Chapter 40: Saber's Stains
We were surrounded.
On the battlefield, if an army was a beast, then the king was its head; so it was only natural for blades to be drawn to me, but danger abound was not in the form of blades nor was I their target. My eyes saw nothing, my ears hear nothing, but the wind speaks to me. The night was dark and unusually so, but this pressure was not an unfamiliar one. There was a single friendly blade by my side other than mine off in the distance, but it did not belong to one of my knights.
"Quintett Feurer!" was a girl's cry that accompanied a cold pink light that lit up my opponent's large frame, but Berserker was the least of our worries.
My knights weren't here and without them, I could hardly call myself a king. In this Holy Grail War, I was a Servant tasked with protecting a Master. A Servant without a Master will never have their wishes granted, but there is no guarantee that a Master will honour a Servant's wish.
Miyu wasn't Kiritsugu.
A creeping shadow that was repulsed from Berserker's body draws close to my partner and I call on the winds. My hand presses upon a small back and the winds do the rest.
"Saber!" Miyu cries out as a push her away upward in Rider's general direction. Deprived of their prey, the unseen hands that outnumbered feet reach out towards me, but my blade was waiting.
They convulse as if screaming, but they produced no sound as I cut them in twain. The crude erratic effigies could not be considered anything close to human, but that is why skills betray me; a knight's swordsmanship is meant to be used against other people. I fought no shortage of monsters as king, but these enemies had no eyes, no face nor thought. No throats to slice or heads to chop. Shambling on with quickness that betrayed their forms, pain and hunger were all they knew. They were beings of pure instinct and only instinct could save me.
The wind whispers.
Red streaks strike the earth and Berserker barrels away to the supposed source of the shadowy hands; where an unconscious Sakura lay. As he brings up his crude weapon, for a moment, I did could not discern who was in greater danger.
"Saber, by my Command Seal, block that blow!"
Miyu's order betrays my instincts, but as I have learned from her father, its power was absolute. The magical energy surging through my body flows out my sides, the space disappears in front of me and Berserker's maw comes into view as I bring my blade to bear.
With a single swing, with wind and light, I reduce his crude makeshift weapon to ash, but my sword continues to burn.
"By my Command Seal, return to my side!" Illya invokes at that last possible moment.
The night is blown away by the planet's breath, revealing everything for all to see. This time, there was no Holy Grail in front of me. As long as I played the role of Servant, I will never grasp it. Rider had no need for such a thing, but I did not have the same sort of strength. The dread wraps around me. My instincts were screaming behind me. Sakura was a tenuous ally and her shadows were the natural enemy of spiritual beings, but they weren't one and the same. The shadows were a far cry from the girl Rider sought to save.
My feet sink into my own shadow. People can't escape their own shadow.
"By my Command Seal, return Sakura to my side."
My head rings, but it does not stir as I fell through the depths of imaginary space. A command was issued, but my body did not respond. It was a strange feeling. With Kiritsugu as my master, when the Holy Grail was in front of me, I was ordered to destroy it and against my will, my body complied rendering all the blood spilled up to that point meaningless. Even so, what difference did it make in the end? I have always ended up cutting down the very things important to me.
The Holy Grail...
Before I made a pact with the world, I cut down my own knights and ravaged the very lands I once protected by no other will than my own and not anyone else's. I was the one who gave the order to put Guinevere to death. I was the one who drove Lancelot to madness. Gareth deserved a better end; they all did. The knights who betrayed me and the knights who stayed loyal to the end all died. The ones who died on the battlefield were the lucky ones. On that hill of corpses, the blood on my hands, the blood upon my lance, I simply looked forward never stopping.
To the final knight I killed with my own hands; a knight who sought my throne...
"Not once did I despise you. There was only one reason I would not give you the throne. You didn't have the capacity of a king."
A king cannot afford to be tied down to anything. A king must not be a servant to anyone else. A servant cannot be a king and only a king can save a kingdom. In order to save people, one needs to throw away that very feeling.
"...Father...," was Mordred's final whisper through the broken helm.
There was someone who said that the king should be the loudest of his kingdom, but from the bottom of my heart I disagreed. In front of such a loud voice, it is inevitable for the smaller voices to drown away. Such a king could only be described a tyrant, but my ideals alone cannot change reality. At the end, nobody was right and nobody was left; except for me.
The Holy Grail...
For long dead heroes to roam the world once more was nothing short of a miracle, but this world contained many miracles. This was the second time I was brought into this land in order to claim the Holy Grail and not once did I ever doubt its power. Not once should I ever need to. The gilded tyrant who stood between me and the Grail at the very end 10 years ago still remains in this world to vouch for its power. We were foreigners to this world, but the Emiya siblings I knew were the same.
