a lot of energy."
Your Servant takes a step, then wobbles slightly on her feet.
“I don’t think…I’ll be doing much for a couple of days. Have to recover myself.”
She looks at you sharply, then cracks a slow smile.
“Oh, and no offense…but I’m not interested in hastening the process. You already have too many girlfriends to be getting on with.”
You spread your hands and put on an expression of outraged innocence.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Caster.”
She chuckles and turns around.
“Oh, and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that your clothes are a mess. Not that that’s a bad thing, your old ones were terrible. I mean, all black? Really? Such a cliché. Is it a side effect of Vampirism or something?”
You snort and reach for the letter tucked into your waistband.
“Hmph. Since you’re complaining at me as usual you can’t be too exhausted. As that’s the case, you can look at this for me.”
You tap the letter on her shoulder. She takes it from you with a frown.
“…And this is?”
“A letter. From Assassin. He showed up right after I put a few bullets into Lancer’s Master.”
Scathach’s eyes widen at the mention of Assassin, and she turns the letter over in her hands.
“Assassin? Why would he…?”
“I don’t know. He claims it’s from his Master. I don’t think it’s a trap – he could have killed me at any point – but I thought it’d be best to have you check it.”
Scathach frowns and weighs the letter in her palms.
“Probably wise. Hmm…I can feel something here, but I don’t think it’s malicious…but I’ll be the one to open it, just to make sure.”
Your Servant tears open the envelope and pulls out the slightly smaller slip of paper contained inside. On the page is a message in neat, clipped handwriting, with a slightly rougher signature at the bottom. The message itself reads:
To the Master of Caster,
Greetings. I, Regulus Ahngrave, Master of Assassin, hereby extend this invitation to you. It is my desire that we meet tomorrow night at precisely twelve o’clock, at the Clarkefield Restaurant on the Blackpool promenade. You may find me at the table in the far right-hand corner of the main dining area.
Since it is a public location and the restaurant will be open for business you need not fear an attack from my end. However, I am aware that this may not be enough to convince you, so I hereby swear upon my power as a Magus that, should you choose to meet with me, neither myself nor any potential associates of mine will do you any harm. I will act in self-defence, but nothing more.
The matter I wish to discuss must wait until the meeting, but I assure you that it is a mutually beneficial agreement. I hope that you will meet with me, but if you feel it is not in your interests then feel free to disregard this letter. I will await your response tomorrow night.
And beneath that is the signature.
“Ah, I see.”
Caster mutters, running a finger across the paper.
“The letter itself is a self-geis scroll. If Assassin’s Master breaks the terms of the agreement laid down here, the geis will strike him down and strip away his magecraft. It’s a pretty serious indicator that he’s sincere…”
You muse on this for a moment. ‘Regulus Ahngrave’ has a slightly familiar ring to it…even though you’re pretty sure you don’t know anyone by that name. He has apparently bound himself to do you no harm, and Assassin’s actions tonight suggest that he is sincere, but…
1. Accept the invitation.
2. Decline the invitation.
“…I think I’ll go along and see what this ‘Regulus’ person has to say for himself. He’s gone to a lot of trouble to arrange a meeting when he could have easily ordered Assassin to kill me tonight. I think it’s worth the risk.”
Scathach nods, though she doesn’t look happy.
“As you wish, Master. Although…just remember, even if he’s not after your life, this meeting could still easily be part of some kind of plot. Be careful.”
You spread your hands in acknowledgement, then turn around and walk a few paces towards the sea. You crouch down and begin to search through the sand, looking for the object you’re sure must be around here somewhere...
“Hmm? What’re you looking for?”
Scathach asks curiously. You frown and keep searching.
“Robertson’s Mystic Code. I knocked it out of his hands earlier and thought it landed somewhere around here. I was thinking I’d retrieve it before some mortal tourist tripped over it, but…”
You straighten up and scan the beach ahead, but the fluted rod doesn’t jump out at you.
“…I can’t find it.”
You finish lamely. Your Servant folds her arms and gives you a pointed look.
“Perhaps Assassin took it. Either way, we really should be going, Master.”
She has a point. Wherever the rod is, it clearly isn’t here, and you’ve used up too much energy to worry about chasing after it now.
You spend about a minute assisting Caster in smoothing out the beach and removing any signs that you were ever there. Robertson’s body is dumped in the pit your Servant created and then covered over with tons of sand. Perhaps one day the shifting of the beach dunes will reveal his grim fate, but by the time that happens it won’t matter anymore.
The trip back to your lair takes longer than usual due to your exhaustion, but nothing jumps out at you whilst winding your way through the darkness of Blackpool’s back streets. You slump against a wall shortly after passing the gargoyle watchmen, and unconsciousness takes you seconds later. This time your sleep is dreamless, though whether that’s because you’ve seen all that Caster’s memories have to offer or simply due to exhaustion you cannot say.
You awaken feeling refreshed, though still not quite one hundred percent. Scathach remains asleep in one corner of the workshop, her head resting against the cold stone wall. For a brief moment you consider asking her to accompany you, but dismiss the idea just as quickly. Best to let her rest here for a bit; if you run into trouble you can always summon her via Command Seal. You pick out a new jacket to replace the one you lost yesterday – grey, this time, to head off Caster’s future sarcasm – and leave as quietly as you can.
It feels somewhat strange to venture outside and not be rained upon. The stars and moon above shed their light freely over the cloudless sky, though as you leave the dark industrial district and venture into the more commercial areas of Blackpool the harsh glow from neon and halogen lamps obliterate their soft illumination.
You cut through an alley between an electronics store and a corner shop and find yourself once more on the Blackpool promenade. It stretches off into the distance in either direction, the shops on both predominantly restaurants sprinkled with the occasional fish stall. Most of the former have outdoor seating areas lit by candles and lamps, and though the hour is late many of the seats are occupied.
The Clarkefield Restaurant sits on the northern half of the promenade. A large wooden sign hanging in front of the frosted windows proclaims that it has been in business since 1927, and a smaller sign underneath describes the numerous awards it has won for its food and cleanliness. You push open the door and find yourself standing in a small hallway that quickly opens out into a large dining area complete with a small bar at one end and several small ‘Trivia Scrabble’ machines at the other.
You stride into the main room, eyes searching for the table described in the letter. The sign outside wasn’t joking; the polished wooden floor is spotless, the rugs under the tables spotless and the white plaster walls as clean as the driven snow. Many of the other tables are already occupied, and the clinking sounds of cutlery resonate through the air. Most of the other diners are wearing coats and heavy jumpers, clearly thinking that yesterday’s storm might not have been over.
At last you spot the table in question, nestled in the right-hand corner of the dining area. The table is set for two, and the chair facing the wall is already occupied. Since he is seated with his back to you, the only details you can make out are a head of close-cropped brown hair and a beige coat of some kind. He appears to be looking at the menu. You approach the table cautiously, then slide carefully into the empty seat. At the very least, you have your back to a wall.
The other man remains silent for a moment, then slowly lowers the menu. Upon seeing his face the first thing that jumps out at you are the man’s eyes – cold and lifeless, slack and unfeeling. His other features are entirely nondescript, completely forgettable, as if assembled by rote from generic parts.
“Ah, here you are.”
He murmurs, smiling a smile that never comes anywhere near his dead-fish eyes. He glances down at the menu.
“I thought about ordering something, but…”
His eyes flick back up to you.
“Your tastes are no longer the same as ours…right?”
You fold your arms and give the other man a hard glare.
“If I had known that you’re request for a ‘talk’ was to discuss my eating habits, I would never have come in the first place. Either get to the point or stop wasting my time.”
The other man raises his hands plaintively.
“My apologies. It has been a while since I have spoken to someone like you. Please, pay it no mind.”
Regulus folds the menu back up and places it in its holder, then folds his arms and gives you a level look.
“Since you received my letter I won’t bother with any introductions. There are a number of things I want to discuss with you, but first allow me to pass on some information. Don’t worry about incurring any debts to me from this; I give you these details freely.”
Regulus picks up the salt shaker and toys with it idly.
“Saber and his Master are hiding in a forest to the north of the city. They are protected by some kind of fortress, presumably summoned by Saber; the architecture matches the fortresses of his era.”
You frown and stare at the table. You had hoped Saber’s Master would die from his injuries, but it seems fate was not in your favour that night. Regulus sees your expression and smiles without opening his mouth.
“Don’t be so disappointed. The Lord was badly injured, though he is recovering at a reasonable pace. He’ll be combat-ready in two or three days, in my opinion. But that’s not the most important thing I have to tell you.”
His eyes seem to bore into you, and his smile slips away like ice melting.
“Were you aware that, yesterday morning, agents working for Eudokia Hellespont met with the Master of Archer? Or, should I say…were invited into the workshop of Archer’s Master.”
You jerk upright, shocked.
“What? No, that’s not possible, Eudokia doesn’t have any followers left!”
Regulus simply looks at you.
“Oh? Are you quite sure? Why don’t we do a bit of maths to make certain? Eudokia Hellespont came into the War with twenty seven followers. Seven died as a result of her attacks on the Einzbern magus and her attempts to overcome Lord Monmouth’s barrier. Nine were killed by Archer and my own Servant during the attack on the pier. And eight died either to Lord Monmouth’s magecraft or because you personally murdered them two nights ago.”
You grip the lip of the table so hard it creaks.
Suddenly you remember the battle on the pier, the time you saw Eudokia off. You remember the dead being loaded into cars, nine corpses with their faces covered…
…And three injured men, barely conscious yet still alive. You freeze as a horribly cold feeling sweeps over you. Three of Eudokia’s black-coats are still alive. How long did it take for them to recover? How long have they been an unknown variable? How could you have been so stupid?!
Regulus leans back in his chair, apparently unfazed by your ability to deform the table simply by gripping it.
“Forgot to mention it to you, did she? Well, I suppose I’d do the same, in her position. You would too. We all have our own particular trump card. Eudokia has her followers, Monmouth and Robertson their Mystic Codes, Archer’s Master has his little ‘collection’…”
He waves his hand in a circular motion.
“Well, you get the idea. My own relationship with Archer’s Master is souring, so I don’t feel too bad in giving you this information. Particularly since it leads nicely into the reason I wanted to speak with you tonight.”
Regulus leans in, and his expression suddenly becomes hungry. Emotion creeps into his dull eyes for the first time since the conversation began, a flickering ember of desire.
“I want Eudokia Hellespont. Deliver her to me, and I will reveal the identities of Archer and Rider to you. Although perhaps you have worked out the latter already? No matter; I will also reveal the identity of Archer’s Master. Is that fair? I get what I want, and you lose someone who is plotting against you anyway and gain information you didn’t have before.”
You sit still for a moment, slowly parsing through everything the other man has just told you. Assassin must have been spending nearly every night out scouting around for him to have acquired so much information. Such knowledge would be incredibly useful, and it would indeed be nipping potential treachery in the bud, but…
Why, exactly, does Regulus want Eudokia? Given what he’s just told you getting rid of her is probably a good idea, but something tells you that giving her to this man might not be for the best. Your instincts tell you that something very ugly is lurking beneath his eyes…With that in mind, you could refuse; after all, your safe passage has been guaranteed by the self-geis scroll.
Or you could try to get more out of this deal. By the look of things handing over Eudokia is non-negotiable, but perhaps you could try to sweeten the deal for yourself? Then again, it might not be wise to push your luck – after all, there’s nothing stopping Regulus from simply getting up and leaving if he thinks you’re pushing things too far.
It’s a hard decision, but after thinking it over you decide to:
1. Agree to the deal – Eudokia in exchange for knowledge.
2. Do not agree to the deal and leave the restaurant.
3. Attempt to renegotiate / find out more before committing to anything.
You regard the man in front of you carefully. There’s something not quite right about him; a deep, dark feeling of unease that goes far beyond the simple oddness of his physical appearance. Your instincts tell you that simply accepting his offer out of hand would be a bad idea
“Before I agree to anything, there are a few details I’d like to clarify.”
Regulus says nothing for a few seconds. Then the look of hunger drains out of his face, which slowly returns to its original blank expression.
“That’s fair. But keep it quick. My time is short.”
You relax slightly, then ask the obvious question.
“First of all, why do you even need my help? Surely your Assassin could simply sneak in and grab Eudokia without the need for this convoluted plot.”
Your companion raises one eyebrow a fraction of an inch.
“That would be simpler. But it’s sadly not possible. The Greek hasn’t left her workshop since her defeat. The Bounded Fields protecting it would normally be no problem for Assassin, but…”
“But Rider being there changes that.”
You finish, suddenly understanding. Regulus nods and spreads his hands on the table.
“Just so. Rider has a strong affinity for territory acquisition. Any place he spends a significant amount of time in will be considered ‘his’. The longer he remains in one place, the more advantages he accumulates. And Rider, Rider’s Master and Eudokia have all been staying under the same roof since the War began. Even Assassin would not be able to cross the threshold without alerting the old Servant.”
The man opposite frowns very slightly.
“That is why I need you. You can draw Eudokia out into the open, where Rider is not as able to protect her.”
It makes sense – Assassin cannot penetrate Eudokia’s lair without being detected, and he lacks the strength to defeat Rider in a straight fight. Backup from Archer would be of limited use, and the only other Servant who might be able to brute-force his way in is Saber, who is apparently indisposed at the moment.
“Yeah, I see your point.”
You murmur before seizing on the obvious continuation to the first question.
“Which leads me on to my next question. What do you want with Eudokia in the first place? What’s so special about her?”
Regulus closes his eyes and shakes his head very slowly.
“I am not willing to answer that question at this time. All I can say is that it will benefit me – but then her death will benefit you as well, so why complain? And if you don’t like the idea of aiding me, then…well…We are all manoeuvring for advantage here. We’ll be at one another’s throats eventually, should we both survive that long.”
He flashes another not-quite-a-smile at you.
“Until then, as the Masters of the two weakest Servant Classes, it behoves us to play nice for a short while…wouldn’t you agree?”
He has a point. Regulus isn’t obliged to answer your questions just as you are not obliged to help him. Regardless of what this fish-eyed man wants with Eudokia, the truth is that it will still remove a potential threat regardless of what he does with her. On the other hand…
“Yeah, it does make sense to cooperate for now. Only…”
You inject a note of incredulity into your voice.
“Only I can’t help but notice that you already have an alliance with Archer’s Master. An alliance you are just about to betray, unless I miss my mark. So I’m sure you’ll understand my concerns and tell me why I should trust you to follow through with your end of the bargain.”
Regulus crosses his legs under the table and looks at you blankly. His brow twitches slightly, and his jaw tightens almost imperceptibly. His expressions and mannerisms up until now have been odd nearly to the point of incomprehensibility, but you get the distinct impression that the man in front of you is debating with himself.
After a few seconds the internal argument apparently ends and Regulus opens his mouth to speak.
“…I have had…suspicions. About Archer’s Master. For quite some time, actually. Ever since he entered the War, to be precise. Tell me, how much do you already know about him?”
You shake your head.
“Nothing, to be honest. Though since I’ve now encountered all the other Masters apart from him, I assume he’s the mysterious American.”
Regulus nods in assent.
“Yes. I suppose there’s no harm in disclosing more details. Archer’s Master goes by the name of Ronald Pryke, though he is more famously known as The Collector.”
The Collector? Wait a minute…yes, you recognise that name. Not much is known about The Collector; he does not belong to the Association and has never taken an apprentice. He is so named for his vast collection of Mystic Codes and other magical artefacts, though he also has another name, a name he gained due to rumours of thievery and deceit. Those who speak of him in such a fashion call him The Magpie, and accuse him of the theft of dozens of precious artefacts.
Regulus observes your look of comprehension without changing his expression.
“I see you recognize the name. The Collector is not a fighter, quite the reverse. He actively avoids violent confrontations and rarely leaves the New World. Oh, he’s certainly been implicated in a few heists and thefts here and there, but as far as I can work out he’s never personally taken part in them.”
“So then why has he suddenly appeared now?”
You ask the unspoken question. Regulus shrugs and continues.
“That is a good question. One I have yet to find the answer to, despite my best efforts. Like myself, Pryke is outside the Association so an alliance between us seemed like the natural thing. We worked rather well together at first, but…”
Regulus’s eyes narrow slightly.
“I quickly became aware that Pryke was sending his Servant on scouting missions far from any actual combat zones, areas where he absolutely must know no battles will ever occur. Didn’t you find it odd that you were never ambushed by him outside a few of the initial skirmishes? If you did, that’s the reason for it. He has been making an intense study of the northern half of the city and ignoring everything else. I’m not sure why Pryke is acting this way, but he’s certainly not supporting me any more.”
You pause for a moment to digest this information. The Collector’s behaviour is indeed strange – if Regulus is telling the truth it’s almost as if he’s not really interested in winning the War. There’s obviously something you’re missing, some context that would make Pryke’s actions make sense, but for the time being you have this agreement to consider, and The Collector is currently at the very periphery of that.
Regulus sighs and waves one hand dismissively.
“Anyway. I have told you a lot, far more than I intended. Any more and you will gain an unfair advantage. I hope you won’t begrudge me for asking you to make a decision now. Will you help deliver Eudokia Hellespont to me?”
You remain silent and consider the offer in light of the new information you have gathered. After thinking matters through again you decide to:
1. Refuse the offer and deal with Eudokia yourself, taking care to dispose of her body afterwards.
2. Accept the offer and agree to exchange Eudokia for Regulus’s information.
3. Accept the offer, but lie about your sincerity and make plans to betray him in the middle of the exchange.
You say quietly.
“You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Regulus smirks and sighs the contented sigh of one who has just consumed a very fine meal.
“I’m glad you saw the wisdom in my offer.”
“All you have to do is draw Eudokia out of her stronghold. The method doesn’t particularly matter.”
He flicks his wrist casually, and a small box slides across to your side of the table. You stop it from falling off the edge with one hand and thumb open the lid; inside rests a thin wooden rod about five inches long. It has no markings or decoration to speak of, but you can feel threads of prana pulsing inside it.
“We can communicate through this. Contact me once the Greek is a good distance from her workshop. She will likely try to bring Rider with her, so we will need to take steps to separate them. I will handle Eudokia’s disposal, then give you the information I promised.”
You stare at him for a moment, then put on a thoughtful expression.
“That sounds fine, but…I think it would be best if we drew up some sort of formal agreement to ensure that there is no possibility of one of us betraying the other at a critical moment. I’m sure you understand.”
Regulus shrugs slightly, his expression still extremely self-satisfied. He reaches into his heavy beige coat and slaps a sheaf of papers onto the smooth wood of the table. A pile of self-geis scrolls, similar to the one Regulus had bound himself with in order to tempt you into this meeting.
“I expected as much. So I came prepared.”
You reach across the table and turn the papers so that you can read them. The terms are quite explicit; any attempt by you or your associates to prevent Regulus from recovering Eudokia’s body will result in the permanent loss of your magecraft. Similarly, withholding the promised information after the corpse’s recovery will do the same to Regulus. You are both forbidden from ordering your Servants to aid you in any deception for as long as the contract is in place.
You read the whole thing through several times, trying to find some weakness in the text that would allow Regulus to cheat you at the last possible moment. It seems to be perfectly watertight.
Key word being ‘seems’.
You work hard to suppress a smile as you slide the papers back to the other man, who already has a pen out ready to sign on the dotted line. If you play your cards right, you can be the one doing the cheating. It all rests on Caster.
Regulus signs the document and passes it back to you along with the pen. It’s a fountain pen, nondescript and generic, just like him. You hesitate for a moment, then scrawl your own signature beneath his. Regulus takes the finished contract back, tears off the top page, then passes you the duplicate page beneath it. The ink from your signatures has sunk through the top page, providing you with an identical copy of the contract.
Regulus picks up the menu again and starting to flick through it. He turns around and waves one of the restaurant staff over. Sensing that the meeting is over, you put your hands on the table and begin to rise. Before you’ve fully straightened up, Regulus tilts his head to look back at you and whispers.
“Now that our business is concluded, let me give you one final piece of advice. Go back to your lair quickly. The Church has found out you are here. They are probably already on the move.”
You are so busy processing everything that’s happened tonight that Regulus’s words don’t register with you until you’re halfway to the exit. When they do you curse under your breath and glance back over your shoulder to where Regulus is now placing an order. His eyes shift to you, and his mouth flicks up in a small smile. Then he hides his face behind his menu.
The Church is onto you again? How could he…
You smack yourself mentally and storm out of the restaurant, shouldering past two tourist-types wearing heavy coats. Of course he would know, that slimy little git seems like he knows practically everything that goes on in this city. Executors. As if you needed any more trouble. The Church aren’t like the other mages in the Grail War, they wouldn’t hesitate to decapitate you in plain view if they really thought it’d work. Suddenly the promenade outside seems hideously open and exposed.
You walk briskly through the tables and chairs laid out outside the restaurant and wheel around into the nearest patch of shadows. From there you quickly pick out the shortest route back into the main part of the city. After about a second of standing still you slink out of the shadows and slip into the four foot gap between the previous restaurant and its neighbour.
The narrow alley is too small for bins, but that hasn’t stopped some staff assistant from gamely trying to shove a metal refuse wheeler into it. You shut the half-open lid, haul yourself up on top of it, then use the thin metal top as an impromptu springboard to propel yourself up the side of the neighbouring restaurant. You grab the lip of the roof, swing yourself up and over, then break into a run, leaping between buildings as fast as you can without being seen by anyone on the streets below.
Soon the promenade is far behind you, and you start to feel a little safer. Sure, the dark and smoggy interior of the city is a great place to set up an ambush, but it’s also a great place for enabling a wily Dead Apostle to make a quick getaway should the going get a little too tough. To that end you’d be better served on the ground.
You halt and hop over the edge of your current roof, landing heavily on the street below. You rise up out of a crouching position, then frown; the alley you’re in looks…twisted, somehow. As if you’re looking at it through poorly blown glass. You tilt your head questioningly, and then the pieces snap into place; the alley isn’t twisted, it’s been melted and warped by an intense heat.
Of course – this is the alley where Saber and Lancer fought all those nights ago. A light dusting of smoggy fumes coats the area, but you can still smell the caustic scent of burnt asphalt. You can just about make out a thin line of police ticker tape at the mouth of the alley, along with a larger, more impressive metal sign with the words ‘KEEP OUT’ printed boldly across its surface.
You square your shoulders, dust yourself off, turn away from the alley entrance and take one step forwards.
And freeze as a cold sensation crawls down the back of your neck, the sort of feeling you get when a stranger sits next to you on the train, an unfamiliar nudging, jostling, uncomfortable feeling. Slowly, ever so slowly, you twist your body to stare over your shoulder at the mouth alley. A momentary break in the fog reveals four figures standing on the other side of the ticker tape, four indistinct humanoid shapes that suddenly sharpen into focus as the smog rolls aside.
The first figure is an old man dressed in white. A gold cloak falls to around the back of his knees, and looped around his shoulders is an ornate pallium signifying him as an important member of the clergy, an archbishop at the very least. Visually he is unimpressive, standing around five foot two or so, and his features sag with the weight of age.
The second is a far younger man who can’t be older than twenty or so, and even at a distance you can tell that he’s a fighter. He wears the simple black and white vestments of an ordained cleric or deacon, though the naked sword at his hip leaves no doubt whatsoever that he is a man of violence. Hair the colour of old wine clings to his scalp in limp clumps, and though his soft facial features remain neutral his green eyes burn with barely-restrained hatred.
Standing slightly behind and to the side of the red-haired man is a shorter figure, and you immediately judge it to be female. She wears a simple grey dress with long sleeves and a hemline that drags along the floor, and her face is covered by a black lace veil. Lines of red beads similar to a Rosary are looped around both arms, with another hanging around her neck. You squint and try to see through her veil with your supernatural eyesight – then shiver. Someone – or something – has torn the woman’s face to shreds. Nose, lips, one ear, one eye…simply gone. And that’s not counting the horrifying scars that make it look as if someone has ground her head against a giant cheese grater.
The last is the tallest of the four, a thin and wiry man clad in the official black robes of a full Executor. A six-foot long metal rod is slung carelessly across his back, crowned by a large metal sphere with holes drilled into it at regular intervals. Wisps of smoke drift from the holes, and you think you see a flicker of light dancing within the globe. Something in the man’s face seems familiar to you, but you can’t quite place it; his clean shaven face and neatly trimmed black hair, his small and beady eyes…
You put it out of your mind for now, because the eldest of the four has just begun to walk slowly towards you. The others move to follow him, but he halts them by raising one hand.
“Hail, lost lamb of man.”
He intones, placidly putting one foot in front of the other as if he were on the way to church service instead of facing down a supernatural horror. His watery blue eyes show no fear whatsoever.
“I see that the light of the Lord has not touched your form in a long, long time. The darkness has taken you from His light, but there is still hope for you. So I ask you, please give us your hand, so we may scrape clean the rot upon your soul. I ask that you allow us to resolve this peacefully, that you come to the Lord willingly, without bloodshed or conflict.”
You remain silent as the old man continues to walk. He halts halfway between you and his companions and stands still, clearly awaiting some kind of response. Puzzlement fills your thoughts. Is this clergyman…asking you to lie down and die? Just like that? For a moment you have no idea how to react. The idea is so…so…so stupid. The sheer oddness of the request leaves you temporarily at a loss for words.
“It is a creature of the pit, Father White! You cannot expect it to understand what mercy is, after what it did to Brother Lothar! Look at it! It has no desire to return to the side of our Lord! We should purify it imme-”
The old man raises a wrinkled hand, interrupting the crimson-haired man’s tirade. He turns slightly, craning his neck to look at the speaker behind him.
“Carrington, you speak too quickly and too harshly. For does the Lord not say, ‘Temper justice with mercy, punishment with understanding.’? No, we must try reason first, or else it is simply vengeance. We should-”
Your mind unfreezes as you realize the opportunity facing you right now. The old man – White, the other man called him – is turned away from you, out of range of his companions and, as far as you can see, totally unarmed. Your body tenses as you prepare to:
1. Attack the old man whilst his back is turned. There’s no way his companions could ever reach him in time to help and his back is wide open. He seems to be the brains of the operation, so killing him now would give you a huge advantage.
2. Flee the scene and try to lose at least some of the Executors. The old man and the woman probably won’t be able to keep up with you.
Your first instinct is to attack, to pounce whilst the Executors are distracted. It would be easy to take the old man out, he’s wide open, not even looking at you, there’s no way he or any of his followers could possibly react in time. The predatory part of you urges you to not let this opportunity pass you by. But that’s exactly why you crush that instinct down and remain where you are. Yes, the old man is wide open. Yes, there’s no way his companions could hope to help him in time if you chose to attack.
But surely the old man must know that as well. Which begs the question of why he left himself so open. And why his companions were content to let him do so.
You recall his wrinkled face and the sagging pits around his tearful blue eyes. No Executor reached such a ripe old age by being easy to kill. Doubtless he trusted in his faith to keep him safe, but the standard Executor robes are lined with Kevlar for a reason. And an Executor who was also an Archbishop would surely have better protection than that. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that you’d be fighting his three companions even if you succeeded.
Your enemies have chosen the time and place of this fight. A predator’s instinct is a hindrance in this situation. So instead of playing whatever game they have in mind, you’re going to change the rules a little. Whilst the churchmen are still distracted you sneak your hand into your coat and close your fingers around the grip of your hidden revolver.
“-must be patient. Nobody can walk for so long in the darkness that they cannot return to the light.”
Father White finishes at last. The cleric looks unconvinced.
“Then we should give it a baptism by fire, as Brother Lothar sought to do! A trial of ordeal, like those of old! We should-”
You tune out the younger man’s rant and examine his companions. The taller, beady-eyed man looks relaxed, but relaxed in the same way as a python coiled around a tree branch, ready to snap into action should something young and tender wander by. The woman remains perfectly still, having not moved at all throughout the entire conversation. You examine her figure more closely, noting that some of the scars on her face extend all the way down her neck and vanish beneath the neckline of her dress. If the rest of her body is just as damaged…
Before anyone can react you wrench the gun out of your coat, hurriedly aim it at the group standing in front of you and pull the trigger four times in rapid succession. At the same time you twist your body around and break into a long, loping sprint away from the mouth of the alley. Shouts of alarm follow from behind but you don’t look back; those shots were just a suppressant, it’s doubtful you managed to hit anyone.
The smog parts as you reach the end of the alley, a sheer brick wall extending fifteen or sixteen feet upwards. Without checking your momentum you slam into it and begin to climb, gouging out handholds as if the wall were made of clay. Footsteps ring out behind you and a voice you recognise as the young cleric’s shouts that he’s found you, but by that time you’re already hauling yourself over the lip. You turn and fire your remaining shot in his general direction before letting yourself drop into the main street on the other side.
You land heavily but immediately spring up and keep running, knocking down two passers-by in your haste. Out of the corner of your eye you spot a plaque on the side of a nearby building that reads ‘Beechfield Avenue’. It’s a long street with residential buildings on either side, and at the end of the road you can see the tall iron fence that bars access to Stanley Park.
“This is a pretty nostalgic night.”
You whisper to yourself as you continue to run. You risk a glance over your shoulder and spy the tall man and the ill-tempered cleric drop down from the wall and push past the same pedestrians you knocked down a few seconds ago. Silently you curse whatever methods the Church uses to train its Executors. No normal human should be able to keep up with you, yet somehow these religious enforcers always seem to have greater strength, speed and stamina than an Olympic-grade athlete.
