Rin awoke with the gasp of a drowning man breaking the surface of dark waters, her eyes snapping open as strength surged through her limbs.
She sprang up to her feet from where she laid, and a second later the vertigo, dizziness and disorientation all came rushing back to her. Between the weight of the Stormruler on her back and how the world seemed to turn liquid, her arms fumbled for something to hold her steady only to find nothing. She fell flat on her ass again and decided to take a moment to gather her senses, eyes gaining enough clarity to see the sheer face of the second wall looming over her.
Did I fall from up there? Rin wondered as her memories slowly trickled back, like water leaking from a faucet.
She could recall the fire trapped in the cage of teeth. Her heart pounding with fear. The surge of adrenaline. Nowhere to run, no room to escape, limbs still reinforced.
She'd jumped and landed on a slanted roof, sliding down while scrabbling with her hands to try and grab hold only for the tiles to shatter and slip off their moorings.
Then Shirou did… something and the dragon went down. She hit something during the fall that slowed her descent. But, looking back up at the wall and the way she'd landed…
Reinforced or not, that fall should have been fatal. Her limbs should have been snapped like twigs, arteries bursting, and organs pulped. The human body could only take so much damage and she didn't activate her gravity reduction spell because the flames would have caught her if she had, so that should have been the end of her.
The key to her salvation came to her like an epiphany as the last of the memories returned. The Regeneration Spell. She'd activated it in a desperate attempt to survive. The spell continued its work while she had been unconscious.
Yuria, I could kiss you about now!
Rin groaned softly as she got to her feet, having enough presence of mind to brace herself against the wall this time as questions flooded in. How long had she been knocked out? Were the others alright? How far was she from the Keep? Was the dragon dead?
Her mind only pushed the questions aside when a ghostly, pale figure appeared in front of her. It was another phantom, this time fighting the outline of a blood red one. Their struggle was being repeated endlessly long after their bodies were gone.
She looked around the street, finding more and more of the same. The struggles and battles of long dead enemies, only this time red phantoms to go against the white. The red ones weren't in the courtyard before, but then Rin recalled Biorr's words:
The veil of life and death is thin here.
Did that mean it would grow thinner the closer they made it to the Keep and they'd see more of them?
Guess I'll find out soon enough, she reasoned out before she shook her head to clear it of the question.
She'd had enough sense while panicking to at least jump inside rather than outside, so she was beyond the 'second wall.' Now she had to find her way up to the third. The others might be looking for her, but if she headed to the Keep she was sure they would meet up.
But, before she could take a single step, a roar so loud and powerful that it literally shook the world around her bellowed. Her hands snapped up to her ears as she screamed out of pain and fear, wondering what the hell had made it. Then a shadow passed over her head and she dared to look up to catch a glimpse.
It was only for a moment before the glare of the sun drove daggers into her eyes and left her squinting. But that was long enough for her to see that whatever it was had been… big. Way bigger than the blue and white dragon that had been trying to kill her moments ago.
Was there a third? Was that the Archdemon?
"Get to the Keep," she muttered, shaking her head. "Nothing you can do here."
She looked around and found herself at the foot of an armory, across from it was what Rin could only guess was a tavern. Then she closed her eyes for a moment and racked her brain to recall Biorr and Ostrava's map, trying to piece together the details and landmarks of the inner second wall. Once she figured out where she was, her eyes snapped open.
She faced north and then started to move.
"We… have… to find her!"
Shirou panted harshly between words while the monster lazily circled the Keep. Rushing from building-to-building had left him winded, and his guilt only grew more with every passing second since they'd left Rin behind. But they had to stay hidden as the Dragon God's multiple, glowing eyes panned over the streets, defensive fortifications, and back alleys in search of them, while its building-sized claws shattered the stone and masonry beneath it.
"We can't go back." Biorr's harsh voice seemed to bounce off the walls as they huddled together in a storage shed. Barley, hay, and barrels of wine were stuffed inside, along with the corpse of a long-dead ox that was slumped in the corner. "With that beast overhead… I'll bet it's only a matter of time before it decides to simply torch the city. It's certainly got the lungs for it, so we're on borrowed time."
