Chapter Twenty-one: War Cries
Saber was a great soldier. Warrior and king, veteran of a dozen campaigns, a mighty general who had led her armies from the front and made war upon invaders and her fellow Britons alike. As such, she was able to stay relatively calm despite the fact that her entire body and soul shuddered with revulsion that threatened to drive her mad.
There were two threats. First, and most obviously, was the creeping darkness that slowly worked its way up her body, digging through her armor as though it did not exist and extending its filthy tendrils into her very essence, an aching hunger that spoke to her mind of pain, and loneliness, and desperate hunger. It wanted her, to draw her into itself and feast upon her until there remained not a trace of the Servant. This clearly could not be allowed, and she could stop it. Her mana pool was enormous, and had only grown stronger since Ilyasviel had loaned some of her own power to her following the encounter with the golden Archer. While the sick thing was draining that power at a dangerous rate, she could still escape if she focused her all into a single burst. Even if she lost her legs, it would save her life.
This was where the second problem became apparent.
Assassin had continued to speak, though Saber's hearing had long been cut off by the waves of sickness and weakness that flooded her. She had no idea what he was saying... but she could see that he had removed his cloak, and the wrappings on his stunted arm. The limb unfolded at an unnatural angle, revealing an arm triple the length of a human's and twisted bizarrely over his head, ending in clawed fingers and sheathed in a bloody crimson aura. She could hardly sense the foulness of it... indeed, how could it have compared to the foulness that surrounded her own legs!... but her instincts screamed. This was dangerous. Less overtly vile, perhaps, but certainly it would kill her if she allowed whatever attack he planned to strike her with.
Her options were twofold, and both led to death, and so she made the only choice she could see. She would follow Assassin's strike and counter it as lethally and brutally as she could, taking advantage of his perceptions of her helplessness. She could not destroy this Shadow, she knew that. But if she could kill Assassin with her dying breath, or at least maim him beyond his ability to recover this night, it might very well make the difference in determining if Shirou lived or died. It was not much, but it was all she could do with what power she had left.
She tried to keep the smile from her face, shifting her weight and drawing her mana into her blade, the sheen of it nearly invisible against the darkness that already engulfed her...
And then an icy-cold razor pierced through her legs.
"What?!" Assassin snarled in greater fury than she had ever heard from him, his curse dissipating in the shock of the moment. Through the haze of agony, Saber registered a tiny surprise that she could hear him, the stifling effect of the Shadow on her senses now completely gone. In its place was pain like she had only rarely felt, but she was alive, and she was...
At the top of one of the few standing trees, Lancer set her down, staring down with obvious wrath on Assassin. Her blood dripped from his spear, and Saber looked down dully to see that her legs were nearly gone, sliced cleanly off from the knees down. Revulsion filled her as she watched her own limbs vanish into nothing on the forest floor below.
Lancer did not even spare her a glance as he said, "Nothing annoys me like someone who ruins my fun. With you crippled like this, the night's game is ruined. Grow your legs back and get lost, I'll kill you some other time."
"Lancer! What have you done?!" Assassin snarled, his voice filled with a combination of shock and disgust.
"I told you... this was to be one-on-one. Saber will die at my hands, and nobody else's. I told you!"
"You dolt! This defies all tactical logic! Your own master..."
"Is a mindless idiot," Lancer finished. "You see, that's what Caster isn't getting, and you're making the same mistake here: from here on, the only thing I'm obligated to do is exactly what I want. So you can go on about 'logic' as much as you want, but the fact is, I'm running mostly on whim here. For instance, right now, my whim? Is to laugh and watch you die."
What is he blathering on about...? Assassin thought, stretching out his senses and...
Oh, sweet Allah that is not good.
Assassin leaped, his muscles bunching and sending him off a speed that was barely visible to the human eye.
It was not remotely fast enough.
