In which Rin's summoning of a servant goes even less expected than normal.
Heart pounding, Rin took a few steps backwards, before throwing her slight frame at the jammed door. The offending wooden panel was smashed out of its frame and toppled to the floor, leaving the young magus to yelp and stumble into the living room. Regaining her balance and turning her attention upwards, Rin came to behold a perplexing scene.
Glowing red arcs of residual mana mixed with clouds of settling dust, clearing in slow swirls around a pile of smashed, scattered furniture that lay in the center of the living room. Rin’s turquoise eyes widened as she saw the obfuscating particulate in the air draw back to reveal a human figure lying prone amidst the rubble. Even from her place, standing on the threshold, she could make out a few characteristics about the mysterious intruder.
His hair was a dusty gold streaked with shades of darker color–giving it the appearance of a lonely sunset as glimpsed through a canopy of dark branches. He was garbed in simple clothes, green cloth and brown leathers in the form of a loose, hooded cloak and a tunic, light armor adorning his chest and leggings. He wore worn boots and carried a large pack over his shoulder. Rin’s gaze wandered downward, noting the short blade that was strapped to his hip with a glimmer of hope, before her eyes landed on the longbow of dark wood that lay strung and carefully maintained by his side.
It seemed that she had failed to summon a Saber servant as she had intended, and had instead received an Archer.
Rin’s momentary flash of disappointment took a backseat to her warring confusion and curiosity as she observed the curious being. While his appearance certainly seemed to suggest he was a scout or yeoman of some sort, the style of his clothing seemed subtly distinct from any she had seen before. Though it was easily possible he hailed from some obscure culture with which she was unfamiliar, the young mage couldn’t shake the lingering feeling that something was distinctly wrong with this situation.
“H–hey, you!” she called out to her servant, mentally berating herself for allowing her nerves to creep into her voice. “Servant!” The Tohsaka prodigy crossed her arms impudently as she stared down at her weapon in the time-honored ritual of bloodshed and treachery upon which she was about to embark. “Get up and tell me who you are!”
The servant seemed to finally register her presence, and shot up to his feet with a slight wince crossing his pointed, highborn features. The first thing Rin noticed, despite the sharpness to his stormy grey eyes, was his apparent youth. Indeed, he seemed to be barely older than her. The second thing that caught her attention was his ears, pointed and elongated unnaturally.
“I am the, er… Archer servant known as Evan Rainé,” declared the being called from across time and space, hailing from realms distant–even more so than Rin could have foreseen. He winced. “I’m, um… sorry about your house…”
Rin didn’t know why, but she felt an intense, looming sense of dread prickle the back of her neck.
Elsewhere entirely, and roughly parallel in time, the corrupted and disturbed artifact known as the Holy Grail did not laugh in a fit of sadistic glee, nor could it, nor would it even if it could have.
The sentiment was conveyed nonetheless.
Rin and Evan get to talking.
“So let me get this straight.” Rin pinched the bridge of her nose, still standing in her devastated living room along with her Archer servant, who was presently eyeing the windows as if he expected the remaining servants in the war to descend upon them at any moment. “You are not a heroic spirit–aren’t even dead yet–and to top it all off, you aren’t even from Earth, but some other world entirely?” Her tone was incredulous, bordering on outraged. Her servant–who was apparently not a human but an honest-to-god elf–looked back at her, nodding timidly.
“Yes, that’s right,” he confirmed, shifting uncomfortably in place. “I’m… sorry?”
The raven-haired mage shook her head, trying to piece her shattered worldview back together. The implications that not only did other worlds exist, but that the Grail was able to reach across that unfathomable divide and pluck a living soul to serve its purposes was deeply disturbing. But why her? Looking at her servant, Rin huffed, thoughts racing as she did her best to make sense of the situation.
“I’m, er… sorry about your summoning me, by the way.”
Of course, her spineless, overly apologetic servant certainly wasn’t being any help.
“What are you talking about?” she snapped at him. He quailed back, but then recovered, scratching the back of his neck.
