Author's Note: Okay. Um. It was supposed to be two chapters and an epilogue to go after this one, but to my supreme embarrassment it is actually going to be three and an epilogue, because I had to split this chapter in half when it got too large. I thought I was beyond that, dammit. I've been working really hard at avoiding having to do things like that. But I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that Chaos Theory basically commands itself at this point. It grew too large and insane for me to control long ago.
On the bright side, this means that most of the next chapter is already written, so it should be up sometime next week. I hope that makes up for the unintended extension.
Chapter Thirty-six: The Abyss
Ilya had come a long way, and she had a longer way to go. But she always, always knew where she was headed. Her blood told her the way, at least when she was trying to find something no human should ever want to find. One of the perks of being inhuman, she supposed.
The mountain was rumbling, but that wasn't her issue right now. She wasn't planning to die, not after she'd finally gotten everything mostly together. Not everything was perfect, of course; the mountain was rumbling, and while that was a secondary concern to her, it was because something dark and hungry was uncoiling in the depths. A mere reflection of Angra Mainyu, less even than a shadow of its power, but still dangerous to anything near it.
The only thing near it was Rider, fortunately, and Ilya genuinely didn't care about her. There were bigger fish to fry, as the saying went, and the Great White Shark was further along, outside the mountain.
In her mind, she saw a black sun shining. She walked toward it, without fear, and ignored the yawning void behind her. It would try to follow her, of course. It hungered for her, Sakura's plotting only a shadow of the aching need felt by the formless malice manipulating her emotions to its own ends. But her target lay ahead of her, and the monster behind her had something of its own to contend with. Sakura would pursue her. She would have no choice. But, Ilya believed with all her heart, Shirou would stop her. He was her hero, and he would save her from the monsters that sought her.
She had never had more faith in anything, not in her entire young life.
Shirou spun through the air, his weapons shattered like glass from the impact of the shadowy tendrils, throwing him back until he slammed into the cavern wall with enough force to crack the stone beneath him. He tasted metal… not merely the copper tang of blood, but metal, as if steel was materializing in his very flesh and bone in an effort to protect him from the impact.
It still hurt.
Sakura winced. "I'm sorry. I really was trying to make it painless for you, destroy your heart and brain with the first blow. But your projections were more durable than I expected. I didn't get all the way through. I'll try harder. Hold still, please."
Shirou spat out a tooth and rose to his feet, Kanshou and Bakuya appearing in his hands and thrown with a single swift motion. Tendrils of blackness swatted them aside, the shadow at Sakura's feet snapping them away like the tentacles of a sea monster; the masterwork swords did not even shatter, they dissolved at the touch of her power.
That was okay, though they weren't meant to hit.
Sakura's Shadow was essentially a Noble Phantasm. One with limitless uses, and able to serve simultaneously as both weapon and shield. Only extremely powerful, ancient forces had proven able to even temporarily damage it. Destroying it altogether was most likely a case of killing Sakura herself, which was not acceptable, and temporarily damaging it was less than viable now that it was being directly bolstered by her active will. He couldn't beat her in a straight fight, as long as she had it.
So it wasn't the target.
I am the bone of my sword.
Creating something that was not a sword was very, very hard. His power, Archer's power, had been shaped by swords. Blades were the shape of his soul, and they were what his hands forged with the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. But they were not the only thing he could forge.
Kanshou and Bakuya came to his hands again, flung wide. A second pair, flung straight on. Sakura was left the center of a four-pronged assault, blades incoming from enough angles that he was very sure she at least had to notice.
And from the air behind him, a blood-red lance, balanced as a javelin, fell into his grasp.
With Lancer's speed and practiced grace, stolen from the memory of him embedded in his lifelong weapon, Shirou hurled the Gae Bolg at the heart of the Greater Grail. The legendary weapon flew, tearing through the air like a bullet…
And was caught.
Sakura sighed in what sounded like some bizarre combination of amusement and sadness, as a colossal black hand, larger than Shirou himself, erupted from the ground and clamped itself around the javelin. The weapon tore into it, black mist rippling out of the wound, but given the sheer size of the limb it clearly wasn't going to be a crippling injury.
"Shirou. Please. That wouldn't have worked anyway, but it's very aggravating that you tried," Sakura said. "If you want to take your frustrations out on me, I understand. You feel betrayed, you want to hurt something. It's not your fault. But the Greater Grail is the last hope for any sort of universal harmony. Trying to destroy that because of some childish tantrum is unforgivable.
"And I'm afraid I'll have to take it very, very seriously."
A second hand tore its way from the cave floor, pulling with it the full body of the creature. It was nothing remotely human; it had no real face, just a single glowing red eye set against the pure blackness of its semi-solid flesh, mana mist rolling off it like heat rippling over a desert. It did not have legs, either, its torso ending in a cloud of mist that slid along the ground. Sakura didn't seem to like humans very much, so that probably made sense, Shirou thought. Why would she base her creation on something she so clearly disliked, after all?