Berserker appeared from nothingness and brought his axe down in a single perfect motion, his own speed making Assassin appear to be moving in slow motion. The monstrous weapon tore through the smaller Servant, and the black blur of his motion was, very suddenly, two black blurs joined by a spray of dark red that scattered across the forest in a sickening shower as the Servant was torn raggedly in half at the waist, his legs falling limply into the Shadow and being eagerly devoured, and his upper body was hurled like a rag doll by his own momentum to crash into the underbrush unseen.
"Ha. Ha. Ha," Lancer said helpfully, before leaping down, a grin on his face and his spear gleaming with gathered mana, as he charged...
Directly past the larger Servant, leading him off into the forest and far away from the creeping Shadow that had already been starting to crawl up his legs. Berserker roared his fury and charged, the skin of his feet tearing off as he moved, what little mind he had so focused on the kill that he never even noticed the wounds, the exposed muscle of his legs leaving a trail of blood along the forest floor as his skin grew back on the fly.
"That's it," Lancer murmured, grinning wickedly. "Maybe this night wasn't wasted after all."
Caster slashed her hand, a half-dozen spears of black flame cutting into the night, and watched in dismay as they vanished harmlessly against the shining aura of the Pegasus as it charged, a keening cry tearing from its lips.
This was absurd. Her magic was ancient, power drawn from the age of gods. She was certain that she was not the strongest of the Servants, for certain, but she shouldn't have encountered any kind of mystery that would match her powers outside of a Noble Phantasm. But Rider's mount was an artifact of the same age of the world as her power. A pegasus should have been weaker than her, normally, but this one was ancient, a true descendant of the Age of Gods, possibly even the Pegasus of the legend of Bellerophon. Its age and fame had made it something... more. Stronger than it should have been.
Caster dove, the pegasus missing her by scant inches as it tore through the air like a bullet. And though the creature never struck her, she was still sent tumbling madly, her cloak shredding around her merely from the shockwaves of the beast's flight. She twisted her body, the black wings regenerating and snapping the air around her, even as the Pegasus wheeled into the sky, already so high it looked more like a star than anything else.
This was insanity. She could not defeat Rider without first getting her off that creature. And yet, her magecraft rolled off the pegasus's aura like water off a rock. Not one of her spells had come even close to dismounting the other Servant.
My pet, come to me, I need you... she sent out the call with her mind, begging the Shadow to come to her side, but heard nothing but swirling madness in her mind in return. Servants were still battling, in close proximity to it. It had tasted their power and wanted more, and would not ignore the chance for such a feast, not even to protect her.
This cannot be. This cannot be allowed. No. No, I refuse. I've come so far...! Caster thought, sending the waves of anger and wrath into the depths of her power, bolts of dark fire roaring out madly. Her magic tore through the sky like claws; rampant, toxic fury to burn this treacherous, vicious abomination down to nothing like she deserved...
The Pegasus tore through it, a shining beacon in the darkness, and Rider bore down on her like the spear of an angry god.
Caster fell, a sudden chill tearing through her for no reason she could see. After all, the Pegasus had missed her, had it not? There was no...
Her arm, her left arm, and her thigh, and a chunk of her torso, it was just gone...
She fell into darkness, the pegasus's cry of triumph echoing in her ears.
Rider did not smile, because the job was only half-done.
Still, one major obstacle was out of her way, and the flow of mana from Rin was as stable as it could be expected to be. With a gentle press to its neck and a mental nudge, she directed Pegasus into a dive toward the temple, the insects swarming in the air around it disintegrating from the mere touch of her mount's aura, before having it pull up at the last second. The shockwaves from her beloved child's passage tore the roof from the already damaged structure, and she flipped off its back, falling through the swarm untouched to land in the temple between Shirou Emiya and Sakura's loathesome slave driver.
Zouken's eyes were wide in obvious shock, an expression he did not often bear. "How... why would she become involved now?! She should not even be sentient while..."
Rider rose to her feet, her chain spike materializing in her hands and falling to the floor around her, the links hissing like snakes as they clattered. "She is not. The War spirals out of your control, old man, and those you pretend to manipulate operate without your knowledge. Are you prepared to die?"
