In the wake of Aoko's departure, Vahn escorted the majority of his group back to Avalon. Those that remained behind were Olivia, Luvia, Fenrir, and Gareth. The former pairing had a lot to take care of in the aftermath of the Barthomeloi family's fall while the latter two were there to accompany him as he waited for Scáthach's return.
Vahn felt guilty about Scáthach always doing his dirty work but, without him asking her to do so, she had volunteered herself, stating, "You carry enough burdens. So you don't lose focus in your future training, I will shoulder a few on your behalf."
Though she still seemed to be the same emotionless woman he had met nearly two years prior, Vahn knew that Scáthach was actually a caring person at heart. He knew she wanted to protect him from the darkness of the world so that, no matter how heavy his burdens became, his path would never divert from the light.
In truth, Vahn felt that Scáthach's concerns were unwarranted, even if he understood where she was coming from. After all, he had already experienced the darkness of the world on an intimate level. It had weighed heavily on his mind, heart, and soul for years but, after experiencing an overwhelming amount of love, combined with his encounter with Eva, Vahn had set his past behind him. He knew there was a chance he could relapse, especially if something happened to one of his children, but it was not necessary to coddle him any longer.
Despite feeling this way, Vahn allowed Scáthach to act as his spear in the shadows as, regardless of her reasons, it was something she had decided upon. He did not want to dishonor her convictions and, as he was trying to rely more on others, Vahn ultimately left this matter to her. With her Innate, [Wisdom of the Haunted Ground], there was literally no better person suited to the task...
It is said that, in the modern era, even the most powerful Magi would not be able to contend against a single serious Caster Servant. This was due to the fact that, with few exceptions, most individuals that qualified for the Caster Class hailed from the Age of Gods. During this period of time, Magecraft itself was close to the level of True Magic. While the number of practitioners was very limited, even the weakest was monstrously powerful compared to the standard set by modern Magi.
Ever since the Age of Gods came to an end, the amount of Mystery in the World had rapidly declined and, while the number of Magi had actually increased, their power had gradually decreased. This led some to believe that Magecraft was wholly dependant on the number of users that used a specific form of Thaumaturgy, to the point that, more than two thousand years after the Age of Gods came to an end, this was the prevailing belief.
Despite this 'common knowledge', there had always been outliers and exceptions, some of which wielded such extremes of power that they became legends in their own right. Among these groups, the most prominent of all were those that lived during the Ulster and Arthurian Cycles. The Ulster Cycle related to the Matter of Irish and Scottish lore, dating back to the 1st century, while, as the name suggested, the Arthurian Cycle was part of the Matter of Britain, hailing back to the 3rd and 5th century.
During this period of time, heroes and legends were common to the point that, over the course of a short peasant's life, averaging thirty-six years, they would hear the tale of several dozen heroes rise and fall. This was a time when Spirits still roamed the land and, while survival was difficult, those that made a name for themselves quickly rose to prominence. It wasn't even rare for a single person to, over the course of a few short years, gain enough power to contend against entire armies on their own.
Within the historical texts of the Mage's Association and Holy Church, this five-hundred-year period was classified as the Age of Heroes. This was largely due to the fact that, rather than Magical Power and Mana, the power wielded by those known as Heroes was something 'different', something that had not been prominent before. This latter became known as the 'Power of Belief', or the 'Law of the Common Man'.
The Holy Church credited the existence of Heroes to their God and, as this was a period in human history where people were susceptible to such things, they quickly gained this power for themselves. As for the nascent Mage's Association, they were still shaken by the rampant decline of Magecraft and, fearing it would be lost forever, were doing everything in their power to preserve it. This made them an easy mark for the Holy Church who, using their newfound power, attempted to quash all other systems of belief.
Ironically, while the Holy Church managed to establish permanant roots, which had expanded to give them nearly two-billion followers in the modern era, their actions ultimately brought an end to the Age of Heroes. People began to believe less in themselves and began looking toward God and other systems of belief in order to find answers. Rather than resist the rise of tyranny and corruption, they spent their time praying to a God that offered no answers as, so long as they were alive, Alaya did not care about their suffering.
With the end of the Age of Heroes, the Mage's Association made a major comeback as, for various reasons, Heroes had been a perfect counter against most Magi. They had unnaturally high Magic Resistance and, in many cases, had some form of diving protection that allowed them to triumph against all but the most powerful Magi. Thus, as a result of their own machinations to gain absolute power for themselves, the Holy Church ultimately undermined their own efforts.
The only true counter the Holy Church had left against the Mage's Association were the Sacraments and the existence of Saints. Sacraments were the most powerful form of Thaumaturgy, despite the Holy Church's attestations that it was Providence, not Magecraft. As for the Saints, they usually had a higher degree of 'divine protection' than even Heroes but, due to the nature of their existence, they were exceptionally rare. The Holy Church actually experimented in trying to artificially create Saints but, as could be expected, their efforts generally resulted in twisted amalgamations of humanity, not something divine.