He was thinking this, because otherwise he would have to think about the fact that this thing was at least twenty meters tall and bulky enough that it could have comfortably fit an elephant inside its chest, and the sheer power rolling off it was stifling. Not the empty hunger of the Shadow; this was nothing but mana, a mass of burning, angry magical power aimed directly at him, all mindless hate and sheer force.
And that behind it, three more were beginning to drag themselves out of the shadows on the cavern floor.
He forged Kanshou and Bakuya in his hands, already feeling as he did that they were going to be woefully inefficient, but he needed to be able to block. And then, then began to think of other, larger blades, the flames in his mind licking around them as they were forged in his soul, and became real…
The lead shadow giant did not roar, it merely lunged, moving with an almost disturbing silence that nearly made it impossible to focus on the fact it was far, far faster than its size should have allowed.
Steel is my body, and fire is my blood.
The blade swung in and struck Gilgamesh in the neck.
Saber did not scream in frustration as what appeared to be shards of clay fell from her fingers, the small blonde boy vanished in some new absurd magic trick pulled from his obnoxious vault. This was because her teeth were grinding so hard together she could feel them cracking in her mouth.
"If you were your true self, that absurd pompous dolt, I would enjoy killing you," she said to empty air. "But as things stand, you're just in the way."
"Pompous?" Gilgamesh asked, tilting a hat to one side as he materialized out of thin air, a grin on his face that made Saber want to pull his spine out through his ears. "Oh, certainly, he was a bit much, but more and more I like to think he was just misunderstood. He never did anything that was illegal. I mean, certainly, that's because he made all the laws, but…"
He didn't get to finish that thought because the space where he had been standing was engulfed by a wave of black light that continued on behind him, ripping into the increasingly abused forest and making two-dozen trees into so many matchsticks.
Gilgamesh laughed, the sound coming from everywhere at once and yet somehow nowhere. "My word. That wasn't even your Noble Phantasm, it was just your power. How much mana do you have? It must feel like getting hit with a hammer the size of a moon."
"Stand still, and I'll show you."
"You know, you could be nicer. I'm putting a lot of effort into this. I don't just throw swords out in the dozens like my future self. I have to put a lot of thought and effort into what gets used and when, and you keep breaking them. Cloaks of invisibility, shields, blades, decoy golems… and a very good one, mind you, until you, again, broke it. These are expensive items, you barbarian! Honestly, you're impressive in a primal sort of way, but who would ever, ever want to marry you?"
"I'm not a social person. I never asked or cared for his reasons," Saber said, calmly. "And since I'm breaking things anyway, perhaps it's time to operate on a grander scale. It will be harder for you to be a pest when there's no mountain for you to hide on."
"… Wait, wh-"
Saber raised her blade, and slammed it straight down into the rock beneath her feet, black and crimson flame roiling down the blade and into the stone of Mount Mount Enzo.
Invisibly, Gilgamesh smiled and drew forth his greatest shields, wrapping them around him in an interlocking, spherical shell. "Okay, I'm starting to see why I'm going to like you someday."
Ilya took a step forward, and the mountain heaved sideways under her feet. She squeaked in dismay as the ceiling collapsed above her, but it was okay; the floor collapsed too, so it was really just going down a level in a horrible, uncomfortable way. She landed flat on her face, in a pile of freshly pulverized gravel, which did not in fact do a lot to lessen the impact but did scrape up her face. Rocks big enough to crush her into a tiny red smear slammed down on either side of her, one literally so close it trimmed off a half-inch of her hair.
This lasted for several long, horrible seconds, before the cave-in stopped, and she found herself, face-down in a pile of rocks, the Dress of Heaven perched firmly on top of her head, and about a pound of dust down her nose. She said the only thing that seemed to fit the moment.
"… I bit my tongue."
Not so very far away, Rin was experiencing a similar quality of day. However, she was a bit less calm about it.
"Get back here, you son of a bitch!" she screamed, knowing full well she couldn't be heard over the rumbling of the mountain from both within and without, but feeling she had to put voice to her frustration. Her body was reinforced with as much mana as she could funnel into her muscles; she moved twice as fast as an Olympic sprinter, even with the floor bucking under her like ocean waves and the ceiling trying to kill her. She could have kept decent pace with a car.
For every step she took, Kirei took three.
The only reason he wasn't so far away she couldn't even see him was that with every step she took, a gandr left her finger aimed at his back. He had not looked back once, and yet he had dodged every single one. Rin suspected the only reason he didn't already have a hand around Ilya's throat was that they had no real idea which tunnel she had followed in this chaotic shifting mess. Still, at this rate he was going to beat her to Ilya simply because he could probably sprint twenty laps around the mountain in the time it would take her to land a damn hit.