Zouken blinked a few times in confusion, before sighing in in annoyance and letting out a slightly self-deprecating chuckle. "Oh, my. It seems that certain factors have spun a bit out of my control, but to be told of it by a barely-living doll is hardly good to an old man's ego. I shall have to have a long talk with my grandchildren after this night's events. As always, they manage to be a disappointment in so many ways..."
"Do not worry," Rider said softly, an almost imperceptible tensing to her muscles filling the air of the temple with an aura of menace. "You will not be disappointed for long."
Two things happened then.
Rider burst into motion, a whirling of blades and shadows that was barely visible to the human eye, but the results could hardly be ignored. All around her, the spikes of her weapon slashed wildly, and Shirou could feel them passing by, missing him by mere millimeters as they tore through the room, ripping the swarming insects to pieces.
Second, and far less hope-inspiring, Zouken vanished, dissolving into a writhing pile of the gigantic, writhing worms that vanished into the horde of familiars.
"Such fire! I confess, I hadn't expected it of you, Rider. Though perhaps that was simply Shinji failing to draw out your potential," Zouken's amused voice echoed throughout the temple. "But so be it. As a reward for your sudden stand, I will allow you to keep the life of the young Emiya. Enjoy it, and take pride in it.
"This is not over. Your unexpected stand is not so firm as you believe, and that hope you feel will be a poison before the night is ended."
The hissing and chittering of the swarm had been so pervasive that Shirou found its sudden absence almost more disturbing than its presence had been. But her allowed himself only a moment to be stunned by his sudden good fortune, before saying, "Saber...!"
"Leave. Get to the temple gate and get off the mountain," Rider said firmly. "I still have prey to hunt this night."
She vanished, leaving not a sign she had ever been there...
Well, okay, except for the roof being ripped off and the hundreds of dead insects scattered around, dripping disgusting ichor all over the place. But that, Shirou pondered, made her seem a lot less mysterious.
A shadow moved, on the shattered temple path.
No one was there to see it, and it made no sound as it moved, drifting across the ruined grounds toward the gate like a leaf in the wind.
Assassin knew that his wounds were horrible, because he could actually feel them.
He was not what anyone would call 'normal,' not even by the standards of a Servant. His flesh and blood were twisted and flowed with mind-altering chemicals. Most pain simply did not register to his senses, letting him perform his duties without worry for injury. Now, though... the giant's blow had struck so deep that no drug could numb it. He could not move, could barely breath, could barely think through the pain, his body a limp mass of torn flesh.
Assassin. Why has Saber not been destroyed? His Master's voice echoed through his mind. You were not to allow her to be taken intact, despite what we might have told Caster.
Assassin laughed despite himself, as the sound of lance and axe smashing against each other rang through the woods. Ah, Master... nobody is precisely intact here...
What? What do you...
Berserker... interfered. Saber is wounded and neutralized, but I've lost sight of her.
Ah... ah-ha. Assassin, things have become complicated. Intervene if possible... we have some control over Lancer, but Berserker is a wild card. Either way, it's probably best to ensure that one of them dies, if you can.
Assassin's eyes turned involuntarily to his very much still absent legs. That may... present a challenge.
A mental sigh filled his thoughts, and around him Zouken's insects began to squirm out of the soil, and burrowed their way into his flesh. A brief sting of pain emerged from the their entry points, but it was followed by blessed relief and strength as the creatures dissolved in his veins, melting into a blessed infusion of mana as the familiars gave their lives in service to their creator. A shadowy mist began to form beneath his waist, as his ruined legs began to grow back.
With a sigh of mixed relief and annoyance, Assassin prepared to once again go into war.
Lancer was just sane enough to consider that he was almost definitely insane, but he was having so much fun he could hardly care anymore.
The damage from his battle with Saber had already repaired itself, a useful tidbit gained from his connection to the Shadow (though he was a bit saddened by the fact his mask did not appear to regenerate with the rest of his flesh and clothing; he had rather liked the thing). And yet, he was already bleeding from a dozen new wounds. Just being near Berserker's swings cut into his armor; not because of a curse like his own lance, but simply from the force of the giant's swings. And in return...
