The hairs of her skin rose in alarm as Jeanne Alter cautiously backpedaled to gain distance between herself and Lev, but Lev's previous show of speed startled her. Yet, what was even more unnerving was the twisted grin on his face. It wasn't natural, something neither human nor phantasmal.
Gripping tightly onto the shaft of her pole-arm, she felt beads of sweat forming over her brow.
"We have to work together," Jeanne called to her, souring Jeanne Alter's mood further, her brows furrowing until she snarled.
"I refuse!" She leveled her sword arm up and willed black magic tendrils to spiral around Lev and surround him on all sides. Embers bloomed from the tips, before they were immediately thrust forward and ignited into a blazing inferno. "My flames are enough."
Nothing could be seen of Lev's form in the fire, but Jeanne knew better. "I don't think we're feeling the same energy here…" she trailed off before her eyes widened. "Back up!"
Rushing to Jeanne Alter's side, Jeanne pulled her alter by the shoulder just as a hand tried to palm her face.
"This cockroach," Jeanne Alter didn't bother thanking Jeanne for the assistance and moved to attack again. Her sword came up in arc, sailing towards Lev's neck, but grounding to a stop from a burst of magical energy.
"Oh, you're really much too weak on your own," Lev chuckled. "You're likely supplying most of your energy to the Dragon and wyverns, aren't you?"
Lev's only response was a horizontal sweep of Jeanne Alter's war banner knocking him on the side of the face. "I have more than enough power to end you!" Pivoting on her heel, she swept her sword up in a gesture to summon a torrent of flames, but was unable to do little else as a hand abruptly grasped her neck and squeezed.
"Ugh," she flailed, legs kicking out from under her.
'Dammit. Who the hell is this guy?'
Veins bulged over her temples, cheeks growing blue.
Tossing her sword and banner aside, she desperately used her hands in an attempt to pry Lev's fingers loose, unmindful of how she looked. Contrary to expectation, she did feel the insane amount of magical energy Lev was outputting. The bastard had siphoned the energy of all her remaining Servants, giving him considerable power, but it was beneath her to acknowledge anything Jeanne said out of spite.
Still, she did notice one thing.
Forcing her lips into a sneer, she spoke derisively, breaths coming out in pants. "Yo..u're..not…looking.. ..so..s..tab.l.e," she eked out.
For all the power Lev had harnessed, it meant little for a broken vessel leaking it all out. Skin was peeling over Lev's form, blood vessels rupturing. Whatever Lev was, his current form was too damaged to retain any semblance of stability.
Lev didn't react to the barb. He smiled instead. "And that's where you come in dear," he said flatly. "Your essence and energy will be mine quite soon." He squeezed tighter, a strangled squeal escaping from her windpipe.
Jeanne Alter's mouth opened and closed, her legs kicking and thrashing harder while her nails dug into Lev's flesh. It did nothing. She wasn't getting out of this on her own and she knew it. What she hated more was the sight of Jeanne jutting the bladed pike of her war banner into Lev's wrist, freeing her before Jeanne engaged.
If anything, Jeanne was far better on the defensive than Jeanne Alter. It only helped that the light Jeanne exuded caused no small amount of apprehension in Lev.
Falling to her feet, Jeanne Alter coughed, imprints around her neck as she staggered away.
"I'll defend, you attack!" Jeanne called out to her.
"I told you I don't need your help!" Jeanne Alter said one thing, but her actions spoke another. Her rage and the satisfaction of vengeance meant she had no problems tossing flames and magical stakes at her enemies.
"Hey! Watch it. You nearly hit me!" Jeanne scowled, constantly weaving around Lev such that she was always between him and Jeanne Alter.
"I fail to see how that's a problem."
"If I go down, we both go down!"
"I can still run."
"From him? Stop arguing with me and focus!"
Where Lev had opted to endure Jeanne Alter's flames, the same couldn't be said for the light of Jeanne's banner effectively keeping him at bay. There was a type of natural repellence here; the holy glow causing smoke and embers to waft off of Lev's form. This was the only reason the two were surviving against a being far stronger than them in magical capability and reserves.
"This wretched radiance," Lev hissed, shielding his face from another bright flurry, before ignoring his pain and trekking through it step by step.
The features of both Jeanne's abruptly faltered, their bickering halting entirely.
Lev reached Jeanne first, forcing her to dive away, but not before grabbing Jeanne Alter's arm and eliciting a squawk of protest as they tumbled across the floor. Debris and shrapnel rained down from the large crevice Lev had punched into the tiled ground. They couldn't even see the bottom.
"Well, fuck that. A Servant shouldn't be that strong," Jeanne Alter sucked in a breath.
"That's why I need you to work with me," Jeanne stressed, pulling herself up onto her feet and hoisting Jeanne Alter up along with her. "Command the Dragons and the wyverns outside to help! It's our only chance."
