Chapter Forty-one: Ignite the Stars
It wasn't Archer.
It might have held blades that were superficially similar, it might have had similar power, but those were the barest and most unimportant surface details only. There was only one thing that mattered in determining who this truly was, and it was proven very, very quickly.
Every time the dark Servant's swords slammed home against Kanshou and Bakuya, Shirou felt nothing. Not the absence of sensation, no, he felt Nothing. There was no connection, no sense of walking in his footsteps, of learning from someone who had mastered his craft over a dozen lifetimes of tireless practice; all gone, replaced by a numbing, empty void that seemed to make the world in his mind smaller with every pointless, mechanical stroke of blades he cared nothing for. If you had told him this creature was a robot baring Archer's vague likeness, he would have believed it readily save for the fact that a machine would have just felt dead. This wasn't just an emptiness, it was a black hole. He felt less being in the same room as this creature.
None of which was, unfortunately, stopping the creature in question from trying to kill him.
The swordcraft was hideous. Disgusting. The empty cleaving of a butcher, without regard to skill or artistry. But it was fast, and strong, and even defending against this monster made Shirou's mind fog over. It wasn't just that he was weaker, being a human against a Servant; in his mind, he felt weaker. Something whispering in the back of his mind with each stroke that he didn't matter; he was a blacksmith, a craftsman, an artist playing at being a warrior, and he was fighting an amoral killer. More important than any physical differences, the mental gulf was beyond bridging.
Shirou didn't truly want to kill anyone. This abomination didn't want anything else.
I am the bone of my-
It isn't about ideals. Or beliefs. Or what you want to be, said something cold, dark, and twisted in his mind scattering the words and impressions as quickly as he formed them. It's about a metal blade going through soft flesh. Did you think you were special? You bleed like anyone else.
He whipped Bakuya across his chest, pushing aside the enemy's white blade (he refused to think of those utilitarian murder tools as 'Kanshou and Bakuya.' Whoever had forged them would never have cared enough to have given them names), only for the black to stab in behind it while he was overextended, striking for his stomach with lightning speed. He stepped back, clearing the range of the stab, but the monster slipped forward, its white blade already coming in at a different angle, the mechanical stroke of a guillotine descending for his neck. He couldn't possibly bring a weapon up in time...
God, the girls will never let me live this one down.
Rather than try to bring his weapons up, falling into a disadvantageous position that would likely not work and leave him open to another gutting blow even if he succeeded, he shifted the position of his head just slightly, forcing the sword coming in for his jugular to come in at the intersection of his neck and shoulder instead. A minor distinction, both would be a killing blow, surely…
Except the white blade did not rip through flesh and muscle, but impacted on the blades beneath his skin, lining the thicker muscles of the area he'd just barely redirected the strike to. And when that sickening, serrated cleaver impacted them, it pierced less than three millimeters into flesh…
And held fast, even as the Servant tugged to withdraw it, sending a shock of agony down Shirou's body that did nothing to stop him from smirking.
What's the matter? Don't quite bleed like anyone else?
Shirou lashed upwards, impaling Kanshou through the Servant's arm while it was held fast, bringing Bakuya in at his heart with a viciousness he had never felt or shown before in his life. It felt sick, wrong, utterly alien, but the wrath this thing stirred up in him at that moment, the feel of its disgusting blade in his skin, was something he couldn't deny.
This sick world doesn't reject you. But the world within Shirou Emiya does.
I am the bone of my-
Something flashed. Thunder rolled over him, and a shocking, mind-erasing chill that had nothing to do with cold flooded his body, holding him still, his weapon stopping mere millimeters from the Servant's blackened flesh, the poisonous gleam of his golden eyes boring into Shirou's. They glowed, and yet seemed to make the world darker just by existing.
And in his hand, leveled at Shirou's stomach and still smoking, the weapon that did not deserve to be called Kanshou had shifted and warped, revealing the barrel of a gun carved along the length of the blade.
"I have nothing," the Servant said, in a voice so blank and cold that Shirou could not even recognize it as his own. "Without is nothing but a killing machine, within is nothing but an abyss that swallows the world. I have nothing. I am nothing.
"And you are me."
Unlimited Lost Works.
The blades within him became so cold they burned, a glacial nightmare roiling out from the point of impact of the bullet and echoing through the whole of his world, rocketing along his nerves and magic circuits alike to invade the whole of his body. And Shirou screamed, and screamed, and screamed…
Gilgamesh fell, sparks rolling off him, amid a pile of razor-edged spears of black clay that tore into his young flesh. Blood and sweat mixed in a stinging haze that clouded his eyes, and his limbs felt like lead weights. He called out with his mind, seeking greater treasures, seeking tools of warfare and healing, seeking anything that might give him an advantage, but nothing answered his call save the barest golden flickers.
The Gate was closed, and the King's armory lay broken and discarded. Much like the King himself.
"Rise, boy! Where is your fire?! Where is the will of the king?! I refuse to kill you while you lie on the ground like a groveling dog!" Iskandar roared.
"He's a bit overbearing, Gil. Feel free to give in; you won't even die. Your soul will return to the Throne of Heroes and you will be held forever as data, in peace and silence," Enkidu said, smiling beatifically, its voice a gentle soothing waterfall compared to Iskandar's raging thunderstorm. Gilgamesh was not sure which he hated more.
He strove to rise. To show the will of the king they disparaged. But his limbs did not obey him. His mind and soul were incensed, so burning with rage he felt his heart would melt through his ribs like magma, but his body… this young, useless, child's body…
I am no king. I am a weak boy who will grow into a strong man, but in the process I will leave behind everything that gave me value as a person. I cannot win, because I do not deserve it.
He tried again to rise, if just out of sheer stubborn pride. But even that, perhaps the only thing he had he could truly call his own, just didn't seem to come to his call anymore.
Enkidu smiled. "See, Gil? You can take advice, when you try."
Rider slid to a stop, going a little bit further than she should have because of the blood, and ripped an arrow from her thigh. That wound healed, at least; Sakura still had more than enough power to keep her going, even now. But the rest…
The strategy was simple, practical, and distressingly fiendish. Archer maintained suppressing fire, a rain of arrows perfectly predicting all of Rider's first instincts and placing an arrow in every place her battle senses told her to dodge. Lancer acted on each and every one of them, her speed and power a perfect match for Rider's own, and she focused not on killing blows but on inflicting any wound at all, no matter how shallow. It was much harder to block, and the wounds did not heal so long as she lived… leaving them open for Assassin to exacerbate, slipping in and out of the shadows.
But the wounds didn't matter. She could have been in perfect form, and this still would have been a battle she couldn't win. No matter how much her mind might say 'this is not truly Stheno and Euryale,' no matter how much her logical self screamed it, her heart would not accept it. These were her sisters, the center of her universe, the family she had betrayed and murdered in the depths of her madness.
Her sisters had never hated her, in life. But deep down, beneath the monster she had become in the core that was still 'Medusa,' she had wanted them to hate her. This, the nightmare of them turning on her, carving out the revenge they had never before sought... it was right. It was what she deserved.
