Chapter Twenty-two: Paint it Black

(*)

Lancer laughed madly as Berserker charged, and that was how Rider realized this was going to be a long damn night.

Assassin leaped to the side, hurling daggers as he moved, and Rider mirrored the motion to the other direction, her chain-spike lancing out to intercept the giant's rush.

This was slightly less effective than scolding him.

The daggers, fired at bullet speed, still bounced off harmlessly. Rider herself had to alter the course of her dodge in mid-leap to avoid a ricochet taking her ear off. As for her own attack, the spike struck Berserker directly in the eye, a perfect stroke...and likewise bounced off harmlessly.

Regenerative abilities sufficient to survive Bellerophon, and a body so fortified lesser attacks simply do not cause damage... She thought, very nearly gaping in wonder. Durability on that level marked the Black Giant as something very nearly Divine, a being even farther beyond human than Rider herself. Further,everything she knew about Servants told her Berserker should not have been able to survive his heart and head being destroyed, and yet here he was, as if he had been recreated from nothing.

She had known Berserker was powerful, had tasted that power firsthand and nearly been destroyed in a single blow. But this...

The creature's charge, not slowed by the attacks that struck it, slammed into Lancer, the only one of the three who had not bothered to dodge in any way. Rather, with a laugh of delight he had tossed aside the shattered remains of his mask to clear his vision and met the Berserker head on, golden eyes gleaming with bloodlust.

Berserker crushed him.

The look of shock on the man's face was almost comical, as the giant smashed through his guard like a lion batting aside a kitten. Blood fountained from a gaping wound in the spearman's chest, and his lance went spiralling off into the darkness as the impact of the axe-sword tore it from his grip.

The spearman leaped back, holding out his arm and willing the spear to disperse into mana and reappear in his hand, and barely in time. The giant kept pace with his retreat effortlessly, the bloody eyes locked on Lancer, the weapon swinging in so hard that he felt bones in his arms crack simply from parrying it.

He'd gotten stronger. They were basically dead.

Lancer smiled and dodged beneath a swing, reveling in the pain as the air pressure of the slash sliced open the top of his head, before launching a counterattack that he knew would be useless.

No shame in a death like this.

(*)

There would be great shame, Saber knew, in dying like this.

Undone by treachery, maimed and tossed aside, alive only by the whims of an enemy. And now, as battle raged so close the shockwaves vibrated her teeth inside her head, she lay helpless, unable to repay her debts to enemy or ally alike. She knew Shirou still lived, at least but that was little comfort when the mountain shook with the sounds of a battle to the death.

The pain radiating from the bloody stumps of her legs was nothing compared to the raw humiliation she felt. Forgotten, weak, and helpless...almost more than she could bear.

And yet, there was nothing she could do. Her mana reserves were nearly exhausted, between the battle with Lancer and the touch of the Shadow. She willed all she could into her legs, demanding they heal with every fiber of her being, but...

A wave of cold, prickling nausea ran over her, leaving her head swimming. Please. Please, just a little more. I need to stand, I need to fight, please!

The chill ran through her again, a pulse of agony and sickening energy. The stumps of her legs tingled beneath the throbbing pain, but there was little visible change.

"Damn..." she growled under her breath, a shocking sight from the stoic king. The rage and shame that ran through her burned and chilled all at once, stripping away years of courtly training and aloofness to expose the frightened and angry girl underneath. The thought of such weakness, such lack of restraint, only filled her with greater fury, redoubling her efforts yet again.

She knew it was pointless. Neither Shirou nor Ilyasviel had any way to supply her with mana. What she sought to do now was the equivalent of trying to make an engine run without fuel, simply by willing it to do so. It was a waste of effort.

And yet she continued. Digging into reservoirs of power long empty and begging, then demanding every last scrap her body and soul had to give. It was not enough, but she could not stop, the panic and fury and shame driving her on even if it killed her.

Please. Please, I need more. It cannot end like this.

I refuse.

I refuse.

I absolutely will not let it end like this.

And though she could not see it, her eyes closed tight in absolute concentration and her mind flooded with cold shame and burning rage, a few spots of black appeared on the fabric of her blue dress. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, they began to spread, like drops of blood in a pool of water.

Power.

Please, I need more.

(*)

It was cold.

The fire burning through his chest had felt cold, which Shirou supposed was ironic (though in reality it was less about irony and more about nerve damage, but he could be forgiven for not being aware of this). And since that moment, after a brief flash of pain, cold was all he felt.

His eyes were open, but he couldn't see.

His ears were intact, but he couldn't hear.

He felt no pain, no fear, nothing but a pervasive numbing chill that filled his body and locked his muscles in place. It was as if he had been frozen in a block of ice and was simply waiting for his mind to realize the body it inhabited was clearly dead.

He knew he should be upset about this, but he couldn't clearly recall why. Beyond the chill, it was not unpleasant; everything was a blank, misty haze. Given the pain he had felt in his life, he honestly found the idea of dying like this, painlessly and without fear, to be almost a relief.

And yet, he couldn't quite let go. As tempting as it was to surrender to blackness, some nagging feeling continued to wear at him, like a tune he could not quite remember.

Shirou...

His name came to his mind, bypassing his useless ears and burning to the core of his consciousness, and with it came something like perspective.

A knight in silver, her hands clasped around a golden sword as she looked down over a battlefield. As he watched, the edges of the vision darkened and twisted, like a photo thrown into a fire, only without heat. Something cold and dark, eating away at her world; the knight stood, unknowing and unseeing, her magnificent sword gleaming a counterpoint to the encroaching night. A vision of past glory standing strong against the dark, proud and strong?

