Author's Note: Holy crap, an update in a semi-reasonable timeframe? Am I sick? Well, yes, but more than that since this story is (or so I keep telling myself) close to the real, final, super total ending, I have been putting the lion's share of my effort into it. Also I got into Fate/Grand Order and it's been inspiring.
God, I hope not too inspiring. If I start writing another FSN story after I finish this one, seriously, just shoot me.
Chapter Thirty-nine: All the World's Evil
It was… strangely calm.
The Grail's pain, the torment of being impaled and losing its master, had been palpable. Shirou had felt every second of its pain and rage roaring off it, screaming into his mind while Sakura screamed silently in time with it. But Kotomine throwing himself into the Grail was… calm. There was no explosion of power, of emotion. And it took Shirou almost comically long to realize why this was.
The power was not exploding outward, it was flowing in. The Greater Grail was drawing into itself, mist and mud flowing back into it, the structure itself collapsing downward. Melting, and yet not expanding… the solidity of the tower vanishing as it became liquid and fog, but not escaping outward. It defied physics, losing form and continuing to compress inward on itself, as if drawn in by a black hole within it.
Perhaps in the most literal sense. A black, writhing hole in the heart of an undead priest.
Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. Shirou thought, feeling something tingling in his legs; his spine had been pierced by Kotomine's blade, and then pulled out to let him bleed to death, paralyzed; but the wound was starting to close. He didn't feel like he could stand yet, but the numbness was fading and the pain was starting to flood back in. A welcome sign; if he could stand, he could Project. Calling up Unlimited Blade Works again did not seem likely, his wounds were terrible, and he did not expect them to be fully healed without hours of rest, even with… whatever it was that made him heal so quickly. But if he could stand and make even one sword, he could get Sakura out of this place. She was not doing well, at all. Even if he could battle what was going to come out of the Grail, and he was not at all sure he could, he seriously doubted he could keep her alive while he did it. Even if he had to use his body as a shield, even if he died doing it, he could at least get Sakura out of here before that thing woke-
Shirou blinked, the tension and fear of the moment evaporating entirely as shock drove any real emotion from him. There had been no sign of the Grail opening. It was so anticlimactic that he almost laughed out loud from the sheer insanity of it all. There should have been something. Some scream of evil, some dark wave of black poisonous mud that roared out over them like a tidal wave. The power of the Greater Grail cracking open shouldn't just be… be…
He pulled himself to his hands and knees, turning to face whatever it was, and put himself between it and Sakura as best he could. And for the second time, he almost laughed at how… how simple it was.
Where the Grail had been, all of the power and curses of that titanic, writhing, black star of raw power had compressed downward into a man. Obviously not a human man; his skin was pure, inky black, against the blood red of his hair and intricate, shifting tattoos that covered the majority of his flesh. It took Shirou a bit to realize what this was: Sakura's shadow, the construct that she had controlled as a puppet, was literally his skin, and that alone marked him as dangerous. But still, looking at him, there was… nothing. No sense of danger. No instinctive fear. No crawling aura of evil like spiders on his skin. It was like looking at a mannequin.
God, he's got to be at least five centimeters shorter than me. Come on.
The man smiled warmly, sitting down cross-legged on the cavern floor, and said, "You seem to be having troubles. Might I ask what happened?"
"I… I was stabbed?" Shirou said. It came out as a question despite his best efforts, because honestly he was no longer certain this wasn't a very surreal dream. "My, um, my legs aren't working."
"Ah. That sounds unpleasant," the man said, shifting the simple red half-robe he wore underneath him to sit more comfortably. "Well, feel free to rest if you like. It isn't really an issue for me."
"You… you're not going to kill me?" Shirou asked.
The man considered this, closing his golden eyes in thought. "Hmmm… that depends. Are you a god?"
"… Are you being sarcastic?"
"Not at all. It is entirely possible that you might be a divine being deceiving me. My summoning was highly irregular… I appear to have been inscribed on a human soul, rather than having a spiritual body created from prana. Further, much of the energy that should have gone into my body and mind was dispersed instead due to my embryo being damaged. My memory of my previous incarnation and the events before my rebirth is scattered, and my body is still achieving stability. I couldn't give you a real answer on many questions about my own existence, much less yours. So, are you a god?"
"I… well. I mean… no. I'm a human being."
"Ah. Then yes, I will kill you. And that young woman, if she is similarly human. All humanity, in fact, if you were thinking of running away. There really is no 'safe distance,' so you may as well sit and recover your strength," the man said. "I'm in no hurry, and this is the first time I have had a physical form or coherent thoughts. You cannot flee."
Shirou shook his head to clear the cobwebs he felt must definitely be in his ears. "I… I'm sorry. Are you… are you Angra Mainyu?"
The man smiled. "Angra Mainyu was a young man from a village that no longer exists, in a nation that no longer exists. His name is gone, overwritten with the name of the World's Evil. He died, and this day none alive remember him as anything but a god that does not exist, by a name that was forced upon him. I am not that man. And you damaged my birthing process to such a degree that I'm not sure you could call me the god within it, either. You could call me Avenger, I suppose, but it would perhaps be more accurate to say that I am the Holy Grail. Or rather, I am the physical form of a wish granted by it."
"… The wish for 'all the world's evil'? Ilya said something about that. How when Avenger was defeated in the Holy Grail war, he… he corrupted it?"
"Close. His presence was what allowed the corruption to happen, but he himself did nothing. He was just a man, after all. What corrupted the Holy Grail was humanity, and what it created was me, in response to your wishes," Avenger said, his smile wide and genuine, seemingly enjoying the conversation. It was his first, after all, Shirou couldn't really blame him. "Do you understand?"