Even so, on a straightaway like this street you’ll always be faster than them. By the time you reach the T-junction at the end of the road the Executors are barely a quarter of the way along. The fence surrounding Stanley Park looms menacingly dead ahead, but it was designed to stop thieves and vandals, not Dead Apostles. You surge across the road and prepare to jump clean over it.
A wailing screech of tires grinding against asphalt causes your head to whip around instinctively. You have just enough time to take in a silver paint job and a terrified, white-faced driver before several thousand kilograms of metal sweeps your legs out from under you and turns the world into a spinning kaleidoscope of sky, road and city. You bounce off the ground several times, rolling over and over until friction and gravity take hold and your body grinds to a halt.
The car rolls to a stop a few metres away. It’s a silver hatchback, probably a Renault of some kind, the sort of car Jeremy Clarkson would make disparaging remarks about. You grit your teeth and rise to your feet, wincing as the bones in your legs grind against each other. The injury is minor, for a Dead Apostle, but the delay has allowed the Executors to close the gap significantly. Before the driver can get out and slow you down even further you gather you limp over to the fence and swarm over it. The Curse of Restoration gets to work mending your fractured bones, and by the time you drop into the park your body is as good as new again.
The playing fields stretch ahead of you. To your right lies the gated area where Scathach set up her minefield. Through the gaps in the fence you can see the profile of several parked police cars, and the site itself is cordoned off with an endless spiderweb of police tape. A series of low, squat buildings sit off to the far left. And of course, ahead and slightly to the left are the Italian Gardens where Monmouth once dwelled. You cast your mind back to the map of the city in your workshop, and recall that a lake and model village lie to the east of the Gardens.
You take half a dozen steps forwards, then jerk back as three slender blades thud into the ground directly in front of you. You turn and see the two Executors jump down from atop the fence and then rise, weapons at the ready. The younger man now holds several Black Keys in addition to his longer sword, which you now see is actually a scaled-up version of them.
“You can’t run forever, heretic.”
The cleric snarls, punctuating the last word by hurling three more Black Keys at you. The throw is hasty and impulsive and you easily evade them by shifting your body to one side. This simply causes the young man’s eyes to blaze still hotter.
“Calm down, Carrington.”
His taller companion rumbles, placing a hand on the cleric’s shoulder. The young man shoots him a fierce look.
“How can you be so calm, Brother Hempel? This thing murdered Brother Lothar in the most loathsome fashion imaginable! Don’t you want to avenge him? He was your brother in blood as well as faith!”
Ah, now you see the resemblance. The tall man’s beady eyes are the same size and shape of the blackfriar you fought with beneath Oxford. He regards you impassively, his face betraying no emotion that you can discern.
“My brother ran ahead without support. He allowed his zeal to overtake him and it cost him his life. And it will cost you yours if you do not learn from his mistake.”
The cleric – Carrington – glares at Hempel, but makes no further move towards you. You smile slightly, wondering how you can exploit his hotheaded behaviour. The tall man grunts and nods his head in your direction.
“See? The vampire has already taken note of your rage. He will surely try to bait you into losing control at a critical moment. Remain calm and do not fall for his tricks.”
You frown and turn your gaze over to Hempel. He’s clearly the more perceptive of the two. His weapon is also more unusual; it looks like a cross between a staff and a mace, but the ball on the end is hollow? And is that fire you can see flickering inside it?
Carrington grips the hilt of the scaled-up key with both hands and advances towards you. His companion remains where he is, apparently unconcerned.
“We’ll do this the same as always, right?”
The young cleric sneers, sweeping his sword behind him and flowing forwards into a charging sprint, white robes flowing out behind him like billowing mist.
“Yeah. Same as always.”
Hempel mutters, swinging his own weapon in an arc but otherwise remaining still.
You try to retreat backwards and away from Carrington’s charge, but you can only go so fast whilst backpedalling. The red-haired cleric’s blade sweeps around in an enormous crescent-shaped blur of steel meant to open you up from thigh to collarbone, and you only barely manage to evade by throwing yourself to one side. Even so the elongated Black Key takes a chunk of your hair with it, and a searing pain burns across your scalp.
Carrington uses the momentum of his swing to spin on his heel and deliver a second strike, this time a thrusting stab towards your centre of mass. You twist aside but once again the thrust is too fast to entirely avoid, the blade scoring a searing line of pain along your left flank. You grit your teeth and club at the cleric with the butt of your gun, but he simply dances aside and out of your reach.
A light fog has begun to rise, but not enough to obscure your vision. You snarl and thrust your free hand into the inside pocket of your coat whilst simultaneously snapping open the hunting pistol’s chamber. You dig out a handful of spare rounds, at the same time ejecting the spent ones with a fluid flick of your wrist. You slam the new ones home just as Carrington sweeps in for another wide slash, and at such close range there’s no chance you’ll be able to shoot him before he takes your head off.
With no other option you interpose the pistol’s barrel between yourself and the sword, at the same time Reinforcing the gunmetal as much as you can. The two weapons meet with a glassy shriek of metal, and sparks fly as the opposing magics infusing gun and sword clash against one another. Carrington smiles as his sword slowly pushes your pistol aside, inching closer and closer towards your neck with every half-second that passes, your right hand’s strength failing against both of his…
…So he’s extremely surprised when your left hand hammers into his abdomen, clawed fingers raking through his robes and into the flesh beneath. Carrington’s breath explodes from his lips in a great cough as his entire body is lifted off the floor and sent hurtling backwards across the grassy field. You take a moment to regain your balance before levelling your pistol at the cleric’s prone body. Aside from a small notch in the barrel the gun is undamaged, and you should have no problems firing it. Your finger tightens on the trigger.
Then you relax your grip, confused. Carrington’s body, until now motionless on the ground, has suddenly vanished without ceremony, leaving a conspicuous gap in the wispy fog. You look around, but neither he nor his tall companion are anywhere to be seen. You pace over to the empty space where he once lay and sweep your foot through the empty air, but nothing happens.
A dark shape moves at the periphery of your vision and you whirl to face it, gun extended. You can just about make out the silhouette of the taller man, and beside him something that might be Carrington’s crumpled form. How did he move without you seeing?
However he did it, you need to consider your next move. If this fog becomes much thicker visibility will become a problem, so it might be better to take this battle to an area with less of it…but on the other hand, it could be used to your advantage since you can still see far better than your opponents.
1. Draw your opponents to the Italian Gardens where the visibility is better and engage them there.
2. Remain in the playing fields and use the fog to your advantage.
3. Do neither. Instead leave the park and ambush Father White and his female companion whilst their heavy-hitters are absent.
It was an unimpressive chapel, all told. Barely twenty metres long and fifteen wide, with just enough room for three rows of pews and an altar at the far end, the tiny church was a relic of simpler times. A few candles set into grooves in the limestone walls burned humbly, shedding just enough light to see by. Scuff marks on the floor were all that remained of the faded lettering carved there by some long forgotten stonemason, perhaps a memorial to the priest who once held services there.
The sacred silence of the place was suddenly broken by the thumping of heavy footfalls on the paving slabs outside. The candles guttered and blew out as the chapel’s ancient wooden doors were suddenly thrust open, baptising the interior in cold night air. A cowled figure stepped through the doors and quickly closed them behind him, moving with the precise and careful motions of a person who knew exactly what they were doing. He was dressed in a tunic of red and white, though most was covered up by a threadbare brown cloak that fell to around his ankles. A careful observer would note that the cloth concealing the figure’s face had no eye holes, but their absence did not trouble the intruder.
He could see just fine.
The intruder’s gaze snapped to the altar and remained there for a second. Beneath the cowl his eyes narrowed into glowing green slits. As he had thought; that was where it had been hidden. With a dozen quick strides the cowled man crossed the distance between the door and the altar, then stepped behind it and ducked into a crouch. The floor was formed from ancient blocks of limestone, metre-long rectangles of cut stone, each one worn and pitted with age. All of them remained solidly entrenched in the medieval mortar that bound them together – all except one.
The floor slab immediately behind the altar was less secure than its brethren. A close examination would reveal the mortar around it to be laced with miniscule cracks, and one side of the block was slightly raised compared to the other. The intruder took note of this immediately, but it didn’t matter either way. Even if the disguise had been perfect the cowled man would still have known that this slab concealed a hidden staircase leading down to a secret room ten metres beneath the chapel’s foundations.
It’s rather hard to deceive someone who has the power to see through solid matter.
With a simple, effortless motion the man reached down and hauled the loose slab up and out of its socket. A normal person would have needed both hands and a chisel to lever the block up, but the intruder did it one-handed. Musty air welled up from the hole beneath, but the cowled man paid it no heed. Without making a sound he slid his legs over the lip and lowered himself onto the first step of the ancient stone staircase below.
A thick layer of dust coated the stairway, apparently undisturbed for centuries, but the intruder could see the subtle ripples of the magic that had re-spread the dust evenly over fresh footprints. To his eyes they lit up the dark passage like luminescent shards of glass, each a perfect image of the bottom of a flat-soled shoe.
The man walked down the stairs in silence, the only sound the quavering echo of his footsteps. At last he reached the last step, after which the ground rose up to become a level passage a few paces long. At the end lay a door set into solid rock, a sturdy oak that showed no signs of rot or mould. The only decoration on it was a large brass knob. The cowled man regarded the door calmly for a few seconds, then nodded slightly, as if he had seen something he expected. He closed his hand around the doorknob and pushed.
As he did there was a sharp crack, a flash of light and the scent of ozone. The bounded field covering the door reacted violently to the man’s touch, and tendrils of pure white lightning reached out to rake over his body. The intruder seemed not to notice the crackling energies that sought to char him to ash and simply thrust open the door and stepped over the threshold without batting an eye.
The lightning writhed, sparked, spasmed and died as his foot came down. The room behind the door was small, only four or five metres square. A few small shelves were carved into the rock walls, and here and there lay small piles of cobwebbed wood which may or may not have once been furniture. And set against the far wall of the chamber was a simple metal box. The room itself was not important; doubtless it had once been used by some Jesuit priest during the times of religious turmoil in England’s past.
The intruder ghosted over to the box and laid his hands upon it. He frowned beneath his cowl; a mighty enchantment had been laid upon the chest that obscured even his all-seeing gaze. He whispered a mantra to himself and concentrated, focusing his vision into a razor-thin point, searching for a weakness in the spell that he might be able to exploit. For a brief moment the veil around the chest flickered and he was able to see the object that lay nestled on a bed of velvet within the metal box.
The man smiled and straightened up. He turned on his heel and marched from the room, making sure to close the door behind him. He ascended the old stone stairway and emerged into the small chapel, then slid the floor slab back into place. The intruder cast one last look back down at the hidden chamber, his gaze once again piercing air, stone and wood.
He had found it. Now it was simply a matter of waiting for the right time.
The intruder smiled, then left. The door banged shut, and the last few struggling candles spluttered and died, plunging the chapel into darkness.
You begin to wade through the misty fog in the direction of the distant silhouettes, but stop after three paces. Something about the mist feels…wrong, somehow. You were too preoccupied with defending yourself to notice it earlier, but now that you aren’t being pressured you can clearly sense the subtle threads of prana woven through the fog. It must be a supernatural apparition of some kind. Probably not the work of the crimson-haired cleric, though. He wouldn’t have had the time or focus to conjure something like this whilst in the midst of single combat.
No, this is almost certainly the taller man’s doing. The clouds only began to gather after he started to swing his strange weapon around. The mist itself clearly carries some illusory properties. It explains the disappearance of the cleric’s body and its reappearance elsewhere; the other man must have retrieved him and retreated before you tried kicking at it. That tells you something else – that the other man is extremely fast. There couldn’t have been more than a handful of seconds for him to save his companion, but he managed it without you even noticing.
You turn away from the silhouettes and set off at a run towards the old Italian Gardens. The fog is not yet thick enough to obscure your vision completely, but if you remain here much longer it will surround you in an impenetrable dome. As you run, you try to think of some sort of strategy to use against the illusion-mist. You are almost certain that the beginning of the fight was real; the blood on your left hand hasn’t disappeared, and neither has the nick on the barrel of your gun. Perhaps it takes time for the illusion to work.
Your footfalls churn up the wet ground as you burst from the fog and into clearer air. The gardens are slightly to your right, so you change course slightly in order to head straight for them. The imposing hedgerows surrounding the garden grow steadily larger as you cross the intervening space, and it doesn’t take long before you stumble across the broken ground where you fought against Lord Monmouth. Most of the shallow craters are still partially filled with water, the ground having had insufficient time to soak it all up after the torrential rain of the previous week.
Casting a final look over your shoulder, you see the distant mist is beginning to dissipate. The wind takes the wispy remnants and blows them into nothingness. There are no signs of your two assailants, but the prickling feeling on the back of your neck tells you that they are still out there somewhere. You duck through the gap in the hedge leading to the inner gardens and ghost through the flowerbeds and shrubberies, searching for a suitable hiding place.
A shadowy hollow within one of the garden’s rockeries provides excellent cover, as well as providing you with a good view of the entrance. You dart inside and crouch down, using your earth magic to reshape the shallow hole, making it deeper and narrower until it is impossible to see inside from the sides. Then you wait for your enemies to follow you in. A metronome of pain drums a steady beat through your head and left side, and though you try to ignore it the pulsing sensation refuses to diminish with time. It’s frustrating but you can’t count on your Curse of Restoration against these people, so an ambush here is undoubtedly your best bet.
It seems like an age before you spot movement over by the gap in the hedge. Carrington’s head peers around the edge of the entrance, slowly tracks left and right, then gives a curt nod and withdraws. Both he and his companion step into the garden simultaneously, weapons held at the ready. Carrington’s robes are shredded and stained red where you struck him, but the cleric must be tougher than he looks because he’s not limping or favouring his other side.
The other man looks the same as he did before, only this time smoke is pouring through the holes in the sphere mounted on his staff. It must be a censer of some kind, but instead of burning incense this one produces that illusory fog. He remains by the entrance, not moving a muscle. Streamers of mist curl upwards from his censer, but not enough to spread further than a few feet.
The cleric stalks forward into the garden, his pace leonine. He keeps a white-knuckled grip on his sword, and his gaze sweeps the area like a searchlight. You crouch lower and retreat further into the shadows, and Carrington’s eyes brush over your hiding place without noticing you.
“Come out, demon! Come out and face judgement!”
He shouts, his steps taking him on a wide circuit of the gardens. You suddenly realize that his footsteps will take him right past your hollow, giving you the perfect opportunity to launch a surprise attack. You wait patiently as the young cleric approaches, gathering your strength for a decisive blow that will take him out of the fight.
Carrington’s foot comes down not six feet away from your hiding place, his piercing gaze directed straight ahead. As he passes by you rise up out of your shadowy hole like a ghastly spectre, both arms raised, hands clenched into crushing fists. The cleric senses you in his peripheral vision and starts to turn, but it’s too late. You bring both arms down, twin hammerblows of bone-crushing force driving into the area directly between his shoulderblades.
The young man cries out in pain as the impact drives him to the ground. You reach for him, hands forming into vicious claws ready to take his head off at the neck, but the cleric reacts impossibly quickly by rolling away from the blow. Your claws catch on the neck of his robe and his momentum tears the entire thing off his body. Snarling in frustration, you throw the blood-speckled garment away and advance towards your recovering foe.
As Carrington straightens up it becomes clear why your previous attacks haven’t been affecting him much. Beneath his ecclesiastical garb the cleric wears a suit of some kind of armour. It is formed of many interlocking metal scales and covers his entire body like a second skin. The scales seem to glow in the darkness, reflecting the pale moonlight from above, apart from a small patch over his stomach which are dented, torn, and bloodstained.
“My faith protects me. My Kevlar helps, huh.”
You mutter before stalking forwards.
“This…is not Kevlar.”
The cleric growls, raising his sword and totally missing your reference. You look around for the tall man and find he hasn’t moved, but he has begun swinging his censer again. Mist has already begun to spread from it, and more seems to simply rise up out of the ground around him. You can’t afford to let him keep conjuring the mist, but though Carrington is standing slightly off to one side he’d still be able to intercept you if you tried to attack.
You walk forwards, lengthening your stride until it becomes a run, then lengthening it further into an all-out charge. You angle yourself towards Carrington and aim a blow squarely at his skull. The cleric stumbles back, surprised by the sheer speed and suddenness of your assault. His sword flicks up in a high guard to intercept your claws, but at the last second you throw yourself to the ground. You allow your momentum to carry you past the cleric before digging your limbs into the wet earth, slowing yourself to a halt.
Without waiting for Carrington to react you spring to your feet and make a mad dash for the tall man – Hempel, as you recall. The red-haired cleric shouts a warning, but the other man’s beady eyes remain calm; he saw you coming already. He flicks his wrist, and a small dark capsule suddenly appears in his free hand. Black robes flapping, he draws back his censer and inserts the capsule into one of the air holes.
The inside of the sphere suddenly flickers with bluish-purple light, and the colour of the smoke shifts to a more threatening and violent hue. Hempel jabs the censer in your direction and a torrent of violet smoke rushes out. Unlike normal smoke the fumes do not disperse but form themselves into a solid column of gas that lashes out towards you like an enormous whip.
You duck under the roiling column, only narrowly avoiding being swallowed up by the cloud. The overly sweet smell of incense washes over you, and you feel slightly dizzy, but your supernatural swiftness allowed you to avoid the worst of it. The Executor gestures and the cloud boils and collapses, spilling down to envelop you like ink poured into still water. You scramble out of the way, feet slipping on the wet earth, only to suddenly find yourself within striking distance.
There’s no time for anything fancy. You simply barrel into him at top speed, bowling him over completely despite your smaller stature. The tall man grunts as his back hits the ground, sending up a spray of muddy soil. You ram the barrel of your pistol into his chest and squeeze the trigger, but Hempel rams his palm into your face before the gun can go off, causing you to jerk backwards and ruining your shot. You lash out blindly and feel your claws bite, but the Executor tucks in his legs and kicks you off with a mighty heave of his whole body.
You land in a heap, just in time to see Carrington sweeping towards you from the side, sword angled down towards the ground in preparation for an upwards swing. He holds his blade in one hand, and in the other three other, smaller versions clasped between his knuckles, presumably to throw at you should you attempt to evade. His motions are extremely accurate and precise, perfectly balanced to kill you no matter what you try to do.
You smile to yourself and press one palm into the muddy soil. The wet earth pulses beneath your hand as you loose a basic single action spell into the ground. Carrington’s foot comes down into the final step that will bring him within striking distance of you, and his sword begins to arc up towards your chin…then suddenly falters as the ground beneath his final footfall sinks two inches. You strike then, in the second of time where Carrington’s balance is ruined, sending your claws scything across one side of his face as you flash by.
Carrington shrieks in pain as four crimson lines open up across the full length of his left cheek. It’s not a fatal blow by any means, but judging by the way the slashed flesh is flapping about your claws must have pierced right through to the inside of his mouth. He stumbles forwards and discards the Black Keys, raising the free hand to help hold his face together. He twists his head to look over his shoulder at you, and his expression is a picture of pure hatred and malice.
You smirk and begin to take a step forward to press the attack, then jump back as a billowing cloud of violet fog slams down where you were about to step. Hempel twists his censer and sends another whiplash of solid mist curving towards you. He’s far enough away that the arcing tendril of fog is easy to avoid, but in the time it takes for you to jump aside the tall man is able to sprint over to his wounded companion.
Hempel places one hand on Carrington’s shoulder, steadying the youth. He casts his gaze around the area for a moment, then shakes his head almost imperceptibly. The he looks at you, and after a few seconds of silence begins to speak.
He rumbles. You notice that the fabric of his robes has been shredded all down the front, revealing the Kevlar woven into it beneath. The ballistic weave is torn in multiple places, but you can’t see any signs of blood. Apparently you didn’t manage to hurt him back then.
“Apostle, I would parley with you. I ask that you allow myself and my companion to leave this place without further bloodshed, and that in exchange neither we nor our fellows will confront you again this night.”
Carrington glares at Hempel, but the other man ignores it. You raise an eyebrow.
“An Executor, allowing a vampire to leave unmolested? Do you think I’m stupid?”
The tall man gives a slight shrug.
“Not all of us are zealots.”
He gives Carrington a pointed look, then shifts his gaze back to you.
“Make no mistake, Apostle. It is within our power to kill you here. But it would cost us our lives in so doing. And whilst a martyr’s death is glorious, it is far more glorious to live so that we may continue to serve our Lord.”
You stare at the two men, nonplussed.
“…And you’re willing to believe I’ll just let you walk away and won’t simply kill you both as soon as your backs are turned?”
The tall man hefts his censer.
“If you choose to do that, we all die.”
You consider his words for a moment, but there’s an obvious problem with the Executor’s proposition.
“…If I let you go, you’ll just try to kill me again another night.”
“Yes. But this way, none of us have to die tonight.”
You shift slightly into a fighting stance.
“You seem pretty sure you can kill me. But from where I’m standing it seems better to take my chances.”
Hempel shrugs again, though he also grips his censer more tightly than before.
“If that is your wish. But you should choose quickly, Apostle. Father White and Sister Roseheart will be here soon, and the four of us together can crush you without effort.”
A cold feeling rises up inside you. How long have you been fighting? Long enough for the other two to get to the park? Hempel’s offer suddenly seems a little more palatable. You don’t have much time either way, so you make the snap decision to:
1. Agree with Hempel’s proposal and leave the park in peace, though obviously not letting your guard down until you’re back inn your lair.
2. Agree with Hempel’s proposal, but lie about it and stab them in the back.
3. Refuse to deal with the Executors and attempt to kill at least one of them before fleeing the scene.
It’s tempting to accept the agreement simply to give yourself an ambush opportunity. But something in the tall man’s eyes tells you that his prior claim about still being able to kill you was not mere hyperbole. You nod cautiously.
“Fine. We’ll postpone matters for the time being.”
Some of the tension goes out of Hempel’s expression. He shifts his staff into the crook of one arm and wheels his companion around. Without a word he begins to stride towards the exit.
“You’re smarter than your brother was, at least.”
You call after them. Hempel freezes, then turns his head slightly to look at you over his shoulder. He regards you passively for a moment, saying nothing, not even with his face. A bitter wind picks up, and the leafy hedgerows break into a rustling whisper. Without a word the tall Executor turns back and resumes his slow walk towards the gap between the hedges that will take him out onto the playing fields.
The young cleric is less stoic.
“Do not think you have won, monster.”
He croaks, his words distorted by his perforated cheek.
“There is no escaping our justice. I pray that I will be the one to bring it to y-”
“Yes, yes, ‘vengeance will be mine’, etcetera, etcetera. Try not to bite yourself next time you feel like ranting.”
Carrington’s eyes widen, and he struggles against Hempel’s grip, but the tall man is immovable and simply keeps walking. The cleric contents himself with shooting you another venomous glare before his companion pulls him beyond the hedgerow and out of sight. You wait for a few minutes before cautiously following them out. The empty playing fields stretch before you, but you make your way across it carefully nonetheless, silently wishing that you had thought to bring one of your airborne familiars with you.
The thought of familiars reminds you; you buried five corpses the last time you came here, three of which were fit to be made into Dead thralls. Now would be an excellent time to revive them all, seeing as how you won’t have to worry about Eudokia discovering them for much longer. You make one last check to ensure the coast is clear, then kneel down and press both palms into the mud. A whispered Latin phrase causes the ground to ripple and bulge upwards, revealing the bodies you left behind.
You sharpen one finger into a claw and open a vein in the opposite wrist. It’s time to get to work.
Irene drew in a shaky breath as she regarded the implements on the simple metal table in front of her. A piece of chalk, a bottle of ink, four candles, a few strands of hair kept together with twine, a small pot of cheap incense and a shot glass full of vodka lay upon the cold metal surface.
Formalcraft was a fairly simple art, moreso since it required very few truly exotic ingredients. Describing it as ‘thaumaturgy for idiots’ wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration; even those who possessed only the most marginal of magical abilities could use it, as long as they were willing to subject themselves to the sneers and condescension of their fellow magi.
Irene was used to being sneered at, so it wasn’t a problem for her.
Since the disastrous plan to eliminate Saber two days ago Irene had been left mostly to her own devices. In that time she had rarely left her room in the complex beneath the airport, though she had entertained a few brief fantasies of sneaking onto one of the planes and flying back to Greece. Impossible, of course. But that didn’t stop her dreaming about it.
Irene checked over her materials one last time. Satisfied that she had everything she needed, the mousy blonde picked up the chalk and the bottle of ink and strode over to the far corner of her rectangular chambers. She knelt down, and taking the chalk in her writing hand, drew a quarter-circle on the floor between both walls. This done, she dipped one finger into the ink and drew another, smaller arc inside the chalk one.
Irene checked to make sure there were no gaps or breaks in either line and then returned to her workdesk, retrieving the pot of incense, bundle of hair and one of the candles. She dipped the candle’s wick into the incense before placing it inside the inner quarter-circle, then unwrapped the bundle of loose hair and placed half a dozen strands into the gap between the inner and outer circles, stretched out so that they resembled rays of light emanating from a stylistic sun.
Everything else done, Irene extended her index finger and concentrated, muttering in Greek under her breath. A tiny flame the size of an LED sprang from her fingertip, the only magic she had ever been able to accomplish unaided. She used it to light the candle, then withdrew her hand. She repeated the entire process at the other three corners until four candles burned silently in the gloom.
As the last one flared to life the other candles pulsed once, their flames turning pure white as if their wicks had suddenly become magnesium. A bounded field shivered into existence around Irene’s room, a whisper-thin magical membrane which would hasten the conversion of naturally occurring mana into useable prana within Irene’s body. So long as she stayed inside the field Irene would replenish her meagre reserves in minutes rather than hours.
Normally this would make little difference. If a normal magus had a magical capacity equal to a bathtub full of water, Irene’s was roughly equivalent to a small water bottle. Even if she processed mana so quickly as to always be at full capacity, Irene would never be able to cast a spell requiring more than her maximum. Even if she could, this ritual would be impossible to set up in the middle of a fight. However, in her current situation this ritual was not only practical, but positively ideal.
There was one final step. Irene walked back to her desk, picked up the shot glass, and downed it in one mouthful. Alcohol was generally not needed for Formalcraft, but Irene found it helped immensely. Suddenly feeling tired, she shuffled over to the wireframe bed opposite her door and slumped down onto it.
She mumbled. The air at the foot of her bed shimmered like a heat mirage, and golden motes of light congealed into the form of her Servant. He had removed his helmet, and his lined, weathered face had a grandfatherly look to it. His gray eyes regarded her with a trace of concern.
Irene closed her eyes and settled herself.
“…I have set up a ritual that will restore my prana more quickly. So, please take as much as you need.”
Rider regarded her evenly for a moment. He had expended a significant portion of his reserves during the battle with Saber. In the days since then he had been able to recover only a small amount through his connection with Irene, only slightly more than he had to expend in order to remain in the world. Her ritual would undoubtedly allow him to recover far more than he would normally.
But it would also put a great deal of strain on her atrophied magic circuits.
“...Forgive me for speaking out of turn, my Lady. But is this really your wish? From my understanding you have no desire for the Grail.”
Irene’s eyes fluttered open.
“That’s right. The Grail…is much too big for someone as small as me. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I had it.”
She inhaled slowly. A prickling sensation at her extremities told her that the ritual was beginning to take effect.
“I came here because someone said they needed my help. But he’s not here any more. I never meant to…to become a Master, I just…I just want to go home, back to Greece.”
The words kept tumbling forth. Rider said nothing, and allowed Irene to vent her frustration and sorrow.
“But there’s nothing I can do, right? I have to keep going now. Eud – I mean, the Honoured Successor would never allow me to leave. To b-be honest, I’m s-surprised she hasn’t tried to get r-rid of me, and m-make you her new Servant.”
Rider chose not to reveal that her cousin had indeed attempted to persuade him to allow her to take Irene’s Command Seals for herself. Rider had categorically refused, and when her expression had darkened he had added that he would never serve a kinslayer. His loyalty was not something that could be bought or bargained for.
“My Lady, no matter what you choose to do, know that I will support it.”
He rumbled, looking her in the eye as he spoke.
“You say that you do not seek the Grail, but have you truly given thought to what you might do with it? Every man has something they desire or aspire to, even if they do not consciously realise it. If you still wish to run, I will be a shield to cover your escape. If o the other hand you choose to fight, I will be the sword that strikes down your foes. The choice is yours.”
“But the Honoured Successor-”
“Is no longer a Master. You are not her vassal, and she did not demand that you come here. You chose to do so. And you can choose to leave, if you wish. Going to the Church for protection is the norm, as I understand it, but I doubt your cousin would allow it. We would need to plan things out carefully…”
Irene stared at Rider, stunned. Why would he offer to help her, when that help would mean severely damaging his own chances of seizing the Grail? Surely she wasn’t worth that much. And the Grail itself…surely there was nothing she wanted, right?
Wracking her brains, Irene slowly began to realize that she had never actually given the matter a great deal of thought. Perhaps there was something she wanted, and she simply hadn’t realized it yet. Come to think of it, it would be all but impossible to not have a wish you wanted to have granted. Understanding what you wanted was the hard part.
The idea of defying Eudokia still filled Irene with cold, icy dread, but…it couldn’t hurt to at least give the issue some thought.