Or a mountain, seemingly invincible and yet being slowly eroded by wind and water despite its strength?

He couldn't tell, but the idea filled him with worry, and the sensation, the connection to something outside his own mind, brought a bit more sensation to his reawakening mind. Saber. he had come to... somewhere with her. And something had happened. Clearly nothing good, given what he saw and felt, but what he could not say.

Another vision, blurry and vague, but... A girl, smaller and not so cold as the shining knight of the visions. She hovered, suspended in chains of darkness, her eyes closed in sleep or unconsciousness. Beside her, the witch stood, a smirk of sadistic glee on her beautiful face, those unnatural black eyes gleaming with triumph.

"Shirou..." the girl murmured, shivering in her sleep, her skin far too pale, and something clicked in his mind.

Ilya? She was in pain, and crying out for him instinctively, and the sheer rage brought a clarity to him that he could never have found for himself.

He had found Ilya, alone and frightened. She had tried to warn him, tried to make him flee, but the cold fire had taken him, and then...

The witch. The woman in black. Ilya had a small cut on her neck.

She hurt Ilya.

The fury burning through his veins coalesced into something cold, and strong, and iron-hard. With a shriek of metal on metal, something sharp pierced his insides, and he felt the agony keenly... But he also felt the hole in his chest seal. Pain replaced numbness, and strength flooded dead limbs.

Behind his eyes, something snapped. The world shimmered behind a haze of static as he stood, his eyes locked on the witch. She turned to face him, blinking in mild surprise, and spoke. Her words rang empty behind the blood thundering in his ears, the static filling his mind as long-unused paths of energy in his soul snapped open...

I...the...of my sword. Steel is...my blood.

Steel in his body, steel in his blood, steel in his mind. He needed a weapon, and felt the sting of a thousand, thousand blades inside, knitting broken flesh together, begging to be used.

A knight on a broken hill, surrounded by the dark...and a blade of magnificent gold in her hand. An image, only, but an image with structure, and depth, and one that lingered in the eye of the mind, being analyzed and deconstructed without any true conscious thought on his part.

She. Hurt. Ilya.

He extended his hands, and a broadsword of gold appeared in them; pale and pitiful compared to the real thing, a cheap glass forgery without substance, but the dark fled from it nonetheless.

The witch's eyes went much wider, and Shirou leaped at her, bringing the sword down.

(*)

Not so far away, the immaterial Archer smirked slightly.

All right, he thought. Maybe he isn't quite as hopeless as I thought.

"Rin," he murmured, "how are you holding up?"

Pale and sweating, the Tohsaka heir looked up at him with a grin despite her place kneeling on the sidewalk. "F-fine, as long as you...stay astral. The book takes more out of me than I thought, especially...when Rider goes all out. But it isn't anything I can't...handle."

Archer sighed. She was lying, obviously. Rider's use of her Noble Phantasm (and he could think of few other things that explosion might have been) had clearly drained the girl horribly, and with two Servants to maintain, even if they both remained astralized recovery would be slow. He needed to end this, and quickly.

The issue, of course, being that he couldn't. Even taking physical form now could put Rin in a coma, which left him with few options other than convincing possibly the most stubborn girl alive to change her mind about something. "Rin. I know you want to help Emiya, but dying will not accomplish that. You need rest."

"Archer," she growled, pulling herself to her feet and limping onward. "Shut up. I am going to be fine. I just need to catch my breath before we find Emiya and whatever's kicking his head in this week. We can't afford to lose the alliance with Sakura."

Good God I once had a crush on this girl, Archer thought blankly. Teenage-me really was an idiot. "Then order Rider to kill herself. Use the Command Seal on the book and order her to destroy the enemy at any cost, fight to the death. Then I can save Emiya and Saber myself and you'll be healthy."

Rin scowled at him, or at least where she thought he was. "Not...an option. Need her power."

"If we have Saber on our side too?" Archer challenged. "You can fulfill the terms of your oath to Sakura without the Servant. This was a bad idea from the start, and..."

Rin rose shakily to her feet, and continued moving forward. "And... I thought I told you to shut up."

On the other hand, Archer thought with a sigh, maybe my idiot younger self being drawn to her was just a case of like seeking like.

(*)

Like all great plans, Rider's current scheme began with stabbing Lancer through the neck.

She burst towards the lake behind the Temple at her very considerable full speed. Lancer and Berserker were technically faster in a dead sprint, but much like Assassin, this terrain favored Rider; she moved among the fallen trees like a shadow, never slowing down or stumbling, simply flowing past obstacles like they did not exist.

And as she did, she sent her spike-chain snapping backwards to, again: impale Lancer through the neck. The other Servant would normally have deflected it with ease, but the raging Berserker was still making him the focus of a crazed, unending assault. Lancer's defenses were fully tuned on the black giant, and even this was not stopping Berserker from making him look like he had been run through a shredder. The projectile, launched with no bloodlust at all, slipped through the distracted Servant's guard.

And then he was stunned by the impact… and more importantly, tethered to Rider. And Rider was moving, again: very, very fast.

It was all a plan, really. Though she had to admit that as she sprinted through the woods like a bullet and listened to Lancer being dragged behind her and slamming into fallen trees, screaming in indignation (as best he could with a pierced windpipe, which was really more gurgling) and spitting out dirt, she was rather enjoying the side benefits. But there was no time to stop and laugh, both because it was not dignified… and because Berserker was directly behind them, and if Lancer died before she finished things off, then this was all a wasted effort.

