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."