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This is the third part of the transcript for the Holy Grail War CYOA currently taking place on OT. It turns out my computer really doesn't like it when it has to load up a metric ton of text in an online editor, so a third wiki page is needed. You can find the first page here (http://othertitles.wikia.com/wiki/Holy_Grail_War_CYOA) and the second here (http://othertitles.wikia.com/wiki/Holy_Grail_War_CYOA_Part_2).

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.

--

Meat and sinew grind and squelch horribly as the blade pierces through your chest. Carrington bears his teeth in a manic, furious grin, then throws his entire weight behind the hilt. With a dull squeal of tearing metal and fibreglass the black sword comes out through your back and carries on into the ship’s hull, pinning you to the wall like a moth in some mad collector’s insect collection.

You stare down at the sword, at the blood slowly welling up around the point where the blade plunges into your flesh. It goes through the middle of your chest, missing your heart by about an inch. Chalk it up to Carrington’s agitation.

…Thinking about it now, you probably could have dodged that thrust, or at least done something to prolong the fight. As injured as you are, you surely had enough strength left to slip away at the last moment. So why didn’t you?

Maybe you’ve subconsciously grown tired of unlife and wanted everything to end? No, that’s not it. If it was you wouldn’t have fought so hard to be here. You’d have let the other Executor kill you in Oxford, or thrown the fight against Rufus Grindstone, or even simply walked into the dawn the night after you first became self-aware again. So no, that’s not the reason.

Maybe the constant background haze of pain from your injuries, both old and new, clouded your mind and prevented you from thinking clearly about what to do next? No, that’s not it. You definitely had the time and mental acumen to consider your options in the second before Carrington skewered you. The pain is terrible but not yet excruciating enough to preclude rational thought. So no, that’s not the reason.

Maybe it was a desire for penance, a punishment for callously killing the young cleric’s master in the most horrible way imaginable? No, that’s not it. That screaming idiot invaded your home and burned everything you worked for. He got exactly what he deserved, nothing more and nothing less. So no, that’s not the reason.

“In nomine Dei…”

Carrington murmurs, drawing back the hand clasping his two remaining Black Keys. The Grey Albatross shudders and groans, then a crack like a gunshot splits the air and an enormous zig-zagging crack appears in the deck. The motion jolts you around, grinding the sword against your flesh and widening the wound so that more blood begins to pour out. It’s red.

So very…

Very…

Red…

Red, like the time you faced Carrington’s master in the tunnels beneath Oxford. Come to think of it, you’re in almost the exact some position as before. About to die to an Executor’s blade, pinned down and apparently without any hope of survival. That was when your power first awakened, wasn’t it?

You feel your mouth stretching into an awful smile.

Ah. So that’s the reason why you didn’t dodge.

Prana explodes through all of your circuits, jamming every single one of them open and filling them with magical energy. Directionless, the power overflows into your blood, nerves and bones, bringing with it a pain more intense than any caused by the cleric’s sword. But this pain is part of you, part of the fundamental core of your being, not some arbitrary thing enforced upon you by an external force. And with the pain comes understanding.

You recall Scathach saying that your power is an inherent gift, not related to the trappings of vampirism you acquired so long ago. But that power, that gift, is linked intrinsically to your state of being. It is inconceivable that it wouldn’t be changed by you becoming a Dead Apostle. Your nature is now one of parasitism and thievery, paradox and unnatural reanimation, the knife’s edge of life and death. So it only makes sense that your power would also embody those concepts, and be empowered by them.

Suddenly the previous uses of your power seem very trivial and trite, overly simplistic and bereft of any actual understanding. You had a glimpse of what you were capable of when you fought Robertson, but now you can do so much better.

Your mangled right hand snaps up to intercept Carrington’s finishing thrust towards your heart. You catch his fist in your ruined palm and grasp it firmly with your remaining fingers. The Black Keys clenched between his knuckles tremble and jitter as you slowly force his arm back.

“What?!”

Carrington exclaims, pure shock replacing his former naked hatred. He flinches back, wrenching his arm away, then swiftly recovers and hurls the Keys at your head. You look at your outstretched arm and focus, imagining it to be longer, thinner, and with many more joints than normal. Flesh splits at the seams, tendons and ligaments and muscles split and multiply, bone splinters and extends forth.

You right arm explodes into a writhing, pulsating five-foot long red thing that only vaguely resembles a limb. You whip the elongated appendage around, deflecting both Keys with its stubby rounded fist. Manipulating it is simple, effortless even, despite the half-dozen additional joints. You flex it around a little, marvelling at how much extra reach it gives you.

Of course, it’d be better if you weren’t pinned down by this ridiculous sword. With your free hand you grasp the hilt and pull, wrenching at it with all your might. Nothing happens the first time, or the second, but on the third pull the blade slides out a few inches, and on the fourth comes free with a wet pop. Blood splatters down onto the floor as it comes out, but quickly stops as you mould your flesh such that all of your previous wounds close up.

Carrington backs away, eyes wide with shock. He pulls six more Black Keys out of his robe and holds them in a defensive position, crossed in front of his face. You smile at him amiably, bending your overly lengthened right arm back on itself so you can balance the cleric’s sword on your palms. Up close you can see that it really is just a scaled-up Black Key, although the blade is clearly made of actual, real metal rather than manifested via thaumaturgy.

“Nice sword.”

You mutter, and will your left arm to change as well. All of your skin from the forearm down to your fingertips splits open and sloughs off as your muscles expand far beyond their normal mass. You intensify your grip on both ends of the sword and, with a mighty heave, snap the entire length of black steel in half. Without waiting for Carrington to react you fling both halves at his head and sprint after them, thrusting out your left palm to take him in the chest even as your right arm unfurls and lashes out attack his left flank.

The cleric deflects the broken pieces of his sword easily and twists aside from your right arm, but you manage to grasp a handful of his robes with your left hand and prevent him from escaping. Carrington grits his teeth and jabs at you with his Keys, but you switch your grip to his forearm just before they hit home. He yells in frustration and tries to stab you with the Keys in his other hand, but your right arm bends like a particularly angular serpent and locks it in place.

The cleric pushes forwards, digging his feet into the deck planks so hard they begin to splinter underfoot, but you simply transform your toes into enormous raptor-like claws and dig in even harder. Water splashes over your ankles as the Grey Albatross finally enters its true death throes, and you know you only have about a minute or two to end this.

“Monster…you truly are hellspawn…”

Carrington wheezes, still desperately trying to push you back into the sea. You shrug and give him a pitying look.

“We’re all monsters, sooner or later.”

Then, before he can react, you extend your neck to three times its normal length and bury inch-long fangs in his throat.

Carrington chokes and thrashes, but you hold him in an iron grip. You bite down until your elongated canines pierce his windpipe, then jerk your head back. The cleric wilts as his throat is torn completely open, his crimson lifeblood gushing from the rent. He coughs and splutters, red froth cascading from his lips, before slowly falls to his knees. You release his arms and take a step back, and Carrington crumples completely, his death-rattle lost amidst the sound of churning waves.

At your command the stubby hand on the end of your right arm splits open down the middle, revealing a circular fleshy hollow ringed with teeth and hollow fangs of bone. You thrust your arm into Carrington’s chest and feel the teeth rip into his flesh. Suction muscles begin siphoning off the newly dead cleric’s blood, drawing it up through the hollow fangs and back along your arm. Carrington’s skin becomes paler and paler until it is almost translucent as you greedily extract anything inside him that might be of use. After taking everything you can you detach your arm and close up the lamprey-like organ. You feel much better for having fed, and now all you have to do is-

Salt water splashes in your face as a tremendous force slams your body into the deck. A nameless, shapeless, incomprehensible force of nature pins you to the ground, enraged at this violation of its perfect, beautiful laws. Your right arm twists and flails like a worm as it is forcibly returned to its original state, wounds and all. The same happens with your left arm, which shrinks back to the way it was before. In a few scant seconds the world re-enforces its dominion over you, twisting you back into the shape you were in right after Carrington impaled you.

The intangible, inescapable power retreats, and you stagger drunkenly to your feet. Carrington’s blood helps you to stand, but all of your old wounds have reopened. It looks like the world will not tolerate such flagrant abuses of its laws for very long. You might have been able to trick it before with familiars and other animals, but your own body appears to be another matter altogether. The fact that you are a vampire, something already considered unnatural, probably doesn’t help.

As the Grey Albatross slips beneath the waves you see Carrington’s speedboat bobbing in the waves ten or fifteen metres away. It’s a black ship, sleek and unmarked, and right now it’s your only ticket out of here. You splash through the knee-high water, gather your strength, then make a running jump over the sunken guardrail. You crash down in the back of the speedboat in a heap, then scramble for the controls. You haven’t come this far just to get sucked down in the sinking ship’s wake.

--

The trip back is uneventful, though you keep a wary eye out for Monmouth or Assassin or any of the other half-dozen people who want you dead by now. You pull the boat up at the mole behind the Maritime Museum and jump out, wincing as your legs creak. Your Curse of Restoration still isn’t working at full power, and though most of the small wounds are gone the larger, deeper ones are still causing you grief.

As you walk around to the front of the museum a dark shape materializes out of the shadows, and suddenly Scathach is standing there, a large bundle slung across her shoulders. Her eyes widen as she takes in your injuries.

“Don’t worry.”

You croak.

“The other guy got the worst of it.”

She rolls her eyes, but a faint trace of amusement lingers in her expression.

“Obviously, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”

She offers you a supporting arm but you wave her off, determined to stand on your own two feet.

“So, what happened back here?”

Scathach briefly fills you in on everything that happened whilst you were on the ship.

“…And then this woman comes along and gives Barnaby this golden chalice, which I assume was the Lesser Grail. I knew you were still alive since our contract was still active, but seeing her with the Grail was a real shock. And then Barnaby just thanks her and walks off with it.”

You frown and glance over at the front of the museum. Barnaby must have known that Regulina was still alive, or else figured it out as the War went on.

“Tell me again what happened before that. Something about Irene being attacked?”

Scathach nods darkly.

“Yes. Whilst we were outside taking stock of things a lone gunman broke into the museum and put a bullet in her head. She must have called Rider back before that though because he managed to bash the man’s head in before he could finish her off. He carried her out and demanded that Barnaby do something to help her, seeing as how she had been instrumental in stopping the elementals, yadda yadda yadda knightly feudal contract obligation et cetera.”

Caster waves her arms dismissively to demonstrate what she thought of it all.

“Anyway, Barnaby did something that he said would stabilize her, then Rider carried her off somewhere. Monmouth got back around that time too, come to think of it. No idea where he or his apprentices went, I was busy with this.”

She indicates the sack. You look at it enquiringly.

“What’s in it?”

You ask.

“Heh. The body of the man who attacked Irene. I got to it before Barnaby or anyone else could find it. The moment I saw it I knew something was up with it. If we get it back to the hideout and have a look at it…”

“We might figure something out.”

You finish. She grins and shifts the bag’s weight slightly, then tilts her head to one side.

“Hmm. Aside from that…there’s also the matter of Archer.”

She frowns and looks west towards the cityscape.

“I sent a powerful nature spirit to track and kill him, but now we have confirmation of his Master’s death…well, if we’re quick we might be able to follow in Cat Sith’s wake and call him off before he kills him. With Archer on our side our options would increase exponentially.”

You pause to give the matter some thought. Acquiring another Servant would tilt the scales dramatically in your favour, but…can you do it? In your weakened state? You’d have to take the energy stored by your eleven Dead familiars in order to get to wherever Archer is at a reasonable speed. Plus there’s no guarantee he’d want to make a contract with a Dead Apostle. Caster’s spirit may well have killed him already.

On the other hand can you really afford to ignore him? Monmouth is still around, and coincidentally without a Servant. If he were to get back in the game…or, worse yet, if Regulina were to acquire him…

1. Forget about Archer, immediately return to the lair to rest and examine the body.

2. Go after Archer, draining energy from your remaining Dead to hasten your reconstruction.

--

“Let’s go after Archer. Removing or recruiting another Servant is an opportunity that’s too good to miss.”

Scathach nods, though she looks troubled.

“Alright, but are you well enough to make the trip? Those are some pretty severe injuries.”

You crack a mirthless smile.

“Worried about me? How sweet. But I still have a few more resources left to draw on.”

The eleven cold and slippery presences in your mind shudder and vibrate as you extract energy from them. The energy of life flows into you, hastening the regeneration made sluggish by that damn cleric’s sword. The feeling of renewed vigour in your limbs is addictive and you find yourself taking in more and more, until finally the reserves of power within the Dead run dry. As the flow becomes a trickle, three of the presences wither and die.

It’s not surprising that your familiars are starting to buckle under the strain. You’ve been using them like sponges ever since the war began, wringing them out whenever you need the energy. They weren’t meant to be used this way, but with luck it won’t matter soon. You’ll have no need for Dead once you’ve won the Grail.

Scathach snorts and turns around, nearly clouting you with the burlap-wrapped corpse.

“Fine then. Let’s see whether or not Archer is still alive.”

---Intermission---

Archer cursed and ducked around the next corner just in time to avoid having his head torn off. Opalescent claws scythed through the air where he had just been, slicing a set of eight smooth lines into the bricks. The cuts were precise and perfectly straight, as if cut by a giant scalpel, with barely a whisper of sound to give away the fact that something very hard to see had nearly taken Archer’s life.

The street ahead was narrow and choked with rubbish and overturned bins, the sort of inner-city alley that tourist maps tend to leave out in the hope that Johnny foreigner will be too blinded by the neon to notice. Flanked on either side by the backs of unlicensed shops and rundown fast food outlets, the street was the perfect place for anyone who wanted to lay low for a while.

Unfortunately that also made it the perfect spot for an ambush. The lack of street lamps meant that shadows carpeted the whole length of the road, with pools of deeper darkness wherever the buildings blocked out the moonlight shining down from above. Archer was used to the shadows being an ally, a place of refuge to retreat to when things went awry, so it had been a great shock when one of those same shadows had tried to kill him half a minute earlier.

Archer pressed himself against the wall and crept along it until he reached a patch of lighter shadow. The uppermost floor of the building opposite happened to be undergoing renovations, and moonlight shone through the hollow shell of brick and cement. It wasn’t much, but anything that might help stop whatever was chasing him from taking him by surprise-

Greenish light flickered in Archer’s peripheral vision, and moments later a shadowy creature the size of a panther hammered into him from the side, driving him to the floor before he could react. The silvery-white claws flashed in the darkness, ripping through the light leather and mail armour he wore as if it were paper before finding purchase in his flesh.

Instinctively the Servant lashed out with the butt of his crossbow, wielding the heavy implement like a club. He was rewarded with a satisfying thump of impact which vibrated all the way up his arm, and the creature leapt back with an explosive hiss. Archer caught sight of burning emerald eyes and a body made of roiling shadows before the thing melted back into the darkness.

Archer immediately activated his Clairvoyance, meaning to track the creature through its concealment, but was shocked when his eyes revealed an entirely empty alley. Whatever had attacked him hadn’t simply hidden behind a magical veil, it had ceased to exist entirely the moment it touched the shadows. The realization sent his mind reeling – this was no mere familiar he was facing, but a mighty spirit that could only have been summoned by a Servant-level foe.

Keeping one eye on the surrounding darkness, Archer checked his injuries. The spirit’s claws had torn through his armour with childish ease and left deep incisions in his flesh that were now bleeding profusely. Thankfully they hadn’t cut anything truly vital; given time he could easily take care of the wounds with his reserves of prana.

“Where are you…”

He whispered, sweeping his crossbow across the shadowy ground in front of him. His Clairvoyance gave him a three hundred and sixty degree field of view, a complete panorama which also penetrated the brick walls of the surrounding buildings and showed him their contents in cross-section. It would be impossible to ambush him now that he was totally aware of-

“There!”

Archer exclaimed, spinning around away from the wall and drawing his crossbow upwards as he did. The spirit had just emerged from a shadow under the eave and clung to the wall above where he had just been, clearly intending to attack him from above. Its glowing green eyes widened with something that might have been surprise, but its hesitation was momentary and less than a second later it leapt towards him, claws extended.

Archer’s finger squeezed on the trigger and a black bolt flew from his crossbow. But his aim was fouled by his spin and the extreme close-quarters of the enemy, and his shot merely grazed the spirit’s flank instead of taking it in the neck as he had intended. The creature let out another ear-splitting hiss and flinched, ruining its own aim in the process. Archer grunted as its claws tore his right arm open from wrist to elbow, but better that than being bowled over by its entire weight.  The spirit sank into the shadows as it landed, its green eyes the last of its body to disappear.

The Servant’s mind whirred. Not only could the spirit conceal itself in shadow, it could also travel through them and spring from any other patch of shadow nearby. And in the intervening time it did not exist, or at least was not present on any level that his Clairvoyance could perceive. In order to fight effectively against this creature, Archer realised, he would have to eliminate that advantage. And that would mean heading towards a light source.

With that in mind he braced his crossbow across his chest and ran towards the mouth of the alley, running with all the superhuman speed he could muster. He heard scratching behind him, and his Clairvoyance showed him the spirit emerging from a pool of darkness behind a fallen dustbin. If he tried to shoot now instinct told him the outcome would be the same as before. Would he make it to a better lit area before the spirit ran him down? Archer honestly couldn’t say, but he knew one thing for sure.

He wasn’t going to go down easily.

---Intermission End---

“This spirit of yours. Is it strong?”

You ask as you run. Scathach hesitates for a moment, then nods.

“It is…but probably not in the way you’re thinking. Cat Sith can cut a man to ribbons in a couple of seconds but that’s not where his main strengths lie. He’s not suited for mass destruction, but surgical elimination of an isolated target.”

You muse on that for a moment.

“So he’s a sniper’s bullet rather than a cruise missile. Okay. Can you summon anything that is suitable for mass destruction.”

Scathach doesn’t respond for some time, to the point where you begin to think she isn’t going to answer. Then she turns to look at you, an unfamiliar expression on her face.

“…Yes. But I’d rather not do so. That particular spirit…frightens me.”

Fear. You suddenly realize that the strange expression on her face is one of wide-eyed fear. The sight of it chills you – you’ve seen Scathach worried before, perhaps even nervous, but outright fear? Not once.

Your Servant looks away and you decide not to press the issue. Instead you concentrate on the route Scathach’s tracking spell is taking you through the city. You’re approaching the city’s centre, and the residential housing has taken a backseat to large department stores and sprawling commercial parks. Grand old listed buildings are towered over by glass and steel office blocks, to the point where it seems like they’re being crowded out. Blackpool is a historic city but even it has fallen prey to the relentless march of modernization.

The hovering stone quivers and zips around a corner up ahead, and you follow it into an unlit street. That’s the first thing that tells you something is wrong – the street lights were all working perfectly from where you just came from, but a stretch of about a dozen or so up ahead are all dark and lightless. There aren’t any people around either, which shouldn’t be possible this close to the middle of the city.

Actually, that’s not quite true. There is one person up ahead. A woman, dressed in the habit of a nun, with a woven veil covering her entire face. A face so hideously scarred and torn that it’s hard to look at, even for you. You’ve seen this woman before, at the side of Father White when the Executors first confronted you. Like White, you never got the chance to see what she’s capable of, but if she’s confident enough to stand here and face you down all on her lonesome…

You stop in your tracks, causing Scathach to stop as well. She looks at you, then over at the other woman. Her eyes narrow into slits.

“Is she…?”

“Yes. She’s one of the Executors. Or someone who works alongside them, at least. I’m not sure, I haven’t seen her in action yet.”

The nun simply stands there, arms by her sides, not making a single move to threaten you. There’s nothing hostile about the way she is standing, or the way her single remaining eye stares at you from behind her veil. On the other hand, the other Executors have been seriously tough, so appearances are most likely deceiving. And she’s obviously here to get in your way.

You decide to:

1. Force your way through. Your injuries are mostly healed, and though you’ve lost your pistols you have Scathach with you. You’ve already taken out one member of White’s little clique tonight, why not make it an even two?

2. Retreat back to your lair. It’s not worth getting into a fight here – your tank may be close to full now but it’s also all you’ve got. Let Cat Sith take care of Archer and hurry back to have a look at the gunman’s corpse.

3. Break through whilst avoiding a fight. If you can avoid getting bogged down in a battle you can still make it to Archer in time…but it risks putting an enemy at your back.

--

“We don’t have time for this.”

You breathe. Getting into a fight here will only slow you down, and time is of the essence if you want to have a chance at recruiting Archer to your side.

“Caster, can you create a distraction? Something that’ll let us get past without fighting?”

Scathach looks at you, her brow drawn into a disappointed frown.

“Come on, Master. Who do you think you are talking to?”

Her sword flicks out and scratches three runes you don’t recognise onto the paving stones. They glow briefly for a moment, then a billowing geyser of steam erupts out of the ground, rising up into a pillar at least ten metres high before collapsing in on itself and spreading out, blanketing the area in a thick, dark fog.

“To the left!”

Scathach shouts, whilst hauling you to the right. You hear an odd glassy rustling noise, and a number of objects you can’t quite see roll through the fog where you would have been if you had actually gone left. Some kind of attack? You can’t tell, because half a second later you burst from the fog bank with Scathach at your side, now positioned on the right hand side of the street.

Scathach reaches out a hand and the tracking stone zips over to her. She taps the runestone with her index finger, and the lines carved into its surface begin to emit a cold blue glow.

“Alright.”

She mutters as the glow begins to fade.

“Now it’ll take us there by another route. Let’s go!”

The stone leaps into the air again and flies back the way you came. You gather your strength and hurry after it, sparing one last look at the fog bank behind you. Is it just your imagination, or is the mist much thinner than it was before? You don’t have time to ponder it further. Instead, you focus on following the tracking stone.

The new route takes you through a series of winding byroads, back streets and cul-de-sacs, occasionally forcing you to jump over buildings and run along the rooftops. You pass by what looks like a college of some sort, a handsome modern building that looks like it’s constructed entirely from glass and steel. You occasionally risk a brief look over your shoulder, but as far as you can tell nobody is following you.

“We’re getting closer!”

Scathach calls, and you redouble your pace, running so fast you almost begin to overtake the tracking stone. In fact, you’re going so quickly that when the stone stops dead in midair you keep going for several paces afterwards before you realise – you’re here.

In front of you is an old concrete building with high, arched windows. Judging from the sheer ugliness of the thing it was probably constructed in the 1970s by men whose muttonchops were far larger than their imaginations. The front is plastered with old advertisements saying ‘To Let’, with some newer ones pasted over them saying ‘For Sale’, and one final triumphant ‘Sold’ sign placed on top of them all. The door was once locked by a stout padlock and a length of chain, both of which now lie in pieces on the paving stones. The door itself is slightly ajar.

And a light is on in one of the upstairs windows.

“Be careful, Master.”

Scathach murmurs.

“I can’t feel Cat Sith’s presence any more. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t around here somewhere.”

With rising trepidation you push open the front door and step inside. You find yourself in a narrow entrance hall with doorways leading off to either side. Peering around the doorframes reveal spacious front rooms, empty save for a few items of furniture covered by dust sheets. The building must have been sold relatively recently. There’s a staircase leading up right at the end of the hall, and you take half a dozen steps towards it. On the seventh step, something crunches underfoot.

You look down. Broken glass litters the floor ahead, stretching all the way from where you are to the bottom of the staircase. You nudge a few of the fragments with your foot, and find that most of them are curved. There aren’t any windows nearby, so that must mean…You find your vision being drawn up towards the ceiling.

The hall must once have been lit by the sort of commercial fluorescent tubes so beloved by public schools the world over. You can still see the brackets set at regular intervals along the ceiling. The tubes themselves have all been smashed apart, and their remains litter the floor of the hallway. You carefully begin to step between the shards, steadily making your way towards the stairs.

At the end you stop and turn to examine the light switch set into the wall next to the stairs. The switch is very clearly set to ‘on’.

“What do you make of this?”

You whisper as Scathach approaches.

“The lights…”

She responds quietly.

“Archer must have worked out that Cat Sith doesn’t like light. It weakens him and strips him of some of his power.”

Scathach eyes the broken fluorescent tubes.

“But Cat Sith isn’t stupid. He knows his own weakness better than anyone.”

She finishes softly.

You nod and begin to climb the stairs. They go up about fifteen feet, end with a small rectangular landing, then go up another fifteen feet in the opposite direction. Doors lead off from each landing, but you ignore them and continue to climb. The lighted window was on the top floor just below the roof, and none of the doors show any signs of damage or tampering.

The stairwell itself is another matter. Broken glass litters each of the landings, and none of the bare bulbs set into the sloped ceilings above are intact. As you ascend you begin to notice long, thin gouges in the walls and steps, and as you ascend to the final landing something squelches underfoot. You look down at the floor, only to find that you’ve just stepped into a pool of fresh blood.

“Caster…”

You call, stepping back onto the second-highest step. Scathach slips past you and bends down to examine the blood.

“It’s definitely Archer’s.”

She remarks after a short pause.

“It’s really fresh too, since it hasn’t dissolved into spirit particles yet. He must be very close by.”

You push past and advance into the uppermost floor. You don’t even have to open the door, because a monstrous force appears to have torn it off its hinges and flung it halfway down the corridor on the other side of it. The lights here have also been destroyed, and the walls of the hallway are littered with craters and claw marks. The damage becomes worse the further down you go, and by the time you reach the end you’re having to step over suitcase-sized slabs of rubble torn from the walls and ceiling.

There’s really only one way you can go from the end of the hall. A large hole in the right-hand wall leads into a dingy low-ceilinged room divided into cubicles by a lattice of drywall. The area is clearly intended to be office space, since most of the cubicles contain desks, swivel chairs and stacks of paper. You know this because a massive hole has been blown straight through the entire length of the cubicles, loony-tunes style, scattering dust sheets and office supplies everywhere.

You carefully pick your way through the tunnel of exploded cubicles. More puddles of blood splash underfoot, increasing in size and frequency as you approach the outer edge of the drywall. Careful not to make a sound, you step through the last hole and out into a narrow slice of the room not taken over by cubicles. Your eyes are drawn to a doorway a few feet to the left, this one strangely undamaged. Light flickers from under the crack at the bottom.

“This is it.”

You mutter. Scathach nods and steps past you.

“I’ll go first, Master. There’s no telling what we’ll find on the other side of the door.”

You nod and take a step back. Scathach reaches out and grasps the handle, then slowly pushes the door open.

Beyond is a storage room of some kind. It’s a small room, about four metres square, with shelves on either side of the door covered in more white dust sheets. You can see the skyline of the city through a window set into the wall opposite the door – the same lighted window you saw from outside. A single fluorescent tube sheds pale, sickly light from up above.

By its light you can see a man slumped against the far wall beneath the window. His head lolls down over his chest, which is a mess of blood and torn chainmail. Only his left arm is visible, and that too bears deep lacerations which ooze blood onto the floor. His green cloak is a tattered, bloodstained ruin splayed out around him, and one of his legs is twisted at an odd angle.

But by the fact that his body has not yet turned into spirit particles you know that Archer, the Servant before you, is still alive.

“He’s in bad shape.”

Scathach remarks, advancing into the room. She keeps Caim Frithir at the ready, just in case. You follow her in, then step to one side so you can get a better look at the injured Servant, but he’s a mass of blood and guts no matter what angle your view is.

“Alright. Caster, please cover me whilst I try to establish-”

Before you can finish a black shape hurtles through the open door, passing right between you and Scathach without even a ripple of disturbed air. You catch sight of an enormous cat the size of a cheetah, with fangs like knives and claws like meat cleavers and eyes like burning emeralds. It’s body is made of boiling shadows and it screeches in something like triumph as its trajectory takes it down towards Archer’s broken body.

You can’t react in time to stop Cat Sith. Neither can Scathach, whose sword cuts through the air just a split second too late.

But as the spirit prepares to deal the killing blow, Archer’s body twitches. His head snaps up, expression grimly determined. At the same time his right arm rises from beneath the ruins of his cloak, bloodied crossbow tracking towards the approaching spirit. Cat Sith realizes his mistake and tries to twist aside, but it’s hard to dodge anything whilst in mid-air, and at point blank range it’s very difficult to miss such a big target.

Archer’s bolt takes Cat Sith in the chest, the bolt leaping from his crossbow and burying itself up to the fletching in the patch of white fur where a normal cat’s heart would be. The force of the bolt carries Cat Sith out of the storage room and hammers him into the drywall outside, which cracks and deforms under the impact. The spirit lets out an ear-splitting shriek, a blend of radio static, tearing metal and audio feedback from a bad set of speakers. It thrashes in place, tearing huge chunks out of the drywall with its claws, before finally falling silent and dissolving into thin ribbons of shadow.

Before either you or Scathach can so much as move Archer’s crossbow swivels towards you. He quickly works the mechanism, loading another bolt into the groove.

“Let me guess…”

He wheezes.

“It was you who summoned that thing?”

He nods towards Scathach, who says nothing.

“And now you’ve come to finish me? Or maybe you want a contract with me, hmm? Want to get yourself another Servant?”

You open your mouth to reply, but Archer simply carries on.

“Well too bad. I’d rather die than serve a Dead Apostle!”

Archer’s finger tightens on the trigger, but something else catches your eye – the window behind him darkens, and a figure you can’t quite make out points an object you can’t quite identify at the glass. You don’t have time to think things through or try to work out what’s happening, you have to act now! You-

1. Immediately kill Archer with Scathach’s help.

2. Evade Archer’s bolt and attack the figure at the window.

3. Fling yourself back into the corridor outside.

--

“Caster! Kill Archer!”

You shout.

Several things happen all at once. Scathach’s sword flashes in a lethal arc and takes Archer’s arm off at the elbow. At the same time Archer’s trigger finger twitches and the crossbow kicks in his hand, sending a deadly black quarrel straight towards your head. Whilst all of this is in motion, the glass window explodes into a snowflake lattice of cracks and a greenish-brown cylindrical object the size of a lemon bounces to the ground.

You twist aside in an attempt to avoid the bolt, but you only manage to move about an inch or two. The bolt just barely scrapes past your cheek, but the air pressure behind the projectile sucks you back and hammers your head into the wall, which cracks and breaks under the impact. You bounce back, missing about half of your face and thoroughly dazed from having your brains mashed against the inside of your skull.

Archer’s arm is fountaining blood, but the Swiss Servant doesn’t seem to care. With the last of his strength he lunges for his severed arm and attempts to prize the crossbow loose for another shot, but Scathach intercepts him and kicks both weapon and arm away. Archer snarls and lashes out with his remaining fist, but Scathach effortlessly catches it with one hand and rams her sword through his chest with the other.

At the same time the cylindrical object on the floor wobbles and starts to spin rapidly. Its slightly curved ends click open and a noxious gas spews forth, blanketing the area in a choking cloud of reddish-brown fog. Archer’s body disintegrates into golden fireflies, the illumination from their release muted into an eerie rust-coloured glow by the fog. The figure at the window vanishes, and suddenly all is silent save for the serpentine hissing of the gas canister.

“We need…to get out of here…”

You slur through a partially broken jaw. Scathach strides from the fog moments later, and with her help you manage to stumble out of the storage room. The gas twists around your ankles and flows out into the office area, but aside from smelling foul it doesn’t seem to be having any effect on you.

As you begin to make your way through the ruined office cubicles you become aware of another presence somewhere within the room. Someone is moving around behind the intact sections of drywall, and despite their attempts at stealth you can clearly hear them following you. This is bad – the drywall is very thin and easily torn apart. You look at Scathach, and she nods, indicating that she’s heard it too. She transfers her sword to her free hand and points it at the wall, ready to counter anyone who tries to attack through it.

After a moment the noise stops. Then there is a click, a thump, and a small section of the wall about the size of your palm explodes outwards halfway up the wall. A small object flies through, but Scathach’s sword intercepts it before it can get halfway to you. It’s another gas canister, and slicing it open releases all of the highly pressurised gas at once. The fumes explode outwards, filling the narrow space inside the cubicle with gas from floor to ceiling.

You curse and try to make for the next cubicle, but another canister punches through the wall ahead and begins to fill that one with gas as well. All along the improvised corridor canisters begin dropping into the cubicles, filling them up with reddish-brown fog.

“Going through the wall, huh? Two can play at that game!”

You mutter darkly. Gathering your strength, you turn towards the wall opposite where the canister came from and charge. The flimsy wall shatters into dust and powder as you barrel through it into yet another cubicle, sending dust-wrapped furniture and office supplies flying. The air is clearer here, but the gas quickly begins to pour through the hole and fill up this cubicle as well. Scathach follows close behind, backing through the hole in order to cover your retreat.

“Can you do something about this gas?”

You ask her, irritated. Your Servant nods briefly and carves a rune into the drywall next to the hole. It glows for a second, and suddenly the fog on the other side is pushed back by an invisible concave barrier.

“This’ll hold off anything our attackers can throw at us.”

She smirks. As if on cue, something moves in the swirling fog beyond the barrier, a dark and indistinct shape you can’t quite make out. Three low thumps sound out in quick succession, and then a trio of gas cylinders sail through the invisible force field and fall to the ground with a clatter. Scathach stares at them, shock written all over her face, then the canisters detonate and you lose sight of her as your vision becomes a rust-coloured soup.

“Hey! What’s going on?! You said that barrier would stop anything from getting through!”

You shout, bewildered by this turn of events.

“It should have done! Those things should’ve bounced right off!”

Scathach’s voice comes from somewhere to your left. You frown and begin to inch towards the source of her voice.

“Are you tired or something? Did the fight at the museum wear you down this much?”

You ask, edging towards a lighter patch of fog. Your shoulder bumps against something solid, which turns out to be Scathach’s shoulder. The swirling silver sigils on her armour burn through the thick smoke, acting as a beacon for you.

“I don’t think so.”

Scathach grunts. You frown and peer at her more closely – is that sweat beading her forehead? And isn’t her breathing slightly laboured?

“Are you sure? Because you look really ragged all of a sudden.”

Scathach opens her mouth to respond, but you never get to hear it. As soon as her lips part she doubles over and begins to cough violently, leaning on her sword for support.

“Hey! What’s wrong? Caster!”

You lock an arm under her shoulders and haul her to her feet, mind racing as you try to figure out just what the hell is going on. Could it be the gas? Surely not. No mundane poison could affect a Servant. Could it be some sort of magical effect?

You quest out with your supernatural senses, feeling for traces of prana in the gas. There is a slight amount of it in the air around you, but not nearly enough to overwhelm a Servant’s defences, particularly a Caster-class experienced in the arts of magic. And even if it somehow could, it doesn’t explain why you don’t seem to be affected by it.

So then…there’s only one explanation left. The smoke must carry a conceptual effect.