Finally, after what was only a few seconds but felt like several long, painful hours, she saw it. The lake, and with it a real chance to win some time to think, which Berserker was in no way giving them. Setting the next phase of the plan into motion, she leaped into the trees beside it… and swung the chain over her head in a wide arc, whipping Lancer off it and hurling him across the lake surface. He flew for a while, then struck water and skipped like a stone for about twenty feet before ramming face-first into the mud on the other side of the water. Perfect.

Berserker lunged out of the forest, roaring his fury and preparing to simply leap across the water to once again reach his prey. Rider smiled, and jumped as high in the air as she could, mirroring the giant's movements… at least until they reached the center of the lake, and she dove.

Berserker, when anchored, was basically immovable. Any attack capable of throwing him back or knocking him down when his feet were planted would be an attack which could destroy him entirely, and they clearly had nothing of the sort available.

But when he was in midair, well…

Rider dove upon him, feet-first, and hit the back of his head with enough force to crumple a battle tank like tinfoil. With nothing beneath his feet but air and water, Berserker was slammed downward by the sheer force of the strike, and although he wasn't harmed in the slightest, the impact served its purpose: it pushed him down though the lake water like a bullet, and into the thick, soft layer of silt at the bottom.

Beneath the water, her feet still planted on the giant, his great strength giving him no aid when he could find no solid ground to push against, Rider enacted phase two of her plan, and tore the covering from her eyes.

Light burned out through the black depths of the lake, as Rider finally cast aside her seal, and the eyes of Medusa opened.

(*)

Caster gazed at the young man with mixed shock and annoyance.

In one fell swoop she had, she'd thought, achieved nearly all of her goals. Sufficient force to destroy any Servant in the War was at her disposal. The secondary Grail conduit, the Einzbern model, was at her command, letting her easily ensure the power of all the Servants became Sakura's. And Shirou Emiya, the girl's final true link to the mortal world, lay mortally wounded. All was perfect; Sakura would soon become a goddess, and together she and Caster would make this world their playground, in vengeance against all who had wronged them both.

And then the boy had stood up.

The hole in his chest, a mortal wound indeed, was closing rapidly. Even now she could see some kind of metal blade stitching it shut. And even more alarmingly, he had somehow projected a sword! Caster could recognize projection magic when she saw it, yes, but the boy had no raw materials, no aria for his casting, no magic circle. This would have been enough to startle her by itself, but the sword he had created, the aura…

It was a flawed creation, to be sure, but it was clear to her eyes. The blade was a Noble Phantasm!

Such a spellcrafting was beyond such an inferior Magus, to create a solid projection from nothing. But to create a sword of such obvious power and dignity, and do so seemingly at will and instantaneously? This was something even Caster herself could not manage, and stepping dangerously close to sorcery.

She opened her mouth to demand the secret of what he had done...and he lunged, bringing the sword down in a wide arc at her head.

Caster snapped a hand up, and a bolt of black flame roared forth; no holding back this time, the insufferable brat would be ashes.

Or rather, he should have been.

The golden sword fell from the swing, drawing back seamlessly into a block with all the grace of a master. The metal sparked madly where the dark magic touched the blade, shattering blade and spell alike. Caster took some satisfaction in this...

Until he extended his hands and, with a wince of agony coloring his otherwise expressionless face, created the sword anew yet again and charged.

Caster took to the skies, the blade slashing through her skirts and continuing on to shatter against the pavement. A fragile thing, but...

She looked down, holy flame burning on her dress. Yes, letting that touch her flesh would have been unpleasant.

Still, she smirked. "An impressive trick, boy. A simple human magus, projecting swords of legend so easily! I had thought to kill you, but perhaps making a wand of your mindless husk would be more appropriate. I do so hate to be wasteful, and a swordsman can hardly threaten me in the..."

And just before she could say 'sky', the same damn black and white matched swords that Archer had thrown at her materialized in his hands. The boy looked up at her, and his eyes were empty, like the eyes of a doll, save for a spark of something simultaneously burning and cold.

"You. Hurt. Ilya," he murmured. And then he let the blades fly.

(*)

Berserker's gaze turned to her as he struggled to find purchase in the thick ooze that shifted and swirled beneath him with every motion. His eyes briefly locked on hers, and Rider realized she had miscalculated.

Her Mystic Eyes of Petrification were of the highest class, reserved for beings of myth and legend. Simply looking upon her eyes uncovered, even once, was a death sentence for the majority of beings; they would be paralyzed and eventually transmuted into stone simply by the power they emanated. Even closing their eyes was no defense; the mere image of the eyes in their mind's eye was enough to complete the process. The gaze of Medusa was certain death…

Unless, of course, the target had a great deal of their own magical power, in which case the 'certain death' became notably less certain. A particularly powerful source of mana could potentially protect the target. More power than any human could possess, of course…

But not in any way more than a Servant could have.

It was possible, in essence, for a Servant with B-ranked mana to resist the effects of her eyes, at least so long as they stayed at a distance. A Servant with A-ranked or higher would suffer nothing more than a weakening of their general physical characteristics.

And so, when Berserker did not even turn to stone a little bit, Rider realized with a certain amount of chagrin that he was, in fact, possessed of innate mana roughly equivalent to his ridiculous physical strength.

And that she was standing on top of him at the bottom of a lake, and he had nearly worked an arm free of the silt.

No creature was immune to her Mystic Eyes, totally. Even the most powerful of targets, if not paralyzed, would at least feel a pressure on their body and mind that slowed and weakened them. This was the only reason Rider escaped with her life.

