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walking in babylon

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For three days after the war ends, Waver Velvet does little other than play video games.

 

Choose a starting point for your campaign, the game says, presenting a colourful, richly-detailed map of the ancient world. He could be many things – a Chinese emperor or an Indian king, a Persian strategist or a Spartan warrior – and yet he finds his cursor hovering inexplicably over Macedon, like it was meant to be. Like some invisible presence was guiding his hand, urging him down this particular path.

 

He is a young general, the game tells him. Half the age of many of the seasoned veterans he commands. He is charismatic and intelligent and brimming with youthful enthusiasm, eager to hold the world in the palm of his hand. At times he can be cruel and selfish, indulging in his own whims and fancies without a second thought, but are these not traits one expects of a king? Perhaps he is idealistic and foolhardy and arrogant, but perhaps these are also his strong points, for there has never been a man like him before and never will there be again.

 

Waver leads his army away from Macedon, down the coast to Egypt. He is welcomed there as its rightful ruler, and builds a city by the sea that will one day be the center of civilization. He visits a sacred place and is told that he is a child of the gods – that the world is his for the taking, if only he should reach out and claim it.

 

And reach out he does.

 

He fights battle after battle. He conquers city after city, leaving a gradually expanding empire in his wake. He crosses deserts and mountains and rivers, losing men along the way but never stopping, never ceasing, always moving forward towards the endless ocean that haunts his dreams. He defeats his greatest foe for the second time at Gaugamela and takes his place as Ruler of Persia. He visits the opulent city of Babylon, where he walks through the hanging gardens and sleeps in the grand palace of Nebuchadnezzar and watches the dancing women all bedecked with gold.

 

But as time marches onward, his men begin to grow weary. Have they not already accomplished what they came to do? Little by little this conquest has lost its purpose, becoming instead the vain pursuit of one man’s glory. Why do they still continue to fight? So many have lost their lives – perhaps they too will never see their homes again.

 

And so the seeds of dissent begin to take root, and the battles are no longer so easily won, and after a terrible injury and the death of his greatest friend Waver finds himself at an impasse. He opens his map and counts the miles that he’s travelled, down the coast of the Mediterranean, across Egypt and back again, meandering through the sandy plateaus and rocky hills of what is now the Middle East, all the way down to India. The ocean is so close. Just a little bit farther and he’ll be there, and he’ll sail home on the waters of Okeanos, which flow eternally around the world. He’ll go home and rule his empire for many long years and be remembered as the King of Kings instead of just a Conqueror.

 

But Waver knows how this story really ends.

 

He turns around; goes back to Babylon where his death awaits him. And as the words ‘GAME OVER’ scroll across the screen, Waver throws the controller against the wall, frustration making his throat tighten and his eyes prickle hotly.

 

It’s just not fair, he thinks, with a childlike conviction. It shouldn’t have ended this way.

 

(And maybe, just maybe… it doesn’t have to.)

 

--

 

--

 

He travels.

 

The Mackenzies try to give him money and he refuses them gently – says that his dear old uncle Gregory is depositing funds into his bank account as they speak.

 

This, of course, is a lie. All of his immediate family members are either estranged or long gone from this world. He ends up “persuading” a rich businessman in Kyoto to fork over his credit card and PIN, then withdraws as much cash as the nearby ATM will allow and hops the next boat to China.

 

Unsurprisingly, China is not to his liking. The cities are grimy and crowded and thick with smog, the countryside is a wasteland of endless fields and ramshackle villages, and the little Chinese Waver knows seems to have deserted him the moment he stepped off the boat. He stumbles over the simplest of phrases and often resorts to crude hand gestures in the end, looking like a damn fool as he tries to ask a confused old woman for directions. There’s supposed to be a renowned Mage’s Library somewhere in the greater Shenyang area, but the place is a veritable labyrinth. And the simple Dowsing Charm he performs is utterly ineffective, thrown off by some kind of strange magnetic force that thrums like a pulse beneath the city streets.

 

Eventually, Waver gives up. Some things, he thinks with barely concealed relief, are just not meant to be. He leaves Shenyang (and China in its entirety) behind with barely a backwards glance, taking a succession of rickety taxis north to the Russian border.

 

Russia is much too cold for his taste, and his knowledge of the language is practically nonexistent, but he’s heard tales of a man – a former mage from the Sea of Estray gone rogue, taking many of their dark secrets with him. They say he’s been a vagrant ever since, wandering the expanse of Russia and the Ukraine for more than two decades now. They say whoever finds him receives a certain kind of knowledge, the kind of knowledge that no man should ever rightfully possess. (According to the Mage’s Association, that is, Waver thinks with a sneer.)

 

And so he searches. He searches every dank alleyway in the big cities, every run-down motel along the side of the road, every quiet snow-shrouded town. One month fades into three, and three into six, and six into a year, and still he keeps looking, resolute now that this idea – this obsession – has overtaken his mind. The man he seeks may be more myth than reality, but Waver cannot give up now. He has already come too far.

 

And then one day he wakes to find an envelope pushed under the door of his seedy hotel room. He opens it cautiously but finds only a single piece of paper inside; a letter written in English, typewriter ink smudged slightly around the edges.