As the last of the newly animated Dead shuffles off into the night you feel the warm sense of satisfaction that comes from a job well done. Sure, you’ve been attacked by Executors and you’re about to take a huge risk by betraying Regulus which may or may not end disastrously, but with eleven undead thralls feeding you energy you’re not going to have problems keeping yourself supplied.
A weight inside your coat shifts as you move off, causing you to frown; the holster for the replacement pistol you took from one of the corpses must not be adjusted correctly. Whatever; you’re just happy to have two firearms again. You start walking back in the direction of your lair – then stop.
Might it not be worth checking out some of what Regulus told you, just to be on the safe side? You could check out Monmouth’s new base of operations in the forest north of the city. It might be worth scouting it out while you have the chance, perhaps looking to see if there are ay weaknesses in the defences that might be exploited in case you wind up having to assault it at some point. On the other hand, there’s also Eudokia. It might be a good idea to go and stake out her workshop; perhaps you’ll be able to ambush one of her remaining followers and find out what she’s up to. Doing so could help you set up the trap you’re about to spring on her.
But perhaps it would be better to simply go home. Those Executors seemed more willing to talk to you than any you’ve ever encountered before, but that doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to keep their word, particularly not with a filthy vampire like you. Being ambushed by all four of them again could lead to disaster.
You take a few seconds to think it over and eventually decide to:
1. Check out Monmouth’s new pad in the north.
2. Stake out Eudokia’s place and try to grab some more info from her remaining Black-Coats.
3. Return to your lair, lingering in the city isn’t worth the risk.
It’s too early to go back to your lair. Dawn is still four or five hours away, more than enough time to do a bit of information gathering. And considering your conversation with Regulus earlier on, who better to gather it from than Eudokia’s remaining followers? The information could very well help you plan out your trap.
You slip out of the park silently and stealthily make your way across the city to Eudokia’s base at Blackpool airport, making sure to keep to the shadows and ducking out of sight whenever possible. You double back a few times to throw off any potential pursuers, feint back towards your lair, then circle the industrial estate and jump the chain link fence separating the airport’s runways from the rest of the city. Many of the previous week’s planes had been cancelled due to the poor weather, but now Boeings and Airbuses lumber across the concrete landscape, laden down with cargo and passengers travelling to distant lands.
It doesn’t take you long to locate the entrance to Eudokia’s workshop, you feel the energy pulsing through its bounded field as soon as you take one step across the first runway. Following the trail of prana is like playing hot and cold, all you have to do is keep walking and if the feeling grows stronger it means you’re heading in the right direction.
The electric feeling reaches a fever pitch right outside the multi-storey car park attached to the main terminal building. The structure bears all the hallmarks of one of the architectural abominations of 70’s Britain; a lumpen, misshapen concrete monolith that looks more like a bomb shelter than a place to stow one’s favourite means of transportation. You slip into the car park via the incredibly stealthy technique of walking through the front entrance in a nonchalant yet directed manner. With luck any wardens will think you’re a tourist who has recently returned home.
You step through into the main parking area and begin to weave through the parked cars. The interior is dingy, lit by a few flickering fluorescent tubes in dire need of replacing. You’re halfway across the first parking bay when you notice the heavy steel maintenance door set into the far wall. That must be it; the entrance to Eudokia’s atelier. Judging from the scale of the bounded field surrounding it her workshop must be situated fairly deep underground.
The distant rumble of a car starting on the floor above vibrates through the air as you consider how best to keep an eye on the door. An alcove near the ticket machine would make a good hiding place, but irritatingly the fluorescent tube above it seems to be the only one in the building that actually works properly. You check to make sure the coast is clear, then bend down and scoop up a loose chip of concrete from the floor. You bounce it on your palm once, then flick it at the light.
The projectile flies true and punches a ragged hole in the middle of the glass tube. The light sparks once as the inert gas inside escapes, then fizzles into nothingness, plunging the ticket machine and the alcove beside it into shadow. You look around one more time just to be sure, then sidle past the ticket machine’s blocky casing and into the black hollow beyond. You crouch down out view, make sure none of your body is visible, then wait.
The minutes crawl by. Several cars drive past your hiding spot, most of them bearing British number plates. A gaggle of foreign tourists pass through the entrance, pause to talk for a couple of minutes, then push open the door to the stairwell and climb up to one of the floors above. Over the course of the first hour four different people use the ticket machine, with the final man dropping his credit cards halfway through. He swore and fumbled around in the dark for a minute, but neither he nor the other three saw you.
Another hour passes before the door finally swings open and two black-coated figures step out into the car park. Both are men in their middle years, one with a full head of greying hair, the other completely bald. The bald man shuts the door behind him and then both men set off for the exit. Neither looks your way, and you silently bless Eudokia’s complacency.
Following the two men isn’t particularly difficult. They leave the airport through the front and make their way through the city to the promenade. You shadow them every step of the way, hiding behind corners and parked cars on the streets before abandoning stealth and simply hiding in plain sight twenty metres behind them once they cross onto the shorefront.
The black-coats walk down the promenade for about twenty minutes before veering off to the left and vanishing into the night. You lengthen your stride and hasten over to where you last saw them. You glance to the right, hoping for a sign or landmark which will tell you where exactly you are. A wide street merges with the promenade directly beside you, and a bronze plaque mounted on one of its buildings reads ‘Chapel Street’. Chapel Street is an old road that runs directly past the police station and courthouse. If you’re here it means you’re roughly halfway along the shoreline. And that means…
You look left, towards the sea. Blackpool’s Central Pier stretches before you, its tip vanishing into the sea far from where you are. Like its southern counterpart it’s a pleasure pier, with a large ferris wheel and a theatre at the pierhead. You can’t think of anywhere else the black-coats might have gone, so you slide past the façade and slip through the ticket barriers before anyone can see you.
“Meeting at a pier again, hmm. In that case…it’s probably the theatre…”
You whisper to yourself. It would fit Eudokia’s previous modus operandi, at least.
As you cross the threshold you sense the faint humming of a bounded field around the pier, filling the air with a subliminal buzzing that would cause non-mages to subconsciously avoid the area for a length of time. It probably doesn’t have any detective aspect, but you keep to the shadows just to be sure. You pass the ferris wheel, the abandoned funfair and the old portrait gallery before finally skidding to a halt just before the open ground between it and the theatre.
A flat expanse of wooden boards fills the gap between the gallery and the theatre house, bordered at the sides by high iron railings to prevent small children from throwing themselves into the Atlantic Ocean. A few round wooden tables are scattered here and there, pragmatically placed to the sides so as not to disrupt the flow of any queue lines into the box office. In this open space stand the two men from before, both facing towards the theatre, black coats blowing in the wind. Opposite them stands a slightly taller man wearing a brown trenchcoat and matching brown fedora, both of which look slightly battered.
You duck down before Fedora can spot you and crawl beneath one of the tables. You crane your neck to look around the wooden beam supporting the table’s weight and try to catch what the three men are saying to one another.
“…as we have said. Our mistress is willing to compromise, but not too far. I am sure you understand.”
Baldy finishes, folding his arms. Fedora nods and spreads his hands mildly.
“Of course, of course. I am a reasonable man, and I do understand your concerns. I will not presume to ask that she follow my orders. However…”
Fedora tilts his head back slightly, and the glow of the city lights illuminates his face for a brief moment. It looks squashed and flat, as if someone in the past had hit it with a shovel, and is accompanied by a scraggy beard that appears to be devouring his equally scraggy sideburns. He pronounces his vowels with the distinctive twang of the American deep south.
“However, I must ask for more time to consider the best means of aiding her. Acquiring a new Servant is no easy task, particularly since they all seem to have Masters attached to them right now.”
Ah, so Fedora must be the elusive Ronald Pryke. You try to shrink lower into the shadows beneath the table whilst at the same time keeping your eyes fixed on the meeting.
“Is there something wrong with the plan we already presented? If so, perhaps we can discuss-”
Greyhair starts, but Pryke airily waves him off.
“Nah, it’s not the plan. The plan’s fine, far as I can see. I just need another day or so to get everything I need for it. That’s all. Just tell Miss Hellespont to sit tight for one more day, and after that we’ll proceed with this scheme of hers.”
Baldy scowls and impatiently taps his foot against the wooden decking.
“A lot can happen in the space of a day.”
Pryke flashes a smile that still manages to seem amiable despite his incredibly ugly face.
“I’m sure you can cope. Don’t you boys worry none. I’m a man of my word, ‘specially when that word involves helping a lady. If you’ve got the time, perhaps you’d like to come see my ship? She’s a beauty, I promise you’ll like it!”
The black-coats seem discomforted by the offer. Greyhair shakes his head and makes as if to turn away.
“No, thank you. We are merely messengers. If there is nothing else…?”
Pryke shrugs lightly.
“Suit yerself. I know the details; I’ll be there when you need me. See you around.”
Then Pryke turns and strides off, trenchcoat rippling in the wind. He walks over to the iron railings, grips the bars firmly with both arms, then levers himself over them and drops down into the sea. Instead of a splash, you hear a slightly wooden-sounding thud, and a few seconds later the roar of a diesel engine. A sleek speedboat pulls out from beneath the pier, its propellers churning the water behind it into froth as it slices through the water and out into the open ocean.
Baldy and Greyhair watch in silence for a moment, then turn and hurry away, muttering furiously with one another in Greek. Obviously they had wanted Pryke’s cooperation immediately, but what could they do? The Collector would clearly be the stronger partner in any deal they chose to make.
Regardless, this ‘plan’ of theirs to get Eudokia a new Servant is a worry. It implies that Rider is, for whatever reason, unavailable. Lancer and Berserker have already fallen, and only a madman would willingly hand over his own Servant, so Archer is a definite no. That leaves only Saber, Assassin and Caster.
…It’s obvious which one Eudokia will try to claim.
You grit your teeth in frustration. You thought you could make use of Eudokia, but she turned out to be nothing but a thorn in your side. But like Scathach said, this outcome was always going to happen. It’s just aggravating that it had to happen so soon, before you could try and take advantage of her skills.
Regulus’s deal will take care of her, but for now you have a more immediate problem. The two black-coats are about to cross back into the funfair, and you have to decide what to do about them. Killing them would deprive Eudokia of all but one of her followers, and you could always use more Dead. But when they don’t come back she’ll become suspicious and might work out that you’re onto her. Even without evidence her paranoia could tip the scales in that direction. On the other hand, letting them live would mean more obstacles later on but might provide Eudokia with a false sense of security.
You make up your mind to:
1. Kill the black-coats.
2. Let the black-coats live.
You remain still and watch as the two men disappear into the darkness. There is no need to put further pressure on Eudokia. Best to let her think you haven’t uncovered her plot. After waiting under the table in silence for a minute longer you emerge into the night. The energy of the bounded field surrounding the pier flickers and dies, dispersing like ash in the wind. Now seems like a good time to head home.
The pale light of the moon shines down upon you as you wend your way back towards your lair. Nothing attempts to waylay you on the journey home, and you reach the sunken steps leading down into your workshop just as the clouds are beginning to show the reddish tone of the dawn sun. The sight of it makes you slightly nervous, and you close the door behind you with slightly more force than necessary.
Scathach is still asleep, but the sound of the door slamming jolts her awake. One moment she lies slumped against a pillar, the next she’s halfway across the floor, black sword clasped in one hand, a glowing nimbus of violet energy swirling around the other. Her eyes focus on you, and she blinks. The crackling nexus winks out, and she sheathes her sword without looking at it.
Caster mutters, frowning. You grin and hold up your arms in mock surrender, and she scowls at you – though not without a hint of amusement.
“Hmph. Don’t tempt me. Anyway, how did tonight go? You look terrible, by the way.”
She points at your head. You feel your scalp and grunt as your fingers glide over torn flesh. The wounds that damn cleric gave you have only just begun to heal.
“I met up with Assassin’s Master. He told me some interesting things, like how Saber and his Master are still alive and that Eudokia is plotting with Archer’s Master to stab us in the back.”
Scathach nods placidly at the last part, her eyes clearly telling you, ‘I told you she’d be trouble’. You shrug and continue.
“Thankfully we were able to come to an agreement where we both take care of one another’s problems.”
You reach into your coat and pull out your copy of the contract. You hold it out to Scathach, who unfolds it with interest.
“A self-geis scroll, just like before? This ‘Regulus’ likes to cover his bases, doesn’t he? Hmm…”
Your Servant scans the document, her brow creasing as she reaches the end. You smile and lean back against the wall.
“Have you figured out the flaw in Regulus’s wording yet?”
Scathach looks up at you questioningly, then reads through the contract again. Her serious expression begins to morph into a slow smile as she reaches the paragraph where Regulus has made his fateful mistake.
“Ha ha ha! That’s brilliant. If you’re implying what I think you are…”
She shakes her head, still smiling.
“Ha. You are a devious monster, aren’t you? Hm. We’d best leave it at that for now. Talking about it might cause the contract to take exception. How did you get those wounds?”
You stop smiling as your teeth grit involuntarily.
“I was jumped by a group of Executors on the way back here. I managed to flee to Stanley, but two of them followed me and one gave me these marks. We fought for a bit, and in the end we negotiated a mutual retreat. They’re still out there, and will probably come after me again as soon as they recover.”
Scathach taps her lips with one finger, looking slightly bemused.
“Hm. This ‘Church’ had barely even begun when I was alive. Old Conchobar’s death was the first news I had of this ‘Son of God’ that so many people venerate today. Strange how these things escalate.”
She stands silently for a few seconds, then huffs out a breath and gives you a level look.
“Under normal circumstances I would declare this matter to be your battle and none of my concern. However, since we are at such a critical juncture I will provide you with aid if we should be attacked by these ‘Executors’.”
You raise an eyebrow.
“And because there aren’t any competent alternative Masters, right?”
Scathach stares at you for a moment, then closes her eyes and laughs softly.
“Hah. That is…also true. Well. Whatever. You have more to tell me, haven’t you? Out with it, then.”
You relax and relate how you followed Eudokia’s men to Central Pier and eavesdropped on their meeting with the Collector.
“If that’s so, we’ll need to move quickly.”
Your Servant mutters after you’ve finished. She folds her arms and looks over her shoulder to stare at the map of the city on the far wall.
“We’ll have to do it tomorrow night. But how and where we’re going to do it is still in question.”
“Regulus said that all we need to do is get Eudokia out into the open and Assassin will take care of everything. He gave me something I can use to contact him in case something happens.”
Scathach’s mouth twists.
“Hngh. That’ll be tough. We’ll have to come up with an excuse good enough that she’ll be convinced to come out of her hidey-hole. And when she does she’ll definitely bring her remaining vassals with her, Rider included. We’ll have to separate her from them, preferably in a way that won’t cause her to bolt immediately. This is going to be quite tricky…”
The next update will be the fiftieth update of this CYOA! That’s crazy. You guys are crazy too, for being entertained by my mediocre prose. To celebrate this milestone achievement, this vote is going to be another ‘OT comes up with something’ vote. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to come up with a scheme by which our lovable protagonist-kun and his adorable Celtic sidekick can trick Eudokia into coming out into the open so Assassin can cheerfully murder her.
Stuff to keep in mind:
-Eudokia currently thinks her own plan to stab us in the back is going fine.
-Despite this she is still very paranoid.
-She will certainly try to bring Rider and her other flunkies with her.
-We have at our disposal eleven Dead, our Raven familiars, Caster’s rapidly emptying box of reagents and Caster herself.
-We have a means to contact Regulus if we want to inform him of anything (ie. We want someone else to murder Eudokia instead of Assassin). We'll be using it to inform him of the finished plan anyway so he knows what's going on.
-Executors may or may not appear.
Of course, the plan involves stabbing Regulus in the back as well. Careful readers may have already figured out how this is going to happen. Unfortunately due to dramatic and actual plot-related reasons I cannot say how Regulus has slipped up with his contract. Therefore I may have to slightly modify the winning plan to account for it. Depending on the plan itself I may not even have to. It’s irritatingly vague, I know, but I hope the payoff will be worth it.
The winning plan will be the one with the most support among the denizens of OT. Failing that, I will pick the one I find the most interesting. If the discussion fills the rest of the topic I’ll make the next one early.
You close your eyes and think. Eudokia is sitting pretty in her fortress, and you probably won’t be able to dig her out with brute force. She won’t come out for petty reasons; as far as she knows all she has to do is stay put until the Collector comes calling, at which point they’ll use their combined resources to crush you utterly. To get Eudokia out of her hidey-hole you’ll need a plausible excuse.
You cast your mind back and try to remember everything you can about the Greek magus and her history. Her family stretches back generations – she told you herself that her distant ancestors served under Basil the Bulgar-Slayer in the Varangian Guard. Some memories and experiences seep into longstanding families, particularly those with magical pedigree. Lineages that old would almost certainly still ascribe to the notions of hospitality, honour and obligation and a mage’s pride, so calling in Eudokia’s debt to you could work.
On the other hand, the echelons of power in ancient Byzantium were full of treacherous machinations. If her family had settled there and remained until the rise of modern day Greece then they would have experienced the cut-throat politics of the Eastern Roman Empire for at least five hundred years, and probably the Ottoman Turks after that. Eudokia’s paranoia is dangerous, but it’s also topped off by centuries of history. More than that, her actions in the war prove it with her attempt to murder the Einzbern Master before the war had truly begun.
If you called on Eudokia’s sense of duty she would answer. She would also suspect a trap and plan to betray you before you could betray her. You find yourself smiling at the thought; in that case, you’ll just have to come up with better, more creative treachery.
“That’s a pretty awful smile you’re wearing, Master. What terrible skulduggery are you planning now?”
You open your eyes and let out a short laugh.
“Ha. ‘Skulduggery’, hm. That’s a good word. As to what I am planning, I believe I have a way of getting Eudokia out into the open. I can call on her debt to me for saving her life after Berserker’s defeat. She’ll plan to kill me at the earliest opportunity, but she’ll come.”
Scathach nods slowly, but doesn’t look convinced.
“Okay. But you need a proper reason, right? Just saying, ‘You’re in debt to me, now come over here,’ isn’t going to cut it. She’ll want to know why.”
You tap your head with your index finger.
“I’ve already thought of that. And I figure the best lies are the ones closest to the truth. So I’ll explain how I have recently encountered an Executor who uses mental attacks to bring down his targets. Of course, since Eudokia herself has a great deal of knowledge about mental magecraft, she was the first person I thought about asking for aid…you get what I mean?”
Scathach considers this for a moment, but the doubtfulness doesn’t fully recede from her face.
“She might still see through that. On the other hand…”
She folds her arms and begins to pace around you in a wide circle.
“On the other hand, if we approach this from another angle we might be able to shore up the weaknesses in this plot. There was once a nameless thing that lived in the seas around my island. It was a jagged, scarred, terrible thing with numberless claws and teeth the size of longswords. Any fish that saw it would immediately know it as a vile thing that would devour them as soon as it saw them.”
Caster pauses, then flicks her hand dismissively and resumes her pacing.
“But the nameless thing was cunning. It would hide in the mud and muck at the bottom of the sea, with only a tiny part of itself unveiled. This part was like a fisherman’s lure; a facsimile of the food that the other fish were drawn to. Even though a careful look would reveal the piles of displaced silt around the thing, those fish still approached the lure – and were devoured.”
“So you’re saying that we need to – what – distract Eudokia with something else? What do you recommend?”
Scathach stops and turns to face you, slowly. The swirling silver sigils adorning her armour seem to glow brighter, casting the bottom half of her face in a sickly, pallid light.
“Why, me of course.”
She says with a smile.
--The Next Night--
Scathach stood facing the entrance to the Hellespont workshop. The car park was deserted, courtesy of a warding rune she had placed near the entrance; it would last about half an hour before fading away. It was the sort that allowed human beings to leave but not enter, and ensured that this initial meeting would go undisturbed.
Scathach let out a shallow breath, then slowly reached out and sent a pulse of magical energy through the bounded field preventing access to the workshop. It was the agreed-upon signal that her Master had discussed with Eudokia Hellespont using that strange communications contraption of his. The witch sighed and loosed another pulse, this one slightly stronger than the first.
It was within her power to tear down the field and force her way in, but to do so would be to invite her own destruction at Rider’s hands. Most of the people who called themselves Mages in this age would have been mere apprentices in hers, though the present day had its share of wonders too. Scathach briefly wondered what had become of her island off the coast of Scotland; she knew that it was still there thanks to the general information the Grail had dumped into her mind, but little beyond that.
Further pondering was forestalled when the steel maintenance door in front of her squeaked open a few inches and a blonde-haired head stuck itself around the gap to peer at her. Irene looked more tired and frazzled than the last time Scathach had seen her. No doubt Eudokia had sent her out first as an acceptable casualty in the event of an immediate betrayal.
Irene looked at Scathach for a moment, then her blonde hair whipped around as she darted back behind the door. A few seconds later the door was thrown open and Eudokia herself stalked out, followed closely by Rider and her three remaining mortal servants. The Greek Magus wore her usual white coat, which wasn’t unusual. But the greying hair that now clung to her scalp like desiccated seaweed certainly was. Magic had its price, and Scathach knew immediately that Eudokia had been extremely lucky that her glossy black hair was all that had been ravaged by it.
“Walk with me.”
Eudokia said simply, and set off. Scathach schooled her expression to neutrality and wheeled around to stride at the Greek Magus’s side. Rider’s shadow loomed over her from behind despite his small stature, and the witch knew he was watching her every move intently.
“The destination. It is still the park?”
Eudokia asked curtly. Scathach simply nodded.
“Yes. He will be waiting for us there.”
Eudokia frowned without looking at her, staring ahead as their little party exited the car park and walked down the concrete ramp towards the road outside.
“I am still not entirely sure that this is not a trap.”
Eudokia remarked evenly. Scathach suppressed a smile – that remark was the perfect prompt.
“…That’s because it is.”
For a moment there was a stunned silence, then suddenly Rider’s sword was pressed hard against her throat.
“What is the meaning of this?”
Eudokia asked calmly, only now turning to look at Scathach. Her face was a carefully constructed mask, though Scathach could see curiosity burning in the back of her eyes. It was a good question – why would she reveal her Master’s plan when she was surrounded by enemies like this? Time to give them an answer they would believe. She took a breath, trying to invest just enough emotion in her words to make them feel authentic.
“I am tired of serving the monster Apostle. I suffered his commands until now, but no longer! Kill me now, if you wish. It would be a blessing to die free of his wretched grasp. But…”
Rider’s sword burned cold on her throat, but Eudokia held up a hand and suddenly the pressure lessened.
The Greek asked, simple curiosity now replaced by an intense interest. Unconsciously she took a step towards Scathach.
“But…I have a wish that must be made true. So, if you would find me worthy…”
This was it; she had to make this bit sound just right. Otherwise everything would fall apart.
“…I would be your Servant, Eudokia Hellespont.”
Eudokia froze in place, then the calm mask collapsed, sheared in half by a mad smile that nonetheless did not touch her eyes.
“You…would be my Servant?”
She repeated, as if savouring every word.
“I would. If you would slay my current Master, I will gladly form a contract with you. You, at least, are human.”
Eudokia breathed. She tilted her head to one side, as if considering, but Scathach knew that she had already made up her mind.
“Rider. Release her.”
There was a motion behind her, and suddenly Rider’s sword and presence vanished. Scathach rubbed her neck, but his blade hadn’t pierced her skin.
“You will tell me all you know of your current Master, then advise me on how best to proceed. Then, after he is dead, we will see about what happens next.”
Scathach bowed, partly to feign subservience, partly to hide her grin.
“As you say, Lady Hellespont. For the first part, I do not know very much about my Master other than his skill with earth. For the second, I recommend that we proceed as if nothing is wrong…”
The discussion continued as the group made its way through the city towards the park. Eudokia proceeded as if she didn’t care who saw their strange procession, which was a clear sign that she wasn’t thinking straight. At one point Scathach was forced to voice her concerns at the prospect of crossing a busy T-Junction. She managed to divert the group through an old pedestrian tunnel lined with graffiti and homeless people. The tramps were roughly pushed aside by Eudokia and her followers, but nobody would believe their ramblings anyway.
By the time they reached the outskirts of the park the ‘plan’ had been distilled down to several key steps.
First, Scathach would enter the meeting place and signal her Master, who would enter the area from the park side. Second, the meeting would proceed as normal until Scathach gave the correct signal, whereupon Eudokia would initiate a mental assault upon the vampire. Third, Scathach herself would simultaneously cut off the vampire’s arm so he could not use his Command Seals to force her to defend him. Finally, Irene would order Rider to swoop down and slay the vampire where he stood.
A dozen different things could go wrong, but Eudokia didn’t seem to care. She was far too preoccupied with the thought of getting back into the war and not having to rely on the Collector for aid, and spoke at length about how she intended to make him her next target once tonight was over.
As the park came into view Scathach let out a breath. No matter what happened tonight, it was going to be a bloodbath.
Okay, I can’t really think of a way to provide choices that wouldn’t conflict with Oblivion’s plan so I’m offering a choice of intermissions this time. To make things more interesting they’re all of people we haven’t had much contact with.
1. Ronald Pryke “The Collector” and Archer.
2. The Executors.
3. Regulus Ahngrave.
The Collector, known by some as The Magpie, and by precious few others as Ronald Pryke, grasped the slender wooden guardrail with both hands. His personal yacht, the Grey Albatross, bobbed gently in the water, its massive size still no match for the power of the waves that broke in frothy rumbles against its gleaming hull. A salty breeze whipped across the deck, sending the hem of Pryke’s trenchcoat fluttering.
The bright lights of Blackpool’s shoreline filled the horizon in front of him, a hundred thousand tiny neon stars, but Pryke didn’t see them. He looked past them, his gaze directed inward at a problem that had been nagging at him for some time. It was a simple question, but it puzzled him nonetheless.
What to do next?
Pryke scratched at his beard absently, pondering his next step. The Greek woman’s offer of aid might be of use. Certainly she would prove to be an excellent distraction, a thorn in the side of one of the other Masters. Thus far Pryke had preferred to take no risks, to strike from a distance, and the thought of directing the Hellespont woman at an unsuspecting target was right up his alley.
Pryke began drumming his fingers on the guardrail unconsciously. The news that he was on board a boat would spread soon, if it hadn’t already. Making contact with the Greek woman had been an unfortunate necessity. Pryke had needed her intel on the goings-on inside the city; he suspected Regulus wasn’t telling him everything and had wanted a second source to corroborate the facts.
That had lead to the current arrangement between them. Pryke wasn’t worried, though. Even if she were to succeed and claim her former ally’s Servant for herself, she still wouldn’t be much of a threat to him. Assassin would see to that; Regulus had said nothing directly, but Pryke could read between the lines of his messages. The strange young man had plans for the Greek.
The wind began to pick up, and the temperature suddenly dropped a couple of degrees. Pryke pulled his coat closer about him, turned away and entered a door in the upper deck. He made his way through the polished interior corridors until he reached his own personal cabin at the head of the ship. Without breaking pace he pulled open the door, stepped inside and shut it behind him. The lights inside came on automatically, and Pryke busied himself by taking off his coat and hat and hanging them on the rack next to the door.
The cabin was the size of a squash court. Its walls were panelled with lacquered wood and the floor was covered in a carpet the colour of dried blood. Like the rest of the ship it had been designed to Pryke’s specifications and included a small seating area with a few bookshelves, a kitchenette complete with oven, sink and fridge-freezer, and a small study area where Pryke kept his electronics. Three doors led off to either side, one to Pryke’s bedroom, and another to the ritual area where he worked his spells.
The third door was a heavy-duty steel security door, the type used in bank vaults to stop thieves gaining access to the bullion deposits. It was set into the wall opposite the entrance and was invariably the first thing one would see upon entering the room. Much to the disappointment of any would-be thieves the room beyond contained only a few knick-knacks; a cracked glass sword, a few obsidian beads, a handsome yet fragile Chinese fan, a grotesque white idol, a wrought iron storm lantern and a set of rough leather boots.
Unless that thief happened to be a magus, whereupon they would immediately see those objects for what they truly were. In truth each was a Mystic Code that Pryke had chosen from his extensive collection specifically for this endeavour. So far he had only had to use one of them, and that was to the good, but he would use all of them to destruction if pressed.
“What news from the city?”
Pryke asked the air as he turned and strode towards the small seating area. There was a pause, and then a billowing cloud of golden motes gathered around one of the armchairs.
“That was impressive. How did you know I was here?”
“I didn’t. It was a lucky guess.”
Pryke grunted and flopped down in the other armchair. The shining particles coalesced into a middle-aged man dressed in a red and white tunic. A rumpled brown cloak wrapped his shoulders and fell to the floor, pooling on the dark red carpet. A black scarf was drawn up around his face, concealing it from view, but as his image solidified the man reached up with a calloused hand and pulled the fabric down, revealing his face.
It was a rough face, with high cheekbones and a hard brow, but the laugh lines around his eyes spoke of his capacity for kindness. His hair was a dirty yellow colour, a messy mop whose colour was repeated in his bushy eyebrows and short pointed beard. Hazelnut brown eyes stared at Pryke with a mixture of amusement and exasperation.
“Your luck is better than you know, Master. I am returned, and I have found that which you seek.”
Pryke leaned forward, his own grey eyes now wide with anticipation.
“Did you now? Where is it, Archer? Where did they try to hide it?”
Archer reclined in his chair, one hand stroking his beard, the other resting upon the crossbow that had materialized alongside him. It sat across his hips, in easy reach.
