Fate/Trans Form

Discussion in 'Transformers Fan Fiction' started by Nerroth, Mar 23, 2007.

  1. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Fate/ Trans form – Side story 1 [R]

    (Or: Whatever Happened to Matou Zouken?)


    This story takes place on the night Sakura is captured by Caster in the F/SN anime.

    Thanks to Inugami from the Beast's Lair forums, for helping with technical details and story concepts!



    --------------


    That fool! Matou Zouken was not the type to exert himself in a hurried fashion – for a being as long-lived as he was, the key lessons of patience and preparation were well learned. One does not spend five centuries preparing for a world-altering event by acting in haste, after all.

    However, if any evaluation of recent events could be offered by Zoken, it would be that little if anything was going according to plan…

    For a start, he hadn’t expected the Fifth War to take place fifty years early – well before the latest phase of his preparations were to come to fruition. Then there was the emergence of various anomalies arising from the end of the last War, such as the continued survival of the previous Archer-class Servant. He had yet to show his hand overtly in the current War, but Zouken believed that it was only a matter of time.

    And then, there was the issue of the Matou representation in the current conflict. With Kariya long in his grave, and the pathetic Byakuya removed from the equation a few years ago, the remaining options were thinning. While Sakura had certainly been trained, and even received her Command Spells, she was not intended to be a combatant. That was a role which Zouken had planned for her descendants, fifty years hence. Also, while her growing connection to the Emiya heir was potentially useful, she was ultimately unfit for service, according to Zouken’s observation. So, the burden was passed to her brother, who was all too easily convinced to participate, despite his patent unworthiness. At least he had no compunctions about acquiring new sources of prana for his unwilling Servant – who seemed to be far more attached to her true Master than to that brat.

    When Shinji was killed, it came as no great surprise – Zouken had decided to begin his own preparations for this conflict even before this had happened. However, even this time was cut short, as a rival group had captured Sakura from the Emiya residence, and prepared to use her as a vessel for the Grail. Zouken noted the irony in this event, as he himself was all too readily prepared to sacrifice Sakura for just such a cause.

    But he would not sit idly to watch another take what he considered to be his rightful destiny.

    It was time to intervene. But in order to do so, he could not act alone.


    --------------


    In the park area, the air was still, the night sky clear and bright - but if the being known as Matou Zouken had ever considered such things, the current being cared not to recall. And in any event, he would not go so far as to actually leave the Mato mansion in his current degenerative state merely to enjoy the view. He had far more important business at hand.

    He cast the object in his hand before him onto the surface – a relic recovered from the ruins of Alamut, the last mountain fortress of the Hashshashin. It had been reduced by the Mongol warriors of Hulagu Khan in 1256 CE, as part of his infamous march on Mesopotamia. To Zouken, who cared not for the historical value of the artefact, there was but one use for such a device - as a catalyst for his choice of Servant.

    Many magi who summoned Servants had relatively little idea as to the true identity of their chosen warrior – or, indeed, which class of Servant they would eventually summon. Zouken was far beyond such concerns, however, and he exerted the force of his own personality to bolster the connection forged by the object, to ensure that the man he summoned would arise.

    "Your conquests lie broken, your strongholds reduced, your descendants cast aside from history.

    But your name has been remembered, and the legend formed by your followers has gained such renown that their very name has entered the human lexicon, as the word used for all of those who stalk human prey.

    And in this role, I call you forth.

    Arise, Founder of the Assassins!

    Arise, Hassan-i Sabbah, lord of Alamut!

    Arise, my True Assassin!"

    A web of darkness formed around the artefact, taking the form of a warrior clad in black, wearing a pale white mask intended to conceal his identity, and that of all True Assassins who served in the Grail Wars. Zouken already knew how much the warrior hated him – hated anyone who would be his Master – but cared not a bit. He could feel the patterns emerging on his left hand, the representations of the Command Spells he wielded over his new Servant.

    A few moments later, the summoning was complete. "You are the one who would call me Servant?" calmly asked Hassan.

    "Yes, Hassan-i, you are my chosen for this Grail War. Need I compel you to offer your obeisance?" Zouken raised his left arm to show his Command Spells – just in case Hassan needed reminding.

    "No," replied True Assassin, "your possession of the Spells will suffice. When do I begin my mission?"

    Zouken began to speak: "In short order, but I must return to the Mato mansion to make final preparations. We shall leave at once…"

    Suddenly, in less than the time it would take for a human to blink their eyelids, a seemingly endless array of red strands emerged, impacting on Zouken’s body at hundreds of individual points, at such a speed that neither he nor True Assassin had been fast enough to react to.

    A moment later, each point became a lance of agony, as the heat from Zouken’s form was drawn along the threads, at such a rapid rate that sparks of flame were forming across his body. True Assassin, in turn, heard the sound of a metal object impacting the ground beside him, and saw a blade in the midst of his own shadow. It was not until he tried to move his body in response that he discovered he was somehow immobilised.

    A trap! cursed Zouken - yet, somehow, he stood his ground, forcing his eyes to remain open, as if in defiance to whoever had paralysed the rest of his body. More blades impacted against True Assassin’s shadow, each making it more difficult to escape his newfound predicament.

    "Arrrgh… who… dares…" Zouken cried out, as he saw how the threads coalesced at a single point – the head of a young woman, whose hair was vermillion red. She looked at him with an expression which could only be described as disgust.

    And she was not alone. Beside her stood another, a blue-haired woman armed with a set of blades, identical to those embedded in the ground. In contrast to the first woman, this one had an effortlessly cool expression on her face – the mark of a professional killer.

    True Assassin cursed this turn of events – denied his place in the War by interlopers. It was galling to what remained of the warrior’s pride.

    Before he could free himself, a third opponent came into view – a golden-haired woman, with eyes of blazing orange, leaping from behind the first two women and landing in front of him. Showing what measure of defiance he could muster, he glared at the face of his final opponent.

    He could hear her speak: "You seem to be in a poor condition. Allow me to put you out of your misery!" With lightning speed, her claw-like hand punched through True Assassin’s mask, and on through his face, shattering his skull and emerging through the other side.

    For True Assassin, the War was over before it began.


    --------------


    A few moments later, the strands retracted, and Zouken’s body fell limp to the ground. As he fell, The Makiri patriarch cursed his misfortune. His opponents – who were clearly not Masters, but were highly dangerous foes all the same – had somehow managed to catch him at the worst possible time. So soon after the summoning, his powers, and those of his Servant, were at a nadir. Plus, his current body was near the end of its usefulness in any event.

    He had to find a means of escape…

    "I hope you aren’t in a hurry, jii-chan!" Zouken turned to see the originator of such a remark, and was surprised to see a young man standing in his path, carefully folding his glasses into a case, a look of calm assuredness upon his face.

    "And who do you think you are, daring to speak to me in such a way? You, who are nothing but a wretched human?" called out Zouken, defiantly - and as the clear eyes of this opponent focussed on him, a wry smirk appeared on the human's face.

    "Hmm… I’m not usually one for long-winded introductions. Rather, feel free to let my actions speak for me!" In an instant, he was closing the gap between himself and Zouken, a knife brandished in his right hand. Zouken tried to move, but his body was failing him, and there was something terribly wrong about the look in the man’s eyes.

    "Aaaaagh!" Slice. Slice. Slice slice slice. Each swing of the opponent’s blade seemed to land on a critical point, a seemingly innocuous point which somehow caused Zouken’s arms, is legs, his torso, to fall apart.

    How could this be? he cursed, yet even so, he would not yield. "You… fool… I… will…find…a…new…form. I… will… live… again!"

    The opponent drew Zoken’s face close to his, the blade hovering over a point on his neck that only the opponent could see. "I disagree."

    The blade was thrust into the side of Zoken’s neck. And everything shattered. His dreams. His hopes. His plans. The horrific lengths to which he had gone in pursuit of his ultimate goal.

    Immortality.

    And it was all gone.

    With that last bitter thought on his mind, Matou Zouken faded into nothingness, never to return.


    --------------


    Well, that wasn’t so bad... The young man looked down at the spot where the being’s body had once lay, before his strike had erased it from existence. He knew not the beast’s name, or age, or intentions – and he cared even less. To the man, it was simply another monster to be dealt with.

    He didn’t have much time in this heightened state – one which only emerged when his family blood asserted itself in the face of an inhuman opponent, and which he had learned how to use against those who had been turned – but as he looked over to his three allies, he couldn’t resist making a perhaps ill-informed comment. "Hey! You know, the three of you make a good team when you work together like that!"

    Had he more carefully planned a time and place to say such a thing, the same words would have held a very different meaning – and would likely have been accepted by the three as a compliment. However, the reactions on their faces indicated how ill-timed the remark had been...

    He raised a hand to his head, and crouched down on one knee, feeling a wave of nausea sweep over him - and once it passed, the heightened state had passed.

    As he reached for the glasses in his pocket, the three women went over to his side, concerned at the bout of nausea.

    "Yo, you still with us, there?" asked the first, the blonde-haired one.

    "Yeah… I’ll be alright." He took a moment to review the night’s events in his mind. After taking him up on an offer to enjoy a stroll through the park on their short stopover at Fuyuki-shi, the four of them had discovered a monster attempting to summon a powerful tsukaima. At that point, the four quickly prepared a trap for the two, set to strike at the point they would be at their weakest. Two of them had taken care of the familiar, while he and his stepsister had dealt with the monster, finishing with him striking at the creature’s dot point, severing its link with existence. So, job done.

    The blue-haired woman spoke next. "So, now might be a good time to grab some dinner, yes?"

    The woman whose hair had glowed red in battle – but which had now reverted to jet black – turned to the blue-haired one. "Did your higher-ups say anything about this kind of occurrence taking place here?"

    "Nothing worth considering too deeply, ojou-sama," came the non-committal answer.

    The dark-haired girl hated it when she called her that. "Hmph. Nii-san, which restaurant do you want to take us to then?"

    Given the sudden look of anticipation on the blue-haired woman’s face, he couldn’t bring himself to suggest anything else: "Well, senpai did say something about there being a nice Indian restaurant nearby!"

    The blue-haired woman immediately beamed a massive smile, her thoughts already turning to the varieties of curry she would soon devour…

    The blonde woman, whose eyes had reverted to their ‘natural’ red colour, chimed in: "So, are we gonna stand here all day and let my future hubby get cold?"

    "Your future husband?" bit back the blue-haired one. "I’m sure that he’d be more interested in an intelligent, refined lady, not a loudmouth bimbo!"

    "As if the likes of either of you would ever suffice for my Nii-san!" insisted the third.

    "Uh, heh heh heh…" There they go again. Although they were each loath to admit it, the three women were like a close-knit family when together like this – or more accurately, when together with him like this. He knew that he was the cause of their disagreements, but that he was also the reason why they spent so much time together in the first place. And in the time since they first met each other, they had managed to do so much as a team, yet not once had they openly acknowledged the bonds which had formed between them.

    He thought also of two of his other close friends – no doubt waiting to hear which restaurant they were all going to meet up at. They had been too tired to join the rest of them in the park, or so they claimed, but they were an invaluable part of the group in any event. One, who had taken on a more serious aspect in order to allow her sister to know a level of happiness, who was now free to be true to herself once again. The other, who had suffered terribly at the hands of his adoptive father, hidden from view for so long, was now able to move beyond that dark period in her life, and enjoy the happiness and warmth of her circle of friends.

    Of course, it was possible that she and her sister were plotting some sort of prank at that very moment…

    The young man turned to face his three friends, to say something he should have said a long time ago. He hoped for a better reaction this time. "You know, when I am here with all of you together like this… I can think of no finer feeling."


    --------------


    End of side story.
     
  2. mlai

    mlai New Member

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    I thought Arcueid is dead?

    But what do I know, I've only ever watched the murky anime.

    Do the 2 stories even exist in the same time? I thought Tsukihime occurs years before FSN.

    As for my overall impression of the fanfic... I couldn't say, because not enough has happened yet. I don't yet know where you're going with any of it. Currently, I'm only following this to get my Emiya household sitcom fix, and my Saber fix.

    I have no idea who any of those Decepticons are, except Galvatron and the Constructicons. About the only Autobots I know are Optimus, Bumblebee, and the Dinobots. Rodimus too, of course. :p 
     
  3. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    From what I've read of the original Tsukihime game, there are several alternate endings, and in some of these Arcueid does indeed stick around!

    Tsukihime takes place a couple of years before F/SN - in my take on things, the group who started to know each other during the course of those events (Shiki, Arcueid, Ciel etc) would stay together for the next few years, hunting vampires, slaying monsters... and arguing over which woman ends up bagging Shiki!

    The whole 'Shiki's other personality' thing is from the games, too - there are details of this on this page.

    So far, the only two Cybertronians who aren't already in the established Western G1 multiverse are Metalhawk (as he was only sold in Japan, and featured in the Japanese G1 anime Masterforce) and 'Agent E' (who is busy elsewhere in Japan...) - well, technically the Sweeps didn't have specific designations before, either, but the Sweeps themselves have been around since the Movie.


    Gary
     
  4. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    The side story has been revised, fixing up a few issues concerning the characters making a cameo - thanks to Inugami from the Beast's Lair boards for helping clear things up for me!


    Gary
     
  5. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Fate/ Trans form – Side story 2 [R]

    This story begins long before the present day, and finishes at a point beyond the current stage of the main storyline.


    --------------


    Several thousand years ago, a group of beings, not unlike humans in many ways, lived in a crystal city atop a gleaming ocean, at the centre of an unimaginably vast realm.

    Their achievements were wondrous, their reach staggering, their technology unmatched – for them, the notion that sufficiently high technology would be akin to magic to less advanced peoples was all too apt a description.

    However, the city in which they lived had not always been their home – once, they had fled their true lands of origin, driven out by a bitterly opposed rival. Yet, they had flourished in their new home, bringing light to the peoples they encountered, pushing the boundaries of art and science farther than any could have imagined.

    Sadly, with those achievements grew a great hubris – and as is all too often the case, it was followed inexorably by nemesis.

    For a new and terrible foe arose to threaten their city. A race unwittingly borne from the adaptation of their own genetic material by a hitherto-unintelligent alien parasite eventually arose, and sought to placate its terrible hunger in any way it could.

    The far-flung cities and outposts of the elder race fell one by one, their inhabitants fleeing in terror, or lost to the ever-ravenous maw of the enemy.

    And so, the time came when the crystal city itself was set to fall, and the older ones made the fateful decision to abandon their latest home, and travel to a world beyond the reach of their enemies.

    To a world we know as Earth.


    --------------


    When the survivors reached this world, they found its inhabitants to be almost impossibly primitive, the landscape to be harsh (for this was the waning era of the last Ice Age) and the prospects for re-building their lost civilization grim indeed.

    Many gave up on this Earth, and fled to parts unknown.

    Others spread out among the tribes of humanity, hoping to act as guides and teachers.

    And some foreswore the material world altogether, secluding themselves in isolation, far from the human race, seeking the next stage in their evolution.

    If one considers the material form to be but a stepping stone on the path to true enlightenment, and human beings to be only beginning such a long and arduous journey of self-discovery, the beings that arrived on Earth were near its end. All it would take was the final push necessary to unlock a higher plane of existence.

    And for those who secluded themselves, the door to this new existence eventually opened.

    Eventually, they learned how to bring the others of their kind along the same path, and the primitive human societies influenced by their efforts were forced to develop themselves on their own.

    From that point, no further interference by the elders upon the fate of the Earth would be intended.

    At least, that was the plan.

    And even the best-laid plans often fail to survive contact with reality.


    --------------


    He had been one of the first to discover the new path.

    In the effort taken to find the answers from this reality, he discovered a near-infinite series of new questions in the worlds which opened up to him.

    And for a time, immeasurable by a human mind, it was enough.

    He, and his compatriots, were content.

    But he saw something they could not – or, perhaps, would not – see.

    The hand of their ancient rivals, the ones to force their first great exodus - who had somehow managed to reach the same plane of existence as he - one day reaching out to suffocate the fragile life essence of this galaxy.

    That day would not come for millennia.

    It did not matter.

    To this being, it was a terrible certainty.

    And when that day came, all that his kind had struggled for over the course of their existence would be for nought.

    But his voice was ignored by his peers. They would not listen. They dared not.

    Despite this, he had to act.

    And so, defying the agreement made long before hand, he took the form of a mortal human, yet retained the knowledge and power he had gained from the higher realms.

    He walked the Earth, bearing a name that would become legend.

    Merlin.


    --------------


    To those who lived through the subsequent years, and those who would tell and re-tell the story over the centuries, the presence of such a being defied mortal comprehension, confounded the well-worn certainties of the limited human mind. It was as if a mythical demigod from an ancient tale had emerged from the written page and bestrode the world of Man.

    However, for the ‘man’ known as Merlin, the stakes at play were far more serious – enough to risk affecting the very course of human history itself. Perhaps he considered it a fair price to pay, if indeed he considered such a thing at all.

    And so, he carefully prepared a means by which to stabilise the local population, and prepare the groundwork for his ultimate project.

    He fashioned a blade and placed it in a stone, intending it for the one intended to rule as king.

    He found a young child and shaped her body and spirit, preparing her for the arduous task of monarchy.

    He guided her progress from a careful distance, portraying himself as a withered mystic.

    He witnessed her draw the blade she was literally born to wield, and raise it into the heavens.

    And as Arturia – Arthur - eventually established her rule, her benefactor turned his attention to his grand project – which he believed would spare this galaxy from the wrath of his ancient rivals.

    However, it would be far closer rivals who would prove to be his downfall.


    --------------


    She had discovered the path at the same time as the other, bridging the gap between the mundane and the sublime for her fellows.

    She had expanded her mind to incorporate new planes of existence, alongside the others.

    But while Merlin broke the consensus and returned to Earth, she was sent to investigate – and if necessary, reverse his efforts.

    To her and the others, the price of compromising their ideals was too high, the risk of contaminating the course of human history too great.

    And ironically, in order to stop Merlin, she was forced to follow him back to the material world, and use his own means against him.

    Once again, a name taken by an elder would ring through the ages – that of Morgan La Fay.

    And what to them was a dispute between elders was to mankind a terrible clash of titans, as the fruits of their rival labours became apparent.

    Chief among these stood a champion she had forged of her own – a homunculus secretly cloned from the blood of Merlin’s own destined.

    A being who knew nothing of her creator’s true nature, or the reasons behind their dispute.

    To Mordred, all that mattered was the promise of the Crown.

    And to attain it, she would stop at nothing.


    --------------


    At Camlann, the war came to a head, and the two chosen champions fought one another to the bitter end.

    Mordred and Arturia clashed mercilessly, staining the ground red with their more-than-human blood.

    Steadfast determination held against untold arrogance, and none could say who among the two would emerge victorious.

    And indeed, they were matched all too well.

    The stroke which ended Mordred’s life was matched with one that guaranteed the same for Arturia, though the end would come more gradually.

    And Arturia’s body was taken to a secluded place nearby, and laid to rest while the king spoke her last words to her loyal knight.

    But the war was already over.

    Merlin and Morgan both left the Earth for the last time, their quarrel unresolved, as Merlin fled into seclusion and Morgan rejoined her peers in the higher realm.

    In their wake, humankind was left to count the cost of their efforts.


    --------------


    Of the final fate of Merlin, or the re-emergence of a reformed Morgan, or the incredible rebirth of the lost crystal city, there is much to tell, and even more left to be told.

    But this is not the place for such a tale.

    Instead, we must turn back to that fateful encounter at Camlann, and speak of the fallen knight whose own final chapter has yet to be written.



    --------------


    "Father…" Her body slumped to the ground, pierced for the last time by her opponent’s blade. Her own weapon had landed a hit, but she knew that her foe would outlive her, if only for a few moments.

    Her entire life – if her existence could even be called that – had been in preparation for this moment when she was supposed to stand victorious, as the new sovereign of Britain!

    But with a sickening realisation, she knew that her efforts were in vain. Mordred would die before ever wearing the crown, and she was the one who lay vanquished.

    It… isn’t… fair! How could her life have any meaning if the one whose visage served as the original to her carefully-crafted copy, whose youth had been preserved by the power of an ancient artefact, whose success and rulership had been the driving force behind her own creation?

    How could she be anything more than an illusion, a travesty?

    Her jealousy and hatred had compelled her to this point – and even now, she was second best.

    But perhaps now, that the end was approaching, she could let go of her anger, of her need for self-validation.

    She could die. And anything that died was once alive.

    Perhaps, at the end, it was enough.