Lancer drove out a thrust that would have pierced the armor on a battle tank, and watched in barely-disguised glee as the weapon skipped off Berserker's hide with barely a scratch, drawing the weapon back barely in time to keep the return blow from taking his head off. The weapons smashed against each other with such force that the leaves were shaken from the trees, and Lancer was hurled backwards, digging up trenches of earth beneath his armored boots.
"You know, I could do this all night," Lancer said cheerfully, though his eyes were scanning the horizon and narrowing in annoyance to find the Shadow continuing the creep after them, seeking Berserker with a hunger he would have found admirable under any circumstances other than it trying to ruin his fight. "But frankly, we should keep moving."
Berserker roared, shaking the mountain, bloodlust radiating off the giant's bulk in waves so intense Lancer would swear he could see them. The giant charged, following Lancer's retreat, swinging , until the Shadow was outside his field of vision. Okay, probably safe for a bit, then.
"I hope you appreciate what I do for you," Lancer said with a chuckle, as he drove his spear in at Berserker's face.
Assassin watched the battle, pondering his situation.
The fact was, Berserker seemed more likely to win. Lancer was clearly barely able to scratch the giant's hide, despite his power and the curse upon his lance. Should Assassin simply stay back and ignore the situation (which, frankly, seemed the wisest course of action), then most likely Berserker would simply tear the other Servant to pieces and go about his Master's business. This would, as Zouken had said, not be a terribly unpleasant outcome. The blackened Servant was dangerously unstable and had turned a simple ambush into a fiasco.
Lancer had utilized the most powerful of his Noble Phantasms in the presence of the Shadow. He was a known quantity, and further could not operate for long periods of time without the Shadow's presence... and thus, Zouken's tacit approval. Berserker, on, the other hand, was totally uncontrollable.
Ideally, removing both of them was the option to take. But such a feat was well beyond his abilities, he knew that for certain. Defeating even one of them in one-on-one combat was...
A chill passed through the air, something slithering silently through the forest beneath him, a fallen tree dissolving into nothingness where it passed.
He wasn't really alone, was he...
Shirou took the stairs two at a time, calling to Saber in his mind with each step.
She's fine. She must be fine, he thought, a litany that was running through his head madly in between each silent call for her. The Command Seal. I should use it. I should be certain. She would be here if she could, she...
"Ugh. I should have known you'd be here," said a pained tone from the bushes at the bottom of the stone staircase.
"... Tohsaka?! Did you get thrown into a bush, or...?"
"... I don't know what you mean," Rin said. "Look. I have the situation under control, so if you don't want to die, just get out of here. Let Rider handle this."
"... You're working with Shinji?!"
"What? Where did that come from?"
"Rider is Shinji's Servant! I thought she was dead but... wait. She saved me from Zouken, and... I don't... what's going on here?"
Rin sighed. "Does it matter? You're alive. Call to Saber and get out of here. I'm handling this."
Shirou paled. "Saber. I... something's wrong, I've been calling to her and she isn't..."
Rin's eyes widened. "Her Command Seal. Is it..."
"It hasn't faded, but..." he stopped to consider it for the first time since Zouken and Caster had appeared. "It feels... cold."
"What? I've never heard of that, or felt anything like that from mine..." Rin murmured, raising a hand to her lips thoughtfully. Archer? Sound familiar to you?
Do you think I would know more about the system than you? Her Servant asked into her mind. Though considering how tired you look, maybe you don't know it all that well. Having Rider in combat is draining you faster than you expected. You should follow your own advice... call her back and get out of here.
Shut up. There's too much going on at once for me to not be involved, Rin hushed, before saying out loud, "Archer doesn't know either. Look, maybe you should just..."
A sharp crack rang out down the street, like the sound of a ten-gun salute being unleashed directly into a tree trunk, cutting Rin off in shock...
… Because the sound had not come from the battle in the mountains.
