Author's intro

I continue to be awed by the interest people express in this story: it's amazing to mess with one of your favorite fantasy worlds and find out that what you are doing is also fun for others.

Fonts used:

"Speech."

Thoughts.

"Arias and other Mysteries."

"Higher beings speaking, overpowered Mysteries."

I have read up on English punctuation but there are probably still more commas than there should be. So, as always, I apologize for wonky Slavic-style punctuation.

Enjoy, full notes at the end of the chapter.

Bonds of Solitude

Even Shirou could understand why people tended to avoid his new teacher whenever it was possible. Some of his more frequent aphorisms included:

"Sleep? Who needs sleep?"

"With great power comes… something. I forget."

And his latest:

"Mr. Darcy, oh, who would I kill to be you…"

Really, the fact that the man started his acquaintance with Jane Austen with a Japanese translation of ‘Pride and Prejudice' was evidence enough as to how his mind works. Need to improve mediocre language skills? Screw textbooks and formal courses, let's go right into difficult as hell fiction. This approach was something he displayed when it came to Shirou's education with no reservations.

If the man were simply bonkers, it would have been far less off-putting than the truth he shared with Shirou and Kiritsugu during one of his very few moments of complete seriousness.

"Magi are pussies. ‘He who walks with death', my ass. Sure the stuck-ups at the Clock Tower will kill for a good mystery, sometimes even themselves, but where is real sacrifice?"

He leaned over the table, peering into Shirou's eyes:

"Remember, boy. It is not lives, it is not morals, it is not even Gaya holding your progress with the Mysteries back. It is what is in here," he tapped his temple. "You try critiquing someone's methodology or whatever stupid totally useless in practice direction of research their family wasted generations on and see what happens."

Dietrich slammed his palm on the table:

"Pussies, the lot of them! Except the Enforcers and a couple people, I say. Remember this, boy, your mind, even that mindscape, that Reality Marble of yours are all just tools. Look at me, I always try to tweak my personality to get my job done better. What will your job be, I wonder?"

That conversation explained a lot about the mental stability of the German Magus: he always walked on the edge of a full-blown manic episode and to be frank, given his example, Shirou wanted to try and tweak his mind into something more… balanced instead. Even to such a young and warped boy as he was total devotion to one goal didn't look pretty: between his father who tried to be a hero and ended up doubting his entire way of life and the crazy teacher who would routinely talk to the things he made in his Workshop he could actually sort of see why Magi had families and stuff.

 It was to avoid being put down like rabid dogs due to going insane. Not like the Association had a mental institution with experienced therapists somewhere.

###

They met when he was eight. He was walking through the city doing an assignment from his teacher – using Structural Analysis and its more cursory analogue Structural Grasping on everything he could find. She was lying in a fetal position on the ground contemplating how strangely pretty her blood looked mixing with dirt on the pavement. She didn't pay much attention to the three boys kicking her. She knew they wouldn't kill her, after all, it wasn't the first time. Then he noticed her.

Compassion wasn't really Shirou's bread and butter but constantly seeking to do something good was. And as he learned from his father, opportunities to do real unambiguous good were few and far between. So when he saw a somewhat sickly-looking girl with blue hair being beat upon he jumped at the opportunity.

Which was a tremendously stupid idea, he thought in retrospect. After all, not like he had extensive unarmed training. He was able to clock the tallest of the boys one before the bullies noticed him and switched targets. The girl was probably regular entertainment and they didn't really hit to do harm, only to make her hurt and react at least in some way. The boy who interfered got different treatment as he was aiming to interrupt their fun.

After a few hits Shirou was also down now lying next to the girl and looking into her empty eyes in which the barest flicker of curiosity was now present:

"Why… why are you so sad?" he groaned between receiving kicks.

"Why are you smiling?" she retorted, somewhat bewildered.

"Because… I did something good… today."

The boys in the meantime grew more and more pissed off. The girl herself wasn't that much fun for bullies with her incredibly high pain tolerance so they might have gotten bored with her and moved on to somebody else but Shirou turned out to be worse. Nothing is more infuriating for someone seeking to place themselves on a pedestal by putting somebody else down than being ignored by said somebody. And Shirou didn't just ignore them: thinking that he couldn't do anything about them he had the gall to try and talk through the kicks to somehow use the time for something productive which made them even more livid.