She couldn't win because she didn't want to win. Because she didn't deserve to win. Because she was the hideous, twisted monster that had ruined all of their lives, and they should destroy her for it. Every blow that Lancer landed was nothing but the physical manifestation of a self-loathing that had plagued her for centuries. Her heart punishing her the way she most deserved, just like Avenger had claimed. She was not human, but she was still her own worst enemy...
Stheno slid from the shadows, faster and more graceful than she had ever been in life, a folt of incandescent mana slipping from her fingertips in a bullet aimed for Rider's heart. It would have been a killing blow to a target even slightly slower, but she had fired it knowing Rider would dodge; she was left with the choice of dodging left or right, where Lancer's scythe would sweep to catch her legs, or leaping directly up and leaving herself more vulnerable to Euryale's arrows. The arrow would be the option she could survive, for now, even if she increasingly did not want to, so she gathered her legs beneath her and...
Not a true slip, really. A stumble, the barest twist of an ankle that was too weak from loss of blood to catch her weight properly. But the ankle turned beneath her just slightly, slowing her dodge a tiny bit. A tiny delay between thought and action that Rider normally would never have experienced.
The tiniest flaw in a maneuver that could not afford to be less than perfect.
Her leap was the barest fraction of a second slower than it should have been, and that was far, far too much. The bolt of mana, aimed at her heart, instead struck her left side between her third and fourth ribs, burning a hole completely through her.
Through a haze of red, as her lung collapsed and red-hot agony flooded her entire body, emanating from a single point of paradoxical icy numbness, she saw Stheno's gentle, satisfied smile.
And she knew it was exactly what she deserved.
It's not possible. It's not possible. It's simply not possible.
Saber stood, one arm hanging limply at her side, one eye swollen shut. Her armor was shattered around her.
And around her, no less than five knights of the Round Table, each one a magnificent Servant whose power would have done a Master proud in any Holy Grail War, lay dead, their bodies fading into the blackness.
It's not possible, Mordred thought numbly once again, a mixture of rage, fear, and all-consuming awe overcoming even the blackness within. Is this really the same knight who fell at Camlann? Is this really the same King who led us into battle? Nothing… nothing about this even touches her soul…?
"Arthur… how could you…?"
"You are not my knights, and I am no king to any of you! King Arthur never existed!" Saber snarled, the power rolling off her in a wave so deep and potent that Mordred felt as though he was drowning in it. "I am Arturia Pendragon, beholden only to myself! You are nothing before that oath, Avenger! I will not be broken! Nothing will cage or control me ever again!"
Hm. You are the troublesome one, I cannot deny. Even Gilgamesh is drowning as his past and future break him, but you… I try to touch the darkness within, but these shadows barely hold your gaze. Your pain is their power, but you do not feel any, and so they shatter like glass, Avenger admitted, its tone more curious than concerned. Still, the shadows will eventually be enough. It isn't very dignified, but even your holy sword can't break the boundaries of my world. You'll be worn down with sheer numbers.
Saber smiled, blood lining her teeth. "I only count one."
"Well, you are nothing but a peasant. One can't expect you to be skilled at maths."
Saber winced. "Oh, sh-"
The blast of magic that roared down on her was on par with Medea's finest, a screaming wave of black fire and bloody lightning, drowning out the last of her curse. It would have reduced a small building to burning rubble. Her magic resistance held, a bubble of calm at the center of the storm, and she was about to declare it a wasted effort…
Before the flame, washing over her harmless, rolled into the corpses of the fallen knights, seeping into their wounds like liquid soaking through the cracks into a bottle.
And they began to move.
Saber narrowed her eyes, leaping back to avoid being surrounded as the corpses rose to their feet in hideous jerking motions, still grasping their legendary blades side-by-side in a grim parody of their brotherhood in life. "You know, I didn't really hate you until just now? But my word, you're such a bitch I just can't help it."
The woman who had shimmered into view next to Mordred was a far more twisted mirror than the young knight. Her features were very similar to Saber's, but that just made the differences stand out more; older, softer, her hair reaching down to her waist and tied back in beautiful court braids, falling elegantly over a lacy and provocative black gown that hugged her generous curves and which Arturia would never have been caught dead in. She grinned, an expression of simple joy, but her eyes showed there was nothing behind it but a malice so deep it seemed to seep out into the air and make the world a little bit darker simply by existing. Her eyes were a deep blue-green a shade darker than Saber's own, and her hair was the same shimmering gold it had always been. Corrupting her was impossible, after all; her skills as a mage rivaled Merlin and her will was unbreakable, eternally focused only on her own benefit with no factor able to even slightly divert it. No curse would touch her soul without her permission.
No, she was here because she wanted to be, as always.
"Not half so much as I have hated you, ever since the day I missed my chance to smother you in the crib," Morgan said, her voice a melodious purr made more for bedrooms than battlefields. "Fortunately, our legends intertwine beautifully. The tales of Camlann resound through the ages, carrying our names into the future, and if there is something 'most suited' to ending the life of King Arthur, it would be the machinations of Morgan le Fay and the sword of her lovely child. So please, do stand up, Mordred. Your father is waiting for you."
With a smile that practically shone with madness, matching her eyes for the first time since her appearance, Morgan reached down and put a reassuring hand on her 'son's' shoulder. Something flashed behind the young knight's eyes, the gold of them turning red, then black, and tears of blood began to well up in them as he screamed…
"Ready your sword, beloved little sister. Though it gives me nothing but a bit of joy at the end of the world, I look forward to reenacting your fall over and over again."
The Sea of Souls spread, and at its core Avenger's consciousness was pleased.
Its senses were expanding along with its body, which was growing more quickly than even he had believed it would. Already it had pierced the boundaries of Japan, overpowering the Divine Wind and stretching out in tendrils toward other nations, seeking new leylines to tap. It would enter them, drawing in mana at an ever-growing rate, and expand outwards in new, growing clouds of power. The world would be ensnared, wrapped in shadow, and when the morning came, for fully half the world there would be simply be no sunrise, while the other half slid blissfully unaware into a night that would never end.
Avenger would hold the world in its hands, and then it would squeeze. Humanity would be annihilated within seconds of the attack beginning, without time to feel fear, or pain. Simple. Elegant.
It no longer had a mouth, but it smiled anyway, feeling the bliss that could only be experienced by a being that knew it had found and fulfilled its purpose in life. A wish granted, a new world created, one of perfect silence, without pain or struggle, humanity finally allowed to find validation in their most deeply held beliefs, if somewhat briefl-
It was small. So small Avenger could barely feel it. The power it had gathered was cosmic, nearly on the level of a deity that could govern the world; a simple ritual of magi would be insignificant against it. A drop in the Sea of Souls. The power gathered was considerable by the standards of a mortal, certainly, but it could hardly do anything to the beast that Avenger had become… except that the magi performing the ritual were not exactly human. And what they could eventually do when they really got started was not something even Avenger could easily predict.
'Mother.' 'Aunt' Ilyasviel. What exactly do you think you are doing, then?
Ilya ran her bleeding finger along the path of the circle, meeting Sakura going the other direction, as they completed the spell sigil simultaneously. They had each covered half of the total circle; both to get it made more quickly and to make sure it was composed of their mixed blood. They would have to channel more power than a human safely could. Than a coven of humans safely could, really.