Scathach’s coughing dies away. Her body sags against yours like an armoured sack of potatoes, and when you call her name she doesn’t respond. This is bad – you need to get out of this smoke, but as things stand there’s nowhere left to go. Your attacker can simply keep popping those canisters through the walls, and getting to the exit is going to be tough enough with a mystery assailant hounding you every step of the way.

Frustrated, you look down at the floor, and then a sudden idea hits you. Still supporting Scathach, you raise your left foot high and bring it down with all your strength. Concrete cracks under the force of your stomp, and a fine misting of dust falls from the ceiling. You raise your foot again, and this time a crater about a metre wide appears in the floor. A third stomp, and the floor beneath you collapses completely, sending both you and Scathach plummeting down to the level below.

You land in a pile of dust-wrapped furniture, wooden tables and chairs judging from how they splinter and break under you. The room you’re in now is about the same size as the room above would have been before all the cubicles were installed, with the door to the access hall in exactly the same spot. As soon as this information registers you struggle up and begin ploughing through the stacked furniture, dragging Scathach along with you.

Behind the gas begins to cascade into the room through the hole in the ceiling, but you’re already in the process of kicking down the door by the time it reaches the ground. The wood-panelled door shatters into four or five pieces and you shoulder your way into the access corridor, heedless of the cloud of splinters that bites into your flesh.

The air is clear here, and Scathach begins to stir. You pause for a moment, and she slowly begins to recover her balance.

“Are you alright? This isn’t the time to be taking a nap.”

You admonish, though without heat. Your Servant shakes her head and gives you a disgruntled look.

“Ha ha, very funny. Master, we need to get out of here right this second. That gas is suppressing me somehow. When it touches me it becomes hard to move, hard to use magic, hard to think…it’s like it’s denying my existence.”

You frown and try to think. A gas that affects spiritual entities?

Wait…

Wait a minute…

You’ve met someone who uses gas as a weapon before, haven’t you? The other Executor, the tall one in the dark robes.

Suddenly everything clicks into place. Carrington aside, the Executors aren’t stupid. They must know that they don’t stand a chance against you with Scathach at your side. Even with their superhuman endurance and Black Keys they wouldn’t be able to keep up with a serious Servant. So they’ve come up with this strange gas that suppresses her in order to even the odds.

You’re not sure whether they planned this attack out ahead of time. Right now you suspect they didn’t, since there’s no way they’d know that Archer would choose to go to ground in this building. This smells more like an attack of opportunity. On the one hand that’s bad for you since you’ve been caught flat-footed, but on the other it means the Executors probably don’t have much in the way of contingency plans either.

Regardless, you need to get out of here if you want to stand a chance of survival.

Once you’re sure Scathach can stand on her own you make your way along the corridor towards the door that’ll lead you back to the stairwell. You hurriedly fling open the door and step through onto the third floor landing, only to see a tall figure step into view on the next landing up.

His face is concealed by a gas mask, but you clearly recognise Hempel’s lean figure. His censer is slung over one shoulder with a leather strap, but that’s not what draws your attention. No, your gaze is drawn to the enormous weapon Hempel currently holds braced against his chest. It’s an enormous drum-loaded grenade launcher, the sort that US Police riot-control teams use to fire teargas into unruly crowds.

Hempel puts a foot onto the first step down and freezes, noticing you for the first time. The pause is momentary but affords you enough time to decide what to do next. You:

1. Rush at Hempel and attack him in his moment of indecision.

2. Run back down the corridor you just came through and jump out of the window at the end.

3.  Flee down the stairs and take the fight further into the building.

--

You can’t stay here. The terrain favours the Executor far too much, and the longer you stay here the more Caster will weaken. And, of course, there’s a good chance that the other remaining Executors will show up to piss in your cereal.

Before Hempel can react you seize Caster by the arm and backpedal through to the third floor corridor. Moments later you hear another dull thump and one of the Executor’s gas canisters sails through the open doorway. It lands at your feet and begins to roll away, still trailing small streams of propellant. You growl and give the canister a savage kick, and watch with satisfaction as it bounces back onto the landing and then rolls down the stairs to the floor below.

Without waiting you immediately turn the kick into a step forwards and slam the door shut. The small bolt near the latch is slightly rusty but it still moves all the way when you slide it across. You know it’ll only hold Hempel for a second, but that second could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

“The window!”

You shout, spinning on your heel and breaking into a full-on sprint. Scathach follows after, her stride slightly unbalanced but still strong enough to keep up. A few seconds later a crash shakes the walls of the corridor and the sound of splintering wood and metal echoes down the hallway. You don’t need to look back to know that Hempel just broke the door down with a single stomping kick.

Scathach snarls and turns awkwardly, extending one hand back towards the entrance to the stairwell, fingers curled in a claw-like gesture. Violet energy flares in her palm, casting a sickly glow over her face and upper body. The light spills out and resolves itself into three twisting runes which fly back down the length of the corridor, striking sparks as they bounce from the walls, floor and ceiling.

Hempel jerks his grenade launcher down and fires directly at the floor. The canister bounces twice before the Executor’s foot stamps down and crushes it with a dull metallic crunch. The gas puffs out all at once, enveloping him completely and swallowing up the oncoming projectiles, which bleed away into nothingness before they can even come close to hitting.

“Oh, I’m beginning to hate these people…”

Scathach growls, her eyes flashing with irritation.

“You don’t know the half of it.”

You remark, thankful that at least someone finds these clowns as annoying as you do.

The window looms ahead, and as you come within a handful of paces of it you twist your body to angle your shoulder towards the glass. You hit the frosted panels with the force of a wrecking ball, tearing both the window and the masonry around it apart. You and Scathach sail through the air, trailing fragments of glass, loose bricks and dust like a miniature comet as you plunge towards the ground.

The pair of you hit the pavement hard enough to crack the paving stones and set off a nearby car alarm. You drop into a roll and spring up just in time to see the other Executor, the nun you encountered earlier, step out from behind a nearby corner. Without even hesitating you reach down, scoop a mostly intact brick from the ground and hurl it at her with all your strength. The projectile hits her in the chest hard enough to knock her over, and she tumbles bonelessly to the ground, arms splayed out.

You freeze, halfway to the ground and reaching for another brick. A normal Executor shouldn’t even flinch from such a blow. A normal Executor shouldn’t even have been hit by such an ad-hoc, clumsy attack, even with a Dead Apostle’s strength behind it. The nun’s left hand twitches, and a cluster of small round objects roll out of it. Your enhanced vision picks out a collection of small red beads, like those found on a rosary or prayer necklace.

They glint softly in the moonlight. You blink, then narrow your eyes and give them a more thorough inspection. There are five beads in total, and all are about the size of the nail on your little finger. All of them are a rich red colour, not light red and shiny like a ruby but a deep, dark crimson, like arterial blood. They are also, you notice, slightly translucent.

You blink, then refocus your gaze. The beads are oddly…fixating. You try to turn your head away, but…it’s difficult somehow. The rest of the world suddenly seems so…so mundane, compared to the perfect round spheres over there. In fact, wouldn’t it be great if you could get a better look at them? It strikes you as a wonderful idea.

But wait. Weren’t you in the middle of something important? You frown, rub your temples and try to think, but nothing springs to mind. Even so, some nagging sense from the back of your head tells you that you probably shouldn’t take another step forwards. After all, you’re…

…What were you doing again?

…You should really take a look at those beads. They’re really important.

You straighten up and begin to walk over to where the beads are.

An electric thrill suddenly passes through you as a hand clamps down on your shoulder and jerks you back. You lose sight of the crimson spheres, and-

And suddenly the illusion is broken, and you can think clearly once again.

“What the hell are you doing, Master? This is no time to be admiring jewellery!”

Scathach admonishes as she hauls you off to one side. You give yourself a quick shake and try not to look in the direction of the nun’s prone form.

“Ugh. Those things…aren’t normal beads.”

You mutter. Scathach eyes you questioningly, but before you can elaborate Hempel appears behind the ruins of the third floor windowframe. He glances down and surveys the ground, then casually steps off into empty air. The Executor plunges all the way down to the ground, landing with a heavy thump that sends the debris you previously dislodged pluming into the air. Hempel’s dark black boots drive yet more cracks into the surface of the pavement, and as he straightens up the barrel of his grenade launcher swivels towards you with terrifying inevitability.

“Okay, let’s get moving!”

You shout, suddenly feeling very motivated. You turn away from Hempel’s steadily advancing form and run back the way you originally came when you first found this building, careful not to look at the nun’s rosary beads as you pass by. For a brief moment you consider taking her hostage, but something tells you that wouldn’t give someone like Hempel pause.

Another soft thump echoes from behind you, and a gas canister suddenly arcs over you and lands in the middle of the street ahead of you. You curse and try to change direction, but Scathach simply keeps going. She raises her right hand in front of her, chants a few words in a language you can’t understand, then makes a sweeping gesture with her extended hand.

Wind gathers around her fingers, wind that becomes a gale which lashes out at the growing cloud of gas ahead. It’s not a particularly strong gale, less like a tornado and more like a strong gust one might feel during a normal rainstorm, but it’s strong enough for Scathach’s purposes. The pressurised air sweeps the billowing fog aside as effortlessly as a man with a rake sweeps aside dead leaves, scattering the deadly gas until it is too diluted and diffused to be easily seen.

You change course as quickly as possible and run after Scathach, making sure to kick the canister back towards Hempel as you pass it by. Not because it’ll inconvenience him or anything, but because you’re annoyed and secretly hope he’ll trip over it. The pettiness of that thought almost makes you laugh.

Almost.

But as you run you resolve to do something about these meddlesome Executors as soon as you can. The end of the Grail War is quickly approaching, and the last thing you need is to win the War only to be lynched by these clowns whilst on the way to collect your prize.

As you reach the end of the street where the pavement splits along a main road you risk a look back over your shoulder. It takes a moment before you realise that Hempel isn’t chasing you; instead he stands in front of the fallen nun, grenade launcher levelled in your direction but otherwise not taking a single step forwards. His gas mask tilts down slightly, and he aims his grenade launcher towards the floor.

Hempel and the nun vanish behind a smokescreen of rust-coloured gas at about the same time you and Scathach dash around the street corner and exit onto the main road. You get the feeling that Hempel has decided to retreat, but since its best not to make foolish assumptions you keep running until the old office building is completely out of sight.

By the time you stop you’re about halfway back to the industrial district and the thought of getting back to your lair for some well-earned rest is becoming more and more appealing by the minute. Scathach appears to be mostly recovered, though she still looks a little bit paler than usual.

“If we’re quite done running,” She pants breathlessly, “I’d like to retrieve the body of the gunman.”

You feel your eyebrows raising in surprise; you didn’t even see her hide it. When did she get the chance?

As it turns out your Servant concealed the corpse by tossing it into a pile of black bin-bags down one of the alleys you cut through whilst following Cat Sith’s trail. She checks the burlap sack once, nods, then slings the whole thing over her shoulders once again.

The journey back to your lair is conducted mostly over the rooftops. By the time you reach the enormous concrete structure that marks the entrance to your hideout dawn is approaching, heralded by a reddening of the horizon. It’s been a long night. And they’re likely to only get longer as you approach the endgame. As you pass through the cold iron doors and stumble back into your lair, you briefly wonder what all the other remaining players in this grand performance are doing.

--

Intermission choice:

1. Lord Henry Monmouth. How is he coping with his recent catastrophic defeat? And what are his plans for the future?

2. Rider and Irene Hellespont. Is the weakest Master going to pull through?

3. Father Harold White. He has yet to step in to face you in true combat. Perhaps he is planning something…

--

---Intermission---

Father Harold White’s eyes were shut as he knelt piously before the holy altar. His bony hands, rendered withered and arthritic thanks to seventy five years of living, were clasped together in prayer. Hunched over beneath the weight of his ecclesiastical vestments, the old priest resembled a penitent prisoner, kneeling and begging for mercy before a judge.

If someone had pointed out the similarity to White he would have approved. The Lord of Heaven was the judge of the entire universe, and his sentences were always just.

Even if they appeared cruel at first glance.

White opened his eyes and rose slowly to his feet. The interior of the church was dark and shadows clung to every surface, save for a large circular patch of the floor where White himself stood. Here the rays from the dawn sun shone in through a large stained glass window depicting a scene from the Nativity, bathing him in a pool of kaleidoscopic light. The same rays also illuminated the bronze effigy of Christ’s crucifixion mounted on a slender pole just behind the altar.

There was no one else around, even though at this hour the congregation should have been filtering in. White was thankful for the deacon’s kindness in allowing him to remain in contemplation and prayer for as long as he wished, and slightly ashamed that he had to impose on his brother in faith to such a degree. But the truth was that the air inside the small church was as silent as the moments before creation, and in that stillness the Archbishop was able to think more deeply and clearly than he could anywhere else.

Here and here alone he could think about how best to remove the pestilence which had so recently taken hold within the city.

Many books had been written by many learned inquisitors about how to stalk and kill a Dead Apostle. Most advocated the usual method of Black Keys, holy Sacraments and divine rituals. For more powerful heretics who had stalked the land for many centuries the use of legendary Scriptures were occasionally prescribed, although the Burial Squad normally took care of those. All of the methods were valid and had proven their value with repeated success.

But over the years White had learned that the best way to deal with a Vampire was not to kill it directly. No, the best way was to destroy its lair, to deny it a place of refuge, to always keep it on the run until it ran out of whatever blasphemous power that animated it. Most of the time this was easier said than done; a Vampire’s lair was always protected by a powerful territory field that made it nearly impossible to find, even via supernatural means.

White didn’t truly know how he managed to succeed where most people failed. Perhaps it was some aspect of his character, or a strange thaumaturgical power. Perhaps he possessed Mystic Eyes of some description, or maybe his first encounter with a Dead Apostle fifty years ago had awakened some gift that had lain dormant within his soul. In the end it didn’t matter, because White knew that regardless of where it came from it was the Lord who had ultimately seen fit to give it to him.

Over the years White had located and destroyed the nests of dozens of Dead Apostles. Without a place of refuge it was simply a matter of time and persistence. Open battles with the creatures should be kept short and flight should always be a valid option. If a normal Executor’s method was to show up with all guns blazing for a single decisive battle, White’s was to enact multiple hit and run attacks to grind his quarry down.

Of course, there were problems with this method as well. Push a Dead Apostle too hard and it could grow desperate enough to abandon secrecy and cause a tremendous amount of collateral damage. Push too softly and it would slip away in search of easier settlements to prey upon. In this instance at least White could be sure that the latter outcome would not happen. The Apostle would not miss the opportunity to claim the Grail.

The thought of it made White shudder. What terrible things might a creature of darkness wish for?

White sighed softly and turned away from the altar. He walked back through the rows of pews until he reached the small vestibule past which lay the great oaken doors of the church. Wooden racks lined the walls on either side, and each rack was filled with candles. They were small stumpy things, the sort you could buy at your local supermarket, but they burned for a surprisingly long time and that was what mattered to the people who lit them in order to honour their loved ones.

The Archbishop saw that several of the candles had gone out, so he opened the drawer beneath the racks and took out some new ones. He was just in the process of fumbling for a match when he heard the church door’s lock click open. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the door swing open and a tall figure dressed in black step through.

“How did it go?” He asked calmly, finally managing to extract one of the matches, though it still took him three tries before he was able to strike it fast enough to get it lit.

“As well as could be expected.” Hempel replied as he strode into view. His heavy gas mask dangled from a strap around his neck, and it rattled whenever he took a step.

“The sacred incense proved effective, Father. The Apostle’s Servant was greatly debilitated by it, though the Apostle himself was unaffected.”

A tension White had not realised he was carrying suddenly lessened, and for a split second he almost smiled. The Apostle’s Servant was a deadly variable which had forced White to proceed far more cautiously than he otherwise would have. The news that the spirit could be neutralised was welcome indeed. Now they no longer needed to hold themselves back.

“Unfortunately, Sister Roseheart followed me to the combat area and was injured. I dropped her off at the chapter house on my way here. Fortunately her condition is not serious.” Hempel continued, and with a shrugging motion he divested himself of his robes. The light caught on the half dozen ammunition bandoleers wrapped tightly around his chest, each strapped full of gas canisters.

Beneath those he wore an ultra-light mesh of interlocking metal scales, specially designed to turn aside blades and other sharp objects. Alongside the Kevlar woven into his robes, Hempel no longer needed to fear the Apostle’s claws.

“First Carrington, now Roseheart too…” White whispered sadly as he began lighting new candles to replace those which had burnt out.

“The death of my brother has affected both of them deeply.” Hempel rumbled. “Bringing them here may not have been wise.”

White paused for a moment, considering Hempel’s point.

“Perhaps. But did they not have the right? He was Carrington’s teacher, in faith and in fury. And he was Roseheart’s saviour.” White winced as the flame burned all the way up the match, and he flapped it about wildly to put it out.

“What about you?” He asked, looking Hempel in the eye. “Do you not want justice too? He was your brother in flesh as well as spirit.”

The younger man remained silent for a moment, his face devoid of all expression. But the way his hands slowly curled into fists at his sides revealed everything White needed to know.

“Justice? Of course.” He began, a low heat filling his voice. “But justice requires patience. It requires a calm mind.  It requires rationality and objectivity. And neither Carrington nor Roseheart have those things. They lack the experience of dealing with such tragedies. Carrington in particular. He confuses vengeance for justice and believes it is something he is owed rather than something he must work towards.”

Hempel bowed his head for a moment, as if the effort of saying so much had tired him. When he raised it again his voice was calm once more.

“…And I very much fear that because of that, he will not be coming back to us.”

White slowly placed the matchbox back on the nearest rack, then pressed his palms together and closed his eyes. Hempel mirrored his gesture a fraction of a second later.

“Let us pray that he does.”

After a few moments White opened his eyes again and began to walk back into the main part of the church.

“Fortunately I have some good news to give you, Hempel, to offset some of the bad. Thankfully, the Lord has seen fit to grant us his blessings in another way.” White began.

“His blessing?” Hempel asked as White stumped over to the altar, then past it and into one of the back rooms. There was a new energy in his steps, and Hempel had to jog to catch up.

“Yes. It arrived not two hours ago. Three days earlier than I was expecting, too! Truly a miraculous occurrence.”

White came to a stop in one of the church’s storage areas, a small rectangular room filled to the brim with boxes and containers where all of the implements necessary to carry out religious functions were stored.

One of the boxes stood out from the rest due to its immense size and unusual construction. It was nine feet long and made of burnished bronze, with a lid that jutted out around the sides. The front was embossed with innumerable scenes from the scriptures, all immaculately laid out in minute detail. It looked like a reliquary, but…

Hempel’s beady eyes suddenly went very wide.

“Is this…?” He choked. White smiled and ran a bony hand over the surface of the box.

“Oh, yes. It’s a Scripture. Or rather, the item inside it is. I sent a missive to the mainland requesting it as soon as I discovered the creature was here. Normally I do not like relying on such things, but I thought it might be necessary to deal with its Servant.”

“Do you mean…Father White, will you be entering the battle as well this time?”

White nodded, his expression resigned.

“Yes. And Roseheart will have to come too, injured or not. The stakes are too high for any of us to hold back any longer.” White turned to look at Hempel, and a light seemed to shine from behind his watery blue eyes.

“We will strike as soon as everything is ready. We will grind the Apostle down until it is nothing but dust and ash. The trail of blood and death ends here, brother Hempel. After that…”

His gaze swept past Hempel until the old priest’s stare centred on where the vestibule would be from his position.

“After that, we can light a candle for brother Carrington here.”

---Intermission End---

You awaken to the sound of meat being cut.

It’s a soft, wet sound, like walking very slowly through a shallow puddle on a muddy path. The mud sticks to the underside of your shoes and makes a gentle sucking sound whenever you take a step. Then the water rushes in to fill the gap, and there’s a brief moment where it bubbles and squelches as the filth and muck settles down again.

It’s the same here. Scathach’s long, thin knife slowly bites into the dead flesh of the middle aged man, cutting his corpse open bit by bit. The flesh is clammy and clings to the blade for a brief moment, then comes away with a damp sucking noise as your Servant inches the knife forwards. Half-congealed blood bubbles up, but it’s not quite liquid enough to flow out completely. Instead it sits in the channel dug by the knife, glistening wetly.

She must have been at it for some time. As you stand from where you sat slumped against one of the pillars in your workshop you see that most of the skin of the man’s chest has been cut away, revealing dark red and grey organs beneath an ochre ribcage. It’s like an anatomical cross-section, with pink skin followed by layers of yellowish fat and gore-smeared bone.

As you approach you see that Scathach has also performed some kind of trepan, because about a quarter of the man’s skull is missing. The tightly packed folds of his brain are clearly visible, although most of what you can see has been thoroughly tenderised thanks to Rider’s mace.

The sight doesn’t particularly bother you. You’ve seen your fair share of dismemberments and eviscerations over the decades. But it is interesting, seeing how a person fits together. It reminds you how fragile normal people are.

“Find anything unusual?” You ask without preamble. Scathach shrugs and responds without looking up.

“That depends on what you mean by unusual.”

She sets the knife aside and gestures at the corpses exposed innards.

“Internally he’s pretty much the same as your average person. One heart, two lungs, a stomach, liver, the works. I found traces of tar in his lungs so he was probably a smoker. His musculature seems to indicate that he lead a mostly sedentary lifestyle without much exercise. Overall, there’s not really anything unusual about him in purely physical terms.”

“Thank you, Scathach M.D. You’re a credit to the force. Maybe after all of this is done you can go on to star in a hit TV supernatural crime thriller as the beautiful yet sarcastic forensics expert.”

Scathach grins and brushes a strand of hair out of her eyes.

“And you could be the loose cannon vampire detective who doesn’t play by the rules, but the commissioner can’t get rid of you because you get results.” Her voice abruptly becomes slightly deeper, as if labouring beneath a lifetime of cigarettes and cheap alcohol.

“Dammit, Vampire, that’s the third suspect you’ve eviscerated this week. I’ll have your badge for this!”

You snort and move around the table to get a better look at the corpse.

“Yeah, and then he’d stick me with an older by-the-book cop in order to keep me in line. Maybe we could ask that Monmouth guy to audition with us or something, he’d be perfect for it. But seriously…”

Scathach nods and her tone becomes more businesslike.

“Seriously? I don’t know what to make of this guy. He’s clearly not a magus; his natural circuits are all atrophied past the point of activation. At first I thought that was the end of it, but then I found <i>this</i>.”

She reaches into the corpse’s chest cavity and pinches her forefinger and thumb together over its heart, then slowly pulls her hand back. The surface of the organ distends upwards, and the light catches on a silvery, fibrous strand running from it to Scathach’s fingers. It’s so fine a normal person probably wouldn’t be able to see it.

“Wait a minute…” You whisper, leaning in to get a closer look.

“Isn’t that…?”

“Yeah. It’s a circuit.” Scathach keeps pulling, and eventually the thread comes loose. The heart slumps back down, oozing a trickle of blood from the tiny hole.

“It’s a circuit,” Your Servant continues, taking the other end of the silvery fibre in her spare hand and stretching it out for you to see, “But it’s not his. Someone implanted it inside him. Someone incredibly skilled. You couldn’t do it. On a good day I’d fail at doing it seven times out of ten. But this guy did it fifteen times, and each and every one of them is woven into the body perfectly.”

You open your mouth to speak, but Scathach cuts you off with a wave of her hand.

“There’s more.” She continues, twining the circuit around her forefinger.

“As far as I can tell the circuits are all from different mages. There’s one that’s even been taken from a homunculus, if you can believe it. They’re all fused together into a complete set. Which is frankly impossible. But, uh.”

She smiles mirthlessly.

“Someone doesn’t care.”

You stare at the loose circuit for a moment. Transplanting circuits can be done, but it’s a difficult and risky process that doesn’t always work out perfectly. It’s like organ transplants; there’s always the risk that the body will treat it as a foreign object and reject it, and even if the transplant is successful the new circuit is never as efficient in its new host.

If what Scathach says is true, and you have no reason to doubt her word, then this is something wholly unique. And terrifying.

“Going back to the man himself for a moment. If he were still alive, could he use the circuits? Could he activate them and use them to perform thaumaturgy?”

Scathach nods.

“Absolutely, as long as he knew the basics. But honestly? I don’t think he did. In fact, I don’t think he was conscious of what had been done to him at all.”

She moves around the table and indicates the cut away section of the man’s skull.

“The oldest circuit I found was inside his head. It was also noticeably smaller than the rest, and it contained residual traces of prana. None of the others did, just the one in his head. It’s difficult to tell because his brain now has the consistency of scrambled eggs, but I’m almost certain someone was controlling this man remotely, like a puppet.”

You think for a moment. A remotely-controlled meat puppet who can use magecraft would be a very useful tool, but precision mental control would be very difficult to achieve unless the magus himself was close by. Or perhaps…

“The circuit in his head. Could it be from the original magus who implanted all the others? Is it possible that he could be controlling them that way?” You ask.

Scathach frowns, then looks down at the corpse again, her eyes widening in comprehension.

“I suppose that’s one explanation for how this man could have been controlled. I can’t imagine voluntarily giving away your magic circuits like that, but then this person is so skilled he could probably replace them with someone else’s with absolutely no trouble at all.”

Slowly the pieces begin to click together inside your mind. If you’re right, then suddenly things start making a hell of a lot more sense. Particularly with regards to a certain adversary you met on Pryke’s boat.

“So that’s how he did it.” You mutter, half to yourself. Scathach looks at you enquiringly, so you decide to elaborate.

“Regulus, Scathach. It’s how he managed to cheat death after we blew him up. The man I met in the restaurant wasn’t him, it was a remote-controlled doll he sent to meet up with me. I’d bet good money that the ‘Regulina’ I met on the boat wasn’t the real thing either. Damn!”

Scathach looks slightly dubious.

“It makes perfect sense.” You insist.

“The culprit can’t be Pryke, Eudokia or Robertson due to them all having a terminal case of dead. Monmouth isn’t the type to go for that sort of thing, Irene isn’t strong enough and would probably choose a simpler means of killing herself if it came down to that, and it’s not me because it’s, uh, not me. And I know Regulus is still alive because he filled me full of holes on Pryke’s boat.”

“It’s why he was so interested in getting hold of Eudokia’s magic circuits. It’s why he always seemed to know so much about what was going on – he’s probably got sleeper agents keeping an eye on all of his opponents. And it also explains why their eyes are so freaking creepy.”

Scathach raises an eyebrow at the last part, then her expression smoothes over and she looks at the circuit in her hand.

“It’s possible. No, it’s more than possible.”

She reaches down and traces a finger down over the corpse’s intestines. Another gossamer thread gleams softly beneath her fingernail.

“Look. The way the circuits have been implanted and arranged…it’s similar to how regular mages create familiars. And possessing a familiar is one of the first things a magus learns. That’s how he’s been doing it. He’s been creating human familiars! Ha! Whatever else he may be, this guy is pretty damn ballsy. He’s almost as much of a monster as you. We’ll have to be very careful when we come to decide what to do about him.”

That goes without saying. As far as you are aware the only remaining Masters are Regulina, Monmouth, Irene and yourself. Monmouth no longer has a Servant and Irene may well have died from her head injury. Even if she lives, she won’t be doing anything for quite a while. You can’t discount either of them, of course, but for now it’s fairly safe to assume that you and Regulina are the most active remaining Masters.

“Assuming that Reggie is our puppeteer, could we use the fragment of his circuit to track him down?” You ask. Scathach purses her lips and regards the corpse’s head thoughtfully.

“…Maybe. The damage to his brain was quite severe, so I only have a few fragments. I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, what’s our next move? We’ve almost gotten to the point where we’re running out of potential targets.”

“The Executors.” You respond immediately.

“They are a dangerous variable in any plans we make. We get rid of them tonight.”

Scathach nods smoothly, as if she had been expecting that answer.

“Okay. How will we go about it? We don’t know where they are.”

You grin, turn away from the corpse and stride towards the door.

“Oh, no. We aren’t going to find them. They are going to come to us. We’ll be waiting for them …”

1. In the countryside outside town. No witnesses, no distractions, no obstructions. No need to hold back, for either side.

2. Outside the hideout, in the industrial district. It’s normally deserted, and with plenty of escape routes should anything go wrong.

3. At the old power plant on the outskirts of the city. As abandoned buildings go it’s a great spot to set up traps and ambushes.

--

“We’ll be taking a little trip to the countryside. We can get some fresh air and exercise and drop the hammer on those meddling Executors at the same time.”

Scathach eyes you questioningly.

“Anything particular in mind?” She asks as you begin to stride towards the door. You turn and give her a crooked smile.

“Oh, yes. This time we’re going to get really serious.”

--

Fifteen minutes later the pair of you are driving down the B5261 towards the outskirts of the city. The stolen Ford is an older model with a manual gearbox, and your lack of experience with such contraptions results in a horrible grinding sound whenever you switch gears.

You keep expecting Scathach to say something sarcastic whenever it happens, but she’s stayed silent the entire trip. You glance over at the passenger seat and see that she’s currently busying herself with the fragment of dragon bone Scara sent you. The pearlescent surface is no longer smooth but riddled with hundreds of tiny grooves which radiate out from its centre. As you look on Scathach takes out her ritual knife and begins to shave away at the corners, carving away the edges and gradually making it more circular.

“What are you doing?” You ask as you veer around another driver in an attempt to overtake him. He angrily honks his horn at you, but you couldn’t care less.

“Creating a contingency.” She replies, eyes still focused on her work. The knife makes a sound like nails on a blackboard as she drags it back and forth, each time accompanied by a puff of bone dust.

“I hope it’s worth all the mess you’re making in my new car.” You respond in tones of mock indignation.

Scathach’s hands freeze, knife poised over the fragment. Her eyes flick up to look at you. Then, very slowly, she reaches over until her hands are hovering over the circular hollow near the gearstick where drinks normally go. Then she resumes her carving, which is now much louder and more irritating than before thanks to its increased proximity.

“Better?” She asks, clearly insincere.

“Much.” You reply, clearly sarcastic.

The road ahead quickly opens up and you soon find yourself driving through the Blackpool suburbs. The large commercial buildings of the inner city drop away and are replaced by small terraces and semidetached dwellings, some of which even have proper gardens. Eventually even these rather quaint housing estates fall by the wayside as you enter the city’s green belt, then vanish entirely as the road joins the spiderweb of B-roads and narrow country lanes that tie the towns and cities of the United Kingdom together.

You drive for about ten minutes in search of a likely spot. Most of the land surrounding the city is open countryside, but there are a number of farms scattered around further afield and you don’t want to attract any unwanted attention. A wooded area or even a small copse of trees will be perfect for what you intend. The light of the moon provides little illumination, but your supernatural eyesight pierces the veil of darkness and eventually picks out the jagged, broken-up shape of a forest silhouetted against the night sky.

You smile at the sight and apply the brakes and shift down a gear, drawing a groan of protest from the gearbox. Up ahead the grassy embankment that borders the road on either side levels out, and without further ado you twist the wheel and drive up onto it. The old Ford was never meant to go off-road, and it bounces and squeaks as you slowly bring it to a stop safely out of view of the road behind.

“Right. Time for some cross-country walking.” You say cheerfully as you unbuckle your seatbelt and open the door. You don’t need to wear the thing, obviously, but the last thing you want is to be stopped by the police and then have to explain the numerous exposed wires dangling from beneath the dashboard. Scathach pockets the bone fragment and sheaths her knife.

“Good thing I brought my walking stick.” She murmurs, then reaches behind her seat to retrieve her staff, which you asked her to bring this time.

The trek over to the woods is a ten minute walk through a grassy field which gradually slopes upwards as you approach the treeline. The undergrowth also becomes scraggier and denser, and you find yourself walking through patches of brambles, thistles and stinging nettles during the final stretch.

Once you finally reach the trees you spend another quarter of an hour searching the area until you find a clearing big enough for what you intend to do tonight. Having finally found it Scathach gets to work.

“You don’t want me to hold anything back, right?” She asks, craning her neck back at you whilst in the middle of carving the celtic rune for fire into the trunk of a nearby tree.

“Absolutely. I don’t want any of these idiots surviving past tonight. There shouldn’t be many witnesses out here, so feel free to cut loose.”

Your Servant grins and resumes her preparations.

“Whatever you say, Master. Normally I’d say this is overkill, but after how they humiliated me yesterday I’m more than happy to put those churchmen in their place.”

You look on, fascinated, as Scathach engraves runes on every single tree around the clearing. All eighteen classical runes make an appearance, as well as other, more primordial markings long since lost to modern magi. At first you have a general gist of where she’s going with it all, but as she starts linking them all together with threads of prana you completely lose track after only a few seconds. As a tidal wave of power floods into the ritual, however, you understand one thing; this working, or perhaps even workings, are powerful. More powerful even than the first ritual Scathach performed more than a week ago, when she shrouded the entire city beneath a storm cloud.

“That should do it.” She murmurs after the rush of power slows to a trickle. “Now all that’s left is…”

She bows her head and chants several phrases under her breath, then slams her staff into the ground. The impact reverberates through the clearing, stirring up concentric rings of dust which ripple outwards towards the trees. Every rune touched by the dust vanishes behind a thaumaturgical veil so strong that you can’t sense them even on a magical level. And if you can’t, it’s a fair bet that the Executors won’t be able to either.

The plan is simple. Lure the Executors out to a remote location, then drop the heaviest hammer you can find on them without giving them a chance to fight back. No subtlety, no dancing around the issue, no running, just sheer force in as great a quantity as you can muster. Well, as Scathach can muster, technically, but it’s all the same thing in the end. By the end of tonight there should be a big crater where once there were Executors.

“If only all Executors met with such a fate.” You mutter under your breath. Scathach looks at you questioningly but before you can say anything a bright light bursts to life in the sky above. You glance up and see a slow-burning flare drifting in the wind, casting a dull yellow pall over everything beneath it. From its trajectory it must have been fired from near the entrance to the woods.

“Damn. I’d hoped to have a little more time than this. Caster, you’d better make yourself scarce. Maybe we can fool them into thinking I’m alone. Stay close by though, just in case.”

Your Servant nods, then takes a step backwards and vanishes into the shadows as the flare passes out of sight behind the treeline. After squaring your shoulders and working out an imaginary kink in your arms, you stride off towards where you think the flare was fired from.

It doesn’t take long to find your stalkers. As you slip carefully between the gnarled trunks of the trees you see them steadily approaching through the field via the same route you used. Almost step for step, in fact. Whatever else they are, there’s no denying that these Executors are fearsome trackers.