"What is going on here...?" Ilya murmured, casting her vision through the trees of the mountain, observing all events at once.
Shirou was safe, and that was good. He was with Rin, who was an ill-mannered barbarian, but she had a certain base cunning and a talent for violence, so he ought to be safe enough. Particularly since, and Ilya was not at all sure how this had happened, Archer was with her.
And yet, Rider responded to her commands as well. The silvery line of mana connecting Master to Servant was not something that could be hidden from Ilya's eyes, and Rin most definitely had two. The one binding her to Archer was tiny, flickering, barely there, but it existed. The one that bound her to Rider was stronger, much more energy flowing through it, but there was something... off about it...
Of course. It was fake! The same disgusting trick that loathsome little rat of a Makiri had pulled when he had been in control of Rider. Ilya let out a small, frustrated growl... first Caster, then Zouken, now even Rin Tohsaka was breaking the damn rules! Did these people have some deep-seated hatred of just fighting a Holy Grail War fairly?!
(The fact that 'fighting fair' in this particular War basically guaranteed the victory would go to her and Berserker did not bear mentioning, of course. Ilya was a lady and did not lord over the peasants. Much.)
Ilya took a deep breath, calming her frayed nerves. Rin might be a horrid little brat, of course, but she was at least tangentially on Ilya's side in this conflict. If she had taken some of Makiri's war resources and turned them to her own use, it was a good thing. So for now, she sent her vision elsewhere.
Saber was alive, albeit clearly unhealthy. Her legs were not regenerating properly, her face pale and coated in sweat. Ilya frowned... the Servant's mana levels were oddly low, considering the fact that Ilya had given her a fairly massive deposit not long ago. Unless she had fired off that massive Noble Phantasm two or even three times, there was no way she should be so drained of energy... the Shadow's influence? It's hunger might well have not limited itself to Servants. Life energy in general was food to it, then?
Ugh. I'm gonna have to let her suck my blood again, aren't I? She thought, shuddering a little. She had plenty of energy to give, of course, it was just that the experience had been kinda gross. Still, it was better than letting Saber die, and maybe examining her would provide some information on the Shadow. There was... something off about Saber, something she couldn't quite put her finger on...
Something stirred in the corner of her vision. A shadow moving where there was nothing to move it, no moonlight to cast it.
Ilya was not a stupid child, though her mind did not necessarily work in the way everyone else's did. She tore her mind from the interlocking consciousness of the forest and hurled a bolt of raw mana directly into it.
Shirou and Rin's ears perked up at the sounds of battle descending off the mountain. "Emiya, that..."
"You stay here, I'll check it out," Shirou said.
"Alone? You're not much of a fighter."
"No offense, but you look like you can barely stand up. I'll go see if it's something we should run from, and come back. Okay?"
"If you wanna die, be my guest. But your Command Seal... Emiya, there shouldn't be much sensation from them once they're in place. You should consider calling Saber down here with one and letting me examine her..."
Shirou looked at the Command Seals on his hand, still glowing brilliantly, but still feeling oddly chilled, like ice had been etched into his skin. "If something changes. I don't know what's going on up there. If Rider has gone to help Saber, then calling Saber away might get her killed instead. And I owe her one."
"Idiot, you owe me one, you..." Rin snapped, but Shirou had already started sprinting away with that idiotic determined look he did so well, and the thought of following him was already making her a little dizzy. Her muscles felt like lead, her skin felt cold and clammy, every motion seemed to take twice the effort it should have.
Dammit. She hated when Archer was right.
Lancer slammed into the tree with enough force to shatter the four-foot-thick trunk, blood flowing from his mouth and the gaping wound in his stomach. Gae Bolg fell from numb fingers, the wicked tip of the lance digging into the soil.
"Heh... hehehehehehe..." he chuckled softly, an almost gentle smile on his face. He watched Berserker's final charge, murmuring softly, "Good. Good. Finish it. No shame in ending it this way. This is how warriors die. Finish it."
Berserker's weapon came down, tearing the tree to kindling.