Ilya sighed. Oh, let's be honest, this would kill the entire Clock Tower, even if the World didn't come down on them like a hammer just for making the attempt. We're assuming that since both of us are containers meant to hold and channel infinite mana, we can actually do that and survive because I'm not human and Sakura kind of brushed against Akasha and ate a Servant. This might end with us as a pile of smoking charcoal.
But… the circle was perfect. Perfect. Far from looking like it had been scribbled on a floor by two exhausted teenagers, it looked like a team of professional mathematicians had put it together in a lab with equipment to measure its precision down to the micrometer. She and Sakura had performed this spell exactly once each, separately. And yet together, they were so effortlessly in sync they had made a functional summoning workshop in five minutes, in some old monk's dusty bedroom. Both of them had been through Hell in the last day, and yet neither felt tired anymore. Ilya could feel the flow of magic in the other girl, and it was like looking in a mirror. And the thing about mirrors was that if you placed two of them facing each other, then what was inside would reflect back forever and ever…
It might work. It was insane, but it might work. And that was all they needed to risk their lives on it. Ilya giggled.
"Did something happen?" Sakura asked.
"Just thinking that we are probably literally insane. Both of us. Mentally ill. It's funny."
"… You have an odd definition of humor, Ilyasviel."
Ilya rolled her eyes, but her grin didn't fade. "You're just boring. Let's get…"
'Mother.' 'Aunt' Ilyasviel. What exactly do you think you are doing, then?
Ilya's grin faded in a big way at the voice echoing through their minds. "… Go, go, go!"
Sakura raised a hand, and Ilya matched her, pressing the bleeding tips of their index fingers together over the circle. "Fill. Fill. Fill. Fill. Fill. Let each be turned over five times, simply breaking asunder the fulfilled time. Let silver and steel be the essence. Let stone and the archduke of contracts be the foundation…"
A summoning ritual? It's too late for that, I'm afraid. You two certainly have the power to call forth spectacular Servants, but they'll just be two more frail souls trapped within the world of Bundahisn, Avenger said, its tone warm but chiding. Wouldn't it be easier for everyone if you just waited for the end?
"I shall declare here. Your body shall serve under me. My fate shall be with your sword. Submit to the beckoning of the World you once defended. You who defeat Fate, you who stand against all evil…" the girls continued their chant in unison. Their skin grew paler with each word, making their veins stands out in sharp relief. The power in the air was palpable, but they did not look strong; rather, both girls looked on the verge of simply collapsing at any moment. And yet they continued, each word so filled with pain that a casual onlooker would have assumed they were speaking against their will.
The only onlooker, however, was not very casual indeed.
Aaaaaaaah… so that's it. You've altered the ritual. Naughty girls, are you trying to call up something beyond humanity? As though a divine spirit would answer the call of mankind! Still, best not to take risks.
Thank you for all you have done for me. You may sleep now, and in your final dreams find the freedom you were ever denied in life.
Far above them, the darkness lining the sky cracked, and something fell from it. A torrent of madness, ten thousand curses falling from the sky like a pillar of black fire and poisonous sludge. It fell toward the temple, a sword of the absolute that could not fail to kill any human it engulfed. Avenger's ultimate goal for the world, pushed into the microcosm of two scared girls.
Scared, but not helpless.
Because Avenger had seen, but for all its power, it hadn't really understood. The point was not to call to something beyond humanity. For any victory to happen here, it had to be humanity that fought.
"An oath shall be sworn here! I shall attain all virtues of all of Heaven. And together, we shall destroy all the Evils of Man! From wherever your souls lie, called forth with the thousand songs of your glory, come forth from the ring of restraint, Protectors of the Scales!"
Sakura and Ilya fell to their knees in perfect, unintentional unison, puppets with their strings cut. The circle flared… and the summons went forth.
Boosted by all the power of two beautifully constructed Holy Grails, heightened by their desperation and their earnest need to save what they loved, and carrying with it a child's helpless plea for someone, anyone, to please stand against the night and say 'No,' and directed by a catalyst of perfect, surpassing quality that any great hero would feel the call of: The planet, and every person on it.
The summon went forth, and was answered.
"Forgive me, Master, but this does not seem the time for introductions," said a voice from above the two girls where no-one had been standing seconds earlier, one that made Ilya's heart skip a beat with the sheer audacious shock of the moment. "Target incoming, and it is… large. You seem to have acquired quite an enemy for one so small! Well, fortunately, if my Master died when I was just summoned, I could hardly call myself a hero. Lock target, discern vulnerable mana patterns, and load my finest arrows! Ready…"
Loaded. Shooting the Hundred Heads.
In his hands, a silvery bow appeared, so large it seemed that even the giant of a man who wielded it was too small. The arrow appeared only when he drew the bow back, black stone and wood polished to a mirror sheen, and gleaming with blue fire even before he fired… and it split, one projectile becoming a dozen, a hundred, more…
A thousand blackened curses were met by a thousand burning silver stars, light and darkness dancing against each other in a storm that ripped open the sky.
What… what is this…?
"Ber… Berser…?" Ilya began, unable to form the word fully from the sheer shock of the moment, gaping up at the giant standing above them; she could see him only in silhouette, the light of his power roiling over them all, casting impenetrable shadows over his features, but the power, the idea of it just felt so painfully familiar…
He smiled down at her, an expression of paternal approval he could not have provided her at any point in their short association, but one she had always hoped he would have chosen to give. His face was gentler than Berserker's, though still strong and obviously inhuman; his skin was lighter, closer to the shade of polished bronze than the blackened iron of her lost Servant, and draped across his massive shoulders was a cape that ended in the head of a lion behind his own. "I seem to have been called into the Archer class, in fact, young Master. But as the light in your eyes tells me we have met before in a life I did not live, you may call me Heracles. I stand in your defense."
"H…ehehehe…" Ilya said, giggling in some combination of overwhelming joy and absolute confusion that she couldn't even begin to express. "This… hehehe… this isn't what we were aiming for, I don't think. I'm stupidly happy, but are we about to die?"
"… I am familiar with the era in which I have been summoned, and so I know it is no longer considered appropriate for a small child to drink wine in large quantities."
"She isn't drunk. She's just insane," Sakura murmured, shaking her head. "And exhausted. We just… we gave everything, and you're all that answered…?"
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?
Ilya winced, a shock of pain and rage that was not her own ripping through her mind. Above them, the serene black sea began to swirl, arcs of red lightning roaring along it, centered on the newly formed crack in the darkness. Ilya wasn't sure, but she thought she saw eyes looking out at them from within. Thousands of them. "Oh. Um. Sakura, I think we made it angry."
Heracles smiled at them, stringing his bow again. "Well. You will find that doing what was thought to be impossible often enrages those who thought they knew better. And you! Are you going to sit against the wall like an ornament, or are you going to help a bit?"
"I am helping. Or did you think your arrows were so perfect they could destroy even that mass of curses?" said a voice that was… simultaneously unfamiliar and yet somehow enough to make Ilya's teeth grind in remembered anger. And Sakura actually smiled, which was even worse.
"Medea?" she whispered, as a woman… no, a girl, her apparent age closer to Ilya than to Caster, knelt next to them.