Berserker spun at an angle she would have deemed impossible, with force so intense the water literally boiled along the edge of his axe. And yet, it was still slower than it should have been, hampered by water, and Berserker's lack of footing, and Rider's bared power. She pushed off the giant's muscles, rocketing up toward the surface… and left behind nearly six inches of her violet hair, letting out an internal sigh of relief that a slight tugging on her scalp was the worst she experienced. She breached the surface, shooting up like a rocket…

And twisted in midair to bring her weapon to bear and deflect the black lance rocketing at her face.

The impact of the lunge as Lancer tried to take her face off carried them to the edge of the lake, Rider's heels digging up long trails of mud as she slid backwards in the damp soil. "Is this really the time?" she asked mildly as she averted her eyes, hoping to end the fight without making eye contact and turning a potential meat-shield into statuary. "He will be back soon, we should be planning."

Lancer blinked incredulously. "You stabbed me in the neck."

"And you clearly survived. So what is the problem?"

The air was tense for a few long seconds as Lancer held his weapon at the ready...until finally he chuckled and lowered it, saying, "Okay, you're more fun than I thought. Nice plan."

"Your approval fills me with joy," Rider said in the most carefully blank voice she could muster, her blindfold appearing once more on her face so as not to kill Lancer by accident. She then added, "I assume Assassin fled?"

"Sadly, no," whispered a soft voice from the tree line. "My Master has made it clear that Berserker must be stopped, and I...greatly doubt my ability to do so myself. I am unlikely to find another opportunity such as this."

"So the battle remains three to one, but..." Rider murmured. "Somehow, I still dislike our chances. We seem to have no way of permanently damaging the creature."

"I can, I think," Lancer said. "One of my Noble Phantasms is a curse that can kill anything with a heart. I don't know what his deal is, but if you can distract him long enough for me to charge and augment the spear with some of my runic spells, I can definitely inflict some major damage. Maybe enough to finish him off."

Rider tilted her head to one side. "I cannot call the Pegasus again today, and my Mystic Eyes are having little effect. There is not much else we can do..."

"And yet," Assassin said flatly, "I find the notion of putting our faith in a lunatic somewhat worrisome."

Lancer chuckled. "Says the killer for hire?"

"I am quite sane. I merely place no value on any life but my own. You, however, kill for fun."

Lancer shrugged, his golden eyes gleaming in the darkness. "And I can't have much fun if I'm dead. I have no problem with dying at the sword of such an amazing warrior, don't get me wrong. But if he kills me here, I'll never get a chance to finish my duel with Saber, or gut Caster like a fish for getting in my way. I'd rather live through this night."

The three Servants stared in silence... Before a muffled roar cut in, and the lake began to churn as something huge stirred in it.

"Damnation," Assassin muttered. "I should have fled after all. Very well, Lancer, we will hold him as long as we can. Your Noble Phantasm..."

"Will work," the other Servant answered with a smirk. "Unlike yours, it isn't something that can be blocked with a simple spell. If that big bastard has a heart in his chest, I can take him out. I just need time to prepare. Good luck, try not to die too fast."

"Your concern is touching."

(*)

The blades tore their way through the night, drawn to each other with Caster as the center point of their arc. The wings that were her cape billowed, pushing her backwards and leaving the blades to crash into each other, shattering.

Shirou barely noticed.

By the time the falling shards of metal vanished, he had already recreated the blades and hurled them again. Once again, they were pitiful, cracked and inferior, no stronger than glass...but glass could pierce flesh, and that was all that mattered.

His mind burned and his blood boiled. Every movement was agony, as the magic tore through circuits unused to its passage. Like exercising a muscle that had been long atrophied, each creation ripped through him with waves of pain and fatigue.

He barely noticed. He couldn't care. His mind was gone, leaving something more like a computer programmed for combat than any conscious action.

She hurt Ilya. He had sworn to-

Darkness, comforting chill, the scent of snow and a gentle voice pleading for his aid.

-sworn to protect Ilya. He would not fail. It really was that simple.

The swords flew again, and this time he created a new set the moment they left his hands. The whirling Kanshou and Bakuya (and had he been more aware he would have wondered how he knew those names) were joining once again, their arc centering on the witch. He had to keep her moving, give her no chance to cast her spells. The new set of blades flew.

A third appeared. Blood began to flow in a trickle from his nose; he ignored it. Pain was fuel.

The first flying set clashed and shattered, missing Caster by scant inches. She cursed as the second set slashed in, slicing into her cloak, and dove, feeling the wind from the blades on her skin...

And the third set, hurled straight at her as she dove, slammed home.

(*)

Servants did not dream. But if they did, Rider imagined her nightmares would be like this.

The forest was black as pitch, the aura of the charging Berserker a stifling miasma of heat and malice. Assassin and Rider flowed through the darkness with inhuman grace, but the being that hunted them was relentless and unstoppable. The floor was a maze of fallen trees and shattered stones waiting to turn each step into a fatal stumble, and yet even as they slid effortlessly through each obstacle, Berserker matched them simply by trampling through with raw force.

There was no battle. This was not a war, it was a desperate attempt to avoid slaughter. Rider was keenly aware with each crushed tree or gust of wind from a near miss that a single blow would at least cripple her; had Assassin not been harrying Berserker and offering him a second target, she suspected she would be dead already. As it was, there was no thought of counterattack or defeating the enemy. The one and only goal in her mind was survival, and with each passing second she feared it was more and more out of her reach...

Impact.

It was the barest of connections. A log shifted slightly under her foot, slowing her retreat by less than half a second. The axe barely brushed her left foot.

