Chapter Twenty: Spiders and Webs
Shirou shuddered as he opened the door to the main temple and looked inside, his skin crawling. "This is... wrong. It's like the air is screaming..."
"The air is filled with souls. This is the center of the spell that has been draining energy from the townspeople, Shirou. I can feel it trying to steal our life even now," Saber said softly. "Shirou. My resistance to magecraft will protect me, but you should leave the boundary field. I will explore by myself."
Shirou raised an eyebrow, despite very much feeling the growing unease in his gut, a certain odd heaviness in his limbs, like he had spent the day before exercising heavily and was exhausted now. Still. "We've been over this. I'm not leaving just because it's dangerous." Something crunched under his foot, and he looked down to see the wriggling body of a spider the size of his thumb. "... Or gross."
Saber's eyes narrowed as her hand snapped out into the darkness, and returned holding a similar spider, the creature chittering madly as it attempted to break free of the Servant's iron grip. Her eyes narrowed. "I've seen this type of familiar before. Zouken Matou."
"Sakura's... 'grandfather' is here, you think?" Shirou asked, recalling what the priest had told him of Zouken's true age. Between that and Saber's instantaneous realization the old magus did not have a human body, it seemed likely that Sakura was not actually his granddaughter. He found himself wondering, offhandedly, what his real connection to her was, which led naturally into a reminder that she was all alone in that huge house, with Shinji doing God knew what and that old monster hanging over her like a guillotine.
Unless she went home of her own free will, in which case …
No. That wasn't a train of thought worth going down. Sakura was in danger, not dangerous. He believed that. The alternative was not worth contemplating.
Saber examined the creature in her hand before crushing it dispassionately and wiping the ichor on the wall of the temple. "Quite. The boundary field is not his work, however. The power he showed in our meeting was... insignificant in comparison to what I sense here. It can only be the work of Servant Caster."
Shirou blinked. "Shinji was the Master of Rider. Are you suggesting there are two Matou masters?"
"They are one of the more involved families, so it wouldn't be impossible. And I doubt that Zouken would have much problem killing Shinji himself if such became necessary. He may very well be the Master of Cast-"
She cut off her sentence, then, and a shower of sparks appeared from nothingness about a foot in front of Shirou's nose as he turned to look back outside the temple.
Another burst of sparks lit up the night, and another, and another. Shirou merely stared wide-eyed, unsure of what was going on in front of him; it looked like nothing so much as very small fireworks going off in the darkness, but rather than a 'pop' each was announced with the shriek of metal on metal and...
Saber's sword is moving. So fast I couldn't see it, but if I follow the trail of mana... he thought suddenly, the tremors in the air and the power in the sword's sheathe of wind letting him follow it just slightly after the fact as it snapped through the air, intercepting a swarm of...
Knives. Black knives, barely visible in the shower of sparks as she batted them aside. He was preparing to ask what the Hell was going on, when Saber turned to him and with a single swift motion threw him further into the temple as she snapped, "Shirou! You must stay inside! This Servant specializes in targeting Masters!"
She slammed the massive temple doors as if they weighed nothing, and the wind surged as she charged into the night, the sound of metal on metal ringing through the temple walls as the attack continued.
Shirou growled under this breath and lunged for the door, firmly intending to chase after her no matter what she said. He slammed into the door...
And bounced off, the door sealed tight and the wood harder than plate steel.
The skittering and chirping of insects grew louder as a crawling, writhing carpet of shiny black creatures burst into sudden motion, scrabbling down the walls from hiding places on the ceiling and outside the windows, rolling over the door in a clattering, venomous wave that covered every exit.
Shirou leaped back, coming to his feet and preparing to fight, but not really sure of what he could do. Even if he could manage to do... whatever it was that he had pulled against Lancer (and he wasn't at all sure he could!), he was facing not a single opponent, but thousands. A sword was not much defense against a swarm of insects, leaping onto him, digging in, millions and millions of fangs sinking in from all angles...