“There is an old chapel to the north – I can mark it for you later. At first glance it appears innocent, but the floor slab behind the altar is loose. It leads down to a hidden chamber where the artefact rests.”
Pryke’s hands gripped the armrests of his chair hard enough to tear the fabric lining. He sat forwards in his chair, sweat suddenly beading on his face.
Archer grinned triumphantly.
“None that could stand against me. It was held in a box warded against my sight, but I saw through it anyway. And the magical defences were not strong enough to harm me. I could bring it to you now if you wished.”
Pryke closed his eyes, took a shaky breath, then slowly sat back in his chair.
“…No. Not yet. If we bring it on board without the proper preparations…No. Give me a day to prepare. After that it doesn’t matter what the others do, my victory will be assured.”
Archer nodded, and his expression suddenly became very serious.
“And after that, you will allow me to slay the red tyrant.”
It was not a question. Pryke reached up and unconsciously rubbed the back of his neck, where two thirds of his Command Seals still remained.
“After that you can do as you like. Though I don’t understand why; you never knew him in life.”
Archer’s face hardened further, and his eyes narrowed to slits and began to glow a faint green colour.
“All tyrants are the same, Master, and I have the same contempt for all of them. This one bankrupted his country and impoverished all of the souls within it to finance his petty wars, wars that achieved nothing save for his own gratification. How many starved because of him? How many good men died because of his bloodlust, whilst he pretended to be righteous? It is time he was held to account.”
Pryke held up both hands to stem the tide of words he knew was coming.
“I understand. Just bring me the box first.”
Archer’s glare faded, though his face remained stony. Pryke relaxed in turn, satisfied that his Servant would not do anything stupid in the meantime. His mind now clear again, Pryke returned once more to the problem of the Hellespont magus. Archer’s discovery changed matters; he had no need of any help she would be able to offer now. On the contrary, her allegiance would actually be a hindrance.
Pryke dug around in his trouser pocket and pulled out a sheaf of tobacco, which he quickly began to roll with the deceptive carelessness which comes from decades of practice. Might as well leave the Greek to whatever Regulus had planned. Soon it wouldn’t matter either way.
You wait patiently at the inner gate to the playing fields as Eudokia and her entourage sweep through the outer iron gates of the park. Eight pairs of boots crunch across the open gravel pathway, now free of the police tape that had once cordoned the area off. The Grail War Coordinator must have pulled some serious strings to get the police investigation called off, particularly if the magic word ‘Terrorist’ had popped up in the preliminary report.
Eudokia walks at the centre of the group, flanked on either side by two of her followers. The third walks slightly behind, with Rider and Irene off to the left. Scathach marches to the right of Eudokia, though as you watch you see her tap the latter’s shoulder. She leans in, and she whispers something in Eudokia’s ear that causes the Greek magus to break into a hastily concealed smile. She gives your Servant a brisk nod, who then breaks off from Eudokia’s group and strides ahead to meet you.
As she approaches, Scathach places one hand on the hilt of her sword. You smile inwardly at the sign - all has gone as you planned. Excellent. Now all that’s left is to drag this out until Assassin makes his move.
Scathach comes to within four or five feet of you, nods formally, then takes several steps to one side. Suddenly her old oaken staff is back in her hands, and the gravel on the floor rustles as she sketches several angular symbols into the ground. When the last stroke ends the pattern glows a dull ember-red, and you feel a bounded field spring to life that encircles the entire entrance of the park.
“I have cut off this location from the surrounding area. Nothing we say or do here will be heard or seen by anyone outside.”
She announces, then retreats to stand a little way off behind your left shoulder. Eudokia nods and smiles, stepping out beyond her own followers and walking forwards until she faces you from a distance of about ten metres. The black-coats and her other followers remain where they are, the former alert and ready to spring into action at the slightest sign of trouble.
“Your Servant has already informed me as to the reasons for this meeting.”
Eudokia says evenly, meeting your gaze for a handful of seconds before her eyes swivel across to stare at a point several centimetres to the south of your face.
“Yes, I have recently found myself troubled by mind magic. Dealing with the Church is troublesome enough, but this time…”
You trail off. Eudokia makes a noncommittal sound. She looks calm, but her façade is betrayed by a slight twitch at the corner of her upper lip. Sooner or later she’ll reveal her true purposes, and if Assassin hasn’t arrived by then you’ll have to deal with her yourself.
“Hmm. What manner of magecraft was it? Did you sense whether this fog was a physical thing, a conjured obfuscation with a corporeal presence? Or was it something the Executor placed inside your mind, something that wasn’t really there at all?”
Thinking back, you consider how the fog behaved and the events that occurred whilst you were mired within it.
“It’s difficult to say. I think the fog itself was real since the Executor was carrying a censer that produced it. But it definitely skewed my senses whilst it was around me. It hid the forms of both Executors from my sight, at least for a moment…although it’s possible that could have been some other, unrelated power at work. Possibly some Church ritual or other.”
Eudokia frowns and waves one hand dismissively.
“Church rituals and thaumaturgy are fundamentally the same, just with added floweriness and obfuscation in the former case so its practitioners can delude themselves into thinking they aren’t hypocrites. I cannot say for sure without seeing the spell firsthand, but from what you’ve described it sounds like the fog acted like a nerve agent.”
Now it’s your turn to frown.
“A nerve agent? Would something like that really work on an Apostle?”
Eudokia smiles coldly.
“Perhaps that wasn’t the right term. The fog was clearly real because the Executor produced it physically. But it spread too fast to be purely mundane, correct? And it stayed within a localized area. This means he must have been controlling the fog via his magecraft…right? Probably by impregnating it with prana as soon as it left the censer.”
You nod slowly, unsure where Eudokia is going with this.
“So when the fog surrounds you, you’re effectively standing inside a cloud of his prana. He can directly tamper with your senses as long as that connection isn’t broken. He probably wouldn’t be able to do anything major, at least not without a five or ten-count. But single line spells to, say, turn an object briefly invisible, or make it look like someone was standing slightly to the side of where they really were? It’d be simple.”
The Greek magus’s smile briefly turns appreciative.
“It’s a very clever ritual, actually. You wouldn’t need to expend much effort to set it up-”
Eudokia grimaces, then breaks into a fit of coughing. You tense, but none of her entourage looks askance. Eudokia spots your look and waves it off impatiently, then rubs her head with one hand.
“It’s nothing. Just a moment…”
She slips a hand into her white coat and withdraws the pill bottle you’ve seen several times before. Without looking at it she unscrews the lid and takes out two small white capsules. She swallows them both, then grimaces again.
“Ugh. Disgusting things. Anyway, now that this is over with…”
There is a glint in Eudokia’s eye that you don’t like. You see the closest black-coat’s hand drift slightly towards the side of his coat where you know an enormous pistol is concealed. You glance over at Irene and Rider – the former’s face is strangely blank, but the latter is as steadfast and sturdy as ever. This must be the moment. Assassin has failed to make his play, and now you’ll have to deal with this yourself.
“Now that this is over with, I think it’s time to…time to…”
Eudokia’s face pales suddenly. Her mouth moves, but no words come out. A look of intense pain suddenly passes across her face, and seconds later she doubles over, clutching at her chest. The pill bottle clatters to the ground and rolls away across the gravel.
The grounds erupt into confusion. The remaining black-coats begin shouting in Greek, and all three hurry towards Eudokia, who now lies twitching on the cold gravel pathway. You prepare to run forwards, to strike a killing blow before the they can retrieve their stricken mistress, but Scathach pulls you back before you can go two paces.
She shouts, then snaps her fingers, the sound ringing out with perfect clarity over the rest of the tumult.
The gravel beneath two of the closest black-coats erupts upwards with a roar of concussive force, and both men vanish behind a curtain of fire and smoke. A wave of overpressure slams into Irene and the last black-coat, with Rider interposing his body to shield the former whilst the latter is flung to the ground.
“Irene! Rider! Kill him!”
Eudokia splutters. Her chest heaves and she starts coughing up blood, scarlet froth spraying from between her lips.
Irene looks at Eudokia’s prone form, then her head swivels to look at you. Her gaze suddenly becomes glassy, and she takes a mechanical step backwards.
A look of surprise passes over the stocky Servant’s weather-beaten features. Sword half-drawn, he turns a questioning look towards his Master.
“Rider. Take me away from here. Quickly.”
Irene’s voice is toneless and devoid of emotion. Rider’s brows knit together in a heavy frown, but he moves to shield Irene anyway. He sheathes his sword and sweeps both hands through the air, as if to grasp imaginary reins, and suddenly a dappled brown horse appears before him. The old Servant swings himself into the saddle, hauls his Master up behind him, then digs in his spurs and rides away in a spray of dirt and gravel.
“No! Where are you going?! C-come back!!”
Eudokia wails, eyes wide, face soaked with blood and tears, staring desperately after Rider’s departing form. She thrashes on the ground like a fish out of water, but only succeeds in turning herself onto her back. By this time the last black-coat has recovered himself. He rises up from the ground, aiming his monstrous pistol in your direction. Beside you Scathach stretches out a hand, preparing a shield to catch the bullets, but she needn’t have bothered.
The black-coat suddenly jerks. He blinks once, then twice, then a look of puzzlement comes over him. He looks down at his chest, and you follow his gaze to the half-metre of barbed, serrated steel protruding from somewhere around his sternum. The pistol clatters to the ground as he falls over sideways, kicks once spasmodically, then lies still. Silence suddenly rules the night, save for Eudokia’s increasingly weak and pathetic coughs.
Gravel crunches underfoot, and a stranger walks through the cloud of smoke and dust thrown up by Scathach’s landmine. Dressed in a shabby beige coat, torn jeans and a ragged beanie covering his head, the stooping, shambling old man looks like any other homeless tramp. But with every step he takes, more and more of his skin and clothing falls away, replaced with midnight-black flesh and an equally dark cloak.
“Greetings, Master of Caster.”
Assassin rasps, his face hidden by the usual bleached skull mask. He pauses a few feet away from Eudokia, then bends down and scoops up the pill bottle. He shakes the bottle once, then tucks the container into his cloak.
“It has been some time since I used poison. My thanks for the diversion through the tunnel.”
Assassin’s mask swivels to Eudokia, who has ceased to move entirely, her eyes glassing over. The masked Servant bends down and draws a curved knife from inside his cloak, then swiftly cuts the magus’s throat. She lets out a last feeble gurgle, then expires.
“You have delivered what was agreed upon. My Master will be in contact shortly. Farewell.”
Assassin hoists Eudokia’s corpse over one shoulder. His visage flickers and ripples for a moment, then vanishes from view, dissolving into shadows and whispers. Beside you, Scathach shivers.
“What a creepy fellow.”
You give her a sidelong look.
“As long as his Master keeps his word he can be as creepy as he wants.”
You pull out the long, thin rod Regulus gave you at the diner. You hold it up so that one end rests near your ear and the other near your mouth, then thread a tiny string of prana through one end and out the other. You wait for about half a minute before the device crackles to life and Regulus’s voice begins to talk in your ear. The sound is scratchy and echoes a little, as if he’s talking to you from the end of a long tunnel.
“You’ve done it! Well done, I knew I could count on you!”
He crows, his voice positively overflowing with triumph. No matter how hard you try, you can’t imagine that voice coming from Regulus’s dead expression, nor it ever touching his dull fish eyes.
“Yes, I’ve held to my side of the bargain. Now it’s time you did the same. Give me the information you promised.”
Regulus laughs, and you find yourself surprised by the almost-genuine warmth behind it.
“Of course! Rider, the tough old horseman who holds unimpeachable loyalty to his liege, is William Marshall, master of the tourney. And Archer, the rebellious crossbowman, is none other than William Tell, the Swiss hero of folktale! Two Williams. Oh, and Archer’s Master is currently hiding on board the Grey Albatross, a private yacht moored just outside Blackpool’s harbour.”
You file this information away carefully. Now you know the true names of everyone in the War, excepting Assassin, who plays by slightly different rules anyway.
“It was a pleasure working with you, Apostle. I will most likely kill you on the morrow!”
Regulus’s cheerful voice fades away, and the rod abruptly crumbles into ash.
“A Princess Bride reference? Really?”
You mutter incredulously. You shake your head and turn to Scathach.
“Did you hear all that?”
Scathach nods. She runs a hand through her hair and sighs audibly.
“With work we could have worked it out ourselves, but…it’s effort we can now spend on other things. Plus, if things go the way I hope, we won’t have to worry about Regulus ever again after tonight.”
You feign a look of shock.
“Oh dear. You naughty girl, what have you done?”
Scathach shrinks back, eyes wide in mock innocence.
--Some Time Later…--
Regulus’s steeled his trembling hands to stillness as he plucked the scalpel from his selection of medical tools. Eudokia Hellespont’s body lay on a mortuary slab behind him, appropriated from Blackpool General Hospital for this very purpose. A harsh white medical light illuminated her corpse, stripped naked in preparation for the grisly procedure that would strip her of her magic circuits. Regulus tested the scalpel’s sharpness, then when he was satisfied turned and strode over to the slab.
Some magi have a special talent when it comes to the human body. They can heal a person of afflictions, close up injuries and make what is unhealthy healthy purely through spiritual means. Such people are known as ‘Spiritual Surgeons’, mean and women who can heal a body without using a knife or other physical tools. At first, Regulus had thought he was one of these people. And it was true that, in some ways, what he did was similar to what they did.
But Regulus soon realised that any spiritual healing on his part was secondary, a by-product of his true talent. Where others could heal with a touch, could put energy back into a person’s magic circuits to facilitate healing, he could do the opposite. He could take another person’s magic, extracting their magic circuits and forcibly melding them to his own. Transplanting magic circuits was not unheard of, but the dangers were great and the new circuits were never as efficient as they used to be.
But Regulus was different. He could extract magic circuits, place them in his own body, and have them work perfectly. No matter who they came from, no matter how much he modified them beforehand, no matter how he spliced and diced them, the new circuits would never damage him. It was his talent at work, his unique affinity that allowed him to do these impossible things.
He wasn’t a spiritual surgeon. He was a spiritual engineer.
He had already taken some of the Einzbern circuitry, and they had been put to good use in his familiars. Unfortunately, he had apparently created far too many; the sheer number of links to his consciousness wore and tore at his mind every day now. He needed the Hellespont circuits, circuits that would alleviate his mental burden and allow him to proceed with the next stage of his plan.
Regulus stood over Eudokia’s corpse, and tried to decide where best to begin cutting. The scalpel wasn’t strictly necessary, but Regulus found that it helped him concentrate. After a moment of thought he decided on the heart, where all prana flowed from and returned to. He raised the scalpel, smiled brightly, then lowered the point into Eudokia’s flesh.
An unholy purple light shone from the tiny gap made by the surgical knife. Regulus didn’t even have time to flinch; the explosion tore him in half at the waist and splattered his upper body all over the walls and ceiling. Tendrils of violet energy ripped their way out of Eudokia’s corpse, slicing through the furniture and gouging troughs in the walls, floor and ceiling. A white heat enveloped the mortuary slab, and the dead body burst into crimson flames.
The tendrils of energy spasmed, shuddered, then disintegrated into flecks of purple light as the flames spread, spilling over the lip of the slab and onto the twitching remains of Regulus Ahngrave.
--Shoulder Taps Are Lethal Y’Know--
Okay, we’ve reached a turning point in this CYOA. We know who all the Servants are, and who their Masters are. With that said, who are we going to go after first?
1. Rider and Irene
Advantages – The weakest remaining pair. Eudokia’s workshop will quickly collapse without her there to maintain it, so they no longer have a home base.
Disadvantages – Rider holds a conceptual advantage over Saber due to defeating him once in life, so keeping him alive could be an advantage in the long run. He has also yet to use his strongest Noble Phantasm.
2. Saber and Monmouth
Advantages – Despite the occasional scouting run this team is mostly out of the loop with regards to how the War is going. We also know exactly what they’re capable of and taking out the strongest competitors would be an immeasurable boon.
Disadvantages – The enemy has a strong position, so ideally we’d need to build another alliance – and that went poorly last time.
3. Archer and The Collector
Advantages – The enemy is on a ship and has almost nowhere to run. He’s also, as far as Regulus told you, not really a man of action.
Disadvantages – Crossing such a length of water is hazardous for a Dead Apostle. Plus who knows what his mystic codes can do?
4. The Executors
Advantages – Getting rid of them is something you’re going to have to do eventually no matter what, so you may as well do it now. Plus now you have Caster they won’t be as much of a threat.
Disadvantages – You’ll have to find them, and dealing with them will take time that could be spent fighting for the Grail.
Irene’s head spun, and strange lights suddenly burst into life behind her eyes. She groaned and slumped in the saddle, then flopped over sideways. A firm hand swiftly caught her shoulder and hauled her back up, then stayed there, steadying her and preventing her from falling off. The young woman blinked hard several times, and the dancing lights slowly faded away, replaced with the steadier pinpoint neon and electric lights of the cityscape.
As her vision cleared completely Irene realised that she was seated astride a mottled brown horse on top of a flat-topped building overlooking what looked like a small residential district full of terraced houses. She didn’t know the city well enough to be able to pinpoint exactly where she was, but from her vantage point she could see a large stretch of open ground far to the north east, which must be the park where the meeting was supposed to take place.
Irene tried to recall the details of what had happened there. She knew what was supposed to have happened – the Honoured Successor’s plan was still fresh in her mind – but clearly something had gone terribly, horribly wrong. The last thing she remembered was gritting her teeth and getting ready to fight, and then…
“Are you well, my lady?”
A deep voice rumbled from behind her. Irene turned her head to see Rider seated behind her, one hand gripping the reins, the other holding her shoulder. The old man’s face was creased with worry, and his sword was set so that three inches of steel showed above the scabbard, ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice.
“I…what happened, Rider? One moment we were in the park, and now…”
Irene trailed off, unable to make sense of the fuzzy blank space in her memory. Rider’s brow creased, adding yet more lines to his already weatherbeaten features.
“You ordered me to retreat as soon as the fighting began. I did as you commanded and took you out of the combat area on my fastest mount. You do not remember this?”
A cold dread began to rise in the pit of Irene’s stomach. She truly didn’t remember any of it. If Rider’s words were true…it meant she had abandoned the Honoured Successor, left her to face an enemy by whom she was thoroughly outmatched.
“N-no, I don’t remember any of it.”
Irene mumbled. She realised she was chewing on her nails and forced herself to stop. Rider looked at her critically for a moment, his expression becoming stony and impenetrable.
“You truly do not recall, then. You did not seem gripped by fear, so that can’t be the reason. But then…if you did not retreat of your own volition, then that leaves only one explanation. Someone – or something – compelled you to leave.”
Irene began to shake, nausea joining the shock and fear already circulating in Irene’s midriff. Could something have got into her mind, compelled her to run? The idea of someone else invading her brain and rewiring it, violating the sanctity of her thoughts, which she had always believed were the one thing that were truly her own, made Irene want to throw up. It was only Rider’s steadying hand that prevented her from collapsing completely.
“If we review the situation as it unfolded, it seems clear to me that the Apostle is the most likely culprit. Vampires possess powers of compulsion, after all. I know little of such magics so I do not know if there is a way to tell for sure if it was he who modified your mind, but…if we assume he discovered your liege’s plot somehow, everything makes sense.”
Irene nodded dumbly, not saying anything. The successor was almost certainly dead; without a Servant to protect her she would have been easy prey for the Apostle and his own Servant. More than that, the rest of the family was dead too, killed in this wretched battle for the Holy Grail. Irene’s brain struggled to comprehend the implications of this; the entire Hellespont line had been cut down, tree and branches all. All except her. She was all alone, the last surviving member of the once-great family. The thought of it made her want to laugh, but she felt that if she did her laughter would be accompanied by the contents of her stomach.
But then Irene realised something else, something that quieted the storm of emotions within her. Yes, she was alone. But she was also free, free from her obligations, free from the sneering condescension of the successor, free from the cold indifference of her other family members. Free to walk her own path, at last.
At that moment, something changed within the young woman. It was almost imperceptible from the outside; she sat up a little straighter, her eyes grew a little harder, her breathing became a little calmer. But Rider noticed the change, and he withdrew his hand from her shoulder, knowing instinctively that she no longer needed his support.
Irene said, surprised by how calm her voice sounded. The old Servant inclined his head questioningly.
“I’ve…come to a decision.”
Rider simply waited for her response, a loyal knight waiting for his liege’s command.
“You asked me if I had a wish that the Grail could grant. I’ve thought about it a lot, but I still can’t think of anything that it could do for me. Something that can grant any wish is…well, it’s just too big for someone small like me. But there is something I’d like to do, if possible.”
Irene took a deep breath, and gathered her resolve.
“The Hon…Eudokia Hellespont is dead. The family is finished. I am too weak and too far removed from the main branch to inherit anything. But even so, I want to keep fighting. I want…I want to win, Rider, not for my family, but for me, to prove that I can do it. To…to prove that I’m my own person.”
She paused for a moment to gather her wits, then continued.
“It’s…not very noble or selfless, and I have no idea what I’ll do with the Grail if I win, but…”
Rider simply nodded.
“If that is your wish, my lady, then I will fight as your champion to the very end. If doing so will help you discover yourself, then it will be a battle worth fighting. Do not worry about your reasons; there are far less noble reasons to seek such an artefact.”
The old man glanced towards the park.
“Now that you have found your reason for being here, what do you want to do next? If you wish it, I will ride out and do battle with the Apostle and his Servant this very moment.”
Irene thought for a moment, then shook her head.
“No. There’s no telling what else the Apostle did to my mind. Confronting him now would be foolish. No, I’d like to head back to Eudokia’s workshop. We need to…to strip it of everything we can carry before it falls apart. And we’ll need to find somewhere else to base ourselves…”
“Are you sure this is going to work? The picture is pretty grainy…I don’t know if I’ll be able to get all the details right…”
You suppress a sigh as Scathach continues to pore over the heavy book. Breaking into the basement of Blackpool’s biggest library wasn’t a difficult task, but finding a decent quality illustration of William Tell is quickly becoming a major irritation. The book Scathach is currently poring over, “European Folk Heroes and Other Myths”, is the largest and most comprehensive so far, but even it doesn’t seem to be good enough for your Servant.
“Look, it doesn’t have to be perfect, okay? Just enough to make Saber and Monmouth think they’re being attacked by Archer. When they come out, we pull back and plant some evidence for them to find that’ll tell them where Archer and his Master are hiding. And then at least one of our problems will take care of itself.”
Scathach looks dubious.
“I’m all in favour of a false flag, but…well, I’d just be happier if we could get a firsthand look at the guy instead of relying on these things.”
She jabs a finger at a photograph of an old manuscript showing an image of William Tell holding his crossbow in both hands. The picture is around the same artistic quality as most medieval images, which is to say that it only looks like a person if you squint at it very hard. Scathach taps the page to emphasise her point.
“Every detail helps, Master.”
“I know. But getting a firsthand look at Archer will be difficult, what with the crossbow bolts flying everywhere, so this is the best we’ve got. Short of running into him on the way there, of course.”
You’re pretty sure that won’t happen, what with Archer’s apparent disinterest in the War after the first few nights, but it never pays to be dismissive. Scathach pulls a face but doesn’t complain; she knows it’s the truth too, and closes the large tome with a sigh.
“Very well. I will make do with what we have. I’ll create a construct of some sort to carry the illusion so neither of us will be in any danger. Now, how are we going to get to Saber’s castle? It’s outside the city, correct?”
“That’s right. It’s in the forests to the north of Blackpool, so we may end up having to scout around a bit.”
Of course, first you’ll have to get out of the city itself. Several options present themselves; you could simply walk down the promenade and keep going until you leave the city, but you’ve used it so many times before that it could very well have been compromised. On the other hand, you could go back to Stanley again and cross through the Zoological Gardens, though that area has also been a hotbed of activity for you. Finally, you could simply hotwire a car and drive there.
(This is a slightly experimental vote. For this choice, I will be using random.org to determine whether or not the journey is interrupted by someone. Once voting is over, I’ll consult random.org and ask it to choose a number between 1 and 10. The result will determine whether or not we get interrupted; for instance, with Option 1 if the number is 7 or below we’ll end up meeting someone. If it’s above that, we’ll have a smooth journey.)
1. Go via the Blackpool Promenade, the longest route. You will probably meet…someone. Friend or foe, who knows who it might be? (1 – 7 / 10 chance of meeting someone)
2. Go via the Zoological Gardens and gather more transformations. You might meet someone you’ve met before. (1 – 5 / 10 chance of meeting someone)
3. Go via the A586 Main Road and just get there as fast as possible. You will probably not meet anyone, but it’ll be catastrophic if you do. (1 – 3 chance of meeting someone)
Once again you find yourself walking down the Blackpool Promenade. Though it is by far the longest route to the forest, it is also the one you know best. The bright lights of the souvenir shops and restaurant fronts on the right contrast sharply with the cold darkness of the open sea to the left, and there’s probably some metaphor you could make about civilisation versus nature if you cared enough.
It’s half an hour until midnight, and the only people traversing the wide boulevard are half-drunk punters making their way home after their latest pub crawl. Aside from them the road is almost completely empty, and though you have one of your ravens circling overhead you can’t see anything out of the ordinary. As far as you can tell nobody is following you.
Scathach walks beside you, once again clad in an inconspicuous black dress. A guitar case liberated from a music store near the library is slung across her back, containing her new sword and a few other materials she claims to need. Abruptly, you notice that she’s also holding an open paperback in one hand.
“Since when did you get a library card?”
Your Servant turns a page and replies without looking at you.
“Oh, this? I saw it on the way out and it caught my interest.”
She flips it over so that you can see the cover. A rectangular blue border encloses a picture of a gothic-looking castle perched perilously on top of a steep cliff. Superimposed over the bottom of the picture are the head and shoulders of a pale-faced man with high cheekbones, an aquiline nose, slicked back dark hair and wild eyebrows. His eyes have slitted, cat-like pupils, and his lips are spread in a toothy grin showing off elongated canines stained with fresh blood. The title of the book reads ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’.
“Are you trying to make some kind of statement?”
You ask wryly. Scathach smiles and continues to read.
“Not at all. I’m actually rather enjoying it. Did you know that Dracula could control animals, turn himself into mist and climb up sheer walls? He could walk around in the daylight too.”
“It might surprise you to know that I’ve read the book. And although I can’t turn into mist or walk around under the sun, I’m reasonably sure I wouldn’t be foiled by a short Dutch man with a ridiculous accent dropping breadcrumbs all over my lair.”
Scathach turns another page, and you clearly see the corners of her lips twitch upwards.
“He also had three beautiful wives.”
“And a fancy castle in Wallachia.”
Scathach is definitely making fun of you. You begin to feel slightly aggrieved.
“Yeah, and he still got done in, didn’t he? A bowie knife through the heart, as I recall.”
Your Servant makes a show of scowling, but the amusement behind her eyes is unmistakable.
“Oh, now you’ve spoiled it. My immersion is shattered.”
But she keeps the book out regardless.
“You’ll ruin your eyesight if you keep reading in this light.”
You mutter sourly.
It takes roughly two hours to traverse the entire promenade. The grand road eventually peters out as the high-quality beaches give way to pebbles and shingles. The city goes on a little further, but it doesn’t take long before the buildings and concrete pavements disappear and the rolling hills of rural England take their place.
“According to Regulus’s intel, Saber and his Master are holed up in the forest over the next hill…”
You mutter to yourself, poring over a map book of the surrounding countryside. It’s a small thing designed to fit into your pocket but still manages to contain all of the necessary details for getting around; it displays contours, main roads, rivers and wooded areas, as well as a few small symbols displaying campsites and overlooks. According to the map the nearest stretch of woodland is Brentwood Forest, an unruly thicket of trees, ferns and brambles slightly north of your current position.
A soaring feeling envelops you as you transfer your consciousness into the familiar circling overhead. From above you can see the forest itself at the bottom of the other side of the next hill, a dark stain that covers the landscape like a smearing of dried blood. At first you can’t make anything out through the impenetrable tree cover, but on a particularly wide-angled sweep of the forest you catch a glimpse of greyish stone amidst the sea of black.
You take greater control of the familiar’s body and will it to descend. More details reveal themselves; a small clearing borders the western edge of the castle, but the forest encroaches on all three other sides. A portcullis set into the southern wall provides the only access point, leading into a small courtyard within which lies the main keep. Lights flicker behind some of the windows, but you dare not risk discovery by moving any closer.
“There you are.”
You whisper as you return to your body. You mark an approximation of the castle’s location on your map and flip it over so that Caster can see it.
“The castle’s to the northwest. The forest looks very dense but it looks like there’s a footpath or two for ramblers. Also, the west side looks like the best approach, but the actual entrance is to the south.”
At your words Caster’s dress disintegrates and reforms into her usual black and silver armour. She cracks open the guitar case and withdraws her sword and a small bundle wrapped in brown parcel paper. Scathach begins to unwrap the bundle, carefully untying the string that keeps it bound. You look on curiously as the paper falls away to reveal a very crude wooden doll carved from dark-grained wood. It lacks any sort of facial features, and looking at it makes you feel vaguely uneasy. Your Servant sees your expression and smirks.
“Oh, that’s right; you haven’t seen one of these before, have you?”
She turns the doll over in her hands, as if inspecting it for imperfections.
“Tell me, Master, how much do you know about Fairies?”
“Very little. Wraiths are more my area of expertise.”