Jeanne Alter's expression flickered, not answering back, her lips pursing, features set in a hard frown. She was glancing from Jeanne to Lev, then back to Jeanne again, hesitation explicitly blatant.
"What are you waiting for?!" Jeanne raised her banner again while tugging Jeanne Alter to keep pace with her which she grudgingly did.
"…I gave authority to Gilles to keep your allies at bay," Jeanne Alter whispered lowly before second-guessing herself and clicking her tongue a second later while grimacing. "Argh! Look alright, dammit! I'll work with you! So come up with something else!"
"What do you mean come up with something else? You're called the Dragon Witch; therefore, your strongest skills must pertain to them. What possible reason could you- No. You can't be serious?" Jeanne forced the words out while straining against Lev's relentless pursuit.
When next Jeanne had the chance to stare at Jeanne Alter from a particularly painful blow to the gut she'd taken on Jeanne Alter's behalf, the intensity of her stare was enough to enable a sense of guilt which caused Jeanne Alter to flinch. It was like Jeanne was seeing right through her, and given the direness of their situation, it was kind of maddening. The sensation itself was akin to when an older sibling for the first time realized that their younger sibling could be an idiot at the worst of times.
"I-I can't believe you!" Jeanne snapped, her nerves fraying. "You don't want to call your Dragon and wyverns because you don't want to be disadvantaged!"
Flushing, Jeanne Alter growled. "We're still enemies! Nothing's changed! Why should I call them off and let your allies through so that you can use them against me after this bastard's dealt with?!"
"Because we're going to die like this?!" Jeanne gritted her teeth, trying to hold strong as a blockade to separate Lev from whatever he wanted with Jeanne Alter.
Besides, to Jeanne, this situation felt novel in a way despite the danger of it all.
It's often said that the truest facet of a person's character is revealed in the face of death, and far from the dispassionate and cold-blooded killer that Jeanne Alter portrayed herself to be, her real nature was more complex. Her immaturity, inexperience, self-centeredness, and unfailing ego resembled eighth-grade syndrome more than a monster of villain.
Right now, Jeanne Alter was depending on Jeanne, and they both knew it.
In a way, it was…kind of like an older sister shielding their bratty sibling, and it was all Martha's fault for even placing the notion in Jeanne's mind.
"I can't do this for much longer," Jeanne grunted, two hands over the shaft of her war banner supporting a dome of light around herself and Jeanne Alter. Said dome of light was being steadily pushed back by a grimacing Lev.
Jeanne Alter gnashed her teeth, hands balling into fists before she began to consider her priorities. "F-Fine," she furrowed her brows and began to concentrate, only to stop the second she decided to do so due to the appearance of a man she knew she could trust.
"Gilles, you've come!" She shouted, watching as Caster Gilles manifested in the room, a wave of tentacle horrors enveloping Lev and pushing him to the far side of the throne hall.
"Jeanne, my Jeanne!" Gilles cried out in lamentation, moving to shift to Jeanne Alter's side and fretting over her in a manner Jeanne realized was identical to the way her Gilles had watched out for her in the war.
To see Caster Gilles in such a state of madness and hysteria saddened Jeanne to no end. More so when she could see that he was just as fiercely loyal to Jeanne as he was in life even in death.
"How dare you covet my Jeanne!" Caster Gilles pulled out a spell book, veins bulging over his forehead, eyes going bloodshot. "May the heavens hear your cries!"
His fingers pointed ahead of him, a rapid congregation of magical energy gathering at the tip before firing off in a barrage of curses and force. Each shot impacted against Lev in a storm of dust and splinters as furniture went up in smoke and stone pillars and walls crumbled.
Lev sighed upon seeing Caster Gilles as if he was thoroughly done dealing with the man after weeks of tolerance. "It's not covet: It's reclaim," he said snidely, brushing off the dirt on his person. "Are we really enemies though? You have but one task, and our goals should align at least on the destruction of France."
"You attacked my Jeanne!"
"Because the vessel within her would be better in my hands. There really is no reasoning with the insane," Lev grimaced, magical energy exuding from his body in waves. Inwardly, he calculated how long it would take for Chaldea's forces to arrive, but was still rather complacent. Incompetent as Jeanne Alter and Caster Gilles were in this Singularity, the number of wyverns and the Dragon they'd summoned weren't so easily bested to allow Chaldea quick entry to the castle.
"Order the Dragon and the wyverns to help!" Jeanne called out to Caster Gilles, using the brief exchange to interject in a moment of respite.
"Enough!" Caster Gilles roared in reply, but something did flicker in his expression. Jeanne was still Jeanne, and perhaps only Caster Gilles knew best about who was fake and who wasn't. It was just that he remained stubborn on the only true Jeanne in his eyes. "Be silenced, fake!"
"Gilles, old friend-"
"You are no Jeanne of mine!"
