Chapter 1: Pawn to D4
Author's Note: Credit goes to Ryumori (for inspiring and discussing the ideas for this fic), Mae (for helping me work out some paragraphs), and Plague (for going through the entire chapter). There are many others that helped me write this.
Pain was the first thing Issei noticed.
A permeating headache grinded his forehead, arresting him of any will to move. A simple twitch ignited the wounds, aches, and sores throughout his body. It was best for him to not move. Stillness offered an escape that he savored. Then a wet something streaked across his cheek, jolting a groan from him.
The assailant's wet lashings sizzled upon his inflamed skin. What was this thing that refused to grant him any reprieve?
"Fou! There you" —a girl's voice called out— "wait a moment, who did you jump on this time! Oh no, what happened to him?"
He could hear footsteps rushing towards him. Each step intensified his headache. A hand — like a breeze on a summer day — pressed against his forehead.
"He's running a high fever, and his clothes are such a mess — is that blood? I need to bring him to Doctor Roman."
" — Mashu! Did you find Fou yet? Oh my, what's going on?" Another girl called out.
"Ritsuka-senpai! He's hurt, we need to bring him to the infirmary," Mashu pleaded.
This time, two fingers pressed against his wrist. "His pulse isn't irregular, despite his heavy fever. All this blood on his clothes, did he get attacked? Is he conscious?"
Issei opened his eyes, wincing at the bright lights from the ceiling. Few tears rushed out to soothe his aching eyes. All he saw a shade of pink and red. Weary blinks settled the shades into two people: a short pink haired girl with glasses and a red haired girl. Something wet, perhaps a lick, drew his attention to a white furred animal at his hand.
"Who are you?" Issei struggled to form coherent words. "Where am I?"
"Easy now, I'm Ritsuka Fujimaru. And this is," The red haired girl pointed to her companion, "Mashu Kyrielight. We'll get you to Doctor Roman. Can you stand?"
"I'll try." With a shaky nod, he staggered to his feet. His knees buckled — if Ritsuka and Mashu didn't hold onto his arms, he would've fallen. They set off down the hallway, one step at a time.
He grimaced, "Thanks."
"Don't strain yourself," Ritsuka said, "do you recall what happened to you?"
"I don't know." Confusion fueled his aggravating headache. His breaths were labored, limbs hungry for rest. Still, he marched on if only to lessen the burden on his newfound companions.
"Never mind, you're not in any condition to answer. The infirmary is just around this corner," Ritsuka said.
Issei noticed the sign: Medical Care, Doctor Romani Archaman.
The door slid open to reveal a smiling man eating a slice of cake at his desk. He savored each bite with closed eyes before noticing the trio's arrival. With a gulp and a clatter, he jumped from his chair and dashed towards them. "Here, bring him to the bed over here."
The elevated bed creaked under Issei's weight, his body rejoicing at the softness. Romani activated machinery that began to scan Issei at all angles.
"Several torn muscles, various internal injuries, some bone fractures, and superficial wounds that need to be dressed. Did you two see what happened to him?"
"Fou and Mashu found him lying on the floor," Ritsuka answered, "he said he doesn't remember what happened to him."
"Strange, it looked like he was attacked, but there's no report from security about any incidents. His clothes don't look like one of our uniforms, hmm," Roman turned to Issei. "Hi, I'm Romani Archaman, the chief doctor here, but you can call me Doctor Roman. What's your name and rank?"
"My name is Issei Hyoudou," Issei frowned. He was Issei Hyoudou, but what else? "What do you mean by rank?"
"You don't know where you're assigned in Chaldea?" Ritsuka asked.
"Chaldea? What is that?"
Mashu and Ritsuka shared a look, while Roman kept his eyes on the results on the monitor.
"This is unusual," Roman said, "he doesn't possess any Magic Circuits, but an immense amount of od is circulating within his body. Astonishing, it appears to have a draconic signature when referenced with the database. I can barely believe it!"
"What?" Ritsuka exclaimed as she rushed to the monitor. "A human with the energy of a dragon? Not just Chaldea but nearly all of the magic organizations would've leapt to grab ahold of him."
Issei winced at their excitement as his headache intensified. His vision flickered; he was no longer on that bed. He stood there alone with the barest of any light to illuminate beyond what he could see before him.
Then a gigantic being stirred before his eyes. Its scales gleamed as bright as fire, blinding him with its brilliance in the midst of this dark realm. But what held his attention was its eyes — they were glittering emeralds, alluring yet passionate. It was a dragon yet he was not afraid of it. He knew this was a friend.
Yet something felt wrong. He wanted to say, to ask something. No words came out of his mouth. The dragon breathed out a dull growl as it collapsed to the floor. He cried out as he saw the life in its eyes fading away like a leaf throughout the seasons.
What happened there? He didn't know the answer, and that frightened him. That he should know, yet he doesn't. That he needed to know what was real and what was fake. That he wanted to know that everything will be right and not wrong.
"I don't understand — I don't know — I don't remember — I don't — "
"Oh dear, he's hyperventilating," Roman reached forward, placing a hand on Issei's shoulder. The gentle touch brought him out of that mysterious world.
"Calm down, you don't have to say or think anything. Breathe with me. In. Out. In. Out. There we go."
As his breathing settled, their smiles held his gaze. He felt safe and warm next to them. He wasn't alone.
"Mashu and I will go to the Director to report about him. It's strange that no one briefed him about Chaldea before bringing him here. That aside, something happened to him, and we need to figure out what," Ritsuka said.
Romani nodded, "Go on ahead, I'll look after him."
Issei's vision blurred, unable to keep his eyes open any longer. With that, he gave into the world of dreams.
"You said Issei Hyoudou? No, there's no record of Chaldea enlisting such a person."
Ritsuka frowned, "Then you mean he got inside Chaldea without authorization, Director?"
"Frankly, this concerns me, especially when our first major Rayshifting is about to commence. The fact that someone, even an unauthorized person, was attacked is worrying enough."
Olgamarie Animusphere drummed her fingers atop of her desk. She stared at her screen before sighing. "You said Roman discovered he had the od of a dragon?
Ritsuka and Mashu nodded.
"Once he recovers enough, we'll question him. Then if there is nothing suspicious, we'll test for his compatibility to become a Master. Ritsuka, I'm tasking you with Issei Hyoudou since you're not involved with this Rayshifting mission. In the meanwhile, keep an eye out. I've already informed everyone of a possible threat inside Chaldea."
"Understood, Director," Ritsuka said before turning to Mashu. "Good luck out there, Mashu."
"Thank you, Senpai."
As soon as Ritsuka exited the Director's office, she exhaled, uncoiling the knot that wound up her stomach. The first Rayshifting mission would be a momentous start for Chaldea. A step forward for their initiative to protect humanity's future from abnormalities in the timestream. Ritsuka hoped nothing went wrong.
She turned her thoughts to the mysterious boy, Issei Hyoudou. His arrival was foreboding and welcoming. The Director expressed her frustrations trying to find suitable Master Candidates. In order to even be applicable to be a Chaldean Master, they must be capable of enduring Rayshifting. She was the latest one to be recruited, but there were only forty-seven others.
Ritsuka shook her head. Imagine that — out of all the Magi in the world, only forty-eight were capable of becoming a candidate. Then here comes Issei, someone who has an immense amount of draconic od. Dragons, now gone from the Earth, were considered the pinnacle of Phantasmal Species. A human possessing the energy of one had untold magical potential. He would be the strongest Master in Chaldea — if he was one.
Her excitement faded when she recalled his wounds. Every staff member in Chaldea had extensive background checks before they were recruited. There was little chance that someone attacked him in Chaldea. Aside from the fact that he possessed something no other human has, he popped out of nowhere. The circumstances revolving around him are just too suspicious.
Whatever the case, it was her job to find out. She wished that he wasn't an enemy to Chaldea.
She slid into the Medical Ward, only to find Roman typing away on his laptop. She glanced at Issei, who was sleeping on the bed. Her heart leapt at the sight of his better complexion. His skin wasn't as flushed; his face wasn't as tensed. That's good, she could never stomach someone in pain, even if he was a stranger. A shiver ran down her spine at the sight of the wrappings around his torso.
"How is he, Doctor?"
"Oh hey, Ritsuka!" Roman waved with one hand. "He should be fine, just needs some rest. I hooked him up to an IV and dressed his wounds. His wounds are actually healing at such an astonishing rate that I would've thought he was a Servant! Might be due to the draconic od or something. At this rate, he should be good to go within a few days or so."
Ritsuka smiled, "That's great. I expected it would take longer."
"Amazing, right?" Roman laughed, taking a sip from his coffee. He turned to Issei's bed, sighing. "I heard from the Director that Chaldea never recruited him, so how he got here is still a mystery. We'll need to question him about all of this when he wakes up."
Ritsuka frowned, "I'd hate for him to be an enemy. The Director and I were hoping he could become a Master."
"Yes, I thought so too," Roman nodded. He turned around his laptop so she could see the screen. Some of them were notes on his wounds — Ritsuka winced at their severity as she glanced through them. What caught her eye was the synchronization percentage for Rayshifting.
"I ran the preliminary tests for Rayshifting compatibility. You can see it, right?" Roman exclaimed.
Spiritron Dive Synchronization Rate — Over 100%.
Ritsuka gawked at Roman, "Over 100%? How is that even possible? Even for the Candidate Masters, the highest we could maintain was a 90% synchronization with our spiritual self."
"I'm sure you know that Rayshifting involves the Master projecting their spiritual form into the timestream," Roman stated, "From that point, Masters delve into the abnormal realities dubbed Singularities and investigate the source of the problem. While they're in the field, Chaldea constantly monitors the Masters so that their very existences do not get altered or fade away. Your synchronization rate is the foundation of the connection between Chaldea and your spiritual form."
"Thus, the higher the rate, the more stable their existence will be, and the more power they can use if necessary," Ritsuka concluded. "Then that means if Issei Rayshifts, he'll be able to utilize a lot more magical energy than any of the current Masters?"
"That's what our theory indicates," Roman nodded, "If he were to summon a Heroic Spirit, their parameters would increase by several ranks. Far more than any of our current candidates."
Ritsuka laid back into her chair, trying to let it all sink in. The majority of Chaldean Magi were all from prominent families; the research of several generations were at their disposal. Those from Magus families had superior quality Magic Circuits, and they inherited cumulative knowledge via Magic Crests. Civilian Magi such as her were at a disadvantage. It was naive to think otherwise.
She couldn't deny that a small part of her was envious. But there was no point to lament about unchangeable circumstances, she would push onward as she always had. She wanted to help the world with her Magecraft, and there's no better place than Chaldea. So what if she couldn't supply her future Servant with as much mana than the others? She would compensate with other regards. Everyone had their strength and weaknesses; everyone had their own role to play.
A groan jerked Ritsuka's attention towards the bed. Roman was already up, rushing towards Issei's side. As she walked over, Issei opened his eyes, blinking away the sleepiness.
"Water? Can I have some water?" He rasped. As soon as the glass was in his hand, he chugged it down, not caring if some of it dribbled out of his mouth due to his shaky limbs.
"Easy, drink slowly. You can have all the water you want," Roman smiled, pouring him another one.
"Ah, sorry, I was just so thirsty," Issei laughed and wiped his mouth. He glanced around the room, browsing over the machines and equipments. "Um, you are Doctor Roman, right? And Fujimaru-san?"
"Yes, I'm Ritsuka Fujimaru. You can call me Ritsuka." Ritsuka offered her hand to Issei. It was larger than hers, full of callouses. He was used to physical work, it seems.
"Then you can call me Issei then. Am I in the hospital?"
"You're currently in Chaldea's Medical Ward," Ritsuka answered.
"You mentioned Chaldea before," Issei recalled.
"That's right, Chaldea is an organization. Do you remember how you arrived here?" Ritsuka asked.
"I…," Issei paused, his face scrunched up, "I actually...don't remember anything."
"What?" Ritsuka exclaimed as Roman consulted his laptop again.