And she choked down a scream as the leg was basically obliterated from the knee down. She slammed into the ground, her graceful retreat becoming a bone-crushing roll across the forest floor that ended with her slamming into a rock with enough force to leave it as gravel beneath her. And Berserker's charge never slowed...

Lancer descended from the treetops like night given flesh. In his hands, the spear pulsed with cold energy; it didn't glow, but rather seemed to draw all light into itself, making the world darker simply by existing. "Hey, guys. Time to play!"

Berserker turned to meet the new, more obvious threat, but Lancer merely grinned. The lance pulsed, a corona of scarlet that somehow made the blackness darker rather than illuminating it, and roared, "Gae Bolg!"

Rider fairly cried out in relief. The lance struck out like black lightning, straight toward Berserker's chest, almost more like a bolt of pure power than a weapon...

And mid-thrust, it turned at an impossible angle, almost a straight ninety degree swerve directly up, to impale Assassin through the heart in his treetop perch.

For a shocked second, the forest was utterly silent, before a smirking Lancer said, softly, "I told you there would be consequences for interfering in my battle with Saber. And everyone knows Cu Chulann always keeps his promises..."

"What...you...are you insane?!" Rider snarled.

Lancer winked at her. "Nah. Responsible pet owner."

As he spoke, the Shadow began to ooze out of the ground at his feet, tendrils twining up his legs to begin hungrily tearing at the corpse suspended from his lance. Assassin's body was ripped free mercilessly, tendrils of darkness tearing bloody chunks from it as it was pulled down into the creature's body.

Lancer chuckled. "Poor thing was starving, really. And hey, look, Berserker won't come near it!" he said, noting the giant, frozen in place at the edge of the Shadow's presence. "Guess Caster doesn't want him to get eaten until she's done testing him out. Lucky for me, I guess..."

The black giant turned, his red-eyed gaze locked on Rider, the final accessible target.

"... Not so lucky for you, though," Lancer added mildly.

(*)

What is he…? Caster thought, her eyes wide with some combination of fear and awe, and her hand clamped to wound in her chest.

The dagger had shattered on impact, showering her torso with razor-edged shards of metal that dug into her like bullets, piercing deep and slashing organs. She could barely breathe, hardly think… and the boy was still coming at her, more a killing machine than a human.

He was not a Servant. He was barely even a magus, from what she had seen. So how was he doing any of this? Drawing on the same ridiculous powers of Servant Archer, without even that buffoon's status as a Heroic Spirit to justify it?

The magus in her wanted nothing more than to study him, preferably whilst he was still alive. Dissect him from the feet up, poring over every magic circuit, putting each and every drop of blood under a scope. He was a marvel, an impossibility of magecraft as she knew it. And in her perspective, very little was impossible.

But the woman in her realized very quickly that living was much more important.

Lining her body, the massive Command Seal began to glow.

(*)

Rider, limping on the stump of a foot and barely able to move, tried her best to get into the treetops where her arms could serve in place of legs. She could tell instinctively that she was not going to make it, that Berserker's lunge would destroy her in a single swing…

And halfway to her, even as he was bringing the axe down, space around the giant shattered like glass, and he vanished.

Rider collapsed to the forest floor from a combination of shock and exhaustion, staring in befuddlement at the space the creature had been occupying only seconds earlier.

"Huh," Lancer murmured. "Well. Did not see that coming. Kind of dull. Well, I guess ya can't win 'em all. You can go, I guess."

"W-what…?"

"I'd rather kill you when you're at your best," Lancer said amiably. "More fun for me, and the pet here gets a bigger meal if you're all charged up and vigorous. Besides, I don't think it notices you…" he chuckled, gesturing at the Shadow with a smirk. "Either you're a bad girl, or you keep good friends. Not really important, I guess. Buzz off before I change my mind."

Rider, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, shifted to her astral form and vanished from sight, making her way to the temple gates, no longer hampered by the pains of a physical body.

Lancer sighed. "You know, I really do hate an anticlimax. This War has just been incredibly boring…"

(*)

Berserker appeared out of nowhere with a gigantic roar of fury, and batted Shirou roughly half a kilometer down the street with a single monstrous swing that shattered his sword into a thousand pieces. Thus proving once and for all that Lancer was well and truly hated by the universe.

Shirou rolled to his feet, wiping blood from his eyes. Steel knitted together under his skin, closing a dozen minor cuts. Steel surged along his bones, holding together a broken arm. The enemy was strong, stronger than Caster, but it didn't matter. He wouldn't allow it to harm Ilya. He would never allow anything to harm her. He looked on the giant's weapon, analyzing it down to the smallest detail… yes, with the original so close, it might even be simpler to copy, and such a powerful sword could be just what he…

"Emiya! Get back!" Rin shouted, and things went horribly, horribly wrong.

Shirou turned, the shock of her presence breaking through the trance where pain had not. He had been so focused, so dedicated on Ilya to the expense of all else, that he hadn't even spotted her approaching. And she looked bad… her skin was two shades too pale, and her hair was plastered to her forehead by a thick layer of sweat. She was visibly shuddering, as if even standing was too much effort for her at that moment. "Tohsaka?! What are you…"

"Move!" snapped a strong, familiar voice. A shock of static ran through Shirou's mind as a rough hand threw him forcefully aside, but even as he flew down the street (Again!) he could see Archer, a massive silver broadsword in his hand, parrying an downward blow from Berserker and smoothly turning with it, using the giant's own strength to throw him off-balance and flip him head-over-heels.