    She closed her eyes for the last time…


    …and saw an unnatural flame, a dark sphere, and a glow of distant eyes.

    "Do you yield your right to vengeance so easily?" boomed a voice from the abyss.

    Mordred responded, her voice weary. "My foe… is not long for the world. My quest… is done."

    "Then why are you here?" the voice asked next - and she could not answer that question.

    Perhaps she could not let go so easily, after all.

    "I thought as much." She was displeased at the tone used by this other. But she could not draw away from it. "Your foe has been reborn, in a distant land, with a new mission."

    She could not believe it. Her opponent had escaped her fate! "Lies! Such a thing is impossible."

    "Then see for yourself…" Visions appeared in her mind. Her rival standing guard in a strange land. Reborn. Victorious.

    Beloved…

    "No!" she cursed.

    The eyes glowed more brightly. "Yes. What you see will come to pass – has already come to pass."

    She had never felt more defeated. "And you revel in showing me this?"

    "If it stirs you to accept my offer…" The sphere approached her, close enough for her hand to touch – if that truly were her hand, and not a figment of her mind. "Join me, and I will grant you a chance to earn the revenge you seek. Or stay here for eternity, whichever you prefer."

    With a look of pure defiance on her face, she looked straight at the glowing eyes, and reached for the sphere. "I accept."

    And thus, the sphere expanded to envelop her in total darkness.



    --------------


    End of side-story.
     
  6. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Fate/ Trans form - part 6 [R]


    (Note - this chapter is very long, and it deals with something that I, frankly, would have wished wasn't part of the original F/SN game. However, I felt compelled to confront it, and try to show the first stages of healing. I hope I have done this mission justice.)


    --------------


    "Ki-yaaaa!" Artia charged forward to attack her opponent, brandishing her weapon in both hands, ready to strike once the range was closed. Her opponent was in a defensive stance, readying his own weapon in an imminent attempt to parry hers.

    She swung her sword down, and her opponent deftly side-stepped the incoming blow, holding his own blade in both hands at an angle intended to deflect the strike. She in turn shifted her weight and pressed down with her own sword, hoping to unbalance her opponent.

    But he managed to slip away, and prepared himself for a strike of his own.

    The swings and blows came thick and fast, with both managing to deflect the other’s attacks well. It was rare for Artia to face such a challenge in melée – few of her opponents in the War had been able to match her swordplay in such a manner.

    He in turn was swift and agile, capable of switching between the use of one and two hands with ease, depending on which style he deemed appropriate at that moment.

    Taking advantage of a perceived opening, he ducked under one of her lateral swings and spun to aim his sword at her neck – only to find that she in turn had turned on the spot and was holding her own sword at his.

    Deadlock.

    Or, in a less lethal environment…

    "Looks like a draw, Artia-san," said her opponent, in good humour.

    "Quite so." Hawk and Artia had begun their evaluation of her current status by practicing in the Emiya dojo, each armed with no more than a shinai and their own melée skills. And the two were well-matched – Hawk was reigning kendo champion among the Earth-based Pretenders, and Artia’s abilities spoke for themselves.

    "I must say that I have not had such a skilled sparring partner in quite some time, Hawk-san." Though she did not intend it as a slight against Shirou, the latter – who was present alongside Garret, Rin, Ilya, as well as a new arrival calling himself Aquila Bolide – couldn’t help but feel a little dejected.

    Garret noted the look on Shirou’s face and couldn’t help but comment: "Feeling a little bit of a dig there, eh?"

    Shirou shrugged. "Well… I guess he is a better at this than I am…"

    "Don’t take it personally" reassured Garret, "he’s been training for a long, long time! And besides, you’ve still got plenty of time to practice."

    "Don’t worry Onii-chan – if she’s too busy, you can have me beat you up instead!" It seemed that Ilya couldn’t resist getting a shot in, either. She looked at Shirou with a mischievous grin on her face.

    In a transparent attempt to change the subject, Shirou said "Why are we focussing on me here? Aren’t we supposed to be running tests on Artia?"

    Aquila perked up from his data pad at that moment. "Well, I will be getting around to you later, Mr. Emiya, but worry not – I’m carefully analysing the recorded data from Artia’s physical exercise, checking for any abnormalities, comparing her abilities to prior cases of Cybertronians equipped with Pretender technology, and so forth."

    Garret turned to his newly-arrived friend. "Anything you can tell us so far?"

    "According to the preliminary data analysis, her shell is functioning at maximum rated efficiency," replied Aquila, "with no notable defects or glitches present. Though I have no direct data on her capabilities prior to her assuming this new form, I may have to rely on second-hand sources of input in order to determine what, if any, kind of differences there are to her ability as they are now compared to how they were while she was involved in the recent conflict."

    The two sparring partners had walked over to join the group, and Artia added her own feedback. "So far, I notice no difference in my strength, response times or skills with a weapon compared to my previous state – however, I do notice how my reserves of energy operate differently now that I no longer require a supply of prana to sustain myself. It may take some time to adjust to this when preparing for combat in future."

    "Do you want to continue sparring in this form, or shall we move on to evaluate your armoured form?" asked Hawk.

    Artia nodded. "I would like to try my armour now."

    Both Hawk and Artia moved back out to their former positions, as they prepared for the next step in the testing process.

    "Artia-san, I usually activate my armour by pressing at my wristwatch like this -" Hawk echoed the movement his arm made the last time he activated his armour before the group, "- while saying Suit On!"

    At that moment, a burst of light appeared from the watch, and in less than a second he was in his armoured form. "You can use the same method if you wish – though it seems you don’t have a watch, it isn’t important. Whichever pose you feel comfortable with should be fine. And while you can say the phrase out loud, it isn’t always required. As you might imagine, there are times when it would be wise not to announce one’s presence so readily."

    "I understand." Artia raised her arms in front of her chest and clenched her fists, summoning the armour to form around her. When it was done, she looked no differently to when she was in battle during the Grail War.

    She moved her arms and legs, shifting from stance to stance. "Again, I feel the same as before – even the process of summoning the armour matched the activation I used while a Servant."

    "Good. Now, note how I can activate my own weaponry." At his mental command, a rifle appeared in Hawk’s left hand, and a sharply-edged katana of an unusual material formed in his right. "Try and activate your own weapons – while it would seem reasonable to assume they are no different to those you were armed with previously, there’s only one way to find out."

    Artia reached out her hand, and saw her trusty Excalibur form within her grasp. It was sheathed in her now-returned scabbard Avalon, and when she drew her sword and held it aloft, it shined with an inner radiance. To Artia, it felt the same as it ever did.

    "Impressive," she simply said, though none of the Pretenders had seen it up-close like this before. All of them marvelled at the sight.

    Garret turned to ask Rin about what she could discern as a magus. "Are you able to pick up anything different than usual?"

    Rin held a finger to her chin. "Hmmm… her sword doesn’t seem to be exactly the same as a Noble Phantasm, but as far as I can tell it makes no difference. I can read the same kind of power from it as I did previously. As far as she herself goes, it’s a similar story – I can tell that she’s not the same, but I can pick up something from her. I guess I’ll have to try and adjust to it, and learn more about how you guys tick while I’m at it."

    Garret was pleased to see how well Rin adjusted to the new circumstances – thankfully, she had swiftly recovered from her initial misgivings and managed to take the appearance of the Pretenders in her stride. Given her knowledge as a magus, she would be key to helping uncover the effects that the Matrix had on both Artia and Shirou. "Well, we’re still trying to get up to speed on your area of expertise ourselves! We’d be happy to share what knowledge we can in return."

    Rin agreed, and went over to look at the equipment that Aquila had set up. The two of them took a moment away from the data readings to draw up a quick list of areas they could try to cover when looking over the information more thoroughly.

    Garret turned back to face Artia. "Do you want to try and practice sparring with Hawk in this form, as well?"

    "Yes, she answered, "however, I would request if you might refer to me as Saber while I am in either this form, or my Cybertronic one, if it is not an inconvenience."

    It was no problem for him. "That’s what we are doing, after all. Have fun!"

    Saber and Hawk began a new round of practice, while Garret turned to talk with Shirou once again. "How about you? You feeling okay?"

    "Yeah, more or less. It’s kind of strange, though…" Shirou said.

    Curious, Garret pressed on. "Oh? What is?"

    "Well," came the reply, "aside from all of this, I’ve felt a subtle change since that day. I can remember when it was happening, that there was a moment of, um, how do I put it…"

    "Clarity? As if you had been given a glimpse into the infinite wonders of the universe?" Garret said knowingly.

    Shirou agreed. "Yeah! That’s exactly it!"

    "I saw the same thing when I first unleashed the Matrix," explained Garret, "a fleeting vision of incomparable majesty, the echo of which lies in a corner of my spark to this day. If it’s quiet and peaceful, and I try to close my eyes and concentrate, I can feel that faint echo still. It’s pretty cool, eh?"

    "Yeah… Look, Garret, I wanted to thank you, and thank the Matrix, for all of this," though Garret was quick to raise a hand after this statement from Shirou.

    "There’s no need to thank me, and I’m sure it -" he tapped his chest, to indicate its presence, "- appreciates the comment!"

    Now that he thought of it, Shirou wondered about something. "How does it fit in your human form, anyway?"

    Good question! realised Garret, who didn't stop to consider it himself. "You know what? I’m not sure. I hadn’t thought about it! It seems to be okay, though."

    As the two of them looked at the sparring practice, another question came to Garret's mind. "Where is Sakura today?"

    "Oh, she said she has to sort out a few things at the Matou-tei – she might be a little later than usual this evening. She wanted us to start the dinner preparations without her."

    Remembering what he had said to Shirou beforehand, Garret asked "Did you get to talk to her about anything else yet?"

    "No…" Shirou shook his head. "She was already gone by the time I got up. She had left a note explaining where she was off to on the kitchen table."

    Garret considered this. "You know, it might be an idea to invite her to live here full-time. She has the room anyway, she’s here among friends, but she might be a little shy when it comes to asking you directly."

    Shirou was happy with that idea. "I’d have no problem with that – I guess she doesn’t have much to keep her in that mansion anymore. Her brother – well, stepbrother, I guess – Shinji died in the War, and I heard that the jii-san also passed away recently."

    Shirou thought of the time he had spent with Sakura up until now – how Fuji-nee had made a habit of trying to pair them up (or was it just a habit of embarrassing him in front of her? He was bad at figuring this sort of thing out...) how she had adjusted to the new arrivals in the Emiya residence over the last few weeks, and how he could never tell how she was really feeling. Was her happy expression genuine, or masking something else? "I want to try and help, but I don’t know if I can say anything to her. I’m no good with this sort of thing, and I’m worried I’d make things worse."

    Garret shook his head, and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "I highly doubt that – she’s clearly attached to you, Shirou, and I’d bet you would be just the kind of person she needs to talk to. But as I said, I’ll do whatever I can if it can make a difference, even though I’m probably still a stranger to her. Come to think of it, you don’t know me for very long either!"

    "True," came the reply, "but you're no stranger to us now, Garret-san."


    ------------


    Some time later, the group had moved outside, where the lack of headroom indoors would not be an issue.

    Garret started this phase of the test. "Alright, I guess we’re ready to test your Cybertronian form. Aquila, are the damper fields in place?"

    "In place, and fully operational." Aquila had been meticulous, as expected.

    Garret nodded. "Excellent. Hawk, if you would take the lead?"

    "Hai." Hawk crossed his forearms, shouted ‘Pretender!’ and in a couple of seconds had reconstituted himself in his Cybertronic form. "Again, Saber, you can mimic these actions if you wish, if it helps with the activation process."

    "Understood." She crossed her own armoured forearms, choosing this time to speak the command aloud, and in turn re-molecularised into the mode which she had last used in front of Shirou at the hilltop.

    She was as tall as Metalhawk himself, and like him it was clear that she possessed an alternate mode capable of flight. Her chassis had a similar colour scheme and recurring pattern as Avalon – except for the nosecone of her alternate mode, which was attached to her left arm. It was patterned after the hilt of Excalibur, as if the weapon’s blade could form out of the nosecone itself…

    Metalhawk was quick to voice his approval. "Impressive design. Again, do you feel comfortable?"

    Nodding to accept the compliment, she replied promptly. "Yes - even though I have not spent much time in this form, somehow it still seems… natural. For the most part, at least."

    She ran one of her hands across the palm of the other. She was surprised that it didn’t feel cold or metallic at all. From her current perspective, it felt the same as if she were still human, or at least shared the same sensation in her mind.

    "Oh, you’ll get the hang of it. Our tactile sensors in Cybertronic mode feed into a similar part of our cortices that the nerves in a human hand do to the brain. While the materials are quite different, of course, the sensation is more or less the same." Few could speak of such matters with the authority the Pretenders' commander did.

    "I see." To most of those observing, it was surprising how her mechanoid face could make the same kind of expressions as her human one – Shirou recognised that look of vexation instantly.

    It only lasted a few moments, before she shook her head and re-focussed on the task at hand. "Let us continue."

    "Understood. Firstly, let’s go over weapon summoning – it should in principle seem no different to you than it was in your armoured shell, but then you are coming into this from a different path than I. Let me begin." As before, Metalhawk materialised his sword and rifle in each hand. "Before you begin, may I ask if you possess a ranged weapon of your own? Some form of pistol, or rifle? You may not have noticed before, but you can access the template for your Cybertronian schematics to see if such a weapon is in your inventory."

    "I will attempt to search…" Saber closed her optics, and saw a branching network of strands, images and data packets appear underneath her optic lids. She seemed to instinctively know how to navigate her way through the system, to a limited extent at least. It didn’t take long to find what she was looking for.

    She reached out her hands, and materialised two distinct weapons. One was a sword which bore an uncanny resemblance to her old blade Caliburn, while the other took the form of a Cybertronic pistol. "I had expected to form Excalibur, not this sword. Perhaps I have performed the activation incorrectly?"

    It hadn’t occurred to her to notice the pattern on the nosecone attached to her left upper arm. But no matter – Saber practiced a swing with the new sword, and it seemed adequate. "Also, I am unfamiliar with these kinds of ranged weapons. And I must admit, I feel somewhat uncomfortable wielding it. It seems to be less honourable a weapon than a sword."

    Metalhawk understood her concerns, but knew that often pragmatism won out over principle in this regard. "Indeed, but there will be times when ranged combat will be necessary. If you are involved in an aerial duel while in flight mode, you will have to rely on such firepower. We have a firing range at the HQ where you can practice at a later stage, but for now we should concentrate on other areas."

    Saber dematerialised her pistol and used her free hand to grasp the new sword. "I wish to name this blade Caliburn – as it is most reminiscent of the sword I first possessed as king. However, it seems to be less potent a weapon as its namesake at first glance."

    "Good name. Again, we should test your combat reflexes and your abilities while in this form. Are you ready?" She responded to this request by shifting into a defensive stance once again.

    "I am ready." In this form, the two proved as evenly-matched as they had been all morning – while her new blade was perhaps not as potent as Excalibur, it was more than adequate to serve in a duel.

    It was a peculiar sensation for her, having to adjust to the new size of her body, the relative scale of the buildings around her, and the latent options that this form seemed to offer, once she had mastered it.

    After another draw, the two stopped once again.

    "Don’t try to strain yourself too much on the first day – and don’t expect to master your new chassis overnight. It takes time for a Cybertronian to begin to understand the potential which lies within their own forms, and most never do more than scratch the surface. You are making an excellent start, but there is still a long way to go." She was grateful for his words – she knew that he had spent thousands of Earth years practicing his own abilities, though the necessities of remaining undercover left him with relatively little time in which to do so.

    His own smile indicated how pleased he was to have such a worthy sparring partner, and how glad he was to be able to help guide her through the process of understanding her new state of being. Indeed, he was learning as much from the process as anyone. "Thank you, Metalhawk."

    "Okay, now we are left with testing your flight mode, and what, if any, ability you currently have to fly while in your current form. Since we seem short of runway space here, it’s an advantage to be able to take off and land while in mechanoid form, and transform in mid-air before setting off." Metalhawk activated a small tertiary engine on his back – which served only to raise him a short distance off the ground, and retracted while he was in flight mode – and hovered several metres over the spot where he once stood.

    He gestured downwards with his right hand. "In my case, my flight mode’s engines are obscured by my lower legs when in this form, but you may be able to raise yourself higher. Oh yes, don’t think too hard about it – it should be no different to moving your arms and legs. The actual process is dealt with subconsciously, all you have to do is will it to happen. Just try to ease yourself up to this level."

    Saber willed herself up into the air, and could feel the whine of turbine engines in her lower legs, and the sensation of rushing air through her heels. It was a wholly novel sensation – as was the fact that she was lifting herself into the air!

    "Be careful to hold your balance," he cautioned, "there should be built-in compensators to help stop you from tipping over, but they aren’t flawless. How are you managing?"

    "It is disconcerting, I must admit." To put it mildly.

    He appreciated this, and once again sought to reassure her. "That’s understandable – this is one of the truly different aspects of your new form. Again, don’t push yourself too far too quickly. In time, it’ll become second nature to you. Just try to note your reserves while doing this, it’s usually not a good idea to run out of fuel in mid-air. Do you want to hold off the flight mode practice for now?"

    She realised how little she had thought about all of this when she first emerged from the portal – sweeping down over Shirou’s location, landing in bio-mechanoid form in front of him, reverting to her humanoid form. It had happened as if on instinct. She was uncertain as to whether she could replicate the manoeuvre in her current state.

    But she was not the type to excuse herself from training, or from practice – and she didn’t wish to provide a burden to those hoping to measure her readings below. "No – I will attempt the transformation, and test my flight capabilities."

    "Very well. We’ll settle for a short flight around the city perimeter. Follow my lead. Transform!" Metalhawk swiftly took on his jet fighter mode, and rapidly accelerated away.

    "Transform!" The folded wings on her back extended outwards, her arms and legs retracted, and the nosecone on her upper arm attached itself in front of the craft’s canopy. Despite its Cybertronic form, it was clearly capable of accommodating a human pilot if required – although a more accurate term would be ‘passenger’.

    At her will, the engines pulsed, and she raced into the skies, following the flight path laid out by Metalhawk. Within a few moments, the distance between the two had shortened enough for her to settle into a loose formation behind him.

    "Take some time to orient yourself in this form," he advised, "check your readouts, acclimatise to your controls, and take in the feel of the wind as it passes over your chassis. Once you settle in, we can continue our circuit around the city."

    It was exhilarating. A totally alien feel, to note the touch of the wind as she passed through it, yet completely natural to her. Sensing the ground and sky around her with this viewpoint was breathtaking, also. She was tempted to simply let herself enjoy the moment, but for now she was determined to master this new aspect of her being.

    After a few minutes, she felt comfortable enough to proceed further. "I am ready."

    "Good. Now follow me, and again don’t over-exert yourself." He throttled his engines and accelerated ahead, banking to the side enough to allow him to sweep around the edges of the city. She in turn adjusted her velocity and positioning to match, maintaining a set distance behind the lead craft.

    Taking in the surroundings, she wondered about the lack of reaction they were drawing. "Why is there such little attention focussed on us?"

    Metalhawk explained. "We possess a miniaturised version of the stealth field now in place around the Emiya residence. While it is unnecessary while within the larger field, it takes over when we pass its boundary. We don’t always have to use it, the field is useful when we are active during the daytime. Also, it can be attuned to allow certain others only to see it. You and I can see each other clearly, and the others at the Emiya residence can monitor us, but unless another party had Cybertronian sensors, they wouldn’t even detect the field’s presence."

    "I see," she responded.

    "However, I would rely on it relatively sparingly – it’s a drain on our internal resources. And if you are at a high altitude or above an unpopulated area, the regular ECM system we possess is enough to mask us from Earth-based detection systems. Also, you may note that our engines don’t make a lot of sound either, which helps us lessen the possibility of detection." The two craft had by now almost completed their circuit around the city, and headed back to the Emiya residence.

    "Watch your landing!" Metalhawk slowed down enough to allow him to transform and land safely on the ground. Following his example, Saber replicated the move with relative ease. Both then reactivated their Pretender shells, and returned to their civilian forms.

    She turned and bowed to her teacher. "Thank you for your guidance, Hawk."

    "I’m glad to be of assistance. It was a good start today." After this, Artia and Hawk walked back to the others, and saw that they had left quite an impression.


    ------------


    "Wow! You were amazing up there, Artia-nee-san!" Ilya ran over to express her excitement, and looked like she was fit to burst. It hadn’t occurred to her that Artia might still be a little wary of her presence in the Emiya residence – but even if it had, the two had managed to form the beginnings of a pseudo-familial bond. There had already been talk of Shirou and Fuji-nee filing an application to adopt her – now that the Einzbern had no use for her anymore, she had nowhere else to go in any event – it had occurred to Artia that due to the relationship she had with Shirou, Ilya would be, in essence, part of her family, too.