"All I can remember is my name. Everything is a blank, the only thing I can recall is meeting you and Kyrielight-san," Issei apologized.
"Amnesia?" Roman suggested. "I didn't see any symptoms of a concussion, but it could be caused by other reasons. Perhaps a traumatic event could cause it? It might be related to how you were discovered."
Ritsuka sighed; she didn't expect for this turn of events. His apologetic gaze dismissed any notions of lying. He seem to be an honest person to Ritsuka.
"As of right now, we have no idea who you are. We ran a search for your name, and nothing came up. We also have no idea how you arrived here, you practically appeared out of nowhere as the security cameras didn't see anything."
Only the small hums and beeps of the various machineries can be heard for a while.
"Then, what does it mean for me?" Issei asked.
"For now, rest and recover. We'll talk to Director Animusphere about it — "
Roman's watch beeped as a call came in. It was Professor Lev Lainur, Chaldea's chief engineer.
"Doctor Archaman. I see Ritsuka Fujimaru is also with you as well. We are about to begin the Rayshifting Mission. Could you two come down towards the control center?"
"Ah, Professor Lev. Is it necessary for us to come? All the required personnel should be there, correct?" Roman replied.
"Team A is ready to go, but Team B and under are showing slight unease due to their unfamiliarity. I'd prefer for nothing to be amiss, especially concerning the mysterious circumstances of our guest, hmm? It should take the two of you no less than two minutes to arrive from the Medical Ward, Doctor."
The call ended. Ritsuka's heart pounded against her chest. The first mission was just moments away from starting. Her excitement dwarfed her sadness — so what if she couldn't go this time? If this was successful, it'll open the path for future missions!
Roman checked his watch before turning to Issei. "Well, I'm sure Professor Lev is just being overly cautious, so we should have some time beforehand. You're probably wondering who exactly we are. There's no real point in keeping it a secret since you're here now, and there's a high chance we'll be looking to recruit you."
"Recruit me? What exactly does Chaldea do?" Issei said.
"In short, we're an organization of magic users seeking to protect humanity's future," Roman explained.
"Magic, huh?" Issei murmured.
"You're not going to ask if magic is real or not?" Ritsuka asked. Magecraft was hidden from the general public after all.
"Magic sounds, uh, feels familiar to me. Like I think I know about it, but I don't know why I know it?" Issei glanced down on his left arm.
"Hmm, we did have a theory that you were a possible Magus," Roman said. "You actually qualify to become one of our candidates for missions like one you just heard about. For example, Ritsuka here is a candidate. She wasn't assigned to this mission because she just arrived before you did."
"Is that so? Do you think I can help? I mean, I don't remember much, and I'm not sure if I can use magic and — "
" —- Issei, it's fine," Ritsuka said, "I know everything must be confusing for you right now. Our first priority is your recovery. Then we'll talk about your options, okay? Just rest here now, and we'll check on you later."
A rumble shook the walls as the lights went out, and all the machines died along with it. Cold sweat laced her forehead. The mission was about to start! Why are these random complications happening today?
"A power failure right now?" Roman exclaimed, "Chaldea shouldn't have any power outages!"
He stumbled towards his laptop in the midst of the darkness. "Hmm, even the wireless connection is down. I can't seem to access any controls from here."
A klaxon startled everyone. "Emergency Alert — Fires have broken out in the central power plant and central control room. The central division bulkhead will close within 240 seconds."
Ritsuka's heart drummed against her rib cage, her breathing hasty. Her mind was blank. She didn't know what to do. She was lost in this darkness, the only light of the path illuminated Issei's profile — and his eyes were watching, waiting, and willing. She almost snorted. Just a few moments ago, she was the one who reassured him. She exhaled out, slapping her cheeks. To be a Magus, one must walk with death. She had a ways to go.
"We need to get down to control room now," Ritsuka said, "Issei, it's probably safer for you to remain here, but — "
"No, I can help! I think I recovered enough to move! Please let me help!" Issei pulled his IV and leapt off the bed. He took his tattered shirt and threw it on without buttoning it. There was no time to dispute otherwise.
The three of them rushed outside and down the corridor. The Masters. The Director. Mashu. Please let them be safe. They have to be safe. They must be safe. It was an eternity before they reached the main door towards the control room, and Ritsuka couldn't suppress her gasp.
The entire room was in shambles, chunks of debris littered the area like a spilled trash can. Ritsuka coughed, covering her mouth with her arm as sweat dripped down from her forehead. A sea of flames enveloped everything, dying the world in a bloody red. The billowing smoke seared her eyes and nose. Only CHALDEAS, the replica of the world used to observe the Singularities, was unharmed in the midst of it all.
"This much destruction, a possible act of sabotage?" Roman murmured.
"Sabotage? What would anyone stand to gain from doing this?" Ritsuka yelled, clenching her fists.
"Warning — Insufficient Power Generation. Unable to automatically switch to reserve power supply. Personnel, please manually switch to reserve."
"This isn't good, we can't afford to let the light of CHALDEAS go out!" Roman started to run back outside. "I'll head to the basement power plant! The two of you get to some place safe!"
It was only Ritsuka and Issei left in the room, but neither of them had no desire to leave. There must be something else they can do.
"What about survivors?" Issei asked, scanning the room as he shielded his eyes from the smoke.
"We can check. There has to be some! There must be some!"
Ritsuka and Issei navigated through the treacherous terrain of burning debris as they descended into the middle of the room.
"180 seconds left until the bulkhead closes for the Central Room."
"The Masters!" Ritsuka gasped, "No, why? Why!"
Her cheeks were wet and sticky at the sight of the cybernetic coffins, the ones designed to safeguard and facilitate the Candidate Masters during Rayshifting. The people inside were unmoving as if they were undergoing funeral rites. This will not be a graveyard for them!
"Rayshift system transferring to the final stage. Setting Coordinates: January 30th, 2004 CE. Fuyuki, Japan. Masters, please prepare for the final adjustments."
"Ritsuka! Over here! She needs help!" Issei pointed to a familiar pink haired girl with a white furry creature at her side. No, please, not her! Ritsuka rushed over, stumbling over loose rocks before righting herself midway.
Ritsuka knelt down, grasping the hands of her friend. It was cold as the snow outside of Chaldea.
"Ritsuka-senpai, Hyoudou-san — "
"It's okay, Issei and I will help you. You'll be okay, Mashu. You'll be fine!" Ritsuka sniffed, willing herself to ignore the growing red pool coming from Mashu's torso. Mashu would be fine — if there wasn't a giant pillar crushing the lower half of her body.
"We have to get this off of you somehow!"
Issei attempted to lift the pillar before yelping away in pain. It was heated by the intense fire. Issei tore his shirt off, wrapping his hands with the scraps while Ritsuka did the same with her uniform. There was no time to preserve modesty. Ritsuka and Issei took their places at opposite sides, attempting to lift the pillar just enough so Mashu can move out.
"No, it's too late for me. Please get to safety! Please!" Mashu pleaded.
"We will never leave anyone behind!" Ritsuka yelled, trying again to lift the pillar. It was too heavy, too large. A groan drew her attention towards Issei, and she gasped as his dressings darkened.
"Attention — the condition of CHALDEAS is changed. Humanity's survival on Earth for the next 100 years cannot be confirmed. The future of humanity cannot be guaranteed."
"CHALDEAS. No," Mashu whispered. Ritsuka followed her gaze towards the model. Her heart plummeted. Instead of a serene blue as the model was before, it was now bright orange. The world itself was engulfed in a fiery orange. Was all of their hopes were to be incinerated away here?
"The Central Bulkhead will now be sealed."
The heavy doors of their entrance locked down, trapping them inside.
"Sorry. Everyone. Because of me," Mashu apologized.
"No, it's not your fault, Mashu. Never think that," Ritsuka said, as she nodded to Issei. They abandoned their attempts to move the pillar, settling down on opposite sides next to Mashu.
"We'll find a way out somehow," Issei reassured.
"Scanning for qualified Masters within the area."
"Did you know? That you can't see the sky here in Chaldea?" Mashu asked.
Chaldea was located within the alpine tundra of the mountains, six thousand meters above sea level after all.
"Yeah. I promised that I'll show you the sky one day, didn't I, Mashu?" Ritsuka said, taking one of Mashu's hand in hers.
"I know the sky is beautiful," Issei sniffed, reaching out to Mashu's other hand. "When you get to see it, you'll be happy."
"Confirmed Masters within Area, Designee 48 and Unknown Designee."
"Thank you everyone. I'm glad to have met you two."
Ritsuka couldn't hold back it any longer — the ocean of her soul surged through breaking apart all levees and dams. Again, someone else was going to die in front of her, and she couldn't do anything. Why was so she weak? What was all of her training for?
The last thing Ritsuka remembered was the flaming chunk of the roof falling downwards towards them. The corner of her eyes saw movement as Issei stood in front of her and Mashu. No, not him too!
"Commencing Rayshift Program. Beginning Spiritron Conversion. Rayshift successful."
The last and first thing he saw was fire.
He groaned as the smoke stung his eyes. He hoped that waking on the ground wouldn't become a new habit. As he staggered to rise on his feet, his nose crinkled: the air was intoxicated with ashes and death. This was too familiar of a smell.
He stepped out on the veranda, mindful of his footing. It was just as dirty and tainted by soot as everything else in this house. Broken remnants of sliding doors and tatami mats told him that this was once a Japanese home. From there he peered outside into the backyard with caution.
A lone shed remained, riddled with so many holes that he wondered why it didn't collapse yet. Behind the dilapidated walls of the border, more burning houses were torn asunder and aflamed. It was like looking at streetlamps of the burning Hells — they carved into the night sky and dyed it malicious crimson.
There was so much destruction. If this entire block was destroyed, then there was little doubt to what happened to the rest of the town. He brushed aside some soot and sat down on the edge of the veranda. He needed to figure out what happened. He was in Chaldea. The last thing he remembered was that gigantic rock: he needed to protect both of them. Then it was all a blank.
Issei sighed. There was no answers for him here. His dressings needed to be changed, but they should hold up for now. To his relief, none of his wounds were opened. He should see if there were people still left in this desolated place. As he jumped off onto to the ground, a loud sound crackled into the night. He jumped onto the balls of his feet, eyes snapping back and forth. He had no idea what that was.
This roar — it was bestial, full of rage and wrath! The ground shuddered, and the walls trembled. Thunderous footsteps echoed through throughout the street. Something huge, no gigantic, was coming! His instincts shouted at him. Whatever it was, it would be hostile. A cold sweat broke out on Issei's forehead as he sought for anything he could use to defend himself.
The shed! There must be something left inside of it. Issei rushed towards it. There was no need to open any doors: the holes in the walls were large enough to fit through. Come on, what was in here? A rake, a hoe, and what's this? A shinai with a tiger charm on it? Issei knew he had some proficiency with a sword, but would this even help in a fight?
A meteor crashed into the backyard, sending chunks of dead grass and dirt everywhere. The shed shook with the impact. Parts of what's left of the roof came tumbling down. Damn, he needed to get out of here. He leapt through the gap in the wall — he hissed as a sharp piece of wood nicked his arm. As if he didn't have enough wounds to worry about.
The dust settled, revealing the horror inside. Red eyes sought out Issei's. There was no emotion in them besides violence, anger, destruction! He grimaced as he saw the monster's physique — it was as if someone carved muscles out of a mountainside. A gigantic and jagged slab of stone fit inside its chiseled hand.
There's no way to fight back against such a ridiculous monstrosity. He gritted his teeth. Can he even run away from this? It cleaved downward with its weapon; the sheer windforce ripped apart the ground and knocked him off his feet. He tumbled around several times before stopping. He tasted iron as he struggled to push himself off the ground.
He was not strong enough to move again. Another attack was incoming. This was it for him. Damn it, was this how he was going to die — lost in a foreign place without any idea who he once was? And what about Chaldea? What about Mashu, that girl who wished to see the sky? What about Ritsuka, the one who wanted to save people?