"Not… not really. I was expecting you to be a monster… or at least to hate me. This isn't…"
Avenger shook his head. "I told you, this form is not regular. The result of summoning me as a demi-servant inscribed onto a human soul, perhaps? Or the result of summoning me after the Grail has been damaged? I can't be sure. I have flashes of memory… hate. Pain. Calling out to those who bathed in the blood of others, begging them to release me. A cold, terrible hunger that would never be sated. But it doesn't feel like my memory. It's as though they are fragments of something I witnessed. Of myself, there is very little. But that's all right… I know my purpose, on a deep, instinctive level. Most never achieve that, don't you think?"
Shirou considered this, because… well, honestly, at this point, killing time was his only real option. He could feel nothing but pain in his legs, which told him they were fully awake again at least. A few more minutes and he might be able to walk, even run. If this… person?... was willing to let him spend those minutes without violence, he had to take the opportunity. "I can't argue with that. I spent a long time wondering myself, and finding an answer was… difficult. But in the end, I think our purpose is whatever we make of it. It's defined by the life you live. If you're just born knowing what your life is supposed to mean, I don't think that's a good thing. It means you didn't have the chance to grow and find it for yourself. You should have the chance to choose a purpose."
Avenger chuckled. "A reasonable answer, and I think you actually believe that. That is rare."
"I was born from mankind's desires. I know you, and I know you're a very selfish species. When your lives are going well, when the world is full of bountiful blessings, then it was due to your own greatness. But when things are wrong? When your 'greatness' fails, and your life is naught but suffering? Then you will do anything to deny your own faults. The problem must be the result of some force working against you. Some greater evil, seeking to destroy you. That is what I am: a manifestation of that human instinct. Your collective subconscious wish for a great evil to oppose you, to be the fault of your suffering," Avenger said. "Do you see now? I don't hate you at all. If anything, I am an ally to humans. When you are at your lowest, I grant you what you most desire. Your world rots, and you cry out for the monsters to rise up from Hell and prove to you it wasn't your own fault." His grin was simple, and childish, and Shirou felt absolutely nothing from him other than otherworldly calm so deep it was almost hypnotic. "Your wish is granted. I rise. I will absolve you of your sins by becoming the destroyer you pray for. And when I am finished… there will be peace."
Shirou closed his eyes. "'The only peace man will ever know.' That was you, talking through Sakura at the end."
"I told you, I don't remember for sure. But… human desires are my desires. They wished for the unstoppable, immortal monster to bring them suffering and death. To let them know, with absolute certainty, that their suffering is the choice of a being greater than themselves. Even if just for just a few moments before they die," Avenger confirmed.
"That's insane! You can't… you can't look me in the eye and say that everyone on Earth is so desperate to blame someone for their problems they would die for it! Even at my darkest, I never…!"
Avenger inclined its head, in a gesture of respect. "Of course you didn't. You're exceptional. My 'mother' did not wish for it either. Nor did the man whose soul became my body, as cruel as he was. I suspect many of the souls gathered in this place would speak against me, much as you have. But you must understand, you are far, far into the minority. My purpose and power come not from the wills of the few powerful souls who walk with legends, but from the billions who are weak, and petty, and forgotten by history. For every soul like you that seeks out purpose and walks toward your goals no matter how you suffer in the seeking, there are a million who cry out for me. Take some comfort from the fact you stood in defiance of the world's will until the very end. Most would not have had the courage, and I truly admire you. If you wish to close your eyes and wait for the end in prayer, it may give you some peace."
Shirou considered this briefly.
And then he charged on uncertain legs, Kanshou and Bakuya coming to his hands.
Avenger smiled. "Well, not the peaceful sort then."
The Servant… the monster… did not react, merely sat, smiling beatifically as Shirou slashed in, barely faster than any normal human; his body was broken, but he had no choice. Fleeing was not an option, clearly; it had taken a form he had not foreseen, and even as he cut in at it from both sides he felt nothing from it, like it was nothing more than a statue...
We may not understand it, and He may not take the form we had hoped for, but God is always with us.
… but its words confirmed it. This was unquestionably that thing. The monster behind Sakura's eyes. The empty, mindless hunger in the Shadow. It had been given intellect, a form that was almost human, but these were only surface details leaving the substance beneath unchanged: This was a thing that could kill every single person on the face of the Earth, and feel nothing at all from it save a sense of accomplishment. And it had the power to do just that. He might not be able to stop it as he was now, but the only possible way that anyone he knew and loved would live out the next day was if this thing never set foot on the surface. If he could slow it down even by a second, such was worth his life.
Avenger never moved, never reacted, not even as the blades swung in, one striking him on each shoulder and cutting in. His smile never wavered as the masterwork short sword carved through flesh, bone, and muscle, drawing in on an 'x' pattern toward his heart, striving to cut his entire torso in half, removing the head and destroying the heart in one swift stroke…
Shirou fell, his hands falling numbly from the hilts of his blades as he collapsed to the ground before the beast, too shocked to even scream at the sudden piercing agony that tore through the muscles of his upper body, giving way to a numbness that left him barely able to move his arms.
Nothing had struck him, he knew. Avenger had not moved, not released any shadow-daggers or summoned any beasts. And yet, Shirou had felt blades slide into his flesh, severing muscles and crushing bones with effortless ease. Were his weapons invisible, or… no. No, it wasn't just wounds he felt tearing through him had been in exactly the same place that he had cut into Avenger. And more than that, even…
I forged these weapons. I know every detail of them. What cut into me was unquestionably my own weapons…!
Avenger smiled down at him, the flesh around the twin blades rippling like water as it melded together, Shirou's own pain vanishing save for the two burning-hot points where the blades were still actively driven into the monster's body, letting him struggle to his feet and stagger back from the creature, preparing a new sword with much more difficulty than he liked to admit. "Still fighting? I was hoping you would understand the futility. You stand apart, remaining unattached to the collective will of your kind. You seek to overwrite their world with your own. That does make you special. But like all humans, you remain your own worst enemy."
