Shingeki no Bahamut: Virgin Soul – 21

Alessand goes through a lot of emotions as he stalks and kills Mugaro. There’s some excitement and satisfaction he’s proven his “worth” to the Onyx Soldiers, but also a crushing guilt and self-hatred. He is truly a fallen knight. He failed the test.

He also fails to get out undetected; Favaro spots him fleeing the scene of the crime, but rather than give chase, he takes Mugaro to Rita, who tries despretely in vain to save his life as everyone around watches, including Nina, who had been previously so distracted by her own woes.

It wouldn’t be much of a drama if Rita could’ve so easily saved Mugaro, so he dies, and the group is scattered and lost as a result. After grieving, Jeanne returns to the Land of the Gods with Sofiel and purpose.

Azazel—at times a father, brother, and friend to Mugaro—also storms off, after his hunch about one of Kaisar’s subordinates being responsible is proven true by Favaro.

And naturally, Alessand doesn’t get what he bargained for. He has the blood of a holy child on his hands, but when the Onyx commander shows what being an Onyx soldier really means—becoming host to a life-sucking stone that leads to an agonizing half-life—he immediately balks. I must say, Alessand has gone from harmless buffoon to loathsome wretch in shockingly short order.

Up in the LotG, Gabriel rejoices at the return of Sofiel and Jeanne, but also pained by the news of the loss of El. Never mind; the time for mourning is over, as far as Jeanne is concerned. Sofiel transforms her into a holy warrior, and they prepare to return to the surface world in force to exact their revenge.

Azazel has less luck, at least initially, with his superior Lucifer, and Azzy has to take a book to the face, but he eventually convinces him that Jeanne is indeed moving against Charioce, and there will never be a better time to strike. Whether any kind of coordination is in the cards, we’ll have to see.

And then we have Nina. Ever since Mugaro’s death, her demeanor has been muted, and she admits to feeling numb; like Titus Andronicus, she hath not another tear to shed. She cleans and cleans until, while cleaning Bacchus’ wagon, she finds Mugaro’s dress, and the tears begin to pour, as she recalls raw anguish similar to when her dear father died.

After her good long cathartic cry, Favaro visits her in the wagon, but has no certain answers to her questions. When Nina gets up and shows her face, Favaro is surprised to see it’s no longer soaked with tears; instead, she wears a face of stern determination; of focus.

Like Azazel, like Jeanne, she’s done crying. And if Charioce will continue to hurt and kill her friends, she’ll take it upon herself to stop him, no matter what it takes. Not long thereafter, Jeanne speaks to the people from on high: rise up against the mad king who killed her only child and intends to kill many more.

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Shingeki no Bahamut: Virgin Soul – 20

The Demon assassin is eager to fight a dragon, as I assumed he’d killed one or two in his checkered past. However, his true beef is with the fact that Nina is a mongrel and a pathetic abomination for having a human parent. Nina transforms into the Red Dragon, but the assassin transforms into a bigger one. A much, much bigger one.

The resulting fight is one of the cooler, more impressive battle sequences—after all, two dragons are better than one—but Nina is completely outclassed and the assassin’s attacks quickly transform her back into human form.

Naked and beaten up, the Onyx Commander looms over her and tells her the order to kill her came from His Majesty himself, twisting the proverbial knife before killing her with a real one.

Favaro and Kaisar have heard enough, and spring into action, breaking free from their captors—but they’re pretty outmatched themselves, so it’s fortunate the cavalry arrives in a timely fashion, in the form of El, Sofiel, Azazel and Jeanne. The lads are…humbled by the sight of the surpassingly ethereal, angelic Sofiel, but she’s not here to dilly-dally.

Summoning a giant avatar to match the assassin dragon’s scale, she launches a devastating ice-based attack that turns the dragon into a solid chunk that shatters under its own weight. And to think: she is of those who have found themselves flummoxed and beaten back by Charioce.

With the dragon eliminated and the Onyx Soldiers tied up with magical binds, all that’s left is to finish saving Nina, who appears down for the count not due to any physical exertion, but because she’s suffering from a broken heart.

Kaisar leaves the Onyx Commander and his men alive, but the Commander makes sure he knows there’s nothing he or his friends can do to stop Charioce, so there’s no point in continuing to oppose him, aside, I supposed, from a death wish. Alessand also takes note of the fact that El is the “holy child.”

Back at base (which is surprisingly still intact and safe after all that) Sofiel insists that it’s time to go: Her, Jeanne…and El. But El is reluctant; he believes he was born for a greater purpose that can only be served on the surface world. Bacchus, for once given some dramatic meat, tells him he’s being foolish; that all he his at the moment is a child, a gift from his father to his mother. It’s enough to convince him to go with them.

Meanwhile, Nina whips herself into a rage and tosses aside the necklace Charioce gave her, trying and likely failing to get over the guy who not only rejected her, but tried to kill her. She neither needs nor wants these feelings, but unless Rita has a spell or potion for it, they’re not going anywhere. El stops by to say goodbye, and can tell Nina isn’t alright, even though she puts her usual cheerful face on in front of him.

The next morning, the Onyx Commander informs Charioce, who is headed to Eidos to finish opening the rift, that the dragon has been eliminated; Charioce, like Nina, may well be hiding his true feelings on the matter from the world. Ready to set off back to the Land of the Gods, Sofiel admits to Bacchus that she left without permission, and furthermore, can why he stayed on this world: there’s never a dull moment, after all.