 

To Waver Velvet, whose determination is admirable –

 

You did not see me at Manezhnaya Square yesterday, but I saw you. And I know what it is you seek. I peered into your mind and glimpsed it, you see. For a mage your thoughts are not very well-protected.

 

You wish to know more about Servants, do you not? About how a Summoning works at its most base level. About the Great Grail and how it acts as a catalyst, allowing the Summoning to take place. And also… how these parameters can be constructed outside of the Holy Grail War.

 

These are things they would never dare teach you at Clock Tower – things they would rather keep hidden, for avaricious purposes certainly but also for the sake of the world as a whole. For in the end the dead should remain dead, don’t you think? To help keep a certain balance in place.

 

That is what you hope to do, isn’t it, Waver? To summon a Servant not just for a few weeks or months, but for years. For the rest of your mortal life, if all goes as planned. I cannot say that I fully support this idea of yours. There are far too many variables involved in such an undertaking, and far too much risk. But… I cannot deny my own curiosity, in the unlikely event of your success.

 

And so I will tell you a secret that few know. On the outskirts of Curitiba, Brazil there is an abandoned research facility once used by the Department of Spiritual Evocation. About twenty years ago there was an… incident, so to speak, and the facility fell out of use – the higher-ups put some Concealing Charms and Wards on the place to keep it safe until it was deemed fit for reestablishment. But at some point it was simply forgotten, as things tend to be amidst the bureaucratic nightmare that is Clock Tower, and now it is empty save for a few interesting bits of research that were left behind. Having been to the facility myself I can assure you that several reports and files concerning the Great Grail and the summoning of Servants still remain. Certainly I could relay some key points to you in this letter, but I believe these are documents you need to see for yourself.

 

Good fortune to you, Waver Velvet. It is rare that I find a mage with motives so pure. (Selfish, surely, but pure all the same.) It may take many years, and there may be suffering and pain, but I believe in the end you will succeed. If ever again you seek knowledge that seems unattainable, know that you have an ally lurking in the shadows. If ever again you need me… I will be there.

 

The letter ends without a signature. Instead, there is a small symbol drawn at the bottom in painstaking detail – a tree within a circle. The Tree of Life.

 

Waver reads the letter again and once more after that, memorizing each word carefully, then snaps his fingers and watches as the paper is set aflame, blackening and curling in upon itself until there is nothing left but ash.

 

--

 

--

 

Where Russia was far too cold, Brazil is sweltering, a damp heat that settles down upon him like a second skin. He steps out on to the streets of Rio de Janeiro and knows immediately that he is far away from home, farther perhaps than he has ever been before. The air feels different here – more alive, somehow, undercut with the faintest tang of sea salt. Waver stares at the bright blue ribbon of ocean in the distance and decides then and there that he likes Brazil.

 

Perhaps they’ll come back here together, once everything’s said and done.

 

(Waver imagines that massive, imposing figure pushing his way through the throng, that thunderous voice booming over the roar of the crowd, and winces preemptively. A calm, low-profile vacation it would not be.)

 

As much as he would love to explore Rio de Janeiro, his impatience and desire for answers are far stronger still. He consults the map he picked up in the airport lobby and heads straight for the nearest bus terminal.

 

“When is the next bus to Sao Paulo?” he asks the woman at the counter, surprising himself with somewhat shoddy pronunciation but otherwise perfect Portuguese. It’s been several years since his last lesson in the Romance languages, but somehow he’s managed to retain a good deal.

 

“You’re in luck, senhor!” she says, and smiles sunnily. “The next one leaves within the hour. And there are still seats available, if you’d like to purchase a ticket!”

 

“In luck, eh?” he murmurs, and slides his money across the counter.

 

--

 

As he waits for the bus, he notices a boy staring in his direction. The kid looks a few years younger than him – sixteen maybe – with a friendly face and an unruly mop of curly hair.

 

“Hey man,” the boy says, grinning amiably. “What’s that language on your shirt? Chinese?”

 

Waver glances down. He had changed into a t-shirt hurriedly in the airport bathroom, paying little attention as he did so, and now he shakes his head at his subconscious choice. His “Admiral’s Great Tactics” shirt isn’t even a year old, but already it is beginning to show signs of wear and tear, fraying slightly on one sleeve, the logo’s colours looking faded and washed out.

 

“Japanese,” he replies. “It’s the name of a video game series.”

 

The kid’s eyes light up, and he slides into the seat next to Waver like they’re friends instead of strangers. “Oh, cool! I love video games, man. My cousin has one of those Sega Saturns, right, with like… every game imaginable. It’s ridiculous. You ever play Street Fighter?? That’s my all-time favorite right there.”

 

“No,” Waver says, and can’t help but smile at the kid’s eager rambling. “But… I think I’d like to try it.”

 

--

 

The boy’s name is Marcelo, and he’s a bit of a talker. Waver nods and makes noises of assent where required as Marcelo regales him with his life story – “hilarious” facts about his friends and family, what he did last weekend, what he’s planning to do next weekend, and everything else in between. It’s not wholly unpleasant, though. The bus is crowded and shaky and permeated with the stale smell of cigarette smoke, so Marcelo’s long-winded anecdotes are in many ways a welcome distraction.

