“I understand up to there, Master,” said Rider in her usual quietly calm voice, “But I don’t understand why no one tried to stop Caster from doing such a thing.”
“At times like this it’s best to let children tire themselves out,” muttered Archer loud enough for the group to hear.
With an embarrassed smile on his face, Ritsuka said, “Well, Mash insisted on going ahead with the training.”
“Ahhh,” sighed Rider in understanding before turning to gaze (if she can do so through her mask) on the continuing spar between Caster and Mash. “She… does seem the type to be pulled into another person’s pace…”
Ritsuka could only give an offhanded laugh as he kept watching the match that had been going for nearly ten minutes now. Caster was completely dominating Mash with the movements of his staff. He would combine feints with real thrusts and sweeps to knock Mash off balance by striking parts of her shield as far off center as possible. Then he would hook the head of his staff around Mash’s shield and manipulated her balance that way. He also used his hands and legs to to grab, sweep, and kick Mash and her shield in whichever way he wished. Mash was definitely improving her combat ability at an alarming rate, a speed that a complete amateur like Ritsuka could see, but Caster was so far above her in terms of combat ability that it made no difference. Plus, Mash was completely exhausted after the concurrent battles with warriors more experienced than her by far.
Mash took a spinning heel strike her side, throwing her over and skidding to a halt on the ground before she could pick herself up. Ritsuka winced and half expected Mash to stay down after that, but more than anything… Ritsuka was mesmerized by the fighting itself. Mash was definitely strong, but Caster’s mastery over his staff was hypnotic. Every one of Caster’s movements flowed into one another into an unending barrage of attacks. When it looked like he would concentrate on one side, Caster would spin his weapon around and strike out in another location. His bent druid staff moved like it was alive as it rolled over Caster’s knuckles, forearms, shoulders, around the waist. And the movement was majestic as the bent part of the staff struck Mash upside her head, sending a shower of mana sparks flying the same way Mash flew over towards the silently watching audience.
Wait, crap, that one hit Mash’s head!
“Wait! Time out, time out,” called Ritsuka as he moved over to Mash who was struggling to stand again. Mash was wobbling a little, getting her feet under her seemed like it was an arduous task for her as Ritsuka grabbed an elbow to help steady her. “Caster, I think we should probably stop here for now.”
Mash stammered a quick thanks to Ritsuka before giving her head a shake to clear out the cobwebs, flinging some sweat from her brow as she did so. Mash focused on Caster a moment later and said, “I think Senpai is probably right, Caster. Maybe you could teach me some of the theories behind-”
Caster struck the head of his staff to the ground, leaving a dent in the dirt accompanied by a sound and distortion of air strong enough to halt Mash mid sentence.
“You don’t get it at all, do you,” muttered Caster aloud. The entire atmosphere around Caster had changed since the beginning of the sparring match. Ritsuka had noticed his becoming more aggressive during the bout, but now Caster was leaking bloodlust again. “Did I misjudge you, young lady?”
Mash released a wordless breath of shock as Archer called out, “What are you on about Blue Caster?”
“You feel it too, don’t you Archer,” said Caster in his same low, aggressive tone of voice. His eyes never left Mash as he spoke. “This girl isn’t like us. She has no desires. No. She doesn’t even have a sense of self. I hadn’t understood just how little there was to the girl until we started crossing weapons.”
Archer grunted and made a face like he couldn’t say anything that would be able to refute Caster’s claim. Olga Marie though jumped right in with a demanding, “What the heck do you mean by that!?”
Caster began to recount his findings, while still staring Mash down like a predator does his prey.
“A Heroic Spirit is nothing but a big ball of selfishness. We reached great heights in our lives by striving for our own ideals, our own vices, our own justice. Whatever achievements we made, whoever we saved, it all came down to fulfilling our own desires. This young lady doesn’t have any desires in her. That’s why she can’t trigger her Noble Phantasm.”
Ritsuka squeezed out a voice through the semi-paralysis that Caster’s presence and the content of his words caused.
“H-How can you possibly know that, Caster!?”
“There’s a hesitance to the girl’s movements that isn’t from inexperience. This girl is constantly second guessing herself, never trusting her own judgement. That’s why she wants ‘theories.’ She’s constantly trying to think about the best course to take, even when she knows she doesn’t have time to think. Young lady… all of the fights up until now have just you letting that Heroic Spirit you’ve bonded with direct your body. Isn’t that right.”