"Why hasn't it done so yet?" Saber asked.
"Your guess is as good as mine…" He paused in thought for a moment and took a deep breath. "If I were to venture one, I'd say it doesn't want to. Everywhere you've gone, the Fog twists people… takes their minds and souls. But burn all the people—"
"—and there are less for the Old One it serves to feed on," Saber realized.
The knight nodded. "But if we frustrate it enough, or if it really feels threatened, it'll do it. So, we've got to move now. If my Prince and Lady Rin are both alive we all know where to go. That's where we have to reach."
"He's right." Saber said, turning to Shirou and noticing his mounting frustration. "Rin knows that we're heading for the Keep. She will keep moving that way."
Shirou understood what they were saying, He understood that they were right. But it was unfathomably wrong for him to even think about just leaving Rin behind. He just couldn't bring himself to do it. "What if she's paralyzed or bleeding out or—"
The shed shook as a nearby building was toppled over brushed by the great beast's knuckles in flight. All three tensed from the Dragon God's presence as it neared. They only dared to feel a hint of relief once its attention turned elsewhere and continued its circle.
"…It's staying close to the Keep," Biorr snarled as he peered out of a broken window. "We'll never make it to the final causeway unnoticed."
Saber's grip on her weapon tightened and grim resolution set in. "…Then I'll have to kill it."
"Saber." The words were almost a plea. "It nearly killed you the last time!"
"There's no other choice. We can't face both the Dragon and the Archdemon."
"No, we can't," Biorr agreed. "But that doesn't mean we have to fight them both at once."
They looked to him at that and found his eyes were no longer on the sky, but off at some distant point in the city.
"Have you thought of something?" Saber asked.
"A rather stupid idea that'll probably get me killed," he admitted. "But it's our best shot."
"You shouldn't—" The Twin Fang's hand grabbed Shirou before he'd even gotten the words of refusal out and dragged him forward, all but lifting him off his feet as while pulling him so close their noses were almost touching.
Despite the violence of the act, Biorr's eyes were almost kind as they peered into his own. "Ya think I don't see it, boy? Think I don't see you. You've got that look in your eye. Same one Vallarfax had…"
In the back of his mind, Shirou recalled the name. It belonged to the second of the Twin Fangs, Biorr's younger brother.
His kind eyes hardened. "Ya want to save everyone and would shoulder the world if it could spare just one person the pain. But the world doesn't work that way. You can only save some, even at the best of times, and the world's problems are too big for you to shoulder alone. Try it and you will break. That I promise you."
Brashly, instinctively, Shirou opened his mouth to protest. He would be a hero who saved everyone. But before he could so much as breathe a word Biorr pointed to the unsullied blade hanging on his shoulder.
"Just ask your Astraea if you think otherwise."
His tongue stilled as the blade's mournful cry rang true to Biorr's words in his thoughts.
Listen to him, her song implored.
"We all have a duty," the knight continued. "All we can do is accomplish that duty. Mine is to serve this kingdom, and by bloody God if doin' that means gettin' that big bastard's attention so you two can get to that Archdemon, that's exactly what I'm gonna damn well do. And you're gonna do your job and help her kill it when you get there."
Biorr put him down and turned to Saber. "One hour. If you haven't gotten my signal by then, assume I'm dead and think of somethin' else."
"What will be your signal?" Saber asked.
He only grinned. "Oh. You won't be missin' it. Just remember—out the door, turn right, second left, and you'll get to the main thoroughfare. From there it's a dead sprint to the Palace Keep."
Shirou wanted to say something but he felt numb. Silent as the man's words and Astraea's song struck a chord in his mind. Left in thought, he only watched as the knight opened the door and disappeared down the narrow streets.
It happened in an instant.