 

Eventually, though, even he falls quiet, instead opting to stare out the window at the scenery passing by. Billboards and warehouses and shopping malls flash past, occasionally replaced by rolling green hills and quaint farmland. Little by little Waver can feel jetlag creeping up on him, his eyes threatening to close despite the less-than-stellar sleeping accommodations. He doesn’t like resting in public – doesn’t like letting his guard down so blatantly. And yet…

 

“Hey,” Marcelo says suddenly, as they pass a sign signaling their imminent arrival. “Why are you headed to Sao Paulo?”

 

“I’m not.” Waver yawns and shrugs off his drowsiness to the best of his ability. “Sao Paulo is just a stop along the way. I’m going to Curitiba, actually. I’m looking for information, very important information, and someone told me I could find it there.”

 

“… Woah.” Marcelo is staring at him, wide-eyed. “That sounds intense, man. I’m just going to visit my grandpa, y’know? But you… It’s sounds like you’ve got some crazy shit going on.”

 

Waver laughs wryly and rubs a tired hand across his face.

 

“You don’t know the half of it.”

 

--

 

It’s the middle of the night when the bus finally rolls into Curitiba. A faint mist blankets the city, obscuring the buildings in the distance and swirling eerily around Waver’s ankles. He feels a shiver travel up his spine. Something is definitely here. Something secret and ancient, a presence that lingers unseen in the dark corners of his mind. Truly, this must have been the perfect place for researching Evocation. (Or perhaps the worst, he thinks, remembering the letter’s mention of a nameless “incident.”)

 

He performs a Dowsing Charm much like the one he used in Shenyang, and is unsurprised to feel the pull of multiple magical traces. But the signature he is looking for – austere and clinical, like everything related to Clock Tower – is easy enough to detect, despite being worn thin by time. It reverberates back to him from the southwest side of town, and Waver turns in that direction, peering warily into the fog. He takes a deep breath, pushing aside the sense of foreboding that crawls across his skin.

 

“Well,” he says aloud, “I’ve come this far, haven’t I?”

 

The empty echo of his voice in the darkness does little to reassure him.

 

--

 

The place is disguised as an abandoned house – cracked stone walkway with weeds encroaching in a mad tangle, rusty wrought-iron fence with the gate swinging off its hinges, boarded-up windows and a sign reading “CONDENADO” hanging on the door. And as Waver reaches out with his mind and peels away the first layer of concealing magic, he finds that the real facility looks little different. It is a squat, square-shaped building, undoubtedly white once upon a time but turned a grimy shade of beige from years of exposure to the elements. The windows are all shattered, gaping like empty eye sockets, and numerous climbing plants have snaked their way up the walls. Waver steels himself before pushing at the door and slipping inside, telling himself that this is a conquest (and a true conqueror never looks back).

 

The inside is rather barren, with only a few empty desks and papers strewn haphazard across the floor. His footsteps are muffled by a thick layer of dust, but the old wooden floorboards still creak and groan like a dying animal from even the slightest touch, and Waver can’t help but feel like he’s disturbing someone’s grave. In a room in the back there is a summoning circle drawn on the ground in what looks like blood, and Waver bends down to examine it, sweeping away dust and debris with a flick of his wrist. In the center is a symbol he’s never seen used in Evocation before. He moves around to observe it from the other side, and his eyes widen in recognition. The Tree of Life. The symbol seems to be following him, showing up where he least expects it. Taking a notebook and pencil from his bag, Waver sketches the summoning circle in as much detail as possible. Perhaps this is the key, he thinks, but knows that this is merely wishful thinking. It cannot possibly be so simple.

 

The room next door was undoubtedly the library, once upon a time. Waver wanders between the bookshelves, frowning at the sparse collection, until one particular tome catches his eye. It has no title, and a blank cover, and by flipping through it Waver sees that it is actually a research journal, handwritten in neat, precise script. The pages are brittle and yellowed with age and the binding slowly disintegrating; he guesses it must be fifty years old, if not older. He turns each page with cautious delicacy, skimming over the entries until he finds one that seems rather promising.

 

September 2nd, 1939

 

Fourth day of observation, first day of recording my findings. Should have begun documentation sooner; I hope my final report will not be affected by this oversight.

 

Today I was alone with it for the first time. There is something unsettling about the thing – an oppressive feeling whenever I step too close. Its power presses down upon me like a weight, forcing the breath from my lungs. And yet… there is also a sense of wonder. Around it, my mind feels open and clear, and my thoughts flow more freely. Often I can hear voices whispering in my ear, but they are not words in any language known to me, and I am versed in every tongue spoken on this earth. When I stand near it and close my eyes I see things that I cannot rightly explain: colors beyond human description, images that cannot be translated into words, intangible concepts given shape and form. A glimpse, I believe, of what it has to offer us.