Wincing, Jeanne gathered her courage and stood out in front of Jeanne Alter and Caster Gilles, and in-between them and Lev. Neither were as suited than her to keep Lev at bay, and for once, Caster Gilles's own memories of a the Hundred-Years war overlapped with Jeanne's image.
Her righteousness, her valour in the face of what appeared as certain defeat; it was all the same just as in the instance in time where she took on France's burdens on her own tiny shoulders.
"Gilles, please," Jeanne called out once more to Caster Gilles, beads of sweat pooling across her forehead as she warily raised her guard at Lev's advance.
"It is unwise." Caster Gilles's tone was concise, clipped, but almost patient in a moment of clarity. "The Dragon and the wyverns are little more than amalgamations of magical energy given life and form as Phantasmals. This cursed fiend would just take them as sustenance."
Lev blinked, actually staring at Caster Gilles as if he was seeing the man for the first time. "Ah, he speaks with intelligence."
"Shut up filth! Heretic! Fiend! Blasphemer!"
"And there it goes. Pity," Lev batted away another volley of magical blasts, but grew infuriated when Jeanne sent out a wave of holy energy. Of course, the subsequent inferno that melted the flesh on his arms and legs was equally irritating.
The smugness on Jeanne Alter's face wasn't lost. She'd gotten her second wind the moment Caster Gilles had arrived, but different from her, Caster Gilles seemed to know better.
"Jeanne, dear Jeanne! I bid you to retreat! The cursed filth is after you alone! Let your trusted Gilles handle this matter with book and spell!" Caster Gilles insisted, much to her bewilderment.
"His body's falling apart. We don't even have to beat him, and he still kicks the bucket," Jeanne Alter reasoned, grinning menacingly before directing her grin on Jeanne. "Afterwards, we have our scores to settle-"
"That's not his real body," Caster Gilles cut Jeanne Alter off in a rare bout of seriousness.
"The blasphemer wears a shell of human flesh and bone, not grafted upon him but forcibly occupied. Once that shell breaks, his-"
"Uhm, does anyone else hear that?" Jeanne interjected between the two.
[~Tun, ta, dun, tatatatun! Tun, ta, dun, tatataton! Tunta-ta-tadda-tadda-ta ]
Jeanne Alter wasn't the only one frowning. Even Lev glanced dumbfoundedly in the direction it was coming from.
[~Tun, ta, dun, tatatatun! Tun, ta, dun, tatataton! Tunta-ta-tadda-tadda-ta ]
By the second the noise was only getting louder and louder, before both Caster Gilles and Lev widened their eyes after sensing an incoming mass of magic energy. It happened an instant later.
A reverberating explosion of stone and ruined tapestry forced the occupants of the room to shield their visions from the ensuing storm of splinters and shrapnel. When the dust settled, the mounted figure of a black knight on a glass horse appeared accompanied by Chaldea's forces lassoed onto the leg of the horse and carried all the way over courtesy of EMIYA.
Seeing stable ground, EMIYA Archer had no qualms with dumping everyone on the floor.
For a moment, Archer stared up at the black knight, Saber Alter. He didn't believe that she wouldn't be able to recognize him, but he could also see the unfathomable depth of her rage blinding her.
In this regard, the black knight could care less about anyone else as her gaze narrowed on her enemies.
Saber Alter and Jeanne Alter made eye contact despite the distance between them, then Saber Alter's gaze set on Lev with the same burning ferocity. Slowly, carefully, the black sword was drawn, a keening echo in the silence as red mana coalesced into a pitch black. "Hammer of the vile King…"
Jeanne recognized the incoming attack for what it was, and the lack of care about who'd be caught up in it.
"Wait Saber don't attack! We need her if Lev wants her!" Jeanne called out before quickly realizing her opinion had no sway on Saber Alter and shifting her focus onto Olga and the rest. "Do something!"
Olga and the rest looked from Jeanne then back to Saber Alter, then back to Jeanne, their voices caught in their throats. The aura Saber Alter was outputting was menacing in its intensity, murderous in its intent.
"Your deaths will pay homage to your transgressions," Saber Alter lowered her stance, the furor of her magical energy turning into an overbearing storm.
Sensing the danger, Jeanne Alter backed up a few steps, before scowling and readying her fires to counter attack. Lev was no longer as composed, more so when he took notice of EMIYA, the cause of his abrupt intervention in this singulatritiy.
"Wait, Saber don't!" A beep revealed the transmission message from Chaldea's Command room.
"She's not going to listen," Jeanne braced herself, but it was something Da Vinci said that truly took away Saber Alter's attention.
"Romani detected a signal from Shirou! He's not dead! He's somewhere in this castle!"
All at once, the flow of Saber Alter's magic energy abruptly halted. Then she felt it as she focused, the Master and Servant link between her and Shirou. He really was alive somewhere inside this castle.
She uttered not a word nor response, but the way she immediately reeled in her magical energy, dismounted from the glass horse, and then proceeded to ignore everything else to charge into the castle spoke volumes.