After El says his final goodbyes to Azazel, he walks back through the caves alone, and is confronted by Alessand, who stabs him in the chest, making his holy blood pour onto the ground and surround his black ocarina. Alessand, who was humiliated and judged as worthless by the Onyx Commander, still wishes to prove the man wrong.

So Al chose to make himself worth something by eliminating a potential weapon of the Gods. Whether he’ll get any acknowledgment—or even get out of the caves with his life—remain to be seen.

Fate / Zero – 19

In Part 2 of How Kiritsugu Got So Messed Up, young Kiritsugu finds himself in a gender-swapped version of The Professional. Natalia is Leon, the ‘cleaner’ with a heart of gold who suddenly isn’t alone, and Kiritsugu is Matilda, the trauma-stricken, anger-filled youth searching for purpose.

After saving him, Natalia takes Kiri under her wing, gradually teaching him the basics. Before long he’s accompanying her on jobs, and if there’s one complaint I have with this episode (and it’s not a biggie), it’s that there’s really no transition between Kiri’s ‘kid’ and ‘adult’ voices.

What Nat continually drives into Kiri (whatever voice he has) is that her line of work, one’s own survival is the most important consideration. If you’re dead, it’s all for nothing. As a result of her training and care, Kiri becomes a highly capable and reliable apprentice. (She also eventually powders some of his ribs into 66 bullets).

The moment a Dead Apostle named Odd Vorzak appears in the tray of Natalia’s fax machine, I had the ominous feeling that it would be her last job, but while the destination was basically known, I still greatly enjoyed the journey. As a big job in which Kiritsugu plays a crucial role, flying to NYC ahead of Natalia and utilizing his bullets, there’s an auspicious tone to the proceedings.

While there are few things worse than getting the back of your seat kicked on a plane, what Natalia does to Vorzak is most definitely one of them. It’s a great scheme, transporting Kiri’s bullet into Vorzak’s back, and it’s executed perfectly. But it’s also all too easy, and I couldn’t help but think there would have been better, and more importantly safer ways to eliminate him.

Sure enough, while taking care of the bees in Vorzak’s luggage in the hold, all hell breaks loose in the cabin, as Vorzak was carrying more bees in his body. All 300 crew and passengers are quickly turned into vicious ghouls. By some miracle, Natalia is able to reach the cockpit, but it’s a long, tense trip to New York with those ghouls at the doo, and you can feel it.

Kiritsugu keeps Natalia company over the radio, in a beautiful scene that lessons the tension but still feels like it captures the specific emotions of the situation perfectly. As they talk, Natalia gets more an more sentimental, wondering if “playing at a family” is what caused her to screw up so badly, while Kiritsugu subtly talks of her in the past tense, sailing out into open water on one of the small, efficient little boats he loves to use.

There’s a wonderful ambiguity to what Natalia’s particular thoughts are about the conversation she’s having with Kiritsugu, and if and when she realizes that he’s preparing to destroy the plane before it lands. After all, she trained him, and always knew he had way too much potential in her line of work, not to mention her edict that her apprentice think of his survival first and foremost.

Whatever she feels or knows, the reveal of the missile launcher just as the dawn arrives, with a flock of seagulls circling Kiritsugu as if he were the center of a storm—it’s all wonderfully staged and directed. And before pulling the trigger Kiritsugu makes sure Natalia knows: he was glad to have her as a mother.

As is usually the case with Kiritsugu, I can totally understand why he does what he does, even if it’s absolutely horrible: that plane could not be allowed to land just because Natalia is dear to him. The other 300 people on the plane weren’t people anymore, and if they get out into the city, many many more people would’ve died. Kiritsugu couldn’t allow that, so he does what he couldn’t do when Shirley turned into a vampire: nothing more or less than What Has To Be Done.

There’s such a dark, bleak symmetry to Kiritsugu killing his real father and adoptive mother as bookends to his transformation into the Emiya Kiritsugu currently fighting the Holy Grail War. Natalia was such a great character who came out of nowhere, it was sad to see her go so soon, but we were dealing with flashbacks after all, and I had no reasonable expectation she would survive them.

The break in the present-day story was abrupt (especially since I haven’t watched episode 17 yet), but it was well worth the detour to learn more about the key protagonist of the story. It also demonstrated that whatever the timeline or setting, Fate/Zero knows how to tell a damned compelling story.

Shingeki no Bahamut: Virgin Soul – 19

Fancy Royal Ball Caper, anyone? Nina and Al’s big arrival is briefly interrupted by a flashback to Rita going over the plan to snatch Charioce’s bracelet. Everyone plays a role, including El, if the Onyx Soldiers get involved (with Azazel watching his back).

Nina realizes that as the ‘getaway vehicle’ her role is crucial to success (just as she trips on the palace steps). She’s been able to transform at will, but Favaro (paired up with Dias and tasked with actually swiping the bracelet) doesn’t think she’ll be able to when the time comes.

That’s not Favaro not having faith in his student; it’s Favaro knowing how Nina feels about Charioce, and how the King isn’t going to give up that bracelet easily. Al doesn’t have to pretend Nina is his fiancee or sister for long, as Nina ditches him the moment Charioce enters.