 

The Root of all knowledge. That is what we will gain access to, should one of our own be the victor in this Third Holy Grail War. It is what I desire above all else, and I hope

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Waver mutters, and rolls his eyes. This guy sounds just like the blowhards in the Evoker’s Circle back home. “C’mon, tell me something I don’t know.” He continues to flip through the pages, skimming over seemingly endless rambling and several pointless diagrams, until:

 

September 10th, 1939

 

Twelfth day of observation. Today the fifth Master summoned his Servant – Assassin, I am told, though that information is of little consequence to me. I was in the room with it when it happened.

 

It was frightening, to say the least. The power it exuded was almost too much for me to bear. And the longer I stayed near it the more I began to sense that something was not quite right. I felt… weak. Tired. Like parts of myself were being worn away, drawn into the Grail to feed some terrible, desperate hunger. Needless to say I exited the room posthaste, but the bone-deep exhaustion still lingered for many hours after.

 

I have a hypothesis concerning these events, one that may give us a better understanding of how the Great Grail works, but will have to wait for the next Summoning in order to test it. In the meantime I was able to confirm many of my rough calculations from yesterday’s data-gathering session

 

Waver’s eyes narrow as he stares at the page. The foreboding he had felt earlier suddenly returns with full force, sinking its claws deep into his heart and refusing to let go. With his fingers trembling ever so slightly, he turns to the next entry and begins to read.

 

September 13th, 1939

 

Fifteenth day of observation. The sixth Master summoned their Servant today – hurried to set my experiment in motion as soon as I recognized the signs. Asked the new lab assistant Jeremy to stand next to it for as long as he possibly could; locked the door behind him for good measure. After a few minutes he began to show visible signs of weariness and asked to be let out. By the ten minute mark he was unable to stand; tried crawling to the door on hands and knees but was, of course, unable to open it. Was panicked and pleading with me to let him out at this time. Claimed that he could feel his pulse slowing more and more with each passing minute, interestingly enough. I assume there may have also been noticeable organ failure.

 

By the fifteen minute mark he was unquestionably dead. And by the time the Grail quieted and I entered the room, his corpse was just about mummified, as if he had been dead for a hundred years instead of a few minutes. Truly fascinating, I must say.

 

My hypothesis, it seems, was correct. The Great Grail uses none other than pure life energy to give form and substance to those long dead. Undoubtedly the majority of this life energy is drawn from other, lesser souls who also reside within the Root. But when given the opportunity, the Grail will gladly drain this energy from those still living.

 

For quite some time now I have wondered – could it be possible to summon a Servant without the assistance of the Great Grail? And I know now that the answer is yes. One question still remains, however:

 

How many lives would it take?

 

Waver stands there for a long moment, reading these words again and again until they are burnt, red-hot and searing, into the backs of his eyes. And then, suddenly, he snaps the journal shut. He puts it in his bag and leaves the library. He exits the old building and slips through the broken gate. He walks until he rounds a bend in the road, walks until he’s back in the city, walks until he’s back at the bus stop and the birds are singing and the sun is reaching its way over the distant hills, tingeing the horizon a faint reddish-orange.

 

Waver sits down on the bench and puts his head in his hands, feeling something akin to a scream threatening to force its way up from his lungs.

 

(So close to Okeanos, he thinks, and now there’s nothing left to do but turn around.)

 

--

 

--

 

Waver goes home.

 

A part of him expects everything to have changed in his absence, but London still looks very much the same as when he left it – rain-washed and bustling beneath a flat grey sky. Everyday life, it seems, has soldiered on well enough without him, and Waver hopes the same can be said for Clock Tower. It’s been more than a year since he stole Rider’s relic and fled for Japan. More than enough time for the higher-ups to forget about me, he thinks (though his inner pessimist merely shakes its head). He’ll go back to classes and keep his head down, and for a while his peers will whisper and his professors will give him hell. But eventually they’ll all forget, as people are wont to do, and he’ll become little more than a story told to wide-eyed first years: the student who sabotaged the great Lord El-Melloi and survived the Fourth Holy Grail War. Yes, Waver quite likes the sound of that.

 

He catches a taxi to the Museum, which is thronging with tourists and out-of-towners on this gloomy Sunday. He heads around to the side of the building and slips through the other, lesser-used door, in no mood to put his suitcase through the security check. There’s a rickety old elevator at the end of the hall with an “Out of Use” sign hanging from the grate, but Waver disregards it and steps inside. He opens up a panel on the wall and punches in the proper code, crossing his fingers that it’s not completely out-of-date by now.

 

A tired, nasally voice crackles to life on the speaker overhead.

 

“State your name and business.”

 

“Waver Velvet,” he announces. “Student in the Evoker’s Circle.”

 

There is a long pause.

 

“… Waver Velvet? Are you sure?”

 

Waver massages his temples. He can feel a headache coming on, and he’s not even in the damn place yet.

 

“Yes, I’m sure,” he snaps. “I think I know myself better than you do, at the very least!”

 

“Well I’ll be damned,” the voice says, sounding rather contemplative. “We all thought you were dead.”

 

“Yeah, well, I’m not,” Waver sighs. “Can you just let me down please?”