Had Ilya been human she never would have been able to see what happened. But she was a homunculus, the best one produced by her family to survive the Holy Grail War. So she was able to see what happened clearly as her snow-white hair was whipped by the passing weapons as they smashed through the masonry of her once elegant home and furthered its ruin.
Four Noble Phantasms were fired at blinding speeds. Legendary weapons were simply shot out like bullets from the golden ripples in space towards them. Then they met with Archer's blades and the sound of crashing steel and shattering glass rang out as every broken projection was reforged and every priceless blade was deflected with a narrow breadth.
The Servant standing at the bottom of the stairs only made a small, discontent 'tsk' as his gaze narrowed slightly. Then the ripples in space expanded two-fold, four golden gateways on either side of the Golden Servant. Like the barrels of eight guns loaded with a single bullet each, a different set of Noble Phantasms breaching reality from each of them and aimed to skewer them.
"Cease your struggling, you worthless animal."
They fired again—twice as many and twice as fast.
And just like before Archer's blades smashed into them, shattering as they deflected the fired phantasms with enough force that she could feel the shockwaves, only to instantly be replaced in his hands.
The floor creaked and groaned. The structure of her home itself was cracking beneath the force of the weapons that struck the foundation, their points splintering the wood and spider webbing cracks along the stone as they plowed through.
Archer took a breath.
"Is that the extent of what you've brought to fight with?"
Her heart stuttered. Her servant's question rang clear throughout the halls, sheer nonchalance making her still.
The Golden Servant's face darkened. Gone was the arrogant dismissal and sneering amusement. It had morphed into contempt and fury as her red-clad Servant began to march down the stairs as the moonlight caught the glimmer of black and white blades in his hands.
"If so, there's no point in drawing this out."
Then the air popped, rustling her hair as her Archer shot forward like a rocket and closed the distance as a red blur before abruptly reeling back as a sliver of steel took off strands of his grey hair. A blade had shot from a portal that opened in the floor between two Servants, nearly taking his head off his shoulders. Then four more appeared, each spawning at a different angle and firing various blades that converged on Archer.
Archer's feet brushed against the bannister before he pushed off it in time to redirected his retreat, dodging the four spearing blades as he landed at the top of stairs. Standing between the enemy Servant and Ilya once again, right back where he started. His expression tightened a notch and his fingers gripped his blades a little harder.
Ilya dared to look down at the Golden Servant's eyes and found them burning with an indignant rage. She could just imagine that he would like little more than to wrap his hands around Archer's neck and squeeze until his spine snapped beneath his fingers.
"A beast that does not recognize its station… even thinking about laying one of its filthy paws upon me…" Ripples began to appear en masse behind the Servant. Dozens, no… hundreds of them were arrayed, forming an ocean of gold that swallowed the world behind him. "—IS THE HEIGHT OF A MONGREL'S STUPIDITY!"
Archer moved, thrusting his hand forward as pink energy blossomed from his outstretched palm like a seven-petaled flower in bloom as an unceasing and limitless barrage of Noble Phantasms rained forth. The shining light barely had time to settle in her eyes before what she could only liken to an absolute deluge of explosions shook the world beneath her feet. An endless carpet bombing being held off by…
Rho Aias, she recognized. The seven-layered shield of the Trojan War said to be able to stop any projectile. Yet, as Archer turned and rushed towards her, she knew that even that conceptual shield wouldn't hold and wrapped her arms around his neck as he scooped her up.
Archer slammed shoulder-first through the wall of stone and wood, nearly breaking through to the other side of the structure that had been damaged from the first volley of Noble Phantasms as the petals that formed the shield's layers shattered one after another. Then he thrust his hand backwards and a solid slab of stone wedged itself into the ground between them. Her emotions welled up as it acted as a barrier to shield them once the final petal shattered and Archer braced it.
Then it was like a train smashed into Archer's body, the sheer force of the impact passing through his corded muscle and sinew straight into her own flesh. It knocked the air out of lungs and forced her eyes shut as they were shoved through what was left of the mansion's walls, Archer's body wrapped around her and his arms holding her tight until they hit the ground abruptly.