"Um, yes. I was about to introduce myself, but you… know," she said, a little awkwardly, brushing a stray lock of violet hair behind her pointed ear as she shifted her a simple lavender dress around her knees, a far cry from the robes she'd wear as an adult. "I am princess Medea of Colchis. I have been called as a Caster to serve you, though… um, as I am now, I'm afraid my combat magic is limited. I can heal and strengthen others, though, so I should be able to help out quite a bit."
You… you've surprised me. I can admit that. To feel something like this… even I have to see a bit of light here, Avenger said, and for the first time, Ilya thought she heard doubt in the voice tearing through her mind. You are special, indeed, mother. What you've done has defied all logic of magic. You… yes, yes, you took advantage of my own Noble Phantasm. Bundahisn summons heroic spirits to match the pain in the target's heart, but as a result, clearly it must weaken the walls between the mortal plane and the Throne of Heroes. With sufficient power, you could call forth many great Servants. But do you really think the willpower of a handful of humans, however mighty, could repel the will of all humanity? Drown in your sorrow and die.
The sky split open further. Something began to claw its way out, the glowing eyes within the chasm revealing even more features behind them; misshapen faces, far too many limbs, slick black tendrils and harsh, spiky scales, stretching back into a glowing crimson void that seemed to stretch forever.
"What… what is that?" Sakura murmured. "There's so many…"
"Curses, taking physical form. One for every human on the planet, I suspect, given the nature of this construct. We must have angered Avenger quite a lot for it to be releasing them here, instead of surrounding the world," Medea said. "They, erm, will be quite lethal. They aren't very sophisticated, just 'kill kill kill,' but there's… well. Billions of them. I suspect we should retreat before they manifest, Archer, or our Masters will be a bit… doomed."
"Retrat? From a loathsome thing that sees us all as mere animals begging to be slaughtered? I think not, girl. The only victory against such a beast as this, I think you'll agree, is in reminding the weak lost souls that even they have some strength inside. To be a Hero, you see, is not just to face monsters. It is to inspire men. Our Masters have commenced the greatest summoning in history, so who has answered it? Let us see," Heracles said, apparently unconcerned by the sight of the dark army finally dragging their way free of the Sea of Souls, and beginning to descend. And then, without warning, he threw back his head and roared in a tone that gave shame to the lion he wore, "I AM HERACLES, GREATEST HERO OF GREECE! TODAY I LEAVE THE GODS BEHIND TO STAND AMONG MY FELLOW MAN ONCE MORE! THOSE WHO DROWN IN WEAKNESS AND BEG FOR DEATH SEEK TO END MY WORLD, AND I STAND AGAINST THEM! WHO ELSE HAS ANSWERED THE CALL OF THE WORLD WE ONCE LOVED AND GUARDED?! WHO WILL STAND WITH ME?!"
And the nightmare crawling forth from the sky was ripped to bloody shreds as light, thunder, and fire roared against it from all directions at once.
Heracles grinned. "Yes, that will do."
"Ugh, Archers get to have all the fun. I wish I had a bow," the green-haired man said, driving his chariot forward through fallen trees that shattered like matchsticks beneath the wheels. "I need to get up there before you kill them all."
"Pay attention to the intelligence updates, Rider. There are going to be billions of them coming, we could do nothing but kill them for a century and never run out. Our duty here is only to hold the line," his handsome, long-haired companion said, running alongside the chariot with ease even as he put arrow after arrow into the sky with a flawlessly crafted black bow. This was, perhaps, made somewhat easier by his unique legs; from the waist down, a classically handsome young man melted into the muscular body of a stallion, strong and fast enough to match even the divine horses that pulled Rider's gleaming war chariot.
"You can call me by name, Chiron. We're old pals."
"You truly have no sense of decorum at all. Combine that with Heracles screaming like a madman at the epicenter, and I have to say you're all making your teacher very sad," Chiron said in mock exasperation. "… Ah. You'll get your wish, Achilles. Look up. More portals are opening… above the city. We'll need to hold them no matter the cost, or those people are doomed."
"HA!" Rider cheered, turning his chariot to the closest pillar of darkness as it began to fall over the suburbs, horrors already crawling free of it before it ever reached the ground. "And it's not even my birthday. Let's go before…"
"Hey. Mind if I catch a ride?" a figure in a green hood said, sitting on the edge of the chariot. Achilles would have wagered any money on the fact he had not been there a second before; he seemed to have just melted out of the forest. "Just you're running the wrong way. Turn ten degrees west."
"What?! Why?! And where did you…?"
Before he could finish the thought, a beast bearing features of a bear, squid, and crocodile in all the wrong proportions, so misshapen that it did not even look like it should have been able to walk, burst from the trees roaring in agony, before falling to the ground in three pieces.
"Sorry. I laid some traps to try and keep those things contained to the mountain forests, and I didn't want you two running into them, so I came to play guide. Anyone who wants to follow can take the trail we blaze," the man in the forest-green cloak said, nocking an arrow on a plain yew bow, far less grand than Chiron's but radiating the same unmistakable deadliness.
Achilles narrowed his eyes. "Damn. Archers really do have all the fun."
"This story is garbage, I'm going to just say it," the young boy said as he adjusted his glasses, his voice disturbingly deep despite appearing ten years old at the most. "When you have to deal with an apocalypse, who calls up someone like me to help? Were they not paying attention? As far as Servants go I'm clearly the lowest rung of the ladder. I'm so far down the ladder it's buried in the ground. You could step over my rung. I can offer the interesting people among you some more power, I suppose, but there must be plenty of Servants who can do that and who won't die if they get poked too hard."
"Nobody is asking you to fight, boy! Leave the feats of bravery and strength to those who stand strong among the mightiest of us, and chronicle our great deeds!" cheered a woman in a red dress so painfully bright it seemed to suck the very night itself out of the air, as she cleaved down a cursed monster with a blade taller than herself.
"He really should be helping," snapped the lovely young redhead fighting back to back with her, a talisman gleaming with mystical energy in each hand as she incinerated another handful of the seemingly endless wave of foes, the fox ears on her head twitching in annoyance as the heat from the backdraft ruffled her kimono. "What kind of man makes the ladies defend the homestead?! That is not husband material."
"I'm a bachelor, thank you very much," the author said with a sniff, penning another line on the scroll he carried. "And I am helping. I'm writing you two a story. It won't be very interesting because you're ridiculous, but I'm sure it will help."
"Ridiculous?!" the fox-girl snarled, a tiny bit of predatory rage slipping through the otherwise adorable façade as her eyes flashed. She didn't even acknowledge the shadow-beast that leaped for her exposed back, even when the red Saber cleaved it into twitching quarters.
"Well, I mean, look at you. You're clearly a fetish character, with those ears and that kimono cut down so low you're practically falling out of it. I'd have to sell your story in a smut shop. And the emperor there just looks silly. Who designed that see-through dress? It looks like it was made for a prostitute, and not one with a lot of self-respect."
"I of course designed it myself! When your body is perfect, you must of course allow the public the chance to admire it!" Saber declared. "But… bah, another pillar is falling, and they do not show me proper admiration. I shall have to draw us all into my Noble Phantasm, if I am to keep these creatures at bay alone. Are you ready, then, to enter my golden world, young chronicler?"