 

“Certainly.” The lift gives a sudden jolt, and Waver reaches out to grab the conveniently-placed handrail as it starts its slow descent. “But let me warn you now, lad: If you’re hoping to slip under the radar unnoticed, you’re a bigger fool than I thought. They’ll have seen you coming. And mark my words… They’ll have some choice words for you. Some choice words indeed.”

 

The voice laughs eerily and vanishes with a hiss of static, leaving Waver in silence.

 

Fabulous,” he mutters, his spirits sinking lower and lower as the lift travels farther and farther down into the earth.

 

When, finally, it grinds to a screeching halt, Waver steps out and finds himself face to face with a hulking man wearing a finely-tailored suit, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses.

 

“Waver Velvet?” he asks.

 

Waver is almost tempted to say “no” and make a break for it. But nothing is ever gained by cowardice, says a suspiciously Rider-like voice in his head, so he lifts up his chin in a display of bravado so false it’s almost laughable.

 

“Yes, that’s me.”

 

“I’d very much like it if you accompanied me,” the man says, and his tone of voice is enough to assure Waver that it is not by any means a request.

 

--

 

He’s not sure what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.

 

He’s in one of the residential homes of Clock Tower, opulent and lavish, with plush carpets beneath his feet and gold-framed portraits on the wall and a chandelier hanging up above, each crystal refracting the light many times over. The man in the suit leads him through the mansion, one hand clasping his shoulder like a vice. They climb a spiraling marble staircase, pass through an austere dining hall, and walk down a long corridor lined with floor-length mirrors. The sumptuously-decorated rooms begin to blur together in Waver’s mind until finally they reach the one that must be their destination; he is pushed inside and the door is slammed unceremoniously behind him.

 

“So this is the infamous Waver Velvet,” a voice says. He glances up to see a young girl, probably no older than eleven, sitting on a nearby chaise with a cup of tea balanced in her hand. She looks a bit like a porcelain doll, face powder-white, hair the colour of cornsilk, wearing a prim, formal dress inlaid with lace.

 

“Not much to look at, are you?” She purses her lips and gives Waver a distasteful once-over. “Hard to believe that you’re the one who set us on the path to ruin. Kayneth was even more of a vain idiot than I thought, to be outdone by such a shabby excuse for a Mage.”

 

“… Excuse me?” Waver can feel his fists clenching reflexively. He knows that getting angry is probably not the best idea right now, but he’s not a fan of being insulted by uppity children. “And who are you supposed to be?”

 

“Hmph. I am Leonna, Tenth Head of the Archibald family, obviously.” She examines her fingernails as if she were already bored by his presence. “I would be offended by your ignorance, but I suppose one such as yourself would not be familiar with us of Old Blood… Now come, Waver Velvet. Sit. We have matters of reparation to discuss.”

 

“Reparation?”

 

“Why yes,” Leonna says. “The Archibald family’s current predicament is all because of you, after all. Kayneth, despite his rather obvious flaws, was the strongest among us and our representative in the Council of Lords. Now he is dead, and our Thaumaturgical Crest is gone along with him. You must understand that we are an old, powerful family, and we still possess many secrets and magecraft passed down through the generations. But the losses of Kayneth and his Crest have taken a terrible toll on our standing. And now – ”

 

“All because of me?” Waver echoes, bewilderment tingeing his voice. “But I… I didn’t kill Kayneth! Emiya Kiritsugu, he – ”

 

Leonna waves her hand dismissively. “Yes, yes. But it is the belief of the First Head that Kayneth would have returned from the war, maybe even successfully, if he had had Rider by his side. Personally I rather doubt it. Kayneth was a fool with an ego to boot, prone to underestimating his enemies. But who am I to question the First Head’s reasoning?”

 

Waver slumps back against the seat, feeling a sudden weariness deep in his bones.

 

“So what now?” he asks.

 

Leonna smiles in a way that does nothing to reassure him.

 

“If you came back here with the intention of returning to your studies… Forget it,” she says. “You are in the service of the Archibald family now. And you will work for us for as long as we see fit, performing whatever tasks we assign you without question or complaint. Is this clear?”

 

She snaps her fingers and a document appears on the table in front of him – a contract, written in elegant, flowery language that does little to disguise its true purpose.

 

“I’d read the fine print if I were you,” Leonna says, and takes a dainty sip of her tea.

 

--

 

--

 

Time passes quickly when one’s days are not their own.

 

That is what Waver thinks one late afternoon, when he leaves the confines of Clock Tower to find leaves on the trees and a slight, pleasant warmth in the air. It’s April, he realizes with a shock. It was October when he arrived. Somehow he’s managed to miss winter entirely, and he frowns, perplexed, trying to recall where the time went. He’s spent so many hours hunched over old tomes and scrolls, scribbling down notes until the words blurred together on the page, and now it’s all melded together seamlessly in his memory. (Like it had all been one very long night.)

 

His work for the Archibalds has been mostly research-based thus far, scouring ancient texts for loopholes and ambiguities and anything that would allow them to use the system to their advantage, working their way back up the complex hierarchy of power. He’s beginning to feel more like a lawyer than a mage, his head swimming with doctrines and clauses and words, words, words, pouring over him like an avalanche. It’s disconcerting, for one whose mind is usually preoccupied with equations and ratios.