This is the Charioce who allowed the Onyx Commander to proceed with the plan to assassinate Nina, so with that in mind I couldn’t help but feel, like Favaro, that there was simply no way Nina would transform into a dragon, and thus no way he mission would succeed.

Nina is, however, able to ask the king to dance and draw him to her, and they become the center of attention as they cut a mean rug all over the ballroom. The CGI extras are a bit stiff, but the dancing animation is as crisp and smooth as it was during their first dance at the festival, and just as adorable. It’s almost enough to make you forget that this love story can only end in tragedy and despair.

On a secluded balcony, Nina waits for Charioce to come out and tell her “everything”, as he promised to do the next time they met. But instead, he dumps her like she’s never been dumped before, without even a hint of empathy or compassion. Just “we’re done, don’t come back, go before I have the guards seize you.”

Being subjected to exactly the opposite treatment from him she expected, Nina is a wreck, but Favaro emerges from the shadows to scold “Mr. King” for hurting his student, and demands he give up the bracelet. When Charioce says it can’t be removed as long as he lives, Favaro says he can fix that, but Nina comes between them, not able to betray the man she loves as he was able to betray her.

The guards arrive, but Favaro tosses some smoke bombs, which are also the signal that the plan has failed. Everyone evacuates without any trouble, but Al tries to go off on his own, only to be intercepted by Azazel and El; the three later encounter Jeanne and Sofiel in the streets.

Nina, Favaro and Kaisar end up at the waterfront, where they are quickly surrounded by Onyx Soldiers. Then the burly assassin arrives, prepared to kill the dragon. The look in Nina’s eyes suggests he’s welcome to try.

This was a fun and often thrilling episode, but its impact was somewhat lessoned by the certainty that the caper would ultimately fail. It’s too early for the good guys to possess the means to rob the bad guy of his power. But (please) let there be no (or very little) remaining doubt: Charioce has made his choice: to let Onyx run free. He is the bad guy, however much Nina may love him.

Fate / Zero – 12

“Why do I always sit on my smokes?”

After the Rumble in the Marble, most Servants take a step back and assess the situation. Kiritsugu sits in a dark hotel room and pores over intel as he chats with Maiya on the phone…and that’s about it, really.

“I like the way your tent your fingers. Why don’t you work for me?”

Reports and conversation are the name of the game again, but instead of interacting with Saber and Rider, Archer is stuck with Kirei, trying to connect the dots as part of his larger plan to make him one of his men. Kirei delivers his report on the motivations of the other Masters to Archer, who points out that the one that seems to interest Kirei the most is Matou Kiriya, who also seems to be enduring the most pain and suffering.

“I mean, this isn’t how I would drive, but this is fine too, I guess…”

Pain doesn’t seem to be an issue for Iri, while Saber doesn’t seem to be feeling the lasting effects from her throughout putting-down she endured at the hands of Rider and Archer. But Saber does find it odd that Iri has her drive and perform every other task that requires the use of her hands. When she asks Iri about it, she reveals she’s become extremely physically weak as a result of shutting down her sense of touch (a homonculus ability, apparently).

While she believes she can recover a bit of strength by sitting in the right kind of magical circle, the bottom line is that she’ll be relying on Saber more and more as this War progresses. Saber, obviously, is up to it. I must say I underestimated her mental toughness. That circle is drawn in a storeroom on a Japanese mansion that looks very much like the place where Emiya and Saber live and practice in UBW.

“Feel that sting? That’s pride, fuckin’ with you!”

From there it’s back to Archer gradually wrapping Kirei around his finger, Emporer Palpatine-style. He gets Kirei to pretty much admit that he is actually capable of joy, and even if he’s previously considered such feelings to be a sin, Gilgamesh isn’t a fan of this newfangled puritanical philosophy that generated people like Kirei and Saber. Joy is joy, and leads to happiness.

So Archer gets Kirei to ‘find his bliss’, and Command Seals suddenly reappear on his hand. Archer believes it’s proof the Holy Grail isn’t done with him; indeed it’s almost as if the Holy Grail rejected his previous role as Toosaka’s ally and spy and reinstates him as a full Master. Archer also suggests Kirei go out and steal a new Servant, and not-so-subtly picks up the Archer piece from the chessboard to indicate who he should pick.

While there were some nice character beats, you can really only portray two people sitting around talking for so long from so many angles before it gets a bit tedious. In other words, another cool-down episode on the heels of a solid 10. That leaves one episode left in the first cour.

Fate / Zero – 11

Iris detects the massive mana of Rider heading towards the castle, and Saber suits up for a battle…only for Rider to show up in his t-shirt and pants with a giant barrel of wine. He’s not there to fight, he’s there to drink and talk. A Holy Grail “dialogue”, as he puts it.

Saber has no objection, and drinks from the barrel with Rider. Soon, Archer also arrives, on Rider’s invitation, and after rejecting Rider’s “swill” opens a portal to his treasury to draw out…a golden jug and three golden cups.

This would be absurd if it wasn’t also frikking brilliant, for Iskandar and Gilgamesh share one thing in common: they are hedonistic tyrants of yore.

Gilgamesh is such a tyrant he considers all treasures in the world to be his, since they all sprang from his treasury—a treasury so vast he isn’t even aware of all it contained.