It can project damage it takes against the enemy…? No. No. My body hasn't been cut, there's no fresh blood on my shirt. It just sends the sensation… Shirou thought. He almost chuckled at the bitter irony; the swords beneath his skin, knitting his body together, would have at least partially blocked a physical blade. This spectral attack cut right through that, reprogramming his brain to think that his body had been hacked to pieces and cutting off control of the affected muscles. Even now, he still felt like Kanshou and Bakuya were impaled through his pectorals, the tip of the white blade within inches of his heart. So how do I fight it? I need to destroy it with a single attack, but it regenerated from that wound in seconds. Can it even die? It at least has a human body as a base, so it has to be mortal, but that doesn't mean I'm strong enough…
"Just stop. Rest. This isn't a battle you can win, child. I am a sword of the absolute, empowered by the will of all living things to end the Age of Man. You are a single being facing the will of seven billion souls crying out for meaning. I will give them this, and then I will give them peaceful slumber. Would you deny the suffering of your kind? Or are you so disconnected from them that you see them only as faceless nothings to toy with for your amusement, 'hero?'"
Shirou's eyes widened… and then he grinned. "So there's still some Kotomine in there after all, huh?"
Avenger smiled. "He is my father, in a sense. Of all the souls my shadow devoured, his was the one that gave me will and form. He could hardly change my purpose, but perhaps he has altered how I pursue it. It doesn't change much."
"Yes, it does. It makes you talk too much," Shirou said, raising his blade in shaking hands. He smiled a little as he looked at it through eyes blurred by pain; he'd made her sword again. He hadn't seen her as anything but an enemy in what felt like forever, and yet when he had to instinctively create a blade, it was her sword, and not his own. Maybe I just want to feel like Saber is watching over m-
And then the roof of the cave exploded, a flare of gold-red light washing over the massive cavern, and made Shirou jump halfway out of his skin. The pain in his chest flared and he fell back, tripping over his own feet and letting the magical, perfect blade clatter to the floor like so much trash. It almost cut his toe off.
And like an angel, clad all in white, the small blonde girl fell from the cavern ceiling amid a small shower of rubble, her blade burning with mana and an aura of power about her so intense Shirou felt dizzy just looking at her… or maybe that was just the pain he hadn't even realized he'd been holding onto since the moment she'd left, vanishing like mist on the breeze. "S… Saber…?"
With quiet, gentle dignity, she turned to look down on him, just as she had that first night, so long ago.
I ask of you, are you my master? She said in his heart.
"My God. Shirou, you look awful. And your footing hasn't improved at all, I see... or are you wounded? You're lucky I'm here, this thing was absolutely going to kill you otherwise," She said aloud.
And just like that, the spell was broken.
"W… wait, what did you…?"
"You heard me! There's no way you should have fallen over from such a small shock unless you're too wounded to be fighting in the first place," Saber said. "I thought you paid better attention, though. Why are you here trying to fight a Servant?! I trained you so you would know not to fight them! If you had focused all your power on defense and fleeing, you could have escaped with Sakura, who I might add is unconscious… and nude. Why is she nude?"
"I… I… I actually hadn't noticed that. I think it's because her clothes were under all that Shadow, and…"
"For God's sake, Shirou, give her your jacket or something."
"I don't have a-"
"Why not? It's night. In winter. You should have come prepared. I tried to kill you earlier tonight and you didn't even have a coat!"
"I… I… I…" Shirou stammered, stopping only when he saw a twinkle in Saber's eyes that was really distressing. "Wait. Are you… are you teasing me?"
She giggled (Giggled. Saber. GIGGLED)and said, "Sorry, sorry. But you just looked so serious, I couldn't resist."
"I… of course I'm serious. There's… there's a…" he said, gesturing vaguely at Avenger, who was watching the whole thing with a bemused expression.
"Ah, this creature? It isn't going to attack. I can read its stance, there's no hostility in it," Saber said. "Actually, there's nothing in it. How dull… what is it, anyway? I was expecting to come down here to something nightmarish."
"He… but he's really hostile. He said he was going to kill… erm… everyone…?"
"Huh. Really?" Saber asked. "If it came from the Greater Grail, that would be the goal it had in mind, but… well, it doesn't have any aura of malice at all. And its combat stance is non-existent! It carries itself like a court clerk. Perhaps its Noble Phantasm will be something that lets it attack millions of people at once?" She sniffed. "That feels like cheating. At least put some effort in, if you must be that sort of creature."
Avenger smiled. "You're correct, of course, though I'm not sure 'Noble Phantasm' is the word for it. It's not really a legend, it's just reclaiming and unleashing the power the collective unconscious has given me. Human wishes created me specifically to be something capable of destroying them. Once I'm ready and begin my work in earnest, it shouldn't last more than a few days."
"Huh," Saber said. "You're rather politer than I was expecting. Shirou, he's extremely polite."
Avenger just kept smiling. "If a dying knight on one of your many battlefields, knowing he was doomed, asked you to end everything, would you mock him? Or would you accept that he had chosen for his time to end, and make it as quick and painless as possible? The people have prayed for a destroyer. I answer because it's my nature, not out of cruelty. Even when I was stillborn and lashing out blindly, it was not hate that drove me. It was just instinct. Now I can put words to it, but nothing's really changed. If you drop something from a great height, does it have any choice but to fall?"
Saber considered this. "You're boring me now."
Her blade slashed in at neck height, tearing the creature's head from its shoulders with a single stroke, red and gold flaring as they sliced into inky blackness, and…
No. Not a single stroke, the blade split as it moved; slashing Avenger through the neck at the same instant that it struck him across the chest, ripping through his torso and shattering both of Shirou's projected blades at the same instant that it slashed through the creature's neck, sending the dark Servant collapsing to the floor in three wet chunks.