"No, it can't end like this. They all had dreams. But what about my dream? What dream did Issei Hyoudou wished for? I don't know, and I won't know if I died here. I want to live!"
As he braced himself for the eventual impact, something blue rushed before his eyes. It was a blond hair woman wearing armor.
Her gauntleted hands wielded something — the giant's axe grinded against her invisible weapon. With a battle cry, she battered the axe with several swings. The giant, unable to handle the ferocity of her attacks, took several steps backwards. With a heavy slash across its torso, she sent it flying through the remains of the neighboring house.
He gaped. He wasn't sure what it was about her that entranced him. Was it her strength? Her lithe frame would've fooled anyone. Was it her demeanor? She didn't even broke a sweat when dealing with that monster's blows. Or was it her appearance? There's no doubt of it — she was beautiful. Ritsuka and Mashu were attractive, but this woman was beyond that.
Her green eyes, a shade that reminded him of the dragon, met his. She asked, "I ask of you, are you my Master?"
Chapter 2: Pawn Promotes
Author's Note: I'm really thankful to Mae and Plague for revising this chapter. They've done a wonderful job beta-ing and being patient with my writing. I'm also thankful to the people on the writing discord server for helping bounce ideas around. If you have any questions or criticisms, feel free to review or PM me.
Some days were confusing, but he doubted that his life was this hectic. Between the taste of blood and the throbbing of his head, all he could mutter was, "What?"
She raised her eyebrow, "You have the Command Seals, do you not? In accordance of your summon, I have come forth as your Servant."
He had no idea what those were. "What are you talk—-"
The neighboring house exploded, timbers and concrete scattered in all directions. The monster crashed back into the yard and as the dust settled, Issei gawked.
Crimson veins pulsated and sizzled throughout its blackened muscles. Arms as thick as tree trunks brandished a jagged slab; each slash through the air thrummed in his ears. There was no sympathy or warmth in its gnarled face.
"What is that thing?" Issei shouted.
"An enemy, but this form," the woman frowned. Her armor clinked as her gauntlets tightened around an invisible weapon. "What kind of Servant has such malicious energy? Master, please retreat to a safer location!"
Without waiting for his reply, she dashed forward. Sparks flew as their weapons grinded against another. She surged as lightning, and the enemy echoed like thunder. His eyes widened as he covered them with his arms and dug his heels in. The pressure of their blows flooded the air, setting his tattered jacket aflutter like a rampant sail.
He felt lost, trapped within the brewing storm that their clash created. His arms trembled and legs shivered. His entire world was set off course, plunged into a murky ocean of broken wood, asphalt, and ashes. But his fear boiled off, the moment he saw her in action.
Her radiance came not from her intricate armor nor her beauty, but her will. The sight of her braving the landfall of attacks from the monster awoke something within him — a raw feeling that steadied him. His heart hammered in sync to the beat of their strikes, and he could not tear his eyes away from it all. Excitement welled within him, or perhap it was nostalgia.
Either way, it was familiar.
He was no stranger to the battlefield, it seemed.
He could see how the woman fought with her invisible blade. Her skill and footwork were impeccable — not one step out of tempo. They waltzed across the yard; they tangoed on the walls. This Beauty led the Beast around in this deadly dance, yet he was no amateur either. There was a finesse underneath the frenzy of thrashing limbs. It unnerved Issei to see that it had no issue dealing with her swordplay; every swing met hers with earth shattering force.
They were equal, but he knew it was only a matter of time before the tides changed.
He clenched his fists. He was stranded away from the fight, and growling at the heavens didn't help anything. Doctor Roman mentioned that he was qualified to join Chaldea, yet he didn't know how to use a single spell!
"Damn it all!" Issei cried.
He couldn't save Mashu, he couldn't protect Ritsuka, and he couldn't help this woman.
He had no memories. He had no power. He had nothing.
Useless. Pathetic. Weak.
The dead grass crunched underneath his stomping, and disgust bubbled from the rage brewing within. He wanted to be strong! Strong enough to never feel so helpless ever again!
Issei closed his eyes, trying to douse his anger. He wasn't going to find any answers without a calm mind. The world of flames evaporated around him, leaving him submerged within a dark ocean.
He struggled to breathe. Sorrow and doubt were drowning him, but he couldn't find any reprieve from this deluge. His misery tightened the chains around his frantic heart and leadened his arms, preventing him from escaping this mire of uncertainty and weakness. He didn't want to think that there wasn't salvation. He wanted to break free no matter the cost.
The weights loosened. There was enough slack to allow him to plough through the surface of the water. He heaved, searching around for the person who had whispered so sweetly through the depths, but there was nothing to meet him but the cold caressing of waves.
"Issei, that's not how you do it. Come over here."
Her voice reeled in his heart. The call was so melodious, so alluring — he was helpless. A siren's song could not damn him anymore than he did himself.
"Inside of you lies an aura. Immerse yourself within it and familiarize yourself with its texture. Feel how it ebbs and flows."
He clung on her words as they echoed inside of his head and delved within himself, desperate to unlock anything. He searched and searched, but what was he supposed to feel? Nothing but despair greeted him: its claws dragged him deeper into the growing pool of misery.
"The foundation of using your power is imagination. Concentrate all of it into an image, an image of what is strong to you."
He didn't know what was strong! He couldn't feel anything powerful inside of him! There was no ebb or flow or anything! He wanted more than this. He needed guidance. There has to be someone to tell him what to do, someone to follow after!
For once, he didn't want to swim against the current.
"You have the potential for greatness. I want to see how far you can — no, how far you will go. No matter what happens, I'll believe in you. Never forget that."
He did. He hated every inch of himself for that.
Her face, her name, her importance — they all eluded him. There was no compass, no lighthouse that could navigate him through the fog of his amnesia.
Yet she believed in him.
He didn't care if she was real or not. Faith was strange. He had little, yet her words uplifted him. He wanted nothing more than to drown within her warmth, to anchor himself in the comfort of familiarity, but he couldn't.
The odyssey must continue.
He needed an image, one powerful enough to help them, but what did he even remember? The answers illuminated the fog away.
He recalled the hearty chuckles of Romani Archaman as the good doctor browsed through the various monitors of his station. The excitement within his questions, the care in assessing his condition, and the ease in which he offered a safe haven — such warmth comforted away the darkness of the unknown.
He remembered the flaxon, shrill and terrifying; its red lights eliminated any shadows hiding within. The fires of the newfound hearth were doused, and his world no longer felt safe. The walls shook and swayed before capsizing into the hellish inferno, and amidst the sea of melted steel and shattered concrete, he found Mashu Kyrielight.
She was as pale as her pink hair, and crimson liquid blossomed across her shirt. Despite that, she smiled and asked, "Could I see the sky one day?"
Issei reached out to her, but she vanished into a shallow pool of water. A drop fell from above, sending forth ripples throughout. Then another. He raised his head, letting the growing rain wash over his sticky cheeks. The thunder echoed his snarl.
A umbrella covered his vision.
"This was not the sky that she wanted to see."
Ritsuka Fujimaru stood before him. Uniform marred by ash and hair bathed in mud, she offered him a hand. Her skin was dry and warm under his.
"It's a long journey to find what you're looking for, but no one said you had to do it alone, right, Issei?"
His past was locked away behind unknown doors yet Ritsuka's words opened one forward. The trio helped him when he had nothing; he would help them in return, for they were now his everything.
He marched onwards, and in the horizon, he saw a woman in blue.
She stood tall with squared shoulders; a strand of her blond hair waved in the breeze that brushed the evergreen pastures. The green stretched as far as his eyes could see, and the sun weaved itself between the clouds, but his breath only stopped as he caught a glimpse of her eyes. They were not wide with innocence nor joy nor fervor.
Pain. Loss. Failure.
He knew them well. They had drenched his actions ever since he had woken up in that bed, in that hospital where he knew nothing. With each step he took, he found it harder and harder to keep his eyes open, but Issei could not entertain the thought of closing them. Not when the faces of the people caught in that explosion haunted him. If he couldn't help himself, how could he help anyone? But even so, there was something else of hers that attracted him.
Determination. Courage. Hope.
Her gaze was fixed towards the rising sun. He wondered what she was looking for.
As he approached her, she asked, "Are you ready?"
He was ready for everything.
They walked together in silence. There was no opening for small talk, no discernable emotions upon her face. He decided it didn't matter. He let the wind comb his hair as he listened to the rustle of grass.
The walk soothed him, seeping away his worries, questions, and doubts. She gave him no hints to where they were heading, but he didn't care. It felt as if they had walked down similar paths for untold years.
Something about her resonated within him. They moved, breathed, and blinked as one. Two parts of a greater whole.
Maybe she was someone from his forgotten past.
Before he could speak, they stopped in front of a black, rectangular stone. The sky painted the glossy sheen a dull orange. A sword, red grip and golden hilt, was embedded within it. He stepped forward to examine it closer.
Did she want him to retrieve this sword? He turned around, but she had vanished. He could see nothing else around him.
There was no other choice. He grasped the hilt.
"We decided to offer you this sword to place our hopes in you."
A voice — he could not tell whether male or female — spoke from afar.
He cried out as the ground rumbled: black chains erupted forth and bound his ankles and wrists. He could not move. Darkness ravaged the sky and ground, as if someone poured paint all over this world, and it seeped towards him. The sword's aura was the last bastion for him. Its dim light held the corruption at bay in a circle around the stone.
"For you are known as the Weakest Host in history, we thought this could support you. In order to grasp a better future for us all, fighting is necessary. You'll encounter various enemies and challenges. Are you willing to accept this mantle?"
Did he make this choice before? Would he accept it again?
This was his only path forward. There would be no regrets.
His grip tightened, and he couldn't help but smile in spite of the situation. Like a friend returning to him, its energy flowed into him, into his heart, and permeated his very being.
"Immerse yourself within it and familiarize yourself with its texture."
Doubt once blinded him, but now he could see it clearly. He stirred the vast pool of energy inside of him. A storm brewed, and this time he stood at the center.
"Feel how it ebbs and flows."
An image of a red dragon emblazoned itself onto his mind. Its eyes, a brilliant green, pierced through him. It began to roar, and he joined in. The winds shook the foundations of his world; the dams could not longer contain it.
The chains clinked and crackled as power erupted through his battered limbs. A red tattoo gleamed on the back of his left hand. It was fitting that it was similar to a sword.
"Concentrate all of it into an image, an image of what is strong to you."
Roman, Mashu, Ritsuka, and the woman flashed before his eyes. It was true that he had no memories, and it's true that he was weak.
"No matter what happens, I'll believe in you. Never forget that."
It didn't matter. Faith was heavy, far more than these chains, but he didn't mind bearing it. They snapped off one by one as he pulled the sword upwards and revealed the blade.
"Awaken the truth of Asca— "
With a final tug, he freed the sword. Its aura, unrestrained and rampant, enveloped the world before him. The rest of his binds melted within the sea of golden light; it scrubbed away the taint to return the familiar hills. The sun met his eyes and embraced away the cold and numbness.
Such a clear sky, he thought. He would brave any storm, endure any flood, withstand any torrent because at the end of every day, it was worth it to see this gem again. He knew what he had to do.
He closed his eyes and exhaled.
Ash and char laced the next inhale. Issei heard the crackle of steel and the thundering of explosions. He delved into the pool of energy again, suffusing his body alongside with Ascalon. A red glow shimmered through its blade; it hummed with its desire to do battle. He kicked off the ground and the space between them vanished.
Ascalon met the enemy's weapon as he used his hands to endure the weight of the attack. His heels sank into the ground, and dirt entered his shoes. He grunted. If he hadn't tapped into that energy, there was little doubt that there would be anything left of him. One of his shoulders jerked back, and it took him everything to hold his sword steady.
He refused to crumble. It was just getting started!
The monster was forced to block the woman's assault from its right side, and the pressure eased off of him. His arm sagged as he backpedalled. Her wide eyes met his in that moment, but she could do nothing but scowl as she weaved under a slash.