Iskandar wants to be reincarnated as a flesh-and-blood man to take up his world conquest anew. Saber…wants to save Britain, in part by erasing all of the perceived mistakes she made in life as king. She wants a redo.

Archer laughs in her face at the fact she harbors regret for the deeds in her life, and Rider can’t help but agree. As far as they’re concerned, it’s the duty of the nation and its people to serve and sacrifice for their ruler, not the other way ’round as Saber would have it.

By insisting upon being a “slave to what’s right”, Saber might be able to save Britain, but she can never lead it, and so Rider ceases to see Saber as a real king.

Kingship, to him, has always been a wondrous gift, and throughout his rule he lived and fought as grandly and greedily as possible, living life to the extremes of both good and bad, that he might inspire men to fight and die for him. When Assassins surround them (a test by Kirei and Tokiomi), Rider transports everyone into a Reality Marble.

There, in the vast desert sands, Iskandar’s endless armies march, and when he mounts his trusty horse and orders them to advance, the Assassins are quickly routed. Saber, Iri and Waver can only sit and watch in stunned awe, while Archer does his best to look unimpressed. It’s the biggest spectacle since the port battle, and it is well and truly momentous.

When the battle is over and everyone’s back in the courtyard, Rider takes one more drink, then takes his leave, which is just as well, as I don’t think anyone’s ideals could have been shat on as thoroughly and mercilessly as Saber’s (If I didn’t know better, I’d say Rider was a cruel drunk). Archer remains to mock Saber, urging her to go ahead and continue believing in her ‘backwards’ philosophy so he can laugh at her some more.

Their words cut as deeply as any blade, as Saber remembers one of her Knights of the Round Table stepping down because he didn’t think Arthur understood his people…and Rider and Archer’s words only served to reinforce her growing crisis of confidence.

But while it doesn’t end well for Saber, like at all, it was fantastic to see three Servant Kings simply sitting in a courtyard, drinking wine, and shooting the breeze…and for Rider to show that he can back up all his big talk, and then some.

Fate / Zero – 09

“Go fírinneach, mo chroí, ní féidir liom diabhal a thabhairt.”

I’m far more familiar with Gilgamesh, Alexander, and King Arthur than, say, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. Heck, I can barely pronounce it. So it’s good to see a few glimpses of his life before he became a heroic spirit, in which his king’s daughter Grainne was betrothed to a the leader of his order, Fionn, but fell for him due to his love spot. Suffice it to say it didn’t work out so swell. Interestingly enough, the one dreaming of Lancer’s life is Kayneth.

“Oh BTW I DIDN’T sign the prenup.”

Kayneth…is in a bad way. His beloved fiancee Sola-Ui informs him that he’ll never use magic again, which means his time as Master of Lancer has ended. She wants to take over the “burden” of commanding Lancer so she can win the Holy Grail War for Kayneth and use it to grant the miracle of restoring him to the way he was.

Sola is threatening enough looming over the restrained Kayneth in a dark, dank, and not particularly sterile-looking makeshift hospital room. But when Kayneth bristles at her proposal, soon she’s breaking one of his fingers and threatening to amputate his command seal-bearing hand. Yikes.

“I won’t be passed around like a bottle of…Jameson?”

Dare I say, I kinda don’t hate this Sola-Ui? You’ve gotta respect her raw ambition. She was perhaps initially content to let Kayneth command Lancer while she simply provided the mana for his physical form. Now she wants Lancer…all of him. But she has to appeal to his indomitable sense of honor, and get him to overcome, or at least ignore, the regret he feels for how things went down in his life.

She does this by swearing to him that she is only seeking Lancer’s services, and the Holy Grail, for Kayneth’s sake. He grudgingly agrees, but something tells me he’s not entirely convinced she can be trusted. All I know is, Kayneth continues to have just the worst luck. I mean, sure, he’s an arrogant dick, and Sola-Ui is, shall we say, ethically flexible…but when people like Uryuu and Caster are skulking around, it tends to put things in perspective.

“Look, Kiritsugu loves ILYA very much. The rest of the kids in the world? Ehh…”

Kiritsugu is trying to win the War as quickly and efficiently as possible. That apparently means not wasting any time talking to his Servant or being anywhere near her, and it certainly means not stopping to save a few, or even a few dozen, children’s lives. The game is already stacked against him and he knows it.

No matter how much Saber may talk about the sacred rules of the Holy Grail War which are being stamped on, she’s not dealing with a knight. It’s not his job to serve any lord or abide by a code of chivalry, it’s to win and save the world…all of the world. And at the end of the day, Iri feels the same way. Even so, I could never imagine a Servant-Master relationship as dysfunctional as this one, to the point I worry it might come back to bite both in the future.

I must say I wasn’t expecting Rider to get his pants so soon, but this show is full of surprises. Rider also gets along smoothly and splendidly with Waver’s hypnotized fake grandparents. Even better, Waver impresses Rider by flexing his alchemical muscles in locating Caster’s lair, a neat little glimpse of the more science-y side of magic Waver is clearly more comfortable with.

Unfortunately, there is nothing comfortable or pleasant in the slightest about Waver and Rider’s trip to Caster’s underground base. Rider quickly ratchets down his jolliness at the first sight of the piles of maimed and bloody child corpses, and his warnings for Waver not to look go unheeded, resulting in Waver losing his lunch and probably a good deal of faith in humanity along with it.