“I mean, your Grail dumped a lot of information into my head and… I don’t really think I measure up to any of the heroes in your history, so your chances in the war are…” He trailed off. Rin was left to grimace.
“Shut up, and stop apologizing,” she reprimanded him, resting her chin in the crook of her fingers. “I didn’t come all this way just to give up because my servant’s not up to scratch.”
“I said to stop apologizing, didn’t I?”
Rin wracked her brains, head aching from the series of ridiculous revelations that had been assailing her nonstop in the past few minutes. Think, Tohsaka, she told herself. There’s got to be some way you can work this situation to your advantage. In spite of her servant’s none-too-flattering appraisal of his skills, Rin considered the possibility that there might be more to him than met the eye. Focussing, she called on their connection and felt a rush of information in her mind in response. Rin’s first reaction was to blanch. Her servant’s highest parameter was a B rank, and the majority of them were C. That was… concerning. Perhaps she would have to explore alternate means of combat.
Though she was remarkably skilled as a mage for her youth, and possessed the finest artifacts of the Tohsaka lineage at her disposal, Rin bore no delusions as to her ability–or utter lack thereof–to challenge any servant directly. She would instead have to find some way to catch her opponents unawares, or to bolster her servant’s attacks.
Ugh, her head hurt. She needed to win this, but it appeared that the universe was having a laugh at her. Her, the little girl trying to play grown-up. The prodigy. The one her father left behind.
“I’m really sorry–“
“I said–!” Rin yelled, whirling around to face her servant, unawares of the bright crimson glow shining from the back of her hand. “–stop apologizing!!” A pulse of raw power emanated from the magus’s palm, washing over Evan as the Archer’s mouth snapped shut with an audible ‘click!’. The servant’s expression was one of naked shock. Rin stared, first in confusion, then in horror, glancing down at the set of three command seals tattooed onto the back of her hand.
Make that two command seals, she dully realized.
Evan, very pointedly, did not apologize.
The more things change, the more things stay the same. Rin and Archer investigate strange happenings at school, and run across more than they expected.
“I still maintain that this is a terrible idea.”
“Make yourself useful and check the area, would you?”
Rin gave the order from her position, hunched over a small black scratch mark in the concrete roof of the school. After some deliberation, she had elected to take Archer out with her to investigate a series of strangely potent mana signatures she had detected from Homurahara Academy. As the young woman had no intentions of letting a little thing like the Holy Grail War interfere with her academics, and planned on attending school, it seemed prudent to deal with anything that might jeopardize her safety while she was in attendance. The green-clad servant appeared anxious, observing the area around them with a keen, suspicious eye that might have made her feel more secure if it wasn’t getting on her nerves so badly.
Having been commanded to patrol, Evan spared one last worried glance over his shoulder at his master before vaulting up over the boundary fence that surrounded the school roof, dematerializing as he passed over the edge. He certainly was acrobatic, Rin noted. And it certainly had been a nice enough sight to watch him go.
Clearing her head of such thoughts, her hand shone with a bright light, bathing the rooftop floor with a scouring wave of mana. Dismissing the cantrip, Rin reached out and ran her finger along the smooth, curved divot. It looked almost like something had struck and scorched the stone at once with significant force. Something charged with mana. In fact, it was shaped almost like a–“
“Rin– um, Master,” Evan’s sudden return and urgent tone startled her out of her thoughts. “We need to–“
The arrival of the unfamiliar, cheery voice set alarm bells ringing in Rin’s head. The pigtailed mage leaped up to her feet, scanning the roof until she saw the speaker, a young blonde girl dressed hat to boots in orange clothing. A wide brimmed pointy hat was perched on her head and she wore a burnt orange shawl over loose-fitting tangerine robes. A long staff made of a twisted black branch lay beside her as she kicked her feet over the side of the roof’s small water tower. She looked to be Rin’s own age, or perhaps even younger. Rin almost relaxed before she saw Evan tensing up, shrugging his bow over to one shoulder, ready to let it fall into his hand at a moment’s notice.
