Saber had to admit that the Nexus was remarkably large, despite first impressions to the contrary. More so when searching for someone who wanted privacy. Between the cavernous halls, the monolithic pillars, the entirety of the upper rafters and the corners that were squirreled away between them, if someone wanted to avoid being found…
Well, it became a daunting task to find them.
Rin's plan, as explained through Shirou last night, was a sensible idea. Using the knowledge that Ostrava and Biorr had would give them a decisive advantage they'd never had before, given the fact that no one else within the Nexus had intimate knowledge of their destinations beforehand. They would be able to establish the layout, plan the approach, prepare for all possible enemies, and make contingencies for anything else.
Biorr was easily found. The man snored like a great big bear as slept beside his monstrously massive set of armor and sword. Ostrava was not and so they were combing through the Nexus for him now.
The knight had volunteered to search the lower platform. Shirou would search near Rin's resting place and that level. That left Saber to search the higher echelons of the Nexus, before the winding stairway the led to the Monumental.
…The frigid cold was the first thing she noticed as she finished ascending.
Perhaps it was due to the absence of body heat from the collective residents of the Nexus. Or perhaps it was due to some sort of sorcery that was present below but not above. Either way, it was far colder than Saber expected—to the point where her breath fogged as she continued her trek.
Regardless, Saber remained dedicated and diligent in her search. Every corridor scoured and every corner checked. Until finally, her efforts bore fruit.
"No. No." She heard him muttering in the faintest of voices before he came into view. It was so soft that even her sharpened sense of hearing could barely pick it up. No doubt the others would have never found him. "This can't… it doesn't make…"
"Ser?" Saber called preemptively before rounding the large pillar. It resulted in the man nearly jumping from where he sat, wide-eyed and clutching a book to his chest. Her slender brow rose at the panicked expression he had, but she sincerely expressed her apology for it. "My apologies. I had no intention of startling you."
"I... It's—" He let out a heavy sigh as he shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose. His blond hair was unkempt and disheveled, dark circles cradling his eyes. From his appearance and reaction, Saber could only surmise that he was well out of sorts since the last time she had seen him. "Did you need something from me?"
"We are planning an attack on the palace where the final Archdemon waits," Saber said. "If Biorr and yourself could provide us with whatever knowledge you can, it would prove invaluable."
"You're attacking the palace!?" He practically jumped up at the news, eyes frantically combing the corridor as he twisted his head around until his gaze settled on his sword. He reached for it. "When are we to set out?"
"Not until Tohsaka has recovered," she told him, somewhat taken aback by the abrupt fervor he showed. "Right now, we're only doing the initial planning for the assault."
"Oh." His arm dropped mere inches from his sword and his shoulders sagged. It was as if the energy had been drained out of him as quickly as it came. "We… have time then?"
For a moment, Saber thought she sensed relief rather than disappointment in his breath. But she brushed it off as she assured him that they did have time. "A week, perhaps."
"I-I see." Shaking his head, Ostrava then tried to push past the awkwardness lingering in the air. He looked at his belongings that were strewn about for a moment. Almost as if weighing whether they would be best left where they were in his absence.
He then nodded, reaching his decision before facing her. "Very well, let us be off."
The five assembled within the alcove that Rin had claimed for her convalescence and spent roughly an hour going over the information that the two Boletarians could provide, recording it onto paper that Thomas had managed to gather.
Since paper was a rarity within the Nexus none of it could go to waste, so Rin opted to do the work herself. Using a replicated dagger from Shirou as a ruler to draw her lines straight and precise, she put the details to the parchment as neatly and quickly she could with machine-like efficiency. Soon she had reconstructed the roads and byways, the main thoroughfare and various buildings that they had to be aware of as Biorr's knowledge from his tenure as a knight was laid out.
Four guard barracks. Seven towers to reach three different walls—an outer wall, an inner wall and the Keep's final holdfast. Between them there were only three ways of reaching the inner keep: the main thoroughfare and through two of the guard barracks.
Of the three bridges that led to the first of the three walls from the outer city, two were drawbridges that could be retracted on command. The last, the very stone bridge they'd crossed to defeat the silver demon, was also designed so that the invading army would have to traverse two areas where archers could freely release volley after volley to whittle down their numbers. The area after that was a courtyard flanked by the remainder of the guard barracks.