"As much of an eyesore that thing is, it's no fake. From this world's perspective, it's more real than the faker you know."
The power of the Holy Grail was very much real; terrifyingly so.
"This world is the second chance he wished for upon the Holy Grail. That's why you should give up on such a worthless thing, Saber," was that condescending voice that echoes in my head.
Masters and Servants are drawn together by the power of the Holy Grail; a power that transcends worlds. In another world, in another time, in front of such a thing, a boy had wished for his sister's happiness, but the girl who served as my anchor was anything but happy.
"And what of the Grail?" was the resolve Rider possessed that I did not.
The Holy Grail...
The Grail's power was real. With that power, there was no doubt I could save my kingdom, but it would not erase my mistakes. Even if the time and place are the same, the kingdom I save with the Holy Grail will not be the one I ruled. The kingdom I ruled has already been ruined and that is a truth I will always carry.
But what of it?
Whatever path I choose will not bring back the blood that was spilled. Not the blood of my knights, not the blood of my subjects, or the blood spilled in the Holy Grail War 10 years ago. Taking back my rule might be nothing more than sophistry to sate my hubris as a king, but I have already chosen my path ever since I drew the sword. Stopping now would render all the spilled blood worthless. That isn't something I can let stand.
The Holy Grail...
I cut down my enemies and I cut down my own knights with the same shining sword. Even in this world, what I have to do hasn't changed. Destroying each other's wishes is what it means to fight for the Holy Grail. Those with no wishes should step aside.
The kingdom I save will not be the one I ruled, but only I need to be burdened with that truth. The king I need to be is different to the one I was up until now.
A Servant cannot be a king and only a king can grasp the Holy Grail. As long as one wielded their sword for another's sake, the Grail will never be reached. Such a person cannot have the Grail. They'll need to prove themselves worthier than I to grasp it and my sword was ready to judge them.
I will save my kingdom; not a wish, but a fact.
I am the Once and Future King. A king needs no feelings. A king needs no happiness. A king needs no regrets. A king has no Master.
A king has no Master.
My head grows clear as I awaken from the dream, but the night hasn't yet ended just yet. I was surrounded by enemies, but such a thing was only natural for a king. Maybe something was missing. Maybe something was amiss, but if it was truly important, I would not have forgotten it in the first place.
The magical energy coursing through me tasted foul; a far cry from what I have been supplied up until now. Something as pure and endless as the River Thames could not last forever. It must have been the times or the foul mud that covered me.
The Holy Grail... the Holy Grail...
My heart was screaming, but my head was clear. I wipe off the mud off my blackened blade and squeeze it in my bloodied hand. Though foul and dirty, I was not in any way weaker. The blood flowing out of me does not dissipate into the ether. As I observe the night around me, the shadows only had eyes for my enemies and they were kept busy. The ground wasn't safe, but there was no refuge to be found in the sky either. Berserker must've returned to spiritual form and his Master was desperately trying to evade the night sky and Rider was doing the same with Miyu behind her. The mud, the shadows and the magical energy; the source was the same.
The shadows had no will, only hunger.
Within the bounded field, no ordinary people would pass, but the shadows were unperturbed as it ate away at the cage. Just as a flame in an enclosed room can rob one of breath because they drew from the same source, the bounded field is choked out as the shadows voraciously feast on the ambient mana. No matter the form, the shadows will eat whatever that can sustain it whether Sakura wills or not.
Magi and Servants aren't the only sources of mana.
With buildings around, there is no doubt that there are people in them, but I could not sense their presence as the shadows grew darker. The shadows were ravenous, but they were never full. The shadows were like feral dogs and Sakura was the one holding the leash, but right now Sakura wasn't even conscious.
The might of man is different from the might of beasts and that couldn't be underestimated.
I gather the thoughts in my head and in my head, there was another voice, but it wasn't Miyu's. In fact, there was nothing flowing from the girl in the sky to me. Nothing flowing into me was necessary to sustain me any longer; it was all extra strength. My flesh was flesh and my blood was blood; a Servant no longer. I no longer needed a Master to anchor me.
"Hrunting," was the familiar red streak that was hurtled at me from above from a skyscraper in the distance that could not escape my senses because I have seen this attack many times already.
It was used against my enemies many times and now it was hungry for me. Its jagged form is etched into my memory so vividly that I didn't even need to look at it to note its nature. The red streak cares not for who fires it; it merely seeks blood once released, but my blade was just as thirsty. It will not miss, so I can't either. The red streak darts around in the night...
The path of my blade forms a wall darker than night that will ensnare any predator! The clattering halves ring true; a prelude to the explosion that ripples through the air. The night around me shakes as it robs everyone of sight, but Heroic Spirits weren't to be taken lightly. Hidden in the dust was a fist bigger than I was, but to my senses it was never hidden. I position my blade behind me just before the barbarian can touch me.