It was time to try something a little bit unorthodox. The mountain was falling apart, right? So it was time to make it fall a little faster.
She slid a gem, one of the last three she had handy, into her palm, and willed her power into it. The mana within awoke, flaring along the lattice patterns of the ruby in time to the beating of her heart. She stopped, her heels skidding along crumbling stone as she slid, and she hurled the gem in a fastball that would have punched right through a baseball bat to take the catcher's head off.
Kirei, once again, dodged it perfectly without looking. That was expected. She had worked out that the man basically had eyes on the back of his head. But that was okay, because with an effort of will she touched the flying ruby with her mind… and detonated it about three feet in front of him.
The fire spell contained within the gem blasted outward in a wave of blinding light and blistering heat. Kirei dove backward, his speed and grace impossible to her eyes, dodging not merely the blast itself but the rubble as the ongoing threat of cave-in became painful reality. But there were two problems that even he couldn't deal with.
First, there was no tunnel in front of him, and nothing on either side but solid (well, cracked) rock. His only path out was back, through Rin.
Second, he was faster than the eye, faster than a detonating spell, but not faster than a bloom of heat. And the blast from that spell was, if she remembered her lab experiments, roughly 1200 degrees Celsius, just shy of melting steel. His priest robes were almost certainly armored, she had come to realize he was just that kind of person.
So now, they were also on fire. Have fun with that one, Padre.
To his credit, he reacted pretty much flawlessly. In a single swift motion, the robes were flying off in a swirl of burning cloth, something heavy within them thudding against the stone tunnel as they impacted and leaving Kirei standing in a black t-shirt and slacks, his face and hands visibly red with burns where the heat bloom had struck exposed flesh. He locked his gaze on her, and she wasn't sure if the flash in his eyes was irritation or amusement.
"I was hoping to lose you in the tunnels, Rin. Simply find the young Grail and finish milady's plan without your involvement. It was the last gift I had to give you as your guardian, after all," he said, his tone calm, almost gentle, and she'd have thought it was a good thing coming from literally anyone else.
"You mean," she clarified, "that you wanted me to live long enough to see Sakura end the world. So I could die knowing I failed."
He smiled, very slightly. "That's quite a cruel streak you attribute to me, Rin. Can I not simply be proud of you, and wish to begin the new world without your blood on my hands?"
"If you were that proud, Kirei," she murmured, "you wouldn't be helping my sister kill herself."
"Kill herself? I assume it looks as such to you, but she is doing nothing of the sort. She's grown past those self-destructive impulses that have dominated her life to this point. What she seeks to do is something grander and more ambitious than any human enterprise attempted in all of history. The ascension beyond this broken reality, beyond even the petty gods we worship. An immaculate being born of all the universe's knowledge implanted directly into a godly vessel, prepared and sanctified by the souls of all humanity. We can look at this as nothing less than humanity creating the Trinity, making truth our own beliefs in the omnipotent creator. The Second Book of Genesis is being penned as we speak. Is that not fantastic?"
"Holy Hell," Rin said softly, her eyes wide in something not unlike terror. "You… I really thought this was a plan. But you actually believe in her. I… you're not just evil. You're insane. And all these years I never saw it. God, I really am an idiot."
"Insanity is nothing but a viewpoint so different from society's that it cannot be understood by the masses," Kirei said, and the serenity in his tone was far worse than anger or sadism could ever have been. "I have been insane. I have spent my life unable to take joy in anything but the suffering of others. I knew it was wrong, I had the judgment to understand the immorality of it. But I could find no joy in anything else. I was a monster, turning to the church in desperation for answers and finding nothing but silence and confusion. And now, the unnatural existence, declared by all to be abandoned by God… is going to create Him. The monster is going to save the world. The irony of it is amusing, you have to admit."
"All I'm feeling is relief," Rin said. "I knew I was going to have to kill you when I came down here. You're making that a lot easier on me."
"Ah, Rin," Kirei said, that old smirk coming back to his lips. "One little murder and you've hardened so much. It seems Shinji was of use to someone in the end after all. You've grown. Your father would be proud, I think. Standing in the chambers of the Grail, closer to the truth than any Tohsaka has ever managed. And you even brought the dagger that he left you! A fantastic piece, isn't it?"
"You're about to see it close up," Rin promised, slipping the Azoth from its sheathe into her left hand, and letting mana flow into her right.
He smiled slightly. "I still remember the day I gave it to you. I thought for sure you would notice. There was just the tiniest bit of a stain still on the very base of the blade. A drop, at most, long dried, hardly visible. And yet, I was certain you would suspect something. I gave it to you anyway, of course, just to see what happened. The irony of it was just too beautiful to resist. But you were just a child, and if you noticed at all, you never even questioned it."