Everything became quiet after that.
Ilya braved her own fear and dared to open her eyes to see fine airborne dust and debris floating around. They had ended up in her Mansion's Library, a massive hole marking where their bodies had broken through. Berserker's massive Sword Axe lay on the ground, cracked and damaged… but still there.
Her hand shifted and she felt something wet and warm sticking to her hand. She pulled it away to find Archer's blood painting it, stemming from a wound on the left side of his body. The one he put between her and the weapon he'd used as an impromptu shield.
"Nothing compared to what Berserker did the last time." There was a slight a quirk of his lips as he opened his eyes, a forced smile. Then he pushed himself off the ground as she stepped away from him, getting to his feet. Bits of stone and wood fell of his body as he clenched and loosened his fingers until footfalls reached their ears.
"I underestimated the extent of that ability," he admitted. "That won't happen again."
"Should we… try to run?" Ilya asked. Even if she'd had Berserker… she had to admit, even her invincible Servant might not have survived that ceaseless barrage.
And that... that thought was terrifying.
But Archer only offered a smile. "I told you, Ilya. Nothing will harm you. I promise."
No sooner than he said that, the shadow of Death was cast over them once more. The light that filtered through the hole was blocked as the Golden Servant took his place above them, staring down with open contempt.
Archer straightened up as he stared over his shoulder at the Golden Servant. Then the sound of his boot soles grinding over bits of stone reached her ears as Archer turned away, facing down this red-eyed monster. And she was once more left to face his broad back.
"If you'd stood aside like a good dog before, I might have let you live," he said. "Then I could hunt down that lousy cur I while you crawled away with your tail between your legs."
Then his eyes glanced towards what was once Berserker's weapon. His face, which many would consider handsome, twisted into an ugly sneer. "But now… I'll enjoy killing you. Faker."
A low hum bubbled up in Archer's throat as twin swords filled his hands once more. She could also see the corner of his lips upturned in a smirk, amused. "Why so angry, Counterfeiter?"
The look of absolute loathing that came on the red-eyed Servant's face might have been funny if Ilya wasn't completely terrified. But it was short-lived as a bloom of pink clouded her eyes. Seven flower petals spread until they separated her from her Servant as the gold ripples in space prepared to let loose a barrage once more.
Rin's mind ran a mile a minute as the full weight of the situation settled in. 'Ok. Ok. Big Dragon God overhead. Crazy people in the street. And a very real possibility of getting lost if I don't take a goddamn breath to calm down and pull myself together. No pressure or anything.'
The Dragon God of Stonefang was an unexpected complication. She knew that the maiden had said that it would reform in time. She knew that whatever roared had been big. But the fact that thing was here now…
She grimaced as she recalled the last time they'd squared off against the bastard. Saber had used her Noble Phantasm while Rin and Scirvir had weaponized dwarven mining equipment to pierce it's impossibly tough scales. And that still hadn't managed to kill it. They'd even dropped the entirety of the mountain on it and it was still 'just fine'.
While in the molten chamber inside Stonefang you couldn't really appreciate its massive figure, half-buried beneath the lava that was its cradle. It was a different story outside, when they had buildings to scale it against and nothing but the sky above and to the sides. Freed from those confines, the damn thing was so huge it's claws merely grazing the rooftops had snapped buttressed guard towers like toothpicks.
She had no idea what the hell they were going to do about it. But considering the lack of flames hot enough to melt solid stone and masonry, the blazing and brilliant light of Excalibur, or whatever Shirou would bring to the table, it was probably safe to say the others hadn't been found yet. Good.
That simplified things. All she had to do was meet up with them at the Keep without it spotting her. Then they could plan on what approach to take from there.
Maybe Shirou will get another notch in his Dragon-Slaying belt by the end of the day, she thought somewhat optimistically. She'd noticed that there was only one fire breathing lizard up there.
Now if only we could do something about all these ghosts.