"Wait!" Jeanne called out to no avail. Saber Alter was long since gone.
"I don't think we should have told her that just yet…" Romani cringed from Chaldea's transmission line. "We don't even know if these new Servants are friendly."
Saber Alter was strong and would have been a good addition to their forces rather than scouring the castle of Orleans on her own.
"Not the tine Romani, and it's not like there was any other choice," Da Vinci replied before calling out to Olga and the rest. "It's up to you, Ms. Chairman."
"O-Of Course," Olga swallowed, trying to keep her bearings straight while Ritsuka placed a hand on her shoulder in support.
"Your commands, Master?" Sasaki called out from beside Spartacus.
Olga took a breath and composed herself. With Saber Alter's exit, the tension she'd brought left along with it, and everyone's focus was now back on Lev.
"Berserker, Assassin, stay back and wait for an opening! Archer you-"
"Find a vantage point and be useful. Mash on the defensive and shield our allies, Ritsuka on support with Martha's healing."
"Find a... You, I, ugh, argh," Olga clicked her tongue at EMIYA's smug face. Why does she never feel like she's in charge anymore? Ritsuka and Mash looked towards her. "Yes, dammit! Do as my Servant said."
"Not to worry piggies, your idol is here!"
"All liars must burn!"
Elizabeth and Kiyohime had other plans, much to Ritsuka's chagrin when he failed to convince them to follow the director's instructions. "Shouldn't our Master's words have more sway?" And at that, Ritsuka had no response.
Elizabeth and Kiyohime directly ran up to where Jeanne, Jeanne Alter, and Caster Gilles were. All recognized that Lev was the bigger threat, and it became almost unanimous to temporarily put aside their grievances.
For Jeanne Alter, she focused more intently on Elizabeth and Kiyohime than the rest, taking keen note of their horns and overall presence.
Dragon traits, she observed. This just might be doable.
She took a breath, in then out before gathering her magical energy and solemnly pointing her sword forward.
'There be Dragons here.'
Her features hardened, her Dragon Witch skill cast. "How's that?" she huffed, watching the way both Elizabeth and Kiyohime practically brimmed with magical energy.
"Oh oooh, manager, I didn't know you brought me a co-star!" Elizabeth called out to Ritsuka despite the twitch forming on Jeanne Alter's brow from being ignored.
Kiyohime was far more straightforward and glanced from Jeanne Alter then back to Lev. "Is that man a liar?" She asked.
The context eluded Jeanne Alter, but she could see a type of venom bleeding into Kiyohime's form and answered without hesitation. "Yes. Yes he is."
Kiyohime smiled a smile not a smile, involuntarily sending a shiver down Lev's back for no apparent reason. However, this was when everything began to break down.
Whatever damage Lev had suffered prior, he could no longer hold on just like Jeanne Alter had predicted previously.
The strain Lev's physical body was under could no longer endure the burden placed upon it, and began to break down rapidly. Flesh peeled right off, bones blackening and melting to reveal numerous eyes diamond-shaped eyes, and a towering mass larger than even the throne room.
A fissure formed whose chasm appeared endless in wake of Lev's transformation, seemingly tearing the castle in two from the throne room.
Jeanne Alter who was the closest to the fissure wobbled while trying to regain balance, staring in shock ahead of her. "W-What is he?" She clicked her tongue in apprehension.
To the rest who'd already seen this form in Fuyuki, it was no real surprise. Instead, what caught them off guard was the sizable chunk missing on its left side where Archer had detonated a Tohsaka family gem.
The injury was coated by a layer of dim shadows actively seeking to heal it, but lacking sufficient energy.
"Greetings, you may call me Demon God Flauros," Lev grunted before all the eyes on its body focused on Jeanne Alter alone.
"Disgusting," Jeanne Alter shivered, feeling an eerie sort of pressure descend over her, and that's when it happened.
The eyes gleamed, and suddenly a dense explosion of magical energy erupted with her at the center. She tried to resist, to put up a defense, but she neglected to notice a critical detail until it was too late.
W-What was this? From her Spirit Origin's power source, she could feel a tether being established to Lev.
"Gilles! Gilles what's happening!"
Her energy was leaving her and being funneled elsewhere?
Gilles above all caught on quickly. "Bastard! Fiend! Filth! You dare pilfer my Jeanne's power! I warned you! I WARNED YOU!"
"And what do your little warnings mean to me but nothing more than the blathering of a mad man? The Grail within her was bestowed upon you by my brethren, but I was never one to leave such devices in human hands knowing the depths of their greed and pointless ambitions. Your wish all but proves this."
"Wish?" Jeanne Alter echoed, grunting as she tried to keep herself steady on her feet, but Lev kept siphoning more and more of her energy.
Caster Gilles tried to intervene, attacking without regard for himself, but Lev ignored him.
"Ack!" Jeanne Alter stumbled back, her weakening magical energy causing her to be blown back by Lev's attack.