The jet of air propels me forward, underneath my oversized assailant and towards his glaring weakness that was still fighting with the volatile mud. If an opportunity presents itself; seize it. Cutting through the sky, my blade was positioned right before her heart.
"Illya!" was the cry of my former Master that crosses through the wind.
In the path of my blade was a perfect reflection of mine in her hands. The freefalling blades bite into each other, but neither was inferior. The blade in her hands was no imitation and if my knights were here, they wouldn't see it as anything else but the real thing.
I make the first move.
She mirrors my actions with just a second of hesitation.
The superheated air surges in all directions from the dividing line. For this one moment, this was the center of all eyes. Rider desperately tried to reach the center, but the winds were too strong and her mount was still hazy after being used as Miyu's launching platform. Illya and her Berserker had seconds to process the turn of events.
No more beating around the bush; a king simply acts.
This is nothing I haven't handled before. Whether it was a knight or even the queen in front of me; a king must always be clear. There are knights whose swordsmanship I can't match, but there was one knight who desperately tried to take my throne. I had no spear and this was a foreign land, but the end will be the same. The opponent in front of me is just as half hearted as the counterfeit that came before. The fact she was still trying to defend her enemy says everything about her resolve.
"Miyu," I call her name and her hands shake ever so slightly.
As hard as she tried to hide it, the small girl was perpetually confused; her head filled with nonsense. People who do not know themselves are so easily led astray. As a source of magical energy, there is no comparing her to her father; in quantity she dwarfs him, but that was all. Whenever I was about to seize the opportunity, our connection would throttle as if she was against me taking life in her stead.
The shadows give us breadth as we land and Illya retreats further up into the sky with Berserker no longer tangible. In this world of two; former Master and former Servant, we plant our heels into the ground in unison.
When I was first called into this era again, Miyu had wanted to reconcile with her estranged sister; against Illya's wishes. She wanted to save her brother the next. She wanted to know what he hid from her yesterday; against his wishes and to her own detriment. Today she wanted to grant Rider's wish to save Sakura; against Rider's wishes, against Sakura's orders and against my wish. Everything she has done was against my wishes, but I followed her because I believed I would reach my goal whoever my Master was. Always half-hearted in her goals, believing that she'll reach them if she kept moving forward, but that was nothing more than a fantasy. I have no need for a Master that has no desire for the Grail; it was inevitable for us to part.
If I learned anything from Emiya, in front of the Grail; there is no room for anyone else but one.
I had no time for a child intoxicated by her own blessings. In the end, she's unaware of what she wants or worse rejecting it. A weak resolve like that won't achieve anything; so it's only kindness for me to cut her off now.
My night brushes aside her light, but her senses with the sword were quick. The sword I honed for years became hers in days. As skillful as she became with my sword in this past week through unnatural means, she was weak. Up until now, everything in life had worked out for her; including my own summoning. Even so, there was a limit of what she could reach with a borrowed sword.
The flurry of blade and wind pushes everything far away.
She made mistake after mistake and could not comprehend the price. Shin and forearm, her injuries only continued to accumulate. She stepped in front of my blade, so she should have expected this outcome. With my sword held high like a hammer, I'll forge her anew.
She weathers the repeated blows without fail; a testament to the sword in her hands. I never had anger or hatred for my enemy, but that did not mean my hands were clean. In front of me, she still had her doubts which meant there was still much to hammer away. "Why?" was the self-evident question on my opponent's face as I stare into those newly crimson orbs; such a pathetic look.
"If you do not understand, then you did not deserve the Grail and that is why I can't be your sword any longer."
By the power of a Holy Grail, the weak confused girl in front of me was gifted a second chance at happiness and she threw it away for fleeting whims. It's natural for humans to be unable to comprehend the true value of what they possess until they lose it. She did not have to stand on this battlefield; she could have lived an ordinary life in another land. She did not have to pick up a sword. I push forward without mercy past her hesitant eyes.
The flurry of blade and wind comes to a stop; her eyes widen as red blooms from her chest plate. I draw my blade from a familiar sheathe. With a flick, I cast away what I do not need. With a punctured lung she was in no condition to speak, but my fight wasn't over just yet. The shadows rumble and emit soundless screams. Though still wounded from yesterday and poorly supplied, the cavalry was coming and the shadows that stirred in the night would not stop her.
A white comet parts the sea of darkness; unheeded by the crashing waves of shadows. A single day is not enough for Rider to recover from yesterdays injuries, but heroes are seldom stopped by such things. My swing is shifted as I am ridden down by a creature that shouldn't belong in this world. Horses are naturally herbivores and this one with wings was more docile than most, but people always found a way to ride them as weapons. Rider had no lance, but I had my sword.