Okay. Okay. Calm, Emiya, he thought. This doesn't look good, but panic won't help. There's still a chance to escape. Look for a thin spot, a weak point, stay calm and analyze the swarm for any hint of a weakness, and...
Several hundred of the swarming creatures, larger and slimier than the venomous insects that made up the majority of the horde, flowed together. The decrepit form of Zouken himself, his face set in a confident smirk, stared at the young Master. "Good evening, Shirou Emiya. How kind of you to venture into my temple. And to bring such a charming donation."
Okay. Okay. Not good, but stay calm. There's a broom off to the side, near the wall. If I can get to it, reinforce it, I might be able to catch him off-guard, Shirou thought. He's controlling all these creatures, and if I hurt him, he might lose his grip on them, stun them, and...
A dark patch of shadow detached itself from the wall, the insects in that area screeching in open horror and fleeing from it even as it solidified, taking on the form of a woman. She was beautiful, in a cold way, with hair and skin pale, marble-white, and features that would have done a supermodel jealous. Her eyes, however, ruined the effect; solid, bottomless black as dark as the cloak which writhed around her like a living thing, not a hint of any other color in them. He had no idea who she was, but the aura of power and malice around her meant she could only be a Servant.
All right, Shirou thought. It might be time to panic.
Saber leaped through the trees, noting as she went how many of them were fallen; a battle had taken place here, and recently.
A trap, then?
She would find out shortly.
The white skull flickered through the darkness, barely visible, hurling knives with deadly precision even as it retreated through the trees. If Assassin was difficult to see, then the blades were invisible, blacker than the night and moving faster than bullets. Any opponent relying on sight to battle would have been skewered a dozen times in a second.
Saber did not need to rely on her eyes.
Unlike Lancer, who could detect projectiles from the bloodlust of the one who threw them, Saber's combat instincts were simply so refined that they bordered on precognition. She could sense the attack coming, even detect the trajectory of the weapon as it approached, and with prana filling her limbs and sword, her reflexes were faster than even Assassin's daggers. The killer retreated steadily, and Saber gained on him with each step, his weapons useless.
Exactly as planned.
Assassin was not quite as fast as Saber, but the darkness and the trees that littered the woods did nothing to slow him. While she had to occasionally slow to leap over a log or slap aside a projectile, his pace did not change no matter what obstacles he encountered, skittering over the fallen timber like an animal. Saber almost suspected he had eyes on the back of his head, his movements were so smooth; or perhaps the mask itself was on the back of his head, and she was seeing his back as he retreated. No, the daggers were too accurate for that...
She stopped, her instincts screaming at her that danger lay ahead, even as Assassin halted his retreat in the branches of a low-hanging tree. "Why do you halt, Saber?" the white skull asked, his tone mild, almost conversational. "It is clear you do not fear me. Though I might be the greatest of all assassins, it is obvious that my power as both a Servant and a killer is far below yours. I threw those daggers so they could not be seen, and yet you deflected them all."
Saber narrowed her eyes, taking a step back. The instinct that told her where each dagger had been now told her that something was horribly wrong. She had taken Assassin's measure and she could kill him with a single blow, and yet she knew that she must not get close enough to strike that blow. "I would not use this blade," she motioned to the sword in her hands, invisible save for the slight swirl of wind, "if I feared that which I could not see."
"Ah, of course. To use a weapon like that, you must have great perception. Or perhaps simply instincts I cannot understand. But then, I am not a warrior, but an assassin. Combat is not my specialty, I'm afraid. One on one, I am no match for you no matter the distance. So I think it is fortunate that you have made two mistakes."
Saber opened her mouth to reply... and then stopped, her eyes wide with shock as she snapped her blade up to her neck in response to the overwhelming sensation of bloodlust that suddenly rolled over the forest. The black and red lance seemed to appear from nowhere, a blade that dove in at her jugular with force vastly exceeding the feeble impacts of Assassin's knives, striking her guard with such force that her feet were forced into the ground where she stood.