"Sato, my foot's starting to hurt…"

One of the boys, a bit shorter than the other two took a step back and started looking for something to pick up and hit Shirou with.

Then the boy suddenly found a piece of discarded steel pipe being offered to him and reached for it absent-mindedly.

This was the last thing he was able to recall later. By this point Shirou had almost passed out and the only one able to bear witness to what was happening was the prone girl.

The man who came to their rescue was strange and kind of scary, even to her. Where she was empty because far too much had been done to her at too young an age he seemed more like someone who was born empty or perhaps got turned into some sort of robot at some point. Dark spiky hair, stubble, somewhat unkempt clothes and grey eyes without expression on a worn middle-aged face.

He didn't talk, didn't intimidate and didn't treat the ones who were beating upon Shirou as children. Instead after knocking the smaller boy out with the very same pipe he had offered the man fell into a well-practiced low stance and knocked out the other two delinquents in what took less than a second: with a merciless punch to one's temple and a kick to another's chest that sent that boy flying into a wall and sliding down it after a sickening crunch. Then he took out a handkerchief, wiped the pipe clean and set it on the ground, before calmly walking up to them.

The man eyed unconscious Shirou for a moment before turning his gaze to the girl. Just like that his appearance turned from completely emotionless to tired-looking and quite warm:

"Hello there, little girl. I'm Kiritsugu Emiya. And this selfless idiot is my son, Shirou."

She stared. He sighed.

"It's polite to give your name to people who save you from assault."

It was weird, thinking about manners while lying on the ground seeing as much ground as sky.

"Sakura. Sakura Matou."

If Kiritsugu knew her family, he didn't show it.

"Can you walk?"

Sakura paused for a moment making Kiritsugu realize that evaluating damage to herself was something this child did quite often. After a few moments passed she nodded.

"Okay then. I'll pick him up, you pick yourself up and let's go to my home and get you both cleaned up. We'll call your parents later."

Sakura had been told not to trust strangers, of course, but this man did save her from a more serious beating than the one she got. In addition, some tiny part of her kind of hoped that he would turn out to be a serial killer who actually had nothing to do with the boy lying near her and simply followed him into the alley in search of a victim and now got two for the price of one.

Inwardly the girl cringed at how easy it was to get other people wrapped up in the fantasy of her pain finally ending. The boy did nothing to deserve it so she made an effort to be polite and stood up. After some swaying on her feet she was ready to go. Or at least wobble in a predetermined direction.

"Thank you, Mr. Emiya."

"Please, Kiritsugu is fine. I hope you stick around to help explain to my son why you are supposed to call for help in situations like these. And learn that lesson yourself."

And they were off, leaving behind three unconscious children, probably with quite a few injuries.

###

Before that day Sakura thought the Matou family the epitome of ‘screwed up'. Because of her past the word ‘normal' was very close to ‘kind' in her mind or at least ‘not sadistic'. But the Emiya household turned out to be something completely different.

She tensed for a moment when they crossed the bounded field around the house, recognizing the same sensation she felt every day when she went home but there wasn't much time to consider the option to bolt.

"SHIROU!!! KIRITSUGU, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY CUTE LITTLE BROTHER?"

The blur that shot out of the front door to greet them somehow resembled a bright brown-haired meteor which Kiritsugu promptly sidestepped.

"Not now, Taiga, can't you see I'm carrying him. Here you go."

And then the treacherous old man put Sakura between himself and the brown-haired menace.

The girl looked like she was about to throw a tantrum before her eyes honed on the obstacle. The look in her eyes made Sakura truly afraid for the first time in a very long while.

"UWA!!! So cute! What's your name?" and then, without pause. "I'm Taiga Fujimura, you can call me Fujimura-senpai. How did you meet Shirou? Are you Shirou's girl? Am I going to have a YOUNGER SISTER?"

The last words were pretty much a shout followed by a much more quiet "So cute…"

Again Sakura was tempted to run and again any choice was denied her as the girl was swept up into a hug and hauled inside.