All three of them are here this time, including the old man who never showed up after his initial appearance. He is wearing the same ecclesiastical garments he wore last time, and doesn’t seem to be inhibited by his rather impractical robes. Now that you see him in motion you recognise the subtle energy in his stride, and the deliberate yet purposeful way he chooses where to step. Although slowed by the weight of years this man is clearly a fighter and not someone you should underestimate.

Particularly since he seems to be carrying a weapon of some kind. It’s…rather difficult to describe. It looks like a bizarre cross between a heavy spear and an enormously elongated crossbow, with a heavy blade resembling that of an axe running along the underside of the shaft. Frankly it looks absolutely ridiculous, but something about the way the moonlight glints off its polished metal surface makes you feel incredibly uneasy.

The other two follow behind him. Hempel is wearing his gas mask and holds his grenade launcher across his chest. The disfigured nun seems to hide in his shadow, almost invisible at his side. Her arms are wrapped with chords strung with innumerable rosary beads, and as the light from the dying flare catches upon them you marvel at how beautiful they-

You wrench your eyes away before they can ensnare you again. After taking a moment to gather your wits you take several long steps forward, rip a chunk of wood out of a nearby tree and hurl it at the Executors with all your strength. It’s a sloppy, clumsy attack that wouldn’t do any damage whatsoever, but that’s not the point. The point is to make it look like you’re putting up a ferocious fight so that when you start to fall back it’ll seem like it’s because you’re tiring rather than leading them into a trap.

Father White’s strange weapon sweeps up and slices the projectile in half with terrible speed, and his eyes rivet to your position immediately. He takes a step towards you, but you’re already in the process of flinging more and more chunks of wood towards him. White hews down every single one, then levels the weapon in your direction and pulls on a heavy crank set into its side.

A high-pitched whistling noise is all the warning you receive before a slender black projectile embeds itself in the tree you’ve been ripping into. It sinks six inches into the wood and quivers there for a moment, right between your splayed fingers. You stare at it for a moment, noting that it looks like an extremely slender Black Key, then stagger backwards as an intense pressure begins to radiate out from it, flattening the vegetation for twenty metres in all directions.

You barely manage to avoid being driven to your knees by an attack that is as much spiritual and conceptual as it is physical. Voices inside your head begin to whisper that you should just lie down, lie down and let nature take its course, lie down and let go of everything that binds you to the world. They tell you to lie down and die, and it’s suddenly all you can do to stumble away until the voices recede into nothingness.

Suddenly you realise that you won’t have to feign a retreat. It’ll be very, very real. And, right on cue, you hear the thump and hiss of Hempel’s grenade launcher from somewhere close by. The moving canister catches your eye as it bounces once, twice, then rolls through the leaves and comes to rest about five metres away from you. The cylinder clicks open.

You stamp your foot down, grinding it into the dusty forest floor. One good thing about fighting out in the countryside is the abundance of dirt and mud and earth. It makes doing simple things with your Earth element much easier. Right before the canister’s aerosol starts to spray its gas everywhere you focus on the ground beneath it, willing the particles of soil to loosen and come apart. The canister abruptly sinks into ground which now has the consistency of extremely fine sand and vanished out of sight. You send a thread of prana into the soil, causing it to harden into a brick of solid earth.

“Yeah, like I’m going to let you do that again.” You growl as Hempel stomps into view.

He aims his weapon at you, but you simply turn tail and run. You hear another thump, and a grenade lands twenty metres in front of you. You simply do what you did before and bury it under the ground. More thumps follow, and you get rid of all the cylinders you see with the same method.

You risk a look back over your shoulder and see Hempel thundering after you while White kneels in the background to take another shot at you. Without hesitation you fling yourself into a particularly dense thicket of brambles and start tearing through them with your claws. The sharp briars rip at your flesh but the damage you do to them is exponentially greater than the damage they do to you, particularly when you lengthen your claws to three times their usual length.

White’s aim is fouled by your sudden movement and his shot goes wide, but your detour through the undergrowth has slowed you enough for Hempel to close the distance between you. He slings his grenade launcher over his shoulder and draws a set of Black Keys, but you see them coming and dodge to one side as they cut through the air. You lash out with a kick aimed high at Hempel’s head, but the wiry Executor takes the blow on his forearm and takes another swing at you with his off hand.

You take a shallow cut across the face as you dance back. It hurts like hell but it’s not debilitating since it’s too low to start bleeding into your eyes. White appears out of left field and jabs out with the spear section of his weapon, eyes full of fanatical fire. You back away quickly and try to turn the ground under his feet into quicksand, but he seems to sense your intent and jumps back, white robes and golden pallium fluttering in the midnight air.

It’s only a few dozen metres to Scathach’s ritual site, and with the two Executors stalking forwards like mountain lions you realise that it’s do or die time. You reach out, drive your fist up to the elbow into the nearest tree and heave with every last ounce of strength you can muster. The wood groans, cracks, then bursts open in a shower of lethal splinters. The Executors cross their arms over their bodies and tuck their heads in, and the wooden shrapnel merely shreds their robes and reveals the body armour beneath.

In that moment of distraction you turn and flee back towards the clearing. By now a third set of running footsteps has joined the other two, and you don’t need to look back to know that the nun has finally caught up with the other two. A wolfish smile begins to creep across your face at the prospect of getting rid of them all, and as you breach the clearing a thrill of triumph begins to build within your cold, desiccated heart.

You keep running until you reach the other side of the clearing, then turn and wait for the Executors to arrive. Hempel arrives first, striding purposefully into the clearing with his grenade launcher in one hand and three Black Keys in the other. White arrives soon afterwards, working what appears to be his strange weapon’s reloading mechanism as he stalks forwards in Hempel’s wake. The nun doesn’t arrive until the others are three quarters of the way across the clearing, and by that point you’re all out of time.

“Scathach! NOW!!” You shout, and the night air carries your voice through the entire forest. White’s eyes widen and he tries to break into a run, but it’s too late. Scathach appears out of thin air next to you, raises a hand towards the clearing and barks a single phrase in old Celtic.

Bars of light shoot between the trees surrounding the clearing, linking each one into a great circle. They pulse rhythmically for a second and then widen into translucent walls of solid power, trapping the Executors inside. Hempel strikes at the barrier with his Black Keys, and though sparks shower from the impact they fail to leave any impression at all.

Purple light flares inside the clearing, growing brighter and brighter every second. A great rune reveals itself from beneath dead leaves and loose soil, and as you examine it more closely you see that it is made of smaller runes, all rotating and interlocking in ways your mind cannot quite comprehend. The light grows brighter and brighter, and a sound like a jet engine crossed with an angry cat begins to howl along with it, drowning out the sounds of the panicked Executors and their increasingly frantic attempts to free themselves.

You do hear them when they start screaming, though.

A split second later an explosion the likes of which you’ve never felt before rips you from your feet, hurls you several hundred metres into the forest and hammers you into the ground so hard it gouges out a crater beneath you. The earth beneath you trembles and shakes, and the trees above you begin shedding their branches as dozens of thunderous detonations rumble in the distance.

It’s hard to parse exactly what is going on, particularly with your head half buried in the ground. The whole forest is lit up with the same awful violet glow, though it starts to fade as the seconds tick by. The ground continues to shake for about half a minute, then the tremors also begin to peter out. You can smell burning, which is bad, but you’re pretty sure it’s not coming from you, which is good. You flop around like a landed fish until you manage to awkwardly heave yourself over onto your side so you can see what’s happening back at the clearing.

The sight in front of you isn’t one you’re going to forget in a hurry. The clearing and everything within about four or five hundred metres has been smashed flat as if by the fist of an angry titan. The scorched ground is as black as coal and blasted halfway to hell, and as you struggle to stand you see that what you thought was a mound of pushed up dirt is actually the lip of an enormous crater so deep it penetrates right down to the bedrock. The whole thing looks like one of those old photographs of World War Two artillery craters, only with smouldering violet fires all over the place.

Something grabs you by the shoulder, and suddenly Scathach is by your side, once again helping you stand. For a moment you stare wordlessly at the devastated ruin that used to be the middle of the forest.

“That…was pretty impressive.” You manage finally.

“Yeah, it’s probably my best offense.” She replies after a moments delay.

“It would have been doubly powerful if the barrier hadn’t contained most of its energy. It’s the same spell I used to kill the leviathans around Skye back when I first journeyed there. An enormous hammer of pressure and heat was the only thing that could crack open their scales.”

“Nearly cracked me open too.” You mutter drunkenly. Scathach raps you on the head, and the world spins a little.

“It’s okay. Not like there’s anything in there anyway.” She smiles.

You nod wordlessly. It…really is sobering, seeing what Scathach is capable of when she really goes all in. Schwere Gustav has nothing on Caster.

As one the pair of you begin to trudge back towards the car. As you pass by the crater the moonlight glints off something metallic. It’s the strange weapon White was using, apparently still intact despite Scathach’s incredible display of force. You hesitate, then send prana into the ground, which swallows the weapon up. Part of you hopes it’ll never be found, whilst another part shudders at the thought of what might have happened if you had chosen to fight White on open ground without any real cover. Of the Executors themselves there is no sign.

Then, at the edge of the forest, you come across the charred remains of the nun. Looks like you didn’t quite manage to trap her, but the proximity of the explosion did her in anyway. It looks as if her flesh was ripped off by the pressure wave and everything under it was cooked and burned black by the heat. The prayer beads have all melted into a chunky crimson sludge, and whatever compulsory powers they once had are no longer in force.

By the time you make it back to the car you’re mostly recovered. The Executors don’t appear to have done anything to your ride. Perhaps they had another plan in place in case you tried to make a run for it, or maybe they figured you’d just run down the next motorist to pass by and take his instead. Either way you’re soon driving back towards the city, grinding the gearbox to a fine powder as you go.

“So who do we hit next?” Scathach asks, her voice tinged with tiredness. You exhale slowly and keep your eyes on the road.

“For now? Nobody. We both need to rest up, I think. Taking a breather for a day is probably a good idea.” You smile and start drumming your fingers on the steering wheel.

“If we’re lucky our remaining opponents will damage each other in the meantime. Sound good?”

“Yeah, but it won’t happen like that and you know it.” Scathach yawns.

“Something unexpected will happen and Regulus will attack our base somehow, or Monty will show up with a dozen new apprentices, or someone from a previous War will show up and try to kick all of our-”

The car suddenly shakes as something heavy lands on its roof. You have half a second to wonder what’s going on before a barbed needle punches through the roof and nails your left hand to the steering wheel. You cry out in pain and surprise, and you suddenly have to fight to stop the car from swerving into the rather steep embankment.

Next to you Scathach curses as two more needles are thrust through the roof towards her. She twists aside from one, which pierces her seat instead, and grabs the other by the shaft before it can skewer her. Blood wells up as the barbs cut into her palm, but she succeeds in forcing the lethal instrument away from her throat.

The car shakes again, and a black shape suddenly blots out the window on the driver’s side. You look to the right and see a grinning skull staring back at you, surrounded on all sides by a flapping black cloak. Assassin clings to the side of the vehicle like some kind of monstrous spider, and before you can react he draws back his left hand and rams it through the glass.

The fragments slice into you as Assassin seizes you by the throat and tries to drag you bodily through the broken window. You try to brace yourself against the door but only succeed in buying yourself a fraction of a second to think about what to do next…!

1. Intentionally crash the car into the opposite embankment!

2. Hunker down and hope it gives Scathach a clear shot at him!

3. Punch Assassin in the face!

--

Assassin’s grip on your neck intensifies. It’s not a hold meant to choke or strangle; being already dead means you aren’t phased by such tactics, and Assassin knows it. It’s simply him adjusting his fingers in order to maintain his hold over you. You thrust out your right hand to try and shove him away, but you might as well be pushing mist, because the Servant’s cloak simply deforms around your hand and leaves you pushing at empty air.

Assassin’s grinning skull face seems to fill your vision as he slowly, relentlessly pulls you towards the broken window. Your left hand makes an awful sucking sound as the force of the pull slowly tears it up and off the needle pinning it to the leather steering wheel. A sudden, desperate plan worms its way into your mind as it finally comes free, and you curl your bloodstained fingers into a fist.

Attacking Assassin’s body won’t work. You can’t tell where his cloak ends and his body begins. But you can see where his face is. It’s behind that bone-white skull mask. As desperate plans go punching a Servant in the face is probably one of your crazier ideas during the past few days, but as far as you can see it’s your only option.

So you decide to damn well make it count.

Prana thrums through your body as you begin rejecting the World’s grip over you, denying its reality and substituting your own in its place. At your command the skin of your hand becomes a bony exoskeleton ridged with blades and lethal spines. The muscles of your arm warp and twist under your skin, enlarging well beyond their natural limitations. The blood still staining your palm begins to boil and smoke, filling the car with a foul and cloying scent of burning meat.

Assassin realises what’s about to happen and begins to draw away, but you reach out and seize a fistful of his cloak with your free hand. Steel flashes and your arm is suddenly pierced by no less than three needles, but your wild grab has bought you the time you needed.

Your monstrously enlarged fist connects with Assassin’s mask with explosive force, snapping his head back a full ninety degrees. The mask itself spins off into the darkness like some kind of ghastly frisbee. The dark skinned Servant topples backwards and hits the road with a dull thud, his body bouncing and rolling end over end before vanishing beyond the scope of the car’s rear lights.

“The wheel!” Scathach yells. You whirl in your seat and feel what’s left of your heart sink as a reticulated lorry ploughs towards you, its bright headlights shining like the eyes of the damned. It looks like you must have drifted onto the opposite side of the road during the struggle. The lorry blares its horn as you desperately wrench at the steering wheel, and for a brief moment it looks like you aren’t going to make it.

The juggernaut scrapes against the right-hand side of the Ford, tearing off the wing-mirror and stripping the paint from the bodywork. The car rocks about, and you have to fight to keep the vehicle under control. After a few moments of effort the shuddering subsides and the car levels out again, this time firmly on the correct side of the road.

“Well, that could have been unpleasant.” You hiss as your left arm begins to return to its normal shape. Whilst the feeling isn’t pleasant it’s certainly not the supernatural haymaker the World dealt you the last time you shifted. At this point you’re thankful for even small mercies.

“Let’s just get back quickly.” Scathach mutters, her voice tired and bereft of its usual sly mockery. She reaches down and pulls the needle from her palm, grunting at the pain, then rolls down the window and hurls it out into the darkness.

“Can do.” You reply, ramming your foot down on the accelerator. As the bright lights of the city slowly phase into view ahead you also make sure to keep an eye on the rear-view mirror, just in case Assassin decides to come back for round two. You aren’t naïve enough to think your punch actually put him down, even if Assassins aren’t the most physically durable Servants around.

---Intermission---

Rider blinked and looked up, suddenly aware that someone was talking to him. The medical orderly frowned and adjusted his glasses, then resumed his report.

“As I was saying, there is severe damage to the frontal lobe, with additional concussive trauma to the temporal lobe as a result of the impact. Fortunately, her condition is stable for now, but...”

The orderly took a breath and looked Rider in the eye.

“But, I am afraid there is a possibility that she will not wake up. And if she does, there may still be permanent damage.”

“I see.” Rider rumbled, nodding and folding his arms. He wore a slightly shabby grey overcoat in place of his usual armour, as well as a similarly grey pair of trousers.

When the hospital staff had asked him what his relationship to Irene was, he had answered that he was her guardian, which was close enough to the truth. Ever since she had first been wheeled into the operating theatre so many hours ago he had sat in the hospital waiting room, a sterile white area which smelled faintly of disinfectant.

“If you would like to wait here, we will inform you when circumstances change.”

Rider nodded and the orderly turned and walked away. When he was certain the man was out of sight however he stood up, turned around, then carefully began to walk towards the exit.

The physicians of this era were talented, but Rider knew in his heart that his Master’s injury was beyond their ability to heal. He had seen his share of head wounds over the course of many battles, and though an arrow or crossbow bolt was not the same as a bullet the results were identical. Perhaps a great spiritual surgeon well-versed in the arts of healing thaumaturgy could do it, but no such person was in the immediate area.

But the Grail was. If Rider could claim the Grail…

He could wish for his Master to be well again.

As he stepped out through the glass double doors of Blackpool General Hospital Rider looked down at his hands. The skin on his palms was puckered and bumpy with age, and the undersides of his fingers were covered with swordsman’s callouses. But despite their desiccated appearance they could still wield a blade flawlessly. Rider had outfought men forty or fifty years his junior with those hands, even when he should have been in his dotage. Skill and experience and an unyielding will had kept him in the fight despite the ravages of old age.

Experience in particular had been the key, Rider felt. It didn’t matter if an opponent was stronger, or faster, or wielded a better weapon. As long as you knew exactly what you were capable of you could control a battle from its very outset. Right now that same experience was telling Rider one thing.

He only had one good fight left in him.

Irene had never been a great source of Prana. The amount Rider received from her was barely enough to overcome the amount required to perpetuate his presence in the mortal world. Now that she was unconscious and on the verge of death, Irene wasn’t giving him anything at all. The trickle of Prana had effectively dried up.

Right now he was operating at less than half capacity, and that amount would only decrease from here on out. The longer he waited, the less chance he had of winning the Grail. Though it pained him to leave his Master in such a vulnerable state, he had promised that he would support her. And the best way of fulfilling that promise was to take action immediately, while he still had the strength to do so.

Rider didn’t know where the remaining players in the War were hiding. But he had tracked down bandits and outlaws before, and there were only a few places left in the city where a magus could practice his art unseen.

“I have but one card left to play.” He growled to himself, resolving to make it count.

---Intermission End---

“Damn. There goes my no-claims bonus.” You sigh mournfully as you pretend to inspect the damaged Ford.

It’s quite a sight to behold, with a shattered window, dented side-panels and numerous perforations courtesy of Assassin’s needles. Which is why it is currently parked down a dark, rubbish-strewn side street on the outskirts of the industrial district. The last thing you want right now is to draw too much attention to yourselves, particularly when any one of the pedestrians walking by might actually be one of Reggie’s goons.

For this reason you make the rest of the journey on foot, taking special care to keep to the shadows. Several times you feel as if someone is watching you, but every time you turn around the street behind you is empty. Scathach seems to sense it too, keeping one hand on the hilt of her sword, which is itself drawn about three inches out of its sheath. The feeling persists until you step into the block of buildings where your lair is hidden, whereupon it suddenly vanishes without a trace.

“I don’t like this.” Scathach whispers, scanning the area from left to right.

“Me neither.” You reply, eyeing the rooftops. Someone was definitely watching you, but exactly who is impossible to say.

Your state of alertness lasts until you shut the door to your workshop behind you, whereupon you finally allow yourself to relax. Scathach immediately strides over to one of the pillars ringing the room and sits herself down by it. She presses her back against its slightly curved surface and closes her eyes without a word.

Before you do something similar you ponder what your next move will be once you resume activity in two days time. There are a few things you can do, but the best course of action would probably be to:

1. Find and eliminate Monmouth. He may have lost his Servant but he’s still a powerful unknown variable.

2. Find and eliminate Irene Hellespont. Though her injuries are severe, it might be better if they were permanent…

3. Attempt to track down Reggie’s base of operations.

--

Of the remaining Master-Servant teams there’s really only one who remains a legitimate threat. Regulus and Assassin have proven themselves to be cunning, opportunistic and resourceful. You managed to outwit him once before, but that only served to slow him down for a while. You still aren’t sure what he’s truly capable of, and it’s a fair bet to assume that whatever artefacts he stole from Pryke’s ship will only make him more dangerous as an adversary.

But Regulus also made one critical error, and that was to not finish you off when he had the chance. His cunning appears to be tempered by vindictiveness, and that is something you might be able to exploit. With that thought in mind you settle down against the wall of your workshop and prepare to get some rest. Regardless of what happens you’re going to need to be at full capacity when you get around to fighting him.

--

For the first time in a long while you find yourself dreaming. It’s been a long time since images of Scathach’s life forced their way into your head during your sleeping hours, but this dream is different, even though Scathach herself is also in it. It starts off with you and her walking down a narrow flight of steps. The walls on either side of you are rough and bumpy and appear to be made of natural rock. Likewise the stairs are also pitted and uneven, with varying widths and lengths that force you to keep one eye on the ground at all times.

You descend for what seems like an age. The stairway is dark and smells faintly of mildew, and the only sound is the soft echoing of your footsteps. The bare stone of the tunnel coupled with the screwy perception common to all dreams make it difficult to tell exactly how far you have gone, but as you proceed the stairs gradually become smoother and longer. Eventually they level out entirely, and you find yourself walking down a long tunnel.

“Where are we going?” You ask. Your voice comes out sounding slightly distorted, as if you’re talking through a faulty walky-talky. Scathach turns her head slightly to look at you, her expression unreadable. After a few moments she turns away again, and doesn’t respond even when you repeat the question.

After a minute or an hour you catch a glimpse of light somewhere up ahead. It grows brighter and brighter as you keep walking forwards, and it doesn’t take you long to realise that you are approaching the end of the tunnel. Beside you Scathach quickens her pace, forcing you to jog in order to keep up. The light grows brighter and brighter, swelling until it seems to fill your entire field of vision.

You step into the light…and emerge into a cavernous underground chamber the likes of which you’ve never seen before. Unlike the roughly hewn stone walls and steps of the passage before the chamber is constructed out of perfectly smooth stone. The floor is made of flawlessly carved blocks of white marble packed together so tightly it’s almost impossible to see the cracks. Carved Romanesque pillars rise up to support a sloped ceiling, which is also made of tightly-packed marble.

The outer perimeter of the chamber is slightly sunken compared to the rest and is filled with several inches of still water. The water reflects the light shining out from the very centre of the room, causing it to resemble a ring of molten gold. A stone bridge leading from the entrance is the only means of crossing it, but even if it wasn’t there you could wade across with no difficulty at all.

You slowly step across the bridge and begin to walk between the columns. As you approach the centre of the chamber the brilliant glow begins to resolve itself into a mighty pillar of light, stretching from a deep circular recess in the floor all the way up to the chamber’s domed ceiling. The glowing column pulses rhythmically, like a beating heart, like the sun passing through a patchy bank of clouds.

Yes, that’s what it looks like. The sun you haven’t seen in such a long, long time.

As you reach the base of the towering pillar of light the air becomes thick and heavy. Tightly-wound energies, barely contained, hum and buzz around you, and you suddenly get the mental image of a highly compressed spring ready to go off at any moment. It’s the first time you’ve seen or felt anything like it, but nonetheless you instinctively know what it is.

“The Holy Grail…” You whisper, unable to keep the awe out of your voice.

“That’s right. Now our wishes can be granted…” Scathach murmurs. She takes a step forwards and reaches out a hand towards the light, her splayed fingers casting dancing shadows across the curved walls and ceiling. Of course, she wants the Grail to hear her wish. It’s only natural; after all, that’s the reason Heroic Spirits cooperate in the War to begin with. It’s nothing to worry about…right?

You freeze, and the dream freezes with you, Scathach’s fingers only an inch or so away from the light. Yes, the Grail can grant your wishes. But…if Scathach makes her wish, will there be enough energy left over for you to make one as well? What if the remainder isn’t enough? Hell, what if the amount in there right now isn’t enough?

The souls of six Heroic Spirits reside within the Grail. Just by the look of it you can see that it contains a colossal amount of Prana, more than you could ever use even if you lived ten lifetimes. But your wish, to remove the limitations of being a vampire and transcend from a lowly Dead Apostle into something infinitely greater violates so many natural and thaumaturgical laws that even that amount might not be sufficient.

But if a seventh soul were to be added, then perhaps…

The Command Seals on your palm begin to itch. You stretch out your hand towards Scathach’s exposed back, and then…!

--

You awaken with a start. The memories of the dream slip away, like sand between your fingers. You remember vague details, but nothing specific. Something about the Grail, and Scathach, and…something.

The lair is suffused with a faint blue glow. You slowly climb to your feet and edge out from your sleeping spot against the wall. As you step forwards the light resolves itself into a glowing circle on the floor. The perimeter of the circle is arranged in an odd, helix-like pattern, with two lines weaving through one another at regular intervals.

The inside of the circle is even stranger, full of so many angular lines and blocky shapes it’s nearly impossible to see the floor through them. As you step closer you suddenly realise that what you first took to be ritual lines are actually map contours surrounded by buildings; a miniaturised version of the map of Blackpool marked on your wall.

The silvery fragment of Regulus’s core magic circuit hangs suspended in the air about four feet above the circle. Blue light pulses around its outline and then radiates outwards at regular intervals. The light spills down onto the map below, spreading out in concentric rings once it touches the stone floor. The pulsing, expanding waves of light remind you of a sonar scanner, starting in the middle of the diagram and then radiating outwards towards its outer edges. Every time it happens, a portion of the southwestern part of the city lights up for a brief moment.

You pause and consider what you are seeing for a moment. The ritual is clearly some manner of tracking charm, though the exact mechanics of it elude you. You crane your neck around and notice that Scathach is still resting against her pillar, though her poise is slightly different from before. She must have set the ritual up at some point over the last day or two when you were resting.

After a moment of hesitation you crouch down and examine the map part of the ritual. The lit-up area covers a portion of the Blackpool docklands and a large part of its industrial district. Most of it is comprised of unused or abandoned buildings like the one you currently inhabit. Funnily enough your lair actually falls within the illuminated zone, although you’re fairly sure you’d have noticed if Regulus was your next-door neighbour.

You turn your eyes to the larger map on the wall. There are only so many places inside the illuminated area that Regulus could use as a hiding place, particularly if you’re right about him using human familiars. They’ll need food and shelter just like any other normal person, so it’ll have to be somewhere big enough to house them all. Of course, exactly how big will depend on how many there are. In the end it’s probably best to plan for the worst case scenario and investigate the three most spacious areas on the map.

The first potential area of investigation would be the old power plant that you considered using as a battlefield to take down the Executors. It’s fairly run-down and ramshackle after twenty years of disuse, but it’s the largest of the three potential targets and it was a spot you actually considered basing your own lair in after your flight from Oxford.

The second-largest hiding place isn’t actually in the city, but rather underneath it. There’s a sewer control sub-station near the southern harbour, and though the station itself is middling in size the sewer system around it is incredibly extensive. Old Victorian-style sewers always are. As an added bonus the Blackpool leyline just happens to run right through it.

The last place you can think of which might be Regulus’s hiding place is a motorway service station just outside the city limits, on the very edge of the illuminated zone. It’s a fairly isolated area and it would be really easy for Regulus to disguise his familiars as travellers or employees there.

It could be any one of the three, or it could be none of them. If your search turns up empty then it’ll at least give Scathach’s ritual time to narrow the area down a little further. After putting some thought into it you decide to investigate:

1. The power plant.

2. The sewer sub-station

3. The motorway service area.

--

Your eyes are drawn towards the rectangular block and the cluster of smaller squares around it representing the motorway service station on the outskirts of the city. If Regulus needs to conceal and take care of a large number of human beings like you think he does then that would be a perfect place to do it. He could hide his familiars in plain sight and send them into the city at will whilst raising no suspicion whatsoever.

The more you think about it the more sense it makes. It’s not the most defensible area, nor is it in any way magically advantageous to set up there. But in terms of ruthless practicality and the way it plays to his strengths it’s probably the best possible location for someone like him to set up in.

You turn away from the glowing ritual circle and walk over to Scathach. Her eyes spring open as soon as your shadow falls across her. She looks at you briefly, then over at the ritual behind you.

“Has it…?” She begins, wasting no time.

“Not quite.” You reply, glancing back over your shoulder. The silvery thread continues to rotate slowly in mid-air as the light pulses around it.

“But I think I have a good idea of where our target is hiding now.”

Scathach stares at you for a moment, then shrugs and rises to her feet. You can tell immediately that the rest has done her good; the swiftness and surety with which she moves is almost identical to the night when you first summoned her so many days ago. You can’t see any traces of her prior fatigue.

Good thing, too. The chances that either of you will have a decent chance to rest are going to be slim from now on.

“Okay. What’s our first move?” Caster asks.

You smile.

“Well, I do happen to need a new car…”

---Intermission---

Lord Henry Monmouth, peer and lord of the Association, sat alone in the train car. He had sent his remaining apprentices away on an errand half an hour ago, and their task would last at least that long again. As he stared out the window at the landscape flashing by outside and listened to the gentle throbbing beat of the train’s engine, Monmouth was finally able to come to terms with something that had happened three days ago.

He had lost.

It had taken a while to sink in, but the moment he had felt Saber’s presence vanish was the moment his role in the Grail War had ended. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and for the last two and a half days Monmouth had stubbornly lingered in the city in an attempt to avoid taking it. In the end, after spending days fruitlessly searching for another Servant and coming up with increasingly unlikely plans to snatch the Grail from the winner at the last moment, Monmouth had finally come to his senses and enacted the escape plan Saber had drawn up for him.

Monmouth scratched at his moustache as regret and relief warred inside his heart. The Association would likely ridicule him for his failure, with the more conservative elements using it as evidence that the Grail War was a waste of time. In his current state Monmouth could hardly blame them. The endeavour had cost him his health and the lives of nearly all of his apprentices, and what had he gained in return?

The old Lord stopped scratching and allowed his hand to drop into his lap. Paper rustled beneath his fingers, and the sensation was enough to tear his gaze away from the window.

A thick wad of paper lay in Monmouth’s lap, all covered with Saber’s handwriting. The writing was in a language he didn’t recognise – not Latin, of that he was sure. Old French, perhaps? Regardless, Monmouth couldn’t read it. But there was a certain rhythm to the layout, an evenness to the writing that he could immediately identify as a verse form of some description.

One of the less noted aspects of Richard the Lionheart’s life was his talent for writing troubadour songs, or cansos as they were known at the time. Only a few fragments of the originals survived, but Saber had taken the time to rewrite them all from memory. They would probably be worth a fortune if Monmouth could somehow prove that they were genuine.

His eyes flicked up from the papers and wandered back over to the window. London was the train’s first and only stop. Once he returned to his palatial dwellings there perhaps he would look into finding someone who could teach him how to read what Saber had written. Until then, though, all he had ahead of him was a lonely journey back home.

---Intermission End---

“Alright, here we are.” You mutter as you flick your indicator on and shift over into the slip-road leading up to the service area. It’s a small place compared to a lot of service stations, probably as a result of being fairly close to the city. As you pull into the car park you spy a McDonalds, a petrol station and an uninspiring concrete block, presumably containing a handful of shops and a restroom or two.

“I’m not sensing any Bounded Fields.” Scathach remarks, frowning. You look at her for a moment, then quest out with your supernatural senses. Just as your Servant noted, there don’t seem to be any active magical defences anywhere near the station.

“Maybe he’s not using any. He seems like the sort of person who’d do that just to throw off anyone trying to investigate.” You murmur as you manoeuvre the car into a free parking space between a Corsa and an expensive-looking Mercedes. It’s more difficult that it should be since the Mercedes is slightly over the line and the car you’re driving happens to be a large four-by-four.

Eventually you give up and just push your way in, scratching the other car’s paintwork and knocking off one of its wing-mirrors. Serves him right for double-parking. You open the door, which further shoves the Mercedes aside, then stalk around to the concrete block. From the outside it looks completely normal, but…

“Something isn’t right.” You growl. Behind you Scathach inclines her head in agreement. It doesn’t take a genius to realise what’s up.

“Where is everybody?”

The whole area is completely silent. Even the sound of cars passing by in the distance has a muted, woollen feeling to it. You crane your neck around, but no matter where you look you can’t see a single other human being in the area. The only things in the car park that are moving are Scathach and yourself.

You hesitate for a split second, then start towards the revolving doors. Maybe it’s just a coincidence; perhaps everyone is inside the building.

Yeah. Right.

You push through the revolving doors, keeping your senses on high alert. The interior consists of a central corridor which runs the full length of the building, with a communal eating area in the middle. The usual assortment of shop fronts radiate off on either side of the corridor – W.H Smiths, M&S Simply Food, One-Stop. There’s a small arcade as well, and at the far end signs pointing to the male and female restrooms. The eating area is ringed with the fast-food shops not cool enough to have their own stores outside – KFC, Little Chef and a few other brands you don’t recognise.

Every single one of them is completely deserted. The lights are on, the shelves are stocked, and the electric hum of air conditioners provide a blanket of ambient sound, but aside from that the building is completely still.

There’s definitely something wrong here. Service stations like these are supposed to be staffed twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, but you can’t even see anyone manning the tills.

“Can you feel anything?” You ask Caster. She frowns and begins to walk down the corridor ahead of you.

“Hmm. There is…something. It’s very subtle, but I can feel traces of a magical working of some kind.” She places a hand against the wall and trails it along behind her as she walks.

“Yes, there’s definitely something here.” Scathach continues, this time with far more certainty. Her voice echoes slightly along the empty corridor.

“It seems to be an anti-personnel field that redirects outsiders via subliminal compulsion. Very subtle and difficult to detect, but only because it was built up slowly over months and months. No wonder neither of us could detect it from the outside.”

“So, there’s definitely someone here.” You nod to yourself and begin to search the immediate area. Unfortunately, without a strong magical signature that means picking through the entire building by hand. After a couple of hours of searching you come across a trapdoor leading to the building’s basement in the employee’s section of W.H Smiths. You waste no time in wrenching the whole thing off its hinges and dropping down to have a look.

The basement is clearly used as a communal storage area for all of the different stores up above. The room is divided into neat sections, each labelled with the name of a different shop, and here and there you can see other trapdoors on the ceiling above. It doesn’t take you long to find a second trapdoor nestled away in a corner.

“I’m pretty sure small service areas like this don’t generally need sub-basements.” You whisper as Scathach comes up behind you.

“No rust on the hinges. And the metal itself is clean.” Caster remarks, tapping the trapdoor with the butt of her staff. You exchange knowing glances, then dig your fingers under the latch and gently raise it up. A ladder descends into the darkness below. It goes down about fifteen feet before it hits the floor, which is paved with black bricks. Even here, at the entrance to what must be Regulus’s workshop, you can’t feel any active thaumaturgy.

That doesn’t mean you don’t feel anything, though; a prickling sensation runs through your hands as soon as you finish levering the trapdoor open, and the air is suddenly suffused with a sullen tension. It’s a feeling which brings to mind the mental image of a mouse slowly nibbling away at a piece of cheese whilst the spring-loaded jaws of the mousetrap start to quiver…

“Alright. Let’s get this over with.” You say out loud, banishing the image. You haul yourself over the lip and drop down, landing at a crouch. Scathach follows moments later, landing without so much as a whisper.

You find yourself at the end of a narrow corridor. The walls and floor are lined with black bricks, and the sole source of illumination comes from a series of fluorescent hemispheres set into the ceiling at regular intervals. You still can’t sense any thaumaturgy, so you cautiously advance down the corridor.

