In the grim dark present of roleplaying, there is Only Grail War. Stormshrug's Fate/Crusade is the second campaign following the events of Fate/stay night using rules adapted from Fantasy Flight's Warhammer 40k RPG systems. I'm not in this campaign, but I'm playing a role from the sidelines. His story has already begun...
December 1, 2012. A van puttered along the roughly paved road, carrying its passengers to Orvieto. Its secretive black exterior was completed by tinted windows and a foreign license plate. Few were on the road at this hour, and fewer still with weather so ominous. Clouds obscured the stars and moon, leaving the night almost pitch black. The local Italians had doubtless decided that this was a good night to sit at home with a warm coffee. Ishmael wished he could do the same.
The atmosphere inside the van was at least as ominous as the outside. There were seven occupants, each an enforcer with years of experience working for the Mage's Association. Ishmael didn't know of a single occasion that could prompt such an entourage, short of this Holy Grail War. That left things uneasy, since mages are at best individualistic by nature and often pointedly antisocial. He looked from face to face, reminding himself of their names and specialties, and hoping he wouldn't need them.
The driver, hunched over the wheel in deep concentration, was known as Solomon. Of all the mages assembled, he had possibly the weakest fundamental magical ability. He was a Clocktower mage of recent lineage, with no Family Crest to speak of. He compensated with a razor wit, determination, and a pragmatic understanding of modern technology. Solomon wore a tailored white linen shirt in the local custom, complemented with several golden chain-link wrist bands which suited his olive skin nicely.
The passenger was a pensive, bald man of even darker complexion. He wore the extremely traditional robes of a Magus Arcanae, which ironically made him vaguely resemble a Church Executor in some way. This man was called Alani, and Ishmael had worked with him before, only once. He looked impassive, bored, but Ishmael knew that should he be needed, he'd fling that hood back to reveal a wild-eyed grin. Alani was a duelist, a combat specialist of the highest order, and his signature was pure fire. Ishmael remembered watching their mark, a maddened mage in the London underground, illuminated in the orange glow of Alani's magic circuits. He remembered watching the man's head explode in a blinding burst of flame.
Behind the driver sat Kreani, the only woman in their group. She was twin sister to quiet, feverish Alani, and every bit his foil. Where Alani had inherited his family's Crest, Kreani had their fire in her blood. She reminded Ishmael a bit more of his own upbringing. She had forged her own way, and wasn't afraid to show it. She dressed almost like a gypsy, but moreso than all the bands and dangling charms she wore, what stood out about her was her eyes. They were a dark, bottomless black. Ishmael had heard that she could sway and conquer the minds of any man with those eyes. Alani had murmured quietly that she was the only one ever to best him in a duel, for she could turn his own strength against him.
Ishmael sat behind the passenger seat, his sniper rifle boxed and resting at his feet. That left three in the back row that he knew less well. On the left was Peccam, a hand-to-hand specialist from a southeast Asian country. In the middle sat Vindar, the Human Stone, who held a briefcase in his lap: the false Grail Vessel that would be handed off to the Church in the coming ceremony. To his right was another traditionally-garbed Magus, known to most as Mr. Grimm. He was tight-lipped about his abilities, but had come with a strong recommendation by Ishmael's boss.
The stillness inside the car was broken as Solomon spoke up. "There's someone in the road. Just standing there."
"Go around him," instructed Kreani. "Stop for nothing and no one."
Ishmael struggled to get a clear glimpse of the man in the road in the dark. He closed his eyes, and concentrated on the flow of magic to his eyes, then reopened them, his sniper's vision activated. The moment he saw, he felt a hole in the pit of his stomach. The headlights flashed over a small man with light, mussed hair and a finely-made if somewhat antiquated black jacket covered in elaborate golen runes. Ishmael's memory raced at the sight of the runes. A year ago, in the previous Grail War, Baltasar had defended himself with runes like that, which absorbed damage from spells and attacks and directed it back at the attacker. The runes on this man's jacket looked similar, but far more precise and intricate, as if showing a skill level at least a decade ahead of the young Baltasar. Ishmael's left hand unconsciously unfastened his seat belt even as they swerved away from the runed man, who rolled to the same side as the van. Ishmael's warning shout was overtaken by a horrific crunch, as the carefully placed blow from the man's runed fist rent a sickening fissure in the hood.
An instinctive incantation meant Ishmael literally flew out the door of the van as it was sundered in two. Solomon let out a horrifying, gargling scream as the dashboard collapsed and crushed him where he sat. The night was illuminated by sparks of twisted metal and the golden runes of their assailant, which dissolved in bright flashes while the car's momentum seemed be turned upon itself. The mangled van split in two and flipped upward, tumbling end over end in a V shape with the runed man standing untouched at the point.