There were so many in the streets that they choked them. Red and white wisps constantly living out their final, desperate moments as death circled overhead and eerie silence ruled the streets below. More than once she'd rounded the corner only to find a phantom blade passing through her body, a moment of fear that she found herself attempting to retaliate against due to her training only to feel stupid afterwards.
Regardless, now that she had a moment to regain her bearings Rin recalled the details of the area more vividly. Biorr and Ostrava had been extremely detailed with the areas beyond the inner wall and the Keep's final wall. The entire city was designed to funnel enemy armies into the smallest number of access points, so conventional wisdom dictated it would have the most 'enemies' and the fewest possible paths to reach the Keep itself.
Stepping out of the building she'd taken shelter in, and around the shattered rubble that had been within mere inches of crushing her prior, Rin marched up the road and through the phantoms as she counted the unmarked streets. Once she reached the seventh street she made a left. Another three ahead she made a right.
It was just as the Ostrava and Biorr had said. The walls had been built in such a way that it played tricks on the eyes, an optical illusion of sorts. But step close enough and it was right there—nestled between the inner wall and round buttress was a small postern entrance that led to a lift, convenient to mount either an ambush or get men out.
The gate itself was of forged of pure Boletarian steel. The passage too narrow to maneuver in a battering ram to break it down. And there were places where the defenders would dump boiling oil over the heads of any intruders who made it that far.
Her Soul Ray lanced out and blasted through the stonework, a precision shot to blow out where the hinges were on the opposite side. Another five followed. Then Rin pushed against the slab of steel.
With a long, drawn out groan the metal held for a second as she strained. Then there was a loud crack as the steel gave way. It slowly tilted inwards as gravity took hold aaaand…
The sound of the heavy steel falling to the ground was loud enough that if the dragons hadn't woken up every madman in the city it certainly would have. Rin listened for anything that that may have taken issue with her bowling over the front gate, but none stepped forward. She allowed herself to smirk and took all of two steps forward through the gateway—
—only to nearly fall flat on her ass as something caught her mid-step. Rin peered at the Stormruler over her shoulder and saw that it had been caught in the corners, too large to fit through the narrow door. She primly and calmly removed the blade from her back and marched through the door unimpeded this time, feeling the heat pooling in her cheeks and infinitely grateful that no one had seen that.
There was a stairwell inside. It was a narrow, winding spiral. At least three stories or so, if she were to guess. One wrong step and it was a long and painful fall back down the bottlenecked passageway. That was presumably how the long dead corpse of a knight at the foot of the stairs met his end, armor laying askew and off at its angles with nothing but bones inside it.
She stepped past the thing and started her climb, sword still in hand. It was only when she was almost at the top of the stairs that she heard a sound. It wasn't the beating of wings or the roar of the dragon, but something just as terrifying considering the narrowed area she had to work with—the clank of shifting steel and the grinding of armored boots on stone.
Rin took a deep breath and considered her options. Soul Ray to pierce the armor or the explosive heat of the Spider Demon Soul to incinerate the flesh and melt the steel if the knight was too close or accompanied by others. She masked her steps by rolling from the ball of her foot to the heel in slow steps and kept her blade from scraping against the stone until she made it to the top of the stairway where a doorway awaited.
Pressing her back to the wall as she inched closer to the doorway where the footsteps came from beyond, she found the gate that blocked it was locked. No way to open it without making noise. Soul Ray it is.
With a swing and a bang of the flat of the blade hitting steel she announced herself to lure them in for a precision shot. The footsteps abruptly stopped and her fingertips tingling with magic, ready to fire between the bars. Seconds passed, each one feeling like it was being dragged out for seemingly an eternity.
She inched forward and saw the hint of a shadow moving to the right of the door. It was being cautious, and she couldn't tell where to shoot because of the narrowed view. One missed shot and the ambush would be wasted.
Fine, we do it this way. Placing the Stormruler against the wall, Rin reached up to her cloak and released the clasp tying it to her neck. She put the thing over the Storm Ruler blade, draping it over the hilt.