"What are you going on a-"
Kirei's smile widened, and Rin saw something in his eyes that she'd never noticed before, not in her entire young life of knowing this man as well as anyone else in the world. And yet now that she had, she wondered how she could ever have missed it. It was there, just barely beneath the surface, under the aura of mockery that permeated his every word. Something alien and utterly disconnected from humanity, looking at her with a gaze that would have made a shark seem warm by comparison. And she knew, she knew what it was going to say next, her blood running cold. Because something like the thing in front of her would always, always, strike to cause as much pain as it possibly could.
"Perhaps," he said softly, "you did see it. Just thought it was a small stain from your father's final moments. And you know, technically speaking, you wouldn't have been wrong. It was surprisingly messy, for just one stab that he never even saw coming…"
It was Shinji all over again. Her mind was empty, disconnected from her actions. She moved like a striking snake, with no goal or thought beyond destroying the life in front of her. A burst of magic, a Gandr so powerful it could have punched a hole through brick, led the way as she lunged for his throat, dagger in hand.
He dodged the magic bullet, with such effortless grace and speed that it seemed almost as though it had simply passed through him to slam into the stone behind his head.
And then Rin found her charge met, and herself in the hands of the most skilled and brutal hand-to-hand combatant she had ever met.
The entirety of Mount Enzo had been shaken by the blast outside of it, a massive tremor that pierced to the heart of the stone colossus. Nobody wandering inside could have failed to notice the impact as passageways, carved out by magic, collapsed in on themselves as a far greater mystery crushed them effortlessly.
Except for the cavern in which Rider stood. Nothing in the universe could have moved that spot, at that moment.
The creature before her was not what most would have considered a dragon. In appearance, it was closer to a serpent, albeit one that could have wrapped itself comfortably around Rin's entire manor; its coils filled the massive cavern. The scales were the thick, jagged hide of a desert adder, but jet black, absorbing all light that touched them, save for the softly glowing red mist that wafted out from under each raised plate, and fell from the creature's lips with each breath.
Mana. Pure magical energy, so thickly gathered it was forming into a fog even without a spell gathering it, being exhaled from the creature with each heaving breath. Nothing save a dragon could have done such a thing; this cave was its own universe, a holy land carved out by this creature's mere presence. It opened its mouth, roaring its wrath, and this universe shook with the rage; mana so thick Rider felt ill filled the cavern, and the flesh within its mouth was the red of fresh blood, standing out so starkly from its black scales that Rider nearly jumped back in shock.
On its chest, a single spot of white against the black and red, what remained of Caster's body, little more than a half-melted torso and her head, was melded into the scales, her veins now standing out bright red against her corpselike pallor. When the beast roared, her mouth opened in a silent scream. Her own Noble Phantasm, but she was not 'using' it, she had been devoured by it, Angra Mainyu's rage using her as a vessel to channel and control the dragon. If there was anything left of her mind in that thing, Rider didn't want to consider what it must be feeling.
Rider blinked a few times, her hair coiling around her in a pale imitation of the coils filling the cavern. Sakura… if you were in your right mind, I think you would hate yourself right now. Perhaps I should be thanking the gods you are not. But if they had anything to do with this situation, it was probably to make it worse.
She moved. The dragon was an intimidating force, but it was huge and there was a confined area to move around in. She had the advantage, at least in terms of maneuverability. With a single bullet-speed motion, she was above the creature's back, ready to slam down on the scales heel-first…
And she bounced off.
She hissed as a wave of pain shot up her body from the base of her feet to the crown of her skull, flipping backward to cling to the ceiling and narrowing her eyes. She hadn't even touched the creature; she could see it swirling now where she had struck, a barely-visible aura of mana that extended a bit less than a meter from the scales. Like Saber's mana burst, she realized, providing an aura of defense… but in this case, one that never turned off, as far as she could tell, watching the half-visible currents fading, but never fully stopping their swirl around the creature.
I'll need an attack that can pierce that, or some way to strike when it's down. It doesn't seem to notice my eyes, probably too much mana circulating through its body. My Noble Phantasm? She thought, scrambling along the roof of the cave even as the dragon's jaws snapped up at her, the massive head powdering stone as its fangs ripped a thousand pounds of stone from the mountain, before squeezing shut and crushing the boulders like they were no harder than wet sand. And then, she had an idea.
Rider hit the wall, running down the sheer surface with no more difficulty than a human would have had walking along a flat street, and hurled one end of her chain spike directly at the thing's eye, planting the other end of the weapon in the cave wall. The mana shield did not ignite, the blade digging into the creature's eye and prompting it to thrash madly; she was not the sort to smile wickedly at success, but she felt like she should for a moment like this. The creature, logically, could not be surrounded by an enveloping wave of power all the time, or it would not have been able to tear a chunk out of the ceiling. So the shield had to drop at times… most likely when the dragon wanted to reach out and touch someone. Now its coils thrashed in agony, and her weapon was pulled taut by the motion, ripping chunks out of the mountain to hopefully bury the thing long enough for her to…
A hundred tons of rock fell, and stopped dead as something black and slick appeared in the air beneath it, like oil spreading across a pool of blood. Rider, clinging to one of the few segments of the cave ceiling that had not fallen, actually stared in shock even as the best heaved itself to one side, roaring its wrath, her weapons still hanging from one eye.