I draw blood from the wings and it only continues to accelerate sloppily into the earth below. Chains wrap around my arms and legs as I am carried along, but not for long. The concrete wall was approaching quickly, but not quick enough.
I dig my armoured heels into the concrete jungle below.
Time stands still as the tension in the chain reaches its limit. Rider was unquestionably faster, but speed without strength was nothing. With one free arm I yank the chain, but the one holding the other end wasn't there anymore. Rider had already bailed from the start. Something was approaching from the back.
I slash the jagged shaft in two without paying heed to the resulting eruption of air ripping force; weaker than the one before. I push my eyes the limit, scanning all around, feeling through the wind I commanded. My enemies were many, but the shadows were my ally and they were more ravenous than before. My bones slacken and my stone skin grinds against my armour like a mill.
Two jewels steal my gaze, but my body does not cease, my body does not stop! In order to root me in place, she allowed herself to be rooted by the shadows all around us, but she underestimates my body's resistance. Berserker was no doubt quick, but he was late to capitalize on the advantage given by who was supposed to be an enemy.
The mana bursts beneath my feet of lead.
I separate the twin jewels from their pedestal. With one swing of my sword, a mount is left without a rider and a rider is without a head. Before Rider's head hits the ground, Berserker's fingers wrap around me with the shadows enclosing on him. Berserker has made a fatal mistake and Rider was no longer in this world, but Servants are never alone.
The pink sun erupts in my face burning my skin while doing nothing to my captor but peel the mud that was desperately trying to cling to the granite he had for skin. The vice grows tighter around my freshly incarnated body. Spiritual form was a convenience I was never able to have, but I was never a proper Servant.
"By my Command Seal, squeeze her to death!" was the Einzbern Master's cry to seal my fate.
My bones shatter and my organs rupture, but I do not die. His grip was too weak. Until I grasp the Grail, I cannot die. Until I grasp the Grail, I'll endlessly repeat these battles. That is my will, but the world always provides friction. The vice gets stronger and there is no guarantee I won't die in the next second.
"Ex" was that weak voice once again.
I didn't like to admit it, but I was far luckier than many.
The guillotine of light descends down onto Berserker's arm without mercy. The fingers that gripped me fall away into the mud beneath my shadow to be subsumed, but the one armed giant does not relent. Stomping the ground, he pounces with his other arm, but his momentum was already lost as I slash at his defenseless body.
His body was as hard as fae metal as my blade glides harmlessly off his body. Nothing in this world can survive being cut by Excalibur, but my enemy has more than one life. As troublesome his Noble Phantasm appeared to be; not even I was unbeatable when I had my sheath. Berserker's eyes were never on me, but the girl who cost him his arm.
The wound on her chest was no illusion; but she stands all the same even if she needs Excalibur as a cane. The ability to recover from a mortal wound as if wasn't there; this could hardly be the power of the Saber card alone. I have already suspected it, the catalyst for my summoning.
The small girl was too blessed; maybe I now understand Morgan's frustrations on some level; the blessings of the Holy Grail, Excalibur and even Avalon. The girl I served as a Servant possessed everything I both sought and lost, but she would never relinquish those things to me. If she had any desire to do so, she would've done it from the start. Even so, she decided to save me; what nonsense. Despite all her gifts, Miyu was always too slow.
"Rider?" was the reality she was too slow to realize that forms on her lips.
Emiya was always my true enemy in the Holy Grail Wars, but this Emiya couldn't fully comprehend that and it cost her. She was truly alone now.
The shadows recede in her presence as if off put by her despair. The writhing shadows rise higher as if cast by the tall skyscrapers around them, but they never crash down. Even without Sakura's will, the shadows will never touch her and Illya does not hesitate to fire upon what she saw as weakness.
The bright flash leaves no trace; not even mercy. Even with all their hunger, the shadows could not withstand the combination of arms. The output of the shadows were limited by their source; Sakura. In a battle without interference from Heroic Spirits; a battle of attrition, the homunculus had an insurmountable advantage over the shadows especially with that queer wand in her hands. To be pushed back was inevitability, but I was already closer to my goal with Rider gone.
I was no longer a Servant and Sakura no longer a Master.
Miyu did not have a clear wish, but Sakura harboured one so obvious that I could seize; to take back the past. We both longed for the time before the Holy Grail War and through her I could see the path to the Grail with all of its curses. If Sakura knew the true nature of this present, then that was just another tool to rein her.
The true nature of the Grail; I understood why the tyrant thought of it as worthless, but it was no different from Excalibur in my hands. Whether the surface shines with holy light or tainted with godless night, it makes no difference to the blood that drips from it. What is a wish and what is a curse? They bind people all the same.
I recede into the muddy ichor to take one step closer to my wish and my curse.