"Saber, what do you mean 'alone'? I've been fighting here as long as y-"
"Superb! Watch well, and pen the tale of Nero's glory, as she stands alone against the countless billions that threaten her magnificent empire! Aestus Domus Aurea!"
"You're not alone!" the fox-girl whined as the golden light roared out unheeding, to engulf them all.
"What I wanna know, handsome, is why we got called up so far from the action," the woman said, striding tall the deck of the sailing galleon, her red coat swirling around her as she twirled a flintlock pistol idly in her hand. It had no crew, but it sailed the seas of Japan flawlessly. There was no wind, but it moved in her chosen direction without fail, faster than the swiftest modern battleship.
"We have our role to play, as all things do," the man said in reply, his golden armor gleaming in the night despite the lack of any light to reflect from it. It shone with an inner fire, perhaps, or some unseen sunlight shone from the spear he carried, illuminating white hair and features that should have been too thin and angular to be attractive, but were crafted with such otherworldly beauty they caught the eye anyway. He motioned to the distant shore, and above it the cloud of bitter darkness growing outward nearly as quickly as the ship moving toward it… and even as he gestured, it began to disgorge beasts upon the shore; creatures with a dozen wings that ripped through the air in defiance of every law of physics, tentacled monstrosities that leaped into the waves and left a sickly black film upon the ocean where they swam. "Look. The enemy has reached the borders of the island. If we fail to hold it, then it will pass this ocean, even onto my homeland. We cannot allow this."
The woman smiled wickedly. "Well, we can't let the Indies be destroyed. Where would anyone get spices? Let's start hunting, gorgeous."
"You are an off-putting woman."
"You have no idea," she said with a grin, whipping off her hat and drawing a sword into her free hand, brandishing it to the dozen ships sailing behind her. "Anyone who sailed these seas, follow me! They may call us Riders, but I prefer to think of us as Masters all our own, with the finest ships the world has ever seen as our Servants! I am Temeroso al Dracque, and I guide you into battle, Servants of the Sea! Set sail, the Wild Hunt!"
"A strange woman, but a bold heart. I shall honor you, and serve as a weapon for this vessel in its finest hour," the man said, leaping to the bow in a single motion, even as the cannons began to thunder around him, the spear in his hands bursting into a brilliant light that outshone every gun on every ship, even as they fired with fury that would have withered a mountain beneath their power. "Come, Brahma, and pass judgment upon this great evil. Come, Surya, and burn away the darkness with your eternal and unforgiving flame."
Drake watched as a missile that outshone the Sun a thousand times over roared from his grip, striking the sea of darkness that stretched across the entire horizon, and tore into it, roaring through the darkness so far her eyes lost sight of it, leaving behind a gaping wound in the Sea of Souls so wide she could have sailed a dozen ships down it side-by-side.
"Oh, yum," she said, licking her lips. "Say, ever consider a change of career? You got all the makings of a sailor, and I could use a cabin boy."
"Very, very off-putting."
In a nameless forest in Osaka, a pillar fell. Beasts began to pull themselves free from the pool of curses, stepping out onto moss that died the moment they touched it, their gleaming red eyes locked onto where they knew the nearest town would be found. A small, rural community of only five hundred, but it didn't matter. All humans were equal in the eyes of Avenger. For five hundred humans, five hundred of the twisted, amorphous monsters pulled themselves forward, fangs dripping venom.
Quietly, so quietly it should not even have been audible over the roaring of the curse, a bell rang.
In the empty darkness, nineteen skull masks began to circle the horde in a macabre parody of a dance, giving pause even to mindless monsters as laughter laced with cold malice began dancing on the wind. Flickers of blue flame began to dance between the trees, but it did not burn.
"Do you hear the bell, wretched things?" a voice like the death rattle of a corpse asked from nowhere, as soft as wind across a grave. "Your existence is not the will of Allah, and the Hassan judge you unworthy to trod the ground of His world. Join me, ye followers of Maalik, and together we will guide these rotting beasts to their fate in the pit."
"Zabaniya," nineteen voices said as one.
It was not a battle, but an assassination, and there could be no survivors.
The enemy was neverending. Avenger's well of power may not have been truly 'endless,' but it could call forth a single curse for every man, woman, and child on the planet. Further, so long as his mana was held, even destroying the physical forms of these curses only slowed the tide; they could eventually be recreated, called forth once again from the darkest depths of human thought. The Sea of Souls was the darkest, most cruel parts of mankind's psyche made real and physical; it could most accurately be called an Anti-Humanity Noble Phantasm that would not disappear until every piece of it was destroyed utterly, or the humans that gave it shape were all killed. It would never stop. It could not be held back.
Legendary spears and blades tore through shadowy flesh without effort, their wielders destroying an enemy every second and moving on to the next without even a pause for breath. Arrows and daggers fell like rain, each one of them a work of art. Mounts of all description, from warhorses that shimmered with ghostly light to dragons that ignited the air with every breath, charged down the lines to reinforce the weak and aid the strong in pushing ever forward. Magic, sorceries that would have humbled and terrified the greatest instructors in the Clock Tower, roared forth in a storm as circles of the greatest mages in history gathered together the disparate threads of great spells and forged them into a ritual to shatter gods.
If the Sea of Souls was the worst man had to offer, the Throne of Heroes was the greatest. The enemies were at the gate, and they were a horde beyond counting, come to destroy all that lived.
But the gate was strong.
Near the sacred mountain, a man sat, all in white, watching the two young girls who had crafted the miracle, and he grinned.
"They remind me of you, Arthur. Young, small, so naïve it hurts… and miserable, with only a few tiny bright spots in a life that should not have been so hard to one so young. And yet…" he smiled, and the expression was simultaneously boyish and ancient. "And yet you can see it, deep within. The greatness. Obviously, if they could manage this! The walls between worlds might have been thinned by that atrocious thing, but to tear them open entirely is a feat of legend that would qualify either of them to be summoned as a Caster one day. It would be a shame if you didn't get to see it with your own eyes."
The ocean of darkness had been met and stopped in its tracks by a blazing, impossible counter-tide of light. And so, he chose to take advantage of that, just a bit, drawing that light out, inward, and down to where it was needed the most…
Which, to the surprise of even him, was not even Arthur. He smiled. "You've made some very unusual friends, my young king. It suits you well."
"Bloom now, flowers of the eternal garden. Let your brilliance light the path for those strong enough to walk it… wherever they may be."
Shirou Emiya was gone.
No, more accurate would be to say that the data representing Shirou Emiya had been overwritten. An outside viral presence had infected Reality Marble 'Unlimited Blade Works,' and the sword data contained within was corrupted beyond recognition. When his mind tried to call forth any of the masterwork swords copied by the mental world, all that came to mind were the sick, unusable butcher's tools of his enemy.
Then, just masses of cold, dead iron, as if even those disgusting things had been scrapped and melted down.
And then nothing at all.
Those blades were the essence of Shirou Emiya. And one by one, as he watched, they were replaced by the essence of his worst possible self, and then ripped out of existence to leave only a blank void in his soul. Until all that remained was a cold, snowy field, no silvery blades in the ground, not a single star in the sky. A void of white, suspended under a void of black…
I have nothing. I am nothing. And you are me.