Rin then reached forward with her now free hand and grasped the iron locks. Pulling them out of the wall with a clang of rusted steel and following it up with a heavy heave, the door squealed as it moved on its rusted hinges.
Weight shifted, she heard the armor. Then nothing. Not even a breath as they waited for movement. Why couldn't this madman make her life easier and be stupid?
With her off-hand, she threw the decoy out the door only for there to be a clack as something slammed into them. She shot out of the entrance, twisting her body as the figure came into view within the corner of her eye. The lancing Soul Ray flew out—
—and only narrowly avoided taking off Biorr's big armored head, a jagged trench in the steel that protected the top of his skull. The armored knight, in reflex or fright, had fallen flat on his ass while in the midst of reloading his crossbow and was staring at her with a surprised look that must have been mirrored on her own face. That was probably all that saved him as she'd been aiming for the center of mass.
Rin's heart hammered against her rib cage as the two of them stared at each other for a moment longer, taking a second to calm their respective nerves as they remembered to breathe. Then she dropped her hand and offered a wary, "It's… good to... see you?"
"Could say the same to you," he said in return, picking himself up off the ground and taking off the helmet to inspect the damage.
Tension somewhat broken now, Rin retrieved her cloak and blade as she asked, "Where are Shirou and Saber?"
"Almost at the Keep," he answered before shoving the helmet back on his head. "No way to get to it with that beast overhead tho. Decided they needed a clear route and came to make one."
"You want to get its attention?" Rin guessed. As for what he intended to use to cause it, she remembered where she was. "The oil casks. There's two storage rooms full of them here."
"You paid attention. Good." He smiled. "With one hundred barrels each, a quick spark and they'll all go boom at once. Dragon will come runnin' towards here and then I can have my own fun while you hurry along back to the others."
The levity in his voice was false bravado and Rin didn't hesitate to point out the flaw in his plans. "It won't waste more than a second killing you. They'll need more than a moment's distraction."
"I'm all ears if you've a better idea?"
Rin thought for a moment. Then she eyed the weapon in her hand and recalled the Storm King. A smile of her own blossomed.
"Actually, I do."
"Is it wrong?"
Three little words from Shirou broke the silence of the shed. The two were still awaiting the signal from Biorr. One that seemed less and less forthcoming as time crawled onwards to the hour mark.
Saber's gaze shifted from the window to him. "Hmm?" She asked, green eyes a a gentle shade."
"What I want." He clarified. "What I keep trying to accomplish."
"You mean your wish to save everyone?"
"Yeah." He understood what they were saying. Why they said it. He did understand.
Clear in his mind's eye he could see it, hear it. The fate that fell on Astraea; what her song tried to impart on him. Her plea to him in the hopes of not going down the same path that she did and end up crumbling under the weight of it all. But even as her grief still tinged the ghost of her song in the back of his mind, he wanted to save everyone if he could.
"Even if it meant being crushed under the weight of the world, wouldn't it be worth it if you could save everyone?"
There was a silence at his question. A pause, as though his Servant was taking a moment to mull over her answer.
"Shirou, do you know what my wish is for the grail?"
He shook his head, feeling snaking disquiet in his heart as he looked at her sombre features.
Her gaze grew heavy and fell downwards, to her hands resting on the pommel of her invisible blade. "It was so that I could return to the moment that I pulled the sword from the stone. I would go back to that moment and then turn away, undoing my reign"
The truth stole his breath.
That was her wish? For Camelot, her Kingdom, to have never existed?
Why? He knew the legend. He knew the legend ended in tragedy. But… surely the good she did outweighed that. Didn't it? Was the end of the story really so terrible for her? "Is it because of how you died?"
