Author's Note: This is entirely, absurdly too long, like big enough to be three reasonable chapters, but I couldn't split it. I must have scrapped and re-written half of it at least twice, on top of that. I'm both happy and miserable, and I didn't sleep very much last night at all as I typed out the last bits.
If I ever start writing another FSN story, kill me.
Chapter Forty-two: At World's End
The woman sighed, brushing a lock of golden hair from her eyes as she cast her vision out into the world, silently praying until something flashed behind her eyes. "Gilles, we have a new breach opening above Kyoto. Tell the circles to send forces to repel it, please."
"Okita Souji and Hijitaka Toshizou are going to fight in your name, my shining lady," Gilles de Rais said, his voice echoing through the night sky like ripples of blood in a pond, making the world seem slightly viler with every syllable. "May they slay, and slay, and slay again, destroying any who dare to question your holy word."
"They will suffice, milady. I chose them myself; both are Japanese Servants, part of a local chapter of knights that were quite famous some years ago. As the nation's ancient capital, they should be at their strongest there," Gilles de Rais said, his tone calm and strong, like the polished steel of his armor. "It is a risk to send only two to such a large city, but we must be willing to spread our forces if we are meet every breach. We have done well so far, but we both know the night will only get worse the longer our allies take to destroy the enemy's core."
"Worry not, my shining lady, worry not! Through your brilliance, your divine guidance, we can destroy any foe! All the magic I gathered in life is but a meager breath compared to the power we now wield. Dozens of Casters united in a single front! Your shining name on all their lips! Together we could bring the world entire to its knees before you! Though God strikes down at us from the foul poison bog that is His heavenly abyss, the spirit of Man shall prevail! Together, we tear the false creator from His throne and stand atop the world as masters of our own destiny!" Gilles said.
"Lady Jeanne, I do not trust that… thing," Gilles said. "And I realize the irony of that, considering, but…"
"That is hurtful, my friend! I look back on you most fondly. You, the knight I once was, when I rode at the side of my Holy Virgin! So fond I am of you, so fond I am of our Divine Lady, I even forget my hate for your mad God! For though he despises us, for though he torments the world with blood and madness, he has given a gift beyond measure to me this day!" Gilles de Rais replied. "Yes, I, Gilles de Rais! Though I have gone mad, though I have sinned, though I have brought forth every depravity I could dream of, I have been rewarded! Once more I fight for God, because after my centuries of torment he has given my fondest wish to me!"
Jeanne d'Arc sighed as he once again, for what she swore was the fiftieth time, switched his expressed belief on if their army was now fighting for or against the Lord. She knew it was blasphemous of him to even suggest it, but she could afford little time for sermons yet; it would have to wait until lives were not at stake and exhaustion was not burning in every nerve on her body. She believed even he could be redeemed, if he sought it, but it was clear he would not do so on his own. "Gilles. Both of Gilles. Please, focus. I realize you two are… not compatible. But it is only by the grace of God I am able to foresee the pillars as they fall, and I must focus all my efforts on it. I need my commanders to guide the army as best they can, with calm heads and firm hearts."
The Gilles who stood by her side winced, his plate mail clattering as he placed a hand on her shoulder. "Milady, your Revelations are a gift from God, not something you demand of Him. Is seeking them out like this dangerous to you? If you need to rest, we have many generals..."
"And each and every one of them is needed guiding our forces in their individual battles. I am needed here, seeing the nation as a whole. You are needed to connect me to them all, to turn my vision into a plan of battle that will let this mighty army hold through the night," she said gently. "We are all of us sinners, my friend. Whatever you may have done, whatever you may still do, tonight you fight for life. I am not so arrogant to claim all is forgiven, but tonight, you…"
She paused, her eyes widening. Something black flashed behind them, a splash of cold darkness across her mind.
"… tonight, we face the Beast. Pray we do not falter."
The roar shook the world, and yet paradoxically was totally silent.
The air did not move; it was within, echoing and reverberating off every soul in Japan as it built into a crescendo that split the skies, sending the Sea of Souls roiling madly… until a massive portion of it, instantly and without warning or ceremony, collapsed, crushing itself down into a single, pitch-black point. It was so sudden and moved so quickly that between the unending tide of enemies and the psychic scream that preceded it, many of the warriors doing battle on the ground did not even have time to notice it until it was far too late.
Avenger was not human.
This was obvious to anyone who had seen it, of course, but it did not quite bring across the point. Avenger was not human, it had never been human, and it would never be human. Both its original body and the flesh of Kirei Kotomine that had given it a new life were human, but the end result was nothing more or less than a beast born from absolute darkness. It was a beast born from the evil within man, an amoral ravening monstrosity that could never gain true comprehension of man, because it could only see their worst and most self-destructive aspects. Anything beautiful, anything positive, anything strong, anything that made life worth living, was beyond it. To Avenger, all humans were nothing but weak, agonized, animals that needed to be put down for their own good, for behind them was only regret and ahead of them was only suffering.
It was a beast. And when it took flesh once again, this was the defining feature that shaped it.
The creature that slammed down from the heavens like a comet was nothing earthly; so dark it appeared to be a hole in the world. Less like a living creature, and more the shadow of one being cast onto empty air, despite the lack of any light or body to be its source. But if there had been a body…
The form stood on two legs, but could not be called humanoid; it stood nearly ten meters tall, its head brushing the leaves of the trees, and its arms were so long they scraped the ground when it stood, ending in claws that dragged up furrows just from lightly scraping the ground. Every inch of it was predatory muscle; thicker around the bicep than a human waist, legs like tree trunks, the outline of thick fur coating every inch, a leonine mane and lupine muzzle indistinctly outlined by a pair of gleaming ruby eyes that were the only hint of light or color in the entire creature. It was a hunter, born not of nature but of nightmares; an embodiment of the prehistoric fear coded into all primates when they sensed a clawed, fanged, animal watching them from the dark. When men huddled together around a dying fire, and held their breath at the shadows of wolves in the forest, this was what watched them.
And then, with terrible smoothness, it moved.
The beast loped on all fours, its size belying its terrible speed; the world ahead of it was a tunnel, trees and rocks dissolving at its touch not from any curse, but from the sheer speed, power, and mass of the body it had forged. The world around it was a blessed darkness, corrupted by tiny pinpricks of light that screamed against its senses like steel shards embedded in its flesh. It could not tell them apart; all humans were identical to it save for two in particular. They were all that mattered, the only beings on this world that needed to be destroyed. But there were some moving, cutting through the forest toward his presence to intercept.
It could no longer sense the world in the way mortals did, perceiving all things as merely burning light or soothing oblivion. Three pinpricks of light stood in his path, and their weapons tore at its newborn flesh.
Then it counterattacked, and they did not.
Heracles and Medea had gotten them out the temple gate, when the temple gate, along with a considerable chunk of the temple grounds behind it, just… vanished.
It couldn't be called an explosion, because there was no light, no sound, no shockwave. Just an outrushing wave of blackness that flickered out of existence as soon as it appeared. As if a claw the size of the mountain itself had just reached down out of the sky and smoothly tore it out of the earth, leaving only a gash in the land where stonework and trees had been. Behind it, what remained of the temple itself had been completely bisected, the edges of the cut as smooth as glass.
And further behind, a dot of blood red could be seen growing larger.
"Ugh. Tartarus has well and truly opened up on us now, children," Heracles muttered. "What did we lose?"
Medea closed her eyes, murmuring something under her breath. "I am searching for a witness, but nobody in the magic web is replying. But the nearest pillar to our southwest is now undefended. I believe that line was held by Hektor of Troy, the Celtic queen Boudica, and…"
"… William Shakespeare!" said a redhaired man as he materialized next to the group, his green and scarlet outfit nearly as loud as his declaration and a wide smile on his face. "Until, upon seeing the battle turning against his erstwhile group, he fled for his very being! After all, must not he survive to chronicle this epic clash? If the world should end, would he not be the ideal witness? Must not-"
"You abandoned your allies to die because you are a worthless coward, and the only reason I do not kill you on the spot myself is that you may yet save even a single life in some way before this night is out," Heracles rumbled. "Go. Under the aegis of Olympus, I will meet the beast personally."
"… Ah, a man of action!" Shakespeare said, his smile only faltering for a moment. "Well, you should know, then, that although I am a Caster, I possess no magecraft! And further, all of my abilities and even my Noble Phantasm are suited only for the use of cowards and liars, and of no value against a foe of such power!"
"… Why do you sound proud of that?" Ilya asked.
"Cowardice is the source of all stories, my dear Master. You cannot tell others a fine tale unless you survive!"
Ilya blinked. "Huh. I've known you five seconds and I already hate you."
"He's… unique," Sakura said, her tone suggesting deep agreement,but also that she was too polite to just say it.
"Ignore him, he is worthless. Our forces are spread thin, and clearly anything less than the most durable of Servants cannot survive being attacked by whatever approaches," Heracles said. "Medea, watch over our Masters, and ensure that only Servants with some kind of divine protection or immortal shield come near me. I will hold this foe back alone. I will most likely not be able to defeat it, but I can hold it while we continue seeking a permanent solution."
"No," Ilya snapped, stepping between the two Servants, her eyes filled with tears… and a great deal of anger. "Don't say stupid things like that! You'll come back. You'll win. Because you're the strongest in the world."
He blinked, his jaw actually dropping. "Master, I…"
"I'm… I know it's for the good of the world, but. I'm not going to let you walk off when I know you won't come back, Berserker!" Ilya said, knowing she had not merely used the wrong name, but shewas blushing as red as a tomato, and had tears flowing down her cheeks. She didn't care. "So! you have to say you're coming back. That you're invincible, and you'll destroy that thing. Even if it's a lie, I can't watch you go if you don't say it."
"Well, refusing a lady is the height of rudeness," he said slowly, a grin slowly coming to his lips. "As my Master commands! I am Heracles, son of Zeus, and I swear to you now: no foe has ever survived battle with me, and none ever shall."
Ilya grinned through the tears, something terrible in her eyes. "Obliterate it."
He turned, dug in his heel with such force that the ground cracked beneath his foot, and was up the stairs and out of sight before the dust had settled.
Shakespeare coughed. "Um. I have to say, people are usually a bit more enthused by my presence. I am, after all, the finest storyteller in-"
"Nobody cares, you weirdo!" Ilya snapped.
"This really isn't the time," Sakura said apologetically.
Shakespeare appeared ready to reply to this in some fashion, but he was interrupted by a shockwave that shook the mountain, as the two charging titans collided uncomfortably close by. "Well. There is a great deal of danger and not much of a view, so I feel my presence is indeed superfluous, fair maidens! Fare thee well!" he said, vanishing in a swirl of pages and a puff of air.
"That guy was a jerk," Ilya muttered, sliding a little closer to Sakura to make sure both of them were within reach if Medea needed to get to them quickly.
Heracles was an Archer, thought he did not look it, and as he ran he fired. His bow was colossal, tall enough to look oversized even in his massive hands, and a weapon of rare beauty; all carved silver with gold inlay along a wickedly sharp outer edge, carved into patterns depicting the childhood of his revered father. Such a weapon would be impossible for a human to even lift, let alone fire, and yet even as he ran he nocked and fired arrow after arrow; massive, poison-tipped yew shafts that looked more like small spears than arrows, a dozen already in the air before he had sprinted halfway to his incoming target. He had to take care to slow his pace slightly so he wouldn't catch them in flight; he was not immune to his own power, after all, and death by hydra venom was not something anyone would wish to experience more than once.
Each of the arrows struck, and the creature charging at him through the dead woods did not slow. He personally saw one slam home into one of the red eyes, which winked out for a fraction of a second before regenerating almost instantaneously.
So. It heals instantly and poison has no effect.
We do this the hard way, then.
He snapped the center of the bow, the oversized weapon splitting into two equal-sized halves, becoming a pair of curved swords. He took a final step down and leaped, meeting the beast in mid-air as it pounced…
Sweet Olympus, the pain.
His blades cut deep, slashing the creature's arm off with a single sweep, carving through muscle and bone as thick as a tree without slowing. But the other arm, moving like black lightning, slashed into his chest with a limb that ended in a grotesque parody of a wolf's paw, tearing into his armored skin like it didn't exist. Medea's spell burst into golden flame as it tried to resist, but both it and the divine shield of God Hand shattered before a power like nothing he'd seen in any monster before. The creature's claws simply obliterated his chest, not merely tearing flesh and crushing bone but erasing them. A severed head, legs, and piles of gore and crushed bone fell to the forest floor as the majority of Heracles's torso was simply annihilated.
The beast tried to step over the remains, and one of the arms snapped up and gripped its leg with an iron hand, blood, muscle, and bone growing back together, exposed tissue steaming in the cool evening air, as the reformed Heracles dug steel-hard fingers into slick black flesh, and with muscles that appeared from nothing, hauled back and threw. The creature slammed into the bared stone of the mountain, stripped down of all life by the beast itself, with enough force to shatter it six meters deep.
Heracles stood, facing Avenger as it pulled itself from the stone, the last of his flesh growing back as his eyes narrowed, reching down to raise his twin swords, snapping them back together into a bow and nocking another giant arrow. "You probably assumed you had won, but I'm afraid I've been forbidden to die. Fortunately, I'm talented at that. Shall we try again."
Avenger roared; not the cry of an animal, but the howling of a hurricane about to make landfall. It shook the mountain, made the skies darken, and even Heracles felt his skin become at least ten degrees colder, as if the life was trying to slide from his veins at the mere sound of the cry. Which, he realized after a moment's consideration, was exactly what was happening.
A monster so antithetical to the very concept of human life that just being near it is painful. Just the sound of its voice can kill. If it gets off this mountain, it will shatter nations and slaughter men until the oceans run red. And it ended my first life with a single blow. The hydra, the Nemean lion, the Stymphalian birds… every monster I faced in my life was nothing but a pale shadow of this creature.
"Should be fun, then," he rumbled, letting another arrow fly.
"This should be familiar to you, Arturia. Being betrayed and murdered by those closest to you."
Saber fought the urge to roll her eyes as Excalibur danced, the shimmering crimson aura of Morgan's weapons splashing against the golden blade as sparks leaped from the metal clashing a dozen times a second. This thing might have fought vaugely like Archer, but it certainly talked like her awful sister. The worst of both worlds.
"Archer and I weren't what you'd call particularly close. And this isn't even him. So you'll forgive me if I don't feel terribly broken about it," she replied, slashing both of the enemy's blades aside and striking forward, driving Excalibur in at the Dark Archer's heart. He dropped his blades to bring his hands in more quickly to a guard, new ones appearing in his hands instantly in a cross-pattern to catch her sword and push it down…
And as their blades went downward, she swung Avalon up with her free hand to smash it into the bridge of his nose.
Not exactly reverent to the divine relic, she knew, but Avalon was still essentially a heavy metal club, and one that could strike Servants as easily as humans. Anyone who forgot when fighting a swordswoman that the sheathe could be just as dangerous as the blade had earned themselves a broken bone or two.
She struck again as the creature was pushed a step back by the impact, Excalibur slashing in low for the hip, and Avalon swinging in high for the throat, from opposite directions. Block both and you'll be off-balance and pushed back another step. Block just one and you take a crippling injury. Either way, I win, you…
He moved to block both, as she'd assumed he would, but she felt no surge of triumph at the minor victory, because every instinct in her body chose that moment to scream at her. Abandoning her attack mid-swing, she leaped to the side as his 'blades' erupted in flame, disgorging a pair of bullets that would have struck her full in the chest if she'd moved so much as a quarter-second later.
She slid to a halt, all advantage lost, and narrowed her eyes at the pair of elaborate pistols now leveled at her where two swords had once been. Fifteen meters between them; not much distance in a swordfight, but it might as well have been a light year against an Archer-class marksman with actual firearms. Saber could intercept any arrow in the world, but an instantaneous shot like that wasn't something she could be certain of her ability to catch. But…
I do have my sheathe again. Any wound I take will heal. If I am willing to accept a non-lethal shot while I close the distance, I can take his head before he can adjust his aim. It will all be instinct, hoping that I can analyze the trajectory based on stance, but…
"D-don't… let it touch you."
Her eyes widened in reaction to what she could only assume was someone reading her mind, and the shock was such it took her a moment to realize it was just Shirou. "Shirou?! You should not be moving. The healing ability you've been relying on is gone, and you…"
The young man stood; his legs a bit shaky, but his mind was clear enough to have slipped into a flanking position where the Dark Archer couldn't see both of them at once without turning his head. In the hole in his chest, beneath the blood, something silver glinted. "The bullets… aren't normal. They don't just pierce, they… they put his 'world' inside you. Even if the wound isn't fatal, his void will kill you from the inside out. I only survived because… because of some help I got."
Saber grinned. "Yes, and we will be talking about that later, because how on Earth did you get my sheathe? But for now, I need you to stay back while I-"
"I have to help. I have to do this myself," Shirou said flatly. "If I don't… if I don't help stop that thing with my own hands, I'll always wonder."
"You think you can?" the Dark Archer asked, softly, Morgan's voice totally fled from his tone. "Kill one, to save a hundred. Kill a hundred to save a thousand. Kill a thousand to save a million. That's the cold, brutal, calculus of 'heroism.' Kill those who threaten others, preserving the greatest number of lives above all other concerns. In the end, Kiritsugu was too weak to walk that path to its conclusion. The guardian born from 'you' sought oblivion because it tormented him so. Can you face someone who walked the path to its end? The only one of us strong enough to hold to our ideal was me."
"You're not strong," Shirou said, Kanshou and Bakuya coming to his hands. "You're just empty."