Lies, whispered a gentle voice in his ear. There might have been a time, long ago, when there was nothing inside but emptiness. But you are not empty. You are not alone. And you are nothing like this monster.
There's nothing… it's all gone… he thought, and the words sounded like static within his own mind. Every blade was 'me' and there are no blades…
You are not a collection of swords. You are not just a forge. You might not understand that, but she does. I do, the voice whispered. You are the Master of Saber. The partner of Rin Tohsaka, the hero of Sakura Matou… the love of Ilyasviel von Einzbern.
You saved them all, Shirou. In one way or another. And… and you saved him, too, which is something I can never, ever truly repay you for. Now, let them save you. If everything of 'you' is gone, then remember what within came from the bonds you've forged. Never give up, Shirou. Never stop fighting. You will never have to do it alone.
It was a beautiful sentiment. It really was. But she was wrong. He could see it, out across the emptiness, the swords being deleted one by one, nothing but rust on the snow before even that faded from existence. The mental world of Shirou Emiya was gone, and without his mind he was nothing but a corpse who's heart hadn't quite stopped yet. Nothing but blackness, and cold, and…
I truly wish I could have been your mother. But at least, let me give you this gift… from Ilya.
And from Saber.
And he felt a soft hand on his, pressing something smooth and wonderfully warm into his palm, and he knew. Erase everything else, and at the core there was something that couldn't be destroyed no matter what. Shirou Emiya's will and memories might be glasswork sculptures, transient and worthless, but…
But there was more to him than just Shirou Emiya.
The void swirled around him, trying to swallow him up, his blades gone, his body torn apart by the cold and empty iron of his enemy. It crawled along his nerves, deleting his body as it had deleted his world, seeking to end him so thoroughly that it would be as though he never existed...
And then it pulled back.
He no longer had hands, but he still held the object that she had given him. He had no skin, but he could feel the warmth. He had no eyes, but he could see the golden shimmer of something so beautiful and perfect that it could never have come from within him. It had come from outside, from somewhere antithetical to this twisted place. 'Bundahisn' was a toxic world of death where humans could not survive, and no mortal could stand against it. Perhaps that was entirely true…
But nothing, not even this Hell, can pierce her Utopia.
Saber let out the last of her breath, and fell to one knee amid the carved bodies and shattered blades, blood pooling up in her armor from a dozen mortal wounds, just as she had so painfully long ago. She hadn't had any words, then; just a sorrowful, desperate, and silent wish to anyone who heard her demanding salvation for her kingdom. She hadn't been able to put it into words. It was just a sensation.
She had a few now, though.
"You're sick, Morgan."
Mordred stood tall, his face as expressionless as a statue despite the fact that his right arm and half his torso was gone. He had to be dead; his heart had been destroyed, Saber was sure of it. But like the rest of her sad, fallen knights, he just kept going. Not a person, not even a Servant. A marionette of flesh and bone, dancing to the strings of his master. Just like he always had in life; there was some sad irony to that.
"I don't see the problem. You killed your son once before, did you not? Killing him again, and again, and again… why, that should be no issue at all for the great King of Knights," Morgan purred. "Ruining and destroying those closest to you is, after all, what you were always best at my darling Arturia."
Saber chuckled. "Trying to make me feel guilty? Mordred was never a son of mine, not for one moment. But you… you birthed him. Raised him. Set him on the path he took. If one of us murdered her own son, Morgan, it wasn't me."
Morgan smiled, and her expression was beatifically lovely on a face so beautiful that artists would have (and had. To the death. Morgan had unusual hobbies) fought for the right to capture it on canvas. Until you looked in her eyes. "That's what you didn't grasp, Arturia, not even now. Mordred was no son to me, either. It is more apt to say that I am a blacksmith, and he was the finest dagger I ever forged. Or, certainly I loved him… what craftswoman does not love her masterwork? But when you craft a perfect tool, for a specific purpose, and know that it can be used only once before it breaks… do you weep when it does so? Or do you take pride in it fulfilling its role so flawlessly?"
Saber considered this. "How do you feel about older men? I know a certain worm magician who would be a fine husband for you, when you get back to Hell."
Morgan giggled, a musical sound entirely out of place beneath the gleam of pure sadism in her eyes. "Oh, Arturia, you've grown amusing! Had you been so charming when we lived, I might have felt some guilt about ruining all you built."
Saber grinned. "No, you wouldn't have."
Morgan grinned back, a dark mirror of her sister's expression. "No, I wouldn't have. Because I am petty. And spiteful. And, yes, evil, if you're one of the sheep who define putting one's own pleasure above all else as 'evil.' And what pleases me, Arturia, is for you to suffer for the affront of your miserable birth. I would rather see the world burn than see you happy for even a second. I admit this, freely. Gleefully," she said, lightning crackling between her fingers."There's a certain power to be had, Arturia, in knowing and accepting who you really are. Don't you think?"
She raised her hand, like a puppeteer pulling the strings, and Mordred raised his own in answer, Clarent gleaming like a blood-red star. He opened his mouth, and it was Morgan's voice that emerged. "Clarent…"
Arturia's grin widened. Mordred had only a single arm to aim a large-scale anti-army attack. It would be weakened, and impossible to aim… but Saber's right arm was broken as well, and despite how quickly she could heal, whatever counter she offered would also be weak and impossible to aim. At this range… even if it was a perfect counter, it would kill them both.
Mordred was already dead, Arturia was most definitely going to join him… and well, if nothing else, the blast might take Morgan with them. Worth it, then.
She didn't rise to her feet; one knee would have to do, as she slid her weapon behind her, channeling everything she had left into a single, final stroke. "Excalibur…"
"… Blood Arthur!"
Light, divine and demonic, roared together, detonating out in a roar of power that flooded over them all.
Saber heard Morgan laughing in exultation even over the sound of the detonating energy as they clashed…
She saw, just for a moment, something behind Mordred's dead eyes that might have been regret as mixed gold, red, and black rolled over him, burning him down to the soul. Father... the name of your sword...?
And though she closed her eyes in acceptance at the end, she still saw the radiance, black and gold, meeting together in perfect shining crimson that tore through every cell of her body. She had to admit, she had thought it would hurt, but there was no pain at all...
And after a few more seconds of that, when there was still no pain, and the golden light had still not faded, in fact only growing more brilliant, she opened her eyes.
And then they opened wider.
"Shirou?!" she snapped, genuinely unsure; he was limned in light so bright she could barely see an inch in front of her face, but the silhouette matched. But if so, that raised so very, very many questions. How was he here, how was he alive, how was she alive, how was…
He fell to his knees like a puppet with its strings cut, the light fading as suddenly as it had appeared, and everything made sense. Everything. Why he had summoned her. How he had survived this War, And how he was here, now, crossing the invisible boundaries of this twisted, dark world to come to her side at the moment they both needed it most.
She saw the precious treasure in his hand, and despite herself she smiled with an old fondness that no force in time or space could have fully severed.