Her head shook slowly. "I knew how my tale would end before I grabbed the sword. Merlin saw fit to show me that I would be hated by everyone and die as I did if I took the sword from the stone. But that knowledge did not deter me. As long as my people were smiling, I was willing to throw away everything to become the king they needed. I was willing to shoulder that to save them all if I could…"
She took a breath, seemingly shuddering at the memory before she composed herself again. "To be able to smile in the world we lived in, under constant strife and pain meant that their worries would have been taken care of. That's what I thought. That's why I took the sword despite it all.
"Then why would you wish to never take the sword? Why? What changed?" He insisted feeling pain in his chest… for her. For the dream that she too was trying to tell him was beyond his reach.
"Because I was… not fit to rule." The admission brought about the most pained expression that Shirou had seen from her between breaths. "I was told that the moment I picked up the sword I would no longer be human. That meant I would discard everything to become the perfect king. I did… I didn't care then. But in doing so, I gave up the very thing that a ruler truly needs to lead, and in the end that tore everything down. Because I couldn't understand my subjects, my people, I couldn't do the right things when the time came."
She took a deep breath. "As Ser Biorr said, we all have a duty that we must strive for, always. For that sake, one's own life is a small price to pay. Because of that I feel as though it is my duty to win the grail and then go back to allow someone else to claim the sword and rule in my place—someone who would never fail as I did, so that the inevitable end that would come would not be one of civil war and strife, but a peaceful end. I don't know if its possible. Maybe it was always meant to end in blood, but I… know it can't be me I tried and failed to save everyone…"
He could see the emotion glimmering behind her eyes, A thousand memories passing through the shades of green.
"I can't tell you your dream is wrong Shirou. Its a good dream. A noble one. But Biorr is right… Astraea is right. Everyone that's tried. Everyone that's reached for it. They fail. And sometimes they break.
Her tale concluded, silence took hold once more. Somehow, the sorrow that briefly glimmered in her emerald eyes—the hint of weakness that the king never showed, resonated with the soul of Astraea. He could feel the ripples of her song in his mind. A pleading symphony that asked him to understand.
In taking the burden that they felt would allow them to best save the people around them, they felt their actions destroyed what they cared about the most.
"It has been nearly an hour," Saber said, shifting the conversation back to the matter at hand. "If there is no signal, I shall clear the path to the Keep myself."
"Not alone," he said, looking to the bow in his grasp. The Archdemon was stronger than the Dragon he'd sniped earlier. It probably wouldn't hold up on its own, but if he Reinforced it and imagined an arrow strong enough to pierce its hide, then maybe he could. "I'd never hear the end of it from Rin if I didn't help you."
She had to be there already. Rin had beaten all the odds before. There was no way that she would allow something as simple as a fall be the end of her. He couldn't even fathom such a thought.
"We'll get through this together and all go back home…" Before he could even finish the world shook beneath their feet, leaving Shirou to stumble to the ground on his knee. "What was that?"
"The Archdemon had descended and is heading eastward." Saber extended her hand towards Shirou to help him up. "The path is clear now, but there's no telling for how long. Lets go!"
He reached out, grasping at her hand. Her grip was almost painful as she pulled him up, but as their hands lingered in one another's grip there was comfort within it. Yet, distantly, the words he'd said once before echoed through a half-faded memory:
To ease her pain
To achieve my goals
"This is a terrible bloody idea," Biorr muttered as he loaded the ballistae a mere minute prior. He'd hauled his armored self to a defensive emplacement on the inner wall, where one of the six ballistae stood. While he was no expert in the usage of siege equipment, with a target as large as the Dragon God it would be unbelievably hard to miss.
Not that it mattered.
Rin's instructions had been very specific. He would wait here for it to circle the east side and then shoot it. It didn't matter if he hit it or not, so long as it came at him from the east because of it.
To that end he lifted one of the massive javelins that was covered in a speckling of rust and grime from exposure to the elements too long and loaded it into the ballistae. He then placed it in the mooring, wheeling the rope back into its ready place, and lifted the back end of the weapon around to face eastwards as the beast was beginning another pass, never too far from the main thoroughfare. It knew where they had to go, after all.