If, by some miracle, an invading army managed to force their way through all that with sufficient numbers to continue their assault, the second wall was still there. Still being overlooked by the third. Any attacker that reached it would also find themselves under constant fire from archers once more.
The third wall itself was a tight and compact structure, with buttresses high enough to guard a man standing at full height. It was also narrow enough that only one man could stand on the wall at any given time, thereby guaranteeing that they couldn't overwhelm the defenders by sheer numbers. Not unless they wanted to subject their own men to a swift death by falling in the attempt.
Both the guard barracks and towers were inherently defensible by their nature, constructed with single, winding spiral staircases. The essential ones were carved of stone, but the outer ones that weren't had been made of wood. Flammable wood that could easily be set ablaze and turned to cinders to deny any invader that made it so far an entryway to the higher walls.
Then there was the Keep itself. It was just as well-defended from how Ostrava and Biorr both described it. The inside of it held a single elevator that could reach the upper floors, only accessible through crossing a narrow bridge that hung over a chasm. One so deep that it ran beneath the surrounding earth and connected to an underground lake.
The construction of the inner-city's defenses are brilliant as well, Saber had to admit to herself as she observed in silence. The alleys were a literal maze of tight corridors and narrow passages, meant to confuse and exhaust any attackers. The lower alleyways even held secret passageways that either doubled back to the outer city or ventured into a key position that would most certainly be well-guarded.
The terrain itself was perhaps the bane of any would-be invaders. Every minute wasted on a wrong turn or dead-end would be another that the advantage could be shifted to the defenders. Every corner turned could be filled with soldiers that seemingly appeared out of thin air, surrounding and ambushing the invaders.
To be frank, if any assailant managed to get past all that alive and still wished to take the ruler of the kingdom, they deserved their prize.
"But there's more to worry about than these simple defenses," Biorr warned in a grave tone once he had finished. "After all, wood and stone pose little threat on its own. And the madmen and forsaken knights are hardly going to be manning their posts."
"You're worried about the final demon?" Ostrava guessed.
Surprisingly enough, Biorr shook his head. "Less about the demon, and more about the dragon."
Rin's eyes shot up towards him at that. "There's another one!?"
"Aye." He brushed his chin as he looked to the three of them. "Ya slew the red one, but that was its younger kin. This one's bigger and meaner, blue and white. Not sure if its claimed the place as its territory or if the demon is controllin' it, but it'll defend the Keep from any who approach it."
"That's… going to be a problem," Rin mused before turning to Shirou. "We need Saber to be at her finest to deal with… whatever this Archdemon turns out to be. You think you can take it out like you did the last one?"
He nodded. "I can't be sure how much tougher this dragon will be compared to the last one. But it should work."
Biorr's features twisted in a scowl. "I know you lot are tough, but don't go gettin' stupid now. Tackling an Elder Dragon alone is a surest way to get yourself killed."
"Depending on the situation we may be able to do something else, but if all else fails we're confident he can manage it," Rin said.
"Confident or no, there'll be no going back," Biorr warned. "No leavin' til the job's done. Or else the demon might just summon another to its side for aid."
The implication left Shirou frowning. "Do you think that's possible? We've gotten rid of all of the others as far as we know."
"You'd rather risk it then?" Biorr asked pointedly. "Its never been in danger before, so who knows what it'll do or what tricks it has up its sleeve. The only thing that's certain is that it'll not give us a second chance."
Shirou took the information in carefully as he gazed down at the map Rin had drawn, scattered across a myriad of pages. "I'll have to stitch these together. I'll see if Thomas has something I can use in his stock."
"If that's all, I'm gonna head down see if there's any of the food left," Biorr said as he stood tall, stretching out the kinks in his back as Shirou passed him by. He then turned to Ostrava. "Are you coming, my prince?"
Ostrava only shook his head before he rose to his feet. "I'll keep to my own for now. Enjoy yourself, Biorr."
Saber watched each of them leave. Listening to their footsteps fading as they drew further away. Then she set down her empty cup and turned to Rin.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Rin asked as she leaned back, once more sitting on the quilts while nestled amongst her books. The candle that provided the illumination for her to draw was perched just far enough away so that it wouldn't catch on any of them, but she had spent a great deal of time hunched over as a result.
"It honestly depends on how densely defended the city is," Saber said. "A fortress with its gates unbarred and unguarded is an easy fortress to take."
"And the Blue Dragon he mentioned?"