Jeanne moved, Martha already casting healing spells while Ritsuka and the rest issued out commands. However, the speed in which Lev acted was too quick for anyone to really react. The eyes focused again, and a concentrated beam of energy shot forward.
"Get back!" Jeanne called out in warning.
For her part, Jeanne Alter didn't need to be told twice, unfortunately, she didn't have the same strength as before and faltered. Her heels slipped from under her, her knees giving out. The beam of magical energy struck her chest, and penetrated the entire way through. The sheer heat of it was enough to set her on fire, agonizing screams escaping her mouth before the beam continued on and extracted a Holy Grail from Jeanne Alter's person.
Realization struck Jeanne Alter then and there as the Grail came within sight; the very source of her manifestation and being, the dots connected between Lev, a wish, and Gilles all at once.
'I-I'm the fake.'
Th blow was too much in her anguish. Burning from head to toe, Jeanne Alter lost her sense of awareness and fell into the large fissure in the floor before Jeanne could reach her.
Who's your fucking little sister!?
Encroaching darkness and acrid pain from sizzling blood was all Jeanne Alter could experience.
…Ah, it's happening again.
This accursed sensation; this sacrilegious reward; flesh and bone as a pyre; it hurts. She screamed in agony, a wretched unholy torment causing her body to writhe and squirm, skin peeling, bones blackening from lapping flames down to the marrow.
She didn't even have the strength to cuss aloud.
N-No more. I-I can't, not again.
She reached a hand out to her guardian, her pillar of support for salvation just as she fully fell into the abyss, but to no avail.
Silence stretched at her exit, and as if a spell was broken, Caster Gilles scrambled forward on all fours just to reach for someone that was no longer there.
"Gilles…" Her voice carried in the darkness, anguished and weak before snuffing out entirely.
A pregnant pause, a chilling air of destituteness, and the mocking charity of a Demon who remained idle just to drag the despair out.
Whether from shock or suffering, Caster Gilles wasn't speaking. Tears were streaming down his eyes, mouth constantly opening and closing as if in apology. His shoulders were hunched, shudders traveling down his body, as all life seemed to leave him an empty husk.
For all the evil Caster Gilles had caused and become in the aftereffects of her execution, Jeanne felt grief seeing any form of Gilles like this, her once cherished knight and comrade-in-arms.
"M-Marshal Gilles, Old friend-" Jeanne reached a hand out but flinched while trying to call out to the man, the friend she had respected the most.
An unholy and maddening scream of rage, guilt, and madness was the only answer.
'If there is a God, surely, I will be punished.'
She was burning.
The tactile sensation of her fingers brushing across what she assumed were ashes, had long since gone numb, and yet the phantom pain still lingered. The air was chock filled with smoke and the tinder of her body causing a haziness to obscure her vision through the flames.
It was dark, so terribly dark in the depths of castle Orleans where a seemingly bottomless fissure was ripped asunder from the Demon God's descent.
The only light she could see was from the very hole she'd been cast away through like garbage, filthy, and useless. Thin soft rays poured down from up high, contrasting with the fiery orange blaze devouring her as her back made impact with the ground.
Her breath was knocked out of her, a pitiful screech no more than a whimper in her ears escaping her lips. Her armour grating on stone and rending into tiny dented pieces barely supporting her form. Not that it mattered.
She choked, acrid fumes suffocating her airways, tongues of fire licking up her skin to her face.
Writhing and rolling, she wailed; almost balling in her distress while searching for relief, anything to stop the ensuing memories, the anguish, but no salvation would come like it did for another.
She would not be so fortunate, nor would mercy be granted upon her.
Her fingers twitched, her leg muscles spasming as she tried and failed to smother the blaze consuming her. Nonetheless, without the Holy Grail that Lev had forcibly pried from her, she was incapable of mustering the energy to summon forth her own fires to snuff out the ones assailing her. This was before her muscles began to deteriorate in the sheer magical heat.
None of this was fair in her eyes. It just wasn't.
A face appeared before her, images, visions if you will of a boy who walked across a burning land of cinders, steel husks, and the outstretched fingers of blackened bodies trailing behind him.
You who should have died in such a hell; you who should have been like me; why are our ends so different? It wasn't even the fact that vestiges of the boy's being had been stripped by the fire, it was that the boy shared too many similarities with her. In the jumble of visions that she'd dreamt of, one of them had seen some sort of execution ground where a man was hung by those he had aided.
She was no fool. The man she saw resembled her captive to a stunning degree. Visions of the future then? It wasn't unheard of in dream cycles, but unknown to her, what she'd seen was the integrated memories of Archer. Technically, it was something Shirou had experienced all the same.
He didn't hate those that had betrayed him. In fact, he felt nothing at all. Was this the difference? Acceptance, or just plain apathy- no. She already knew what separated him from her.
In the fires of a fiery hell, that boy had been saved whereas she was not.