"The first mistake you made," Assassin said, his tone cool as Saber's blade rang with the scream of Lancer's charge, the tranquility of the soft conversation shattered as Excalibur danced madly, a dozen strikes from Gae Bolg raining down on her, "was in assuming this battle would be one-against-one. Sadly, there are two on my side."
"Don't listen to him! I wouldn't dream of making this a two-on-one, not with you!" Lancer roared in bloody joy as he stepped forward, swinging his weapon down in a circling arc at Saber's legs before reversing the direction, slashing upward, intending to slit her chest open from the bottom up, and his smile only growing as she predicted the move, smashing his weapon aside and stepping into his swing to slam a prana-charged shoulder into his chest, forcing him back. Rather than resist, he leaped back, letting the blow be minimized by his own momentum, and swinging once more at Saber's neck, forcing her to back out of her sword's range. The two Servants squared off, Lancer's shark-like smile in sharp contrast to Saber's half-panicked scowl.
Lancer turned to the skull in the trees, his expression souring slightly. "You heard me, right? Saber is my kill. I don't know what arrangement that whore made with your worm of a Master, and I don't care. She isn't here to hold me back anymore, and Saber is my kill. If you interfere, it will go badly."
Assassin chuckled dryly. "Well. It's not efficient, but so long as you cut her down, it matters but little. Do as you please."
"Assassin," Saber muttered. "You said there were two mistakes..."
"Ah, yes. Your second mistake was in making assumptions," Assassin said, "The Assassin class does indeed specialize in killing Masters above Servants, and you were correct when you told him that he was my target from the beginning. But you were hasty, Saber. You assumed that you knew the way in which I would kill your Master, when in fact... I have already done it. You see, my Master is far more powerful than your Master. So unless you can kill Lancer in the next few minutes, I'm afraid the poor boy is food for Zouken's worms."
Saber's eyes widened, and she had just enough time to whisper Shirou's name in horror before the cursed lance dove in at her heart, forcing her to focus on the the battle for her life first and foremost.
Please, Shirou, hold on...!
Rin Tohsaka sighed, sitting alone in her lab, rubbing her temples to fight off the headache.
She wasn't in a good mood, frankly. She had expected Sakura to negotiate, of course. The girl was a Magus, and she would have been a fool not to try to get as much as she could out of the bargain. She was basically trading her Servant to Rin, after all, a ludicrously valuable coup for the Tohsaka Master. Sakura would certainly be well within her rights to ask for something amazing in return, which was why Rin had entered negotiations with plenty to offer.
Silly her, apparently, for thinking that Sakura would be satisfied with being offered freedom from her clearly abusive family, a return to the Tohsaka bloodline she had been unfairly cast out from, vindication from all the unfairness of her life and a wish of limitless power on the Holy Goddamn Grail.
Maybe she's trying to get me killed, Rin thought bitterly. It would make sense. It wouldn't be strange to have a grudge against the family. I was hoping it would just be our parents. I would understand that. But maybe she hates me too. Otherwise, why would she go out of her way to shackle me to maybe the one person in this War who I have the least shot at making an alliance with?!
"Archer, get in here," she murmured.
"Was always in here," Archer said, fading into view. "Rider stayed with Sakura. I've been skipping in and out of the room, but I haven't heard any discussion. Sakura seems to have fallen asleep."
Rin rolled her eyes. "She just woke up. What is she, a cat?"
"I think she's abused and exhausted, but it's hard to be sure," Archer said with a shrug. "I'm not a doctor. I was just assuming, based on how you saw her being beaten in a pit of magic worms, and she was practically comatose when Rider brought her back here."
Rin sighed. "Okay, okay. I get your point. I'm bitter. This is a disaster."
"Shirou Emiya." Archer shrugged. "Helping him out would not be my first choice, either. But the fact of the matter is, Rin, we do have some things on our plate that are more important than a Holy Grail War."
"Caster and that Shadow? You said you hurt it. Saber hurt it. It isn't that bad."