 

He could leave right now – go to the airport and get on a plane and fly somewhere, anywhere he wants. Back to Japan. Back to Brazil. Someplace entirely new, where no one would ever come looking. And yet something is telling him that this – this ridiculous “penance” – will be worth it in the end.

 

And so he stays. He sleeps very little. He uses charms to keep himself alert and his mind sharp. He takes the Clock Tower Library apart book by book, page by page, and after that he delves even further, into the private collections of the elite and the depths of the Archives. And in the blink of an eye it’s October again, and he’s sitting once more in that elegant room with Leonna Archibald right across the table, only this time she’s smiling for real.

 

“You’ve done remarkably,” she says. “Your skills as a mage may be dubious, but as a researcher, Waver, you are unrivaled. You really have gone above and beyond my expectations.”

 

She tilts her head to the side and stirs her tea thoughtfully.

 

“You know, we’ve been searching for some time now. For someone to take the place of Kayneth as Lord El-Melloi. The Archibald family is moving up again, thanks to you, and soon enough, I expect, we will be invited back into the Council of Lords. But who would be suitable? The majority of the Archibalds have important roles out in the Mundane World, and no time to dedicate to the complexities of Lordship. The rest are too old and set in their ways. Or, in the case of myself… deemed too young for such responsibility.” Here, Leonna scowls, grip tightening on her teacup.

 

“And so I wonder if I might have to look outside the family for a candidate.”

 

She stares at him pointedly, and Waver almost laughs out loud.

 

So this is what he stayed for.

 

--

 

--

 

Grudgingly, they offer him a teaching position, probably in a last-ditch attempt to keep him occupied. Lord Sophia-Ri’s secretary slides the contract across the table and Waver signs “Lord El-Melloi II” with a flourish, unable to keep his gleeful smile in check.

 

(It hits him suddenly that this is it. His wish – the one he would have sacrificed everything for – has come true. His cheeks burn in shame just remembering it, and he rubs at his forehead, feeling a sting of phantom pain.)

 

He’s given his own office, a cramped little storage closet with a draft and a mouse problem that he loves all the same, covering the walls with ancient maps and the shelves with his favorite mystery novels.

 

His coworkers invite him out drinking with them one evening.

 

“Never liked Kayneth much,” Professor Lorne says after a pint. “Had myself a good laugh when you swiped his relic, to be honest. Served him right, the haughty bastard.”

 

One afternoon he hears a group of students walking through the halls, debating one of the questions he had raised in class the previous day, and feels a strange giddiness spread from his heart all the way down to his fingertips.

 

And thanks to a steady paycheck, he manages to rent a small apartment a few blocks away from the museum. He stands in the middle of the room – his room, not a dorm or a motel or the room of some person he’s pretending to be. And he thinks that this should be perfect. He has respect and admiration and a place to call his own, things that three years ago he could only dream of. He has everything he ever wanted, but can’t help but feel like there’s something missing. An empty space where something (or someone) should be. A piece of the puzzle that he lost along the way.

 

Waver glances over at his desk, where the journal and his notes lay, gathering dust.

 

That, he thinks, is a very large puzzle piece indeed.

 

--

 

--

 

Years pass.

 

Waver wonders if it’s normal, to feel happy and yet… adrift, somehow. Stranded at sea with nothing but the empty ocean all around him, waiting and waiting for something to disturb the calm.

 

He takes up smoking cigars. He lets his hair grow out. He buys a new Admiral’s Great Tactics shirt to replace his old one after it begins to unravel at the seams. He gets a new office and switches up his lesson plans and redecorates his apartment but still he feels the same, and knows that there is only one thing in this world that will satisfy him wholly and completely. There has to be an alternative to what the journal describes. There has to be another way. But no matter where he looks, it seems, the answers he seeks are always just beyond his grasp.

 

The Fifth Holy Grail War takes them all by surprise.

 

It’s too soon, people whisper. Ten years? Something must be changing, inside the Grail or deep down in the Root.

 

The part of him that is petty and jealous keeps hoping to wake up and see that sigil emblazoned on his hand once more. It’s unheard of, he knows, for someone to be chosen twice. But if the Grail is changing, then maybe, just maybe, the unspoken rules can be bent as well.

 

It is only when he hears the news that this foolish hope finally begins to fade:

 

The Great Grail is gone. Destroyed by a virtual unknown – one Emiya Shirou – and Waver knows he should feel glad that the Wars are over, that no misled child will ever again put their life on the line for a thoughtless wish, but instead he merely feels empty. Without the Great Grail there is only the journal, its pages staring up at him accusingly, words sinking into his skin like poison.

 

This is the end, he thinks.

 

He has failed his King.

 

--

 

--

 

He arrives at work one day to find a new name on his class roster.

 

Tohsaka Rin.

 

Waver inhales sharply. Master in the recent Holy Grail War, well-known for her skill in power transference and reinforcement sorcery, daughter of Tohsaka Tokiomi… And she will be learning from him. Waver leans back in his chair and takes a contemplative puff of his cigar. She’s not even part of his department – her file suggests that she’s in the Mineralogy dorms – but she’s been granted access to extra classes due to “outstanding academic potential.”