Scathach shrugs and places the doll on the floor. It sinks partway into the ground; clearly it weighs a lot more than its size would suggest.
“Then this will be an educational experience for you.”
A surge of prana suddenly explodes to life from within the doll, erupting upwards like a sapling bursting forth from its seed. The wooden caricature shudders and leaps into the air with a wet popping sound, then slowly rotates until its feet point towards the ground. You examine the floating doll carefully, then blink as you become aware of dozens of flickering, translucent streamers attached to its limbs like a puppeteer’s strings. More and more seem to emerge from the shadows and twine themselves around the doll, until the entire carving is completely covered in them.
“These are Sluagh Sídhe, a type of Aos Sí. Normally they are too small and frail to be of any real use, but if you gather enough of them they can do some pretty amazing things, particularly with the right offering. Let me demonstrate.”
Scathach snaps her fingers, and the multitude of threads begin to spin and twist, melding themselves together in a blur of light and colour. Strands of colour stretch out and knit themselves into arms and legs, whilst the main mass bulges out until it resembles a chest and abdomen. After only a few seconds the image of a man stands in front of you, clad in the same clothing as the medieval manuscript you looked at earlier, complete with crossbow resting against his thigh.
You whistle softly.
“Very impressive. Can they do any other tricks?”
“Lots, but right now they’re only under contract to do one thing. So. Let’s have them do it.”
You nod in agreement and slip a hand inside your left coat pocket. Inside rests a fake logbook that will point Monmouth and Saber in the direction of the Grey Albatross. At some point in the ensuing fight you’ll have to drop it where Monmouth or his apprentices will be able to find it. Failing that you’ll have to work out some other means of letting slip where ‘you’ are basing yourself. In some ways that’s going to be the easy part.
The hard part is going to be getting away safely and convincingly. Scathach can make you look like Archer’s Master, or at least a semblance of him based on your recollections of his appearance. But most of her power will be spent on the Sídhe host, empowering them so that they look and fight like a Servant. She won’t be able to help you directly without breaking the ruse.
But your immediate problem is going to be how to approach the fortress. Several ideas spring to mind, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
1. The Totally Honourable Magus Duel Option – Advance openly and challenge Monmouth to a Totally Honourable Magus Duel, Honest.
2. The Fake Assault Option – Circle around to the west side of the castle and attack the walls from the clearing, then retreat when Saber and Monmouth come out.
3. The Magpie Option – pretend to infiltrate the castle in order to steal Monmouth’s Mystic Codes whilst ‘Archer’ lays down suppressing fire.
The attack began without warning. Half a dozen quarrels thudded into the southern wall of the castle, the steel shafts sinking three inches deep into the unforgiving stone. The detonations came moments later, with each bolt blasting dustbin lid-sized chunks of rock out of the stone blocks that made up the curtain wall. More quarrels were airborne before the dust had settled, and the walls of the fortress shuddered under another round of explosions.
Several bolts struck the gatehouse and exploded with even more force than the others, the force twisting and buckling the portcullis to such a degree that it could no longer be dropped. But Saber’s castle was strong, and though piles of shattered rock soon littered the ground in front of the southern wall the bastion itself refused to collapse, regardless of the sustained weight of fire being brought against it. None of the bolts made it through to strike at the central keep.
Shouts of alarm came from within as the barrage intensified, and a red-haired figure strode from the gates. There was a pause, then three quarrels cut through the air to meet him. The man grinned fearlessly, casually sidestepping the first bolt, which buried itself in the ground behind him. Steel flashed as Saber’s sword cleared its sheath to cut the second bolt from the air, cleaving the shaft in two. But evading the first shot and blocking the second left the swordsman open to the third bolt.
Saber ducked away from the final shot but wasn’t quite quick enough, and a spray of red droplets exploded from the side of his head. The swordsman staggered momentarily, but did not fall. His free hand reached up to touch the enormous cut that the armour-piercing bodkin had opened up along his entire left cheek. It had been close – an inch to the right and the quarrel would have taken him in the mouth.
The medieval king wiped at the blood a little, his face settling into a wolfish smile. He stalked forward into the woods, blade held at the ready, scarlet cloak swishing behind him like a patch of red mist.
The hunt was on.
You wait until you’re absolutely sure that Saber has left before creeping back around the corner of the castle and into the shadows cast by the western wall of the fort. With Saber distracted, the only ones you’ll have to contend with will be Monmouth and his two apprentices. The apprentices shouldn’t pose much of a challenge, and you’ve already seen what Monmouth is capable of.
You square your shoulders and take a look at the wall in front of you. It looks to be about twenty feet tall, give or take a few inches, and made of tough rectangular blocks of greyish-white stone. You’ve already seen it withstand some pretty severe punishment, but luckily you won’t have to physically bring the thing down in order to get in. The blocks aren’t smooth or polished in any way, and the mortar between them is lumpy and uneven.
In other words, perfect for acting as handholds.
In less than ten seconds you scale the wall and haul yourself up over the parapet. You shrink back against one of the merlons, scanning the courtyard below for any signs of movement. Finding none, you drop down onto the walkway running along the top of the wall and ghost along it until you find a staircase leading down to the ground.
A series of reverberating thumps vibrate through the floor as you descend, and a resounding battle cry from outside the walls sends a flock of birds soaring into the sky overhead. Conscious of the time Caster is buying for you, you run across the open ground between the walls and the keep, trying to keep out of sight of the narrow windows adorning its sides. The doors to the keep are heavy, curved and made of oak planks held together with iron bands. They lie slightly ajar, and you waste no time in slipping between them.
You find yourself in a simple entrance hall with doorways branching off to either side, terminating in a ‘T’ shape at the far end. The floor is covered by a long red carpet that follows the length of the hall, and a few torches burn between the doorways. You carefully creep forward, looking carefully through each doorway before proceeding. Most lead into fairly large rooms with benches, tables and straw bedding, with a few crude crates and barrels scattered around.
At the end of the hall you take a left and are immediately confronted with a spiral staircase leading up. You silently make your way up, taking the steps three at a time and crawling along the exterior wall whenever you see a cracked step. At some point you’ll have to reveal yourself, and when that happens you’ll have to rein in your supernatural powers so as not to cause suspicion, but for now you’re going to use every advantage you have.
You quickly reach the second floor landing, a square of open ground also carpeted in red. Tables and shelves bracket the walls, though all of them are empty. More corridors lead off from the central landing, all with the same design as the entrance hall. This castle was clearly meant to house many more people; the rooms near the entrance in particular looked like they were gathering areas for soldiers.
One room in particular stands out from the rest, however. As you make your way down the nearest corridor you notice light dancing on the wall opposite the doorway. You quietly creep over and crane your neck around the open door. The room beyond is lit with more torches than usual, and is clearly in use. The bed has a proper mattress, and a writing desk is laid out next to it. Several heavy wooden trunks of modern design are packed against the walls, and the writing desk is laden down with papers and stacks of books.
Careful not to make a sound you slide around the door and enter the room directly. Just behind the door where you couldn’t see it before rests a stone trough full of what looks like clear water. You touch the rim, but there doesn’t seem to be anything magical about it. The far wall contains an open fireplace with an iron cradle full of embers nestled within; clearly this room was occupied until recently.
You move closer to the writing desk, to confirm whether or not the papers on it have anything to do with the Grail War. You pick up the first page, scan it, frown, then put it to one side. The handwriting is clear and precise, but you can’t read the language it’s written in. You rifle through the other pages, but all are written in the same fashion.
“What is this? It’s not quite Latin, but…”
You mutter involuntarily, then replace the papers with an inward sigh. Even if they do contain important information, there’s no point in wasting any more time on something you can’t read. You turn to the books; perhaps they’ll be of more help. A muffled sound comes from the hall, a soft tapping noise. You turn sharply towards the door, just in time to see Lord Henry Monmouth raise his left hand in your direction.
The water in the trough leaps out of its container, freezes in midair, then explodes into dozens and dozens of razor-sharp shards of ice. You cross your arms to protect yourself from the worst of it but the foot-long icicles skewer your limbs and body regardless. The force of the impact drives you backwards and you slam into the writing desk, shattering it in an explosion of loose papers and torn book fragments.
“I am not inclined to be welcoming to uninvited guests.”
Monmouth growls, his old yet strong features drawn tightly together with rage. As the cloud of shredded paper begins to clear you see that he is leaning heavily on a stout wooden cane, his body hunched over at the shoulders but still apparently mobile despite the damage you did to his spine. He takes a few heavy steps into the room, then makes a clawing motion with his left hand and pulls his arm back.
The lethal shrapnel embedded in your body makes a disgusting squelching noise as they yank themselves free of your flesh. A dull memory of pain flashes through your mind, but you know that none of the damage was lethal. Your body will soon begin the process of healing itself; perhaps you can pass it off as the effects of a Mystic Code.
You mutter, making a show of lurching to your feet. Monmouth’s eyes widen slightly as he gets a good look at you.
“Hmm! So, you must be the uncultured American I’ve been hearing whispers of. Do they not teach proper manners across the pond, or are you unique in your rudeness?”
The old Lord raises his left hand again, the gossamer-thin glove surrounding it glittering in the torchlight, and the cloud of frozen fragments orient towards you again.
“Call me whatever you want, limey. I’m after only one thing. Well, I suppose I really should say ‘two’ things, but you went and lost one of them, didn’t you?”
Monmouth’s moustache bristles, and his eyes flash dangerously.
“Hmph. So the rumours about the Magpie are true. You really are nothing more than a thief, a petty vagrant who takes what doesn’t belong to him. Sneer at me all you want; better my creations be destroyed than fall into the hands of someone like you.”
Monmouth sweeps his hand across his body, and the translucent fragments abruptly form themselves into a jagged whip-like construct that lashes out towards your head. You duck back, but the end of the whip changes direction at unbelievable speed and slashes out your right eye. Half of the world goes dark as you stagger back, screaming profanity in an attempt to keep up appearances whilst secretly looking for a place to drop the logbook.
“Oh, and I’m afraid you’re mistaken about one thing.”
Monmouth mutters as your back hits the wall. The window is close by, you can drop the book now and take a dramatic-but-survivable tumble out of it. You slam one of your palms against the wall and send a shockwave through the earthen mortar and into the pile of papers in the middle of the room, stirring them up once again and concealing you whilst you plant the logbook.
“This isn’t my sole remaining Mystic Code.”
A raging, boiling inferno envelops the entire room as a force like a thousand sledgehammers brutalizes its way into your chest. An immense roaring noise drowns out your other senses until your eardrums burst from the pressure wave. You feel the stone at your back expand, crack, then explode under the intense heat, the detonation sending you tumbling to the ground. Through your one remaining eye you glimpse a ravening beam of blue-white fire as thick as a car wheel surging through a massive hole in the wall you were just standing against.
As you struggle to comprehend what just happened the beam begins to thin and die down. The whole room is burning; the bed, the remains of the writing desk, the wooden trunks. The papers have been reduced to ash, and some of the tapestries on the walls are smouldering. The only part of the room the flames don’t touch is by the door – where Lord Monmouth is standing.
The elderly magus holds a fluted golden rod in his left hand, its tip visually cooling from a white heat. He regards the rod critically for a moment, then nods once and places it on the lip of the now-empty trough.
“I shall have to remember to thank Thomas for bringing this to me. I am not very good with fire, but we must make do with what we have…”
You look down at yourself dumbly. Through the flames licking at your flesh you can see that a massive section of your chest is simple missing, as if a giant had picked you up and literally taken a bite out of you. Your left arm is gone, as is almost your entire left side – including your heart. A cold feeling begins to spread through what’s left of your body, and you feel your unnatural existence begin to collapse, starting at your extremities and spreading rapidly inwards.
Fear wells up within you, but you don’t even have enough energy left to cry out. You call out to your Dead, but they’ll never get here in time, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to help you. You try to call out to Caster, but your right hand has already turned to ash. Actually, it looks like most of your body is gone now. Funny – you thought it’d take longer than this.
You try to hold on, but it’s meaningless; the World finishes crushing your unnatural existence without even noticing. Monmouth is saying something, but you can’t hear him.
The whole world goes black, and then there is nothing.
The ground trembled as dozens of detonations thundered along the length of the fortress’s western wall. The initial salvo of explosive bolts left a series of shallow craters in the immense curtain wall protecting the main keep, but the damage was superficial at best and none of the projectiles penetrated further than the first layer of stone. Before the smoke could clear, however, the second wave of quarrels hammered into the exact same locations.
This time the explosions were more intense, tearing away huge slabs of grey stone and sending spiderweb cracks through the rest. Large piles of rubble began to build up at the foot of the wall as loose fragments of stone tumbled free of their ancient mortar, slamming into the muddy ground below with bone-crunching force. One of the quarrels struck the base of the wall’s crenellations, and with a groaning wail one of the huge merlons cracked, shuddered for a moment, then slowly collapsed in on itself and crashed to the ground in pieces.
Saber appeared on the battlements, naked sword in hand, but was forced to duck as a third wave of projectiles flew across the clearing and tore apart still more of the curtain wall. The bastion held for the moment, but the damage was slowly mounting and with almost no cover on the ground below it would be difficult to approach the shooter without being cut to ribbons before reaching the treeline.
As the dust from the third wave began to clear, the red-haired Servant risked a glance around the side of the merlon he hid behind. The cloud of dust and pulverized rock limited what he could see, and he quickly ducked back into cover. Several seconds passed, and the attack did not resume. Saber frowned, puzzled, then carefully looked around the merlon once again. The shots had been well-placed, expertly aimed at structural weaknesses in the wall. It would take only a few more to bring it down completely, so why had the attacker stopped firing?
The answer came immediately. With a mighty grinding noise the heaps of rubble littering the clearing jerked themselves into the air. The floating masses of stone gently rose until they cleared the twenty foot high wall, wobbled precariously for a moment, then flung themselves against the western wall of the central keep. Saber’s teeth ground as he watched the rubble smash into the far more fragile building and tear open dozens of holes in its side.
You gasp and support yourself by leaning against a nearby tree, feeling the bark dig into you even through your thick coat. That last spell was a full ten-count and drained you almost completely, but it was necessary in order to convince Saber and Monmouth that they were facing both a Servant and accompanying Master. Although the curtain wall makes it difficult to see exactly how much damage has been done to the central keep, you are reasonably sure that such a large volume of stone will have convinced Monmouth that staying inside the fort is no longer an option.
You raise a hand to signal Caster to resume the assault in order to keep up appearances, and another flight of slender black quarrels slice through the air above. A cacophony of detonations reverberates through the trees, and more sections of the wall erupt with shattered masonry. Another merlon tears free of the crenellations and crashes to the ground, intact this time, and its impact sends a spray of mud and soil into the air.
The fourth set of bolts is just about to launch when you see movement on top of the walls. Several indistinct figures are moving behind the battlements, but the smoke and dust make it impossible to see who they are. Your raven familiar has no such impediment, perched as it is on the roof of the keep, and sending your consciousness to it reveals a hunched figure in a navy blue suit shuffling along the walkway, aided by a stout wooden walking stick.
Monmouth. The greying Lord stumps over to one of the central merlons, where two young men are already huddling. Monmouth’s apprentices – you remember them from your previous battle with him. The apprentices appear to confer with their master for a moment, then the elderly magus peers around the battlements for a brief moment. At the same time one of the apprentices, a short young man with neatly clipped brown hair and a sharp face, stiffens abruptly, then slowly turns to look in your familiar’s direction.
You subliminally command the bird to take wing, but it’s too late; Brown-Hair’s lips move and he clenches his right fist theatrically. The air around your familiar solidifies in an instant, trapping it mid-wingbeat. The apprentice tightens his grip, as if squeezing an invisible toothpaste tube, and the whole world goes red as your consciousness is sent screaming back to your body in a haze of pain and confusion.
The shock of the bird’s death sends you slumping to the ground, your limbs suddenly locked into unresponsiveness. You sit for a while, dazed, as Caster sends another volley into the collapsing walls. They still haven’t collapsed, but it looks to your untrained eye as if nearly half the western curtain wall is currently lying in pieces on the ground.
As feeling returns to your body and you begin the slow process of clawing your way back to your feet, something odd begins to happen at the base of the wall. Rivulets of water begin to flow up out of the muddy ground and crawl up the curtain wall, each tiny tributary joining together to form larger upward-flowing streams. Across the entire length of the wall the water flows into ruined craters and spidery cracks and stays there, held in place by immensely powerful thaumaturgy.
At the same time the ground around the walls rapidly dries out as water is siphoned away, quickly becoming a cracked and desiccated dustbowl. As you finally manage to stand back up again you hear Monmouth’s booming voice speak a single word in a language you don’t understand, and in an instant the entire mass of water freezes. Ice grinds against stone for a few seconds, and the entire wall groans as the expanding frozen water pushes out to overfill the crevices left by Caster’s assault. Ultimately the wall holds, now held together by ancient stone and magical ice.
“That seems like a good cue.”
You whisper to yourself before stumbling off in the opposite direction. Strength returns to your legs with every step, and soon you feel confident enough to risk a glance back at the castle. A glittering staircase of ice has suddenly appeared leading down to the ground, and Monmouth’s two apprentices are in the process of hurrying down it. The old magus himself stands at the top of the stairs, surveying the clearing and surrounding forest from on high. Saber is nowhere to be seen.
Signalling to Caster that it’s time to run, you lengthen your stride and dart east into the thicker trees beyond the castle. You flash between the tree trunks, jumping over roots and ferns and brambles, all the while thinking of how best to discard the logbook.
A shout rings out behind you, and you turn to see Brown-Hair hot on your tail. He must be using some sort of reinforcement magic on himself because you find yourself unable to pull away from him. Teeth bared and scowling, the young man makes the same gesture he did when he crushed your familiar. An invisible vice tightens around your body as the air turns solid once again, jerking you to a complete halt.
You see Brown-Hair’s hand muscles twitch and twist your body with all your strength; cloth and fabric tears as you violently rip your way out of your coat, leaving it suspended in midair. You have a single second to savour the apprentice’s look of confusion before his companion arrives. Slightly taller and broader than his fellow, the other apprentice growls out a sentence in Latin and casts his arm forward as if throwing a cricket ball.
A coiled spring of bright yellow energy flies from his outstretched hand and hits the floor with a spark of light. It quivers for a moment, then bounces forward like a slinky spring, undulating towards you with surprising speed. You try to outrun the strange construct, but the helical spring leaps into the air and begins to bounce itself off the surrounding tree trunks, gaining in speed every time it ricochet’s. Soon the energy gains enough momentum to overtake you, leaping ahead before bouncing off a large elm and springing straight at your head.
You try to duck aside, but the strange projectile simply bounces off another tree and springs back at you. You twist around, raising your left arm to stop the spell from taking you in the head. As soon as it touches your flesh the spring uncoils and lashes itself around your forearm, cutting into your body like razor wire. A burning sensation begins to grow inside your whole arm, starting with the fingers and ending at the shoulder, and after a brief period of twitching the entire limb falls limp.
Trying to move your arm does nothing; it simply refuses to respond to your commands. The spell hasn’t immobilized it mechanically, so it has to be some sort of curse. In the distance you can hear more thudding detonations, and a tree a few metres away is suddenly struck by a black quarrel. The bolt explodes, ripping half of the tree’s branches away and sending them hurtling to the ground. The apprentices are sent off-balance by the blast, and you use their moment of indecision to conceal yourself at the bottom of a shallow gully.
Things aren’t looking particularly good. Monmouth’s apprentices have some serious skill; you’re lucky the first one’s spell only got a grip on your coat, and if the second hits you with another curse things are going to get ugly fast. They’re fast enough to keep up with you, and you’re still drained from the big spell you used earlier. You could probably dispatch one or both of them if you attack with your full strength from ambush, but that would reveal you for who and what you really are, and even if you succeed in killing them, Monmouth could very well be monitoring them right now. Caster and her Archer-construct are clearly busy as well.
As the apprentices recover their senses you realise that your options are rather limited…
1. Try to sneak away. You can’t afford to take on the apprentices without revealing your true nature, and someone has to retrieve your coat and logbook anyway.
2. Use a Command Seal to call Caster and the fake-Archer to you, then escape that way.
3. Take the risk and go full Vampire. When his apprentices don’t come back Monmouth will have to investigate, and he will likely discover the logbook in the process.
You don’t fancy the idea of using a Command Seal for this, and going on the attack isn’t worth the risk. You’ll have to try and sneak out and hope neither apprentice notices you leave. Keeping your back to the gully wall you slowly begin to edge away from where you last saw the apprentices. The going is slow and you are quickly forced to crawl as the ditch becomes steadily shallower. The shouts of the two young men slowly become fainter and fainter, and as you pass a trio of trees at the side of the gully you risk a brief glance over the lip.
A quick look between the gnarled tree trunks reveals only one of the apprentices, the shorter one who nailed you with that strange curse. He currently has his back turned to you, head swivelling slowly from side to side and carefully surveying the landscape in front of him. After a moment he pauses and shakes his head. Apparently satisfied that you aren’t within his line of sight, the apprentice shifts his weight and begins to turn around.
You duck down immediately. Looking ahead you see that the gully is now so shallow that even crawling in the dirt won’t hide your whole body. The three twisted trees are all that lie between you and discovery. If that happens, you’ll have no choice but to fight your way out. As a Dead Apostle you have no need to breathe or perform other autonomic functions, but some vestigial echo of humanity urges you to hold your breath.
Seconds pass. Should you risk another look? Is your pursuer far enough away that he won’t notice the tiny flash of motion between the tree trunks? No, both apprentices are skilled in reinforcement. They’ll have reinforced their eyes for sure. Speaking of ‘they’, you only saw one apprentice. Where could the other one be? Was he simply obscured by the obstructing plant matter? Yeah right. He’s out there somewhere, maybe circling around to check his partner’s blind spots. That’s what you’d do if your roles were reversed.
Silently you curse the loss of your raven familiar. It would have been a real asset here, but there’s nothing you can do about that now. You try to listen out for any footsteps, but as soon as you start to concentrate a low, moaning wind begins to pick up. The sudden rustling of leaves and creaking of tree trunks make it hard to pick out the sounds of an approaching enemy, and you’re willing to bet that the sudden air current isn’t a natural occurrence.
Something moves in your peripheral vision, and you turn your head ever so slightly in order to get a good look at it. About forty feet away from you the forest floor is…well, ‘undulating’ is the only word which springs to mind. Soil and dead leaves slowly rise up and then fall down in a rolling circular motion, pulled into the air before being gently set back down in their original positions.
The undulation isn’t straight either, but seems to travel at an angle sweeping out from a central point, akin to the rotating line often seen in stereotypical depictions of a radar scanner. The wave slows when part of it hits a tree trunk about thirty feet away from you, and vibrations travel back along it to somewhere out of sight behind you. Then it hits you – radar is exactly what it is! The undulation isn’t the forest floor moving, it’s a tiny column of extremely compressed air moving just above the earth.
You’re not sure what it’s looking for or whether being a Dead Apostle with no bodily functions will help you evade detection, but you’re not willing to sit still and find out. At the very least it looks like it can feel its way around physical objects and send that information back to the caster. You twist your neck and look the opposite way; it’s open ground for two dozen feet before the trees and vegetation truly begin to clump up and mark the very end of the clearing. Close, but you’ll definitely be spotted if you try to make a run for it.
As the wave passes around another tree an idea begins to form in your mind. You place your right palm flat on the ground and grind it into the soil. As the wet earth squishes between your fingers you concentrate on a flat patch of ground about twenty feet away, right in the path of the approaching wave. With the last ounce of prana you possess you force the earth to well up into a hump about half a metre tall. Moments later the wave passes around your construction, and once again the column of air begins to vibrate softly.
You clench your right hand into a fist, ripping up the earth. The hump reacts in sympathy, tearing itself apart in an upward puff of dirt and clods of soil. The column of air ripples, rearing up in the air like an angry serpent before striking out at the disturbance and throwing yet more loose earth into the air. Shouts of alarm come from somewhere behind you but you’re already halfway to the thicket.
Thorns and brambles tear at your clothes and skin but you ignore them. You don’t stop to look back and witness the results of your distraction, you simply put all of your remaining strength into ploughing through the undergrowth. The wind dies down as you run, replaced by absolute stillness and silence. The only sound is the whisper of leaves and stems brushing against your body.
Eventually you see something that causes you to slow down. A large tree off to your right has been felled, its trunk split open at an oblique angle around six feet above its roots. The cut is perfectly flat and smooth with no splinters whatsoever, as if whatever implement that did the cutting had done it in a single motion at impossible speed. Only one person here is capable of doing that. You move on, more slowly this time, looking out for more signs of Saber’s presence.
As you continue the terrain becomes steadily more war-torn. Metre-deep craters begin to appear in the ground, scorched and blackened around the edges. You pass six or seven more fallen trees, and after that an area of underbrush that appears to have been crushed so flat it could easily pass for a giant pressed flower collection. Pushing aside a particularly large fern and shouldering your way between a copse of saplings you emerge onto a sharp incline sloping down towards a bubbling brook, and it dawns on you that the previous violence was just a prelude to the real battlefield.
Once the incline must have been covered in ferns, brambles, nettles and other undergrowth, the ground being too steep and crumbly to support trees. Now all that remains is bare earth, gouged and torn apart by forces beyond human comprehension. The craters from before are so numerous and merge into one another so many times that they may as well be one giant hole in the topsoil. Half of the slope has collapsed into the brook, choking it with dirt and grime.
Fallen trees are everywhere. Some show the smooth cuts of Saber’s blade, but far more are ragged and uneven, their trunks peppered with holes and pockmarks. One tree looks like it was used as a battering ram to break down a rudimentary earthen wall just beyond the slowly pooling waters of the dammed brook. The entire area looks like an old photograph of a World War Two battle zone, black and white and utterly lifeless.
It’s fairly easy to imagine what happened here. Caster and her Archer-construct must have been attacked by Saber soon after the bombardment ceased. They must have been driven back through the forest until they reached a defensible location, but even that had been overwhelmed. You know from your Command Seals that Caster is still alive, but the sheer dead silence of the former battlefield is intensely unnerving.
So it comes as a great shock when you hear a voice murmur behind you.
“I think it’s high time we left this place, Master.”
You whirl around to see a patch of shadows pull back and reveal Scathach sitting on the ground, Caim Frithir rested across her knees. She looks pale and tired, and her eyes are serious and bereft of their usual humour. You realise that joking around isn’t on the table and simply nod before moving close enough to allow her to veil both of you in shadow.
“Did you manage to plant the logbook?”
Scathach whispers as you steadily make your way towards the edge of the forest.
“Yes. I had a close call with Monmouth’s lackeys, though. One of them hit me with some sort of curse.”
You hold up your limp left arm with your right hand. Scathach glances at it briefly. Without a word she reaches over and digs her fingers under the embedded construct, then twists her wrist and literally tears the wire out of your flesh. It writhes and contorts in her hand for a moment, then lets out an electric squeal as that hand becomes a fist and crushes it into nothingness.
“Crude, but not bad. Clever how it targets the concept of motion rather than the nerves, which is what you’d expect from such a minor curse. The old man trained his followers well.”
Sensation slowly begins to return to your arm, and you give it an experimental shake.
“I rather wish he hadn’t, it would have made everything much easier. I see you ran into problems with Saber.”
Caster grunts noncommittally.
“Ngh. You could say. It was hard keeping up with him without dropping the act. Especially when he started cutting down trees and throwing them at us. It took some clever illusions but I just about managed to give him the slip. Ultimately I don’t think he saw through the Sidhe host.”
“Then everything went as planned. With luck, Monmouth will be pointed at the Collector now.”
Scathach looks at you, her eyes grim.
“You had better hope so, Master. If the Lord works out what really happened here, and if he chooses to come after us instead…well, suffice to say I would rather not fight Saber directly again.”
You nod and keep walking. Out of all the Grail Wars so far, a Saber-class Servant has been one of the two final combatants. If it comes down to a confrontation between you and Monmouth, Scathach and Richard, would you be able to emerge victorious? Probably not.
But that’s a problem for later. For now it’s time to return home and rest up. Something tells you the next few days are going to be particularly brutal.
Okay I can’t think of any good choices to end on so it’s another Intermission Choice this time.
1. The meditations of Harold White. The leader of the Executors reflects on how they all became who they are today…
2. The struggles of Irene and Rider. Open and exposed, unless they find a new base soon they’ll be sitting ducks for the remaining Masters…
3. The suspicion of Mathias Barnaby. The Grail War Coordinator is concerned about certain recent events…
The black sedan’s engine started with a cough that quickly became a smooth purr as Rider disengaged the handbrake and reversed out of the parking space, pausing only to allow a slightly battered Mini Cooper enough space to pass by. Once clear the old knight shifted into first gear and started off on a slow circuit of the interior car park which would eventually lead the vehicle down the exit ramp and out of the building.
Seated in the passenger seat Irene marvelled at the way her Servant handled the controls. Back in Greece she possessed a small car and occasionally drove from her village to a nearby shopping centre, but hers was a rather simple automatic. By contrast the sedan had a manual gearbox, a built-in GPS system and dozens of slender buttons on the steering wheel. When she had first got in one of these cars a week or so ago Irene had considered asking what they did, and wouldn’t buttons on the steering wheel make it harder to drive? But her natural timidity had silenced her.
Irene winced as they exited the dingy car park and emerged onto the brightly-lit streets of Blackpool, holding up a hand to shield her eyes from the sudden glare. Beside her Rider turned his head slightly.