The rocks fell to either side of the serpent as it roared at the moonlight streaming in through the newly pulverized holes in the mountain, and spread a pair of colossal black wings. They were… wrong somehow, Rider noted, and it took her a moment to work out why; they weren't real. Or at least, weren't solid; they took the form of wings, but they had burst from the creature's coils and seemed to be made of nothing but tattered shadow-stuff. Even more distressingly, she realized the dragon had not been roaring in pain from her putting its eye out, but that the wings had erupted from its back to protect it from the cave-in in the most literal sense possible; its scales had been ripped open, and steaming blood poured freely from the wounds.
And then, with another scream, two more gaping wounds tore open on either side of its neck, and a pair of new heads made of the same twisted, semi-solid shadow erupted. Indistinct save for glowing red eyes, both of them turned to look at her, and the pain in the main head's roars would have made her wince in sympathy if it didn't show every sign of wishing to wash away its pain with copious amounts of her blood.
Leaping up, she ran up the side of one of the newly-formed holes, tearing for the open sky with such speed the stone smoked beneath her heels. Roaring in pain and rage, the dragon began to rip through the stone like it was tissue paper, all mindless hate and hunger, wanting nothing but to tear her apart.
The darkness welled up in the mountain beneath her, seeking her blood. And she fully intended to give it some.
She reached the top of the mountain, and leaped into the night sky, rocketing upward like a comet. And as she did, she reached up one hand to tear open her own throat, a shock of pain roaring through her as the necessary sacrifice for what was to come next.
The summoning circle ignited, a brilliant red flame in the night sky, and from within it she heard the flapping of wings and the whinny of her loyal child, coming to the aid of its beleaguered mother.
The forests around Ryudou Temple had been the site of battles between Servants more than once during the Holy Grail War, and as a result they had seen better days.
Most particularly now, as they were just gone. As far as the eye could see, what trees that had not been outright vaporized by Saber's power had been felled, reduced to so much kindling.
A spherical dome of molten, crushed metal fell from around Gilgamesh, and the young Servant followed it to the ground, his knees giving out under him. "Oh… my. You are… an interesting one. I'm actually having fun!"
Saber stepped forward, the shattered remains of her own armor crunching beneath her feet, and even as he watched it began to reappear on her in a wave of black mist, making it look briefly as though she were armored in poisonous fog, clinging to her like an empress's gown. "You were stronger when you were an adult. Or perhaps Rin just isn't handling you well, it's difficult to be sure with her." She smiled slightly. "A child Master and a child Servant, neither of them living up to their potential. I don't know if that's ironic, but it's certainly pathetic."
"Ooooh, someone grew a sense of humor with her madness! Not a good one, but…" Gilgamesh chuckled, trying to pretend his vision wasn't blurring from exhaustion. The fact of the matter was, Rin wasn't what he was used to in terms of mana. His older self had spent years slowly devouring the agonized souls of a church full of orphans, and had built up enough of a mana supply to last for a lifetime. He, on the other hand, had a perfectly fine (though he wouldn't ever tell her that) Master who was, unfortunately, also walking into a battle of her own and not in a position where he could drain every ounce of power she could give.
Also she was exhausted and emotionally drained and refusing to admit it, but that wasn't relevant to him at the moment. He just enjoyed pointing out Rin's flaws.
Mind is racing in odd directions. Possibly running low on energy. Going to need to end this soon, he thought, realizing in an unfortunate way that it was probably going to end with him being cut in half. But still, no sense in just giving in. He was royalty, after all, and when the barbarians were at the gate it was his duty to stand in their way and defend his loyal subjects.
Quite a lot of kings in history had gotten their heads put on a pike doing exactly that, but Gilgamesh hadn't gotten so far in life by stopping to think about things.
Reaching into the pile of twisted metal surrounding him, he picked up one of the shields that had been near the center of his defensive wall and was therefore mostly intact. He hefted it onto arm, realizing as he did that it was about a foot too tall for him, but that was okay because he was also fairly sure Excalibur would go through it with two or three strikes.
I wish that bizarre woman with the tiger print shirt was here, he thought, positioning the unwieldy thing between him and Saber and calling out with his mind, a handful of flickering portals to the Gate of Babylon opening as he loaded a half dozen arrows. She made me laugh.
Saber set one foot behind her, ready to charge, her armor solidifying once more into cold metal, even as her blade flickered with black flame. It suited her, he considered; she was equal parts chilly disdain and buried rage. Like a volcano, still capped at the top with snow but the rumbling told anyone unfortunate enough to be close that the flames within were ferocious indeed.