“Tá mé ag suí i rud éigin fliuch.”

Waver and Rider also meet some of Kirei’s Assassins, something that was apparently not planned, because Kirei is very upset about Assassin not only being exposed as being still around (if not in the game) and having numerous separate forms.

Upon reporting this, Tokiomi tells Kirei to continue to stay calm, keep a low profile, and keep his Assassins’ eyes on Waver and Rider; no good can come of letting his emotions get the best of him. But I saw the beast that was unleashed when Iri and Maiya challenged him. This guy looks like a volcano waiting to burst, and Archer’s words about Tokiomi being a bore are still ringing in his head.

Everyone who fixed this War so the Toosakas would win are operating under the assumption that Kotomine Kirei can be trusted to play his part without any problems. But what if there was a problem with him? I’ll tell you what: it would make for more great drama. No one should have it easy in this war.

Fate / Zero – 08

Maiya has orders to escort Iri away from the castle, but the orders aren’t so precise that Iri can’t countermand them when she senses Kotomine Kirei approaching. She doesn’t want that guy anywhere near her Kiritsugu, and Maiya feels the same way, so the decide they’ll do what they can to keep him away.

Neither of them are any match for Kirei’s considerable mage-executing skills, so all they can do take up as much of his time as they can. The bravery, grit, and selflessness the women exhibit without Saber by their side is something to behold. There’s no doubt Kirei is a fearsome, superior foe, but it doesn’t matter: he’s not getting to Kiritsugu, period.

Meanwhile, a bullet from Kirei’s pistol gets through Kayneth’s quicksilver defense, but he chalks it up to a fluke and a moment of poor focus to the disgust of fighting such an awful mage, and redoubles his defenses…which is exactly what Kiritsugu wants.

Saber and Lancer are having no luck, as there’s no end to Caster’s minions as long as he’s holding his noble phantasm, an old grimoire. Rather than keep hacking away, Saber clears a path with an Air Strike, through which Lancer dashes and slashes the book with Gae Dearg, and just like that Caster is defenseless and must withdraw.

Saber and Lancer’s ‘knightmance’ proceeds apace when Lancer senses his Master is in danger, Saber senses it’s because of her Master, and gives Lancer leave to tend to Kayneth, in accordance with the ideals of nobility and chivalry, while she rushes to help Iri and Maiya.

The next time Kiritsugu fires his pistol into Kayneth’s heightened magical defense, it scrambles the opponent’s magical circuits, causing him to cough up a good deal of blood and pass out. Kiritsugu remembers his mentor(?) explaining the bullets which contained his own ribs in powdered form; but he was only given 66 of them, and we see him use two on Kayneth.

And even that doesn’t kill Kayneth, only gravely wound him. Lancer arrives to rescue him and withdraw, and tells Kiritsugu that he’s only alive because of his Servant Saber’s devotion to the right-and-proper precepts of nobility; because she is the King of Knights. I’m sure Kiritsugu’s glad Lancer didn’t kill him, but less pleased Saber let Lancer get away so easily.

What’s so great about this situation is that everyone has a reasonable position here and nobody is outright right-or-wrong. In a way, Saber went rogue, but again…Lancer would have Kiritsugu him if not for her.

As he beats Maiya to a pulp and chokes then stabs Iri (who he thinks is a homonculus), Kirei can’t fathom why not one but two people challenged him, of their own accord for Kiritsugu’s sake. Kirei has been operating under the assumption that Kiritsugu is, like him, friendless, alone, and understood by no one. But he’s wrong…and I kind of pity him for being so.

One could say Kiritsugu using Iri as a kind of “decoy master” smacks of cowardice, but that position doesn’t take Iri’s (and Maiya’s) feelings into consideration. They do protect him of their own accord, as we witnessed here, and they will continue to do so.

Kiritsugu seems to know this, because when Saber finally comes and touches the injured Iri, she is immediately healed by the scabbard Avalon implanted within her according to her husband’s wishes—something only he and she knew about. Kiritsugu is not alone, because there are those who don’t want him to be.

Fate / Zero – 07

“I KNEW all those cereal box tops would pay off!”

After a slight stumble last week, Fate/Zero immediately regained its footing as I thought it would. It starts out strong, with some more delightful comic relief courtesy of Rider and Waiver, who were absent last week. The fact that Iskandar’s main motivating factor at this point is his Master buying him pants works in a way Iri’s terrifying joyride just…didn’t.

Meanwhile, the War for the Holy Grail is on hold until all participants hunt down Caster and his Master…who are a couple of disastrous bastards. Risei promises whoever kills him will get a rad new tattoo a Bonus Command Seal. That would bring Tokiomi and Kayneth back up to three, and give the others four.

“Maiya, would you tell Iri to tell Saber that I’m NOT talking to her?”

Not surprisingly, the Magehunter-by-trade Kiritsugu is planning to break the truce by going after any Masters who are occupied with finding Caster. At the same time, he’s under no illusions anyone else will abide by Jisei’s rule change, and his cynicism and pragmatism are later validated…and then some.

This is key, because despite making the right calls once Caster arrives with a brace of child hostages, Saber urges her Master to let her defeat Caster. Kiritsugu stubbornly refuses to respond to Saber in any way, continuing his planning talk with Iri as if Saber weren’t even there.