“Do you have a destination in mind, my Lady?”
He asked softly, effortlessly steering the large vehicle through Blackpool’s night traffic. Irene blinked as her eyesight gradually returned and fumbled with the handle to the glove compartment. She got it open quickly and rooted around inside until she found the mapbook she had seen one of her cousins using in order to plot the course to the Einzbern’s lair so long ago.
Irene awkwardly unfolded the map of the city and rested it on her knees, using her spread palm to keep it stable. It was a simple tourist map, not Ordnance Survey quality, but she was quickly able to find their current position thanks to the airport being clearly labelled. According to the map they were currently driving down a main road called Squire’s Gate Lane, away from the airport and towards the industrial estate.
“Rider. Please take the next left.”
Irene said, quietly but firmly. Rider responded immediately, slowing down slightly before turning left down a side road lined with old terraces that once housed the city’s industrial workers during the Victorian era.
“Is something the matter?”
Rider asked, keeping his eyes on the road. Irene nodded and tapped the map with her index finger.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to go near the industrial estate. That’s where the Dead Apostle is.”
Rider nodded slowly, his lips thinning slightly at the memory of what the Vampire had done to his Master.
“A wise decision.”
He rumbled, smoothly applying the breaks as a battered old Ford lurched out of a nearby driveway without even indicating. The contents of the back seat and boot rattled slightly, and Irene turned slightly in her seat to make sure none had fallen over or broken.
Irene and Rider hadn’t been able to salvage much from Eudokia’s workshop. Irene had prioritised extracting her own belongings first before going back in to grab whatever else she could carry, and by that point the lower levels of the base were becoming increasingly unstable. What little she and Rider had been able to carry out now filled most of the car they now drove, though Irene suspected that she wouldn’t be strong enough to use or knowledgeable enough to understand most of it.
All in all it was rather frustrating. And on some level that was surprising to Irene, the fact that she was more irritated than afraid.
Having made sure that nothing had fallen loose Irene returned to looking at the map. It naturally didn’t point out any areas of magical significance, so she decided to focus on finding somewhere physically defensible or, failing that, somewhere she could easily blend in. Preferably somewhere away from Stanley Park and the overpass – nothing good had ever happened at either of those locations. Irene pored over the map for several minutes before coming to a decision, and when she looked up a light drizzle had begun, covering the windscreen with splattered droplets.
“I think…this location would be good.”
She announced, indicating the Layton playing fields, a flat stretch of ground to the north of Stanley. Rider gave the map a sidelong look, simultaneously flipping on the windscreen wipers.
“Is it not a little too open, Master? There is little in the way of defensive structures there.”
Irene shook her head, frowning.
“No, it’s perfect. The open ground will let us see any attacker coming. And if we remain there for long, your presence will make it impossible for anyone to try and sneak in undetected. The flat ground is ideal for charging attacks from horseback and the open space will favour that style of combat. Also…”
She pointed to the large L-shaped building that served as the sports pavilion and changing rooms.
“This building is close to a main road, for if we need to make a quick escape. And we won’t have to worry so much about attacks during the day, because the playing fields will be in use.”
Irene nodded to herself, confidence in her idea growing by the second.
“We’re not carrying much, all told. We’ll only need one or two rooms, and even I’m capable of warding charms that’ll keep normal people away if the space is that small.”
Rider inclined his head towards Irene, a considering look on his weatherbeaten face.
“Hmm. What you say is true. But it will take time for me to claim the territory around the fields to a significant degree. Until then our position will be rather precarious.”
Irene couldn’t find any words to disagree with that. It was a gamble, but then her position throughout the war had always been precarious. And this time at least she was choosing to put her life in danger rather than being told to by someone else. Perhaps it was the thrill of personal freedom after a lifetime of keeping her head down, but Irene was beginning to feel somewhat excited about the prospect of striking out on her own. The old fear was still there, lurking beneath the surface, but for the time being Irene was content to ignore it.
“We will simply have to deal with the problems as they come. For now please drive us to Layton.”
Rider looked at her for a moment, his eyes searching, then nodded and resumed watching the road, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips.
“As you say, my lady. The journey there should not take long.”
Irene folded the map back up and returned it to the glove compartment, then settled back into her seat. She stared out of the passenger window, watching the shops and houses flash past without really seeing them.
Irene mumbled, running a hand through her tangled blonde hair.
“Do you think we can succeed? Even with all our disadvantages?”
The sedan slowed as a set of traffic lights ahead changed from green to amber to red. Rider’s pale blue eyes never wavered, but Irene thought he looked wistful somehow.
“Disadvantages are no guarantee of loss, my lady. If they were I myself would never have risen so high as I did in my own time. Allow me to share some of my history with you.”
Irene stopped trying to comb out her hair with her fingers and sat up a little straighter, interested. This was the first time Rider had spoken about himself. The old knight continued to speak as they waited for the lights to change.
“My father John was the Lord Marshall of England, and I was his youngest son. During The Anarchy he betrayed his rightful King and threw his lot in with the Empress Matilda, though it did him little good in the end. The Empress was defeated and my father was hunted by the King’s armies until he sought refuge in Newbury Castle, where he was besieged.”
Rider hesitated for a moment, and Irene imagined he must be reliving the memory of what happened next.
“I was five years old at the time. The outer walls were breached and the retainers sent to guard me did not pull me out in time. I was captured by the royal army and brought before the King.”
Rider sighed as the lights turned green, mechanically putting the car into gear again.
“The King used me as a hostage, threatening to hang me if my father did not surrender. But my father refused. After all, I was his youngest son. Why should he weep for me, when his true heir was safe and sound? On hearing his refusal the King threatened to launch me into the castle with one of his siege engines, but even that did not sway my father’s conscience.”
Irene shook her head, appalled, but remained silent as Rider continued.
“Thankfully, luck was with me and the King did not make good on his threat. I was spared, and my father survived his ordeal. But my misfortunes did not end there.”
Rider accelerated smoothly, overtaking the car in front, his fingers now drumming on the wheel.
“I trained as a knight in Normandy by William de Tancarville, a man who deserves more respect than history has given him. I fought my first campaign in Flanders when I was nineteen years old. It was a dirty, messy urban scuffle that ended poorly for everyone. Thereafter I served as a household knight in my uncle Patrick’s house for a time. My uncle was a miser who cared for me almost as little as my father.”
“It looks like I’m not the only one with family troubles.”
Irene murmured, a small smile crossing her lips. Rider, glancing at her, smiled in turn.
“Oh, not at all. But I didn’t suffer for long, because my uncle was slain in an ambush outside Poitiers when I was twenty. I also took a wound in that battle, a deep cut to my thigh. It was a grievous injury that would surely have killed me if not for the kindness of one of my captors, who hid bandages for me inside a loaf of bread. I never discovered the identity of my benefactor, but I am eternally grateful to them, whoever they were.”
The old knight reached up and brushed a tuft of silvery hair away from his face.
“Then, when my life was at its lowest ebb, cold and imprisoned and near death from my wound, salvation arrived. Eleanor of Aquitaine, consort to King Henry II, personally paid my ransom. I hear she was impressed by tales of my bravery, though I cannot say why. I merely did my duty.”
“After my recovery I took part in several tourneys in and around Normandy. Do not mistake me; these were not the formal jousts of later times, but true melees, mock battles fought between hundreds of knights. I do not mean to boast, but I took to them quickly, and enjoyed participating in them immensely. I amassed a small fortune from capturing opponents and ransoming them, but eventually duty called me back to England.”
Rider turned right onto a main road and shifted into fourth and then again into fifth gear. The purr of the sedan’s engine deepened as it picked up speed, and the lights outside the car began to flash by faster and faster, but Rider’s voice maintained its steady tone.
“I was forty two when I joined the court of Henry II. That was when my luck truly began to turn for the better. I was granted estates and status for my services, and when his son Richard rose in revolt I covered the King’s retreat from Le Mans. Our knights clashed and the battle lines disintegrated, and amidst the chaos and confusion I found myself thrust into battle with Richard himself.”
Rider’s voice remained calm, but his eyes flashed, and Irene no longer doubted that he was reliving those fateful moments.
“The Prince was already known as the Lionheart back then, and though he was strong, brave and blessed with a keen sense for battle, he was also prideful, impetuous and foolhardy. We fought for the better part of an hour, his axe against my sword and, when he disarmed me, my lance. It was a vicious fight, but Richard left himself open for a split second right at the end. I cast him from his saddle to the earth below, then killed his horse as a warning. The histories say I was the only man to personally unhorse him, but I do not know the truth of this.”
Rider sighed a long, deep sigh tinged deeply with regret.
“But it was not enough. King Henry died that same year, in 1189. Richard was crowned King of England, and requested my presence at his court. I travelled there because whatever he may have been before he was now my King, and I his vassal. I expected him to seek revenge upon me, but instead he welcomed me with open arms, confirmed the lands granted to me by his father on his deathbed, and allowed me to marry the daughter of Richard Strongbow, the Earl of Pembroke.”
“In one fell swoop I was transformed from a lowly knight to one of the most powerful men in the country. I owned land in England, Ireland, Wales and Normandy. When the King departed for the Holy Land I was one of the men appointed to the regency council, and when the snake Prince John reached out with greedy hands to grasp at the crown I turned my sword against him. My elder brother was likewise a loyalist and died in the line of duty.”
“When Richard returned I was allowed to inherit my brother’s Marshalship. I was William Marshal in earnest, and when the King went to war with Phillip Augustus over his French lands I rode by his side.”
Rider’s eyes clouded over, and his features drooped with something like sorrow. After a moment he straightened up, and when he spoke his voice was firm once again.
“There is more to the story, but we are about to arrive so I will tell you the rest later. For now, simply know this. I was born low in a noble family, like you. Like you, I encountered hardships and setbacks, and my life was riven by conflict. But in the end I prevailed against all the stones fate could throw at me and was rewarded for my efforts. You can do the same, my lady, if you give it your all and never give in to despair.”
“Our enemies are strong, but not insurmountable. Even if Saber himself attacks I will defeat him just as I did in life. As your loyal retainer I will stand by you to the very end, no matter what. You have my word on that.”
As the sedan turned right onto a gravel driveway and slid forwards into the car park next to the L-shaped pavilion, Irene found herself overcome with emotion. She looked into Rider’s pale blue eyes and realized, on a fundamental level, that he had meant every word. The petite blonde bowed her head and tried in vain to hold back the sobs.
“Th…thank you. I…I am not worthy…of such…”
The car rolled to a halt, and the engine died away as Rider removed the key from the ignition. He placed a hand on Irene’s shoulder, and even though she was barely a magus she felt the power beneath his spiritual flesh, steady and solid and unmovable.
“Yes you are.”
Hands roughly seize you by the shoulders and shake you from side to side, jolting your body back and forth. Your head bangs against the cold stone wall of your lair, hard enough to draw blood. That voice…isn’t that Scathach’s voice? Why is she waking you up now? It’s far too early, the sun must have only just sunk below the horizon…
“Master, you need to wake up now! This is an emergency!”
The shaking intensifies, and you feel your Servant gather her strength and hoist you out of your sitting position. The motion is enough to jolt your eyes open, letting you stare blearily out at the world. Through a filmy haze of interrupted slumber you see the darkened interior of your lab, and in front of it the blurry silhouette of Caster. You blink a few times and suddenly her face snaps into focus.
Scathach’s face is tight with a mixture of anxiety, frustration and steely resolve. Her scar is contorted into a serpentine brand across her face, and her eyes blaze furiously in the darkness.
You spit and slur as your body slowly begins to come under your control once again. Upon seeing you awake Caster’s grip slackens, though her expression remains tense.
“Master…I’m sorry for waking you early, but a message has arrived for you. It’s…well, perhaps its better you heard it for yourself. Your communications device started playing it half an hour ago and it’s been repeating itself ever since.”
A message? For you? But who could have sent such a thing? The only other Masters who knew how to contact you are dead. You give yourself a slight shake and take a heavy step forwards. Caster’s grip shifts and she shepherds you over towards the old 70’s style telephone which serves as your communicator. As you approach you notice that the receiver is off the hook and a deep, masculine voice is resonating from the earpiece.
“…is a message for all Grail War combatants from Grail War Coordinator Mathias Barnaby. A matter of grave importance has arisen, one which threatens the continuation of the Grail War itself. As such I hereby command that all currently active Masters are to immediately proceed to the Blackpool marina. There you will meet with me in front of the Blackpool Maritime Museum, where I will explain matters further. Any Master who attempts to use the meeting as an opportunity to remove one of his rivals will be severely punished. This is a message for all Grail War combatants…”
You stare at the receiver as your mind processes the message you just heard. Something has placed the Grail War in jeopardy? Something so serious that the Coordinator cannot deal with it himself, something that he believes will require the cooperation of all the remaining Masters? The implications are…disturbing. And also very, very suspicious.
“I am almost certain the message is genuine.”
Caster murmurs, as if reading your mind. You raise an eyebrow, and she gives you a wry smile.
“I traced the origin of the message. The prana signature originates from the Maritime Museum.”
She waves a hand to indicate the spiritual map of the city on the far wall. A series of glowing concentric rings spread out from the museum, the gaps between them widening like ripples over still water.
“…Well, if the message isn’t fake and really does come from the Coordinator then we should probably do what it says.”
You give yourself another shake, then straighten up, no longer needing Scathach’s support.
“Okay. We should definitely be ready for trouble. Take along everything you’ve made, Caster, because I get the feeling we’re going to need all the firepower we can muster tonight.”
You walk over to the cages that hold your familiars. You open the doors, thrust your hands inside and take both remaining birds into your body in a rush of heat and animal energy. Scathach begins to gather up various items from around the lab, including the little box containing the fragment of dragon bone, which she attaches to her belt with a small clip. After making sure both your pistols are loaded with fresh ammunition you stride out of your lair and into the night.
Your journey towards the marina is uneventful, though the fading reddish tint to the western clouds makes you feel extremely uncomfortable. It’s been decades since you felt the warmth of the sun on your back, so long that you can barely remember what it feels like. Now its slightest touch will enforce final death on you, and you can’t help but stiffen up a little whenever a gap emerges between the buildings and the horizon is laid bare before you.
The Maritime Museum is an oblong concrete block with two square-shaped wings flung out on either side of its length; from above it would look like a squashed cross. A semicircular flight of about two dozen stone steps lead up to the glass-fronted entrance, the interior of which is currently shadowy and unlit. As you approach you see that a cluster of figures have already gathered at the foot of the steps, and that a lone silhouette stands at the very top overlooking them.
As you cross the road you recognise Irene Hellespont and Rider. Irene looks cautious, but not afraid, which surprises you given her previous demeanour. Rider is simply doing his usual statue impersonation, standing with his arms folded slightly in front of her. The pair are faced by a group of four comprised of your old friends from yesterday; Blondie, Short, Monmouth and Saber. The elderly lord turns slowly as you approach, and his mouth twists at the corners.
“Ah, it’s my old friend the vampire. I had hoped to meet you again at some point, and perhaps repay you for our last altercation.”
He shifts awkwardly on the spot, indicating his cane with his free hand. You smile and try to sound confident, but it’s hard knowing just how strong Monmouth is.
“Sorry, Monty, but it was nothing personal. Getting rid of the most powerful piece is the best way of winning any game. It’s the sensible thing to do, all’s fair in love and war, etcetera.”
Monmouth’s expression darkens, but he does not respond. Saber glances towards Caster and smiles widely, then rolls his eyes at Monmouth. Scathach smiles back, inclining her head towards you briefly before shrugging lightly. You give your Servant a level look and push past Monmouth’s group until you are able to stand directly at the bottom of the stairs.
The man standing on the uppermost step looks as if he could’ve stepped out of an old academic photograph from Oxford or Cambridge. He wears a smart grey suit under a sensible brown coat, the hem of which falls down to around his thighs. His dark red hair is immaculately combed into straight sheets of hair, none of which fall further than his shoulders. The glasses straddling his narrow face complete the image. All that’s missing is the scroll and mortarboard.
“Now that we’re all here…”
The Grail War Coordinator begins, his voice easily carrying down the length of the steps. Monmouth scowls and taps his cane against the floor.
“Wait a moment, wait a moment! That damnable Magpie isn’t here yet. Shouldn’t we be waiting for him too?”
Mathias Barnaby turns his head slightly to look at Monmouth, his expression unreadable behind his glasses.
“There is no need to wait for Ronald Pryke and his Servant to arrive. If the honoured Lord will allow me to finish, I will explain why.”
Barnaby’s voice remains totally calm, utterly free of any irritation at being interrupted. Monmouth subsides, muttering quietly to himself, but Barnaby takes no notice.
“There is little time, so I will be brief. Late last night, just before dawn, the Lesser Grail was stolen from its strongroom beneath St. Matthews’s chapel in the northern part of the city.”
There are sharp intakes of breath all around you. Though you don’t need to breathe anymore you share their shock – the Lesser Grail, stolen? How? And more importantly, why? Monmouth looks like he’s about to interrupt again, but Barnaby holds up a hand and silences him pre-emptively.
“Yes, it is shocking news. My counterpart in the Church was meant to be safeguarding it, but there was an unavoidable conflict of interest between us and I was forced to take over. I assumed it was safe where it was, but it seems I was mistaken, and for this I apologise.”
Barnaby’s fists tighten, just for an instant.
“However, I was able to track the thief with my familiar. I was able to follow him across the city to the bay, after which he took a speed boat out into the harbour. Once there he boarded a larger vessel, a pleasure yacht called the Grey Albatross. The same ship that Ronald Pryke is using as a base.”
Monmouth curses and slams the tip of his cane down onto the paving stones.
“Damn him! That bastard attacked me yesterday! It must have been a cover, a feint…yes. That must be it. He could pick up the Lesser Grail on the way back…”
Your slight amusement at Monmouth’s misconception is quickly drowned out by a rising anxiety. Regulus told you that Archer had been needlessly scouting the north of the city, and now you know why. He was looking for the Lesser Grail! His agreement with Eudokia was probably part of that as well – cause a bit of hands-off chaos as a distraction and grab the cup when no one is looking.
“Um…excuse me, but…why would Archer’s Master want the Lesser Grail? How would having it benefit him?”
Irene asks. Barnaby grimaces and adjusts his glasses.
“The Lesser Grail is an artefact, Miss Hellespont. It’s exactly the sort of item the Collector would be interested in having for himself. It can hold a truly vast amount of prana and already contains the souls of two Heroic Spirits. That much energy could provide a magus with enough magical power to last a lifetime. I believe it’s safe to assume that the Lesser Grail was Pryke’s goal all along.”
“Whatever his reasons may have been, Ronald Pryke is now officially disqualified from the Grail War. I am charging all of you with his elimination and the recovery of the Grail. There are boats behind-”
Barnaby’s head whips around towards the sea, an expression of intense concentration on his face. A few seconds pass, but the Coordinator remains absolutely rigid. Finally he stretches out his hand and makes a beckoning gesture towards everyone at the bottom of the stairs.
“Everyone. Get up here right now.”
Irene begins to talk, but Barnaby whirls around, his scholarly face now a mask of rage.
“Now! Get up here NOW!!”
The command in his voice is undeniable and you find yourself flying up the steps three or four at a time almost before you can think. Out of everyone else only Scathach is level with you, the others having only just begun to register Barnaby’s words. You clear the last few steps in a single leap and the façade of the museum rears up in front of you like a concrete abomination rising from the depths. The building juts out into the bay, almost bisecting the beach. Stone ramps lead down onto the sand on either side, jutting out diagonally so as not to intersect the museum’s wings.
And both ramps are swarming with things. Things with pearly, translucent skin and hideously emaciated torsos, things with too many joints in their limbs and smooth, featureless faces. The same things, in fact, you faced during your first meeting with Eudokia Hellespont on South Pier. You vividly recall how dozens of them climbed onto the pier and made life miserable for everyone there, although since it was one of the factors that contributed to Eudokia’s death you can’t complain about it too much.
But this time there aren’t dozens of the things but hundreds, scuttling along the ramps in a tide of white, eerily silent save for the clicking of their claws against the stone floor. The beach below seethes with them, and in the distance you can see more rising up out of the sea.
“We cannot allow any of these elementals to reach the city.”
Barnaby growls. He reaches up and unbuttons his coat, then folds it neatly and lays it on the ground behind him. A staccato of steps later and the others arrive on the scene. Monmouth looks extremely discomforted from having to run up the stairs and leans on one of his apprentices for support. Irene goes rigid at the sight of the oncoming elementals, but stands her ground.
“Pryke must have worked out that we’re onto him somehow.”
Barnaby barks. He reaches into the inside pocket of his suit and pulls out a brass pocket watch, the sort with a hinge able to store something small and flat inside. He presses a small button on the side with his thumb and the watch flicks open. The air suddenly vibrates as a distortion in the air begins to rise from within the watch, a quavering, flickering bending of light similar to a heat mirage. The distortion wobbles from side to side, then floats down and begins to orbit Barnaby, its movements jerky and erratic.
“Some of us will have to stay here and get rid of these things! Pryke can’t be doing this on his own, there are too many elementals here for a magus of his skill to summon unaided! Knowing him it’s probably a Mystic Code, and it’s probably nearby…if we can find it we can stop the summoning process!”
“How are we going to decide who does what?”
Saber asks, calmly surveying the oncoming horde. It’s a good question, and one that will need to be decided very quickly. Monmouth looks pensive, but then a sly look comes over his face and he turns to face you, a triumphant smile on his face.
“The Apostle should do it. We can take care of matters here.”
Monmouth’s smile worries you. You frown and fold your arms as everyone else turns to look at you.
“Why should I be the one to go? It’s a simple fact that you are the better magus. And water is your specialty. And you have the strongest Servant. Surely it should be you and not I who challenges Pryke.”
Monmouth shakes his head, still smiling.
“Oh, I would love to go, but unfortunately some yobbish lout dealt me a severe injury about a week ago. And as a proper magus it really is my and my apprentice’s duty to help the Coordinator preserve secrecy here. The girl is too weak to face Pryke on even ground, so she can’t go. You really are our best hope.”
You grit your teeth. Monmouth is clearly hoping you’ll get yourself killed in the attempt, preferably after doing enough damage to stop the Grey Albatross from simply sailing out into the Irish Channel. As an Apostle deep water is not your friend; it would be all too easy to find yourself at the bottom of the bay. But on the other hand, Pryke could very well have some Mystic Codes worth stealing…maybe you could turn Monmouth’s gambit back on him that way…
1. Dispute Monmouth’s argument and refuse to go.
2. Accept Monmouth’s argument and board the Grey Albatross yourself.
3. Accept Monmouth’s proposal…but argue that he should come along as well.
“Sorry Monty, but I’m not going out there. Who knows how much support Pryke has out there other than his Servant? And as a Dead Apostle the sea itself is a deadly threat. I’m not going to throw my life away and let you swoop in and pluck the Grail from my ashes, satisfying as I’m sure that would be for you.”
You’re about to turn back towards the horde of summoned elementals, but hesitate as a sudden idea strikes you. Suppressing a smile, you turn back to Monmouth and spread your hands in front of you mildly.
“Of course, I would be more than happy to go…as long as you came with me.”
Monmouth snorts and opens his mouth to argue, but you cut him off before he even begins.
“Think about it. Pryke is on a ship. He has what he wants – there’s no longer any reason for him to be here. I guarantee he’s about to try and sail out of the harbour and into the open sea. If I fail to stop him then he’ll just keep on sailing and you’ll lose the Grail for good.”
You look Monmouth in the eye. It’s not difficult to look and sound earnest when you really are for once.
“But if I had someone with me who could stop the boat itself, someone who was, perhaps, incredibly skilled with water magic, who could stop the boat’s propellers and leave it dead in the water…then everything would be much simpler. It’s only logical that there be a contingency, correct? And you’re the only one who can do it.”
Monmouth looks thoughtful. His eyes wander over to the tops of the ramps leading down to the beach, which the vanguard of the pale salt elementals is currently in the process climbing over. His brows knit and he shakes his head angrily.
“We don’t have time to argue about this. Barnaby! I assume there’s a means of transportation nearby?”
The Coordinator nods without turning around.
“There are several boats moored to a mole at the back of the museum. You can make it there if the rest of us cover you. Now, everyone forward!”
Barnaby leads by example and strides forwards, the invisible thing summoned from within his watch buzzing like a nest of hornets as it whirls around him in a drunken orbit. The salt creatures rush towards him in a great tide, clustering in and trampling over one another in their haste to attack. One of them manages to break away from the front rank, drops into a low crouch, then propels itself into the air with its multi-jointed hind legs, claws extended for a killing strike.
The invisible thing lashes out and leaps across a distance of two dozen feet to catch the elemental in midair. The construct jerks and thrashes about wildly as the distortion grips it, trying to fight off whatever has it held in the air. A horrible sound like fabric ripping echoes through the night air, and deep lacerations begin to appear in its translucent skin. The distortion in the air vibrates with barely contained fury, and with a final pulsing shudder it tears the elemental in half at the waist and throws the pieces down to shatter on the ground below.
The rest of the elementals surge forwards, coming at your group from both the left and right ramps, but before they can surround you completely the invisible thing plunges down into their front ranks. It leaps from one elemental to another, ripping and gouging at each in turn, crippling those it does not destroy outright. Every now and then the illusory veil surrounding the thing flickers, and you catch glimpses of claws curved like meathooks and a barbed tail, but nothing more than that. Whatever it is, it scatters the vanguard of elementals like dust before a hurricane.
But slowly numbers begin to tell and elementals begin pushing past the invisible creature. One gets within striking distance of Barnaby himself before it is abruptly seized in a fist of solid air and crushed into powder. Others begin to bounce off invisible walls, and half a dozen approaching from the flank are pancaked together as a bulldozer blade of compressed air smashes into them from the side. Monmouth’s apprentices move up on either side of Barnaby and continue to lay down covering fire as you and Monmouth slowly make your way forward.
“Saber. Take care of the left-hand ramp.”
Monmouth growls, stumping forwards with his cane. Saber smiles easily, his sword clearing its sheath with a silken whisper. The Servant takes one look at the disorganised, scattering elementals, shakes his head in amusement, then charges forwards into the fray. He ploughs through the chaotic battlefield where Barnaby and the apprentices are and begins cutting a path towards the top of the ramp.
“If the King is taking the left then I shall take the right, if that is alright with you, my lady.”
Rider rumbles. Irene nods firmly and takes a step back.
“Please do. In the meantime I will be inside the museum. I will try to locate the summoning object, but it may take some time to set up the ritual.”
There is a flash of silvery light, and a light grey warhorse appears next to Rider. The old knight mounts up and unsheathes his own sword, which ripples and transforms into a jet black cavalry lance halfway through the motion. He pauses for a moment, waiting for a lull in the fighting, then kicks his mount into action and charges across the battlefield.
The warhorse smashes through the massed ranks of the salt elementals like a wrecking ball through a house of cards. Those that manage to slip aside from his lance are trampled beneath the crushing hooves of his mount. Aided by his steed Rider reaches the top of his ramp before Saber does and plunges down it, knocking aside the scrambling elementals like ninepins and leaving a trail of broken bodies and loose salt in his wake.
You seize the opportunity and dash forwards, pausing only to stamp on a legless elemental that feebly tries to grasp at your ankle. Monmouth grits his teeth as he struggles to keep up with you, but you both manage to make it past the lip of the ramp and onto the concrete shelf leading around to the back of the building. Scathach shadows you all the way there, scanning the surroundings for any other unseen threats.
Your Servant’s caution winds up saving your life. Her gaze suddenly locks whilst scanning the horizon, and with a cry of alarm she pushes you aside and raises both hands into the air. A familiar greenish-yellow square of light unfolds from her fingers and spreads to cover the air around yourself and Monmouth. Moments later the first quarrel plunges from the sky and strikes the barrier, throwing up a shower of multicoloured sparks.
“Ugh, not this again.”
You mutter angrily. You glance briefly at the skyline – it’s hard to tell but you’re pretty sure Archer is taking potshots at you from Blackpool Tower again. You remain behind the barrier, but the next shot isn’t aimed at you. Back in front of the steps Monmouth’s blonde-haired apprentice suddenly jerks, his body spinning around and dropping to the floor in a boneless heap. Immediately afterwards Barnaby’s head snaps around and the invisible thing leaps from its latest victim and bounds into the air, seizing a second bolt just before it can take the Coordinator in the heart.
Monmouth hisses, but he makes no move to return to aid his fallen apprentice. Leaving the barrier would turn him into a target as well, and he knows it. Barnaby and the other apprentice begin to fall back towards the steps, the latter trying desperately to drag his stricken companion away before the elementals can get in close and finish him off.
“Caster! Can you cover them?”
You ask, a desperate plan forming inside your head. Caster nods curtly.
“Yes, but then you’ll be left open-”
“Good. Focus on shielding the Coordinator and Monty’s boys. I doubt Rider or Saber need to be babysat.”
Caster opens her mouth, presumably to protest, but you don’t give her time to argue. Monmouth’s eyes widen as you seize him by the waist and haul him over your shoulder in a fireman’s lift. Without waiting you turn around and sprint headlong towards the back of the museum, praying that Archer doesn’t decide to try his luck with a shot at you anyway.