The hall slopes downwards as you walk down it, and the atmosphere grows steadily colder. The air is silent at first save for the whisper of your footsteps, but after about a minute a grating, grinding sound begins to filter in from further ahead. It’s a mechanical sound, the sound gears and traction belts make as they grind together. It makes you feel distinctly uneasy somehow.

After a short period of time the corridor broadens out, and you step into a roughly spherical room a few metres across. Four more corridors branch off from here, each heading in a different direction. Something glints in the gloomy half-light shed by the fluorescent bulbs, and you quickly notice that all four of the new corridors have bronze plaques mounted above them. Words are etched into each of them.

“Atelier”

“Storage”

“Quarters”

“Dynamo”

The sound of machinery appears to be coming from the corridor marked “Dynamo”.

You do your best not to sigh. Why are the hallways labelled? What is this, some kind of cheap dungeon crawl? Regardless, it looks like you’re going to have to pick a particular area to investigate. Your first instinct is to go for the jugular and head straight for the Atelier, but that will certainly be heavily defended. It might be better to cause a distraction elsewhere.

You decide to head for:

1. The Atelier, the heart of Regulus’s workshop.

2. Storage. Let’s see what our old friend has been stockpiling.

3. The Quarters. Maybe you’ll find something of interest.

4. The Dynamo. Just what the heck is that machinery you keep hearing?

--

Checking Regulus’s storage area first makes the most sense. It’ll give you an idea of the resources at his disposal, and anything you can steal or destroy will make your job that much easier when you do confront him. Who knows? Perhaps you’ll find some of what he took from Pryke’s ship in there.

You turn to look at Scathach, then jab a finger at the left-most passage, the one beneath the plaque that reads ‘Storage’. Her eyes narrow in understanding and she immediately marches over to the doorway. After a few moments of checking for unseen defences she motions you over. The passage beyond is much the same as the one you used to gain entry to Regulus’s base, at least at first. As you proceed however the corridor slowly widens and the fluorescent bulbs overhead become more frequent.

After about a minute doorways begin to appear on either side of the hallway. The first dozen or so are empty, their floors covered in a fine layer of dust, although a closer inspection reveals numerous clean patches indicating that large rectangular objects were once placed there. The thirteenth room is different; it’s half-filled with packing crates. After checking for more unseen defences or alarms, you break one open to see what’s inside.

The light from the fluorescent bulbs glints as it shines down on dozens of tin cans. You pull one out and turn it around. According to the label, it contains Soy Beans. You put it down and break open the next crate; it contains packets of rice.

“Basic foodstuffs.” You mutter.

“And twelve room’s worth have already been consumed.” Scathach adds, glancing over your shoulder. She gives you a significant look.

You understand her meaning immediately. This War has been going for about two weeks. That equates to approximately one room emptied per day. And these rooms are, what, twenty metres by forty? That’s a lot of storage space. More importantly, that’s a lot of food being eaten. You’re not precisely sure how much food the average human needs in order to keep going, because it’s been a long time since you’ve needed to worry about that. But you do know that rice and beans contain pretty much everything the body needs aside from protein.

All of it begs the question; just how many mouths does Regulus have to feed?

Putting the question aside for now, you leave the room and continue on down the corridor. The next few rooms also contain food similar to what you’ve already found. After that come a row of walk-in freezers containing various kinds of meat. Despite thoroughly searching every room you find no traces of magical reagents or any of the objects Regulus took from Pryke’s ship.

Then, just as you are starting to get really frustrated, the central corridor abruptly ends. Your sense of anticipation returns as you behold an enormous steel door is set into the wall ahead. It reminds you of the door Pryke had on his ship, though this one is clearly from a different manufacturer. This door is square-shaped and braced with half a dozen metal bolts, and a keypad set into the steel frame beside it glows softly in the gloom.

“This must be where Reggie keeps his big guns.” You say quietly.

“There are a number of Bounded Fields surrounding the door.” Scathach murmurs.

“They look like silent alarms, though. Nothing that’ll cause any direct damage to an intruder.”

You nod and take a moment to examine the door more closely. It fits with Regulus’s actions so far. Perhaps he’s only really talented in a few specific areas, or maybe he simply didn’t see the need for fancy defences when his hideout is already concealed so well.

Either way, it works in your favour.

“Okay then. Caster, disable them, if you would.”

Scathach nods, then raises a hand, palm faced towards the door. She waits until you’ve retreated to a safe distance, then begins to chant under her breath. The air is briefly electrified as magical energy gathers around her, an invisible force that makes your hair stand on end. The power whips around the door, and you get the sudden impression of wires being cut at strategic points around the metal frame.

“It’s done.” Scathach says simply. You nod and walk back up to the door. There is a possibility that Regulus has installed more mundane sensors that will inform him of attempts to break into his vault, but you judge it to be worth the risk. If you’re quick you can destroy or steal whatever happens to be inside before he arrives. You crack your knuckles unnecessarily, square your shoulders, then take hold of the steel bars set into the door and heave on them with all your strength.

You have to give the security company that made the door credit; it doesn’t come off easily. The first heave simply rattles it. The second causes it to groan and come forwards about half a centimetre. The groan becomes a shriek after the third, and a snapping of metal accompanies the fourth. The fifth and final heave tears the steel locking mechanism apart. The door swings open, accompanied by a rush of cold air.

It certainly is an impressive display. Row after row of metal tables line the inside of the vault, each and every one laden down with boxes full of reagents, ritual implements, vials of chemicals and, at the very back, shelves stuffed with more books on magical theory you’ve ever seen in one place before, except perhaps in the great library at the Association Headquarters in London. The walls are lined with sturdy glass-topped cabinets containing dozens of Azoth daggers, ivory rods, jewel-tipped sceptres and other devices which are obviously Mystic Codes of some description.

“Well, I think we’ve found the mother lode.” Scathach breathes. Even she sounds impressed by the sheer scope of Regulus’s magical arsenal.

“All of this, just for the Grail War? It seems a tad excessive.” You mutter, bending over to examine the contents of the cabinets in more detail. Each and every one of the daggers is filled to the brim with Prana, enough to enact a full ritual without recharging.

“Perhaps it’s not meant for the Grail War at all.” Scathach muses darkly. She reaches out and begins pawing through the boxes and small crates piled on top of the metal tables.

“I don’t like the sound of that. Care to elaborate?”

Your Servant shrugs and continues rooting through Regulus’s supplies. She opens a box and pulls out something that looks like a length of animal bone inscribed with numerous whorls and sigils, studies it for a moment, then sets it aside and moves on to the next container.

“Well, it’s just a hunch.” She replies at last. “But the way all of this is arranged looks less like a magician’s private stash and more like a military supply depot. If I were to come here without knowing any of the context behind it all, I’d assume whoever owned it was getting ready for war. And not the small scale ‘battle between seven magi’ kind of war either.”

The smug feeling of superiority at having found Regulus’s horde quickly evaporates as you consider the ramifications of Scathach’s hypothesis. Admittedly, you are almost certainly missing many pieces of the puzzle that is Regulus Ahngrave, so it’s impossible to tell exactly what all of this stuff is for, but Scathach’s instincts have usually been accurate. If Regulus is planning for some kind of conflict which surpasses the Grail War in scope and intensity…

...Regardless, it just goes to show how dangerous this guy is.

You search the room from top to bottom, but find no trace of any of the stuff Regulus took from Pryke. He must be keeping them in another area, possibly in his Atelier or personal quarters.

“Okay, if there’s nothing else then I think we’re done here.” You say out loud when you’ve finished checking the final few cabinets. Scathach makes an affirmative sound from somewhere nearby. You begin to walk back to the entrance, then pause once you reach the cabinet nearest the door. After a moment’s hesitation you draw back your fist and smash the glass, then reach in and pluck four Azoth daggers from the velvet-lined interior.

No sense in passing up some easy-mode magic. Besides, Regulus owes you for those revolvers.

“Alright, stand back.” Scathach warns as you step out through the vault doors. She whirls her staff in an arc, then jabs the blunt end through the doorframe and barks a word in old Celtic.

A cacophony of screeching thumps reverberate through the air as the Prana within the Azoth daggers spontaneously combusts. Wood splinters and glass shatters as the cabinets explode into burning, blazing fragments. Scathach slams the butt of her staff against the floor and a glowing rune appears beneath it, and suddenly the burning debris clumps together into a single huge fireball in the very centre of the vault.

The fireball expands like an angry sun, becoming redder and redder as it grows. Metal melts at its touch, and bundles of magical reagents burst into multicoloured flames which are then absorbed into the expanding inferno. A wave of heat washes through the vault door and hits you like a tidal wave, scalding you and causing your clothing to smoulder around the seams. As the red giant reaches its apex its light grows steadily dimmer. Then, when it reaches the last rows of tables it shudders to a halt, groans, and collapses in on itself with a rather underwhelming pop.

A gust of wind fills the corridor as air rushes in to fill the vacuum caused by the blaze. You lean over and take a look inside, but nothing remains inside the burnt and blackened vault except for the twisted remains of the outermost tables. As you draw your head back the fluorescent lights overhead abruptly shift in colour to an angry red, painting the corridor the colour of fresh blood. A pealing wail begins to sound from somewhere deep within the complex, accompanied by a distant rumbling noise.

If Regulus didn’t know you were here before, he certainly does now.

Very quickly you consider what to do next. Staying here and waiting to be cornered is probably a bad idea. A far better plan would be to:

1. Take the initiative and confront Regulus at the Atelier (Assuming he’s there).

2. Add insult to injury and raid Regulus’s Quarters before reinforcements show up.

3. Attempt to cut the power or impede the complex’s systems by assaulting the Dynamo.

--

You’ve destroyed Regulus’s main stockpile, but that doesn’t mean he’s not hiding more stuff elsewhere. If it were you, you’d keep at least a few more powerful items close by just in case. If Pryke’s artefacts really are that powerful it would make sense to keep them within easy reach. Which would mean putting them in either the Atelier or Regulus’s personal quarters.

The Atelier is likely to be heavily defended and should probably be your final target. That’s not to say that his quarters will be any less so, but you must admit that it would give you a certain amount of satisfaction to burn everything this guy owns to the ground. He’d deserve it, too, for not killing you when he had the chance.

“Come on, Caster.” You growl as you begin to stride back down the corridor. “We’re going to redecorate Regulus’s room. I might not stop even after I’ve turned all of his furniture upside down.”

“I must remember not to hire you on as an interior designer in the future.” Scathach replies dryly. She cocks her head to one side and frowns.

“Watch out, Master. We’ll be getting company very soon.”

About ten seconds later you hear shouting just up ahead and three figures erupt out of the darkness ahead. One is a brawny man in his forties with a shaved head and a broken nose who looks like a nightclub bouncer. The other two are women, one a youthful blonde wearing a miniskirt and a white blouse, the other a much older and dumpier brunette in a tracksuit. All three have a slightly glazed look in their eyes, though not nearly the same dead-eyed expression as Regulus himself.

The three falter as soon as they see you, but recover mere moments later. The man powers ahead, drawing a wicked-looking knife from a sheath at his thigh. By contrast the two women hang back and fumble briefly at their sides. Gunmetal glints, and suddenly sub-machineguns appear in their hands.

“Useless.” You mutter. You wait until baldy is about an arm’s length away, then spin aside and flatten yourself against the wall. He reacts quicker than you expected and tries to arrest his forwards momentum, but it’s not enough to stop him from ploughing past you. As he does, you bring the edge of your hand down on the back of his meaty neck, which breaks with a satisfying crunch.

The two women immediately open fire. In the confines of the narrow corridor the noise is deafening and there’s no room to evade the hail of bullets being sent your way, bouncing and ricocheting off the walls, floor and ceiling. You race forwards to intercept the gunners, but the sudden motion alerts them to your position. Both begin to track you with their weapons, and a heavy line of impacts erupts across your chest as the bullets slam into you. Several of the lights overhead burst, showering you in burning-hot fragments of glass, but both them and the bullets are an annoyance rather than a real threat.

You slip one of the Azoth knives into your palm and hurl it at the blonde just as Caster levels her staff at the other woman. The knife spins through the air, the light glinting off its slightly translucent blade as it tumbles end over end towards its target. Your anticipatory smile turns crooked when you realise that your aim was slightly off, and it slips further still when the knife hits hilt first and bounces off her midsection, drawing a grunt of surprise rather than blood.

Scathach sighs, then tightens her grip on her staff. A bar of violet fire as thick as your arm bursts from the tip and rockets down the corridor, banishing the shadows and filling the air with the smell of brimstone. She flicks her wrist, slewing the searing ray of incandescence left and right so that it passes across both targets. The beam blasts bricks from the walls and slices through the gunwomen as if they were made of paper, bisecting them both at the waist and igniting both halves as they tumble to the ground.

“That’ll teach me to show off.” You mutter darkly.

Scathach smirks, but you ignore her. You stoop down and retrieve the knife, and though you’d like to take one of the guns as well the heat of Scathach’s spell seems to have melted them into unrecognisable black lumps. The three people you just killed were probably scouts sent to investigate the vault rather than a real attack force, if their weapons are any indication. If so, it’s probably best to get a move on before more heavily-armed familiars start showing up.

You shake your head ruefully, then step over the burning corpses and fragments of brick and slowly make your way back towards the central hub. Although you remain alert for danger, nothing else jumps out at you.

“Something’s happening.” Scathach growls, her head tilted towards the path leading to the Atelier. You frown, then concentrate. Sure enough, you feel a slow, heavy buildup of energy resonating from deep within the workshop, but without actually going there and seeing it directly it’s impossible to determine what it actually is.

“We’d better move quickly.” You reply curtly, then hurry on through the doorway to Regulus’s personal quarters.

The corridor beyond is similar to the one leading to the storage area, albeit much shorter. It also ends in a door, though this one is a simple metal panel rather than an enormous bomb-proof slab of solid steel. You grasp the handle and turn, then step forwards into the quarters area of the workshop.

It takes you an embarrassingly long time to realise your mistake, because it takes your undead brain a couple of seconds to make sense of the sight that greets you as you step through the door. Anticipation turns to confusion, which then turns to irritation, anger and dismayed realisation. It’s the sort of feeling you get when you realise you’ve been scammed, only far more life-threatening.

The room in front of you is roughly rectangular and reminds you of an American superjail. The floor is little more than a walkway around the perimeter, surrounding a vertical drop which seems to go down several storeys. As you approach the edge you see similar walkways further down the sides of the hole, as well as corrugated metal stairways running between them. You count ten levels in total, including the floor at the very bottom.

The walls of each floor are ringed with twelve doors, four to any particular wall. Like the door you came in through these ones are made of metal, though they also have see-through portholes set into them near the top. All the floors are the same, except for the very bottom, which has thirteen doors instead of twelve. The odd-door-out is much larger than the others and has a white, sterile look to it.

You remain silent for a moment, then turn and slowly walk over to the nearest door. You peer in through the porthole, although you fancy that you already know what you’ll see inside.

Unfortunately your suspicions are not in error. The room beyond is small, and in keeping with the prison theme is about the size of your average cell. Well, it’s more like a science fiction prison cell, to be honest. Metal piping dives in and out of the walls at irregular intervals, and the ceiling is a mess of wires. Blocky devices which look like monitoring equipment are set into the floor, and a glass cabinet whose contents you can’t quite see takes up the whole back of the room.

And lying in a small hollow in the floor is a human being. This one is a young man of about twenty, twenty five years of age, dressed in jeans and a black T-Shirt. His eyes are open, but blank and unseeing, and he appears to be in some kind of trance. Looking closely you see that a medical shunt has been implanted into his left arm, trailing a cable which feeds into the base of one of the monitoring devices.

You take a step back, turn, then walk to the next room over. This one is the same, although the occupant is older and wears a suit and tie.

“Well. This is…I’d say interesting, but horrifying seems more the right word.” You say quietly.

“The sign wasn’t referring to Regulus’s quarters.” Scathach observes, the tone of her voice similarly soft.

“It was referring to where he kept his familiars.” You finish for her.

Ten levels. Twelve rooms on every level. Assuming the other rooms all house a single occupant, and taking into account the four familiars you know to be dead, that’s one hundred and four familiars total. Plus whatever’s behind the white doors at the very bottom.

…That’s a metric ****load of familiars, no matter how you slice it. Your average magus could never handle this many basic familiars, no less the far more complex human beings. Scathach’s hypothesis about Regulus is making more and more sense by the minute.

Your first instinct is to simply order Scathach to fill the room with fire or collapse the roof, but the thought of what could lie behind the white doors at the bottom stills your tongue. It could be the doors to Regulus’s actual quarters, protected by simple proximity to the resting places of his familiars. Or it could be something else important, who knows?

Your instincts are split, and you have to admit that you’re honestly curious about just what the hell Regulus is up to. After a moment of frantic deliberation you decide to go down and see for yourself, though part of you still wants to just nuke the place and be done with things.

“Scathach. We’re going down.”

Scathach nods, then reaches into one of her pouches and tosses a small white object at you. You catch it, opening your hand to reveal the carved fragment of dragonbone Scathach has been working on for several nights now. The finished item looks somewhat like an arrowhead with viciously serrated edges. Golden runes glitter across it, their angular edges violent and cruel under the fluorescent light.

“What’s this for?” You ask.

“In case something bad happens.” She replies. “The enchantment will react to your blood. If you find yourself in a really bad position, cut yourself with it. The ancient prana within will flow out and into you. For a few moments, you can cast whatever you like without worrying about the cost.”

You twist the talisman between your fingers, careful not to prick yourself on its sharp surface.

“Sounds pretty convenient.”

Scathach shakes her head.

“A normal magus probably wouldn’t be able to handle it without dying or going insane. But a Dead Apostle can. Probably.”

“Probably, huh.” You tuck the bone fragment into an inside pocket. With luck you won’t have to make that gamble.

You walk over to the stairway leading to the next floor down and descend it slowly, attempting to make as little noise as possible. It’s irrational, you know – if the familiars could wake up thanks to noise they would have done so already – but doing so feels safer, somehow.

The second floor is much like the one above, as is the third and fourth. Every so often you check one of the portholes, just to make sure your numbers are correct. You see people of all shapes, sizes and genders ensconced inside, human beings from all possible backgrounds and walks of life penned in together like some kind of bizarre zoo of humanity.

You are just about to set foot on the next stairway when you hear a loud click from up above. You pause and lean out over the railing, craning your neck up to look up the central shaft. Moments later there is a muffled crash of breaking glass, a heavy, metallic scraping noise, then the quick staccato rapping of footsteps on stone. A black-haired head pokes itself over the railings, its eyes scanning left and right for signs of movement.

It’s the same boy you saw earlier, the one in the black T-Shirt. You try to pull back beneath the overhang of the walkway above, but the motion draws his attention. With smooth, mechanical motions the youth raises another one of those sub-machineguns and opens fire, spraying the area around you with whizzing, hissing bullets.

As if the gunfire was some kind of signal, a crescendo of clicks echoes throughout the chamber, starting at the top of the room and rapidly descending towards the bottom. You hear movement from up above, and more crashes of breaking glass. More familiars begin to poke their heads and upper bodies over the railings, some holding sub-machineguns, others with carbines and shotguns, and still more who carry no weapons but drop into spellcasting stances.

“Well now. This could be a problem.” You scowl.

As you see it, you have two options. You can try to fight your way back to the top and then have Scathach nuke the room as you originally planned. With a Servant by your side there’s a good chance you can do it, but if Assassin happens to show up things could get extremely complicated extremely quickly. Plus it means fighting up through seven floors of these guys, with more coming out behind you as well.

On the other hand, you could jump down to the lowest floor and go through the white doors at the bottom. Maybe you’ll find something useful in there; at the very least you can barricade yourself in and plan a way to maybe tunnel out via earth magic. Of course, doing that means putting yourself on the defensive and potentially giving up the initiative.

Thinking quickly, you decide to:

1. Fight it out!

2. Go through the white doors!

--

“The doors!” You shout, ducking out of the way as a hail of bullets slam into the ground where you just were. Trusting in Scathach to follow your lead, you grasp the railing with both hands and haul yourself over. The ground rushes up to meet you, but a three storey fall is nothing to a Dead Apostle. You hit the ground heavily, drop into a roll and come up running, sprinting through a maelstrom of bullets and multi-coloured magical discharges towards the white double-doors.

Beside you Scathach twists and looses a blast of electrical energy from between her cupped hands, sending ribbons of searing light ravening towards the highest concentration of familiars. You hear the thunderous crash of impacts behind you, but there’s no time to turn around and see the extent of the damage.

You hit the doors at a run, not even bothering to slow down to open them. They crash open as you barrel through, bouncing off the walls, their hinges popping and groaning under the strain of the impact. You catch a brief glimpse of the room beyond – white, sterile walls, flashes of steel equipment, bright lights – then you spin yourself back around towards the entrance, ready to take on anyone who tries to come after you.

“Out of the way!” Scathach yells, jabbing her staff towards the doors. You twist aside and flatten yourself against the wall as a shimmering concave disk the size of a football shoots out from the tip.

The disk expands as it travels, growing larger and thicker until it hits the doors and seals itself around them, covering them in a slightly oily-looking barrier. Almost immediately a line of bullet holes stitches its way across the length of the double-doors. Concentric rings of energy flare up where they strike the shield, but despite the intensity of the fire none of them manage to penetrate.

“That should hold for a while.” Scathach says confidently, her voice echoing slightly.

You smile appreciatively, then turn in a slow circle, taking in the details of your surroundings.

The room you are in now is rectangular, with a somewhat low ceiling that you can reach up and touch without much effort. The floor is made up of white tiles interspersed with a handful of small square gratings that appear to lead down into a drainage system. As with the rest of the base the room is lit by fluorescent lights, although these are noticeably dimmer than the others you have seen so far.

In terms of furniture the room resembles an operating theatre. Four metal tables are bolted to the floor, each surrounded by cabinets and gurneys. Enormous light arrays are set into the ceilings above them, currently switched off but still visible due to their sheer size. A stainless steel worktop runs from one end of the far wall to the other, with sinks set into it at regular intervals.

Boxes of medical supplies are neatly stacked in the gaps between them, and several trolleys loaded up with scalpels, needles, medical gauze and IV bags are lined up next to them. It’s very faint and layered over with the smell of anti-septic, but there’s no mistaking the scent of blood pervading the area.

It looks like someone was here quite recently, because one of the tables is occupied. An elderly woman with a y-shaped incision running across her midsection is strapped to it, her eyes blank and unseeing.

“It looks like we just missed him.” Scathach nods her head towards the woman on the table.

“Maybe if we had got here a little earlier…but there’s no point in worrying about that now. More importantly, this must be where Reggie…engineers…his familiars.” You remark slowly, scanning the room for any signs of movement.

“Correct, Apostle.” A female voice booms from behind you. You spin around, vampire claws extended, but there’s no one there. A split second later you see it; a small speaker nestled into a corner.

“Congratulations on surviving the sinking of the Grey Albatross.” The voice continues over the intercom. “Ever since I first met you I had a feeling we would be the only ones left standing at the very end. It’s nice to know that my intuitions were correct. Although…it is somewhat distressing that you managed to track me all the way here.”

“Yeah, well, you only have yourself to blame for that.” You respond warily. “After all, you had the perfect chance to kill me and passed it up. If you had, you might even have won the War by now.”

The speaker goes silent for a few seconds, and for a moment you’re not sure if Regulina is still on the line. Then the intercom crackles to life once again.

“…Indulging in vindictiveness has always been an unfortunate vice of mine. When someone makes me suffer, I want to make them suffer in return. Surely, as an Apostle, you can understand that? Don’t you want to make me suffer, for humiliating you and leaving you to die on that ship?”

“Not especially.” You reply with a shrug. “I mean, it was pretty embarrassing, but it would be even more pathetic to throw everything away in pursuit of a worthless grudge. Maybe if the stakes were lower, but when the Grail is the prize there’s just no sense in indulging yourself unless it also furthers your own chances of success.”

“Interesting. But in the end it doesn’t really matter, does it? You stand in the heart of my power, buried under a significant amount of rock. My thralls are ready to obliterate you as soon as you set foot outside my tuning chamber, and even if you manage to somehow kill all of them, you’ll have to deal with me.”

“And even then, as long as even one of my potential hosts is alive, I can transfer myself away with little effort.” Regulina’s voice drips with condescension and derision, a far cry from her usual tonelessness.

“Oh, and you were actually wrong about one thing,” She continues, “I wasn’t the one who used this room last.”

“Huh? What do you mean by th-”

There’s no warning. One moment you’re staring daggers at the intercom, the next you’re staring at the ceiling, its pearly white surface now splattered liberally with your blood. One of Assassin’s lethal needles protrudes upwards from between your ribs, thrust all the way through from behind with bone-shattering force. You barely have time to register that you’re under attack before a horribly clammy hand reaches up and clamps itself around your head. Its thick, sausage-like fingers twitch, compress, then wrench violently.

In one moment of crystal clarity, you both feel and hear your neck break. It’s not a clean, clear snap, but a horrible grinding sensation, like a car being driven across thick gravel. As you fall bonelessly to the floor you catch a glimpse of a long black cloak and a chalk-white mask shaped like a skull.

Seconds too late Scathach comes to your defense, her jagged sword leaping into her hands. Assassin nimbly jumps away, his flapping cloak obscuring the rest of his body as he flies through the air. He lands on the far wall, grasping at it with all four limbs and scurrying across it like an insect.

“Master, are you all right?” Scathach blurts, shaking you by the shoulder. That causes your head to loll backwards and forwards, which isn’t the most pleasant sensation in the world.

“Bastard nicked my heart.” You wheeze after spitting out a mouthful of blood. Well, actually he did more than that - from what you can tell he speared right through your aorta. A direct hit would have killed you outright, but perhaps that degree of precision aiming wasn’t possible under the effects of Presence Concealment. Regardless, you’re still alive…barely. If you don’t do something quickly…

“Hold him off…while I get myself back up.” You growl. Scathach snarls and steps past you, angling herself so that her body is directly between Assassin and you. Assassin responds by unleashing a barrage of thrown needles, some directed at Scathach herself, others at your prone form. Caim Frithis whirls in a series of looping arcs, deflecting every single one.

Meanwhile you awkwardly tear the needle out of yourself and set about trying to heal the gaping wound in the major artery above your heart. The wound itself is so major that even your Curse of Restoration is having trouble fixing it, and you have to actively send your own energy there to supplement it – but nearly all of that simply bleeds away the moment it gets there.

“It’s like a freaking sinkhole.” You mumble, your voice thickened by the blood still clogging your throat. Every second the wound remains open you lose a little more of it. The loss weakens you and lessens your ability to try and fix it, meaning you keep losing blood, and so on and so on in a vicious cycle that you can’t seem to stop no matter how hard you try.

Above you Scathach continues to prevent Assassin from finishing you off. During a lull in the barrage of needles she flings out a hand and fires a series of purplish energy bolts at Assassin. The projectiles blast chunks from the walls and force him to jump to the ground, whereupon he dives beneath one of the tables, his black cloak trailing him like the tail of a comet. Metal groans and medical equipment is sent flying as the masked Servant rips the table up from the floor and uses it as a makeshift shield, erratically darting out from behind it to hurl handfuls of needles at Scathach. One of them slips through her defences and scrapes across her side, drawing a splitting hiss of pain from her lips.

Things aren’t looking great for you right now. Your efforts at healing yourself aren’t going well, and Scathach can’t fight effectively whilst babysitting you at the same time. If only you could just jam in a spare heart, that would be great.

Wait…

That’s it!

You grit your teeth, tense up, then plunge your forefinger and thumb into the wound caused by the needle. White-hot pain courses through you as you push past muscle and nerves and bone, forcing aside your ribs and splintering your sternum. The pain sublimates into an icy cold void as your pinched fingers brush against the surface of your heart, a sensation which utterly drives home the fact that you are now on the knife’s edge between unlife and final death.

Steeling yourself, you slowly inch your fingers upwards until they find the soft, fleshy protrusion of your aorta. With great care you start to feel around it, probing it with your fingers and committing its size, shape and structure to memory. After about half a minute you feel confident enough to enact the plan that will either save your life of kill you outright. With an effort of will you shut off the flow of energy supplementing your Curse of Restoration. In exchange, you redirect the energy inwards, into yourself.

The transformative power that awakened within you on board the Grey Albatross activates once again at your command. It writhes within you, a shapeless, formless mass, one part prana, one part unlimited potential. Externally you shove your fingers into your aorta, widening the wound and nearly causing yourself to black out. Internally you seize hold of this power with your mind and shape it, mould it into the exact shape of what your aorta used to look like before it was pierced, extrapolating for the missing details caused by the wound as best you can.

Your fingers quiver and tremble, then fuse together and separate from the rest of your hand. They grow and become rounder, transforming into a new bundle of arteries that swell inside the old until they burst it from within, taking its place and sealing the breach in the process.

The tide of blood flowing out of you stops abruptly as your Curse of Restoration finally gets itself in gear and seals the external wounds. You pull your hand out before it can become trapped inside your chest, then set to work fixing your broken neck, which is comparatively much simpler. Once everything is fixed you rise unsteadily to your feet.

On the other side of the room Assassin pauses for a moment, and though you cannot see his face his posture is one of slight surprise. This moment of hesitation is just enough for Scathach to nail him in the chest with another bolt of energy, which sends him flying back across the room. He hits the wall at the end with a thump and slumps to the floor, mismatched limbs twitching.

“Master, how are you? Can you fight?” Scathach asks tersely.

“I’m alive…but the healing took a lot out of me.” You reply truthfully, wincing as the transformed flesh settles within you.

Scathach frowns as Assassin slowly picks himself up off the floor.

“Alright. In that case I recommend you leave this place and go after Regulus while I keep Assassin busy.”

“Why not take Assassin together? He won’t catch me off guard a second time. Plus there are over a hundred familiars outside who’d just love to make getting out more difficult for me.”

Scathach shakes her head.

“Ordinarily I’d agree on the first part, but as you just said, you aren’t at full strength. Coming down here was meant to get us away from the familiars, but between armed familiars and an enemy Servant the former are definitely easier for you to deal with.”

She eyes Assassin warily, raising her sword into the guard position.

“I hate to say it, but against Assassin you’d just be a hindrance. I’ll drop the barrier for a moment so you can run through. The rest is up to you.”

You bite down a sharp retort and nod your head in agreement. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. You’re caught between a rock and a hard place, but in this case the hard place is something you might just be able to scale, with a good strategy and some luck.

“Okay. Give me three.” You turn and run towards the doors as fast as your legs can carry you. Assassin’s head swivels to track you and he hurls two handfuls of needles all along your path. Scathach dives parallel to them, deflecting each and every one before slamming her hand to the floor, unleashing a rippling wave of energy which bursts outwards in an enormous ring.

The barrier surrounding the door flickers and vanishes as the wave hits it. As you approach you consider what you’re going to do when you crash through and into the firing lines of all the familiars on the other side:

1. Use your shapeshifting to give you an edge and fight your way up level by level, using your Azoth knives as needed.

2. Immediately find or create some cover, then use your Azoths and earth magic to tunnel upwards and ambush the defenders from an unexpected angle.

3. Attack initially, then try to raise the corpses as Dead and have them do the rest.

--

You crash through the doors and stumble out onto the concrete floor. Dozens of familiars ring the walkways above, and as your momentum carries you forwards you immediately stumble into a hail of gunfire. The heavy chatter of automatic weaponry fills the air, rifles, carbines and sub-machineguns all merging together into a brutal cacophony of sound laid down so thickly it’s almost a single note.

Bullets kick up puffs of concrete around your feet, and several ricochet up and strike you in the chest and sides. You keep running, trying to stay ahead of the gunmen above even as they labour to lead you with their weapons. As you run you know you’re thinking the same thing they are; that if they can focus their fire for even a moment you’ll be cut to ribbons, vampire reflexes or no. Against so many enemies, one bad hit to the leg is all it’ll take.

So you make sure they never get to take that shot. You pick a spot on the opposite wall and run at it, fumbling for one of the pilfered Azoth knives as you do. There’s no time for anything remotely fancy; you simply inject a bolt of raw, unstable prana into the already-full knife before hurling it at the wall ahead.

The knife sparks and flashes as it flies, the now oversaturated reserve of prana within it reacting violently as the energy tries and fails to find a way out. It hits the wall with a miniature thunderclap, blowing a metres-deep hole into the concrete as the magical energy violently grounds itself in a solid surface. The detonation sends tremors through the room, and for a moment the gunfire slackens.

The few seconds of hesitation are enough time for you to cross the intervening space and dive into the crater. You flatten yourself against the side of the hole, shielding yourself from view. A few of the familiars above continue to pour fire in the direction of the hole, but the vast majority of the guns quickly fall silent.

You move quickly, knowing that it won’t be long before the familiars send a kill team down. Palming another of the knives, you quickly scratch out a ritual symbol on the cracked, crumbling ceiling above and swiftly run through a basic incantation. What you’re about to do isn’t particularly complicated, it’s just moving rock and stone around, but you’re going to be doing a lot of it so even a slight amount of preparation will help immensely.

Footsteps ring out on the metal walkways above you. In the absence of gunfire your enhanced hearing picks up a rather unnerving detail – every single one of the footfalls is in sync. There’s no trace of the irregularity or variance you’d expect to hear from a group of people of different shapes and sizes moving together. They sound like an army drilling on the parade ground, only more efficient and with less wasted movement. Is Regulus perhaps co-ordinating them from afar? It wouldn’t surprise you.

No matter. With luck, your next move will send them all into disarray.

You reach up and thrust the Azoth knife into the ceiling, chanting Latin nonsense phrases as you do. The blade slides into the solid concrete as easily as if it were jelly, sending a plume of dust rattling down on your head. The Prana within the knife begins to reverberate as you take hold of it and force it into the concrete, filling it with a simple, basic concept that even an apprentice could manage.

“Compress.”

Concrete isn’t natural rock, but it’s not too difficult to adapt your magic to make it work. In fact, it might actually be easier, since even well-manufactured concrete is bound to have more air bubbles inside it than granite or limestone. At your command a wave of pure kinetic force flows outwards from the knife, filling all of the air bubbles by compressing the concrete around it in a ring which travels outwards at incredible speeds. The hole made by the knife immediately widens from about an inch to four feet as it rapidly expands into a roughly circular cavity leading up into blackness.

The Azoth knife’s blade dulls to the colour of worn steel as the magical energies within it are completely depleted. You slip it back into your coat and then leap up into the newly created tunnel, then proceed to climb up it by bracing your arms against its narrow sides. It’s difficult to judge distance in the pitch blackness of the shaft, but you estimate that it extends up at least two or three storeys at least.