Saber answered in the simplest way possible. "It will be dealt with. One way or another."
Rin only nodded. "Let's hope Shirou can manage on his own. It'd really be ideal if you walked into the fight with this Archdemon on a full tank since we don't know what it'll do, or how strong it is. Even after everything that's happened, you're still our best shot at dealing with it."
Saber nodded once to concede that she had a point.
"That said, could you head downstairs and tell Yuria to come here?" Rin asked as she reached for a book.
It took a moment for Saber to place a face to the name. "The woman that spends all her time nestled in the corner?"
Rin nodded. "That's the one. There's some things that I need to ask her in private."
Saber was somewhat confused by the request. But it seemed harmless enough. And Rin's whims and hunches tended to pay off in their favor…
Most of the time.
The Sumerian King that reigned over ancient Uruk. The link between ancient man and the gods, peerless red eyes that spoke of divinity casting judgement upon both. The oldest heroic spirit, being the origin of all myths. The unrivaled King of Heroes, possessing all the treasures in the world within the Gate of Babylon.
Zouken acknowledged the threat the Golden Servant presented.
The Golden Servant was far beyond the ability of Assassin to deal with. The class that specialized in killing Masters through unparalleled stealth held no chance of defeating the strongest of heroes in recorded history. Let alone now that he was no longer tethered to the world by a contract after gaining corporeality, becoming an incarnation of savagery.
Yes, savagery, because Zouken regarded him as little more than a beast that was rampaging mindlessly.
A powerful beast, without a doubt. Certainly, he was dangerous enough for even one as long-lived and knowledgeable as Zouken to be wary.
The massive pool of sheer might the Golden Servant possessed allowed him to overwhelm any and all who would oppose him directly.
But, like a beast, Gilgamesh would continue to advance after his prey without regard or concern for whatever laid in his path. Such was the luxury his power afforded him. Perhaps rightfully so, given that he was all but invincible.
Which meant he would even walk brazenly into his own demise.
It could be done.
However, Zouken's tools were limited.
His useless grandson and the Gorgon Servant bound to him through the Book of False Attendance both died the same day. A waste of time and resources the both of them. Neither had accomplished anything in the end.
As for Sakura... he could only presume that she had been killed. She had failed to return, despite knowing the fate that awaited her if she disobeyed him. And, more importantly, he could no longer sense the Crest Worm he had implanted in her body.
After years of being nurtured within it, the familiar had turned into a nerve around her heart. One that integrated with the entirety of her nervous system. It allowed him to monitor her body at all times, and should he need to avoid death it could house his soul within it.
The connection he had with the Crest Worm should have been absolute, yet something had abruptly severed it. Something nebulous... unlike anything he'd experienced. Whatever it had been was something so vile and malevolent that the hatred that bled through the connection before the severing was enough to make him feel fright, and his other familiars have been unable to find her body.
Sakura's loss was a shame. The girl had been excellent raw materials that he had obtained from Tokiomi and a tool he'd intended to keep around for as long as possible. Finding her replacement would be a setback, while the matter of what had been responsible was something to be addressed another time as well.
But the magus had strove for too long. Suffered from having his soul rotting for too long. Worked tirelessly for too many years to see his plans destroyed by a simple rampaging beast.
Wizened eyes peered towards the kneeling, shadowy form of Assassin. "Have you investigated the defenses of the Einzbern manor as I instructed?"
"The defenses remain in place," the Servant answered. "Infiltrating them would be simple, if need be."
"I want you to trigger them intentionally," Zouken ordered. "That will alert the Vessel. She and the Servant with her will return there, where they will encounter Gilgamesh. That is the chosen ground where we shall tip the scales."
"The Archer cannot win," Assassin noted.
"His success or failure against the King of Heroes is irrelevant. So long as he brings the Vessel for the Grail, your only concern will be to capture her. Do I make myself clear?"
The bone-white skull dipped. "Understood."
"Come again?" Rin asked in mild surprise, features scrunched tight as she pulled her eyes away from the half-blank journal that she had been using to record notes to this point and settled her gaze onto the witch.
Yuria had answered her summons, as promised. Amidst the questioning on the nature of her magic a turn of phrase caught the magus' ear. She looked down to the ground, fist clenching the tattered fabric that pooled within her lap and repeated herself with clarity.
"The Demon Souls," she said. "I can sense the ones within you. They are like… dogs. Scratching on the other side of a door, trying to claw through it."