"Idiot teenagers," Archer muttered, assessing the battlefield. Emiya was on the verge of collapse; he didn't feel it from the looks of him, fighting on instinct with almost no conscious thought behind it. Archer, however, knew the signs, saw the steel moving inside the boy for what it was. His powers were in overdrive, overrunning a body not prepared for them. Whatever the boy had been doing before they'd arrived, it had not been good for him. He suspected Saber's sheathe would mitigate the worst of the long-term harm, but Shirou Emiya needed to power down and get the Hell out of combat before his body exploded in swords.

Ilya…

She hovered in an empty nightmare, eyes closed and expression locked into fear and pain. Black magic curled around her as she floated a few inches off the ground, looking for all the world like a puppet hanging on invisible strings. Archer resolved very quietly and calmly to torture Caster to death for this.

Ah, but Berserker was coming to his feet again. He turned to Rin, and said, "Rin, I know that Rider weakened him quite a bit. I can probably take out his remaining lives if you can get Ilyasviel and Emiya out of here and let me fight freel-"

He stopped, and blinked a few times in some combination of shock and denial.

Rin had collapsed, and was lying unconscious on the pavement in a crumpled heap. Shirou Emiya tried to stand up and go to her… only to fall to his knees with a shout of surprised agony and the screeching of metal-against-metal coming from inside his legs. Ilya gasped in pain, shifting slightly in the cocoon of magic that suspended her off the street.

The black giant stood to his full, imposing height, and turned to look down on Archer.

"Well… shit," Archer said, eloquently.

(*)

Shirou's world was agony.

He didn't know what had caused much of it; it was a deep, burning pain not unlike the pain he often felt in his magecraft practices, but spread across his entire body, flowing along his limbs like his entire nervous system had been replaced with molten lead.

He had no idea where the agony came from, or… indeed, most of what he had been doing the last few minutes. He had vague recollections of events; drawing a sword from thin air, catching Caster off-guard and pushing the advantage before she could realize just how very blow-uppable he was. But it was vague, faint, seen through a haze of static. The very events themselves simply felt alien, like he had been seeing a movie with a lead actor who looked suspicious like him, rather than remembering events he'd taken part in.

The pain was certainly real, though.

Even now, he could barely move. Every attempt to stand had resulted in metal screaming in his limbs and a great deal of pain and dizziness. He could crawl, but he really wasn't sure if he should be crawling to Rin or Ilya at the moment; he knew that he needed to save Ilya, of course, that was the most important thing (And why was it so important?) but he didn't know if he could. Rin would know how to destroy the spell around her, maybe. Rin would have a plan.

If Rin were awake. And if he couldn't wake Rin up, and wasted time trying when it was impossible, then Ilya might end up dead and it would be his fault, and… no, that didn't bear thinking about.

The key point was that he needed to do something. Archer was doing his best, but the strokes of Berserker's sword were so vicious that his blades cracked with every touch, and with the three of them so close to the battle (well, the two of them… he firmly suspected that Archer didn't really care if Shirou himself died or not) he could hardly manage to counterattack, needing to expend all his energy parrying and trying to draw the battle away from the wounded.

Caster came to her feet, the wounds in her chest already mostly closed. She did not look happy, and she raised a hand to aim at the battling Servants. Shirou realized, even through the fog on his mind, that this was certain death; Berserker could withstand spells that would easily kill Archer. All she had to do was blow the battlefield to Hell and not even worry about her own ally (and why was he her ally?!).

They were all going to die. Rin, and Archer, and Ilya, and he couldn't protect anyone, there was absolutely nothing he could do to…

He stopped.

He looked down at his hand, where two Command Seals still glowed cheerily.

He fought the urge to smack himself.

(*)

Saber was alone, and exhausted, and wrapped in cold sweat, and she would not surrender.

Her mana reserves were gone, entirely. She knew this, and yet she was not dead. She did not know how; she should have faded away some time ago. There was no possible way she could still be fighting, and yet she continued, pouring blood, sweat, and tears into the process where her power had failed her. She was not channeling her mana into healing; she was not capable of it.

She just would not surrender… and somehow, her legs were on the verge of healing.

The nubs that now stretched down from her legs were new, and young, coated in pink flesh like an infant's and sensitive to the touch. Even as she watched, she could see the beginnings of bone beginning to slowly grow down from them to form the beginnings of what would be her feet. It was impossible. She did not question it.

Her dress, once perfectly, serene blue, now looked as though it had been rolled through a trough of black ink. She paid it no mind.

More. More. Please, I cannot surrender now, I need to…

Stop, whispered something deep inside her, something she could barely feel past the pain and desperation that consumed her. Stop, before it's too late.

I've come too far and lost too much. My friends, my family, my kingdom. Everything has fallen to dust. I cannot surrender now, or it was all for nothing. This wish, this chance to make it all right, it is a lie. A deceit. I have to turn back, I'm walking into something from which there is no return. I have to keep fighting. There can be no compromise, no surrender. Shirou needs me. I swore that I would protect him. I promised Irisviel's daughter I would protect him, and she would not want me to do this. To destroy myself for her sake. I cannot do this thing, I cannot turn back, I have to stop fighting, fighting to the end and drawing deep from every source of power I can, I need more, I need to… to…

"Saber!"

The call came to her mind, and with it the rush of power, a shocking burst of red that forced energy into weary muscles. A Command Seal.