Mash turned her face away at Ritsuka’s uttered word.
“That’s no good, young lady. That presence inside you is just the vestiges of a Spirit. You can’t trust it to do the heavy lifting for you. You can’t trust it to keep you safe. You can’t trust it to keep your master safe, either.”
A blue light appeared over Ritsuka’s right hand, the rune inscribed circle that had appeared when Caster made his temporary contract. The circle immediately shattered. Rider reacted before anyone else could, shouting, “What are you doing, Caster! Why have you broken your contract!?”
Caster kept talking as a slow swirl of power began to gather around him.
“The kid’s had enough of his mana drained already. If I take any more then there might not be enough for the girl to use her own Noble Phantasm.”
“What the hell are you going on about, Caster,” shouted Olga Marie.
“Young lady,” said Caster dourly as he set the end of his staff on the ground. The ring in the staff’s head began to spin under no visible power, causing the dangling parts to shiver. “While you have no sense of ‘self,’ you do have a sense of others. You’re putting other people ahead of yourself, aren’t you? Especially this Master of yours.”
Mash gasped a little out of realization.
“In a way, that’s perfect for that defensive weapon of yours. But it’s also the reason why you’re not able to release your Noble Phantasm. Because you couldn’t use it while only ‘you’ were in danger. Your lack of a sense of self… even if you don’t want to die, you still can’t place value in your own life.”
Mash looked down in shame.
“Which is why I have to get serious.”
The spinning ring in Caster’s staff began to glow a fiery red as runes appeared on its surface. The runes were static, however, like they were floating on the surface of a rippling pond. Archer deployed his twin swords and cried, “What do you think you’re doing, Caster!?”
“You already know what I’m doing, Archer. If I pull any punches here, the young lady will never be able to tap into her true power. She’ll second guess herself into the grave… and then your Master will quickly follow. That’s why I’m going to hit you with everything I have, Chaldean Master.”
“Leave Senpai out of this!”
“No can do, young lady! If you want to protect your Master, then you’ll have to stop my strongest attack.”
Caster leapt backwards, putting a generous distance between him and all the rest aa he brought his staff down on the ground. A spiral of magical power enveloped Caster and a diagram of complex runes stretched out on the ground around him.
“Time to bet your entire life on one shot, kid! Young lady! Because if you don’t you’ll never make it to the end! Prepare yourselves!”
Rider made a move to dive forwards, but was checked by Archer’s blades crossing across her neck. To Rider’s shouted, panicked protest, Archer merely returned some few words too quiet for anyone else to hear, causing Rider to bite her lip in frustration.
My spell is the coffin of flames, the giant of verdant thorn
At the moment Ritsuka was starting to truly panic, he heard Archer’s voice.
[Master, Caster is right. Mash needs to overcome herself if she wants to grow. Don’t worry, if things truly become too dangerous then Rider and I will intervene.]
Timber Giant, eaten away by fire
“Senpai, please, stand back!”
Mash was trying to push Ritsuka away verbally, to get him to a safe distance in case she couldn’t deploy her Noble Phantasm in time. Ritsuka could see it in her eyes, her fear and hesitance.
Become a cage of flames!
“No Mash! I’m staying right here! If you really want to protect me, then do it with me by your side!”
Descend upon the land, reducing both good and evil to ash!
The diagram of power under Caster’s feet coalesced and disappeared in a blast of light, and immediately after the ground between Caster and the two targeted teens broke open as a figure twenty feet tall and formed out of interwoven briars made itself known. It stood tall, towering above all else and flexed it’s chest which was nothing but an empty cage to hold its intended sacrifice.
Olga Marie was shouting something behind them, but as the wicker giant flexed all sound other than its own ignition was cut out. The loud snap and crackle as the tinder dry vines caught alight. The whoosh of air being displaced to feed the instant bonfire that was its body. The hollow body of the beast made the fire and wind passing through it sound like low growls with an underlying cacophony of high pitched howls of torment.
“Senpai,” shouted mash in surprise, and panic.
“Protect me, Mash! That’s an order!”