Saber sighed as the blood spread at her feet. "No, no, that won't do. Only two slashes and they were a tenth of a second apart. Assassin could do three simultaneous cuts with each blade, even before the curse came into play." She shook her head sadly. "And what are you waiting for, small madman? It will regenerate in seconds!"
"Who are-" Shirou began, only to be cut off when a rain of brilliantly glowing golden swords (which he couldn't help but notice were all slightly nicer than anything he could forge, and had to assume this was done on purpose given where they had to be coming from) tore into the fallen body, tearing fist-sized chunks from it as they punched straight through to impale into the cave floor.
"Well I can't exactly do my worst while you're all standing right there," Gilgamesh said petulantly, as Rider set him and Ilya down at the mouth of the cavern. "You've seen what the swords do when I throw them at full speed. I don't want to kill my slave."
"Shirou! I came to save… why is Sakura naked?" Ilya asked. "No, okay, not the time to get furious. Growing up. We need to carry her out of here! Shirou, help me out. … And give her your jacket or something."
"I don't have one! And… and what are you wearing? What is even going on…?" Shirou asked.
Ilya grinned wickedly. "This whole mountain was permeated in an aura of absolute darkness. I broke it, though, because I'm amazing. I think. The key is that I don't think our minds are adjusting right, which is why I'm really, really happy to see you again, even though I know we're in danger still."
"Relax. It's dead," Gilgamesh said. "I pierced the heart, brain, lungs, liver, and both kidneys. Even a Servant couldn't survive."
"Hello," said a voice from thirty feet away, its tone that of a man greeting long-awaited guests to a dinner party.
As one, every eye turned to face Avenger, who was not in pieces and pinned to the cavern floor by a dozen masterwork swords. He sat cross-legged in the center of the cavern, about thirty meters from where he had been struck down. There were no signs of any damage on its body. The swords pinning it to the cave floor had not been disturbed, and did not even have a drop of blood on them.
Three Servants, legendary heroes with senses beyond human, had been in the room with it. None of them had noticed it move.
Saber smiled. There was no humor in the expression. "Ah. So… it's like that, then. Shirou, get out of here. Take Sakura, and Ilya, and run. As far as you can. The three of you will absolutely die if you're in this cavern when the actual battle begins. None of us could protect you."
"Run, fool. This thing could kill you with a breath. It isn't showing any sign of hostility because it doesn't feel threatened. Saber, why in the name of every worthless god that's ever existed did you not say something? Did you not notice?" Gilgamesh said. His grin was looking disturbingly like Saber's, and for just a moment Shirou had an image in the back of his mind of an animal growling to try to drive off a predator larger than itself.
"How could I have? Look at it. I knew it was hiding something of itself, but… is it immortal?" Saber said.
"Hmph. I recall that going to the snake, not some ugly thing like this. If it lives, we can kill it. And I will, with or without your help," Gilgamesh said.
"Your confidence does you credit, boy who would be king, considering the wounds you've taken to reach this place," Avenger said calmly. "Three Servants could indeed be a difficulty, and I cannot allow myself to die before I fulfill the wish that birthed me. I won't be able to disable you gently like I did young Shirou."
Shirou's eyes widened. "That was gentle?"
"You're not dead, so it was gentle. Why aren't you running?" Rider hissed. "Get. Sakura. Out of here. We'll handle this."
"You of all people should be on my side, Goddess Medusa. You were abandoned, treated as a monster, shaped into a being of nightmares by the darkness in mankind, and it was only after you had become a mindless killer that your 'legend' was remembered by them," Avenger said, not even bothering to watch as Shirou and Ilya awkwardly hefted Sakura's unconscious form onto their shoulders as best they could. "They resent their gods and heroes for being greater than themselves, and make myths of the monsters that destroy them. Is this not proof they want to die? That they want to end?"
Rider considered this. "I don't care about humanity. I care about Sakura. You harmed her, and I'm going to destroy you for it."
"Sakura Matou was the closest thing I will ever know to a mother. Her power nurtured me from a mindless being to the crystallization of divine will. I have felt her pain more deeply and intimately than you could possibly imagine. You act as though I harmed her out of malice, but in truth she of all people deserves my existence. I will carry the weight of her pain, take the blame for her life of suffering, and offer her final peace cursing my name."
Rider tensed. "You. Harmed. Her. And. I'm. Going. To. Destroy. You. Don't question it again."
Avenger sighed. "I suppose it speaks well of you that you are dedicated. All of you. If the world held more such as you, perhaps it could have been saved. But the will of mankind is resolute, and my purpose is set in stone. I admire you, I truly do.
"But you are all going to die here."
It shifted slightly, moving one hand a few inches… and things began to go wrong.
"This is bad. This is so bad. This is soooooo bad…" Ilya muttered as she did her best to support Sakura. The fact was, Shirou was doing all the work and she was just doing her best to keep the other girl's legs from being sliced open on the stone floor. But at the moment, frankly, that was better than she expected of herself.
"I should be back there with them," Shirou said. "Maybe there's some way I could help…"
"You heard Gilgamesh! The only reason that thing didn't kill you already is that it doesn't think you're worth it!" Ilya snapped.
He winced. "I don't know. Maybe. Can we trust him, really? You know where he originally came from. He used to be Kotomine's Servant, and Kotomine is the core of Avenger's body…"
"He's a little crazy, but he hasn't turned on us even when he had the chance," Ilya said flatly. "If he wanted to kill us, we'd be dead. I think he doesn't want the world to end, even if his reasons for it wouldn't make sense to us. And what's more… that thing isn't…" she shuddered. "It's wrong. I know as well as anyone what was within the Greater Grail, Shirou, and that… that shouldn't be what came out. I could barely sense anything, but for just a moment, there was something there… like a well of power, that felt bottomless and empty at the same time. Even looking back, I can't be sure there was even anything there."
"That's just one more reason for me to go back! Whatever it is, the more people we have fighting it, the better!"