Once you reach the top of the shaft you brace yourself with one arm and thrust another Azoth knife into the concrete above. You repeat the ritual once again, extending the shaft upwards another twenty feet. Once again, you clamber up to the top and pull out the final knife, but this time you don’t drive it into the ceiling. Instead you push it into the wall, angling it so that the shimmering blade points diagonally upwards through the concrete. There’s no way to tell exactly where you’ll be coming out, so you’ll just have to wing it and hope for the best.

Mindful that you probably have only a few seconds left before the familiars discover what you’re doing, you slam your palm into the pommel and unleash the Azoth’s destructive potential into the wall. You don’t bother compressing anything this time; the eruption of magical force should be enough. A sound like a hammer hitting a flat surface echoes through the tunnel. The wall in front of you explodes into a lattice of deep, ugly cracks, then disintegrates completely as the full power of the knife pulverizes it, leaving a jagged hole wide enough to step through without needing to duck.

The debris from the blast is still falling as you swarm out of the gap. You expect to fall at least some distance, but your foot immediately hits the twisted, buckled metal decking of one of the pit’s perimeter walkways. The battered steel groans under your weight, but you’re already in motion, taking in the scene in front of you even as you erupt from the billowing cloud of cement dust.

You’ve come up at just above the halfway point between the bottom of the pit and the top. Most of the human familiars are on the walkways below you, although a few are stationed on the upper levels as well. Their guns are still aimed towards the bottom of the pit, but the closest familiars are in the process of turning towards the source of the explosion you just caused.

The closest familiar, a middle-aged man with an athletic build and tattoos all up his arms, doesn’t even have time to blink before you seize him by the arm and flip him over the railings. The next familiar raises her miniature carbine and fires wildly into the cloud of smoke and dust surrounding you, hitting only air until you rip the gun out of her hands and empty the remaining bullets into her chest. The third familiar attacks you with magic, sending a stream of crackling lightning through the air towards you. You leap aside from the incandescent bolts and cling to the walls, allowing yourself a small smirk as the electricity arcs downwards into the less resistant steel of the walkway. Before the energy even finishes dissipating you draw your now inert Azoth knives and throw them at the familiar, your smirk widening into a vicious smile as both sink hilt-deep into his abdomen.

Turns out you can throw knives just fine, thank you very much.

By this point the other familiars have wised up to what’s going on, and massed gunfire erupts from below. But none of them have a clear view of you, and compared to before their shots lack all discipline and unity. As you break the neck of a fourth familiar and cast his body into the massed ranks of his fellows standing on the level below the level of cohesion drops still further, and for a brief heartbeat you wonder why that is.

Perhaps Regulus’s control wavers whenever one of his familiars dies? Is there some sort of spiritual or psychic feedback which travels back to him? If so it would explain his desire to acquire Eudokia Hellespont’s Magic Circuits, with their affinity for mental manipulation and thought control.

Regardless, it’s something you can take advantage of.

There aren’t any more familiars on the walkway you’re on. A scattered handful prowl the walkways above you, but the vast majority are below, with more and more boiling upwards onto the level directly beneath you every second. As the seconds tick by their movements and rate of fire become more co-ordinated; if your hypothesis is correct then it’s a sure sign that Regulus is recovering and exerting his control once again.

You duck down as the gunfire intensifies, narrowly avoiding being struck in the face by a hail of shotgun pellets. The comparatively flimsy steel of the walkway is quickly being perforated, and it won’t be long before the familiars above you find a good spot to shoot at you from. Out of the corner of your eye you see some of the familiars from the level below begin to ascend the stairs up to your own walkway, clearly attempting to outflank you.

Even so, the advantage still rests with you. You still have the initiative, even if only barely. That being the case, you decide to:

1. Use a Command Seal to summon Caster, then obliterate the enemy familiars all at once.

2. Retreat up to the top of the area using the walkways for cover, then lock the familiars in and go to the Atelier.

3. Rip out the support struts bolting your walkway to the wall, then use it to crush the familiars beneath you to death.

--

You ram your fist into the concrete wall next to you. Your vampire claws effortlessly burrow into the man-made rock, gouging through it as if it were made of play-dough. You keep pushing until your arm sinks in up to your elbow, a good foot and a half deep. Then you twist your wrist with all your might, as if turning an invisible ignition switch, simultaneously sending a pulse of raw kinetic energy to the eight points where the metal walkway connects with the wall. The concrete grinds against your hand, but it yields nonetheless, quivering and shaking as it conducts your magical energy to its destinations.

The walkway’s support struts groan and shift as unseen forces wrench them a full ninety degrees to the right. Metal bends, twists, and finally snaps under the vice-like pressure, filling the air with the shriek of protesting steel. The ground trembles beneath your feet as the supports fail one by one. The walkway begins to sag in places as the skeleton supporting it breaks and crumples under your magical assault.

On the walkway below you the familiars suddenly freeze. They stare up at the trembling walkway hanging above them, and in that moment their dead eyes suddenly come alive with fear. In the next instant they begin to surge towards the stairs leading down towards the lower levels, shouldering one another aside and dropping their weapons in their haste to reach some small measure of safety.

But there’s nowhere near enough time for any of them to get away.

The metal platform lets out a final forlorn groan before tearing free of its mountings and plummeting the dozen or so metres down to the level below. A feeling of weightlessness suddenly overcomes you as you plunge down with it, a feeling that is abruptly terminated two and a half seconds later as the walkway smashes into the heaving mass of familiars underneath. A cavalcade of wet, meaty crunches echoes throughout the room, accompanied moments later by the duller, more uniform sound of metal hitting metal.

The force of the blow knocks you off your feet, almost sending you over the railings before you manage to snake an arm around the base of the guardrail. As you haul yourself back up you catch glimpses of shattered bodies and crushed limbs on the platform below. The raw, pungent and unmistakably metallic aroma of fresh blood and pulped organs fills the air. Silence descends over the pit, save for the occasional groan of metal as the walkway settles onto its new foundations.

A quick scan reveals that the few familiars who managed to survive by dint of being on another level have collapsed as well. They clearly aren’t dead – you can see their limbs twitching slightly – but the enormous feedback from the deaths of so many of his familiars must have really messed up Regulus’s connection to them. You smile wolfishly and silently congratulate yourself on a job well done; now all that’s left is the cleanup and then you’ll be free to go and put a boot up Regulus’s-

The twisted, crumpled metal plating beneath your feet suddenly lurches violently, throwing you off-balance. Steel creaks, stone crumbles and dead bodies squish in a gruesome crescendo as half of the second walkway’s mountings buckle under a weight they were never designed to carry. You just barely have time to grab hold of the base of the guardrail before the mass of buckled metal that used to be two separate walkways breaks loose from the wall and plunges down.

The hurtling mass of debris hits the next walkway down, pancaking into it and ripping it free of its moorings in turn. The wreckage ploughs through each walkway in turn, stripping the sides of the pit bare until finally the accumulated mass of metal smashes itself to pieces against the concrete floor. The impact snaps your head back, and a support strut winds up punching through the metal and bending your spine to an angle of almost ninety degrees, but you manage to remain conscious through all of it.

The enormous heap of scrap and pulverized flesh groans softly as it settles. Once you’re sure it’s not about to collapse in on itself you slowly pick yourself up, brush yourself off and take stock of the situation.

It’s a pretty grim sight. The floor is littered with chunks of concrete, twisted metal and bloody meat. The rubble has completely blocked the white doors leading to the operating theatre where Assassin and Caster are presumably still fighting it out. You could probably dig your way through, but it would take a while and you’d risk being buried alive if you messed up. Aside from a few bent support struts still driven into the walls there’s nothing left of the walkways until about halfway up the shaft, but that’s not much of a problem since you can easily climb your way back up even without staircases.

More problematic is the issue of the mangled corpses half-buried in the rubble. Admittedly it’s rather difficult to tell now that most of them have been thoroughly pulped on the way down, but after a quick headcount you realise that there’s no way all of Regulus’s hundred or so familiars were here in the room with you. At best there are forty or fifty corpses here, give or take a dozen or so bodiless limbs.

“Did Reggie pull some of his forces back to protect his Atelier?” You wonder aloud. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Without Assassin to protect him he’d have to put his faith in massed numbers in order to protect his interests here.

You briefly consider hauling out some of the relatively intact corpses and turning them into Dead to help you in the upcoming battle, but dismiss the thought almost immediately. Regulus might have enacted countermeasures to prevent his own familiars from being used in that fashion, and even if he hasn’t raising them would take time – time Regulus can use to strengthen his defences. Plus, getting them out of this pit would be a pain.

No, best to simply get out of here and strike while the iron is hot. You stride over to the nearest wall, dig your claws into the concrete and start to climb. It takes a few minutes, but eventually you reach the underside of the walkway above the one you originally brought down. The stairway that used to connect them together hangs down like a metal tongue, its base now opening onto empty air.

You swing yourself up and prowl up the remaining walkways level by level, stopping only to snap the necks of any surviving familiars you come across. There aren’t many; most were on the level below you. On the way you pick up a miniature carbine of indeterminate make, dropped by one such familiar in his frantic yet clumsy attempt to get away. Lucky you, it still has a full clip.

The door at the top of the room is slightly ajar. You kick it off its hinges without much effort, then step over the splayed bodies of the two familiars who thought they could ambush you behind it. When you reach the familiar crossroads you turn down the passage marked ‘Atelier’. You hope it’s not a cunning ruse and you’re actually about to walk into a garbage compactor or something.

The lights overhead gradually grow brighter and brighter as you forge ahead, the fluorescent bulbs overhead being quickly replaced by high-powered strip lighting. The walls also change, going from triangular black bricks to rectangular blocks of solid granite. You reach out a hand to brush against the stone and feel a subtle pulse of energy winding its way through the walls. It’s too weak to be a defensive or sensory bounded field, and so you reason that it must be a kind of supernatural cordon, a boundary line meant to keep magical energy from bleeding away into the rock.

So probably not a garbage compactor, then.

The corridor ends, as always, with a door. This one is different from the others, being made of sturdy oak panels bound together by iron bracers. It looks like the sort of door you might find in a castle or the classier sort of European palatial estate. Wide enough for three people to walk through and twice as tall as you are high, the door seems to radiate a sense of finality despite its relatively simple design.

“Well, here goes.” You mutter to yourself.

“Time to see what Reggie’s inner sanctum looks like.”

You reach forwards and push open the door. It swings inwards silently on well-oiled hinges.

You stand at the top of a semicircular staircase leading down into a vast chamber. You can’t tell its rough shape or size, because the room itself is cloaked in shadow. The only illumination comes from a series of deep pits carved into the floor, each of which radiates a ghostly blue glow. The ceiling is so high up that it warrants the use of large, angular pillars to hold it up. There doesn’t seem to be any particular pattern to how these pillars are arranged, and from what you can tell they seem to have been erected at random throughout the room.

As you step forwards cautiously more details reveal themselves. Thick wooden tables dot the room, piled high with alembics, vial holders and other magical equipment. Most have been overturned to form makeshift barricades, their contents now scattered all across the cold stone floor. Your eyes pick out flickers of movement from behind the pillars and tables, and your ears the click of firearm safety mechanisms being disengaged.

“So you managed to survive. Again. How very irritating.” Regulina’s voice echoes from out of the gloom. There is no arrogance or condescension in her voice this time, just frustration.

“Well, you know what they say. If you want a job done, you should do it yourself. Why don’t you come out here so we can get this over with?” You respond, shouting the words into the darkness. Strangely your voice doesn’t echo despite the vast amount of empty space.

“That is exactly what I intend to do. Of course, I won’t be doing it precisely alone…” Specks of illumination appear in the shadows as some of Regulus’s familiars begin to focus magical energy into offensive spells.

The brightest point is at the very back, where Regulina herself stands. The pool of illumination extends halfway up the wall behind her, revealing another wooden door that apparently leads even deeper into her atelier. She’s still wearing the combat fatigues and webbing she wore before on Pryke’s ship, but instead of shiny black combat boots her feet are adorned with the simple leather boots she looted from the Collector’s vault.

They clearly aren’t the only things she took, either; a sword made of crystal or perhaps glass hangs at her belt, next to a simple black storm lantern that looks like it was made in the nineteenth century. A necklace of obsidian beads hangs around her neck, shining darkly in the light gathering around the ancient Chinese-style hand fan she holds in her hands.

Five Mystic Codes. Five Mystic Codes that the Collector believed would guarantee him victory if he was forced into a direct confrontation. Well, you always knew this fight wasn’t going to be easy. In the split second before Regulina and her familiars can act you decide that your strategy for dealing with them all will be:

1. Go straight for the jugular. Take the most direct route to Regulina and only attack familiars who get in your way. Concentrate on evasion and speed and strike her down before the weight of fire brings you down.

2. Kill every familiar you see. If you can cut down enough of them, the psychic feedback could overwhelm Regulina and make it easier to cut her down when you finally reach her.

3. Conceal yourself and sneak through the room until you’re in a position to deliver a fatal blow to Regulina herself.

---Intermission---

Scathach growled in frustration as Assassin yet again slipped aside from what should have been a fatal blow. The enemy Servant moved with a boneless, almost serpentine gait, flowing back from her cuts like a piece of cloth caught in a strong breeze. His dark cloak flapped around him like the membrane of a deep sea creature, obscuring everything within it and making it hard for her to get an angle on his misshapen body.

Assassin danced back across the room, slipping under tables and vaulting over upturned gurneys. Every time he landed he unleashed a hail of wickedly barbed needles, some aimed directly at Scathach herself, others at the areas around her where she might try to dodge. For the most part they all missed, struck down by her sword mid-flight, but a few bloody tears in her armour whispered the uncomfortable truth – she was being worn down.

Meanwhile she had yet to land a single hit in return.

Assassin relied on speed and obfuscation in order to fight. That much was obvious, even to an outsider with no knowledge of combat. Trying to engage him directly was something she should never have done to begin with, but it had been necessary to allow time for her Master to escape. Now, though, that limitation no longer applied.

Assassins and others who struck from the shadows tended to have limited endurance. A good assassin rarely needed to engage in protracted combat with his mark, and a bad assassin could never qualify as a Servant. That being the case, Assassin himself had probably hoped to kill her Master immediately and then simply hold her off until she ran out of Prana and was wiped from existence by the World.

Unfortunately that hadn’t happened and Assassin had been forced into the absolute worst situation an ambush fighter could stumble into; a drawn-out battle to the death with someone who could actually fight. True, he was more agile and acrobatic than she was, and the chances of her outflanking or outmanoeuvring him were minimal. On the other hand, if she landed even one solid hit on his limbs or body those advantages would be severely compromised.

But landing that hit would be hard. She would have to corner Assassin, find some way of limiting his speed, stop his cloak from getting in her way and deliver a truly debilitating hit, all the while evading whatever he could throw at her. Could she do it? Did she have the means to lock her opponent down to such a degree without him ever seeing it coming or being able to evade her?

Scathach took a breath and calmed her mind to stillness. The knowledge of a thousand different battles hummed beneath the surface of her psyche, engrained so deeply into her being that it bordered on an instinct. It was child’s play to tap into that wellspring of knowledge and come up with a strategy that would see her victorious.

Several plans immediately sprang into her mind. She decided to go with the one that would end the fight as quickly as possible.

Scathach took two quick steps to the left and thrust her free hand under the lip of the nearest surgical table. She tensed and, gripping the metal edge so hard her fingers dented the steel, effortlessly tore the table free from the bolts holding it to the floor. Without waiting for Assassin to react, Scathach spun with a smooth grace belying the weight she carried, letting the entire mass fly free at the apex of her spin.

The table flew through the air, trailing surgical tools and medical supplies behind it like the tail of a comet. As soon as it left her hand Scathach dashed after it, ramming her shoulder into its metal underside and driving it forwards across the room like a steel-plated battering ram. She gritted her teeth as Assassin’s needles began to punch slender holes in the metal to either side of her, instead using their relative direction and the angle of the ragged gaps they left behind to pinpoint his location.

It didn’t take long. Scathach’s arm snapped out, grasped one of the heavy metal legs of the table and tore it off with a squeal of tearing bolts. Clutching the impromptu club tightly to her chest, the witch slowed her step for a brief moment, gathered her limbs under her, then vaulted over the flying table in a perfect high-jumper’s arc.

Below her Assassin’s skull mask slowly swivelled upwards, tracking her movement. His hands twitched, and his body began to turn, but froze midway there, paralyzed with indecision. If he attacked Scathach, the table would smash him flat. If he tried to stop or evade the table, Scathach would stab him in the back. Scathach landed in a fighter’s crouch just as Assassin decided to try and take a third option. His scarred and brawny left arm darted out to stop the table just as his slender right lashed towards her, five needles clasped in a six-fingered fist.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Assassin’s right arm unfolded like a striking viper, but as fast as it was Scathach simply had more combat experience. She parried the blow with Caim Frithir, shearing through four of the five needles before its serrated edge locked against the barbed shaft of the fifth. Assassin’s knees buckled as the table rammed into his outstretched hand, denting the metal surface and shoving him two or three inches across the floor as his body fought to bleed off the raw kinetic energy of the impact.

Scathach struck then, in the brief moment where her foe was off his balance and unable to run. Not with her sword, which she used to lock down Assassin’s other arm, but with the broken table leg. Pouring Reinforcement magic into her limbs, Scathach rammed the club forwards towards Assassin’s centre of mass. Her quarry saw it coming and just barely managed to slip aside – but she had never intended to hit him to begin with.

The table leg drove against Assassin’s long, heavy cloak and nailed it to the surface of the table. Assassin’s body jerked as it suddenly lost the freedom of movement it had enjoyed moments earlier, nearly causing him to fall. His head whipped around, and he extended his unnaturally long left arm to try and clear the obstruction.

Scathach’s blade immediately took it off at the elbow.

Assassin writhed soundlessly, lashing out with his remaining arm in a desperate attempt to haul himself over onto the other side of the table, to use it as a shield against her. Black blood dribbled from the stump of his left arm, far thicker and more viscous than normal blood. On the ground next to him the severed appendage shuddered and twitched, fingers curling and uncurling like the legs of an overturned beetle.

Scathach stepped over it and drove the heel of her booted foot into the middle of the table. Her body was still full of Reinforcement magic, so the result was spectacular. The table flew halfway back across the room before breaking against the floor, tumbling over and over, kicking up a wave of rubble and shattering the floor tiles as it went. The mass of debris didn’t stop until it hit the wall at the opposite end of the room, whereupon the whole thing broke apart.

As the wreckage settled, Scathach pinned Assassin’s spasming right arm to the floor with Caim Frithir and immolated it with a whispered spell. Sword raised, she prowled forwards towards where Assassin’s body lay collapsed on the floor, intending to finish the battle once and for all.

He stirred when she was halfway there, then rose smoothly into a crouch. Scathach had to admit that his resilience was impressive, particularly given the notorious fragility of the Assassin class. His dark cloak, now jarred free, pooled around him like an inky lake. 

“Give it up. It’s over.” She called.

“It’s not over. Not yet.” He rasped. Scathach was taken aback; it was the first thing he had said the entire fight. Something glinted in the darkness, and another needle suddenly appeared in Assassin’s hand. Scathach immediately raised her sword to parry, but the expected attack never came. She frowned and narrowed her eyes at the needle clasped in Assassin’s meaty fingers.

On closer inspection it was slightly different from the others. It was much smaller than the rest, only about six or seven inches long, and lacked the barbs of its larger cousins. Its edge was straight as a razor, tapering down to a fine point at one end and an extremely narrow hoop at the other. It clearly wasn’t a tool meant for combat, but the sight of it pinched between Assassin’s fingers, positioned with perfect delicacy, was somehow unnerving.

Before Scathach could react Assassin made a wide, theatrical gesture with his remaining hand, throwing his billowing cloak wide open. Scathach’s eyes widened at a sight that took even her experienced mind several moments to comprehend. Lining the underside of Assassin’s cloak, fastened there by multiple bands of slender black thread were row after row of human limbs. Arms, legs, hands and feet all nestled within the folds, each one neatly tagged and labelled.

Assassin grasped one of the arms, another thick and muscular one, and threaded the needle with the black thread fastening it to the lining. Moving so fast Scathach barely caught it, Assassin plunged the needle into the ragged end of the limb and drew it through the muscle and sinew, binding it even as it fell. The black thread whipped around in the air, almost as if it had a mind of its own, before Assassin flicked his fingers and threaded the remainder through the stump near his elbow. He pulled the string taut and the two ragged stumps were squeezed together, the motion oddly resembling a man pulling on a glove.

At first nothing happened. Then veins of darkness began to spread through the orphaned limb, thickening and expanding until the entire arm was as black as the rest of Assassin’s body. The flesh near the join pulsated rhythmically, and there was an audible grinding noise as bone and cartilage began to meld together into a new joint.

Scathach had to try very hard not to laugh at the macabre comedy of it all.

“You…you carry around spare arms and legs?” She spluttered incredulously. She had heard of self-modification abilities, but to do it in the middle of combat with a wholly foreign limb was something she had never thought possible.

“I was a surgeon of great renown before the Old Man of the Mountain required me to serve a higher cause.” Assassin growled. He tilted his head to the side, and there was a note of dry humour in his next words.

“Carrying around a container of medical necessities is a habit I never entirely broke with.” He flexed the fingers of his new hand experimentally.

Scathach grunted and raised her sword again. Her first plan had failed thanks to circumstances beyond her control. Most of the others had likewise counted on cutting Assassin down to size.

She was going to have to try something else. Something more…destructive.

---Intermission End---

Simply killing Regulina won’t be enough. If what she said earlier is true she can still survive even if you kill her by transferring her consciousness to one of her familiars. In fact, it would actually make matters much worse since you wouldn’t have any clue as to which of the fifty or so thralls she would decide to download herself into. At least like this you have a relatively good idea of where she is and what she’s doing.

Stealth won’t do much good either, for much the same reasons. Plus that lantern looks suspicious – you wouldn’t be surprised if it had some manner of illumination charm bound to it. No good sneaking around in the dark when Regulina could blow your cover at any moment.

No, best to stick with the nice and simple option and just kill everything in the room. Sure, Regulina might have other familiars outside her workshop that she can jump to, but at the very least you’ll cripple her support network by crushing the vast majority of her familiars here. And in the here and now, getting rid of them will stop them from distracting you when you finally throw down with the big lady herself.

So then. It’s time to pull out the stops.

Before the familiars can open fire from behind their makeshift barricades you reach into the dark, formless power within yourself. There’s no need for anything fancy – no lamprey arms or crab claws or avian transformations this time. This situation calls for practicality and efficiency.

You begin by growing extra bone around your joints, protecting vulnerable spots as best you can without compromising your mobility. Then you harden what’s already there, solidifying the now-useless marrow and toughening your sinews until you start to feel physically heavier. You fuse your ribs together into a solid plate of bone and expand your sternum until it completely encircles your heart, creating a double layer of protection around your greatest weakness.

A storm of gunfire lashes forth from the darkness ahead, muzzle flashes illuminating row after row of human familiars ensconced behind concentric rings of makeshift fortifications. The shooters are far enough away that you can pick out and dodge around the bullets with relative ease, and it takes only a moment for you to cross the distance from the top of the steps to the first barricade.

The familiars braced behind it try to pull back, but you’re over the upturned table before they can even stand. You lash out with your claws, opening the throat of a tall man wearing a business suit, then whirl around and deliver a bone-crushing kick to a raven-haired woman in the middle of rising from a crouch. She flies backwards into the next barricade, momentarily silencing the gunfire coming from behind it.

The last familiar, a teenage boy with a crew cut and a narrow scar across his left cheek, opens fire with a sub-machinegun at point blank range. The bullets drill a series of sharp impacts across your chest, but the ammunition is too low-calibre to penetrate your reinforced ribs. You seize him by the throat when his clip runs out and hurl him into the darkness beyond your field of vision. Moments later the clatter of a collapsing barricade echoes throughout the chamber, along with the wet crunch of breaking bones.

The gunfire from ahead falters for a moment, and you take the opportunity to dart to one side and flatten yourself against one of the pillars. Bullets hiss past you, some impacting against the pillar itself and striking chips of stone from its surface. You inch around its circumference, trying to shield as much as your body as you can whilst picking out the locations of any particularly vulnerable shooters.

Doing so brings you close to one of the glowing pits you saw when you first entered the room. The pit is about six or seven feet deep and is full of fist-sized blue rocks, each emanating a gentle blue glow. You can feel whispers of magical energy pulsing within each one, and a dormant network of spells and bounded fields meant to contain and focus said energy woven throughout the stone walls and floors of the pit.

It’s clearly a prana furnace, either deactivated or at a low-power setting, presumably to stop you from using it to your advantage. Not that you would have been able to even if it was active – the enchantments surrounding it are complicated and unfamiliar to you. Nevertheless, it raises yet another question – what would Regulus need with so many furnaces of this scale and complexity?

Just as you think that, a glassy click rings out from somewhere nearby. You sense movement in your peripheral vision and whirl to face it, only to find yourself facing down Regulina herself. The lithe woman glides forwards, her footsteps completely silent. You freeze, momentarily stunned that she would choose to attack you in person so soon, and you barely manage to evade a sweeping cut from her glassy blade. You quickly recover and move to strike back, but she vanishes back into the shadows before you can retaliate.

You curse and start to follow her, but jumping back from her swing has put you back in the open again. A burst of gunfire strikes you in the left arm, shredding the meat and fracturing the bone underneath. You whirl towards the shooter’s position and raise the carbine you pilfered earlier, then fire it one-handed at the offending familiar. After a few moments the familiar ceases returning fire, though whether that’s because he’s dead or because he took cover is hard to say.

Best not to take chances. You charge towards the barrier, which quickly resolves itself into a stack of knee-high metal cylinders lashed together with plastic tape. The containers are clearly empty because you easily ram them aside with your shoulder and scatter the familiars taking cover behind it. One breaks his head open on one of the cylinders, whilst the other two go down under the rest as the plastic bindings tying them together snap and break. You reach down and end their lives with your claws, then crouch down amongst the scattered wreckage to plan your next move.

A beam of red light slices through the air and sweeps across your chest. Moments later an enormous impact knocks you flat on your back, and half a second later a thunderous bang reverberates throughout the chamber. Blood erupts from a ragged hole in your chest, rimmed with wet muscle and twisted fragments of bone. You struggle back up with all the speed you can afford, acutely aware of a cold weight pressing against the second shield of bone around your heart.

The needle-thin beam flickers left and right, reorienting itself on your position as soon as you clamber back to your feet. You leap back into the shadows before it can draw a bead on you, then retreat back to the pillar where you took cover earlier. A heavy impact strikes the floor at your heels moments before you swing yourself around it, sending a puff of pulverized dust into the air behind you.

You sink to your knees and reach into the ragged puncture wound in your chest. Your fingers slip past the shield of bone and curl around the projectile that punched through it. A dull ache spreads through your body as you wrench it back through, tearing the hole wider in an effort to remove the foreign object as quickly as possible.

Though slick with gore you can still recognise the projectile as a heavy-calibre bullet. Even with its head smashed in from the impact it’s as long and thick as your thumb. It’s the sort of round you’d expect to find in a high-powered rifle for hunting big game. Or perhaps it’s a proper military model, since it has a laser sight and the round actually outran its own sonic boom.

You probably won’t be able to dodge something that fast.

As if to punctuate that thought an explosive crack echoes from somewhere above you. Fragments of rock burst from a point five or six inches above your head as a second round hammers straight through the solid rock pillar and embeds itself in the ground ten or fifteen feet away. You curse and crouch down lower as dust and grains of rock shower down onto your head and shoulders.

Okay, it can punch through three or four feet of stone. Admittedly soft limestone, but still. It’s definitely a military model. You’ve got to kill that guy fast.

The red beam slowly sweeps out on either side of you, vanishing as it passes across the pillar itself. Seeing that he hasn’t managed to smoke you out yet, the shooter puts another round into the pillar. This time the round exits at an angle and bounces into the open prana furnace. The blue rocks at the bottom flare up briefly, illuminating half a dozen familiars trying to sneak up on you from the side.

The sight spurs you into action. As the laser light once again sweeps out you stand up and slam your back against the surface of the pillar. At the same time you press your hands flat against its surface and pour prana and willpower into it, seeking out weaknesses in its structure. There are the bullet holes, of course, but there are also a myriad of microscopic cracks and gaps throughout its entire structure, and it is these that you focus your next spell upon.

At the same time you brace your spine against the pillar and heave backwards with all your might. The stone column cracks in a dozen places, and the grinding sound of stone rubbing against stone briefly drowns out the ever-present chatter of gunfire. You feel the pillar tilting behind you and redouble your efforts, slamming your back against it repeatedly until momentum and inertia take hold.

The pillar tumbles backwards, shattering as it falls. It hits the ground with enormous force, shattering barricades and snuffing out the lights from four different prana furnaces with the volume of its rubble. The room shakes, and the familiars sneaking up on you stagger and stumble as the shockwave passes them by. The laser sight spasms and vanishes, jerking upwards into the darkness above. Before the dust can fully settle you ghost forwards and begin slaughtering the familiars sent to ambush you. None of them get a chance to even draw their weapons before their bodies hit the floor.

The laser sight comes back, but its movements are jerky and erratic, as if the hands holding the weapon are shaking with extreme cold or fear. The psychic feedback and disorientation from the pillar’s fall have thrown Regulus’s army into disarray, and the sudden cessation of suppressing fire makes it easy to pick out the location of the bothersome sniper.

You charge towards the origin of the beam, leaping over smashed barricades and chunks of rubble as you go. The shooter fires, but his aim is thoroughly thrown and the shot goes wide. The muzzle flash illuminates a hard, stern face that has the look of a career soldier, his body crouched behind another upturned table. He smoothly adjusts his aim, swinging the elongated barrel of his rifle towards your centre of mass.

It doesn’t matter, because you hit the barricade before he can fire a second time. You seize the end of his weapon and bend the barrel into a U-shape, then rip it out of his hands and hammer him over the head with it until he stops moving. Then you throw the weapon itself into the nearest prana furnace, ducking back into the shadows as the heat causes the remaining ammunition to cook off inside the magazine.

As the familiars begin to recover you take a moment to give yourself a once-over. The bone plating that used to be your ribs is full of cracks, although the hole made by the rifle round is the only thing that’s managed to penetrate. The rest of your body bears mostly superficial wounds, although you appear to have taken a nasty shot to your left shoulder. The ever-present pressure of the World’s hand on your shoulder is slowly growing heavier and heavier, but you’ve still got the reserves to deal with it for the time being.

There are several options open to you right now in terms of what to do next. As the chattering of gunfire begins to start up again you choose to:

1. Focus on defence. Repair the damage done to you and advance cautiously but purposefully until all the familiars are dead.

2. Focus on offence. Keep the protection you have now and use your power to enhance your killing ability.

3. Pull out all the stops and use the dragonbone talisman, allowing you to perform 1 and 2 at the same time.

--

Focusing on defence will only slow you down, and the situation isn’t dire enough that you feel it necessary to resort to Caster’s talisman. Sure, you now know that Regulus has access to armour-piercing weapons like that rifle you just destroyed, but it’s likely that the majority of his mooks are limited to small arms. Big guns are expensive and hard to move around, particularly in the United Kingdom where gun control is incredibly strict. Instead of trying to defend against the few such weapons Regulus has, it would be more efficient to simply focus on killing the gunmen before they can make best use of them.

You unsheathe your vampire claws. Even without enhancements they can shred a man with little effort, but their range is too limited. Six or seven inches, at most? Not good enough. You can do much, much better than that. It only takes a thought to lengthen your claws to five times their usual size, transforming your fingers into wickedly sharp scimitars, half bone, half magically altered flesh.

Footsteps echo throughout the chamber as the disordered familiars begin to rearrange their defensive line in the wake of the pillar’s collapse. You only have a limited time to take advantage of the chaos. Then again, when has it been any other way? You’ve gotten pretty good at exploiting the actions of others over the course of this conflict. You take several quick steps forwards and wrap your newly lengthened claws around the severed base of the pillar. Stone grinds beneath your hand as you lever yourself up and onto the overturned column.

As you straighten up you get a pretty good view of the surrounding area. The pillar fell at an angle, smashing through a few of Regulus’s defensive rings but not nearly as many as you would have liked. Rubble is strewn all over the place, with the destruction fanning out the further away you look. The topmost part of the column must have broken apart in midair and come down as a lethal hail.

You can also see the raised area that Regulina once stood on. It’s empty now, a grim reminder that she’s out there somewhere. With that thought in mind you start forwards, using the more intact parts of the fallen pillar as a bridge to bring you closer to the inner fortifications. If you can get behind the familiar’s lines you can prolong the chaos and prevent Regulus from getting organised.

Of course, Regulus isn’t stupid. Gunfire erupts in front of you after only a few seconds, bullets chewing up the already fractured limestone pillar and sending lethal chips of the stuff flying into the air. One slices past your face, cutting a vicious gash right the way along your left cheek, but neither it nor the bullets give you pause.

You reach the first gap in the pillar where the stone fractured into rubble and effortlessly jump the gap, kicking out at the two familiars trying to climb up to meet you on the way down. They tumble back into the blackness, their weapons flying out of their hands and skittering away across the cold stone floor. You rise and begin to stalk along the next section of the pillar, ready to intercept anyone who tries to get in your way.

A glassy peal rings in your ears, and the shadows in front of you suddenly coalesce into a human shape. The gunfire abruptly intensifies as Regulina appears before you, her finger tightening on the trigger of her immense shotgun. A hail of solid steel slugs tear through the air above your head, and you are forced to throw yourself off the pillar in order to avoid her tracking fire.

You land on your side and are immediately set upon by four familiars. You butcher the first even as the bullets thud into you, taking his legs off at the knees with your elongated claws and kicking his body away when it falls to the ground. As the remaining three close in you surge to your feet, doing your best to ignore the fact that your flesh is being shredded by the sheer volume of fire.

The damage is becoming more and more difficult to ignore. A slender young woman whose pale hands are clamped around a particularly vicious-looking sawn-off shotgun pumps two loads of buckshot into your abdomen, whilst an older man manages to shoot you in the neck with a snub-nosed revolver. Your claws scythe out and take the woman’s head from her shoulders, then continue on in an arc and slice the old man’s outstretched arms into strips of meat and bone.

The last familiar, a morbidly obese man whose face is essentially one giant freckle, throws away his empty weapon and charges. He slams into you and bears you to the ground, trying to pin you to the floor with his sheer bulk whilst raining blows down on your head with his meaty fists. You respond by ramming your pinched claws into his chest and then spreading your fingers, ripping him apart from the inside out.