    And that was before Artia remembered the image of a much younger Ilya, playing out in the snow with her father, a man whose true legacy was still largely unknown to his adopted son…

    She was still unsure as to whether she should mention anything to Shirou. She hadn’t talked much about her experiences in the 4th Grail War, and it had seemed prudent to let the others think she had went through the same loss of memory as true eirei would have experienced. (While regular eirei were avatars of the being registered in the Throne, her own soul had literally been jumping from War to War, since she had contracted with the Grail before her death.) She also wondered if Ilya remembered her, though they had not exactly spent much time together before she, Irisviel and Kiritsugu had left for Japan.

    As Artia reached down to her, she was astounded at how much Ilya reminded her of Irisviel – that graceful, gentle, yet tragic woman who had given her love and joy so freely to both Kiritsugu and Ilyasviel. Indeed, Ilya had almost no similarities in appearance to her father at all. Perhaps it was due to the conditioning which the Eiznbern had put her under before she was even born.

    But it was good to see her smile like this. In Irisviel’s name, she vowed to be a good nee-san to her new little sister.

    Meanwhile, Rin was standing beside Aquila, with a data pad in her hand, and a puzzled look on her face. "I don’t quite get it – when she was in her armour she could call upon Excalibur with no problems. Yet when he took her Cybertronic form she could summon only that other sword, and a pistol. Aside from the unsuitability of the second weapon, or at least so I would have considered, why could she not form a larger Excalibur?"

    Aquila had a look that showed he wasn’t satisfied with what he was seeing, either. "I’m not certain. The sidearm isn’t a major issue – all Autobot protoforms have some sort of basic ranged weapon design woven into their biomechanical matrices, even before spark insertion. Indeed, many close combat specialists on Cybertron do have such a weapon stored away if necessary, even if they often prefer not to use it.

    The sword, on the other hand, I’m not so certain about. There are few experts among my kind who can speak with authority concerning Earth-based mystic arts, and even fewer humans with an in-depth knowledge of Cybertronic bio-mechanics. The process which we have seen draws from both fields, but seems to fill a niche which neither of us are comfortable with. I would do with your help in bridging that gap, but I can’t say when a suitable theoretical framework might be attained."

    Rin sighed at the amount of progress still to be made. "Well, it seems that discoveries tend to baulk at external timetables, no matter which word you’re on! Hand me that module over there, please…"

    Garret went over to take a look at what Rin and Aquila were up to. "How are things going? Will you be ready to check over Shiro and Ilya soon?"

    Rin responded. "Well, we need time to analyse Artia’s results, but it may be useful to run a comparison with Shirou. Wait – you want Ilya to be checked as well?"

    He nodded. "She was present at the temple, and she was affected by the Matrix’s presence – it might be an idea to see if there are any long-term effects on her, as well."

    He turned to face Illyasviel. "Does that sound ok, Ilya? Sorry if I was getting a little ahead of myself!"

    "It’s ok, Garret-niisan! I’d like to find out, too." What she didn’t say was how she had already felt something different about herself over the last few days – or about the unusual, yet strangely peaceful, dreams she had been having recently.


    ---------------


    By late afternoon, both Shirou and Ilya had been examined, and the data from all three guinea pigs was being put through various types of analysis.

    "So, you’re saying you can’t pick up much of a difference at all, then?" After all that Shirou had gone through, and having seen Artia in her new forms, he wasn’t sure whether to feel glad or disappointed about the news.

    "Well," replied Aquila, "Rin isn’t picking up any difference in you from the last time she would have measured your abilities, and while I do detect a faint trace of Matrix energy dispersed within you, I can’t find anything new. But then, there may be something going on which our equipment isn’t calibrated to register. You are a pretty unique case, after all." So there might still be something – but no-one knows what that could be.

    Rin picked up where Aquila left off. "Interestingly, it seems that you still have a filament of prana connecting you to Artia, even though neither of you need it to survive in your current states. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be a major deal – two magi can form a similar bond if necessary – but what kind of implications it has for both of you right now is hard to judge. Hmph, it’s no fun when you don’t have the answers!"

    For someone like Rin, who prided herself on her knowledge of magic, the lack of clarity was clearly an irritant – but then, no-one else knew much more about this, either.

    Shirou didn’t like so much attention on himself from the others, and decided to shift the topic of discussion. "Well, is there at least some news about Ilya?"

    Rin continued. "Well, that is another interesting mystery. It seems that there are subtle alterations to her body at a micro-cellular level – as if the engineering which had been introduced by the Einzbern had been tweaked somehow. Whether it will extend her life, or allow her to mature into an adult, or allow her to conjure up rice cakes out of thin air, we can’t say right now. Also, I used to be able to determine a lot about her physical state via observation, but the readings I am getting now are in a state of flux. We’ll have to see how her body develops."

    Rin wasn’t pleased about that roadblock either. "All I can say is that none of you seem to be in any danger, and we’ll just have to run more tests, and be patient."

    It seemed that for every answer found, a dozen new questions arose. Once again, Shirou tried to tell himself not to expect tings to make sense again any time soon…

    Garret took this moment to get everyone’s attention. "I think it’s a good time to give this a rest for the day. We can always pick up again in the morning. Say, Shirou – have you guys had a proper celebration for winning the War, saving the day, and so forth?"

    "Ummm…. I hadn’t thought about that sort of thing." Shirou was somewhat surprised that no-one had thought of that yet, but was the end of the War worth such a celebration?

    "Right then, it’s a good thing we left that stash of goodies in the living room earlier. Let’s go get things ready for this evening – whose turn is it to cook dinner?" As Garret asked, Rin raised her hand – though she tried not to show it, she was looking forward to showing off a few of their choice recipes. Which, of course, had nothing to do with her annoyance at Shiro being considered the best cook in the household…

    …though that red-headed brat did need to be put in his place.

    It reminded her of how Archer had been a fine cook, too. Come to think of it, there was a lot about Archer which had weighed in the corner of her mind lately…


    ---------------


    Everyone was sat around the dinner table, which was covered with a range of delicious-looking food. Rin had certainly outdone herself – though the true test remained as to whether she could claim the crown of ‘Emiya residence Top Cook’ based on taste as well as appearance.

    Before everyone started, Shirou raised a glass of water, and cleared his throat. "I wanted to say something, while Sakura and Fuji-nee aren’t here – to try and bring a sense of closure to the War. We’ve been through a lot together, through good times and bad, and crammed in more memories into the space of a fortnight than many people have in their entire lives. And now that it’s all over, we have a fresh start, and a new set of friendships, which we can draw upon together."

    He finished with "And so, I say this: Let this mark the end of the ‘Holy’ Grail Wars, as we march forward to a new age of peace and happiness."

    Garret reached for his own glass, looking at Shiro with a knowing smile, and made a quick toast. "Till all are one!"

    To this, everyone raised their own glasses, and repeated the phrase.

    Garret wanted to say something else, as well. "I’m sorry to keep us away from our plates like this, but there was something I wanted to say as well. And since Shirou has set the tone as far as phrase-swiping goes, I’ll follow suit! There’s a speech made by a fictional character – well, two - in a certain Earth television show, which may describe a rather different series of events to that which we face here, but still rings true for our situation. I hope my paraphrasing isn’t a problem."

    Taking a second to concentrate, he then began. "This last week, we’ve seen what humans can be at their worst. But we can not, we must not, use that as an excuse to end the dream that began here. For then, the demons of our past will have won. Instead, I want to look to the future, and begin by honouring the people responsible for our being here tonight. They represent all of us, at our best."

    As he looked at the faces of those he shared this company with, he made it clear how the people he was speaking about were right here at this table. "With the exception of a very few, there is one question that burns in every human, that makes them study the stars and dream of travelling to them. ‘Are we alone?’ This group is privileged to know the answer to that question."

    Quite so. "We are all explorers, driven to know what's over the horizon, what's beyond our own shores. And yet, the more I've experienced, the more I've learned that no matter how far we travel, or how fast we get there, the most profound discoveries are not necessarily beyond that next star.

    They're within us, woven into the threads that bind us.

    All of us, to each other.

    The final frontier begins in this room.

    Let's explore it together."

    As one, everyone around the table raised their glasses, and their voices: "Together!"

    A softly-spoken voice could be heard from behind Garret’s place at the table. "I like that show as well, Garret-san."

    The group turned to see Sakura standing there near the door – they were so caught up in Garret’s speech that they missed her presence entirely. But not everyone showed such surprise. Garret turned around and stood up, and gestured to one of the empty spaces at the table. "Glad you could join us, Sakura-san. It looks like you’re just in time."

    "Hai." She sat down at the table, where her plates and cutlery were already laid out, waiting for her.

    Rin was left with the last word for the moment. "Well, let’s get going before everything gets cold."

    So, to match the sound of several pairs of chopsticks being parted, the assembled group gave a hearty "itadakimasu!"


    ---------------


    Some time later, when the plates had been cleared, the stomachs filled, and the appetites well and truly sated, the general consensus was that the title of 'Emiya Residence Top Chef' was well and truly up for grabs. As the compliments poured in, Rin allowed herself a moment of satisfaction – even the silver-haired midget had avoided her usual routine with her, and been honest as to how much she liked her meal.

    Shirou was no exception. "That was delicious, Rin. It’s a shame that Fuji-nee wasn’t here to enjoy it."

    Fuji-nee had to stay late at the school for an evaluation – which may or may not have been code for a huge bout of sake drinking with her co-workers… but she would be quite displeased at the fact that so little food was left for her to scrounge when she made it back.

    "So, what are we up for now?" asked Shirou.

    Garret was way ahead of him. "Well, we have a few vids that we can watch, some games we can set up, and time enough for us to sit around the living room and relax!"

    Everyone seemed to like that idea. Most of the group went into the living room to set everything up, while Sakura again volunteered to help clean up – and again, she proved resistant to pleas that she should let others take their turn.

    Garret decided to compromise. "Well, if you insist on it, then I’ll have to insist on helping you!"

    "Thank you, Garret-san!" A few minutes later, everyone else had cleared out, and Sakura and Garret were ferrying the dishes and cutlery over to the kitchen sink.

    Garret couldn’t help but notice how much focus she seemed to be putting into cleaning each dish, and nor could he miss the expression on her face. She looked as if she was trying desperately to hold something back, some great groundswell of emotion that was suddenly bubbling to the surface. "Sakura, is there something you want to tell me?"

    "N-no… I-I’m fine…" Crash. The plate had been in her hand, as she was handing it over to him. It was now in several pieces on the floor.

    Her hand was shaking. That sad sound in her voice…

    "I-I-I…" As she stumbled, he reached over to hold her hand, trying to help in any way he could.

    "Sakura," he said softly, "let’s leave this for now. Would you like to sit outside for a moment? A bit of fresh air wouldn’t hurt, and this can always be finished later."

    "…H... hai" she agreed, and Garret took a moment to scoop up the pieces – thankfully, there had been no splintering – before putting them into the trash.

    After this, he walked out into the garden beside Sakura, and the two of them sat down on a small bench. "Do you need anything? Water, or tissue?"

    "N-no, I’m okay, Garret-san…" she answered.

    For all of his earlier bombast, he found that he was struggling to think of anything to say. Ironic, given how he could think of fewer times when he wanted to know what the right thing to say would be.

    He remembered something that Shiro said to him earlier that day. "Did something happen when you went back to the Matou estate?"

    She turned to look at him, and saw the tears swelling in the corners of her eyes. She had held her feelings in for so very long.

    But after today, she could hold them back no longer.

    And so, she told him…

    …everything.


    ---------------


    Earlier that day, Sakura had awoken from the peaceful dream she had had that previous night, and began thinking about what she had seen before going to sleep. How much of that had been real, or had she been sleeping the whole time? Certainly, it seemed incredible that the new visitors to the Emiya residence were such extraordinary beings, or that the story told by senpai, nee-san and the others was all true.

    But she couldn’t deny how some of it at least had the ring of truth to it – such as senpai and Saber-san’s confessions…

    No, she said to herself, I shouldn’t be mad at them for being together – I have always wanted senpai to be happy. Is it really so bad that it isn’t because of me?

    For Sakura, Shirou’s kindness and friendship had been the thin strand of hope to which she had clung so tightly, and even reaching the stage that she would see him every day up close was, to her, a major accomplishment. But she could never build up the courage to tell him how much she loved him, or what she was leaving behind in the Matou mansion by going to the Emiya residence so often. She couldn’t stand to bear the thought of senpai turning her feelings down – it was so hard for her to see herself as the incredibly beautiful young woman that everyone else around her could see. After what had been done to her, and with those horrible things implanted within, how could she be beautiful, she wondered?

    Indeed, she couldn’t imagine what being a relationship with senpai would be like, even if he did say yes. Would they go out on dates? Hold hands at school? Spend holidays together?

    And what would have happened with nii-san if she did become Shirou’s partner? He had been cruel enough about her visits as it was. He had been so cruel, no matter what I did…

    But things were different now. Shinji was dead. And while she hadn’t seen him recently, she knew that Zouken was dead, as well – and with him went the worms he had infested her with. She put her palm to her chest, and breathed in and out. They were really gone.

    And she felt nothing.

    It was such a hard concept to grasp, the thought that her suffering was finally over.

    It was over.

    There would be no more Zouken, or Byakuya, or Shinji, to torment her.

    But now she was the head of the Matou family, the last surviving member. The estate was hers to do with as she pleased.

    She immediately resolved to dispose of it at once.

    But in so doing, she realised the bitter corollary – she would have to go back there, one last time, to collect the deeds and whatever personal belongings she could stand to bring with her.

    One last trip.

    And never again.


    (...to be continued)
     
  7. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    (...continued)


    ---------------


    Home.

    For eleven years, this ghastly place had been her home – her prison.

    She could hardly remember a thing about her life at the Tohsaka household before arriving here, and only the time spent at the Emiya residence had served as any kind of relief.

    Every part of her yearned to leave immediately, to run as far as she could from the place where her worst nightmares were made manifest on a regular basis.

    But she had to resist this urge. If she failed now, she would only have to come back again – and in so doing, break the promise she made herself on the way over.

    As she walked through the lobby up to the staircase, she gradually noticed how deathly quiet the place was. It was an eerie sensation – for the mansion had never truly been quiet before. Whether she heard the hate-filled laughter of Shinji, or the sermons from Zouken (who had been adamant in enforcing a strict training regimen – ironically, one of the few aspects of life in the mansion in which the old man had even tried to act the part of a mentor), or the incessant background noise emanating from those accursed worms…

    …but now it was all gone. The only sounds she could hear were those of her own breathing, her own footsteps on the creaking wooden floors (on which she had long ago learned how to tread lightly), her own heart beating in her chest.

    She opened the door into the Matou archives, which still had the Makiri emblem on the front of the door – a nod to the once-proud heritage of this withered clan. Sakura sometimes wondered if the Matou weren’t always like this, whether her adopted ancestors had been a more noble and proud sort. She struggled to think of anyone she ever knew who bore the Matou name who didn’t cause her to recoil in horror.

    But then, she had made a habit of trying to forget everything about this place, and those who lived in it.

    She uncovered the relevant legal documents – regardless of their true motives, the Matou had been careful to show a proper public face, and the appropriate deeds and records were kept in good order.

    She considered whether there was anything else in the archives she should keep – perhaps some relevant arcane texts, used for training Matou magi? Or any information about previous Grail Wars? Or whatever Zouken cared to commit to paper about his own ‘research’? It would have been quite easy for her to simply burn the entire collection on the spot, but on the other hand there was a wealth of information that would be useful in the right hands (for a change). Perhaps she could let nee-san have it, or perhaps bestow it to the Association.

    She left the room and pocketed the key – whoever ended up with the archive would be welcome to fetch it themselves.

    A while later, she entered her bedroom, and took a moment to force away the painful memories of what had happened here. She cursed Shinji for denying her even this one place of sanctuary – at least Byakuya had left her alone while in here.

    She didn’t have a wide variety of clothes, aside from some spare uniforms. She hadn’t been allowed out all that much outside of school hours, and she often wore either a simple set of clothes, or her uniform, while at sempai’s house.

    She cleared out what she needed to bring with her, and set them into a suitcase. She’d had to buy the case on the way over – Zouken would never have let her have one beforehand, lest she attempt to escape him for good.

    Over at her desk, she began to pick up the various school books she had lying around. While reaching for a notebook on one of the shelves, she noticed a black glasses case, one which brought a sharp pang of recognition. Why does my every turn in this house bring such misery?

    She had intended those glasses as a present to Rider – who was supposed to be her Servant – as they would have allowed her to enjoy her passion for reading without hiding her Mystic Eyes behind her Breaker Gorgon Noble Phantasm. The glasses themselves were hard to find, and Zouken had never said where, or how, he acquired them – but then, he hadn’t seemed to notice Sakura taking them. Perhaps he didn’t care, or was too focussed on other issues, or thought they were an irrelevancy anyway.

    Rider and Sakura had shared precious few moments together. Almost as soon as she emerged from the summoning circle, the sickening smirk on Shinji’s face told Sakura how great a misfortune it was for the Servant that the was female. Going through the process of creating those fake books, and handing Rider over to Shinji, even though he could not sustain her as she could, knowing what kind of acts that he would order her to do in order to build up her prana…

    And even after Sakura saw her sister and Saber move in to the Emiya residence, and suspected that the marks on Shirou’s arm were Command Seals, she still said nothing. She had kept the truth a secret from the one true family member she still had, and the one man for whom she thought she would do anything for. How can I say I love him, when I did nothing to protect him?

    But despite all this, there were still a few moments in which Rider – Medusa – could spend time with the woman she cared for, even though Sakura condemned herself for betraying her to Shinji.

    The first time they spoke was when Zouken was attempting to beat a new lesson into Shinji – despite all that Zouken had Shinji do, it was ironic that the elder Matou held the boy in contempt, although it was more due to his inadequacy as a magus. Sakura had learned about Medusa’s love of literature, and noted how her eyes were always covered, which unsurprisingly made enjoying books rather difficult.

    The second time they met properly was when Shinji was in a state of convalescence – he had picked a fight with Issei and learned to regret it. Sakura had offered the glasses to Medusa, so that she may have some exposure to her true passion. And yet, while she did try them on, and Sakura was able to see her beautiful eyes for the first time, she refused to keep them. "After this time is finished, I will not have use for these glasses again."

    "But, " Sakura tried to say, "but I found them for you! I… I wanted to give you something which would help you…"

    "…Forget about my situation? Sakura, I came here because I wanted to help you forget about yours." Rider's intent was crystalline in its clarity.

    "I know. I feel so ashamed for summoning you, and not being there for you…" She had turned to one side in shame.

    Yet, Rider had reached out to her, and held Sakura's hands as she looked down to her. "Sakura, if keeping your true identity a secret protects you from this War, then mine is a price worth paying."


    The words rang all too hollow in her mind.

    She could not escape the guilt so easily.

    But she would not disgrace Medusa by forgetting her sacrifices.

    She picked up the glasses case, and put them into her pocket.

    She turned to look at the tabletop, and couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

    An envelope was appearing right before her eyes, and it was addressed to her.

    She could have sworn that there was nothing there before – it must have been hidden using sorcery, and activated when her hand passed over it. But she had placed her hand at that spot many times before, and nothing had happened. What was the meaning of it? And who was the letter from?

    She was not prepared to find out the answer.


    ---------------


    At the bench, Sakura reached into her left pocket, and took out the envelope in question. It had been carefully sliced open using a paper knife, with the contents neatly folded back into place.

    She handed it over to Garret, so that he could read it himself.


    ---------------


    Dearest Sakura,


    You don’t know how long it has taken for me to start writing this. Every letter seems to take an aeon to commit, and my eyes force themselves shut, as if telling me that the pain of writing this is too much to bear.

    But bear it I must, for there is so much I want to tell you, cherry blossom, and so very little time. Even if I know that you are almost certainly reading this because my dying gamble has failed, and the days in which I knew your smiling face have become a faded memory. But then, even if I succeed, I’ll never see you again, so I can hope that this letter will serve its purpose one way or another.

    Firstly, I want to apologise to you, so profoundly that I fear mere words cannot suffice, for something that you have every right to hate me for.

    Eleven years ago, I fled the Matou household, to escape the clutches of Zouken, and the snivelling attitudes of my brother Byakuya.