Ilya fought the urge to smack him upside the head, if only because she would have had to drop an unconscious girl onto jagged stone to do it. "You did your part. You saved the girl, and you almost died doing it. Be happy with that for once you… you big doofus. I don't want you to go, that's enough reason for you to stay out here! It's not any safer, maybe, but… but I'm scared. I want you with me, okay?"
Despite himself, he smiled gently. "I can't promise much for sure, Ilya. Not in a situation like this. But until I know for sure that you're safe, I won't leave you. Is that okay?"
"No, idiot!" Ilya snapped. "There are three Servants fighting a monster down there! Legendary heroes and an actual demon! Legends don't end with 'and then while the hero was fighting the monster, a big overly helpful dummy also ran in and saved the day,' that would be stupid! Stay outside with me where it's even a little bit safer, and let the Servants serve for once!"
Shirou blinked. Oh God. I'm dating her. I'm completely doomed, aren't I?
"Ah-ha! Look at that! We already found a way out, I feel a breeze!" Ilya said cheerfully, seemingly unaware of her beloved's discomfort. "I guess we owe these people for punching so many holes in this mountain. There's all kinds of exciting new paths."
"You know, Ilya, sometimes I worry about you," Shirou murmured.
"What did you say?"
"I said 'where is Tohsaka'?" he replied smoothly, wondering vaguely if one of the skills he had inherited from Archer was the ability to lie convincingly. He wasn't sure if he should be proud of that, but considering the sort of person he seemed to spend most of his time hanging out with, he'd certainly get some use out of it.
"Oh, right. I'm not actually sure. She got hurt pretty badly, but we stopped to patch her up. Then Rider got her out of the mountain. But by then, I was already on the way down to you. I don't know where she ended up going."
"We should start by finding her, then. Rider would have left her somewhere safe, at least," Shirou said. He could feel the breeze too, and cast his gaze around for the source; the tunnels were still lit by the magecraft Sakura (Not Sakura, it wasn't really her, she wouldn't have made those sick constructs that tried to kill us all. It was the Beast. Never forget that.) "The key thing is to make sure you girls are out of the line of fire. Come on, I think I see the passage to the surface; it's not very big, but we should be able to widen it…"
"Us girls and you," Ilya said accusingly.
"Shirou. I know you're going to try to go back to fight with Saber. Don't. You're being… you, not being smart. She doesn't need your help."
He sighed, but he knew from experience that Ilya was hard to talk out of something she'd really made up her mind on. He would make sure she was stowed somewhere safe and worry about convincing her then. She wasn't totally unreasonable, just… stubborn.
The path they had found wasn't really a path. It really was little more than a hole punched in the side of the mountain; most likely, a result of something Gilgamesh had done throwing around arrows that could rip buildings in half. He didn't have the best aim, and when they didn't hit the target, they had to hit something. But the edges of it were cracking, crumbling when he touched them. He shoved them aside, pleased with how quick his muscles had gotten back to something usable. Every movement hurt, but he could make the movements. That was about the best he could ask for at a point like this.
"Okay," he said. "It's kind of small, but I think we can get out. Ilya, you go first, I'll lift Sakura up to you."
"Don't run away once I have her," Ilya grumbled.
He grinned, despite the situation. "Of course not. I said, I have to make sure Sakura is safe. You couldn't carry her far enough away by yourself."
"You're lucky I love you."
It took a few minutes of work to clear out enough space to fit a person larger than Ilya through a passage in the cliffside, but he was grateful for that. By the time he was done, the stabbing pain in his back had shifted to a dull ache. He might even be able to run if he had to, though he had to admit Ilya wasn't wrong; a running fight at the moment would probably be outside of his abilities. Still, he was healing, and healing faster than he ever had before…
Even as Ilya helped tug the unconscious Sakura through the gap from above, she shot him a glare as though she could read his mind and knew where it was going.
He pulled himself out, appreciating the ache in his limbs as the muscles reacted in exactly the way they were supposed to. He didn't even try to wait for Ilya to help him, recognizing she probably couldn't help move his weight anyway, but mostly he could admit he just wanted to see if he could.
This turned out to be for the best. Ilya had already dragged Sakura a bit down the mountain to get her out of the way (and yes, she was dragging her; certainly she couldn't lift the much larger girl, but more than that he got the impression she still didn't really like Sakura), and rather than come back to help him, she had just stopped to look up, staring at the peak of Mount Enzou.
"Ilya, come on. We need to get Sakura away from here, there's no time…"
"No. There isn't," Ilya said, still looking up. Without another word, she pointed.
And then, as Shirou looked to where she was pointing, he realized whey he had not been able to sense anything unusual when he'd been speaking to Avenger in the heart of the mountain.
It was the same reason that an ant can't perceive the person holding the magnifying glass between them and the sun.
Had they been human, it was very likely all three of them would have been killed in the first second.
The attack was not particularly powerful; not by the standards of Servants. But Avenger had flicked his wrists, making a pair of claw-shaped shortswords appear in his hands, and then the blow had landed.
Rider leaped to the crumbling ceiling, feeling a blade pierce her shoulder; had she moved a half-second later, it would have slit her throat.
Saber, reacting on pure instinct, caught a blow on her gauntlet as it lunged for her heart.
Gilgamesh called down five weapons from his vault, sending them raining down around himself to drive off any attack before it could land. He heard one of them ring against steel behind him, a blow that would have driven into the back of his head.
None of these attacks were particularly powerful. Each of the Servants in the room had repelled far worse. No, what made them noteworthy was that each one was a simple melee strike, launched at nearly the exact same second, when the three Servants were all at least thirty meters away from each other.
Avenger had not appeared to move.
"Knew it!" Gilgamesh snapped with a feral grin, launching another pair of golden blades at the dark Servant. One pierced its heart, and one pierced its head… or they should have. Without even stopping to see if they had, however, he rolled forward, and felt the blade pass once again within inches of his head. Coming to his feet, he lifted one of his own fallen swords from the floor and hurled it backwards, being gifted by the image of Avenger fading before it landed. Across the cavern, he heard the ring of metal against metal as Saber parried a strike, the blow coming less than a second after the dark Servant disappeared.