"What do you mean you can sense them?" Rin shifted closer to the witch, moving the inkpot and quill she used to jot notes down to the side in the process before it spilled everywhere… again. She missed modern pens. "Like how the Maiden can?"
The young witch hesitated before she answered. "I am… not certain what she feels. Or how she does so."
Rin's mind sifted through the possibilities that could be opened up if she could sense the Demon Souls within her. She thumbed through the early pages of the journal, the ones that Freke had been using to record his notes before his death. "Before he died, Freke performed a ritual on one of the Demon Souls I had to make a spell for me to use. He said that he couldn't sense them within me, but if you can then there's a chance you can do the same."
The very prospect made Yuria look ill. "I… I've never tried such a thing on another person."
"Neither did Freke, but it worked out in the end." She smiled as she found the page that had the details and then held the book up, facing her. "This is what he wrote down about the ritual and its processes. Can you do it?"
Yuria peered at the pages. Then back at Rin. Then back at the pages once more. Then back at Rin, who was no longer smiling. "Miss Tohsaka… I can't read."
Rin felt the beginnings of a headache forming. Of course. Of course she wouldn't be able to read with how backwards in time this place is.
Massaging her temples after she set the book down, Rin decided to keep it simple since there was no point in getting technical with someone who couldn't read. "The short of it is that Freke used the Maiden to find and coax out the Demon Soul, used his magic to force the Demon Soul into an alternate form that could be processed, and then I used my will to dictate what the spell would eventually be. He described it as three points on a pyramid—one to lock it in place, one to force change on it, and one to direct the change itself."
"…What's a Pyramid?"
"A triangle!" Her voice came out harsher than she meant. That much was clear as she looked to see Yuria not daring to meet her gaze, having flinched at her tone. But they had around a week and dumbing everything down for the woman was going to make it take even longer.
Rin huffed. "Look, I have at least three more Demon Souls within me. That's three more potential spells to use. Strong ones that can help us fight the Archdemon. Can you do something with them?"
Yuria swallowed, shutting her eyes and releasing a shuddering breath. "I warn you that what you ask is a dark art. Not like that of the Sage."
"Can. You. Do. It?" Rin asked through grit teeth, forcing herself to not yell and shake the woman if she mentioned that her magic was 'evil' or 'cursed' one more time…
It had become grating to the magus, to say the very least.
Yuria's head moved in a jerky, broken motion. As though she had to force herself to complete it. Then soft light began to fill the space between them as she muttered, "So be it."
Rin looked down to see that the witch's hands were radiating with power, a little more with every breath she took. Then she raised them towards Rin and there was a slight stirring in her chest. She pulled back just a bit. "You're doing it now?"
"Why not?" Her tone came out harder than before, the same barely restrained frustration mirrored as she opened her eyes to reveal that the meekness had been steadily filled in with contempt. "You wish to have the power of your Demon Souls, do you not?"
"We need the Maiden—"
"No," Yuria hissed, her tone firm. "We agreed that no one else would know. That will not change, or I will not help you."
Rin felt a bead of sweat rolling down her brow but didn't dare show weakness in front the witch. Everyone had a limit on how far they could be pushed, and blackmail only worked until that limit was reached or the secret was exposed. Yuria seemed to be getting closer and closer to that.
"If you try anything funny, Saber and Shirou will end you," Rin warned her. "There won't be anywhere in the Nexus that you'll be able to run to."
Yuria's glare reflected the light glowing from her hands as she shifted forward. "You asked for this. Not me. I have no desire to use my magic to kill, but if any harm comes to pass it will be because you willed it. Knowing that, do you still wish to try?"
Rin resisted the urge to gnaw on her lip. But, more than the impracticality of trying to convince her again if she gave ground now, sheer stubbornness and pride stomped on any thought of backing down. With a nod not entirely dissimilar from the jerky one Yuria had given her moments earlier, Rin consented.
Yuria's hardened mask slipped for a moment. Just a moment. Just enough for Rin to see the woman had been putting on an act of bravado and bluster to intimidate. But then the steel in her gaze returned and the tendrils of her magic reached out and sank into Rin before the magus could even feel the satisfaction of calling her bluff.
It was… strange. The Maiden's magic felt like wispy smoke, ethereal and impossible to feel unless you focused on it. Freke's magic was akin to crystal cool waters spreading over a surface, looking for a crack or breach to seep in through. But Yuria's felt like…
Heat. Simple, primal heat that was almost as intangible as the Maiden's magic, yet its existence carried a heavier presence than Freke's.