    Eight years ago, I bit my tongue when your mother, the woman for whom my heart burned for (and for whom, I admit, it burns still), agreed to marry a prideful, arrogant man called Tohsaka Tokiomi. I asked her if she wanted to do this, but I refused to confess my own reasons as to why I wanted her to refuse him, to refuse the life that awaited the wife of a Tohsaka magus, to spend her days and nights by my side instead…

    And nearly one year ago, I was too late to stop Tokiomi from handing you over to
    him. By the time I learned about it, a week had passed, and both Aoi and Rin had already dried their eyes of tears. The present I had bought for you, my beautiful cherry blossom, was leaden in my arms. He had never even considered asking me – though to this day I don’t know if it was out of a calculated interest in assisting the Matou, or simply out of spite towards a former rival for Aoi’s affections.

    I could have stayed at the Matou-tei, and given that old bastard’s line a possible future – while my magic circuits were underdeveloped, they were still better than the dried-up well in Byakuya and Shinji’s veins. (Oh, Sakura – the little twerp takes all too quickly after his old man. It’s been a struggle this last year to keep those two away from you for as long as I can, and even then I fear that I’ve still failed you. I only hope that you do not suffer when I am gone – a forlorn hope, perhaps.)

    I could have told Aoi how much I loved her, and maybe you and Rin would be my children – and I swear, I would never have given you away to anyone, and never done anything to harm you.

    I could have been more attentive last year, and insisted that Tokiomi let me adopt you.

    I could have…

    I… could… have…

    I can never reach the end of the list of I-could-haves, no matter how much I try.

    But all I can offer you now, cherry blossom, is the slimmest of hopes that you can one day be free.

    I made a Faustian pact with Zouken when I returned to the mansion. I agreed to accept implantation and accelerated training, so that I would be able to participate in the now-imminent Grail War. If I succeed, the old bastard will have his prize, and you will be free from this horrible fate.

    I’m sorry to say that even if you are freed, I will not see it – for the worms I have been given are consuming my body, and I will not live long past the War’s end. I feel it now, every muscle tensing in agony, my every iota of willpower required to fight through it. If it were up to me alone, I would already be dead.

    But I cannot give my life away so easily, not before my once chance at redemption for both of us.

    I don’t have long to finish this letter – soon the summoning of my Servant will take place, and the strain on my body will become even harder to bear.

    I’m sorry that I haven’t been to see you while here in the mansion – but in truth, I am ashamed to say that looking into the eyes of the one I betrayed so deeply would strike me dead, and I don’t deserve such leniency.


    If you can, remember the happy times you spent with Rin and Aoi. Remember that they still love you, and that they were as powerless to stop Tokiomi and Zouken as anyone. Well, almost anyone.

    Your sister cares for you and misses you. Don’t let yourself forget that. Please. One day, she may well be all that you have.

    I’ll have to hide this letter now – it will appear once you are freed by Zoken after this coming War, or at some time in the future when he finally shuffles off his ragged, twisted, yet still-mortal coil. (Ha – for all of his malevolence, he is still driven by that fear of death. In his own way, he’s as pathetic as my brother… but I digress.)

    I have no right to ask for your forgiveness, so I won’t.

    But with all that I am, I hope that one day, my little one, you may


    Smile from purest joy,
    Like a beautiful garland
    Of cherry blossoms.


    Be at peace, little one.


    Kariya.



    ---------------


    When Garret had finished reading it, he noted the teardrops which were streaking down the page – and that many of them were his own.

    He could hardly imagine a worse feeling, even when trapped in the innards of the lord of Entropy. But then, that had been an almost surreal experience. This pain, on the other hand, was intensely personal, and it shook him to the core.

    "Sakura…"

    With that word, the dam broke. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and as she dove her head into his arms, the first terrible cries of sadness erupted. He understood how Kariya would have been struck dead at the sight, of such a face brought to such a state.

    He rested his head atop of hers, and his own tears were still flowing.

    He was torn between so many different reactions – terror at what the Matou clan had done to her, raw hatred at the vermin who could even consider such things (had any one of them still been alive, he would have crushed them with his bare hands), disgust at allowing himself to think of such a violent reaction when he should have been focussing on helping Sakura as she was now, bitterness at how poorly his mind formed any kind of words which he could say, struck by how little anyone knew about what had been going on, pained at the kind of reactions that the others would experience should they ever find out…

    But he couldn’t say a thing, and couldn’t do anything more than try to absorb the pent-up hurt and sorrow that Sakura was releasing. If he could take at least that portion away from her mind, it would be a start.

    Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. He was surprised that no-one had come to check up on them – they must have been enjoying themselves. My bright idea.

    Eventually, the tears subsided – perhaps there were simply no more for her to shed. "Sakura, I’m so sorry…"

    She shook her head, wiping her eyes. "You have nothing to apologise for. I am the one who has carried this with me all of this time…"

    He took her hand, and refused to het her accept this view. "You have no reason to blame yourself about any of this, none at all."

    "But Rider…" she struggled to let her guilt go.

    Nevertheless, Garret persisted. "She was responsible for the choices the made when summoned. She could have stopped the others and rescued you from that place. She had the power to bring you to your sister, where you could have been safe. But she was the one who chose to follow Shinji’s commands. Indeed, from what you told me she was doing so because the thought that you would be safer that way."

    And in a further irony, Rider had fallen before Sakura had been abducted by Caster – who in turn did not fully recognise the efforts that Zouken had put into making Sakura ‘suitable’ for his own long-term plans.

    "What happened to Kariya?" he asked.

    "He died in the last war, before the end. I had no idea that he had done such a thing, or that it was for me." She still did not know how to digest the knowledge.

    "Do you remember much of Kariya from before?" Garret wondered.

    She looked downwards. "No… only the outline of a face, but nothing more. All I have is his name, and this letter."

    He looked back down to it. "Is it enough?"

    "It is more than I had before I opened this letter, Garret-san." Even the knowledge that at least one Matou had loved her as a family member should was a comfort to her – despite everything.

    "Sakura, I’m sorry that I can’t think of better words to say, but I’m going to try anyway." As he spoke, she looked up at him, her face still betraying the bitter emotions she was wrestling with, and he said what he dearly wanted to say. "You are more courageous, more noble, than anyone I have ever known. Despite all that you have been put through, you can still carry yourself with such grace and nobility around others. Despite needing help more than anyone, you were still there to volunteer your time and effort on the behalf of your friends. And despite all that they have done, and all of the petty reasons behind their actions, they are now dead and gone, while you are still here, with the promise of a better future ahead of you, and the love and care of everyone in this residence to guide you when you need it."

    "But, I feel so out of place in there sometimes, and now that senpai…" She might try to deny it, but she had clearly figured out what was going on between Shirou and Artia, and it hadn’t been easy for her to deal with.

    "You should see how much they think about you when you aren’t around – everyone was delighted to see you when you showed up at dinner tonight. You may not have noticed, but we deliberately waited longer than usual to start preparations, because we wanted you to share the meal with us. There is nowhere you could be less out of place than here." He knew that any one of the others would immediately back the assertion to the hilt.

    "And about the other thing, well…" he tried to say, "I don’t know too much about human relationships from personal experience, but I have been fortunate enough to receive some very useful advice from an old friend of mine. I hope I don’t mangle his intentions.

    What he said to me was that when you find yourself drawn towards someone whose feelings lie elsewhere, it’s not anyone’s fault, and it’s not a case that you are somehow less of a person because he is has chosen another person. It just isn’t meant to be. It’s better to let those feelings of attraction and affection go – it doesn’t do you, or them, any favours.

    And also, if you do move on, when the time comes for you to find someone you care about who does share those feelings with you, you’ll have given that new beginning the chance it deserves."

    Garret reached his right hand to his temple. "Well, that’s the theory at least. And it sounds fine, but in truth…"

    "...perhaps there is something you would like to tell me, Garret-san." Garret felt mad at himself for letting his own issues spill over at a time like this – but noted how Sakura seemed interested in hearing more. Maybe it was helpful for her to know that other people still had their hang-ups and issues…

    "Well, in truth, it’s a bit embarrassing - it’s not something I’m too used to personally." A frank admission, though he could hardly compare it to what had been said before.

    Sakura wiped her eyes with her free hand, sat up a little straighter, and looked more intently at Garret’s eyes. "I would like to let you have your turn now."

    Ah, cornered, he realised. Very well… "In truth, there are three people who I’ve met recently, who each seem to have a different kind of impact on me, but at the same level in each case. Each of them are equally beautiful, in every sense of the word, but in their own unique ways. And while I should be happy for them – I am happy, of course – one of them is now with somebody. And even though their relationship is genuine, and I should be delighted that they have each other, all she needs to go is glance a certain way, or speak the right words, and I feel…"

    "How I… feel about senpai?" she admitted.

    "Got it in one," he added. "And although I do agree that it’s an illusion, and I should move on, there’s still that visceral impact on my chest, that twinge that I can’t explain, And as I said, it’s not like I don’t feel strongly towards the other two, as well. But then, I’m deluding myself for thinking I could, or should, be with anyone in the first place!"

    "Why do you say that, Garret-san?" she looked at him curiously.

    He was unsure how to explain this. "Well… There are a few... complications."

    She smiled. "I would see why you would think so… Rodimus-dono."

    She knew! Garret’s face immediately blushed, showing how he had hoped that particular revelation would come at a more opportune time. "Did you see me last night, then?"

    "Yes. You were most impressive." Garret wondered just what else she had been privy to out of last night’s events.

    "I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. I don’t want to seem like an impostor to you – even though, in a sense, I kinda am." He felt sad about not being able to be the one to say as much himself.

    "You are you, no matter your appearance, Rodimus-dono," she reassured him.

    Hearing the -dono term used again still rested ill at ease for him. "Please, you don’t have to use such an honorific. While I look like this, you can call me Garret, and Rodimus is fine while I’m in my ‘other’ form. And thank you, for understanding."

    "It’s the least I can do," she said, "Garret-san. Thank you so much, for being here, and for being so kind."

    "You deserve nothing less, Sakura." Thinking of this, a lightning bolt flashed inside Garret’s head. "In fact, if you don’t mind, I have a present I’d like to share with you."

    She smiled – the first true smile she had shown in what seemed like an eternity – and nodded. "Okay."

    He stood up and walked a few paces in front of her, and turned to face her.

    A moment later, his shell dematerialised, and reconstituted itself into the form of the current Autobot leader.

    "Incredible…" she whispered, and Rodimus smiled back at Sakura, while sitting down to face her.

    He reached his hands to the centre of his chestplate, and with a tap opened two panels, which swung open in front of him. His hands reached within the cavity, and lifted out an object of incomparable power and majesty.

    "Sakura, I want to give you something very special." He lowered the Matrix in front of her, and gestured her to walk towards it.

    "a vision…" her hand reached towards the light, "…of the universe."

    A moment later, her hand made contact.

    And what she saw in that instant would echo in her mind forever.


    ---------------


    BGM: Steve Jablonsky - Bumblebee)


    Creation.

    An impossible light – or rather, that which made the impossible possible.

    She was everywhere at once, and yet nowhere.

    She was a horde of atoms and molecules, scattered across the rapidly-expanding universe.

    In time, her essence slowed, and clustered around the forming galaxy.

    Her heat burned in ancient stars, her cold lay in endless depths.

    She could feel clumps of her essence join and merge together, and with other atoms and molecules, in a dance of light and darkness.

    And then –

    Booom.

    Her home star breathed its last, and she was scattered across a new expanse.

    But over time, new clumps and clusters began to form.

    More and more of her formed in and around the rocky object building up in orbit of a newly-born star, the third world out from its intense new heat.

    Home?

    Time accelerated – soon the molecules were compacted into new types of shapes, affected by the primordial forces shaping this young world.

    But even then, the clusters which had formed did not last forever.

    She felt the first growth of life, from the ground she was seeped in, the new oceans she was carried away in, to the fledging forms of life she was welcomed in.

    Again and again – she changed her forms and designs, sometimes ten beings at once, other times a hundred, still others a hundred thousand.

    Her dance continued on, as the continents shifted, new species came and went, new triumphs and tragedies affected the story of life on this world.

    The first amphibious beings emerged form the oceans to dry land...

    The forms of life on the continents diversified, taking to the land, the trees, even the skies...

    The rumbling of immense volcanoes, giant upheavals, mass extinctions and new flowerings...

    The striding of immense reptilian beings, dominating the land, the skies and the seas, for millions of years, until a burning harbinger wiped the slate clean once more...

    The emergence of warm-blooded inheritors to the earth - the flight-capable descendants of the fallen reptilians, the mammalian creatures which apread across the land or returned to the oceans...

    Before she knew it, she could see the patterns merging again...

    Her essence was combining into a new form, molecule by molecule, in the midst of a shift in scenery.

    A form which was - is - unique in all of creation, and would be for evermore.

    The human woman called Matou Sakura.

    Who at that moment, could not feel more beautiful.


    Around her, the wind breezed, the birds soared on thermals above, the cetaceans splashed against the waves in the ocean beyond, the land creatures grazed and hunted and otherwise pursued their myriad destinies.


    And she could see beyond the current form her essence resided in, as the images of humanity's journey flashed before her eyes.

    The first cave drawings in the shadow of the Ice Age glaciers...

    The rise of the first temples in Caral, in Sumer, in Giza, in ancient China...

    The crash of the surf, buffeting the prow of the
    baochuan as it sailed the oceans...

    The lights piercing the depths, as the submersible witnessed the bottom of the Marianas Trench...

    The first flight of the Wright Flyer, over the sands of Kitty Hawk...

    The roar of the Saturn V's engines, as it lifted off from Cape Canaveral on its fabled mission...

    The magnificent view of the Earth from space, as the LM Spider is put through its paces...

    The giant leap for mankind, as the first human footprints were made on the surface of the Moon...

    And beyond - the vision raced from the past to the present, and offered a glimpse of the future.

    Beyond the boundaries of humanity.

    Beyond good,

    Beyond evil,

    Beyond her wildest imagination.

    And at its apex…

    Lay the day when all became one.

    In her mind, as she progressed on this incredible journey, she could hear a joyful voice:

    I died as a mineral and became a plant,
    I died as plant and rose to animal,
    I died as animal and I was Man.
    Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
    Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
    With angels blest; but even from angelhood
    I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
    When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
    I shall become what no mind e'er conceived.


    The song made her heart soar...

    ...and she knew, completely, that she was free.



    ---------------


    The vision faded, but the expression of awe was still written all over her face. Rodimus knew that feeling all too well – for he himself had been touched by the Matrix not so long ago. "Thank you, Rodimus-san. I feel… alive."

    He couldn’t have asked for a better response.

    "I’m glad." He lifted up the Matrix, re-atttached it to its casing, and closed up his chestplate once more. A moment later, he was back as Garret-san, and was walking over to Sakura’s side.

    For her part, she was still tingling – every atom in her body felt awakened, and her smile was wider and more genuine than any she could care to remember.

    She wasn’t naïve enough to think that the years of trauma had been blasted away so easily – although she felt none of its effects at that moment. Even so, she felt a new-found confidence, a new kind of understanding.

    She was unique. In the very fabric of her being.

    And she was not alone.

    "It’s a wonderful feeling, Garret-san. I don’t know how to thank you." She embraced him warmly, immensely grateful for the wondrous gift, and for the change it had wrought within.

    Returning the hug, he smiled, and was grateful in turn for the privilege of being there for her when she needed him. "Be yourself, and be all that you can be, Sakura. That is all the thanks I’d ever need, and would ever ask for."

    She nodded in affirmation – she fully intended to do just that.

    As the hug was released, Garret gestured to the door of the residence. "So, they’re probably going to be worried as to what happened to us."

    "I wonder if one of the two other persons you care about is worried as well, Garret-san." She hadn’t needed a vision of the Matrix to know exactly who Garret had been talking about - and to know precisely who the two 'other persons' were.

    "I wouldn’t presume to judge," he tried to say.

    She giggled, as she held his arm with her hand. "I do know that the other is very glad to know you, Garret - and always will be."

    Nodding and smiling, he felt glad to hear it. "Thank you for that, Sakura. So, shall we go join in the fun?"

    "Hai!" She had never sounded quite so happy saying that as she did right at that moment.

    Garret would have to sit down and try and figure out his own issues, and try to help Sakura in any way he could.

    But all of that could wait.

    "Sakura, let’s go."

    And with that, the two friends walked together, the first steps of a new beginning for Matou Sakura.


    ---------------


    End of part 6.
     
  8. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Something weird is going on with the updates...

    Anyway, as you can see, part 6 is ready to go. I hope you like it.


    Gary
     
  9. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    As this Mosaic is set in the F/TF storyline, it should go here, too:

    EDIT: Here is the fixed version!

    [​IMG]


    Gary
     
  10. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Fate/ Trans form - part 7

    --------------


    The sound of a horse whinnying, as its master bade it rear upon its hind legs, echoed through the lightless forest, under the reflected light of a low-hanging moon.

    Now this, at last, thought the rider to himself, is a little more like it.

    The fore hooves crunched down upon the earth, and the horse raced through the gap in the treeline, its breath billowing out of its nostrils in ghostly clouds of steam.

    Its rider, long deprived the sensation of riding on horseback, relished the moment - even if while doing so, he was reminded of the many ways in which this land was so different to the wide-ranging steppe which had served as his people's ancestral home.

    My blessed grandfather, and his father and grandfather before him, could ride upon the wide grasslands for days on end - with only a thinly-covered yurt between him and the elements at night.

    He looked down to the animal which served as his steed, and his animals were far different to the likes of this pampered creature. The horse had been raised in Japan, and was fit and healthy, but quite removed from the sturdy horses of the steppe.

    But no matter.

    While waiting for the latest report from his subordinate - as well as a fresh supply of 'resources' to keep him maintained in this plane of existence - he was content to take in the environment.

    After all, as he would see it, once he established his rightful rule over the islands of Japan, he would have plenty of time to acquaint himself with its unique geography...



    He was shaken from his reverie by a sudden roar, and what looked to him like a growing maw of darkness in the sky above the next clearing.

    His pulse quickening, he races into the clearing, and saw the emerging circle in the heavens above and before him - which seemed to be more than any kind of darkness he had ever seen before.

    Suddenly, a wave of fire burst from the centre of the circle, and spread like a fiery halo out towards the circle's rim. Also, the fiery circle began to descend from the sky, and approached the ground before him.

    "What manner of sorcery is this?" proclaimed the rider aloud, almost challenging the circle to provide him with an answer.

    As the fiery ring reached its zenith, he could have sworn that a deep, rumbling laughter was emanating from the other side...

    ...and two monstrous beings of massive size emerged from the circle, their immense footsteps leaving a deep imprint upon the soft ground beneath them.

    The first being was a winged daemon of destruction, clad in blue and white, with glowing red eyes callously dismissing the spectacle around it as the creature focussed upon the humanoid rider with an unmistakable focus of a hunter.

    The second was a dark, fiery engine of chaos, its chassis aflame, it eyes burning with a seemingly-endless depth of raw, destructive power - and it looked at the humanoid with the view that a biologist might stare at a petrie dish.

    And yet, the rider showed no fear - no beast could cause him to dishonour the memory of his singular legacy.

    For he was the Great Khan, the Son of Heaven... and none would be permitted to forget it.

    "Identify yourselves," proclaimed Kublai, "and explain your intrusion on My rightful lands!"

    The fiery being looked over to its blue-and-white colleague, "This is the world you spoke of?"

    "Indeed so," replied the other. "Mudballs like this always annoy me more than your average planetary body - not least because of vermin like these," he almost spat, pointing over at the Khan, who was iridescent with rage at such arrogance directed at himself.

    "How dare you speak low of me, creature!" he proclaimed, summoning his huntsman's bow and drawing it at the beast.

    "Now, now, that's quite enough," the fiery one said, chuckling, as it waved off the blue daemon and nodded to the Khan. "We have no need to start things off so poorly."

    It lowered its hand, and continued to address Kublai, "We come from afar, and as you can see, we are not quite accustomed to life on carbonite worlds such as your own. Thus, before you fire that weapon at my colleague," he commented without bothering to detail what likelihood the aethyric arrow would even scratch the fiery one's associate, "perhaps I can introduce you to something you might find of interest."

    Not quite satisfied with the reply - or with the singularly dismissive attitude the blue daemon steadfastly maintained - the Khan nevertheless lowered his weapon somewhat, and addressed the fiery one with a curious tone in his voice, "And that might be..."

    Despite the grill in place of the fiery one's mouth, Kublai could have almost pictured that it was smiling, as it raised its hand once more, and produced a sphere of entropic flame.