The girl in orange stood up, robes billowing dramatically in the cool night breeze as she looked down at the young master and servant, the latter of which had moved in front of his partner protectively. This was apparently quite funny to the girl, as she let out a riotous fit of chuckling.
“Trying to replace me already?” she asked nonsensically. Rin blinked.
“What are you talking about?” she asked in confusion. Evan glanced back at her momentarily. “I’ve never seen you before.” The robed newcomer–clearly a mage–blinked.
“You thought I was–? Huh.” Rin couldn’t quite tell over the distance, but she could have sworn she saw something harden in the young girl’s face. “I guess you really don’t think much of us. Well, I guess I should introduce myself in a way you won’t forget.” She raised her staff, and Rin felt a thrum of power in the air as the girl leaped off of the water tower, landing effortlessly on the ground some fifteen feet below. She rose to her feet, a tongue of black smoke wreathing the crown of her staff, motes of glowing orange light starting to gather into a small orb of power. “My name is Arancia Luminosa, and I am the greatest sorceress in all the lands!”
Rin’s first thought–stupidly enough–was noting that the girl was shorter than her.
Her second thought was ‘oh, shit,’ because with a lazy wave and a casual utterance of “Firebolt.” Arancia had just sent a large jet of flame hurtling at her at horrifying speed. Rin tried to move, but before she could properly turn, something was slamming into her, sending her reeling out of the way as the spell shot past her with a noisy ‘whoosh!’. She looked back to see Archer standing behind her, bow in hand and arrow nocked to the string.
“Go!” the servant shouted, raising his weapon, shimmering veils of subzero fog wreathing the jagged blue arrow he held between his fingers as he drew it back. Arancia was gathering a miniature storm of flames into a tiny point at the tip of her staff, which she whipped around to send the roaring sphere screaming towards Evan with a cry of “Fireball!” The elf loosed the arrow, which collided with the spell just as it exploded violently into a hungry hurricane of fire, which crashed against a suddenly-present blossom of ice spikes with a screeching hiss followed by a tremendous boom. Rin didn’t see the last part, as she had already turned towards the exit, racing away as fast as her legs could carry her. She felt the aftereffects, however, as the shockwave from the explosion rippled past her, knocking her off balance and off course, veering towards the metal bars enclosing the roof. Barely a second later, the air was flooded with boiling steam, wet and searing upon the mage’s skin. She let out a wordless cry of pain, and–after a brief moment of calculating her options–channeled a surge of prana into her legs, reinforcing them enough that when she pushed off against the floor, it sent her soaring over the high fence and across the building’s threshold, hanging over three stories of empty space, the ground waiting lethally below. As she jumped, she called out to her servant.
Her descent was swiftly arrested as an arm wrapped around her waist. Evan bore her to the earth safely, setting her down on her feet as quickly as he could. The two of them now stood near the building, located near one of the side entrances to the school. The servant’s face was beaded with sweat, and his face bore a panicked frown, but he seemed to be unharmed.
“Please don’t do that again,” he muttered, setting Rin down on the ground and nocking another arrow to his bowstring, turning to watch the rooftop,where the cloud of smoke and steam still billowed. Arancia appeared at the edge, leaping over the barrier and landing some ten paces away, fixing them both with a cocky smirk. The air was positively saturated with the enemy servant’s power, thick with the blistering sensation of standing too close to a bonfire, or of staring into the sun, and Rin was left to wonder how she had ever mistaken this girl for a mere mage. Magic roiled off her form as if she were wearing a coat of flames. Rin glanced back to her servant, steeling her will.
“That was a pretty gutsy stunt you pulled,” the servant–Caster?–cheered at them. “You seem like a pretty okay mage, too. I’d love to talk shop with you, personally.”
“That’s too bad,” Rin shot back confidently, disregarding the look of concern that Archer sent her over his shoulder. “Because your run in the War is going to end here and now.”
Arancia tilted her head curiously. “Oh?” she asked, voice one part incredulous, two amused. “How do you mean?” The sorceress leaned on her staff, a plume of flames igniting idly in her free hand. Nevertheless, Rin pushed on, smirking.