And had Lancer still been there, his death would have been messy indeed.
"What the-?!" the black Servant snarled as something dark passed in front of his vision, and his broken body moved as if on its own.
No, someone was carrying him, a shadow, dark against the darkness...
With a snarl of purest fury, Lancer struck out with his hand, the spikes on his armor tearing into Assassin's flesh, rivulets of dark blood streaming down his arm. "You son of a bitch, how dare-"
The end of the sentence was drowned out by Berserker's roar as the giant chased them down, tearing through the debris caused by it's own vicious charge, its swings shaking the mountain.
Though even that couldn't completely drown out Lancer's furious cursing as Assassin dropped him directly into the Shadow crawling along the forest floor, and Berserker heedlessly charged into the spreading darkness after him.
Ilya's power was not really a spell; she was a being of magic, it flowed through her veins, permeated every cell. When she chose to, she could direct it outward in a brutal, destructive bolt of energy that could pierce steel armor plate. She didn't know who it was that had snuck up on her, and she did not particularly care; if they meant well, they wouldn't be sneaking up on her cloaked in mana. She struck to kill.
It didn't do much good.
The barely-visible shimmering in the air grew and twisted, becoming a vortex in the air that drew her attack in, compressing it down into a pinprick of light that swiftly vanished, choked out by the darkness.
The shadows spread, and took form, and Servant Caster stood before her, smiling smugly. "Interesting. You truly are a unique creature, though I'm afraid your spellcasting is still... sadly human. Well, it will make it easier to contain you for experimentation."
Ilya shuddered, the aura of the darkness that rolled off the woman making her feel sick to her stomach as she forced a smirk to her face. "You'll forgive me if I don't feel like coming along with you. After all, innocent little girls in your care have a tendency to come to bad ends, don't they Medea? Your own daughter..."
Caster's dark eyes widened, the emotions on her face roiling rapidly between shock, terror, and a sorrow so deep that Ilya thought her heart would break... before settling, finally, on rage so dark it twisted her beautiful face into something barely recognizable as human. "You... are very useful to me, alive. Your health is of less importance."
"And yours is no importance at all," Ilya countered, the command seal that lined her body lighting up brilliantly, the pattern of the magic wrapping around her body like a living thing. "Berserker. Come to me."
Nothing happened. The Command Seals burned, calling out for her Servant, but he could not come, the magic burning in her skin as it tried futilely to call her protector to her, but... but...
Oh, no, Ilya thought.
She turned and ran into the night, Caster's delighted laughter mocking her with each pointless step as the Servant only barely bothered to give chase.
Oh, no, Lancer thought.
"No you giant idiot, you can't...!" Lancer screamed, watching in dismay as the monster's giant legs began to vanish into the darkness, his swing interrupted by tendrils of darkness that shot up to wrap around his arms, holding him fast.
Lancer called Gae Bolg to his good hand and swung his weapon, trying to cut the tendrils, but he was no longer truly a Servant, in many ways; he was part of the Shadow now, and couldn't damage it as he once had. Further, the thing had grown stronger since their battle, absorbing him and feeding on a portion of Saber's power as well. The spear severed the tendrils, but they grew back so quickly they might as well have not been cut at all, and a dozen more joined them, melting into Berserker's body as though the armored hide was mere paper.
Dammit, dammit, dammit! He thought, swinging futilely. The giant was barely noticing his own impending death trying to kill Lancer, and his own nigh-invulnerability was working against him here. There would be now slicing this one's legs off. My Noble Phantasm? Throw the spear, blast everything to Hell and hope what's left of him isn't touching the Shadow? No, that would just be chopping up it's food for it-
He paused, a sudden sound distracting him from his reverie.
He had time for only one thought before impact, and that was, Who brought a horse?
Rider had come upon the battle some time ago, and was frankly not sure who to kill.
Lancer was an obvious choice. Like Caster, he was a manifestation of the chaos inside Sakura and had to be destroyed. And Assassin owed his fealty to Zouken, which earned him precisely zero mercy in Rider's mind. Berserker and Saber, however...