I’m not sure if a Servant’s like or dislike of their Master makes them better or worse at fighting, but Kiritsugu is operating under the assumption a Servant’s personal emotions play next to no role. Either that, or there’s a very good reason he’s not speaking to her that just hasn’t been revealed yet.

“If this is about my cousin Sephiroth, I told him he can’t ask you for money anymore.”

What is revealed on the balcony after that tense meeting inside, is a side of Kiritsugu we haven’t seen since the scene in the first episode when his daughter was born. It’s a side he has no problem showing his wife. He’s afraid; afraid of losing those he loves most, and afraid of Kotomine Kirei in particular.

He wants to take Iri and Ilya, run away, and never return to this nasty business. But Iri won’t let him, because if she does, she knows the regret he’ll feel from running will be the end of him anyway. If death is to come for them all, one way or another, better to face it together as a family, no?

“Can’t a lady fight someone wielding a SWORD for once?!”

When Caster starts popping kids’ heads, Saber finally gets the order to deal with him. But Caster isn’t alone; he may not have Uryuu with him (thank God) but he does have a legion of tentacle demons that restore themselves as fast as a still-depleted Saber can cut them down.

Sometimes I worry that Saber has too often been depicted as a pushover, but it’s more of a “Worf-in-TNG” situation: if he’s getting schooled, you know the foe is tough. Besides, even with her injured hand, Saber kicks plenty of eldritch ass before finally becoming surrounded, overwhelmed, and bound by their tentacles.

“Sooo….while you’re here, d’you mind fixing my hand?”

And that’s when Lancer arrives, and the two warriors who respect the hell out of each other go back-to-back to fight off Caster’s legion together. Lancer assures Saber that this doesn’t mean they’re suddenly allies, just that this is the most efficient way of carrying out the order to defeat Caster. This pairing-up was a definite fist-pumper; I look forward to seeing how the two of them take on Caster.

“I tellya, this T-1000 pays for itself!”

As for Lancer’s Master Archibald, he obviously didn’t die in the bombing of his hotel; he surrounded himself in a quicksilver ball he manipulates with magic. After his so-so introduction and the dull hotel-scenes leading up to the blast, Kayneth is in top badass form himself this week, casually reciting orders to his ball and ruthlessly pursuing Kiritsugu, aiming to punish him for his cowardly failed attempt on his life.

At moments, Kiritsugu looks as outmatched as Saber often has early in battles. I mean, bringing a gun to a magic fight…seriously? But Kiritsugu is nothing if not crafty, resourceful, and sneaky as hell, and when he uses magic, you can bet there’s an important reason for it.

He’s not a guy who shows off, preferring the shadows. He turns the tables with time magic, then aims a special-looking pistol at Kayneth with a look that suggests its bullets might pierce the quicksilver shield. So much for a truce…

Fate / Zero – 06

“I may be an ancient king…but I don’t think you should be driving like this!”

And now I’ve come to it: the Fate/Zero equivalent of a meh episode. It had to happen sometime, so better early on than not; also, after last week’s multivector face-off and just-as-rapid standdown, it’s hard for the immediate aftermath episode to not feel a bit…anticlimactic.

And while I’ve enjoyed the moments of levity Zero has managed to weave into the action and drama, Iri’s crazy drive along a twisty mountain road kinda fell flat for me. I totally get the joy she feels from being ‘let out of the birdcage’, so to speak, and perhaps it was the animation, but the drive felt way too reckless for no reason.

“We can’t exchange insurance info if you’re all the way over there!”

It’s a good thing Caster seems to be standing in the middle of a straight and not on the other side of a blind turn; otherwise Iri would have hit him (and what a shame that would have been); instead, they get out and have a deeply unpleasant exchange with him.

Since taking out that kid after letting him think he was home free with his dark tentacles, Caster has not endeared himself to me, and his ranting about Saber being Jeanne d’Arc reincarnate does him no favors. I’m totally with Saber that I dislike opponents who you can’t reason with because they lack reason.

Thats…not…good…

In addition to being illogical and maddening to deal with, Caster is also a despicable monster, like his Master Uryuu, crucifying kids while still alive. They’ve abducted fifteen from a couple of towns, which just seems like a lot, though to be honest I’m not sure how much time they’ve had to do it.

In any case, Caster insists they must sacrifice all the children they have as soon as possible, then go out and get more, which, sure, fantastic. Even Uryuu is like, ‘I guess we’re just different kinds of serial killers.’

“Why do I have two Masters…and why are they so lame?”

Archie sits in his hotel room, scolding a brooding Lancer, until his companion Sola-Ui, who despite Archie’s Command Seals, is the Mana behind the Master. She’s not afraid to speak her mind to Archie about his hiding in the shadows, but Lancer then scolds her for badmouthing his Master. Even though technically, the two of them are more like Co-Masters.

In any case, Archie belives (rightly) that Saber will try to attempt a rematch with Lancer before fighting anyone else, to undo her cursed wound. So he’s laid a trap, filling an entire floor of the hotel with magical booby traps, and is very excited to see how everything works out.

“Look, that building had all kinds of code violations anyway.”

And then Kiritsugu just burns the whole mother down. I’ll admit, it’s a fine fake-out, and yet another stealthily bad-ass move from Kiritsugu, who approaches his work in a very deliberate, disciplined, military fashion.