Archer sighed. "Not hurt it, Rin. Dispersed it, maybe. Disrupted the flow of mana. But Saber hit it at point-blank with one of the most powerful Noble Phantasms in the war, and it didn't die. I must have sent a hundred blades right through it and it just kept coming. It's not impossible to fight, Rin, but... as far as I can tell, it's impossible to permanently kill. And what it did to Caster and Lancer... if it gains control of all Seven Servants? That's what makes the Grail work, Rin. You know full well what kind of power that means."
Rin fought the urge to scream. "Fine. Fine! I'll... I'll go out there, and I'll find Shirou Emiya, with his perfect alliance and his ultimate Servant and his having no reason to trust me, and I'll arrange for him to kill my Servants and get everything I ever wanted, to make a girl I barely know happy!"
"You're just being petty, at this point, Rin. If you're his ally, his victory becomes yours. He wins because you allow it, not because of his own skill," Archer said. "And more practically, when you and he are the only two Masters left, and Sakura's approval doesn't matter anymore, you can gut him like a trout. I'll help, believe me. But for now, we need all the power we can get on our side, and Shirou Emiya... or more to the point, the alliances with Saber and Berserker he can offer... represents the biggest windfall of firepower we could hope to get our hands on. I know you wanted to do this on your own. But she might have the right idea after all, at least for the time being."
Rin sighed in annoyance. "So. I need to think of a way to get on Emiya's good side after shoving him away with hostility since the start of the War. Great. Just... just great. Well, at least we have a plan of attack. "
Archer pondered this for a second. "Rin. Some things occur to me."
"Shirou Emiya is a noble, overly chivalrous dolt, correct?"
"And now that Sakura isn't in his care anymore, he's likely to go on patrol even more. And Caster and Lancer and that Shadow and Zouken are all running around doing who knows what. And he's, again, a dolt. The kind of dolt who would run around at night without contacting allies or planning anything. And Saber is just as bad, in her own way. So. Let's say that Zouken is, for example, setting some kind of trap. Which is plausible, since we stole both Rider and Sakura from him and yet he hasn't responded, indicating a larger plan at work. And the Emiya kid and Saber are out patrolling."
Rin considered this.
She then said, very matter-of-factly, "Oh God our alliance is going to die."
She burst into a sprint for the front door, screaming for Rider to follow, the Tome of the False Attendant clamped under her arm as her mind raced, trying to determine where, exactly, Shirou would be going to get himself killed tonight.
Ilya nibbled on her fingernails in worry.
She hadn't gotten much sleep the last few days. Following Shirou around endlessly was time-consuming, and trying to maintain her secret alliance with Saber only made it harder. But she was on the ball enough to realize something was wrong on that damn mountain again.
For the second time in a week, she could sense it. The Black Grail, it's extended power in play. She had hoped that Saber's actions the previous night would weaken it, but if the power had decreased at all she couldn't tell. Whatever the Black Grail was, it regenerated from damage almost insanely fast... if it was possible to truly 'damage' it at all.
Once again, she considered the possibility of just hunting down and killing the Makiri who almost certainly generated it. She would be vulnerable now, with her power raging atop the mountain...
Ilya sighed. Shirou, you make things so hard on me.
She could sense the disaster on that mountain. It could all be stopped with one meager little Matou reduced to paste. But her stupid Shirou would be stupid broken if his stupid childhood friend died, even if it was probably for the best!
Love was complicated.
Beside her, Berserker rumbled, his muscles tensing. She thought for a moment he'd reacted to her anger and frustration, felt her fury and was driven by it to destroy... but then, she saw something approaching the mountain, her vision dancing among the trees on the sides of the gate.
"Tohsaka...?" Ilya murmured. "Did she come here to raid the temple? But I thought she was driven back last time. What has..."
Ilya was cut off, then, just before she could get out the word 'changed', by Rin Tohsaka halting at the bottom of the steps up to the temple gate, and Rider appearing out of thin air next to her.
"What the what?!" Ilya squeaked as Rider burst into motion, sprinting up the steps like a black arrow, barely visible in the night. "Rider?! How did she get Rider?! Did Archer die? What am I saying, if Archer had died I would know! Did... did she trade? That doesn't make sense."