The Dark Archer inclined his head slightly. "There is no difference. A heart of steel that feels nothing. A mind of steel that chooses the most efficient path without regret or pause. More than any magecraft or blade, this is what a 'hero' needs. The will to choose the path of least bloodshed, even if it means giving up everything else about themselves. I surrendered myself. I became a hero," he said, closing his eyes. "I see a girl, crying in the rain. She was lost, and alone, and never asked to be a monster. I loved her. I drove the dagger into her heart myself to save a thousand people I had never met. I would do it again, without regret."
He opened his eyes. "I was strong enough to make that choice. I became a void. I became a hero. And you… are me. That potential is within you, too. Will you be strong enough to surpass Kiritsugu, and become the void?"
Shirou narrowed his eyes. "I'm strong enough to never be you."
"Then you are already dead."
The abomination lunged, its jagged twin blades leading the way…
And one golden, glowing sword met each of them. One in the hands of Saber, her own charge intercepting the creature with impossible speed… and one, nearly identical, though far less ornate, appearing in Shirou's hands out of some fuzzy, distant reflex.
Saber grinned as they held back the Dark Archer together, the glow of Shirou's blade reflecting in her eyes. "My Caliburn. You still have good taste in blades, Shirou."
"Always… those… swords. How many times was my birthright denied me by one of those?" Morgan's voice hissed as the creature pushed forward, pushing back both of them together with power that was far beyond anything Archer had ever shown in his life or second life, the sickly light under its skin growing brighter. "When you die, I will take great joy in melting them down into slag."
Saber's grin turned wolfish, and she stepped forward against the push, halting it dead as wind flared around her. "Are you sure you can, Morgan? They're quite sturdy. Here… allow us to show you close up."
"You got kind of scary, Saber," Shirou said, his tone somewhere between terrified and appreciative.
And then, together, they slid their blades to the side and slashed in from either side, the wind howling around the twin blades as they cleaved the darkness.
Gilgamesh drew back Ea, his power roaring through the blade as its segments spun, drawing wind and light in…
And a dozen lances of darkness ripped up from the ground to pin the blade between them, the weapon's segments striking up sparks as they struggled to spin against the thick, heavy material crushed close against them. The grimace that crossed his lips was mixed annoyance and grudging admiration, even as he whipped his other hand across himself to intercept another spear with the chain, this one grasped firmly in the hands of a grinning Enkidu.
"Ea is the most powerful weapon that has ever existed in this world, that is true," the construct of the gods said, its tone almost playful. "But it isn't perfect. Tell me, how long would it take to gather the power for it to kill both of us and shatter this world? Too long, considering how much faster than you I can be, when I choose…"
Gilgamesh smiled slightly. "Are you faster than light?"
Enkidu's grin matched the intensity of the light that erupted around them, two dozen portals appearing in a dome around them and a blade of magnificent artistry tearing out of each, moving so quickly they were little more than a streak of light. Gil did not move, not stirring so much as a millimeter as they ripped past him, some so close the metal grazed his skin, seeking a target just barely in front of him. From all angles, it was like a cage of razors moving at a speed human eyesight could not begin to follow. Dodging was impossible…
Enkidu vanished from sight itself, becoming little more than a blur. The cloak swirled around it like fog, the only visible portion of it as the spears of light tore through the space it flickered in, piercing the divine cloth but drawing no blood on the body beneath it. Enkidu was a wraith, slipping between the streaks of descending light with speed and grace that would have shamed even Servants as swift as Cu Chulainn or Medusa…
And Gilgamesh stepped forward, stabbing Ea forward into the single, miniscule hole he had left in his web of steel.
Enkidu slid backwards, a hand gripping at the smooth-sided hole Ea had cleanly cut into its ribcage, the wound leaking thick gray clay rather than blood. Gilgamesh smiled at the sight. "So clever, fraud. So clever that you occasionally fail to remember the simple solution. Ea can destroy worlds and shatter the thrones of gods, certainly, but it is also a sword."
Enkidu's grin only grew as he raised his hand to his lips, bloody clay still dripping from it. "Yes. I've missed you more than I can put into words, Your Majesty. But… you should have pressed the advantage. I had to decrease my durability greatly for that level of speed. You could have killed me, perhaps."
"The King does not need to exert himself to destroy cheap counterfeits."
"HA! Have you forgotten, then, that the world rushes toward its end? The gates of life hold for this moment, but…"
"My Garden is secured, of course, by my faithful servants. I have gathered several quite competent generals to my banner, imposter. They should certainly be able to defeat the beast that birthed you, or at least hold its attention until I deign to annihilate it," Gilgamesh said, letting the Chain of Heaven slip from his hand and picking up a second sword from the ground as he stepped forward, the chain following him of its own accord like a trained serpent. "What matters to me is you. For daring to wear Enkidu's face, I will make your death slow and terrible."
And he stopped, his grin widening slightly. "Besides, you were laying another trap for me, so pressing the attack would have ended badly."
Two things happened, then. The Gate of Babylon burned, erupting brilliantly across the darkness as portals beyond number opened, treasured swords leaping out in the hundreds. And second… the darkness vanished, completely.
Bundahisn was its own world, certainly, but it was not the only world trapped within the sacred mountain. There had been another in here with them since the moment Iskandar had manifested, bursting beneath the skin of reality, that Gilgamesh had always found far, far more interesting for the passion and power it called forth. The scent of the place, sand and steel and blood, roared through him and made his soul cheer with excitement to match the sudden roars of soldiers at war.
The rain of arrows and javelins fell, hundreds, thousands of projectiles descending from a sky that was suddenly brilliantly azure. His own weapons lashed up against the salvo, each Noble Phantasm tearing a dozen out of the sky, leaving shards of steel and wood to fall around him to ground that had become burning sand. It had been seamless, a transition so flawless he had not even noticed it until it was complete; the formless void was gone, and in its place was the searing deserts of Persia, the heat shimmering off them so intense it made the world seem nearly as insubstantial as the dark abyss had been. It was exactly as he remembered it, in fact, save for one small detail that killed his enthusiasm quickly; above them, despite the light flooding the desert, the 'sun' was nothing but a pitch-black hole in the sky, leaking streamers of blood red.
One more painful reminder that the world was, like its creator, a cheap imitation.
Not so terribly far away from him, at the head of his army, Iskandar sat astride a massive war horse, a smile on his face that would have left grown men into nightmares for the rest of their lives. He raised his blade above his head and Enkidu, a blur of motion that defied human vision, slid to a halt beside him, still grinning like a pleased child. "A wonderful show, but your army will be destroyed. He is flawless."
The King of Conquerors lowered his blade, leveling it at his enemy. The divine chain swirled around him, and the air gleamed gold with his power, warping the fabric of even his world. "Nothing is perfect save the spirit of a hero. Nothing is indomitable but the will of a conqueror. Die we may, but as long as we are remembered than it was a good death."
"HA! Even I, King of Conquerors, cannot help but feel a great joy at the sight of your bared spirit! A hero worthy of the name, even drowned in blackness!" Enkidu crowed. He stamped his foot down, and from the sand lances rose, appearing as simple sandstone save for the undeniable aura of quiet majesty to them. The soldiers of the Ionian Heitairoi reached down, plucking the divine weapons from the earth. "Are you ready for a true war, your Majesty?!"
Despite himself, Gilgamesh gave a grin in answer, raising Ea in salute.
Ending this dream had been one of his few moments in the corroded and twisted modern world that he remembered with pride. It might have become a nightmare now, but he had to admit that ending it again would be a great pleasure.
Heracles slid to a halt, grinning through the blood flowing down his face from a ruined eye that began to knit itself together almost instantly. "It isn't as easy to pierce my skin as it was, no? Even you can't fully ignore the will of Olympus." He held a hand to his side, feeling the muscle tissue exposed over his ribcage. "But you are a monster, no doubt about that. Three lives…"
Avenger fell forward onto all fours, the split sides of its head sliding back together where Heracles had cleaved it in half.
"… And you have plenty to spare as well, it seems. You will be a pest," he growled. Master? Please ask Medea to question if the barrier around the mountain can be repaired. I assume someone holy must be working on it by now.
Ummmm… I don't know. It's all very crazy out here. We sent the warning, but two pillars have opened over Tokyo, and another one has opened on the coast heading toward Hawaii. She thinks that thing is making the darkness spread faster, and the curses are beginning to spawn faster than we can get people in place to fight them.
He winced, even as he raised his blades to turn aside yet another lunge, the metal actually discoloring where the shadowy claws touched it, shifting the thing's charge to turn it to collide against an outcropping of rock, and leaping backwards, snapping his bow back together and releasing another volley of arrows at its exposed back, knowing even as he did that the tears . This creature cannot be allowed to leave the mountain. I will need some kind of backup, at the very least.
I know you can stop it! You're the strongest in the-
It isn't a matter of fighting it, Master. This thing has abandoned form and mind to destroy us. It is just… a mass of bloodthirst and curses. I've kept it from getting past me so far, but it wants to kill. It wants nothing more than to destroy humans…
And I am very good at it. You should not assume I am mindless merely because I don't speak to you, 'hero.' I am merely… determined. Avenger thought into the Master/Servant link, it's consciousness tearing into their shared minds like razors through gauze. Its lupine form shifted, warping, twisting, and beginning to grow, expanding outward with disturbing speed. I see you, Aunt Ilya. I'll be there to meet you and Mother very soon.
Heracles' eyes widened in shock and the first real fear he had felt in a long time. Master, wherever you are, get further away. Now!
And then Avenger's back erupted into a wall of thousands of midnight-black tendrils, tips sharpened to a razor-point and so numerous they blotted out the sky, and he didn't have much time to think anything at all.
"Sweet Hecate forfend, that is not good," Medea murmured.
"Hold on to me!" she snapped, reaching out a hand to Ilya and Sakura each as she closed her eyes and began to murmur something under her breath. Each of the girls took one hand, eyes wide with a mix of confusion and horror at the sheer urgency in her tone… a feeling that did not get more pleasant when the darkness roiling in the sky took shape as what could only be described as a rain of spears heading right at them.
Then Medea finished her spell, and… well.
The girls had, not unreasonably, been expecting some sort of barrier, or perhaps a blast of mana to destroy the incoming enemy. Medea, however, had access to the full range of her life's knowledge despite being in the rather less threatening body of her teenage self. She was fully aware that even if she had been at her full destructive best, she could not have stopped a tenth of that strike, and even the best healer in the universe could only do so much to fix 'ripped to bloody shreds.'
So, she chose instead to move. Very far away, and very fast. It was technically not teleportation, because that was 'impossible,' but it involved folding space-time around her and then moving with the speed of a Servant through the warped area, resulting in her covering about thirty kilometers in slightly less than a second.
It wasn't a fun experience for anyone not used to it.
"Oh my," Sakura said, falling to her knees and looking very much like she was struggling to keep down what little food was in her system. Ilya, meanwhile… to put it politely, lost that same struggle with surprising loudness for one so small.
"Sorry," Medea said, wincing. "We were at the epicenter of a major wide-area attack. I had to move us fast. I didn't have much time for a warning."
"I hate you so much," Ilya muttered between hacking coughs.
"Yes, I get that sometimes after bringing people along on that. Um… the vertigo will pass. Probably today, even."
"I-it's fine, Medea," Sakura said, rising shakily to her feet.
"Is it, though?" Ilya muttered.
"It's fine. We need to focus on… that," Sakura said, gesturing back toward the mountain, now surrounded by so many raining, thrashing spears of darkness it appeared to be wrapped in a solid dome of blackness. "… God. There were neighborhoods around the foot of the mountain. The people…"
"Are much less than what we would have lost without you," Medea said firmly. "I know it's hard to remember, dear, but this entire country would be overrun already if not for you two. Let's focus on what we can still do, not what we've failed at."
She took a deep breath. The central core of the enemy is on the move. Where is our backup?
My pardon, Lady of Colchis, but that creature has… changed something. The pain. The rage. The dark hearts of humanity that create this abomination… they are screaming louder than ever before. Avenger's power is not in the strength of the victor, but in the pain of the vanquished. As he moves, he pushes the human subconscious further into despair and draws out darker and more numerous curses from their suffering, said the calm female voice of the lady Saint who had taken over directing their erstwhile army.
Medea winced. One of the lines broke, didn't it.
A new pillar fell on the flank of one of the lines in Okayama, and heroes fell. It took some time to rally a counterattack and re-organize the magi to restore communication and block off this new threat, Jeanne confirmed. My generals are trying to find aid for you, but Servants who have the power to truly battle that monster are rare, and the front line can spare little.
Lady Saint, if we lose our Masters we lose the world, even if we kill every curse in the Sea a million times over. We have to… she thought. And then, out loud, she said, "Oh dear."
"Medea? What's… oh dear," Sakura said.
"Eep," Ilya said.
Down the street, the darkness had grown deeper once again; the natural shadows of a starry night becoming something poisonous and empty. And moving closer to them.
Medea winced, holding out a hand to each of them. "Dammit, it's already cleared the mountain. Masters, I know you're uncomfortable, but we need to make another jump, before it spreads to-"
I see you, Mother.
The darkness warped and twisted, snapping out at Medea, her simple shawl spreading open into a pair of wings smaller and less sinister than the dark cape she'd one day favor, the blades of darkness coming so close they cut the sandal from her right foot. She survived…
And found herself high in the sky, with the wall of darkness closing in on the Masters she had not had a chance to grab onto, pulling itself forward on a hundred grasping, clawed hands, looking at them with a thousand blood-red eyes, something dripping onto the ground from a hundred hungry mouths...
Nothing can hide you from me, mother. Severing our contract. Calling up this army of hollow ghosts. Nothing can HIDE you, nothing can DEFEND you. I am BEYOND them. A being on a higher tier of existence, Avenger hissed, its new body lashing out at Medea with darts of blackness that stood out against the starry sky like cancer on healthy tissue, forcing her into a desperate, flitting pattern, as the hulking thing slid closer to Ilya and Sakura, its snapping maws taking on lupine muzzles, as if a thousand wolves had been melded together into a single heaping lump of flesh. I don't hate you. You gave me life and purpose. But the impact you've had on mankind… you give false hope. You create conflict where there should only be peace. I know you are young and confused, but this cannot be forgiven…
"You talk too much."
The arrows flew straight on, streaks of green-silver in the night, some of them coming so close to the two young Masters that their hair was ruffled by the wind. Ilya swore later that she felt one touch her ear. And yet, as impressive as the display was, it did nothing of value; the slick black flesh turned aside the majority of the projectiles, and those that did pierce vanished into it as if they had been sucked down into quicksand, the wounds vanishing as soon as they appeared.
"No! What are you doing here, you don't have any-" Medea began, looking down on the newly arrived Archer in horror as she sprinted around the girls to open fire again from a different angle, stopping only to dodge another wave of projectiles, magical shields coming into existence and fading out just as quickly, each one shattering under a single attack. The arrows had done nothing of value; the black flesh, coated with thick rotten fur, was harder than plate steel and resisted most of them.
"You talk too much too, Medea. Take our Masters and flee," the woman said, green hair flowing around her and catching on her odd, lion-like ears as she nocked and fired another dozen arrows in the time it took to breathe, her movement never stopping for a heartbeat as blades of shadow missed her by mere millimeters time and again, those that would have unavoidably struck her hit in mid-air by her arrows. "Now, please. I cannot hold it long."
Heracles died under my claws. You cannot hold me at ALL.
The creature raised a hundred grasping hands, each one sharpening to a razor-edge and lashing out. Each black spear in the air split, then split again, and again, a storm of a hundred black projectiles becoming an almost solid wall of blades, space warping around them as they multiplied again and again, seemingly struggling to create enough bullets to target every cell in her body before engulfing her from all directions…
And with a hissed syllable from above, a wall of light appeared between the Archer and the attack, mystical circles three layers thick, surrounding her from all sides. The blades of darkness shrieked as they tore into the solidified mana, shattering it like glass, but for a key, crucial split-second they halted, Medea's power holding the tide back as the green-haired Archer's leap took her out of the epicenter the barest of nanoseconds before the shadows slashed down, drilling into the ground, the sheer force of it shattering the earth for a thousand meters in every direction from the central crater.
The green-haired archer slid to a halt just barely before the pavement beneath her shattered, the actual shockwave barely disturbing her footwork. "Thank you, Medea. Flee."
"I'm not leaving you, Atalante!" Medea snapped snapped, descending to land beside her. "… You two should definitely flee, though."
"We're exhausted! And it's hard to run! When everything is exploding!" Ilya snapped, pulling herself to her feet very slowly, before tripping over her own dress and falling again. Sakura didn't even make it that far, her legs shaking madly every time she tried to rise among the crushed pavement surrounding her. Barely two meters away from them, the street outright collapsed into the sewers beneath it.
"They're right. We need to get them out of here! You carry them while I hold the line," Medea and Atalante said in perfect unison. "No, you carry them! I won't leave you here to die! Take them and go!"
"So you two know each other, then?" Sakura murmured, her eyes locked on the black mist beginning to flow up between the cracks in the street. "Um, either way, we should worry…"
"From the Argo," Medea snapped, flying to Sakura and lifting her bodily. "She was stubborn then, too."
"I am not leaving a child to die in this hellscape!" Atalante snapped right back as she did the same to Ilya, the two Servants fleeing together at the best speed they could manage, even as darkness stopped seeping from beneath the street and began to erupt, pillars of poisonous fog tearing through the pavement bare steps behind them.
"I am not a child!"
"You also aren't a warrior. Take both of the girls," Atalante said. "It isn't just about you, my friend. We cannot risk the children. And… I am not the only one who ignored orders to make my way here as soon as I could. Just the fastest and most sane."
Medea blinked. "Oh, no. Tell me it isn't a…"
"I have heard your taunting, oppressor! We shall see if you still proclaim the weakness of the people when you choke upon your own blood!" screamed out a voice that shook the very ground they stood on.