Rin had asked her to preserve Saber's life, but the other Servant was a threat. Rider's loyalty was and always would be with her true master. And Sakura, unlike the temporary Master who held the tome with Rider's Command Seal, most definitely did not want Saber alive. She wanted Shirou Emiya expelled from the War and safe. Rin would never approve, of course, but Rin was weak. Where Shinji would have extracted the price of disobedience from Sakura's body, Rin would likely only punish Rider herself and spare the girl. This was acceptable.
Berserker... well. She wanted nothing to do with that one, no matter how powerful she had grown under the Tohsaka's command. But she had to consider the simple fact he would probably kill her just for being nearby. So she resolved to avoid Berserker and discreetly put down Saber, if she encountered either. Which was probably why she had found Berserker almost immediately, ripping through the forest, beating Lancer like a ragdoll, and roaring maniacally, and had not seen Saber at all.
She was prepared to just circle away and head back to Rin, leaving the lunatics to rip each other apart (Though frankly, Berserker had been doing most of the ripping) when things had gone horribly wrong. The dark form of Assassin detaching itself from the blackness of the forest, altering the entire course of the battle with a single motion...
Rider didn't know what the Shadow was, precisely, but she knew that it was connected to Sakura and the Blackened Servants somehow. Allowing it to devour Berserker, perhaps even add his power to its own or turn him into one of those twisted servitors... this could not be allowed, under any circumstances.
She took to the sky, calling forth as she did her true Noble Phantasm. Not nearly so impressive as the mount she rode; merely a shining golden bridle, reins, and saddle that appeared around on its back and neck. Beautiful, perhaps, but not on the same level of grandeur as the Phantasmal Beast itself.
Its effect was pretty impressive, though.
Pegasus screamed, a trilling shriek of fury and power that reverberated through the mountainside, its eyes turning bloody, frenzied red. The glow around it redoubled, until the animal in flight resembled nothing so much as a comet. Sheathed in power, outshining the moon, her passage so swift it tore the clouds from the sky, Rider drove her mount into a dive and unleashed her full power, calling forth the name of her greatest Noble Phantasm.
The dive was impossible, a motion of such speed and power that defense was unthinkable. Trees simply dissolved as she struck them, and the last thing she saw before her light fell on the target was Lancer's horror as he jumped back with all his incredible speed... and did not escape.
For a moment, she was saddened that he had not been the target. But she had more pressing concerns.
The full force of Bellerophon slammed into the struggling Berserker and the Shadow that wrapped around him, and the forest exploded in light.
Berserker... Berserker, please...! Ilya's mind cried out, begging for her Servant to come, and whirling in terror as he failed to appear.
It was not supposed to be like this. He was supposed to always be there. He was the only one who was always there, who would always obey, always listen, always protect her no matter what...
Caster's smug, musical giggle rolled through the night, and humiliation warred with fear for the prime emotion in Ilya's mind as she ran down twisting streets. The Servant wasn't even trying. Damaged as she had been, Ilya had still been nothing to her; she could have ended this at any time, but she was playing, a cat with a mouse.
Caster would die for this, Ilya decided. Horribly, and in the worst agony she could conceive. She didn't know when or how, but Caster would die, and by her hands. To feel this... this lost was not something she could accept. She had thought that such turmoil had been behind her since she'd come here, met...
"Shirou?!" she squeaked, an entirely new terror leaping into her mind as she recognized the panicked voice calling out to her from down a side street, stopping dead in her run out of involuntary shock. "No. No, no, nonononono... you have to leave, you have to run, get out of here now and go find Saber, hurry!"
"Ilya, what are you doing out here in the middle of the night?!" he shouted, angrier and more panicked than she had ever seen him. "There are... dangerous people out at night, especially now! You can't..."
His mouth opened, and closed, and opened again, before he finally managed to say, very softly, "D-did... did you say 'Saber?'"
"I... Shirou, it doesn't matter anymore, not if you get hurt! Please, I swear I'll tell you everything, I..."
