Chapter 1048: Prelude

Though it was already later than they would normally eat dinner, Vahn found a rather disgruntled Rin laying listlessly with her head against the dining room table. She had eaten a light lunch but, due to her increased activity over the last week or so, Rin’s appetite had increased greatly. Now, she was grumbling nearly as much as her stomach as she complained, “Gnnuuu…if he doesn’t show up soon, I swear I’ll take a bite out of him instead…fuuu….” Unaware of the fact Vahn had just entered the room, Rin was partaking in one of the little soliloquy’s she was known for. Vahn felt like this was another expression of her ‘fate’ or ‘luck’, as the fact she murmured such a thing now seemed rather ‘conveniently’ timed…

Deciding to play along, Vahn approached Rin in complete silence before pulling a slice of her favorite cheesecake from his Inventory sliding it in front of her face. Suddenly having something enter the periphery of her vision, Rin startled like a frightened rabbit as she jumped up from her chair, nearly headbutting Vahn’s chin in the process. Vahn easily evaded the ‘surprise’ attack before placing his hands on Rin’s shoulder to keep her from falling backward as he softly whispered, “It’s okay, Rin…it’s just me…” This caused her to immediately release a heavy sigh before leaning back against his chest and complaining, “Now isn’t really the best time to try and spook me…” in a monotone voice.

Knowing she was right, Vahn felt apologetic but, understanding she would recover faster if he gave her a few small pushes, he responded by kissing the top of her head wrapping his arms around her body. This caused Rin’s face to form a frown as her cheeks quickly began shifted from her usual fair complexion into a deep, ruddy, color. Since she had fallen silent, Vahn started to gently rock her body in his arms while asking, “Are you okay…?” in an even softer tone than before.

Staying silent for several seconds longer, Rin finally responded by overlapping his hands with her own as she somberly stated, “I would be dead if not for you…thank you, Vahn…” As shaken as she was from her experience, Rin was surprised that she seemed to care more about his state of mind than her own. Since she had been the one to insist on their plan, knowing full well Vahn didn’t want them exposed to danger, Rin felt extremely apologetic but had no way of expressing it. Fortunately, while Vahn had been busy throughout the day, she had a lot of time to talk with Ereshkigal and Ishtar to get her thoughts in order. This was why she chose to thank Vahn as soon as possible, hoping it would prevent him from blaming himself too much for what had happened…

As she had expected, Vahn did indeed feel a little relieved when he heard the gentleness contained within Rin’s expression of gratitude. He knew she hadn’t recovered from the near-death experience, especially since the ‘culprit’ was now lingering around the Manor, but it was a testament to Rin’s steadfastness that she was already walking towards the road to recovery. This caused Vahn to hug her a little more firmly before slowly releasing her body as he said, “Come, let’s get you something to eat. There is no rush to head out…I’ll cook you up something nutritious while you work away at this cheesecake…” With that said, Vahn rubbed Rin’s shoulder one last time before making his way to the kitchen to prepare something fresh. Even though he could just purchase a meal from the system shop, he knew Rin would appreciate it a lot more if he prepared it manually…

Following Vahn with her eyes until he had vanished into the kitchen, Rin then proceeded to slouch like a deflating balloon as she absentmindedly muttered, “He is impossible to keep up with…I don’t even know what kind of relationship we have right now…” Since she had known the resolute and serious Vahn a lot longer than this ‘gentle’ side to him, Rin felt like she was steadily sinking into a swamp of her own emotions. Not only did he come to her side, albeit a little slowly, when she ‘needed’ him the most, but he had now even saved her life. With how he treated her like something fragile, which wasn’t wrong compared to him, Rin felt simultaneously blessed and frustrated at the same time. Though the ‘swamp’ she found herself in was warm and surprisingly comfortable, she was afraid that, at any given moment, she might sink into it and suffocate completely…