Her body twitched and writhed, the ends of her hair curling up and fraying while strength gradually left her body. She could already see it, the motes of golden sand flittering up into the abyss; her shattered spirit origin leaking out whatever energy she had left even as she burned alive.
'I wonder if that fool got out? He seemed the resilient sort-'
She wheezed, choking on fumes.
Unbelievable. To think she'd be thinking about something so trivial in her death throes.
The crackling of the fire and the growing numbness of her body was all that would accompany her till the end. Yet in this regard, how much longer would she have to endure this suffering until her body finally gave out?
She'd given up. Lying flat on her back and staring up at the distant light that would never grace her forsaken form again, the realization finally hit her that she had been the fake Jeanne all along. The presence of the Holy Grail within her and the interaction between her Gilles and Lev were more than enough proof to further solidify her conjecture.
Did her existence then, have no meaning other than her own suffering and animosities?
She pursed her eyes shut, feeling the flames work their up her neck and over her face. The thin sheen of magical energy she'd been keeping around her vitals rapidly began to wane such that the heat would soon become unbearable.
A shudder travelled down her back, bitterness and distress assailing her in equal measure.
What right did a fake have to be saved?
Perhaps it was just another reason why the Lord's light would never reach her even now.
A voice called to her in the unrelenting silence. It was garbled and distorted through the roaring of fire in her ears, but it was still there nonetheless. Then came movement, rocks and pieces of debris falling from unseen ledges until the sound of impact and rapid foot falls near her registered in her mind. Craning to open her eyes, her bleary vision was met by unflinching bronze. Uncaring of the flames around her, she was hoisted up into a seated position, her shoulder leaning up against a broad chest.
"Y-You, what a fool you are," she coughed hoarsely, what strength she had left in her fingers wrapping around the hem of a tattered shirt. The fires around her must have burned him, they definitely did if the blisters she could see on his hands holding her steady were any indication.
A sword, no a Noble Phantasm or Mystic Code or something that produced water began to douse the heat of the fire consuming her. It was hard to tell what her former prisoner had done, but she at least understood that sitting her upright was a more effective means to douse water over her.
As for the rest, it didn't matter. Her thoughts were too hazy and disoriented to care about the semantics. Instead, the relief was truly all that she could focus on, her body too weak to do much else.
Hissing steam and trickling droplets echoed in the silence of the darkness from all around, but through it all, Jeanne Alter had managed to blink her eyes open and see past the mist of steam.
She was being cradled, carefully laid to rest in a manner that wouldn't irritate the burns throughout her body. It was this needless consideration, this confounding care, that must have been messing with her because she quietly let out a sob, a hand weakly wiping away at glistening tears.
She wasn't Jeanne. At least she wasn't the real one, but the memories she possessed and experienced were as real to her as they could ever be for anyone.
As she wasn't the original Jeanne, she had no clue how desperate or emotional Jeanne must have felt while burnt on the pyre, but to Jeanne Alter, all she could remember from the experience was calling out for the aid or salvation of a God that did not answer.
Burning, the crackling and popping of flames, and the despair of being subject to it all while knowing of her people's betrayal was maddening. Help was all she'd wanted; for someone to stop the pain, to rescue her from that torment.
This wasn't the pyre; this wasn't the execution ground; yet all the same, the memories came unbidden.
She wondered how things would have turned out for her, for Gilles, and for her vengeance if a Shirou had been born in her era.
Golden motes of light began to gradually rise from her body flickering in and out of existence. Her Spirit Origin was crumbling apart even without the flames, and yet she oddly felt no remorse in going out in this way any longer, her head lulling back to stare up the face of the man gently cradling her in her passing moments.
"Its alright. You'll be fine. I thought you said you were made of tougher shit," he tried to joke, having learned to goad her pride if only to garner a flustered threat and retort she'd never followed through on.
Her sobs softened, her composure returning to her in an instance of clarity.
Uncharacteristically, she did not rise to the challenge, her lips pursing as she continued to stare up at him almost in captivation instead.
'That smile…Why was he smiling so brightly just because she was alive?'
This wasn't what she ended up asking though. Stubborn to a fault, leaving herself vulnerable was something too difficult for her to do easily. She scowled, feigning annoyance with him despite not trying to push out of his careful grip.
"Why did you come?" Her voice came out as little more than a croak, hoarse and dry. The answer was even more simple.
"You were screaming," he said simply. The weight of those three words alone were like hammers on Jeanne Alter's being.
"…" For such a stupid reason-
"I don't think anyone should ever be screaming like that. Ever," he whispered, hands balling tightly into fists. Or they would have if they weren't holding her. Instead, she felt the shudder that travelled down his body.
In retrospect, she didn't realize how she must have sounded like in her distress. From her dry throat, and weak voice, she'd certainly yelled her throat hoarse. To think someone would respond to the agony of a sinner like her, let alone the prisoner she'd burned alive upon their first meeting.