“You know the rules of the Grail War as well as any of us. No witnesses, no normals getting involved. And in a place like this, your magic is going to have every fire engine and police officer in the city crawling all over the place. Explosions and schools don’t go together so well, you know.” Rin pointed at the servant, hand on her hip. “So unless you want the mediators coming down on you and your master, you don’t have a choice but to keep it to the small stuff. Meaning this is going to be a walk in the park for us.”
“Rin…” Evan cautioned. Rin looked over at him questioningly.
“What?” she asked, but was interrupted by a girlish giggling. Arancia had covered her mouth with a hand.
“Oh… oh, I’m really sorry to break it to you,” she said in a tone that assured Rin that she was, in fact, delighted to tell her. “But I’m not the kind of person who’s good with rules.” She lifted her hand in the air, a distant humming emanating from her palm. “Or who cares about them at all, really. Especially rules that want to tell me what I can and can’t set on fire. Or who.” The humming was joined by a hissing and rapid series of crackles as plumes of fire–scarlet, gold, vermillion–gathered around the sorceress’s fingers. “I’m especially ticked off with this particular set of rules, since the thing running it all not only kidnapped me from where I was, messed with my memory and gave me a headache from hell, but also took a look at me and thought that I would fit well as its little Lancer dolly. A lancer. Me.” Arancia gave another laugh, this one sounding significantly less amused and less stable than the previous. “Oh, and, on the note of the mediator…” she grinned. “Somehow I’m not too terribly worried about them.” The servant clenched her hand into a fist, halos of churning fire wrapping around her arm, tainting the air with shimmering veils of heat-induced mirages and a distant tide of building whispers. Rin felt something cold settle in the pit of her stomach as she watched Lancer pull her hand back. A firm hand seized her wrist roughly as Archer took off towards the entrance to the school building, dragging her along behind him, away from the pyromancer.
“Get down!” Archer barked, kicking down the door and pulling her against his chest, wrapping his arms around Rin and placing himself between her and the wall between them and Lancer.
They weren’t a moment too soon. Rin heard Lancer howl the words “Empowered Scorching Ray!” from outside, and then, a heartbeat later, the world became fire.
Everything was bathed in red and gold, the air turning blisteringly hot, hot enough to deny breathing. Hotter than Rin had thought possible. Her ears filled with the roar of cascading flames. Over Archer’s shoulder, she saw the windows down the hallway warp, melt and shatter inwards as lashing beams of pure heat ripped through them, along with the walls that separated and surrounded them. Flames splashed against the opposite side of the hallway, pouring down the walls, blackening them, devouring their color and substance. Rin's skin stung and screamed, her hair and skirt caught alight, as did Archer’s cowl and bowstring. Her servant scooped her up and threw them both bodily away as one of Lancer’s terrifying beams cut the hallway in half, the tiles cracking and shattering, shriveling up into nothing. A row of lockers that the beams touched melted, folding in on itself fluidly. Burning death scoured the corridor, a hellscape where ash and smoke choked the air and all died before the force of fire. Archer managed to pull Rin around a corner, where the heat lessened, and then keep moving, away from the scorching heat behind them. Rin suppressed a scream as she batted at the fire in her hair and clothes, calming only when Archer grabbed one of his ice arrows, snapped in in half, and drew it across her body. Instantly, a blissful, biting cold enveloped her in its merciful grasp, and Rin nearly blacked out from the whiplash. Her servant took her by the shoulder, shaking her back into focus. The young magus blinked the disorientation from her eyes, her turquoise gaze meeting his stormy grey.
“Master,” he said, his voice even despite the clear terror in his features. “I’m going to keep Arancia occupied. I need you to go through the school and run back to the house. Don’t stop until you get there. Do you understand?” A series of dull explosions shook the building, prompting them both to flinch before rising to their feet and moving down the hall
“You’ll die.” It was not a question. Even in her shell-shocked state, Rin couldn’t fail to see the obvious, couldn’t forget the terror of the enemy servant. Archer swallowed heavily, flashing her a weak grin.