"Shirou…" she whispered, and with renewed determination, she began to stand…

(*)

Archer stepped back, the tip snapping off his blade as Berserker's axe shattered the weapon.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn… he thought. He couldn't Break the Phantasms he was projecting without blowing up his sister, his Master, and his technically himself. And as a result, he was rather low on available weapons that could actually hurt Berserker, much less kill him, and on the occasions he had one…

A bolt of black flame struck the black giant, exploding harmlessly around him but hurling Archer backwards in a mad tumble. He rolled with the impact, coming to his feet and trying to ignore his new burns, because Berserker would be after him very quickly and he needed a sword. Kanshou and Bakuya materialized in his hands…

And shattered because they were not remotely good enough against an enemy of this caliber. A piece of black shrapnel sliced a hole in his cheek, but more dangerously he felt yet more strain on the bones in his arms… as always, even blocking Berserker hurt. He had five, maybe six remaining exchanges in him before Berserker simply broke his bones from the sheer strain. His inner swords could do some good, perhaps, but Archer did not have Shirou's unique healing abilities. His healing as a Servant was limited by Rin's condition, and…

A bolt of chilling light, no wider than a finger, pierced his shoulder and sent him spinning to the floor once again.

Dammit… her murmured, feeling his right arm going numb and rolling just barely ahead of Berserker's street-shattering attack. This was beyond him. Berserker and Caster working in tandem would have been a nasty match-up in any case, but with his abilities so hamstrung? He had no chance, and he knew it. But he could hardly manage to escape while carrying three people, either. At least not without some kind of…

Distraction.

Space warped and shattered, and a hurricane ripped down the street. Something that shone silver and golden in the moonlight slammed into Berserker in mid-charge, and something Archer had not seen since his own life as a human happened:

Berserker was forced back through main strength.

The black giant skidded backwards against his will, his heels digging up divots in the pavement. Next to him, a chunk of his axe-sword landed, embedding itself in the pavement. The shattered edge of the weapon glowed red-hot. Berserker, mindless with unbending fury, nonetheless stopped and waited, showing the closest thing to caution he was mentally capable of.

Saber stood alone, facing him.

Archer and Caster alike stared in undisguised shock at her appearance. The woman's silvery armor was battered and slashed, looking like it had been through a war. Her golden sword stood unveiled, the wind around it spent and blood running down it. Her dress was soaked in blood… or was it something darker? For the love of all that was holy, she wasn't even wearing shoes. Everything about her appearance screamed that she was on her last legs.

And yet, Berserker… Berserker… would not approach her. The aura around her was bloody and dangerous, saying to the world that approaching her would lead to nothing but pain. What stood there in the cracked, smoking wreckage of the street was not a girl or even a knight, but an embodiment of death given human shape.

"Saber…?" Shirou whispered, both out of confusion, and to make sure it was actually his Servant that he was looking at. It was the same golden-haired girl he had summoned, but every instinct in his body was screaming that something was horribly, horribly wrong, that he should flee for his life…

"Archer," she said, a low growl under her tone. "Please get Ilyasviel and Shirou to safety. I will deal with the enemy."

"Against both of them? Saber, we should…" Archer began.

"No! Saber, we can't just leave you here alone to…" Shirou began.

"Do it!" she snapped. "I cannot guarantee the safety of anyone who remains here!"

"But…"

"Shirou, be silent and go!" She snarled, and the street cracked under the pressure of her mana swirling.

Shirou was silent.

"What," Caster snapped, "Are you waiting for? Kill her!"

Berserker roared, lunging forward, his cracked weapon descending with hurricane force… and meeting Excalibur, slashing upward with power that matched the giant's blow head-on. The street shattered beneath them, the shockwaves so intense Archer actually felt himself moved backward an inch by them. Saber, moving like lightning, so quickly even Berserker seemed sluggish in comparison, slashed forward again while the giant was still off-balance. Bronze flesh parted, and crimson blood sprayed across the street in a wide arc as she laid his chest open.

Archer shook his head. Not the time.

He ran, ignoring the titans clashing behind him, and picked Rin up over his shoulder, using his wounded side to support her. Turning his gaze to Ilya, he projected a sword in his good hand, slashing the golden blade through the aura of magic. The spell flickered and died, and the sword vanished as he knelt to scoop the girl up before she hit the pavement. "Rest easy, little one," he murmured. "I have you."

He then turned to Shirou Emiya… and said, "Get up and run on your own," before sprinting away with the girls.

He told himself, of course, that his body was not in good condition and the two smaller girls were the best he could manage an escape with. And that given Saber's… odd condition, he was not 100% sure that he wanted her and Emiya to survive this battle, for fear they might end up a bigger threat than the Servants they faced.

But a small, vindictive part of him could simply admit he didn't like Shirou all that much.

(*)

Berserker's blade struck again and again, and each time Excalibur met it firmly. There was no need to dodge or parry, none of the tactics she had once needed against even Lancer. Power raged through her, pounding in her heart, flowing in her blood, rippling through her soul like a song. She felt impossible, stronger than she had been even in life.

She slammed her weapon against Berserker's, and fought the urge to laugh as the massive giant was blown forced backwards yet again. Caster tried to aid him, hurling wave after wave of black fire, and each spell washed off of Saber like water off a rock. Her magic resistance was already second to none, and the way she felt now… power poured off her, a limitless Prana Burst that coated her in protection and lent her blows enough force to repel even the mighty Berserker. Caster's pathetic conjurings could no more harm her than a gentle breeze could…

Berserker's axe rang in again, striking with such force her sword nearly flew from her hands. A pale azure aura surrounded the weapon, and she growled in frustration. The damnable witch had spotted her own weakness, and lent her power to her cat's-paw. Simple reinforcement, but…

More. It's still not enough.