 

For the first time in several months he finds himself smiling.

 

This could be very, very interesting.

 

--

 

The moment Rin interrupts him in the middle of a lecture, Waver knows they’re going to get along swimmingly.

 

“But Professor,” she says, “you’ve failed to take environmental factors into account. As far as variables go, I believe it’s one that cannot be ignored. In the case of performing a summoning on Spiritual Land, the amount of prana required for materialization would be reduced almost tenfold, if not more. And the make-up of the Spiritual Landscape is constantly changing, which adds even more of a margin of error to your equation.”

 

Waver stares at her for a long moment, then turns around to examine his work. The glaring mistake in his calculations jumps out at him immediately, and he blinks, wondering how that managed to slip past him.

 

“You’re absolutely right, Miss Tohsaka,” he admits. “Serves me right for planning lessons at five in the morning, eh?”

 

There is a smattering of laughter from around the room, but Waver is still watching Rin. He’s been corrected by students before, but they’ve always worn such smug expressions afterward (the kind he had worn once upon a time, having gotten the best of the great Lord Kayneth). But Rin merely takes her seat and resumes her note-taking, a slight, genuine smile on her lips.

 

She is different, he thinks, because she too has fought with a Servant by her side.

 

--

 

It’s late, and Waver sits in his office, grading a seemingly endless stack of papers. The dim glow of his antique desk lamp is the only light in the room, a small golden oasis amid the steadily encroaching darkness. According to the old clock on the wall it’s nearly eleven, and Waver yawns, debating packing up his things and finishing at home. (Or else risk falling asleep at his desk again. Waking up with that crick in his neck had not been pleasant.)

 

Before he can make up his mind there is a knock at the door.

 

“Come in,” he calls, and is surprised to see Rin peer into the room.

 

“Still here, Miss Tohsaka? Lose track of time, did you?”

 

She walks in and flops down in the chair across from him with a heavy sigh. “I had a meeting with Lord Edelfelt that ran late,” she says. “Something about learning to get along with his prissy granddaughter, I don’t know. I wasn’t really paying attention. It’s not my fault she’s such a fake, obnoxious little twit.”

 

Waver shakes his head exasperatedly. “You do realize that it’s better to have allies than enemies, right? Especially for someone like you. Maybe you could try being nice to the girl for once.”

 

Rin laughs in a way that says “hell no,” and leans over Waver’s desk, peering down at the papers he’s grading.

 

“Ooh, did you get to mine yet?” she asks, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet like a child might.

 

“No, not yet. Saving the best for last, I suppose.” He flips through the stack until he finds hers and holds it up to the light. “‘A Study in Memory: Relics, Artifacts and the Magical Properties of History.’ Sounds like another Tohsaka classic.”

 

She grins. “You bet, teach. You’re going to be talking about this one, trust me.”

 

“Don’t call me ‘teach,’” he mutters absentmindedly, scanning the first page.

 

“See, memories are powerful things, right? And often our memories are tied in with physical objects – a necklace your mother gave you, or a hair ribbon that used to belong to your sister, or… I don’t know, a dagger that was once your father’s. Something like that. What I wondered was: does the presence of memory imbue inanimate objects with some form of life? Are they somehow alive because of the memories stored inside them? And honestly, from performing some rudimentary tests, I think the answer is yes. Not alive in the sense that your average human understands it, sure, but alive on the spiritual plane at the very least. It’s exciting, right? I think this could really change the way we understand relics and summoning and even memory itself, y’know?

 

“… Professor?”

 

Waver is staring blankly at the page in front of him, the cogs of his mind turning, turning. Slowly, he lifts his eyes to meet hers.

 

“Rin,” he says. “You’re a fucking genius.”

 

--

 

On Thursday he comes home to find a package sitting on his bed.

 

How it came to be there he is not sure; the door shows no signs of forced entry and the windows are all locked from the inside. Even the magical ward he put up around the place feels undisturbed. Waver eyes the package warily before approaching, but his apprehension fades into shock and disbelief when he sees the symbol drawn in place of a return address. It seems the Tree of Life has found him once again.

 

A letter falls out first when he begins to unwrap the parcel, and he opens it to find that same typewritten font, smudged just a little around the edges.

 

To Waver Velvet, whose determination is admirable –

 

I suppose you must have been angry with me, all those years ago, when you finally read that journal. You must have hated me for sending you all that way for nothing; you must have thought me cruel, a vicious old man hellbent on crushing the dreams of the young. But that was never my intention. I always knew in my heart of hearts that you would find another path.

 

And so you have. Your friend is correct about memories, Waver. They are more powerful than we will ever know, and I believe they are the key to what you seek. Enclosed within this package is something truly astounding: the lost letters of Alexander the Great. Many were written to his mother Olympias. Others were written to Ada of Caria, who was not family by blood but was better loved by him than his parents ever were.

 

How I came upon these letters is a tale for another day. Just know that they are legitimate – I have Seen into their past and glimpsed Alexander himself, sitting down to pen them after a long day’s march. But although I have Seen the letters’ history, I have not read them, and I advise you to do the same. I have a theory, you see, that with each subsequent reading they may lose more and more of their power. As of this moment, the letters belong to Alexander and their recipient alone, and are that much stronger for it.