    "Power," it said simply. "Is that not enough?"

    "It never is," replied the Khan, with a smirk.

    "But it's a start."


    ------------------------------


    Garret lay upon a futon in one of the guest rooms, his head shaking back and forth slightly, until his eyes opened suddenly and he stared up at the ceiling.

    "No, this isn't gonna work," he whispered to himself, giving up on actually being able to get to...

    What do thay call it again? Oh yeah - sleep.

    It was not for lack of fatigue. It had been a long day, and an even longer evening, even without considering the minute detail of having the matter of Sakura laid out in his mind. He was glad that things had gone well when they went back in, and hoped that Primus would see fit to grant her a blissful night's sleep - but He seemed less than eager to help out the poor chap carrying around His prized Matrix.

    He sat up, wiping his eyes, and wondering what time it was - and not remembering why it was that he didn't know already, given his internal chronometer. Instead, he looked around in the half-light, and saw an analogue clock. Assuming he was reading it right, it was just after 3am.

    "Bleurgh..." was all he could say at that point. However, he did notice that his stomach seemed to be rumbling. Wait, I know this one... I seem to be hungry.

    So, he shook off the annoyance at not being used to the thousand and one little things that affected one's life in organic form, and got up to go to the kitchen. Stifling a yawn, he walked - well, plodded - down the corridor, and was soon standing in front of the fridge. He winced slightly when he opened the door, and the fridge light went on - another nuisance.

    Nevertheless, he reached over for a bottle of milk and some kind of wrapped bar or other, and remembered to pour the milk into a glass (which he dug out of one of the cupboards) before wolfing down the contents.

    Feeling somewhat better, he looked out the window and saw the night sky, which was fairly clear, with a fairly bright moon nestled between the faint glow of distant stars.

    I wonder what it's like for most humans to see that sky, he mused to himself, and not know of the wonders - and terrors - that it holds.

    "I was doing something similar a few nights ago, myself," said a familiar voice directly behind him. Surprised, he turned around and saw his fellow night-walker.

    "The pillaging food part, or the staring into the heavens bit, Rin?" Garret replied, smiling as brightly as his clapped-out self could do... which wasn't much, in fairness.

    Rin smiled in turn, though she seemed to be less than fully awake also, "A little of column A, a little of B."

    "Can I get you something?" he asked, holding the fridge door open with one hand, and the bottle of milk in the other.

    "No, I'll be fine," she answered, "but if you like, you can join me in the other room."

    "Sounds fair enough to me," not least since he wasn't having much success doing anything else, "though I wish I was in a more alert state, so I could provide you with better company."

    She smiled in turn. "You'll do just fine."


    A short time later, they were sitting in the living room, as Rin placed a set of unlit candles onto the tabletop. Then, she lifted up a customised lighter she had brought with her, and sat on her knees at the table's edge, lighting the candles one by one. Garret joined her at the table, sitting on his hind legs as she was.

    "What kind of ceremony is this?" he asked, wanting to know more.

    "This..." she responded quietly, "it's nothing formal, really, not part of any specific ritual I had in mind. I just thought of it not so long ago, and wanted to give it a try. I've... we've all been through a lot in the last few weeks, and I guess I wanted to..."

    "...to pay your respects, to meitate on things, or something?" he added, before raising his hand to his mouth, "sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you."

    She turned to him, and nodded. "It's ok - and you're right. I appreciate cleverness." Turning the lighter delicately in her hand, she offered it to him. "There's one more candle left, if you have anything you'd like to commemorate."

    He took the lighter carefully, and moved to light the last candle. "Thank you, and as a matter of fact, there is something - or rather, there are some things."

    "Anything you would like to talk about?" she asked, as she clasped her hands together, and focussed on the flickering candlelight - particularly, the one atop the red-coloured candle, which was a distinct contrast to the white candles otherwise arrayed upon the tabletop. "Don't mind my posture like this - I'm listening."

    "Thank you, Rin," he said, before taking a deep breath, focussing on the flame of the candle he had lit. "As a matter of fact, it's close to the anniversary of what a Terran author might consider to be a series of unfortunate events."

    "Oh?" she replied, raising an eyebrow. "How so?"

    His eyes closed, as the memories of two years ago surfaced in his mind. "Well, there's a lot to it, so I'll try to explain as concisely as I can - but it happened in the year 2005..."


    BGM: Cybertron, Transformers: The Score

    As he told her about the defining moments of his existence, he went from the innocence of peace to the brutal Decepticon assault on Autobot City, which left many of his colleagues dead - including some of the '84s, the legendary heroes who had been buried under Mount St. Helens for millions of years, who had been part of Optimus Prime's inner circle from the very beginning, and who had held the line in the secret war on Earth when all they had was the Ark and each other. Some of them were already dead before the assault even took place - had he and Daniel not spotted the damage to the inbound shuttle, so might everyone else assigned to the base.

    He remembered the renewed hope among the embattled defenders, as Prime had arrived at the vanguard of a fresh wave of reinforcements. Indeed, Prime did it, he turned the tide - he drove the Decepticons to retreat, and had Megatron on the ropes...

    ...until I stepped in.

    The lancing pain at the moment, the helplessness he felt as he struggled in Megatron's grasp, as the tyrant used a discarded pistol to bring Optimus to his knees, the contemptuous dismissal of the Decepticon leader as he tossed him to the side before approaching Prime's broken body, the moment of joy at seeing the last act of defiance as Prime sent Megatron flying, only to be shattered by the thump heard when Prime went to ground.

    Optimus... forgive me...

    Words which stung as sharply now as when he had said them in anguish.

    "The medics did all they could, but the wounds were... fatal."

    "I'm sorry," Rin said softly, her gaze turned towards him.

    "I was there, in the medbay, at the end. He - he told us not to grieve, that soon, he would be one with the Matrix," Garret said, with a gesture to his chest, referring to that for which he bore the burden hardest to bear.

    "He was thinking of others, to the end," she said, pained to see the weight that the moment had for him.

    He nodded. "He passed it on to Ultra Magnus, his brother, but before he could hand it over, it slipped from his hand, and I caught it before it hit the ground."

    He remembered the fleeting connection which had flowed through his hands at its touch - and how it had slipped away as soon as it had arrived. He shook his head at how little he could have suspected what was to come.

    Suddenly, Rin's expression changed to a more inquisitive one. "Wait, what do you mean, brother? How does that work for you?"

    "Well," he replied, "when new sparks are created, sometimes they 'bud', or split into two distinct, yet similar, forms - and each merges with a protoform to create a new life form."

    "Hmm... so kind of like fraternal twins?" she replied. "Human ones, I mean."

    "That's it," affirming her deduction. "I appreciate cleverness, too!"

    They both smiled, as his comment broke the mood somewhat.

    "Naturally!" she half-yawned, as the tiredness started to catch up to her. "I'm sorry, I want to hear the rest, but I think it's all starting to catch up with me."

    "I understand," replied Garret, as he struggled to stand up, and offer a hand to help her get up in turn.

    As she took his hand and stood, she asked him something more. "I take it you still haven't done it yet, have you?"

    "Done what?" he wondered, not quite cmputing.

    "I thought not."

    She leaned over to his shoulder, and whispered into his ear, "I forgive you."

    He blinked. "Forgive me?"

    "Yes," she continued. "You haven't learned how to forgive yourself for what happened, so I'm doing it for you."

    At that, he blushed profusely, completely taken aback. She was right - he had not forgiven himself over that day, and rued never being able to find a sense of closure with Prime - well, the previous Prime. But he had kept it mostly to himself, all too aware of the brave face he had to cultivate in front of a re-building populace, both here and across the galaxy.

    "Thank you, Rin. It means a lot to me."

    She put her hand on his shoulder. "And what you did for Sakura means a lot to me."

    So she had found out, one way or another.

    "And even if you hadn't," she added, "you have to learn how to reconcile yourself with your mistakes and might-have-beens - though I admit that I might not be one to talk..."

    Her hand tensed on his shoulder, and Garret could see that she herself had deep wounds to heal, as did he.

    And so, he reached over and held her loose hand in his.

    "How about we try and help each other learn to do just that?"

    She smiled, and grasped his hand, and shoulder, tightly, before loosening her grip once more. "That sounds like something I could try."

    "Okay." It was all that needed to be said.

    For now, at least.


    --------------------------------------------------


    "Onii-chaaaan! Wakeupwakeupwakeupwakeup..."

    The annoyingly sprightly figure of Ilya was banging her fists against the side of the twin futon where Shirou and Artia lay, and if the young von Einzbern had any inhibitions about bursting into the room where two lovers were sleeping, she showed none of it.

    "Ugh... Ilya... Come on..." said Shirou, regretting how late he had stayed up during the party.

    Artia, in contrast, sprang up in her futon, and looked over to Ilya with a less-than-joyous expression.

    "Ilyasviel! It seems you have yet to learn about the proper in-house etique-Whoa!" Her impromptu lecture was interrupted as Ilya jumped over and gave her a massive flyting hug.

    "Artia-nee-san! You know you can call me Ilya! And this is what you guys get for being slow-pokes!" the little one declared in a fit of laughter. "Slowpokesslowpokesslowpokes!"

    "Come here, you!" Said Garret, who had managed to get a little bit of sleep after all. He swept through the opened door, scooped Ilya over his shoulder, and turned to face the door. "You should meet my friend Blurr - he talks almost as quickly as you do!"

    Ilya kicked her legs about, half annoyed at being torn away from her playthings, half excited at having her big Transformer-san friend carry her around! "I'll get you next time, Shirou!" she called out, as she was led out of the room.

    "And you're welcome, by the way," added Rin, who was standing at the door, and closed it after Garret had passed through.


    Shirou was somewhat nonplussed.

    "Anyone catch the number of that freight train?" Less a freight train, more a space shuttle.

    Artia looked over to her beloved, and smiled. "It seems that families take time to get used to, Shirou."

    All it took was for her to say his name like that, and he was fully awake again.

    It was a very useful ability of hers.


    --------------------------------------------------


    Another breakfast was being devoured, another get-togeher around the table, and another set of smiles and jokes flying back and forth.

    Garret sat beside Rin and Sakura, delighted to see the lift in mood in the latter, and still grateful for the support from the former.

    "You seem very happy this morning, Sakura," he said to his plum-haired friend, as Rin looked over to her sister with a similarly-wide smile.

    "I feel like today is a fresh start, Garret-san - and I'm here with you, nee-san and everyone. I feel very happy."

    Rin leaned over and gave her sis a kiss and a hug, so glad to be able to express the fraternal bond after so long apart.

    "And I'm happy too, Sakura," she said.

    "Grouphuggrouphug!" yelled Ilya, who had been spying them from across the table, and had just got up to run over and glomp the two of them. Rin looked kind of annoyed, while Sakura chuckled, but both returned the hug.

    "Man, this is fun!" Garret thought out loud, thinking of how different it was when he, Metalhawk and others were working at the command centre...

    ...wait a second.

    "Um, where's Hawk?" he asked, looking around the table, "and where is Fujimura-san, for that matter?"

    "Hehe", was all Ilya would say, though the mischievous look on her face, and the finger held up to her lips, told a lot more. Although, while it was one thing to burst in and play with onii-chan, she knew that to enter the lair of the tiger was to invite certain doom...

    A round of blushes and muffled coughs did the rounds at the table.

    That poor, poor man,
    Garret thought to himself. He's dancing with the devil, now.

    "A-anyway, Ilya, I was wondering - do you not have anyone who might be wondering where you are, and how you are doing? I heard you were camped out at the Einzbern castle during the War." Garret hoped that changing the subject might help.

    "Me? Um..." Ilya spun on the spot, thinking. "Nope, no-one!" she fiaally said, with a big smile.

    "No-one at all?" said Shirou, disconcerted at the thought of Ilya having been cooped up all alone in that big mansion.

    "Nope!" she replied. "Well, except for Sella and Leysritt, but I've no idea what they are up to."

    Shirou and Garret exchanged confused looks, before the former asked "Well, shoudn't we go and see where they are, and see if they are ok?"

    "Umumum... ok!" she cheerfully responded. "But if they want to take me back to the Einzbern, I won't go!"

    She stopped suddenly, a wave of coldness washing over her. "I won't ever go back to them ever ever again!"

    Shirou got up and gave her a hug, squeezing her close. "You won't, Ilya. This will always be your home, if you want it to be."

    "YAY!" Her mood shifting to intense relief. "Thank you, Onii-chan."

    With that, a mood of relief spread across the table, and Garret thought of something.

    "In that case, how about we split things up? You and Artia could go with Ilya over to the castle - it would be good flying practice. Meanwhile, Rin and I could scout out around town and see if anything is up there..."

    "...and since you can turn into a truck, you can carry the groceries home, too," added Rin, quite eager to have a 'helper' again since... since the last one, she thought for a moment, before burying it.

    "Fair enough," Garret answered, hands held up as if to say 'you got me', "and Sakura, could you keep an eye on things here, while Aquila comes back to go over a few things and we... find out just what happened to Fujimura-san and Hawk?"

    "Hai!" she replied, giggling at the prospect of seeing the look on Taiga's face when she found out what they thought she was up to. "As long as you bring me along on your next drive, Rodimus-dono."

    "Yes ma'am!" he saluted, as he started to help pack the plates and stuff away. "You don't have to call me -dono, though. Feels awfully formal."

    "If you insist, Rodimus-dono!" she cheerfully replied, enjoying the chance to make such a joke, though it still took a little getting used to.

    "Riiiiight."


    --------------------------------------------------


    Soon, the table was cleared, Aquila confirmed he was inbound, and Ilya had explained what Sella and Leysritt looked like - apparently, women with snow-white hair and red eyes were uncommon enough in Japan to make spotting them relatively easy.

    "Ok then, everyone," said Garret, as he returned to biomechanical form and transformed into his truck mode, "let's roll out!"

    With that, Rin jumped into the passenger's seat - letting him do the driving - while Shirou sat Ilya on his lap in Saber's cockpit, and the two teams set off, with Sakura waving them off... wondering whether she should make something extra for Fujimura-san to devour once she turned up.


    However, none of them had realised that their departure had been observed - despite the precautions taken to mask such efforts.

    While the observer had only one eye left to see what had transpired, it was enough to let him see what needed to be seen, though the lack of depth perception was a slight nuisance.

    His sovereign had commanded him to search for any potential threats to his coming reign, and these unknowns seemed to be prime candidates. Nevertheless, he had to learn more, before he could present his findings to the Khan.

    The time is not yet ripe,
    he thought to himself, as he watched from the shadows. Not yet, but soon.


    --------------------------------------------------


    End of Part 7.
     
  11. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Part 8

    --------------------------------------------------


    Through a clear, bright sky, over the bustle of Fuyuki-shi, flew a distinctively-shaped craft - though the sight would be a difficult one for the average citizen to notice, through the stealth system integrated into its being.

    Or rather, her being.


    "How are you settling into this flying thing, Saber?" asked Shirou, remembering the name that his beloved preferred to use while in biomechanical form. He was currently sitting in the pilot's seat, with an awed Ilya on his lap, gaping out at the sights beyond - but Saber was doing the flying.

    "It... is difficult to explain, Shirou - but I believe I am becoming more acquainted with it, with practice," she replied, her unique voice sounding ever-so-slightly different through the internal comm system than from her human lips.

    "Wooooooooooah... this is soooo coooooool..." gasped Ilya, for once not jumping around and causing a fuss - which, unsurprisingly, would have been a bother in the relatively small canopy.

    Keen to focus on the task at hand, Saber added "Shirou, Illyas... Ilya, we are approaching the forest surrounding the Einzbern castle."

    "Oh, ok", said Ilya, somewhat reluctant to turn away from her reverie, "I'll have a look out and see if I recognise them, but I think they would be at the Castle anyway..."

    Her words dropped off, as it sank in that she was returning to a place that had been a symbol of the family that had treated her with far less compassion than she still fondly remembered when her parents were with her - or that she had discovered while living at the Emiya residence.

    "It's alright, Ilya," Shirou reassured her, "we're here with you, and we'll be going again once we find... um... what are their names again?"

    "Sella and Leysritt, silly!" she joked, heartened by her onii-chan's presence. "You better not forget when we meet them, you know!"

    "Ok, ok," he conceded, hoping that he wouldn't do just that. She should at least let me know which one is which when we get there, he thought to himself.

    "Oh, by the way, while it's just the three of us here," asked Ilya, "has he figured it out yet, Saber-nee-chan?"

    Shirou was somewhat confused, while Saber was somewhat reticent. "He... I... I have yet to fully explain the matter, Ilya."

    "Oooh, so he doesn't realise it yet, does he, nee-chan?" replied the mischievous youth.

    "Um..." stumbled Shirou, clearly nonplussed, "realise what, exactly?"

    "Just why I call you onii-chan, Shirou," answered Ilya, with a much more serious tone to her voice.

    However, before the line of reasoning could continue, a flash of light, or perhaps a reflection, could be seen coming from within the forest. "There is something in the vicinity of an outlying building nearby. I believe that it is the..."

    Shirou recognised it, also. "Yeah, it looks like that place, alright."

    Ilya had a look, and was not quite sure what it was the two of them were so hesitant about. "It's just a worn-out shack, kinda ew if you ask me. Is that where you guys were hiding when Berserker and I..."

    She stopped, when she realised that despite her bravado at the Emiya residence, she hadn't completely gotten over the loss of her Servant - or wanted to bring up the circumstances of his demise with her present company.

    "Y... yeah, something like that," said Shirou, not quite willing to say anything more.

    "I will land there at once. When I do so, please disembark, and we will explore further." Saber took the route of focussing on the present, rather than trying to dwell on the not-quite-distant past.

    "Ok," replied Shirou, while Ilya nodded.

    They had work to do.


    --------------------------------------------------


    Meanwhile, a very distinctive red vehicle, with flame details on its hood and flanks, was entering the Shinto district of the city. Its passenger was on the look out for anything unorthodox, as was the consciousness doing the driving.

    "This is the place you wanted to start the search, Rin?" asked Rodimus, as the street layout of the area appeared on the holo-display on the dashboard.

    "This is the one," she replied, looking over the city layout. Maybe I should ask him if he can make it across the tops of the buildings, the way Ar... she was trying to think to herself, before stopping in mid-sentence.

    "Ok, in that case we can follow a pretty straightforward route through the area, before we move on to our next..." He was interrupted by a beeping signal on the dash, indicating an incoming transmission. "Sorry, one moment - I better take this."

    With a click, the city layout was shifted to a smaller box within a larger holo-display, while the main image was replaced with one that Rodimus had not seen in some time, and that Rin had yet to see herself.

    "Hello, Magnus," said Rodimus, "you're out of your armour today, I see." He was trying not to show how the all-too-close similarity that Ultra Magnus' smaller, inner biomech form had to the being who had once been the guardian of the Matrix of Leadership.

    Indeed, it was almost certainly for that reason that Magnus himself only rarely let himself go anywhere without the outer armour on, as he sought to avoid the inevitable comparisons between him and his lost brother.

    "Indeed - I am currently running a series of diagnostics on it, and have to go without for the time being." If Magnus had any doubts about his current appearance, he was expertly hiding it.

    "I see," replied Rodimus. "Oh, by the way, Tohsaka Rin, I'd like you to meet City Commander Ultra Magnus, my second-in-command."

    "Hajimemashite, Ultra Magnus-san," said Rin in greeting, nodding to the image on-screen.

    "Thank you kindly, ma'am - yoroshiku," said Magnus in return, also nodding.

    "You are the brother of Optimus Prime, correct?" she asked, in a carefully-measured tone.

    Magnus stopped for a moment, and answered, "Yes, I have that great privilege."

    Cybertronic life form or no, Rin could sense the undercurrent of feeling in his words.

    "I only know a little about what happened, but I wanted to say that I'm sorry for your loss, Magnus. My... my own sister was lost to me when I was very young, and I felt that I would never be able to share that connection I had with her again - and while I have been gifted with the chance to build bridges with her once more, I..." she stopped for a few moments, holding off the tears swelling along the rims of her eyes, "found out just what kind of fate I had lost her to."

    "Rin..." said Rodimus quietly, all too aware of what she was referring to.

    "Please, let me finish," she said, wiping her eyes before continuing, "I am at least fortunate enough to be able to try and do my best for Sakura from now on - but I can only imagine how it must be for you, to not be able to do the same for your brother. And so, I just wanted... to offer my condolences to you, if that's not too much for me to say."