That moment she finally realized that the Emiya people overcompensated for their lack of sadism with overabundance of insanity. Overcompensated with amazing dedication, fervor and abandon.

###

When Shirou came to he found himself lying in on a futon in the middle of the living room. What sounded like Dietrich quite angrily berating someone could be heard from somewhere else in the house. His head was throbbing dully and even a shallow breath brought sharp pain. The young Magus opened his eyes.

In hindsight, that might not have been the best idea as the sight of a hazy, swimming room brought an episode of nausea. The boy twitched because of pain and moved to get up but found himself being held up by a small, warm hand. There wasn't much strength in it but what was clearly broken ribs helped make him lie back down.

The hand stayed for a few moments before tentatively lifting off his bare chest.

"Shirou-kun?"

Ah, yes, there was a girl.

Instead of forcing himself to move Shirou focused on the vague blob from which the voice was coming. He didn't think she was beaten quite that badly so he decided to blink. After a few seconds the familiar ceiling and walls became sharper and he could now see the girl he spectacularly failed to rescue.

"My father is going to kill me for almost dying because of something so stupid…"

The girl couldn't help but chuckle and then start a little as if she forgot what her own laugh sounded like.

"He was going to but now this Dietrich guy is trying to kill him instead for not teaching you better." she took a long look at him. "Your family is weird. I'm Matou Sakura. Pleased to meet you."

Shirou snorted. Weird? Oh no, a former assassin, a yakuza aiming to become a teacher and a Magus, hermit and blacksmith who also happened to be his teacher? Even he realized that went far, far beyond simply weird and that was not counting his own little inner world of blades. He had just learned to sort of roll with it and hope for the best. Out loud he simply replied:

"Nice to meet you, Sakura. So, you have a normal family?"

"Not really, no."

"Too bad. I kind of hoped I could get a normal friend."

Sakura's shoulder sunk and Shirou tried to rub the back of his neck in embarrassment before discovering that his arms weren't in the best possible condition either. So instead he hurried to add:

"Not normal is good too." he sounded just a tad too chipper at that moment. "I don't really have friends, normal or not."

Then Sakura looked at Shirou, as if really noticing him for the first time and blushed a little.

"Are you okay, do you have a fever?"

The girl was just starting to stammer something incomprehensible when a very angry Dietrich stomped into the room, followed by a skulking and very tired-looking Kiritsugu.

"You! You have a lot to do in life, no?" It was obvious he was constantly keeping himself from switching into German. "How will you do this if some boy beats you to death when you are eight, huh? And you!" the finger of accusing moved to point at Sakura. "You are a Matou, right? Your family is loaded, right? Why, why, for all that's good, fluffy and explosive did you go into that alley?" he turned to Kiritsugu. "And you. We aren't done."

The man rubbed his temples with an exasperated sigh, trying to calm down while Kiritsugu moved from ‘tired' into ‘exhausted' territory. He knelt by his son's side, giving Sakura an apologetic shrug and checked the extent of Shirou's injuries. After a couple muffled yelps he seemed satisfied and looked at the girl:

"We should call your home and get you there. Washing up really helped as did the make-up Taiga used on you…" his kind and tired expression turned dead serious. "Find something you can look forward to everyday. And come visit us some time, without the bruises."

The offer was a bit of a surprise even to the Magus Killer himself but he supposed that with the Matou family being what it was Sakura needed every anchor she could use to keep her humanity.

###

Once Sakura was safely back at home Dietrich was finally able to finish healing the boy and let him rest. He had earlier prepared a number of blades with healing Mysteries imbued into them after having hypothesized that Shirou would benefit from those more due to his affinity to swords. Additionally, they were now stored in Shirou's inner world and could regularly be called upon, as full of Prana as they were at the moment of their creation. As an added benefit that helped slow down Kiritsugu's sickness some more. Even after saying that he'd be raising the child the German Magus still had no idea how to be a parent. Not that Kiritsugu did a much better job: surprisingly the adult of the house in most situations was the boy himself and even the crazy yakuza girl took reins more often than the retired assassin. Not like it was his place to judge.