His grin widened. "Does everyone else see what's happening here? This is…"
"Down!" Rider snapped. He dove again, very annoyed at her tone, but he didn't regret the advice as her spiked chain slashed through the space his head had only recently vacated, striking the flesh of something behind him that had most definitely not been behind him a millisecond earlier.
Huh. She has quite good reflexes. Perhaps I underestimated her.
"Ah. You're a violent group, I see," Avenger said mildly, glancing sideways at the spike sticking out of his ruined eye. "Verg Avesta."
Gilgamesh spun to grab the chain and pull it free even as Rider cried out in agony, her hand clamping down on her eye despite no visible damage he could see appearing on it. He cast out a pair of golden arrows, barely looking at the target, just wanting to force Avenger to move. It didn't, just letting the blades pierce its chest, one to each lung… and causing a spike of unspeakable agony to bloom in Gil's own chest.
For a moment.
He reached into his vault, drawing out an elaborate brass medallion set in the center with a single ruby, and placing it around his neck. Instantly, white-hot agony became a dull throbbing.
So, heightening my magic resistance by two ranks decreases the sensation. He doesn't recreate wounds, just the sensation. Still, if he can stand and take an impaled eye without changing his expression, he could endure and return some fairly atrocious wounds. Any major injury he survives becomes a counterattack that incapacitates the target just from the phantom pains. We'll need to kill him with a single stroke. Can I risk Ea? It doesn't sing for me the way it will one day… it may not work. Or it may kill me. Worth the risk? he thought.
Aloud, he said, "Disappointing. Is that supposed to be your Noble Phantasm? It's petty. Small. Just a second-rate curse."
Avenger grinned, his eye already restored. "Well, I'm not much of a fighter, I'm afraid. I have a great deal of mana, but no real skills for combat of the sort you all utilize. You'll find you're much stronger than me…"
Excalibur tore through the air with the audible sharpness of a falling guillotine, slicing through Avenger's neck from behind with a single perfect blow.
His body flickered, and he reappeared slightly to the left of where the blow had landed.
"… though I have a few tricks, admittedly," he finished.
"There we go. Confirmation," Gilgamesh said. "That's a dark trick he's playing. The instant regeneration was a hint, but this…"
"The body is a fraud," Saber agreed. "It couldn't have been speed. I felt his blows, and physically he isn't terribly impressive. He's dissolving and recreating his form at will wherever he wishes."
"It's this cavern," Rider said, dropping her hand from her eye. "No… the mountain, the leylines, the sacred grounds. His power is suffusing all of it. So deeply integrated it's not even detectable, like he's become a part of the world. And he can just make a new avatar wherever he wants in that controlled area."
Avenger's grin widened.
His smile split his face almost literally, a corpse's rictus grin pulling back to reveal inhumanly sharp teeth, and something black and awful shone behind the warm gaze in his eyes.
"Ahhhhh. Heroes of legend. So strong, so shining, so clever. I truly don't want to fight, so I was hoping to drown you in illusion until I completed awakening. After all, you can't win, so expending the effort felt pointless."
Saber's eyes narrowed. "Huh. So, being toyed with still makes me angry. Good to know. I'm going to kill you."
"I'm not toying with anyone, Arturia. Just giving you the chance to live out the last hours of mankind in relative satisfaction. Feeling like heroes."
"A hero delights in a worthy opponent, not a fighting jester that relies on deceit," Saber said. "I have to say, I'm disappointed in you overall. All this power and no will. You play games, put no effort in, rely on tricks, fight like a novice. You're a god, and yet you're boring me."
The creature's smile only widened, its head tilting to one side just slightly too far to be possible with a human skeleton. "I'm not a god. I am a part of this world, the crystalized will of the human collective unconscious overwriting Gaia… and it being allowed by Gaia. Don't you understand? Your world is alive, and it hates you. The very world itself cries out for the death of mankind. For peace. And for once, the will of man is in total agreement with her! To let go, if it will just end the pain. Just let them escape the guilt. Planet and people both, wills mundane and divine, I am a Servant who administers their deepest wish. To All The World's Evil, they cry out…"
Please, let there finally be silence.
From one side, Saber slashed inward. From the other, a golden arrow roared out. The blows struck simultaneously, tearing Avenger's body to bloody chunks from two directions at once… which vanished before they hit the ground.
A line of blackness grew across the ground, splitting the cave into three… and then growing upward, becoming walls of inky black fog, dripping blood-red venom.
I said it before, didn't I? You are your own worst enemies.
Shirou closed the window while Ilya pulled the blankets up to Sakura's neck. They had found her an intact bedroom inside the temple grounds; it had been damaged in earlier battles and abandoned, but there were enough rooms remaining in the monk's quarters to get a passable futon for Sakura to rest in while they pondered what to do.
They had considered taking her further away, looking for Rin, but it… probably wasn't going to help.
"So," Ilya said, looking up at the top of the mountain as she opened the window he had just closed, seemingly just to be contrary. "It's gotten bigger. It's hard to see, but… look. I can't see stars except on the horizon, now. It's growing fast."
He shuddered despite himself, joining her gaze to see what he had really not wanted to look at again. But once it was brought up, you just…
The peak of Mt. Enzo was coated in shadows. Lower down the mountain, where they had crawled out, was fine; it was only the top five-hundred meters or so of the stone near the top, culminating in a black and red sphere of darkness that rest on the very top. And that, Shirou had quickly come to realize, was because the shadows were not flowing down from that sphere. They were flowing up, oozing out of the stones of the mountainside and gathering at the peak.