    Magnus closed his optics, feeling the loss and hurt in her words, as he struggled with those same types of emotions he himself was all too good at burying when on duty as City Commander. He wasn't usually one to dwell on things when a job was to be done, but even he couldn't run forever.

    "Ma'am..." he started to say, before she interrupted by saying "Please, call me Rin."

    "Very well, Rin," he continued, "I greatly appreciate your words and sentiments, and I only wish that you had been given the opportunity to meet my brother in person - he would have liked you."

    She smiled, grateful for the reply.

    "Further, I want you to know that, while I cannot claim to be an expert on these matters, if there is anything I can do on you or your sister's behalf, Rin, please do not hesitate to ask." His usual reassured tone could be heard returning to his voice, as he offered to do what he did best - offer aid to a friend, even a new-found one.

    "I'll remember that - and thank you, Magnus," replied Rin, whose spirits were raised in response. "I look forward to meeting you, and introducing you to my sister - you are always welcome here."

    "Count on it!" he affirmed.

    "So, at the risk of sounding insensitive, what news do you have for today, Magnus?" interjected Rodimus, who was very grateful to be able to call both Ultra Magnus and Tohsaka Rin friends.

    "Of course," nodded Magnus in reply. "I have word from Perceptor - it seems that the subspace fluctuations impeding comm traffic and FTL travel to and from Sol seems to be dissipating - we should be able to re-establish contact with the allied worlds within 12 to 46 hours."

    "Good to hear," replied Rodimus, who explained to Rin that "we've been cut off for a short while now from the homeworld and from the wider galaxy, due to some natural phenomenon I can't explain all too well - but we should be back in touch pretty soon."

    "In that case, it seems I will have a lot of reading material to cover over the coming days and weeks, if I want to try and catch up on this sort of thing," she sighed, only half-heartedly.

    The expression on Magnus' faceplate indicated to Rodimus that he was becoming more impressed by the sharp-witted human - not too many of whom were so quick to volunteer the study required to develop a working understanding of their technologies and systems, as well as the advanced scientific principles underpinning them.

    "Any further updates, Magnus?" inquired Rodimus.

    "Nothing unusual to report at Autobot City, Rodimus," was the reply.

    "Very well. We're taking part in a little investigation on this end, so we'd better get to it. Let me know once interstellar comms are re-established."

    "Yes, sir," said Magnus. "Good luck, to both of you."

    "And you," replied Rin, as Rodimus added "Until next time, friend. Rodimus out."

    The line was dropped, and the display returned to its previous state, showing the path they were set to take.

    "What kind of armour were you referring to?" asked Rin, unsure as to that detail from earlier.

    "Oh," replied Rodimus, "the form you saw on screen was the part of him that transforms into a truck cab. He has a trailer that he usually drives with, and merged into when out and about. He looks quite different when in that form, which is the one he prefers to go with."

    "I see," she said while considering this. "Why is that?"

    "Well..." he answered, "there are a number of reasons, I suppose - but one answer might be that the form you saw him in today is the same, colour scheme aside, as the one used by his brother."

    "Oh, I see." If they looked so closely alike as a cab alone, it made some sense to Rin that going about in the trailer-armour would help him appear more distinct.

    She remembered something, as they set off on their search. "Oh, by the way, would you mind continuing the story from earlier - the one about what happened in 2005?"

    "Oh, yeah - of course. Now, where was I..."


    --------------------------------------------------


    "Sakura-chaaaan! Isn't it a truly wonderful day today? I think you'd agree, hm-hmmm..."

    Sakura was not quite used to the sensei being in such a... pleased mood in the mornings. She hadn't even eaten her breakfast yet, and she was purring like a ti- on second thought, using that analogy was a little too easy for her to use, and quite improper to use aloud, at any rate.

    Nevertheless, contingencies had been made earlier that morning, and food had been stored in the fridge, ready for the sensei to enjoy...

    ...with some left over for the rather shell-shocked gentleman who was accompanying her to the table.

    Sakura had not met many of the Pretender-san-tachi yet - but it was interesting that they seemed to be able to have bags under their eyes, as well as regular humans.

    Despite this, he seemed to not mind very much.

    "Good morning, Sakura-dono," he greeted her politely, "thank you for being so generous with the f-"

    "Now now, you're not going to upset me by using such an honorific for another woman, are you, Hawk?" pouted Fujimura-sensei, only half-seriously.

    Sakura was too busy blushing at the turn of events to respond.

    "I'm... sure he was just being polite, as a welcome guest, Fujimura-sensei," she quietly said.

    "Maybe so..." Taiga responded, "but I guess he's just going to have to reconsider his level of politesse in future, ne?"

    The expression on Hawk's face seemed to indicate that he was still trying to understand just what he had let himself in for - as if prior evidence had not been enough.

    But when they sat down together, and she turned around to smile at him, he thought of the words they had shared in the build-up, and was content.

    They had much to discuss the previous evening - entrusting her with at least part of his true history, he had told her about the life he had lived on these islands for such a long time.

    In that time, he and his colleagues had tried to keep their interference with the development of the local human cultures to a minimum - but whole lifetimes spent as humans themselves meant that each had to deal with the unexpected in their own way, most importantly matters of their now-human hearts.

    Hawk himself had found extraordinary women in his lifespan - one every five or six hundred years, or maybe even once a millennium, who he felt such a bond with that he could entrust them with his secret, and try to build a relationship with while they were alive.

    And yet, there was the rub. No matter how well they kept the secret - and each one of them had taken this to the grave with them - the inevitable consequence of his longer lifespan was that he would have to see them grow old and pass on, or in more tragic circumstances, see them fall to injury or disease far easier than he.

    He had deeply loved each one, and mourned each, as he swore he would try to avoid such a tragedy in future - only to find himself unable to deny the calling of his heart, when the cycle began anew.

    He had not allowed himself to love for over three centuries - how could he let the same thing happen now?

    In the end, it was she who had the answer.

    She told him of her love for a man who had come into her life, with a red-headed orphan in tow, and who was so close to her, yet too far for her to even say anything to him about her true feelings.

    She was boisterous and excitable and enthusiastic - but she was afraid to at least try to say something to that man, deathly afraid that he, an older man who seemed always to be withdrawn, would say no.

    But one day, he was gone, any chance at expressing herself buried along with him - and she realised that she would have rather told Emiya Kiritsugu how she felt and had him turn her down than have done nothing.

    Even with an expanded lifespan, she reminded Hawk that both of them could be dead tomorrow, and all the worrying over what is to be would be for naught.

    So, she had jumped at the chance - literally - to make him a part of her life, and made it quite clear that she was in no mood to let him get away.

    And, in truth, there was nowhere else he'd rather be.


    "Ok, so you'll be walking me home, then?" she asked brashly, as they both finished their breakfasts - her wolfing the food down far more quickly than he - to no-one's great surprise.

    "Gladly, Fujimura," he replied, as he readied his plate for the kitchen sink, and nodded in gratitude once more to Sakura for having the food ready.


    Soon afterward, the two of them were at the entrance, as Hawk opened a channel to the incoming Autobot.

    "Jetfire, this is Hawk. Are you inbound?"

    "I'll be there momentarily, Hawk," replied the other, who in human form was known as Aquila Bolide.

    "Very well. I'm sending you the latest tactical update." Hawk tapped the controls on his comm-watch, and sent a burst of data to the inbound air guardian.

    With the transmission complete, the line was severed, as Hawk guided Taiga home, the latter waving back to Sakura.

    "Don't have too much fun without meeeeee!" she shouted, as they were on their way, and Sakura was happy that the sensei was in such high spirits.

    She was not left alone for long, however, as a large white-and-red jet flew over the house, transformed infront of her and came to a standstill on the grounds, before de-molecularising and assuming the form of a human scientist.

    "Hello, Sakura, it is a pleasure to see you again," he said. "I will have to go on patrol in the area soon, but before I go I have some details to take care of presently. May I enter?"

    "Hai, welcome," she replied, stepping to one side and welcoming Aquila in - while still marvelling at the robotic - no, biomechanical! - form he had landed in.


    As she turned to re-enter the house, she did not notice the onlooker, who had been at his vantage point for some time, still waiting for the right moment to act.

    It seems, the unwelcome stranger thought to himself, that the time is almost ripe.


    --------------------------------------------------


    (to be continued...)
     
  12. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    (...continued)


    --------------------------------------------------


    In the air just before the entrance to the worn-out shack, Saber came to a halt, opened the canopy to allow Shirou and Ilya to reach the ground, before transforming and de-molecularising, as she re-assumed her human form.

    Shirou noticed that she seemed to look slightly... different. "Did you make a change to your armour, Saber?"

    "Yes," she nodded. Her current suit of armour was less cumbersome and more form-fitting than the original, and the blue she had worn was replaced with lily-white. Also, her elaborate braids were currently shorn, in favour of a more simple ponytail tied in a black bow. "It seems that I have a degree of control over the form in which my armour may take - and I decided to adopt this form for the time being. Does it impress you, Shirou?"

    He felt that there was no need to even ask that question, the answer was so obvious - but he smiled and nodded all the same. "You look wonderful as ever, my dearest."

    "Oooh, still getting all wovey-dovey when we've got a mission to carry out, ne?" teased Ilya, as she gestured to the shack.

    Saber simply re-affirmed her more professional demeanour in response, while Shirou sighed more outwardly. "Fine, then - let's see what we have here..."

    As the three approached, the door - which was slightly ajar - creaked open slightly, and a trace of a shadow could be noticed in the slit leading into the other side.

    Saber made ready to draw her sword, but Shirou raised a palm to request a more cautious approach. "If it's them, there shouldn't be much of a need to barge in with weapons drawn, Saber," he whispered over to her.

    "I would rather be prepared for other eventualities," she replied, also in a whisper - her hand held ready to draw her blade from the aethyr if necessary.

    "Maybe I should ask if it's them?" added Ilya, before turning on the spot, grinning, and shouting "Hello, is there anybody in t-"

    With that, the door was flung open - and a fiery-eyed lady on the other end, armed with an elaborately-decorated halberd, aggressively shushed the little one while gesturing to her lips with her index finger.

    She was soon joined by another, a far more nervous-looking woman, who seemed like she hadn't slept in days, and was unsure what to make of the new arrivals.

    Ilya, in contrast, was less constrained - she rushed over and reached out a hand to each of the women, who looked down at her with something akin to shock.

    "We... we weren't sure whether or not you'd made it back alive, ojou-sama," said Leysritt, who at least smiled slightly at seeing Ilya again.

    Sella, the unarmed one, was less pleased - and a lot more nervous. "Y-you... you could have said something, tried to find us earlier! After Berserker was killed, and you vanished from the estates, we were ordered to wait here at the castle - and when the War ended, we were cut off from the Einzbern family back home. And just when we were getting ready to bring what we were able to try and pack together to try and get out of here, we..."

    Ilya's happy expression vanished, as she looked up at the two ladies who had been the closest thing she had had to family in the days after her parents left for the Fourth Heaven's Feel, and before she found her onii-chan in the course of the just-ended Fifth.

    "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been so selfish - I was so happy to be with onii-chan-tachi that I forgot to..." As Ilya's words were spoken, the two women looked over at Shirou with conflicting expressions. The halberd-wielding one seemed less upset to hear Ilya's words, glad to see the young man who had been able to bring her charge such happiness. The other, far less trusting of who she saw as an outsider in general, and rather un-nerved due to circumstance in particular, looked over at him with an icy contempt.

    "Are you happy, you who took her away from me?" she shouted angrily at Shirou, as Leysritt bade her to keep her tone down, and to rein in her emotions - but then, she in turn was holding on by a hair's breadth.

    "I - I'm sorry, but if you have no-where to go, and you want to be with Ilya, you can come back with us, ok?" he hastily responded, knowing immediately that Sabers' eyes were boring holes in the back of his skull.

    "Are you in danger of making another unwise decision, Shirou?" Saber asked with a calm tone, but which belied the suspicions she held about this further act of impulsiveness by the man who had once been her Master, but was now something more than such a term could accurately describe.

    "Please forgive Sella, Emiya Shirou," said Leysritt, almost pleadingly, "We only want what's best for Ilya, and would welcome your hospitality -" she turned to Sella, staring at her momentarily to indicate her displeasure, before turning back and adding "- and I plead with you to let us get going at once. This place is not safe, for any of us."

    If that comment had not focussed everyone's attention on the need for haste, the arrow launched from the surrounding cloud cover into the air, detonating in the skies above the shack, certainly did so.

    "Shirou, be on guard!" ordered Saber, as she drew Excalibur and faced the direction where the arrow had been fired from, assuming a defensive stance.

    Shirou was swift to respond. "Done. Ilya, get behind me!" he added, as he Traced Kanshou and Bakuya, and stood to arms between Ilya and the front of the shack. He was joined on one flank by Leysritt, who was preparing her halberd, as Sella moved beside Ilya to try and cover her.

    "Who goes there?" declared Saber, challenging whoever had fired the arrow to make themselves known.

    A mocking tone echoed through the wood, as the rider replied. "Perhaps I should be the one to ask that question - who presumes to interrupt my pursuit, and deny me my quarry?"

    With this, the rider emerged from the canopy, and appeared atop the back of a supernatural steed - or rather, one which had somehow been granted that attribute by its new owner.

    The Khan nudged his horse forth, the silvery flanks upon his armour streaked through with bands of dark, wispy flamelight, his jet-black bow in his right hand, a curved scimitar in the left, and a gleam of utter arrogance in his eyes.

    "No matter - I, the Son of Heaven, will claim each one of you as my trophies!"

    With that, he sheathed his sword, drew another arrow, and fired it at the assembled group. The missile was intercepted by the keen edge of Excalibur, and parried into another corner of the forest. The arrow landed, detonated, and had set that portion ablaze.

    "Shirou! The wind is light, but still enough to carry the flame towards the building. I will engage the attacker, while you lead the - " Her statement was cut short as a lance of focussed energy hit the ground before her, knocking her backwards, as a blue-and-white craft suddenly emerged in the skies above, and streaked past the scene.

    "Saber!" Shirou shouted over as he moved forward closer to her, instinctively throwing his mirrored swords into the air at the Khan and immediately Tracing a new pair in their stead. The Khan easily blocked the strike, but it was just long enough to buy them a moment's time. "Are you hurt, Saber?"

    "I will be fine," she said quickly, as she lifted herself up.

    "Go and transform, and do something about that one in the air," said Shirou. "I'll see what I can do to keep this other one at bay until then."

    "Hai," she answered, immediately jumping into the air, re-molecularising herself into her biomechanical form, then transforming and racing to engage her new opponent.

    "Good luck, Saber," he whispered, as he jumped backwards and prepared to defend himself. Suddenly remembering the device he had been left with, he reached into his pocket and tossed the comm unit over to the others. "Ilya, use that to call for help - hurry!"

    Leysritt, determined to fight for her lady, moved forward to stand alongside Shirou once more, her anger rising palpably at the sight of the mounted rider. "If you want to threaten my ojou-sama, you'll have to get through me, also!"

    The Khan smirked, amused by the defiance. "Fear not, woman - I will have room for you and your charge in my plans, make no mistake!"

    Meanwhile, Ilya picked up the comm unit, and sat with a now-shaking Sella as she tried to switch it on. Frustratingly, the display on the unit would only say Signal lost - transmission disrupted when she tried to switch it on.

    "It's not working!" she complained, as she saw the distant flames get closer and brighter, and tried to hold down the urge to throw the unit to the ground as she might a disfavoured toy.

    Yet, seeing the expression on Sella's face was enough for her to draw upon what seemed to be a well-spring of calmness and confidence - as if a part of her knew instinctively what to do.

    "It's going to be ok, Sella," she said in a deeper tone than usual, as she held her hand and they both stood up to face the battle.

    "We're going to get out of this."


    --------------------------------------------------


    After taking a short time to work at the equipment he had left in the corner of the training room, Aquila left them running several diagnostics and investigative subroutines, as he returned to the main hall and addressed Sakura once more.

    "Ma'am, I am to commence an aerial patrol of the area - but if you require my assistance, please take this." He took a comm unit, similar to the one given to Shirou, and handed it to her. "I, or one of my colleagues, will be at your disposal as soon as can be, should you need us."

    "Hai, and thank you, Bolide-san," she replied, as she took the device and held on to it.

    "Good day, Sakura," he added, as he walked into the grounds, took his biomechanical form, and prepared to depart. Before he left, he reached for the visored helmet covering his features, which he lifted off, showing his normal face, before bowing.

    "When I am like this, my name is Jetfire," he said, "please use whichever term of address you find appropriate, if it is not an inconvenience."

    Sakura looked on in wonder at the massive bio-mechanical form, still taken aback each time she saw one of his kind assume such a form. "As you wish, Jetfire-san."

    Re-attaching his helmet, he nodded once more. "Torimasu," he said jokingly, as he lifted himself into the air, transformed into his alternate mode, and set off to begin his circuit over the city.

    Sakura waved, and went inside, her thoughts turning to what she might like to make herself for lunch.

    And the onlooker who had remained motionless up to this point gestured his horse onwards, towards the frontier of the Emiya residence.


    --------------------------------------------------


    The story of 2005 rolled on, as Rodimus talked about the desperate signals from the moonbases, speaking of a monster planet set on destroying - indeed, consuming - Cybertron's two largest moons. The need to head from Earth to Alpha Centauri was made more pressing by the attack led by Galvatron, a being the Autobots had, it was thought at the time, not encountered before, and who was leading a new and deadly force of Decepticon warriors and trackers.

    Rodimus talked about the struggles on the surface of Quintessa, as he, Kup and others ran the gauntlet laid down by the sadistic Quintessons, and managed to even go so far as to turn the tables on the fave-faced ones, by inciting a slave rebellion among their Sharkticon minions. In the midst of the upheaval, his group had escaped Quintessa aboard a captured cruiser, and made it to the surface of Junk, where a swift application of a lesson taught to him by his often-tested mentor resulted in an accord with the Junkions present, as well as the repair of Ultra Magnus, who had been forced into emergency stasis lock by the actions of Galvatron's Sweeps.

    But hope had turned to despair when Magnus was asked about the Matrix, the artefact seen as the one hope to save their home world...


    ...but it was gone.

    "Hang on, I better check in with the others, and see how they are doing," said Rodimus, sorry to have to break up the story once more.

    "Go ahead, we're having no luck here anyway," replied Rin, who was ken to hear more of the events, but could wait to get to the end later.

    "Rodimus Prime to Saber, come in..." he signalled, as he activated the comm net. "Rodimus to Saber, please respond..."

    Rin's expression changed to one of concern, as no answer was forthcoming. "It's not like her to simply ignore you - something might be up. Can you reach Shirou?"

    "I'll try," he said while trying to lock in on the signal from his comm unit. "Shirou, this is Rodimus, can you hear me?"

    Still nothing.

    "Let me check in with the other Autobots in the area," said Rodimus, changing tack and hoping for better luck from one of his colleagues.

    A pair of incoming beeps indicated replies from Hawk and Jetfire. "Hawk, Jetfire, this is Rodimus. I'm having trouble reaching Saber and Shirou - they had gone along with Ilya to the Einzbern grounds. Do either of you pick up anything unusual?"

    "Not on my end, Rodimus-dono," replied Hawk, who had just reached Fujimura-sensei's residence.

    "I'm not detecting a comm signal, but I am attempting to scan the forested area," added Jetfire, who was in patrol over the city, and was using as much of his sophisticated sensor suite as he could risk using without being detected in turn.

    "I have something!" he responded. "EM and sub-scans are being disrupted, but visuals indicate a small, yet growing, incendiary blaze within the forest, and what seem to be weapon flashes in the vicinity."

    In other words, trouble. "Jetfire, move to intercept at once! Hawk, take point over the city, and keep an eye out for any activity closer to home. Rin and I will head over also."

    "Ryoukai," replied the two Autobots, as Jetfire raced to the forest, and Hawk made to take over patrol duties - while explaining the situation to the sensei beforehand, of course.

    Rodimus revved the powerful engine of his vehicle mode, and used the map system to plot a route through the city's streets to the edge of the forest - from where he could either go off-road, or transform and sprint the remainder of the distance.

    "Rin, I haven't been up this way before - what can you tell me about the Einzbern forest?" he asked, as they set off.

    Of all the questions to ask, this would be one of the least straightforward to answer - not least because of the not-quite-closed wounds it opened.

    But, nevertheless, she tried to run through a story of her own, as they closed the gap between them and the forest cover.


    --------------------------------------------------


    (to be continued...)
     
  13. Cerberus

    Cerberus Shockwave loyalist

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    my two interrest merge in one fan-fiction, :bowdown: 
     
  14. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Good to hear, but do you think it's any good?
     