There was no time to waste; he had this one chance. He bit back a moan, regripped the hilt, and forced himself back into position. He acted as the bridge between his soul and the sword, and it hungered for his power. Red aura turned into golden light — the blade cried for its name to be spoken.
He swung down.
The monster recoiled. Black ichor gushed out from the stump of its arm. Issei rolled backwards as the woman rushed towards his side. She held him tight as she jumped away, and the rapid flow of air cooled his sweat.
As soon as they landed, she propped him against the broken wall of a house. He winced as she laid a hand on his shoulder. "Master! That was very foolish of you to enter a battle between servants!"
"I don't like the feeling of not being able to help," Issei said.
"At the cost of injuring your shoulder? What if I couldn't stop the enemy in time? Master, you could've easily died, do you understand that?"
"I know," Issei frowned. He raised Ascalon onto his lap. He had charged in without thinking, too eager to do something and almost paid the price. "But still, we managed to hurt that Servant, right?"
"Even if you wounded him, the tenacity of this servant is not to be underestimated," she sighed. Her eyebrows unfurrowed as she glanced upon his sword. "This time, you must remain here. Injuries aside, your Od levels are too low after using your Noble Phantasm."
It was confusing enough without more words he didn't understand, but he couldn't deny the truth: he felt drained and dried up. He could barely move his right arm. He would only be a liability if he insisted on helping. Before he could say anything, he could feel her wrap him into an embrace again. The ground and sky flipped around as she jumped.
A massive explosion sounded one second later; splinters and concrete sprayed the air. His vertigo had no time to settle as she somersaulted over upcoming debris. Wind pounded in his ears, and the broken buildings were a blur at the speed she was going.
It was embarrassing to be carried over her shoulder, but he couldn't complain when he saw what lied after them. Red lights glittered from above, and his eyes widened as he realized they were incoming projectiles. She waited until the last moment to accelerate in order to avoid a direct hit. Several times, Issei could feel the heat whiplash from the impacts.
"We're at a disadvantage," she grunted. "Another Servant is engaging us from a great distance. Judging from the precision of these shots, it might be the Archer Servant."
Issei groaned. They had enough trouble dealing with this Servant, and now another one popped up. How much worse could this get?
He wanted to smack himself. The ground shook, and Issei could feel goosebumps rise. His injured arm began to twitch. The monster Servant galloped towards them on a set collision course. Steam vented from its mouth, and the lampposts, walls, and buildings between them did nothing to impede its rampage.
Issei clenched his knuckles white. The Servant was no longer injured.
With heavy strides, the pavement gave way into craters, and its two arms were free to smash whatever obstacle was in its way. The closer it approached them, the more his nails dug into his palms. There was no indication of any previous damage.
He recalled her previous words: Servants were more ridiculous that he had thought.
He heard a sizzle and turned around in time to see a trail of fire surged through the ground. It grew into a pillar that consumed their enemy. The flames twisted and grappled it before morphing and solidifying into wooden branches. Issei could hear creaking inside the makeshift entrapment as the Servant roared.
Issei didn't understand what happened, but one threat was gone. Another remained. A giant projectile whistled through the sky. Unlike the others, this one homed onto them. No matter what attempts she tried to zigzag it, the missile continue to hunt them down. The woman shifted him around as she sought to find cover. There was none. She resorted to throwing him off and shouted her apologies before lifting her weapon upwards. Wind began to funnel off from her sword. The barest gleam of golden steel glimmered before a shadow flew over them.
A figure wearing dark armor landed in front of them. She grounded a shield, black and taller than her, to block the shot just in time. A visible shockwave rippled from the collision and sparks spilled over the edges, causing Issei to protect his eyes. The debris pricked all over his hands and cheeks.
"It's alright now, Hyoudou-senpai."
A familiar voice called out to him. He gasped. He couldn't forget it so easily. The first thing that drew his attention was the shade of the figure's hair. It was light pink, the same of the person whose hands had turned cold inside of his.
"Mashu?" Issei exclaimed.
"Yes, it's me, Hyoudou-senpai," Mashu Kyrielight spoke.
Happiness washed away his exhaustion. She sounded alright, yet the image of her blood stained clothes persisted. He scrambled onto his feet using Ascalon as a clutch, and limped towards Mashu. The woman lent him a shoulder to lean on, but he didn't notice. There was only one person on his mind.
Glasses no longer adorned her face, giving an unobstructed view to dazzling violets. It was a great contrast to before. No longer did the light fade from them, instead they were vibrant and full of determination. Her smile melted his goosebumps away. It was genuine, rather than the one she had forced herself to wear before.
Then the blood pounded in his ears, and heat flushed his cheeks. He didn't realize it how much her previous clothes had concealed it, but the armor she was wearing left nothing to the imagination. It gripped around her body with such snugness that it accentuated her soft curves. He couldn't understand how it was supposed to protect her if it left the important parts uncovered!
Issei gulped back saliva, but he had to know if the injury that consumed her before was still troubling her. To his relief, he could see no visible wounds.
"Senpai? Is something the matter?" Mashu tilted her head.
"No," He coughed, trying to clear his mind of impure thoughts. It was not a direction he should go in. They had more important things to think about than what bountiful treasures laid underneath her armor. "What's with the armor? What happened in Chaldea? Why are we here in this city?"
"I'll explain everything later, Senpai," Mashu heaved her shield and turned towards the woman. "You are Senpai's servant, correct? Please escort him and follow me! Ritsuka-senpai and the Director are waiting for us. Caster-san will help cover us."
Issei flinched when a large blue circle popped right next to them. Inlaid with various symbols, it widened enough for a man to step through it. His red eyes flickered to Issei's before widening when he saw the woman. He twirled his wooden staff towards her, causing her to raise her own weapon in response.
Issei gripped Ascalon tighter when the man pointed at him. "Are you this kid's Servant?"
"Yes I am. What of it, Caster?" She said.
"Just making sure," he grumbled. "My runes will hold down Ugly, but it won't last for long. That damn Archer won't let us off that easily either. Go with the Shield Girl, I'll catch up later."
"Very well." She nodded to Mashu. "Lead the way, Servant of the Shield."
His tensed stomach rejoiced as he breathed out. Perhaps their wild voyage could come to a rest. He had so many questions, but he realized he had forgotten something important.
"We didn't get the chance to introduce ourselves," Issei turned to the person who stood by his side this entire time. "I'm Issei Hyoudou."
"Yes, indeed," she paused. "Then let us start over. In accordance to your summons, I have answered and come forth as your Servant. You may call me Saber."
He thought about the Archer and Caster. "Saber isn't your real name, is it?"
"No," she shook her head. "It is the title of the Class that I have been summoned under."
Issei groaned, "I'll just have to admit that I don't understand any of that. Sorry, I'm not much of a 'Master', am I?"
"While your previous actions can be said to be foolhardy," she broke into a small smile, "I could not say it was not courageous. Upon my honor and duty as a Knight, my sword is at your service, Master."
Issei was shocked that such a person would make that kind of vow to him. He didn't feel worthy when he hadn't accomplished anything. But that shouldn't matter, he supposed. Ascalon pulsed inside of him, reminding him of his own oath. If he wasn't capable now, then he'll just have to work hard until he was.
"And my sword at yours, too."
Chapter 3: The Pieces Realign
A massive shout out for my betas Plague and Mae. Without their patience and hard work, this chapter wouldn't have reached this level of quality! Much love for them both. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to PM me.
"Why are you so reckless?"
Issei shifted on the stool, unable to offer anything more than a forced chuckle. One quick glance in the mirror was enough to kill any small talk. Wounds old and new were blotched across his chest, and he had little doubt that his back was painted similarly.
Ritsuka drenched and squeezed a towel down his shoulder. The coolness soothed his inflamed muscles, but her hands sent a shiver down his spine. They journeyed through the landscape of his injuries with the occasional stumble into a raw injury. They had to make do with the scant moonlight that flowed into the infirmary.
He relished her tender mercies, and it wasn't because a cute girl was attending to him. Perhaps, but it wasn't just that — he felt that there was something familiar about this scene, as if there was another person whose fingers ghosted his back in the same manner.
When he closed his eyes and let her touches dance over him, he could almost imagine a face blurred with endless fuzz, scrambled like a television channel. He wanted to replay the memory, to discover the missing pieces of his past, to know why Ritsuka's fingers reminded him of another woman, but only a vague snippet of love revealed itself through the bad reception.
Was she a mother? A sister?
His heart desired to know, but he knew there was little point in obsessing over what he'd forgotten. The hope it gave him was enough, that maybe he had a home to return to.
His brief nostalgia subsided when an unknown sensation brought his attention back. The more Ritsuka swabbed away the grime, the more a frown tugged at his mouth. Shock pummeled his head when he understood what it was. Scabs littered the tips of her fingers down to the flat of her palm. He recalled her frantic clawing through the wreckage back in Chaldea, scouring for any survivors.
He wasn't the only reckless one here.
It was the very essence of what attracted him to Ritsuka. Her earnest desire to save people inspired him, pushed him to follow her footsteps. The two of them had entered into the flames of that accident and left forever tempered by it.
Ritsuka pressed harder onto his wounded shoulder. He suppressed a groan and resorted to minor squirms to ease his pain. Green light thrummed against him, heat bubbling throughout his muscles, purging away the aches and discomfort.
"It's all I can do for you," Ritsuka sighed. "Healing Magecraft has its own limitations, so try not to overexert yourself. We don't have much supplies either, otherwise I'd do more."
"Thanks, Ritsuka." Issei rotated his shoulder. It was stiff, but it no longer pained him to move. His grin paused when he recalled the state of her hands. "Can't you heal your own injuries?"
She shook her head, gesturing to her clothes. "I could, but my healing abilities are limited to the Mystic Code I'm wearing. You can see it's not in the most perfect condition. Your injuries are more important than mine."
Issei frowned. He couldn't see the extent of the damage within the gloom, but he doubted that they couldn't spare one more use for her.
"But doesn't it hurt?" Issei asked.
"Even if I said it did, what would that change?" Ritsuka laughed. The hollowness of it mirrored the emptiness of the hallways. "Just try to not fight Servants head on again. Please. I don't want anyone else hurt."
Issei knew that was an impossible request, and the hypocrisy of it shone on them. He cared more about Ritsuka's injuries over his. The opposite was true for her.
"Yeah, there's no way for both of us to avoid getting hurt. Not with our mission," she sighed, and she walked towards the window. It was one of the few that were still intact in the high school they had taken shelter in. "But even so, I still wish for a way that no one has to suffer more. Maybe, that's why I'm a failure as a Master and Magus."
"But isn't that natural?" Issei blurted. He couldn't understand what Ritsuka meant. "I don't see how you could be wrong for thinking otherwise."
"Not to them." Ritsuka turned to Issei. He hated how brittle her smile could become. "In order to advance as a Magus, we have to prepare for every possibility. There could never be any progress without sacrifice. Pain and suffering means nothing in the long run. Aside from severe taboos, anything is allowed as long as Magecraft is advanced. Even death."
"But that — " Issei trailed off. He wanted to say that it was wrong. That the ends could not always justify the usage of drastic means, but was it any different than what he had already done? He'd sought power, no matter the cost, for his own need.
"Perhaps Magecraft was never truly meant to help people. Perhaps nothing good could come through whimsical methods," Ritsuka shuddered. "Perhaps that's why I am lacking. When I met the other Masters, the ones who were supposed to go on this mission, I realized how much of a difference there was between them and me. They were from great lineages, with decades or even centuries of research behind their Magecraft."
She clenched her sleeves; the color faded from her knuckles. "Who was I to compare to them? I was just an ordinary girl who didn't care about searching for the Root or gaining prestige. I could barely do rudimentary Magecraft, but I didn't care! All I wanted to do was to help people. I thought that if I just did my best, it wouldn't matter that I was a good Magus or not, but look at us right now!"
Ritsuka choked back a sob. "We're the only two Masters left, Issei!"