As a cloud of smoke billowed out from the wreck to join the black clouds overhead, Ishmael realized his weapon had been tangled in the car wreck. From his vantage point above, he scanned around for survivors and the Vessel. Peccam was partway visible, trapped beneath a mangled chunk of metal frame where the back seat had been. Ishmael soared down to try and help him free. Meanwhile, Alani emerged from the other side of the mess, his teeth white in a massive, crazy grin, even though blood was already trickling down his forehead and his robe was a tattered mess. His fists became wreathed in fire, which he launched at the runed man. It was too late for Ishmael to warn him when Alani's fire flashed against the man's jacket, dissolving two runes, so that the explosion rocked Alani, not the assailant. Torrents of flame literally poured from Alani's mouth as he tried again to injure the other man, but each blow he struck only reflected back to himself, and by the time Ishmael had freed Peccam from the wreckage, Alani had crumpled to the ground, a blackened and charred corpse.
"Watch for the runes," Ishmael warned the Asian combatant, while he struggled to find the rest of his team, and his weapon. Kreani was getting up now, and she and Peccam stood side-by-side, both obviously injured from the crash. Kreani's loose sleeves rippled with magical energy as she focused her magic on the assailant, and meanwhile Peccam charged him, engaging him hand-to-hand.
The two were a close match in height and build; neither had a huge reach advantage over the other, but both moved with a practiced care. Peccam rained bone-crushing blows on the assailant, while protecting himself both against the backlash from the runes and the counterstrikes the man threw at him. The man swept low; Peccam jumped over it and then planted a glowing fist against the man's side. A golden rune flashed in the night, and Peccam grunted as if he'd been the one punched in the ribs, but he had already steadied his balance for the reflected blow. He followed up with a flurry of underhand jabs beginning with his off hand, which the well-dressed man mostly deflected. Meanwhile, although Kreani glowed from the faint blue light of her controlling magic, none of her spells seemed able to break through the reflecting power of the man's defensive runes.
Ishmael turned to try to find the last two, Mr. Grimm and Vindar, who should have the Grail. It seemed like their side of the van had ended up on the other end of the divide. But before he could go over to dig them out, another figure appeared from the shadows. This man moved inhumanly fast, and the sharp glint of a blade struck out in the night at Peccam, who was caught off-guard and out of breath after pushing back the man in the black. Part of the wreckage flared alight just in time to illuminate the new assailant with his ornate rapier impaled through Peccam's chest.
The new assailant was taller, similarly well-dressed, and pale. His long gray hair was tied back into a loose ponytail, and his garb was covered in a lesser number of similar golden runes. Kreani grimaced as she refocused her attention on him, holding a hand forward and speaking a detailed incantation. The pale man grinned sickeningly as he turned his blood-red eyes straight back at her, and she yelped, but closed her eyes and re-focused. One of the golden bands on her wrist flared and disintegrated, but so did one of the runes on the new attacker.
It was at this moment that Ishmael finally spotted the other two members of their squad. They'd made their way out of the wreckage, carrying the briefcase with the Vessel. Vindar had his Stone Skin visibly active, while Mr. Grimm was limping. Ishmael was about to launch himself their way, but Mr. Grimm held up a hand, and a whirlwind of dark shapes surrounded him. Like a stream of pure malevolence, it poured straight forward towards the pale man, who had Kreani in a death grip. He swatted the shapes back with his sword hand, but they ate away at the golden runes encircling his sleeve. While Kreani struggled for breath, Ishmael concentrated on a piece of twisted wreckage that stood nearby. With his telekinetic powers, he drove it deep into the torso of the second assailant, crucifying him against the remains of the van.
The shorter one, meanwhile, charged at Vindar. Vindar went to strike him with a rock-hard fist, but the last of the man's golden runes turned the attack back on Vindar, shattering the stone fist like a weathered statue. Vindar collapsed in pain and the other man used the moment to grab the briefcase of the Grail Vessel.
Ishmael became a human cannonball, charging at the man who would take the Vessel. With no runes left, Ishmael bowled into him at full bore. The man staggered, but caught his balance and hurled Ishmael away from him with careful prowess. As Ishmael struggled to stand, he saw the pale man was still alive. He slowly ripped the metal beam impaling him apart from the wreckage. With inhuman speed, the still-impaled swordsman charged Mr. Grimm and swung his rapier in a blinding arc that beheaded the magus. He seemed unhindered by the injuries he'd received, and grinned madly in Ishmael's direction. Two words echoed in Ishmael's head, a name he'd heard before, whispered in the darkness: Dead Apostle.
The frozen scene was disrupted by a blinding flash of lightning that struck part of the wreckage. By the time the flash had faded from Ishmael's eyes, the six corpses and two assailants on the ground were tiny dots on the ground below. Drops of rain pelted his face as he sailed through the night towards Orvieto, empty-handed and defeated, but alive.
(To be continued)