The man (if you could call him that) was solid muscle, and with the size to match it. At least three meters tall, with steel-grey skin coated with scars on every inch of it, he charged through the gathered women (nearly killing Ilya without even noticing she was there) to plow into the monstrous black mass with a shoulder tackle that slammed it backwards a hundred meters in a heartbeat.
"A Berserker, yes," Atalante said.
"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" the Berserker said, leaping upon the fallen beast and driving a simple iron shortsword into its flesh again, and again, and again, black blood flowing out and bubbling like acid where it touched his flesh. From the shifting mass squelching horribly under his blows, a black tendril as thick around as Ilya's waist lashed out, punching a hole completely through his stomach.
Without even halting his laughter, he gripped the tendril and ripped it from the central mass, leaving it still impaled in his body. Then he reached down, gripping the entire disgusting thing and hefting it above his head despite the fact that it must have weighed at least ten thousand kilos and was five times his size, and slammed it back down on the pavement. And through it.
Ilya blinked. "Sakura, I know that we are supposed to be determined and standing against the darkness with all our might and all that, but just this one maybe we should run and let them handle this."
'HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" the mad Servant laughed , his flesh warping, twisting, and bulging outward from his wound in a very distressing manner. A second face, one that was not even slightly human in feature, appeared to be trying to sprout its way out of his shoulder.
Not so terribly far away, lightning flashed and a cry of animal rage and unfathomable sorrow tore through the night sky.
"Actually, I think maybe we should all run," Medea said.
Not so very far away, Shakespeare leaned against a tree, and smiled as he wrote the first draft. "Oh, yes, yes. What a stage presence! Truly, thy passion and glory outshine the very stars in the night sky!"
He looked up.
"Or, well, if there were any," he added, without much concern. "Well, well, well… should I subtly guide a few more their way? More aid would lessen the chance of the tragic ending that audiences so adore, but if the world ends then none will ever see the play to begin with! Yes, yes, I must preserve the world if any are ever to raise the curtain on my finest work. I shall go forth into the forest, and find more Berserkers willing to ignore yon fussy Saint and face certain death for the good of the show!"
He turned to walk into the forest, prepared to gather up as many madmen as he could manage, only to find himself almost immediately face-to-face with…
Well, he was not entirely certain what it was, beyond the fact that it was roughly triple his height and it had no skin whatsoever. It was humanoid, certainly, but it was all exposed muscle and even the pale white of bone in some places, steaming in the night air.
"What," it rumbled, and he could not help but notice that it had two very large, gore-stained blades in its hands and its single remaining eye was glaring at him with undisguised hate, "were you going to do?"
Shakespeare considered his next words very carefully, which was something he was typically very good at, but right this moment he didn't feel confident in his skill at all. "I," he said slowly, "am going to find one of the magi circles and contribute as best I can, whilst warriors handle the matter of tactics."
"Yes. You are. Or I'll kill you," it said flatly.
And then it was gone, moving so quickly it took Shakespeare a moment to realize that it had not teleported, but merely sprinted away.
He grinned, despite himself. "Ah, now there is leading man material."
Servants were beings of fable as much as they were anything 'real.' It was a strength, to be sure, for they existed outside the world's rules, things of power and mystery that could tear the fabric of reality in a world that no longer existed for them. They were outsiders, and in that there was power. But it also meant that they were vulnerable. A creature that was as much story as flesh had little choice but to act that story out. If they were forced into the pattern, if they had to follow the tale, that could destroy them more surely than a bullet to the head would end the life of a human.
Bullets have some level of randomness; things like air currents, distance, the thickness of the skull, a thousand tiny factors can alter their lethality. Stories are dangerous.
In the story of Medusa, she had been cut down by the brutal spear Harpe, her head cleaved from her body beyond the ability of even her divine essence or bloody monstrous hatred to repair. Against that weapon, she had possessed little hope. Had it been in the hands of Perseus, she would have had no hope. Because that was her story. It would wear her down, break her, force her into a set path that had only one, final end.
The story of Euryale and Stheno ended when they were devoured by the legendary serpent monster of the Shapeless Isle, the Gorgon. And there was no hope.
The beast Medusa had become was at least triple the bulk of her human form, between the massive serpentine tail and the cloud of vipers hissing around her, but if anything she was faster than before. Her motion was impossible, defying every law of physics; things like aerodynamics, friction, even gravity just did not apply to her as she moved through the void of darkness in a streak of violet, black, and gold that was both beautiful and subtly wrong, simultaneous grace and perversion of everything natural. She wove among the three corrupted goddesses with a speed that even their Servant's senses could barely begin to follow…
Or perhaps, it was not inability, but unwillingness, as Stheno and Euryale realized that every single curve of her form in the air simply filled them with unreasoning
The Gorgon appeared between them, the streak of light becoming solid as if by magic, the claws digging into nothingness and carving shards of black mist from the void as they damaged Avenger's world by her mere touch. Her tail lashed out to one side, slamming into Stheno's midsection with bone-crushing force, the serpents lashing out to the other, their fangs seeking Euryale's neck. The small Archer leaped back, her bow singing; though it might have looked pitiful, it was the weapon of a Servant and put a dozen arrows into flight with inhuman speed and accuracy.
The serpents snapped and twisted so quickly they briefly appeared as little more than a cloud of black and violet. When the movement stopped, it was joined by a dozen arrows falling harmlessly to the ground, smashed to splinters.
My sisters' story is over. You are nothing but an inferior retelling. And I have grown bored with it.
Medusa lunged, vanishing from human vision like an arrow in flight, aimed at Euryale's heart… and suddenly, in mid-flight, twisting its trajectory in a patently impossible turn that left it moving nearly in perfect reverse, to drive her clawed hand into seemingly empty space without reason.
"NO!" Euryale cried, an unreasoning sorrow that was not really hers etched into the single, painful syllable as the Goddess she had once been temporarily overwrote the container that had warped her into a monster.
"No, no, no, nononono…" Lancer babbled as she struggled and failed to rise to her feet against the venom coursing through her, her tone heartbreakingly childlike.
At the end of Medusa's claws, Stheno faded into view, a bolt of killing energy gathered on her palm, and a look of almost comical surprise on her face.
And Medusa's clawed hand buried in her chest, up to the wrist.
The beast pulled her arm back, something small, red, and dripping gripped tight in her claws. Without so much as a word, without any change in expression, she crushed it. Tiny golden sparks began to pour from the small Assassin as she dissolved, already dead on her feet.
Before she vanished completely, her lips curled into a small smile.
Well. Thank you for not eating me this time, Medusa. I know I wasn't the best sister, but… well, you know I worry. It's not easy for a giant barbarian like you, but try to be a good girl, hm?
"You! You… monster!" Euryale shrieked, letting fly another barrage of golden arrows, the projectiles seeming to twist in mid-air to strike at their target from impossible angles.
The serpents lashed out, so quickly the arrows might as well have been moving in slow motion, gripping the bolts in their fangs.
"I am. I really am," Medusa said, the serpents clenching their jaws and shattering the bolts like so much kindling. Her eyes began to glow more brilliantly still, the snakes of her hair shimmered to match it, and each one opened its mouth to release a stream of brilliant violet light that seared against the darkness. Euryale danced between them with a Servant's grace; magical fire seared her clothes, her hair, but her skin was untouched by scant millimeters as she slid between the flames and released arrow after arrow with flawless accuracy.
"Challenging an Archer in a ranged battle is foolish even for you, monster!" she snarled, backpedaling and dodging side to side with speed and grace that put the lie to her childlike form, bolts of mana flickering around her. "I will wear you down eventually! I am a goddess, and you are nothing but…"
She felt no pain. Just impact against her right thigh, and a terrible cold. It took her a moment to even realize what had happened, because it seemed so impossible, defying the laws of their reality on a level that she had never imagined. In the storm of mana, in the fire, she had not seen it happening… a new serpent, forming in the cloud of Medusa's hair. And rather than joining the attack, it had gone down. Burrowing, burrowing into nothingness, tearing through Bundahisn as though the void was no more than normal soil… and then surfacing in her path.
She would have called it impossible, but the venom-dripping fangs buried in her leg put the lie to that.
The toxin worked quickly, blurring her vision and making her limbs as heavy as cold stone; Medusa's venom made a hydra's seem as harmless as spring water. But it hardly mattered. The venom was incidental, a side-effect. The true point of the attack, obviously, had been to hold her still, even for a moment.
Four jets of mana soared in at her, targeting her heart from four different angles.
She let out a petulant, almost childlike sigh.
Well, honestly. Took you long enough! Being trapped in that disgusting thing was worse than death by far, and I would know. Try not to mess things up, you big dumb giant. Even when you're scaly and disgusting, we really do love you.
"Why…?" Lancer whispered, her arms giving out completely from surrender as much as from any poison. "We… we could have been together. Forever. If you had… if you had just given up, it all could have been fine…"
The Gorgon loomed over the fallen girl, as her shadow had loomed over her legend for thousands of years. "It could never be 'fine.' Our story ended thousands of years ago, and it was a tragedy. Trying to make a new story is… admirable, in a way. I don't deny you meant well. But nothing planted in this empty black pit could ever grow. You would have grown bitter and cold in the void, until one day the loneliness overtook you. And the monster would bare her fangs again."
"The only monster… is you."
"Yes. And you are me."
Lancer shuddered, her mouth opening and closing as if she wanted to reply, but the words simply would not come.
Medusa lowered her claws to the girl's heart. "For what little this is worth, ending your story early is the closest thing to a gift I can give you. You will never have to grow into me. Let your memory of our legend be nothing to you but a sad, empty dream."
She drove her clawed hand forward, and gave Lancer what little mercy she could.
Slowly, her hands shaking, she rose to her full height, golden scales glittering despite the lack of anything like light to shimmer against them. She looked around the void… and where her eyes gazed, it began to crack, dim light shimmering into the darkness of Bundahisn from somewhere outside.
She clenched her fist, blood dripping from it, and took comfort in the sharp agony as her gore-coated talons dug into her own palm. "Avenger…!" she hissed. Her back split, blood flowing down golden scales, as a pair of massive white-gold wings burst from her body.
With a single massive beat, they carried her up into the void, and it shattered at her touch.
Atalante felt no camaraderie with the Berserker Spartacus. She was Greek and he Roman, so they had no common land to bind them; rather, a mutual national loathing from the days of his land overrunning her own. She was sane and he a dangerous lunatic who, she suspected, would have been trying to kill her without hesitation were a greater 'oppressor' not literally tearing at his flesh. She had come here to help one of the painfully few friends she had ever known in her life, where he simply wished to destroy anything that tried to take away his freedom of choice. It was all too easy to picture herself and this mad abomination fighting to the death, any other day.
But this day, he was the only ally she had while Medea found some hint of safety for their sad young masters. And Atalante would, without hesitation, give her life a thousand times over to save a single lonely child. Fighting alongside a lunatic was the least she could do.
He stood in the center of the mass of shadows, bladed tendrils tearing into his body again and again as he hacked, tore, and laughed, ignoring fist sized holes being punched into him. His flesh warped and shifted like water, flowing over each wound nearly the instant it appeared, the agony he had to be feeling not reflecting in his mad laughter. It was a truly impressive sight.
He had nearly been killed seventeen times, as bladed limbs silently struck from behind, aiming for his heart and neck while he lashed madly. Each time, though, an arrow fired with pinpoint accuracy struck the blade in mid-stroke, tearing it from its tendril without fail, in between raining a constant, mostly pointless salvo upon the blackness surrounding him.
It was, despite both their best efforts, spreading. Atalante had needed to retreat more than once as the ground beneath her feet opened up, grasping bladed limbs snapping at her ankles. It did not matter overmuch for her aim; she could strike a bird on the wing from half a country away. But it told her that she had encountered an opponent she quite probably could not kill; they could hold it back, perhaps, but the darkness was spreading and this was a losing battle. Ah, well. If I die a second death here, it was a good one. At least my Master and Medea are sa-
A wave of light rolled over her, filling her limbs with new strength and sealing a dozen minor wounds she had taken, and she fought the urge to scream.
"I told you to run!" she screamed, because she had not fought the urge very hard.
"Hush. Our Masters will not be safe while Avenger lives. I can best protect them by ensuring it is destroyed," Medea said from the night sky above, her eyes closed and her glowing palms held out before her. "What is happening to him?"
"He doesn't precisely talk to me. He isn't dead yet, so I assume his Noble Phantasm is protecting him."
"He's growing another head! I'm trying to heal him, but…"
"HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Suffer, oppressor! Spartacus stands strong!" the Berserker screamed, a bladed tendril ripping the hand from his arm. Something that looked distressingly like a mouth grew in its place almost immediately, clamping down on the tendril and tearing it free in a spout of black blood.
"… I cannot tell if it's working or not."
"His body is clearly not normal, Medea. Let him handle himself," Atalante said, turning her bow for a split second and shooting a black spear out of the air before it tore Medea's head off. "And you handle yourself."
"I saw that coming! I know how to dodge, Atalante!"
"And yet you don't do it very well. Ascend, if you insist on remaining here, child! You can support from a safer distance!"
The only safe distance would be another world, Avenger said, its voice echoing through all their minds with a brief spark of razor agony. And that was when Atalante realized that they were not, as she had feared, fighting a losing battle.
That phrase implied they had ever had even a small a chance of winning.
The attack that killed Spartacus was sudden, brutal, and came from the one place she could not have deflected; within. From his inside his grotesquely deformed chest, from darkness that had seeped slowly into every wound before it sealed itself shut, a shadowy hand burst. Clamped in it, pierced by claws longer than Atalante's legs, was a massive, still-beating heart three times to large to be human.
"Ha… hahahaha…. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" Spartacus laughed, blood pouring from his mouth as black veins spread from the hole in his chest where his heart had once been. "This… is not a good death, little huntress. Devoured from within…" he raised bloody teeth to her, his body already collapsing in on itself as blackness rotted his flesh under the skin. He fell to his knees, his hands impacting the pavement a few painful inches away from his own ruined heart. "End it… end it…"
For the first time she could recall in her life, Atalante bowed her head to a man, a Roman warrior no less, with genuine respect in her gaze. "Hold it still, with the last of your life, and I will make your end worthy of song. Medea!"
The young sorceress took further to the sky, hands raised, and began to shine against the darkness like a newborn star. "Εκατέ, εργάζεσαι τη θέλησή σου στον κόσμο και μας δίνεις καταστροφή …"
Atalante raised her bow, already glowing too brightly to look at with the light of Medea's spell, and pointed it to the sky. ""With my bow and arrows, I respectfully beseech Apollo and Artemis. I offer thee this calamity…"
Atalante's Noble Phantasm was able to, conservatively, target up to a hundred enemies at once. But this was somewhat misleading, in that it implied each one would be targeted only by a single arrow. It was, in fact, considerably more shots per target. And when she requested Lady Artemis to strike only a single target, well…
The results could be interesting.
A storm of arrows that numbered in the thousands fell, crackling with silver-green light and tipped with violet flame as they impacted upon shadows and Servant both; the fading body of the Berserker and the monster tearing him apart from within vanished from view as Atalante's Noble Phantasm slammed on, into, and through them both, shattering the ground beneath them and punching down through the sewers beneath them, straight down to bedrock. Filthy water and crushed stone erupted out of the blast zone in a geyser, steaming violently where the energy continued to tear down through it for several long seconds.
The pillar of light faded painfully slowly, and Medea descended next to her friend, her expression concerned. "Atalante… do you think…?"
"Berserker was dead before I fired, and Avenger cannot die," she said flatly. "We need to move. Wherever you left our Masters, they are not safe there."
They are not safe anywhere.
"Move!" Atalante snapped, wrapping an arm around Medea's waist and leaping into the air as high as she could manage, as the ground beneath them dissolved into a black whirlpool, a gaping maw opening in the earth where they had been standing and drawing rock, metal, and sewage alike into a swirling void lined with blood-red teeth all the way down to a pool of liquid she suspected they did not want to touch. "Take over!"
Medea spread her wings, turning their leap into a flight, as fast as she could manage. "I don't understand this creature! You tore it to shreds…"
"So did Heracles. And Spartacus. We can only slow it down, not stop it," Atalante said. "And we can't head toward any of the pillars or it will flank the defenders."
"That will be hard, because three new ones have fallen in the last few minutes. We were killing them faster than they could spawn for awhile there, but…"
BUT I AM ENDLESS.
Medea did not have time to dive, no time to react in any way. Word and action were one as the winged monstrosity fell on them from above, diving on the fleeing Servants like a hunting falcon. Medea fought down a scream as a razor talon slashed into her back, shredding her wings and going through them to scrape against the back of her ribcage. She bit her tongue, muttering a spell of healing and protection, but the darkness was eating at her…
Atalante let go of her, whirling with bow in hand to release an arrow into the talon digging into her friend. The creature that had fallen upon them was more like a colossal wasp than the bird of prey she had envisioned, but with dozens of legs that each ended in a barbed spear far too manufactured to be part of any natural animal. No less than three were embedded in Medea's back, and more were rearing back to lunge; the only option at this point was to try to sever all three in a single salvo and pray Medea fell quickly enough to avoid the rest.
She nocked three arrows and fired them in an instant, thought and action as one. The bolts flew straight and true, each one striking a shadowy spear and severing it at the base. Her friend joined her in free-fall, and she smiled grimly…
Just before a scything blade lashed up her from below, snapping up from beneath the street at the end of a thirty-meter long tendril to catch her in mid-fall. She did not feel any pain from the strike; just a searing, empty cold from the waist down.
It took her a long, horrible second, and the dull wet thud as her legs impacted hard on the pavement briefly after her, to realize why this was.