As Ilya argued with herself, Rin took to the shadows and sat down, looking exhausted. Much more than she should be, if Ilya had judged her abilities correctly...
Ilya sighed in annoyance one last time. She didn't really have a scout, per se, and magic didn't pass through the boundary field on the mountain easily. She was limited to perceptions based on her link to the Black Grail, and she couldn't send Berserker to fight that thing by himself. The extended power was lethal to direct touch, and he really had no other way to fight it.
On the other hand... Shirou and Saber were alone up there, and while Saber had turned out to be much more amazing than Ilya had given her credit for, if Rin was here as an opportunist and not an ally...
Hoping against hope she was not making a huge mistake, she muttered. "Follow, Berserker. Take your astral form and remain hidden for the moment. If anyone tries to hurt Shirou or Saber in your presence, please do kill them horribly."
Berserker wasn't the best Servant for precision orders, but that was one he was good for.
Shirou's enemy was a swarm of poisonous, flesh-eating magical insects so thick it coated the walls and door, filled up every window, and blotted out the stars. Standing among them was an archmage with centuries of experience, and the embodied spirit of a legendary hero.
His resources consisted of a broom that he could Reinforce to be a much harder broom.
Shirou began to wonder if maybe this Holy Grail War thing had been a bad plan.
"Don't worry, lad," Zouken said, his voice that of a kindly, caring old grandfather lecturing a beloved grandson. "Your death does not come yet, I think."
"But soon," Caster said, her own voice clipped, cold. The rage was rolling off her in waves, as though simply being in the temple chamber filled her with such driving fury she was tempted to raze the entire building. Which, Shirou noted sadly, was something she could probably do.
"I'm afraid my companion here is a bit terse, but she has had a trying week," Zouken said. "In either event, you might as well make yourself comfortable. There will not be any escape for you here, my young friend, no chance of survival. You will remain here until your Saber has fallen, and then you will die. I bear you no ill will, you understand, but I am on a schedule and it is time for things to get back on track."
Shirou's eyes narrowed. "Then I'm sorry to disappoint you, but Saber isn't going to fall. I don't know who Assassin's Master is, or why he's working with you, but there's no Servant more powerful than Saber. She'll kill him and be back for me. I believe in her."
The old magus smiled, and the expression was not nearly so falsely reassuring as his voice. The skin of his face stretched grotesquely, showing rotting black and yellow teeth, and more than a little bloodlust shone through in his glittering black eyes. "Indeed, I think that one-on-one Saber could kill Assassin with a single stroke of her sword. Truly, she is a magnificent specimen, the kind of rare artwork that can bring a little warmth to even this withered old heart. But this entire mountain is my trap, don't you see? Every decision you've made since you stepped onto it has done nothing but bring you deeper into the spider's web, and you are so tangled in that even Saber cannot escape the fangs."
Shirou gritted his teeth, gripping the broomstick as he forced more mana into it. It wasn't much of a weapon, but if he could land a firm enough blow on the old magus, catch him and Caster off guard, maybe her could manage to get through the carpet of insects alive. It was a slim hope, but...
And then it was no hope at all as a bolt of black light struck his improvised weapon and shattered it to kindling.
"None of that," Caster said firmly, black magic still crackling in her raised palm. "No more resistance, no more plans going awry, no more dramatic last-minute rescues for you infuriating brats. First you and the Saber who so callously brutalized my pet, then the Tohsaka girl and her ridiculous sword-slinging clown."
Shirou very nearly fell to his knees in despair, then, as all hope seemed utterly lost.
"And nobody," Caster said, "is going to stop me."
The wall shattered inward, screaming filling the air as insects were sent flying through the room with so much force they shattered into clouds of chitin and ichor on impact. A silvery blur, chains hissing like a striking snake, stabbed inward and pierced through Caster's wrist. Shirou had just barely enough time to recognize Rider's bizarre chain-spike weapon before it snapped back, whipping the snared Servant up through the roof of the temple and in a wide arc to slam into the ground outside.