The day after the whole saving maidens in distress fiasco they were finally done with the very basic lessons on self-hypnotism, Prana, Od, splitting the power of Mysteries between the practitioners using them and everything of the sort. His pupil had quite a good memory and exceptional discipline for a young child, which made things easier. Still, his age combined with the state of his psyche posed somewhat of a problem.

Shirou was sitting in front of a low table, pen in hand and notebook before him while his teacher shifted frantically through and an endless-seeming stack of chaotic notes scrawled in a messy hand. He tried to get his act together when he was teaching but keeping track of his own thought processes was ever a challenge.

"All right, we have made some good headway. Despite the language. I can't wait until you start speaking German fluently… So, right, it's all covered in the books but you are an Incarnation so we will go over it here too."

He stopped towards the blackboard that they got for that wall and drew a stickman. Then muttered something under his breath, added a frilly looking dress and a tommy-gun. Continuing, Dietrich drew to arrows from the man, one from the body, the other from the head. The top arrow got signed ‘ELEMENTAL AFFINITY', the bottom one – ‘ORIGIN'.

"Okay, so this is super-important. All things have an Origin, a sort of purpose imprinted when they appear in this world or any other. A dog, for example, may have an Origin of protection or hunting or some such but we won't focus on that. What's important is that humans have freedom of choice. This is why in most people the Origin is asleep: it's like a background impulse pushing them to certain actions or a way of life but they can choose a different path."

Dietrich raised a finger to emphasize his next point:

"Now, when you are a Magus it gets tricky. Your Origin defines the nature of your spells and often lets you perform unique Mysteries like your father's Circuit-fusing gun."

The instructor actually shuddered at that. When Kiritsugu explained to him his preferred way of disposing of powerful casters, the German Magus ended up embarrassing himself by losing control and going into a rant about how unacceptable soul mutilation was as a combat method. The assassin was polite enough to listen tiredly before nodding off into exhausted sleep by the end.

"The thing is, Origin is this driving force, yes? This is why when you grow more attuned to it it gets harder and harder to do things that go against it. Example! Your Father's Origin is dual: Severing and Binding, right? And he has devoted his entire life to the point of losing everything except you to remaking the world into something without violence."

He was expecting the boy to be uncomfortable or ask about what exactly his Father had lost but Shirou went for a more practical question:

"What is your Origin, sensei? Do you resist it like you are teaching me?"

Dietrich couldn't help but chuckle:

"Resist? No, no, I'm not teaching you that. You can be an uber-cool Magus just like me or your dad if use those kind of Mysteries. No, what I'm saying is that you need to understand that when you give in, you become… not exactly right in the head, to be honest. So, a lot of second-guessing or a stable sane person to check your choices nearby, if your Origin is something not safe, like yours."

The blond haired Magus puffed out his chest proudly:

"Now, my Origin is totally safe. It is ‘Inscription' so I have this compulsion to leave a mark upon the world. It's what makes me such a good Mystic Code crafter. Wouldn't change it for the world and with my Element… Which brings me to the second part: an Element is not your own nature but something your soul leans to in the outside world. You can have several: it's a lot less rare than your dad's Dual Origin. And while Origins can be pretty much anything, like, say, Comfort or Friction, Elements are normally the four usual ones plus Ether. The four are pretty much self-explanatory and Ether is also easy: it deals with purely abstract Mysteries like Conceptual Mysteries, for example. Also, anything without a physical body and channeling pure Prana."

Again, he raised a finger:

"Don't just gawk! Write, write this down. I may finally get a decent set of notes after this… Anyway. Origin and Element together determine what kind of Mysteries you can get really good at, if you have enough Circuits in you. Which you do, by the way. I myself am a bit like you: I am really, really bad at conventional Mysteries: throwing a small ball of fire would leave me drained. But!" he paused. "But I remember and design super-complex Mystic Codes easily and I have a really easy time channeling non-elemental Prana through them. Here, try putting energy into this".

The teacher pulled out a small black stick out of a deep pocket. It was maybe seven inches long and one in diameter and glimmered slightly in bland light of the fluorescent lamps above. Shirou instantly knew that this wasn't a weapon as he actually had to perform Structural Analysis to understand what it did. He got a lot better with that recently and was able to determine that the Mystic Code had a fairly simple Mystery imbued into it that transformed Prana into some other kind of energy. Concentrating, he inhaled and used the mantra he came up with for simply channeling Mana:

"Overflow."