“Hey, now,” he chided. “I’m fast, and I’m good at running away and hiding. I’ll lead her on a chase, then break away and make my way back to you, yeah?”
Her servant was a terrible liar, Rin realized. Even as he attempted to reassure her, he couldn’t keep the naked fear from his face, nor the grim set of his jaw. She was suddenly struck by just how breathtakingly young he was. Her response was immediate.
“I’ll fight with you. We have a better chance if we take her on together. I am a mage, after all.” Archer shook his head.
“That won’t work. Arancia’s good at taking on multiple targets at once, especially soft targets. She can also probably block what spells you throw at her. That’s not to mention–“ he cast a worried glance over his shoulder. “That’s not to mention the fact that she hasn’t gotten really serious yet.”
Rin blinked, then her eyes narrowed.
“She was talking to you.”
“When we first saw her–on the rooftop. I–I thought she was making some joke to me, but… she was talking to you. You two know each other.” Archer opened his mouth, then pursed his lips into a thin line. Rin’s eyes flashed. “I’m right, aren’t I? She’s from the same… other world that you’re from, and the Grail brought you both–“
“I don’t know, okay?” Evan snapped, then hesitated, expression softening. “I mean… yes, I know that I know her, but I don’t remember. Something’s wrong with my memory, but I definitely knew her before… before…”
‘Before what?’ was the unspoken question that lingered between them. Rin made to continue the conversation, but was cut off when Archer thrust out a hand between them, flicking another magic arrow into his hand and whirling to face down the hallway. Lancer stood some sixty feet away, brandishing her staff level with the ground as a crackling swarm of sparks jetted down the hallway towards the master and servant pair. Archer took aim at the floor, a crown of icy spines blossoming up there just in time to intercept the spell. The cloud of embers impacted the makeshift barrier in a cacophonous series of small explosions, ash, steam, and chips of ice flying everywhere. Already, Lancer was fashioning another deadly round of flames, but this time Archer was prepared for her. As Rin watched, the servant produced four arrows, nocking them simultaneously and letting them fly at seemingly random trajectories, hitting the walls, ceiling, and floor. However, when they sprouted into jagged barriers, they crossed over each other to block out the hallway entirely. It was immediately clear that the makeshift fortification would not hold, however, as the muffled roar of flames sounded from the other side, heralding Lancer preparing another Scorching Ray. Archer took Rin by the hand and practically dragged her along behind him as he raced away, passing by a flight of stairs on the way. Just as they approached a corner, the prodigy heard the sound of splintering ice and turned to see the Lancer servant leap through a ragged hole in the frozen barrier, taking off towards them in a sprint. Feeling a surge of defiance swell in her breast, Rin raised her arm and pointed at the approaching terror. A flickering black ball weeping red light blossomed from her fingertip, before she sent the Gandr flying off. She watched as it approached, seeing how Lancer threw up a hand and summoned a flickering web of golden tracery before her. The bullet of magic scraped harmlessly off of the shield and dissolved into nothing. Rin felt a pang of despair as Archer pulled her towards the corner.
Looking back as she was, Rin was in the perfect position to witness Lancer’s hand, still outstretched, make a gesture before she thrust her staff upwards. The magus’s eyes widened as she turned to face forwards, calling out a warning just in time. Archer slid to a stop as a roaring wall of flames rushed to fill the corridor, blocking the space from floor to ceiling. Lancer’s advance slowed to a stroll as fear gripped Rin’s heart. Her servant released her hand, stepping before her once more as he drew his bowstring back and began to let his arrows fly. They whistled down the school hallway, impacting against Lancer’s glowing shield, tumbling off to either side. Those that made it through, the sorceress avoided, moving with unnatural speed and agility, weaving around his attacks as she approached. Archer took a step back, continuing to launch arrow after arrow at the advancing force of nature. Lancer continued to deflect and evade, staff glowing with heat once more as she gathered up her mana for another devastating spell. Only there would be no avoiding it this time.
Rin’s heart hammered in her chest, the roar of the flames blocking out her soft, hiccuping gasps for breath. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
She didn’t want to die.