"Well, it's not like you beat the guy who stabbed me through the heart with a spear first meeting," Shirou murmured, revealing that she must have spoken part of her thoughts aloud.
She froze, before taking in the absurdity of her situation and no longer giving a shit.
Rolling her shoulders, she let her body sag and relax even as the sting of her burns caused her to wince, her toes curling.
"How the tables have turned," she chortled, pitiful gasps of air offset by a growing sense of disquiet and personal schadenfreude. "You can kill me now, you know? No more threats to your life; no more scathing remarks; no more demanding bitch ordering you around, or sneaking you cauldrons filled with kitchenware and pantry raids to cook food on odd intervals."
"You know I enjoyed that."
"You sick bastard."
"I meant cooking the food, not the ordering around or the threats. Don't look at me like that and stop squirm-."
A flurry of golden sand halted the conversation between them, causing Jeanne Alter to look down on herself and her rapidly fading body. This was it. Her Spirit Origin was rapidly collapsing, her feet had already faded, the motes of light enveloping her body and armour.
With what strength she had remaining, she shoved Shirou away and snorted, unwilling to bear the expression he was leveling on her. She loathed pity more than anything, especially when it was directed at herself. She'd seen enough of it from the original Jeanne. She didn't need it from Shirou too. She didn't want it, what she wanted was-
She shook her head and stared at him.
"I'm dying," she said flatly.
"Shove it. My Spirit Origin's shattered. There's nothing to be done."
"You know that's not true. I can help. Although I already have a Servant, we can still form a contract through the magical energy Chaldea supplies me."
"Another Servant?" Jeanne Alter mimed, recalling how Saber Alter had reacted to Shirou's 'death' in sudden realization.
Oh, the irony.
One wanted to kill her, but the other was the opposite.
"There's no point." Jeanne Alter scowled.
"What do you mean no point?"
"If you're that Saber's Master then you being here is practically my death sentence. She's likely scouring the castle room for room for you."
It was a fair point, but one with a glaring flaw that neither she nor Shirou would obviously miss.
"No wait. Since you're really Saber's Master why didn't you call her to your side with a Command Spell earlier…oh how rich! Hehehhaha," she wheezed, staring right at him almost accusingly. "Were you worried about me?"
His silence was telling, yet oddly comforting in that only Gilles had ever worried and fretted over her wellbeing. Alas, such sentiments were misplaced.
"Well, you shouldn't. I'm pretty sure I'm the fake Jeanne. I don't even exist, not as a Ruler or as a Servant on the Throne beyond time and space."
"What do you mean, and?! Argh, I can't deal with this stupidity right now. What do you not get? Your concerns are misplaced! I'm a murderer, killer of thousands, destroyer of France, and y-your…" she trailed off, leaving her words unsaid.
"I'm what? Too accepting?" Shirou sighed. "Look, if I were just focusing on what others have done in the past and not looking at them and their efforts in the present, do you really think I could have willingly accepted Saber as my Servant? Or does she not look the type to kill?"
Jeanne Alter had no rebuttal. There were no doubts in her mind that Saber Alter's kill count was high, perhaps higher than even her own given the duration of Jeanne Alter's summoning.
So then, was Shirou implying that regardless of what she'd done, that she was still worth saving?
"Am not, dammit you bastard. Don't put words in my mouth-"
"Or maybe you don't see your own worth?" He said suddenly, giving her pause.
Her mouth shut, her eyes glaring. "I know my worth," she spat scornfully. "A fake, that's all I ever was and will be. Laugh, go ahead. All my goals, all my ambitions, even the reflection of my Servant Class is nothing but a fabrication without meaning! Hehhehahha, fuuuck!"
"Then is the emotion you're feeling fake as well? In truth, you could have long since allowed yourself to dissipate with the state your Spirit Origin is in, but you linger here still."
She froze. Her brows furrowed, fingers digging grooves into the dirt beneath her as over half of her body had already faded away. She was in desperate need of magical energy now more than ever.
She looked at him, really looked at him, their gazes staring deeply into the others such that it would make Saber Alter uncomfortable.
"If you call yourself a fake, then I'm just as fake as you. I've even been called a Faker," he reasoned.
Shirou raised a brow. "As a person once hailed as a Saint, no more than that, in your own experience against the wretched, does it seem like I'm lying to you?"
'No. No he wasn't lying. There were no tells, no doubts.'
Even if Jeanne Alter could hardly trust anyone, she wasn't at the point of not trusting her own judgements, but then what did this imply?
"Who says that a fake can't beat the original?"
'Yes, yes, she would step her heel onto the body of the original and proclaim herself superior in all things.'
The words resounded within her, granting meaning to an existence she believed imperfect and lacking purpose. A spark lit within her chest, butterflies fluttering in her stomach and giving a sense of euphoria. Still, her excitement was doused in her confusion.
"Why?" She finally asked, putting aside her doubts and reservations the way she did when she sought her Gilles for guidance.