Issei grimaced. Doctor Roman had confirmed that the other Masters were comatose due to the incident. They might not recover if Chaldea can't contact the outside world. Communications were cut off, so they had no choice but to press on with the Rayshift Mission. The fact that they hadn't mentioned the status of other staff was telling enough.
"What if the reason why Mashu can't use her Noble Phantasm properly is my fault? Was it because I wasn't strong enough as a Master? I don't even know how to help Mashu, so how am I supposed to help save humanity like this?" Ritsuka's eyes pleaded with Issei, beckoning him to say otherwise. He couldn't.
"I shouldn't have been a Master," she announced, eyes downcast as she backpedalled until she hit the wall. "I shouldn't be here. It should've been someone else. Someone else would've done a better job." Ritsuka's knees crumbled, and she slid down to the floor.
White light shone through the window, framing her quivering shoulders. They were smaller than Issei had thought. He'd chased after her back ever since waking in Chaldea; he'd thought they were strong enough to endure the weight of the mission. That it would be fine if he could walk the path she took.
He was wrong. No shoulders were wide enough to bear the fate of humanity's future. None of them had thought they would do this alone.
Issei realized Ritsuka was no different than him. Just as Ritsuka expressed doubts on her abilities, he too doubted his potential. He had no memories, no real skills beside a knack to rush in and hope that it went well. His battle with Berserker had exemplified that.
Both of them thought it would be fine if they did something — anything to prove that they were capable. They were directionless, lost in the fog of their own insecurities. That had to change. He had to steer them out of this mire.
Issei knelt before her, unsure. She was only a hair's breadth away, yet the gap felt gigantic. A river of insecurity coarsed between them. How could he hope to build a bridge when he didn't know where he stood in relation to her?
His hand reached out, but his fingers dangled uselessly. He gulped down enough courage to make the final stretch, brushing aside her messy bangs, untangling loose debris from her hair. Her revealed cheeks glistened under the moonlight, yet her tears did little to wash away the traces of the battlefield.
Ever since they had arrived at this city, they hadn't found a chance to sit down like this. Issei almost snorted at how fitting it was. Whether it was Chaldea or this Fuyuki, it was again in another infirmary, but he wasn't the only patient this time. Issei grabbed a clean towel and began to scrub at her face. She didn't reject his care: it was a start.
He grasped her hands and brought them up to his eyes. As he thought, they were riddled with cuts and burns. He used the first aid kit they had found for him, dabbing at her wounds.
"You know, Ritsuka, I don't know much about Magecraft. Then again, I don't know much about anything lately," Issei chuckled, twirling fresh wraps around her fingers. "If you think the other Masters are so amazing, it's fine. But don't you think you're being too unfair on yourself?"
"That's because you haven't seen what the real Magi can do!" Ritsuka snapped. "If they were here, they would've saved more people! If they were here, they would've been better, capable — "
"But I have seen what one Magus has done!" Issei interjected. "I've seen her walk into the wreckage of burning debris without hesitation! All for the small chance that someone could be alive!"
Issei raised her hands in front of her. "I've seen her rush to treat a reckless idiot without any regards to her own injuries! You're too hard on yourself, Ritsuka! There may be a lot at stake right now, but we can only do what we can. We're the only ones who can.
"Maybe you think yourself to be a terrible Magus, but you're stronger than you think. Your path isn't wrong," Issei cupped her hands with both of his. "We're in the same boat, you know? It's going to be a long journey, but no one said you had to do it alone, right, Ritsuka?"
Ritsuka sniffed, blinking back tears. He didn't need to hear a reply. He knew it when the light in her eyes brightened the room.
Issei settled into a bench in the school's cafeteria. Olga was already there, one finger tapping a rhythm atop the table. Ritsuka joined him on the opposite side, while Saber took her place standing behind him.
"All finished then, Fujimura, Hyoudou?" Olga asked, one hand brushing aside a lock of her silver hair.
"Yeah, Director. Where's Mashu?" Ritsuka looked around the cafeteria until the door to the backroom opened. Mashu carried out a tray with several cups of ramen and a pot to boil water.
"This was all I could find back there." Mashu's gauntlets clinked together as she folded her hands together and bowed slightly.
Issei smiled at her humility, thankful that she was better than before, though he doubted he could forget her bloodstained visage. Ritsuka had told him that she was a demi-Servant, a person who took in the powers of a Heroic Spirit into their body. As a result of her contract, her body healed, and she became the Shielder Servant when they were separated during the Rayshifting.
Ritsuka's earlier remarks hinted that both her and Mashu were unable to unlock Mashu's full power, but her health was all they could ask for. Though, one part of him wished Mashu was dressed more modestly like Saber was. The other part of him was grateful for the wonderful view.
"No worries." Issei waved off her apologies and grabbed a cup. He needed to distract his mind. Again. "This is the perfect food for a late night snack!"
"Well, you're not wrong," Ritsuka said, shaking her head at his gusto. "We don't have electricity, huh? How are we going to heat the water?"
Olga scoffed while she raised her finger, drawing a rune at the bottom of the pot. It glowed red and then the water inside boiled.
"Thanks, Director!" Mashu began passing chopsticks to everyone, including Saber. "Um, Saber-san, would you like to eat as well?"
"Servants do not require subsistence to sustain themselves," Saber said before receiving hers. "However, I am not opposed to the idea. Thank you, Miss Kyrielight."
"Oh, if Saber's getting one too, then pass me one, little lady." A blue circle, inlaid with runes similar to the one Olga drew, expanded on the floor. Caster materialized from it, brushing aside dirt from his fur shawl.
"Caster," Olga pinched the bridge of her nose as she sat her cup down, "I assume you managed to mislead the two Servants?"
"Took a while, but they decided to retreat instead of pursuing," Caster said. He stirred the noodles before swallowing them in a single bite.
"Retreat where?" Ritsuka asked.
"Probably where the final boss is," Caster drawled. "She knows that there's no real point to chase us when we need to come to her."
"Final boss?" Issei sat up, continuing to slurp at his food.
"Right," Caster's red eyes sought him out, "you've probably been informed about the remaining Servants left in this city. I suppose you already met two of the three. I'm not sure why the Berserker Servant is moving, but we can't rule out his interference at the objective point."
"The objective point?" Issei asked. He was only given the barest information on what was happening in this singularity: there was a war waged with Servants in this city, and they needed to find out what went wrong to fix the timeline.
"The site of Fuyuki's Greater Grail is where the final boss will be." Caster glanced over towards Saber. "It'll be where the enemy Saber is. The other Servants shouldn't matter as long as we defeat her, but you can bet your ass that they'll be there now."
"Do we know their true identities?" Olga asked.
"I don't know who the Archer Servant is. Not a single damn clue about what kind of a Hero has so many swords and still be considered an Archer. The Berserker Servant, well, that's a different story. Even the enemy Saber had trouble dealing with him." Caster scowled as he pointed to Issei. "Boy, you should be glad that Ugly lost that ridiculous Noble Phantasm of his when he got corrupted by the grail, else you wouldn't have even scratched his skin."
"What?" Issei almost dropped his wooden chopsticks.
"But Hyoudou-senpai used Ascalon on him!" Mashu exclaimed.
"Doesn't matter shit to the Greek's most famous hero, Heracles." Caster snorted. "His famed legend of completing twelve labors gave him a ridiculous Noble Phantasm that granted him several lives. If he still had that, your attacks would've been bouncing off of him, but don't get me wrong. Even if he's killable now, he is still freaking strong."
"This just gets even better and better," Olga muttered. "Who's the final Servant?"
"There's no way anyone could have mistaken the holy light from her sword, even if it's corrupted and tainted by the Grail," Caster began, "and the funny thing is you actually summoned her as a Servant, kid."
"Wait, I don't understand?" Issei turned to Saber.
"I see now. That's why you tried to ascertain whether or not I was an enemy when we first met." Saber's voice was calm, yet the way the broth sloshed around inside her cup said otherwise. "The enemy Saber is another version of me that was summoned here."
"Yeah, that's right." Caster nodded. "The enemy is none other than the wielder of Excalibur, King Arthur Pendragon."
Issei followed Saber as she sought the stairs to the roof. The night air, even marred by ashes, was soothing enough for him to collect his thoughts. He imagined it was the same for Saber.
She kept her gaze affixed to one area: where Issei summoned her.
"This is not the first time I've been summoned to Fuyuki as a Servant. To see it in this state is quite hard to swallow," she began.
"You mean you were summoned here in another timeline or something?" Issei wondered.
"Heroic Spirits summoned as Servants are mere copies of the actual legend recorded in the Throne of Heroes. When the contract is completed or voided, we merely return to the Throne," she sighed. "As such, time and space matters little when a Servant is summoned."
"I see. Then that explains why— " Issei trailed off.
" — We are facing another version of myself as an enemy," Saber completed.
"Then you are really King Arthur?" Issei exclaimed. "Sorry, I just didn't expect for you to be a woman."
"I don't mind," she shook her head. "At that time, a female couldn't be a successor, so I was raised to be a man. Perhaps I can tell you more when circumstances permit it, but I don't suppose you know the main details of my legend?"
Issei paused, trying to reconcile what he remembered about the legendary king with the woman standing before him. She was Saber, the Servant Class best known for their skills with a sword, and King Arthur's most famous sword was —
"Excalibur! For my comrades who died because of it, let me destroy it!"
A male voice, filled with rage and sadness, echoed within his mind as Issei murmured the name of her sword. He resonated with that hatred, that anger, as if his heart cried with that person's anguish.
Saber pulled out her weapon. Wind funneled off from the blade, revealing radiant steel so dazzling that Issei couldn't pull away his eyes. A brilliant gold that made him feel poor for not possessing it, yet rich for beholding it. The aura empowered him as if he could live off of its warmth forever.
It was enough to wash away the earlier sentiment and made him feel numb. He couldn't understand what could drive someone to desire the destruction of such a treasure. He didn't know what was his connection to that person or Excalibur, but perhaps it wasn't coincidence that he summoned Saber.
"Perhaps you can understand my previous reluctance to not state my true name. In a Holy Grail War, the Masters will utilize any information to gain the advantage over their enemies. Knowing my identity as King Arthur will provide insight to what Noble Phantasms I am capable of using."
"That means we also know what your counterpart is capable of." Issei nodded. He recalled what Caster said previously. "Then she has her own version of Excalibur?"
"If she was summoned as a Saber class, there could be no doubt to what Noble Phantasm she possesses." Saber drew his attention towards the horizon. "Perhaps it is vain of me to say so, but I do not relish fighting myself as an enemy. I can already see the aftermath of her own Excalibur across this city."
It took a while for Issei to see past the fumes, but when he did, his jaw slackened. His eyes traced out what could only be a black scar over the lay of the land, a line of demolished buildings that spanned through the length of the city. Not even the river could stop the trail of destruction.
"She made that chasm?" Issei spluttered. "Is that what Excalibur is capable of?"
"It is but a crude display of Excalibur's true power. Even from here, I can feel its mana signature. It is familiar enough for me to recognize but, at the same time, a darker presence lingers within it. If she is the source of this singularity, then she has indeed obtained the power of the Holy Grail. I cannot say for certain that I am her equal in that regard, yet the situation is not as impossible as it appears."
Saber turned to him, and he could see the verdant green of her eyes soften. "I've learned from Miss Fujimaru and Miss Kyrielight that you suffer amnesia, Master."
"It's true. Sometimes I see or hear vague images of people that I should know, but I can't seem to remember," Issei admitted.
"I understand, Issei." Saber put a hand on his shoulder. "I know not what caused your memory loss, but your tenacious will is the key to your recovery. Hence, you were able to recall some proficiency in utilizing your Noble Phantasm. Would you let me examine it?"
Ascalon materialized within Issei's hands before he passed it to Saber. She was right; he had no qualms in using Ascalon at all.
"Yes, this aura is unmistakable. I do not know how you came to possess the legendary sword of Saint George, but this is to our advantage indeed." Saber brushed her gauntlet across the blade. When she lifted it to show Issei, he could see the pale skin of her hand before the steel reformed.