Tension threaded Rin's body as the magic invaded her. The energies of the witch flowed over and through Rin's magical circuits. The sensation was like a lit match passing just over the surface of her skin—hot enough to cause a blistering pain, but far enough away to not burn the flesh.
She clenched the quilts in a white-knuckled grip to cope as Yuria inched forward, her brows scrunched up in concentration—
—until a fleeting thought entered her mind moments before she felt a painful stirring on her insides. Something latched onto her from within. Digging in and tugging.
She caught the scream that was bubbling up in her throat before it could get out as the witch's raw magic centered in her chest. It began to burn, searing flames gnawing away at her from the inside out.
Then there was crack.
At first, Rin thought that she had clenched her teeth so hard that they'd broken. But no. It was the thing inside of her, shifting around momentarily before it broke. Cracked apart under the weight of the magic.
She could see it, feel it. Gazing through a lens. The spider demon. Its limbs breaking, carapace crushed. It then began to come back together, only to be ripped apart and shattered all over again in an endless cycle of division, deconstruction, and reconstruction. Again and again. It screeched and howled in pain. Its spindly, bladed limbs scratching and ripping at the fabric of whatever parts of her soul it could reach
Finally, Rin heard a crunch inside.
It came to her as a stray thought. No, less than that. It was a phantasm at the back of her mind, insistently scratching at her consciousness through the pain. Did it belong to her? To the demon? To Yuria?
It didn't matter in the end as her hands moved in time with Yuria's on their own. Releasing their grip on the blankets, the two hands cupped together at her stomach. Then they rose up until they joined with the witch's own hands that fell low.
Then what felt like the core of the sun was cradled in their hands.
Rin's vision whited from the flames that were bright and hot. The invasive heat of Yuria's magic was nothing in comparison to this. It felt as though her flesh was burning away, meat and muscle cooked through to the bone beneath. Soon they would be charred to the point of ashes as well and her body would follow.
"Grasp onto it…" She heard Yuria's voice beyond the pain. It sounded distant. "It is yours to command!"
The instructions were followed by a chittering that scraped at the back of Rin's mind. It was the Spider of Stone Fang. Screeching, clawing, wounded and in pain, Yuria's magic continued to bludgeon it into submission—breaking the limbs, crushing the body over and over until it couldn't move anymore, subjugating it through sheer force until it was locked in a box of its own making for her.
All Rin had to do was reach out and grab hold of it.
Driving the dagger into her heart to flip her circuits on, prana rushed through her body. The heat was washed away by a flood of strength, surging to the surface. Reclaiming control of her own hands once more, she grasped onto the fiery core hovering between the two of them of her own will to claim the power for herself.
The pain was unbearable. White hot agony blanked out every other sensation and every other thought, save that she had to hold on no matter what. She had to grasp onto the flame and never let it escape if she ever wanted to use it…
And then the pain was gone.
The words came out in a rush, released along with the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding as Rin held the fiery sun in her hand. The flame still burned. Tongues of fire danced between her fingers. But the Demon's thrashing… its screeching and wailing…
All of it had faded from her mind.
She sucked down another sudden breath, as though her brain had forgotten how to keep breathing as she tried to grasp what the hell had just happened. What Yuria had done as her magic pulled away. This had been different from Freke and the Maiden.
They'd… caged the thing. Put it to sleep even. Let Rin determine what the soul was going to end up being and how it would form. The ability to shape it through human potential came at the expense of the full power of the Demon Soul.
Yuria hadn't done that. From what Rin could tell she'd beaten the monster to death all over again. Punishing its remaining sense of consciousness until the will to fight had literally been crushed out of it. This was only the raw, unfiltered power left behind and ready to be used.
The soul in her hand pulsed like a beating heart, a core of fire that was ready to explode outwards. This is what the Demon chose to become, if it had any choice at all. Its raw power ready to be expressed but lacking a true will of its own anymore.
A powerful spell to be directed by her will.
"And I've still got two more to put to use," Rin muttered, turning her attention away from the flame to where the witch had fallen flat on her ass. Her forehead was glistening in sweat. Her chest was rising and falling as she fought for breath, panting like a winded dog.
Rin paid the details no mind and smiled as she said, "Ready to do it again?"