 

Even if you do not fully trust my words, just this once… Believe in me.

 

Good luck to you, Waver Velvet.

 

(Although… you may not need it anymore.)

 

--

 

The next day, Waver calls in sick. The secretary in the head office sounds entirely unconvinced when he groans into the phone and complains of a terrible stomach bug.

 

“Professor Velvet, I’ll have you know that we do offer personal days to faculty members. Seven per year in fact, for someone of your tenure! There’s really no need for such theatrics.”

 

“Oh,” Waver says. “Well then.”

 

The woman sighs and hangs up on him.

 

He goes to the store and buys what he needs – chalk this time, not chicken blood – and arrives back home an hour later to find Tohsaka Rin sitting on his couch.

 

“Heard you were taking the day off,” she says. She lights up one of his cigars with a snap of her fingers and takes a puff, then immediately runs to the kitchen for a drink of water. “God, that’s nasty! They taste worse than they smell! How is that even possible??”

 

“How are you in my apartment?” Waver hisses. “Did you pick the lock!?”

 

“Yeah,” she says, nonchalant. “Of course I did. You’re obviously up to something, and I want to know what.”

 

Waver pinches the bridge of his nose.

 

“Fine,” he sighs, and points to his desk, where his old notes are now jumbled in with the new. “If you really want to know, suit yourself.”

 

The summoning circle is almost complete by the time Rin finishes reading. She sits down next to him on the floor, and when he looks over her face is solemn and thoughtful, the face of a girl much older than eighteen.

 

“Well I suppose there’s not much use expressing my general incredulity about this whole operation,” she says finally.

 

Waver smiles. “No,” he says, and adds a sun sigil to the outside ring. “Probably not.”

 

“So instead I’ll just ask a more pressing question: How exactly do you plan to keep him here for years and years? You know better than most that a single person does not possess that kind of prana. Don’t you remember the War at all?? It was hard enough keeping them material for a few months, never mind a lifetime!”

 

“Of course I remember the War,” Waver snaps. “Why else would I still be trying to bring him back after ten goddamn years?”

 

His hair keeps falling in his face, and he pushes it back angrily, no doubt streaking it with white chalk dust. Wordlessly, Rin takes one of her pigtails out and hands him the hair tie.

 

“Thanks,” he says, and takes a deep, shuddering breath.

 

They sit in silence for many a minute, the only sound the faint scratching of chalk against the wooden floor.

 

“A joint summon,” Rin says abruptly, and Waver nearly jumps out of his skin.

 

“It’s the perfect idea,” she exclaims, clapping her hands together. “I’ll be your second. We’ll share the whole ‘supplying prana’ business. Easy, right?”

 

Waver stares at her in horror.

 

“What… No!” he splutters. “Absolutely not! Rin, you are my student! And this… I don’t know how dangerous this is going to be, alright? Even with the letters, this summoning could easily take twenty years off my lifespan. And even with two people, that would still be ten years for each of us. Ten years, just… gone in an instant. What if you’re only meant to live til seventy??”

 

“Well,” Rin says, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “Sixty is still a hell of a lot better than thirty-two.”

 

Waver winces.

 

“Now that," he says, "is just not fair.”

 

--

 

He agrees in the end. Rin, he’s found, is utterly intolerable when she’s resolute.

 

They make the preparations in silence – closing the drapes and lighting the candles and memorizing the words that they will speak in unison. Waver places the box containing the letters in the center of the circle, directly upon the roots of the Tree of Life, as if he’s about to send them down to the world beyond, back to the man who wrote them long ago.

 

Rin catches his eye from the opposite side of the circle.

 

“Are you ready?” she asks.

 

He is about to say yes when he remembers something. Without a second thought he heads for his bedroom and flings open the closet door, rummaging through suits and jackets and sweaters until he finds it, hanging limply in the back on a bent old hanger. It’s ripped down the side and frayed at the bottom and one of the shoulders is worn clean through, but for some reason he never threw it away. (Deep down though, he knows the reason. Because it meant something. Because in his mind this threadbare old shirt had been the start of something new; a different and better life.)

 

Rin raises an eyebrow when he returns but says nothing, for which he is grateful. It’s not something he can explain. He just knows that it’s necessary, to lay the shirt down on top of the letter box.

 

“Memories, right?” he asks, and Rin nods sagely.

 

He tells her that he’s ready, that he has been ready for a decade now, waiting and waiting for this day to finally come to pass, and together they begin to chant.

 

--

 

--

 

--

 

A massive hand descends down upon Waver’s head, ruffling his hair in that way he's always hated and yet (in this moment) can’t bring himself to hate.

 

“You’ve gotten taller, boy,” Rider says, grinning at him. “Seems as if you’ve taken my counsel to heart at long last!”

 

“More than you’ll ever know,” Waver laughs. He smiles like an idiot and swipes at his eyes, trying and failing to keep his tears at bay.

 

It feels like a lifetime since he last cried.

 

(And perhaps, in a sense, it has been.)