Managing to sit upright in her chair, Rin picked up her fork before staring blankly at the perfectly crafted cheesecake Vahn had set out for her. This immediately caused her stomach to release a loud grumble, announcing its presence to the world as it ‘demanded’ satiation. Rin’s cheeks became red as she forked up a small piece of fluffy white pastry and placed it in her mouth. She was nearly overtaken by the urge to squeal in satisfaction but managed to keep it contained by pinching the outside of her thigh. Even if she had a full stomach, Rin always had ‘extra’ room for the sweets prepared by Vahn…

After releasing a small sigh, Rin looked down at her own stomach before muttering, “You traitor…if you don’t fix your attitude, what am I going to do if Vahn actually leaves in the future…?” Though she had been the one to invite Vahn to become her ‘chef’, Rin hadn’t expected a day would come when just the thought of eating food prepared by someone else caused her to grimace. She had eaten a small cup of plain rice earlier, one of the few things she could prepare without burning, and it had tasted so bland that she barely managed to keep it down. By the time she was done eating, she was actually even hungrier than before…

Just as she was having her existential food crisis, Rin felt another hand on her shoulder that caused her body to jolt for the second time tonight. Instead of Vahn, Rin was able to immediately identify the ‘intruder’ based on the white glove adorning the hand. With her expression souring, Rin was about to complain before Nobunaga preempted her by teasing, “Aww, is the princess disappointed that the Knight she had been expecting is busy elsewhere? You’re going to break my heart…” Before Nobunaga had finished her words, Rin had swatted her hand away before following up by saying, “I’m really not in the mood to deal with you right now…”

Hearing Rin’s words, Nobunaga rolled her eyes before taking the seat next to her and saying, “You’re not as bad as Vahn, but you have a lot of baggage, don’t ya? If you really want to follow him, that idiot wouldn’t be able to stop you. The only thing you have to worry about is what you want to ‘pack’ before you chase after him. If you want my advice…” At this point, Nobunaga was leaning forward so much that she was well within Rin’s personal space as she added, “You shouldn’t waste time packing at all. I’m sure you’ve sensed it as well, right? The longer you wait, the further down on his list of priorities you’ll become…that brat, I don’t even think he knows how to love just one woman…”

Though she wanted to rebuff Nobunaga, Rin found herself unable to offer any resistance as she averted her eyes to the side, struggle clearly visible within. This seemed to amuse Nobunaga as an ‘evil’ smile spread across her lips as she moved her hand to grab Rin’s chin before saying, “You have the gall to destroy the Grail with this kind of conviction? You and your little friends play at being resolute and prepared but you can’t even bear the burden of your own emotions, much less the pressure of the numerous enemies you will make if your plan succeeds. Well, I suppose it doesn’t really matter…”

Letting her fingers trace across Rin’s chin as she pulled them away, Nobunaga’s expression became absolutely serious as she said, “Unless he meets an early end, I can’t imagine what kind of monster would be able to slow that man down. I want to see what he is capable of with my own eyes so don’t blame me for taking the lead if you continue to remain indecisive. Now that you broke down his defenses, I’m confident in my chances…consider this a declaration of war, Rin Tohsaka. Let this Demon King show you the meaning of an ‘aggressive offensive’…”

Without being afforded the opportunity to respond, Rin was left gawking as Nobunaga vanished into motes of light. As lascivious as Nobunaga seemed, Rin never pegged her as a ‘rival’ she needed to concern herself with. She was pretty sure the former even liked women but, now that she had been declared war upon, Rin realized that Nobunaga was far more ‘open-minded’ than she had realized. Now, instead of just having to worry about Fenrir, she had an evil and charismatic tyrant to contend with. Since Scáthach also seemed like a ticking time bomb, Rin suddenly felt a lot more pressure than before…

Realizing her own thought process, Rin’s eyes widened in shock as, without even noticing it beforehand, it seemed that she already treated Fenrir as her rival. Though she knew it wasn’t possible to get between her and Vahn, Rin had been subconsciously thinking about how she could garner more of Vahn’s attention. Just as Nobunaga implied, it would depend on her decisiveness whether or not she was placed highly within Vahn’s expanding list of ‘priorities’. If she managed to earn his affections early on, Vahn’s sense of pride and responsibility would guarantee that he showed her more affection than other girls…inversely, if she allowed his attention to wander, Rin was ‘positive’ Vahn’s attention would be captured by others.