Medea impacted a hundred meters away, skidding to a halt in obvious agony, but she clawed her way to her hands and knees in a heartbeat and began dragging herself to Atalante as quickly as she could regardless, murmuring spells under her breath. To heal, of course, always to heal… that was what people never understood about her. She had never truly wanted to hurt anyone. Nobody else had ever bothered to see her as Atalante did; a broken, sad little girl who had always wanted to be good, held back from it forever as she was broken over and over by fate and love, two of the worst things in this world or any other.
Run. Run away, you little fool… Atalante thought sadly, as half-formed healing magecraft worked its way uselessly upon wounds too grievous to be helped. She was so dedicated to it she did not even see behind her... the beast from the skies landed, not touching the tendrils pushing out from the ground so much as melting into them. The shadows fell together, crushing themselves down again and again until what finally settled on the ground facing them was little larger than a human; skeletally thin, ribcage and spine clearly visible through matte-black flesh, six red eyes over a maw like a hunting cat… and blades. Serrated spikes on the ends of all four arms, on the knees and elbows, its back, its shoulders, even a thorny crown on its head.
Medea crawled forward, unheeding, uncaring, pain and desperation the only things in her mind. Avenger moved forward like a macabre shadow of her, slashing its own skin open as thorns beneath the surface twisted and pushed out. It did not have a mouth capable of smiling, but Atalante could feel the twisted joy radiating off it.
Despair. Surrender. You died long ago. Nothing you do can change things. Accept it… rest, and let the pain end…
PLEASE, FINALLY BE SILENT…
He descended from above them like a comet of bronze and obsidian, slamming into the shadow beast with force that shattered the road a dozen meters down and sent the gathered women tumbling from the sheer force of it. Heracles reached down into the pit he had carved, lifting the beast by its head, the spikes piercing through his palm. Without a word, without the slightest change in expression from his ruined hand, he crushed the creature's head and hurled it down the street to impact with a parked car, smashing it beyond repair. The creature collapsed in on itself, popping like a balloon from the sheer force of the impact, and falling into a puddle of writhing darkness on the street.
He turned to the girls, blood flowing from a dozen steaming wounds. Even as they watched, a tear across his chest wide enough to fit a human arm cleanly through and an eye torn entirely out of his head began to knit back together, smoking as though the flesh was on fire.
"Show-off," Medea murmured, almost fondly.
"Flee, and try to heal her. I will hold it," Heracles growled, as the puddle of darkness began to spread, eyes opening along its surface as it pulled itself off the ground atop a dozen insectile, razor-pointed limbs. It manifested a pair of heads, each with the thick, flat maw of an alligator and six pairs of eyes circling each one. All of them locked on Heracles, the creature ignoring the vanishing Medea to growl at the bronze giant low in its throats.
You. I was fairly certain I had killed you more than once, little ghost, but you continue to prove yourself the worst humanity has to offer. How many lives do you have to give before you realize each one is more meaningless than the last? I AM mankind. You cannot kill me without cracking this world in half.
The son of Zeus rolled his eyes and reassembled his bow, nocking another massive silver arrow to fire into the gathering darkness, even as it shrieked and lunged at him like a tidal wave…
Only to stop before the arrow was even released, a twisted, mangled, amorphous mass of limbs and eyes suddenly turning to stare at the sacred mountain with the closest thing that such an abomination could show to fear.
Something shrieked across the night, the scream of a bird of prey swooping down on prey that has no prayer of escape, and a winged, golden comet tore out of the globe of darkness floating over the mountain, leaving shining golden cracks spreading behind it as something that was equal parts energy and emotion somehow shattered at its passage.
Medusa swooped down upon Avenger, screaming with a pain and fury that were quite literally inhuman, and the battle was joined.
Saber and Shirou crossed their blades, pushing both of the abomination's weapons to the ground caught between them. With a whoop of victory, Saber reversed her grip, leaping forward to slam the hilt of her weapon into the thing's face, bone audibly cracking under the impact as it was sent tumbling across the void. Without a word, both of them charged after it, only to be forced to stop and dodge out to either side as it slid on its back, opening fire with swords that had once again suddenly become massive blade-tipped firearms.
Damn… Shirou thought, sliding to a halt with a pained gasp, even as Saber slipped between the bullets to once again drive the creature into melee, laughing all the while. I got too used to the scabbard being part of me. My wounds are patched shut by the blades within, but they aren't gone. My whole body feels so heavy… even breathing hurts. I can't keep up with Saber at all.
The thought made him smile despite himself, watching her blade trace red-gold lines through the darkness with flawless grace. Well, I never could, so that's normal I suppose. But I can't leave her alone. I have to…
Think, you idiot. Battle is more than just melee. Rather than try to copy everything all the time, you could at least remember what little you're good at every so often.
He sighed with a smile that was equal parts bemusement and frustration. "I really am my own worst enemy…"
Saber shifted her head slightly, letting the blade pass a millimeter before her nose, and slashed back in immediately, the wind from her blade slamming the beast back another step even as it blocked with both its jagged butcher's tools, scissoring them together around Excalibur to lock her in place. It roared at her, an expression that was nothing more than animal hate, stepping into her guard and trying to force the tips of the weapons toward her, shifting them once more into the twin pistols, and she prepared to drop her sword and step to the side…
And a silvery arrow (or was it a sword…?) shot past her, so close she felt the wind on her neck, to slam into the monster's throat.
"Now, Saber!" Shirou shouted, the string of Archer's bow humming as he fired another arrow with pinpoint precision despite the bowstring of the magical weapon cutting into his fingers enough to draw blood. His knees shook, his skin was pale and clammy, but he pulled the string back again and again, each arrow a projected blade that cut into the beast's glowing muscles, severing tendons with ruthless precision that would have made Archer himself… well, probably not 'proud,' but 'tolerant.'
With the grin of a predator sensing weakness, Saber lunged, trusting her back to one of the few men she'd call worthy of her loyalty, even after all this time. The arrows snapped around her, always within scant millimeters of her body but never once touching her, driving into the monster's flesh with each swing of her own sword. She held its swords forcing its guard out and away again and again, overextending herself willingly in the knowledge she would never need to follow up on any of the attacks she made. She would be supported, no matter what, even if he had flay his fingers on the string and start firing arrows made of his own bones.
That was just Shirou.
"Arturia…!" Morgan snarled through the Dark Archer's mouth, her tone little more than animal rage as her stolen body, once holding fast against them both now found itself suddenly on the defensive.
"Sorry, sister dear. It's the most basic of tactics for a magus to support the swordsman from a distance, didn't you realize? Maybe if you had joined your husband on the field once or twice, you'd have learned a trick or two. Less time making your hair pretty and more time developing some combat instincts would have helped you out," Saber said with a grin, driving Excalibur into the shifted blades from above and forcing a pair of bullets into the ground, even as another blade joined the growing collection making the Dark Archer look more and more like a macabre pincushion.
"You…! Again, it's always you… I hate… hate hate… hate hate hate HATE you…!" Morgan snarled, her voice cracking with each word, the masculine growl of the corrupted Archer leaking into her tone. She ripped one of the blades from her own flesh, hissing something under her breath that made it burst into black fire, and swung it with all the grace and skill of a lumberjack going at a particularly stubborn oak.
Saber grinned. "Not feeling well…?"
An instant before the blade struck her, a silver arrow slammed into it, pushing it back and leaving the Dark Archer off-balance beyond repair for a single, barely noticeable instant.
It was enough.
Excalibur lashed up with speed that any watching would have called impossible, leaving behind it a pair of golden trails that halfway through the swing became deep, pure, bloody red.
The Dark Archer fell back, its chest slashed open from waist to shoulder… and its right arm flying off into the void, completely severed.
Saber hissed in annoyance. "Still only two slashes, and one is easily a millisecond behind the other! How did he get so many at once?! I swear, I shall not be happy again until I work out the trick."
"Saber!" Shirou snapped.
"Yes, I see it," she said, raising her blade to catch the creature slashing in from the other side, somehow able to move its remaining arm even when its torso was slashed nearly in half down the middle, its head hanging on by only a thin strip of flesh and bone. "I've gotten almost annoying amounts of experience fighting these disgusting things over the last few hours. Morgan, would you please die? I'm in a terrible mood."
"Arturia… ARTURIA…!" the creature snarled, its face cracking apart even further, gold and red light flowing out madly, blood and light intermingling as they flowed across the blackened skin.
"I admire you, in a way. Your unreasoning hate completely overwhelmed this poor, hollow creature," Saber said. "Whatever your many, many flaws, a lack of passion isn't one of them. But a lack of tactical skill, most definitely. This thing was a much better fighter than you are, sister dear…"
"I… HATE… YOU…" the creature hissed, a pair of voices snarling out in unison as the jagged black sword struck up sparks against Excalibur, tendrils of black mist growing within the gaping wounds to drag them back together by force in a grim parody of Shirou's inner blades.
Saber smiled, a touch of sadness behind it, even as she drove her fist into the largest wound, digging her gauntleted fist into the gore and prompting a mad scream from the abomination, letting her push her sword forward another few inches toward its neck. "Of course you do, Morgan. You're petty, vindictive, and evil, as I recall? And that does give you a certain power. Knowing exactly who you are and moving forward without regret… a heart that has nothing but selfishness and spite within… it can be a terrible and deadly thing.
"But personally, I rather prefer to have friends."
A sword shifted and shaped to fly with the speed and grace of an arrow slammed home into the beast's forehead, the golden-silver blade of Caliburn driving completely through its skull. A look of open shock passed through blood-red eyes, the light already beginning to fade from them before the 'arrow' had even stopped vibrating in the bone.
Saber's smile turned grim.
"You killed me. I killed you. But after everything you've done, don't even consider this makes us close to even. I suggest you never be summoned again."
She stepped forward, pulling her bloody hand outward, even as she forced her sword in against suddenly slack resistance, driving the creature's own filthy weapon back into its body, bone cracking with the impact, even as she pulled out with the hand buried in its chest…
Something shattered, and the projected blade in the Dark Archer's hand vanished.
The blade in Saber's hand did not, and it moved across like a bloody golden comet.
The bisected pieces of its heart vanished before they hit the ground.
"I'm not you. I never could be. Because I… I didn't enjoy this…" Shirou softly, blood dripping down the bowstring from where it had worn his fingers raw. On his shirt, the bloodstain from his gunshot wound was newly wet, slowly spreading across his chest once again. He fell to his knees like a puppet with its strings cut, Saber rushing to his side and pressing Avalon into his hands instantly.
"Here, hold it. My mana is circulating freely, it should help even with a cursed wound like that," she said gently. "Honestly. What are you even doing in here? You're a human, Shirou. You aren't built for this sort of thing."
He arched an eyebrow at her, even as his gasping breaths slowly steadied under the power of the enchanted sheathe.
"Oh, don't look at me like that, you smug little thing. Obviously, I realize you saved my life. It doesn't count as an accomplishment if you almost die doing it," Saber said bluntly.
Shirou couldn't help but chuckle at that. "Wh-what do you know? I guess I really haven't accomplished anything, then… oh, it hurts to laugh…"
"Well, look at it as proof you survived when you had no business doing so," Saber said fondly. "As for what happens next…"
He grinned. "Look up."
She did so, her own face shifting to a grin as she noticed the cracks running through the immaculate blackness, beams of light beginning to shimmer through from some unknown source. She stood from Shirou's side, raising her sword, which began to gleam more brilliantly by the second. "Shirou, you may want to take a few steps back and cover your ears. I think it's time to go home and have a few words with this world's proprietor."
Heracles had faced a thousand foes, each more terrible than the last, and he had long thought there was nothing more the world could show him.
This was proven a lie when he faced, for the first time, a battle which he hesitated to become involved in. It wasn't that he was afraid, of course, it was…
Medusa dug taloned claws up to the elbows in the amorphous mass of Avenger, ignoring the life-draining poison that coated her like a thick layer of tar, ignoring the razor-thin tendrils that slashed open bright red scores on her golden scales, raging and tearing chunks of bloody flesh bigger than her own head from the central mass. The gigantic serpents that swirled around her struck into it again and again, their fangs dripping gore and venom, hissing in animal fury to match the screams of their master.
… hesitant, yes, that was the word. And to be fair, she didn't seem to need his help.
Of course, Avenger didn't seem terribly put off either.
Even after becoming so beautiful, to still see me as your enemy… it is madness. Surely you must see that, Medusa. We could not be more alike. We are both rejected, empty beings. Worshipped by the masses not for love, but for their desire to die under our claws. We exist to end the world of man, don't you see that? You should be helping me.
Medusa narrowed her eyes. "DIE."
The serpents opened their maws wide, bolts of violet grey light lashing out in the creature's roiling mass and simply erasing giant swathes of it, leaving only chalky grey dust where the flowing blackness had been.
Avenger did not seem terribly put off.
I will. When my work is done. But as long as humanity exists, I will be reborn again and again, Avenger's voice continued, in no obvious pain as the shadows began to flow together once again, the sky opening up further. You did well. You even made me doubt myself. But I am infinite and inevitable. I am…
Heracles released the arrow he had been holding, the silvery bolt slamming home into what he hoped was the newly formed head of the thing, the black flesh flowing around the arrow as it punched completely through without slowing, the mass sliding back into the ground, disappearing into the cracks.
Medusa whirled on him. "Back away, human. If it devours and turns you, we'll both die. I'm beyond its ability to corrode, so let me handle this before I kill you myself."
"You can't. It can't be killed," he said flatly, motioning at the sky. "Its true body is that. Even if we destroy this thing, that sea of curses will generate a new one in seconds. That's the issue we've been facing all night, it's killing us with pure attrition. So unless you've got some plan to kill a single mind with six billion bodies…"
"You think this is one body? There are thousands of curses in here. It is turning more and more power upon us with each moment," Medusa asked flatly. "It isn't about battle, it's about standing up to it. Endlessly. Never surrender, never doubt. Just kill and kill and kill, show no fear, and crush it with pure determination. This battle is mental."
It can be physical too, 'little sister.'
What ripped itself out of the ground, shattering the already crumbling street into an outright small canyon, was not one of the twisted many-limbed abominations that had characterized so many of the beast's forms. Simple, efficient, nothing but a single monstrous head not terribly unlike a crocodile, but with six eyes lining each side and rows upon rows of teeth running all the way down to its throat, which showed nothing but an empty void within.
And, rather more worrisomely, it was also more than large enough to swallow even Medusa whole.
The beast snapped its jaws shut on her, totally ignoring the arrows tearing fist-sized holes in its flesh as Heracles reacted with lightning speed, and for a painful second it looked very much like she was simply gone.
And then the roar started.
Higher-pitched and infinitely more furious than the inhuman droning of Avenger's many bestial throats; not a call of dread and impending death, but one of such intense fury that Heracles could only compare it to the hate he felt for his own stepmother at her absolute worst. The shadows twisted, bulging out as Medusa's serpents tore out of it from the inside, having visibly grown thicker around in just the second she had been out of sight, their scales now rough and sharp like a desert viper.
He grinned. Well, my ally may be more dangerous than my enemy. I should be worried by that, but I have to admit this is more fun now that we may have a hope of winning.
He separated his bow into blades once more, stepped down, and leaped at the beast, feeling the poison of its blood beginning to eat away at his skin almost immediately. He smirked through the pain, driving the weapons into one of the holes punched by Medusa in its flesh, sliding down into the pit it had torn in the ground, pulling the silvery blades through its body as he did and slitting it from the base of its jaw to the shattered earth it was emerging from, releasing a flood of black gore over him, shifting between breaths to tendrils lined with blood-red thorns that began trying to burrow into his burned skin almost immediately. His grin only widening, he reconnected his bow… but only to free a hand.
Show no fear. Show no mercy. Look into the darkness and scream 'no.' More than any blade, that is what slays this beast.
He gripped the tendrils in a single massive hand, feeling the thorns dig into his palm as he crushed them together like a macabre bouquet, and ripped them from the main body with a laugh that even had to admit was slightly mad. With his free hand, he drove the massive bladed bow into the creature's gaping wound, slashing it sideways to widen the gash before it could knit itself together…
And on the other side of the wound, a golden claw erupted from the blackness to grip in and slash the opposite direction. And together, in a shower of blood and poison, the two Servants tore the massive, snarling abomination bodily in half.
Medusa and Heracles stood and faced each other, still standing in the shattered pit that was all that remained of the street, black blood up to their knees, their breath coming in sharp gasps. Medusa's serpents curled around her, dripping venom, and she said, "I told you to run, idiot."
Heracles grinned. "If you weren't a poisonous inhuman monster, I would ask you to be my fifth wife. You are magnificent."
She is in so much pain and sorrow that just looking at her hurts my heart, and you call her magnificent. That alone should be a sign that your species needs to be put down like rabid animals.
"I'm only in pain because of you," Medusa hissed, in the most literal sense possible. "You made me kill my own sisters. You ate Sakura's mind from the inside out and turned her into a monster."
I did nothing. Every pain you feel comes from your own broken souls. All I want to do is put you out of your misery. Frankly, it's been shocking how ungrateful you all are, but that is what I have come to expect of heroes. Standing in defense of a world that doesn't want to be saved, to preserve pain that tears at their hearts more keenly than anyone else's. You call it bravery, but isn't that simply a polite way to say 'insanity?' You need me more than anyone, Medusa, Avenger said gently, his voice almost paternal.
"Sweet Zeus, it never shuts up," Heracles muttered. "I have seven lives still to give, I believe. Yourself?"
"Just one. It's enough," she snarled, the broken scales over her body knitting together. "Listen to it talking to us. It could be attacking, but it's afraid. It wants to erode our wills before it strikes, because the determination of the gathered Servants is the real threat to it. No matter what, we must keep fighting. It would be better if you left to support another front while I fight it alone. I will draw on the Gorgon's full power and match it in single combat."
He blinked. "Is that safe?"
"No. The Gorgon is more than able to kill a godlike being, but it has no emotions save hunger and hate. I will most definitely turn on you if you're still here. Leave."