Something searing hot and blacker than the night tore past her face, and she smelled her hair burn as the bolt of magic reduced several strands to ash.
Shirou, eyes wide and face pale, looked down to see the smoking round hole, as wide as his fist and the edges cauterized to charcoal, burned into his chest. "I... I..."
"Shirou!" Ilya screamed, trying to catch him as he fell, bearing his weight to the ground as softly as she could, tears welling up in her eyes. Oh God, it... I think it went through him, oh God, oh no, Shirou, no!
She tried to wrap him in mana, draw his lips to hers and give whatever she could, work some spell, anything...
A prick, barely more than a needle touched the back of her neck, and drew a few drops of blood. A wave of cold light washed over her, and she screamed silently, a sudden, unimaginable emptiness roaring through her where there had once been warmth, and light, and strength. Shirou fell from her grasp as she collapsed with him, not even feeling the blood welling up as she scraped her knees on the pavement.
Caster smiled down at her, Rule Breaker in her hand, and Ilya's command seals burning red in a curving pattern across her entire body. "You know, you should have listened to the boy and kept running.
"Very dangerous people about."
For the second time that day, a hurricane of wind sent Lancer tumbling like a ragdoll, his tattered armor digging deep grooves in the earth as he was thrown about. He rolled to his feet, shielding his eyes against the wind, and snarled at the image of Rider standing triumphant in the crater where his greatest opponent had been.
Berserker was gone, for all intents and purposes. A few sizzling chunks of black and bronze meat, something that might have been the shattered remnants of a some of his larger bones, but he was gone. The Shadow, shockingly enough, had fared somewhat better... Lancer realized to his dismay that it really had gotten stronger since it's encounter with Saber, as the swirling tendrils of darkness were slowing beginning to ooze from the cracks in the smoking ground, flowing together into a larger whole that was drawing away from Rider in self-preservation.
Possibly the most amazing opponent Lancer had ever faced, one who had pushed him to his limits and beyond, to be destroyed with so little fanfare, by that interfering bitch... and the damn leash around his neck was coming back, already regrowing itself, ready to interfere again.
He stretched his hand, and his lance appeared in it, ready to cut the presumptuous witch down. She wanted to step into his concerns? She could take his opponent's place. The Shadow could eat after he had his fill, thank you. He would have to hurry, though, at the rate it was gathering...
Rider leaped away from the crater, taking up a perch in the trees and staring down at the scene in horror even as Lancer's smile grew wide with thrill.
Much like the Shadow itself, the remains of Berserker were stirring. They pulsed with power, bulging unnaturally, an interlinking web of fleshy tendrils snapping between them and pulling them into each other. Bone shards took on sudden coatings of muscle and snapped together, skin sloughed off black char to reveal smooth bronze beneath.
It didn't even take a full minute for a standing, humanoid shape to fill the crater. Blood dripped off exposed muscles freely, only to be quickly covered by a sheathe of bronze armored hide, and continue growing upwards, restoring shape to limbs, definition to muscles, stern features taking shape as a head emerged from the ruins of a severed neck.
Oh, my. Oh, yes, this will do, Caster's voice, sounding slightly giddy and breathless, rolled out over the clearing from the Shadow. I never imagined... hahahahaha, if he had remained on the Argo, how different things might have been for us all! The power of the man is... gods, intoxicating. Orgasmic. I can barely breathe for the touch of it!
Kill them, Berserker. Kill them all. Lancer, Rider, Assassin, all of them. Leave nothing alive on the mountain. Go mad, my Herakles! She exulted, and Berserker threw back his head. What emerged was not a roar, no sound like anything in nature, a mechanical, formless sound that heralded the end of the last vestiges of humanity in the Servant Berserker, and the birth of a killing machine. His bronze skin darkened, his eyes glowed red as blood, and he charged, faster and stronger than ever before.
"Very nice!" Lancer said, smiling widely.
Author's Note: A little short, but... that was just too good a point not to end a chapter on.