Mash’s shoulders twitched slightly, maybe from the harsh and commanding tone of voice Ritsuka used, maybe from the stress of the situation, or maybe because the word “order” struck a chord in her soul. No matter the reason however, Mash’s feet squared and she put strength into her arms.
All of the fire within the wicker man converged into one spot, the right arm that the giant held aloft like an overly telegraphed punch. As the burning fist came down, Mash cried, “Noble Phantasm, Deplooooooooooy!”
A wall of light that seemed to be formed from the intersection of stones like that of a castle wall formed, and halted the fist of the Wicker Man. Undaunted, the great giant pushed all its strength into the blow, trying to push over the wall in front of it. The fire collected in its hand blazed and lashed, but was blown to the sides and not even the radiant heat of the inferno touched the children of Chaldea. The giant seemed to become impatient, as it put more and more effort into its unending single strike, until the body of the Wicker Man began to crackle, creak, and then broke apart from the strain it had put upon itself. As the Wicker Man fell to pieces, the destroyed Noble Phantasm disappeared into a shimmering breeze. Beyond which was a grinning Caster.
“I… Did I… manage to unleash my Noble… Phantasm…”
Caster gave a cry somewhere between a holler and a sigh of satisfaction as he jovially said, “Whew! I knew you’d survive that. But I never thought both you and the kid would walk away without a scratch. Congratulations. Or rather, hey, Ritsuka-kun, praise her! That young lady of yours is without a doubt a first rate Heroic Spirit.”
Mash turned to Ritsuka with a face full of excitement and hopeful expectation, to be met with the words, “He’s right, Mash. That was amazing just now. You did a great job,” and a patting pet on her head. Mash face showed surprise, then gleeful satisfaction as a smile spread on her face and her cheeks showed a bloom of happy relief. Then a lavender tornado swung by the happy pair as Caster barely dodged a sharp thrust from Rider’s daggers before they impaled his head through his lower jaw.
Caster leapt back a pace and furiously worked his staff for the sake of defending himself from Rider’s onslaught.
“Rider, stop! What are you doing!”
At Ritsuka’s call, Rider disengaged and spoke loudly without turning away from Caster who had a cold sweat on his forehead.
“Master, please allow me to finish off this traitorous Caster who turned his sword against you!”
“I don’t use a sword, you crazy bitch! Oy! Kid! Do something to get your woman under control!”
“M-Master’s wom-” stuttered Rider before her aggression increased. “Don’t go trying to distract me, you traitorous Caster!”
“Hurry up, kid!”
“Rider,” called Ritsuka in desperation. “Stand down! Caster was only helping us! In fact, he really did help us, despite the way he did it!”
“Hey, my methods were masterful, kid!”
Rider was silent for a long moment before petulantly saying, “Very well, Master. I will stand down, this time.”
“Oh, thank God,” said Caster as he walked up to Ritsuka and the gang. “I really didn’t want to die in such a ridiculous way. Considering the fact that I used up more of my power with that Noble Phantasm, I wouldn’t have been able to put up much of a fight. Speaking of, kid, would you mind if we reformed the temporary contract?”
There was a protesting outcry from everyone present, except for Ritsuka. Archer even went so far as to say, “That’s pretty shameless considering you’re the one who broke the contract in the first place, Blue Caster.”
“Hey, I can’t help that I had to go all out, Red Archer. And seriously, kid, you’d be doing me a huge favor by accepting the contract. I barely have enough power to keep myself together right now, and there’s hardly any surviving nature around for me to draw power from anymore.”
Ritsuka tilted his head and said, “Oh, so you really were a Druid. Anyway, I don’t mind,” and reached out his right hand to shake with Caster.
“You’re just gonna trust him again after all of that,” shouted Olga Marie in surprise. “What if he stabs you in the back again!”
“How rude, missy. I’m proud of the fact that I’ve only ever stabbed people in the front.”
Ritsuka left his hand hanging in the air as he responded by saying, “Caster didn’t betray us. In fact he put his life on the line to train Mash. I can’t think of anything more trustworthy than that. Ah, but Caster, just one request alright?”
“What’s that, kid?”
“If you’re gonna break our contract again, please let me know beforehand if at all possible?”
Caster smiled, and then laughed.
“This is how a Celt’s Master should be!”