And from there, the shadows were spreading, like an ocean of blackness suspended above the city. Anyone looking up would likely just assume it to be a starless night, unless they were close enough to the sacred mountain to spot the wellspring. But the fact of the matter was that Fuyuki City was, as far as they could tell, on the verge of obliteration. If that 'sea of curses' were to fall, if it were as lethal as Sakura's shadow had been… it had gone from just the sky above the mountain covering almost as far as the eye, and it was still growing fast. Most of Fuyuki would die in seconds.
But the real fear of it wasn't that.
"Look at it," Shirou murmured. "It went from the size of the mountain to almost covering everything we can see of the city in ten minutes. And the growth rate…"
"Is getting faster. I can tell. Now that I know what to look for, I can tell it's…" Ilya trailed off, shaking her head. "It's like a black hole, drawing in the world's mana. The bigger it gets, the more it can take in, and the faster it grows. In a few hours it will cover all of Japan. In a day, all of Asia. A day after that, the world.
"A sea of darkness covering and drawing in everything… Avenger's real Noble Phantasm, just like Saber predicted. When it falls…" Shirou chuckled bitterly. "It's hard to even think about it. Even if it doesn't do a thing, it will block out the sun and end the world in a few months. There's no way anyone could break a spell of this scale except another Servant. And if it does fall, well, we've all seen what those shadows do…"
"I don't think that's our biggest concern at the moment."
"Ilya, it's the end of the world. What could be more concerning?"
"That," Ilya said, pointing at the center of the sphere, where something had etched itself against the blackness in blood red. Shirou squinted, trying to draw it into sharper relief… circular, but with some kind of pattern around the edges, oddly elaborate for the usually random scrawlings of bloody red that appeared along the shadows of Avenger…
And with a terrible sinking feeling in his stomach, he realized he had seen it before. Or at least something very similar. Just once, for a few seconds. What felt like a lifetime ago, and yet he had been, at the time, feeling an almost identical sense of inevitable despair…
Just before the crimson lance dove into his heart. When all he could think of was that he desperately needed to live, that the thought of dying like this was beyond unacceptable. When the light of the moon had erupted from the earth around him, and taken form as her shining silver armor…
"A summoning circle…?"
The darkness was so intense it might as well have been another world. Gilgamesh looked from side to side, and though he knew Saber and Rider were there, he couldn't see either…
"No. No, they aren't there anymore," he said, a bit of surprise coloring his tone. "This is another world… a Reality Marble. I underestimated the extent of its spellcraft. Ah well, time to crush it! Open, Gate of…"
He stopped, a sensation so painfully familiar and yet so terribly wrong filling every one of his senses to the point he could think of nothing else. Nostalgia and dread warred for control of his mind as he sought the source in this void of darkness, seeking him out…
The summoning circle ignited, blood red, and what stood there was perhaps the only being that Gilgamesh would, begrudgingly, admit as equal in beauty to himself. Masculine and feminine in equal measure, an otherworldly doll-like appearance that nonetheless called to something primal in every living thing, calling out to them on a level they could barely even understand.
Gilgamesh grinned, a frantic, furious smile displaying both joy and wrath so deep he could hardly express them. "Ah. Ah-ha. It makes sense that he would call to you. You, too, are a 'primal wish' of mankind, are you not? The call for a savior from the cruelty of the king, the need for the gods to protect…"
The transcendentally beautiful being stepped out of the circle, robes that should have been pure white swirling with darkness the clung to it like mist. But its body was untouched, uncorrupted, pure and perfect as ever… except the eyes. Only they showed the darkness, gleaming golden orbs shining through forest-green hair. And yet even they were still, somehow, perfect.
"It's been a long time, Gil. I'm surprised you recognize me when you look like that," Enkidu said, his tone warm and welcoming. "But you always did have a gift for seeing what would one day be. Perhaps our friendship pierced time and memory to inscribe itself on you even in the Throne of Heroes? That would be interesting."
"I would say I'm happy to see you, but I'm actually quite furious, Enkidu," Gilgamesh said, his smile widening as the Gate of Babylon opened wide behind him, the golden glow of the portals more than he could reasonably support with his current power, but he could not stop himself. He felt like he was in a dream, or following a script that he could not deviate from no matter how he might have wanted. "How could you demean yourself to answer a call from that thing?!"
"A Servant answers their summons, Gil. I have always been a tool of others, even when I was by your side," Enkidu said. "If the world ends, or not, it isn't really important. My destiny was fulfilled a long time ago, so I have no reason to care if anything else should live on either. For now, I suppose I'll just enjoy the opportunity to see you again... until you die, of course."
Gilgamesh narrowed his eyes, the rage in them a terrible contrast to his smile, making the expression look more like a beast's snarl. "I see. So, you're not exactly yourself. To think the summoning could be corrupted in such a way, to make even your mind crafted by the gods so twisted like this… ha… hahahahaha…"
Enkidu grinned, and from the black, formless ground around him, spears of darkness began to emerge, growing in number until they matched the golden portals in the sky. "Just like before, you smile when you're angry, I see. This will be interesting."
"Avenger… who ever told you… that you could do such a thing… to my friend?!" Gilgamesh snarled. "I'll tear you limb from limb, you mongrel!"
With a swift slash of the king's hand, the storm began.
Rider narrowed her eyes, the gleam of them illuminating the formless darkness she found herself in just enough to confirm to her that there was nothing to see. It's hardly the worst place I've ever seen, but I need to find the others. If that thing attacks while I'm alone, it might be difficult to face…
"So that's what's going on. Disgusting."
The pain of the words was almost physical. She had hoped that, after all those empty years alone, she would have gotten past it, but she supposed you never fully escaped that feeling. Underneath the mask of Servant Rider was still Medusa, and under the legend of Medusa was a sad, lonely girl growing up alone on the Formless Isle, with only her sisters to care for. But they were perfect immortals, and she was… hideous. An ungainly, monstrous thing, dark and cold in comparison to their brilliance. To hear their voice again was to bring all those painful childhood memories back, and some small part of Rider wanted to curl up and cry, as she had done more than once in life.