Zouken and Shirou fell silent for several long seconds, even as the swarm covering the temple automatically moved to cover the new hole.
"You would think," Zouken said finally, "that someone as old as her would be wise enough not to tempt fate so blatantly."
Caster's mind was red with pain and fury, the spike in her wrist stinging far less than her wounded pride as the invading Servant who had stolen away into her Temple swung her about like a toy at the end of a ribbon; crushing her into paved stone paths, rocks, and temple walls with bone-crushing force.
At the height of yet another swing, she decided she had had enough of that. Hissing a simple spell under her breath, she slashed her free hand like a blade, a wave of black energy roaring out of it. The chain was the weapon of a Servant and did not break under the basic spell, but it was torn out of Caster's arm in a spray of blood and bone, tearing open the top of her wrist. She nearly screamed, but a Magus was no stranger to pain, and she needed to concentrate.
Her cape spread like wings as she remained in the air, the inertia of the other Servant's throw canceled by Caster's magical flight. She stared down at the violet-haired woman in undisguised wrath, and gestured once, her staff appearing in her undamaged hand.
Fire rained from the sky, a storm of blue and black flame that covered the Temple grounds, tearing deep into the earth, reducing paving stones to so much molten slag. It was not a bombing run so much as a rain, each bolt no larger around than a fist, but within inches of each other. To the naked eye there was no visible means of escape.
So it was somewhat shocking, to Caster, when Rider escaped.
If Caster was a storm, then Rider was a single mote of dust blown in the wind; tiny in comparison to the raging light, and yet fluid, untouchable. She dove between spaces that looked like they wouldn't have fit a fly, weaving sinuously among the explosions as though the heat of the flames was no more uncomfortable than a summer breeze. It wasn't the direct, piercing speed of Lancer or the inhuman scuttling of Assassin, or the hurricane of Berserker's charge; Rider's movements were as fast as any of them, but with a shocking, graceful beauty to it, flowing like water in a graceful, stunning dance.
The blasts faded, black flame melting into more mundane mortal flames as they consumed the stone and grass alike, the heat like a blast furnace.
And Rider stood crouched on all fours in the midst of the destruction, untouched and ready to pounce, her bizarre weapon coiled around her.
Caster gazed down on her, black eyes wide with open shock. Her vision showed her a tall, athletic woman with ankle-length hair and a black leather dress, no particular aura of radiance as Saber had, or bloodlust as was seen in Lancer. She seemed, to the eyes, a Servant of no particular power or dignity. And yet...
Caster had seen, with her own eyes, the strange woman achieve a feat of speed and agility she would have deemed impossible. On some primal level, she could not fight down the notion that she was staring at a venomous serpent about to strike.
She shook her head, throwing aside that ridiculous notion. She had access to infinitely more mana, a power source that had already healed the wounds the other Servant had inflicted. With that power behind her spells, she was more than a match for anything the War had to offer...
When I am joined in Sakura's power, one with the darkness. Without it, Archer nearly destroyed me last night, she reminded herself firmly. Between that and Lancer's madness, the evening had nearly been an utter disaster, even if the threat of his Master's death had eventually brought the psychotic Cu Chulann under some meager degree of control.
Still, it had been a valuable night in one way. She had learned not to let her confidence run away with her. She had underestimated Archer and been stung for it. She had underestimated Saber and cost Sakura health and mana creating a new projection of the Shadow, mana she had needed to... erm...
She fought down a blush and flew higher into the air, firmly repressing a lot of memories that she had not been expecting to be getting, and stared downward. The violet-haired Servant was a dot on the temple path, visible only due to the light of the many fires burning. She was far outside the Servant's established range, now, and she called forth mana, more than she had ever brought into a single spell. The magical circle that burned beneath her was bled magic, so thick with curses it took on physical form.
The blast that resulted would demolish the temple, most of the mountain path, and most likely kill both Shirou Emiya and the current corpse-body of Zouken. Both thoughts brought a smile to her lips. Zouken would survive, of course, but the loss of his body would hurt him, and she dearly wanted to hurt him. As for the Emiya boy...