Monmouth struggles weakly as you pound around the right-hand wing of the building. Ahead the mole comes into view. Two sleek-looking powerboats are moored to either side of the central gangway, rocking gently with the waves. You pound down the wooden gangway and unceremoniously pitch Monmouth into the nearest boat before jumping in yourself. The lord curses and flails around on the back seat whilst you take stock of the controls.
“Ugh…urg…blasted Apostle…the nerve of you…ngh…”
Monmouth splutters as he slowly and painfully begins the process of righting himself.
“Sorry about that, Monty.”
You say, not feeling sorry at all.
“Now, how do you start this thing…?”
Monmouth stares at you, incredulity writ large across his features. You grip a likely-looking lever and, despite your trepidation, decide to make best light of the situation.
“Come on Monty.”
You say, in your best Jeremy Clarkson voice.
“How hard could it be?”
“Oh dear god this is hard!!”
You cry out in alarm as the boat slews around wildly in the water, throwing up a plume of seawater. In the back Monmouth clings on for dear life, his expensive suit now soaked through with sea spray. You’ve been having some…difficulties…with the controls, but so far neither of you has been thrown out, so that’s a plus.
Another plus is the slowly growing shadow of the Grey Albatross, silhouetted magnificently against the stars by the light of the moon.
“We’ll be there soon! I hope you’re ready, Monty!”
“Don’t. Call. Me. ‘Monty’.”
Monmouth gasps. You shake your head and sigh dramatically.
“And here I was just trying to be friendly.”
You quickly close with the ship, and at this distance it’s possible to see the wake thrown up by the yacht’s mighty propellers. Up close you swiftly start to understand the sheer size of the vessel with how it dwarfs your own craft; the whole thing must be at least sixty or seventy metres long, with multiple floors abovedecks giving it a distinct amount of height as well. You angle the boat so as not to be caught in the yacht’s wash and increase the throttle, mindful of the fact that you could very well spin out if you push too hard.
“Monty! Is this close enough?”
You shout over the roar of the powerboat’s engine. Monmouth’s mouth twists as he looks up at the boat.
He mutters, then stretches his gloved hands towards the yacht’s stern. The elderly magus closes his eyes and begins to chant softly under his breath. After a couple of minutes he opens his eyes, closes both fists, then yanks them back, as if pulling the reins on a particularly stubborn horse.
The ship shudders and groans as hundreds of tons of the surrounding seawater suddenly become as solid as granite. The front of the ship buckles and pancakes inwards. Fibreglass rips, wood splinters, steel deforms, rivets pop out of their sockets and glass shatters all over the ship as Monmouth’s spell seizes it in an inescapable grip of iron.
“There. That should hold it for a while.”
Monmouth croaks, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. You nod and draw the boat in closer, coasting in so close that the rim bumps up against the hull of the yacht.
“Now it’s your turn, Apostle. I’ll wait here for you to return.”
You give Monmouth a critical look, but he simply leans back in his seat.
“Think I’ll leave you here? The thought had crossed my mind. But that would mean leaving the Grail here as well. I’m willing to play nice until we get back to dry land.”
He smiles at you mirthlessly. You shrug and wander over to the side of the boat. Your claws make a satisfying grinding noise as you drive them into the yacht’s hull and begin the slow climb up to the deck. As you climb you wonder idly how you’re going to go about retrieving the Grail. There are two main ways, as far as you can tell, but after careful consideration you decide to:
1. Go the full carnage route. Go through the ship deck by deck until you find Pryke and the Grail. Kill anyone you come across and raise them as Dead, then set them loose on the living crew.
2. Proceed with caution and take the stealthy route. Shapeshift into blood and infiltrate the ship through the rents and tears caused by Monmouth’s spell.
It doesn’t take much thought. Pryke has been disqualified and the Coordinator has made it clear that any means are acceptable as long as he is taken out of the picture. You’re on a boat just outside the city with no witnesses and no reason to hold back. Plus simply cutting loose and going on a rampage is a good way of relieving some of the stress that’s been slowly building up inside you over the past few days. You can feel the energy of the Lesser Grail now, pulsing gently somewhere above you, and you are reassured to know that it’s still on board.
With a final scrabbling of claws you haul yourself over the guardrail and onto the deck of the yacht. You come up right at the back of the boat, to the side of the stern, and if you lean over slightly you can see the fountain of froth thrown up by the propellers as the boat’s engine strains to escape from its watery prison. The deck ahead of you is completely flat and about the size of two basketball courts squashed together, with a raised square platform set in the middle.
Shouts of alarm drift through the air, and suddenly a side door in the lowest upper deck clangs open. Three men spill out and split off in different directions, one vanishing towards the front of the ship, one jogging over to the guardrail on the side and the last cautiously making his way towards the stern – straight towards you. Hunching down so as not to be seen, you glide over to the raised platform and crouch down behind it.
You hear the man’s footsteps approach, closer and closer with every passing moment. Remaining absolutely still, you wait until the crewman draws level with your hiding place. You wait until he’s taken two more paces before striking, locking your arm around his neck and dragging him into the shadows. He struggles briefly and makes panicked sounds, but his strength is only human. Crimson liquid splatters onto the deck as you open his throat from ear to ear.
After waiting for the body’s convulsions to subside you draw your ritual knife, which you actually remembered to bring along this time. After a careful peek over the top of the platform to make sure no one heard the scuffle you bend down and get to work on transforming the newly dead sailor into a true Dead familiar. The process doesn’t take long, and soon the corpse begins to shudder and flex. Another cold presence flickers to life inside your mind, joining the eleven others currently floating there.
The fresh Dead begins to claw at the deck in an attempt to right itself. As it slowly rises into a sitting position you reach out and implant three commands inside its dead brain. First, wander the ship until further orders. Second, kill any humans you encounter. Third, continue to pursue a target indefinitely.
The Dead growls and begins to slouch away, but before that another idea strikes you. You seize the walking corpse and begin to rifle through its pockets, turning out anything that might be of interest. Several items fall out – a wallet containing a selection of credit cards and an old photograph, a torch, a packet of tissues. You smirk and pick up the wallet, then shake it so the photograph falls out. It’s faded and worn at the edges, but not so much that you can’t make out the image of a smiling young woman.
His wife? Daughter, perhaps? It doesn’t matter; the photograph is clearly a personal item, and it’ll serve you well either way. You stab the Dead absently, pushing the ritual knife up to the hilt in its back. When you pull it out the blade is slick with fresh blood. Letting the dead go, you crouch down and smear the blood in a circle around the photograph, then begin chanting a catechism of summoning.
After all, why only raise some Dead when you can get free Wraiths out of the deal as well?
You kick open the door to the galley with enough force to rip it out of its steel frame. Gunfire erupts from the room beyond, and you catch sight of a makeshift barricade hastily constructed from chairs, tables and whatever else the crewmen have managed to find. The gunfire is the hurried staccato of panic fire – no threat to you whatsoever.
The gunfire increases in intensity as you step over the threshold, but it’s no use. You see the bullets as they fly towards you, tiny nine-millimetre rounds fired from the crew’s compact semiautomatic pistols. You step aside from one bullet, duck under a second, slide away from two more and hit the barricade at a dead sprint before the galley door can bounce twice.
The impact demolishes the barricade and sends pieces of furniture flying everywhere. Five of the sailors cry out and manage to scatter, but the sixth is clipped by a foot-long shard of wood and stumbles towards you, groaning. You seize him by the throat, turn sharply, then slam him into the nearest bulkhead with enough force to dent the steel. He lets our a brief choking sound and crumples lifelessly to the ground.
Killing him has left you open to attack by the other crew, but they are unable to take advantage of your momentary weakness. They’re too busy fending off the horde of Dead storming into the room behind you, ten bloodthirsty corpses that wade through the tiny bullets without even flinching. Two crewmen go down as five Dead pile into them, their screams drowned out by the awful sound of ripping flesh and crunching bones. The remaining three men make a break for another door at the other end of the galley, but start shrieking and backpedalling as a tide of Wraiths erupt through the rear wall.
The shadowy spectres flow over two of them, their incorporeal forms forcing themselves down their victim’s throats, up their nostrils and into their ears. The sailors collapse to the floor, foaming at the mouths, the whites of their eyes showing, convulsing and groaning in a pitch the human voicebox was never designed to produce.
The sole surviving crew member looks around wildly, his eyes full of madness-tinged fear. As Wraiths and Dead converge on him he backs up, firing his pistol wildly until it starts to click. The sailor’s back hits the wall a few feet from an air vent set about a metre up from the floor, and with a cry of relief he starts wrenching at the mesh grille. With a ping of vibrating metal he tears it off and, holding it in front of him like a shield, awkwardly begins to climb into the vent.
But then something inside the vent grabs the sailor’s leg. He screams in terror as one of the Dead you sent into the ship’s air circulation system for just this eventuality slowly and deliberately drags him into the depths. The crewman tries to hold onto the lip of the vent with his fingers, but the inhuman strength of your undead Servants prevails and the terrified man is dragged screaming to his death.
The Wraiths and Dead disperse, though some of the latter remain behind to finish devouring their victims. You sigh and forcibly send them away them with a thought. The number of Dead under your control has swollen to forty five, and twenty one Wraiths now haunt the ship’s corridors. Unfortunately that seems to be your limit, since unless you are personally there to stop them your Dead will immediately start devouring their victims.
You’ve been turning life on the Grey Albatross into a living hell for its inhabitants for the past half hour and yet Pryke stubbornly refuses to emerge. Finding his cabin was easy; the magical energy emanating from the Grail made it impossible to hide. But you’d much rather force him out into the open and fight him on your terms rather than assault his stronghold. The Bounded Field protecting his inner sanctum is strong, but more than that its construction is unfamiliar.
You stride out of the room, not even bothering to reanimate the bodies. The hallways belowdecks were once immaculate but are now stained with blood, bile and other bodily fluids. Makeshift barricades similar to the one you just destroyed lie scattered around, some in pieces where the Dead smashed through them, others intact where Wraiths, unimpeded by physical barriers, simply glided through them and snuffed out the lives of the defenders.
In less than five minutes you’re back on the surface deck, now completely illuminated by dozens of floodlights mounted on the top stack. An enterprising crewman must have turned them on after realising they were under attack, but bright lights aren’t going to hurt you unless it’s the light of the sun. It does however reveal that the raised platform near the stern is actually a helipad, of all things.
The door to the upper decks is still open from when you first came aboard. The rooms and corridors inside are far finer than those belowdecks, though these too have been defiled with blood and wreckage. As you step over the threshold and pause to kick aside a partially devoured corpse a series of gunshots ring out from somewhere above – another holdout soon to be crushed. By now the Grey Albatross is almost entirely under your control.
Just as you think that a door to the left bursts open and a man stumbles out into the corridor, his right arm torn to bloody shreds. He thumps against the opposite wall, then lets out a startled grunt as he sees you. The sailor heaves painfully, then levels a pump-action shotgun at you using his mangled arm as a cradle. In the confined space of the corridor there’s no room to dodge, and as the shotgun barks you wrap your arms around your head to at least avoid getting a face full of buckshot.
Unlike what you see in video games, shotgun pellets do not disperse in a ludicrously large cone five feet after leaving the barrel. Buckshot hits you in the abdomen with the force of two dozen miniature hammers moving at mach speeds, tearing through your clothing and into your flesh but not doing any major damage. You lower your arms and flex your hands twice, willing them into claws. The wounded man stares, shocked that you are still standing, but to his credit recovers quickly and attempts to work the pump.
You simply take six quick steps forwards and drive a fist into his chest. He flinches back at the last moment, somehow managing to interpose the shotgun between himself and your claws. The force behind your blow bends the shotgun’s barrel into a right angle and sends the sailor tumbling backwards. You follow up with a sweeping kick as he falls, and your toes connect with the man’s chin. His head snaps back violently before slamming into the floor with a wet crunch, and his left leg twitches once before going limp.
You brush yourself down before stepping over his corpse. It’s not far to Pryke’s quarters from here, but you still have to work out how you’re going to get in. Pryke’s absence during all of these events worries you – there has to be a reason why he hasn’t shown up. Could he be preparing a ritual of some kind, one using the power of the Lesser Grail to strike out at his attackers? You’re not sure, but you can’t discount the possibility.
You begin to ponder the best way of getting to Pryke before anything untoward can happen…
1. Try to disable the Bounded Field magically. Tampering with an unknown Bounded Field is risky, but if you succeed you’ll be able to face down Pryke with all of your Dead at your back.
2. Brute-force the field by throwing your Dead at it until it runs out of power and dissipates. There’s no way Pryke’s wards can sustain themselves indefinitely, and retrieving the Grail is worth a few Dead who won’t be making it back to the shoreline with you anyway.
3. Go back to the powerboat and ask Monmouth for help. He could probably bring down the field easily…but can you trust him to cooperate when the Grail is almost within reach?
Salt crunched under the hooves of Rider’s mount as the old Servant manoeuvred himself into position to strike at a downed elemental. The construct was missing both of its legs due to being trampled on Rider’s previous pass, and failed to rise before the knight’s lance took it in the throat. The force of his thrust took the thing’s head clean off, and both it and the rest of its body dissolved into more salt granules less than a second later.
Rider wheeled his mount around, surveying the beach in front of him. He was at the bottom of the far ramp, beyond the reach of Archer’s bolts, and as such had been free to swiftly dispose of the enemies there. As far as he could see no new elementals were rising up on his side of the beach, but he rode back and forth along the coastline for a minute just to be certain. Satisfied that all was well, Rider nudged his stallion back towards the ramp. The sounds of battle intensified as he neared the top, and as his mount cleared the topmost step the scene was laid bare before him.
Caster’s shield held, at least for the moment. The translucent field of energy had already stopped bolt after bolt, and as far as Rider could see none had been able to penetrate. Unfortunately that meant those inside were locked down and unable to move away. As the old knight dismounted he noticed that Caster was doing something within the barrier - it looked like she was carving runes into the concrete floor. Rider could not see any elementals; Saber must be keeping them at bay.
Rider opened the door to the museum foyer and stepped inside quietly. He spotted Irene immediately, kneeling on the floor just to the right of the reception desk. Four candles burned in each of the cardinal directions around her, the flames from each fluttering in a different direction. As Rider approached Irene’s eyes flew open, and the flames all swivelled to point in the same direction.
She exclaimed, surprise quickly fading into concern.
“Is everything alright? Why are you back so soon?”
Rider gave her a shallow bow.
“Everything is alright, my lady. I have dispatched all of the foes on my side of the beach, and returned here to make sure you were alright. How goes your ritual?”
Irene’s expression became serious.
“I believe I know where the summoning focus is.”
She gestured towards the candles.
“There is a faint magic signature emanating from a point north west of here. I can’t be sure, but it might be underwater…either way, it’s on Saber’s side of the beach.”
Rider nodded. Suddenly the lack of elementals on his side made sense. He stroked his beard thoughtfully.
“In that case, Saber would probably have the best chance of stopping it…”
“Then go and tell him, Rider.”
Rider smiled briefly, and for a moment he looked almost grandfatherly.
“As my lady wishes. And after that?”
Irene hesitated for a moment, but when her response came her voice was firm.
“After that…try and track down Archer. We won’t be able to do anything proactive if he isn’t pressured into stopping his attack.”
Rider saluted and trotted out of the museum. Once outside he summoned his mount once more and raced down the ramp to Saber’s side of the beach. Finding his former King was a simple matter, since all Rider had to do was follow the trail of carnage.
Saber roared and swung his sword in a horizontal arc in front of him, cutting three elementals in half before they even had the time to react. He followed through with a spinning step to the left, allowing a charging elemental to rush past him. A flick of his blade sent the errant construct’s head flying off into the night, just barely missing one of his fellows who plunged down from above, claws extended to rake and tear.
Saber smashed its featureless head into its shoulders with the flat of his sword, the force sending its limb body tumbling into two others. All collapsed in a heap and were tramped underfoot as a dozen more charged forwards, the strange rolling nature of their movement matching the waves of the sea rolling in behind them.
The red-haired swordsman suppressed a smile as he charged forwards to meet these new foes. As he smashed into their ranks and began laying about him with his sword and armoured fist, memories began to well up inside him. This battle on the beach reminded him of the battle for Jaffa and Arsuf, the former in particular since it had also been a beach assault.
At that time he had jumped into the frothing, churning waves from the deck of his landing galley and charged ahead of his subordinate knights. The Saracens had come to meet him there, on the beach, gabbling in their strange tongue and trying to force him back with arrow and blade. Saber had slain many of them that day, and the battle ended in a glorious victory that saw Saladin’s counterstroke against the Crusader States utterly blunted.
Saber turned at a flicker of movement in his peripheral vision and was halfway through a swing before he recognised Rider.
“Ah, my old friend!”
He boomed, setting his sword to one side.
“Have you come to join me? We may be enemies now, but it would give me great pleasure if you would fight by my side whilst our tasks are aligned.”
Rider couldn’t help but chuckle at his former King’s words, but quickly schooled his features to seriousness.
“I’m afraid not, my King. I am here instead to inform you of the location of the summoning device, which my Master has recently discovered. It lies to the north west of here and is probably underwater. I assume you can manage it on your own?”
Saber smiled wolfishly.
“Ha! I can handle it, old friend. These foes don’t have nearly the same mettle as the Saracens. I will find this device and destroy it. But what of you? What do you intend to do?”
Rider turned and pointed towards the shadowy outline of Blackpool Tower.
“I have been ordered to track down and engage Archer. Even if I do not slay him, my approach should disrupt his attack somewhat.”
Saber nodded thoughtfully, then turned back towards the sea. More pale shapes began to rise from the waves, elongated limbs unfolding, featureless heads tracking towards the two Servants.
“Very well. Good hunting. I have a mind to follow you once I’m finished here…I have a score to settle with Archer myself. I’ll see you there, Marshall!”
Rider nodded, turned his horse around, and galloped off into the night. Saber strode forwards and began cutting a path through the recently risen elementals, hacking through their bodies effortlessly and crushing their fallen remains beneath his armoured boots. His feet splashed through the water and soon he was wading through the wash, slowly trudging towards where Rider said the source of the elementals was.
More and more of the salt creatures began to rise as the water rose first to Saber’s knees, then his thighs. With a resounding cry he activated his Noble Phantasm, extending the golden aura over himself and his blade. Any elemental that touched him simply collapsed into normal salt, the magical energy that kept them stable pillaged and stolen by Saber’s radiant glow.
As the water level rose to just below Saber’s chest he felt it, a subtle change in the tempo of the waves. A humming vibration that was definitely not of natural origin suffused the water in front of him, and as more elementals began to form themselves out of the seawater the swordsman knew he was in the right place.
Before any of the elementals could react, Saber raised his sword above his head and brought it down in an enormous vertical slash directly in front of himself. The force of the blow blew away the water around him, temporarily exposing the rocky seabed and sending the elementals tumbling away. Saber’s sword embedded itself in the rock, but it also impaled something else – an opalescent statue the size of a football, a miniature version of one of the salt elementals. The statue was kneeling down on both its multi-jointed legs, arms raised, palms upwards in a gesture of prayer or supplication.
As the waves rushed in to fill the sudden gap the statue cracked and crumbled away, and as it did the full-size elementals also began to quickly fall apart. As the churning swell enveloped Saber, he raised his sword high and let out a bellow of triumph.
At the very top of Blackpool Tower, Archer surveyed the situation on the beaches. Everything was going according to plan, although he had been worried when Rider had stopped by Saber. His relief when the old knight had moved on had been palpable – if he had stayed behind everything would have come undone.
Archer worked the crank on his heavy crossbow and sent another trio of bolts screaming towards the gaggle of mages sheltering beneath Caster’s shield. They were of no consequence, a mere distraction to allow him to focus on his real objective. All that mattered was that they were pinned down and unable to move. That had been the goal from the very start – divide and conquer, split everyone up so that his primary target was easier to deal with.
Archer swung his crossbow away from the glowing field of energy and out towards the patch of sea where Saber was cutting a path towards Pryke’s Mystic Code. Archer’s contract with the magus had been terminated half an hour ago, but he had been able to convince him to move the statuette out a little further than was originally planned. Saber raised his sword to strike at the statue, and Archer knew his moment had come. Carefully, ever so carefully, Archer loaded a new bolt and took aim at Saber’s flank.
Up until now Archer had felt no particular enmity towards anyone else in the Grail War. Truthfully, Archer didn’t really enjoy fighting. He had always been of the opinion that the moment you started to enjoy battle for battle’s sake was the time you should put down your weapons forever. It was something that was occasionally necessary, when hearth and home were threatened. Without a cause to strive for his previous shots had been, by his standards, sloppy and weak.
This next shot would not be like the others.
As the tyrant’s sword slashed down and destroyed the summoning catalyst Tell recalled the tyrant Gessler. He recalled how he had made the lives of everyone in his dominion miserable as a result of his own selfishness, how he had tormented and humiliated anyone who tried to raise a hand against him. Saber carried himself with the same arrogance, the same disgusting pride as Gessler, but whereas Gessler had been just a bailiff Saber had been a King, ruling over a far greater number of people.
The old fury began to return, the old desire to see justice done. Felling the King who had plunged his country into debt to finance a series of insane wars that accomplished nothing except to set the stage for future violence was a worthy cause if ever there was one, even if it was too late to save the lives of all of his victims. At the very least it would ensure the tyrant King did not live to take the Grail.
As the waves rushed in and Saber raised his sword in triumph Archer knew the shot would be perfect. Saber was isolated and out of range of support. The water rushing in would hinder his movement and prevent a quick block. His Master was out of range and unable to support him in any way. And, most importantly of all, Archer activated his Noble Phantasm.
He whispered, then squeezed the trigger.
The bolt crossed the intervening miles in an eyeblink, silently cutting through the air in a perfectly straight trajectory before hammering into Saber’s left shoulder. The vacuum wave behind the bolt tore away the armour covering his left arm and sent the pieces splashing into the churning waves. Saber staggered as the force of the impact threw him forwards into the swell.
With a surge of power the swordsman rose to his feet, the swirling waters around him quickly turning a pinkish-red colour. His left arm hung limp at his side, completely skewered through by the two foot long bolt. Face drawn back in a rictus of pain and fury, the former King whirled around and desperately tried to make his way back to shore.
More bolts began to rain down, dozens of them, and in his injured state Saber was unable to deflect them all. His sword moved quickly, but the wound to his shoulder sapped his strength, slowing him down. Though some of the other bolts got through his defences and pierced his chest and torso none were nearly as debilitating as the first.
“Ah…this pain…I remember this pain…”
Saber mumbled, stubbornly trudging forwards as more and more quarrels struck through his guard. Yes, he remembered this pain – the pain of a crossbow bolt lodged in his left shoulder, the injury that claimed his life back when he was alive. It must be some quirk of his status as a Heroic Spirit, something that his supernatural toughness could not protect him from.
A bolt struck his right wrist, and the false Excalibur fell to the ground with a whisper of displaced sand. Another struck him in the centre of his chest and drove right through his entire body, stopping his momentum dead. Moments later Saber’s legs gave out and he followed his weapon to the ground, his read cloak settling over his body like a death shroud. Only then did the rain of quarrels finally dwindle away into nothingness.
Lying on the sand, Saber could only think that this was all very…poetic. He had spent his entire mortal life chasing after something that turned out to be impossible to achieve, and just like before his life was about to end in a minor battle that should have been impossible for him to lose. He should have been angry, or filled with regret.
But as his body began to dissolve into glittering golden light, the King could only laugh at the irony of it all.
“Ha…ha ha. Oh, if only I had some paper…that I might write a canso about the foolish King who made the same mistake twice…”
And then there was silence, save for the soft crackle of a red firework blooming to life in the skies above.
As the door to Pryke’s cabin swings into view you mentally call out to all of the Dead on the ship. You will them towards your position, overwriting their previous orders to seek and destroy. It might spare a few of the remaining crew, if indeed any do still remain, but they won’t be of any consequence for much longer.
The first of the thirty four Dead on the ship arrives almost instantly, shambling around a nearby corner. It bears multiple gunshot wounds around the chest and abdomen, and its clothes and jaws are stained with enormous amounts of fresh blood. It sees the door and hisses, revealing smashed and broken teeth. A feral growl rises in its chest as the corpse breaks into a graceless run, ending with it slamming itself bodily into the door.
A pulse of purple energy spreads out from the impact point, rippling outwards over the door and walls in concentric rings. The Dead rebounds, the front of its body suddenly smoking. It reaches out to claw at the door, but its fingers simply dissolve into ash as soon as they brush against the wood. You look on with interest as the entire front half of your thrall collapses into dust, every part of it that touched the Bounded Field disintegrating into powder. Blood and gore begin to fountain out of what remains, and the half-corpse thrashes for a moment before collapsing into a pile of foul-smelling offal.
The next Dead to arrive suffers the same fate, spasming and gurgling as the energies of the Bounded Field voraciously eat away at its body. More Dead appear, too many to attack the door all at once; those arriving late begin attacking the walls on either side of the door, but Pryke’s defences encompass his entire cabin and those Dead also collapse into piles of ash and gore. Ten, eleven, twelve of the cold presences within your mind have now vanished, and the hallway is becoming choked with their remains.
But the Bounded Field is also weakening. For every Dead that falls, the next takes slightly longer to disintegrate. After the fifteenth corpse the field is weak enough that it takes multiple hits to destroy your thralls. The twenty fifth Dead flings itself at the door with such force that the wooden frame splinters and crunches inwards on its hinges. As the Dead staggers back, streamers of ash billowing from its forearms, you feel the barrier wavering on the verge of collapse.
The Bounded Field dies as the thirtieth Dead hits the door, ripping it apart in a flurry of frantic blows. The remaining magical energy grounds itself through the corpse, reducing it to charred cinders as it ploughs on into the room beyond. It took nearly all of your Dead, but now Pryke’s inner sanctum lies open to you.
You remain at the threshold, standing slightly to the side of the ruined doorframe. Something is wrong. Pryke had to have known he was under attack as soon as his ship was forcibly anchored. There’s no way he wouldn’t have felt you knocking on his door just now either, and yet he did nothing to defend himself. He didn’t even try to strengthen the Bounded Field when it began to fail.
Your instincts scream that this is a trap. You slowly edge up to the door and glance furtively into the room beyond. It’s a pretty nice cabin – a sitting area, mini-kitchen and some kind of computer study area all nestle inside. The rich furnishings and immaculate purple carpet are marred only by the still smoking remains of the last Dead to assault the door. There’s no sign of Pryke or anyone else. For a moment you stand still, deep in thought. You mentally command your remaining Dead to scatter – if this is an ambush you don’t want them all getting killed at once – and slowly step into Pryke’s cabin.
The feeling of power thrumming through the air abruptly intensifies, washing away all doubts that the Lesser Grail is here somewhere. But where, exactly? Three doors lead off from the main room. Two are made of the same fine wood as the one currently lying in pieces all over Pryke’s carpet, with the third being an enormous steel monstrosity that looks like the sort of door you’d want installed in an atomic bomb shelter.
The last door is slightly ajar, and as you creep forwards you can hear someone moving around inside. You sneak past Pryke’s mundane workstation and flatten yourself against the wall, then edge up until you can see through the gap. The interior of the vault is made of solid steel, as far as you can tell, and is lit by four fluorescent panels set into the floor. It’s not particularly big, being only as wide and deep as a large-ish elevator, with a lot of space at the back being taken up by multiple rows of shelving.
You tense as you see Pryke standing in front of the shelves. He reaches out and takes a pair of leather boots marked with a piece of folded paper off the bottom-most shelf. The motion reveals that the rest of the shelves are all empty. He begins to turn back towards the vault door, and in the split second before he notices you’re there you make your decision.
Quick as a flash, you seize the door, wrench it all the way open and slip through to slash at Pryke’s throat. He flinches back as you enter the vault, but not enough to avoid your claws, which slice open his neck just below the chin. The Collector’s eyes are glassy and dead as he hits the back wall and bounces off, then slowly slumps down to the floor. The light inside the vault takes on a reddish hue as Pryke’s lifeblood flows over the fluorescent panels.
There’s no mistaking it – the man lying on the floor in front of you is Ronald Pryke. You roll him over onto his back to make absolutely sure, but both your magical senses and your mundane memory can find no fault with the body. Pryke is dead. After all of that effort it feels odd that he went down so easily – part of you was expecting a climactic battle and is disappointed that things didn’t work out that way, whilst another more rational part is pleased that he went down without much fuss.
Your eyes wander over to the pair of boots Pryke was handling at the time of his death. You bend down and pick them up. Aside from the coating of fresh blood they’ve picked up they appear to be a pair of normal yet primitive walking boots, made entirely out of rough leather. You turn them over in your hands, and a faint magical power begins to hum from within them. Wondering what they are, you unfold the bloodstained scrap of paper. The description on the page is brief.
What comes around, goes around.
You look down at Pryke’s body again, nonplussed…but then something catches your eye. You failed to notice it before due to all the blood, but a closer look now reveals a tiny hole in the left breast of Pryke’s trench coat, right above the heart.
Instinctively you straighten up and turn around, and then everything seems to go into slow motion. A young woman steps around the shattered door to Pryke’s cabin. She wears a beige top covered by combat webbing, and the sort of faux-DPM trousers sold to teenagers to make them feel like big bad military buffs. As she steps over the threshold she raises her arms and gracefully levels an automatic weapon at you.