"Because if Chaldea is here to save the people of France and correct this Singularity, then who is there to save you? None of this was really your fault, was it?"
"I killed. I slaughtered!"
"You smiled and you laughed like anyone else."
"I plotted, I schemed, I-"
"Was just staying faithful to what you believed was true."
Shirou stretched a hand out towards her, magical energy exuding from his form as he incanted the words of their contract, never once straying his gaze from her in reassurance. She gave the same curtesy, pushing up with her arms and facing him directly.
"You're serious? Do you know what you're getting into? You'll help me beat her? That intolerable woman?" She spoke up softly.
"You mean Jeanne? Obviously, I won't help you kill her if that's what you mean, but I'll do my best to support your endeavors as a Master should."
"Disgusting. You're really laying it on thick, aren't you?"
He gave her a face as if saying 'would he have to if she wasn't being so difficult?' She flushed, scowling in embarrassment, but thankful he wasn't pointing fingers. She'll just pretend she didn't ask and focus on the feeling of being wanted for her and not for Jeanne.
'So, you wish to be consumed by flames? Very well, very well.'
"Last chance, no backing out," she warned.
'I am certain that you will regret this when the time comes.'
"You're more than half-way faded," he kindly pointed out.
Fuck. Her eyes widened if only for a moment to assess herself, but found that only her legs had disappeared. Her brows narrowed fiercely, but something in the way mirth flickered in his eyes abated most of the frustration. Instead, he said something else that she was all for.
"Are you not angry at what happened?"
"Fucking furious." Her anger burned, an unholy inferno.
"Then what do you have to lose? Fight with me."
'So be it. I will have you join me, and me alone in the pits of Hell.'
She accepted the contract presented before her, and reached out her will to the words spoken by the rings of restraint and the holy balance tying her down to a Master.
The effects were immediate. Her shattered Spirit Origin as a Ruler was discarded and replaced by a new class that better represented her and tied her existence down to a sentiment that she knew all too well. Her burns healed, her body bathing in a soft glow that soon dimmed and revealed her in a looser garment and slightly longer hair, but all these changes meant nothing to her compared to the ever-growing feeling of nostalgia.
This hand, this warmth, it was like the light she saw and felt on that day.
Her mouth opened and closed, but only silence was heard.
She could believe in no God any longer, but she could definitely believe in the words and actions of a man that had already saved her.
"To think that there's something in this world that could match...No," she trailed of abruptly to herself, pushing herself up onto her feet. "It might be too late to say this, but perhaps this can also be called a miracle," she muttered ever so softly.
It was too bad that the context was lost on Shirou.
"Your injuries healed quite fast for a miracle," he chuckled, missing the gleam in Jeanne Alter's eyes.
Don't get her wrong, but Jeanne Alter's alignment was firmly rooted in evil despite the good buried within. It was simply her natural tendency as one lived and breathed, and as for consideration for others, well that was secondary.
She already knew that Saber Alter likely cherished Shirou from her reaction, hell to an extent she could understand why. Yet, this was as far as she could care compared to her own wants, let alone having considerations for Saber Alter.
'It's her fault for making me an enemy in the first place.' She inwardly justified to herself.
This was just revenge. One shouldn't show mercy to an enemy, especially one as detestable as that black-armoured Saber.
Yes-Yes that's it completely. How vile, how detestable. How suitable. Inwardly, Jeanne Alter panted for breath, heat rising to her cheeks either out of pleasure, competitiveness, or awakening sadistic excitement at her future plans.
'I'll make her a cuckold.'
Her heart grew three sizes this day.
It had completely nothing to do with personal desire nor anything as senseless as jealously or envy…
She cackled madly enshrouded within an aura of flames and staring at Shirou with a complicatedly difficult to discern expression. She was no longer bathed in the false righteousness and benevolence of a Ruler Class Servant, but in the smoldering fury of a blistering inferno.
"Servant, Avenger, answers your call," she said in all formality, glancing up to where all the fighting was occurring above, and then giving Shirou a look.
She stretched her hand out towards him, haughtily, yet belying the unease she felt at the prospect of rejection. All this changed however the moment he placed his hand in hers without contempt nor mockery, looking at her for who she was and accepting it in full.
If there is a God, is this what salvation feels like?
"Let us frolic in the cinders of our enemies!"
She pulled him forward into her embrace, gripping onto him and preparing herself to leap out of the darkness and back into the light above.
If she 'accidently' nuzzled her cheek against his in the process, well, Shirou didn't say anything lest the red of her face erupts in flames and kills the both of them.
Knowing herself, it was honestly quite likely.
Thanks for reading, and thanks to my newest patrons: Azure H, Tiger Warrior, and Pyromania!
Sorry for delays, got a bit caught up with work stuff, and it affected me more on the first half then the second half of the chapter.
Next update: Huntsman of Red V2
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The Lonely Peak
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