Sakura had Caster to protect her now, and she didn't need him anymore.
She gazed down, the spell gathering power as ancient curses slipped past her lips, carrying bile and wrath into the growing casting. The small dot that was the other Servant took on a slight, odd red tinge, barely visible. A counter-attack? She didn't even know which Servant this was, so...
No, wait. Assassin, Saber, Lancer, Berserker, and Archer had all been accounted for. She'd gotten visual confirmation of each, either in personal combat or through the Shadow. So this was, by necessity...
A white blur slammed past her at speed she wouldn't have imagined possible, a barely visible flash in her perception that shattered one of her wings and sent her tumbling, the gathered mana she had prepared scattering violently with a backlash that burned through her mind like a red-hot poker. She barely managed to weave enough mana to repair the wings of her cape and prevent herself from going into a free-fall.
"Taking the battle into the air," Rider announced, "was a mistake."
She looked up, and her jaw dropped.
Outshining the moon, scattering the darkness, an immaculate sight filled the air above her. Rider was astride the back of a... calling it a 'winged horse' was the grossest of understatements. Technically accurate, but akin to calling a flawlessly cut sapphire a 'rock' or a king's golden throne a 'chair'. It was more like the spirit of the horse, the essence of what a horse was purified and given physical form, shimmering with an otherworldly light that even Caster recognized as a rare and ancient magic indeed. Not an animal, not really. A phantasmal beast, a concept given flesh, the idea of the Pegasus...
"Why are you doing this?" Caster demanded. "You are Rider! Servant of Sakura!"
Caster snarled in exasperation, "Idiot, you must suspect the truth of Sakura's powers! The Shadow and the Blackened Servants are hers, just as you are!"
Rider tilted her head slightly. "... Ah. So that is what it was. I knew that some outside influence had taken root in her, but to think it was you. Yes, this is good. I had my doubts about my Rin's judgment, but it seems she has led me to something I can use. There is a poison in Sakura's soul. I have observed it for some time, without understanding its nature beyond the fact it damaged her from the inside out.
"But if you are a manifestation of that darkness, I have a path. If I kill you, perhaps the darkness within her will lessen. At the least, it is worth the attempt. So thank you for this knowledge, Caster. I am truly grateful, though I understand if you don't particularly see this in my actions."
Caster's jaw dropped. "But... are you mad? The girl's inner mind is mine, Rider. She would never approve! We are both her Servants, and her true heart will restrain you!"
Rider shrugged, and said, simply, "Under new management."
Snapping her reins once to incite the Pegasus, Rider charged.
Looking up at the top of the mountain from her spot outside the boundary field, Rin blinked up at the magnificent sight a few times. "Wow. I know how to pick 'em, apparently."
Archer, unseen, sighed.
Saber slashed aside the lance, sparks leaping from the clash of the weapons and a tiny cut opening on her cheek despite her block, but she had little chance to do anything about it. The lance had already retreated and thrust again by the time she had even registered she had been wounded, then again, and again, the strikes coming so fast they were nearly simultaneous. Only Saber's peerless battle instincts, her ability to sense the invisible blows incoming and react to them before they started, kept her from being outright skewered. Still, she was trapped outside her effective range, held on the defensive and being chipped down by dozens, maybe hundreds of tiny cuts sliced beneath her armor by the lance's bloodthirsty aura. Blood flowed down her legs, kept from pooling in her boots only by her constantly moving feet. Each block took slightly more effort than the one before it.
She was losing. And more to the point, she didn't have time for this. Shirou was...
She risked a brief glance back to the temple, and her stomach fell at the sight of the white skull mask flickering in the trees. Assassin, while staying out of the battle proper as Lancer had demanded, had repositioned himself between her and Shirou, to cut off retreat.
She nearly laughed. As if she could turn her back on Lancer when it took all her skill just to hold him at a losing stalemate!
She needed an option, and she needed it now. Assassin himself was not a threat to her in direct combat. If she could contain Lancer for even a few minutes, she could break past Assassin with minimal effort, she was sure of this...