"Ah…" she said, kneeling beside him, and running her fingers along the gold inlay, glimmering despite the void surrounding them. Just from the touch of it, she felt life begin to flow back into her; and unlike Excalibur itself, the scabbard was still brilliantly azure beneath the golden adornments, untouched and unchanged despite the passing of centuries and the immeasurable changes to its owner.
She did not look back on her life with fondness, but she could not bring herself to hate Avalon.
"So. You were my sheathe all along…" she murmured, running a hand through Shirou's hair. She couldn't feel it through her gauntlets, but his skin was pale and clammy, his shirt coated in blood centered around a small, burned circle in the center. Her eyes narrowed. "You did this to him."
"Bundahisn is collapsing. Your wraiths are not regenerating. That should not be possible," said the dark man in a voice that was both painfully familiar and disgustingly wrong, as he slid from the shadows with a blade in each hand. "That… sheathe. It's done something. What is it? What are you?"
"She is nothing. A worthless, selfish brat who depends on the gifts of others because she has not one thing of her own. Who survives by sheer luck, who takes what is rightfully mine by sheer accident of birth," Morgan's voice said, from everywhere and nowhere, a low venomous hiss that seemed to be one with the darkness as it struggled to close back in around them, flowing into the golden cracks on the dark man's skin like poison; and as it did, the sickly yellow glow within him shifted, slowly turning the dark red of old blood. "Kill her. I don't care if we both die doing it, but join me, and we will kill her, no matter what it may cost."
Saber sighed, stepping between her former Master and the beast staring them down. "I apologize for my sister, Shirou. She is… well. Mincing words at this stage is pointless, so I will just say it outright: she is a gigantic bitch."
"Arturia…" the dark Servant said in Morgan's voice, his blades taking on a misty red aura that sparked with black lightning. His muscles grew beneath his skin, the smooth obsidian flesh splitting open further along the cracks that lined him, splitting far enough to expose muscle tissue that glowed with a sickly light. "I would rather see the world burn than see you spend one moment in happiness. AND. I. WILL."
She set Shirou down gently, guiding him the rest of the way to the formless ground as he shook against some cold only he could feel, and rose to her feet, sheathe in one hand and sword in the other. "Well, you'll try."
She drew her blade back, and the light around her was immaculate, as something in the darkness shuddered in rage and frustration…
Gilgamesh did the one thing that could have made even Enkidu back down in just a twinge of fear.
Not a laugh; that has to be made clear. He had a good laugh, intimidating and deep, even as a child. This was a bizarre, high-pitched, fast-paced thing that was laced with fear, desperation, and a kind of bizarre, manic hope under it all.
Each of these was an emotion based in weakness… yes, even hope, when it came to Gilgamesh. Hope, after all, implied that the situation was so bleak that defeat was possible. Even on the verge of death, Gil would accept a thousand years of torture before he allowed himself to show one second of belief in his own failure. And yet now he showed it willingly. He willingly bared a side of himself that he would never admit to existing.
But worse even than that; here, in the center of Bundahisn, drowning in the depths of his own heart, he had found hope…
"Something has happened," Enkidu said, unsure even as the words passed its lips why it had bothered to speak them. "Something has corrupted the World of Silence. Do you feel it, Rider?"
"I feel it. I feel everything," Gilgamesh said with a grin stretched across his bloody lips. "I feel everything. My beautiful garden. My shining queen. It's all shining so brilliantly in the back of my mind. Do you see the flowers, Enkidu? Do you see our beautiful world?"
Gilgamesh sighed, and shuddered with some combination of pleasure and pain as a portal opened, and the chain snapped around his arm, dragging him slowly to his feet. "It's so beautiful. All of it… and her. Look at her, Enkidu. Gods, she's more beautiful than any gem I could imagine. I already love her all over again. Who wouldn't?" he said, his grin widened to the point it was clearly agony with his wounds. "This world is my heart, you say? But all the world is my heart. And you two, so strong… you didn't kill me when you clearly could have. It's all. Falling. Apart. Tell me, is Avenger scared yet? It should be."
"… I see. I see. Rider, have you a Noble Phantasm stronger than that chariot? To make a mark on Gil's heart, you must have had great power. We'll need everything you have to offer and more," Enkidu said, a smile growing across his own face to match the bloodied youth.
"That seems a bit much, no? The boy barely stands," Iskandar said. "And… no, there is something…"
"The world favors him. His Majesty stands strong against all tribulations. Do you feel it, now?" Enkidu said, looking for all the world like a child that has seen a particularly majestic gift awaiting them. "I see. I see it, even as I fear to approach you now despite the gap in our power. Was I just a test for you after all, old friend? Did even I not understand the truth? If so… well. We should make this difficult on you. It isn't a test if you are not forced to sacrifice in order to pass."
"You're still a contrary bastard, my friend," Gilgamesh said, something shining golden beneath his skin, flowing out with the blood that coated him… and only beginning to grow more brilliant. "But set whatever obstacles you like. The King Must Defend the Kingdom… even if he has to give up everything he is achieve it."
And from the start, wasn't this just a child's dream?
The golden light intensified a thousand times over, becoming a beacon in the darkness… and light became flame, a pillar of coruscating power that had no heat, but which made the darkness recoil, the world seeming to shrink and waver around him.
Enkidu looked on, and smiled as the flames reflected in his eyes madly. "It begins, Rider. Though we are only wraiths, we will stand strong. For is that not how we came to scar the heart of His Majesty? To stand with pride and honor even in the depths of defeat, is how a Hero should live their life. No longer for the World of Silence, but for ourselves, let us stand tall."
Iskandar smiled. "Beautiful and wise! I wish I had known you in life."
"I'm suddenly glad you didn't. I suspect I would have had to kill you in self-defense."
Iskandar's grin was closer to the snarl of a bear than anything else, and behind his golden eyes was a passion that the darkness of Bundahisn could not fully extinguish, now burning again as brilliantly as the unleashed power rolling forth across the void. "He's here."
The golden flames parted, and Gilgamesh stepped forth. The true Gilgamesh, burned and purified, power rolling off him in waves. He stood, bare-chested, jagged red tattoos etched along his muscles, shining with soft crimson light, as though they were made of gleaming gems melded into his skin. In one hand, he held the Chain of Heaven, its silvery finish reflecting light that did not exist; in the other, Ea stood ready, its inner fire pulsing in time with the gleaming ruby tattoos as though to symbolize it as an extension of the King's own soul.
"Welcome back, Gil," Enkidu said, softly.
The King of Heroes raised a weapon older then time, and stood against the end of the world without fear. The nightmare wavered…
She wasn't born for the light, and it brought her no hope.
It was something Medusa had always known; from the moment she was born to the moment of her death, she had never been the perfect being her sisters were. They were living idols, immaculate beings for men to worship and adore, while she was their shadow; quiet, cold, and evil. Avenger's twisted world was where she belonged. It was where she deserved to die, and everything in her told her to lie down and accept Stheno and Euryale's judgment.
This miracle, this shining light, the power that roared through the void, echoing and growing stronger with each reverberation, she could feel the ultimate source. Ilyasviel, and…
Sakura. I… cannot put into words the joy I feel at your rebirth, my Master, she thought, the first real smile she had felt cross her lips in eons tugging at her mouth.