"It is not spoken much of, but the blood of the Red Dragon runs through my veins. While it grants me several benefits, it is not without its weaknesses. As you can see, I am most vulnerable to attributes that affects Dragons."
Saber handed back Ascalon to Issei. "There is no doubt that your Ascalon is authentic. Even from a distance, I feel apprehension facing it. My instincts warn me of the danger, telling me to not let it cut me. We can make use of this."
"If your counterpart shares your powers, then she would also share your weakness," Issei concluded. "That means we have a real advantage against her, right?"
Saber shook her head. "The challenge does not lie in whether it will be effective, but rather, if you can use it against her. Whatever her designs are, she is still another aspect of myself. Forgive me for my impropriety, but as it stands, I can defeat you without giving you a chance to land any glancing blows. There is no doubt that my counterpart can do the same."
It pained Issei to hear that from her, but he knew there was a tremendous gap between their capabilities. He saw firsthand how she matched blows with Berserker. He understood it was stupid to think that he could fight a Servant straight on, especially after what Olga and Ritsuka told him, but all the reasons in the world couldn't stop his frustration.
"Master, there is one more thing I would like to confirm," Saber said. "I have felt it through our contract, but I didn't want to presume. Are you aware that you possess the magical core of a Dragon?"
Issei recalled Doctor Roman mentioning it, but he was barely conscious at the time. "I think so? Ritsuka knows more about that than me."
"I have not expected to be summoned by a Master with such a strong affinity to myself, but perhaps that is how you were able to form a contract with me instead of Saint George." Saber smiled before sighing.
"I do not relish the thought of sending my Master to the frontlines, but as it stands right now, we have too many enemies and too little time." Saber walked a distance away from Issei. "I can tell that you were once proficient in combat. Your brief sortie with Berserker is testament to that. It's time for me to teach you and reawaken that potential. Are you willing to push yourself?"
There was no need to ask. Issei shook off the night chill as he stretched his arms and legs. He watched as waves of green energy emanated from underneath Saber. It spiralled around her like a thick mist, crackling the air around her arms and legs. Even from this distance, he could feel the immense pressure from her power. Stray sparks jolted the goosebumps on his arm while the growing winds forced him to squint his eyes and ground his feet.
Saber gripped Excalibur with both of hands. "Then let me show you, Master, about the skill I am most proficient in: Mana Burst."
Chapter 4: The Grand Order
Author's Note: Massive thanks for the patience and hard work of my two betas Plague and Mae for helping me with this chapter. They had really hit it home on how weak my writing was in the latter half of this chapter - something that I don't think I fixed completely. As always, feel free to message me if you like to discuss my story.
Issei shuddered as they walked through the broken streets of Fuyuki. Each of them had to mind their footing — loose asphalt and potholes were rampant, and shattered glass loved to pop up when they least expected it. There was no escape from the acrid smell of smoke either. It lingered within every ramshackled building they came across.
Caster had told them that the Holy Grail War changed midway. Something had caused the incineration of every human living here in Fuyuki, leaving behind only Servants, and the enemy Saber had defeated and taken control of them. Caster and Saber were the only two remaining in the War with Archer and Berserker left as her thralls; the rest were defeated earlier by Caster and Mashu.
Issei had thought he was prepared. They all had thought that. Their naivety was shattered the moment they encountered the walking undead.
When Issei heard the clamoring of their boney feet against gravel, he paled not because he was afraid of fighting them. They were weak foes — corrupted mana could only do so much to reinforce their demented frames. Their wretched strength laid in their rapturous numbers. Behind every nook and corner, their crackling jaws taunted them and pursued with their limbs flailing.
They could not afford to fight every single time as each confrontation whittled down their endurance, and more so, their mentality. Issei tried not to keep count of how many they had destroyed.
It would only give him an increasing answer to a question he never wanted to ask: how many humans have died for this?
A brief lull allowed them to catch their breath underneath a dilapidated bridge. It provided Issei a chance to check up on everyone.
He started with Olga, who leaned over with her arms on her knees, heaving in and out. Stray strands of hair glued themselves onto her forehead before she dabbed her sweat away with a handkerchief. Ritsuka was by her side, dirt and ashes and sweat adorning her clothes as equally as they did with Olga. She clutched her empty bottle, fingers playing the the cap, twisting it off and on before she caught his gaze. She offered a simple smile — one not large enough to hide her sorrow, but just enough to tell him not to worry.
Issei nodded to her before turning his attention towards the last two. Rather than resting, Saber and Mashu stood vigil at the perimeter.
Weariness couldn't reside in Saber's posture; instead, it dwelled within her frown. There was little idle chatter during their skirmishes, but her swift annihilation of the undead spoke of her simmering anger and exasperation.
He could only imagine what it would feel like to walk through a city he had once known — only to see endless death and destruction.
Then there was Mashu; her eyes darted back and forth, fingers wrapped around her shield, unwilling to miss any signs of activity.
Issei knew she was a Servant now, but it wasn't that simple. He couldn't forget that moment in the wreckage — when he had to convince himself that her injury wasn't fatal or that it was not her blood that had seeped into his soles. He'd dreaded the way the warmth in her hands flickered, his tightening grip the only kindling he could offer.
He hated that he had to choose to let her go in order to protect another.
"Saber, Mashu," Issei called as he approached them.
Saber's frown lessened, but she kept her eyes trained on the horizon. "Master."
"Ah, Hyoudou-senpai!" Mashu exclaimed.
"You can just call me Issei, Mashu," Issei laughed. "Though, shouldn't I be the one calling you Senpai? After all, I'm the newest one here."
"No, it's not like that, Hyou— I mean, Issei-senpai," Mashu stuttered. She rested a hand on her chest, taking deep breaths. "I consider you and Ritsuka-senpai my senior in terms of living."
Issei raised an eyebrow. "Living?"
"You see, I was born in Chaldea. All of my life, I spent inside of it, with only pictures and videos to show me the outside world," she explained.
"Is that why you wished to see the sky?" Issei murmured to himself before he asked, "You've been in Chaldea for how long?"
"I'm sixteen now, Senpai." A wispful smile painted over her face. "My entire life was all about Chaldea's mission. I never had a chance to think 's why, when I met Ritsuka-senpai, she was unlike everyone else. Not that they were bad people, but she had such a different mindset than they did. She didn't care about status or power; she just wanted to help everyone. I thought it was an earnest way to live: she felt more human than anyone I had met."
"I can understand that. I don't think Ritsuka gives herself enough credit," Issei said, "but, compared to her, I don't think I've really done that much."
"No, that's not true! You definitely remind me of her, Issei-senpai," Mashu exclaimed. "When I saw you fight Berserker, I had wondered what gave you the courage to stand against him."
Issei scratched his cheek. "I wouldn't say that was courage —"
" — Perhaps it would be more apt to say foolishness instead," Saber added.
"Perhaps, but I was amazed. You had no memories, no obligations, nor any power," Mashu murmured, "but you chose to fight rather than run away. It made me question myself: how do humans continue to fight even if the odds stand against them?"
Normally her bangs covered the left side of her face, but this time, he saw both of her eyes — they were windows to a brilliant violet sea, ravaged by storm and thunder. Issei felt that she had voyaged for a clear sky for her entire life.
"You know, it has been overwhelming. Waking up in Chaldea and coming to Fuyuki, I'm not sure where to even begin," Issei admitted. "A part of me wants to shout out. Why did I lose my memories? Why did Chaldea get attacked? Why did Fuyuki get destroyed? Can I do anything? Why am I even here?
"Maybe there are reasons; maybe not, but that is life. I don't know everything. I can't do everything. But I'm not alone. We're not alone. Even if the world itself is against us, we can help each other. We fight because we want to see another day again."
"Because our time is as limited as humans, we have to make do with what we have together," Mashu concluded, the tension easing from her shoulders.
"Exactly. I would rather do something than to regret not doing anything," Issei said. He glanced back and found Ritsuka and Olga walking towards them. "Because I doubt anyone knows when time will run out."
It was nauseating, Issei thought, as they stood at the entrance of the cave. They had trekked past the urban parts of Fuyuki and into the mountainous forest. The light of the moon couldn't pierce through the darkness of the inside. The air was viscous with a disturbing, wretched miasma. It squirmed atop of his skin, raising his goosebumps and dotting his body with cold sweat.
"It sure feels like this is definitely the place," Ritsuka quivered, rolling her shoulders as if she wanted to shrug something off."The mana concentration here is ridiculous!"
Mashu traced the edge of the entrance with a finger. "It looks like a natural cave, but has Fuyuki always had such a site?"
"This isn't a full natural one. It looks like a magus once took over it and built their workshop deeper and deeper inside," Olga concluded after her inspection. "They had probably wanted to tap into Fuyuki's leyline."
Saber and Caster shifted to the back of the group as Issei heard footsteps from a cliff behind them.
"Looks like the guardian came to greet us personally," Caster snarked, leaning on his staff.
A man, hair whiter than snow, peered down from atop the cliff. Red lines, reminiscent of what Issei had seen on the Berserker, crept up from his neck to one side on his face.
"The Archer Servant," Saber frowned and tightened her grip on her sword.
"I don't recall ever calling myself a guardian, but at the very least, I can take care of intruders," Archer said, rolling his eyes. He kept his hands open, but Issei didn't see any weapons on him.
"So, you're on gatekeeping duty. That sounds a bit boring, why let us keep you company for a bit, Archer." Caster grinned and raised his hands, framing them with blue energy.
Motes of light rushed into Archer's hands, materializing into a bow and sword. As soon as he notched the sword, it twisted and transformed into an arrow. "I don't have that much free time," he said and took aim, releasing the string.
Mashu rushed in front of the group as Issei attempted to summon forth Ascalon. However, just a few feet before the arrow reached them, Caster shouted, "Eihwaz!"
Flames sprang from the arrow, twisted around it, and incinerated it into ashes.
"Don't say such sad things, Archer. What's the rush unless you have no confidence in taking me on?" Caster taunted, writing glowing runes onto the air. His arm slashed forth, and the runes transformed into fire and shot forward, converging and exploding at Archer's location. Black smoke billow as upturned chunks of dirt and rock flew off the ledge.
Archer jumped backward, out of the smoke, clothes not touched by the debris. His mouth tightened, his eyes focused. He readied another sword and aimed again.
"Go now! Deal with Saber and Berserker!" Caster urged as he barreled past Mashu.
This is what they had agreed to do earlier, but running deeper into the cave and leaving Caster to fight alone left Issei conflicted. Caster was blunt at times, but Issei didn't mind it. Issei could say it was nostalgic, having someone that he could banter with in the brief time they were together.
There were no traps impeding their descent. The moonlight didn't reach deep enough, but there was an eerie, violet light that illuminated the path forward. When they reached the opening that the road led to, all of them could only stand in horror at what they saw and felt.
"What is that?" Ritsuka asked, turning her head upwards.
Issei couldn't answer. The path had opened up into a large span of space, riddled with the bones of countless humans, and a gigantic hill towered over them in the middle of it. It didn't seem like it was composed of actual earth, rather it was some sort of wretched black mud. The violet light emanated at the zenith, radiating out like a sun rising from the horizon.
Olga frowned, cupping her chin, as she scanned around. "Is this a Magecraft reactor core? Is this what a Holy Grail is?"
"Oh ho," a familiar voice called out. "I see two interesting servants and their little Masters walking into this den of lions. A girl with the most intriguing shield and someone I had never thought I would face. But I wonder... "
Issei couldn't help but shiver when he gazed at the woman who stood at the peak. Just like Artoria, she too possessed beauty, but it was cruel rather than captivating. Her skin was pale, untouched snow, and her eyes were just as frigid and desolate, rather than the gentle green that he was used to. They froze him, left him stranded in a blizzard that sought to deprive him of any warmth if he gazed in for too long.
A dense aura, just as black as her armor and dress, coursed through her entire body. Issei grimaced; he recognized it as a form of Mana Burst. But what he feared most was the dark holy sword that she held in her right hand.