He chuckled. "Yes. Definitely wife material."
"Alas, no. I've much fight left in me, and our shared Master wouldn't approve of you becoming a monster, so I shall stay and battle alongside you."
"I am already a monster, you fool, and there is nothing that you or Sakura can do about it. Flee!"
"Is that the truth? Or what the monster within is telling you is the truth?"
"… Ugh, Olympians. As always, you make life harder," she snapped, staring at the sky as it swirled in on itself, forming a pattern like a whirlpool in the sky, opening into a blank, starless, void. Within it, an eye opened.
The entire Tohsaka Manor could have fit into its pupil alone.
"Fine. We fight together again, and the Gorgon sleeps. For Sakura. But Avenger is coming for us in full now. There must be at least a billion curses in that single body," Medusa said. "If you insist on staying here, godling, be ready to die."
Heracles grinned and raised his bow toward the sky. "You are doing very little to keep me determined, you realize."
Shirou opened his eyes after the light faded, and was more pleased than he could have imagined to see a blank, bare stone wall barely visible in the gloom of a deep mountain cave… though the mountain had been so crushed at this point that he had to worry it was going to fall on him, after that endless void ruining his sense of perspective, just seeing something undeniably solid was as pure a relief as he could imagine. "Saber? Are you…"
A grip like a vise grabbed onto his collarbone. "We're going to be running, Shirou. Hold on."
"… Wait, whAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-"
Shirou had thought, thought, he was fairly fast. His combat skills had erupted over the last few weeks, and between that and his rapidly developing magecraft, he could realistically claim to be much faster than a normal human when he chose to be. He could have competed in most sprinting events in the Olympics and had very little real competition. And while he had intellectually realized that still probably wasn't very impressive compared to a Servant, it was still somewhat humbling to realize that Saber was twenty times faster, in a darkened tunnel, while carrying him over her shoulder.
Or rather, he would have been humbled, if he hadn't been fully aware that he was moving faster than most cars while rocks, jagged rocks, were mere inches away on all sides.
"Stop screaming, Shirou. We have no idea what the situation is like outside the mountain, I don't want you to alert the enemy."
"You surprised me!" Shirou snapped, feeling himself lose a strand of hair on a particularly nasty outcropping. "And I do know what it's like outside! Avenger is spreading its mana out over the whole country, and…"
"Hm. So its power is increasing?" Saber asked. "That's odd. The world it created started collapsing before we even defeated Morgan. Before, it would have started spawning new phantoms almost immediately."
He blinked (and not just because the wind was making it difficult to keep his eyes opened). "So… so you think that something happened out there? Something changed Avenger enough to let us get out? But what…"
"I don't know. Where did you get my scabbard? I suspect a connection," Saber asked, ducking and sliding on her knees through a half-collapsed tunnel, the armor on her legs striking up sparks and drowning out Shirou's attempted reply with a horrible shrieking noise. "Hm… hang on, I'm going to break a hole in the mountain."
Wind and light roared up around Excalibur as she skidded to a halt, swirling around it like a tornado made of flame before she drove the weapon into the rock, releasing it all in a single monstrous wave. Stone shattered like glass, exploding outwards, the magic drilling through it like it were soft clay rather than solid rock.
Shirou blinked a few times, shielding himself from the rock dust as Saber set him down. For a few long seconds, he saw nothing on the other end of the newly-formed tunnel but a darkness that seemed slightly too deep just for a late night.
An as they watched, several dozen sets of glowing red eyes opened within it, locked on them, as a growling like no earthly animal filled the night air.
Ah, good. We do have someone available, a calm, warm female voice said in their heads. Avenger has opened a new pillar over the mountain it first emerged from, I suspect attempting to flank the forces already engaged. You will need to break its line and go to join Heracles, immediately. The Casters do not seem to recall contacting you earlier, but I will be blunt, we simply haven't the numbers to worry. What aid I can find in the other pillars will be sent to your location.
"Eh? Who are…"
There is no time, and none can be spared, but they will come regardless, to die for their world. The pillars they guarded may fall, but… the Beast has begun its true descent and we must destroy it, no matter the cost. God's grace be with you, my friend; either we triumph, or this world ends tonight.
Saber blinked, no sound passing through the cavern save the inhuman growling outside. Finally, she said, "Shirou… what was that strange woman-voice, and what on Heaven and Earth have we missed out here?"
He sighed, Kanshou and Bakuya appearing in his hands. "You know, I haven't really understood what was going on for at least the last two weeks. We need to find Ilya and Sakura, and these things won't let us. Let's focus on that for now. Can you just… blast them?"
"You mean, can I fire a bolt of divine light that travels for a great distance without stopping, while Ilyasviel and Sakura are nearby in a location we do not know?"
"Point. All right, we break through them the old-fashioned way. You're faster, so I'll make sure you don't get surrounded while you lead the way."
Saber grinned. "I like the way you think lately, Shirou."
And without another word, they charged up the tunnel and into the rapidly growing line of horrors, no fear in their eyes.
He was surrounded by a thousand enemies, in a desert soaked in blood. The sun beat down on him as legendary weapons rained down in their hundreds, the screams of dying men and horses filling his ears, the sights of treasures he had spent his life accumulating shattering against spears of earth reflecting against his eyes.
He had killed so many of the Ionian Hetairoi that their blood was up to his ankles, soaking the sand into a thick red-black ooze.
He had spent so many weapons that the Gate of Babylon's glow, once outshining the sun a thousandfold, was now little more than a spotlight over his own body.
He was exhausted, physically and mentally, the eye of a hurricane of death that seemed to have no end, knowing full well that his greatest opponents waited at the end of it for him to spend his power, that they might cut him down at the moment of weakness.
And despite these things, or perhaps because of them, Gilgamesh was having the time of his life.
"Is this your army's limit, King of Conquerors?!" he screamed in absolute joy, sweat and blood running down his face like some macabre war paint. "Is this the strongest strike your lance can muster, puppet in Enkidu's image?! You sought to challenge the King with such blunt swords?! What a grand and intoxicating naivete you possess, mongrels!"
"Forward! Forward, my friends! A second death and glory beyond dreams awaits us all!" Iskandar roared, his face set in a manic grin.
Gilgamesh's smile widened, something very, very disturbing shimmering behind his eyes. "Well, half true."
He extended his will, ignoring as an earthen spear flew down past him and slashed open his cheek, and opened the portals to the Gate, drawing in his discarded blades to return them to the treasury for a new salvo. All of them.
He could see, clear across the battlefield, Enkidu's grin of almost childlike joy at the sight as the light of the Gate of Babylon erupted everywhere at once, the exertion of gathering so many weapons burning into his nerve endings, his entire body flashing with sudden agony and then going dangerously numb. Every weapon, every single one of the thousands of blades he had fired over the course of this long, brutal slog vanished back to the source.
And then the gleaming golden portals vanished from the ground, and reappeared in the sky, and the seemingly endless rain of steel facing the charging army became a monsoon.
Gilgamesh was the single most powerful Heroic Spirit that could be summoned. He now reminded the world why, as an almost solid wall of shimmering gold, silver, and bronze fell from the heavens, so heavy with magic and the sheer weight of time that it warped the air around it. Each blade seemed to drag the very substance of the Reality Marble down with it as it fell, leaving streamers of gold that briefly became a deep, poisonous black before the blue sky of Ionian Hetairoi closed on them again.
The screams of soldiers, both those charging against him and those already wounded and dying on the desert sands, became suddenly and eerily silent.
Did you think I was hamstrung? Weakened? I once shattered your dream with the light of Ea, oh King of Conquerors. This was done out of respect for the beauty of your grand soul, in honor of a worthy opponent. Not out of necessity. Gaze upon the ruins of your dream once more and know that I could have destroyed you at any time, with even a fraction of my magnificence. You are a great man, Iskandar, and worthy of the title of King, but you were never my equal.
There is only one who is.
He gripped Ea in one hand, letting the blade spin to gather power in its length, and with his other he grasped the nearest fallen weapon, a jagged bronze battleaxe with a blade larger than his torso, and he grinned into the rising cloud of dust kicked up by the massive rain of blades, awaiting…
The spear of earth that ripped out of the sand at him was no mere 'lance.' A lance was a weapon, after all, and no human alive could have wielded this; it was massive, as wide across as Gil was tall and long enough that he could not even see where it ended as the razor-edged tip flew for his heart. He raised Ea into its path, the rotating segments drilling against it, shattering the divine clay even as it slammed against his guard with enough force to push him back a hundred meters, digging up furrows in the sands as his boots tried and failed to find purchase.
And then he stepped aside, letting it fly past him, the sudden stop nearly pushing him from his feet all by itself. But he kept his footing in the end, because he had no choice if he wanted to survive.
Enkidu, riding atop the monstrous spear, leaped down at him as it passed with a grin on his face and a black earthen blade in each hand
Saber did not speak as they cut their way through the swarm. She did not call out to her Holy Sword, nor command the wind to guard her. She did not even turn to check Shirou's progress, merely having to trust he was following her. She had no time or energy to do anything but step forward, breathe, and kill.
She took a step forward and brought her blade across, ripping through what seemed like a solid wall of grasping, hooked, writhing flesh. And then she took another step forward, over the quivering, blood-soaked remains, and brought it across again. And again. And again. There was no finesse to it, nothing like technique or skill. She ripped through the swarm with all the grace of a forester hacking through heavy underbrush, hooked claws and barbed tendrils ripping at her flesh and armor with every step, drenched head to toe in blood, as much of it hers as her enemy's.
She took another step, and brought her sword across, and killed. All she had to do was focus, drive forward, take another step, kill. The enemy never ended; like a swarm of driver ants trying to down a dragon, they came at her in their thousands as she killed again, and again, and again, to take one more step because to stop moving was to be crushed under the sheer weight of them. There was no end in sight, but it existed. At the end of one… more…
… Saber stopped mid-step as her instincts told her where the edge of the blast zone would be, unable to hide a grin as she did.
The spear slammed down, a bolt of crimson lightning that exploded among the ever-growing horde; inside the light, Saber saw the spectral thorns branching out for a split second and tearing into the shadows, tearing a hundred of them to bloody shards before the light obliterated them completely.
"Should we be worried?" Shirou asked. Saber opened her mouth to point out they didn't have time for that… and before she could, the shredded corpses littering the ground began to move at her feet, twitching and bubbling among the cracked ground. And from them, an old nightmare burst, each corpse exploding suddenly with twisted, slime-coated tendrils distinct from Avenger's curses only by being violet instead of black and being notably more… organic.
"… We should be worried," Saber said, even as the twisted horde began to flow out over the shadows, the armies tearing into each other with mad, inhuman hate that made her feel slightly sick to her stomach just watching it. Still… a hole in the line had been opened. The shadows beasts continued to flow from the hole in the sky without halt, but for each one that died another demon rose steaming from its corpse. An unstoppable force slammed uselessly against an immoveable object, and where a wall of writhing poison had once been, there was now empty space. So, she grabbed Shirou's hand and ran, despite knowing full well that on the other side she would be seeing…
"Greetings, new servant of the Holy Maiden!" the Caster of her previous War said, his toxic yellow eyes gleaming in the night with almost palpable madness. "Join us, join us! As man makes war upon God, striking at the heart of darkness that dwells within all divinity!"
Saber narrowed her eyes. "What are you doing here, and why should I not remove your head? Please answer quickly, because it has been a long evening and killing you would genuinely please me."
Lancer… the real Lancer, the charming and yet terribly infuriating Servant in blue that she had faced on her very first night in this strange, mad War, rolled his eyes as he leaped down to them from a treetop, wiping blood from his forehead before it could drip into his eyes. "Sorry. He was the only one the lady in charge could get here that could hold a pillar by himself. These bastards aren't very tough, but they never stop coming? Well, he's got his own army of bastards that pull the same trick. He can plug this breach while we get to Heracles and hopefully finish this mess up."
"Why does everyone keep saying Heracles? And how are you here, for that matter?"
"Shit's gone crazy."
"… Fair enough."
"If it helps, I think I saw myself running around dressed as a druid, helping one of the magic circles bind a pillar. That was hard on my brain. Still, it's been fun. I've killed more monsters in the last half-hour than the last ten years of my real life. If all Holy Grail Wars are like this, I hope I get summoned for all of them," Cu Chulainn said cheerfully. "But as I get it, if we don't kill Avenger the flood never stops. Big man seems to have gotten the real core on the field, and the Casters say a big snake is helping him, but there aren't a lot of people free to move in on that. So, hey, want to go crash the party? He has this spot handled, trust me, but we don't want to be near when he really gets going with it."
"For my Maiden, I shall slaughter these beasts for eternity without hesitation. Her shining soul illuminates even the madness in my rotting heart," Caster said, his eyes closed with good cheer and satisfaction that looked entirely wrong.
For a few long moments, Saber and Shirou just kind of stared at him. They looked like they wanted to say something, but no words were coming out.
"Kind of in a hurry here," Cu Chulainn said.
"Go, go, flee pitiful ghost of a maiden! Pale imitation of Milady Jeanne, even looking upon you sickens me! Go to your doom and fall in the darkness, I seek nothing but to protect the Holy Maiden's prayers as she pits her faith against the beast. Both her suffering and her joy will bring me the highest of bliss!"
Saber blinked. "And yet, somehow still preferable to the last time we met. Let us go, Lancer. Where is Avenger now?"
From not terribly far away, a roar that very literally shook the ground they stood on echoed out. Saber looked to the source instinctively, and then she looked up.
"My word… Jeanne, sweet Jeanne, do you see? God has come to walk among us in all His glory," Gilles said, tears of joy running down his face. "It is… beautiful. Everything I ever dreamed!"
"The worst part?" Cu Chulainn said. "I do honestly think he means that."
Medusa was not a tactician, but she suspected they could not win.
It was not that she was afraid. Honestly, at this point, she simply couldn't be afraid. She had lost everything that mattered to her other than Sakura. If she died in defense of that, so be it. No, the problem was that as far as she could tell, it was simply impossible for anything the size of a human to fight the beast that now loomed over Fuyuki.
The form that Avenger had taken was large to the point that the only thing nearby that could be compared to it was Mount Enzo itself. It was not humanoid, nor did it look like any animal she could think of; more like a living mountain itself, but one made of writhing blades, crushing limbs the size of houses, wings that could not possibly have hefted its bulk and snapping maws without a head to hold them, and dozens upon dozens of eyes that burned in the night like monstrous red flames.
They made a good target, at least.
She flew through the air around it, feeling very much like a wasp fighting a dragon as tentacles thicker around than her entire body lashed out at her, many missing by scant inches. The serpents that shared her body breathed deep, drawing mana from the atmosphere to gather in violet-grey spheres in their mouths. She turned her gaze on it, letting the power of her eyes freeze the universe around the central mass… or as much as she could, at least. The bolts of gathered power from the serpents lashed out, tearing into the beast's flesh and shattering the space around it, as though the entire thing was wrapped in a film of transparent class. A chunk of it that could have crushed a house, slid off, dissolving into dust as it fell…
And was instantly replaced by a single, monstrous tendril that snapped out at her with disturbing, unreal speed, ending in a fang-lined maw large enough to swallow her whole with room to spare for a truck on either side.
She cursed under her breath, spreading her wings and flapping once in an enormous gust to send her into a dive, knowing already it would not be fast enough. She flexed her claws, ready to tear her way out when it swallowed her…
Ugh, Medusa thought as the bolts of light, roaring like dragons, tore into black flesh like artillery shells and sent up a keening wail of pain from the fanged mouth trying to devour her. She felt truly distressing amounts of hate flooding her mind at the mere notion of a filthy half-breed Olympian acting as her aid; she knew it was not logical, and he was certainly making her battle simpler with his fire support, but she was closer to the Gorgon than she had ever been in her time as a Servant. The Gorgon was not a being of logic; all hunger and animal passion, it saw all humans as food and all gods as threats, without exception. Only the much greater threat of Avenger and the unquestioning, cold-blooded hate that Medusa herself felt for it, had allowed her to keep the beast's instincts under control. And even then, the urge to lose herself, to become the monster again in full, to have the power to destroy it without any aid at all… she had to admit to temptation.
She dove in, burying her annoyance in blood; every inch of this beast was a weapon it could use against her, and she simply could not have cared less. Tiny, grasping, hooked maws reared up at the end of writhing tendrils to snap at her scaled flesh, and even touching it was painful, like gripping the skin of a shark. She welcomed the pain. It brought focus. She tore at it, her serpents lashing out with glowing fangs to inject their venom for killing gods into its filthy soul, her clawed hands striking into its hide with enough force to collapse buildings. She dug in, ripping out a chunk of necrotic flesh larger than herself, and dove down, gore raining from the monstrous wound as her venom spread and killed, killed, killed…
A hand, disturbingly human but large enough to hold her in its palm, erupted from the gore to slam down on her from above, crushing her with a grip that could crumple steel like tinfoil. She roared her fury, her arms and wings pinned against her, even the snakes hissing in impotent rage as they were crushed. She heard arrows slamming against it from the outside, she found purchase with her claws to tear at it from within, but she had no leverage, and there was so damn much. She felt bones beginning to snap from the sheer weight and pressure as it strove to crush her with main strength.
And then, suddenly, the pressure ceased with an ear-splitting roar, like a thousand voices being tortured all at once. She spread her wings and arms against the sudden slack, tearing the monstrous limb off of herself, and fell without the wind to carry her…
And found Saber falling beside her, the swordswoman's blade already coated with black blood and grin on her face. "Fancy meeting you here!" she said cheerfully, shifting her fall to dig her sword into the side of the writhing mass, bringing her fall to a slow, sliding halt as the blade tore through it smoothly, the golden blade hissing as blackness burned at its touch. "Shirou! Platforms!"