‘Automatic weapon’ is really the only word that springs to mind, because you’ve never seen anything like it before. It has a stubby, pointed barrel with a steel handle set over it, with a grip that looks like it came from a pistol instead of a machinegun. The stock is angular and blocky, with a cylindrical protrusion hanging just behind the grip. Overall it looks like something you might see in the better class of low sci-fi 80’s films.
As the gun tracks up towards your body you get a good long look at her face – brown hair, brushed back and held in place by black hairclips. Round chin, recessed slightly. No dimples or freckles, but no makeup either. Her eyes are a slightly lighter shade of brown than her hair-
Cold. Dead. Fish-like.
Her finger tightens on the trigger, and a sound like an oncoming train shakes the cabin. A series of enormous yellow flashes erupt from the weapon’s stubby barrel, burning the image in front of you onto your eyeballs. In the confines of the vault there’s nowhere to run, no way of dodging, and the only way out is forwards – into the path of the monster weapon’s field of fire.
You can just about see the rounds coming, though, and that’s when you realize that the weapon in the girl’s hands isn’t a rifle or machinegun. It’s a shotgun, a freaking huge automatic shotgun, and unlike the piddly pump-action one you faced earlier this one is loaded with twelve gauge solid steel slugs.
The rounds shred your body mercilessly, blasting away huge chunks of your undead flesh. One slug punches a fist-sized hole in your chest, perilously close to your heart, whilst another misses but ricochets off the back wall to hit you in the spine. A direct hit leaves your left arm hanging by a thread, and both your knees are smashed in quick succession. Your legs give out and you fall to the floor, just in time for another slug to crease your skull and send you spinning drunkenly into a wall.
At last, the cacophony from beyond the vault door ceases, replaced by the steady thump of approaching footsteps. You try to lever yourself up, but you’ve only got one arm and your right hand has lost most of its fingers. A shadow darkens the doorway, and your attacker steps into view, the barrel of her shotgun trailing thin wisps of smoke. From your position on the floor you stare up into her cold, dead eyes.
“Well. That was satisfying.”
The woman murmurs, shouldering her gun. She flicks a switch on the stock, and the cylindrical protrusion slides to one side with a metallic click. To your surprise it looks much like the cylinder for a revolver, only much larger and with enough space to hold twelve rounds. The woman calmly begins to reload the shotgun with slugs taken from her webbing, smoothly and efficiently without ever taking her eyes off you.
Eyes. You’d know those eyes anywhere.
You wheeze. The woman simply smiles.
“Ah, there’s that clever mind at work again. It was worth remaining hidden until the last moment just to see the look on your face.”
You stop trying to rise and instead focus on thinking. Which is hard, because about a billion panicked questions are all shouldering for position inside your head.
The woman (Regulus?) smirks and continues to carefully load her weapon.
“Ah, ah, ah. Life doesn’t work that way, Apostle. I’m not going to tell you anything. I’d tell you to work it out yourself, but I doubt you’ll be able to do it in the time you have left.”
You grit your teeth, then turn and spit out a mouthful of blood.
She shrugs and snaps the fully loaded cylinder back into place.
“And it was cleverly done. But there is more than one way to cheat death, Apostle.”
The woman with Regulus’s eyes braces the shotgun against her shoulder and lowers the barrel until its level with your head.
“This is quite an unusual weapon, isn’t it? The Pancor Jackhammer automatic shotgun. Only a handful of prototypes were ever produced, and it never entered full production. After all, the stopping power of a fully automatic shotgun is pure overkill; not very cost-effective. Unless your enemy is a Dead Apostle. How fortunate that The Collector’s interest in the strange extended beyond magical artefacts.”
Her finger tightens on the trigger, and you prepare for a last forlorn display of resistance. Before she can turn you into confetti, however, the air next to her ripples and Assassin appears. A golden, bejewelled chalice is clasped in his spidery fingers – the Lesser Grail!
“Another vessel approaches. It bears no insignia, but from my observations the pilot appears to be the young Executor from the Church group. It will be within boarding distance momentarily.”
Regulina stands still for a moment, her gun trained on your head. Then she smiles and lowers her weapon.
“The Church, is it? Interesting.”
She bends down and carelessly plucks the pair of leather boots up from the floor, then straightens up, still wearing that venomous smile.
“Practicality demands I kill you now, Apostle. But I must admit to wanting you to suffer after you so rudely denied me what I needed.”
Regulina slings the shotgun across her back and takes a small black box the size of a cigarette carton out from her pocket.
“Even so, I’m not about to take any chances. I underestimated your resourcefulness before, Apostle, so this time I’m making sure that you go down with this ship.”
She presses a small button on the side of the box, and several deep thumps reverberate up from the bottom of the ship. Metal groans, and the body of the ship begins to shake.
“I don’t think we’ll be meeting again, Apostle, but if by some miracle you do survive…”
Her expression hardens.
“I will make an end of you personally. Goodbye.”
And then she’s gone. As her footsteps fade away you curse yourself for being so naïve. Regulina must have got here first; it would have been simple for Assassin to infiltrate the Bounded Field and kill Pryke. She must have found some way to puppeteer his body and maintain the Field to trick you into thinking you were the first on the scene. You doubt she planned it that way from the start. There’s no way she could have known you would show up. It was probably an improvisation. But that only makes it more impressive.
You try to move your limbs, but nothing works. The Curse of Restoration isn’t restoring your body fast enough, so you drain all the power from the remaining ship-bound Dead to speed it along. The final four presences vanish as you tear out even the power that keeps them animated, leaving you with just the eleven land-bound thralls. You direct the energy into your legs first, patching them up as best you can with the power you have. The humming buzzing energy of the Lesser Grail grows fainter and fainter as Regulina and Assassin retreat to whatever transportation that brought them here.
Flesh tears and bone grinds as you carefully stand up and limp out of the vault. As you hobble towards the door another noise joins the creaking groans of the dying ship – the high-pitched whine of a motorboat. The noise rises higher and higher, then abruptly drops away as the pilot cuts the engine. Lovely. As if you didn’t have enough problems, it looks like Harringdon or Barrington or whatever his name was has come to pay you a visit.
Damn. Who names their kid ‘Carrington’ anyway? He must have been bullied so much as a child.
You brace yourself against the shattered doorframe as the ship shudders beneath your feet. Your options are pretty limited. Monmouth probably isn’t here anymore, and even if he is you probably can’t risk going back to him without the Grail. After thinking it over quickly you decide to:
1. Hide inside the ship until your strength returns, then attempt to escape the Grey Albatross by transforming into a bird.
2. Summon Caster via Command Seal and have her get you out of here.
3. *LolShirou Option* Go up on deck and fight Carrington as you are now.
Scathach continued to maintain the barrier for a full five minutes after the last bolt struck. The lull could have been a ploy, a plot to bait her into dropping her defences. During that time the attacking salt elementals abruptly froze, cracked, then collapsed into powder. Someone, either Rider or Saber, must have gotten to the summoning catalyst. Moments later the dark sky above was tinted red as one of the fireworks used to mark the death of a Servant burst overhead.
Scathach frowned at the sight, concerned at its implications. Rider had ridden past earlier, presumably to either support Saber or take the fight to Archer. She considered that for a moment, then shook her head slightly. No, that didn’t make sense – Saber wouldn’t need support against the elementals. To take the fight to Archer, then. But even with the extra speed granted by his mount, Rider couldn’t possibly have reached Blackpool Tower so quickly, especially if Archer noticed and fired upon him.
Actually, that may well have happened. Perhaps Rider had not covered his approach well enough and been struck down by one of Archer’s black bolts. Irrespective, Scathach’s instincts told her that Archer at least was still alive. It was time to correct that.
Scathach took a step back and reduced the power flowing through the barrier to a minimum, then turned to face the runes she had carved into the paving stones whilst protecting the others. They were old runes, runes which predated the standard eighteen that most modern runic magic based itself upon. The harsh, jagged sigils were arranged in a pentagon, each connected to every other by straight lines that met in the middle, forming a lopsided asterisk enclosed by a perfect circle around the outer perimeter.
“I don’t suppose anyone here has any milk, so we’ll be doing this the old fashioned way.”
Scathach murmured. She began to pace around the circle, stopping at each rune in turn. Each time she recited a line in old Gaelic, and the runes responded by humming to life with a soft greenish-white glow. As she did, she noticed Barnaby staring at her, curiosity slowly transforming into realization as he began to understand the purpose of her ritual. With a snap of his fingers he recalled the invisible demon that had aided him so well and hurried across to Monmouth’s apprentices, urging them to get out of her way.
The air was suddenly filled with energy as Scathach poured prana into the ritual site. The lines connecting the runes sparked and flickered and were suddenly filled with liquid fire, burning so brightly the light scoured away every shadow within a twenty metre radius. Finally the circle surrounding the runes began to flicker with its own internal glow, and Scathach knew her spell was nearly complete.
Slowly, the witch stretched out her left arm, hand angled down so that the middle of her palm hovered over the point where every line met. With her other hand she drew her ritual knife and, careful not to slip, slowly and deliberately drew it across the meat of her palm. Droplets of blood splattered down onto the glowing ritual marks, and without warning the circle and everything in it went dark. The runes that had before shone so brilliantly now seemed to suck in the light, and shadows rushed to fill the sudden gap. Scathach was not perturbed by this; she had expected it, and knew exactly what to do next.
“Beast of the highlands, stalker of shadows, I name you and bid you come forth.”
She chanted, eyes fixed firmly on the circle. Was there a tiny flicker of motion inside the circle?
“Old Tom, robber of souls and spirits! I give you this offering, and bid you come forth.”
Something stirred within the blackness, a languid motion like that of limbs unfolding after a long sleep.
“I call you, Black Cat! I call you, he who hides in darkness! I demand you come forth, Cat Sith!”
The shadows inside the circle writhed and contorted, pulling themselves into a solid form. It looked like the body of a common domestic cat, but no cat had ever grown so large. The creature was the size of a panther, with fur made of roiling shadow-stuff and opalescent claws that dug into the floor so hard they gouged up chips of concrete. The only light spot on its body was a patch of white fur just above where a normal cat’s heart would be. Its face was featureless save for two green horizontal slits, which widened into almond-shaped eyes that stared unblinkingly at Scathach.
Scathach stared back, not moving a muscle. Cat Sith was a powerful sidhe, a nature spirit with dominion over the Scottish Highlands. Whilst not the most powerful spirit she was capable of summoning, Cat Sith’s ability to stalk and harm wayward spirits and rend men’s very souls to pieces would give it an edge against Servants.
“I have observed all of the correct rites and presented a suitable offering. In accordance with the established contract, I request a comparable boon.”
Cat Sith’s head bobbed slightly. Scathach swiftly bent down and picked up one of Archer’s black quarrels. The others had all since faded away, but Scathach had managed to preserve this one with her magecraft.
“The owner of this bodkin is an enemy of mine. It is my desire that you stalk and kill him. He is a powerful spirit, worthy prey for you. Is this acceptable?”
The sidhe beast sat still for a moment, then rose and padded over to the edge of the ritual circle. It thrust its head out and nuzzled the quarrel, moving back and forth as if sniffing it. After a couple of seconds it raised its head and regarded Scathach with something that might have been interest. Its emerald eyes narrowed into slits, and a buzzing hiss filled the air.
Cat Sith took two steps back, then somehow seemed to fly apart; bits and pieces of its shadow body spun off and melded themselves with mundane shadows around the ritual site, until all that remained was its eyes, suspended in midair, bright and staring. Then they too vanished into the dark. Scathach bowed after the departing spirit. It never hurt to be respectful to such ancient beings, particularly when they agreed to be of aid.
Archer raced along the empty road, his stride covering twice as much distance as a normal person’s for a fraction of the effort. But it still wasn’t enough to outrun the knight who now pursued him. Without turning to look the Swiss archer hoisted his crossbow over his shoulder and loosed a quarrel into the darkness behind. Three seconds later he heard the sound he’d been dreading – the metallic clang and whistle of a deflected shot.
Silently he cursed his foolishness in not immediately heading east back into the city. It was the natural thing to do, to hide in the urban sprawl, but he had been curious about the goings-on on board the Grey Albatross and had lingered a while to find out. As it turned out events had become very interesting indeed, but the knowledge was cold comfort now.
Rider had circled around the tower and attacked from the city side, driving him west towards the promenade and the beach. Even now his pursuer was veering towards him at a slightly oblique angle, shepherding him further and further away from safety. There was nothing Archer could do except keep running and hope that an opportunity to turn the tables presented itself.
At the next junction Archer jinked left down a side street and put on a burst of speed, then jinked right onto the promenade at the end. It wouldn’t buy him much time, but Rider would have to turn his warhorse sharply to follow him. Of course, that slight advantage would quickly evaporate on the beautifully straight promenade. If Archer wanted to survive he would have to change the game.
Archer took several quick steps forward, turned a full hundred and eighty degrees and dropped to one knee. His crossbow was loaded and ready before it was halfway to his shoulder. With his Clairvoyance active Archer could see Rider make the first turn into the side street, pulling sharply on his reins. Archer had a good eye for horses and he could tell that Rider’s mount was a very fine animal indeed. It pained him to do what he was about to do, but it was that or be killed himself.
As Rider emerged from around the corner Archer loosed his quarrel. Rider whirled his short sword to deflect the shot he thought was coming to take his head, but his blade swept through empty air. Archer’s bodkin hit Rider’s mount in the right flank, penetrating its armour and piercing the beast’s heart. The horse let out a high-pitched shriek of pain and went down in a tangle of limbs, momentum carrying both man and mount out onto the open road.
Archer loaded another bolt into his crossbow as the silver-grey stallion began to disintegrate. His eyes picked out the shadow of Rider rising up from within the cloud of spirit particles and he snapped off a shot. The bolt blew away the motes of light but was repelled by Rider’s short sword with a ringing peal of metal on metal.
Archer began to back away slowly as the old knight regained his footing. Without his horse his opponent was less threatening, but the odds were still not entirely in his favour. Rider was skilled in close combat and had a number of weapons at his disposal, whereas Archer had only his crossbow and the small holdout dagger thrust through his belt. The odds had changed from utterly impossible to overwhelmingly difficult. If there was one advantage to be had it was that Rider was now out of position and unable to push him further away from the city.
Archer feinted a step to the right and made as if to take another shot, but the old knight didn’t fall for it. Rider’s short sword rippled and elongated, then split in half widthways until he was holding a pair of notched longswords in his gauntleted fists. He advanced on Archer, swords crossed in front of him, and Archer knew that the next few seconds would determine the outcome of this fight.
Archer backed away quickly, but even without his mount Rider was still faster than him. He snapped off two quick shots, but Rider’s twin swords flicked out and deflected both of them as easily as an adult might swat away a fly. Archer fired two more shots, and again Rider deflected without even missing a step. Archer’s eyes narrowed; there was a tiny moment during the deflection where both of Rider’s swords were splayed out, leaving him undefended.
That was it – his chance to turn everything around.
Just like before, Archer retreated and loosed two shots in quick succession. Rider’s blades moved automatically to deflect, the same sweeping blocks he had used the previous two times. But this time a third projectile followed them, the knife Archer kept at his belt. Rider deflected the two quarrels once again, but the knife slipped through the gap in his defences and sank into his left shoulder just below the joint.
Rider grunted, his entire left arm suddenly limp. He hunched over, and Archer prepared to fire again, but the old knight exploded into motion before he could reload. Archer leapt back as Rider closed to within striking distance, and as his opponent’s remaining sword swept through the air he smiled, knowing that it would just barely miss. After that a quick blow to the head with the stock of his crossbow would-
Halfway through the swing Rider’s weapon blurred again, and suddenly it was not a sword but a flail, its dirty triple-weighted chain whipping towards his unarmoured head. It was a no-win situation, he didn’t have the agility, strength or time to block or evade the killing strike.
But that didn’t matter at all.
He blurted, just before the stained and pitted weights could crush his skull.
Space warped and twisted, and a great roaring of waves and stormy seas filled the night air. Archer’s body vanished with a crack of displaced air, and Rider’s flail soared through the space he had just occupied without hitting anything. Moments later a second thunderclap split the air, and Archer reappeared on top of a building twenty metres behind where Rider now stood. Disoriented, wounded and off-balance, Rider was now a perfect target for the repositioned Archer. He knelt smoothly, lined the foundering knight up in his sights, took a steadying breath, then fired.
His bolt passed through empty air and buried itself in the tarmac. Archer blinked, then surged to his feet, teeth clenched. Rider had vanished. Right before the bodkin hit him, the old knight had simple disappeared.
Anger at his failure quickly turned into sensible caution, and Archer wasted no time in retreating back into the confines of the city.
Irene looked up as a figure darkened the door to the museum. She was just about to ask who it was when the glass doors shattered into a blizzard of lethal fragments. The Greek magus shrieked and threw herself behind the reception desk as a hail of bullets stitched a line in the plasterboard above her head. After a second the gunfire died away, and Irene heard the sound of glass crunching underfoot.
Frantically Irene fumbled for her weapon. With shaking hands she pulled the small self-defence pistol she had found amongst her cousin’s things out of her blouse. With trembling fingers she pulled back the hammer and tried to regulate her breathing. The footsteps became louder and louder, but stopped about a metre or two away from the edge of the desk.
There was a click, a clatter, and a snap of metal which Irene fancied must be the sound of her attacker reloading. Something that might have been a snigger of sadistic laughter slithered through the air. Then the gunfire started up again.
Irene coughed and spluttered a bullet hissed spitefully past her cheek, the flimsy wood of the reception desk no shield against the aerodynamically-shaped bits of metal. Instinctively she flinched away from the disintegrating desk and threw herself out to one side. As she slid across the polished floor she was able to get a glimpse of her assailant.
He was a tall, thin man of about thirty years or so, dressed in a stout woollen cardigan and a pair of navy blue trousers. His hair was light brown, though the onset of male pattern baldness meant it was thicker towards the fringes. In his hands he held a compact sub-machinegun, and as momentum carried her out from behind the desk it shifted right to track her movement.
Irene’s pistol barked twice, but neither shot came anywhere close to hitting. The gunman’s aim was truer, and a force like a hammer smashed into Irene’s temple. Her vision distorted and went red, and the pistol tumbled from her hands as a rushing noise filled her ears. As the darkness rushed in to swallow her up, she saw her attacker’s eyes – cold and slimy, like those of a deep sea creature.
As her consciousness faded a last spark of magical energy crawled along her atrophied magic circuits, down to the blood red command seals emblazoned on her back.
Rider, please save me…
The gunman turned just in time to see a dark shape hurtling towards him. His sub-machinegun snapped up, but Rider’s whirling flail ripped the weapon out of his hands. The gunman had about one second to gape at what was happening before the heavy weights shattered his skull.
Rider turned away before the corpse even began to fall and hurried over to his Master’s side. Her head and shoulders were stained with crimson, and her eyes were glassy and unfocused. A neat hole to the left of her forehead wept a steady stream of blood. The old knight reached for her wrist and felt for a pulse – it was there, but thready and fading.
The old knight wasted no time. He immediately hoisted his Master’s body across his shoulders and swept out of the museum lobby. There was no time for self-recriminations or dramatic expressions of grief. If he acted quickly, he might still be able to save his Master’s life.
The sensible thing to do would be to summon Caster to get you out, or to simply lay low for a while and recover your energy and then fly back to the mainland. The first would mean losing a Command Seal and the second risks discovery, but in both cases the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
But you’re not in a sensible mood right now.
You’re not quite sure why you suddenly find yourself stumbling away from Pryke’s cabin in the direction of the outside deck. It could be disorientation from the shocking events of the previous five minutes. Or it could be a vain attempt to pursue Regulina and Assassin. There’s the possibility that your brain is being affected by the slug that bounced off your skull and the Curse of Restoration hasn’t got around to fixing it yet. Maybe it’s just blind rage and pain and a desire to hurt something.
More than likely it’s a mixture of all those things.
Just as you reach for the hatch leading out onto the open deck a tremendous explosion thunders from somewhere deep inside the ship. The force sends your head caroming into the door, and for a moment it feels like your eyes are about to pop out. A groan of protesting metal accompanies the vibrations, and the ship’s fire alarm systems blare to life.
“Out of the frying pan, huh.”
You groan. You’re not sure what that secondary explosion was – maybe another of Regulina’s bombs, maybe something unrelated, but either way it doesn’t bode well. You reach for the handle to the door leading outside, only to find that the lock has been jammed with some kind of hardened paste. You shrug and simply kick the door out of its frame. The rectangle of polished wood sails out over the railings and vanishes into the roiling sea below. As you step out onto the deck you immediately notice that the ship is sitting lower in the water than it was before.
That, and the grappling hook that comes sailing over the railings before embedding itself in the wooden panelling with a dull thunk. The steel chord attached to the head goes taut, and the next moment a wiry man dressed all in white is pulling himself up onto the deck. He hauls his body over the railings and drops into a crouch, scanning the surface of the ship until his gaze falls on you.
Carrington looks pretty much the same as he did last time, minus a few superficial differences. He’s replaced his torn and bloodstained ecclesiastical robe with a new one, and his long red hair is now tied back in a long braid, revealing slightly more of his rather narrow face. A face made significantly less handsome by the four ragged, puckered scars that cut across the ruin of his left cheek.
Straightening up smoothly, the cleric turns his body to face you, one hand on the hilt of his sword. His expression settles into one of sneering condescension
“What’s this? I go to the trouble of coming all this way only to find that someone else has already done half of my job for me? The true faith encourages donations, but this is one offering I would have liked to make myself.”
You sigh and lean against the splintered doorframe. You hope the cleric doesn’t notice the way your fingers are slowly working it loose.
“Oh? I’d have thought you’d be jumping for joy at the thought of an easy kill.”
Carrington’s lips peel back in a snarl, and he slides his sword a couple of inches out of its sheath.
“Ordinarily. But this time it’s personal.”
You flash him a winning smile and gesture with your free hand towards his scarred face.
“Oh, you’re getting hung up on that? Come on, a few scars make you look rugged. Far better than that generic baby-faced handsomeness you had going on bef-”
The cleric moves so fast you don’t even register that he’s moved until he’s right in your face. His sword moves in an ‘s’ shape, starting at your neck and ending somewhere near your thighs. Just before the blade can pierce your flesh you flex your arm and rip the doorframe out of the wall in a shower of splinters, bringing it between you and the approaching sword with all the speed you can muster.
The door itself was made of wood, but the frame was steel. It’s not enough to block Carrington’s Key of Providence, but the added resistance of slicing through the metal throws off his aim and you come away with only a slight graze to your shoulder. It burns and smokes and hurts like hell, but it’s superficial. Carrington pivots on his heel, probably trying to pull back for another strike, but you set your feet apart and drive a shoulder into his chest before he can take a step back.
To his credit, the cleric sees it coming and tenses up, reducing the impact of the blow. Instead of lifting him off his feet, the impact simply sends him sliding back across the deck.
“It’s nothing to do with my face, monster!”
He hisses through gritted teeth. You toss the ruined doorframe aside and step out onto the open deck. Taking the fight to him is risky in your injured state, but if you push the right buttons you’re confident that you can turn the cleric’s hotheadedness back on him.
“Oh? Then what is it?”
You ask innocently. Carrington’s teeth begin to grind, and he whirls his sword in a half-arc to point directly at you. An expression of pure loathing crawls across his face, and when he speaks it is in a hateful whisper.
“You know what you did, hellspawn. You murdered Brother Lothar, my teacher and mentor! Murdered him in the most foul way imaginable!”
Carrington explodes into motion again, his trajectory taking him around in a semicircle to attack you from the flank. As he approaches you rip off the tattered remnants of your coat and fling the ruined garment in his direction and draw your twin pistols, intending to fire at him when he’s distracted.
But instead of taking the time to slice the coat in half and step through it, Carrington spins on his heel and dances around the fluttering garment and keeps coming, his stride unbroken. His sword flashes in the moonlight as it comes down at your head, and it’s all you can do to block the immensely powerful swing by catching it on the crossed barrels of your pistols.
“Ah, now I see the resemblance.”
You wheeze, right before the pressure of the cleric’s sword drives you to your knees.
“This relentless attacking…the fire and brimstone speeches…that’s where you got it from.”
You slowly twist your head up until you’re looking Carrington in the eye. Then you say, in the most self-satisfied voice you can muster…
“Too bad you also inherited his stupidity.”
The cleric’s eyes suddenly widen as half a dozen wraiths rise up out of the floor around him. Their shadowy forms boil as they lunge towards him, a solid mass of utter darkness that flows through the air like an oil slick. With a shout of frustration Carrington jumps back and begins cutting the wraiths apart, giving you the opportunity to back away to the opposite side of the deck.
“Yeah, now that I think about it you two are exactly the same.”
You gesture casually towards where Carrington’s grappling hook still lies embedded in the deck plates.
“You came here all by yourself, didn’t you? Just like your teacher did. Both of you ran in without support, full of faith and fire and holy vengeance. And it’ll get you killed, just him.”
Carrington’s face goes tight with rage, and the contracting muscles make his scars stand out even more starkly. His sword sweeps out in a diagonal cut that slices two wraiths in half and leaves flickering blue flames licking at the edges. The wraiths contort and let out unearthly wails, then dissolve into streamers of dust and ash. Carrington wheels around to meet another wraith gliding up on him from behind, ending it with a thrust into its shadowy chest.
Whilst the cleric is distracted you begin to circle him, bringing up your pistols and firing on the move. You have to admit that Carrington’s reflexes and bladework are impressive; he cuts the first two bullets out of the air and dances away from the second pair. But a wraith lunges for him at the exact moment you fire for the third time, and one of the bullets clips him on the shoulder.
A spray of blood puffs from the cleric’s shoulder, blown away by the sea breeze. Carrington jumps back after slicing off the wraiths head, and you catch a glimpse of mangled kevlar through the flapping hole in his robe. You grin and take aim again, but at that moment a terrible groaning, shearing noise reverberates through the air. The prow of the ship begins to slowly rise, and looking back over your shoulder reveals that the stern is sitting so low in the water that the waves are lapping over the guard rail.
The ship’s tilt ruins your aim, and your next two shots go wide as Carrington finishes the last of the wraiths. You adjust your footing and try for another shot, but Carrington reaches into his robe and pulls out three Black Keys, which he hurls at you in the same motion. Your lightning reaction speed allows you to shoot two of them out of the air, but the third slices through your right hand and sends one pistol spinning away into the sea.
“You know nothing of faith, fire or holy vengeance, vampire. But I’m more than willing to teach you.”
Carrington mutters darkly, advancing on you, drawing another three Black Keys and holding them between his knuckles like claws. You back away as much as you are able, looking for a good opportunity to fire your remaining weapon. All you need is one good opening…
“Hey. Do you want to know how your master died?”
You ask, casually. A muscle twitches near Carrington’s right eye.
“It must have been a shock finding his mangled skeleton like that. All twisted and pockmarked and smashed. Guess you must’ve had to identify him by his teeth or something. But after seeing him like that…you must have wondered how it happened. Right?”
The cleric’s breathing begins to grow laboured, and he grips the hilt of his sword so tightly that you can hear his skin grinding against it.
“Shut your filthy heretic mouth.”
You smile lightly, then say the words you know will drive him berserk.
“I ate his flesh and slurped down his blood. I ripped out his organs and swallowed them whole. I gnawed on his bones and sucked out the marrow. And do you know what I thought when I was done?”
Carrington’s only response is a stunned silence.
“I thought…he’d have been better with some sage. Or basil, perhaps. Or maybe a side of fries.”
For a dozen long seconds there is silence. Carrington simply stares at you, a shocked expression frozen on his face.
“I am…going to erase you. Utterly.”
And then his sword is moving in an enormous swing level with your head, leaving his entire body wide open. You smirk and pull the trigger of the pistol aimed at the cleric’s heart.
That’s all you have time to say before the flat of Carrington’s sword hammers into the side of your face. The force sends you sprawling away and you begin to slide down the slanted deck towards the roiling waters creeping up the stern. You raise your pistol up as you slide, wondering why it failed to fire. As you focus you see that the chamber has a slight dent on one side, preventing the next round from cycling through. When the hell did that happen? Is it from one of Regulina’s shotgun slugs?
Something moves in your peripheral vision, and you have just enough time to arrest your slide before Carrington comes plunging down from above, burying his sword in the deck mere inches from you. You twist your body to deliver a lightning-fast kick to his ribs from your position on the floor, but the cleric grabs your foot and turns your momentum against you, whirling you around and throwing you bodily into the hull of the upper cabins. Wood and fibreglass splinter under you, and you bounce back, stunned. Just in time for Carrington to rake you across the chest with his Black Keys.
Burning pain assails you as the weapons that are anathema to you slide over your partially closed wounds from Regulina’s shotgun. You gasp as the Curse of Restoration ceases to work, and that gasp becomes a strangled choking sound as Carrington steps forward and rams one of the keys through your throat.
“The Lord protects the righteous.”
The cleric whispers, then rears back and kicks the hilt of the Key so hard the whole thing bursts through the back of your neck and embeds itself into the ship’s hull. You stumble back and collapse against the wall, pain like you’ve never felt before gnawing at the very fabric of your being. In front of you Carrington pulls back his sword, preparing to impale you through the heart and end your existence once and for all.
In the handful of heartbeats before it happens you instinctively resolve to:
1. Call Caster and have her crush Carrington like a bug.
2. Use all your strength to smash through the wall behind you and take the fight to the cramped confines of the ship’s interior.
3. *Continued LolShirou Option* Get stabbed.