As you roll out from under the pile of gore you scan the area for any signs of Regulina. But no matter how hard you look, you find no traces of her anywhere. You take a step forwards towards the illuminated dais where she stood when you entered the chamber, feeling bones and sinews grinding together as you do. The pressure of the World is now a distinct ache in the back of your mind, and it’s taking more and more willpower to stave it off.

Even so, you’re far from finished. Regulus is going to have to do a lot more than simply send handfuls of gun-toting flunkies at you if he wants to win this.

Of course, as soon as you think that things start to get hectic. Glowing pinpricks of light begin to appear in the darkness around you, and you suddenly find yourself on the receiving end of a thaumaturgical barrage. Crackling ribbons of energy arc into the air and hammer down into the ground all around you, gouging out metre-wide craters in the stone floor, which itself erupts into vicious spikes beneath your feet.

You swiftly dodge aside and break into a run, weaving through the remaining pillars and vaulting over any glowing pits in your path. A dead-eyed familiar steps out from behind one of the pillars in front of you, and you draw back your claws to eviscerate him, but his body flickers and splits into a dozen separate images of himself that all charge to meet you.

A simple illusion, but effective considering you don’t have the time to stop and work out which ones are real and which ones are fake. You lash out and half of the images dissipate like smoke in the wind, but fail to catch the real one, who stabs you in the left shoulder with a serrated knife. Invisible runes flare to life over the length of the blade, and the wound begins to smoke.

“Sorry pal, but when it comes to runes you guys are hobbyists.” You snarl before relieving the familiar of all four of his limbs. The wound he inflicted burns with a red-hot pain, pretty much the first real agony you’ve felt since the battle began. You wrench the knife out and snap it in half, searing your palms in the process.

An orb of inky darkness hurtles through the air and splatters against a nearby pillar, disgorging an oily substance all over it. Violet specks begin to appear on the surface of the liquid, which begins to bubble and hiss like boiling water. Moments later spindly, insectoid shapes begin to pour out, their reddish-purple eyes glaring at you malevolently.

At the same time a high-pitched chime rings out and Regulina appears to your left, driving forwards with her sword upraised. The skittering mass of insectoid demons fan out behind you, and a dozen points of light suddenly spring up on either side. You’re caught in a trap, surrounded on all sides with all possible escape routes thoroughly cut off. The pinpricks of light grow brighter, the demons surge towards you from behind, and Regulina’s glassy sword sweeps forwards to take your head.

And that’s when you realise something is up.

It’s not a singular revelation, but a sudden suspicion born of a number of different factors. The odd, glassy sound that rings out whenever Regulina appears. The fact that her servants endanger her by continuing to attack whenever she attacks. The swiftness with which she manages to disappear after disengaging. The fact that she’s never actually landed a hit on you despite managing to ambush you more than once. The fact that her familiars have always been ready to capitalize on the moment of weakness you’ve shown immediately after evading her.

You’ve been played this whole time.

You crush your first instinct, which is to dart to one side and tear your way through half of the familiars in order to escape. Instead you charge forwards to meet Regulina. Your rival doesn’t even bat an eye as you step into her path. Her expression doesn’t change even as her blade sweeps through your neck. It certainly doesn’t change when her entire body phases through your own, because the ‘Regulina’ in question is a fraud, an illusion meant to shuttle you into traps, gradually grinding you down until there’s nothing left.

As you pass through the illusion you feel yourself tread on something. It crunches underfoot, and the image of Regulina immediately vanishes. Behind you the familiars have unleashed a barrage of fire magic, and as you spin around to take note of their positions the light of the roiling flames illuminates a pile of dark, glassy fragments on the floor. You can’t be entirely sure, but they look like shards of the obsidian beads Regulina wore around her neck.

Beads that cause illusions when thrown. Yeah, that sounds right. Regulina wouldn’t want to risk herself unless she absolutely had to.

The flames quickly die down, but the eerie violet pinpricks of light continue to skitter towards you. You retreat into the shadows, flicking your claws at any bugs that get too close. They collapse into seething puddles of black ichor which bubble and smoke and eat away at the floor slabs like acid. After half a dozen slashes your claws also begin to smoke, their edges becoming duller and duller with every demon slain.

You’re just considering shortening the fingers of one hand so you can shoot at them with your carbine when the door you came through when an immense crash reverberates through the chamber, echoing and feeding upon itself as it passes between the pillars. You jerk your head around just in time to see the door you came through when you first entered the chamber sailing through the air.

A short, stocky figure shoulders his way through the ruined doorframe, a heavy warhammer clasped in his mailed fists. His ancient blue eyes track left and right, silently surveying the situation in front of him. Then he nods to himself, takes a step forwards, and thrusts the blunt head of his weapon into the hard stone floor. The clamorous sound wipes out every other noise, leaving only silence in its wake.

Rider has arrived.

You have the distinct impression that fecal matter is about to collide with the metaphorical air circulation system. In light of that fact, you decide to:

1. Stop mucking around and summon Caster via Command Seal.

2. Use the talisman and hope that it gives you the strength to hold out / run away / survive.

3. Hide in a corner like the noble cockroach so that Rider slaughters Reggie’s forces first.

--

You fall back, ghosting between the pillars and glowing pits and ruined barricades. There’s only one thought in your mind, and that is to get as far away from the inevitable ground zero as possible. Occasionally you pass one of Regulus’s familiars, but none show even the slightest reaction to your passing. All of them are staring at the armoured figure standing at the top of the steps leading down into the chamber, their normally expressionless faces now reflecting a dark and terrible fear.

You ignore them and keep going until you find a particularly shadowy area where one of the pillars rises up close to the wall. There’s a small gap between the two, and you quickly sequester yourself within it, crouching down in order to lower your profile and erase your silhouette. It’s not a perfect hiding spot, but it’ll do for the time being.

Back near the door Rider mutters something you can’t quite hear. Then he raises his warhammer high above his head and brings it crashing down once again. The ground cracks and splits open into an enormous snaking fissure which splits the semicircular staircase fully in half down the middle. The room shakes, and ugly cracks begin to appear in the columns closest to the point of impact. The sound of shattering rock assaults your senses like a battering ram, but even that terrible noise is nothing compared to Rider’s overpowering shout.

“The Melee’s Last Victor! Reiterpallasch!!”

The air around the aged knight shivers and distorts. Ghostly images of weapons and armour erupt into existence around him, whirling and rotating in a hurricane of iron and steel. The storm of metal strikes sparks from the floor and tears up massive chunks of masonry which briefly join the maelstrom before being flung out into the darkness beyond.

After half a second a matching set of armour drops out of formation and hangs suspended in the air like a marionette awaiting a puppet master. Shining golden mist begins to gather around it, spiralling up around its body before snaking into its open helm like a gleaming serpent. The suit of armour shudders and writhes in the air, then suddenly falls to the floor. It lands in a crouch, one arm extended towards the whirling cloud of metal overhead.

A crescent-bladed axe wobbles in mid-air, then leaps towards the empty suit of armour. The empty suit catches it in its gauntleted fist, then rises to its full height – only it’s not an empty suit now. Now there is a face behind the helm, a hard and stony face criss-crossed with a lifetime’s worth of battle scars. He raises his free hand and makes a swirling, circular motion with it, and a heavily muscled warhorse appears out of thin air next to him. With a piercing cry that seems to echo across the ages the armoured knight mounts up and charges down the stone steps, mighty axe raised to deliver a killing stroke.

Suddenly dozens and dozens of other suits of armour begin to coalesce out of the storm, each one animated, armed and mounted just as the first one was. A score of knights ride out, then two score, then three, until the room is so thick with their glowing, ethereal forms that the darkness begins to retreat from the chamber.

You stare at the scene unfolding before you, equal parts horrified and awed at what is going on. You immediately understand that the glowing figures thundering towards Regulus’s shattered defensive lines are wraiths, having made use of such beings yourself on numerous occasions. But comparing your paltry, limited spectres to these ghostly knights is like comparing a second-hand car to a Challenger tank.

Everywhere you look you see Regulus’s familiars being butchered. You see a wraith wielding a cruciform longsword decapitate two familiars with one swing, then wheel his mount around to crush a third beneath its hooves. Another skewers a familiar on a lance, then twists in the saddle to crush his impaled body against a nearby pillar before dumping the corpse into an open prana furnace. The axe-wielding knight who emerged before all of the others crashes through a nearby barrier, laying about him with his oversized weapon until there’s nothing left but splintered wood and lumps of flesh.

The familiars try to fight back, but it’s hopeless. Gunfire simply passes through them and magecraft does little better, most spells exploding harmlessly against their armoured bodies. The wraiths chaotic advance sweeps all resistance before them like a massive bulldozer blade, barely slowing down even when the familiars combine their efforts against a single target.

It’s hard to count the number of spectral knights. They outnumber the familiars by at least ten to one. The sole bright spot for Regulus’s forces is that not all of Rider’s forces are committed at once. Those knights who find themselves further back without targets of their own quickly turn to battle their fellow wraiths, turning the chamber into an anarchic melee with no concept of friend or foe. This state of distraction is fickle and appears to last only until a fresh enemy appears, at which point the knights break from their duels and charge the new target together.

You shrink back from the massacre, cloaking yourself in deeper shadow in the hopes that neither the familiars nor the wraiths will notice you. It’s clear by now that Regulus’s forces don’t stand a chance, and although you are vastly stronger than the familiars you don’t fancy going up against the thaumaturgical equivalent of an armoured vehicle bare-handed.

All around you the slaughter continues. Rider himself has joined the fray, his mighty warhammer pulverizing stone, wood and flesh with equal fury. Every now and then one of the wraiths turns on him, but he beats each and every one back without even breaking stride. Phantasmal battle-roars echo throughout the chamber, easily drowning out the ever fainter sounds of gunfire and magical explosions from Regulus’s remaining thralls.

Rider’s warhammer rises and falls in a great arc, striking a young male familiar in the midsection. His body flies across the chamber in a mighty arc, curving up and over before bouncing off a pillar and landing in a boneless heap not five meters away from your position. The metallic stench of blood fills the air as his life leaks from his corpse, crimson rivulets flooding into the runnels between the floor slabs.

The sight of it brings home the crushing realisation of just how tired you are. Your resources are almost completely tapped, and The World is now hammering on the inside of your skull, demanding that you stop violating its laws. Raising one of Regulus’s familiars as a Dead might not be such a great idea, but what about draining the life from one?

You hesitate, then slowly creep forwards until you’re in range of the body. A terrible hunger overpowers you, and you tear into the corpse without restraint. A warm feeling spreads through you as you take everything the dead body has to offer. You feel some of your wounds begin to close, and the pressure of The World gradually retreats from your mind. Once you’re done, you creep back into the shadows from whence you came.

Unfortunately, it seems you weren’t quite careful enough. As you settle back into the darkness one of the knights turns towards your hiding place. He raises a double-sided axe and charges, roaring a battle-cry as his mount speeds towards you. You barely have time to curse your mistake before the knight is upon you, his armoured warhorse rearing to kick at you whilst the knight’s own axe falls in an arc towards your head.

You try to slip aside, but the knight’s axe is too quick. The blade grinds against the side of your head, stripping it to the bone before hammering into your shoulder hard enough to fracture the hardened joint. At the same time you block the warhorse’s kick with that same arm, and though the impact mangles the limb beyond all recognition it prevents the beast from taking your head off.

The knight bellows another war-cry and raises his axe again, but before he can take the swing you ram the claws tipping your other arm into the warhorse’s head. Four of them break on the destrier’s armour, but your middle finger punches through the beast’s unprotected eye. It screams and bucks, snapping off the remaining claw and sending the rider plummeting to the ground. You immediately form new claws and plunge them into the mount’s unprotected underbelly. The horse groans and topples over, melting back into golden mist as it hits the floor.

You growl and turn to face the knight, who hurls himself at you as soon as he regains his footing. You stay on the defensive, dancing aside from his swings while you wait for your arm to heal. Every now and then you try for a counteroffensive, but your claws do little more than scratch the knight’s plate mail. You’ll have to strike at a weak point if you want to penetrate.

You angle your next strike towards the joint where the knight’s gorget meets his helm. The wraith seems to sense your intent and shifts to one side, catching your claws on the side of his neck. He raises his shoulder and shifts his head down, pinning your claws in place, then swings his axe in a mighty arc and severs your good arm at the elbow. You stumble back, precious blood fountaining from the wound.

The knight advances, brandishing his axe, its wicked edge now slick with crimson. You desperately gather all of your remaining power and direct it into the ground beneath his feet, which detonates explosively beneath him. The blast causes him to stumble, but it also alerts six other knights duelling one another nearby. Their helms twist in your direction, and a sickly feeling begins to rise inside your chest.

You try to flee, but it’s pointless. The mounted knights catch up with you before you can even reach the next pillar. Blows rain down upon you, shattering bones and pulverizing flesh. A curved longsword severs your remaining arm. A warhammer strikes you in the chest, shattering the bone plating and sending shards of it into all of your major organs. An axe bites into your side, shattering your hip and sending you to the ground.

The last thing you see are the shod hooves of two different warhorses kicking out towards your head.

Then everything goes black.

--Bad End

1. Stop mucking around and summon Caster via Command Seal.

2. Use the talisman and hope that it gives you the strength to hold out / run away / survive.

--

You fall back behind the nearest pillar, hands fumbling for Caster’s talisman. It’s difficult due to your elongated fingers, but you eventually manage to slip it into your palm. The pale shard of bone gleams briefly, soft white juxtaposed against the dark lines and whorls carved into its surface. Its sharpened edges mean you won’t have any difficulty cutting yourself on it. You hesitate, then lean out from behind the pillar to see what’s going on.

Back near the door Rider mutters something you can’t quite hear. Then he raises his warhammer high above his head and brings it crashing down once again. The ground cracks and splits open into an enormous snaking fissure which splits the semicircular staircase fully in half down the middle. The room shakes, and ugly cracks begin to appear in the columns closest to the point of impact. The sound of shattering rock assaults your senses like a battering ram, but even that terrible noise is nothing compared to Rider’s overpowering shout.

“The Melee’s Last Victor! Reiterpallasch!!”

The air around the aged knight shivers and distorts. Ghostly images of weapons and armour erupt into existence around him, whirling and rotating in a hurricane of iron and steel. The storm of metal strikes sparks from the floor and tears up massive chunks of masonry which briefly join the maelstrom before being flung out into the darkness beyond.

After half a second a matching set of armour drops out of formation and hangs suspended in the air like a marionette awaiting a puppet master. Shining golden mist begins to gather around it, spiralling up around its body before snaking into its open helm like a gleaming serpent. The suit of armour shudders and writhes in the air, then suddenly falls to the floor. It lands in a crouch, one arm extended towards the whirling cloud of metal overhead.

A crescent-bladed axe wobbles in mid-air, then leaps towards the empty suit of armour. The empty suit catches it in its gauntleted fist, then rises to its full height – only it’s not an empty suit now. Now there is a face behind the helm, a hard and stony face criss-crossed with a lifetime’s worth of battle scars. He raises his free hand and makes a swirling, circular motion with it, and a heavily muscled warhorse appears out of thin air next to him. With a piercing cry that seems to echo across the ages the armoured knight mounts up and charges down the stone steps, mighty axe raised to deliver a killing stroke.

Suddenly dozens and dozens of other suits of armour begin to coalesce out of the storm, each one animated, armed and mounted just as the first one was. A score of knights ride out, then two score, then three, until the room is so thick with their glowing, ethereal forms that the darkness begins to retreat from the chamber.

You stare at the scene unfolding before you, equal parts horrified and awed at what is going on. You immediately understand that the glowing figures thundering towards Regulus’s shattered defensive lines are wraiths, having made use of such beings yourself on numerous occasions. But comparing your paltry, limited spectres to these ghostly knights is like comparing a second-hand car to a Challenger tank.

Everywhere you look you see Regulus’s familiars being butchered. You see a wraith wielding a cruciform longsword decapitate two familiars with one swing, then wheel his mount around to crush a third beneath its hooves. Another skewers a familiar on a lance, then twists in the saddle to crush his impaled body against a nearby pillar before dumping the corpse into an open prana furnace. The axe-wielding knight who emerged before all of the others crashes through a nearby barrier, laying about him with his oversized weapon until there’s nothing left but splintered wood and lumps of flesh.

The sight of it jolts you into action. You close your hand around the talisman and squeeze with all your might. The sharp edges bite into your skin and blood wells up from the wound. A brief ripple of pain travels up your arm.

Then crimson light begins to shine from the gaps between your fingers. The talisman suddenly burns red hot, and it’s all you can do to stop yourself from crying out in agony. You feel something monstrous stirring within the fragment, a vast and ancient force that died long ago yet lives on through the sheer weight of its own imprint on reality. The presence howls as it burrows into your veins, spreading its heat throughout your entire body.

Prana wells up from within you. It’s not the usual prana painstakingly processed from the atmosphere and carefully refined over the course of many hours; this prana is hotter, denser stuff that could never have been produced by even the strongest blue-blooded magus. It’s like comparing petrol to rocket fuel – both are volatile energy sources, but the latter is an order of magnitude greater than the former.

Your wounds close up immediately, and the pressure of the World vanishes. The roiling energy sears your circuits, forcing open new channels and welding old ones shut, forcing its way through the path of least resistance. It doesn’t stop even when all the pathways have been filled – the excess energy simply overflows from your body, surrounding you with a crimson aura of barely-contained violence. The axe-wielding knight notices the glow and swings his mount to face you. He roars a battle-cry and charges at you, his bloodstained weapon glittering as he raises it high above his head.

You smile and tap your foot on the ground. With the power of dragons at your command, you don’t even need to vocalize. Simply existing is enough.

Twelve-foot long stalagmites burst from the floor ahead the charging knight, sharply angled to resemble a row of pikes. Golden mist bursts from knight and mount as they impale themselves on the spikes, ripping themselves apart with the force of their own momentum. Their remains crash to the ground and explode into more mist which slowly fades from sight, leaving nothing behind.

Chaos reigns throughout the chamber. Lacking your resilience and new source of power, Regulus’s familiars go down in droves, cut to pieces by the rampaging knights. It’s hard to count the exact number of wraiths, though they clearly outnumber the familiars by at least ten to one. The sole bright spot for Regulus’s forces is that not all of Rider’s forces are committed at once.

Those knights who find themselves further back without targets of their own quickly turn to battle their fellow wraiths, turning the chamber into an anarchic melee with no concept of friend or foe. This state of distraction is fickle and appears to last only until a fresh enemy appears, at which point the knights break from their duels and charge the new target together.

Two more of Rider’s wraiths converge on your location, and the urge to strike out at them and bring them low is overwhelming. The power inside you pulses and shivers. It wants to be used, it wants to escape the limiting confines of your body and burst forth in a ravening inferno of destruction and death. Normally you would try to reign in such primal, predatory impulses, but in these circumstances you really can’t afford to hold anything back.

A knight wielding a lance jabs at you from the side, a swift thrust towards your heart. You grab the haft of his spear just behind the blade, then savagely twist your body and rip him from his saddle. Still in motion, you turn and bring the lance down, hurling the knight over your shoulders and dashing him to pieces against the floor. A second knight wielding a heavy mace lands a crushing blow on your left shoulder, but the wound regenerates impossibly quickly and you impale him on your claws, the crimson power sheathing them ripping his armour open as if it were cardboard.

As you finish flinging the disintegrating knight to the ground more burst through a barricade to your right, driving a group of familiars before them. You turn around and flick your wrist towards them, elongating your claws as they arc through the air. The humans are bisected and collapse to the ground, their bodies trampled to a paste by the knights’ mighty warhorses. The wraiths don’t falter and simply angle their weapons to point at you instead.

Axes, hammers, lances and other more exotic weapons descend towards you, hacking and slashing and crushing, but no matter how much damage they inflict the burning prana filling your veins simply wells up and fills the wounds. At the same time you send more of it into the ground, which ruptures and explodes with lethal force. Knights disintegrate all around you, and any who survive quickly meet their end on your claws.

All around you the slaughter continues. Out of the corner of your eye you see that Rider himself has joined the fray, his mighty warhammer pulverizing stone, wood and flesh with equal fury. Every now and then one of the wraiths turns on him, but he beats each and every one back without even breaking stride. Phantasmal battle-roars echo throughout the chamber, easily drowning out the ever fainter sounds of gunfire and magical explosions from Regulus’s remaining thralls.

When the last knight facing you falls you turn and begin to pick your way towards the raised area at the back of the chamber. You cut a bloody path through anyone who gets in your way, slaughtering both wraiths and familiars with equal ease. The predator inside you cries out for more blood, fed by the burning energy inside you, but you remain focused on reaching the dais where Regulina stood. She is the real prize here, and you cannot afford to let yourself be distracted now.

With all the chaos and confusion you manage to climb over the final few barricades without alerting anyone to your intrusion. The dais looms ahead of you, a twelve-foot tall edifice of stone connected to the ground by two staircases on either side. Gargoyle statues flank both sets of stairs, but as far as you can tell they are purely decorative and lack an animating spirit. Not that they would have slowed you down anyway.

At the exact moment you reach the uppermost step an enormous group of knights breaks through Regulus’s last line of defence. The spectral figures roar as they butcher the fleeing defenders and wheel their mounts around towards the stairs. The ground trembles with the force of their passage; from what you can see there must be at least a hundred of them, a full fifth of Rider’s forces thundering towards your position.

The rest of Rider’s army seems content to fight amongst itself for the moment. That seems to be one disadvantage of his Noble Phantasm – its momentum eventually stalls out once the number of foes begins to run down. But that still leaves a hundred super-wraiths for you to deal with.

You grit your teeth and flex your claws. With the talisman’s power you know you can harm and kill Rider’s wraiths, but can you deal with a hundred of them? Can you afford to move ahead without dealing with them? How much of the talisman’s power can you afford to use?

1. Fight the wraiths with the talisman’s prana.

2. Move into the inner chamber and risk the wraiths following you in.

3. Try to take a third option. (OT suggests a course of action, in which case I’ll go with the most popular choice. In the event of a tie or no clear winner I’ll decide via authorial fiat.)

--

Time slows down as your mind goes into overdrive.

Can you defeat a hundred wraiths? Well, you might have a chance. Given that, spatially, only about a dozen could engage you at once, and given that the rest would probably fight amongst themselves once that happened, it is possible that you might be able to whittle their numbers down. The wraiths aren’t a proper army, and there isn’t any real co-ordination in their movements. Even their charge up the steps is chaotic and disorganised and nothing like a true battle line. You’d take a lot of damage, and would probably end up expending all of the talisman’s energy, but you could beat them if you gave it your all.

But there’s no way that wouldn’t attract the attention of the other four hundred or so knights milling around down below. You can beat the first hundred, but what about the next hundred? And the hundred after that? What about Rider himself? He’s down there somewhere too, and even if by some herculean effort you managed to defeat every last one of his wraiths, you’d have to deal with the Servant who summoned them.

…Wait a minute…

The wraiths are all here because they are a part of Rider’s Noble Phantasm. Presumably they will keep attacking as long as it remains active – in other words, as long as Rider has the Prana to maintain it. With Irene hospitalised and in no position to give him more it’s a safe bet he’s being forced to rely on his own rapidly diminishing reserves.

It’s entirely possible that this attack is a last, desperate gambit on Rider’s part to destroy all of the remaining participants at once. It speaks volumes that he isn’t leading the final charge personally – he’s probably conserving his remaining energy to prevent himself from fading away before he can confirm that everyone in the building is dead. If he runs out of power too soon he and all of his forces will fade away without accomplishing their goal.

In other words, the key to defeating all of the wraiths is Rider himself. Eliminate him, or simply force him to expend too much of his remaining power, and all of the spectral knights will vanish back into the ether.

Of course, doing that means going up against a Servant.

A daunting prospect. Even weakened by his sub-par Master Rider was still able to fight evenly with Saber. You can handle a few pale shadows of long-dead knights, but Rider is the real deal, an ancient hero with decades of combat experience under his supernaturally strengthened belt.

In the end you don’t really have much of a choice. Go through the doors, and the melee will inevitably follow you through. Try to fight them off and you’ll be worn down. It’s an immensely risky gamble, but striking at the head seems to be the only way.

You glance down at the Command Seals on your hand. If you had Scathach at your back you’d feel more confident about making a go at it, but summoning her here would leave Assassin free to slip away, assuming they are still locked in combat. No, better to leave her out of this unless things get really desperate.

And with that last rather amusing thought you turn aside and step off the lip of the dais. You hit the floor with a jarring thud and immediately duck aside from a thrusting glaive. The blade gouges a fist-sized chunk of stone out of the wall behind you as its wielder pivots in his saddle for a follow-up attack, but you’re already sprinting past and quickly lose him in the chaotic battlefield ahead.

Chaos really is the only word that adequately describes it. Mounted and dismounted knights battle one another across the entire length and breadth of the chamber, their weapons clashing and smashing together in an endless drumbeat that hurts to listen to. The floor is cracked and broken from the force of the hooves of the charging warhorses, and many have begun to fill with blood from the crushed and dismembered corpses littering the area. Nearly all of Regulus’s barricades have been reduced to rubble and splinters, and some unseen connection must have been severed somehow because the Prana furnaces have all gone completely dark.

Despite all of that it doesn’t take long for you to pick out Rider. He sits astride a roan charger near the middle of the chamber, calmly surveying the battlefield and brandishing his heavy warhammer at any wraith that gets too close to him. You grit your teeth and plunge into the all-out brawl in between, stopping only when your only way forwards is blocked beyond your ability to slip through. Swords flash and lances flick out, and occasionally they draw your blood, but by skilful positioning and knowing when to block you manage to evade any serious damage.

Finally, you find yourself within striking distance of Rider. Your path through the maelstrom has brought you towards the Servant at an oblique angle, and from what you can tell he has yet to notice your approach. The combat around him is more sporadic and low-key than that elsewhere, with most of the wraiths seeming to know on some instinctual level that attacking Rider is a bad idea. Metaphorically, he seems to be the eye of the storm.

You seize on a sudden lull in the battlefield to break into the calmer circle around Rider and launch your attack. It’s nothing fancy, since you want to avoid anything eye-catching – just a quick sprint from the flank ending in a lightning-fast thrust to the neck with your outstretched claws.

But as fast as you are, Rider is faster still. His body blurs and you suddenly find yourself hurtling backwards, your hands and lower arms reduced to a bloody pulp by a single blow from the old knight’s warhammer. You hit the ground and bounce twice before you can manage to get your legs under you and dig your heels in enough arrest your backwards momentum.

The hooves of Rider’s mount echo as it canters around to face you. Rider’s face is as impassive and stoic as always, though his eyes do widen very slightly as his gaze falls upon you.

“Apostle. I must apologise for my rather uncouth behaviour in interrupting your duel with the puppetmaster, but circumstances have forced my hand. Although I am surprised you have chosen to attack me directly, I cannot say it is displeasing.” There are no traces of hostility or sarcasm in his words, which is both surprising and unnerving in equal measure.

“I have no complaints. You butchered his thralls far more efficiently than I could have.” You respond cautiously as your arms regenerate. Rider’s gaze flickers over the scattered remains of Regulus’s familiars.

“Some might say they were already dead to begin with. A comforting thought, as I had no quarrel with the men and women they once were.” He reverses his grip on his warhammer and adjusts his hold on the reins.

“Unlike Regulus and myself, you mean.” You shoot back, tensing your muscles such that you are ready to throw yourself to the side as soon as the charger begins to move.

The metallic rasp of Rider twisting in the saddle is all the warning you receive. As planned you hurl yourself to the side, but the pressure wave of Rider’s passage hits you like a battering ram and sends you spiralling to the ground. Your head bounces off the floor tiles, and the bitter tang of blood begins to fill your mouth.

“I have no quarrel with you, Apostle.” Rider announces as he wheels his mount around for another charge.

“It is in your nature to cheat and lie and murder, just as it is the viper’s nature to sting the one who plucks the thorn from between its scales.”

The next charge is similarly swift. This time you divert part of the talisman’s power into your eyes, enhancing your visual sense to the point where everything in your sight seems to slow down. Even then it is difficult to see Rider coming, and you suddenly find yourself filled with a deep respect for Saber for being able to keep up with him on foot.

Once again you slip aside a split second before impact. This time however you lash out as you fall, whipping your claws across the warhorse’s armoured flank. By pure chance your fingers find purchase on the edge of one of the interlocking steel plates, and you use both your forward momentum and that of the charging warhorse to tear the plate off before you hit the ground. It comes free with a low grinding sound and disintegrates into golden mist as you roll to your feet.

Unfortunately Rider seems to have figured out your game, because the next time you try to dodge aside you find yourself sliding right into the path of his weapon. The backhanded blow hits you squarely in the chest, shattering bone and nearly rupturing your heart even through all of your layers of protection. A horrible feeling of weakness ripples through your entire body as you are carried along on the head of the weapon, held in place by the sheer speed and force of the blow and Rider’s mount.

The power of the talisman rushes to heal your wounds, and the feeling of weakness recedes enough for you to attack your opponent. You grasp the haft of his hammer with both hands and twist your body enough to kick out at him with both legs. Rider grunts as your feet slam into his midsection, but his grip on the reins and his weapon remain steady. Your blow doesn’t even wind him.

You draw back and kick again, this time aiming for his head. At the same time you direct draconic power into your feet, transforming them into lethal bird-like talons. Rider flinches aside, causing you to miss his head, but you manage to latch on to his weapon arm. With a roar you twist and pull back, and after a moment of resistance Rider is hauled out of his saddle and crashes to the floor, his armour clattering as he bounces and rolls before coming to rest beside you.

Both of you surge to your feet, but Rider gets there first. He swings his weapon in a mighty arc and crushes your left shoulder into paste. You stagger under the blow and nearly go down again, but you dig your talons into the ground and strike back, driving your fist into his midsection with such force that it dents his breastplate. The damage is only superficial however, and the old Servant simply winds his arms back for another swing.

You duck under the blow and kick out towards Rider’s legs, but you might as well be kicking a mountain. He retaliates with an overhead swing too quick to avoid; you raise your remaining arm to block it, reinforcing it with armour of bone and tooth enamel. The warhammer strikes the limb with the force of a drill piston, driving your feet into the ground and sending cracks spiderwebbing through the floor all around you. The organic armour shatters and falls to the ground in splinters.

By now you can feel the talisman’s power starting to ebb. It’s still there, still potent, but you can definitely feel how finite it is now. Healing the tremendous wounds inflicted by Rider’s warhammer whilst keeping your limbs and senses reinforced at all times is depleting your reserves at a frightening rate. If you don’t try to ration yourself you’ll probably run out of power before Rider does.

You grit your teeth and straighten up. As your wounds begin to close and Rider steps back for another attack, you consider your next move carefully:

1. Ration yourself and use the talisman’s power purely for defence, with the objective of holding Rider off until he runs out of prana.

2. The situation is desperate enough. Use a Command Seal to summon Scathach to help you.

3. Throw caution to the winds and attempt to draw more power from the talisman.

--

Rider swings his warhammer, and you just barely manage to duck aside. The wind from his swing batters you and sends you stumbling back, but its small compared to taking a direct hit. You back up as fast as you can, desperately trying to buy yourself time to think.

One thing is clear – you don’t have enough power left to keep fighting at full capacity. The tide is starting to ebb, and the crimson glow surrounding you is already starting to grow wispy and pale. You could probably drag the battle out a bit if you concentrated on defence, but that would just be delaying the inevitable. Plus there’s no telling how Rider would be able to take advantage of you surrendering the initiative – it might actually hasten your defeat.

You ball your fists in frustration, then frown as something hard and sharp grinds against your fingers. Somehow, despite all of the fighting and the chaos, you’ve managed to hold onto the talisman. As far as you can tell it’s still in one piece, though you can’t imagine how it managed to survive being pulverized by Rider’s attacks. You open your hand and try to shake it out, but it seems to have become rooted to your palm somehow.

You curse and try to tear it out with your other hand, but something stops you before you can do it. Rider turns and begins to stalk towards you, but your attention is drawn to the talisman. At first you thought it was dead, emptied of all of its stored-up prana, but now that you focus on it you realise that there’s still something in there. It’s a faint, faint presence, nothing like the burning torrent of energy that poured into you when you first tapped into its power. It’s like an ember, a glowing coal that hasn’t quite gone out yet.

Scathach said that the talisman’s power wasn’t infinite, but perhaps there’s still untapped potential lurking within it. At this point, even a whisper of power would be welcome. As Rider’s stride lengthens into a charge, you brace yourself and drill into the faint presence inside the heart of the talisman. It flickers for a moment, then somehow uncoils and slithers into your body, disintegrating and melting into the remnants of what’s already there.

But it’s not enough. Rider’s hammer dips under your guard and strikes you in the midsection, pulverizing pretty much everything between your chest and your thighs. The force of the blow propels you backwards into the milling crowd of spectral knights, who scatter like ninepins as you bowl through them. Your flight is finally arrested by a pillar, which breaks and collapses the moment you slam into it.

Rubble rains down, burying you beneath a blanket of broken stone. The weight crushes you down, breaking bones and pulping organs. Precious blood leaks from a dozen gashes as darkness swallows you. You try to move, to push some of the weight off, but you don’t have enough room to gain sufficient leverage for your unmangled limbs.

The sound of battle cries and weapons clashing together filters down into your rocky prison, indicating that the knights have resumed their melee. The sounds are distorted and distant, as if you’re hearing them while underwater. A pounding sensation rings in your ears, and it’s only after the rocks above you begin to shift and crunch downwards that you realise that someone is hitting them with immense force. It must be Rider, crushing the rubble down on you to make sure you’re dead. Your cracked and splintered bones begin to creak as the pressure gradually increases.

Your gambit with the talisman has failed. You can’t move, not even to defend yourself. Yet even now, you know that there is still a chance of survival. Focusing on what little power is left within you, you undo all of your previous transformations and focus on the simplest shapeshifting state of all, the first one you ever performed. If you can turn into blood you can slip through the cracks and escape.

After that…well, you’ll deal with that when you get there.

An intense heat begins to blossom within you. Your body begins to grow soft, bones and organs and sinews liquefying and running together into a shapeless, formless mass. Somehow you can still see despite your lack of eyes – not that there’s anything particularly interesting to look at down here. You probe the darkness for cracks in the rock, and that’s when it happens.

Quite against your will, you begin to shift. And this time, it feels different.

It’s not a sensation that you can adequately describe with words. ‘Ascendancy’ or ‘Transcendence’ spring to mind, but even those don’t come close to fully describing the sheer power and violence of the change that comes over you. Your body expands explosively, erupting out of the pile of rubble like a stream of water erupting from a geyser.