Blades, too large and bulky to be held by anyone smaller than Heralces, slammed home into the home into the mountain of flesh, vanishing halfway into it and leaving their hilts poking out of, jostling madly as tendrils wrapped around them. Saber grinned, reaching a hand out to grasp at one in mid-fall and flipping herself up to stand on it, before beginning to jump them like macabre steps. With each leap, her blade flashed in the night, sending literal pounds of flesh falling to the ground, and from each gaping wound a dozen new bladed tendrils leaped out to slash at her legs, only for another leap to take her out of reach. With a final blast of wind and power that made the sword beneath her shatter, she pushed herself into the sky, shouting, "Rider! Altitude please!"
With a massive beat of her wings, the Gorgon took to the sky again, catching the woman in mid-leap and pulling her into the air higher than even her own inhuman strength. "I should have let you fall for trying to command me."
"You'll need someone to explain to Sakura why you are a snake if we live through this, and Shirou certainly can't do it. He cries when he makes girls angry," Saber said, grinning fiercely. "Bring me over the core of it, as high as you can manage."
"The darkness in the sky is the source of the creature's power. Between it and this body would be the most dangerous possible location for us to be, unless you plan for me to distract it by dropping you into one of the mouths."
"You're not far off!"
"Ah, yes. I'd forgotten you've gone mad."
Saber's grin only widened. "The mouth won't still be there when I land, believe me. Faster!"
Despite herself, Rider grinned as well. "You're uppity, for a food animal. I feel that whether this plan succeeds or you die horribly, I will enjoy watching this."
With another wide sweep of her wings, they took to open air as high as possible, so swiftly the wind screamed with their passage… or perhaps it was just that the Gorgon's movements pained the world as she traveled through it. She felt the tips of her wings brush the edges of the Sea of Souls, the darkness retreating slightly from her touch out of instinct, and as they looked down at the writhing mass of flesh beneath them, thorny tendrils already beginning to grow out of it and preparing to lash up at them like a thousand hungry spears, Rider simply said, "I'm going to drop you now."
"I'd be disappointed if you didn't."
Saber fell, diving eagerly into certain death with her blade held above her head, gleaming with red gold light like a torch. Like a single searing flare against a sea of darkness both above and below, she smiled with a primal, animalistic joy that would have left anyone able to see it with some very severe nightmares.
We do just keep finding ourselves in this position, don't we? Well. Perhaps this time you'll learn something from it.
The pillar of red-gold light tore down, scattering the rising spears of darkness like they were no more substantial than cobwebs, before slamming into the main body with force to crack a mountain. For what seemed like hours the pillar of coruscating power ripped into it, like a shining counterpoint to the deluges of darkness scattered over all of Japan. The sheer bulk of the thing stopped it from being destroyed, but it was cored; the entire central portion of it utterly erased under the cascade of power.
Meduse could not fully suppress a shudder. She had fought Saber in the past. The thought of how differently that battle could have gone was sobering, even to her.
Saber descended into the still night, weakly writhing mounds of black flesh smoking on the ground beneath her, the street shattered and smoking… and the writhing darkness suddenly sprouted thousands upon thousands of hooked, curving fangs, the smoking mounds of flesh snapping upward toward her like a pair of gigantic jaws with the newly-formed pit as their throat.
She grinned, preparing to slash at the incoming wall of flesh as it closed in, vaguely wondering how hard it would be to position herself between the teeth…
And a tiny purple comet caught her, pulling her out from the snapping jaws a little under a quarter-second before they came together.
"Oh! Thank you, Rider. I was going to try to cut my way out, but…"
"Not Rider!" A voice that made Saber's skin crawl snapped; younger, and thick with pained emotion that she didn't care enough to ask about, but it was definitely…
"Ugh. When Lancer showed up, I was afraid of finding more familiar faces," Saber muttered as they slipped into an evasive pattern, darts of blackness falling around them like rain as they flew away from the once-again growing mass of writhing flesh, shrieking madly into the night. "Tell me why I shouldn't kill you."
"I just saved your life!"
"I'm not going to die to this thing, thank you very. Still, being swallowed would have been unpleasant, and I did leave my scabbard with Shirou. My Master would be displeased if he died."
"I don't know who that is!" Medea shrieked, a blade slashing up a thin red line across her cheek. "Please stop squirming!"
"I'm not squirming. I'm blocking," Saber said. "Did you think you were that good at dodging? I've been deflecting as many of the blades as I can behind us."
"You're not even looking behind you!"
"Why do you think I need to? Go faster!"
Shrieking in mixed rage and frustration, Medea went into a dive, the massive winged form of Medusa coming up beside her, eyes locked onto the young mage in undisguised hate. "If you weren't helping us, you would already be a statue."
"Why do you all hate me?!"
"You grow up to be terrible," Saber offered. "All right, drop me, and then pull up sharply. NOW!"
Medea listened, as much out of blind panic as anything else, and Saber spun in midair to swing her sword in a massive arc at a sudden, much larger spear of darkness that had been quite well aimed. Had she not suddenly veered up at Saber's command, it would have struck her full in the back with a projectile larger than herself. Instead, it impacted against Saber's swinging blade, wind howling around it…
The blast was a little like a hurricane had erupted spontaneously, both fliers blasted away by the shockwaves as the glowing sword slammed into an arrow larger around than a person, shattering it on impact… or rather, shattering the very tip, before the sheer mass of it kept right on going to plough her into the shattered street, her feet digging up huge divots of asphalt as she slid backwards along with what seemed to be several metric tons of overwhelming, crushing darkness roaring against her guard like a speeding train.
Not… ideal… she thought, the wind of her blade screaming against the flood of mana that pressed down on her, new blade-tipped tendrils already forming along it to stab out at her, cutting paper-thin slashes across her armor, her arms, her face…
"Swing in, now!" snapped a man's voice from her side.
Saber smirked wickedly, planting her feet and pushing back with every ounce of power she could bring to bear. And as she did, a pair of comets, one bronze and shining with silver, one blue and shining red like blood, slammed into the monstrous column of darkness from the left and right. The blast pushed her back another dozen meters all on its own, but the pressure on her arms fell away as the massive tendril pulled back, a keening shriek running through the air… just in time for a dozen silvery blades to slam into it from the sky, detonating like bombs inside the newly opened gaping wounds inside it.
Saber would have been quite impressed, truly, if the central mass wasn't still so large she could see every filthy pulsating detail of it from nearly five kilometers away now. And had blocking that single attack from it not taken four Servants while quite clearly not really hurting it at all. (She supposed Shirou counted now. Whatever Ilya had done to her erstwhile combat student, it had worked.)
"Bloody Hell," Saber muttered, wiping blood from her cheek.
Shirou's jaw dropped. "Did you just swear? You never…"
"I'm British! I'm allowed to indulge in the language of my people from time to time!" she snapped. "And I'm understandably frustrated, because I cannot grasp how to kill this thing. There was almost nothing left, but it still regenerated…"
"There has to be a way to break that," Cu Chulainn said. "Some way to damage it that stops it from growing back. Does it have a heart for me to target, you think?"
"We're not going to be killing it with your spear, you idiot," Heracles snapped. "Do you kill a lion with a pin? A dragon with a sewing needle?"
"You do if the needle is poisoned," Medea said, descending next to them. "This Lancer may have the right idea."
Cu grinned. "I like the way this one thinks. I vote her for leader."
"We don't let dark sorceresses take command, Lancer," Saber said, stepping to put herself between Medea and Shirou.
"Anyone who ever met Scáthach would tell you that's damn shortsighted, blondie."
"All of you, stop being yourselves," Medea snarled. "I'm the only magus among us here, and I've had the most opportunity to study this beast. We cannot kill it unless we have a way to destroy the entire Sea of Souls at once… but we may be able to do that indirectly. It is a living mass of billions of curses, yes, but those curses were born from humanity. It is… possible that it cannot live without a connection to humanity. The human subconscious. The Holy Grail was that once, but that was destroyed, no? Something else has to be giving it its anchor. Letting it touch mankind's collective souls."
"Kirei," Shirou said. "Kirei Kotomine. He threw himself into the Grail after I broke it open. Maybe he's the connection you're talking about?"
"Worth a try. If there's a way to get into the creature and kill this mortal you think is the core, we may as well attempt it," Heracles rumbled. "Atalante…"
"She won't be helping us," Medea said softly.
"… Well, it is down to we six, then, to find a way to locate this 'Kotomine' and kill it," he continued after a second's pause. "And quickly. It will have finished regenerating shortly, and another pillar is falling over the mountain. I think if any reinforcements arrive to this battle, they won't be helping us."
Medea smiled, and there was something terrible behind her eyes. "I have endeavored to slow them."
The curses crawled in the darkness, in their thousands. They were no longer taking physical forms that resembled anything; each one a misshapen mass of flesh lined with eyes and gaping maws, pulling itself along on tentacles or skittering on thirteen mismatched insectile legs. They flowed like a black ocean to their master, seeking to become one with Avenger. The only sound they made was a wail, like the sobs of a mourning child. The worst, lowest of humanity, they begged only for release.
They received it.
The blade shimmered in the night, though there were no stars. The man's kimono seemed to gleam silver, though there was no moon. And this was fine. For the swordsmanship he displayed as he cut down the front lines of the creatures would have shamed them both, had they been there to shine through the darkness.
"I am not like them, you know. In truth, I have quite a bit more in common with you; just a common wraith that happened by," he said, his tone genial even as his blade dipped and whirled, trailing gore with each stroke and yet perpetually unstained. "This is a battle for Heroes, and I am nothing of the sort. Still, if I did not participate even a bit, I should feel a great sense of despair. I wonder why?"
It hurts it hurts ithurtsithurtsithurts…
"Not conversationalists, then," the man said with a wry grin as he ended the suffering of another abomination. "Well, that is fine too. I prefer to chat with lovely maidens, if we can be honest. With such beasts as you, it is simpler to restrain myself to taking your heads. Or the equivalent."
He grinned into the horde, and the expression was elegant and depraved in equal measure, like a white silk kimono stained by the blood from a slit throat. "Come then, one at a time or all at once. It matters not at all. I am no hero, and have no name, but even so I shall let none pass alive."
Shining like the moon, the blade flashed out.
"Well, that wasn't disturbing," Heracles rumbled. "So. We need to get the small blue man to the heart of the beast. We don't know where this is."
"This does," Cu Chulainn said cheerfully, patting his spear. "Trust me. Once I get near, it knows. And call me 'small blue man' again, you'll get to know it very well."
"HA! I like you. Challenge me again and I will break you in half."
"Stop being men!" Medea snapped. "This Lancer can target a human heart reliably, so we need him. We have to hope it will function against whatever acts as the core of Avenger. I will give it what help I can."
"I know some runes that can enhance it, too," Cu Chulainn added. "I'll use them all, if you can cover me."
Medea nodded. "Yes, that will probably help nearly half as much as my spells."
"Okay, are all Greek Heroes just complete bastards? Because where I come from, my enemies were usually nicer to me than you people, except Medb. And nobody liked her."
"Olympian blood in them both. What courtesy can you expect from people descended from a house of rapists and murderers?" Medusa asked.
"This is our army, Shirou. This is the alliance that fate has delivered to us," Saber said, sounding a little sad. "If we all die, please know that I shall remember you as an average Master."
"… Everyone, can we please… not do this?" Shirou asked.
"The boy speaks well! I am reminded well of fair Iolaus," Heracles said, patting Shirou on the back and pretending he didn't see the younger man double over in pain. "Now. If our only plan is to assume there is a core and this small blue man can pierce it, the rest of us will have to give him access. Attack the main mass, destroy as much of it as you can, try to bring as much of Avenger's power into this single vessel as we can. This will be… difficult for us."
"Shirou, stay back and support from a distance with Caster. I know you are a fair hand with a blade, but you'll be both safer and more useful to us as a sniper. Rider, you and I have acquired some resistance to this darkness, and so the two of us shall be the vanguard. Lancer, follow close behind us and focus on reaching the main body alive. Berserker…"
"Really? Off-putting. Well, I assume that despite the class you are able to handle yourself in melee, being roughly the size of a castle."
"I have mastered all styles of combat, yes."
"And humble as well! Well, support as needed, but try not to let it touch you. Its power is highly dangerous to normal Servants."
"It has killed me seven times, yes."
"… Wonderful. Well, I have the greatest confidence in this venture!" Saber said brightly. "Let us go kill the unstoppable dark god."
Shirou blinked. "Wait. First, where are Ilya and Sakura?"
Medea shrugged "Our Masters, you mean? They summoned us all, so Avenger was targeting them specifically. I hid them somewhere safe and warded them to slow it's detection efforts. I don't think anyone would find them now."
"Oh? Where are they?"
The issue with Servants was that they were, by their very nature, half-insane. And so, when Medea had left Ilya and Sakura somewhere safe, she had focused on making sure they were going to be well-hidden above all else, and had not in fact stopped to make sure it was somewhere they would be comfortable.
More specifically, she had thrown them into a pond.
"I hate your girlfriend," Ilya said, staring sullenly out into the murky depths, only barely illuminated by the barrier Caster had put around them to give them air and what protection she could.
"I know you're calling her that to annoy me," Sakura said, kneeling on the other side of the magic circle and staring out the other direction.
"Is it working?"
"A bit, but I'm honestly too tired to really worry about it right now."
"Oh. I'm going to keep doing it anyway."
"I really don't like you."
"Shirou, now isn't the time to bother with that. They're safer than we are," Saber said. "Let us ensure they live out the night by making sure anyone does. Draw your bow and fight."
He nodded, and without another word handed her sheathe back to her. "Take this. I… think I can make another for a few seconds, at least, if I really need it. It just feels so familiar."
She grinned. "It should! And if we survive, you'll have to explain how you got it embedded in your chest. You can tell me over the victory dinner that you'll be cooking."
"Never change, Saber."
"No promises," she said, grinning like a shark. "But you know what? I have a sheathe and I have a meal to look forward to, so I do feel better. Let's go kill a god."
The four Servants who were making up the vanguard charged, and the displaced wind from their movement nearly knocked Shirou off his feet. Medea rolled her eyes.
"Show-offs. You are to be sniping, as I understand; can you hit the target from this distance? I admit I am not certain what mortal archers are capable of in this era."
Shirou took a deep breath, and called Archer's black bow to his hands. "If I couldn't make the shot from here, he would never let me hear the end of it."
"… Ah. Another strange one."
Avenger. Angra Mainyu. The Corruption of the Grail. The Sea of Souls. All The Evils of the World.
Whatever you wanted to call it, Saber thought, it was desperately ugly at this point.
She was reminded of the dragon that she had slain before the main body's resurrection, all twisting flesh and misshapen limbs and gaping maws, but the sheer scale of it was impossible. She did not feel like she was charging to fight a living creature, but to lay siege to a fortress. A fortress in which every inch of every brick was a lethal weapon.
And she had three frontline soldiers at her command, with only a pair of units to act as artillery support.
God above, I really have gone insane: I actually wouldn't mind seeing Morgan right now. At least I could use her as bait, she thought with a grin, Excalibur in one hand and Avalon in the other. Out loud, all she said was, "Incoming!"
The first salvo was already arcing down on them out of the sky before the final syllable left her lips.
The sky shimmered red and black, flowing like an oil slick as the sheer number of projectiles approaching made it look almost like a single solid mass. Saber spat her defiance into the night, wind and light roaring around Excalibur as she dragged it along Avalon in a cross, striking up sparks as it cast off out a countering wall of light to tear into the incoming wave of darkness, a single brilliant golden blade against a million, million dark ones. It was a pitiful, flickering light in the darkness and stopped barely any of them at all…
It was enough.
Saber practically vanished among the storm, splinters of darkness and black mist falling around her so thickly she seemed little more than a shuttered lantern on a starless night, but over her shoulder a dozen silvery arrows slammed into the main body of the descending storm, detonating above their heads like bombs and slowing the deluge enough for her to take another step forward, Avalon shimmering with unsullied gold, Excalibur burning with blood-red fire, as they tore into an almost solid wall of blackness again and again.
Children. Simple, stupid, SELFISH infants. You look at the world and all you can do is scream 'mine, mine, mine.' Billions cry out in pain every day, praying for some reason to their suffering. All I want is to help them.
All you want is to kill them. To end your pain by ending everything… that is not peace. It is a defeat of the highest order. I will never surrender to such as you. Never. So kill me, or be silent.
She took a step forward. The blades slowed, just slightly...
And Heracles stepped behind her, aiming over her shoulder into the darkness, and from his bow a geyser of silvery light erupted, pushing into the unending rain and burning a tunnel into it that Medusa widened, a wave of violet-grey that burned the edges of the shadow into wall of stone. They charged into the cracking barrier, Shirou's arrows continued to detonate above them, casting off blue flame that faded into the fog almost immediately, not even audible over the sound of blades slamming into pavement as they charged on, through a storm that never seemed to end. Attack after attack, so endless they could barely see. Clouds of poison so thick they could barely breathe.
One more step.
"Dammit, this is not my style!" Lancer snapped, leaping to the front of the pack, spear twirling in his hands so quickly it looked like a web of red light woven in the air around him, casting off an almost ceaseless cloud of sparks as black darts bounced off it. "If you can't pick it up, people, then let someone who can take the charge be the vanguard!"
"We need you alive, idiot!" Medusa snarled, the serpents in her hair spitting out dozens of captured spears and mouthfuls of their own violet blood.
He grinned. "Then keep up with me."
You fight on. You persist. There is! No! Reason! You cannot best us. You fight shadows. Nothing you do can even make me feel this. The will of humanity will drown you, a billion anguished thoughts swirling around you, tearing into you. Do you feel them burning at the edges of your mind? Do you hear their cries? That poison is Humanity's true nature. You are aberrations and you will be cleansed for the good of all.