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At the moment her anxiety reached its peak, Rin’s eyes lost their light as her consciousness was ‘pulled’ into a small black and white room that was perfectly divided down the center. Sitting on a small golden altar, affixed with thick red cushions, Ishtar was leaning on her side as she mused, “It seems you have forgotten about us in your chaotic state of mind…did you forget what Divinities this Goddess possessed? The boy may not have realized it himself, but we can sense the feelings he directs towards you. More than carnal desires, there is genuine affection and love contained within. You need only trust in your own feelings and the rest will take care of itself. As for ‘other’ things, that is something we can help you with, right, Eres~?”

Unlike Ishtar, seated upon her lavish throne, Ereshkigal was sitting in the corner on her side of the room as she pieced together bones to form a make-shift human doll. There was a dreary and dark atmosphere surrounding her but, strangely, the figure of Ereshkigal seemed to blend in perfectly with this scene, almost as if to prove that there was ‘beauty’, even within death. When she heard her sister’s words, Ereshkigal held up the bone-doll in her hands before softly stating, “I want to stay here a bit longer…this is my first time seeing the surface world…” Then, stroking the doll’s head, which had a few patches of dark brown hair, Ereshkigal smiled as she added, “We will help…to separate with our kin…I do not desire this…”

Though Rin was more than a little weirded out by Ereshkigal’s behavior, Ishtar showed a radiant smile as she stated, “Well, that settles it then. We’re also rather fond of Vahn so let’s do our best to keep his focus on us for as long as possible. With the three of us working together, this Goddess refuses to believe we can’t keep him grounded for at least a few centuries. So long as we reside within your body, you need not worry about age and illness…now go, knowing you carry with you the blessing of the Goddess of Love…”

As if she was rising to the surface of a deep pool, Rin’s consciousness was returned without even ten seconds passing in reality. She had ‘missed’ her opportunity to even argue against Ishtar as the latter simply left no room for a counter-argument. Now, as if her decision had been made for her, Rin placed her forehead against the table and released a frustrated whine. This coincided with Vahn stepping into the dining room, carrying with him an aroma so fragrant it could only be described as heavenly. Rin was briefly tempted to ‘ignore’ him but, as soon as the aroma tickled her nose, an even louder rumble than any of the previous once escaped her stomach…

After spending quite a while trying to pacify Rin, Vahn found himself standing at the highest building within Fuyuki City, the Center Building. Vahn questioned why it was given such a name, as it was located four kilometers away from the actual center of the city, the Fuyuki Bridge spanning the Mion River. As this ultimately didn’t matter, Vahn set the matter aside for later consideration as he tapped his finger against the railing that prevented normal citizens from accidentally falling to their deaths. It had been an uneventful night thus far as, after a chaotic first evening, many of the participating Masters were likely focused on gathering information. The majority should know that this particular Holy Grail War was different than those that had taken place previously so none of them were extending their necks out, fearing they would be among the first to be eliminated…

Further than his domain could extend, Vahn saw a flash of light in the distance that, even with the various lights polluting the city, stood out. A few seconds later, a ‘ripple’ of mana reached the periphery of his domain, allowing Vahn to determine the approximate distance and the strength of the attack based on its fallout. He immediately determined that the enemies were weaker than Scathach, causing Vahn to lift a small radio to his mouth, saying, “Battle in area C-7. Unknown number of combatants. Threat level: Minor…” It wasn’t exactly code, but Rin had come up with the idea of using radios that had been tuned to carry signals, even with the interference of the city-wide formation. They could only transmit messages directly, meaning buildings could still block the signal, but everyone had taken posts on some of the tallest buildings to make sure the signal would get through.

Shortly after he sent his message, Rin’s voice came through from the other end, saying, “Make sure you say ‘Ove’ at the end of transmissions…over…” This caused Vahn to roll his eyes before jumping from the building and landing almost silently on the ground twenty stories below. While dashing down the freeway at a casual 600km/h, Vahn brought the radio back to his mouth, saying, “I’m going to engage. Stand by for Orioles…over…” Though it wasn’t particularly hard to infer what he meant, assuming any Magus even bothered to try and intercept their transmissions, Vahn was sticking with their agreed-upon jargon.