The same red power that filled you before comes back, stronger this time, along with the strange presence that lay in the heart of the talisman. You know what it is now, and it’s all you can do not to laugh. Dragons are ancient creatures, with existences so vast and deep they might as well be part of the World itself. It’s no surprise that some part of them would linger on in their remains.

The crimson matter that makes up your form begins to fan out and coalesce into monstrous appendages. Bones, muscles and strange shapeless organs begin to congeal out of the mass of blood, followed shortly by huge bundles of nerves and immense deposits of fat. From high above you watch as an enormous half-formed claw slams down, crushing a group of knights as if they were no more than insects.

Suddenly your viewpoint plunges down. You spread your arms wide to cushion your fall, only they aren’t arms at all but massive claws like the one that crushed the wraiths. Now fully formed, each are covered in jet black scales tipped with bone-white talons spread so widely you could easily wrap them around a mid-sized car. They slam down with great force, smashing the floor slabs into powder and sending dozens of knights to the ground.

Your form is misshapen and corrupt, partially melted and with spikes of bone jutting out from your hardened flesh. A pair of ragged, asymmetrical wings erupt from the middle of your back, impressively large yet far too flimsy for true flight. You smile at the sight of it, your lips widening to reveal massive, misshapen teeth the size of carving knives. Turning into a dragon is a classic bad guy trick, but you can’t say you’re displeased with the results.

Dismounted knights begin to cluster around you, raining blows down on your thick hide. Hammers, axes and spears clash against your midnight scales, but despite the fury behind them none manage to penetrate. You twist your enormous body and sweep your attackers aside, pounding them into golden mist with sheer blunt force. This attracts the attention of still more knights, who rush forwards in a mad charge to engage you.

You meet them with claw and fang, sweeping the first rank aside like so much chaff. You roar, and the force is enough to crack stone and knock the wraiths from their spectral horses. Pillars collapse around you, and stone begins to grind together high above. You sweep your blunt head from side to side, trying to locate Rider amidst the chaos. It takes a moment, but you finally spot him off to one side. He is mounted again, and as your gaze falls across him he sets his jaw grimly and kicks his warhorse forwards.

You rear up on your hind legs and rake at the ceiling with your claws, causing an avalanche of rock and earth to cascade down into Rider’s path. It only marginally slows the old knight, who bats aside the larger slabs of broken stone with his warhammer. As he approaches you stop trying to hold yourself up and pivot forwards, pounding the ground and loosing a subsonic roar that shakes the chamber to its very foundations.

“I do not know what sorceries you have called upon to change your body thus, Apostle,” Rider bellows over the din, “But it will not avail you! For the sake of my Master, I cannot fail here!”

You respond by loosing a torrent of burning prana from your mouth. It’s frightening in how it doesn’t even require any effort – you just have to breathe out purposefully and the air in front of you erupts into a coruscating vortex of blazing fire. The energy washes over the battlefield, reducing wooden tables and splintered barricades to ash and melting the floor beneath them into glowing puddles of molten rock.

Rider leaps from his horse as the inferno reaches him. He sails through the air towards you even as his steed and countless spectral knights are incinerated beneath him. You raise your head to meet him halfway, but the sudden difference in perspective compared to your human form throws you off – you’re just a little too slow. Rider lands on top of your head with a thud and a clatter of armour, raises his hammer above his head, then drives it into the crest of your skull with all the strength he can muster.

The force of the blow drives your head down into the floor so hard it craters and drives up slabs of striated stone all around your bottom jaw. Bright lights burst behind your eyes, and your vision flickers and wavers wildly. You shake your head drunkenly, but Rider simply jumps down to the ground. You snap at him, struggling to rise, but he simply takes a step back and winds his arms back for another swing.

But the blow never comes. Rider’s eyes flicker towards you, then back towards his hammer. His stoic façade splinters, and deep lines of frustrated rage begin to spread across his face. His fingers tighten on the haft of his weapon, and the sinews in his arms are clearly pulled taut, but despite that he remains motionless, his body somehow frozen. It’s only when the last few wraiths begin collapsing in on themselves that you realise what has happened. Rider has run out of power. You’ve managed it – managed to keep him fighting for long enough that all of his reserves have run out.

You pull your head out of the floor, take careful aim, then unleash another torrent of fire at point blank range, pouring all the power you have left into it. Rider disintegrates as the burning energy sweeps over him, the golden motes briefly fluttering along with the flames before rising up and dissipating into the surrounding air.

Suddenly bereft of energy, your dragon-form collapses, melting back into a tidal wave of blood with your original body at its heart. It takes a moment before awareness returns to you, but when it does you claw your way to your feet after a moment of confusion, spluttering and disoriented.

The whole room has been thoroughly wrecked. None of the pillars are standing anymore, and the ground had been so thoroughly cracked, smashed, trampled and burned that there isn’t a single intact tile left. Fires burn sporadically across the chamber, filling the room with the acrid stench of wood smoke. Every now and then a stream of dirt rains down from the ruined ceiling.

You stagger over to a convenient pile of rubble and lean against it. Your head is still pounding from Rider’s warhammer, and every so often your vision lurches unpleasantly. You’ve got to hand it to him – the old knight was a tough old bastard, even with a useless deadweight of a Master. After a few minutes you’ve recovered enough to consider your next move.

The talisman is dead – it crumbles to dust as soon as you open your palm. On the other hand, it’s left you at close to full power. If you run out of that, there’s still a handful of Dead you can drain before you really start scraping the bottom of the barrel. As far as you know, Scathach is still fighting Assassin in the depths of the base, so really it just comes down to you and Regulina.

The pain in your head makes it hard to think about how to approach her. What would be the best way to do it?

1. Stealth – do your best to infiltrate Regulina’s inner sanctum, then attack from ambush if the opportunity presents itself.

2. Brute force – in lieu of the above, simply cast a highly destructive spell as soon as you enter the room. Even if she survives, you might damage something important…

3. Observation – the same as (1), but simply watch what Regulina is doing and don’t attack unless detected.

--

The chamber is in such a ruined state that it takes you a few minutes to make your way back to the dais. You find yourself having to walk around huge expanses of molten stone and mountains of rubble, not to mention the occasional dark pits which used to serve as prana furnaces. Then of course there are the bodies, nearly all of which are crushed and mangled beyond recognition.

Halfway there you realise that sometime during the melee you managed to lose your carbine. You make an effort to scout for another weapon, but most of the firearms you come across are in a similar state to the familiars who once wielded them. The best you can find is a little sub-machinegun with a battered frame and a slightly bent stock. You pick it up anyway, figuring that anything is better than nothing.

You ascend the stone steps up to the dais in silence, careful to avoid the cracked and splintered parts where Rider’s wraiths have trampled the stone. When you reach the top you quickly check the door for traps or bounded fields. You can feel a faint whisper of magical energy that might once have been a very credible defensive barrier, but the magical backwash from explosive prana you breathed out in your dragon form has scoured nearly all of it away. It’s like a wall made of sand after the tide has had its say – all that’s left are the denuded foundations.

You place your hand against the door and crush what little remains. The ruined field dies without even a whisper. You push against the door gently, and it cracks open about an inch. Nothing happens, so you push a little further, widening the gap until you can see through it.

A spiral staircase descends into the darkness beyond. Bare lightbulbs set into the sloping ceiling would normally provide some illumination, but as you cautiously advance you see that each and every one of them has been shattered, probably thanks to the shockwaves from your battle earlier. Taking care not to tread on any of the fragments, you carefully make your way down.

The spiralling nature of the steps makes it difficult to know exactly how far down you’re going, but after descending for about a minute the air begins to grow noticeably colder. You suck air into your dead lungs and then exhale experimentally and find that your breath mists on the way out. After another minute a thin sheet of ice begins to form on the walls and ceiling. A heaviness suffuses the air, a weight that subtly presses down on you, a feeling not dissimilar to the pressure of being deep underwater.

You recognise both it and the coldness as a byproduct of a great Alchemical working. A powerful act of transmutation is being performed somewhere below you, powerful enough to travel through stone and earth which normally grounds out such energies to the point where they cannot be performed at all. Trepidation and curiosity at what’s going on quickens your stride, and you quickly begin taking the steps two at a time in your haste to reach the bottom.

The staircase unravels into a short passage leading to an octagonal chamber. There’s no door in between them, the corridor simply starts to expand rapidly after a few metres, merging in with the chamber itself and leaving one facet of the octagon far longer and thinner than the rest. The light bulbs down here aren’t broken, but many stutter and flicker fitfully, leaving large patches of shadow for you to hide in. You slowly move forwards, creeping from shadow to shadow until you can see into the room beyond.

The first impression you have is of a Greco-Roman amphitheatre. The floor drops away after a few metres, falling down through multiple tiered steps to an octagonal expanse of bare floor at the bottom. The tiers are similarly octagonal, with every fifth step being slightly larger than the ones before it. These enlarged platforms are lined with thaumaturgical equipment on raised stone platforms, interspersed with large tanks full of strangely coloured liquids, oversized valves and vacuum tubes. Frost coats some of them, but if the hissing and clicking sounds are any indication it doesn’t seem to be impeding their function.

Spools of wiring and mechanical tubes snake between the devices, merging into larger arterial bundles via junction boxes spread throughout the room. Thick cables run from these to the very bottom of the chamber, and as you creep forwards you see that they disappear into a vaguely rectangular metal construct shaped like an oversized coffin. A raised lid obscures whatever is resting inside it, but judging by its prominence it has to be important.

You slide forwards slowly, then freeze altogether as Regulina steps out from behind the lid. A pale blue glow suffuses the air around her, and the scent of ozone surrounds her like a cloak. A loose cable trails behind her, and as you watch she bends down and drives it into an empty slot at the base of the device. It connects with a dull click, and a set of inactive equipment on the far side of the room suddenly comes alive, adding to the choir of hissing gurgles issuing forth throughout the chamber.

Regulina turns around and begins fiddling with something on the side of the metal coffin. Part of you wants to attack now, but to do so would be foolish without knowing what she is up to. As soon as her back is turned you spring to your feet and ghost down the steps, using the noise of the machinery to mask your footsteps. You make it about halfway down before Regulina straightens up and forces you to sequester yourself behind one of the raised platforms in order to avoid detection.

As you peer out from behind your hiding spot you realise one thing is certain – Regulina is a mess. Her face is a mask of blood, most of it streaming down from her nose and eyes. If you had to guess you’d say that the psychic backlash is finally starting to catch up with her – the blood is fresh, and every now and then a new rivulet slides down her cheeks. Despite this her movements are as calm and methodical as ever. The only sign of her true mental and physical state is the quickened pace of her breathing.

After a moment Regulina disappears behind the lid again. The blue glow suddenly intensifies, accompanied by a long, drawn-out chant in an unfamiliar language. After ten lines frost begins to form on the coffin itself, coating it in a semi-transparent rime. You’d dearly love to see what Regulina is doing with all that energy, but you’d need to be on the other side of the room for that to be possible.

At the very least you can definitely confirm that the ritual is Alchemical in nature. It’s certainly not any sort of elementalism, because the feel of the energy is vastly different from, say, Lord Monmouth’s magecraft. If anything the frost seems to be more of a by-product than the actual focus of the work. Maybe the result of something conceptual, like stillness or stasis.

Before Regulina can come back you slip out from behind your hiding place and stealthily make your way to the next enlarged level below you. The ice becomes thicker the lower you go, and though the cold doesn’t bother you it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep your footing. To counter this and simultaneously get a better look at what Regulina is doing you take a diagonal path down to the next level, skirting around the various raised platforms until you find one suitable for hiding behind.

Once again Regulina emerges from behind the metal construct. She strides forwards, then pauses, tilting her head to one side. She remains motionless, and after a moment you realise that she’s actually listening. Of course – with none of her familiars upstairs left alive she has no idea of what’s going on up there aside from what she can personally perceive. She doesn’t even know that you’re still alive.

After about a minute she huffs out a breath and goes back to doing whatever it is she’s doing with the construct. She connects two more cables before disconnecting three others, then reconnects one of those into a different slot. The ice covering the construct’s surface thickens and thins, pulsing from within like a beating heart.

At one point Regulina appears to encounter some kind of problem with one of the cables. She plugs it in, then unplugs it moments later, her bloody features drawn into a tight frown. After a moment she turns on her heel and begins to ascend the steps, following the cable up to its junction box, then one of the capillary lines up to one of the banks of thaumaturgical equipment. It doesn’t take long for you to realise that she’s heading straight for you.

You freeze up, wondering what you should do. If you run, she’ll surely see you. You could leap out and attack her, but can you really do that without knowing what she’s doing here? After a brief struggle you decide to remain absolutely still and hidden for as long as possible.

Regulina’s footsteps halt suddenly, and the top half of her shadow emerges from the larger shadow cast by the platform. The shadow’s arms move, and you hear the sound of…something. A screw being tightened, or a valve being opened, it’s hard to tell without actually seeing it. Regulina grunts in frustration, apparently not pleased by whatever it is she’s seeing. A series of clicks rings out, then a sharp, meaty thump. Liquid splashes from somewhere above you.

“Worthless.” Regulina mutters darkly. “But then, what else can you expect from Association equipment? Pathetic.”

The last three words come out as a venomous hiss. Three more meaty thumps echo from above, each louder than the last. The machinery above suddenly wheezes to life, and though it sounds distinctly unhealthy Regulina makes a satisfied noise in the back of her throat. A few moments later her shadow vanishes and you breathe a mental sigh of relief.

Regardless, it looks like you won’t be able to hover around out of sight forever. Sooner or later you’ll be discovered, either through chance or because of Regulina getting suspicious that nothing is happening upstairs. You need to take action, but thankfully your observations have given you a clearer idea of what should be done here:

1. Regulina is your ultimate target and her guard is not yet entirely up, so attack her the next time her back is turned. With luck you can deal a crippling strike before she can react.

2. The machinery around the room is clearly important for whatever it is Regulina is doing. Break the machinery and see what effect it has on her workings.

3. The metal coffin-like structure is the focal point of the room. The next time Regulina walks behind it, run down there and destroy it.

--

You twist around and crane your neck to look up at the magical apparatus labouring away above you. It consists of a central tank of colourless liquid surrounded by a mesh of plastic tubing and metal valves. The liquid is impregnated with mana, the raw energy that can become prana after being refined by the magic circuits of a practicing magus. The apparatus hisses and wheezes, and some of the liquid is drawn into the pipes. It goes through several of the valves and vanishes into a bronze-coloured spherical device mounted on an iron tripod. The sphere rattles for a moment, then disgorges the liquid into the main capillary line leading down towards the bottom of the chamber.

It’s impossible to tell what the equipment’s purpose is, at least not without looking at the other devices scattered across the tiers of the chamber. What is clear, however, is that they are all important to whatever ritual Regulina is performing. Since this is apparently her final refuge, it’s safe to bet that the ritual in question is her trump card, something that will give her an edge or increase her chances of surviving the oncoming storm.

With that in mind, your course of action is clear.

Careful not to move too quickly, you slowly reach up and poke a hole in the base of the tank above you with an outstretched finger. The liquid within immediately begins to leak out in a thick stream, pouring down the side of the stone plinth before pooling on the floor next to you. The liquid is hot and smells strongly of sulphur and brimstone, and wisps of steam begin to rise into the air as it starts to melt the surrounding ice. You carefully move aside, then reach up and disconnect some of the tubes. More of the liquid streams out, particularly after you start fiddling with some of the valves.

You sneak a look over to see what Regulina is doing. She’s doing something with a bank of levers on one side of the coffin-like construction. Her bloodstained face is set in a rictus of concentration – she hasn’t yet noticed your act of sabotage, so you steal out from behind your platform and quickly make your way over to the next. This one consists of a dull metal box connected to an equally dull cylinder by a quartet of vacuum tubes. They rattle and hiss, but nothing seems to be travelling between them. You reach up and crush the two lowermost tubes, then shovel the broken glass into the empty holes.

After a few seconds the first set of equipment you sabotaged begins to splutter and cough. The wisps of steam coming from the colourless liquid have darkened into smoke. The bronze orb is rattling violently on its tripod, and ugly cracks are starting to appear in its surface. Regulina frowns and turns around, and you hurry over to the next plinth before she can see you.

You don’t bother with subtlety for this one. You simply sweep your arms across it, sending metal rods, alembics and distillation tubes inscribed with magical sigils tumbling to the floor. Regulina turns mid-stride, her eyes widening with shock as her gaze falls over you. She fumbles with the straps holding her sci-fi shotgun in place as you dash over to the fourth platform, growling and cursing under her breath.

She tears it loose a split second after you get there and immediately opens fire, raking the area around you with gunfire. You dive behind the platform as the massive steel slugs gouge fist-sized holes out of the stone floor on either side of you. Fragments of metal begin to rain down on your head as the delicate metalwork on top of the plinth disintegrates under the barrage. The noise is incredible, even worse than it was on the boat thanks to the echoes bouncing all around the room.

“So, you survived. I really do wish you’d stop doing that.” Regulina growls when her gun finally clicks on empty.

“Hey, what can I say? I enjoy my unlife as much as the next horrible undead abomination.” You shoot back, risking a glance over the top of the ruined plinth.

Regulina slowly backs away until her back rubs up against the metal construct. She glowers at the ruined apparatuses, then sucks in a breath through her teeth.

“Problem, Reggie?” You taunt. She glares in your general direction, but doesn’t rise to the bait. She slowly slides another ammunition drum into her shotgun, keeping it levelled at the platform you’re crouching behind.

“What’s the deal with all this stuff, anyway?” You ask flippantly, waving a hand to indicate the remaining equipment. Regulina’s gun barks, and your hand explodes into gore halfway through the motion.

“It doesn’t concern you.” She murmurs, walking sideways until she is next to the control panel you saw her fiddling with earlier. She glances at it briefly, then reaches out and wrenches the middlemost lever down.

The coffin-like lid slams down. Metal squeals as iron bolts on either side of it grind into place, firmly locking it down. A series of pops echo throughout the room as dozens of cables begin to disconnect themselves, many of them trailing plumes of vapour as they fall to the ground. The construct shudders and groans, then lurches downwards and retracts into the ground, leaving a vaguely rectangular hole in the floor tiles. Moments later a bronze trapdoor slides across it, blocking the hole off from above.

Well now. That certainly was interesting. Maybe it isn’t some kind of summoning or unsealing ritual after all.

“Something important in there?” You call out, watching idly as your hand regenerates.

Again, Regulina declines to respond. Keeping her shotgun trained on your position, she reaches across her body and pulls the Chinese fan out from its leather holder. Prana blazes to life within her as she sweeps the ancient ornament towards you, and you barely have enough time to duck before a frigid wind slams into the plinth. It’s not some trivial gust either, but a full-blown arctic gale. Eddies and erratic currents blow back from where it hits the raised stone steps in front of you, blowing chips of ice and fragments of metal into your eyes.

That makes it difficult to see, but you still notice the dark shape that suddenly appears in your peripheral vision. Regulina jumps up onto the tier that you’re on and levels her weapon at you. But her movements are a little too smooth, a little too unencumbered by the vicious wind swirling around her. Another illusion, as if you hadn’t figured it out by now.

The illusory figure opens fire, and the slugs pass through you harmlessly. At the same time gunfire from below chews up the ground where you would have been if you had chosen to run. Before the wind can fully die down you pick up one of the metal fragments and flick it towards the illusion’s feet. It flies forth with the force of a bullet and shatters the obsidian bead acting as the illusion’s projector. The image winks out.

“Sorry, Reggie. I figured that one out a while ago.” You call out as the air returns to normal. Something crunches behind you. You tense, then twist to look over the ruined platform once more. Regulina is advancing up the steps towards you, her bloodstained face set in a grim frown. Her boots crunch as she steps onto one of the larger tiers below you. At a rough estimate, the distance between you is less than a dozen metres.

“Well, if you want to be serious…” You mutter to yourself as you pull out the battered sub-machinegun you scavenged earlier. You thrust it over the lip of the platform and loose a chattering burst in Regulina’s direction.

Regulina cries out in surprise and hurls herself behind one of the raised plinths on her own tier of the chamber. You take the opportunity to seize the initiative and haul yourself out from behind your own plinth. You take careful aim and pepper Regulina’s hiding place with controlled fire, smashing the bank of glass vials and copper wiring mounted on it.

Your victory is short-lived, however. Regulina pokes the barrel of her own gun over the plinth and fires back at you. One of her slugs digs a furrow across your cheek and tears off your left ear, forcing you to duck back behind cover once again. You resist the urge to fire back, choosing instead to wait until Regulina stops trying to suppress you. Firing back now would be a waste of precious ammunition.

As Regulina’s gun goes silent and the smell of cordite begins to rise you find yourself in a standoff situation. A single lucky shot from either of you could end this fight, but neither of you are in a position to deliver it. Neither of you can move, but neither of you have the luxury of staying still. You don’t know what other tricks Regulina has up her sleeve, but on the other hand she doesn’t truly know what you’re capable of either.

But in the end, something has to give, so you make the conscious choice to:

1. Use your earth element to explode Regulina’s cover and attack while she’s reeling from the blast.

2. Rip your own block of stone up from the ground and use it as mobile cover.

3. Remain where you are and attempt to distract Regulina by talking.

--

This impasse will only last as long as your cover does. Regulina has a shotgun and who knows what else, and your plinth can only take so much more punishment. On the other hand you only have a small-calibre sub-machinegun with half a clip of ammunition. If it comes down to a ranged battle of attrition you’re pretty sure you’ll lose. So you’re not even going to try. Why fight a hopeless battle when you can turn the rules of engagement on their head without even moving from where you are now?

You close your eyes and feel the stone around you with your mind. Underneath the thin sheet of ice it’s simple, good quality marble for the most part, with sturdy granite for the raised platforms. Terrible conduits for alchemical thaumaturgy…but excellent for your own elemental magic. It’s going to need a bit of setup, though.

You slash open your own palm with one of your claws, then draw a circle on the floor with the blood that wells up. The ritual itself is pretty simple, all told, but getting the positioning right is going to be tricky. It’s going to need nearly all of your concentration, and if Regulina tries to move in the meantime it could throw off your aim. You need to keep her still somehow, distract her to the point where she won’t notice what you’re doing.

“Well, it looks like we’re deadlocked. And judging from the fact that Caster is still drawing power from me, so are our Servants.” You call out. You draw more circles on the ground, overlapping the first until it resembles a styrograph-style pattern.

Regulina doesn’t respond.

“Come on, Reggie. Don’t give me the silent treatment. Let’s have a civil discussion as fellow monsters for a while.” Ice cracks somewhere behind you. You glace over your shoulder, but Regulina hasn’t moved from her hiding place. The silence stretches on for a long while, to the point where you’re about to try saying something else.

“…What is there to talk about?” Regulina asks dryly, after a very long pause. You smile to yourself and begin adding more details around the edge of your diagram.

“Oh, lots of things. Like, our respective motives for wanting the Grail. As a fellow Master I have to admit I’m at least a little curious.”

“Oh? But surely my motives are quite clear. I am a magus, after all. Is unlocking the door to Akasha not cause enough to take part in this ritual?”

You laugh at her response.

“Akasha? Ha. Come on, Reggie. I’ve seen your stockpiles of weapons and your army of meat puppets. Both were far too extensive to be preparations for the Grail War, and far too overt to be used except in self-defence or as a last gamble. No, I think you have something else in mind. Something you won’t be able to do if you take the short walk up to the root.”

Silence is your only response. You puff out a breath and keep going.

“Hmph. Alright then, if you’re feeling shy about it, I’ll go first. I want the Grail because I’m sick of hiding in the shadows all the time. Sick of being tied down by the sun, of having to constantly look over my own shoulder to make sure I’m not as risk of being killed by Jesus H. Christ’s pet psychopaths. I want to be able to do whatever I want without being tied down by arbitrary rules I never agreed to to begin with. I want to walk out into the daylight and give the sun the middle finger. And while I don’t really know much about you personally, Reggie, from what I’ve seen of you over the past few weeks I’ll wager your wish is just as selfish as mine.”

Ice creaks again. You look over your shoulder once more, but again, nothing seems to have changed.

“That’s it? That’s your wish?” Regulina replies in a neutral voice. She pauses, then barks out a harsh laugh.

“Ha! Very good. Yes, I can see why you’re the last one standing besides me. The Grail War isn’t an honourable battle between mages and their summoned knights, but a dirty scuffle between self-centred egomaniacs and their pet murderers. The only ‘honour’ is in victory. In that kind of fight the winners will always be the ones willing to be selfish and cruel.”

She sighs breathily, then goes on, her tone suddenly becoming more intense.

“Would you believe that my participation in this conflict was actually an accident? I certainly never intended to become a Master. In fact, I had no idea that the Grail War was taking place in Blackpool until the Command Seals appeared on my arm. I was here long before any of this started, building up my forces until it was time for me to strike. Not that I’m complaining, you understand. Winning the Grail will advance my schedule and save me a significant amount of time.”

“Yeah, there’s no way you could have built this place in only a few weeks.” You murmur, frowning. Something is interfering with your ritual. You’ve finished the actual circle, but…you can’t quite get a lock on Regulina’s position. It’s as if something keeps batting your mind away whenever you try to direct the energy towards her hiding place.

“I didn’t used to make my home here.” Regulina continues, almost wistfully.

“I used to live in the Clock Tower, in the heart of the Association’s power. I was quite influential, if I do say so myself. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I have a unique ability to manipulate Magic Circuits. I can transfer them from one individual to another with a one hundred percent success rate, even when they ought to be incompatible. Even ingrained attributes like sorcery traits can be transplanted with enough time and energy.”

Your eyes widen involuntarily. Scathach’s autopsy proved that Reggie could work Magic Circuits into a foreign body, but the last part about attributes is even more impressive.

“That’s pretty amazing.” You pause, to give the next sentence emphasis.

“So, where did it all go wrong?”

Regulina chuckles dryly. “You catch on quickly, Apostle. From your abilities can I assume that you studied under the Association, at least for a little while? If so then you’ll know how conservative they all are. Oh, there are a few Instructors who value hard work and progress, but the majority are firmly entrenched in tradition. They didn’t like the idea that some upstart could swoop in, grind up their precious attributes and Crests and turn their unique legacies into something any magus could use.”

“Power wants to hold onto power, huh.” You mutter. There’s definitely something obfuscating Regulina’s presence. Perhaps one of Pryke’s artefacts is shielding her…

“Just so.” Regulina growls.

“They were subtle at first. Attempts to discredit my research, timetable disruptions, award ceremony snubs. Little things. Little hints telling me to pull back and stop rocking the status quo. When I kept going they blocked my application for Instructorship. When I carried on under my own power my workshop was attacked and my apprentice burned so badly he had to have a tube put through his neck just so he could breathe.”

A cold anger permeates her voice, every word frostbitten. It’s an old anger, scarred over by time but still visible and ugly.

“The idiots didn’t even bother to hide who they were. I placed my consciousness into a puppet and went after them, but even with all the powerful Circuits and attributes I could gather they were too much for me. I only managed to kill one before the rest tore me to shreds.”

“Revenge, then.” You call out. Ugh, you really can’t get a lock on her. You’ll just have to make your best guess.

“Precisely. I fled here to Blackpool and bunkered down. I made a new workshop and started stockpiling weapons. I debased myself by creating human familiars, then linked myself to them and overwrote their wills. Every now and then I ventured back to London to…acquire…more Magic Circuits. And so it went on, and on, until a few weeks ago.”

“So once you have the Grail…you’ll use it to tear down everyone who wronged you in the past?”

You fancy you can almost see Regulina’s grin. “Like you said, I’m a spiteful person.”

You don’t waste time with a snappy one-liner or a sarcastic comment. You simply slam your hand down on the bloody ritual diagram and shout, “Terra!”

The ground just to the left of Regulina’s plinth explodes, scattering fragments of ice and rock everywhere. Regulina cries out as the overpressure hits her, pushing her back across the icy floor and out from behind her cover.

It’s not a direct hit, but it’s enough for your purposes. You slam your arm down on top of your platform and vault over it, demolishing the last of the metalwork on top of it. Regulina blindly fires her shotgun in your direction, but her disorientation throws her aim off. You pull out your own weapon and empty the clip into her as you run. Several of the bullets thud into her, but she still struggles to rise, swinging her gun around to aim at your centre of mass.

You hit her before she can get a bead on you, batting the shotgun aside with a sweep of your claws. It flies across the room and lands on the bottom tier, discharging loudly as it hits the ground. She fumbles for her fan, but you tear the delicate paper to shreds before she can use it. With a growl of frustration she draws the glass sword at her hip and slashes at you, wild and unfocused.

The sword casts crazy shadows across the ground and somehow manages to cut you across the chest despite the clumsiness of the swing. You step back quickly, claws held defensively in front of your body. Regulina is breathing heavily, body hunched over her sword. She grimaces as she straightens up, and several flattened metal objects clatter to the floor.

“Is it the fashion for everyone to wear Kevlar these days?” You mutter bemusedly.

“It is the fashion to be paranoid.” Regulina grunts, flicking the point of her sword from side to side.

You drop into a fighter’s crouch, looking for weaknesses in her defence. You’ve gotten rid of her shotgun, at least temporarily, and the whirlwind fan has been destroyed. She’s still got at least six illusion beads. Overall she’s down on resources, but who knows what else she has up her sleeve? She’s still got the sword and the lantern, for starters.

Given that, you decide your next move will be to:

1. Attack Regulina by engaging her in close combat. She has a sword, but she’s also only human, and it’ll only take one decent wound to incapacitate her.

2. Disengage and go for Regulina’s shotgun. Kevlar might block small bullets, but solid steel slugs will tear her apart.

3. Engage Regulina in a magic duel to try and pinpoint the source of her magic resistance.

--

The fact that you couldn’t target Regulina with thaumaturgy bothers you. It makes you wonder what the extent of her protection is, and where it is coming from. Could it be an effect tied to the sword? There is definitely something supernatural about the way the light plays off its glassy blade. Or how about the lantern hanging from her belt? Lanterns have a strong reputation for being able to ward off darkness and the hostility that dwells within it. Perhaps there’s some conceptual connection there…

Well, there’s only one way to find out.

Unfortunately Regulina doesn’t wait for you. She lunges forward, surprisingly fast despite still being slightly hunched over from being shot. The glass sword flickers out, seeming to lengthen and grow fainter as the light hits it, and though you manage to dodge aside you still take a long cut across your left forearm. Regulina presses her assault, following up with an ‘S’ shaped cut meant to disembowel you. The sword’s erratic shadows flow over your body as the blade leaps out, gouging out a large chunk of flesh across your abdomen.

You hiss and draw back, raising your claws defensively. Neither of those attacks should have hit you, you’re certain. You weren’t in the path of the blade at all, yet you still got cut. You wince as your wounds heal up, draining away more of your preciously limited energy.

At the very least it confirms that the sword is a powerful mystic code, but it is the source of her resistance? You throw out your arm, fingers splayed. You aren’t very good with fire, but exciting magical energy around your hand until it heats up is relatively simple. Regulina advances slowly, eyeing the smoke now wafting from your fingertips.

There’s no time for anything more complex than single action spells. You send a burst of prana through your circuits to your hand, and a wave of heat ripples from the centre of your palm. It’s not hot enough to spontaneously combust, but it’s enough to singe clothing and sear flesh. The heat haze ripples towards Regulina, then abruptly splits around her, diverted to either side of her body by an invisible force. As it does, the lantern on her hip begins to glow with a dull silver light.

So, it is the lantern after all.

Regulina’s lip curls derisively, and she hacks at you again, aiming for a decapitating strike. You respond more quickly this time, dodging aside and receiving only a small cut across your cheek, then retaliate by stamping your foot and sending magical energy into the floor. You direct it into five distinct points around Regulina’s body, compress it as much as you can, then let go.

The detonations aren’t particularly strong – they sound more like firecrackers than bombs – but they do produce a lot of shrapnel. Razor sharp shards of marble slice into both of you, and although you are fine by dint of fast regeneration Regulina simply can’t swing her sword fast enough or accurately enough to deflect all of the fragments. She hisses as a handful slice into her arms, peppering them with a dozen small cuts.

Interesting. Supernatural heat gets diverted, but shrapnel from a magical explosion sails straight through. So, the lantern protects her from magical energy, but can’t handle purely physical objects in motion even if they were caused or put in motion by a thaumaturgical ritual.

In that case, there’s something you can do. You just need to put some distance between yourself and your opponent first.

You stamp your foot again, repeating the same ritual from before, only this time you multiply the number of points by a factor of four. Regulina falls back as the detonations begin, disappearing behind a blizzard of zinging fragments and clouds of pulverized stone.

While she’s busy you begin to enact another, far more complicated ritual. Prana explodes through every circuit in your body as you weave together the most powerful spell you know, a ten-count ritual inherited from your vampiric parent, Rufus Grindstone. As the energy builds up to a crescendo you throw back your head and howl out the incantation.

“Prima et Tellus et invocabo; Egredere ex planeta ossa; Surge, o veterum et fortis lapidem! Surge, et malleus incudem fiunt! Inimici autem mei vivunt, et atterere pretiosa contere locis! Superbia eorum subvertite, et humiliabit illos, qui est ante omnes! Scidit, omninoque in pulverem redigens, donec manet! Audistis orationis sic respondeat mihi! Rotationis, in infinitum est lapis lapidem terit! Surge, apta sepultura, et dissipabis inimicos meos!”

The ground shakes as two huge slabs of stone tear themselves loose from the tiered marble floor. Half pure white, half bedrock, the two boulder-sized lumps rise into the air as if lifted by an invisible puppet master, trailing twin streaks of loose dirt and dust behind them. At your mental command the boulders smash together and begin to rotate, grinding themselves against one another hard enough to strike sparks.

Your old sire used this spell as an implement of torture, but by increasing the rotation it can become a potent weapon in its own right. A couple of tons worth of rocks is a pretty tough thing to argue against, particularly when said rocks are spinning like demented tops. You fling out a hand and mentally hurl the rotating mass of stone towards the dissipating cloud of dust.

Regulina emerges just in time to see the enormous boulders flying towards her, and for a brief moment you get to savour her look of utter shock. She whirls around, but it’s too late. The rocks hit the invisible anti-magic field around her and lose their connection to you. They fall out of the air and plough into the ground, bouncing and rolling and tumbling end over end. One of the rocks shatters completely and becomes a landslide of football-sized debris, while the other simply gouges out an enormous section of the floor as it spins out of control, throwing up a wave of shattered rock that engulfs your erstwhile opponent.