Lancer walked by the stairs.
There came a grunt of effort a second before a bucket of dirty water came soaring through the air from the upper flight, contents splashing all over the sorceress, the bucket itself bouncing off of her face and clattering to the ground.
Silence reigned. All three of them stood there in shock. Rin’s mouth hung squarely open as she watched the off-color water drip down Lancer’s flaxen hair, staining her clothes, and pooling on the floor beneath her. As the sound of footsteps retreating up the stairs became audible, steam began to rise off of the orange servant’s shoulders, trembling with rage contained within her tiny form. The thundering crackle of the wall of fire at their backs guttered out, forcing both master and servant to squint against the sudden gloom. In the darkness, they could see the ember-like glow that ran under Lancer’s skin, roiling and pulsing with heat and light. With not a word, the diminutive servant spun on her heel and launched herself up the stairs, clearing the flight with a single bound. The sound of rushing flames and exclamations of fury echoed down in her wake.
Rin and Archer remained frozen for a few seconds before shaking out of their stupor. Rin cleared her throat.
“Did that just– What exactly–?”
“A non-magical witness intervened in our execution by throwing a bucket at Arancia, drawing her fury and doubtless saving our lives at the cost of their own,” Archer confirmed blandly, gripping his bow. The sound of a distant series of explosions and a cry of pain punctuated his statement.
“They saved us.”
“We have to repay them!”
“It’s risky, but I agree.” Archer hefted his bow. “Let’s go.”
“But–“ Rin blinked. “Wait… what?” Archer turned back to look at her, puzzled.
“I’m a hero. Er–“ he winced, a flush coloring his cheeks. “At least, I’m trying to be one. Saving them is the right thing to do.” Rin stared openly for a moment. Archer seemed to fluster under her scrutiny. “W-what?”
“Nothing!” she said defensively. “I just… for some reason I expected you to… Nevermind. Let’s go.”
The two made their way up the stairs, Archer at the front, bow slung over his shoulder and shortsword at the ready. As they followed the sound of their adversary and rescuer, they passed by scenes of extensive destruction. Walls had been blasted open, rooms had been gutted, their contents strewn into the halls or incinerated. Black scorch marks adorned every surface, and the building creaked ominously around them. Soon, they heard a breathless scream of agony, followed by silence. Making haste, both master and servant rounded a corner to find a horrific sight laid out before them. Lancer was nowhere to be seen, but the signs of her work were everywhere. Small fires crackled here and there, consuming the scattered debris that remained of random pieces of furniture. One wall was caved slightly outwards, charred black by the impact of a tremendous fireball. In the center of that crater, a figure was embedded into the wall. His skin had been horrifically burned, and his hair was so stained with blood, Rin couldn’t be certain if its color was natural. A smoldering hole adorned his ruined stomach, filling the air with a burbling hiss and the scent of burned flesh. Rin held back the urge to vomit, shame and horror welling up inside of her before she saw the victim’s face and the cold hand of horror gripped her gut.
“No…” she said softly, taking a half-step forwards. “Not you. Why did it have to be you?”
Rin’s legs moved on autopilot, taking her closer and closer to the burned corpse. The stench was so pungent as to be a physical presence, cloying in her mouth and nose, making her chest ache and her stomach roil with each breath. Still she approached, moving on autopilot, walking through a haze.
“You idiot. You shouldn’t have… why were you here? Why did you help?” Rin gritted her teeth before freezing. There it was again. A tiny, rattling wheeze escaped the boy’s throat, minuscule and pathetic. But it meant that he was still alive. And if he was still alive, she could–
Steeling her will, Rin reached up to grip her father’s pendant, setting into motion a grand turnabout of fate that would ultimately serve to kick-start a bizarre and terrible series of events. Channelling all of the mana she could from the gem, the jewel to the Tohsaka bloodline stepped forwards, reaching out for the form of the young boy and beginning to weave powerful magic around his dying–but not quite dead–form.
“Live, you idiot.”
Archer watched on, approving.