With their efforts ultimately resulting in countless failures, the Holy Church instead began using the bodies of the Saints themselves as a catalyst to produce various weapons, relics, and other forms of armaments. They discovered that, by inflating the accomplishments of dead Saints and manipulating the belief of the devout, they could greatly strengthen the efficacy of their creations. This ultimately allowed the Holy Church to level the playing field against the Mage's Association as, by convincing their believers that 'magic doesn't exist', they were able to actualize the concept and nullify the spells of weaker Magi...
Though there had been several skirmishes between the Mage's Association and the Holy Church over the years, they currently enjoyed a period of relative peace. This was brought about by the end of the Second World War as, due to the Nazi's attempts to unify the thaumaturgical principles of both the Holy Church and the Mage's Association, both groups had to work together to cover up the truth behind the global catastrophe.
Since then, tensions had always been high between the two organizations but, with the rampant modernization of humanity, they had been more focused on controlling the populace than trying to deal with each other. Now, however, things were changing faster than either organization could realistically adapt to...
Even without a 'prophecy' delivered to them by Alaya, the Holy Church eventually found out about the imminent emergence of Angra Mainyu. To exacerbate matters even further, most of their means of communing with God no longer functioned, despite the fact they were in perfect working order.
This, as could be expected, caused a lot of tension within the organization and, as a result, people all over the world began to feel as if their connection to 'God' had diminished. Fortunately, just when it seemed like things were going to reach a breaking point that required immediate action, a genuine miracle occurred.
Inexplicably, and without notice, the amount of violent crime involving children decreased at a rate that simply couldn't be ignored. At the same time, people all over the world, regardless of religion, had attested to feeling a 'presence', almost like a voice, guiding them to take action. With millions of such cases happening all over the world, it didn't even take any effort on the Holy Church's part to proclaim the phenomenon an act of God.
With such an event taking place, the number of people who believed in God, or some other higher power, was increasing rapidly. At the same time, people all over the world began talking about the 'end of days' as, even without practicing Thaumaturgy, there were a number of people throughout the world who were attuned with the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of the world. Most of these people were largely considered hacks but, as there were some notable individuals with large cult followings, the movement was gaining momentum.
The Church, and the Holy Church supporting it, were doing their best to keep order on the surface while, behind the scenes, they too were scrambling to make preparations. They knew for a fact that, while it may not be their version of the Devil, it was inarguable that Angra Mainyu was an enemy of the same magnitude. While some wanted to discredit its existence entirely, the members of the Holy Church knew that such inaction would ultimately lead to their destruction.
To prevent the collapse of their belief system, the Holy Church fixed their attention wholly on what was taking place within the Mage's Association. Despite decrying their very existence on principle, it was an inarguable truth that, when it came to the unknown, the Mage's Association was leaps and bounds ahead of the Holy Church. After all, one embraced the truth and did everything they could to try and uncover it while the other professed their belief system itself as truth, discrediting everything that contradicted their doctrine.
While it was impossible for the most powerful members of the Holy Church to operate within the territory of the Mage's Association, this didn't stop them from using relatively normal people as a proxy. With special blessings and weak artifacts, they were able to largely resist the effect of the barriers intended to obscure their perception, allowing them to keep tabs on students commuting to and from the Clock Tower. After all, not every student stayed within the dorms and, even if they did, many would want to go out and explore London when they were bored.
The Holy Church had a number of informants ranging from baristas to prostitutes so, while most of the more pertinent details might be overlooked, major events always reached them relatively quickly. People simply couldn't help but gossip and, after a few drinks and some powerful narcotics, the lips of a young Magus could be just as loose as any other...
With a month's time to hype up the event, it was a given that the Holy Church had been made aware of the duel between Artoria and Lorelei. This also confirmed speculation that Vahn had some kind of dealings with the Mage's Association and, after investigating the matter, they also learned about the apparent existence of his hidden Empire.
After the incident in Fuyuki, Vahn was the highest priority target for the Holy Church. Not only was he an unknown element, as there were no 'real' records pertaining to his existence, but the amount of power he wielded was a genuine threat. To make matters worse, there were some who believed that Vahn had used the Greater Grail to produce the actual Holy Grail. Since their investigation had proven the existence of several other Heroic Spirits, each given a physical form, this seemed to be very near the truth.
The Holy Church could not tolerate another party possessing the Holy Grail as it was one of the most sacred artifacts associated with their religion. It had disappeared nearly 1500 years prior and, though various false grails had come into existence since then, the true Holy Grail had always eluded them. If Vahn truly possessed the Holy Grail, they would need to recover it as soon as possible. This was even more important now that Angra Mainyu was on the verge of destroying the world. They would need the power of something like the Holy Grail to be able to resist its influence, especially with their God suddenly turning a deaf ear to their prayers...