There was no doubt that it was Excalibur, but Issei wondered if it was correct to still call it holy when so much evil seeped from the edge. It was unlike the time he had observed Artoria's Excalibur. It demanded his attention — he felt repulsed by its corruption yet it still captivated him. This Black Saber was an exact opposite to his own; an alternate that he wasn't sure he could condone.
She shook her head, closing her eyes. "Even if it's you, do you truly have the power to change your fate?"
"To become so warped in evil, how could you have fallen so low?" Artoria roared, clenching her fist; wind raged from her sword's edge as she dashed towards her counterpart.
"Do not dare to admonish me with righteousness, not when you yourself also committed atrocities!" the Black Saber sneered, sliding down the hill to meet Artoria. "But that was always your shortcoming — your pathetic insistence to cling onto weak ideals was the reason why Camelot fell!"
The Excaliburs clashed, a tango of light and dark.. "I —"
" — We share the same origin! Deep down, I know you harbor doubts. There was no need for us to restrain our power! So what if our people feared us? As long as all our enemies perished, then it didn't matter how we achieved it!" The hill shuddered as they disengaged with the force of their swings.
"There's always a price that comes with too much power! Look at Fuyuki!" Artoria demanded, pointing towards the entrance. "Tell me, where are the people? What kind of kingdom exists without them?"
"Sacrifices had to be made for the greater good," the Black Saber frowned, but she didn't avert her eyes.
"Is that your only answer?" Artoria asked, shaking her head. "There was indeed a time where I had thought that it would be better if another one had led Britain than me. I had made so many wrong choices, hurt so many people, and suffered a lot of defeats. But my path was not wrong. I had fought for one thing — the future. I do not and will not regret that. Just like how we are fighting for the future right now!"
"Then prove to me that resolve!" Black Saber challenged, beckoning with her sword. "Prove to me that you can endure what lies in the future!"
Artoria began to dash forward —
"▂▂▃▃▅▅ーーー！" The earth shook again as Berserker erupted from the top of the hill; his axe crashed into Artoria's blade, ferrying both them away from the group.
Mashu nodded to them as she walked forward. The Black Saber leapt from the hill and cracked the earth with her landing.
"Now then, girl, is your will to protect stronger than my sword?" The Black Saber ran forward as Mashu raised her shield to block the strike. Purple sparks scattered across the surface and Mashu struggled to parry each of her blows; her knees buckled each time, arms left shuddering.
Unlike Artoria, the enemy Saber used her Mana Burst without restraint. Black mana coalesced into her Excalibur — so much that it was no longer steel that she wielded, but pure darkness instead. Each attack left Mashu struggling to recover, and the onslaught increased in ferocity. Olga had conjured a barrier to protect them stray debris and mana, but it shuddered from the sheer wind pressure of Saber's swings.
Issei wasn't sure how much more Mashu could endure when he could feel the force of Saber's attacks from this far. They had to go on the attack now.
"What's wrong? You cannot protect anything if you do not have the will to press forward!" Saber snarled.
Saber swung upwards and smashed Mashu into the air. She lost her grip on her shield, falling onto her face, but she lifted her chin even if her limbs couldn't muster enough strength to get onto her knees.
"If you cannot get up, then this can only be a mercy for you," Saber murmured. She walked up to Mashu, raising her sword above her head.
Issei ran, gathering mana into his legs and letting it explode outwards. The usage of Mana Burst was instinctual as if he had used this technique for years.
Saber swung down with both arms to behead Mashu, but she struck only dirt. Her eyes narrowed, growling with anger as Mashu had teleported backwards from her position — thanks to Ritsuka's Mystic Code. She took a step forward to continue her assault, but Issei had already placed himself in his path.
He called forth his sword and let his the mana flow into the blade. Saber's eyes widened as she raised Excalibur to catch Ascalon, crossing their weapons, and he shouted, "Ritsuka!"
Ritsuka braced an arm as she pointed her palm at Issei. A red glow covered her uniform before it faded away and collected into an orb. It flew into Issei; he could feel strength surging within his body. It compounded on what he had mustered, but he focused only on channeling it into his weapon to invoke its true power.
Waves of gold erupted from Ascalon, bathing both Issei and Saber in light. The power rippled forward, gouged the ground, and enveloped Saber's entire body. It continued onward until it collided with the hillside. Dust and smoke billowed from the aftermath.
"Did we get her?" Issei panted, sheathing Ascalon into the dirt as he leaned upon the hilt. It would take some time for him to recover back his stamina and mana.
Ritsuka rushed towards Mashu with a green glow outlining her Mystic Code this time. A sudden gale of wind cleared the smoke and turned his attention back towards the hillside.
"To think that you would even possess a dragon slayer's Noble Phantasm. I see that my other self wasted no time in teaching you how to use Mana Burst."
The Black Saber pulled herself out from the crater in the hillside. Her entire armor was cracked, and a faint trail of blood ran down the side of her lips. She wiped it off her free hand. "It would not do if your education was lacking — let me show you the proper way to utilize it!"
Before Issei could even respond, Saber poured mana into her sword, and the torrent of black light condensed into the shape of a dragon's head. It opened its maw wide and sprung forward, seeking to consume Issei whole.
Issei tried to gather mana towards his feet; he could feel the heat of the energy teasing his cheeks —
" —- Sorry, I'm here now, Issei-senpai!" Mashu grounded her shield in front of Issei, protecting him from the body of the attack. The ground around them cracked as black flames licked the sides of her shield.
"That was close. Thanks Mashu," Issei sighed
"No." Mashu shook her head. "It's the least I can do after my terrible performance as a Servant."
"So you managed to avoid that. Then here's your final test! Can you endure this?" Saber raised her sword upwards. Black light eclipsed the violet glow, engulfing the very airspace above them. Issei paled, his knees buckled, and he struggled to breathe underneath the buildup of pressure.
"That isn't good, Issei-senpai, get behind my shield!" Mashu cried.
"EXCALIBUR MORGAN!" she roared. A tsunami of black light engulfed the entirety of Mashu's shield. The torrent gushed around them, and he could see nothing but darkness.
Mashu's knees faltered; her greaves snapped backwards by the force. Her grip on her shield's handle slackened, almost dropping it until another hand covered and supported hers.
"Don't give up! I'm here for you, Mashu!" Ritsuka said, smiling. "We're here for you. You're not alone! I believe in you!"
"That's right — we fight so we can see another day together," Mashu murmured, the vigor slowly returning into her legs. "Please watch me, Master!"
Her shield resonated with her will. White light pulsated throughout the surface, eating away at the darkness, and bricks projected from it, forming the foundations of a giant wall — it was a bastion against evil.
"Hah!" Mashu yelled as she began to push back Excalibur Morgan's light.
"The Shield finally awakens," Saber murmured as her attack could no longer flow past Mashu's Wall. It bubbled up at the center, and Mashu rammed it back at Saber. There was nothing to impede the flood on Saber's side; it submerged her and scoured the ground, leaving nothing but a shallow crevasse in front of them. Smoke from the aftermath obscured their vision, but it subsided quickly.
Saber crouched over her sword with slitted eyes, blood dripping from her scowl. Her armor was shattered, gaps revealing black garments beneath.
Mashu fell to her knees, barely able to keep her shield upright. Fractures riddled the white wall of her Noble Phantasm.
"Mashu!" Ritsuka wrapped her arms around Mashu's waist, hugging her close.
"I'm okay, but," Mashu wheezed, "the fight isn't over yet."
Issei nodded. He found it ridiculous that this Saber was still standing after receiving Ascalon's and her own attacks. Golden light gleamed from a distance, attracting everyone's attention. He felt hope instead of despair when he gazed upon it.
Saber winced as she mustered mana to her feet. With a kick to the ground, she leapt—
" — EXCALIBUR!"
"▃▃▅▅!" A howl of insanity faded with the light, and a giant chasm crossed perpendicular to the previous one.
Caster dashed next to them. "I see that our Saber has finished her battle as well. You all did well lasting this long." Issei noticed he was no longer wearing his coat. Caster's chest was bare; his muscles slick with sweat and smudged with dirt.
Artoria also landed next to them. Parts of her chest plate were dented, but Issei couldn't see any major injuries. She frowned. "Master! I should've used Excalibur earlier to stop her from releasing hers!"
"It's fine, you had a lot to deal with," Issei said, nodding at Mashu. "Mashu was able to use her Noble Phantasm to protect us."
"You did a good job, Mashu. I'm so glad," Ritsuka sniffed.
"Victory to the power that protects, just like that innocent youth back then," the Black Saber spoke. She closed her eyes and smiled. "Ultimately, no matter how fate changes, I face the same end when I'm alone."
Her leg flickered into transparency, and her foot began to dissolve into a drizzle of golden light. It developed into a heavy rain as it stormed towards her torso, wiping away everything in its path.
"What are you talking about? Do you know something?" Caster asked.
"Eventually you will come to know, Ireland's Child of Light. Your trials are not over. The Grand Order, is it? The battle for the Holy Grails has only begun," Saber murmured as her entire body faded away.
Caster yelled, "Hey, wait! What did you mean by that —-"
He glanced down, noticing that his own legs were also fading into sparks. "I see, with the defeat of Saber, the War is over then, and I have no more purpose here."
"Caster-san, thank you very much!" Mashu bowed.
"Tch, it's nothing." He shouldered his staff and smirked. "Well, I'll leave it all up to you to clean up. If there's a next time, summon me as a Lancer instead!"
Issei watched as the last of the sparkles danced into the air. Issei knew Servants weren't human, but to see Caster disappear suddenly saddened him. Even if they had summon him, could he be considered the same person if he didn't have the memories of this version? Issei glanced at Artoria, unsure what would happen when the time comes and she had to leave.
"There's no longer a signature for the enemy Saber and Caster," Mashu looked around. "Did we win?"
"This War should be the source of the singularity," Ritsuka said. "Concluding it should've solved everything — "
Ritsuka's communicator rang.
"Well done, everyone!" Doctor Roman exclaimed through the device. "I can't get a visual down there, but I'm sure you all are happy! Director, looks like we don't have to worry about the Fuyuki Singularity."
Issei and the others turned to Olga, but she wasn't smiling.
"The Grand Order," Olga whispered. "How did that Servant know that name?"
"What's wrong Director?" Ritsuka asked.
"No, it's nothing." Olga shook her head and smiled. "Well done, Mashu, Fujimaru, Hyoudou, and Saber. Mashu, no matter your inexperience as a Servant, your own will was capable of activating your Noble Phantasm. Keep at it, and you'll be able to unlock its True Name."
"Yes! Thank you, Director!" Mashu exclaimed.
"Fujimaru and Hyoudou, you both also proved yourselfs on the battlefield. Utilizing whatever you possess to your advantage is a sign of a good Master," Olga praised.
Issei clapped his hand with Ritsuka in a high five, while meeting Artoria's gaze and nodded towards her. He heaved out, eased the tension from his shoulders, relieved that the mission was over —
He heard a clap, echoing around the cave. Issei glanced around to check who was clapping, only to find the group bewildered and on their balls of their feet.
More claps came, allowing Issei to pinpoint it towards the peak. A man, dressed in a green fur coat, kept clapping, but there was no enthusiasm in it.
"My, I never thought you would all get this far. This is an unforeseen element of the project that goes beyond what my tolerance allows."
The commanding and snide tone —- it was familiar to Issei, but he was too burnt out from the earlier fight to focus on that.
"Wait, you're — " Ritsuka gaped.
" — Professor Lev?" Mashu ended.
"Wait, you all said Professor Lev?" Roman asked.
Issei now remembered the man who had called them before the incident in Chaldea.
"Lev! Lev!" Olga called out, blinking back tears but failing. Her tears drenched her smile as she ran towards the Professor, forgetting everything around her. "Thank goodness, you're still alive! Without you, I don't know what I would — "
"Hello Olga. Looks like you had a rough time, too," Lev commented, returning back a smile with no teeth.