But this is my world, and I am the King. Even in the face of certain death, I stand strong, he thought, without fear in his eyes or his heart. He reached into one final portal, for the greatest of his treasures, fully prepared to crack the world in half if it was the only way to remind this creature of who he really was...
"Both of you are acting like children. And coming from me, that's saying a lot."
As one, the two godlike warriors turned to look at the little girl, who was both simultaneously the least and most impressive thing Gilgamesh felt he had seen in his short time on this Earth. His older self would have found it disgusting, which mostly just told him it was interesting.
Ilyasviel von Einzbern looked like a princess that had been going through some hard times. She was bruised and battered, dried blood beneath her nose and on one side of her mouth, and a rapidly forming black eye. She had just been kidnapped, after all, and Gilgamesh had to assume she'd been inside the mountain that Saber just ripped a gaping hole in. The girl had clearly seen much better days.
And yet, she strode toward them like a reigning queen, clad head to toe in white silk… or was it gold? It shimmered oddly, reflecting light that shouldn't have existed… a crimson stole draped across her shoulders. She seemed somehow taller than her tiny frame should have allowed, and her eyes held something older behind them than her youthful features could properly project.
Saber smiled. "Einzbern."
"You can call me Ilya, you know," Ilya said, softly. "Or aren't we friends anymore?"
"You were friends with Arturia. A weak, stupid, naïve little brat who thought wishes could come true and deep down really thought she'd be rewarded if she died for her people. That someone, anyone, would remember her fondly for who she really was," Saber said. "I've chosen not to be her anymore. I've chosen to live my life, not spend it hunting for faerie tales."
"You have regrets. You wanted to undo your mistakes. It's only human."
"The only mistake I made was giving my life to those ingrates. If could make a wish for Britain, it would be to sink the whole filthy isle into the sea where it belongs," Saber said, and there was a bit of a hiss under her tone now, the first real emotion she'd let show, a hint of the rage simmering underneath her smile. "Seeking the Holy Grail, now, that wasn't a mistake. That was a deception. That was your family using me as a weapon in their war for a prize not even worth winning, and that I'd never get to see in any case. So no, Einzbern, we are not friends. Your family is a pit of vipers no different from the Makiri and the Tohsaka. Bad enough Arturia died for nothing, you went so far as to make her afterlife as meaningless as her miserable existence was! All I want is to live my life. Be my own person, for once. But I can't do that until I settle old accounts, and they can only be written in blood."
Ilya tilted her head slightly. "You realize how silly you sound, right? You're not Saber, but you're so angry about her life that you can't move on? You're so angry about what my family, and Rin's family, and even Sakura's family did that you're taking it out on us, even though none of us did anything to you. Do you seriously think that's a normal reaction?"
"You of all people should know what I'm going through, Ilyasviel. You spent twenty years locked in a castle, with no control of your own life. Just the puppet of others, with no will of your own. A doll," Saber said, her tone steel slicing through silk. "Becoming a real person for the first time. Seizing your own destiny. That's a painful experience. You have to fight for it, with everything you have. And you have to be willing to do anything to achieve it. It isn't enough to destroy the Holy Grail War, I have to annihilate all hints of it. Burn the entire Grail System to nothing, stomp out the embers, and salt the earth where the ashes lie. It's not about you, or Rin, or Sakura. It's about your entire families. It's about what you know. It's about things, blood and knowledge alike, that I will never allow to be passed down."
"It's clearly not about logic," Ilya muttered. "Look at yourself. Listen to yourself! You're unstable. Your soul has been tainted and it's affecting your mind. Your emotions are going all crazy, and you've spent so long repressing them you don't know how to deal with it! Well let me tell you, you big doofus, just letting them run wild and doing whatever you feel like at your darkest moments is the worst idea! If I had done that, I… I don't even know. I'd be alone, at least. I might not even be alive anymore, without you and Shirou to watch over me."
She paused. "On the other hand, I also wouldn't care enough about you to be standing here. So at least I'd be less filthy."
"Going off-topic," Gilgamesh said, mildly transfixed by the scene before him. On the one hand, Saber hadn't tried to kill anyone, despite all logic to the contrary. She seemed to be listening. On the other hand, the menace in the air, the aura of bloodlust, hadn't diminished. And Ilya had to notice…
"Oh, you don't have anything to do with this. Stop trying to get involved," Ilya snapped.
"I feel pretty involved," he said, with a meaningful glance at the pile of shattered shields littering his the torn earth around him.
"Well can you fix Saber? Because I can fix Saber! … Maybe!" Ilya said. "That's what the dress is for. Just once, with the Grail as it was meant to be, we can make a miracle. It may not work, but I'm willing to try, Saber. Are you? You talk about wanting a new life… do you mean it? Do you want a real life? Not a king, not a blood-soaked phantom, a real life. Not Saber, not Arthur, Arturia. The girl who never had chance to live can get it now. Maybe together, we can burn away the darkness and show the real you."