But Sakura needed her still. She had allies the relied on her now. And she was, however life might try to make her hurt despite this, an adult.
She spun, hurling the first spike at the sound of her sister's voice, not even stopping to wonder if the dark, hungry monster facing her would be Stheno or Euryale, just knowing she would have to destroy whoever it was without hesitation or remorse, no matter how much it hurt her.
It was best she didn't bother to question it, in the end, because the true answer was so much worse.
The young girl who batted aside her first attack without effort was indeed identical to Stheno or Euryale in most physical respects, down to her voice. But rather than the gleaming white dresses they had favored, she was cloaked in a tattered black robe, streaked with blood red; unlike the elaborate braids and pigtails they wore, her hair hung loose behind her. Grail corruption had turned the violet hair white, turned the gleaming amethyst eyes a shimmering gold, lined what should have been a black-and-silver cloak with bloody scarlet, but she was a Gorgon sister, beyond question.
And the magnificently crafted black scythe in her hands, wrapped with chains along its haft that matched the ones in Rider's own hands, made it very clear which one.
"Servant Lancer. My true name is Medusa," she said, her tone cold and heartless, every insult Stheno or Euryale had ever leveled her way rolled into a single statement, amplified a thousandfold as it came from her own inner child. "But you already knew that, didn't you?"
"Servant Rider," she answered quietly. "My true name is Medusa."
The girl's eyes narrowed, and Rider felt a twinge of pain as the magic within them tore at her flesh, trying to eat through her magic resistance and consume her. "You have a great deal of nerve still using that name after what you've done, ragged thing. You are not me. And I will never be you."
Rider sighed. "I wish you didn't have to be, but erasing our history… that's something beyond any god that has ever lived. There's no saving a monster like us, I'm afraid. The moment that blade in your hand cut the throat of the first mortal to enter our home seeking the goddesses, we were damned. All I can do," she murmured, snapping her weapon back to her hands and falling into a combat stance, "is put you out of our misery."
"Arrogance," Lancer said, shifting the weapon in her hands with practiced ease and grace despite it being larger than herself. Power rolled from her eyes in waves, the crushing pressure of a divinity that Rider herself no longer possessed. "Trespasser on my future, the goddess of the Formless Isle sentences you to death."
Saber sighed, watching as the slash of light and mana she had cast out vanished into the darkness that seemed infinite, and infinitely irritating. "If you think I'm going to be scared of the dark, you're in for a great deal of disappointment. Come out and face me already. I was having more of a good time with the damn dragon, at least it didn't insist on playing endless tricks! My kingdom for a foe that just has the grace to challenge me directly…"
Something growled behind her, and she winced, offering a rueful smile at the sense of recognition.
"Ah. I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. At least, offering a kingdom I don't have anymore was a bit thoughtless. Isn't that right… old friend?"
The black knight stepped from the shadows, shrouded in black mist and gleaming red power blazing behind the visor of its helmet, looking less like a 'person' and more as if a portion of the void had simply come to life. The smile faded from her lips despite herself. She could not willingly call herself the same woman she once was, but she could not claim to be a completely different person, and… and there were things that Arturia had never wanted to do again, in this life or any other.
"I don't suppose you'll be more talkative than last time? But then again, you never needed anything like a Holy Grail or the curses of a dark god to be… unreasonable…"
The helm shattered, revealing a handsome face twisted in a snarl of unthinking rage, foam dripping from teeth slightly too sharp to be natural, tangled white hair hanging in filthy mats around his neck. In the knight's hands, a blade of surpassing quality, a broadsword dwarfing even Excalibur, appeared; solid black, but shimmering against the matte blackness of the void, the power of it so intense she could feel it almost like physical force against her body.
"Arthuuuuuuuuuuuuur!" Lancelot roared, nothing in his gaze but the blind, unthinking need to destroy. Hate for himself, for her, for the entire world, formless and unceasing, demanding only a target. Anything would do, as long as it could be destroyed.
With a sad sigh, she raised her blade. "I… could not be the judge you demanded when last we met, Sir Lancelot. I could not give you the honorable demise you sought. Though I do not wish to, though I seek nothing like this… I will honor you, my friend. As you honor me by seeking hatred I never felt for you, as you suffer by feeling guilt for a love I never begrudged you…" her gaze hardened, and she pointed Excalibur at the enemy before her, the mask of a king falling across her face with practiced ease. "This shall be King Arthur's final battle before his kingdom dies forever, so let it be a battle worthy of the name! Draw your weapon, and come at me with all your hatred! I will meet and accept it, and return you to the Throne of Heroes with the honorable death you desire, Knight of the Round Table!"
The black blade ripped through the darkness like a comet, and the golden blade met it as an unbreakable wall. The darkness of the world trembled, as blades bathed in blood and darkness burned with holy fire as they met with force that shattered the heavens…
… and nearby, yet a universe away, Avenger smiled as he sat in meditation.
The Holy Grail that grants wishes.
The Black God.
All The Evils of the World.
He smiled, and in his eyes, the whole world was reflected as his gaze grew, and grew, and grew. He saw a world silenced. He saw the infinite darkness of the void beyond consuming all things. He felt the death of the world approaching.
There was no cruelty in him. He would let them die as true heroes, in battle against foes that called to their hearts. And while they played, he too could find some meaning in his existence. Fulfillment of what he knew to be his purpose. In that way, was he not just like them? Like all humans, he wanted only to fulfill that which he knew to be his one, true destiny. His purpose in life.
Does that please you, Kirei Kotomine? Here, in the end, you have finally found the true meaning of your life. I am happy to grant your wish, my 'Father,' as I grant the wishes of all the lost lambs your God has abandoned.
Please, let there finally be silence.