I also appreciated that he’s aware that he has disrupted and possibly ruined more than a few lives by blowing up the building, but he’s going to defeat the other mages by any means necessary—but not by killing innocent people.

Kirei manages to briefly corner Maiya in an adjacent structure, but Kiritsugu bails her out with a well-timed smoke bomb. As for Archie, Sola-Ui and Lancer…I’m sure they’re just fine.

“Hey God Boy—run out and get me some more libations!”

Later, Kirei’s Assassins inform him, Risei and Tokiomi of Caster and his Master’s horrific crimes, which threaten the secrecy of the War. As observer, Risei stands ready to exercise his power to make minor rule changes; in this case, ordering all Masters to take out Caster ASAP. He’s a rogue element, and clearly Saber and Iri (and I) aren’t the only ones who’d rather he went away as soon as possible.

After a long day of morally ambiguous activity, Kirei encounters Archer getting drunk (or attempting/failing to do so) on a couch, who not only voices his disappointment in his Master, but also tries to pry out of Kirei what he’s getting out of this; what he desires. If Kirei doesn’t know, Gil figures he should use his Assassins to determine what motivates the others, so he might gain insight into his own motives.

So while Kiritsugu and Maiya’s special ops exploits were pretty cool and I dug the potential realignment of the War to focus on taking out the most irredeemably loathsome Master-Servant pair, I wasn’t as enamored with Lancer’s Co-Masters (indeed, I kinda just feel sorry for him), Saber and Iri only showed up for two minutes, and Waiver, Rider, Kariya and Berserker took the week off—and at least two of them were missed. So yeah, a 7 seems about right.

Fate / Zero – 05

This episode just wouldn’t quit. It shouldn’t work as well as it does: piling character after character into what was, at least on the battlefield, a one-on-one duel between Saber and Caster, but because of the build-up in the previous episodes, each and every time someone new takes the stage, it adds a new glorious layer to the conflict.

And even if this battle only turns out to be a big tease, now six of the seven Servants have met one another, and have at least a cursory idea of what to expect form each other. We also learn that if there’s one Servant who’s going to keep a kind of noble order and balance in this War, it’s Rider.

When Lancer declines out of obligation to his Master and Saber is insulted by Rider’s offer to make them his retainers, the Master who originally meant to command Rider appears, at least in voice-form; Archibald is tickled that Velvet would actually become a combatant in the Holy Grail War, and intends to teach him a lesson.

\Rider isn’t having that. Whoever this Archie guy is, he won’t let him torment his Master (that’s his job), who is at least by his side. He calls out Archibald for hiding like a coward, and calls out any other Servants who were drawn to Saber and Lancer’s excellent duel (though if he found it so excellent, why not let it unfold rather than interrupt?)

And so two more Servants appear in quick succession: first Gilgamesh / Archer, then Berserker (true identity unknown). Gil, as is his wont, deems all other kings in his presence to be pretenders (and he has a point, he is the first of them, historically speaking). But Matou decides that now is the time to test Berserker—as well as his own tolerance as a Master.

Archer takes Matou’s bait and exposes his Noble Phantasm for all the other Servants and Masters to see, but ends up with nothing to show for it, since Berserker is not only crazy, but an extremely tough customer, turning every blade Gil sends his way into his own NP. Ultimately Tokiomi has to spend a Command Seal to reign Gil in.

I love how powerful, frightening, and unpredictable Berserker is depicted; he’s a very cool design that seems to shudder in and out of solidity, as if he’s just barely being kept together.

But what I loved even more was Gil’s attempt to save face by basically saying “You’re all beneath me; kill each other off until there’s one left and then come at me.” He’s an arrogant prick as always, but he’s surprisingly likable in this version—perhaps because he was thrown off his game so effortlessly by Berserker.

With Archer gone, Berserker turns his attention (such as it is) to Saber, whose injured hand quickly puts her at a disadvantage, forcing Lancer to save her from a potentially vicious blow. He doesn’t do it because they’re friends, or allies, but because she’s his opponent. If Berserker wants to fight her, he’ll have to get past Lancer first.

That’s Lancer’s will, but unfortunately for him, Archie has Command Seals, and uses one to override that will, ordering him to team up with Berserker to eliminate Saber.  In the ensuing one-on-one (after Lancer apologizes to Saber), Kiritsugu and Maiya have their weapons trained on Archie and Assassin, respectively.

Their careful work is ruined, however, by Rider (again), jumping between Saber and Lancer and driving Berserker into the ground, forcing him to retreat, then telling Archie to order Lancer’s retreat as well. Rider has decided that no one is going to die tonight, and nobody challenges him.

I have no doubt that Saber would have gladly fought Berserker and Lancer at once, bad hand and all. But she’s clearly grateful to Rider for his intervention this time. The primary reason for that is Irisviel: if Saber falls here, she’ll be on her own, surrounded by enemies. Rider also decides to stay out of Saber and Lancer’s fight from now own; he’ll face whoever prevails.

That’s fine with Saber; she can’t fight anyone else at 100% until she defeats Lancer and lifts the curse on her hand. It’s just as well that Berserker withdrew when he did, as a longer confrontation might have killed Matou, who vomits blood and worms in a dark alley, but remains as committed as ever to protecting Sakura by winning the war.

What of Uryuu and Caster, the only Servant who wasn’t on the field? Bluebeard observed everything from a crystal ball, and has taken a particular—and worrying—interest in Saber.