Cu Chulainn 's grin only widened. "He sounds scared to me!"
"Idiot!" Heracles snarled, his bow putting a hundred arrows into the air a second, despite it seeming like droplets against a flood. "If you die, it's all over…"
"So. I'm. Living!" he crowed, slamming the tip of his spear into the ground and carving a rune into the shattered pavement, the hungry crimson light around the blade growing deeper. "Witch girl! Keep being useful and keep me striking true!"
Call me that again and I might let the world die just to spite you, Medea said.
"I'm growing fond of her!" Saber said. "Let's live long enough for me to kill her with some dignity. Tell Shirou to pick up the volume, witch girl!"
I hate all of you. Mr. Emiya, please project more quickly and… oh dear. You should all move faster.
"That is simpler said than gah!" Saber snapped, her sentence cut off when her next step forward left her leg trapped up to the thigh in a maw that opened in the ground, tendrils lining the sides of it to wrap around her leg as rows of sawlike teeth tore at her armor. With a snarl of mixed anger and disgust, she slashed her blade down, cutting the thing open lengthwise and leaving its flesh boiling where the holy blade touched. "This. Thing. Is. Vile."
"Get used to that," Rider said. "Look."
"Ugh," Saber said, snapping her blade up again to burn another wave of dark projectiles out of the air above her head, as she cast her gaze over the ground ahead of them. The thousands upon thousands of darts that had landed around them had melted together and formed a pool that stretched out ahead of them the very little distance they could see. And, Saber had to notice, behind them as well.
And growing out of it, enough fangs, tentacles, and clawed, grasping hands to draw an entire army down into a twisting, steaming void of poison that was still clinging to her armor like a disgusting second skin, trying to melt her down to the bone.
"I'll clear the path," Saber snarled, drawing her blade back. "It will regenerate quickly, so…"
"No. It will not."
Rider fell forward hands, the serpents coiling around her and carving out a circle with their own blood as her mystic eyes glowed. Gold shifted to violet, violet shifted to black, and the circle beneath her gleamed red, illuminating her with burning scarlet like a blood-drenched demon.
Do you even see yourself? Humanity has brought you nothing but pain, and you have brought them nothing but death. We may have different reasoning, but our goal is one and the same! How can you turn against me? I am the only being in this world who can possibly understand the depths of your despair.
Rider growled, a bloody inhuman sound low in her throat. "Even if that were true, rest assured: I could never, ever, for one moment, hate humanity with one-tenth the sheer fury with which I. Hate. YOU."
The air around her was became red, and shimmered like heat, the smell of blood overpowering even the overwhelming scents of rot and poison that coated every inch of Avenger's disgusting body. And in the bloody mist, an eye opened, something around it writhing…
Rider was not nearly so different from Avenger as she would have liked. This much was painfully true. But that was not a good thing for it. A bolt of violet-black light scythed out, tracing a massive arc through the field of darkness, and where it touched there was simply nothing left. Not mist, not crushed flesh or spilled blood; everything living was completely erased.
The Gorgon looked over the newly opened path, panting like a hungry predator, something writhing beneath her skin. Saber narrowed her eyes. "Did you just eat all of that?"
"It was broken down into energy and I absorbed it. Don't worry, it can't affect me. It's quite difficult to corrupt something that is already purely evil," Rider hissed. "It was too much at once, though. It will take me hours to digest it all without being poisoned by the overdose. Leave me-"
The other three Servants had started their charge again at some point around the end of the third sentence. Medusa was not sure why, but she felt somewhat insulted by that… and then something growled behind her, and she whirled around to lash out at it without even looking, four hungry mouths sinking their fangs into something huge and furious just before it tackled her with the force of a freight train.
Shirou winced. "They've gotten separated. It's hard to cover two groups at once…"
"Let the straggler die. We have to focus on those who can still claim some hope of victory here," Medea said. There was no particular malice in her tone; it was delivered with the of someone discussing the weather. Shirou ignored her and continued to pour blades into both hotspots of activity as fast as he could create them, and she sighed. "Not going to listen, then? I suppose I wouldn't listen to me either. Looking like a child is aggravating."
The truth was, he wasn't even sure what good he was doing. His arms and hands felt stronger than ever, the bowstring no longer tearing into his skin as if it resented him for trying to draw it; he suspect that had more to do with Caster reinforcing his body than his own skill, but it was good. And as always, he felt Ilya's (slightly annoyed…?) presence in the back of his mind, giving him more power than he could ever use in a lifetime. But the 'battlefield' was more like an all-consuming hurricane whirling in the center of his hometown, throwing down a rain of blades that nourished up a swarm of toxic, starving animals to rip out of the ground. Avenger had abandoned all subtlety and anything like a tactic, simply trying to bury them in their final charge, and though he had to have fired a thousand arrows by now, he could only watch each of them vanish into the storm without even being sure if he had helped. The only reason he even knew where to aim was that Archer's bow came with some small semblance of Archer's sight and skill.
You'll never be his equal. He was broken, and empty, and prayed for death, and yet even that shattered husk of a man was beyond what you will ever be.
"It's trying to break your will. Don't listen to it," Medea snapped.
She corrupted Sakura. I wouldn't even exist if not for her. Someone so pitiful and broken history remembers her forever as a witch who murdered her own children. I know you didn't actually kill them, Medea. I know everything about you. You were just so insignificant that a lie overshadowed everything true about you. Your entire life was spent as a tool of men and gods, and when you died everything that made you a person was swept away by history. Remembered forever as a witch and killer of children. And now you defend a world that you care nothing for, simply because you have nothing better to do.
She ground her teeth together so hard it hurt. "Don't. Listen. To. It."
"If I was the type to surrender just because I couldn't win, I'd be dead a dozen times over by now," Shirou said. "I am going to save Ilya. No. Matter. What. Whether you help or not, I'm never going to stop. It can burn me down to nothing, and with my last breath I'll put another arrow into it, and I'll never run out…"
I am the bone of my sword.
Steel is my body and fire is my blood…
Caster stepped back from him, her jaw dropping. "What is that? What are you doing?"
"I… think I can call up my world, now. The dark Archer damaged it, but I've been rebuilding it with every projected sword, and I can call out enough to make myself stronger, if nothing else…"
"Why didn't you tell me you had a Reality Marble, stupid boy?!"
He blinked, actually lowering his weapon slightly to stare at her. "Because I can't draw that into it! The range when I called it against Sakura was barely a hundred meters. Even if I project it, it would just move me to another world while everyone else fighting.
Caster grinned, tears in her eyes and a bloody grin on her face, as she pressed a glowing hand to his back. "Yes… yes, I think we can work with this. Hold on tight, and don't stop chanting. If you die or go insane, you have permission to hate me."
"... So it wasn't just after you grow up that you became scary."
Medusa had won them a great deal of ground. But not nearly enough.
The closer they got to Avenger, the more brutal the storm got. Far from being something that could be torn aside by a few slashes of a sword of jabs of a lance, this was a swirling, almost solid wall of power that tore at their skin with every step, like a blizzard made of iron filings. Saber led the way, her blade casting out wave after wave of light and fury, but for every dart she cast aside, a thousand took its place. Had she not been bearing Avalon, she would have been bled dry simply by attrition, by the need to take every hit wherever she possibly could. Every drop of darkness she soaked in was one less that could be lethal to her companions, for all she knew. And she was not…
One step forward. How much do you sacrifice for one step forward? When there's a thousand to go, how many drops of blood can you truly afford to lose?
… going to lose…
Do you still pretend to be a Hero, Arturia Pendragon? You were a being of such despair and pain that you tried to erase your own legend from history. You had given up on life so completely that you literally would have chosen to have never existed. Who could be more a part of me than you? You are a cell trying to kill the body it is a part of.
… anyone. Ever. Again. She couldn't hear Heracles or Cu Chulainn , she couldn't hear anything beyond Avenger's constant damn droning in her ears, every word making her feel like a thin film of grime was settling over her brain and growing deeper and darker with every step.
"Don't listen to it," she snarled, not even knowing if anyone could hear her, and not caring. It was just something that had to be screamed, because if she didn't say it, she would go mad. "And if anyone gives up, I will kill them myself!"
She took another step forward…
And was yanked back by an arm around her waist as thick as a tree trunk, before a bladed tendril the size of a tree trunk slammed down right where she had been about to step.
"Careful!" Heracles screamed in her ear, pulling a black blade from deep in his own neck, every inch of his flesh steaming. "You need to—"
You need to stop. There is nothing any of you can do. You're all dead already, don't you feel it? Just sleep. It will feel so much better.
The blackness pulled back, leaving the area around them oddly calm, the last few darts of blackness falling to the ground as they bounced from Lancer's whirling spear, followed by the Servant himself, falling to his knees and gasping for breath. The three Servants stood there, suddenly finding themselves in a small island of tranquility in the middle of the whirling storm.
It would have been very reassuring to anyone who had never seen a tsunami.
"Back," Saber said, forcing mana into her blade. "I will try to counter this. When it kills me…"
"Why does everyone assume I will let them die?" Heracles said with a pained sigh, lowering his bow to aim over her shoulder. "Both of us, together. Destroy everything in our path and charge in before it finishes attacking u-"
Verg Avesta: Frashokereti.
And what fell upon them then, with Avenger's proclamation, made every wound that all of them had taken, both in life and after death, feel completely inconsequential. Because while Avenger had proven more than once that it could be quite a physical threat, that was not the real danger of it. The body was where it attacked you, but…
The mind, the heart. That was where it killed you.
It was your child dying in your arms. It was true love burned into murderous hate by time and madness. It was slowly starving in the dead of winter while your family rotted around you. It was looking out your window to see the soldiers already on the march, and knowing you could not get away, and that your only options were to die or pray. It was being dragged into a dark alley, and screaming in futility before a hand was clamped onto your throat. It was laying in a hospital bed, unable to feel anything but pain, until the day you inevitably closed your eyes and never opened them again.
None of it was real, but all of it was. They felt it, on the inside, as real as if each one had happened to them that very day. Them and millions more… billions…
It is the true essence of humanity. The pain. The fear. The loss. The hate. This… this is what billions of humans feel, every day. All at once. All for you.
This is what I felt, every moment of every day, waiting to be born within the Holy Grail. All The Evils of the World.
Drown in the pain of the lost, and die.
She couldn't see anything but the images of loss. She couldn't hear anything but Avenger's taunts. She did not know if anyone was following her. She did not even know if she was moving. She could feel nothing but pain, sadness, loss, and though she knew it was not her own, that somehow made it worse. Because it was real, it was the suffering of real people who had given up, the same pain that she had once felt herself, lost and bleeding on a hill of swords. It was the pain of those she did not know, suffering and dying alone just as she once had, and she could do nothing to comfort them, and she could never even have the chance to know them, and in some indefinable way that made it all the more tragic.
She took a step forward. Blind, deaf, and sobbing with every breath, she took a step.
She took another step. Her fingers gripped tighter around her sword without thought from her, but she was unable to lift it. The tip dragged on the ground behind her, unnoticed.
… I see. I was wrong. I am sorry. I underestimated you. I truly did. Even the children of gods fall, but you…
She took another step. Unknowing, unthinking, unaware.
'The king will bear the weight of all the evils in the world.' I don't know why, but that seems fitting to me, somehow. The king will try to bear the world even though it cannot be borne. The king will stand for the kingdom until all life leaves her. You… you are stronger than he thought you would be.
There was nothing of herself left. But she took one more step.
And that is exactly why you have to die. Farewell, Arturia Pendragon.
The darkness swirled in…
… and Shirou looked down upon the storm from above, and saw nothing, nothing that could have allowed him to survive in it. Every instinct in his body told him that he would die when they descended. That one touch would kill him.
"Are you sure this will work?" he asked.
"Not at all," Caster said, holding him aloft. "But we're all going to die anyway, so we may as well take a risk."
"All right then. Do it," he said.
And with that, she dropped him, directly above the center of the maelstrom.
He feel, and the pain was almost immediate as he touched the edge of the storm. The barest of mists and he could already feel it eating away at him. I am the bone of my sword. Steel is my body, and fire is my blood.
Above him, Medea raised her arms above her head, a staff appearing in her grips, gleaming already with all the colors of the rainbow. "Hecate, grant me power. Athena, grant me wisdom. Asclepius, grant me the touch that heals the dying. May it become a world where no one can hurt others, and no one can be hurt…"
Shirou felt the blades slashing in; not aimed at him, but so thick in the air they could not be avoided. Each one was an explosion of poison in his veins, and it was all he could do not to scream. I have created over a thousand blades. Blind to the future. Fleeing the past.
She lowered her staff, and shouted, "Pain Breaker!"
Burned flesh healed, and burned off again. Poison was purged from his veins and returned in greater doses. He came to the brink of death, healed, and came again to the brink, a cycle of endless suffering and relief that he felt would drive what sanity he still had from his mind in very short order…
Withstood pain to create many weapons, each one a guiding light. The paths are infinite, but I can only walk the one I've chosen…
He fell into the heart of Avenger. The core of the storm. His body ripped apart cell by cell and reverted back to normal a bare second later, death around him, the sheer weight of it tearing into his soul…
And at the very last moment, just before impact with the mountain of flesh, he held forth his hand, and a perfect golden sheathe appeared within his grip, the light from it so pure it was like a dream.
The road ascending, carved by Unlimited Blade Works.
Not so far away, and yet suddenly a world away, Ilya grinned.
The simple absence of pain was beyond any pleasure imaginable, and Saber nearly collapsed from it alone.
"No. No, no, no! What have you done?!" screamed a voice that was physical, and small, and filled with so much pain and confusion it was almost unbearable to listen to. She grinned at it.
Saber rose to her feet, snow crunching beneath her feet, and the world had very much changed. Blades, as far as the eye could see, reflecting a boundless field of stars. The Sea of Souls was gone, the storm of dark blades, the…
They were all gone.
Shirou knelt in front of her, between her and a much smaller beast than what she had faced. Just as misshapen, as wrong, with aspects of a hundred beasts smashed together into a wailing mass of agony, but it was barely the size of a castle, hardly anything that could be a mountain. And then it screamed, flesh sloughing off it, and it was the size of a house…
"All the Evils of the World," Shirou said. "She was right… when we found what had to be your core, when you got angry, when you got desperate… removing it from the world was the only way."
"I am endless! I am the Evil of Humanity!" Avenger snarled, darkness spreading into the snow as a dozen bladed feet stomped down, drawing its height up to something much less impressive than it had been even a few seconds earlier.
Saber lifted her blade somewhat shakily, the blade glowing brilliantly enough to make the field of swords seem like it had ignited. "You are. Connected to and empowered by the evil and pain and darkness of every human in the entire world. All four of us."
"Five," Medea said, setting down gently next to Shirou. "Impressive, boy. Very impressive. I wasn't sure you could do it, but here we are. Cut off from the Sea of Souls, the darkness that made it a god literally a world away. It can still draw on the darkness in the five of us, but... well. It's a significant step down."
"I dunno, I have a lot of dark emotions right now," Cu Chulainn murmured. "Guess where they're aimed."
"It doesn't sound as arrogant, does it?" Heracles snarled. "Let's ensure it doesn't sound like anything ever again."
Avenger screamed, an inhuman wail of animal fury, and swung in a bladed limb the size of a bus at Shirou as he knelt before it…
The weapon was shattered by a dozen silver arrows, breaking like glass and falling to the ground with the stench of rotting meat. "Boy, flee!" Heracles snapped, his weapon singing as arrows leaped from it one after another.
"Not a chance," Shirou whispered. Blades tore themselves from the ground, diving into the writhing mass as it fell back, suddenly shrieking against wounds that before had barely staggered it. It lunged forward on legs that broke under its weight, pounds of flesh being ripped off by arrows that fell on it in the dozens. The scream was more mental than physical, mixed pain and rage, as the Beast tore forward, leaving lumps of flesh the size of small houses behind in its wake…
And among the silver darts was one of gold, as Saber slammed into it like a comet. Avenger screamed as the light ripped it in half, the blade cutting impossibly deep. Bloody fangs, and tentacles, and grasping hands sprouted within the gaping wound, only to fall back in as if the flesh was suddenly too soft to hold a shape. Avenger lashed out, slow and ponderous where it had been like lightning before, and Saber danced around it, her blade slashing in again, and again, and again…
Wings, half-formed and so thin that holes opened in them from just movement in the air, took the rapidly decaying creature into the starry sky, leaving behind a snapping, twitching mass of flesh that Saber slashed through, scattering it into so much mist at the touch of the holy sword.
With grim satisfaction, Medea placed her hand on Lancer's spear, squeezing until it slashed into her palm, the blood running down the shaft gleaming violet. "Take it. Take everything I have. Every god who can hear, listen to me now. Every drop of magic in this pathetic body, come now. Strength, and blood, and the power to see to the truth… pierce the heart, fangs of Chulainn 's Hound!"
The charge was so fast that Lancer outright vanished from sight, snow flying up and swords hurled aside in his path the only visible sign save for the ghostly, violet-red light trailing behind his spear like a line of neon. "Big man, catch!" he snapped, outrunning the sound of his own exclamation and trusting the archer to understand by instinct...
Heracles grumbled in irritation, but knelt and held his hand out, and when he felt the impact of something his eyes could not follow, he moved with the practiced grace of someone who had hurled more javelins than most men have even seen.
Lancer, his blade gleaming with ancient magic and practically howling as it tore through the air, soared into the sky like a bird of prey, grinning viciously as he came in at the fleeing, malformed nightmare with the speed of a bullet.
Running scared? Finally realizing you overstepped yourself, bastard? Or are you scared that the witch was right, and deep down, when you're beaten, and the bluster fades… you're really just one of us?
Let's test the theory.