Rider. I was lost for a long time, but… I'm so glad to hear your thoughts again, her Master said to her, the fatigue and pain in her mind melting away at the familiar touch.
I couldn't save you, Master. I'm glad to know that others succeeded where I failed, here at the end.
No! You… without you, I would have fallen beyond salvation, and never found my way back, Sakura snapped. I can feel your pain. I know you want to give up. But you can't, do you understand? They need you. We all need you.
This is my end, Sakura. A fitting end, at the hands of my foulest victims. Please, go. Live in the light. I will pass on, forgotten, and the world will be better for it.
Survive, Rider. If not for yourself, then for me, Sakura said. You have never given up on me, even when I deserved it. Even when I have been a Master far too weak to shoulder the burdens and give you the support you needed. I will not give up on you now. I owe you that much, at the very least. I have no Command Seals left. I can't order you. So I ask you:
Live as you deserve, Rider. When I step into the light, it will just seem harsh and lonely without you there to take that first step with me.
Rider chuckled to herself, lying in a pool of her own blood, as Lancer raised her scythe. "Ah… hahaha… oh, that just isn't fair…"
"Life rarely is," Stheno said. "I know you never asked to die like an animal, poor thing. Well, we never asked to be devoured by a monster. We all die in ways we don't deserve."
"N-not that… it's just… all of a sudden… here at the very end, I find I have to live… no matter how much I don't want to..." Rider said, raising her head to lock her eyes on her sisters. She didn't apologize for what was to come. No apology would have sufficed. She just met their gaze, and let them see that in her eyes was no malice at all. Just cold determination.
Euryale blinked. "Well, that's going to be a problem for you, then."
Lancer brought the scythe down, the point aimed to sweep under her neck and slice up, adding her skull to the many that dotted the Formless Island.
Halfway there, it was stopped cold. Not by a weapon, or by Rider's arm, but by her hair, leaping up of its own accord and wrapping around the shaft of the weapon, twisting and warping, the fibers merging together and taking on a shimmering violet pattern of scales, a sheen of gold and black forming over it in seconds like colored ink dropped into clear water.
Medusa was not human. She had never been human, in life or otherwise. And so, she had some unique abilities that human Servants did not possess. One of them was called 'Monstrous Strength,' a power derived from the spirit's life as an inhuman beast. In most circumstances, it granted a simple boost to the Servant's physical power. It was very useful, and yet Rider had never used it, not once in the entire War, even on occasions when the simple ability to strike with more force could have easily spelled the difference between victory and defeat. Because her circumstances were…
Lancer pulled at her weapon, but she might as well have been trying to lift a mountain for all the impact her efforts had. The strands of hair, no longer violet at all but thick coils, armored in scales of matte black on the interior, and on the outside a dull gold that did not shimmer, instead seeming to draw in what little light could be found and strangle it.
"Lancer, retreat, before-" Stheno shrieked.
Before the sentence was finished, two more scaled coils of 'hair' leaped up of their own accord, faster even than Rider could charge herself… and on the ends of them, faster than the eye could follow, the black heads of vipers formed, fangs dripping as they plunged home.
Lancer hissed in agony as she leaped back, tearing off one of the serpent heads with her bare hands to allow it, the other sliding free as it failed to find purchase on her slender frame. She slid to a halt, already slightly unsteady on her feet, and the blood that flowed from the bites was smoking and hissing where it met the air, as if she was boiling from within.
Medusa raised her gaze, the coiling serpents twisting around the legendary weapon… and slowly, methodically, they constricted and crushed it, the shaft of the venerable spear cracking under the monster's power like it was no more than a wooden stick. Rider rose to her feet, her wounds beginning to stitch themselves closed almost immediately, and where the pale flesh closed back together, golden scales grew over it. Experimentally, she clenched fists that suddenly ended in golden claws; with the cracking of bone, her legs flowed together, a massive serpentine tail replacing them, raising her humanoid torso into the air as it stretched behind her nearly twenty meters, leaving her standing like a cobra the length of a city bus.
"Stheno. Euryale," the Gorgon said, smiling slightly. Her features were as beautiful as ever, her smile calm and angelic, and every movement she made was indescribably wrong, as the hissing serpents coiled around her like a lover, their eyes filled with animal hunger. "It has been some time."
The corrupted shells of the goddesses took an involuntary step back, fear in their eyes for the first time as the beast of legend licked its lips and prepared to feed. The nightmare…
Avenger had underestimated them. He couldn't deny it. He was growing, growing so quickly, but he was not a god. Not yet. His mind and body were expanding rapidly, they had ascended so far beyond human already, but they were not infinite. And now, they were under attack from all sides. Tiny, unimposing lights that should have been nothing more than harmless pinpricks against the tide of darkness, and yet they were tearing at the Sea of Souls with a ferocity he could not have conceived of.
The will of mankind was boundless. Limitless. It guided him to grow and consume, and he would do as they demanded of him. But the power of the enemy arrayed against him was unlike anything he had ever imagined facing. They faced the combined will of humanity and they could not destroy it, but they were holding it back. The growth had stopped, his power was no longer expanding. How could the will of a few hundred meaningless ghosts contend with the will of all mankind? And now the beginning of it all, the three who were drowning in Bundahisn's fathomless depths were breaking free? Something had changed, something was aiding them, their hearts were touching something and growing strong again despite the deepest scars of all, and he…. And he…
He was thinking of himself as 'he.'
His growth had not 'stopped,' it was reversing. His mind and body were diminishing with each passing moment, and this was not the result of some idiotic spirits hurling swords and spears against his body, this was something deeper and more insidious.
'Mother.' It was her. She had lost her connection to humanity's true desires, and with it she had lost her clarity of purpose. And together with Ilyasviel, the two Holy Grails had granted a wish. The peace, calm, and gentle sleep he offered was being corrupted by a searing, destroying light that took root within the world he had built and burned it.
Because that was all the light could do; burn, desiccate, and reveal the painful truths that humans would give anything to deny. They thought they were heroes, but all they were doing was forcing six billion innocent people to experience another few painful, meaningless decades of life that deep down none of them even wanted. Selfish, ignorant, heartless monsters, standing against the only hope of true peace this weak, sad little species would ever know. The contradictory nature of humanity; despite the fact that all they truly wanted was to sleep, to let it all end, there would always be those who chose to keep suffering on in futility, and they acted with such passion and power that they dragged their uncaring brethren along for another meaningless day of pain and despair.
"But there's one problem with that, Mother. The sheer power of those who fight for one more day is impressive. A heart that cares for nothing but its own survival can be a source of astonishing strength. I understand that now. You are few, and small, but your drive to fight on against all logic gives you a power I had not considered. But the human heart will always be a weakness, in one way or another. Even if it does not break and turn against you in despair…"
"IT CAN STILL BE TORN OUT."
He gathered himself, focused his thoughts, and shifted. Shadows flowed inward, sliding under skin that had not existed moments before, and the Sea of Souls diminished slightly. Not much; a few hundred million would be all he needed for what was to come. He took physical form once again, condensing a portion of the Sea of Souls down into flesh and blood, a personal vessel for his own use…
One that wasn't very human at all.
He supposed that was ironic, but at the moment, he was far too focused on killing everyone and everything in his way to care.
Author's Note: One to go.