Holding his breath after he adjusted the ballistae as best he could, the knight prayed for a fair wind as it came within firing range. Then he pulled the release lever and the entire contraption shifted forward as all four arms—each one as thick as trees—snapped taut. The iron javelin was loosed as it cut through the air towards the target… and fell short.
Far, far short of the beast.
But it didn't go unnoticed. The Dragon God's six eyes swiveled around, tracing the path of the object that fell to the ground. The moment its head turned towards Biorr, he could feel when the pressure of its gaze fixed onto him.
He stepped back in reflex, reaching for the blade he'd left leaning against the stone wall. The sheer enormity of the monster would make a coward out of any man after all, so there was no shame in it. But the moment the hilt of the weapon rested in his palm, it steeled his resolve and he challenged it. "COME ON THEN, YA OVERGROWN NEWT!"
For a moment, he wondered if it was just blind hope that the plan in its entirety had him and Rin rely on the notion that the Archdemon wouldn't just breathe fire all over them. It more than had the lungs for it. But tales of Dragons being prideful beasts were apparently told in her world too, and in the face of a direct challenge it would match it in kind.
Sure enough, the Archdemon descended with the intention of doing so and the whole world shook beneath the surviving Twin Fang with a thunderous crash. The very city itself shifted on its foundation as fissures spiderwebbed from the inner city and the inner wall upon landing. With steps that toppled buildings like toys and tore apart the landscape that had weathered centuries in seconds, it stormed forward to crush him.
That's when the explosion came.
One hundred barrels of oil ignited and gave birth to a blast. It was so colossal and powerful that the Dragon God itself may have had its breath put to shame. In an instant three square-blocks of the inner city went up in flame, with a whole section of the final wall crumbling down to become little more than debris littering the streets just outside of it.
The Archdemon reared up on its haunches and reeled away, screeching in surprise from the deafening sound and force of the blast. Its leg came down on the third gate and the thing buckled like cheap tin, crumpling under its foot as it spread its massive pinions. Taking flight once more, its shadow blanketed the city like a dark wave that eclipsed him while an inferno pooled in its maw.
The second wave of the attack happened then.
The wind violently shifted, as though all the air in the city was getting sucked into a vacuum and caught the flames below in the process. The upswell of wind was like a typhoon born in the streets that surged upwards in a single moment, carrying the flame with it as wet oil scattered like rain in the gust. The spectacle was equal parts terrifying and beautiful, filling the sky with droplets of fire as the blade of air tore through the distance towards the Dragon God.
It struck true. No monster that size could have avoided a blast so large after all. But, while its body was tough enough to weather the wind assaulting it, the thin membrane of the wings closest its body were torn into thoroughly, to the point of nearly being severed.
The blood cascading down from the pinons with every flap and where they touched the earth flames blossomed. Soon a blaze had spread and the entire second ring of the city was put to the torch as the Dragon God lurched in the air and fell on all fours back down.
Six eyes shone with a seething anger as its snarl reverberated throughout the city. It was grounded, but that meant nothing when it could still trample over everything. And it began doing so as it moved to scale the wall where Biorr was to take its infernal rage out on them.
He hefted his sword and promptly fled before it began scaling the walls for him. Hopefully the others would slay the Archdemon at the keep bloody fast. Otherwise all of Boletaria would be an inferno soon.
Shirou and Saber sprinted up the cobblestone street that seemed to stretch on forever.
Whatever had been done cleared the path to the white stone palace in the distance that seemed to taunt them along the way. Shirou could hear the roaring and destruction behind them. But he couldn't look back or else he would lose track of Saber and fall short of their destination.
When they finally reached, they found that the doors to the Keep were already partly opened. Hope blossomed that Rin had made it there. It lasted until Saber forced it open wider by shoulder-checking it with deceptive strength for a woman of her size.
Then they stopped beyond the door as their gaze fell onto grisly fate of Ostrava. The prince sat there on the ground. Dark red blood seeped from his armor and stained the white stone steps. More than enough to make one thing clear:
He was dying.