With this focus on the Mage's Association and all matters related to Vahn, there had been a special task force prepared to take action on the day of the duel. They had two groups, one positioned a few kilometers south of the Edelfelt mansion and the other located in a secure safehouse beneath the basement of a large cathedral.
The Holy Church fully expected a major battle to take place following the completion of the duel, regardless of who emerged the victor. Their mission was to observe from afar and, if the opportunity presented itself, take advantage of the conflict to secure their priority target. With their Sacraments and Scriptures, they were confident in being able to capture Vahn and, though it would likely cause the outbreak of another war, it was a small price to pay if they could secure the Holy Grail.
What the Holy Church could not have anticipated was the fact that, rather than a major battle, the duel between Artoria and Lorelei ended wholly in the former's favor. Then, more surprising still, one of their priority targets over the last millennia, Lord Bathomeloi, had also been eliminated. To cap off everything, the Edelfelt mansion showed no signs of impending conflict while, on the outskirts of London, the estate belonging to the Barthomeloi family was up in flames.
Rather than a large battle, it seemed that a single assailant had been tearing their way through the estate with impunity. Since it would have taken them an entire division to even breach through the Bounded Field of the Barthomeloi Manor, the task force formed by the Holy Church had no idea how they should react to this information. All they knew for certain was that Vahn's Empire was far more powerful than they had initially anticipated...
Leading the task force was a petite figure that only stood at 143cm in height. Despite almost every other member of the task force looking like a battle-hardened veteran, they looked like an innocent child with raven black hair, cut neatly at shoulder length, and dark purple eyes. If not for the fact that their eyes lacked the light of innocence entirely, looking more like a dark abyss than anything else, it would have been easy to mistake them as an actual child.
While everyone else was wearing tactical equipment and customized cassocks, the raven-haired child was wearing a white tunic, loose-fit black slacks, and polished dress shoes. What stood out the most, however, were the eight golden rings on their fingers and, on the back of their right and left hand, two crimson red markings that seemed to glow in the low light of the room. Their face seemed to be formed into a perpetual smile that never quite reached their eyes, unnerving anyone who had the misfortune of being in their presence for a long period of time.
The others were unable to see what was going on within the Barthomeloi family but, while it was a little difficult, this particular individual was able to see the interior of the Bounded Field. This would have been impossible under normal circumstances but, with Scáthach rampaging within the Manor, the Barthomeloi family couldn't exactly spare anyone to monitor the grounds.
With nobody to stop their advancement, dozens of peculiar-looking mice with glowing red and purple eyes were sifting through the debris and corpses littering the Manor. Though many had lost their lives the moment they came anywhere near the purple-haired demoness, they still fulfilled their purpose in helping to gather information for the task force. Their death caused the eyes of the youth to squint almost imperceptibly but, as they could always produce more, it didn't matter if Scáthach tore through a thousand, much less ten.
After witnessing the carnage for the better part of an hour, the youth suddenly shook his head. They turned to address their companions, each showing a serious expression, before saying in an amused tone, "We don't have the right equipment for dealing with this. Contact the Agency and have them send the Seventh. This mission will be put on hold for the time being. I would rather not fight a God-Killer if I can avoid it, hahahaha~"
Within the group of elites, a man with short blond hair and circular glasses made a motion to push them up before commenting in a stern tone, "Father Solomon...do you believe it wise to jest during such an important mission? The Cardinal will not appreciate such remarks..."
Instead of taking offense to his subordinate's remark, the youth began to laugh uninhibitedly before remarking, "I suppose you would harp over such matters. Well, it doesn't really matter in the end. We still need the Seventh to deal with this situation as our target isn't something that can be killed with the means we have prepared. Besides, they also have someone who was able to take out Lorelei, a person that could even contend against Dead Apostle Ancestors within their own Territory. Go and fight if you want, but you'll only be dying for a God that will not mourn your passing~"
Hearing their superior's words, everyone in the task force was more than a little offended, especially with the news of their God's silence being fresh on their mind. They knew this person before them wasn't a true believer but, to hear them slander their God and insult their beliefs, they could not help but feel incensed. Despite this, however, they made no attempt to try and seek recompense as, while not a devout follower of the Sacraments, this youth before them wasn't an opponent they had any hope of matching.
Seeing how their colleagues had reacted, the youth's smile turned into one of ridicule as they turned their back and mused, "If not for the possibility of securing the Holy Grail, I would not even be here. Now, let's see if there are any treasures to be plundered during the chaos~"
(A/N: Writing anything related to the Holy Church is mind-numbing xD. It is so convoluted!)
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