"Yes, that's exactly right, Lev! With all of the unexpected events, I thought I would go crazy!" Olga nodded, rubbing away her tears. "But now that you're here, we'll get through it somehow, won't we?"
"Of course. I'm just so furious with all these unexpected events," Lev agreed, turning his scowl towards Ritsuka. "Romani, I thought I told you to come to the control room immediately."
"Lev," Roman muttered.
Lev turned to Olga, shaking his head, and sighed. "And you, Olga. I planted the bomb right under your feet. I can't believe you're still alive."
Olga paused, confusion written over her face. Issei gaped as a part of him hoped Lev was joking — that he had a terrible sense of humor. The other part of him readjusted his grasp on the hilt of Ascalon. If it wasn't a joke, then there was only one alternative.
"Well, not exactly alive. In fact, you're dead," Lev sneered, his canines gleaming. "Your physical body, anyway."
Olga backpedaled, while Issei frowned. He had no idea what Lev was talking about. Olga didn't have any injuries, nor was she even hindered by anything during their ascent to the cave.
"When you were alive, you didn't have the aptitude for Rayshifting. You couldn't make the transfer when you had a body," Lev explained, fingering the rim of his hat, "but you had such an earnest desire for it, you actually obtained the aptitude as you died."
"That's a lie," Olga cried with her legs trembling. She hugged her body, unable to quell her tremors.
"That's why, the moment you all return to Chaldea, your consciousness will cease to exist."
"I will cease," Olga choked, "to exist?"
"But that's too miserable to contemplate," Lev snarked. "You dedicated your life to Chaldea, so the least I can do is show you what's going on."
He raised his hand, and a golden cup erupted from the hilland hovered around his palm. He grasped it, fingers barely able to wrap the stem before it submerged into his hand. A golden hue emanated from his hand before it scurried up his arm and framed his entire body.
Lev snapped his fingers — a visible distortion slashed across the middle of the sky. It split apart, opening wide into a perfect circle, and revealed what appeared to be a room filled with debris. In the middle of the room, a familiar sphere oscillated and bathed them in red light.
"That can't real!" Olga shook her head, glancing back and forth between the sphere and Lev. "That has to be a virtual image, right, Lev?"
"It's the real thing. I linked space-time together for you. You see, with the Holy Grail, even this is possible. So take a good look, scion of the Animusphere family. This is the fate of your family's lunacy," Lev said as he pointed towards Olga.
Golden light similar to the Holy Grail wrapped around Olga's frame as she hovered into the air.
"Director!" Issei and Ritsuka shouted as they rushed after her, but Mashu and Artoria held both of their arms back.
"Don't go!" Mashu pleaded, while Artoria shook her head. Issei couldn't understand why they were refusing to help.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Olga screamed. She kicked her legs and flailed her arms but to no avail.
"As this is the end, I'll make your wish come true. You may touch your treasure." Lev laughed, gesturing towards the globe.
"No, what are you talking about? Please, please stop it! That's CHALDEAS, you know?" Olga whimpered.
"Yes, it's no different than a black hole, or perhaps a sun." Lev shrugged. "Either way, if a human touches it, they will be split apart on a molecular level. You will experience living infinite death."
"No! No, somebody! Somebody help me!" Olga shrieked. Her eyes latched onto Issei's — it was the first time he saw Olga begging. No longer was she the Director, but only just a girl who wanted to live.
A wish that he couldn't fulfill. A failure that tortured his soul. His eyes started stinging, his vision wet and blurry. No longer did he just see Olga — he saw a girl with long blonde hair. She wore a simple black dress, one that could be found on a nun of a church.
Tears were the morning dew in the green meadows of her eyes, but her smile was the rising sun that slowly embraced away the chill.
"Thank you, Issei-san," she whispered. "Thank you for trying so much or someone like me."
His heart hammered against his rib cage, his breathing labored and haggard.
"Why? I haven't accomplished anything yet! All I wanted was — "
" — friends, and you were my first — "
" — for someone to be proud of me! Lev! Roman! Father — "
" — I'm glad to have met you."
The moment Olga collided with CHALDEAS, a sickening sizzle crackled throughout the cave. Her screams lingered within his ears, long after it died off as the flames swallowed her, fraying and scourging away her skin, muscles, and her bones.
She was no more.
"No! Olga!" Ritsuka sobbed, falling to her knees and hands; tears had painted her cheeks with a gloss thick enough to reflect the burning light of CHALDEAS.
"Damn it all!" Issei snarled, cursing himself. He grinded his teeth hard enough to pollute his mouth with iron.. He welcomed the pain — any punishment was welcomed — but as much as he judged himself, it wouldn't change anything.
He failed them.
"Master, I understand your anger, but calm yourself! We cannot confront this being here," Artoria said.
"That's right, he's too dangerous, Issei-senpai!" Mashu ran forward and grounded her shield in front of them.
"As expected of the Servant and Demi-Servant. You can both tell that I am a fundamentally different creature, couldn't you?" Lev clapped again.
Issei wanted to calm down, but it was so hard when the blood pounded his head. He wanted to wipe away that smirk off of Lev's face, wanted Lev to feel the same feeling of helplessness, wanted him to suffer unending pain just as they did!
But he knew he can't afford to be reckless against someone that Artoria and Mashu were apprehensive about. It frustrated him, crushed him. In the end, it just meant he was too weak.
Too weak to save someone when the time mattered.
"The 48th Master and the unknown 49th Master. I had turned a blind eye to both of you because I had thought you both held no promise. Why do humans always want to avoid the course of fate that is chosen for them?" Lev sighed before brushing his clothes and bowed. "Then I will introduce myself once more. I am Lev Lainur Flauros. I am the charge of 2016, tasked to dispose of your human race. Are you listening, Doctor Roman?"
"Lev!" Roman's disgust buzzed through.
"As fellow students who studied magic together, I will give you one final advice. The future has not disappeared. It's been incinerated. Chaldea is probably protected by the magnetic field of CHALDEAS, but I'm sure the outside world is facing the same fate as Fuyuki."
"Then the reason we aren't able to make contact with the outside isn't because the communications are down, but because there's no one outside to receive them," Roman concluded.
"You will not perish from being a dead end evolution, nor will you not be destroyed after engaging in a war with different races. Rather, your own meaningless and incompetence will be your end! You have lost the favor of our king, and thus you will burn away like useless trash!" Lev shouted, eyes judging them as he clenched his fist.
Despair pummeled Issei and held his insides hostage. Fuyuki disturbed him: it was desolate and broken, with only undead and fire living in its domains. If the rest of the world was also like this, then what could he do? What could they do? Never had the gravity of their mission felt so suffocating.
But something had anchored him from losing himself — Artoria hadn't let go of his arm. He found solace in her eyes; the grim news did little to dampen their guidance. He heaved away the shackles of fear and looked forward. Nothing was set in stone yet, they still had a chance to make things right.
The earth trembled, and they all struggled to maintain their footing.
"An earthquake?" Ritsuka asked, raising both of her arms for balance.
Mashu shook her head. "No, this is something else."
Rocks fell from the top of the cave while the ground was torn asunder from the shaking.
"This Singularity has also reached its limit, eh?" noted Lev, turning his back on them. "The accursed Saber caused me unnecessary trouble, trying to maintain this time period even while being awarded the Holy Grail."
"My other self," Artoria murmured; her hand placed across her chest.
"And so, farewell, Romani, Mash, Saber and the two Masters."
The portal to CHALDEAS closed while Lev faded into thin air, leaving them to deal with the falling debris and cracks in the earth.
"The cave is collapsing! No, the very space of this Singularity is," Mashu said, covering them from falling rubble with her shield.
Ritsuka brought her communicator towards her mouth. "Doctor, it's time to Rayshift us all back!"
"I got it! However, I'm sorry! It might collapse around you first! Anyway, if —- " Roman exclaimed, but communications got cut off.
"Doctor!" Ritsuka shouted. She shook her head at the dimming light of her communicator.
The ground they were all standing upon cracked open and launched all of them into the air.
"Everyone!" Issei yelled, trying to reach for their hands. He managed to grab onto Ritsuka and Artoria, while Ritsuka grabbed onto Mashu — then, everything turned black, and he knew no more.
Issei snapped his eyes opened as he tried to grab into thin air. He found himself staring at his hand, tracing the red lines of the tattoo that denoted him as a Master.
He realized he was in Chaldea's infirmary. He wasn't sure if it was a good thing that he kept waking here. Warm bedding and soft pillows did nothing to comfort him. They had won the Singularity, but they had lost someone important to them. He clenched his hand, nails biting into his palm as he rocked on his forehead with his knuckles.
Issei glanced around and saw Fou sitting on a chair. He flapped his fluffy ears, tilting his head, and gazed into Issei's eyes. The thought of this small little animal looking over him tugged at his lips slightly. Fou jumped over the chair and scurried towards the door andpaused to stare as if he wanted something from Issei.
Issei got to his feet, noticing a white jacket on the chair. It was similar to what Ritsuka had worn. He glanced down and noticed that he was wearing a clean black shirt and pants. He slid off his bed and reached for the jacket until he caught his reflection from a mirror.
It was strange to see himself for the first time since he woke up with amnesia. He wasn't sure if the person he saw now was the same person before he came to Chaldea.
Who even was he now?
He rushed after Fou, unable or perhaps unwilling to answer that question.
There was no one in the halls, but he kept trailing behind Fou. Fou lead him down a familiar path. Once the doors opened, he realized it was the destroyed room. Fou skipped through the debris before stopping at Mashu's feet.
"Fou? What's wrong?" She kneeled down, petting his head.
"Mashu." Issei paused as he took in Mashu's appearance: she was no longer wearing armor nor carrying her shield and was instead in a simple, black dress and jacket. He mused to himself on why she would need to wear glasses though.
"Ah, good morning, Issei-senpai!" Mashu stood up, carrying Fou in her arms..
"Issei's up?" Ritsuka called out as she stepped from behind a broken girder.
"Good morning as well, Master." Artoria followed behind Ritsuka. She brushed dirt from the hem of her blue and white dress.
Everyone was here. They were safe. He smiled through the urge to cry. "Good morning everyone."
"Looks like we're all assembled then," Roman said as he stood up from where he was sitting. "Congratulations and thank you to you both, Ritsuka Fujimaru and Issei Hyoudou. Without your efforts, Chaldea would've been destroyed."
"But," Ritsuka swallowed, "what about the Director?"
"Unfortunately, nothing can be done." Roman shook his head, closing his eyes. "Because of your actions, the Fuyuki Singularity has disappeared. However — "
Roman pointed to CHALDEAS. The model of Earth was still burning red, except now there were seven bright lights around the globe.
"Seven new singularities have been discovered. They're space-time disturbances that Fuyuki can't even compare to. We will have to Rayshift to each of these singularities to resolve them and return history back from to normal. That's the only way we can save the human race and the future."
Roman walked towards the remains of a pod-like structure and laid his hand upon it. "Aside from you two, all the other Masters are left in cryogenic preservation until they can be healed. Mashu and Artoria are the only Servants we have. Under these circumstances, I — no, we have no choice."
Roman inhaled as he faced Issei and Ritsuka. "The 48th Master Ritsuka Fujimaru and 49th Master Issei Hyoudou. Are you and your Servants prepared to shoulder the responsibility of humanity's future?"
Issei glanced at Risuka, gazing into her eyes. They were swollen from tears but bright with resolve. Both of them already knew the answer.
"Together, we'll fight for it. The future is ours to take back!"
"And so it will be! This is the Grand Order!" Roman declared. "Under the directions of our late Director Olgamarie Animusphere, we will preserve humanity!"
"Welcome to Chaldea, Issei!' Ritsuka smiled, and for once, Issei felt he was home.
"It has begun."
"It is about to start."
"It is as it has always been."
"Indeed. It has always been this way."
"What the World desires…"
"What the World rejects…"
"...has always been power."
"...has always been love."
"No matter the era, you always choose the path that leads to Ruin!"