No, it was not. She was pressing Berserker, facing him down, but not defeating him. She had not struck a fatal blow. Caster was still there, still able to support him. She needed to destroy them, utterly. A single massive blow that would end the threat they both posed, forever.

Light gathered in Excalibur, a glimmering aura of gold that surrounded the blade and tripled it in both length and width, turning the weapon from a simple sword to a blazing pillar of destructive power. She struck out, and Berserker's weapon chipped yet again, Caster gasping in shock as her spell of enhancement wavered after a single blow.

Deeper. More power. Make them suffer, make them pay for everyone they've hurt, every indignity.

They were killers. Inhuman monsters in league with a being composed of a thousand wandering curses that fed on everything it touched. Caster needed to be destroyed, no matter the cost.

The aura of power around her sword grew, shining more brilliantly still, the light casting odd shadows across her face, hiding her features…save for deep green eyes that seemed to shine, ever so briefly, with an odd yellow sheen. She swung in again, and the energy seared through Berserker's divine armor like it was no more than cloth, cutting the creature's arm cleanly down to the bone, leaving it hanging limply by a detached strand of flesh. Berserker did not even react to the injury, beyond switching his weapon to the other hand and continuing to rain blows upon her.

More. More. MORE.

Saber screamed, raising her weapon above her head with both hands, the power building in it reaching a crescendo…

And as Shirou watched in horror from the sidelines, unable to stand, unable to even move against the forces being unleashed… something shifted. Like rot in a piece of fruit, like blood in a pool of water something cold and black was growing in the pillar of gold, something wholly, utterly, wrong…

"Excalibur!" Saber roared, and brought the blade swinging down.

(*)

It could not think.

It could not reason, or feel, or react with anything but fury. Its mind was a computer programmed only for destruction, and so it could not fear the killing light, nor think to step aside. It merely charged in as always, uncaring about its own existence, to kill that which its master commanded it to kill...

Until the light struck, and with that cold, crushing wave of annihilation, something stirred.

Heracles, called Hercules by those who conquered his homeland long after his own death, had a conscious thought. This was not impressive, normally (though certainly Chiron would have said differently, particularly on lesson days!), but it was the first he'd had since his summoning into this time and place. A sadness, that… he felt the scars of the many battles he had faced her, and not one of them had been given to him for enjoyment. Saber, in particular, would have been a battle worth having.

There was no shame in a death like this, he knew. The power that tore into him was an unearthly force that challenged the realm of the Gods, and his divine strength had been all but exhausted before Saber had even arrived. Indeed, a death like this is what he would have wished for his own life; not the poison of a coward corrupting his lover, no pyre of sadness and regret pushing his soul to Olympus. Cut down by a warrior greater than himself. That was the way to go. And yet…

Yet, he could not be satisfied.

The bolt of killing light tore through him, and the few remaining reincarnations he had left burned out one by one, unable to stem the tide of power. After what felt like an eternity, the torrent stopped.

Caster had fled, of course. Nothing unexpected from that one. Vile thing. But Saber…

The swordswoman stood, staring at him wide-eyed. She had expected him to be dead, he assumed… so young. Old in some ways, beyond her years, but still a simple child in many ways. She couldn't even tell that he was, indeed, defeated… dead on the inside and out. And as his body began to fade into dust, he smiled down at her.

"An impressive sword, Saber. Your power is… tremendous. But I have seen those eyes before, young one… that rage. It haunted my every waking moment, ruined my life and legend. Master it. Never let it control you, as it did me," he said. "Someone so lovely would make a poor Berserker."

There. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing; he had wanted to say something to her. And while she mostly looked confused and a bit worried by his words, at least she had them. What she chose to do with his advice, was up to her.

While he still had lips to form the expression, he smiled sadly. "Ilya… I wish I could have protected you a little bit longer…"

With a final shimmer of light, and a light breath of wind, the remains of Servant Berserker scattered.

Not so far away, a lost little girl began to cry in her sleep.

(*)

Saber shuddered, the power that had sustained her fleeing to leave her knees weak, her breath coming in ragged gasps. She fell, propped up only by the sword she dug into the pavement to steady herself. "Shirou…" she muttered. "Are you… all right?"

No reply. Worried he had been caught in the crossfire, or Caster had somehow returned from her panicked flight to take revenge, of that his injuries had been worse than she'd judged, Saber turned to seek him…

And found him, staring at her wide-eyed. Something cold and painful gripped her heart, then, as she recognized the expression in his eyes was not awe, but fear. The same expression her people had shown so often, when the 'inhuman' King Arthur sacrificed a village to save a city, or passed another long year of battle without aging a day…

"Shirou," she said, fighting back tears. "I… I know that to be so close to such a battle can be traumatizing. I am sorry. But there was no time to secure you, and…"

"Not… not that," Shirou said, eyes wide. "You… what happened to you…?!"

She blinked. "Shirou what are you…" she began, before following the path of his vision to see what he was looking at. And when she saw it… the expression on her own face quickly shifted to match the terror on his.

The sword in her hands, was still mostly the golden weapon she had carried all her life, still Excalibur to her eyes. But the delicate azure inlay which decorated it…

She ran shaking fingers over gently curving designs and runes of Faerie script which had become, inexplicably, jet-black... and wondered if perhaps Shirou's fear of her was a great deal less intense than it should have been.

Not so very far away, floating as a barely visible shadow on the winds, Caster watched over the scene.

Slowly, delicately, invisible lips curved into a delicate smile.

The night grew darker.