Fate / Zero – 04

“You can’t see it, but trust me…it’s there.”

Here it is: the first Grail War battle in which neither side is trying to lose, and what do you know, it’s between Saber and Lancer. It feels like there’s been a lot of buildup to this, but I was still caught off guard by just how well-executed it was.

I didn’t even mind the frequent cuts away from the combatants to their various observers, because the weight of their interests and stakes in this fight felt just as significant as the thrill of the fight.

“Did I leave the oven on?”

Lancer, AKA Diarmuid of the Love Spot (best name, or bestest?), is a formidable opponent, able to surprise Saber and Iri on more than one occasion with his surprise tactics based on insufficient intelligence on his abilities.

But these aren’t two people who don’t like each other fighting to the death, it’s two people who through their interaction in battle only gain more and more Capital-R Respect for one another. They’re knights, but they’re also warriors who love a good opponent and they’re having a blast.

NOT THE BANGS

What also made the fight so engrossing was my complete lack of an idea how it would go. Early on, Saber is pushed back on her heels, so to speak, made to discard her armor only to play straight into Lancer’s Gáe Buidhe-and-Gáe Dearg dual-wielding hands.

But while he draws blood and seems to have the edge in the battle, even he knows one cannot simply underestimate a Saber-class Servant, especially one who has yet to really dig into her own bag of tricks.

(One thing I did not realize until this episode is how and why Saber’s sword is invisible: she conceals it with wind magic because it bears her true name. That…actually makes a lot of sense.)

YOU GUYS I BROUGHT BEER

But what truly makes the battle special is that it isn’t the only thing going on. Aside from Matou and Uryuu, virtually everyone is carefully watching this fight, from Toosaka through Kirei via Assassin (who still, for the moment, believe Iri is Saber’s Master) and Kiritsugu and Maiya, to Velvet and Rider.

Iskandar is increasingly worried he’ll lose the chance to have a good fight against the other heroes if he lets Lancer kill Saber too soon, so he crashes the party in grand fashion, landing between them in his chariot in a cloud of lightning. Quite the entrance, and one that promises a more complex and nuanced outcome than simply one Servant beating another.

And this is because these are three epic heroes we’re dealing with—not mindless obedient robots—whose actions are driven almost as much by their histories and charisma as by their Masters’ orders.

Fate / Zero – 03

“Oh sorry, did YOU want wine?” | “What channel is He-Man on?”
As Tokiomi apologizes to his Servant Archer (AKA Gilgamesh) and begs him to be patient as the plan unfolds, Waiver celebrates the death of Assassin, but his Servant Rider (AKA Iskandar) doesn’t really care, and is far more concerned with acquiring B-2 Stealth Bombers and other weaponry with which to defeat…Bill Clinton.

I enjoyed the contrast between these two Servant-Master pairs, with Tokiomi exercising the utmost deference to Archer, who abides by his wishes while Rider is more of a constant nuisance to Waiver, who can’t even get him to enter spirit mode. I can’t blame Rider; Waiver may have shown guts in stealing the relic with which to summon him, but he hasn’t done anything to inspire confidence since then.

They’ve already won the Holy Fashion War.
Rider’s not caring about Assassin’s death is just as well, since Assassin isn’t actually dead; he can take the form of many different people. What is dead are Kirei’s chances of winning the War, so he withdraws and is granted asylum in the Church by the observer, his dad Risei, and plans to use his Assassins to spy on all of the remaining Servants for Tokiomi.

Meanwhile, with Saber summoned and ready to go, she accompanies Irisviel to Fuyuki City, her love’s hometown, and the first place she’s ever left Einzbern Castle to visit. While Iri sightsees, Saber is her knight and bodyguard, wearing a stylish, practical black suit that contrasts nicely with Iri’s snow-white garb. They make a stunning pair…even though Iri isn’t Saber’s real Master.

“I sense my man kissing someone…”
That guy, Kiritsugu, arrived in Fuyuki a bit earlier, and enters a hotel room to find his assistant Maiya and a cache of weapons with which he’ll fight the War. When his thoughts turn to his frail daughter and he momentarily despairs, Maiya re-centers him by taking him in her arms and kissing him.

Whatever history those two have, I doubt it’s a threat to the union Kiritsugu and Irisviel, an unexpected pairing, but both a necessary and intriguing one. Their love for and trust for one another is above reproach. Irisviel, meanwhile, enjoys a walk on the beach with her night in black tailored suit, until Saber detects trouble nearby.

“Okay…let’s see what you got.”
The women head to the harbor, where the Servant Lancer is waiting for them, but with no Master in sight. Far from being concerned by a potential attacker in the night, it would seem Irisviel was acting as a faux Master of Saber in order to accomplish what came to pass: luring out the last Servant unaccounted for.

As for who commands Lancy, I’m not ruling out Archibald, who has been curiously absent despite Waiver having stolen his relic for Rider. And as for who will win this duel, I suspect neither party will end up dying, since we’re only three episodes in. A draw, perhaps? Either way, I can’t wait to see it.

Zero continues to excel where often UBW fell down, managing to make virtually every patch of dialogue (or monologue) compelling, integrating just enough comedy to avoid being too stodgy or serious, and most important, making every participant either eminently rootable, deliciously loathable, or a lovely synthesis of the two.