  15. Cerberus

    Cerberus Shockwave loyalist

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    i dont have read all chapters, but for now its pretty interresting ^^
     
  16. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Merci beaucoup, mon ami francophone...
     
  17. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    (...continued)


    --------------------------------------------------


    BGM: Kenji Kawai - Clamour of Heaven and Earth


    The blue-and-white craft raced through the clear skies, diving sharply then levelling off just above cloud cover, over which it expertly flew.

    Saber, who was still rather inexperienced at this new form of combat, tried to pursue, but with significant difficulty.

    I must try to make use of my ranged weaponry in this form, she thought to herself, as she attempted to match her target's movements, despite my reservations. Although one might consider the use of shorter-ranged direct-fire weaponry in aerial combat to be akin to melée, when compared to long-range missile fire, the analogy was slow to sink in for her.

    Nevertheless, she attempted to concentrate on using the targeting system onboard to lock on to the foe - though its superior skill at maneuver made it difficult.

    "Turn and fight, coward!" she declared, as she opened fire, launching a stream of charged pulses from her nose-mounted cannon at the craft. Yet, it managed to jink and spiral to one side and another, evading the attempt.

    Suddenly, it banked upwards sharply, before pulsing its engines and accelerating into the sky. "Your words mean nothing to me, insect!" Saber chafed at the comparison, but did not allow herself to be goaded by her opponent's taunts. She had heard far worse in her time.

    However, she soon had more pressing concerns, as the enemy craft rolled vertically and began to dive once more, this time towards her.

    Detonation charges were launched from its two outer weapon pods, firing sequentially one after another, each exploding in or beside Saber's current flight path. She urgently tried to evade the blasts, but they were too close to escape from, and the spread of fire hemmed her in and shook her airframe.

    However, this was merely the first part of the opponent's current gambit - as the blood-red orb mounted in the central weapon pod glowed brightly, then shot a burning crimson lance of energy into a precisely-targeted section of her craft-form, behind the canopy.

    "Uuuuurgh!" she shouted in pain, as her ability to maintain control floundered, and she nosedived into the ground, smashing through half a dozen trees before coming to a standstill.

    Realising that it had been a mistake to try and attempt aerial combat so quickly, she fought through the pain and transformed to her biomech mode, clasping the forward section which was now attached to her left upper arm, near where the beam had struck. She dragged herself out of the miniature crater she had left, stood up boldly, and drew Caliburn II as she defiantly called out to the overhead foe. "If my words mean nothing, let my sword by my answer!"

    "Very well," the foe replied, as it closed the range, transformed into its biomech form, and attacked.

    Saber primed her blade, and struck out to slice at her opponent - but it managed to parry the strike with the tips of its shimmering claws. She struck out again and again, shifting position and the angle of attack, but the foe was fast enough to block each attempt.

    "Curious choice of weaponry - I'm sure it would be perfectly fine at dismembering the lesser-born of Cybertron..." he snorted contemptuously, "but as you see, it's sub-par when faced with a get of Unicron!"

    Saber leapt backwards, coiling her legs while grasping the sword with both hands, before leaping into the air and swinging the sword in one mighty blow. "Now it is your words which mean nothing to me!"

    Her resolve was shaken, however, as Omega managed to clasp onto the two sides of the weapon with the tips of his claws, the momentum halted for an instant, then shifted off-course as the claws pierced the sides of the blade, shattering its helical matrix and sending its owner crashing to one side.

    "Entropy comes to all things," proclaimed Omega, as it pounced on the opportunity presented, stretching the fingers on its right hand into a palm and using the tips of its claws to punch through Saber's left arm, severing the attached nosecone and sending it flying.

    "Aaaaagh!" she screamed, her arm burning in pain, before Omega used his other hand to punch her in the chest, sending her sprawling away from him. He had curled his hand into a fist, not even bothering to use the shimmering claw-tips to rend her torso asunder.

    "Till all are none..." Omega said, savouring the prospect of removing one more impediment to his creator's grand mission, and slowly walking towards the almost-beaten knight.


    --------------------------------------------------


    "Provide me with sport, morsels!" laughed the Khan, as he rode from the treeline, arcing the course of his steed so as to allow him to make side-facing strikes with his scimitar at Shirou and Leysritt, before fading back to the cover of the forest.

    With each pass, Shirou expended a fresh set of Traced weapons, while Leysritt attempted to use her halberd to either dismount the Khan or to cut the rider's horse from beneath him - but the Khan was too swift for either of them.

    "My people are the masters of the horse - and have left fools like you ground unto dust in our wake across Asia!" he proudly proclaimed, and not without reason. His people had been so famed - or, perhaps, made infamous - by their equine prowess that as eirei, Mongol summoned could take any mortal horse and grant it the same aethyric properties as its master.

    Shirou and Leysritt were hard-pressed to even hold him at bay - and worse, the time they had before the fire approached them was closing all too quickly.

    "We're running out of time, Shirou!" said Leysritt, all too aware of their situation, and that to stay and fight like this was increasingly becoming a fool's errand.

    Shirou turned to her, and pointed Kanshou at Ilya and Sella. "Get them to safety - I'll keep things going for a while longer. Go!"

    "But - " she protested, before Shirou interrupted her. "Now, hurry! Before his next pass!"

    Resisting for a moment, she agreed under protest, as she ran to the others and tried to lead them to safety.

    Or, at least, so was the intention.

    The moment was disrupted by the booming sound of a distant impact, and Shirou winced at the prospect that it might have been Saber - a feeling he hoped was not due to the bond the two shared even now, albeit at a reduced level in these circumstances.

    "Time to end the charade!" roared the Khan, this time racing straight towards Shirou, bow and arrow in hand, aiming at the red-headed youth. He fired it as he closed the stance, and Shirou barely had enough time to throw the twin swords at it in defence before they impacted, causing the arrow to detonate and send Shirou flying.

    "Ge-aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!" he screamed, as he crashed down beside Ilya and the others.

    His head was swimming, but he was still lucid enough to wonder what the hell they were still doing there. "Ilya... get out of here, now!"

    "No, onii-chan," she said quietly, yet with an air of assuredness he had never heard from her before. "We're not running anywhere."

    "But, why?" he protested, dumbfounded.

    "Take my hand, Shirou," Ilya answered, reaching out for his, "and understand."

    Almost as if by instinct, he did so, and everything went white...


    --------------------------------------------------


    The light faded, and Emiya Shirou found himself standing on a hill of swords.

    Giant cogs ground in the distance - held up in the air by an unseen force.

    He had never seen this place before, and yet, he knew instinctively that this was not an alien landscape, or a fragment of someone else's being...

    ...this was
    his.

    But he was not alone.

    "Welcome to your Reality Marble, Emiya Shirou."

    That voice...

    Shirou turned and saw the one who had spoken - an unmistakable individual, clad in red and black, with darkened skin and silver hair, and an all-too-familiar expression in his face.

    "Archer..." Shirou said, to which the other replied "Not exactly, Emiya Shirou. Think of me as... an echo, a fragment of the memory of the Servant you once knew."

    "But why are you - why am I - here?" asked the confused youth.

    "Hm, you still don't understand, then?" the mirage asked, somewaht rhetorically, while shaking his head.

    "I understand that I have to get out of this place, and try to save Ilya-tachi and help Saber," Shirou argued, not amused by the tone in the ghost's voice.

    "Then you have to begin to understand what is within here, Emiya Shirou," the spectre said in a more conciliatory tone, "but to do that, you must first take this."

    He took an item from his pocket, one which Shirou was stunned to see. "But that's..."

    The other held the object outward - a crimson jewel, its power almost faded, its pattern one that Shirou knew all too well.

    Upon seeing the gleam or recognition in Shirou's eyes, the other nodded and smiled. "The beginning of your new journey, Emiya Shirou."

    He drew his hand back, and was about to toss it over to Shirou, before he stopped suddenly. "Oh, one last thing - I'd like you to do a favour for me."

    Shirou, uncertain, asked "A favour?"

    The ghost nodded.

    "I want you to pass on a message for me."

    The jewel flew through the air, Shirou caught it in his hand, and as the white light returned to blanket his vision, he began to understand.


    --------------------------------------------------


    BGM: Kenji Kawai - Emiya


    The Khan was stopped in his tracks by the sight of a white sphere of light which had engulfed his quarry as he was set to strike - and considered his options, hoping that his foes had not managed to use some trickery to escape him.

    "Do not flee your fate!" he commanded, daring whatever lay behind the sphere to hear him.

    A new voice he had not heard before answered him.

    "If you insist."

    The sphere vanished, and the red-headed boy was gone - or rather, he had become something else.

    A tall, red-haired knight in blue and white armour emerged from the sphere's epicentre, launching himself skyward, with a black bow of his own in one hand, and an obsidian serrated blade in the other.

    "Akahara ryōken..." the knight chanted, as the sword took the form of a glowing arrow, as it was nocked into the bow, before he released while proclaiming its name: "Hrunting!"

    The Khan shifted quickly to dodge the incoming missile, and launched his steed into a full gallop, as the arrow-sword flew past him, but did not relent its pursuit. It tore into the sky at preternatural speed, arcing back towards its target, before impacting the mount's flanks. The steed was obliterated by the force of the Broken Phantasm's explosion, and only the Khan's last-moment leap to relative safety spared his own life, as he used the horse as an unfortunate shield.

    Shorn of his advantage, the Khan steadied hismelf on foot, drew his scimitar, and beckoned the opponent forth. "Strike at me, if you dare!"

    "I like your sword - nice craftsmanship," the knight replied, as he withdrew the bow, only to reach his left arm skyward. "I think I'll like this one better."

    Activating his magic circuits, more easily than he ever remembered doing so before, the knight called out "Trace... On!"

    Myriad green lines of power ran along his forearm and hand, and the outline of a massive stone sword began to form above him, the handle taking shape at his palm, the edge reaching up into the sky.

    As the mighty weapon was completed, the knight shouted "Trigger, Off!" at the moment it solidified into shape. It should have been impossible for anyone to even hold that weapon aloft, but it rested easily in his hand - not least since he instinctively knew how to activate it.

    He had seen it in Berserker's hands before, but only realised about its true potential when choosing to Trace it. Berserker must have been unable to activate it properly, while being Mad Enhanced.

    But the knight could.

    "Set..."

    He sprinted at the Khan, who was stunned at what he was seeing, realising his immediate fate. He held his scimitar up in defence, but he knew it wouldn't matter.

    "Nine Lives Blade Works!"

    At a speed no mortal man could comprehend, the first of nine impossibly swift strikes sliced through the arm holding the scimitar. The second strike cut through the Khan's right leg, the third his left, the fourth his left arm. The fifth pierced his torso, the sixth his abdomen, the seventh his pelvis, the eighth twisting so as to slice through his heart. The ninth, and last, severed the Khan's head from his shoulders, or what was left of them, at any rate.

    The component parts held together for a moment, almost as if refusing to believe they had been shorn so quickly, before bursting apart, as the Khan collapsed into a pile of part-organic, part-aethyric rubble - before his sword had even touched the ground.

    Then, the ruined pieces began to dissolve into nothingness, and soon there was nothing left of the once-mighty Kublai, whose visions of conquest had been brought low once more.


    The stone sword dissipated in turn, the blood flecks upon it also vanishing, as the knight reached for his left forearm with his right hand - he still felt the after-effects of such an inordinate strain. Still, he was glad - had he even attempted this beforehand, he would likely have killed himself before he even finished Tracing the mighty weapon.

    In any event, he had little time to rest.

    He turned back to the astonished group, and nodded.

    "Come on, Ilya-tachi," he said, "Let's go find Saber and get the hell out of here."


    --------------------------------------------------


    Saber struggled to move, her optic-lids struggling to remain open, her strength fading rapidly as her opponent approached for the kill.

    "Why... can I not... draw it..." she asked aloud, wishing she knew why she had been unable to draw Excalibur in this new form. No matter what she tried, it would not appear in her hands, and her eyes wandered in a daze as she felt her hope slipping...

    ...but when she saw the severed nosecone lying on the ground, she found her eyes focussing on it - or, more accurately, on the pattern upon it.

    Could it be? she wondered to herself, stunned at only now noticing what had been in front of her the whole time.

    Reaching her hand outwards, as if to summon it over, she resolved that there was only one way to find out.

    "Come forth..." she spoke, putting a last-ditch effort into the attempt, "my Sword of Promised Victory!"

    At that last word, the nosecone glowed and changed shape, lifted itself into the air, and raced over to her hand.

    And in that instant, the door opened.


    BGM: Kenji Kawai - Excalibur


    Re-energised, she held what was now the hilt of her trusted blade aloft, and Omega stepped backwards, confounded by the release of power. "What is this?"

    He was given no answer, but the subsequent events spoke for themselves.

    A portal opened in the skies, and through it emerged a massive craft - what looked like a larger module, to which a smaller unit might be attached to.

    A unit, such as Saber's current form.

    She jumped upwards towards it, and instintively transofrmed into a new shape - her legs held up and towards her chest, the sword released, as the new unit began to transform of its own accord. Its outer components separated, the forward parts forming arms, and the aft segments moving downwards and towards each other, taking the form of legs. At their ends, feet emerged, comleting the transformation, as Saber turned and merged with the docking compartment in the new module's torso.

    "Seigi no yuusha..."

    The components fused into place, and waves of energy coursed from the central piece to the newly-attached form - and Saber felt her consciousness flow into the new, combined form.

    The new arm grasped the hilt, and a yellow beam of light emerged, before crystallising and taking the shape of her mighty Excalibur.

    "...yuuki no senshi..."

    A final touch - the dorsal piece moved up and over her current head, forming a new-helmeted visage, with glowing green eyes, and a facemask below.

    She was more than before, more than just Saber... and somehow, she knew what name to take, even before she said it aloud.

    "My name is... Star Saber!"

    With this, she flew - far faster than she had before - stright towards Omega, who raised his claws in defence... only to have the first strike of Excalibur sever them from his arms. He screamed as he flew to one side, looking down at the smoking stumps left behind.

    "How dare you?" he railed, before she lined herself up for the final strike. Her sword glowed with a new light, and she wielded it with both hands as she moved in for the kill.

    "EX...CALIBUR!"

    The strike carved through his chassis, in an angle from his left hip to his right shoulder, and the line showing the severance glowed with yellow light, before he fell back to the ground, and exploded in a massive fireball.


    Below, the others had appeared, just in time to watch Star Saber destroy Omega, and were even more awestruck then they had been when Shirou had emerged in his new guise earlier.

    Star Saber came to land, and looked down at the group - and as soon as she saw Shirou, she understood completely.

    "It seems that we have each learned today, Shirou," she said to him, as he nodded in response.

    "Indeed," he replied, "you look pretty impressive, Star Saber."


    Their moment was disrupted as Jetfire approached the scene from the air, who transformed and landed beside Star Saber. "There are not many Autobots I know of with that particular trait, but you seem to handle it well, Saber."

    "While in this form, I am Star Saber," she responded, "and thank you kindly."


    --------------------------------------------------


    Before leaving, Star Saber and Jetfire managed to use their abilities to corral the ongoing inferno, giving it enough room to burn itself out before it consumed the rest of the forest. Once done, they re-joined the others, and prepared to leave the area.

    "That should be enough to secure the area," said Jetfire, impressed at how wide a swath Star Saber had cleared with each stroke from Excalibur.

    "Good," replied Shirou, still in the newer form, "we can get going now, I guess."

    As they set to leave, another vehicle reached the area - a familiar red truck, with an impatient passenger.

    "So, who wants to let me know what I've just missed?" asked Rodimus, who was initially referring to the presence of Star Saber.

    "And also, what about the..." Rin was adding, before she gasped at the sight of Shirou - or rather, who Shirou was now the spitting image of, aside from the hair, skin and colour of attire.

    "Ah, Tohsaka, before I forget - I have a message for you." He walked over to her, and remembered the lines, and the expression, the echo had wanted to convey.


    "Daijoubu da yo, Tōsaka. Kore kara, ore mo ganbaru."


    With that, tears streaked down the sides of her face, and she collapsed onto her knees, alternating between sobbing and punching the ground with her fists.

    "That bastard man..." she said, weakly, "He just had to... he just had to..."

    Rodimus, in turn, was mute - but if he were in human form, he would have wept in turn, and the need to clench the muscles around his eyes together - and try not to notice that sudden sense of emptiness he felt at that moment.

    Nevertheless, despite not being currently able to express it, or even understand it...

    ...he felt it, all the same.


    --------------------------------------------------


    (to be continued...)
     
  18. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    (...continued)


    --------------------------------------------------


    Putting the strange device into her pocket, Sakura walked into the kitchen, and considered what she would like to make for lunch.

    Hmm, she wondered, maybe a small udon might be nice.

    Before cooking something up, however, she remembered to take a moment to remember.

    She stepped over to her room, opened the sliding door, and walked over to the table where she had laid a very special glasses case to rest. She picked it up and opened it, looking at the finely-crafted lanses within, and closed her eyes to issue a silent message to the one who deserved to have these more than she had the chance to...

    Suddenly, she felt a subconscious pulse in the corner of her mind, as the minor spell which served as a perimeter alarm pulsed, warning her that she was no longer alone. She subconsciously put the glasses into her pocket, moving her fingertips over to the button on the comm device which would summon help. However, she held from sending the signal until she was absolutely sure it wasn't a false alarm, and she moved out of the room, trying to step quietly as she watched for an intruder. She was as careful as she could be - grateful for both attuning herself to the residence's sorcerous alarm and for the time she had spent walking these floors, learning which steps to take to avoid creaking the wooden floors - but she couldn't see, or sense, a foreign presence.

    As she rounded a corner, she reached into her pocket and held her finger over the button which would send a warning, but wanted to wait until she was sure there was a problem before she sent the signal.

    It was not long before she had an answer.

    "Surrender yourself, in the name of the Son of Heaven!"

    She was startled by the sight of an armoured horseman, emerging from spirit-form at the other end of the corridor, looking in her direction with a lone, baleful eye.

    She wanted to run, to try and escape, but somehow she felt a sense of utter fury at the mere prospect of surrendering anything to this intruder - or, indeed, to anyone.

    Never again, she resolved.

    Clicking the alarm, she stepped out into the hallway, and raised her right arm to the horseman. "No-one will ever lay claim to me again!"

    At that, her magus seals glowed, she called out "Kyosuu!" and a row of streaking bands of nothingness streaked along the floor, closing the distance between Sakura and the horse's hooves faster than the rider could try to moe away - an act restricted by the narrow space, in any event. The bands darkened the floor beneath the horse, and expanded to form a circle of one-dimensional nothingness.

    "No!" proclaimed Liu Fu-Hsiang, who desperately jumped onto his saddle and jumped to one side, fading into his insubstantial form, as his mount sank into the circular maw and vanished from normal existence. He 'landed' through the other side of a wall and cursed his misfortune, hoping the Khan would not punish him for losing another horse. The hand he lifted to his lost eye reminded him of the humiliation that Shoni no Kagesuke had heaped upon him once before, and he was intent not to fail to a Japanese again - especailly to a woman.

    He stood up, passed through the wall, and re-materialised. "You will not escape me, witch!" he proclaimed, as he went through the residence in search for her.

    Meanwhile, Sakura had taken the opportunity to flee the main building, and was heading towards the workshop where she found Shirou lying asleep on too many nights for her to be at all comfortable about. She hoped that with the reduced mobility of the intruder, she would have the time to try and prepare a trap for him - or, at least, keep him at bay long enough for help to arrive.

    She heard his latest exclamation, and guessed that she had time enough to try another gambit. After entering the annex and hiding behind the facing wall, she placed her hand to the ground and tried to commence another chant.

    "Kage no kyojin..."

    Despite the grandiose nature of the term - which referred to Shadow Giants - the tsukaima she could call forth were, in general, somewhat minuscule under normal circumstances. Yet, for a reason she didn't understand, the spell wasn't working!

    Or rather, she could feel sorcerous energy going somewhere, and travelling at a greater pace than she would have produced ordinarily... but the familiar was not taking form.

    Come on, tsukaima-chan, she pleaded, I need you...

    She could not afford to focus on this any longer - and she looked up to look for the intruder, she was shocked as she saw him materialise right in the doorway. "I tire of this, witch..." he scowled, as he jumped over to try and grab her.

    Thankfully, the loss of depth perception Liu suffered made him mis-judge the leap - as a horseman, he was less comfortable orienting himself for combat on foot - by just enough to allow Sakura to rolled over to one side. She sprang to her heels and ran to the centre of the room, turning to try and cast another void-spell, before he had the chance to stop her.