As he said the words his Circuits flared into life and the rod vibrated slightly before a blade of flame, as if from a blowtorch, extended another seven inches from the tip. Shirou felt that the strain on his reserves was much stronger than when he used Mystic Codes that were weapons.

"Right, right, very impressive. Cut the flow, please. Good. Now give it here."

Dietrich took the Code, focused and said his own general purpose one-word Aria:

"Ström!"

What came out of the tip this time could best be described as a lightsaber. Shirou noted that the sound it made was a lot more pronounced too than when he did it. After a few seconds of grinning and showing off Dietrich retracted the white-hot flame blade.

"Didn't feel any drain at all. Now, on to your case. You are an Incarnation, which means that you were so in tune with your Origin right from the point of your creation that it also became your Elemental Affinity. This makes you incredibly specialized and you need to be really careful so that you don't forget what it's like to be human. Don't want you running around screaming ‘I'm a blade! Give me a sheath or something to cut!' Although most men are kinda like that… Anyway. There are also advantages! And they are awesome. See, I just channeled Mana into a Mystic Code I made with full use of my Origin and as a result the efficiency was through the roof! As an Incarnation you can do something even more special: you can actually Project or, as I've nicknamed your way of doing it, Trace weapons that have more Prana in them than you do!"

Shirou blinked.

"Oh, come on! You didn't realize? Hello, Avalon? Sure, yours is about B-rank but it's way more powerful than you right now... It's like I'm teaching an eight-year-old. Which I am. Damn." he scratched the back of his head. "Anyway, you can do only one thing but you can do it with efficiency of over one hundred percent! Don't ask how it works, it's not very well researched where exactly the extra energy comes from. It's been said that an Incarnation doesn't so much shape their own Od and surrounding Prana into a Mystery as summon the finished Mystery from an abstract realm in tune with their Origin. Sort of like a Reality Marble, only not inside your Soul. Not important for practical purposes, moving on. However, if you crack that little academic problem later you can expect an apprenticeship at the Clocktower if you find a way to stop them from dissecting you. Not that I'd accept if I were you, mind you: an independent Magus would be better. Anyway, getting off track here, now where was I?.."

Dietrich snapped his fingers:

"Ah, yes. Even if it's not inside a blade without a usual Element you can still do anything non-elemental, meaning runes, formalcraft, basic material transmutation, the works. Also Structural Analysis, Tracing and also there is Alteration which is imposing an abstract concept on an existing object without damaging it."

The pupil perked up at the words. If he could mix and match his swords' properties…

"Sensei, how does that work? Can I learn it?"

"Again, really underrated area of Magecraft. Thankfully for you I'm a bit of an expert. Mostly you just need to understand the object you are Altering intimately and be sure the concept isn't simply a bunch of made up words but something you can impose upon a material object. Example!"

Dietrich surely loved his ‘Examples!'

"You can take something more or less aerodynamic like, say, a heavy book and impose ‘Projectile' upon it. That is, if you know enough about how books are made and are very, very familiar with projectile weapons: how they are made, fired, everything. You will probably have the pages fuse and the whole thing will flatten into a disk. Needs testing, by the way… But even if you have been making books your whole life and are the best programmer on Earth you won't be able to make a book ‘Programmable'. It isn't a simple idea that can be imposed upon an object this way, it just doesn't make sense. This example is basic basic example but the principle stands: never try new alterations outside of a Workshop."

He stopped for a few moments as if considering whether he should really say the next part:

"This is where you are also unfairly lucky, by the way. As long as the property you are looking for was a part of one of the blades in your mind, you should be able to Alter any other blade with it."

Dietrich clicked his fingers:

"I know what we need! I'll be showing you any weapons I make for sale, that will help you be able to do more stuff."

By this point Shirou's head was swimming from all the new information and possibilities and they had to stop.

Также в разделе:

Eye of the Sword – First Day, Second Night (part 2)
Зарисовка: простые сложности
Песочница драконов – четвертая глава (часть первая)

Опубликовано: 15.01.2016

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(c) Александр Кирко, 2016