Saber stared at her, her expression as blank and empty as Ilya had ever seen on her face. She was a statue in the night, the glimmer of gathered power in the Dress of Heaven casting cool shadow across features that might as well have been carved from granite. She took a step forward, and Ilya's heart leaped…
And then Saber brought her sword around in a swing at neck-height on the smaller girl.
Rin slashed in for Kirei's throat even as he slipped past her magical assault, and she knew she was faster and stronger than any normal human. So it was rather shocking to her when the dagger in her hand hit nothing but empty air. And then, a nanosecond later, when a sudden sharp pressure struck her wrist and the dagger was no longer in her hand at all.
She had been in enough battles at this point that the alarm bells went off in her mind immediately, and she snapped a heel off the ground to push herself back. But she was fighting her own momentum, and Kirei had already been moving in the direction she was trying to go. And so, she made it less than a meter in her leap when his fingers, outstretched and pointed, slammed into her midsection.
The pain was beyond anything she could have imagined such a blow causing her. She had trained with Kirei, and more than one other sensei, and she'd certainly taken her fair share of punches. But this was different; his fingers were like goddamn iron, splitting cloth and flesh to snap a rib like a twig, pushing the jagged bone against something inside her that sent screaming waves of agony up and down her entire body. And she didn't even have time to question what that meant, if an organ had been punctured or a nerve cluster crushed, before his other hand whipped across her face, a single impossible hammer blow slamming into her right eye and leaving half her field of vision as blackened as if he'd taken the orb out entirely.
If Rin had not been a magus, she knew, she would have died right then and there. That wasn't a prideful thought, it was simple fact. He had, in one moment, destroyed her ability to breathe freely and left her with fuzzy, unfocused vision. A normal human, with normal fighting potential, would have been almost certainly unable to stop him from going for a killing blow to her throat or eye. One more punch like that to crush her windpipe, and the fight was over before it began.
But magic was pain. Rin had spent most of her short life in a state of lingering agony. She knew how to focus through it.
The dagger was five meters down the corridor, and might as well have been on the other side of the planet. In terms of martial arts, he was so far beyond her that she might as well have been a mouse fighting a cat. So it was time to change the game. She might not have been the killer he was, and certainly not one tenth the fighter, she was a much, much better mage.
Two gems left. If she could survive the next fifteen seconds, that would be enough.
She slipped one of them from her sleeve, ignoring the agony even that small motion brought, and watched Kirei leap backwards to clear what he naturally assumed would be a blast zone. The gemstone struck the ground harmlessly, no more deadly than a glass bead, no spell released, even as Kirei slid backwards on his heels, and giving Rin time to raise her arm, the crest on it glowing brilliantly.
She saw his face twist into a grin at the trick, like a fencer acknowledging a touch. And he didn't get to do anything more than that, because the crest burned with emerald fire in the darkened corridor, and she called down a storm.
The Gandr was considered a fairly weak spell, and it normally was; an impact little more than a punch, and a few days of minor illness. But the Tohsaka crest could produce the curse in limitless amounts, and put quite a lot of power behind it. What normally would have been equivalent to getting punched in the face by a fairly strong man was, from her hands and when she really chose to put the effort in, closer to being shot by a 9MM pistol.
Or, considering the sheer number she could produce at once, more like a machine gun.
She didn't aim, because he would dodge any attempt at precision. The effort here, instead, was to simply create a web of energy that would kill anyone caught in it. He was too fast to pin down normally, so she would simply leave him no room to dodge. And indeed, there wasn't any.
So he didn't dodge.
From holsters on his back, previously hidden under the robes he'd been forced to abandon, he drew four small cylinders that resembled nothing so much as the hilt of a sword without any blade attached. And then, gripping them between his fingers, he moved his hands and those missing blades made a dramatic re-appearance.
Four Black Keys, the weapons of a Church Executioner. Two to each hand; he could have held four, but they had all been held in his coat, and it was currently a smoldering pile of ash. With speed and grace that would not have looked out of place in a Servant, the shimmering silver blades wove a web of their own around the false priest, shimmering silver trails of light that met the dark fire of Rin's curses, the spiritual blades cutting the magic bullets apart into a shower of sparks that rained down on the cavern floor, tracing lines of light as they fell. And then, despite standing in the middle of a veritable hurricane of bullets, so many that to deflect them all required his blades move literally too fast for Rin to follow… he began to walk forward.
Slowly. One step at a time. But, as Rin watched wide-eyed, he walked against the tide of magic like a man struggling against gale-force winds, his blades burning with each gandr the exorcising swords tore apart. She took a single-step back, letting her fear at this development play across her face, as he moved close enough she could feel the wind from his whirling swords…
And then, with a single swift motion, she kicked the enchanted gem still lying on the floor his way. And this time, it wasn't harmless at all.