Without waiting for Rin’s return message, Vahn established a connection with Scáthach, saying, (“I will entrust Rin and Fenrir to you. If they get into a fight, I’ll leave it up to your judgment whether or not you need to intervene.”) Then, establishing a connection with Nobunaga, Vahn’s tone became stern as he said, (“If you get a shot, feel free to eliminate the enemy Masters. Don’t expose your position trying to support me…”) Vahn had the distinct feeling that Nobunaga was trying to make him feel ‘indebted’ to her so, while he also trusted her judgment, he felt compelled to tell her not to intervene. His urge to vent on a strong opponent had only grown stronger over the last few hours so Vahn didn’t want to complicate things by having to chase down enemies that discovered her location. Once a Servant engaged in active combat, they couldn’t revert back to their Spirit form for a full hour so Nobunaga would be forced to run away if the enemy was powerful…

With their connection still established, Vahn could imagine Nobunaga snorting through her nose before she answered, (“Yes, moooom…don’t worry, your little Nobu-chan will be a good girl.”) As soon as she said this, Vahn felt their connection was severed from her end. Shaking his head, Vahn kicked against the ground, spontaneously doubling his speed to just under the speed of sound. It was around this time that Rin’s message came to him, albeit a little broken up as she said, “Ma…sure no…to…nderestimate…enemies.” Since she had seen how ‘riled’ up Vahn was prior to heading out, he wasn’t too surprised that she was worried about him…

Though Vahn didn’t know the precise location of his enemy, it didn’t matter all that much once he managed to get near their battlefield. There were sonic booms and explosions resonating off the concrete superstructure of the surrounding buildings while, on the very edge of his domain, Vahn sensed three presences. Two were much larger and, based on the speed at which they were moving around, it was easy to determine who were the Servants and who was the Master. It bothered him that there was only one Master present but, after thinking about it for a brief moment, Vahn realized that one of the Servants may be the Assasin-Class. The most likely scenario was that the latter had tried to eliminate one of the Masters before they were intercepted by the Servant…

Coming to a stop a few blocks away from the conflict, Vahn found himself at a crossroads as he had to decide whether or not to confront the Servants or take the more ‘direct’ route of eliminating the Master. If he did the latter, it might be possible to recruit a third Servant, further strengthening their side in preparation for future battles. This was the most prudent course of action, as it also reduced the chances of his hubris coming back to bite them if he failed to take down the enemy Servants before their Master could either support them or escape the battlefield…

Raking a deep breath, Vahn’s eyes flashed with a subtle blue light as he muttered, “I’m not suited to skulking around in the shadows…an Emperor should stand tall for the entire world to bear witness to…” Even if he wasn’t an Emperor within this world, Vahn still held the title and identity of the man who had led to the formation of the Alliance and the unification of all Eden under the banner of his Empire. Though his arrogance had been ‘shattered’ by the existence of a force he could not oppose, Vahn knew it ran counter to his nature to hide from his enemies. If he started fearing conflict, it would be much harder for him to grow stronger in the face of any future setbacks…

With this conviction in mind, Vahn removed the [Cloak of Shadows] he had been wearing before donning armor similar in form and function to his Imperial Regalia. Since they had yet to make their appearance thus far, Vahn decided he would throw the Holy Grail War into even greater chaos as, instead of a Master, he intended to reveal himself as a rogue ‘Ruler’. In the blink of an eye, Vahn’s hair shifted as if it were blown by the wind before fixing itself into position. Instead of growing loose and wild around his face, it now spiked backward like a lion’s mane as his eyes blazed like blue flames in the night. Then, while channeling [Enkidu] into his domain to cause a golden radiance to spread through the surroundings, Vahn tore through the void and entered the fray…

(A/N: Alternate Titles: ‘Traitorous Stomach’,’Nobunaga’s Battle Strategy!?’,’The Emperor Takes To The Battlefield’)

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