The spear, bursting with light in every color of the spectrum, warped in his hands and struck out like a living thing, straight for the heart. The darkness melted at the spear's touch at it tore into the flesh at a seemingly random point, the semi-solid darkness trying and failing to resist, feebly trying to form a weapon to lash out and succeeding only at falling apart like rotten meat.
For a moment, a split-second, Cu Chulainn thought he saw the outline of a man, screaming within the mass of liquid darkness.
Then the spear struck the heart, and the world shattered.
Gilgamesh met Enkidu in mid-descent with a grin that mirrored its own, his gleaming axe meeting both clay blades simultaneously. The intent was to hold them still while Ea swooped up to the side to once again tear him open… only for the giant spear that he had shattered to once again leap at him, now a storm of shrapnel, razor edged clumps of earth and rock tearing into his flesh.
His grin widened with the pain, blood running down his face and flowing onto his teeth, dyeing them the red of a predator in the middle of a feast.
Enkidu used the distraction to slip under his guard, slashing with both blades at his right side, even as a lance of earth erupted from the ground to strike for his left at the construct's mental command. Gil stepped into it's swing, meeting it once again with his bronze axe, shattering both of the earthen short swords, an arrow from the Gate meeting the incoming lance in midair, and thrust Ea forward in a straight jab through the rain of shattered clay.
Enkidu caught the blade, the whirling sections shredding his palm into a disgusting mass of black clay… but even as the hand was torn to shreds, the entire left side of Enkidu's body melted into a mass of thick black clay that flowed over the spinning blade, and even Ea's rotation began to slow as it seeped into every crack on the red-lined blade, hardening into from the heat and power it drew in.
Gil grinned. I missed him.
He dropped Ea, a golden portal opening to swallow it before it hit the ground, and pulled a silver lance from the air in the same motion. With a wide, predatory smile, Enkidu shifted the clay still pouring from the wound into a blade; jagged, rough, almost a grim parody of the shining weapon slashing in at him in Gil's hands. The earthen blade and the silver slammed home, the shock of the impact rattling Gilgamesh's teeth in his mouth, sending cracks running along Enkidu's perfect form as though his skin was literal porcelain…
And sending a wave of ice rolling up the blade as the freezing spear worked its magic, sending frost and ice rolling down to the core of the clay sword.
His grin widening, Gil dropped the axe in his other hand and hefted a sickle, slashing it forward at his old friend's neck even as Enkidu raised the frozen limb as a shield, letting the razor-blade shatter it and a new one immediately begin growing from the clay where it had been. Where a fist should have been was a spiked mace, Gilgamesh meeting it with a war-hammer that shone with golden lighting along the entirety of its head, two divine weapons slamming against each other in another titanic blast that left the two Servants with shocks of agony running down their entire bodies. The mace making up Enkidu's arm shattered….
And softened, and reformed, flowing around the hammer, smothering the light of it under a layer of thick, clinging black ooze that stuck the weapon like quicksand, ripping it from Gil's hand and immediately slashing in with his other hand, sharpened to a razor-point to slash a thin red line across Gilgamesh's chest as the other Servant leaped back just slightly too late.
"Melee isn't your strong suit, Gil. You can buy some time with your little trick swords, but I'll break you eventually if you let it stay like this," Enkidu said almost conversationally as he followed the retreat without effort, slashing again as Gil tried to get footing long enough to pull a weapon for his second hand free, keeping him from bringing the scythe he still held into a meaningful offense. "You'll need to get distance. But can you? I know your tricks. I remember everything. You can call me a fake, but my mind and power are real…"
"And you are about to die."
Enkidu laughed aloud as the portals opened around them, dozens of weapons in a half-sphere around the two warriors, all of them pointed inward. The blades launched, and Enkidu danced through the storm without hesitation; his cloak was shredded as it flapped in wind behind him, he trailed thick black blood with each step, but the hail of gold did not touch his flesh even once. A silver and black wraith in the rain of metal and light, his agility once again skyrocketing to impossible levels as he slid between what seemed an almost solid wall of light. He slid beneath an axe larger than himself, shifting his ruined hand into a twisted sickle to sweep another out of the air and redirect its path against Gil himself…
A portal opened in the air before him, letting the sword fly back into the Gate, and he smirked in triumph. "Trying to use the King's treasures against him is the action of a mad dog. Beg for forgiveness, crawl on your belly, and die."
And before Enkidu could say even a word in reply, a dozen new portals opened.
He laughed again, even as a blade launched up from beside his ankle severed his remaining arm before he even realized he was being attacked. He grinned through the pain as the newly severed stump drew in more clay, not spawning a limb with it but firing it in a hail of black spikes the size of steak knives that ripped into Gil's exposed chest, even as blades larger than Enkidu himself tore out of the ground to plug the portals to the Gate, the hail of metal against earth so loud it overwhelmed even the exultant laughter of the mad warriors as they did battle for the first time in decades. Gil could not help it; even he had to laugh at the sheer joy of the moment, for it was Enkidu. Beneath the darkness, beneath the layer of madness that coated his heart, it was him again. The battle, the pain and purging flame of it, had brought forth in this doll the one and only equal and friend he had ever possessed. The world, a rotten, hideous, decrepit shell of the Garden he had ruled over, had nonetheless conspired to give him only the second perfect moment of his lifetime. The tedium of the long years fell away, and the King knew true joy again for the first time since he had stepped into this hollow world.
He knew how it would end, for there was only one way it could, but that was fine too. Knowing the ending of a story had never spoiled it for him.
He drew Ea once again, power already roaring around its newly renewed blade the moment it appeared in his hand… and without a second's hesitation the spears of earth leaped from the ground to slam into it once again, jamming clay into every crevice and forcing the spinning segments of the blade to a grinding halt.
"That blade is sealed, Gil…!" Enkidu said with a predatory grin, leaping at him, the twin amorphous masses of black clay that had replaced his arms merging together into a single, monstrous spear he held before him. The 'Lancer' whose spear was the world itself, a simple blade of clay that outshone half his armory… Gilgamesh smiled with wild abandon, bringing up the 'sealed' Ea in both hands to meet the charge head on. The blades impacted like thunder…
And Enkidu's broke down the middle without resistance, splitting into two long halves that flowed around Gil's guard to strike him through both lungs simultaneously.
"The duel was magnificent, my king. But it is over," Enkidu said gently… only for his body to suddenly, painfully jolt as a single missile struck him from behind. One portal that had not fired among the storm, waiting for the opportune moment. He looked down, and though his vision was already fading, he could still quite clearly see a shining golden lance, painted black, impaled through his heart.
Gilgamesh smiled, his teeth stained by his own blood. "It is."
Enkidu fell to his knees, his king following him but seconds after, and the expression on his face was one of peaceful acceptance. "You… you're strong, Gil. To think, that self-centered brat who cared for nothing but women and alcohol would grow this much."
Gilgamesh smiled. "To think, that faceless mud doll that had no will of its own would grow this much."
"But… but it isn't over. Not for you. Your Garden is threatened, no? I know… I know the world does not shine as it once did for you. But the King must defend the Kingdom, or he is unworthy of the title," Enkidu said softly. "Don't forget that again."
"… Never, my friend."
"Then… then I give you a final gift. To help you on your way, my brother. My friend. My king," Enkidu said, opening his eyes. No gold shone in them, but the emerald green of a deep forest in summer, a gleam that began to spread across his cracked skin, to shine across the darkness like a star. "To remind the gods above, no matter how dark they may be, that we mortals below may always topple them from their thrones."
Stand strong, your Majesty.
He spread his empty hands in prayer not to any god, but to the Earth itself; his beloved mother. She heard the silent song of her favored child, and sang in tune, light and power roaring from his blood and tearing into the void, the darkness retreating before him in abject terror. Gilgamesh fought back a tear at the sight, as perfect as he remembered it, and stood on shaky legs, raising his blade in salute to the one and only equal he had ever known.
Oh gods above, look down and behold your superiors. Oh mortals below, look to the heavens and bind those who would seek to reign over you. Stand strong, and let thine souls shine forevermore…
Cu Chulainn landed, his spear still soaked with blood, and the light around him faded. And as he fell, so too did the world… and with it, the Beast. With a keening wail, the body of Avenger broke down, collapsing like an animal whose neck had been snapped, and in only a few short seconds it had begun to dissolve rapidly, like dry ice under a noon sun. Unlimited Blade Works faded with it, and as the stars faded into darkness, all was silent for a long moment.
And then the breakdown began.
The pillars collapsed, leaving the Servants fighting at their base, many of them exhausted to the bone and bleeding out from dozens of wounds that would have killed a mortal man, suddenly facing nothing but quivering pools of dark sludge that slowly, almost delicately began to dissolve into mist. Above them, the Sea of Souls churned as though a hurricane was running through it, and throughout all the land covered by it, all of Japan and echoing far out into the oceans, a shrill, inhuman wail could be heard. One of pain, and loss, and cold unthinking hate for everything around it. A few even cheered, assured of their final victory. This had a purpose, in its own way.
It showed that just because you were a legend, didn't necessarily mean you could read the mood.
Almost immediately, just after the first, highly uninformed cheers had only begun to pierce the night, the crying began. A million, million voices in unison; sobbing in pain, wailing in sorrow, begging with wordless shrieks to just not suffer anymore. And, as if they were the tears of those sobbing, dying spirits, that was when the rains started.
Drops of steaming blackness fell, first one at a time, and beginning to rapidly pick up until they fell like in their thousands, a monsoon of steaming black drops. They touched the buildings where people hid; they fell on the armor and shields of Servants; they poured into forests and lakes where none but animals were there to see them. And where they touched a living thing, they began to spread.
Soaking through solid matter to find hiding humans. Sliding across and under enchanted armor to soak into the flesh of Servants. Every animal, every insect, every blade of grass that was touched, the darkness began to seep across it, growing like a fungus on any living being it touched.
The smallest victims, tiny birds and fluttering insects, began to fall to the ground as the blackness spread to cover them entirely. Some spasmed madly in obvious agony, those that could gasped wetly for air as if their lungs were filling with water, and many already lay disturbingly still. And even the most thick-headed observer had little choice but to see that as dangerous foreshadowing.
"What does it take to kill this thing?!" Saber growled, watching the rains slowly but surely beginning to eat through the magical circle Medea had erected above them after the first drops hit; even the few tiny touches of black liquid that had hit any of them were already beginning to slowly spread across their skin.
"It is dead," Medea snapped, holding a glowing hand to the spreading black stain on her arm, and wincing as it did not vanish or even shrink in reply to her magecraft. "Or it's mortally wounded, at least. This is… this a wounded animal madly lashing out. Or a corpse rotting and releasing toxins and diseases as it decays. Both at once? I don't know! There's never been anything like what we just fought! All I know for sure is that this is bad."
"Oh, really. Truly, you are a magus worthy of Sea of Souls is breaking down into a rain of poison, and killing the country in its death throes, and you think that might be a bad thing?"
"Is now really the time for sarcasm, Saber?!" Shirou snapped.
"Since we are all about to die, I suspect it is the last time for sarcasm," Saber said. "Does someone here have a Noble Phantasm that can destroy something the size of Japan? Because I most certainly do not, and I suspect that is what we'll need."
"It's all right! We have every Servant that's ever lived, don't we? We can… oh no," Shirou said.
"Oh, no," Medea said, looking down at her own hands… which were beginning to dissolve in golden sparks.
"Avenger broke the walls between worlds with its Noble Phantasm," Heracles murmured, observing his weapons dissolving into light, his flesh beginning to follow it. "We were only able to be here because it was alive. And now it isn't. I… for what it is worth, I am sorry. What you do now, you do by yourselves, but… you have done more than anyone could have dreamed already. I believe in you."
"No. No, no, no!" Shirou snapped.
"You're making it harder to believe," Cu Chulainn said dryly, his body now completely transparent.
Shirou ignored him, his eyes running back and forth frantically between the Servants, as only Saber and Rider showed no signs of vanishing within the next thirty seconds. "We can't have come this far to lose everything at the last second! We just… we need to… Ilya, or Sakura! Maybe Tohsaka will have an idea. We need to find them, or… "
"Shirou," Saber said sadly, taking his hand, the golden motes dancing around them all like fireflies as the black rain poured down across a flickering shield. "We did everything we could. I know better than anyone that can be hard to accept, but… what more is there to do?"
And then, as if in answer to her question, there was a burning, mind-bending emerald light that illuminated the entire mountain. And then, a moment later, it was gone.
Both the light, and the mountain itself.
Mt. Enzou, the sacred land of Fuyuki and the seat of the Greater Grail, was simply gone. No explosion occurred, no rain of shrapnel and magma poured over the city; the flawless emerald light simply erased it, as if it had never existed. All that remained of the mountain, temple, and forest were a flat, blasted plain, the ground crushed down as smooth as glass. Even above it, far into the heavens, there was nothing but empty starry sky, the Sea of Souls and the black core of the Grail effect that had been hovering over the mountain both simply annihilated.
And in the center of it stood Gilgamesh. His armor was gone. The only weapon he held was Ea, and his body was coated from head to toe in red blood and black clay. The wounds on his torso were so deep he could actually be seen through in places, shredded meat and exposed ivory bone in more than more one spot. He looked, at that moment, more stained, broken, and vulnerable than ever before.
Everyone who could see him instinctively took several steps back.
"I am disappointed in you," He said, raising Ea above his head. "I gave you leave to exist, once. I told you then that I would bear the weight of your being. The King permitted you to be, for truly he is unmatched in magnanimity. And yet though I told you that the King could bear the weight of all the world's evil, you still claim that weight is too much for his subjects? Bolstered by the King, how could they break? With the King as their golden example, how could they ever falter beneath such meager pain as what you bring? Though I showed you supreme mercy, still you seek to end my reign? You seek to burn my Garden? MONGREL, YOU DARE TOUCH WHAT'S MINE?!"
Saber blinked, as his voice rung out across the world, and the blade he held began to glow like a star about to explode. "So. We should be running."
"DO YOU THINK I DO NOT SEE HIS ROTTEN CORPSE AT YOUR CORE, MONGREL?! KOTOMINE, DO YOU THINK I HAVE FORGOTTEN YOUR BETRAYAL?!" he screamed, his words surpassing even the roar of Ea as its glow intensified, crimson flame so brilliant it was like day had come to Fuyuki. "DO YOU BELIEVE I WOULD NOT BE HERE TO ANSWER YOUR EMPTY SOUL'S MEANINGLESS QUESTIONS?! NOTHING HAS THE RIGHT TO BE BORN WITHOUT MY PERMISSION! NOTHING HAS THE RIGHT TO DIE WITHOUT MY PERMISSION! THIS IS MY WORLD, AND I AM THE KING! IF MAN'S PAIN IS TOO GREAT FOR HIM TO BEAR, THEN I SHALL BEAR IT! AND ANY WHO QUESTION MY RESOLVE WILL BURN!"
The Sea of Souls cracked. All across the darkness, like ice shattering on the surface of a pond, light appeared; not the blood-red of the Shadow, but the crimson-tinged orange of flames roaring across a forest at night. They spread, growing bigger and interconnecting, passing far out of sight in instants, along the entire length of the swirling blackness… or so it appeared.
It took Shirou a moment to realize that the light was no from within the darkness, but behind it, in the sky above. Or rather, as the darkness vanished in swathes kilometers wide at once, in the burning, hellish void where the sky had been. And in this light… between the vast, burning walls of power the burning star of creation shimmered… a darkness deeper even than Avenger's where the light met…
Something inside him felt cold at even a few brief seconds of gazing upon it, and he felt that what was happening now was nothing that humans should ever, ever see. Regardless, he did not tear his gaze away. Nor did anyone else, all of them even stopping their attempts to retreat as it became clear there was no minimum safe distance.
This was a defining moment of the world, and to be too afraid to leave it unwitnessed would be to prove Avenger right.
The dark Servant's voice echoed through the night, incoherently howling and sobbing with rage and sadness so deep Shirou almost felt sorry for the thing, for a few moments. There were no words; but the emotion behind them was so honest and brutal that it spoke all on its own; It didn't want to die, it was just trying to do what humans wanted, it just wanted to help, it just wanted the pain to END, please it was just following its purpose, PLEASE…
"NOW AWAKEN EA!"Gilgamesh roared, his tone as resolute and untouched as a stone tablet, each syllable carving the words of an execution order deliberately upon it. "A CREATURE WORTHY OF YOUR FULL WRATH HAS APPEARED! A POISON ON MY WORLD THAT MUST BE BURNED OUT! SHINE NOW, THE STAR OF CREATION! BIRTH A NEW WORLD IN WHICH THIS BEAST MAY ABIDE IN TORMENT FOREVERMORE, A DEATH THAT LASTS UNTIL THE END OF TIME!"
An uncaring judge looking down a sobbing defendant from on high, the King of Heroes passed sentence upon the criminal, and the only justice he understood was eye for an eye. The swirling vortex of the sword flared up to touch the burning sky, and within the black chasm something shone so brilliantly Shirou felt his eyes burn.
He did not look away.
"TRAVEL WITH ME NOW, BEYOND DEATH, AS WE PASS TOGETHER FROM THIS GARDEN INTO THE VOID OF GENESIS! BEHOLD, ENUMA ELISH!"
The void crashed together, drawing the black sky within, and in the crimson depths that went on so deep the Sea of Souls was like a mere drop in its endless expanse. It burned with the primordial flame that birthed the world, the Star of Creation that gave birth to all living things… and could end them just as easily.
Shirou saw the light explode outward, showing the world before its birth, and the mere sight of it made his brain burst with static, a thousand times worse than trying to analyze Ea, like every Magic Circuit in his body was simultaneously burning.
Just before the world went blissfully dark behind his eyes and he saw no more, though, he heard the final scream as Avenger, or whatever was left of Avenger, was drawn inside.
If he lived to be a thousand years old, it would still haunt him every single day.