The spell inside was one of air, a burst of elemental wind magic that was, without her will to focus it in a single direction, nothing so much as a very small localized tornado. As strong and fast as Kirei was, there was no way to dodge something like that, no way to deflect it. It was like being hit with a wrecking ball.
Rin knew this, of course, because it hit her too.
She didn't have much time to see the result of the impact on her enemy because she was sent flying backward and slammed into a cave wall with literal bone-crushing force, her entire right arm going numb as something snapped inside it. She accepted this, because numbness was better than pain at this point, and Kirei had taken the hit even worse than she had. He had to have hit solid, jagged rock from the tunnel collapse behind him; with a little luck, what had happened to her arm had happened to his goddamn spine…
She was able to think this, in blissful ignorance, right up until the moment she struggled to her feet and a hurled Black Key slammed into her back like a bullet.
Shirou did not scream, because the time and oxygen it would have taken were resources he could not afford to give up.
The black giant had swung a massive arm down at him, and he had not tried to block; that would have been instant death. He had leaped back, swinging up at the malformed limb as he did, the blade striking the side of it as it dug into the rock of the cavern floor.
It had been like trying to cut a steel wall. The impact had shattered the sword in his hand, and shock of it had rolled up his arm like a tidal wave, snapping a bone in his wrist.
This wasn't some construct of shadow. This… thing… was more akin to a Noble Phantasm of the blackened Grail, a darkness that redefined the world. Kanshou and Bakuya would not pierce it… he couldn't be sure anything would.
But as two more were already formed, beginning their unearthly glide across the chamber to flank him on either side, and a third was beginning to take shape, he had very little choice in the matter.
I have created over a thousand blades
In his mind, the blades he had been visualizing became so real he could practically feel the steel in his hands. Each of the giants was like a Noble Phantasm, so the natural way to counter them was with another Noble Phantasm, no? But not a normal one. Not just any weapon would do.
The weapons in his mind were perfect, a harmony of steel and fire given shape. And, with an effort of will he wasn't even sure how to make, he touched that harmony and moved it in just the wrong direction…
He felt Archer looking over his shoulder, and the smirk on his face was infuriating and inspirational all at once, as the Broken Phantasm flew.
A perfect weapon, keening with something like a shriek of pain and trailing light like a comet, materialized in the air and flew straight and true. The blade slammed home into the first giant's torso, detonating in a blinding flare of white and a shockwave that Shirou felt push him back a few inches even with his heels dug in against the rock.
When the light faded, the creature was simply gone. Nothing but wisps of blackness rising from the spot it had been showed it was there at all. The other black giants stopped their oddly fluid charge, sliding further apart. He thought for an oddly crazed moment that despite all evidence, they might actually be alive and showing self-preservation. Can demons born of pure evil be scared of dying? I suppose anyone has the right…
Sakura giggled, drawing his eye to her, and he realized quickly that the attack had stopped because she'd willed it. "Oh my, oh my! You've learned so much, Shirou. I don't think Archer himself could have done any better. I can honestly say that I'm proud of the hero you've grown into. You've achieved your dream, here, at the very end."
He shook his head. "You know better than that. It's not about having power. It's about helping people. All I ever wanted was to save people. And right now, the person I want to save is you. You have to understand that much, after all we've been through."
Her smile got a little sad. "We haven't been through anything, Shirou. I was on the outside looking in, and you never saw it. So much that you don't understand: I don't need to be saved. I'm exactly where I want to be. Where the world needs me to be. And you can't stop me," she narrowed her eyes. "Unless you can pull that little trick four more times?"
Three shadow giants began their glide toward him once again. Behind them, wisps of darkness began to flow out of the floor.
"Or should that be eight? Twelve? Thirty?" Sakura asked, the shadows continuing to spread. "A thousand? My power is infinite, the will of God made manifest. Each thought brings forth a dark champion to die in my name. Each impulse takes form with the power of a divine mandate. My swift and terrible punishment to those who threaten the utopia I build. Tell me, hero, how many swords do you have in stock?"
Unknown to -, nor - to life.
He stood his ground, blades flickering into life around him, and static rolled behind his eyes as power he had never felt before coursed through him. It burned, and where the fire touched him his nerves felt coated in molten metal. The next stanza only half-emerged into his fevered mind, the static drowning out the words even as they rang through his thoughts unbidden.
But behind the flames, there was a calming, vast coolness that numbed the pain, held together nerves threatening to burn under strain they'd never felt before. Like new-fallen snow, cooling the embers before the blaze could build out of control…
"Enough," he answered her, and opened fire.
He did not finish the sentence with 'I hope.'But as he watched Sakura's unchanging smile through static-filled eyes, he suspected she knew he had thought it.