    This time, her spell took the form of four bands of darkness, flying from her hand through the air to his wrists and ankles, as she struggled to bind him in place. He had turned to face her before being ensnared, but he was still strong enough to resist the binding force. Slowly, but surely, he forced his arms and legs forward, closing the distance between him and his quarry.

    "You are almost more trouble than you are worth, witch," he said as he pressed on, "but soon you will be at the Khan's mercy!"

    Sakura showed as much defiance in her expression as she could muster, but she feared that he might be right. She could not hold him off for much longer, and help had still not arrived. She could still feel the thread flowing from her to... she did not know where, which had commenced during her failed attempt at summoning, but for some reason couldn't find a way to stop it. Indeed, it felt like the momentum was building, and she didn't know whether she had enough to stand both this increasing demand and the need to maintain the binding spell.

    "I won't..." she could feel her emotion rising, bubbling to the surface, her anger building into a torrent.

    "I won't give in..." she shouted, her eyes focussed on the intruder, as a sudden pulse of energy spread from within, streaking down the new filament, racing to its destination - and causing the glasses case in Sakura's pocket to glow.

    And though neither she nor her opponent realised it, a circle was rapidly forming in an auspicious location, within the confines of the annex.

    "I WON'T GIVE IN TO YOU... EVER!" She screamed, even as the energy in the bands weakened, and Liu broke the bonds asunder.

    Before the Mongol could reply, he was suddenly rooted to the spot once more, as a new voice said from behind Sakura:

    "And you will not have to, Master."

    A lithe and deadly figure was in mid-air, leaping from the centre of the summoning circle and vaulting above Sakura's head, her eyes exposed - and the force within boring into the intruder.

    Unable to even shake in horror, his mind screamed as his limbs petrified, the ossification moving from his hands and feet to his torso, until it eventually reached all the way up to his head. In less than a second, the Liu Fu-Hsiang was a motionless statue - and in a second later, the sharp ends of the iron nails fastened to the end of a silver chain pierced either side of his neck, shattering the stone which had formed out of his neck, sending the head falling to the ground. It shattered into pieces upon hitting the floor, the sound signalling the end of the engagement.

    Sakura, in a state of shock, looked on as the new arrival landed before her, then lowered her visor before turning to face the plum-haired magus. Her attire was different - quite distinct from the uniform Sakura might have expected to see - but the recognition was unmistakable.

    "Rider-san..." she whispered, as Rider nodded.

    "Master," the long-haired newcomer replied, "If that is the designation you wish to grant me, you may."

    Sakura closed her eyes, and tried to understand. The burst of energy had felt like the force she had experienced when touching the Matrix the evening before, but why had this been?

    "I am a manifestation of your wish for a tsukaima, based on a template within your consciousness, given form for your protection," the newcomer explained, "and as such, I am at your service, Master."

    "Master..." Sakura said, in a somewhat subdued manner. Whatever 'gift' she had been given in the course of the vision must have been enough to allow her to go much farther than the regular summoning spell would have gone - but the glasses case in her pocket made her consider the bittersweet nature of the event.

    "Rider-san," she asked, while pulling the case out of her pocket, "Do you remember..."

    When she saw the case, Rider in turn smiled. "Yes, Master. I remember."

    Summoning her nerve, Sakura held the case forward, as she addressed Rider. "Then please be so kind as to take these now, Rider-san..."

    Her features softening, Rider reached for the case and carefully lifted up her Breaker Gorgon while sliding on the glasses, so as to prevent her Mystic Eyes from being unleashed, and looked over to Sakura as the latter continued by adding "And call me Sakura, please."

    "I will..." she replied, holding the tips of her right fingers to the side of the glasses, feeling the emotion which had been imparted within them, and feeling the implication for the future the moment contained, "...Sakura."

    A moment later, a rush of wind and the sounds of transformation heralded the arrival of a familiar face, who was in his armour and wielding his energo-katana.

    "Sakura!" called Hawk, "Are you ok - and who is this?"

    Unsure for a moment why it was that Hawk, not Aquila-san, had been the one to reach her first, Sakura smiled and stepped forth, standing beside Rider - taking care to side-step the ruined pile of stone that had once been the intruder.

    "It is a long story, Hawk-san..."


    --------------------------------------------------


    End of Part 8.
     
  19. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    Part 9


    --------------------------------------------------


    Below the ruined shell of the once-proud Einzbern mansion, in a subterranean chamber 'formed' by the entropic powers of its lone inhabitant, the Fallen was busy at study.

    His hand was outstretched, as row upon row of books gathered from the residence were lifted off of their shelves, the contents gathered with a rapid flickering of the pages, and their subsequent consumption by the entropic 'flames' at Fallen's command, once the information had been culled.

    Before this, he had been reviewing the data gathered from the encounter in the arboreal region beyond the mansion, most particularly that pertaining to the losses of both the Sweep that had awakened him, and the Terran being who had been present when Fallen arrived on this planet Earth.

    Yet, he was not overly concerned - as far as he saw it, Omega had done his duty, and served the cause of Entropy through his death. The other had also done so, yet with less of an intrinsic desire to further the cause.

    It matters not, Fallen mused. In the end, they served Him all the same.


    What was far more important was to examine the latest trial that the Lord of Folly had pressed him with - the one who was once human, once spirit-being, and now more than either. She was by far the most interesting test study, and her origin was something of a mystery...

    ...one which, it seemed, the former owners of this property had some degree of prior knowledge concerning.

    Yet, while this line of investigation was worthy of pursuit, Fallen did not lose sight of other matters - not least, the presence of the current Matrix-bearer in the vicinity.

    As Fallen well remembered from his past existence in a now-consumed reality, Primes were quite useful.


    Turning the investigation to a lower priority setting, Fallen focussed on the lines of chaos and entropy that spoke of the opportunities present in the city, and soon picked up a thread which showed potential.

    He closed his outstretched hand, and the half-consumed book fell to the floor, ready for him to return to.

    I'll be looking forward to meeting you, Rodimus Prime.


    --------------------------------------------------


    When the group made it back to the Emiya-tei, there were some not-inconsiderable doubts raised when Shirou and Saber in particular saw Rider present - but a potentially tense situation had been somewhat defused, if not wholly resolved, when Sakura explained the circumstance behind the summoning, and Hawk made a point of vouching for the tsukaima who had saved the plum-haired magus in her hour of need. He had said that regardless of whether this Rider was the same one who had served an ill cause at Shinji's behest during the war or not, she was here to serve her true Master, and that she should be given the chance to prove herself.

    Some had wondered what it was that drove Hawk to assert this, but the point was conceded - for now - and Rider was allowed to stay as Sakura's guardian.

    Meanwhile, questions turned to other matters. Sella and Leysritt needed some type of temporary accommodation, and it was agreed to let them stay in the room Ilya used when staying over with Fuji-nee until a more permanent solution could be found. Questions were asked - carefully - about what the two had seen in the forest prior to the engagement, but they remained quite reticent to go into further detail for the time being.

    Also, Shirou wanted to learn more about what Ilya had meant when she talked about him being her onii-chan, and what Saber would have to do with things - all he had learned in the 'vision' was to do with who Archer had been, and what it had meant for Shirou himself, now that he seemed to possess a similar form as the once-Servant as a kind of combat mode.

    Which, of course, led to another great matter. Rin had barely spoken, though she had alternated between weeping and cursing Archer's name on the way back, and was now cooped up in her room.

    Rodimus, who had said even less, was not exactly in a prime condition himself - and showed none of his more typical drive and humour as Garret-san, either.

    Shirou found Garret sitting on the living room, staring blankly at the table before him.

    "Whatever it is, it won't get better with you like this," said Shirou, trying to cheer his new-found friend up.

    "No..." Garret replied, "but I can pretend it isn't actually happening for a while longer."

    Sighing, Shirou sat himself down beside Garret, and tried again.

    "I'm not usually the sharpest with these things, but is it that her Servant was an alternate form of me - wow, it sound kind of weird actually saying that out loud," Shirou noticed, "or the way it's affecting her... or the way her reaction is affecting you?"

    "Heh," Garret said, weakly. "Maybe a list of all three."

    "Well, you know that the best place to go to fix things is right down there," pointing towards the hallway, leading down to Rin's room. "You might be able to help her, and yourself, too. Besides, it's not like Tohsaka ever listens to me anyway..."

    Garret stayed silent for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and relented. "Yeah... it's better to try and do something than not."

    "Good," Shirou said, more positively. "that's more like it!"

    As Garret stood up, heading past the table and towards the hall, he looked back to Shirou with one question. "These feelings... being human... do they get easier? To understand?"

    "Eh heh heh heh..." was the reply, as Shirou held the side of his head with his palm. "I don't know what to tell you, Garret-san."

    "Never mind," replied Garret. "I'm sure I'll find out one way or another..."


    --------------------------------------------------


    "If I wanted to talk about things to a stupid-looking winnebago, maybe then I'd ask for you!"

    The door had been thrown open, Rin standing with a scowl directed at the man in front of her, who had not gotten the hint when standing there and calling in to her, wanting to talk.

    "So, is that all the use I am to you? Drive you around when going grocery shopping, but park in the garage when you're feeling upset?"

    "Ha!" she laughed, caustically. "You mean nothing to me - even in that damned piece of technology, you're nothing but a damned machine! You're not even alive... even a cat has more of a soul than you!"

    Furious, Garret shouted back, throwing caution to the wind. "Nice to know that you are so enlightened when it comes to xenology. Well let me tell you something, ma'am - I'm more alive than that damned ghost of yours ever was!"

    She froze in place, boring her eyes through the back of his skull. "How dare you! HOW DARE YOU? He... gave up everything for... for me..."

    Garret clenched his forehead, his mind boiling, the tension too much to bear.

    And the worst was to come: "...and you... you don't have anything to give at all."

    That was it.

    "Fine!" He stormed off, passing down the hallway and into the garden, where he relived Hawk of his patrol duty.

    "I'm going out tonight, on patrol," he said, in no mood to brook debate.

    Stepping aside, Hawk cleared room for Garret to revert to Rodimus and start up his engine, but tried to call to him. "Wait, Rodimus-dono! Don't leave it like this!"

    The very public shouting match had within earshot of pretty much anyone in the residence who cared to listen.

    "It doesn't matter," was the reply, as the vehicle drove off, "I may as well do one of the few things I'm supposed to do."

    "But..." Hawk said, in vain, as the truck drove off and raced into the city centre.

    When Hawk turned to the front door, he saw Sakura and Rider standing in the hallway, and Rin sheepishly walking over to them.

    "I should go and follow him," Hawk said, looking to Rider.

    "Rider-san, could you please assist Hawk-san?" Sakura asked her tsukaima. "While Saber-san-tachi are here, I should be quite fine."

    "Yes, Mast.... Sakura," Rider nodded, then formed her battle form in place of the civilian clothing which had been picked up for her earlier in the day. She jumped over beside where Hawk was standing, as the latter activated his Pretender armour.

    "Please contact me if there is any news, Sakura," Hawk added, before turning to look at Rin, who was, perhaps, starting to realise the extent of what she, in her anger and frustration, had said.

    "I have been many things in my time," he said, coldly. "But one thing I have never been is a mere machine."

    Not expecting Hawk to take the comment so personally, Rin closed her eyes and turned away in shame as Hawk and Rider launched themselves into the air, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, following the direction Rodimus had left in.

    "I wish you had not said those things, nee-san," Sakura whispered to Rin, as she closed the door, "I know that you don't believe them to be true."

    "I... I know," Rin replied, begrudgingly, though her resistance was more out of sheer stubbornness than anything. "It's just..."

    "Garret-san would give his life for you, for any of us, nee-san," Sakura continued, "just like how Archer..."

    With a pained expression, Rin put her arm around Sakura's shoulder. "Maybe that's the problem, Sakura. Maybe..."

    he's too much like Archer.


    --------------------------------------------------


    BGM: Steve Jablonsky - Sector Seven


    The flame-decoed vehicle drove down the streets and alleyways of Shinto, unwittingly following the search pattern which had mapped out earlier before being diverted to the forest, and only barely managed to focus on the actual task at hand.

    Not even alive... he said to himself, cursing himself at how bitterly the words had stung.

    Not even alive... just a damned machine...

    "Not even alive?" he said aloud, without even realising it.

    "If you insist."

    As a new voice emerged, a flaming sphere appeared directly in front of Rodimus. As he screeched to a halt to avoid it, a nightmarish burning figure emerged from within - and it was slamming its fist down towards him.

    Too late to avoid the hit, the fist smashed into the bonnet of Rodimus' truck mode, and he screamed as he tried to transform. He managed to complete the transformation, but he was pressed to the ground, a gash left in what was now his chestpiece.

    Relentless, Fallen reached out again, focussing his powers to 'burn' an entropic flame through Rodimus' damaged chestpiece, his hand reaching towards its goal. "Though... it is more fitting to set your course towards the Darkness alone a more... scenic route, Rodimus Prime!"

    "No!" he roared, feeling the casing within his chest locking the Matrix in place being rent asunder into nothingness. The Matrix itself was unharmed - indeed, in its current state, Fallen could not even touch it directly - yet once the pieces locking it in place were severed, the servant of Chaos could use his abilities to draw the sacred object forth, and suspend it in mid-air above the palm of his hand.

    "Quite disappointing, for a Prime," Fallen scoffed, as the flames wracked Rodimus' torso from within. "You really should have done better."

    Barely able to speak, over the writing agony he was trapped in, Rodimus looked at the glowing yellow optics of his assailant. "Who... who are you?"

    "I am the End, made manifest," replied Fallen, before he tossed Rodimus to one side. "And you shall bear witness... one way or another."

    The flame-sphere enveloped Fallen once more, and in a few moments, he was gone.


    --------------------------------------------------


    The appearance of the sphere of flame drew Hawk and Rider, but they were awe-struck as they witnessed the assault - too far away to get to the fight in time, and completely at a loss as to how to do anything to intervene in any event.

    "By Primus..." whispered Hawk, as Rider remained mute and simply nodded.

    Once the attacker was gone, they made it over to where Rodimus was lying - but he was already changed. His form looked different... weaker... smaller.

    "Rodimus Convoy-dono!" Hawk called to him, as he took his Cybertronic form and rushed to his side. "Can you hear me, Rodimus Convoy-dono!"

    "Rodimus Prime isn't... here... right now," the wounded one replied, in a half-dazed manner, "please direct your... inquiries... to Hot Rod... at... failure... dot... j...p."

    He passed out, his body going limp.

    Hawk activated the comm unit, and tried to reach the Emiya-tei - but a new message was coming in, from Autobot City directly.

    "This is Ultra Magnus, calling Rodimus Prime - can you hear me?" came the message, which had been diverted to Hawk as the next ranking officer on site.

    "Ultra Magnus-san, this is Metalhawk", replied the Pretender commander. "Rodimus Convoy-dono has been incapacitated, by an unidentified assailant... who has taken the Matrix of Leadership."

    "Oh no..." whispered Magnus, remembering the events which led to his own loss of said item, two years before. "In that case, get Rodimus help - and don't let him call himself Hot Rod. Matrix or no, that's not who he is anymore."

    "Understood," Metalhawk replied, as he lifted Rodimus' body and prepared to bring it to safety.

    "Also, there is some serious news from Cybertron - the interference died down just recently. Galvatron has escaped, and is now at large." Magnus almost spat the name of the Decepticon leader, ruing the news which he himself had only learned of recently.

    Metalhawk was subdued when hearing this. "It seems we have many matters at hand, Ultra Magnus-san."

    "Indeed," came the reply. "but for now your top priority is to locate the Matrix, identify the aggressor, and prepare for an operation to retrieve the former, while dealing with the latter."

    "We'll do what we can," said Metalhawk, though he was at a loss as to what could be done against such a foe.

    "Good luck, and Primus speed. Magnus out." The line dropped, and Metalhawk and Rider wasted no time in getting back to the Emiya-tei with their fallen commander.


    The Hakai Taitei is free once more, thought Hawk to himself, on top of this attack.

    We are in for troubled times.



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    (continued...)
     
  20. Nerroth

    Nerroth Alea iacta est.

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    (...continued)


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    So this is your throne.

    What of it?

    It lies in ruin, upon a world of ashes.

    I am well aware of that.

    And yet, you do nothing.

    You do not decide how or when I should act!

    Apparently, neither do you.

    Enough of this!


    "...Mighty... Galvatron?" Cyclonus bowed before the Hakai Taitei, who was currently seated upon a throne carved especially for him in the eventuality of his arrival at Charr - though whatever introspection which Galvatron saw fit to take upon himself had been interrupted by his unwitting outburst.

    Mighty indeed.

    "Cyclonus..." Galvatron addressed his lieutenant, attempting to dispel the chronic mental irritant that had been present ever since he had been discovered in the midst of the wreckage left in the wake of Unicron's defeat, by focussing on matters at hand.

    "Mighty Galvatron, the Decepticon you wished to speak to as arrived," said Cyclonus, gesturing to the somewhat un-nerved triple changer standing beside him - who had just returned from his latest supply run to a nearby star system. Despite how mind-numbingly tedious such a duty was for the biomech, he would still far rather be out in the black once more than face the wrath of his returned sovereign, yet he dared not move.

    "I see. Cyclonus, leave us," commanded Galvatron, as he stood up and stepped down from the raised platform to ground level.

    "As you command," was the reply, as Cyclonus turned and marched out of the chamber.

    Galvatron noted the exit, then turned to focus upon the lone Decepticon who remained. "I am told that you have been on various supply runs and resource-gathering expeditions lately, Astrotrain."

    The triple-changed nodded. "Yes, Lord Galvatron..."

    "I see." Galvatron raised his right hand to his chin, before continuing. "Tell me - have the loads you bear while doing so a strain for you?"

    Astrotrain was starting to get very worried. "No, Lord. I carry as much as I can successfully transport on each run."

    "Oh..." suddenly, the hand reached over to Astrotrain's neck, and Galvatron lifted the struggling Triple Changer up into the air, the force of his claws gripping like an inexorable vice. "...since I was under the impression that you were prone to jettison some weight!"

    the circuits and pathways leading from the skull to the rest of Astrotrain's body were greatly impaired, echoing the kind of choking sensation a human might experience in a similar predicament. Hus optics were alight with terror, as he feared the fate that had befallen the once-proud Starscream two years ago. "F... fu... forgive.... me... my... lord..."

    "So now, I look like an Autobot, do I?" Galvatron roared, "begging ME for forgiveness!"

    Precisely what the Decepticons need at this point - a key logistical node turned into a carcass.

    Be silent!

    "Mighty Galvatron..." Cyclonus had returned, this time with Scourge standing beside him - who looked vaguely amused at the scene, or perhaps it was more the reaction on Cyclonus' face at the sight.

    "You disturb me, Cyclonus?" Galvatron bellowed, throwing Astrotrain to one side and smashing him against a wall.

    Cyclonus continued. "We have an update concerning the traitor."

    "Ah, yes, Omega..." the Decepticon ruler remembered the mess said Sweep had left in his wake, barely sparing a thought towards the bruised Triple Changer in the throne room. "Very well, then... tell me."

    Cyclonus remained silent, as Scourge presented himself. "My lord, the recent subspace anomalies affecting the Sol system have abated, and we have been able to determine Omega's last known whereabouts. However, residual energy readings seem to indicate that the target has already been eliminated."

    Galvatron was irked that his rightful role as judge, jury and executioner had been potentially usurped, but at least it was one less issue to deal with, if true.

    "Show me the location!" he ordered, as Scourge handed him a data-pad with the relevant information.

    That accursed world once more, he thought to himself, poring over the data.

    It has been spared your wrath for far too long.

    Indeed.

    During the secret war from 1984 onwards, both the Autobots and Decepticons had taken great pains to avoid revealing their presence to the wider human population - though some degree of knowledge was bound to leak to less public human agencies.

    As Megatron, he had patiently bided his time, in no hurry to risk everything on a rushed gambit, such as launching an open assault on the flesh creatures' cities.

    And yet...

    ...as Galvatron, and with the last Great War already over, he thought differently.

    He turned to Astrotrain, and gestured to have him removed. "Have him prepared - now that he knows the price of failing me."

    "It will be done, Mighty Galvatron," answered Cyclonus, who had one of the Sweeps enter the room and take the triple changer to the infirmary. "May I ask, what it is he shall be prepared for?"

    "You may..." was the reply.

    "Decepticons...

    we go... to Earth."


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    End of Part 9.