The rubble continues to plough forwards for some time before inertia and gravity take hold and the heavier fragments begin to cascade down the tiers towards the bottom level. As the dust begins to settle you step forwards and begin to sift through the rubble, searching for any signs of blood amidst the rock.

To your surprise, you find nothing. No blood, no torn strips of clothing, and no battered, broken corpse. You search frantically, tossing aside the larger rocks and turning over shattered floor tiles, but by the time the dust has fully settled you are forced to accept that Regulina simply isn’t there.

“That was a nice trick.” Her voice echoes from above. You crane your neck up and see her standing right on the uppermost tier, her khaki combat fatigues rumpled and coated in dust but otherwise intact.

…What the hell is this? You saw her, freaking saw her less than a second away from being shaken and stirred, and now she’s standing right at the top of the room! There’s no way she could have climbed up there in such a short space of time even if there hadn’t been a veritable rockslide bearing down upon her. Was the Regulina you saw about to be buried another illusion? You’re pretty sure it wasn’t. Goddamnit, just how many other things does this woman have up her sleeves?

Something of your incredulity must have shown on your face, because Regulina’s blood-soaked face twists into a smirk.

“Let me show you one of mine in return.”

She steps off the uppermost tier…

…And immediately appears barely a foot in front of you.

You have just enough time to register surprise before a tremendous force hits you in the chest. Your entire body is lifted into the air at the same time another force hacks into your side. A small dark object goes flying into the air as you tumble down the tiered steps, hitting each in turn before finally coming to rest on the bottom floor. As your body slews to a stop, the same dark object you saw go flying earlier thuds into the ground next to you. It takes you a full second to realise that it’s your own severed right arm.

“A full ten-count? Talk about ballsy.” Regulina murmurs, flicking her sword to clean the blood off it.

“Teleportation?” You groan as you stagger to your feet. Out of the corner of your eye you notice that her shotgun is lying just a few feet away.

“Who knows?” She smiles mysteriously. With great care she begins to pick her way through the shattered stone thrown up by your spell, slowly descending through the tiers towards the bottom. Every now and then she vanishes and instantly reappears several levels down.

You grit your teeth and try to remain calm. It can’t be real teleportation, surely. That art has been lost for thousands of years. There must be some kind of trick to it. If there isn’t, why didn’t Regulina bust it out immediately and end the fight right away? All you know is that this is some new bullcrap you’re going to need to figure out before you can win.

Regulina is nearly at the bottom level, you only have a second or two to act:

1. Go for the shotgun. Perhaps gauging her reactions will tell you something about how her power works. With luck you can also use it to suppress your opponent while your arm regenerates naturally.

2. Try to stall her by shifting your body so that it’s more difficult to damage, then work out what tricks she’s using while she brutally beats you.

3. Summon Caster and end this nonse-oh, that’s right, your Command Seals were on your right hand. Welp! Better dive for it quickly!

--

If you really want to find out how Regulina’s tricks are working taking a defensive stance is probably the best way of doing it. By focusing on countering her attacks rather than attacking yourself you are free to observe her more closely. With luck perhaps you can figure out both how she’s teleporting around and what’s up with her freaky glass sword.

You draw on the pool of mutable energy within yourself, using it to hasten your regeneration. Spurs of bone and stringy meat erupt from the stump of your right arm, muscle and sinew twisting and wrapping into a new limb. Your old arm melts into crimson sludge as the process finishes, and bright red command seals flare to life across your new palm. Even if you aren’t going to use them, leaving them lying around for Regulina to pick up is just asking for trouble.

Pain erupts across your circuits as you continue to use your power, changing your whole body to make it more plastic, more yielding. You’re drawing dangerously close to the line here, if this battle drags on for too long you’ll lose what few advantages you still have. Without hesitation you reach out and suck out what little power your remaining Dead still have to offer, draining them to the point of devouring even the magic animating them. One by one, the five cold presences disappear.

It’s no great loss. If all goes well you won’t be needing Dead after you’re finished here.

Regulina reaches the bottom step, turns her body slightly to face you, then vanishes. She reappears to one side of you, halfway through a swing. Her sword goes nowhere near you but hacks into your body anyway, cutting deep into your right side just below your ribs. Your flesh parts like clay, immediately reattaching itself once the blade has passed through.

That’s what your strategy is going to be. Even if it is some sort of trick, until you’ve worked out how it works you probably won’t be able to avoid getting injured. If that’s how it’s going to be then there’s no point in trying to actively defend yourself because your opponent can simply attack a perceived weak point from any angle she chooses.

Regulina frowns and vanishes again before you can counterattack. She doesn’t reappear anywhere in your field of view, so you turn around. You catch a glimpse of her just before she disappears again, a flicker of motion on the third tier up. She appears a few feet in front of you and thrusts her blade towards your chest. Light plays over its glassy surface as it flickers forwards, once again casting a spectacular array of shadows across the ground and over your body.

You don’t bother trying to defend. Instead you opt to leave yourself open and watch what happens next as closely as you can. Regulina slides forwards and finishes her thrust. Strangely, she actually comes up short, the point of her sword hovering in mid-air two or three feet from your body. But it doesn’t stop you from being stabbed.

Flesh and muscle part as an invisible blade thuds into you. Meat, organs and bone deform like rubber, sliding aside without being damaged. You reach out and try to grasp the invisible section, but your hands claw at empty air. Regulina snarls in frustration and twists her body, ripping the invisible section of the blade out through your side.

You step back as the injury closes up, unable to keep a frown from darkening your features. So it’s not simply that part of the blade is invisible. Could it be intangible too? But then, how does it ‘know’ when to cut into you? You’ll need to observe a little more in order to know for sure. Even so, you did learn something important –the sword still acts like a sword. Even if it isn’t visible or physical, it still follows Regulina’s movements. If she thrusts, it’ll be a thrust. If she goes for an overhead swing, the cutting part will descend from above.

You get the feeling that that fact is important somehow.

As you step backwards you lash out with your claws. Instead of blocking with her blade Regulina vanishes again. Again she reappears behind you, this time off to the side near the bronze trapdoor. That’s another question that needs answering, come to think of it. What was in that metal construct?

Regulina vanishes, strikes at you, then vanishes again. Each exchange takes only a few seconds, and each time neither of you manages to do the other lasting harm. Sometimes she comes at you from the side, sometimes from the front. Sometimes she even feints, warping to the opposite side of the chamber without attacking in an attempt to fake you out. One time she comes at you with a two-handed diagonal swing, and you discover that the part of the blade you can actually see is physical when you manage to catch part of it on your arm.

Your attempts to gauge its actual length come up shorter, however. When you make an effort to dodge it’s a crapshoot whether you get hit or not, regardless of how you move. Stepping back might let you make a clean escape or it might not matter at all. It seems almost arbitrary, but you know that can’t be the case. Thaumaturgy follows rules, even if those rules can be somewhat flexible. There has to be a pattern somewhere.

Regulina’s next attack comes in low. She aims at your ankles, and though she fails to sever your feet the force behind her blow is considerable enough to knock you to the ground. She grits her teeth and swings again, shadows dancing as the invisible blade slices out a section of the floor. You quickly roll away, catching glimpses of both the brightly lit ceiling and Regulina’s legs and leather boots as your vision tumbles.

And that’s when everything clicks.

You grin as you spring back to your feet, your injuries already healed. As you thought, your opponent’s ‘teleportation’ was nothing more than a cheap trick. You’re almost ashamed for having fallen for it, for having forgotten such an important detail. It’s not just the lantern and the sword – Regulina’s boots are also among the Mystic Codes she pillaged from the Collector’s horde.

There’s a damn good reason why Regulina never reappeared anywhere that wasn’t in her field of vision. It was never teleportation to begin with. And it’s something you can take advantage of. You suppress your smile and put your fists up in front of your body, arms held out to the sides a little. This is going to require precise timing.

It takes another three exchanges before you can pull it off. Regulina vanishes, reappears behind you, then hefts her sword and goes for what you are absolutely sure must be another feint. At the precise moment she vanishes you drain the plasticity from your arms until they are as hard as bone, pour all the remaining power you have into reinforcing your limbs, then take two quick steps to the side and fling your arm out, bracing yourself for impact.

Something hits your outstretched arm with enough force to drive you several inches back across the floor. Regulina immediately reappears, her body almost comically wrapped around your forearm, then the laws of momentum take effect and she goes flying backwards, bouncing and rolling as she hits the floor. She hits the step of the first tier and lies there, coughing and retching.

“The Seven-League Boots.” You call out as you approach her fallen form.

“An old English myth, said to allow the wearer to travel seven leagues in a single step. I’m guessing those-” You point at Regulina’s feet.

“-are just a replica, but still. Pretty nice. Unfortunately, your body still has to travel through the intervening space. So if you happen to hit an obstacle…well, you’d break a few ribs at the very least.”

Regulina glares and awkwardly swings her sword at you, but you’ve figured that one out too. Ironically, it was seeing the light at the top of the chamber that gave it away. Instead of stepping away from the blade, you step away from the shadows it casts.

“A glass sword whose shadows cut when you put prana into it? Also pretty nice. But like the boots, once you know the trick it’s useless.” You stoop down and rip the sword from her shaking hands, then draw back and hack her feet off with one of its shadows. Her face contorts in agony, the expression made even more ghastly by the mixture of fresh and dried blood coating it.

“It was a good game, Reggie. But this is it.”

“No…” She wheezes, a trickle of blood dribbling from one corner of her mouth.

“No…It’s not…!”

Her left sleeve begins to glow a dull red. Magical energy radiates from her body like a beacon, the glow intensifying through every shade of red until you have to shield your eyes against it. There’s no mistake – she’s going to use her Command Seals to summon Assassin to her!

“Oh, piss off!” You shout, hacking wildly in Regulina’s general direction, but the light is so intense that none of the sword’s shadows even come close to touching her. She rips her sleeve away, revealing the sinuous brand wrapping her forearm, then raises her arm into the air and cries out, her words infused with a command that cannot be disobeyed.

“Assassin! Come to m-”

Without warning, the light dies, and the torrent of magical energy dies with it. The crimson seals on Regulina’s arm grow dull and tarnished, then fade until they are completely black. At the same time you feel a surge of what can only be described as triumph through your own seals. The meaning is clear.

“Okay, I was wrong before. THIS is it. My Servant has triumphed over yours – just in the nick of time, too.”

Regulina’s arm falls limply to her side. She slumps down, like a puppet whose strings have been cut.

“Falling at the last hurdle, huh…” She sighs wetly. More blood comes out with her words.

You ignore her and turn around, then stride over to the bronze trapdoor. It’s surprisingly sturdy, but eventually you’re able to get it open. The metal construct lies at the bottom of a shallow shaft under the floor. From above it really does look like a coffin, primed and ready for burial. You square your shoulders and drop down into the hole.

“No…leave it alone…” Regulina gasps as you haul it up to the surface. You toss it down with a grunt of effort, and she flinches as it nearly tips over.

“Ah, so there’s something important in here?” You quip as you search for a hinge or a catch that will let you open it. Regulina groans but otherwise remains silent. After half a minute you come to the bank of levers that you saw her operating earlier.

“Say, which one of these will open this thing? Or should I just flip them randomly until something interesting happens?”

Regulina says nothing for a long time, and for a moment you think she might have bled out.

“…Third from the right. Two down.” She murmurs at last in a deeply fatalistic tone.

You pull the lever in question and spring back immediately, wary of a potential trap. Something hums and rattles inside the construct, and the outer shell begins to vibrate. After ten seconds or so something clicks and the lid ratchets open, and roiling clouds of mist billow out from within. You step forwards and wave the mist away, then place your hands on the rim and peer inside.

A woman in her mid-thirties or so rests on a bed of pale blue crystals, clad in a pure white robe. Her skin is so pale as to be almost transparent, criss-crossed with pale blue varicose veins. Her hair is a volcanic red and piled up in curls on either side of her head, each arranged in an intricate spiral pattern resembling a drill or helix. At first you think she must be a corpse or an empty meat-doll of some kind. After a moment however you notice that her chest is slowly rising and falling.

Your mind races, drawn towards one inevitable conclusion.

“This…this is you, isn’t it?” You ask, twisting your head towards Regulina. She doesn’t respond, though her eyes never leave your face.

“You’re pretty amazing with mental magic, but I’ll wager that not even you could overcome the link between familiar and host body. You can put your consciousness in a thrall, but in the end you still need your original body to act as an anchor. In your case that works out pretty well - even if the familiar dies you just come back here and pick another one. You’re good enough at it to not even need your original body unless something really bad goes down.”

You gesture around to indicate the ruined machinery.

“That’s what you were doing in here when I arrived, wasn’t it? Pulling your original body out of storage because you had almost nothing else left to fight with.”

Regulina remains silent, but her eyes flicker towards the metal coffin.

“No answer? Then I guess you won’t mind if I do this…” You form your hand into a claw and reach for the slumbering body.

“No!” Regulina grunts, heaving herself across the floor. You pull your arm back slowly.

“Please…” She gasps, her face pale beneath all the blood.

“Please…don’t do that. I’ve worked so hard…for so long…” She reaches out and grasps at a corner of the coffin with bloodstained fingers.

“You want me to let you live?” You ask, somewhat bemused.

“There’s no need…no need…you’ve already won, haven’t you…? Look at me…I’m in no state…to pose a threat…please…”

“Come on. I’m not about to let you stab me in the back, Reggie. Your body might be crippled, but your original one is looking pretty damn hale to me.”

“It’s…still in stasis. With the tools I have left…it would take hours…longer still, if those are also broken…” Regulina groans.

“I will swear not to come after you, on any oath you care to mention…your Servant is Caster, yes? She can bind me to my words, if you wish…” She reaches for your foot, but you step back before her fingers can close.

You frown and think about it for a moment. The Grail War is supposed to be a fight to the death. You’d be well within your rights to kill Regulina and her original body right here and now. Doing so would prevent her from messing with you in the future and get rid of a powerful potential enemy. Ultimately she has no right to ask for mercy from you. On the other hand, connections are powerful things. If you spare Regulina now you could gain a powerful associate or, depending on how things go, even an ally. You don’t have anything personal against her, and her animosity towards the Magic Association might even prove useful in the future.

After your deliberations are over you decide to:

1. Kill Regulina.

2.  Spare Regulina.

--

Regulina could become a valuable asset for you in the future. Her spiritual engineering is something totally unique and irreplaceable, and it would be a waste to lose it by killing her. Even if you use the Grail to purge yourself of your traditional Apostle weaknesses, it’s unlikely that the Church will leave you alone, and the Association might also retaliate depending on whether Lord Monmouth decides to hold a grudge. In both cases Regulina will be of use to you, as long as she is handled correctly.

The only problem is how to do it. Your Mystic Eyes of Suggestion might have worked on the weak-willed Irene, but a proper magus like Regulina could probably either outright resist or find a way around whatever commands you give her. For a moment you consider simply turning her, but there are problems with that too. There’s no telling how long she would spend as a mindless Ghoul, unable to do anything useful. Part of the reason you even want the Grail is to avoid having to keep thralls around, and the idea of babysitting one for however many years or decades isn’t particularly appealing. At worst it could take an entire century, and that is unacceptable.

Plus doing so would effectively make her your successor, and that didn’t end well for your own sire. No, better to simply go with Regulina’s own suggestion.

You thrust your arm into the air and pour power into your Command Seals. Your circuits connect with the false nerves easily, and your hand is suffused with a reddish-white glow.

“Caster, come here.” You say aloud. The words seem far to nonchalant for the activation of something so close to True Magic, but at this point who is going to complain?

The air next to you ripples as space bends in on itself. You catch the barest glimpse of the completely shattered operating theatre, its walls, floor and ceiling covered in craters and broken appliances, before Scathach comes hurtling through and the hole snaps closed behind her.

“Problem, Master?” She pants, sword in hand, staring wild-eyed all around the chamber. Her black leather armour is creased, battered and sliced open in multiple places, and the normally gleaming silver sigils have acquired a dull and tarnished look, but as far as you can tell none of her injuries are serious. You expend prana to heal them anyway, and she stands up a little straighter.

“Not so much a problem, I just need you to take care of her.” You jab a finger towards Regulina, who has propped herself up against the stasis capsule.

“As you can see, Regulina here is still alive. She’d quite like to remain that way, and I see a number of benefits to letting her live…as long as there’s some kind of guarantee she won’t try to stab me in the back as soon as we leave.”

Scathach looks at Regulina for a moment, then glances up towards the body resting inside the capsule. Her eyes narrow with understanding.

“Ah, I see. So that’s how it worked.” She murmurs under her breath. She purses her lips and stares hard at the familiar Regulina is currently inhabiting.

“Are you sure about this? I have a geis that can accomplish most of what you want, but it might be safer to simply kill her now. You know how clever she is.”

You shake your head firmly. “No, this is my decision, Caster.”

Scathach shrugs a shoulder carelessly. “Fine. Have it your way.” Then she steps forwards and rams the serrated edge of her sword through Regulina’s throat.

“Hey! What the hell are you doing?!” You exclaim angrily.

“Oh, shush. She needs to be in her real body if you want it done right.” Scathach replies, waving her hand dismissively as the familiar’s body collapses, spewing blood from its torn neck. She bends down and dips a finger in the pool of red liquid, using it as ink to sketch a series of runes all along the side of the metal capsule.

“Now let’s see about waking sleeping beauty.”

You can’t help but raise an eyebrow at that little comment.

“You watch Disney in the Throne?”

Scathach grins wickedly. “Nope! Original folklore, courtesy of the Grail. Now stay back, Prince Charmless, I’ve got work to do.”

You consider making a snappy comeback, but given the circumstances you decide to be mature and do as your Servant asks.

After about a minute Scathach finishes her work and steps back. At her command the runes begin to glow with a harsh white light. Fingers of pale fire shoot out from each rune, connecting them all together in a shimmering lattice that burns brighter with every passing moment. The bed of pale blue crystals slowly begins to lose its colour and turns transparent, and you become aware of a subtle transfer of power between the capsule and Regulina’s true body lying within it.

First her skin loses its paleness, becoming rosy and pink. The varicose veins contract and vanish. Her chest rises and falls more frequently, and her eyeballs begin to move beneath her eyelids. Her fingers twitch and flex languidly, curling and digging into the crystals beneath her. At last she jerks upwards, her eyes fluttering open. Crystals crunch and scatter as she flails around, twisting this way and that, blinking furiously all the while.

“Rise and shine, sweetheart.” Scathach says dryly. She grabs Regulina by the shoulders and drags her out of the capsule, lifting her easily despite being several inches shorter than her. She wobbles after being set down, and leans on the lip of the capsule for support.

“Alright, this is going to be a fairly standard geis.” Scathach begins without preamble. She bends down and trails her fingers through the blood again, then straightens up and lifts her hand towards Regulina’s face. Regulina flinches backwards, but Scathach simply thrusts her fingers forwards to compensate.

“Blood is the ink of this contract.” Your Servant growls, smoothing Regulina’s hair back to get at her forehead. Regulina clenches her jaw but does not resist as Scathach inscribes a circular symbol onto her skin.

“The terms of the geis are simple.” Scathach continues, painting similar sigils on her cheeks and throat.

“Neither you, nor your familiars, nor any of your associates, family or descendants will take any hostile action against my Master or any of his familiars, associates, family or descendants. ‘Hostile Action’ in this case refers to anything that would cause undue harm, be it physical, mental, conceptual or economical. This includes harm caused via conscious inaction. Any attempt to violate this contract will result in the cessation of your worldly existence and the destruction of all of your works from this point onwards.”

Scathach steps back. Regulina shivers and wraps her arms around herself, her breath sending plumes of mist into the air. Small wonder since she’s wearing little more than a shift. The blood on her face doesn’t run but remains where it is, held in place by your Servant’s magic.

“Do you understand and accept the strictures as they have been laid upon you?”

She nods jerkily. “I understand, and I accept.”

The blood begins to steam, then slowly sinks into her skin. At the same time Regulina sinks to her knees, eyes closed as if in prayer.

“Is that it, then?” You ask as you bend down in order to strip Regulina’s dead familiar of valuables. You take up the lantern and pocket the necklace with its five remaining beads, then reach over and unbuckle the leather boots from her severed feet.

“Pretty much.” Scathach smiles. She scoops up the automatic shotgun lying nearby and tosses it to you. You pluck it out of the air and sling it over your shoulder by the strap.

“Right. Well then. I guess it’s time to go and claim our prize.”

You clamber back up to the top of the chamber, leaving Regulina behind. The last you see of her is her kneeling beside the corpse of her final familiar, hastily unbuttoning its clothing. You don’t blame her – the ice may be melting, but it’s still pretty damn cold.

--

It’s nearly dawn by the time you get back to the city. A reddish tint is spreading across the eastern half of the sky, the blood of the rising sun mixing with the ink of the night. Your instincts scream at you to return to your lair, or at least seek shelter somewhere the light won’t touch, but you force them down and continue to drive until you reach the Maritime museum.

You pull up in front of the building and clamber out, ignoring the fact that you’re parking on double yellow lines. As you turn and begin to climb the stone steps to the museum entrance a bespectacled figure appears at the top.

Mathias Barnaby’s face is impassive. The only giveaway as to his true feelings is a tiny twitch in the corner of his left eye, but even that discrepancy smoothes itself out as you crest the final step.

“Congratulations, Master of Caster.” He begins smoothly.

“Out of all those who entered, only you remain. I hereby crown you the victor of the Sixth Holy Grail War. Please follow me, and I will lead you to the Greater Grail.” He turns to go.

“That’s it?” You ask, unable to help yourself.

“You’re fine with this? With me winning?”

Barnaby stops abruptly. His whole body tenses, and his gloved hands ball into fists, but when he speaks his tone is perfectly level.

“My personal feelings have nothing to do with anything. I am a neutral party. I will not bend or break the rules for anyone, nor refuse the victor his due. The honour of my position demands it.” He looks over his shoulder, and his eyes flash dangerously under his glasses.

“So please, do not insult me by presuming otherwise.” Then he strides off, not even bothering to see whether you’re following.

“A man of principles, huh? Heh. Not bad.” Scathach chuckles at Barnaby’s retreating back.

“I wonder how much he’s had to sacrifice in the past in order to uphold them, and how much he has yet to give.”

“As long as they last long enough for him to lead us to the Grail I couldn’t care less.” You growl, starting after the Coordinator. Scathach shrugs lightly and falls in behind you.

Barnaby leads you into the building, through the lobby and down the central corridor beyond. You pass by several open doors, catching glimpses of displays narrating Blackpool’s maritime history from its foundation right up to the present day. After a minute or so you reach the end of the corridor where you find Barnaby fumbling with the keys to a door marked ‘Staff Only’.

“This is the entrance.” He mutters as he thrusts the key into the lock. The door opens soundlessly, revealing a set of stone steps descending into blackness.

“The Greater Grail is below. Do what you will with it.”

You nod and begin to descend. Barnaby waits until both you and Scathach are on the steps, then turns around and walks away, his long coat swishing behind him.

Something tugs at your memory as you walk down the stairs. The rough rock walls, the smell of mildew, the unevenness of the steps…haven’t you experienced this before? You wrack your brains, but the answer is slippery and evades your mental grasping.

After what seems like an eternity the steps level out and become a long tunnel. A faint light shines in the distance, a light that grows brighter and brighter with every step you take. Scathach’s stride begins to lengthen and she pulls ahead of you. Spurred on by this, your own limbs begin to move faster, and soon the pair of you are running towards the light.

You erupt into an enormous underground chamber bathed in beautiful golden light. A bridge links the tunnel to the rest of the chamber. You cross it slowly, marvelling at the beauty all around you. Everywhere you look you see flawless marble – marble pillars erupting out of the marble floor to hold up the domed marble ceiling. Golden liquid lies still in a sunken pool surrounding the room, and it takes a moment for you to realise that it’s actually water reflecting the brilliant glow from up ahead.

The glow in question quickly resolves itself into a pulsing pillar of golden light, an enormous column of raw prana rising up from a bottomless hole in the floor of the chamber. The sheer amount of magical energy contained within it is such that the very air of the chamber is saturated with it. You could draw on that well for a dozen lifetimes and still not reach the bottom.

“The Holy Grail…” Scathach whispers. Her brown eyes are fixed on the pillar, her expression one of childlike wonder. You tear your eyes away and rub at your forehead in an attempt to ward off the dizzying energies playing about all around you. It must truly be impressive if even a magus from antiquity is spellbound by it.

The expression lasts for less than a heartbeat, her composure returning almost immediately. She looks at you for a moment, then walks forwards until she’s nearly touching the column of light. You stare at her back, a fierce sensation suddenly rising up from within you. You know this scene, you’ve seen it somewhere bef-

The dream.

Everything comes flooding back.

You have to take action now. If Scathach makes her wish and there isn’t enough prana left over for your own wish to take effect, you’ll have come all this way for nothing. You still have two Command Seals left – more than enough to handle even a Servant of Scathach’s calibre. With rising trepidation you clench your right hand and prepare to utter the fateful command.

But before you can do that, Scathach turns around. Framed by the light from the Grail she looks almost holy. Even the ugly scar bisecting her face is reduced to a barely visible thread.

“Oh, that’s right.” She murmurs softly.

“You never told me your name.” She smiles gently. Unlike her usual, sarcastic smirks, this one reaches her eyes.

“If it’s not too much trouble…could you tell me?”

--

What’s the Apostle’s name, OT?

--

You hesitate, struck by the…strangeness…of the question. Did you really not tell her? You try to recall all the times you’ve spoken to her, but…it looks like you really didn’t. How peculiar. It’s not as if you consciously decided to withhold it or anything.

Your name. You have one, of course. Pretty much everyone does. Admittedly, it’s been a while since you’ve used it, but…

Well.

There’s no harm in saying it, right?

You tell her. As you do, the Grail pulses more violently than before, emitting a burst of white noise that rolls over you like a wave. For a moment you’re worried that it might have drowned you out, but the look in Scathach’s eyes tell you otherwise. She nods gently, then turns around and reaches for the Grail. Her outstretched finger brushes against the golden pillar…

You let your arm drop to your side.

Why?

This isn’t like you. You’ve never been ashamed to ruthlessly stab someone in the back whenever it gave you an advantage. It’s the same thing here, right? But you can’t seem to muster up the strength to lift your arm again, nor the will to send prana into your circuits. Did Scathach do something to you? Did she place some kind of curse upon you when you weren’t paying attention? Was there some subtle spell in her words just now that you didn’t manage to catch?

You check yourself, but find nothing. There’s nothing compelling you to stay your hand. Oh god, you hope it isn’t some amateur-hour horsecrap like love or affection or friendship or-

Or trust.

Come to think of it…

Scathach was summoned as a Caster. As a magus herself she could probably survive on her own for a fair while. She’s had the opportunity to stab you in the back a number of times – one of her own plans involved faking a defection which could very easily have turned into a real one and almost certainly resulted in your death. Then there are all the times she could have left you to die, like when Archer tried to snipe you a week and a half ago. You never even had to use Command Seals to make her obey you.

…Maybe there is some weird sort of trust in play. Well, perhaps not trust. That’s too strong a word. ‘Equivalence’, perhaps.

…Ugh, this is all rambling nonsense. Ah, you’re probably going to pay for this, but…

You make no effort to lift your arm.

Scathach presses her entire hand against the column. The pulsing light suddenly dims, turning from shining gold to a deep, rich bronze. The shadows cast by the marble pillars balloon outwards dramatically, stretching until they reach the walls of the chamber itself. The ambient energy in the room surges into a rippling vortex focused around Scathach, funnelling the Grail’s power into her body.

As the whirlpool stabilises pale motes of light begin to drift out of Scathach’s body. It’s…like what happens when a Servant enters their spiritual form, or when they die, only different somehow. As if the energy is being shed rather than expended or siphoned into the Grail. Your hand begins to shine with the same light, and you note with some surprise that the Command Seals on your palm are also disintegrating into the same flecks of light. The bond between you and Scathach grows fainter and fainter, then finally winks out. Eventually the light fades and Scathach ripples into view once more.

You notice the difference even before she turns around. The way she stands, the way she holds herself…it’s nowhere near as precise as it was before. There’s none of the subtle power or tightly-coiled energy in the way she moves anymore, nor any aura of magical power.

She’s human. As far as you can tell, there isn’t even a single trace of the power she used to have.

As she walks towards you her armour and the staff slung across her back disintegrates, sloughing off her body and drifting to the floor like blackened snowflakes. By the time she reaches you all that’s left is a small black dress…and the cursed sword, Caim Frithir, still buckled at her side.

“Here. Take this.” She murmurs, thrusting the blade at you.

“Are you sure?” You ask, frowning at the sword in its scabbard. Scathach smiles.

“I don’t need it. And besides…” The smile falters a little.

“The last time I gave someone a weapon it caused him nothing but grief. So I hope you don’t take it personally when I say…that giving you this burdens me with no bad thoughts whatsoever.”

“Ha. Just had to get in one last jab, didn’t you?” You smile as you take the sword. Scathach shrugs.

“It’s what I do.” She glances back at the Grail, then shakes her head and sighs.

“…Well then. I suppose I had better get going. I wonder what a normal life will be like? Hmm. Maybe I’ll do something…mundane, like…I don’t know…make jewellery or something. Bet I’d be better at it than my stupid daughter was.”

You shake your head. “This is really what you wanted?”

“A normal life and a normal death? Yes.” She shrugs.

“Even if the ‘me’ in the Throne doesn’t get to experience it, the fact that it happened will still be recorded. A small comfort, perhaps…but a comfort nonetheless.”

She turns and strides towards the stairs leading back up, her footsteps echoing across the marble floor. For a moment you think that’s going to be the end of it, but when she reaches the bridge she half-turns.

“Well, it’s been fun. I don’t think we will ever meet again, but who knows? The world is a strange place. See you later, Apostle. You were a monster for the most part, but you were just enough of a man to be worth following.”

You laugh at that. “Ha. And you, Scathach, were just enough of a bitch to be worth liking.” You wave and turn your back on her.

“See you later. If we do meet again, drinks are on me.”

Scathach laughs. “Ha! I’ll drink you under the table, you lightweight!” The echoes of her mirth fade quickly, but those of her retreating footsteps linger a little longer.

Or maybe that’s just your imagination.

Anyway, now is the moment of truth.

You approach the Grail slowly. The light has risen back up to near its original level, although the glow isn’t quite as intense as it was before. The amount of energy swirling within it is still gigantic; on an individual level there isn’t much difference between eight lifetimes worth and ten. But on the level of what you want to do it could mean the difference between success and failure.

Nothing for it now, though. You’ll just have to pray there’s enough left over. Despite not needing it, you take a deep breath, then slam both palms against the pillar of light.

An ocean of prana envelops you as the Grail’s power explodes outwards in an enormous wave. The light obliterates everything, whisking your consciousness away, adrift on an endless current of magical energy. You feel as if you are sinking into a bottomless ocean of prana, an endless abyss of light and dreams.

You know intrinsically that this energy can be used however you want. As long as you can imagine a means of how to get there the mechanics of the Grail will do the legwork for you. It’s a matter of mindset; if you cannot imagine how to achieve the results you want, you’ll never accomplish it even with the Grail.

It’s a good thing you have an excellent imagination.

As you sink deeper into the ocean the prana begins to force its way into your body, invading through your circuits. Like Scathach’s dragon talisman it fills you up to the point of overflow, but this time the excess does not spill over. How could it? There’s nowhere else for it to go. Instead it spreads out into your undead flesh, and that’s when you feel yourself begin to change.

Your actual body isn’t altered, but the concept of you, the underlying rules that govern what you are writhe under the onslaught of magical energy. Some of them shrivel and wither away into nothingness, replaced by other, less limited versions of their former selves. Others remain unchanged, and still more simply rearrange themselves into a new order of precedence.

The process accelerates, and you become the epicentre of a vortex of energy far greater than the one that enveloped Scathach. More and more complex changes demand more and more prana, with more and more being sucked into the subsequent vacuum. It seems to go on and on for hours, the changes being wrought upon you eventually reaching such a pace that your consciousness can no longer keep up.

And then all of a sudden it’s over.

You stumble backwards and fall flat on your back. It takes your senses a few seconds to reconnect with your body, but when they do you hastily pull yourself up. When you manage to get your eyes open again you see that the Greater Grail chamber is dark. The great column of golden light is completely gone, leaving behind nothing but cold, empty shadows. Gone too is the heavy, syrupy feeling of magical energy in the air. The atmosphere in the chamber is dry and sterile, sucked of all life.

You check yourself over. Physically you are unchanged, but mentally…

You smirk. No bloodlust. It simply isn’t there. Already you can barely remember what it felt like. The feral, animal instinct that lurked beneath the surface of your conscious thoughts is gone too, replaced with a placid nothingness. You feel around with your thoughts, looking for anything else that might be different, but encounter nothing.

No connection to the World, then. It’s not really all that surprising, to be honest. Becoming a True Ancestor would mean re-writing your very being to the point where you would effectively cease to exist. Perhaps if the Grail had had more power…but honestly, you’re pretty happy with things as they are.

You turn around and exit the Grail chamber without a second glance. How long has it been since Scathach left you here? Minutes? Hours? It’s hard to be sure. When you emerge into the museum level the door is still open and the corridors are deserted. Maybe it wasn’t so long after all.

You hesitate when you reach the door to the lobby. You can see through the glass to the city outside. The sky above is the colour of fresh blood, and any minute now the sun will make its grand entrance over the horizon. But the hesitation lasts for only a moment. You push open the doors and stride out onto the miniature plaza beyond.

Slowly, ever so slowly, a blazing semicircle of red light emerges in the east. It’s a sight you haven’t seen in a long, long time. Minutes tick by, and the fiery red orb rises still further, picking its way between the buildings until it fully emerges from behind the cityscape, displaying its radiant glory for all to see.

And it does nothing to you.

An insane grin begins to spread across your features. You have to consciously suppress the urge to cackle violently. You can do that when you’re back at your lair.

And you have every reason to celebrate. Your wish was a complete success. A powerful magus is bound to you forever. You have two magic swords at your disposal, one of which is on the level of a Noble Phantasm, not to mention the other Mystic Codes you looted. Your Workshop still bears Scathach’s improvements and everyone else with the power to oppose you is either dead or in no position to fight you.

As you descend the stone steps to the street you find that an enterprising traffic warden has taken umbrage to you parking there and has clamped your car. You grin devilishly as you bend down and rip the metal clamps off the wheels with your bare hands. Several passers-by stop to gawk, but you couldn’t care less. There’s only one thought on your mind as you slide into the driver’s seat and turn the key in the ignition.

“The future looks bright.”

--End

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