The problem with Lancer, really, was that his range outstripped hers by a crucial amount. So if she could increase her range...
She leaped back, the black lance burying into the ground and sending a wave of dirt flying into the air as Lancer tore it out with a growl, jumping after her. But the delay of dislodging his weapon had been enough of an opening. Saber had a small but critical opening.
Even as Lancer lunged, she swung her sword forward, and released Invisible Air.
The wind around Saber's blade was more than a sheathe for concealing her blade. It was a Noble Phantasm all it's own, and had power appropriate to this task. Invisible Air was less a sheathe and more a contained typhoon, a storm compressed down into a space the size of a blade to give her cuts greater force and hide the truth of each movement. And just as she could release that air gradually, in a repelling barrier to drive back foes while she gathered power to use Excalibur's true power... she could also release it all at once in a single, unstoppable bullet.
The offensive form of Saber's first Noble Phantasm, Invisible Air: Strike Air, The Hammer of the Wind King. The force of the mana and speed of the wind made it an impact not terribly dissimilar from a wrecking ball flung by a tornado, able to crush boulders and uproot forests.
Lancer was the fastest of the Servants, and under normal circumstances, he likely could have dodged even a weapon of such amazing speed.
Under normal circumstances, however, he likely would not have been charging directly at it.
Lancer planted his feet and tried desperately to push off in another direction. To his credit, he almost made it, which was more than anyone else could have done. Just as his ankle dug into the soil to bring him to a halt, the wind slammed full-on into his right shoulder, slicing in like a razor and hammering in like a battering ram simultaneously as the storm raged around him. Lancer went tumbling backward, slamming into an ancient old fallen tree trunk so hard it shattered like glass despite being thicker around than the support pillars of the temple itself.
His severed right arm landed next to him a moment later.
Saber did not know if the wound was mortal, and she did not care. Assassin was directly behind her and was, after all, a murderer. With Lancer awake and active, killing her would likely have turned his uneasy alliance into a battle ending in his own death. Now, though...
She spun, sword at the ready for the inevitable throwing knives, only to find that nothing had come. The white skull was vanishing, disappearing back in the direction of...
Saber took off, all thought of tactics gone. The masked killer was returning to her Master, to alert him to his trap's failure and to defeat Saber by another method. If Shirou died, the loss of her contract would leave her weak enough for even Assassin to deal with her...
She poured mana into her legs, charging madly, her sword poised to protect only her heart and her head. Anything else she could survive. She had to catch Assassin and kill him at all costs, and given his speed she only had a few seconds to manage it before the monster reached Zouken Matou and Shirou died.
Assassin stopped, bunched his legs, and leaped up, into one of the only trees still standing. Saber stormed in at him, weapon raised...
And every instinct in her body screamed at her to stop. She must not, must not, follow the skull into the darkness. Death surrounded her, and to go further was suicide. She stomped down to halt her, progress, unsure if Lancer had somehow recovered already, or a new enemy approached, but certain that she must halt her charge to defend herself...
And her foot disappeared, a wave of cold and sudden aching weakness rolling over her entire body, as if she had stepped into a void that hungrily tore at her very essence, sucking the power from her muscles and replacing it with nothing but pain and bitter cold that rocked her to her core. She planted her other foot to try to pull free, only to find it trapped as well. Horror rocked her mind, only growing as she finally saw that the darkness she had mistakenly assumed to simply be the leaves and shadows of a forest floor at midnight was far, far too black. And as something she could barely perceive writhed around her legs in her blurring vision, the blood red of the Shadow began to twist among the black tendrils already snaking up her body...
Assassin laughed, a dry, empty sound. "I am afraid I told you a small lie, Saber. Lancer is not so gifted at stealth, you see. He could never have evaded your notice skillfully enough to launch a surprise attack... at least, not without help.
"You made a third mistake, Saber, and that was in trusting my words. This battle was three against one from the very start."
His gloating vanished into gibberish in Saber's ears as the darkness deepened.
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